Historical Jesus scholars are quite capable of discerning when a saying of Jesus has been made up by a Gospel author for narrative effect. But when they explain why other sayings are not likewise fabricated, but are traceable to a real Jesus, I think they are jumping the rails of straight consistent logic.
If a saying is integral to the flow and liveliness of the story, such as “Who touched me?”, “Hold out your hand”, “Pick up your mat and go home”, “Get up”, then it can safely be judged as “suitable only for the occasion . . . not particularly memorable . . . not aphorisms or parables, and would not have circulated independently during the oral period.” (p. 62 of The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus)
But isn’t there something inconsistent or arbitrary about this explanation?
Sure, I can fully accept that a narrator will manufacture words to be put into any character’s mouth for the effect of adding a touch of life to the story.
But when the scholar declares a more formal saying, such as a parable or aphorism, is different, and by its nature is potentially traceable to the historical Jesus, are we not being a tad arbitrary?
The Gospel author is, after all, not simply narrating a series of little anecdotes with their “Get ups” and “Go forths” and “Feed them” touches. He is also telling the story of a divine man who came to bring a message and introduce a new kingdom. So are not the parables and aphorisms equally there in the story for the purpose of making the story work? Aren’t they even moreso designed to bring the speaking character into the consciousness of the readers?
Of course parables and aphorisms are, by simple definition, capable of being lifted out of the story and finding independent applications. That simple fact of their definition does not mean that they are any more likely to have originated from somewhere or someone long before the author penned them.
On what basis is it suggested that “Blessed are the meek” is any less likely to have been creatively put into the mouth of Jesus by the author than “Get up and go home”? Is it only because “Blessed are the meek” is, by simple definition as an aphorism, the sort of thing it is easy to imagine a real Jesus would have said and that people would have passed on in “oral tradition”?
On what basis is it any less likely that aphorisms or parables or special teachings we find in the mouth of Jesus in the Gospels are the creative work of the Gospel author himself?
If we see a similar saying used in other texts, does that make it logically any more or less likely that the saying really came from a historical Jesus? Authors, like musicians, do copy and adapt from their fellows and other literary works.
More to the point, it is worth noting that there are precious few if any sayings clearly attributable to Jesus in any of the NT epistles. Might not this be considered as evidence of a need to create some sayings by the time evangelists decided to write the Gospels?
In other words, is not the whole notion that any Gospel saying might be attributable to “oral tradition” going back to Jesus himself based entirely on the unsupported assumption that there was an “oral tradition” back to the historical Jesus? It is all assumption. There is no contemporary supporting evidence to indicate otherwise.
And attempting to argue that one aphorism is more likely “historical” than another because of its “dissimilarity” to other sayings, or its coherence within the plot of the narrative (usually referred to as the “historical situation”), or its presumed embarrassment for readers and authors who had different perspectives, hardly gets us any closer to a saying’s “authenticity”.
But if its Aramaic form is used?
If a saying is “recorded” in its Aramaic form then all we have is evidence that a competent author knows how to use an unusual expression to enhance its literary effect. This was a device known to Aristotle, and Aristotle was a mentor of many a Greek writer:
A diction that is made up of strange (or rare) terms is a jargon. A certain infusion, therefore, of these elements is necessary to style; for the strange (or rare) word, the metaphorical, the ornamental, and the other kinds above mentioned, will raise it above the commonplace and mean . . . (Poetics, XXII)
We have thousands of words attributed to Socrates, but I think few scholars believe any of them in Plato or Xenophon are “authentic”.
We have many words attributed to Julius Caesar (one of his most memorable lines was the topic of my previous post) but again I suspect that few scholars would be prepared to bet their houses that any of them are historically reliable data.
Even if we had as much evidence to suggest Jesus was as real as “any other person in history”, we will still have to grapple with the nature of the Gospels as literature before presuming they can be mined for historical nuggets.
I hope in some future posts to explore this with specific references to particular “sayings of Jesus”.
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