A New Approach to the Synoptic Gospels

It is easy to claim new solutions and new approaches to familiar problems. But in the field of New Testament research it is much harder to make these claims stick. Some years ago I wrote an article in which I attempted to correct the prevailing view that Mark was the first of the Gospels.[1] When the article was discussed in a seminar at Cambridge, the objection was raised that there was nothing new in my contentions or approach. Perhaps not. Perhaps I am simply unable to find in the enormous mountain of scholarly contributions to our knowledge of the Synoptic Gospels the special line of solution and methodology to which I found myself driven as early as 1962. In any case, let me set down here, as simply as I can, my reasons for calling my approach new.

New or Modified Observations

I will begin by listing several observations or conclusions arrived at through my years of studying the Synoptic Gospels and their relationships.

1. Extensive parts of the synoptic material show strong evidence of having descended from literal Greek translations of a Hebrew document that included many sayings of Jesus and stories from his life. These have been beautifully preserved in much of Luke in particular, but also in the parts of Matthew not influenced by Mark.

2. There is no evidence that the story and sayings units of our Gospels circulated independently before being written down in a continuous Greek story such as we have in each of the Synoptic Gospels. Supposed evidence to the contrary is built on careful—but much too limited—observation of the ever-present factor of verbal disparity.

3. The line of interdependence between the Synoptic Gospels runs from Luke to Mark to Matthew. It is not true that Matthew and Luke equally depend upon Mark as their primary source.

4. Matthew and Luke were unacquainted with each other’s writings, but both knew a source other than Mark, but unlike Q, as it is typically described by Markan priorists. This source included most of the Markan pericopae, as well as much other material.

5. Luke did not know the text of Mark, but Mark normally followed Luke in pericope order and just as normally changed more than fifty percent of Luke’s wording. Luke used two sources. The first was an anthologically rearranged document that is sometimes labeled Q, but which I call the Anthology, or, Reorganized Scroll. It is best seen in the units Matthew and Luke share that are not parallel to Mark, and in the unique pericopae found in Matthew and Luke. The second source, which I call the First Reconstruction, gave Luke his basic unit outline.[2] I refer to this source as a reconstruction because, apparently, someone condensed a number of the anthological stories into this shorter document. Mark, who could detect this chronologically arranged shorter text in Luke, mostly followed it. The basic synoptic material is ultimately derived from the Anthology, which in turn goes farther back to a first Hebrew-Greek source.[3]

6. As a rule, Matthew closely followed the pericope order of Mark, but used the same written source material known to Luke from the Anthology when making minor corrections to Mark’s highly redacted text, when recording non-Markan parallels to Luke, and when copying down most of his unique passages.

7. The generally common pericope order of the Synoptic Gospels is not due to the independent and common use of Mark by Matthew and Luke, but to the fact that Mark broke with Luke’s order only rarely and that Matthew, although acquainted with another unit arrangement through his second source, opted to follow Mark’s order in most instances.

8. The real “synoptic problem” is the meaning to be given to the intense verbal disparity running throughout the Triple Tradition. This disparity has been inadequately assessed. Once the full picture is obtained, it is clear that only one writer is responsible for the kind of deliberate, often seemingly capricious, change and rewriting everywhere present.

9. When the literary habits of Mark are examined in isolation from Matthew and Luke, it is readily seen that the writer’s style includes constant repetition of stereotypical terminology, frequent redundancy, homilizing, dramatizing, and other editorial methods which suggest that the author may well be the Evangelist responsible for the unceasing verbal change.

10. When the hundreds of Mark-Luke synonyms (used in parallel) are examined, it becomes clear that Mark first studied the text of Luke before rewriting each pericope, then searched for word and subject parallels in other written texts, and finally used these “pick-ups” in writing his own version. By careful concordance study it is possible to discover the sources of many of these Markan “pick-ups.” These sources include, at the very least, the non-Markan portions of Luke, Acts, the first five epistles of Paul, and the epistle of James.

11. This source analysis is confirmed by the remarkable fact that the majority of Luke’s text can be translated word for word to idiomatic Hebrew. The same is true for the non-Markan portions of Matthew. From the standpoint of this Hebrew translation control, it is clear why the whole text of Mark and most of the materials in Matthew parallel to Mark present much greater difficulties to the Hebrew translator than unique or Double Tradition sections of Luke and Matthew. Matthew and Luke copy excellent Hebraic-Greek sources wherever they can. It is Matthew’s dependence on Mark that causes the essential difficulty in Matthean materials and this difficulty is confined almost totally to the Matthean pericopae that have parallels in Mark.

12. By following Luke and the non-Markan portions of Matthew, a Hebrew translator is able to reconstruct, with considerable success, the details of the Hebrew text from which our earliest Greek sources were derived. This means that the basic story in our Gospels is textually sound and there is no reason to deny its essential historicity.

Here it may be helpful to mention the principal kinds of criticism scholars have applied to the Synoptic Gospels and the points at which my suggestions differ from the results of their investigations.

Textual Criticism

Textual criticism has to do with the discovery and establishment of the earliest text of each of our Gospels. It remains an elemental science of great importance in defining our written sources and sometimes in interpreting them. However, most of the problems in the field of textual criticism may be considered solved. The Gospels, especially since they are like all ancient works in having been transmitted in manuscript form, were beautifully preserved.

Source Criticism

Source criticism has to do with the delineation of the sources and relationships of our Gospels. It tries to answer questions like the following: Have our evangelists used oral traditions, or have they used written sources? What can we surmise about these sources? Are the authors dependent upon each other’s writings? If so, what is the pattern of dependency? If it is true that one writer has used the writings of another, how does this affect our knowledge of the earliest forms of Gospel traditions?

A few scholars continue to devise new source theories, and I am one of these. But, as we know so well, it is usually taken for granted today that Mark wrote the first Gospel. According to this view, Matthew and Luke, quite independently, used Mark as a principal source. These writers also used a second source called Q for the materials they share in common. (This is the simplest form of the theory of Markan priority.)[4] Whether Mark knew Q is a question for debate. Both Matthew and Luke have extensive passages that do not parallel each other. Many scholars have suggested that these unique passages may simply originate from a document like Q, or from Q itself. Although the unique Lukan and Matthean pericopae could have derived from different sources, there is no reason not to posit the anthological “Q” as a source for (1) Matthean-Lukan “Double Tradition”; (2) Matthean-Lukan agreements against Mark; and (3) a number of the unique passages in Matthew and Luke.

The division of the synoptic sources into two principal documents is based on the observation that Matthew and Luke share with each other and with Mark some seventy-seven recognizable pericope divisions, on the one hand, and, on the other, that Matthew and Luke share a further forty-two story or sayings units that may be described as parallel.

SynopticStatsIn other words, scholars long ago noted that the Synoptic Gospels share many common stories and that it is possible to divide these into two kinds: those found in all three Synoptic Gospels, 77 pericopae, and those found only in Matthew and Luke, 42 pericopae (counting according to the Matthean ordering of the stories). The groupings are, respectively, called the Triple Tradition and the Double Tradition.[5]

From these facts alone, there is no necessity for supposing that our writers, or at least Matthew and Luke, used two different sources. Indeed, the simplest theory would be that Matthew, Mark and Luke copied the same source for their 77 common pericopae, and that Matthew and Luke then went on to copy a further 42 pericopae from this source. Theoretically, there is no reason to assume an interrelationship of any kind.

What changes the situation is the addition of two further facts about the 77 and the 42. Fifty-nine of these 77 pericopae appear in the same general order in all three Gospels. This fact allows us to talk about a “common pericope skeleton.” On the other hand, only one of the 42 common Matthean-Lukan pericopae (Matt. 3:7-10; Luke 3:7-9) appears in the same sequence.

This lack of agreement in the placement of Double Tradition pericopae suggests that Matthew and Luke did not know (or at least did not care) where the other placed the Double Tradition pericopae, but they were influenced by Mark in the placement of many of their Triple Tradition pericopae. We must, therefore, suppose that the Synoptic Gospels are indeed interrelated. Probably, Matthew and Luke did not influence each other’s writings, but it seems certain that Mark somehow stands between these works causing a common pericope order.

If we ask how Mark could be responsible for this common order, we might easily arrive at the conclusion that Matthew and Luke copied from him. They would then have copied from some other source, but perhaps, due to Mark, they chose not follow the order of the second source, but attempted to fit its stories into the outline borrowed from Mark.

This is exactly the way the theory of Markan Priority, otherwise known as the Two-Source Hypothesis, came into being. According to this theory, the document lying behind the Triple Tradition material is none other than Mark. The Double Tradition material derives from a document which came to be called Q. Almost all New Testament scholars had accepted this basic division into two sources by the beginning of the twentieth century.

Personal Encounter with the Problem

In 1959, taking for granted this accepted conclusion of scholarship, I began a translation of the Gospel of Mark from its Greek text to modern Hebrew. At first it seemed to me that Mark’s Greek was more like Hebrew than Greek. It was relatively easy to translate it to Hebrew by simply establishing the Greek-Hebrew equivalents and then translating word for word from the original. I wondered whether Mark had translated his text from some written Hebrew story. But I soon discarded this possibility because I ran into a strange phenomenon that made such a theory impossible. Mark’s Greek text had numerous words that kept appearing and reappearing for which I could find no easy Hebrew equivalent. For instance, I was unable to find a suitable equivalent for the expression καὶ εὐθύς (“and immediately”) which Mark repeats over and over again. This made me wonder if there was any textual evidence that Mark’s Gospel may once have existed in a more Hebraic form, one unaccompanied by these odd stereotypes I could not easily translate. But I could find no such evidence in the manuscript tradition.

However, I did find an interesting clue when I finally decided to compare the exact wordings of Mark, Matthew and Luke. I noticed that Luke’s text showed almost no suggestion of the Markan oddities. For example, the Greek phrase behind Mark’s “and immediately” appeared only once in Luke’s Gospel, and this single instance occurred in a passage completely unparalleled in Mark! Luke has parallels to no less than 82 of Mark’s pericopae. So if Luke were copying from Mark, I reasoned, how could he have known to leave out exactly those Markan expressions I was having trouble with? And why was he able to avoid more than 40 occurrences of “immediately” while using Mark, only to turn around and use this expression once in a passage he could not have copied from Mark?

When I checked the parallels in Matthew, I noticed that Matthew sometimes used Mark’s word for “immediately” in exactly the way Mark did, or he would substitute another Greek word meaning “immediately” parallel to Mark’s use of this word. It thus looked very much as if Matthew had indeed followed Mark, but had often refused to copy Mark’s stereotypic non-Hebraism. Luke had either not copied from Mark or had for some reason deliberately rejected each Markan use of “immediately.” Yet Luke seemingly had not objected to this word, for he had used it in a passage he could not have copied from Mark.

Checking other Markan expressions that seemed odd to me as a Hebrew translator, I often found the same pattern. For instance, Mark opened his Gospel with the sentence: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark used the word εὐαγγέλιον (evangelion, “good news,” “gospel”) seven times. Early in his first chapter, at a place (Mark 1:14-15) where Luke simply says that Jesus went to Galilee and taught in the synagogues, Mark writes: “And Jesus went into Galilee and preached the gospel of God and said…’Repent and believe in the gospel.’”

Hebrew translators of the New Testament have perhaps always given as the equivalent of evangelion the Hebrew noun בְּשׂוֹרָה (besōrāh). Yet in non-Christian Hebrew texts besōrāh never bears the specific meaning Mark intends. Besōrāh means only “message” or “news” to the modern Hebrew speaker,[6] and this seems to have been true of mishnaic Hebrew as well as biblical Hebrew. Therefore, if we translate evangelion as besōrāh in the above passage, we leave the Hebrew reader who is not acquainted with New Testament phraseology wondering what this undefined “message” could have been. The Hebrew reader will probably say to himself on seeing besōrāh: “This must be a positive use of the word, but what can ‘the Gospel’ mean?” Mark never bothers to define evangelion for his readers.

The epistles of Paul are full of the term evangelion, but the rest of the New Testament, with a few notable exceptions, is strangely silent at the places we might expect such a rich expression to appear. Revelation once uses it (Rev. 14:6). Peter’s first epistle once employs it (1 Pet. 4:17). But the Johannine literature, the epistle of James, Hebrews and the Gospel of Luke never use the expression even once. Yet Luke uses the word twice in Acts: once in the mouth of Paul (Acts 20:24) and once in the mouth of Peter (Acts 15:7).

Why did Luke not use evangelion in his Gospel? From Acts we can see clearly that he knew Peter (Acts 15:7) and Paul (Acts 20:24) had used the term. It is likely that Paul coined the word and, in the New Testament books, the term had not become a general Christian nomination. But if Luke’s sources, including, supposedly, the Gospel of Mark, had used the term, would Luke have rejected it? There seems no reason to suppose that he would have done so. We must therefore conclude that evangelion did not appear in Luke’s sources.

Matthew, by contrast, appears to have picked up the term from Mark, using evangelion four times (Matt. 4:23; 9:35; 24:14; 26:13), but (with the exception of Matt. 26:13) evangelion always appears in the longer phrase, “the gospel of the Kingdom.” Matthew’s expansion suggests that he was uncomfortable with Mark’s unspecified use of the term evangelion, and felt that some sort of explanation was necessary.

We have thus located another “non-Hebraism” (evangelion) in Mark. It is not found in Luke, and its usage in Acts is limited to two occurrences, one in the mouth of Peter, and one in the mouth of Paul. Matthew accepted evangelion in a modified form, as though he was aware that Mark had used the term in an unusual manner that required elucidation.

This evidence strongly suggests that Luke did not know Mark’s Gospel. Matthew, on the other hand, shows signs of Mark’s influence. We are left to conclude, therefore, that Luke wrote first using excellent early sources, that Mark copied from Luke, and that Matthew in turn copied from Mark but, having access to other sources, hesitated to accept every usage of each Markan stereotype.

Mark Secondary to Luke

This above description of the interrelationship of the Synoptic Gospels is the only solution that seems possible to me. The evidence clearly points to the existence of an early Hebrew story of the life of Jesus, from which at least one very literal Greek translation was made. This Greek document was copied and disseminated. At some point a different version (the Anthology) appeared that separated narrative parts of the earlier stories from the teachings of Jesus and from the parables that supplemented these teachings. This new arrangement of the materials on Jesus’ life and teaching prompted yet another writer to compose a shorter and more chronological version (the First Reconstruction). Luke used the First Reconstruction along with the Anthology.[7] Because Mark knew the Anthology he was able to see in Luke’s Gospel the chronologically arranged units and separate them from the Anthology’s units. Mark copied from Luke, but constantly changed Luke’s wording by inserting certain expressions, some of which, like evangelion, he picked up from Acts and the Pauline Epistles.

Matthew knew the same basic anthological material we see in Luke. He did not know Luke’s Gospel, except the hints of it that came through Mark. Matthew also did not know the First Reconstruction that Luke used, except as he saw it in Mark. Matthew was greatly influenced by Mark, but knew from the Anthology that many of Mark’s stereotypes were not original. Matthew’s method was to weave together the wording of Mark and that of the Anthology. This resulted in an interesting phenomenon: in Markan contexts Matthew frequently preserves phrases and words which match the parallel text of Luke but not the parallel text of Mark.

An Early Hebrew Gospel Story

When I began my research, I felt the tension between what seemed to be a basically Hebraic-Greek text and the non-Hebraic, repetitious stereotypes of Mark. This led me to look for a proto-Mark of some kind. I supposed this proto-text might be found in the research of scholars into the history of the textual transmission of the Synoptic Gospels. But a proto-Mark was not there. Instead, it lay at my fingertips in Luke, albeit in two forms: material that had come from the Anthology and material that entered Luke from the First Reconstruction. Yet the proto-text was discernible not only in Luke, but also in Matthew wherever Matthew followed the Anthology. Thus Matthew, although later than Mark, is also an important gold mine from which nuggets of early wording can be extracted.


My hypothesis frees us from the closed circle of textual tradition and chronology created by the Markan hypothesis. The essential picture is not that of two independent sources—Mark and Q—from which Matthew and Luke descended, but of a single Hebraic-Greek source that ultimately stands behind each of the Synoptic Gospels. We are not obliged to talk about a special “theology of Q,” which differs from the “theology of Mark.” Even more importantly, we are not obliged to detect in each Lukan and Matthean divergence from Mark’s wording a “theological” break from Markan construction. (If Matthew and Luke deviate from Mark in Markan contexts in even the slightest way, the modern school of “redaction criticism” suspects theological motivation.)[8]

Luke and Matthew have preserved remarkably beautiful Hebraic texts that can often be translated word for word into elegant Hebrew. These texts clearly antedate Mark’s redaction. It is thus Mark who brought about the intense disparity (mainly word disparity) so ever-present in our synoptic parallels. His methods, which I have discussed elsewhere at length,[9] throw great light on the freedom and value of this fascinating author, but are ultimately of little use in our search for the earliest written tradition. It is in Matthew and Luke that we must search for the earliest form of the original biography of Jesus.

Nor do these two Gospels disappoint the researcher. Let him or her lay the parallel texts of Matthew, Mark and Luke side by side. First, let the researcher translate Luke’s version to Hebrew, then that of Matthew, and lastly, that of Mark. Now let him or her note whether Mark’s special wording has been copied by Matthew. Finally, let the researcher check for Matthean-Lukan agreements in wording against Mark, for in them he has clear evidence of the ancient wording.

If the researcher duplicates my research, he or she will find that, as a rule, Luke’s text has best preserved the older version. However, sometimes Matthew will display a word or phrase or whole story unit which is clearly the original. Even Mark will occasionally have hints of an earlier text than Luke’s, and sometimes Matthew will confirm Mark’s wording. Use of my methodology is not easy, but it is rewarding.

Form Criticism

Rudolf Karl Bultmann
Rudolf Karl Bultmann

Just as the theory of Markan priority threw its stifling source blanket over the essential Semitic exploration of the Synoptic Gospels, so the emergence of form criticism[10] brought intelligent Gospel criticism to a grinding halt. Most New Testament scholars no longer supposed that we have in the Synoptic Gospels Semitic materials that take us back to the earliest Jewish-Christian community, but took it for granted that the stories in the Synoptic Gospels evolved orally in Greek over several decades before being written down by Mark, then Matthew, and finally Luke.

Form critics maintain that the early Church remembered for a period of time some of the more famous sayings Jesus uttered. Around these sayings early catechists and preachers constructed short stories for pedagogical purposes. In this way the Greek-speaking church produced a series of short doctrinal and homiletic narratives about Jesus for its own needs. These units were told and retold so often that they took on certain definable “forms” (miracle stories, pronouncement stories, etc.). Finally, around 70 A.D., various writers, including the Synoptic Gospel writers, put these floating, oral traditions into writing. In order to make a continuous story, say the form critics, these writers were obliged to attach to each short narrative unit or saying an historical note of time or place.

From the form critical point of view, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are, therefore, not reliable sources for the historical actions and teachings of Jesus. The only elements that may go back to Jesus himself are a few of the sayings attributed to him. Even these have been stamped with the “faith” of the later Church and we cannot easily restore their original meaning.[11]

Martin Dibelius
Martin Dibelius

Even scholars who timidly voice suspicions that some tiny part of this overwhelming explanation may be in error approach the Gospels as form critics. One reads everywhere in scholarly books and journals that the Gospels are a “unique and different form of literature” otherwise unknown to antiquity. They are “not biography.” The Gospels are assumed to be expanded sermons, the enlarged and enriched kerygma (message) the apostles and early believers in Jesus used when calling upon Jews and Gentiles to repent and accept God’s new way. “In the beginning was the sermon,” one early form critic used to say.[12]

It goes without saying that I cannot fit the results of my own study of the Gospels into this picture. Take, for example, the persistent evidence that only a written tradition can explain the similarities in pericopae and wording in any justifiable analysis of the interrelations of the Synoptic Gospels. Before Mark stands Luke, but after Mark, Matthew confirms much of Luke. Mark modifies and redacts Luke and other written sources, but he does so by inserting words and phrases from written sources still discernible. Luke’s text, when translated to Hebrew, shows Hebrew idiom and verbalism and rabbinic sophistication. Matthew’s text does so, too, both in parallel to Luke and in his unique pericopae.

Why is Luke so often easy to translate to Hebrew, despite a few very dramatic exceptions? Why does Matthew show remarkably Hebraic materials precisely in the passages he gives that are not from Mark? These questions cannot be answered by assuming that our Gospels are compilations of pericope units that developed orally and independently through the telling of them by Greek-speaking teachers. It is inconceivable that a series of Greek-speaking story-tellers could create, repeat, interpret, modify and retell these Greek stories in such a fashion that, when finally recorded in writing, they would translate back into sophisticated Hebrew.

Greek word order is not Hebrew word order. Greek words that are normally used to translate Hebrew words do not bear the same range of meaning when used by a Greek writer as their Hebrew equivalents bear when used by a Hebrew writer. Anyone who examines such New Testament words as “wisdom,” “behold,” “brother,” “son,” “age,” “ear,” “amen,” “see,” “sit,” “stand,” “man,” “mouth” and “all,” will find the Synoptic Gospels loaded with words that are used in Hebraic senses unknown to Greek literature. The evidence suggests that back of the Synoptic Gospels lie Greek texts that were literal translations of Hebrew. The Synoptic Gospel writers have not always preserved the wording of these documents—Mark being the author who changes the wording of his sources most radically. The majority of Luke’s text, however, and much of Matthew’s, can be retranslated to Hebrew with great ease.

Moreover, to the extent that we can recover pre-synoptic sources through the Synoptic Gospels, there is the strongest evidence that the original materials represented a continuous story modeled linguistically and literarily along the lines of normal biblical Hebrew narrative. Like the stories of Moses, Saul or Elijah, the Hebrew gospel began either, as in Mark, with the advent of Jesus in the shadow of John the Baptist, or, as in Matthew and Luke, with stories of Jesus’ birth and childhood. Events were then recorded, sometimes with notes of place and time and sometimes without these. Direct conversations occurred and are recorded. The story moved on with emphasis on things done and said: there is the arrest, the interrogation, the crucifixion, the resurrection and the final instructions of Jesus to his disciples. All this is valid Hebrew biography, even if we sometimes find the need to join units (such as the two parables on prayer found in the eleventh and eighteenth chapters of Luke) to get an earlier, connected story. There is no need to apologize for the Gospels as lengthened sermons. That is exactly what they are not.

Basic Errors of Scholarship

The first error of most modern New Testament research is the acceptance of Markan priority. The essential mistake of those who accept the Markan hypothesis lies in the naive conclusion that by studying the facts related to pericope order alone it is possible to determine the interdependence of our Gospels. Facts about pericope order are important, but not decisive for determining whether Mark is responsible for creating the order because Matthew and Luke independently used his Gospel, or whether Mark has depended upon one of the Evangelists only to be followed by the third Evangelist.[13] The common story skeleton could have arisen under any of these scenarios.

To settle this question, one must add to the observations about pericope order the facts of verbal identity and disparity. Scholars failed at this point, not so much because they did not notice there was a problem, but because they failed to line up these facts with those of pericope order before arriving at a solution to the synoptic question. The ghost of this failure lifts its pale face each time a modern scholar learns, to his or her amazement, that Matthew and Luke appear to be heavily dependent on Mark’s pericope order, but radically divergent from Mark’s wording. The same ghost rises silently in condemnation when scholars shortsightedly sweep under the rug the Matthean-Lukan minor agreements.[14]

If we study the 42 pericopae that Matthew and Luke share without Mark, we find that their wording is often identical for whole sentences and even paragraphs; however, in the 77 stories they share with Mark, we find that Matthew and Luke occasionally agree on a word or short phrase against Mark, but never agree for more than a few words with each other, even when Mark has the same wording as one of them.

To put it another way, Matthew and Luke are able to copy the words of one of their sources (Q, according to the theory of Markan priority) with great exactitude, but they cannot copy the other source (Mark, according to Markan priority) without making significant verbal changes. We may call this phenomenon the Markan Cross-Factor (as I have suggested in A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark),[15] for it seems clear that Mark stands chronologically between the 77 pericopae of Matthew and Luke, causing both the common pericope order of the synoptic materials and the severe verbal disparity between Luke and Matthew. It is also observable that in 18 of the 42 pericopae Matthew and Luke share from the Anthology, verbal identity is often nearly exact,[16] whereas with one or two exceptions these 42 do not appear in the same pericope order in Matthew and Luke. There is a stark contrast between verbal agreement and sequential disparity in the Double Tradition. Put again, Luke and Matthew share common story order where Mark is present, but differ verbally with each other rather severely opposite Mark; yet they are able to agree closely with each other in verbal matters when transcribing their non-Markan parallels, but disagree in pericope order. This is the Markan Cross-Factor.[17]

Why do Matthew and Luke show such fidelity to one source and such infidelity to the other, especially when the second source (i.e., Mark) supposedly provides them with their common order? And how can they independently agree to use many short phrases and words against Mark?

The answer to these questions cannot proceed along the usual lines of the Markan hypothesis. It cannot be true that Matthew and Luke often agree with each other verbally against Mark in Markan contexts if they are only using Mark’s text at these points. It is likewise highly improbable that they could independently come to the exact way of treating one source with verbal respect and the other with verbal disrespect. Much the simplest answer, if we are to retain any of the insights of the Markan priorists, is to conclude that it is Mark’s redactic activity that is responsible for the Matthean-Lukan verbal distance in Markan contexts. This point of view will confirm the Markan priorists’ contention that Matthew and Luke were not acquainted with each other’s text. But it also will insist that Matthew and Luke did not equally follow Mark. Instead, Mark depended on either Matthew or Luke and radically reworded this Gospel’s text in his own version. This rewording disturbed the third writer and caused the serious Matthean-Lukan verbal disparity in Triple Tradition material.

And how did Matthew and Luke manage to agree with each other on so many words against Mark in Markan contexts? The answer must be that the chronologically third writer used a text (a document I term the Anthology) that was known to the writer who was chronologically first, but the writer who was chronologically third also knew Mark’s divergent text and attempted to combine Mark’s redacted wording with the earlier text form that he saw in the Anthology.

Which Gospel, Matthew or Luke, has Mark used?

We must ask which Gospel, Matthew or Luke, was chronologically third and therefore knew Mark’s text.[18] It is between Luke and Mark that the greatest amount of verbal disparity exists. Indeed, this word-divergence is phenomenal. Mark and Luke present story after story in the same order (as a rule), yet they cannot manage to agree on more than fifty percent of the actual words in any given story. We are forced to assume that one of them is using the text of the other. Yet this same Gospel writer is deliberately refusing to copy the other writer’s text word for word. If Mark uses ἐκ (out of), Luke will use ἀπό (from). If Luke uses ἐκ, Mark will use ἀπό. If Mark uses the Greek word for “how,” Luke will often use “what.” If Luke uses “how,” Mark will use “what.” If Luke writes “teaches,” Mark will give a synonym; yet Mark uses “teaches” opposite Luke’s synonym. The examples of this kind of synonymic exchange are manifold.

The only logical explanation for this phenomenon is that one writer has changed the text of the other. It is Mark who fills the bill as the author who is responsible for these variations. It is Mark who is constantly editing, homilizing, stereotyping and generally rewriting. Luke is decidedly not this kind of writer, nor is Matthew.

We therefore must conclude that it is Mark who stands both logically and chronologically between Luke and Matthew. He is the author who made constant, radical and deliberate change to the Lukan text. Matthew, although not completely dependent upon Mark, was deeply influenced by him. That is why, wherever Mark is present, Matthew and Luke only manage to agree verbally in minor ways. On the other hand, Matthew and Luke, when not in a Markan context, often agree at length on wording.

Karl Ludwig Schmidt and Form Criticism

Karl Ludwig Schmidt
Karl Ludwig Schmidt

It was the failure to settle the problem of verbal divergence before accepting a final solution to the “synoptic problem” that set modern research on the wrong path. The next wrong turn of great moment came in its wake. In 1919 a German scholar, Karl Ludwig Schmidt, published his findings on the Rahmen (i.e. framework) of the Synoptic Gospels.[19]

In his book Schmidt explored the geographical and chronological notations of the common synoptic pericopae and pointed to their wide divergence. He labeled these and other words of introduction and ending to pericopae the “framework” of the Gospels. His book proved beyond doubt that the disparity of pericope introductions and endings is radical.

The conclusions Schmidt drew from his observations, however, had disastrous consequences. Schmidt concluded from the discrepancies in the “framework” that the Synoptic Gospel writers actually knew nothing about the setting and chronology of events in Jesus’ life. “On the whole, therefore,” said Schmidt, “… there is no such thing as the Life of Jesus in the sense of an unfolding life’s story; there is no chronological outline of the story of Jesus; there are only individual stories, pericopae, which have been inserted into a framework.”[20]

How did Schmidt arrive at such a conclusion? His reasoning is impressive. Schmidt noted the fact that the Synoptic Gospels show many parallel stories. Usually (in 61 contexts) these pericopae show the same order. Such a fact, he suggested, can be explained as due to Mark’s prior ordering of the stories before the writing of Matthew and Luke. In 17 instances, however, the pericope order differs. This divergence of sequence, Schmidt argued, can be attributed to the independent decisions of Matthew and Luke to break occasionally from Markan order. But this implies that each writer felt free to shift the position of a pericope more or less at will. Therefore, the Evangelists did not have an historical basis for the arrangement of their pericopae.

If all this is true, Schmidt reasoned, we can think of each pericope as a fixed, independent unit, like a page in a looseleaf notebook. These units had developed by a long process of oral repetition. Perhaps they were written down now and then as separate little narrative sheets. In any case, by the time our Gospel writers used them, they had become a “fixed” tradition that the Greek Church knew by heart.

Now, thought Schmidt, how do you make a book out of a series of anecdotes? You lay them out in front of you on separate sheets (or do the same in your memory), decide which comes first, second, etc., and then proceed to add “connecting-links” that mention place or time according to your own ideas of the story you wish to tell. On the basis of this hypothesis, Schmidt then reasoned: If I investigate these connecting notes (Rahmen) and they turn out to differ radically in the Gospel parallels, that will prove that the looseleaf hypothesis is correct.

The important contribution Schmidt is considered to have made was the investigation of the supposedly artificial geographical and chronological notes. He easily showed that the parallel versions of these connecting links in Matthew, Mark and Luke differ greatly. It has been almost universally accepted that Schmidt conclusively proved the rationale of the form criticism position. But such is not the case.

Schmidt’s error lay in treating “framework” as separate from his “units of tradition.” In concentrating on framework disparity, he failed to take account of the much larger problem of total disparity. It does not matter where you start comparing the common pericopae of Matthew, Mark and Luke, because when each verse, each phrase and each word is studied, the same radical verbal divergence is proved to be ubiquitous. There is no justification for pleading that framework disparity is some special kind of disparity. Thus, Schmidt’s careful analysis cannot be used to prop up the theory that the Synoptic Gospel materials developed as oral units before being written down. The hypotheses of form criticism remain unproven and cannot be proved until the prior problem of the verbal disparity between the Synoptic Gospels is solved.

The problems of pericope and verbal disparity largely revolve around the presence of Mark. Take Mark out, and Matthew and Luke show unity of approach. Put Mark in, and the whole picture changes. The synoptic problem’s solution lies in realizing from Mark’s redactic activity that he is the middle man between Matthew and Luke. We can add, with Schmidt, that one must recognize the possibility that units can be shifted from location to location. The Anthology was not itself a narrative, chronological document, but presented parts of earlier, more complete stories.


My solution to the synoptic problem leads to a very different assessment of the Gospels than is common in New Testament scholarship today. One of the results of this new way of looking at the Synoptic Gospels is the anachronous fact that we can see far more divergence between Matthew, Mark and Luke (but especially between Mark and Luke) than ever before, yet this disparity is of a much less serious nature than scholars have supposed.

Only one of the Synoptic Gospel writers is the principal cause of the verbal divergence and his literary method of dramatizing, replacing and exchanging words and expressions does not suggest that he had special “theological” interests. Mark’s methods may be foreign to us, but they are common in the Jewish literary genre known as midrash.

When we view the synoptic relationships in this way, we have no need to apologize for the seeming shakiness of the Gospel account. The story is sound. We have nearly two hundred excellent story and sayings pericopae, and these cover all but about five percent of our total synoptic material. The historicity of the story is assured by the remarkable Hebraic-Greek materials preserved by Luke and Matthew. Even the minor agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark demonstrate the accuracy of the pre-synoptic sources.

In the original story there is theology. There is eschatology. There is Christology. It rings with the resonance of Hebrew. Jesus’ teaching, translated to Hebrew, takes on new meaning as tiny hints of scriptural contexts are revived. Jesus’ conversations teem with terminology taken from the rabbis and, sometimes, from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Jesus heals like Elisha, but forgives like the Son of God. He exorcises demons, treading on the head of the Serpent. He searches for the sinner and the outcast as the God of Ezekiel sought for and delivered the lost sheep of Israel. He prophesies, challenges, preaches and exhorts as did the God of the prophets.

The story is laconic, brief, non-dramatic, like all Hebrew narrative, and cannot therefore be understood completely in Greek or in any later translation, but it is basically sound. Jesus is from Nazareth, but comes to the Jordan and Judea to identify with John’s baptism of repentance. He goes back to Galilee alone, as Luke says, to teach and heal in its synagogues. His fame spreads and he returns to Judea for a teaching period. When he arrives again in Galilee he begins to call those who will itinerate with him and later chooses twelve from them. He sends them out to preach that, with his appearance, the Kingdom has come, to heal, and to exorcise demons. He teaches his disciples and begins to prophesy his own rejection in Jerusalem. Finally, he makes a last journey to Jerusalem. The things that happen in Jerusalem are given in much detail. Jesus is crucified and buried, but God raises him from the dead. After his resurrection, he talks to “those who have been with me in my trials” (Luke 22:28), warns them, bids them farewell and tells them to wait for God’s coming new direction. Then Jesus leaves them as he ascends to heaven from the Mount of Olives.

This is the story that still is a story. It is Hebrew biography at its best, despite the obvious apocopation and pericope realignment we observe in the Gospels. If we study this biography sufficiently and use the right tools as we do so, it will yield its treasures like scrolls rediscovered in a cave of a dry wadi.

*This article has been emended and updated by Lauren S. Asperschlager, David N. Bivin and Joshua N. Tilton.
  • [1] R. L. Lindsey, “A Modified Two-Document Theory of the Synoptic Dependence and Interdependence,” Novum Testamentum 6 (1963): 239-263.
  • [2] For a description of the seven steps in the conjectured process of Gospel transmission as outlined by Lindsey (including suggested dates for the composition of the seven canonical and non-canonical documents), see David Bivin, “Discovering Longer Gospel Stories.”
  • [3] See “The Power of the Anthology” diagram and caption in Lindsey, “Unlocking the Synoptic Problem: Four Keys for Better Understanding Jesus.”
  • [4] Cf. Léon Vaganay, Le problème synoptique (Paris and Tournai: Desclée, 1954), 10.
  • [5] For more details about the “Triple” and “Double” Traditions, see the subheadings “Triple Tradition” and “Double Tradition” in Lindsey, “Unlocking the Synoptic Problem.”
  • [6] If a man comes into a room and addresses another with the statement, “I have a besōrāh for you,” the immediate reaction of the person will be, “Is it good or bad?”
  • [7] The Lukan Doublets confirm that Luke used two sources. A Lukan Doublet is a saying of Jesus appearing twice in the Gospel of Luke, apparently the result of Luke’s copying from two sources, each of which had a different version of the saying. The first of each pair is found in Luke 8:16-18 and Luke 9:23-27. The second of each pair is embedded in a longer context: Luke 11:33; 12:2-9 (vss. 2, 9); 14:26-33 (vs. 27); 17:22-37 (vs. 33); and 19:12-27 (vs. 26). See Lindsey’s articles, “Unlocking the Synoptic Problem” (subheadings “Pre-synoptic Sources” and “Lukan Doublets”); and “Measuring the Disparity Between Matthew, Mark and Luke.”
  • [8] Cf. G. Bornkamm, G. Barth, and H. J. Held, Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963); H. Conzelmann, The Theology of St. Luke (Philadelphia: Augsburg Fortress, 1982).
  • [9] Robert L. Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark (2nd ed.; Jerusalem: Dugith Publishers, 1973), 39-56.
  • [10] Form criticism of the New Testament blossomed in the second quarter of the twentieth century. Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) was the most influential form critic.
  • [11] For an excellent, short summary of the assumptions of form criticism, see Robert Cook Briggs, Interpreting the Gospels: An Introduction to Methods and Issues in the Study of the Synoptic Gospels (Nashville: Abingdon, 1969), 74-76.
  • [12] Cf. Martin Dibelius, Die Formgeschichte des Evangeliums (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1919), 8-34.
  • [13] For diagrams of the three possibilities of literary relationships offered by B. C. Butler, see Lindsey, “Measuring the Disparity Between Matthew, Mark and Luke.”
  • [14] For a discussion of these agreements, see the subheading “‘Minor’ Agreements” in Lindsey, “Unlocking the Synoptic Problem.”
  • [15] Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation, 19-22, 41.
  • [16] In the other 24 Double Tradition pericopae, Matthew and Luke agree only about 25% of the time.
  • [17] See the diagram, “The Markan Cross-Factor,” and the subheading, “Markan Cross-Factor,” in Lindsey, “Unlocking the Synoptic Problem.”
  • [18] See Lindsey, “Measuring the Disparity Between Matthew, Mark and Luke.”
  • [19] Karl Ludwig Schmidt, Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu: literarkritische Untersuchungen zur ältesten Jesusüberlieferung (Berlin: Trowizsch, 1919).
  • [20] Schmidt, Der Rahmen, 317.

My Search for the Synoptic Problem’s Solution (1959-1969)

Dr. Lindsey wrote this article in preparation for the press conference that took place in October 1969 upon the publication of his A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark.[1] This press conference was held at the Baptist House, Narkis Street 4, in the Jerusalem suburb of Rehaviah. The book contains, in addition to the Greek and Hebrew texts of Mark, which Lindsey spent nearly ten years in perfecting, a Foreword by Professor David Flusser of the Department of Comparative Religions at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a 76-page English Introduction by Lindsey.

Mark’s Unpopularity

The Gospel of Mark was never popular in the Greek-speaking Hellenistic church. Papias, the mid-second-century bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia, was the first church father to mention the Gospel and his statement was probably dictated by the general criticism voiced against Mark by the early Greek readers of the Gospel: “Mark,” Papias says, “did no wrong in writing down the things [he had only heard Peter say].”[2]

The order of the four Gospels in the earliest manuscripts often placed Mark at the end of the four, but in any case always secondary to Matthew (as in the modern order). It is now clear that ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament like Codex Bezae show a deliberate scribal attempt to revise the text of Mark through harmonization with Matthew and Luke. Mark’s Gospel is not quoted at all by such early writers as Clement of Rome or Ignatius of Antioch, and it was only in the fifth century that Mark even rated a commentator: Victor of Antioch.

Saint Augustine wrote rather contemptuously of Mark as “a camp-follower and abridger” of Matthew.[3] Even in modern times the sections for Sundays and Saints’ Days in the Church of England Prayer Book show only three readings from Mark out of a total of seventy from the Gospels.

Various reasons have been given for Mark’s unpopularity. One is that he was not an apostle like Matthew and John to whom Gospels are credited. Another is that his book does not, like theirs, contain many of Jesus’ longer discourses. Whatever the reasons, Mark’s Gospel was never popular in ancient times.

The Theory of Markan Priority

Despite this rather remarkable consensus of ancient authors, modern critical study of the Gospels, which began less than two hundred years ago, has since the 1880’s held almost unanimously that Mark was the first of the Gospels and was used by Matthew and Luke as their principal source when writing their own story of Jesus’ life. The occasional voices lifted in protest—Roman Catholic scholars held out until recent times against the theory due to Augustine’s writings—have again and again been silenced by the weighty words of New Testament scholars, usually of Protestant background, who back Markan priority. The theological libraries and journals of today, like the denominational literature of all the larger Protestant churches, base their studies and remarks on the Markan Priority Theory as a matter of course.

The first Markan priorists, particularly the earlier German and English ones, had glowing words of praise for the author of Mark. He had written, they said, in rough, popular Greek, but he was, like the Grandma Moses of modern art, a primitive genius. His style showed oddities and cliches, but also had a directness and “freshness” which suggested he may even have been an eyewitness of the events he described. According to these Markan priorists, Matthew and Luke had “smoothed out” Mark’s rough Greek and corrected his non-theological language, often agreeing with one another against Mark in some small, word agreement as they did so.

By the early 1900s, however, German scholars were having second thoughts about the authenticity of Mark’s picture. Facing serious verbal discrepancies between Mark’s text and those of Matthew and Luke, these scholars concluded that Mark was a late writer who had strung together a series of narratives and sayings largely developed through the oral retelling of them by Greek Christians. Mark had placed these oral narratives in a chronological frame that was purely of his own invention.

As a result of these academic doubts there issued a new search for the earliest form of the Gospel stories and it was soon held, notably by Rudolf Bultmann in his monumental Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition (1921)[4] that most of the stories in the Gospels had been developed secondarily from some remembered sayings of Jesus. The stories were therefore unhistorical. Bultmann found that even the longer sayings of Jesus had been seriously distorted by Greek Christians (in a process he called the Sitz im Leben, or “life situation,” of the Church) and held that only a small number of these sayings could be said to be closely parallel to their original Semitic counterpart. Almost all the serious critical works of the past ninety years have either been based on Bultmann’s theories or have been the result of an attempt to modify his position.

A “Re-write Man”

As a consequence of my endeavor to produce a Modern Hebrew translation of the Gospel of Mark, however, I began to develop a different picture of the interrelationship of the Synoptic Gospels. This new picture began to emerge from my observation that whereas the portions of Matthew and Luke that have no parallel to Mark translate quite naturally into Hebrew, Mark’s Gospel (and Matthew’s parallel passages) presented certain difficulties. Although Mark also had many lines and phrases that translated easily into Hebrew, these were often interrupted with words and expressions that are nearly impossible to translate into Hebrew. Luke, on the other hand, even when in parallel to Mark, presented no such difficulties. These observations led me to develop the theory that the Synoptic Gospels drew on an earlier account of the life and teachings of Jesus originally written in Hebrew and later translated into a highly literal Greek version.

I further came to the surprising conclusion that Mark was not the earliest of the Synoptic Gospels, but that Mark followed Luke, rewriting and revising Luke’s wording, and that Matthew later followed Mark, but also had access to the earlier Hebraic-Greek account of the life of Jesus that was the basis of Luke’s Gospel. I realized that, if true, my theory would both explain Mark’s traditional unpopularity, and lead to a serious reassessment of the prevailing view of Mark’s position among the Gospels. The basic reason for Mark’s unpopularity is that it was written by an early Jewish Christian who rewrote the gospel story using the midrashic methods of early rabbis, sometimes described as those of “darshehu and sarsehu,” a rabbinic phrase which can be paraphrastically translated as “homilize it [the text, usually of the Bible] and bend it to apply to your need.”

And rather than assuming that Luke used Mark as the basis of his Gospel, as is commonly held by most New Testament scholars, it appears that the opposite is true. Mark employed Luke’s Gospel, along with another early source, and the result is a Gospel that is almost as much annotation and comment as original story. Mark’s principal method was to replace about half of Luke’s earlier and more authentic wording with a variety of synonyms and expressions he culled from certain Old and New Testament books that, today, we can identify usually simply by consulting Greek and Hebrew concordances of the Bible.

Like the rabbis, Mark loved to find linguistic parallels to the text he was copying in other, often unrelated, books, and then mix words and phrases taken from these parallels with others of his sources. This method resulted in an amplified text that many scholars had thought gave an authenticity to Mark’s work, but which, in reality, should be described as a fascinating but rather inauthentic dramatization of the Gospel story. Due to Mark’s quite normal midrashic and aggadic Jewish methods, his Gospel is the “first cartoon life of Christ.” Mark was a “re-write man.”[5]

I am convinced that Mark, who may indeed be the John Mark of tradition, had before him not only Luke and a parallel early source, which I call the “Anthology,” but also Luke’s Book of Acts, five of the earliest epistles of the Apostle Paul (1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans), and the epistle of James. He also knew and quoted from Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts of the Old Testament. Mark’s method was to follow story by story and verse by verse the Anthology and Luke, dropping some stories only to bring them back at a later point in his Gospel, and constantly replacing his discarded stories, sentences or words by other stories, sentences or words found in non-parallel portions of Luke’s Gospel, the Acts, and the other books mentioned above.

