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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Strong statement
  • Amēn
  • Confirming statement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Strong statement or significant action
  • Amēn
  • Confirming statement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hebraisms in the New Testament

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

Revised: 31-October-2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Apostolic Decree and the Noahide Commandments

Translated by Halvor Ronning[1]

Dedicated to the memory of Gregory Steen[2]

In August 1769 Lavater urged Moses Mendelssohn to undergo conversion to Christianity, thereby causing much distress to Mendelssohn.[3] For our subject it is especially productive to consider the letter that Mendelssohn wrote to the Crown Prince of Braunschweig-Wolfenbuettel.[4] Among other things, he wrote: “The founder of the Christian religion never explicitly said he wanted to remove the Mosaic Law, nor to dispense with the Jews. Such a notion, I do not find in any of the Evangelists. For a long time the apostles and disciples still had their doubts as to whether Gentile believers must accept the Mosaic Law and be circumcised. Eventually, it was decided ‘not to lay too heavy a burden upon them’ (Acts 15:28). This agrees completely with the teaching of the rabbis, as I noted in my letter to Lavater. But as regards the Jews, when they accept Christianity, I find no basis in the New Testament for exempting them from the Mosaic commandments. On the contrary, the apostle himself had Timothy circumcised. Therefore, it should be clear that there is no way that I could free myself from the Mosaic Law.”

When Mendelssohn spoke of “the teaching of the rabbis,” he was referring to what he had written to Lavater, “All our rabbis are united in teaching that the written and oral commandments, of which our religion consists, are binding only on our nation…all other peoples of the earth, we believe, are commanded by God to obey the law of nature and the religion of the patriarchs.”[5]

In order to clarify this latter statement, Mendelssohn gave a list of those ordinances that the peoples of the earth must obey. “The seven main commandments of the Noahides, which encompass the essential ordinances of natural law, are avoidance of: 1) idolatry; 2) blasphemy; 3) shedding of blood; 4) incest[6] ; 5) theft; 6) perverting of justice—these six ordinances were understood to have been revealed to Adam—and finally, 7) the prohibition, revealed to Noah, against eating from the limb of a living animal (b. Avod. Zar. 64; Maimonides on Kings 8,10).”[7]

Mendelssohn’s fundamental insights were:

a) According to the New Testament, a Jew is not obligated to abandon the Mosaic Law when he or she accepts Christianity. It follows, then, that Christians who are of Jewish origin, the so-called Jewish Christians, are obligated to observe Torah according to the teaching of the Apostolic Church.

b) According to Acts it was decided not to lay too heavy a burden on the Gentile believers. Rather, they were to be freed from the Mosaic Law and were obligated to follow only the prohibitions that make up the so-called Apostolic Decree.

c) This teaching of the Early Church is completely compatible with the unanimous rabbinic view that the Mosaic Law is obligatory for the Jewish people only, and that God has directed the rest of the peoples of the earth to follow only the seven main Noahide commandments.

Mendelssohn’s conclusions are historically correct as was demonstrated in an earlier article.[8] In this article we will discuss the two forms of the Apostolic Decree, the canonical and the non-canonical.

Mendelssohn equated the rabbinic Noahide commandments with the prohibitions of the Apostolic Council. Since the Apostolic Decree differs significantly from the rabbinic Noahide commandments, was he precise in making this equation? The rabbis listed seven Noahide commandments. According to Acts 15:19-20, the apostles accepted the suggestion of James, the Lord’s brother, that “one should not make difficulties for those who turn to God from among the Gentiles, but rather should require of them only that they abstain from defilement of idols, from fornication, from strangled [meat] and from blood.” The Mishnah, likewise, refers to defilement as a result of idolatry (m. Shab. 9:1). From Acts 15:28-29 and 21:25, the parallels to Acts 15:19-20, we learn that the early church understood “the defilement of idols” to mean, “meat offered to idols.”

The “western” text of Acts, whose most important representative is Codex Bezae, presents us with an alternative form of the Apostolic Decree. In 1905 Gotthold Resch drew attention to the importance of this alternative form.[9] According to the western text, Gentiles who turn to God are to avoid meat sacrificed to idols, blood and fornication. Resch correctly understood that “blood” refers to murder, and not to the eating of blood. In the western form of the text, at Acts 15:20 and 15:29, there is an addition: “Whatever you do not want others to do to you, you should not do to others.” This is the usual negative form of the so-called Golden Rule.[10]

In our view, Resch succeeded in presenting the philological proof that the western text of the Apostolic Decree is the more original, but his theological understanding was limited to his contemporary situation. Furthermore, the historical support that he adduces for his arguments is often of little value. For this reason his suggestion was quickly forgotten, despite being happily accepted at the time by Harnack. Today it is generally accepted that the usual, or canonical, form of the Apostolic Decree is the more original.

One exception to this consensus is Harald Sahlin.[11] He argued correctly that, “The Decree must be understood against its Jewish background…the formulation ‘idolatry, blood and fornication’ is almost identical to the well-known rabbinic formulation of the three central sins, ‘idolatry, bloodshed and fornication.’” We would argue that the rabbinic and the western text of the Apostolic Decree, are not identical by chance, and that this identity is decisive proof for the authenticity of the western text. Resch did discern the matter correctly, but failed to prove decisively the correctness of his observation. His reason for preferring the western form of the Apostolic Decree was his mistaken notion that its ethical content expressed the break with Jewish ceremonial requirements that was supposedly intended by Jesus and finally spelled out by the Apostles.

Resch’s studies of the non-canonical form of the Apostolic Decree helped three Jewish researchers independently to get on the right track.[12] All three noted the relationship between the western form of the Apostolic Decree and the decision of the rabbinic synod of Lydda. This synod met in the year 120 C.E. and handed down the following decision: “Of all the trespasses forbidden in the Torah it holds true that if you are told, ‘trespass or be killed,’ you may trespass them all, except for idolatry, fornication and bloodshed [murder].”[13]

It is enlightening to take a closer look at the words of the third researcher, Gedalyahu Alon, to learn from them and also to apply them to other areas of Jewish and Christian traditions of faith. Alon demonstrated that there was a tendency in ancient Judaism (and later in Christianity) to summarize the essence of one’s religion in formulations. Such a formulation could be called a credo, a confession of faith, or a statement of principles [Regula]. The purpose of such declarations was to achieve a formulation of the quintessence of Judaism. Alon rightly commented that the aim of these ancient Jewish definitions was not usually to make a dogmatic statement about the contents of the faith, but rather to set out the essence of the Jewish ethic—the fruit of which is the performance of individual commandments.[14] Moreover, these moral rules, whether positive commands or prohibitions, are not the “light” but the “heavy” commandments. At issue is the keeping of the “least of these commandments,” to use the language of Matthew 5:19. Reference to commandments as “light” usually occurs when the point being made is that small trespasses soon lead to large trespasses.[15]

It would be worthwhile to examine in ancient Judaism the various axiomatic statements of the essence of Judaism. Sometimes this can be accomplished by looking at ancient Jewish catalogues of virtues and vices, or by considering the so-called “household codes” found in the New Testament (e.g., Eph. 5:21-6:9; Col. 3:18-4:1). Especially widespread was the view that the Ten Commandments are to be considered the expression of the religion of Israel,[16] with preference given to the second half of the Decalogue. In order to define the essence of Judaism, people used formulations such as the Golden Rule, or selected Bible verses. Not only in Matthew 22:34-40, but also in Jewish sources, two main rules were adduced: one must love God (Deut. 6:5); one must love one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:18).[17] In the rabbinic view, the command to love one’s neighbor (or its equivalent, the Golden Rule) was seen as the essence of the Mosaic Law. This tendency makes it clear why it was that the summation of the Torah was understood to be the second half of the Decalogue, which deals with prohibitions relating to one’s neighbor.

Johann Kaspar Lavater cover page
Johann Kaspar Lavater cover page

The last five commandments of the Decalogue served as a starting point for new formulations. Sometimes, not all of the last five were quoted, and sometimes other ethical admonitions were inserted into this list. In terms of genre, these formulations were attached either to the command to love one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:18) or, to its equivalent, the Golden Rule. To this genre belong the words of Jesus to the rich young ruler (Matt. 19:16-26; Mark 10:17-27; Luke 18:18-27).[18] The fact that following Jesus’ words we find the command to honor one’s parents, which according to the original Jewish reckoning belongs to the first half of the Decalogue, seems to indicate that the command to honor one’s parents was only later added to Jesus’ words. Matthew concluded Jesus’ words to the youth with the command to love one’s neighbor. Admittedly, this conclusion is not original, but it is stylistically genuine: love for one’s neighbor, according to the understanding at that time, does belong to the second half of the Decalogue.

Another especially important example of a summation of the Mosaic Law (Matt. 5:17-18) on the basis of the second half of the Decalogue is the first part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17-48).[19] Here, too, we find that not all of the five commandments of the second half of the Decalogue are dealt with, but that other ethical requirements are introduced. Again, the unit is concluded with the command to love one’s neighbor (Matt. 5:43-48)—entirely in accord with the rules of this genre.

For our purposes the most important representative of this genre is the early Christian Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (Didache),[20] or, more precisely, its Jewish source, the so-called “Two Ways.” In the first part of this document (chapters 1-4), the way of life is described; in the second part (chapters 5-6), the way of death: “This now is the way of life. First, you shall love God who created you. Second, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Moreover, anything that you do not want to happen to you, you shall not do to another” (Didache 1:2). We see that the way of life is characterized by both the double rule of loving God and neighbor, and also by the Golden Rule.

To this same genre belongs the western form of the Apostolic Decree, in our opinion the Decree’s more original formulation. Two of the three sins it lists are found in the second half of the Decalogue—bloodshed (i.e, murder) and fornication—the sixth and seventh commandments,[21] and the other central sin, idolatry, is mentioned in the first half of the Ten.[22] Accordingly, it is stylistically authentic that in the first two references to the Apostolic Decree according to the western text (Acts 15:19-20 and 15:28-29), the decree concludes with the negative form of the Golden Rule. However, in the third reference to the Decree (Acts 21:25), the Golden Rule would have disturbed the context. It is difficult to decide whether the Golden Rule really belongs to the Apostolic Decree. Those who doubt that it belongs can note the fact that it is lacking in the canonical text, and that in Matthew 19:16-19 the command to love one’s neighbor is a Matthean addition. However, as we have pointed out, the Golden Rule fits the Apostolic Decree in terms of genre authenticity.[23]

The western form of the Apostolic Decree is composed of three sins.[24] These are the sins that a Jew cannot commit under any circumstances. Additionally, these three sins are the first three Noahide commandments. We align ourselves with Alon’s view that these three sins express the focus of ethical behavior. They are also a succinct formulation of that which Judaism most strongly abhors and seeks to avoid. In a special way, the list defines the essence of Judaism. This is true for this list and for other such summary statements in Judaism (and in Christianity). There is often a peculiar dialectic that is involved; ancient Judaism did not attempt to establish dogmatic confessions of faith, but rather to lay down rules of ethics. Attempts to encapsulate the essence of Judaism kept their distance from the ceremonial, ritualistic, legalistic side of Judaism. One reason for this paradox is that religions like Judaism, in which the legal side is strongly developed, do not need to concern themselves with the legalities when they come to summarize the essential, because the legal aspect is taken for granted. In Judaism, existence, as formulated through these summary statements, is essentially theological-ethical.[25] Accordingly, Rabbi Akiva, who knew how to spin myriad halachoth from every tittle of Torah,[26] nevertheless declared that the command to love one’s neighbor is the greatest principle of Jewish learning (Lev. 19:18).[27]

Moses Mendelssohn
Moses Mendelssohn

Understanding how existence is summarized in Judaism is important for the correct understanding of the western form of the Apostolic Decree, which is composed of the three Jewish prime sins. As long as it has to do with the inner Jewish ethic, it is the ethical-theological aspect, and not the ritual, that is the definitive factor in the choice of these three sins. However, when one steps out of inner Jewish boundaries in an attempt to determine correct behavior for non-Jews, there is a tendency to erect ritual limits. For Jews ritual limits are superfluous, since they are already “under the law.” This truth will become clearer in the course of our study as we now turn to the developmental stages of the Noahide commandments, comparing the extra-canonical form of the Apostolic Decree with the canonical form.

This list, like other formulations of its kind, was originally designed to shed light on the essence of Judaism as a religious system and lay bare its roots. Granted that such formulations are aimed at expressing the essential, nevertheless, whether they do or do not intend it, they cast a certain shadow over everything else and gain an intrinsic worth and independence. This is especially so in the case of the normative, formulated Christian confessions of faith, which led to the labeling of others with differing opinions as heretics. Ancient Judaism did not have such creedal statements, yet, after a fashion, the Jewish regulae fidei do present a certain self-understanding. The “three-sin doctrine” was well suited not just to express the inner Jewish way-of-life in the face of external pressures, but also to provide minimal moral limitations for non-Jewish God-fearers. The western text of the Apostolic Decree admonished believing Gentiles to avoid the three crucial sins, and we assume that these were at the time the original content of the Noahide commandments. Thus, the early apostolic church simply accepted Jewish legal practice relating to believing non-Jews.

