Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh are members of The Context Group: Project on the Bible in its Cultural Environment, and this commentary is one of the finest fruits of their labor. The authors shed light on subtle aspects of ancient Middle East culture which go completely over our heads when we read the bible.
For instance, in ancient Palestine compliments were enviously aggressive. They implicitly accused a person of rising above others at their expense. Thus, when a man challenges Jesus by calling him a "good teacher" (Mk. 10:17/Mt. 19:16/Lk. 18:18), Jesus fends off the accusation with a counterquestion: "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone?" (Mk. 10:18/Mt. 19:17/Lk. 18:19). In the Middle East, honorable men did not defend themselves when challenged -- for that would only concede ground to their opponents -- instead, they counterattacked. In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus proves himself an honorable man time and time again. He never answers accusatory questions directly; he is always able to change the terms of a debate and shift its ground. In Mk. 11:27-33/Mt. 21:23-27/Lk. 20:1-8, a group of temple authorities confront Jesus and demand to know by what authority he made his prophetic demonstration in the temple. Jesus responds with a counterquestion and then ends up insulting them by refusing to reveal anything at all. In Mk. 12:13-17/Mt. 22:15-22/Lk. 20:20-26, a group of Herodians and Pharisees try snaring Jesus by getting him to admit having revolutionary sentiments about paying taxes. Jesus deflects their question by having them produce a coin for him, and then, holding it up for all to see, he shames them with a nasty counterquestion and tricks them into identifying themselves as idolaters before concluding with his well-known cryptic saying, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's". All of these examples show how honorable first-century Jews debated in public.
Malina and Rohrbaugh illumine the values of Galilean peasants as distinct from Judean Pharisees and other temple authorities. Consider the conflict related in Mk. 7:1-25, where a group of Pharisees demand that Jesus explain why his disciples eat with unwashed hands. Jesus, naturally, does not deign to explain this. Instead, he counterattacks with insults -- calling the Pharisees hypocrites -- and then escalates the conflict by showing them up with scripture citations, setting his own interpretation of the Torah against theirs. But the authors do provide an explanation: "Keeping purity laws was a near impossibility for peasant farmers, who did not have the required water for ritual baths, as well as for fishermen, who came in constant contact with dead fish, dead animals, and the like. It was also very difficult for people who traveled about, such as Jesus and his disciples. The religious tradition of the Galileans had adapted itself in significant measure to the realities of peasant life."
The commentary brings to life ancient Mediterranean values as contrasted with ours in the modern West. For instance, discovering identity was not a process of self-discovery like it is with us. Identity was provided by one's peers, not by oneself. When Jesus asks Peter, "Who do you say I am?", and Peter replies, "You are the messiah" (Mk. 8:29), most of us today think that Jesus knows who he is and is simply testing his disciples to see if they know. But the authors correctly refute this: "Since Jesus rejected his own honor by leaving his family and village and living as an itinerant exorcist-healer, he needs to find out what his status is both among the public and his followers." They provide him with his messianic identity. Only when public support has grown substantially will he finally be comfortable identifying himself as the messiah (as in Mk. 14:61-62). For now, he is terrified of the title, and he "sternly orders Peter not to tell anyone about it" (Mk. 8:30).
Malina and Rohrbaugh have described just about every behavioral cue and cultural script we could think of -- how ancient gossip networks functioned, why all rich people were considered thieves, the nature of patron-client relationships, etc. This book is a priceless tool, and it has already been used as a foundation for more comprehensive treatments of the historical Jesus. Be sure to buy it and the sequel, "Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John".
This is an updated and improved version of the earlier '92 publication, with material re-arranged for easier reading, and new commentary as well.