How a Middle Eastern Worldview Helps Us Better Understand Jesus: A Q&A with Ravi Zacharias and Abdu Murray
What are the cultural insights Westerners often miss when the Eastern context of the Bible is ignored? What were the ways Jesus taught that were thoroughly Eastern—rooted in story, honor, and community—yet appeal to Western thinking—based in reasoning and linear process—today? How does understanding Eastern idioms and customs make mysterious or seemingly confusing Bible passages understandable?
In this Q&A, Ravi Zacharias (@RaviZacharias) and Abdu Murray (@AbduMurray) talk about their book Seeing Jesus from the East: A Fresh Look at History’s Most Influential Figure (Zondervan, 2020).
Why is it important for Westerners to care about how Easterners see Jesus and hear his gospel?
Abdu Murray: The narrative current flowing through Western culture today is that Christianity is an imperialistic religion devised by white males to dominate and control dark-skinned people. Put another way more applicable to the theme of this book, Christianity is characterized as a Western religious tool used to oppress and suppress Easterners. Similarly, there is a strong current that views Christianity as a tool of male domination.
In a time when social justice captures society’s focus and the issues of racism, sexism, and oppression make headlines in both the West and the East, it seems impossible to swim against that narrative current. It can be done, but only when we have a fresh perspective of Christianity—or rather a refreshed perspective. We need to recapture the “Eastern-ness” of Christianity. We need to get a fresh look at Jesus from the East.
The fact that Jesus was Middle Eastern and taught and acted within the communal honor-shame framework shows that Christianity is not a Western religion. Yet Jesus opposed the commonplace ethnic, racial, and gender discrimination of his day, the very issues that Westerners still struggle to solve. Ironically, the Christian gospel has much to offer in addressing the very problems it’s often blamed for. This alone is reason enough for Westerners to behold the Eastern Jesus afresh.
[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, What Does It Mean to Live in a Post-Truth World?: An Interview with Abdu Murray]
How has the power of story been pervasive in many world religions, and what makes the story of Jesus unique?
Ravi Zacharias: Almost the entire sacred text of Hinduism is a story. Much of Islam’s hadith are story after story. Buddha’s entire authority comes from his story. But stories need a basis for truth-testing before we draw truths from them. That is key. And it’s a tough demand. The amazing thing about the gospel of Jesus Christ is that, though it’s a story, it’s a story that invites tests for truth.
One of the elements that attracted me to Jesus was that everything he said and taught was open to historical investigation and was incredibly supported by prophecies and by his works. When I first started to read the Bible, I was surprised by how Jesus regaled his audiences with stories and startled them with unexpected endings. The ultimate surprise was the manner of his death and the power of his resurrection. His stories are so Eastern, and the endings often offer an astounding twist, even for the Easterner. Yet his arguments are also sound for the Westerner.
What is the defining difference between the claims of the biblical text and the texts of other faiths?
Ravi Zacharias: Right from the beginning, the writers of the Gospels and the Hebrew Scriptures affirm the Bible’s stories to be fact, true in detail, a compilation of historic events. That’s why Paul illustrates from Abraham. In fact, Paul refers back to Adam, as does Luke. Luke further states, “Since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account” (Luke 1:3). Matthew, writing to the Jews, similarly traces Jesus’ story back to Abraham. John connects Jesus’ story to the Greeks by using the Greek concept of the logos. John states his reason clearly: “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). Belief in the truth and starting “from the beginning”—both of these ideas are writ large in the gospel story.
Please explain the use of stories to communicate truths in Eastern religion.
Ravi Zacharias: Many are admittedly mythological, fanciful tales whose details strain credulity. But interwoven within them are philosophical lessons that are meant to provide guiding principles for cultural life. That’s the very reason the stories were constructed.
