The Historical Jesus, a Tanna? Charity and Deeds of Loving-Kindness in the Gospels and Early Rabbinic Thought

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When nearly precise rabbinic parallels to stories and sayings in the Gospels exist, it may indicate that the Gospels are preserving traditions of the early Jesus movement and, perhaps, the historical Jesus.

Two Gospel accounts, “The Rich Young Person” (Matt. 19:16–30, Mark 10:17–3, Luke 18:18–30) and “On Almsgiving” (Matt. 6:1-4), that share similar content, structure, and argumentation with two discussions that appear in the Mishnah and Tosefta shed light on the use of rabbinic literature for the study of the Gospels. More importantly, for this study, a comparison of these texts demonstrates the value of rabbinic thought and style to address the transmission of traditions associated with the early Jesus movement, and perhaps, the historical Jesus.

The Rich Young Person (Matt. 19:16–30, Mark 10:17–3, Luke 18:18–30)

Matthew 19.16 Mark 10.17 Luke 18.18
16And behold, one came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which?” And Jesus said, “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20The young man said to him, “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?” 21Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. 17And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: ‘Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth.” 21And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. 18And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 19And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 20You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” 21And he said, “All these I have observed from my youth.” 22And when Jesus heard it, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 23But when he heard this he became sad, for he was very rich.

The narrative of the “Rich Young Person” is a triple tradition in the Synoptic Gospels. The conversation in this pericope, despite bearing the marks of the Evangelists’ editing, has not lost its quintessential rabbinic-ness. Its contents bear striking similarities to early rabbinic thought. For the sake of clarity, we will begin with the more salient features of the three different Gospel accounts.

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Comments 2

  1. The Rich Young “Person”???

    Strange to encounter this wording on a website traditionally dedicated to the validity of ancient, Judeo/Christian expression. Why not “The Rich Young Creature?” It seems the biblical narrative actually records an encounter with a young man. Have I grossly over valuated something here?

    1. JP Staff Writer

      We can’t speak for the author, but perhaps the reference to the “rich young person” reveals a sensitivity to the fact that none of the Gospel writers refer to this individual as a “man” (Greek: ἀνήρ [anēr]). Matthew and Mark introduce him as “someone” (εἰς [eis]), while Luke introduces him as “a certain ruler” (τις ἄρχων [tis archōn]). Later on Matthew does refer to this individual as a “youth” (νεανίσκος [neaniskos]). Evidently the Gospel writers did not regard this individual’s gender as the most important aspect of his personhood.

      We like your suggestion of referring to him as a “creature.” In the Hebrew of the period one could refer to a person as בִּירְיָא (biryāh [“creature”])—a feminine noun—if gender was not a primary concern.

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  • Jeffrey P. García

    Jeffrey P. García

    Jeffrey P. García is Associate Professor of New Testament and Second Temple Literature at Nyack College. He holds a PhD in Hebrew and Judaic Studies from New York University. His specializes in the Gospels and ancient Jewish literature.He is the author of On Human Nature in Ancient…
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