Jesus in Context
by Jim Myers
JESUS  l   HOME

                    You can take something out of context and make it mean just about anything - and that even includes Jesus. Many of the most controversial doctrines originate from verses taken out of context. There are rare individuals who actually read the verses before and after any verse they are studying, just to make sure that everything is kept in context. But they may still be taking things out of context - cultural context that is!

                    Culture provides us with the foundational block of information that we use to understand our world
. As citizens of the United States of America we have our way, the “American way,” of looking at and understanding our world. If you invited someone from Tibet to look at your world, it wouldn’t have taken you long to realize that they were looking through very different eyes.

Viewing Jesus’ World Through His Culture

                    Jesus wasn’t an American! That is a tremendous discovery that many people have never made. His language wasn’t English. Not one of his sermons or prayers were spoken in English. If he had, no one would have understood a word he said.

                    Jesus didn’t go to church. No churches existed then. Jesus didn’t preach from the New Testament, its books hadn’t been written then. It will only take a few hours of reading about the history of Christianity in any standard encyclopedia to check this out.

                    However, an incredible number of Americans think of Jesus as if he were an American - just like them. They are always looking at English words when they read his words. Many worship in a church, so they just assume Jesus did too. They have a view of a Jesus that never existed!
                      Let’s solve this problem and see Jesus in his cultural context. It won’t take us very long to discover the answers to many of the questions that have been born out of disagreements concerning Jesus’ words and actions - and what they meant.

                    Jesus lived in a land called Israel, which has its own unique culture and way of understanding things. His culture is the culture that gave us his Bible - the Old Testament, and the Christian Scriptures - the New Testament. Today we call Jesus’ culture "Jewish."

                    Most people understand that the Old Testament is the Jewish Bible. But a vast majority of the Christian world fails to make the connection between the New Testament and its Jewish origins. In general, the New Testament is a Jewish document written by Jewish writers to a Jewish audience discussing Jewish issues. Keeping Jesus’ words in a cultural context wasn’t a problem back then. They were all Jews! However, today most of the people reading the New Testament are neither familiar with the Jewish culture nor even know anything about it. Obviously, it would be very difficult for them to have a culturally correct understanding of its words - including the words and life of Jesus.

A Better Understanding of Jesus’ Life and Words

                    You are about to embark on a very exciting and rewarding journey as you look at the life of Jesus through the eyes of his culture.   I know that you want to accurately understand his life, message, and purpose. Isn’t that a worthy goal for everyone, especially Christians?

                   The first event we'll examine in Jesus’ life took place when he was only eight days old.

Luke 2:21-24, 39-40

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons". . . When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

                   Can you answer the following questions?

  1. Why was Jesus circumcised?

  2. Why was it done when he was eight days old?

                    The answers to the first two questions are known by probably every Jewish person alive today - because it is written in the Torah (first section in the Jewish Bible) in Genesis 17:1-14.

 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous." Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God."

God said to Abraham, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."

                    This section from Genesis is a very important part of the Jewish culture of Jesus. It is the basis for the establishment of both the people and land of Israel.  Therefore, let’s review its major components one more time.

  1. God established a covenant with Abraham.
  2. The covenant had provisions that would include his future descendants.
  3. The covenant would be an eternal contract.
  4. The covenant gave Abraham and his descendants the land of Canaan.
  5. Males were required to be circumcised.
  6. Newborn males were required to be circumcised when they were eight days old.
  7. Any uncircumcised male would be cut off from Abraham’s people.

                    Doesn’t this help you better understand the words about Jesus recorded in Luke? We now know the following about Jesus:

  1. Jesus became a member of the covenant God established with Abraham.
  2. Jesus was legally bound to the land of Israel.
  3. As a male, Jesus was required to be circumcised by the law of his land.
  4. Jesus was required to be circumcised when he was eight days old.
  5. If Jesus hadn’t been circumcised, he would have been cut off from his people.

                    Even if Luke hadn’t told us that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were descendants of Abraham, we would have clearly recognized it simply by understanding the Jewish culture. We also understand that Jesus’ circumcision had both religious and political implications.

                    But there are many people who lack this basic understanding of Jesus’ culture. When asked about this event they respond, "Jesus was circumcised for health reasons." Sounds very American doesn’t it!

Why Mary and Joseph

                    Whose duty was it to make sure that every eight-day-old Jewish male became part of the covenant? Obviously the child couldn’t do it. It was the father’s responsibility to make sure that the child was circumcised. Please don’t let certain theological considerations obscure the message of Luke. Even though much has been written about whom Jesus’ father was, those who lived in the land of Israel at that time were unaware of that discussion. They understood Joseph to be his father. Notice that Joseph and Mary took Jesus to the Temple, not just Mary.

                    Today it is still the Jewish father's responsibility. Simon Glustrom, in The Language of Judaism (p. 293), provides us with some good cultural information:

No mitzvah (commandment) is more universally observed among Jews than the rite of circumcision. From the days of the Patriarch Abraham to the present, the vast majority of parents have accepted this covenant with God as a solemn responsibility.