In an Eastern pantheistic culture, it’s not truth that’s the focus, but “truths” that are of importance. Somewhat like Greek mythology, the tales tell lessons. Truths come in proverbs or sayings, seldom in a thought-out, logical framework. Invariably, the writer tells the story as a fable in order to engender some emotion from the reader and to inscribe a timeless principle in the conscience. The story may not be true, but it’s intended as a medium of a certain truth.
In Islam, truth is important, mainly because it came about as a belief system that claimed to supersede the Christian faith, to which truth is foundational. Muhammad, it’s claimed, was the last and greatest prophet. So to Muslims, the story of Islam is a truth claim. Therefore, Islam can and must be tested by its claims.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is also a story. People mistakenly think the story started at Bethlehem, so it’s not surprising that critics of the gospel consider it yet another mythological narrative and think they’ve done away with it. The story of the Father who sends his Son who does his work and returns to the Father may be a beautiful tale, but it cannot be fact, can it? This is what I assumed when I first read the Gospels without giving them serious thought.
How does the story of Jesus transcend cultures and nationalities?
Ravi Zacharias: What caught my attention about Jesus’ story was not only that it claimed to be true, but also that it was attested to by a collection of writers. What’s more, its truth claims reached beyond the characters in the story itself to include all of humanity.
Most Eastern sacred texts are written by single narrators. The Bible, by contrast, brings together a confluence of narrators and speaks to our whole cosmos. It offers a telos, a purpose-driven story for our existence. Its message is not micro-cultural, nor, for that matter, a narrative just for me. It’s not about the superiority of any culture. Instead, it’s transcultural, transethnic, and trans-linguistic. It goes beyond a mere ethical theory or a single language group.
In short, Jesus’ story is not a cultural identity story. It’s not about what it means to be Indian. It’s not about what it means to be in a family, as important as that may be. In its implications and definitions, it’s about what it means to be human. The Bible’s narrative is the same for all mankind.
How are Jesus’ methods to be considered Eastern?
Ravi Zacharias: This message we share ought to faithfully reflect our respect for its content. The method we use, however, shows respect for the listener. The second ought never to violate the first—using ignoble means to convey a noble message is self-defeating.
Jesus’ message was for the whole world, but his method was clearly Eastern. From his parables to his conversations, Jesus sought to gently open up the heart of the listener. He knew how to pinpoint the real hunger in every life.
As we share Jesus’ message, we must attend to his method, which is part of the gospel story. He appealed to reason, to prophecy, and to testimonials. But the centerpiece of his method was how he told stories. In my travels around the world, I sometimes speak to the same audiences more than once. Without fail, people tell me that they remember my stories most clearly. The illustrations seal the argument. But it’s more than that with Jesus. He knows my story. He knows me.
How can the biblical narrative be considered Eastern?
Ravi Zacharias: It’s all about the human family. Genesis is divided among four personalities—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Four generations tell the story of faith and the cost of not following God. Family is everything in the East. You’re inseparable from your family, but when familial feuds come, the hate is just as intense as the previous devotion.
Eastern stories are invariably about a family in close proximity or violent hostility. Yet the Bible is also the story of all humankind, not just a single family. All other faiths are about and within families. The Hindu scriptures are about a family feud. Islam’s history of succession is as well. Buddha taught and modeled abandoning the family to gain individual enlightenment.
The message of Jesus is both individual, familial, and universal. His message allows no one to boast. Instead, it calls all to come to our heavenly Father.
The battle in the Middle East today is about which son of Abraham is the chosen one—Isaac, from whom the Jewish people are descended, or Ishmael, from whom the Arab people are descended. God settles it once and for all. It’s neither Isaac nor Ishmael. It’s God’s Son, Jesus, who grants all the grace sufficient to be part of his family. Those who recognize him find the answer. Those who do not recognize him perpetuate the problem.
How does the message of Jesus still stand as an answer to the division and “tribalism” on display in today’s culture?
Abdu Murray: Every political event is charged with animosity toward “the other side.” Free speech is violently stifled by those claiming to be freedom’s champions. It’s easy to label someone a “hater” rather than debate ideas. Judicial confirmation hearings have become tribalized circuses.
