Reviewed by Kenneth E. Bailey, Special to The Layman, Posted Friday, January 18, 2013
This carefully written, densely packed book concentrates on a series of five personal “encounters” between Jesus and specific individuals. The list is made up of:
- The woman with the Hemorrhage (Matt 9:18-26; Mark 5:21-43)
- Zacchacus of Jericho (Luke 19: 1-10)
- The Centurion of Capernaum (Luke 7:1-10)
- A Woman in Samaria (John 4:4-26)
- A Greek Woman in Tyre (Matt 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30)
As with the other volumes of this series, this book includes over a hundred carefully selected relevant pictures, maps and charts to help the reader place the encounter under discussion into the geographical and cultural context in which the event occurred.
Burge opens with an extremely readable discussion of Jesus’ personal encounters with the sick and the poor. Not only do we have records of his addressing large crowds but also are told of his interaction with specific individuals. As Burge writes, “… the ‘great canvas’ on which the story of Christ was painted is not simply filled with large crowds, theological debates, Herodian intrigue, and Roman power” (p. 17). This book focuses on the above carefully selected list of individuals whose interaction with Jesus becomes a part of the sacred tradition. Once again, Burge’s personal experiences in his many trips to the Middle East add richness to his presentation of the Biblical account as he highlights aspects of culture unknown to us in the West.
Burge rightly notes the ritual impurity of first century Jewish culture and its importance for a proper understanding of the healing of the woman “with an issue of blood” and the raising of daughter of Jairus. The appropriate legislation in Leviticus and in the Mishnah is noted and the entire scene is helpfully explained. The fear of the woman is highlighted along with the reasons for it. She has not only potentially “defiled” the guest (Jesus), but also has delayed his urgent visit to the house of the head of the Synagogue. It is in the authentic depiction of the entire scene that gives Burge’s account its special value. In Jesus’ case He (who is clean) purities the woman (who is unclean.) As Burge notes, this dramatic act reverses the basic presupposition of the entire clean-unclean corpus of first century Jewish legislation.
Of the set of five encounters that Burge discusses, the one that I found the most helpful was his discussion of the Centurion of Capernaum and his sick slave. Burge presents details of the make up of the Roman military that are generally unknown and are essential for a proper understanding of the various levels of the story. Through them the reader is skillfully drawn into the story and its tensions. Having lived under military dictatorship and also under occupation, I found Burge’s description especially powerful. As a specialist in the Gospel of John, Burge ably discusses the woman at the well and the significance of Jesus’ interaction with her.
Having published my own reflections on the story of Zacchaeus, there is no need for a debate on Burge’s presentation of the story. In passing, I can note that Jesus offers Zacchaeus a costly demonstration of unexpected love when he (Jesus) invites Himself into the home of the rich chief tax collector of the district. Jesus knows that He will be despised for doing so. When Zacchaeus comes down out of the tree and thereby accepts Jesus’ offer of costly love, Zacchaeus is “accepting to be found” which is Jesus’ redefinition of repentance (as set out inthe parable of the lost sheep, Luke 15:4-7). This earlier parable with its redefinition of repentance is invoked by Jesus in His concluding comment about the Son of Man coming to “seek and to save the lost” (Luke 18: 10). I prefer to see Zacchaeus as an unjust man who has been cheating the people for years and is jolted out of his entire value system by Jesus’ extraordinary, public, costly offer of love. Burge’s alternative view is thought through and clearly presented.
All in all, this visually and intellectually attractive book is very well done and I can heartily recommend it to all.
Kenneth E. Bailey, author and lecturer in Middle Eastern New Testament Studies, New Wilmington, PA