Skip to main content


If Jesus lived today, would he have a “blog” and “followers” ? Daniel Marguerat, Honorary Professor of the New Testament at the University of Lausanne, who was invited to our Geneva Alma Mater in 2016 as part of a course on “The Historical Jesus”, set out an annotated interpretation of what today would be called the “communication strategy” of Jesus. Decoding Jesus’ use of parables and analysing his rhetoric, Daniel Marguerat portrayed a “Jesus poeta”, a creator or artisan who “went viral” and continues to do so!

For Daniel Marguerat, one of the most remarkable studies on the Historical Jesus dates back to 1863. It was written by Ernest Renan, the author of a “Life of Jesus”. Renan, a historian specializing in the first century A.D. and an archaeologist of Palestine, whose “aristocratic elitism played an essential role in the secularization of European culture”, according to Henry Laurens, a professor at the College de France, enjoyed fabulous success with this book, over a million copies of which were published in a dozen languages. It is a romantic portrayal of Jesus, seen as an radiant, spiritual figure, but one devoid of any supernatural trait, purged of everything that resists modern rationality, namely the miracles and the resurrection narratives, which for Renan are the result of a “somewhat overwrought religious imagination”.

“ ... They were extremely ignorant. They were feebleminded. They believed in phantoms and spirits. ...”

“Such was the group that flocked around Jesus on the shores of Lake Tiberias (the Sea of Galilee). The aristocracy was represented among them by a tax collector and the wife of a steward. The rest were fishermen and simple folk. They were extremely ignorant. They were feebleminded. They believed in phantoms and spirits. Jesus lived with his disciples almost exclusively outdoors. Sometimes he would get into a boat and teach his listeners, who were crowded on the shore; sometimes he would sit on the mountains that bordered the lake, where the air is so pure and the horizon so luminous. And thus the faithful group would go, wandering light-heartedly and noting down the Master’s inspirations as if plucking fresh flowers. Occasionally an innocent doubt would arise, a gently sceptical question. Jesus would silence the objection with a smile or a look. His preaching was gentle and mild, redolent of nature and the fragrance of the meadows. He loved flowers and drew from them his most charming lessons”. This image, portrayed by Renan, of Jesus teaching, a poet inspired by nature, may seem out-dated. This quest for the Historical Jesus nevertheless had its pioneers, whose research cost them their good name, and sometimes their professional position. Renan was in fact removed from his chair at the College de France. Three months after his book first appeared, 321 pamphlets had come out against his “diabolical destruction of the Catholic faith”. Yet Renan’s ambition was not so much to shatter a dogmatic image of Jesus as to present an image that was accessible to the public of his day.

Daniel Marguerat, however, does not understand the poetic dimension of Jesus in the same way as Renan. Indeed, he takes the term of poet in the literal sense, from the Latin “poeta”, from the Greek creator, maker or artisan. The poet is someone whose words have an effect. And those words strike, shock, and surprise listeners.

The Extravagance of Parables

What is his thesis ? Daniel Marguerat wants to show that Jesus taught like a sage of Israel, like a rabbi, but that his message has a singularity that contrasts with the ethics of the sages – a singularity stemming from his intense experience of the nearness of God.

Jesus spoke in parables, recalls Daniel Marguerat. He borrowed this pedagogical tool; it is not something that he invented. The Talmud, the sum of Jewish scholarship, teems with rabbinical parables, which some claim are prophetic. What is striking, though, is the number of parables attributed to Jesus: there are forty-three of them. The Talmud ascribes fewer than ten parables to even the most prolific rabbis. The choice of the parable thus constitutes a preferential teaching choice on the part of the Man from Nazareth. Because Jesus was a popular preacher, one might say, he chose a simple means of communication to evoke complex realities.

“The parable is a spontaneous comparison, born of the moment, drawn from nature or from another realm, that serves to illustrate an important thought or a general law”.

This is the definition given by the German exegete Adolf Juelicher in 1886, 20 years after Renan: “The parable is a spontaneous comparison, born of the moment, drawn from nature or from another realm, that serves to illustrate an important thought or a general law”. Is the parable then a simple little story meant to present a thought, a religious truth, or a moral law to a non-erudite public ? Arguably it is. Juelicher wanted to differentiate the parable from the allegory – by stressing the fact that the narrative material of parables is drawn from everyday life. He considered the parable a fable and, according to Daniel Marguerat, on this point he was mistaken. Because if the parable were nothing but packaging – the packaging of a deep truth – its contents would have been kept and the container discarded. Yet the parable is a circuitous form of speech, which says more and says something other than the narrative material of the story. It speaks the ineffable, that which cannot be uttered and which specifically requires poetic language. The allegory, for its part, refers to a grandeur located on another plane of reality. Another point on which Juelicher was mistaken: many parables end with a lesson. As in the parable “of the Eleventh Hour Workers” – these workers will be the first, and the first will be the last – this type of moral lesson is a set piece, worked into the flow of the catechetical transmission of the narrative within the communities of the first Christians. Today the approach to the parable is based not on a theory of comparison, but on a theory of metaphor.

