The Structure of the Real

In the face of the widespread critique of traditional religion in the modern and post-modern world, one of the only options generally permitted Christianity in the 21st century is to re-activate the original memory of Jesus[1] and thereby return to the radical core of truth and that had to be repressed in order for the institutional Church to establish itself.[2]And in attempting to perform this task, it will here be shown how to isolate the ‘original’ Jesus from his inscription in the Church tradition proper,[3] by disclosing a scandal of revelatory proportions within the earliest beginnings of Christianity. For in recalling the sacred irreverence that sits at the heart of Jesus’ teachings, this paper will uncover the forgotten truth of this 1st century messianic prophet, and elucidate the crazy wisdom that lies buried even now beneath the ossified religious structures of the institutional Church.

And so, in the wake of the current fashionable trend of claiming to uncover the ‘real’ Jesus[4] this essay will dig into the formative events that gave rise to the early Church and discover the original form of Jesus’ provocative teachings in a way that recaptures the elusive voiceprint of this subversive wisdom teacher[5] from Nazareth. For by turning to the recorded teachings of Jesus, the primary aim of this paper is to unearth a ‘formal structure’ that holds true for the all of Jesus’ most memorable parables and aphorisms as recorded in the synoptic gospels. By way of a simple re-construction of the paradoxical reversals that underpin the deep structure of almost all of Jesus’ more remarkable teachings, it will be argued that there is a coherent pattern of truth within the very origins of the Christian faith tradition that can provide an insight into his challenging vision of God’s kingdom and access to the mind of the one who is confessed to be Christ.

Put simply, by way of a simple structural analysis of almost all of the parables and the most well-known aphorisms in the synoptic gospels, I argue that a “language of paradox” provides a formal indication of the singular logic at work in the core teachings of the historical Jesus. And as such, I show that it is now possible to re-discover a ‘source code’[6] for Jesus’ teachings with the skillful use of paradoxical statements that perplex and disrupt our ordinary “horizons of intelligibility” with unexpected reversals of meaning. And in demonstrating that a language of paradox corresponds perfectly to those “criteria of authenticity”’ developed by the Jesus Seminar[7] to determine what is historically accurate about the teachings attributed to Jesus, I argue that the parabolic language of Jesus unhinges the binary categories of conventional wisdom in a way that can preserve the true meaning of the Christian faith while disclosing the revolutionary logic at the core of this Jewish prophets own awakening to the radical mystery of God’s kingdom.[8]


To begin, as much modern historical Jesus scholarship attests, there are at least two things about the figure of Jesus that are beyond historical doubt: 1) that he was crucified and 2) he spoke in parables.[9] And so irrespective of whether or not Jesus ‘rose from the dead’ after the crucifixion it is generally accepted by all historical scholars (theistic and atheistic) that he was a teacher who communicated his message primarily by way of parables. For instance, in the Gospel of Matthew we read: “All this Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed he said nothing to them without a parable.”[10] Coming from the Greek word parabole, the primary meaning of the word parable is ‘comparison’ and it is well documented that the parables of Jesus were a teaching device that made comparisons between an eternal transcendent reality and the familiar everyday experiences common to the people of his day.[11]

Nevertheless, while it is virtually uncontested that Jesus spoke in parables, it is also vital to recognize that none of the gospel writers were eyewitnesses to the parabolic speech acts of the historical Jesus. For the parables that have been written down and handed onto us were originally oral texts that were created by Jesus for the immediate historical situation in which they were delivered. So while we have virtually no access to the exact words spoken by the historical Jesus, his more memorable teachings were “remembered, retold, and finally written down and circulated among the early Christian communities”[12] approximately 40 and 70 years after his death. And where no single written text of Jesus’ parables represents less than 40 years of oral transmission and re-construction from within the socio-political situation of the early Christian communities, it will here be argued that the parabolic teachings recorded in the synoptic gospels are so distinctive in their underlying structure that it seems reasonable to conclude that they survived this process of oral and written transmission with their original linguistic form still intact.

From the outset, then, it is agreed by virtually all parable scholars that Jesus of Nazareth is the one who proclaimed the Kingdom of God. For not only do many of the parables begin with an express, or implied comparison, “The Kingdom of God is like…” but they clearly have the Kingdom of God as their ultimate reference point.[13] However, before going on to disclose the linguistic structure that inspired Jesus open invitation to the Kingdom of God, it is first necessary to describe the ‘brush strokes’ of Jesus style as a word artist and a teacher of parables, so that we may begin to distinguish between what might be the authentic teachings of the historical Jesus and what are post-Easter embellishments, insertions and additions from within the early Christian communities.

