Richard Horsley has produced a couple of books I have found far more enlightening than his earlier work on bandits and prophets in first-century Judea. One of these is Scribes, Visionaries and the Politics of Second Temple Judea from 2007; the other, The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel, 2012. One of several points that has hit me already from these two works is a deeper appreciation of the literary way the Gospels convey the sayings of Jesus.
Take the Sermon on the Mount. I think we all know that Jesus could not really have stood up and pronounced a long list of aphorisms the way Matthew depicts. So we hear the more learned ones explaining to us that Matthew was recording a summary of the sorts of things Jesus often said.
But stop and think for a minute. Aren’t the evangelists (authors of the gospels) supposed to be writing something akin to a history or biography? And weren’t ancient historians known for the way they would construct speeches they believed were “true to life” or “appropriate” or “realistic” in the mouth of certain historical characters? But that’s not what we read in the gospels when it comes to the speeches of Jesus. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain are anything but reconstructed “speeches”.
Rather, they read like a chapter or so from the Book of Proverbs. Not like speeches. Jesus is not “preaching” about forgiveness and an appropriate speech is not constructed for any such message. Jesus simply delivers a proverb or saying or edict, brief enough to be remembered and recorded in a list of one-liners. It’s not unlike the way he is portrayed as speaking in the Gospel of Thomas when he drops line after line of mystery saying.
The evangelists — at least the Synoptic ones (Matthew, Mark and Luke) — are not even trying to reconstruct speeches of Jesus.
They are writing a set of one-liner sayings.
Okay, but what is the problem with this? Horsley puts his finger on it exactly: