LOY Excursus: Catalog of Markan Stereotypes and Possible Markan Pick-ups

The featured image is of a mosaic photographed in Jerusalem at the Dominus Flevit church on the Mount of Olives by Joshua N. Tilton.
Updated: 3-January-2018

This excursus, which is a work in progress, is an attempt to identify and collect certain redactional words and phrases characteristic of the editorial style of the author of Mark’s Gospel.[1]

Robert Lindsey believed that the Gospel of Mark is a highly edited epitome of Luke’s Gospel. One of the clues that led Lindsey to reach this conclusion was the recurrence of certain words in Mark that are difficult to translate to Hebrew. These un-Hebraic words and phrases interrupt the otherwise highly Hebraic quality of Mark’s Gospel. These words and phrases also appear with unusually high frequency in the Gospel of Mark, especially in comparison with the other Synoptic Gospels. Lindsey referred to such words as “Markan stereotypes.” The most well known of these stereotypes is εὐθύς (evthūs, “immediately”), which occurs 7xx in Matthew, 41xx in Mark and 1x in Luke. Lindsey further observed that the instances of εὐθύς in Matthew are always in parallel with instances in Mark, whereas the single instance of εὐθύς in Luke is not paralleled in Mark. Thus, the author of Matthew was clearly influenced by Mark’s use of εὐθύς, while Luke demonstrates independence from Mark and at the same time produces a more Hebraic text than what we have in Mark’s Gospel. For Lindsey this was one indication that the author of Mark used the Gospel of Luke as his source.[2] This catalog attempts to identify other examples of this kind.

Another indication that drew Lindsey to this conclusion was his observation that there are certain words and phrases employed by Mark that do not appear in the Lukan parallels but that the author of Luke utilized elsewhere in Luke and/or Acts.[3] Lindsey wondered why Luke would have avoided using these terms in parallel with Mark, if indeed the Gospel of Mark was the basis of Luke’s Gospel, as believed by Markan priorists. Lindsey further noted that these words and phrases are frequently rejected in the Matthean parallels as well. The Lukan-Matthean agreements against Mark to omit these phrases strongly suggested to Lindsey that they are foreign to the pre-synoptic tradition. Lindsey concluded that the best explanation for the strange phenomenon of Mark’s use of Lukan vocabulary in places where Luke’s parallel lacks the Lukan terminology is the author of Mark’s use of Luke-Acts as the primary source for his Gospel.

A good example of the phenomenon described in the above paragraph is the phrase τὸ εὐαγγέλιον (to evangelion, “the gospel”).[4] Lindsey observed that τὸ εὐαγγέλιον never appears in the Gospel of Luke, but it does occur twice in Acts: once in an address by Peter (Acts 15:7), and once in an address by Paul (Acts 20:24). In contrast to the Gospel of Luke, τὸ εὐαγγέλιον occurs in the Gospel of Mark 8xx. What is more, Luke and Matthew agree 4xx against Mark to omit τὸ εὐαγγέλιον,[5] and Matthew and Mark agree to use τὸ εὐαγγέλιον only once (Matt. 26:13 // Mark 14:9). Lindsey reasoned that it is unlikely that the author of Luke would have rejected τὸ εὐαγγέλιον while copying Mark, as must be assumed by those subscribing to the theory of Markan Priority, since Luke was willing to write τὸ εὐαγγέλιον at appropriate points in Acts. It is more likely, according to Lindsey, that the author of Mark chose to insert τὸ εὐαγγέλιον into his text while copying stories from Luke and that the author of Matthew often rejected τὸ εὐαγγέλιον because he did not find it in his parallel source, a source that Luke had utilized when composing his Gospel.[6]

Another example of this phenomenon is Mark’s use of ἐκτινάσσειν (ektinassein, “to shake off”) in Mark 6:11. Matthew followed Mark in the use of ἐκτινάσσειν (Matt. 10:14) in the phrase “shake off the dust,” whereas Luke, in his parallel, used the verb ἀποτινάσσειν (apotinassein, “to shake off”; Luke 9:5). Although the difference in vocabulary may initially seem insignificant, the variation becomes important when we discover that, in Acts, Luke used ἐκτινάσσειν for Paul’s wiping off the dust from his feet (Acts 13:51; cf. Acts 18:6).[7] Why would Luke have avoided ἐκτινάσσειν in Luke 9:5 if this verb had been in his source, especially since this is his preferred vocabulary for situations in which a person wipes the dust from his feet?[8] Lindsey suggested that in such situations Mark intentionally borrowed vocabulary from Acts in the course of rewriting Gospel stories in order to remind his audience how the stories of the later believers in Jesus resonate with Jesus’ own story. In so doing, Mark’s vocabulary sometimes became more Lukan than the Gospel of Luke. Lindsey coined the term “Markan pick-up” to describe the phenomenon of Lukan terminology appearing in the text of Mark. Further examples of this kind can be observed in the catalog below.

Lindsey also identified a clear motivation for the Markan pick-ups: the pick-ups were intended to echo the experiences of Jesus’ later followers in the stories the author of Mark told about Jesus. For instance, in the story of the paralyzed man, Matthew and Luke agree against Mark to use a word other than κράβαττος (krabattos, “pallet”) to refer to the paralyzed man’s bed (κλινίδιον in Luke; κλίνη in Matthew).[9] Lindsey noted that although κράβαττος never appears in Matthew or Luke, it is used twice in Acts (Acts 5:15; 9:33). The story of the paralyzed man in Mark 2 is similar to the story in Acts 9 of Peter’s healing of Aeneas. Likewise, the story in Mark 6 of the healing of many, where the people bring out the sick on pallets (ἐπὶ τοῖς κραβάττοις; Mark 6:55), is similar to the story in Acts 5 where the sick are brought out on cots and pallets (ἐπὶ κλιναρίων καὶ κραβάττων; Acts 5:15) in order to be healed by Peter. Lindsey believed that for the edification of his audience Mark imported the word κράβαττος from Acts into his versions of the Gospel stories about Jesus in order to allude to the similar experiences of Peter.

Having identified the phenomenon of Markan pick-ups from Luke-Acts, Lindsey later concluded that the author of Mark also picked up words and phrases from other sources, most notably from the Epistles of Paul and the Epistle of James.[10] For example, Lindsey noticed that only two places in the entire NT mention anointing the sick with oil: Mark 6:13 and James 5:14. Lindsey suggested that the author of Mark told a story about Jesus’ disciples anointing the sick with oil in order to reflect the practice of later followers as described in the Epistle of James. By means of the Markan pick-ups, the author of Mark was able to show continuity between Jesus’ story and the experiences of Jesus’ later followers, right up to the experiences of the communities for whom his Gospel was composed.[11]

As already mentioned, this catalog is a work in progress and is therefore not exhaustive. We will continue to add to the catalog as further Markan pick-ups and Markan stereotypes are identified in the course of our research for “The Life of Yeshua: A Suggested Reconstruction.” We also hasten to add that the catalog is not intended to be definitive: the catalog includes possible examples of Markan pick-ups for which there undoubtedly are alternative explanations. The purpose of the catalog is to collect in one place all the examples that might qualify as Markan pick-ups so that the cumulative effect of the phenomenon can be measured.

For a word or phrase to qualify as a possible Markan pick-up, it is not sufficient that the word or phrase in question appears, for example, in both Mark and Acts. It is also necessary to show that the word or phrase appears in contexts that are in some way similar, like the example of κράβαττος discussed above. We realize, of course, that the explanation itself does not constitute proof of Lindsey’s theory, however the more often a possible pick-up can plausibly be explained in this way, the more likely it becomes that Lindsey’s explanation is correct. It is, therefore, important to include examples of possible pick-ups that are not certain, since it is the cumulative effect that must be evaluated.[12] While it may be easy to dismiss any one example as random, or inconclusive, or explicable on other grounds, the cumulative evidence becomes more impressive. Thus, the catalog is not intended to prove that the author of Mark picked up words and phrases from Acts, the Pauline Epistles and the Epistle of James. The catalog’s purpose is rather to collect the raw data that supports Lindsey’s hypothesis so that the cumulative evidence can be considered and scholars can evaluate whether or not Lindsey’s hypothesis is convincing.[13]

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  • [1] See David N. Bivin and Joshua N. Tilton, “LOY Excursus: Mark’s Editorial Style.” For abbreviations and bibliographical references, see “Introduction to ‘The Life of Yeshua: A Suggested Reconstruction.’
  • [2] See Robert L. Lindsey, “Introduction to A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark,” under the subheading “The Markan Stereotypes.”
  • [3] Abbott remarked that there are several Markan words that are “rejected by Lk. in the Gospel but retained by him in…Acts.” See Edwin A. Abbott, The Corrections of Mark Adopted by Matthew and Luke (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1901), 113 n. 7. Foakes Jackson and Lake likewise noted that there are “several cases where a motif in the gospel of Mark is omitted by the parallel in the gospel of Luke only to reappear in Acts” (Foakes Jackson-Lake, 4:134). The cases Foakes Jackson and Lake cited include:

    • Acts 1:7 and Mark 13:23 (unparalleled in Luke); cf. Foakes Jackson-Lake 4:8.
    • Acts 5:15-16 and Mark 6:55-56 (unparalleled in Luke); cf. Foakes Jackson-Lake 4:54-55.
    • Acts 6:11-14 and Mark 14:56-64 (unparalleled in Luke); cf. Foakes Jackson-Lake 4:69.
    • Acts 9:40 and Mark 5:40 (cf. Luke 8:53); cf. Foakes Jackson-Lake 4:111.
    • Acts 12:4 and Mark 14:2 (cf. Luke 22:2); Foakes Jackson-Lake 4:134.
    • Acts 28:8 and Mark 1:31 (cf. Luke 4:39); cf. Foakes Jackson-Lake 4:343.

    Foakes Jackson and Lake considered this phenomenon to be the product of Luke’s dependence on the Gospel of Mark. Lindsey accounted for the same phenomenon by suggesting that the literary dependence flowed in the opposite direction: Mark embellished his gospel narratives with details from Luke-Acts. At the very least, this phenomenon is evidence that there is a direct literary relationship between Mark and Luke-Acts.

  • [4] See Robert L. Lindsey, “Introduction to A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark,” under the subheading “The Markan Stereotypes.”
  • [5] Luke and Matthew agree against Mark to omit τὸ εὐαγγέλιον at Matt. 4:17 and Luke 4:14 opposite Mark 1:14; Matt. 16:25 and Luke 9:24 opposite Mark 8:35; Matt. 19:29 and Luke 18:29 opposite Mark 10:29; Matt. 10:18 and Luke 21:13 opposite Mark 13:10.
  • [6] For an overview of Lindsey’s solution to the Synoptic Problem, see David N. Bivin and Joshua N. Tilton, “Introduction to ‘The Life of Yeshua: A Suggested Reconstruction.’
  • [7] For further evidence of editorial activity in Mark 6:11, note the Lukan-Matthean agreement to write τὸν κονιορτόν (ton koniorton, “the dust”; Luke 9:5 // Matt. 10:14) against Mark’s τὸν χοῦν (ton choun, “the dust”), as well as their agreement against Mark to omit τὸν ὑποκάτω (ton hūpokatō, “[that is] under”).
  • [8] See Cadbury’s comments on Acts 13:51 in Henry J. Cadbury, “Note XXIV: Dust and Garments” (Foakes Jackson-Lake, 5:269 n. 4).
  • [9] See Robert L. Lindsey, “Introduction to A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark,” under the subheading “Sources of the Markan Pick-ups”; idem, “My Search for the Synoptic Problem’s Solution (1959-1969),” under the subheading “Markan Pick-ups.”
  • [10] See Robert L. Lindsey, “Measuring the Disparity Between Matthew, Mark and Luke,” under the subheading “Further Proof of Mark’s Dependence on Luke”; idem, “From Luke to Mark to Matthew: A Discussion of the Sources of Markan ‘Pick-ups’ and the Use of a Basic Non-canonical Source by All the Synoptists.”
  • [11] On the pastoral function of the Markan pick-ups, see Joshua N. Tilton, “Reflections on Mark.”
  • [12] Climate scientists run into a similar problem when they are asked whether a particular storm is due to global climate change. While it is extremely difficult to definitely attribute any individual storm to global climate change, the cumulative evidence does show a pattern that there are more frequent and more powerful storms. If the scientists dismissed as evidence every storm that could not conclusively be proven to be the result of global climate change, they would never be able to see the overall pattern. Likewise, the cumulative examples of possible Markan pick-ups may indicate an overall pattern, but the overall pattern cannot be identified without documenting all of the possible pick-ups.
  • [13] Special thanks are due to Lauren Asperschlager who diligently checked all the Scripture references in the catalog.

A New Approach to the Synoptic Gospels

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

New or Modified Observations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Textual Criticism

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

Source Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal Encounter with the Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Secondary to Luke

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

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

An Early Hebrew Gospel Story

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


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

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

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

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

Form Criticism

Rudolf Karl Bultmann
Rudolf Karl Bultmann

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

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

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

Martin Dibelius
Martin Dibelius

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

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

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

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

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

Basic Errors of Scholarship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which Gospel, Matthew or Luke, has Mark used?

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

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

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

Karl Ludwig Schmidt and Form Criticism

Karl Ludwig Schmidt
Karl Ludwig Schmidt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark’s Unpopularity

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

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

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

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

The Theory of Markan Priority

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

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

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

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

A “Re-write Man”

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Understanding of Synoptic Interdependence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Markan Pick-ups

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

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

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

A Better Way Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sidebar by David Flusser: Who Was John Mark?

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

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

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

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

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

Rewritten Source

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Crucial Facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Measuring the Disparity Between Matthew, Mark and Luke

Revised: 26-Jan-2015

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

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

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

Working with Huck’s Synopsis

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


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

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







μετὰ ταῦτα


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Studying the Literature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collecting Further Evidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Markan Cross-Factor Diagram
Markan Cross-Factor Diagram

Search for the First and Third Writers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Proto-Luke Theory

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

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

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

Further Proof of Mark’s Dependence on Luke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elijah Prays About Rain

Elijah was a man of like nature with ourselves and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth its fruit. (James 5:17-18)[1]

Elijah: An Unlikely Example

Toward the end of his Epistle, James exhorts his readers to pray with faith for the healing of the sick. When we read that “the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” (James 5:16), we might have expected James to cite the example of Abraham.[2] Genesis 20:17 might have served as the perfect prooftext: “Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abimelech.” Citing Abraham as an example to prove that the prayer of faith offered by a righteous man is powerful would seem the obvious choice given the combination of faith and righteousness exhibited by Abraham (Gen. 15:6).[3] The example of Elijah that was provided by James, however, seems less obvious and more difficult. Less obvious because the example of Elijah does not fit James’ case very neatly—What, after all, do prayers about rain have to do with prayers for healing?—and more difficult, because what James relates about Elijah—that he actually prayed that the rains would cease, that the drought lasted for three and a half years, and that finally he prayed that the rains would return—is not actually reported in the Hebrew Bible. Clearly there is something strange about the example of Elijah that is offered by James. In this article we will examine James’ treatment of Elijah in the light of ancient Jewish sources and attempt to understand what lies behind the surprising claims that James makes about the famous prophet.

A Man of Prayer

The most shocking element with regard to James’ treatment of Elijah surely must be the assertion that Elijah prayed about rain. According to 1 Kings 17:1, Elijah swore an oath before King Ahab that there would be a drought in the land: “As the LORD the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word,” but we do not learn that any prayer was uttered by the prophet. Similarly in 1 Kings 18:41, after the contest with the priests of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel, Elijah merely announced to Ahab that the rains would return, “Go up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of the rushing of rain.” We do not read that the rains returned as a result of Elijah’s prayer. Thus while Scripture clearly indicates that it was Elijah who was responsible for the drought and, after three years, its cessation, in neither case does Scripture say that Elijah’s power over rain was in any way connected with prayer. Nevertheless, there are prayers that Scripture does attribute to Elijah. 1 Kings 17 reports how Elijah prayed on behalf of a widow’s dead son, and how, in response to his prayer, the child was restored to life. Elijah’s prayers are answered again in 1 Kings 18, when fire descends from heaven and consumes the offering on Mt. Carmel. Furthermore, it should be noted that from an early period there seems to be evidence that in Jewish tradition the number and importance of Elijah’s prayers was expanded. Already in the Wisdom of Ben Sira we read the following:

The prophet Elijah arose like a fire, and his word burned like a torch. He brought a famine upon them, and by his zeal he made them few in number. By the word of the Lord he shut up the heavens, and also three times brought down fire. How glorious you were, O Elijah, in your wondrous deeds! And who has the right to boast which you have? You who raised a corpse from death and from Hades, by the word of the Most High. (Sir. 48:1-5)

Although Ben Sira does not say that Elijah’s extraordinary deeds were accomplished by prayer, of those deeds that were accomplished by the “word of the Lord,” the raising of the widow’s son and the fire on Mt. Carmel certainly did involve prayer. Did Ben Sira understand that the shutting of the heavens and the calling of fire down upon King Ahaziah’s soldiers involved prayer as well? While it is impossible to say with certainty, it seems that Ben Sira believed that all of Elijah’s miraculous feats were accomplished via the same means, and we do know that later traditions attributed these miraculous deeds to prayer.