I admit that to the modern Bible exegete Mark’s method I have just described sounds too mechanical to be true, but this method would not be strange to Jews of the first century. I myself had the greatest difficulty accepting the picture I paint of Mark when I first encountered the evidence. In fact, I hesitated for some years to publish my conclusions until the picture became clear in most of its details.[6]

A New Understanding of Synoptic Interdependence

The first observation that eventually led to the development of my new theory was that the Greek text of Mark was just a little too easy to translate to Hebrew. The word order and idiom sounded too Hebraic to be good Greek, and too sophisticatedly Semitic to be explained by the usual theory that the Gospels are imitations of the second-century B.C. Greek translation of the Old Testament know as the Septuagint.

At first I supposed that Mark may have been translating directly to Greek from a Semitic text. But this explanation proved unreliable when it became clear to me that Mark’s text had some dozens of odd, non-Hebrew-sounding words that kept reappearing an inordinate number of times. One of these peculiar phrases was the oft-repeated (more than forty times) “and immediately” of Mark. This phrase has annoyed everyone who has ever read a literal translation of Mark’s Gospel. Slowly I realized that these odd stereotypes and redundancies had to be the work of a redactor who was operating from a Greek text and adding expressions that could only be translated to Hebrew with considerable circumlocution.

Faced with the challenge of trying to translate these “non-Hebraisms” in Mark, I turned in some desperation to a word-by-word comparison of the parallel stories and sayings in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Working with the help of Huck’s Greek synopsis of the Gospels[7] and Moulton-Geden’s concordance of the New Testament[8] for two years (1960-1961), I came to my first tentative conclusions, conclusions that surprised me.

The first conclusion was a quite “orthodox” one: the strange non-Hebraisms of Mark often, although not always, appeared in Matthew at points of exact parallel with Mark. In contrast with the seeming dependence of Matthew on Mark was the near absence of the Markan stereotypes from Matthean stories that had no parallel to Mark (in the so-called “Q” and unique Matthean materials). Following this cue, I found that it was remarkably easy to translate the non-Markan portions of Matthew to Hebrew. It thus seemed reasonable to assume that the usual theory of Matthean dependence on Mark was essentially correct.

My second conclusion, however, was disturbing. Luke’s text showed almost no sign or hint of the Markan redactive expressions. Moreover, whether I translated from Markan or non-Markan portions of Luke, I found that the text translated with relative ease to Hebrew, indeed with about the same ease Matthew provides in his non-Markan portions. I am not sure why I did not suspect from this evidence that Luke may not have used Mark’s Gospel, but I think it was due to my supposition that the theory of Lukan use of Mark was too well-attested by modern scholarship to be incorrect.

The third conclusion was the most disturbing of all. Comparing the texts of the first three Gospels, I slowly became aware of the so-called “Minor Agreements” of Matthew and Luke against Mark, one of the points at which the theory of Markan priority has often been attacked by adherents of the time-honored Augustinian theory and the Griesbach theory.[9] Neither of these  theories has difficulty in explaining the Minor Agreements, whereas the usual view of Markan Priority (according to which Matthew and Luke are uninfluenced by each other’s work) has difficulty accounting for the approximately six hundred points at which Matthew and Luke agree to disagree with the Markan parallels with respect to wording and omissions.

I decided very quickly that the only way to combine the first and third conclusions was to posit the existence of a common document known to Matthew and Luke and basically parallel in story order with Mark, but verbally very different from it. (This meant that I had returned to a view not unlike that of the first Markan priorists, who had held that a kind of Ur-Markus or Proto-Mark was known to Matthew and Luke instead of Mark, and that the Gospel of Mark was in some ways not quite like Ur-Markus. The major difference between my view and that of the first Markan priorists is that, according to my theory, the common source included not only Ur-Markus narratives, but also Q sayings.) But what was one to do with the second conclusion? Why did Luke show little or no indication that he had seen the redacted expressions in Mark?

Markan Pick-ups

When I arrived at the solution, the second conclusion made sense. I discovered that Luke had not used Mark. Rather, Mark had used Luke. It soon became clear to me that my Markan stereotypes and non-Hebraisms were word “pick-ups,” which I could prove had been borrowed directly from Acts and distant Lukan contexts. For instance, the strange “and immediately” turned out to be first used by Mark in rewriting the scene of Jesus’ baptism as a result of having compared the story with the scene in Acts 10 of Peter’s vision on the Jaffa rooftop. In Acts 10:16 we find Luke’s only use of καὶ εὐθύς (“and immediately”) in the Book of Acts.

And there was that odd word for bed, κράβαττος (krabatos), which Mark had used in two stories (Mark 2:1-12 and 6:53-56) where Matthew and Luke had used a quite different word in parallel. Only in Acts and Mark did the word appear among the Synoptic writers. As in Mark, Luke had used krabatos in two different stories. In Acts 9:33 he stated that a paralyzed man, παραλελυμένος (paralelumenos), had been laid on a krabatos and been healed by Peter. In Acts 5:15 Luke told of people being brought into the streets on krabatoi (plural of krabatos) so that the shadow of Peter might fall on them for healing. Mark, too, had a paralyzed man in 2:1-12 who was brought on a krabatos to be touched by Jesus. Mark had seen paralelumenos in the Lukan parallel (Luke 5:18) and had turned to Acts 9:32-35 to read the story of Aeneas, the paralelumenos there. And, in parallel to the story in Acts 5:15-16, Mark had written of people who were brought on krabatoi into the marketplaces (!) so that Jesus “could touch them” (see Mark 6:53-56).

I kept a growing list of “pick-ups” and soon noticed some were coming from the epistle of James and many more from Acts and the Pauline epistles. One of my greatest surprises was the discovery that the words coming to Mark from Paul were limited to certain epistles—1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans—epistles usually thought to be Paul’s earliest letters.

A Better Way Forward

Despite the support of Professor David Flusser[10] and a few other scholars in Jerusalem, I was under no illusion about the difficulty of proving my theory to modern New Testament scholars. My problem is that I am a source critic living in a post-source-critical age. People suppose the Synoptic problem was solved long ago. Hundreds of living scholars have written books espousing Markan Priority, or at least basing their studies on the “assured” results of this point of scholarship. The latest fad among New Testament students is to ferret out the differences between the writers of the Gospels with a view to finding out how they differ theologically, actually an old discipline of early German scholars.

But it appears that the true solution to the Synoptic Problem has never really been resolved by scholars until now. The theory of Markan Priority is very close to the truth and for this reason has held the field so long. Both Professor Flusser and I view my theory as more a correction of the prevailing hypothesis than a radical departure from it.

However, the whole structure of modern New Testament research has been erected on the scaffold of Mark’s originality. Doubt in the very resurrection of Jesus, that central node of all Christian tradition, stems not a little from the fragmentary Markan account of the resurrection,[11] which differs significantly from that in Luke, whose detailed account is doubted because it is so unlike that of Mark. My theory, by contrast, suggests that the Lukan version of the resurrection may very well be the correct one. Modern skeptical Christian theology has often reveled in the uncertainty of the accounts of the resurrection story and has treated faith as “faith only if it has no facts at its command.”

This is not the traditional view of Christian faith, and it is pretty certain no Christian church would ever have been born without the early apostolic certainty that Christ rose literally from the grave, a fact many have pointed out. My synoptic theory, which maintains that the Gospel discrepancies are due to the odd secondary methods of Mark, opens a road to greater certainty in the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. For the moment, however, this is not my primary interest. What fascinates me is the possibility that the Matthean-Lukan agreements against Mark, and the more Hebraic texts of Matthew and Luke, can be shown to be the earliest Greek materials and may even be processed to yield much of their basic Semitic undertext, which Flusser and I are convinced was in Hebrew.

We even know what kind of Hebrew lies back of the Greek text and we can sometimes reconstruct the Hebrew text with great certainty. The narrative portions and some of Jesus’ formal teaching are clearly in Biblical Hebrew. The conversations of Jesus, on the other hand, are full of late-biblical and post-biblical Hebrew words and expressions. All this fits the linguistic scene of the first half of the first century, as we now know from the Dead Sea Scrolls and recent research in Mishnaic Hebrew sources. The Semitic sophistication of most of the Synoptic texts makes it impossible to hold that they are the creation of a Greek-speaking church, as many scholars think today. When we have laid aside the secondary elements so strongly seen in Mark and sometimes in Matthew (due to Mark’s influence), we have a straightforward story modeled after the Hebrew narratives of the Old Testament. This story had to have been composed very early in the first century, although we cannot tell when it was composed with exactitude.

*This article, originally published in 1969, has been here emended and updated by Lauren S. Asperschlager, David N. Bivin and Joshua N. Tilton.


Sidebar by David Flusser: Who Was John Mark?

Professor David Flusser on R. L. Lindsey’s “revolutionary step” in New Testament scholarship, showing that the Gospel of Mark, which made Jesus “less of a Jew,” was written latter than Luke.

John Mark is the supposed author of the second Gospel in the New Testament. He was evidently a Cypriot Jew and a member of the first Christian community in Jerusalem. He became Paul’s companion in his missionary journeys, quarreled with him, returned to Jerusalem and finally went with Peter to Rome where he met Paul again and was reconciled with him. According to a Christian tradition, he was buried in Alexandria, but his body was finally brought to Venice and buried in the famous San Marco church. His symbol in Christian art is a lion, and this animal became the emblem of the Venetian republic.

The Gospel that John Mark is supposed to have written has recently been translated anew into Hebrew by Robert Lisle Lindsey, the head of the Baptist Church in Israel. This translation has now been published, together with the Greek original and a long introduction. It seems to me to be a revolutionary step in New Testament scholarship.

The first three Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—are called by scholars the Synoptic Gospels because all are based on similar material and can be seen together. They can even be printed in three parallel columns, creating a book called a Synopsis. So it is clear that there is a literary connection between these three Gospels and it is also evident that to understand their interdependence means greater knowledge of Jesus and his teachings. To know more about Jesus’ life and doctrines should be the central aim of all Christian research. This was the opinion of Erasmus of Rotterdam, the Dutch humanist and scholar born 500 years ago. His aim was to propagate the “Christian philosophy,” or, in other words, Jesus’ doctrines. For this purpose he published in 1516 the first edition of the original Greek text of the New Testament. But, as we will see, the “historical Jesus” is not always at the center of Christian thought.

Sir Bedivere returning Excalibur, Arthur’s sword, to the lake from which it came, illustration by Aubrey Beardsley for an edition of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. Le Morte Darthur, the first English-language prose version of the Arthurian legend, completed by Sir Thomas Malory about 1470 and printed by William Caxton in 1485. The only extant manuscript that predates Caxton’s edition is in the British Library, London. It retells the adventures of the knights of the Round Table in chronological sequence from the birth of Arthur. Based on French romances, Malory’s account differs from his models in its emphasis on the brotherhood of the knights rather than on courtly love, and on the conflicts of loyalty (brought about by the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere) that finally destroy the fellowship.
Sir Bedivere returning Excalibur, Arthur’s sword, to the lake from which it came, illustration by Aubrey Beardsley for an edition of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur.
Le Morte Darthur, the first English-language prose version of the Arthurian legend, completed by Sir Thomas Malory about 1470 and printed by William Caxton in 1485. The only extant manuscript that predates Caxton’s edition is in the British Library, London. It retells the adventures of the knights of the Round Table in chronological sequence from the birth of Arthur. Based on French romances, Malory’s account differs from his models in its emphasis on the brotherhood of the knights rather than on courtly love, and on the conflicts of loyalty (brought about by the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere) that finally destroy the fellowship.

Rewritten Source

Modern scholars have, I think rightly, stated that Mark, or another gospel on which Mark is based, was one of the two main sources of both Matthew and Luke. Unfortunately, the laziness of the human spirit later led scholars astray and instead of trying to find out whether the common source of both Matthew and Luke was Mark or his supposed source, they increasingly identified this source with Mark. This led to deplorable consequences for modern New Testament scholarship. As we shall see, Mark is a completely rewritten source. The adaptor had the popular Hellenistic taste for dramatization and his theological acumen was not very strong. One may compare his way of rewriting his sources with that of Sir Thomas Mallory.

For someone who does not know literary criticism, the popular form of expression of this kind of literature may evoke the false impression of original freshness. For instance: “Then Sir Gawayne and Sir Tristram departed and rode on their wayes a day or two and there by adventure they mette with Sir Kay and with Sir Sagramour le Desyrous. And then they were glad of Sir Gawayne and he of them, but they wyst not what he was with the shylde of Cornwayle but by….” An uninformed reader would say: “How many details! This has the freshness of an eye-witness report.”

Let me give an even more characteristic parallel case from Mark’s Gospel, the healing of a blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26). Jesus “took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands upon him, he asked him: ‘Do you see anything?’ And he looked up and said: ‘I see men but they look like trees walking.’ Then again he laid his hands upon his eyes; and he looked intently and he was restored, and saw everything clearly” (see also Mark 7:31-37, and compare with Matt. 15:29-31).

This is not an archaic way of writing, but a popular form of vivid description. Later scholars abandoned the idea of Mark’s original freshness, but, not being versed in literary criticism, they assumed that Mark was the fruit of an “oral tradition” and, because they thought that Mark was the source of both Matthew and Luke, they extended the hypothesis of oral origin to all three Synoptic Gospels.

The following step in New Testament scholarship was caused by modern theology. Today it seems to be difficult to believe in facts and Jesus does not fit modern idealistic theology. Thus, it is easier for many theologians to believe in the kerygmatic Christ, as depicted in the Gospels, than to follow the “historical Jesus.” This historical tour de force is supported by the theory of the oral origin of the Gospels: the oral tradition has, so to speak, its place in the creative power of the Church; the object of its preaching was not the historical Jesus, but the kerygmatic Christ; the Gospels are mainly the reflection of the faith in the resurrected Lord. (Most of the champions of this approach do not believe in the resurrection.)

Even before I had the pleasure of meeting Lindsey, I did not accept all these beautiful ideas. I saw, from my experience with other sources, that also in the case of the Gospels, the philological approach was better suited to the matter at hand. Knowing both Greek and Jewish sources, I recognized that Mark was the fruit of thorough editing. And then I met Lindsey.

Two Crucial Facts

Lindsey approached the problem from another angle. He wanted to make a new Hebrew translation of Mark’s Gospel for his community and thus he was forced to recognize that Mark was rewritten, because his text is a strange mixture of Hebrew memories and of Greek popular style. He pursued this line of investigation and discovered two crucial facts. He saw that, in passages where Mark is lacking, Matthew is more Hebraic and is not imbued with the typical Greek style of Mark. He also discovered that Luke shows no traces of being influenced by the editorial activity of Mark, and the third Gospel, written by a Greek physician, is far more Hebraic than the Gospel supposedly written by the Jew, John Mark. From these two facts Lindsey concluded that Mark had entirely rewritten a source which was known to Luke before it was edited and that Matthew used Mark. But there are many minor agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark in passages from Mark. Thus, Matthew used both Mark and his original source. Further, Lindsey rightly supposes that in rewriting his source, Mark was helped by the extant Gospel of Luke.

Lindsey’s arguments are stringent, but his approach can be tested only when at least two conditions are fulfilled: the investigator must first study most of, if not all, the relevant Gospel materials in the light of the theory, and secondly, he must know enough Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic to understand the argument. Lindsey himself could see the truth only because he speaks Hebrew fluently and can thus read the relevant old Hebrew sources. I do not know if there are scholars studying Chinese or Tibetan Buddhist texts without knowing Sanskrit and Pali. If such scholars indeed exist, it is a great pity. I remember attending in Germany a very important colloquium about New Testament problems. Important German professors were present and I met no opposition—until I claimed that a certain passage in Matthew is a literal translation from Hebrew. Then I was attacked by the whole learned crowd: “How do you know?” they said. Last year I read the same passage at the Hebrew University where the reaction of a Dutch student who has lived here for some years and speaks fluent Hebrew was: “But these words are literally translated from Hebrew!”

Let me provide only one example of the importance of knowledge of Hebrew for an understanding of the Gospels. Jesus said, according to Matthew 6:31-32: “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things.” In Luke 12:30 we read instead of “the Gentiles”: “all the nations of the world.” This is a translation of the Hebrew “kol oomot ha’olam,” an expression common in rabbinical writings. If I am not wrong, Jesus’ words are the first example of the use of this expression (in a not very friendly context).

Thus the greatest difficulties for the acceptance of Lindsey’s approach to the synoptic problem will be: 1. Ignorance of Greek and Hebrew linguistics; 2. Lack of training in literary criticism; 3. A hypertrophy of idealistic theological mist; 4. The inveterate “oral” approach to the Gospels; 5. The belief in a kerygmatic Christ and the distrust of a Jewish “historical Jesus.” Thus, the psychological obstacles for Lindsey’s solution will be great today, but it is always difficult to find belief on earth.

Meanwhile, I am enjoying the good fortune of being able to use Lindsey’s achievements for my own research. My German book about Jesus, which has already appeared in English, is based upon Lindsey’s solution to the synoptic problem. I hope that my book will pave the way for the acceptance of Lindsey’s method by non-committed scholars, and especially by students. It seems to me that it is of vital importance for the understanding of Jesus that the new hypothesis be tested. To what extent Mark obscured the intentions of his source by rewriting and dramatizing his source can be shown by inner analysis and by comparison with the other two Synoptic Gospels. My own experience has proven that these profound changes made by Mark had the effect of making Jesus’ image less clear. And if in Mark the picture of Jesus the man became unclear, it is natural that Jesus became also less of a Jew. This can now, after Lindsey’s discovery, be proved by objective textual analysis. Thus, even if Lindsey’s achievements are not immediately accepted by academic pontificators, it will eventually help the real pontifices, the “bridge builders,” those who want better understanding between Judaism and Christianity.[12]

  • [1] Robert L. Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark. Jerusalem: Dugith Publishers, 1969 (1st ed.); 1973 (2d ed.). xxvi + 162 pp. (Preface to the 2nd ed., pp. v-xxvi. Foreword by David Flusser, pp. 1-8. Introduction, pp. 9-84. Greek text and Hebrew trans., pp. 85-159.)
  • [2] Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.39.15.
  • [3] De Consensu Evangelistarum 1.2.4.
  • [4] English translation: Rudolf Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (trans. John Marsh; Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963).
  • [5] David Flusser remarked at the press conference that Lindsey’s Hebrew translation of Mark is of much significance in the long history of New Testament Hebrew translations, but that the importance of Lindsey’s work lies mainly in Lindsey’s theory of the composition of Mark and Mark’s relationship to that of Matthew and Luke. See David Flusser’s references to Lindsey’s research in David Flusser, The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 3-4, 122. Flusser states: “My approach to the [“Synoptic Problem” is]…chiefly based on the research of the late R. L. Lindsey…The present biography [The Sage from Galilee] intends to apply the methods of literary criticism and Lindsey’s solution to unlock these ancient sources [the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke]” (pp. 3-4). See also the references to Lindsey in Flusser’s entry, “Jesus,” in The Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter; New York: Macmillan, 1972), 10:10.
  • [6] Flusser explained at the press conference that the very way in which Lindsey came to his conclusions has a certain authenticity which is to be admired: “Lindsey started out only to get a modern Hebrew text of the Gospel of Mark that would update the excellent but antiquated translation of Franz Delitzsch. He had been taught, as we all were, that from the last quarter of the nineteenth century it had been proved that Mark had served as one of the sources of Matthew and Luke. He had no reason to disbelieve this theory. It was while he was making his first draft that he ran into the difficulties that drove him to his long and painstaking research and which, in my view, ended in the most important and decisive correction of the usual view of Markan priority ever made.”
  • [7] Albert Huck, Synopsis of the First Three Gospels (9th ed. rev. by Hans Lietzmann; New York: American Bible, 1936).
  • [8] William F. Moulton and Alfred S. Geden, eds., A Concordance to the Greek Testament According to the Texts of Westcott and Hort, Tischendorf, and the English Revisers (3rd ed.; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1950).
  • [9] The Augustinian theory insists that Mark used Matthew only to be followed by Luke who used both Mark and Matthew. A modern defense of this position may be found in B. C. Butler’s The Originality of St. Matthew: A Critique of the Two-Document Hypothesis (Cambridge, 1951). On the other hand, the Griesbach theory concludes that Luke used Matthew only to be followed by Mark who used both Luke and Matthew. The strongest defense of this theory is provided by W. R. Farmer’s book, The Synoptic Problem: A Critical Analysis (2nd ed.; Dillsboro, NC: Western North Carolina Press, 1976).
  • [10] I met Professor Flusser for the first time in the summer of 1961.
  • [11] The end of Mark’s Gospel was lost at an early stage, but some scholars believe it may have been preserved in the last chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.
  • [12] This article appeared on page 11 of the Friday, October 24, 1969 Jerusalem Post Magazine [the weekend supplement].

Measuring the Disparity Between Matthew, Mark and Luke

Revised: 26-Jan-2015

In 1959 I found myself attempting to study the Greek text of the Gospel of Mark with a view to translating it to modern Hebrew. The rather strange Greek of Mark, the Hebraic word-order, and the impossibility of rendering to Hebrew some of the special Markan Grecisms (like καὶ εὐθύς and πάλιν, which have no ancient Hebrew equivalents) left me wondering what kind of literary creation we have in this fascinating book.[1]

Of course, a translator who is mainly interested in producing the message of a book for the Hebrew-speaking Church in Israel need hardly occupy himself with the question why a short book like Mark shares so many verbal parallels with Matthew and Luke, yet rarely manages to give exact verbal parallels to these for more than a phrase or two. However, my curiosity was aroused and I began to wonder whether it was not important to get to the bottom of questions like these.

I tried first to see if ancient manuscripts of Mark might shed some light on a possible vorlage (a prior version) of Mark which would show a less linguistically confused text. This proved a blind alley. It is clear that second-century Greek Christians felt the oddities of Markan order and wording, but their attempts to “improve” its text by replacement of phrases from Matthew or Luke only show that their real problem was with the kind of text we have in our printed Greek versions of Mark.

Working with Huck’s Synopsis

Turning then to a copy of Huck’s synopsis,[2] I began to compare closely the parallels of Matthew and Luke to Mark. My attention at first was drawn to those passages where all three writers seemed to have approximately the same number of words. These were printed by Huck in adjacent columns so that one could quickly compare the similarities and differences in, for instance, “The Call of Levi” pericope (Matt. 9:9-11; Mark 2:13-16; Luke 5:27-30; Huck no. 53):


Table 1
Pericope 53, The Call of Levi from Huck’s Synopsis

With such a passage it is necessary to check whether all the texts remain verse by verse in parallel. A frequent phenomenon between Mark and Luke is a certain chiasmus, a shifting of some verse or sentence or phrase from the beginning to the middle or the end in comparison with the parallel text. The next step is to narrow as much as possible the texts to be compared:







μετὰ ταῦτα


Mark then has a series of words found neither in Matthew nor Luke: πάλιν παρὰ τὴν θάλασσαν· καὶ πᾶς ὁ ὄχλος ἤρχετο πρὸς αὐτόν, καὶ ἐδίδασκεν αὐτούς.

Two principal observations emerge: Mark and Luke (1) show agreement in the words καί and ἐξῆλθεν, and (2) show disagreement in Luke’s μετὰ ταῦτα and Mark’s non-Lukan addition of fourteen words.[3]

Table 2
Pericope 53, The Call of Levi (Color Coded) from Huck’s Synopsis

Other observations can be made. All the Synoptists use the conjunction “and,” but in wording Matthew and Mark show a greater identity than Mark and Luke, or, of course, than all three. Matthew and Mark agree on παράγων, εἶδεν, and λέγει against Luke. All write καθήμενον ἐπὶ τὸ τελώνιον and ἀκολούθει μοι. Against the others Mark speaks of Alphaeus as the father of Levi, and Matthew and Luke speak of Levi (= Matthew) as someone “called” such, though using different words for “called.”

As we look further into this pericope, we can list a number of patterns:

  1. All three writers agree relatively often with great exactitude on words or phrases, but at no place do they all agree for an entire sentence.
  2. Matthew and Mark constantly show more words in agreement with each other than Mark with Luke, sometimes agreeing with each other on whole sentences.
  3. Mark and Luke sometimes agree against Matthew in small words or phrases, but never agree against Matthew for an entire sentence.
  4. Matthew and Luke can agree in small words or phrases against Mark (e.g., giving διὰ τί for Mark’s ὅτι).
  5. Nonetheless, Matthew and Luke fairly often agree to leave out words, phrases, and even entire sentences found in Mark.
  6. Matthew and Luke never agree with each other throughout an entire sentence.

I have found that the above observations hold true as a general rule in the 77 pericopae shared by Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Studying the Literature

Naturally, I began to read many works on the so-called “synoptic problem” to which I had been introduced somewhat unexpectedly. I discovered that students had long since come to call Matthew-Mark-Luke units the “Triple Tradition” and Matthew-Luke units the “Double Tradition,” for Matthew and Luke share 42 pericopae not found in Mark. Besides these distinctions one may speak of some 29 “unique” Matthean pericopae, 46 “unique” Lukan units, and perhaps 2 “unique” Markan units.

I was, of course, interested to see whether other students had made the same observations about the Triple Tradition I had made. Yes, all these observations had been made by others, but I could not find one theorist who had recognized all six as requiring consideration in an overall solution. However, in reading the observations of so many scholars my own list of observations grew rapidly. I found of much interest William Sanday’s essay on the Lukan “doublets.”[4] The Lukan doublets appear as aphorisms in two lists. The first of each pair is found in chapters 8 and 9 of Luke, and the second of each pair is found in Luke 9:51-18:18. In the second list, each half of a doublet appears as a sentence-long saying embedded in a much longer, very Hebraic, context.

It is clear, too, that in a discussion of the relationship of the synoptic Gospels, the Double Tradition is very important. In 59 Triple Tradition pericopae Matthew and Luke agree with Mark in the placement of their pericopae, but in Double Tradition pericopae Matthew and Luke almost never find the same slots for these units. This significant fact led those who came to be called “Markan priorists” (scholars who hold that Mark was written before Matthew and Luke) to the conclusion that Matthew and Luke wrote independently and used two sources equally: Mark for the Triple Tradition materials, and another source, usually labelled Q, for the Double Tradition.[5]

The conclusion that Matthew and Luke independently relied upon a non-canonical source for their non-Markan Double Tradition units appears to be nearly unassailable. Had one of these writers derived the Double units from the other, it is scarcely imaginable why this writer would have so carefully avoided placing at least some of the pericopae in the general outline he would have had to share with his source.

Not so clear or certain is the supposition that Mark must have caused Matthew and Luke to achieve common pericope order by serving as the source of these two independent writers. All that our observations demand is that we explain how Mark caused Matthew and Luke to achieve an outline of pericopae that is common to them and to Mark. For instance, if Mark chose his materials from Matthew and largely followed Matthew’s order at these points only to be followed by Luke, who used the basic outline of pericopae he found in Mark, there is no observable reason why the common outline should not be achieved. In the same way, if Mark derived his outline by following Luke, only to be followed by Matthew, the common outline also would be made possible. The three possibilities were stated by Butler in the following way:[6]

It is well known that the data in the Marcan tradition are: (1) agreements of all three Gospels; (2) agreements of Matthew and Mark against Luke, and of Mark and Luke against Matthew; (3) relative absence of agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark. It must be agreed that these data leave us with a choice between three hypotheses:

Three possibilities of literary relationships offered by B.C Butler
Three possibilities of literary relationships offered by B.C Butler

Let us illustrate the three observations above and try to narrow the search for explanations that will better cover the entire spectrum of evidence.

We must note, first of all, the fact that Matthew and Luke sometimes, although rarely, give a considerable body of material in common and in addition to Mark when telling the same story opposite that of Mark. A case in point are the long additions by Matthew (Matt. 4:1-11) and Luke (Luke 4:1-13) to Mark 1:12-13, where we read in Mark:

Καὶ εὐθὺς τὸ πνεῦμα αὐτὸν ἐκβάλλει εἰς τὴν ἔρημον. καὶ ἦν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ τεσσεράκοντα ἡμέρας πειραζόμενος ὑπὸ τοῦ σατανᾶ, καὶ ἦν μετὰ τῶν θηρίων, καὶ οἱ ἄγγελοι διηκόνουν αὐτῷ.

And immediately the Spirit thrust him out into the desert and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild beasts and the angels were serving him. (Mark 1:12-13)

Matthew, Mark and Luke give the Temptation Narrative at the same place in their common story outline, but Matthew and Luke agree that “the devil” (διάβολος, diabolos), not Satan, did the tempting. They also do not mention animals or angels, but instead tell of three temptations in almost the same words, although each in a different order. They agree that Jesus was “led” (ἤγετο [Luke 4:1]; ἀνήχθη [Matt. 4:1]) into the desert, not “thrust” (ἐκβάλλει, ekballei [Mark 1:12]). In telling of the temptations, the Matthean-Lukan account is about five times as long as the summary statement in Mark.

Mark’s failure to give the longer story of the Temptation poses a problem for those who hold that Mark was the source for Matthew and for Luke in the Triple Tradition.  Matthew and Luke’s common wording suggests they had another source than Mark at this point if one is not copying from the other. Markan priorists usually say that the Matthean-Lukan version of the Temptation must come from Q.[7]

In a similar way Matthew and Luke add to Mark’s account of John the Baptist’s Ministry the following words:

…and fire, whose winnowing fork is in his hand and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with fire. (Matt. 3:11-12; Luke 3:16-17)

These words, too, are attributed to Q by Markan priorists.

Once again, Matthew and Luke agree to give a paragraph (Matt. 3:7-10; Luke 3:7-9) about the preaching of John not found in Mark. In Albert Huck’s arrangement this pericope (no. 2) appears as a separate unit, but it might just as easily be attached to the first unit (Mark 1:1-6 and its parallels in Matt. 3:1-6 and Luke 3:1-6) and constitute an example of Matthean-Lukan additions of length to Markan parallels.

These lengthy additions are closely related to Markan order. However, we must take notice that they occur at the beginning of the common pericopae of the Triple Tradition. If a source like Q is, in these additions, being quoted by Matthew and Luke, we need only surmise that Q contained these longer accounts and that if Mark knows them he deliberately leaves them out or shortens them for purposes of his own while Matthew and Luke, though related somehow to Mark, simply fill in their additions from Q.

Substantial, but less lengthy, additions of Matthew and Luke against Mark are found in the Beelzebub Controversy (Mark 3:23-30; Huck 86). We need but print here the additions of Matthew and Luke opposite Mark 3:27:

Substantial additions of Matthew and Luke against Mark
Substantial additions of Matthew and Luke against Mark

Here, too, Markan priorists are forced to say that these long additions in Matthew and Luke must mean they are adding to Mark’s account by quoting Q.[8]

Now whether the explanation of these lengthy additions is that Matthew and Luke are mutually referring to Q as they read Mark, or that Mark is adapting his Beelzebub story from Matthew and is then being followed by Luke, or vice versa, we must still suppose the evidence demands a non-canonical source. If, as a working hypothesis, we assume that Matthew and Luke write independently, there seems no reason we should not also assume that they, and perhaps Mark also, know a written source that contains by definition more units or stories than those appearing in any one Gospel, or in all of the Gospels put together.

Let us, for the moment, call this document the Basic Source. The main difference between it and Q, as Q is imagined by Markan priorists, will be that the Basic Source is not limited to a source for the Double Tradition, or for the lengthy additions we have noted, but may stand behind all or most of Matthew and Luke, and even Mark.

We need this non-canonical source for another reason as well—the appearance of some hundreds of “minor” agreements against Mark found in Matthew and Luke in the Triple Tradition. For instance, in a Triple Tradition pericope that appears in the common order, Mark 4:41 (Huck 105) reads:

A minor agreement by Matthew and Luke against Mark
Matthean-Lukan minor agreements against Mark

Displayed in green are five words or parts of words Matthew and Luke share against Mark. Notice especially that Mark uses the singular of ἄνεμος (anemos, wind) while both Matthew and Luke use the plural of this word. In the three texts Luke shows 21 words, Mark 21, and Matthew 17, yet there are 5 words or word-forms in which Matthew and Luke agree with each other against Mark. Such Matthean-Lukan contacts opposite Mark are usually less marked than in the illustration above, but sometimes they are even more marked. For example, in parallel with Mark 5:27 (Huck 107), Matthew (9:20) and Luke (8:44) read:

A perfect agreement by Matthew and Luke against Mark
A perfect agreement by Matthew and Luke against Mark

Here, Matthew and Luke agree perfectly for five words and use two words (προσελθοῦσα and κρασπέδου) that are not found in the Markan parallel.

In the history of attempts to solve the synoptic problem, these small Matthean-Lukan agreements against Mark have come up for discussion again and again. Streeter argued that the lengthy additions we have noted are due to the use of Q and that the smaller additions are due to textual distortion,[9] but many scholars have found the latter explanation unconvincing. There are simply too many of these Matthean-Lukan agreements.

It is far better to use these Matthean-Lukan contacts as signs of a pre-Synoptic text on the life and sayings of Jesus. If this is done, the common and constant agreement of Matthew and Luke in leaving out words, expressions and even whole sentences found in Mark, a fact Streeter failed to explain or discuss, becomes logical: Matthew and Luke, in such a view, agree to correct Mark as they each copy independently from the Basic Source. If no other observation contradicts the hypothesis of the Basic Source, then we have a simple explanation for 1) the problem of the lengthy additions, 2) the shorter agreements, and 3) the common omissions of Matthew and Luke vis-à-vis Mark, which the Two-Source Hypothesis championed by Markan priorists cannot explain.

The Matthean-Lukan agreements against Mark have served to encourage the time-honored view that not Mark, but Matthew was the first of the Synoptists to write. Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis, is the source of testimony to the effect that “Matthew brought together in order the Sayings in the Hebrew tongue and everyone interpreted as best he was able.” Today’s Matthean priorists partly rest their case on this testimony, partly on a number of clearly more Hebraic texts of Matthew compared to parallels in Mark, and partly on the Matthean-Lukan agreements. Most Matthean priorists attempt to derive Luke and Mark from Matthew, some insisting that Luke used Matthew as a source first, and some that Mark used Matthew first. Luke is generally considered by these theorists as being dependent on the other two synoptic Gospels. As we shall note, this theory is helpless before the evidence that a number of Lukan texts, particularly in Luke 22-24, show greater originality than parallels in either Mark or Matthew. Nevertheless, it is to the credit of the Matthean priorists that they have noted the value of the Matthean-Lukan agreements (of all kinds) against Mark.

Were the Matthean priorists prepared to accept the evidence that something like the Basic Source existed, and were the Markan priorists willing to expand their Q in the same direction, both groups would find themselves able to better explain the difficulties of each theory. What is crucial is, first of all, to improve the overview of evidence for the independence of Matthew and Luke, for if these two authors were each writing his account without knowledge of the other’s account, the significance of Mark as the agent causing both the similarities and disparities between Matthew and Luke would be decisive. With the position of Mark clarified, it may well be that the synoptic problem can be seen as involving the dependence of Mark on one of the other Synoptists, the dependence of the third writer on Mark, and the general dependence of this third writer and the first on the Basic Source. In these circumstances, the first Synoptist would be heavily dependent on the Basic Source, Mark would follow much of the order of the first writer but would make vigorous changes in the wording of the text, and the third writer would follow the order and much of the wording of Mark, yet correct Mark’s text by dropping sentences or adding material from the Basic Source.

Collecting Further Evidence

It is important to look very closely at the Double Tradition. Apart from Matthew, Mark and Luke’s agreement to place some of the pericopae containing the lengthy additions in the common story order at the beginning of the Triple Tradition, Matthew and Luke show little extensive agreement in this material, that is, little verbally exact materials. However, in the Double Tradition there are a large number of Matthean-Lukan pericopae that show exact verbal identity.

For instance, in Matthew 23:37-39 and Luke 13:34-35 (Aland 285; Huck 211) there is almost complete word identity in the recording of Jesus’ famous words of sorrow over Jerusalem:

Almost complete word identity in Matthew and Luke
Almost complete word identity in Matthew and Luke

Here is another example taken from “The Baptist’s Question” (Aland 107; Huck 65) at Matthew 11:16-19 and Luke 7:31-35:

Another example of near identical word identity
Another example of near identical word identity

Here is a list of the 18 Double Tradition pericopae that exhibit high verbal identity:

  1. Matt. 3:7-10 = Luke 3:7-9 (Huck 2; Aland 14) John’s Preaching of Repentance
  2. Matt. 6:22-23 = Luke 11:34-35 (Huck 33; Aland 193) Good Eye
  3. Matt. 6:24 = Luke 16:13 (Huck 34; Aland 66) Serving Two Masters
  4. Matt. 6:25-34 = Luke 12:22-31 (Huck 35; Aland 67) On Anxiety
  5. Matt. 7:7-11 = Luke 11:9-13 (Huck 38; Aland 70) Ask, Seek, Find
  6. Matt. 8:8b-10 = Luke 7:6b-9 (Huck 46; Aland 85) The Centurion’s Slave
  7. Matt. 8:18-22 = Luke 9:57-60 (Huck 49; Aland 89) Foxes Have Holes
  8. Matt. 11:3-6 = Luke 7:19, 22-23 (Huck 64; Aland 106) John’s Question to Jesus
  9. Matt. 11:7-11, 16-19 = Luke 7:24-28, 31-35 (Huck 65; Aland 107) Jesus’ Words about John
  10. Matt. 11:21-24 = Luke 10:13-15 (Huck 66; Aland 108) Woes on the Cities of Galilee
  11. Matt. 11:25-27 = Luke 10:21-22 (Huck 67; Aland 109) Jesus’ Thanksgiving to the Father
  12. Matt. 12:39, 41-42 = Luke 11:29b-32 (Huck 87; Aland 119) Against Seeking for Signs
  13. Matt. 12:43-45 = Luke 11:24-26 (Huck 88; Aland 120) Return of the Evil Spirit
  14. Matt. 13:16-17 = Luke 10:23-24 (Huck 92; Aland 123) Blessedness of the Disciples
  15. Matt. 13:33 = Luke 13:20-21 (Huck 98; Aland 129) Parable of the Leaven
  16. Matt. 23:37-39 = Luke 13:34-35 (Huck 211; Aland 285) Lament over Jerusalem
  17. Matt. 24:43-44 = Luke 12:39-40 (Huck 225; Aland 296) The Watchful Householder
  18. Matt. 24:45-51 = Luke 12:42-46 (Huck 226; Aland 203) Watchfulness and Faithfulness

It is important to underline this phenomenon: Matthew and Luke share all these pericopae which exhibit remarkable verbal similarity, yet never at the same slot in their common outline. On the other hand, they share 59 Triple Tradition pericopae that have the same story order, but little verbal exactness. It is clear that when they are opposite Mark, Matthew and Luke can achieve significant unit or pericope order. But it is equally clear that when Mark is absent, Matthew and Luke cannot achieve such order. These distinctions are underlined dramatically when it is noticed that in one set of units, in the common (Triple) order, there is much disparity in the Matthean-Lukan wording, but in the other set of units, in the Double order, there is almost no word disparity. This point is significant because Matthew and Luke give every evidence of being able to copy their non-canonical source with great fidelity, yet they cannot copy Mark with that same fidelity.

Only if we suppose that Matthew and Luke are independent of each other can we account for their inability to agree with respect to Double Tradition pericope order. And only if we presuppose a text like the Basic Source can we account for the remarkable verbal similarity in their Double Tradition materials in the pericopae cited. If Matthew and Luke are each independently copying Mark, it is difficult to imagine how they manage to avoid copying his text more often in the way they copy their non-canonical source, that is, with much exactitude. We can only suppose that the Triple interdependence must be either of the following: Matthew → Mark → Luke, or Luke → Mark → Matthew. Their lack of verbal identity in Markan contexts can then be attributed to Mark’s changes in copying from either Matthew or Luke, verbal change that is so constant and pervasive that it has prevented the other Synoptist (Matthew or Luke) from arriving at any serious verbal identity with the first in the great majority of Matthew-Mark-Luke parallel units. In my A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark, I termed this phenomenon “the Markan Cross-Factor.”[10]

Markan Cross-Factor Diagram
Markan Cross-Factor Diagram

Search for the First and Third Writers

The question now arises whether we can identify the first and third writers. A preliminary clue may exist in the fact that Matthew constantly shows more words in agreement with Mark than Mark with Luke. If Mark has for some reason copied the first Synoptist through a method of systematic verbal change and thus caused the third Synoptist to disturb the verbal identity of Matthew and Luke through the copying of the changes, it seems likely that Mark’s text will vary most from that of the first writer.

If this is a good clue, we will have to say that Mark is copying Luke, for the verbal disparity between Luke and Mark is much higher than that between Matthew and Mark. In this case Mark will, as a rule, have chosen those parallel pericopae he wishes to use and then have rewritten these texts with many verbal changes. Matthew will have been impressed by the story order of Mark and will copy much of Mark’s wording even as he injects a word or phrase from the parallel story in the Basic Source. He will not be uncritical of Mark’s text, but will find himself dropping sentences not found in the Basic Source more easily than changing Mark’s paraphrastic rewriting of the Lukan wording, which itself reflects the Basic Source.

However, before accepting this hypothesis too readily, let us examine more closely the evidence that Mark has deliberately made important verbal changes in copying the text of the first Synoptist. Davidson characterized Mark’s writing in this way:

The secondary character of Mark’s gospel throughout appears from additions that are made to the parallel accounts of Matthew and Luke. The pictorial power by which the evangelist is characterized is often adduced as a mark of originality, as if the writer had either been an eye-witness of the scenes he describes, or had drawn his details from the oral communications of an eye-witness like Peter. But this hypothesis is incorrect, since many passages show that the graphic colouring and vivid details are due to the writer himself.[11]

Davidson lists a large number of features that “evince the intention of the writer to infuse life into his descriptions” and includes among them many small additions:

…with the hired servants ([Mark] 1:20); looking around about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts ([Mark] 3:5); beholding ([Mark] 10:21); taking up in his arms ([Mark] 9:36; 10:16); sitting down ([Mark] 9:35;12:41); beneath the table ([Mark] 7:28); laid upon a bed ([Mark] 7:30); sighing deeply in his spirit ([Mark] 8:12); was much displeased ([Mark] 10:14)….[12]

Stoldt has collected some 180 words, phrases and sentences in Mark that the Matthean and Lukan parallels do not display and has argued for the secondary character of Mark’s text from many points of view.[13]

Campbell Bonner provides another example of the secondary character of Mark’s text. Mark records that Jesus takes a deaf and dumb man aside from the throng, puts his fingers into the man’s ears, spits and touches his tongue, looks upward, sighs (groans), and says to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means, Be “opened!”) (Mark 7:32-34). Again, in Mark 8:12 we read of Jesus’ sighing in his rebuke about the demand for a sign. In a significant article that has been largely overlooked by scholars, Bonner points out that the use of the words στενάξαι (to groan, sigh) and ἀναστενάξαι (to groan, sigh deeply) was common in rites of exorcism and healing among those in Hellenistic areas who healed with charms.[14] Mark also uses ἐμβριμάσασθαι (to be deeply moved; Mark 1:43), which appears to have been an expression related to invocation of evil spirits, charms and prayers thrice repeated, the casting of the evil eye, and gnashing of the teeth in fury. Since for other reasons the strongly secondary wording of Mark in these instances is maintained by so many scholars, it seems highly probable that Mark has borrowed expressions from thaumaturgical practice in revising his material to make it more dramatic.

The Proto-Luke Theory

Quite another line of evidence that indicates that Markan material cannot automatically be considered the source of at least Luke is found in the remarkable development of the idea that Luke depended heavily on written sources before finding and using Mark as a source. The development of this theory is remarkable because it represents a serious modification of the Markan hypothesis on the part of those who strongly affirm it. It was obviously an afterthought by these scholars.

According to Streeter, as well as Taylor, there are many hints in the Gospel of Luke that its writer must have written a gospel earlier than his present one and only later added many passages from Mark in revising his text.[15] Taylor tells us that many German scholars have held similar theories, naming P. Feine, G. H. Müller, B. Weiss, J. Weiss, P. Ewald, J. Wellhausen, A. Jülicher, K. L. Schmidt and R. Bultmann among those so convinced. More recent scholars include J. Jeremiah, H. Schurmann and F. Rehkopf who have argued that Luke had at least one other source apart from Mark and Q.[16]

The arguments of those who hold the Proto-Luke hypothesis include the analysis of the parallels to Mark and Matthew in the last three chapters of Luke’s Gospel and from this analysis it is maintained that Luke’s differences in story and detail from those in Mark are much too severe to allow for the theory that Luke has borrowed from Mark. None of these scholars seems to have considered that it just might be Mark who has vigorously rewritten the Lukan materials where it suited him, and that his revision has seriously affected Matthew. Such a view would allow for the superior texts of Luke and account for the difficulties in Matthew where he is opposite Mark.

