Essay / Theology

The Words of Jesus

Rudolf Ewald Stier wrote a unique commentary back in the nineteenth century. According to his biography, it began as an exposition of Jesus’ chief parables, but Stier found so much power in the parables that he decided to write a commentary on every word spoken by Jesus as recorded in the New Testament. The series, The Words of Jesus, grew to eight volumes.

Stier was an interesting theologian with an independent kind of mind. More conservative than the established church he was ministering in, he was nevertheless utterly familiar with all the latest critical scholarship. In his earliest publications, he struggled to find the right way to express his insights. But gradually he found his voice, and the Words of Jesus project seemed to present itself as the perfect task. Here, he felt, he could dig as deeply into the very words of Scripture as he desired to, for these were the very words of Jesus himself, and even nonchristian scholars would admit that these words were worthy of special attention.

He chose as his epigraph for the series Isaiah 52:6, “I am He that doth speak; behold it is I.”

In the preface to the revised edition of the first volume, Stier said,

The great and fundamental deficiency of nearly all learned exegesis, with which mine must for ever differ, is its misapprehension of the depth and fulness of meaning which, in accordance with its higher nature, necessarily belongs to every word of the Spirit.

The theological establishment of the time was rather liberal, priding itself on its impeccably scientific status and denigrating work like Stier’s. Stier had more than enough confidence to keep steadily at his own task, but he felt the sting of the rejection:

The spirit and design of this exposition is purely and properly exegetical; and all who, like myself, adhere firmly to this, may be justified in making it their glory. To be inveighed against by enemies, and blamed by friends, for reading and understanding the Old Testament as Christ and His Apostles read and understood it,is an honour for which one may meekly thank his God. … But to be rebuked and set aside, as if acting upon one’s own caprice and imposing the meaning instead of expounding it, when one only aims to let the King of Truth speak, as He is pleased to speak with evidence which breaks through all obscurity and concealment: to be rebuked for this, that one would rather take to his ears and to his heart the wonderful words of the Eternal Word in all their immediate power as they are uttered and beam forth from Himself, instead of their so much prized translation into the poor and narrow language of man, with all the concomitant perversions, and endless disputations (through which process of so-called exposition the very essence of the text is ofttimes lost): –to be blamed for this would be indeed a most grievous affliction, and yet one must be prepared for it.

The Words of Jesus are hard reading for most people today because Stier constantly makes reference to Greek and Hebrew passages, using bits of these languages here and there in his own sentences. So even though we have all these volumes of Stier’s Words of Jesus translated from German to English, that English still contains a lot of unreadable bits for those who don’t have training in the Biblical languages.

One final characteristic of Stier’s approach is worth noting. He thought that even the conservative scholars had tended too much toward harmonizing the sayings of Jesus among the four gospels, and seeking to reconstruct the real, unified history behind the four separate accounts. The result was that if Jesus said the same thing three or four different ways, commentators tended to blend the variants together and comment on the general sense. Stier insisted that the expositor should pay attention to the exact words as found in the text, and give each of them a full and elaborate exposition. As a result, in order to use Stier fruitfully, you have to be able to get to the exact passage. I haven’t found an index of the volumes online, so here is one for future reference:

Volume 1: “First Words.” To his parents (Luke 2), about his office (Matt 3), to the disciples (John 1), etc. Also Matthew 4-9.

Volume 2: Matthew 10-18.

Volume 3: Matthew 19-25, Mark, Luke 4-6.

Volume 4: Luke 11-19, John 3.

Volume 5: John 4-10.

Volume 6: John 11-17.

Volume 7: The Words of the Passion

Volume 8: The Words of the Passion continued (5th, 6th, and 7th words from the cross) and “The Words of the Risen and Ascending Lord.”

The English translator, by the way, was Methodist genius William Burt Pope, who occasionally (in a preface) warns the reader that Stier is a bit too Lutheran, but is good anyway.

Stier published a few other “Words” volumes, all good, but none so famous or popular as the Words of Jesus series.
Words of the Risen Savior:

Words of the Apostles:

Words of the Angels:

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