Jesus spoke and acted in no less of a tribal culture. The Middle East of the first century was divided along racial and ethnic lines. It was also strongly divided along gender lines. Those of different religious bents were often at odds with each other. And politics was an ever-pervasive source of division and derision.
In other words, Jesus’ culture was curiously similar to our own. That’s why Jesus’ way of turning situations on their heads can help us today. His ancient wisdom surprises us again and again in how contemporary it actually is. Marcello Pera, the atheist philosopher and former Italian politician, has argued powerfully that Western love of liberty, equality, and brotherhood simply wouldn’t exist without the Christian message.
To be clear, though, Jesus never worked to cater to his “base” or those on his “side”?
Abdu Murray: No, Jesus wasn’t interested in that. He wanted to rectify social wrongs while teaching people. He coupled his message with action. His words and his deeds healed cultural divides and individual people. Perhaps we in the modern West could learn something from this timeless Easterner.
I realize that simply appealing to Christian beliefs won’t go far enough toward dissipating and resolving the racial tensions that beset us today. Commonality of belief doesn’t automatically result in seeing and striving for the common good. But Jesus’ teaching and his actions make him the eternally contemporary example of what it takes to move beyond shallow talk of commonality.
Indeed, Jesus consistently spent time with those who were considered ethnically “questionable” or compromised by his society. Yet he upheld their basic dignity and included them in the kingdom of God, should they choose to follow and rely on him.
How would you describe the Eastern culture’s focus on shame and honor, and why this is such an important concept to grasp?
Abdu Murray: Eastern cultures are collectivistic or communal, which means that each person’s value, dignity, integrity, and very identity are derived from how he or she is perceived by the community.
Perpetuating an Eastern community’s traditions, especially its religious traditions, brings honor. Breaking from tradition, especially religious tradition, brings shame.
In the East and Middle East, if perceived honor bestows identity on a person, perceived shame robs him of it. Understanding this can teach the West that there’s a world of difference between intellectually assenting to a worldview as true and existentially embracing it as your own.
Why is it so important to understand the role honor and shame played in how people asked questions 2,000 years ago in the Middle East?
Abdu Murray: Partly to better understand biblical accounts about Jesus, but also because not much has changed in 20 centuries of human interaction around the world. Honor-shame insights can help us see whether a pursuit of truth is at the heart of our exchanges with others and whether we ourselves are interested in truth or in winning rhetorical games.
How should this affect our understanding of a person’s willingness to change religions?
Abdu Murray: In the West, with such a strong focus on individualism and freedom of choice, changing one’s religious views generally hasn’t been seen as morally positive or negative. Indeed, generally it’s considered morally wrong for the collective to impose its will on an individual’s conscience or choices.
In the East, however, the opposite is usually the case. Eastern collectivism dictates that morality is about what’s good for the community and family first. What’s good for the individual comes second. Upholding tradition is considered best for the community and family. Thus, changing one’s religious affiliation is a moral choice—an immoral choice in the eyes of most.
Do you see Jesus as Eastern or Western?
Ravi Zacharias: As I look at Jesus, I see him as thoroughly Eastern. But as I read his message, I see the great impact he has had on the West.
Unfortunately, many in the West have changed his transcultural message into a Westernized product, losing the Eastern perspective. We in the West have wedded the philosophies of postmodernism and Eastern mysticism, neither of which has truth as its foundation stone. If only we understood how Eastern Jesus’ touch is, yet how global is his reach, we would realize that the Son truly rises in the East but casts his light on the West. His truth knows no boundaries.
Historically, the gospel came from the East to the West and traveled back again to the East. Now, as many from the East move West, they bring with them the message that transformed their hearts through Jesus Christ of Nazareth. May this timeless message of Jesus shine its light here, and around the world, once more. His story is full of surprises. It’s not over yet. Whoever has ears, let them hear.