Unfortunately, our sources do not allow us to determine what were the external circumstances that led the early church to begin using the Lydda ruling as a measure applicable to its own needs for discipline. We know only that the ruling came into use by the church sometime after 120 C.E., almost certainly before the year 200.[28] At that time, exclusion from the church was the punishment for lapsing into idolatry, sexual transgression and murder. If the morally fallen were truly repentant, they could not attain forgiveness during their lifetime, however, they were still granted a hope of forgiveness in the world to come. At that time the three major sins in Christian circles were called the peccata capitalia (capital sins) or the peccata mortalia (mortal sins).[29] The oldest witness to this trio of sins is Irenaeus who wrote (between 180 and 185 C.E.) that the unjust, idolaters and whores had lost eternal life and would be thrown into everlasting fire.[30] Furthermore, two church fathers, Tertullian and Hippolytus, mention the three mortal sins.[31] Apparently, Hippolytus, as well as Tertullian, emphasized the importance of the mortal sins in connection with the laxity of Pope Kallistus. We may conclude that the original text of the Apostolic Decree prohibited the three primary sins and that these prohibitions were the same prohibitions that early Judaism laid down for non-Jewish God-fearers. These were also the sins that, according to the Lydda decision, no Jew could commit even if it meant the loss of one’s own life. This Jewish ruling was accepted by the church in the course of the second century. It was applied to Christians who had sinned greatly and whose repentance was not adequate. The result was that the church was influenced twice by the Jewish prohibition of the three prime sins: the first time by the original form of the Noahide commandments in the older (Western) form of the Apostolic Decree; the second time by the disciplinary decision reached at Lydda, which was followed by similar disciplinary measures in the early church. From the non-canonical form of the Apostolic Decree, Tertullian concluded that after Christian baptism one’s violation of the three mortal sins could not be atoned for by repentance. In referring to the mortal sins, the first sin he mentioned was offerings to idols (sacrificia), yet in his commentary, he spoke of worshiping idols (idolatria).[32] In addition, the later ecclesiastical writers sometimes changed the wording of the Apostolic Decree by substituting “meat offered to idols” for “idolatry,” because they, too, identified the Apostolic Decree, in which meat offered to idols was prohibited, with the later ecclesiastical rules of discipline, according to which idolatry was unforgiveable.

From this proceeds an important fact that one can check on the basis of the texts. The western form of the Apostolic Decree also spoke of meat offered to idols. This means that from the prohibition of idolatry in the three Noahide commandments, the apostles derived the prohibition of meat offered to idols. That idolatry was forbidden to all believing Christians was, of course, totally obvious; however, the eating of the meat sacrificed to idols was not so obvious. Paul and the Revelation of John provide testimony that the Apostolic Decree expressly forbid Christians the eating of meat offered to idols.[33] John of Patmos, who in Rev. 2:24-25 is certainly referring to the Apostolic Decree when he says, “I will not impose any other burden on you,”[34] prohibits in Rev. 2:14 and 2:20 the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. Anyone who takes a look at 1 Cor. 8 and 1 Cor. 10:14-11:1 will see that Paul also dealt with the problem of the prohibition of meat offered to idols and found a penetrating solution.[35] In other words, the apostles took the Jewish rejection of idolatry and sharpened it by forbidding the Christians of Gentile origin to eat offerings to idols.

We assume that under no circumstances was a Jew to trespass the three capital sins, but also that non-Jews were equally obligated if they wanted to participate in the salvation of Israel. We assume, therefore, that by a decision of the apostolic church in Jerusalem, these mortal sins also were forbidden to believers of Gentile origin. We now turn to the Jewish background of the Apostolic Decree and ask ourselves whether or not, of the seven Noahide commandments, it was indeed these three that were especially suited to be carried over to the behavior of non-Jews. In rabbinic literature it is assumed that Ishmael, the son of Abraham, and Esau[36] and the inhabitants of Sodom had all committed the three central sins.[37] Debauchery[38] and the giving of false testimony[39] were considered as serious as idolatry, fornication and murder. It is evident also here that the decisive seriousness of the three major sins relates not only to the non-Jews (Ishmael, Esau, Sodom), but to all mankind and, therefore, includes Jews. On the Day of Atonement the scapegoat brings reconciliation for the uncleanness of the children of Israel as regards idolatry, fornication and bloodshed (i.e., murder).[40] These three sins apply not only to inner-Jewish but also to extra-Jewish matters as well, since these sins are part of the Jewish religious system as well as being universally applicable—they are foundational principles.[41]

Painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim. Seated are Lavater (left) and Mendelssohn (right).
Painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim. Seated are Lavater (left) and Mendelssohn (right).

We have determined that in their original form the Noahide commandments were limited to three prohibitions.

The number three is as suitable for such a list as is seven. Three is the number of the Noahide main commandments in the Book of Jubilees, but they are not identical with the usual triad.

In the twenty-eighth Jubilee Noah began to offer to his grandchildren the ordinances and commandments that he knew. He prescribed and testified to his children that they should act justly and that they should cover the shame of their nakedness and that they should bless their Creator and honor their father and mother and that each should love his neighbor and that each should protect himself from fornication and uncleanness and all injustice. The reason being that it was because of these three that the flood covered the earth. (Jub. 7:20-21)

Here we have, along with other moral ordinances, three prohibitions attributed to Noah: fornication, uncleanness, and injustice. Similar descriptions are given about the antediluvian giants and about Sodom:

And he (Abraham) told them (his children) about the judgment upon the giants and the judgment of Sodom, how they were judged because of their badness, because of fornication and uncleanness and perversity with each other and fornication worthy of death. “So you must keep yourselves from all fornication and uncleanness and from every taint of sin.” (Jub. 20:5-6)

About the judgments at the end of time it is said: “All this will come over this evil generation because the earth allowed such sins in the impurity of fornication and in blemishing and in the hideousness of their deeds” since “all their work is impurity and hideousness and all their works are blemishing and impurity and perversity” (Jub. 23:14, 17).

And in Jub. 30:15 there is threat of discipline and curse:

…both when someone does these deeds, and also when one makes his eyes blind to these deeds, when they act impurely and when they profane the holiness of the Lord and stain His Holy Name—they will all be judged….

All these places in the Book of Jubilees deal with the same theme, in which the three sins are named that brought the Flood upon the earth, namely, fornication, uncleanness and injustice (Jub. 7:20f).[42]

A closely related list of three main sins is found in the Damascus Document (CD 4:13-19).[43] The Book of Jubilees was composed in the second century B.C.E. and belongs to the same Jewish movement as that out of which the Essene sect of Qumran arose. The Damascus Document comes from a sister congregation of this sect; fragments of this document were found in the caves of Qumran. In the Damascus Document there is reference to Isa. 24:17:

“Terror and pit and snare confront you, O inhabitant of the earth.” The meaning of this refers to the three nets of Belial about which Levi, the son of Jacob, has said that he [Belial] uses them to ensnare Israel and he gives them the appearance of three types of righteousness; the first is fornication, the second is riches, and the third is defiling the sanctuary. Whoever escapes one of these nets falls into the next, and whoever escapes that net falls into the next.[44]

The Damascus Document here mentions—doubtless on the backdrop of the older Testament of Levi[45] —three main sins, namely, fornication, riches, and profanation of the Holy, whereas the Book of Jubilees (7:20f.) names fornication, impurity and injustice as the three main sins. That the two triads are related cannot be doubted; it is only that the list in the Damascus document has become more “Essenic.” Fornication remains, but instead of speaking in general about impurity and injustice, the Damascus Document speaks of impurity of Satan (Belial) and of riches.

It is known that the “poor in spirit,” the Essenes, saw in riches a gate that leads to sin, and considered the contemporary devil in Jerusalem as unclean. If we compare the three Noahide prohibitions of the Book of Jubilees with the rabbinic and early Christian triads, we notice the following: the two triads agree not only in respect to fornication, but also in that they both relate to Noahides, that is, non-Jews. However, in contrast to the triad of the book of Jubilees (and the related triad in the Damascus Document), the rabbinic and early Christian triads list idolatry, murder and fornication as the three major sins. And it is precisely this latter triad that also is included in the normative form of the seven Noahides commandments, in the decision of Lydda, and in the early church’s list of mortal sins. These same three serious trespasses are the ones forbidden in the extra-canonical text of the Apostolic Decree.

From what we have seen in the Book of Jubilees (and in the Damascus Document), it is obvious that there existed three Noahide prohibitions from the beginning. This supports our assumption that the original Noahide commandments named only the three mortal sins and that the apostolic church simply applied these to the Noahide God-fearers who had come to faith in Christ. In support of our argument is a generally known fact that is also decisive, that is, the seven Noahide commandments that are now binding in Judaism, are first mentioned only after the Hadrianic persecution, that is, from the second half of the second century.

It is therefore not an accident that the contents of the Apostolic Decree were at that time identical with the Noahide commandments. It is very noteworthy that in both cases a similar tendency was at work, a tendency that was responsible for the present usual forms both of the Noahide commandments and of the Apostolic Decree. In both cases there was a tendency to enhance the basic universally human ethical principles by means of additional ritual requirements for Gentile God-fearers who were not ritually bound. Such requirements for those who already lived under the law were superfluous.

For the Apostolic Decree, taken formally, the change was simple: one need only add the word “strangled.”[46] Blood is thereby not understood as shedding of blood, i.e., murder, but as the prohibition of eating blood. This shows that the simple change in the text is not to be explained primarily as a matter of literary-critical considerations, but that this other version, the canonical text, is preserving an actual practice that set in within certain circles of the ancient church. There is no lack of evidence that there were Christians who observed the eating regulations of the canonical Apostolic Decree. We can even assume that the Christians who were the teachers of Mohammed were followers of this “halachic” tradition, a tradition that we know from the canonical text of the Apostolic Council. Otherwise, it would be hard to explain the similarity of the verses in the Koran about eating meat with the usual form of the Apostolic Decree.[47]

We will now seek to show that the halachic approach of the canonical Apostolic Decree is based on the Jewish regulations for Noahides. However, we must not forget that in the time of the Church Fathers the extra-canonical form of the Apostolic Decree did not exist off in some hidden corner. The most important of the Church Fathers knew it and used it.

From rabbinic sources it is easy to see that there was a tendency not to be restricted just to the seven Noahide commandments. Various rabbis wanted to impose additional rules on the God-fearers from among the nations. Some even went so far as to propose thirty Noahide commandments.[48] Naturally, one can ask whether the additional suggested regulations were actually so intended, i.e., as a further burden—though well-meant—to be laid on the Gentiles, or whether at least part of this list of extra-canonical Noahide commandments simply came out of the period before the seven Noahide commandments were fixed in their normative form. The usual form of the Apostolic Decree demonstrates that the second option is the correct one, and points to the fact that these earlier, non-normative Noahide rules were in fact observed by some of the God-fearers. This is the only way one can explain how the prohibitions of blood and the strangled parallels show up precisely in the Jewish “extra-canonical” forms of the commandments.[49] As to the meaning of “things strangled” in the canonical formulation of the Apostolic Decree, one needs to consult the old church fathers because they still observed this regulation.[50] Origen names as strangled any meat from which the blood had not been extracted. John Chrysostom defines it as “meat with the blood of the soul.” [51] He points to Gen. 9:4: “the flesh in its soul, its blood, you shall not eat.”

What is important is that Judaism used exactly the same verse to draw conclusions about the prohibition of eating morsels of the living. Augustine (354-430 C.E.), referring to the matter of strangulation, asserts that Gentile Christians of his day no longer felt bound to abstain from eating the meat of a bird from which its blood had not been drained, or a hare killed by a blow to the neck (without a bleeding wound), evidence that such abstention had been practiced previously by Gentile Christians. [52] What was meant in this matter was that “the meat of such animals that were neither slaughtered nor shot, but killed in some external way without the spilling of blood, so that their blood—without any wound through which it could bleed—was trapped in them.”[53] In the most important text[54] of the tannaic discussion of the Noahide commandments we read:

If one [a non-Jew] strangles and eats a bird that is smaller than an olive, he is allowed to do it. R. Hananiah ben Gamaliel[55] said: “The non-Jew also is prohibited from eating the blood of a living animal.” (t. Avod. Zar. 8:4-8 [p. 473f.])

There existed, therefore, the opinion that not only was it forbidden for a God-fearer from among the Gentiles to eat a piece of a living animal, but that this God-fearer was also not allowed to eat the blood of a living animal. As one can deduce from the canonical Apostolic Decree, this was not just a matter of learned reflection by a rabbinic authority, rather in ancient times there really were God-fearers who actually did abstain from the blood of animals.

The rabbinic sources that speak about the prohibitions of strangulation and blood for Noahides seem to show that both variants of the Apostolic Decree, i.e., both the extra-canonical and the canonical, are nothing other than variants of the Jewish regulations for non-Jews, before these regulations stabilized into the customary seven Noahide commandments. How could it have been otherwise? Once Gentiles, too, began coming to faith in the Messiah Jesus, it was natural to apply the Noahide commandments to them. At first, according to the “extra-canonical” text, they were required to follow the oldest form of the Noahide commandments, that is, abstaining from the three central sins: idolatry, fornication and bloodshed. Later the text was adapted to a second form of the Noahide commandments, one probably practiced by Christians native to another locale, the commandments that Jews of that local expected of God-fearing Gentiles. It was this second form that eventually became the dominant textual variant.

Let us take a closer look at the earlier stages of the present seven Noahide commandments. As has been demonstrated, there were only three such stages. The first stage consisted of the prohibition of the three main sins. The second stage involved the five basic principles without which the maintenance of human social order is unthinkable. The third stage was the six Adamic commandments. [56] At the end of this development stand the customary seven Noahide commandments.

We do not want to argue that this is a matter of a strict historical development; we would rather speak in terms of the development of a principle. Also when considered chronologically, these four systems of expressing the basic principles existed contemporaneously. To what extent each of the four formulations were not more than ideologically learned constructions, or to what extent they also had practical applications, is difficult for us to discern today. But one should not forget that both practice-oriented regulations and also “philosophical” principles of justice were meaningful, and not only in Judaism. In any case, it is certain that at least the first and the last stages did function as halachically concrete regulations. As to the primarily halachic meaning of the seven Noahide commandments, we need not elaborate.

