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.

Is Faith Contrary to Empirical Support?

The apostles possessed more empirical supports for their faith than we can ever hope to possess, and certainly their spiritual “report cards” did not suffer for the fact.

Is faith antithetical to possessing (or seeking) empirical or rational supports for what we believe? If we may (with qualification) speak of believing as a sort of knowing, then does the Bible construe faith-knowing and rational knowing as mutually exclusive?[1] Contrary to what is taught in some circles, true faith is not at all antithetical to empirical or rational supports. In fact, the apostles possessed more empirical supports for their faith than we can ever hope to possess, and certainly their spiritual “report cards” did not suffer for the fact.

If we pay mind to rational arguments for God, or use archaeology as an aid to faith, are we undercutting the proper role of faith? Some, indeed many, would say that we are. As they construe the New Testament, true faith in God must keep its distance from anything even remotely empirical. For them, faith only works by leaps—in fact, it is a leap, so that having faith in God is definitionally to make a leap of faith. The longer the leap, they seem to imply, the purer one’s faith. But this, I contend, is a wrong understanding of what the Bible means by “faith,” and it can really mess up our theology if we take it on board.

Karl Barth

Objections against using empirical or rational supports for our faith are often lodged in the name of the so-called Barthian revolution (named for the Swiss theologian Karl Barth). Whenever it is suggested that archaeology somehow supports the Bible, or that a given philosophy can elucidate our faith, the objection is invariably voiced that faith cannot possibly be supported by empirical data or rational arguments, for if it were, it would not be faith. This objection accepts as patent the idea that “faith” should be defined as believing something in the face of a total lack of “external” support. In other words, it proposes that faith and empirical knowing are diametrically opposed epistemic models, and that to mix faith with empirical knowing is to lose what one has grasped through faith. Some of those who define faith in this way in fact grumble when archaeologists find anything supporting the biblical narrative, as if an addition to our archaeological database somehow steals away from our faith.

In light of this antipathy to the use of archaeology to support the Bible, it should be pointed out that this understanding of “faith” does not at all line up with the biblical view. This understanding of faith, in fact, comes not from Paul or Luke, but from Martin Luther, and it was brought into our times in a more up-to-date form by Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Barth. (Modern followers of Luther usually assume that if Luther held something, then Paul also held it before him.[2] Mutatis mutandis, the same applies to modern followers of Augustine, etc.) Unlike Luther’s conception of faith, the concept of faith in the New Testament is in no way antithetical to the idea of possessing empirical or rational support.

How do the above-mentioned understandings square with Scripture? The dominant idea wrapped up in the word πίστις, both in and beyond the New Testament, is clearly that of “trust.” As believers we are first of all called to trust in the Lord’s leading, provision, and salvation. As Bultmann wrote (in reference to Philo’s understanding), πίστις “is man’s firmness, or impregnability, on the basis of committal to the only solid thing, to the one thing that is.”[3] But there is also, of course, a more content-focused use of πίστις in the New Testament, in which “faith” refers to belief that something (especially in the way of God’s plan) is in fact as it is described for us. When venturing into this part of πίστις’s semantic field, Bultmann makes the fatal mistake of tying faith too closely, too exclusively with the kerygma (viz. the message of the apostolic preaching): “In the sense that it believes on the basis of the kerygma, faith is always a ‘venture.’”[4] Strictly speaking, what Bultmann says here is perhaps unobjectionable, but there is much to object to in how he enlarges on this idea one page later, where he concludes from Galatians 1:23 that “the message itself…can be called πίστις.” This conclusion he derived by taking “the preaching of faith” (Gal. 1:23) to be an abbreviation (as he put it) of “the word of faith” (Rom. 10:8) or “the message of faith” (Gal. 3:2, 5), terms which he took to describe the effect of preaching.[5] Bultmann not only held the kerygma to be the object of faith in its content aspect, but he also, in keeping with his Lutheran rearing, held the kerygma to be the conveyor of faith in its preached aspect.

In spite of the efforts made by Barth and his followers to distance themselves from Bultmann, Barth and Bultmann seem to agree on the nature and theological role of faith. This agreement, I suggest, is an agreement in error. Hans Frei, who always defends Barth with devotion, describes Barth’s view as follows:

Faith includes or is an act of apprehension (vernehmen) of a proper and unique object, God. This act of apprehension is undivided (contrary to Kantian dualism). In it the hiatus between thought as the content of consciousness (of which one may give a phenomenological description) and thought as the noetic form in which the object is genuinely present to thought, is overcome.[6]

There is much in this thick briar patch with which I would take issue, including the use of “dualism’s” negative rhetorical valence as a means of shoehorning a conceptually impossible (and scripturally unwarranted) collapse of thought with its object. (For Frei, this collapse represents what faith essentially is.) In this context, it is worth pointing out what others (especially Gustaf Wingren) have justifiably complained about: Barth assumes “knowing God” in an epistemic way to be the object of theology. He seems not to notice that the object of the New Testament’s theology is not knowing God in that way at all, but rather knowing the fact, manner, and implications of God being “in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” In this respect, Barth has more in common with the mystics of the hekhalot texts than with Paul or any of the other apostles.

Barth’s misunderstanding of faith, it seems to me, is not based on a simple error, but rather on a compound error: it includes the misconstrual of faith as something necessarily exclusive of empirical support (discussed above), but it also brings in a number of other dubious moves. Take, for example, Barth’s strange belief that faith is some sort of mystical power that resonates from the “Word,” which itself is a mystical power in its own right (according to Barth’s way of thinking): faith, according to Barth, is “the making possible of knowledge of God’s Word that takes place in actual knowledge of it” (see Church Dogmatics I/1, pp. 227-29). It is not difficult to see that this idea comes from a Lutheran reading of Rom 10:17: “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of God” (NRSV, altered). Paul really only meant that the people need a preacher, because they cannot believe in what they have never heard, but Luther had misinterpreted this verse as saying something profoundly metaphysical: that the Word of God was a sort of mystical power that conveyed faith to those who, in their natural, “fallen” state, could not have any. (A similar misunderstanding typically takes place when proponents of a “theology of the Word” read Psalms 119:11: “Thy word I have hid in my heart that I might not sin against thee.” They often think this verse refers to the Word’s inherent power to preserve one’s conduct, but the Psalmist was merely saying that it is only by reading the commandments, and by internalizing them, that one can know what they are and purpose to walk in them.) Barth just completes the thought, so to speak, by making faith just as much a mystical power as Luther had made the “Word.”

Hebrews 11:1 and John 20:29

There are two New Testament passages that might seem to support the idea that “faith” and “sight” are antithetical. On closer inspection, however, neither of these passages really says anything to that effect. Let us consider each one in turn.

The first passage is Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (NRSV, altered). Contrary to the way many read this passage, the point of opposing faith to sight is not to define faith over against sight, but rather to counsel endurance. A footnote in the New Oxford Annotated Bible puts it rightly: “Instead of defining faith comprehensively, the author describes those aspects of it which bear upon the argument” (p. 327 NT). A careful reading of the so-called “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11 reveals that the faith these heroes all held in common was a trust in God’s promises, and while the faith exercised was in most respects a hoping against evidence, that commonality is brought to bear for the sake of the intended readership’s situation, and not as a general understanding of what faith is. In fact, the situation is similar to that in Romans 8, a passage in which Paul supplies the only type of evidence he can: the groaning of creation, evident in the saints’ prayers. Hebrews 11:1 cannot be used as an abstract definition of what faith is.

Another passage that is sometimes adduced in favor of separating faith completely from sight is John 20:29, in which Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Many readers take this to advert to some sort of gradation between the faith of Thomas and the faith of those who believe without visibly seeing the object of their faith, and awarding primacy to the latter. Yet it must be remembered that Thomas’ faith, in being based on sight, is really no different from that of the other disciples, who only believed in the risen Jesus when they saw him (on an earlier occasion). If faith without sight is superior in quality, is it not odd that this is not the sort of faith that the very apostles of the Church possessed? (If Jesus intended to mark a gradation of types of faith in his words to Thomas, he could just as easily have said the same words to all the apostles.) In fact, the opposite is really the case: it was the fact that the disciples were eyewitnesses of the resurrection that qualified them to be apostles in the first place. Those who have faith while having yet not seen with their eyes could not be the apostles, but could only be the disciples of the apostles—and there can be little doubt that that is whom Jesus refers to in this logion. Those who believe without seeing are not being praised for a superior kind of faith (because in fact their faith is not superior), but rather congratulated for having the wisdom to exercise faith on the basis of the apostles’ testimony—that is, for receiving the apostles as they would receive Christ himself. Instead of supporting the Barthian understanding of faith as a leap, John 20:29 suggests that faith is just as effective when the leap is facilitated by a long ramp.

An Apology for Apologetics

It is not surprising that circles affected by Luther’s misunderstanding of faith often adopt a somewhat cool attitude toward archaeology in general. This is certainly the case among Barth’s followers. (Many of the central aspects of Barth’s theology are in fact a radicalizing of some of Luther’s worst moments.) The so-called Barthian revolution is well known for its deep-seated “anti-apologeticism,” an attitude that includes a cool reception toward a certain use of archaeology. From a theological point of view, are appeals to those sorts of discoveries valid, or do they replace faith with a religiously inferior form of “knowing”?

In spite of the pilfering of digs and the proliferation of forgeries, the field of biblical archaeology continues to bring new insights on the Bible, as well as the occasional historical support for this or that detail mentioned in the Bible. Only last year, the name of a Babylonian official mentioned in Jeremiah 39:2 was discovered on a tablet in the British Museum.

Bound up within a proper appreciation of what biblical archaeology has to offer is the question of its proper use. How is biblical archaeology related to the field of biblical studies? How much distance, if any, needs to be maintained between the two? Should biblical archaeology be used to prove the truth of the Bible (at select points, that is), or should it be used only to illuminate the Bible at the points where the two intersect? The more “professional” answer is the latter, but it cannot be denied that biblical archaeology, when carefully controlled, can be used to support the biblical narrative (in certain historical aspects), and not just to illuminate it. In point of fact, “supporting” is a kind of illumination, so it doesn’t make sense to separate these tasks totally.

