Written, Inspired and Profitable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toward an Inerrant View of Scripture

Revised: 15-Feb-2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leah’s Tender Eyes

Revised: 14-May-13

The King James Version translates Genesis 29:17 as follows: “Leah was tender eyed; but Rachel was beautiful and well favoured.” The New International Version has, “Leah had weak[1] eyes”; while the New American Bible reads, “Leah had lovely eyes.” The Hebrew text reads, literally, “And the eyes of Leah were tender, and [i.e., but] Rachel was beautiful of stature and beautiful of appearance.”

The Septuagint, the second-century B.C. Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, used the Greek adjective ἀσθενεῖς (astheneis, weak; feeble, sickly) to describe Leah’s eyes. The uncertainty of the Targums (Aramaic translations of Scripture) about how to translate the Hebrew adjective רַכּוֹת (rakot, tender, delicate) created a plethora of paraphrases: Targum Onkelos: “And the eyes of Leah were beautiful”; Targum Jonathan: “And the eyes of Leah were moist[2] from weeping and praying before the LORD that he would not destine her for Esau the wicked”; Palestinian (Geniza) Targum: “And the eyes of Leah[…] because she would cry and pray not to emerge in the lot of Esau;[3] Targum Neofiti: “And the eyes of Leah were raised in prayer, begging that she be married to the just Jacob.”

E. A. Speiser is able to capture in English translation the nuances of biblical Hebrew better than any modern Bible translator or commentator. In his commentary on Genesis[4] he translated Genesis 29:17, “Leah had tender eyes, but Rachel was shapely and beautiful,” and commented:

“Tender,” not necessarily “weak,” for the basic sense of Hebrew rach is “dainty, delicate”; cf. Genesis 33:13 [“frail, tender” (children)]. The traditional translation has been influenced by the popular etymology of the name Leah as “weak.” What the narrative appears to be saying is that Leah had lovely eyes, but Rachel was an outstanding beauty.

It appears to me that Speiser is right. The Hebrew word order demands a contrast between Leah and Rachel. The second ו (vav, and) has to be understood as carrying the sense, “but, however.” The contrast cannot be “Leah was ugly, but Rachel was beautiful,” since the text does not contrast Rachel’s eyes with Leah’s, or Rachel’s body with Leah’s, but rather one part of Leah with the whole of Rachel. Therefore, the contrast is: Leah’s eyes were beautiful, but Rachel was beautiful in all parts of her body.

Perhaps Leah did have exceptional eyes, or perhaps she was so plain that her friends commented only on her eyes: “She has pretty eyes!”—a compliment that said less about her eyes than the rest of her body.

  • [1] In a footnote, the NIV adds: “Or delicate.”
  • [2] Or, “dripping, running.”
  • [3] Or, “that the fate of Esau would not befall her.”
  • [4] E. A. Speiser, Genesis (The Anchor Bible, vol. 1; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), 224.

What is JP’s View of the Inspiration and Inerrancy of Scripture?


What is the view of Jerusalem Perspective Online on inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture?

Dennis C. Sullivan responds:

A point to remember is that the “Doctrine of Inerrancy” posits that the Scriptures are “inerrant” in the original autographs. Problem is, we don’t have any of the “original autographs.”

For the New Testament, we have around 5,000 Greek manuscripts and fragments of manuscripts, few of which agree completely with one another. So, it remains the task of dedicated, qualified scholars to try and determine the best Greek version of any given passage.

The “Doctrine of Inerrancy,” then, has little to do with English or other translations of the Greek documents we have.

Notwithstanding the differences in translations, interpretation of the New Testament isn’t “up for grabs” by just any average believer, since (unfortunately), most followers of Yeshua don’t have the expertise in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic that’s required in order to make informed evaluations of the various translations.

A JP editor adds:

Joseph Frankovic takes on the issues of inerrancy and inspiration in two JP articles: Toward an Inerrant View of Scripture and Written, Inspired and Profitable.

The Angel Who Has Delivered Me from All Harm

Dr. Horst Krüger, Jerusalem Perspective’s representative in Germany, has suggested to me that Genesis 48:16 may be part of the background to a phrase found in the Lord’s Prayer. I believe that Dr. Krüger has made an important discovery.

Just before he died, the patriarch Israel blessed his two grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh, in the following words:

May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm—may he bless these boys. May they be called by my name and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they increase greatly upon the earth. (Gen. 48:15-16; NIV)

The phrase that caught Horst’s attention was “the Angel who has delivered me from all harm.” The “Angel,” of course, is God himself, since “Angel” stands in parallel to “God” in the two preceding lines. The Masoretic text reads: הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי מִכָּל־רָע (hago’el oti mikol ra; who has redeemed me from every evil).

The phrase “who has redeemed [or, delivered] me from all evil” is strikingly similar to the phrase “deliver us from evil” that appears in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:13).[1]

If Genesis 48:16 does indeed constitute the background to Jesus’ “Deliver us from evil,” it would support Dr. Randall Buth’s contention that Jesus’ words should be translated “Deliver us from evil,” not “Deliver us from the Evil One,” as the New International Version, New Revised Standard Version, Jerusalem Bible, New Century Bible and Good News Bible have rendered them.[2]

  • [1] The Greek verb ῥύεσθαι (ryesthai, to redeem, deliver), which was employed by the Septuagint (the second-century B.C. Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) to translate go’el (Gen. 48:16) is the same verb that was employed by Matthew. The Greek adjective used to translate ra (evil) in Genesis 48:16 was κακός (kakos, bad, evil), while the adjective translated “evil” in Matthew 6:13 is πονηρός (poneros, bad, evil); however, both Greek words were frequently used by the Septuagint’s translators to render the Hebrew ra. In the Septuagint, the word poneros is the translation of ra 231 times, and the translation of רָעָה (ra’ah, evil, wickedness, misfortunte), a variant of ra, 15 times; the word kakos is the translation of ra 31 times, and the translation of ra’ah 197 times.
  • [2] Randall Buth, “Deliver Us from Evil,” Jerusalem Perspective 55 (Apr.-Jun. 1998), 29-31.

Deliver Us From Evil

מְתֻרְגְּמָן Meturgeman is Hebrew for translator. The articles in this series illustrate how a knowledge of the Gospels’ Semitic background can provide a deeper understanding of Jesus’ words and influence the translation process.

At the end of Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer we read, “But deliver us from evil” in the King James Version and Revised Standard Version. A number of more recent English translations differ. The Good News BibleNew Century BibleNew International Version, New Jerusalem Bible and New Revised Standard Version all render Matthew 6:13b as keep us, save us, rescue us, or deliver us “from the evil one.” The difference is significant, and invites our curiosity.

Translators of the two older English versions rendered the Greek phrase ἀπὸ τοῦ πονηροῦ  (apo tou ponērou, literally, “from the bad”) as “from evil.” Translators of the newer versions listed above rendered the same phrase as “from the evil one.” Which translators were right? Is the phrase ambiguous?

The earlier translators have Jesus teaching his disciples to ask God for protection against evil—all evil, regardless of its origin. The later translators limit the meaning to a request for protection against the evil one, in other words, against Satan, or the devil. To get to the roots of this linguistic problem, we’ll need to do some digging.

A Quick Peek at the Greek

First, a quick lesson in Greek. All Greek nouns and adjectives are categorized according to gender. Gender may be masculine, feminine—or neuter! Sometimes a Greek word may appear carrying one gender in one context and a different gender in another context. The difference in gender affects meaning. For example, ponēros is masculine in gender and means “an evil man or masculine entity.” But ponēron, being neuter in gender, means “evil” or “evil thing” in a broad, impersonal sense. Difficulties arise in contexts where the masculine ponēros and the neuter ponēron appear after certain prepositions. When they do, their endings may be identical and indistinguishable.

Matthew 6:13b includes the prepositional phrase apo tou ponērou, which may mean “from the evil one” or “from the evil (thing).” Hence, tou ponērou is formally ambiguous. However, let’s not stop here.

