Oct 22, 2023
by: Peter J. Williams
A Secondary Question
It seems that a common mind is behind the stories of Luke 15–16, and multiple lines of evidence suggest that the same mind is behind many other sayings attributed to Jesus. The storyteller of Luke 15–16 must be a gifted communicator, thoroughly familiar with the Old Testament and with the thought world of Jews in Palestine. The simplest hypothesis by far is that the storyteller is Jesus.
This does not explain how the stories were passed from Jesus into the Gospels, but that question, though tending to get primacy in academic discussion, is actually secondary. We may know that we have received a letter from a particular source without knowing the route the letter took to get to us, interesting though that may be. We may unexpectedly bump into a friend on vacation, but recognizing her does not depend on knowing how she got there. Similarly, we can recognize that the various stories that Jesus told show stylistic traits of an identifiable teacher without knowing how the stories were transmitted. We can acknowledge that a particular short story shows both internal coherence and the hallmarks of Jesus’s teaching style without committing to a single theory of how the story was conveyed from Jesus’s mouth to Luke’s Gospel. To recognize Jesus’s genius in the story of the two sons, we do not have to decide whether Jesus taught in Aramaic, Greek, or Hebrew—or in more than one of these languages. Nor do we need to decide how early Jesus’s teachings were recorded in writing. These are all questions that I personally find fascinating but that are not necessary for recognizing the genius itself.
To put it another way, taking Jesus to be the author of the story of the two sons explains the brilliance of the story and the patterns we see across the Gospels. To reject the idea that Jesus is the genius behind the story merely because one cannot imagine how a two-and-a-half-minute story might have been reliably transmitted from Jesus to Luke’s Gospel displays a distinct lack of imagination.
One way a story like this can be passed on is through repetition. We can observe that all four Gospels present Jesus as a teacher who repeated his teaching. They present him as saying identical or similar things on multiple occasions.
In Matthew, Jesus repeats sayings about divorce (Matt. 5:32; Matt. 19:9); offending eyes (Matt. 5:29; Matt. 18:9); offending hands (Matt. 5:30; Matt. 18:8); trees known from their fruit (Matt. 7:18–20; Matt. 12:33); desiring mercy and not sacrifice (Matt. 9:13; Matt. 12:7); his followers being hated (Matt. 10:22; Matt. 24:9); the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Mat. 10:6; Matt. 15:24); wicked generations seeking signs (Matt. 12:39; Matt. 16:4); the binding and loosing of things on earth and in heaven (Matt. 16:19; Matt. 18:18); telling mountains to move (Matt. 17:20; Matt. 21:21); the first being last (Matt. 19:30; Matt. 20:16); those who are great needing to be servants (Matt. 20:26; Matt. 23:11); many being deceived (Matt. 24:5, 11); a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 8:12; Matt. 13:42, 50; Matt. 22:13; Matt. 24:51; Matt. 25:30); those who already have being given more (Matt. 13:12; Matt. 25:29); and those who have ears needing to hear (Matt. 11:15; Matt. 13:9, 43). Jesus also predicts his passion three times (Matt. 16:21; Matt. 17:22–23; Matt. 20:18–19).
In Mark, even though it contains significantly less speech by Jesus than the other Gospels, Jesus repeats sayings: those wanting to be first needing to be servants of all (Mark 9:35; Mark 10:44); people not hearing (Mark 4:12; Mark 8:18); “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:9, 23); and, as in Matthew, the passion predictions (Mar 8:31; Mark 9:31; Mark 10:33–34).
In Luke, Jesus repeats things such as “Your faith has saved you / made you well” (Luke 7:50; Luke 8:48; Luke 17:19; Luke 18:42); the command to show oneself to one or more priests (Luke 5:14; Luke 17:14); “No one lights a lamp . . .” (Luke 8:16; Luke 11:33); Pharisees/scribes “love the first seats” (Luke 11:43; Luke 20:46); “Do not worry what you will say” (Luke 12:11–12; Luke 21:14–15); “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Luke 8:8; Luke 14:35); “Everyone who has, more will be given” (Luke 8:18; Luke 19:26); and the passion predictions (Luke 9:22, 43b–44; Luke 18:31–33).
In John, Jesus uses the words “Truly, truly I say to you” twenty-five times, and on six occasions he says, “I am going to the Father” (John 14:12, 28; John 16:10, 17, 28; John 20:17). Discourses regularly present variations on similar sayings. There are even repetitions of most of the “I am” sayings: “I am the bread of life” (John 6:48, 51); “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12; John 9:5); “I am the door” (John 10:7, 9); “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11, 14); “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25) alongside “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6); and “I am the true vine” (John 15:1) alongside “I am the vine” (John 15:5).
Thus, all four Gospels present us with a teacher who, like just about every other teacher in history, said the same things multiple times. Why think up an epigram like “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt. 7:1 ESV; cf. Luke 6:37), a saying like the Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12; Luke 6:31), or a story as captivating as Luke 15:11–32, and use it only once? If Jesus regularly repeated his teaching, then his disciples would have heard his stories numerous times, which makes it much easier to imagine how these stories could have been well preserved in the Gospels. Ultimately, we do not need to resolve the probably unanswerable question of how Jesus’s teachings were transmitted early on in order to recognize that the stories attributed to him in the Gospels show numerous common features and that they are not readily explained as creations by the Gospel writers but are easily explained as the records of a brilliant teacher with a profile that closely matches what we know about Jesus.
This article is adapted from The Surprising Genius of Jesus: What the Gospels Reveal about the Greatest Teacher by Peter J. Williams.