The Good Samaritan

This article is a sample chapter from Windows into the Bible: Cultural & Historical Insights into the Bible for Modern Readers by Marc Turnage. Reproduced on with the kind permission of the publisher.

The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is perhaps one of the most well-known of Jesus’ parables. The origin of the parable derives from an exchange between Jesus and an expert in the Law. The scribe asked Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded to his question in a very Jewish manner with another question, asking the scribe to summarize the Law. The scribe responded by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul…” and Leviticus 19:18, “and your neighbor as yourself.”

Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 are two of three passages within the Old Testament that begin with the phrase וְאָהַבְתָּ (ve’āhavtā; “and you will love”). Jewish interpreters, like Jesus and Paul, connected biblical passages due to shared language between the two verses. The hermeneutical method was known as gezerah shevah. Language, not theology, drove the hermeneutic. Ancient Jewish interpreters assumed that God, who inspired the biblical writers, intended connections between passages that had shared vocabulary even if the passages came from different books. In their handling of Scripture, when they found passages that had shared vocabulary, language drove the hermeneutical method and by bringing the passages together the theological idea was birthed. Quite often, one passage was viewed as esoteric or abstract and the other passage provided a tangible, practical way to interpret the first passage. Loving God with all one’s heart, soul, and strength is abstract. Ancient Jewish interpreters would understand that the shared language between Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 pointed to Leviticus 19:18—“Love your neighbor who is like yourself”—providing a tangible, practical way one loved God: by loving the one created in God’s image (see Gen. 1:27). The second passage interprets the first.

Deuteronomy 6:5 is part of the Shema (“Hear, O Israel”), which was recited daily by Jews in the first century (m. Berachot 1.1). Some believed that by reciting the Shema one accepted upon oneself the kingdom of heaven (m. Berachot 2.2). The second passage, Leviticus 19:18, played a central role in the developing humane spirit within ancient Judaism.[1] Certain circles identified Leviticus 19:18 as the great summary of the Torah (Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8; Avot de Rabbi Nathan version B, 26; Sifra Kedoshim 45). Jesus Himself identified these two passages as the great commandments of the Torah (Matt. 22:34-30; Mark 12:28-34; see Didache 1:2).

Jesus replied to the scribe that he had answered correctly, “do this and you will live” (see Matt. 7:24-27; Matt. 19:16-22; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 18:18-23). The scribe proceeded to ask, “And who is my neighbor?” His question asked Jesus to draw a line indicating who was inside and who was outside the commandment, and thus, whom he was obligated to love.

In this video Marc Turnage discusses the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

To answer his question, Jesus told a parable based upon the third Old Testament passage that begins with וְאָהַבְתָּ (ve’āhavtā; “and you shall love”) Leviticus 19:34: “And you shall love him (the foreigner) as yourself….” This exchange demonstrates the erudition and Torah learning of Jesus, and that He functioned at the highest level of Jewish academic training. It also betrays His incredibly creative genius.

The Parable and its Spiritual Setting

Jesus’ story relates the common occurrence of a man traveling the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Walking along the road, passing through the wilderness, the man fell among robbers, who beat him and left him “half-dead.” Jesus’ description of the man as “half-dead” indicates that he was on the threshold of dying. The man’s status as “half-dead” seems inconsequential to modern readers, apart from the fact that he was in desperate need of assistance. However, Jesus’ original audience would have immediately understood that in addition to the man’s dire need, his state raised concerns of ritual purity. The beaten man’s status as “half-dead” introduces the tension within Jesus’ story.

Remains of the Roman road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Photographed by Todd Bolen courtesy of
Remains of the Roman road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Photographed by Todd Bolen courtesy of

Ritual purity was a major issue within ancient Jewish spirituality.[2] It stood at the heart of many of the debates and differences of interpretation between the various streams of Jewish piety, i.e., Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. The New Testament mentions that Mary and Paul both participated in acts of ritual purification due to their impurity (Luke 2:22; Acts 21:24, 26; 24:18; see also John 11:55). Anytime we find Jesus, His followers, or His family at the Jerusalem temple, we can assume that prior to ascending onto the temple platform they ritually immersed, which was required by Jewish law. Archaeological excavations near to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem have uncovered a small clay seal with the inscription “Pure for the Lord.” The archaeologists have suggested that this seal represents a “ticket” that pilgrims received after immersing themselves in the ritual immersion pools (mikva’ot) around the Temple Mount for them to show the guards of the temple, proving their purity in order to enter onto the temple platform and into the sacred area.[3]

First-century C.E. seal discovered in Jerusalem near the Temple Mount with the Aramaic inscription דכא ליה ("Pure to the Lord").
First-century C.E. seal discovered in Jerusalem near the Temple Mount with the Aramaic inscription דכא ליה (“Pure to the LORD”).

Within ancient Judaism, ritual purity had nothing to do with sin. It primarily pertained to the temple, its holy things, and eating “sacred” foods. One contracted ritual impurity within the course of daily life: a woman’s menstrual period, a man and his wife after sexual relations, childbirth, contact with leprosy, and coming in contact with a corpse. None of these things were sinful; they simply made one impure so that they could not enter the sacred area of the temple and participate in certain religious ceremonies while they were impure. The Torah outlines that different actions cause different levels of ritual impurity. For example, a man and his wife after sexual relations had to bathe and were purified at sundown (Lev. 15:16-18; Deut. 22:10-12). A person who came into contact with a corpse was unclean for seven days and could only be purified by water mixed with the ashes of a red heifer (Num. 19:11-19).

Of those things that caused ritual impurity, corpse impurity was one of the more serious. According to the Torah, corpses make those who touch them and those under the same roof impure (Num. 19). As previously stated, corpse impurity was not wrong and had nothing to do with sin. Burial of the dead was considered one of the principal acts of piety within Judaism (Deut. 21:23; Tobit 1.17-20; 2.1-9; Josephus, Apion 2.211; Matt. 27:57-61; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-42). The Law of Moses, however, decreed that priests could not defile themselves for any dead among the people except for their closest relatives (Lev. 21:1-4). The Levitical command continues that a priest cannot enter where there is a dead body, even for his father and mother (Lev. 21:11; see Ezek. 44:25-27).
As Judaism developed and different streams of Jewish piety emerged, the biblical laws of purity evolved within each group, e.g., Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, and between the groups. For example, the humane spirit that emerged within Pharisaic Judaism caused the sages to question the biblical injunction that forbade a priest and a Nazirite from burying a neglected corpse.

A high priest or a Nazirite may not contract uncleanness because of their [dead] kindred, but they may contract uncleanness because of a neglected corpse (מת מצווה; mēt mitzvāh). If they were on a journey and found a neglected corpse, Rabbi Eliezer says: “The high priest may contract uncleanness but the Nazirite may not contract uncleanness.” But the sages say: “The Nazirite may contract uncleanness but the high priest may not contract uncleanness.” Rabbi Eliezer said to them: “Rather let the priest contract uncleanness for he needs not to bring an offering because of uncleanness, and let not the Nazirite contract uncleanness for he must bring an offering because of his uncleanness” (see Num. 6:19). They answered: “Rather let the Nazirite contract uncleanness, for his sanctity is not a lifelong sanctity, and let not the priest contract uncleanness, for his sanctity is a lifelong sanctity.” (m. Nazir 7.1)

It should be recognized first of all that the debate between Rabbi Eliezer (second century AD) and the sages sets aside the clear biblical command that priests cannot have contact with a corpse that was not a part of their immediate family (Lev. 21:1-4, 11; Ezek. 44:25-27). The argument assumes that care for the dead (one created in the image of God; Gen. 1:27) superseded the biblical command. This debate also shows that the actions a priest should take who came upon a corpse were not self-evident at the end of the first and beginning of the second century AD.[4] A difference of opinions existed as to how the priest should respond in this situation.

Josephus describes the Pharisees as being “naturally lenient in the matter of punishments” (Ant. 13.294). He says this in the context of describing a debate between the Pharisees and Sadducees in which the Pharisees took a more lenient stance in the application of penal law. Instead of calling for the execution of the offender, they felt he should have been beaten and imprisoned (Ant. 13.293-98). Josephus relates that the Pharisees “passed on to the people certain regulations handed down by former generations and not recorded in the Laws of Moses, for which reason they are rejected by the Sadducean group, who hold that only those regulations should be considered valid which were written down (in Scripture), and that those which had been handed down by former generations need not be observed” (Ant. 13.297). Josephus here outlines a key difference between the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Pharisees accepted the Written Law (the Old Testament) and the Oral Law (the traditions of interpretation on the Written Law orally passed down). The Sadducees, however, only accepted the Written Law, and therefore interpreted the biblical text quite literally and conservatively. Due to their more humane approach, the Pharisees tended to be more lenient regarding purity and penal laws than the Sadducees (Josephus, Ant. 20.199). In other words, as we saw with the discussion about the neglected corpse, the Pharisees could set aside the written Law with an oral law (see John 7:53-8:11). This was unacceptable to the more literal Sadducees who were stricter with regard to purity and punitive laws (Ant. 13.293-298; 20.199).

Josephus’ portrayal of the Sadducees as severely strict with regard to penal law and their adherence to a literal and strict interpretation of Scripture is remembered in the rabbinic commentary to Megillat Ta’anit, an ancient list of fast days:

“Upon the fourth of Tammuz the Book of Decrees became defunct.” For a Book of Decrees was written down and deposited with the Sadducees: “These are to be stoned, these are to be burnt, these are to be decapitated, these are to be strangled.” Were one to ask them during the session, then they showed the book; were one to ask for argumentation…then they knew not how to answer. The Sages said to them: “Is it not written, ‘According to [literally: to the mouth of] the Torah which they teach you’ (Deut. 17:11)—that teaches us that halakhot are not to be written down.” Another interpretation: “The Book of Decrees.” For the Boethusians (a group attached to the Sadducees) were accustomed to saying: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Exod. 21:24)—if someone hits another’s tooth out, then he must hit one of his out; if someone makes another’s eye blind, then he must make his eye blind, so that they are equal. (Scholion to Megillat Ta’anit, 10 Tammuz)[5]

Instead of reading the biblical commandment “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” literally as the Sadducees, the Pharisees interpreted these verses in a lenient manner, referring to financial compensation equal to the physical injury.

Large ritual immersion pool (mikveh) at the Temple Mount—possibly used by priests for their ritual washing. Photograph by Todd Bolen courtesy of
Large ritual immersion pool (mikveh) at the Temple Mount—possibly used by priests for their ritual washing. Photograph by Todd Bolen courtesy of

In the first century, prior to the destruction of the temple (AD 70), the majority of the priests and Levites belonged to the party of the Sadducees (see Acts 5:17; Josephus, Ant. 20.199; t. Parah 3.6-7).[6] The Sadducees focused upon the temple, its worship and priesthood, and a more strict understanding of purity and penal law based upon their literal, conservative interpretation of Scripture, which led them to reject the more humane spirit developing within Pharisaic circles. This Sadducean concern for purity over human life appears in a story preserved in rabbinic tradition.[7]

Our Rabbis taught: It once happened that two priests were side by side as they ran to mount the ramp [to the altar in the temple]. When one of them came first within four cubits of the altar, the other took a knife and thrust it into his heart. Rabbi Zadok stood on the steps of the Hall [leading to the interior of the temple] and proclaimed: “Our brethren of the house of Israel, listen carefully! Behold it says, ‘If one be found slain in the land…then your elders and judges shall come forth’ (Deut. 21:1). On whose behalf shall we offer the heifer whose neck is to be broken, on behalf of the city or on behalf of the Temple?” All the people burst out weeping. The father [also a priest] of the young man came and found him still in convulsions. He said: “May he be an atonement for you. My son is still in convulsions and the knife has not become unclean.” [His remark] comes to teach you that the cleanness of their vessels was of greater concern to them even than the shedding of blood. Thus it was also said: “More over Manasseh shed innocent blood very much, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to the other (2 Kings 21:16).” (b. Yoma 23a; t. Yoma 1.12)

Rather than assist the dying man, the concern of his father, a priest, centered on the purity of the knife to perform the temple service. The spirit of this tale fits with what we have seen regarding the Sadducean concern for purity and biblical literalness instead of a humane concern. It also fits the tension of Jesus’ story: the man, half-dead on the side of the road, presented a purity concern for the priest and Levite, both of whom most likely belonged to the party of the Sadducees.

The man on the side of the road was not a corpse, yet. He was “half-dead.” Pharisaic oral tradition permitted the violation of almost any commandment for the preservation of life (פִּיקוּחַ נֶפֶשׁ; piqūaḥ

Whence do we know that the duty of saving life supersedes the Sabbath laws? Rabbi Ishmael answered, “even shedding of blood, which defiles the land and causes the Shekinah to remove, is to supersede the laws of the Sabbath, how much more should the duty of saving life supersede the Sabbath law!”…Rabbi Akiva says: “If punishment for murder sets aside even the Temple service, which in turn supersedes the Sabbath, how much more should the duty of saving life supersede the Sabbath laws (see Matt. 12:1-8)!” (Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael on Exod. 31:12; see also b. Yoma 85a)

This oral tradition, however, did not fit the biblical literalness of the Sadducees and their strict concern for purity, especially for priests (Lev. 21:1-4, 11). The Hebrew term behind Luke’s Greek phrase “half-dead” was גוֹסֵס (gōsēs).[8] This refers to someone whose condition is so bad that death is most likely imminent (b. Arakhin 18a; and b. Gittin 28a). Pharisaic tradition afforded the same legal status to a dying man (גוֹסֵס; gōsēs) as to a living man (Semahot 1.1). The Sadducees and their concerns for purity, however, would not have embraced this humane spirit that saw in the dying man the image of God.