As to the first stage, we have concluded that these original three prohibitions required by the Jewish religion system, were also the ones required of non-Jews. The immutable prohibitions against idolatry, fornication and bloodshed (i.e., murder) were adopted by the church in the course of the second century. (Whether or not the five basic principles and the six Adamic commandments actually influenced the behavior of people we cannot know.)

Perhaps the developmental history of the five basic principles, without which the maintenance of human social order would be unthinkable, is the most interesting.[57] Added to the three prime sins are the sins of theft[58] and blasphemy.

“My judgments” [Lev. 18:4], these are the words of the Torah, which, if they had not been written, would have had to be written and added. They are the following[59] : theft, fornication, idolatry, blasphemy and bloodshed. Had these not been written, they would have had to be written and added.

Afterwards, more such regulations of ritual nature were added against which objections were raised both by human reasoning and also by the Gentiles. Five of the customary Noahide commandments are mentioned here as being natural laws that can be derived from human and humanitarian necessity. Perhaps it is no accident that these five ordinances are negative rather than positive commandments. These five natural laws are also an extension of the three major sins. One could perhaps surmise that the five basic laws are a pure invention of the rabbis that came about by simply excluding two of the seven Noahide commandments. This is not the case, because these same five serious sins can be found in an entirely different kind of Jewish source, the so-called Didache.[60] It has earlier been noted that Didache 3:1-6 is an independent unit which the Jewish writer of this tractate has adapted to the context. The unit belongs to a genre already mentioned. Other instances of this genre are the seven Noahide commandments and their earlier stages, as well as the first part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17-48). As we will see, Didache 3:1-6 is related to both the Noahide commandments and also to the Sermon on the Mount. But before we demonstrate this, we will attempt a reconstruction of the unit as it may have been worded before it was adapted by the composer of the Jewish source of the Didache[61] :

3:1 My child, flee from every evil thing and what resembles it.

3:2 Don’t be prone to anger, because anger leads to murder.

3:3 Don’t be lustful, because lust leads to fornication.

3:4 Don’t be a bird watcher, because bird watching leads to idolatry.

3:5 Don’t be a liar, because lying leads to theft.

3:6 Don’t be a complainer, because complaining leads to blasphemy.[62]

The relatedness between the background of Didache 3:1-6 and the first part of the Sermon on the Mount cannot be doubted. The warning against evil and all that is similar to it (Did. 3:1) corresponds to the admonition of Jesus to attend to the least of the commandments as well as the most important (Matt. 5:17-20). That anger leads to murder is not something we learn only in Didache 3:2, but also in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:21-22). We learn in Didache 3:3 that lustful cravings lead to fornication; the same is said in Matt. 5:27-28. Additionally, both in the Sermon on the Mount and in Didache we find the same approach as in the general introductory warning to the sixth and seventh commandments in the Decalogue, in fact, the same method of movement from “light” to “heavy.” The relationship between the Didache and the first part of the Sermon on the Mount can be said to be firmly established.

It is important to note that in Didache 3:1-6, fornication, idolatry, theft and blasphemy are listed as the heavy sins. About this last heavy sin, Wengst rightly commented: “When murmuring leads to blasphemy, murmuring is hereby presented as quarreling with destiny, though it has been sent by God. Whoever, then, complains against his destiny stands in constant danger of blaspheming God.” [63] But the most noteworthy thing about the heavy sins mentioned in Didache 3:1-6 is that they are identical with the list of the five central sins in older rabbinic sources (see Sifra on Lev. 18:4, and b. Yoma 67b), namely, theft, fornication, idolatry, blasphemy and murder (lit., shedding of blood). One must not forget that these are five of the seven Noahide commandments.[64]

Before indicating the importance of this section of Didache for the chronology of the history of the Noahide commandments, let us take a closer look at one of the heavy sins, the sin of blasphemy against God; it is found in the Didache, in rabbinic teaching, and in the Noahide commandments.[65] This fits very well with the parenthetical section of the Didache, since it, as well as the entire Jewish source, is meant primarily for Jews—and so the mention of blasphemy is understandable. Surely this source was also meant for pious God-fearing non-Jews, and, therefore, could have been edited and expanded by a very early Christian of Gentile background; it arose from the teaching of the twelve apostles. The distant possibility did exist that a pious non-Jewish, God-fearer might blaspheme God in a weak moment. But the general Jewish view at the time was that a non-Jew was not obligated to believe specifically in the God of Israel—he was only to avoid idolatrous worship. The prohibition of blasphemy against God is easy then to understand as a warning to Jews against a really terrible sin, but what is the prohibition against the blasphemy of God doing among the ordinances that are binding on all mankind? It is not difficult to suppose that a universalistic definition of Judaism involved a binding formulation of the prohibition of blasphemy as applying to all of mankind. However this may be, the prohibition against blasphemy does show up among the universalistic Noahide commandments as representative of the sin of atheism, which throughout all antiquity was considered criminal. Plutarch (De Iside et osiride, ch. 23) says that faith is implanted in nearly all people at birth. According to Gen. 20:11, Abraham excuses himself before Abimelech for passing off his wife as his sister: “I thought that there is no fear of God in this place, and therefore you might kill me because of my wife.”

In the Septuagint the word for “fear of God” in this passage is translated as theosebeia, which means reverence for God, piety or religion.[66] The idea is that if one is at a place where there is no religion, in that place life is not secure. In a Midrash on this verse, we read:

Fear of God is a great thing, because as regards anyone who fears Heaven (i.e., God), it can be assumed that he does not sin, but in contrast, as regards anyone who has no fear of God, it can be assumed that there is no sin from which he will desist. [67]

It seems, then, that the general rejection of irreligiosity makes it plausible that the prohibition of blasphemy against God was meant also to be applied to non-Jews.

Now we return to the five basic sins enumerated in the rabbinic dictum quoted above and in the Didache. The appearance of the same catalog of sins both in Jewish sources and in the Didache demonstrates that this list of the five basic sins did not come to life as some kind of learned reduction of the seven Noahide commandments. The reason is that these five, “heavy” sins are found in a completely different context in the Didache, and they serve a completely different function there than they do in the rabbinic dictum quoted above and in the Noahide commandments. The dating of the lists therefore depends on the dating of the early Christian Didache. The final form of this document came into existence before the end of the first century, but the Jewish source is older than the Didache. We tend toward the assumption that Didache 3:1-6 was an independent unit and was taken over by the author of the Jewish source. It would seem advisable to set the time of origin of this passage as not later than 50 C.E. This leads to the conclusion that the five commandments’ composition took place at the same time the apostolic church was applying the three prohibitions of the Apostolic Decree to Christians of Gentile origin. The second stage of the Noahide commandments’ existence, then, most likely was at the time when the Noahide commandments’ early form was still authoritative for the relationship of non-Jews to Judaism.

We have attempted to demonstrate that the list of the five basic commandments is not a matter of some historico-cultural theory of development from Adam to Noah. To what extent the six Adamic commandments arose independently of the seven Noahide commandments is very difficult to determine.

How many obligations were laid [by God] on Adam, the first human? The sages have taught: “Adam was required to observe six prohibitions: idolatry, blasphemy, justice, bloodshed, fornication and theft.” (Deut. Rab. 2:17, on Deut. 4:41)

In contrast to the seven Noahide commandments, the eating of a limb of a living animal is lacking, and in comparison with the list of the five basic ordinances, justice has been added. May we assume that justice, in contrast to all the prohibitions, is to be considered a positive commandment? That is not at all sure. The universal necessity of having some structured system of justice is basically there to hinder criminal capriciousness in dealing with people’s rights. Thus, the command to respect justice in the Adamic and Noahide versions of the commandments is also to be understood primarily as a negative commandment.

To the six Adamic commandments the descendants of Noah received a seventh, namely, the prohibition against eating a limb of a living animal. Biblically considered, this prohibition was senseless before the Flood, since according to God’s will Adam lived as a vegetarian. Noahides were allowed meat, but with limitations. There were limitations also for the non-Jews, but they were not adopted in the “canonical” form of the seven Noahide commandments. As we have attempted to demonstrate, it is precisely the ritual food laws of the secondary form of the Apostolic Decree that go back to two extra-canonical Jewish restrictions. The original form of the Apostolic Decree was purely ethical and was identical with the three Mosaic obligations for non-Jews, i.e., with the original (three) Noahide commandments.

 This progressive ritualization needs a short explanation. Neither the original, purely ethical form nor the two final “ritualized” forms are difficult to explain. The Noahide commandments and the closely related Apostolic Decree go back to formulations of the basic ideas of Judaism. The content of such summaries is ethical and universal. These summaries are by their nature intended as generally applicable and aimed at all mankind, also the non-Jews. That is how they could be considered as binding for non-Jews.

But is the purely ethical enough for the natural law of mankind? The five basic ordinances already added to the primary sins both the prohibitions of theft and blasphemy, and the six Adamic commandments added the obligation of justice. Judaism—whose self-definition involves being bound by rituals—can manage with purely ethical definitions of basic principles. But does that mean that non-Jews should live with no ritual obligations whatsoever? This is why a moral-ritualistic obligation appears amid the Noahide commandments, that is, the prohibition against eating the limb of a living animal. There were other practical suggestions in this direction, and two of these prohibitions were adopted in the canonical text of the Apostolic Decree.

We started out to show that the non-canonical form of the Apostolic Decree was the original, and that the original content of the Noahide commandments was the prohibition of the three sins of idolatry, murder and fornication.[68] The Apostolic Decree sharpened the prohibition of idolatry and expressly forbid the eating of meat offered to idols. A proof for the importance in Judaism of the three major prohibitions is the decision of Lydda, according to which no circumstance would justify a Jew’s committing these three sins. This decision also was taken over by the young church into its discipline in the course of the second century. We also have tried to show that the original prohibition of these three central sins developed into the seven Noahide commandments. The canonical Apostolic Decree also developed out of Jewish premises. It appears to us that the results of our investigation not only have meaningful implications for the history of early Christendom, but they also cast light on the relationship between early Judaism and Christianity.



Title page of Toland's book, Nazarenus: Or, Jewish, Gentile, and Mahometan Christianity.
Title page of Toland’s book, Nazarenus: Or, Jewish, Gentile, and Mahometan Christianity.

At the beginning of this essay, we referred to the words of Moses Mendelssohn. He was of the opinion that, according to New Testament teaching, a Jew, even if a believer in the Messiah, was still obligated to keep the Jewish ordinances. In contrast, a Christian of Gentile background, in accordance with Jewish halachah, is bound by the Noahide commandments. A similar view had been reached earlier by the English deist, John Toland (1670-1722) in his book, “Nazarenus.”[69] Unfortunately, this important book did not receive sufficient recognition. We could find no evidence that Toland’s work was known to scholars of the German Enlightenment. We must suppose that Mendelssohn, too, had no knowledge of Toland’s thinking.

Toland viewed the twin streams of the early church—the Torah-keeping Jewish Christians and the non-Jewish Christians, as the “original plan of Christianity” from which it would be damaging to deviate. That is why he says, similarly to the later Mendelssohn, that: “It follows indeed that the Jews, whether becoming Christians or not, are forever bound to the Law of Moses, as not limited; and he that thinks they were absolved from the observation of it by Jesus, or that it is a fault in them still to adhere to it, does err not knowing the Scriptures” (Introduction, VI).

Toland held the view that Jewish Christians were forever obligated to observe the Law of Moses, while the Christians of Gentile background, who lived among them, needed only to observe the Noahide commandments, abstaining from eating blood and making offerings to idols.[70] He, of course, knew only the “canonical” text of the Apostolic Decree; however, he tended to accept the hypothesis of a researcher from the century before who had surmised that the mention of the strangled offerings was a secondary interpolation, since it was not mentioned by many of the old church fathers.[71] Resch reached the same conclusion. This subject is worthy of further investigation.

