Lecture 13: Literary Forms
Course: New Testament Survey - Gospels
Lecture: Literary Forms
I. Literary Forms
Today we are going to look at literary forms of Jesus’ teaching. Yesterday was mostly focused on the use of hyperbole and exaggeration. And before we look into the - these literary forms that Jesus employed, I want to give us three or four reasons that these things are important to us. So first and first reason why these literary forms are important is that they show us the brilliance of Jesus.
I think often we read the gospels, and we don't, we don't stop and think this guy was really sharp by, by human standards. He was very intelligent and he was able to handle the top intellectuals of his day and refute them and confound them and he often did so with rhetorical flour- flourishes or with wise ways of putting things that were irrefutable.
And, and so we're going to look at some of those things today. But as we do so, I would urge you to recognize here the worst of Jesus. That he is worthy of worship. That, that God has not called us to worship one who is not worthy of our worship. So in this, in this exercise of looking at these literary forms that Jesus employed, notice his intellectual power.
So that's the first reason that these things are important. A second reason, and I want to illustrate this to you by way of a, an example, something that happened to me. A few years ago I went to a friend's house who enjoys gardening and this particular friend has lots and lots of a plant called hosta. Now I, I had surely seen hosta before I went to his, his house that day but when I went to his house and he pointed it out to me and he said this is hosta, he gave a name to something that I had seen but not noticed.
And that's what we're going to do today. We're going to give a name to things that we've all seen, things that we've - we're all familiar with but that we haven't noticed. After that day, everywhere I went I saw hosta. It was in my backyard but I, I didn't have a name for it so I hadn’t noticed it until he put a name to it for me and then I saw it everywhere. It's on the campus. Maybe you know the plant, maybe you don't. But hopefully as we, as we name these literary techniques you'll begin to see them all over the scriptures.
And that is really the first task of, of bible study, to simply see what is there. That's what we want to do when we open the scriptures. We want to see what is there. And there's no end to it. There is no end to what can be seen. So the task of observation for us, the task of observing what the scriptures say will be a lifelong task.
Third, what we're going to do today, we’ll see things that I think Jesus deliberately put in difficult forms. I think we’ll see today that Jesus said things that aren't transparently obvious and I think that in doing that, he is honoring the fact that human beings, his - the people who would listen to him are made in the image of God.
So as we see these things, we should bear in mind Jesus wants us to think about what he's saying. I think he sometimes put things in ways that don't make sense right on the surface so that we have to spend time and spend intellectual labor thinking about what he has said. Someone has said that interpreting difficult sayings for yourself is like eating your own fruit.
Whereas, letting someone else do the interpreting - the work of interpretation for you is letting that person eat the fruit and pass on to you the nutrients, where you didn't get the joy of the taste, the joy of having those little bits of orange fire juice in your mouth and refresh you. That's what thinking about and figuring out what you think Jesus meant is like. It's like eating your own fruit and enjoying the refreshment and the nourishment that comes for it - from it, for yourself.
And finally, often I think that one of the reasons that Jesus put things this way is because when things are put this way it makes it easier for them to be remembered. So Jesus is enabling as hearers and us as readers to remember the things that he spoke. I think that scripture memory is a neglected discipline today but it's a very, very useful discipline.
The more bible we have in our brains the more connections we're able to make as we read other parts of scripture. For instance, Psalm 110 about Verse five or so or maybe it's before that, maybe it's three. Somewhere along in there it says, “Your people will volunteer freely in the day of your power.”
Well if you've been mulling on that phrase, when you read say of the days when, when David was not allowed to collect the material for the temple but took up materials from the people for the temple, and they - the, the writer of the scripture says, the people volunteered their materials willingly, you make a connection between the ministry of David, the life of David and what Psalm 110:4 says and you have an idea of what the psalmist means by that phrase “Your people will vol-, volunteer freely in the day of your power, for the [inaudible][06:20] when we will see that verse fulfilled.”
