Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Jesus in His
Middle-Eastern Cultural World
Contemporary events in the Middle East have made all
of us aware of how very different Middle Eastern culture is from
our Western culture. The Bible, which is a product of that same
culture, is similarly very different from what we usually read
in the West.
If we have not been reading the Bible as a Middle
Eastern document, the likelihood is that we have been misreading
and misinterpreting it. In this issue of Scripture From Scratch
I will introduce you to some basic insights about Mediterranean
culture which give us a better understanding of the Bible.
Honor and Shame
The core value that drives all behavior in Mediterranean
cultures is honor. In these cultures, honor is a public claim
to worth and an acknowledgment of that claim by the public who
have heard it. If the public does not approve, the one making
the claim is shamed.
Thus a teacher who could gather no disciples or
whose disciples abandon him for another teacher would be shamed.
In John's Gospel (1:35-42), the Baptist permits his disciples
to become disciples of Jesus, a teacher more honorable than he
(1:26-27). If John's disciples left without his approval, John
would be shamed.
In truth, while nobody wants to be shamed in the
culture, everyone does indeed try to shame outsiders. Shaming
another is a strategy for raising one's own honor rating.
A very common strategy for shaming an outsider in
Mediterranean cultures is to ask a question of that person. Few
if any questions are innocent requests for information. They are
often attempts to shame the other person who, it is hoped, won't
be able to answer.
Occasionally the Gospel writers help the reader
by stating this explicitly. For example, in Luke's Gospel we read:
"There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test him and said,
'Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?'"(Luke 10:25).
In other words, the question is a challenge.
To appreciate Jesus as a person who is totally Mediterranean
to the core, it is helpful to reflect upon how he answers questions.
In general, Jesus adopts the strategy all males strove to master
in this culture: the best defense (against shame) is an offense.
The first words out of his mouth are invariably an insult. Jesus
asks this scholar of the law: "What is written in the Law? How
do you read it?" (Luke 10:26). Scholars in the law ordinarily
became such by reading the law (Torah). Effectively Jesus asks:
"Can't you read?"
In Matthew's Gospel, only Jesus uses the word hypocrites,
and he uses it exclusively of the Pharisees. It is his favorite
insulting term for this group with which he seemed to be most
often in conflict. The Greek word that is customarily translated
"hypocrites" can also be translated "actors." Let's review these
occurrences in Matthew and substitute "actor" for "hypocrite."
In that part of the Sermon on the Mount where he
speaks implicitly about the Pharisees (Matt 6:1-18), Jesus calls
them "actors" for calling attention to their almsgiving (Matt
6:2) and for praying to make an impression in public (Matt 6:5).
He also scolds them for using makeup or other strategies to make
their faces look gaunt when they fast (Matt 6:16).
In a brilliant comic segment, Jesus talks about an
"actor" who has a very obvious defect but who insists on magnifying
the minuscule shortcoming of another person (Matt 7:1-5).
Then in conflict with Pharisees and scribes, we see
Jesus at his defensive best (Matt 15:1-10). To the Pharisees'
charge that his disciples fail to observe the traditions of the
elder, Jesus hurls a countercharge: they transgress the commandments!
Next, he insults his opponents ("actors!") and takes the argument
to their turf by citing Scripture against them.
In another such confrontation with the Pharisees and
Herodians who deliberately want "to entrap him in speech" (Matt
22:15ff), he again opens with the insulting "actors," then asks
them to produce a coin. When they do, he has tripped them up for
possessing a graven image.
In the next chapter (Matt 23), Jesus admits his opponents
know what they are talking about, but he says they simply do not
practice what they preach (23:2-3). Then he repeatedly calls them
actors, each time stating a specific example (23:13, 23, 25, 27,
29), and concludes with an insulting comment about their parentage
The final occurrence of actors in Matthew is 24:51,
where the fate of the wicked servant is that he will end up in
the same place as the "actors," a place "where people will weep
and gnash their teeth," an idiom referring to the experience of
The first thing to notice in this list of insults
is that Jesus seems to be very aware of theater, drama, makeup
and so on. Where might he have learned these things?
About 2 B.C., Herod Antipas initiated a huge reconstruction
project in Sepphoris, a town just 3.7 miles away from Nazareth.
It was to be the seat of government for Galilee and Perea, and
the construction would continue for more than three more decades.
Sepphoris is mentioned nowhere in the Bible, but it
was of major importance in Judaism of that time. Archaeologists
have uncovered many things here, not the least interesting of
which is a theater.