Further Proof of Mark’s Dependence on Luke

We need further proof that Mark is dependent on Luke. I came across one additional piece of evidence when I attempted to translate Mark to modern Hebrew. In the course of this work I sometimes found it necessary to translate Matthean and Lukan verbal parallels to Mark. I discovered to my surprise that often the wording of Luke was easier to render into idiomatic Hebrew than its Markan parallel, and sometimes its Matthean parallel. On the other hand, I discovered that Matthew and Luke were highly Hebraic in their unique materials and in the Double Tradition. In the Double Tradition, sometimes Luke was more explicitly Hebraic than Matthew, but sometimes the opposite was true. It is in Markan contexts that Matthew so often preserves the same words and expressions that make Mark difficult to translate to Hebrew. Similar conclusions were reached by Burney, who names three Markan parallels to Matthew in which he insists Mark breaks the more original text in Matthew (due to Matthew’s better Semitic parallelism) and “glosses his original.” [17]

Elsewhere[18] I have argued that there is overwhelming evidence that Mark mines word and phrase “pickups” from many known texts and uses them to rewrite his own text. One of the favorite documents from which Mark borrows in his rewriting is the Book of Acts, but he also combs at least six of Paul’s letters (1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, and Colossians), the Epistle of James, an Aramaic targum, the ancient book called The Two Ways, and other recognizable texts in order to pick up synonymic expressions he can use in his revised text. His method was to compare idioms and phrases he found in Luke with words and expressions he knew from other texts and subsequently to reproduce them as variants or paraphrastic equivalents[19] of the words he found in his sources. My conclusion is that Mark worked as a kind of midrashic and targumic rewriter of Luke (and perhaps of the Basic Source that must be back of Mark 6:45-7:30).

In that previous study I described in detail how I concluded from non-Hebraic “stereotypes” in Mark, expressions like καὶ εὐθύς and πάλιν, that Mark represents serious editorial modification of an earlier text.[20] It is illuminating to discover that Mark uses εὐθύς or καὶ εὐθύς some 42 times, while Matthew uses one or another of these seven times and always near the Markan parallel, and Luke uses καὶ εὐθύς only once (Luke 6:49), yet not in parallel to Mark. Most of the instances in Mark occur in some parallel to Luke, yet Luke acts as if he had never seen Mark’s text. He seems not to be opposed to using the expression for he uses it once in his Gospel and once in Acts. My explanation of this phenomenon is that when Mark rewrote Luke’s story of Jesus’ baptism, Mark recalled the story of Peter’s vision on the rooftop (Acts 10, in which the heavens opened up and something came down and a voice from heaven was heard), and Mark picked up the expression καὶ εὐθύς which he found there (Acts 10:16) and used it in his account of Jesus’ baptism.[21]

Just as Mark uses many expressions from Acts against Matthew and Luke alike, but principally against Luke, so Mark picks up words and phrases from the Epistle of James and incorporates them into his reworking of Luke’s Gospel. We note first those passages from James that Mark uses which are not found in Matthew or Luke, and then passages that Matthew repeats following Mark.

  1. In Mark 6:1 the apostles anoint the sick with oil. Matthew and Luke have no such record. In the New Testament only James 5:14 and Mark agree to use the word ἀλείφειν with the word ἔλαιον (Mark 6:13).
  2. Against Matthew and Luke, Mark uses the expression οὐδεὶς ἴσχυεν…δαμάσαι (Mark 5:4) concerning the demoniac of Gadara. Concerning the impossibility of taming the tongue, James writes οὐδεὶς δαμάσαι δύναται (James 3:8). In the entire New Testament no such phrase similarity appears with these words.
  3. Only in James 2:16 and Mark 5:34 do we find the expression ὕπαγε εἰς (ἐν) εἰρήνην. Luke has in parallel πορεύου εἰς εἰρήνην (Luke 8:48). Mark never uses the word πορεύεσθαι and opposite Luke’s use of the word normally substitutes a synonym.
  4. While Matthew and Luke agree against Mark in various general sentence parallels opposite Mark 14:54 and 14:67, Mark there uses θερμαινόμενος of Peter’s warming himself. Only James (2:16) and Mark use this word in the New Testament.

We also find examples of Markan “pickups” from James which are reproduced in the Matthean parallels:

  1. In Mark 1:5 we find ἐξομολογούμενοι τὰς ἁμαρτίας αὐτῶν as a description of John’s baptism and the same appears in Matthew’s parallel (Matt. 3:6). In the New Testament this expression appears elsewhere only in James 5:16.
  2. In James 5:18 the rain causes the earth to bring forth its produce: ἐβλάστησεν τὸν καρπὸν αὐτῆς. Mark uses βλαστᾷ (4:27) and καρπός (4:29) and Matthew’s general parallel (Parable of the Tares) uses ἐβλάστησεν ὁ χόρτος καὶ καρπὸν ἐποίησεν (Matt. 13:26).
  3. Mark 11:22 and James 2:1 use the unusual ἔχετε (τὴν) πίστιν θεοῦ (τοῦ κυρίου). Concerning prayer Mark 11:23 goes on to use μὴ διακριθῇ and in verse 24 αἰτεῖσθε, both of which words are used in James 1:6 about prayer. In Matthew’s parallel (Matt. 21:21-22) we find all these Markan words.
  4. Mark 4:6 reads καὶ ὅτε ἀνέτειλεν ὁ ἥλιος ἐκαυματίσθη where no Lukan parallel exists. James 1:11 reads ἀνέτειλεν γὰρ ὁ ἥλιος σὺν τῷ καύσωνι. Opposite Mark 4:6, Matthew 13:6 records ἡλίου δὲ ἀνατείλαντος ἐκαυματίσθη.

These patterns, in which Mark borrows from what would be termed a distant source, reflect Mark’s rewriting of texts. Matthew shows his dependence on Mark very often by repeating Mark’s borrowed words. Once these Markan literary oddities and secondarisms are located and the sources found, it is not difficult to discover Matthew’s use of Mark.

Measurement of the Disparity between Parallel Texts in Matthew, Mark and Luke

It will be clear by now that a solution to the synoptic problem involves, among other things, the measurement of the disparity we find between parallel texts in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Some years ago, when I found myself using such tools as the Moulton-Geden Concordance of the Greek New Testament,[22] I found it difficult to compare the usage of any given word by the Synoptists. Nonetheless, such comparisons are essential. One could indeed pick a word and run through the references found in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but it was necessary afterwards to thumb through a synopsis like Huck’s to check whether parallels to the usage in any given Synoptist appeared also in the other two. It was because of this difficulty that I decided to compile A Comparative Greek Concordance of the Synoptic Gospels.

The above article, originally a large part of the Introduction to Robert. L. Lindsey, ed., A Comparative Greek Concordance of the Synoptic Gospels (3 vols.; Jerusalem: Dugith, 1985-1989), has been emendated and updated by Lauren S. Asperschlager, David N. Bivin and Joshua N. Tilton. The tables were created by Pieter Lechner. For a review of Lindsey’s concordance, see R. Steven Notley, “Book Review: Robert Lindsey’s A Comparative Greek Concordance of the Synoptic Gospels.”
  • [1] I have told in greater detail some of my experience in trying to unravel these mysteries in my A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark (2nd ed.; Jerusalem: Dugith, 1973) [see now, Robert L. Lindesy, “Introduction to A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark”–eds.], and in my Jesus, Rabbi and Lord: A Lifetime’s Search for the Meaning of Jesus’ Words (2nd ed.; Jerusalem: Jerusalem Perspective Online, 2009).
  • [2] Albert Huck, Synopsis of the First Three Gospels (9th ed. by Hans Lietzmann; 1936).
  • [3] From my interest as a translator of the Greek to Hebrew I would make a further observation, namely, that the starting of a story with the words “and he went out” sounds highly Hebraic. The conjunction “and” followed by the verb is itself a Hebraic construction found often in the Gospels, and the idea of “going out” as an opening part of a narrative is equally Hebraic, as in the command of the Lord that the “people” should “go out” and gather a day’s portion of manna (Exod. 16:4) or in the demand of the people of Samuel’s day that they be given a king who would “govern us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam. 8:20).
  • [4] William Sanday, “The Conditions under which the Gospels Were Written, in Their Bearing upon Some Difficulties of the Synoptic Problem,” in Oxford Studies in the Synoptic Problem (ed. William Sanday; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911), 34-41.
  • [5] In his article on Q for the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (vol. 3; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), D. T. Rowlingson writes: “There is widespread agreement among scholars that this source [Q] is represented mainly, if not entirely, by the parallel non-Markan material in Matthew and Luke; that it contained little narrative and no passion story; that it was composed largely of detached sayings of Jesus; and that its order is better preserved by Luke than Matthew” (p. 973).
  • [6] B. C. Butler, The Originality of St. Matthew: A Critique of the Two-Document Hypothesis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951), 5.
  • [7] But such an assertion is a serious departure from the normal view of the Two-Source Hypothesis (2SH), according to which Mark and Q are two very different types of document. Mark, as we know, consists mainly of action, whereas Q is described as a “sayings source” containing little or no narrative. According to the Two-Source Hypothesis, Mark is supposed to account for the Triple Tradition material, while Q is the source for the Double Tradition. Appealing to Q to account for the Matthean-Lukan agreements in the Temptation story departs from the normal view of Q in two significant ways: 1) by attributing to Q several verses of narrative, and 2) by appealing to Q as a source for Matthew and Luke in a Triple Tradition context. In this view a Temptation account was known to Mark and Q and was later independently combined into a single narrative by Matthew and Luke.
  • [8] For proponents of the Two-Source Hypothesis, however, this explanation is problematic because the more it becomes necessary to appeal to Q for Matthean-Lukan agreements in Markan contexts, the greater the overlap between Mark and Q becomes and the less one is able to speak of two sources, for at some point the overlap becomes so extensive that Mark is absorbed into Q. One is instead forced to consider the existence of a single source that stands behind both the Triple and the Double Tradition materials. (Cf. R. Steven Notley’s statements: “The effect is that Q tends to look more like a ‘Proto-Gospel’ than a simple non-Markan ‘sayings source.’ Such a source removes the necessity for Q and Mark as the primary sources for Matthew and Luke,” and “If…Matthew knew…a source on which Luke is based, as well as Mark, then the need for Q to explain non-Markan material would be eliminated” (“Book Review: Robert Lindsey’s A Comparative Greek Concordance of the Synoptic Gospels“).
  • [9] Burnett Hillman Streeter, The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins (London: Macmillan, 1924), 182-186, 273-292.
  • [10] Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark, 19-22. The objection may be raised that not all the Double Tradition pericopae show the same high verbal identity between Matthew and Luke. Bussmann noted that in about half of the Double Tradition, verbal agreement between Matthew and Luke is striking, while in the other half it is mainly subject matter that indicates the Synoptists are using the same non-canonical material (Wilhelm Bussmann, Synoptische Studien [3 vols. in 1; Halle: Buchhandlung des Waisenhauses, 1925-1931], 2:124-126). Due to this fact, he quite rightly suspected that the subject matter that did not show high verbal similarity must be due to the use of a source other than that responsible for the high-identity materials. However, the fact that at least one of the Synoptists may know for part of his Double Tradition a source different than that used for another part of this material in no way cancels the observation that in the absence of Mark, Matthew and Luke can at times depend on the same source so completely that they achieve enormous verbal identity, yet they cannot do the same in the Triple Tradition. Mark somehow stands between Matthew and Luke, both separating them on verbal points and uniting them on pericope order. For a list of the 42 Double Tradition pericopae, and a list of the 24 “Type 2 Double Tradition” pericopae (low verbal identity), see “Introduction to A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark.”
  • [11] Samuel Davidson, An Introduction to the Study of the New Testament: Critical, Exegetical and Theological (London: Longmans, 1868), 2:97.
  • [12] Davidson, An Introduction to the Study of the New Testament, 2:97.
  • [13] Hans-Herbert Stoldt, History and Criticism of the Marcan Hypothesis (trans. and ed. by Donald L. Niewyk; Macon, GA: Mercer University Press; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1980; trans. of Geschichte und Kritik der Markushypothese; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Rupecht, 1977).
  • [14] Campbell Bonner, “Traces of Thaumaturgic Technique in the Miracles,” Harvard Theological Review 20 (1927): 171-181.
  • [15] Burnett Hillman Streeter, The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins, 202-203; Vincent Taylor, The Passion Narrative of St Luke: A Critical and Historical Investigation, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series, no. 19 (ed. Owen E. Evans; Cambridge: University Press, 1972), 3.
  • [16] Taylor, The Passion Narrative of St Luke, 3.
  • [17] Charles F. Burney, The Poetry of Our Lord: An Examination of the Formal Elements of Hebrew Poetry in the Discourses of Jesus Christ (Oxford: Clarendon; 1925), 74-75.
  • [18] Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark, 49-56.
  • [19] Robert L. Lindsey, “Paraphrastic Gospels,” Jerusalem Perspective 51 (Apr.-Jun. 1996): 10-15 (JP art. 2769).
  • [20] Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark, 57-63. I refer to these terms as “stereotypes” because Mark has a disproportionately high number of occurrences of these terms compared to their occurrence in Matthew and Luke. It is important to note that these “stereotypes” cannot be translated into first-century Hebrew.
  • [21] Many other changes Mark made to the Lukan story of Jesus’ baptism are “pickups” from Acts 8 and 10.
  • [22] A Concordance to the Greek Testament According to the Texts of Westcott and Hort, Tischendorf, and the English Revisers (eds. William F. Moulton and Alfred S. Geden; 4th ed.; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1963).

Hebraisms in the New Testament

“Hebraisms in the New Testament” was published in Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics (4 vols.; ed. Geoffrey Khan; Leiden: Brill, 2013), 2:198-201, and is used here with Brill’s permission.[1]

Revised: 31-October-2017

A ‘Hebraism’ is a typical feature of the Hebrew language found in another language. In this article, the term is used to refer to a Hebrew feature found in the Greek of the New Testament (NT).

The majority of today’s NT authorities assume that Aramaic lies behind the Semitisms of the NT, and that Jesus spoke Aramaic as his primary language. This is so much so, in fact, that the student who consults standard reference works is informed that the Greek words for ‘Hebrew’ and for ‘in the Hebrew language’ (not only in the NT, but in Josephus and other texts) refer to the Aramaic language (BDAG 270). Moreover, although Acts 22.2 specifically uses the expression τῇ Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ (tē hebraidi dialektō, ‘in the Hebrew language’) to refer to the language Paul is speaking at this point in the narrative, many English translations (e.g., NIV, NET) render these words as ‘in Aramaic’—even though the terms ‘Hebrew’ and ‘Aramaic’ are kept quite distinct in Greek texts from the period, such as the Septuagint (LXX) and the works of Josephus.

Since the discovery of the non-biblical Dead Sea Scrolls manuscripts, about eighty percent of which are written in Hebrew (Abegg 2000:461), the Hebrew Bar-Kokhba letters, and other epigraphic materials, a reassessment of the language situation in the Land of Israel in the 1st century C.E. has taken place. It now appears that Hebrew was alive and well as both a written and a spoken language (Bar-Asher 2006:568-569). Scholars have begun moving in the direction of a trilingual approach, with three primary languages, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, available for use (see, e.g., the ossuary inscriptions collected in Rahmani 1994). Hebrew served as the traditional language of the Jewish community; Aramaic served as the lingua franca of the Near East; and Greek served as the international lingua franca throughout the Mediterranean (Bar-Asher 2006:585). To be more specific, Aramaic was probably dominant in the Galilee,[2] Hebrew prevailed in Judea, and a multilingual situation characterized Jerusalem, Caesarea, and other large cities. The result of this multilingual situation, especially for the topic at hand, is a host of Semitisms (both Hebraisms and Aramaisms) in the NT (for listings, see Howard 1920:411-485; Fitzmyer 1981:113-125; Davies-Allison 1988:1 80-85).

There are ten references to the Hebrew language in the NT: τῇ Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ (tē hebraidi dialektō, ‘in the Hebrew language’; Acts 21.40; 22.2; 26.14); Ἑβραϊστί (hebraisti, ‘in Hebrew’; John 5.2; 19.13, 17, 20; 20.16; Rev. 9.11; 16.16). Paul speaks to a crowd in the Temple in Jerusalem “in the Hebrew language” (Acts 21.40; 22.2), and Jesus speaks to Paul “in the Hebrew language” (Acts 26.14). The author of John gives the Greek transliterations of three place names—Bethzatha, Gabbatha, Golgotha—and despite their Aramaic etymology, he accepts these proper nouns as part of the Hebrew language. This author also records that the notice Pilate placed on the cross of Jesus “was written in Hebrew [Ἑβραϊστί (hebraisti)], Greek and Latin”; and that Mary addressed the resurrected Jesus in Hebrew as ῥαββουνί (rabbouni, ‘my master’). The author of Revelation records two Hebrew names: Ἀβαδδών (Abaddōn, ‘the angel of the bottomless pit’ [Hebrew: אבדון ’aḇadōn, ‘destruction’]), and Ἁρμαγεδών (Harmagedōn, ‘mountain of Megiddo’ [Hebrew: הר מגידון har məḡiddōn]), a place name.

The Aramaic language is not mentioned in the NT, although it is referred to six times in the LXX (2 Kgs. 18.26; Ezra 4.7; 2 Macc. 15.36; Job 42.17b; Isa. 36.11; Dan. 2.4). The term Συριστί (Sūristi, ‘in the Aramaic language’) is the LXX’s translation of אֲרָמִית (arāmit); adjectival Συριακή (Sūriakē) in 2 Macc. 15.36; Job 42.17b.

It is often difficult to distinguish Hebrew from Aramaic in Greek transliteration. Most transliterated proper nouns, e.g., Γεθσημανεί (Gethsēmanei; Matt. 26.36; Mark 14.32) and Ταβειθά (Tabeitha; Acts 9.36, 40), may be Hebrew or Aramaic, and, regardless of their origin, could be used in either language (or any language, for that matter). Common nouns, such as μαμωνᾶς (mamōnas, ‘mammon,’ ‘wealth’; Matt. 6.24; Luke 16.9, 11, 13) and κορβᾶν (korban, ‘corban,’ a gift dedicated to the Temple’; Mark 7.11), are used in both languages. However, the form ραββουνι (rabbouni) deserves comment. The word appears twice in the NT: Mark 10.51 and John 20.16, in the latter of which it is correctly called “Hebrew”. Most scholars assume this word is Aramaic, but, as Kutscher demonstrated (1977:268-271) on the basis of the most reliable manuscript evidence of Rabbinic Hebrew, it is acceptable first-century C.E. western Hebrew; cf. the form רַבּוּנוֹ (rabūnō, ‘his master’; Mishna Ta’anit 3.8 [Codex Kaufmann]).

In addition to Hebrew items, a number of transliterated Aramaic words are found in the NT: ταλιθὰ κούμ (talitha koum, ‘little girl, get up’; Mark 5.41); ελωι ελωι λεμα σαβαχθανι (elōi elōi lema sabachthani, ‘my God, my God, why did you forsake me’; Mark 15.34); Ἁκελδαμάχ (Hakeldamach, ‘field of blood’; Acts 1.19); and μαρὰν ἀθά (maran atha, ‘our lord, come’; 1 Cor. 16.22). Regarding ἐφφαθά (ephphatha, ‘be opened’; Mark 7.34), Abegg (2000:462) observed that the Greek transcription “is ambiguous and by form more likely Hebrew than Aramaic.”

Like the language of the Bar Kokhba letters (where תשמים abbreviates את השמים), as well as all living languages (e.g., modern American English has, “Betcha could,” or “Don’t wanna go”), Modern Hebrew, too, abbreviates speech, as this Israeli weekly magazine cover illustrates. The upper line of the banner held by the children reads מנקים תעולם (“We are cleaning up the environment”), with an abbreviation sign (′) over the ת to show that it stands for -את ה. The abbreviated מְנַקִּים תַּעוֹלָם, i.e, מְנַקִּים אֶת הָעוֹלָם, could only occur in a living, spoken language.

Two registers of Hebrew existed side-by-side in the first century C.E.: a high language and a low language. The former was a continuation of Biblical Hebrew, especially Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH), and may be seen in many of the sectarian scrolls found at Qumran. The latter, a more colloquial variety, is illustrated by certain non-literary documents from the Judean Desert (cf., e.g., מעיד אני עלי תשמים [meʿid ʾani ʿalai taš-šamayim, ‘I call heaven as witness’; Murabbaʿat 43.3], with a reduced form of the nota accusativi [normally, את (ʾet)] affixed to the following noun), but primarily by Tannaitic literature. Hebraisms emanating from both registers are to be found in the NT, as illustrated below.

The aforementioned transcriptions of Hebrew lexemes are only the most obvious Hebraisms in the NT, but other influences may be seen as well. Most prominently, the Greek prose of the NT sometimes reflects an underlying Hebrew grammatical structure. Examples of such ‘literary Hebraisms’ are the structures [subjectless ἐγένετο (egeneto) + time phrase + finite verb] (Mark 2x; Matt. 5x; Luke 22x) and [subjectless ἐγένετο (egeneto) + time phrase + καί (kai) + finite verb] (Matt. 1x; Luke 11x). Both constructions are Septuagintal equivalents of the biblical ‏וַיְהִי (wa-yhī, ‘and it was’) structures. Both are non-Lukan in style since, although they occur frequently in Luke’s gospel (apparently copied by Luke from one or more sources), they do not occur in Acts (the exemplar of Luke’s own hand, especially Acts 16-28). A deceptively similar syntactical structure, [ἐγένετο (egeneto) + infinitive as the main verb], does appear in both Luke and Acts. However, this structure is idiomatic Greek, and not a syntactical feature of Hebrew, nor is it found in the LXX (Buth and Kvasnica 2006:73, 268-273).

Selected examples of low-register Hebraisms, which appear in quoted speech within the Synoptic Gospels, include the following:

(1) In Luke 15.18, 21 the prodigal son says to his father: ἥμαρτον εἰς τὸν οὐρανόν (hēmarton eis ton ouranon, ‘I have sinned against heaven’). The post-biblical idiom ‘Heaven’ as a euphemism for ‘God’ to avoid the tetragrammaton does not occur in the Bible, nor is it found in the LXX. “The use of the term ‘Heaven’ in Luke 15.18, 21 as a substitute for the Divine Name can hardly be a septuagintism” (Wilcox 1992:5:1082). However, the idiom also exists in Aramaic (see Sokoloff 2002:557).

(2) In Matt. 12.42 (= Luke 11.31) Jesus uses the expression βασίλισσα νότου (basilissa notou, ‘queen of south’). This expression is apparently a literal Greek translation of מלכת תימן (malkat teman, ‘queen of Teman’), a post-biblical equivalent for biblical מַלְכַּת שְׁבָא (malkat shevā’,  ‘queen of Sheba’; 1 Kgs. 10.1, etc.; always [8x] βασίλισσα Σαβα [basilissa Saba] in the LXX). “Neither in Greek nor in Aramaic could the term for ‘south’ be used as an equivalent of Sheba” (Grintz 1960:39). Notice also that βασίλισσα νότου (basilissa notou) has no article, likely as a result of its being the translation of Hebrew construct state.

(3) Jesus said to Peter, σὰρξ καὶ αἷμα οὐκ ἀπεκάλυψέν σοι (sarx kai aima ouk apekalūpsen soi, ‘flesh and blood did not reveal [this] to you’; Matt. 16.17), something that would have been unclear to a Greek-speaker outside a Jewish environment. The expression בשר ודם (basar vadam, ‘flesh and blood,’ i.e., a mortal human being) is a post-biblical idiom (cf. Mishna Nazir 9.5; Mishna Sota 8.1). The expression is not found in the LXX, nor is it an Aramaism (Grintz 1960:36).

(4) The theological concept העולם הבא (ha-ʿolam hab-baʾ, ‘the world to come,’  lit. ‘the coming world’) is coupled by Jesus in Luke 18.30 with חיי עולם (ḥayye ʿōlām, ‘eternal life,’ lit. ‘life of eternity’), a LBH expression, in a wordplay based on the dual meaning of Hebrew עולם as ‘eternity’ and ‘world’ in Second Temple Hebrew, καὶ ἐν τῷ αἰῶνι τῷ ἐρχομένῳ ζωὴν αἰώνιον (kai en tō aiōni tō erchomenō zōēn aiōnion [conjectured Heb.: ובעולם הבא חיי עולם (u-ḇa-ʿolam hab-baʾ ḥayye ʿolam, lit., ‘and in the coming world life of eternity’]). For this same wordplay, see Mishna Avot 2.7 (Codex Kaufmann). The expression העולם הבא (ha-ʿolam hab-baʾ) does not appear in the Bible or the LXX, but it is found often in rabbinic literature, e.g., 15x in the Mishnah; while חיי עולם (ḥayye ʿōlām) appears once in the Bible (Dan. 12.2). The wordplay is also possible in Aramaic.

(5) The wordplay ‘forgive a sinner’s sins’ / ‘forgive (i.e., cancel) a debtor’s debts’, found in Luke 7.36-50 and Matt. 18.23-35, is possible because of two senses of the Hebrew (and Aramaic) verb מחל (maḥal, ‘to forgive’) In post-biblical Hebrew, מחל (maḥal) replaced the BH סָלַח (sālaḥ, ‘to forgive someone,’ ‘forgive sins’ [but in BH never ‘to forgive a debt’!]). Apparently, the two senses of מחל (maḥal) are also behind the request, ‘Forgive us our debts’ in the sense of ‘Forgive us our sins’, in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6.12). The equation ‘sinners’ = ‘debtors is found in a case of synonymous parallelism in Luke 13.2, 4. In early rabbinic sources there are numerous examples of the expressions ‘forgive wrongs or sins’ and ‘forgive debts’ with the verb מחל (maḥal), e.g., ‘he is not forgiven until he seeks [forgiveness] from [the plaintiff]’ (Mishna Bava Qamma 8.7); ‘[if the victim] forgave him the value of the principal” (Mishna Bava Qamma 9.6); ‘forgive me this morsel’ (Tosefta Bava Batra 5.8); and ‘[sins] against God you are forgiven’ (מוחלים לך [mōḥalim lecha]; Sifra, Aḥare Mot 8 [to Lev. 16.30]). The exact expression ‘forgive sin or debt’ with the verb מחל (maḥal) has not turned up in the more meager Second Temple Hebrew and Aramaic literary remains (מחל [maḥal] is found only 5x, in the non-biblical DSS). However, the nouns חוב (ḥōv) and חובה (ḥōvah), connoting both ‘sin, guilt’ and ‘debt’, along with the verbal root חו″ב (ḥ-v-b) ‘sin, be guilty of’ and ‘be indebted,’ are attested. In Hebrew texts, we find, e.g., כלנו חייבים (kullanū ḥayyavim, ‘[Remember that] we all are guilty’; Sir. 8.5; cf. Sir. 11.18; CD 3.10). In Aramaic texts, one finds, e.g., ‘your sins…your wrongs’ (4Q537 f6.1), where the plural of חוב (ḥōv, ‘sin,’ ‘debt’) is parallel to the plural of its synonym חטא (ḥeṭʾ, ‘sin’).

In sum, the text of the NT contains many Semitic elements, some of which are Hebraisms and some of which are Aramaisms. The Hebrew language is mentioned ten times in the NT: Jesus, Paul, and Mary speak “in the Hebrew language”; three toponyms bear ‘Hebrew’ names; even an angel has a ‘Hebrew’ name. The notice Pilate had placed on Jesus’ cross was written ‘in Hebrew,’ as well as in Greek and Latin. The Synoptic Gospels show evidence for the existence of two registers of Hebrew: a high, literary register and a low, spoken one. Translations of Hebrew syntactic structures and literary phrases are found in the narrative framework of these gospels; while direct speech exhibits wordplays and idioms that are typical of post-biblical, spoken Hebrew.

Enlargement of an ossuary fragment discovered in Jerusalem bearing a Hebrew “Corban” inscription. Translation: “Any man who [intends to use] it [should regard] it as Corban [i.e., dedicated to the Temple].” Photo: Boaz Zissu. Courtesy of Boaz Zissu.


  • Abegg, Martin G., Jr. 2000. “Hebrew language”. Dictionary of New Testament background, ed. by Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter, 459-463. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity.
  • Bar-Asher, Moshe. 2006. “Mishnaic Hebrew: An introductory survey”. The literature of the sages: Second part, ed. by Shmuel Safrai, Zeev Safrai, Joshua Schwartz, and Peter J. Tomson, 567-595. Assen: Royal Van Gorcum and Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
  • BDAG = Bauer, Walter, Frederick W. Danker, William Arndt, and Felix W. Gingrich. 2000. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. 3rd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Buth, Randall. 1990. “Edayin/Tote—Anatomy of a Semitism in Jewish Greek”. Maarav 5-6:33-48.
  • Buth, Randall and Kvasnica, Brian. 2006. “Temple authorities and tithe evasion: The linguistic background and impact of the parable of ‘the vineyard, the tenants and the son'”. Jesus’ last week: Jerusalem studies in the synoptic gospels, ed. by R. Steven Notley, Marc Turnage, and Brian Becker, 53-80, 259-317. Leiden: Brill.
  • Davies, William David and Dale C. Allison, Jr. 1988. A critical and exegetical commentary on the gospel according to Saint Matthew (International Critical Commentary). Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
  • Eshel, Hanan. 2006. “On the use of the Hebrew language in economic documents from the Judean Desert”. Jesus’ last week: Jerusalem studies in the synoptic gospels, ed. by R. Steven Notley, Marc Turnage, and Brian Becker, 245-258. Leiden: Brill.
  • Fitzmyer, Joseph A. 1981. The gospel according to Luke (Anchor Bible Commentary). Garden City, New York: Doubleday.
  • Grintz, Jehoshua M. 1960. “Hebrew as the spoken and written language in the last days of the Second Temple”. Journal of Biblical Literature 79:32-47.
  • Howard, Wilbert Francis. 1920. “Semitisms in the New Testament”. A grammar of New Testament Greek, ed. by James Hope Moulton, Wilbert Francis Howard, and Nigel Turner, vol. 2, 411-485. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
  • Joosten, Jan. 2004. “Aramaic or Hebrew behind the gospels?” Analecta Bruxellensia 9:88-101.
  • ____. 2005. “The ingredients of New Testament Greek”. Analecta Bruxellensia 10:56-69.
  • Joosten, Jan and Menahem Kister. 2010. “The New Testament and Rabbinic Hebrew”. The New Testament and rabbinic literature (Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 136), ed. by Reimund Bieringer, Florentino García Martínez, Didier Pollefeyt, and Peter J. Tomson, 335-350. Leiden: Brill.
  • Kutscher, Eduard Yechezkel. 1977. Hebrew and Aramaic studies (Hebrew, and English). Jerusalem: Magnes.
  • ____. 1982. A history of the Hebrew language. Jerusalem: Magnes and Leiden: Brill.
  • Rahmani, Levi Yitshak. 1994. A catalogue of Jewish ossuaries in the collections of the State of Israel. Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority and Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.
  • Safrai, Shmuel. 2006. “Spoken and literary languages in the time of Jesus”. Jesus’ last week: Jerusalem studies in the synoptic gospels, ed. by R. Steven Notley, Marc Turnage, and Brian Becker, 225-244. Leiden: Brill.
  • Sokoloff, Michael. 2002. A dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic of the Byzantine Period. Ramat-Gan: Bar Ilan University Press.
  • Wilcox, Max. 1992. “Semiticisms in the New Testament”. Anchor Bible Dictionary vol. 5, 1081-1086.
  • Zissu, Boaz and Amir Ganor. 2007. “A new ‘qorban’ inscription on an ossuary from Jerusalem” (in Hebrew). Cathedra 123:5-12, 193.

The Apostolic Decree and the Noahide Commandments

Translated by Halvor Ronning[1]

Dedicated to the memory of Gregory Steen[2]

In August 1769 Lavater urged Moses Mendelssohn to undergo conversion to Christianity, thereby causing much distress to Mendelssohn.[3] For our subject it is especially productive to consider the letter that Mendelssohn wrote to the Crown Prince of Braunschweig-Wolfenbuettel.[4] Among other things, he wrote: “The founder of the Christian religion never explicitly said he wanted to remove the Mosaic Law, nor to dispense with the Jews. Such a notion, I do not find in any of the Evangelists. For a long time the apostles and disciples still had their doubts as to whether Gentile believers must accept the Mosaic Law and be circumcised. Eventually, it was decided ‘not to lay too heavy a burden upon them’ (Acts 15:28). This agrees completely with the teaching of the rabbis, as I noted in my letter to Lavater. But as regards the Jews, when they accept Christianity, I find no basis in the New Testament for exempting them from the Mosaic commandments. On the contrary, the apostle himself had Timothy circumcised. Therefore, it should be clear that there is no way that I could free myself from the Mosaic Law.”

When Mendelssohn spoke of “the teaching of the rabbis,” he was referring to what he had written to Lavater, “All our rabbis are united in teaching that the written and oral commandments, of which our religion consists, are binding only on our nation…all other peoples of the earth, we believe, are commanded by God to obey the law of nature and the religion of the patriarchs.”[5]

In order to clarify this latter statement, Mendelssohn gave a list of those ordinances that the peoples of the earth must obey. “The seven main commandments of the Noahides, which encompass the essential ordinances of natural law, are avoidance of: 1) idolatry; 2) blasphemy; 3) shedding of blood; 4) incest[6] ; 5) theft; 6) perverting of justice—these six ordinances were understood to have been revealed to Adam—and finally, 7) the prohibition, revealed to Noah, against eating from the limb of a living animal (b. Avod. Zar. 64; Maimonides on Kings 8,10).”[7]

Mendelssohn’s fundamental insights were:

a) According to the New Testament, a Jew is not obligated to abandon the Mosaic Law when he or she accepts Christianity. It follows, then, that Christians who are of Jewish origin, the so-called Jewish Christians, are obligated to observe Torah according to the teaching of the Apostolic Church.

b) According to Acts it was decided not to lay too heavy a burden on the Gentile believers. Rather, they were to be freed from the Mosaic Law and were obligated to follow only the prohibitions that make up the so-called Apostolic Decree.

c) This teaching of the Early Church is completely compatible with the unanimous rabbinic view that the Mosaic Law is obligatory for the Jewish people only, and that God has directed the rest of the peoples of the earth to follow only the seven main Noahide commandments.

Mendelssohn’s conclusions are historically correct as was demonstrated in an earlier article.[8] In this article we will discuss the two forms of the Apostolic Decree, the canonical and the non-canonical.

Mendelssohn equated the rabbinic Noahide commandments with the prohibitions of the Apostolic Council. Since the Apostolic Decree differs significantly from the rabbinic Noahide commandments, was he precise in making this equation? The rabbis listed seven Noahide commandments. According to Acts 15:19-20, the apostles accepted the suggestion of James, the Lord’s brother, that “one should not make difficulties for those who turn to God from among the Gentiles, but rather should require of them only that they abstain from defilement of idols, from fornication, from strangled [meat] and from blood.” The Mishnah, likewise, refers to defilement as a result of idolatry (m. Shab. 9:1). From Acts 15:28-29 and 21:25, the parallels to Acts 15:19-20, we learn that the early church understood “the defilement of idols” to mean, “meat offered to idols.”

The “western” text of Acts, whose most important representative is Codex Bezae, presents us with an alternative form of the Apostolic Decree. In 1905 Gotthold Resch drew attention to the importance of this alternative form.[9] According to the western text, Gentiles who turn to God are to avoid meat sacrificed to idols, blood and fornication. Resch correctly understood that “blood” refers to murder, and not to the eating of blood. In the western form of the text, at Acts 15:20 and 15:29, there is an addition: “Whatever you do not want others to do to you, you should not do to others.” This is the usual negative form of the so-called Golden Rule.[10]

In our view, Resch succeeded in presenting the philological proof that the western text of the Apostolic Decree is the more original, but his theological understanding was limited to his contemporary situation. Furthermore, the historical support that he adduces for his arguments is often of little value. For this reason his suggestion was quickly forgotten, despite being happily accepted at the time by Harnack. Today it is generally accepted that the usual, or canonical, form of the Apostolic Decree is the more original.

One exception to this consensus is Harald Sahlin.[11] He argued correctly that, “The Decree must be understood against its Jewish background…the formulation ‘idolatry, blood and fornication’ is almost identical to the well-known rabbinic formulation of the three central sins, ‘idolatry, bloodshed and fornication.’” We would argue that the rabbinic and the western text of the Apostolic Decree, are not identical by chance, and that this identity is decisive proof for the authenticity of the western text. Resch did discern the matter correctly, but failed to prove decisively the correctness of his observation. His reason for preferring the western form of the Apostolic Decree was his mistaken notion that its ethical content expressed the break with Jewish ceremonial requirements that was supposedly intended by Jesus and finally spelled out by the Apostles.

Resch’s studies of the non-canonical form of the Apostolic Decree helped three Jewish researchers independently to get on the right track.[12] All three noted the relationship between the western form of the Apostolic Decree and the decision of the rabbinic synod of Lydda. This synod met in the year 120 C.E. and handed down the following decision: “Of all the trespasses forbidden in the Torah it holds true that if you are told, ‘trespass or be killed,’ you may trespass them all, except for idolatry, fornication and bloodshed [murder].”[13]

It is enlightening to take a closer look at the words of the third researcher, Gedalyahu Alon, to learn from them and also to apply them to other areas of Jewish and Christian traditions of faith. Alon demonstrated that there was a tendency in ancient Judaism (and later in Christianity) to summarize the essence of one’s religion in formulations. Such a formulation could be called a credo, a confession of faith, or a statement of principles [Regula]. The purpose of such declarations was to achieve a formulation of the quintessence of Judaism. Alon rightly commented that the aim of these ancient Jewish definitions was not usually to make a dogmatic statement about the contents of the faith, but rather to set out the essence of the Jewish ethic—the fruit of which is the performance of individual commandments.[14] Moreover, these moral rules, whether positive commands or prohibitions, are not the “light” but the “heavy” commandments. At issue is the keeping of the “least of these commandments,” to use the language of Matthew 5:19. Reference to commandments as “light” usually occurs when the point being made is that small trespasses soon lead to large trespasses.[15]

It would be worthwhile to examine in ancient Judaism the various axiomatic statements of the essence of Judaism. Sometimes this can be accomplished by looking at ancient Jewish catalogues of virtues and vices, or by considering the so-called “household codes” found in the New Testament (e.g., Eph. 5:21-6:9; Col. 3:18-4:1). Especially widespread was the view that the Ten Commandments are to be considered the expression of the religion of Israel,[16] with preference given to the second half of the Decalogue. In order to define the essence of Judaism, people used formulations such as the Golden Rule, or selected Bible verses. Not only in Matthew 22:34-40, but also in Jewish sources, two main rules were adduced: one must love God (Deut. 6:5); one must love one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:18).[17] In the rabbinic view, the command to love one’s neighbor (or its equivalent, the Golden Rule) was seen as the essence of the Mosaic Law. This tendency makes it clear why it was that the summation of the Torah was understood to be the second half of the Decalogue, which deals with prohibitions relating to one’s neighbor.

Johann Kaspar Lavater cover page
Johann Kaspar Lavater cover page

The last five commandments of the Decalogue served as a starting point for new formulations. Sometimes, not all of the last five were quoted, and sometimes other ethical admonitions were inserted into this list. In terms of genre, these formulations were attached either to the command to love one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:18) or, to its equivalent, the Golden Rule. To this genre belong the words of Jesus to the rich young ruler (Matt. 19:16-26; Mark 10:17-27; Luke 18:18-27).[18] The fact that following Jesus’ words we find the command to honor one’s parents, which according to the original Jewish reckoning belongs to the first half of the Decalogue, seems to indicate that the command to honor one’s parents was only later added to Jesus’ words. Matthew concluded Jesus’ words to the youth with the command to love one’s neighbor. Admittedly, this conclusion is not original, but it is stylistically genuine: love for one’s neighbor, according to the understanding at that time, does belong to the second half of the Decalogue.

Another especially important example of a summation of the Mosaic Law (Matt. 5:17-18) on the basis of the second half of the Decalogue is the first part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17-48).[19] Here, too, we find that not all of the five commandments of the second half of the Decalogue are dealt with, but that other ethical requirements are introduced. Again, the unit is concluded with the command to love one’s neighbor (Matt. 5:43-48)—entirely in accord with the rules of this genre.

For our purposes the most important representative of this genre is the early Christian Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (Didache),[20] or, more precisely, its Jewish source, the so-called “Two Ways.” In the first part of this document (chapters 1-4), the way of life is described; in the second part (chapters 5-6), the way of death: “This now is the way of life. First, you shall love God who created you. Second, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Moreover, anything that you do not want to happen to you, you shall not do to another” (Didache 1:2). We see that the way of life is characterized by both the double rule of loving God and neighbor, and also by the Golden Rule.

To this same genre belongs the western form of the Apostolic Decree, in our opinion the Decree’s more original formulation. Two of the three sins it lists are found in the second half of the Decalogue—bloodshed (i.e, murder) and fornication—the sixth and seventh commandments,[21] and the other central sin, idolatry, is mentioned in the first half of the Ten.[22] Accordingly, it is stylistically authentic that in the first two references to the Apostolic Decree according to the western text (Acts 15:19-20 and 15:28-29), the decree concludes with the negative form of the Golden Rule. However, in the third reference to the Decree (Acts 21:25), the Golden Rule would have disturbed the context. It is difficult to decide whether the Golden Rule really belongs to the Apostolic Decree. Those who doubt that it belongs can note the fact that it is lacking in the canonical text, and that in Matthew 19:16-19 the command to love one’s neighbor is a Matthean addition. However, as we have pointed out, the Golden Rule fits the Apostolic Decree in terms of genre authenticity.[23]

The western form of the Apostolic Decree is composed of three sins.[24] These are the sins that a Jew cannot commit under any circumstances. Additionally, these three sins are the first three Noahide commandments. We align ourselves with Alon’s view that these three sins express the focus of ethical behavior. They are also a succinct formulation of that which Judaism most strongly abhors and seeks to avoid. In a special way, the list defines the essence of Judaism. This is true for this list and for other such summary statements in Judaism (and in Christianity). There is often a peculiar dialectic that is involved; ancient Judaism did not attempt to establish dogmatic confessions of faith, but rather to lay down rules of ethics. Attempts to encapsulate the essence of Judaism kept their distance from the ceremonial, ritualistic, legalistic side of Judaism. One reason for this paradox is that religions like Judaism, in which the legal side is strongly developed, do not need to concern themselves with the legalities when they come to summarize the essential, because the legal aspect is taken for granted. In Judaism, existence, as formulated through these summary statements, is essentially theological-ethical.[25] Accordingly, Rabbi Akiva, who knew how to spin myriad halachoth from every tittle of Torah,[26] nevertheless declared that the command to love one’s neighbor is the greatest principle of Jewish learning (Lev. 19:18).[27]

Moses Mendelssohn
Moses Mendelssohn

Understanding how existence is summarized in Judaism is important for the correct understanding of the western form of the Apostolic Decree, which is composed of the three Jewish prime sins. As long as it has to do with the inner Jewish ethic, it is the ethical-theological aspect, and not the ritual, that is the definitive factor in the choice of these three sins. However, when one steps out of inner Jewish boundaries in an attempt to determine correct behavior for non-Jews, there is a tendency to erect ritual limits. For Jews ritual limits are superfluous, since they are already “under the law.” This truth will become clearer in the course of our study as we now turn to the developmental stages of the Noahide commandments, comparing the extra-canonical form of the Apostolic Decree with the canonical form.

This list, like other formulations of its kind, was originally designed to shed light on the essence of Judaism as a religious system and lay bare its roots. Granted that such formulations are aimed at expressing the essential, nevertheless, whether they do or do not intend it, they cast a certain shadow over everything else and gain an intrinsic worth and independence. This is especially so in the case of the normative, formulated Christian confessions of faith, which led to the labeling of others with differing opinions as heretics. Ancient Judaism did not have such creedal statements, yet, after a fashion, the Jewish regulae fidei do present a certain self-understanding. The “three-sin doctrine” was well suited not just to express the inner Jewish way-of-life in the face of external pressures, but also to provide minimal moral limitations for non-Jewish God-fearers. The western text of the Apostolic Decree admonished believing Gentiles to avoid the three crucial sins, and we assume that these were at the time the original content of the Noahide commandments. Thus, the early apostolic church simply accepted Jewish legal practice relating to believing non-Jews.

