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.