- What did Jesus mean? Explaining the Sermon on the Mount and the parables in simple and universal human concepts by Anna Wierzbicka
The book under review is yet another massive tome from Australian National University’s prolific Polish-born multilingual linguist. With numerous articles and an impressive 20 books to her credit, especially in the areas of cross-cultural semantics and pragmatics, the author continues along her previously established line of investigation by examining the meaning of Jesus’s metaphors, hyperboles, paradoxes, and parables (= ‘key sayings’) from the perspective of basic, universal linguistic concepts. Wierzbicka first suggested some 30 years ago, following up on Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz’s (1646–1716) idea of an alphabet of human thoughts, that the meaning of a lexeme in any language contained but one of fourteen semantic primitives, viz. basic human concepts which could be understood without any circular definitions. The original fourteen fundamental undefinables were: ‘want; don’t want; feel; think of; imagine; say; become; be a part of; something; someone; I; you; world; this’ (Semantic primitives, Frankfurt: Athenäum, 1972, p. 15–16). By 1980, ‘feel’ was dropped from the list (Lingua mentalis, New York: Academic Press, 1980). Subsequently, three more were added: ‘know; place; time’. By 1997, she had postulated about 60 undefinables (Understanding cultures through their key words, Oxford: Oxford University Press), and, strangely enough, ‘feel’ is back in (465, n. 2).
This publication, to use the writer’s own words, launches the new field of semantic exegesis, which has to do with the nature of conceptual primes (6). At the heart of W’s thesis is a theme mentioned over and over again—Jesus’s ‘thinking was heavily embedded in the Jewish culture of first-century Palestine, its norms, its traditions, and its expectations’ (9), and ‘ “wild” hyperboles and “absurd” metaphors were part and parcel of the cultural tradition to which Jesus belonged’ (456). Let us examine, for instance, the metaphor of ‘fatherhood’ in the Gospels. Wis correct to point out that calling God Father ‘was deeply embedded in the patriarchal culture’ of the times (12), and she also affirms that Jesus’s conception of Abba (‘father’ in Aramaic) consists of a number of basic concepts, such as ‘I want to say some things to You; You are someone not like people; You are someone good’, etc. (237). She asserts that Jesus’s use of Abba is distinctive and preserved as such in the Greek New Testament (229).
Let us now turn to the well-known phrase ‘hallowed be thy name’ in The Lord’s Prayer (237–41). She asks: ‘How might one explain this idea to speakers of languages that have no words corresponding to “holy” or “hallow”?’ (237). The answer W proposes is as follows: ‘I know: You are someone good; no one else is like You; nothing else is like You’ (238). Like an evangelist desperately hoping for new converts, she proclaims: ‘the message of the Gospels . . . is a timeless and universal message that can be articulated in universal human concepts (such as good and bad, do and happen; and know, want, and think), without recourse to any metaphors whatsoever’ (233). [End Page 226]
To be sure, W has been thinking about theological subjects for a long time. She defined ‘god’ as ‘someone who is not a part of the world and who can do what he wants with it’ in Semantic primitives (1972: 13). This work has a much more elaborate (Judeo-Christian-Islamic) definition: God is someone . . . someone good . . . not like people . . . no one else like this someone . . . eternal . . . , etc. (21). However, one cannot help but wonder what an ancient Egyptian (polytheist) would make of all this? One of W’s major conclusions with which I am in agreement, though, is that the New Testament must be seen in light of the Old Testament, and ‘only by learning to understand the Jewish background of Jesus’ ways of speaking . . . can we hope to present it in a form...