This explains the priest’s and Levite’s avoidance in helping the man. If they helped him, and he died, they would have become ritually impure from contact with a corpse, which was forbidden according to the Law of Moses (Lev. 21:1-4, 11; Ezek. 44:25-27). Herein lies the tension of the parable: purity and the Law of God versus the needs of the human individual.

The Samaritan

The tension between Jews and Samaritans in the first century is well known (War 2.232-49; Ant. 18.29-30; 20.118-36; Luke 9:52-53; John 4:9; and m. Rosh Hashanah 2.2). Samaritans at times waylaid and harassed Galilean pilgrims to Jerusalem (Ant. 20.118-36; Luke 9:52-53). Interpretations of Jesus’ parable usually focus only on these cultural tensions for understanding the appearance of the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable.

A question as to the legal status of Samaritans existed within ancient Judaism. Were Samaritans considered Jews, half-Jews, or Gentiles? Differences of opinion existed within Judaism (Ant. 11.341; t. Terumot 4.12, 14; see also Ben Sira 50:26; b. Hullin 6a).[9] Jesus belonged to those Jews who viewed Samaritans as Gentiles. Luke records an event where Jesus healed ten lepers, one of whom was a Samaritan (Luke 17:11-19). Of the ten, only the Samaritan returned to thank Jesus. Jesus responded, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner (ἀλλογενὴς; allogenēs)” (Luke 17:17-18)?

A view of Mount Gerizim from the city of Shechem photographed by David Bivin. This photograph belongs to the collection Views That Have Vanished: The Photographs of David Bivin.
A view of Mount Gerizim from the city of Shechem photographed by David Bivin. This photograph belongs to the collection Views That Have Vanished: The Photographs of David Bivin.

Jesus’ description of the Samaritan as a “foreigner” indicates that He viewed Samaritans as equal to Gentiles. Within the Jerusalem temple, the outer court was separated from the sacred area by a low wall, the balustrade, and on this wall, were inscriptions in Greek and Latin that warned foreigners, Gentiles, not to pass that point or they would forfeit their lives (War 5.193-94; Ant. 15.417). Paul was arrested due to a riot that broke out in the temple because it was believed he took Trophimus the Ephesian past the barrier (Acts 21:26-36; see also Eph. 2:14). Archaeological excavations in Jerusalem in 1871 and 1935 uncovered two copies of the Greek inscription from this wall, which begins “No foreigner (ἀλλογενὴ; allogenē) is to enter within the balustrade….”[10] This inscription used the same Greek term to describe all foreigners that is used in Luke to describe the Samaritan who returned to give thanks. Jesus’ identification of Samaritans as Gentiles becomes an important detail to the thrust of His story.

To the lawyer’s summary of the Torah, citing Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, Jesus told a story in response to the lawyer’s follow-up question, “And who is my neighbor,” built off the third verse that begins “and you will love”: Leviticus 19:34, “And you shall love him (the stranger) as yourself.”[11] In the parable, the Samaritan behaves according to the Leviticus 19:34 passage. The Samaritan, a foreigner, acts to save the life of the half-dead man, a Jew. The Samaritan loved the foreigner (the man on the road) as himself. His actions stand in stark contrast to the priest and Levite, whose concern for ritual purity led them to pass by the one dying on the roadside.

The rhetorical punch of Jesus’ story is not simply the tensions between Jews and Samaritans. Rather, He portrays even a Gentile knowing and acting in a manner to save human life, something the religious elite would not do because of their strict concern for purity. The Samaritan, a Gentile, behaved in accordance with the Torah (Rom. 2:14), while the priest and the Levite missed the heart of the Torah.

Jesus would often use Gentiles in both positive and negative ways for rhetorical contrast in His teachings (Matt. 5:47; 6:7; Luke 7:9; and 12:30). When He taught in the synagogue of Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30), He used two examples of God showing mercy to Gentiles, those outside the covenant community (Luke 4:25-27), as a means of demonstrating that God does not distinguish to whom He shows mercy, and neither should Jesus’ listeners (see Matt. 5:45-48). In this parable, the Gentile Samaritan, not the priest and Levite, exemplified Leviticus 19:34.[12]

The parable came as a response to the lawyer’s question, “And who is my neighbor?” He wanted Jesus to draw a circle defining who is inside, and therefore the neighbor I must love, and who is outside. Jesus, by using Leviticus 19:34, ingeniously turned the lawyer’s question on its head: “Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” Jesus refused to allow the man to draw a circle defining insiders and outsiders. His response: be the neighbor. Jesus viewed God as showing no partiality to His creation in His mercy:

For He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust…. You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt. 5:45-48).[13]

For Jesus, God does not distinguish in His mercy, and neither should we!

Theology of the Parable

In the centuries leading up to the first century, Judaism experienced a theological revolution that evolved into a new sensitivity of the value of the human individual.[14] Two biblical verses stood at the heart of this revolution: Leviticus 19:18, which came to be read, “Love your neighbor who is like yourself” and Genesis 1:27, “In the image of God created He them.” Human beings bear the image of God and, therefore, have intrinsic value. Moreover, in the manner in which I treat a person created in the image of God, who is like myself, God will respond to me.

The scribe Jesus ben Sira, writing at the beginning of the second century BC, stated, “Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. Does anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? If one has no mercy toward another like himself, can he then seek pardon for his own sins?” (Sir. 28:2-4). In the book of Jubilees, written around the same time as Ben Sira, we find, “And among yourselves, my sons, be loving of your brothers as a man loves himself, with each man seeking for his brother what is good for him, and acting together on the earth, and loving each other as themselves” (Sir. 36:4). Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar said, “This word: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ has been proclaimed with a ‘great oath’: I—the Lord, have created him (i.e., your neighbor). If you love him, I can be relied upon to reward you, but if you do not love him—I can be relied upon to visit my judgment on you” (Avot de Rabbi Nathan version A, 16).

Although this humane spirit began to emerge in the centuries prior to Jesus, it was not wholly embraced within Judaism. To many, this new sensitivity would have seemed like heresy. Judaism eventually came to accept this humane approach as the heart of its moral philosophy, but that only came after three devastating and tragic revolts in the first and second centuries AD. Jesus embraced this emerging Jewish humanism and its emphasis upon the value of the human individual, as well as God acting toward us in the manner we act toward others. He stood on the cutting edge of this developing new sensitivity, and in a time of great ethnic, social, and religious tension, He exhibited the boldness to make the radical leap: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27).

The question of the lawyer in Luke 10:29 sought to further clarify who is my neighbor. Jesus answered this question by building a parable upon Leviticus 19:34 and making the hero of the parable a Samaritan, someone outside of the Jewish community, who showed mercy (Luke 10:37) towards one like himself. In response to Jesus’ question, “Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” the lawyer replied, “The one who showed (literally, did) mercy with him.”

The parable of the Good Samaritan as depicted in the sixth-century Rossano Gospels manuscript. This depiction is an example of an allegorical interpretation according to which Jesus himself plays the part of the Good Samaritan. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The parable of the Good Samaritan as depicted in the sixth-century C.E. Rossano Gospels manuscript. This depiction is an example of an allegorical interpretation according to which Jesus himself plays the part of the Good Samaritan. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The new sensitivity created a certain tension because of the emphasis it placed upon the value of the “one” to God (Luke 15:1-10; m. Sanhedrin 4.5). The needs, then, of a single human being can run in conflict with religious obligation, like ritual purity and Sabbath. This is the tension of the parable of the Good Samaritan. For Jesus, the needs of the one created in the image of God supersede the commands of purity. A similar tension, although concerning the Sabbath, is reflected in the story of Abba Tahnah, the Hasid:

Abba Tahnah, the Hasid, was entering his city on the Sabbath-eve at dusk with his bundle slung over his shoulder, when he met a man afflicted with boils lying at the cross-roads. The latter said to him, “Rabbi, do me an act of charity and carry me into the city.” He remarked, “If I abandon my bundle, from where shall I and my household support ourselves? But if I abandon this afflicted man I will forfeit my life!” What did he do? He allowed the Good Inclination to master the Evil Inclination, and carried the afflicted man into the city. He then returned for his bundle and entered at sunset. Everybody was astonished and exclaimed, “Is this Abba Tahnah, the Hasid?” He too felt uneasy in his heart and said, “Do you think that I perhaps desecrated the Sabbath?” At that time the Holy One, blessed be He, caused the sun to shine, as it is written, “But unto you that fear My name shall the sun of righteousness arise (Mal. 3:20).” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 9:7)

Abba Tahnah acted mercifully to the one hurt along the side of the road, and, therefore, God extended the day so that he would not break the Sabbath. This is indicative of the new sensitivity. But not everyone accepted this humane spirit in the first century. The Sadducees, with their literal reading of Scripture and strict adherence to ritual and penal laws, did not embrace the value of the “one.” And this is the contrast of Jesus’ parable. The priest and Levite acted to rigidly protect their ritual purity; the Samaritan, a Gentile, acted in a humane manner.

Shimon the Righteous, a sage who lived in the third century BC, stated, “On three things the world stands: on the Torah, on the Temple service, and on deeds of loving-kindness” (m. Avot 1:2). The order of the three indicates their priority according to Shimon, so for him, Torah study was preeminent but the temple service superseded deeds of loving-kindness. The attitude reflects that of the priest and Levite in Jesus’ parable: their ritual duty, their calling, was more important than the needs of the human individual. For Jesus, however, something greater than the temple existed (Matt. 12:6): the needs of the human individual and our need before God to show mercy towards others like ourselves.[15]

Windows Into the Bible


This article is just one chapter of Marc Turnage’s, Windows into the Bible: Cultural and Historical Insights into the Bible for Modern Readers (Springfield, Mo.: Logion, 2016). If you enjoyed this chapter, be sure to check out the entire book!


  • [1] David Flusser, “A New Sensitivity in Judaism and the Christian Message,” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988), 469-89; and Marc Turnage, “Unless Your Righteousness Exceeds That of the Scribes and Pharisees” in Windows into the Bible: Cultural and Historical Insights into the Bible for Modern Readers (Springfield, Mo.: Logion, 2016).
  • [2] Shmuel Safrai, “Religion in Everyday Life,” in The Jewish People in the First Century (2 vols.; ed. Shmuel Safrai and Menahem Stern; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976), 2:828.
  • [3] See Eli Shukron, “Did Herod Build the Foundations of the Western Wall?” in City of David Studies of Ancient Jerusalem. The 13th Annual Conference (Jerusalem: Megalim, 2012), 13-26.
  • [4] Thomas Kazen, Issues of Impurity in Early Judaism (Coniectanea Biblica New Testament Series 45; Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2010), 146.
  • [5] Vered Noam, Megillat Ta’anit. Versions, Interpretation, History with a Critical Edition (Jerusalem: Yad ben-Zvi Press, 2003), 78-79, 211-14 [Hebrew].
  • [6] Menahem Stern, “Aspects of Jewish Society: The Priesthood and Other Classes,” in The Jewish People in the First Century (2 vols.; ed. Shmuel Safrai and Menahem Stern; Philadelphia: Fortress), 2:596-612.
  • [7] See Brad Young, The ParablesParables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1998), 113.
  • [8] Young, The Parables, 111-13.
  • [9] Gedalyahu Alon, Jews, Judaism and the Classical World (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1977), 354-73.
  • [10] See Cotton, Di Segni, Eck, et al., eds. Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae. Volume 1, Jerusalem, 42-45.
  • [11] See also R. Steven Notley and Jeffery P. Garcia, “Hebrew-Only Exegesis: A Philological Approach to Jesus’ Use of the Hebrew Bible,” in The Language Environment of First-Century Judaea (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 362-66.
  • [12] There is a certain irony in the parable, for although Jesus considered Samaritans as Gentiles, they had the Five Books of Moses as their Bible with certain Samaritan readings. The Samaritans, more or less, had the same Bible as the Sadducees, yet only the Samaritan acted in accordance with Leviticus 19:34.
  • [13] “Be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful” Luke 6:36.
  • [14] Flusser, “A New Sensitivity,” 469-89; Marc Turnage, “Unless Your Righteousness Exceeds That of the Scribes and Pharisees” in Windows Into the Bible; idem, “Who’s Image?” Enrichment Journal (Summer, 2011): 116; idem, “The Three Pillars of Jesus’ Faith,” Enrichment Journal (Fall, 2001): 100.
  • [15] Many interpreters of Matthew 12:6 assume that, when Jesus’ spoke about “something greater” than the temple, He referred to Himself, particularly in light of His statement, “The son
    of man is lord of the Sabbath.” There are two problems with this interpretation: (1) the Greek of Matthew 12:6 for “something greater” is in the neuter case, and therefore, cannot refer to Jesus, which would have been in the masculine case. Charity towards others fits the neuter case. (2) Jesus’ statement about the “son of man is lord of the Sabbath” does not refer to Jesus either as the parallel in Mark makes clear: “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.” The son of man in this instance is the common use of the term in Hebrew meaning “a human being” (see Psalm 8). In the Gospels, Jesus used the term son of man in three ways: (1) meaning a human being, the everyman, (2) as part of the Passion predictions, and (3) to speak about the future end-of-days judge. Quite simply, the only one of these three meanings that makes sense in the context of Matthew 12:6 is “the everyman.” The son of man is not a messianic title. Moreover, we find an exact parallel to the Markan statement, “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath” in the earliest rabbinic commentary on Exodus, the Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, which verifies my reading of the sentence that “the son of man (i.e., a human being) is lord of the Sabbath.” This statement, too, is not about Jesus; see “One Is Here Greater Than the Temple” in my Windows into the Bible, 387-98.