A similar defense could be made for the rational arguments of apologetics. How valid these arguments might be on the grounds of their own technical merits is beside the point. The scriptural understanding of faith does not invalidate or downgrade the use of rational arguments to support faith—from a biblical standpoint, apologetics is a completely valid theological discipline. Those who personally have no need for apologetics will have to gauge for themselves whether it is at all useful for them, but there seems to be a place for it in the Church, and the general idea is congruent with the injunction “always to be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).


The field of systematic theology desperately needs the biblical scholarship that it spurns. What postliberals have done to “faith” is but one example of how confused things can get when people put theology ahead of exegesis.

Daniel Patte comes much nearer the biblical understanding of faith in his book on Paul’s Faith and the Power of the Gospel. Patte recognizes that faith and hope are cognate concepts, and that both are based on experiences belonging either to the individual or to his/her religious community. Patte writes,

While, for Paul, hope is the expectation of that which is not seen (Rom. 8:24), it is not a blind expectation. Rather, it is based upon manifestations in the believers’ experience, of things which are like—or, better, which are of the same nature, which are preliminary manifestations of—what is hoped for.[7]

This quality of hope, Patte observes, is shared by faith as well:

We can suggest that Paul’s concept of “faith”…could express the relations of the believers’ experience with past experiences (especially Jesus’, but also Paul’s, the Judean churches’, and the prophets’ experiences). “Faith” is identifying, in one’s experience, events or situations which are fulfillments of what has been manifested in Jesus’ or Paul’s or the Judean churches’ or the prophets’ experiences (the types).[8]

With this understanding of faith, we are a long way from Bultmann and Barth. But that is usually a good place to be.

  • [1] On the relation of believing to knowing, see Daniel Patte, Paul’s Faith and the Power of the Gospel: A Structural Introduction to the Pauline Letters (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), 10-11. Patte relates faith to knowing by exploring how “convictions” relate to “ideas”.
  • [2] Karl Barth used the term “Paul and the Reformers” to denote a common base of belief. Barth even wrote, “Those who accept the thoughts I have brought forward as germane to the essential facts thereby acknowledge themselves descendants of an ancestral line which runs back through Kierkegaard, to Luther and Calvin and so to Paul and Jeremiah” (The Word of God and the Word of Man [London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1928], 195). From the standpoint of Pauline studies, the misunderstanding that Kierkegaard is a faithful heir to Paul’s thought is as pitiful as it is profound.
  • [3] “πιστεύω, κτλ.,” TDNT 6.197-228, esp. 202.
  • [4] “πιστεύω, κτλ.,” 212.
  • [5] “πιστεύω, κτλ.,” 213.
  • [6] “Analogy and the Spirit in the Theology of Karl Barth,” in Mike Higton (ed.), Hans W. Frei: Unpublished Pieces: Transcripts from the Yale Divinity School Archive, 6-28, esp. 7 (at www.library.yale.edu/div/Freitranscripts/Frei01-Analogy.pdf).
  • [7] Patte, Paul’s Faith and the Power of the Gospel, 146.
  • [8] Patte, Paul’s Faith and the Power of the Gospel, 150.

Treasures in Heaven

The image above shows Jonah being swallowed by the great fish as illustrated in the Kennicott Bible of 1476. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the Gospel of Luke we find an interesting sequence of verses:


The men of Nineveh shall stand up with this generation at the judgment and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah. And behold, something greater than Jonah is here. No one, after lighting a lamp, puts it away in a cellar, nor under a peck-measure, but on the lampstand, in order that those who enter may see the light. The lamp of your body is your eye. When your eye is clear, your whole body also is full of light, but when it is bad, your body also is full of darkness. (Luke 11:32-34)

What is the relationship between the preaching of Jonah and putting a lamp on a lampstand? The prophet Jonah in classical Jewish thought calls to mind repentance. In Rabbinic literature we read that many prophets were sent to Jerusalem and the people did not listen, but to Nineveh one prophet was sent, and the people repented.[1]

The sign of Jonah indicated repentance. In fact, during public fasts in ancient Israel the Torah ark was wheeled out into the city square. An elder then addressed the people with these words, “Brethren, it does not say about the men of Nineveh that God saw their sack cloth and fasting, but that God saw their deeds, that they had turned from their wicked ways.”[2]

In the same context as the men of Nineveh, Jesus also mentioned the Queen of the South. What business does the Queen of the South have with the men of Nineveh? The queen and the Ninevites were Gentiles, which to a Jew living in the first century meant that they were sinners (cf. Galatians 2:15). As sinners, no Jew had any serious expectations of them in terms of spirituality or piety. Nevertheless, the Queen of the South and the Ninevites responded to God in a manner that surpassed expectations.

Two verses follow which mention the Greek word luxnos[3] (or “lamp” in English). Verse 33 says: “No one after lighting a lamp, puts it away in a cellar, nor under a peck-measure, but on the lampstand…” Verse 34 adds, “The lamp of your body is your eye; when your eye is clear, your whole body is also full of light…”

Once when teaching about treasures in heaven, I asked the audience the following question: “If I were to assign the task of preaching a sermon from these verses, what would you preach?” One person immediately commented that the content of Luke 11:33 appears also in Matthew 5:15. His textual instincts had told him to flee from this awkward Lukan passage and consult the Matthean parallel. Approaching the text in such a manner reflects textual-critical thinking. This person recognized the difficulty of interpreting the Lukan passage, and before expounding the text, he felt a need to look at the Matthean parallel.

I designed this short exercise in textual criticism in order to demonstrate the importance of giving thought to which version of a passage in Matthew, Mark, and Luke we rely upon as we prepare to preach or teach. Luke 11:33, which reads, “No one, after lighting a lamp, puts it away…,” is repeated in Matthew 5:15. In Matthew 5:14 Jesus declared, “You are the light of the world…” In Matthew 5:13 he declared, “You are the salt of the earth….” Jesus envisaged his disciples to be like light and salt. In other words, they were to be distinct. These Matthean verses constitute the longer, original context to which Luke 11:33 once belonged.

Luke 11:34, which says, “the lamp of your body is your eye,” is repeated in Matthew 6:22. The Matthean context is a homily about money. Here Luke 11:34 makes better sense because in Hebrew the idiom, “good eye,” means generosity.[4] When reading the synoptic gospels, checking parallel passages is important. Sometimes it makes a significant difference in exegesis.

Jesus on Long-term Investing

We will now direct our attention to the full context of Matthew 6:22 (and Luke 11:34):

Do not lay up for yourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light. But, if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then, the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

Matthew 6:19-24 represents a homily on maintaining a proper attitude toward money. Luke, however, has dispersed the same homiletic material throughout his gospel. For example, Matthew 6:19-21 parallels Luke 12:33, 34, Matthew 6:22, 23 parallels Luke 11:34-36, and Matthew 6:24 parallels Luke 16:13, which comes after the Parable of the Unrighteous Steward.[5]

Ben Sirach on Laying Up Treasure

In the Apocrypha[6] we find parallels to the phrase “laying up treasures in heaven.” I will quote two of them. The first comes from the Wisdom of Ben Sirach, which was written nearly two centuries before the birth of Jesus:

Help a poor man for the commandment’s sake, and because of his need do not send him away empty. Lose your silver for the sake of a brother or a friend, and do not let it rust under a stone and be lost.[7] Lay up your treasure according to the commandments of the Most High, and it will profit you more than gold. Store up almsgiving in your treasury, and it will rescue you from all affliction; more than a mighty shield and more than a heavy spear, it will fight on your behalf against your enemy.[8]

This passage challenges the reader to lay up treasure according to the commandments of the Most High. That reminds us of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:20, “But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal!” Note also Ben Sirach’s exhortation, “Store up almsgiving in your treasury, and it will rescue you from all affliction.” In this sentence, he may have been hinting at Proverbs 10:2: “The treasuries of the wicked are of no benefit, but righteousness rescues from death.” Underneath the English translation “righteousness” stands the Hebrew noun tsedakah,[9] which in the biblical period generally meant “righteousness.”

During the centuries between the Old and New Testaments, the Hebrew language evolved. Some words that had meant one thing in the biblical Hebrew now could mean another in the mishnaic Hebrew. The Hebrew noun tsedakah serves as an excellent example of linguistic development between the biblical and mishnaic periods. In the mishnaic Hebrew, tsedakah may mean more than “righteousness”; it often meant “almsgiving.” Consequently, Proverbs 10:2 was understood as a reference to almsgiving.[10] In the first century A.D., a Jew would have translated this verse into English as “charity rescues from death.” I suspect that Ben Sirach had Proverbs 10:2 in mind when he wrote, “…it [almsgiving] will rescue you from all affliction.”[11]

Using Proverbs 10:2 as an example, I have tried to offer a glimpse of the manner in which Jews in Jesus’ day read their Bible. This endeavor is significant because their emphases were not always our emphases. Their preaching and teaching did not sound like our preaching and teaching. And, obviously, their word studies did not resemble our word studies. Moreover, when reading the New Testament, we encounter subjects for which little or no explanation is offered. The writers of the New Testament did not bother to explain certain concepts, because they assumed that their audiences were familiar with them. Examples of such concepts include marriage,[12] the Kingdom of Heaven, and, of course, treasures in heaven. An example is laying up treasures in heaven. First century Jews were very familiar with this idea. For them, treasures in heaven represented a sort of technical phrase and, therefore, required no explanation.

Tobit on Laying Up Treasure

A second parallel comes from another pre-Christian, apocryphal book called Tobit. It, too, is found in versions of the Bible prepared by the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches:

Give alms from your possessions to all who live uprightly, and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it. Do not turn your face away from any poor man, and the face of God will not be turned away from you.

