Encountering Jesus in the Real World of the Gospels | Reflections & Notes

Cyndi Parker. Encountering Jesus in the Real World of the Gospels. Hendrickson, 2021. (224 pages). https://www.narrativeofplace.com

encountering jesus in the real world of the gospels


I was taught, as a student in Bible college, that the chronological gap between the Old and New Testaments was clearly explained as a “400 year period of silence,” the idea that God did not do much in that period of time—from the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem around in the late 5th to early 6th centuries B.C. until Jesus is born. In retrospect, I am astonished (and embarrassed) how academically delinquent, theologically absurd, and offensively negligent this teaching is. At best it is ignorant and dismissive. At worst, it is condescendingly arrogant, and religiously narcissistic. The remedy—in my experience and opinion—is to advance a better, more wholistic understanding of the long history of faith that includes culture, language, politics, and geography. To that end, and for that aim, Dr. Parker’s much anticipated book is so desperately welcomed.

The paragraph on page 3 from the Introduction (below) is worth the price of admission. At the very least, it should jolt the reader into considering the vast riches that transform our reading of the New Testament. Hopefully, it sparks a deep and lasting curiosity that will endure for the rest of one’s devotional life with their text. And ultimately, may  it instantiate study as central to our faith and worship.

Incredibly, many still balk at this approach to the text, dismissing it as necessary to the “spiritual,” “inspired,” or “literal” meaning of the Bible. Well, we all can craft our own idols out of anything we desire, I suppose. But for those who wish to be a follower of Jesus, attending to the “real world of the gospels” is absolutely necessary. ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. After all, that’s exactly what Jesus did, and how Jesus ministered. To ignore Jesus’ context is to dismiss Jesus himself.

I commend this fantastic introduction to you for the gift of getting to know Jesus all over again, for the very first time. Thank you, @CyndiParkerPhD (PARKER!) for this incredible cannonball into the beautiful ocean of historical, cultural, and geographical context of the faith that transformed the world. May this study, do so, once again.

If you’re looking for another “stellar” review, here’s @BradGray99:




Modern readers who think of the Gospels as self-contained histories of Jesus do not ask the significant contextual questions that have massive implications for interpreting the Gospels. For instance, the writings of the Old Testament are written in Hebrew (with some Aramaic) but the Gospels are written in Greek. Why is that? God’s people in the Old Testament are called Israelites, but in the Gospels, they are called Jews. Is that change significant? In the Old Testament, the Israelites have a kingdom with political borders. In the Gospels, the JEws live scattered throughout the Roman Empire. So, what did concepts of the kingdom of God mean for the Jewish people who did not have a kingdom? The Old Testament focuses on the temple in Jerusalem, but the Gospels mention synagogues. Where did synagogues come from, and what is their relationship with the temple? The Judaism represented in the New Testament is not the same as the Israelite religion in the Old Testament. But how is it different, and why did it evolve? The Gospels also mention people such as the Herodians, Pharisees, and Sadducees. Who (2) are these people, and how are they different from the crowds of people who followed Jesus? These are all important contextual questions to ask before diving into the life and teachings of Jesus. (3)

Misunderstanding Context:
Eastern versus Western Mind-Set

…there are no thirty-year-old Jews nor are there thirty-year-old Palestinians. … “They are all three thousand years old” [Moshe Kempinski] (3)

The Western mind-set evolved from Greco-Roman abstract concepts of philosophy and data in which emotions are separated from the individual. Children are taught to be independent thinkers and true to themselves without being influenced by a group. An individual is told they can make anything of themselves, regardless of their context or background. People with a Western mind-set face the future as the great unknown into which they are eager to run. They do not want to be hindered or held back by the past. A Western mind-set states that the belief of what is right and wrong is internally cultivated. Choices are for the individual alone to make. Therefore, people with a Western mind-set analyze Jesus’ teachings for a linear set of logical data points. Jesus died and rose again for the individual, and the individual’s belief in Jesus is a private decision. (3)

| An Eastern mind-set is concerned with relationships, networks, and narratives. For them, true theology is embodied in actions and not in abstract ideas. Collectivism is prioritized, which means value is placed on family and (3) community over the individual. People with an Eastern mind-set will face the past, which is known, and walk backward into the future, which is unknown. They understand that their history and family connections got them to where they are in the present, and they bring their whole past into conversations about the present. Children are taught to avoid shame and maintain honor for the sake of the whole family, whose reputation is more important than the individual’s. For those with an Eastern mind-set, there are no such things as the Western concepts of “rugged individualism” or “private Christianity.” (4)

