The words of Jesus in modern verse
paraphrased and annotated by Donivan Bessinger
Any project which proposes to re-examine the words of Jesus quickly finds itself in troubled waters. Everything about Jesus is controversial in some way. What did he actually say? What did he claim himself to be?
We must rely on the existing texts, but those texts are themselves the subject of much debate. It was three hundred years before the Church consolidated certain texts into a canon of scripture. Some of the sources rejected as heretical shared a common source with those accepted as orthodox.
When there was an agreed canon of scripture, the church could then fix its interpretations of orthodoxy more rigidly, but as the church has divided, the one orthodoxy has become many. Which English translation is to be preferred is still a matter of contention among some churches. The discovery in the middle of this century of the Nag Hammadi Library and the Dead Sea Scrolls has further widened and deepened the controversies over the texts and interpretations, and new techniques of scholarship and interpretation, and new translations, will continue to emerge.
There have been many different "schools" or emphases in biblical interpretation, including form analysis, the renewed search for the historical Jesus, literary critique, and analysis of the "editorial" agendas of the writers (redaction criticism).
This project reflects what might be called a mythopoetic analysis. That does do not seek the writers' original meanings (which we cannot prove in any case), but rather the profound psychological-spiritual meaning which the text can have for us today, for the healing of our own lives. Such analysis does not seek to explain, or to explain away, the claims of tradition. It seeks instead to experience the spiritual dynamic contained in its deeper, inner, story. That dynamic can become even more clear by using the insights of analytical (Jungian) psychology.
Analyst and priest John A. Sanford was perhaps the first to take a systematic Jungian look at Jesus' words, in his book The Kingdom Within: The Inner Meaning of Jesus' Sayings (Harper & Row, revised 1987). It is very hard for me to identify exactly when the idea for this project was born, but certainly Sanford's book has had a very strong influence on it, for it opened my eyes to new possibilities.
Even though the project tries to stay very close to the Greek text, it is not a formal translation. Literal translations usually force us to read Jesus' words in the worldview of the Pharisees. But Jesus' own worldview clashed with theirs -- resoundingly! Thus, the paraphrasing process does involve a "translation" of worldviews, and requires more flexibility, especially in the use of tenses, than is usually allowed for a translator.
In this approach, one may not claim that these are the meanings intended by the writers of the Greek. One may only try to keep the meanings consistent with the way Greek words are used in the New Testament, while making reasonable allowance for the differences in worldview. Such a "marriage" of translation and interpretation is a departure from scholarly tradition, and therefore controversial. The test of success, however, will not be whether the scholarly or ecclesiastical establishments approve, but whether the poetry opens modern people to new understandings of the spiritual way of Jesus.
The worldview of this project is presented in my book Religion Confronting Science: There is an ordering principle which governs both the spiritual world (psyche) and the physical (cosmos). Science is beginning to speak of it as "strange attractors", nonlocal quantum reality, and abstract mathematical "extra" dimensions of physical reality; the Gospel of John calls it the Logos. Both psyche and physics are grounded in an eternal (non-spacetime) divine reality which binds the Cosmos into one Whole.
The words of Jesus have great and profound meaning in every English version, and one may benefit from them without knowing a word of Greek. Even so, the wide possibilities of meaning in the Greek add considerable richness. I hope the arrangement of the notes will make it easy for readers to get to this deeper poetry which lives so vividly within the original text, fully compatible with our modern understanding of the world.
The words ascribed to Jesus by the various gospels have so many levels of meaning that they defy categorizing and cataloging. Their arrangement here is psychological, not chronological or biographical.
Similar material in the several gospels is blended into one passage. The major discourses have generally been kept intact, but one should keep in mind that the "sermons" are probably collections of sayings Jesus must have used many times, as he traversed the countryside to teach in many places.
The style is informal and familiar, and it uses some modern colloquialisms. Colons (:) in the margins bracket stanzas taken from non-canonical sources. Narrative material has been kept to a minimum, so that the words of Jesus would speak for themselves.
Treatment of some of the terms requires special comment. (Refer to notes below about the way Greek words are cited.)
God the Father -- If Jesus were speaking in person today, he
undoubtedly would be sensitive to our generational wounding about gender
reference, and make allowances. The Greek text refers to God as masculine:
PatEr/3962, Father. The Aramaic “Abba” is an intimate family term (“Daddy”?).
Jesus’ attitude of intimacy with the divine is very different from the
attitudes toward deity at that time.
For me, the essence of the father idea is twofold: A father initiates creation, and is one who loves and is loved. Therefore, Jesus' references to God as Father are often rendered as Beloved Creator. Still, there are places where retaining the reference to father is important for illustrating a point of masculine psychology. These and many special references to the feminine aspect of divine work are mentioned in the sectional notes. Where personal pronouns are in italics, the reader is invited to substitute whichever form supports the most personal relationship to the divine.
