Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Getting the Cultural Context of Jesus Right

In his essay, The View from the Mastaba (ostensibly a book review of Kenneth E. Bailey's new book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels), Dr. Gary Burge provocatively begins:
About a year ago, Wheaton College hosted a Christian teacher known for his emergent faith, black T-shirts, and popular cultural explanations of the gospels. We heard all about how Jesus' disciples had to walk "in the dust of his sandals," and we even had prayer shawls explained. As this continued, a few of my senior students knew I was slumping deeper and deeper into my seat in Wheaton's Edman Chapel. In a moment I'll explain why.
The essay is well worth reading as a whole. Dr. Burge argues passionately that the first century Middle Eastern cultural context is extremely necessary, not only to understand the cultural distance between our own culture and that in which the Gospels were written, but also to understand the cultural distance between the Aramaic-speaking Palestinian backdrop of the stories contained in the Gospels and the Greek-speaking European cultural backdrop into which the Gospels were written and first read. Burge follows Bailey in making the point that the Gospels, even in "the original language," were already a translation of what Jesus had said and done. What this means is that exegesis that is focused on Greek words, meanings, manners, and customs, can miss important points and lead to wrongheaded conclusions. It is deeply important to learn as much as we can about the ancient Middle East in order to unlock some of the difficult parables, teachings, and actions of Jesus.

This in itself is eye-opening and challenging, but Burge goes further. He writes, "When teachers try to reconstruct the cultural context of the gospels, they often use sources that are unreliable and fail to discern the differences between the modern Middle East and the world of antiquity." Simply put, it's not enough to focus on the cultural context of the Gospels' stories about Jesus: it's important to get that cultural context right.
Which brings me back to Edman Chapel and my slumping posture. I knew the things we were hearing about Jesus were simply off target, that they were the stuff of tourism, in some cases taken from Jewish traditions located in the Talmud (put in writing some 500 years after the gospels). Without discernment, reconstructing the cultural context of Jesus can put the interpreter in trouble quickly.
I think Burge's caution is well worth noting. And it's made me think. I have no idea who the Edman Chapel speaker was, but refocusing on Jesus and the Jewish context of the Gospels (a pendulum swing away from Pauline-centric New Testament interpretation) is one of the characteristics commonly associated with the emerging conversation, as well as other contemporary streams of Biblical interpretation. This focus in interpretation can seem exciting and open us up to new understandings of our faith, but care must be taken that the novel interpretations are correct, or at least, worthy of the emphasis placed on them.

Burge's essay made me think of N.T. Wright's emphasis on "Jesus is Lord" as revolutionary anti-empire language. Although I think that this understanding of "lordship" language is valid and adds a previously-neglected dimension to our understanding of the New Testament texts, it seems to me that in the Jewish context of Jesus and the earliest disciples, the fact that "lord" (Hebrew Adonai) was used as a replacement for the name of God (Hebrew Yahweh) in oral recitation of the Hebrew scriptures, and that Greek kyrios (lord) was used as the translation for Yahweh in the Septuagint, would be far more important. To say, "Jesus is Lord" in the Roman context may well have evoked Jesus as a challenge to the "lordship" of Caesar; but in the Jewish context, it evokes a challenge to the unique deity of the Old Testament conception of God. To the Jew, who already rejected the divine claims of Caesar, the challenge of "Jesus is Lord" wasn't to the Empire, but to God Himself.

New interpretations can open up Scripture and our understanding of our faith in an exciting way, and that can be a very good thing, especially when those new interpretations are grounded in solid scholarship and a deeper understanding of the cultural, linguistic, and historical background of the Bible. But we need to be careful not to value the novel simply because of its novelty. Not everything that gives us a rush is of lasting value, and things aren't necessarily wrong just because we've been aware of them for a while.


  1. I think I have a guess as to who that speaker was. Its a teacher that I like a lot who has resisted being within the emergance conversation, but tends to gravitate towards that way of thinking. He does admit that he gets those thoughts from the Talmud.