So we have a, a, a little bit about what that means if we have the bible in our brains. So I would urge you to, to practice that discipline. So let's look first at a literary device, a technique that Jesus used. The first one we're going to see is that Jesus used puns. Now a pun is an ingenious use of a word or a phrase that suggests multiple, multiple meanings.
Or it either suggests multiple meanings of one word or it suggests a similar sounding word. So, for instance, Matthew 23, 23 and 24 and I, I would encourage you if you don't want to look up each one of these passages, just listen to me. Read them. If you want to follow along great, but I would urge you to make a category puns and then write the references in and maybe note what's going on to create the pun as you take notes.
So Matthew 23, 23 and 24 Jesus says, “Whoa to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for you tied mint and dill and cumin and have neglected the way to your provisions of the law, justice and mercy and faithfulness. But these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. Blind guides you strain out of gnat and, and swallow a camel.”
Now in, in Aramaic which could be the language that Jesus was using as he spoke this, the word for gnat is [foreign], this word here and the word for camel is [foreign]. So in saying this, Jesus is, is almost entertaining, not - I think we can use that word - he's delighting the minds of his hearers so that they will remember this critique of the Pharisees.
And he's put this in a memorable fashion so that his words strike the minds of his readers. Incidentally, I would urge you, as you practice ministry, watch for words and phrases that pierce and remember them and employ them. Employ them with discretion so that when you speak, your words are not like dull spoons.
Your words are like piercing knives to the, to the minds and hearts of your hearers. Practice that. I think that these kinds of things show that Jesus thought about ways to say things that would be striking to his hearers. So the next one is Matthew 16:18 where we all know this, this passage. Jesus says to Peter, “You are Peter and on this rock,” and again in Aramaic the, the words for the name Peter - and this comes across even in Greek - the words for Peter and, and rock are very similar to one another.
Petras and Petra. Another one is John 3:8 and, and really this, this goes through John 3:5 through 3:8. And there's more than one of these devices here in John. But what Jesus says on this occasion is, “The wind blows wherever it wills and so it is with the spirit.” And the word for wind is [foreign] and the word for spirit is [foreign]. So y you're not sure as you read this whether Jesus is referring to the, the spirit, the holy spirit of God blowing wherever he wills or if he's referring to the wind, the physical force in nature blowing wherever it wills.
And so you have to invest mental energy trying to figure out what he's talking about. And I would encourage you to look at that passage and give some thought to it and say in your mind, okay, is Jesus talking about the Holy Spirit here or is he talking about wind and how’s he using this, this comparison? It will be like eating your own fruit. The next one, Luke 9:59 and 60, in this passage Jesus says, “Come follow me,” this is after someone who wants to follow him he said, “Please permit me to first go and bury my father.”
And Jesus says, “Come follow me and let the dead bury their own dead.” And there I think we have Jesus referring to those who are not onboard with his program as remaining in a state of spiritual death. So the dead - those not follow - those not tramping around with me or those not committing themselves to me will bury the, the, the, the physical dead.
But those who are alive, those who wish to tramp around with me, you're not bound by these earthly rights anymore. Part of the issue there is that there would have been a, a certain mourning period mandated by the Old Testament that Jesus is probably saying this is no longer part of what is stipulated for you to live under. But again, these are things for us to think on. Mark 4:9 is our next one. These are all under the category of puns.
Mark 4:9, Jesus says, “He has ears to hear,” which everyone hearing him that day had physical ears. “He who has ears to hear, let ‘em hear.” And obviously he's using the word hear in a deeper sense there. He's saying perceive what I'm saying. Understand the significance of what is being communicated through your physical ears.
And so Jesus puts this in striking and memorable ways. Mark 8:35, again, we all know this passage. “Whoever would save his life will lose it but whoever loses his life will save it.” And, and this will fit under, um, what we’ll see in a moment, paradox, but it's also a pun because Jesus is playing on these words. Save and lose, lose and save. These words have more than one meaning. He doesn't mean whoever would save his physical life, will lose his physical life.