Today, however, literalist Christianity, in its denial of modern cosmology, creates a conflict between ancient poetic expressions of mental experience, and contemporary literalist descriptions of physical relationships. The political agenda encoded in terms such as Intelligent Design, Creation, and Evolution has so distorted those ideas that they have become “thought-stoppers” for many people, robbing their potential for deepening our understanding of our psychological selves in cosmos.
By stepping back to a non-sectarian and non-doctrinal standpoint, one may see that the inner way of access to “the heart of the Holy” (Jn. 16; S-115.i) is consonant with modern physical and psychological understanding. There, one can see that the many different terms for the divine, the Holy, the Absolute, the All, the One, the Cosmos, need not be in conflict. No such term is ever adequate. Our understanding can never fully comprehend the whole.
Son of man -- In its ordinary meaning, the expression meant simply human being, and was a way to say "myself" (MCK; see THR re other OT uses -- these abbreviations are explained in the "Sources" section below). The spiritual/psychological context requires looking more deeply, to a principle which transcends gender. A "son of man" is an inheritor of the essence of the human, identified in Genesis as image of God. Jesus stands as pure expression of that essence. Thus, especially in the Gospel of John, son of man in reference to Jesus usually becomes Image-of-God. In the language of analytical psychology, that essence would equate with "Self" (which is to be distinguished from ego).
Lord -- In daily American English, virtually the only meaning of the word is in reference to deity or divine principle. When kyrios/2962 seems to apply to deity, the traditional "Lord" is used, just as it regularly is in modern translations of Hebrew, Moslem, Buddhist, and Hindu writings. Sometimes, kyrios is translated "sir". In the parables, kyrios as owner of an estate is usually a metaphor for divine presence and action.
Kingdom of God -- "Spiritual realm" is used where the texts speak of the kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven. There is more at work here than just avoiding a reference to king. Modern study of the unconscious indicates the complexity of workings of soul (psyche). The new physics provides extraordinary evidence of the extent to which human consciousness and the material world interact. God's realm now must be seen as the Whole of physics and psyche. This reading is faithful to the larger message of the Christian Testament. Readers who see Jesus as ruler only of a kingdom of faithful believers will be disappointed here.
Eternity -- Modern physics helps distinguish "everlasting" (a spacetime concept) from "eternal" (implying a reality dimension or state not measurable in spacetime). The Greek aiwn/0165 is a period of indeterminate time, i.e. corresponding with the realm of non-spacetime dimensions. Thus zwE aiwnion is usually rendered as timeless or eternal life, which Jesus shows us now, in the eternal dimension of the present.
Heaven and Hell -- "Heaven" (ouranos/3772) may mean
spiritual realm, sky or cosmos, or (rarely) place of reward. For angels
(aggeloi/0032), the Greek word's primary meaning is generally used: messengers,
or spiritual messengers. In a modern psychological perspective, angel
would signify a dreamlike image from the unconscious seeking to convey a
“message” to consciousness.
"Hell" is taken to mean the self-destroying aspect of evil. The spiritual fire turns on us when we ignore it and defy God's creative principles. We are punished not because of God's insensitivity, but because that is the way of the Cosmos. It has to be that way, if God's purpose (will) for the Cosmos, whatever it might be, is ultimately to be realized. Where the archetype of evil is named in Greek (Devil, Satan), it is named in English.
Religious leaders -- If Jesus' words are to be
put into the language of life today, a key problem is the scathing ridicule and
many denunciations of "scribes and Pharisees", Saducees,
"doctors of the law" (RSV: lawyers, Lk 11:46), and Levites. These
made up the religious establishment of the day, which by the gospel accounts
was rigid, exclusive, arrogant, and authoritarian. These accounts were written years after Jesus’ death, and in
support of a Church emerging as separate from Synagogue.
Since completion of the 1994 edition, I have become much more aware of how the gospel writers’ (or translators) references to “the Jews” have been used (consciously and unconsciously) to hurt Jews individually and as a people. Most definitely I do not want anything in this project to be hurtful to anyone, especially the people of Jesus’ own heritage. Rather, I want exactly the opposite, to help elevate our consciousness of a deep and universal spiritual dynamic which serves to bring all humans together as humans, beyond doctrine, while celebrating the spiritual learning value of sharing experience and understanding.
So how should a project such as this treat these passages on authoritarianism? Most likely they are not direct quotes of Jesus, especially the most strident and vituperative ones. Likely he was outspoken against religious rigidity, though the reasons for his death (under Roman, not Jewish, law) are much more complicated than that.