Historical Sketch: Chief Priests and Sadducees

Why did the chief priests and Sadducees continue to oppose the early believers even after the crucifixion of Jesus? In this video Marc Turnage places the chief priests and Sadducees in their historical context and explains why the preaching of the apostles was unwelcome news to the Temple authorities in Jerusalem.


Character Profile: Joseph Caiaphas

The high priest Joseph Caiaphas is known not only from the New Testament Gospels as the high priest who opposed Jesus and his early followers, but also from Josephus the Jewish historian who lived in the first century C.E. In this video Marc Turnage provides an historical sketch of this pivotal character:


To learn more about Joseph Caiaphas, we recommend the following Jerusalem Perspective articles:

David Flusser, “…To Bury Caiaphas, Not to Praise Him

Zvi Greenhut, “Discovery of the Caiaphas Family Tomb

Ronny Reich, “Ossuary Inscriptions from the Caiaphas Tomb

“It Is Said to the Elders”: On the Interpretation of the So-called Antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount deserves endless study,[1] and the more one studies ancient Jewish sources, the clearer the meaning of these words of Jesus becomes.

Even at first glance, Matthew 5:17-48, the core of the Sermon on the Mount, has a distinctly Jewish feel. On the surface, however, this sermon can give the dangerous and deceiving impression that it sharply opposes the spirit of Judaism. Some time ago a critic sent me his thesis in which he concluded that the only original material in this exegetical homily was its antitheses where Jesus highlights his unique approach by introducing his comments with, “But I tell you.” One New Testament commentary suggests that in this pericope Jesus is not contrasting his ethic with the interpretation of Scripture in his day, but with the Torah itself.[2] In this article I will attempt to treat this matter more carefully and fairly than many exegetes do when they analyze Jesus’ words.

“But I say to you!”

There exists a paradoxical contrast between the Jewish contents of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and its antithetic form.[3] The main reason for this is the repeated use of the phrase ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν (“But I say to you!”).[4] This phrase creates a sense of conflict between Jesus and Judaism because the pronoun ἐγὼ (“I”) at the opening of the phrase is unnecessary in Greek. It would have been sufficient simply to say λέγω δὲ ὑμῖν, since the speaker is already implied by the form of the verb. This is what we observe, for example, in Luke 6:27 where Jesus expresses the contrast between those addressed by his cries of woe (in vv. 24-26) and his listeners: Ἀλλὰ ὑμῖν λέγω τοῖς ἀκούουσιν (“But to you that listen, I say….”). Here we notice the personal pronoun is lacking. The presence of the first person pronoun in Matthew’s antithetical statements, therefore, must indicate emphasis. Matthew’s emphatic “But I say to you” gives the impression that Jesus’ message stands in contrast to the spirit of Judaism.

But the contrast is not merely between varying opinions or interpretations. Matthew’s use of ἐγὼ appears to put the focus on Jesus’ person and unique status. This impression is confirmed when we read, at the conclusion of the sermon, that Jesus “taught them as one having authority and unlike their scribes” (Matt. 7:29).[5] It is especially noteworthy, therefore, that the emphatic “I” is missing in the text of Luke, since this statement is paralleled in Matthew 5:44 where the emphatic use of the personal pronoun appears.[6] This fact raises the possibility that the presence of ἐγὼ in Matthew’s antitheses does not reflect the original form of Jesus’ statement, but is instead the result of the final editor’s redactive activity.[7] If this is the case, then the paradoxical tension between the Jewish content of Jesus’ sermon and its antithetical form disappears. The tension was artificially introduced by the final editor of Matthew, and was not originally part of Jesus’ message.

The Sadducees and the Abuse of Scripture

In my article on the Torah in the Sermon on the Mount (see note 1), I discussed Jesus’ use of the “exegetical homily.” In the antitheses Jesus employs the rabbinic rule of interpretation known in Hebrew as kal vahomer,[8] where one draws a logical deduction about a “heavier” (more important or more complex) situation from a “lighter” (less important or less complex) situation, or the other way around.[9] But the last two sections of this homily represent an exception. Instead of making a saying ethically sharper, Jesus states an objection to an inhumane interpretation of two biblical sayings. In both cases the Pharisaic scribes could not have been Jesus’ opponents.

In the first case (Matt. 5:38-42), Jesus objects to an overly literal understanding of Exodus 21:24 (“an eye for an eye”). According to Megillat Ta’anit, the Boethusians, an offshoot of the Sadducees, were remembered for brutally meting out the principle of “eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth” in a literal fashion.[10] The Pharisees, on the other hand, interpreted this principle as requiring the payment of damages equal to the harm caused by an injury. It therefore seems likely that Jesus directs his critique toward the Boethusian Sadducees in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount.[11]

A second case (Matt. 5:43-48) may also be directed against a Sadducean abuse of Scripture. Here Jesus objects to an abstruse paraphrase of the command to love one’s neighbor found in Leviticus 19:18. The Greek text of Matthew 5:43 reads, Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη· Ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου καὶ μισήσεις τὸν ἐχθρόν σου (“You have heard that it was said: ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’”) Such an inhuman perversion of the command to love is not to be found in the Hebrew Bible. Neither does it express the intention of the Jewish message; it rather represents a vulgar teaching of retaliation similar to the Sadducean application of Exodus 21:24 discussed above. How then did this coarse paraphrase of Leviticus 19:18 originate? Leviticus 19:18 only says, וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ (“Love your neighbor as yourself”). In biblical Hebrew, however, the word רֵעַ (“neighbor”) also has the meaning “friend.” Thus, some understood the Hebrew verse to mean, “Love your friend and hate your enemy.” Had the translator of Matthew’s Hebrew source paid more attention to the point of Jesus’ critique, he would have translated רֵעַ as φίλος (“friend”) rather than πλησίον (“neighbor”) in Matthew 5:43. But evidently the translator recognized the allusion to Leviticus 19:18 and followed the Septuagint’s Greek translation without any serious reflection.

The idea that one should love one’s friend and hate one’s enemy is still with us today. It was a common ethical rule among the early Greeks. Socrates unsuccessfully opposed it. The closest parallel to the pseudo-quotation in Matthew 5:43 is a saying by the Greek Archilochos (650 B.C.E.): [ἐπ]ίσταμαί τοι τὸν φιλ[έο]ν[τα] μὲν φ[ι]λεῖν[, τὸ]ν δ᾽ ἐχθρὸν ἐχθαίρειν (“I know how to love the friend and hate the enemy”).[12] Although today the command to love the friend and hate the enemy seems non-Jewish, this understanding of Leviticus 19:18 does represent the exegetical method of some in those days. It was evidently a group of Sadducees whose vulgar and barbaric abuse of scripture Jesus disputed. These groups justified their ethic of retaliation by interpreting Leviticus 19:18 as though it said: “You shall love your friend as yourself. You shall love him who is close to you as your friend,” or more paraphrastically, “Treat the other as he treats you—the friend with love, the enemy with hate.”

“The Elders” and Pharisaic Interpretation of Scripture

Recently, the following theory has been postulated:[13] Since the antitheses stand in contrast to the Torah of Moses, we can understand this controversy without reference to contemporary Jewish sources. I must counter that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus explicitly mentions the opinion of the “elders” twice (Matt. 5:21, 33).

The first reference to the elders is especially important and instructive:[14] “You have heard that it was said to the elders: ‘You shall not murder! And anyone who murders must answer for it before the court’ (or, alternately: ‘will be subject to judgment’)” (Matt. 5:21). Jesus regarded this application of the commandment as unsatisfactory. Rather, he wished to apply this rule to the person who is angry with his brother. Similarly, we read in the Didache: “My child, flee from all evil and from everything like it. Do not be an angry person, for anger leads to murder…” (Did. 3:1-2). Jesus’ view, already current in Jewish circles, is thus an example of the refinement of the Torah’s commandments against the interpretive tradition of the “elders.”

With the aid of rabbinic sources the “elders” can be identified. In the time of Jesus, the ten commandments, or at least the instructions in Exodus 20:13, were understood to teach the basic prohibitions without giving specific penalties for their infringement. An early rabbinic commentary on Exodus 20:13 (“You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal”) states that this passage constitutes a general warning against these offenses:

You Must Not Murder. Why is this said? Because it says: “Whoever sheds human blood,” etc. (Gen. 9.6). We have thus heard the penalty [for murder] but we have not heard the prohibition; therefore it says here: “You must not murder.”[15]

Genesis 9:6 is interpreted the same way in the Targumim. Targum Onkelos to this Genesis passage runs:

Whoever sheds the blood of man—and this is confirmed by witnesses—is deemed guilty by the judges. And whoever sheds the blood of man without witnesses, the Lord himself will punish him at the last judgment.

Thus we see that with the support of Genesis 9:6 the warning against manslaughter was made into a general law: He who commits murder shall be deemed guilty and be punished by the court. Since this exegetical maneuver is presupposed in the Sermon on the Mount, we may conclude that the “elders” refers to the generations before the time of Jesus who had been instructed to apply the commandments in this manner. And we may further conclude that this approach was developed by Pharisaic interpreters since their exegetical method was preserved in later rabbinic literature.

Acanthus leaves flank a rosette pattern on a limestone block that once decorated the beautiful fourth-century synagogue of Capernaum. Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.
Acanthus leaves flank a rosette pattern on a limestone block that once decorated the beautiful fourth-century synagogue of Capernaum. Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.

Jesus reacted against this Pharisaic approach to the commandments. Rather than seeking to define the prohibition and the penalty for murder, Jesus sought to expound the commandments in such a way as to prevent murder from happening, by rooting out the evil impulse from the human heart: “You have heard that it was said to the elders, ‘You must not murder, and anyone who does murder is subject to the court.’ But I say to you that anyone who is angry with his brother is subject to the court. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ is subject to the Sanhedrin. And anyone who says ‘You fool!’ is subject to the fire of Gehenna” (Matt. 5:21-22). In this respect Jesus shows himself to be close to the pious Jewish circles who produced the Two Ways, which was later incorporated into the Didache.[16] We can now see that Jesus’ critique in Matt. 5:21 is directed, not against the Torah itself, but against a particular exegetical approach to the commandments that was current among certain Pharisaic circles in his day.

The “elders” are, therefore, justifiably mentioned in Matthew 5:21. Does the same hold true for the second reference to “elders” in Matthew 5:33: “You have heard that it is said to the elders, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord’”? The quotation referred to in this antithesis is not a direct biblical quotation, but an amalgamation of biblical verses (cf. Ex. 20:7; Lev. 19:12). This fact in itself supports our supposition that Jesus is taking issue not with the Torah’s commandments but with their application by preceding generations of Pharisaic interpreters. In Matthew 5:33 the elders maintain that everyone must keep their oaths, that no one should make false oaths. The saying of the elders, therefore, appears to be a traditional halakhic prohibition directed against making an oath hastily.[17] In contrast, Jesus—like the Essenes (Josephus, Antiq. 2:195)—held that one should never utter an oath of any kind because this so easily leads to a false oath. Jesus’ ruling is consequently a sharpening of the Torah’s commandment. It neither abolishes the opinion of the elders cited by Jesus, nor the biblical commandment itself.


The fact that the “elders” are mentioned only in Matthew 5:21 and 33 points to the reliability of what is transmitted since the interpretations Jesus attributes to them are attested in later rabbinic literature. Nevertheless, redactional changes in the text are not excluded. Indeed, the opposite occurs, since the difficult phrase, “You have heard that it is said to the elders” (which is incomprehensible in its Hebrew context) can hardly be original. But because the word “elders” correctly appears in both of the above cases it is still possible to recover its original meaning. The usual translation, “You have heard that it is said by the elders” cannot be correct, whether from the standpoint of content, or from a linguistic point of view.[18] If by “elders,” Moses or his contemporaries or the rabbis were intended, then Matthew would have expressed this explicitly.

One may, therefore, suppose that this phrase in Matthew 5:21 and 33 originated through combining two previously independent formulas, namely the quotation formula “It is said” and the introductory formula “You have heard from the elders.”[19] In rabbinic literature, “It is said” is the most commonly used formula to introduce a quotation from the Hebrew Bible.[20] The formula “It is said” is likewise placed before biblical quotations in Matthew 5:27, 31, 38, 43. The “elders” would in those places be a disturbing element, since here Jesus is citing scripture and not a traditional halakhic interpretation.[21]

In Matthew 5:21 and 33, however, Jesus is not directly quoting scripture, but makes reference to Pharisaic interpretations taught to earlier generations. Mention of the “elders” in these verses is therefore warranted. As we have said, the original form may have been, “You have heard from the elders.” In any case, the mention of the elders confirms our contention that the antitheses are not directed against the commandments themselves, but against the explanation and application of these verses that were developed and taught by certain Pharisaic sages.[22]

Concerning the formula, “But I say unto you,” we have seen (especially from the context of Luke 6:27) that the original formula was not so emphatic or antithetic as Matthew’s version suggests.

