Evidence for Hebrew Roots of Matthew 1:21

Many have argued over which language(s) Jesus spoke. Many will say He spoke Greek because the New Testament was written in Greek. Some will argue that Jesus spoke Aramaic, which was the lingua franca of the time, while a growing number are coming to believe that Jesus spoke Hebrew, at least with His disciples and fellow Israelites. In this short essay it is not my intention to examine all the evidence for each of these arguments, but to present just one case which I hope will add to the discussion.

Matthew 1:21 states that “she will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” When we read this verse in English there doesn’t seem to be anything special about it. However, when we read the verse in Hebrew something sticks out.

וְאַתָּה תִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ יֵשׁוּעַ, כִּי הוּא יוֹשִׁיעַ אֶת עַמּוֹ מֵחַטֹּאתֵיהֶם.‏

And you will call his name Yeshua, for he will save (yōshia’) his people from their sins.

Do you hear the similarity between the two words, Yeshua and yoshia? The root or consonants are the same and only the vowel soundings change. In English, this would be similar to saying, “and you shall call His name Salvation because He shall save His people from their sins.” This is the exact same Biblical naming formula which we find over and over again in the Hebrew Bible. For example, Gen. 17:19 reads, “you shall call his name Isaac,” which in Hebrew means “he laughed,” because Abraham laughed when God told him Sarah was going to give birth to a son. In Gen. 25:26, Jacob is given his name, which in Hebrew means “heel,”  because he “came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel.” These are only two of the many examples in the Hebrew Bible. Others include Abraham and Moses. In Hebrew, the comparison between these names and the reasons they were given these names is obvious.

What is interesting for our argument is that it is not only in English that Jesus’ naming formula does not work, but it does not work in Greek or even Aramaic, which is much closer to Hebrew. In Greek, the text reads,

καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν, αὐτὸς γὰρ σώσει τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν αὐτῶν.

And you shall call His name Iēsoun for He shall sōsei His people from their sins.

In Greek, as in English, the name of “Jesus” does not share a common root with the verb “to save,” as it does in Hebrew.

In Aramaic, the verse reads,

ותקרא שמה ישוע הו גיר נחיוהי לעמה מן חטהיהון

You shall call His name Yeshua for He shall nechiohi His people from their sins.

In Aramaic, Jesus’ name, Yeshua, is the same as in Hebrew, but the verb “to save,” nechiohi, is very different.

So what does this mean for our discussion? The oldest known manuscripts of the New Testament were written in Greek, but by comparing Matt. 1:21 in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek with the knowledge of the naming formula so common in the Hebrew Bible, we see that this verse only makes sense in Hebrew. This verse, or the oral tradition behind it, had to be in Hebrew.

Notley Lecture: “Between the Chairs: New Testament Evidence for the Hebrew Jesus Spoke”

On October 25, 2014 Dr. R. Steven Notley delivered a lecture entitled “Between the Chairs: New Testament Evidence for the Hebrew Jesus Spoke” at the Lanier Theological Library in Houston, Texas. In his lecture Dr. Notley discusses examples of how the Hebrew language influenced the Greek text of the canonical Gospels.

Dr. Notley is a contributor to Jerusalem Perspective and member of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research. He is Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Nyack College in New York.

LOY Excursus: Greek Transliterations of Hebrew, Aramaic and Hebrew/Aramaic Words in the Synoptic Gospels

Revised: 30-November-2017[1]

Although the canonical Gospels were composed in Greek, there are indications that they drew from non-Greek sources. This makes sense because Jesus’ teaching was probably delivered in Hebrew,[2] and according to early church traditions the earliest record of Jesus’ life was written in Hebrew.[3] One of the clues that the Synoptic Gospels descended from a Hebrew Life of Yeshua is the number of foreign words that were transliterated into Greek from either Hebrew or Aramaic (it is often impossible to distinguish Hebrew from Aramaic in Greek transliteration). Since modern translations of the Bible tend to hide these transliterated words, most readers are not aware of how many transliterated words there are in the Synoptic Gospels.

Below we have collected all the transliterated words in the Synoptic Gospels with the exception of personal names and toponyms.[4] Place names and personal names would greatly increase the number of transliterations in our list,[5] but since such names normally retain their (approximate) pronunciations when crossing from one language to another, they are less relevant when considering a possible Hebrew or Aramaic Ur-text standing behind the Synoptic Gospels.[6] In a separate list we have collected Hellenized words derived from Semitic languages that appear in the Synoptic Gospels. These Hellenized Semitic terms are distinguished from transliterations by the fact that they take the various Greek case endings, indicating that these terms have been more fully assimilated into the Greek language. Although less telling than transliterated terms, a Greek translator of a Hebrew or Aramaic source would naturally gravitate toward these Hellenized Semitic terms when confronted with the corresponding Hebrew or Aramaic equivalents in his or her source text.

Transliterated Words in the Synoptic Gospels

Hebrew Words

ἀμήν (amēn) = אָמֵן (’āmēn, “Amen”)[7]

Matt. 5:18, 26; 6:2, 5, 16; 8:10; 10:15, 23, 42; 11:11; 13:17; 16:28; 17:20; 18:3, 13, 18, [19]; 19:23, 28; 21:21, 31; 23:36; 24:2, 34, 47; 25:12, 40, 45; 26:13, 21, 34; Mark 3:28; 8:12; 9:1, 41; 10:15, 29; 11:23; 12:43; 13:30; 14:9, 18, 25, 30; [16:8]; Luke 4:24; 12:37; 18:17, 29; 21:32; 23:43

ἠλί (ēli) = אֵלִי (’ēli, “my God”)

Matt. 27:46 (2xx)

λαμά (lama) = לָמָּה (lāmāh, “why?”)[8]

Matt. 27:46

σαβαχθάνι (sabachthani) = שְׁבַקְתַּנִי (shevaqtani, “you left me”)[9]

Matt. 27:46

ὡσαννά (hōsanna) = הוֹשַׁע נָא (hōsha‘ nā’, “Please save!”)[10]

Matt. 21:9 (2xx), 15; Mark 11:9, 10

Hebrew/Aramaic Words[11]

ἀββά (abba) = אַבָּא (Heb./Aram. ’abā’, “father”)[12]

Mark 14:36

ἐφφαθά (effatha) = הִפָּתַח (Heb. hipātaḥ, “Be opened!”); אֶתְפְּתַח or אֶפְתַּח (Aram. ’etpetaḥ or ’eftaḥ, “Be opened!”)

Mark 7:34

κορβᾶν (korban) = קָרְבָּן (Heb. qorbān, “dedicated to the Temple”); קָרְבָּנָא (Aram. qorbānā’, “dedicated to the Temple”)

Mark 7:11

ῥαββί (rabbi), var. ῥαββεί (rabbei) = רַבִּי (Heb./Aram. rabi, “rabbi,” “my master”)

Matt. 23:7, 8; 26:25, 49; Mark 9:5; 11:21; 14:45

ῥαββουνί (rabbouni), var. ῥαββουνεί (rabbounei) = רַבּוּנִי (Heb. rabūni, “my master”); רַבּוֹנִי (Aram. rabōni, “my master”)

Mark 10:51

ῥακά (raka) = רֵיקָה (Heb. rēqāh, “empty head”); רֵיקָא (Aram. rēqā’, “empty head”)

Matt. 5:22

Aramaic Words

ἐλωΐ (elōi) = אֱלָהִי (elāhi, “my God”)

Mark 15:34 (2xx)

κούμ (koum) = קוּם (qūm, “Rise!”)[13]

Mark 5:41

λεμά (lema), var. λειμά (leima) = לְמָה (lemāh, “why?”)

Mark 15:34

σαβαχθάνι (sabachthani), var. σαβαχθάνει (sabachthanei) = שְׁבַקְתַּנִי (shevaqtani, “you left me”)[14]

Mark 15:34

ταλιθά (talitha) = טַלְיְתָא or טְלִתָא (ṭalyetā’ or elitā’, “little lamb/girl”)

Mark 5:41

From the compilation above, we can observe that many of the transliterated words in the Synoptic Gospels are liturgical or cultic terms (e.g., ἀμήν [amēn]; ὡσαννά [hōsanna]; κορβᾶν [korban, “dedicated to the Temple”]), which naturally had no equivalent in Greek. Other terms that tended to be transliterated were titles of address (e.g., ῥαββί [rabbi, “my teacher”]). Another important observation is that all of the transliterated words in Matthew and Luke belong to the exclusively Hebrew or Hebrew/Aramaic categories. Only the Gospel of Mark contains transliterated words that are exclusively Aramaic.[15]


Hellenized Semitic Words in the Synoptic Gospels

βάτος (batos, a liquid measure) = בַּת (Heb. bat, a liquid measure); בֵּיתָא (Aram. bētā’, a liquid measure)[16]

Luke 16:6

βύσσος (būssos, “fine linen”)[17] = בּוּץ (Heb. būtz, “fine linen”);[18] בּוּצָא (Aram. būtzā’, “fine linen”)

Luke 16:19

γέεννα (geenna, “Gehenna”) = גֵּי[א] הִנֹּם (Heb. [] hinom, “Gehenna,” “Hinnom valley”); גֵּיהִנָּם (Aram. gēhinām, “Gehenna,” “Hinnom valley”)[19]

Matt. 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5

καναναῖος (kananaios) = קַנַּאי (Heb. qanai, “zealous”); קַנְאָנָא (Aram. qan’ānā’, “the zealous”)[20]

Matt. 10:4; Mark 3:18

κορβανᾶς (korbanas, “item dedicated to the Jewish Temple”) = קָרְבָּן (Heb. qorbān, “dedicated to the Temple”); קָרְבָּנָא (Aram. qorbānā’, “dedicated to the Temple”)

Matt. 27:6

κόρος (koros, a measure of quantity) = כֹּר (Heb. kor, a measure of quantity);[21] כּוֹרָא/כּוֹר (Aram. kōrā’/kōr, a measure of quantity)[22]

Luke 16:7

μαμωνᾶς (mamōnas, “mammon”) = מָמוֹן (Heb. māmōn, “wealth”); מָמוֹנָא (Aram. māmōnā’, “wealth”)

Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:9, 11, 13

μνᾶ (mna, “mina,” a denomination of coinage)[23] = מָנֶה (Heb. māneh, “mina,” a denomination of coinage); מָנָא (Aram. mānā’, a measure of weight)[24]

Luke 19:13, 16 (2xx), 18 (2xx), 20, 24 (2xx), 25

πάσχα (pascha, “Passover,” “Passover lamb”) = פֶּסַח (Heb. pesaḥ, “Passover,” “Passover lamb”);[25] פִּסְחָא (Aram. pisḥā’, “Passover,” “Passover lamb”), var. פַּסְחָא (pasḥā’)[26]

Matt. 26:2, 17, 18, 19; Mark 14:1, 12 (2xx), 14, 16; Luke 2:41; 22:1, 7, 8, 11, 13, 15

σάββατον (sabbaton, “Sabbath”) = שַׁבָּת (Heb. shabāt, “Sabbath”); שַׁבַּתָּא (Aram. shabatā’, “Sabbath”)

Matt. 12:1, 2, 5 (2xx), 8, 10, 11, 12; 24:20; 28:1 (2xx); Mark 1:21; 2:23, 24, 27 (2xx), 28; 3:2, 4; 6:2; 16:1, 2, [9]; Luke 4:16, 31; 6:1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 9; 13:10, 14 (2xx), 15, 16; 14:1, 3, 5; 18:12; 23:54, 56; 24:1

σάκκος (sakkos, “sackcloth”)[27] = שַׂק (Heb. saq, “sackcloth”);[28] סַק (Aram. saq, “sackcloth”)

Matt. 11:21; Luke 10:13

σατανᾶς (satanas, “Satan”)[29] = שָׂטָן (Heb. sāṭān, “satan,” “accuser”); סָטָנָא (Aram. sāṭānā’, “satan,” “accuser”)

Matt. 4:10; 12:26 (2xx); 16:23; Mark 1:13; 3:23 (2xx), 26; 4:15; 8:33; Luke 10:18; 11:18; 13:16; 22:3, 31

σάτον (saton, a measure of quantity) = סְאָה (Heb. se’āh, a measure of quantity); סָאתָא (Aram. sā’tā’, a measure of quantity)

Matt. 13:33; Luke 13:21

σίκερα (sikera, “fermented drink,” “beer”)[30] = שֵׁכָר (Heb. shēchār, “fermented drink,” “beer”);[31] שִׁכְרָא (Aram. shichrā’, “fermented drink,” “beer”)

Luke 1:15

συκάμινος (sūkaminos, “mulberry”)[32] = שִׁקְמָה (Heb. shiqmāh, “sycamore”);[33] שִׁיקְמָא (Aram. shiqmā’, “sycamore”)

Luke 17:6

With respect to Hellenized Semitic words, it must first be noted that some of them, especially those attested early on, may have entered the Greek language via Phoenician (Canaanite), through contact with Phoenician traders.[34] Other Hellenized Semitic words, it will be noticed, are phonetically closer to Aramaic than Hebrew (e.g., κορβανᾶς [closer to Aram. קָרְבָּנָא than Heb. קָרְבָּן]; πάσχα [closer to Aram. פַּסְחָא than Heb. פֶּסַח]; σατανᾶς [closer to Aram. סָטָנָא than Heb. שָׂטָן]). Such Hellenized Semitic terms may have entered the Greek lexicon through contacts between Aramaic-speaking local representatives of the Jewish community in the former Persian Empire and Greek-speaking officials of the Ptolemaic and/or Seleucid Empires. A third observation to be made is that in a translated text the mere appearance of Hellenized terms from Aramaic, such as πάσχα, does not indicate from which Semitic language a Greek text might have been translated, since the LXX translators frequently employed Aramaic-derived terms when translating Hebrew texts.[35] The LXX translators naturally preferred to use vocabulary that was already established in their target language, rather than resorting to foreign-sounding transliterations that conveyed no meaning to an exclusively Greek-speaking audience. The same preference would probably have been shared by an ancient translator of a collection of sayings or Hebrew biography of Jesus.


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Greek and Hebrew mosaic from the fourth-century synagogue in Hammat Tiberias, with the words ΑΜΗΝ (amēn) and שָׁלוֹם (shālōm).
  • [1] For abbreviations and bibliographical references, see “Introduction to ‘The Life of Yeshua: A Suggested Reconstruction.’
  • [2] On the language(s) of Jesus, see Shmuel Safrai, “Spoken Languages in the Time of Jesus”; Randall Buth, “Language Use in the First Century: Spoken Hebrew in a Trilingual Society in the Time of Jesus,” Journal of Translation and Textlinguistics 5.4 (1992): 298-312; Steven E. Fassberg, “Which Semitic Language Did Jesus and Other Contemporary Jews Speak?” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 74 (2012): 263-280.
  • [3] See Papias’ testimony in Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.39.16; Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1. See also Randall Buth and Chad Pierce, “Hebraisti in Ancient Texts: Does Ἑβραϊστί Ever Mean ‘Aramaic’?” (JS2, 66-109).
  • [4] While some studies give partial lists of transliterated words in the Gospels or the New Testament (e.g., Jehoshua M. Grintz, “Hebrew as the Spoken and Written Language in the Last Days of the Second Temple,” Journal of Biblical Literature 79 [1960]: 40; Pinchas Lapide, “Hidden Hebrew in the Gospels,” Immanuel 2 [1973]: 28; Jan Joosten, “Aramaic or Hebrew behind the Greek Gospels?” Analecta Bruxellensia 9 [2004]: 90-91), a complete list of transliterated words in the Synoptic Gospels is difficult to find. Bauer collected all the transliterated words in the New Testament, but did not indicate their language of origin or specify the number of occurrences as does the list below (Walter Bauer, “An Introduction to the Lexicon of the Greek New Testament,” BDAG, xxii). For a recent catalogue of the transliterated words in the Gospels with an attempt to determine their language of origin, see Guido Baltes, Herbraisches Evangelium und Synoptische Uberlieferung: Untersuchungen Zum Hebraischen Hintergrund Der Evangelien (Tübingen: Mohr [Siebeck], 2011), 110-121.
  • [5] Two epithets that are treated as names in Greek, but which may have been descriptions in Hebrew or Aramaic, include:
    βοανηργές (boanērges) = בְּנֵי רַעַם (Heb. benē ra‘am, “sons of thunder”); בְּנֵי רַעַשׁ (Heb. benē ra‘ash, “sons of an earthquake”); בְּנֵי רְגָשָׁא (Aram. benē regāshā’, “sons of noise”)

    Mark 3:17

    Ἰσκαριώθ (Iskariōth) = אִישׁ קְרִיּוֹת (Heb. ’ish qeriyōt, “man [from the town] of Kriyot”)?

    Mark 3:19; 14:10; Luke 6:16 (The Hellenized form Ἰσκαριώτης appears in Matt. 10:4; 26:14; Luke 22:3; John 6:71; 12:4; 13:2, 26; 14:22.)

    On βοανηργές, see our discussion in Choosing the Twelve, Comment to L27-28; on Ἰσκαριώθ, see Choosing the Twelve, Comment to L41.

  • [6] See the discussion in Buth and Pierce, “Hebraisti in Ancient Texts: Does Ἑβραϊστί Ever Mean ‘Aramaic’?” (JS2, 99, esp. n. 96).
  • [7] On the use of ἀμήν in the Synoptic Gospels, see Robert Lindsey, “‘Verily’ or ‘Amen’—What Did Jesus Say?
  • [8] Λαμά could also reflect the Aramaic word לְמָה (lemāh, “why?”); however, since it appears in a Hebrew sentence, we count this transliteration as exclusively Hebrew. On the Hebrew sentence in Matt. 27:46, see Randall Buth, “The Riddle of Jesus’ Cry from the Cross: The Meaning of ηλι ηλι λαμα σαβαχθανι (Matthew 27:46) and the Literary Function of ελωι ελωι λειμα σαβαχθανι (Mark 15:34)” (JS2, 394-421).
  • [9] Σαβαχθάνι could also reflect the Aramaic word שְׁבַקְתַּנִי (shevaqtani, “you left me”); however, since it appears in a Hebrew sentence, we count this transliteration as exclusively Hebrew. On the Hebrew sentence in Matt. 27:46, see Buth, “The Riddle of Jesus’ Cry from the Cross” (JS2, 416-421).
  • [10] Scholars have shown that this form represents a Hebrew, not an Aramaic, exclamation. See Menahem Kister, “Lexicographical Problems Early and Late,” Scripta Hierosolymitana 37 (1998): 244-263, esp. 259-261; idem, “Words and Formulae in the Gospels in the Light of Hebrew and Aramaic Sources,” in The Sermon on the Mount and its Jewish Setting (Cahiers de la Revue Biblique 60; ed. Hans-Jürgen Becker and Serge Ruzer; Paris: J. Gabalda, 2005), 115-147, esp. 120-122; Buth, “The Riddle of Jesus’ Cry from the Cross” (JS2, 407-408).
  • [11] Taken on their own, the transliterations in this category could represent either Hebrew or Aramaic, since identical or similar forms occur in both languages.
  • [12] On אַבָּא as a Mishnaic Hebrew word, see James Barr, “’Abbā Isn’t Daddy,” Journal of Theological Studies 39.1 (1988): 28-47, esp. 30-32. For examples of אַבָּא as a Hebrew word, see m. Peah 2:4, 6; m. Shab. 1:9; m. Eruv. 6:2; m. Betz. 2:6; m. Ket. 2:10; 12:3; 13:5; m. Ned. 5:6; 9:5; 11:4, 11 (2xx); m. Git. 7:6 (2xx); 9:2; m. Naz. 4:7; m. Kid. 3:6; m. Bab. Bat. 9:3; m. Sanh. 3:2; 4:5; m. Shevu. 6:1; 7:7 (3xx); m. Edu. 3:10; 5:7; m. Zev. 9:3; m. Men. 13:9; m. Tam. 3:8; m. Yad. 3:1.
  • [13] Κούμ could also represent the Hebrew word קוּם (qūm, “Rise!”); however, since it appears in an Aramaic sentence, we count this transliteration as unequivocally Aramaic.
  • [14] Σαβαχθάνι could also reflect the Hebrew word שְׁבַקְתַּנִי (shevaqtani, “you left me”); however, since it appears in an Aramaic sentence in Mark 15:34, we count this transliteration as exclusively Aramaic.
  • [15] On this phenomenon, see Jehoshua Grintz, “Hebrew as the Spoken and Written Language,” 33 n. 3; Randall Buth, “Aramaic Language,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background (ed. Craig Evans and Stanley Porter; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2000), 89; and David N. Bivin and Joshua N. Tilton, “LOY Excursus: Mark’s Editorial Style.”
  • [16] The term βάτος appears almost exclusively in Jewish writings: 2 Esd. 7:22 (2xx); Jos., Ant. 8:57 (2xx), 80. Note that Josephus gives an explanation of βάτος for his readers (ὁ δὲ βάτος δύναται ξέστας ἑβδομήκοντα δύο) in Ant. 8:57. In T. Jud. 9:8 we find the transliteration βεθ (beth).
  • [17] The term βύσσος is attested in the works of classical authors, so it was fully assimilated into Greek at an early date. See BDAG, 185.
  • [18] In LXX βύσσος occurs 40xx, usually as the translation of שֵׁשׁ (shēsh, “linen”), but twice as the translation of בּוּץ (2 Chr. 2:13; 3:14).
  • [19] While technically a toponym, the term “Gehenna” had also come to represent a complex of eschatological concepts. We have therefore included this term in our list. Many translations render γέεννα as “hell,” but since the popular conception of hell for modern readers has so many connotations that were not associated with the term “Gehenna” in ancient Jewish literature and the New Testament, we have avoided using “hell” as the equivalent of Gehenna.
  • [20] Opposite Καναναῖος (Matt. 10:4; Mark 3:18), Luke has τὸν καλούμενον ζηλωτὴν (“the one called Zealot”; Luke 6:15; cf. Acts 1:13). The Aramaic form קַנְאָנָא is closer to Καναναῖος than the Hebrew קַנַּאי. See our discussion in Choosing the Twelve, Comment to L39.
  • [21] Κόρος appears in LXX 14xx, where it represents כֹּר‎ 8xx (3 Kgdms. 2:46 [2xx] = 3 Kgdms. 5:2 [2xx]; 3 Kgdms. 5:25; 2 Chr. 2:9 [2xx]; 27:5) and represents חֹמֶר‎ 3xx (Lev. 27:16; Num. 11:32; Ezek. 45:13). Κόρος also occurs once in T. Jud. 9:8 and 4xx in a fragment of Eupolemus (preserved in Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica 9.33, who quoted from Alexander Polyhistor, On the Jews). In this fragment Eupolemus gives a Greek equivalent for the Hebrew measure (ὁ δὲ κόρος ἐστὶν ἀρταβῶν ἕξ).
  • [22] In LXX κόρος is used to translate the Aramaic כּוֹר in 2 Esd. 7:22 (= Ezra 7:22).
  • [23] See BDAG, 654. The Semitic loanword μνᾶ was established in classical Greek.
  • [24] The noun μνᾶ occurs 12xx in LXX, almost always as the equivalent of מָנֶה where there is an underlying Hebrew text. See Hatch-Redpath, 2:931.
  • [25] The term πάσχα occurs 43xx in LXX, always as the equivalent of פֶּסַח wherever there is an underlying Hebrew text. See Hatch-Redpath, 2:1103.
  • [26] The form פַּסְחָא is a hypothesized Alexandrian pronunciation. See Buth and Pierce, “Hebraisti in Ancient Texts: Does Ἑβραϊστί Ever Mean ‘Aramaic’?” (JS2, 87).
  • [27] See BDAG, 910. The term σάκκος was well established in classical Greek.
  • [28] The noun σάκκος occurs 62xx in LXX, always as the equivalent of שַׂק wherever there is an underlying Hebrew text. See Hatch-Redpath, 2:1257.
  • [29] We have included σατανᾶς (“satan”) in our list, regarding it as a title rather than as a personal name. See our discussion in Return of the Twelve, Comment to L14.
  • [30] Since in LXX σίκερα occurs exclusively in this form, some scholars consider it to be indeclinable, and hence a transliteration rather than a Hellenized Semitic word. See Moulton-Howard, 153. On the other hand, LSJ (1598) cites an example of σίκερα in Pseudo-Galen De affectuum renibus insidentium diognotione (19:693), which is declined.
  • [31] The term σίκερα occurs 15xx in LXX (Lev. 10:9; Num. 6:3 [2xx]; 28:7; Deut. 14:26; 29:5; Judg. 13:4, 7, 14; Isa. 5:11, 22; 24:9; 28:7 [2xx]; 29:9), always as the equivalent of the Hebrew term שֵׁכָר. See Hatch-Redpath, 2:1266.
  • [32] The term συκάμινος was employed by classical authors (e.g., Aristotle, Theophrasus), but scholars have suggested that the word is of Semitic derivation. See Thackeray, 36; Moulton-Howard, 153.
  • [33] The noun συκάμινος occurs 6xx in LXX, always as the equivalent of שִׁקְמָה (3 Kgdms. 10:27; 1 Chr. 27:28; 2 Chr. 1:15; 9:27; Ps. 77[78]:47; Isa. 9:9).
  • [34] See Thackeray, 34.
  • [35] On the use of the Aramaic-derived πάσχα in LXX to represent the Hebrew term פֶּסַח in MT, see Buth and Pierce, “Hebraisti in Ancient Texts: Does Ἑβραϊστί Ever Mean ‘Aramaic’?” (JS2, 87-88).

“Treasure in Heaven”: Examining an Ancient Idiom for Charity

For my brother, Jeff, whose charity towards me was always done with a “good heart;” truly he has stored his “treasure in heaven.”


