Saturday, April 09, 2011

Understanding Jesus: Cultural Insights into the Words and Deeds of Christ

Understanding Jesus: Cultural Insights into the Words and Deeds of Christ

About the Book:
Modern-day Christians often bring their own presuppositions and assumptions to the reading of the Bible, not realizing how deeply their understanding of Christ's life and teachings is affected by a 21st-century worldview. In UNDERSTANDING JESUS, author Joe Amaral delves deep into Jewish history, societal mores, and cultural traditions, closing the gap created by geographical distance and over two thousand years of history. Using a chronological approach to the life of Christ, he guides the reader through significant events such as Jesus' birth, baptism, and crucifixion, pointing out illuminating details that that the Western mind would normally miss.

Amaral's premise is that to understand Jesus, we must understand the time and place in which he was born, the background from which he drew his illustrations, and the audience he spoke to. Throughout the book he explores specific terms, places, and events for their significance and shows how they add richness and meaning to the text. Topics include the connection between Jesus and John the Baptist, the annual Feasts and why they are important to modern Christianity, Jewish customs such as foot-washing, clean and unclean foods, paying tribute to political governments, and the significance of various miracles.
In UNDERSTANDING JESUS, Amaral draws back the curtain on a way of life that existed during the reign of the Caesars, and in doing so, reveals truths about the way we live more than two thousand years later, half a world away.

My Comments:
In some ways this book reminds me of Brant Pitre's  Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist (first chapter and my review).  Both Pitre and the author of this book, Joe Amaral, believe that to have the greatest understanding of Jesus you have to understand the culture from which He came.  Chapters in Amaral's books are:  Jesus and John, The Ministry in Galilee, At the Feast in Jerusalem, The Ministry in Judea, The Final Week in Jerusalem, and Crucifixion to Pentecost.  

I am in no way qualified to argue with Amaral about many of the historical and language issues he puts forth.  I found them fascinating to read, and his writing style is popular, not scholarly (though the book does contain an extensive bibliography).  As a Catholic I did find things in his book with which to disagree.  He thinks Christians should celebrate the Jewish feast days--not because they achieve or augment salvation but because they are reminders of great events.  He traces the early history of the Church and how it changed from a sect of Judaism to the official religion of the Roman Empire which tried to disassociate itself from Judaism.  He states that Baptism is not necessary for salvation.  

The book includes a section showing how we can determine the birthdays of John the Baptist and Jesus from scripture.  John, he said, was born during Passover, and Jesus, therefore,during the feast of Tabernacles.  He postulates that the "swaddling clothes" referenced in the nativity story were actually Joseph's burial cloth,which  would have been taken with him on a long journey.  

I found it interesting that there was almost no mention of the last supper.  He talks about the first Passover, and the application of the blood to the doorposts and lintel but doesn't actually mention Jesus eating the last supper with his disciples until after taking Jesus into the garden.  Then he mentions the four cups of wine traditionally drunk at the Passover meal, and states that when the third cup, the Cup of Redemption was passed, Jesus "declared that the cup filled with wine would now represent the redeeming blood that He was about to shed".  

In short, I found the book historically interesting, but questioned some of the conclusions drawn.  Grade:  B.

I'd like to thank the publisher for providing a complimentary review copy.  


  1. Ooh, now I'm conflicted. I'm really interested in this premise, and I was wondering if it might be a good one for my husband & I to read together...but we may have to start with the Eucharist one, and go from there.

  2. One person reviewed this book at Amazon, and they agree with you.

  3. This sounds like an interesting book. What you pointed out about the Last Supper illustrates how people with a prejudice against accepting that the bread and wine actually become the Body and Blood of Christ are unable to deal with the sacraments. I have a hunch that Baptism also is not portrayed in a Catholic light for the same reason. So we should take the good from the book - always reading with a Catholic frame of mind. Thanks for the review.


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