The warning, “Do not turn your face away from any poor man, and the face of God will not be turned away from you” represents an example of a principle known in Hebrew as midah keneged midah. This literally means, “measure for measure.” In Modern English, the same idea may be expressed by the aphoristic sayings “reaping what one sows” and “what goes around comes around.”

What passages from the Bible would generate this identification of God with the poor? I am reminded of Isaiah 57:15 and 58:6-11, and Psalms 34:18. The psalmist sang that the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. In a similar vein, Isaiah preached that God dwells with the crushed and lowly of spirit. Thus, the Bible clearly affirms the closeness of the Divine Presence to the lowly, the oppressed and the crushed.

Now we can more clearly see how the principle of midah keneged midah finds expression in this passage. The writer of Tobit was drawing from a complex of verses in the Bible, where God affiliates with the poor, downtrodden and crushed. Because God so closely identifies himself with such people, to turn away from the poor is tantamount to turning one’s back on God. This conclusion gains strength from the logical implications of Proverb 19:17: “He who is gracious to a poor man lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his good deed.” The proverb indicates that God has rated the poor as a wise investment. More subtle, but just as significant, one who turns away the poor, rejects God and considers him a bad credit risk.

The passage in Tobit continues: “If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have.” Tobit’s ethical advice to his son Tobias contains a very early expression of an idea which has become central to Jewish teaching on charity: a person who receives alms is himself required to give alms to another who is less fortunate than he. Approximately six hundred years after the writing of Tobit, the exilarch Mar Zutra declared, “A poor man who sustains himself by receiving charity, even he will give charity to another.”[13]

Luke wrote that Jesus once looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury (Luke 21:1-4). Then a poor widow came and deposited two copper coins. That caught Jesus’ attention. This poor widow certainly stood as a candidate herself for receiving assistance. Nevertheless, she felt obliged to donate to the temple treasury. Perhaps some ethical instruction similar to Tobit’s echoed in her mind: “Fear not to give according to the little you have.” From this perspective, Jesus’ pointed remark may have been just as much a comment on the charitable under-achievement of the rich as it was on the over-achievement of the widow. She had acted in accordance with what she had been taught. Although the gifts from the rich may have been large, proportionally speaking, the widow’s two copper coins dwarfed their gifts.

Tobit continued his exhortation:

So you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity. For charity delivers from death and keeps you from entering the darkness; and for all who practice it charity is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High.[14]

Here we see a definite allusion to Proverbs 10:2: The Hebrew tsedakah (righteousness) from Proverbs 10:2 was translated in the Greek version of the Old Testament, otherwise known as the Septuagint, as dikaiosunae, which in Koine Greek may mean almsgiving. Interestingly, this passage from Tobit reads very closely to the Septuagint’s Greek version of Proverb 10:2.[15] The manner in which the author of Tobit alluded to Proverbs 10:2 indicates that Jews in Jesus’ day understood the proverb to mean “charity delivers from death.”[16]

We have surveyed these two passages from the Apocrypha for the sake of proper orientation. Ancient Jews placed a premium on charitable deeds. Moreover, reading their Bibles in a manner that accentuated the importance of such deeds, they discovered almsgiving and other charity-related activity throughout the Bible in places (such as Proberbs 10:2) where we as modern readers would not anticipate finding it.

Monobazus on Laying Up Treasure

Rabbinic literature contains a wonderful story about laying up treasures in heaven. In the first century A.D., Helena, Queen of Adiabene in northern Mesopotamia, and her son Izates, as Josephus called him, converted to Judaism. At a time of famine in Judea, this royal family purchased grain from Alexandria as well as dried figs from Cyprus, and sent these along with large sums of money to Jerusalem for relief of the poor. Apparently, this was the famine Luke mentioned in Acts 11:27-30. In the rabbinic version of the story, Monobazus, King of Adiabene, the brother of Izates and son of Helena, is singled out as the hero.[17]

According to the rabbis, an argument ensued when relatives learned about the great sums of money the king had spent to feed the starving inhabitants of Jerusalem. His response to his charitably challenged relatives was: “My fathers hoarded their treasures in storehouses here on earth, but I am depositing them in storehouses in heaven.”

The fame of the royal family of Adiabene endures even in our day. In 1863 the French archaeologist F. de Saulcy excavated a majestic tomb in East Jerusalem. The tomb’s grandeur suggested to him that it may have belonged to the kings of Judah, hence its name Tomb of the Kings. Later investigation revealed, however, that this tomb belonged to Queen Helena whose bones, according to Josephus, had been buried there.[18]

New Testament Writers on Laying Up Treasures

As part of a caveat issued against avarice, the epistle writer James mentioned laying up treasures in heaven, but with a negative application. James 5:1-3 says:

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure!

James was warning people who had pursued a life of opulence that their riches would not endure. Apparently ignoring Jesus’ advice, they had laid up for themselves treasures on earth, where rust and moth consume.

What about the apostle Paul? Although in his extant writings he did not use the phrase “treasures in heaven” or the accompanying imagery of gold rusting and moths consuming, he did not neglect such a foundational Jewish concept as almsgiving in his teachings. A modern reader might conclude otherwise because Paul expended considerable energy explaining the “mystery”[19] of the gospel and preaching and teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven and Jesus.[20] A revolutionary concept, the mystery of the gospel centered around Paul’s claim that God was now placing his Holy Spirit on uncircumcised Gentiles and extending to them the privilege of being grafted into the redemptive heritage of Israel.

A Digression on the Mysteries of the Gospel

Conventional Jewish thinking wrestled with this proposition. Jesus’ messianic claims were not solely, and perhaps not even primarily, responsible for early Rabbinic Judaism’s distancing of itself from the followers of the Way. Throughout the Book of Acts, the apostles are described functioning within the parameters of Judaism. Prior to Stephen’s stoning at the hands of diaspora Jews belonging to the Freedmen Synagogue and the scattering of the Jerusalem Church throughout Judea and Samaria, the esteemed Pharisee Gamaliel came to the apostles’ defense. His wise advice was, “…stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan…is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them” (Acts 5:38-39). Later, when a riot erupted on the Temple Mount, Jews from Asia accused Paul of preaching against the Law and bringing Greeks into the temple (Acts 21:28). They did not mention anything about Jesus. The source of tension ultimately was stemming from God’s decision to place his Holy Spirit on the Gentiles. Perhaps this helps explain why a voice repeated, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy” three times to Peter in a vision (Acts 10:15-16). God had to prepare Peter for Cornelius’ invitation, because entering a Gentile’s home was an uncomfortable proposition for an observant Jew in the land of Israel.[21]

In our day a large number of Jews from the Lubavitch community have come to regard Rabbi Schneerson as the Messiah. Have these Messianic Jews been pushed outside of Judaism? Judaism is able to accommodate Messianism within its ranks, but the idea of God lavishing his Holy Spirit on men with uncircumcised sexual organs is more theologically challenging. For Paul, this stood at the heart of the mystery of the gospel, namely that the Gentiles (or sinners, as Jews called them) had been given an equal share in Israel’s redemptive heritage.

Writing Galatians 2:11-14, Paul described an incident where the new spiritual status of the Gentiles had generated some friction. Peter had lapsed into conduct that offended the non-Jewish believers. Hence, dealing with some practical ramifications of the mystery of the gospel, Paul found himself in Antioch charting a course between the conservative (and perhaps slightly ethnocentric) Jewish faction under James’s Jerusalem-based leadership on the one hand, and some insensitive (and perhaps ungrateful) Gentiles on the other.[22]

Is the mystery about which Paul preached and wrote new to us? Generations of Christians have been living with this mystery of the gospel for nearly two thousand years. Paul was explaining something new and marvelous for his generation. For us living today the mystery remains marvelous, but it is no longer new. Ironically, we feel very comfortable with the mystery of the gospel, perhaps so much so that we run the risk of taking our “engrafted” status for granted. Moreover, no longer is it the mystery of the gospel that we have difficulty understanding, but the other topics addressed in the New Testament that reflect traditional Jewish thinking. Because Christianity’s organic bond with ancient Judaism has eroded badly over the centuries, a number of concepts and topics that would have been clearly understood by first-century Jewish audiences and would not have required explanation have become difficult to comprehend. Jesus and Paul’s expectations for their first-century Jewish audiences were appropriate, but not for twentieth-century Christians who belong to a radically different age and culture.[23]

Returning to Paul’s letter, consider Galatians 2:9, where Paul recorded his brief description of the Jerusalem Council:

…and recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James, and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we might go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They only asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.

Notice the little phrase, “the very thing I was eager to do.” As Paul traveled on his missionary journeys, he paid special attention to the needs of the poor. Paul did not limit himself to preaching and teaching. He also helped the poor.[24]

Shrinking the Camel

Each of the first three Evangelists recorded the story about a rich, young man who asked Jesus what was necessary to be a candidate for inheriting eternal life (Matthew 19:16-22; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 18:18-23). According to Matthew, the man asked, “What good thing must I do to have eternal life?” What verse of Scripture motivated that question? In Micah 6:8, the prophet said, “He has told you, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you…” Pastor Robert Lindsey suggested that the young man (who most likely posed his question in Hebrew) asked Jesus something close to “What good shall I do in order to inherit eternal life?”[25] The link to Micah 6:8 becomes more apparent once the question has been put into Hebrew. The key phrase is “mah tov” literally, “what good.” The rich young ruler had asked a sincere question. He sought to know what God required of him to inherit eternal life.

According to Luke, Jesus answered:

You know the commandments: Do not commit adultery, do not kill, do not steal, do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.

To this the young man replied, “All these I have observed from my youth.” This young man apparently felt that there was still something more. He was obeying the commandments—you shall not kill, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, etc.

Now Jesus began to apply the pressure:

One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.

We are told that the young man departed saddened because he had much wealth.