The growing value placed on charity in the first century C.E. cannot be overstated.[1] As a new sensitivity developed within Judaism that challenged the compensatory “blessings and curses” paradigm of the Hebrew Bible (cf. Deut. 28) as a basis to serve God, so there was a shifting emphasis towards altruistic love[2] embodied in the Levitical commandment, “…and you shall love your neighbor as yourself (וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ אֲנִי יי; Lev. 19:18).” This unique relationship between serving God without care of reward—that “the fear of heaven [God] be upon you” (m. Avot 1:3)—and loving your neighbor as yourself, that is, one who is like you[3] is reflected in contemporary linguistic-based exegesis that pairs Deut. 6:5 with Lev. 19:18.[4]

And you shall love the Lord with all you heart, soul, and might. וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת יי אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶךָ (Deut. 6:5)…. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ אֲנִי יי…. (Lev. 19:18)[5]

What comes to be known as the dual-commandment—which is preserved elsewhere in Second Temple Jewish literature (e.g., T. Iss 5:2)—is attested in the New Testament as part of Jesus’ reply to the question, “what is the greatest commandment” (e.g., Mark 12:18-35; Luke 10:25-28).[6] Along with these novel developments in the religious perspective of Judaism came parallel linguistic developments. In Hebrew, and Greek (when the Greek is a translation of a Hebrew base-text), the term “righteousness” (Hb. צְדָקָה [Jastrow 1903, 1063]; Gk. δικαιοσύνη [cf. Matt. 6:1]) begins to be utilized idiomatically as “charity” (e.g., Tob. 4:7, 14:2).[7] Among the changing semantic parameters of specific Hebrew and Greek terms, there was a developing conception, which eventually developed into another idiomatic expression for charity. Jewish authors in the generations preceding the life and ministry of Jesus began to utilize the idea of laying up treasure before God, or in heaven, to indicate the giving of alms. Eventually, this concept developed into the phrase “treasure in heaven,” which is attested five times in the New Testament, and is the focal point of this article.

Storing Treasure and the Language Charity in Jewish Literature

Before continuing, however, a contextualization of storing “treasure” in heaven (that is with God) is warranted. Anderson has suggested that the initial impetus for this expressions derives from a Second Temple understanding of Prov. 10:2, “Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit, but righteousness (וּצְדָקָה) delivers from death.”[8] As noted above, to the readers of Prov. in the Greco-Roman period, “righteousness” would have been understood to mean charity. This exegesis of Prov. is also attested in Tobit, a Jewish work written between the 3rd and 2nd century B.C.E.:

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. So you will be laying up a good treasure (θησαυρίζεις) for yourself against the day of necessity. For charity (ἐλεημοσύνη) delivers from death and keeps you from entering the darkness (Tob. 4:9-10, emphasis added).[9]

One of the commandments, which Tobit stresses to his son Tobias, is the importance of providing for the poor.

Prayer is good when accompanied by fasting, almsgiving, and righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than much with wrongdoing. It is better to give alms than to treasure up gold (καλὸν ποιῆσαι ἐλεημοσύνην ἢ θησαυρίσαι χρυσίον; Tobit 12:8)

The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, a work that details Jacob’s final testimony to his twelve sons, juxtaposes charity with storing treasure: “Do charity (δικαιοσύνην; lit. righteousness), therefore, my children, upon the earth, that you find it in heaven (ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς; T. Levi 13:5).” 2 Enoch, a work that likely originates in the Second Temple period but attains the form as it is known now at a much later period, depicts the individual that is willing to spend gold or silver on behalf of his brother as storing treasure, “Whoever of you spends gold or silver for his brother’s sake, he will receive ample treasure in the world to come” (2 Enoch 50:5).[10] Ben Sira, a work originally written in Hebrew, is likely the inspiration for the expression “treasure in heaven”:[11]

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 (or storehouse), and it will rescue you from all affliction…(σύγκλεισον ἐλεημοσύνην[12] ἐν τοῖς ταμιείοις σου, καὶ αὕτη ἐξελεῖταί σε ἐκ πάσης κακώσεως). (Sir. 29:11-12)

Anderson notes regarding Tobit and Ben Sira,

the power of almsgiving to save the generous soul from any imaginable danger that might confront him in this world. The figure of Tobit followed a similar strategy. But rather than providing us with several different metaphors for rendering the ides of being ‘delivered from death,’ he gave us just one: almsgiving delivers from death and ‘keeps you from going into Darkness.[13]

The best exposition on this concept appears in the Tosefta, a Rabbinic supplement to Mishnah. During the first century C.E. there was a famine in Jerusalem; Monobazus,[14] the king of Adiabene, a convert to Judaism decided to open the royal coffers in order to feed the hungry. His family members immediately protested that he had given away their inheritance. To their protests, Monobazus responded:

My ancestors stored treasures for this lower [part], but I have stored up treasures above…my ancestors stored up treasures where [human] hand can reach, but I have stored up treasures where [human], hand cannot reach, as it says [in Scripture], Righteousness and justice[15] (צדקה ומשפט) are the foundation of your throne [Psalm 89:14]…. My ancestors stored up treasures in this world, but I have stored treasures in the world to come (אבותי גנזו אוצרות בעולם הזה ואני גנזתי לעולם הבא), as it says [in Scripture], And your righteousness (צדקך) shall go before you [Isa. 58:8]…. (t. Peah 4:18)[16]

The interpretation ascribed to Monobazus of Ps. 89:14 and Isa. 58:8 reflect the understanding of “righteousness” with charity. Although the connection between “righteousness” and caring for hungry and the afflicted can already be seen in Isa. 58, “…righteousness (צִדְקֶךָ) shall go before you…if you give yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted (וְתָפֵק לָרָעֵב נַפְשֶׁךָ וְנֶפֶשׁ נַעֲנָה תַּשְׂבִּיעַ), then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday…” The Tosefta is likely pointing the reader to the larger Isaianic context, which is perhaps even the inspiration for Tobit’s, “for charity…keeps you from entering the darkness (Tob. 4:10).”

The Gospels, Charity, and the Kingdom

There are five texts in the NT that preserve the idiom “treasure in heaven.”

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth (Μὴ θησαυρίζετε ὑμῖν θησαυροὺς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς), where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven (θησαυρίζετε δὲ ὑμῖν θησαυροὺς ἐν οὐρανῷ),[17] 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 (Matt. 6:19-20)

Matthew’s lack of explanation for what the expression “treasure in heaven” means assumes that his readers will naturally understand its idiomatic usage. The second text, which accounts for three attestations of “treasure in heaven(s),” is The pericope of the Rich Young Ruler:

And behold, one came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which?” And Jesus said, “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in [the] heaven (θησαυρὸν ἐν οὐρανοῖς[18] ); and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. (Matt. 19:16-22)

And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth.” And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven (θησαυρὸν ἐν οὐρανῷ); and come, follow me.” At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. (Mark 10:17-22)

And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said, “All these I have observed from my youth.” And when Jesus heard it, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in [the] heaven (θησαυρὸν ἐν [τοῖς] οὐρανοῖς); and come, follow me.” But when he heard this he became sad, for he was very rich. (Luke 18:18-23)

The final text is part of a extended Lukan teaching on charity.

Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail (θησαυρὸν ἀνέκλειπτον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς), where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Luke 12:32-34)

The teaching begins in Luke 12:13, where Jesus is asked to weigh in on the question of a brother’s inheritance. Jesus responds in familiar style with a parable, specifically the “Parable of the Rich Fool” (Luke 12:16-21). Before the parable, Jesus issues a stern warning, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (v 15). The moral of the parable is closely connected with focus of this study, “So is he [i.e. the fool] who lays up treasure for himself (οὕτως ὁ θησαυρίζων ἑαυτῷ), and is not rich toward God” (v 21, emphasis added). Luke 12:22-31 (=Matt. 6:25-34), the “Anxieties about Earthly Things” pericope, is the second part of this Lukan teaching on charity. The context of the passage in Luke is not simply about anxiety, but instead not concerning oneself with what one will drink, eat, or how one will clothe him/herself. The assumption of the Lukan (and Matthean) text is that the individual who lacks these vital items has given them to those who are in need. The support for this reading is punctuated by the final statement of the pericope, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness (=his charitableness towards you), and all these things shall be yours as well” (cf. 12:33). Further, the final portion of Luke 12 seems to support this reading as well,

for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens (Πωλήσατε τὰ ὑπάρχοντα ὑμῶν καὶ δότε ἐλεημοσύνην ποιήσατε ἑαυτοῖς βαλλάντια μὴ παλαιούμενα, θησαυρὸν ἀνέκλειπτον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς, ὅπου κλέπτης οὐκ ἐγγίζει οὐδὲ σὴς διαφθείρει ὅπου γάρ ἐστιν ὁ θησαυρὸς ὑμῶν, ἐκεῖ καὶ ἡ καρδία ὑμῶν ἔσται). (Luke 12:32-34)

Here again, as in the Matthean parallel,[19] the kingdom and the storing of “treasure in heaven” (in Matt., “righteousness” [both of which mean charity]) are linked. The connection between the two will help us to shed light on the manner which Jesus employed the term “treasure in heaven” in his teaching and its meaning within his ministry. The “Kingdom of Heaven”[20] is a disputed topic among NT scholars. Suggestions as to the function of the kingdom have spanned the spectrum from political, ethical, to eschatological. Sanders who allows for the present reality of the kingdom, sides with the prevailing “primarily eschatological” function that now embodies modern NT research[21] Flusser contends,

…the kingdom of heaven is not only the eschatological rule of God that has dawned already, but a divinely willed movement that spreads among people throughout the earth. The Kingdom of Heaven is not simply a matter of God’s kingship, but also the domain of his rule, an expanding realm embracing ever more and more people, a realm where into which one may enter and find one’s inheritance, a realm where there are both great and small.[22]

Young, discussing the present reality of the kingdom, states that the Kingdom of God comes from God alone, it is a driving force in that it brings healing to suffering humanity.[23] To this it appears that “according to Jesus and the Rabbis, the kingdom of heaven emerges, indeed, out of the power of God, but it is realized upon earth by men.[24] While the kingdom—a thoroughly Rabbinic concept—might have an eschatological function in Jesus’ ministry, the vast majority of “kingdom” sayings have to do with the here and now (e.g., Luke 17:21), while others appear to deal with the contemporary hopes of redemption (cf. Luke 21:31). In fact, we have several texts that pair the kingdom of God with healing (e.g., Luke 9:2, 10:9) and the “preaching of good news” (e.g., Luke 8:1, 16:16; Acts 8:12), whose Greek verb, εὐαγγελίζω should draw our attention back to its Hebrew equivalent, מְבַשֵּׂר (“bringer of good tidings,” Isa. 41:27). These so-called good tidings appear to involve the establishment of justice (Isa. 42:1) and the healing of those afflicted (Isa. 7-8), among whom the poor and the needy are numbered (Isa. 41:17). That said, it appears the primary driving force of the Kingdom of God, which is realized by humanity, is to bring justice and healing to those afflicted. It is not surprising, then, that “righteousness” (=charity) is associated with the kingdom of heaven in the Gospels.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ (δικαιοσύνης) sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν; Matt. 5:10).[25] For I tell you, unless your righteousness (δικαιοσύνη) exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (τὴν βασιλείαν τῶν οὐρανῶν; Matt. 5:20). But seek first his kingdom (τὴν δικαιοσύνην αὐτοῦ [Tisch]) and his righteousness (δικαιοσύνην), and all these things shall be yours as well (Matt. 6:33).

This appears to perhaps have its genesis in the redemptive/messianic speculation of Isaiah,

 Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore (לְמַרְבֵּה הַמִּשְׂרָה וּלְשָׁלוֹם אֵין־קֵץ עַל־כִּסֵּא דָוִד וְעַל־מַמְלַכְתּוֹ לְהָכִין אֹתָהּ וּלְסַעֲדָהּ בְּמִשְׁפָּט וּבִצְדָקָה מֵעַתָּה וְעַד־עוֹלָם קִנְאַת יי צְבָאוֹת תַּעֲשֶׂה־זֹּאת׃ דָּבָר שָׁלַח אֲדֹנָי בְּיַעֲקֹב וְנָפַל בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל). (Isa. 9:6-7).[26]

It is in Luke 12 that we find a connection between the God’s willingness to give the kingdom and the selling of one’s possessions in order to distribute it amongst the poor, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves…” (Luke 12:32-33). By selling one’s possession and by giving alms, one can store up “a treasure in the heavens that does not fail” (v. 34). Thus, it appears that storing treasure in heaven, that is, giving alms, is crucial part of being given, and receiving, the kingdom. As an aside, it should also be noted that the statement, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:34=Matt. 6:21), likely reflects contemporary ideas regarding the “good heart.” The “good heart” (לב טוב) is often understood to be that person, who gives mercifully to those in need,

Now I will declare to you what I did. I saw a person who was in distress in nakedness during winter, and had compassion upon him, and stole away clothing from my house, and gave it secretly to him who was in distress. Therefore you also, my children, from that which God provides you, with unwavering compassion show mercy to all, and provide for every person with a good heart (ἀδιακρίτως πάντας σπλαγχνιζόμενοι ἐλεᾶτε, καὶ παρέχετε παντὶ ἀνθρώπῳ ἐν ἀγαθῇ καρδίᾳ).” (T. Zeb 7:1-2)

To this we might add, “Therefore guard yourselves, my children, from all jealousy and envy, and walk in generosity of soul and in goodness of heart…” (TSim 4:5). Thus, the ending of the Lukan teaching on charity sheds partial light on Jesus’ use of the “treasure in heaven” and unique value into the growth of the kingdom of God on earth—a kingdom that is realized by what humanity does to their fellow.

Charity, the Hasid, and the Hasidim

Illustration by N. C. Wyeth from 1911 edition of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Illustration by N. C. Wyeth from 1911 edition of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.

We should add that the larger context of Luke 12 appears to imply that selling one’s possession involves selling “all” and distributing it amongst the poor and needy, which accords with Jesus’ response to the rich young man in Luke 18, “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor.” Otherwise, had the almsgiver been expected to retain any possession in Luke 12 or Matt. 6, why would the reader be instructed to depend on God to cloth or feed him (v. 28)? In other words, the individual described in Luke 12:22-31 (and Matt. 6) depicts someone who has given all and must utterly depend on God. The same holds true for vv. 32-34. The individual who has given all in charity is he who has a “good heart” and has truly stored his treasure in heaven rather than on earth as the fool does “who lays up treasure for himself…” (cf. 16-21). Therefore, Jesus’ statement to “sell all (πάντα) that you have…” (Luke 18:22=Mark 10:21=Matt. 19:21) fits neatly within Jesus’ message regarding the kingdom of heaven. Still, the peculiarity of the demand to “sell all” is unique, since it goes beyond what becomes the normative Rabbinic prohibition against giving more than one-fifth of one’s possessions to charity—a requirement that appears to have its roots in the first century B.C.E. (cf. Tob. 4:8). Anderson, however, has related Jesus’ so-called radical command to “sell all” to both the Mishnaic statement regarding those things that have no measure (i.e. no limit; שֶׁאֵין לָהֶן שֵׁיעוּר) and the “heroic almsgiving” of later Christianity.[27] The Mishnaic statement in tractate Peah (4:19), which describes those things that have no measure: peah,[28] first fruits offering, pilgrim’s offering, acts of loving-kindness, and Torah study. The only item on the list that involves, in some sense, charity in the form of alms are “acts of loving-kindness” (גְמִילוּת חֶסֶד). These acts of loving-kindness (also גמילות חסדים ) appear to be an umbrella term for several things, among which charity (צְדָקָה) is included. Even still the Tosefta draws a line of distinction between charity and acts of loving-kindness,

Charity and acts of loving-kindness outweigh all other commandments that are in the Torah except that charity is for the living and acts of loving-kindness are for the living and the dead; charity is for the poor, [while] acts of loving-kindness are the for the poor and the rich; charity [helps] with one’s finances, [while] acts of loving-kindness [helps] one’s financial and physical needs (‏צדקה וגמילות חסדים שקולין כנגד כל מצות שבתורה אלא שהצדק’ בחיים גמילות חסדי’ בחיים ובמתים צדקה בעניים גמילות חסדים בעניים ובעשירים צדקה בממונו גמילות חסדים בממונו ובגופו׃). (t. Peah 4:19; author’s translation).

It is worth noting, that within the list of those things in the Mishnah that have no limit, charity is not specifically mentioned. In fact the toseftan passage indicates that charity served specific function and can be seen in distinction to acts of loving-kindness.[29] Furthermore, having “no measure” is not the same as “giving all.” Anderson is right to note that the demand to “give all” is part of demands of kingdom of heaven, as we have discussed,[30] but the Mishnaic statement provides little to no help to understand the radical nature of Jesus’ statement. So our search to understand Jesus peculiar demand moves us away from the Mishnaic statement, as argued by Anderson, but not from ancient Judaism. Rabbinic literature preserves narratives of individuals who go beyond the legal requirements regarding charity. In fact, Anderson himself, utilizes one such story to show that some went beyond the determined limits, but misses a key aspect to unlocking Jesus’ statement. The story involves R. Eliezer ben Bartota,

Whenever the collectors of charity caught sight of R. Eleazar b. Bartota they would hide themselves from him, because he was in the habit of giving away to them all that he had. One day he was going to the market to buy wedding garments for his daughter. When the collectors of charity caught sight of him they hid themselves from him. He ran after them and said to them: “I adjure you, [tell me] on what mission are you engaged?” And they replied: “[The marriage of] an orphaned pair.” He said to then: “I swear, they must take precedence over my daughter.” And he took all that he had and gave to them. He was left with one zuz and with this he bought wheat which he deposited in the granary. When his wife returned to the house she asked her daughter, “what did your father bring home?” She replied, “He has put in the granary all that he had bought.” She thereupon went to open the door of the granary and she found that it was so full of wheat that the wheat protruded through the hinges of the door-socket and the door would not open on account of this. The daughter then went to the Beth-Hamidrash and said to him [her father], “Come and see what your Friend has done for you.” Whereupon he said to her, “I swear, they shall be to you as devoted property, and you shall have no more right to share in them than any poor person in Israel” (b. Ta’an 24a).

Eliezer is so used to giving all he has that the charity collectors hide from him. When he confronts them and finds out why they are collecting, Eliezer is of the opinion that the two orphans who are in need of money to get married take precedence over his daughter who has a family. This is despite the fact that his purpose with going out that day was to buy his own daughter wedding garments. With the remaining one zuz—a very small amount of money—he buys what wheat he can afford only for it to be multiplied in abundance after he heads to study. When informed by his daughter about this blessing, he proclaims that even what he has been blessed with will go to the poor. Thus, Eliezer gives all that he has to charity. Elsewhere, a dictum attributed to him is generally interpreted to reflect a unique view of charity, “R. Eleazar of Bartota says, ‘Give him [God] what is his, for you and yours are his:’ ‘For so does it say about David, For all things come of you, and of your own have we given you’ (1 Chron. 29:14)” (m. Avot 3:7a). In other words, you should give all you have to charity (which is equal to giving to God, cf. Matt. 25:31-46) since all you have is God’s because all comes from him. In the same tractate, the individual who says, “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours,” this is a truly pious man (m. Avot 5:10). In other words, the truly pious individual reserved nothing for himself but gives all. The Hebrew term used for “the pious one” here is חָסִיד. During the first century there was a group of Jewish pietists known as the Hasidim or anshei maaseh (men of action). They were known in particular as miracle workers, whose style of prayer found popularity amongst public (m. Ber. 5:1, 5:5). This group appeared to exist on the fringe of the houses of study (beth hamidrashim or beth midrashim) and some tension with the larger Rabbinic class existed—although some rabbis were themselves Hasidim.[31] One of the unique qualities of this group is their emphasis on living lives of poverty,

In Hasidic thought, penury (poverty) is considered the ideal state that leads to all the other positive and praiseworthy qualities of character. Moreover, the stories about Hasidim usually stress their poverty. Rabbinic sources, on the other hand, generally mention the poverty of sages only during especially difficult times economically…[32]

and contrastingly, “the pietists emphasize derekh eretz [i.e. proper behavior], that is, concern for societal needs and care of the needy.”[33] Utilizing the talmudic narrative of Eliezer b. Bartota, who was likely a Hasid—as defined by m. Avot 5:10—in order to shape a general picture of these Jewish pietists, whatever the Hasid receives, even if through divine blessing, is given back to poor as charity. Very little if anything is retained, and all is given, with the knowledge that God will provide for the needs of that Hasid, and perhaps even his disciples, a la Luke 12 and Matt. 6. If Jesus belonged to this group of pietists—as we and others suggest—then his demand that his followers give all of their possessions to charity is no longer peculiar but rather a reflection of a distinct stream of Jewish piety that flourished in the first century C.E.[34]


Returning to the focal point of our study, once again, Jesus’ teaching reflects the novel developments, which occurred within the landscape of Second Temple Jewish thought in the years prior to his birth; in particular, “that altruistic, social love achieved the highest value index by being considered the very essence of Judaism.”[35] Luke’s extended teaching on charity (c. 12) and the pericope of Rich Young Man (c. 18), when examined in light of Second Temple Judaism, provide a historical and cultural context for Jesus’ use of the term “treasure in heaven.” As noted above, in extra-biblical Jewish texts the concept of storing up treasure with God is clearly associated with almsgiving. In some cases this laying up of treasure appears to protect from death and perhaps even the Day of Judgment (Tob. 4). Almsgiving, however, takes on a special significance in Jesus’ ministry and such is partially described with idiomatic expression “treasure in heaven.” But this phraseology is not simply a monetary donation but, quite distinctly, involves the selling of all of one’s possessions and distributing it to the poor. Moreover, a comparison with other Hasidim reveals why Jesus told the Rich Young Man to sell “all” that he had. While this ran contrary to the limits set by the Rabbis, the “heroic almsgiving” was not unique to Jesus or what would later become Christianity, as contended by Anderson, but instead was part of the Hasidic stream of Jewish piety that chose a life of austerity and asceticism. This austere life of the Hasid appeared to emphasize caring for the poor, so much so that what one receives, even if miraculously given, is returned in full to those in need. Yet, for Jesus, storing “treasure in heaven” played one more important role in that it allows the kingdom of heaven on earth—God’s present rule that is intended to bring healing to the afflicted—to be realized by humanity through the practice of giving charity.