There are a number of points in which the parables of Jesus show such originality and vividness that suggest to us that no one but Jesus could have created them. First of all we find such distinction in their ‘directness of address’ to their audience. Jesus often begins his parables with challenging questions, such as “Which one of you?” or “What woman?” or “Who then is the faithful and wise one?” which by engaging his hearers and putting them on the spot, make them ready for a response. Furthermore, the parables are themselves front and center bearers of the message of Jesus, so much so that the parable itself is the preaching, a direct communication of Jesus own experience of God that leaves little or no need to interpret, clarify of apply his teachings. For this reason, we find in the gospel accounts that he taught as “one having authority, and not as the scribes”[14], which gives further indication of the unique character of Jesus teachings. Another point of distinction is that the parables of Jesus are not used for argumentation, philosophical dialectics or Socratic dialogue, so much so that there is little previous learning that Jesus’ hearers need to bring to the occasion of his teaching. And as we saw above, the parables are thoroughly theological or God-centered in announcing the coming of the Kingdom. Importantly, however, while being God-centered the parables of Jesus do not get involved in descriptions of God’s qualities or attributes. God is rather an immediate and deeply familiar reality to Jesus, a reality is disclosed through the use of striking but common place metaphors in a much more powerful way than ordinary propositional language about the nature of God. And the final point of feature of merit in Jesus teachings about the Kingdom is that there is always an element of surprise or discovery in the way that the ends, wherein the behavior described by the main players in the plot is almost always shocking, offensive or atypical.[15]

In essence, then, for Jesus the parable was a window on this new world that he called the Kingdom of God. And as we will see, in his proclamation of the coming of God’s kingdom, for Jesus the logic of life had been radically revised in order to bring about an altogether new figure of Reality in which our desire to control the mystery of God is regularly frustrated as our everyday expectations are turned on their head.[16] For Jesus spoke about the coming of the Kingdom in a language that virtually nobody – including his disciples of many occasions, could quite understand.In spite of this, however, the claim here is that with a simple elucidation of a dynamic pattern within the parabolic system as a whole, we can now reveal the true nature of Jesus’ experience of the Kingdom[17], where the love of God is the paradoxical center of a radically empty horizon.

Before turning to this analysis of the deep structure of Jesus’ parables, first we will summarize the more notable insights gathered by New Testament and historical Jesus scholars in modern times. The modern interpretation of the Jesus parables begins with the critical-historical insight that the authors of the synoptic gospels buried much of the parabolic teachings of Jesus beneath an overgrowth of moral allegory and hermeneutic application when constructing their literary narratives. And as such, by peeling back layers of tradition and exposing the ways in which the early church altered and reinterpreted the parables in various ways (allegorical, hermeneutic, moral, and political, etc), it has been argued by many prominent parable scholars that the original power and revolutionary force of Jesus language has been lost and reduced to a series of moral or allegorical lessons, as Perrin states, “the parables are allegorized and moralized in the Christian traditions to a point at which one can live with them and draw helpful lessons from them.”[18]

One of the more significant consequences of this ‘downward translation’ of the original parables from the beginning of their oral transmission, is an emerging consensus amongst contemporary Jesus scholars such as Funk, Wilder and Crossan that practical advise and moral preaching is almost completely foreign to Jesus authentic pronouncements on the Kingdom of God.[19] There is very little evidence in the parables of Jesus to suggest that he intended to give a series of moral maxims or lessons in living an ethical life, or that he offered a structured program for achieving ones worldly plans. So rather than speaking in objective and descriptive terms about the ways of God’s kingdom, Jesus spoke obliquely or indirectly and consistently refused to be explicit about the advent of the Kingdom.[20] So while the uniquely creative language that Jesus fashions is enigmatic and open-ended, it “arrests the hearer by its vividness or strangeness… leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”[21]

In furthering this more modern approach to the original intent of Jesus’ teachings, there is also an emerging scholarly consensus (Funk, Dodd, Wilder and Crossan) that maintains the parables are primarily poetic-metaphors, which means they are more than merely linguistic signs pointing to an objective referent. As Wilder explains, “a true metaphor or symbol is more than a sign, it is a bearer of the reality to which it refers.”

Review & Commentary