Friday, November 28, 2014

The Wisdom of Jesus. Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church

My new book (The Wisdom of Jesus) has just been published by Wipf and Stock in their selective imprint Cascade Books.  Basically my study of Jesus addresses two questions: (1) how would the image of Jesus appear if it were based only on the limited number of sayings that scholars generally agreed originated with Jesus?  And (2) how would the wisdom of Jesus reflected in those few sayings compare to the wisdom of the sages (a sage: someone distinguished for their wisdom) of ancient Israel and the apostles of the early Christian church?
            To answer such questions historians face serious difficulties.  Everything we know about Jesus comes from what later writers thought about him; none of the statements they attributed to him come directly from him.  Everything in the early Christian gospels is either derived from historical memory, or is borrowed, or invented.  In short, everything about Jesus in the gospels is at best hearsay.  Even those very few sayings receiving near-universal agreement from historians as sayings of Jesus can only be affirmed as historically probable rather than historically certain.  In describing the sayings and doings of Jesus the later gospels, written a generation or more after the time of Jesus, are seriously flawed as history, meaning that the evangelists are not reporting the traditions about Jesus in an unbiased way.
            The aim of the book is to allow Jesus to speak directly to modern readers in his own voice, as nearly as possible in his own words, without the theological explanations of the gospel writers, or the interpretations of modern scholars and theologians.  The resulting image of Jesus that emerges from the study of his sayings is a complex picture of a first-century lower-class man who was not religious in a traditional sense.  For example, Jesus says very little about God.  His discourse was the language of the secular world and addressed issues of common life in an oblique way.  That is to say, his actual words deal more with lower class village life, and offer sweeping unrealistic challenges to the complexities of daily living.  He did not leave behind a code of conduct to be followed, and also simply omitted any practical guidance as to how his challenging ideas should be incorporated into daily life.  For example, one of the probable statements of Jesus is this rather contradictory directive: Be sly like snakes and simple like pigeons (Matthew 10:16).  The statement prompts the question: how is it possible to be both at once?  And on another occasion he said: when someone snatches your outer garment, don't prevent them from taking your undergarment as well (Luke 6:29b)—obeying this instruction in a literal fashion would leave one virtually nude—not very practical advice for living in a dangerous world.
            The sages of ancient Israel, on the other hand, offer a range of advice about how to get along in the world.  Some texts offer religious instruction, which is identified as divine wisdom, and devalue human insight and experience.  Job's book is a courageous human challenge to the supposedly perfect divine wisdom, while Ecclesiastes finds both divine wisdom, and human insight and experience bankrupt as resources for getting on in the world.  The apostles of the church locate wisdom in the world as a divine initiative and disparage human wisdom.    The ideas of Jesus, however, conflict with the religious and secular wisdom of his day—even putting him at odds with human self-interest.
            The chapter titles are:
            The Problem of the Historical Study of Jesus
            Jesus and the Language of the Gospel
            Early Christian Wisdom
            Surveying the Sages of Ancient Israel
            The Sayings of Jesus: A Preface
            Vestiges of a Discourse
            Parables: Fictional Narratives about the Ordinary
            A Case Study of a Parable: The Fired Manager
            Jesus between the Wisdom Canons of Israel and the Church
The Epilogue is entitled: Pondering the Unreliability of the Gospels
The publisher's website describing the book is:

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


  1. Just ordered the book, Charlie. Sounds excellent!

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa

  2. Thanks Gene. My hope for the book is that it will answer a few questions, provoke a little thought, and raise questions that extend beyond our study of the ancient past into the religious questions of our own day.

  3. Charlie, your Jesus book just arrived today, so that's a 10 day turn around using standard postal system services. Not too bad. Will try to read it this week and be prepared for further discussion. Where's everyone else???

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

  4. Good Morning Gene,
    As you read through the book if you have comments or questions, be sure to post them.

  5. Charlie, three observations so far: (1) I found your explanation of the "sign" material (i.e., 'no sign will be given,' 'sign of Jonah'), and its HJ probability or not, using dissimilarity, multiplicity, coherence, and linguistic/ environmental criteria, to be the clearest explanation, clarification, application, and improvement upon the Jesus Seminar emphases that I've read to date. (2) I also don't know how you could have laid out the differences between the Gospels' Jesus and the emerging Christian communities' Jesus and institutionalism any more systematically or clearly in your comparisons of the language use: kingdom, myth, mystery. (3) I'm now into the chapter on early Christian wisdom and your observation that both Jesus and JBap (according to Q) were emissaries of Lady Wisdom was pleasing and thought provoking

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.