It is, perhaps, easiest to understand how Jewish tradition might attribute Elijah’s summons of fire to the power of prayer. The first time this miracle was accomplished by the prophet, Scripture records the words of Elijah’s prayer (1 Kgs. 18:36-37). When 2 Kings 1 reports how Elijah twice called down fire on King Ahaziah’s men, Jewish readers might naturally have assumed that Elijah accomplished these miracles too only by prayer, even though the biblical text does not explicitly say so. And indeed, in Josephus’ retelling of 2 Kings, he is careful to mention the role of prayer in the confrontation:

And, when the officer who had been sent found Elijah sitting on the top of a hill, he ordered him to come down and go to the king, saying that he had so ordered, and, if he refused, he would force him to go against his will. But Elijah said to him that to prove whether he was a true prophet he would pray for fire to fall from heaven and destroy both his soldiers and himself; and when he prayed, a whirlwind of fire came down and consumed both the officer and those with him. When the destruction of these men was reported to the king, he became very angry and sent against Elijah another officer with the same number of soldiers as he had sent with the first one. And when this one also threatened the prophet that he would seize him by force and take him away if he did not come down willingly, Elijah prayed against him, and a fire destroyed him as it had the officer before him. (Ant. 9.2.1 §23-24; italics mine)[4]

Elijah Prays For Rain

Elijah’s prayer for fire to descend on Mt. Carmel seems to have been important for the attribution of other prayers to Elijah as well. 1 Kings 18:37 records that as Elijah prayed for God to prove his supremacy over Ba‘al, the prophet pleaded, “Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that thou, O LORD, art God, and that thou hast turned their hearts back.” Believing that no word in the Bible is superfluous, ancient Jewish exegetes wondered why Elijah needed to repeat himself saying, “Answer me, O LORD, answer me,” when “Answer me,” would have sufficed. Targum Yonatan resolved this difficulty by rendering 1 Kings 18:37 as follows:

Receive my prayer, Lord, with the fire; receive my prayer, Lord, with rain; and may this people know by your doing for them the sign, that you, Lord, are God’…[5]

In this way the targum not only improved Elijah’s prayer by making explicit mention of the need for heavenly fire, but an exegetical basis for the tradition of Elijah’s prayer for rain was established.[6] Elijah’s prayer for rain is attested in other Jewish sources as well. The apocalyptic work 4 Ezra, which was written in the wake of the Temple’s destruction, includes Elijah in a list of the righteous (cf. v. 41[111]) whose prayers were answered. “Elijah,” we are told, “[prayed—JNT] for those who received the rain, and for the one who was dead, that he might live” (7:39 [109]). A tradition preserved in m. Ta’anit 2:4, also seems to suggest that Elijah prayed for rain when it says,

May he that answered Elijah in Carmel answer you and hearken to the voice of your crying this day. Blessed art thou, O Lord, that hearest prayer![7]

Elijah Prays for the Rains to Cease

Along with the early Jewish traditions of Elijah’s prayers for rain, we also find traditions that had Elijah pray for the rains to stop. We have already made reference to Ben Sira which includes the shutting up of the heavens among those deeds which were accomplished by the “word of the Lord.” These deeds were associated with prayer either in Scripture or in later traditions, and Ben Sira’s testimony indicates that from an early period Elijah’s miracles were all lumped into the same category, suggesting, perhaps, that they were all accomplished by similar means. But if we find only a hint from Ben Sira that Elijah prayed that the rains would cease, this claim is made explicit in talmudic literature. A rabbinic retelling of Elijah’s story tells us that after Elijah announced the drought to the king of Israel “he prayed, and the key of rain was given to him” (b. Sanhedrin 113a).[8] Similarly we find that in contexts where prayers for rain are discussed Elijah is often cited, giving the impression that the Rabbis believed that Elijah had prayed that the rains would cease.[9] What these sources tell us is that when James claimed that Elijah prayed about rain he was reading the Bible in the same way other Jewish interpreters were reading it. James belonged to a tradition that attributed the quality of prayerfulness to Elijah, emphasizing the prayers that are mentioned in Scripture, and finding prayers where they were not explicitly mentioned in Scripture. Coming from such a tradition it was only natural that James would cite Elijah when he sought for a biblical example of a praying saint whose prayers were powerful in their effects.[10]

What Sort of Man Was Elijah?

The Jerusalem Talmud preserves a tradition that seems to indicate some tension between the tradition that the shutting up of the heavens was accomplished by prayer and the more scriptural version that Elijah had authority of his own to cause the rains to cease:

It is written, “Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, ‘As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.’” (1 Kings 17:1). R. Berekhiah said, “R. Yosé and rabbis: One said that he was listened to both as to dew and as to rain. The other said, ‘As to rain, he was listened to, but as to dew, he was not listened to.’” He who said, “As to rain he was listened to, and as to dew, he was not listened to,” derives support from the following verse: “[After many days the word of the Lord came to Elijah, in the third year, saying], ‘Go, show yourself to Ahab; and I will send rain upon the earth’” (1 Kings 18:1). As to the view of him who said, “Both as to rain and as to dew, he was listened to,” then where was his vow against dew released? Said R. Tanhum of Adrayya, “The ones who hold that view maintain that a vow, part of which has been released is wholly nullified.” There is he who proposes that [the nullification of the vow—JNT] was in connection with the son of Zarephath: “And he cried out to the Lord, ‘O Lord, my God, hast thou brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by slaying her son (1 Kings 17:20)?’” Said R. Judah bar Pazzi, “[This may be compared] to someone who stole a doctor’s medicine kit. When he had gone out, his son was hurt. He came back to the physician and said to him, ‘My Lord, physician, heal my son.’ He said to him, ‘Go and return with my kit, for all sorts of medicines are in it. Then I shall heal your son.’ So the Holy One, blessed be he, said to Elijah, ‘Go and release your vow against the coming of dew, for the dead will rise up only through dew, and then I shall resurrect the son of Zarephath.’” (y. Ta’anit 1:1 [62c-d])[11]

In this passage the Rabbis on either side of the debate have to contend with the incongruity between Elijah’s declaration that neither rain nor dew would fall, and God’s summons of Elijah to announce to King Ahab the return of the rains. Why did God not have Elijah proclaim a return of the dew as well? Different solutions for this problem were proposed depending on the view of Elijah that was taken. For those who assumed that the drought came about because Elijah had prayed, the solution was simple: God answered Elijah’s prayer that the rains cease, but the prayer that dew cease went unanswered.[12] But for those who believed that Elijah had the power to cause rains and dew to cease on his own authority, by making a vow, the situation was more complicated: they needed to locate the moment when Elijah released the vow pertaining to dew. In the talmudic discussion above, R. Tanhum advocated the opinion that the dew was released at the same time as the rain, since the nullification of any part of a vow nullifies the whole. The second opinion is that the vow was released when Elijah prayed for the widow’s son.[13] The essence of the rabbinic debate seems to arise from the question: What sort of man was Elijah? Was Elijah the sort of person who could control nature by virtue of his own authority, someone of whom it could be said, “even the winds and the sea obey him,” or was he “a man of like nature with ourselves” who had to pray in order for nature to be influenced? The several sources we have analyzed seem to come down on the side of Elijah’s being similar to us, and therefore they emphasized Elijah’s need to pray.[14] Since James makes it clear which side of the debate he was on (James 5:17) it is hardly surprising to find that he emphasized Elijah’s prayerfulness.[15]

“The Prayer of a Righteous Man Has Great Power in its Effects”

So far we have discovered that James’ claim that Elijah prayed about rain is not so surprising in light of traditional Jewish interpretations that attributed many more prayers to Elijah than the few recorded in Scripture. We have now to examine James’ description of the results of Elijah’s prayers, since they too are not what we would have expected from a plain reading of 1 Kings. We begin with the outcome of Elijah’s prayer for rain since it may help us draw some conclusions with regard to the outcome of his prayer that the rains might cease. According to James 5:18, when Elijah prayed, “the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth its fruit.” Although this is a lovely description of the revival of the land after a long drought, no such description is included in 1 Kings. Instead we read that having seen a cloud rising from the sea Elijah warned the king that the rain was coming, “And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode and went to Jezreel” (1 Kgs. 18:45). Since the description in 1 Kings does not resemble the description in James, we might profitably ask where James’ description comes from. In a brief notice Mitchell Dahood[16] suggested that rather than relying on any description of the rains in 1 Kings, James borrowed language from Psalm 85 where it is written, “Yea, the LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase” (v. 12). This suggestion was made in the course of an argument that attempted to show that “good” טוב should sometimes be rendered as “rain.” If the argument is accepted the parallel between the Psalm and our statement in James is rather nice:

Ps. 85:12 James 5:18
Yea, the LORD the heaven
will give what is good, gave rain,
and our land and the earth
will yield its increase. brought forth its fruit.

As Dahood noted, the correspondence becomes stronger when we recall that “Heaven” can be used to designate the name of God. The main difference, then, is a shift from the future tense in the Psalm to the past tense in James. Sometime later, another scholar, responding to Dahood, proffered an additional example when “good” and “rain” appear to be interchangeable.[17] Robert Gordon noted that the Targum to Hosea 2:23 reads mitrâ “rain” in some manuscripts while it reads tûbâ in others. Now, while it was not Gordon’s purpose to pursue the connection with James 5:18, but only to supply a further example of the linguistic connection between “good” and “rain,” had he done so he could hardly have escaped recognizing the striking similarity between the Targum’s rendering of Hosea 2:23 and our verse in James. Hosea’s prophecy, as it is appears in the Hebrew Bible, reads, “‘In that day I will respond,’ declares the LORD—‘I will respond to the [heavens], and they will respond to the earth; and the earth will respond to the grain, the new wine, and the oil, and they will respond to Jezreel,’” (Hos. 2:21-22 [23-24 MT]).[18] The Targum, however, has: “At that time I will listen to your prayer, says the Lord; I will command the heavens and they shall send down rain on the earth. And the earth will produce corn and wine and oil, and they shall supply them to the exiles of my people.”[19] In this way the Targum colorfully substitutes the repeated use of the verb לענות “to respond” with other verbs in order to illustrate the chain reaction that was initiated by prayer. Prayer is introduced at the beginning of the verse perhaps to supply a direct object for the first occurrence of the verb לענות. When we compare the Targum with James we find several points of correspondence:

James 5:18 Hosea Targum 2:23-24
Then he prayed again At that time I will listen to your prayer, says the Lord;
and the heaven I will command the heavens
gave rain, and they shall send down rain on the earth.
and the earth And the earth
brought forth its fruit. will produce corn and wine and oil
and they shall supply them to the exiles of my people.

In both James and the Targum prayer is mentioned, as are the heavens giving rain and the earth producing fruit. Only the last part of the targumic quotation lacks a parallel in James. Nevertheless this omission can be accounted for. The final clause, which the Targum renders as “and they shall supply them to the exiles of my people,” appears in the MT as “and they will respond to Jezreel.” Jezreel, we will remember, also features in 1 Kings 18:45 (cited above) in connection with the rains, and again in the following verse we read that Elijah ran ahead of Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel. With the connection afforded by Jezreel it would not have been too difficult for James to have read the verses in Hosea as though they were referring to the heavens opening at the end of the drought in the days of Elijah. The targumic addition of prayer would have made the Hosea passage that much more suitable, provided that the tradition was current in the first century. Indeed, perhaps we ought to regard James 5:18 as evidence that the targumic rendering of these verses in Hosea is, in fact, quite early. Thus far we have seen that James drew upon midrashic tradition in his description of Elijah. James does not seem to have been engaging in creative exegesis himself, rather it appears that James was familiar with midrashic interpretations and drew upon already established traditions in his treatment of Elijah. Since traditional interpretations have accounted for James’ assertion that Elijah prayed about rain and for his description of the result of Elijah’s prayer for rain, we will now inquire whether such interpretations might account for James’ description of Elijah’s prayer that the rains would cease as well.

Three Years And Six Months

According to James, Elijah “prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.” John Lightfoot presented the problem well when he wrote, “That there was no rain for three years together, is evident enough from I Kings xvii, &c.: but whence comes this addition of six months?”[20] According to 1 Kings the duration of the drought is not given with any great precision. In 1 Kings 17:1 Elijah announced that there would be neither dew nor rain “these years” except at his word, and in 1 Kings 18:1 we find that the LORD spoke to Elijah “in the third year” telling him to go to Ahab so that God could give rain to the earth. We are not told, however, how long it took for Elijah to meet up with Ahab, nor how long it took to organize the contest with the priests of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel, nor when the rains actually fell. Most ancient Jewish sources are rather discreet with respect to the chronology as well. Still, the standard line seems to be that the drought lasted for three years. This is the duration given by the chronography Seder Olam. In chapter 7 of that work we read: “In the year 13 of Ahab there was a great famine in Samaria for three years.”[21] There are other sources, however, that seem to try out other chronologies. Josephus, for instance, seems to indicate that the drought may have lasted only a single year when he cites the historical account of Menander to prove the accuracy of the biblical data:

This rainless time is also mentioned by Menander in his account of the acts of Ithōbalos, the king of Tyre in these words: “There was a drought in his reign, which lasted from the month Hyperberetaios until the month of Hyperberetaios of the following year. But he made supplication to the gods, whereupon a heavy thunderstorm broke out. He it was who founded the city of Botrys in Phoenicia, and the city Auza in Libya.” This, then, is what Menander wrote, referring to the drought which came in Achab’s reign, for it was in his time that Ithōbalos was king of Tyre. (Ant. 8.13.2 §324)

Leviticus Rabbah also contains a tradition that shortens the length of the famine. In this tradition the Rabbis discuss certain periods of tribulation which were said to have lasted “many days” but which were actually rather short in duration. Among the periods of tribulation cited is the drought in the days of Elijah:

And it came to pass after many days, that the word of the Lord came to Elijah, in the third year, etc…. R. Berekiah and R. Helbo said in the name of R. Johanan: Three months at the beginning, three months at the end, and twelve in between make eighteen months; are these then ‘many days’?—[No], but those were days of distress, and Scripture therefore designates them as ‘many.’ (Lev. R. 19.5)[22]

Although these traditions, which aim to shorten the length of the drought, may appear strange to us, we should bear in mind that the wording of 1 Kings 18:1 would indicate to Jewish ears that the drought had actually lasted less than three years. “In the third year” means that the third year of the drought had not been completed when the word of the LORD came to Elijah. The aggadic tradition shortened the length of the famine even more by counting part of a year as a whole,[23] thus the three months could be counted as year one, a full year could be counted as year two, and the last three months would be counted as “in the third year.”[24] The only other source that agrees with James regarding the length of the drought is also found in the New Testament, in Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth. There, in Luke 4:25, Jesus makes reference to “the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land.” This agreement between Luke and James, along with other parallels to the gospels, raises interesting questions with regard to the relationship of James to the Synoptic or pre-synoptic tradition, but the attestation in Luke to the three and a half years is not particularly helpful for our inquiry since Jesus offers no justification for the chronological tradition he cites. Casting about for an explanation for this anomalous tradition many scholars have proposed that the three years and six months are somehow related to the apocalyptic “time, times, and half a time” known from Daniel 7:25 and 12:7, where “time” equals a year, “times” equals two years, and “half a time” equals six months. Despite the similarity between the apocalyptic number and the duration of Elijah’s drought, scholars fail to adequately explain why an apocalyptic number would be attached to the events of the distant past. Assigning the number to the End of Days would seem more befitting. Joseph Fitzmyer, who opts in favor of the apocalyptic explanation, nevertheless concedes that “this apocalyptic detail is meaningless in the Lucan account,”[25] the same might be said of James.[26] If apocalyptic motivations do not satisfactorily explain the additional six months, might there be other motivations that would prove more satisfying? Some commentators have attempted to find a solution in the natural cycle of rainy and dry periods that prevail in the land of Israel.[27] This solution proposes that the drought was proclaimed in the fall, at the time when the early rains were expected, and ended with the coming of the autumn rains three years later. To these three years are added the previous six months of the dry season, which were not a part of the divine punishment but were, nevertheless, lacking in rain. Lightfoot further justifies this opinion by noting that while James and Jesus claim that the drought lasted three and a half years they never claim that this was the length of time for which Elijah shut up the heavens. He prefers to see both statements as true; Elijah supernaturally shut up the heavens for three years, but the drought itself lasted three years and six months.[28] Such attempts to harmonize the scriptural data with the claims made by James and Jesus, however, are fundamentally flawed. The harmonizing solution is founded on the supposition that Jesus and James somehow had knowledge of what really happened all that time ago in the days of Elijah.