Unfortunately, our sources do not allow us to determine what were the external circumstances that led the early church to begin using the Lydda ruling as a measure applicable to its own needs for discipline. We know only that the ruling came into use by the church sometime after 120 C.E., almost certainly before the year 200.[28] At that time, exclusion from the church was the punishment for lapsing into idolatry, sexual transgression and murder. If the morally fallen were truly repentant, they could not attain forgiveness during their lifetime, however, they were still granted a hope of forgiveness in the world to come. At that time the three major sins in Christian circles were called the peccata capitalia (capital sins) or the peccata mortalia (mortal sins).[29] The oldest witness to this trio of sins is Irenaeus who wrote (between 180 and 185 C.E.) that the unjust, idolaters and whores had lost eternal life and would be thrown into everlasting fire.[30] Furthermore, two church fathers, Tertullian and Hippolytus, mention the three mortal sins.[31] Apparently, Hippolytus, as well as Tertullian, emphasized the importance of the mortal sins in connection with the laxity of Pope Kallistus. We may conclude that the original text of the Apostolic Decree prohibited the three primary sins and that these prohibitions were the same prohibitions that early Judaism laid down for non-Jewish God-fearers. These were also the sins that, according to the Lydda decision, no Jew could commit even if it meant the loss of one’s own life. This Jewish ruling was accepted by the church in the course of the second century. It was applied to Christians who had sinned greatly and whose repentance was not adequate. The result was that the church was influenced twice by the Jewish prohibition of the three prime sins: the first time by the original form of the Noahide commandments in the older (Western) form of the Apostolic Decree; the second time by the disciplinary decision reached at Lydda, which was followed by similar disciplinary measures in the early church. From the non-canonical form of the Apostolic Decree, Tertullian concluded that after Christian baptism one’s violation of the three mortal sins could not be atoned for by repentance. In referring to the mortal sins, the first sin he mentioned was offerings to idols (sacrificia), yet in his commentary, he spoke of worshiping idols (idolatria).[32] In addition, the later ecclesiastical writers sometimes changed the wording of the Apostolic Decree by substituting “meat offered to idols” for “idolatry,” because they, too, identified the Apostolic Decree, in which meat offered to idols was prohibited, with the later ecclesiastical rules of discipline, according to which idolatry was unforgiveable.

From this proceeds an important fact that one can check on the basis of the texts. The western form of the Apostolic Decree also spoke of meat offered to idols. This means that from the prohibition of idolatry in the three Noahide commandments, the apostles derived the prohibition of meat offered to idols. That idolatry was forbidden to all believing Christians was, of course, totally obvious; however, the eating of the meat sacrificed to idols was not so obvious. Paul and the Revelation of John provide testimony that the Apostolic Decree expressly forbid Christians the eating of meat offered to idols.[33] John of Patmos, who in Rev. 2:24-25 is certainly referring to the Apostolic Decree when he says, “I will not impose any other burden on you,”[34] prohibits in Rev. 2:14 and 2:20 the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. Anyone who takes a look at 1 Cor. 8 and 1 Cor. 10:14-11:1 will see that Paul also dealt with the problem of the prohibition of meat offered to idols and found a penetrating solution.[35] In other words, the apostles took the Jewish rejection of idolatry and sharpened it by forbidding the Christians of Gentile origin to eat offerings to idols.

We assume that under no circumstances was a Jew to trespass the three capital sins, but also that non-Jews were equally obligated if they wanted to participate in the salvation of Israel. We assume, therefore, that by a decision of the apostolic church in Jerusalem, these mortal sins also were forbidden to believers of Gentile origin. We now turn to the Jewish background of the Apostolic Decree and ask ourselves whether or not, of the seven Noahide commandments, it was indeed these three that were especially suited to be carried over to the behavior of non-Jews. In rabbinic literature it is assumed that Ishmael, the son of Abraham, and Esau[36] and the inhabitants of Sodom had all committed the three central sins.[37] Debauchery[38] and the giving of false testimony[39] were considered as serious as idolatry, fornication and murder. It is evident also here that the decisive seriousness of the three major sins relates not only to the non-Jews (Ishmael, Esau, Sodom), but to all mankind and, therefore, includes Jews. On the Day of Atonement the scapegoat brings reconciliation for the uncleanness of the children of Israel as regards idolatry, fornication and bloodshed (i.e., murder).[40] These three sins apply not only to inner-Jewish but also to extra-Jewish matters as well, since these sins are part of the Jewish religious system as well as being universally applicable—they are foundational principles.[41]

Painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim. Seated are Lavater (left) and Mendelssohn (right).
Painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim. Seated are Lavater (left) and Mendelssohn (right).

We have determined that in their original form the Noahide commandments were limited to three prohibitions.

The number three is as suitable for such a list as is seven. Three is the number of the Noahide main commandments in the Book of Jubilees, but they are not identical with the usual triad.

In the twenty-eighth Jubilee Noah began to offer to his grandchildren the ordinances and commandments that he knew. He prescribed and testified to his children that they should act justly and that they should cover the shame of their nakedness and that they should bless their Creator and honor their father and mother and that each should love his neighbor and that each should protect himself from fornication and uncleanness and all injustice. The reason being that it was because of these three that the flood covered the earth. (Jub. 7:20-21)

Here we have, along with other moral ordinances, three prohibitions attributed to Noah: fornication, uncleanness, and injustice. Similar descriptions are given about the antediluvian giants and about Sodom:

And he (Abraham) told them (his children) about the judgment upon the giants and the judgment of Sodom, how they were judged because of their badness, because of fornication and uncleanness and perversity with each other and fornication worthy of death. “So you must keep yourselves from all fornication and uncleanness and from every taint of sin.” (Jub. 20:5-6)

About the judgments at the end of time it is said: “All this will come over this evil generation because the earth allowed such sins in the impurity of fornication and in blemishing and in the hideousness of their deeds” since “all their work is impurity and hideousness and all their works are blemishing and impurity and perversity” (Jub. 23:14, 17).

And in Jub. 30:15 there is threat of discipline and curse:

…both when someone does these deeds, and also when one makes his eyes blind to these deeds, when they act impurely and when they profane the holiness of the Lord and stain His Holy Name—they will all be judged….

All these places in the Book of Jubilees deal with the same theme, in which the three sins are named that brought the Flood upon the earth, namely, fornication, uncleanness and injustice (Jub. 7:20f).[42]

A closely related list of three main sins is found in the Damascus Document (CD 4:13-19).[43] The Book of Jubilees was composed in the second century B.C.E. and belongs to the same Jewish movement as that out of which the Essene sect of Qumran arose. The Damascus Document comes from a sister congregation of this sect; fragments of this document were found in the caves of Qumran. In the Damascus Document there is reference to Isa. 24:17:

“Terror and pit and snare confront you, O inhabitant of the earth.” The meaning of this refers to the three nets of Belial about which Levi, the son of Jacob, has said that he [Belial] uses them to ensnare Israel and he gives them the appearance of three types of righteousness; the first is fornication, the second is riches, and the third is defiling the sanctuary. Whoever escapes one of these nets falls into the next, and whoever escapes that net falls into the next.[44]

The Damascus Document here mentions—doubtless on the backdrop of the older Testament of Levi[45] —three main sins, namely, fornication, riches, and profanation of the Holy, whereas the Book of Jubilees (7:20f.) names fornication, impurity and injustice as the three main sins. That the two triads are related cannot be doubted; it is only that the list in the Damascus document has become more “Essenic.” Fornication remains, but instead of speaking in general about impurity and injustice, the Damascus Document speaks of impurity of Satan (Belial) and of riches.

It is known that the “poor in spirit,” the Essenes, saw in riches a gate that leads to sin, and considered the contemporary devil in Jerusalem as unclean. If we compare the three Noahide prohibitions of the Book of Jubilees with the rabbinic and early Christian triads, we notice the following: the two triads agree not only in respect to fornication, but also in that they both relate to Noahides, that is, non-Jews. However, in contrast to the triad of the book of Jubilees (and the related triad in the Damascus Document), the rabbinic and early Christian triads list idolatry, murder and fornication as the three major sins. And it is precisely this latter triad that also is included in the normative form of the seven Noahides commandments, in the decision of Lydda, and in the early church’s list of mortal sins. These same three serious trespasses are the ones forbidden in the extra-canonical text of the Apostolic Decree.

From what we have seen in the Book of Jubilees (and in the Damascus Document), it is obvious that there existed three Noahide prohibitions from the beginning. This supports our assumption that the original Noahide commandments named only the three mortal sins and that the apostolic church simply applied these to the Noahide God-fearers who had come to faith in Christ. In support of our argument is a generally known fact that is also decisive, that is, the seven Noahide commandments that are now binding in Judaism, are first mentioned only after the Hadrianic persecution, that is, from the second half of the second century.

It is therefore not an accident that the contents of the Apostolic Decree were at that time identical with the Noahide commandments. It is very noteworthy that in both cases a similar tendency was at work, a tendency that was responsible for the present usual forms both of the Noahide commandments and of the Apostolic Decree. In both cases there was a tendency to enhance the basic universally human ethical principles by means of additional ritual requirements for Gentile God-fearers who were not ritually bound. Such requirements for those who already lived under the law were superfluous.

For the Apostolic Decree, taken formally, the change was simple: one need only add the word “strangled.”[46] Blood is thereby not understood as shedding of blood, i.e., murder, but as the prohibition of eating blood. This shows that the simple change in the text is not to be explained primarily as a matter of literary-critical considerations, but that this other version, the canonical text, is preserving an actual practice that set in within certain circles of the ancient church. There is no lack of evidence that there were Christians who observed the eating regulations of the canonical Apostolic Decree. We can even assume that the Christians who were the teachers of Mohammed were followers of this “halachic” tradition, a tradition that we know from the canonical text of the Apostolic Council. Otherwise, it would be hard to explain the similarity of the verses in the Koran about eating meat with the usual form of the Apostolic Decree.[47]

We will now seek to show that the halachic approach of the canonical Apostolic Decree is based on the Jewish regulations for Noahides. However, we must not forget that in the time of the Church Fathers the extra-canonical form of the Apostolic Decree did not exist off in some hidden corner. The most important of the Church Fathers knew it and used it.

From rabbinic sources it is easy to see that there was a tendency not to be restricted just to the seven Noahide commandments. Various rabbis wanted to impose additional rules on the God-fearers from among the nations. Some even went so far as to propose thirty Noahide commandments.[48] Naturally, one can ask whether the additional suggested regulations were actually so intended, i.e., as a further burden—though well-meant—to be laid on the Gentiles, or whether at least part of this list of extra-canonical Noahide commandments simply came out of the period before the seven Noahide commandments were fixed in their normative form. The usual form of the Apostolic Decree demonstrates that the second option is the correct one, and points to the fact that these earlier, non-normative Noahide rules were in fact observed by some of the God-fearers. This is the only way one can explain how the prohibitions of blood and the strangled parallels show up precisely in the Jewish “extra-canonical” forms of the commandments.[49] As to the meaning of “things strangled” in the canonical formulation of the Apostolic Decree, one needs to consult the old church fathers because they still observed this regulation.[50] Origen names as strangled any meat from which the blood had not been extracted. John Chrysostom defines it as “meat with the blood of the soul.” [51] He points to Gen. 9:4: “the flesh in its soul, its blood, you shall not eat.”

What is important is that Judaism used exactly the same verse to draw conclusions about the prohibition of eating morsels of the living. Augustine (354-430 C.E.), referring to the matter of strangulation, asserts that Gentile Christians of his day no longer felt bound to abstain from eating the meat of a bird from which its blood had not been drained, or a hare killed by a blow to the neck (without a bleeding wound), evidence that such abstention had been practiced previously by Gentile Christians. [52] What was meant in this matter was that “the meat of such animals that were neither slaughtered nor shot, but killed in some external way without the spilling of blood, so that their blood—without any wound through which it could bleed—was trapped in them.”[53] In the most important text[54] of the tannaic discussion of the Noahide commandments we read:

If one [a non-Jew] strangles and eats a bird that is smaller than an olive, he is allowed to do it. R. Hananiah ben Gamaliel[55] said: “The non-Jew also is prohibited from eating the blood of a living animal.” (t. Avod. Zar. 8:4-8 [p. 473f.])

There existed, therefore, the opinion that not only was it forbidden for a God-fearer from among the Gentiles to eat a piece of a living animal, but that this God-fearer was also not allowed to eat the blood of a living animal. As one can deduce from the canonical Apostolic Decree, this was not just a matter of learned reflection by a rabbinic authority, rather in ancient times there really were God-fearers who actually did abstain from the blood of animals.

The rabbinic sources that speak about the prohibitions of strangulation and blood for Noahides seem to show that both variants of the Apostolic Decree, i.e., both the extra-canonical and the canonical, are nothing other than variants of the Jewish regulations for non-Jews, before these regulations stabilized into the customary seven Noahide commandments. How could it have been otherwise? Once Gentiles, too, began coming to faith in the Messiah Jesus, it was natural to apply the Noahide commandments to them. At first, according to the “extra-canonical” text, they were required to follow the oldest form of the Noahide commandments, that is, abstaining from the three central sins: idolatry, fornication and bloodshed. Later the text was adapted to a second form of the Noahide commandments, one probably practiced by Christians native to another locale, the commandments that Jews of that local expected of God-fearing Gentiles. It was this second form that eventually became the dominant textual variant.

Let us take a closer look at the earlier stages of the present seven Noahide commandments. As has been demonstrated, there were only three such stages. The first stage consisted of the prohibition of the three main sins. The second stage involved the five basic principles without which the maintenance of human social order is unthinkable. The third stage was the six Adamic commandments. [56] At the end of this development stand the customary seven Noahide commandments.

We do not want to argue that this is a matter of a strict historical development; we would rather speak in terms of the development of a principle. Also when considered chronologically, these four systems of expressing the basic principles existed contemporaneously. To what extent each of the four formulations were not more than ideologically learned constructions, or to what extent they also had practical applications, is difficult for us to discern today. But one should not forget that both practice-oriented regulations and also “philosophical” principles of justice were meaningful, and not only in Judaism. In any case, it is certain that at least the first and the last stages did function as halachically concrete regulations. As to the primarily halachic meaning of the seven Noahide commandments, we need not elaborate.

As to the first stage, we have concluded that these original three prohibitions required by the Jewish religion system, were also the ones required of non-Jews. The immutable prohibitions against idolatry, fornication and bloodshed (i.e., murder) were adopted by the church in the course of the second century. (Whether or not the five basic principles and the six Adamic commandments actually influenced the behavior of people we cannot know.)

Perhaps the developmental history of the five basic principles, without which the maintenance of human social order would be unthinkable, is the most interesting.[57] Added to the three prime sins are the sins of theft[58] and blasphemy.

“My judgments” [Lev. 18:4], these are the words of the Torah, which, if they had not been written, would have had to be written and added. They are the following[59] : theft, fornication, idolatry, blasphemy and bloodshed. Had these not been written, they would have had to be written and added.

Afterwards, more such regulations of ritual nature were added against which objections were raised both by human reasoning and also by the Gentiles. Five of the customary Noahide commandments are mentioned here as being natural laws that can be derived from human and humanitarian necessity. Perhaps it is no accident that these five ordinances are negative rather than positive commandments. These five natural laws are also an extension of the three major sins. One could perhaps surmise that the five basic laws are a pure invention of the rabbis that came about by simply excluding two of the seven Noahide commandments. This is not the case, because these same five serious sins can be found in an entirely different kind of Jewish source, the so-called Didache.[60] It has earlier been noted that Didache 3:1-6 is an independent unit which the Jewish writer of this tractate has adapted to the context. The unit belongs to a genre already mentioned. Other instances of this genre are the seven Noahide commandments and their earlier stages, as well as the first part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17-48). As we will see, Didache 3:1-6 is related to both the Noahide commandments and also to the Sermon on the Mount. But before we demonstrate this, we will attempt a reconstruction of the unit as it may have been worded before it was adapted by the composer of the Jewish source of the Didache[61] :

3:1 My child, flee from every evil thing and what resembles it.

3:2 Don’t be prone to anger, because anger leads to murder.

3:3 Don’t be lustful, because lust leads to fornication.

3:4 Don’t be a bird watcher, because bird watching leads to idolatry.

3:5 Don’t be a liar, because lying leads to theft.

3:6 Don’t be a complainer, because complaining leads to blasphemy.[62]

The relatedness between the background of Didache 3:1-6 and the first part of the Sermon on the Mount cannot be doubted. The warning against evil and all that is similar to it (Did. 3:1) corresponds to the admonition of Jesus to attend to the least of the commandments as well as the most important (Matt. 5:17-20). That anger leads to murder is not something we learn only in Didache 3:2, but also in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:21-22). We learn in Didache 3:3 that lustful cravings lead to fornication; the same is said in Matt. 5:27-28. Additionally, both in the Sermon on the Mount and in Didache we find the same approach as in the general introductory warning to the sixth and seventh commandments in the Decalogue, in fact, the same method of movement from “light” to “heavy.” The relationship between the Didache and the first part of the Sermon on the Mount can be said to be firmly established.

It is important to note that in Didache 3:1-6, fornication, idolatry, theft and blasphemy are listed as the heavy sins. About this last heavy sin, Wengst rightly commented: “When murmuring leads to blasphemy, murmuring is hereby presented as quarreling with destiny, though it has been sent by God. Whoever, then, complains against his destiny stands in constant danger of blaspheming God.” [63] But the most noteworthy thing about the heavy sins mentioned in Didache 3:1-6 is that they are identical with the list of the five central sins in older rabbinic sources (see Sifra on Lev. 18:4, and b. Yoma 67b), namely, theft, fornication, idolatry, blasphemy and murder (lit., shedding of blood). One must not forget that these are five of the seven Noahide commandments.[64]

Before indicating the importance of this section of Didache for the chronology of the history of the Noahide commandments, let us take a closer look at one of the heavy sins, the sin of blasphemy against God; it is found in the Didache, in rabbinic teaching, and in the Noahide commandments.[65] This fits very well with the parenthetical section of the Didache, since it, as well as the entire Jewish source, is meant primarily for Jews—and so the mention of blasphemy is understandable. Surely this source was also meant for pious God-fearing non-Jews, and, therefore, could have been edited and expanded by a very early Christian of Gentile background; it arose from the teaching of the twelve apostles. The distant possibility did exist that a pious non-Jewish, God-fearer might blaspheme God in a weak moment. But the general Jewish view at the time was that a non-Jew was not obligated to believe specifically in the God of Israel—he was only to avoid idolatrous worship. The prohibition of blasphemy against God is easy then to understand as a warning to Jews against a really terrible sin, but what is the prohibition against the blasphemy of God doing among the ordinances that are binding on all mankind? It is not difficult to suppose that a universalistic definition of Judaism involved a binding formulation of the prohibition of blasphemy as applying to all of mankind. However this may be, the prohibition against blasphemy does show up among the universalistic Noahide commandments as representative of the sin of atheism, which throughout all antiquity was considered criminal. Plutarch (De Iside et osiride, ch. 23) says that faith is implanted in nearly all people at birth. According to Gen. 20:11, Abraham excuses himself before Abimelech for passing off his wife as his sister: “I thought that there is no fear of God in this place, and therefore you might kill me because of my wife.”

In the Septuagint the word for “fear of God” in this passage is translated as theosebeia, which means reverence for God, piety or religion.[66] The idea is that if one is at a place where there is no religion, in that place life is not secure. In a Midrash on this verse, we read:

Fear of God is a great thing, because as regards anyone who fears Heaven (i.e., God), it can be assumed that he does not sin, but in contrast, as regards anyone who has no fear of God, it can be assumed that there is no sin from which he will desist. [67]

It seems, then, that the general rejection of irreligiosity makes it plausible that the prohibition of blasphemy against God was meant also to be applied to non-Jews.

Now we return to the five basic sins enumerated in the rabbinic dictum quoted above and in the Didache. The appearance of the same catalog of sins both in Jewish sources and in the Didache demonstrates that this list of the five basic sins did not come to life as some kind of learned reduction of the seven Noahide commandments. The reason is that these five, “heavy” sins are found in a completely different context in the Didache, and they serve a completely different function there than they do in the rabbinic dictum quoted above and in the Noahide commandments. The dating of the lists therefore depends on the dating of the early Christian Didache. The final form of this document came into existence before the end of the first century, but the Jewish source is older than the Didache. We tend toward the assumption that Didache 3:1-6 was an independent unit and was taken over by the author of the Jewish source. It would seem advisable to set the time of origin of this passage as not later than 50 C.E. This leads to the conclusion that the five commandments’ composition took place at the same time the apostolic church was applying the three prohibitions of the Apostolic Decree to Christians of Gentile origin. The second stage of the Noahide commandments’ existence, then, most likely was at the time when the Noahide commandments’ early form was still authoritative for the relationship of non-Jews to Judaism.

We have attempted to demonstrate that the list of the five basic commandments is not a matter of some historico-cultural theory of development from Adam to Noah. To what extent the six Adamic commandments arose independently of the seven Noahide commandments is very difficult to determine.

How many obligations were laid [by God] on Adam, the first human? The sages have taught: “Adam was required to observe six prohibitions: idolatry, blasphemy, justice, bloodshed, fornication and theft.” (Deut. Rab. 2:17, on Deut. 4:41)

In contrast to the seven Noahide commandments, the eating of a limb of a living animal is lacking, and in comparison with the list of the five basic ordinances, justice has been added. May we assume that justice, in contrast to all the prohibitions, is to be considered a positive commandment? That is not at all sure. The universal necessity of having some structured system of justice is basically there to hinder criminal capriciousness in dealing with people’s rights. Thus, the command to respect justice in the Adamic and Noahide versions of the commandments is also to be understood primarily as a negative commandment.

To the six Adamic commandments the descendants of Noah received a seventh, namely, the prohibition against eating a limb of a living animal. Biblically considered, this prohibition was senseless before the Flood, since according to God’s will Adam lived as a vegetarian. Noahides were allowed meat, but with limitations. There were limitations also for the non-Jews, but they were not adopted in the “canonical” form of the seven Noahide commandments. As we have attempted to demonstrate, it is precisely the ritual food laws of the secondary form of the Apostolic Decree that go back to two extra-canonical Jewish restrictions. The original form of the Apostolic Decree was purely ethical and was identical with the three Mosaic obligations for non-Jews, i.e., with the original (three) Noahide commandments.

 This progressive ritualization needs a short explanation. Neither the original, purely ethical form nor the two final “ritualized” forms are difficult to explain. The Noahide commandments and the closely related Apostolic Decree go back to formulations of the basic ideas of Judaism. The content of such summaries is ethical and universal. These summaries are by their nature intended as generally applicable and aimed at all mankind, also the non-Jews. That is how they could be considered as binding for non-Jews.

But is the purely ethical enough for the natural law of mankind? The five basic ordinances already added to the primary sins both the prohibitions of theft and blasphemy, and the six Adamic commandments added the obligation of justice. Judaism—whose self-definition involves being bound by rituals—can manage with purely ethical definitions of basic principles. But does that mean that non-Jews should live with no ritual obligations whatsoever? This is why a moral-ritualistic obligation appears amid the Noahide commandments, that is, the prohibition against eating the limb of a living animal. There were other practical suggestions in this direction, and two of these prohibitions were adopted in the canonical text of the Apostolic Decree.

We started out to show that the non-canonical form of the Apostolic Decree was the original, and that the original content of the Noahide commandments was the prohibition of the three sins of idolatry, murder and fornication.[68] The Apostolic Decree sharpened the prohibition of idolatry and expressly forbid the eating of meat offered to idols. A proof for the importance in Judaism of the three major prohibitions is the decision of Lydda, according to which no circumstance would justify a Jew’s committing these three sins. This decision also was taken over by the young church into its discipline in the course of the second century. We also have tried to show that the original prohibition of these three central sins developed into the seven Noahide commandments. The canonical Apostolic Decree also developed out of Jewish premises. It appears to us that the results of our investigation not only have meaningful implications for the history of early Christendom, but they also cast light on the relationship between early Judaism and Christianity.



Title page of Toland's book, Nazarenus: Or, Jewish, Gentile, and Mahometan Christianity.
Title page of Toland’s book, Nazarenus: Or, Jewish, Gentile, and Mahometan Christianity.

At the beginning of this essay, we referred to the words of Moses Mendelssohn. He was of the opinion that, according to New Testament teaching, a Jew, even if a believer in the Messiah, was still obligated to keep the Jewish ordinances. In contrast, a Christian of Gentile background, in accordance with Jewish halachah, is bound by the Noahide commandments. A similar view had been reached earlier by the English deist, John Toland (1670-1722) in his book, “Nazarenus.”[69] Unfortunately, this important book did not receive sufficient recognition. We could find no evidence that Toland’s work was known to scholars of the German Enlightenment. We must suppose that Mendelssohn, too, had no knowledge of Toland’s thinking.

Toland viewed the twin streams of the early church—the Torah-keeping Jewish Christians and the non-Jewish Christians, as the “original plan of Christianity” from which it would be damaging to deviate. That is why he says, similarly to the later Mendelssohn, that: “It follows indeed that the Jews, whether becoming Christians or not, are forever bound to the Law of Moses, as not limited; and he that thinks they were absolved from the observation of it by Jesus, or that it is a fault in them still to adhere to it, does err not knowing the Scriptures” (Introduction, VI).

Toland held the view that Jewish Christians were forever obligated to observe the Law of Moses, while the Christians of Gentile background, who lived among them, needed only to observe the Noahide commandments, abstaining from eating blood and making offerings to idols.[70] He, of course, knew only the “canonical” text of the Apostolic Decree; however, he tended to accept the hypothesis of a researcher from the century before who had surmised that the mention of the strangled offerings was a secondary interpolation, since it was not mentioned by many of the old church fathers.[71] Resch reached the same conclusion. This subject is worthy of further investigation.

  • [1] The translator would like to thank Horst Krüger, Christina Krüger, and especially Dr. Guido Baltes, for their invaluable assistance in preparing this translation.
  • [2] This article’s translation to English was made possible through the generous financial assistance of Paul, Clarice and Jeffery Steen, the loving father, mother and brother of Gregory. Jerusalem Perspective wishes to thank Dr. Volker Hampel and Neukirchener Verlag (http://www.neukirchener-verlagsgesellschaft.de) for permission to publish this article in English.
  • [3] David Flusser, “Lavater and Nathan, the Wise,” in Bemerkungen eines Juden zur christlichen Theologie (1984): 82-93.
  • [4] M. Mendelssohn, Schriften zum Judentum (1930), 1:303.
  • [5] Ibid., 10-11.
  • [6] “Fornication” would be a more accurate translation.
  • [7] Regarding the Noahide commandments, see E. Schürer, Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes (1909; reprint 1970), 2:178f.; H. L. Strack and P. Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament (1926), 3:36-38; A. Lichenstein, The Seven Laws of Noah (1981). The most important reference is t. Avod. Zar. 8:4-6 (473, 12-25). See also Gen. Rab. 17.17 (on Gen. 2:17; ed. Theodor-Albeck, 149-151), and notes; Gen. Rab. 34.8 (on Gen. 8:19 (ed. Theodor-Albeck, 316-17).
  • [8] D. Flusser, “Die Christenheit nach dem Apostelkonzil,” in Antijudaismus im Neuen Testament: Exegetische und systematische Beiträge (eds. W. P. Eckert, N. P. Levinson and M. Stöhr; 1967), 60-81.
  • [9] G. Resch, “Das Aposteldekret nach seiner ausserkanonischen Textgestalt untersucht,” in Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur, NTF (1905), 3:1-179.
  • [10] A. Diehle, Die Goldene Regel (1962), 107.
  • [11] H. Sahlin, “Die drei Kardinalsünden und das Neue Testament,” Studia Theologica 20.1 (1970): 93-112, esp. 109. Regarding the three central sins, see also L. Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews (1947), 5:292, n. 147; cf. 6:388, n. 16.
  • [12] The three Jewish researchers are: L. Venetianer, Die Beschlüsse zu Lydda und das Aposteldekret zu Jerusalem, Festschrift für A. Schwarz (1917), 417-19; M. Guttmann, Das Judentum und sein Umwelt (1917), 118; and G. Alon, “The Halachah in the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” in Studies in Jewish History (1978), 1:274-94 (Hebrew), published previously in Tarbiz 11 (1939-1940).
  • [13] See Billerbeck, 1:221-24.
  • [14] G. Alon, op. cit., 279, n. 27.
  • [15] Cf. D. Flusser, “Die Tora in der Bergpredigt,” in Heinz Kremers (ed.), Juden und Christen lesen dieselbe Bibel (Duisburger Hochschulbeitraege 2) (1977), 102-113. In rabbinic parlance, one can speak of “great” and “small” commandments (Billerbeck, 1:903f.).
  • [16] Cf. D. Flusser, “The Ten Commandments and the New Testament,” in The Ten Commandments (ed. Ben-Zion Segal; 1985), 118-187 (Hebrew); see also G. Alon, op. cit., 278, and Y. Amir, “Die Zehn Gebote bei Philon von Alexandrien,” in ibid., Die hellenistische Gestalt des Judentums bei Philon von Alexandrien (1983), 131-63. On p. 135 Amir refers to a midrash: “Just like in the ocean there are little waves between two huge waves, so likewise between every pair of the ten commandments there are the individual prescriptions and regulations of the Torah” (j. Shek. 1, 9, 60d). A similar notion is found in the case of Hananiah, the nephew of Yehoshua: see W. Bacher, Die Aggada der Tannaiten (1903), 1:388. Similar is Gen. Rab. 8, line 16 (ed. Ch. Albeck; 1940), and see the note to that line. Targum Jonathan to Exod. 24:12 reads: “I will give you stone tablets on which the words of the Torah are explained, and the 613 commandments.”
  • [17] Cf. D. Flusser, “Neue Sensibilität im Judentum und die christliche Botschaft,” in ibid., Bemerkungen eines Juden zur christlichen Theologie (1984), 35-53 (see also n. 40).
  • [18] Ibid., 166-69.
  • [19] D. Flusser, op. cit. (see n. 16), 175-77.
  • [20] The most recent annotated editions of the Didache are: K. Wengst, Schriften des Urchristentums (1984), 3-100, and La doctrine des Douze Apotres (Didache), SC 248 (eds. W. Rordorf and A. Tuillier; 1978); there (203-226) one finds a critical edition of the Jewish sources of the text. Regarding these Jewish sources, see also D. Flusser, “The Two Ways,” in Jewish Sources in Early Christianity (1982), 235-252 (Hebrew). Regarding Philo, see p. 239 in that article. For our purposes, an important list of sins can be found in Philo in his discussion of the individual laws (Spec. Laws 2, 13): “theft, temple robbery, addiction, adultery, bodily injury, murder or like scandalous deeds.” The list is given in the context of the second half of the Decalogue, but more important is the similarity with the description of a disobedient Jew in Rom. 2:21-22: “You who instruct others, do you learn nothing yourself? You who preach that one ought not steal, do you steal? You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idolatry, do you rob your temple?”
  • [21] The seven Noahide commandments include yet a third commandment from the second half of the Decalogue, namely, the prohibition of robbery (there, as a fifth commandment). The Hebrew word for “robbery” (as well as the verb “to rob”) gained the meaning of “theft.” The old biblical word for robbery was not used any more in the spoken language. In the Noahide commandments, then, we see that the sixth, seventh and eighth commandments of the Decalogue are preserved. But in the “canonical” form of the Apostolic Decree, by contrast, all the prohibitions of the second half of the Decalogue have disappeared. From bloodshed, we have moved to the eating of blood, and the prohibition of meat offered to idols is shifted to the first half of the Decalogue. On the text of the Apostolic Decree see also B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (1971), 429-35. For more recent literature see n. 12, and M. Simon, The Apostolic Decree and Its Setting in the Ancient Church, BJRL 52 (1969-1970), 437-60, and F. Siegert, Gottesfuerchtige und Sympatisanten, JSJ (1973), 109-164.
  • [22] The Apostolic Decree is mentioned in Acts three times: Acts 15:19-20; 28-29; 21:25. In the first formulation, Gentiles are admonished to avoid the “pollutions of idols.” This corresponds to the “contamination by idolatry” referred to in m. Shab. 9:1. In the second and third formulations, meat offered to idols is mentioned specifically.
  • [23] From G. Resch, op. cit., 15-17, one can learn that sometimes the Golden Rule was in fact attached to the canonical form of the Apostolic Decree. One cannot, however, therefore automatically conclude that the Golden Rule belongs to the Apostolic Decree; in these cases, we may be dealing with a mixed textual form.
  • [24] Who was the first to formulate the western form cannot be determined. W. Bacher (op. cit., vol. 2, 336) has mentioned a saying from the School of Ishmael (b. Ber. 19a, Tractate Tehilim on Ps 125, at the end): “Uttering slander is as great a sin as the three capital sins” (idolatry, murder and fornication). See also j. Peah 15d; Midrash ha-Gadol to Gen. 49:9 (see notes in M. Margulies edition, 664). S. Schechter also discusses the three capital sins in Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1961), 205-207 and 222-27 (see esp., 222). See n. 31 below.
  • [25] In m. Avot (the Sayings of the Fathers) these commandments are scarcely mentioned.
  • [26] W. Bacher, op. cit., vol. 1, 263f.
  • [27] Ibid., vol. 4, 278.
  • [28] Regarding the three mortal sins in the ancient church, see among others W. H. C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (1965), 56, 75, 374, 378. Although no friend of the Jews, Frend did recognize the Jewish parallels to the early Christian “mortal” sins. Cf. also A. Harnack, Lehrbuch der Dogmensgeschichte (1913), 1:439-44, and K. Rahner, Schriften zur Theologie, vol. XI: “Fruehe Bussgeschichte” (1973), esp. 91, 183 189. Especially important is the decision of the rigoristic Synod of Elvira (Spain, 306), which begins as follows: “Qui post idoli idolaturus accesserit et fecerit quo est crimen capitale, quia est summi sceleris, placuit nec infine eum communionem accipere. Flamines, qui post fidem lavacri et regenerationis sacrificaverunt, eo quod geminaverint scelera accedente nomicidio vel triplicaverint facinus cohaerente moechia, placuit eos nec in finem accipere communionem” (Acta et symbola conciliorum, ed. E. J. Jonkers, Textus minores, vol. XIX, [1954], 5). One sees here how similar is the position taken regarding the three mortal sins to the decision of Lydda.
  • [29] Cf. A. Blaise, Dictionnaire latino francais des autors chretiens (1954), 130.
  • [30] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4:27. Perhaps the reference to the three mortal sins can be placed even earlier. At the end of the Revelation of John (Rev. 22:15) it is said: “Outside are the dogs, the poisoners, the fornicators, the murderers, and the idolaters and all those who love and do lies”; similarly also in Rev. 21:8. This implies the application of a measure of discipline for preventing the acceptance of such sinners into the congregation and the expulsion of such when discovered. H. Kraft, Die Offenbarung Johannes (1974), 279f., is on the right track.
  • [31] Regarding Tertullian, see B. Altaner and A. Stuiber, Patrologie (1966), 189; regarding Hippolytus, see loc. cit., 166. Hippolytus writes against Pope Callistus (217-222) in Refutation of All Heresies 9:11-13. Tertullian writes about the mortal sins in De pudicitia, probably his last work. When he wrote about the “pontifex maximus, quod est episcopus episcoporum” who was lax in church discipline, it is argued by some that he did not mean, as Hippolytus did, Pope Callistus. See the bibliography in Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, (ed. F. L. Cross; 1974), 221, s.v. “Callistus.” The three mortal sins are mentioned by Hippolytus in a surviving fragment of his commentary on Proverbs (GCS 1:163f.).
  • [32] Tertullian, De pudicitia, ch. 12; similarly also Augustine (see G. Resch, op. cit., 12, n. 21).
  • [33] See also G. Resch, op. cit., 21f.41 and 37, n. 1.
  • [34] Cf. W. Bousset, Die Offenbarung Johannis (1906; repr. 1966), 221.
  • [35] Cf. also H. Conzelmann, Der erste Brief an die Korinther (1969), 162-64. Also in Did. 6:2-3 the non-Jews are warned against meat offered to idols.
  • [36] t. Sot. 6:6 on Esau; Gen. Rab. 63.12 (on Gen. 25:29; ed. Theodor-Albeck, 694-95).
  • [37] t. Sanh. 13:8. See the Aramaic Targums on Gen. 13:13.
  • [38] S. Eli. Rab. 13 (ed. M. Friedmann, p. 61).
  • [39] See n. 25.
  • [40] Sifra to Lev. 16:16 and b. Shevi. 7b.
  • [41] This is not the place to discuss whether the concept of natural law existed in ancient Judaism, however, this issue has been discussed. See I. Heinemann, Die Lehre vom ungeschriebenen Gesetz im juedischen Schrifttum, HUCA 4 (1921), 149-171 and H. A. Wolfson, Philo (1948), 2:180-191. It is perhaps preferable to speak of the Jewish categories of injustice and foundational principles, which include, as we will see, the Noahide commandments, both in their early stages as well as in their final form.
  • [42] On pp. 39-40 of “Neue Sensibilität im Judentum und die christliche Botschaft,” quoted above (n. 18), D. Flusser has shown that the Book of Jubilees is the earliest witness for the double command of love.
  • [43] Cf. H. Kosmala, “The Three Nets of Belial,” ASTI 4 (1965): 91-113.
  • [44] This explanation is meant to paraphrase Isa. 24:18.
  • [45] Cf. J. Becker, Die Testamente der zwoelf Patriachen [T. 12 Patr.], JSHRZ 3 (1974), 227. See the translation on pp. 139-152.
  • [46] Porneia (fornication) is missing in some manuscripts of Acts 15:20, 29, but not of Acts 21:25! See also M. Simon, op. cit., 430f.
  • [47] The Koran 2:168: “He (Allah) has forbidden for you only carrion and blood and pork and whatever has been offered to another than Allah,” i.e., meat offered to idols. The same statement is found in 6:145 and 16:115f. In 5:4 the Islamic eating regulations are extended: “Forbidden to you are carrion, blood, pork and whatever has been offered to another than Allah (by slaughtering); the strangled, the slain, what has died by falling or by being gored, a carcass of an animal killed by wild beasts (except for what you purify), and what has been slaughtered on (idol) stones” [Ronning’s English trans. of M. Henig’s German translation of 1966]. Cf. also G. Resch, op. cit., 28f.
  • [48] Cf. A. Sperbaum, “The Thirty Noahide Commandments of Rav Samuel ben Hofni,” Sinai 72 (1973): 205-221 (Hebrew); A. Sperbaum, The Biblical Commentary of Rav Samuel ben Hofni Gaon (1978), 52-58 (Hebrew).
  • [49] It seems to us that variations in respect to what belongs in the Noahide commandments does not have much to do with the differences between the Pauline and the Petrine views of Christian legal requirements. It can be assumed that at the time the entire church accepted the Apostolic Decree with its three central sins as authoritatively binding. The difference is that Peter considered the Apostolic Decree as the minimum required, and Paul as the maximum. Peter and his followers represented the general Jewish opinion of the time, which was that the Noahide commandments were binding on God-fearers, but that it was up to them to willingly assume more of the standard Jewish practices. See also D. Flusser, op. cit. (n. 9).
  • [50] Cf. Resch, op. cit., 23-26.
  • [51] Hom. Gen. 27.
  • [52] Augustine, Faust. 32.13.
  • [53] G. Resch, op. cit., 24.
  • [54] The sentence about strangulation in b. Hull. 102b is misunderstood.
  • [55] Billerbeck (II, 738) notes the opinion of R. Hananiah ben Gamaliel preserved in b. Sanh. 59a. R. Hananiah interprets Gen. 9:4 as follows: “Its blood, while it is still living, you shall not eat.”
  • [56] In addition to the three central sins, the additional three stages are discussed in Billerbeck III, 36-38.
  • [57] The text is found in Sifra to Lev. 18:4 (ed. Weiss, 86a), and in b. Yoma 67b.
  • [58] This also includes theft (see n. 22 above).
  • [59] This is the correct reading.
  • [60] For bibliography see n. 21. We were alerted to the importance of this passage by Malcolm Lowe.
  • [61] In the unit Did. 3:2-6, each of the verses is composed of two halves. We consider the first half of each verse to be the original. For example, in the first half of Did. 3:4 reference is made to “bird watcher” (augur; soothsayer; diviner of omens); in the second half, to “enchanter,” “astrologer” and “magician.” We have retained “bird watcher,” although we cannot be sure of exactly what pagan superstition we are being warned. In the first half of Did. 3:3, “fornication” is mentioned; in the second half, “adultery.” We have retained “fornication” in our reconstruction; nevertheless, “adultery” appears to be the original reading since it appears in the Decalogue and also in Matt. 5:27-28.
  • [62] On the basis of this unit in the Didache (3:1-6) one recognizes once again how complex are the relationships between the various homilies in ancient Judaism and early Christianity. We will compare the reconstruction of the unit, which we have just made, with the list in 1 Cor. 10:5-11 of the sins of Israel in the wilderness, for the sake of which they had to remain in the wilderness. “These things are examples for us. They happened so that we will not lust after evil the way that they lusted. Don’t be idolaters like some of them…Let us not commit fornication like some of them did fornicate…Don’t complain like some of them complained…”

    The similarities:

    1 Cor. 10:6 lustful Didache 3:3 lust
    1 Cor. 10:7 idolaters Didache 3:4 idolatry
    1 Cor. 10:8 fornicators Didache 3:3 fornication
    1 Cor. 10:10 complainers Didache 3:6 complaining

    In the four parallel expressions we find two “light” sins (lust and complaining) and two “heavy” sins (idolatry and fornication).

  • [63] Cf. K. Wengst, op. cit., 71, n. 19.
  • [64] A very interesting historico-spiritual investigation of the Noahide commandments can be found at the beginning of the Introduction to Tractate Berachot in the Babylonian Talmud, which was composed by Nissim Gaon from Kairuan, North Africa (ca. 990-1062). Regarding the five basic principles, see also E. E. Urbach, The Sages (1979), 320f.
  • [65] Regarding the prohibition of blasphemy for non-Jews, see b. Sanh. 56a. The Talmud deduces this Noahide prohibition from Lev. 24:16; the story tells of a blasphemer, whose father was Egyptian—only later did having a Jewish mother become decisive for whether one was Jewish—and this passage closes with these words: “Whether the person involved is a stranger or a native, if he blasphemes the Name [of the Lord], he shall be put to death.”
  • [66] Cf. W. Bauer, Griechisch-deutsches Woeterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments (1958), 708.
  • [67] Midrash ha-Gadol to Gen. 20:11 (M. Margulies edition, 330)
  • [68] That the original Noahide commandments were only three comes directly out of b. Sanh. 57a: “A Noahide is to be executed on the basis of three transgressions: fornication, bloodshed and blasphemy,” that is, he will not be executed for transgression of the other commandments.
  • [69] J. Toland, Nazarenus or Jewish, Gentile or Mahometan Christianity (1718). For the text of Toland’s work, see: https://archive.org/details/nazarenusorjewis00tola.
  • [70] Op. cit., 65 and 68.
  • [71] Ibid., 181. This scholar was Curcelleus. Toland, in n. 38, cites Curcelleus: “Sed merito nobis suspecta est, cum a multis Patribus non agnoscatur, immo tamquam supposita diserte reiiciatur” (Diatriba de esu snguinis, chapter 11, p. 131). The scholar was not aware that there were manuscripts of the New Testament in which the word “strangled” is missing.

The Surprise of Finding Anti-Semitism in the Heart of the Early Church Fathers

The other disease which my tongue is called to cure is the most difficult… And what is the disease? The festivals of the pitiful and miserable Jews which are soon approaching.

— Saint John Chrysostom (349-407)

The worldwide Church, individually and corporately, needs to consider apologizing to the Jewish people as a result of anti-Semitic remarks by the Early Church Fathers as evidenced in the fourth century works of Saint John Chrysostom called Λόγοι Κατὰ Ἰουδαίων (Discourse Against the Jews).[1] This article discusses the life of John Chrysostom and the style and themes of Λόγοι Κατὰ Ἰουδαίων, which identifies Chrysostom’s teachings as anti-Semitic. They are supported with examples of anti-Semitic remarks from all eight of Chrysostom’s discourses, or sermons. In conclusion, reasons are given as to why the Church needs to apologise for all anti-Semitic remarks, especially those of the Early Church Fathers, based on John Chrysostom’s example.

Detail from the tablet-icon "Three saints" depicting John Chrysostom (Russia, 16th century).
Detail from the tablet-icon “Three saints” depicting John Chrysostom (Russia, 16th century).

