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Jesus Decoded: "An exciting challenge and one well worth accepting"

A great review in the Methodist Recorder this week from Brian D Brown, Visiting Fellow in Media and Communication St John’s College Durham:

“Never be afraid of scholarship”, Alan T Dale used to urge his students in the 1960s. He was true to his own dictum and based his groundbreaking New World on the then latest scholarship from the likes of CH Dodd, J Jeremias, TW Manson, R Bultmann, G Bornkamm. He said that this is what the Gospels, Acts and letters would look like if we followed what the scholars were saying.

In his new book Jesus Decoded another Methodist minister, the Rev Leslie Marsh, picks up the Alan Dale challenge in what he claims to be the first historical translation of a gospel. Like Dale before him Leslie Marsh is saying: this is how Luke’s gospel translates today if we take seriously what certain scholars are now saying.

“This work is largely in debt to the current third-historical-quest” he tells us in his introduction. Much of the recent scholarly work in this field, such as Tom Wright’s whose influence can be seen throughout, is contained in large, dense academic tomes written for Bible scholars and theologians. Until now these have been hidden away from the average reader. Now thanks to Les Marsh, like Alan Dale before him, in this innovative new book recent biblical scholarship becomes accessible to the non-specialist.

Jesus Decoded is not laid out in chapters and verses. It looks like any other book or novel. It does not contain any “thees”, “thous” or “here beginneths”. It uses contemporary language (if at times a little awkwardly and not altogether necessarily) to tell “a unique story of an ordinary man, with a humanity not found elsewhere. In a time of turbulent events”, says Les Marsh, “he set out to save his generation from hell-on-earth”.

The gospels as we have them, even in the most up-to-date, ”street cred” translations, he argues, contain many puzzling phrases and stories. What we need to do to solve the puzzles is to create what he calls “a historical translation”. If we
could strip away the confusing language in which the gospels were written then maybe we can see what underlies the actions Jesus took and the parables he told. We would have “Jesus decoded” for today.

He chooses Luke’s Gospel as his model because he says Luke’s is the first professional history of Jesus based upon evidence and witnesses. We must re-edit to try to get back into the mind set of his readers and de-code, not just translate, the original Greek and Aramaic-Hebrew documents. “Throw your mind back into the mindset of a young Jew two thousand years ago. Read this as you would the story of any other human. You may be surprised by what you find out”.

This in itself is an exciting challenge and one well worth accepting.

He offers us four keys to unlock the code and to understand Luke:

  • The power of the Roman Empire and the effect of the occupation of Israel/Judaea;
  • The dream of liberation;
  • The futility of an uprising and the need to trust in God;
  • The hope of resurrection of the nation and the establishment of God’s rule.

The scholars upon whom Les Marsh relies focus upon the historical and cultural situation in which Jesus grew up and in which the gospels were written. The overriding event was the destruction of Jerusalem and of the temple in CE 70, following the futile Jewish rebellion. Luke, he says, assumes that his readers would have known this event and that they would have interpreted the nativity,
parables like the sower, the prodigal, the tenants in the vineyard and the events leading to and following Holy week in the light of that event.

He does not claim that he has solved all the puzzles. But his is he says “the only show in town”. He realises that his historical translation will read as controversial and strange to those more accustomed to the conventional renderings. He realises too that certain critics who may have disagreements with the scholars upon whom he relies may dismiss his little book.

But my old principal, Leslie Mitton, used to say, never despise a little book….. particularly one as brave and as illuminating as "Jesus Decoded".

It deserves to be taken seriously and its challenge to conventional interpretations is worth taking up.