Educated Guesswork

Faced with this ambiguous form of the noun, translators had to make an educated guess as to how to translate the verse. In the past they interpreted ponērou as a neuter noun, but more recently they have tended to treat it as a masculine noun. Consequently, the older RSV and KJV have “deliver us from evil” where the newer NRSV and NIV have “deliver us from the evil one.” Which translation is right?

Bible translators will often begin by surveying in the New Testament how the Greek noun ponēros is used in both the masculine and neuter genders. Examples of both may be found.

1 John 2:13 reads, “I write to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one [ton ponēron, masc.]” (NIV). Here, ponēros appears as an object of a verb, a singular, masculine noun, and clearly refers to the devil. The same is true regarding gender for 1 John 5:18, where we read, “The one who was born of God [Jesus] keeps him [the believer] safe, and the evil one [ho ponēros, masc.] cannot harm him” (NIV). Here, too, the text speaks of the devil as “the evil one.”

In Matthew 5:11 ponēros appears as a neuter noun. The verse reads, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil [pan ponēron, neut.] against you because of me” (NIV). The neuter form of the noun refers to evil in a general, abstract, impersonal sense.

Interestingly, the term ponēros appears three times in one verse of Scripture—Luke 6:45: “The good man brings forth the good [thing] out of the good treasure of his heart, and the evil man [ho ponēros, masc.] out of the evil [tou ponērou, masc. or neut. form] brings forth the evil [thing] [to ponēron, neut.].”

In this verse, the key to accurate translation is the context. The first occurrence of ponēros refers to a personality—either a man or the devil—but the context requires that the translation be “the evil man.” The second occurrence of ponēros follows the preposition ek (“from, out of”) and, therefore, appears in the same ambiguous form of the gender as in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:13b). Happily, the context of Luke 6:45 demands that tou ponērou be treated as a neuter noun meaning simply “evil.” The third occurrence of ponēros is as a neuter object of a verb, and as such it, too, means simply “evil” in a general, impersonal sense.

Matthew 13:19 stands out and warrants particular attention: “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one [ho ponēros, masc.] comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart” (NIV). The masculine ho ponēros refers not to an evil man, but to the devil himself. Thus, Matthew had no objection to using the masculine ho ponēros as a title for the devil in Greek. This fact certainly did not escape the attention of modern translators of the New Testament, and it may have played a key role in their decision to render apo tou ponērou into English as “deliver us from the evil one.”

When in Doubt, Consider the Big Picture

Are we ready to draw some conclusions? Not yet. Let’s keep digging. We need to go beyond syntax and consider the larger picture—the original, interpersonal context. We ought to consider the original context of Jesus’ prayer. In which language did Jesus teach this prayer to his disciples? Most likely, not in Greek. In fact, all first-century Jewish sages whom we know to have been from the Galilee transmitted their oral teachings in Hebrew.[1] We have good reason to believe that Jesus would be no exception.

Retracing the Greek phrase apo tou ponērou (literally, “from the bad”) back to Hebrew—and comparing the Lord’s Prayer with other ancient Jewish prayers—gives a fuller perspective, and may shed further light. Our methodology is reasonable, since we seek to understand every possible influence, not only on Jesus’ prayer, but also on the formation of Matthew’s Greek.

When we consult the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that has come to be known as the Septuagint, we see that the Hebrew רַע (ra‘, “bad, evil”) clearly emerges as the leading candidate for the word “evil” that Jesus spoke in the Lord’s Prayer. How so? The ancient translators of the Septuagint called upon ponēros 231 times to translate ra‘. Only rarely was ponēros used to translate any other Hebrew word. Therefore, based upon the high correspondence between the Greek ponēros and the Hebrew ra‘ in the Septuagint, the Hebrew min hāra‘ (literally, “from the evil”) can likely be the source of the Greek prepositional phrase apo tou ponērou. Both the Greek and the Hebrew mean “from evil.”

While the Greek is ambiguous, the Hebrew is not, and can only mean “from evil.” This will become more evident as we examine biblical examples of how ra is used. Later, we’ll consider excerpts from ancient Jewish prayers. Note: hāra‘ (“the bad, the evil”) was never once a title of the devil in biblical or post-biblical Hebrew, or in all ancient rabbinic literature.

The Many Dark Shades and Hues of Ra

In the Hebrew Scriptures, ra‘ carries a range of nuances. Genesis 8:21 speaks of the inclination of a man’s heart as being evil (ra‘). The prophet Isaiah once declared, “Their deeds are evil deeds, and acts of violence are in their hands! Their feet rush into sin [ra‘]; they are swift to shed innocent blood!” (Isa. 59:6b, 7, NIV). Compare also Judges 2:11, 3:7 and elsewhere: “[They] did the evil [hāra‘],” where the Septuagint reads to ponēron, “the evil [thing]” (neut.). In these verses ra‘ has to do with sin, or evil, destructive conduct.

In other verses ra‘ carries a different nuance. For example, in Genesis 44:34, after Joseph had framed Benjamin for theft by concealing a silver cup in the lad’s sack, Judah pleaded with Joseph: “How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? No! Do not let me see the misery [ra‘] that would come upon my father” (NIV). If Judah had returned to his father Jacob without Benjamin, the grief and distress may very well have broken the man emotionally, physically and spiritually. This anticipated breakdown is the ra‘ from which Judah begged to be spared. Later, when Jacob blessed Joseph’s two sons, he said, “May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm [mikol ra‘]—may he bless these boys” (Gen. 48:15-16a, NIV). The phrase mikol ra‘ (literally, “from every evil”) resembles grammatically min hāra‘ (“from the evil”), the back translation into Hebrew of the Greek apo tou ponērou.

From these biblical examples, we learn that ra‘ has a range of nuances. It can refer to wicked conduct or sinful behavior that may be characterized as evil. It also may refer to personal tragedy or calamity resulting from the loss of a loved one, physical suffering or malicious harm.

The Meaning of Ra‘ in Ancient Jewish Prayers

Turning our attention to post-biblical literature, we can gain additional insights by examining excerpts of prayers found among the scroll fragments at Qumran and an example from Talmudic literature. In 11QPsb 15-16, a text discovered in the Qumran caves, the following petition appears: “Do not allow Satan or an unclean spirit to rule over me, and do not allow pain or the evil inclination to have authority over me.” This petition includes typical elements found in Jewish prayers: protection from Satan and his cohorts, physical suffering and man’s evil inclination. Note especially that when referring to the devil, Hebrew simply uses the word “Satan.” To say “the evil one” would be foreign to the language.

The Hebrew ra‘ appears in the Manual of Discipline: “May he bless you with every good, and may he protect you from all evil [mikol ra‘]” (1QS 2.3). The author of this Qumran scroll has, in typical midrashic style, expanded the priestly blessing of Numbers 6:24-26. Here, the petition is for protection from evil in a general, abstract, impersonal sense.

From Berachot 16b of the Talmud comes this prayer: “Deliver me…from a bad person, a bad companion, a bad injury, an evil inclination, and from Satan, the destroyer.” In this text, ra‘ is used four times as an adjective. In order to convey the meaning “an evil person,” ra‘ must modify an explicit noun. For example, “from a bad person” appears in Hebrew as mē’ādām ra‘. Standing alone, ra‘ does not convey personalized evil. If, when speaking Hebrew, Jesus had wanted to refer to the devil in the prayer he gave his disciples, he would have simply said, “Deliver us from Satan.” The Hebrew sātān would then very easily go into Greek as satanas (“Satan”) or diabolos (“devil”).

The Devil Is in the Details of Matthew 13:19

It is appropriate at this point to ask whether Matthew, or an earlier editor, saw satanas or diabolou in his source for Matthew 6:13b and replaced it with ponērou. Is this likely? It seems Matthew did just that in 13:19. Let’s take a closer look at that verse, and its parallels in Mark and Luke, before formulating any conclusions.

