Monday, October 13, 2008
Gary M. Burge is a Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, where he has been teaching since 1992. He has been a part of the NLT translation team from the beginning and was the author of the study materials for the Gospel of John in the NLT Study Bible. On his Wheaton faculty profile page, he states the following perspective on his work:
As I teach New Testament at Wheaton, I want my students to grasp how knowing the unique world of the Middle East in antiquity shapes how we read the New Testament today. Jesus’ cultural reflexes were different than ours and unless we understand him in his world, we risk misrepresenting his story. The setting of first century Palestine must be the lens through which we read the gospels. This has been the passion of my career since the 1970s and I want my students to inherit it.
Dr. Burge recently gave me the following interview for this blog.
Tell us about your involvement in the NLT Study Bible.
I first began working on the NLT quite a few years ago when I was invited to join the translation team for the Gospel of John. It was an inspiring assignment which brought together respected scholars who were able to work within the tradition of the Living Bible and yet go back to the original Greek, use modern translation techniques, and produce a truly dynamic translation. Then I was asked to work on the study notes for the gospel in the NLT Study Bible. This meant writing an introductory article, comments on the text of John, and numerous sidebars — short studies that are threaded throughout the Bible. The most rewarding aspect of the assignment was remembering how many people would benefit from these efforts. It was that vision that kept each of us going in our various tasks.
Why did John, among all the books of the Bible, draw your interest?
I think that my interest in John parallels that of the church. It is with good reason that John has always been the beloved gospel of the church. It has a depth of meaning that is remarkable. It has symbols and double meanings that are a delight to untangle. And because it is a gospel that bridges two cultures — Jewish and Greek — it speaks of Christ in universal terms that almost anyone can understand. Which explains why John not only is ideal reading for non-Christians and new-Christians, but John continues to fascinate scholars year after year. Popular expositions of John appear every year — as well as a trainload of academic articles.
Is there an example of a symbol or double-meaning that you have enjoyed untangling in John, that has led you to deeper insight?
Double meanings appear throughout the gospel and they say two things: One, that the reality we see contains deeper truths which only the grace of God can reveal to us and two, that our inability to comprehend leads to lives of deep irony. Nicodemus serves as the most obvious example. Nicodemus must be born again. The word “born again” can also be translated “born from above” in Greek. But Nicodemus cannot comprehend and so is trapped in his own ironic misunderstanding. He must return to the womb? No. Rebirth means experiencing the Spirit of God. It really means being born “from above.” Without divinely-given insight to our lives, we simply become ironic. The wedding jars in Cana are another example of double meaning. On the one hand, Jesus is solving a problem at a wedding: They have no wine. On the other hand, the story means more. Jesus is filling a vessel for ritual use with new contents. He is supplying “wine” to a setting that is without. He is replacing ritual washing water with his own gift to Judaism. The same double meaning comes up at the end Jn 2. When Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple and its rebuilding, he is not just talking about the stone structure in Jerusalem. He’s talking about his own body — which, as John makes clear, is the Temple of God.
What other work have you done with the Gospel of John?
I guess the Gospel of John has been an interest of mine for a long time. In 1987 I published a book on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in John called The Anointed Community. After this I wrote a seminary/college textbook on John (Interpreting the Gospel of John, 1992), a commentary on John’s letters (The NIV Application Commentary: Letters of John, 1996), and a full length commentary on John’s Gospel (The NIV Application Commentary: The Gospel of John, 2000). In between I’ve published various articles here and there on John’s writings. Presently I’m fascinated by the new discovery of the Pool of Siloam, its use as a ritual bath, and what this means for John (who refers to it).
All right, what does the Pool of Siloam mean for John?
If the pool of Siloam in south Jerusalem refers to ritual washing — and not just water collection either for private or ritual temple use — then it symbolizes something important for John. Water appears in Jn 1 in Jesus’ baptism, in Jn 2 in the jars containing ritual washing water, in Jn 3 as the prerequisite cleansing offered to Nicodemus, in Jn 4 as living water — which refers to ritual cleansing water (every Jewish ritual bath had to have “living water” in it), Jn 5 has a man trying to get into water for healing, etc. You can see the pattern. John is concerned to probe how it is one might be made clean — not hygienically, but in relation to God. This is an enormous Jewish concept in the first century. Now we can add Jn 9 to this list. The healed man is told to wash in Siloam, and now we see that it is a ritual bath he is told to go to. And John’s spin on the story is that since Siloam means "sent" in Hebrew, and Jesus is the "sent one" from God, so he is told to bathe, to be cleansed in the bath whose only analogue is Christ. Jesus is either presenting people with new water or replacing old water throughout this gospel.