Liturgical Pressures

Rather than positing secret channels of information from Elijah’s time accessible only to Jesus and James, a better approach would be to look for motivations or pressures current at the end of the Second Temple period which might compel someone who read 1 Kings to conclude that Elijah’s drought must have lasted three years and six months. One such pressure that comes to mind, and which we have already discussed, is the trend that made Elijah into a man of prayer. As we have seen, the prayers of Elijah that are recorded in Scripture were given greater emphasis by later writers, and prayers that Elijah ought to have prayed were attributed to him by these same writers. Elijah was a man of prayer, and Elijah’s prayers were answered. Yet as Elijah’s reputation as a man of prayer swelled, early Jewish exegetes must have become uncomfortable with the notion that Elijah prayed against the order of the liturgy. Indeed, we have already seen that Elijah’s prayers for rain were cited in the liturgy for times of drought and that his example is cited as precedent for how prayers for rain ought to be said.[29] There must have been some pressure to show that Elijah’s prayers were made at liturgically correct times. From the Mishnah we learn about the times when it is appropriate to pray for rains and when it is not:

From what time do they make mention of ‘the Power of Rain’? R. Eliezer says: From the first Festival-day of the Feast [of Tabernacles]. R. Joshua says: From the Last Festival-day of the Feast. R. Joshua said to him: Since rain is but a sign of a curse at the Feast, why should they make mention of it? R. Eliezer answered: I did not, indeed, say ‘pray for’ but ‘make mention of’ [the rain]: ‘Who maketh the winds to blow and sendeth down the rain’—in its due season. He said to him: If so a man may make mention thereof at all times. They pray for rain only near to the time of rain. R. Judah says: When one passes before the ark on the last day of the Fastival-day of the Feast [of Tabernacles—JNT], the last alone makes mention thereof. On the first Festival-day of Passover, the first alone makes mention thereof; the last makes no mention thereof. Until what time should they pray for rain? R. Judah says: Until Passover is over. R. Meir says: Until the end of Nisan, for it is written, And he causeth to come down for you the rain, the former rain and the latter rain in the first [month] (Joel 2:23). (m. Ta’anit 1:2)

Although we find here some variation of opinion all are agreed that it is incumbent upon one to pray that rains come in their season; accordingly prayers for rain begin around Tabernacles and end around Passover. In order to be liturgically correct one prays for rain six months out of the year and refrains from prayer in the remaining six months. We also note the opinion of R. Joshua that rain which comes out of the proper season is a sign of divine displeasure. This is also borne out by another mishnah which states:

If Nisan ended and then the rain fell, it is a sign of [God‘s] curse, for it is written, Is it not wheat harvest to-day? I will call unto the Lord that he send thunder and rain, and ye shall know and see that great is your wickedness which ye have wrought in the sight of God to ask for yourselves a king (I Sam 12:17). (m. Ta’anit 1:7)

This mishnah comes at the end of a set of instructions which sets out the order for prayer and fasting which is to be followed if the rains should delay. As the rains hold off, the prayers and fasting becomes more and more intense until the proper season for rain is passed. If it should rain thereafter the storms were liable to destroy whatever crop the farmers had managed to eek out, as they did in the days of Samuel. Since Elijah’s prayer for rain was for the lifting of a drought, at a time when the LORD’s displeasure had subsided, there would be pressure to place that prayer in a season when the answer to his prayer would bring a blessing and not further affliction. All this goes to show the likelihood that there was pressure for liturgically and agriculturally sensitive persons to place Elijah’s prayers at the right time. This pressure could be relieved if Elijah’s prayer for the heavens to shut came at the season when prayers for rain ceased, that is, around the time of Passover, and if Elijah’s prayer that the heavens would open were made to coincide with the season for resuming prayers for rain, that is, around the time of Tabernacles. One way to make this chronology work is to suppose that the drought lasted three years and six months.[30]

An Exegetical Basis

So far we have established that there was a motivating force that might explain the need for someone to conclude that Elijah’s drought lasted three and a half years. We have next to inquire whether there were any exegetical justification for this conclusion. We have already mentioned one source (Leviticus Rabbah 19.5) which does base its chronology on a close reading of 1 Kings, with the conclusion that the drought lasted eighteen months. This source based its chronology on the words “many days” ימים רבים that appear in 1 Kings 18:1. How Rabbi Yohanan in Leviticus Rabbah determined that ימים רבים should equal a year and a half is a bit of a mystery. There are certain aggadic traditions that make ימים equal one full year.[31] If ימים could be taken to mean a year we would expect that ימים רבים would be taken to imply several years, and in various aggadic contexts this is what we in fact find. ימים רבים can be read for whatever number of years the aggadist required.[32] Given the elasticity of ימים רבים in aggadic contexts, could it be that R. Yohanan made ימים רבים equal six months simply because this suited his purpose? This solution, however, raises a certain question. Why would eighteen months be a particularly suitable span in our context? Rabbi Yohanan’s purpose was to show that when times of tribulation are called “many days” this is only because that is how they seem, even though in reality they are actually few in number. The aggadist accomplished his purpose by creatively reconciling his eighteen month chronology (not a long time in R. Yohanan’s opinion) with the Bible’s statement that Elijah was sent to put an end to the drought “in the third year,” by appealing to the words ימים רבים. His solution was to propose that there were three months of drought at the end of the first year, a second full year of drought, and finally three months of drought at the beginning of the third year. The solution works well enough, but R. Yohanan’s purpose might have been served even better had he made the days even shorter, for example, making the drought last fourteen months (the last month in the first year, a full year, and the first month in the third year). In fact, a variant of this midrash in Esther Rabbah 2.2 does exactly that. One reasonable explanation for why R. Yohanan would have made “many days” equal eighteen months, even though a shorter period would have worked better, is that he had inherited the eighteen month tradition from some other source, a source which had its own purposes for making “many days” equal a year and a half. As we have seen, the “liturgical” explanation supplies a reason why someone might have wanted the drought to end in the opposite season from when it had started. If R. Yohanan had inherited the tradition “ימים רבים equals 18 months” from a liturgically and agriculturally sensitive source, he did not inherit those sensitivities. Although R. Yohanan does not specify when the full year was supposed to have begun, whether it was at Passover or at Tabernacles, the rains would have ceased and resumed out of season. That R. Yohanan could have made his point better by shortening the length of the drought even further, and that he destroys what we suppose was the original purpose for making ימים רבים equal eighteen months, strengthens our opinion that R. Yohanan relied on an earlier tradition which he either did not fully understand or the intentions of which he simply disregarded. But eighteen months is still a far cry from three and a half years. At this point we must turn back to the text of 1 Kings. There we find that, apart from the notice that Elijah was sent to King Ahab “in the third year,” there are three other time-markers that could be used to determine the chronology of the drought. After Elijah announced the drought to Ahab, he fled and hid in a brook, where he had water to drink and was supplied with food by ravens. In 1 Kings 17:7, however, we learn that “after a while (ימים) the brook dried up, because there was no rain in the land.” As a result, Elijah took up residence with a widow and her son, and they were miraculously provided with sustenance: “and she, and he, and her household ate for [literally—JNT] days (1 Kgs. ימים)” (17:15). Finally we read that “after many days (ימים רבים) the word of the LORD came to Elijah” (1 Kgs. 18:1) sending him to Ahab. These time-markers are admittedly imprecise, but they are the raw materials of midrash. As we have seen, ימים is commonly read as one complete year.[33] We have also become familiar with the equation “ימים רבים equals 18 months” from R. Yohanan or his sources. Taken together, ימים plus ימים plus ימים רבים equals three years and six months. Given the liturgical pressures which might cause someone to search for a chronology that would allow Elijah to pray that the heavens would be shut up around the time when prayers for rain cease, and to pray for the rains to return around the time when it would be liturgically mandated, and given the exegetical hooks to hang such an interpretation on, it is not surprising to find that a tradition promoting a three and a half year chronology was developed. That this tradition was preserved in James, and in a saying of Jesus, may simply be an accident. Our suggestion is that the three and a half year chronology for the drought had, at one time, a fairly wide currency, and that both James and Jesus were familiar with such a tradition and utilized it almost without thinking, since in neither place was the length of Elijah’s drought an important part of the argument.[34] Rather the tradition already existed, and it just so happened to be preserved in the pages of the New Testament.

Why Elijah?

The preceding discussion has shown that James drew upon tradition much more than Scripture when he described the prophet Elijah. Can James’ reliance upon traditional patterns of thought help us to explain his choice of Elijah’s prayers for rain to serve as an example that the prayers of the righteous are able to heal the sick? As we observed at the outset, Elijah’s prayers for rain are hardly an obvious choice for an example, especially when we recall that James might have chosen instead to cite Elijah’s prayer for the widow’s son to prove that “the prayer of faith will save the sick man” (James 5:15). After all, Elijah’s prayer for the widow’s son did not merely make a sick person well, it restored the dead to life! In the context of prayers for healing, what could possibly have brought prayers for rain to mind? As it turns out, in the late Second Temple Period there were certain individuals with whom effective prayers for both healing and for rain were associated. From the first century B.C.E. through to the beginning of the Amoraic Period there existed a Jewish movement, located mainly in the Galilee, whose adherents were known as the Hasidim. In several studies Shmuel Safrai has attempted to portray the distinctive nature of this group and to describe its relationship to other Jewish movements that existed in the Second Temple Period.[35] One of the distinctive characteristics of individuals who are called Hasidim in Rabbinic Literature was their intimacy with God. This special relationship made the Hasidim particularly bold in prayer. The Mishnah recalls one such Hasid who was asked to pray that it might rain:

Once they said to Onias the Circle-maker, “Pray that rain may fall.” He answered, “Go out and bring in the Passover ovens that they be not softened.” He prayed, but the rain did not fall. What did he do? He drew a circle and stood within it and said before God, “O Lord of the world, thy children have turned their faces to me, for that I am like a son of the house before thee. I swear by thy great name that I will not stir hence until thou have pity on thy children.” Rain began falling drop by drop. He said, “Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain of good will, blessing, and graciousness.” Then it rained in moderation [and continued] until the Israelites went up from Jerusalem to the Temple Mount because of the rain. They went to him and said, “Like as thou didst pray for the rain to come, so pray that it may go away!” (m. Ta’anit 3:8)

Onias had such faith that his prayer would be answered that he instructed the people to make preparations before the rains came. His faith was based on his assurance that his relationship with God was like that of a father to a son. Other Hasidim were remembered for their prayers for the sick. Of Hanina ben Dosa, a Hasid who lived from before the destruction of the Second Temple and in the generation thereafter,

They tell…that he used to pray over the sick and say, “This one will live,” or “This one will die.” They said to him, “How knowest thou?” He replied, “If my prayer is fluent in my mouth I know that he is accepted; and if it is not, I know that he is rejected.” (m. Ber. 5:5)

The Talmuds record several occasions when Hanina ben Dosa effected healing through prayer. This same Hasid is also remembered for his prayers for rain:

R. Hanina b. Dosa was walking along a road when rain came down upon him. He said: ‘Lord of the Universe! All the world is comfortable and Hanina is afflicted!’ The rain stopped. As he came home, he said: ‘Lord of the Universe! All the world is afflicted and Hanina is comfortable!’ The rain came again. (b. Yoma 53b; cf. b. Ta’anit 24b)

Just like Elijah in James, Hanina ben Dosa prayed that it might not rain and the rains ceased, then he prayed again and the heavens opened and poured forth rains. Perhaps in a first century context prayers for rain and prayers for healing were linked in the minds of the people. If a person could pray effectively for one he could also pray for the other and confidently expect an answer. It might also be the case that James had a certain affinity for the Hasidim. Like them, James expressed a concern for the poor and a negative attitude toward wealth. James also has a strong emphasis on the importance of good deeds, particularly on behalf of the unfortunate (cf. James 1:27). Hanina ben Dosa used to say “He whose works exceed his wisdom, his wisdom endures; but he whose wisdom exceeds his works, his wisdom does not endure” (m. Avot 3:10). This sounds similar to James 3:13, ”Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good life let him show his works in the meekness of his wisdom.” If James were close to the world of the Hasidim, he might all the more easily have associated prayers for rain with prayers for healing.[36]


From this study we have seen that James’ extraordinary treatment of Elijah makes sense when we appreciate that James read the Scriptures through the lens of traditional Jewish interpretations. As we have seen, James both received and handed down the tradition that made Elijah into a man of prayer, he took for granted the prayers that tradition had attributed to the prophet, and he inherited and transmitted the three and half year chronology for the drought which the pressures of making Elijah into a man of prayer combined with liturgical sensitivities produced. It does not seem necessary, therefore, to suppose that James himself was actively involved in creative exegesis of the Elijah narrative, rather he seems to have utilized the traditions he had received in the course of his own arguments.[37] We conclude, therefore, that James should be considered an important witness to the traditions about Elijah that were current in his own time, and a source that can help us understand the development of traditions concerning Elijah in later generations.

  • [1] This article is dedicated to my wife, Lauren Sue. All biblical quotations are taken from the RSV unless otherwise noted.
  • [2] An earlier form of this article was presented as a seminar paper to Dr. Serge Ruzer to fulfill the course requirement for Reading the New Testament as Second Temple Literature, a graduate course offered at the Hebrew University in 2006-2007. I would like to thank Dr. Ruzer for his many helpful suggestions, and especially for challenging me to consider how the figure of Abraham should be considered in this context. Responsibility for the content of this article, however, is mine.
  • [3] See my article, “The Approval of Abraham: Traditions of God’s Acceptance of Abraham in Early Jewish and Christian Sources.”
  • [4] All quotations come from the Loeb Classical Library (Josephus, vol. 6 [R. Marcus trans.; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press], 1937).
  • [5] Targum Jonathan of the Former Prophets, in The Aramaic Bible, vol. 10 (Daniel J. Harrington and Anthony J. Saldarini trans.; Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier Inc., 1987).
  • [6] B. Reicke, The Epistles of James, Peter, and Jude, Anchor Bible, vol. 37 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), without recourse to the ancient sources, also concludes that Elijah’s prayer for rain, “Is the one uttered on Mount Carmel…the reader is expected to reconstruct the order of events for himself” (p. 61).
  • [7] All quotations of the Mishnah come from the translation of H. Danby (The Mishnah [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933]). Our mishnah describes the liturgy for public prayer in times of drought. Elijah is included among a whole company of biblical heroes, including Abraham, Joshua, Samuel, and David, who were answered by God (see below). According to a baraita in the Babylonian Talmud, there was a variant tradition in which “some…attribute ‘crying’ (צעקה) to Elijah and ‘praying’ (תפילה) to Samuel.” The talmudic discussion finds this variant tradition hard to account for because in the case “of Samuel Scripture uses the words ‘praying’ and ‘crying’, but of Elijah Scripture uses only [the word] ‘praying’ but never ‘crying.'”  The Talmud offers a solution by explaining that “[When Elijah says], Hear me, O Lord, hear me; that is an expression of ‘crying’,” (b.Ta’anit 17a).  In fact, however, Scripture neither uses the word ‘praying’ nor ‘crying’ to describe Elijah’s activity on Mt. Carmel.  Apparently for the Talmdists the tradition that Elijah’s prayed on Carmel was so well established that it could be assumed, while creative exegesis was required to prove that Elijah cried out. Our mishnah requires further comment because which prayer of Elijah it refers to is not not made explicit. We have already discovered that Jewish tradition identified two prayers of Elijah on Mt. Carmel: a prayer for fire to descend and a prayer that the rains would return. It is therefore necessary to ascertain which of these prayers our mishnah had in mind. Fortunately, there is both internal and external evidence which can help us to arrive at an answer.  In the first place, the tradition preserved in m. Ta’anit 2:4 can be compared with the tradition already cited from 4 Ezra to support the hypothesis that the prayer referred to in our mishnah should be identified as Elijah’s prayer for rain. The two traditions are apparently related as we shall see when they are placed in parallel columns:

    4 Ezra 7:36[106]-41[111]

    m.Ta’anit 2:4

    (1) I answered and said, “How then do we find that first Abraham prayed for the people of Sodom, [Thus] after the first he says, ‘May he that answered Abraham our father in mount Moriah answer you and hearken to the voice of your crying this day.  Blessed art thou, O Lord, redeemer of Israel!’
    (2) and Moses for our fathers who sinned in the desert, After the second he says, ‘May he that answered our fathers at the Red Sea answer you and hearken to the voice of your crying this day.  Blessed art thou, O Lord, that art mindful of things forgotten!’
    (3) and Joshua after him for Israel in the days of Achan, After the third he says, ‘May he that answered Joshua in Gilgal answer you and hearken to the voice of your crying this day.  Blessed art thou, O Lord, that hearest the blowing of the shofar!’
    (4) and Samuel in the days of Saul, After the fourth he says, ‘May he that answered Samuel at Mizpah answer you and hearken to the voice of your crying this day.  Blessed art thou, O Lord, that hearest them that cry!’
    (7) and Elijah for those who received the rain, and for the one who was dead, that he might live, After the fifth he says, ‘May he that answered Elijah in Carmel answer you and hearken to the voice of your crying this day.  Blessed art thou, O Lord, that hearest prayer!’
    (8) and Hezekiah for the people in the days of Senacherib, After the sixth he says, ‘May he that answered Jonah in the belly of the fish answer you and hearken to the voice of your crying this day.  Blessed art thou that answerest in time of trouble!’
    (5) and David for the plague, (6) and Solomon for those in the sanctuary, After the seventh he says, ‘May he that answered David and his son Solomon in Jerusalem answer you and hearken to the voice of your crying this day.  Blessed art thou, O Lord, that hast compassion on the land!’
    and may others prayed for many?  If therefore the righteous have prayed for the ungodly now, when corruption has increased and unrighteousness has multiplied, why will it not be so then as well?

