The View From The Mastaba – Gary Burge’s View is Skewed

Posted on March 20, 2009


Books and Culture recently published “The View From The Mastaba: Jesus From a Middle Eastern Perspective,” March 6, 2009, written by Gary Burge, professor at Wheaton.


There are some things to applaud, yet there are some things that must be highlighted regarding his critique.

To applaud:

  • Burge is absolutely correct that there is “meaning beneath the text.” For some evangelicals, that is a difficult statement. I applaud Burge’s forthrightness on this point.
  • We ought not read the Scriptures from a “tour guide’s” perspective and participate solely in “pop-theology.” That is precarious. I concur.
  • Bailey is a fantastic scholar, and has published some very insightful material regarding cultural context. Get his books, and watch his videos. They’re insightful.

However, Burge is absolute and dogmatic on his assertion of Jesus speaking Aramaic and that he “practiced in an Aramaic speaking culture.” While this is the most commonly held position in scholarship, it is not the only one, and in light of recent scholarship, study, and discovery, the Aramaic position is losing ground. Those who hold the minority position have substantative evidence:

  1. The Dead Sea Scrolls include commentaries on Scripture and daily life, and they are written in Hebrew, suggesting strongly that Hebrew was a common and everyday language.
  2. In October of 2008, Israeli archaeologists discovered part of a first-century limestone sarcophagus cover with the Hebrew inscription “son of the High Priest” (ben hacohen hagadol), suggesting again, that Hebrew was a common and everyday language.
  3. Jesus spoke easily with the Samaritan woman at the well (the Samaritans preserved and spoke Hebrew, not Aramaic; John 4:4-26).
  4. The title over Jesus’ cross was written “in Hebrew,” not Aramaic as is sometimes erroneously translated (John 19:20).
  5. Jesus later spoke to the Apostle Paul in Hebrew on the Road to Damascus (Acts 26:14).
  6. And there are many other evidences, in Scripture, in Josephus, in Archaeology, and in logical deduction from the extant evidences.

Though Burge states, “I knew the things we were hearing about Jesus were simply off target, that they were the stuff of tourism, in some cases taken from Jewish traditions located in the Talmud (put in writing some 500 years after the gospels),” he offers no substantive critique or reason why such a statement is warranted. His tone implies that prayer shawls, and rabbinic teachings are completely illegitimate. Why?

To add to that I had two friends respond with the following:

  • Regarding the critic of the Talmud, and the use of the Arabic, “If the Talmud is late, the Arabic world is even later.”
  • Second, Bailey’s work is excellent, but it’s not the only. As another friend said, “while I can appreciate Bailey’s strong Middle Eastern background, and the anthropological significance it might shed onto the culture of the Bible, I would not throw all my hermeneutical eggs in that basket”

In addition…

  • Even Bailey, who he quotes heavily, has taken it upon himself to read through the Talmud, (which Burge criticizes) for the purposes of understanding Jesus’ world better. [Last I heard (about a year ago), he was half way through].
  • His citation of Chilton and labeling him as a “serious rabbinics scholar” is unfortunate, for what “serious rabbinics scholar” would simply allow tourism to find their way into their publications. It puts the author, and all his writings, as well as anyone who quotes him authoritatively in the category of “dubious,” (I have read elsewhere that Chilton’s work is questionable, to say the least).

And finally, (and I apologize if this last point is a bit snide), but I would suggest that Burge take his own advice: “when teachers try to reconstruct the cultural context of the gospels, they often use sources that are unreliable and fail to discern the differences between the modern Middle East and the world of antiquity.” That statement seems a bit contradictory to his fawning of the work of Bailey, which is “modern Middle East,” and his apparent disdain for the Hebrew language, Jewish culture (e.g. prayer shawls), or rabbinic literature (Talmud). And, what “reliable sources” does he suggest?

Ironically, Burge’s bio states:

As I teach New Testament at Wheaton, I want my students to grasp how knowing the unique world of the Middle East in antiquity shapes how we read the New Testament today. Jesus’ cultural reflexes were different than ours and unless we understand him in his world, we risk misrepresenting his story. The setting of first century Palestine must be the lens through which we read the gospels. This has been the passion of my career since the 1970s and I want my students to inherit it.

I concur. We do “risk misrepresenting his story.” I do not know Burge outside of this article. I would simply observe that what he wrote seems biased, incomplete, and perhaps a bit illogical. I would lovingly exhort Burge, and others, to be a bit more honest and humble in their critiques and presuppositions.

By the way, the advertising banner above Burge’s article was for Lois Tverberg’s newest book. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith. How delightfully ironic is that?!


(original screen shot)

(November 14, 2012 addendum:, .pdf: Gary Burge, Not Sent by Heaven)