Reflections on Mark

Sometimes the work we do for “The Life of Yeshua: A Suggested Reconstruction” can seem a little hard on the Gospel of Mark. Our study of the Synoptic Gospels suggests that the author of Mark extensively rewrote the stories he incorporated into his Gospel. We believe that the parallel versions in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew are usually closer to the wording of the stories as they appeared in the Greek Translation of the Hebrew Life of Yeshua than what we find in Mark. Sometimes our research might leave readers wondering whether we have anything positive to say about Mark.

In this blog I want to focus on a few deeply positive aspects regarding Mark’s Gospel that emerge from our Life of Yeshua research. The first is that if Robert Lindsey is correct that the author of Mark relied on the Gospel of Luke as the primary source for his rewritten Gospel, then this is a very strong endorsement of Luke’s Gospel. The author of Mark must have held the Gospel of Luke in high regard to have chosen Luke as the basis for his work. Our belief that Mark extensively reworked Luke in the course of retelling the Gospel stories in no way detracts from this conclusion. A master craftsman always chooses to work with the best materials available. A master chef always chooses the finest ingredients with which to prepare a dish. The same holds true for the author of Mark’s decision to use the Gospel of Luke as the raw material for his re-telling of the story of Jesus.

Robert Lindsey believed that one of the editorial techniques the author of Mark employed in his rewriting of Luke was to pick up words and phrases from other sources and to incorporate them into his revised version of the Gospel stories. In a newly released excursus to “The Life of Yeshua: A Suggested Reconstruction” we have begun to catalog these “Markan pick-ups.”[1] Lindsey traced the sources of the Markan pick-ups to the non-Markan portions of Luke, to Acts, to the Epistles of Paul, and to the Epistle of James. In other words, in addition to using the Gospel of Luke as the primary source for his Gospel, the author of Mark also used other writings that are now included in the New Testament to spice up his storytelling. We will discuss the reason why the author of Mark might have done this in a moment. But first we should consider what this tells us about the sources of the Markan pick-ups. What it tells us is that the author of Mark held these writings–Acts (which was written by the author of Luke), the Pauline Epistles, and the Epistle of James–to be of equal quality and authority as the Gospel of Luke. Mark’s estimation of these writings was probably also shared by the community (or communities) to whom his Gospel was addressed. The Gospel of Mark might, therefore, be extremely early evidence of what we might refer to as a proto-canon that contains an already sizable portion of what later became the New Testament.

The author of Mark composes his Gospel. Behind him is a lion, which is the symbol of the Gospel of Mark in Christian iconography. This illumination is in the Gospels from Mainz of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague (The National Library of the Netherlands).
The author of Mark composes his Gospel. Behind him is a lion, which is the symbol of the Gospel of Mark in Christian iconography. This illumination is in the Gospels from Mainz, which belongs to the manuscript collection of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague (The National Library of the Netherlands).

His willingness to use both the writings of Paul and the Epistle of James also suggests that, at least for the author of Mark and the communities for whom he wrote, the rift between the Jewish-Christian perspective expressed in the Epistle of James and the pro-Gentile perspective expressed by Paul was not irreconcilable. At a very early stage, when the issue of Jewish-Christian and Gentile-Christian relations in the Church was still a live issue, the author of Mark regarded the opinions of Paul and the author of James as complimentary and equally authoritative. This in turn suggests that the picture of harmony and mutual respect between Paul and James that is described in Acts has a more solid historical basis than some scholars have been willing to allow.

Returning to the motivations behind the Markan pick-ups, it appears that the author of Mark endeavored by means of these pick-ups to create links between the story of Jesus and the experiences of his later followers. Lindsey believed that Mark often used vocabulary from the miracle stories in Acts in his retelling of the miracle stories of Jesus in order emphasize the continuity that exists between Jesus’ actions and the deeds that were performed in the early Church. In a similar manner, Mark used vocabulary from the Epistles of Paul and James to enrich his reiteration of Jesus’ teachings in order to show that the teachings of these two leaders of the Church were already inherent in Jesus’ message.

This observation brings us to the final positive remark I want to make about the Gospel of Mark. If Lindsey’s theories about the sources and motivations behind the Markan pick-ups are correct, then this reveals a strongly pastoral instinct at the core of Mark’s Gospel. If it was the goal of the author of Mark to create echoes and resonances between the story of Jesus and the experiences of Jesus’ later followers, then we must conclude that Mark’s editorial activity was not capricious or irresponsible, but was guided by a concern that the readers of his Gospel would be able to see themselves in the stories about Jesus. Every good pastor wants his or her congregation to feel a deep sense of unity with Jesus’ story so that Jesus’ story will shape and inform the congregation’s experience. Mark attempted to achieve this goal by retelling the stories about Jesus in such a way that his readers could identify themselves inside the story. In this way the author of Mark helped his readers to perceive Jesus’ story continuing in their own lives and experiences. What higher praise could an evangelist hope for than that?

Cataloging the Gospels’ Hebraisms: Part Three (Impersonal “They”)

Revised: 19-Dec-2012

Awareness of even the simplest Hebrew grammatical structure can bring to life a vague, or difficult-to-understand, saying of Jesus. Since potential Hebrew idioms are so dense in the Greek texts of Matthew, Mark and Luke, one has to ask: Could these apparent Hebrew idioms be evidence that the synoptic Gospels are descendants of an ancient translation of a Hebrew Life of Jesus, the gospel that the church father Papias (ca. 70-160 A.D.) spoke of when he wrote: Ματθαῖος…Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ τὰ λόγια συνετάξατο (Matthaios…Hebra’idi dialekto ta logia synetaksato, Matthew…arranged the sayings [of Jesus] in the Hebrew language)?[1]

The Hebrew work Papias mentions is not extant. It is not the Greek Matthew of the New Testament—scholars agree that canonical Matthew is not a direct translation of a Hebrew source. However, the text Papias mentions might be an ancestor of canonical Matthew, a Hebrew source that was translated to Greek. The authors of canonical Matthew, Mark and Luke may have used this Greek translation in writing their accounts.

In Israel, when a Hebrew speaker doesn’t know the name for something, the person asks, איך קוראים לדבר הזה (ech kor’im la-davar ha-zeh; literally, “How are they calling to this thing?”). When an English-speaking immigrant to Israel wants to know the Hebrew word for something, for instance, “table,” the immigrant turns to a native speaker and asks, …איך אומרים בעברית (ech omrim “table” be-ivrit, literally, “How are they saying ‘table’ in Hebrew?”), that is, “How do you say ‘table’ in Hebrew?” or “What’s the word for ‘table’ in Hebrew?” A learner asks the question using the 3rd-person plural active form of the verb.[2] In such a context, the “they,” which in Hebrew is included in the verb, is indefinite, that is, “they” does not refer to anyone specifically.

I once saw an advertisement promoting purchase of listings in the Israeli Yellow Pages. The ad had the banner headline: בדפי זהב רואים אותך (Be-dape zahav ro’im otcha, literally, “In the Yellow Pages, they are seeing you”). Here, too, the “they” does not refer to any specific individuals: it is indefinite and impersonal. From an English speaker’s standpoint, such a sentence is unclear. English speakers would not make the appeal in this way; they probably would employ a passive construction, for instance, “[If you buy a listing in the Yellow Pages,] you will be seen,” or, more likely, “You will get exposure.”

The use of this Hebrew idiom is very ancient. It was used in written and spoken Hebrew in biblical times, was common in post-biblical Hebrew, was still in use in the time of Jesus, was frequent in Mishnaic Hebrew, continued its use in the Middle Ages, and, as my examples above indicate, is still widely used in the language of modern Israel.[3]

In the Hebrew Scriptures we find this idiom in, for example, 1 Chron. 11:7: “David stayed in the stronghold; therefore, they called it the City of David.” Compare the much more idiomatic English rendition of JPS: “David occupied the stronghold; therefore it was renamed the City of David.”[4] Another good example of the idiom is found in 2 Chron 25:27 (see also 2 Sam. 9:2 and Isa. 47:1).

For post-biblical, pre-first-century examples of the idiom, see the Hebrew fragments of Ben Sira, also known as Ecclesiasticus (ca. 180-132 B.C.), for example: “When a rich man is speaking, all are silent and his understanding they exalt to the clouds. When a poor man speaks they say, ‘Who is this?’” (Sir. 13:23).

The idiomatic use of the 3rd-person plural active form of the Hebrew verb continued its existence into Jesus’ time, as the many New Testament examples below will show. The idiom is very common in rabbinic literature. One interesting example is found in the Mishnah: במידה שאדם מודד בה מודדין לו (ba-midah she-adam moded bah, modedim lo; with the measure that a man measures with it, they are measuring to him; m. Sotah 1:7), that is, “With the measure that a man uses to measure, it is measured to him.” (Note the necessary shift in English to the passive “it is measured,” since in the Hebrew saying, no particular individuals are intended.) In other words, if a man is liberal in his giving to the poor, God will be generous to him. (God is frequently the intended subject when this idiom is employed.) This rabbinic saying has a familiar ring to readers of the New Testament because Jesus uttered a similar saying: “With the measure you measure, it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7:2; cf. Luke 6:38).[5]

According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus said, “How are they saying that the messiah is the son of David?” (τι λέγουσιν…, how are they saying; Luke 20:41). This is strange Greek, but very much like the “How are they saying” idiom of modern Hebrew (mentioned above). Apparently, the Greek of Luke 20:41 preserves the literal Greek equivalent of Jesus’ Hebrew words! Were we to assume that behind the Greek text of Luke 20:41 is a Hebrew saying that was translated very literally to Greek, we would reconstruct the conjectured Hebrew as, “How is it said…,” or, “How can it be said [that the messiah is the son of David]?” The “they” does not refer to the Pharisees, or the Sadducees, or anyone in particular, but is simply an idiomatic way of avoiding a passive construction such as, “How is it said….”

Another striking example of this idiom is found twice in the Parable of the Dishonest Manager: “so that they may receive me into their houses…so that they may receive you into eternal tents” (Luke 16:4, 9). In the parable, Jesus likens God to the manager’s master, a rich man. All the world’s wealth belongs to God. Jesus is interested in teaching that we should use God’s money to make friends, that is, we should give it away to help the poor.[6] Notice that the master praised his fraudulent manager (Luke 16:8): God loves it when we give his money away! When money fails, that is, when we die, we’ll have a friend upstairs who will take care of us.

An example I discussed in my “Jesus and the Enigmatic ‘Green Tree’” is: “Ιf in the green tree these things they do….” (Luke 23:31). Assuming a Hebrew origin for this saying, we probably have another case of the 3rd-person plural active form of a verb employed to avoid a passive construction. The clause, “If they do these things in the green tree” could mean, “If these things are done in the green tree.”

Other good examples of this idiom in the Gospels are: “Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished” (Matt. 17:12; NKJV); “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you” (Matt. 5:11; NKJV); “they [do not] light a lamp and put it under a basket” (Matt. 5:15; NKJV); “Are they gathering grapes from thorn bushes…?” (Matt. 7:16; my trans.); Nor do they put new wine into old wineskins…But they put new wine into new wineskins” (Matt. 9:17; NKJV); “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub….” (Matt. 10:25; NKJV); John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say…the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say….” (Matt. 11:18-19; NKJV); “Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished” (Matt. 17:12; NKJV); “they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you” (Matt. 24:9); “they receive you…they do not receive you….” (Luke 10:8, 10; my trans.); “when they bring you to the synagogues and magistrates and authorities” (Luke 12:11; NKJV); “in this night the soul of you they are demanding from you” (Luke 12:20; my trans.); “they are throwing it outside….” (Luke 14:35; my trans.); “they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud” (Luke 21:27; NKJV); “the days are coming when they will saythey will begin to say to the mountains….” (Luke 23:29-30; RSV).

A Hebrew speaker expresses him- or herself differently than speakers of European languages, such as English or ancient Greek. Thus, if we were to hear a person say in English, or read in an English piece of writing, “How are they calling to such-and-such?” or, “How are they saying such-and-such a thing?” we could suspect the speaker or writer is either thinking in Hebrew, or, translating a Hebrew text literally.

When speaking English, a Hebrew-speaker of today will often say, “I’m afraid from something,” rather than the idiomatic, “I’m afraid of something.” My wife and I speak only English to our 4 Israeli grandsons (ages 4 to 8).[7] I notice that our grandsons will often say, for instance, “I am bigger from you,” instead of “I am bigger than you.” Their “from” is great Hebrew, but less than idiomatic English! When the grandsons give thanks to God for food, they often will pray, in good Hebrew idiom, “Thank you God on the food,” rather than, “Thank you God for the food.” Such unidiomatic English signals that the speaker is thinking in Hebrew and translating his thoughts to English. A Hebrew idiom that suddenly appears in an English sentence lets us know that the speaker is not a native English speaker. Likewise, Hebrew idioms in the Greek of the New Testament are telltale signs of a Greek author’s Hebrew-speaking origins, or, an indication that the author’s Greek is “translation Greek,” Greek that was originally composed in Hebrew and later, at some stage of the text’s transmission, translated to Greek.

In summary, awareness of the most insignificant grammatical features of the Hebrew language may pay huge dividends in understanding when we approach the Hebrew-sounding Greek words of Jesus. Each potential Hebraism in the Gospels should be examined carefully, since each may prove to be a treasure of new understanding.

