The Wisdom of Jesus

Jesus was a story-teller and a speaker of great "one-liners."

Excerpted from "Wisdom of the Carpenter" by Ron Miller, with permission from Ulysses Press.

Jesus' wisdom teaching takes two classic forms: parables and aphorisms. Jesus' parables were provocative and often surprising short stories that invited reflection, and his aphorisms were brief, memorable, arresting sayings. They are invitational forms of speech, inviting people to see in a particular way, or to see something they might not otherwise.

Thus, one of the most certain things that we know about Jesus is that he was a story-teller and a speaker of great "one-liners." Moreover, he used these invitational forms of speech to suggest a way of seeing that was most often quite different from conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom is "what everybody knows," the cultural consensus of a given time and place. Jesus' stories and one-liners undermine the conventional wisdom of his time and every time, and invite us, like his original hearers, to see life quite differently. In this sense, they are subversive wisdom.

In the gospels, the short sayings of Jesus are most often collected into a series of sayings. This is perfectly natural in written documents.

But this is not how Jesus would have spoken them. Jesus was an oral teacher. As an oral teacher, Jesus would not have strung a bunch of unrelated sayings together in an extended series. To follow a great one-liner like "Leave the dead to bury the dead" with another one-liner like "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God" with another one-liner like "Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but humans have nowhere to lay their heads" would have been pedagogically counterproductive. It is impossible to imagine in an oral situation. His hearers needed time to digest what had just been said.


[There is a] distinction between the historical Jesus and the Jesus we meet in the pages of the gospel. The former (sometimes called "the pre-Easter Jesus") is the subject of the quest for the historical Jesus. The Jesus we meet on the pages of the gospels (called variously "the post-Easter Jesus" or "the canonical Jesus") is what Jesus became in the experience and developing traditions of the early Christian movement in the decades after Jesus' death..Thus, in some of these sayings, we hear the voice of Jesus, or at least an echo of it. In others, we hear what he had become in the experience and thought of his first followers.

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