Today the approach to the parable is based not on a theory of comparison, but on a theory of metaphor.

It is a theory articulated by French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, who developed phenomenology and hermeneutics, in continuous dialogue with the humanities and social sciences. The metaphor, says Ricoeur, was born of a telescoping between two planes of reality. The Kingdom of Heaven is like unto “a mustard seed that becomes a great tree”. Telescoping is introduced between a religious point and an agricultural one, providing a “living” metaphor, the speaker’s own creation, which amazes and surprises, unlike “dead” metaphors that have entered common parlance: when we speak of a chair leg, everyone understands. The “living” metaphor, on the contrary, functions as a narrative metaphor, for Ricoeur. It is the entirety of the narrative that is a metaphor. This assertion should be moderated, however, because the parables of Jesus, like the Jewish parables, also use occasional metaphors: when the owner and his workmen are mentioned in the Jewish world of the first century, the listener knows immediately that this is a metaphorical reference to the relationship between God and His people Israel.

The metaphor thus functions through a gap between two planes of reality: the Kingdom is not a mustard seed, but what happens to the seed is what happens in the Kingdom. The metaphor also creates surprise by speaking of the Kingdom from the point of view of mundane reality. And it sets up a surprise, a shock effect. What must be well understood is that the parable is related to poetry. It does not dictate behaviour, nor does it use logic, but it constructs a view of reality. It arouses the imagination and the emotions much more than thought does. It is in this that Jesus, a master of words and parables, is a poet. And the narrative parable may be of two genres: either it is the commonplace parable – farming parables – or the factual parable, having to do with a news item – a man having difficulties with his son.

A certain extravagance arises in these familiar worlds. Of course, Jesus overdoes it, emphasizes Daniel Marguerat. His extravagance is in comparing the Kingdom of God to that irrepressible process represented by the germination of the mustard seed. Jesus transfers that power from the commonplace to the Kingdom of God. And it is a dynamic that nothing and no one can stop. Jesus does not focus on the magnificence of the Kingdom, but on the smallness of the beginning. He refers to the modest beginning of the Kingdom in his activity, his healing gestures, and his words. These modest beginnings are signs of the grandeur of the kingdom that is at hand. That grandeur is also found in these introductory words, “the kingdom of Heaven is comparable to...” The parable is thus a little story worth no more than a penny, drawn from the commonplace or from a news item. For the rabbi, this little story about nothing at all signifies the words of the Torah. Rabbinical parables are a pedagogical tool put at the service of the exegesis of the words of law, notably of difficult passages from the Scripture. But this is never the case with Jesus, for whom they signify the ineffable reality of the Kingdom of God. Neither are they an illustration thereof. The painter Paul Klee said, “Art does not represent the visible, it makes visible”. In other words, art constructs a view of reality. What Paul Klee said about art may also be said of the parable: it makes the Kingdom of God visible.

The parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, does not illustrate the concept of God‘s immeasurable bounty, but makes visible the welcome of outcasts and sinners, such as Jesus lived it out. The fiction of the parable reframes reality by offering the listener a theological lecture on what is happening in the practice of Jesus. It serves to interpret the present.

For Daniel Marguerat, Jesus uses parables to signify the ineffable: the Kingdom of God. It is a speech event: it shocks and challenges by its extravagance. The Kingdom of God resides neither in the hereafter nor in the future absolute; it is revealed as exorbitance in everyday reality. 


Rhetoric of Excess: Interpretation of the Torah

The apostle Matthew produced, among other things, a programmatic series of antitheses, marked by the recurrence of the formula, “But I say to you”.In Torah exegesis, it is common practice for a rabbi to define his interpretation by differentiating it from that of his predecessors. Jesus distinguished himself by positioning himself not against the rabbis who went before him, but against the letter of the Torah or against its major interpretation, that of Moses.