    In the columns above the order of the individuals cited in 4 Ezra has been rearranged to match the order of their appearance in the Mishnah, but the numbers in parenthesis indicate their original sequence in 4 Ezra. This presentation demonstrates that although the traditions preserved in m. Ta‘anit and 4 Ezra appear in very different contexts, their similarity is great. Both lists enumerate righteous individuals from Israel’s history whose prayers were heard by God. And as we observe, the two lists are nearly identical. With the exception of Moses vs. the forefathers at the Red Sea and Jonah vs. Hezekiah, the two lists are in full agreement with respect to the individuals who are included. Indeed, when we consider that Moses was also present at the Red Sea, and when we further take into account that parallel versions of our mishnah in the Tosefta and in the Babylonian Talmud do, in fact, make mention of Moses (as D. Levine has noted in “A Temple Prayer for Fast-Days,” in Liturgical Perspectives: Prayer and Poetry in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls (ed. Esther Chazon; Boston: Brill, 2003), 100, n. 11), then the only real discrepancy between the lists in our mishnah and in 4 Ezra is between Jonah and Hezekiah. The strong agreement between the two lists suggest that 4 Ezra and m. Ta’anit were both drawing on a common source.  Since that source was known to the author of 4 Ezra it is likely that it existed prior to the destruction of the Second Temple. Joseph Heinemann proposed on other grounds that the tradition found in m. Ta’anit 2:4 originated before the Temple’s destruction (Prayer in the Talmud [New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1977]; 108-110). Given the likelihood that a common source stands behind the lists in 4 Ezra and m. Ta’anit 2:4, we might suppose that since 4 Ezra identifies Elijah’s prayer as his prayer for rain, this is evidence that the prayer of Elijah mentioned in m. Ta’anit should likewise be identified as Elijah’s prayer for rain. Unfortunately, however, the situation is not quite so straight forward. Comparison of the two traditions reveals that although the lists show strong agreement between the individuals who are cited, there is less agreement with respect to which prayers of those individuals are cited. For example, both 4 Ezra and m. Ta’anit mention Abraham, but whereas 4 Ezra makes reference to Abraham’s intercession for Sodom, m.Ta’anit refers to Abraham’s prayer on mount Moriah. The differences between the two lists with respect to which prayers they reference can be accounted for by the contexts in which the lists appear.  The list in 4 Ezra is recited in protest by the visionary when he is told that on the day of judgement it will no longer possible for the righteous to intercede for the ungodly.  In response to this news, the visionary lists biblical examples of prayers offered by the saints on behalf of sinners. The visionary argues that if it was possible for the righteous to pray for the ungodly in the past, then it should continue to be possible to pray for sinners in the future. The list in m. Ta‘anit 2:4, by contrast, is part of the public liturgy for prayer in times of drought. The list draws attention to biblical examples of prayers that resulted in deliverance for the people of Israel.  In most of these examples God answered the prayers through natural phenomena. Thus Samuel’s prayer was answered when “the LORD thundered with a mighty voice that day against the Philistines” (1 Sam. 7:10). Joshua’s prayer, although difficult to identify, probably refers to the occasion when Israel’s enemies were struck down by hailstones (Joshua 10:11). (Scripture does not actually mention any prayer of Joshua at Gilgal, but Joshua 10:9 does describe how Joshua’s troops surprised the enemy after an all-night march from Gilgal, and according to Ben Sira 46:5-6 “He called upon the Most High…and the great Lord answered him with hailstones of mighty power.”) Similarly, Solomon’s prayer in Jerusalem probably refers to his request that God hear the people’s prayer for rain in times of drought (1 Kgs. 8:35-36 = 2 Chr. 6:27-27). The list in m. Ta’anit highlights instances in which God answered prayer by exercising his mastery over nature. The lack of agreement between the two lists with respect to which prayers are referenced cautions us against drawing a hasty conclusion regarding the identification of Elijah’s prayer in m. Ta’anit on the basis of the evidence from 4 Ezra. But this is where the internal evidence comes to our aid. Elijah’s prayer for rain perfectly fits the context of 4 Ezra which recalls the intercession of the righteous on behalf of the ungodly. 4 Ezra, in fact, recalls two prayers of Elijah: prayer for rain and prayer for the one who was dead.  This last prayer refers to Elijah’s prayer for the widow of Zarephath’s son. When her son died she reproached Elijah saying “You have come to bring my sin to remembrance” (1 Kings 17:18). Elijah’s prayer for rain was likewise intercessory. Elijah certainly did not regard the Children of Israel as worthy of the blessing of rain. On Horeb Elijah points out to God just how undeserving the Children of Israel are (1 Kgs. 19:10), and when he cries out to God on Mt. Carmel it is for God to prove to Israel that the LORD is turning back the hearts that have strayed from him. The context of m. Ta’anit, in which the prayers of the saints for the salvation of Israel in the past are invoked as the community prayed for rain in the present, likewise suggests that Elijah’s prayer for rain, and not his prayer for fire, is intended. It hardly seems likely that in a time of drought the people would be eager to remind God of his ability to send down fire, whereas reminding God how he answered Elijah’s prayer for rain would be entirely appropriate. Thus Elijah’s prayer for rain is one example where we would expect the lists in 4 Ezra and m. Ta’anit to agree. With Elijah, the themes of intercession from 4 Ezra, and of God’s mastery over nature from m. Ta’anit converge. Not one of the arguments for identifying Elijah’s prayer as his prayer for rain in m. Ta’anit is conclusive on its own. But taken together, the internal and external evidence seems to weigh in favor of the hypothesis that our mishnah did indeed intend to refer to Elijah’s prayer for rain.

  • [8] A. Pope and R. Buth explain that “the expression ‘to give someone the key(s)’ was understood by the Jews to mean giving that person authority,” (“Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven,” Notes on Translation 119 [1987], 13). See also L. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews (2 vols.; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society [2003]), 997, n. 12.
  • [9] Cf. y. Ta‘anit 1:1 [62c-d], and b. Ta’anit 3a-b.
  • [10] We also must note that according to The Lives of the Prophets Codex Q (Marchalianus) 21:5, “Elijah prayed, and it did not rain for three years, and after three years he prayed again and abundant rain came” (J. Charlesworth, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 2 (D. Hare trans.; New York: Doubleday, 1985). This passage, however, does not appear in other manuscripts of The Lives of the Prophets and it is usually considered a late addition. D. Satran (Biblical Prophets in Byzantine Palestine: Reassessing the Lives of the Prophets [New York: E. J. Brill], 1995) writes that “the vitae of Elijah and Elisha…appear to have been adumbrated in Codex Q by long sections which depend directly and solely on the narratives from 1 and 2 Kings” (p. 51 n. 33; emphasis mine). This assertion is difficult to sustain when we recall that 1 Kings has no knowledge of Elijah praying about rain. Rather than relying on 1 Kings, The Lives of the Prophets may be relying on James 5:17-18. The wording and structure are remarkably similar, only the results of Elijah’s prayers differ in the two sources. Whereas James has relied upon traditional embellishments in his description of the results of Elijah’s prayers, The Lives of the Prophets adheres more closely to what we find in 1 Kings.
  • [11] J. Neusner (trans.), Talmud of the Land of Israel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).
  • [12] According to b. Ta’anit 3a the Sages did not make prayer for dew obligatory since “we know that dew is never withheld.” This knowledge is derived from the incongruity between 1 Kings 17:1 and 18:1 and probably depends on the notion that Elijah’s prayer for the suspension of dew went unanswered.
  • [13] In b. Sanhedrin 113a there is a midrash on 1 Kings 17, where we find that after declaring that there will be neither dew nor rain Elijah prayed, “and the key of rain was given him” (cf. b. Ta’anit 2a-b). When the widow’s son died Elijah was compelled to return the key of rain to God in exchange for the key of resurrection since God said, “Three keys have not been entrusted to an agent: of birth, rain, and resurrection. Shall it be said, Two are in the hands of the disciple and [only] one in the hand of the Master?”
  • [14] For those who wished to emphasize Elijah’s prayerfulness, the two scriptural instances of Elijah’s effective prayers left something to be desired, since neither account explicitly uses the word prayer. Thus in the description of Elijah’s prayers for the widow’s son, although we are twice informed that Elijah “cried to the LORD” (1 Kgs. 17:20,21) and we are further told that “the LORD hearkened to the voice of Elijah” (v. 22) the word prayer itself is never actually used. Targum Yonatan to 1 Kings 17, however, replaces Elijah’s cries to the LORD with ”he prayed before the LORD” in vs. 20 & 21, and in v. 22 it states that the LORD received Elijah’s prayer (Targum Jonathan of the Former Prophets The Aramaic Bible, vol. 10 (Daniel J. Harrington and Anthony J. Saldarini trans.; Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier Inc., 1987). The biblical account of Elijah’s prayer on Mt. Carmel similarly fails to use the word prayer. Josephus resolves this difficulty by explicitly stating that Elijah “began to pray” (Ant. 8.13.5 §342). And, as we have seen above, Targum Yonatan has Elijah say, “Receive my prayer, Lord.” What we have discovered then, is that the later retellings of Elijah’s story amplified the prophet’s prayerfulness both by emphasizing the prayers that Scripture admits, and by inventing prayers for him that Scripture did not mention.
  • [15] James, who wants not only to make Elijah a man of prayer like us, but a man who prayed effectively, avoids mention of the unanswered prayer for dew.
  • [16] M. Dahood “A Note on tob ‘Rain,” Biblica 54.3 (1973): 404.
  • [17] R. Gordon, “On BH tob ‘Rain’” Biblica 57.2 (1976): 111.
  • [18] Here I have followed the NIV since, in this instance, the translation is more literal and will help make matters clearer later on. I have, however, amended the translation to read “heavens” rather than “skies” for שמים for the sake of consistency.
  • [19] Kevin J. Cathcart and Robert P. Gordon (trans.), Targum of the Minor Prophets: The Aramaic Bible, vol. 14 (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1989).
  • [20] J. Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1989 [reprint from Oxford University Press, 1859]), 3:72-73.
  • [21] H. Guggenheimer (trans.), Seder Olam: The Rabbinic View of Biblical Chronology (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005).
  • [22] H. Freedman and M. Simon (trans.), Midrash Rabbah, vol. 2 (Jerusalem: Soncino, 1977).
  • [23] Cf. B. Thiering, “The Three and a Half Years of Elijah,” Novum Testamentum, 23.1 (1981): 42-43.
  • [24] Esther Rabbah 2.2 attests to a variant in the tradition; here the length of the drought is counted as 14 months (one full year with one month on either end). The parallel in Yalkut Shimeoni has 18 months.
  • [25] J. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (AB28; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981), 1:538.
  • [26] The best reason for supposing that the three years and six months of Elijah’s drought are derived from apocalyptic sources is the testimony of Revelation 11 wherein the two witnesses shut up the heavens for the period of their prophesying which equals three and a half years. Many scholars have identified the two witnesses as Moses and Elijah based on the miracles they performed (Cf. D. Flusser, “Hystaspes and John of Patmos,” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity [Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988], 421-422; R. Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993], 275). Two of the miracles, the consuming fire and shutting the heavens, are strongly reminiscent of Elijah. Rather than seeing the three and a half years of drought as an apocalyptic number, however, it is more likely that this span was another clue provided by the revelator for the identification of the witnesses.
  • [27] See, for example, Lightfoot, Commentary on the New Testament,  74-75) and E. Bishop, “Three and a Half Years,” The Expository Times 61.4 (1950): 126-127.
  • [28] Lightfoot, Commentary on the New Testament, 73.
  • [29] See above, note 9. In Zechariah 10:1 the prophet advises the people of Israel to “Ask rain from the LORD in the season of the spring rain.”
  • [30] We will also note that James exhibits knowledge of the agricultural cycle of rains which prevail in the land of Israel by referring to “the early and the late rain” in 5:7. See P. Davis “Palestinian Traditions in the Epistle of James,” in James the Just and Christian Origins (ed. Bruce Chilton and Craig Evans; Leiden: Brill, 1999), 47-48.
  • [31] So for example when in Genesis 24:55 Rebekah’s family requests that “the maiden remain with us a while (ימים), at least ten days,” the Babylonian Talmud asks, “What could be meant by yamim? If it be suggested ‘two days’, do people, [it might be retorted,] speak in such a manner? [If when] they suggested to him two days he said no, would they then suggest ten days? Yamim must consequently mean a year” (b. Ket. 57b, cf. Targum Onkelos and Targum Pseudo-Yonatan to Gen. 24:55). Similarly, when in Numbers 9:22 the movements of the Mishkan are described and we are told that “Whether it was two days, or a month, or a longer time (ימים), that the cloud continued over the tabernacle, abiding there, the people of Israel remained in camp and did not set out; but when it was taken they set out,” the Targumim read, “Whether it be two days or a month, or a complete year” (so Pseudo-Yonatan, cf. Onkelos).
  • [32] In halakhic contexts, however, ימים רבים can have a very different meaning. Leviticus 15:25 states that “If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days (ימים רבים), not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness…” For the Rabbis it was important to specify just how many ‘many days’ were, accordingly we find that “It was taught in the school of R. Hiyya: ‘days’ (ימים) means ‘two days,’ ‘many days’ (ימים רבים) means ‘three days’” (Lev. R. 19.5; cf. Targum Ps-Y to Lev. 15:25; b. Ket 75ab. Git. 46aEst. R. 2.2). See further Guggenheimer’s (cited above, n. 20) helpful discussion (p. 6, n. 5).
  • [33] See note 31 above.
  • [34] The same might be said for the three and a half years associated with Elijah in Revelation 11.
  • [35] S. Safrai, “Teaching of Pietists in Mishnaic Literature,” Journal of Jewish Studies 16 (1965): 15-33; “The Pharisees and the Hasidim,” Sidic Journal of the Service International de Documentation Judeo-Chretienne 10.2 (1977): 12-16; “Jesus and the Hasidic Movement,” Proceedings of the 10th World Congress of Jewish Studies, Division B, vol. 1 (1990): 1-7 (Hebrew); “Jesus and the Hasidim,” JerPersp 42-44 (1994): 3-22.
  • [36] Epiphanius, a bishop of the late 4th century, records the fascinating tradition that James himself “once…raised his hands to heaven and prayed during a drought, and heaven immediately gave rain,” (Panarion 78:14). Does this traditon describe an historical event or did it originate from the statements about Elijah’s prayer in James’ Epistle? Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra has suggested that Epiphanius’ testimony was part of a later Christian attempt to portray James as a high priest (The Impact of Yom Kippur on Early Christianity [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003], 246 ff.).  But might the tradition that James prayed for rain have been incorporated from another source, one that described his affinities with the Hasidim? Huub van de Sandt compared the Epistle of James to the literature of the pious Jewish Sages in “James 4,1-4 in the Light of the Jewish Two Ways Tradition 3,1-6” Biblica 88.1 (2007): 39-63; and idem, “Law and Ethics in Matthew’s Antitheses and James’s Letter: A Reorientation of Halakah in Line with the Jewish Two Ways 3:1-6” in Matthew, James, and Didache: Three Related Documents in their Jewish and Christian Setting (ed. Sandt and Zangenberg; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008): 315-338.
  • [37] I would like to thank Dr. Serge Ruzer for helping me to clarify this point.

Treasures in Heaven

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus on Long-term Investing

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

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

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

Ben Sirach on Laying Up Treasure

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

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

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

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

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

Tobit on Laying Up Treasure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tobit continued his exhortation:

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

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

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

Monobazus on Laying Up Treasure

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

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

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

New Testament Writers on Laying Up Treasures

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

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

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

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

A Digression on the Mysteries of the Gospel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shrinking the Camel

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

According to Luke, Jesus answered:

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

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

Now Jesus began to apply the pressure:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours and Mine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essenic Piety and the Epistle of James

The Gospels, the book of Acts, and Paul’s letters tend to dominate our view of early Christianity. With the possible exception of Revelation, the books that appear after the Pauline corpus (i.e., Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude) are usually treated as little more than extraneous sweepings, even by those who would never intend to slight any part of the Bible. Among scholars, the older view is that most, if not all, of these writings are too late to serve as a window onto pre-Pauline Christianity. Recently, however, that view has come under fire, and with that development some now contend that these books contain invaluable clues to the earliest Christian movement.

