Poetic structure in Jesus’ teaching

Sermon on the mount by BlochIn doing some research on Matthew’s portrait of Jesus, I have been struck afresh by the poetic structuring of Jesus’ teaching. Noticing this raises interesting issues both about our engagement with the texts and our understanding of them, but also some questions about how the texts have come to us in their current form.

A simple example of this is to note that the Beatitudes in Matthew 5.3–10 not only have a clear and repeated pattern, but also a distinctive overall shape. The whole set of eight sayings are framed at beginning and end by reference to ‘the kingdom of the heavens’ (Matthew’s Jewish, more reverential reference, to the kingdom of God). And the eight sayings are clearly in two sets of four. The first four are all framed in terms of people who are in a state of need or lack (poor, mourning, meek, hungry and thirsty); the second four are framed in relation to people acting in a certain way (with mercy, purity, peace or righteousness-with-persecution).

Another example, often missed, is the structuring of the speeches in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, which I discuss in more detail elsewhere. The Son of Man, who suddenly unannounced becomes ‘the King’ when he takes his throne, addresses both groups in terms of what they have done, and deploys six terms structured as three pairs: hungry and thirsty; stranger and naked; sick and in prison. These three-times-two items are recited four times, twice by the King, and twice by the groups in response. Interestingly, each time the details in this list become more condensed, so the final response by the ‘goats’ is a slightly desperate ‘When did we see you hungry or thirsty or stranger or naked or sick or in prison…’ As I found when I learnt this passage by heart many years ago, it makes it much easier to commit to memory.

In another example from the Sermon on the Mount, David Wenham wrote an interesting article in Expository Times 121.8 (May 2010) pointing out the structure of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6.9–13). In Greek it reads as follows (word for word):

Father ours the-one in the heavens
Hallowed-be the name of-you
Come the kingdom of-you
Done the will of-you
As in heaven even on earth
The bread ours the coming-day give to-us today
And forgive to-us the debts of-us
As even we forgive the debtors of-us
And not bring us to temptation
But deliver us from the evil

As Wenham points out, the structure then is:

6 words        Opening address
4 words        First invocation in relation to God
4 words        Second invocation in relation to God
4 + 6 words Third invocation in relation to God with second clause
8 words invocation for our needs
6 + 7 words First invocation in relation to ourselves with second clause
6 words        Second invocation in relation to ourselves
6 words        Third invocation in relation to ourselves

So there is a clear sense of symmetry between the first half and the second half, which also highlights the central request for daily bread. This immediately leads to a number of insights into the prayer, its use and its origins.

In the first place, it does appear that the prayer in this form was intended to be learned and recited. I have seen a comment in the past to the effect that Jesus was not teaching a prayer to be recited, but giving us a pattern. Well, a pattern it is—but it also appears to be quite poetic or liturgical, and in fact designed for memorisation.

Secondly, I have found that seeing this structure has changed the way I pray the prayer. In the English form, in leading and saying this corporately, my observation is that we tend to run the third petition about God’s will into the central one for daily bread, as these seem (superficially) to have a similar shape. But this structure makes it clear that the third petition belongs with the first two, so I now find myself pausing there, before asking for daily bread, after which I pause again. As Wenham points out, the request for practical provision sits happily within the Sermon on the Mount, but it sits between an extended concern for God’s glory, and an extended concern for our own spiritual growth and protection.

Thirdly, this raises really interesting questions about Jesus’ own method of teaching. The structure of Jesus’ teaching and his pithy aphorisms (in, according to Ben Witherington’s commentary, the Wisdom tradition) are particularly evident in Matthew, but are present in the other gospels too. So Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11.2–4), although with variation, remains true to this structure. If Jesus’ ministry lasted five months (as it appears in Mark) or three years (as it appears in John), either Jesus said lots of other things beyond what we have in the gospels—or he taught the same thing again and again, in a memorable form, so that it might be learned and reflected on—or both.

Perhaps, in our teaching and preaching, we ought to consider doing the same?

(There is another question, of course, of whether Jesus taught in Aramaic or Greek, and if in Aramaic whether the poetic structure worked in both languages—but that is the subject for another blog entry.)

Additional note. When I first posted this in 2013, Mike Bird and Steve Walton added the following two comments:

MB: I cover this in my forthcoming gospels book where I say: Rainer Riesner contends that around 80% of material in the Gospels attributed to Jesus contains features of Hebrew poetry such as parallelism and chiasmus which comprise a mnemonic device that renders such teachings quite memorable. The longer units which make up round about 54% of the Synoptic tradition are entirely parabolic. Much of Jesus’ teaching material appears that it was composed precisely in order to be wedged in memory. Werner Kelber notes, “the extraordinary degree to which sayings of Jesus have kept faith with heavily patterned speech forms, abounding in alliteration, paronomasia, appositional equivalence, proverbial and aphoristic diction, contrasts and antitheses, synonymous, antithetical, synthetic, and tautologic parallelism and the like.” Poetry with rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, and assonance probably has a greater chance of make a lasting cognitive impact on an audience than plain uninflected discourse.