“The evil one comes and snatches away what was sown.” (Matt. 13:19) “Satan comes and takes away the word.” (Mark 4:15) “The devil comes and takes away the word.” (Luke 8:12)

Temptation of Christ (The Temptation on the Mount) by Duccio di Buoninsegna (ca. 1255-1319), Tempera on wood.

For a more Greek literary style, Matthew probably substituted ponēros for the more Semitic satanas that appears in Mark. Moreover, Matthew introduced a special Greek construction called “genitive absolute” into verse 19. This construction is characteristic of Greek and does not directly correspond to Hebrew. In other words, Matthew 13:19 shows discernible traces of editorial activity by a Greek literary stylist. Thus, I am reluctant to compare a verse such as Matthew 13:19, which has undergone some degree of stylization, with Matthew 6:13b, which shows no evidence of Greek stylization. (In fact, the entire Lord’s Prayer retains an exceptionally strong Hebraic flavor.)[2] When trying to determine whether apo tou ponērou from the Lord’s Prayer should be translated as “from evil” or “from the evil one,” I prefer to weight more heavily this Greek phrase’s correspondence to the unambiguous Hebrew idiom “from evil.” In view of the evidence, I must cast my lot with the traditional, older translation: “from evil.” I think Matthew was able to assume that his Jewish-Christian audience would understand this phrase correctly, even in Greek dress.

Truth from a Multiplicity of Vantage Points

At this point, we have deepened our understanding of Matthew 6:13. It should read: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (RSV). In comparison with Luke’s conclusion to the prayer, “And lead us not into temptation (Luke 11:4b), Matthew’s version more completely reflects what Jesus probably said to his disciples. Matthew’s pairing of not leading into temptation with delivering from evil is parallelism, a hallmark of Hebrew poetry.

Recognizing the parallelism also reinforces the correct interpretation of the verse. “Lead us not into temptation” is a Jewish way of saying “Do not let us succumb to the temptation of sin.” The next line, “Deliver us from evil,” conveys a similar idea. It means “Keep us from doing evil,” that is, “Do not let us succumb to our evil inclination, do not let us sin.” In addition, just as good poetry can convey multiple allusions, so “Deliver us from evil” can carry the additional notions of protection from evil people and evil spirits, and from trouble and calamities.

Surely the world would be a happier place if each of us prayed the Lord’s Prayer on a daily basis with conviction and a deeper understanding of its rich Jewish background: “Oh, Heavenly Father, lead us away from sin and restrain our evil inclination! May this include keeping us out of harm’s way, and protecting us from evil!”


  • [1] See Shmuel Safrai, “The Jewish Cultural Nature of the Galilee in the First Century,” Immanuel 24/25 (1990): 147-186. In this article, Safrai has noted the following first-century-A.D. Galilean sages: Yohanan ben Zakkai, Hanina ben Dosa, Halafta, Hananiah ben Teradyon, Eleazar ben Azariah, Zadok, Elisha ben Avuyah, Yose ben Kismah, Ilai, Yohanan ben Nuri, Eleazar ben Parta, Eleazar ben Teradyon, Yose ben Tadai of Tiberias, Zakkai of Kavul, Yose ha-Gelili, Abba Yose Holikofri of Tiv’on. (Shmuel Safrai’s article, “The Jewish Cultural Nature of the Galilee in the First Century,” is now available on Jerusalem Perspective. To read this article, click here.—JP)
  • [2] Examples of Hebraic idioms in the Lord’s Prayer are: “father in heaven,” “name be sanctified,” “kingdom of heaven,” “will be done,” “rightful bread,” “debts” in the sense of sin, “lead into temptation” and “save from evil.”

“Do Not Resist Evil”: Jesus’ View of Pacifism

Revised: 23-Apr-13

The idea that Jesus taught pacifism arose primarily due to the misunderstanding of a number of his sayings. When viewed from a Jewish perspective, the gospel passages on which pacifism is based point to a quite different conclusion.

Many people over the years have seen Jesus as a pacifist—and for good reason. Here was a man who apparently was willing to die rather than defend himself, a man who taught his disciples not to kill, not to resist evil, to love their enemies, not to fear those who kill the body, and that only those who are willing to lose their lives will be able to save them.[1]  Jesus’ teachings seem very much like those of such popular pacifists as Tolstoy and Gandhi, and indeed, Tolstoy based his views on gospel passages.[2]

But did Jesus teach that it is wrong to defend oneself against attack? Did he really mean that we should not resist evil? Such a view seems to contradict what we read elsewhere in the Bible. In Romans 12:9, for example, Paul says that one should “hate what is evil,” and in James 4:7 we read that we are to “resist the devil.” It is clear from passages in Luke 22 that Jesus’ disciples were armed,[3]  and Jesus himself advised them to purchase swords.[4]

These apparent contradictions can be reconciled by recognizing the Hebraic nuances of the gospel texts, and by developing a deeper understanding of the Jewish background to Jesus’ words.

Kill or Murder?

One verse that is commonly cited in support of Jesus’ pacifism is Matthew 5:21, which most English versions of the Bible render, “You shall not kill.” The Greek word translated “kill” in this passage is a form of the verb φονεύειν (phoneuein). This verb was always used in the Septuagint Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures as the equivalent of the Hebrew verb רָצַח (ratsakh). Ratsakh is the word used in the sixth commandment in both Exodus 20:13 and its parallel, Deuteronomy 5:17. It seems quite certain that in Matthew 5:21 Jesus was quoting the sixth commandment.

Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

The words phoneuein; and ratsakh are both ambiguous and can mean either “kill” or “murder,” depending upon the context. However, God himself commanded capital punishment for such crimes as deliberate murder (Exod. 21:12-15), rape (Deut. 22:25-26), kidnapping (Exod. 21:16), adultery (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22), sorcery (Exod. 22:18), and many other crimes. The sixth commandment, therefore, must be a prohibition against murder, not killing as such.

In spite of this, the King James Version of 1611, and the revisions of 1885 (Revised Version) and 1952 (Revised Standard Version), used “kill” rather than “murder” in translating Jesus’ quotation of this commandment.[5]  Although most recent translations of the Bible have corrected this mistake,[6]  the “kill” of the King James Version and its successors has strongly influenced many English-speaking Christians’ views of self-defense.

Hebrew Maxim

Another saying of Jesus on which his supposed pacifism is based is found in Matthew 5:39a. This saying is usually translated, “Do not resist evil,” or “Do not resist one who is evil.” However, when Jesus’ saying is translated back into Hebrew, it is seen to be a quotation of a well-known Hebrew proverb that appears with slight variations in Psalms 37:1, 8 and Proverbs 24:19.[7]

This Hebrew maxim is usually translated, “Do not fret because of evildoers,” or “Do not be vexed by evildoers.” Bible translators apparently have supposed from the contexts of this maxim in Psalm 37 and Proverbs 24, which emphasize that evildoers will be destroyed, that the righteous should not be concerned about evildoers or pay them any attention. This supposition is strengthened by the second half of Psalms 37:1 that, as it is usually translated, advises that one should not be envious of such evildoers. It thus appears that the verb translated “fret” or “be vexed” is correctly translated. However, elsewhere in the Bible this verb always seems to have some sense of the meaning “anger.”[8]  Furthermore, the two parallels to this verb in Psalms 37:8, both synonyms for anger, suggest that the verb in Matthew 5 must also have that meaning.

The verb in question is from the root חרה (kh-r-h), whose basic meaning is “burn.” From this root meaning is derived “anger,” a sense that all Hebrew words from this root have in common. (Note that in English also, many verbs expressing anger have something to do with fire or burning—be hot, burn, boil, flare up.) In some occurrences of this root, anger is a result of jealousy or rivalry. Saul’s jealousy of David caused him to fly into a rage (1 Sam. 20:7, 30). This nuance of kh-r-h is also reflected in the use of “contend” in Isaiah 41:11 in Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, the translation published by the Jewish Publication Society: “Shamed and chagrined shall be all who contend with you.”

