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Jesus the Poet: What did he Really Say?

Posted on: January 25, 2014


(c) David Galston, 2014

When it comes to the problem of the historical Jesus, there is no satisfactory place to start. To talk about the historical Jesus is to talk about a person named Jesus who lived and died in first century Roman Palestine. We can only get to this person by breaking through the Christian confessions, beliefs, and dogmas that hide him from view. Think of these later beliefs and dogmas as a curtain that we must part and walk through. We can call the curtain the gospel of the Christian church; what we want to do is part this curtain to hear what Jesus really said.

The descriptions in the Gospel of Mark about Jesus going from town to town in Galilee, about the whole region rushing out to see him, and about how “all who touch his clothing were healed” are the imaginary comments of the later Christian church about its hero Jesus Christ. Such comments do not relate to the real life of the historical Jesus, who was not distinctive from other healers (like Asclepius) and who was relatively unknown in the ancient Roman context. For example, no contemporary report about Jesus has ever been found in ancient Roman or Jewish records.

When the ancient Christian church talked about what Jesus did, the narratives are from a later time. They are composed with the idea that Jesus is a hero and that the activities of his life reflected a utopian moment when God’s spirit touched the earth. We can read these descriptions as the early church’s way of thinking about Jesus and God and the birth of Christianity. The descriptions are not historical portrayals of the real life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Since all the storytelling about the life of Jesus comes from after his death and since all are written to portray Jesus in heroic form, scholars generally conclude that the historical Jesus cannot be known through the reported deeds found in the Christian gospels. There might be some things that are true about the real Jesus, such as he really was a Galilean Jew, but these minor pieces of information do not relay any details about his life and times. In place of trying to discover a reliable biography of Jesus, scholars focus on what Jesus really said. With this question there can be some success.

When it comes to the sayings of Jesus, there are three broad categories that they fall into: 1) poetic sayings, 2) eschatological sayings, and 3) speeches. We can dismiss the third category very quickly. Speeches are long discourses to the disciples obviously composed by the gospel writer. The Gospel of John is the best example. Here Jesus has long, private sermons directed to the disciples. They are clearly the work of the Gospel writer and represent the theology of the community of John, which can be dated to the 2nd century. Such long, complex, discourses are not sayings that would survive generations of oral transmission.

This leaves us with two other categories of sayings: the poetic sayings and the eschatological sayings. Poetic sayings are things like parables and aphorisms. A quick example of a poetic saying would be “Heaven’s imperial rule is like a woman who concealed leaven in fifty pounds of flour until it was all leaven” (Matt. 13:33). This saying found in Matthew is paralleled in the Gospel of Luke and in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. It is a poetic saying for two reasons. First, it is a story or parable used to relay an image of another reality (or dimension of reality). It is obviously a story that is not really about a woman, flour, and leaven. Secondly, it is poet because its meaning must be discussed and debated. In other words, it is a short, open ended story that holds some shock value. It is meant to be repeated and discussed.

There are many short stories and short statements like this in the Jesus material: the prodigal son, mustard seed, and the good Samaritan are, for example, all short stories that are not really about children, seeds, and Samaritans. Each story is like a poem in the sense that each is open to discussion and debate concerning its meaning. It is the same for short statements like, “it is not what goes into a person but what comes out that defiles” (Mark 7:15). This saying is somewhat humorous because it plays with images of “in” and “out” and our body, and this causes us to chuckle as well as debate of its meaning.

Eschatological sayings are those pronouncements that warn the audience of the end of time and future cataclysmic events. The word eschaton means “last,” so such sayings are about the last things of history. Many of the sayings and stories attributed to Jesus are warning or eschatological sayings. Some of these allude to the death of Jesus, such as the wicked tenants at Matthew 21:33. Several others refer to natural signs, like an earthquake, as metaphors for the impending cataclysm. Still others use the apocalyptic or endtime material taken from the book of Daniel to imagine Jesus as the “Son of Man.” Finally, some sayings are damnation statements against others. These sayings are more difficult to attribute to Jesus because they assume that there is a mission going on about Jesus and that Jesus believed he was the Messiah who either 1) announced the end of time, or 2) was saying he would inaugurate the end of time. This means that the message of Jesus was mainly about himself and what he was doing or going to do.

In Mark 13 several examples are available. The fig tree whose buds are a sign of summer is used to express how when certain events take place, then we will know that the “Son of Man” is near (verse 29). The temple and its destruction is another sign of the end of time (verse 2). Sometimes a parable is used to transmit eschatological beliefs, such as the parable of the ten maidens in Matthew (25:1-12). In this story five foolish maidens did not bring extra oil for their lamps. They have to leave to buy more, but when they return they find that the master of the house had already arrived and they are shut out. This story is a clear warning to keep alert and ready for, presumably, the return of Jesus could happen at any time. There are also warnings to and damnations of towns (such as Capernaum) who have not accepted the message. Such damnation assumes there is already a Jesus movement with missionaries in existence.

The rule when determining an authentic saying of Jesus is that only those saying not Christianized and most characteristic of oral tradition can go back to Jesus. Eschatological sayings are ruled out by most scholars because they are Christianized and do not reflect the marks of oral performance. The poetic sayings, however, are provocative, witty, short, and open ended. They are not Christianized and do reflect oral performance. This is why parables and aphorisms, the poetic sayings, are likely as close to the historical Jesus as we can get.

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