Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Inauguration of Jesus' Ministry Part I: Setting the Stage

The Inauguration of Jesus’ Ministry Part I: Setting the Stage
 By Dr. Dave Johnson

Nazareth was hardly a thriving metropolis.  It was small hick town in the lower hills of rural Galilee. The townspeople, like everybody in Galilee, spoke the local lingo with a distinct dialect and were regarded by their countrymen as country bumpkins.  When Nathaniel asked if anything good could come out of Nazareth (John 1:46), no one who heard him, not even Jesus, wondered why he would ask such a thing. Kenneth Bailey, in his wonderful book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008, 147-169) gives some excellent backdrop on the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry.  According to Bailey, Nazareth came into existence sometime in the second century B.C. Aristobulus the Maccadean intentionally settled Jews in Nazareth and elsewhere in Galilee to ensure that the area would remain loyal to him. Such settler communities, according to Bailey, tended to produce citizens that are politically nationalistic, which may partially explain what happened the day that Jesus spoke in the synagogue.

When the Romans came, one trusted source stated that they established an army outpost in Nazareth—complete with all the vice normally associated with military towns, which contributed to Nazareth’s poor reputation.  In all, it was a small town on the backside of nowhere.  Of all the desirable places for launching a global ministry to save the world, Nazareth was not on anyone’s list.

Except one.  

Our story begins in Luke 4:16-30.  Jesus had waited approximately thirty years for this moment.  For three decades, under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit, he had prepared for public ministry.  With a common name and growing up in the obscurity of a carpenter’s workshop with parents who had deep roots in the community, Jesus was thought of as an ordinary lad.  He was just one of them, or so they thought.

Bailey notes that around this time a lay movement of pious Jews known as the habarim sprung up in towns like Nazareth where laymen gathered to discuss the Old Testament, the Bible of the day, and how to apply it to their lives.  They likely also discussed the writings of the various well known rabbis.  These groups nurtured a rabbinic style of debate or discussion and we can be certain, based on Jesus’ knowledge of the law and his familiarity with the rules of rabbinical debate, that he was an active participant. Becoming known as a lay scholar maybe what gave him the opportunity to speak in his hometown synagogue.

By the time Jesus rose to speak in the synagogue, he had gone to Judea and had been baptized by John the Baptist, been driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tested by the Devil, returned to Judea where he picked up his first few disciples, Andrew, Peter, and perhaps John and his brother, James, traveled through Samaria and encountered the woman at the well (John 4), performed some miracles in Capernaum, and returned home.

Since it was the custom of the Jews to allow any man in good standing in the community to address those gathered at the synagogue, Jesus had no problem gaining an audience.  According to Bailey, the text he read, Isaiah 61:1-2, could have been the assigned reading for the day, or Jesus could have arranged it in advance with the attendant.  Jesus’ intentional declaration that the text, which everyone understood to be a prophecy of the coming Messiah, was fulfilled that day suggests that he may have done the latter.  Bailey also notes that the phrase “bore witness to him,” (4:22 NKJV) could also been “bore witness against him.” The confusion comes from the fact that the Greek pronoun used here could be translated either way.  This would mean that the crowd was against him from the beginning rather than turning on him as he continued to speak.

A careful analysis of the text reveals that Jesus did some editing, something that was common practice in the public reading in the synagogue, according to Bailey, and similar to what modern preachers do when reading some verses from a given text and not others. It may be that the editing was done by Luke, the author of the account.  For reasons that will be obvious as we continue in this study, I believe that Jesus himself did the editing. 

Bailey also contends that the average villager did not understand Hebrew, the language of most of the Old Testament, as Aramaic had become the common language in Israel after the Babylonian exile, and that an interpreter was used to translate what was said.  Other scholars, however, believe that Hebrew, as well as Aramaic and Greek, which came into Palestine with the Romans, were understood by the masses.  That Jesus, a nearly life long resident of Nazareth, spoke Hebrew indicates that the latter was probably the case.  

Why Jesus selected Isaiah 61:1-2, how he edited it to suit his purposes, what exactly it was that so irritated his listeners that they wanted to murder him, and how he fulfilled the claims in the text will be dealt with in the blogs that follow.

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Copyright 2011 Dr. Dave Johnson 

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