Jesus' teachings have reached across two millenia, inspiring, informing, and uplifting people from all walks of life. In this elegant little volume, a noted religious publisher and biblical student has collected Jesus' key messenges, culled from the Gospels. Organized thematically, Jesus' words speak directly to contemporary lives and convey a man unlike any other man whose life contains a message for all. Engaging and nondoctrinal commentary throughout places the sayings in their historical context and drawn to this simple and beautiful rendering of Jesus' unique--an, even today, unconventional--message for the heart.
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September 01, 1994
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Excerpt from Jesus' Little Instruction Book by Thomas Cahill
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.