  • [1] This paper was also presented during the ETS Northeast Regional Meeting (April 6th, 2013, Nyack, NY).
  • [2] David Flusser, “A New Senstivity in Judaism and the Christian Message” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1988), 469-489; repr. from HThR 61/2 (1968):107-127. Flusser draws a connection with this so-called new sensitivity and the statement of Antigonus of Sokho: “Do not be like servants who serve the master [God] on condition of receiving a reward, but [be] like servants who serve the master not on condition of receiving a reward, and let the awe [love] of Heaven be upon you (470).”
  • [3] It appears that the term כָּמוֹךָ could be understood as “one who is like yourself.” Notley has noted, “The definition is not, in fact, an external one, but a challenge for us to recognize that in each person we can find both good and bad—just like ourselves. We are to love even those we do not deem worthy, because we ourselves stand unworthily in need of God’s mercy (R. Steven Notley, Jesus Jewish Command to Love).”
  • [4] See R. Steven Notley and Jeffrey P. García, “Hebrew-Only Exegesis: A Philological Approach to Jesus’ Use of the Hebrew Bible” in The Language Environment of First Century Judaea: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Studies (JCP 26; Leiden: Brill, 2014), 349-374.
  • [5] The first evidence of such a unique pairing occurs is in the book of Jubilees (36:7-8); See Flusser, “A New Sensitivity,” 474.
  • [6] A Talmudic tradition depicts Hillel the Elder responding to the desirous proselyte that Lev. 19:18 was the essence of the entire Torah (b. Shab. 31a)
  • [7] See, Jeffrey P. García, “Matt 19:20: ‘What Do I Still Lack?’ Jesus, Charity, and the Early Rabbis” (Presented at the Nyack College Graduate Program’s Inaugural Conference “The Gospels in First Century Judaea,” August 29th, 2013); Raphael Posner, “Charity” in Encyclopedia Judaica (ed. F. Skolnik and M. Birnbaum; 22 vols; 2nd ed.; Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA; Jerusalem: Keter Publishing Ltd.; 2007), 4:569-571; also, E.P. Sanders, “Charity and Love” in Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 B.C.E-66 C.E. (London: SCM Press; Philadelphia: Trinity International Press, 2005), 230-235. So important was charity that in Rabbinic Judaism it comes to be known as “the commandment (ha mitzvah);” see, Saul Lieberman, “Two Lexicographical Notes,” JBL 65/1 (Mar., 1946): 69-72; Gary Anderson, Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition (Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2013).
  • [8] Gary Anderson, “A Treasury in Heaven: The Exegesis of Proverbs 10:2 in the Second Temple Period” in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel 1/3 (2012): 351-367.
  • [9] The “day of necessity” (ἡμέραν ἀνάγκης) appears to have an apocalyptic character in 1 Enoch (cf. 1:1, 100:7).
  • [10] Several dates have been posited for this work, and while the entire texts is only extant in Slavonic, the overwhelming consensus is that it is both ancient and Jewish. The text quoted here fits well within the world of Second Temple Jewish thought and shares parallels with what appears in Tobit. See Michael Stone, “Apocalyptic Literature” in Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Literature (ed. M. Stone; Assen: Van Gorcum; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 406; F. I. Andersen, “Enoch, Second Book of” in ABD (6 vols.; Doubleday: New York, 1992), 2:517.
  • [11] There is some thought that the phrase entered Judaism through Persian influence. See Almut Hintze, “Treasure in Heaven: A Theme in Comparative Religion” in Irano-Judaica VI: Studies Relating to Jewish Contacts with Persian Culture throughout the Ages (ed. S. Shaked and A. Netzer; Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi, 2008), 9-36. Hintze surveys Persian and Jewish literature that deal with heavenly account-keeping, which developed first from Zoroastrianism and then was borrowed by Judaism in the Persian period (11).
  • [12] In several texts where Tobit refers to almsgiving, ἐλεημοσύνη and δικαιοσύνη are juxtaposed. For example, Tob. 12:8, 9, for which a partial Qumran fragment exists (4Q200 f2:6-8), Prayer is good when accompanied by fasting, almsgiving, and righteousness. “A little with righteousness is better than much with wrongdoing. It is better to give alms than to store up gold” (ἀγαθὸν προσευχὴ μετὰ νηστείας καὶ ἐλεημοσύνης καὶ δικαιοσύνης·ἀγαθὸν τὸ ὀλίγον μετὰ δικαιοσύνης ἢ πολὺ μετὰ ἀδικίας· καλὸν ποιῆσαι ἐλεημοσύνην ἢ θησαυρίσαι χρυσίον.) and “For almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin. Those who perform deeds of charity and of righteousness will have fullness of life…” (ἐλεημοσύνη γὰρ ἐκ θανάτου ῥύεται, καὶ αὐτὴ ἀποκαθαριεῖ πᾶσαν ἁμαρτίαν· οἱ ποιοῦντες ἐλεημοσύνας καὶ δικαιοσύνας πλησθήσονται ζωῆς·). The synonymous parallelism evident in Tobit is an indication that both Greek terms can function as “almsgiving” (cf. Sir. 44:10; perhaps also Sybl. 6:360); such is the case for δικαιοσύνη in Matt. 6:1. It should be noted, however, that in Greek thought δικαιοσύνη does not share precisely the same lexical range as צדקה; δικαιοσύνη in Classical Greek literature does not mean “charity” (δικαιοσύνη; LSJ, 429). Therefore, it perhaps might stand that the appearance of δικαιοσύνη with the meaning of “charity” reflects the translation of a Hebrew/Aramaic original, the direct influence of either language, or a text composed by an author whose native language was either.
  • [13] Anderson, “A Treasury in Heaven,” 366.
  • [14] In Josephus, the charitable deeds are credited to Queen Helena and not Monobazus; see, L.H. Schiffman, “The Conversion of the Royal House of Adiabene in Josephus and Rabbinic Sources” in Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity (ed. L. Feldman and G. Hata; Detroit: Wayne University Press, 1987), 293-312.
  • [15] Moshe Weinfeld, “‘Justice and Righteousness’—משפט וצדקה—the Expression and Its Meaning” in Justice and Righteousness: Biblical Themes and their Influence (ed. H.G. Reventlow and Y. Hoffman; JSOTSup 137; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992), 245. See also, Lawrence H. Schiffman, “Foundations of Tzedek and Tzedakah: Righteousness and Charity in Jewish Tradition” (unpublished article).
  • [16] See also, Roger Brooks, “Peah” in The Tosefta: Translated from the Hebrew with a New Introduction (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Press, 2002), 1:74-75.
  • [17] The language of the Matthean passage, “do not treasure…treasure” is decidedly redundant and betrays a Semitic feel.
  • [18] David Bivin has noted here that the minor agreement in Matt. and Luke, utilizing the plural “heavens” is a Hebraism which reflects the Hebrew שמים. See David N. Bivin and Joshua N. Tilton, “LOY 47: Rich Man Declines the Kingdom of Heaven,” Comment to L48-49. Cf. T. Levi 13:5, noted above
  • [19] It should be noted that the Matthean parallel does not explicitly teach on charity.
  • [20] The “kingdom of heaven” and the “kingdom of God” are synonymous; Heaven is a well-known circumlocution for God in this time period.
  • [21] E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), 154-156.
  • [22] David Flusser and R. Steven Notley, Jesus (3rd ed.; Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2001), 111; and, idem, The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).
  • [23] Brad Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian (Michigan: Baker Academic Press, 1993), 108.
  • [24] Flusser and Notley, Jesus, 108, emphasis added.
  • [25] Lindsey suggests that one can read this passage “blest are the righteousness-driven,” in other words those who seek “righteousness” (=our definition, almsgiving) are blessed (Jesus, Rabbi, and Lord (Jerusalem Perspective), 123). See also, Randall Buth, “Pursuing Righteousness,” (Jerusalem Perspective) who suggests “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.”
  • [26] Steven Notley brought the collocation of “righteousness” and “kingdom” to my attention in a private correspondence.
  • [27] Gary Anderson, Sin: A History (Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2012), 180
  • [28] Peah is strictly the agricultural-based charity where the landowner would leave certain corners of his field so that the poor could glean from these corners. The biblical source of the laws of Peah appear in Lev. 19:19, 23:22. These laws as such appear to encompass more than the corners of the field; they include “gleanings” (לֶּקֶט), “forgotten sheaves” (הַשִּׁכְחָה), “immature clusters of grapes” (הָעוֹלֵלוֹת), “grapes that fall from their clusters” (פֶרֶט), and the tithe which is given to the poor מַעֲשֵׂר שֵׁינִי (cf. Lev. 19:10, 19, 23:22; Deut. 24:19, 24:21, 14:28-29, 26:12-13).
  • [29] NT readers will find that acts of loving-kindness are attested in the judgment scene of Matt. 25.
  • [30] Anderson, Sin, 180.
  • [31] Chana Safrai and Ze’ev Safrai, “Rabbinic Holy Men” in Saints and Role Models in Ancient Judaism and Christianity (ed. Marcius Poorthuis and Joshua Schwartz; JCP 7; Leiden: Brill, 2003), 60.
  • [32] Shmuel Safrai, “Jesus and Hasidim,” (Jerusalem Perspective)
  • [33] Safrai and Safrai, “Rabbinic Holy Men,” 62.
  • [34] Cf. also S. Safrai, “Jesus as a Hasid” in Proceedings of the Tenth World Congress of Jewish Studies, (Jerusalem: World Union of Jewish Studies, 1990), 1–7 [Hebrew]; idem, “Mishnat Hasidim in Tannaitic Literature” in Ve-Hinei Ein Yosef, A Collection in Memory of Yosef Amorai (Tel Aviv, 1973), 136-52 [Hebrew]; idem “The Pious and the Men of Deeds,” Zion 50 (1985): 133-54 [Hebrew]; idem, “The Term Derekh Erez,” Tarbiz 60 (1991): 147-62 [Hebrew].
  • [35] Flusser, “A New Sensitivity,” 474.

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.

A New Two-source Solution to the Synoptic Problem

Shortly after Robert L. Lindsey’s eureka moment (“Luke is first!”) on February 14, 1962, and at Professor David Flusser’s urging, Lindsey submitted the following article to the editors of Novum Testamentum. The article was published in the journal’s November 1963 issue as “A Modified Two-Document Theory of the Synoptic Dependence and Interdependence,” Novum Testamentum, Vol. 6, Fasc. 4 (November 1963): 239-263. Lauren S. Asperschlager, David N. Bivin and Joshua N. Tilton have updated and emended the article to bring it in line with the modifications Lindsey made to his hypothesis over the following 30 years. Pieter Lechner has created the tables and graphics.

Despite the continuing debate between Matthean and Markan priorists, some form of the widely-accepted Two-Source Hypothesis seems necessary for a proper understanding of the synoptic relationships. The Two-Source Hypothesis as generally conceived, however, cannot cover the evidence of dependence and interdependence found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. The same must be said for the theory of Matthean priority.

Both Markan and Matthean priorists are guilty of trying to solve the synoptic problem by over reliance on evidence for the interdependence of the Synoptic Gospels. These theorists’ basic error stems from their failure to recognize the necessity of positing the existence of a document other than Q, a document that is not completely present in any of the canonical Gospels. The interdependence of the Synoptic Gospels is a fact from which no theory of origins can escape, but the evidence of dependence on an additional document no longer extant, yet known to each of the synoptic writers, demands an adequate literary explanation.

Very few twentieth-century synoptic theorists can be said to have wrestled seriously with the question of whether a Mark-like, extra-canonical authority may not be necessary to explain unsolved problems of synoptic relationships. Instead, the tendency has been to abandon all hope of finding a literary solution.[1]

The ghost of the much-maligned Ur-Marcus[2] continues to rear its head. Bultmann wrote:

It is….probable that the text of Mark which the two other evangelists used lay before them in an older form than that in which we have it today. This Ur-Marcus (as it is usually called) was altered and enlarged at certain points; but it cannot be distinguished from the present text of Mark in any important way.[3]

Likewise, Taylor wrote:

We may feel compelled to reject all known forms of the Ur-Markus Hypothesis, but there is something unseemly in an investigation which ends with Requiescat Urmarcus. The same also may be said of the rejection of redactional and compilation hypotheses. There is no failure in synoptic criticism, for, if we reject a particular suggestion worked out with great learning and ability, we are compelled to reconsider the evidence on which it is based and seek a better explanation, knowing that a later critic may light upon a hypothesis sounder and more comprehensive still.[4]

Whatever the failures of Ur-Marcus theories, and they are many, it needs to be admitted that only in the direction of such hypotheses can there lie any hope of a solution to the present impasse in synoptic studies. We may indeed be able to correct a few more items related to the Jewish, first-century setting of our documents by the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls and rabbinic sources, but until the literary connections of our extant Gospels are clarified, we will remain in the state of uncertainty in which we now find ourselves. It is my conviction that the situation is not as hopeless as it seems, and that if the right tools of literary criticism are employed the synoptic problem can be solved. This is a bold claim. It would have been such a hundred years ago. In today’s atmosphere it may be considered overly bold.

The three most important results of synoptic criticism in the nineteenth century are: 1) the isolation of source Q; 2) the perception that Matthew and Luke used a narrative much like Mark as the skeleton of their works; and 3) the conclusion that Matthew and Luke cannot have influenced each other directly. Unfortunately, it cannot be said that twentieth-century scholarship has added much more than refinements to these foundations.

The clearest of these axioms is the third: Matthew and Luke did not know each other’s work. The diversity of ways in which Matthew and Luke splice Double Tradition pericopae into their narrative outline is so dramatic that the attempt by Matthean priorists to derive Mark and Luke from Matthew must be abandoned.

The first axiom, which concerns the nature and extent of source Q, is slightly less clear than the third axiom. Harnack’s The Sayings of Jesus[5] remains the best work on Q, but it is vitiated by the supposition that Matthew and Luke used Mark as their narrative skeleton and that Q is responsible for the longer Matthean-Lukan parallels to Mark 1:1-13. With Augustine, the simplest reader of the Gospels must often suppose that the first thirteen verses of Mark, when compared with Matthew and Luke, can only be understood as an abridgement of a longer narrative. Far the simplest explanation of the Markan version is that Mark excised or shortened some longer narrative. The suggestion that a Mark-Q “overlap” occurred here, such that Matthew and Luke were able to supplement Mark’s account from their knowledge of Q, is the invention of the dogma of Markan priority, by which Mark is identified with the narrative source standing behind Matthew and Luke. The same can be said of the Markan Beelzebub Controversy (Mark 3:22-30).

Least clear, although quite certain when critically defined, is the second axiom: Matthew and Luke used a narrative much like the Gospel of Mark as the skeleton of their Gospels. Here the error of Markan priorists lies in their failure to see that the nature of the relationship of Matthew and Luke to Mark is not one of complete dependence in Markan contexts. To correct the error it is necessary to adopt a more radical form of the Ur-Marcus theory than that maintained by Bultmann. My hypothesis proposes that 1) Luke did not know Mark. Luke did, however, know a source much like Mark. 2) Mark did not know Matthew. However, Mark did know Luke and one of the sources upon which Luke was based. Luke gave Mark his narrative skeleton, but Mark also used one of Luke’s primary sources, which allowed him to detect some of Luke’s editorial activity. Mark was then able to revise and redact Luke with the assistance of their shared non-canonical source. 3) Matthew knew Mark, but he also knew the same non-canonical source common to Mark and Luke. Matthew did not know Luke, but his knowledge of one of Luke’s sources as well as his use of Mark, which was directly influenced by Luke, created strong Matthean-Lukan affinities. Often we find that Matthew preserved the wording of the shared non-canonical source better than either of the other two synoptic writers. Wherever we observe this source’s influence we discover indications that it was a highly Hebraic-Greek document, possibly the descendant of a literal Greek translation of a Hebrew biography of Jesus.

Lindsey's Stemma. (Graphic created by Pieter Lechner.)
Lindsey’s Stemma. (Graphic created by Pieter Lechner.)

The advantages of my hypothesis are the following:

1. My synoptic hypothesis keeps the number of sources utilized by the synoptic writers to a minimum. Due to the extreme complexity of the synoptic problem, theorists tend to multiply sources. Grant’s theory of multiple sources is perhaps the most elaborate ever devised. He is obliged to posit not only Q, Mark, M and L,[6] like Streeter, but other written sources as well.[7] It would obviously be preferable to diminish rather than enlarge the number of sources, since the simplest solution that explains all the data is usually the best.

Moreover, if Q could be accepted by scholars as a near-certainty, we must ask ourselves why a more comprehensive source known to all three of the synoptic writers should not also be accepted by scholars as a theoretical possibility. There is no serious reason to deny this possibility, especially if positing its existence makes unnecessary the multiplication of sources.

This is not to say that my hypothesis obviates the necessity of supposing that each of our Synoptists had access to other sources than the shared, non-canonical, Hebraic-Greek source I refer to as the Anthology. Each of the three authors adds a small amount of material that must be presumed to come from oral knowledge. However, the vast majority of the common material of Matthew, Mark and Luke is derived either directly or indirectly from the Anthology.

2. My hypothesis solves the problem of Mark’s relationship to Q. It was noted by Bacon that certain Q passages in Mark show proximity to the Lukan text of Q.[8] The earliest appearance of Q is the misplaced Malachi quotation in Mark 1:2 (cf. Matt. 11:10; Luke 7:27). The next is “and they were silent” in Mark 3:4 (cf. Luke 14:3-4). The Beelzebub Controversy of Mark 3:22-30, lifted mainly out of Luke 11:15-23, is shortened, revised and topped off with a quotation (Mark 3:29) from Luke 12:10. In the list of short sayings that closed the discussion about the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:21-25; Luke 8:16-18) and to which, as Luke shows, no additional parables were appended, Mark has inserted the saying, “with what measure you mete….” from Luke’s Shorter Interpolation (Mark 4:24; Luke 6:38).[9] The Parable of the Mustard Seed, which, as both Matthew and Luke show, was originally a partner-parable to the Parable of the Leaven, is edited and added by Mark from Luke 13:18-19 (Mark 4:30-32). These parable additions by Mark constitute the reason Mark is obliged to speak of “parables” in Mark 4:2, 13 instead of a single parable as in Luke (cf. Luke 8:4, 11). My hypothesis, therefore, obviates the need for Mark-Q overlaps. Material in Mark supposed by Markan priorists to overlap with Q actually comes from the Gospel of Luke.

There are a number of other Markan pick-ups from passages he found in Luke, but here we will discuss only those found in Mark’s Little Apocalypse (Mark 13:1-37). Lockton was the first to detail the remarkable pattern of Markan conflation in this passage.[10] A diagram will aid in showing the pattern:

Markan Pick-ups in chapter 13
Markan Pick-ups in chapter 13


Each space in the Markan column represents a verse. The shaded areas represent material not found in Luke or in other parts of the New Testament except Matthew. Several verses toward the end of the passage show that Mark borrowed words or ideas from Acts 1:6-7 and 1 Thessalonians 4:6-7. In accordance with his custom of omitting references to Jerusalem, Mark excised “Jerusalem” in verses 14 and 20 (cf. Luke 21:20, 24). Lockton’s argument that it would be far more reasonable for an editor to collect scattered verses and group them together around a central theme than to break up a series of extended stories into verses and create an appropriate framework for each verse is convincing.[11] Luke’s practice was to quote his sources in blocks. Mark’s practice was to edit and conflate, a practice he turned to because he sought to harmonize verse by verse his two principal sources (i.e., the Anthology and Luke). Matthew’s practice, a practice he learned from Mark, was to conflate Mark and the shared non-canonical source.

3. My hypothesis provides a solution to the problem of Matthean-Lukan minor agreements against Mark. The tendency of Markan priorists to hide or explain away these agreements is inexcusable. McNeille’s statement that they “do not amount to very much”[12] is difficult to comprehend, there being approximately 800 such agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark. Besides these, there are numerous meaning contacts and short and long omissions agreed upon by Matthew and Luke against Mark. No amount of appeal to independent Matthean-Lukan correction of Mark’s text or to textual variants can do away with this evidence. Piper correctly remarks: “Canon Streeter’s attempt to explain away all these agreements as textual variants rests upon mere conjectures rather than on manuscript evidence.”[13] Had Streeter used the Matthean-Lukan agreements against Mark as positive data for establishing his Greek text, he would have been far nearer the truth than to attempt to establish a text against these agreements.

4. My hypothesis clarifies the independent witness of each of the Synoptists against the other two regarding Semitic word order, construction and thought. The Synoptic Gospels are not translations of a Semitic document. Even the Anthology was known to Matthew, Mark and Luke only in Greek. But there are many indications that this undertext was based on a literal translation of a Hebrew document. To the extent that each Synoptist used the Anthology, he was influenced by the immediate wording before him. In Luke we see the strongest attempt to improve the Hebraic-Greek word order and syntax and make them into idiomatic Greek, nevertheless Luke preserves many Semitic elements against Mark and Matthew in immediate Markan contexts. Luke was particularly careful not to change the utterances of Jesus in Anthology contexts if these were not too heavily Hebraic.

As generally recognized, Matthew sometimes shows a more Hebraic text than either Mark or Luke, but this is not because he was a Jewish Christian. Matthew almost certainly did not understand Hebrew or Aramaic. He accepted non-Hebraisms from Mark, some of which are Pauline and/or Lukan. He also occasionally made small changes in the Hebraic word order of his undertext, even in immediate contexts with Mark and Luke where these attest to normal translation Greek. Matthew’s most Hebraic texts often occur where Mark followed Luke in the excising or alteration of the Anthology. On the whole, as Moffatt saw (in regard to Q),[14] Matthew was like a textual critic who carefully preserves the more literal readings of the undertext. Comparing Mark verse by verse with the Anthology, Matthew normally adopted the Markan story-order, but frequently preferred the Anthology’s wording. When he detected an Anthology conflate in Mark, Matthew usually located the verses in the Anthology and corrected the Markan version, often adding additional verses from the Anthology. The author of Matthew was a montage expert. He did not rewrite the Anthology.[15] Matthew was not a translator of Hebrew. The Hebraic influence on his Gospel comes from the translation Greek of his sources.[16]

Mark independently witnesses to translation Greek underlay. His word order is often Hebraic and he sometimes shows Semitisms against both Luke and Matthew, although usually against Luke only. Nevertheless, Mark’s text is stylistically mixed. Much influenced by Luke, Acts and some of the Pauline epistles, Mark borrowed many non-Hebraic constructions and compounded them with comments of his own. When quoting from memory, he wrote with the ready hand of a Greek-speaking preacher.[17] Mark obviously knew Aramaic, for he translated at least once from an Aramaic Targum,[18] but he may not have known Hebrew.[19] Mark’s Semitic Greek is taken mainly from the Anthology, although sometimes from Luke, or possibly, as in his frequent asides, from a knowledge of Aramaic.

While we are on the subject of Semitic influence, it should be remarked that the undertexts of the Synoptic Gospels are almost certainly translations of Hebrew, not Aramaic, documents. Grintz correctly argued this point,[20] but he collected only part of the evidence. Birkeland concluded that Jesus probably gave his teachings in Hebrew.[21] Dalman, who is perhaps more responsible than any other for the time-honored practice of looking to Aramaic when Semitic influence is suspected in the Gospels, wrote:

For my own part I do not see more than a high probability for an Aramaic primary gospel, and dare not speak of a certainty resting on proofs… Genuine proofs of an Aramaic, as opposed to a Hebrew, written source of the Synoptists are the harder to produce, because the same idioms and the same constructions of clauses as are found in Aramaic are possible even in biblical Hebrew, and still oftener in the style of the Mishna.[22]

Were Dalman living today, following the discoveries in the Judean Desert, it seems probable that he would find himself explaining the Semitic base of the Gospels as Hebrew rather than Aramaic. The burden of proof now lies on those who hold the Aramaic theory. This is not to say that Jesus did not know Aramaic or use it on occasion.

5. My hypothesis clarifies the relationship between Matthew and Mark. Matthean priorists have produced significant evidence for the greater originality of Matthew vis-à-vis Mark. On the other hand, Markan priorists have quite properly countered with weighty evidence in favor of Matthew’s dependence on Mark. Both are right. What the Matthean priorists have observed is simply Matthew’s preference for the wording of the Anthology. What the Markan priorists have correctly noticed is Matthew’s dependence on Mark for his pericope order and Matthew’s insertion of material from the Anthology. However, Matthean and Markan priorists are in error in supposing that the fact of interdependence is the principal criterion for determining the relationship of these two Gospels.

It is to the credit of the Matthean priorists that they have seen more clearly than their opponents the importance of the Hebraic elements in determining the Matthean-Markan relationship. Schlatter was so conscious of these elements that he refused to argue the subject of priority.[23] Specialists in Semitic languages such as Gustaf H. Dalman, Charles F. Burney and Matthew Black have tended to avoid questions of priority and interdependence. (Wellhausen, in his strong support for Markan priority, is an exception.) Matthean priorists have found support for their position in the work of Semitists,[24] but considerable Semitic evidence points both ways—some towards Matthean priority and some towards Markan priority. The relevance of the Semitic evidence can be evaluated only when it is correlated with the evidence obtained from studying the interrelationship of the synoptic texts. My analysis of the combined evidence has forced me to posit a Hebraic-Greek source (i.e., the Anthology) as the only possible explanation for the Matthean wording where Matthew’s dependence on Mark can be ruled out, but Matthew’s use of Mark is equally clear from the many indications in Matthew’s text of common vocabulary and pericope order.

6. My hypothesis agrees with and underlines the results of scholars who point to the redactic nature of Mark and his apparent dependence on Acts and the Pauline epistles. The roughness and redundancy of Mark’s editorial connections and style have been noted by many scholars. So distinctive are these features of Mark’s Gospel that, when wedded to the theory of Markan priority, they led certain scholars to develop a discipline known as Form Criticism. Their argument runs as follows: Since Mark was used by Matthew and Luke as the first of their two principal sources, it is unnecessary to look for authenticity in the parallel Matthean and Lukan texts. If we look into the earliest Gospel (i.e., Mark), we observe a series of stories rather poorly connected by repetitious and unskilled editorial phrases to which have been added numerous suspect topographical references. It seems obvious that these references are the inventions of a later editor to whom the tradition had become dim. This editor collected floating oral stories and stitched them together with the help of these topographical references, adding comments and emphases that were engendered by the needs of the Christian communities of the last quarter of the first century. Therefore, the form critics reasoned, if we are to recover historical details about Jesus and his first disciples, we must discard any notions about an authentic series of historical events and concentrate on finding out whatever we can about individual pericopae. (Source critics faced the problem of Markan “roughness” with the same presupposition of Markan priority, but sought the problem’s solution through the delineation of multiple written sources.)

If Matthew and Luke did depend solely on Mark for their narrative skeleton, then the approaches of Form Criticism may be valid. The signs of editing, commenting and catechising are everywhere evident in Mark. Moreover, as Bacon insisted, there are words, phrases and ideas that can only be explained as showing some kind of dependence on Acts and the Pauline epistles.[25]

My contention that the text of Mark is a partly Hebraic, partly Aramaic and partly “improved Greek” only emphasizes the secondary nature of the connecting phrases and topographical references that Mark used to link his pericopae. However, the numerous Matthean-Lukan agreements against Mark, the independent witness of Hebraisms in each Gospel, and the mixed text of Mark throw a different light on the redactional nature of Mark. Mark was decidedly not a collector of oral traditions who, unaided by previous attempts at collection, sat down to bring these oral traditions into a narrative sequence. Rather, Mark was a preacher-writer who stuck closely to the narrative sequence he found in Luke, while correcting and updating it with the help of the Anthology. Mark occasionally borrowed expressions from Paul and Acts, and added a few sayings and names he must have known from other written and oral sources. He enlivened the laconic Hebraic-Greek undertext by freely changing simple verbs to compound ones, rare ones, or more colorful ones, many of which he picked up from Luke in other contexts. Mark saw Luke occasionally use an historical present; therefore, Mark expanded this Lukan practice until he had more than three hundred historical presents. In Mark’s hands Luke’s precise use of the Greek imperfect tense, which Luke introduced to give variety to the monotonous Hebraic translation-Greek aorist-tense verbs in his sources, became almost a caricature. Mark did the same with Luke’s ἔλεγεν/ἔλεγον (elegen/elegon) usages, Luke’s “began to” plus infinitive expressions, and Luke’s verbs of “marvelling.” Mark built homilies, expanding and abridging, even changing pericope-order to achieve his editorial objectives.

Mark had special interests; but most of them are a result of Mark’s being a popular preacher, not a theologian or text critic. Mark borrowed the idea of “hardening” from Paul (cf. Rom. 9:18; 11:7, 25) and applied it to the disciples.[26] Mark also was anxious to preserve names such as “Andrew” when Luke’s excision of early stories connected with the Jordan region caused them to be deleted (cf. Mark 1:16, 29).

Mark suggests that Jesus’ family thought Jesus mad (Mark 3:21), yet he inserted the names of Mary and the names of Jesus’ brothers where Luke had only “Joseph” (cf. Mark 6:3 with Luke 4:22). Mark intended no disrespect to the disciples, Jesus’ family, or even to his sources, but as a preacher he had encountered unbelief and hard-heartedness in the places he ministered. Introducing unbelief into the story of Jesus’ relationship with his family was simply Mark’s way of comforting his fellow-believers and challenging the unbelief of “those outside.”

Mark had a special interest in the Second Coming of the Lord, as shown by his supplementing the apocalyptical material in Luke 21:5-33 with material from the Anthology and by adding allusions to the writings of Paul and the book of Daniel. Mark’s emphasis on Galilee to the near exclusion of Jerusalem fits with his emphasis on the Second Coming: by dropping the immediate contexts surrounding the name Jerusalem he was able to make his Little Apocalypse (Mark 13:1-37) deal exclusively with the Second Coming. Incidentally, this constitutes the strongest argument that the destruction of Jerusalem had not yet occurred when Mark wrote; for, had Jerusalem already been destroyed, he surely would have added a homily about the wickedness and subsequent punishment of the city. Mark was not averse to the idea of the destruction of Jerusalem; he was simply a good preacher who adapted his message to non-Jewish readers who would not have found the destruction of the Holy City as meaningful as the return of the Lord. Mark’s abridgement of the resurrection stories opposite Luke 24:13-53 and Matt. 28:11-20 and relocation of Jesus’ post-resurrection meeting with his disciples from Jerusalem to Galilee (cf. Mark 16:7 to Luke 24:6) appear to be the result of Mark’s feeling that he must consistently emphasize Galilee (cf. Mark 1:39; Luke 4:44; etc.) by avoiding any mention of Jerusalem.