The Greek Judaios could have been translated as either “Judeans” or “Jews”. We don’t know what word Jesus would have used in Aramaic. Perhaps, in speaking out against authoritarianism, he had in mind the contrast between Galilean and Judean styles or traditions. He was, of course, himself a Galilean Jew, and it is unlikely that he meant to include himself among authoritarians.
Judaism generally considers the Pharisees to have provided the foundation for transition, after the fall of the Temple, from the priestly to the modern rabbinic tradition. Jesus had allies among the Pharisees (Lk 13:32). He has countless allies today as well, serving lovingly and faithfully in all sorts of religious organizations, who draw deeply from the well of living water regardless of their positions about specific theological issues.
However, no follower of Jesus today admits to being a "Pharisee," so it becomes especially hard to convey these passages in fresh language which forces us to examine ourselves and our institutions. The use of such terms as fundamentalists, literalists, and clergy is intended to express that the text seems to be aiming at self- righteousness, at rigidity of thought, and at Establishment itself. My impression of the message as a whole is that it calls people to a personal, immediate, inner-directed, non-judgmental, non-political, non-hierarchical, unmediated orientation to the image of God within.
Faith, and belief -- The word pisteuw/4100, traditionally translated
faith and belief, primarily means trust, in the sense of investment of one’s
life, and commitment at the most basic level of the personality. There is a
connotation here of rootedness in the most genuine level of personal character.
However, the influence over the centuries of the literalist approach is still
The words faith and belief now generally connote rigid acceptance of arbitrary ideas. They emphasize dogma and doctrine, and elevate "mind" religion over "heart" religion. Yet it seems that what Jesus really was talking about was trusting the spiritual/ psychological process which is a dynamic of the cosmos, or at least of our planet. Jesus calls us to trust the call of the spiritual realm within, rather than allowing ourselves to be driven by our own egos, or by the ego-structure of the prevailing belief system. He calls us to see the divine principle as the ordering center of healing for ourselves and society. Modern analytical psychology provides generic descriptions of that process, but the principles have been there in the Jesus teaching all along.
As noted in the introduction, Jesus' teaching relies heavily on poetic parallelism and imagery. However, the setting of lines follows my own personal sense of style, which seems to favor short lines. These often isolate an image or thought worthy of special meditation.
[The internet version was prepared with msWord and Internet Explorer. Regrettably, what looks “right” on Word turns out to have sporadic line-feeds on the ‘net, sometimes breaking up stanzas at unintended places. Our apologies.]
Jesus' words cannot be fixed to time or place. The synoptic gospel narratives organize the sayings into this general, partly chronological, plan:
A. Infancy and youth (Bethlehem, Egypt, Nazareth; b. 7 or 4 BCE)
B. Preparation for ministry (baptism, temptation, calling disciples, about 30 CE)
C. Galilean ministry (Nazareth, Cana, Capernaum, Sea of Galilee, etc.)
D. The Sermons (on the Mount, on the Plain)
E. The Teachings (Luke's "special section," Lk 9:51 - 18:14)
F. The Judean period (Bethany, Jerusalem)
G. Jerusalem (especially the Temple; teachings, debates)
H. Passover Week (Jerusalem; trial and crucifixion, 33 CE?)
I. The Risen Christ
Throughout the notes, sources are cited by code, as follows:
AGL -- The Analytical Greek Lexicon, London: S. Bagster & Sons Ltd, undated; using the copy my father purchased about 1929. It gives the inflection of every word in the Greek New Testament.
ATR -- A. T. Robertson: A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, Nashville: Broadman Press, 1934, cited by page number.
BRY -- George R. Berry: Greek-English Lexicon to the New Testament, published as appendix to GNT (see below).
Di -- Didache, as cited in GP (see below).
Eb -- Gospel of the Ebionites, as cited in GP (see below).
GNT -- The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament (1897), reprinted, Nashville: Broadman Press, 1982.
GP -- For the synoptic gospels, I followed the outline and division of passages of Gospel Parallels: A Synopsis of the First Three Gospels, Burton H. Throckmorton, Jr, Editor, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1979; cited by page number. This includes notes to parallels in Di, EB, OP, Th and others.
KJV -- The King James Version of the Bible
L&S -- Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (1889), Oxford, 2002. A lexicon of classical and koine Greek terms.
MCK -- Burton L. Mack: The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins, HarperSanFrancisco, 1993. [see Introduction]
MYR -- The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus, translated by Marvin Meyer, HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.
NEB -- The New English Bible with the Apocrypha, Oxford and Cambridge University Presses, 1970.
