Seeking out the facts about the life of of Jesus

Scholar: John Pilch uses his knowledge of the first century to explode common notions about Christ.

June 13, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Each Monday afternoon, a dozen Episcopal priests congregate in North Baltimore to get "Pilched."

In discussions of Bible readings that form the basis of their Sunday sermons, the guide to unlocking the text's message is John Pilch, a Bible scholar and Catonsville resident who writes easy-to-use manuals to the Good Book.

His latest book, "The Cultural Dictionary of the Bible," is just off the presses, and the manuscript for another, "Healing in the New Testament," has been sent to his publisher.

Pilch's approach differs from that of other biblical scholars. He sees himself as a biblical anthropologist. A member of the Context Group -- about two dozen scholars committed to using the social sciences in biblical interpretation -- Pilch believes it is essential to understand the social and cultural milieu of the first-century Mediterranean world to comprehend Jesus' actions and message.

Pilch's admirers say he approaches the Bible not only academically, but personally and spiritually. In his workshops, he often mentions his late wife, Jean, and how the biblical message has helped him cope with losing her two years ago to ovarian cancer.

"That's the other side of John Pilch," said the Rev. Kirk Kubicek, rector of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, who had Pilch speak to a clergy group at his parish during Lent. "He has a strident pastoral concern. His is not simply an academic or scholarly endeavor."

The most common mistake people make in interpreting the Bible is projecting contemporary reality onto that ancient Mediterranean world, Pilch says.

"People who use sociology to analyze the Bible end up telling you what someone would have looked like if he or she was an American," said Pilch, sitting in his office in the basement of his Catonsville home, which is cluttered with books and journals.

"The nature of the science of anthropology is you're making comparisons between societies or cultures," he said. "To do that, you need some sort of comparative tools, and that's what anthropology offers you."

Pilch tries to communicate "the honest truth about Jesus" to his readers, his students at Georgetown University, where he's an adjunct assistant professor of biblical literature, and people he speaks to at workshops. In the process, he shoots down popular interpretations of the Bible.

For instance, the Aramaic term Jesus used to address God, "Abba," is translated as "Daddy," a tender, loving way to address one's father, and is said to define Jesus' relationship with God. But based on more recent scholarship, Pilch points out that "Abba" could be Greek or Hebrew and denotes "a more solemn, responsible adult address to a father."

The only time in the Gospels that Jesus says "Abba" is in Mark's account of the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prays that he be spared from his impending execution. "A mark of mature manhood in Mediterranean culture was the ability to endure without flinching any and all physical punishment meted out," Pilch writes. "Mark portrays Jesus as a perfect, adult Mediterranean male, who prayed for his Father to remove the physical threat to his life, but submitted to it without debate."

Anachronistic labels

Pilch says it is anachronistic to speak of Jews or Christians when discussing the Bible. Jewish beliefs and practices as we know them, such as the synagogue and rabbis, did not exist until late in the first century. "Jesus never had a bar mitzvah," he said.

The term that is translated as "Jew" in the Gospels should more accurately be translated "Judean," to denote the geographical region. Understood in this way, Jesus was not a Judean, but a Galilean.

Similarly, because there are no Jews or Christians in the Bible, Pilch said, it is inaccurate to project into the Scriptures a religious conflict between the two groups. The term "Christian" was not what Jesus' early followers called themselves. When it is used in the New Testament, "it is only used by outsiders, and it is pejorative," Pilch said. "It is not a nice term."

Neither is the feeling that Pilch leaves with his newer students.

The Rev. P. Kingsley Smith, the historiographer for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland who participates in the North Baltimore clergy group, coined the term "Pilched" to describe the experience of some students and readers who are at first distressed that their commonly held biblical notions are being exploded but who come back to the Bible with a deeper understanding.

"He's really able to make that accessible to people who are not really very sophisticated otherwise in biblical studies," Smith said.

Diverse background

Pilch's diversity of experience and interest sheds light on how his biblical sensibilities and intellectual curiosities developed.

He was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and spoke only Polish until he was old enough to attend school. He has always loved music and is a tenor with the Baltimore Symphony Chorus.

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