In North America, we are pretty far removed from what life was like in biblical times. Everything from our customs, daily habits, and even mindset make it very hard to put ourselves in the cultural context of the Bible.
However, that’s not true everywhere. The majority of the world population and the majority of Christians come from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and South America. Many of those cultures are not as far removed from the biblical context as we are in North America.
As Westerners (including me), we can miss much of the richness of Jesus’ teachings by not understanding his cultural context. Many of my Hindu friends are surprised to discover that Jesus’ life and culture are more similar to theirs than mine. Both Westerners and Hindus can greatly benefit from a proper view of Jesus’s cultural life.
Jesus Wasn’t a Christian
Over the last several centuries, the term “Christian” has taken on a heavily cultural meaning aside from just describing someone who is following Christ. The term “Christian” in most of the world carries the connotation of a religion based in a white European/North American context.
But Jesus grew up in a first century, Roman-era Jewish community, and would likely feel very foreign stepping into the life of a typical “Christian” church. In fact, the daily life of Jesus likely is much closer to Modern India than North America. Here are a few examples of how Jesus’ culture is more similar to Hindu culture today.
Jesus’ family culture was communal, not independent.
Jesus cared about family greatly by re-emphasizing the teaching of honoring our father and mother and making sure his mother Mary was taken care of after his death. The way that families in biblical times made decisions together can be seen perhaps most clearly in the book of Acts where the vast majority of people came to faith in Jesus in groups, families, and communities. Examples include Pentecost (Acts 2), Samaritans (Acts 8), Cornelius (Acts 10), Lydia and the Philippian Jailer (Acts 16), Crispus (Acts 18), and more. These greatly outweigh the few instances of individuals making a decision on their own.
Modern India is very similar. Decisions are made based on what is best for the family and community. Joint-family living is common where many branches of the family tree share one roof. Choices like college degrees are often family decisions. Family is alway a top, if not the highest, priority for even young Indians. In spiritual matters, many Hindus will have a family or house god called an “Ishta Devata” that is revered by everyone in the family.
In North America, we value independence, individuality, and personal freedom over community. Nuclear families live in separate houses, often miles or states away from relatives. We let people, and even children, make their own decisions and don’t get in their way. While ordering food at a restaurant, everyone orders his/her own dish to eat while in India, ‘your’ food will likely be served to everyone at your table! Spirituality is more of a personal matter and individual beliefs within a family can vary greatly.
Jesus’ parents likely had an arranged marriage.
There is no reason to doubt that the marriage of Mary and Joseph was anything other than arranged by their families. Matthew 18:1 and Luke 1:27 describes young teenage Mary and Joseph to be betrothed or engaged referring to arranged marriage which was custom of that day. There was an extended period of being legally betrothed before the wedding ceremony and consummation. Joseph’s willingness to quietly break off the engagement was an effort to spare Mary’s family from shame after her pregnancy.
This is very similar to current Indian marriage traditions. Arranged marriages with someone from the same caste/community chosen by the parents is how the majority of people marry. Marriage is an agreement between families, not just individuals. Though inter-caste or inter-religious love marriages are on the rise in urban India, they are by no means normative for the country. Even young urban Indians trust their parents to find them a suitable partner who will bring them happiness in life.
In American culture, arranged marriages are practically extinct. Most people choose their own partner, with or without the approval of parents or other family members. Formal mutual consent by both families is rarely considered. Decisions are mostly up to the individual about whom they will marry, not the family.
Jesus’ people showed extreme hospitality.
Commands and examples of hospitality are found throughout the whole Bible. Much of Jesus’ ministry included enjoying hospitality in many different homes including Levi the tax collector (Luke 5), Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7), women who helped Jesus (Luke 8), Mary and Martha (Luke 10), and Zacchaeus (Luke 19) . A proper host would make sure a guests’ feet and hands were washed before a meal. Meals were usually enjoyed sitting on the ground and eating with your hand, and potentially long into the night.
India has a famous phrase “Atithi Devo Bhava” which means “the guest is equivalent to God”. You definitely experience that high level of treatment when you enter a Hindu’s home. If you came by unannounced, they will drop everything to serve and host you. Likely, you will receive a cup of water, some snacks, chai or a soft drink, and then maybe even a full meal. Aunties are never satisfied until you have eaten 3 plates of food and are stuffed to the brim.
Hospitality is much more informal and “help yourself” in North America. We don’t want to overstay our welcome or impose on others. We value self sufficiency and can be uncomfortable receiving help and hospitality from others. The meaning of washing a guests’ feet and washing hands before meals or worship in the Bible doesn’t have the significance in our North American culture compared to Indian culture.
Jesus participated in many life cycle rituals.
There were many important life cycle rituals in first century Judaism. In Luke 2, we see a special naming ceremony for John the Baptist and Jesus when they are 8 days old. Later as a child, Jesus was presented at the temple in Jerusalem for blessing and with a sacrificial offering as the firstborn son.
For Hindus these ceremonies are called Sanskars. Hindus will also have a Naamkaran (naming ceremony) where they will announce the baby’s name to the family sometime after the birth in grand fashion. Similarly there are many ceremonies for Hindus to commemorate things like a baby’s first time leaving the home, first solid food, first haircut, etc. A Hindu could experience dozens of sanskars throughout their life.
As North American culture has modernized, we have increasingly done away with most of these rituals outside of the marriage and death ceremonies. Aside from birthdays and graduations which are also common elsewhere, we lack other formal and spiritual opportunities to recognize and celebrate all the transitions we experience in life.
Much of Jesus’ calendar was set around festivals.
6 out of 7 of the Jewish Old Testament festivals were called feasts: The Feast of Passover, the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), and the Feast of Tabernacles to name a few. When Israel celebrated these, small intimate communities would eat together on the holiest days. Festivals were multiple days long and took a lot of preparation. They were focused on the family getting together around a meal and remembering the great things God has done and commanded. You also read about the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem during festivals, where people came from all over to celebrate, shop, and worship as families. We see glimpses of Jesus and his disciples observing these seven festivals each year.
The Hindu calendar is completely peppered with festivals. It is said that every day there is a different festival being celebrated somewhere in India. During festivals like Diwali, Holi, or Sankranti there is an indescribable atmosphere of celebration and many extend for several days. Similar to the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day, there is a big focus on family coming together, making special food and sweets, giving gifts, and celebrating different things like harvests or mythological stories.
Aside from Christmas and Easter, nearly all North American holidays are secular. Though some holidays are also heavily focused on family and food, they lack in the length, intricacy, and grandeur of the rituals and traditions as celebrated in the Jewish and Hindu festivals. Many holidays in America are just considered a day off from work, an opportunity for crafts and treats at school, or a reason to party together with friends. With the exception of Christmas, there are few if any major cultural holidays that are centered on bringing the family community together to feast and worship.
Hindu Culture Can Teach Us About the Life of Jesus
There are many other examples, but these make it clear that Jesus’ life and culture was much closer to modern Indian Hindu culture than North American Christian culture. Although Jesus is commonly portrayed as Caucasian with fair skin, he was Asian, living in an Eastern culture and became the God for all cultures, including Hindus.
As we come alongside our Hindu friends, it is very helpful to first recognize that they may have a lot to teach us about the culture that Jesus came from. And they may have deeper understanding into certain biblical stories than we could ever imagine.
How can we help our Hindu friends see that Jesus’ life was closer to their culture than ours?