Theological and Cultural Divide

Recontextualizing Jesus

Part One

1. Eden to Exile

I am convinced that the Gospel story does not begin with the birth of Jesus but with the beginning of Genesis. … Only because Jesus belonged to the Israelite story did his role as the Jewish Messiah make sense. (11)

In the Beginning

…covenants were a common ancient Near Eastern way to create kinship lines where none previously existed. For example, a parity covenant was made between parties of similar authoritative status (thus creating “siblings” of each other), and a suzerain-vassal covenant was made between parties of unequal power (thus creating a parent-child relationships). So why did Noah and his family have confidence in God’s promise? Because God did a remarkable thing: he created a covenant with them; God made Noah’s family his kin. (15)

A Chosen Family

In the ancient Near East, three essential aspects of life determined people’s worldview: the gods they served, the family they were a part of, and the land to which they belonged. (15)

A Chosen Nation

The rabbinate has never considered the Torah as a way of salvation to God. … [We Jews] regard salvation as God’s exclusive prerogative, so we Jews are the advocates of “pure grace.” – Pinchas Lapide

…the Israelite Torah was less about restrictive laws and more about God’s teachings about how to live fulfilled human lives in a God-honoring society. (19)

The ecologically diverse land that Israel occupied becomes another character in the biblical narrative, albeit somewhat invisible to the modern reader who is not familiar with it.

A Chosen King

The Hebrew word for house, beit, has different connotations. It can be the building structure in which a family lives, but it can also connote the people who constitute the family. (22)

Things Fall Apart

Many of the prophetic books followed a common tripartite message: repent before God, return to God, and God will restore his people. (24)

Those refugees from Judah were called Judeans in captivity. …the Babylonian exile marks the correct time to switch the name of God’s people from Israelite to Jew.

The Trauma of Exile

The pain of exile birthed the editing and organizing of their sacred scrolls that told their story. (25)

| Pause for a moment to consider the following question: What happens to your identity when you believe you were forged in the furnace of oppression and given a land of inheritance but are then uprooted from the land? What do you tell your children? How do you express your identity without the land? What happens when you are no longer a people united around worship at the temple in Jerusalem? Do you give up? How do you hold any hope? Deuteronomy had cast a vision for life in the land with harmonious relationships between people, God, and nature, but what happens when you are exiled from the place where God dwelt among you? (25)

Questions like these prompted the Jews in exile to assemble and discuss their history, beliefs, and what went wrong in the past to result in their present situation. Scholars generally agree that synagogues began during this time and evolved over the next few centuries, when Jews prioritized meeting together to study and worship (cf. Ezek. 8:1; 14:1; 20:1). The word synagogue refers not to a building but to an assembly of people. Having been without a temple for two generations, the concept of worship shifted from temple sacrifices to Torah-centric study as a community. (25)

A New Beginning

There were no political boundaries to separate the Jews from other people since all of the land belonged now to Persia. Instead, the Jews began to establish social boundaries that identified them and separated them out as God’s people. (27)

The Jews were in an evolving religious civilization. … We would be amiss to try to monochrome the Israelites, or even Israelite beliefs, through the Hebrew bible. (27)

Hope for Restoration

There were roughly six hundred years from early Israelite nationality to the Persian Empire. … There were roughly another five hundred years between the rise of the Persian Empire and the time of Jesus. …it is essential to remember that along with the changes there was also continuity with the ancient Israelite narrative preserved in their sacred texts. The Judaism of the New Testament time was fully rooted in Hebrew Scripture but had evolved to fit their modern context. (28)

2. Land of the Gospels

We can look at the environment and make broad assumptions about the food, clothing, and activities in which people in that environment engage. … The rhythm of life matches the scenery. (31)

The Big Picture: Introduction to the Land

…the Fertile Crescent…relied on precipitation for all of its water,… (33)

The land of the Bible contained tall mountains and deep valleys. The rough texture of the land meant that the area was filled with small and diverse ecosystems that influenced development in unique ways. People were sensitive to the health of their land, since they lived in a fragile ecological area. Cities and villages were in close proximity to one another, but if they were located in dissimilar ecosystems, people’s lifestyles were completely different. The bend and folds of the mountainous terrain created difficult obstacles for travelers to overcome. Connecting with those people over that ridge who are out of sight and, therefore, slightly less trustworthy, was problematic. This land between sea and desert was a fragmented terrain with unequal development that supported diverse populations that were difficult to unify under one government. (33)