Those scholars who have busied themselves with this back-of-the-Bible material have known all along that there was more to these books than others were willing to credit, but it is not so much the ongoing work of New Testament scholarship per se that now promises to give these writings a more prominent and natural light. Rather, this promise is largely due to developments in a neighboring field, Qumran studies, as well as the spillover from that field onto our understanding of popular Jewish piety beyond Qumran. If asked which stream(s) of first-century Judaism Christianity most resembled, many scholars today would confidently answer “the Essenes”. David Flusser anticipated this understanding long ago by calling attention to the Essenic quality of “pre-Pauline Christianity,” and Matthew Black (among others) added support to this view shortly thereafter.[1] Neither Flusser nor Black, however, said much about the Epistle of James, which, in recent discussion, is probably the New Testament book that has done more than any other book to insinuate the Essene-like quality of early Christianity.

James: The Man and the Epistle

The study of James, both as a historical figure and as the implied author of the epistle by his name, has finally come into its own, and now more than ever it is possible to treat the historical figure as the implied author of the epistle. Until recently, most scholars have assumed that the connection between the Epistle of James and the figure for whom it is named was merely nominal at best, but this situation has now changed. For one thing, scholars have returned the Epistle of James to its setting in the land of Israel, which makes the idea of a historical connection much more viable. Martin Dibelius’s view that the epistle revealed a mind steeped in hellenistic language and philosophy is not nearly so widespread as it once was.[2] One key in returning the epistle to the land of Israel has been the recognition that Greek writings are perfectly at home in first-century Galilee and Judea.[3] Another factor has been the recognition that wisdom writing is entirely compatible with the sort of apocalyptic writing that scholars traditionally associate with the land of Israel.[4] The collective failure of scholars to demonstrate the Epistle’s dependence upon the Septuagint is also of some consideration in assigning provenance.

James was clearly an important leader in the early Church. According to a tradition in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus appointed him to be his successor: “The disciples said to Jesus, ‘we know that you will depart from us. Who is to be our leader?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Wherever you are, you are to go to James the righteous, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being’” (logion 12). As Richard Bauckham notes, this saying contradicts the redactional voice of the work (according to which Thomas was a more important disciple than James), which pretty well assures us that the saying is older than the Gospel of Thomas.[5] A number of noncanonical sources claim that James was the “first bishop” of Jerusalem, and even a (late) Byzantine inscription discovered at Ephesus apparently refers to James as the “first pope”.[6] This much tells us that we should pay careful attention to the epistle bearing his name. Even if James did not write James, it appears likely that the epistle represents the thinking of the James circle. Certainly, there is no longer any convincing reason to exclude a Galilean or Judean provenance for the book, and there are even aspects of the book that make the land of Israel a more likely place of origin.

The casual reader of the New Testament might be excused for not recognizing James’s leadership role within the early church, since the book of Acts gives only slight attention to him, focusing instead on Peter for the first half of the book, and on Paul for the second half. (That it does so designedly is borne out by the scholarly studies of Peter-Paul parallelism within Acts.) It is unnecessary to follow John Painter’s suggestion that Luke slighted James because he was averse to his “hard-line position on the place of circumcision and the keeping of the law,” or S. G. F. Brandon’s suggestion that a falling out between James and Peter made the former an embarrassment for the author of Luke-Acts.[7] The motivation for such a presentation is best explained by the likely provenance of the book. Although Luke’s cosmopolitan style has given rise to a wide range of guesses about the book’s provenance, I believe that the best explanation for the book’s rather anticlimactic closing—it ends with Paul on house arrest in the city of Rome—is that it was intended for Christian readers at Rome (who would have known “the rest of the story”).[8] And if Acts was produced for Christians at Rome, it only makes sense that it would emphasize the roles of Peter and Paul, the two prominent Church leaders who were martyred in Rome. I take it that this is why James appears only as a background figure within the book.

A close look at both the Epistle of James and the extrabiblical traditions concerning James “the first bishop of Jerusalem” reveals several points of contact with Qumran. The excesses of Robert Eisenman’s reconstruction of James’s Essene commitments, stemming as they do from an overspecific reading of texts and an outdated view of Qumran’s place within Jewish sectarianism, should not detract from the many suggestive parallels between the movement led by James the Just and that described in the scrolls.[9] The claim that James belongs to an expression of Jewish piety that had much in common with Qumran, I think, is fairly secure. Perhaps the most celebrated parallel between James and Qumran lies in a shared concern for the poor (although it needs to be said that the best way to appreciate this connection is not by concentrating on the use of “the poor” as a Qumranic self-designation).[10] Brief mention should also be made of James-Qumran parallels stemming from the extracanonical traditions about James the Just, particularly the traditions regarding the twelve-member body presiding at Qumran and James’s twelve-member body of elders.[11] Some of these parallels may simply reflect views widely held among Jews in the land of Israel, but others speak more directly to the priestly character of both the Qumranic and Jamesian traditions.[12]


In probing the significance of these connections between James and the Qumran scrolls, we should bear in mind that the spirituality reflected by the Qumran scrolls was probably definitive for a much wider movement. There is no convincing reason to think that part of the actual history of Christianity lies at the Qumran site. Rather, the Qumran writings reflect a wider movement, and it is this wider movement that may hold the key to many questions about the earliest Christians. Furthermore, it can safely be said that whatever goes for James can obviously be posed as a meaningful question about Jesus: while it may be going too far to say that “Jesus was associated with an Essene community,”[13] no attempt to trace the Jewish roots of Jesus’ teaching can afford to ignore the Dead Sea Scrolls.

  • [1] See David Flusser, “The Dead Sea Sect and Pre-Pauline Christianity,” in Scripta Hierosolymitana, vol. 4: Aspects of the Dead Sea Scrolls, eds. Chaim Rabin and Yigael Yadin (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1958) 215-66; Matthew Black, “The Scrolls and Christian Origins: Studies in the Jewish Background of the New Testament (New York: Scribner, 1961) 75-88.
  • [2] See Peter H. Davids, “Palestinian Traditions in the Epistle of James,” in James the Just and Christian Origins, eds. Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans (NovTSup 98; Leiden: Brill, 1999) 35-57; Richard Bauckham, “James and Jesus,” in The Brother of Jesus: James the Just and His Mission, eds. Bruce Chilton and Jacob Neusner (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2001) 100-37, esp. 101-105.
  • [3] As Richard Bauckham writes, “it is difficult to estimate how competent in Greek a Galilean Jew could have been” (Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1990] 177). For a discussion of whether the historical James could have written in quality Greek, see J. N. Sevenster, Do You Know Greek? How Much Greek Could the First Jewish Christians have Known? (NovTSup 19; Leiden: Brill, 1968) 3-17.
  • [4] A number of earlier studies on wisdom at Qumran dichotomize wisdom and apocalyptic, concluding either that the Qumranites (being apocalyptists) did not write any true wisdom texts. Verseput notes the damage that this false dichotomy threatened to bring to the study of James (“Wisdom, 4Q185, and the Epistle of James,” JBL 117 [1998] 691-707, esp. 691-92). This defect has been corrected in more recent surveys: see Daniel J. Harrington, Wisdom Texts from Qumran (Literature of the Dead Sea Scrolls; London: Routledge, 1996); John. I. Kampen, “The Diverse Aspects of Wisdom at Qumran,” in The Dead Sea Scrolls after Fifty Years: A Comprehensive Assessment, eds. Peter W. Flint and James C. VanderKam (Leiden: Brill, 1998) 1:211-43; Daryl F. Jefferies, Wisdom at Qumran: A Form-Critical Analysis of the Admonitions in 4QInstruction (Gorgias Dissertations: Near Eastern Studies 3; Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2002) 31-38. See Bauckham, “James and Jesus,” 105.
  • [5] Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church, 54.
  • [6] See Wilhelm Pratscher, Der Herrenbruder Jakobus und die Jakobustradition (FRLANT 139; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1987) 108-09. On James as the first pope, see G. H. R. Horsley, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, vol. 4 (Macquarie University: Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, 1987) 266 (= no. 133); Martin Hengel, “Jacobus der Herrenbruder—der erste ‘Papst’?,” in Glaube und Eschatologie: Festschrift für W. G. Kümmel zum 80. Geburtstag, ed. E. Grässer and O. Merk (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1985) 71-104.
  • [7] See John Painter, Just James: The Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition (Studies on Personalities of the New Testament; Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997) 56; S. G. F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots: A Study of the Political Factor in Primitive Christianity (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1967) 161-66.
  • [8] Charles Kingsley Barrett judges this solution to the ending of Acts to be “unconvincing” (“The End of Acts,” in Geschichte–Tradition–Reflexion: Festschrift für Martin Hengel zum 70. Geburtstag, eds. Hubert Cancik, Hermann Lichtenberger, and Peter Schäfer [3 vols.; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1996] 3.545-55, esp. 549), but for “unconvincing” reasons: he simply asks, Would not Paul’s other churches have been interested in Paul’s fate, and would not the Christians in Rome have wanted the continuation of Paul’s ordeal in Rome (even if they knew it firsthand)? If these are the weightiest objections that Barrett can summon in justification of moving on to some other view, then I take that as support.
  • [9] Eisenman makes a number of valuable observations as well, as when he notes that the “Qumran perspective” on Hab. 2:4 (cf. the Habakkuk Pesher) “is Jamesian [cf. Jas. 2:23] rather than Pauline” (James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls [New York: Viking, 1997] 355).
  • [10] John Painter argues that James’s “poor” are the poor of the Jerusalem church, mentioned in Gal 2.10 (cf. 2 Corinthians 8-9; Rom. 15:22-29; Acts 11:29), which in turn may be related to a conflict (beginning in 59 CE) between the Sadducean high priestly party and poorer priests (see Jos. Ant. 20.180-1). He claims that James’s concern for the exploitation of the poor is one of the strongest indicators that the epistle “has its context in Judaea and Galilee before the Jewish war” (Just James: The Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999], 249). On “the poor” as a self-designation at Qumran, see CD 19.9; 1QH 10.34; 1QM 14.7 (“poor in spirit”); 1QpHab 12.4-5; 4Q434 1 ii 2. Brian J. Capper argues that poverty was a fact of life in the agrarian sector of Judean society from which the Essenes sprang (“The New Covenant in Southern Palestine at the Arrest of Jesus”, in James R. Davila (ed.), The Dead Sea Scrolls as Background to Postbiblical Judaism and Early Christianity: Papers from an International Conference at St. Andrews in 2001 [STDJ 46; Leiden: Brill, 2003] 90-116). Capper notes that care for the poor was especially important to extra-Qumranic Essenism (cf. CD 14.12-17), and Jefferies notes the prevalence of this theme in 4QInstruction and elsewhere (Wisdom at Qumran, 228-29). Cf. Jos.Bell. 2.134.
  • [11] There is little agreement at this point on the constitution of the governing body in 4QpIsad, but Yigael Yadin (“The Newly Published Pesharim of Isaiah,” IEJ 9 [1959] 39-42), Joseph M. Baumgarten (“The Duodecimal Courts of Qumran, Revelation, and the Sanhedrin,” JBL 95 [1976] 59-78), Maurya P. Horgan (Pesharim: Qumran Interpretations of Biblical Books [CBQMS 8; Washington DC: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1979] 129-30), Jonathan A. Draper (“The Twelve Apostles as Foundation Stones of the Heavenly Jerusalem and the Foundation of the Qumran Community,” Neotestamentica 22 [1988] 41-63), David Flusser (Judaism and the Origins of Christianity [Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988]), and Crispin H. T. Fletcher-Louis (All the Glory of Adam: Liturgical Anthropology in the Dead Sea Scrolls [STDJ 42; Leiden: Brill, 2002]) have made a persuasive case that the text should be restored as referring to a twelve-member body. For a reconstruction of the traditions surrounding the James circle, see Roelof van den Broek, “Der Brief der Jakobus an Quadratus und das Problem der judenchristlichen Bischöfe von Jerusalem (Eusebius, HE IV, 5, 1-3),” in T. Baarda, A. Hilhorst, G. P. Luttikhuizen, & A. S. van der Woude (eds.), Text and Testimony: Essays on New Testament and Apocryphal Literature in Honour of A. F. J. Klijn (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1988) 56-65; Bauckham, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church, 72-75, 233.
  • [12] On the priestly character of the traditions surrounding James the Just, see esp. Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 2.23.4-18.
  • [13] This overreaching claim is found in James C. Russell, The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) 77.

The Approval of Abraham: Traditions of God’s Acceptance of Abraham in Early Jewish and Christian Sources

“God said to Abraham kill me a son…” —Bob Dylan

When, in ancient times, people read the account of the life of Abraham, it was common for them to ask, “When did Abraham finally make the grade? At which point in his life was Abraham approved and accepted by God?”

Already in the account of Genesis it is apparent that there were certain moments in Abraham’s life that were particularly important in his relationship with God. But was there an instance when, either through an act of obedience or a demonstration of faith, Abraham merited God’s approval? Was there a moment when Abraham was proved to be righteous, or acceptable, or favored once and for all? Was there a moment when God specially commended Abraham for his uprightness or his courageous trust?

That Abraham had achieved an approved status with God was taken for granted; the LORD allowed himself to be remembered by all subsequent generations as the God of Abraham. Early traditions citing Abraham’s approved status tended to be rather vague, citing the commendable qualities of the patriarch and concluding that he merited divine approval and that he was, therefore, to be emulated. The earliest sources often do not point to one moment that was of particular significance, but as the traditions of Abraham’s acceptance developed, they began to take on a stylized form. Most often these focused on how Abraham had passed some sort of test (and there were plenty of trials in Abraham’s life to consider) and having passed the test, he was declared to have received divine approval. Often a verse from Genesis was cited to prove that this was, indeed, the moment at which Abraham had passed the test. Early in the development of these traditions they were not considered to be mutually exclusive, it could be that there were a number of times when Abraham merited acceptance before God. Sometimes, however, ideologies clashed, and the traditions relating to Abraham’s approval took on a polemical force. The development of certain branches of these traditions were sometimes cut off from one religious community and adopted by the other, while at other times older traditions took on a new force as the debate intensified.

A Man According to the Law

To illustrate how a tradition of Abraham’s approval might develop, we will consider first the tradition that Abraham was approved by God because he kept the Law. This idea goes back to the text of Genesis itself, where it is stated, “Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments [מצותי; mitsvotai], my statutes, and my laws [תורתי; torotai]” (Gen. 26:5[1] ). As early as the composition of Ecclesiasticus, also known as the Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sira, we read that “[Abraham] kept the law [νόμον; nomon] of the Most High, and was taken into covenant with him” (Sir. 44:20). This statement, made in the context of praising the great deeds of Abraham, presents him as observing all the precepts of the Torah, and this observance seems to have merited his being brought into the covenant.[2]

When we come to the description of Abraham in the Book of Jubilees, a Pseudepigrapha that retells the events in Genesis, it is clear that in its presentation of the life of Abraham, the intent is to demonstrate that Abraham had observed the commandments of the Mosaic covenant even before their revelation at Sinai. Thus we find Abraham making the same sacrifices that were later to be made in the Temple, and Abraham is portrayed as observing all the biblically mandated feasts.[3]

Philo, the first-century A.D. Jewish philosopher, also considered Abraham’s obedience to be a decisive moment in his relationship with God. In his treatise On Abraham he wrote, “God, adding to the multitude and magnitude of the praises of the wise man one single thing as a crowning point, says that ‘this man fulfilled the divine law, and all the commandments of God,’” (On Abraham §275). Philo is highlighting an instance when Abraham was approved by God, “a crowning point” for Abraham, as he put it, and it seems likely that Philo is alluding to Genesis 26:5. In contrast to earlier traditions relating to Abraham’s keeping the Law, however, it was not Philo’s intention to maintain that Abraham kept the Mosaic Law; rather Philo argued that Abraham had observed a natural law. At the very outset of his treatise Philo states that “a man may very properly say, that the written laws are nothing more than a memorial of the life of the ancients, tracing back in an antiquarian spirit, the actions and reasonings which they adopted” (On Abraham §5). Thus Philo set out to prove that natural law is the only basis for law, even the Law of Moses, and that the Patriarchs were themselves “living and rational laws” (ibid.) who had no need of the Torah in order to be virtuous. While acknowledging that it was commonly held that Abraham observed all the commands of the Torah, “a man according to the law, as some persons think,” Philo contends that “my argument has shown [Abraham to be] one who is himself the unwritten law and justice of God” (On Abraham §276). Philo is working against the received interpretive trend, but he does so employing traditional tools: Philo acknowledges that Abraham’s obedience was decisive for his acceptance before God, and he reworks the prooftext from Genesis; for Philo, Abraham did not keep but he did fulfill the Torah.[4]

The Mishnah also preserves a succinct tradition regarding Abraham’s observance of the Torah: “We find that Abraham our father had performed the whole Law before it was given, for it is written, ‘Because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statues, and my Laws’” (m. Qidd. 4:14). With this simple summary of an approval tradition the Rabbis close the debate over whether Abraham actually observed or merely fulfilled the commandments, which were only later given at Sinai. Perhaps by the time the Mishnah was compiled it had become too dangerous to allow for speculation as to whether the Torah could be fulfilled without actual observance. Not only was the threat of Hellenization and assimilation too great without the Temple to provide a religious and national identity, but the claim of the Christians to have fulfilled the Law through faith in Jesus required Jewish interpretations that would not give any credence to the notion that the Torah could be fulfilled apart from actual observance.

