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The Cultural Life Setting of the Proverbs

John J. Pilch (Author)
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Often, readers and commentators read the Proverbs as “timeless” observations and recommendations regarding human nature, valid for all cultures and places. This blunts their cultural relevance, argues John J. Pilch.

For example, proverbs regarding the “good wife” and the “quarrelsome wife” take on different meaning in a context where a married couple were rarely in close daily contact, and the predominantly masculine language used in the Proverbs points to the different cultural spheres of men and women and the different child-rearing practices employed with boys and girls.

Similar in approach and format to the Social-Science Commentary on the New Testament volumes that Pilch authored with Richard L. Rohrbaugh and Bruce J. Malina, this volume explores and describes the cultural matrix of the Mediterranean world from which the Proverbs come and that they describe. The biblical text is paired with commentary addressing those proverbs and proverb collections with particular bearing on patterns of social roles and expectations.

A list of social-science “scenarios” provides ready reference to particular aspects of the large cultural area of the ancient Mediterranean region and North Africa.

Release date: 
March 1, 2016



Outline of Proverbs
Reading Scenarios
List of Reading Scenarios


Review in Bible Today


"John Pilch has provided the reader with an excellent study of the biblical book of Proverbs in its ancient Mediterranean cultural setting. The necessity of this approach is to avoid the common fault in Biblical studies of the imposition of modern western cultural values on the ancient text. As he and his colleagues have often done, Pilch offers a clearly written guide to the process of reading the text and listening to it as its original hearers would have done. To this end he provides a superb commentary on the Proverbs, accompanied by a glossary of the cultural values reconstructed from the ancient Mediterranean world. The results are refreshing and innovative, and this volume would be a primary reference work for students of the Bible in general and of the proverbial tradition in particular."

T. R. Hobbs | Author of A Time for War: An Introduction to Warfare in the Old Testament

"For several years, John Pilch has been providing us rich insights into the social worlds behind the writings of the New Testament. Now he turns his trained eye to an Old Testament book—Proverbs. Without hazarding a guess regarding the date of this book, he sketches various 'scenarios' that throw light on some of the fundamental social realities of the ancient Near East. It is these scenarios and the insights that they provide that make this commentary unique. If he is now moving into the Old Testament, he has made a good start."

Dianne Bergant, CSA | emeritus, Catholic Theological Union

"John J. Pilch is an engaging writer who offers readers a much needed window into the cultural world behind the text of Proverbs. The language and imagery used in proverbial discourse is culture-specific and Pilch assembles the results of social-scientific studies of Mediterranean cultures to shed light on an ancient text that is easily misunderstood and under-appreciated. Pilch enables his readers not only to understand and appreciate but also to enjoy of the book of Proverbs in a way that no standard commentary has done."

Leslie J. Hoppe, OFM | Catholic Theological Union

"The biblical Proverbs truly is the book of works and days of human existence. It is as though an ideal film camera were placed in the middle of a piazza, inside a modest dwelling place, or in a noble palace: before it would pass by all the splendours and miseries of humanity, the arts and the professions, the seasons and the social occasions, the pleasures and suffering, and even the songs and deepest reflections.

It is, then, not only legitimate but also necessary that a biblical scholar of such great exegetical and cultural finesse as John J. Pilch should choose to apply to this biblical book an analysis from a social-science angle, so as to gather the multiple aspects of the constant Comédie humaine, recorded by Hebrew wisdom.

On the stage, in fact, is human life without time and without spatial coordinates, a scene repeated today in our cities and villages. Once again we have proof that the biblical religion is historical and incarnate and not abstract and mythical."

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi | Pontifical Council for Culture, Roman Curia

"The Cultural Life Setting of the Proverbs gives new insights into the world of the book of Proverbs. It is the first commentary that explains the Proverbs so skillfully within the circum-Mediterranean cultural context. I am confident that this commentary will be appreciated all over the world—not only by biblical scholars, but by students and pastors as well."


Janusz Kręcidło | Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University

"Reading John Pilch's invitation to enter the cultural world of Proverbs from within the context of South-East Asia, where a number of the selfsame values enumerated in his 'scenarios' are enacted (evil eye, honor, in and out relations etc.), provides a double benefit for the reader. The Cultural Life Setting of Proverbs is reader-friendly, full of commonsense, even humorous on occasion. Students will indeed find it helpful and beneficial."

Helen Graham, MM | Institute for Religious Studies, Philippines