7. My hypothesis explains the abundant evidence of Markan-Lukan interdependence without necessitating elaborate explanations about the textual superiority of Matthew to Mark, the Matthean-Lukan agreements against Mark, the Hebraisms in many Matthean and Lukan parallels to Mark, and the widely acknowledged redactic and “borrowing” character of Mark. Parker correctly perceived the wide difference between the Markan-Lukan and the Markan-Matthean vocabulary and noted the frequent agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark. Having concluded that the differences between Matthew and Mark necessitate the positing of a proto-narrative (K), he suggested that “…it would be attractive to explain all these Matthew-Luke contacts by supposing that Luke too, used K, perhaps to the exclusion of canonical Mark itself.”[27] Parker’s rejection of this suggestion is the result of his failure to see that Matthew not only used the Anthology, but also canonical Mark.[28] Once it becomes clear that Matthew used Mark and the Anthology, it is much easier to conceive of Mark using Luke and the Anthology. Matthew’s use of more than one parallel source arose from his realization that Mark had given him a precedent for such a practice.

The first mistake of many Ur-Marcus theories lies in their over-emphasis on mechanical analysis. Such an approach leads in turn to a deprecation of the editorial independence present in each of the Synoptic Gospels. With the control given by a feeling for the presence of Hebraic syntax, many of the non-Hebraic elements stand out conspicuously, and one becomes keenly aware of the linguistic tendencies of each of the three writers. When one lacks this control, it becomes easier to confuse the editorial work of a synoptic writer with the texts of his sources.

The Ur-Marcus theory of Bussmann is a case in point.[29] Due to his overly mechanical methods, Bussmann was obliged to posit what in essence amounts to an Ur-Marcus I and an Ur-Marcus II. He correctly supposed that Luke used a proto-narrative, which he called G. According to Bussmann, after Luke used this document, a Galilean redactor thoroughly revised it, and this Ur-Marcus II, which Bussmann labeled B, is the undertext used by Matthew. Finally, Mark used B when writing his Gospel. Bussmann’s separation of the redactic elements in Mark is largely correct and was relatively simple, for Bussmann had the Matthean-Lukan agreements to guide him; but his reconstructions of Matthew and Luke show that he was insufficiently aware of the stylistic peculiarities of these two writers, and of Luke in particular. Had he availed himself of the Hebraic evidence found in each of the Synoptic Gospels, Bussmann would have found it unnecessary to attribute revision to a non-canonical source. The redaction began in Luke; Mark revised the Anthology and Luke; Matthew used Mark, but often restored the wording of the Anthology. This criticism of Bussmann is only one of many that can be leveled at his theory.[30]

The second mistake of most Ur-Marcus theories lies in the unwillingness of their adherents to concede the direct influence of one Gospel on the other.[31] Both Bussmann and Holdsworth[32] correctly concluded that Luke was written prior to Mark. Had they understood the special editorial characteristics of Luke as well as Harnack[33] or Dalman,[34] who emphasized respectively the Greek and Semitic elements of Luke’s style, they would have found it less difficult to assess the dependence of Mark on both Luke and the Anthology. Parker suggested that Mark excised certain overly-Jewish passages from K.[35] The truth of the matter is that it was Luke who followed this procedure, omitting certain Anthology passages, and for precisely the same reason—to improve the Greek style of his Hebraic-Greek sources. Mark often followed Luke in his excisions.[36] Where Mark did so, Matthew often supplemented with additional material from the Anthology.[37]

The Markan harmonization of Luke and the Anthology is particularly interesting. With great surprise I first noted Mark’s dependence on Luke while doing a study of the elegen/elegon usage common to all the Synoptic Gospels.[38] To judge from the Septuagint, this construction does not represent normal Greek translation of Hebrew texts: one would expect instead the Greek aorist tense (εἶπεν or εῖπον) in most places where elegen/elegon is used. Luke scattered elegen (or elegon) throughout his Gospel, and, in total, used it 22 times.[39] Matthew agrees with Mark on the use of elegen (or elegon) only 11 times. Mark, as if suddenly enamored with the construction, used it for the first time in Mark 2:16 and with high frequency until Mark 7:27, at which point Mark used elegen/elegon only occasionally, but, in all, he used it 49 times.[40]

Strangest of all is the fact that Luke and Mark agreed to use the elegen/elegon construction only at Mark 2:27 (= Luke 6:5) and Mark 4:30 (= Luke 13:18), and that Matthew and Luke never agreed to use it at the same point in their parallel narratives. Obviously, we are dealing with an editorial usage, a usage that indicates Mark’s middle position. One of the three writers originated the usage and the other two borrowed it for their own individual purposes. It was not a part of the Anthology. Matthew was the least interested in using it, but he copied it from Mark occasionally,[41] and also used it independently (Matt. 9:24; 12:23; 21:11; 27:49). The critical interrelationship is that of Mark and Luke: the flow is from Luke to Mark.

In Mark 2:27 elegen introduces the unique Markan saying about the Sabbath being made for man, which is followed by a statement about the Son of Man (Mark 2:28). Although there is a rabbinic parallel to Mark 2:27, both Matthew (Matt. 12:8) and Luke (Luke 6:5) thought the pericope needed only the second saying to make it complete. This is evidence that Mark 2:27 is an editorial comment added by Mark.

In Mark 4:30 καὶ ἔλεγεν introduces the Markan version of the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Matthew is in Markan order at this point (Matt. 13:31-32), but the parallel in Luke (Luke 13:18-19) is clearly in a Q context, with both Matthew and Luke showing that the Anthology contained the Parable of the Leaven (Matt. 13:33 = Luke 13:20-21) as a partner to the Parable of the Mustard Seed. To introduce a parable Luke alternated ἔλεγεν with εἶπεν (cf. Luke 13:6, 18; 14:7; 18:1 [ἔλεγεν] with Luke 12:16; 13:20; 15:3 [εἶπεν]). If Luke used Mark one must say that he 1) adopted this phrase from Mark; 2) normally refused to copy it in Markan contexts; 3) copied it from Mark 2:27 where Matthew did not, but agreed with Matthew to exclude the first of the two sayings it introduced; 4) dropped all but the Parable of the Sower in chapter four of Mark, yet added elegen neatly when he quoted the Parable of the Mustard Seed later in a Q context.

Far simpler is the suggestion that Luke originated this usage, and that he often inserted it to introduce sayings of Jesus although it was not in his sources. Mark picked it up from Luke for his own editorial purposes, finding it a convenient Lukan addition that would allow him to introduce his rabbinic quotation at Mark 2:27, and using it at Mark 4:30 (the opening of Mark’s version of the Parable of the Mustard Seed) because he was adding a parable that Luke copied from the Anthology. I have already suggested that the Beelzebub Controversy (Mark 3:22-30) is a Markan pick-up from Luke 11:15-23. Mark treated this borrowing from Luke as the first of four parables he gives in Mark 3:23-4:32.

However, it is Mark’s use of elegen/elegon in Mark 6:14-16 against both Matthew and Luke that most clearly demonstrates Mark’s practice of harmonizing Luke and the Anthology:

Markan Harmonization
Markan Harmonization

This passage occurs in all three Synoptic Gospels in Markan order and would not normally be suspected by Markan priorists of coming from Q. The variant reading elegen, for elegon, in line 9 (Mark 6:14), is improbable. There is no other serious textual difficulty.

In lines 3 and 12 we have typical Matthean-Lukan verbal agreement against Mark. Mark differs not only in his use of “king” for “tetrarch” (line 4), but in the word order of the phrase. Line 5 shows a Matthean-Lukan grammatical agreement against Mark’s explanatory phrase or sentence: both τὴν ἀκοὴν Ἰησοῦ (Matt. 14:1) and τὰ γινόμενα πάντα (Luke 9:7) are objects of the main verb. This is strong evidence that Matthew and Luke knew a text other than Mark.

Despite these agreements, Matthew and Luke show versions of the story that are impossible to reconcile. Matthew tells a simple story in which Herod declares to his servants that John has risen from the dead. Luke’s story is longer and shows Herod confused because of various reports about Jesus’ identity but doubting that John could have risen from the dead and wanting to see Jesus because of what he has heard.

With the exception of the typically Matthean ἐν ἐκείνῳ τῷ καιρῷ (cf. Matt. 11:25; 12:1; 14:1) and the un-Hebraic “tetrarch,”[42] Matthew’s version can be translated word for word into perfect biblical Hebrew. The noun ἀκοή (line 5) might possibly be the equivalent of the Hebrew שֵׁמַע (cf. Gen. 29:13; 1 Kgs. 10:1, where τὸ ὄνομα is שֵׁמַע’s translation). The phrase τοῖς παισὶν αὐτοῦ (line 7) is obviously לַעֲבָדָיו; the phrase ἠγέρθη ἀπὸ τῶν νεκρῶν (lines 12 and 14) is equivalent to Hebrew קָם מִן הַמֵּתִים; and αἱ δυνάμεις (line 16) is clearly the rabbinic הַגְּבוּרוֹת. If we were to borrow καί and βασιλεύς from Mark, the text would read in Hebrew:

וַיִּשְׁמַע הוֹרדוֹס הַמֶּלֶך אֶת שֵמַע יֵשׁוּעַ וַיֹּאמֶר לַעֲבָדָיו, זֶה הוּא יוֹחָנָן הַמַּטְבִּיל, הוּא קָם מִן הַמֵּתִים וְלָכֵן הַגְּבוּרוֹת פּוֹעֲלוֹת בּוֹ.‏

Were either the Matthean-Lukan agreements or the Hebraic evidence here isolated phenomena in the Synoptic Gospels, some other explanation would be preferable. As it is, we are obliged to suspect the presence of the strongly Hebraic Anthology behind the texts of all three Synoptists.

From line 8, Luke’s version becomes almost completely non-Hebraic. He uses indirect discourse where Hebrew prefers direct discourse. He employs his much-loved passive construction with ὑπό (Luke 9:8), the very antithesis of a literal translation from Hebrew, as a glance at the Septuagint’s use of ὑπό will immediately show. The phrase ἐκ νεκρῶν (Luke 9:7) is, as in Paul, a Greecizing of ἀπὸ τῶν νεκρῶν. Furthermore, there is no Hebrew verb that can in itself express the act of cutting off a man’s head as can ἀπεκεφάλισα in Luke 9:9.

The content of Luke’s version also bears a strong resemblance to the discussion at Caesarea Philippi (cf. Luke 9:19) and to John 1:20-22 (cf. Luke 3:15-16). When this is coupled with the non-Hebraic constructions beginning in line 8, and the fact that the Matthean-Lukan agreements occur early in the passage, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Luke has departed from the Anthology at this point and has begun copying the First Reconstruction, Luke’s second source, a redaction of the Anthology. Matthew’s extremely Hebraic text gives every evidence of being more original than Luke’s version.

The content and wording of Mark are remarkable for the extent of their redaction. As so often, the text of Mark is half translation Greek and half improved or popularized Greek, but here, even the content of his story betrays the double nature of his dependence. Although in Mark 1:28 he retains the Hebraic ἀκοή (against the Lukan ἦχος), he gives a subsidiary sentence to explain ἀκοή. Mark appears to think that ἀκοή represents the Semitic שֵׁם, as if he thought the translator of the undertext confused שֵׁמַע with שֵׁם. Alternatively, Mark may simply have decided to explain שֵׁמַע as שֵׁם in accordance with his tendency to view word-plays as opportunities for midrashic interpretation. Mark’s use of “king” for “tetrarch” may represent his personal Semitic understanding, or “king” may have been in his source for John’s death (Mark 6:22, 26, 27). Mark’s use of ἐγήγερται in Mark 6:14 (cf. 1 Cor. 15:4) against the Matthean-Lukan ἠγέρθη (Matt. 14:2; Luke 9:7) is typical of Mark’s changes for the sake of novelty or Greek improvement. He preferred ἐκ νεκρῶν to ἀπὸ τῶν νεκρῶν (line 14), yet retained the sentence with “the powers” (line 16) in a word order that may even be more original than Matthew’s.[43]

Mark’s elegen/elegon constructions immediately parallel the Lukan passive constructions. In line 20 Mark gives a neat Hebraic equivalent, εἷς τῶν προφητῶν (Mark 6:15), of Luke’s more distinctly Greek phrase, τις τῶν ἀρχαίων (Luke 9:8), and could represent Hebrew influence. Mark’s use of elegon without an expressed subject in line 9 could be a reflection of a Hebrew undertext, or due to the influence of popular Greek. Mark’s phrase in line 23, ὃν ἐγὼ ἀπεκεφάλισα Ἰωάννην, however, like that in line 6, φανερὸν γὰρ ἐγένετο τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ, is awkward to translate into Hebrew. Peculiar is the fact that Mark’s conclusion is the same as Matthew’s, and against Luke. After all this discussion, Herod comes to the conclusion that John has risen, yet the words ἐκ νεκρῶν are not added as in line 15.

The normal explanation given to this pericope by Markan priorists is that Matthew and Luke have independently taken from Mark the phrases they needed to construct their own disparate versions. On the face of it, that explanation sounds attractive; but it will not do for the following reasons: 1) Matthew and Luke both show they are influenced by a source other than Mark; 2) Matthew’s text contrasts sharply in its simplicity and Hebraic constructions with the versions of Mark and Luke; 3) the conclusion of Luke’s story gives an excellent reason for Mark’s introduction of the non-Hebraically-styled discussion concerning Herod’s confusion: Herod wisely listens to the popular ideas but wisely remains indecisive; 4) Mark mixes, as in lines 15 and 16, the non-Hebraic Lukan expressions with the Hebraic Matthean phrases, yet in lines 4 and 6 opposes both Matthew and Luke; 5) Mark largely follows the story of Herod’s confusion, but says nothing about his being confused: this makes his introduction of the popular ideas about John very rough, for his story begins with Herod and suddenly (in line 9) shifts to an undesignated and unexplained subject; 6) Mark concludes the story half in the words of Luke and half in the words of Matthew (lines 23-24); 7) if Luke were following Mark, why would he agree with Matthew at all, with Mark only in spots, break with Mark in his conclusion, and yet end up with a more coherent story?

My conclusion is that Mark knew this story both from Luke and the Anthology, but he was so impressed by Luke that he accepted Luke’s version about Herod’s confusion, though without mentioning it, and harmonized the two accounts so cleverly that, were it not for the nearly perfect Hebraic text of Matthew and the Matthean-Lukan agreements against Mark, we would fail (with the Markan priorists) to see what Mark has done. On the other hand, did we not know that Mark was used by Matthew, we would have concluded that Mark harmonized the accounts of Matthew and Luke. As it is, we must suppose that Mark harmonized Luke with a source known to all the Synoptists (i.e., the Anthology). The hypothesis that Mark used Luke unlocks this synoptic conundrum, clarifying the reason for Mark’s writing that Herod thought John the Baptist had been raised from the dead.

8. Finally, my hypothesis provides a reasonable answer to various problems arising from the common and disparate pericope-order of the Synoptic Gospels. Matthew and Luke almost never agree together against the story-order of Mark, but both show a few differences in the placement of stories vis-à-vis Mark. This double fact suggests that Mark stands between Matthew and Luke, and emphasizes the improbability that Matthew and Luke influenced each other directly. It does not prove that Matthew and Luke depend equally on Mark’s order, as Markan priorists argue. Theoretically, the order of dependence could be Matthew-Mark-Luke or Luke-Mark-Matthew. It is impossible to determine the Synoptic Gospels’ order of writing from pericope order alone. My contention that the synoptic order is Luke-Mark-Matthew is fully consonant with the central facts of pericope-order.

The way the synoptic writers insert Anthology passages into their Gospels provides evidence against the theory that Matthew and Luke equally depended on Mark as one of their sources. Matthew can often be seen to take his cue from Mark’s use of the Anthology for the additional Anthology material. Luke, by contrast, acts as if he had never seen the Anthology in Mark. In order to maintain that Luke used Mark, it is necessary to suppose that Luke was able to recognize each hint of the Anthology and excise it only to give it in a wider context in his blocks of the Anthology. But the certain evidence of Lukan doublets proves that Luke would not have felt compelled to follow such a procedure. The theory of Markan priority also fails to explain how two writers unknown to each other (Matthew and Luke) independently determined to use Mark as an outline into which they placed long excerpts from the Anthology.

These difficulties are easily explained when it is realized that Mark decided to use Luke as his basic text, but to use the Anthology in places where he had a special interest, such as in his Little Apocalypse (Mark 13:1-37). Matthew, who had the texts of Mark and the Anthology before him, was impressed by the way Mark inserted material from the Anthology into his Gospel. Matthew accepted most of Mark’s Anthology insertions, and even expanded them by including additional material from the Anthology. Luke thus became the originator of a gospel form that includes incorporating material from more than one written source. Mark, who learned this practice from Luke, passed it on to Matthew.

Wildflowers growing on the wall of Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of Gary Asperschlager.
Wildflowers growing on the wall of Jerusalem. (Photo courtesy of Gary Asperschlager)

All this fits completely with what we know of Luke’s independent approach to his sources. It does not fit Mark at all. Luke quoted his sources in blocks; Mark combined Luke, the Anthology, Pauline expressions, and other “pick-ups.” Luke was not averse to doublets if they appeared within blocks of material in his source(s). Mark has no true doublets, only occasional repetitions of pithy sayings. Luke sometimes inserted editorial sentences under the influence of a source he was not using at the moment, but he normally left his blocks of material intact even if he sometimes improved their Greek style and removed overly Hebraic expressions. Mark edited, paraphrased and embellished his sources. He mixed styles, repeated words and phrases, abbreviated or elaborated narratives, and crafted homilies. Matthew often found it necessary to revert to the Anthology’s wording when faced with extensive editorial activity in the text of Mark.

Matthew’s departure from the Markan pericope-order is a result of Matthew’s inserting long passages from the Anthology that Mark had omitted. Finding no hint in Mark of Luke’s method of quoting blocks of material verbatim from the Anthology, Matthew learned from Mark that pericope excision and change of story order are acceptable. His agreement with Luke against Mark in the use of Ναζαρά (Nazara; Nazareth; Matt. 4:13; Luke 4:16) shows that Mark dropped the Rejection in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30) and replaced it by moving the Call of Peter, James and John (Luke 5:1-11) forward to this position. Matthew therefore agreed with Mark’s placement of the Call of the Disciples as the first pericope of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, but immediately afterwards he broke with the Markan order to combine the Markan summaries found in Mark 1:39 and 3:7-10 (Matt. 4:23-25). His reason for doing so was to insert the Sermon on the Mount.

After the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew returned to Mark at the point of Mark’s first summary (Mark 1:40), picking up stories from the Anthology and Mark and mixing them for two chapters, much as Mark had mixed the Beelzebub Controversy from the Anthology with Lukan material (Mark 3:22-30). Matthew abbreviated most of the Markan stories that are drastically out of Markan order in his text at this point. He had observed Mark do this in the Call of the Twelve (Mark 1:16-20) and the Rejection at Nazareth (Mark 6:1-6), and evidently concluded that it was the correct thing to do when making dramatic changes of order. In any case, since Matthew had not collected all the miracle stories from Mark 1:21-5:43, he combined the Call of the Twelve (Mark 3:13-19) with the Sending of the Twelve (Mark 6:6-13) in Matthew 9:35-10:16, to which he appended a conflation (Matt. 10:17-22) of the Little Apocalypse (Mark 13:1-37) with various Anthology passages (Matt. 10:23-11:30). At Matthew 12:1 he returned to Mark and largely followed him except for minor excisions and occasional additions from the Anthology, and his fulfillment quotations,[44] until the end of his Gospel.

From the first chapters of John we discover that there were two periods in which Jesus sojourned in Judea. From the first of these Luke apparently removed the story concerning Andrew and Peter (John 1:40-42), probably for reasons of space. This resulted in Luke’s bringing Jesus to Galilee immediately after the Temptation (Luke 4:14), summarizing his first activities (Luke 4:15), and giving the Rejection in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30) as his first Galilee pericope. Later (in Luke 4:44), Luke mentions in a short summary a return of Jesus to Judea for a preaching tour, but does not include any pericopae from this period.

These deletions by Luke created narrative difficulties, which Mark recognized. Capernaum came to be mentioned first in Luke only obliquely in the Rejection in Nazareth pericope (Luke 4:23).[45] Peter is first mentioned in Luke only as the owner of a house (Luke 4:38). Andrew has dropped out of Luke’s account altogether (except in the list of Jesus’ disciples given in Luke 6:14-16).[46] This apparently worried Mark, and he set about to rectify the situation. He first dropped the Rejection in Nazareth. This solved the problem Mark saw in Luke of Capernaum being mentioned before any events set in Capernaum were recorded. Looking ahead, Mark picked out the story of the Call of Peter, James and John (Luke 5:1-11) and brought it forward as an introduction to Peter and Andrew, after inserting Andrew’s name. To accomplish this manipulation, Mark was obliged to drop Jesus’ preaching from the boat (Luke 5:2-3) and the special story of the circumstances surrounding Peter’s decision to follow Jesus (Luke 5:4-11). This apparently left Mark with some regrets, for he brought the preaching-from-the-ploiarion (πλοιάριον, small boat) back in his summary in Mark 3:7-12, and kept using the phrase “by the sea” (παρὰ τὴν θάλασσαν) in such unnecessary places as Mark 2:13; 5:1; and 5:21. Apparently, Mark also considered it necessary to add (against Matthew and Luke) the names Andrew, James and John in Mark 1:29, and change Luke’s “Judea” to “Galilee” (Luke 4:44; Mark 1:39), which gave him a smooth connection to “Capernaum” (against Matthew and Luke) in Mark 2:1.

More serious is Mark’s insertion of the Rejection at Nazareth in Mark 6:1-6 at a place that makes it stand, in Moffatt’s words, as an “erratic boulder.”[47] That Mark had been influenced by the Lukan story is clear from his use of πατρίδα (patrida, home land, home country),[48] with which, instead of “Nazareth,” he introduced the locale of the pericope. Mark shortened and summarized the story, using his typical editorial vocabulary and the Pauline-Qumranic οἱ πολλοί (hoi polloi = הָרַבִּים: Mark 6:2), dropped the excellent scriptural quotations, changed Luke’s “son of Joseph” to “son of Mary,” and gave more or less the non-Hebraic Lukan version of the saying about a prophet’s honor, to which he added the opposition of “home” and relatives. His addition of the four names of Jesus’ brothers (Mark 6:3) from oral knowledge leaves us in debt to Mark for a tradition we would not otherwise have known, but it is obvious that the Lukan account in respect of the names is more original. We can only be grateful that this opportunity for textual change (when in an out-of-order pericope) allowed Mark to indicate his reverence for names that he might have mentioned much earlier had he not decided to omit the infancy narratives.

Papias’ statement that Mark was not “in order,”[49] therefore, preserves a valid criticism that can be established by literary analysis. In contrast to Mark and Matthew, Luke’s order is more original, for his practice was to delete stories and Hebraic constructions from his sources, but not at the expense of pericope order. This fits well with the conclusions of Harnack and others that, on the whole, Luke shows a more authentic order than Matthew or Mark.

These are the main advantages of my hypothesis. It may appear that my theory is more complicated than others. In actuality, it is far simpler than most synoptic theories. Only two written sources are demanded to explain the great majority of the material found in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Luke is seen to be first, followed by Mark, and then by Matthew. The difficult problems surrounding the so-called Proto-Luke, or the special Lukan source of the “Passion Narrative,” or the nature of the Markan relationship to Q, or the strange “Jewish Christian” element in Matthew, all disappear. Postulating the Anthology as descended from a literal Greek translation of a Hebrew biography of Jesus, and supposing that the Anthology was known to each of the three Synoptists, gives the content and structure of the Synoptic Gospels a firm substructure and accounts for their Hebraic vocabulary and word order. On the other hand, the interdependence of the Synoptic Gospels is fully maintained and explained.

Interesting questions remain. Can the Anthology be reconstructed? Why was the Anthology discarded by the post-apostolic church? If, however, the above analysis is correct, the derivation of most of Matthew and more than half of Luke from canonical Mark is probably the most serious error ever made in New Testament criticism. It has placed an unfair responsibility on Mark’s text, has created misunderstandings, and misled generations of scholars in their search for the “sources of the sources.” To a great extent these sources lie intact in the Synoptic Gospels and only await the correct application of literary tools, long recognized but insufficiently utilized.