Not only the content of the tradition preserved by the Mishnah, but the form in which it was preserved is of interest to our investigation. The Mishnah has distilled the tradition of Abraham’s approval on account of his Torah observance into a pithy formula. The tradition is stated and the verse that gave rise to it is cited.

When He Was Tested, He Was Found Faithful

One of the oldest traditions relating to God’s approval of Abraham is the tradition that God had found Abraham faithful. The development of this tradition begins already in the Bible. In a prayer of Nehemiah we read:

“Thou art the LORD, the God who didst choose Abram and bring him forth out of Ur of the Chaldeans and give him the name Abraham; and thou didst find his heart faithful before thee, and didst make with him the covenant to give to his descendants the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite; and thou hast fulfilled thy promise, for thou art righteous. (Neh. 9:7-8)

In this passage Abraham’s entrance into the covenant seems to have depended upon the faithfulness which God had found him to possess. Ben Sira, in a passage in which several moments of decisive import in Abraham’s life are noted, expresses a similar idea:

Abraham was the great father of a multitude of nations, and no one has been found like him in glory; he kept the law of the Most High, and was taken into covenant with him; he established the covenant in his flesh, and when he was tested he was found faithful. Therefore the Lord assured him by an oath that the nations would be blessed through his posterity; that he would multiply him like the dust of the earth, and exalt his posterity like the stars, and cause them to inherit from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Sir. 44:19-21)[5]

No one moment comes to the fore in this passage as the decisive moment for Abraham’s approval, but a great deal of this passage does seem to turn on the phrase “when he was tested he was found faithful” (Sir. 44:20). This comes close to Nehemiah’s idea that God had found Abraham’s heart faithful, but it adds the notion that Abraham’s faithfulness was proved through some sort of test, though Ben Sira does not make explicit what that test may have been.

In Jubilees we find the notion that when Abraham was found faithful it was announced in Heaven:

And it came to pass…that words came in heaven concerning Abraham that he was faithful in everything which was told him and he loved the LORD and was faithful in all affliction. (Jub. 17:15)

That these words were announced in Heaven indicates that this was a moment in Abraham’s life when his status was approved by God. Jubilees’ “faithful in all affliction” comes remarkably close to Ben Sira’s contention that “when he was tested he was found faithful.” Even closer is the statement in the Qumran document 4QPseudo-Jubileesb(4Q226) 7:1, probably composed at the same time as Jubilees,[6] which reads, “Abraham was found faithful to [G]o[d].”[7] These three traditions appear to be related to the statement in Nehemiah’s prayer that God had “found his heart faithful,” but they are written, not in the active voice, but the passive, the reason for which we will see below.

The notion of Abraham’s faithfulness is carried further in a brief description of Abraham given in the last words of Mattathias, the Hasmonean patriarch, in 1 Maccabees 2:52. There we read Mattathias’ question, “Was not Abraham found faithful when tested, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness?” The parallel to Ben Sira is striking, for precisely the same words, “found faithful when tested,” are used in both descriptions, suggesting, perhaps, that this saying came from a collection of stock phrases concerning Abraham.

Interestingly, the saying as preserved in 1 Maccabees connects the notion that Abraham had been faithful with a Biblical verse, quoting the Septuagint’s translation of the second half of Genesis 15:6 precisely. Since this verse speaks in the passive voice, “it was reckoned,” it is likely that it influenced the wording of the earlier part of the saying, “was not Abraham found faithful,” in 1 Maccabees, suggesting that Ben Sira, Jubilees, and 4QPseudo-Jubileesb were influenced by this verse also, though they did not quote it explicitly. But if they were dependent on Genesis 15:6, they were familiar with the saying as it is found in the Septuagint (= LXX) and not in the Masoretic Text (= MT).

Between the LXX and the MT versions of Genesis 15:6 there are small, but important, differences. The MT reads: “and he believed in the LORD and he reckoned it to him (as) righteousness.” Who did the believing and who did the reckoning is left ambiguous. The LXX, however, says: “and Abram believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Here it is explicitly stated that it was Abraham who believed (but the LXX says in God, not the LORD), and “it was credited to him,” being written in the passive voice, makes it clear that it was God who was doing the reckoning.[8] Since Ben Sira, Jubilees, 4QPseudo-Jubileesb, and 1 Maccabees were all originally written in Hebrew, it is odd that they would have relied on the LXX version of Genesis 15:6. Indeed, their agreement against the MT suggests that the LXX was not merely clarifying an ambiguous passage, but that it was translated from a different form of the Hebrew text. Fitzmyer argues that the Hebrew which stood behind the LXX might well be represented in 4QPseudo-Jubileesa (4Q225) which, in its retelling of Genesis 15 states, “And [Abraham] belie[ved in] G[o]d, and righteousness was reckoned to him.” As Fitzmyer observed, this passage

agrees with the Greek translation found in the Septuagint in using a passive form of the verb, the 3d sg. Niphal imperfect with waw-conversive. It supplies “Abraham” as the subject of “believed,” as in the Septuagint, and strikingly it not only reads instead of the tetragrammaton אלוהים, but uses a waw-conversive imperfect for the anomalous perfect of the Masoretic Text, “he believed.” The one difference is the preposition εἰς before δικαιοσύνην, whereas 4Q255 has simply צדקה, as in the Masoretic Text of Gen 15:6, but that has now become the subject of the passive verb.[9]

If Ben Sira, Jubilees, 4QPseudo-Jubileesb, and 1 Maccabees were familiar with Genesis 15:6 as it appears in 4QPseudo-Jubileesa this would help to account for their statements being made in the passive voice; since they knew that righteousness had been credited to Abraham, they also knew that Abraham had been found faithful.[10]

Why had Ben Sira, Jubilees, and 4QPseudo-Jubileesb implicitly, and 1 Maccabees explicitly connected the notion that Abraham had been found faithful with Genesis 15:6? Could it have been that the test of Abraham’s faithfulness was considered to have been whether or not Abraham would believe God? Perhaps the link is simply with the word “faith.” The tradition states that when tested Abraham was found faithful, whereas Genesis 15:6 says Abraham had faith in God. While the correlation is not exact, it was, apparently, strong enough to have generated the traditions of Abraham’s faithfulness we have discussed thus far.

When He Was Tested, Abraham Offered Up Isaac

Having found a tradition relating to the moment of Abraham’s approval, “when he was tested, he was found faithful,” and having found Genesis 15:6 being employed as a prooftext for this tradition, we have yet to identify what precisely the test was. The Epistle to the Hebrews provides us with one answer, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac” (Heb 11:17). The wording in this passage is not the same as that found in the sayings in Ben Sira or 1 Maccabees, but important elements from these earlier sayings are present, namely, Abraham’s testing and Abraham’s faith.[11] This positive identification of which test required the exercise of faith also stands behind the passage relating to Abraham found in the Epistle of James:

Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God. (James 2:21-23)

James is apparently writing so as to counterbalance the teachings of Paul or his followers, and so elements of a tradition of Abraham’s justification (another strain of approval traditions) are introduced into this passage, but James uses the tradition of Abraham’s approval through testing to make his argument. Here we find the elements of the test (Isaac on the altar), Abraham’s faith, and the quotation of Genesis 15:6 combined. We also find a new element, that Abraham was declared to be God’s friend.

The passage from James helps to make clear the traditions from which Philo was drawing in a passage from his treatise On Abraham. Philo begins an exposition on Abraham’s faith, and though Philo does not do such a neat job presenting the elements of the tradition of Abraham’s approval when tested, we may attribute this to his loquacious style. Philo introduces his topic saying, “There is another praise of him attested by words from Moses’ lips. In these it is stated that he ‘trusted [ἐπίστευσε] in God’” (On Abraham §262). It seems certain that Philo is alluding here to Genesis 15:6 since the LXX reads “Abram trusted in God.” When, finally, Philo returns to discuss this verse he continues:

God, marveling at Abraham’s faith in Him repaid him with faithfulness by confirming with an oath the gifts which He had promised, and here he no longer talked with him as God with man but as a friend with a familiar. For He, with whom a word is an oath, yet says, “By myself have I sworn.” (On Abraham §273)

In this passage the elements of Abraham’s faith, the test of Isaac (God swears by himself after Abraham proves his obedience by bringing Isaac to the altar), the allusion to Genesis 15:6 and the declaration that Abraham was God’s friend are all brought together, albeit with a new prooftext, Genesis 22:16.

But Philo was not the first to have brought these elements together.[12] Two ancient reworkings of Genesis also attest to the combination of the Binding of Isaac with Abraham’s faith. We have already briefly referred to the Qumran document, 4QPseudo-Jubileesa. This document not only attests to a Hebrew version of Genesis 15:6 that is much closer to the LXX than the MT, it also brings that verse in close proximity to the greatest test of Abraham’s faith:

[And A]braham said to God: “My Lord, I go on being childless and Eli[ezer] is [the son of my household,] and he will be my heir.” [The Lo]rd [said] to A[b]raham: “Lift up your eyes and observe the stars, and see [and count] the sand which is on the seashore and the dust of the earth, for if these [can be num]bered and al[so] if not, your seed will be like this.” And [Abraham] be[lieved] [in] G[o]d, and righteousness was accounted to him. A son was born af[ter] this [to Abraha]m, and he named him Isaac. Then the Prince Ma[s]tema [the prince of demons] came [to G]od, and he accused Abraham regarding Isaac. And [G]od said [to Abra]ham: “Take your son, Isaac, [your] onl[y son whom you [love] and offer him to me as a whole burnt-offering on one of the [high] mountains [which I will designate] for you. And he got [up and w]en[t] from the wells up to M[t. Moriah]….he would be found weak, and whether A[braham] should not be found faithful [to God]. (4Q225 Pseudo-Jubilees Frag. 2, col. 1, lines 1-13, col. 2, line 8)

4QPseudo-Jubileesa presents the Binding of Isaac as a test to see whether or not Abraham was indeed to be found faithful to God. This is not dissimilar to James’ statement that when Abraham offered Isaac on the altar, Genesis 15:6 was fulfilled. 4QPseudo-Jubileesa is also similar to Jubilees’ treatment of the same episodes in Abraham’s life. There it is stated:

And it came to pass…that words came in heaven concerning Abraham that he was faithful in everything which was told him and he loved the LORD and was faithful in all affliction. And Prince Mastema came and he said before God, “Behold, Abraham loves Isaac, his son. And he is more pleased with him than anything. Tell him to offer him (as) a burnt offering upon the altar. And you will see whether he will do this thing. And you will know whether he is faithful in everything in which you test him.”

And the LORD was aware that Abraham was faithful in all of his afflictions because he tested him with his land, and with famine. And he tested him with the wealth of kings. And he tested him again with his wife, when she was taken (from him), and with circumcision. And he tested him with Ishmael and with Hagar, his maidservant, when he sent them away. And in everything in which he tested him, he was found faithful. And his soul was not impatient. And he was not slow to act because he was faithful and a lover of the LORD. (Jub. 17:15-18)

In this passage we find that although Abraham is proved faithful in many tests, the test par excellance was the offering of Isaac. Also, according to Jubilees, through the tests Abraham is proved to be a man who loves the LORD. This is not quite the same as “friend of God” such as we find in Philo and in James, rather it seems to represent the Abraham tradition midway through its development. For already in the Bible we find Abraham described as loved by the LORD. Thus in Isaiah 41:8 we find God referring to Abraham as “my beloved,” while in 2 Chronicles 20:7, in speech directed to God, Abraham is called “your beloved.”[13] From the Bible to Jubilees the change from Abraham’s description as “beloved of the LORD” to “lover of the LORD” had already been made; the change to “friend of God” was a small step, and it is found already in the writings of Philo where we find Abraham variously described as “lover of God” and “friend of God.”[14]

In Jubilees we find another notion regarding Abraham’s testing; according to Jubilees 19:8, the death of Sarah was the tenth and final trial of Abraham. It is interesting to note that in the Mishnah a tradition regarding the trials of Abraham states, “with ten temptations was Abraham our father tempted, and he stood steadfast in them all, to show how great was the love of Abraham our father” (m. Avot 5:3).[15]

Faith Was Reckoned to Abraham as Righteousness

As against the tradition of Abraham’s approval by God by being found faithful when tested, Paul, for whom this sounded much too like a type of works-righteousness, stressed not the obedience, but the faith of Abraham. Paul needed to prove to the early Christian community that Gentiles could become acceptable to God apart from observance of the Mosaic Law. The example of Abraham posed a sticky problem for him; perhaps especially because of those traditions which maintained that Abraham observed the commandments even before their revelation at Sinai. Paul needed to stress that Abraham had become acceptable to God even before his circumcision in order to assure his Gentile readers that God’s approval could be attained without being circumcised. According to Paul’s understanding, “every man who receives circumcision…is bound to keep the whole law” (Gal. 5:3).[16] If circumcision were to be required of Gentiles for God’s approval, then observance of the Mosaic Law would be required of them as well. So Paul set out to prove that God had approved Abraham before he was circumcised.

What then shall we say about Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”…We say that faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received circumcision as a sign or seal of the righteousness which he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, and likewise the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but also follow the example of the faith which our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. (Rom. 4:1-3, 9b-12)

Paul’s statement that “faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness,” is radical, and leaves no room for the contention that some kind of action had merited Abraham’s approval. This certainly cuts against the trend of interpretation we have encountered thus far. Nevertheless, in his argument, Paul had not entirely scrapped the use of tradition. Already we have seen how Genesis 15:6 was used as the prooftext to prove that Abraham had been approved by God. Certain earlier traditions had similarly stressed not the obedience, but the faith of Abraham, thus we read in the Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael,

Shemaiah says: “The faith which their father Abraham believed in Me is deserving that I should divide the sea for them.” For it is said: “And he believed in the Lord” [Gen. 15:6].” (Beshallah 4.58-59)

(Shemaiah, the sage paired with Abtalion in m. Avot 1:10, lived a few generations before Paul.) In a similar vein we read,

Our father Abraham inherited both this world and the world beyond only as a reward for the faith with which he believed, as it is said: “And he believed in the Lord,” etc. [Gen. 15:6]. (Mechilta Beshallah 7.139-141)

Nevertheless, in the argument represented in the New Testament between James and Paul, it is certainly James who had the stronger tradition behind him, but for readers of Scripture to whom tradition had not been handed down, such as the Gentile Christians, Paul makes a compelling case.[17] The First Epistle of Clement seems to represent a compromise between James and Paul. Clement asked, “Why was our father Abraham blessed? Was it not because he wrought righteousness and truth through faith?” (1 Clement 31.2). According to this early Christian tradition both the faith and the work of Abraham are brought together.[18]

He Was Not Called Perfect Until He Was Circumcised

Paul’s influence, it seems, extended beyond the Christian community, for the Jewish tradition conspicuously dropped Genesis 15:6 as a prooftext for Abraham’s acceptance. The tradition of noting the moment of Abraham’s justification did not entirely die out, however, for in a Talmudic homily on the enumeration of the commandments of the Torah we read,

“He that walketh righteously [Isa 33:15],” that was our father Abraham, as it is written, “For I have known him to the end that he may command his household [after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice (Gen. 18:19)].” (b. Makkot 24a).

Paul also seems to have provoked a rebuttal from the Jewish community. In Tractate Nedarim of the Mishnah, the Rabbis found occasion to extol the virtues of circumcision. The penultimate statement in this eulogy is particularly pointed:

Rabbi says: Great is circumcision, for despite all the religious duties which Abraham our father fulfilled, he was not called ‘perfect’ [שלם; shalem] until he was circumcised, as it is written, “Walk before me and be thou perfect [תמים; tamim] [Gen.17:1].” (m. Ned. 3:11)

In this saying, R. Yehudah ha-Nasi reasserts the tradition that Abraham observed the commandments, and in direct opposition to the statement of Paul, he contends that it was precisely at the moment of his circumcision that Abraham was approved. Indeed, Rabbi intensifies the saying asserting that Abraham was made “perfect,” while the prooftext says “blameless.” This saying was not without its antecedents, however, for already in Jubilees we find that circumcision was enumerated as one of the tests in which Abraham was found faithful (Jub. 17:17). Ben Sira closely connects circumcision to Abraham’s testing, “he established the covenant in his flesh, and when he was tested he was found faithful” (Sir. 44:20), and Philo highlights the moment of circumcision in a way not dissimilar to the formulation in m. Ned. 3:11: “But when he became improved, and was about to have his name changed, he then became a man of God, according to the oracle delivered to him, ‘I am thy God, take care that thou art approved before me, and be thou blameless’ [Gen. 17:1]” (On the Giants §63; Philo quotes the LXX precisely).

The Talmud preserves an alternate form of Yehudah ha-Nasi’s saying in a baraita:

Rabbi says: “Great is circumcision, for you have no one that involved himself in [the keeping of] commandments to the extent that Abraham our father did, and yet he was not called complete [tamim] except because of circumcision, as it is stated, ‘Walk before me and be complete [tamim]’ [Gen. 17:1], and immediately following this it is written, ‘and I will set my covenant between me and you’ [17:2].” (b. Ned. 32a)[19]

This form of the saying presupposes that no one was ever so observant of the Law as was Abraham.