The Jews are not the only people who practice circumcision. Muslims also attach religious significance to it. Many Christian children are circumcised today for hygienic reasons. No people, however, place the same priority on the rite of circumcision as the Jews. The Brit Milah is observed on the eighth day, even if the eighth day is the Sabbath or Yom Kippur. It may be postponed only on reliable medical advice, or if it is impossible to obtain the services of a mohel (circumcisor).

Anti-Jewish rulers had little success in trying to abolish circumcision . . . In the fifth century, the Spanish King Sisibut ordered Jews to accept baptism in place of circumcision, thus assuring them equal rights. Their answer was unequivocal: The law of circumcision is the root of our religion . . . Hasten our death, for we will not surrender a single law, especially one so important."

 Mary’s Additional Responsibilities

                    There is very little information about Jesus’ life between the time he was circumcised at eight days old and age thirty when he began the work recorded in the Gospels. What took place during those years? One way to fill in the blanks is by taking a close look at the information we do have about his home and family members. Luke provides us with a glimpse of his mother’s religious observance in 2:22:

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons."

                    Luke pointed out that Mary was doing this because it was written in her Bible. She demonstrated her commitment to her religion by participating in the purification rites recorded in Leviticus 12:1-8.

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days; she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed. If she bears a female child, she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation; her time of blood purification shall be sixty-six days.  When the days of her purification are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. He shall offer it before the LORD, and make atonement on her behalf; then she shall be clean from her flow of blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, male or female. If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean.

                    There is one other cultural note that you must be aware of to help you avoid making a mistake that is made very often by many Bible readers. Mary hadn’t committed an immoral act or broken some commandment. The need for a “sin offering” is because of Mary’s “ritually unclean” condition as a result of child birth. This condition was described in the above passage from Leviticus. It had nothing to do with “sin,” it just meant that because of her having given birth she could not participate in certain activities, particularly religious ritual, until after her purification - “she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary.” Only after the purification ritual and sacrifice could Mary touch anything sacred or enter certain Temple precincts. Mary did exactly what was expected by her culture.

                    Luke’s account also reveals information about their financial condition when he described the sacrifice required in the Bible - "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons." Remember the conditions in Leviticus 12?

"If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons . . ."

Redemption of the Firstborn Son

“. . . Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the LORD (as it is written in the Law of the LORD), `Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the LORD.’” (Luke 2:22b-23)

                      Again, with the help of knowledge about their culture, we are able to understand much more about what Mary and Joseph were doing.

The LORD said to Moses: Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, is mine” (Exodus 13:1-2).

                    Before the creation of the Levitical Priesthood every firstborn male was to work full time in God’s service. But this was changed (Numbers 3:40-41):

The LORD said to Moses: Record every firstborn male of the Israelite people from the age of one month up, and make a list of their names: and take the Levites for Me, the LORD, in place of every firstborn among the Israelite people, and the cattle of the Levites in place of every firstborn among the cattle of the Israelites.”

                    In return for the Levites taking over this responsibility, every firstborn Israelite was required to be redeemed by a payment of five shekels to a member of the tribe of Levi. Again, we see Joseph and Mary doing what was commanded in their Bible. They took Jesus to Jerusalem to “consecrate him to the LORD” and meet all the requirements of redeeming the firstborn son.

                    Despite the destruction of the Temple, this ancient redemption ceremony continues to take place and is still widely observed today. On the thirty-first day after the birth of the first son, a ceremony, to which relatives and friends are invited, is arranged in the home. Among the guests is a Kohen (priest), a descendant of the tribe of Levi. Today the ceremony is performed as follows:

The father places the child before the Kohen and says: “My wife, like myself an Israelite, has given birth to this firstborn son and I hereby present him to you.”

The Kohen replies: “What do you prefer, your firstborn or the five shekalim you are obliged to give me in order to redeem him?”  

The father says: “I prefer my firstborn son, and here is the money for redeeming him as I am required to give.”

                    The Kohen usually returns the money to the parents, who contribute it to a worthy cause. The ceremony is usually followed by a reception to express public thanksgiving for the privilege of redemption. (The Language of Judaism, pp. 295-96).

                    Let’s take another look at the list of events Luke included in his opening words about Jesus:

  1. Jesus circumcision

  2. Mary’s purification ceremony

  3. Jesus’ redemption as a firstborn son

                    Luke did not include these accounts just to take up space. He knew that these would be very important to his readers who all understood exactly what they meant. Luke wasn’t planning to write an account that would be read by people from another culture 2000 years later. The primary point Luke wanted to make for his Jewish readers was that every commandment concerning Jesus’ birth as required by the Law of Moses had been observed. Jesus was a son of Abraham and legal participant in the most ancient Jewish covenant.

Conclusion

                    I hope that this article has made you much more aware of the cultural resources found in the pages of your Old Testament. There will be many cases in which you will not only understand the writings of the New Testament much better, but you will also be able to identify the time period in which the event is taking place.

                    Begin to unlock the meanings of the events and messages recorded in the New Testament. Take a new look at Jesus’ world, see it through his eyes. Compare the way he saw it with the way that modern Americans describe it in their Bible studies. Shouldn’t that be a worthy goal for every reader of the Bible!

                    When you began this study on page one, I asked three questions:

  1. Why was Jesus circumcised?

  2. Why was it done when he was eight days old?

  3. Why did Christianity not follow Jesus’


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