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.

Jesus and the Enigmatic “Green Tree”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messianic Titles Used by Jesus’ Disciples to Refer to Him

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attempting to Unravel the “Green Tree” Enigma

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Context of Jesus’ “Green Tree” Saying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is “Green Tree” a Messianic Title?

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

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

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

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

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

The Saying’s Hebraisms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literary Parallels to Jesus’ Saying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Faith Contrary to Empirical Support?

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

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

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

Karl Barth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hebrews 11:1 and John 20:29

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

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

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

An Apology for Apologetics

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus’ Yoke and Burden

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

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

A Context-less Saying

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

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

Keys to Understanding Jesus’ Saying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Possible Context for Matthew 11:28-30?

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

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


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

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

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

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


δεῦτε πρός με (come to me)

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

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

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

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

κἀγὼ ἀναπαύσω ὑμᾶς (and I will give you rest)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Reconstruction of the Hypothetical Hebrew Original

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

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

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

Dynamic translation of Hebrew reconstruction:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revised: 02-Jul-2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus’ Last Visit(s) to the Temple

The “Cleansing” according to the Synoptic Gospels

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parable of the Wicked Tenants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Question Concerning the Resurrection

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Last Supper

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus before the Sanhedrin

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

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

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

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

Jesus’ Death on the Cross

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

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

Mark’s replacement may be a midrashic expansion of an earlier version of Jesus’ death on the cross,[73] a version like that preserved in Luke.[74] Jesus’ words, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” are often viewed as evidence that Jesus spoke Aramaic, since the words are an Aramaic translation of Psalms 22:2 (22:1), “אֵלִי אֵלִי לָמָה עֲזַבְתָּנִי.” However, it is more likely that Jesus, who in the last days before his crucifixion had already told his disciples of his impending death and its meaning, would, in his final moments, have recited the verse from Psalms 31 rather than the verse from Psalms 22.[75] Later, Stephen also quoted from Psalms 31 as he was being put to death (Acts 7:59; cf. John 19:30), and Peter exhorted those who were sharing the sufferings of Jesus to commit their souls to God (1 Pet. 4:19).

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

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

Summing Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“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.

New Testament Canon

When discussing the question of inspiration of Scripture, it is important to consider also the way in which the church determined which books were from God and which were not. Most of us take for granted that the New Testament always had twenty-seven books. We may be vaguely aware that Paul mentions a letter he wrote to the church in Laodicea (Col. 4:16) and that there might have been a third letter to the church in Corinth, but beyond that we assume there were no other writings.

In fact, the writing of the books included in the New Testament was spread over a period of more than half a century. However, not all of these books were accepted by the churches as coming from God until about three hundred years after they were written. During that period there were other books, written roughly at the same time as the twenty-seven New Testament books, which were accepted by some churches as inspired.

One of the earliest acknowledgments that parts of what we now call the New Testament were to be considered as holy Scripture alongside the Hebrew Bible comes in the words of Peter, when he sets writings of Paul together with “Scripture,” in other words the Hebrew Bible: “…just as our dear brother Paul wrote to you, using the wisdom that God gave him…. There are some difficult things in his letters which ignorant and unstable people explain falsely, as they do with other passages of the Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:15-16).

First Lists

The first actual attempt to draw up a list of books to be accepted was made by a man named Marcion in the middle of the second century A.D. Marcion, under the influence of gnostic teaching, rejected the idea that the God of the Hebrew Bible could be the same as the God and Father of Jesus. The Jewish God, he said, was a God of wrath and judgment, while the God revealed by Jesus is a God of love and compassion. Following this essentially anti-Semitic idea, Marcion rejected all of the Jewish Scriptures. He then accepted as truly inspired and authoritative only the writings of Paul (ten books, not including the letters to Timothy and Titus) and the bulk of the book of Luke. Because he believed that Jesus only appeared to be a man and to suffer (a view known as Docetism), he rejected the first two chapters of Luke which speak of the birth of Jesus. Marcion was declared a heretic even in his own lifetime.

By the end of the second century there was wide (but not yet universal) acceptance of all but four of the books which make up our New Testament. The so-called Muratorian Fragment dates from that time and omits Hebrews, James and 1 and 2 Peter. The eastern and Egyptian churches were also slow to accept 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation. The name “New Testament,” describing the apostolic books of the church, was first used in about 193 A.D. by an unknown author writing against the heresy of Montanism.

Even as late as the early fourth century, the church historian Eusebius was able to point out that books like the Shepherd of Hermas, Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas were accepted by some churches, while books like Jude, 2 Peter, Revelation and Hebrews were omitted by some (Ecclesiastical History III, 25). This situation is indeed reflected in some extant ancient manuscripts. For example, the Peshitta (Syriac), which dates from the fourth or fifth century A.D., omits 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation.

Final Canon

It was not until the year 367 A.D. that the Alexandrian bishop Athanasius listed the twenty-seven books which we now accept as the New Testament canon. The word “canon” derives from the Semitic root meaning a reed (kaneh) as a unit or standard of measure (cf. Ezek. 40:5). It was first applied to a set of biblical writings in the fourth century. Up until that time there had been no council or committee which sat down to decide which books were to be accepted by the whole church and which were not. The process was an organic one stretching over that period of 300 years. The main factors which ultimately determined whether a book was to be placed in the “New Testament” were 1) having been written by an apostolic figure, and 2) acceptance by long usage among the churches.

In certain respects, the process which led to the fixing of the canon is one of the outstanding statements of the inspiration of tradition and the wisdom of God manifest collectively in his church. While God had used individual writers to record the books themselves, the actual acceptance of those books as being from God was subject to a long transition, a process of testing. We might say that the Holy Spirit was allowing the collective wisdom of the church to test the books to see whether they were from God (cf. 1 John 4:1).