About what did the young man originally come to ask Jesus? Eternal life. With what did Jesus end the discussion? He ended with an invitation to follow him or to become a member of his redemptive movement. Is the Kingdom of Heaven the same thing as eternal life? The NIV Study Bible suggests that the two are synonymous.[26] But, if a person spends time reading ancient rabbinic literature, he or she knows that eternal life and the Kingdom of Heaven are two different concepts. Eternal life is basically what we understand it to be, where a person goes after death. The Kingdom of Heaven, however, remains in full force now for those people who have made Jesus, Lord—not tomorrow, not when the Son of Man comes back to judge, but today. People who have said “yes” to Jesus belong to his redemptive movement, which he called the Kingdom of Heaven.[27]

In this story, the rich young man came to Jesus with a question about inheriting eternal life. Jesus basically answered, “You know the commandments—keep them.” Although the young man lived in accordance with the commandments, he wanted to experience a deeper level of spirituality and communion with God.[28] Yet, when faced with the cost of discipleship, which included freeing himself from the snare of materialism by laying up treasures in heaven, he hesitated to make Jesus Lord.[29]

Matthew, Mark and Luke each preserve a dialogue, which Jesus had with a lawyer.[30] According to Matthew, the lawyer came and asked Jesus, “What is the great commandment of the Torah?” And a similar discussion ensued.[31] In the end, Jesus complimented the lawyer by saying, “You have answered right; do this, and you will live,” [32] which includes an allusion to Leviticus 18:5.[33] I find it fascinating that Jesus did not deal with the lawyer in the same manner in which he dealt with the young man. Jesus did not offer the lawyer a personal invitation to become a disciple and thereby join God’s unprecedented redemptive movement over which Jesus presides. I suspect that Jesus viewed this conversation between him and the lawyer more in terms of a professional encounter. The lawyer seems to have been sparring with Jesus,[34] but not necessarily searching like the rich young man.

From the Rich Young Ruler story we learn that the phrase “treasure in heaven” functions as a sort of technical term for giving charity to the poor. Surely the concept drew inspiration from Proverbs 19:17. God has rated the poor as a wise investment. He acts as their guarantor. When we turn away from the poor, perhaps we underestimate God’s solvency or doubt his intention to repay his creditors.

The Rich Young Ruler story also indicates that Jesus’ followers or disciples pursue a lifestyle characterized by laying up treasure in heaven. The snare of materialism ranks among the more menacing threats for impeding obedience to God’s will. Jesus forcefully made this point when he said, “It is hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). Over the centuries, passing through the eye of a needle has not become an easier task for a camel, even if our preaching or lifestyles would suggest otherwise.

Yours and Mine

Luke recorded a story that Jesus told about a rich man and Lazarus. The story appears in Luke 16:19-31, and it reads as follows:

There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.” But Abraham said, “Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And, besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” And he said, “Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” And he said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:19-31)

This story illustrates a point that A. Marmorstein made: “Legends were more powerful allies of the theologians and teachers, apologists and preachers, than generally thought of.”[35] Teaching with legends and other story-line forms was an effective mode for communicating and influencing people’s thinking. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus did much teaching in the form of parables and stories. The challenge for modern readers is that Jesus presented theology in story form. Consequently, the responsibility rests upon us to coax the theological implications out of Jesus’ stories and parables.

The ancient sages of Israel sometimes spoke of humanity in terms of a threefold categorization: the saints, the average folk, and the wicked.[36] They observed that the wicked often accumulated wealth and had an easier lot in this world. In other words, good things such as wealth sometimes accrued to people who did not seem to merit them. Conversely, bad things sometimes happened to people who did not seem to deserve them. They also recognized that some people were born into miserable circumstances, while others enjoyed wealth and comfort. Accordingly, they concluded that a person’s lot in this life could be a mitigating factor, when he or she stands at the Great Judgement.[37]

How is the beggar Lazarus described when he was alive? He lived as a poor man who suffered from sores. He had a wretched lot in this life. That is all we hear about Lazarus. He lived mired in poverty and was chronically ill. The story does not comment on his piety—it merely says that he was poor.

Every day Lazarus sat outside the rich man’s gate and slowly wasted away because nobody clothed, fed or nursed him back to health. Lazarus owned nothing, whereas the rich man possessed much, but he made little or no effort to relieve Lazarus’ suffering. Perhaps he assumed that Lazarus deserved his lot because of some undisclosed sin or a simple lack of industriousness. Whatever his reasoning, the rich man certainly had multiple compelling justifications for neglecting Lazarus.

Sometime in the second century A.D. the rabbis formulated a saying that may hold relevance for a discussion about the story of Lazarus and the rich man:

There are four types among people: The one who says, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours.” This is the average person. The one who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.” This is the simpleton. The one who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours.” This is the saintly person. The one who says, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine.” This is the wicked person.[38]

Why did some rabbis claim that the person who says, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours” resembles a person from Sodom? The prophet Ezekiel once said something about the people of Sodom that is often overlooked in Christian preaching and teaching. They were proud, had plenty of food, were at ease, but the hand of the poor and the lowly they did not strengthen (Ezekiel 16:49). Therefore, according to Ezekiel, this was the sin of Sodom. Although the cardinal sin of the men of Sodom in Genesis 19 was lewd misconduct, in ancient Jewish interpretation, Sodom’s sin became linked to pride and contentment, which resulted in neglect of the poor.[39]

Ezekiel addressed an issue similar in nature to one raised by the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus. The rich man saw Lazarus sitting outside his gate but did not do anything to relieve his suffering. He may have reasoned, “What is mine is mine, and what is Lazarus’ is Lazarus’.” In Jesus’ day that attitude would have been booked as a spiritual felony. The rabbis emphasized this point by suggesting that even an average person, who thinks what is his is his, runs the risk of being like a Sodomite.


In this study I have tried to bring into focus one area that pious Jews in Jesus’ day stressed for proper conduct. Sometimes their emphases differed from the ones we see in the text. In Ezekiel, we read a verse about Sodom, which identifies the sin of Sodom as a failure to strengthen the hand of the poor. Jesus told a story about a rich man who was finely clothed and ate sumptuously. He was at ease, while poor Lazarus was at his gate.

This simple story highlights a major theme in Jesus’ theology: reaching out to the poor and downtrodden. Ancient Jews referred to such activity as laying up treasures in heaven. This concept constitutes a foundational component in the overall message of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Laying up treasures in heaven pertains to helping the poor as Sirach 29:9-13, Tobit 4:7-11, and Matthew 19:21, Mark 10:21, and Luke 18:22 indicate. To this collection of passages we may also add Luke 14:12-15: “…when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be paid at the resurrection of the righteous.”[40]

Realizing that laying up treasures in heaven functions as a sort of technical term for helping the poor in Jewish tradition challenges Christians in affluent western countries in a significant way. We regularly drop money into the collection baskets during the morning offertory each Sunday. But for what purposes is this money used? Although maintaining the church building, keeping the property landscaped, and paying the utilities are worthy endeavors, only gifts of time and money that relieve the suffering of the needy is credited to our heavenly bank accounts. At least this is what Jesus and other Jewish sages taught. As David Bivin once preached from the pulpit of the Narkis Street Congregation in Jerusalem, “We may be surprised to one day learn that we have little balance in our heavenly bank account, because we were not helping the poor. Jesus said, ‘Lay up treasure in heaven.’ In Hebrew, this heavenly treasure is called tsedakah, or, in English, alms or charity.”[41]

From studying the Bible, I have come to see two places where, as a general principle, God dwells with people. One is with the community of faith. God’s redemptive power flows through people who have made Jesus Lord. Jesus stands at the head of a redemptive movement, and those who are part of it are described as poor in spirit.

The Divine Presence is attracted to people who are poor in spirit. They are spiritually dependent upon God, contrite in spirit, and readily yield to his desires. This reminds us of the beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for these type of people constitute the Kingdom of Heaven.” (In English translations of Matthew 5:3, the genitive Greek pronoun αὐτῶν (auton) is treated as a possessive, yet auton would be better translated as a partitive genitive, i.e. “from these” instead of “belonging to these.”)[42]

The other place where God remains active is among the brokenhearted (cf. Isaiah 57:15). Based upon what Scripture says, God dwells with the crushed, the brokenhearted, and the downtrodden. People whose dignity has been crushed, whose physical bodies are failing, whose hopes and aspirations have been shattered, whose lives are mired in poverty attract the Divine Presence. Acute and chronic suffering tends to purge a person of pride and self-reliance and to produce in him or her a genuine longing for a touch from God. For that reason Jesus provoked his audiences by suggesting that tax collectors and harlots would enter the Kingdom of Heaven before others.

Laying up treasures in heaven resembles the classical message of the prophets—feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit those who are sick and imprisoned—but approached from the perspective of God’s faithfulness in rewarding those who do these kind acts. Laying up treasures in heaven for a follower of Jesus is like higher education for a university professor. It is already an integral part of that person’s life. To make Jesus Lord and to become a participant in the Kingdom of Heaven is to dare to go beyond the classical message of the Prophets. It means being on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with our God-given talents, skills, and resources in hand as a partner with God in spreading hope, healing and redemption in a hurting world.