  • [1] The translator would like to thank Horst Krüger, Christina Krüger, and especially Dr. Guido Baltes, for their invaluable assistance in preparing this translation.
  • [2] This article’s translation to English was made possible through the generous financial assistance of Paul, Clarice and Jeffery Steen, the loving father, mother and brother of Gregory. Jerusalem Perspective wishes to thank Dr. Volker Hampel and Neukirchener Verlag (http://www.neukirchener-verlagsgesellschaft.de) for permission to publish this article in English.
  • [3] David Flusser, “Lavater and Nathan, the Wise,” in Bemerkungen eines Juden zur christlichen Theologie (1984): 82-93.
  • [4] M. Mendelssohn, Schriften zum Judentum (1930), 1:303.
  • [5] Ibid., 10-11.
  • [6] “Fornication” would be a more accurate translation.
  • [7] Regarding the Noahide commandments, see E. Schürer, Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes (1909; reprint 1970), 2:178f.; H. L. Strack and P. Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament (1926), 3:36-38; A. Lichenstein, The Seven Laws of Noah (1981). The most important reference is t. Avod. Zar. 8:4-6 (473, 12-25). See also Gen. Rab. 17.17 (on Gen. 2:17; ed. Theodor-Albeck, 149-151), and notes; Gen. Rab. 34.8 (on Gen. 8:19 (ed. Theodor-Albeck, 316-17).
  • [8] D. Flusser, “Die Christenheit nach dem Apostelkonzil,” in Antijudaismus im Neuen Testament: Exegetische und systematische Beiträge (eds. W. P. Eckert, N. P. Levinson and M. Stöhr; 1967), 60-81.
  • [9] G. Resch, “Das Aposteldekret nach seiner ausserkanonischen Textgestalt untersucht,” in Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur, NTF (1905), 3:1-179.
  • [10] A. Diehle, Die Goldene Regel (1962), 107.
  • [11] H. Sahlin, “Die drei Kardinalsünden und das Neue Testament,” Studia Theologica 20.1 (1970): 93-112, esp. 109. Regarding the three central sins, see also L. Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews (1947), 5:292, n. 147; cf. 6:388, n. 16.
  • [12] The three Jewish researchers are: L. Venetianer, Die Beschlüsse zu Lydda und das Aposteldekret zu Jerusalem, Festschrift für A. Schwarz (1917), 417-19; M. Guttmann, Das Judentum und sein Umwelt (1917), 118; and G. Alon, “The Halachah in the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” in Studies in Jewish History (1978), 1:274-94 (Hebrew), published previously in Tarbiz 11 (1939-1940).
  • [13] See Billerbeck, 1:221-24.
  • [14] G. Alon, op. cit., 279, n. 27.
  • [15] Cf. D. Flusser, “Die Tora in der Bergpredigt,” in Heinz Kremers (ed.), Juden und Christen lesen dieselbe Bibel (Duisburger Hochschulbeitraege 2) (1977), 102-113. In rabbinic parlance, one can speak of “great” and “small” commandments (Billerbeck, 1:903f.).
  • [16] Cf. D. Flusser, “The Ten Commandments and the New Testament,” in The Ten Commandments (ed. Ben-Zion Segal; 1985), 118-187 (Hebrew); see also G. Alon, op. cit., 278, and Y. Amir, “Die Zehn Gebote bei Philon von Alexandrien,” in ibid., Die hellenistische Gestalt des Judentums bei Philon von Alexandrien (1983), 131-63. On p. 135 Amir refers to a midrash: “Just like in the ocean there are little waves between two huge waves, so likewise between every pair of the ten commandments there are the individual prescriptions and regulations of the Torah” (j. Shek. 1, 9, 60d). A similar notion is found in the case of Hananiah, the nephew of Yehoshua: see W. Bacher, Die Aggada der Tannaiten (1903), 1:388. Similar is Gen. Rab. 8, line 16 (ed. Ch. Albeck; 1940), and see the note to that line. Targum Jonathan to Exod. 24:12 reads: “I will give you stone tablets on which the words of the Torah are explained, and the 613 commandments.”
  • [17] Cf. D. Flusser, “Neue Sensibilität im Judentum und die christliche Botschaft,” in ibid., Bemerkungen eines Juden zur christlichen Theologie (1984), 35-53 (see also n. 40).
  • [18] Ibid., 166-69.
  • [19] D. Flusser, op. cit. (see n. 16), 175-77.
  • [20] The most recent annotated editions of the Didache are: K. Wengst, Schriften des Urchristentums (1984), 3-100, and La doctrine des Douze Apotres (Didache), SC 248 (eds. W. Rordorf and A. Tuillier; 1978); there (203-226) one finds a critical edition of the Jewish sources of the text. Regarding these Jewish sources, see also D. Flusser, “The Two Ways,” in Jewish Sources in Early Christianity (1982), 235-252 (Hebrew). Regarding Philo, see p. 239 in that article. For our purposes, an important list of sins can be found in Philo in his discussion of the individual laws (Spec. Laws 2, 13): “theft, temple robbery, addiction, adultery, bodily injury, murder or like scandalous deeds.” The list is given in the context of the second half of the Decalogue, but more important is the similarity with the description of a disobedient Jew in Rom. 2:21-22: “You who instruct others, do you learn nothing yourself? You who preach that one ought not steal, do you steal? You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idolatry, do you rob your temple?”
  • [21] The seven Noahide commandments include yet a third commandment from the second half of the Decalogue, namely, the prohibition of robbery (there, as a fifth commandment). The Hebrew word for “robbery” (as well as the verb “to rob”) gained the meaning of “theft.” The old biblical word for robbery was not used any more in the spoken language. In the Noahide commandments, then, we see that the sixth, seventh and eighth commandments of the Decalogue are preserved. But in the “canonical” form of the Apostolic Decree, by contrast, all the prohibitions of the second half of the Decalogue have disappeared. From bloodshed, we have moved to the eating of blood, and the prohibition of meat offered to idols is shifted to the first half of the Decalogue. On the text of the Apostolic Decree see also B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (1971), 429-35. For more recent literature see n. 12, and M. Simon, The Apostolic Decree and Its Setting in the Ancient Church, BJRL 52 (1969-1970), 437-60, and F. Siegert, Gottesfuerchtige und Sympatisanten, JSJ (1973), 109-164.
  • [22] The Apostolic Decree is mentioned in Acts three times: Acts 15:19-20; 28-29; 21:25. In the first formulation, Gentiles are admonished to avoid the “pollutions of idols.” This corresponds to the “contamination by idolatry” referred to in m. Shab. 9:1. In the second and third formulations, meat offered to idols is mentioned specifically.
  • [23] From G. Resch, op. cit., 15-17, one can learn that sometimes the Golden Rule was in fact attached to the canonical form of the Apostolic Decree. One cannot, however, therefore automatically conclude that the Golden Rule belongs to the Apostolic Decree; in these cases, we may be dealing with a mixed textual form.
  • [24] Who was the first to formulate the western form cannot be determined. W. Bacher (op. cit., vol. 2, 336) has mentioned a saying from the School of Ishmael (b. Ber. 19a, Tractate Tehilim on Ps 125, at the end): “Uttering slander is as great a sin as the three capital sins” (idolatry, murder and fornication). See also j. Peah 15d; Midrash ha-Gadol to Gen. 49:9 (see notes in M. Margulies edition, 664). S. Schechter also discusses the three capital sins in Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1961), 205-207 and 222-27 (see esp., 222). See n. 31 below.
  • [25] In m. Avot (the Sayings of the Fathers) these commandments are scarcely mentioned.
  • [26] W. Bacher, op. cit., vol. 1, 263f.
  • [27] Ibid., vol. 4, 278.
  • [28] Regarding the three mortal sins in the ancient church, see among others W. H. C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (1965), 56, 75, 374, 378. Although no friend of the Jews, Frend did recognize the Jewish parallels to the early Christian “mortal” sins. Cf. also A. Harnack, Lehrbuch der Dogmensgeschichte (1913), 1:439-44, and K. Rahner, Schriften zur Theologie, vol. XI: “Fruehe Bussgeschichte” (1973), esp. 91, 183 189. Especially important is the decision of the rigoristic Synod of Elvira (Spain, 306), which begins as follows: “Qui post idoli idolaturus accesserit et fecerit quo est crimen capitale, quia est summi sceleris, placuit nec infine eum communionem accipere. Flamines, qui post fidem lavacri et regenerationis sacrificaverunt, eo quod geminaverint scelera accedente nomicidio vel triplicaverint facinus cohaerente moechia, placuit eos nec in finem accipere communionem” (Acta et symbola conciliorum, ed. E. J. Jonkers, Textus minores, vol. XIX, [1954], 5). One sees here how similar is the position taken regarding the three mortal sins to the decision of Lydda.
  • [29] Cf. A. Blaise, Dictionnaire latino francais des autors chretiens (1954), 130.
  • [30] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4:27. Perhaps the reference to the three mortal sins can be placed even earlier. At the end of the Revelation of John (Rev. 22:15) it is said: “Outside are the dogs, the poisoners, the fornicators, the murderers, and the idolaters and all those who love and do lies”; similarly also in Rev. 21:8. This implies the application of a measure of discipline for preventing the acceptance of such sinners into the congregation and the expulsion of such when discovered. H. Kraft, Die Offenbarung Johannes (1974), 279f., is on the right track.
  • [31] Regarding Tertullian, see B. Altaner and A. Stuiber, Patrologie (1966), 189; regarding Hippolytus, see loc. cit., 166. Hippolytus writes against Pope Callistus (217-222) in Refutation of All Heresies 9:11-13. Tertullian writes about the mortal sins in De pudicitia, probably his last work. When he wrote about the “pontifex maximus, quod est episcopus episcoporum” who was lax in church discipline, it is argued by some that he did not mean, as Hippolytus did, Pope Callistus. See the bibliography in Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, (ed. F. L. Cross; 1974), 221, s.v. “Callistus.” The three mortal sins are mentioned by Hippolytus in a surviving fragment of his commentary on Proverbs (GCS 1:163f.).
  • [32] Tertullian, De pudicitia, ch. 12; similarly also Augustine (see G. Resch, op. cit., 12, n. 21).
  • [33] See also G. Resch, op. cit., 21f.41 and 37, n. 1.
  • [34] Cf. W. Bousset, Die Offenbarung Johannis (1906; repr. 1966), 221.
  • [35] Cf. also H. Conzelmann, Der erste Brief an die Korinther (1969), 162-64. Also in Did. 6:2-3 the non-Jews are warned against meat offered to idols.
  • [36] t. Sot. 6:6 on Esau; Gen. Rab. 63.12 (on Gen. 25:29; ed. Theodor-Albeck, 694-95).
  • [37] t. Sanh. 13:8. See the Aramaic Targums on Gen. 13:13.
  • [38] S. Eli. Rab. 13 (ed. M. Friedmann, p. 61).
  • [39] See n. 25.
  • [40] Sifra to Lev. 16:16 and b. Shevi. 7b.
  • [41] This is not the place to discuss whether the concept of natural law existed in ancient Judaism, however, this issue has been discussed. See I. Heinemann, Die Lehre vom ungeschriebenen Gesetz im juedischen Schrifttum, HUCA 4 (1921), 149-171 and H. A. Wolfson, Philo (1948), 2:180-191. It is perhaps preferable to speak of the Jewish categories of injustice and foundational principles, which include, as we will see, the Noahide commandments, both in their early stages as well as in their final form.
  • [42] On pp. 39-40 of “Neue Sensibilität im Judentum und die christliche Botschaft,” quoted above (n. 18), D. Flusser has shown that the Book of Jubilees is the earliest witness for the double command of love.
  • [43] Cf. H. Kosmala, “The Three Nets of Belial,” ASTI 4 (1965): 91-113.
  • [44] This explanation is meant to paraphrase Isa. 24:18.
  • [45] Cf. J. Becker, Die Testamente der zwoelf Patriachen [T. 12 Patr.], JSHRZ 3 (1974), 227. See the translation on pp. 139-152.
  • [46] Porneia (fornication) is missing in some manuscripts of Acts 15:20, 29, but not of Acts 21:25! See also M. Simon, op. cit., 430f.
  • [47] The Koran 2:168: “He (Allah) has forbidden for you only carrion and blood and pork and whatever has been offered to another than Allah,” i.e., meat offered to idols. The same statement is found in 6:145 and 16:115f. In 5:4 the Islamic eating regulations are extended: “Forbidden to you are carrion, blood, pork and whatever has been offered to another than Allah (by slaughtering); the strangled, the slain, what has died by falling or by being gored, a carcass of an animal killed by wild beasts (except for what you purify), and what has been slaughtered on (idol) stones” [Ronning’s English trans. of M. Henig’s German translation of 1966]. Cf. also G. Resch, op. cit., 28f.
  • [48] Cf. A. Sperbaum, “The Thirty Noahide Commandments of Rav Samuel ben Hofni,” Sinai 72 (1973): 205-221 (Hebrew); A. Sperbaum, The Biblical Commentary of Rav Samuel ben Hofni Gaon (1978), 52-58 (Hebrew).
  • [49] It seems to us that variations in respect to what belongs in the Noahide commandments does not have much to do with the differences between the Pauline and the Petrine views of Christian legal requirements. It can be assumed that at the time the entire church accepted the Apostolic Decree with its three central sins as authoritatively binding. The difference is that Peter considered the Apostolic Decree as the minimum required, and Paul as the maximum. Peter and his followers represented the general Jewish opinion of the time, which was that the Noahide commandments were binding on God-fearers, but that it was up to them to willingly assume more of the standard Jewish practices. See also D. Flusser, op. cit. (n. 9).
  • [50] Cf. Resch, op. cit., 23-26.
  • [51] Hom. Gen. 27.
  • [52] Augustine, Faust. 32.13.
  • [53] G. Resch, op. cit., 24.
  • [54] The sentence about strangulation in b. Hull. 102b is misunderstood.
  • [55] Billerbeck (II, 738) notes the opinion of R. Hananiah ben Gamaliel preserved in b. Sanh. 59a. R. Hananiah interprets Gen. 9:4 as follows: “Its blood, while it is still living, you shall not eat.”
  • [56] In addition to the three central sins, the additional three stages are discussed in Billerbeck III, 36-38.
  • [57] The text is found in Sifra to Lev. 18:4 (ed. Weiss, 86a), and in b. Yoma 67b.
  • [58] This also includes theft (see n. 22 above).
  • [59] This is the correct reading.
  • [60] For bibliography see n. 21. We were alerted to the importance of this passage by Malcolm Lowe.
  • [61] In the unit Did. 3:2-6, each of the verses is composed of two halves. We consider the first half of each verse to be the original. For example, in the first half of Did. 3:4 reference is made to “bird watcher” (augur; soothsayer; diviner of omens); in the second half, to “enchanter,” “astrologer” and “magician.” We have retained “bird watcher,” although we cannot be sure of exactly what pagan superstition we are being warned. In the first half of Did. 3:3, “fornication” is mentioned; in the second half, “adultery.” We have retained “fornication” in our reconstruction; nevertheless, “adultery” appears to be the original reading since it appears in the Decalogue and also in Matt. 5:27-28.
  • [62] On the basis of this unit in the Didache (3:1-6) one recognizes once again how complex are the relationships between the various homilies in ancient Judaism and early Christianity. We will compare the reconstruction of the unit, which we have just made, with the list in 1 Cor. 10:5-11 of the sins of Israel in the wilderness, for the sake of which they had to remain in the wilderness. “These things are examples for us. They happened so that we will not lust after evil the way that they lusted. Don’t be idolaters like some of them…Let us not commit fornication like some of them did fornicate…Don’t complain like some of them complained…”

    The similarities:

    1 Cor. 10:6 lustful Didache 3:3 lust
    1 Cor. 10:7 idolaters Didache 3:4 idolatry
    1 Cor. 10:8 fornicators Didache 3:3 fornication
    1 Cor. 10:10 complainers Didache 3:6 complaining

    In the four parallel expressions we find two “light” sins (lust and complaining) and two “heavy” sins (idolatry and fornication).