Later recollections intensified the emphasis on the merits of circumcision, so, for example:

R. Judan said: “Just as a fig contains nothing inedible save its stalk, and with its removal even this defect ceases, so did God say to Abraham: ‘There is nothing unworthy in thee save thy foreskin: remove it and the blemish ceases’: hence, ’Walk before me, and be thou whole’ [Gen. 17:1].” (Genesis Rabbah 46.1)

And Thou Dost Not Believe In My Word!

Although we have already noted that, as a response to Paul, Genesis 15:6 was rapidly dropped as a prooftext for the moment of Abraham’s approval, this did not prevent later Rabbinic literature from undermining the importance of this verse. They did this in two ways, first by minimizing the faith with which Abraham “believed the LORD,” and second, from the same passage emphasizing Abraham’s lack of faith. The passage from Genesis reads:

Abram said, “Behold, thou has given me no offspring; and a slave born in my house will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; your own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside [literally, brought him out] and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the LORD; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness. And he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you [literally, brought you out] from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”…Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation which they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions….” (Gen. 15:3-8, 13-14)

The Rabbis took the words “brought out” (verse 5) to see the stars, and “brought out” (verse 7) from the land of the Chaldeans, to recall the tradition that Abraham had been learned in the arts of astrology and that God had led Abraham away from them. The tradition that Abraham was versed in astrology was an old one, being hinted at in Jubilees, and later attested to by Philo (On Abraham §69-70) and Josephus (Ant. 1.8.2). But in the context of our passage, it took on a special force. Thus in b. Ned. 32a we find it stated:

And he took him outside [Gen. 15:5]. Abraham said before the LORD: “Master of the Universe! I have gazed into my astrological portents, and I have seen that I am destined to have only one son!”[20] The LORD replied to him: “Go outside of your astrology! The celestial signs are not for Israel.”

It was on this occasion that “the Rabbis said: [God said to him]: ‘Thou are a prophet, not an astrologer,’ as it says, ‘Now, therefore, restore this man’s wife, for he is a prophet’ [Gen. 20:7]” (Genesis Rabbah 44.12). This tradition undermines the faith Abraham expressed in God’s promise of offspring by implying that God proved the veracity of his promise by means of astrology. In a passage parallel to that from Nedarim cited above, God says to Abraham:

What do you suppose, that Jupiter, in whose hour you were born, is situated in the west, and you are therefore infertile? I will simply move it around and situate it in the east. And that is the meaning of that which is written, “Who awoke Jupiter from the east, He summoned it because of him [i.e., Abraham] [Isa 41:2].” (b. Shabbat 156a)

Numbers Rabbah cites a tradition in the name of R. Yohanan in which God says to Abraham, “‘From the very planet which showed you that you are not destined to have any progeny, I will prove to you that you will have progeny’; as it is stated, ‘And he brought him forth abroad, and said: Look now toward heaven,’ etc.” (Numbers Rabbah 2.12). These traditions imply that the faith of Abraham, described in Genesis 15:6, was based on what God had shown him in the stars.

Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai is also credited with having proved the faithlessness of Abraham from Genesis 15:8. In Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer we read:

Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, opened [his exposition with the text]: “In that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘Unto thy seed will I give this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates’ [Gen. 15:18]. Abraham said before the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Thou has not given me seed, yet dost Thou say, “Unto thy seed will I give this land”’ [ibid.]. He said: ‘Whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?’ [ibid. 8]. The Holy One, blessed be he, said to him: ‘Abram! The entire world stands by My word, and thou dost not believe in my word, but thou sayest, “Whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?” [ibid.]. By thy life! In two ways shalt thou surely know, as it is said, “And he said to Abram, ‘Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land which is not theirs…and they shall afflict them’” [ibid. 13].’” (PRE 67a)

A Talmudic tradition, in the form of a saying regarding Abraham’s approval, but this time noting a moment at which Abraham was found to be at fault, states, “Shmuel said: ‘[Abraham was punished] because he presumed to ask for confirmation concerning the decrees of God, as it was stated: “How am I to know that I will inherit it?”’ [Gen. 15:8]” (b. Ned. 32a).[21]

The traditions that discredited the faith of Abraham described in Genesis 15:6, either by attributing that faith to belief in astrology or by highlighting Abraham’s lack of faith in Genesis 15:8, seem to be a part of a polemical discourse between the Jewish and Christian communities.[22] These traditions were part of a more pointed polemic that contended that Abraham was made perfect at his circumcision, a view directly opposed to Paul’s argument that Abraham had become acceptable to God by faith, before he had been circumcised, and therefore without observance of the Law.

Other Traditions of Abraham’s Approval

Despite the ongoing dispute between the Jewish and Christian communities, the tradition of identifying a variety of moments at which Abraham was accepted by God persisted in Jewish literature. According to the Mishnah, Abraham was considered one of God’s five special possessions. “Whence [do we learn this of] Abraham? Because it is written, ‘And he blessed him, and said, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth”’ [Gen. 14:19]” (m. Avot 6:10). Heaven and earth were also considered a special possession belonging to God in this list, and the reasoning seems to be: If heaven and earth are one possession, then Abraham who possesses heaven and earth (“possessor” from Gen. 14:19 is taken to refer to Abraham, not to God), must also be a special possession. The Midrash to Proverbs makes this reasoning explicit stating,

Because Abraham lived blamelessly, as it is said, ‘Walk in my ways and be blameless’ [Gen. 17:1], he earned the merit of acquiring both heaven and earth, as it is said, ‘Blessed be Abram of God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth’ [Gen 14:19]. (Midrash to Proverbs 19)

Another tradition notes the moment at which Abraham became a new creation:

R. Berechiah said: ‘It is not written, “And I will give thee,” or “And I will set thee,” but, “And I will make thee [a great nation]” [Gen 12:2]: that is, after I have created thee as a new creation, thou wilt be fruitful and multiply.’” (Genesis Rabbah 39.11)

So also, we find the beginnings of a tradition marking the moment Abraham was considered merciful. Though not found in the stylized form of an approval saying, in which Abraham’s meritorious attribute is identified and a prooftext is cited, we do read the following:

Even though a man pays [him that suffers the indignity], it is not forgiven him until he seeks forgiveness from him, for it is written, “Now therefore, restore the man’s wife…[and he shall pray for thee]” [Gen. 20:7].[23] And whence do we learn that if he did not forgive him he would be accounted merciless? Because it is written, “And Abraham prayed unto God and God healed Abimelech” [Gen. 20:17]. (m. Bava Kamma 8:7)

In this saying we find something more along the lines of a moment when Abraham was not found to be unmerciful. The parallel to this passage in the Tosefta, however, comes a little closer to an approval saying:

He who injures his fellow, even though the one who did the injury did not seek [forgiveness] from the injured party, the injured party nonetheless has to seek mercy for him, since it says, “Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech” (Gen. 20:17). (t. Bava Kamma 9:29)

Doubtless other approval sayings could be identified.


In this article we have examined the development of a variety of sayings that identified a particular moment in the life of Abraham at which he became acceptable to God. We have seen how these sayings developed from more general traditions concerning Abraham’s life and his virtues that were based upon the story of Abraham in the book of Genesis. Some of these traditions had begun to develop even while the Bible was being written. As the sayings regarding Abraham’s approval developed they tended to take on a stylized form in which Abraham’s virtuous quality was specified and a verse from Genesis was cited as a proof. With the appearance of the Christians, especially when Pauline theology became widespread, the sayings of Abraham’s approval took on a polemical force. The debate, in which opposing traditions regarding Abraham’s acceptance were employed, appeared first within the Christian community, as the Epistle to the Romans and the Epistle of James attest.

Eventually, it appears, the Christian community clashed with the Jewish community, certainly this seems the most obvious reason for the emphatic ways in which the tradition that stated that Abraham became acceptable to God at his circumcision was expressed. The clash with the Jewish community would also account for the diligence with which the tradition regarding Abraham’s approval because of his faith was undermined. Notwithstanding the Jewish determination not to give Christians any ground in their contention that Abraham had been accepted to God by faith alone, apart from obedience or observance of the Torah, Jewish creativity regarding other moments of acceptance was not blotted out. This article has also demonstrated the complex interrelation of Jewish traditions, traditions in which the authors of the New Testament were thoroughly at home, even while reinterpreting these traditions for their new understanding of their faith. Finally, this article has shown how durable certain traditions could be, and how they managed to persist in a wide array of contexts and genres.

  • [1] All Scripture quotations are taken from the RSV unless otherwise noted.
  • [2] Was Ben Sira’s assertion informed by Gen. 26:5? The Greek version of Ben Sira maintains that Abraham “kept the law [νόμον; nomon],” which looks like a suitable translation of תורתי (torotai) from Gen. 26:5. But this is not the way the LXX translated Gen. 26:5, which reads ἐφύλαξεν…τὰ νόμιμά μου (ephulaxen…ta nomima mou). The force of the LXX is weaker than that of Ben Sira. The LXX would read more like the RSV’s English translation, implying that Abraham kept God’s “laws,” not that he kept the whole Torah. We might have assumed that the Greek translation of Ben Sira worked independently of the LXX when it translated torotai as nomon, but now that this passage from Ben Sira has been found preserved in Hebrew, we find that Ben Sira reads מצות שמר (shamar mitsvot), that is, “he kept the commandments” rather than “he kept the Torah,” which we might have expected from the Greek translation of Ben Sira. That the Hebrew reads mitsvot, however, does not rule out that Ben Sira intended to allude to Gen. 26:5, which maintains that Abraham both kept, “my commandments [mitsvotai] and my laws [torotai].”
  • [3] See S. Sandmel, Philo’s Place in Judaism: A Study of Conceptions of Abraham in Jewish Literature (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1971), 45 n. 135.
  • [4] This comes remarkably close to the language of Paul in Rom 2:13-14, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.” Cf. Romans 13:8, “for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.”
  • [5] Ben Sira’s phraseology relies heavily on the language of Genesis. Some phrases, such as “father of a multitude of nations” are direct quotations from Genesis (17:4; Greek and Hebrew versions following the LXX and the MT precisely), and other phrases parallel Biblical language closely. See Patrick W. Skehan and Alexander A. Di Lella, The Wisdom of Ben Sira (AB 39; Garden City: Doubleday, 1987), 505.
  • [6] J. A. Fitzmyer, “The Interpretation of Genesis 15:6: Abraham’s Faith and Righteousness in a Qumran Text,” in Emanuel: Studies in Hebrew Bible, Septuagint and Dead Sea Scrolls in honor of Emanuel Tov, (ed. Shalom M. Paul, Robert A. Kraft, Lawrence H. Schiffman and Weston W. Fields; Boston: Brill, 2003), 267.
  • [7] Cited from Fitzmyer, “Interpretation of Genesis 15:6,” 268.
  • [8] See Fitzmyer’s helpful discussion on p. 261.
  • [9] Fitzmyer, “Interpretation of Genesis 15:6,” 266.
  • [10] Why then does Neh 9:8 speak in the active voice? Fitzmyer suggests that Nehemiah was dependent on a text conforming to the more ambiguous MT, which allowed Nehemiah to consider that it was not Abraham, but God who was reckoned righteous. See Fitzmyer, “Interpretation of Genesis 15:6,” 258-259.
  • [11] Fitzmyer (“Interpretation of Genesis 15:6,” 259) argues that “even though the authors of Ben Sira and First Maccabees do not specify the testing, they take it for granted that the reader would recognize the allusion to the sacrifice of Isaac, [Abraham’s] only son at that time (Gen. 22:9-18).”
  • [12] The first-century work entitled the Biblical Antiquities, which was falsely attributed to Philo, may also represent a combination of Genesis 15 and Genesis 22. There we read:

    I spoke to Abraham in a vision, saying, “Your seed will be like the stars of heaven,” when I lifted him above the firmament and showed him the arrangement of all the stars[.] And I demanded his son as a holocaust. And he brought him to the altar, but I gave him back to his father and, because he did not refuse, his offering was acceptable before me…

    Although the words “your seed will be like the stars of heaven” appear to be derived from Genesis 22:17, the chronological order suggests that God’s statement should have come before Abraham was tested in regard to his beloved son. In Genesis 15:5 God takes Abraham out and, showing him the stars, promised him that his descendants would be similarly innumerable. Indeed, God’s taking Abraham out, which was the basis of other traditions as we shall see below, may have been the basis for the idea that Abraham was lifted above the firmament. If it is to God’s promise in Genesis 15:5 that Pseudo-Philo alludes, then we have yet another combination of Genesis 15 and Genesis 22.

  • [13] Cf. the Damascus Document (CD A, col. 3, line 2) where it is said that because he did not walk in the stubbornness of his own heart, Abraham was “counted as a friend.” This line has not been found in the fragments from Qumran. Nevertheless, fragments containing sentences from the immediate context have been discovered. 4QDamascus Documentb fragment 2, column 2, represents CD A I, 21-II, 21, covering material up to a mere two lines before the statement regarding Abraham, while two fragments of 4QDamascus Documente preserve fragments from just before and just after the statement regarding Abraham (fragment 1 corresponds to CD A II, 16-18, while fragment 2 corresponds to CD A III, 14). Finally, 4Q Damascus Documentf fragment 2 = CD A III, 6-11, which follows close on the heels of the statement regarding Abraham. All this would suggest that the statement regarding Abraham is missing in the Qumran corpus only by chance.
  • [14] See Sandmel, Philo’s Place in Judaism, 44-45 n. 130, for his discussion on this epithet.
  • [15] David Flusser noted that it is remarkable that Abraham became known as a great lover of God “when we bear in mind the very significant passage during the ‘Binding of Isaac,’ in which Abraham is told (Gen. 22:12): ‘Now I do know that you are God-fearing,’” since the traditions which remember Abraham as a lover/friend of God tie this designation so closely to the Akkedah [the Binding of Isaac] (David Flusser, “A New Sensitivity in Judaism and the Christian Message,” Judaism and the Origins of Christianity [Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988], 473).
  • [16] Did Paul agree then that Abraham did observe the Torah before it was given from Sinai, since Abraham was eventually circumcised and would, therefore be “bound to keep the whole law”?
  • [17] It is interesting that at the time of the Reformation, Luther, who attempted to read Scripture apart from Church tradition, took hold so firmly of the message of Paul, while the Catholic Church sided with James.
  • [18] See also 1 Clement 10.1-2, 7:

    Abraham, who was called “the friend,” was found faithful in his obedience to the words of God. He in obedience went forth from his country and from his kindred and from his father’s house, that by leaving behind a little country and a feeble kindred and a small house he might inherit the promises of God…. Because of his faith and hospitality a son was given him in his old age, and in his obedience he offered him as a sacrifice to God on the mountain which he showed him.

    Here Abraham is said to have been found faithful through his obedience to God, and because of his faith he was enabled to offer Isaac as a sacrifice.

  • [19] See also b. Makkot 24a, the Midrash to Proverbs 19, and the Midrash to Psalms 119.3.
  • [20] Cf. b. Shabbat 156a, “Abraham said before him, ‘Master of the Universe! I have already consulted my astrology, and I see that I am not fit to sire a son!” or Genesis Rabbah 38.6, “Lord of the Universe! My planet tells me that I will be childless.”
  • [21] Cf. Exodus Rabbah 5.22 and Pesikta Rabbati 47.3.
  • [22] Louis Ginzberg noted that “Opinions…differ with regard to the question whether or not lack of trust in God is implied in Abraham’s words: ‘Whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?’ (Gen. 15.8). The Church Fathers agree with the view favorable to Abraham…. The view prevalent among the Rabbis is that Abraham is greatly to be blamed for his lack of trust in God” (L. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1947), 5:227-228 n. 110).
  • [23] We have already seen in Genesis Rabbah 44.12 how this verse was used to identify the moment when Abraham was proclaimed to be a prophet.

What Did Jesus Mean by “Do Not Judge”?

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Luke 6:36-38; NIV)

Jesus’ teaching on judging is one of his most frequently misunderstood sayings, sounding as if he is saying, “Have no discernment. Just ignore sin!” Often we struggle to find a way to sort out sin without actually calling it that so that we do not judge. While Jesus’ ethical demands are high, we often give up trying to follow them if they do not make sense to us.

Understanding this saying of Jesus in the light of rabbinic teachings on judging yields both insight and wise application for life. Apparently, Jesus’ saying is related to a well-known rabbinic dictum: “Judge every person in favorable terms” (Mishnah, Avot 1:6). The rabbinic statement is an interpretation of Leviticus 19:15, “You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly.” According to Israel’s ancient sages, if one wants to be entirely fair in judging one’s neighbors, one should give them the benefit of the doubt, that is, “judge them favorably.”