The particular form of the verb used in our proverb is a form for intensive action and thus expresses a passionate anger. This furious anger leads to a response in kind. Such anger results in a rivalry to see who can get the better of the other, and in each round of the competition the level of anger and violence rises. This amounts to responding to evil on its own terms, to competing in doing wrong with those who wrong us.

The New English Bible’s translation of Psalms 37:1 and 37:8 is unique: “Do not strive to outdo the evildoers or emulate those who do wrong. For like grass they soon wither and fade like the green of spring”; “Be angry no more, have done with wrath; strive not to outdo in evildoing.” This seems to be the only version of the English Bible that reflects the Hebrew “anger” verb’s nuance of rivalry or competition.

Likewise, the Good News Bible is apparently the only translation of the New Testament that uses “revenge,” or anything similar, to render Matthew 5:38-39: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who does you wrong. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too.” It is surprising there are not other versions that translate in the same way. Following “But I tell you,” the context demands “Do not take revenge,” since the first part of verse 39 speaks of “an eye for an eye,” in other words, punishment that is a response in kind.

In idiomatic English, Matthew 5:39a might read simply, “Don’t try to get even with evildoers.”[9]  Not “competing” with evildoers is very different from not resisting evildoers. Jesus was not teaching that one should submit to evil, but that one should not seek revenge. As Proverbs 24:29 says, “Do not say, ‘I will do to him as he has done to me. I will pay the man back for what he has done.’” Jesus’ statement has nothing to do with confronting a murderer or facing an enemy on the field of battle.

Mistranslation of Matthew 5:39a has created a theological contradiction, but when Jesus’ saying is correctly understood, it harmonizes beautifully with other New Testament passages: “See that none of you pays back evil with evil; instead, always try to do good to each other and to all people” (1 Thess. 5:15); “Do not repay evil with evil or curses with curses, but with blessings. Bless in return—that is what you have been called to do—so that you may inherit a blessing” (1 Pet. 3:9); “Bless those who persecute you. Bless them, do not curse them. Do not pay anyone back with evil for evil…. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live peaceably with everyone. Beloved, do not take revenge, but leave that to the wrath of God” (Rom. 12:14, 17-19); or, as Jesus commanded, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44).

Count Leo Tolstoy.
Count Leo Tolstoy.

Resist Evil

Our response to evil does have to be resistance—it is morally wrong to tolerate evil. However, we also must continue to show love for the evildoer.

It should be noted that loving and praying for one’s enemies in no way precludes defending oneself when one’s life is in danger. One is morally obligated to preserve life, including one’s own. Jesus never taught that it is wrong to defend oneself against life-threatening attack. However, he consistently taught his disciples to forgive and not to seek revenge against those who had attacked them. As Proverbs 20:22 counsels, “Do not say, ‘I will repay the evil deed in kind.’ Trust in the LORD. He will take care of it.”

Our responsibility is not to respond in kind to belligerence directed against us. That only prolongs and perpetuates the evil. We are not to “be overcome by evil,” but to “overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).

Not only does a pacifistic interpretation of Jesus’ sayings contradict many biblical passages, but pacifism was never a part of Jewish belief. According to Scripture, for example, a person who kills a housebreaker at night is not guilty of murder: “If a thief is seized while tunneling [to break into a house], and he is beaten to death, the person who killed him is not guilty of bloodshed” (Exod. 22:2). The rationale is that the thief is ready to murder anyone who surprises him, thus one may preempt the thief,

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, disciple of Tolstoy.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, disciple of Tolstoy.

The Jewish position on this issue is summed up in the rabbinic dictum, “If someone comes to murder you, anticipate him and kill him first.”[10]  The sages taught that if one is in danger of being murdered, he should defend himself, even if there is a measure of doubt about the intention of the attacker. Furthermore, if another person’s life is threatened, one is obligated to prevent that murder, if necessary by killing the attacker. The sages ruled that a person who is pursuing someone else with intent to murder may be killed.[11]  In light of this, it is very unlikely that Jesus, a Jew of the first century, would have espoused pacifism.

When we examine Jesus’ words from a Hebraic-Jewish perspective, we can see what has been obscured by mistranslation and lack of familiarity with Judaism. The passages construed to support pacifism actually condemn revenge rather than self-defense. It is not surprising that this interpretation is consistent with Jesus’ other teachings and the rest of biblical instruction.

  • [1] Matt 5:21; 5:39a; 5:44; 10:28; 16:25.
  • [2] See Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is within You (trans. Constance Garnett; New York, 1894; repr. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984). In 1894 Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, at that time a barrister in South Africa, read The Kingdom of God Is within You, which had been loaned to him by a Quaker. The book “overwhelmed” him, he wrote in his autobiography.

    In 1906 Gandhi, struggling against racial prejudice in South Africa, launched a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience. In 1910 he founded Tolstoy Farm for the families of men who were jailed in the struggle. Later, in India, Gandhi founded other such communities based on Tolstoy’s ideology. In 1920 he launched his program of nonviolent noncooperation with the British rulers of India that led to freedom from British rule.

  • [3] Luke 22:38, 49.
  • [4] Luke 22:36.
  • [5] In addition to the King James Version and its revisions, such versions as the New Jerusalem BibleThe Living Bible and The Amplified Bible render Matt 5:21 as “kill.” However, The Living Bible and The Amplified Bible show inconsistency by translating the sixth commandment using “murder” (Exod. 20:13; Deut. 5:17).
  • [6] Rendering Matt 5:21 by “murder” or “commit murder” are the New English BibleNew International VersionNew American Standard BibleNew American BibleGood News BibleNew Berkeley Version and the New Testament translations of Goodspeed, Moffatt, Phillips, Stern (Jewish New Testament) and Weymouth.
  • [7] I am indebted to Robert L. Lindsey for drawing my attention to the connection between Matt 5:39a and these three passages. Ps. 37:1 and Prov. 24:19 read אַל תִּתְחַר בַּמְּרֵעִים (al titkhar bamere’im; Do not be furiously angry with evildoers). Ps. 37:8 reads אַל תִּתְחַר אַךְ לְהָרֵעַ (al titkhar ach lehare’a; Do not be furiously angry; it can only do harm).
  • [8] See the entry חָרָה in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (ed. G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren; Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986), 5:171-76.
  • [9] “Wrongdoers” might be preferable to “evildoers.” As the context, which mentions insults and lawsuits, shows, Jesus probably was not speaking primarily of confrontations with criminals or enemies on the field of battle, but of confrontations with ordinary acquaintances who have committed an offense.
  • [10] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 72a.
  • [11] Mishnah, Sanhedrin 8:7.

The Appearance of Jesus: Hairstyles and Beards in Bible Times

No one knows for sure how Jesus looked in the eyes of his contemporaries. However, there is evidence that suggests the hair of Jesus may have been rather short—black or dark in color—and his beard closely trimmed.

Like Abraham the first Hebrew, Jesus was a Semite, a descendant of Noah’s son Shem (Gen. 11:10-32; 14:13; Matt 1:1-17). As such, Jesus faithfully identified himself with the customs of the Jewish people and the teachings of Moses. He came not to abolish the Law but to establish and uphold it (cf. Matt 5:17). Given the Israelite ancestry of Jesus of Nazareth, what information do we have about the physical appearance of Jews in Bible times? Specifically, what archaeological and textual evidence do we have from the ancient world concerning Semitic hairstyles and the wearing of beards? Furthermore, how may this evidence on hair and beards assist us in trying to find out how Jesus looked to his contemporaries in that first-century milieu of Judaism in the land of Israel? We shall consider a variety of relevant ancient sources as we attempt to answer these questions.

