An aphorism for our purposes is a short saying. Scholars think
that the gospel materials survived in first in oral form, and then in
proto-gospels between the time of Jesus and the writing of the gospels
proper some 40-50 years later.
technical term in Greek for an aphorism was chreia - a "saying or act that is
well-aimed or apt, expressed concisely, attributed to a person, and
regarded as useful for living" . The chreiai
(plural) were a tool within the broader discipline of rhetoric, which dealt
with the skill of speaking or writing persuasively. Rhetoric remained part
of the properly educated person's armoury until quite recent times.
The Progymnasmata was a collection of textbooks on rhetoric assembled
over the first to fifth centuries ad.
The rules and guidelines in it have recently been
used to help analyse the aphorisms of the Bible and especially those
attributed to Jesus in the Gospels.
An interesting example of a chreia is the aphorism in Mark 10.13-16, Matthew 19.13-15 and Luke 18.15-17.
These passages can be examined to work out the "bare bones" historical
content - that part which represents with high probability what Jesus
really said. The bare bones historical version of these passages is roughly:
Let children come to me - don't prevent them. For God's empire
consists of people like this .
An interesting feature is that Matthew's version of the aphorism is
more refined and shorter than the version in Mark. This is strange. One would
expect him to have elaborated rather than refined the saying, as he does with other sayings
originating from Mark's Gospel.
Matthew and Luke took much of their material from Mark, which was written earlier.
They also both used material from a probable source
usually called "Q" (German for source). But it's worth noting
that Luke's and Matthew's versions of this saying are more like each
other than they are like Mark.
The question is,
then, did they take this saying from Mark or from "Q"? In this case it's
more likely that the saying in
Matthew and Luke is derived from "Q" because of the close
likeness between the two versions, and because both differ from the Markan
We can deduce, therefore,
that two versions of the saying (Mark's version and the Luke/Matthew/Q
version) have come from two independent sources. Mark's saying came
from a very early oral or written source and Matthew's and Luke's from Q
(which could be later than Mark). When
a saying comes from more than one source the historical probability rises
This is a simple example of the kind of detailed analysis of the Gospel
texts which has preoccupied Bible commentators for centuries.
The Gospel aphorisms were initially probably preserved by word of mouth.
Short sayings are easily recalled. Only later were they written down. We must expect,
therefore, that however well they are preserved, we will never know the
exact words which Jesus spoke. Some think that what we have isn't of much use
because meanings can so easily be distorted in the process of passing
from person to person.
On the other hand, a very broad consensus has emerged over the years
that the Jewish culture of Jesus' times could preserve the spoken word
much more accurately than we do today, especially in the aphoristic form. This is because most people were
illiterate. Books were extremely rare.
People were trained to
remember important writing and speeches. Young males at school learned to
recite parts of the Hebrew scriptures by heart. The teacher would read a phrase
from a scroll and his students would recite in response. We can be almost certain that
Jesus went through the same process as a young boy. He would have known
how effective the aphorism can be as a means of communication.
The Jews were renowned because they placed such great emphasis upon the
Law (the Torah), which they preserved in writing on scrolls. These scrolls seem to
have been an essential part of Jewish worship in synagogues. We can be
almost certain from the New Testament that Jesus and his followers
worshipped regularly in synagogues. The Torah would have been read
out during services. Great care was taken - and still is today - to ensure
that copies of the Torah were absolutely accurate.
Many scholars think that not only were Jesus' words well-preserved in
oral form, but that they were also quite soon written down (perhaps on
scrolls). If so, Jewish norms about transmission of sacred knowledge would
have helped considerably to enhance the accuracy of the transmission.
Exactly how well what Jesus said has been preserved by the gospel
writers remains, in my opinion, a judgement-call no matter how
optimistically we think about the transmission process.
Aphorisms can be difficult to interpret. Because their earliest form was
probably verbal, their context has frequently been lost. Meaning often
becomes uncertain or opaque when context is stripped away. Context is critical. For example, at a distance the sight of a man hitting woman
may quickly resolve from one meaning to another when at closer range the
swarm of bees attacking her becomes visible.
