Book

What Did Jesus Mean?

Anna Wierzbicka

Published in print May 2001 | ISBN: 9780195137330
Published online November 2003 | e-ISBN: 9780199867905 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/0195137337.001.0001

Series: AAR Cultural Criticism Series

What Did Jesus Mean?

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This book explores the meaning of Jesus’ key sayings and parables from a radically new perspective – that of simple and universal human concepts, found in all languages. Building on modern biblical criticism in general and the vast literature on the Sermon on the Mount and the parables in particular, the author also brings to the task a close knowledge of recent developments in linguistics, anthropology, and cultural psychology. Her explanations of “what Jesus meant” build on her work as the author of many books on cultural diversity and the universals of language and thought.

Rejecting the fashionable view that it is impossible to know what Jesus meant, the book draws on modern linguistic semantics to show that the question both makes sense and can be plausibly answered. The picture of Jesus’ teaching which emerges from this book is traditional in some respects and radically new in others. The author's analysis brings into sharper focus the originality of Jesus’ ethical teaching, often obscured by superficial parallels drawn with other traditions.

The book analyzes the meaning of Jesus’ metaphors, hyperboles, and paradoxes against the background of the traditions of Jewish prophetic speech, and it shows the universal scope and relevance of Jesus’ teaching.

Jesus’ message is universal, but to understand it we need to understand Jesus’ Jewishness, and in particular, we need to understand that the New Testament world of discourse includes rhetorical conventions that are unfamiliar and even alien to the modern Western reader. This applies also to the prophetic Drohrede, which sometimes seems to announce God's final verdict but in fact expresses, to use the words of the Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide, “a deep longing for the salvation and welfare of Israel” – Israel and the whole world.

This book argues that if Jesus’ teaching is to be intelligible to people of all nations, it needs to be seen both in its cultural context and in a universal perspective. It also shows that this can be facilitated through the use of universal human concepts. The use of these tools opens an entirely new perspective on the study of the Gospels, and especially on the meaning of Jesus’ sayings.

Keywords: Jewish prophetic speech; linguistic semantics; originality of Jesus’ ethical teaching; prophetic Drohrede; universal human concepts

Book.  525 pages.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Biblical Studies

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Table of Contents

Introduction in What Did Jesus Mean?

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The Beatitudes in What Did Jesus Mean?

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Other Key Sayings in What Did Jesus Mean?

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The Lord's Prayer in What Did Jesus Mean?

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The Sower in What Did Jesus Mean?

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The Leaven and the Mustard Seed in What Did Jesus Mean?

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The Prodigal Son in What Did Jesus Mean?

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