The early Church father, Saint John Chrysostom (349-407)[2] was known as “the most prominent doctor of the Greek Church and the greatest preacher ever heard in a Christian pulpit.”[3] He was born in Antioch to a Roman father and Christian Greek mother.[4] He studied under Libanius, the distinguished man of letters and professor in the chair of rhetoric at Antioch (314-393).[5] After leaving Libanius, Chrysostom fell under the influence of Meletios, the orthodox bishop of Antioch, and was baptised. In Sozomen’s history of Antioch,[6] he describes Chrysostom as a man “of noble birth and of exemplary life.” He notes that Chrysostom’s wonderful powers of eloquence and persuasion caused his teacher, Libanius the Syrian, to say that Chrysostom, “surpassed all the orators of the age” and that on his deathbed Libanius declared that John would have been his successor had he not converted to Christianity.[7]

After baptism, Chrysostom spent three years serving Meletios then went to the desert hills around Antioch as a monk for six years.[8] After returning, he was made deacon by Meletios, and then priest by Bishop Flavian early in 386.[9] Chrysostom’s influence is still recognised in the Church today. From a literary point of view, John Chrysostom was known as the “most prominent personality” among those from Antioch because of the effectiveness and the power of his oratory.[10] As a preacher and from a purely exegetical point of view, he used his rhetorical expertise to draw out from a text that which would educate, warn, or edify his listeners.[11] He was consecrated as Bishop of Constantinople in February 398.[12] This was the highest office in the Eastern Church, Constantinople having succeeded Rome as the capital of Christianity twelve years previously.[13] Chrysostom’s influence is still recognised in the Church today: modern scholars, such as Wilken, note that Chrysostom is considered the “greatest of the Christian Sophists,” termed the “Golden Mouth.”[14]

During 386, whilst Chrysostom was still a priest in Antioch, he delivered eight discourses against the Jews just before the time of the Jewish fasts and festivals in which Christians customarily took part.[15] Chrysostom was in the middle of a series of sermons against the Anomoeans and in his first discourse against the Jews, he explained that he was going to have to interrupt the sermon against the Anomoeans in order that he could concentrate on a more urgent disease, that of the Jews and their celebrations of the forthcoming fasts and festivals.[16]

Throughout the eight discourses, John Chrysostom styles his writing by using three metaphorical images to emphasise his points of view that he was the doctor and that Christians mixing with the Jews and attending their festivals were his patients; that he was the hunter and the Jews were hunted; that the Jews were the diseased and the Christians were the pure. All of these images are discussed to show how John Chrysostom used these metaphorical tools to attack the Jews and influence the minds of the Christians against them.

Throughout all the discourses, but particularly in the first and eighth discourses, John Chrysostom portrayed himself as a physician and the Christians who attended Jewish festivals and fasts were his patients:

The other disease which my tongue is called to cure is the most difficult, the disease which has been planted in the body of the assembly… And what is the disease? The festivals of the pitiful and miserable Jews which are soon approaching….[17]

But now the Jewish festivals are close by and at the very door, if I should fail to cure those who are sick with the Judaism disease, I am afraid that, because of their ill-suited association and deep ignorance, some Christians may partake in the Jews’ transgressions; once they have done so I fear my discourses on these transgressions will be in vain.[18]

For those who have not heard me today will fast with them [the Jews] and after accomplishing this sin, there is no purpose remaining to apply the remedy. I have hastened to anticipate this very thing. The physicians do this also. They first bring to a standstill those diseases that are most urgent and acute.[19]

John Chrysostom, as noted by Harkins, relies heavily on Isaiah Chapter 58 verses 3-5 for the basis of this anti-Semitism.[20] However, Chrysostom has failed to discern that the relevancy of his discourses should have been in accordance with the gospels of Jesus Christ. The Greek word for sickness or disease used by Chrysostom here[21] is used ten times in the Christian Gospels regarding Jesus’ ministry, none of which refer to the fasting undertaken by the Jews. The word refers to the healing of people’s ailments. Moreover, the majority to whom Jesus directed his ministry throughout the Gospels were all Jews, most of whom would have regularly fasted.[22] Jesus did not at any stage use the word with the same connotation or in the same textual context as John Chrysostom. Further, Jesus did not use the metaphor of disease in the same way that Wilken purports pagans and Christian rhetoricians did from Plato onwards, in that they used it to attack their opponents. For example, Christians used the metaphor of disease to advance their argument that one’s opponent was infected with error. Pagans like Julian, the Emperor, used it against the Christians.[23]

The next metaphor that Chrysostom used described himself as the hunter and the Jews as the hunted:

Wild animals are more tame and gentle so long as they live in the forest and are unpractised for an experience of battle against men. And whenever the hunters capture and lead the wild animals into the city, they shut them up in cages and stir them up to battle against beast-fighting gladiators. Then leaping upon their assault, the beasts are given a taste of flesh and a drink of blood, and after that they would not find it easy to keep far from the feast, but after a time they would run to the table with much longing.[24]

This has been my experience, too. Once I took up my fight against the Jews and rushed to meet their shameless assaults, “I destroyed their reasoning and every lofty thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and I brought their minds into captivity to the obedience of Christ.”[25] And after that I somehow acquired a stronger yearning to do battle against them.[26]

This style of argument is called the rhetoric of abuse.[27] Dressler points out that even though this statement is a truism, in that a captured beast does become more blood thirsty after tasting human flesh and blood, it is a very odd statement to make compared to “modern standards.”[28] If one takes this statement of Dressler’s further, one could see that “modern standards” could equate with “anti-Semitism,” and that in developing the metaphor, Chrysostom is being anti-Semitic in his arguments against the Jews.

In the same discourse, Chrysostom claimed that he had lost his voice and was weary:

And I think I am suffering now, such as if a soldier cut some of his adversaries up into pieces, and with much courage throws himself into the line of battle against his enemies, hews down many bodies to the ground and then having broken his sword, returns to his own ranks again with faintheartedness. But my suffering is worse. It is possible for a soldier, after breaking his sword, to snatch another from one of the bystanders and prove his courage, and eagerness for many victims; but one cannot take a voice from someone else.[29]

Further, the metaphor of the diseased and the pure involved not only a comparison of the inns of the day with the synagogues, but also of the Jews themselves and the Christian assemblies:

The inns are no more dishonoured than all of the business of a synagogue is. Simply, the synagogues are not only a lodging place of robbers and cheats, but also of demons, even the souls of the Jews themselves.[30]

Moreover, at the end of discourse seven, Chrysostom urged his congregation to act against the Jews, “Let the Jews learn how we feel.”[31] He then turned his invective against the Christians, “Let it also become known to those who side with the Jews, even though they pretend to be ranked with us.”[32] This was all purposed to stop any interaction between the Jews and the Christians so that “there will be no one hereafter who will dare to flee to them, and the body of the Church will be unsullied and pure.”[33]

The manner in which John Chrysostom penned all three metaphors reveals that anti-Semitism was clearly evident right throughout his style of thinking and writing.

Anti-Semitism is also evident in the four major themes of John Chrysostom’s discourses. Chrysostom used his influence over his audiences in order to encourage them not to mix with Jewish people or attend their fasts and festivals. The subject matter of these discourses was theological, but they also addressed such issues as Jewish lifestyles, Jewish practises and Jewish worship spaces. These four themes will now be discussed.

The primary theological purpose of John Chrysostom’s writings was to retrieve Christians whom he perceived as falling into the ways of Judaism. In discourse one, he opens the theological debate by saying:

Do not wonder if I called the Jews pitiful. For they are pitiful and wretched in this manner. When good things from heaven came into their hands, they [the good things] were rejected and pushed aside with much earnestness.[34]

Throughout the discourses, Chrysostom used this theme to emphasise his argument that one cannot intermingle with the Jewish people, whom he sees as the murderers of Christ, and then on Sundays, return to the Church, and partake of the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood represented in the bread and wine received at a Christian altar. For example, in discourse three, he quoted, “And that they ate meats offered to idols. You are not able to partake of the table of the Lord and of the table of demons.”[35] This quotation is a piece of scripture that has been taken out of context and would have caused unnecessary hostility and prejudice against the Jews. Chrysostom is quoting 1 Corinthians 10:21,[36] an exhortation by the Apostle Paul to the early Christians in Corinth regarding pagan worship and eating meat that had been sacrificed to demons and not to God. It is unrelated to the Jews. Further, Wilken contests that for Chrysostom, the central theological theme was the connection between Jerusalem being the only place where the Jews were instructed by God that they could have their Passover feasts and festivals based on Deuteronomy 16, verses 5-6:

You may not keep the Passover in any of your towns, which the Lord your God is giving you but at the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name, only there shall you offer the Passover sacrifice…[37]

Therefore, Chrysostom’s contention was that the festivals and feasts in Antioch were against God’s will because they were not occurring in Jerusalem.[38]

The discourses’ second theme revealed Chrysostom’s prejudice against Jewish religious practices. For example, in discourse four he stated:

This word is enough against those who are saying they are on our side, and are following the practises of the Jews and since I want to draw up my battle line against them,… the Jews fasting now holds the law in no honour and they are tramping down the commandments of God, because they are always doing the opposite to that which they know they should be doing.[39]

Relying on Jeremiah chapter 2 verse 5 in which passage the Israelites turn to idols,[40] Chrysostom furthers his argument that God had a dislike for and took no pleasure in the Jews’ sacrifices.[41] Kelly speaks out against Chrysostom’s battery of claims against the Jews that mainly focus on Old Testament texts in which God rebuked Israel and criticized its sacrificial system. Kelly points out that Chrysostom isolated these texts from their original, specific circumstances and referred to them as though they were a “general reference” for all occasions.[42]

Further, in discourse seven, Chrysostom actually asked his audience, whether they had ‘had enough of the battle against the Jews?’[43] It was necessary to keep going, he thought, because some feasts were still not over:

Their trumpets were more of an outrage than those in the theatres and the fasts of all drunkenness and revelry were more shameful; and now the tents are pitched among them, no better disposed than inns having harlots and flute players.[44]

Chrysostom, in discourse eight, asserted that, “the fasts of the Jews have gone, which were more shameful than all drunkenness.”[45] Wilken contends that in the fourth century, the illusion to drunkenness in a homily was a stock description in the orator’s handbooks.[46] Libanius, Chrysostom’s teacher, used “drunkenness” in his polemics against soldiers, Christians, and Christian Monks.[47] Chrysostom not only charged the Jews with “drunkenness,” but also others who had lapsed in morality.[48] Wilken suggests that Chrysostom’s listeners must have become tired of hearing this comparison but that Chrysostom must have considered it still to be useful as a vivid and dramatic way that his listeners could easily grasp and digest the content of his discourse.[49]

Jewish lifestyles were the third major theme through which John Chrysostom furthered his anti-Semitic remarks. In discourse one, discussing the dreams of Christians, he spoke against the Jews by stating that they were living:

for their bellies, gaping for things present, their condition no better than that of wild swine and goats, because of their violent conduct and their gluttonous excess… they know one thing, to be stuffed full and to be drunk with wine, to be destroyed and wounded by dancers and charioteers.[50]

In addition, Chrysostom spoke out against the men in his congregation for allowing their wives to attend the synagogue when they did not show the same diligence in attendance at church:

When the time calls for gathering at the assembly, you do not rouse your neglectful wives to come; but when the devil is calling them to the feast of trumpets, they readily hear and you do not restrain them but you allow them to look at those of ungodliness, be taken in by them and be dragged off into licentiousness. For both harlots and the feeble and all of the warrior chorus are accustomed to assembling there.[51]

Finally, an attack against Jewish worship spaces is also a major theme in John Chrysostom’s works. In discourse one, Chrysostom compared the synagogue to the temple of Apollo:

Tell me, where do demons dwell, is it not a place of ungodliness, even if no carved images stand there? And moreover, also they [the Jews] themselves are demons, is not the harm from that source the greater?[52]

In discussing their altars, he had this to say:

So the ungodliness for them [the Jews] and the Greeks are equal, but the deeds of deceit done by them [the Jews] are more grievous. For among them, stands an unseen altar of deceit, onto which neither sheep nor calves, but the souls of men are sacrificed.[53]

In addition, Chrysostom combined his argument against the men in his congregation, as previously mentioned, in his attack against the Jewish worship spaces:

And why do I speak of the immorality that happens there [in the synagogue]? Do you not fear that your wife may not come back from there after a demon has taken her? Did you not hear in my previous discourse the argument that clearly showed that demons dwell in the souls of the Jews themselves and in the places in which they gather.[54]

The major themes of John Chrysostom’s work, which were used to influence the minds and actions of his Christian Community, are anti-Semitic. Firstly, his rhetorical style of preaching, twisting and incorrectly interpreting biblical texts, and taking such texts out of their original context, supported his arguments against the Jews. Secondly, his preaching coerced his followers to think that Jewish customs are divorced from God’s teaching. Thirdly, his rhetoric of abuse coerced the minds of his followers against the Jews.

Therefore, the works of John Chrysostom were anti-Semitic both in the metaphorical style in which they were written as well as thematically. The worldwide Church, individual Christians and the Church corporate, needs to consider an apology to the Jewish people for such anti-Semitic remarks by the Early Church fathers for three reasons: firstly, the effect that the anti-Semitic remarks would have had on Chrysostom’s listeners and the wider church at the time; secondly, the effect which Chrysostom’s teachings against the Jews may still have on the Church today in regard to the teaching of preaching for clergy and laity; and thirdly, the effect of Chrysostom’s comments on the Jewish communities and individuals.

When considering how Chrysostom’s comments would have affected his audience, Le Bon, cited in Freud, noted that the most influential peculiarity of a group is the way that its members follows its leader.[55] This is particularly important in John Chrysostom’s case because the consequence of using metaphors such as “the hunter cutting his enemies into pieces” are an impetus for carrying out abuse, verbal and physical, against an enemy. This consequence is due, Freud asserts, to the natural development of a human being. A person who is being externally [of themselves] coerced to act or think in a particular way gradually internalises the coercion to a point where it becomes the internal reality of the person hearing the coercion.[56] Le Bon states that it does not matter who the individuals are in a group, or what their background, employment, morals, customs, and intelligence are; the fact that they have been transformed into a group gives them a collective mind which makes them feel, think and behave in a manner quite differently to that if they were acting as an individual.[57] Therefore, in the metaphors used by Chrysostom, as the group’s leader, he is coercing and prejudicing his followers to think about the Jews in particular anti-Semitic ways that they might not have done, had they heard these comments individually.

For this to be understood fully, one must also take into account the atmosphere in the churches at the time and John Chrysostom’s speciality as a rhetorician. Wilken notes that “Christians expected a performance in church equal to what they enjoyed in the theatre.”[58] If they were dissatisfied with Chrysostom’s homilies they booed and hissed; if they were delighted, they clapped their hands and shouted.[59] Chrysostom was known at one stage to say that most people “listen to a preacher for pleasure, not for profit, like critics at a play or concert.”[60] When Chrysostom got into the pulpit each week, Wilken explains, the people of Antioch always expected a stellar performance.[61] This atmosphere is extremely important to take into account when considering Le Bon’s contention about “the leader” and the “follower” within a group mentality. Given that the atmosphere was that of a theatre and not a Church, the Christians’ emotions and minds were being coerced in way that led to anti-Semitism.

The Church must also consider an apology to the Jews for the anti-Semitic remarks of the early Church fathers to raise the awareness of the effect that Chrysostom’s teachings could have in seminaries and theological schools all over the world today. Chrysostom, the “Golden Mouth,” and his rhetorical style texts are still used as examples when laity and clergy are being trained how to preach.[62] In 2008, many branches of the Church celebrated Chrysostom’s 1600th year of passing away and a lot of attention was paid to him.[63] The anti-Semitic remarks in Chrysostom’s preaching, therefore, need to be addressed in order that people are preparing sermons today that are not anti-Semitic and audiences listening to sermons today are not incited to follow the blind bigotry as was experienced in the time of John Chrysostom.

Thirdly, the Church needs to apologise to the Jews because of the effect that the anti-Semitic remarks would have had on the Jewish people then and may still be having on Jewish communities today. John Chrysostom devised themes and metaphors throughout his discourses that denigrated the whole existence of the Jews as individuals and as groups: their theology, social interaction, marital relations, and physical (worship) spaces. This is not a Christian’s manifesto and St. Matthew, in his gospel, instructs the Church what it needs to do to mend broken relationships.[64] No apology regarding anti-Semitism has ever been given to the Jews. The Church must reconcile its relationship with the Jewish people by apologising for anti-Semitism beginning with the early Church fathers. A precedent has been set to do this by two apologies already given in the 21st century, one for sexual abuse by clergy and another to the Indigenous people of Australia.[65] The Jewish People have asked for the same. It is time for the worldwide Church, individual Christians and corporately, to give the Jewish people the apology they have so long awaited. Anything else would be anti-Semitic.

  • [1] Joannis Chrysostomi, ΙΩΑΝΝΟΥ, ΤΟΥ ΧΡΥΣΟΣΤΟΜΟΥ, ΤΑ ΕΥΡΙΣΚΟΜΕΝΑ ΠΑΝΤΑ (ed. J.-P. Migne; 18 vols; S.P.N.), 1:843-942.
  • [2] There are many discrepancies regarding his birth. J. N. D. Kelly says that there are various dates between 344-354 which have been as possible birth dates, but the most suitable to fit all the facts is 349 (J. N. D. Kelly, Golden Mouth. The Story of John Chrysostom, Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop [New York: Cornell University Press, 1995], 4).
  • [3] Catholic Encyclopedia, New Advent: St. John Chrysostom, Kevin Knight, 2007, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08452b.htm (accessed April 22, 2008).
  • [4] J. N. D. Kelly, 4-5.
  • [5] J. N. D. Kelly, 6.
  • [6] Commenced to be written in 442 and covers 117 years from 323-439. The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, comprising a History of the Church, from A.D. 324 to A.D. 440 (trans. M. A. Walford Edward; London: Henry G. Bohn, MDCCCLV).
  • [7] M. A. Walford Edward, 362-3.
  • [8] J. N. D. Kelly, 297.
  • [9] J. N. D. Kelly, 74.
  • [10] Manlio Simonetti, Bibical Interpretation in the Early Church (ed. Anders Bergquist and Markus Bockmuehl; trans. John A. Hughes; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1994), 74.
  • [11] Manlio Simonetti, 74.
  • [12] Manlio Simonetti, 55.
  • [13] Donald Attwater, St. John Chrysostom: Pastor and Preacher (London: Harvill Press, 1959), 11.
  • [14] Constantinople was known as the new Rome. Robert L. Wilken, John Chrysostom and the Jews: Rhetoric and Reality in the Late 4th Century (University of California Press, 1983), 104.
  • [15] For the purpose of this essay, the author translated the original Greek text contained in the tome of J.-P. Migne. The Monitum (advice) to the text notes that Chrysostom delivered his first discourse in August 386, the second in September, approximately ten days later and approximately five days before the Jewish Jejunium (fast), and the remaining six followed in short succession of which the final five were held within twenty days, and the sixth was held on the very day of the Jejunium.
  • [16] Saint John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church, A New Translation: Saint John Chrysostom, Discourses against Judaizing Christians (eds. Hermigild Dressler O.F.M., Robert P. Russell OSA, William R. Tongue, Thomas P. Halton and Brennan I.H.M. Sister M. Josephine; trans. Paul W. Harkins, Vol. 68; Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1979), 1-3.
  • [17] S.P.N. Joannis Chrysostomi, ΙΩΑΝΝΟΥ, 1:844 (Discourse 1). All of the translations are my own unless otherwise stated.
  • [18] Saint John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church, A New Translation: Saint John Chrysostom, 4.
  • [19] S.P.N. Joannis Chrysostomi, ΙΩΑΝΝΟΥ, 1:845 (Discourse 1).
  • [20] Saint John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church, 4. Isaiah 58:3-5: “‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?’ Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’ Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today’ will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” Michael D. Coogan, ed., The New Oxford Annotated Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 1059 (Hebrew Bible).
  • [21] νόσεω, νόσος, or νόσημα. S.P.N. Joannis Chrysostomi, ΙΩΑΝΝΟΥ, 1:844 and passim.
  • [22] Michael D. Coogan, ed., The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 9-182 (New Testament and passim).
  • [23] Robert L. Wilken, John Chrysostom and the Jews117.
  • [24] S.P.N. Joannis Chrysostomi, ΙΩΑΝΝΟΥ, 1:993 (Discourse 6).
  • [25] Dressler, in his translation, notes that this is a reference to 2 Corinthians 10:4-5 where Paul sees faith as the Christian weapon. Faith, he says, is above reason and everything opposing faith is wrong and must be set aside or destroyed. Saint John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church, 147.
  • [26] Saint John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church, 147-148.
  • [27] Robert L. Wilken, John Chrysostom and the Jews, 95-107.
  • [28] Saint John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church, 147.
  • [29] S.P.N. Joannis Chrysostomi, ΙΩΑΝΝΟΥ, 1:994 (Discourse 6).
  • [30] S.P.N. Joannis Chrysostomi, ΙΩΑΝΝΟΥ, 1:848 (Discourse 1).
  • [31] Saint John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church, 204.
  • [32] Saint John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church, 204.
  • [33] Saint John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church, 204.
  • [34] S.P.N. Joannis Chrysostomi, ΙΩΑΝΝΟΥ, 1:845 (Discourse 1).
  • [35] S.P.N. Joannis Chrysostomi, ΙΩΑΝΝΟΥ, 1:863 (Discourse 3).
  • [36] Michael D. Coogan, ed., The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 282 (New Testament).
  • [37] Michael D. Coogan, ed., The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 270 (Hebrew Bible).
  • [38] Robert L. Wilken, John Chrysostom and the Jews, 149.
  • [39] Robert L. Wilken, John Chrysostom and the Jews, 876.
  • [40] The Jewish Publication Society, JPS Hebrew-English Tanak (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999), 1,005.
  • [41] Saint John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church, 81, n. 33.
  • [42] J. N. D. Kelly, 64.
  • [43] S.P.N. Joannis Chrysostomi, ΙΩΑΝΝΟΥ, 1:915.
  • [44] S.P.N. Joannis Chrysostomi, ΙΩΑΝΝΟΥ, 1:915.
  • [45] S.P.N. Joannis Chrysostomi, ΙΩΑΝΝΟΥ, 1:928.
  • [46] Robert L. Wilken, John Chrysostom and the Jews, 120
  • [47] Robert L. Wilken, John Chrysostom and the Jews, 120.
  • [48] Robert L. Wilken, John Chrysostom and the Jews120.
  • [49] Robert L. Wilken, John Chrysostom and the Jews121.
  • [50] S.P.N. Joannis Chrysostomi, ΙΩΑΝΝΟΥ, 1:848.
  • [51] S.P.N. Joannis Chrysostomi, ΙΩΑΝΝΟΥ, 1:859-60.
  • [52] S.P.N. Joannis Chrysostomi, ΙΩΑΝΝΟΥ, 1:852 (Discourse 1).
  • [53] S.P.N. Joannis Chrysostomi, ΙΩΑΝΝΟΥ, 1:852.
  • [54] S.P.N. Joannis Chrysostomi, ΙΩΑΝΝΟΥ, 1:859-60.
  • [55] Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (James Strachey, ed. and trans.; London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1959), 4.
  • [56] Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion (4th ed.; ed. James Strachey; trans. W. D. Robson-Scott; London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1978), 15:7.
  • [57] Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, 4-5.
  • [58] Robert L. Wilken, John Chrysostom and the Jews, 105.
  • [59] Robert L. Wilken, John Chrysostom and the Jews, 105.
  • [60] Robert L. Wilken, John Chrysostom and the Jews, 105.
  • [61] Robert L. Wilken, John Chrysostom and the Jews, 106.
  • [62] John Chrysostom, St. John Chrysostom, Bishop and Doctor: Mutual Need, Vol. 3 in The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers: A Manual of Preaching, Spiritiual Reading and Meditation (ed. M. F. Toal; London: Longmans, 1963), 316-19.
  • [63] St. Vladimir’s Seminary Lectures, Orthodox Internet Services, 2005, http://ancientfaith.com/specials/svs_jan2008/ (accessed June 16, 2008).
  • [64] Matthew 5:22-24: “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Michael D. Coogan, ed., The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 14 [New Testament]).
  • [65] BBC News Online, BBC News, BBC, 2001, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/1671540.stm (accessed June 4, 2008). BBC News Online: World: Middle East, British Broadcasting Corporation, 23 March 2000, http://news.bbc.co.uk (accessed April 3, 2008).

What Is Measured Out in Romans 12:3?

One occasionally encounters the view that saving faith is a gift from God, and that those who believe are able to do so only because God gave them the faith to do so. The scary correlate of this view is that those who don’t believe are plumb out of luck: God hasn’t seen fit to give them the faith they need.

Several of the contributors to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (= TDNT [compiled in Germany before and after World War II]) operated from the premise that faith is a gift from God, and used that view as a datum in their theological unpacking of word meanings. H. Hanse makes the following remarks in an entry that he contributed to TDNT:

That faith is the work, not of man, but of God or Christ, is not stated with equal clarity in all parts of the NT, but it must be constantly borne in mind. It can be seen plainly in Ac. 13:48, and Ac. 17:31 is particularly relevant in expounding the present passage [2 Pt. 1:1], for here God proffers faith to all. Again, in R. 12:3 God apportions the measure of faith. The same thought occurs in the chain of R. 8:28-30, and cf. also Hb. 12:2; Jd. 3 (πίστις παραδοθεῖσα). God does not merely give to both Jews and Gentiles the possibility of faith; He effects faith in them. Ephesians 2:8 makes it especially plain that all is of grace and that human merit is completely ruled out. To understand the Pauline and then the Lutheran doctrine of jusification [sic] it is essential to make it clear that faith is not a new human merit which replaces the merit of works, that it is not a second achievement which takes the place of the first, that it is not something which man has to show, but that justification by faith is an act of divine grace. Faith is not the presupposition of the grace of God. As a divine gift, it is the epitome and demonstration of the grace of God.[1]

If it strikes the reader as odd that so many contributors to the greatest theological dictionary of the twentieth century should assume (without explanation) that an expression of faith counts as a work if that faith originated from within that person’s innate (or life-cultivated) religious or psychological mettle, then I have the unpleasant duty of explaining that a large part of Reformation-based theology sees things exactly that way. For Luther especially, the category of works served as a great junkyard for every human contribution to both the objective and subjective sides of redemption. For his followers (including the writer quoted above) the New Testament has to be read that way. As a consequence, passages like Ephesians 2:8 and Romans 12:3 are held in high profile. According to this way of thinking, leaving faith in the hands of the believer amounts to turning personal salvation into a sort of synergism. (While many Christians are [rightly] shocked by the suggestion that God withholds saving faith from some people, those who believe in this sort of determinism often insist that such a view is necessary to safeguard God’s sovereignty.)[2]

That the free operation of the subjective faculties in coming to God could be construed as an effort to earn salvation strikes me as bizarre, as it should anyone who doesn’t equate cashing a check with earning a check. The problem with such a broad categorization of all human activity as works is that it leaves the theologian at some point suspended, as in a game of freeze tag: e.g., modern evangelicals speak in terms of leading converts in a “sinner’s prayer,” but who does the praying? Is the “sinner’s prayer” a work doomed to fail because it represents a humanly driven gesture of approach to God? Do we then need a theology explaining that it’s really God who does the praying? Or if we should allow the act of praying to be an exception to the rule, then where should the exceptions end? I propose beginning with an understanding of works for which we need not worry about the exceptions. It’s absurd to say that believing in God is a work if that belief comes from one’s innate faith. And it’s absurd to say that innate faith is impossible just because guilt-ridden theologians like Augustine and Luther thought so.

But what then are we to make of Ephesians 2:8 and Romans 12:3? Both verses have been taken to imply that faith is a gift from God:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God… (Eph 2:8)

For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him. (Rom 12:3)

We can deal with Ephesians 2:8 rather quickly: “the gift of God” does not describe “faith,” but rather the being saved. (There is a matter of joining the gender of “it” [which is neuter] with the gender of the term it points to. Both “grace” and “faith” are feminine.) On grammatical grounds, it is the action of being saved that is the gift of God, but the verse nowhere implies that the subjective aspects of accepting that gift must also be gifts from God.

The Meaning of Pistis in Romans 12:3

The corrective I will set out for Romans 12:3 is much more obscure than the solution to Ephesians 2:8. (As far as I know, it has never been suggested before.) A correct understanding of the verse from Romans, I believe, emerges when we exchange the usual rendering of the (Greek) term pistis for an alternative rendering. In English translations of the Bible, pistis has pretty much always been rendered as “faith,” but recent scholarship has drawn attention to the fact that its range of possible meanings is considerably broader. It has especially been noted that that range includes the idea of “faithfulness.” Of course, rendering pistis as “faithfulness” in a passage in which it has been usually been understood as “faith” could easily open up whole new avenues for approaching Paul’s theology. This is exactly what has happened with regard to the two-word term pistis christou: the alternative definitions of pistis (“faith” versus “faithfulness”), combined with the possibility that the genitive relationship between “faith/faithfulness” and “Christ” could be either objective or subjective (pistis “in” Christ [= “believing in Christ”] versus pistis “of” Christ [= “Christ’s faithfulness”]), has unsettled the way scholars now understand the affected parts of Paul’s theology. The debate over the proper understanding of pistis christou has been lively ever since it began.

So far, scholarship has apparently not considered the implications of a different rendering of pistis in Romans 12:3, but they are significant. Romans 12:3’s lack of attention might be due to the fact that it does not contain the fuller term pistis christou (and so it has not been part of the database for the main fight over the meaning of pistis). It might also be due to the fact that the correct translation of pistis in this case is neither “faith” nor “faithfulness,” but a meaning that extends from the notion of “faithfulness”: “responsibility” or “stewardship.” New Testament lexicons, such as Thayer’s or Bauer’s, do not note anything along the lines of “responsibility” or “stewardship” within the semantic range of pistis, but the classical Greek lexicon of Liddell-Scott-Jones (p. 1408) does: according to definition I.3.b, the meaning “position of trust or trusteeship” is implied in a passage from Plutarch, while definition III is given as “That which is entrusted, a trust,” a meaning derived from half a dozen sources.

If we plug the concept of stewardship (or responsibility or trusteeship) into Romans 12:3, where “faith” has usually determined our reading, a rather sensible (and theologically less frightening) understanding of the verse appears: “I bid every one among you… to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of stewardship which God has assigned him.” In this instance, pistis refers not to believing in God, nor to the adequacy of one’s service to God, but rather to the aspect and area of stewardship or responsibility that God has assigned to each believer. God requires so-and-so to be faithful in such-and-such an area, therefore that area represents “the measure of stewardship which God has assigned him/her.”

I consider this rendering to be an improvement over the traditional rendering for a number of reasons. The way in which it relieves a significant theological stress (viz. the notion of a faith-dealing and faith-denying God) might be the foremost reason, but the newly proposed rendering also improves the verse’s internal logic. To be told “not to think of oneself more highly than one ought to think” makes more sense in the context of gauging one’s performance of one’s calling, and in considering the finality of God’s placement of the gifts within the Church, than it does in the context of gauging one’s raw supply of faith. And that meaning is consistent with the following verses, which refer to the setting of one’s gifts within the body of Christ. (The RSV sets out vv. 3-8 as a distinct paragraph, which I take to be correct.) It also represents a nearer parallel to Paul’s discussion of the placement of the gifts within the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12, as its diagnosis of a problem approximates more closely 1 Corinthians’s discussion of being content with one’s assigned function with the Body. It is true that the traditional rendering of Romans 12:3-8 tends to smooth over its inherent inconcinnities by associating the fulfillment of these callings with the activation of some sort of general faith, but that understanding flows less smoothly than the idea that these gifts and callings represent areas of responsibility assigned by God. And the fact that verse 6 singles out “prophecy” as a gift to be exercised “in proportion to our faith” (see TDNT 1.347-348) would appear to be related to the fact that the ministry of prophecy is more multivariant in its specific applications than the other callings listed in those verses. In other words, the idea of the stewardship of prophesying begs the question of when, where, and how one should prophesy. That is, it begs the question of a more specific stewardship than conveyed by the more general call to prophesy.

The Spirit and Stewardship

The general direction of my interpretation of Romans 12:3 would appear to be supported by the reference to “the measure of Christ’s gift” in Ephesians 4:7. That measure deals to each one the appropriate grace for occupying his/her position within the Spirit-enabled callings poured out at Pentecost. In the context of Ephesians, and in the New Testament generally, “gift” probably has a more direct connection with the Spirit than with a “measure of stewardship,” but the ideas are clearly related, for the Spirit equips the stewardship. When Bultmann writes, therefore, that pistis “is not a gift of the Spirit,”[3] he is only correct insofar as the main definitions of pistis go. His comment does not hold true with respect to the way the word is used in Romans 12:3.

  • [1] H. Hanse, “λαγχάνω,” TDNT 4.1-2, esp. 2. The commitment of the contributors to TDNT to this idea (a commitment grounded in their Lutheran heritage) is shown by Bultmann’s equivocation in his entry on “πιστεύω κτλ.” (TDNT 6.197-228, esp. 219-20). (Bultmann correctly notes that Paul “never describes faith as inspired”!) One would think that today’s NT scholars could see beyond the miscategorization of believing as a work, but that mistake wrecks a number of arguments in a volume of essays that appeared two years ago. See D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid (eds.), Justification and Variegated Nomism, vol. 2: The Paradoxes of Paul (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2004).
  • [2] It is true that Heb 12:2 refers to Jesus as “the author and perfecter of our faith.” But Hebrews has in mind Jesus as one who brings us through experiences that help develop our faith in accordance to the natural means of its development (so that, in essence, this verse testifies against the notion that God drops faith in us like we might drop a coin in a vending machine). This is hardly unexpected in a letter that (remarkably) refers to Christ as having “learned obedience” (5:8)! On the other hand, we must ask: Why does Christ upbraid his disciples for having “little faith” in Mark 16:14 (admittedly not original to the gospel), if in fact it’s not their fault that their faith is lacking?
  • [3] Bultmann was certainly aware that “faith” is listed as a charism in 1 Corinthians 12, but it is widely recognized that “faith” in that context is not the same thing as saving faith.

Jesus’ Yoke and Burden

Revised: 25-Nov-2014
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30; NIV).

Although extraordinarily beautiful, Jesus’ saying recorded in Matthew 11:28-30 is enigmatic. What is this saying’s meaning, and what were Jesus’ “yoke” and “burden”?[1]

A Context-less Saying

The “Comfort for the Heavy-Laden” passage (Matt 11:28-30) is unique to Matthew’s gospel—we find no parallels to it in the other three gospels. Furthermore, the setting for the Matthew 11:28-30 passage is difficult to establish. The passage appears following the “Woes on the Cities of Galilee” (Matt 11:20-24) and “Jesus’ Thanksgiving to the Father” (Matt 11:25-27) pericopae, neither pericope seemingly providing a context for Jesus’ “Comfort for the Heavy-Laden” teaching. Luke’s gospel, too, preserves the “Woes on the Cities of Galilee” (Luke 10:13-5) and “Jesus’ Thanksgiving to the Father” (Luke 10:21-22), but places the two passages in the context of the “Sending Out and Return of the Seventy.”

It appears that the original context for Jesus’ “Comfort for the Heavy-Laden” saying has been lost; however, in spite of this, passages in the apocryphal book of Ben Sira may help us determine Jesus’ intent. The Ben Sira texts indicate that Jesus was speaking of the study of Torah (Written and Oral) and the rigors of first-century discipleship.

Keys to Understanding Jesus’ Saying

In Ben Sira (also known as “Ecclesiasticus,” and “The Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach”), a Greek book of the Apocrypha that predates Jesus by over one hundred years, there exists an astounding parallel[2] to Jesus’ words:

Draw near to me, you unlearned, and lodge in the house of study. Why are you slow, and what do you say about these things, your souls being very thirsty? I opened my mouth and said, “Buy her [wisdom] for yourselves without money.[3] Put your neck under (her) yoke, and let your soul receive instruction. She is to be found nearby.[4] See with your eyes how, with only a little labor, I have gotten much rest. Get learning with a great sum of money, and by means of her acquire much gold.” (Ben Sira 51:23-28)

These verses, whose themes are wisdom and learning, also survived (with some variations) in a Hebrew manuscript (ms. B) that was discovered in 1898 in the so-called Cairo Genizah, a Cairo synagogue’s burial place for worn-out manuscripts containing Scripture:

Turn to me, you unlearned, and lodge in my house of study [beit midrash]. How long will you be lacking these things while your soul remains very thirsty? I opened my mouth and spoke of her [i.e., wisdom]: “Buy yourselves wisdom without money. Put [lit., bring] your necks under her yoke, and let your soul carry her burden. She is near those who seek her, and the person who gives his soul [i.e., life] finds her. See with your eyes that I was insignificant, but I persevered until I found her.” (translation mine)

The Ben Sira 51 passage contains the same themes found in Matthew 11:28-30: “Drawing near to a source of instruction”;[5] the taking up of a yoke, or burden; and the labor of learning that results in the finding of rest. “With only a little labor I have gotten much rest” (Ben Sira 51:27) implies that “the yoke is easy” (Matt 11:30). Ben Sira’s “Let your soul receive instruction” is similar to Jesus’ “Learn from me.” Key words found in the two passages include: “find/found,” “your souls,”[6] “yoke” and “burden” [in Matt and the Hebrew version of Ben Sira].

A second Ben Sira passage about Wisdom adds to our understanding of Jesus’ saying:

Listen, my son, and accept my judgment; do not reject my counsel. Put your feet into her fetters, and your neck into her collar. Put your shoulder under her and carry her, and do not fret under her bonds. Come to her with all your soul, and keep her ways with all your might. Search out and seek,[7] and she will become known to you; and when you get hold of her, do not let her go. For at last you will find the rest she gives, and she will be changed into joy for you. Then her fetters will become for you a strong protection, and her collar a glorious robe. Her yoke is a golden ornament, and her bonds are a cord of blue. You will wear her like a glorious robe, and put her on like a crown of gladness (Ben Sira 6:23-31; RSV).[8]

This Ben Sira passage, like the Ben Sira 51 passage, has much in common with Matthew 11:28-30: “Put…your neck into her collar” and “Put your shoulder under her” are like Jesus’ “Take my yoke upon you.” In the phrase, “Do not fret under her bonds,” we find the equivalent of “burden.” “Come to her with all your soul” reminds us of Jesus’ “Come to me.” “You will find the rest she gives” is echoed by Jesus (Matt 11:29). “Yoke” is mentioned in both passages. Ben Sira has “your soul,” while “your souls” is found in Jesus’ words. “Her yoke…and her bonds” is paralleled by Jesus’ “my yoke…my burden.” According to Ben Sira, wisdom’s yoke, that is, the burden of study, will become joy, strong protection, a golden ornament, a cord of blue, a glorious robe and a crown of gladness. In other words, although the yoke is a burden, the bearer will experience it as easy and light.

Two pairs of yoked oxen plowing in the Jezreel Valley on May 4, 1894. Photograph courtesy of BiblePlaces.com.

Probably like the Ben Sira passages above, Matthew 11:28-30 is a learning context. Jesus was not contrasting his burden to the heavy burdens of the Pharisees to which he referred elsewhere (Matt 23:4), but rather, as he extended an invitation to prospective students to join his band of traveling students, alluding to the burden, or cost, of discipleship.

Although the Matthew 11 passage lacks a setting, and therefore, it is difficult to be sure of Jesus’ intention, Ben Sira 51:23-28 and Ben Sira 6:23-31 help us to understand Jesus’ intention. Some commentators discount the importance of the Ben Sira passages; however, they contain manifold parallels to Jesus’ call. In fact, there are so many parallels in Ben Sira 51 that some authorities have suggested that Jesus, or the editor of his biography, was quoting from Ben Sira. Although not quoting, it appears likely that Jesus was alluding to Ben Sira.

A Possible Context for Matthew 11:28-30?

Although Matthew 11:28-30’s context is difficult to establish, there do seem to be other sayings of Jesus with which we might associate it, for example, sayings whose theme is discipleship. Robert Lindsey suggested that Jesus’ original “Cost of Being Jesus’ Disciple”[9] teaching included the following verses (in the following order):

Rich Young Ruler (Matt 19:16b; Luke 18:19-25, 28-30)
Hidden Treasure (Matt 13:44)
Valuable Pearl (Matt 13:45-46)
Cost of Discipleship (Luke 14:26-27)
Tower Builder (Luke 14:28-30)
King Going to War (Luke 14:31-33)


The life of a disciple was not a bed of roses. In the Mishnah it is referred to as “a painful existence”: “This is the way [to acquire knowledge] of the Torah: eat bread with salt, drink water by measure [Ezek 4:11], sleep on the ground, live a painful existence, and labor [studying] the Torah” (m. Avot 6:4; translation mine).

Like other sages of his day, Jesus clearly indicated that a disciple’s existence would be difficult: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). In other words, his disciple would lead an itinerant lifestyle without permanent accommodations. Jesus also warned, “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27; NIV). In other words, the life of a student engaged in the study of the Torah with him would be rigorous, and great sacrifice would be required.[10] Such a lifestyle would necessarily be characterized by extreme dedication to the task and to the teacher: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62; NIV); “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (Matt 8:22; NIV).

On the one hand, Jesus advised students who considered joining his school of disciples, which he called the ‘Kingdom of Heaven,” to consider very carefully the price they would have to pay (Luke 14:26-27), giving two illustrations to make his point (Luke 14:28-33). On the other hand, Jesus promised students that they would be more than compensated for whatever sacrifices they were required to make (“the yoke would be easy”). When Peter exclaimed, “Look, we have left our possessions (or, our families) to follow you (Luke 18:28)—typical of the situation of first-century Jewish students who were intent on gaining Torah wisdom—Jesus responded, “No one has left house [i.e., family]…for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven [i.e., Jesus’ beit midrash] who will not receive much more in this life….” (Luke 18:29-30). In other words, the joy and satisfaction that a student of Jesus received far outweighed the sacrifices that he was required to make. Jesus taught that the value of being part of the Kingdom of Heaven was inestimable; it was like the value of buried treasure or a priceless fine pearl (Matt 13:44-46).

In his “Comfort for the Heavy-Laden” teaching, Jesus extended a call to prospective disciples. As these pupils well knew, the study of Torah was a yoke, a heavy burden. “But,” said Jesus, “my yoke is easy,” that is, “studying Torah with me will be so exhilarating that you won’t even notice the yoke’s weight. You will labor strenuously, but never get tired!”


δεῦτε πρός με (come to me)

Likely, “Come to me” was an invitation to study in Jesus’ school, to become his disciple.[11] According to Ben Sira, it was Wisdom who invited people to come to her, find rest and accept her yoke (Sir 6:26, 28, 30 [Hebrew]; 24:19; 51:26).

πάντες οἱ κοπιῶντες καὶ πεφορτισμένοι (all the weary and burdened)

Perhaps the phrase “weary and burdened” is an example of hendiadys, that is, the two verbs express a single concept, e.g., “bone tired,” “tired because of a heavy load,” “weary of a load.”[12]

Jesus’ words may reflect Jeremiah 31:25: “I will give drink to the weary and fill the faint.”[13] The Septuagint’s rendering of this verse (= Jer. 38:25) is: “I gave drink to every thirsty soul and filled every hungry soul.”

κἀγὼ ἀναπαύσω ὑμᾶς (and I will give you rest)

The “I will give you rest” promise is probably Jesus’ assurance to prospective disciples that, by studying Torah with him, the arduous life of a disciple would seem easy. “I will give you rest” could also be Jesus’ claim that his teaching was authoritative. The words reminds us of his argument preserved in Matthew 5:17-19 that his interpretation of the Torah was correct and that his interpretation established the meaning of the Torah’s words.[14] Since in the minds of members of his audience, “yoke” was strongly connected with study of Torah and the keeping of its commandments, when Jesus went on (in Matt 11:29) to say, “Take my yoke upon you,” his words could have implied, “Accept my interpretation of the Torah’s commandments.”

Into Jesus’ invitation to potential disciples, perhaps even the disciples of other teachers, Jesus may have inserted a messianic claim—the Messiah was expected to bring rest for the righteous.[15] More startlingly, Jesus’ alluded[16] to Exodus 33:14: “The LORD replied, ‘My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest [וַהֲנִחֹתִי לָךְ, va-hanikhoti lach]'” (NIV).[17] By using the words, “and I will give you rest,” Jesus spoke in a way that only God speaks.

ἄρατε τὸν ζυγόν μου ἐφ᾿ ὑμᾶς (take my yoke upon you)

The command “Take” is synonymous with “Come” in the preceding sentence (vs. 28). Rest is promised for three actions: for the coming to Jesus (to learn his approach to Torah), for the taking upon oneself his yoke (that is, joining his “Kingdom of Heaven” school), and for the learning from him.