  • [1] Cf. Otto A. Piper, “The Origin of the Gospel Pattern,” JBL 78 (1959): 115.
  • [2] The name given to a conjectured earlier edition of the Gospel of Mark.
  • [3] Rudolf Bultmann, Form Criticism: A New Method of New Testament Research (trans. F. C. Grant; Chicago, New York: Willett, Clark, 1934), 13-14.
  • [4] Vincent Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark (London: Macmillan, 1955), 76-77.
  • [5] Adolf Harnack, The Sayings of Jesus: The Second Source of St. Matthew and St. Luke (trans. J. R. Wilkinson; London: Williams & Norgate, 1908).
  • [6] M stands for the source of Matthew’s unique material. Similarly, L stands for Luke’s unique material.
  • [7] Frederick C. Grant, The Gospels: Their Origin and Their Growth (New York, London: Harper, Faber & Faber, 1957), 50-51.
  • [8] Benjamin Wisner Bacon, The Beginnings of Gospel Story: A Historico-Critical Inquiry into the Sources and Structure of the Gospel According to Mark (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1909), xxi.
  • [9] On the Parable of the Seed Growing Secretly (Mark 4:26-29), see footnote 17 below.
  • [10] William Lockton, “The Origin of the Gospels,” Church Quarterly Review 94 (July 1922): 216-239 [Click here to read a reissue of Lockton’s article on JerusalemPerspective.com]. Lockton derived Mark from Luke, Matthew from Mark and Luke, and disavowed the existence of Q. His three books should be carefully studied: The Resurrection and Other Gospel Narratives and The Narratives of the Virgin Birth (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1924); The Three Traditions in the Gospels (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1926); Certain Alleged Gospel Sources: A Study of Q, Proto-Luke and M (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1927).
  • [11] Lockton, “The Origin of the Gospels,” 220.
  • [12] Alan Hugh McNeille, An Introduction to the Study of the New Testament (2nd ed.; rev. by C. S. C. Williams; London: Oxford University Press, 1953), 66.
  • [13] Otto Piper, “The Origin of the Gospel Pattern,” 116.
  • [14] James Moffatt, An Introduction to the Literature of the New Testament (New York, Edinburgh: Scribner’s, T&T Clark, 1911), 195.
  • [15] Cf. G. D. Kilpatrick, The Origins of the Gospel According to St. Matthew (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946), 8-9. Kilpatrick’s examples of Matthean “rewriting” of Mark show Matthew using the more Hebraic text of the Anthology instead of Mark’s text.
  • [16] Cf. Jehoshua M. Grintz, “Hebrew as the Spoken and Written Language in the Last Days of the Second Temple,” JBL 79.1 (March 1960): 32-47. Grintz, like many a Semitist before him, mistakenly concluded that Matthew represents an original translation of Hebrew material.
  • [17] For example, in his version of the Parable of the Seed Growing Secretly (Mark 4:26-29), Mark gave the Parable in sixty words, yet managed to include the Pauline-Lukan νύκτα καὶ ἡμέρα and the Lukan ὁ σπόρος.
  • [18] See J. Courtenay James, The Language of Palestine and Adjacent Regions (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1920), 244.
  • [19] Mark’s apparent mistranslation of the Hebraic “Boanerges” in Mark 3:17 is only one of several such indications. The Hebrew original must have been בְּנֵי רוֹגֶז ,בְּנֵי רֶגֶשׁ or בְּנֵי רַעַשׁ, none of which would bear the translation “sons of thunder.” If, on the other hand, Mark did know Hebrew, it is possible that his “sons of thunder” explanation of Boanerges is an attempt to heighten רַעַשׁ to רַעַם (thunder) due to the biblical connection of רַעַם and רַעַשׁ (cf. Isa. 29:6).
  • [20] Jehoshua Grintz, “Hebrew as the Spoken and Written Language,” 32-47.
  • [21] Harris Birkeland, The Language of Jesus (Oslo: I kommisjon hos Jacob Dybwad, 1954), 40.
  • [22] Gustaf Dalman, The Words of Jesus Considered in the Light of Post-Biblical Jewish Writings and the Aramaic Language: I. Introduction and Fundamental Ideas (authorized English version by D. M. Kay of Die Worte Jesu; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1902), 62.
  • [23] Adolf Schlatter, Der Evangelist Matthäus (Stuttgart: Calwer, 1948), xi. Schlatter accepted the existence of an Ur-Marcus, which he called the grundtext (basic text).
  • [24] Cf. B. C. Butler’s frequent references to the work of Charles F. Burney in The Originality of St. Matthew: A Critique of the Two-Document Hypothesis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951).
  • [25] Bacon, The Beginnings of Gospel Story, xix, xxvii-xxviii, 59, 89, 122-123.
  • [26] Mark 6:52 (“they had not understood about the loaves, their hearts were hardened”) and Mark 8:17 (“Why are you talking about bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened?”)
  • [27] Pierson Parker, The Gospel Before Mark (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 160.
  • [28] Parker delineated his K much too mechanically: for Parker, whatever verbal agreement existed between Matthew and Mark was automatically K. Such agreement naturally includes Mark’s non-Hebraic constructions, some of which, like κηρύσσων τὀ εὐαγγέλιον, are Markan pick-ups from Paul, while others, like the elegen/elegon constructions, are taken from Luke. Parker’s supposition that the Matthean-Lukan agreement with Mark in story-order negates the probability that Luke used K to the exclusion of Mark simply shows that he was unable to conceive of any Synoptist using K plus another Synoptic Gospel.
  • [29] Wilhelm Bussmann, Synoptische Studien (3 vols.; Halle: Buchhandlung des Waisenhauses, 1925-1931).
  • [30] Cf. Vincent Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark, 70-72. Taylor’s criticism number 3 that “many vivid details in Mark, names, numbers, and the like” (p. 71) are not likely to be redactional is completely unfounded.
  • [31] See, for example, William West Holdsworth, Gospel Origins: A Study in the Synoptic Problem (New York: Scribner’s, 1913), 10-11.
  • [32] Holdsworth, Gospel Origins, 108-109, 117-118, 169; Holdsworth, The Christ of the Gospels (London: Charles H. Kelly, 1911), 64-70.
  • [33] Adolf Harnack, The Sayings of Jesus.
  • [34] Gustaf Dalman, The Words of Jesus.
  • [35] Pierson Parker, The Gospel Before Mark, 87-115.
  • [36] An example of Mark’s double dependency may be seen in the Confession at Caesarea Philippi. With Luke, Mark omitted Jesus’ Hebraic answer to Peter (cf. Matt. 16:17-18), but he followed the Anthology against Luke by giving Jesus’ rebuke of Peter (Mark 8:32b-33).
  • [37] For example, Matt. 3:14-15; 16:17-18.
  • [38] The singular (ἔλεγεν) or plural (ἔλεγον) 3rd person, imperfect tense of the verb λέγειν appears in Mark in 2:16, 24, 27; 3:21, 22, 23, 30; 4:2, 9, 11, 21, 24, 26, 30, 41; 5:8, 28, 30, 31; 6:4, 10, 14, 15, 16, 18, 35; 7:9, 14, 20, 27; 8:21, 24; 9:1, 24, 31; 11:5, 17, 28; 12:35, 38; 14:2, 31, 36, 70; 15:12, 14, 31, 35; 16:3 (49 occurrences); Matthew 9:11, 21, 24, 34; 12:23; 14:4; 21:11; 26:5; 27:41, 47, 49 (11 occurrences); Luke 3:7, 11; 4:22; 5:36; 6:5, 20; 9:23, 31; 10:2; 13:6, 14, 18; 14:7, 12; 16:1, 5; 18:1; 21:10; 22:65; 23:34, 42; 24:10 (22 occurrences).
  • [39] However, only twice does Luke agree with Mark on the use of elegen (or elegon): in Mark 2:27 (= Luke 6:5; ἔλεγεν) and Mark 4:30 (= Luke 13:18; ἔλεγεν).
  • [40] Cf. John C. Hawkins, Horae synopticae: Contributions to the Study of the Synoptic Problem (2nd ed.; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909), 12, 52. Hawkins gives the occurrences of this phrase as Luke 23, Matthew 10 and Mark 50.
  • [41] Matthew copied from Mark the elegen/elegon usage a total of 7 times: Matt. 9:11 coming from Mark 2:16; Matt. 9:21 from Mark 5:28; Matt. 9:34 from Mark 3:22; Matt. 14:4 from Mark 6:18; Matt. 26:5 from Mark 14:2; Matt. 27:41 from Mark 15:31; and Matt. 27:47 from Mark 15:35.
  • [42] Jewish usage would be “king,” as in Mark.
  • [43] The word order in both Matthew and Mark is fully Hebraic, but the priority of the verb in Mark is attractively idiomatic.
  • [44] Matthew introduced many of his quotations from Scripture with the formula, “this took place to fulfill what was spoken…” (e.g., Matt. 12:17-21; 13:14-15, 35; 21:4-5; 27:9-10).
  • [45] Capernaum is first mentioned in Mark at Mark 1:21, and first mentioned in Matthew at Matt. 4:13.
  • [46] In the New Testament, “Andrew” is mentioned in Matt. 4:18; 10:2; Mark 1:16, 29; 3:18; 13:3; Luke 6:14; John 1:40, 44; 6:8; 12:22; Acts 1:13.
  • [47] James Moffatt, An Introduction to the Literature of the New Testament, 223.
  • [48] Mark 6:1. Mark borrowed the noun πατρίς (patris) from Luke’s version of a proverb in Luke 4:24. In a medieval Hebrew document, זבח פסח לאברבנאל נד,ב; דוידזון 489, the proverb has been preserved as אֵין נָבִיא בְּעִירוֹ. The Anthology must have read οὐκ ἔστιν προφήτης ἐν τῇ πόλει αὐτοῦ and Luke (or the First Reconstruction, Luke’s second source) changed this to οὐδεὶς προφήτης δεκτός ἐστιν ἐν τῇ πατρίδι αὐτοῦ. Apparently, Luke found it hard to call Nazareth a πόλις, although in biblical Hebrew a town can be referred to as an עִיר (ir = LXX πόλις [polis, city, town]), e.g., Josh. 19:6; Ruth 3:15 (i.e., Bethlehem, a town).
  • [49] Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.39.15.

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

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

Mark’s Unpopularity

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

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

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

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

The Theory of Markan Priority

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

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

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

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

A “Re-write Man”

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Understanding of Synoptic Interdependence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Markan Pick-ups

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

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

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

A Better Way Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sidebar by David Flusser: Who Was John Mark?

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

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

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

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

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

Rewritten Source

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Crucial Facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Measuring the Disparity Between Matthew, Mark and Luke

Revised: 26-Jan-2015

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

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

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

Working with Huck’s Synopsis

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


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

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







μετὰ ταῦτα


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Studying the Literature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collecting Further Evidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Markan Cross-Factor Diagram
Markan Cross-Factor Diagram

Search for the First and Third Writers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Proto-Luke Theory

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

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

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

Further Proof of Mark’s Dependence on Luke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Verily” or “Amen”—What Did Jesus Say?

In translating the Greek texts of the Gospels into Hebrew, Dr. Lindsey found that many passages could be rendered literally with almost no change of word order. The result was a Hebrew version that often sheds fascinating light on the meaning of Jesus’ words, so much so that Lindsey came to believe the Greek sources Matthew, Mark and Luke used were rendered very literally from Hebrew originals. This Hebraic perspective sometimes explains Gospel passages that have long been considered difficult or ambiguous. In the following article,Lindsey presents one example of what has been considered a uniquely idiosyncratic expression of Jesus, but which a Hebraic perspective reveals to be a familiar phrase from the Scriptures.

Every reader of the Gospels knows the phrase, “Verily, I say unto you,” or “Verily, verily, I say unto you.”[1] According to the standard English translations of the Old and New Testaments, it seems that Jesus alone used such a preamble. Most Christians, long accustomed to such expressions in the Bible, take it for granted that “Jesus talked that way.”

What struck me first about “Verily I say unto you”[2] was that the Greek text simply transliterated the Hebrew amen for “verily.”[3] That in itself is not altogether surprising, for elsewhere in the New Testament, notably in the epistles of Paul, amēn often comes at the end of an expression of praise to God. Paul speaks of God as the Creator “who is blessed forever! Amen!” (Rom. 1:25), and exclaims “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever! Amen!” (1 Tim. 1:17). Honorific amēn responses also appear several times in the Book of Revelation. All of this is in perfect accord with occasional Old Testament usage[4] and with present-day practice in synagogues and churches.[5]

Puzzling to me, however, was that amēn came at the beginning of something that Jesus was quoted as saying. There are no other instances in the New or Old Testaments of a statement beginning, “Amen, I say to you.” In Hebrew literature ’āmēn is always a response. For example, the Psalmist writes, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! ’āmēn and ’āmēn” (Ps. 41:14). In Numbers 5:22 one reads that before the priest gave her the “bitter water,” a wife suspected of infidelity had to listen to his words and respond, “Amēn, amēn.”[6] Again and again we hear the phrase, “And the people all said, ‘Amen'” (Deut. 27:16-26). Amen is used exclusively in biblical literature as a response—except for Jesus’ mode: “Amēn, I say to you.”

Many commentators have noted the uniqueness of Jesus’ use of amēn. The first writer to allude to this is the author of Revelation who uses “Amēn” to identify the resurrected and ascended Jesus: “These things says the Amen” (Rev. 3:14). It would appear that the revelator felt a poetic license to use this appellative because Jesus is so often quoted in the Gospels as using amēn. Although not wholly comfortable with the oddity of the locution, modern writers have accepted that the words “Amen, I say to you” were as unique as Jesus himself. One scholar has popularized the idea that, since the phrase is too unusual to have been invented and put into the mouth of Jesus, most sayings beginning with “Amen…” are sure evidence that we are reading his [Jesus’] ipsissima verba.[7]

More recently, scholars have come increasingly to suppose that the Gospels are mainly a collection of late, re-edited sayings that were greatly changed from their original form before final redaction towards the end of the first century. Hence, they have aired the notion that the phrase is a convenient formula under which many invented sayings of Jesus were collected to preserve their authority.[8] I am unable to accept any of these suggestions. If it is possible in many cases to get back to a Hebrew original of Jesus’ words simply by finding the right Hebrew equivalents to a Greek passage and by putting them down in the order of the Greek text, one cannot speak of a long period in which our Gospel stories and sayings took form at the demand of a Greek-speaking church.

Theoretically, the “Amen, I tell you” formula may be as fully original as the Hebraic “behold” and “eat and drink” idioms so common in Jesus’ speech. Nor would it be strange if the earliest translators of the Hebrew Life of Jesus simply transliterated ’āmēn as they wrote down their Greek text. The word γέεννα (geena, “gehenna,” “hell”), used throughout the Gospels, from the Hebrew גֵּיא בֶן־הִנֹּם (gē’ ben hinom, “Valley of Ben-hinnom”), is clearly such a case.

Assuming, then, that Jesus did use amēn frequently, why should he have used it unidiomatically? We may concede that even the Gospel writers felt that the phrase was unusual and either, as in Luke, preferred to omit the offending amēn, or, as probably in Mark, inserted it in some sayings in the editorial process just because it was unusual. But to find Jesus deliberately reversing its position in speech, even when he seems to be speaking an otherwise normal Hebrew, strains the imagination.

Checking all the appearances of amēn in the Septuagint, it is interesting to note that whereas in the earlier portions of the Hebrew Scriptures the Jewish translators had attempted to give a Greek equivalent for ’āmēn,[9] in the later portions they chose to transliterate the Hebrew אָמֵן (’āmēn) as ἀμήν (amēn). This offers a precedent for the retention of amēn in the Greek texts of the Gospels. The translators of the original Hebrew texts of the Life of Jesus may well have followed suit.

The same variation is visible in the Gospel of Luke, where the author uses “Amen, I say to you” six times, but three times writes ἀληθῶς λέγω ὑμῖν (alēthōs legō hūmin, truly I say to you; Luke 9:27; 12:44; 21:3).[10] Matthew, in his general parallel to seven of the eleven passages in which Luke writes only “I say to you,” has in each, “Amen, I say to you” (Matt. 5:26; 8:10; 10:15; 11:11; 13:17; 16:28; 23:36). Since it seems certain that Matthew and Luke independently used at least one common literary source, and since Matthew produces the amēn formula more than thirty times, it is a good guess that the Greek texts standing behind the Gospels preserved the expression “Amen, I say to you” over forty times.

Turning, then, to an analysis of each use of amēn in the Gospels, a first impression is that the “Amen, I say to you” phrase has a kindred one: “I say to you” or “But I say to you.” Matthew and Luke join in reporting that Jesus said concerning John the Baptist, “But what did you go to see, a prophet? Ah yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet” (Matt. 2:9, Luke 7:26). Here, “I tell you” is the same in Greek as “I say to you,” and there is no suggestion of amēn in either Gospel. There are many such “I tell you” or “I say to you” sayings in the Gospels.

Parallels to the expression “And I say” and “But I say” have been found in rabbinic literature.[11] In these rabbinic contexts a statement attributed to another rabbi will often be contrasted with one introduced by “But I say” or “And I say.” However, there does not appear to be a rabbinic parallel to “Amen, I say to you.”

Perhaps more decisive as a clue is that both “I say to you” and “Amēn, I say to you” regularly occur in the Gospels not at the beginning of a saying, but in the middle of an extended series of sentences. In the Parable of the Unjust Steward, Jesus says that the “sons of this age are wiser than the sons of light,” and adds, “and I say to you, make yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness” (Luke 16:9). In a short saying, Jesus states: “See that you look not down on one of these little ones. I tell you that their angels in heaven do always behold the face of my father” (Matt. 18:10). “Blessed are those servants,” says Jesus, “who stand watching when their Lord comes.” Then he adds, “Amen, I say to you that he shall gird himself up and then go about serving them” (Luke 12:37). In these and many other examples, “I say to you” and “Amen, I say to you” both serve the purpose of providing a speech formula by which an additional emphasis or piece of information can be joined to an earlier statement.

Is there, in fact, any difference in the function of these outwardly different expressions? After all, if one removes the amen from the one phrase, one has exactly the same words as are found in the other: “I say to you.” Patently, the amēn either acts like the adverb “truly” to strengthen “I say to you,” or somehow stands on its own and is unlinked syntactically to “I say to you.” It is clear that Luke, at least, has decided that the first possibility is the more likely and therefore has not hesitated at times to use alēthōs (truly) in place of amēn.

But the second possibility also exists, particularly if there is good reason to think that the appearance of amen in the Greek texts is an untranslated Hebraism that was retained because it had become popular and understandable in Greek-speaking synagogues and churches. In other words, it is possible that we should read amēn as the response that it normally is, and separate it from “I say to you” by placing a period after it.

My search for clues to explain the amēn formula led me to conjecture that amēn was indeed a response. I observed that its normal position was not at the beginning of a saying, but after a strong statement, and that the following “I say to you” introduced an additional sentence of emphasis and confirmation. The amēn seemed, therefore, to be a way of reinforcing the original affirmation, and “I tell you” added a further point of stress. After some study I saw that the amēn occurrences normally show the following pattern:

  • Strong statement
  • Amēn
  • Confirming statement

This pattern is particularly evident in Jesus’ μακάριοι (makarioi, “blessed”) sayings:

Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Amen! I tell you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see and to hear what you hear and did not hear it. (Matt. 13:16-17)

Blessed is that servant whom his master, when he comes, will find so doing. Amen! I tell you, he will set him over all his possessions. (Matt. 24:46)

Blessed are those servants whom the Lord shall find them watching. Amen! I tell you that he will gird himself and have them recline and will come and serve them. (Luke 12:37)

These are undoubted examples of the “Strong statement…Amen…confirming statement” pattern, and the use of the Hebraic makarios almost as an expletive underlines the claim that a strong affirmation introduces the formula.

In more than one example, another speaker makes a strong affirmation and Jesus responds with “Amen!” going on to add, “I tell you.” Matthew (21:28-32) recounts the story of two sons, one of whom tells his father that he will not do something the father had requested, but eventually does it, while the other says he will obey his father, but then does not. Jesus asks, “Which of the two did the father’s will?” The listeners answer, “The first,” to which Jesus replies, “Amen! I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes enter into the kingdom of God before you.”[12] The explanation that “Amen” appears here as a response is very convincing. If there were no “Amen,” and “I tell you” were used alone, it would hardly be so. By saying “Amen!” Jesus responds like the conversationalist and teacher that he was.

On one occasion, “Amen” appears as the reaction to an impressive event. In the story of the Widow’s Mite, Luke 21:1-4 describes Jesus watching with his disciples near the treasury bin in the Temple as the affluent pass by to make their gifts. A widow drops in her “mite,” and Luke simply records Jesus’ response: “Truly I say to you, this widow has put in more than all the rest, for all of these have contributed out of plenty, but she out of poverty.” The original response must have been, “Amen! I tell you that she has given more than all the rest….”

In light of this illustration, we should widen our pattern of the amēns of Jesus. There is no conversation between the widow and Jesus, and Jesus prefaces his “Amen” not with strong words, but with an account of something seen. The pattern becomes:

  • Strong statement or significant action
  • Amēn
  • Confirming statement

Almost every utterance of amēn in Jesus’ sayings will be found to conform to this pattern. All the Lukan and most of the Matthean instances fit. Two or three instances in the Gospel of Mark are without an introductory statement, and Matthew usually follows Mark on these. This is probably because Mark is freer toward his texts and Matthew tends to copy Mark even when his parallel source disagrees textually.[13]

An ironic use of this formula is found twice in Matthew (Matt. 6:2, 5). The Matthean examples are connected to the phrase “they have their reward.” In the first, Jesus teaches how one should not give alms: “Do not be like the hypocrites, sounding a trumpet in front of you so men will praise you.” Then comes “Amen,” and Jesus adds, “I tell you, they have their reward.” In the second, Jesus warns his hearers not to pray like the hypocrites “on the corners of the streets, so they will be seen by men.” Once more, Jesus follows this statement with “Amen” and “I tell you, they have their reward.”

To think that Jesus would have used this strong “Amen” almost in mockery seems at first somewhat curious. It could be argued that Matthew added “Amen” to “I tell you” by analogy, but in Luke 4:16-30 we find a remarkable episode in which the ironic nuance can scarcely be absent. It is possible that this instance, generally called the Lukan story of the rejection in Nazareth, provides the final clue to the origin of Jesus’ use of the “Amen” pattern. It is also a superb example of Hebrew narrative. As so often in Luke, a literal translation of the Greek text into Hebrew yields a passage brimful of Hebrew idioms, proverbs and patterns of thought.

The episode appears as the first event in Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, and there is good reason to suppose that Luke placed it where he did as an introduction to the teaching of Jesus concerning his entire mission. Jesus comes to Nazareth and goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath. He is given the scroll of Isaiah and reads from it:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…. (Isa. 61:1-2)

From rabbinic sources we know that this verse was considered a prophecy of the coming Son of David because of its use of the word מָשִׁיחַ (māshiaḥ, anointed). It was a bold claim when Jesus announced to his listeners that the prophecy had been “fulfilled today in your ears.” Little more of what he said about himself is narrated, but the crowd is said to marvel “at the words of grace that proceeded from his mouth.” At the same time, the crowd appears to be more intrigued than affected, and the people remark that Jesus is, “after all, just Joseph’s son.”

Jesus retorts, “You will doubtless quote me the parable, ‘Physician, heal yourself. What we heard you have been doing in Capernaum, do here too.'” Then he says, “Amen! I tell you, no man is a prophet in his own town.” He ends by suggesting that, just as Elijah and Elisha worked miracles of healing and feeding for outsiders only, so his own miracles would be limited to the people beyond the confines of his own village.

As in so many stories in the Gospels, Jesus’ preoccupation with the writings and works of the Old Testament prophets is striking, and it is perhaps not astonishing to find a parallel to his way of speaking in an incident in the twenty-eighth chapter of Jeremiah. In verses 1-11 we learn that the prophet Hananiah of Gibeon appeared before Jeremiah and “the priests and all the people” and dramatically declared that the recently exiled Judaeans, together with the captured vessels of the Temple, would soon be sent back to Jerusalem. Such a promise ran contrary to the message of Jeremiah who answered, “Amen! May the Lord do so! May the Lord make the words you have promised come true, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord and all the exiles.” Jeremiah then corrects Hananiah’s false prophecy by using the phrase, “But hear the words I speak in your ears.”

The parallels are too close to be accidental. Jeremiah talks “in the ears” of the people; Jesus says the Scripture is fulfilled “in your ears.” Jeremiah says “Amen” to a prophecy that he wishes would come true, but knows will not; Jesus can say “Amen” to a hope of the working of miracles in Nazareth although he knows that he must deny it. Jeremiah counters the words of the false prophet with his own “I speak”; Jesus counters the false hopes of the inquisitive with his own “I tell you.” The ironic use of “Amen” by both suggests that Jesus deliberately adopted the pattern of “Amen” and “I tell you” from the remarkably similar speech pattern of Jeremiah.

I suggest, therefore, that the word amēn, which appears repeatedly in the Greek texts of the Gospels, is a transliterated Hebrew expression used by Jesus as a response, and that the “I tell you” which invariably follows was added by Jesus to introduce a new affirmation designed to strengthen the original purpose for which the amēn was uttered. The contention that Jesus used “Amen, I say to you” as a phrase characterized by an adverbial amēn is untenable. Rather, when he said “Amen!” and added “I tell you,” Jesus was adopting a prophetic speech model of the prophet Jeremiah, and we may infer that Jesus wished his adherents and listeners to understand that this device of speech matched his prophetic career and messianic claims.

*This article, originally published in the defunct Christian News from Israel 25.3 (1975): 144-8, has been here emended and updated by David N. Bivin, Joshua N. Tilton and Lauren S. Asperschlager. For a discussion of Lindsey’s article, see David N. Bivin, “Jesus’ Use of ‘Amen’: Introduction or Response?

  • [1] The latter phrase appears only in the Gospel of John, e.g., John 1:51; 3:3, 5.
  • [2] This is the KJV’s rendition of ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν (amēn legō hūmin, lit., “Amēn, I say to you”). The RSV renders the phrase, “Truly, I say to you.” The NIV renders it, “I tell you the truth,” while the NKJV translates, “Assuredly, I say to you.” The expression appears twenty-six times in Matt., eleven times in Mark and six times in Luke (Luke 4:24; 12:37; 18:17, 29; 21:32; 23:43 [ἀμὴν σοι λέγω, amēn soi legō]). In John we always find the amen doubled in this expression, that is, “Amen, amen, I say to you” (20 times).
  • [3] The Hebrew word אָמֵן (’āmēn, “surely”) was transliterated to Greek as ἀμήν (amēn), rather than being translated.
  • [4] For example, Deut. 27:15 and 1 Chron. 16:36.
  • [5] Perhaps amēn entered the early Greek-speaking congregations mainly on account of a predilection to keep liturgical words alive even when transferring material from one language to another.
  • [6] This is a good example of amen’s meaning. The NIV renders, “So be it.”
  • [7] Joachim Jeremias, Neutestamentliche Theologie (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus G. Mohn, 1971), 43-44.
  • [8] Cf. Victor Hasler, Amen: Redaktionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung zur Einfürungsformel der Herrenworte “Wahrlich ich sage euch” (Zürich; Stuttgart: Gotthelf-Verlag, 1969), 177ff., in particular.
  • [9] Often γένοιτο (genoito, “let it be so”; Deut. 27:15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26; 1 Kgs. 1:36; Jer. 11:5; twice ἀληθινόν (alēthinon, true; Isa. 65:16); once ἀληθῶς (alethos, truly; Jer. 35:6).
  • [10] In addition, the author of Luke once writes, ναὶ λέγω ὑμῖν (ναι legō hūmin, “yes, I say to you”; Luke 11:51). Mark gives amen in each of his parallels to Luke’s alēthōs (Mark 9:1; 12:43).
  • [11] See Morton Smith, Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels, Journal of Biblical Literature Monograph Series, vol. 6 (Philadelphia: Society of Biblical Literature, 1951), 27-30.
  • [12] For two additional examples of “Amen!” plus strong affirmation in a response by Jesus, see Luke 18:29 and 23:43.
  • [13] In John, the formula has been extended to “Amen, amen,” and amēn is clearly thought of as adverbial, the repetition being a means of dramatizing. The fact that in John no introductory statement or action is necessary exemplifies that author’s method of picking out a synoptic literary device and enlarging its use without preserving original contexts.

