Any cursory read through the Gospels of the New Testament, except perhaps the Gospel of Mark, will present something very obvious that almost anyone who knows anything about Jesus will know: Jesus was a teacher, or more precisely, a rabbi. Regularly implied in this is a strong moral sense in which Jesus teaches about love, justice, etc. This perception of Jesus has been influential throughout the West, exemplified in many ways. Thomas Jefferson created a rendition of the Gospels that cut out everything that was miraculous but kept the moral teachings of Jesus. It is often common knowledge in the West that Mahatma Gandhi resonated with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount while lamenting the failure of Christians to follow it. The Red-Letter Christian movement has emphasized Jesus’ own teachings and actions about justice and compassion in the face of political polarization on key ethical issues, particularly in the United States. Jesus is a teacher of morals, so the West knows and so would any cursory read through of the Gospels.
Except, there is a real problem to this image if one reads the Gospels closely. Jesus plays the role of a teacher, certainly. But Jesus doesn’t really do the things we today consider key criteria for teachers, one of which is teaching clearly so that one can easily and effectively help as many people as possible understand.
Take his usage of parables for instance. It is common in the halls of a church to hear that the reason Jesus taught in parables was to make his teachings easy to understand. But if that was his purpose, then the Son of God ostensibly failed as his parables often confused more than they clarified. Jesus even had to take aside his own disciples and explain his parables to them. Apparently, his disciples even felt the need to ask Jesus why he taught in parables (Matthew 13.10). Jesus wasn’t the first rabbi to use parables so the disciples’ question wasn’t probably motivated by curiosity at some novel teaching method. It might have stemmed from the manner in which people responding to the parables, although we have little further background to that question. However, Jesus’ response in Matthew 13.11-15 actually goes against the normal trends for rabbis to use parables, which was indeed to effectively teach vital principles. Jesus spoke in parables so that the people would not understand, would be further confused. With all but those disciples who were close to him, Jesus could be defined as an obscurantist. Rather than making it easier for people to understand the secrets of the kingdom, he made it even harder.
Jesus routinely told people to keep his miracles a secret. Nicodemus in John 3 left more confused without any answers as to what it means to be born from above/again. His disciples were regularly confused by the things he said and did. If Jesus’ goal was to be understood, the Gospels record his extensive failures at this.
However, it seems to be an expectation that we bring to people we designate in the teacher role. We seek clarity, simplicity, concision, etc. The end result is a pronounced tendency to try to summarize the teachings of Jesus into some pithy moral idea, such as love, non-judgmentalism, etc. We can become tempted to treat Jesus as if he was some sort of early TED speaker, providing some big idea that will change everything. We so assume this is the way good teachers teach that we automatically fit our understanding of Jesus into this scheme.
What we don’t readily accept is that Jesus was teaching something mysterious, that is there is a reason people had a hard time understanding Jesus, including his disciples. His teaching ministry was never about giving a few words that will revolutionize your thinking; it was never about setting about a new moral framework. This becomes clear when you look at the earliest Gospel and the earliest letters in the New Testament from the Apostle Paul.
Mark’s Gospel, which the majority of scholars considers the earliest of the Gospels, is incredibly minimalistic when it comes to Jesus’ teaching, especially of moral teaching. There are spatterings of ethical teaching about divorce and to the rich young ruler in Mark 10; Jesus’ criticism of using the traditions of the elders to avoid the commandments is described in Mark 7. However, the Gospel focuses more so on the events of Jesus’ ministry and his training of his disciples, while painting a picture of the socio-political danger Jesus was wading into. The bulk of Jesus’ extended discourses pertain in some manner to describing the kingdom of God.
Why is this? Because the core purpose of the Gospel of Mark is to point towards the crucifixion of Jesus as the ushering in of God’s kingdom. Jesus’ first words were “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1.15). His last words were the cry of dereliction, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani,” before he breathed his last breath (Mark 15.33-38), after which the temple curtain was torn, causing the centurion before him to make the connection saying “This man was God’s Son.” (Mark 15.38-39) The Gospel of Mark presents the crucifixion of Jesus’ coronation as King and Lord; the cross is where the kingdom is found.
This is perhaps why Jesus tells his disciples that to be His followers they would have to deny themselves and take up the cross. (Mark 8.34). Then this gets soon followed up by a very obscure statement: “Some standing here will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” (Mark 9.1) While we might look to that as some reference to the disciples, the generic “some standing here” does perhaps point to Jesus’ own death in an obscure way: he would be one who would taste death before seeing God’s kingdom coming with power, that his own death would reveal to the disciples the way and power of the kingdom is in the cross that they too are called to take up.
We can then say that for the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ pathway to the cross is the story of God’s Kingdom. Jesus’ often obscurantist style of teaching provided words that were intelligible in speech, but what they were referring to was veiled and obscured until the events of the cross. Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God only finds its true reference, it right point of application, in Jesus’s crucifixion and God’s resurrection power that the Gospel of Mark alludes to the knowledge the early Christian communities would have already had.1
Consider also the lack of Paul’s quotations from Jesus in his epistles. His epistles certainly show evidence of knowledge about Jesus that spans beyond the crucifixion. 1 Corinthians, for instance, shows signs that Paul is aware of Jesus’ teaching about divorce (1 Cor. 7.10) and his words as part of the Lord’s Supper ritual (1 Cor. 11.23-26). I would also make the argument that in 1 Cor. 2.8 Paul casts Jesus in a common Socratic trope of the teacher of wisdom misunderstood and falsely punished to death by political powers, suggesting perhaps some knowledge about Jesus’ examination before leaders like Pontius Pilate, King Herod, the chief priests, etc. I would also contend that Paul was aware of Jesus’ baptism as a model for the baptism of people in Romans 6. Nevertheless, Paul makes rare references to the teachings of Jesus.
