Jesus and His Shocking Personal Pronouns

As part of a past seminar for my Doctor of Ministry degree, I was asked to read Oskar Skarsaune’s book In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002]. In a section of his book, Skarsaune includes some very stimulating discussion on the relationship between Jesus and Wisdom/Torah, and he highlights the rather startling way in which Jesus employed personal pronouns. What follows here are just two of my gleanings from that brief section of Skarsaune’s excellent book, as well as some expansions of my own.

  1. Jesus’s use of the first person subjective pronoun “I” was often wildly and disturbingly radical for his hearers.

Skarsaune quotes a Swedish Jewish rabbi named Marcus Ehrenpreis (1869-1951), who wrote some instructive and rather breathtaking reflection on Jesus’s use of the pronoun “I”:

A difference [between Jesus and the Jewish rabbis] appears immediately that from the very beginning constituted an unbridgeable wall of separation between Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus spoke in his own name. Judaism, on the other hand, knew only one I, the divine Anochi [Hebrew for “I”] who gave us the eternal commandments at Sinai. No other superhuman I has existed in Judaism other than God’s. Jesus’ sermons begin, “I say to you.” The prophets of Israel introduced their preaching, “Thus says the Lord.” Here is a difference that goes to the inner core of religion. . . . Jesus’ voice had an alien sound that Jewish ears had never heard before. For Judaism, only the revealed teaching of God was important, not the teacher’s personal I. Moses and the prophets were human beings encumbered with shortcomings. Hillel and his successors sat on the seat of Moses. Every leading scholar is a link in an unbroken chain of tradition that stretched from Moses to our own time. Jesus seemingly breaks this chain and begins a new one. A man arose in Israel who cried, ‘I say to you.’ This was the new and strange element that arose between Jesus and the Pharisees.

[Translated by Oskar Skarsaune and cited on p. 330 of In The Shadow of the Temple. The original is from Marcus Ehrenpreis, Talmud, Fariseism, Urkristendom (Stockholm: Hugo Gebers Förlag, 1933), 108-10].

So where Isaiah and Amos and Jeremiah and the other prophets saw themselves (entirely correctly) as representatives of God, saying “thus says the Lord,” Jesus saw himself as having the right to dispense with third person references (“he says”) in favor of the 1st person (“I say”). To help us understand something of the shocking effect that Jesus’s first person references had on his hearers, Skarsaune points us to Mark 1:22:

[Jesus] taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

Still on the subject of Jesus’s use of “I,” compare a section of M Avot 3:2 (a Second Temple-era Jewish text) with what Jesus says in Matthew 18:20.  Here is the section from M Avot 3:2, highlighted for our purposes:

Rabbi Chananya ben Teradyon says: Two who are sitting together and there are no words of Torah [spoken] between them, this is a session of scorners, as it is said (in Psalm 1:1): ‘[Happy is the man who has] not . . . sat in the session of the scorners.’ But two who are sitting and there are words of Torah [spoken] between them, the Divine presence rests with them.

In Matthew 18:20, Jesus said,

For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.

If Jesus was aware of the oral tradition recorded in M Avot 3:2 (which he probably was) then his statement in Matthew 18:20 becomes all the more radical, for Jesus was claiming for himself the “divine presence” that the rabbis had only dared speak of in third person terminology.

  1. Jesus’s use of the first person objective pronoun “me” was sometimes equally as shocking to his hearers.

Skarsaune points out that “the prophets could ask people to turn to God, to come to God for help and rest” [Skarsaune, In The Shadow of the Temple,  331]. But Jesus invited people to himself: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28).

Further, instead of sticking with rabbinic precedent and encouraging people to take on the yoke of Torah, the rabbi Jesus invited people to take on his own personal yoke: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me” (Matthew 11:29).

And further, says Skarsaune, whereas the prophets could only speak of being “persecuted for God’s sake, or for his Name’s sake, or for the Torah’s sake; Jesus spoke about being persecuted and even losing one’s life for his sake.” [See Matthew 5:11-12, 10:18; Mark 13:9; where Jesus speaks of being persecuted for “my sake” and on “my account.”]

All of this points strongly to what the believer already knows: Jesus is God in the flesh, speaking with divine authority in the first person. No wonder he shocked and startled and rankled so many people, as he still does today.




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