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Jesus in His
Middle-Eastern Cultural World

by John J. Pilch

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?"

Why Hypocrites?

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 (23:33).

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 public shame.

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 projects.

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.

Jesus Loses

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 it.

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.

Dr. John J. Pilch teaches Scripture at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. He is the author of many articles and books including The Triduum and Easter Sunday: Breaking Open the Scriptures (The Liturgical Press, July 2000) and Social Science Commentary on Revelation, co-authored with Bruce J. Malina (Fortress Press, May 2000). For more information about Mediterranean culture visit the author's Web site at: http://www.georgetown.edu/faculty/pilchj. E-mail the author at: pilchj@georgetown.edu.

Next: The Bible and the Death Penalty (by Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J.)


Living the Scriptures  

A popular topic of discussion these days is promoting understanding of and respect for cultural diversity in modern, multicultural America. How does this key to Jesus' success in his Mediterranean culture help modern believers explore and utilize keys to success in their respective cultures?



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