He means whoever would, would put his physical life in the primary place will lose his spiritual life. So these words are being used in more than one sense. So puns. That's the first literary form or literary device or technique that Jesus employs to communicate. The next one Jesus uses proverbs.
And let me say a word here about, about words in general. As you, as you think about the names that we call things, I would encourage you to make good use of your dictionary because we often assume that we know what a, what a word means, when in fact, we might be using it wrongly. For instance, the word irony often gets missed - misused in our, in our context and in our culture. People often use that word in ways that the dictionary prohibits.
So a, a proverb is a brief, popular maxim and a maxim is simply a wise saying. And before I looked this word up in the dictionary, proverb, I didn't realize that generally speaking this is a popular thing. Generally when people refer to proverbs they refer to things that everyone in the culture is familiar with. So a proverb in our culture might be something like, I don't know.
Water, water will wet you and fire will burn. This is something that everybody knows. This is part of a common stock of our pre-suppositional mindset. So when Jesus uses these things he's appealing to what everybody knows. For instance, Matthew 6:21. There Jesus says, “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” And this is probably something that was in the culture.
This is probably something that everyone recognized, everyone was familiar with. And the meaning is very, very obvious, it's on the surface. But I, I, I would imagine that the way that Jesus used proverbs was, was somewhat unusual. And I, I would imagine that when he stated things, clichés so to speak, when he stated clichés they were striking. And, and it was, it was as though you'd heard someone state a cliché and suddenly you realized the full significance of this cliché.
Another one is, Matthew 6:34 where Jesus says, “Don't be anxious for tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care for - of itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” This is sort of a general maxim, a wise statement. Don't be anxious about tomorrow, tomorrow will take care of itself. Each day has enough trouble for its own. Another one is Matthew 26:52 and Jesus there says, “Put your sword back into his place.”
This is after Peter has cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear. “For all those who take up the sword will perish by the sword.” And again, this is just a general truth. So proverbs. Next are riddles. And here I think these are, these are places where Jesus says things that are enigmatic. He says things that aren't transparently obvious. The reason, as I said earlier, I think he wants us to use our brains.
He's on the honoring the fact that we are made in the image of God. And I would encourage you, as you preach or teach, honor the fact that you're here as are in the image of God. Challenge their intellect. We don't have to dumb everything down. People are really bright in general particularly when challenged. So, riddles. Matthew 11:12, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and violent men take it by force.”
If you look into any commentary on this verse, any commentary on Matthew and look at this verse, everyone is mystified as to what Jesus means here. And the reality is that probably there are several different levels on which this statement can operate so that violent - the kingdom of heaven is advancing violently and violent men take it by force, probably has several different meanings in, in different situations.
But Jesus, here we see him, puts something in a way that's not transparently obvious, so that his hearers will think about it. Another one is, Mark 14:58. In Mark 14:58 Jesus says - I'm sorry, not Jesus. Uh, they report that they heard Jesus say - these, these witnesses at his trial - “We heard him say, I will destroy this temple made with hands and in three days, I will build another made without hands.”
And John and his gospel in Chapter 2 tells us that the disciples didn't understand, that no one under-, stood, stood what Jesus was talking about at the time. But after he was raised from the dead they realized that he was talking about his body. So here we see something that Jesus leaves out there and people remembered it but the significance of it and the meaning of it only became clear once Jesus was raised. A riddle.
Luke 13:32 and 33, there Jesus says, he said to them, “Go,” uh, this is speaking of Herod, Herod. They, they come to Jesus and tell him Herod wants to kill you and he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, behold I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow and the third day I reach my goal. Nevertheless I must journey on today and tomorrow and the next day, for it cannot be their prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem.”
Now on this occasion, Jesus is more to that - more than three days from the crucifixion. On this occasion Jesus is more than three days from Jerusalem when he's going to be crucified and yet he's, he's using this language. He's saying today and tomorrow I must cast out demons and the third day I reach my goal. And I think there's a clear, in, in - a reference there - a clear illusion to the, the crucifixion and then the, the raising three days later, later.