  • [63] Cf. K. Wengst, op. cit., 71, n. 19.
  • [64] A very interesting historico-spiritual investigation of the Noahide commandments can be found at the beginning of the Introduction to Tractate Berachot in the Babylonian Talmud, which was composed by Nissim Gaon from Kairuan, North Africa (ca. 990-1062). Regarding the five basic principles, see also E. E. Urbach, The Sages (1979), 320f.
  • [65] Regarding the prohibition of blasphemy for non-Jews, see b. Sanh. 56a. The Talmud deduces this Noahide prohibition from Lev. 24:16; the story tells of a blasphemer, whose father was Egyptian—only later did having a Jewish mother become decisive for whether one was Jewish—and this passage closes with these words: “Whether the person involved is a stranger or a native, if he blasphemes the Name [of the Lord], he shall be put to death.”
  • [66] Cf. W. Bauer, Griechisch-deutsches Woeterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments (1958), 708.
  • [67] Midrash ha-Gadol to Gen. 20:11 (M. Margulies edition, 330)
  • [68] That the original Noahide commandments were only three comes directly out of b. Sanh. 57a: “A Noahide is to be executed on the basis of three transgressions: fornication, bloodshed and blasphemy,” that is, he will not be executed for transgression of the other commandments.
  • [69] J. Toland, Nazarenus or Jewish, Gentile or Mahometan Christianity (1718). For the text of Toland’s work, see: https://archive.org/details/nazarenusorjewis00tola.
  • [70] Op. cit., 65 and 68.
  • [71] Ibid., 181. This scholar was Curcelleus. Toland, in n. 38, cites Curcelleus: “Sed merito nobis suspecta est, cum a multis Patribus non agnoscatur, immo tamquam supposita diserte reiiciatur” (Diatriba de esu snguinis, chapter 11, p. 131). The scholar was not aware that there were manuscripts of the New Testament in which the word “strangled” is missing.

The Interpretive Key to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

In Revelation 6:1-8, upon the Lamb’s opening of the first seal, four horsemen appear: the first rode a white horse, and “had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer”; the second rode a red horse, and was given power “to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another; and he was given a great sword”; the third rode a black horse, and “held a pair of scales in his hand,” signifying a great famine; and the fourth rode a pale horse: “Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him.” These four horsemen, we are told, “were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth.”

Modern readers of the Book of Revelation usually assume that the key to understanding the book lies in discovering a one-to-one correspondence between the figures it presents, and real-life figures. Most readers, however, recognize that the second, third, and fourth horsemen are not real figures, but personifications of calamities. But what about the first horseman (the conqueror on the white horse)? Why do most readers think that the first horseman answers to a different interpretive device—that a real historical figure is portrayed there? The assumption, I believe, is wrong. The correct interpretation of the four horsemen appears only when we consider the four together as a unified symbol of widespread calamity.

While the preceding paragraph has popularizing treatments of Revelation in mind, it should be noted that even scholarly commentators assume that the first horseman relates to an important historical figure. Although they are divided upon the precise identity of this figure, almost all accept one of two opposing views: the horseman is Christ, or else he is the anti-Christ. In what follows, I will argue that the first horseman actually represents neither of these figures.

As with so many passages in the New Testament, the correct key to understanding Revelation 6:1-8 lies in our paying attention to the details of the Old Testament. The key to this passage, I believe, is found in our version of Jeremiah 15:2 (which is based upon the Masoretic Hebrew text), as well as in the Septuagint’s reading of Ezekiel 5:12 (which, at this point in the text, differs from the Masoretic text from which our English versions of Ezekiel were translated).[1] (The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, and was widely used during New Testament times.) Jeremiah 15:2 reads as follows:

And when they say to you, “Where shall we go?” you shall say to them: Thus says the LORD: Those destined for death, to death, and those destined for the sword, to the sword; those destined for famine, to famine, and those destined for captivity, to captivity. [NRSV, with corrections.]

Notice that the calamities recounted here are the same as those represented by the four horsemen of Revelation (although the order is different). Jeremiah’s first calamity, “death,” corresponds to the fourth horseman; “sword” corresponds to the second horseman; “famine” corresponds to the third horseman; and, since the geographical dispersion of a conquered people constitutes the most permanently damaging aspect of a national defeat, “captivity” would seem to be the calamity represented by the first horseman. (Among other things, the color white signified a conqueror in the ancient world. This is why the first horseman and the conquering Christ of Revelation 19 both wear white.)[2] The correlation between Jeremiah 15 and Revelation 6 suggests that the first horseman does not represent a discrete historical figure, but rather is a symbol of “captivity,” one of the four great calamities that together spell total chaos. (These four calamities are probably meant to signify a time of chaos in every area of life, and are not meant to signify that four, and only four, areas of life will be affected.[3]

What exactly is the relationship between Revelation 6:1-8, Jeremiah 15:2, and Septuagint Ezekiel 5:12? It should be pointed out that the calamitous times prophesied in Jeremiah and Ezekiel are not the same as those prophesied in Revelation. Rather, the similarity in structure stems either from all three books using a stock device for inferring total chaos, or else from Revelation’s reuse of Jeremiah’s or Ezekiel’s expression, without regard for the original historical referent. If the latter is correct, it is more likely that Revelation uses Ezekiel than Jeremiah, since allusions to Ezekiel are found throughout Revelation, while allusions to Jeremiah are not.

This text is a good example, I believe, of why proper interpretation of the Bible begins with a knowledge of the historical and literary context, rather than with the questions posed by systematic or practical theology.[4]

  • [1] The Septuagint’s reading of Ezek. 5:12 is: “A fourth of you will be consumed by death, and a fourth of you will perish from the famine in your midst, and a fourth of you will be scattered into all the winds, and a fourth of you will fall by the dagger all around you, and a sword will pierce them.”
  • [2] See W. Michaelis, “λευκός, λευκαίνω,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 4.242.
  • [3] “Will be”: the future tense is from the perspective of the (implied) writer, and not our own. The issue of preterism (which I accept) lies beyond the scope of this paper.
  • [4] I would like to thank David Bivin for the invitation to contribute as a guest writer. This paper is based upon an article that I published in New Testament Studies in 1999.

Romans 11: The Olive Tree’s Root

Revised: 20-Apr-2013

The apostle Paul asserted in Romans 11:1 that God had not rejected his people. Speaking metaphorically, he went on to compare the people of Israel to a cultivated olive tree. Because of unbelief, some, but not all, of the tree’s branches had been broken off, and a wild olive branch had been grafted to the stock.[1] Paul emphasized, however, that grafting the original branches back to the stock of the cultivated tree would be a much simpler task than grafting a wild olive to it.

Paul spoke about Israel as a “cultivated olive tree” whose rootage was in the Patriarchs, particularly Abraham.[2] Some Bible commentators, however, interpreted the root of the olive tree as Christ or his messianic program.[3] When making that claim, they came dangerously close to endorsing an old, rotten idea: the root represents the New Israel, that is, the Church.

Once an exegete has identified the root of Paul’s metaphor with the Church, he or she cannot easily escape a subsequent and more pernicious conclusion: Israel of the flesh ceased to exist long ago. Rejecting carnal Israel, God gave her place of distinction to another. That other is the Church.

There are two reasons that the olive tree’s root has been wrongly interpreted as symbolizing the Messiah. First, the Greek word ῥίζα (ridza, root) appears in Romans 11:16. There ridza seems to parallel the Greek word ἀπαρχή (aparxe, firstfruits), which calls to mind 1 Corinthians 15:20, 23. There Paul referred to Jesus, whom he regarded as Messiah, as “the aparxe (the firstfruits) of those who have fallen asleep.”

The two parts of Romans 11:16, however, should be read both together and independently. The New Testament was first divided into verses in 1551 A.D. Always a time-saver when searching for a biblical passage, the versification of the text can also influence interpretation. In this case, verse 16a primarily belongs to the preceding discussion, where aparxe refers to the first Jewish followers of Jesus.[4] In verse 11 Paul asked, “Have they stumbled so as to fall?” Verse 16a serves as one additional argument that this was not the case.

Paul’s argument on behalf of his people includes an allusion to Numbers 15:17-21.[5] The Israelites had been commanded to present as an offering a baked loaf made from the firstfruits, or first portion, of the grain harvest. This loaf represented symbolically the entire seasonal grain crop. It, therefore, sanctified the whole harvest. The relatively small number of Jews who had accepted Jesus’ messiahship were, figuratively speaking, the firstfruits of the Jewish nation. Like the special bread offering, they, too, sanctified the whole. For Paul, these few who had believed the gospel message proved that the Jewish nation had not been rejected. Its “fall” was neither complete nor final. God had not abandoned his people in favor of another.

Paul concluded his thoughts about Israel’s status with his metaphor of the first portion of the dough. Despite Israel’s stumbling, the faithfulness of a portion of the nation had beneficial spiritual implications for their unbelieving brethren.[6] At that point, Paul shifted gears and began accelerating in a new direction. With the division of the text into verses in the sixteenth century, henceforth this change in direction would start in the middle of verse 16.

The apostle now turned his attention to the Gentile believers in an effort to warn against misplaced pride.[7] He introduced the imagery of cultivated and wild olive trees. As part of that imagery, the stock’s remaining natural branches represent the Jewish believers. In Paul’s mind, both those Jews who had accepted Jesus’ messianic claims and those who had not were the children of Abraham, the former through faith and physical lineage, but the latter only through physical lineage. The stock was holy, and, therefore, all of the natural branches were, too. But some of the natural branches had been broken off, and a wild olive had been grafted to the stock. The wild branch benefited from the stock and, like the natural branches, was now holy, too.

The second and more influential reason for wrongly interpreting Paul’s metaphorical “root” as the Messiah was due to another passage, where Paul referred to the messianic title “the root of Jesse.” In Romans 15:12, the apostle quoted from the prophet Isaiah: “And in that day, there will be the root of Jesse, and the one who will arise to rule over nations. The nations will hope in him” (Isa. 11:10). Paul took his quotation from the Greek Septuagint. The Hebrew Masoretic text reads: “In that day, the root of Jesse that has remained standing will become an ensign to [the] peoples. Him [the] nations will seek.” Apparently impressed by Paul’s initiative, the author of the Book of Revelation referred to Jesus as the “root of David” (Rev. 5:5; 22:16).

In Isaiah 11 the “root of Jesse” appears twice, once in verse 1, and again in verse 10. In Romans 15:12, Paul opted to quote from the less clear verse 10, which seems to indicate that the “root of Jesse” will arise to become a ruler over the nations. Verse 10 probably caught Paul’s attention because of the word “nations,” or “Gentiles,” which does not appear in verse 1. Paul wanted to underscore that the Messiah had come for both Jew and Gentile. Romans 15:9-12 is a string of prooftexts accentuating the Messiah’s coming for the second group.

Olive TreeIsaiah 11:10 cannot be read independently of Isaiah 11:1. Both traditional and modern Jewish biblical commentators have made frequent mention of this. For example, Radak[8] comments about “the root of Jesse” in verse 10: “This is the one who goes forth from ‘the root of Jesse,’ as it was said, ‘And a branch will sprout from his roots’ (vs. 1), for Jesse is the root. And so we read in Targum Jonathan, ‘a son of Jesse’s son.'”[9] More recently, Amos Hacham, a Jewish Israeli, commented on verse 10: “‘The root of Jesse,’ which grew and became a tree, as it was said above in verse 1: ‘And a branch will sprout from his roots.'”[10] The phrase “root of Jesse” functions as an abbreviated form of “a branch from the root of Jesse.” It is the shoot (hoter) or branch (netzer), and not the stump or root, that symbolizes a future messianic figure.

Paul must have understood Isaiah 11:10 as have traditional and modern Jewish exegetes. According to Luke, Paul alluded to Isaiah 11:1, 10 while preaching a sermon in a synagogue at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:23). He described Jesus as a savior descending from the offspring of Jesse. Here the offspring would have corresponded to Jesse’s root, from which Jesus the branch sprouted.[11]

To read Romans 11:16b-24 alongside Romans 15:12 without properly considering Isaiah 11:1, 10 can easily lead to unsatisfactory conclusions. The “root of Jesse” should not be equated with the holy root of the olive tree. Although verse 10 speaks metaphorically of the “root of Jesse,” this verse must be read in the light of verse 1. “Root of Jesse” in verse 10 actually refers to the branch that sprouts forth from the root of Jesse.

If while writing Romans 11:16b-24, Paul was not thinking of Isaiah 11:10, whence did he derive his imagery? Consider Jeremiah 11:16, where the prophet spoke of a fair olive tree whose branches were in danger of being broken. According to the Hebrew Masoretic tradition, the prophet declared:

The LORD [once] called you “a green olive tree, fair, with choice fruit.” But with a great roaring sound he will set it on fire, and its branches will be broken.

The Greek Septuagintal version of Jeremiah 11:16 reads differently:

The Lord called your name “a fair olive tree of a goodly shade in appearance.” At the noise of its being lopped, fire was kindled against it. Great is the affliction coming upon you. Her branches have become useless.

Regardless of which text (the Hebrew or the Greek) Paul had in mind, the imagery is consistent with that of Romans 11:17. Paul knew well both Hebrew and Greek, and he read Scripture in both languages. To restrict him to one version over and against another would not do justice to Paul’s bicultural background. In this case, however, even if he had been thinking only of the Septuagint, he still could have based Romans 11:17 on Jeremiah 11:16.

