Tuesday, 21 July 2009

What would Jesus teach?

Further to my ponderings on Mark 6:34 last Sunday, I didn’t raise it in the sermon, but we did spend some time in our staff meeting thinking about the last bit of this verse: “So he began to teach them many things.”

As I said previously, I believe that this was how Jesus did for the people what their leaders were failing to do —they were ‘sheep without shepherds’, and so he ‘shepherded’ them by teaching them. And in the process, he began to empower them, as the Church was later to empower people through the gospel.

But surely the question we’d like answered is this: what exactly did Jesus teach? You would have thought that the text would tell us, yet it says absolutely nothing! In fact, the gospels tell us remarkably little about what Jesus taught. There are the parables, there is the Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew) and on the plain (in Luke). But Jesus’ recorded ‘teaching’, especially in Mark, is astonishingly meagre.

If you don’t believe me, try looking at a ‘red letter’ Bible, and you will quickly see that apart from what I have mentioned, Jesus’ teaching is confined almost entirely to a relatively few ad loc comments relating to his person or mission. (Interestingly, one of the few substantial blocks of specific material is about marriage and divorce —yet this is one of the things that the Church has recently tried hardest to ignore.)

Even the epistles are apparently no help. References to ‘what Jesus taught’ are notoriously few and far between. If Jesus’ teaching is ‘the heart of the Christian message’ it would seem we have a problem. Significantly, the lacuna seems to have been exploited by the Gnostics, for it is in the ‘Gnostic Gospels’ that we find the kind of ‘esoteric’ teachings of Jesus for which we might have hoped. Yet when we go to these documents, the teaching is hardly of the kind we associate with the Jesus of the New Testament, and hardly the kind of thing we would want to add to our existing understanding.

Nevertheless, as Mark 6:34 makes clear, Jesus spent a great deal of time teaching the people. So what did he teach them? And why do neither the gospels nor the epistles think it worth recording much of this teaching for us?

In the light of what I said earlier, I want to suggest this: that what Jesus taught the people was nothing other than the Old Testament. What he was doing when he addressed various crowds was the beginnings of what we read that he did with the disciples he later met on the road to Emmaus:

Then He said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory. And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”

As yet he might not have been applying the Scriptures so openly to himself, but he may well have been raising questions, making connections, and laying the groundwork which could later be exploited by the preaching of the Apostles and first evangelists.

If this seems too little to explain how he drew and held the crowds, I would point to my own experience in the mid-1980s when I was with a group of similar-aged clergy (in our thirties) being addressed by none other than Phillip Jensen, brother of the now-Archbishop Peter Jensen.

In the middle of what he was saying, Phillip stopped and said, “Now to understand the next part of my talk, you have to understand how the Old Testament fits together. You do understand that, don’t you?”

But the truth was, we didn’t. Despite years of theological education (three, in my own case), and as much as a decade for many of us in parish ministry, most of us felt the Old Testament to be hostile territory —somewhere where we might find a lesson or two about social justice, and a verse or two about Jesus, but the rest was just confusing.

And so Phillip explained to us how the Old Testament worked. And I can still remember sitting there thinking, “I’ve learned more in the last five minutes than I ever learned in all my time at theological college.” Before, I’d had a miscellaneous collection of bits, now I had something which not only made sense in itself, but led directly to the gospel.

Now if that was what Jesus was doing —taking people who knew the Old Testament, but couldn’t make sense of it, and opening the Scriptures to them —no wonder he gathered the crowds. And this would also explain why we don’t find explicit references to Jesus’ teaching in the rest of the New Testament —because it is there behind everything, in the way that the Old Testament is understood, taught and applied, and in the shape this gives to the gospel.

And this would also give us an important indication of what we should be doing —that we should also be learning to present the Old Testament to people, to familiarise them with it, so that it becomes their own story, and to teach the gospel from it, so that they understand properly who Jesus is. This would fit exactly with the end of Luke, which is also the beginning of the expansion of the Church:

Then He said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.

Let us follow his example (if such it is) and do the same.

Revd John Richardson
21 July 2009

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  1. Rev. Richardson:

    It may be worth a peek at www.reformationanglicanism.blogspot.com.

    Some very important book recommendations, free and downloadable through www.books.google.com as well as a developing serious of blogs on the Older Testament and Newer Testament.