What’s the bottom line? By reading this article, you have been sensitized to occurrences in the New Testament of 3rd-person plural active forms of verbs that have no apparent preceding subject. In the future, when reading the New Testament, if you meet such a verb in an English translation, you will probably stop, reread, and ponder for a moment whether or not you have discovered another Hebrew idiom in Greek guise. In any case, you won’t automatically make an attempt to supply a subject for the plural verb of the idiom (to specific the subject of the verb). Instead, you will experiment with the sentence making the direct object of the sentence its subject and turning the verb of the sentence into a passive. For example, you will consider changing “if they do these things to the green tree” into “if these things are done to the green tree.”

Often English translators of the Bible have disguised a potential Hebraism by translating the “they” of a Greek 3rd-person plural verb freely as “men” or “people”—or worse, supplied an assumed subject such as “Pharisees.” Unfortunately, the only way an English reader can be certain the word for “men” or “people” really exists in the Greek text is to learn to read Greek—a task that requires only a few hours of one’s time since nearly half the Greek alphabet’s 24 letters look and sound the same as their English counterparts.

To read the next article in this series, click here.
  • [1] Papias’ saying is preserved in Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., 3.39).
  • [2] Throughout this article, the 3rd-person plural active form of the verb is emphasized by italics.
  • [3] This idiom also exists in Aramaic, a close sister Semitic language. The construction is found in English, although not as frequently as in Hebrew: compare the vague “they,” referring to an undefined subject, e.g., in “They tell me that….”
  • [4] Amazingly, 1 Chron. 11:7 exhibits the same modern Hebrew expression, “they call,” that we noted above in the sentence: “How are they calling to this thing?”
  • [5] For a full discussion of Jesus’ saying, see Joseph Frankovic, “Measure For Measure.”
  • [6] In another place, Jesus says: “Lay up treasure in heaven,” also a teaching about giving to the poor (Matt. 6:20).
  • [7] We do this so that when our grandsons grow up, they will be fluent in English as well as Hebrew.

A Non Sequitur in the Argument for the Canonical Approach to Scripture

Revised: 05-Dec-2008

What is the “canonical approach,” and in what respect is its main supporting argument a “shell game”?

One approach to Scripture that has gained a strong following since its appearance in the early 1970’s is the so-called “canonical approach,” associated with Brevard Childs (†2007). This way of reading the Bible assumes that literary aspects of the Bible in its final form, including aspects not native to any of the individual writings, should have a bearing on what the Bible is said to mean. Although this approach appeals to many of the more pious habits of thought that Christians have concerning the Bible, I am convinced that it represents a huge step away from the approach of the early Church.

Although I have long recognized the debt that Childs’ approach owes to a certain non sequitur, it is only recently, while watching an online lecture by Childs’ student Christopher Seitz, that I came to see just how central this non sequitur is for this approach. In some respects, of course, referring to Childs’ argument as a “shell game” is unfair, as it is obvious that Childs was not doing anything dishonest with his arguments about “meaning,” while those who work real shell games (like those I have personally witnessed on 52nd Street in New York) know fully well what they are doing. I say this as more than just an admission that my rhetoric, in this respect, is not trimmed to fit Childs’ true intentions, but also to make the important point that many (like Childs himself?) are attracted to the canonical approach for pious-sounding but misguided reasons.

What is the “canonical approach,” and in what respect is its main supporting argument a “shell game”? Simply put, the “canonical approach” is a way of reading Scripture in which those aspects of the biblical canon that postdate the work of the individual authors (e.g., the ordering of the books within the canon, the addition of a spurious ending to Mark, etc.) are viewed as aspects of what the Bible “means.” “Scripture” is construed, on this view, not as a collection of writings to be interpreted according to what its authors mean, but in a corporate sense as well, as if the arrangement of the whole were itself “authored.”

The “shell game” aspect of this (which is only a “shell game” with respect to the shape of its maneuver, and not in its intention) is that Childs and company seem to think that observing that there is an intentional aspect to the ordering of the canon somehow counts as an argument that those aspects must be figured into a hermeneutical lens for reading the Bible. In fact, Childs and his followers speak as if the implication of the one for the other is so tight that it does not need to be spelled out! The argument does not recognize (or allow the reader to recognize) the different ways “meaning” is used, nor the fact that not all “meanings” (in the sense of all definitions of the word “meaning”) are simultaneously valid. The fact that the order of books in the Bible betrays an aspect of intentionality on the part of the compiler, however, is not at all straightforwardly relevant for a proper hermeneutic of Scripture. If there is a connection between the two, it must be argued as such.

Imagine (if you will) if I tried to promote a “canonical approach” to the funny page (viz. the comics) of my local newspaper, and I tried to do so on the grounds of the argument used by Childs and Seitz. Would I get anywhere if I argued that the order in which the comics appear on the page was carefully chosen by a newspaper editor? Does adducing the fact that the comics were carefully placed in their current order (assuming that to be true) constitute an argument that the jokes and serial dramas found therein should be interpreted with regard for their order, or for the very fact that they share space with other comic strips? Such an argument, of course, would probably not carry much weight with anyone: Why would the meaning of any of the comics be subject to the intention of a newspaper editor? In basic outline, however, that is exactly how Childs and others have argued for years. It is as if half of their argument is missing, but they have become so used to rehearsing the half that is not missing that they forget what is not there.

If the non sequitur nature of one of the main arguments for the canonical approach is so apparent from a schematic standpoint, then why are the proponents of this approach so unable to see it? The reason, of course, is that their argument has been led by a foresworn commitment to a particular understanding of Scripture. I assume Childs was being honest when he described his own effort to work strictly on Scripture’s own terms: he wrote that his Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture did not “consciously assum[e] tenets of Christian theology.”[1] In spite of its intentions, however, the canonical approach appears to be little more than an outworking of Reformed theology’s understanding of Scripture.[2] As such, the proponents of this approach assume, at the outset, that if Scripture is truly to be “Scripture,” then it must be apprehended in terms of some sort of semantic holism. The assumption that the final form of Scripture is part of what makes it authoritative for the Church is debatable at best, yet it is only on the grounds of that assumption that the intentional aspect to the ordering of the books of the Bible becomes theologically relevant. (Whether there is an intentional aspect within the order of the canon is not at issue. The question at hand is whether that intention should be allowed to wash back into the very meaning of the books of the Bible.)

The canonical approach’s understanding of Scripture is at odds with that understanding that extends naturally from the New Testament kerygma, but Childs and company give very little rein to the New Testament’s own self-understanding. One way in which they preempt the discussion over what the term “Scripture” means for theology is by defining out of existence all those understandings that do not fit their scheme. Consider, for example, the title of Childs’ best-known book: Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture. The implication of the title is that those understandings of the Bible that differ from what Childs proposes should not be counted as “Scripture”![3]

The inability of some supporters of the canonical approach to consider any other bibliology (= doctrine of Scripture) than those in which the final form of the text is more authoritative than the individual writings is brilliantly illustrated in a recent article in the Churchman. In the course of a supporting argument for Childs’ view, Theodore Letis quotes what he “think[s] is the best definition, from a history-of-religion stand-point, of what constitutes a sacred text”:

We may look at sacred texts as being those which contain a power and authority and are given certain status within a given community. Such communities and traditions are held together most typically through liturgical acts, which help to focus life upon that which is ultimate and to which the sacred texts give testimony. The status of the sacred text is canonical: as well as being normative for a community or tradition, it is also that community or tradition’s canon or canonical text. The term ‘canon’ has a variety of meanings, but in the context of sacred texts it means the defined groups of texts for the community or tradition…one does not add to or subtract from them.[4]

I agree that this is an excellent definition of “sacred text.” But then why does Letis narrow the meaning of “sacred text” a few pages later, where he writes of “the loss of the Bible as a sacred text,” and again where he writes approvingly of “Childs…calling for a reconsideration of the Bible as a sacred text”?[5] Letis apparently reads the above definition of “sacred text” more narrowly than I do, for I fail to see anything within it that specifies that the text’s authoritativeness lies at the level of an ahistorical holistic reading. On the terms of the definition, as I read it, the Bible is just as much a sacred text when we read its writings as its authors intended (which happens to be the way the Bible’s canonizers also intended us to read it). Letis has other arguments at his disposal, of course, to help him accomplish a subtle redefinition of the term “sacred text”: he especially labors to say that an intentionalist reading of Scripture, being a characteristic of academic study of the Bible, is somehow the property of the secular university(!)—implying that a churchly approach should be something quite different. But that detracts little from the basic shape of the Childsian ploy of defining “Scripture” as one likes it, so that one may unpack that definition at the right moment.[6]

Seitz speaks of this turn from dealing strictly with what the authors intended to a more literary, canonical focus in terms of “configuration.” He also speaks of the text as such as a deposit of prophecy per se, almost as though the act of prophesying delivered a surplus of meaning that could only be actualized, so to speak, in its eventual “canonization” within the Bible. Once again, a seemingly calculated use of the word “intention” helps to blur the distinction between authors and editors:

[P]rophetic materials have been intentionally related to one another by known and unknown authors, editors, and tradents…. Original utterances, in literary form, have occasioned cross-references and a wider field of association, to which they now belong and within which meaning is generated. The prophetic word accomplishes, and that literary accomplishment can be studied carefully and understood, if only provisionally and only with great patience. This literary dimension might also be called configural, or an act of configuration.[7]

Before one can believe that the prophetic spirit is really the author of the world’s first chain-reference Bible, of course, one has to buy into some basic Reformed theological concepts, like the idea of “the Word” as a power or commodity with an ongoing, independent existence. This is a part of the greater canonical-approach complex that remains perpetually unargued. Perhaps the hope is that the Dutch Reformed roots of American Evangelicalism are still strong enough for these ideas to pass unnoticed. It is more likely, to my mind, that the need to argue these ideas simply escapes Childs’ and Seitz’s notice altogether. They seem to be true believers in their own arguments.

In Seitz’s hands, this approach to Scripture joins up with a particular understanding of prophecy as a floating potential, in which meaning changes according to the shape of its literary conveyance. Indeed, Seitz writes that recent research into “the final form of the prophetic books…is crucial to our understanding of prophecy qua prophecy and is absolutely fundamental to how prophecy actually makes its mark and does its work.”[8] (Seitz hedges this non-intentionalist view of prophecy with the well-worn tactic of tying intentionalist hermeneutics to nineteenth-century developments!)[9] This understanding envisions “prophecy,” not as a discrete speech-act relaying God’s message at a particular time, but more as a perpetually updated divine address. Who knew that the lamp of God’s word is a lava lamp?


At the end of the day, we have to ask, “What is the Bible, and in what respect is it authoritative for the Christian faith?” This is the question that needs to be asked and re-asked, if greater clarity and fairness in debates about biblical hermeneutics are the goal, as it is there, at this radically originary level, that hermeneutical schools of thought divide. For primitivists (like myself), the New Testament is authoritative simply because it preserves the testimony of the apostles. (The Old Testament is then authoritative as a testimony to the nature of the God of the apostles.) It is as a witness to the apostolic kerygma that Scripture functions as “Scripture” within the Church. As such, Scripture is logically prior to the Church, because the apostles are logically prior to the Church. For Reformation-era dogmatics, on the other hand, the Bible’s authority has a fundamentally literary locus, and Scripture is often regarded as a product of the Church.

A lot of needless confusion could be avoided if the difference between these two understandings of “Scripture” were not constantly swept under the rug.

  • [1] Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 16.
  • [2] On what the Reformed approach to Scripture includes, see Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, Vol. 2: Holy Scripture: The Cognitive Foundation of Theology (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003); Henk van den Belt, The Authority of Scripture in Reformed Theology: Truth and Trust (Studies in Reformed Theology 17; Leiden: Brill, 2008).
  • [3] The same move is made in the title of a volume edited by Peter Ochs: The Return to Scripture in Judaism and Christianity: Essays in Postcritical Scriptural Interpretation (Theological Inquiries; New York: Paulist, 1993). See further: John C. Poirier, “The Canonical Approach and the Idea of ‘Scripture,’” Expository Times 116 (2005): 366-370.
  • [4] Theodore Letis, “Brevard Childs and the Protestant Dogmaticians: A Window to a New Paradigm of Biblical Interpretation,” Churchman 105 (1991): 261-277, esp. 265 (quoting Ninian Smart and Richard D. Hecht, Sacred Texts of the World: A Universal Anthology [New York: Crossroad, 1982], xiii-xiv).
  • [5] Letis, “Brevard Childs and the Protestant Dogmaticians,” 269, 270.
  • [6] There is not enough space to go into all of Childs’ rhetorical ploys, but it is worth Childs’ almost grueling propensity to paint his opponents as “liberals” without really listening to whether their objections are being made on the grounds of liberal commitments or presuppositions. This is most famously the case with Childs’ response to James Barr, who, on more than one occasion, showed that Childs’ argument involved him in a philosophical quandary.
  • [7] Christopher R. Seitz, Prophecy and Hermeneutics: Toward a New Introduction to the Prophets (Studies in Theological Interpretation; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 8.
  • [8] Seitz, Prophecy and Hermeneutics, 18.
  • [9] Seitz, Prophecy and Hermeneutics, 99. Seitz writes that “[a] fascination with authorial intention is the legacy of naïve nineteenth-century understandings of prophetic personality at the center of religious foundational genius”(!). I suggest that the truly “naïve” are those who would swallow such a line. For the pre-Enlightenment history of intentionalism, see John C. Poirier, “Authorial Intention as Old as the Hills,” Stone-Campbell Journal 7 (2004): 59-72; Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Intention/Intentional Fallacy,” in Dictionary of Theological Interpretation of the Bible (ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 327-330.

