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The Historical Jesus
Aphorisms


A
n 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.

The 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" [1]. 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These passages can be examined to work out the "bare bones" historical content - that part which represents with high probability what Jesus really said.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 [2].

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 version.

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 considerably.

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 meant. 

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 understanding 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. 

If 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.

The 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.
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[1] The Chreia in Ancient Rhetoric, R F Hock & E N O'Neil 
      in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, IVP, 1992
[2] See A Historical Jesus

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