In order to communicate effectively, our speech must be clear and unambiguous. That is why believers tend to view the language of the Bible as a report: black and white, exact, without embellishments; just a dry sequence of facts.
According to some this is what the language of truth is like: a plea for naïve simplicity or scientific expression, as opposed to artistry.
However, when reading the Bible, we notice that even its prose surprises us with literary subtleties. In a report, they would be sanctioned for being gross lies, worthy of punishment or involuntary commitment. In literature, however, they have the role of giving life to the message, making it attractive and memorable.
Cryptic language, present throughout the Bible and especially in apocalyptic literature, appears frequently in the speech of Jesus.
In general, Bible readers and religious people are accustomed to the idea of mystery, which is both a secret and a confession: a discovery of the truth in a hidden form. The clarity of the message also depends on the cultural expectations of the reader. Many verbal artistic expressions are not in themselves cryptic, but some are perceived as such because of our inexperience, or because of cultural differences in space and time. Sometimes, the cause is the speaker’s intention to hide their message, by encrypting it, as a communication strategy.
How did Jesus encrypt His messages?
Jesus, the Son of David, was incomparably “greater than Solomon” (Matthew 12:42). In fact, He presents Himself as God in His wisdom (Luke 11:49; 1 Corinthians 2:7). Just as the third collection of books in the Hebrew Bible (Hebrew Kəṯūḇîm, “Scriptures”) contains poetry, literature of wisdom, moralizing history, and the book of the sage Daniel, Jesus’s communication strategy also included a wide range of expressions typical of the Oriental sages.
Jesus spoke “in parables”. His famous parables were didactic illustrations. However, “in parables” means much more. The classical Hebrew term māšāl (likeness) means a proverb, a saying, a comparison, a parable, and a didactic poem. The term ḥiyḏā (sharpening) means riddle, enigma, ‘ambiguous and allusive saying’, and moralizing historical poem. All this leads to deep meanings that put the mind to the test. The way Jesus spoke “in parables” was sometimes interpreted by some as odd because they refused to accept His message (Mark 3:21-22).
Jesus spoke “in parables”
Jesus’s language was filled with comparisons (John 5:21), metaphors (Matthew 5:29a; 13:42), personifications (Luke 19:41-44), ironies (Matthew 7:3; Luke 13:32-33), insults (Matthew 23:33), sarcasm (Matthew 23:27), and hyperbole (Matthew 11:11, 23), often combining multiple figures of speech. His discourse also contained even more confusing figures of speech, such as the antiphrasis (Mark 14:41; Luke 8:10), the typology (John 3:14; 6:57), the dramatic metaphor (Matthew 26:26-28), the complex or paradoxical analogy (Mark 2:25-26; John 10:34-36, cf. Psalm 82), and the mythological image (Mark 9:43; 10:28; Luke 12:5; Luke 16:23). Usually, they are very superficially understood or even completely misunderstood by literalists.
We are not trying to explain every problem that such language encounters. First of all, we need to consider who is the Sage who speaks in the gospels. If Christ is the Word of God (and He is!), we may not be able to name and explain all the possible reasons why He preferred to speak “in riddles”. Nevertheless, we will try, within the limits of our understanding of this phenomenon.
Did Jesus want to shock and scandalize? We believe so. In fact, even the aspects of His divine-human identity and personality—born of a virgin, living only for the glory of God and the happiness of others; letting Himself be crucified, although He was omnipotent, and so on and so forth—are more than shocking.
Ever since the beginning of His ministry, many have been outraged by His attitude and claims. So, why should we be surprised that Jesus needed to raise the human mind to a higher level of thought? What philosophers try to do through abstract language, which bores or puts the common individual to sleep, Jesus did with words that can be understood by any mortal—after being shaken, shocked, and scandalized first.
We cannot imagine that Jesus planned to shock out of a delayed, naughty, or extravagant teenage spirit. His personality and speech attracted crowds, even the seemingly hostile. “No one ever spoke the way this man does” (John 7:46). First, through such language, He sought to arouse interest in His favourite subjects. More often than not, behind outrageous sayings stand even more outrageous truths, so our real problem with Jesus’ sayings is not primarily epistemological. Jesus said: “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7:17).
Another reason why Jesus spoke in “riddles” is because He wanted His message to be memorable. Therefore, He first provoked through communication strategies that aroused curiosity and opened the mind. Thus anchored in a clever saying, the teaching became memorable.
Jesus knew the incomparable value of His teachings, so He presented them as hidden treasures. People may “accidentally” stumble upon the treasure and it becomes theirs, only after giving up everything they have, to buy the place in question (Matthew 13:44). The treasure does not appear to anyone out of the blue, nor can it be stolen.
Jesus knew the incomparable value of His teachings, so He presented them as hidden treasures.
This method of encrypting the message was also a measure of protection for Jesus. In this way, He could convey messages that anyone could understand, but He could not be accused of anything, because the witnesses had to repeat His words, not their inference. Still, even for enemies, His most encrypted expressions were quite understandable, since, in the end, He was condemned on their basis, after they were intentionally twisted (Luke 20:16, 19; Mark 14:57-59; John 2:19-22, cf. Matthew 27:63).
Finally, Jesus’s speech that was in “riddles” was also a process of selecting the audience (Mark 4:13). Many gathered around Him just to receive some food and hoped that He would solve their material problems. To paraphrase, Jesus would answer, “I am poor too; I have no place to lay My head,” or, “The real home is above,” and, “The true bread is My body” (Luke 9:57-58; John 6:26-27, 41-42, 45, 52, 60-68).
Jesus’s language was in keeping with the messages He expressed. On the one hand, “Do not throw your pearls to pigs” (Cf. Matthew 7:6; 13:10-17). On the other hand, “With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand” (Mark 4:33). Therefore, the cryptic speech of Jesus was a versatile adaptation to the human mind of both then, and now.
Florin Lăiu is happy to be able to understand the unusual expressions of Jesus, but, even if he did not understand, he would trust the One who spoke like no other.