This article is an emendation and updating by Joshua N. Tilton of David Flusser, “‘It Is Said to the Elders’: On the Interpretation of the So-called Antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount,” Mishkhan 17-18 (1992-1993): 115-119.

  • [1] Cf. inter alia David Flusser, “Die Tora in der Bergpredigt,” in Juden und Christen lesen dieselbe Bibel (ed. Heinz Kremers; Duisburg: Braun, 1973), 102-113; idem, “A Rabbinic Parallel to the Sermon on the Mount,” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988), 494-508.
  • [2] W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, ICC (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988), 505-509.
  • [3] By antithesis we mean an opposite or contradictory statement. We say that the Sermon on the Mount has an antithetical form because Jesus draws a contrast between his interpretations that ‘establish’ or correctly apply Torah, versus faulty interpretations that tend to weaken or ‘abolish’ Torah.
  • [4] Matt. 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44; 16:18; Luke 11:9; 16:9; as well as Matt. 21:27 (= Mark 11:33; Luke 20:8), have nothing to do with our subject.
  • [5] This concluding remark is indicative of Matthew’s editorial activity. The final editor of Matthew has taken this sentence from its original context in the story of the exorcism at the Capernaum Synagogue (Luke 4:31-37 = Mark 1:21-28) in order to use it as his final comment on the Sermon on the Mount. On this unfortunate tendency in Matthew’s final redaction, see David Flusser, “The Synagogue and the Church in the Synoptic Gospels,” in Jesus’ Last Week (ed. R. Steven Notley, Marc Turnage, and Brian Becker; Leiden: Brill, 2006), 23, 36; idem, Jesus (Jerusalem: Magnes, 2001), 249.
  • [6] The same “I” is also missing in the Sermon of John the Baptist (Matt. 3:9 = Luke 3:8) and even in Matthew 5:20.
  • [7] See Huub van de Sandt and David Flusser, The Didache: Its Jewish Sources and its place in Early Judaism and Christianity (CRINT III.5; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002), 213 n. 63.
  • [8] Wilhelm Bacher, Die exegetische Terminologie der jüdischen Traditionsliteratur (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1905), 1:172-174; 2:189-190.
  • [9] The kal vahomer style of reasoning in Matt. 5:21-37 becomes clear when the Sermon on the Mount is compared with the Jewish Two Ways, which was incorporated into the Didache. See Flusser, “A Rabbinic Parallel to the Sermon on the Mount,” 496-498; van de Sandt and Flusser, The Didache, 232.
  • [10] The Scholion to the 4th (14th) of Tammuz explains: ועוד שהיו ביתוסין אומר, עין תחת עין, שן תחת שן—הפיל אדם שנו של חברו יפיל את שנו, סמא את עינו של חברו יסמא את עינו יהו שוים כאחד (And additionally, the Boethusians used to say: ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’–if someone knocked out his fellow’s tooth, he shall knock out his tooth; if someone blinded his fellow’s eye, he shall blind his eye, and they will be equal).
  • [11] See “Die Tora in der Bergpredigt,” (note 1 above) 103, n. 2; and van de Sandt and Flusser, The Didache, 208 n. 44.
  • [12] Archilochos Pap. Ox. 22, 2310 in Albrecht Dihle, Die Goldene Regel (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1962), 32-33. The coarse ethic can also be documented in the early period of ancient Israel. When David mourned over his son Absalom, Joab walked into the house of the king and reproached David because he had dishonoured those who had saved his life: “You love those who hate you and hate those who love you. You have made it clear today that the commanders and their men mean nothing to you” (2 Sam. 19:7 MT [19:6 ET]). The Qumranic parallel to Matt. 5:43 is: לאהוב כול בני אור… ולשנוא כול בני חושך (“To love all the Sons of Light… and to hate all the Sons of Darkness”) (1QS I, 9-11; cf. also Josephus, Bell. 2.139). This sentiment has another presupposition, the ethical dualism of the Essenes, according to which the entire world is believed to be divided into black and white, good and evil, those God loves and those he hates.
  • [13] See note 2.
  • [14] For this insight I thank my student Serge Ruzer. See Serge Ruzer, “The Technique of Composite Citation in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:21-22, 33-37),” RB 103.1 (1996): 65-75; and idem, “Antitheses in Matthew 5: Midrashic Aspects of Exegetical Techniques,” in Mapping the New Testament: Early Christian Writings as a Witness for Jewish Biblical Exegesis (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 11-34. To Matt. 5:21, see especially Martin McNamara, The New Testament and the Palestine Targum of the Pentateuch, Analecta Biblica 27 (Rome: 1966), 126-131.
  • [15] Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael to Exod. 20:13 (ed. S. H. Horovitz and I. A. Rabin; Jerusalem: Wahrmann, 1970), 232. Translation based on that of Jacob Z. Lauterbach, Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael (Philadelphia: JPS, 2004), 2:333.
  • [16] See van de Sandt and Flusser, The Didache, 193-237.
  • [17] See van de Sandt and Flusser, The Didache, 196 n. 8, 211.
  • [18] The Greek phrase, Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη τοῖς ἀρχαίοις, is literally “to the elders” or “to the ancient ones.”
  • [19] See van de Sandt and Flusser, The Didache, 209-212.
  • [20] See Mekhilta to Exod. 20:13 (ed. S. H. Horovitz and I. A. Rabin; Jerusalem: Wahrmann, 1970), 232-233.
  • [21] See W. Bacher, Die exegetische Terminologie, 1:6; 2:11-12. Bacher (1:6, n. 1) understood that this rabbinic formula is reflected in our passages.
  • [22] See van de Sandt and Flusser, The Didache, 213-214.

Gamaliel and Nicodemus

The Pharisee Gamaliel is mentioned twice in the New Testament (Acts 5:34; 22:3). In Acts 5:34 he appears as an advocate of the nascent congregation of Jesus’ disciples in Jerusalem and is called “a Pharisee, a teacher of the Law, held in honor by all the people.” Then, in Acts 22:3, Paul says that he was “brought up in this city [Jerusalem] at the feet of Gamaliel.” Indeed, Gamaliel was an important spiritual leader of the Pharisees and a Jewish scholar. He also is well known from Jewish sources.

The Pharisees were one of the three main Jewish parties in the first century: the Pharisees (the Jewish sages); the Sadducees (a small but mighty party of high priests, rationalists who “say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit,” Acts 23:8); and the Essenes (a sect whose writings are the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered beginning in 1947).

If we want to understand Gamaliel’s defense of the Apostles, we have to know the political implications of Jesus’ trial. The Apostles were arrested by the “high priest and all who were with him, that is, the party of the Sadducees” (Acts 5:17-18). The Temple guard brought the Apostles before the Sanhedrin “without violence, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people” (Acts 5:26). Evidently the Sadducees knew that the sympathy of the Jewish people in Jerusalem was on the side of Jesus’ movement of disciples. When finally the Apostles were brought before the council, the high priest questioned them, saying: “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us” (Acts 5:27-28).

The Apostles, preaching the gospel in Jerusalem, could not avoid mentioning the active role of the Sadducean high priest in the trial of Jesus, which led to Jesus’ crucifixion. Indeed, when we read the Gospels, we see that the high priests were the main instigators of Jesus’ death. One of the aims of Jesus’ last visit to Jerusalem was to sound a note of warning about the future destruction of the Temple: Jesus did not accuse the Romans, but the Sadducees, whose source of power was their rule over the Temple. The Sadducean high priests were not loved by the people. They were a small, aristocratic and wealthy party of high priests. Therefore, they were very nervous about Jesus’ prophecy of doom, since the people, who did not love them, were in this point on Jesus’ side: “all the people hung upon his words” (Luke 19:48).

The high priest did not dare arrest Jesus during the daylight hours, but only under cover of night, bringing Jesus to the house of the high priest. The next morning they handed Jesus over to Pilate. Even after that, they continued to plot against Jesus, because Jesus was not merely a perceived threat, but an actual danger to the high priestly aristocracy. Later, as the Apostles preached the gospel in Jerusalem, by mentioning the active role of the high priests in Jesus’ trial, they, as it were, “brought Jesus’ blood” upon the high priests. Just as the Sadducees were active in Jesus’ trial, so later they also persecuted the nascent church. We even know the names of these high priests: “Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family” (Acts 4:6).

Gamaliel’s intervention before the Sanhedrin was, from an ideological point of view, a reaction against the cruelty of the Sadducean party.[1] The case of Jesus and his followers evidently became for the Pharisees a test case in their struggle against the inhumane approach of the Sadducean high-priesthood. We learn from the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus that in the year 62 C.E. Jesus’ brother James was executed after an irregular session of the court. Following this atrocity, the Pharisees brought about the deposition of the officiating high priest, the son of Annas and brother-in-law of Caiaphas, by appealing to king Agrippa (Josephus, Antiq. 20:200-201).

Saint Stephen Mourned by Saints Gamaliel and Nicodemus. Carlo Saraceni, c. 1615, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Saint Stephen Mourned by Saints Gamaliel and Nicodemus.
Carlo Saraceni, c. 1615, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Gamaliel’s defense of the apostles before the Sanhedrin also shows his meek nature. The Pharisaic movement was at that time divided into two opposing schools. One school was that of Shammai: members of his movement were rigid and conservative; God, not man, was for them the aim of their religious attitude. The other Pharisaic school was that of Hillel: in the center of its interest was the human being, created according to God’s image. For the members of this movement, the essence of Judaism was love for one’s fellow human being. Through this humanistic approach to one’s fellow, one could reach God, who had created all humankind in His image. These rival schools fought for hegemony over the Pharisaic movement, and only in the second century did the school of Hillel finally prevail.

Hillel was the grandfather of Gamaliel. He came from Babylon to Jerusalem in Herod’s time. He was one of the most outstanding thinkers in the long history of the Jewish people. His influence on Jesus’ teaching has not been fully recognized by scholarship.[2] His meekness, humility and patience were legendary, but, at the same time, he had the strength of character to make unpopular rulings. As he said: “In the place where there is no man, be a man!” (m. Avot 2:6).

Gamaliel’s descendants led the Jewish people through the centuries as its presidents in the land of Israel. Their leadership was a happy circumstance both for Judaism and Christianity. When I say “for Christianity,” I refer to Hillel’s influence upon the teachings of Jesus and the role of Gamaliel in a decisive hour at the early church’s beginnings. Gamaliel saved the lives of Jesus’ apostles, and also influenced Paul’s ethics, even after Paul’s conversion.[3]

Paul’s conversion is a central moment both in the history of Christianity and in the history of humankind. His revolutionary experience completely changed his attitude to his Jewish heritage and created his dialectical approach to the Law. But, on the other hand, even if Paul had gained new and unexpected values, he did not see his previous path in a wholly negative light. He saw no cause to reject Pharisaic ideas that fit his new viewpoint. As a Christian of Pharisaic stock, he recognized the important value of Pharisaic ethics and therefore embedded them in his new faith.

Jesus accepted some doctrines from the Pharisaic school of Hillel such as “Do unto others” as a summary of the Torah, tolerance, and the Kingdom of Heaven. Although some might suppose that Paul’s ethical teaching should be explained by appealing to the influence of the words of Jesus, who was himself influenced by the teachings of Hillel, I do not think that this is the correct explanation of the similarity between Jesus’ and Paul’s moral approach. When Paul uses Jesus as his authority, he states this explicitly. Paul does not do this when he teaches ethics to the young Christian community. He does not say that he received these instructions from Jesus. And it should be recognized that Paul’s ethical advice does not possess the specific color of Jesus’ voice. Thus, it seems more likely that Paul inherited these Jewish ethical views from his Pharisaic past, when he was a disciple of Gamaliel.

In any case, with respect to his moral theology, Paul is clearly an heir of the school of Hillel. This can be seen from his stress upon humility, respect for the other, and his high appreciation of the solidarity of humankind, which are typical of the positions of the school of Hillel. For Paul, as for Hillel, love for one’s neighbor was the summary of the Law. Even Paul’s universalistic openness to the Gentiles is prefigured in the position of the Hillelites, in contrast to the school of Shammai that did not readily accept proselytes.

When he became a follower of Jesus, Paul naturally abandoned many of his Pharisaic positions. Being sure of his salvation through Christ, his attitude toward the Law changed. But Paul did not reject the ethical side of the teaching of his former master, Gamaliel. On the contrary, Hillelite ethics were now linked by Paul to his Christology. By the transmission of his Pharisaic ethical heritage, Paul contributed to the ethical aspect of Christian civilization.

Thus, Gamaliel played an important role in the history of the Church. Not only did he save the Apostles from death, he also contributed, through Paul, to the moral theology of Christianity, and this surely was not a small gift bestowed by Judaism upon the new faith.


In the New Testament Nicodemus is mentioned only in the Gospel of John. In John 3:1-13 we read of “a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews,” who came to Jesus in order to learn from him, and that Jesus knew Nicodemus was a “teacher of Israel.” Later, in a debate about Jesus, Nicodemus defends Jesus, saying that Jesus has to be heard. He was answered: “Are you from Galilee, too? Search and you will find that no prophet is to rise from Galilee” (John 7:50-52). These men evidently mocked Nicodemus’ Galilean origin. And finally, after Jesus’ death, Nicodemus, together with Joseph of Arimathea, participated in Jesus’ burial (John 19:38-42). We know little from the New Testament about the Pharisee Nicodemus, “a ruler of the Jews,” but we learn more about him from rabbinic sources.