Written, Inspired and Profitable

The Bible provides minimal help for anyone trying to write a description of it for inclusion in a Statement of Faith. As a result, such descriptions typically claim more than the Bible discloses about itself.[1]

When formulating a declaration about Scripture, I recommend adhering to the following guidelines:

1) Echo the language which Scripture uses to speak about itself.

2) Reflect an appreciation of how ancient Jews viewed the Bible—the fountainhead of their literary heritage.

3) Demonstrate an awareness of and appreciation for the achievements of text-critical scholarship, since they constitute a foundation on which all modern English translation rests.[2]

A key New Testament passage for discussing the nature of Scripture is 2 Tim. 3:16-17:

All Scripture inspired by God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work.[3]

A reader well versed in the New Testament will recognize that the above translation reflects the content of a footnote appearing in some English editions. Preferring the note’s alternate wording for the purpose of this essay, I have rendered the passage’s opening phrase as “All Scripture inspired by God” as opposed to “All Scripture is inspired by God.”

Behind the word “Scripture” stands the Greek word γραφή, which is related to the verb γράφειν (to write). Scribes transmitted Scripture by transcribing it. Being written, it was intended to be read (aloud). One can, therefore, characterize Scripture as having a scribal-literary quality. These two verses also establish a close bond between inspiration and profitability for teaching, reproof, correction, and training. When speaking about inspiration, I make a habit of speaking about Scripture’s profitability for instruction or training in the next breath. These concepts are two sides of the same coin and should not be separated one from the other.

At the end of the passage, the desired objective is stated: to prepare a person for an effective life of doing. Although not explicitly mentioned in the immediate context, teachers do have a role to play in the program. Scripture’s usefulness for teaching and training depends not only on the inspiration of the text, but also on that of the teacher. Just as a score of music is ultimately only as good as the conductor who leads, so it is the case with the Bible and those who teach and preach it. A popular rabbinic story about Ben Azzai makes a similar point by tapping the imagery of a different metaphor. On one occasion, while he sat and taught, fire glowed around him.[4]  Ben Azzai’s spontaneous combustion harks back to the giving of God’s fiery Torah. In other words, his auditors were witnessing a sublime event, which was less dramatic, but similar in essence to the one which the original recipients of the Torah at Mt. Sinai had experienced.

1 Chron. 28:19 is a short verse about a text containing building instructions for the temple and its furnishings. It literally says: “All [the specifications of this plan] are in writing and they [come] from the hand of the Lord. I am responsible to explain [them].” At first glance, this verse seems to have little relevance for a discussion centering on 2 Tim. 3:16-17; however, in light of a Talmudic passage, both verses actually address similar issues.

Rabbi Yeremiah once taught the following in the name of another:

[Consider] the scroll which Samuel entrusted to David. It was given in order to be expounded. What is the proof? All of this in writing—This [refers] to its scriptural-literary character. From the hand of the Lord—This [refers] to the Holy Spirit. I am responsible to explain—From this [we learn] that it was given to be expounded.[5]

These remarks belong to a discussion about canonicity. For his part, Rabbi Yeremiah reminded his colleagues that the prophet Samuel gave David a scroll which possessed three defining characteristics of Scripture:[6]

1) The scroll was “in writing,” thereby distinguishing it from Oral Torah.

2) The scroll came “from the hand of the Lord,” meaning that it was inspired like Oral Torah.

3) The scroll was given in order “to be expounded,” meaning that it could serve as the objective of exegesis, thereby distinguishing it from Oral Torah.

The same elements are present in 2 Tim. 3:16-17. The Greek word γραφή (graphae) conveys the idea that Scripture is written. The Greek word θεόπνευστος (theopneustos, i.e., God breathed) parallels the idea of coming “from the hand of the Lord” (i.e., God delivered). The former is regularly called divine inspiration, whereas the latter could be described as divine manipulation. Interestingly, Rabbi Yeremiah attributed this manual act to the Holy Spirit. In Greek, the association of θεόπνευστος with the Holy Spirit (i.e., πνεῦμα ἅγιον) is easy to make, because of the shared etymology. The clause “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” looks like an expanded, but equivalent way of saying “for expounding.”

We now have the benefit of consulting not only an early Christian epistle, but also a conceptual parallel from Talmudic literature before formulating a description of Scripture for inclusion in a Statement of Faith. Ideally, our declarations should echo the content of this old Jewish concept to which the New Testament author subscribed and which the editors of the Jerusalem Talmud included in their compilation. Being inspired (i.e., emanating from the Holy Spirit) and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training are intrinsic attributes of Scripture. These two attributes allow the Bible to play an indispensable and salubrious role in the life of Jewish and Christian communities of faith. When an inspired (and learned) teacher expounds the biblical text, it becomes like a living spring whose cathartic and curative waters nourish, refresh, and stimulate the community, and no matter how often revisited, they remain plentiful and efficacious.

  • [1] An earlier version of this essay was entitled A Jewish Comment about Scripture.
  • [2] Compare the NAB and NASB.
  • [3] Another article that addresses this point is my “Toward an Inerrant View of Scripture.”
  • [4] Lev Rabbah 16:4.
  • [5] J. Meg. 70a (ch 1:1) (Krotoschin ed.).
  • [6] I have benefited from Jose Faur, Golden Doves with Silver Dots: Semiotics and Textuality in Rabbinic Tradition (Bloomington, IN:Indiana University Press, 1986).

Measure For Measure

Transcribed and Edited Jerusalem Bible Study

As the topic for this Bible study, I have chosen Midah KeNeged Midah, which means “measure for measure.” A longer version of this mishnaic Hebrew idiom is במידה שאדם מודד בה מודדין לו (Bamidah she’adam moded ba, modedin lo; m. Sotah 1:7, Codex Kaufmann), which may be translated “by the measure that a man measures, they measure to him.” In Jewish literature the rabbis often referred to this principle simply as מידה כנגד מידה (Midah KeNeged Midah). In English, people say, “What goes around comes around,” or “He reaped what he sowed.” These two pithy sayings express the same idea. Moreover, most of us have witnessed circumstances where the principle seems to have operated perfectly. Consequently, even today Midah KeNeged Midah remains part of modern western thinking.

I will start with several simple examples from the Bible in order to demonstrate that, as a principle, Midah KeNeged Midah has a biblical basis. The rabbis who lived centuries after the last book of the Old Testament was written did not invent Midah KeNeged Midah. They certainly furthered the development of the idea, but they did not first suggest it. Midah KeNeged Midah is a very old concept that finds expression in ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern literature other than the Bible. In the Old Testament, examples of this principle appear in nearly every book.

Consider Exodus 22:22-24: “The foreigner do not oppress, and do not mistreat him because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.” The verses continue: “Any widow and orphan you will not oppress, and if you oppress them…I will become angered, and I will kill you with a sword. And your wives will become widows and your sons will become orphans.” This passage contains a typical example of Midah KeNeged Midah. Here God warned the Israelites through the prophet Moses that if they oppressed the widows and orphans, God would exact punishment by making their wives widows and their children orphans. In other words, if Israel mistreats its widows and orphans, God will visit the oppressors’ families and make their married women widows and children orphans, so that they will experience the same hardships that they had inflicted on others.

Apart from the principle of Midah KeNeged Midah, I find this passage interesting because it represents one of a number of verses where God identifies with the socially oppressed. In Evangelical-Charismatic preaching and teaching this subject has not received sufficient attention. Perhaps we have recoiled away from this subject because of an immature response to liberal Christian groups whose “gospel” has become defined almost exclusively in terms of social work and relief efforts. An ideal model would be for us to have a high view of Jesus’ lordship coupled with a clear vision for the expansion of his kingdom. Such a vision would include, out of necessity, an enduring burden for the poor. When a person mistreats the oppressed, it is as if he or she has mistreated God himself. The Bible expressly states that God is the defender of the down-trodden, and he does not remain indifferent to their sorrows and suffering.

Let us look at another example in Judges 1:5-7. The Israelites had just overcome their enemies in battle. In the course of the fighting, they had pursued Adoni Bezek and captured him. To punish this enemy king, the Israelites cut off his thumbs and big toes, to which he replied, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and their big toes cut off used to gather up scraps under my table. Now God has paid me back for what I did to them.” Here is an excellent example of Midah KeNeged Midah. This king had amputated the thumbs and big toes of other kings he had captured, and now the Israelites meted out the same punishment to him. Perhaps the Israelites knew about Adoni Bezek’s past cruelty. Nevertheless, the wretched king himself interpreted this as God’s justice. God repaid him with exactly what he had done to others.

A third example may be found in Obadiah 1:15: “The day of the Lord draws near on all of the nations. As you have done, it will be done to you. Your dealings will return on your own head.” This represents quite an explicit statement of Midah KeNeged Midah. Just as the nations have done, it will be done to them. In other words, the nations will reap what they have sown.

Let me offer a final example from the Old Testament before we address post-biblical texts. I find this example particularly interesting because it affects New Testament theology. In Deuteronomy 32:21 Moses is depicted giving a lengthy exhortation to the Israelites. (Lengthy exhortations by Moses are characteristic of Deuteronomy.) Verse 21 says, “They have made me jealous with that which is not a God, they have angered me with their vanities.” Note God’s solution to the problem: “Therefore I will make them jealous with those who are not a people and with a foolish nation I will provoke them.” By running after false gods, the Israelites provoked God to jealousy. In fact, the Hebrew verb kinuni carries the idea of jealousy between a man and wife. If we read about the Sotah (a woman suspected of infidelity, cf. Numbers 5:11-31) in rabbinic literature, kinuni is used in reference to the husband when he suspects infidelity or has feelings of jealousy about his wife. Here, the Israelites provoked God to jealousy through their idolatrous practices. How will God respond? Midah KeNeged Midah: He will make his people (i.e., the Israelites) jealous with those who are not a people (i.e., the Gentiles).

The Apostle Paul added a layer of significance to this verse when he alluded to it in his epistle to the Romans. In the Septuagintal translation of Deuteronomy 32:21 and Romans 11:11 the same Greek verb appears. That Greek verb is παραζηλῶσαι (parazaelosai; cf. GNT 3rd ed., p. 560). Paul wrote Romans 11 to help Jewish and non-Jewish believers in the church work toward a mutual understanding of their new relationship to one another and to the larger broader Jewish community. Paul himself did not fully comprehend the relationship of the early church to the pre-rabbinic Jewish community. Should we expect to understand more than Paul did? What does Paul offer as a final conclusion? “For God has shut up all in disobedience that he might show mercy to all. Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and unfathomable his ways!” (Rom. 11:32-33) We as Christians must live with the tension that God’s unsearchable judgments and unfathomable ways sometimes generate. Being westerners, children of modernity, and citizens of the technological age, we are people who traffic in data and answers based on that data. Being timely is more important than being accurate. Our culture conditions us to prefer having some answer, rather than living with the tension of not having an answer. This cultural phenomenon plays itself out in theological discussions, too.

In Romans 11:25 Paul used the word “mystery.” When I encounter a mystery in the Biblical text, what is my duty? Am I required to explain it? No, my job is to be obedient. Paul says here that we are to stimulate jealously among the Jews. We who were once not a people, a foolish nation, are to arouse emotions of jealously. During the time of Paul’s ministry, Jews were preaching the gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven to other Jews (Acts 19:8, Acts 20:25, Acts 28:31). Jews were speaking to other Jews about Jesus. It was an intra-Jewish event. By the beginning of the second century a much different situation had developed. The church had become overwhelmingly non-Jewish. What was Paul’s advice to non-Jews who accepted Jesus’ lordship? Paul hoped that they would arouse jealously among the Jewish community. God had made a foolish nation a precious people alongside the Jewish community.

In Deuteronomy 32:21 the Israelites provoked God’s jealously with that which was not a God, and, therefore God promised to provoke them with “those who are not a people,” whom Paul identified as Christians of non-Jewish descent. That is our job description. It is not a very flattering one, since in the verse we are described as “foolish.” The parallelism in Deuteronomy 32:21 suggests a link between idols, i.e. false gods and us, i.e. a false people.

When we interact with the Jewish community, we ought to ask ourselves, “Is my conduct of such an order that it would arouse jealousy?” In other words, is the manner in which I live a favorable witness to the resurrection of Jesus? Are people seeing my good works and blessing God for them (cf. Matt. 5:16)? Do my Jewish friends and acquaintances utter a prayer of thanksgiving to God for pouring out his spirit on a once foolish, uncircumcised person? When interacting with the Jewish community, perhaps we need to follow more closely Paul’s good advice.

Sadly, down through the centuries, Christians have not taken to heart what Paul wrote. Christian literature, both ancient and modern, both Catholic and Protestant, contains insensitive and at times abusive remarks directed against the Jewish people and their faith (cf. W. Whiston’s ed. of Josephus, p. 31 and J. Lightfoot on Mt. 8:30, p. 168. Also RTB, p. 23 and JerPers no. 51 and R. Wilken, John, Chrysostum and the Jews). Certainly, Paul would have protested against “the wild branches” demeaning “the natural branches.”

Let us move forward in time and consider an example from the Apocrypha. The apocryphal book Tobit belongs to the Catholic Bible. I have a high view of scripture—the bigger the canon, the better. I embrace the Catholic, Protestant, and Greek Orthodox canons. I would encourage any serious student of the New Testament to read an English translation of the Apocrypha and the Septuagint. The writers of the New Testament sometimes quoted from the Septuagint. It served as the canon of the early church. Its canonical status remained predominant until Jerome translated the rabbinic canon from Hebrew to Latin. His Latin translation became known as the Vulgate. Centuries later, the Reformers further helped undermine the Septuagint’s prestige in the West. In the wake of the Reformation, Protestant scholars began to prefer the Hebrew Masoretic text of the Old Testament, which the rabbis had canonized over the Septuagint and Vulgate.

