The surprising genius of Jesus
Jesus was (and is) a genius. As a statement of fact that’s unlikely to surprise you, after all, He is the Son of God (Luke 1:35), King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:16)! And yet in a world where we’ve had Jesus’ teachings taught, analysed and criticised for the past two thousand years, sometimes we lose sight of the earth-shattering intellectual geniusness of Jesus’ message itself. His teachings would easily stand in their own right, even if we were to put Jesus’ authorship aside for a moment. Christians know Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, but have you ever stopped to think of Him as the world’s foremost intellectual powerhouse, dwarfing our Aristotles, Leonardos, Newtons and Einsteins?
Peter Williams is principal of Tyndale House in Cambridge and a Bible scholar who has previously written Can We Trust the Gospels? (Crossway, 2018), an excellent and easy-to-read defence of the historical reliability of the four Gospels.
In his new 128-page paperback, The Surprising Genius of Jesus: What the Gospels Reveal about the Greatest Teacher (Crossway, 2023), Peter Williams revisits these same Gospels and aims to surprise newcomers and even seasoned readers of the Bible with a fresh look at the sheer intellectual brilliance of the man Jesus Christ.
The genius of the Parable of the Prodigal Sons
Considering the Parable of the Prodigal Sons in Luke 15:11-32, Williams demonstrates how Jesus’ mastery of the Hebrew Scriptures comes into play in a way which would’ve spoken powerfully to His original hearers. I’m sure you’re familiar with the story, it’s one of the sublimest ever told. It’s a tale of a man with two sons. The younger son takes his share of the family wealth and heads off to a faraway land to squander it in reckless living, before coming a cropper (Luke 15:12-16). Whereas the older son sticks with his father working diligently on the farm, outwardly the model son. When the ‘prodigal’ son comes to his senses and returns to be joyfully welcomed with open arms by his forgiving father (Luke 15:17-24), the same cannot be said for his resentful and bitter older brother who wants nothing to do with him in spite of his father’s pleadings (Luke 15:25-32). And the story stops here, open-ended, leaving you to wonder whether the older son repents or not. The Father is a picture of God, showing His willingness to receive repentant sinners. The older brother represents the stuck-up, self-righteous Pharisees and teachers of the law who are amongst Jesus’ listeners (Luke 15:2).
In what is already a powerful and sophisticated masterpiece, Jesus drops in a fair few connections to stories from the book of Genesis. For the sake of keeping this within a reasonable word-count (!), I’ll just mention one about another famous (or infamous?) pair of sons, Esau and Jacob.
Look at the way in which the father comes running to meet his returning prodigal son who has taken and squandered his father’s wealth:
[He] ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.Luke 15:20 KJV
This matches an identical phrase – not used anywhere else in the Bible – in Genesis 33, where Esau runs to meet his brother Jacob. Similarly, Jacob has taken the family wealth and would definitely not be in his brother’s good books; and yet:
Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him …Genesis 33:4 KJV
You would imagine plenty of Jesus’ audience might well have made this connection with a story from the book that seems to have been a big-time favourite with first-century Jews. But that’s not all, Williams puts his scholar hat on (presumably one like this?) and points out that the original Hebrew of Genesis 33:4 has a unique construction that would’ve been familiar with the scribes in particular. The word translated as ‘and he kissed him’ has six special dots above it, therefore, the scribes in the audience would’ve had to copy out that exact line many times over as part of their basic training.
Williams goes on to point out the implication here: if an otherwise all-round bad egg like Esau could forgive his repentant brother, then why couldn’t the older brother? The older brother’s hardness of heart is evident from the way he rudely addresses his father (Luke 15:29) and effectively denies the reality of his brotherhood, ‘this son of yours’ (Luke 15:30). This makes a stark contrast with the love and kindness of the Father, running in an undignified manner to embrace his repentant son.
So this is a powerful challenge to all those who trust in their own righteousness and look down on the ‘sinners’ who come to Jesus. This is a message that is clearly the product of a mind thoroughly immersed in the Hebrew Scriptures, which Jesus had to learn and understand for Himself. Sometimes we can be tempted to just think of Christ as God and immediately attribute all His special sayings and doings to His divinity. But we mustn’t forget His humanity! He’s body, mind and soul like us. The reality was, to preach such a message, He had to put in the hard graft of study and prayer all by Himself. He was a humble carpenter from a backwater Galilean town, reliant on the Holy Spirit like us.
Yet Jesus wasn’t just a good storyteller who knew how to reach His target audience. The whole reason God came as a man in the first place was to fulfil the prophecies of a Jewish Messiah and save the human race once and for all. To die on a cross as the sacrifice for our sins and wash us clean by His blood, so that He may ‘present [us] faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy’ (Jude 24 NKJV). And He didn’t stop there. We can call on Him for help at any time of the day or night. The author of Hebrews writes:
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.Hebrews 4:14-16
Some Christians have an aversion to universities, seminaries and scholarly or intellectual analyses of the Bible. And they may well have a point, sometimes it can end up all being of the head and not the heart. I know a pastor who, for this reason, was discouraged from pursuing a BD (Bachelor of Divinity) to follow his BA, as that would make the letters after his name BA, BD – Born Again, But Dead! Maybe you’re like that and you fear ending up like the Pharisees and teachers of the law who knew Scripture inside out and yet were ‘like whitewashed tombs’ (Matthew 23:27-28). But, at the same time, you may run the risk of neglecting the use of your God-given intellect to plumb something of the depths of God’s word, leading to worship from both heart and mind. Peter Williams helps us to do exactly this from a textual perspective. I must admit I started off slightly sceptical as the author seemed to be spending a lot of time on seemingly inane details, but this feeling faded the more I got into the book and as things started to come together. The necessarily limited scope of a book this size means you’ll be left hungry for more, but it’s certainly useful as a readable introduction to the learnings we can derive from the original Greek text. Like the author’s previous book, it might also be a good one to pass on to sceptical friends.
I found The Surprising Genius of Jesus a fascinating journey of discovery across ‘Old’ and ‘New’ testaments, along with some great insights into Jesus’ teaching in this parable and others. For me it was a joy to understand more of how Jesus composed His parables and an encouragement to see how the Holy Spirit breathed them out in the form they have existed in for the past two thousand years. Good study will indeed leave you lost in wonder, love and praise!