In Jeremiah’s allegory, the olive tree apparently symbolized the people of Israel. As an olive tree, the prophet metaphorically spoke of the house of Israel (v. 10), of the people (v. 14), and of God’s beloved (v. 15). Interestingly, in Romans 11:28, Paul spoke of Israel as being beloved. The apostle seems to have followed the prophet’s lead in comparing the Jewish people to an olive tree. Paul was neither the first nor the last to make such a comparison. Jeremiah had done the same in the sixth century B.C., and the rabbis of the talmudic period happily kept the tradition alive.[12]

Postscript: The Inquisition and the Perversion of John 15:6

One must view with apprehension the erroneous association that some Christians have made between Romans 11:17 and John 15:6. These two verses share the common image of branches. In John, the branches represent people not abiding in Christ. Having been cast off, these branches are gathered and burned. The branches in Romans 11 were not destroyed, but are waiting to be grafted back to the stock.

Introduced by Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) and executed chiefly by Dominicans and Franciscans, the Inquisition reached its zenith in Spain between 1474 and 1504 during the reign of the Christian king of Castile, Ferdinand V and his queen Isabella, the same king and queen who sent Christopher Columbus on his voyage of discovery.[13] With only brief interludes, the Inquisition continued until 1820!

In 1483 Ferdinand and Isabella appointed their confessor, Tomás de Torquemada (1420-1498), a prior of the Dominican Order, as Grand Inquisitor. It was Torquemada who organized the Spanish Inquisition, setting up ecclesiastical courts in various cities for the purpose of hunting down heretics (usually conversos, Jews who converted to Christianity under duress and who had maintained contact with the Jewish community) and laying down guidelines for the prosecutors, or inquisitors. It also was Torquemada who was primarily responsible for the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.[14]

The courts of the Inquisition confiscated the property of those convicted of heresy. Initially, the assets seized became the property of the state, but, as time went on, they were channeled more and more to the courts themselves. This wealth fueled the machine of the Inquisition, giving the inquisitional tribunals tremendous power. Since the tribunals stood to reap great financial benefit if the accused were convicted, it became increasingly difficult for the accused to get an acquittal. In fact, within a short time, hardly anyone brought before these courts was acquitted—certainly not the rich!

The accused were convicted on the flimsiest of evidence. Heads of family were imprisoned and their lands confiscated. Large families were reduced to poverty overnight. From the 16th to the 18th centuries the economy of the once-prosperous Iberian Peninsula was ravaged due to the draconian measures of the Inquisition’s courts. Until today Spain and Portugal have never regained their former glory.

The severest form of punishment meted out by the Inquisition’s tribunals was burning at the stake. However, as an arm of the church, the courts were not permitted to carry out these executions. Therefore, they resorted to a 400-year-old legal fiction: the one sentenced to death was handed over to the secular authorities accompanied by a written appeal for mercy to which was appended a recommendation that, if the secular authorities felt compelled to execute, they should do so “without the effusion of blood.” In other words, they should burn the victim. This manner of execution was thought to be justified by John 15:6: “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned” (KJV).[15]

For those who conducted the Spanish Inquisition, those not “abiding in Christ” were the conversos. If these false Christians were “the branches fit for burning” of John 15:6, they undoubtedly were also the “broken off” branches of Romans 11:17. Since God himself had broken off the branches mentioned in Romans 11, surely, the inquisitors must have thought, it was God’s will that these deceivers confess their heresy and suffer their punishment. It made no difference to the lords of the inquisition that the branches in John’s Gospel were actually runners or sprigs (Gr. klemata) of a grapevine and not, as in Romans, branches (Gr. kladoi) of an olive tree.

The story of the perversion of John 15:6’s interpretation should drive home to all Christians the importance of sound biblical scholarship and the enormous dangers inherent in wrongly interpreting Scripture.[16]

  • [1] “The two beautiful sprigs which God engrafted into Abraham are Ruth and Naomi [sic, Naamah], who let themselves be planted into Israel as proselytes,” Christian Maurer, referring to Rabbi Eleazar’s saying preserved in the Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 63a (entry ῥίζα [ridza] in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [ed. Gerhard Friedrich; trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968], 6:987): “What is the meaning of, ‘And in you will all the families of the earth be blessed’ [Gen. 12:3]? The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said to Abraham: ‘I have two branches to engraft upon you: Ruth the Moabitess and Naamah the Ammonitess.’ ‘All the families of the earth.’ [This scriptural phrase means that] even the other families who dwell on the earth are not blessed except for Israel’s sake….” According to Joseph Shulam, the apostle Paul “uses the metaphor of ‘grafting in’ to graphically demonstrate God’s plan to bless all the nations of the world through Abraham” (A Commentary on the Jewish Roots of Romans [Baltimore, MD: Lederer, 1997], 363, 370).
  • [2] Maurer, TDNT, 6:989; Shulam, Romans, 363, 371-73. Rom. 11:28 helps to confirm that Paul had the Patriarchs in mind.
  • [3] E.g., in ancient times, the church fathers; in this century, Karl Barth: Die Kirchliche Dogmatik, vol. 2: Die Lehre von Gott, part 2 (1942), 314 (English trans.: Church Dogmatics [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957], 285f.).
  • [4] Paul used aparxe (firstfruits) in this sense in Rom. 16:5 and 1 Cor. 16:15.
  • [5] Compare Neh. 10:37; Ezek. 44:30.
  • [6] Benefit accrues to the Jewish people as a whole thanks to the faithfulness of Jewish believers in Jesus! The firstfruits makes the whole holy (Rom. 11:16a).
  • [7] There may have existed masked anti-Jewish sentiment among the Gentile members of the church at Rome. These Gentile believers gladly took advantage of the privileges granted by the Roman government to the Jewish religion, but at the same time wished to be viewed as distinct from the Jewish community. See Marcel Simon, Verus Israel: A Study of the Relations between Christians and Jews in the Roman Empire (AD 135-425) (trans. [from French] by H. McKeating; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 100-101. See also Harry J. Leon, The Jews of Ancient Rome (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1960), 9-11, 22, 45. According to Leon, it was only during the brutal persecution of Christians that followed the great fire of 64 A.D. that Roman authorities began to differentiate between Jews and Christians of the city (p. 28). For official documents from the first two centuries B.C. and the first half of the first century A.D. guaranteeing Jews of the Mediterranean world the right to observe their religious customs, and other privileges, see Josephus, Antiq. 14:185-267; 19:279-91.
  • [8] An acronym for Rabbi David Kimhi, a Bible commentator and grammarian who lived in southern France in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries.
  • [9] Targum Jonathan interprets the “the root of Jesse” in Isa. 11:10 as “the son of the sons of Jesse,” rendering Isa. 11:1 as, “And a king will come forth from the sons of Jesse, and the Messiah from the son of his sons will be anointed.”
  • [10] Amos Hacham, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-35 (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1984), 129 (Hebrew).
  • [11] I am indebted to Joseph Frankovic for pointing out to me the relevance of Acts 13:23. I also am indebted to him for his editorial suggestions and for the many discussions we have had about Romans 11. Please note his “God’s Mercy and Our Disobedience.” These two articles are theological siblings and gain much by being read one after the other.
  • [12] “R. Isaac said, At the time of the destruction of the Temple the Holy One, blessed be He, found Abraham standing in the Temple. Said He, ‘What hath My beloved to do in My house?’ [Jer. 11:15]. Abraham replied, ‘I have come concerning the fate of my children’. Said He, ‘Thy children sinned and have gone into exile’. ‘Perhaps’, said Abraham, ‘they only sinned in error?’ And He answered, ‘She hath wrought lewdness‘ [ibid.]. ‘Perhaps only a few sinned?’ ‘With many‘ [ibid.], came the reply. ‘Still’, he pleaded, ‘Thou shouldst have remembered unto them the covenant of circumcision’. And He replied, ‘The hallowed flesh is passed from thee‘ [ibid.]. ‘Perhaps hadst Thou waited for them they would have repented’, he pleaded. And He replied, ‘When thou doest evil, then thou rejoicest!’ [ibid.]. Thereupon he put his hands on his head and wept bitterly, and cried, ‘Perhaps, Heaven forfend, there is no hope for them’. Then came forth a Heavenly Voice and said, The Lord called thy name a leafy olive-tree, fair with goodly fruit [Jer. 11:16]: as the olive-tree produces its best only at the very end, so Israel will flourish at the end of time” (Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 53b; English translation by Eli Cashdan, in The Babylonian Talmud: Seder Kodashim: Volume 1 [ed. Isidore Epstein; London: The Soncino Press, 1948], 321).
  • [13] See Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1972), 8:1380-1407; The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (ed. F. L. Cross; London: Oxford University Press, 1958), 694-95.
  • [14] Encyclopaedia Judaica, 15:1264-65; The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1367-68.
  • [15] Encyclopaedia Judaica, 8:1404.
  • [16] I view myself as the descendant of those who took part in the Crusades, and carried out the Inquisition and other atrocities against the Jewish people. I wrote the Postscript to this article as a personal reminder to be vigilant lest I repeat the sins of my Christian ancestors. I believe that, as a Christian, I dare not have the attitude, “If I had lived in the days of my fathers, I would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets” (see Matt 23:30). Rather, I must accept responsibility for my Christian ancestors’ sins, vow not to repeat them, express my sorrow to the Jewish people, and in any and every way possible, make restitution for these sins.

    I realize that it is easy for me, living in a more enlightened age, to criticize my Christian predecessor, yet I know that it is my responsibility to denounce Christian anti-Semitism, past and present. I must acknowledge the anti-Semitic attitudes and actions of these ancestors—they were more horrible than I am capable of describing—and vow to do all in my power to repair the great damage that has been done. It may be unfair for a twentieth-century citizen of the United States, for example, to judge seventeenth- and eighteenth-century American slave-holders such as the United States’ third president, Thomas Jefferson; nevertheless, slavery cannot be accepted or condoned. I am obligated to condemn both wrong thinking and sinful actions of earlier Christians towards the Jewish people, including church fathers such as Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Origen and John Chrysostom.

    The inhumanity, the depravity, of Christian anti-Semitism cannot be excused—better to strongly condemn it than attempt the impossible task of justifying it. I feel scandalized and embarrassed by expressions of Christian anti-Semitism such as the Inquisition, the Crusades, outbreaks of anti-Jewish pogroms in eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Russia and the Ukraine, and the Holocaust. I mourn the anti-Semitic words and deeds of my Christian forefathers. My hope is that I can learn from history and, with God’s help, improve on my forefathers’ sordid record, perhaps restoring in some small measure the church’s broken relationship with the synagogue. Amen!

The Teaching of Balaam

Revised: 11-Apr-2007

Each May I lead a student tour to Greece and Turkey. During two weeks of travel and study, we explore the growth of the Early Church as it expanded from its Jewish setting in the Land of Israel and met the challenges of preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles in the Hellenistic world. One of the profound realizations we have made is how much of its Jewish character the Hellenistic Church retained. In fact, the term “Hellenistic Church” should better be understood as a geographical description rather than one describing cultural identity.

On a recent trip, I was struck anew by the integration of Jewish methods of interpretation of the Old Testament in the letter to the church at Pergamum (Rev. 2:12-16). On the one hand, the profoundly Jewish flavor of the Book of Revelation is surprising. It was likely one of the last New Testament books written. By that point in time, most scholars assume that Christianity was well on its way in departing from its Jewish context. On the other hand, scholarship has recognized the significant Hebraic influences on the Greek language of the Book of Revelation. These linguistic undercurrents may reflect the distinctly Jewish milieu of the apocalyptic work, telling us something about both the author and his readers.

And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: “The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword: ‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is; you hold fast my name and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice immorality. So you also have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.’” (Rev. 2:12-16)

Already at the turn of the century, W. R. Ramsay suggested that “the throne of Satan” was related to the fact that Pergamum was the first city in Asia to be awarded the cherished neokoros status, and granted the privilege to be the site of the first temple in Asia dedicated to a Roman emperor—Caesar Augustus. The pressure to demonstrate fidelity to the empire made the practice of emperor worship a necessity, and a challenge for Jews and for the Early Church. The Jewish king, Herod the Great, a century before the Book of Revelation, had built three temples to Augustus in Israel—at Caesarea, Sebaste (biblical Samaria) and Paneas (which was later renamed Caesarea Philippi). He did this to demonstrate his loyalty to his imperial benefactor. Yet, it seems that participation in the imperial cult was the focal point in the rebuke to the church at Pergamum.

For our limited study, I am particularly interested in the thrust of the author’s rebuke and the enigmatic reference to “the teaching of Balaam,” which seems to be derived from the author’s understanding of the Moabite prophet’s instruction to Balak. What is interesting is that no indication is given in the story of Balaam (Num. 22-24) to any advice by the prophet to Balak. Even less is it recorded that he encouraged the Israelites to participate with the Moabites in idolatry and sexual immorality.

Instead, this is one of those occasions when it is necessary for the Christian reader to be familiar with first-century Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament account. The letter to the church of Pergamum draws upon contemporary understanding of the Biblical event which had “filled in” Balaam’s role in Israel’s downfall. The genesis for this interpretative evolution is the obscure reference to the event in Moses’ words to Israel.

Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? Behold, these caused the people of Israel, in the matter [or, by the word] of Balaam, to act treacherously against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the LORD.” (Num. 31:6)

Greek translators of the Hebrew Scriptures already understood the Hebrew term דָּבָר (dabar)—which can be understood as “matter, thing, word, event”—to mean “the counsel or advice [of Balaam] to turn astray.”

