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The Divine Hours of Lent

I have been asked several times in the last four weeks about what was the greatest discovery for me in compiling the words of Jesus back into a Sayings gospel format. Obviously, I have been, and am, overjoyed that people care enough and are engaged enough to ask that question and to want an answer to it. My only hesitancy has been that my response is probably not nearly as religious or holy or whatever as I fear folks may be expecting. That is, my most startling discovery was about my own relationship to the study of the Gospels and to what I really, really thought was the proper approach to them, even in this time of extensive scholarship on those words as texts to be studied.
There is, I discovered, a kind of simplicity in what I really think; but I also think that simplicity is almost always worth re-visiting from time to time. What I wrote in my reflections on The Words of Jesus – A Gospel of the Sayings of Our Lord follows here, then, as both an answer to those who have asked and also as a renewed position statement of sorts for me as we come nearer and nearer to Easter 2008.
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What matters first–what HAS to matter first and foremost–is that the actual words of Jesus as recorded and handed down to us were written down by those who either knew Him or knew those who knew Him or, in the most extreme case, knew those who had known those who knew Him. It also matters that those sayings as recorded were accepted by the early, early Church as accurate recordings. One can argue that there may have been–indeed, probably was–infiltration of human perception and purposes into the recorded text. It is still undeniably, however, the text that was validated and embraced by those who were intimately and biographically involved in receiving it and who judged it to be consonant with what was said. And it is the “to be consonant with what was said” that is the informing phrase here.
What great man or woman has ever posthumously enjoyed the luxury of a consistent biography? None, so far as I know. Look, for example, at the many “Lives of Lincoln” available today. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated within the full adulthood of my paternal grandfather and only some two dozen years before my father’s birth. Lincoln has not, in other words, been dead so long that I myself can not call up from personal memory family tales about him. Yet, even given such proximity and even given the fact that there is considerable agreement among us about what Mr. Lincoln stood for and intended, there is not always unanimity of opinion about to whom and under what circumstances he said what. Just a casual look at some of those “Lives” will confirm that point.
Of as much, if not more, importance, however, is that there is no unimpeachable record of the meaning-bearing inflection and/or the semantic body language with which President Lincoln said what he said. Yet body language, inflection, and emotional intensity of delivery are part and parcel of meaning when we hear the spoken word. Spoken words are also always subject to the perception of those who hear them and those who would transcribe them. The way they are heard and written down can result in many different emphases, specific wordings, and connective memories without there being any substantive violation of the basic tenor of the speaker’s words. We speak today of a textus receptus, a received text, as the platform from which we begin our study of the New Testament. The time has come, I suspect, for us to speak in terms of the Received Jesus just as surely and deftly as we accept a Received Lincoln, and for a similar set of reasons.
The Received Jesus is the One we have, the One we have from the hands of the forefathers and foremothers of the faith. Despite reams of textural criticism, deconstruction, redactionist interpretation, the fact is that there is a canon–battered, sometimes mis-copied, probably sometimes edited, but still a canon. At each turn of the screw over the centuries, this canon has been validated and re-validated in prayer and faithful discernment. At some point–now, in fact–we must come again to trust the Church as a learning and perceiving construct. Not a denomination or a particularized tradition or a doctrinal division, but the Church, the cumulative and discerning body of Christians no more or less gifted than we, who have said, “Here are the words of God. Handle them with fear and wisdom and gratitude.”

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