So these are riddles that Jesus tossed out for people I think to think about and contemplate. So the next one is paradox. The first paradox we’ll look at is Mark 10:43 and 44. And there Jesus says -
He's just said in Verse 42, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the gentiles Lord it over them and their great men exercised authority over them. But it is not so among you. Whoever wishes to become great among you, shall be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you, shall be slave of all.” So a paradox is a statement that seems contradictory and is nevertheless true. Paradoxes are almost counterintuitive.
In, in this instance if you want greatness seek to be the slave of all. Seek to be a servant. If you want to be the lowest of all, seek your own greatness. The - these are all over the bible of God honors the humble but he abases the proud. The - God raises us up and he puts down. The - we seek paradoxes everywhere.
Another paradox Mark 12:41 and 42. There Jesus sits down opposite the treasury and he begins to observe how the multitude was putting money into the treasury and many rich people were putting in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins and calling to his disciples, he said to them, I tell you, this poor widow put in more than all of the rich people. And there, again, this is counterintuitive but it's, it's almost as though Jesus is speaking as one who knows the upside kingdom that he is inaugurating.
So these are paradoxes. Another one is Matthew 11:11 where Jesus says, “I tell you that among those born of women, there is none greater than John the Baptist and yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven, is greater than he.” And on that occasion, Jesus is throwing something out that I think would have mystified us hearers.
And what he's communicating is that the, the eschatological age that will be inaugurated upon the glorification of Jesus is, is of such a quality, that those who participate in it, those who know the, the, the fully revealed plan of salvation that, that, that culminates in the crucifixion and the resurrection of, of Jesus - those who know that are, by their very nature, greater than those who, who lived before the - before that age when all of this had been revealed.
If you disagree with my interpretation that's fine. Eat your own fruit. But think about it and try to figure out what Jesus means, how it can be that among those born of women there's none greater than John the Baptist, but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. I don't think he's talking about angels. I think he's talking about people that live on this side of the cross. So, another one is Matthew 23:27 and 28.
And there we read, “Whoa to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites. For you are like white washed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and uncleanness’s.” Here again appearances are not always the truth and, and Jesus often stated things that were counterintuitive. And I think that we should - to, to understand - to appreciate the significance of a statement like this you have to know something of the background.
In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees would not necessarily have been viewed as we view them. The Pharisees would be viewed as the most honored, most respected, most holy people in the society. And so for Jesus to be exposing them as frauds would be striking. It would be shocking. So for him to say outside you're clean but inside you're dirty is - it would seem counterintuitive to his hearers.
E. a fortiori
Lastly, on this page, is something called a fortiori, this is a Latin phrase that means from the stronger. The Hebrew for it, or the Aramaic, I'm not sure, is [foreign] and [foreign], if you know - if you've taken Hebrew [foreign] is the light stem because it doesn't have the, the prefixes and suffixes like the other stems have. So [foreign] is light, [foreign] is heavy. Light and heavy.
And what's going on here, for instance in Matt-, Matthew 6:28 through 30 it's an argument from the lesser to the greater. Jesus says, “Why are you anxious about clothing. Observe how the Lilies of the field grow. They don't toil or spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon and all his glory was not clothed as these are.” So the point is, if this is how God takes care of insignificant things like flowers, how much more will he care for you who are of such - much more great value than, than flowers?
So this is an argument from the lesser, flowers to the greater, the worth of human beings. a fortiori I'm going to - if there are no objections - skip the rest of those examples because I think it's pretty clear what that is. All right. You've got the references there.
F. Use of Questions
The next literary form or device that Jesus employed were rhetorical questions. And we all, we all know what a rhetorical question is. It's a question used to make a point that no one intends - no one who asked the question intends for it to be answered or responded to.
