The Jesus Voice Print
For more than two centuries, gospel specialists have been practicing an established procedure for sorting out what Jesus said from what the gospel authors have added in their interpretive overlays. While this work is therefore not new, we are nevertheless indebted to Robert Funk, whose chapter “The Search for the Rhetorical Jesus” in his book Honest to Jesus (1996) is a landmark in the collective effort to separate what Jesus said from what others put on his lips. Funk describes this long-established procedure in this way:
We can observe tendencies of the unfolding tradition as it passed from oral speaker to oral speaker and from written source to written source. Those tendencies reveal the directions in which the tradition was developing. Moreover, developmental trends can also be traced in reverse, in the direction of the original, underlying form and content. Isolating those tendencies and trends enables scholars to create a profile of typical Christian ways of reporting and interpreting the words of Jesus.
This boiling-down to the underlying form and content of the teachings makes it possible to identify the traits—speech forms, themes, topics, and rhetorical strategies—of the language of Jesus. As Funk notes, taken together, these traits “provide a kind of voice print.”
The parable—typically a brief, narrative, fictional illustration—is one of the most common speech forms in the teachings of Jesus. His mini-dramas usually contain a setting, with action and repetitive exposition, and an ending with an unexpected twist—usually as the consequence of a questionable decision or behavior. In his parables, Jesus employs word pictures of mundane everyday images, such as people, food and utensils, in agrarian peasant settings. Yet these pictures are arranged in unusual configurations, and his characters most often do not behave in expected ways.
In these picture stories, exaggeration of stereotypes, detypification of stereotypes and role reversal are trademark devices of Jesus. Thinking in pictures, as J. Varendonck and Sigmund Freud after him came to realize, takes place mainly in the unconscious, while the relationships between these images must be worked out in thought.
That discourse was almost always about God’s kingdom and about people who succeed or fail to find it. Jesus uses the stories of their successes and failures to tell us more about the way the journey should be undertaken. The people and the objects in these stories are invariably metaphorical, and each story contains literal and nonliteral layers. The literal layer provides only a minimal amount of information, and the actions of the characters are most often unusual to the extent that they are comical, paradoxical or both—they make little common sense. As Funk incisively puts it, “The literal functions effectively as a vehicle for the nonliteral because internal tensions within the literal make it impossible to take the literal merely literally.”
The aphorism is another favorite speech form of Jesus, and in them he employs a wide array of telltale rhetorical strategies. Often they are in the form of antithetical couplets—two verses with opposite poles. Take, for example, the couplet 63 Saving One’s Life: “Whoever tries to hang on to life will forfeit it, but whoever forfeits life will preserve it” (Luke 17:33). Like his parables, the aphorisms of Jesus employ paradox and metaphors and the meaning is not made explicit. On occasion, his metaphors can have two meanings. For example, there is the “house” of the ego or the “house” of the spirit. Similarly, there is the left “hand” of the ego and the right “hand” of the spirit. Most often, however, the intended meanings of the metaphors of Jesus are stable. Sometimes the structure of his aphorisms is triadic—three verses and/or three parts to a verse. Some of them employ synonymous parallelism, with each verse repeating the sense of the previous verse but using different words. The aphorisms of Jesus are often humorous, but the humor is infused with insight in the form of troubling knowledge—for example, the big board that is stuck in your eye.
Jesus’ speech forms and rhetorical strategies form a voice print that is unmistakably unique.
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