One of Jesus’ sayings regarding judging is nearly identical to other rabbinic sayings on the subject: “For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7:2; Luke 6:38). In the Talmud it is stated, “He who judges his neighbor favorably will be judged favorably by God” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 127a). The application of this idea is made elegantly clear in a story from that talmudic tractate:

A certain man from Upper Galilee was employed by an individual in the South for three years. On the eve of the Day of Atonement he said to him, “Give me my wages that I may go and support my wife and children.” “I have no money,” he answered. “Then give me produce,” he demanded. “I have none,” he replied. So he said, “Well then, give me land.” And he said, “I have none!” So he exclaimed, “Then give me some cattle!”—”I have none!” So he slung his things behind him and went home with a sorrowful heart. After the Festival his employer brought all of his wages together with three donkeys loaded with food and gifts to his house. After they had eaten, he gave him his wages. He said to him, “When you asked me, ‘Give me my wages,’ and I answered you, ‘I have no money,’ of what did you suspect me?” “I thought you had seen a good bargain and used all your cash to buy it.” “And when I said I had no produce, of what did you suspect me?” “I thought perhaps they were not tithed.” “And when I said I had no land, of what did you suspect me?” “I thought perhaps it is leased to others.” “And when I said I had no cattle, of what did you suspect me?” “I thought, perhaps he has sanctified all his property to Heaven.” “By the Temple service, it was just so! I had rashly vowed all my property because of my son Hyrcanus, who would not study Torah. But when I saw my companions at the Feast, they absolved me of my vows. As for you, just as you have judged me favorably, so may the Omnipresent judge you favorably!” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 127b)

The story ends once again expressing a similar idea to Jesus’ words on judging—those who are merciful in judgment will obtain mercy themselves. If that is the understanding behind Jesus’ use of the words, “Do not judge” in Luke 6:36-38, it forms a six-fold parallelism!

  1. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
  2. Do not judge, and you will not be judged.
  3. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.
  4. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
  5. Give, and it will be given to you.
  6. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

If Jesus uses parallelism for emphasis, it appears that having mercy and “judging favorably” are extremely important. Other sages agree—”Judging favorably” was said to rank with visiting the sick, devotion in prayer, and educating sons in the scriptures, which are all things that are rewarded in this life, but far more greatly rewarded in the world to come (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 127a).

Not surprisingly, Jewish culture up to the present day has endeavored to instill in its people the ethic to “judge favorably.” A Jewish group meets in Jerusalem with a goal of finding ways to give the benefit of the doubt when it appears someone has done something unkind.[1] Members of the group reflect on hurts in their lives and then discuss ways to excuse the perpetrator. When one did not receive an invitation to a wedding, they would say, “Perhaps the person was under the impression that he had already sent an invitation,” or, “Perhaps they could not afford to invite many people.”

Another example of the stress on judging favorably is a Jewish website called “The Other Side of the Story,[2] which is filled with stories of situations where a person looked liked he was doing wrong, but then turned out to be innocent. Its intention is simply to teach the importance of giving the benefit of the doubt.

Jewish culture realizes that in almost every situation, we have the choice to look for a good or bad motivation behind other people’s behavior. The way we interpret others’ motivations has a profound effect on our reactions toward others. If we practice this habit of being merciful in judging others, we will become kinder and more patient, and our attitudes towards others will become more loving as we assume the best, rather than the worst, about them.

“Do Not Judge” and “Love Your Neighbor”

Jesus’ ideas about judging are also related to the rabbinic understanding of the command to “Love your neighbor,” which differs from our modern interpretation. As Steven Notley explains in his article, “Jesus’ Jewish Command to Love,” rabbis understood that commandment not as saying, “love your neighbor as much as you love yourself,” but as, “love your neighbor who is one like yourself.[3] This meant that instead of comparing the love one has for others with the love one has for oneself, one compares one’s neighbors to himself or herself, and loves them after realizing that they are alike both in their good and bad character traits. Since all humanity is made in God’s image, but shares the same desire for selfishness and sin, we must love others in spite of their frailties. This fits the original context of the text in Leviticus: “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as [one like] yourself; I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:18). Ben Sira expressed that idea this way:

Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then, when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Should a person nourish anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? Should a person refuse mercy to a man like himself, yet seek pardon for his own sins? (Ben Sira 28:2-4)

In this passage, the desire to show mercy comes from realizing that another is “a man like himself,” as in Leviticus 19:18. Jesus’ teaching that we should refrain from judgment is closely related to this ethic of mercifulness. It also appears to be related to his teaching that we should pray for forgiveness in proportion to the forgiveness we have extended to others.

Obviously, Jesus is not suggesting that we suspend all discernment. We can discern whether an action or an outward attitude is wrong. If the wrong is committed against us personally, Jesus tells us to show the person his sin in hopes of his being repentant so that we can forgive (Luke 17:3-4). According to Paul, the church is also obligated to discipline sinful practice among its members (1 Cor. 5:3, 12). And, in Leviticus 19:17-18 it says:

Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.

While we can discern sin in practice, judgment of the person must be left to God, who alone knows the whole motive of the heart. To judge another is to presume to have both the knowledge and authority of God himself. As James says, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?” (Jas. 4:12). And Paul asserts, “But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Rom. 14:10).

What is Judging?

If judging (or judging negatively) is defined as believing the worst about others, it encompasses many types of behavior that we know are wrong. Criticism, cynicism, and complaining are all based on negative judgments of others. Gossip relies heavily on judgment. People who gossip usually have a habit of looking for wrongdoing in a person’s life in order to share it with others. Even those who struggle with chronic anger can often find the root of their problem in always looking for something wrong in other people’s actions—by their own act of judging negatively. All insults are forms of judgment. A person may be “bold and self-assured,” but if we do not like him, we will judge him as “arrogant and loud-mouthed.” James said, “Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother judges his brother” (Jas. 4:11). Jesus said, “Whoever insults a brother will be brought before the council, and whoever says, ‘Fool,’ will be sent to fiery hell” (Matt. 5:22). Jesus was illustrating his teaching about judging in the negative sense—that those who condemn invite condemnation on themselves.

Christians would do well to focus more on the ethic to judge favorably. There is probably no marriage that has escaped wounding from unfair accusations and judgments. In the same way, while a few children grow up scarred from physical abuse, many more grow up scarred from relentless criticism from parents who did not judge them favorably. Indeed, the worst “judges” are often those who never received mercy themselves, and never learned to extend it to others. We should even refrain from condemning the most judgmental, because we do not know how much criticism they have endured themselves. Jesus’ (and other sages’) words on judging certainly have a wealth of application to daily life.

  • [1] Joseph Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values (New York: Bell Tower, 2000), p. 35, quoting Zelig Pliskin, Love Your Neighbor: You and Your Fellow Man in the Light of Torah (New York: Aish HaTorah Publications, 1977).
  • [2] The Web page “The Other Side of the Story” is based on Yehudis Samet, The Other Side of the Story: Giving People the Benefit of the Doubt—Stories and Strategies (Brooklyn, NY: Artscroll Mesorah, 1996).
  • [3] R. Steven Notley, “Jesus’ Jewish Command to Love,” (Jerusalem Perspective Online).

Robert L. Lindsey and His Synoptic Theory

In his The Messiah in the New Testament in the Light of Rabbinical Writings, Finnish scholar Risto Santala appraises the synoptic theory of Robert L. Lindsey and its importance for New Testament studies.

The question as to how the Gospels were put together has occupied scholars for the past two hundred years. It is generally thought that the accounts of Jesus and his acts were transmitted orally until they were written down in Greek between the years 70-100 A.D. This puts the Gospel of John at an even later date.

Augustinian Hypothesis
Augustinian Hypothesis

These assumptions are certainly no more than working hypotheses by means of which attempts have been made to establish the relationship of the Gospels to one another. At the beginning of the fifth century A.D. Augustine concluded that the order of writing of the Synoptic Gospels was Matthew, Mark and Luke, with Mark using Matthew, and Luke using both Matthew and Mark. The originator of the “synoptic” concept, J. J. Griesbach, considered Matthew’s Gospel to have been written first, Luke’s second and Mark’s last, with Luke using Matthew, and Mark using Matthew and Luke (see B. C. Butler, The Originality of St. Matthew [Cambridge, 1951]).

Griesbach Hypothesis
Griesbach Hypothesis

What conclusions have been reached by Robert Lindsey? In answering this question, it must be borne in mind that the Gospels were originally communicated orally to the people in Aramaic and even, it would appear, recorded in a written form in both Aramaic and Hebrew. The church fathers Papias, Irenaeus, Origen and Eusebius, leaning on tradition, record sayings to the effect that Matthew wrote his Gospel initially “in Hebrew,” “among Hebrews,” “for those of the Jews who became Christians” and “in their mother tongue” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History III 39, 16; V 8, 2; VI 25, 4; and III 24, 6.) Critics often consider “Hebrew” to mean “Aramaic.” Comparative linguistic studies ought, however, to be capable of revealing which language’s structure and concepts best correspond to the Greek phraseology.

About thirty years ago Professor David Flusser of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Dr. Robert L. Lindsey, a Baptist pastor in Jerusalem, began to study the syntactic peculiarities of the Greek New Testament. They observed that in hundreds of places the sentence structure betrayed Semitic influence and that it was easier to restore a possible Hebrew original than an Aramaic one. No passages were found which could have been expressed only in Aramaic.

Lindsey’s Hypothesis

Lindsey was surprised to observe that Mark quoted Luke and not the other way around. Hundreds of proofs of this accumulated. In addition, there appeared to be about 150 places in Mark which were the result of the influence of the Acts of the Apostles, and some showed that Mark also knew the letters to the Thessalonians, Corinthians, Romans, Colossians and the letter of James. Based on this evidence Lindsey came to the conclusion that Mark had “amplified” Luke’s account.

It is interesting to note that the antecedence of Luke with regard to Mark was also pointed out by E. A. Abbott and W. Lockton. Lockton collected around 600 proofs of the earlier date of Luke, concluding: “Mark used Luke, which is the earliest of our gospels, and Matthew drew upon Luke and Mark” (see A. H. McNeile, An Introduction to the Study of the New Testament [London, 1953], p. 64).

As a friend of Dr. Lindsey and living in Jerusalem I had the privilege of following the development of his theory, but for some time I remained detached from his opinions. When, however, I began to examine his theory more closely, its basic soundness became more and more apparent. Three things in particular seem to me to be clear:

1. If it is true that the shortest version of the Gospels is to be considered the earliest, then Mark cannot be prior to Luke because Mark especially is fond of the kind of ribuyim or “amplification” typical of the Midrash literature—even though Mark as a whole is the shortest, his individual stories are longer. This is apparent in, for example, the account of the attempt by Jesus’ mother and brothers to see him (Matt. 12:46-50; Mark 3:31-35; Luke 8:19-21).

2. If it is true that Mark knew Acts and six of Paul’s letters, and that seems quite possible, then again there is no doubt that he borrowed from Luke….

3. The texts of the Gospels betray several written sources; therefore, there is good reason to reject the idea—fashionable today—of the compelling significance of oral tradition.

David Flusser points out that Lindsey’s theory can be verified only when at least two conditions are met: “The investigator must first study most, 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” (Foreword to Robert L. Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark, 2nd ed. [Jerusalem, 1973], p. 2).

Lindsey’s theory challenges scholars to reexamine that which was formerly considered self-evident, and to study the Jewish roots of the Gospels. It may well be that these ideas will change the theories of Gospel origins as radically as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls changed attitudes regarding the Jewish character of the Gospel of John. At the same time they make possible an early date for the Gospels’ composition. If the Greek form of the Gospels originated, as John A. T. Robinson supposes, within ten to thirty years of Jesus’ death (Redating the New Testament [London, 1976]), we can join with Paul in exclaiming: “This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance!”

SantalaNT[In the concluding chapter of his The Messiah in the New Testament in the Light of Rabbinical Writings, Santala writes:] What fruit, then, has this New Testament study yielded? Probably the most important thing is to recognize that the Aramaic Targum of Jonathan and the Midrash contain a powerful messianic theme. And this theme is still reflected in Mediaeval rabbinic exegesis, particularly in the commentaries of Rashi. Secondly, the Gospels and Paul’s letters display a mode of presentation and way of thinking typical of the synagogue preaching literature. Furthermore, we can see today just how powerfully the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has affected scholars’ understanding of the Gospel of John and Pauline theology. Even critical and unprejudiced scholars such as John A. T. Robinson have had to date the origin of the Gospels earlier than even a writer branded as a fundamentalist could ever have dreamed. And Lindsey’s theory has begun to shake the working hypothesis—ossified in the minds of theologians—that Mark was the earliest evangelist. For these reasons, it might turn out, as Robinson reckons, that the “Introductions to the New Testament” used as textbooks in theological seminaries will have to be revised.


Abridged and adapted from Risto Santala, The Messiah in the New Testament in the Light of Rabbinical Writings (Jerusalem, Israel: Keren Ahvah Meshihit, 1993), pp. 50-53, 56, 251, and used by permission.

Hospitality: Heritage of the Church

Hospitality was a fundamental function of the Jewish home in the time of Jesus. This practice is also central in the Hebraic heritage of the Church.[1] Schooled in a rich rabbinic background, Paul inculcates this teaching in his readers. He instructs the church at Rome to “practice hospitality” (Rom. 12:13). Here Paul reflects a sacred duty that was present in Jewish life from the earliest times.

The Stranger

Biblical law specified that it was an obligation to extend hospitality and love to the גֵּר (ger), “alien” or “stranger,” for the Hebrew people themselves once were “aliens [gerim] in Egypt” (Lev. 19:34). Isaiah states that a genuinely righteous person will heed the obligation to “share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter” (Isa. 58:7). In his personal statement of ethical vindication, Job claims, “No stranger had to spend the night in the street, for my door was always open to the traveler” (Job 31:32).

The term used in rabbinic literature for hospitality is הַכְנָסַת אוֹרְחִים (hachnasat orhim), literally, “bringing in of guests” or “gathering in of travelers.”[2] Rabbinic literature provides considerable insight into the practice of hachnasat orhim, the very term used in Romans 12:13 in Franz Delitzsch’s classic Hebrew New Testament translation.

Open to All

The rabbis considered hospitality one of the most important functions of the home: “Great is hospitality; greater even than early attendance at the house of study or than receiving the Shechinah” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 127a). Indeed, hospitality is listed first among six virtues, “the fruit of which man eats in this world” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 127a).

Painting by Scott Cooper Tilton.
Painting by Scott Cooper Tilton.

One was not to discriminate in the showing of hospitality. Whereas some people entertain only the rich, or people from a certain social or racial status, the rabbis taught that the home was to be open to all classes and kinds of people.

There was a custom in Jerusalem to place a napkin over the doorway. “Whenever the napkin was spread, guests (travelers) could enter” (Tosefta, Berachot 4:9). Another practice in Jerusalem was to display a flag to show that a meal was in progress (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 93b). The rabbis also stated, “Let your house be open wide, and let the poor be members of your household” (Mishnah, Avot 1:5). It was said of Rav Huna (fourth-century A.D. Babylonian sage) that “when he used to sit down to a meal, he opened the doors and exclaimed, ‘Let whoever is in need enter and eat’” (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 20b).

Children were taught to be hospitable. They were instructed when answering the door to invite guests to enter and to dine with the family.

Teach your household humility—so that if a poor man stands at the door and asks: “Is your father in?” they will respond: “Yes, come in.” As soon as the poor man enters, let the table be set for him. (Avot de-Rabbi Natan, Version A, chap. 7 [ed. Schecter, 34])

Sacred Obligation

Guests were to be received graciously and cheerfully. Whereas many Westerners today avoid hospitality altogether, begrudgingly endure it or tolerate it as a necessary evil, Middle Easterners have always considered hospitality as a sacred obligation to be done with cheer. Rabbinic literature particularly emphasizes this obligation:

Let your house be wide open to guests. Receive people graciously. Lavish hospitality accompanied by a sour disposition means far less than modest hospitality that is extended cheerfully. (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 1)

Guests had a responsibility to the host. Some food was expected to be left on the plate (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 53b). They were not to take advantage of the host’s kindness, but to be grateful (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 58a) and offer a special prayer for the host at the conclusion of the meal (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 46a). In addition, guests were not to ruffle the host or cause him anxiety: “A guest who unduly troubles his host is considered unworthy” (Derech Eretz Zuta 8:9).

The Christian community must never consider the concept of hospitality to be optional. It is at the heart of the social consciousness of the Christian faith. The book of Hebrews reminds New Testament believers, recipients of the Jewish heritage of hospitality, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2; cf. Jas. 2:14-17; 1 Jn. 3:17).

  • [1] This article is adapted from Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., and Dayton, OH: Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, 1989), pp. 219-220, and used by permission.
  • [2] Note the useful treatment of this theme by R. Siegel, M. Strassfeld and S. Strassfeld, The First Jewish Catalog (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1973), pp. 275-277. See also A. E. Kitov, The Jew and His Home (5th ed.; New York: Shengold Publishers, 1963), pp. 90-94.

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

Revised: 23-Apr-13

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

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

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

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

Kill or Murder?

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

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

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

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

Hebrew Maxim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Count Leo Tolstoy.
Count Leo Tolstoy.

Resist Evil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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