Historical Culture Context
American cultural heroes invariably include the person of humble origins who rises to achieve great status. Abraham Lincoln is but one familiar example. That such achievement is possible is a corollary of the American cultural belief in the equality of all persons. When real experience belies this belief, Americans fall back on the idea of equal opportunity. At least, every one can rise to a greater position than the one that came with birth.
Such a notion is entirely lacking in the ancient Mediterranean world. Basic honor derives from birth into very specific circumstances. Honor requires that a person remain in this status, maintain and preserve it, and never consider “getting ahead.” Any attempt to improve upon or behave not in keeping with one’s birth status is shameful because it is a divisive force in community.
Conflict of Interpretations
Even as the listeners are impressed by Jesus’ teaching and marvel at the themes he develops from the Scripture read in the synagogue for the season of Passover, the application he makes to himself is jarring. It causes them to murmur.
The Greek word for “murmur” that appears here is the same one that appears in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures when they describe the murmuring of the Israelites during the Exodus (Ex 16:2, 7, 8). This associational allusion is a masterful piece of artistry.
Even more striking is the critical complaint that erupts over the interpretation of Exodus 16! Earlier (Jn 6:31) the people put forth their interpretation, which Jesus corrected (Jn 6:32, 35). They are skeptical of Jesus’ interpretation and voice their concern in typical Mediterranean fashion. They attack Jesus for stepping outside of his inherited honorable status (Jn 6:42-43).
The demonstrative pronoun in the phrase, “Isn’t this Jesus ... ?” (Jn 6:42) implies a disrespectful tone and would be appropriately translated as “this fellow” or “this chap?” The people recite Jesus’ inherited status: son of Joseph; they know full well the honor-ratings of his father and mother. Parents and family of origin constitute one’s claim to basic honor. The claim “to have come down from heaven” (Jn 6:32) is audacious, incredible, and threatening to an established and well-ordered community. How dare Jesus claim more honor than he deserves?
Scholars suggest that the word “murmur” among interpreters of the Torah in Jesus’ world indicated a disagreement with another interpretation of the Scripture. The disagreement is expressed in a sentence beginning with “how.” Clearly the people disagree with Jesus’ interpretation of Scripture and his application of it to himself. Jesus’ response is quite direct: “Stop your murmuring.”
As is often the case in John’s Gospel, communication is going on at many levels. The Church reminds Bible readers to distinguish the meaning a passage might have had in Jesus’ lifetime from the meaning it could have had at the time of the evangelist.
Over the last fifty years and more, the Church has given scholars and believers an impressive set of guidelines for respectfully reading and interpreting the gospels. The reflections above are drawn from scholars who reached their conclusions with the aid of these guidelines. A respectful interpretation of Scripture is very demanding but very rewarding.
Ninety-five percent of the population of Jesus’ time was illiterate, but their familiarity with Scripture made for heated discussions. This should encourage a contemporary Christian to learn the guidelines and master the Scriptures.
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University