  • [1] Lamentations Rabbah, Proem 31. For an English translation, see Lamentations in Midrash Rabbah (trans. A. Cohen; 3rd ed.; London: Soncino, 1983), 57.
  • [2] M. Taanit 2:1. For an English translation, see The Mishnah (trans. Herbert Danby; Oxford: Oxford University, 1933), 195.
  • [3] For further discussion about Luke’s use of “stichwords,” see Joseph Frankovic, Reading the Book (Tulsa, OK: HaKesher, 1997), 37-38 and David Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnus Press, 1988), 152.
  • [4] The precise meaning of the Greek adjective haplous in Matthew 6:22 remains elusive. It may mean “clear, healthy, sound, simple, single, or sincere.” Note that haplous is antithetically paired with the Greek adjective ponaeros, which means “evil, bad, wicked, sick, in poor condition” (see Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature [5th rev. ed., 1958; Chicago: University of Chicago, 1979], 86, 690-91). In light of the context and the pairing of ophthalmos…haplous with “bad eye,” I am inclined to say that the Hebrew idioms “good eye” and “bad eye” inspired the Greek phrases “ophthalmos…haplous” and “ophthalmos…ponaeros.” The idiom “good eye” appears in Proverbs 22:9: “A good eye will be blessed, because it has given of its bread to the poor.” Even today in Israel, collectors of charity say, “Give with a good eye.” Note, too, that in Romans 12:8, the noun haplotaes, which is related to haplous, means “generosity.” The idiom “bad eye” appears in m. Avot 5:13.
  • [5] David Flusser has pointed out that Luke joined this saying about serving God and Mammon to the parable because the word “mammon” was common to both (cf. Luke 16:13 and 19) (see Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity, 152).
  • [6] Editions of the Bible prepared by the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches include the Wisdom of Ben Sirach. In the wake of the Reformation, abandoning the cannon of the early church (namely the Septuagint) and following the lead of the rabbinic canon, Protestants elected not to include the Apocrypha as part of their Bible.
  • [7] In antiquity, people often hid their valuables in the ground. They viewed this practice as being responsible and prudent, similar to the way people today view storing valuables in a safety deposit box. This sort of thinking is clearly reflected in a variety of ancient sources. From Roman literature, one may cite the behavior of the miser in Aesop’s fable entitled “The Miser.” In Matthew 25:25, one of Jesus’ parabolic characters explains to his demanding master, “So I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” Writing about the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, Josephus described how Roman soldiers tortured Jewish prisoners in order to learn the location of their buried treasures (Jewish Wars 7:112-114). Lastly, one may call attention to the famous maxim of St Basil, “…and the gold that you have hidden in the ground belongs to the poor.”
  • [8] Sirah 29:9-13. The Oxford Annotated Apocrypha (ed. Bruce Metzger; expanded ed.; New York: Oxford University, 1977), 166.
  • [9] The development in meaning of the word tsedakah from the biblical to mishnaic period, already finds expression in Daniel 4:24(27), where the Aramaic cognate tsidkah is in parallel with “showing mercy to the poor” (Everyman’s Talmud, 219). For further discussion, see Joseph Frankovic, The Kingdom of Heaven (Tulsa, OK: HaKesher, 1998), 3-8.
  • [10] Everyman’s Talmud, 221. Also is the verse on Tsedakah Box.
  • [11] Note that Ben Sirach claimed that almsgiving protected more effectively than a mighty shield. The Hebrew word tsedakah was often rendered in Greek as dikaiosunae, even when it carried the meaning of almsgiving. Compare Matthew 6:1. Keeping this in mind, one wonders whether the breastplate of righteousness mentioned in Ephesians 6:14 should be understood in similar terms.
  • [12] Overall, the Old and New Testaments have little to say on marriage. Nevertheless, Jewish thinking on the subject was highly developed. As part of Jewish tradition and the Oral Law, Jewish views on marriage and family life have had a limited influence on Christian preaching and teaching. Although the New Testament does not preserve much information about Jesus’ and Paul’s views regarding marriage and the family, I am sure that both were well versed on what Jewish tradition prescribed. I am always amazed to enter a bookstore that caters to Evangelical/Charismatic Christians and see the numerous books that Christian authors have written on marriage. Few of these authors have made any serious attempt to consult Jewish sources on marriage. Yet Jesus and the apostles after him viewed marriage through the lenses of their Jewish religious heritage. Some of that heritage flowed into rabbinic Judaism and today remains preserved in the literature that the rabbis wrote.
  • [13] B. Gittin 7b (top).
  • [14] The entire passage comes from Tobit 4:7-11 (The Oxford Annotated Apocrypha, 66).
  • [15] Tobit 4:10 differs from Proverbs 10:2 in syntax, the tense of the verb, and eleaemosunae appears in place of dikaiosunae.Unlike dikaiosunae, which carries several meanings, eleaemosunae only means “kind deed” or “charitable giving.” See Walter Bauer, William Arndt, and Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (2nd rev. and augmented ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago, 1979), 249.
  • [16] Note that eleaemosunae is underneath the English “charity” in Tobit 4:10 and “almsgiving” in Tobit 12:9 (The Oxford Annotated Apocrypha, 66, 73). See also A. Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud (New York: Schocken Books. 1975), 221.
  • [17] For the rabbinic version, see t. Peah 4:18. See also Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20:17-96.
  • [18] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20:4, 92-96.
  • [19] See Romans 11:25-26, Colossians 1:27 and Ephesians 3:3-6.
  • [20] See Acts 19:8, 20:25 and 28:31.
  • [21] Note the effort that the centurion made to prevent Jesus from having to deal with a similar awkward situation (Luke 7:6-8).
  • [22] Regarding the awkward circumstances for social contact between Jews and Gentiles in the first century, see the insightful remarks in Robert Lindsey, Jesus, Lord of Capernaum (Tulsa, OK: HaKesher, 1998), 10-12, 20-21. A brief, helpful discussion of the confrontation between Paul and Peter in Antioch may be found in Wayne Meeks and Robert Wilken, Jews and Christians in Antioch in the First Four Centuries of the Common Era (Missoula, Montana: Scholars Press, 1978), 1-2, 13-20.
  • [23] We must work at developing sensitivity to the text that enables us to identify the major concerns of first-century Jews. They appear throughout the synoptic gospels and epistles, but too often escape the attention of twentieth-century English readers. When there is widespread recognition of this challenge in the church, those sitting in the pews will initiate changes that will bring about a sweeping reform in the way we educate those who stand in our pulpits. For further discussion, see Frankovic, Reading the Book, 47-52.
  • [24] In 2 Corinthians 9:6-9, Paul wrote some advice about giving.

    Now this I say, he who sows sparingly shall also reap sparingly. And he who sows bountifully, shall also reap bountifully. Let each one do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion; for God loves a cheerful giver. And, God is able to make all grace abound unto you, that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed.

    Now follows his proof text from Psalms 112:9: “As it is written, ‘He scattered abroad, he gave to the poor, his righteousness abides forever.’” How did Paul understand the Hebrew word, tsidkato, from Psalms 112:9? It is translated as dikaiosunae autou in the Greek of 2 Corinthians 9:9. How could we translate his righteousness in 2 Corinthians 9:9 more dynamically? Could we say that God’s charitable deeds endure forever? First-century Jews saw a connection between God giving to the poor and his charity (righteousness) abiding forever. They interpreted Psalms 112:9 to mean that God’s redemptive activity endures forever. (Or, if one prefers, in a more narrow sense, his charitable activity endures forever.) God is always reaching out to the poor, to the broken, to the crushed; therefore, his righteousness abides forever! Paul apparently understood Psalms 112:9, which he quoted in 2 Corinthians 9:9, in the same manner the author of Tobit understood Proverbs 10:2. For both writers, tsedakah meant something like charity or almsgiving.

  • [25] See Robert Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark (2nd ed.; Jerusalem: Dugith, 1973), 127, and David Bivin, “Jerusalem Synoptic Commentary Preview: The Rich Young Ruler Story,” Jerusalem Perspective 38 and 39 (May-Aug. 1993): 15.
  • [26] The NIV Study Bible offers this comment on Matthew 19:16: “eternal life. The first use of this term in Matthew’s Gospel (see v. 29; 25:46). In John it occurs much more frequently, often taking the place of the term ‘kingdom of God (or heaven)’ used in the Synoptics, which treat the following three expressions as synonymous: (1) eternal life…, (2) entering the kingdom of heaven…and (3) being saved” (The NIV Study Bible [ed. Kenneth Barker; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985], 1469, 1470.
  • [27] See Joseph Frankovic, The Kingdom of Heaven (Tulsa, OK: HaKesher, 1998), 7, and Brad Young, The Jewish Background to the Lord’s Prayer (Austin: Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, 1984), 10-17.
  • [28] Matthew has underscored this element of the story. In his gospel the young man asked, “What do I still lack?”
  • [29] Regarding the cost of discipleship, see Luke 14:26-32.
  • [30] See Matthew 22:35-40, Mark 12:28-34, and Luke 10:25-28.
  • [31] Apparently, Luke was reminded of the Rich Young Ruler story when he wrote about this lawyer. He introduced this story as being about inheriting eternal life. Luke may have realized that Jesus’ allusion to Leviticus 18:5 in verse 28 pertained to eternal life.
  • [32] See Luke 10:28.
  • [33] In Jewish tradition, Leviticus 18:5 was understood to be a reference to eternal life. See Rashi on Leviticus 18:5. See also the references listed for τοῦτο…ζήσῃ in The Greek New Testament (eds. K. Aland, M. Black, C. Martini, B. Metzger, and A. Wikgren; 3rd corrected ed.; West Germany: United Bible Societies, 1983), 253.
  • [34] See Joseph Frankovic, “Is the Sage Worth His Salt?” Jerusalem Perspective 45 (July/August 1994): 12, 13.
  • [35] A. Marmorstein, “The Unity of God in Rabbinic Literature,” Hebrew Union College Annual (1924): 469.
  • [36] See Sifre Zuta, p. 27 and Rosh HaShanah, 16b.
  • [37] See Sifre Zuta, p. 27 and Rosh HaShanah, 16b.
  • [38] M. Avot 5:10. For an alternative English translation, see Danby, 457. Jesus probably knew this saying from Avot in an earlier, simpler form. In the parable of the day laborers in the vineyard and their wages (Matthew 20:1-15), Jesus depicted the landowner, who represents God, as if he is the saint, and the day laborers as if they were average men (or perhaps Sodomites). Note Matthew 20:14-15. See Brad H. Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 136-37.
  • [39] See also “Emulating the Ways of Sodom,” Jerusalem Perspective 55 (Apr.-Jun. 1999): 38.
  • [40] Years ago, Father Richard Thomas and others working with him at Our Lady’s Youth Center in El Paso, Texas did just what this passage said. They hosted a Christmas meal at a city dump in Juarez, Mexico. What happened that day revolutionized the ministry that Father Thomas continues to oversee in the Juarez and El Paso area.
  • [41] David Bivin, “Doers of the Word” in Sermons from Narkis (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Perspective, 1996), 15.
  • [42] See Brad H. Young, Jesus and His Jewish Parables (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1989), 230-35.