I am not making any value judgment. I am happy to have the Masoretic text as our canonical text. I am also happy to have the Septuagint and Vulgate as our canonical texts. From my perspective, the more canon the better. More canon, means more scripture, which leads to greater opportunity for generating profitable teaching.

Tobit 4:7 says, “Do not turn your face away from any poor man, and the face of God will not be turned away from you.” This represents another very simple example of Midah KeNeged Midah. It is also another example of God’s identification with the poor and socially oppressed. Turning away from a poor person is like turning away from God. The writer of Tobit understood God as identifying one hundred percent with the poor. Hence, according to him, God simply mirrors back toward us our treatment of them. Here we have (from a Protestant perspective) a post-Biblical, pre-rabbinic text that employs Midah KeNeged Midah.

The rabbis were excellent readers of the text. In fact, when reading the ancient rabbinic commentaries, I marvel at how closely the rabbis read their Bible. As a general principle, they reflect in their commentaries the same trends or tendencies that they saw in the Bible. Thus, just as Midah KeNeged Midah is found throughout the Bible, it is also found throughout the literature of the rabbis. The rabbis noted the obvious examples of Midah KeNeged Midah, a few of which we have just surveyed. Yet they found scores of other examples, some of which are very subtle. They delighted in finding the more obscure examples of a principle like Midah KeNeged Midah. They loved mining the Bible for all of its richness.

Consider the following rabbinic examples of Midah KeNeged Midah, where I will give half of the equation, so that the reader may supply the other. How did God ultimately punish Pharaoh and his army? He drowned them (Ex. 14:28). Why were the Egyptians punished by water? The answer may be found in Exodus 1:22: The Egyptians had drowned the infant sons of Israel in the Nile. Do Christians read the Bible in a manner, so that this application of Midah KeNeged Midah emerges clearly from the narrative? Have the rabbis interpreted the text responsibly? Upon hearing their interpretation, we respond, “Yes, that is right.” The rabbis have forced us to go back and reflect on the Biblical narrative. By forcing us back to the text, they have succeeded in large measure to achieve what they set out to accomplish—to compel the community of faith to re-think continually the biblical text.

The rabbis faced great challenges in their day to ensure that the Bible remained a living text. They had to compete with the Roman circus and the theater just like we must compete with football and MTV. We could learn a lot from the rabbis by noting the way in which they successfully kept the Bible a meaningful, relevant book among the Jewish people. They did an excellent job for which they should be applauded.

Consider another example. I will give half of the equation, and the reader may give the other. When Samson met his demise, he was blinded (Jdg. 16:21-28). The Philistines put out his eyes. How does this example of Midah KeNeged Midah work? The second part of the equation may be found in Judges 16:1, where in the story of Delilah, Samson saw her. In other words, he lusted with his eyes, so ultimately he was punished through that with which he sinned. Is this responsible interpretation? Or have the rabbis gone too far? In the end, they have forced us to re-read the story of Samson.

Consider a third example. What caused Absalom’s untimely death? While fleeing on a donkey, he rode under a tree and one of the limbs caught his hair. Why did he meet his demise through his hair (2 Sam. 18:9)? Absalom had beautiful hair (2 Sam. 14:26), and the rabbis claimed it to be the seed of his pride, which eventually blossomed into open rebellion against his father, King David. Have the rabbis stretched the text, or is this a responsible interpretation? Perhaps before answering that question, we need to go home and read that story again.

Is there any biblical personality who seems to defy the principle of Midah KeNeged Midah? The rabbis viewed Midah KeNeged Midah as a principle that God had built into the operational structure of the universe (Jubilees 4:31). Can we think of anybody who seems to circumvent this principle?

Please turn to Deuteronomy 9:20-21: “And the Lord was angry enough with Aaron to destroy him…” The verse speaks about Aaron, the brother of Moses, the brother of Miriam, the high priest, a leader of the people, the maker of the golden calf. Is Aaron a saint or something less? The New Testament has little to say about Aaron. Acts 7:41 mentions that the Israelites “made a calf and brought a sacrifice to the idol, and were rejoicing in the works of their hands.” Does Acts 7:41 agree with the details of Exodus 32?

Why did God punish Aaron by forbidding him to enter the Promised Land. Is it because he oversaw the construction of the golden calf? No! It was because Aaron disobeyed God along with Moses at the waters of Meribah (Num. 20:24). For that he was punished with the same punishment which Moses received. Both were forbidden to cross the Jordan River (Num. 20:12). But was Aaron punished for the golden calf? No! Were the people punished? Yes! By whom were they punished? Moses called out, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me!” Who gathered around Moses? The Levites rallied around Moses. In other words, the clan of Aaron meted out the punishment. Something is very odd.

I am reminded of another story where Miriam spoke against Moses (Num. 12). Was only Miriam involved? No! Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses, but the Lord smote only Miriam with leprosy, and she had to wait outside the camp seven days. Nothing happened to Aaron. He merely watched his sister turn white as snow. Aaron presents a challenge for biblical expositors whether they be ancient or modern.

In post Biblical Jewish literature much effort was expended to deal with Aaron’s apparent immunity from the principle of Midah KeNeged Midah. The sages and their successors, the rabbis, tried to reconcile Exodus 32, Numbers 12 and Deuteronomy 9:20-21 with God’s treatment of Aaron. They had two options for bringing Aaron’s case in line with the demands of Midah KeNeged Midah. Either he was punished and we simply need to find the mode of punishment in the text; or contrary to what appears in the biblical narrative at first glance, Aaron did nothing wrong, and in reality conducted himself in a noble way. The second approach, what I will call the whitewashing of Aaron’s character, emerged as the prevailing solution in rabbinic literature (Leviticus Rabbah 10:3 – parable). As we already saw in Acts 7:41, Aaron was not singled out for any misconduct. In his speech, Stephen implied that the blame rested with the Israelites. The record of Stephen’s speech is consistent with the rabbinic trend of removing culpability from Aaron.

Taking a biblical principle like Midah KeNeged Midah and pushing its application to the limits is characteristic of rabbinic interpretation. The rabbis enjoyed pushing the “exegetical envelope” to the point of bursting. Let me give two examples where they pushed the limits of Midah KeNeged Midah to the very edge.

In Numbers 12:15, Miriam’s sudden case of leprosy caused the entire camp of the Israelites to hold up for seven days. In fact, the rabbis claimed that God himself, the Divine presence, the ark of the covenant, the priests, the Levites, the Israelites, and the seven clouds of glory all waited for Miriam—a rather impressive waiting list! The rabbis viewed this as an example of Midah KeNeged Midah, namely, that all of the parties named above, God among them, waited for Miriam when she had leprosy. They waited a week for Miriam to become ritually pure.

What noble deed had Miriam done that warranted everyone waiting for her? The answer may be found in Exodus 2:4. After Moses’ Mother had set him afloat in the Nile, Miriam waited to see what would happen to her infant brother. Here we discover the toehold in the text which allowed the rabbis to apply Midah KeNeged Midah. Since Miriam waited for Moses, the savior of Israel, God and the Israelites waited for her. Is this responsible interpretation or has the “exegetical envelope” been ruptured? Indeed the limits have been stretched to the point of bursting. Nevertheless, we have been driven back to the text and forced to reexamine it.

Allow me to give one more example from rabbinic literature, one of which I am particularly fond. First, however, I will need to give some background information. In a talmudic text about a sage named Abba Hilkiah, who was the grandson of Honi the circle drawer, we find the following story.

Once the Rabbis sent to Abba Hilkiah a pair of scholars that he should pray for rain. When they came to his house they did not find him at home. They went to see him in the field and found him ploughing the ground. They greeted him, but he did not heed them. Towards evening he was picking up sticks of wood and, on his way home, carried the sticks on one shoulder and his cloak on the other. The whole way long he did not put on his shoes, but when he had to cross the water he put them on. When he came across thorns and shrubs he lifted up his garments… (Ta’anit 23 a-b; Malter ed., p. 346).

Notice Abba Hilkiah’s behavior regarding his shoes and garments. He was very conscious about damaging them or subjecting them to unnecessary wear and tear. Later in the story, the pair of scholars questioned Abba Hilkiah about his behavior regarding his shoes and garments. He replied, “The entire way I could see [what I was stepping on], in the water I could not see…the one [a scratch on the skin] heals up, the other [a tear in the garment] does not heal up.” From this story we gain a glimpse into the daily life of Jews in antiquity. Apparently, garments and shoes were not as easily acquired as they are today. Consequently, people were more conscious of the manner in which they treated them.

Keeping this background information in mind, we will examine 1 Samuel 24:4 and 1 Kings 1:1 to see if we can discover how Midah KeNeged Midah applies to these two verses. In 1 Samuel 24:3 we read that Saul entered a cave to use as a bathroom. What did David do as Saul was relieving himself? He sneaked up and clipped his garment. Here is the proof from the biblical text that David had a low regard for clothing. He had been the type of teenager who walked on the road with his sandals on, went through the thickets without lifting his robe, and when he arrived home his Mom would say, “What have you done to your clothes!” That was the type of young man David was, and according to Midah KeNeged Midah, he paid the price later in life.

As an old man King David had a problem. According to 1 Kings 1:1, his clothes no longer kept him warm. Why? Because he did not have a high regard for clothing as was demonstrated by his damaging of Saul’s garment. These are wonderful verses for mothers to use when trying to teach children to treat shoes and clothes with more respect.

Moreover, look at 1 Samuel 24:5-6. How did David feel after doing this dirty deed? He felt guilty! He must have heard his mother’s words echoing in his head, “Take care of your clothes!” In verse 5 somebody said to David, “Today the Lord your God has given you your enemy into your hand.” If David had accepted the advice of those around him, he would have killed Saul. So why should he feel guilty about clipping Saul’s garment? I could understand feeling guilty about killing Saul, but clipping his robe? I think that it had something to do with his mother. I am simply suggesting that the biblical text itself offered the rabbis an opportunity to make a clever and delightful application of Midah KeNeged Midah. No matter how odd a midrashic interpretation may sound, almost always a toehold exists in the text.

Applying the principle of Midah KeNeged Midah in a mechanical manner can lead to problems. In the world of the sages, Midah KeNeged Midah came to be viewed as a principle built into the order of the universe. The widespread acceptance of the principle meant that it was sometimes recklessly applied.

Several years ago, Randall Buth preached before the Narkis Street Congregation in Jerusalem, Israel a delightful sermon from the Parashah Re’ey (Dt. 11:26-16:27). One of the points he made in his sermon had to do with poor people (see Sermons from Narkis, 44-45). In the Torah we find the following paradigm: If we are obedient to God, we will be blessed and not experience want. But then Deuteronomy 15:7 says, “If there are any poor among you.” We must be careful not to slide into a type of thinking that reasons that a person suffers poverty because he or she deserves it. Yet as Buth pointed out in his sermon, the Bible commands us to be generous to the poor. God commanded the Israelites to extend an open hand to the needy (Dt. 15:8).

We who are God’s people should be open minded, non-judgmental, generous people. Consistently applying Midah KeNeged Midah in a mechanical manner and avoiding the temptation of being critical and judgmental are mutually exclusive options. We must be very careful to guard our thinking and not allow ourselves to apply recklessly Midah KeNeged Midah

In Avot 2:6, Hillel apparently made a remark while passing by some water and seeing a corpse floating in it. He said, “Because you had drowned others, they drowned you, and those who drowned you, will they themselves be drowned.” Interestingly, Joseph Hertz in his excellent commentary (p. 34) wrote, “Hillel seems to have known the person whose skull it was, and he had been a brigand.” Why did Hertz, the distinguished Chief Rabbi of England, offer that little comment? If Hillel had not personally known this man, he would have recklessly applied Midah KeNeged Midah. To paraphrase Jesus, all who live by the sword, will die by the sword. But, it is not correct to assume that all that die by the sword lived by the sword. There is a subtle, but significant difference between these two propositions. Human nature works against our efforts to keep that subtle difference in focus.

In Matthew 6:12, an excerpt from the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus said that his disciples must forgive others in order to be forgiven by God—Midah KeNeged Midah. Thus, Jesus endorsed and employed this principle. When we forgive others, God forgives us. When we show mercy to others, God shows mercy to us. When we are gracious to others, God is gracious to us. When we bless others, God blesses us. Each of these represents a responsible application of Midah KeNeged Midah.

In Matthew 7:1-2a, Jesus applied Midah KeNeged Midah in reference to judging and giving charity: “Do not judge lest you be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged.” Matthew 7:2b continues: “By your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” Here Jesus essentially paraphrased the Hebrew idiom that I quoted at the beginning, “Bamidah sheadam moded ba, modedin lo.”

A most significant passage for evaluating Jesus’ method of application of Midah KeNeged Midah is Luke 13:1-5. Luke alone recounted a remarkable incident about some who reported to Jesus about the Galileans “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” Jesus responded, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans? Jesus then added a second example about a tower that had fallen in Siloam. (Today tourists visiting The City of David can see the base of the Hasmonean Tower, which may have resembled the tower to which Jesus referred.) Jesus said, “Do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell were worse culprits than all men who live in Jerusalem?” In the light of the culture and context, what Jesus said challenged his audience because many of them viewed sickness or tragedy as the consequence of wrong doing. Jesus was cautioning against the temptation of assuming that the victims of the tower’s collapse had done something wicked, so as to deserve a violent death as a form of divine punishment. Jesus warned not to entertain such thoughts. “Do not think that these Galileans were worse than any other Galileans!” Sweeping, general applications of Midah KeNeged Midah are theologically immature and irresponsible. The principle has limitations, and when Christians apply it recklessly, they run the risk of scarring people emotionally. Illness and tragedy may befall any of us, not because we deserve it, but because we live in an imperfect, unpredictable world. Hence, Jesus’ call to repent now, lest we unexpectedly face our creator today (Flusser, Jesus, pp. 101-102).

