What Jesus Wrote – Robert Boucheron

Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, NY. He has worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, VA. His short stories and essays appear in Bangalore Review, Fiction International, The Fiction Pool, Litro, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Short Fiction.

What Jesus Wrote

A passage in the Gospel of John, Chapter 8: 3-11, is the one place in the Bible that shows Jesus in the act of writing:

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery. . . . Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground . . . “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible)

The passage does not say what Jesus wrote. Some readers suggest that he wrote an accusation against “the scribes and the Pharisees.” Other readers interpret Jesus’s action as doodling, a way to show his disregard for the temple officials, who “kept on questioning him.” Still other readers dismiss the passage, omitted in some ancient manuscripts, as a later interpolation, a didactic story and not a biographical anecdote.

The political and apocalyptic views of Jesus are in dispute, but not his teaching method. His comparisons and sayings, often just a few words long, are memorable. Above all, he uses short stories to make his point, stories drawn from daily life, always with a deeper meaning or what we usually call a moral. Examples of these stories, known far beyond their context, are the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, and the House Built on Sand. The Gospels call the stories parables, from “parabolos,” a Greek translation for the Hebrew word “mashal.” According to scholar Geza Vermes, rabbis writing in Palestine at this time used the mashal in this moralistic way.

The Gospels and Acts of the Apostles quote Jesus in the manner of a newspaper, but there is no way to verify the quotations. Even so, rationalists pick and choose which events and speeches strike them as plausible. The major stumbling block, to use a Christian phrase, is the miracles. Thomas Jefferson cut and pasted a version of the New Testament which he titled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. It excludes all mention of the supernatural—the resurrection is absent—and it includes what Jefferson thought to be authentic words and deeds.

Lacking external checks, scholars weigh internal evidence. They use the method of textual interpretation, also used to analyze Greek, Latin, and other ancient texts. Pioneered in Germany in the nineteenth century, this type of research shows that ancient writers sometimes used earlier texts to compose their own. In the Gospels known as Matthew and Luke, the anonymous writers may have copied a document called “Q” for “Quelle,” the German word for “source.” Scholars assume that the language of Q was Greek, like that of the Gospels. Yet the language of Jesus and his Jewish followers was Aramaic. How did this shift occur?

Bart D. Ehrman summarizes the content of Q in his book The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. In this list, Q includes parables, proverbial sayings or aphorisms, the Lord’s Prayer, the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, and stories about the life of Jesus that look like parables, such as the Temptation in the Wilderness. At times, Ehrman takes care to note that Q is a theory, not a fact, and that there is disagreement about its content. At other times, he and like-minded scholars take Q for granted. Absolute proof in the form of an ancient manuscript is unlikely to turn up.

All scholars agree there is a gap of more than thirty years from the death of Jesus in about 30 A. D. to the writing of the earliest Gospels after 60 A. D. During this period, they assume that the parables, sayings, and other words of Jesus were passed down by word of mouth, in Aramaic. Is there evidence of such oral transmission in first-century Palestine? Was there a Jewish tradition that can be compared to the Greek tradition of epic poetry, or to the early Buddhist tradition?

As quoted, the words of Jesus have a literary quality. Somehow, after two thousand years and being wrenched into English, they sound fresh. They have rhetorical style, a gift for metaphor, the story-telling appeal of the parables, a vision of the “kingdom of God,” and ambiguous yet haunting references to the “son of man.” This literary quality that survives all translation must have come from a single mind. And it must have come through mental work, which is to say a first draft and revision. The Gospels hint at this process in Jesus’s periods of retreat, fasting, and prayer.

To pick a literary example that combines metaphor and a structure of parallel phrases that recall the Hebrew poetry of the Psalms, consider Luke 11:9-10:

So I say to you, Ask and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. (The New Oxford Annotated Bible)

The passage leads to an image of a parent who gives his child food, which in turn leads to this: “How much more will the heavenly father give the holy spirit to those who ask him!” The new image of God the benevolent father is a provocative contrast to the old images of God as an angry king, a destructive force of nature, and a spirit of revenge. This is poetry that stirs people. It explains why those who heard him preach were moved, and why they remembered.

While some see Jesus as a champion of the poor, the parables often take a middle-class point of view. They deal with collecting rent, hiring farm laborers, the financial return on investments, legal definitions, taxes, and inheritance. Jesus was highly educated, a fact that implies enough family wealth to put him through years of school.

The schooling could have been in Jerusalem. His skill in disputation and his acerbic comments on the temple hierarchy of “the scribes and the Pharisees” imply a close acquaintance with them. Alexandria is also possible, with its large Jewish community. The Gospels and Acts do not mention these Jews, who produced a Greek translation of Hebrew scripture called the Septuagint, but a connection to Egypt and the Greek language is intriguing.

Knowing the frailty of oral methods, I would like to suggest that Jesus composed his parables, sermons, sayings, and other texts in writing. Though he may have known Greek, as many Jews then did, he probably wrote in Aramaic. He then delivered these texts aloud, speaking to crowds in the open air, congregations in synagogues, and individuals. The texts passed to the twelve disciples, who must have been literate since Jesus trained them as preachers. He or they or a later disciple compiled a handbook. Today such a handbook would be called a list of talking points or a stump speech. This document was then translated into Greek, and the Greek translation is what scholars call Q.

My suggestion has the defect of adding to the chain of assumptions. If it has merit, those qualified to investigate might ask who translated Q, and when and where. As for why, the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul describe a rift between Jewish and gentile Christians. If the first group spoke Aramaic, while the second spoke Greek, the translation may have been an attempt to bridge the rift. The non-canonical gospels of Thomas, Marcion, and others show that a wide range of manuscripts existed. Some of these must be lost. What do we know of manuscripts in Aramaic in the first century? Finally, does the Greek of the passages thought to be from Q betray an Aramaic origin?

Many assume that Jesus’s ministry lasted three years, from the age of thirty to his death. Three years is a short time for a rural preacher to develop a repertoire and build a reputation. Where was he and what did he do in his twenties? In the Gospel of John, Chapter 1, he meets John the Baptist in the River Jordan, where the Baptist calls him “the lamb of God” and says, “This is he of whom I said ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me . . .’” This is often read as a supernatural recognition, but it could mean that Jesus was already well known. Given the vague timeline in the Gospels and their narrative compression, it seems likely that he was active longer, perhaps for ten years. During that time, he travelled, preached and wrote.

If faith is free of dogma, the historical view does not contradict it. And while a skeptic denies miracles, a close reader accepts them as a literary expression of faith. Is a middle ground possible? Though his life is obscure, his teaching is preserved. What Jesus wrote may be hidden in plain sight.


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