“Yoke” probably refers to the hardships connected with advanced study of Torah and the rigors of being a disciple (at that time, a full-time disciple of a sage was roughly the equivalent of the post-doctoral student of today). “Yoke” also could have been a reference to obedience to the commandments of the Torah,[18] or to Jesus’ interpretation of them.[19]

καὶ μάθετε ἀπ᾿ ἐμοῦ ὅτι πραΰς εἰμι καὶ ταπεινὸς τῇ καρδίᾳ (and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart)

A few scholars have suggested that the words, “and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart,” were not part of the saying that Jesus uttered, but were added to the Gospel accounts long after Jesus’ time.[20] However, if it is true that by this statement (Matt 11:28-30) Jesus was extending an invitation to prospective students, then “learn from me” well fits the context. We should notice that the Greek does not read, “learn of me,” but, “learn from me,” meaning, perhaps, “Come, study in my traveling school.”[21]

One should compare Jesus’ self-characterization, “meek [πραΰς, prays] and humble [ταπεινός, tapeinos],” with the description of Moses: “Now Moses was a very humble man [עָנָו, anav; LXX’s trans., πραΰς, prays], more so than any other man on earth” (Num. 12:3; JPS). Perhaps Jesus was hinting that he was the “prophet like Moses” prophesied in Deuteronomy 18:15, 18.[22]

καὶ εὑρήσετε ἀνάπαυσιν ταῖς ψυχαῖς ὑμῶν (and you will find rest for your souls)

This is an obvious allusion to Jeremiah 6:16: “This is what the LORD says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.’ But you said, ‘We will not walk in it'” (NIV). Here, too, by using “and you will find rest for your souls,” Jesus could have been speaking as only God speaks. On the other hand, “and you will find rest for your souls” could be a latter addition to the text, drawn by the mention of “rest” in the preceding verse, that is, Matthew, or a later scribe might have remembered the “rest” in Jeremiah 6:16, and added it here out of place.[23]

ὁ γὰρ ζυγός μου χρηστὸς καὶ τὸ φορτίον μου ἐλαφρόν ἐστιν (for my yoke is easy and my burden is light)

The Greek adjective χρηστός (chrestos, easy) appears in the New Testament only here, in Luke 6:35 and 1 Peter 2:3; the Greek adjective ἐλαφρός (elaphros, light; insignificant] only here and in 2 Corinthians 4:17. Although these two words appear in the Gospels only in the same short Matthean passage, they probably did not originate with the author of Matthew, or his Greek source(s), but with the conjectured earlier Hebrew stage of the Gospel’s transmission: the two words appear in a passage that is full of Hebrew parallelism and translates easily to Hebrew.[24]

In what sense was Jesus’ yoke easy and his burden light? When Peter pointed out that he and his fellow disciples had left “family” to follow him (Luke 18:28), Jesus replied that all who had left home and family to follow him would receive “much more” in this life (Luke 18:29-30). “To receive much more” appears to be Jesus’ promise that the life of a student in his school would be an exhilarating experience, true happiness.[25] One can be invigorated by a heavy workload when the work is interesting. On the other hand, boredom and frustration can make even the smallest amount of work exhausting.

In attempting to understand the meaning of “burden” (Greek: φορτίον, phortion) of which Jesus here speaks, one cannot ignore his use of “heavy burdens” (φορτία βαρέα, phortia barea [phortia is the plural of phortion]) in Matthew 23:4, nor the use of “burden” (Greek: βάρος, baros, burden, load, weight) in a letter sent from the apostles and elders of Jerusalem to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:28).[26]

1. The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice [lit., “they say and do not do”]. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger. (Matt 23:2-4; RSV)

Jesus stated that the scribes and Pharisees bound “heavy burdens” and placed them on people’s shoulders. These burdens were the Pharisees’ religious rulings, the commandments of the Oral Torah, as confirmed by the word “bind,” a Hebraism for “to give a halachic prohibition,”[27] and the double parallelism of Matthew 23:3-4: the parallel to “heavy burdens” is “everything they tell you”—“tell” was a Hebraism for “to give a religious ruling, lay down a halachah”—and the contrast to “tell” is “do” (“they preach [literally, say], but do not practice [literally, do]”). In contrast to most authorities, I assume that the “burden” of Matthew 11:30 does not refer to the burden of keeping the Pharisees’ oral commandments,[28] but to the heavy burden of sacrifice and deprivation that a sage’s disciple was required to bear in order to gain a thorough knowledge of Torah.[29] The word “bind” and the plural “burdens” in Matthew 23:24 help to confirm this assumption.

Likely, Jesus’ “my burden is light” was part of an invitation he extended to those who might join his traveling school of disciples, which, at other times, he called the Kingdom of Heaven.[30] The parallels in chapters 6 and 51 of Ben Sira indicate that in Matthew 11 Jesus was speaking of the labor of study to acquire (God’s) wisdom, not the labor involved in keeping the oral commandments.[31] Obviously, Jesus did not think that observance of the Torah’s commandments—oral as well as written—was unimportant. After all, it was he who said, “Practice and observe whatever they [the Pharisees] tell you” (Matt 23:3). He was confident that thorough study and proper understanding of the Torah would result in observance of its commandments.

2. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things.” (Acts 15:28; RSV)

The word “burden” in Acts 15:28 (referred to as a yoke in Acts 15:10, and as an annoyance in Acts 15:19), like the word “burdens” in Matthew 23:4, probably referred to the responsibility of keeping the commandments as they were interpreted by contemporary Jewish religious authorities,[32] and not to the painful and demanding life of study in the peripatetic school of a Torah scholar, of which Jesus spoke in Matthew 11:28-30.

I see no reason for doubting the authenticity of Peter’s assertion in Acts 15:10 that the commandments were a “yoke.”[33] Ancient rabbinic sources also speak of the commandments as a yoke and burden,[34] and Jewish teachers used the words “yoke” and “burden” as synonyms for “mitzvah,” “mitzvoth” and “Torah.”[35]

A Reconstruction of the Hypothetical Hebrew Original

Matthew 11:28
בֹּאוּ אֵלַי כָּל הַיְּגֵעִים וְהָעֲמוּסִים וַהֲנִחֹתִי לָכֶם (bo’u elai kol ha-yege’im ve-ha-amusim, va-hanikhoti lachem, come to me all the weary and burdened, and I will lighten your burden.)

Matthew 11:29
קְחוּ אֶת עֻלִּי עֲלֵיכֶם וְלִמְדוּ מִמֶּנִּי כִּי עָנָו אֲנִי וּשְׁפַל רוּחַ וּמִצְאוּ מַרְגּוֹעַ לְנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם (kekhu et uli alechem ve-limdu mimeni, ki anav ani u-shefal ruakh u-mits’u margo’a le-nafshotechem, take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am humble and lowly of spirit, and you will find rest for your souls)

Matthew 11:30
כִּי עֻלִּי נָעִים וְמַשָֹאִי קַל (ki uli na’im ve-masa’i kal, for my yoke is pleasant and my burden is light)

Dynamic translation of Hebrew reconstruction:

Everyone who is exhausted, overloaded, I invite you to join me. “I will lighten your burden” [Exod 33:14]. Shoulder my yoke in order to learn from me, because I am humble and you will find spiritual rest, for my yoke [that is, the yoke with which I will harness you] does not chafe, and my burden [that is, the load I will put on you] is light.

  • [1] One should consult the standard commentaries on this passage. In addition, see S. Bacchiocchi, “Matthew 11.28-30: Jesus’ Rest and the Sabbath,” AUSS 22 (1984): 289-316; Hans Dieter Betz, “The Logion of the Easy Yoke and of Rest,” JBL 86 (1967): 10-24; J. J. C. Cox, “‘Bearers of Heavy Burdens,’ A Significant Textual Variant,” AUSS 9 (1971): 1-15; M. Maher, “‘Take my yoke upon you’ (Matt xi.29),” NTS 22 (1975): 97-102; G. N. Stanton, “Matthew 11.28-30: Comfortable Words?” ExpTim 94 (1982): 3-9.
  • [2] Commentators, for example, Geza Vermes (The Authentic Gospel of Jesus [London: Allen Lane, 2003], 330), note the parallel between Jesus’ saying and the passage in Ben Sira, but usually only refer to it in passing. Some scholars suggest that Ben Sira’s influence on Jesus’ words is slight: Robert H. Gundry writes, “At most…the passage in Sira exercised an indirect and vague influence on Matthew” (Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church under Persecution [2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994], 220). A minority of scholars view the close similarity between Jesus’ saying and Ben Sira’s as evidence that Matt 11:28-30 was not originally uttered by Jesus, but was put into his mouth by a later editor: “A substantial scholarly opinion holds that Matthew 11:28-30 does not stem from Jesus, but is an excerpt from an otherwise unknown Jewish sapiential book. The term ‘yoke’, a common expression in rabbinic literature, is used only here in the Gospels and Jesus is nowhere else called ‘lowly’ (tapeinos). But the strongest argument against associating this saying with him is that much of his moral message was neither easy nor light” (Geza Vermes, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, 330-31). A number of commentators, however, see the Ben Sira 51 passage’s importance, even suggesting that Jesus may have alluded to or quoted Ben Sira. See Konrad Weiss (TDNT 9:85), Karl Heinrich Rengstorf (TDNT 2:900, n. 22), and others, recently, Vermes (see above); Gundry (see above); Willoughby C. Allen: “There seems to be an undoubted dependence of these words [Matt 11:28-30] upon Ecclus [i.e., Ben Sira] 50, 51” (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to S. Matthew [ICC; 3rd ed.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1912], 123-24); W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann speak of “the dependence of these verses [Matt 11:28-30] in the Greek on the LXX of Ecclus 51” (Matthew [AB 26; Garden City: Doubleday, 1971], 146).)
  • [3] “Buy without money” reminds us of Isa 55:1: “Ho, all who are thirsty, Come for water, Even if you have no money; Come, buy food and eat: Buy food without money, Wine and milk without cost” (JPS).
  • [4] Perhaps a reference to Deut 30:11-14: “For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (RSV).
  • [5] The invitation “Come to me” extended by Wisdom is also found in Prov 8:1-5; 9:1-6; and Sir 24:19-21: “Come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my produce. For the remembrance of me is sweeter than honey, and my inheritance sweeter than the honeycomb. Those who eat me will hunger for more, and those who drink me will thirst for more” (RSV).
  • [6] The reference in Ben Sira 51:24 to “thirsty souls” reminds us of Jesus’ Beatitude 4 (Matt 5:6).
  • [7] The “seek…you will find” causes one to reflect that perhaps Matt 11:28-30 belongs to the same context as, “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Matt 7:7-8 = Luke 11:9-10).
  • [8] Portions of this passage are extant in three Hebrew manuscripts: Genizah A; Genizah B and Qumran. The Qumran text reads, “Study and investigate, seek and find; and when you have gotten hold of her, do not let go. For in the end, you will find rest, and she will become enjoyable” (Ben Sira 6:27-28; translation mine).
  • [9] This “contextual” reconstruction was put forward in Robert L. Lindsey, Jesus, Rabbi and Lord: A Lifetime’s Search for the Meaning of Jesus’ Words, 93. See David Bivin, “Cost of Entering the Kingdom of Heaven complex.”
  • [10] See David Bivin, “First-century Discipleship,” Jerusalem Perspective 13 (Oct. 1988): 1-2.
  • [11] According to Donald A. Hagner, “The invitation to come to Jesus is an invitation to discipleship, that is, to follow him and his teaching. ‘Yoke’ (dzugon) is a common metaphor for the law, both in Judaism (m. ‘Abot 3:5; m. Ber. 2:2; cf. 1QH 6:19) and in the NT (Acts 15:10; Gal 5:1). When Jesus invites people with the words…‘take my yoke upon you,’ he invites them to follow his own teaching as the definitive interpretation of the law (see on 5:17-20). The same point is stressed in the next clause…‘learn from me'” (Matthew [WBC 33A-33B; Dallas: Word Books, 1993-1995], 324).
  • [12] See David Bivin, “Hendiadys in the Synoptic Gospels,” Jerusalem Perspective 52 (Jul.-Sept. 1997): 14-15.
  • [13] Robert H. Gundry writes: “‘Who are weary and burdened’ in vs. 28a echoes Jer 31:25: ‘for I have satisfied the weary [LXX: thirsty] soul, and every faint [LXX: hungry] soul I have replenished.’ ‘And I will give you refreshment’ in verse 28b echoes the very same words in Exod 33:14. ‘And you will find refreshment for your souls’ in verse 29d is a verbatim quotation of Jer. 6:16” (Matthew, 219).
  • [14] See David Bivin, “Matthew 5:17: ‘Destroy’ the Law” and “Matthew 5:19: The Importance of ‘Light’ Commandments.”
  • [15] Samuel Tobias Lachs points out that “one of the blessings forthcoming in the messianic age will be the giving of rest to the weary pious” (A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke [Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1987], 196. Lachs cites En. 48.4, Pesiq. Rab Kah. 27 [163a], and Pesiq. Rab. 32 [149a] in support of his statement [196, n. 1].)
  • [16] W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Jr., imply that “and I will give you rest” did not come originally from the mouth of Jesus, but is a quotation from Exod 33:14 that was inserted by a later editor: “The closest OT parallel to Jesus’ words, ‘and I will give you rest,’ is Exod 33.14, where God says to Moses: ‘and I will give you rest’…Note that whereas in the OT text it is God, not Moses, who gives rest, in the NT Jesus gives it. Once more, then, Jesus is greater than Moses” (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew [ICC; 3 vols.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988-1997], 2:287.
  • [17] The sense of וַהֲנִחֹתִי לָךְ (va-hanikhoti lach) is probably not “and I will give you rest” in the absolute sense, that is, total or complete rest, but as the JPS renders, “I will lighten your burden.”
  • [18] F. J. Foakes Jackson and Kirsopp Lake, commenting on the use of “yoke” in Acts 15:10, state: “Zygon (‘ol) was commonly used by Jewish writers in the sense of ‘obligation'” (The Acts of the Apostles [5 vols.; London: Macmillan , 1920-33], 4:173-74); however, Jackson and Lake give no examples of “yoke” used in the sense of “obligation.” Davies and Allison remark: “The word [yoke] came to be a metaphor for obedience, subordination, servitude” (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, 2:289). According to Gundry, citing Acts 15:10; Gal 5:1; Sir 51:26; Pss. Sol. 7:9; 19:32; m. ‘Abot 3:6; 2 Apoc. Bar. 41:3; and b. Ber.13a, “yoke” is a well-known metaphor for obedience (Matthew, 219). Konrad Weiss comments: “In rabbinic texts מַשָּׂא [masa’, burden]…has…the transf[igurative] sense of ‘obligation,’ ‘duty’ (jBer. 3, 1 [5d, 53-56. 61])” (“φορτίον,” TDNT 9:85).

    If when he said, “Take my yoke upon you,” Jesus spoke of the keeping of commandments, Jesus might have been speaking as only God speaks. By calling this yoke “my yoke” (and the burden “my burden”), Jesus could have been making a shocking statement. The keeping of commandments was referred to as a yoke, but it is unlikely that a sage would have made the claim that this yoke was “his.”

    Jesus made abundant messianic statements. By alluding to Scripture, he claimed to be the “Son of Man” of Daniel 7:13 (Luke 22:69, 19:10; Matt 25:31; see Randall Buth, “Jesus’ Most Important Title”); the “Green Tree” of Ezekiel 20:47 (Luke 23:31); the “King” (Matt 25:34); “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt 12:8; Luke 6:5); and “Greater than Jonah and Solomon” (Luke 11:31-32 ). (By others, Jesus was referred to by such messianic titles as “Lord” [Luke 5:8]; “Son of God” [Luke 1:35]; “Son of David” [Luke 18:38]; and the “Prophet Like Moses,” the Last Redeemer of Deuteronomy 18:15 [Luke 7:16; see David Bivin, “‘Prophet’ as a Messianic Title” ].) However, an audacious claim was almost never Jesus’ main thrust. Into his teaching, which addressed specific situations and a wide variety of general subjects, he inserted, naturally and almost unconsciously, very subtle allusions to Scriptures that had been interpreted messianically by contemporary teachers and their predecessors.

    Some of Jesus’ allusions seem to be more than “mere” messianic claims. In delivering his teaching, apparently, he sometimes spoke as only God speaks. For instance, in the preface to his Parable of the House Built on Solid Foundations, Jesus said, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does [i.e., keeps, observes] them will be like a wise man…” (Matt 7:24; Luke 6:47), employing “my words” when he spoke of hearing and doing God’s commandments. Likewise, he proclaimed, “I will build my community [congregation, assembly]…” (Matt 16:18). Jesus’ “my yoke” (= “my burden”) in Matthew 11:29-30 should be compared to his “my words” and “my community.” Jesus also spoke like God when he said, “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10), a clear reference to Ezekiel 34 where it is God who says repeatedly that he will seek and save his lost sheep. By claiming to be the “Seeker and Saver of the Lost,” Jesus assumed a function of God, that of being the “Shepherd of the Lost Sheep.”

    Did Jesus’ “come to me,” “I will give you rest,” “my yoke” and “my burden” indicate his high messianic consciousness, or, were these phrases simply the words of a first-century Jewish teacher calling prospective pupils to his school? Or both? These question have been thoroughly debated in scholarly publications.

  • [19] In Hagner’s opinion, “When Jesus invites people with the words…‘take my yoke upon you,’ he invites them to follow his own teaching as the definitive interpretation of the law (see on 5:17-20). The same point is stressed in the next clause…‘learn from me'” (Matthew, 324).
  • [20] Davies and Allison have suggested that the author of Matthew (or the author of Matthew’s source or sources), inserted into the gospel (in Matt 1:1-8:1; 17:1-8; 11:25-30) “a developed Mosaic/exodus typology” (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, 2:296). This editor’s purpose, according to Davies and Allison, was to compare and contrast Jesus with Moses. According to them, Matt 11:28-30 did not come from the mouth of Jesus, but from a member, or members, of the early church: “Can we trace the saying [Matt 11:28-30] to Jesus?…we have serious reservations. The implicit identification of Jesus with Wisdom and Torah is more at home in the early church than the teaching of Jesus” (2:293). However, after suggesting that the whole of the saying is secondary, Davies and Allison analyze the saying’s parallelism (the characteristic of Semitic, but not of Greek, style, that is so prominent in Matthew 11:28-30. On the one hand, they view Jesus’ saying as the work of a editor, but, on the other hand, recognizing the saying’s tight Semitic parallelism, they trim away elements of the saying that in their view spoil this parallelism, believing them to be still later additions. Davies and Allison assume that the author of Matthew wrote in Greek but “knew Hebrew and probably also Aramaic” (1:80), and this is one of the reasons his work is so Semitic. “The Matthean Semitisms…reflect the evangelist’s own style of thought” (1:85). However, it is more probably that the author of Matthew was using a source, or sources, that had been translated from Hebrew (or Aramaic). It is less likely that a Hebrew or Aramaic speaker would be confident enough to write in his second language, in this case, in Greek; or that a Greek speaker, whose second language was Hebrew or Aramaic, could compose such Hebraic and un-Greek-like Greek. It is more likely that the extremely Semitic text of Matthew originated in Hebrew (or Aramaic) and was translated to Greek.

    Davies and Allison would like Matt 11:29 to read, “Take my yoke upon you and you will find rest for yourselves.” They assert that the line “and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart” “wrecks” the parallelism of Matthew 11:28-30, and contains “redactional” vocabulary (2:290). The vocabulary items termed “redactional” by Davies and Allison are: “μανθάνω [learn]: Mt: 3; Mk: 1; Lk: 0; πραΰς [meek; Mt: 3; Mk: 0; Lk: 0]; (ἐν) τῇ καρδίᾳ [(in) the heart]: Mt: 8; Mk: 1; Lk: 5. Five times Matthew follows (ἐν) τῇ καρδίᾳ with something other than a genitive personal pronoun; Mark and Luke never do this” (2:290, n. 244).

    It is unlikely that a Greek writer could create the sophisticated parallelism and scriptural allusion that we find in Matthew 11:28-30. The saying was probably first uttered or written in a Semitic language, probably Hebrew or Aramaic. The Semitic doubling of nouns, adjectives and verbs, and its tight parallelism warn us to be extremely cautious about removing elements of the saying. “Learn from me” can stand without “wrecking” the parallelism, as Davies and Allison claim it does. It can be argued that the phrase “for I am gentle and humble in heart” was added later, and is thus secondary, but it is difficult to make this argument since the phrase has a Hebraic-like doublet, “meek and lowly of heart,” embedded within it.

  • [21] For the Greek verb μανθάνειν (manthanein, to study) with the preposition ἀπό (apo, from), see Matt 24:32 = Mark 13:28 and Josephus Ant. 8:317 (“He [Ahab] learned from her [Jezebel] to worship her native gods”).
  • [22] The NIV’s rendering of πραΰς (prays) in Matt 11:29 is “gentle.” But prays is the Septuagint’s usual translation of עָנָו (anav, meek), so Jesus might have used the same Hebrew word, anav, that described Moses. Prays is also the Septuagint’s translation of עָנִי (ani, humble), for instance, in Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, Fair Zion; Raise a shout, Fair Jerusalem! Lo, your king is coming to you. He is victorious, triumphant, Yet ani [עָנִי], riding on an ass, On a donkey foaled by a she-ass” (JPS).
  • [23] I assume that Matt 11:29 originally read, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” Davies and Allison, while suggesting that the whole of Matthew 11:28-30 did not come from the mouth of Jesus, but was the creation of Matthew or his source, include “and you will find rest for your souls” in their reconstruction of the passage (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, 2:290). Davies and Allison argue that “Matthew agrees with the LXX against the MT in both the verbal form and the plural ψυχαῖς [souls]; but ἀνάπαυσις [rest] is not from the Greek OT. Matthew or his source exchanged Jeremiah’s ἁγνισμόν [tranquility] for ἀνάπαυσις in order to gain a link with 28b (ἀναπαύσω)” (2:291). They view these textual agreements and disagreements as evidence that “and you will find rest for yourselves” was created by the editor of Matthew. I also see them as evidence that “and you will find rest for your souls” was added by the Matthean editor, but, in that case, it probably was not part of the Semitic stratum.
  • [24] An interesting parallel to Matt 11:30 is found in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities. Paraphrasing 1 Kings 12:4, Josephus writes: “…they [Jeroboam and the leaders of the people] urged him [Rehoboam] to lighten their bondage somewhat and to be more lenient [χρηστότερον, chrestoteron, easier] than his father [Solomon], for, they said, the yoke [ζυγὸν, zygon] they had borne under him had been heavy [βαρὺν, baryn]…” (Ant. 8:213; trans. Ralph Marcus, Loeb Classical Library).
  • [25] See David N. Bivin and Joshua N. Tilton, “LOY 47: Rich Man Declines the Kingdom of Heaven,” Comment to L120.
  • [26] One also might consider 1 John 5:3: “This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome [βαρεῖαι, bareiai]” (NIV), since in this verse we have a Greek adjective for “heavy, burdensome” in reference to God’s commandments. However, it is possible that the writer of 1 John was influenced by Matt 11:28-30 and Matthew 23:4, and perhaps also by Acts 15. The author, like most modern commentators, may have wrongly interpreted Matt 11:28-30 in light of Matthew 23:4.
  • [27] “Bind” and its opposite, “loose,” are rabbinic idioms for “prohibit” and “permit” in reference to legal rulings. See David Bivin, “‘Binding’ and ‘Loosing.'”
  • [28] Most commentators express an extreme bias towards the Pharisees and the Oral Torah. Weiss writes: “Jesus indignantly describes the rules the Pharisaic rabbis lay on the righteous as…‘heavy burdens that cannot be borne,’ Mt. 23:4…The real concerns of the Law…are overwhelmed by casuistic and ritualistic obligations, i.e., by these φορτία [burdens]. This helps us to understand the Saviour’s call…in which Jesus promises refreshment to the weary and heavy-laden if they accept His φορτίον [burden], Mt. 11:28-30” (“φορτίον,” TDNT 9:85). Karl Heinrich Rengstorf states: “The saying [Mt. 11:29 f.]… is obviously formulated as a conscious paradox. How can a ζυγός [yoke] be easy? But the paradox evaporates when we remember who is speaking and to whom. Jesus is clearly speaking to those who already bear a ζυγός, for He refers expressly to His ζυγός, to the ζυγός of the Messiah, contrasting this with another ζυγός, with the other ζυγός. But this other ζυγός can only be that of worship under the Law, which involves the oppressive labour and attitude of the slave. This is clear from Mt. 23:4, where we find the image of the burden used. In this saying, therefore, a contrast is drawn between the Messianic ζυγός of Jesus and the ζυγός of legalism” (“ζυγός in the NT,” TDNT 2:899-900). Albright and Mann opine: “An easy yoke and a light burden are offered in exchange for the arbitrary demands of Pharisaic legalism and the uncertainties of ever-proliferating case law” (W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew [AB 26; Garden City: Doubleday, 1971], 146). Gundry writes: “…the burden Jesus puts on his disciples in chap. 11 contrasts with the burdens the scribes and Pharisees put on their followers in chap. 23. Confirmation that Matthew intends his readers to relate the two passages in this way comes from his omitting “you burden” in 23:4 (again cf. Luke 11:46)” (Matthew, 219). Gundry also speaks of “the overbearing conceit of the scribes and Pharisees in their quest for public recognition” (Matthew, 220). Hagner speaks of “the burdensome and tiring way of the Pharisees” (Matthew, 325), and “the overwhelming nomism of the Pharisees,” stating that their rulings “involved a complicated casuistry” (Matthew, 323). In his view, the Pharisees were Jesus’ “primary rivals” (Matthew, 324). For a more accurate appraisal of the Pharisees and their teaching, see David Flusser, Jesus (3rd ed.; Jerusalem: Magnes, 2001), 66-73, 89, 150, 182-3, 202-3.
  • [29] For the privations that a first-century disciple was expected to endure, see David Bivin, “First-century Discipleship.”
  • [30] As Gundry points out, “learning from Jesus defines the taking of his yoke on oneself” (Matthew, 218). Hagner connects Matthew 11:28-30 with Matthew 23, but understands that Jesus’ Matt 11 saying has to do with discipleship, and that Jesus was speaking as Wisdom did in Ben Sira 51, and even as God spoke to Moses in Exod 33:14 (Matthew, 323). Israel Abrahams also was not mislead. He noted that “The Pharisaic view [which in his opinion was also Jesus’ view] is well brought out in…the Apocalypse of Baruch, xli. 3, 4 [= 2 Baruch 51:3-4 in Charlesworth ed.]: ‘For lo! I see many of thy people who have withdrawn from thy covenant, and cast from them the yoke of thy law. But others again I have seen who have forsaken their vanity, and fled for refuge beneath thy wings.’ Galled by the yoke, or feeling it a profitless burden, the one casts it off. But another, willingly assuming it, finds it no yoke, but a refuge under the wings of the Divine Presence” (Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels [2 vols.; Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1924], 2:14).
  • [31] Nor was Jesus suggesting, in Matthew 11:28-30, new, lighter commandments as replacements for the commandments of the Torah. He would never have contrasted his commandments with God’s commandments: “Until the end of time, not the smallest letter of God’s Torah will ever pass away from the Torah,” he said (Matt 5:18). Furthermore, Jesus himself observed the commandments, even commandments of the Oral Torah. See David Bivin, “Did Jesus Observe The Oral Torah? – Blessing,” “Oral Torah: Unutterable Name,” and “Oral Torah: The Hem of His Garment.”
  • [32] Apparently, the prohibitions that leaders of the new community of Jesus proscribed for members not of Jewish origin were only three: “Thou shalt not commit idolatry”; “Thou shalt not commit murder”; and “Thou shalt not engage in sexual immorality,” (probably, the taking part in cult prostitution at pagan temples) (Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25 ). See David Bivin, “Acts 15:20: How Many Commandments Were Jesus’ Followers of Non-Jewish Parentage Commanded to Keep?” (forthcoming).
  • [33] It is possible, as some authorities (e.g., Jackson and Lake, The Acts of the Apostles, 4:174) have suggested, that the continuation of Peter’s comment, “that neither we nor our forefathers have been able to bear [i.e., keep],” is a later addition to the text, since it is unlikely that Peter or any of his Jewish contemporaries would have said that the commandments could not be kept. See, for instance, the statement of a rich man who approached Jesus: “All these (commandments) I have done [i.e., kept] from my youth” (Luke 18:21). Notice that Jesus did not take issue with the man’s statement.
  • [34] Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korkhah said, “Why does the Shema passage [Deut 6:4-9] precede the “So if you faithfully obey” passage [Deut 11:13-21]? So that a person may first accept the kingdom of heaven, and only afterwards the yoke of the commandments” (m. Ber. 2:2). (Note that in printed texts of the Mishnah we find the reading, “So that a person may first accept the yoke of the kingdom of heaven…”; however, in ancient Judaism, the “Kingdom of Heaven” was never thought of as a burden, or yoke, and this is reflected in tannaic sources—Codex Kaufmann, the most reliable manuscript of the Mishnah, reads, “So that a person may first accept the kingdom of heaven…”)
  • [35] As mentioned above (see section on “take my yoke upon you”), in their comments on Acts 15:10, Jackson and Lake note that “yoke” was used by Jewish writers in the sense of “obligation,” but give no evidence for such usage (The Acts of the Apostles, 4:173-74). I am indebted to James W. Fox for six examples showing that “burden” could be used in the sense of mitzvah and mitzvoth (Isa 43:23; Midr. Gen. 72:4; Midr. Lev. 13:2; b. Yoma 9a; 75bb. Shabb. 146b).

The Apostles and Prophets as the Foundation of the Church (Eph. 2:20)

The twentieth century saw the birth of a number of new theological movements within the church. The most powerful of these movements was postliberalism, a largely American movement[1] whose ideas are based squarely on the writings of the Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). One of the first orders of business in just about any new theological movement is to find a way to say that the movement is not really new, but that it represents a return to a sunnier past. And so it has been for postliberals: to give the appearance that it answers responsibly to the New Testament’s understanding of theological commonplaces, rather than to some modern theologian’s formulation, postliberalism developed one of the most polished rhetorics ever to grace theological discourse, a rhetoric appealing to a wide set of common religious sentiments. In what follows, I will briefly discuss one rhetorical device that has played an important role within postliberal writings: the idea that any appeal to the canons of logical necessity and/or conceptual consistency is in itself a defection to “another” foundation, that is, to a foundation set up in opposition to the role of Jesus Christ as the “church’s one foundation.”[2] In other words, postliberalism uses the language of “Christ as foundation” (see Rom. 15:20; 1 Cor. 3:11; 2 Tim. 2:19[3] as a warrant for conceiving of theology as having a rationality all its own, free from the logical necessities that plague all the sublunary fields of thought. Parallel to this idea, and drawing support from it, is postliberalism’s insistence that the Scriptures “belong” to the church, in the sense that the church’s work of interpreting Scripture actually determines what the Scriptures mean (so that Scriptures’ true meaning is a private meaning, belonging to the church). Bound up within this conceit is the idea that the reader is not supposed to read the Bible for the purpose of gaining access to the events it refers to, but that religious meaning is stored up within the text quite apart from its work of referring. In postliberal rhetoric, this means that one is supposed to look strictly at the narrative, rather than “behind the text.”

A moment’s reflection on the New Testament’s mode of reasoning should suggest that this use of “foundation” is probably some sort of rhetorical trap. Don’t the New Testament writers themselves employ the normal canons of logical necessity? And doesn’t the New Testament tacitly insist on conceptual consistency (and the consequentiality of the historical referents behind Scripture) when it holds up the actual, bodily reality of Christ’s resurrection as the sine qua non of the believer’s hope (1 Cor. 15)?[4] Any attempt to dissolve conceptual consistency would rob the force of Paul’s reasoning. Postliberals, in fact, are exalting Christ and his theological role in a way that appeals to religious sentiments, but in a way not at all in line with the New Testament. As Richard Muller explains, “We can distinguish…between the soteriological Christocentrism that belongs to any genuinely Christian body of doctrine and the principial Christocentrism that belongs to several nineteenth-century developments of the so-called ‘mediating theology’ and to Karl Barth.”[5] At any rate, a quick look at the New Testament’s use of the foundation image shows that it serves a different purpose from what postliberals seem to think.

Ephesians 2:20 is central for our study. According to Ephesians 2.20, the church is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner [stone]” (see also Luke 6:48-49; 14:29; Acts 16:26; Rom. 15:20; 1 Cor. 3:10-12; Heb. 11:10; Rev. 21:14, 19).[6] Here something other than “Jesus Christ” is (apparently) named as the church’s foundation. Is this an inconsistency within the New Testament? What does the double term “apostles and prophets” mean, and how should it impact the way we theologize? Historically, there have been a number of ways to understand “foundation” (themelios) in Ephesians 2:20. Wayne Grudem lists four that he considers “major”: (1) “foundation” refers to something “primarily non-personal,” denoting not the apostles and prophets themselves but rather their teaching and proclamation (reading “of the apostles and prophets” as a subjective genitive: “the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets”); (2) the foundation consists of the apostles and the Old Testament prophets; (3) it consists of the apostles and New Testament prophets; or (4) it refers to a single group: “the apostles who are also prophets.”[7] Grudem argues at length for interpretation (4), but for our purposes it is important to note something that Grudem doesn’t seem to notice: interpretation (1) is not exclusive of (2), (3), or (4). In other words, asking whether “of the apostles and prophets” refers to the apostolic and prophetic offices or the apostolic and prophetic message is an entirely different question from asking whether the prophets in question are those of Old or the New Testament.

Grudem protests against taking “prophets” as a reference to Old Testament figures, insisting that the uniting of Jews and gentiles within the same structure takes place within the superstructure of the building, not the foundation, and that this implies a uniting that takes place some time later than the work of the “apostles and prophets.” This argument, however, presupposes that the differentiation between the foundation and superstructure within the building metaphor is intended to indicate a chronological distinction. Grudem actually says as much, but in order to parse the metaphor this way he has to make a subtle adjustment, swapping the static metaphor of a building for the dynamic metaphor of the work of construction:

The metaphor of laying a foundation and building onto it suggests a chronological order which makes the OT prophets very unlikely candidates for the role of a themelios. For they were neither the first nor the only members of the OT covenant community. If chronological priority qualified one to be a foundation, we would have expected Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the other Patriarchs.[8]

Notice that Grudem’s interpretation involves smuggling a chronological reference into the foundation/building metaphor. It’s not a very violent act of smuggling, to be sure, but it’s real enough to demand a second look, and I would at least insist that Grudem hasn’t made his case that “the notion of chronological development” is “the most natural implication” of this metaphor.[9] Strictly speaking, the metaphor in Ephesians 2:20 is that of a building with a foundation, and Grudem loads the evidence when he replaces this static image with the verb-filled phrase “laying a foundation and building onto it.” And why is a chronological interpretation more “natural” than a static interpretation? Couldn’t a foundation stand for the most necessary part of an institution just as easily as it could stand for the earliest part? There are, in fact, more positive reasons for rejecting a chronological interpretation: Ephesians 2:20 names Jesus Christ as the akrogoviaios, a stone set higher up in the building’s superstructure, presumably a keystone or capstone of some sort. That’s certainly a strange position for Christ if the building metaphor is intended as a chronological image![10]

To my mind, it is preferable to take “prophets” as a reference to the Old Testament prophets (contra Grudem), not least because New Testament prophets nowhere play a role that could remotely be called foundational. The reader may object that the Old Testament prophets never play a foundational role either, but they are in fact foundational in an important way: the apostles and the Old Testament prophets meet each other within the proclamation of the kerygma (see Acts 3:18, 21, 24; 10:43). The kerygma (that is, the message of Christ’s death, burial, resurrection, ascension to the right hand, and sending of the Spirit) tells the events witnessed by the apostles and foretold by the prophets, and there is no mistaking the partnership of these two groups within the early missionary teaching in the book of Acts, in which the actual preaching of the apostles is supported with prooftexts from the prophetic books. In other words, of Grudem’s four choices, (1) and (2) are simultaneously correct: the church’s foundation is the message of the apostles and Old Testament prophets. It is easy to see, therefore, that 1 Corinthians 3:11’s reference to “Jesus Christ” as the church’s foundation is actually in complete agreement with Ephesians 2:20, since “Jesus Christ” and “apostles and prophets” are both shorthand for the Christ event (which is told in the kerygma).

In support of the notion that the church precedes the kerygma, in the sense of being the arbiter of Scripture’s meaning, postliberals often resort to the terms “incarnational ecclesiology” or “pneumatological ecclesiology,” calling on the idea that the Spirit has been given to the church (implying that the Spirit equips the church to read Scripture “correctly,” regardless of its original meaning). While I agree with the notion in principle, I do not agree with the way in which postliberalism unpacks it: the church does not precede Scripture in the sense of lending it authority. As I have tried to argue, the apostles and the prophets (as emblematic of the kerygma itself) comprise the foundation of the church. A proper consideration of this point clears up a lot of problems. When Walter Brueggemann writes that, “The great problem at issue for a Protestant theologian is how to escape the logic of the Roman Catholic claim that the church is the proximate source of the canonical authority of Scripture,”[11] the answer to this “problem” lies close at hand in the meaning of Ephesians 2:20. The New Testament is only an extension of the apostles, and as such its authority and meaning derives from the apostolic foundation of the church rather than from the church itself, and if the church precedes Scripture in the sense of being its necessary interpreter, that merely represents an epistemological problem for the church (and one that is standard for all reading communities) rather than a rendering of alethiological connections.[12] I have long been fascinated by that rhetorical trick by which postliberals disguise a purely history-of-religions definition of canon (as the expression of a given religious people) as an emic description of the canon’s theological role within Christianity. In the New Testament, the hierarchy of authority runs very clearly in the opposite direction, a point that Ernst Käsemann made long ago:

[T]he relationship of the community and the Word of God is not reversible; there is no dialectical process by which the community created by the Word becomes at the same time for all practical purposes an authority set over the Word to interpret it, to administer it, to possess it. Naturally, the community has always the task of interpreting the Word afresh, so that it can become audible at all times and in all places. In a certain sense it has also the task of administering it, inasmuch as it creates ways and means for the Word to make itself heard. But possess it—never. For the community remains the handmaid of the Word. If it makes the Word into a means to itself as an end, if it becomes the suzerain of the Word instead of its handmaid, the community loses its own life. The community is the kingdom of Christ because it is built up by the Word. But it remains so only while it is content not to assume control over the Word—a temptation which has been a constant threat to the Church. The freedom of a Christian man remains in existence only when, and as long as, he belongs not to himself but to his Lord. In precisely the same way, the community retains the character of the kingdom of Christ only when, and as long as, it subordinates itself to the Word, leaving in the Word’s hands all the power and absolute freedom of action. Even a congregation which calls itself Christian is devoid of any authority at all—indeed, must be called to order and repentance—when it makes itself the measure of the evangelical Word it is charged to utter and makes its own believing state the basis of proclamation and, derivatively, of theology.[13]

There is an irony here in that postliberals seem to accept the conflation of alethiological non-compossibilities as theologically tenable, which pretty much makes them Cartesians (as opposed to Thomists) when it comes to the question of whether theology can supervene conceptual consistency, yet they traditionally look upon Descartes as one of the greatest modernist enemies of a proper hermeneutic.

The situation today strikes me as that of the “ordinary divines” in Erasmus’ sixteenth-century response to Maarten Bartholomeuszoon van Dorp: “You write like one of our ordinary divines, who habitually attribute anything that has slipped somehow into current usage to the authority of the church.”[14] As Erasmus clearly saw, a proper hermeneutic, based on the retrieval of authorial intentions,[15] guards against this.

  • [1] It is revealing that prominent North American faculties that warmly embrace postliberalism (e.g., Duke, Princeton, Yale) hire their New Testament instructors almost exclusively from North American ranks, while those that have been more resistant to this way of thinking (e.g., Harvard, Chicago) hire their senior New Testament professors almost exclusively from Europe.
  • [2] This charge is explicitly made in Stanley Hauerwas, “The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ Her Lord; Or, In a World Without Foundations: All We Have is the Church,” in: Stanley Hauerwas, Nancey Murphy, and Mark Nation (eds.), Theology Without Foundations: Religious Practice and the Future of Theological Truth (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 143-62.
  • [3] See Joachim Jeremias, art. “γωνία, κτλ.,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 1:791-93.
  • [4] This is all argued clearly and forcefully in Paul J. Achtemeier, “Is the New Quest Docetic?” Theology Today 19 (1962): 355-68 (available online at http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/oct1962/v19-3-article3.htm).
  • [5] Richard A. Muller, “The Barth Legacy: New Athanasius or Origen Redivivus? A Response to T. F. Torrance,” The Thomist 54 (1990): 673-704, esp. 685. (Note: “principial” is not misspelled.)
  • [6] The apostles are also imbedded within a foundation in Rev. 21:14-19.
  • [7] Wayne A. Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1982), 82-84. Although I argue against Grudem’s exegesis in the course of arguing against postliberalism, the reader should not mistake Grudem for a postliberal.
  • [8] Ibid., 90. With this chronological rendering of the foundation metaphor, Grudem is able to exclude not only the OT prophets from the themelios, but the NT prophets as well, and so, Grudem thinks, view (4) is forced upon us (ibid., 94).
  • [9] Ibid., 93-94. Grudem writes that the NT prophet view “fits poorly with the idea of a fixed number of members (an idea which seems inherent to the metaphor of a foundation)” (ibid., 96). But the apostolic institution as such is singular, and satisfies the metaphor very well.
  • [10] Grudem thinks that “the idea of chronological sequence will be evident” to those encountering the foundation metaphor elsewhere in the New Testament, listing Rom. 15:20, 1 Cor. 3:10-12, and Heb. 6:1-2 as examples ([see n. 9], 95). He also calls attention to the early Christian writing Shepherd of HermasSim. 9.4.2-3, 9.12.2, 9.15.4. But it is not clear that these passages support Grudem’s reading: Paul’s use of the metaphor in Rom. 15:20 and 1 Cor. 3:10-15 unfolds the chronology of his missionary preaching, but the metaphor is captured there not simply through the use of themelios, but through the verbs for which themelios is the object. Rom. 15:20 and 1 Cor. 3:10-15 therefore supply evidence that themelios can be used with verbs expressing the chronological progression of the gospel (viz. of its taking root within an area), but they do not indicate that this chronological development is pent up within the foundation metaphor itself. It should further be noted that the foundation that Paul lays in 1 Cor. 3:11 is “Jesus Christ” (that is, the kerygma [see below]), which is foundational because of its continuing importance. Likewise, the author of Hebrews exhorts his readers not to lay “again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.” The chronological aspect of the metaphor consists of what is done to the themelios, and not of an aspect of the themelios itself.
  • [11] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997), 5, n. 10.
  • [12] An “epistemology” is an understanding of knowledge. An “alethiology” is an understanding of truth (as distinct from knowledge).
  • [13] Ernst Käsemann, New Testament Questions of Today (London: SCM, 1969), 261-62. Admittedly, Käsemann’s wording depends upon a “theology of the Word,” and to that degree, I must disagree with him. The theology of the New Testament is not a theology of the Word.
  • [14] Quoted in Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle, Erasmus on Language and Method in Theology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977), 28.
  • [15] See my article, “Authorial Intention as Old as the Hills,” Stone-Campbell Journal 7 (2004): 59-72.

Abraham’s Temptation, Forerunner of Jesus’ Temptation

Revised: 03-Jun-2013

Our father Abraham was tested [by God] with ten trials, and he withstood them all, demonstrating how great is God’s love for Abraham our father (Mishnah, Avot 5:3).[1]

Abraham’s temptation while on his way with Isaac to the land of Moriah[2] is amazingly similar to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13).

The Talmud describes Abraham’s temptation in its commentary on “After these things, God tested Abraham….” (Gen. 22:1). The “test,” “trial,” or “temptation”—all translations of the Hebrew word נִסָּיוֹן (nisayon)—was God’s command that Abraham take his only son Isaac to the land of Moriah and “offer him there as a burnt offering” (Gen. 22:2). Here is how the Talmud relates Abraham’s temptation:

On the way [to the land of Moriah] Satan came towards him [Abraham] and said to him, “If we assay to commune with thee, wilt thou be grieved?…Behold, thou hast instructed many, and thou hast strengthened the weak hands. Thy words have upholden him that was falling, and thou hast strengthened the feeble knees. But now it is come upon thee, and thou faintest” [Job 4:2-5].

He [Abraham] replied, “I will walk in mine integrity.” [Ps. 26:1][3]

“But,” said [Satan] to him, “should not thy fear be thy confidence? [Job 4:6].”

“Remember,” he [Abraham] retorted, “I pray thee, whoever perished, being innocent?” [Job 4:7].

Seeing that he [Abraham] would not listen to him, he said to him, “Now a thing was secretly brought to me [Job 4:12]: thus have I heard from behind the Curtain [i.e., from the most intimate secrets of God], ‘the lamb, for a burnt-offering [Job 4:7] but not Isaac for a burnt-offering.’”