We see this in the first antithesis: the reinterpretation of the prohibition against murder. The commandment to not take the life of another, the honour of another, or his good name, was radicalized by Jesus. Of course, the catechism of the rabbis also extended respect to the whole individual. But for Jesus, the use of even the most commonplace insult was worth eternal punishment, “Gehenna of fire”. For Daniel Marguerat, this type of interpretation of the Torah goes to absolutely unthinkable extremes.

The fifth antithesis targets the law of retaliation, a fundamental principle of Hebraic society, abolishing it by means of a commandment of non-resistance to violence. The principle of reciprocity laid down by the law of retaliation has for its objective to regulate the use of violence and its escalation: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, but nothing more. Jesus, for his part, totally eliminates the spiral of violence by applying a single remedy: not to answer violence with violence. The strongest similarities to this antithesis are seen in Greek Stoic ethics. In his Discourses, Epictetus defends an elitist ethics. Only the true cynic, in his resistance to pain and in his love for his aggressor, is capable of demonstrating his mastery of passions and his self-control. Seneca writes in On Anger, “it is better to pretend than to exact vengeance”. This is a pragmatic approach: renouncing vengeance can be useful, as seen from the experience of the old courtier who was able to derive benefit from it. Jesus, for his part radicalized the Torah, either by internalization, the reinterpretation of the prohibition against murder, or by abolishing the precept, in the case of the law of retaliation. But this radicalization is not linked to any pragmatic argument. Its only justification is the phrase “But I say to you”. For Daniel Marguerat, Jesus engages in a true democratization of the precept. Which, as a result, is no longer meant for a philosophical elite, but for everyone. Everyone faces this requirement. And everyone must determine whether or not the person who speaks thus speaks the truth. This creates surprise by its scathing nature. Like a parable. The listener is called upon to question himself or herself: “Based on what authority does he say that ?

The Intense Experience of the Nearness of God

“For Jesus, God is at the door. He stresses the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God”, emphasizes Daniel Marguerat. Luke: “The Pharisees asked him, ‘When, then, will the kingdom of God come ? He answered them: the kingdom of God does not come as an observable fact. No one will say, “Here it is” or “There it is”. Indeed, the Kingdom of God is among you/within you’”. The distinctive characteristic of Jesus, like John the Baptist, is to belabour this point. But unlike for John the Baptist, the Kingdom of God is not an object of speculation, not a futuristic prospect; it is present in an experientially verifiable manner, and it is the parables that make it possible to verify it. There are, however, discursive statements, which are not always easy to understand, like the one that was just mentioned: “among you or within you”. For Daniel Marguerat, “among” is simplistic, for Jesus refers to an interiority, to a community, but also to a person.

“Jesus was one of the greatest Jews in our history. But something made him change, made him stray from the path of the sages: his messianic dream”.

The first three apostles, Matthew Mark and Luke, formulate a summary of Jesus’ preaching: for Jesus, the Kingdom of God is present as an event that is at hand. The nearness of God is an irrepressible urgency. In this Jesus reconfigures the eschatological hope of his time and links it to his person. If God is so near, then everything becomes overpoweringly urgent. Standards are set aside, the reasonable no longer reigns, compromise through obedience is no longer licit, because everything should be about satisfying the will of God, and because it is a question of life or death. One no longer compromises. Among the Jewish approaches to the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, the subtlest and most perceptive is certainly that of Joseph Klausner, an erudite Jew from the twentieth century: “Jesus was one of the greatest Jews in our history. But something made him change, made him stray from the path of the sages: his messianic dream”. What bothers Klausner is not Jesus’ claim to be a messiah; rather, it is the conviction that the kingdom of God is at hand. For Klausner, this nearness unleashed the urgency that caused Jesus to engage in folly. From whence the extravagance in the parables, from whence the excess in the interpretation of the law ? The fact that the law may make requirements, but without exceeding what is reasonable, that perspective is unique to Jewish wisdom. God claims his own so that they can achieve. On this point, says Klausner, Jesus crossed the limit of what was reasonable; he proved unworthy in the face of traditional ancestral wisdom. It is here that the thinkers diverge. Was Jesus possessed by a messianic dream that caused him to swing toward utopianism, toward an unreasonable ethic, toward imagining a kingdom at hand, or does extravagance translate into a unique spiritual experience, making it concrete ? Opinion remains divided.

What is certain, though, concludes Daniel Marguerat, is that Jesus the poet is the author of words that change the commonplace, of a wisdom that surpasses the limits of the reasonable, of an excess that encourages us to discern God in the world.