NHL -- The Nag Hammadi Library in English, James M. Robinson, General editor, HarperSanFrancisco, 1988; for its Gospel of Thomas translation by Thomas G. Lambdin.
OP -- Oxyrhinchus Papyrus, as cited by GP (see above).
PHL -- The Gospels Translated Into Modern English, J. B. Phillips, New York: Macmillan, 1961.
RSV -- Revised Standard Version of the Bible, especially The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
SHW -- Albert Schweitzer: The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, New York: MacMillan, 1968. ["He comes as one..."]
STR -- Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the [KJV] Bible with its Concise Dictionary of the Greek Testament, Nashville: Abingdon, 1977. Its Greek word list is indexed by numbers which are used also in THR and these notes.
Th -- The Gospel of Thomas (see MYR and NHL above).
THR -- Joseph H. Thayer: Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (1885/1901), reprinted, Nashville: Broadman Press, 1977(?); the most exhaustive of the lexicons mentioned; it is numerically keyed to STR Greek word list.
Also consulted, not cited:
The Holy Bible: New International Version, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988.
The Living Bible Paraphrased, Wheaton IL: Tyndale House, 1971.
The Words of Christ: An Illuminated Volume, New York: Wm Morrow, 1986, text of the New American Standard Bible.
Greek words in the New Testament are often like fireworks, exploding into a colorful cluster of possible English meanings. But it sometimes seems that there are "duds" as well, for Greek and English tense concepts do not directly correspond. It is just not possible to have a completely satisfactory word-for-word "literal" translation. Because I believe so strongly in the value of looking at the Greek meanings, I have cited many Greek words in the notes.
Which passages are “authentic” or close to the original statements of Jesus is uncertain. The degree of confidence about the earliest (“Q”) sayings hinges largely on the dating of the various Gospels, which is itself uncertain. In an important sense, all are “authentic” as part of the two thousand year old body of the mythopoetic church tradition. In some of the notes, a code letter in brackets indicates my own feeling about the passage, as follows:
- [Q] -- Quelle
(“Source”), containing a “nugget” which by scholarly consensus was very likely
in the earliest record, at the earliest of three “Q” levels. [see MCK]
- [G} -- not Q1, but a passage which seems (to me) very close to the Jesus remembered
by his friends in Galilee (including MCK’s Q2 and Q3)
- [S] -- symbolism (allegory) elaborated by the Gospel writer, serving to advance the overall
spiritual story (and not meant to be represented as “historical” in the modern sense)
- [D] -- an insertion for doctrinal reasons, during the early period of Church development
(Absence of the code means simply the absence of an opinion. A code in the introductory paragraph refers to the whole section, unless a subsection has a different code. Because of the blending – “synoptic” – process, a (sub)section coded Q might well contain some G or other material.)
- - - -
Greek words are indexed according to the STR Index Number (which arranges them in Greek alphabetical order) and that number is given with each occurrence of the word in the notes. By using this system, determined readers who are not familiar with the Greek alphabet can still have direct access to the lexicon articles (see especially THR).
Spelling Greek words: e=epsilon, E=eta; o=omicron, w=omega. Upsilon may be u, v, or y. The "H" sound is expressed by a mark, and is ignored when looking up Greek words in a lexicon.
Scripture citations: OT= Hebrew scripture (Old Testament): Deut=Deuteronomy; Ex=Exodus; Is=Isaiah; Lv=Leviticus; Mic=Micah; Ps=Psalms; Zech=Zechariah. NT= Christian scripture (New Testament): Acts=Acts of the Apostles; Cor=Corinthians; Jn=Gospel of John; Lk=Gospel of Luke; Mk=Gospel of Mark; Mt=Gospel of Matthew. Th=Gospel of Thomas.
Text citations are given by section number, and for long sections, by line number as well. Example: S-69:9 refers to line nine of section 69. Because of the blending of parallel passages, sometimes it may not be easy to identify a particular verse; one might have to refer to all of the passages blended into that section, and compare.
Dashes --- between stanzas indicate a break in context. A double asterisk ** indicates a break due to a response by listeners, indicated in the notes: R(D) response by disciples; R(Ph) by Pharisees.
Miscellaneous notation: < = from; alt=alternate; BCE=before the common (current) era = BC; CE=in the common (current) era = AD; cf=compare; e.g.=for example; fig=figuratively; GW=Gospel writer; i.e.=that is; J=Jesus; LA=line added in interpretation or for clarity; lit=literally (in GNT English); ms=manuscript; n=note; p=page; q=quoting.
Finding notes: While in the textfile click on the highlighted section number to see the notes for that section. The lower case letters in the margin relate the “stanza” to its notes. Click on the highlighted section number in the note to return to its text file.