    I'm interested in seeing this essay though. thanks for the link.

  2. Hi Jc_Freak,

    Getting info from the Talmud is a tricky business, because although it attained its final written form somewhere around AD 500, it is based on far older oral tradition. So certainly some information gained from it is valid. But those five centuries were very tumultuous for Jews, especially considering the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and the rise of Christianity.

    What this essay makes me want to do is to read the two books that Dr. Burge recommends. I should mention, however, that Burge is problematic for me; I was disappointed in his commentary on John. He pays lip service to John having written the fourth gospel, but for him, this means that John wrote the first draft of something that went through extensive revisions through many hands and eventually ended up as the gospel we have. He also approves of a cut-and-paste approach to the fourth gospel, believing that various sections are severely disordered. As Donald Carson notes in his commentary, how are we to discern the difference between a "final redactor" who found some reason to arrange the materials in the form we now have them, and an original writer who could have decided that this was the best form to put them in from the beginning?

  3. Nice post--but isn't the analysis a little too facile? Why do we have to seperate Jewish from Roman and Greek? Isn't one of the main points of Historical Jesus scholarship that it is an Enlightement mindset that wants to privilege one of these cultures at the expense of the others? Here your speaker seems to want to say Jesus is Jewish and any hint of Roman or Greek culture must be banished. But isn't this just continuing the previous scholarship which wanted to banish Jesus' Jewishness and call hime a Greek Platonist or a cynic?

    Instead, can't we say Jesus was a 1st century Jew who was immersed in Jewish, Roman and Greek culture?

  4. Hi Mich,

    Thanks for stopping by. I'm not sure which "speaker" you are referring to, but I'm guessing that the facile analysis is my own, in the penultimate paragraph.

    Here's why we can't simply say "Jesus was a 1st century Jew who was immersed in Jewish, Roman and Greek culture": it's a gross oversimplification of the historical situation. Jesus was immersed in the three cultures (as well as other Middle Eastern cultural influences), but to different degrees and in vastly different ways. Despite Jesus' conflicts with the Pharisees, he actually has more in common with that group than with any of the other Jewish sects. And the Pharisees developed as a group in reaction to the progressive Hellenization that followed the conquests of Alexander the Great. Their very name means, "Separated." This reaction, of course, bespeaks influence, but one has to give due weight to opposition to the influence.

    Similarly, the Roman influence is undeniable (and the New Testament makes no effort to hide it), but it was the influence of an oppressive conqueror. Palestine was a thorn in the Empire's side, culminating in the catastrophe of AD 70, precisely because the Jews did not roll over and let themselves be Romanized. Saying that Jesus was immersed in Roman culture is a little like saying Nelson Mandela was immersed in Afrikaner culture--there's a sense in which it's true, but the bald statement would be entirely misleading.

    So to "privilege one of these cultures at the expense of the others" is not merely the result of an "Enlightenment mindset": it is to take seriously the complexities of the cultural situation. Moreover, it is more necessary for a modern Western interpreter to adjust to the Jewish, ancient Middle Eastern context, than it is to adjust to the Greek or Roman contexts, because many of our cultural presuppositions arise from Greco-Roman philosophy and culture. It is natural for us to read Scripture with Greco-Roman eyes; it is unnatural for us to make the cultural shift to first-century Middle Eastern Judaism, which is why it is so important to do so.

  5. Hi Keith, that was a very good read, thanks for the link. If I was going to guess, I'd say there is a good chance that the emergent teacher was Rob Bell. He has a chapter in "Velvet Elvis" on the Jewishness of Jesus, and also mentions sandal dust, prayer shawls, etc. In the footnotes Bell quotes his source as Ray Vanderlaan. Vanderlaan made a video series a while back on Jewish history entitled "That the World May Know".

    I enjoyed Bell's book and also the Vanderalaan video series. I love learning new history. However, it sounds like they may not have all of their facts straight. This is good to know. :)