For instance, in Mark 7:18 and 19, he said to them, “Are you so lacking in understanding?” He doesn't want them to say yeah, Lord, we're really pretty slow. It's - the, the statement is to make a point. Are you so lacking in understanding? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him because it does not go into his heart but into his stomach and then - is then eliminated.
And Mark adds, “Thus he declared all foods clean.” I think that's significant because from Acts 10 we know that Peter didn't understand it but for Jeter - Jesus said that and he didn't understand it after Jesus said that. Peter didn't get this until the Lord lowered the sheet down three times for him and then finally said, don't call unclean what I have declared clean. I think that's when Peter probably remembered, maybe, or as he thought about it later, this instance, during the ministry of Jesus, when he declared all foods clean.
So this is a rhetorical question. Another one is Mark 8:12, signed deeply in his spirit he said, “Why does this generation seek for a sign?” He doesn't want anybody to answer that question. “Why does this generation seek for a sign? Truly I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” Rhetorical questions. Those are pretty clear. The counter questions. Jesus often refutes his opponents with counter questions.
Mark 2:6 through 9, the - right after Jesus has said to the paralytic, “My son your sins are forgiven.” Mark 2:6 “There were some of the scribes sitting there and reasoning in their hearts. Why does this man speak that way? He was blasphemy. Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus aware in his spirit that they were reasoning that way within themselves said to them, “Why are you reasoning about these things in your hearts?” Which is easier? And here's the counter question. “Which is easier? To say to the para-, paralytic your sins are forgiven or to say arise and take up your pallet and walk?”
And then he heals the paralytic so that he stands up and walks. Another good example of this, this counter question, is Mark - I think it's 11:27 through 33. I think this is the encounter about John the Baptist. Yes. Mark 11:27 through 33. They came into Jerusalem and they’re asking him by what authority are you doing these things? And he responds I'll answer that question if you'll answer me one.
Who gave John the Baptist his authority? And he, he confounds them. They have no response. They had nothing to say because they know if we say John the Baptist was a fraud, the people will leave us. We will lose their allegiance. But they also know that if they say we believe John the Baptist was real, Jesus is going to respond, why didn't you believe in him? Why didn't you repent? So here's an instance where the, the intelligence of Jesus, the brilliance of our Lord, is, is - it, it reaches out and, and, and grabs the person reading this - these instances.
G. Parabolic Actions
Parabolic actions. This is not so much a li-, a literary form as it is almost a, an action. Well obviously it is an action. Something that Jesus does to make a point. Mark 2:18 we read John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting and they came and said to Jesus, why aren't your disciples fasting? And Jesus, I think, probably wasn't fasting. And in this culture to not fast it would almost be like flaunting the [inaudible][28:00], Pharisaic requirements for daily life.
Jesus is not fasting to make a point. The point being the kingdom has come. We don't fast in the kingdom. We don't fast in the present, in the celebration that ensues upon the coming of the king. So that's a parabolic action. Mark 3:14 and 19, that's where Jesus selects the 12 disciples. He picked 12 as a deliberate, deliberate correspondence to the 12 tribes of Israel. And it's almost as though he is reconstituting the nation of Israel in selecting these 12 men who would be with him whom he named apostles.
So parabolic actions of Jesus. Another one is in Mark 11:1 through 14. There are other references here where Jesus curse the fig tree. And this is right in the context of him going in and cleansing the temple and it's, it's acknowledged by all interpreters that in cursing the fig tree and what he says to the fig tree, you're going to be dried up and no more fruit is going to come from you. The cursing of the fig, fig tree matches the cleansing of the temple. And what he has said to the fig tree he is, in effect, said to the, the Jewish religious leaders.
That, that they’re going to be dried up now and there's no more fruit coming from them. So those are parabolic actions that we see of Jesus. These types of parallelism not only apply in the things that Jesus says, they also apply in the proverbs and often in the psalms. So as, as we go through these, these types of parallelism, parallelism I would encourage you to, to get it in your mind, get it straight in your mind, what each one of these things are and watch for it and think about it as you read the psalms and the proverbs.
