“…whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him…”
“I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
“…the kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force…”
For nearly two thousand years, serious students of the Bible have struggled with the meaning of these and other difficult sayings of Jesus. Present-day Orthodox Christians who seek to understand such challenging words have traditionally been faced with a dilemma. They can attempt to wade through the teachings of the Church Fathers, which are solidly Orthodox but often hard to read and written for a different time and culture than today. Or, they can read a modern commentary by a Protestant or Roman Catholic scholar, which are often readable but seldom reflect the mind of the Orthodox tradition. Serious, in-depth biblical commentary by modern Orthodox scholars is extremely rare.
Until now, that is.
Orthodox biblical scholar Daniel Fanous has done us a great service by publishing Taught by God: Making Sense of the Difficult Sayings of Jesus (Orthodox Research Institute, 2010). In this work, Fanous tackles fifteen of Jesus’ most difficult sayings. In doing so, he is not afraid to consult the best of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and even Jewish scholarship. But his interpretations are informed primarily by the Fathers of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Most importantly, Fanous grounds his understanding of Jesus’ sayings in their Galilean and Aramaic context of Jesus’ words, knowledge of which is critical to arriving at a valid interpretation. His conclusions are solidly Orthodox while at the same time faithful to the original cultural and linguistic setting of the New Testament and also relevant to our own time.
The bibliography of this book is an impressive thirteen pages in length and contains enough titles to fill the library of a fairly large house. But what struck me most about Taught by God is its readability. As someone who has struggled through many a dry, boring biblical commentary, I can assure you that you will not get bored-not even close-reading this one. Fanous’ writing style is crisp and concise, sometimes even eloquent. As a sample, I will leave you with the final sentences on Fanous’ Chrysostomesque reflection on Jesus’ saying “the Father is greater than I”:
It is in this which the disciples are to rejoice. It is only because the Father is greater, that humanity is to break forth in joy. Humanity is to rejoice for One of their own, who is less than the Father, has returned to His glory, and in doing so has glorified humanity. Humanity is to rejoice, for now its King will be enthroned. Humanity is to rejoice, for in seeing the One who is sent, it has seen the Greater who sends Him. Humanity is to rejoice, for it has come face to face with the Living God who previously declared: “no man shall see Me, and live.” Humanity is to rejoice for through Jesus it still lives.My sincere hope is that Dr. Fanous will produce more volumes like Taught by God, discussing more of Jesus’ difficult sayings, and then those of St. Paul and the other Apostles.