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Gary M. Burge


The View from the Mastaba

Jesus from a Middle Eastern perspective.

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.

Most scholars recognize that a cultural gap exists between what we read in the gospels and what actually happened in Galilee some 2,000 years ago. Modern exegesis labors to extract meaning from these gospels using well-established methods of interpretation. Every student has to master the Greek text along with the nuances of its syntax and grammar, word choices, and idioms. The problem with this method is that, just as a gap exists between that Greek text and our modern English translations, so too a gap existed long ago between the original stories of Jesus told by Aramaic-speaking Jews and their final write-up in Greek by the evangelists, who understood Middle Eastern culture (though they were writing in Greek).

The ministry of Jesus was practiced in an Aramaic-speaking culture and was preserved by witnesses for whom this language and culture were native. This is not to deny that Greek was known and used in the Roman province of Judea, but it is to recognize that the world of Jesus and his followers was different from, say, the world of Romans living in Ephesus. Then this Aramaic apostolic witness was translated into Greek, which was in turn taken up by the evangelists, who unsurprisingly penned their gospels in the lingua franca of the empire. Note carefully: an Aramaic story (the Jesus story) emerged onto the public stage of history in Greek dress (the gospels). And whenever a story moves from one culture frame to another, something inevitably gets lost for those who don't know both cultures.

For some time, scholars such as Bruce Malina ...

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