Hard Sayings of Jesus (Jesus Library) Paperback – 1 Jun 1983
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About the Author
Bruce was the Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at the University of Manchester, England.
Bruce was the Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at the University of Manchester, England.
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While Jesus and his teachings are the focal point of the New Testament it must be noted with a touch of irony that the sayings of Jesus are not only the most challenging texts to follow as a disciple but can also be the most difficult ones to properly interpret. "The Hard Sayings of Jesus" by the late F.F. Bruce addresses both of these issues by introducing the reader to a host of problematic passages, providing a concise survey of the major points of debate, and then offers his best suggestion(s) to resolve the issue(s).
The format of the book is excellent and engaging, selecting 70 sayings almost exclusively from the Synoptic Gospels in roughly chronological order. The chapters average about three and a half pages so they are quite digestible, leaving you time to ponder and debate what you just read or squeeze in one... or two or three!... more chapters. Between the breadth of knowledge Bruce brings into his surveys, the intrigue of the sayings of Jesus, and the format of the book I found this short tome difficult to put down.
The strength of the book is Bruce did an ample job of surveying the most commonly acknowledged difficult or divisive sayings and concisely touches on a number of issues surrounding the saying before offering his own take on the issue--which are frequently quite good.
While the format of the book is to be praised it would have been helpful to the reader if each chapter ended with a bibliography of current research to continue further study. While it is unfair to demerit the excellent format of the volume the audience, which seems to be aimed at serious Bible students and undergraduate Seminarians, would have benefited significantly if the volume was presented as a gateway to deeper study. Bruce is obviously well versed in all the relevant material and is a master on the topic, an extended bibliography for further study would have been an excellent addition. As it stands, the current volume finds itself as a meager gateway to engaging the topics at a superficial level and left to hunt down the relevant works in other resources.
The target audience is confusing. Above I noted that it appears to be aimed at serious students of the Bible and undergraduate Bible students. Bruce does not hesitate to dialogue on issues like Gospel Source Theories (Q and the like), reference the Aramaic background of Jesus' sayings, and [infrequently] engage liberal-critical scholarship about the "originality" of certain sayings. Yet, due to the format, this is all done at a fairly superficial level--which is begging for thorough documentation. Yet the current format is a dead end in this regards, leaving the reader no direct way to further engage these issues. Furthermore, the book contains very little Greek which is surprising considering the audience and the helpfulness it could offer at times. Instead the reader is typically treated to arguments like, "The AV says... but the RSV renders better". Considering the audience it would have been worthwhile to dig directly into the Greek of the sayings. Those caveats noted, the book still remains accessible to the lay reader. While some concepts may be foreign and readers will have to take Bruce at his word, the writing is excellent and Bruce does a nice job of presenting ideas without assuming the reader will be formally acquainted with such concepts.
Which leads me to some of my major grinds with this book. In many ways I feel the book should be re-titled, "A Modern Christian Perspective on the Difficult Sayings of Jesus". The book dabbles just enough in difficult ideas -- Jesus spoke Aramaic, logia and source theory, Jewish background of the sayings, critical assessment of the originality of sayings -- without thoroughly engaging these issues when they not only offer significant contributions to the topic of discussion but also are deserving of a more thorough response and interaction. While a more thorough bibliography would have alleviated this issue, the current form of the book feels like a treaty aimed to engage these issues just enough to bypass them on the way to the conclusion. This is a disservice to the reader as they come away with the impression that these issues are resolved and have been adequately been addressed. I applaud Bruce for broaching these topics, but the current format doesn't lend itself to a very balanced treatment of every saying.
This leads further into the one area I found significantly lacking in this volume: The Jewishness of Jesus.
Jesus was born a Jew and lived a Jewish life. He is well acquainted not only with the Hebrew Bible but the Jewish teachings of his day -- of which he interacts with regularly and form and central theme in his conflicts with the Jewish sects of his time. Authors like Brad Young, E.P. Sanders, David Flussner, and David Daube among others have penned significant contributions in this field of study over the last four decades yet this volume only lightly engages these issues. This is not to say Bruce completely ignores this area of study, but I found the treatment in this volume completely lacking. Part of the difficulty found in Jesus' sayings is they are part of an inner-household conflict. Without fully understanding the positions Jesus disagreed with, and notably the many issues he agreed with his contemporaries, the reader isn't given a full appreciation of the thoroughness of Jesus' teachings. This is a significant aspect of understanding Jesus in his historical perspective: Jesus the Jew, not Jesus the Christian.