SW: There’s a very useful summary article in English by Riesner: Riesner, R. “Jesus as Preacher and Teacher.” In Jesus and the Oral Gospel Tradition. ed. Henry Wansbrough. JSNTSup 64. Sheffield: JSOT, 1991. 185-210. Alas, Jesus als Lehrer has not been translated.

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9 thoughts on “Poetic structure in Jesus’ teaching”

  1. Mmmm, I love the whole poetic thing and not just in Matthew so thanks again Ian. When I get a chance I will look at Wenham again. I remember the last time being disappointed and not convinced by his argument! May also fire off an email to my friend Alison (Salvesen) and see what she makes of the possibility of an Aramaic Lord’s prayer. Shalom

    • You must be referring to *our* friend Alison Salvesen. I used to be her rowing coach!

      I am wondering why you were not convinced by David Wenham? I usually find him pretty persuasive…

      • Yes so do I Ian which is why I was surprised – I am going through a ‘Paul period’ just now and have just read through his “Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity” which, like his other stuff is wonderful – no lack of respect there. Great to hear about Alison – both her and Dave are wonderful examples. Dave kept me awake a whole night when we shared a tent at a Christian camp – he had just had a wonderful experience of the Spirit and kept waking me up praying in tongues!!

  2. I love Kenneth Bailey on this, who has done a great deal of research in ancient middle-eastern texts and has a detailed breakdown of the literary structure, especially in Luke, in ‘Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes : a literary-cultural approach to the parables in Luke.’
    Is there an additional step to take? – if Jesus taught in Aramaic, which he surely did, but the Gospels were written in Greek, did the evangelists translate from one cultural idiom to the other?

    Another person who is fascinating to read on the literary construction of some of the OT is Robert Alter.

    In terms of parish ministry, it was a very illuminating moment for us, when things were very hard and stony, and we found that people were not really engaging with the teaching in the sermon. As we were working in a non-book culture, I said I thought we needed to teach less like Paul, and more like Jesus. A non-book culture tends to think and express itself concretely: if you listen, people tell you stories in order to make their point, rather than handing you a linear or rational argument. We changed our approach, using restricted vocabulary and ensuring the teaching points were clear. Suddenly, reactions to sermons were much more positive.

    • You beat me to it. The content of Bailey’s work is fantastic, both for his textual analysis and cultural insights. His early books are a bit dry and dusty to read, but very much worth working through.

  3. Thanks, Ian – again much to ponder. What struck me reading the Greek recently was how the English translation pushes us to combine the first 2 lines “Father in heaven/ hallowed be your name”, and the next three “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven”. The rhythms also push us to connect God’s will only with that final clause – so that the only thing that’s done in heaven in God’s will.

    But if we use a 1-3-1 structure, as the Greek shapes it, then we might see those 3 ‘sou’ phrases clustered together as a rhetorical device, and by implication all of them are finished with ‘on earth as in heaven.’

    So Jesus is saying “in heaven God’s name is honoured, in heaven His kingdom has come, and in heaven His will is done”, and we’re praying that all 3 of happen on Earth as well.

  4. Hi Ian. Slightly off topic, could I request a blog post on the aramaic speech /Greek texts issue. I listened to the latest episode of unbelievable with Bart Erhman and Richard Bauckham and this issue was present but not discussed thoroughly.

  5. Thought: is perhaps the petition for bread (of the coming day) also an introduction to the second section? The first intro and the three invocations pertain to the father in heaven, while the central petition and three invocations pertain to the effect of heaven being applied on earth.

    As in “Father, your kingdom is coming, let us taste it now”.

  6. Re-reading this post today I wanted to add a very tentative suggestion (as a non-scholar) about the “and” conjunctions in the second half of the prayer. Are they just incidental or are they themselves quite significant? (Perhaps no word in this prayer is insignificant.)

    In other words, to what extent are these petitions so closely linked that they must be taken as a whole? So often in Jesus’s ministry he eats a meal with people, and some are scandalized because he is eating with sinners. But by eating with those who were sinners, Jesus actualizes God’s forgiveness and sets aside their uncleanness. And so when we eat today the bread of the kingdom, we don’t eat it alone, we share it with others, and in doing so we are reconciled with them and they with us — sins are forgiven, ours and theirs.


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