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 Western Captivity of the Apostle Paul

Portrait of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1528).
Portrait of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1528).

Many of the articles featured on this website refer to the Jerusalem School’s essential disagreements with mainstream scholarship.[1] The popularizing nature of the website, however, suggests that areas of potential agreement with mainstream scholarship are also worthy of note, especially where the position in question represents an important shift from ideas that are nearly universal in confessional contexts. (“Confessional” includes both the local pulpit and the basic fare of professional theologians.) A number of such areas come to mind, but none is more prominent, and theologically momentous, than the developments that have taken place in the past forty years concerning our understanding of what the books of Romans and Galatians are all about.

It is now a commonplace observation among scholars that Paul’s most basic convictions were misrepresented by the most dominant streams of Western theology. Although a more detailed discussion would include a number of lesser figures as well, it is significant that the principal culprits in the Westernization of Paul (e.g., Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Karl Barth, et al.) are all deserving of chapter heads in a general history of the Church. This shows how central the interpretation of Paul is to the Christian history of ideas. As it goes with Paul, so with the Church.

Portrait of John Calvin attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543).
Portrait of John Calvin attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543).

One of the most important contributions to our understanding of Paul actually precedes the era that I delineated in the first paragraph. Gustaf Aulén’s Christus Victor (in English by 1931) should be required reading for all seminary students. (Aulén was a theologian, and not a biblical scholar, but he was also a Swede, and Sweden is one of the few places where the fields of theology and biblical studies have remained in close enough contact that a theologian can sometimes do the work of a biblical scholar. The advent of postliberalism ruined this possibility for the rest of the world.) In his book, Aulén compellingly argues that Paul understands the believer’s ultimate salvation as the result of Christ’s victory over cosmic forces, rather than the payment of a penalty for our guilt. In other words, the human predicament is not sin-as-guilt (a forensic condition), but rather sin-as-death (thralldom to a cosmic power). For Paul, the soteriological[2] work of Christ was accomplished not principally in his dying on the cross (as is so widely preached today), but rather within the whole event of dying and rising. It is this “cosmic” aspect of Christ’s work, his destroying death by rising from the dead, that underlies Paul’s references to the Christ event. The limited phraseology that gave rise to the “forensic” or “substitutionary” understanding of soteriology is a secondary, less literal reinterpretation, and should not be construed as a straightforward account.

Although Aulén was not a biblical scholar, it is significant that his conclusions fit perfectly with the renewed recognition among today’s biblical scholars that Paul conceptualized the believer’s union with Christ in real (rather than metaphorical) terms, i.e., as a kind of “participation” in the Christ event, rather than as a passive reception of its benefits.[3] It should also be noted that Aulén’s interpretation of Paul is also supported elsewhere within the New Testament: What are we to make of the fact that the Gospels (esp. John) consider the coordination of Jesus’ death with the Passover celebration to be of clear typological significance, but that the Passover sacrifice served, not for purposes of atonement, but as a commemoration of God’s redeeming Israel from the Angel of Death? (This point is almost universally ignored by the popularizing typologists making the rounds today, who perpetuate the Westernization of New Testament soteriology by unwittingly smuggling a theology of atonement into the Passover sacrifice.) If Jesus’ death is to be understood as an atoning sacrifice, would not the typological factor have demanded that he be crucified on or near the Day of Atonement (in the Fall), instead of at Passover (in the Spring)?

The name of Krister Stendahl (another Swede) is foremost among those associated with the “new look” on Romans. In 1963, Stendahl published a seminal essay in the effort to rescue Paul from his Western captivity, entitled “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.” He argued that the tradition of interpreting Paul’s dramatic laments in Romans 7 as evidence of the depths of man’s sinful depravity is based upon reading those verses in isolation from the argument that Paul is making. Until that point in the letter, Paul had been arguing a causal connection between the Law and sin. He must now explain that the Law’s enabling role in the definitional possibility of sin does not make the Law responsible for our sins: The Law is a gift from God, and as such cannot be the author of sin. The point of Paul’s dramatic wallowing is therefore to absolve the Law of complicity in our sins, rather than to demonstrate our depravity. Against the prevailing Augustinian reading of this passage, in which Paul is supposed to be showing the impossibility of right action on the part of humans, Stendahl argues that Paul’s is a “robust conscience,” and that no effacement of the human ability to live righteously is implied.

Karl Barth
Karl Barth

A third area in which our understanding of Paul has advanced significantly concerns our understanding of the macrostructure of the argument of Romans. Romans is not primarily about justification by faith, as was once thought. Rather, the discussion of righteousness by faith is, as one scholar has called it, only a “subsidiary crater.” (Another scholar has referred to the discussion in Romans 5-8 as a “backwater.”) Intense debate continues over what the primary concern of the letter really is, but it almost certainly has something to do with the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in view of the Law and a Law-free Gospel, emphasizing the issues in chaps 1-4 and 9-11. Of all the attempts to reconstruct the original intention of Romans, I have found the reading suggested by Hendrikus Boers in the Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok (a Swedish publication!) to be one of the most compelling: the largely Gentile church in Rome had inferred by the Pauline teaching of a Law-free Gospel that possession of the Law was itself a stumbling block for the Jews, and that the Gentiles’ nonpossession of the Law was a boon. Paul counters this view in several ways, the main one being that of demonstrating that even the Gentiles are under a law. In the future, I hope to build on this reconstruction by showing that Paul does not so much emphasize the causal connections between Law, Sin, and Death in the forward direction (as the primary Western reading asserts), but more so in the backward direction—i.e., to show that death counts as evidence of sin, and that sin counts as evidence of (a universal) law. Since death is universal, sin must be universal, and therefore there must be a law that everyone is under. Paul’s point in Romans is to show that everyone, whether Jew or Gentile, is under a law.

A fourth area in which our understanding of Paul has improved involves our understanding of the phrase “works of the Law,” which plays a key role in Galatians. Once again, the history of Western dogma has interfered with our attempts to understand Paul. When Martin Luther read Paul’s struggle with the Galatian judaizers in the light of his own struggle with the sixteenth-century Roman Church, he inevitably imported the notion of “works righteousness” into the theology that Galatians opposes. Consequently, since the time of Luther, most readers encountering the term “works of the Law” in Galatians think that Paul is warning the Galatians against the temptation to try to “earn” their salvation by doing works (= obeying the Law). But the Judaism of Paul’s day did not believe in “works righteousness,” at least not in that sense, and Luther’s reading of the phrase “works of the Law” is clearly anachronistic. As a number of scholars have pointed out, Paul does not use “works of the Law” to refer to all of the commandments of the Torah. Rather, he is careful to specify these works as including “circumcision,” “Sabbath,” “new moons,” and other clear markers of distinctively Jewish religiosity. Paul opposes gentile Christians observing these select commandments, not because they are seen as part of a more encompassing repertory of works for earning one’s salvation (as Luther thought), but rather because they function, within the first-century logic of ritual identification, to identify one as a Jew, and therefore as a partaker of the Mosaic covenant. Paul argues that Christians do not belong to the Mosaic covenant. Rather, they belong to the Abrahamic covenant.

We can now see why it is so difficult to make sense of both Romans and Galatians at the same time. In Romans, Paul emphasizes the universal inclusiveness of a general law, while, in Galatians, Paul emphasizes the exclusiveness of the Mosaic Law.

Of course, while all of the above views enjoy significant numbers of adherents, I should emphasize that none can be said to be universally held. In fact, a significant objection to the last-named view has gained a number of followers in the past fifteen years: several scholars have objected to the above interpretation of Paul’s use of “works of the Law,” arguing that it is inconsistent with the way in which “works of Torah” is used in the Qumran scroll 4QMMT. (The contents of this scroll were first made known to the public in 1985.) But this is not inconsistent with the view that Paul made an ad hoc use of the phrase “works of the Law.” Given Paul’s many rhetorical resignifications of key terms, there is nothing unlikely in the suggestion that he spoke of “works of the Law” in an innovative way.

  • [1] While I agree with several of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research’s emphases, I am not a member.
  • [2] “Soteriology” means “the doctrine of salvation.”
  • [3] See esp. E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977). To be sure, Aulén’s work has had its share of critics, but most of them are committed Calvinists, whose arguments presuppose their Calvinist conclusions, and which hardly scratch the surface of the real issues at hand.

Were the Pharisees “Legalistic”?

When imprecise terminology is used to denote important concepts, it cannot help but bring confusion. The popular use of the term “legalism” to describe whatever it was that Jesus found objectionable about his adversaries is a case in point. The term is imprecise, and one suspects that, when readers try to define exactly what it was that Jesus objected to in the Pharisees’ approach to the Law, they, more often than not, take their cues from preconceived notions of what “legalism” should mean (the term having already been implicitly admitted as an adequate summary of the issue), rather than from the fine points of Jesus’ specific objections. I find that most lay readers of the gospels interpret Jesus’ discussions with and about Pharisees in strict dependence upon the notion of legalism, even to the point of glossing over Jesus’ otherwise very clear language. Terminology is supposed to clarify things, but the imprecision of the term “legalism,” combined with the presupposition that this term captures the essence of Jesus’ objection, only makes things unclear. I have often heard someone read a gospel passage relating Jesus’ arguments with the Pharisees, only to follow it with an exposition that totally ignores Jesus’ specific objections to the Pharisees, and replaces them with objections not found in the text. The singer’s words are sage advice for readers of the gospels: “Don’t try to paint your masterpiece under artificial light!”