He [Abraham] replied, “It is the penalty of a liar, that should he even tell the truth, he is not listened to.” (trans. Soncino)

Employing Scripture, Satan tempted the story’s hero, Abraham. Satan’s first two suggestions to Abraham were quotations from Scripture, and his third suggestion was taken from Scripture. Abraham, God’s faithful and righteous servant, answered Satan with Scripture. The tempter and the tempted carried on a conversation by means of scriptural quotations!

Satan quoted Scripture three times and Abraham employed Scripture twice in his responses. In only one of the three suggestions made to Jesus did Satan quote Scripture; however, to each of Satan’s suggestions, Jesus responded with answers composed solely of Scripture, each time prefacing the quotation with “It is written.”[4] This pattern of responding to the Tempter with Scripture was not accidental, as the following rabbinic saying illustrates:

R. Hanina said: If your Tempter comes to incite you to levity, cast him down with the words of the Torah, as it is written, “The [evil] imagination when near to thee, thou shalt combat” [Isa. 26:3] (Genesis Rabbah 22:6; trans. Soncino).

When tempted, both Jesus and Abraham vanquished their tempter with words of Torah, just as Israel’s teachers exhorted their students to do. Abraham’s final retort may or may not have alluded to verses of Scripture, but it certainly was a masterful repartee. Abraham indicated to Satan that he “had his number,” as it were. Abraham knew that Satan might have secret knowledge and that the sacrifice might indeed be a lamb rather than Isaac; however, since Satan is a liar by nature, he was not to be believed.[5]

So devastating was Abraham’s response that Satan gave up. Defeated, he slunk away. The same thing happened following Jesus’ third response. (According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus prefaced his third response with “Be gone, Satan!” [Matt 4:10; cf. Luke 4:13].) Satan’s strength is only apparent. He appears to be powerful, but, in reality, he is weak and feeble. It only takes one courageous man of faith, armed with words of Torah, to overcome him.[6]

Rabbi Abba bar Judan said: It [sin] is like a decrepit brigand who sat at the crossroads and ordered every passer-by to surrender his possessions, until a shrewd person passed by and saw that he was feeble, whereupon he began to crush him. Similarly, the Tempter destroyed many generations—the generation of Enosh, the generation of the Flood, and the generation of the separation [of races]. But when Abraham arose and saw how really feeble he was, he began to crush him, as it is written, “And I will beat to pieces his adversaries before him [Ps. 89:23].” (Genesis Rabbah 22:6; trans. Soncino)[7]

When confronted by the Tempter, 1) we should remember that Satan is not to be believed and often twists Scripture to his advantage, and 2) we should follow the example of Jesus and the teaching of Israel’s ancient sages: Satan can best be defeated by quoting words of Scripture.

  • [1] The author’s translation of m. Avot 5:3, עֲשָׂרָה נִיסְיוֹנוֹת נִיתְנַסָּה אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ וְעָמַד בְּכּוּלָם לְהוֹדִיעַ כַּמָּה הִיא חִיבָּתוֹ שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ (Codex Kaufmann).
  • [2] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 89b. Abraham’s trial is the final of a series of ten. In his A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1987), 49-52, Samuel Tobias Lachs does not refer to this parallel. He does quote m. Avot 5:3, and reference Genesis Rabbah 22:6, two of the other rabbinic sources to which I have referred in this article.
  • [3] Notice the next verse of this Psalm: “Prove me, O LORD, and try me; test my heart and my mind” (Ps. 26:2).
  • [4] Jesus’ quotations are taken from the book of Deuteronomy, all of them concentrated in chapters 6 to 8. The same is true of the scriptural quotations found in the Abraham story: except for the quotation of Ps. 26:1, all are from Job 4.
  • [5] Cf. “He [Satan]…has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44; RVS).
  • [6] Cf. “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds…” (2 Cor. 10:3-5; KJV). In Luke 11:21-22, Jesus speaks of crushing Satan: “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are in peace; but when one stronger than he assails him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted, and divides his spoil” (RSV). In this saying Jesus alludes to Isa. 53:12, but rather than interpret it as “I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,” he interpretes the verse as, “Publicly, I [Jesus] will divide him [Satan, the Strong Man] into pieces [i.e., bust him up, ‘take him apart’]; and with the stronger [Jesus] than he [Satan], he [Satan] will (be forced to) divide his [Satan’s]) spoil.”
  • [7] Another passage that mentions Abraham’s arising and the generations of Enosh and the Flood is the famous passage about Abraham the Petra: “The Holy One, blessed is He, before He created the world, sat and examined the generation of Enosh and the generation of the Flood. ‘How can I create the world when those wicked people will arise and provoke me to anger?’ he said. When, however, the Holy One, blessed is He, saw Abraham who would appear, He said, ‘Here I have found solid rock [petra] on which I can build and upon which I can lay the world’s foundations’” (Yalkut Shim’oni to Num. 23:9). See Bivin, “Matthew 16:18: The  Petros-petra Wordplay—Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew?” Jerusalem Perspective 46 & 47 (Sept.-Dec. 1994), 32-36, 38. According to the interpretation attached to Abba bar Judan’s parable, Satan had destroyed many generations before Abraham appeared! In the petra passage, God, looking into the future, despaired of these same generations (referred to here as “those wicked people”). In fact, they were so wicked that, temporarily, God was unable to consider creating the world.

Selected Examples of Rewriting in Mark’s Account of Jesus’ Last Week

Revised: 02-Jul-2013

It has been noted that in instances where Mark’s editorial hand restructured his story, Luke has preserved a more primitive form of the account, a form that is independent of Mark’s influence. Gospel scholars need to properly evaluate Mark’s editorial style and acknowledge that frequently a theological agenda influenced his rewriting.[1]

In 1922 William Lockton proposed a theory of Lukan priority. According to Lockton’s hypothesis, Luke was written first, copied by Mark, who was in turn copied by Matthew who copied from Luke.[2] Forty years later Robert L. Lindsey independently reached a similar solution to the so-called “synoptic problem.” He proposed a theory which argues that Luke was written first and was used by Mark, who in turn was used by Matthew (according to Lindsey, Matthew did not know Luke’s Gospel).[3] As in the more popular Two-document (or Two-source) Hypothesis, Mark is the middle term between Matthew and Luke.

Lindsey arrived at his theory by accident. Attempting, for the benefit of modern speakers of Hebrew, to replace Franz Delitzsch’s outdated translation of the New Testament, Lindsey began by translating the Gospel of Mark, assuming it to be the earliest of the Synoptic Gospels. Although Mark’s text is relatively Semitic, it contains hundreds of non-Semitisms that are not present in Lukan parallels. This suggested to Lindsey the possibility that Mark was copying Luke and not vice versa.[4] With further research Lindsey came to his solution to the synoptic problem.

A number of researchers in Israel, most prominently David Flusser, espoused Lindsey’s source theory.[5] These scholars believe that a Hebrew Vorlage lies behind the Greek texts of the Gospels and that by translating the Greek texts back into Hebrew and considering how this Hebrew text would have been understood by first-century readers, one gains a fuller understanding of the Gospel texts’ original meaning.

In their emphasis on the importance of Hebrew for synoptic studies, Lindsey, Flusser, and their students, are a product of the pioneering work of Hebrew University professor M. H. Segal, who suggested as early as 1909 that Mishnaic Hebrew showed the characteristics of a living language.[6] Segal’s conclusions have largely been borne out by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Bar Kochva letters and other documents from the Dead Sea area.

Lindsey’s synoptic theory is a minority opinion. The vast majority of today’s New Testament scholars assume the Two-document Hypothesis: Luke and Matthew wrote independently using Mark and a common source, which is sometimes termed Q. Since, according to this theory, Matthew and Luke relied in their Triple Tradition material upon Mark, one would not expect texts of their Triple Tradition to be superior to Mark’s. Certainly, one would not expect to find Luke and Matthew agreeing against Mark (such agreements are termed “minor agreements”[7] )to preserve a more primitive wording. Yet, this is sometimes the case. In the Synoptic Gospels there are examples of what appear to be Markan rewriting of Luke’s account (or one of Luke’s sources or a Lukan-like source).[8]

Let us compare the Matthean, Markan and Lukan versions of the following passages, or portions of them, from the last week of Jesus’ life (only the first in some depth): 1. Jesus’ Last Visit to the Temple (Aland pericopae 271-274); 2. the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Aland 278); 3. The Great Commandment (Aland 282); 4. the Last Supper (Aland 311); 5. Jesus before the Sanhedrin (Aland 332); and 6. Jesus’ Death on the Cross (Aland 347-348).[9] Examination of a limited corpus of material from the last week of Jesus’ life could shed light on Mark’s editorial methods and indicate the interdependency of two of the Synoptic Gospels (Luke and Mark). Obviously, for these examples to be compelling, it would be necessary to integrate them into a fuller treatment of the synoptic problem.

Jesus’ Last Visit(s) to the Temple

The “Cleansing” according to the Synoptic Gospels

Luke’s version of the Cleansing is brief and straightforward: “And he entered the temple and began to take out the sellers, saying to them, ‘It is written, “My house will be a house of prayer,” but you have turned it into “a den of bandits.”’” According to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus cleansed the temple on the same day that he and his disciples reached Jerusalem. Matthew’s Gospel agrees with Luke’s that Jesus “cleansed” the temple immediately after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The two writers agree against Mark that the Cleansing did not take place on the day following Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. In contrast to Luke and Matthew’s accounts, Mark’s account of the temple’s cleansing is much more complex: Jesus entered Jerusalem and went straight to the temple. After “he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve” (vs. 11).[10] The next day—“In the morning,” according to Matthew—on their way to Jerusalem from Bethany, Jesus cursed a fig tree. (Matthew adds: “And the fig tree withered at once.”) Arriving in Jerusalem for the second time, Jesus entered the temple. According to Mark, it was on this second visit to the temple that he “cleansed” it, driving out not only the merchants, but their customers, as well. He overturned the money changers’ tables and the pigeon sellers’ chairs, even preventing the transporting of burdens in the temple. (Matthew, following Mark up to this point, omits “he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.”)

Apparently, on their way back to Bethany—for they passed the same fig tree that Jesus had cursed earlier in the day—Jesus and his disciples found that the fig tree had withered.


A. Jesus in the Temple (Luke 19:45-46; Mark 11:11; Matt. 21:10-17; Aland 271).

And he entered Jerusalem. According to Mark, Jesus “entered into Jerusalem into the temple.” Upon his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus went straight to the temple, but only “looked around[11] at everything” in it. Unlike Mark and Matthew, Luke does not mention that Jesus “entered Jerusalem.” Luke already had mentioned that Jesus reached the “descent of the Mount of Olives” (Luke 19:37) and that he “saw the city” (Luke 19:41). Mark had not included these details, and perhaps felt it necessary to bring Jesus into Jerusalem.

B. The Cursing of the Fig Tree (Mark 11:12-14; Matt. 21:18-19; Aland 272).

Vincent Taylor suggested that Mark’s Cursing of the Fig Tree reflects Luke 13:6-9,[12] which begins, “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard,[13] and he came seeking fruit on it and found none.” Rudolf Bultmann, too, came to the conclusion that Mark 11:12-14 was a literary creation,[14] although he suggested that Hosea 9:10, 16 or Micah 7:1 may have sparked its creation.[15]

In Scripture the vineyard symbolizes the “house of Israel,” that is, the people of Israel.[16] The fig tree, which towered over the vines, may symbolize the leaders of the people. The fig tree in the Luke 13:6-9 parable, which may have given Mark his lead, probably symbolized the Sadducean high priestly families, the temple’s leadership.

for it was not the season for figs. Jesus’ action as portrayed by Mark and Matthew is strange to say the least:[17] he cursed a poor fig tree because he found no fruit on it, “although it was not the season for figs”![18] The addition in Mark 11:13, ὁ γὰρ καιρὸς οὐκ ἦν σύκων, absent in Matthew, appears to be a Markan editorial comment. According to Lindsey, ὁ γάρ is a Markan formula indicating an editorial addition.[19]

C. The Cleansing of the Temple (Luke 19:45-48; Mark 11:15-19; Matt. 21:12-13; Aland 273).

Luke’s account of the Cleansing (Luke 19:45-46) is brief, just twenty-five Greek words, compared to Mark’s sixty-five (Mark 11:15-17). The author of Matthew (Matt. 21:12-13), attempting to be faithful to Mark and the source he shared with Luke, was, as often in Triple Tradition, somewhere in between Luke and Mark in length—Matthew’s account is forty-five words.

Put yourself in the picture! Imagine yourself standing on Valley Street, about 65 meters south of the southwest corner of the Temple Mount, late in the morning of an ordinary day between 10 B.C.E. and 70 C.E. The broad stairway to your left leads over a series of arches, the last and highest of which is known today as Robinson's Arch. This stairway leads to the Royal Stoa, also known as Solomon's Colonnade or Portico (John 10:23; Acts 3:11; 5:12), a huge hall that stretches along the top of the Temple platform's southern wall. The Valley Street runs from the area of today's Damascus Gate in the north, passes by the Antonia Fortress (at the northwest corner of the Temple Mount), and continues south to the Siloam Pool in the City of David, at the junction of the Kidron and Tyropean Valleys. The street is flanked on both sides by shops. When excavated (since 1968), these shops yielded the finds one would expect—coins, storage jars and stone weights. Through Robinson's Arch you can see Wilson's Arch, which forms the eastern part of a bridge that connects the upper city on the western hill with the Temple Mount. On the pavement beside a manhole, you see an employee of the Department of Public Works. Herod the Great's urban renewal includes not only vast building projects above ground, but also an extensive system for water collection and drainage.
The vendors’ stalls in the vicinity of Robinson’s Arch at the southwest corner of the Temple Mount.

entered the temple. In light of recent research and archaeological evidence, a reinterpretation of Luke 19:45 is needed. On the face of it, εἰσελθὼν εἰς τὸ ἱερόν (Luke 19:45) should mean “to go into the temple proper,” that is, into the Court of the Women, or into the outer court, the Court of the Gentiles. However, since monetary transactions and other commercial activities were not permitted in the temple itself (not even in the Court of the Gentiles), in this context, “temple” probably refers to the area surrounding the temple platform, particularly the commercial area immediately south of the Huldah Gates, the double gates that served as the entrance for temple pilgrims. (In rabbinic sources this area, or even the whole of Jerusalem, could be called “the temple.”) Jesus apparently entered this vicinity, an area of great sanctity because it was the area of preparation for the ascent to the temple. Here there were scores of mikva’ot for the ritual purification of pilgrims before their ascent, but also scores of encroaching stalls of merchants. The noise of the hawkers was a terrible distraction for pilgrims, but, more importantly, the shops reeked of corruption because the high priestly families operated there like the Mafia. Jesus was not against the use of money or the sale of sacrificial animals in the temple, which was stipulated in the Torah (Deut. 14:25);[20] but, like many others of his day, he was incensed by the actions of the people running the system, the ruthless high priests, who did not shrink even from murder: “You, who are robbers, are turning the temple into a ‘den of robbers,’” was Jesus’ indictment.

and began to take out those who sold. The Greek ἐκβάλλειν (ekballein) could mean “take out” or “cast out” (of the temple courts); but if Jesus had not entered the temple proper, the “out” does not make sense (although it could mean “out of the commercial area” located outside the temple proper). Although not the most common Hebrew equivalent for ekballein,[21] Lindsey suggested that the Hebrew verb להוציא (lehotsi’; take out, bring out) underlies ekballein.[22] If so, then ekballein could have the sense, “take aside,” “pull off to the side,” or “take outside [their stalls (or outside the area)].” Jesus did not use force, but skillfully combined texts of Scripture to rebuke the sellers for being part of a corrupt system organized and run by the high priests. We might translate Luke 19:45 as: “Jesus entered [the commercial area of] the temple and began to take the merchants (or the high priests’ enforcers) aside (or, outside the area) [to rebuke them]….” Jesus entered the temple and began[23] to remove the merchants who were selling in the temple,[24] rebuking them for desecrating the sanctity of the temple. Since Lindsey assumed that behind the Greek word ἐκβάλλειν (ekballein; drive out, banish; throw out; throw away, reject; cast out of a place, expel; remove, get rid of; put out), stood the Hebrew להוציא (lehotsi’; bring out, take out), Lindsey used that word in his translation of Mark 11:15.[25] However, if lehotsi’ was in the hypothetical Semitic undertext, one would expect ἐξάγειν (lead out, bring out), or ἐκφέρειν (ekferein; carry out, bring out), to be its Greek equivalent—to translate lehotsi’, the translators of the Septuagint used ἐξάγειν 171 times and ἐκφέρειν sixty-seven times, but ἐκβάλλειν (ekballein) only five times (2 Chron. 23:14; 29:5, 16 [twice]; Ezra 10:3). Nevertheless, as Lindsey suggested, lehotsi’ is a possible equivalent of ekballein, and if lehotsi’ is behind ekballein, then the sense originally might have been, “take [the sellers] aside,” or “take [them] outside [their stalls],” or even, “take [them] out [of the area].”[26] The Hebrew lehotsi’ might provide a more satisfactory explanation of Jesus’ action: he did not use physical violence to “cleanse” the temple, but rather, used strong words of reproof, warning the sellers about the gravity of their deeds by combining texts of Scripture.

The assumption that lehotsi’ stands behind ekballein might also explain the amplification of violence as the story was retold, first by Mark, then by Matthew, and finally, by John. Ekballein’s assumed Hebrew equivalent, lehotsi’, did not necessarily imply violence; however, the Greek ekballein—although it, too, is sometimes nonviolent in meaning—can indicate “to throw out vigorously or violently.”[27] The development from Luke to Mark to Matthew to John is one of increasing violence, until, finally, John portrays Jesus as braiding a whip, with which he drove all sheep and cattle from the temple courts, scattering the coins of the money changers and overturning their tables (John 2:13-16). This appears to be a development that was facilitated by the Greek language, and, thus, a development that occurred only after the Gospel narrative had been rendered into Greek. The increasing level of violence, beginning with Mark and ending with John, may also indicate the direction of synoptic flow.[28]

overturned the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those who sold pigeons. Joseph A. Fitzmyer comments:

Denial of the historicity [of the Purging of the Temple, Lk. 19:45-46] stems mainly from the inability to explain how Jesus as a single individual could have cleaned out the great Court of the Gentiles of the sellers and money changers who did business there with the permission of Temple authorities and succeeded in it without opposition or a least the intervention of Temple police. How could he have prevented the court from being used as a thoroughfare for transporting objects (Mark 11:16)? There is, in the long run, no way of answering this question, valid though it may be; we just do not know how Jesus might have done it.[29]

The answer to the conundrum might be found, as Lindsey has suggested, in a Hebraic understanding of “drive out.”[30] A misunderstanding of the Hebraic nuance of ἐκβάλλειν together with a shift to the Greek nuance of the word might explain the expansion and growing violence that took place in the accounts of the other three Gospels, culminating in John’s account.

Even if Mark realized that here ekballein carries the sense of the Hebrew lehotsi’ (to take out, take aside), in order to build his midrash (Mark 11:15-16), he may have taken ekballein in one of its Greek nuances: “to cast, throw out.”[31]

he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. Matthew was apparently unwilling to copy Mark’s “He would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple” (vs. 16). With the addition of “in the temple” (vs. 15, which Matthew followed) and “through the temple” (vs. 16), Mark created the impression that temple commerce took place within the temple itself, probably in the Court of the Gentiles, rather than outside the temple.[32]

In Luke’s account Jesus is protesting against the commercialization of the sacred temple.[33] However, in Mark’s account, by not allowing anyone to carry anything through the temple, Jesus virtually shuts down the temple.[34]

my house. Here “house” carries the Hebraic sense of “God’s house,” that is, the temple in Jerusalem. (Compare “Your house is forsaken” in Luke 13:35, and its parallel in Matt. 23:38.) The probable scenario is: Jesus took the vendors aside[35] and said to them, “My house [beti] is a house of prayer, but you have made my house [beti][36] a den of thieves,” a combination of allusions to Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11.

house of prayer…den of robbers…. The rabbinic way in which Jesus quoted Scripture (Luke 19:46), combining portions of two verses from distant contexts (Isa. 56:7; Jer. 7:11), should be noted.[37] Jewish sages often employed just a single word or phrase of a scripture verse to allude to the verse’s whole context, for example, Jesus’ reference to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10) to allude to Ezekiel 34. When Jesus mentioned “robbers,” was he, perhaps, alluding to the whole of Jeremiah 7 (cf. especially, Jer. 7:14, 20, 30, 32-34)?

The author of Mark, in Mark 11:17, spoils the rabbinic sophistication of Jesus’ saying by 1) quoting more fully, adding “for all the nations”[38] ; 2) changing Jesus’ “It is written” to a question, “Is it not written?”; and 3) prefacing “And he taught,” perhaps a reflection of Luke 19:47, “And he was teaching daily in the temple.”

And he was teaching daily in the temple…. According to Lindsey, Luke 19:47-48 is an editorial summary similar to the summary in Luke 21:37-38.[39] We can conjecture that the two verses were composed in Greek by Luke, or by the second of his two sources.

D. The Meaning of the Withered Fig Tree (Mark 11:20-25; Matt. 21:20-22; Aland 275).

"The Accursed Fig Tree" by James Tissot. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
“The Accursed Fig Tree” by James Tissot. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Like Taylor, Beare and Bultmann conjectured that the Miracle of the Fig Tree pericope is a literary creation of Mark, perhaps reflecting a Lukan fig tree story.[40] Lindsey suggested that the Meaning of the Withered Fig Tree pericope is a reflection of two Lukan passages: Mark 11:22-23, which seems to be based on Luke 17:5-6 (replacing sycamore tree with Paul’s “mountain” in 1 Cor. 13:2); and Mark 11:24-25, which seems to be based on Luke 11:9-13.[41]

Analysis of “Jesus’ Last Visit(s) to the Temple”

The two Markan fig-tree pericopae bracket Jesus’ “cleansing,” or “purging,” of the temple. Mark’s order of presentation is: temple – fig tree – temple – fig tree. He split both stories, making the temple story almost a double cleansing. Both Matthew and Luke recorded only one visit to the temple, and, Matthew, who also recorded the Cursing of the Fig Tree story, did not split the story.

By bracketing the Cleansing of the Temple pericope with the Cursing of the Fig Tree and Withering Fig Tree pericopae, Mark’s intent, apparently, was to point to the temple’s defilement. His presentation reveals his own editorial work. There is literary build-up in Mark’s Gospel.

Flusser points out that in Mark’s presentation, Jesus never weeps over Jerusalem, and suggests that the cursing of the fig tree may be Mark’s way of presenting Jerusalem as already judged and cursed.[42] Perhaps Mark was recounting the last week of Jesus’ life from a sectarian rather than a historical point of view. The author of Mark 11:11-25 may have been influenced by the Essene attitude to the temple in Jerusalem. The Essenes viewed the temple as defiled, and they loathed the temple and its priests.[43] By bracketing the Cleansing with the two fig tree incidents, Mark reveals a similar attitude to the temple.

Parable of the Wicked Tenants

Luke 20:9-19; Mark 12:1-12; Matt. 21:33-46 (Aland 278)

In Mark’s account, the tenants murder the son in his father’s vineyard, then throw the son’s body out of the vineyard (Mark 12:8). In Matthew and Luke’s accounts, however, the tenants throw the son out of the vineyard and then murder him (Matt. 21:39; Luke 20:15). This is a Matthean-Lukan minor agreement in word order: “cast out” and “kill,” in contrast to Mark’s “kill” and “cast out.” Independently, Matthew and Luke have agreed against Mark that the heir was murdered outside the vineyard![44]

This Matthean-Lukan minor agreement in order is strong evidence that the Markan order is secondary. If it could be shown that a theological bent lies behind the evangelist’s change of order, this would further strengthen the argument for the primacy of the Matthean-Lukan order of the events in the parable. Indeed, the Markan version of the parable appears to be theologically motivated.

In what is apparently the story’s earliest form, the tenants murder the owner’s emissaries who were sent “that the tenants should give them from the fruit of the vineyard,” that is, the percentage of the crop that was due the owner. Not giving the owner of the vineyard his share of the fruit may have been Jesus’ veiled criticism of the temple priests’ non-payment of tithes. The “fruit,” which belongs to the owner of the vineyard, perhaps symbolizes the tithes that belong to God.[45] As noted above, in Scripture the “vineyard” symbolizes the people of Israel. In Jesus’ parable, the vineyard’s tenants are possibly the Sadducean religious authorities, particularly the five prominent families from which, during the latter years of the Second Temple’s existence, the high priest was chosen: the houses of Boethus, Hanan, Phiabi, Kathros and Kimhit.[46] They are portrayed negatively in rabbinic literature, as well as in the New Testament, because of their corruption and greed.[47] Jesus may have indicated the punishment that awaited these leaders because they were not giving the “owner of the vineyard” his share of the fruit.

In his retelling of the parable, Mark seems to have subtly changed the parable so that instead of it being a condemnation of the temple high priests for not tithing, it became a statement about the pollution of the temple—Mark has the son killed by the tenants in the vineyard, thus defiling it. Apparently, in Mark’s eyes, the temple was already hopelessly defiled.

Obviously, most Pharisees did not believe that the temple had been defiled, since they continued to participate in temple worship and sacrifices. The Essenes, however, did believe that it had been defiled (see note 43). Was Mark influenced by Essene beliefs? The literary tendencies he displays in this parable may be an indication that he was.

Mark’s version of the Parable of the Wicked Tenants exhibits similarities to his Cursing of the Fig Tree. In both there is a vineyard (assuming Mark created his Cursing of the Fig Tree pericope from Luke’s Fig Tree Parable) and the absence of fruit.[48]

A Question Concerning the Resurrection

Luke 20:27-40; Mark 12:18-27; Matt. 22:23-33 (Aland 281)

For they no longer dared to ask him any question. The Question Concerning the Resurrection, a story from Jesus’ last week, contains an example that, like the mounting violence in the Gospel versions of the Cleansing of the Temple pericope, illustrates the synoptic flow from Luke to Mark to Matthew. Flusser called this example the Synoptic Gospels’ clearest illustration of the synoptic relationship.[49]

This story highlights the conflicts over theological issues that characterized Jesus’ relationship with the Sadducees. Its concluding words, according to Luke, were: “For they no longer dared to ask him any question” (Luke 20:40). However, Mark placed these words at the end of The Great Commandment story: “And after that no one dared to ask him any question” (Mark 12:34); and Matthew placed them at the end of The Question about David’s Son pericope: “And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions” (Matt. 22:46).

The statement that “they no longer dared to ask him any question(s)” appears in three consecutive contexts (Aland 281, 282 and 283), yet it fits only where the author of Luke placed it, in the context of Jesus’ dispute with the Sadducees about the resurrection. Mark omitted the statement in his version of the dispute with the Sadducees, but placed it at the end of a scribe’s expansive repetition of Jesus’ words about the great commandment. (It is significant that Matthew and Luke agree to omit Mark’s expansion, Mark 12:32-34.) The Great Commandment story is not a dispute context; therefore, it is probable that Mark has misplaced the statement.

Matthew, perhaps following Mark’s lead, likewise decided not to give the statement within a dispute context—even though he may have seen it in the source he shared with Luke—nor did he give it opposite Mark in The Great Commandment pericope. He placed it at the end of his version of The Question about David’s Son. By so doing, the author of Matthew turned the story into a dispute context. It is unlikely that The Question about David’s Son is a dispute context, since its opening, “How can they say that the Messiah is David’s son?”[50] is a typical rabbinic way of a launching a lesson.[51] The question-riddle in this instance is, “How can one say that the Messiah is the descendant [literally ‘son’] of David? David himself says in the book of Psalms, ‘The Lord said to my lord, “Sit here at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ David calls him lord, so how can he be his descendant?”[52] This is a question that Jesus might well have put to his disciples; and, therefore, it appears to be authentic.

Luke 20:41-44 is the shortest and most difficult of the three versions of the The Question about David’s Son. Luke’s version, unlike Mark and Matthew’s, has no setting, beginning, “And he said to them”—a very rabbinic and Hebraic opening. This opening is followed by another Hebraism, “How they say…?” that is, “How can one say?” or “How is it possible to say?”[53]

The Last Supper

Luke 22:15-20; Mark 14:22-25; Matt. 26:26-29 (Aland 311)

The Pharisaic order for festive meals, including the Passover meal, was wine-bread. That order was preserved in Luke’s version of The Last Supper (Luke 22:17-19). Mark’s order, which is followed by Matthew, is bread-wine. That also appears to be Paul’s order in 1 Cor. 11:23-29.[54]

Mark’s bread-wine order may be due to the influence of Essene theology.[55] R. Steven Notley has suggested that the move to the bread-wine order occurred because the Essenes believed that this would be the order followed by the messiah of the End of Days. They identified this priestly messiah with Melchizedek, and since Melchizedek “brought out bread and wine” (Gen. 14:18) to bless Abraham when he returned from defeating Chedorlaomer and his coalition, it was believed that the coming messiah would continue this practice.[56]

In this example, as in the other cases of Markan rewriting detailed above, the Lukan version appears superior to the Markan version.[57] There appears to be little motivation on the part of the author of Luke to have changed Mark’s order. The wine-bread order in Luke seems unmotivated, insipid, and, therefore, it appears improbable that Luke’s version was copied from Mark’s. The simplest explanation is that Luke’s version is the more historical. On the other hand, it is not unreasonable to suppose that Mark, influenced by Paul’s writings, Essene theology, eschatological considerations, or a combination of these and other reasons, changed the wine-bread order preserved in the Lukan account.

Here we may have still another Markan editorial change that connects the Gospel’s author with Essene thinking. Rather than viewing the author of Mark as Pharisaic and main-stream like Luke, we must consider the possibility that Mark’s author had a sectarian and eschatological bent.

Jesus before the Sanhedrin

Luke 22:54, 63-71; Mark 14:53, 55-65; Matt. 26:57, 59-68 (Aland 332)

In the account of Jesus’ arrest and confinement in the high priest’s courtyard, or, according to Matthew and Mark, during a court session of the Sanhedrin,[58] we find a significant Matthean-Lukan “minor agreement”: τίς ἐστιν ὁ παίσας σε (“Who is it that struck you?” Luke 22:64; Matt. 26:68). Mark’s account omits the question (Mark 14:65). If one assumes that Luke and Matthew wrote independently, this omission is strong evidence that, at this point in his narrative, Mark’s version is secondary.[59] It is easier to suppose that Mark deleted the question, “Who is it that struck you?” from his narrative than that Luke and Matthew, each independently, inserted it in theirs.[60] Streeter considered this agreement of Matthew and Luke against Mark “the most remarkable of all the minor agreements”;[61] nevertheless, in order to eliminate it, he cited some textual support for the reading, “Who is it that struck you?” in Mark’s text. Although all manuscripts of Matthew include the taunt of those who slapped, struck and spit upon Jesus, Streeter suggested, on the basis of assimilation, that the taunt is an interpolation in Matthew.[62]

According to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus was blindfolded, and Jesus’ guards, slaves of the high priest, amused themselves, probably to relieve the boredom of a long night, by cruelly using Jesus in a children’s game.[63] (In this game one of the participants is blindfolded, then struck lightly and asked to guess which of the other participants struck him.[64] The next morning the “assembly of the elders of the people gathered together, both chief priests and scribes.”

In Mark, followed by Matthew, this order of events is reversed, with the guessing game coming at the end of a night session of the Sanhedrin.[65] (Flusser believed that this is just one of many cases in which Mark “deliberately changes the wording and order of his Vorlage.”)[66] However, Mark failed to have the members of the Sanhedrin exit. Since he knew from his source who Jesus’ tormentors were, in order to prevent misunderstanding on the part of his readers, Mark added, “And the guards received him with blows” (Mark 14:65).[67] Matthew’s author, however, made no mention of the guards, and therefore, it appears that some of those attending the council’s meeting, perhaps even members of the Sanhedrin, spit on Jesus and struck him. Matthew also omitted the blindfolding of Jesus, thus making the guards’ question inappropriate.

Jesus’ Death on the Cross

Luke 23:44-49; Mark 15:33-41; Matt. 27:45-56 (Aland 347-348)

Compared to the Matthean-Lukan portrayal, the Markan Jesus is a lonely individual: Jesus is deserted first by his people, then by his disciples, including his most trusted disciple, Peter, and finally, by God himself.[68] Jesus’ words from the cross, “ελωι ελωι λεμα σαβαχθανι” (Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani; Mark 15:34), seem to fit this Markan despair framework.[69] These words appear to be Mark’s replacement for Luke 23:46.[70] Apparently, Mark substituted Psalms 22:1 (in Aramaic!)[71] for Luke’s more appropriate, “Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit” (Pss. 31:5), just what one would expect on the lips of a dying, observant Jew.[72]

Mark’s replacement may be a midrashic expansion of an earlier version of Jesus’ death on the cross,[73] a version like that preserved in Luke.[74] Jesus’ words, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” are often viewed as evidence that Jesus spoke Aramaic, since the words are an Aramaic translation of Psalms 22:2 (22:1), “אֵלִי אֵלִי לָמָה עֲזַבְתָּנִי.” However, it is more likely that Jesus, who in the last days before his crucifixion had already told his disciples of his impending death and its meaning, would, in his final moments, have recited the verse from Psalms 31 rather than the verse from Psalms 22.[75] Later, Stephen also quoted from Psalms 31 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).

Mark’s statement about the bystanders thinking that Jesus was calling for Elijah (Mark 15:35) betrays his report that Jesus cried out: “Eloi, Eloi.” In Mark’s account, the word-play, “my God [eli]” and “Eli,” the shortened form of Eliyahu (Elijah), has been lost—it is in Hebrew and not in Aramaic that “my God” and “Eli” are identical in sound![76] As he copies Mark’s text, Matthew apparently notices this difficulty and corrects to “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”—a mixture of Hebrew (Eli, Eli) and Aramaic (lema sabachthani).

According to Mark’s Gospel, followed by Matthew’s, when Jesus died, “the temple curtain was torn in two from top to bottom” (Mark 15:38). According to Luke’s account, however, the tearing of the curtain occurred before Jesus’ death (Luke 23:45). This apparent Markan change interrupts the flow of the narrative, interfering with the centurion’s reaction in verse 39: “And when the centurion…saw that he thus breathed his last, he said….” The Markan change of order may be theologically motivated, Mark’s way of saying that immediately upon Jesus’ death the defiled temple’s worship began to come to an end.

Summing Up

In this article I have questioned the originality of Mark’s text at certain points in his narrative of Jesus’ last week. The examples I have chosen are glaring; however, since they are relatively few in number, they cannot be expected to move scholarly opinion regarding the priority or originality of the Gospel of Mark. Perhaps I have succeeded in putting a few chinks in the armor with which Markan priorists are covered: the Two Document Hypothesis.

In the accounts of Jesus’ Last Visit to the Temple the brief, straightforward story preserved in Luke’s Gospel must be preferred over the Markan account. There are just too many problems with Mark’s version of the Cleansing of the Temple: Mark’s Gospel has Jesus “cleansing” the temple on the day following the day on which Jesus arrived in Jerusalem; and not, as in Luke and Matthew’s Gospels, on the day in which he arrived in Jerusalem. Jesus’ cursing of a fig tree because he found no fruit on it, “although it was not the season for figs” is difficult to understand. Mark bracketed the Temple’s Cleansing story with the two-part Cursing of the Fig Tree story. Perhaps influenced by the Essene attitude to the temple in Jerusalem, Mark tried to make a statement about the temple’s defilement at the hands of the Sadducean high priestly families who held sway in the temple, and about the coming divine judgment upon these families.

The Markan Jesus drives out the temple merchants, overturning tables and chairs, even preventing the transporting of burdens in the temple; whereas, Luke’s Gospel depicts a Jesus who employs Scripture to criticize the sellers, but does not use force or violence. (Scholars have had difficulty believing that single-handedly Jesus could have shut down temple commerce without the temple guards intervening.) The Markan portrayal of a resort to violence on the part of Jesus may have been facilitated by the range of meaning of the Greek word ἐκβάλλειν, which, in contrast to its conjectured Hebrew translation equivalent, להוציא, could include a nuance of violence.

Mark’s version creates the impression that the stalls of the money changers and the sellers of birds and animals for sacrifice were located within the temple proper, in the Court of the Gentiles, something that is a virtual impossibility.

Luke’s version of the Parable of the Wicked Tenants also appears much superior to Mark’s, certainly in one respect: Mark has the tenants of a vineyard murder the owner’s son within the vineyard and then throw the corpse outside; but Luke, in agreement with Matthew, retains the tradition that the son was murdered after being thrown out of the vineyard. The Matthean-Lukan agreement against Mark is evidence that Mark rewrote the parable, reconstructing it so that the owner’s son was murdered in the vineyard. Like Mark’s Cursing of the Fig Tree story, his Parable of the Vineyard apparently was meant to highlight the pollution of the temple. In this theological conclusion, Mark was more like the Essenes than Jesus and the Pharisees.

The A Question Concerning the Resurrection, like the Cleansing of the Temple, indicates that the synoptic flow is from Luke to Mark to Matthew. Mark placed the words, “And no one any longer dared him to question” (Mark 12:34) at the end of his The Great Commandment pericope. In doing so, Mark caused the story to become a conflict between Jesus and the scribes. Arguing against the originality of Mark’s placement of the “dare to question” note is the fact that the note’s six words conclude a seventy-six-word Markan addition (vss. 32-34) that contains extensive repetition that is copied neither by Matthew nor Luke. Matthew’s placement of the “dare to question” statement in still a third context, also argues against Mark. Luke’s version is the shortest and most difficult of the three versions of the The Question about David’s Son story, which is a further argument against the originality of Matthew and Mark’s placement of the “dare to question” comment.

The Pharisaic order for festive meals—wine-bread—was preserved in Luke’s version of The Last Supper; however, Mark rewrote, changing the order to bread-wine. Bread-wine is the Essene order and may be another example of the influence of Essene theology on the author of Mark. The Essenes believed that this would be the order followed by the Messiah at the messianic banquet. They identified this messiah with Melchizedek. Since, according to Genesis 14:18, Melchizedek offered bread and wine (in that order) to Abraham, surely the coming messiah would continue this practice. Again, following the usual rules of textual criticism, one has to prefer the Lukan order since it is the more difficult reading. One can explain Mark’s text as a result of Pauline or Essene influence, or eschatological desires, but it is difficult to explain Luke’s text. Here too, we may be able to detect, as in Jesus’ attitude to the temple, that the Lukan Jesus is more in line with Pharisaic theology while the Markan Jesus lines up with Essene thought.

The element of despair that permeates Mark’s version of Jesus’ Death on the Cross appears to be tendentious. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is deserted by the Jewish people, his disciples, and hanging from the cross, even by God himself. Jesus’ memorable Aramaic words from the cross, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” probably were intended to complement Mark’s despair motif.[77] Luke’s parallel (“Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit”), as well as Matthew’s (“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”), help to confirm the assumption that Mark is responsible for rewriting either Luke’s text, or an extracanonical, Lukan-like source.

The agreement of Matthew and Luke to include the words, “Who is it that struck you?” in the Jesus before the Sanhedrin pericope is perhaps the most significant Matthean-Lukan “minor agreement” in the Synoptic Gospels. Assuming that Matthew and Luke wrote independently, the absence of these words in Mark is very difficult to explain. In addition, Mark and Luke differ on the order of events following Jesus’ arrest. In Mark’s Gospel, the guards’ guessing game follows a night session of the Sanhedrin; however, in Luke’s Gospel the gathering of the Sanhedrin occurs in the morning, and after the guessing game. Support for the assumption that Mark inverted this order of events is found within the text of Mark itself: Mark, for example, failed to have the members of the Sanhedrin exit after their nocturnal meeting, and, therefore, apparently to compensate for this omission, which made it appear that members of the Sanhedrin struck Jesus and spit on him, Mark noted that the guards “received him [Jesus] with blows.”


Luke’s account of Jesus’ last week is often clearer and more logical than Mark’s; however, this does not necessarily mean that Luke’s account has been reworked. Luke contains too much material that a Greek-speaking author could not create, such as Hebraisms that are non-Septuagintalisms. In addition, there are often indications that Mark’s account, when it differs from Luke’s, is theologically driven. For example, Mark bracketed the Cleansing of the Temple story with two fig tree stories; and, in the Parable of the Wicked Tenants story, he had the owner’s son murdered inside the vineyard.

There is reason to hypothesize that the author of Mark’s peculiar theology may have been influenced by Essene ideas. Some of the ideas, or emphases, that Mark introduced into his narrative seem to reflect Essene theology, particularly the Essenes’ attitude to the Temple in Jerusalem. Was the author of Mark an Essene himself, or was he close to Essenes who joined the early community of Jesus?

The examples we have considered from the last week in the life of Jesus indicate that it was Mark who rewrote Luke, and not vice versa.[78] Although limited in number, these examples of Mark’s editorial work have extra significance because they are confined to one section of the synoptic narrative. They call for a reconsideration of the synoptic question. There is reason to believe that the “synoptic flow” is not in the direction that is commonly assumed, from Mark to Luke, but rather from Luke to Mark.