In the land of Egypt, directly south of Israel, the people were usually clean-shaven. Joseph, a Semite, shaved before he entered the presence of Pharaoh, an obvious accommodation to Egyptian culture (Gen. 41:14). According to Herodotus, a fifth-century B.C. Greek historian, Egyptians shaved their heads from childhood but let the hair and beard grow when they were in mourning (Herodotus II.36; III.12). Egyptian priests shaved their whole body every third day for fear of harboring vermin when in the service of the gods (Herodotus II.37). Slaves brought to Egypt from other countries also had their beards and heads shaved. Both men and women of all but the poor classes wore wigs, both indoors and out. For religious ceremonies, Egyptian men sometimes wore artificial beards tied to the chin. Among the finds at Beni Hassan in Middle Egypt, dating to the early nineteenth century B.C., is a fresco depicting a group of Semites—probably from the Sinai or the Negeb—who have come to an Egyptian frontier post to trade. The Semites are painted with thick dark hair and beards. However, the Egyptians on the fresco are beardless.

Beni Hasan
Detail from Beni Hassan tomb. Image reproduced from Percy E. Newberry, Beni Hasan Part 1 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1893).

The Semitic peoples of Mesopotamia, the homeland of the patriarchs of Israel, normally had a full head of hair and beard. This was true for both high officials and commoners, and is supported by textual materials and by archaeological evidence on statues, panels, bas-reliefs and cylinder seals. The main exceptions to this rule were slaves, priests and apparently doctors, each group being marked by a different tonsure. Semitic kings and warriors from the start of the Old Assyrian period (1900 B.C.) through the end of the Neo-Assyrian period (612 B.C.) are normally depicted in Mesopotamian art with beautiful curly beards and long wavy hair extending neatly over the shoulder. In addition, in ancient Near Eastern culture, a full head of hair was often displayed by gods and other heroic figures.

The Hebrews, like other Semitic peoples, considered well-kept hair something to be desired. Indeed, thick, lengthy hair was considered a sign of vitality and strength. Absalom, handsome claimant to David’s throne, is described as cutting his luxuriant hair from time to time and weighing it when it became too heavy for him (2 Sam. 14:25, 26). Baldness, on the other hand, was disliked. It was often related to mourning or catastrophe (Isa. 3:17-24), as was unkempt or disheveled hair (Lev. 10:6). The prophet Elisha experienced ridicule in connection with his baldness (2 Kgs. 2:23). The dread of baldness may also have been due to its association with leprosy (cf. Lev. 13). As a purification rite, a leper was required to shave off all his hair, an act that called public attention to this offensive disease (Lev. 14:8, 9; cf. Luke 17:12).

Hairstyles varied in Hebrew society. Women’s hair was usually at least shoulder length, and often longer, as the Beni Hassan fresco indicates (cf. 1 Cor. 11:15). Women usually plaited or braided their hair (cf. 2 Kgs. 9:30; Judith 10:3); they rarely cut their hair except in times of deep mourning (Deut. 21:12; Mic. 1:16). The Mishnah forbids women plaiting hair on the Sabbath (Mishnah, Shabbat 6:5).

Men’s hair was trimmed periodically, especially among those of the working classes who could not afford the time or money often required to maintain longer styles.

The Bible is silent about professional hairdressers and only once does it mention the term “barber” (גַּלָּב, galav) (Ezek. 5:1). It would seem certain, however, that every town of any size in Israel must have employed the services of at least one person who specialized in the trimming of hair and beards. Typical of the lowly standing of a number of professions singled out in early rabbinic literature, the Mishnah (c. A.D. 200) calls the occupation of a barber, “the craft of robbers” (Mishnah, Kiddushin 4:14). Nevertheless, the Talmudic rabbis affirmed, “The glory of a face is its beard” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 152a).

Jewish priests were not allowed to shave their hair; neither were they permitted to let their hair grow uncut like Nazirites (Lev. 21:5; Ezek. 44:20; cf. Num. 6:5). According to the Law of Moses, if an Israelite trimmed his hair, he was to leave uncut the hair at the sides of the head (i.e., the pe’ot, or forelocks, around the sides of the temple) and on the edges of his beard (Lev. 19:27; Deut. 14:1). The Torah proscribed cutting of this hair since it appears to have been a pagan practice.

Jewish people of Bible times frequently used hair oil, especially on joyous occasions (Matt. 6:17). It helped condition the hair and eliminate dryness of the scalp and vermin. To anoint the hair of a guest was a token of hospitality (Luke 7:46) or a sign of honoring a guest at a banquet (Ps. 23:5). The Psalmist compares the pleasantness of unity among brothers to “precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard” (Ps. 133:1-2).

Most Semites seem to have had black or dark hair (cf. Song 5:11). In the Hebrew Scriptures, the hair of Israelites is likened to the dark color of goat’s hair (1 Sam. 19:13; Song 4:1). Josephus states that Herod the Great dyed his hair black to conceal signs of aging (Antiq. 16:233). Gray hair was considered a crown of splendor for the old (Prov. 16:31; 20:29). Old age and gray hair go together (1 Sam. 12:2; Job 15:10; Ps. 71:18; Isa. 46:4), but with them come respect and wisdom (cf. Lev. 19:32; Wisdom of Solomon 4:8-9). White hair symbolized the wisdom and dignity of the divine presence (Dan. 7:9; Rev. 1:14; 2 Macc. 15:13). Biblical literature does not mention the use of wigs among the Hebrews.

Detail of the Black Obelisk showing Jehu prostrate before  Shalmaneser III of Assyria.
Detail of the Black Obelisk showing Jehu.

The beards of Israelites seem to have been quite full and rounded (cf. Lev. 19:27). The Hebrew term for “beard” (זָקָן, zakan) is a cognate of the word “elder” or “old man” (זָקֵן, zaken). The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III (c. 850 B.C.) depicts both King Jehu of Israel and thirteen Israelite porters with beards. The Lachish reliefs (c. 700 B.C.) portray bearded Hebrew citizens of the city as they kneel before Sennacherib.

The beard was a mark of vitality and manhood and treated with utmost care and respect (Ps. 133:2; 2 Sam. 19:24). To take hold of the beard of another in one’s right hand to embrace him was a sign of friendship (2 Sam. 20:9), but to cut off a man’s beard was a grievous insult and token of public shame (2 Sam. 10:4; Isa. 50:6). Accordingly, the Lord plans to humiliate completely his wayward people, Judah, by using Assyria as a razor to shave the beard, head and pubic hair (Isa. 7:20). To pull hair from the head and beard was an expression of anguish or distress (Ezra 9:3).

In ancient Greece and Rome, men wore their hair long. Shortly after the time of Alexander the Great (c. 300 B.C.), hairstyles among Greek and Roman men became short. Barbershops became a familiar sight in towns and cities of the Greco-Roman world. The evidence from coins, statues, busts and ancient writers reveals that the Roman emperors from the time of Augustus (27 B.C.- A.D. 14) to the time of Trajan (A.D. 98-117) and many other notable figures during this period visited the barber on a daily basis. Among most free-born Greeks and among Romans—slaves, soldiers and the poor excepted—to be clean-shaven was the rule during New Testament times.

Ezra, as depicted on a panel of the frescoes that covered the walls of the synagogue at Dura-Europas. Ezra's hair and beard reflect Jewish styles in Dura-Europas in the first half of the third century A.D.         (Reproduced from Carl H. Krueling, The Excavations at Duro-Europas, The Synagogue [New Haven, Yale University Press, 1956] Plate XLVIII)
Ezra, as depicted on a panel of the frescoes that covered the walls of the synagogue at Dura-Europas. Ezra’s hair and beard reflect Jewish styles in Dura-Europas in the first half of the third century A.D. (Reproduced from Carl H. Krueling, The Excavations at Duro-Europas, The Synagogue [New Haven, Yale University Press, 1956] Plate XLVIII)
In our effort to establish the appearance of Jesus, we must keep in mind not only the customs of the Semitic world of the ancient Hebrews, but also those Jewish customs practiced several centuries either side of Jesus. There is indication that the Jewish world of New Testament times was not immune to the shorter hairstyles adopted by Greek and Roman men some three centuries earlier. Indeed, Jewish art from the Roman period, especially the synagogue wall paintings at Dura-Europos on the Euphrates, generally depicts well-trimmed beards and rather short hair that follows the contour of the head. Likewise, in Talmudic times, rabbinic authorities permitted Jews who had frequent dealings with Roman authorities to clip their hair in the Gentile fashion (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kamma 83a). Thus, in Jesus’ day, the length of hair and style of beards must have varied, determined to some degree by the accepted custom of the time.