What is the most important thing that people should learn from studying John?
John’s gospel helps to shape a Christian worldview. Just the first 18 verses of the gospel sets the stage. John shows us how the world is in desperate darkness and incapable of extricating itself from the desperate situation it is in. And the only hope is for God to intervene unilaterally — like light piercing the darkness — to reveal who God is and what our true circumstances have become. Light both judges (by showing the truth) and saves (by showing us the way out). In John’s Gospel, these themes are played out like a drama and characters either retreat to the darkness or embrace the light. Here’s a hint: notice how often a crowd watches something Jesus has said or done. And then the crowd splits. Choices are made. Honesty is required. John hopes that we (the audience) will see ourself in those crowds and make the right choices.
Do you have any other suggestions for people as they undertake the study of John?
When reading John, pretend you don’t know much about Matthew, Mark and Luke! Let it stand on its own terms. For example, no miracle is called a “miracle” in John, they are called “signs.” John wants you to ask why. But to call them “miracles” is to rob them of the mystery John is infusing into the story. Here’s another example: throughout the gospel we’re told that “the hour” is coming. This is the “hour of glorification” when Jesus goes to the cross. But wait. John wants us to see that this hour is not a time of crisis (he leaves that theme to the other gospels). The hour of the cross is a time of glory when Jesus “lifted up” for all to see his glory and he begins his ascent to the Father. John is like a great artist, highlighting nuances of Jesus’ life and its meaning in ways we’d miss otherwise.
How does John’s calling miracles “signs” infuse the story with mystery? Or, what is the significance of that for John?
The word “sign” means that something lies beneath the surface. Something has to be explored and interpreted. On its own, the world is incapable of seeing the light for what it is. In fact, the world prefers darkness. So while the word “miracle” points to a sheer act of power, “sign” implies that the miracle has a veiled meaning which can only be discerned with great care. This permits John to lend mystery to the story in matters such as foreshadowing and veiled allusions. There are seven signs in John and each of them have this veiled quality. Jesus feeds 5,000 in chapter 6, but it is more than a nice meal. It is a return to Moses’ miracle of manna in the wilderness. And more, it is a foreshadowing of Jesus himself — the Bread of Life — who will give his life on the cross and so feed the world.
What other projects have you worked on recently?
A strong interest of mine has also been the Middle East and the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. This came about because I was a student once in the Mideast and have returned now over 20 times to all the countries between Iraq and Libya. In 2003 I wrote Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians are not being told about Israel and the Palestinians. This was received very well both here and internationally and won two awards. This has been very gratifying. Currently I’ve just finished a massive (500 page) introduction to the New Testament (The New Testament in Antiquity) with two colleagues, two smaller books on how the Bible’s culture shaped a particular spirituality lost to us today (The Bible and the Land, 2009; Jesus the Middle Eastern Story Teller, 2009), and I’m in the process of writing a book on how the New Testament views “holy land.” Here I ask some tough questions of Christian Zionism and wonder aloud how the New Testament might speak to us today about some who are eager to make divine claims to territory (“holy land”). It has been a fascinating journey this year and I hope it will provoke many of us to revisit the scriptures on this important subject.
Is one of them particularly meaningful to you?
The textbook was a huge 5 year project that it is inevitable to feel invested in it. But I’d have to say that my work in 2003 (Whose Land? Whose Promise?) on Israel and my current effort (The Land in the New Testament) are very close to my heart. So many of us in the western church do not have an accurate read on what is happening in these countries. And worse yet, we use our Bibles to answer questions in ways that have never been done before in Christian history. And frequently the answers we provide are simply wrong. Many of us have contributed to the suffering of Jews and Arabs in Israel/Palestine because of our faith rather than being agents of hope and peace. It is very gratifying to feel as if you are speaking truth to a conflict and helping the church see things differently. I am regularly asked to speak publicly on this issue around the country thanks to these writings, and I do so eagerly. It is what I care about deeply.
Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today.
Do you, our readers, have any further questions for Dr. Burge, especially in relation to his work on the NLT Study Bible?