Moses said to them: “Have you let all the women live? For they were to the Israelites in keeping with the word of Balaam to turn astray, to show contempt for the word of the Lord with regard to Peor, and a plague came upon the congregation of the Lord.” (Septuagint, Num. 31:16)

So also in an early Aramaic translation of Numbers 31:6, the translators understood Balaam to have taken an active role in the sin of the Israelites:

They were a stumbling block to the Israelites at the advice of Balaam, to falsify in the name of the Lord in the matter of the idol of Peor. (Targum Neophyti on Num. 31:6)

The first-century Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, also expanded the Biblical account to provide the precise advice Balaam gave to Balak.

“You have in your countrymen, king,” he said, “women of outstanding beauty, and there is nothing to which a man more easily falls captive than a woman’s beauty….

“But you must instruct them not to allow their wooers to enjoy their charms at once…. One of those (women) should say, with saucy air: ‘You must not be permitted to enjoy my favors until you have left the ways of your fathers and become a convert…if you are willing to take part in the libations and sacrifices which we offer to idols of stone and wood and other images.’” (Philo, Moses 1:294-298)

We witness the tendency of first-century Jewish interpreters to take advantage of ambiguities in the Biblical narrative to use the stories as vehicles to preach to their contemporaries. The expansions were not simply additions to the Biblical story, but an opportunity to caution their fellow Jews not to be enticed by the pagan idolatry which surrounded them or the loose sexual mores of the Greco-Roman world.

For their teaching purposes Balaam became a prime example of greed, idolatry and the evils which challenged the community of faith. This is in spite of the fact that according to the literal record of Scripture, Balaam did nothing wrong. He could certainly be faulted for being willing to speak against Israel. Yet, at the same time, he was one who had “knowledge of the Most High” (Num. 24:16), and he had only prophesied what God instructed him. Thus, three times he blessed the children of Israel rather than following Balak’s request to curse them. However, through a creative transformation, this complex figure came to symbolize the challenges and pitfalls of the people of God in the first century. The “teaching of Balaam” in the Book of Revelation, which resulted in “idolatry and immorality” by the Christians in Pergamum, parallels the post-Biblical presentation of Balaam’s role in Israel’s downfall given in an early Jewish midrash.

“They called to the people and offered sacrifices to their Gods” [Num. 25:2] for they followed Balaam’s advice…and set up tents and put prostitutes in them with all their finery…. Whenever a Jew would pass by in the market place…a girl would come out in her adornments and her perfume and seduce him by saying, “Why is it that we love you and you hate us—here, take this piece of merchandise for free—after all, we are both descended from a single ancestor, Terah, the father of Abraham. Wouldn’t you like to eat from our sacrificial offerings?” (Midrash Tanhuma, Balak 18)

Our study has brought to light the meaning of the “teaching of Balaam” in the letter to the church at Pergamum. We have seen that the notion is couched in contemporary Jewish interpretation of the story of Balaam with the purpose to address the spiritual challenges of the Jewish community living in a pagan world. Two points are particularly important for New Testament readers.

Relief of Balaam on the bronze doors of the basilica of St. Zeno in Verona. (Photo courtesy of Mattana.)
Relief of Balaam on the bronze doors of the basilica of St. Zeno in Verona. (Photo courtesy of Mattana.)

First, one should note how Jewish the letter to the Christians at Pergamum was—even at such a late date! Without an understanding of first-century Jewish interpretation of the story of Balaam, little sense could be made of “the teaching of Balaam” in the author’s warning. This fact argues against the common Christian opinion that from the day of Pentecost the Church was determined to depart from its Jewish context. The writer of the letter of Revelation and the congregation in Pergamum at the close of the first century A.D. still expressed themselves in profoundly Jewish ways.

Second, once again we see how important it is to engage first-century Jewish thought and faith to appreciate fully the message of the New Testament. Exploring the “Jewish roots of Christianity” does not mean simply a familiarity with the Old Testament, but instead, how that book was read and lived out by Jews contemporary to Jesus and his first followers. It underscores the immutable truth that Jesus came “in the fullness of time.” We as Christians living at the beginning of the third millennium must keep in mind God’s sovereign act in revealing Himself at a very specific point in history. As we look forward to the challenges before us, we must remember that our faith is founded upon one sent (not by accident!) at a particular point in time and in the midst of a particular people. It is these historical facts which must shape our reading of the ancient story to reveal God’s truth and determine how we might best serve Him in the present era.

666: One Number or Three?

Revised: 4-March-2014

We read in Revelation 13 of two horrible beasts, rising out of the sea and the earth:


And I saw a beast rising out of the sea having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names…. One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast…. Then I saw another beast that rose out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon…. [I]t causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six. (Rev. 13:1-18, NRSV)

The last details in this passage have caused a great deal of commotion among endtime prophecy teachers, but the scholarly discussion of the number 666 (which properly rejects the speculations of prophecy teachers out of hand) is not as profuse as the subject deserves. I suspect that the treatment that prophecy teachers have given these verses has made the subject somewhat disreputable for serious scholars. Any objective reading of Revelation, however, can hardly fail to see the importance of this number within the author’s web of historical signifiers.

Even when looking expressly for the right solution to any given problem, studying a map of wrong turns, and even wrong turns off of wrong turns, can sometimes be helpful. Before discussing what 666 probably meant for first-century readers, I should first deal with a glaring exegetical error that disqualifies many of the solutions offered by endtime prophecies teachers: the King James Version renders the number in Arabic numerals as “666,” causing many would-be sleuths to treat the number as a series of three sixes (i.e., “six, six, six”), rather than as a three-digit number (“six hundred and sixty-six”). Interpretations offered along this line include identifying the beast with a person with six letters in his first, middle and last names, or the more recent fashion of equating 666 with the “WWW” found in internet addresses (based on the Hebrew equivalent of “W” being the sixth letter in the Hebrew alphabet). For (most) biblical scholars, these sorts of interpretations hold only a curiosity value, but the impossibility of construing “666” as “six, six, six” should be mentioned, so that we may be clear on what we ought to look for. Although the King James Version represents the number with Arabic numerals, the Greek manuscript tradition spells it out as “six hundred and sixty-six.” But can’t the spelled-out version imply the visual association of three sixes? I doubt it. The hexadic theme of the number would probably have been apparent to most readers, but it should be noted that, although that association is made visual in ancient Egyptian or Arabic numeral systems (the latter is the foundation of the West’s current number system), it is not made visual in Hebrew, Greek, or Roman numeral systems.[1] Any reasonable attempt to puzzle out the meaning of 666 must therefore begin by recognizing that the number represents a three-digit value.

With this I will move on to a consideration of the most viable solutions for the meaning of “666.” With most scholars, I assume that Revelation is about events that, for the most part, transpired in the first century. This is obvious not only from the ease with which its narrative can be matched to first-century referents, but also by the presumption that a letter written to churches in first-century Asia Minor should be relevant to those churches.

Just like prophecy teachers, scholars have had to proceed by plugging in different words, to see what fits best. As Heinrich Schlier laments, “It is clear that today we have not the sophia [= wisdom] which the Apocalypse takes for granted.”[2] Some attractive solutions to the “666” puzzle, however, have been put forward. The most popular is probably that based upon the Hebrew spelling of “Caesar Nero.” When “Nero” is spelled with a final nun, the numerical value of “Caesar Nero” is 666. When spelled without the (optional) final nun, the value is 616, a number that is also preserved in some early manuscripts of Revelation. Although there are various ways of spelling “Caesar Nero” in Hebrew and Aramaic, the one way needed for this solution has been found in an Aramaic writing from Wadi Murabba’at (on the Dead Sea). Anyone who knows anything about Nero and his designs against the Church (even if his measures were localized) can readily see that he is a good candidate for the antichrist. There are thus some compelling reasons for viewing Nero as the referent in Revelation’s cryptic message.

"Christian Dirce" detail by Henryk Siemiradzki (1897) depicting a Roman emperor. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
“Christian Dirce” detail by Henryk Siemiradzki (1897) depicting a Roman emperor. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Not everyone, however, accepts the Nero interpretation. Some years ago, Ethelbert Stauffer argued that Domitian is the real figure behind the number.[3] Stauffer conjectures the existence of a Roman coin bearing the inscription (transliterated here from Greek) “A KAI DOMET SEB GE,” which stands for “AUTOKRATWR KAISAR DOMETIANOS SEBASTOS GERMANIKOS.” The numerical value of the abbreviated form (in Greek) is 666. This interpretation is not without its advantages. First, the fact that it can connect the bearer of the number 666 so closely to commerce is suggestive, as commerce is a stated realm of the anitchrist’s control in Revelation 13:17. Second, Revelation refers to the beast’s ten horns, and if we count the succession of Roman emperors as the early Church counted them, rather than as modern history books count them, then Domitian is the tenth emperor.[4] It is true that Revelation mentions that one of the heads has a fatal wound, and that this may refer to the fear of a Nero redivivus, but Revelation does not associate the wounded head with the figure behind the infamous number. (For absolute symbolic consistency, perhaps it should have been a wounded horn, rather than a wounded head, but horns don’t receive fatal wounds. The counting of seven heads might lead some to think of Nero [the seventh emperor], but Revelation 13:1 seems to indicate that the horns, rather than the heads, refer to the succession of emperors. The Nero scheme works with the ten horns only if we include the three Roman generals who preceded Caesar Augustus.) Strictly speaking, it should be noted that the figure behind the number is not himself the beast, but rather a temporal figurehead for the beast (= the Roman Empire)—the one that most concerns Revelation’s intended readers. All ten horns are part of the beast.

A good discussion of both the Nero and the Domitian interpretation can be found in David Aune’s fine commentary on Revelation. Aune dismisses the Domitian interpretation as “more complex,” but doesn’t explain why.[5] Most likely, what makes it “complex” in Aune’s view is the fact that one must work with an abbreviated form of Domitian’s title to make it work, or (more likely) the fact that the coin Stauffer refers to is really only imagined for the sake of a particular interpretation. In the end, I must agree with Aune, and I think the Nero interpretation is deserving of its popularity. The fact that Stauffer’s coin doesn’t really exist greatly reduces the value of his argument.

  • [1] For the history of numeration, see Georges Ifrah, The Universal History of Numbers: From Prehistory to the Invention of the Computer (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000).
  • [2] Heinrich Schlier, Principalities and Powers in the New Testament (Quaestiones Disputatae 3; New York: Herder & Herder, 1961), 89 n. 18.
  • [3] Ethelbert Stauffer, “666,” in In honorem Antonii Fridrichsen sexagenarii (ConNT 11; Lund: Gleerup, 1947), 237-241.
  • [4] Modern history books refer to three emperors (Galba, Otho and Vitellius) who reigned within the space of two years, from 68-70 C.E., but, as we can see from Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 3.5.1), the earliest historians of Roman history counted only two emperors (Galba and Otho) during those years. That makes Domitian the tenth, not the eleventh, emperor.
  • [5] David Aune, Revelation 6-16 (WBC 52B; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 771.

Esteeming the Jewish People

Fascination with the Jewish people, the reborn nation of Israel, and the land of Israel, seems to be escalating in churches. Throughout the English-speaking world Christian preachers and Bible teachers can be heard on radio and television unlocking cryptic passages from Ezekiel, Daniel and Revelation. Their publications occupy the shelves of nearly every Evangelically oriented bookstore. Purveyors of apocalyptic sensationalism, they ascribe to the Jewish people and the land central roles in the impending, divinely ordained finale of human history.

Echoing these ideas, many Christians believe that the Jews must immigrate to their homeland in fulfillment of biblical prophecies. The return of the Diaspora communities to Israel is a salient feature of much Christian theology concerning the end of the age. According to this view, once the ingathering of the exiles is complete, one can be certain that the great and final battle—the battle of Armageddon, which will precipitate Christ’s glorious return—is close at hand.

Preoccupation with Christ’s second coming underlies much professed love for and interest in the Jewish people and their homeland. I find this “love” and “interest” cause for concern. As it is popularly depicted, the eschatological drama culminating in the Parousia has Jews in the land of Israel playing the lead role. Embedded deep in the script of this drama, however, the land is ravaged and Jews slaughtered before Christian expectations are fulfilled.

I am reminded of Jesus’ rebuke to John the Baptist (Matt. 11:4-6). Jesus tells John to rewrite his theology concerning the messianic task. John had erred on a point, namely, what the Messiah would do once he appeared. John thought that the Messiah would inaugurate an outpouring of divine retribution against the wicked; but Jesus had come to usher in a great redemptive movement fueled by God’s grace and characterized by restoration, healing and hope. John had overlooked Jesus’ role as redeemer, and only saw him as the divinely appointed judge.

Noah emerges from the ark. Catacomb painting 2nd-4th century C.E.

Could there be errors in our theology, too? Could the dazzling scenarios—the battle of Armageddon, the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, and Christ’s thousand-year reign—be inaccurate? Jesus explicitly said that people would be living their lives as usual—eating, drinking and marrying (Luke 17:27)—when the divinely appointed eschatological judge, to whom Jesus referred as the Son of Man, suddenly comes (cf. Matt. 24:36-42; Dan. 7:13). There are no unfulfilled prerequisites holding back this terrifying, awesome event. As I heard Dr. Robert Lindsey emphasize, when Noah entered the ark, the flood unexpectedly swept the earth. When Lot hastily departed Sodom, fire suddenly fell from heaven (Luke 17:26-30). The Son of Man can return tomorrow, or he may come now!

The growing fixation on eschatology is unsalutary. It distracts us from Jesus’ teachings. It inhibits us from living a life characterized by wisdom, foresight and commitment to long-term goals. Had we devoted ourselves to Jesus’ unique approach to Torah within the context of Second Temple-period Judaism, this eschatological fixation may not have assumed such prominence in our theology.