Nicodemus is identical with one of the three richest men in Jerusalem, Nicodemus the son of Gurion (b. Giṭ. 56a; Avot de-Rabbi Nathan ver. A, ch. 6; Lam. R. 1.5.31; Eccles. R. 7.12.1). Ze’ev Safrai has recently shown that the family of Nicodemus the son of Gurion originated in Galilee, as recorded in John 7:50-52 (cf. t. Eruvin 3(4):17).[4] Nicodemus’ family came to Jerusalem and became very important there. We know from rabbinic literature that Nicodemus, like Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:50), became a member of the council of Jerusalem (Lam. R. 1.5.31; Eccles. R. 7.12.1). One of the honorary tasks of council members was to perform acts of mercy. This was what Nicodemus and his colleague, Joseph of Arimathea, did when they performed the burial of Jesus, a man who was crucified by the Romans.

Rabbinic sources reveal that Nicodemus was a deeply pious man. Once, when Jerusalem’s water cisterns dried up, he negotiated with the Roman authorities and obtained from them a great quantity of water for the inhabitants. According to Nicodemus’ agreement with the Romans, if no rain came by a certain deadline, he would have to repay a very large sum to the Romans. When rain did not come, Nicodemus prayed fervently to God and the rain came (b. Ta’anit 19b-20a; Avot de-Rabbi Nathan ver. A, ch. 6). This story shows not only Nicodemus’ piety, but also his good connections with the Roman authorities due to his being a member of the council of Jerusalem. Thus, it is probable that Nicodemus used his access to the Romans to obtain Jesus’ body.

Evidently, there were even stronger ties between Jesus and Nicodemus. But, in order to clarify this affinity, we need to understand Nicodemus’ place in the Jewish political map of his day.

The tragedy of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Romans occurred 40 years after Jesus was crucified, but the first acts of this tragedy began even before Jesus’ birth and were caused by the active, armed resistance of Jewish nationalists against the Roman occupation of Judea. These militants were known as Zealots. One of them was Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13), one of the Twelve. This apostle had surely abandoned the idea of political hatred when he became a disciple of a man whose message was all-embracing love. Another activist was Barabbas, who was imprisoned with Jesus. He was “a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city, and for murder” (Luke 23:19).

The Zealots waged guerrilla warfare against the Roman occupation. They were not the only insurgents against the Roman yoke in the empire, but Jews suffered more from Roman imperialism than other nations because the Romans were pagans who were insensitive to the Jewish devotion to a single god, and because the spirit of freedom is inherent to Judaism. Even so, a great part of the Jewish people opposed insurrection, seeing that it would lead to a horrible catastrophe. Jesus was not the only Jew who predicted the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. There was, for example, another Jesus who predicted the Temple’s destruction (Josephus, War 6:300-309).

When the oppression became unbearable, the Zealots started an open revolt against the Roman empire. Most of the members of Nicodemus’ family opposed the revolt. One of them, Gurion, was later executed by Zealot insurgents (Josephus, War 4:358). According to a rabbinic source (b. Giṭ. 56a), the Zealots burned the granaries of three wealthy patricians, one of them being Nicodemus, in order to force the people to fight against Rome. Evidently, Nicodemus died during the war, probably from the hunger that ravaged the city. After the war his daughter lived in extreme poverty. The famous rabbi, Yohanan the son of Zaccai, who before the destruction had signed the daughter’s marriage contract as a witness (t. Ketubot 5:9-10; b. Ketubot 66b; Mechilta de Rabbi Ishmael [Horowitz-Rabin edition], pp. 203-204), later saw her horrible state of poverty and said: “Blessed be Israel. If you do the will of God, no people and nation can rule over you. When you do not do the will of God, you become the subject of a despised nation!” (Mechilta de-Rabbi Ishmael [Horowitz-Rabin edition], Yitro 1, p. 203; Sifre, Devarim 305 [Finkelstein edition], p. 325; b. Ket. 66b; Avot de-Rabbi Nathan ver. A, ch. 17 [Schechter edition], p. 65).

Nicodemus and his family were friends of Rabban Yohanan the son of Zaccai, and we can guess that this friendship was not based solely on personal sympathy.[5] Both the Pharisee Nicodemus and the famous Pharisee rabbi adhered to the anti-Zealot party which opposed the rebellion against Rome. The rabbi escaped Jerusalem during the war, joined the Romans, tried vainly to save the Temple, and after the war was permitted by the Romans to reorganize Jewish learning and administration (b. Giṭ. 56b; Lam. R. i. 5; Avot de-Rabbi Nathan ver. A, ch. 4).[6] These historical details are very important for understanding the similarity of Nicodemus and Jesus’ views.

Zealotism originated in the more nationalistic and rigid Pharisaic school of Shammai. Nicodemus’ friend, Rabban Yohanan the son of Zaccai, on the other hand, was a prominent Hillelite. It is natural that the Hillelites, including Nicodemus, could not accept the militant views of the Zealots, since the School of Hillel propagated universalistic love for one’s neighbor. Thus, the peace party was wholly Hillelite.

There are strong indications in the Gospels that Jesus, too, rejected the Zealot approach. A slogan of the Hillelite peace-party was “the Kingdom of Heaven.”[7] The Hillelites believed that one could be redeemed only through repentance and acceptance of the Kingdom of Heaven, and not through rebellion against Roman imperialism. This path involved purification from sin as well as doing the will of the Heavenly Father (m. Avot 3:6). Jesus developed the idea of the Kingdom of Heaven in a unique way, but there is no doubt that his starting point was the concept of the Kingdom of Heaven as developed by the anti-Zealot Hillelites to whom the Pharisee Nicodemus belonged.

The use of rabbinic sources for the life and death of Nicodemus helps us understand the specific Jewish trends that are at the roots of Christianity. We can now understand why the Pharisaic patrician, Nicodemus, came to Jesus in order to learn from him. This Galilean was a pious man and surely admired Jesus, “a teacher come from God” (John 3:2). Nicodemus belonged to the Hillelite anti-Zealot circles to whom Jesus himself was close. In the end, Nicodemus, together with another member of the Jerusalem council, Joseph of Arimathea, helped to bury Jesus. Later, when the destruction that Jesus predicted came, Nicodemus and his family became one of the innumerable victims of the catastrophe they wanted to avoid.


This article, originally published as “Gamaliel, the Teacher of the Law” in El Olivo 15 (1982): 41-48, has been here emended and updated by Lauren S. Asperschlager, David N. Bivin, Joshua N. Tilton.

  • [1] On Gamaliel’s intervention on behalf of the Apostles, see Peter J. Tomson, “Gamaliel’s Counsel and the Apologetic Strategy of Luke-Acts,” in The Unity of Luke-Acts (J. Verheyden, ed.; Leuven: Peeters, 1999), 585-604.
  • [2] See my essays, “Hillel’s Self-Awareness and Jesus” and “I Am in the Midst of Them (Mt. 18:20),” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988), 509-514, 515-525; and “Hillel and Jesus: Two Ways of Self-Awareness,” in Hillel and Jesus (James H. Charlesworth and Loren L. Johns, eds.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 71-107.
  • [3] On the Hillelite influence in Paul’s writings, see Peter J. Tomson, Paul and the Jewish Law: Halakha in the Letters of the Apostle to the Gentiles (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), esp. 266.
  • [4] Ze’ev Safrai, Galilee Studies (Jerusalem: 1985), 44; idem “Nakdimon b. Guryon: A Galilean Aristocrat in Jerusalem,” in The Beginnings of Christianity (Jack Pastor and Menachem Mor, eds.; Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi, 2005), 297-314.
  • [5] Like Jesus and Nicodemus, Rabban Yohanan the son of Zaccai was of Galilean origin.
  • [6] On the historicity of these rabbinic traditions, see Shmuel Safrai’s discussion in A History of the Jewish People (H. H. Ben-Sasson, ed.; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), 319-20.
  • [7] See my discussion of the Kingdom of Heaven in The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 76-78.

The “Hypocrisy” of the Pharisees

Many Christians assume the Pharisees were Jesus’ opponents. A viewer of a Jerusalem Perspective video clip on YouTube commented:

How can you be so positive in your assessment of the Pharisees? Remember that Jesus was pleased with the kneeling prayer of the tax collector and rebuked the prideful prayer of the Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14). He also told us not to address anyone as “Rabbi”; we have only one teacher. And finally, Jesus consistently called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” (Matt. 12:34; 23:23) and said that “they have already received their reward” (Matt. 6:2, 5, 16).

Without reading the Scriptures carefully, and without a familiarity with Second Temple-period extra-biblical sources, a simple reader of the New Testament might assume that a majority of the Pharisees were hypocrites and that the Pharisees as a movement were indeed a “brood of vipers.” As a result of this common Christian assumption, the word “Pharisee” has become a synonym for “hypocrite” in the English language.

However, this widespread Christian misreading of the New Testament is a terrible mistake, which, in the course of the last two millennia, often has resulted in appalling consequences for the Jewish community.

Who did Jesus say were sitting on Moses’ seat (Matt. 23:2)? Answer: the Pharisees and their scribes. Jesus said: “The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and keep everything they say to you (in Hebrew, כל מה שיאמרו לכם, meaning, “[Observe] their rulings, commandments”). The verb λέγειν (say) in this verse may be a Hebraism for “to rule,” or “to command.” The Greek verbs ποιεῖν (to do) and τηρεῖν (to keep) are a parallelism and both refer to observing the biblical commandments as interpreted by the Pharisees (the Oral Torah).

Jesus himself observed the Oral Torah of the Pharisees. For example, not only was it his custom to say a blessing after eating, as commanded in the Torah (Deut. 8:10), but he also said a blessing before eating, an innovation of the Pharisees. (See David Bivin, “Jesus and the Oral Torah: Blessing.”)

Shmuel Safrai commented:

In other areas of daily life the rulings of the Pharisees also were practiced, and although there were bitter controversies, eventually the Pharisaic halachah prevailed even in the major areas of Temple worship. Josephus states that “all prayers and sacred rites of divine worship are performed according to their [the Pharisees’] exposition” (Antiquities 18:15), and that the Sadducees “submit to the formulas of the Pharisees, since otherwise the masses would not tolerate them” (Antiquities 18:17). (from Safrai, “Counting the Omer: On What Day of the Week Did Jesus Celebrate Shavuot (Pentecost)?.”)

Who was it that warned Jesus about Herod’s intention to kill him? Answer: the Pharisees (Luke 13:31).

Who was it that saved the lives of Jesus’ disciples by urging tolerance in the Sanhedrin when Peter and the other apostles were brought before it (Acts 5:33-39)? Answer: a Pharisee name Gamaliel, none other than Rabban Gamaliel the Elder.

Who was it that sided with Paul against the Sadducees in the Sanhedrin, saying, “We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” (Acts 23:6-9)? Answer: the Sanhedrin’s Pharisees. (Read Shmuel Safrai’s “Insulting God’s High Priest.”)

Josephus reports that, after James was lynched by the conniving Sadducean high priest Hanan (Annas), the Pharisees protested to the Roman governor. David Flusser writes:

A similar clash between the Pharisees and Annas the Younger, probably the brother-in-law of Caiaphas, took place in the year 62 C.E. Annas the Younger “convened the Sanhedrin of judges and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, and certain others [probably Christians]. He accused them of having transgressed the Torah and delivered them to be stoned” (Antiq. 20:200-203). The Pharisees, who Josephus describes as the “inhabitants of the city who were considered the most tolerant and were strict in the observance of the commandments,” managed to have the high priest Annas the Younger deposed from his position as a result of the illegal execution of James. (David Flusser, “…To Bury Caiaphas, Not to Praise Him”)

Flusser also writes:

In contrast to what we know about Caiaphas and his faction, especially from John 11:47-53, the Pharisees of his time did not launch persecutions of Jewish prophetic movements. This is attested by Jesus himself (Matt. 23:29-31), according to whom the Pharisees of his day used to say, “If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Indeed, when one reads the gospels critically, one becomes aware that the Pharisees did not play a decisive role in Jesus’ arrest, interrogation and crucifixion. The Pharisees are not even mentioned by name in the context of Jesus’ trial as recounted in the first three gospels, with the exception of the story about the guard at Jesus’ tomb (Matt. 27:62). (Flusser, “…To Bury Caiaphas, Not to Praise Him”)

The Pharisees were acutely aware of the dangers of hypocrisy. Their self-criticism was even more biting than that of Jesus. They even caricatured themselves saying that there were seven classes of Pharisees (j. Ber. 14b, chap. 9, halachah 7; j. Sot. 20c, chap. 5, halachah 7):

The “shoulder Pharisee”, who packs his good works on his shoulder (to be seen of men); the “wait-a-bit” Pharisee, who (when someone has business with him) says, Wait a little; I must do a good work; the “reckoning” Pharisee, who when he commits a fault and does a good work crosses off one with the other; the “economising” Pharisee, who asks, What economy can I practise to spare a little to do a good work? the “show me my fault” Pharisee, who says, show me what sin I have committed, and I will do an equivalent good work (implying that he had no fault); the Pharisee of fear, like Job; the Pharisee of love, like Abraham. The last is the only kind that is dear (to God). (English translation by George Foot Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era: The Age of the Tannaim [2 vols.; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927], 2:193)

Only one of the seven classes of Pharisees is righteous and acceptable to God: the Pharisee who serves God from love. Compare the saying of Antigonus of Socho, a sage who lived at the beginning of the second century B.C.: “Do not be like slaves who serve their master [i.e., God] in order to receive a reward; rather be like slaves who do not serve their master in order to receive a reward” (Mishnah, Avot 1:3). To the saying of Antigonus, compare the phrase found in Derech Eretz Rabbah 2:13 (ed. Higger, 284): עושין מאהבה (osin me-ahavah, those who do [i.e., perform good deeds] out of love).