With a seating capacity of 4,000, the theater was
patterned after the theater of Marcellus in Rome, where Herod
Antipas and his brothers were sent by their father, Herod the
Great, in 8 B.C. to study in preparation for ruling after him
one day. The Roman theater was designed by the architect Vitruvius
who wrote a treatise on the subject.
Did Jesus attend the theater? Perhaps not, but theaters
were an integral part of the Mediterranean landscape especially
after Alexander the Great. Greeks brought their culture with them.
There were theaters in Samaria, Jerusalem, Scythopolis, Caesarea
Maritima, and in Sepphoris, among other places.
It is plausible that Jesus, the young artisan, accompanied
Joseph each day taking the lunch Mary packed for them on the one-hour
walk to Sepphoris where they both worked on Herod Antipas' building
The Greek word usually translated as carpenter is
perhaps better translated as artisan. The corresponding Hebrew
phrase is "a worker in..." followed by the medium: clay, iron,
glass, wood, stone and so on. Jesus and Joseph were likely capable
of working in many media and may have helped build this theater.
Even if this is not the case, the proximity of "high" culture
to Nazareth would suggest that at the very least Jesus heard about
the theater and its productions.
Master of the Insult
However he obtained it, Jesus' knowledge of theater provided
him with the perfect insult for his opponents. The main point
of the insult identifying Pharisees as "actors" would be: "Scripture
may be the lines you recite; it is not the script by which you
live." In their efforts to please God completely, the Pharisees
had identified 613 commandments in the Scriptures. Jesus admitted
that they quite likely knew them all very well, yet "they preach
but do not practice" (Matt 23:3). They are nothing more than actors.
Modern Western believers may recall the pious prayer
from an earlier generation: "Jesus, meek and humble of heart,
make our hearts like unto Thine" (see Matt 11:29). What modern
believers hadn't realized is that "meekness" and "humility" in
the Middle-Eastern world identify values that differ considerably
from the modern Western concepts of "meekness" and "humility."
In the biblical world, to be humble is to stay
within one's inherited status, even one step behind so as not
to appear as trying to get ahead. This is what John the Baptist
does with his "unworthy" statements (Mark 1:7; John 1:26-27).
Meekness is humility coupled with gentleness or pacifism, the
refusal to use power that one has available (e.g., Matt 22:26-54,
Jesus refuses to summon angels to help him resist arrest).
The meek and humble Middle-Easterner can and must
defend honor with the legitimate means provided by the culture.
Jesus mastered one of these means, the art of insult, and honed
it to a sharp edge so that he could defend his honor. After all,
his honor or his loss of honor would reflect on his Father.
Until his arrest, trial and death, when Jesus lost
honor on all counts, he wins every conflict with opponents except
for one very interesting experience.
In the district of Tyre and Sidon, Jesus encounters
a woman who requests a favor from him (Matt 15:21-28). It is important
to notice that she is a woman. In public, women and men were not
to engage in any discussions or exchanges.
More than that, this woman is not a fellow-Israelite
but rather a Canaanite. Only equals can play in the game of exchanging
insults, the game of challenge and riposte. Since Jesus and this
woman are not equals, the dynamic of the story is heightened.
The woman yells after him: "Have pity on me, Lord,
Son of David." Pity in the Bible is that quality by which a person
helps another who has no right to kindness and no way to repay
The woman perfectly understands her situation, yet
she makes her plea and bolsters it with two honorific terms: Lord
and Son of David.
Jesus ignores her. By the cultural rules, he is
behaving quite properly. But she persists in her petition, and
the disciples ask Jesus to dismiss her because she is creating
a scene. Jesus' comment is typically ethnocentric: She's not one
of us, I owe her nothing. I came to serve the lost sheep of the
house of Israel.
Then the woman pays homage to Jesus, which means
she physically blocks his path with her body. He has to either
jump over her, walk around her or deal with her. She begs him
once more with a respectful title: "Lord, help me!" In reply,
he refers to her with a "dog" word, a cruel and piercing insult.
Perhaps another person in this embarrassing situation
might have fled from the shameful scene. Remarkably, the woman
remains unmoved but uses the insult in her reply: "Lord, even
the dogs get to eat the scraps!"
For the first time in his public ministry and the
only time until his arrest, Jesus has been beaten in this game.
His insults did not repel the outsider and her petition. Jesus'
reply? "Touch—, woman. You can give as good as you get. God grants
your favor!" And her daughter was healed instantly.
Understanding Jesus in his cultural context is refreshing
and challenging. How refreshing to learn how totally human Jesus
was. How challenging to realize his example is not directly applicable
to our lives. We live in a different culture and cannot merely
copy his actions but must find our way to the significance that
lies beneath them.
Next: The Bible and the Death Penalty (by Kenneth
R. Overberg, S.J.)