How did Jesus apply the principle of Midah KeNeged Midah in his teachings? This is a good opportunity to introduce a principle that I have formulated for interpreting Jesus’ teachings. I call it the principle of “what-I-don’t-want-to-hear,” or, for broader application, the “what-we-do-not-want-to-hear” principle. This principle is useful for interpreting the synoptic Gospels, because although some sayings of Jesus are difficult to understand—even more are difficult to obey. When reading the synoptic Gospels, I have noticed that Jesus often said what I would rather not hear. So, if we read a teaching of Jesus, and our response is, “My human nature resists that,” or “I don’t want to hear that,” our interpretation is probably more or less accurate.

Some of the things Jesus emphasized in his teachings stand as strong warnings to those who belong to the community of faith. Jesus made statements about not lapsing into prideful judgmentalism, and becoming centripetal in one’s thinking. Jesus taught that our attitude toward other people—outsiders, even sinners—must be like God’s.

So here is an opportunity to apply the principle of what-we-don’t-want-to-hear. Jesus’ teachings suggest that the principle of Midah KeNeged Midah may be applied only when it challenges our human nature. When does it challenge our human nature? When we must extend mercy to those who deserve none. When we forgive those who do not deserve forgiveness. When we give to those who do not deserve help. These are the things that we would rather not hear. Nevertheless, when we show mercy, forgive, and give charitably, God acts the likewise toward us.

After seeing tragedy befall somebody, we must be careful not to assume that that person deserved such “divine” retribution. Our human nature promotes such self-centered thinking. Yet Jesus taught to abandon that mode of thinking, because if we really believe that a person deserved some misfortune, then our willingness to offer assistance will be undermined. Our duty is not to judge, but to be a conduit for God’s healing, hope and redemption in an imperfect, hurting world.

For Jesus, repentance today remains a priority. That is the point of Luke 13:1-9. Pilate in an outburst of cruel rage could have had anybody killed. The tower that collapsed could have fallen on anybody who happened to be passing by it. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus once said, “Repent one day before death!” His disciples replied, “How does a man know when he will die?” R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus smiled and said, “That is good reason to repent today” (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 15).

Jesus used similar teachings to communicate that if we do not live to see the awesome return of the Lord, we certainly will face our creator at death. I am reminded of the words of Akaviah ben Mahalel, “Remember three things and you will not fall into sin: Whence you came, thence you are going, and before whom you will give an account. Whence did you come? From a little putrid drop. Thence are you going? To the place of worms and maggots. Before whom will you give an account? Before the King of Kings” (m. Avot 3:1).

Offering an incisive comment on Luke 13 about recklessly applying Midah KeNeged Midah, Jesus suggested that anyone, God forbid, may expire today and face one’s creator. If the imminence of that reality (or the return of the Son of Man) remains before us, then our thinking and conduct should be radically different from that of other people.

Toward an Inerrant View of Scripture

Revised: 15-Feb-2008

When applying the adjective “inerrant” to Scripture, Protestants presumably mean one, two, or three of the following things:

  1. an inerrant autograph written by a biblical author;
  2. an inerrant copy of a manuscript descending from an autograph;
  3. an inerrant translation based on one (or more manuscripts) descending from an autograph.

No biblical autographs have survived. There are only manuscripts which were copied from earlier manuscripts, which were copied from still earlier manuscripts, and so on. To speak of an autograph as inerrant, we are essentially claiming that Scripture used to be inerrant. In theory, if all relevant manuscript evidence were available, we could trace a manuscript’s lineage back to an original autograph. But since we do not possess a single biblical autograph, we are not in a position to comment on an autograph’s character in a meaningful way. Moreover, even if we had access to a biblical autograph, would a spelling error render it errant?

We can comment with greater confidence and credibility on an extant manuscript whose lineage descends from an autograph. Anyone who has worked with manuscripts knows that when transcribing, scribes were prone to mistakes because of physical limitations. To complicate matters, scribes sometimes corrected errors in their exemplars. Occasionally, their emendations were faulty, and in these cases they compounded the problem. Scribes usually made their corrections in the vertical margins of a manuscript or between the horizontal lines of script above the word (or words) in question. Such corrections and notations can be seen in the margins and between the lines of the famous Isaiah Scroll from Qumran.

The entire biblical discipline of textual criticism (lower criticism) rests on the assumption that by comparing a place where manuscripts of the same biblical book differ, scholars can determine which reading should be regarded as preferable or even authentic. For their own benefit and to assist other scholarly types, text critics have constructed a critical apparatus for each book of the Old and New Testaments. In the apparatus, in an abbreviated format, they have listed important variant readings found among manuscripts of the same biblical book. Information originating from a critical apparatus regularly appears in footnotes of English translations in the form of comments like “Dead Sea Scrolls and Syriac (See also Septuagint)…” and “Some witnesses read….”

Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia and The Greek New Testament are two standard critical editions of the Bible that feature critical apparatuses. By including a critical apparatus in each of these editions, text critics have indicated that they have collated and evaluated the variant readings of manuscripts. The committee of The Greek New Testament decided to add capital Roman letters to its apparatus as a means of rating readings that it adopted for the Greek text. The notation {A} signifies that an adopted reading is beyond doubt, whereas {D} indicates that a high degree of doubt is associated with an adopted reading.

Text critics labor hard to make reliable printed editions of the biblical text accessible. Their aim is accuracy. If textual scholars had inerrant manuscripts in their possession, they could greatly reduce their workload, because such an ideal manuscript would eliminate the need for assembling a critical apparatus.

Scholars who serve as translators generally work from printed critical editions and not manuscripts. Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia is based on a manuscript known as Codex Leningradensis. Interestingly, New Testament text critics opted not to base their standard editions on a single manuscript. The text of The Greek New Testament is a composite, hybrid or “eclectic” text that incorporates elements (i.e., adopted readings) from different manuscripts. Generations of skilled text critics contributed to the construction of the Greek text that serves as the base text for The Greek New Testament. Its text is accurate and reliable, but such a Greek text probably never existed in its present form as the actual text of a biblical autograph.

Readers of the Bible know that each English translation has its own character. Most biblical verses can be translated in more than one way. Each standard English translation of the Bible has its strengths and weaknesses. Even the venerated King James Version and the popular New International Version have shortcomings alongside their advantages. Moreover, a translation cannot be superior to the source from which it emanates. If the nature of biblical manuscripts resists the application of the adjective “inerrant,” how much more so the nature of translations, because translations emanate directly (or indirectly) from those very same manuscripts.

The adjective “inerrant” implies singularity. Christians of every historical period (including those living today) are united by a common confession. An affirmation once made by converts undergoing baptism in the third century C.E. encapsulates our confession:

Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, who was crucified in the days of Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose the third day alive from the dead, and ascended into the heavens, and sat down at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the quick and the dead.

Neither today nor in the past have all Christians agreed upon a singular (i.e., inerrant) canonical text. For example, while many North American Christians enjoy their NIV and KJV Bibles, Greek Orthodox believers revere the Septuagint as their canonical Old Testament.

I would suggest that we wean ourselves of describing Scripture with the adjective “inerrant.” To speak of the Bible as inspired reflects the language of Scripture (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16-17), but to speak of it as inerrant forces the adoption of an adjective that Scripture does not claim for itself. As alternatives, I would propose switching to “reliable” and “accurate.” The collective manuscript evidence of the Bible, the critical editions based on it, and the English translations derived from them are indeed accurate and reliable. I cannot easily escape the impression that when preachers and evangelists describe the Bible as inerrant, many of them are really making a claim about the church tradition to which they subscribe. Taking advantage of how dear the Bible is to their listeners, they blow a smoke screen into their faces. Behind the cover of obfuscating rhetoric, they adeptly shift the adjective “inerrant” from the Bible onto their dogmas. The maneuver can be accomplished easily, because the laity tends to be lax when it comes to matters requiring inquiry for verification. In contrast, scholars have invested much effort in trying to explain to the reading public the stages of bringing an ancient biblical book from manuscript to printed English. Articles entitled “Textual Criticism” are among the longest in Bible dictionaries. Sadly, however, they are also among the least read.

Paraphrastic Gospels

As Robert Lindsey realized in 1962, Mark reworked Luke’s Gospel in writing his own. Mark liked to substitute synonyms for nearly anything that Luke wrote. If, for instance, Luke used the singular of a noun, Mark substituted the plural form of the same noun in writing his Gospel. And vice versa: if Luke used the plural, Mark substituted the singular. In this article, Robert Lindsey surveys a unique substitution category found in Mark’s Gospel: the replacing of one verse of Scripture with another.

The four Evangelists of the Greek New Testament, though concurring at many points, demonstrate a remarkable degree of disparity when retelling their versions of the life of Jesus. This is especially true of Mark and John.[1] Their accounts are very early Greek paraphrases of the gospel records.[2] Mark’s Gospel predates John’s by about forty years, and it will be the Markan paraphrastic method that will occupy our attention here.

When reading Matthew, Mark and Luke in modern translation, a reader generally cannot see the differences in wording of the underlying Greek texts. This is because the differences are often synonymic. If perceptible at all, they can easily escape notice. In scores of places, where Luke used a certain word or phrase, Mark used an equivalent, but different word or phrase. The best way to grasp how Mark operates is to look at examples from the Gospels themselves.

Markan Synonyms

In Matthew 9:1-8, Mark 2:1-12 and Luke 5:17-26, there is a story about a paralytic who is carried to Jesus on some sort of stretcher. Matthew and Luke agree against Mark that the paralytic was carried on a κλίνη (kline).[3] Mark has chosen κράβαττος (krabattos) as a synonym.[4] The variance is reflected in the New American Standard BibleKline is translated as “bed” and krabattos as “pallet.”

Added Detail and Dramatization

Late third-century fresco from the catacombs in Rome depicting the woman who touched one of the tassels (tsitsiyot) of Jesus' garment.
Late third-century fresco from the catacombs in Rome depicting the woman who touched one of the tassels (tsitsiyot) of Jesus’ garment.

A slightly different example is found in the story about the woman with a hemorrhage. Matthew 9:20 and Luke 8:44 both say that the woman “came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment,” whereas Mark 5:27 says that “she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment.” In this case, the slight change from προσελθοῦσα (proselthousa; coming, approaching) to ἐλθοῦσα (elthousa; coming) is not reflected in English translations;[5] but Mark’s addition of ἐν τῷ ὄχκῳ (en to ochlo, in the crowd) and omission of τοῦ κρασπέδου (tou kraspedou, the fringe) are.[6] Furthermore, Mark 5:26 includes details that are absent in Matthew and Luke: the woman “had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent everything she had, but instead of getting better she grew worse.” These added details are characteristic of Mark’s method. He enjoys enriching his story with vivid tidbits of information. In Mark 1:41 he reports that Jesus was moved with compassion; in Mark 4:38, that Jesus was fast asleep on a cushion; in Mark 6:39, that the people sat on green grass; and in Mark 6:13, that the twelve anointed the sick with oil.[7]

Replacement of Scripture Quotations

The above synonymic interchanges and supplemental details are mild examples of Mark’s paraphrastic tendencies. To catch a glimpse of more dramatic ways in which Mark paraphrastically handled his primary written source (i.e., Luke’s Gospel), we need only examine Mark’s quotations from Scripture. When Luke quotes from Scripture, Mark usually cites a different verse or alters Luke’s verse by expanding or changing certain of its features.

Isaiah or Malachi?

In Matthew 3:1-6, Mark 1:1-6 and Luke 3:1-6, John’s preparatory ministry is described. To clarify John’s role, Luke quotes from Isaiah 40:3-5. He specifically informs the reader that the quotation comes from the prophet Isaiah. Mark, too, says that he is quoting from Isaiah, but only includes Isaiah 40:3. Perhaps compensating for the dropping of Isaiah 40:4-5, Mark inserts (before the quotation from Isaiah!), “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way.” For one reason or another Mark does not inform the reader that he has introduced Malachi 3:1 into a context supposedly representing what was said by Isaiah.

Emmanuel Tzanes-  St. Mark the Evangelist
Icon of St. Mark the Evangelist by Emmanuel Tzanes. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

What motivated Mark to do such a thing? It appears that Mark has been influenced by a second gospel story that speaks about John the Baptist. In Luke 7:27, Jesus claimed John to be the one whom the prophet Malachi described. Despite the fact that John did not formally join Jesus’ movement, Jesus strongly affirmed John’s ministry by saying that “none of those ‘born of women’ is greater than John.” Having been impressed by such marvelous statements about John, Mark lifted Malachi 3:1 from this second John the Baptist context. When he placed the Malachi verse from Luke 7:27 into the first John the Baptist context of Luke 3:4, he inadvertently ended up suggesting that the compound reference stems from Isaiah. Note also that Mark chose to drop, in its entirety, the second John the Baptist context at the place where Jesus affirms John’s role of heralding the Coming One.[8] The placement of the Malachi verse at the beginning of his Gospel in the context of John’s preaching and baptizing activities strongly suggests that Mark knew the material preserved in Luke 7:24-35, but opted not to include it in his retelling of the gospel story. Instead, he merely hinted at Jesus’ affirming witness of John by relocating a key verse.

