In 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.