So far as we know, Jesus never wrote anything down--or, if he did, nothing has survived. We are pretty sure he knew how to read and write. The gospels present him as reading aloud from the scroll of the scriptures in the synagogue; and, like other Jewish males of pious family, he would have been schooled as a child to read the Hebrew texts of Judaism's holy books.
But by Jesus' day, Hebrew was already a dead language, used principally in study and ritual. The day-to-day language of Jesus and his fellow Jews was Aramaic. The working language of the Roman conquerors who ruled over them was not Latin but Greek, which at that time served as an international language--as Latin would in the Middle Ages and as English does today. So Jesus probably knew some Greek as well, which would have been the language he used to respond to the questions of Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator who condemned him to death.
Virtually all the sayings of Jesus that have come down to us are written in Greek, and most of these are contained in the four gospels of the New Testament. We know that few, if any, of these sayings can be verbatim, because the great bulk of what Jesus said he said in Aramaic. The Greek sayings of the gospels are translations of Jesus' original spoken words (and, as we read them in English, at one more remove from the originals). Furthermore, the gospel writers sometimes contradict one another--usually in minor details--by giving different versions of what Jesus said.
Before there were written gospels, there was human memory. Various participants in Jesus' life and witnesses to his spoken words joined the communities that formed "in his name" after his earthly life, and these people contributed their memories of him to the communal pool. One could almost say that memory was the central business of these groups. Informal and fairly unstructured, they met in one another's houses and tried to keep a low profile, since both Jews and Greeks were suspicious of them. At first, they called themselves followers of "the Way," a harmless-sounding phrase. To keep out spies, they used passwords and symbols and secret gestures. If you gained entrance to one of their meetings, you would have found yourself participating in a ritualized common meal at which a portion of the Jewish scriptures was read aloud and interpreted, a hymn was sung that explained the extraordinary significance the singers attached to Jesus' life, and bread and wine were distributed with the baffling admonition that these were to be consumed as "the body and blood" of Jesus himself.
Clearly, this "memorial service" to Jesus was more than an intellectual exercise. Memory of him had been joined to commitment--commitment to his Way, surely, but also to the astounding belief that he was still present among his followers, guiding them individually and animating their meeting. Some of the prayers and hymns of these primitive meetings (or "churches") have survived, embedded in the books of the New Testament, so we know how they sounded. One hymn, found in Paul's Letter to the Philippians, gives us a succinct summary of what the followers of the Way believed about Jesus:
Though he possessed divine estate
He was not jealous to retain
Equality with God.
He cast off his inheritance,
He took the nature of a slave
And walked as Man among men.
He emptied himself to the last
And was obedient to death--
To death upon a cross.
And, therefore, God has raised him up
And God has given him the Name-
That at the Name of Jesus all
In heaven high shall how the knee
And all the earth and depths
And every tongue of men proclaim
That Jesus Christ is LORD--
To the glory of the Father.
Though Jesus was divine, he had taken on our humanity, and had suffered and died for us, emptying himself "to the last." This total giving had resulted in his resurrection by the Father God and his exaltation as Lord of the Universe. So the followers of the Way kept the memory of his words and deeds, knowing that his was not the usual human story of life and suffering, ending in death. He was unique in all of history, a man whose life and works had been justified by the act of God himself, who had brought him back from the dead. It was because of this unique proof of the cosmic centrality of Jesus that they wished to remember everything they could about his earthly words and deeds.
But they had another reason for remembering. Jesus himself had urged them to "follow" him--to become like him. How could they? They did not come from God, they could not die on a cross for all humanity. But they could "empty" themselves, if not of blood, then of all pretension, all worldly ambition, all merely human striving. And they could remember his words and try to live their lives by them.
In this spirit, they began to make collections of his sayings. These collections, the need for which became more pressing as the generation of witnesses began to pass from the scene, were eventually joined to the oft-told story of Jesus' trial, execution, and miraculous resurrection to become written "go'spels" or "good spells"--that is, "good news." The earliest such gospel may be the Gospel According to Mark, probably committed to papyrus thirty-some years after Jesus' crucifixion, perhaps as a written equivalent of the teaching of Peter, the chief apostle. Or it may be that the apostle Matthew's Gospel was the first--in a primitive Aramaic version that we have lost. But each of the gospels has several, maybe many, parents. Just imagine all the elders who would have had a story or two to contribute! And when we imagine such interaction, we can easily see how, a full generation or more after the events of Jesus' life, some memories would be hard to square with others and some of the stories would have evolved over time to gain a richer meaning than they seemed once to possess. Such a process explains the minor discrepancies among the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Gospel According to John, on the other hand, seems to have been extensively rewritten more than once to make it relevant to the changing conditions (and crises) of the community that produced it. It may not have reached its final form until about the end of the first century.