A Body, Vultures and the Rapture (Luke 17:37)

Revised: 02-Jun-2013

Luke 17:37b, ὅπου τὸ σῶμα ἐκεῖ καὶ οἱ ἀετοὶ ἐπισυναχθήσονται (“wheresoever the body is, thither will the eagles be gathered together”; KJV),[1] is certainly one of the most enigmatic of Jesus’ sayings. Commentators have noted that Jesus employed a proverbial saying to reply to his disciples’ question, “Where, Lord?” (Luke 17:37a); however, they differ on what the proverb means in this context. Some understand it to mean that the Son of Man will inevitably appear just as eagles inevitably show up where there is carrion. Others suggest that it refers to the swiftness with which the Son of Man will come in judgment. Still others take it to mean that the Son of Man will come when the world has become like a lifeless corpse, rotten with evil and ripe for judgment. None of these interpretations seems satisfactory in light of the disciples terse question: “Where, Lord?”

From my experience, the most effective way to understand a saying of Jesus preserved in the Synoptic Gospels, i.e., Matthew, Mark and Luke, is to translate it into Hebrew and then ask what the resultant Hebrew means. When the saying about a dead body and eagles is put into Hebrew, one notices a possible allusion to a passage from the book of Job that describes the habits of vultures:

It [the vulture] dwells among the rocks and there it lodges; its station is a crevice in the rock; from there it searches for food, keenly scanning the distance, that its brood may be gorged with blood; and where the slain are, there the vulture is. (Job 39:28-30, New English Bible)

This passage concludes with the proverb to which Jesus seems to be alluding: וּבַאֲשֶׁר חֲלָלִים שָׁם הוּא (uva’asher khalalim sham hu, and wherever there are slain, there it [the vulture] is), that is, whenever the slain lie exposed in the open field, immediately vultures appear and huddle around them.

Many English versions of the Bible, for example, the King James Version, present the reader with four Hebraisms in their translations of the eight Greek words in Luke 17:37b:

1. “body” would be more idiomatically translated by “corpse” or “dead body.” The singular of חֲלָלִים (khalalim, slain persons), the word used in Job 39:30, is probably behind the Greek words translated “body,” “carcass” and “dead body” in Luke 17:37 and its parallel, Matthew 24:28. In biblical Hebrew, khalalim means wounded or slain persons, never carrion or the carcasses of animals.

2. “eagles” should be translated “vultures” since eagles do not feed on carrion. The confusion arises because נְשָׁרִים (nesharim), the Hebrew word used in Job 39:27, the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek word translated “eagles” in Luke 17:37, can mean both “eagles” and “vultures.”[2]

3. “will be gathered together” should be converted to the present tense, that is, “[there the vultures] gather together.” Hebrew proverbs use the “future” or “imperfect” tense of the verb, whereas English proverbs typically use the present tense, e.g., “A stitch in time saves nine.” “Future” tense verbs in Hebrew proverbs must usually be translated to English with the present tense.

4. “the body,” and “the vultures,” though technically definite, have an indefinite sense in this context and should be translated as “a [dead] body” and “vultures.” In Hebrew a definite noun often has an indefinite sense.

A more idiomatic English translation of Jesus’ saying would be: “Wherever there is a slain person, there vultures gather.”

Jesus seems to be speaking of the rapture. This is indicated by his use of “taken” in the preceding verses: “There will be two men in one bed. One will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left” (Luke 17:34-35). “Take” is a Hebraism for “translate, rapture,” as in the case of Enoch of whom the Bible says: “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, for God took him” (Gen. 5:24).

Robert Lindsey reached the conclusion that the setting for this saying of Jesus was a meeting between Jesus and his disciples on the Mount of Olives just prior to his ascension (Jesus, Rabbi and Lord: A Lifetime’s Search for the Meaning of Jesus’ Words, 203). Jesus tells his disciples that at the rapture many people will be left behind (“one will be taken and another left”). The disciples are concerned, and express this in just one word, אֵיפֹה (eyfoh, Where?), that is,”Where will you be, Lord? How will we reach you?” Jesus calms his disciples with a well-known proverb: “Wherever there is a slain person, there vultures gather,” that is, “Wherever I will be, there you likewise will be.”[3] Jesus indicates to his disciples that at his appearance, the disciples instantaneously will be found in his presence.

  • [1] Matthew’s parallel is: ὅπου ἐὰν ᾖ τὸ πτῶμα ἐκεῖ συναχθήσονται οἱ ἀετοί (wherever there may be the corpse, there will be gathered the eagles; Matt 24:28)
  • [2] The biblical “eagle” refers to the Griffon Vulture.
  • [3] Jesus likens himself to a decaying corpse and his disciples to vultures because he is alluding to Job 39:30.

The Sweetness of Learning

Although the Gospels give little information concerning Jesus’ childhood, we can suppose that in his formative years Jesus received a good Jewish education. Dr. Wilson gives us a glimpse into the Jewish way of training a child.

One of the most frequently quoted biblical texts dealing with education is Proverbs 22:6: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”[1]

The Hebrew verb translated “train” is חָנַךְ (khanach). In the Bible this verb and its derivatives occur mainly in contexts suggesting the sense of “to begin, initiate, inaugurate.”[2] For example, the root is used for the formal opening of a building (Solomon’s Temple, 1 Kgs. 8:63), for an initiation gift for an altar (Num. 7:10), and for the time one begins to live in a new house (Deut. 20:5). Since cult sacrifices, consecration rites or prayers were often connected with the inauguration of a structure, the meaning “to dedicate” eventually became extended to khanach.


This rendering, though not inherent in the root itself, accounts for Hanukkah being translated in John 10:22 as “Feast of Dedication.”[3] The New English Bible, following this apparent root-meaning of “begin,” renders Proverbs 22:6: “Start a boy on the right road” (cf. NIV margin, “Start”).

In practice over the centuries, however, it is evident that the Jewish community understood khanach as derived from a different root. The verb has customarily been linked with a root meaning “rub the palate or gums”; hence the cognate חֵךְ (khech, “palate,” “roof of the mouth,” “gums”).[4] The Semitic scholar T. H. Gaster states that the original meaning is suggested by the Arab custom of smearing date juice on the gums and palates of newborn children. He also points out that Calvin, the sixteenth-century reformer, indicates that the Jews of his time used to apply honey in a similar way.[5]

Ezekiel’s Scroll

Whatever the etymology of khanach, the custom of using honey deserves special mention in any study of Jewish education. Rabbinic tradition informs us that it was the Jewish practice to use honey in a special ceremony on the first day of school. The young child was shown a slate which had written on it the letters of the alphabet, two verses of Scripture (Lev. 1:1, Deut. 33:4), and one other sentence: “The Torah will be my calling.” The teacher next read these words to the child, and the child repeated them back. Then his slate was coated with honey, which he promptly licked off, being reminded of Ezekiel, who said after eating the scroll, “I ate it; and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth” (Ezek. 3:3). After this ceremony, the child was given sweet cakes to eat with Bible verses from the Torah written on them.[6]

What is the reason the rabbis tie study and honey together? The answer appears to be due, at least in part, to the linguistic connection they made between the use of khech (palate, gums) and khanach (to educate) in certain biblical texts. The rabbis found khech in passages comparing the sweetness of honey to the sweetness of the wisdom and words of God which one spiritually ingests.