Of course, the term “legalism” does not denote a precise translation of anything appearing in the Greek text. Rather, the term represents a handy summation of what many interpreters of the gospels think Jesus refers to in a number of passages. Can we at all retain the term as a shorthand for at least some of Jesus’ objections to the Pharisees? That depends on how we define it. There are probably many meanings in circulation, but three seem to dominate. These represent the scope of the confusion: (1) it sometimes refers to the concept of “works righteousness,” that is, the belief that one earns one’s salvation through performing the Law; (2) it sometimes refers to the rabbinic multiplication of rules, intended as a “hedge” around the explicitly enjoined precepts of the Law, to keep them from being broken; or (3) it can also refer to the reduction of piety to legal casuistry, to the point of exploiting loopholes that contradict the spirit of the Law. Only the third meaning corresponds to anything that Jesus objected to in the Pharisees (being part of his overall objection to their hypocrisy), but the first two meanings seem to be more commonly associated with the way most Christians read the gospels today. Let’s take a look at these definitions, to understand why the first two are wrong.

Portrait of Martin Luther by by Lucas Cranach der Ältere (1526).

If we define legalism as “works righteousness,” then we cannot apply it to the Pharisees, because the Pharisaic understanding of piety was not based upon this concept. The dichotomizing of faith and works, which for Paul and James represents the simple issue of whether the Law is binding upon Christians, suddenly becomes an argument over whether one earns salvation by performing the Law. The argument is not at home in the first century, but rather belongs to the time of Martin Luther. It was Luther, reading the shortcomings of the Roman Church of his day (viz., the sixteenth century) into the conflict behind Paul’s letter to the Galatians, who turned the Church onto this wrong understanding of the Jewish religion. (If one understands that, for Judaism, the question of salvation revolves more around the question of election than of works, one can see that the relationship between grace, works, and salvation are pretty much the same for Judaism and Christianity.) It is only within the past thirty or forty years that scholars have woken up to just how wrong Luther was in his reconstruction of the Pharisees. Modern scholars are now widely aware of Luther’s problematic reading of Paul, although one still encounters doubts and attempts to qualify the notion of “covenantal nomism.”

Reconstruction drawing of a first-century tsitsit (ritual tassel). Much less complicated than a modern tsitsit, four cords, one of which was dyed blue, were passed through a hole in the tallith's corner and knotted, creating a tassel with eight ends.
Reconstruction drawing of a first-century tsitsit (ritual tassel). Jesus criticized some Pharisees who made a show of their long tsitsiot, but he did not condemn the practice of wearing tsitsiot altogether.

Those who define “legalism” as the building of a hedge around the Law have landed upon an interpretation of the Pharisees that is more at home within the first century. It is well known that the Rabbis, and their pharisaic forebears, often tried to safeguard against legal transgressions by basing their halakhic norms upon a stricter version of the Law. If the Law says “Don’t do x,” then the halakha might enjoin a number of practices that bring one near to doing x. This makes it easier to avoid doing x. As far as contemporary options are concerned, this interpretation of Jesus’ argument with the Pharisees has something going for it, but there is a problem: If Jesus objected to the building of legal hedges, then he apparently didn’t practice what he preached, because there is quite a bit of hedge-building in the Sermon on the Mount. When Jesus “replaces” “Thou shalt not commit adultery” with an injunction against adulterous thoughts, he is building a legal hedge in the classical rabbinic manner. When he “replaces” “Thou shalt not kill” with an injunction against calling someone a fool, he is building a hedge. The fact that Jesus builds legal hedges suggests that he probably would not object to the Pharisees building them, and, in fact, a search of his arguments with the Pharisees does not reveal any such objection. (This misinterpretation of Jesus’ argument with the Pharisees probably arose when someone learned about legal hedge-building, and assumed that Jesus would have objected to it.) Of course, we may choose to define “legalism” as the multiplication of rules, in which case the term would apply to pharisaic hedge-building, but the term would then no longer be useful for understanding the gospels.

And then, we can define “legalism” as the reduction of piety to legal casuistry, allowing for loopholes that excuse one from properly fulfilling the Law. This definition fits well with the accounts of Jesus’ arguments with the Pharisees. Jesus’ most consistent charge against the Pharisees is that they are hypocrites (see esp. Matthew 23). The exploiting of loopholes allowed the Pharisees to follow the letter of Law, while excusing them (to their minds) from obligations linked directly to the motivational core of the Law (viz., love of God and neighbor). In this connection, one thinks immediately of the korban loophole that Jesus censures in Mark 7.[1]

It is possible to define “legalism” in a way consistent with the gospel accounts. It may be less confusing, however, simply to drop the term, and note that Jesus’ main objection to the Pharisees is summed up in the term “hypocrisy.” (The gospel term “hypocrite” actually denotes more than just one who acts contrary to his/her own preaching: it includes those who fail to observe the Law more generally.) Whichever course one adopts, it is clear that the dominant understanding of Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees must be revised.

  • [1] See my article, “The Interiority of True Religion in Mark 7,6-8, with a Note on Pap. Egerton 2,” Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 91 (2000) 180-191.

To Be, or Not to Be, in the Driver’s Seat?

As I lay in a hospital bed at Hebrew University’s Hadassah-Ein Kerem Medical Center, it was obvious to me that my body was completely out of control. My heart had been beating erratically for over 100 hours, and the only hope for restoring my heart to normal rhythm was cardioversion (electric shock therapy—in this procedure, doctors stop the heart beating for a brief instant, and then restart it).

Because my heart had been out of sync for so long, drugs no longer had any effect on the arrhythmia. An extra dose of my heart medication did not, as in the past, bring my heart’s fibrillation under control. Nor did the attending physicians have a drug in their arsenal that would return my heart to sinus rhythm.

Furthermore, I could not will my heart to be normal. I was reminded of what Jesus said: “Which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his height?” (Matt. 6:27; Luke 12:25). I could not, by an effort of the will, make my heart’s rhythm normal anymore than I could by such an effort make myself eighteen inches taller.

At this point, God certainly had my attention. I prayed fervently and recited to myself Scriptures that I had memorized such as the Shema, the Lord’s Prayer, the 23rd Psalm—especially, the words, “Even when I pass through a deep and dangerous gorge, I’m not afraid [of what may happen to me] because you are with me…Nothing but good things will happen to me…”

Perhaps the most meaningful scripture passage was 2 Corinthians 12:7-10: “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in my infirmities…for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor. 12:9-10; KJV).

“Well,” I thought with great hesitation, “if it requires a serious infirmity for the power of Jesus to rest upon me, then, Lord, though I’m not ready, I’m willing.”

I knew that Paul had asked God to remove his affliction three times (2 Cor. 12:8)—because of Galatians 4:15 and 6:11, I assume that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was poor eyesight. Yet God’s answer was, “No, I want you to live with the affliction.” Paul’s response was: “God’s power is manifest in that very weakness. This infirmity will produce blessing.” “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27). The heroes of the faith “won strength out of weakness” (Heb. 11:34).

With a great physical (and spiritual) trial looming, Jesus prayed: “Father, if it is your will, remove this cup from me; nevertheless, not my will, but your will be done” (Luke 22:42; RSV). In Jesus’ case, too, God did not remove the extreme physical suffering.

According to the late Hebrew University professor David Flusser, Jesus’ teaching can be summed up in a word: “Relax!”

As I waited to have my heart regulated by electric shock, I tried to relax. I wondered if I would be able to possess the Greyhound mentality: “Take a bus and leave the driving to us”? Would I be able to let God take the driver’s seat, let him have total control of my life? I waited for three days.

With these thoughts swirling in my head, I reached the place where I concluded: “It’s clear that I can’t trust myself. Nor can I even depend on the physicians since their knowledge is limited. I certainly can’t count on the electric shock! On whom can I depend? Only on my Father in Heaven.” There, on that bed, as I have done so many times in the past, I turned over my life to him. Reciting to myself, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20; RSV), I moved aside and let God take the wheel.

The end of the story is that on Thursday, September 13 my irregular heartbeat was successfully regulated by cardioversion. Now taking propafenone, a different medication, my heart has been performing perfectly for a week and I feel stronger by the hour.


In a sense, all of us are out of control—we are all frail human beings. The ultimate physical weakness is the body’s inability to overcome death. In this case, too, God’s power is manifest in our human weakness. We are, as it were, “sown a physical body,” but “raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:44). Our bodies are “sown in weakness,” but “raised in power” (1 Cor. 15:43). Jesus was “crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God” and “we are weak in him, but…will live with him by the power of God” (2 Cor. 13:4). Unfortunately, disciples of Jesus often behave as though they control their lives. Paul declared: “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). I might rephrase Paul’s words, and add to them: “I am strong when I am weak, and only when I am weak.” (For an elaboration of this theme, see my article “The Strength of Weakness.”)

Will we relax and let God do the driving? May all of us daily subdue our wills to God’s will, and allow him to rule our lives completely!

Pursuing Righteousness

Revised: 25-Oct-2013

A person can’t translate what he doesn’t understand, and sometimes he can’t translate what he understands even if he has words for it in his target language. Discovering the meaning of a passage to be translated can take a Gospel student through some very exotic fields.

An interesting problem arose while I was reading and enjoying Robert Lindsey’s book, Jesus, Rabbi and Lord: A Lifetime’s Search for the Meaning of Jesus’ Words.[1] Traditionally, the beatitude found in Matthew 5:10 is read as “blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” Dr. Robert L. Lindsey would read this as “blest are the righteousness-driven,” that is, those with a passion for righteousness. Lindsey cites a possible Hebrew antecedent, נִרְדְּפֵי צְדָקָה (nirdefe tsedakah), to justify the metaphorical and active-voice interpretation of “pursued, persecuted.”[2]

This presents a reader with several problems or riddles. There are a number of unstated intervening steps that an exegete must work through before he is able to evaluate Lindsey’s interpretation as a translation option, or before he can evaluate its historical probability.