Hebraisms in the New Testament

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

Revised: 31-October-2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Evidence of an Editor’s Hand in Two Instances of Mark’s Account of Jesus’ Last Week?

Revised: 21-May-2013

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

In 1922, William Lockton proposed a theory of the priority of Luke. According to Lockton’s hypothesis, Luke was written first, copied by Mark, who was in turn copied by Matthew who also copied from Luke.[2]

Forty years later Robert L. Lindsey independently reached a similar solution to the Synoptic Problem suggesting that Luke was written first and was used by Mark, who in turn was used by Matthew (according to Lindsey, Matthew did not know Luke).[3] In Lindsey’s proposal, Mark, as in the more popular Two-document (or Two-source) Hypothesis, is the middle term between Matthew and Luke.

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

By emphasizing the importance of Hebrew for studying the Gospels, Lindsey, and others like the late Prof. David Flusser, followed the pioneering work of Hebrew University professor M. H. Segal, who suggested as early as 1909 that Mishnaic Hebrew showed the characteristics of a living language.[5] Segal’s conclusions have largely been borne out by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Bar Kochba letters, and other documents from the Dead Sea area.

Lindsey’s theory is, of course, a minority opinion. The vast majority of today’s New Testament scholars assume the Two-document Hypothesis: Luke and Matthew wrote independently using Mark and a common source, which is sometimes termed Q. Since, according to this theory, Matthew and Luke relied in Triple Tradition material upon Mark, one would not expect their texts to be superior to Mark’s. Certainly, one would not expect to find Luke and Matthew agreeing against Mark (a “minor agreement”)[6] to preserve a better, more primitive wording. Yet, this is sometimes the case.

The present study will apply the approach championed by Lindsey to two story units taken from the last week of Jesus. Primary attention will focus on Jesus’ visit to the Jerusalem Temple, a story that is frequently referred to as the “Temple Cleansing.” The second part of this study will address the significance of the floating phrase, “For they no longer dared to ask him another question,” for highlighting Mark’s penchant for rewriting his source materials. By applying a literary-philological methodology that seriously considers the trilingual environment (Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic) of the land of Israel in the first century of the Common Era to this limited corpus, we can began to shed light upon Mark’s editorial methods and indicate Luke’s independence from Mark and his access to good material within non-Markan sources.[7]

Jesus’ Last Visit(s) to the Temple

The “Cleansing” according to the Synoptic Gospels

The account of the “Temple Cleansing” preserved by Luke reads as a brief, straightforward narrative:

And he entered the Temple and began to take out the sellers, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house will be a house of prayer,’ but you have turned it into ‘a den of bandits.’” (Luke 19:45-46)

Luke and Matthew both agree against Mark in the detail of when Jesus performed this action. Matthew and Luke record that this episode took place upon Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and its Temple, while Mark places the event on the next day stating that upon his initial arrival in Jerusalem Jesus went straight to the Temple, but only “looked around[8] at everything, and, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve” (Mark 11:11). Mark’s account seemingly betrays a secondary editorial hand as part of his narrative agenda to place the Temple incident between Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree on his way into Jerusalem from Bethany (Mark 11:12-14) and the fig tree’s withering upon his return with his disciples to Bethany (Mark 11:20-25) in order to provide his theological commentary on the Jerusalem Temple. He, therefore, shifted Jesus’ action within the Temple to the following day in order to frame it with the cursing and withering of the fig tree. Matthew failed to follow Mark’s literary fashioning of his narrative at this point, simply stating that upon Jesus’ cursing the fig tree “the fig tree withered at once” (Matt. 21:19); thus, in Matthew, the cursing is another miraculous act by Jesus, while Mark’s literary creativity in placing the episode of the Temple cleansing in between the cursing of the fig tree and its withering intends to draw ideological and theological consequences for his readers.

Flusser noted that in Mark’s Gospel Jesus never weeps over Jerusalem, thus severing Jesus’ ties to the holy city; moreover, he suggested that the cursing and withering of the fig tree was Mark’s literary, creative way of presenting Jerusalem, and its Temple, as already judged and cursed.[9] Flusser also detected within Mark a sectarian impulse that influenced and colored his narrative and literary presentation of the life of Jesus.[10] Mark’s bracketing of Jesus’ action within the Temple with the cursing and withering of the fig tree, likely grew out of his sectarian impulses rather than a historical account. Such a sectarian outlook has been preserved in the Essene writings discovered in caves in and around Khirbet Qumran. The Essenes viewed the Temple as defiled, and saw the Temple priests as polluted because of their corruption.[11] Mark’s combining of the cursing of the fig tree with Jesus’ actions in the Temple suggests that Mark possessed a similar sectarian attitude toward the Temple and its priests, and that this generated his editorial reworking of the Temple cleansing and the cursing and withering of the fig tree.

Vincent Taylor suggested that the genesis for Mark’s fig tree cursing derived from a parable like the one preserved in Luke 13:6-9, if not that parable itself, which begins, “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it but found none” (Luke 13:6).[12] Likewise Rudolf Bultmann[13] concluded that Mark 11:12-14 was a Markan literary creation, possibly dependent upon Hosea 9:10 and 16 or Micah 7:1.[14] The entire episode in Mark (and Matthew) is peculiar in its realia by Jesus seeking figs from a fig tree when it was not the season for figs, for one would not find ripe, edible figs on a fig tree in the land of Israel around Passover. The early figs do not ripen for at least another month. Mark contains the editorial comment, “for it (ὁ γάρ) was not the season for figs,” absent in Matthew’s version of the story; thus, Mark portrayed Jesus as seeking to satisfy his hunger from the fruit of a fig tree at a time when edible figs were not found on it—then Jesus cursed the poor fig tree for its lack of edible fruit. The appearance of ὁ γάρ in Mark further suggests Mark’s editorial activity.[15] This seemingly indicates that Mark was the originator of the connection between Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree and his action in the Temple;[16] thus, if the cursing of the fig tree had a historical kernel, it likely occurred at a time of the year when one would find ripe figs upon a fig tree. By Mark’s relocation of the incident to the week before Passover, he created a strange account that fails to connect with the physical realia of the land.

In Mark, upon Jesus’ second venture into the city and the Temple, Jesus began to violently disrupt the economic activities of the Temple—even to the extreme of shutting down the Temple by not allowing “anyone to carry anything through the Temple” (Mark 11:16). Neither Matthew nor Luke agrees with Mark’s presentation of Jesus’ actions within the Temple as his shutting down the Temple completely—a significant Matthean-Lukan agreement against Mark. What in Luke is a protest against the commercialization, and corruption, of the sacred Temple by the chief priests, in Mark, because of Jesus’ shutting down of the Temple, becomes an indictment against the Temple itself.

Luke’s account reads in a terse straightforward manner that upon careful inspection does not betray serious editorial revision (Luke 19:45-46: just 25 words compared to Mark’s 65 and Matthew’s 45). In fact, Luke’s account of the events within the Temple lacks any mention of violence on Jesus’ part. Rather, Jesus’ actions parallel those of his contemporaries, who, like him, saw God’s judgment upon the Temple priests as an inevitable result of the priests’ unrighteousness (cf. Jeremiah’s similar prophetic outburst against the First Temple). Jesus’ actions in Luke are similar to those of Jesus the son of Ananias whom Josephus describes as “a rude peasant” who, in 62 C.E., standing within the Temple precincts, predicted its destruction (War 6.300ff.). His prediction of the destruction of the Temple relied upon allusion to Jeremiah 7, the same chapter that stood at the heart of Jesus’ critique. Some of the leading citizens, most likely the Sadducean high priestly families who ruled the Temple, arrested Jesus the son of Ananias and handed him over to the Roman governor Albinus, and he, like Jesus of Nazareth, refused to answer the governor’s queries and was subsequently beaten.

Scholars have rarely paid attention to the absence of violence within Luke’s presentation of the episode within the Temple. Traditionally, New Testament scholars have interpreted Luke’s “…and began to drive out [ἐκβάλλειν] those who were selling things there” (Luke 19:45) under the influence of Mark’s explicitly violent presentation of the episode: “…and [he] began to drive out [ἐκβάλλειν] those who were selling and those who were buying in the Temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the Temple” (Mark 11:15-16). However, the appearance of ἐκβάλλειν in Luke need not be understood within the same vein as Mark’s presentation. Moreover, Luke (cf. also Matthew’s account) was unfamiliar with Mark’s description of Jesus’ shutting down the Temple. Joseph Fitzmyer is right to question the historicity of such an action, but Fitzmyer fails to note that Jesus’ shutting down of the Temple appears only in Mark and is not preserved in Matthew and Luke. Nevertheless, he rightly comments:

Denial of the historicity [of the Purging of the Temple, Luke 19:45-46] stems mainly from the inability to explain how Jesus as a single individual could have cleaned out the great Court of the Gentiles of the sellers and money changers who did business there with the permission of the Temple authorities and succeeded in it without opposition or at least the intervention of the Temple police. How could he have prevented the court from being used as a thoroughfare for transporting objects (Mark 11:16)? There is, in the long run, no way of answering this question, valid though it may be; we just do not know how Jesus might have done it.[17]

Again, Fitzmyer’s a priori reading of Luke under the influence of Mark prevents him from recognizing Luke’s independent account of the episode that upon close inspection is free of any Markan tendenz. Regarding Jesus’ closure of the Temple in Mark’s Gospel, is it possible that here again, as with the episode of the cursing and withering of the fig tree, one finds Mark’s sectarian outlook influencing his literary reshaping of his sources?

Mark’s presentation of the events of the Temple cleansing proves problematic because it creates the impression that Temple commerce took place within the Temple proper, or even within the “Court of the Gentiles” (where most New Testament commentators place this event) as opposed to outside in the greater Temple complex near the entrance to the Huldah Gates. Mark’s description of Jesus as not permitting anyone to carry anything “through the Temple” places Jesus’ actions upon the Temple mount within the sacred precincts themselves. The stalls of merchants along the southern part of the western wall of the Temple mount have been recently excavated. Here, pilgrims coming from within and without the land of Israel could purchase sacrificial animals and birds or exchange money with money changers who provided the Tyrian coin required for the payment of the annual half-shekel tax. These stalls were located near the southern entrance used by pilgrims known as the Huldah Gates (cf. m. Middot 1.3), or pilgrims could easily access the arched stairway, known today as Robinson’s Arch that led into the Royal Stoa, which occupied the southern stretch of the Temple mount. Pilgrims could not enter the Temple courts via the Royal Stoa. No selling was permitted within the Temple courts, including the Temple’s outer court. A prohibition existed forbidding anyone carrying a purse upon the Temple platform (m. Ber. 9.5), which raises strong objections to the historical quality of Mark’s narrative, and suggests that his version of the event underwent an editorial reworking at his hands.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ actions within the Temple is usually subjected to the editorial bias of Markan priorists; this is primarily evident in the reading given to the word ἐκβάλλειν in Luke’s text: “…and [Jesus] began to drive out those who were selling things there” (Luke 19:45). Flusser has drawn attention to the fact that the Greek word ἐκβάλλειν possesses the nuance “to take out, remove,” a nuance found elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Mark 1:12), “without any connotation of force.”[18] In the Lukan account of the events, Jesus does not use force, but simply removes the sellers through his quotation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Mark, and Matthew following him, understood the word ἐκβάλλειν in its more common meaning of “to drive out” implying force.[19] Possibly, Mark expanded the violent aspect of his text in a midrashic manner based upon the fuller context of Jeremiah 7. Jesus quoted a portion of Jeremiah 7:11, “…but you have made it a den of robbers [מְעָרַת פָּרִצִים].” Mark possibly expanded his presentation of the events under the influence of Jeremiah 7:15: וְהִשְׁלַכְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מֵעַל פָּנָי. The Septuagint translated the Hebrew verb הִשְׁלִיךְ with the Greek verb ἀπορίπτειν. Could Mark have been influenced by Jeremiah 7:15 to read ἐκβάλλειν in a more violent sense giving such a characterization to the events in the Temple? If Mark’s text is part of a midrashic expansion, it also seems possible that Zechariah 14:21, “On that day there shall no longer be any merchant in the house of the LORD of hosts,” influenced Mark’s portrayal of this episode, and possibly encouraged his sectarian impulse to depict Jesus as effectively shutting down the Temple.

Furthermore, accepting the trilingual (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek) character of the land of Israel in the first century and allowing that the canonical Gospels rest upon Greek sources derived from Semitic originals, it is possible that behind the Greek word ἐκβάλλειν in Luke’s text is the Hebrew לְהוֹצִיא meaning “to take out” or “bring out” (cf. Josh 6:22), as originally suggested by Lindsey. Even though the Septuagint regularly used ἐκβάλλειν to translate the Hebrew גֵּרֵשׁ, it did translate לְהוֹצִיא with ἐκβάλλειν four times (2 Chron 23:14; 29:5, 16 [twice]). Accepting the historical order of the Gospels as Luke, Mark, Matthew, John, as proposed by Lindsey, it is difficult to deny the growing degree of violence in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ action in the Temple until, finally, John depicts Jesus as braiding a whip, which he used to drive the sheep and the cattle from the Temple courts, scattering the coins of the money changers and overturning their tables (John 2:13-16). Apparently, the developing presentation of Jesus’ actions in the Temple as violent entered into the Gospel tradition at the Greek level; moreover, by recognizing this, one may rightly conclude that Luke not only is independent of Mark in his account, but preserves the more primitive version of the events, which originally contained no violence.

The phenomenon of increasing violence in the developing Synoptic tradition appears elsewhere in the Gospels—namely, in Luke 21:12-13 = Mark 13:9 = Matthew 24:17-18. In this instance, however, the violence is not perpetrated by Jesus, but rather, there is an anticipated growing level of violence against his disciples.

Luke 21:12-13 Mark 13:9 Matthew 24:17-18
They will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake.
They will deliver you up to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake.
They will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake.

Luke’s version of this saying, while acknowledging coming troubles, lacks any mention of the beatings and floggings that are found in Mark and Matthew, whose versions quite possibly reflect the struggles of the early Jesus movement toward the end of the first century.

Jesus’ actions at the Temple parallel those of another Jesus who in 62 C.E. predicted the destruction of Jerusalem’s Temple (War 6.300ff.). In addition to their common pronouncement against the Temple due to the corruption of the priesthood, both of these figures couched their pronouncements by appealing to the vocabulary of Jeremiah 7. Jesus the son of Ananias standing in the Temple began to cry out: “A voice from the east, a voice from the west, a voice from the four winds; a voice against Jerusalem and the sanctuary, a voice against the bridegroom and the bride,[20] a voice against all the people.” Both of these first-century prophets of doom alluded to the words of Jeremiah spoken against the corruption of the First Temple to elucidate their message against the corruption of the Second Temple. Jesus of Nazareth included with his citation of Jeremiah 7:11 a citation of Isaiah 56:7. Frequently, rabbinic exegetes combined two distant and unrelated texts because of a common word or phrase shared by the two texts. As Joseph Frankovic has suggested, Jesus was familiar with a version of the text of Jeremiah 7:11 that reads בֵּיתִי, as attested by the Septuagint, as opposed to הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה, the Masoretic reading.[21] If this suggestion is correct, then Jesus likely combined these two passages based on the shared lemma בֵּיתִי. Furthermore, it was common for a sage to quote a single word or phrase from a passage of the Hebrew Bible intending to allude to the entire context of the passage (cf. Jesus’ allusion to Ezek. 34 in Luke 19:10). Apparently, Jesus’ intended, by quoting Jeremiah 7:11, which culminated in the cutting off of the priesthood, to recall the entire context of Jeremiah 7 in order to punctuate his pronouncement.[22]

The terse character of the citations preserved in Matthew and Luke, as opposed to Mark’s fuller and clumsier citation of Isaiah 56:7, betrays a rabbinic sophistication lacking in Mark’s form of the citation where he added the phrase “for all the nations” (Mark 11:17). Moreover, Mark’s presentation of Jesus’ citation as a question posed in a teaching session, “And he taught, and said to them, ‘Is it not written?’” seems out of place in this context, especially a context that depicts Jesus’ actions as part of a violent outburst against those in the Temple (Mark 11:15-16).

A careful literary and philological analysis of the episode of the Cleansing of the Temple reveals Mark’s editorial style. His narrative betrays secondary sectarian and midrashic expansions that uncover Mark’s ideology and theological agenda, but shed little light on the historical events behind his narrative. Moreover, a careful analysis of the Synoptic tradition in this episode displays Luke’s independence of Mark’s editorial biases and pen. Also, Luke’s narrative presents a picture that appears to better reflect the historical events behind the Gospel presentations. Having carefully analyzed Markan editorial style and techniques in his account of the Temple Cleansing, we now turn to a second example from the last week of Jesus’s life where a similar Markan editorial reworking can be detected revealing the secondary quality of Mark’s narrative.

“For they no longer dared to ask him another question”

In the Synoptic tradition the phrase, “For they no longer dared to ask him another question” (Matt. 22:46; Mark 12:34; Luke 20:40), appears in three consecutive pericopae (Aland 281-283). The three Gospels agree in placing the phrase within the context of the events of Jesus’ last week, and each of the Evangelists places the phrase at the conclusion of a series of disputes between Jesus and the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Luke placed the phrase at the conclusion of the “Question about the Resurrection” (Luke 20:27-40). Mark positioned the phrase at the end of the discussion of the “Great Commandment” (Mark 12:28-34), and Matthew used it to conclude the “Question about David’s Son” (Matt. 22:41-46). David Flusser called this example from the Synoptic Gospels the clearest illustration of the Synoptic relationship.[23]

Only the placement of this phrase as it appears in Luke makes sense within the overall literary context of the events leading up to it. In Luke the phrase concludes a series of disputes Jesus had with the Sadducean priestly authorities culminating in the question concerning the resurrection (cf. Luke 20:1, 19-20, 27). In its Lukan context the phrase, “For they no longer dared to ask him another question,” provides a fitting conclusion to a strong interchange between Jesus and the Sadducean priests.

Mark, however, placed the phrase at the conclusion of the discussion of the “Great Commandment” (כְּלָל גָּדוֹל; cf. Matt. 22:36). The nature of the phrase, “For they no longer dared to ask him another question,” assumes a dispute conflict, yet in the discussion of the “Great Commandment” there is no conflict between Jesus and the questioning Pharisaic scribe. In fact, to the contrary, the “Great Commandment” discussion portrays one of many points of agreement between Jesus and the sages of Israel. Mark’s peculiar placement of this phrase is accentuated by the scribe’s expansive repetition of Jesus’ comments about the “Great Commandment” (Mark 12:32-34a). Significantly, Matthew omitted both the scribe’s expansive repetition as well as Mark’s statement, “For they no longer dared to ask him another question” (Mark 12:34b). Luke placed the discussion of the “Great Commandment” in a context outside of Jesus’ last week (Luke 10:25-37). Luke likewise lacks in the “Great Commandment” pericope, as does Matthew, the Markan repetitive expansion by the scribe and the inclusion of the concluding “For they no longer dared to ask him another question.” The appearance of this phrase in Mark’s Gospel appended to the discussion of the “Great Commandment” reflects Mark’s secondary expansion of the episode: we once again see Mark’s rewriting of his source material while Luke preserves a more coherent form of the events.

Matthew’s placement of the phrase, “For they no longer dared to ask him another question,” at the conclusion of the “Question about David’s Son” turned Matthew’s version of this pericope into a conflict story even though Mark and Luke agree that the “For they no longer dared to ask him another question” phrase grew out of teaching Jesus gave.[24] In Matthew, however, this phrase was added to a question posed by Jesus to the gathered Pharisees (see Matt. 22:41-45). By altering the context of this pericope, Matthew possibly followed Mark’s lead in changing an episode that originally lacked a conflict to one in which Jesus was brought into conflict with his Jewish contemporaries—a secondary trait of the Gospel tradition; however, Matthew did not follow Mark in his placement of the phrase, “For they no longer dared to ask him another question.”

It does not seem likely that the original setting of Jesus’ question regarding the son of David was a conflict or dispute. In Luke’s account the question, “How can they say that the Messiah is the descendant [lit., “son”] of David?” apparently reflects the common rabbinic launching of a lesson with a question, or riddle. The sages commonly introduced a lesson with a question that would be answered either by another question from the sage or from one of his disciples. Frequently, these questions derived from a riddle posed by the sage to his disciples surrounding an apparent contradiction in a biblical passage. In this instance, Jesus’ question was precipitated by the apparent contradiction in the description of the Messiah as the descendant of David, while David, the supposed author of Psalm 110, described the Messiah at the time of his writing as “lord” (אֲדֹנִי). Furthermore, the question posed by Jesus as preserved in Luke, “How can one say?” (or, “How is it possible to say?”), literally, “How can they say?” (with an indefinite subject), contains a Hebraism: the third-person, plural form of the active participle employed to avoid using a passive construction.[25] Luke’s version of this episode appears culturally and linguistically authentic, while Matthew’s account is a secondary reworking of his material.

Only the placement of the phrase, “For they no longer dared to ask him another question,” as preserved in Luke fits the logical context of the disputes between Jesus and the Sadducean priestly aristocracy. Both Mark’s and Matthew’s placements of this phrase bear the marks of secondary rewriting, turning non-confrontational episodes into conflict stories. As with Mark’s version of the story of Jesus’ visit to the Temple during Jesus’ last week, Mark’s placement of the phrase, “For they no longer dared to ask him another question,” reveals Mark’s penchant for extensive rewriting and reworking of his material.


Mark’s account of Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple and his placement of the Cursing of the Fig Tree display a secondary reworking by Mark of his material. Likewise, Mark’s movement of the summary phrase, “For they no longer dared to ask him another question,” to the conclusion of the discussion of the “Great Commandment” changed this episode into a conflict story, producing a difficult and incongruous reading. In describing Jesus’ actions in the Jerusalem Temple and in the placement of the floating summary statement, Mark betrays his tendency for rewriting and restructuring his source material. Strikingly, in both instances, Luke preserves a terser, more original form of the text that is independent of Mark’s rewriting. Mark’s editorial reworking of his material, in contrast to Luke’s (and at times, Matthew’s) superior preservation of early material, is a significant challenge to modern New Testament scholarship’s usual reliance upon Mark as the principle source for reconstructing the life and teachings of the historical Jesus. While this study has only examined two examples of Mark’s editorial style, scholars have noted other examples of the secondary nature of Mark’s text, particularly in his account of the events of Jesus’ last week.[26] Furthermore, some scholars have already noted that in many instances where Mark’s editorial hand has restructured his story, Luke preserves a more primitive form of the account—independent of Mark’s influence. Synoptic scholars need to reevaluate Mark’s editorial style and acknowledge that, frequently, a theological agenda influenced his rewriting. The importance of this reevaluation for future Gospel and Historical Jesus studies cannot be overestimated.