Two passages are of special note: “Eat honey, my son, for it is good; honey from the comb is sweet to your taste [khech]. Know also that wisdom is sweet to your soul” (Prov. 24:13-14a); “How sweet are your words to my taste [khech], sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Ps. 119:103). In addition, the Midrash states that the study of Torah “is compared to milk and honey: just as these are sweet throughout, so are the words of the Torah, as it says, ‘Sweeter also than honey’ [Ps. 19:10]” (Song of Songs Rabbah 1:2, 3). Thus, in the rabbis’ view, education came to involve the task of causing people to enjoy the sweetness of studying divine truth.

One other major point is in order before leaving Proverbs 22:6, “Train a child in the way he should go.” Today, this text is frequently taken to be a command directed to parents, an exhortation for them to instruct their child in Scripture and in the way of godly living. Although the Bible gives a mandate for parental instruction of children,[7] the above proverb does not appear to be one of those texts.

A Child’s Uniqueness

The Hebrew of Proverbs 22:6 is חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל פִּי דַרְכּוֹ (khanoch lana’ar al pi darko), literally, “Train [start] a child according to his [the child’s] way.” There is a great difference between the training of a child according to the child’s way (i.e., encouraging him to start on the road that is right for him), and training him according to a way chosen, prescribed and imposed by the parents. The former is in keeping with the child’s unique God-given bent, disposition, talents and gifts. It is considerate of the uniqueness of the child; it does not treat all developing personalities the same.

The above translation and interpretation put the onus on the child to choose the right path. It is one thing for a parent to encourage, nurture, guide and inform a child so that the child himself is prepared to choose the path that is right for him; it is something else for a parent to choose that path for the child. This point is the crux to understanding this verse. Again, we must emphasize that this rendering does not negate the parents’ role as teachers of biblical tradition. But it does provide some additional insight into the Hebrew educational process which, parenthetically, corresponds well with certain modern schools of progressive education.

The “training” process begins by seeking to conform the subject matter and teaching methods to the particular personality, needs, grade level and stage in life of the child. (The word na’ar, “child,” in Proverbs 22:6 does not necessarily mean infant or small boy; its more than two hundred occurrences in the Bible reveal a wide range of meanings from childhood to maturity.) Thus, the ability of a “child” to exercise more and more his individual freedom by personal choice—albeit one informed by his parents—is certainly not ruled out.

A Tall Order

By way of application, the above understanding of Proverbs 22:6 places a special responsibility upon every parent. The parent must carefully observe each child and seek to provide opportunities for each child’s creative self-fulfillment. In addition, the parent must be sensitive to the direction in life to which the child would naturally conform, for it is only by walking in that path that the child will come to realize his God-given potential and find his highest fulfillment.

Elizabeth O’Connor effectively grasps how this proverb may apply:

Every child’s life gives forth hints and signs of the way that he is to go. The parent that knows how to mediate, stores these hints and signs away and ponders over them. We are to treasure the intimations of the future that the life of every child gives to us so that, instead of unconsciously putting blocks in his way, we help him to fulfill his destiny. This is not an easy way to follow. Instead of telling our children what they should do and become, we must be humble before their wisdom, believing that in them and not in us is the secret that they need to discover.[8]

This is a tall order. But when parents see that their responsibility is primarily to facilitate, to teach the child to choose the right path, only then will the child be enabled to “fulfill his destiny.” And herein lies an important educational key to making learning a sweet and palatable adventure.

  • [1] This article is adapted from Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., and Dayton, OH: Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, 1989), 291-294, and used by permission.
  • [2] See S. C. Reif, “Dedicated to Hnkh,” Vetus Testamentum 22 (1972): 495-501. See also Victor P. Hamilton, “hanak,” in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (ed. R. Laird Harris, et al.; Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 1:301-302.
  • [3] The Hebrew noun חֲנֻכָּה (khanukkah is properly a rite of inauguration, an event often associated with joyful celebration and sacrifice. Thus the word is most often used in reference to the ceremony of “dedication” or “consecration” of some structure. The origin of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah goes back to the 25th of the month Kislev, 165 B.C., when the Maccabees rededicated the Temple after Antiochus IV Epiphanes had desecrated it.
  • [4] Brown, Driver and Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (London: Oxford University Press, 1907), 335.
  • [5] Theodor H. Gaster, Customs and Folkways of Jewish Life (New York: William Sloane Associates Publishers, 1955), 14.
  • [6] For further details of this procedure see William Barclay, Educational Ideals in the Ancient World (repr. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1974), 12-13.
  • [7] See Deut. 4:9; 6:7; 11:19; Ps. 78:5-6; Prov. 1:8; Eph. 6:4.
  • [8] Elizabeth O’Connor, Eighth Day of Creation (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1971), 18.

“He Shall Be Called a Nazarene”

One of the titles given to Jesus was “Nazarene.” Where did the title come from, and did it have any special significance? Ray Pritz traces the title’s origins.

The title “Nazarene” may have derived from the town of Nazareth where Jesus grew up, but this is not at all certain. Nazareth is never mentioned in rabbinic literature nor in any other writing outside the New Testament before its mention by the Hebrew poets of the seventh or eighth century. Its first post-New Testament appearance came with the discovery of an inscription listing the twenty-four priestly courses. This inscription, found in the summer of 1962 in a synagogue in Caesarea, has been dated to the third or fourth century.[1] The spelling of the name in the inscription is נצרת (natsrat), the same as in the much later Hebrew poets.

Two Problems

The New Testament starting point for investigating the title Nazarene must be Matthew 2:23: “[Joseph] came and resided in a city called Nazareth so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.'”

This was one of the most difficult verses faced by the editorial committee of the annotated edition of the United Bible Societies’ Modern Hebrew New Testament. The main problem is that nowhere in the extant body of Scripture do we find the statement which Matthew seems to quote from the Prophets.

Which Prophecy?

Matthew uses the Greek word Ναζωραῖος (Nazoraios) for the title by which Jesus will be called according to “the prophets.” This most likely represents the Hebrew word נוֹצְרִי (notsri), a name by which Jesus is called several times in the Talmud.[2] The name נוֹצְרִים (notsrim, plural of notsri), referring to believers in Jesus, also occurs in the Talmud.[3] Many of these passages were removed by censors and can be found today only in collections of expunged passages taken from earlier manuscripts of the Talmud.

The Hebrew word notsri occurs six times in the Hebrew Bible.[4] In all cases it carries the sense of preserving or keeping. Some translations render the word in Jeremiah 4:16 as “enemies” or something similar (New American Standard Bible, Good News Bible, New International Version). However, other translations are consistent with the other references and speak of “watchers” (The Holy Scriptures [Jewish Publication Society of America], Luther’s sixteenth-century German translation, the Latin Vulgate). None of the other Gospels provides a parallel to Matthew’s statement, which comes at the end of his infancy narrative.

After fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s slaughter of the children in the area of Bethlehem, Joseph has been told it is safe to return to the land of Israel. However, since Herod’s son Archelaus is ruling in Judea, Joseph, Jesus and Mary do not return there but continue on north to Galilee, which had been given as a tetrarchy to another of Herod’s sons, Antipas. This move to Nazareth prompts Matthew to comment on the fulfillment of prophecy.

Fulfilled Prophecy

Such an emphasis on fulfilled prophecy is peculiar to Matthew, occurring over a dozen times in his Gospel, and in fact he had already used the formula four times previous to 2:23.[5] We get an idea of Matthew’s methods if we note that in all of the four quotations before this one he either mentioned a prophet by name or said “the prophet” (singular) in connection with a quotation which can be easily found almost exactly as quoted.

This pattern holds true for all other such quotes in Matthew, with three exceptions. One is in 26:56 where he also cites “the prophets”; the second is in 27:9 and 10, where he credits Jeremiah as the source for a statement which is found primarily in Zechariah; and the third is here in 2:23. A candidate for the source of Matthew’s quote should be clearly connected to a known prophecy or, to use Matthew’s phrase, “the prophets,” and it should have an evident link with Nazareth.


