Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
The Beatitudes and Other Sayings

When it comes to "what Jesus really said", unraveling the text of the Gospels into "bare bones" history isn't easy. Most of the time it's not possible to know Jesus' exact words. Historical investigation is at one level a matter of estimating probabilities and that's what comes into play here.

Matthew in Chapter 5 begins one of several sections in his Gospel which purport to relay to his readers "what Jesus really said". All reputable scholars - that is, apart from the few who say that the Bible is inerrant (in which case the New Testament's record is precisely "what Jesus really said") - now agree that Matthew did not and could not write history as we know it today.

According to J C Fenton, the first section of Matthew's Gospel (chapters 5-7) deals with what Matthew thought is the way of life which should be followed by those who want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven ("God's Imperial Territory" or "God's Empire"). The scheme adopted by the author of Luke's Gospel differs. Chapter 4.14-9.50 tells of Jesus' work in Galilee. G B Caird thinks that Luke divided this into sections: [1] How popular Jesus was; [2] How Jesus got into conflict with some religious authorities; [3] The new Israel; [4] Love in action; [5] Wandering; [6] The disciples.

Caird's scheme may not reflect exactly the intention of Luke's author. But he's correct, as most commentators agree, in concluding that the gospel authors arranged their material into theological schemes according to their interpretation of Jesus. 

Because of the way the gospel authors thought about authority and truth, they felt free to use what we would call "unhistorical material".

This included material from the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). It also included teachings of the early Jewish community who in the Acts of the Apostles are called followers of "The Way" - which most scholars call the early Church. The authors included this material because they were convinced it had been validated from the Hebrew Bible. He and his fellows thought, for example, that if a prophet or great figure in the Old Testament predicted something it could come true in later times.

So it's not correct, I think, to condemn the gospel authors for "falsifying" the historical evidence. They didn't think as we do about history and can't be blamed for that. Nevertheless, if we're trying to think historically we are required to do everything possible, in a hard-headed way, to sort out "what Jesus really said" in historical terms, from "what Jesus said" according to the first-century Gospel authors.

It seems to me that the most solid saying we have in Matthew and Luke's Gospels is "Love your enemies". Typically of high-probability sayings by Jesus, this one is a paradox. For if one loves an enemy in this way, he or she ceases to be an enemy in the usual sense of the word.

Jews thought that loving behaviour was generally necessary only towards other Jews and therefore that non-Jews could be subjects of revenge. In addition, ancient cultures seldom if ever promoted anything except negative responses to enemies. All this makes it highly possible that a saying such as this could very easily have been excised from the tradition during the course of its transmission to the Gospel authors because it is so contrary to current norms. That it has survived despite going against what most people thought is excellent evidence of its authenticity (a point made by J P Meier in A Marginal Jew).

On the other hand, some sayings, like "You are the light of the world" (Matthew 5.14), are unlikely to be "what Jesus really said". And yet the second half of the same verse can be regarded as quite possibly a genuine saying. Why one and not the other? Because a judgement call has to be made in this as in every consideration of historical probability. 

There is good evidence that the phrase "light of the world" was widely known in other contexts in Jesus' times and was taken up as a metaphor by the early Christian community. In John's Gospel, for example, the author writes for Jesus, "I am the light of the world" (8.12). So Jesus may have used the phrase - but the early Church definitely did. Therefore I have come down on the side of removing this phrase on the grounds that Matthew is likely to have inserted it to make a theological point.

The "city on a hill" aphorism (Matthew 5.14), on the other hand, has few parallels in ancient literature that I know of. It's just the kind of open-ended thing one would expect Jesus to have said. So although I think it's likely he said this or something close to it, I don't know for sure what he meant by it (although I might take a guess).

One of the indications we can use to query the authenticity of a saying is to ask, "Is this the kind of addition which might have been made in order to explain or refer to a religious virtue?" If it might have been so used then the probability of its authenticity is reduced when trying to arrive at "bare bones" history.

So, for example, I prefer to translate the Greek of the first so-called Beatitude in Matthew's Gospel as "Good for the poor" and take out "in spirit". We know that the first followers of The Way came from the very poor. Later, when wealthier people came along, it makes sense to suppose that a reference to "in spirit" could have been used to soften a difficult original version. In addition, Luke's version, does away with this "spiritual" reference, as does the version in the Gospel of Thomas (Thomas 54). The simple version is more likely to reflect the earlier tradition.

So also with the "hunger" Beatitude. Sayings which refer to real hunger and poverty are easily "spiritualised" by religious people. In this we have to remember that adding things to texts wasn't thought of as wrong, provided there was good authority from someone or some written source for the addition. Finally, we know from the Old testament and other sources that the Jews thought that riches, not poverty, were a sign of God's favour. The unvarnished version is just the sort of thing Jesus seems to have been saying when he set about turning upside-down some conventional social values of his time.

The other beatitudes are taken out of Matthew and Luke because they differ in kind from the those which have been retained. To commend the poor, the hungry and the grief-stricken is in a different category from commending the spiritual virtues of meekness, mercy, love of peace and spiritual innocence. Jesus may have said these things - but it seems more likely that they are editorial insertions by the Gospel authors.

If one compares the Lukan Beatitudes with Matthew's version, the editing of each author becomes plain. But it's also clear that each author retains similar words and phrases. It's not as though the changes are so radical as to entirely obscure the original material. Whatever some scholars may claim, we don't know for sure if the differences are the work of each Gospel author, or if they reflect different oral traditions.

For example: Luke 6.30 reads, "Give to everyone who asks you for a favour," while Matthew 5.42 reads, "Give to one who asks a favour from you." The Lukan version is somewhat stronger and may therefore be more accurate. But it's also possible that he used one verbal source and Matthew another. Most people think that they used the same version (the so-called Q-source) and then made their individual changes. Some (I think rightly) suppose that Luke's version is the more primitive.

The likelihood of these sayings being close to the words of Jesus as remembered by the early Jesus communities is increased by the fact that a version is also contained in the Gospel of Thomas. Some think that parts of this Gospel are among the earliest verbal records we have.

To sum up:

  • The Beatitudes appear only in Matthew, Luke and Thomas.

  • Each Gospel author has "massaged" the original oral material according to his understanding of Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas shows fewer signs of editorial intervention, but more signs of distortion in the process of verbal transmission.

  • In opting for those sayings which are "bare bones history" and which reflect "what Jesus really said", it's best to take out sayings which show signs of having been softened by being "spiritualised". Though one should always be on the lookout for residual meaning.

  • When there are clear indications of material which reflects the agenda of early Christian communities, we should be wary of assuming that the material reflects accurately the original words of Jesus.

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