Here’s a plug for a book I’ve not yet read, based on this interview with the author, Peter J. Williams, by Sean McDowell.
I know Peter a bit, having had a long conversation with him about my first book and related matters at Tyndale House, of which he is the Director, and having also conferred about The Genealogical Adam and Eve when Josh Swamidass was visiting Cambridge back in 2019. Peter is no intellectual slouch himself, but The Surprising Genius of Jesus examines how an extraordinary genius lies behind the teaching of Jesus. This is maybe not in theory surprising to the committed Christian who understands Jesus as the Incarnate Son of God, but even for us, the exploration is useful in a number of ways, and I intend to add one more not included in the video.
For the purposes of the interview, at least, Williams puts the parable of the Prodigal Son front and centre, asserting with good reason that it is the most astonishing story under 400 words in any language. He starts by showing how it is pitched to speak equally to the two highly disparate groups that Luke’s gospel describes as its audience – the tax collectors and the scribes, the first pretty ignorant of Hebrew scripture, and the latter absolutely steeped in it.
In fact, it is only the fact that Williams is also a member of that select breed of biblical textual scholars that put him on the scent of the material for his book. For he goes on to show how this short story is absolutely steeped in verbal and conceptual references from Genesis and elsewhere, that not only integrate effortlessly into the narrative, but provide a rich store of deeper meanings of particular relevance to his original hearers.
Just to give a taster, the introduction of the man who had two sons would immediately awaken a rabbinic scribe to the story of Jacob and Esau, alerting them to many relevant details of the story of a son who extorts his inheritance from his father (as Jacob extorted the birthright from Esau and his blessing from Isaac), who goes away to a foreign land, and who comes back expecting to be greeted by an angry brother with a private army, only (like the prodigal with his father) to have him “fall on his neck weeping.” There is a vast number of such parallels, which extend even to the two short introductory parables in Luke.
But these are woven into an instructive tapestry for his hearers, and particularly for the scribes who criticized Jesus’s welcoming of sinners: not only are they represented as the hard-hearted brother left behind, but they are identified with Esau, the brother excluded from the Covenant, whilst the tax-collectors are identified with Jacob – that is to say, with the true Israel. Yet as all careful readers know, the parable is left open-ended, inviting the “older brothers” to join the party with the returning wanderer.
Peter Williams goes on to show logically how the same kind of mind is behind the parables in all three synoptic gospels, how likely it is that that mind was that of Jesus Christ, and how the parables could have been accurately transmitted to the gospel-writers. He mentions, but does not expand, an important point about the latter: the disciples of Jewish rabbis were expected to live with their teacher, and to listen to all they said and to witness all they did, until they could repeat the teaching verbatim. Hence all the scriptural nuances present in the original telling could be transmitted to the Evangelists even if the disciple-source was not fully aware of them.
And it does indeed seem possible that they were not fully cognizant of them, since I’m not aware of this being brought out in any work of Christianity before it was spotted by Peter Williams (and by some other modern sources he acknowledges). “The Lord has yet more light and truth to bring forth from his Word…” as the old hymn says.
One thing this can teach us, as Williams points out, is that recognising how much Old Testament is in Jesus’s teaching should encourage all Christians to become more diligent students of the Bible. At the same time, Williams reminds us how for all their depth the parables speak simply to the common man. I think this means not that ordinary folk should read it at Sunday School level for their whole lives, but that Jesus teaches even simple folk to grow in their knowledge of his teaching, for the Holy Spirit gives us (yet not without application to the Word) the mind of Christ.
But there’s more, of direct relevance to our view both of Jesus and the Scriptures. My final point, is to wonder, as did his fellow Nazarenes, where Jesus got this depth of knowledge. I guess Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about the age of the average new PhD nowadays – that is to say a good deal younger and less experienced than Peter Williams, who has spent most of his academic career in Cambridge. But Jesus was not (unlike Paul, a disciple of Gamaliel in Jerusalem) an accredited scholar. The surprise of his townsmen was understandable, since they knew that, if there was a complete collection of Scripture in Nazareth at all, it was kept in the synagogue, and not available to be browsed in the home of Joseph the carpenter. Had Jesus been, somehow, granted access to the scrolls in the synagogue from an early age (and remember his disputing with the rabbis in the temple at the age of twelve), you can bet the congregation would have known about it. It is hard to say how “on earth” Jesus became more of a biblical scholar than those of us who have studied the Scriptures into old age.
You may well answer that, if Jesus is the Son of God, he knows everything. And that makes good sense as nothing much else does. Yet he didn’t allude to everything in his teaching – we get no quotes from Plato, or Homer, or Virgil or even Philo the Jew. What we get is deep knowledge from the Hebrew Scriptures, treated as if they were the divine authority behind his own words. I think, however, that is to put the cart before the horse – Jesus’s use of Scripture instead shows us, I suspect, that he himself is the authority behind the Old Testament. His depth of insight and knowledge into it is based on the fact that he wrote it, as the living Word of God (which is not to deny the human aspect of divine inspiration through the prophetic voices of Moses and so on).
Not only that, but he doesn’t show any sign of having, like Augustine, retracted anything that he wrote in the Tanach, though it was delivered in times and places almost as far removed from him as his earthly ministry is from us. This is consistent with the Jesus who said that not one jot or tittle of the law would pass away, and that “Scripture cannot be broken.” These words do not mean, as some progressive Christians like us to think nowadays, that he was a good first century Jew with all the prejudices of that time. We have already seen, and the YouTube interview makes plain, that he was far ahead of the rabbinic game, and that in any case there is no plausible historical mechanism that might have acculturated him to customary first century thinking.
Rather it means that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. There is a humorous quip about “King James Version only” enthusiasts who are reputed to say that if the KJV was good enough for St Paul, it should be good enough for us. That, of course, is nonsense. But there are far more grounds for saying that if the Hebrew Scriptures were good enough for the incarnate Son of God, they should not only be good enough for us, but they should be the mainstay of our understanding of the world.
How keen are we to have the mind of Christ?