“They preach, but they do not practice” (Matt. 23:3). The Pharisees were the conservatives of their day, the Bible teachers and preachers of Jesus’ society. The Pharisees knew that their greatest danger was the sin of hypocrisy, just as today’s conservative Christians understand that hypocrisy is their greatest danger. We sincere and devout followers of Jesus are the hypocrites of our day. There cannot be hypocrites where there are no beliefs and standards to which one is accountable to God.

Notice that Jesus did not criticize the Pharisees for tithing of their garden herbs (Matt. 23:23), a commandment of the Oral Torah, but for neglecting weightier matters. Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees appears to be “in-house” criticism, constructive criticism driven by love and respect. The Pharisees, in contrast to the Sadducees, held beliefs that were similar to Jesus’.

The expression “brood of vipers” appears four times in the New Testament, three times in Matthew’s Gospel and one time in Luke’s. (There are no parallels to any of these four sayings in Mark’s account.) According to Luke’s Gospel (Luke 3:7), the expression is found in the address of John the Baptist to the “crowds” who came to him at the Jordan River. However, according to Matthew, John the Baptist’s stinging rebuke was addressed to “Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matt. 3:7). Apparently, this detail was added for color by the author of Matthew, who then put it in the mouth of Jesus twice more. Luke’s Gospel along with Mark’s provide evidence that this strong expression was used by the fiery John the Baptist, and not by Jesus.

Jesus’ words, ἀπέχουσιν τὸν μισθὸν αὐτῶν (“they are getting their reward/pay”) is a refrain that is repeated three times (Matt. 6:2, 5, 16). The implication is that such hypocrites will not receive a reward in the World to Come—perhaps will not even be in the World to Come! Rather than being a condemnation of the Pharisees, this threesome proves that Jesus’ theology was similar, or identical, to that of the Pharisees.

The three most important commandments in the eyes of the Pharisees were almsgiving, prayer and fasting, in that order, the most important being צְדָקָה (tsedakah; almsgiving). Jesus gives this trio in his Sermon on the Mount. Although Jesus’ point is that one should not be ostentatious when giving to the poor, when praying, and when fasting, in passing, we learn something about Jesus’ theology: Jesus stressed the same three commandments that were so important to the Pharisees. Notice that the centurion, Cornelius, was a God-fearer (Acts 10:2, 22). He gave alms and prayed much (Acts 10:2, 4) and fasted (Acts 10:30).

Regarding Jesus’ command to his disciples not to be called “rabbi” (my teacher), see the FAQ, “What did Jesus mean by ‘Call no man your father on earth’ (Matt. 23:9)?”

For further reading, see Shmuel Safrai, “Jesus and the Hasidim”; Shmuel Safrai, “Sabbath Breakers”; David Flusser, “…To Bury Caiaphas, Not to Praise Him”; and David Bivin, “Rabbinic Literature: A Spiritual Treasure.”

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

Revised: 21-May-2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus’ Last Visit(s) to the Temple

The “Cleansing” according to the Synoptic Gospels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Value of Rabbinic Literature as an Historical Source

Rabbinic literature contains extensive facets of Jewish life from the Second Temple period until the Byzantine period and shortly thereafter. It includes halachic (legal) and aggadic (non-legal, ethical and narrative) passages, homilies and homiletic fragments, biblical exegesis, debates among sages, and between sages and laypersons, sectarians or Gentiles. It also includes a number of historical traditions. This rabbinic tradition has come down to us in nearly every literary form: direct sayings, stories, homilies, parables, poetic fragments, pure fiction, folk sayings, and many more. Obviously one cannot construct a continuous historical framework for the Second Temple period, or the period after the destruction of the Temple, on the basis of rabbinic sources. Rabbinic literature did not intend to relate the history of the Jewish people in an orderly fashion. Many of the decisive events in Jewish history appear in the literature in the form of homiletic narrative, merging events that took place at different times such as during the destruction of the First Temple and the Second, and even during the Trajanic Revolt (112-115 C.E.) and the Bar Kochva Revolt (132-135 C.E.). Furthermore, halachic pronouncements have often come down to us in the form of combinations of different levels and different periods and sometimes from different and even conflicting schools. Obviously, rabbinic tradition often relates aggadic passages and prayers in a fused form, combining different levels of traditions from many generations.

The Oral Torah is just that—an oral tradition—a tradition that was alive and taught in the various houses of study and transmitted with additions and changes by the sages of later generations. The collections of rabbinic literature have not reached us in the form they were given by the sage or school who produced them. These collections, starting with the editing of the Mishnah in the third century C.E. and the other collections that were edited afterwards, remained primarily oral literature throughout the rabbinic period, and the transmitters did not refrain on occasion from adding or removing elements in the course of teaching and passing on the tradition—or even changing and replacing the ancient sages in whose names the traditions were given.

Rabbinic literature does not include political history or geographical, sociocultural history of the kind found in Greco-Roman histories or in that written by the early Church Fathers, or even of the kind that was written in the historical literature of ancient Israel (in biblical books such as Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings), or in the apocryphal books of 1 and 2 Maccabees. Such apocryphal books (for example, the Vision of Ezra and the Syriac Baruch, which were preserved only in the tradition of the Church) may have been written by writers who were close to the world of the sages. If not for Church tradition, we would not even know that these books existed. However, we have no historical books in the vast tradition of rabbinic literature. The closest thing we have are the works Seder Olam Rabbah and Seder Olam Zuta, which, as important as they are, constitute no more than chronicles providing names and certain details in a chronological order.

Though there are no historical books in the rabbinic tradition, there is a wealth of varied information from all facets of public and private social life and spiritual life, in the Temple, the synagogue and the house of study. Likewise, we can glean facts from rabbinic literature regarding trade and economics, agriculture, craftsmanship, the life of the sages and of the common man, urban-rural relations and relations between the Land of Israel and the Diaspora. The halachot, aggadot, dialogues and debates reflect both the home and the marketplace, the wealthy and the poor, weekdays, sabbaths and festivals—in fact, every aspect of human life in all its variety and forms of expression.

Similarly, aggadic literature refers to all the aspects of life. The great wealth of rabbinic literature sometimes enables us to reconstruct the reality of the period in all its complexity, whether on a sociopolitical, a sociospiritual, or personal plane. There are certain issues that are arranged in an orderly fashion in a rabbinic work, for example, the description of the Temple in Mishnah Middot and Tamid, and the detailed description of the service on the Day of Atonement in Mishnah Yoma. Information on other subjects, such as charity, education and the teaching of Torah to children, is scattered throughout the literature and interspersed in various contexts in halachic and aggadic (stories, homilies, introductory homilies, sayings and parables) collections.

Rabbinic Literature as an Historical Source

Can rabbinic literature be used as a source to describe the historical reality of the Second Temple period, which preceded the first redaction of this literature by one hundred and fifty years? Starting from the Middle Ages, authors of Jewish historical sources accepted every rabbinic tradition, no matter how exegetical or homiletical, as a genuine historical fact, either incorporating them verbatim or rewriting them. To this day many authors who received a traditional Jewish education continue in the same fashion. There are also Jewish scholars who have received philological and historical-critical training, but when they encounter traditional Jewish sources they tend to accept them en bloc, or nearly so, treating them as reliable evidence for a concrete sociointellectual world, even preferring them to Josephus or other ancient historical sources. The latter are relatively few, but there are many scholars today who tend to minimize or negate the importance of rabbinic sources for the period after the Temple (70 C.E.ff.), and even more so, for the Second Temple period. Attempts have been made to argue that sources redacted no earlier than the beginning of the third century, and in most cases later on, cannot be reliable testimony for the historical reality of the Second Temple period.[1]

Similar to this approach is the practice of treating every stratum of rabbinic literature separately, that is, a subject or personality is selected and everything reported about him in the Mishnah is examined first, and then whatever is found about him in later collections is analyzed. Even in Mishnaic sources an attempt is made to distinguish between reports by ancient sages and those of later sages, between earlier traditions and later traditions. Obviously, any philological and historical analysis contributes to the advancement of research and to the understanding of the Second Temple period, or the periods after the destruction of the Temple, but if such analysis is done for the purpose of reducing the historical value of earlier or later sources, then, the effort tends to legitimize those who do not have the skills, the capacity or the initiative to examine and evaluate rabbinic sources for themselves. Those who argue that there is no way to estimate the historical value of halachah and aggadah and their chronological and geographical application, release others, particularly, younger scholars, from the obligation to know the world of halachah and aggadah, and its complexities.

The failure to exploit the wealth of rabbinic sources has resulted in casting Jewish and early Christian reality in an increasingly Hellenistic mold. Non-Jewish scholars, and to a degree, even Jewish scholars educated in Europe and America, have found it convenient to work with the rich Greek sources that have been published in reliable scholarly editions and excellent translations. These scholars were raised on a culture that is derived from the Greek and has an affinity for it. Books in Greek and Latin generally stem from one author, or one redactor, whose time and milieu are usually known—in contrast to rabbinic works, where it is not always clear to what period a book belongs, or what stands behind a saying, act or debate. Translations of rabbinic literature in the last generation, regrettably, are in part erroneous, and it is sad to read how entire theories have been developed on the basis of erroneous translations. Anyone who is at home in these Jewish sources encounters this phenomenon with unfortunately great frequency. Noted scholars have pointed out some of the glowing errors in translations of rabbinic literature, and in the notes and commentaries that accompany these translations, but most of these errors have not been corrected.

Rabbinic research is in great need of scholarly critical editions. Only a part of the works of rabbinic literature has appeared in quality editions. Auxiliary studies are lacking both for literary research and historical research. Many problematic grammatical forms have not been satisfactorily explained, and many questions about literary content have not been clarified, or have been only partially clarified. Nevertheless, a great deal is available to anyone wishing to examine literary or historical issues. Since the nineteenth century rabbinic research adopted the techniques of modern historical philological research and many outstanding specialists in rabbinic literature not only applied these techniques to rabbinic literature, but also adapted them to the unique requirements of the rabbinic tradition. This phenomenon may be observed in the works of the pioneers of literary rabbinic research, such as Zechariah Fraenkel, Isaac Hirsch Weiss and Meir Ish Shalom, and even more so in the writings of other scholars such as Wilhelm Bacher, Abraham Buchler, and others. In recent generations such scholars as Epstein, Ginzburg, Alon and Lieberman, among others, have laid solid foundations for scientific research and philological interpretation. Some of the most notable scholars went to great lengths to utilize the literature and reality of the classical and early Christian world in order to arrive at responsible philological and historical explanations of the rabbinic tradition, unravelling many inexplicable passages and expanding and enriching our understanding.

After generations of scientific research, we cannot see in the traditional Jewish approach to historical sources definitive and satisfactory answers to many questions about Jewish history, literature and faith. Great Jewish scholars from the Middle Ages until today have regarded the answers provided by the traditional approach as sufficient. However, scholars who have been trained even moderately in modern scientific methods of research cannot accept these traditional answers uncritically. For us, it is necessary to analyze and explain the traditional answers supplied by Jewish sources. Our solutions may be better or worse, but we cannot rely on the answer that tradition gives to these questions. Two examples will suffice to illustrate this point.

One of the outstanding phenomena in the entire corpus of rabbinic literature is the phenomenon of “controversy,” a predominant form in tannaic and amoraic literature alike. It is to be found in all strata of halachic and aggadic literature. In a baraita at the beginning of chapter 7 of Tosefta Sanhedrin (and parallel passages in the Tosefta and the two Talmuds), we find an explanation for this literary and historical phenomenon. Originally, according to this baraita, there were no controversies in Israel and any question that arose would be referred to the local court to be resolved. If the local court could not resolve the issue, the question would be referred to a nearby court, and if it could not give an answer, to the courts on the Temple Mount until the point of dispute reached the High Court where a vote would be taken, and “halachah would go forth from there and be accepted in all of Israel.” The baraita continues: “When the students of the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel who did not attend their rabbi enough became numerous, controversies multiplied in Israel.”

Tosefta Sanhedrin informs us that at one time there were no controversies. (According to the parallel passages, there were only a few controversies.) However, when students of the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel who had not learned the Torah sufficiently became numerous, controversies resulted. Even though this tradition appears in tannaic tradition in several places, and in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, as well, and its text is substantially reliable, it is difficult to regard it as historical testimony about the history of the Oral Torah. In fact, all the halachot found in tannaic sources until the period of Hillel and Shammai are reported in the form of controversies. Moreover, all the halachot reported in the names of Hillel and Shammai themselves are in the form of controversies. There are also cases of sages who disagreed with both Hillel and Shammai (m. Eduyyot 1:1-2). There are even cases in which Shammai disagrees with the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel (m. Eduyyot 1:7-8). The sages see the controversies of the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel as “the living words of God” (j. Berachot 3b, Chap. 1, and parallels), and that the words of both houses were “given from one shepherd” (t. Sotah 7:12, and parallels). A different tannaic tradition describes the controversies between these two schools as “a controversy for the sake of heaven” that is “destined to be sustained” (m. Avot 5:17). Whatever the meaning of the passage in Tosefta Sanhedrin, it is not historical and does not square with other tannaic traditions.