An example to illustrate this point is found in chapter 8 (Matthew 5:17ff) where the difficulty isn't with the saying, but with Christian theology and Pauline interpretation (p.42). Unfortunately Bruce mischaracterizes Jesus relationship to Rabbinic teachings (p.44) when he says, "It is plain that Jesus did not accept the Rabbinical interpretation of the law. Indeed, he charged the scribes, the acknowledged students and teachers of the law, with 'transgressing the commandment of God for the sake of their tradition'". This is followed by a reference to Matthew 15:2 and Matthew 24:4. While this typecasting fits quite well with traditional Christian views of Jesus and his conflict with his contemporaries, it is quite out of place with the historical Jesus. Ironically, the context of the passages in which Bruce is commenting (Matthew chapters 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount) are full of teachings that are paralleled in Rabbinic literature. Chapter 5 Brad Young's recent book, "Meet the Rabbis" is dedicated to the parallels in the Sermon on the Mount. While no one would argue that Jesus agreed with the Rabbis on every point, it is inaccurate to say that Jesus diverged radically with Rabbinical interpretation of the Law. For the same Jesus who sharply criticizes the Pharisees is also found engaging them in dialogue frequently, expressing common teachings found about the Rabbis, and even saying, "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach" (Matthew 23:2f). Of course, back the chapter 8 of the book, Bruce uses his general argument to put Jesus against the Jews and the Law, ethical versus ceremonial, and dismissing the "least of the commandments" on the basis of, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice". Yet was it not Jesus who said, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices-- mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law-- justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former" (Matthew 23:23).
Jesus is a complex person and his teachings, like those on the Law above, aren't always concisely identified as either/or. As in the above example (truly, "Jesus and the Law" is a topic unto itself) Bruce's approach is outmoded and inaccurate. His initial frustration isn't with Jesus, but with his understanding of Paul, and gravitates towards Jesus tension with the religious leaders of his time, and not the law himself. His dismissal of Jesus connection with the Judaism of his time is quite flippant (and incorrect), and his approach to the issue is cast in traditional Christian apology and "either/or" rhetoric.
The difficult say of Jesus wasn't addressed in its proper historical setting but instead sidestepped with traditional Christian dogma.
On rare occasion Bruce's discussion boarders on the absurd. Chapter 10, "Adultery in the Heart" (Matt 5:28) is an example where Bruce overreaches in his conclusion (to score political correctness points?). Bruce is correct in using this as an example of where Jesus looks "inward" to intensify the demands of the Law, and he dutifully notes that the 10th commandment broaches the topic of coveting/desire of another person's spouse in the broader sense (Job 31:1 covers the lust of the eyes as well). But the conclusion, where he references the Pope with the provocative suggestion that one can commit adultery with ones own wife is laughable. While few would disagree with his point about treating women as sex objects (and Jesus did have an elevated and respectful view of women compared to society), the emphasis Bruce places on "woman" misses the point that the word Jesus chooses in "adultery" (instead of fornication or another word of the like) is defined as relations with the spouse of another individual. Further, what is "lust" in one context is frequently "desire" in a positive context in other passages--and is translated appropriately. While his attempt at nuance is appreciated, it is lost in the bigger picture in the use of "lustfully" in the New Testament as well as the distinction between fornication and adultery. All the while making a point which distracts from the thrust of Jesus argument: adultery is a condition of the heart long before it sprouts forth in the flesh (a process Jesus' brother James elaborates on in James 1:14f). Desire for a woman other than your wife is the root of adultery and it must be addressed there. While some may see this complaint as overly critical, the reality is Christianity, and notably Catholicism, has had a slanted view toward the holiness of sex and chapters like this do little to address this issue properly and, instead, create more artificial barriers. Bruce's conclusion falls well outside the primary domain of what the words of Jesus were intended to convey.
In the end this nifty little volume by the late F.F. Bruce is an enjoyable read that offers a solid starting point to engage some of the more difficult texts in the New Testament. It isn't exhaustive nor conclusively resolve many issues, but it does broaden the readers appreciation for the time & place of the original events as well as identify some of the baggage historical interpretations often bring to the text. If you enjoy wrestling with the teachings of Jesus you should enjoy this book--just remember to use it as a springboard for further study and not a final authority on the issue.