So the first one is called synonymous parallelism. And what happens here is the, the first line makes a statement and the second line echoes that statement in different words. It says the same thing over in different words, thus synonym. Synonymous parallelism. An example, Mark 3:24 and 25. There Jesus says, “If a kingdom is divided against its self, that kingdom cannot stand.” Now he's going to echo that statement in the next line with different words.
“If a house is divided against its self, that house will not be able to stand.” The point of both statements is the same but it's stated twice to make the point more forcefully, to give the hearers another mnemonic device where, whereby they can remember this. Another example is Mark - um, I'm sorry. Matthew 6:9 and 10. There Jesus says, “Pray then in this way.
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name.” And now here are the expressions of how his name can be hallowed. “May your kingdom come, may your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” These are set up - and you're basically restating the same thing in different words. May your kingdom come, may your will be done, may your name be honored.
Another example is Matthew 7:7 and 8. “Ask and it shall be given to you, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you, for everyone who asks receives, him who knocks, door will be opened, he who seeks, finds. Same thing is being stated over and over and over again. And you see this all over the place in psalms and proverbs. Another, another form is antithetical parallelism. And this is where the point is made by making a statement and then in the next line, saying the opposite.
So an example of this is, Matthew 7:17 and 18 and there Jesus says, “Even so, every good tree bares good fruit but the bad tree bares bad fruit.” So the, the same point is being made. The kind of tree you are will be seen in the kind of fruit you bare. But the way that that point is made is by saying, a good tree bares good fruit and then saying the opposite in the next line. But a bad tree bares bad fruit.
This is antithetical parallelism. Another example is Luke 16:10. There Jesus says, “He was faithful in a very little thing, is faithful also in much.” And he was unrighteous in a very little thing so he's saying the opposite. He was unrighteous in a very little thing, will be unrighteous also in much. So the same point is being made. What you do with little things is what you're going to do with big things.
But Jesus makes that point by stating first faithfulness and then it's, it's opposites. It's opposite, unrighteousness. Antithetical parallelism. The next one is step parallelism. Mark 9:37. Jesus says, “Whoever receives one child like this in my name receives me.” So he started small, a child in my name and then he takes a step up. Not only have you received the child in my name you've received me next. Whoever receives me, does not receive me but him who sent me.”
With each development Jesus is, is walking up the ladder, so to speak. Thus step parallelism. Matthew 5:17, there Jesus says, “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.” And I would add he abolished it by fulfilling it. Another words he, he was what it pointed to once he came, there's no more need to fulfill it so it's - it is abolished. But he did not come to abolish but to fulfill.
Matthew 10:40 is an - and again these things require thought so think about them. Matthew 10:40, “He who receives you, receives me and he who receives me, receives him who's sitting [inaudible][34:08]. So in this step parallelism we're walking up the ladder, so to speak. We're, we're stepping up. Next one, and lastly, is chiasmic parallelism. This is the the Greek letter chi, right? So in chiasmic parallelism what we do is we start with A and we go in here to B and then we come back down with A prime or something like that.
So it mirrors this. You see that? One, two and then one A. And that's where the word chiasm comes from because it's, it's modeled off the, the word - the letter chi. So chiasmic parallelism is what happ-, is what we see when, for instance, in Mark 8:35 Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to save his life or lose it, whoever loses his life for my sake in the gospels, shall save it.”
So it's gone, it's gone lose, save, save, lose. Chiasmic parallelism. It's pretty clear. You probably all seen that. I'll give you the other two examples. Matthew 7:6 we read, “Do not give what is holy to dogs and do not throw your pearls before swine less they trample them under their feet,” namely the swine. “and turn and tear you to pieces,” namely the dogs. So he goes dogs, swine, swine, dogs.
Makes a nice X, chiasm. Matthew 23:12, this is the last one. “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” Often these overlap. This is - again this would probably fit under the title of paradox.