A second example is the mishnah that reports a famous controversy that went on for generations: “May one lay hands on sacrifices on festival days?” The Mishnah (along with other tannaic sources) relates that “the Zugot” (the five pairs of teachers, concluding with Shammai and Hillel) disagreed on this question generation after generation, and adds: “The first [named in each of the five pairs] were נשיאים [nesi’im, ‘patriarchs’] and the second [named in each of the pairs] were אבות בית דין [avot beit din, ‘fathers of the court’]” (m. Hagigah 2:2). Most scholars agree, and I concur, that in the time of the Zugot and the Second Temple period the title נשיא (nasi, “patriarch”) was not in use, in fact, neither was אב בית דין (av beit din, “father of the court”). The title Nasi appended to the name of the head of the Sanhedrin or the head of the בית ועד (beit va’ad) does not appear in rabbinic sources before the time of Rabban Shim’on ben Gamliel II in the generation after the Bar Kochva Revolt (132-135 C.E.). The mishnah found in tractate Hagigah describes “the pairs” (end of the Hellenistic period) in light of the reality of the second half of the second century C.E.

Careful Scrutiny Needed

By cautious analysis it is possible to clarify to a certain degree when one tradition or another may be accepted, and very often one can determine with great likelihood what part of a tradition may be accepted entirely, what part is historical and what may be taken historically only as interpretation reflecting the understanding of later generations. Not everything that is attributed to the Second Temple period is in fact really from that period. However, in many cases, one can say with certainty or near certainty what part of a passage from early generations is reliable and what part should be regarded with skepticism. In some cases it is clear that the tradition as it appears is undoubtedly late and entirely aggadic. At any rate, in many cases it is possible to draw certain historical conclusions. Sometimes these conclusions are partial and sometimes they are extensive. The traditions in rabbinic literature appear in a variety of places, in various contexts and in a great variety of forms. Traditions regarding a certain subject, literary or historical, may reappear and be discussed in many places in early and late sources in various compositions. These parallel passages may be either complementary or contradictory.

The problem in evaluating the historicity of a rabbinic tradition is not, as some scholars contend, that a particular scholar accepts the rabbinic tradition and another rejects it, but the degree of understanding, analysis and integration brought into the discussion of rabbinic sources. What is the degree of creativity that a particular scholar brings to the discussion? Creativity should be part of every analysis of an historical source. The scholar’s task demands not only the collecting of texts and the proper integration of them, but also creativity.

There is one additional problem that is common to every type of source and every historical period (general and Jewish alike), a feature that is particularly characteristic of rabbinic literature. Rabbinic literature reflects a culture and a heritage that evolved orally from generation to generation, and when traditions were finally written down, they were not recorded systematically in either the halachic or aggadic spheres. It was deemed unnecessary to summarize and systematize either orally or in writing what was clear to contemporaries who studied this literature. Systematization of this literature was done only in the Middle Ages. Maimonides attempted to systematize halachah and Jewish thought, but rabbinic literature assumes many things are understood and only adds what teachers felt obliged to emphasize and add. Often, particularly in aggadic contexts, the words preserved in the sources are only the top of an iceberg that contains a vast world of thought and practice. A study of these fragmented sources from the philosophical and historical points of view should reveal the intellectual and real world that exists in the background and is reflected in a particular saying or aggadic description.

Ways of Expressing Historical Reality

Let us come back to our assertion that a scholar’s main problem in determining whether a rabbinic tradition is historical is the sophistication of that scholar’s analysis, that is, his or her ability to combine different sources creatively and his or her awareness of the limits of creative interpretation. Two relatively simple examples will illustrate this premise.

According to the Babylonian Talmud, members of the Great Assembly at the beginning of the Second Temple period fasted for three days and three nights and observed a kind of fire going out of the Holy of Holies, and the prophet explained to them that this was the inclination for idolatry departing from Israel (b. Yoma 69b). This is a late legend phrased in a literary fashion, but it expresses the reality that from the earliest days of the Second Temple period Jews did not engage in idolatry. This situation is attested in various sayings and metaphors in amoraic literature. The Mishnah describes the festivities of the Beit Hasho’evah (House of Water Drawing) celebration, which took place during the Feast of Tabernacles in the Temple in Jerusalem, reporting that participants in the celebration would go out to draw water from the Shiloah Spring and returning, when they reached the eastern gate, “would turn their faces towards the west and say: ‘Our fathers who were in this place [in the First Temple period], their backs were toward the sanctuary and their faces toward the east, and they would bow to the sun, but we, our eyes are toward the Lord” (m. Sukkah 5:4).

Many generations before the Mishnah (in the Second Temple period) the Book of Judith reports: “There has not appeared in our generations, nor is there at this time, a tribe, clan, district or town among us who worship man-made gods” (Judith 8:18). Beginning with the first wave of exiles returning from Babylonia in the time of the Persian king Cyrus the Great (559-530 B.C.E.), there is no mention of admonishment for idolatry in any of the Jewish books written. Even the Book of Jubilees and the literature of the Qumran sect, which criticize Hellenists and Pharisees very harshly, do not accuse them of the sin of idolatry.

A second example: In the Babylonian Talmud the amora Rav relates that Joshua ben Gamla, the high priest in 63-65 C.E., introduced the regulation that “they would set up teachers for small children in every city and every town and bring them in at the age of six or seven” (b. Bava Batra 21a). In the Jerusalem Talmud, however, one of the regulations of Shim’on ben Shetah, a contemporary of Alexander Yannai and Shlomtzion in the first half of the first century B.C.E., was “that the small children should go to school” (j. Ketubbot, end of Chap. 8). One scholar detected here a contradiction between the two traditions and consequently concluded that neither is historical testimony. However, it is doubtful whether there is a contradiction since one could argue that the regulation of Shim’on ben Shetah established the duty to go to school and the second regulation reinforced the establishment of schools in every community. However, even if there is a contradiction, one should accept as historical the tradition that from Second Temple times and onwards there was an organized school system for children since the very framework of socioreligious life, for example, the recitation of grace after meals, and the synagogue, which revolved around the reading of the Torah, presumes that all those assembled know how to repeat blessings by heart and to read the Torah.

Josephus also emphasizes that study of the Torah was widespread and that all children received an education: “If someone asks one of them about our laws, there is not one of them who does not find it easier to repeat all the laws [by heart] than to tell his own name since we all learn them from our first admission until they are engraved on our hearts” (Against Apion 2:178; cf. 1:12). Specific evidence regarding the establishment of schools in every community exists only from the middle of the third century C.E., but in light of the ability of the general public to read the Scriptures during the Second Temple period, clearly demonstrable from a variety of sources, there is no reason to doubt the traditions regarding the requirement that small children go to school, or the concern later on that there be schools everywhere.

Historical Information Even in Aggadic Traditions

Let us examine a few more aggadic traditions, some exaggerated and consequently of no historical value, but which, by a careful analysis of them in the context of all the sources allows us to arrive at historical conclusions. The first two examples are from the Second Temple period and the third from the time of the destruction of the Second Temple.

1. Three sayings are transmitted in the name of the Men of the Great Assembly in the first mishnah in Avot. These are in effect the earliest traditions in rabbinic literature, the Oral Torah. The three sayings are:

(a) הוו מתונים בדין (Be deliberate in judgement).
(b) העמידו תלמידים הרבה (Raise up many disciples).
(c) עשו סייג לתורה (Make a fence around the Torah).

These three sayings are the essence of the Oral Torah in its approach to Biblical exegesis and its perception of society. That these attitudes constitute a realistic description of the Pharisees and later sages’ point of view may be demonstrated not only from the vast literature of the Oral Torah, but also from Second Temple reality as revealed in Philo, Josephus, the New Testament, and even the literature of the opponents of the Pharisees, the Essenes. I will limit myself to a discussion of the first of these three sayings.

It is customary to interpret the term מתונים (metunim) as “cautious,” that is, Do not be hasty in judgement. This interpretation may be found in quite early sources, but the verb מתן appears in the Mishnah with the meaning “soft, moderate, easy.” We read: “He who puts olives in a press so that they will get soft [ימתונו] and be easy to press” (m. Tohorot 9:5). This verb is used in the Mishnah only in the sense of “soft.” In other words, the members of the Great Assembly taught that one should be soft, that is, humane, in giving judgement. Indeed, if we survey the halachic interpretations in Pharisaic and rabbinic tradition, particularly with regard to capital crimes throughout the generations, we will find that their judges tried to be gentle when sentencing persons guilty of a crime punishable by death. This contrasts with the halachot we find in the Book of Jubilees, which is close, if not identical, to the halachot of the Essene sect.

The Torah says frequently, ונכרת האיש ההוא מקרב עמו (and that man will be cut off from among his people; Lev. 17:4, 9) or ונכרת מעמיו (he shall be cut off from his people; Exod. 30:33, 38), and other similar expressions. These expressions were understood in the Halachah as punishment from heaven (m. Yevamot 4:13). Josephus says regarding the Pharisees that they “by nature are lenient regarding [capital] crimes” (Antiq. 13:293) in contrast to the Sadducees who he says, in connection with the execution of James the brother of Jesus by the Sadducean high priest Hanan, “he is one of the sect of the Sadducees who are the most brutal of all the Jews in judging offenders” (Antiq. 20:199). I am not claiming that the members of the Great Assembly stated the three sayings exactly as worded in Avot, or that the sayings of later sages in Avot 1 are preserved exactly as they were given, but these sayings are a realistic expression of the fundamentals of interpretation of the Torah, on the one hand, and the life of deeds, on the other, that developed in the early days of the Second Temple period, and that the Pharisees and the sages after them continued to follow (examples abound in rabbinic literature).

2. The Second Temple, its structure, regulations and place in public life, feature prominently in both tannaic and amoraic literature. Two tractates, Middot and Tamid are devoted in their entirety to a description of the physical structure of the Temple and how it functioned. Many chapters in the Mishnah, and in some cases entire tractates, deal with topics pertaining to the Temple during festivals and holy days. Nearly all of tractate Shekalim concerns the half-shekel donation to the Temple. Nearly all of tractate Yoma is a description of the Temple service on the Day of Atonement. Similarly, chapters in Sukkah, Pesahim and many other tractates detail Temple ritual and observance.

In the Mishnah (including tractate Tamid, one of the oldest collections of mishnaic redaction) there are legendary traditions that contain exaggeration. It goes without saying that the much later material found in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds and the Midrash include interpretation and tend to glorify the past with legends that have a lyric character and a longing for redemption and the restoration of the Temple. These traditions cannot be regarded as historical in the confined sense. However, comparison and analysis of the sources enable us to establish historical reality in a relatively broad area and with a reasonable degree of likelihood. In fact, we can determine the physical dimensions of the Temple (its courts, halls, gates and many other architectural details) by careful analysis of rabbinic sources.

As is well known, Josephus also provides detailed descriptions of the Temple, particularly in The Jewish War, and the picture that emerges from the rabbinic sources is the same picture that emerges from Josephus’ descriptions. It is true that there are certain contradictions between the Mishnah’s description and Josephus’, but these are not greater than the internal contradictions within the writings of Josephus himself, or than the internal contradictions within the Mishnah. Some of the differences in detail between Josephus and rabbinic literature depend perhaps on the manner of description. It may be that Josephus counts the central gate but not the smaller appended gates on its sides, and perhaps the contradictions reflect different periods. There may be some genuine contradictions, but in general, the descriptions do conform. The east-west orientation of the Temple is the same in both sources. The internal division of the sanctuary and its courts is the same, and the proportions are the same. The Temple vessels and altars are located in the same places and their use is identical. Furthermore, archaeological excavation carried out on the Temple Mount and its surroundings has reinforced some of the rabbinic literary data, and so far, has not contradicted any rabbinic traditions.

The bilingual inscription discovered in the Tomb of Nicanor. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The same applies, with even greater conformity, to the Temple service and its place in the life of the people. The Temple sacrifices on weekdays and festivals are prescribed in the Torah, and the rabbinic sources are identical to Josephus regarding them. However, even in regards regulations that are not written in the Torah there is a great degree of conformity between the rabbinic sources and that which may be gleaned from other Second Temple sources, such as Josephus, Philo, the New Testament—from both canonical and apocryphal gospels—Roman legal and administrative documents and archaeological findings.

One prominent feature pertaining to the organization of the Second Temple is the collection of the half-shekel donation for the maintenance of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. As is well known, making this donation an annual obligation was a Pharisaic innovation. The Bible (Exod. 30:12-16) enjoins a one-time donation for the erection of the Tabernacle, and not an annual donation. From rabbinic sources it is clear that the Sadducees strongly objected to this innovation and insisted that the public sacrifices be financed by private donations (see the beginning of Megillat Ta’anit). The Essenes taught that the half-shekel donation “should only be given once during a man’s lifetime,” and not annually (4Q159 f1ii:7).

