Monday, March 28, 2011

Book Review: Understanding Jesus

book cover

Understanding Jesus:
Cultural Insights into the Words and Deeds of Christ
by Joe Amaral

ISBN-13: 978-0-446-58476-0
Trade Paperback: 208 pages
Publisher: FaithWords
Released: April 7, 2011

Source: Advanced Reader Copy from the publisher.

Book Description from Goodreads:
In UNDERSTANDING JESUS, author Joe Amaral delves deep into Jewish history, societal mores, and cultural traditions. Using a chronological approach to the life of Christ, he guides the reader through significant events such as Jesus' birth, baptism, and crucifixion, pointing out illuminating details that the Western mind would normally miss.

Amaral's premise is that to understand Jesus, we must understand the time and place in which he was born, the background from which he drew his illustrations, and the audience he spoke to. Throughout the book he explores specific terms, places, and events for their significance and shows how they add richness and meaning to the text. Topics include the connection between Jesus and John the Baptist, the annual Feasts and why they are important to modern Christianity, Jewish customs such as foot-washing, clean and unclean foods, paying tribute to political governments, and the significance of various miracles.

My Review:
Understanding Jesus gave some cultural background information to the gospels and Revelation. The author spent most of the book exploring the Feasts of the Lord to provide insight into some things Jesus did and said. He also briefly covered information on the four messianic miracles, clean and unclean foods, binding and loosing, tear jars, fence laws, prayer shawls, and more.

The author quoted large sections of Scripture before explaining the cultural insight he'd gained into those verses. This is good, but, of 180 pages of text, it seemed like only about half of them were spent explaining the cultural insights. Many of the topics weren't explored in-depth.

Perhaps because of this, I sometimes felt his statements were misleading. For example, the way he explained the timing of John the Baptist's birth and Jesus' birth would lead the reader to believe everyone who has studied the topic agrees with his timeline. However, the timeline he gave is based on many assumptions, and not everyone agrees with those assumptions.

Also, sometimes the author took an idea or tradition further than the evidence supported it. For example, on pages 28 and 29, he said that people took their burial shroud with them whenever they took a long journey. From this, he concluded that the "strips of cloth" that baby Jesus was wrapped in were from a burial shroud. I suppose this might be true, but babies have been swaddled for centuries. It's just as likely that Mary used stripes of cloth specifically intended for swaddling Jesus (since they knew she was close to giving birth and would have been prepared for that) rather than hastily using a shroud to make swaddling stripes.

Sometimes the information he gave conflicted with information that I've read elsewhere. Like he gave a slightly different order for the steps of a betrothal-wedding than the very detailed information given in Women of the Bible by Smith, Phillips, and Sanna. Amaral implied that the marriage was consummated before the wedding feast, but other sources say that the first day of the wedding feast is celebrated before the marriage is consummated.

As another example, on page 96 and 97, the author said that on the Day of Atonement, "Before the priest would push the goat backward [off a cliff], he would tear off a portion of the scarlet strip of wool that was tied around one of its horns. Ancient Jewish literature records a most phenomenal event. It was said that the piece of scarlet wool that the priest held in his hand would turn white as the goat fell. This was a sign to the people that their sins had in fact been forgiven and removed for another year. ...This practice was carried on for hundreds of years by the priests and brought great comfort and solace to the people. They knew every year that God would forgive their sins. Every year, as the scarlet wool turned white, they would take comfort.... Amazingly...the scarlet piece of wool stopped turning white after the death and resurrection of Jesus."

He refers to the Talmud as his source, but what does the Talmud actually say? Rosh HaShanah 31b, Babylonian Talmud: "'Originally they used to fasten the thread of scarlet on the door of the [Temple] court on the outside. If it turned white the people used to rejoice, and if it did not turn white they were sad. They therefore made a rule that it should be fastened to the door of the court on the inside. People, however, still peeped in and saw, and if it turned white they rejoiced and if it did not turn white they were sad. They therefore made a rule that half of it should be fastened to the rock and half between the horns of the goat that was sent [to the wilderness]’....‘For forty years before the destruction of the Temple the thread of scarlet never turned white but it remained red.'"

That doesn't quite match up with what he said. So some of the information in this book was solid and insightful, other parts sounded neat but were highly speculative, and some parts seemed to be in error or were potentially misleading.

Personally, I'd recommend books that covered more certain topics and covered them in-depth (like Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus by Spangler, Lois Tverberg, and several other Bible background books I've reviewed) before I'd recommend this one.

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.


Teena in Toronto said...

Happy blogoversary :)

Joyce said...

Happy Blogoversary!

Genre Reviewer said...

Wow, my blog is 2 years old now, isn't it? Thanks!