…the roads. International trade routes ran through the narrow inhabitable piece of land. If any of the large, international empires wanted to trade goods or make war against each other, they had to travel on these roads. The land of the Bible was therefore a land bridge connecting Egypt to Mesopotamia and the desert with the sea. (34)

…the land was not meant to be a home to a world-dominating empire but instead home to a world-influencing people. (34)

Agriculture and Religion

Place influences how people live. (35)

Second, place preserves memory. (35)

People’s lives were interwoven into the natural cycles of the land. …but those living in the land of the Bible began their year in September or October when the early gentle rains marked the end of the dry season and the beginning of the rainy season. (35)

The Israelite religious calendar corresponded to the cyclical life of the land. The Israelites connected their national narrative, which recalled God’s powerful acts in history, to the agricultural calendar. (36)

The way John tells the story, Jesus was in the role of God by providing food for the people, even in a desolate situation. Jesus responded to the crowd’s requests with a teaching about how he himself is the bread of life given by the Father to give life to the world (vv. 32-40). (37)

Lessons from Geography: Nazareth

Lessons from Geography: Capernaum

…Jesus chose Capernaum as his base of operation for his public ministry. …the geography suggests a few reasons. A bustling town like Capernaum was home to a variety of people accustomed to interacting with new ideas. (40) … Capernaum’s location put Jesus and the disciples in a microcosm of the Roman world with peasants, scholars, traders, soldiers, zealots, and Roman citizens. (41)

Lessons from Geography: Jerusalem


3. International Drama

But God was not silent. When is God ever silent? (45)

Alexander the Great

Alexander had more in mind than conquering territory though: he wanted to transform the eastern “barbarian” cultures. (47)

Our city [Athens] has so much surpassed the rest of mankind in thought and in speech that her students have become the teachers of the rest of the world. – Isocrates

A Judean Focus

To the north of Judea, the Samaritans embraced the changes Hellenism offered. They built huge cities patterned on the Greek polis and opened their arms to new trade. Significantly, Alexander the Great gave the Samaritans permission to build a large temple on Mount Gerizim to rival the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. (49)

For the Jews at that time, the debate centered on how much Hellenism could be embraced before they betrayed their Jewish identity. When did accommodation become apostasy? …what identified the Jews as God’s people? Four nonnegotiable Jewish practices emerged as key ethnic identifiers. … kosher dietary laws, circumcision, worship (49) at the one temple in Jerusalem, and adherence to the biblical festivals (including the Sabbath). (50)

Jason sent a sizable tribute to the Seleucid ruler, with promises of more, in exchange for the title of high priest for himself. Jason promised the Seleucids that he would use his position to further the growth of Hellenism by bringing theaters, colosseums, and hippodromes to Jerusalem. (50)

A few years later, Jason’s rival Menelaus sent an even larger tribute to the Seleucid king with hope of supplanting Jason as high priest. Understandably, the people were not happy with Jason for using temple money to buy his position, but at least Jason was from the priestly line of Zadok. (50)

International Drama Continues

…Antiochus IV Epiphanes (epiphanes means “the manifest God”–a title Antiochus IV granted to himsef). … Polybius a historian in the days of Antiochus, said that the ruler was not “epiphanes” (“God Manifest”) but “epimanes” (“crazy”). Then Antiochus minted coins imprinted with the phrase, “Basileus Antiochus, God Manifest, Bearer of Victory.” Did you catch that? The foreign power ruling Judea claimed to be God Manifest. The majority of the Jews soon had a growing animosity toward him, which only worsened when Menelaus the high priest plundered the temple in Jerusalem to meet (51) his financial obligations to Antiochus. (52)

AntiochusIV Epiphanes coin

Figure 11. Antiochus IV Epiphanes coin with Greek inscription, “Antiochus, image of God, bearer of victory” (public domain).

A Judean Focus

While Antiochus, the “crazy one,” was busy fighting the Ptolemies in Egypt, rumors began to circulate that he had died on the battlefield. (52)

A Fight for Jewish Independence

The small Jewish rebellion succeeded against the Seleucids, because they pushed against the weakened, hairline fractures of a crumbling kingdom. (54)

[via: In this section Cyndi mentions the “miracle of the oil” on Hanukkah, the Feast of Dedication with the Maccabean revolt. It should be noted that this element of the story is found only in the Talmud, not in the historical books of Maccabees.]