If eschatological concerns are not the most salutary motive for showing interest in Israel, then what changes in our thinking should be made? Christian interest in the Jewish people, their land and faith should stem from an appreciation for what Judaism and the Jewish people have given us, and from the realization that the Jewish community remains a great reservoir of biblical learning from which we can draw to enrich our faith. Viewing our relationship to the Jewish community in this way is the truest foundation on which genuine love for the Jewish people can rest. The Jewish people have given us nothing less than our faith in God. Their Bible has become our Bible; their prophets have become our prophets; and their salvation history has become our history. The Jewish conception of God is essentially our conception of God. This is the reason that Judaism continues to be invaluable to Christianity. By reading Jewish authors, we can gain insights into God’s grace, love, mercy, compassion and justice. And of course, comparative reading of early rabbinic texts so often provides the data necessary for clarifying the words of Jesus.

The descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are returning to their ancestral homeland in unprecedented numbers. The State of Israel is a reality. Hebrew is a flourishing, living language. Archaeologists have been excavating throughout the region for decades. What are the implications for Jesus’ twentieth-century disciples? Should they read more vigorously the book of Revelation and excerpts from Ezekiel and Daniel in order to excel in “end time” prophecy? Unfortunately, this seems to be one of the more common responses.

Such behavior robs us of invaluable opportunities to enrich our faith. Talmudic and midrashic texts constitute the most valuable corpus of literature for comparative study of the synoptic gospels. Visiting the sites that Jesus once frequented contextualizes the gospel stories. Studying Hebrew is an excellent way to gain insight into Jesus’ sayings. Reading what Jewish scholars have written about the Bible and God can lead to a broadening of theological horizons. These are healthy reasons for being interested in the Jewish people and the land of Israel. Though they can never compete with the spectacular, eschatological scenarios of popular radio and television preachers, they are the right reasons, and in time, they will lead those who are motivated by them to a greater degree of spiritual maturity.

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).

Reconstructing the Words of Jesus

The Bible texts were originally written down in three languages: the Jewish Bible in Hebrew and a bit of Aramaic, and the New Testament in Greek. However, none of the extant manuscripts is the original document written by one of the authors of the books of the Bible. Those first versions have long ago been lost. Fortunately for us, they were painstakingly copied over and over again, and handed down from one generation to the next.

Copying and Translating

When a person copies a document of any length, he is bound to make some mistakes. Even the most skilled scribe may misspell words or skip letters, words or even whole lines. (See David Bivin, “Scirbal Scribal Errors.”) As we read the copy, we may be able to see just where a mistake has been made and easily correct it. If we have another copy of the same document to compare with, the job is that much easier. In fact, the more copies we have to compare, the more we can be sure that we are reconstructing the original accurately.

The texts of the Hebrew Bible were not only copied, they were also translated into other languages such as Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic and Ethiopic. Another valid way to get an independent picture of the original is to translate these other early versions back into Hebrew. After this has been done, the scholar can compare the results with the Masoretic (traditional) text and other biblical manuscripts such as those found in the Judean Desert caves and the Samaritan Pentateuch.

The printed Hebrew Bible which translators use contains the Masoretic text as its base, with various alternate readings from other ancient versions cited in footnotes. Because we have dozens of complete or partial manuscripts of this text to compare, we can be quite sure that the readings we choose accurately represent the original.

Biblical Manuscripts

When we come to the New Testament, the situation is many times more certain, for we have more than 5,000 manuscripts containing parts or all of the New Testament. Here, however, we do not have one basic text to which we attach variant readings, for no single New Testament text has been preserved the way the Jewish people preserved the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible.

Therefore, New Testament textual critics have spent thousands of hours comparing the many manuscripts and deciding what is the most likely original wording. Because it is a process of selecting the best reading word by word, we call this an “eclectic” text, from the Greek word meaning “to select.” Most of the existing manuscripts agree with the final eclectic text in more than ninety-eight per cent of the wording, but no one of them agrees with it at every point. This is to be expected, since extant manuscripts represent the result of copying over several centuries, with the possible introduction of minor deviations from the original along the way.

We can say that the texts which translators use are, to a high degree of probability, extremely close to the originals of Moses, Isaiah, Paul and the other Bible writers. There is one notable exception to this, however. Remember what we said about the helpfulness of translating other language versions of the Jewish Bible back into Hebrew to arrive at the original wording. Parts of the synoptic Gospels are also translations of an original or originals. If we keep in mind that Jesus and his disciples and hearers were not speaking Greek but rather Hebrew or Aramaic, or both, then we can see that we will only arrive at Jesus’ original words by translating the Greek texts of speeches in the synoptic Gospels back into their Semitic original.


One simple example will suffice to show how this kind of translating would work. In Revelation 19, the Greek text four times uses the word ἁλληλουϊά (hallelouia), which is in fact a simple transliteration of the Hebrew הַלְלוּיָהּ (haleluyah, hallelujah). Some of our modern translations here read “Praise the Lord.” They have recognized the Hebrew behind the Greek and have translated it rather than leaving the transliteration. No New Testament translation to date, however, has attempted to apply this principle to the words of Jesus in the Gospels.

The only exception to this is the word “amen.” The Greek has transliterated the Hebrew אָמֵן (amen) as ἀμήν (amen), a meaningless combination of letters in Greek. English translators, recognizing the Hebrew, have generally not followed the Greek in transliterating “amen,” but have given an approximate translation of the Hebrew—”verily” or “truly” (see David Bivin, “Amen: Introduction or Response“).

The Divine Name in the Hebrew New Testament

God has a personal name: יהוה (YHVH). Like Semitic names in general, it was intended to reflect something of the bearer’s character. YHVH is related to the root הוה (h-v-h, “to be”), and reflects God’s eternity and timelessness.

The name of the God of Israel contained power and was used with reverence. The third commandment said it was not to be “taken in vain,” which meant that people were not to swear falsely by God’s name. However, this commandment came to be interpreted in its narrowest sense, and somewhere between the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C. and the third century A.D., people stopped using the name at all when speaking.

When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek in the third century B.C., the tetragrammaton was often substituted by the Greek word κύριος (kyrios), which means “Lord.” This causes a slight complication when we read, because there is already a word for “lord” in Hebrew, which is sometimes applied to God either in its singular form, אָדוֹן (adon), or as a plural with first person singular pronominal suffix, אֲדֹנָי (adonai, Lord; literally, “my lords”).[1] Thus it is not always possible in the Septuagint to tell whether the original underlying Hebrew referring to God was the tetragrammaton, adonai, or some other word.

Greek to Hebrew

This problem does not exist when translating the New Testament into most languages: translators just use the word for “lord.” However, in the Hebrew translation of the New Testament it was necessary to decide at each appearance of kyrios whether to render adonai or YHVH or something else. In the case of quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures the decision is simple enough. In a passage such as Matthew 22:44, the modern Hebrew New Testament returns to the original of Psalm 110:1 and reads, “נְאֻם יְהוָה לַאדֹנִי [ne’um YHVH (by tradition read as adonailadoni],” where English translations have rendered, “The Lord [or LORD] said to my Lord.”

Notice in the above example that Matthew is quoting words which Jesus spoke to an audience. Would Jesus or anyone else in the New Testament have actually pronounced the Divine Name? The answer must be no. However, the translators felt justified in leaving the original wording of the Psalm, even though Jesus would have spoken the words “ne’um adonai ladoni,” substituting adonai for the tetragrammaton. In this case they were copying from the original Psalm rather than quoting the actual words which came out of Jesus’ mouth.[2]

Other instances where God is spoken of in direct speech are in the words of Elizabeth, Mary and Zechariah in Luke 1:28, 46, 68. In all of these cases the first edition of the modern Hebrew New Testament used YHVH to translate kyrios, although the three speakers would have said adonai, as will the modern reader.

Hebrew to Greek

The Septuagint translators, who tended to be fairly literal in their translating, had been faced with the converse problem: how could they distinguish between אֲדֹנָי (αdonai) and יהוה (YHVH) in their Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible? The solution they generally seem to have settled on was to render adonai as ho kyrios (the Lord), and YHVH as simply kyrios without the definite article. This was done without distinction as to whether the passage was direct speech or narrative. The Septuagint was translated over a period of several generations, and this rule was not followed consistently by its various translators.

It is interesting to note that the Greek of the New Testament also has both forms, kyrios and ho kyrios, sometimes even coming side by side (e.g., Luke 1:9, 11; 1:25, 28, 32; 1:45, 46). To make things more complicated, the form of kyrios without the definite article is occasionally used of Jesus, as in Luke 2:11 (“…is born [a] savior, who is Messiah, [the] Lord”).[3]

Modern Hebrew Translations

The first edition of the United Bible Societies’ Hebrew New Testament, with a few exceptions, had used the Septuagint practice as a guideline by rendering ho kyrios as אֲדֹנָי (adonai), and kyrios (without the definite article) as יהוה (YHVH). However some members of the editorial committee called this into question. First of all, the distinction would not be clear to modern readers to whom it might seem strange to find the tetragrammaton being used in direct speech. Secondly, modern Israeli readers will say adonai when they encounter יהוה in the text.

To aid in making the decision, we asked a number of Israelis with a good academic command of Hebrew whether the translation should maintain יהוה or substitute instead an abbreviation such as ה or יי, both of which are common in Hebrew literature and are read as adonai, or ha-shem (“the name”). Opinions were divided, although most were in favor of maintaining יהוה, except in direct speech. Some of these argued that to use ה or יי would give the impression that the New Testament is just another secular book with less sanctity than the Hebrew Bible.

Those who argued against using יהוה said that it has simply never been done in texts other than the Hebrew Bible, from ancient times until today. Additionally, they said, more Israelis would be likely to read the New Testament if it did not contain the divine name. The first of these objections is contrary to the evidence: the divine name is found in non-biblical material in the Dead Sea Scrolls and especially in the Temple Scroll. The second objection is not at all certain. Those Israelis who are interested in reading the New Testament probably will not be put off by the appearance of the tetragrammaton. Those who refuse to read the New Testament do so because of objections to Jesus and Paul and the history of “Christian” treatment of Jews; changing יהוה to ה or יי will make no difference to them.

It was decided to abandon the Septuagint’s solution and treat each case on its own merits. Each one of the more than 300 occurrences of kyrios in the New Testament had to be checked in its context. Where direct speech was involved, it could be translated by הָאָדוֹן (ha’adon, the Lord), אֲדֹנָי (adonai), or even אֱלֹהִים (elohim, God), as the Septuagint translators themselves had sometimes done (in the reverse direction, of course). The one exception to this is where the speaker is quoting a verse from the Hebrew Bible which includes the tetragrammaton. In these cases, as in the example from Matthew 22:44 cited above, the original יהוה has been maintained. In narrative sections יהוה has been left in the translation in almost every case. Some of the cases in the Gospels are in fact stock phrases in which the divine name of God is normal. Among these are מַלְאַךְ יהוה (malach YHVH, the angel of the LORD), יוֹם יהוה (yom YHVH, the day of the LORD), יַד יהוה (yad YHVH, the hand of the LORD), and כְּבוֹד יהוה (kevod YHVH, the glory of the LORD). Here the Hebrew New Testament has preserved the familiar phrase.

Difficult Decisions

In some places it needs a decision bordering on the theological to determine how to translate kyrios. What should be done, for example, in a situation like Luke 19:31, 34: “You shall say ‘The Lord needs it.’”? Was the owner to understand that the Lord needed the colt or that the LORD needed it? In the modern Hebrew translation it would be possible to render kyrios as either הָאָדוֹן (ha’adon, the Lord) or as אֲדֹנָי (adonai, the LORD). English translations generally do not have to make such a decision because they use the distinctive LORD only in the Hebrew Scriptures. The modern Hebrew translators decided to use ha’adon, leaving open the interpretation that Jesus, the disciples’ master, needed the colt. Translation sometimes unavoidably involves interpretation, and in this case the interpretation could have gone either way.

Or, to take a similar example, how are we to understand the words of Jesus in Mark 5:19: “Go home to your family and tell them what ho kyrios has done for you”? The first Hebrew New Testament edition used יהוה, but it need not have been so unequivocal since Jesus would not have pronounced the divine name. It is clear that Jesus said either adonai or ha’adon. To render kyrios here as adonai would lose the ambiguity. It is better to stay with ha’adon, which could have been understood by the newly-healed demoniac (as well as by today’s readers) to refer either to the LORD or to Jesus. Judging from verse 20, the ex-demoniac may have understood the latter, because he went out to proclaim in the Decapolis “how much Jesus had done for him.”

As a general rule it was decided that the modern Hebrew New Testament would stay with אָדוֹן (adon, Lord) or אֲדֹנָי ( adonai, LORD) for kyrios rather than use the tetragrammaton, יהוה. The exceptions to this are those quotations from the Hebrew Bible in which יהוה appears in the original. Other minor exceptions also can be found in places where the context seemed to demand using יהוה (for example, Rev. 19:6).

  • [1] The plural of אָדוֹן (adon) is אֲדֹנִים (adonim). The regular plural with first person singular pronominal suffix is אֲדֹנַי (adonai, my lords). In the Masoretic text, when God is intended and not “my lords,” the word is pointed אֲדֹנָי (one exception of 425 occurrences, אֲדֹנָי in Judges 13:8).
  • [2] The Greek text of Matthew here uses the word kyrios twice. The Septuagint used the word kyrios to translate thirteen different Hebrew words. Therefore, when translating back into Hebrew we can choose which of those words is more appropriate to the context and situation. If יהוה is used, the modern Israeli reader will still say “adonai.” Today, as in the time of Jesus, it is permitted when copying Scripture to write the tetragrammaton even though one does not pronounce it.
  • [3] Two seventh-century Latin manuscripts of the New Testament (β and r1) change “Lord” in Luke 2:11 into the genitive, that is, “…who is Messiah of [the] Lord,” a more Hebraic expression (i.e., מְשִׁיחַ יהוה [meshiakh YHVH]).