What is far more remarkable than the inconsistencies and rewritings, however, is the consistent portrayal of the figure of Jesus. None of the evangelists (as the gospel authors are called) were practiced writers. Yet their words manage to convey a person, a human yet divine figure who reaches across the divide of twenty centuries to make direct contact with us. Because this troubling, uncanny, marvelous, healing contact has been experienced repeatedly by countless billions of human beings over two millennia, we may speak of the gospels as unique--books unlike any other books about a man unlike any other man, who lived a life that contains a mysterious message for each of us.
What follows is my collection of the words--and, on a couple of occasions, the silences--of Jesus as found in the four gospels. I have included only those sayings addressed to all and have omitted sayings that appear bound to particular historical circumstances (such as most of his instructions to the twelve apostles before their first mission in Chapter 10 of Matthew's Gospel). When the same (or similar) saying is found more than once, I have chosen one version. I have kept the sayings from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke together and gathered the distinctive sayings from John's Gospel into a separate section.
If you read these sayings in sequence, you may find that they are not especially sequential. Neither Jesus nor the gospel writers kept to the strict "first this, then that" logic that we are accustomed to. The progress of Jesus' thought is more like a spiral than a straight line. He tends to say the same things again and again. But with each repetition there is a new twist. As you follow him through his story, you can see that he begins by interacting mainly with large groups of people, painting his program with broad brush strokes at first, and gradually concentrating his attention on smaller groups of friends and enemies. As he becomes more and more pointed in his instructions, his enemies become more fierce, vocal, and dark minded, and his friends more loyal, committed, and enlightened. It is as if the gospels started with the undifferentiated mass of humanity, which gradually separates itself out into good and evil poles in response to the figure of Jesus--and all in preparation for the final conflict, with its cosmic implications.
The translation I have used is The New Testament of The New Jerusalem Bible, hardly the most famous or most used translation, but to my ear the most noble and contemporary. It is also, so far as I can judge, extremely accurate. Its notes and introductions are both reader friendly and profound, and I heartily recommend it to all who come to enjoy these excerpts.
Do not reed Jesus' Little Instruction Book all at once. Savor what you read. Go on only when you have sucked all the goodness out of each saying. There is nothing to be afraid of here. Open this book and let him speak to you, as if for the first time, whom you have always wanted to hear, whether you knew it or not.
Jesus' Basic Program
"How blessed are the poor in spirit:
the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
Blessed are the gentle:
they shall have the earth as inheritance.
Blessed are those who mourn:
they shall be comforted.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for uprightness:
they shall have their fill.
Blessed are the merciful:
they shall have mercy shown them.
Blessed are the pure in heart:
they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers:
they shall be recognized as children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted in the cause of uprightness:
the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
Blessed are you when people abuse you and persecute you and speak all kinds of calumny against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven; this is how they persecuted the prophets before you."
These sayings are called "Beatitudes," after "beati," the Latin word for blessed, which Jerome used when he translated the original Greek gospels into Latin in the late fourth century. His translation of the Bible, called the Vulgate (or common) version, remained the standard in the West for more than a thousand years--until the translations into the European vernacular languages during the Reformation period.
The Beatitudes are the beginning of what is actually called "The Sermon on the Mount" (Matthew 5-7), which is really just Matthew's arrangement of a more primitive collection of Jesus' sayings.
Whenever Jesus quotes from the Jewish scriptures, his words are set in italics.
YOU ARE SALT
"You are salt for the earth. But if salt loses its taste, what can make it salty again? It is good for nothing, and can only be thrown out to be trampled under people's feet."
YOU ARE LIGHT
"You are light for the world. A city built on a hill-top cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp to put it under a tub; they put it on the lamp-stand where it shines for everyone in the house. In the same way your light must shine in people's sight, so that, seeing your good works, they may give praise to your Father in heaven."
JESUS THE JEW
"Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them. In truth I tell you, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, is to disappear from the Law until all its purpose is achieved. Therefore, anyone who infringes even one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the kingdom of Heaven; but the person who keeps them and teaches them will be considered great in the kingdom of Heaven."
The Law (or Torah) refers to the first five books of the sacred scriptures of the Jews, which contain a series of laws, and most important the Ten Commandments. But, more deeply, the Law refers to the attitudes toward life to be found in these books. The Prophets are the books of the Jewish scriptures that contain the words of men recognized as prophets, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, who recall the Jews to their own highest moral standards. "The Law and the Prophets" together form the most revered part of the Jewish canon, or definitive group of sacred writings.
Jesus then urges us to fulfill God's commandments, not by legalistic nitpicking, but by a truly interior response:
DON'T TAKE YOUR CUES FROM THE RELIGIOUS ESTABLISHMENT
"For I tell you, if your uprightness does not surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of Heaven."
Pharisees were rabbis who belonged to a reform movement that had begun prior to Jesus' day and that stressed strict observance of all the details of the Jewish Law. By Jesus' time, this movement may have become corrupt or at least began to harbor corrupt members. But such a characterization is based on little more than speculation. All we can say for sure is that Jesus had such a low opinion of them that the name Pharisee became synonymous with hypocrite. This portrayal of the Pharisees has unfortunately also figured in Christian prejudice against Jews, which Jesus the Jew would hardly have intended. See page 104 for additional interpretation.