High Priest and King?

Finally, under Simon’s rule, the Seleucid king granted independence to the Jewish state for the first time since Judah’s fall to Babylon in 586 BCE. (55)

Expanding a kingdom was not the same as fighting for freedom. (56)

From Defense to Offense

From Independence to Occupation


Figure 13. Salome Alexandra coin (from Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum a Seculo Hominum published by Guillaume Rouillé in Lyon in 1553; public domain).

During her reign, Salome successfully maintained a strong military and spearheaded a handful of campaigns and peacemaking efforts. She worked with Jewish leaders to guarantee a Torah education for boys and (59) girls in every Jewish tow. She facilitated the introduction of the ketubah, a marriage contract created to protect women in marriage and divorce. She fought for the dignity of the common person. (60)

Hyrcanus and Aristobulus recognized the growing influence of the Roman Republic and sent emissaries to the west to ask the large, imperial force to put its weight behind him over his brother. (60)

Only six generations earlier, Mattathias was collecting a ragtag group of rebels to fight off an external imperial power; and now, due to internal power struggles, his descendants are inviting a foreign empire into the power vacuum.

Concluding Thoughts

4. Geography and Politics

…the land in the Gospels… …was the terrain that connected superpowers, not developed them. (65)

The Rise of Herod the Great

The Political Division of Herod the Great’s Kingdom

Making Sense of Small Details

While fisherman, farmers, and skilled craftsmen lived there because of the rich natural resources. Roman soldiers and tax collectors were there because of politics. (72)

With such diversity, the Sea of Galilee was like a microcosm of the Roman Empire. It was an ideal training ground for the disciples, who would later be tasked with spreading the good news throughout the world. (73)

Comparing Galilee and Decapolis

Comparing Galilee and Judea

…geography influences how open or closed a community may be to new ideas? Those who lived with open horizon lines and access to international influence–like people in Galilee–were more willing to accommodate the views of outsiders than those who lived with tight horizon lines and little international access. … The geographical influence and the political views of people in Galilee meant crowds followed Jesus and congregated in open fields to listen to his message about God’s kingdom. (755)

| In contrast, the hills of Judea–with their short horizon lines and difficult roads–were home to a conservative society that changed slowly. … Therefore, the inhabitants of the Judean hills and the aristocratic elite in Jerusalem were skeptical of Jesus and reluctant to embrace his new ideas. (75)

The Greek word Ἰουδαιοι can be translated as “Judean” or as “Jews”… (75)

Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Rome


5. Lifelong Learning

Since the Jews no longer had kingdom borders to define them, they turned to social behaviors to separate them from the communities around them. (79)

Jewish Life

When we see women supporting Jesus’ ministry, following him like a disciple, and sitting at his feet to learn, we see a reflection of the norm in Jewish society and not a way in which Jesus contradicted his culture. (81)

Learning as Worship

In the wider Hellenistic society, education was primarily the prerogative o the wealthy class. … In contrast, Jewish education was viewed as benefiting the whole person’s being and thus significant for every person in the community. (81)

The Israelites were scattered throughout the Babylonian territories, and without the temple to crystalize their Jewish identity, they shifted their focus to the biblical text.

Many Western Christians try to “solve” the text by establishing linear ways of logic to come to a final (83) conclusion of what the text means. Jews, on the other hand, from the early childhood days of education were taught the value of exploring the text with questions and then discussing the questions with others in the community. (84)

Following a Master-Teacher

A Difference of Opinion

Points of Debate


Part Two

6. Birth Narrative

Geography and Narrative

Genealogies and Narrative

The best explanation for the inclusion of these women in Jesus’ genealogy is that these women were tenaciously faithful to GOd. (96)

The genealogies are good reminders to modern readers that family memories in the biblical text honored and long lasting. (97)

Matthew’s Narrative

Matthew’s use of the Old Testament does not mean that Matthew believed that the Israelite prophets predicted Jesus’ birth. Matthew uses the quotes to prove the continuum of God’s fulfilled promises. (97)

…just as the boy was a sign to Ahaz of God’s deliverance against unrighteous powers, so too Jesus was a sign to the Jews of God’s faithfulness, even in the face of the Roman Empire. (99)

