THESAUROS :   Treasure

The words of Jesus in modern verse

paraphrased and annotated by Donivan Bessinger

Have you understood all these stories?
Everyone who learns through them
to decipher the words of Spirit
 Becomes head of a household
Who keeps turning up treasure --
new and old.


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1. Ministry -- Sections 1 - 20
2. Spiritual Life -- Sections 21 - 30
3. Lessons about Life -- Sections 31 - 49
4. The Realm of Spirit -- Sections 50 - 73 , 74
5. Spiritual Mystery -- Sections 75 - 92
6. Unity in the Spirit -- Sections 93-119

Commentary, Sources

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In our contentious and uncertain world, we are in danger of loosing our sense that life is meaningful and the spiritual quest valid. For two thousand years, the words of Jesus have been a spiritual treasure speaking to such emptiness of spirit. For many secular people, overwhelmed by modern knowledge and turned off by old doctrines, the Jesus words have become “just words”, mere words. Even for some religious literalists, the spiritual depth of Jesus' teachings seems to be missed altogether.

The spiritual situation in Palestine two thousand years ago was surprisingly like the present. Galilee was a place of cultural and political ferment, where a variety of Greek and Hebrew traditions mixed and clashed under the Roman occupation. The Hebrew "fundamentalists" were trying to keep their hold on the people, but it was a time of uprootedness and spiritual emptiness.  Many prophets and teachers had rushed into that vacuum. Why do we remember, or care about, the one named Jesus?

Who was he, anyway? That, of course, is a question which has occupied theologians ever since. Today it remains a question which can only be answered individually, for as Albert Schweitzer reminded us so eloquently at the beginning of the twentieth century, we cannot recapture him precisely in an historical sense:

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, he came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: "Follow thou me." He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is. [SHW]

Any person today who wants to know the ineffable mystery of Jesus and his teaching must look to his words, recorded in the Gospel accounts of his life. Unfortunately, we cannot be sure exactly what Jesus said. The gospel authors do not always agree as to the words or the context in which they were spoken. But there are other problems as well.

Modern scholarship has raised many questions about the origins and authenticity of the Jesus words. There are various layers of source material, dating from different periods. Scholars have identified the oldest sayings, called "Q" from the German word Quelle, meaning source. However, for the most part, the voice of the Jesus who speaks through the gospels is a literary voice, not the voice of the literal historical person. [MCK]

But there is an even more difficult problem for the modern mind. Traditional translations force us to read Jesus' words in the context of an ancient worldview. The concepts of psychological healing and wholeness, so central to Jesus' teaching and so needed in our own time, are often lost in the "code words" of traditional doctrinal language. Somehow, we have to translate worldviews as well as language, if we are to find modern meaning in the words of Jesus.

The voice of Jesus which speaks to us today is a timeless spiritual mythopoetic voice, speaking from the treasure of meaning contained in the blend of the gospels together. If, as that voice says, spiritual truth is a law of love, neither literal nor legalistic, we must look behind ancient doctrinalism, and beyond historical reductionism, to search for the poetic truth of the words.

Jesus is not usually considered to have been a poet, but the gospel writers use many rhetorical devices and figures of speech to point to poetic meaning. The Greek words often form vivid word-pictures which prose translation cannot capture. The frequent parallelism in the original text is a characteristic feature of Hebrew, Greek, and other poetry. Why then, if we are to set the Jesus words into modern language, should they not also be set into poetic form?

The voice which I hear in the Jesus words is the voice of one who has experienced, and fully identified with, the transformative spiritual healing reality at the deepest level of being, and who teaches us the way to that awareness. It is a voice which calls modern people toward spiritual wisdom and toward compassionate engagement with life. It is a voice which is always sensitive to the needs of his listeners, but is hardly ever somber or solemn. Sometimes it conveys scathing ridicule, especially of legalistic traditionalists. Though the purpose is always serious and the teaching profound, the tone is often wry, and at times quite funny. It is a voice which deserves to be heard anew, poetically, in the language of our day.

These, then, were the thoughts and tensions which led me to undertake this paraphrase. The project is a personal quest, and this is a personal document. Though based on the Greek-English New Testament, it claims no authority other than the power of the words themselves. I share it hoping that some others, too, will find anew that here indeed is a Treasure, not of "just" ancient words, but of just words which still convey great power to draw us together, beyond doctrine, toward the way of goodness, justice, and healing.

                                          Donivan Bessinger


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 Commentary, Sources

    [rev. 2006]