What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
Abdu Murray: There are so many, but I’d like to mention two. First, when I was exploring whether the gospel is true, I found so much beauty and truth in Romans 5:8. As a Muslim, I believed that God is the greatest possible being (which is why Muslims often say “Allahu Akbar,” which means “God is Greater”). It occurred to me that if God is the greatest possible being, he would express the greatest possible ethic (which is love) in the greatest possible way (which is self-sacrifice). That in Romans 5:8, we read exactly that: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” There it is: the Greatest Possible Being expressing the greatest possible ethic in the greatest possible way.
And then there’s Colossians 4:5-6, where the apostle Paul beautifully describes how we are to communicate the beauty and truth of the gospel. He tells us to walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. In other words, find out what other people care about; what their real questions are.
Often, Christians are answering questions people aren’t asking. They’re answering questions they wish people would ask. But when we listen carefully we can find boulevards for the gospel and address the person’s actual concerns in intelligent and emotionally impactful ways.
We don’t ignore people’s preferences and feelings. We try to show how the truth is what should influence and perhaps change those preferences and feelings. Apologetics (1 Pet. 3:15) is the art and science of Christian persuasion. But when we answer questions no one asked or give them a fire hose of our opinions, we transform it into the art of making someone sorry they asked! Paul closes his thought with this: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person” (Col. 4:6). That final word is important. Christians are not to answer questions. We aren’t to answer controversies or even objections. We’re to answer people because questions don’t need answers, but people do.
We need to show others that we understand where they’re coming from, especially when we don’t agree with them. Then, by asking questions of our own, we can get others to see that God’s word is not about arbitrary restrictions on freedom, but is the source of true freedom. When we see another person not as a debate opponent but someone for whom Christ died to save, we can more compassionately convey the gospel message in a way that speaks directly to that person and their struggles without compromising the unchanging truths of Scripture.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?
Abdu Murray: Both the website and the Bible Gateway App are so valuable. What I love about them both, especially the App, is that we can have the Word of God at our finger tips, searchable, and with study helps and resources. How often have we engaged in spiritually important conversations, only to find our Bible or commentaries aren’t readily at hand to help us express the gospel clearly? The website and the App directly address such situations by giving us access to the truth that sets us free.
Seeing Jesus from the East is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
Bio: Ravi Zacharias has spent the past 48 years commending the Christian faith and addressing life’s great existential questions of origin, meaning, morality, and destiny with eloquence and grace. He fully believes the truth of Jesus Christ can endure the toughest critiques and philosophical attacks. Zacharias has authored or edited over 25 books in the fields of theology, apologetics, comparative religion, and philosophy, including Can Man Live without God and Jesus among Other Gods. He is Founder and Chairman of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, a global team of over 250 employees in sixteen countries. He founded RZIM in 1984 with the goal of “Helping Thinkers Believe and Helping Believers Think.” He and his wife, Margie, have been married for 48 years and have three grown children. They reside in Atlanta.
Abdu Murray (JD, University of Michigan) is Senior Vice President of RZIM and a regular speaker at churches, college campuses, and business and government gatherings. He hosts the podcast The Defense Rests. A scholar in residence at the Josh McDowell Institute of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, he is the author of many articles and books, including Grand Central Question: Answering the Critical Concerns of the Major Worldviews and Saving Truth: Finding Meaning and Clarity in a Post-Truth World.
For most of his life, Abdu was a proud Muslim who studied the Qur’an and Islam. After a nine-year investigation into the historical, philosophical, and scientific underpinnings of the major world religions and views, Abdu discovered that the historic Christian faith can answer the questions of the mind and the longings of the heart.
Abdu has spoken to diverse international audiences and has participated in debates and dialogues across the globe. He has appeared as a guest on numerous radio and television programs all over the world. Abdu holds a BA in psychology from the University of Michigan and earned his Juris Doctor from the University of Michigan Law School. As an attorney, Abdu was named several times in Best Lawyers in America and Michigan Super
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