Listen to today’s scholars — Jesus didn’t preach, or even “teach,” he radically facilitated learning

Jesus the Great Teacher—was it what he said? The way he said it? Was it what he didn’t say? . . . Yes!

Sunday, September 23, 2007. Bob Cramer reflects on Jesus’ nearly-exclusive use
of parable and aphorism, each without explanation—leaving that up to hearers then and now.

Gospel lectionary companion, Luke 16:13: “No servant can be a slave to two masters. No doubt that slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and disdain the other. You can’t be enslaved to both God and a bank account.”

These words, which Jesus may well have spoken, are found right after Luke has explained a parable that Jesus himself probably never intended to explain. Luke is the explainer, in fact.

In Luke 16, Jesus speaks of a scheming manager, about to be fired by his rich employer for failing to collect accounts receivable. The manager makes deals with the deadbeats, letting them off the hook if they pay part of their debt; then those debtors will be in debt to the guy who’s losing his job. He need not be destitute. (As to Jesus’ intended meaning, who knows?)

Modern Jesus scholars increasingly agree that it was typical of Jesus to tell stories that purposely ended without Jesus’ own explanation. Parables of Jesus initiated learning by forcing thought. Hearers could respond in a number of ways, each differing in understanding and response – as Prof. Marvin Cain (Jesus the Man) explains this kind of teaching and learning, with regard to both parable and aphorism:

“‘So the last will be first, and the first will be last’ (Matt. 20:16; and ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God’ (Mark 10:25).

“These short sayings are not facts to be set forth to be learned by rote.
Instead, they are invitation to think, to ponder about what is involved. . . .
[Jesus’ aphorisms] are unforgettable images that present the hearers
with an invitation to view life from a perspective other than the worldly.

Putting all this together, we come to see Jesus not as an inspiring teller of uplifting stories,
but as a teacher whose abrasive images and appeal to common experience
set him apart from other teachers of the ancient world. . . .

“John Dominic Crossan, probably the foremost Jesus historian today, tells this story.
Three people once heard Jesus speak. One went away saying, ‘I don’t get it. I’m out of here.’ A second said, ‘I got his message and he is threatening my way of life. He must be destroyed!’ The third person, having heard the very same words as the other two,
declared, ‘This man speaks the word of God. I will follow him.’

“I suspect,” Prof. Cain continues, “this was typical of the reactions to Jesus’ parables and aphorisms. Some liked what Jesus said and followed him, some became angry even to the point of wanting him done away with, and some, perhaps most, simply ignored him.”

Once a modern reader becomes willing to see Jesus the teacher as Cain and Crossan (and hundreds of other scholars) do, reading the Bible becomes really fascinating. It is easy, with the use of critical-study materials such as The Five Gospels and The Complete Gospels, to see how even the first Christian evangelists responded in different ways to Jesus’ provocations.

Biblical scholars like to trace Jesus’ reported sayings back in time as far as they possibly can. They find early Christians constructing stories to explain stories, as it were. Evangelists each had a literary agenda aimed at making clear the meaning of Jesus’ ministry. It was common, and expected, to attribute one’s best thinking to a respected source, especially if one’s agenda was to win one’s hearers to allegiance.

And an evangelist’s agenda determined what ideas, arising from a growing wealth of community memory, to choose for the text, and explaining them. This may be hard for people now to accept, since so many believe scripture to bear the imprint of a perfect God – but it is how modern scholars, and non-literalist believers, view the texts.

Mark, writing just after the destruction of Jerusalem’s second temple in 70 CE, doesn’t report the Two Masters aphorism. Matthew, writing about 85 CE but reflecting a very early compilation of Jesus’ sayings which we call “Q,” simply says, “No servant can be a slave to two masters. No doubt that slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and disdain the other. You can’t be enslaved to both God and a bank account!”

It so happens that Luke, writing a few years after Matthew, uses the exact same words we just read – but sets them in an imagined context found in no other gospel.

Maybe only a scholar would be interested in this? No, not in my case, at least. I’m not a scholar. I teach sometimes. And when I teach, I share what I have learned, and that is – that Jesus’ way of gaining attention and then letting the learner learn is a superb way of teaching.

There is another piece of evidence about how Jesus actually taught.

It comes from The Gospel of Thomas, a list of unadorned sayings of Jesus, many of which are in the standard gospels, often in somewhat different form – and some of which are to be found nowhere else.

The important thing about Thomas is that, like the “Q” collection, there are no explanations. Both were written about 50 CE. One would think that if it was Jesus’ sermons and other logical discourses that were most important (if in fact he ever spoke that way), that is what the earliest sources would have preserved. But no; in Q and Thomas it’s only pithy sayings.

I’ve quoted Q. Now here’s Thomas, in chapter 47: “Jesus said, ‘A person cannot mount two horses or bend two bows. And a slave cannot serve two masters, otherwise that slave will honor the one and offend the other’.” The Jesus Seminar, by the way, evaluating the chances that Jesus said this, noted that the horses and bows images are very common in literature of the time, but the two masters image is unique. The point in any case is that there is no record in the earliest reports of things Jesus said to indicate any interest on his part in explanations.

Does that have anything useful to say to Christians wanting to help promote the Reign of God? I think so – less cognitive transfer; more Spirited, prophetic goads to deep thought.