  • [1] This article appeared in Jesus’ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels (Volume 1) (ed. R. S. Notley, M. Turnage and B. Becker; Leiden: E. J. Brill, ISBN 9789004147904, 2006), 211-224. Jerusalem Perspective wishes to thank Koninklijke Brill NV for permission to publish the article in electronic format. A longer form of the article was published in 2004 as Selected Examples of Rewriting in Mark’s Account of Jesus’ Last Week.
  • [2] William Lockton, “The Origin of the Gospels,” Church Quarterly Review 94 (1922): 216-239 [Click here to read a reissue of this article on JerusalemPerspective.com]. Lockton subsequently wrote three books to substantiate his theory: The Resurrection and Other Gospel Narratives and The Narratives of the Virgin Birth (London: Green and Co., 1924); The Three Traditions in the Gospels (London: Green and Co., 1926); and Certain Alleged Gospel Sources: A Study of Q, Proto-Luke and M (London: Green and Co., 1927).
  • [3] Robert L. Lindsey, “A Modified Two-Document Theory of the Synoptic Dependence and Interdependence,” Novum Testamentum 6 (1963): 239-263; now reissued as A New Two-source Solution to the Synoptic Problem. Lindsey’s theory postulates four non-canonical documents, all of which preceded the Synoptic Gospels in time, two that were unknown to the Evangelists—the original Hebrew biography of Jesus and its literal Greek translation—and two other non-canonical sources known to one or more of the Gospel writers; see Lindsey, “Conjectured Process of Gospel Transmission,” Jerusalem Perspective 38 & 39 (May-Aug. 1993): 6.
  • [4] Priority of composition order does not necessarily imply originality. Although he suggested that the order of the writing of the Synoptic Gospels was Luke-Mark-Matthew, Lindsey observed that on various occasions Matthew and Mark (although Mark less frequently) preserved the earliest form of the Gospel account.
  • [5] M. H. Segal, “Mishnaic Hebrew and Its Relation to Biblical Hebrew and to Aramaic,” JQR 20 (1908-1909): 647-737. See also Segal’s, A Grammar of Mishnaic Hebrew (Oxford, 1927).
  • [6] In the Triple Tradition there may be as many as 1,500 Matthean-Lukan minor agreements, and a similar number of Matthean-Lukan agreements in omission (where Matthew and Luke agreed in omitting words found in Mark’s account).
  • [7] Obviously, for these examples to be compelling, it would be necessary to integrate them into a fuller treatment of the Synoptic Gospels.
  • [8] The word περιβλέπειν has a profile that Robert Lindsey classified as “a Markan stereotype”; see his, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark (2nd ed.; Jerusalem: Dugith Publishers, 1973), 57-63. The word appears six times in Mark (Mark 3:5, 34; 5:32; 9:8; 10:23; 11:11), but only once in the rest of the New Testament (Luke 6:10, parallel to Mark 3:5).
  • [9] David Flusser, Jesus (3d. ed.; Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2000), 237-250.
  • [10] Ibid.; see also Flusser’s article in the present volume.
  • [11] Philo, Prob. 75; Josephus, Ant. 18.19 (see Louis H. Feldman’s note [Note a] to 18:19 in Josephus [LCL; London: William Heinemann Ltd., and Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927-1965]); CD 4.15-18; 5.6-7; 6.11-13: “For the desert sectaries of Qumran, the Temple of Jerusalem was a place of abomination; its precincts were considered polluted, its priests wicked, and the liturgical calendar prevailing there, unlawful,” E. Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ [175 B.C.–A.D. 135] (ed. G. Vermes, F. Millar, and M. Black; 4 vols.; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1979), 2:582. (See also 2:535, 570, 588-589).
  • [12] V. Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark (London: Macmillan, 1955), 459; F. W. Beare, The Earliest Records of Jesus (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962), 206; and R. Steven Notley, “Anti-Jewish Tendencies in the Synoptic Gospels, ” Jerusalem Perspective 51 (Apr.-Jun. 1996): 25.
  • [13] R. Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (trans. John Marsh; Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963), 218.
  • [14] Ibid., 230-231. A. Robin also suggested Micah 7:1, “The Cursing of the Fig Tree in Mark XI. A Hypothesis,” NTS 8 (1961/62): 276-281.
  • [15] Lindsey, in a personal communication. See Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark, 460. According to the Babylonian Talmud (b. Ta‘an. 24a), R. Yose’s son commanded a fig tree “להוציא פירותיה שלא בזמנה” (to put forth fruit out of season).
  • [16] “One theory is that Mark was the first to link this with the entry into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the temple, there being no original connection with these events. If this is so, it is superfluous to ask whether Jesus could expect to find edible fruits on the tree in spring-time at the Passover,” Claus-Hunno Hunzinger, “συκῆ,” in TDNT (vol. 7; ed. G. Friedrich; trans. G. W. Bromiley; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), 756.
  • [17] J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (AB 28a; Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1981-1985), 1264. For a discussion of the historicity of Jesus’ dramatic action in the Temple, see Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, 164-169. Evans comments, “Recent research in the historical Jesus has by and large come to accept the historicity of the temple demonstration” (166).
  • [18] Flusser, Jesus, 138, especially note 8.
  • [19] Cf. W. Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (4th ed.; trans. W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 236-237.
  • [20] An allusion to Jeremiah 7:34: “Then I will make to cease…from the streets of Jerusalem the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride; for the land will become a ruin.”
  • [21] Joseph Frankovic, “Remember Shiloh!,” Jerusalem Perspective 46/47 (1994): 25-29.
  • [22] Ibid.
  • [23] Personal communication.
  • [24] While Mark’s version of this episode does not necessarily suggest a confrontation, the placement of Jesus’ question on the Temple mount where he had already been in conflict with the religious authorities, as well as Jesus’ question directed toward the scribes, could suggest to a subsequent reader that the encounter was part of a dispute. Possibly, Matthew’s altering of the nature of this event grew from such a reading of Mark. Nevertheless, Luke’s version lacks any sense of conflict; rather, its nature is that of a teaching session between a sage and his disciples—an acceptable reading of the Markan version, as well.
  • [25] The Greek text of Luke 20:41 can easily be reconstructed into idiomatic Hebrew: וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם כֵּיצַד אוֹמְרִים שֶׁהַמָּשִׁיחַ בֶּן דָּוִד.
  • [26] See C. H. Dodd, “The Fall of Jerusalem and the ‘Abomination of Desolation,’” in More New Testament Studies (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), 83; Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark, see, e.g., p. 511; idem, Behind the Third Gospel: A Study of the Proto-Luke Hypothesis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1926); idem, The Passion Narrative of Luke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972); J. Jeremias, New Testament Theology (London: SCM, 1987), 40; Flusser, “The Crucified One and the Jews,” Judaism and the Origins of Christianity, 575-587; idem, “A Literary Approach to the Trial of Jesus,” Judaism and the Origins of Christianity, 588-592; idem, “Who is it that struck you?,” Judaism and the Origins of Christianity, 604-609.

Jesus and the Enigmatic “Green Tree”

The above image, courtesy of Gary Asperschlager, shows olive trees growing near the Church of All Nations on the Mount of Olives.
Revised: 19-Apr-13

How did a Jew in Jesus’ time announce that he was the Messiah? One accomplished this by applying to himself words or phrases from Scripture that were interpreted by members of his community to be references to the coming Messiah. Being interpretations rather than direct references, such messianic allusions are extremely subtle, and easily missed by modern readers of ancient Jewish literature. Claimants certainly did not reveal themselves by simply declaring, “I am the Messiah,”[1] as we moderns might expect. Rather, ancient messianic pretenders, such as, for instance, Bar Kochva, informed contemporaries of their messianic identity by referring to themselves with titles acknowledged to refer to one or more of the exalted figures described in Scripture.[2]

Jesus made bold messianic claims when he spoke. To thoroughly understand these claims, however, we must get into a time machine and travel back in time to a completely different culture, the Jewish culture of first-century Israel. We must acculturate ourselves to the way teachers and disciples in the time of Jesus communicated through allusions to Scripture.

Members of Jewish society in Jesus’ day maintained a high degree of biblical literacy. Consequently, rabbinic teachers and their disciples frequently communicated by using a word or phrase extracted from a passage of Scripture. For example, John the Baptist sent his disciples to Jesus to ask the question: “Are you ‘the Coming One [ὁ ἐρχόμενος (ho erxomenos = הבא]’?” (Matt 11:3 = Luke 7:19), an allusion to Zechariah 9:9 and Malachi 3:1. Jesus responded, “Go tell John…,” etc., an answer that alluded to passages from chapters 29, 35, 42 and 61 of Isaiah.

Jesus’ world was a world of messianic hopes and fervor. Biblical words and phrases were employed to express these hopes, and messianic pretenders put forward their claims by drawing upon Scriptures that had been interpreted messianically. The following are a few of the messianic titles used by Jesus and his disciples to refer to him.

Messianic Titles Used by Jesus to Refer to Himself[3]

1. Son of Man. Jesus used “Son of Man”[4] more frequently than any other messianic appellation. It is probably the most supernatural messianic title in Scripture, more supernatural, even, than “Son of God”! Why? Because the context (Dan. 7) in which “Son of Man” appears is such a heavenly, supernatural scene.

Jesus referred to himself as the “Son of Man” when he was interrogated by the elders and chief priests. They said: “If you are the Messiah, tell us.” He replied, “If I tell you, you won’t believe; and if I ask you, you won’t answer. But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the Power” (Luke 22:66-69). In his reply Jesus claimed to be both the “Son of Man” and David’s “Lord.”

“Son of Man” is a reference to the messianic “Cloud Man” of Daniel 7:13: “And behold, one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought him near before him.” “Seated at God’s right hand” is a reference to David’s “Lord” of Psalms 110:1: “The LORD said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand till I make your enemies your footstool.’” In more straightforward language, what Jesus said was: “Henceforth I will be sitting at God’s right hand.”

The Zacchaeus episode is another of the many places where we find the title “Son of Man” in the mouth of Jesus. Jesus declared: “Today salvation has come to this house, since he [Zacchaeus] also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man has come to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9-10; RSV). By alluding to Daniel 7:13-14, Jesus claimed to be the “one like a son of man.”

2. Seeker and Saver of the Lost. In his words to Zacchaeus, Jesus made an even bolder claim: “I am the Seeker and Saver of the Lost,” an allusion to the “Shepherd of the Lost Sheep” in Ezekiel 34. This was an extremely bold claim because it is God who is described in Ezekiel 34 as the “Shepherd of the Lost Sheep.” Since in Ezekiel 34 it is God who declares that he will “seek and save and rescue his sheep,” Jesus’ words, “I have come to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10) appear to be an imitation of God’s words. To understand just how bold this claim is, we must look at a few verses of Ezekiel 34, noticing the frequency of the phrase “seek and save”:

The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say to them…the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought…; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them…because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves…no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them. For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them outAs a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so will I seek out my sheep; and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered…. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed… I will save my flock, they shall no longer be a prey…. I, the LORD, have spoken.” (Ezek. 34:1-24; RSV; italics the author’s)

When Jesus alluded to Ezekiel 34 by using the words “seek and save the lost,” his audience, many of whom knew most of the Hebrew Scriptures by heart, and who knew chapter 34 was the classic “seek and save” passage, realized instantly to which biblical passage he was alluding, and understood the implications of his declaration. Jesus was saying: “I am the ‘Shepherd.’ I am the ‘Prince.’ I am ‘David.’”

Messianic Titles Used by Jesus’ Disciples to Refer to Him

1. Righteous One. Like many messianic titles, this title is, first of all, God’s title. It is God who is “the righteous one.” For example, in Isaiah 45:21 God is referred to as “a righteous [צַדִּיק, tzadiq] God and savior.” But it also becomes the designation of God’s “servant” and “king”: “My righteous [צַדִּיק] servant makes the many righteous” (Isa. 53:11; JPS); “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous [צַדִּיק] Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jer. 23:5; RSV); “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous [צַדִּיק] and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech. 9:9: NIV).

An olive tree growing on the slopes of the Hinnom Valley west of the Old City of Jerusalem. Photograph courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.

Apparently, הַצַּדִּיק (“the Righteous One”) became one of the most popular and common ways of referring to Jesus after his death by the early community of believers. Peter told the crowd gathered in the Temple: “But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you.”[5] Stephen responded to his interrogation by the high priest: “Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered.”[6] Ananias of Damascus tells Saul that God has chosen him to see the Righteous One (ὁ δίκαιος; i.e., Jesus) and to hear his voice (those words of Jesus that Paul had heard on his way to Damascus).[7] The author of 1 John writes: “My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin; but if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous.”[8]

2. Prince. A well-planned, and initially successful revolt against the Romans broke out in Judea in 132 A.D. The name of the revolt’s leader was שמעון בר כוסבא (Shim‘ōn bar [Son of] Kōsba’) in Aramaic, and שמעון בן כוסבה (Shim‘ōn ben [Son of] Kōsbah) in Hebrew, written in Greek as Χωσιβα (Kosiba). Rabbi Akiva declared him the promised Messiah and, in a pun on his name, called him בר כוכבא (Bar Kochba, Son of a Star), an allusion to Numbers 24:17, ‏דָּרַךְ כּוֹכָב מִיַּעֲקֹב וְקָם שֵׁבֶט מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל (“A star rises from Jacob, A scepter comes forth from Israel”; JPS), a passage that was understood by Akiva’s contemporaries to refer to the Messiah. In rabbinic sources, Ben Kosbah is sometimes called בר כוכבא (Bar Kochba), but usually referred to as בן כוזבה and בר כוזבא (Ben/Bar Kozba[h], Son of a Lie, i.e., a liar), a pun on his name created by those who opposed him, and by those who were plunged into despair by his defeat at the hands of the Romans in 135 A.D.

In his letters and on the coins he minted, Bar Kochva added the title נְשִׂיא יִשְׂרָאֵל (Nesi’ Yisrāēl, Prince of Israel).[9] Since Scripture says in Ezekiel 34:24 that “my servant David will be prince among them” and in 37:25 that “David my servant will be their prince forever,” it was understood that the “LORD’s servant David”—itself a messianic reference—would be “prince.”

The word נָשִׂיא (nāsi’, “prince”) brought to mind powerful messianic associations linked with the prophecies of Ezekiel 34 and 37, where “prince,” רֹעֶה (ro‘eh, “shepherd”), צֶמַח (tzemaḥ, “plant”), עֶבֶד (‘eved, “servant”), דָּוִד (dāvid, “David”), מֶלֶךְ (melech, “king”), and שֹׁפֵט (shofēt, “judge”) were brought together, “Prince” being the most powerful of these images.

As noted above, in Ezekiel 34 God replaces the shepherds of Israel, himself becoming the shepherd of his people (vs. 11), seeking and saving the lost sheep (vss. 16, 22), becoming a judge (vss. 17, 20, 22), and placing over his people one shepherd, “my servant David” (vs. 23) who would be a prince among them (vs. 24). In this chapter of Ezekiel, we find the “seek and save the lost” that Jesus uses, as well as a connecting of the titles “David,” “Servant” and “Prince.” In Ezekiel 37 God promises to gather the Israelites back to the land of Israel (vs. 21): “They will be my people, and I will be their God. My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd…and David my servant will be their prince forever” (Ezek. 37:23-25; NIV).

The messianic title “prince” is used perhaps once in the New Testament to refer to Jesus. In Acts 5:31, “Peter and the apostles” responded to the high priest’s questioning in these words: “God exalted him [Jesus] to his own right hand as Prince [ἀρχηγός, archēgos] and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel” (NIV).[10]

Attempting to Unravel the “Green Tree” Enigma

I would like to suggest an additional messianic title: “Green Tree.” Although no other messianic figure in ancient Jewish history is known to have adopted this title, it appears that Jesus applied it to himself.

As a teenager I read the words “green tree” in the Gospel of Luke and they made no sense to me. I inquired of every passing pastor and Bible professor about the verse’s meaning, but never received what was, to my mind, a satisfactory answer. The translations of English Bibles I checked did not dispel my confusion. To this day, Luke 23:31 has remained my candidate for “Jesus’ Most Enigmatic Saying.”

In the late 1960s, several years after arriving in Israel, I sat reading Franz Julius Delitzsch’s nineteenth-century Hebrew translation of the New Testament. As I read Luke 23:31, I was surprised to discover that Delitzsch had not translated the expression “green tree” with עֵץ יָרוֹק (‘ētz yārōq)[11] or עֵץ רַעֲנָן (‘ētz ra‘anān),[12] as I had assumed based on my knowledge of modern Hebrew, but had translated with עֵץ לַח (‘ētz laḥ). The adjective לַח (“green” in the sense of “fresh, freshly cut, supple or limber, moist, full of sap”)[13] is found six times in the Bible, but only twice together with עֵץ (‘ētz, tree)—in Ezekiel 17:24 and 20:47. The opposites, עֵץ לַח (“green tree”, “live tree”) and עֵץ יָבֵש (‘ētz yāvēsh, dry tree, “dead tree”), or any other opposite expressions that could be translated “green tree/dry tree” or “green wood/dry wood,” appear together in the Hebrew Scriptures only in Ezekiel 17:24 and 20:47. This situation allows us to narrow to only two the passages to which Jesus could have been alluding.

A ladder leads up to into the branches of an olive tree growing in the Hinnom Valley west of the Old City of Jerusalem. Image courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.

The expression עֵץ לַח (‘ētz laḥ) is translated by the Septuagint as ξύλον χλωρόν (xūlon chlōron, “green tree”) in Ezekiel 17:24 and 20:47, the only two places in Scripture where עֵץ (‘ētz) and לַח (laḥ) appear together and laḥ modifies ‘ētz.[14] In the Septuagint the adjective χλωρός (xloros, green [color], green herb) appears with ξύλον (xūlon) only three times: in our two Ezekiel passages, and in Exodus 10:15 (“nothing green was left on the trees”).[15] In Luke 23:31, however, Jesus says, ὑγρόν ξύλον (hūgron xūlon, “moist tree”). The adjective ὑγρός (hūgros, “aqueous,” “moist,” “supple,” “with sap”) never occurs with ξύλον in the Septuagint, proof that Luke could not have gotten this Hebraism from the Septuagint.[16] Rather, it is a sourcism, that is, a Hebraism Luke copied from a written source.

In other words, a different adjective was used to translate the conjectured לַח (lakh) in Luke 23:31 than in the Septuagint’s translation of Ezekiel 17:24 and 20:47. The translators of the Septuagint used χλωρός (xloros), but Luke has ὑγρός (hygros). On the assumption that there is a Hebrew undertext for Luke 23:31, Luke’s ὑγρός is a more dynamic translation of the Hebrew לַח than χλωρός. In any case, Luke’s ὑγρόν ξύλον (hūgron xūlon) was not copied from the Septuagint.[17]

The Context of Jesus’ “Green Tree” Saying

Jesus, followed by Simon of Cyrene, who has been forced by the Roman soldiers to carry the cross upon which Jesus would be nailed, trudges toward Golgotha and his death by crucifixion.[18] A great crowd of Jewish people follows Jesus, including women who beat their breasts and wail in grief at the awful spectacle (Luke 23:26-27). Turning to these women, Jesus says:

Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.” Then they will begin to say to the mountains, “Fall on us”; and to the hills, “Cover us.” For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry? (Luke 23:27-31; NRSV)

Ezekiel 17:22-24, the context of the first of the two references to עֵץ לַח (‘ētz laḥ) in the Hebrew Scriptures, does not seem to fit the context of Jesus’ saying.

Thus said the Lord GOD: Then I in turn will take and set [in the ground a slip] from the lofty top of the cedar; I will pluck a tender twig from the tip of its crown, and I will plant it on a tall, towering mountain. I will plant it in Israel’s lofty highlands, and it shall bring forth boughs and produce branches and grow into a noble cedar. Every bird of every feather shall take shelter under it, shelter in the shade of its boughs. Then shall all the trees of the field know that it is I the LORD who have abased the lofty tree and exalted the lowly tree, who have dried up the green tree [עֵץ לַח (‘ētz laḥ); Septuagint: ξύλον χλωρὸν (xūlon chlōron)] and made the withered tree [עֵץ יָבֵש (‘ētz yāvēsh); Septuagint: ξύλον ξηρόν (xūlon xēron)] bud. I the LORD have spoken, and I will act. (Ezek. 17:22-24; JPS)

However, Ezekiel 20:45-21:7, the context of the second of the two references to עֵץ לַח (‘ētz laḥ) in the Bible, is strikingly similar to the context of Jesus’ saying. In a prophecy against Jerusalem and its Temple, Ezekiel refers allegorically to “green tree” and “dry tree.” One must read Ezekiel’s prophecy in full to realize the full import of Jesus’ words in Luke 23:31.

The word of the LORD came to me: O mortal, set your face toward Teman, and proclaim to Darom, and prophesy against the brushland of the Negeb. Say to the brushland of the Negeb: Hear the word of the LORD. Thus said the Lord GOD: I am going to kindle a fire in you,[19] which shall devour every tree of yours, both green [עֵץ לַח; (‘ētz laḥ); Septuagint: ξύλον χλωρὸν (xūlon chlōron)] and withered [עֵץ יָבֵש (‘ētz yāvēsh); Septuagint: ξύλον ξηρόν (xūlon xēron)].[20] Its leaping flame shall not go out, and every face from south to north shall be scorched by it. Then all flesh shall recognize that I the LORD have kindled it; it shall not go out. And I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! They say of me: He is just a riddlemonger.”[21]

Then the word of the LORD came to me:[22] O mortal, set your face toward Jerusalem and proclaim against her sanctuaries[23] and prophesy against the land of Israel.[24] Say to the land of Israel: Thus said the LORD: I am going to deal with you! I will draw My sword from its sheath, and I will wipe out from you both the righteous and the wicked.[25] In order to wipe out from you both the righteous and the wicked, My sword shall assuredly be unsheathed against all flesh from south to north; and all flesh shall know that I the LORD have drawn My sword from its sheath, not to be sheathed again. (Ezek. 20:45-21:5 [= Ezek. 21:1-10]; JPS)

In Ezekiel’s allegorical prophecy against Jerusalem and its Temple, the “green tree” symbolizes the righteous, and the “dry tree” the wicked.[26] Ezekiel prophesied that a forest fire started by God would sweep through the forests of the Negeb, its heat so intense that even the green trees (live trees) would be destroyed. Jesus prophesied that just as “the green tree” (he, the righteous one) was being put to death, so they (“the dry tree,” the unrighteous ones) would be destroyed.

Because the contexts of Luke 23:31 and Ezekiel 20:47 are so strikingly similar, it is probable that Jesus’ reference to “green tree” is an allusion[27] to the “green tree” of Ezekiel 20:47, and if so, that Jesus is making a messianic statement. Although this messianic title is unique, it is not unlike other messianic titles he claimed (for example, “Son of Man”).

Perhaps Jesus’ use of “green tree” is even more sophisticated than it at first appears. Since the עֵץ לַח (‘ētz laḥ, green tree) of Ezekiel 20:47 is explained in Ezekiel 21:3-4 as an allegory for the צַדִּיק (tzadiq, righteous person), by claiming to be “the Green Tree,” Jesus also claimed he was the messianic “Righteous One.”

Is “Green Tree” a Messianic Title?

Few English translators of the Bible have indicated any assumption that Jesus’ words ὑγρόν ξύλον (hūgron xūlon) are an allusion to Ezekiel 20:47’s עֵץ לַח (‘ētz laḥ, “green tree”), many translators rendering the expression with “green wood.”[28] Furthermore, few New Testament commentators have suggested that the expression “green tree” in Luke 23:31 could be a reference to Ezekiel 20:47,[29] much less that it could be a messianic title.

A terraced olive grove on the Mount of Olives east of the Old City of Jerusalem. Photograph courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.

In rabbinic works, there is never an indication that the expression עֵץ לַח in Ezekiel 20:47 is a messianic title.[30] In fact, in all of the vast corpus of rabbinic literature, there is perhaps only one reference to the עֵץ לַח of Ezekiel 20:47.[31] עֵץ לַח is mentioned eleven other times in rabbinic literature (e.g, Gen. Rab. 53.1), but the reference is always to Ezekiel 17:24 (“I dry up the green tree”), and not to Ezekiel 20:47.[32]

Although there is little scholarly support, and even less support from rabbinic literature, nevertheless, my assumption that Jesus employed Ezekiel’s “green tree” as a messianic allusion is not without logical basis:

  1. The juxtaposing in Luke 23:28-31 points to the conclusion that Jesus used “green tree” as a messianic title: “But Jesus turning to them said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children…If they do this to the green tree, what will happen to the dry [tree]?’” “Me” (Jesus) is contrasted with “yourselves [daughters of Jerusalem] and your children” in verse 28; and “green tree” is contrasted with “dry tree” in the continuation (vs. 31). Thus, in this four-part, double parallelism, “me” (1) is equal to “the green tree” (3), and “yourselves and your children” (2) is equal to “the dry [tree]” (4).[33]
  2. The addition of “the” to “green tree” is evidence that Jesus was creating a title: “I am the green tree,” that one, the one in Ezekiel 20:47. The article in the Greek text of Luke 23:31 indicates that Jesus made “green tree” definite when he spoke to the women. Apparently, he said הָעֵץ הַלַּח (hā‘ētz halaḥ, “the green tree”) in order to put forward a messianic claim. By the addition of “the,” Jesus turned “green tree” into a messianic title in the same way that he turned “son of man” (Dan. 7:13) into the messianic title “the Son of Man.”
  3. Although circumstantial evidence only for Jesus’ use of Ezekiel’s “green tree” as a messianic allusion, since Jesus’ scriptural allusions are often messianic claims, we should consider the possibility that by the use of “green tree” Jesus claimed to be the Messiah of Israel. When he taught, he frequently claimed to be the Messiah.[34] Here, in Luke 23:31, as in many other contexts, Jesus may have taken advantage of the particular situation in which he found himself to make a messianic claim, in this instance, “I am the green tree of Ezekiel 20:47.” If so, “Green Tree” would be one additional early rabbinic messianic title.

The Saying’s Hebraisms

Perhaps one reason translators and commentators have struggled with Jesus’ “green tree” saying is due to the density of Hebrew idioms in its Greek: Εἰ ἐν τῷ ὑγρῷ ξύλῳ ταῦτα ποιοῦσιν, ἐν τῷ ξηρῷ τί γένηται; (“Ιf in the green tree these things they do, in the dry what will be?”).

1. they. If we assume a Hebrew undertext for this saying, “they” probably does not refer to specific individuals, but is the well-known Hebraic impersonal usage.[35] The third-person plural active of the Hebrew verb can be employed to avoid a passive construction. We have this same impersonal style used elsewhere by Jesus, for example: “If they have called the Master of the House ba’al zebul…. (Matt 10:25). In Luke 23:31, the phrase “if they do these things in the green tree” would then mean “if these things are done in the green tree.”

2. do in. The Greek text reads, literally, “Ιf in the green tree these things they do….” To “do in” is a Hebrew idiom that means to “do something injurious to.” Some translators, those of the Revised Standard Version, for instance, attempted to make sense out of this verse by translating, “For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”[36] Apparently, these translators assumed that Jesus intended, “in the time of the green wood.”[37] The same “do in” idiom occurs in Matthew 17:12 in a reference to John the Baptist: ἐποίησαν ἐν αὐτῷ ὅσα ἠθέλησαν (“They did in him whatever they pleased,” that is, “They did to him whatever they pleased.”)[38] For some reason, in this John the Baptist context, the idiom “do in” has not caused most translators any trouble.

3. how much more. In this saying Jesus employed the “If…how much more…” pattern, that is, argument from simple to complex.[39] Like other sages, he used argument a fortiori (simple-to-complex reasoning) a good deal in his teaching. Called kal vahomer in Hebrew because the term kal vahomer (“how much more”) usually appears in examples of such reasoning, it was a central rabbinic principle of interpretation. Although the words “how much more” do not appear in the saying, that is its gist: “If they are doing this to me, how much more will they do this to you.”[40]

Jesus employed simple-to-complex logic in at least three other teachings. When speaking about the sin of being anxious about material things, Jesus said: “If thus God clothes grass in the fields, which is here today and tomorrow is used to stoke an oven, how much more can he be expected to clothe you, O men of little faith” (Matt 6:30). When speaking of God’s great care for his children, he said: “If you, then, who are bad, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more your father in heaven will give good gifts to those who ask him” (Matt 7:11). And finally, when speaking of his disciples’ fate, he said: “If they have called Ba‘al ha-Bayit Ba‘al Zevulhow much more the sons of his house” (Matt 10:25).[41]

It appears that in order to translate Luke 23:31 correctly, not only must one be familiar with Hebrew idioms, one also must be familiar with rabbinic methods of scriptural interpretation. In his very rabbinic way, using the kal vahomer rabbinic interpretive principle, Jesus hints at a passage in the Hebrew Scriptures.

