Jesus, Man of Letters? – 1


[Jesus] was a master of ready speech and witty repartee, but most of the sayings that have come down to us bear every sign of careful preparation. They have the qualities of poetry, and with the aid of paradox, exaggerations, or play on words, were cast in such a shape as would enable them to find their way into the dullest mind and stay there.

His way of putting things was as original as the things themselves. He told his disciples to say: ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done our duty.’ Who but he would have avoided the less memorable wording, ‘We have only done our duty’? In fact he chose his wording to make people use their brains, and his biographers have faithfully recorded its peculiarities, seldom venturing to ‘correct’ him when he looks down on mortal time from the high viewpoint of eternity and uses the present tense for past and future events.

He was a learned man, who knew the ancient Hebrew writ by heart. And though, as far as we know, he wrote nothing for publication, he was a man of letters too, for his parables are literary masterpieces. They had to be, or the lessons they conveyed would never have sunk in.

And they are full of quiet humour. The crowds must often have laughed. But did Jesus himself laugh? Later writers say that he did; but the Gospels leave us only to read between the lines and yearn for some record of a lighter-hearted moment. He was certainly no glum ascetic, and when he joined these easy-living friends of his to enjoy a glass of wine with them, what was his conversation? Again, we have no reports. Yet it must have been irresistible charm or they would not afterwards have not gathered around ‘to hear him speak’.

From the Introduction to The Four Gospels – A New Translation by E. V. Rieu for Penguin Classics
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