Why is this? Perhaps the answer is contained in 1 Cor. 11.23-12.3. In describing Jesus words at the Lord’s Supper, he exhorts the Corinthians to judge themselves when taking the Supper, probably because they had demonstrated little understanding of the significance based upon their behavior that disregarded the less fortunate of them. Then, in 12.1-3, I take Paul to be addressing the practice of a spiritual speech that would be given as these dinners, much like the Greco-Roman symposium dinners where some discussion of philosophical topics would be presented following the meal. Thus, the spiritual speech given at the Lord’s Supper, if it is truly from the Spirit, will understand the Lord’s Supper as a tradition describing how Jesus becomes Lord through the death of the cross, rather than seeing the cross an accursed state that the victims of crucifixion were considered to be under. If Jesus is coronated as Lord through an instrument of torture and control that dehumanized and shamed its victims, to act with such disregard for the less fortunate among them and forget them at the Lord’s Supper is tantamount to not really comprehending the significance of the cross. Jesus’ words about the Lord’s Supper must be understood in a dramatically different way, through the action of the Spirit.
How much more so would this be the case with the rest of Jesus’ teachings that are not immediately pointing to the crucifixion? The Corinthians, for instance, would have desired some wisdom that brought some ethical insight, just as the Roman Stoics regularly emphasized in their philosophy. But if Paul is aware of Jesus’ teachings, he isn’t eager to demonstrate it in his letter to them. Perhaps it is because one can only understand the wisdom of Jesus’ teachings by having become of a mature status in which one can comprehend and understand the things that the Holy Spirit reveals and words the Spirit teaches so that one can then have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2.6-16). But until the Corinthians can truly come to comprehend the nature of God’s power as demonstrated in the cross and resurrection that is at work in them and let go of their attachment to the prevailing wisdom and politics of their day, they would not understand the wisdom teaching, including perhaps even Jesus’ words of wisdom.
I would suggest both my read of Mark and my understanding of Paul, particularly in 1 Corinthians, makes sense historically if Jesus’ teachings were known to be often obscure, hard to rightly comprehend, and could only be rightly understood by people who themselves have taken up their own cross and allow God’s resurrection power to work in them. To understand much of what Jesus said beyond the intelligibility of the speech to what he actually meant and what he was actually referring to, to go beyond recognition of the words and their combinations to deeper comprehension, one must understand God’s Kingdom going through a cross in one’s own experience and life (and not just as an abstract hermeneutical principle) to know what His wisdom and ethics is pointing towards.
Even the scribe who agreed with Jesus in Mark 12 that the two most important commandments were to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself, going further to state they were more important than the ritual offerings sacrifices, Jesus simply says “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12.34) Even understanding the summation of Jesus’ most important ethical ideas and the valuation of love over ritual did not bring one into the kingdom, although one was closer to those who had forgotten this.
Jesus was an obscurantist rabbi, who was hard to understanding, if not impossible for most people. Everything he taught only began to make sense to the disciples after the events of His crucifixion and resurrection. While seeing Jesus as a moral teacher is convenient for discussion how the power of politics and morality should be direct, it is only in the cross, through the cross, and from the cross that Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of God, his teachings about the ways of the kingdom, begin to find their true center around which they become coherent, rightly understood, and appropriately applied.
Jesus was not a TED speaker who gives you some inspirational words that empower and motivate you; Jesus was a hard to understand, esoteric teacher that brought more confusion and chaos than he did clarity and calm. To fail to recognize this and pull the reins back about our sense of confidence about what Jesus taught and meant by his teachings leads us into the failures that much of the scholarship for the quest of the historical Jesus succumbed to: the Jesus they found was actually a self-image. In the obscurity of ambiguity, we readily impress an order and meaning that conforms to our desires and our expectations. But if the cross was the central point and significance of Jesus’ ministry, which is a point that the early church has attested to in the NT canon without as much obscurity, perhaps then when the cross becomes part of who we are in following Jesus can we then understand the more obscure and “erratic” parts of Jesus’ teachings.
- I am of the opinion that the Gospel of Mark ends at 16.8 as a narrative that is sufficient to connect the story of Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion with the eyewitnesses traditions of Jesus’ resurrection that were passed around in the early churches. 1 Cor. 15.3-11 speaks of the eyewitnesses as part of a tradition that Paul had passed to the Corinthians. Earlier on when these traditions would have been passed to the early communities, it would have been a needless reproduction to write about the plethora of eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. I am of the opinion that the Gospel of Mark was written, in part, to connect the other accounts of Jesus’ ministry and teaching that go beyond the cross and the resurrection so as to present a coherent narrative account for Jesus’ ministry. It didn’t need to tread ground already gone over, but rather it functioned to provide a connection between the teachings of Jesus and the cross.