The revelation of God in history, as Christians understand it, was originally recorded in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek by Jewish writers who represent a variety of cultures quite different from our own. We nonetheless understand God’s message of redemption in Christ through an English translation of the Bible, often the archaic King James translation, though we may not fully appreciate the nuances of the original documents. Problems of communication are compounded when Western missionaries bring the biblical message to primitive tribes.

In his book entitled Customs and Culture, Eugene Nida of the American Bible Society relates how a literal translation of biblical passages can convey misleading connotations to certain African tribes. The Kpelle of Liberia view the placing of palm branches in Jesus’ path (Matt. 21:8) as an insult, since their culture requires that all leaves be cleared from the path of any dignitary. The Zanaki of Tanganyika would regard Jesus’ knocking at a door (Rev. 3:20) as strange, since in their culture honest men call aloud at the door and the only ones who knock are thieves.

Cultures as well as languages differ, and these differences pose problems for understanding, communicating, and applying the Christian message.

What Is Culture?

Modern anthropologists use the term “culture” to designate the distinctive way of life of a given society, including such things as their values, manners, morals, and artifacts. According to Kluckhohn:

Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior, acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiment in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e., historically ...
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