‘Out of Egypt I called my son’ [Hos. 11:1; cf. Matt. 2:15] … This quote encourages Matthew’s readers to look at the rest of the Gospel with these questions in mind: Will Jesus be a perfect Israelite? Will he face the same challenges and succeed where the Israelites failed? (101)

Luke’s Narrative

The Quirinius mentioned in Luke’s Gospel did rule Syria, and he did manage a local census, but that was in 6-7 CE, which was about ten years after the birth of Jesus. Quirinius oversaw the census conducted after Herod’s son Archelaus was exiled to Gaul. (102)

…the Greek word for those inns is pandocheion, which is the same word Luke uses later in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:34). (103)

Sexual intercourse between betrothal and marriage ceremony did not violate any norm. The truly shocking part in the narrative is that Mary was pregnant and Joseph knew he was not the father. He had grounds to divorce her for assumed sexual relations with another man. Instead, Joseph chose to stay with Mary, and thus everyone would assume Joseph was the father of Jesus. (104) … When it was time for Jesus to be born, Mary was in the room where the animals were typically kept because there was no room in the normal guest room. … The culturally correct picture we should have in our minds is of Mary giving birth in a house with many knowledgeable women around to help. (105)

If the sheep were in the agricultural fields, as Luke describes, we can assume these events took place, at the earliest, after the wheat harvest at the end of May or early June. … These events had to take place in the dry season, after the grain harvest, but before the farmer prepared the fields for the next agricultural cycle. Most likely, Jesus was born in Bethlehem sometime between July and September. (105)

7. Entering Ministry

The Forerunner

Geography, Symbolism, and Scripture

Seeing Meaning in Patterns

Temptation in the Wilderness

Calling a Motley Crew of Disciples


8. A Skilled Communicator

We forget that the Pharisees argued with Jesus because they loved the Torah and desired to honor God. (119)

…given the economic and cultural significance of urban areas in the first century, cities are surprisingly absent from the Gospels. The narratives focus instead on Jesus in villages or out in nature where large crowds of common people gathered outside city walls. (120)

When we think of the crowds who listened to Jesus, we should think of plurality and recognize that there was always an undercurrent of revolution, as many of the Jewish people longed for political independence once again. (120)

Dynamic Communication

Nature and Weather

Villages and Cities


…Several rabbis told similar stories to the one Jesus told, but those stories normally included only one son. Jesus’ story had two. … In several rabbinic parables, the father sent out an emissary (prophets) to plead with the son to return. In Jesus’ parable, there were no emissaries. He left out that part. (125)

The father went out to talk with his son, but then Jesus concluded with a cliff hanger. In the parable, there is no resolution of the tension. What happened to the older son? (125)

Popular Fables

Teaching with Authority


9. Passion Week

Entering Jerusalem

For anyone who supported Rome, this holiday was a tense week. Passover evoked memories for the Jews of a time when God triumphed over Pharaoh and redeemed his people out of slavery in Egypt. The city was packed with visitors celebrating the overthrow of a foreign power, which only heightened the population’s anti-Roman sentiments. As previous Passover festivals had been the context for riots, everyone would have to be on guard. (133)

…a political figure who rode a donkey was a sign of peace and demonstrated that the ruler already had control over the city (cf. 1 Kings 1:32-35). (134)

A Week in Jerusalem

The Trial

When Jesus said that he would rebuild the temple, we usually interpret this as referring to his body in his resurrection, but the leaders interpreted him as assuming religious and . (139)

There is actually no historical evidence outside of the Gospels that Rome was in the habit of releasing a prisoner during Passover. After all, such a tradition gained nothing for Rome. Rome was intolerant of adversaries, and Barabbas was an insurrectionist. He was also a local hero and executing him during the Passover holiday practically guaranteed unrest. … If the Jewish leaders chose, then Pilate could shrug his shoulders and absolve himself of any consequences. Pilate washed his hands and pretended to be innocent for something that lay completely within his power to prevent. A riot was less likely to happen if the Jewish leaders who gathered at his palace chose which man would die. (141)

Death and Victory

10. From Death to New Life

Post-Resurrection: Luke

Post-Resurrection: John

Post-Resurrection: Acts

Spreading the News

“Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and Galilee” … Each listed name is more than a geographical marker. The name identifies a different way of seeing the world, and their nuanced meaning deserves careful attention. (153)


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