  2. A good post. Worth recalling at this 500th birthday time that Calvin was clear that the Gospel was taught in the OT, the NT was just making the same message explicit and showing how it was fullfilled in the coming of Christ.
    I wonder if our twentieth century custom of writing 'Old Testament Theologies' (von Rad etc) and 'New Testament Theologies' (various) has contributed to the sense of otherness of the OT for Christians.

    "This would fit exactly with the beginning of Acts.." - actually Luke 24.44-45 (cf. 24.27).

    Mark B.

  3. Mark B - silly mistake by me. In my electronic version of NKJV that paragraph is headed "Acts 1:3-8". In my befuddled late night state, I took that literally!

  4. "In my electronic version of NKJV that paragraph is headed "Acts 1:3-8"."

    You mean it's not infallible??!!
    What would St Paul say? After all, this is the version he (would have) preached from!

    Mark B.

  5. Oh, it's infallible - I think this is a case which calls for 'reader response' criticism!

  6. le-havdil,
    What did Ribi Yehoshua did.
    To get a very comprehensive image of what Ribi Yehoshua (ha-Mashiakh; the Messiah) taught, read more than 30 years of research (in the below website) written by Paqid Yirmeyahu Ben Dawid, based on logic, archeology and first century Jewish documents.

    You will find a wealth of invaluable documented information at: www.netzarim.co.il

    Anders Branderud

  7. 'And so Phillip explained to us how the Old Testament worked. And I can still remember sitting there thinking, “I’ve learned more in the last five minutes than I ever learned in all my time at theological college.” Before, I’d had a miscellaneous collection of bits, now I had something which not only made sense in itself, but led directly to the gospel.'

    I think this probably says more about your theological college than it does about Jensen.

    Paul Lewis. Bootle.

  8. Paul, I think it says something about both. Certainly it was Phillip's teaching, followed up by reading anything I could get my hands on from Moore College, which led me to taking a superb sabbatical year studying there for a Diploma in Theology a few years later - and it knocked spots off what I'd experienced in this country.

  9. I've enjoyed John Goldingay's verve and style but (and this may be my careless reading) I've never seen him integrate OT and NT sufficiently. But if the study of the OT isn't understood Christologically, it can depart in any number of directions and discontinuities: Judaisms, Religion of ancient Israel, even Islam.

    Mark B.

  10. So can you share with us the content of that five minutes from Philip Jensen?

  11. Mark B, John Goldingay was one of my tutors when I was at St John's in the 1970s. I don't think anyone then was really integrating Old and New Testaments.

    The OT was treated as a source of a 'social gospel' - Garth Hewitt's "People of the West" was how we were taught to use Amos. There is something to this, but of course, the problem comes with where Jesus fits in - so we really wound up with literally two 'Testaments', Old for the social message, New for the spiritual message.

  12. Thanks for this post John, I've been thinking a lot myself about the extent to which the Old Testament is completely alien to most modern readers (especially non-Christians: one recently described it to me as the best piece of anti-Christian propaganda he could imagine, he found it so barbaric!) It's one of the things that has got me trying to make Old Testament computer games to help introduce people back to it: http://www.geero.net/bible-games.html

    Andy G

  13. Shaun, I still have the notes from that study somewhere (can't find them right now, but I've seen them!).

    What Phillip gave us was a summary of Graham Goldsworthy's Gospel and Kingdom. He also recommended Edmund Clowney's Apostolic Preaching and Biblical Theology".

    I went out and bought both, and was even more gob-smacked. As a result, I wrote my own Get into the Bible, which was targetted at the student audience I was then working with (it was originally produced as a photocopied and stapled thing, at my own expense.

    I would commend any of these, thought the Clowney is hard to get hold of.

  14. John: yes, I knew John Goldingay (now in Fuller) was for many years at St John's Seminary, Nottingham. I'm sure he would go a long way beyond the simple moralizing of Garth Hewitt, but I don't know if he ever worked out the links between the Testaments.
    As well, when aporias and discontinuities are highlighted, greater diversity can enter the picture. I have Goldingay's commentary on Isaiah and have dipped into it, but I don't think he reads it in a specifically *Christian way.
    Another oddity is that Goldingay goes to extraordinary linguistic lengths to avoid saying 'he' and 'his' with reference to Yahweh.

    Mark B.