Psalms or Isaiah?

Earliest known representation of the Jewish form of baptism. This fresco, found in the second-century Callistus catacomb in Rome, depicts Jesus after he had immersed himself being assisted out of the Jordan River by John the Baptist.
Earliest known depiction of Jesus’ baptism. After immersing himself, Jesus climbs out of the Jordan River with John the Baptist’s assistance. A dove hovers in the upper left corner of the image. This fresco was found in the late second-century crypt of Lucina in the catacombs of Rome.

According to Luke 3:22, the heavenly voice at Jesus’ baptism quoted Psalms 2:7: “You are my son. Today I have begotten you.”[9] According to Mark 1:11, however, the heavenly voice said: “You are my son, my beloved. With you I am well pleased,” which is apparently a combination of Psalms 2:7, Isaiah 44:2 and 62:4.[10]

Psalms 31 or 22?

The last words Jesus spoke on the cross are not identical in the first three Gospels. Luke records that Jesus quoted from Psalms 31:5: “Into your hands [literally, ‘hand’] I entrust my spirit. You will redeem me, O LORD; you are a faithful God” (Luke 23:46). Mark, however, writes that Jesus quoted in Aramaic from Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you far from delivering me, from the words of my groaning?” (Mark 15:34). Mark’s version is certainly difficult to grapple with theologically. Did God abandon Jesus? Or is this simply another example of Mark’s editorial replacement habit? Throughout his Gospel, Mark does portray Jesus as being abandoned by family members, trusted disciples, and here, perhaps, even by God.

As Shmuel Safrai has noted, “It seems likely that Jesus, who in the last days before his crucifixion had already told his disciples of his impending death and its meaning, would recite in his final moments the verse from Psalm 31, ‘Into your hands I entrust my spirit,’ rather than the verse from Psalm 22, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”[11] Luke has preserved a magnificent glimpse of Jesus as an observant Jew. Psalms 31:5 is even today still part of the standard, Jewish deathbed confession.[12] This prayer is exactly what one would anticipate on the lips of a dying, observant Jew.

Editorial Changes

These differences between Mark and Luke in quotations of Scripture appear to be due to the editorial changes of one of the authors. In nearly every case, evidence exists suggesting that Luke’s text is earlier, more Hebraic, or more comprehensible. To my mind, Mark had Luke’s Gospel before him as he wrote and did not hesitate to lace the story with additional elements.


How does Mark’s paraphrastic habit affect our perception of the formation of Scripture? Ancient Jews, including the followers of Jesus, did not make the often arbitrary distinction moderns make between translation and interpretation.[13] This ancient attitude can be readily seen when we study the Septuagint and targums vis-à-vis the Hebrew Masoretic Text. The Septuagint and targums are often as much paraphrastic interpretations as they are translations. The eminent Jewish scholar, Saul Lieberman, once described the Septuagint as the oldest of the preserved midrashim.[14] Moreover, Josephus, a famous contemporary of Mark, claimed in his Jewish Antiquities to be recording in Greek a precise account of Israel’s history based upon the Hebrew Scriptures themselves (Ant. 1:5, 17), but according to modern standards, produced a free, paraphrastic retelling of the biblical narrative.

Thus, Mark’s manner of writing should neither surprise nor undermine our concept of the formation of Scripture. Rather, our concept of the formation of Scripture must be broad enough and sufficiently informed to accommodate Mark’s methods. The ancient records indicate that Jews and Christians living in the first two centuries of this era embraced an understanding of inspiration of Scripture that was broader and less rigid than that embraced by many Christians today. Our views of inspiration often place demands on the Synoptic Gospels that they were never intended to bear. The Jesus who is forced out of the text under such demands tends to have a steamrolled appearance. He usually resembles one of us—a good Baptist, Mennonite, Methodist, Nazarene, Pentecostal, or whatever the denominational orientation of the reader may be. To correct our habits, we must strive to see the Gospels as an organic part of Second Temple-period Judaism’s rich diversity. Only then can we come to terms with Mark’s method and begin to bring the demands we place on the gospel texts in line with those they are able to bear.

Editors’ note: Out of esteem for our teacher, Robert Lindsey, we have collaborated to make this article and his “Unlocking the Synoptic Problem: Four Keys for Better Understanding Jesus” (Jerusalem Perspective 49 [Oct.-Dec. 1995], 10-17, 38) available to our readers. These articles mark the end of Robert Lindsey’s scholarly career. With his health waning and incapacitated by a series of strokes that accompanied the diabetes from which he suffered, Dr. Lindsey was able to complete only a first or second draft of each article. Though we could not preserve Dr. Lindsey’s writing style, great effort was made to preserve faithfully the content of his articles. We are responsible for the articles’ conclusions and footnotes. — David Bivin and Joseph Frankovic

  • [1] A rule of thumb is: Opposite a parallel story in Luke, Mark will change up to fifty percent of Luke’s words; where Matthew has a story parallel to Mark, Matthew will copy about seventy percent of the words found in Mark, but give, against Mark, about ten percent of the words Luke uses; where John has a story parallel to one found in the synoptic tradition, he will have phrases reflecting one or more of the synoptic documents, resulting in a mixing of the words, especially the words of Mark and Luke—less often copying readings from Matthean parallels.
  • [2] One helpful way of viewing John’s Gospel is in light of the Book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is a retelling of the Exodus and wilderness experience. It is a theological reflection on the past and a restating of the commandments, to prepare the Israelites for the transition from a nomadic to an agriculturally based, sedentary lifestyle. In particular, certain aspects of the biblical commandments were developed and emphasized to meet new challenges. The Gospel of John is similar. It represents a theological development in the presentation of who Jesus is. Moreover, John’s method is freer than Mark’s.
  • [3] Cf. Matt. 9:2 with Luke 5:18, and Matt. 9:6 with Luke 5:24. In Luke 5:24 the word κλινίδιον (klinidion, a little bed), the diminutive of κλίνη (kline), is used.
  • [4] Cf. Mark 2:4, 11.
  • [5] The change from proselthousa to elthousa in Mark 5:27 and the change from kline to krabattos in Mark 2:1-12, both examples from the Triple Tradition, are places where Matthew and Luke agree against Mark. Such agreements are termed “minor agreements” by scholars. For the significance of these minor agreements against Mark, see Nigel Turner, “The Minor Verbal Agreements of Mt. and Lk. Against Mk.,” Studia Evangelica 73 (1959): 223-234; and E. P. Sanders, “The Overlaps of Mark and Q and the Synoptic Problem,” New Testament Studies 19 (1973): 453-465.
  • [6] The Greek κράσπεδον (kraspedon) is used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew צִיצִית (tsitsit, tassel). Cf. Numbers 15:38. Matthew and Luke make clear that the woman touched the braided tassels that were attached to the corners of an observant Jew’s garment.
  • [7] Some scholars term the additional details provided by Mark “Markan freshness” and view such additions as evidence of the primitive nature or originality of Mark. These extra details, however, are often lifted from other books of the New Testament or the Septuagint. Already at the turn of the twentieth century Benjamin Bacon had noticed Mark’s habit of lifting material from other sources. See Bacon’s comments to Mark 1:1 (Hosea 1:2, LXX), Mark 1:13 (Naphtali 8:4), Mark 6:13 (James 5:14), Mark 6:23 (Esther 5:3), and Mark 7:19 (Acts 10:15; 11:9) in The Beginnings of the Gospel Story: A Historico-Critical Inquiry into the Sources and Structure of the Gospel According to Mark, with Expository notes upon the text, for English Readers (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1909), 8, 13, 66, 75, 89.
  • [8] Cf. Matt. 11:7-19 and Luke 7:24-35.
  • [9] In most English translations all three synoptic writers appear to agree upon the words of the heavenly voice: “You are my son, my beloved. With you I am well pleased.” Yet, there is a variant reading for Luke 3:22. This reading is attested by the fifth-sixth-century Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis manuscript, the Old Latin manuscripts, the Gospel of the Ebionites, and by several church fathers. The variant reading is, “You are my son. Today I have begotten you.” This is a quotation from Psalms 2:7 and is much more suitable in the context of Jesus’ baptism, the commencement of Jesus’ public ministry. Luke’s text was likely “corrected” by a scribe to bring it into alignment with Matt. 3:17 and Mark 1:11. This scribal tendency of aligning the wording of one synoptic text with the other two can be seen in numerous places, if we pay close attention to the readings of the various New Testament manuscripts.

    For a discussion of this variant reading, see Alfred R. C. Leaney, A Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke, in Black’s New Testament Commentaries (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1958), 110-111. Though agreeing with the editors of the United Bible Societies’ third corrected edition, who accept the reading, “You are my son, my beloved. With you I am well pleased,” Joseph A. Fitzmyer has a helpful discussion of the variant in The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX), The Anchor Bible, Vol. 28 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1981), 485.

  • [10] Mark may have been influenced by Luke 20:13 in his choice of “beloved.”
  • [11] Shmuel Safrai, “Spoken Languages in the Time of Jesus,” Jerusalem Perspective 30 (Jan./Feb. 1991): 8. Note that Stephen also quoted from Psalms 31:5 as he was being put to death (Acts 7:59; cf. John 19:30), and Peter exhorted those who were sharing the sufferings of Jesus to commit their souls to God (1 Pet. 4:19).
  • [12] Cf. The Authorized Daily Prayer Book, ed. Joseph H. Hertz (rev. ed.; New York: Bloch Publishing, 1948), 1065.
  • [13] See Joseph Frankovic, “Pieces to the Synoptic Puzzle: Papias and Luke 1:1-4,” Jerusalem Perspective 40 (1993): 12-13.
  • [14] Saul Lieberman,Greek in Jewish Palestine/Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1994), 50.

New Testament Canon

When discussing the question of inspiration of Scripture, it is important to consider also the way in which the church determined which books were from God and which were not. Most of us take for granted that the New Testament always had twenty-seven books. We may be vaguely aware that Paul mentions a letter he wrote to the church in Laodicea (Col. 4:16) and that there might have been a third letter to the church in Corinth, but beyond that we assume there were no other writings.

In fact, the writing of the books included in the New Testament was spread over a period of more than half a century. However, not all of these books were accepted by the churches as coming from God until about three hundred years after they were written. During that period there were other books, written roughly at the same time as the twenty-seven New Testament books, which were accepted by some churches as inspired.

One of the earliest acknowledgments that parts of what we now call the New Testament were to be considered as holy Scripture alongside the Hebrew Bible comes in the words of Peter, when he sets writings of Paul together with “Scripture,” in other words the Hebrew Bible: “…just as our dear brother Paul wrote to you, using the wisdom that God gave him…. There are some difficult things in his letters which ignorant and unstable people explain falsely, as they do with other passages of the Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:15-16).

First Lists

The first actual attempt to draw up a list of books to be accepted was made by a man named Marcion in the middle of the second century A.D. Marcion, under the influence of gnostic teaching, rejected the idea that the God of the Hebrew Bible could be the same as the God and Father of Jesus. The Jewish God, he said, was a God of wrath and judgment, while the God revealed by Jesus is a God of love and compassion. Following this essentially anti-Semitic idea, Marcion rejected all of the Jewish Scriptures. He then accepted as truly inspired and authoritative only the writings of Paul (ten books, not including the letters to Timothy and Titus) and the bulk of the book of Luke. Because he believed that Jesus only appeared to be a man and to suffer (a view known as Docetism), he rejected the first two chapters of Luke which speak of the birth of Jesus. Marcion was declared a heretic even in his own lifetime.

By the end of the second century there was wide (but not yet universal) acceptance of all but four of the books which make up our New Testament. The so-called Muratorian Fragment dates from that time and omits Hebrews, James and 1 and 2 Peter. The eastern and Egyptian churches were also slow to accept 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation. The name “New Testament,” describing the apostolic books of the church, was first used in about 193 A.D. by an unknown author writing against the heresy of Montanism.

Even as late as the early fourth century, the church historian Eusebius was able to point out that books like the Shepherd of Hermas, Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas were accepted by some churches, while books like Jude, 2 Peter, Revelation and Hebrews were omitted by some (Ecclesiastical History III, 25). This situation is indeed reflected in some extant ancient manuscripts. For example, the Peshitta (Syriac), which dates from the fourth or fifth century A.D., omits 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation.

Final Canon

It was not until the year 367 A.D. that the Alexandrian bishop Athanasius listed the twenty-seven books which we now accept as the New Testament canon. The word “canon” derives from the Semitic root meaning a reed (kaneh) as a unit or standard of measure (cf. Ezek. 40:5). It was first applied to a set of biblical writings in the fourth century. Up until that time there had been no council or committee which sat down to decide which books were to be accepted by the whole church and which were not. The process was an organic one stretching over that period of 300 years. The main factors which ultimately determined whether a book was to be placed in the “New Testament” were 1) having been written by an apostolic figure, and 2) acceptance by long usage among the churches.

In certain respects, the process which led to the fixing of the canon is one of the outstanding statements of the inspiration of tradition and the wisdom of God manifest collectively in his church. While God had used individual writers to record the books themselves, the actual acceptance of those books as being from God was subject to a long transition, a process of testing. We might say that the Holy Spirit was allowing the collective wisdom of the church to test the books to see whether they were from God (cf. 1 John 4:1).