  • [1] A revised and abbreviated version of this unpublished article (written in 2004) was published as “Evidence of an Editor’s Hand in Two Instances of Mark’s Account of Jesus’ Last Week?” in Jesus’ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels (ed. R. Steven Notley, Marc Turnage and Brian Becker; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2006), 1:211-24. The “Evidence of an Editor’s Hand in Two Instances of Mark’s Account of Jesus’ Last Week?” contains rewriting carried out by the volume’s editors. Where there are contradictions between the two versions, the text of the original, longer version, here published for the first time, represents the author’s view. I am greatly indebted to Randall Buth for his guidance in writing this article. On numerous occasions we discussed the passages here dealt with and Mark’s theological penchants. Without Buth’s help, I could not have written the article.
  • [2] William Lockton, “The Origin of the Gospels,” CQR 94 (1922): 216-39. Lockton subsequently wrote three books to substantiate his theory, all published by Longmans, Green and Co. of London: The Resurrection and Other Gospel Narratives and The Narratives of the Virgin Birth (1924), The Three Traditions in the Gospels (1926), and Certain Alleged Gospel Sources: A Study of Q, Proto-Luke and M (1927).
  • [3] Robert L. Lindsey, “A Modified Two-Document Theory of the Synoptic Dependence and Interdependence,” NovT 6 (1963): 239-63. Lindsey’s theory postulates four non-canonical documents, all of which preceded the Synoptic Gospels in time, two that were unknown to the synoptists—the original Hebrew biography of Jesus and its literal Greek translation—and two other non-canonical sources known to one or more of the synoptists. Here is how Lindsey described these latter two non-canonical sources: “Anthology (or, Reorganized Scroll). Before the Greek Life of Jesus was widely circulated, its contents were reorganized: opening incidents were collected from teaching-context stories and, together with miracle and healing stories, placed at the beginning of the new scroll; discourses were collected from the teaching-context stories and placed in the second section of the scroll (these discourses were often grouped on the basis of common key words); twin parables, normally the conclusion to teaching-context stories, were collected and placed in the third and final section of the scroll. Thus, parts of the Greek translation were divorced from their original contexts and the original story outline was lost; First Reconstruction. Not long before Luke was written, an attempt was made to reconstruct a chronological record by excerpting units from the Anthology. This resulted in a much shorter version of Jesus’ biography (a condensation of about eighteen chapters), as well as a significant improvement in its quality of Greek” (“Conjectured Process of Gospel Transmission,” Jerusalem Perspective [henceforth, JerPers] 38-39 [1993]: 6). In Lindsey’s theory, Matthew, Mark and Luke were acquainted with the Anthology, but Luke alone was acquainted with the First Reconstruction. Mark used Luke while only rarely referring to the Anthology. Matthew used Mark and the Anthology.
  • [4] Priority of writing order does not necessarily imply originality of text.
  • [5] David Flusser, “Jesus,” EncJud 10:10.
  • [6] M. H. Segal, “Mishnaic Hebrew and Its Relation to Biblical Hebrew and to Aramaic,” in JQR (Old Series) 20 (1908-9): 647-737. See also Segal’s A Grammar of Mishnaic Hebrew (Oxford, 1927).
  • [7] In the Triple Tradition there are approximately 800 Matthean-Lukan minor agreements, and a similar number of Matthean-Lukan agreements in omission (where Matthew and Luke agree to omit words from Mark’s account).
  • [8] One potential type of Markan rewriting is the changing of the order of events, for example, the placement of the tearing of the temple curtain after Jesus’ death rather than before it (Mark 15:37-38; for a fuller discussion, see the section, “Jesus’ Death on the Cross”); or, the placement of the guessing game the guards played after a meeting of the council rather than before it (Mark 14:53, 55-65; for a fuller discussion, see the section, “Jesus before the Sanhedrin”).
  • [9] Two of the examples I will consider (numbers 2 and 5) are Matthean-Lukan minor agreements (against Mark). Such agreements are extremely significant. If, in Triple Tradition, Matthew and Luke, supposedly working independently, agree to disagree with Mark, this would appear to be evidence that Matthew and Luke had a common source other than Mark; however, according to the Two-document Hypothesis, the only source for their Triple Tradition materials was Mark. The improbability that at these points of agreement Matthew and Luke were copying from Mark creates a challenge for proponents of the majority view.
  • [10] “As it was prescribed that the roasted lamb be eaten within the walls of the holy city [m. Zevahim 5:7-8; cf. m. Pesahim 7:9], on the last evening Jesus did not return to Bethany, but remained in Jerusalem [Matt. 26:17-20]” (David Flusser, The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007], 134).
  • [11] The word περιβλέψεσθαι has a profile that Lindsey classified as “a Markan stereotype” (see his A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark [2nd ed.; Jerusalem: Dugith, 1973], 57-63.) The word appears six times in Mark (Mark 3:5, 34; 5:32; 9:8; 10:23; 11:11), but only once in the rest of the New Testament (Luke 6:10 [opposite Mark 3:5]).
  • [12] “Probably the best explanation of the narrative is that the parable of the Fig Tree in Lk. xiii.6-9, or a similar parable, has been transformed into a story of fact, or that in primitive Christian tradition a popular legend came to be attached to a withered fig tree on the way to Jerusalem” (Vincent Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark [London: Macmillan, 1955], 459). Earlier, Lockton already had come to the same conclusion (Lockton, The Three Traditions in the Gospels, 111-13). F. W. Beare comments: “The strange episode of the Cursing of the Fig Tree is the only cursing miracle of the Gospels. Its symbolic significance leaps to the eye: it is a symbol of Israel, which has failed to bring forth the fruits for which God planted it, and is therefore condemned to perish. The same symbolism lies behind the parable of the Barren Fig Tree (Luke xiii. 6-9), and it is not unlikely that the miracle-story is a secondary form of the parable….” (The Earliest Records of Jesus [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962], 206). According to R. Steven Notley, “The ‘Parable of the Fig Tree’ (Luke 13:6-9), which communicates God’s patience and mercy, becomes in Mark the ‘Cursing of the Fig Tree.’” In creating his pericope, Mark has inserted into it “hints to the destruction of Jerusalem that allude to the words and actions of the prophet Jeremiah… The action against the fig tree recalls the words of Jeremiah, ‘When I would gather them, says the Lord, there are…no figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered….’” (Anti-Jewish Tendencies in the Synoptic Gospels,” JerPers 51 [1996]: 25).
  • [13] It was a common practice of farmers in the land of Israel in ancient times to plant fig trees in one or more corners of their vineyards. A fig tree provided a shady spot for vine-tenders to rest or take their meals, and gave the owner a bit of added revenue.
  • [14] “This editorial activity [the separation of Mark 11:15-19 and 11:27-33] is to be ascribed to the evangelist Mark, and in that case we may also have to assume that he has edited the story of the cursing of the fig tree itself” (Rudolf Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition [trans. John Marsh: Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963], 218).
  • [15] Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, 230-31. A. Robin also suggested Mic. 7:1 (“The Cursing of the Fig Tree in Mark XI. A Hypothesis,” NTS 8 [1961/62]: 276-81).
  • [16] Cf. Isaiah’s “Song of the Vineyard” in 5:1-2—a vineyard that yielded only bad fruit: “The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the house of Israel” (Isa. 5:7a). See Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke (ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1896), 453. Cf. Isa. 5:7; Matt. 21:28. Elsewhere, the vine represents the people: Pss. 80:8, 14 (gefen); Jer. 2:21 (sorek); Ezek. 17:6; 19:10 (gefen).
  • [17] See Lockton, The Three Traditions in the Gospels, 114-15: “As the account of an actual event the story appears impossible, and must be explained as the result of the materialisation of parables and metaphorical sayings into a narrative historical form in the course of a process of literary development and accretion. If the story stood alone, we might hesitate to postulate such an origin, but other examples of the same thing may be recognised in the second gospel, including…the portents at the time of the crucifixion with the cry of dereliction, and also what is the most important instance, the long discourse of the last things.”
  • [18] From personal knowledge, one would not find ripe, edible figs on fig trees in the land of Israel at the Passover season. The early figs do not ripen until at least a month later. “One theory is that Mark was the first to link this with the entry into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the temple, there being no original connection with these events. If this is so, it is superfluous to ask whether Jesus could expect to find edible fruits on the tree in spring-time at the Passover” (Claus-Hunno Hunzinger, “συκῆ,” TDNT 7:756).
  • [19] Personal communication. See Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark, 460: “The parenthesis ὁ γὰρ καιρὸς οὐκ ἦν σύκων is best ascribed to Mark himself, since such explanations are in accordance with his style.” According to the Babylonian Talmud (b. Ta‘anit 24a), R. Yose’s son commanded a fig tree להוציא פרותיה שלא בזמנה (to bring forth fruit out of season).
  • [20] So Craig A. Evans (Mark 8:27-16:20 [WBC 34B; Dallas: Word Books, 2001], 172): “That animals were to be bought and sold for purposes of the sacrificial offerings is completely in step with the requirements of the Law of Moses.”
  • [21] In the Septuagint ἐκβάλλειν is usually (28 times; cf. 2 Chron. 29:5, 16; 23:14) the translation of לגרש (legaresh; drive out, expel), and only 5 times the translation of להוציא.
  • [22] Lindsey may not have noticed that when ἐκβάλλειν is used in the Septuagint to translate להוציא, the sense is always a removal for the purpose of purifying, or cleansing, the temple: “bring her [Athaliah] out of…[the temple to be executed]” (2 Chron. 23:14); “Sanctify yourselves and sanctify the house of the LORD…and take the defilement out of the holy place” (2 Chron. 29:5); “The priests went into the house of the LORD to purify it, and they brought out of the sanctuary all the unclean things…and they [the Levites] took them out [and got rid of them] in the Kidron Valley” (2 Chron. 29:16); “to put away [send away, get rid of] all such wives and their children” (Ezra 10:3). These wives and children represented the unfaithfulness of the people and their pollution due to intermarriage. It is significant that the people’s admission of guilt as well as their step of repentance took place in the square, or courtyard, before the “house of the LORD” (see Ezra 10:1, 9). Each of these five occurrences of ἐκβάλλειν = להוציא is an occasion of bringing out, or removing, pollution from the temple, that is, each was a cleansing of the temple. Did the translators of the Septuagint distinguish this use of the Hebrew verb להוציא by translating with ἐκβάλλειν? Did, therefore, the Greek translator of the Hebrew Life of Jesus, aware of this Septuagintal translation pattern, use ἐκβάλλειν as his translation of להוציא in Jesus’ “temple cleansing of pollution”?
  • [23] “Although Luke was following Matthew at this point [Luke 19:45-46], he made a number of changes. For example, Luke changed Matthew’s ἐξέβαλεν in Matt. 21:12 to ἤρξατο ἐκβάλλειν (Lk 19:45). This pleonastic/inceptive use of ἄρχομαι + the infinitive is a linguistic characteristic of Luke….” (Allan J. McNicol, ed., Beyond the Q Impasse—Luke’s Use of Matthew [Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996], 250. This book was written by a research team made up of Lamar Cope, David Dungan, William R. Farmer, Allan McNicol, David Peabody and Philip Shuler [p. vi], members of the “Farmer School.” Originated by William R. Farmer and Dom Bernard Orchard, the members of this school have returned to the Griesbach Hypothesis as a solution to the synoptic problem [p. xiv].) It is untrue that the use of ἄρξασθαι + infinitive is a linguistic characteristic of Luke. The Farmer School’s approach is methodologically flawed because it has not taken into account the book of Acts, Luke’s second composition. While, in Luke’s Gospel ἄρξασθαι + the infinitive is found twenty-seven times, in Acts this linguistic feature occurs only six times (Acts 1:1; 2:4; 11:15; 18:26; 24:2; 27:35). Such a dramatic drop in occurrence from Luke to Acts suggests that it was not Luke who had a penchant for this idiom, but rather, that he accepted it from a source. A more serious flaw in the Farmer School’s methodology may be its non-use of the Hebrew control: Does the Greek of Matthew, Mark or Luke appear to be Hebrew in Greek guise? The Hebrew control is not just an examination of an isolated Hebrew idiom, but a careful inspection of the idiom’s context, which inquires whether or not the idiom appears in a Semitized Greek context that reflects, for instance, Semitic word-order and Semitized Greek word choices. The “ἄρξασθαι + infinitive” usage—not to speak of the brevity of the passage and the καί with which it opens—is an indication of Luke 19:45-46’s originality. The usage, more common in Middle Hebrew than Biblical Hebrew, is a telltale Hebraism and points to a Hebrew undertext. For a detailed analysis of this usage, see Buth and Kavasnica’s “Excursus on ἄρξασθαι, or Who Was Rewriting Whom?” Critical Note 4 in Randall Buth and Brian Kavasnica, “Temple Authorities and Tithe Evasion: The Linguistic Background and Impact of the Parable of the Vineyard, the Tenants and the Son” in Jesus’ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels, 1:261-68.
  • [24] These merchants were selling sacrificial animals and birds to pilgrims who came to the temple from within and without the land of Israel. A few dozen meters south of the Huldah Gates, the entrance to the temple, there were stalls of money changers who provided the Tyrian coin required for payment of the annual half-shekel tax. (See Shmuel Safrai, “The Temple,” in The Jewish People in the First Century [ed. Shmuel Safrai and Menahem Stern; Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 1976], 945-70.)
  • [25] Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark, 133. Lindsey’s English translation of Luke 19:45 is “‘…usher out all those who were making business,’ as he shouted, ‘It is written….’” (Robert L. Lindsey, Jesus, Rabbi and Lord: A Lifetime’s Search for the Meaning of Jesus’ Words, 151).
  • [26] For examples of the thrust of the Hebrew verb להוציא, see Gen. 14:18, where Melchizedek “brought out” (LXX: ἐξήνεγκεν) bread and wine; Josh. 6:22, where the spies were commanded to “bring out” (LXX: ἐξαγάγετε) Rahab from Jericho; and b. Ta‘anit 24a, where R. Yose’s son commanded a fig tree to “bring forth” fruit.
  • [27] See BAG, 236-37; Jastrow, 587-88.
  • [28] One should note that there is this same pattern of increasing violence from Luke to Mark to Matthew in the Markan-Matthean parallels to Luke 21:12-13: “They will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake.” Mark’s parallel reads, “They will deliver you up to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake” (Mark 13:9). Matthew’s parallel reads, “They will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake” (Matt. 24:17-18). See Notley, “Anti-Jewish Tendencies in the Synoptic Gospels,” 23.
  • [29] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (AB 28A and 28B; Garden City: Doubleday, 1981, 1985), 1264. For a discussion of the historicity of Jesus’ dramatic action in the temple, see Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, 164-69. Evans conclusion: “Recent research in the historical Jesus has by and large come to accept the historicity of the temple demonstration” (Mark, 166).
  • [30] For a detailed explanation of Lindsey’s suggestion, see Joseph Frankovic, “Remember Shiloh!” JerPers 46-47 (1994): 28-29, n. 2.
  • [31] Perhaps Mark noticed the reference in his source(s) to paritzim (robbers) in Jer. 7:11, then read on to Jer. 7:15, where the text says והשלכתי אתכם מעל פני (vehishlachti etchem me’al panai; LXX: ἀπορρίψω, cast out), and expanded his text midrashically in the direction of ekballein’s “cast out” nuance. This may explain Mark’s midrashic-like expansion of Mark 11:15-16. Additionally, Mark may have been influenced by the words of Zech. 14:21, “On that day there shall no longer be any merchant in the house of the LORD of hosts.”
  • [32] The “temple” was not only the temple proper, but also the temple complex, including its commercial areas. Even Jerusalem is sometimes called “the temple” in Jewish sources. “As time passed, the Rabbis taught that the sanctity of the Temple applied to the entire city of Jerusalem, and that the ‘minor sacrifices’ (i.e., those that could be eaten by the people) could be eaten throughout the city (m. Zebah. 5.7-8). Talmudic literature frequently attests that the Paschal sacrifice was in fact eaten in the houses of the city and on its roofs. So also, Philo indicates that on the Festival of Passover every ‘dwelling-house’ (οἰκία; Spec. Laws 2.148) assumes the sanctity of the Temple. The halakah of the Qumran sect was opposed to this ruling, and their literature vehemently challenged the eating of the Paschal sacrifice throughout the entire city of Jerusalem. The author of Jubilees, who was close to the ideology of the Qumran Sect, even mandated the death penalty for anyone who ate this sacrifice outside of the Temple (49.16-20; cf. also 7.36, and 32.4; and 11Q19 17.8-9” (Shmuel Safrai, “Early Testimonies in the New Testament of Laws and Practices Relating to Pilgrimage and Passover,” in Jesus’ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels, 1:47-8). An area could be added to the temple court by the Sanhedrin of seventy-one judges (m. Sanhedrin 1:5; m. Shevi’it 2:2).
    Since areas beyond the temple proper, particularly the temple’s commercial areas, could be referred to as “the temple,” the area of stalls located at the base of the temple platform near the southern entrance to the temple compound, the Huldah Gates (m. Middot 1:3), is a candidate for the place of Jesus’ action. Most New Testament commentaries suggest that the outer court of the temple, also known as the Court of the Gentiles, was the site of the Cleansing. According to Safrai (personal communication), there is not the slightest possibility that the Cleansing could have happened in the Court of the Gentiles. No selling was allowed in the temple’s courts, including the temple’s outer court—there was a prohibition against going up on the temple platform carrying a purse (m. Berachot 9:5). Commercial activity also took place in the Royal Stoa, or Solomon’s Portico, a huge hall located on the southern edge of the temple platform; however, it was not possible to enter the temple courts from that hall. The Royal Stoa was enclosed and the only exit (and entrance) was via an arched stairway whose highest arch is today known as Robinson’s Arch. See Joseph Frankovic, “Where Were the Vendors?JerPers 46-47 (1994): 29. Cf. Safrai, “The Temple,” 945-70.
  • [33] Was Jesus protesting commercialization, or, as Buth and Kavasnica suggest, accusing the high priests of stealing from God (“You have made it a den of thieves”)? (see Buth and Kavasnica, “Temple Authorities and Tithe Evasion: The Linguistic Background and Impact of the Parable of the Vineyard, the Tenants and the Son,” in Jesus’ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels, 1:65-73). There were Jewish elements in first-century Israel who strongly condemned the mixing of temple commerce, which tended to encourage overcharging and even fraud, with the holy activities of the temple. See Flusser, The Sage from Galilee, 131-2; Shmuel Safrai, Die Wallfahrt im Zeitalter des Zweiten Tempels (Neukirchen: Neukirchener Verlag, 1981), 185-88 (= Pilgrimage in the Second Temple Period [Tel Aviv: Am Hassefer, 1965], 147-49 [Hebrew]). See also, Safrai, “The Temple,” 945-70.
  • [34] See Notley, “Anti-Jewish Tendencies in the Synoptic Gospels,” 25-6. Cf. E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (London: SCM, 1985), 61-71.
  • [35] The idea of completely removing merchants from the temple, which entered the story as recorded by Mark and Matthew, may have come from the concluding words of the book of Zechariah: ולא יהיה כנעני עוד בבית יי צבאות ביום ההוא (Zech. 14:21). The word כנעני (kena’ani) could be understood as “Canaanite” (“And on that day there will no longer be a Canaanite in the house of the LORD Almighty”; NIV); but its original meaning was probably “merchant, trader” (cf. Prov. 31:24), so JPS: “in that day there shall be no more traders [JPS note: ‘To sell ritually pure vessels’] in the House of the LORD of Hosts.” Targum Onkelos rendered the phrase using תגר (merchant): ולא יהי עביד תגרא עוד בבית מקדשא דיוי צבאות בעידנא ההוא (See the entry “תגר” in Michael Sokoloff, A Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic of the Byzantine Period [Ramat-Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 1990], 575.) If, in writing his midrashic expansion (Mark 11:15-16), Mark was influenced by Zech. 14:21, he must have understood kena’ani as “merchants.”
  • [36] Apparently, the text of Jer. 7:11 that Jesus had memorized, like the text of Isa. 56:7, read ביתי (my house), and not הבית הזה (this house), the reading of the MT (so Joseph Frankovic, “Remember Shiloh!” 27). The words “this house” would have spoiled the rabbinic gezerah shavah (similarity of phrases in two scriptural texts—the principal of inference by analogy) that Jesus created. This hermeneutical principle demanded a common word or phrase, in this case, “my house.” Significantly, “my house” (ὁ οἶκός μου) also is the reading of the LXX for Jer. 7:11.
  • [37] For a description of Jesus’ sophistication in handling Scripture, see Joseph Frankovic, “Remember Shiloh!” 24-31.
  • [38] At this point, both Matthew and Luke omit πᾶσιν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν (for all nations), a Matthean-Lukan minor agreement in omission. Beare, ignoring the significance of this minor agreement, states: “The story of the Cleansing…requires little comment. Matthew and Luke have abbreviated the Marcan story, without affecting its main lines or even its vocabulary in any significant way. Both have omitted the phrase ‘for all the nations’ (Mark xi:11) from the citation, perhaps to throw into high relief the contrast ‘house of prayer’—‘den of thieves’” (The Earliest Records of Jesus, 206).
  • [39] Personal communication.
  • [40] Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark, 459; Beare, The Earliest Records of Jesus, 206; Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, 218.
  • [41] Personal communication.
  • [42] Flusser, The Sage from Galilee, 118-19.
  • [43] Philo, Prob. 75; Josephus, Antiq. 18:19 (see Louis H. Feldman’s note [Note a] to 18:19 in LCL); Damascus Document IV, 15-18; V, 6-7; VI, 11-13. “For the desert sectaries of Qumran, the Temple of Jerusalem was a place of abomination; its precincts were considered polluted, its priests wicked, and the liturgical calendar prevailing there, unlawful” (Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ [175 B.C.-A.D. 135], [ed. Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar and Matthew Black; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1979], 2:582. See also 2:535, 570, 588-89). Privately, Safrai has communicated to me the following: “The Essenes viewed the temple as polluted. They were not really anti-temple, but they could not participate in temple worship because the temple had become unclean as a result of Sadducean corruption and Pharisaic practices. Paradoxically, although the Essenes hated the Sadducees, their halachah was very similar to that of the Sadducees. Since very early in the Second Temple period, they had isolated themselves, the Pharisees’ development of the Oral Torah had passed them by. The Pharisees, however, did not see the temple as defiled. Although they viewed the high priestly families as corrupt, and differed with the Sadducees on the validity of the Oral Torah and innumerable theological and legal issues, they participated in temple worship and sacrifice. The daily service was conducted according to Pharisaic halachah, and many of the simple priests were Pharisees. The half-shekel tax was instituted by the Pharisees. The temple of Jesus’ day did not own land. If someone donated property to the temple, it was sold and the proceeds went to the temple. This practice was unique, since the temples of other contemporary religions became rich in land. The temple’s non-ownership of land was a result of a Pharisaic ruling. Our knowledge of the Essene movement has grown as a result of new archaeological discoveries and the publication and study of additional Judean Desert materials. For instance, although the Essenes at Qumran abstained from marriage, the bones of women were found in the cemetery that adjoined their commune. And although the Essenes’ main center was at Qumran, according to Josephus, they resided throughout the land of Israel (War 2:124). Josephus states that the Essenes sent terumot (heave offerings) to the temple in Jerusalem (Antiq. 18:19), and, although it cannot yet be proven, it is likely that the Essenes, or at least part of them, sent the half-shekel tax to the temple. Apparently, there were a number of streams that made up the Essene movement, and their situation changed from period to period.”
  • [44] Compare the stoning of Stephen: “They…dragged him out of the city and began to stone him” (Acts 7:57-8).
  • [45] These priests viewed tithing on the tithes they received as unnecessary since these offerings had already been tithed. For evidence that “fruit” may have symbolized the tithes the high priest were not paying, see Buth and Kavasnica, “Temple Authorities and Tithe Evasion: The Linguistic Background and Impact of the Parable of the Vineyard, the Tenants and the Son,” in Jesus’ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels, 1:72, and n. 72). See also, John A. T. Robinson, “The Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen: A Test of Synoptic Relationships,” NTS 21 (1974-1975): 443-61.
  • [46] Menahem Stern, “Aspects of Jewish Society: The Priesthood and Other Classes,” in The Jewish People in the First Century, 604-09. See also Stern, “The Reign of Herod and the Herodian Dynasty,” in The Jewish People in the First Century, 273-74.
  • [47] E.g., “Abba Saul ben Bothnith said in the name of Abba Joseph ben Hanan: ‘Woe is me because of the house of Boethus; woe is me because of their staves. Woe is me because of the house of Hanan; woe is me because of their whisperings [i.e., informing to the civil authorities, apparently]. Woe is me because of the house of Kathros; woe is me because of their pens. Woe is me because of the house of Ishmael ben Phiabi; woe is me because of their fists. For they are high priests, and their sons are treasurers, and their sons-in-law are trustees, and their servants beat the people with staves’” (t. Menahot 13:21; b. Pesahim 57a). For details of the clan of Annas, or Hanan, into which Joseph Caiaphas married, see David Flusser, “To Bury Caiaphas, Not to Praise Him,” JerPers 33-34 (1991): 23-8.
  • [48] To both pericopae, compare Jer. 8:13: “When I would gather them, says the LORD, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them.” Compare also Isa. 5:4: “What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?”
  • [49] Personal communication. For elaboration, see David Bivin, “‘They Didn’t Dare’ (Matt 22:46; Mark 12:34; Luke 20:40): A Window on the Literary and Redactional Methods of the Synoptic Gospel Writers.”
  • [50] The wording of Luke 20:41. In Matthew’s account, the wording is, “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” (Matt. 22:42).
  • [51] Central to Jewish teaching and learning in the time of Jesus was the asking of questions. Rather than deliver a lecture, a sage would ask his disciples a question and they would answer by asking a further question. The teacher knew that his students had correctly understood the material when they responded with appropriate questions. Hillel remarked, “A timid student does not learn” (m. Avot 2:6), and certainly a pupil who was too shy to ask questions would gain little in an educational system that demanded so much participation. The question-question method of teaching was so prominent in Jesus’ time that a sage often began a study session by putting a question to his disciples. Luke 19:41-44 may be the only example of such an opening question in the Gospels. Perhaps Jesus posed it at the beginning of a study session for his advanced, full-time students. The question is a typical rabbinic riddle based on a seeming contradiction in a passage of Scripture (Pss. 110:1). This pattern of answering questions with questions was so common that in the Hebrew of Jesus’ day the word for “question” came to be a synonym for “answer.” For example, twelve-year-old Jesus was lost and finally found by his parents, “sitting in the temple among the rabbis, listening to them and asking them questions.” The Gospel writer comments in the following verse, “and all those listening to him were amazed by his wise answers” (Luke 2:46-47), in other words, Jesus’ questions were not questions but answers. Another saying of Jesus hinges upon the meaning of the word “question.” After being arrested, Jesus was interrogated by the high priests who demanded, “If you are the Messiah, tell us” (Luke 22:67). Jesus gave his answer in two parts: “If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I ask [a question], you will not answer” (Luke 22:67-8). The first part of Jesus’ answer seems clear enough, but the second part is difficult to understand: one might wonder why Jesus would wish to ask the high priests a question. The second half of Jesus’ answer is a repetition of the first half, and means exactly the same. Jesus simply phrased his answer elegantly, using a basic feature of classical Hebrew poetry known as parallelism. The first half of Jesus’ poetic reply means the same as the second half because the phrase “ask a question” can be a synonym for “answer a question.” “If I ask, you will not answer,” refers to the rabbinic style of discussion that consisted of answering questions with questions. Jesus answered a question with a question on many occasions. When he was asked by the temple authorities what right he had to do “these things” (i.e., cleansing the temple), he answered by saying, “I will also ask you something. Now tell me, was John’s baptism of God or of men?” (Luke 20:3-4). Jesus’ response to the authorities’ question was not simply an evasion intended to silence them, but was directly related to what they asked and mirrored their question exactly. They asked whether Jesus had any authority beyond his own, and Jesus asked whether they felt John had any authority beyond his own. When a lawyer asked Jesus a question, Jesus responded, “What is written in the Torah? How do you read?” (Luke 10:26; another example of a question posed in Hebrew-like parallelism).
  • [52] The question, “How can one say that the Messiah is the son of David?” may represent the Hebrew, כיצד אומרים שהמשיח בן דוד.
  • [53] In Hebrew, the third person, plural, active form of the verb is used in an impersonal sense to avoid a passive construction. Understood Hebraically, כיצד אומרים (How they say…?) contains no reference to specific individuals.
  • [54] Throughout the Church’s history, Christians have remembered 1 Cor. 11:23-29, with its manifold bread-wine references, and all too often overlooked the brief wine-bread reference in 1 Cor. 10:16. Usually unaware of Jewish practice, Christians have not realized that Paul was referring to the third of three cups of wine drunk during and after the Passover meal. Notice that “after supper” Jesus “took the cup” (1 Cor. 11:25). Thus, there appears to be a bread-wine order, although the order followed by Jesus was wine-bread, the usual Pharisaic order for festive meals. Didache, one of the earliest (second century A.D.) church documents, also preserves the wine-bread order (Did. 9:2-3). Idiomatically, the Hebrew order is bread-wine. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the phrase “bread and wine” is found in Gen. 14:18, Jdg. 19:19 and Neh. 5:15. The bread-wine order is found in Hebrew parallelism in Prov. 4:17; 9:5 and Eccl. 9:7; 10:19. The phrase “wine and bread” does not appear in Scripture, nor the parallelism “wine…bread.” Also, “eat and drink,” which appears five times in 1 Cor. 11:23-29, is a Hebrew idiom, “eat” and “drink” always in that order.
  • [55] Flusser suggested that it is the order of the Qumran meal that lies behind the Markan account of Jesus’ celebration of the Passover-Last Supper. See David Flusser, “The Last Supper and the Essenes,” Imm 2 [1973]: 23-27; repr. in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988): 202-6).
  • [56] See R. Steven Notley, “The Eschatological Thinking of the Dead Sea Sect and the Order of Blessing in the Christian Eucharist,” in Jesus’ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels, 1:121-38.
  • [57] Also arguing against the originality of Mark’s text are the plethora of Hebraisms in the Lukan passage: “and he said to them” (sentence and account begin with “and”); “I have earnestly desired (ratso ratsiti; representing the Hebrew infinitive absolute]”; “eat this passover” (i.e., the Passover lamb, not the festival); “suffer” in the Hebraic sense of “die”; “and he took a cup”; “gave thanks” (the rabbinic blessing included the words “fruit of the vine,” which Jesus used immediately afterwards); “I tell you”; “from now on”; “fruit of the vine”; “took bread” (the unleavened bread used in the Passover service is referred to as לֶחֶם [bread]); “and gave thanks,” “and broke”; “and gave it to them.”
  • [58] If we accept Luke’s version of events, there was no trial, but only an interrogation for the purpose of finding a charge against Jesus that could be brought before the Roman governor Pilate. In Luke, the Jewish authorities do not formally condemn Jesus to death (see Flusser, The Sage from Galilee, 139).
  • [59] John C. Hawkins included this Matthean-Lukan “minor agreement” in a list of twenty-one “certain other alterations from, and additions to, the Marcan narrative, as to which it seems almost impossible that Matthew and Luke could have accidentally concurred in making them” (Horae Synopticae [2nd ed.; Oxford: Clarendon, 1909], 210). For the agreement’s place in catalogs of minor agreements, see Finley Morris Keech, “The Agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark in the Triple Tradition” (M.A. diss, Drew University, 1962), 97-9; and Frans Neirynck, ed., The Minor Agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark (Louvain: Leuven University Press, 1974), 179.
  • [60] The Markan version, “Prophesy!” does not even make sense. Apparently, the author was trying to heighten Jesus’ prophetic identity: “Be a prophet. Show us your prophetic ability. Prophesy on a grand scale!” In the Matthean-Lukan version it was more of a parlor trick that Jesus was asked to do.
  • [61] Burnett Hillman Streeter, The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins (2nd ed.; London: Macmillan, 1930), 325.
  • [62] Streeter, The Four Gospels, 325-28. On the textual problems in Mark 14:65, see Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark, 571.
  • [63] It is very probably that these heartless guards were Gentiles, since by Jesus’ day there were no longer Jewish slaves in the land of Israel (Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity, 606-9).
  • [64] For references to the game in ancient and modern times, see Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity, 606-9. Flusser states: “Only Luke cites all the components of the game” (Flusser, Judaism and the Origins, 606).)
  • [65] According to Luke’s account, no night session of the Sanhedrin took place. In capital cases a night session of the Sanhedrin was forbidden by Jewish halachah: “In capital cases they hold the trial during the daytime and the verdict also must be reached during the daytime” (m. Sanhedrin 4:1 [trans. Danby]; cf. b. Sanhedrin 32a). See the chapter “Death” in Flusser, The Sage from Galilee, 138-61. See also former justice of the Supreme Court of Israel, Haim H. Cohn, “Reflections on the Trial and Death of Jesus,” Israel Law Review (1967): 332-79. See also Cohn’s book in Hebrew, משפטו ומותו של ישו הנוצרי [The Trial and Death of Jesus], (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1968).
  • [66] Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity, 605. Writing on the Jesus before the Sanhedrin story, Taylor asserts: “The basis of the story is assured by the two independent narratives. Of these, that of Luke stands nearer to the actual facts” (The Gospel According to St. Mark, 571). “But,” Flusser complains, “Why not admit that it was Mark who altered the original account of Jesus’ last night, and was thus compelled to distort the episode of the humiliating game of Jesus’ guards?” (Flusser, Judaism and the Origins, 606).
  • [67] In Lindsey’s opinion, “…since Mark has changed the original order, he must get Jesus back into the hands of those holding him (he [Mark] has named them ὑπηρέται). So what he [Mark] is saying is that they ‘received him back with blows’” (a handwritten marginal note in Lindsey’s personal copy of Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark, 571). Flusser classifies καὶ οἱ ὑπηρέται ῥαπίσμασιν αὐτὸν ἔλαβον as “colloquial Greek” (Judaism and the Origins of Christianity, 606).
  • [68] Notley has detailed Mark’s portrayal of Jesus as an abandoned holy man in “Anti-Jewish Tendencies in the Synoptic Gospels,” 23-7.
  • [69] I assume that at this point Mark has reworked his source; however, some authorities view “despair” as a claim for authenticity supposing that the note of despair was an embarrassment that Luke “cleaned up” secondarily: “Luke 23:46 and John 19:30 substitute Christologically inoffensive last words of Jesus” (Robert H. Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993], 966). Based on their understanding of 2 Cor. 5:21 and Gal. 3:13, many Christians believe that God turned his back on Jesus, at least momentarily, while he was hanging on the cross; or, alternatively, that Jesus felt forsaken, and in his pain began to harbor doubts about God’s care and protection. Such popular understandings are illustrated by a sentence in the song, “Sympathy for the Devil,” which the Rolling Stones recorded on June 6, 1968. One of the Devil’s lines is: “I was around when Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt and pain.” Commentators, too, echo the assumption that God turned his back on his son: “The darkness of the land signifies judgment; that Jesus cries out the way he does suggests that divine judgment has in part fallen on him…. Darkness covers the land as God looks away from the obscenity that has taken place” (Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, 507); “Jesus clearly feels abandoned…. Jesus as the sin-bearing sacrifice…must endure the temporary abandonment of his Father, i.e., separation from God” (Donald A. Hagner, Matthew [WBC 33A-33B; Dallas: Word Books, 1993-1995], 844).
  • [70] Evans (Mark 8:27-16:20, 507) takes Mark 15:34 as a parallel to the “concluding utterances” chosen by Luke and John (Luke 23:46; John 19:30).
  • [71] In contrast to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Aramaic words are a feature of Mark’s Gospel, for example: βοανηργές (Mark 3:17); ταλιθα κουμ (Mark 5:41); εφφαθα (Mark 7:34); and αββα (Mark 14:36). Mark’s insertion of Aramaic words into his text should not surprise us since inhabitants of first-century Israel lived in a trilingual environment. See Chaim Rabin, “Hebrew and Aramaic in the First Century,” in The Jewish People in the First Century, 1007-39; and Gerard Mussies, “Greek in Palestine and the Diaspora,” in The Jewish People in the First Century, 1040-64. Compare “Language Backgrounds” in the Introduction to Buth and Kavasnica, “Temple Authorities and Tithe Evasion: The Linguistic Background and Impact of the Parable of the Vineyard, the Tenants and the Son,” in Jesus’ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels, 1:54-58. See also Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, 2:20-28. On the languages used in the Dead Sea Scrolls, see The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation (trans. Michael Wise, Martin Abegg, Jr. and Edward Cook: New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 8-10.
  • [72] Still today, Pss. 31:5a is the conclusion of the Jewish death bed confession. See The Authorized Daily Prayer Book, rev. ed., ed. Joseph H. Hertz (New York: Bloch Publishing Co., 1948), 1065. On Jesus’ last cry, see Flusser, The Sage from Galilee, 161, n. 78; cf. 4, n. 4.
  • [73] Here, as in the Temple Cleansing, Mark used a bracketing technique: “He [Mark] accomplishes this feat [i.e., redacting it in ways that make it an object of faith] by means of a double emphasis on superhuman loudness, by framing the cry between the supernatural signs of darkness and veil-rending, and by citing the favorable effect on the centurion of the way in which Jesus expired” (Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross, 966).
  • [74] The cry from the cross as recorded in Matt. and Mark is complicated textually. For a short survey of the Greek witnesses to the Gospel of Mark, see Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, lviii-lx. For a discussion of the textual variants of the cry, see R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 649, 652; and Hagner, Matthew, 842, n. b-d. For a summary of the deliberations of the editorial committee of the United Bible Societies’ The Greek New Testament on the texts of Matt. 27:46 and Mark 15:34, see Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (London: United Bible Societies, 1975), 70, 119-20. Taylor (The Gospel According to St. Mark, 592-93) prefers Ἐλωὶ ἐλωὶ λαμὰ σαβαχθανεί in Mark 15:34; however, the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece (27th ed.) and the United Bible Societies’ The Greek New Testament (4th ed.) read ελωι ελωι λεμα σαβαχθανι (λεμα, representing the Aramaic לְמָה, instead of λαμα, representing the Hebrew לָמָה). There are manuscripts that show ηλι ηλι (Hebrew: אֵלִי אֵלִי) instead of ελωι ελωι (Aramaic: אֱלָהִי), as there are manuscripts that preserve just the opposite at Matt. 27:46. Assuming that Mark’s text was indeed ελωι ελωι λεμα σαβαχθανι, why would the author of this Gospel have Jesus quote Hebrew Scripture in Aramaic? The author of Mark may have been motivated to use Aramaic to give Jesus an other-worldly, divine quality, with the centurion, in effect, saying, “Amen! Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39). Perhaps the Aramaic words “Eloi,” “lema” and “sabachthani” were “divine power” words; Mark sometimes had Jesus use Aramaic words after Jesus performed a miracle (e.g., Mark 5:41 and 7:34). Significantly, speaking in Aramaic was characteristic of the bat kol (heavenly voice) (t. Sotah 13:5 [cf. Josephus, Antiq.. 13:282]; t. Sotah 13:6; b. Sotah 48b; b. Sanhedrin 11a; j. Pe’ah 15d; b. Bava Batra 3b. See Shmuel Safrai, “Literary Languages in the Time of Jesus,” JerPers 31 [1991]: 5-6).
  • [75] In this instance, too, as Lindsey suggested, it would appear that Mark substituted a synonymic equivalent for Luke’s more original text (see Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark, 40-41). Nor is this the only instance of Mark’s replacing a Scripture quotation in Luke with a substitute Scripture quotation. According to Luke 3:22, at Jesus’ baptism a heavenly voice said, “You are my son, today I have begotten you,” a quotation of Pss. 2:7. However, for this same scenario, Mark substituted, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11, a combination of Pss. 2:7 and Isa. 42:1), the utterance of the heavenly voice at the transfiguration.
  • [76] As Taylor comments, “If Mark is using Palestinian tradition, it is natural that he should give the saying in an Aramaic form, but it is more probable that the cry was uttered in Hebrew, for the comment of the bystanders, ἴδε Ἠλίαν φωνεῖ (xv. 35), is intelligible if Jesus cried ἠλεὶ ἠλεί or ἠλὶ ἠλί rather than ἐλωί” (The Gospel According to St. Mark, 593).
  • [77] Perhaps Mark did not intend to imply despair by highlighting Jesus’ cry from the cross. Walter E. Bundy states, “This cry…has no psychological value as a clue to Jesus’ frame of mind when death came. Mark does not seem to think of it as an exprerssion of despair or dereliction. This seems clear in the reaction of the centurion (39) who sees in Jesus the Son of God, not a frustrated human being. The death story was written for the edification of Christian, ‘not for their bewilderment’ [R. H. Lightfoot, History and Interpretation in the Gospels (New York: Harper, 1934), 159]. The resort to Scripture in the hour of death is in itself an act of faith” (Jesus and the First Three Gospels: An Introduction to the Synoptic Tradition [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1955], 543-44).
  • [78] Advocates of the Griesbach Hypothesis would probably agree, although they would assume that Mark was reworking Matthew, as well. The Griesbach Hypothesis (see Johann Jakob Griesbach, Synopsis Evangeliorum Matthei Marci et Lucae una cum iis Joannis pericopis: Quae historiam passionis et resurrectionis Jesu Christi complectuntu [2nd ed.; Halle: J. J. Curtii Haeredes, 1797]) was revived in 1964 by William R. Farmer (see Farmer, The Synoptic Problem: A Critical Analysis [2nd ed.; Dillsboro, NC: Western North Carolina Press, 1976]). Farmer’s students (Lamar Cope, David L. Dungan, Thomas R. W. Longstaff, Allan J. McNicol, David B. Peabody and Philip L. Shuler) have renamed Farmer’s theory the Two-gospel Hypothesis (2GH). The 2GH posits that the Gospel of Matthew was written first, that Matthew was used by Luke in writing his Gospel, and that Mark’s Gospel was a conflation of Matthew and Luke. Etienne Nodet also rejects the Two Source Hypothesis and is sympathetic to the Griesbach Hypothesis. He considers Mark the most recent of the Gospels, and believes, like proponents of the Griesbach Hypothesis, that Mark depended on and synthesized Matthew and Luke (Le Fils de Dieu: Procès de Jésus et des Evangiles [Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 2002], 317).

If Your Eye Be Single

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus cautions concerning the allure of worldly wealth. His views resemble the shunning of excessive riches by the Pharisaic Hasidim (Pious Ones) and the Essene community from Qumran. Couched within Jesus’ teaching is an idiom which is difficult to translate, “If your eye is single, your whole body is full of light” (Matt. 6:22). The Hebraic expression, “good eye” to denote generosity is well known in the Bible (Deut. 15:9; Prov. 22:9; 23:6; 28:22; Eccl. 14:10) and the writings of Israel’s Sages (m. Avot 5:15). Nevertheless, in Matthew 6, where you would expect to find the idiom, “good eye,” the adjective used in our saying is not καλός (kalos, good, pleasant) but ἁπλοῦς (haplous, single, simple).

The sense given to the enigmatic phrase by scholars to read “good eye” corresponds with the phrase in the following verse, “If your eye [is] evil” (i.e., greedy). Nevertheless, we are still confronted with the problem that the Greek wording in our verse does not read “good eye” but “single eye.” Unfortunately, nothing in known Hebrew literature is sufficiently close to our saying to present a direct parallel. Instead, we need to look at the surrounding Gospel context, as well as at similar notions found in the spiritual environment of first-century Judaism.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has shed light on idiomatic Hebrew expression in the first century. Sometimes the scrolls can be the key to unlock difficult Gospel sayings. In this instance, although neither the expression “single eye” nor “good eye” is found in the Qumran scrolls, the sectarian writings can assist us with the religious milieu and linguistic nuances of our saying. In particular, attention should be given to the language of spiritual dualism (i.e., light-darkness; love-hate) present in Matthew 6:22-24 and the use of the Qumran term “mammon” for wealth. Both of these indicate points of contact with the broad stream of Essene thought represented by the Qumran library.

Sectarian language from the scrolls is replete with dualistic phraseology to express the community’s view of the world. They were “the sons of light” involved in a spiritual struggle with those outside of the community, whom they designated “the sons of darkness.” They saw themselves as “the elect of God” and opposed to “the sons of Belial” (their name for Satan). On other occasions we witness the penetration of this type of dualistic vocabulary into the writings of the New Testament (cf. 1 Jn. 1:5-7). Listen to the words of Paul:

Do not be mismated with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with iniquity? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? (2 Cor. 6:5)

The stark parallels between the language of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Paul’s writings do not suggest that the Apostle was an Essene. Indeed, with the scarcity of historical records, it is difficult to know precisely how these similarities occurred. We do know that the preaching of John the Baptist is more akin to the modes of Qumran expression than the teaching of Jesus, and that some of John’s followers subsequently entered the early Church (Acts 19:1-7). Perhaps these or other former Essenes joined the primitive Christian communities and brought with them their Essene theological word-stock which they employed to explain their new faith in Jesus. Gradually, these idioms became part of the vocabulary of the early Church.

Yet, one must be careful not to confuse similarities in language with parallels in thought and attitude. The Essene separatist opinion towards the outside world demanded restraints from mixing their wealth or “mammon” with those who were not members of the community: “Their wealth is not to be admixed with that of rebellious men, who have failed to cleanse their path by separating from perversity and walking blamelessly” (Community Rule, 1QS 9:8-9). New entrants into the community had their wealth held in escrow until such time as they were allowed to become full members (1QS 3:2). Jesus, however, rejected such economic and social separatism. It is likely that Jesus spoke against this same Essene separatism when he stated, “The sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the sons of light” (Luke 16:10). What is more important for our present study is that Jesus used the word for wealth, “mammon” (cf. Matt. 6:24 and Luke 16:13), which also appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls, to caution his disciples about divided loyalty.

Among the 800 manuscripts from Qumran, intertestamental period writings were found which previously existed only in translation. The most important of these were three which exemplify the type of spiritual dualism indicative of the Qumran community—1 Enoch, Jubilees and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. They apparently represent the fringe elements of the broader Essene philosophy. In a fascinating parallel to the language of our passage we read about the quality of “singleness” in the Testament of Benjamin 4:2-3; 6:5-7.

The good man has not an eye of darkness that cannot see; for he shows mercy to all men, sinners though they may be, and though they may plot his ruin. This man, by doing good, overcomes evil, since he is protected by the good; and he love righteousness [i.e., charity] as his own soul…. His good mind will not let him speak with two tongues, one of blessing and one of cursing, one of insult and one of compliment, one of sorrow and one of joy, one of quietness and one of tumult, one of hypocrisy and one of truth, one of poverty and one of wealth; but it has a single disposition only, simple and pure, that says the same thing to everyone. It has no double sight or hearing; for whenever such a man does, or says, or sees anything, he knows that the Lord is looking into his soul in judgment. And he purifies his mind so that he is not condemned by God and men. But everything that Belial does is double and has nothing single about it at all.

In the above passage we hear that the quality of “singleness” belongs to those who follow the Lord. Elsewhere in the Testament of Issachar the patriarch recalls, “I never slandered anyone, nor did I censure the life of any man, walking as I did in singleness of eye” (ἁπλότητι ὀφθαλμῶν; T. Iss. 3:4). He continues his encouragement to his descendants:

And now hearken to me, my children, and walk in singleness of heart…. The single [minded] man covets not gold…. There is no envy in his thoughts, nor [does he] worry with insatiable desire in his mind. For he walks in singleness, and beholds all things in uprightness of heart…. Keep, therefore, my children, the law of God, and attain singleness…. (T. Iss. 4:1-2, 5-6; 5:1)

The quality of “singleness” indicates that one is not envious and “covets not gold.” This connection between those whose “eye is single” and the proper attitude towards wealth is precisely the spiritual background to Matthew 6:22-24. Thus, in this instance, Jesus’ words may resemble more the language of literature belonging to the fringes of the Essene movement than the biblical and rabbinic idiom “good eye.” Once again, we witness the genius of Jesus’ didactic creativity. He felt the freedom to draw from the richness of various streams of contemporary Jewish thought to give shape to his own distinctive message.