Monday, September 7, 2009

Book Review: Jesus, the Middle Eastern Storyteller

Jesus, the Middle Eastern Storyteller

Jesus, the Middle Eastern Storyteller
by Gary M. Burge

Trade Paperback: 112 pages
Publisher: Zondervan
First Released: 2009

Source: Review copy from the publisher

Back Cover Description:
Communication in Jesus' world involved the use of word pictures, dramatic actions, metaphors, and stories. Rather than lecture about religious corruption, Jesus refers to the Pharisees as "whitewashed tombs." Rather than outline the failings of the Temple, he cures a fig tree. Without a perceptive and careful use of the culture of the ancient world, we read the stories of Jesus as foreigners.

In this second volume in the Ancient Context, Ancient Faith series, Gary Burge applies the insights of biblical scholarship, cultural anthropology, and the traditions of the Middle East to reveal glimpses of Jesus' original meaning now lost to us. Featuring beautiful color pictures, maps, and artwork, Jesus, the Middle Eastern Storyteller is written for the reader that loves the Bible and its history and yet wonders if more discoveries still lie ahead. They do.

[Note: "Cures a fig tree" should be "curses a fig tree," but the error is printed in the back cover copy so I repeated it here.]

Jesus, the Middle Eastern Storyteller is a useful Bible reference book. It gave some basic information on Middle Eastern storytelling techniques of Jesus' time period, then discussed cultural background information and the meaning of several parables: a friend that comes at midnight, a father's gifts, the great banquet, the good Samaritan, the servant forgiven of a huge debt, the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son, and the foolish rich farmer.

The information was interesting and filled out what was happening in the parables, but only once did it change my understanding of the meaning of the parable. I was baffled by how the author often stated that Westerners assume or teach certain things about a parable, yet I've never assumed or heard such taught about it. I guess that's the problem with using generalities, though, and I suppose the author must have heard it taught that way somewhere.

The author gave mini-sermons on how to apply the lessons of the parables to our own lives. The book contained lovely color photographs that illustrated what the text was referring to.

Several times, the author briefly referred to details of an Old Testament story but gave the wrong information. (For example, he states Jacob sold his heritage for a pot of stew, yet it's Esau who sells his birthright. And he has Cain claiming to take a sevenfold revenge when it's God who makes that promise.) Unfortunately, this made me wonder how carefully the author checked the accuracy of the other information he stated--though I do believe most of it is correct.

Overall, the book was a quick read and easy to understand, and it's a good book on the parables of Jesus for those who can't get enough of this type of information or who wouldn't bother with a longer book.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter One
Matthew notes that when Jesus had finished his inaugural sermon in Galilee (Matt. 5 – 7) the audience was utterly astounded, “When Jesus had finished these sayings, the crowds were amazed at his teaching” (7:28). Luke writes that when Jesus completed his first presentation in his home synagogue in Nazareth, the audience was thrilled, then stunned, then enraged; finally, they nearly killed him. Speakers know when they have successfully “landed” their message: either the audience carries you out on its shoulders with cheers and acclaim or they plot how they might toss you off a cliff (Luke 4:29).

Skilled teachers in Jesus’ day could spin a good tale. They used gross exaggeration and ridiculous comparisons simply to keep their listeners with them. They used humor and puns, drama and harsh comparison in order to make their point. On one occasion Jesus criticized his opponents by telling them that their religious pursuits were absurd. They overlooked weighty spiritual matters but debated the minutia of religion as if the entire world depended on it.

He told them, “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matt. 23:24). No doubt when the crowd heard such statements, they couldn’t help but laugh at the image of Pharisees picking gnats out of their teeth but swallowing entire camels. The gross comparison is both offensive and humorous — and it is clever. In Jesus’ native speech (Aramaic), the word for gnat is galma while the word for camel is gamla. Jesus had actually said, “You strain out a galma but all along you swallow gamla.” Reversing two simple letters gave the saying a sharp-edged and memorable poignancy.

Read the rest of chapter one.

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