Scirbal Scribal Errors

Revised: 5-Nov-2012

There are about 1,500 scribal errors in the Hebrew Scriptures. The letters ו (vav) and י (yod), for instance, were often confused by ancient copyists of the Bible. The two letters are so similar that they are easily confused. In fact, writing by mistake a vav instead of a yod, or vice versa, is the most common scribal error in the Bible.

Artists depiction of the clay jars with lids that contained the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered at Qumran.
Artists depiction of the clay jars with lids that contained the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered at Qumran.

The only difference between the Hebrew personal pronouns for “he” and “she” is the middle letter yod or vav. Confusion of vav and yod often resulted in a copying mistake, the writing of הוא (hu, he) instead of היא (hi, she), and vice versa. If, for instance, an earlier scribe happened to make the letter י (yod) of היא (hi, she) a little too long, then the scribe who next copied that text might mistakenly read the היא as הוא (hu, he) (e.g., 1 Kgs. 17:15; Job 31:11; Isa. 30:33). Or, conversely, if a scribe made the ו (vav) of הוא a little too short, then the next copyist might read the הוא as היא (e.g., 1 Kgs. 17:15; 1 Chron. 29:16; Job 31:11; Ps. 73:16; Eccl. 5:8).

Usually the mistake is obvious because the rest of the grammatical forms in the sentence are in the opposite gender? However, scribes were not permitted to alter the sacred text, even if they detected an obvious mistake. They could correct the mistake only by writing the correct spelling in the margin of the manuscript.

Such scribal errors are rarely noted in English versions of the Bible. Translators are so sure the marginal readings are correct they usually do not even mention in a footnote that they are not actually translating the consonantal text. Proverbs 23:31, for example, is usually translated, “Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup….” English Bible translations are unanimous in rendering “cup” (כוס, kos), a marginal reading, even though the text itself reads כיס (kis, purse; bag).

Another common scribal error is the writing of לֹא (lo, no) for לוֹ (lo, his), or vice versa (about twenty times in Scripture, e.g., Lev. 11:21; 1 Sam. 2:16; Ezra 4:2; Isa. 49:5). Although these two words are spelled differently, both are pronounced exactly the same way. The most famous example of this scribal error is that found in Psalms 100:3, which the King James Version translates as, “Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves.” The consonantal text of the second part of this verse reads: “He has made us וְלֹא (velo, and not) we.” However, if one translates according to the scribal correction וְלוֹ (velo, and his) in the margin, one gets, “He has made us and his we are.” Therefore, the Revised Standard Version renders, “Know that the Lord is God! It is he that made us, and we are his.” And the New International Version follows closely with, “Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his.” Both translations render the marginal correction rather than the apparent error in the preserved text.

The text of 2 Chronicles 11:18 also contains a scribal error: “And Rehoboam married Mahalath the son of Jerimoth….” Somehow, as the text was copied generation after generation, a scribe substituted בֵּן (ben, son) for בַּת (bat, daughter). Perhaps this happened because of the similarity of the two words or because the scribe’s eye jumped to the word “son” two words later in the text. The scribal correction bat (daughter) in the margin is certainly the more original reading. Only if we assume that Rehoboam married a man is it possible to hold that there is not an error in the transmitted text.

Modern Scribe with quill making repairs to a Torah scroll. (Courtesy of the Israel Government Press Office)
Modern Scribe with quill making repairs to a Torah scroll. (Courtesy of the Israel Government Press Office)

An Introduction to Synoptic Studies

Revised: 27-Mar-2014

Sources for the Gospels

Without the Gospels, little would be known of the way Jesus lived and taught. Although there are a few references to Jesus in the writings of ancient Greek and Latin historians such as Tacitus, Pliny and Josephus, the only sources of consequence for his life and teachings are the letters and tractates of the New Testament.

A Jewish Book

Our information about Jesus thus depends upon the writings of members of a first-century Jewish sect. All the original members of this sect were Jews, as were almost all the writers of the New Testament. Although its earliest known form is in the Greek language, the New Testament is a thoroughly Jewish book. It is full of ideas, idioms, and thought and language forms that are so completely Semitic that Christians reading from the Old Testament to the New Testament have invariably felt that they were continuing a single story.

Even the non-Jewish writer Luke, author of the longest account of the life of Jesus in the New Testament and the only apostolic history in this collection (The Acts of the Apostles), fills his works with quotations from the highly Semitic sayings of Jesus and the preaching of Jewish apostles.

Paul’s Letters

The earliest “books” of the New Testament are not the Gospels, but the letters of Paul and, possibly, the epistle of Jesus’ brother James. These letters do not present even a minimal account of Jesus’ life. Rather, they contain appeals to early Greek-speaking Christians, of both Jewish and pagan background, to follow more closely the example of “the Lord.” The rare references to the historical life of Jesus are introduced only to enforce a point. Nevertheless, these biographical references are brought in so casually as to be considered of great importance by historians, and it would be possible to construct a small Life of Jesus from them.

Paul wrote that Jesus was a man “born of woman,” a descendant of Abraham and of the family of David, that he lived under the Torah, ate a last meal at Passover with his disciples to whom he distributed bread and wine, inviting them to repeat that rite in remembering him, was buried but was raised to life by God his Father, and later seen by many of his disciples and once “by more than five hundred brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living.”

These references suggest that Paul was well acquainted with the main facts and teachings of Jesus as they are recorded in the Gospels. However, it appears that the Gospels, as they now stand in Greek, cannot have been written prior to about 60 A.D., by which time most if not all of Paul’s letters had been circulated among the Greek churches. Yet there is strong evidence that written records of Jesus’ life and teachings predate even Paul’s earliest letters. It seems that the authors of the canonical Gospels were using Greek written sources that had themselves descended from a Greek translation of an original Hebrew Life of Jesus.

The dates of the Gospels are the subject of much speculation among scholars. Since it seems clear that the writer of the Gospel of John used Matthew, Mark and Luke in writing his own book, it often has been supposed that John was composed as late as the second century A.D. Much recent scholarship would prefer a date as early as 75-80 A.D., which suggests that the three earlier Gospels could have been written before 70 A.D. For my suggested dating of the Synoptic Gospels and their sources, see David Bivin, Discovering Longer Gospel Stories.”

“Good News”

These books are called “Gospels” perhaps because the Apostle Paul used the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον (evangelion, good news) to describe the message he and other evangelists preached to Jews and Greeks throughout the Roman world. He defined this evangel in his first letter to the Corinthians by stating that “the Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, was buried, was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve….” (1 Cor. 15:3-5).

It is likely that Paul coined the specific sense of the word evangelion—good news to men—from the Greek form of Isaiah 61:1, “…the Spirit of the LORD has anointed me εὐαγγελίσασθαι [evangelisasthai, to bring good news) to the poor…,” which also was the quotation with which Jesus announced his ministry in the synagogue of Nazareth (Luke 4:18).

In any case, the word evangelion which, due to Anglo-Saxon usage we translate into English as “gospel,” was used by the writer of the Gospel of Mark in the first sentence of his book: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus the Messiah.” This set the pattern for early Greek-speaking believers to label the four canonical accounts of Jesus’ life, “The Gospel according to Matthew,” “The Gospel according to Mark,” etc. Eventually, the four collectively were called “the Gospels.”

None of the Gospels contains the name of its author, and we are dependent upon second-century Christian tradition for the names of the writers. However, in view of the tendency of Greek-speaking Christians of this period to attribute apostolic authorship to early books, it is significant that neither the Gospel of Mark nor the Gospel of Luke bears an apostolic name. This is one of several reasons for believing that Luke was in fact the author of the New Testament works attributed to him, and a good case can be made for the authenticity of the tradition concerning Mark (sometimes called John Mark, cf. Acts 12:25).

Many scholars consider it impossible to prove the second-century tradition that the Apostle Matthew wrote the Gospel that bears his name. The situation is the same regarding John’s Gospel. Modern writers usually use the names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John for the books themselves and the traditional authors without necessarily implying that they accept the tradition.

Gospel Order

The order of these Gospels in the earliest manuscripts says something about their individual popularity in the second and third centuries A.D. Usually the order is Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as in modern usage. However, one also finds the order Matthew, Luke, John and Mark, which may indicate the popularity of Matthew and the unpopularity of Mark’s Gospel, which was said by second-century Greek believers to be “out of order.”

The order of the Gospels and the identity of their authors is of much less importance than the study of what they actually say. Here the first tools are a knowledge of Koine Greek, the usual Greek of the period, an understanding of textual transmission, an ability to use Old and New Testament Hebrew and Greek concordances and lexicons and, not least of all, a close acquaintance with rabbinic literature in its Hebrew and Aramaic originals.

Early Gospel Texts

Two important Gospel scholars of the early modern period were Jacob Wetstein and John Lightfoot. Their research highlighted the Hebrew and Greek linguistic influences in the Gospels. Wetstein published Novum Testamentum Graecum in 1752, while Lightfoot published Horae Hebraicae et Talmudicae even earlier, in 1684. Both works contain material from rabbinic literature illustrating passages of the Gospels. After these books appeared, many scholars became convinced that the Synoptic Gospels are versions of a Greek translation of a Semitic story.

Well-preserved Text

Although Wetstein had an interest in variant texts of the New Testament, it was only much later that scholars began serious attempts to define the earliest Greek text. The Gospels posed particular problems in this regard, for ancient copyists tended to confuse the text of one Gospel with that of another. Additionally, at least in Mark’s case, a copyist appears to have been unhappy with Mark’s wording and decided to correct his text with the deliberate use of phrases from Matthew and Luke.

Despite these problems, a definition of the New Testament text was brilliantly achieved in 1882 by two English scholars, B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort. While today a small group of textual critics continues to work on isolated problems, it generally is assumed that the Greek text of the New Testament is the best preserved of any ancient book.

Form and Content

More difficult, and much more critical, is the problem of the relationship of the four Gospels. The Synoptic Gospels were always seen to be closely related in form and content. In modern times the three often have been printed in books with parallel columns to make them easier to compare. Such a book is called a synopsis, from a Greek word meaning “seen together.”

All of the Gospels have stories, sentences and phrases in common, yet they also differ from one another in large and small ways. For the past 150 years scholars have been trying to determine what these similarities and differences mean, and whether they reflect an even earlier text. The similarities are so exact as to suggest a definite interdependence, but the differences are so great that it seems certain editorial changes were made.

One problem was largely solved in ancient times. It was seen that the Gospel of John is organized so differently and contains so many inserted explanations that it cannot be treated as the relatively straightforward story one finds in Matthew, Mark and Luke. John’s work, therefore, was called a “spiritual” Gospel and said to date from a later period.

John represented Jesus as saying things like, “For the Father loves the Son…,” “The Son can do…only what he sees the Father doing,” “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son.” It was clear from the almost complete absence of such terminology in the Synoptic Gospels that John paraphrased Jesus’ words with expressions not customary in Jesus’ speech, but chosen to emphasize Jesus’ consciousness of God as his Father.

The Gospel of John is a beautiful poetic meditation on the meaning of Jesus’ life. It borrows the form of previous Gospels and many of their words and phrases, reorganizing them while proliferating expressions and ideas that normally appear only once or twice in Matthew, Mark and Luke.

How the Gospel Writers Worked

The basic literary method used in the Synoptic Gospels was to string together a series of stories about Jesus. It is the same literary method followed in the Hebrew narratives of the Old Testament, although some modern scholars deny this and insist that the Gospel form is unique. However the similarity of narrative technique between the Old Testament and the Synoptic Gospels is clearly apparent.

Hebrew Narrative

The Gospels present a chronological progression from the birth or appearance of Jesus until his death and resurrection. This is typical of Hebrew narrative biography. If there are occasional remarks inserted by an author to explain a word or phrase, it is done inconspicuously. Indeed, the Hebrew narrative form imposed special limitations on the writers of the Gospels who sometimes wished to add comments of their own.

As in the Old Testament narratives, the Synoptic Gospels used laconic expressions of time and place in story openings. For example one reads about Elijah, “And he arose and went to Zarephath” (1 Kings 17:10), and likewise about Jesus that “he arose…and went to a desert place” (Mark 1:35). The prodigal son “arose and went” to his father (Luke 15:20), and Mary “arose…and went…to a city of Judah” (Luke 1:39).

Following Hebraic custom, few adjectives and adverbs are used, and direct conversation is the rule. Hebrew idioms abound, and the juxtaposition of nouns such as “furnace [of] fire,” “storm [of] wind,” “birds [of] the sky,” “lilies [of] the field,” “poor [of] spirit” and “kingdom [of] heaven” also is reminiscent of the Hebrew Bible.


Laying the Groundwork

Luke stated in the prologue to his Gospel that many written accounts of Jesus’ life were in circulation. Did Matthew, Mark or Luke make use of these accounts in writing their works? Did they make use of each other’s accounts? Assuming that the Synoptic Gospels derive from an earlier version or versions of the biography of Jesus, the Synoptic Problem must be dealt with if one wishes to arrive at a more accurate understanding of Jesus’ biography.

Before dealing in detail with the various aspects of the Synoptic Problem, we must lay the groundwork by introducing some basic synoptic concepts and terminology.


This term is used to refer to a book in which the first three Gospels are arranged in parallel columns to make it easier to compare their texts. The stories of each Gospel are printed in the order in which they appear in that Gospel, with parallels when they exist from the other two Gospels. When Matthew, Mark and/or Luke do not agree on the order of a particular story, the pericope is printed a second or third time in a synopsis.

Synoptic Problem

The so-called Synoptic Problem relates to the order in which Matthew, Mark and Luke were written, and the literary sources used by each.

