Where Cultural Anthropology, Geography, History, and Praise All Meet

Encounters with JesusI learned my very first bit of Hebrew–the Sh’ma–from Gary Burge at Wheaton. His knowledge of cultural backgrounds of the Bible–and ability to communicate about it–is impressive. In Encounters with Jesus he explores the connections between “the ancient landscape,” encounters people in the first century had with Jesus, and how that can draw us into a deeper faith in Jesus today.

The short book consists of six chapters:

  1. Encountering Jesus
  2. The Woman with the Hemorrhage (from Matthew 9:18 – 26 and Mark 5:21 – 43)
  3. Zacchaeus of Jericho (from Luke 19:1 – 10)
  4. The Centurion of Capernaum (from Luke 7:1 – 10)
  5. A Woman in Samaria (from John 4:4 – 26)
  6. A Greek Woman in Tyre (from Matthew 15:21 – 28 and Mark 7:24 – 30)

In the series preface Burge writes:

We have forgotten that we read the Bible as foreigners, as visitors who have traveled not only to a new geography but a new century. We are literary tourists who are deeply in need of a guide.

The goal of this series is to be such a guide….

Burge asks, “Have you ever wondered what it would be like to encounter Jesus personally?” In chapter 1 he sketches a picture of a teacher who “took time for people who generally assumed that they were invisible.” And yet as accustomed as we are to thinking of Jesus as present with the poor, the sick, the outcast, and the powerless, Burge notes that Jesus does not deliberately avoid the powerful, either. Case in point: the centurion in Capernaum (chapter 4).

A map from the book
A map from the book

You can read the story of the centurion’s encounter with Jesus and find much to appreciate and marvel at already. But as Burge unpacked what was behind that encounter, the improbability of such an interaction became increasingly clear. That chapter begins with important geographical information on Capernaum, and then notes that it was Jesus’ home, as well as the site of the Sermon on the Mount and the Feeding of the 5,000. (No wonder, Burge notes, that Jesus says woe to Capernaum in Matthew 11, when they won’t believe.)

Capernaum was an economically strategic trade center, and so the Roman occupiers had made a home there–hence the presence of the centurion. Burge explains the organization of the Roman army, a “highly disciplined, professional fighting force.” An easy-to-understand diagram shows the division of the army into legions, cohorts, and centuries (which consisted of one centurion overseeing 80 men).

It is against this backdrop that Burge then tells the story of Jesus’ encounter with the centurion, a man who “understands that Jesus is similarly empowered by God in a way that others are not.” Jesus takes “social risks” in responding to him. Burge similarly unpacks the four more encounters with Jesus in the Gospels.

Like the other books in the Ancient Context, Ancient Faith series, Encounters with Jesus is printed on thick, glossy paper (which you can still easily mark in pencil) and is full of high-quality, color photographs and maps. Both the selection and placement of the visuals is perfect. (This truly is the guidebook the author seeks to produce.) Here’s one photograph from the book:

A photograph from the book

There are endnotes at the back of the book, but as with another book in the series, there is no Subject or Place Names or Scripture index, which I experienced as a lack. That’s about the extent of what I found to critique, though.

Encounters with Jesus is something I love: a book of biblical studies that also draws the reader into the presence and praise of God. I began reading it because I wanted to learn more about the cultural and historical background of some of the Gospel stories, but by the time I had finished the first chapter, I moved to reading it deliberately as part of my personal devotions.

I highly recommend Encounters with Jesus. As I read I had a better sense of what was happening in the Gospel stories Burge recounts, and–more important–I found myself growing in admiration and awe of Jesus.

Thanks to Zondervan for the review copy. Encounters with Jesus is on Amazon here. Its product page is at Zondervan’s site here. A sample pdf is here.

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