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Jesus, the Middle Eastern storyteller
By Gary M. Burge
Copyright © 2009
Gary M. Burge
All right reserved.
Chapter One Jesus' Storytelling World
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JESUS LIVED in a storytelling world, and he was well known for his ability as a storyteller. Throughout the Gospels Jesus is also recognized as a great teacher. The Greek term for teacher (didaskalos) translates the Hebrew word rabbi (which means "my great one," Matt. 23:8; John 1:38) and was used as an exalted title for teachers of the Jewish law in the first century. Teachers held a long and honorable history in ancient Judaism, and when Jesus began to move from village to village, particularly in Galilee, the crowds immediately recognized a skill and an authority that surpassed what they met in their synagogues. But it was his stories that everyone remembered most clearly.
Jesus as a Middle Eastern Teacher
When we imagine Jesus' teaching in his own time and place, we cannot use profiles of teachers from our own world to understand the nature of his work. Our culture is heir to the Greek tradition, where abstract reasoning and verbal prose are the measure of the teacher. In Jesus' world, communication 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 system, he curses a fig tree.
Jesus could enter a Galilean village and within days find himself encircled by large audiences hanging on every word. It wasn't simply that he was religious or inspiring; rather, the crowds sensed that here was a skilled speaker who knew how to sound themes that were important to them. He was a man who spoke their language, who understood labor and taxes and political corruption. Here was a man who picked up the images that surrounded them every day and spun them into examples of timeless truth. Jesus had an eloquence matched to surprising wit.
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.
For some time, scholars have suggested that Jesus' storytelling ability was unique in his day. But this is not true. Today we have a better understanding of ancient Judaism, and it is clear that Jewish rabbis used the illustrative story with some frequency. (in the period following Jesus, we have accounts of over two thousand rabbinic stories.) Jesus - without formal training - was able to match the best of them.
Jesus lived in a world where literacy was rare and books (or scrolls) were rarer still. Scholarly brilliance was measured by the teaching skill of the rabbi, and it was often left to his students to copy down anything that might be later published. The Gospels were penned by Jesus' followers, but we have no evidence that he wrote down any of his own sayings - much less that he wrote a book. The great scholars of Jesus' day were recognized by the number of students (talmid) they could attract, not by the books they wrote. Communication was verbal and memorization commonplace. Thus the rabbi-scholars Johanan ben Zakkai, Gamaliel, Hillel, and shammai did not leave their own writings behind, but rather their teachings were collected and later preserved by their followers (exactly like Jesus).
When the Gospels tell us that at one point Jesus had five thousand people sitting at his feet (Mark 6:44), it is not just to record a number; rather, it indicates the public acclaim he enjoyed. He began with twelve talmid (or disciples) - later we learn about seventy - and at one point five thousand and four thousand flock around him. By every first-century measure, Jesus was a respected public speaker in his day. It is no wonder that the rabbinic schools sent emissaries out to him to investigate what was going on.
The aim of the great Jewish scholar was to teach with effect. To win a crowd. To offer teachings that transformed thinking and living. One Middle eastern proverbial saying expressed it nicely, "The great teacher never offers his students a basket of cucumbers; instead he places a peppercorn under the tongue." So many of Jesus' stories have survived in our Gospels because they are "peppercorns" that remained with his followers for years.
The Stories of Jesus
The Gospels refer to the stories of Jesus as parables. Parable comes from a Greek term (parabole) used to describe an illustrative story that creates a vibrant contrast or image for the listener. in some cases, it creates nothing more than a word picture: "None of you lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl. Instead you put it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light" (Luke 11:33). In other cases it may be a narrative or story that leads the listener to a critical punch line: "The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls ..." (Matt. 13:45).
Excerpted from Jesus, the Middle Eastern storyteller by Gary M. Burge Copyright © 2009 by Gary M. Burge. Excerpted by permission.
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