Each of the Synoptic Gospels not only have certain pericopae not found in the other two, but their narratives overlap at various points in content, structure, vocabulary and word order. In some places one writer seems to have exerted a direct or indirect influence upon one or both of the others, while at other places the writers seem to have been drawing upon one or more non-canonical sources.

The Synoptic Problem is complex, and generations of New Testament scholars have grappled with it without reaching a satisfactory and universally agreed upon solution.


A pericope (plural: pericopae), one of the divisions of a synopsis, is the technical term for a gospel story unit or episode. Albert Huck divided his Synopsis of the First Three Gospels into into 271 pericopae—253 numbered pericopae and 18 unnumbered pericopae. Kurt Aland divided his Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum into 367 pericopae. Often a pericope does not comprise a whole story, but only an isolated saying or short summary. Huck’s Pericopae Number 37, for instance, is just a single verse, Matthew 7:6. An example of a short summary is Huck’s Pericopae Number 230, Luke 21:37-38.

Verbal Agreement

Use of the same words, sometimes implying the same forms or sequence of words.

Structural Agreement

Uniformity of story order, the appearance of pericopae in the same order in two or more of the Synoptic Gospels.

Triple Tradition

The seventy-seven stories that are found in all three Synoptic Gospels.

Double Tradition

The forty-two stories (e.g., the “Beatitudes”) that are found only in Matthew and Luke. The term “Double Tradition” refers specifically to the Matthean-Lukan Double Tradition story units, although there also are fifteen stories (e.g., the “Feeding of the Four Thousand”) shared only by Matthew and Mark, and three stories (e.g., the “Widow’s Gift”) shared only by Luke and Mark.

Triple Order

The order that is shared by fifty-nine of the seventy-seven Triple Tradition pericopae.SynopticStats

Minor Agreements

The 400 or so instances within the Triple Tradition where Matthew and Luke exhibit verbal agreement not shared by Mark. Matthew and Luke rarely agree with each other verbally at length in Triple Tradition, and these minor agreements consist of the addition of only a word or short phrase that is not found in Mark’s parallel passage.

Most scholars recognize only these 400 minor agreements of addition. However, Matthew and Luke agree in other minor ways against Mark. Approximately 140 times they agree against Mark on the form of a word, some 140 times in giving a synonym (e.g., “the devil” against Mark’s “Satan” [Mark 1:13]; “Herod the tetrarch” against Mark’s “King Herod” [Mark 6:14]), and about 70 times in inverting the order of words.

One also could include as minor agreements several hundred instances where Matthew and Luke agree to omit material found in Mark in parallel passages. For instance, both Matthew and Luke omit the word “twice” opposite Mark 14:30. What did Jesus originally say? Did he say that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crowed twice, as Mark records, or that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crowed once, as Matthew and Luke record (Matt. 26:34; Luke 22:34)?

Gospel Similarities

None of the Synoptic Gospels mentions the name of its author. The tradition that Matthew wrote the first Gospel, Mark the second and Luke the third dates from the late second century A.D. Most modern gospel scholars have assumed that the first account written was Mark. However, I believe there is evidence to suggest a different conclusion.

Similarity in Wording

Approximately two-thirds of the Synoptic Gospels’ 214 story units, or pericopae, are found in more than one of the Gospels. This shared material not only is similar in content, but also in many instances shows word-for-word agreement. Such literary dependence is too extensive and complex to suppose that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are independent accounts of eyewitnesses. The Gospel writers must have based their accounts upon at least one shared, written text.

The writers of Matthew, Mark and Luke were not authors so much as editors, and apparently very little of their texts was composed by them. The similarity of stories and wording among the Synoptic Gospels indicates that the writers were editing a shared source or sources, and/or editing each other’s work. It is as if three different writers were editing the same news story fed to them by the Associated Press.

The identification of the non-canonical sources shared by the writers of the Synoptic Gospels, and the nature of the Synoptic Gospels’ interdependence, is the heart of what scholars call “the Synoptic Problem.”


One of the interesting things about the Synoptic Gospels is their interdependence. Although there are many differences, there also are many striking similarities.

For example, when Matthew, Mark and Luke recounted Jesus’ response to the rich man (Matt. 19:23; Mark 10:23; Luke 18:24), they all agreed on the use of the word δυσκόλως (dūskolōs, hardly, with difficulty), a word that is never used elsewhere in the New Testament. Similarly, in the story of the paralyzed man (Matt. 9:6; Mark 2:10; Luke 5:24), each of the synoptists divided Jesus’ discourse at exactly the same place with the phrase, “he said to the paralytic.”

This interconnectedness also can be seen in the order of story units. According to Albert Huck’s arrangement (Synopsis of the First Three Gospels), Matthew, Mark and Luke have seventy-eight story units in common (for instance, the Rich Young Ruler story, Matt. 19:16-30 = Mark 10:17-31 = Luke 18:18-30). Scholars refer to these story units as the “Triple Tradition.” Fifty-nine of these units are in the same order in all three Gospels.

On the other hand, Matthew and Luke share forty-two story units (counted according to Matthean story order) that are not found in Mark (for instance, the Parable of the Talents: Matt. 25:14-30 = Luke 19:11-27). Collectively, these forty-two Matthean-Lukan stories are known as the “Double Tradition.” Except for one story (Matt. 3:7-10 = Luke 3:7-9) that comes at the beginning of their Gospels, Matthew and Luke never agree to place stories that are unique to their Gospels in the same order.

In Triple Tradition, Matthew and Luke have only approximately twenty-five percent agreement in wording—in the seventy-eight story units shared with Mark, the wording of Matthew and Luke is rarely the same for more than two words. However, in Double Tradition, Matthew and Luke can reach over eighty percent agreement in wording.[1] In the forty-two story units not shared with Mark, the wording of Matthew and Luke often is exactly the same for whole sentences and even paragraphs.

I call this correlation—high verbal identity but low story-order agreement in Double Tradition, and low verbal identity but high story-order agreement in Triple Tradition—the “Markan Cross-Factor” because, apparently, it is the presence of Mark that distinguishes Triple Tradition from Double Tradition. Mark stands between Matthew and Luke, causing much of the agreement and disagreement of story order and wording found in the Synoptic Gospels.

Who Wrote First?

Scholars have not agreed on which Gospel was written first, although some clues are available. It happens that Mark used quite a few words and phrases repeatedly—for example, the expression “and immediately” (kai evthūs). Mark said that at his baptism Jesus “came up out of the water and immediately saw the heavens opened” (Mark 1:10). In verse 12 Mark writes, “And immediately the Spirit drove him into the desert.” Mark used this expression in his Gospel more than forty times. Along with words like “again” (palin) and “often” (polla), Mark’s love of the expression “and immediately” shows a writer who enjoyed frequently repeating his favorite words and phrases.

Matthew’s Gospel generally shares these Markan expressions, usually in exactly the same context in which Mark used them. Luke, however, wrote as if he had never seen Mark’s special words. This may indicate that Luke wrote before Mark, and that Matthew wrote after Mark.

Similarity in Story Order

The Synoptic Gospels also show similarity by having a common story outline. Most of the seventy-eight pericopae shared by the three Gospels are presented in the same order, from the pericope about the preaching of John the Baptist to the pericope about the empty tomb.

Matthew and Luke inserted other stories into their common outline that have no parallel in Mark. Surprisingly, the forty-two stories shared by Matthew and Luke that have no parallel in Mark display an almost total lack of agreement on pericope order.

It was the observation of these two facts—agreement of pericope order in Triple Tradition but lack of agreement in Double Tradition—that led early nineteenth-century scholars to accept the theory of Markan Priority. According to this theory, Mark’s was the first Gospel to be written and is the document lying behind the Triple Tradition material. The source of the Double Tradition material was thought to be a conjectured, non-canonical document labeled “Q.”

The reasoning of these pioneering scholars was as follows: Double Tradition pericope order suggests that Matthew and Luke were writing independently of each other. Yet, in Triple Tradition Matthew and Luke generally agree with Mark’s pericope order and never agree together to break with that order. Therefore, Mark must have given Matthew and Luke their Triple Tradition pericope order, and so his account must have been written before theirs.

By the beginning of the twentieth century almost all New Testament scholars had accepted this approach, and today Markan Priority is still the most widely accepted solution to the Synoptic Problem.

Different Interpretation

However, it is impossible on the basis of pericope order alone to determine the order in which the Synoptic Gospels were written. Facts of pericope order are important, but they are not sufficient to tell us which Gospel was written first.

One also could interpret the pericope-order evidence as indicating that Mark used one of the other two Gospels, copying only part of that Gospel’s pericopae, and then was used as a source by the other Gospel. As in the theory of Markan Priority, Mark would still be viewed as the cause of the common pericope order in Triple Tradition, but instead of being first in order of writing, Mark would be second.

The Markan Cross-Factor

As already mentioned, there are two facts that make it necessary to suppose interdependence among the Synoptic Gospels. On the one hand, only the first of the forty-two[2] common Matthean-Lukan Double Tradition pericopae can be said to be given the same place in pericope order. This suggests that Matthew and Luke did not use each other’s work. Had Matthew or Luke derived his Double Tradition stories from the other, it is difficult to imagine that so few of the forty-two would be in the same sequence.

On the other hand, fifty-nine of the seventy-eight Triple Tradition pericopae appear in the same general order in all three Gospels. This suggests that Matthew and Luke were influenced by Mark in arranging their Triple Tradition pericopae.

These similarities and differences in pericope order have led most scholars to accept the theory of Markan Priority. However, it is likewise possible that Mark caused the common order not because his was the first Gospel written and was used by both Matthew and Luke, but because the author of Mark copied one of them and in turn was copied by the other.

Verbal Identity

There is another difference between the Double and Triple Traditions that can help us settle the issue of who wrote first. This difference was noticed by Markan priorists, but its significance seems to have been overlooked.

If the Theory of Markan Priority is correct, one would expect to find high verbal identity in Triple Tradition material where there is high identity in pericope order, because Matthew and Luke supposedly were copying from Mark. Likewise, one would expect to find low verbal identity in Double Tradition where there is low identity in pericope order, because Matthew and Luke were not copying from Mark. Yet in fact, one finds just the opposite. Verbal identity is high in Double Tradition stories, but low in Triple Tradition stories.[3]

This would seem to contradict the conclusions of Markan priorists based on pericope-order evidence. The high verbal identity in the Double Tradition apparently indicates that either Matthew or Luke copied from the other, or that both copied from some common source such as the hypothetical Q. The low verbal identity in the Triple Tradition seems to indicate that Matthew and Luke did not both copy from Mark.

If Matthew and Luke sometimes copied faithfully from a common source as the Double Tradition pericopae seem to demonstrate, why did they not do the same when copying Mark? According to the widely accepted theory of Markan Priority, Mark is their source for the material they share with him. Why would Matthew and Luke have treated the vocabulary of the conjectured Q document with greater regard than Mark? The theory of Markan Priority provides no answer.

Markan Cross-Factor

I believe the only satisfactory solution to this problem involves abandoning the theory of Markan Priority. It is preferable to suppose that Mark’s Gospel was written second, that Mark copied either Matthew or Luke, often rewording the text as he copied, and that Mark was then copied by the third synoptist. In this case, the verbal distance between Matthew and Luke would have been caused by the synonyms Mark introduced.

I have called the contrast between the Double and Triple Traditions in both pericope order and verbal identity the Markan Cross-Factor. One finds high verbal identity but low pericope-order agreement in Double Tradition, and low verbal identity but high pericope-order agreement in Triple Tradition. This correlation between Double and Triple Tradition strongly argues against Markan Priority. Both in pericope order and verbal identity it is apparently the presence of Mark that distinguishes Triple Tradition from Double Tradition. Mark stands between Matthew and Luke, causing agreement and non-agreement in pericope order, and most of the differences in wording found in the Synoptic Gospels.

Minor Agreements

Another weakness of Markan Priority is what are called the “minor agreements.” These are the 400 or so instances within the Triple Tradition pericopae where Matthew and Luke exhibit verbal agreement not shared by Mark. (See my A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark, 14-19.) It is hard to explain these instances if, as Markan priorists claim, Matthew and Luke were both dependent on Mark. There are too many such agreements to write them off as coincidence. Again, I find that the best explanation is that Mark was the second not the first of the Synoptic Gospels. The writer who was third in order copied Mark’s text, combining it with the source he shared with the first writer.

Editor’s note: For a discussion of whether it is possible to identify the first and third writers if one abandons a theory of Markan Priority in favor of simple linear interdependence between the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew→Mark→Luke, or Luke→Mark→Matthew), see Robert L. Lindsey, “Unlocking the Synoptic Problem: Four Keys for Better Understanding Jesus”; Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark (2d; Jerusalem: Dugith Publishers, 1973), 9-65 (in the same volume, see the Foreword written by David Flusser, pp. 1-8);  Lindsey, ed., A Comparative Greek Concordance of the Synoptic Gospels (3 vols.; Jerusalem: Dugith Publishers, 1985-1989), 1:V-XV; and Book Review: Robert Lindsey’s A Comparative Greek Concordance of the Synoptic Gospels,” R. Steven Notley’s review of Lindsey’s synoptic concordance.  — DB
  • [1] For details, see “Introduction to A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark.”
  • [2] Tallied according to Matthean story order.
  • [3] In Double Tradition pericopae, Matthew and Luke agree on as much as 90% of the wording of their stories. In Triple Tradition pericopae, Matthew and Luke agree on only about twenty-five percent of the wording in stories they share.