So when we
don't know who Jesus was speaking to, anything about the situation, or his
purpose in speaking, it becomes difficult to be sure exactly what he
We do know that each Gospel author had his own scheme or layout of the
life of Jesus. Each put events and sayings in a particular order so as to
get across what Jesus meant to him. In other words, the context
of the aphorisms in their texts is almost always
artificial. We know
also that the authors modified the sayings themselves for similar reasons.
The departure from "fact" in John's Gospel is even greater
than the other three.
Its long monologues are without doubt the author's invention. They were
intended to be written sermons or theological discourses rather than
history. John's primary
concern was not with history but with the meaning of the life of Jesus.
To take one specific example of difficult interpretation. Did "light" in the
Gospels refer to new
or to God's salvation, or neither? Does it reflect the older Hebrew meaning
of light as a symbol of divine presence? What are we to make of the
elaborate theology John's Gospel puts across using the "light"
metaphor? We can't be sure.
The lamp is an example of the aphoristic metaphor. It appears in the
Gospels of Mark,
Luke, Matthew and Thomas. The contexts in which it is used differ.
John (5.35) seems to have reworked the metaphor completely. A
good example of how an aphorism can be expanded and reworked occurs in
Luke 11.33-36. Because
it occurs in all the Synoptic Gospels, only verse 33 is certainly what Jesus really said
. The part common to Luke and Matthew
(about the eye being the lamp of the body) is less certain historically.
The way in which the "light of the world" (chreia) has
been reworked, indicates that the Gospel authors were familiar with
the contemporary art of rhetoric. We know, for example, from the works of
Plutarch (46-120, a Greek biographer and essayist) and others that chreieai
were often expanded by authors for their own purposes. That the Gospel
authors did the same was far from unusual.
When we put
all the "light" aphorisms in the Gospels together and relate them to the
Old Testament they begin to make more sense. What is also clear is that the "light of the
world" metaphor gained a strong early a hold in the Christian mind.
Exactly what the "sense" should be is, however, a matter for ongoing
debate. In my experience there are nearly as many interpretations
as there are interpreters. One should be alert not to slide past words like
"suggests" or "appears to" and "one wonders
if" when scholars use them to qualify historical probabilities. They
often make statements which appear more
certain than they really are.
I think that we can today use the image of "light" in whatever way makes good
sense to us in the 21st century. But it may be helpful to realise that people in Jesus'
time didn't have street lights or electricity. Darkness could often equate to danger.
Travel of any sort by night, except in moonlight, would have been
difficult and risky. A woman's duty was to wake regularly at night to make
sure that the lamp (usually a simple oil lamp) was still alight.
one supposes that "light" refers to intellectual or
"spiritual" enlightenment, it may be useful to realise that
religious thought control could be tight in Jesus' day. This was even more
so because religious and civic or state affairs were not separate as
they are today in most countries. So sin against God was to sin against
the entire society and its leaders and vice versa. There were no "freedom of information"
laws nor were there any news media. The sort of radical enlightenment
which Jesus represents was risky.
So the "light" metaphor may nowadays not
be quite as useful to inhabitants of modern cities as it was to rural
people of old. If one can have light at the flick of a switch, the metaphor
doesn't have quite the same impact as when light is feeble, costly, easily
extinguished and darkness is at best inconvenient and at worst dangerous.
three Synoptic Gospels contain more about what Jesus said than about what he
did. Many of his sayings are in the form of longer or shorter aphorisms.
It seems that then, as now, they were a valuable and valued source of
knowledge about Jesus. But one should understand that they are not
word-for-word his reported speech.
The nature of aphorisms is that they are easily remembered and therefore more likely to be
accurately passed down than perhaps any other form of communication.
Despite this, one does need to understand the various qualifications which
attach to them.
It's foolish, in my view, to use gospel aphorisms
as if they are a verbatim record. They are unlikely ever to have survived
time and transmission errors word-for-word as they were uttered. There is
no guarantee that aphorisms which did come from Jesus have not been mixed
in with aphorisms from elsewhere. The watchword is vigilance.
 The Chreia in Ancient Rhetoric, R F Hock & E
in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels,
 See A Historical Jesus