4. tree. The singular עֵץ (‘ētz), like many other Hebrew nouns, can have a plural sense, as it does in Ezekiel’s allegory: “See! I am kindling a fire in you that shall devour all trees, the green as well as the dry” (Ezek. 20:47; NAB; italics mine).[42] This grammatical peculiarity of the Hebrew language makes it possible for Jesus to make a messianic claim using the singular ‘ētz (“tree”) of Ezekiel 20:47 in referring to himself, a single individual.[43]

Literary Parallels to Jesus’ Saying

Yose ben Yoezer (ca. 150 B.C.), one of the earliest sages mentioned in rabbinic literature, was not only a great scholar, but also was referred to as the “most pious in the priesthood” (m. Hagigah 2:7). He said: “If so much is done to those who are obedient to His will, how much more shall be done to those who provoke Him!” Although not a messianic claim, Yose be Yoezer’s statement is amazingly similar to Jesus’ “green tree” saying. Even more amazing is the context of his saying:

The sages say that during a time of religious persecution a decree was issued for the crucifixion of Jose ben Joezer. Jakum of Serorot, the nephew of Jose ben Joezer of Seredah, rode by on a horse, as Jose ben Joezer, bearing the beam for the gallows [i.e., cross], was going forth to be hanged [i.e., crucified]. Jakum said: “Look at the horse that my master [i.e., the king] gives me to ride, and look at the horse [i.e., the cross] that thy Master [i.e., God] gives thee to ride!” Jose ben Joezer replied: “If so much is given to such as thee who provoke Him, how much more shall be given to those who obey His will!” Jakum asked: “Has any man been more obedient to the will of God than thou?” Jose ben Joezer replied: “If so much is done to those who are obedient to His will, how much more shall be done to those who provoke Him!” (Midrash Psalms 11:7; trans. Braude)

Yose’s saying, and its context, too, are similar to Jesus’ saying and its context. Yose was bearing his own cross to the place of his execution. His response (in mixed Hebrew-Aramaic) to his mocking nephew is structurally identical to Jesus’ response to the wailing women of Jerusalem. Furthermore, Yose’s response contains the key words kal vahomer (how much more).[44]

Another surprisingly similar rabbinic parallel to Jesus’ “green tree” saying is found in the rabbinic work Seder Eliyahu Rabbah: אם אש אחזה בלחים מה יעשו יבשים (“If fire has taken hold of the green [trees?], what will the dry [trees?] do?”).[45] Like Jesus’ short saying, this saying appears to be a reference to Ezekiel 20:47! The saying helps to strengthen the probability that proverbs similar to Jesus’ were current.[46] Just as in Jesus’ saying, the rabbinic saying has the words לַח (green, or moist), יָבֵש (dry), although the two adjectives are in the plural, and the third-person future plural active of the verb “do.” Braude and Kapstein translate: “In regard to severe punishment for minor sins, the Sages said, [citing a popular proverb]: If fire seizes what is moist, what may one expect it to do to what is dry?[47] Braude and Kapstein note neither the Ezekiel 20:47 parallel nor the Luke 23:31 parallel.

Rav Ashi (d. 427 A.D.) once asked a certain orator how he would eulogize him at his funeral. The orator replied: “If a flame among the Cedars fall (אם בארזים נפלה שלהבת), what avails the lichen on the wall (מה יעשו איזובי קיר)?” (b. Moed Katan 25b [Engl. trans., Soncino, p. 160]). The structure of this rabbinic saying is the same as that of Jesus’ “green tree” saying. As in Jesus’ saying, the words “how much more” do not appear, but that is the rabbinic saying’s sense. The lofty cedars (saints) were often compared with the lowly lichen (ordinary people).[48]

The above rabbinic parallels to Luke 23:31 were not discovered recently. They have been available to modern scholarship since at least 1924 when they were noted and translated to German by Hermann Strack and Paul Billerbeck in their monumental commentary on the New Testament, which was illustrated with parallels from rabbinic and related literature.[49] An earlier compiler of rabbinic parallels to the New Testament, John Lightfoot, did not mention any of the above rabbinic parallels to Luke 23:31, but did give Matthew 3:10 as a parallel. It is worth quoting Lightfoot’s comment on Luke 23:31 in its entirety:

Consult John [the] Baptist’s expression, Matt. iii. 10; “Now also the axe is laid to the root of the tree,” viz., then when the Jewish nation was subdued to the government of the Romans, who were about to destroy it. And if they deal thus with me, a green and flourishing tree, what will they do with the whole nation, a dry and sapless trunk?[50]

Nunnally has cataloged the references to “green tree” in the Dead Sea Scrolls.[51] One especially interesting parallel to Jesus’ “green tree” saying is found in the Thanksgiving Scroll, usually considered to date from the first century B.C.: “…then the torrents of Belial will overflow all the high banks like a devouring fire…destroying every tree, green or dry (kol ‘ētz laḥ veyāvēsh).”[52] In this passage we have the עץ לח (“green tree”), and the אש (’ēsh, “fire”) that אוכלת (’ōchelet, literally, “eats”; i.e., “devours,” “burns up”) that also are found in Ezekiel 20:47. Nunnally argues convincingly that this “green tree” reference is an allusion to Ezekiel’s “green tree,” and refers not to plants, but allegorically to human beings.

A beautiful parallel to Jesus’ “green tree” saying is found in 1 Peter:

…yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God. For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? And “If the righteous man is scarcely saved, where will the impious and sinner appear? [Prov. 11:31]” (1 Pet. 4:16-18; RSV)

The pertinent words are: “If it [judgment] begins with us [the righteous], what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God [the sinners].” This text likewise shows that the structure “If this is done to the righteous, what will happen to the unrighteous” was frequently used in Jewish circles in the first century A.D.

The relevance of the above literary parallels to Jesus’ “green tree” saying is immense. We find sayings in the Dead Sea Scrolls, elsewhere in the New Testament, and in rabbinic literature that are similar structurally and linguistically to Jesus’ saying. We also find a saying from long before Jesus’ time (in the Thanksgiving Scroll) that apparently alludes to the “green tree” of Ezekiel 20:47, as well as a saying from long after his time (in the rabbinic Seder Eliyahu Rabbah) that alludes to the same scripture. These literary parallels are evidence that both before and after the period when Jesus taught, the “green tree-dry tree” motif was in circulation among Jews in the land of Israel. It is probable that Jesus was not the only Jewish teacher or author to employ it. Nevertheless, Jesus gave it an innovative twist, and it is likely that he used it to remind those present during his march to the cross that he was the promised Messiah of Israel. Such a conclusion has ramifications, for example: if it is true that during this moment of intense mental anguish and physical pain, Jesus’ employed the “green tree” motif  to stress his messiahship, then it cannot be true that by this moment in his life he had already realized his messianic pretensions had come to naught. We can assume that Jesus viewed his death as an integral part of his messianic mission. Jesus had not been disillusioned by his arrest, scourging, and the prospect of a cruel death, but marched to Golgotha confident of his divinely ordained task.


Besides prophesying to the weeping women, Jesus makes a messianic claim by referring to himself as “The Green Tree.” This deduction is based on the saying’s context and Jesus’ habit of making a messianic claim when alluding to Scripture.

On his way to be crucified, Jesus does not ignore these wailing women. He looks into the future and sees the terrible destruction that within a little more than a generation would sweep down on Jerusalem, engulfing these women and their children! Like Ezekiel, Jesus is heartbroken:

And you, O mortal, sigh; with tottering limbs and bitter grief, sigh before their eyes. And when they ask you, “Why do you sigh?” answer, “Because of the tidings that have come.” Every heart shall sink and all hands hang nerveless; every spirit shall grow faint and all knees turn to water because of the tidings that have come. It is approaching, it shall come to pass—declares the Lord GOD. (Ezek. 21:6-7 [= Ezek. 21:11-12]; JPS)

The women who viewed the ghastly scene wept for Jesus. If they only had known what the future would bring, they would have wept for themselves. “Don’t weep for me,” Jesus said, “weep for yourselves. If they do this to me, what will they do to you?” In other words, if this is done to the Righteous, the one who is the “Green Tree” of Ezekiel 20:47, what will happen to the “dry trees,” ordinary sinners? The “dry trees” would face the same fate at the hands of the Romans, and an even worse fate.

We could paraphrase Jesus words to the women as follows: “If this is happening to me, the green tree, one can only imagine with horror what awaits you and your loved ones. If this is done to me, if I am being burned up, what hope is there for you? If this can happen to the Messiah, the Righteous, the Innocent, what will be your fate?”[53]

Amazingly, despite his extreme weakness and physical pain, Jesus had the presence of mind to show concern for those around him: he warned the wailing women by giving a prophecy containing a subtle allusion to the book of Ezekiel. In his words to the women, Jesus spoke with rabbinic sophistication, couching his words in Hebraic parallelism and employing a fortiori reasoning. In addition, he also may have been making a bold messianic claim, applying to himself the title “the Green Tree.”

  • [1] Even today a Jew who believes he is the Messiah never says, “I am the Messiah,” but rather, a messianic pretender refers to himself using words or phrases from scripture texts that have been interpreted messianically.
  • [2] See my “‘Prophet’ as a Messianic Title.”
  • [3] For other messianic titles employed by Jesus, see David Flusser, “Son of Man: Post-Biblical Concept,” Encyclopaedia Judaica 15:159; David Flusser, “Messiah: Second Temple Period,” Encyclopaedia Judaica 11:1408-10).
  • [4] For example, in Matt 25:31-34. See Randall Buth, “Jesus’ Most Important Title.”
  • [5] Acts 3:14 (RSV).
  • [6] Acts 7:52 (RSV).
  • [7] Acts 22:14; cf. “My righteous servant (צַדִּיק עַבְדִּיי) makes the many righteous, It is their punishment that he bears” (Isa. 53:11; JPS).
  • [8] 1 Jn. 2:1 (RSV).
  • [9] We find this title on official documents and coins of Ben Kosbah’s short-lived administration. Some of the coins Ben Kosbah minted bear the image of a star above the Temple facade.
  • [10] Ἄρχων (arxōn) is the usual translation of נָשִׂיא (nāsi’, “prince”) in the Septuagint, 93 times out of ἄρχων’s 134 occurrences; however, ἀρχηγός twice translates נָשִׂיא (Num. 13:2; 16:2).
  • [11] יָרוֹק (yārōq, “green thing”) occurs only once in the Hebrew Bible: Job 39:8. It is never found with Hebrew words for “tree” or “wood.”
  • [12] The word רַעֲנָן (ra‘anān, “green,” “leafy,” “verdant”) appears 20 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, usually (9 times) in the expression עֵץ רַעֲנָן (‘ētz ra‘anān, verdant tree); however, עֵץ רַעֲנָן is never translated in the Septuagint using either the adjectives χλωρός (as in Ezek. 17:24 and 20:47), or ὑγρός (as in Luke 23:31), but rather by other Greek adjectives meaning “shady, leafy.”
  • [13] As in the description of Jacob’s freshly cut rod (Gen. 30:37).
  • [14] The noun ξύλον (xūlon) is the Septuagint’s usual translation of עֵץ. This mid-second-century B.C. translation of the Hebrew Scriptures renders עֵץ by ξύλον 252 times, and by δένδρον (dendron) only 16 times. Ξύλον appears 20 times in the New Testament (6 times with the meaning “tree”; 5 times with the sense “clubs”; 4 times with the sense “cross”; and 3 times with the sense “wood.” Δένδρον shows up 32 times in the Septuagint, but only in 16 of these occurrences is δένδρον the translation of the Hebrew noun עֵץ. Δένδρον appears 25 times in the New Testament, always in the sense of “tree.”
  • [15] Of the six occurrences of לַח in the Hebrew Bible, ὑγρός is twice (Jdg. 16:7, 8) the Septuagint’s translation of לַח, and χλωρός is three times (Gen. 30:37; Ezek. 17:24; 20:47) its translation. Ὑγρός appears only one time in the New Testament, in Luke 23:31. Ὑγρός appears 6 times in the Septuagint: twice in Jdg. 16:7 and 16:8, where both times it is the translation of לַח’s plural, laḥim; once in Job 8:16, where it is the translation of רָטֹב (rāṭov); and once in Ben Sira 39:13, where there exists no Hebrew equivalent.
  • [16] Nunnally states: “Despite the fact that the gospel writer [Luke] usually employs the Septuagint…the language of [Luke] 23:31 is not borrowed from this source” (Nunnally, “From Ezekiel 17:24 and 21:3 to Luke 23:31.
  • [17] Luke’s ὑγρόν ξύλον (hūgron xūlon) is an example of a “Lukan non-Septuagintalism,” that is, a Hebrew expression found in the Gospel of Luke that is not also found in the Septuagint. Luke’s ὑγρόν ξύλον demonstrates Luke dependence on a Semitized Greek source that was independent of the Septuagint, and is evidence against the mistaken notion that when Luke’s account displays a Hebraism, that Hebraism must be a borrowing from the Septuagint.
  • [18] For examples of other Jews who were put to death by crucifixion, see Brad H. Young, “A Fresh Examination of the Cross, Jesus and the Jewish People,” in Jesus’ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels (ed. R. S. Notley, M. Turnage and B. Becker; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2005): 192-200.
  • [19] Cf. Jer. 21:14, “I will punish you according to the fruit of your doings, says the LORD; I will kindle a fire in her forest, and it shall devour all that is round about her” (RSV).
  • [20] Notice the intensity of the fire: it burns up the “green” trees, the live trees, with the “dry” trees, the dead trees. When a forest fire rages, the heat often becomes so intense that it explodes the living trees. The fire rages on, and the “green” trees do not halt the spread of the fire.
  • [21] In other words, someone complained about Ezekiel’s prophecy, saying: “Listen, stop prophesying in allegories. Tell us plainly what you mean.”
  • [22] Now comes the explanation of the allegory. For a similar allegory accompanied by its interpretation, see Ezek. 23:1-4, and following: “The word of the LORD came to me: O mortal, once there were two women, daughters of one mother. They played the whore in Egypt; they played the whore while still young. There their breasts were squeezed, and there their virgin nipples were handled. Their names were: the elder one, Oholah; and her sister, Oholibah. They became Mine, and they bore sons and daughters. As for their names, Oholah is Samaria, and Oholibah is Jerusalem” (JPS).
  • [23] Notice how Ezekiel inveighs against Jerusalem’s sanctuaries. Jesus had the same bone to pick with the Temple authorities of his day, the Sadducean high priestly families.
  • [24] In this prophetic explanation we learn that the three synonyms for “south” (TemanDarom and Negev) in the allegory refer, respectively, to “Jerusalem,” “Jerusalem’s temples” and “the land of Israel.”
  • [25] At this point, we learn that “green tree” and “dry tree” of the allegory represent “the righteous” (צַדִּיק, tzadiq), and “the wicked” (רָשָׁע, rāshā‘). Likewise, in the Psalms the righteous is compared to a tree: “He is like a tree planted beside streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, whose foliage never fades, and whatever it produces thrives” (Ps. 1:3; JPS; cf. Jer. 17:8).
  • [26] An interesting parallel is found in Deut. 29:19 (29:18): סְפוֹת הָרָוָה אֶת הַצְּמֵאָה (“the destruction of the moist with the dry”). The Septuagint renders הָרָוָה (“the moist”) as ὁ ἀναμάρτητoς (“the innocent”), and הַצְּמֵאָה (“the dry”) as ὁ ἁμαρτωλός (“the sinner”). NAB: “the watered soil and the parched ground.”
  • [27] Like other sages of his time, Jesus hinted at passages of Scripture by allusion rather than by quoting directly. A teacher was able to make such sophisticated allusions since his audience knew Scripture by heart.
  • [28] The word for “tree” in both Greek (ξύλον), and in the corresponding Hebrew (עֵץ), can sometimes have the sense “wood,” and at other times the sense “tree.” If, in Luke 23:31, the reference to Ezekiel is not assumed, a translator can mistakenly render “wood” where the sense is “tree.” This error was made frequently in English versions of the Bible. The following translations rendered “wood” instead of “tree”: RSV; NKJV; NRSV; NAB; REB; ESV; JB; NJB; TEV; CEV; CJB; PHILLIPS; MOFFATT; GOODSPEED; NET; MLB; AMP (“timber”); Charles B. Williams; Charles Kingsley Williams; and Templeton. Fitzmyer’s translation of Luke 23:31 is: “For if this is what is done with green wood, what will happen to the dry?” (Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke [AB 28A and 28B; Garden City: Doubleday, 1981, 1985], 1493). Green translates, “For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke [NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997], 813). Beare also translates ξύλον as “wood” rather than “tree” (Francis Wright Beare, The Earliest Records of Jesus [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962], 236-37), as does Nolland (John Nolland, Luke [WBC 35A-35C; Dallas: Word Books, 1989-1993], 1138).
  • [29] More than a century ago Plummer pointed out this reference, commenting: “In Ezek. xxi. 3 [xx. 47] we have ξύλον χλωρόν and ξύλον ξηρόν combined; but otherwise there is no parallel [to Luke 23:31]” (Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke [ICC; 5th ed.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1896], 530). Manson also noted the reference: “Jesus sees a suffering which calls more than his own for tears. The corroborative ‘For if this is what they do when the wood is green, what will they do when the wood is dry?’ recalls Ezekiel xx. 47, and may be proverbial” (William Manson, The Gospel of Luke [MNTC; London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1930], 259). Nunnally has argued strongly for the connection between Luke 23:31 and Ezek. 20:47 (= MT: 21:3) (W. E. Nunnally, “From Ezekiel 17:24 and 21:3 to Luke 23:31: A Survey of the Connecting Jewish Tradition” (May 14, 2009). Fitzmyer does not mention a possible reference to Ezek. 20:47 and to its “green tree,” but rather states, “Jesus compares himself to damp, soggy wood, difficult to kindle, and some aspect of the ‘daughters of Jerusalem’ to dry wood, easily combustible” (Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke, 1498). Green also does not see a possible reference to Ezekiel. Shockingly, he apparently interprets the “they” of verse 31 as referring to “those who rejected Jesus” rather than to the Roman authorities: “If they treated Jesus in this way, how will they be treated for instigating his execution?” (Green, The Gospel of Luke, 816). Beare, too, does not note the reference to Ezekiel, writing: “The contrast of green and dry wood does not seem appropriate to a comparison of the Crucifixion with the national disaster of A.D. 70; in itself, it suggests rather a contrast between the brutality with which some minor uprising was suppressed and the unbridled savagery that must be expected when the authorities have to deal with a serious outbreak” (Beare, The Earliest Records of Jesus, 236-37). Nolland mentions that earlier authorities (unnamed) have compared Jesus’ proverb with Ezek. 20:47 as well as Ezek. 17:24, 24:9-10 and various other Scriptures, but opines that “our text is not clearly dependent on any of these” and suggests that these Scriptures “create a presumption in favor of ἐν = ‘in the case of’” (Nolland, Luke, 1138).
  • [30] In updating my thinking regarding Jesus’ “green tree” saying (Luke 23:31), I have the opportunity to correct an error that has existed, unfortunately, for some 25 years. On p. 68 of Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus (2d rev. ed.; Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image, 1983, 1994), I, and my co-author, Roy B. Blizzard, wrote: “Jesus applied to himself the title ‘Green Tree.’ This was a rabbinic way of saying ‘I am the Messiah’…an expression interpreted by the sages in Jesus’ day as a messianic title.” (See also our discussion of “green tree” on pp. 82-84.) In our youthful exuberance, we overstated our case.
  • [31] In Seder Eliyahu Rabbah [ed. Fried.] 14 [13], p. 65. See the discussion below under “Literary Parallels to Jesus’ Saying.”
  • [32] In these eleven references, עֵץ לַח is interpreted as “Peninnah,” “the wives of Abimelech,” “the breasts of the women of the Gentile nations,” “Abimelech,” and “Belshazzar.” The expression עֵץ לַח does not appear in the Hebrew fragments of Ben Sira. However, it does appear in a passage from the Dead Sea Scrolls (see below).
  • [33] The women and children, representing the population of Jerusalem, are likened by Jesus to the unrighteous, the dry trees, because they are residents of this city of political and religious corruption, which included the city’s high priestly mafia. See my “Evidence of an Editor’s Hand in Two Instances of Mark’s Account of Jesus’ Last Week?Jesus’ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels, 219.
  • [34] Notice that the last sentence of teaching by Jesus often has messianic implications (for example, Luke 2:49; 4:21; 12:10; 19:10, 44; 20:18; 22:37, 69; Matt 9:6 = Mark 2:10 = Luke 5:24; Matt 9:15 = Mark 2:19-20 = Luke 5:34-35; Matt 10:25; Matt 11:4-6 = Luke 7:22-23; Matt 11:27 = Luke 10:22; Matt 12:30 = Luke 11:23; Matt 12:41 = Luke 11:31-32; Matt 23:39 = Luke 13:35; Matt 24:28 = Luke 17:37).
  • [35] “Impersonal use of 3rd plur. act. in place of passive. This is usual in Hebrew…as well as Aramaic….” (James Hope Moulton, Wilbert Francis Howard and Nigel Turner, A Grammar of New Testament Greek [4 vols.; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1908-1976], 3:447). “The subject ‘they’ is impersonal” (Manson, The Gospel of Luke, 259).
  • [36] Also rendering with “when” are: NRSV; NAB; REB; ESV; TEV; CEV; CJB; PHILLIPS; MOFFATT; GOODSPEED; NET; AMP; Charles B. Williams; Charles Kingsley Williams; and Templeton. Rendering with “when” and “wood” are: RSV; NKJV; NRSV; NAB; REB; ESV; TEV; CEV; CJB; PHILLIPS; MOFFATT; GOODSPEED; NET; AMP; Charles B. Williams; and Charles Kingsley Williams.
  • [37] Only a handful of versions render the “do in” idiom in Luke 23:31 correctly: GWORD (“If people do this to a green tree, what will happen to a dry one?”); MESSAGE (“If people do these things to a live, green tree, can you imagine what they’ll do with deadwood?”); NJB (“For if this is what is done to green wood, what will be done when the wood is dry?”); The Modern Language Bible: The New Berkeley Version (“For if they do this to the green wood, what will happen to the dry?”). The MLB’s comment on this verse (p. 92, note k) is impressive: “Here Jesus used what was evidently a current proverb, meaning that if the Romans had mistreated and condemned Him to death (the green tree—i.e., an innocent person), what would they later do to the guilty (the dry tree)?” Although this version renders “wood” rather than “tree,” surprisingly, it mentions only “tree” in its notes. Apparently, there was not adequate coordination between the translator and the commentator who added the significant comment. Gerrit Verkuyl, the editor-in-chief of the 1945 and 1959 editions of the MLB translation, indeed informs us in his Preface that, “The notes below the translation are not necessarily in every case those of the translator; some of these were supplied by the editor-in-chief and his assistants” (The Modern Language Bible: The New Berkeley Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1969), v. We may assume this is one of the cases of which Verkuyl speaks. Here, Verkuyl and his assistants ignored their own version’s translation (“wood”) when they added their notes.
  • [38] We might reconstruct the hypothetical Hebrew behind ἐποίησαν ἐν αὐτῷ ὅσα ἠθέλησαν as עשו בו מה שרצו (‘āsū bō mah sherātzū).
  • [39] So Alfred Plummer (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke, 529. See my “Principles of Rabbinic Interpretation: kal vahomer.”
  • [40] Based on the assumption that a green (i.e., live) tree does not burn as easily as a dry (i.e., dead) tree.
  • [41] As in the “green tree” saying, here Jesus contrasted himself to others: “If I am being called ‘Satan,’ you [Jesus’ disciples] will certainly be called ‘Satan.’” In Hebrew, “son” is a synonym for “disciple.” Also here, as in the “green tree” saying, we find the Hebraic third-person plural active of the verb (“they have called”) employed to avoid a passive construction.
  • [42] The expression Jesus’ uses, “the green tree,” if derived from the Hebrew הַעֵץ הַלַח (ha‘ētz halaḥ), also can have a plural sense, “the green trees,” that is, trees in general; however, the plural sense is less probable in this context than “the Green Tree,” possibly a messianic claim.
  • [43] Without a clear context, English translators and commentators would find it difficult to distinguish between the two Greek words translated “green” (χλωρός and ὑγρός), and between the two meanings of the Greek word ξύλον, “wood” and “tree,” and between their conjectured possible Hebrew equivalents, עֵץ רַעֲנָן (ξύλον χλωρός, “green tree”) and עֵץ לַח (ὑγρόν ξύλον, “green tree”). However, when we look for potential Hebrew underneath the Greek of Luke 23:31, Jesus’ intent comes into focus.
  • [44] A variant version of the Yose ben Yoezer story is found in rabbinic literature in Genesis Rabbah 65:22.
  • [45] Seder Eliyahu Rabbah [ed. Fried.] 14 [13], p. 65.
  • [46] According to Craig Evans: “…on internal grounds there is no reason why the work [Seder Eliyahu Rabbah] could not have been compiled about 300 C.E.” (Craig A. Evans, Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies: A Guide to the Background Literature [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2005], 239).
  • [47] William G. Braude and Israel J. Kapstein, Tanna Debe Eliyyahu: The Lore of the School of Elijah (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1981), 187.
  • [48] The same structure is found in Ps. 11:3: כִּי הַשָּׁתוֹת יֵהָרֵסוּן צַדִּיק מַה־פָּעָל (“If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” [RSV]).
  • [49] Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch (6 vols.; Munich: C.H. Beck, 1922-1960), 2:263-64.
  • [50] John Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica: Matthew-1 Corinthians (London: Oxford University Press, 1859; repr. Hendrickson in 4 vols., 1989), 2:210.
  • [51] Nunnally, “From Ezekiel 17:24 and 21:3 to Luke 23:31.”
  • [52] 1QHa XI, 29-30.
  • [53] Note again the MLB comment on this verse (p. 92, note k): “…if the Romans had mistreated and condemned Him to death (the green tree—i.e., an innocent person), what would they later do to the guilty (the dry tree)?” Marshall’s translation is: “For if this is how the innocent suffer, what will be the fate of guilty Jerusalem?” (I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text [NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978], 862). Danker renders: “If God permits this to happen to one who is innocent, what will be the fate of the guilty?” (Frederick W. Danker, Jesus and the New Age: A Commentary on St. Luke’s Gospel [Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1988], 237).