One possible source is Judges 13:5, where the angel of the LORD tells the wife of Manoah that her son, Samson, will be a Nazirite.

This potential solution has two serious problems besides the fact that it is not a prophecy in the sense in which Matthew normally uses the word. First of all, as far as we know Jesus was not a Nazirite. Indeed, he said of himself: “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking and you say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard’” (Luke 7:34).

The other difficulty is that the Hebrew root for Nazirite, נזר (n-z-r) is not the same as that for Nazareth: נצר (n-ts-r). The similarity of the two words is only superficial. English versions of the Bible use only one letter (z) to express the two Hebrew letters: ז, the “z” sound, and צ, the “ts” sound. Greek generally uses the letter ζ (zeta) to represent the Hebrew ז (as it does in Judges 13:5) and the letter σ (sigma) for צ. However there are also instances of צ being transliterated as zeta.[6]


The challenge is to find a scriptural prophecy or prophetic idea which yet maintains a connection with the town of Nazareth. One long-standing candidate has been Isaiah 11:1 which says, “A shoot will come forth from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit.” The word for “branch” is נֵצֶר (netser), which contains the same three consonants that form the root of the name Nazareth.

When we look in the Targum at the Aramaic translation of this verse, we see that the verse was interpreted messianically: “There shall come forth a king from the sons of Jesse, and a Messiah will grow from the sons of his sons.” The Targum goes on to read the Messiah into verses 6 and 10. The first ten verses of this chapter of Isaiah were almost always interpreted in Jewish midrashic literature as referring to the Messiah.[7] One interesting baraita[8] shows disciples of Jesus using Isaiah 11:1 in arguing with the rabbis about the messiahship of Jesus.

An attractive feature of Isaiah 11:1 as the source for Matthew’s statement is that not only is the verse itself messianic, but it also can be connected to a broader messianic context. The idea of the Messiah as a branch is found elsewhere in the prophets, although using other words than netser for branch. So, for example, Isaiah 53:2 speaks of a יוֹנֵק (yonek, tender shoot) and a שֹׁרֶשׁ (shoresh, root) out of dry ground. In Jeremiah 23:5 we read: “Behold days are coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up a righteous צֶמַח (tsemakh, plant) for David, and a king will reign and will bring about justice and salvation in the land.” Tsemakh is also used of a messianic figure in Jeremiah 33:15 and Zechariah 3:8 (“my servant, the Branch”) and 6:12.

When Matthew says that in going to Nazareth, Jesus was fulfilling something spoken by “the prophets,” perhaps he intended to point to the one idea which most unifies the biblical prophets, the idea of the Messiah.[9] Here, then, we have a solution to the puzzle of Matthew 2:23, which connects with “the prophets” while still linking to one prophetic verse that bears an etymological tie to the name of the town where Jesus went to live.

  • [1] Michael Avi-Yonah, “An Inscription from Caesarea about the Twenty-four Priestly Courses,” Eretz-Israel 7 (1964): 24-28 (Hebrew).
  • [2] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a, 103a, 107b; Sotah 47a; Avodah Zarah 16b, 17a.
  • [3] Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 6a and Ta’anit 27b.
  • [4] 2 Kings 17:9; 18:8; Ps. 25:10; 119:2; Jer. 4:16; 31:6.
  • [5] Matt 1:22-23; 2:5-6, 15, 17-18.
  • [6] See G. F. Moore in Jackson-Lake, The Beginnings of Christianity, The Acts of the Apostles (repr. Grand Rapids, MI, 1979), 1:427; and F. C. Burkitt, Syriac Forms of New Testament Proper Names (London, 1912), 28-30.
  • [7] Lamentations Rabbah 1:51; Tanhuma, Vayekhi 10, 110; Genesis Rabbah 3:4, 97:9, 99:8; Ruth Rabbah 7:2; Song of Songs Rabbah VI, 10, 6; Shokher Tov 21, 72.
  • [8] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a. The term baraita refers to any of the halachot or sayings not included in the Mishnah of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi, that is, sayings that predate 230 A.D.
  • [9] See Acts 3:24; Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 99a.

What Is the Priest Doing? Common Sense and Culture

מְתֻרְגְּמָן Meturgeman is Hebrew for translator. The articles in this series illustrate how a knowledge of the Gospels’ Semitic background can provide a deeper understanding of Jesus’ words and influence the translation process.

A little story from the birth narratives in Luke shows how our cultural background can create a translation problem.

Luke 1:21-22 in the Revised Standard Version reads:

And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they wondered at his delay in the temple. And when he came out, he could not speak to them, and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple; and he made signs to them and remained dumb.

Common sense is connected to cultural expectations, and what is understandable in one culture is opaque in another. In the story above, it is clear that the people outside the temple understood that Zechariah had had a vision. What is not clear is how they got that information.

Common Sense?

A translator in Africa once suggested to me that Zechariah was using sign language to explain to the people that he had seen a vision. Thus, in the passage above, the clause “and he made signs to them” was the means by which the people learned about the vision. To that translator, the instrumental relationship between the people’s perception and Zechariah’s signs was one of common sense. That, he argued, was the significance of Luke’s “and,” which seems a plausible enough argument considering the influence of Hebrew structures on Luke and the practice of Hebrew simply to use “and” without specifying the exact relationship between two clauses.

One could translate such a relationship in modern English as, “They perceived that he had seen a vision by the signs that he was making….” In more idiomatic English the New International Version suggests this interpretation:

When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak. [emphasis added]

Even more explicit is The Living Bible:

…and they realized from his gestures that he must have seen a vision in the Temple. [emphasis added]

Such an understanding makes sense as it stands, but there is additional cultural information that can change our understanding of the original situation.

More Cultural Background

A model of the Jerusalem temple during the time of Zechariah. Model at the Israel Museum. Photograph by Todd Bolen. Photo © BiblePlaces.com

There was a unique expectation connected to any priest who entered the temple. This was where God placed a special sanctity and was specially present, and people were concerned that nothing should go amiss whenever a priest entered the area. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest, after offering incense in the Holy of Holies, paused for a moment in the sanctuary to pray a short prayer before returning to the courtyard where the assembled people were waiting. The Mishnah states: “He did not make the prayer long so as not to frighten Israel” (m. Yoma 5:1).

The people’s anxiety when a priest remained too long within the sanctuary is illustrated by an incident that happened to a high priest, possibly Shim’on the Righteous, who served as high priest around 200 B.C.:

Once a certain high priest made a long prayer and [his fellow priests] decided to go in after him—they say this high priest was Shim’on the Righteous. They said to him: “Why did you pray so long?”

He said to them: “I was praying that the temple of your God would not be destroyed.”

They said to him: “Even so, you should not have prayed so long.” (Jerusalem Talmud, Yoma 42c)

The People’s Expectation

Luke recounts that “the people wondered at Zechariah’s delay in the temple.” The people’s common sense had already realized that something was amiss, and that for good or bad, there probably was a divine visitation taking place. When Zechariah came out and could not talk, their suspicions were immediately confirmed—the content of Zechariah’s sign language was unnecessary for reaching that conclusion. Luke, in fact, never tells us exactly what Zechariah was trying to say, though we might assume he was not only trying to communicate that there had been a supernatural visitation, but also what the angel had told him, some of the awe and terror that he felt and what he planned to do. Luke’s statement that “he was making signs to them and remained dumb” focuses on the resultant condition of Zechariah.

A culturally more appropriate translation would retain a major break between the people’s perception and Zechariah’s sign making. The Revised Standard Version does this, and the Good News Bible has a good, idiomatic English version of Luke 1:21-22:

In the meantime the people were waiting for Zechariah, wondering why he was spending such a long time in the Temple. When he came out he could not speak to them—and so they knew that he had seen a vision in the Temple. Unable to say a word, he made signs to them with his hands.

Comment by David Bivin (Oct. 24, 2012): For an important article on the same Lukan passage, see Shmuel Safrai’s “Zechariah’s Prestigious Task.”