Passive or Active?

First of all, the Greek οἱ δεδιωγμένοι (hoi dediogmenoi) could be either reflexive (“those pursuing/persecuting [for themselves]”) or passive (“those pursued/persecuted”), but normally would be read as passive because of the preposition ἕνεκεν (heneken, “because of”) which follows.[3] It therefore would seem that an active-voice translation of the Matthean text is improbable.

On the other hand, Lindsey’s suggested Hebrew reconstruction of this passage can explain the passive form of the Greek. Lindsey proposes נִרְדְּפֵי (nirdefe), a participle from the root r-d-f of the nif’al verb form. Though it can have an idiomatic active meaning, the nif’al verb form is usually passive and might woodenly be translated as passive, thus explaining the Greek passive participle. Because of the popular nature of his book, Lindsey does not give or develop such philological background for his reconstruction. This hides some problems, both for the translator and the Bible scholar.

In order to get to the bottom of נִרְדְּפֵי צְדָקָה (nirdefe tsedakah, “those pursuing righteousness,” or, “those pursued [of] righteousness”), a translator or exegete must start digging in some obscure linguistic soils. Biblical Hebrew and the Dead Sea Scrolls do not attest the idiom nirdefe tsedakah, and there is no example of the nif’al form of the root r-d-f as an active verb. To my knowledge, the first support for the passive “pursued” as an active idiom is found in the Tosefta (compiled c. A.D. 230): שֶׁהָיְתָה רְדוּפָה לֵילֵךְ (shehayetah redufah lelek, “who was ‘pursued’ to go,” i.e., who was anxious and determined to go) (t. Yevamot 6:6). In this context, which refers to an unhappy bride who wants to return to her father’s house, the idiomatically active redufah (“pursued”; “eager”; “anxious”) is a passive participle of a different verb form, the pa’al,[4] although of the same root as the nif’al that Lindsey suggested.[5]

There may be minor support for the pa’al passive participle from the nature of the Greek participle δεδιωγμένοι (dediogmenoi). This is a perfect (= complete) passive participle, a form that actually is closer to the Hebrew pa’al passive participle than the nif’al. All things being equal, the pa’al passive participle is more complete than the nif’al, in the same way that “pursued” is more complete than “being pursued.” There was a tendency in many early Christian Greek texts to use the present, or incomplete, participle διωκόμενοι (diokomenoi, “[being] persecuted”).[6] The perfect in Matthew lines up with a pa’al passive participle, the form of “pursue/ pursued” that we find in Mishnaic Hebrew texts.

Another example of the pa’al passive participle from the root r-d-f in the active sense is found in Rashi’s commentary on the Bible (eleventh century A.D.) at Exodus 31:13: רְּדוּפִין וּזְרִיזִין בִּזְרִיזוּת הָמְּלָאכָה (redufin uzerizin bizrizut hamelachah, “eager [pursued] and speedy in the speed of the work”). The nif’al verb form from the root r-d-f in the active sense that Lindsey mentions is not attested until the late middle ages. Abravanel in the fifteenth century A.D. uses the idiom when commenting on 1 Kings 1:1: וְעִם הֱיוֹת דָּוִד הַמֶּלֶךְ בְּטִבְעוֹ אוֹהֵב הַנָּשִׁים וְנִרְדָּף אַחַר הַמִּשְׁגָּל (ve’im heyot david hamelech betiv’o ohev hanashim venirdaf ahar hamishgal, “When King David was in his prime he loved women and was craving [lit., was persecuted] after coitus”). Notice that this idiom uses the preposition ahar, “after,” with the participle nirdaf, something masked in the other examples because of an infinitive object (“to go”) or because of being paired with another adjective (“speedy”).

Another form of the passive/active idiom “persecuted” in the sense of “craving, having a strong desire for” is found in Sifre, an early Mishnaic Hebrew source compiled about A.D. 300: הוֹאִיל וְאַתֶּם רְדִיפִין עַל הַזּוֹנוֹת אַף הַמַּיִם לֹא יִבְדְּקוּ אֶת נְשֵׁיכֶם (ho’il ve’atem redifin al hazonot af hamayim lo yivdeku et neshechem, “Since you are obsessed with whores [lit., persecuted upon whores], even the water [of testing] will not distinguish your women”) (Sifre Numbers 21, to Num. 5:31). The word in question, רְדִיפִין (redifin), is a passive adjectival form from the root r-d-f.[7]

The form that Lindsey suggests is not the most probable for a first-century Hebrew speaker. Instead of נִרְדְּפֵי צְדָקָה (nirdefe tsedakah), either רְדוּפִין עַל צְדָקָה (redufin al tsedakah) or perhaps רְדִיפִין עַל צְדָקָה (redifin al tsedakah) would be better.[8]

Good Sense

Nonetheless, “pursuing righteousness” rather than “persecuted because of righteousness” makes inherently good sense for the beatitude. The idiom in active form meaning “someone who pursues righteousness” was already used in Isaiah 51:1: “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the LORD.”[9] This sense would fit the previous beatitudes better than the sense of persecution. The other beatitudes often quoted or alluded to a Scripture verse, and Lindsey’s suggestion at Matthew 5:10 would add another biblical idiom.

Of course, persecution is definitely in view in Matthew 5:12. Lindsey suggests that verses 11-12 and maybe 13-16 were spoken by Jesus after the resurrection. Support for separating verses 11-12 from verse 10 comes from the switch from “you” singular to “you” plural.[10] Also, a context of talking about persecution makes better sense closer to the crucifixion or right after it.[11]

Lindsey’s proposal of “blessed are those who strive for righteousness” is intriguing. Elsewhere Lindsey has paraphrased Matthew 5:9-10 as, “How blest are those determined to see God’s salvation for a lost world, for these are the people I call the Kingdom of God.”[12] That is, righteousness compels those who are members of Jesus’ movement and they cannot rest until the whole world is redeemed.

Translation and History Can Differ

Although Lindsey’s proposal may reflect the intent of what Jesus originally said, it is a reconstruction that can only be adopted by a theologian or a historian. A translator of Matthew must translate what Matthew wrote, and it is most probable that he intended a passive idiom.[13]

What Matthew wrote should still be considered true in a literary/theological sense. It is part of Jesus’ teaching, as is proven by Matthew 5:12. The Gospel writers and their sources were free to stylize their accounts, as can be seen by comparing the chronology of the temptation accounts or the wordings of the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism. The traditional “persecuted because of righteousness” remains the best option for translators at Matthew 5:10.

  • [1] See my review of Lindsey’s book.
  • [2] Lindsey, Jesus, Rabbi and Lord, 123.
  • [3] The other New Testament examples of ἕνεκεν (heneken, “because of”) with a noun refer to a reason for an action, never to the desired goal of an action (i.e., not “to pursue after righteousness”): Matt. 5:11; 10:18, 39; 16:25; 19:29; Mark 8:35; 10:7, 29; 13:9; Luke 9:24; 10:29; 21:12; Acts 28:20; Rom. 14:20; (2 Cor. 7:12, purpose clause with infinitive).
  • [4] Pa’al, like nif’al, is one of the seven basic forms of the Hebrew verb.
  • [5] Additionally, this example is not the reading of the best manuscript of the Tosefta, which uses טְרוּפָה (terufah, “distressed” [wanting to leave]), instead of רְדוּפָה (redufah, “pursued”; “eager”; “anxious” [wanting to leave]).
  • [6] See, for example, 1 Cor. 4:12, 2 Cor. 4:9, Gal. 5:11 and Polycarp to Philippi 2:3: μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοὶ καὶ οἱ διωκόμενοι ἕνεκεν δικαιοσύνης ὅτι αὑτῶν έστιν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοὺ (makarioi hoi ptochoi kai hoi diokomenoi heneken dikaiosynes hoti auton estin he basileia tou theou, “Blessed are the poor and those [being] persecuted because of righteousness, for of them is the kingdom of God”).
  • [7] With a flick at the end of the first י (yod), turning it into a ו (vav), this adjective would become the normal pa’al passive participle רדופין (redufin). In fact, many yods and vavs in the Dead Sea Scrolls are indistinguishable. Here, in either case, we have the passive-active idiom. Also notice that a preposition, עַל (al, “on, upon”), is used with the noun expressing the object of the desire.
  • [8] The preposition עַל (al, “on, upon”) would help to explain the Greek preposition ἕνεκεν (heneken, “because of”).
  • [9] Cf. Prov. 15:9: תּוֹעֲבַת יְהוָה דֶּרֶךְ רָשָׁע וּמְרַדֵּף צְדָקָה יֶאֱהָב (to’avat yhvh derech rasha umeradef tsedakah ye’ehav, “The way of a wicked man is an abomination to the LORD, but He loves someone who pursues righteousness”) and 21:21: רֹדֵף צְדָקָה וָחָסֶד יִמְצָא חַיִּים צְדָקָה וְכָבוֹד (rodef tsedakah vahased yimtsa hayim tsedakah vechavod, “Someone who pursues righteousness and grace will find life, righteousness and honor”).
  • [10] Lindsey, Jesus, Rabbi and Lord, 183.
  • [11] There is a rabbinic parallel to a passive suffering proverb as well: לְעוֹלָם יְהֵא אָדָם מִן הַנִּרְדָּפִין וְלֹא מִן הָרוֹדְפִין (le’olam yehe adam min hanirdafin velo min harodfin, “A man should always be among the pursued/persecuted and not among the pursuers/persecutors”) (b. Bava Kamma 93a [c. A.D. 500]). Contrary to Lindsey’s interpretation, this would give some support to the general applicability of the traditional view of the beatitude at Matthew 5:10.
  • [12] In an unpublished manuscript on the life of Jesus.
  • [13] This is indicated by ἕνεκεν (heneken). Compare the same preposition in Matt. 5:11 with the meaning “because of.”