Ossuary from Nicanor's Tomb on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. Photographed by JHistory. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Sarcophagus from Nicanor’s Tomb on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. Photographed by JHistory. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

From rabbinic sources we learn that the half-shekel was collected from all the Jews in the land of Israel and in the Diaspora (m. and t. Shekalim 1), and this conclusion is confirmed by extra-rabbinic literature, for example, Matthew 17:24-27. Josephus reports that the towns of Nahardea and Nisibis served as centers for the collection of the half-shekel donation (Antiq. 18:312). Philo tells about the collection of the half-shekel in Egypt and in Rome (On the Embassy to Gaius 156-157, 291, and 311-316). After the destruction of the Temple, Vespasian levied a tax of two dinars on all the Jews in the land of Israel and the Diaspora for the benefit of the Temple of Jupiter in Rome, instead of the two dinars, the equivalent of half a shekel, that the Jews had customarily sent to the Temple in Jerusalem. This fact, confirmed in many Jewish, Christian and Roman sources and documented in receipts from Egypt, testifies to the widespread observance of the half-shekel donation.

From numerous passages in rabbinic literature it is evident that the administration of the Temple, that is the high priesthood, was in the hands of the Sadducees, but that pressure on the part of the sages and the people, who supported the sages, forced the high priests to give in often and to carry out the Temple service according to the halachot of the Pharisees (m. Yoma 1:5-6; t. Sukkah 5:1; t. Parah 3:8; and frequently elsewhere). This picture also emerges from various descriptions by Josephus, who says: “And all the religious matters concerning prayers and the offering of sacrifices are carried out according to the interpretations of these [the Pharisees]” (Antiq. 18:15; cf. 18:17).

Let us take a brief look at examples from details scattered throughout tannaic literature:

In the first chapter of Tosefta Yoma we find a detailed description of Temple activity on the night of the Day of Atonement. In halachah 4 Rabbi Yose (second century C.E.) adds that on one occasion a high priest experienced nocturnal pollution on that night (according to the primary texts of the Tosefta and its parallel) and Joseph son of Elim from Sepphoris replaced him. Josephus mentions the same event, reporting that Matthias son of Theophilus, who served as high priest between 5 and 4 B.C.E., experienced nocturnal pollution on the night before the fast and that Joseph son of Ellemus his relative took his place (Antiq. 17:165-166).

Tomb of Nicanor on Mount Scopus, Jerusalem. (Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.)
Tomb of Nicanor on Mount Scopus, Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.

The Mishnah mentions individuals who contributed to the Temple or brought donations and tithes, but whose gifts created halachic problems. The list is brief and all the examples belong to the last generations before the destruction of the Temple. It is remarkable that the tombs of two of the donors have been discovered in the vicinity of Jerusalem. One of these tombs, that of Nicanor who made one of the gates of the Temple, has been known for decades. The Mishnah says: “Miracles happened to Nicanor’s doors and he was remembered with praise” (m. Yoma 3:10). The Tosefta and both Talmuds report the miracles that happened to his doors when he brought them from Alexandria as a donation to the Temple (t. Yoma 2:4; m. Middot 2:3). A burial cave was discovered on Mount Scopus with a Greek and Hebrew inscription testifying that here were located the remains of Nicanor of Alexandria, who made the gates (Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaicarum 1256).

In the Mishnah tractate Hallah three individuals are described as having brought offerings to the Temple—offerings that raised halachic questions: (1) whether firstfruits could be brought from Babylonia; (2) whether firstfruits could be brought in the form of wine and oil; (3) whether firstfruits could be brought from Syria. The Mishnah says: “Ariston brought firstfruits from Apamea” (m. Hallah 4:11). This Ariston appears in a recently published inscription in Hebrew and Greek: “Ariston Afme” (Scripta Classica Israelitica XI [1991/2]: 150).

3. The third example is from the period of the Great Rebellion (66-70 C.E.). In rabbinic sources there are numerous versions of the story of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai’s departure from Jerusalem to Yavne and the privileges the Romans granted him. According to the Babylonian Talmud (b. Gittin 56a-b) the dispensations he received were quite extensive. According to sources originating in the land of Israel, such as Avot de-Rabbi Natan (Version A, chap. 4; Version B, chap. 6), the privileges were far more limited. Lamentations Rabbah’s version (Lam. Rab. 1:31) is similar to the latter. The various parallels also differ in the historical background they portray. However, these traditions should not be discussed only from a literary point of view. Taken together, the various references to Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and his sayings, from both before and after the destruction of the Temple, suggest a clear picture of his actions. He was not a Zealot, and may have opposed the rebellion. He left Jerusalem in order to rebuild Judaism after the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple, turned himself over to the Romans and, like everyone who departed the besieged city and turned themselves over to the Romans, was arrested. He reached Yavne because it served as a place where people who left Jerusalem were concentrated. He received only limited recognition and began to operate under difficult conditions. Only in the course of years did Yavne become a center of Jewish leadership and a center for the study of Torah and gain its important place in the rebuilding of a Judaism without Jerusalem and its Temple.

Qumran and the Antiquity of Halachic Terms

There are many halachic terms that appear in rabbinic traditions ascribed to the Temple period and that pertain to the reality of the Temple. Many of these traditions relate to controversies with Sadducees. The traditions mention Hebrew terms that are idiomatic in the language of the sages. They pertain to Biblical injunctions, but they occur in the language of the sages not in the language of the Bible. One might argue that the terms do not date from the Second Temple period but were coined during the mishnaic period and quoted in the names of earlier sages or personalities who lived in the period of the Second Temple. However, since the discovery of the Dead Sea documents in 1947 scholars have pointed out dozens of such terms proving that they were current in the Second Temple period. Let us discuss a few that have been clarified by scholarship, beginning with an halachic homily that is not attributed to an early period:

1. In Exodus 22:15-16 and Deuteronomy 22:28-29, the Bible says that he who seduces or rapes a virgin is obliged to marry her and “she will be his wife.” This obligation is discussed in an halachic homily (Mechilta, Mishpatim 17 [on Ex 22:15; ed. Horovitz-Rabin, p. 308]) and in the Mishnah (m. Ketubbot 3:5). In these two texts it is stated that the seducer is required to marry her only if she is suitable for marriage to him, אשה הראויה לו (a woman suitable for him), that is, is not a forbidden relation. The language of the addition to the Biblical verse in the Temple Scroll (11q19 66:9) is identical: והיא רויה לו מן החוק (and she is suitable for him according to the law). The Mishnah and the Temple Scroll do not agree regarding every detail of this law, but the expression “and she will be his wife—a wife that is suitable for him” is the same even though the time gap between the Temple Scroll and the Mishnah is several hundred years.

2. The day on which the ’omer (measure of barley from the new crop) is waved, as prescribed in Leviticus 23:12, “On the day of your waving the ’omer,” is called יום הנף (the day of waving) in rabbinic literature (m. Sukkah 3:12; m. Rosh HaShanah 4:3). This expression is a condensed form of יום הנף העומר (the day of waving the ’omer), or in one place, הנפת העמר (Pesikta Rabbati 41). The same form occurs several times in the Temple Scroll, for example, in 11q19 11:10 and 11q19 18:10: וביום הנף העומר and ביום הניפת העומר.

3. According to the Torah one who undergoes ritual purification does not become pure on the same day, but only after sunset: “And the sun will set and he will be pure” (Lev. 22:7); “And when the sun sets he will enter the camp” (Deut. 23:12). In rabbinic language, this waiting period is called מעורב שמש (setting of the sun) (m. Parah 3:7, and elsewhere), and the completion of the period is called העריב שמשו (his sun has set). This language appears often in tannaic literature, in some cases regarding traditions and events from the time when the Second Temple was still standing, such as the altercation between Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and the Sadducean high priest (t. Parah 3:6-10). The same language also appears several times in the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, in 4QMMT (4Q394 f3_7i:18) we read: להעריב השמש להיות טהורים ([Concerning the purity of the heifer of the sin offering, the one who slaughters it, the one who burns it, the one who gathers its ashes, and the one who sprinkles the (water of) purification—for all of these,] the sun must set for them to be pure) (trans. Abegg). And in a fragment of the Damascus Covenant we read: וטהר אשר יעריב שמשו (and pure whose sun has set).

4. The sages use a halachic concept הנצוק (ha-nitsok), a term used to describe liquid being poured from a pure vessel into an empty vessel or into one containing impure food or drink. The term appears in several halachot regarding the impurity of vessels or the impurity of idolatry. It recurs not an insignificant number of times in both tannaic and amoraic sources. According to the halachah, such a fluid is pure and does not constitute a carrier of impurity. In other words, as soon as one stops pouring, the liquid that has entered the impure vessel is impure, but the liquid in the pure vessel retains its state of purity. A term that appears in tannaic literature cannot be presumed to have come into being before the time of the tannaim (before the generation of Yavne [70-132 C.E.] and afterwards), but this term appears also in a controversy between Pharisees and Sadducees, since the Pharisees declared this liquid pure and the Sadducees declared it impure and a carrier of impurity. In the Mishnah we read: “The Sadducees say: ‘We complain about you Pharisees who purify the נצוק’” (m. Yadayim 4:7). We could argue that the language of the Sadducees was changed by later editors for whom the term נצוק was common, but a similar controversy appears in 4QMMT of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and its similarity is not only in content, but also in form and terminology. This work is a kind of anti-Pharisaic polemic or propaganda tract in which the writer presents the preferred views of the sect as opposed to the inferior views of his Pharisaic opponents. We read: “[Co]ncerning streams of liquid (מוצקות), we have determined that they are not intrinsically [p]ure. Indeed, streams of liquid (מוצקות) do not form a barrier between the impure [and the] pure. For the liquid of the stream and that in its receptacle become as one liquid” (4Q394 f8iv:5-8; trans. Abegg).

We should not rush to conclude that the halachah of Qumran is the halachah of the Sadducees or even resembles it. We know very little about Sadducean halachah, and the few Sadducean halachot that we find similar to those of Qumran do not testify to more than a factor common to both the Dead Sea sect and the Sadducees—a tendency toward conservative interpretation of the Torah that opposed the interpretations and the traditions of the Pharisees. Evidence from the Qumran texts supports the conclusion of scholars who attribute some rabbinic halachot to the period of the Second Temple on the basis of analysis of rabbinic sources. We would reach the same conclusion if we compared the many parallels in the Septuagint, Josephus and the Apocrypha with early Christian literature, that is, the New Testament and the writings of the apostolic church fathers. I have selected the above examples from the Dead Sea Scrolls because of their linguistic similarity to rabbinic traditions, because the Scrolls predate rabbinic literature by several generations, and because it cannot be claimed that the Scrolls have undergone later rewriting.


Obviously there can be no general consensus on the extent of the historical value of rabbinic sayings. To one scholar a testimony, saying or tradition (anonymous or ascribed to a certain sage) may seem to be unimpeachable historical evidence, and to another nothing more than a literary tradition. Even the same scholar may not always take the same position. Sometimes a scholar changes his position about a piece of “evidence.” Nevertheless, often one may reach sound conclusions as to the degree of reliability of a rabbinic tradition; but only, however, if these are drawn on the basis of serious analysis of text and context, taking into account how the tradition fits into the mosaic of rabbinic tradition from both literary and historical points of view.


  • [1] In this article I summarize what I perceive as the correct way to deal with rabbinic sources and do not engage in a controversy or polemic with any particular scholar. Consequently, I have not given bibliographical references to specific translations and editions, but only references to original sources.

The Theological Significance of the Parable in Rabbinic Literature and the New Testament

One of the finest articles ever written on rabbinic parables and the parables of Jesus was published in 1972 in the now defunct Christian News from Israel. The article is a classic, but, unfortunately, no longer available. Jerusalem Perspective is pleased to resurrect this milestone article together with the responses of founding Jerusalem School members, the late Robert L. Lindsey and David Flusser.[1]

When he was alone, the Twelve and others who were around him questioned him about the parables. He replied, “To you the secret of the kingdom of God has been given; but to those who are outside, everything comes by way of parables, so that (as Scripture says) they may look and look, but see nothing; they may hear and hear, but understand nothing; otherwise they might turn to God and be forgiven.” (Mark 4:10-12; NEB)

These lines have always been something of a crux interpretum. Yet the consensus of modern scholarship seems to be on the side of Frederick C. Grant, who, pointing out that “quite patently (Jesus’) parables were a device to aid his hearers’ understanding, not to prevent it,” finds it necessary to describe Mark’s theory as “perverse.”[2]

Whatever may have been the original significance of Mark’s words or their justification with regard to the parables as spoken by Jesus, there can be very little doubt that they are a fairly accurate description of what has happened to the parables in the long history of their interpretations—not only the traditional allegorical ones, with their built-in arbitrariness, but also much of the voluminous writing on the subject which has appeared since Jülicher administered the coup de grace to the allegorical understanding of the past.

When we see modern scholars going into contortions to perform a neat separation between similitudes and parables proper, between illustrations and allegories, invoking the canons of Greek rhetoric and even turning to Buddhist sources for prototypes, we can well imagine a modern Mark who might characterize all such efforts as “looking and looking, but seeing nothing.”[3]

All of which is not to say that this type of work is altogether without value. Eta Linnemann is certainly right when, for example, she tells us that “the image in the similitude is taken from real life as everyone knows it,” whereas “in the parables proper…we are told freely composed stories.”[4] But the question remains whether that kind of analysis gets us any closer to an understanding of what the parables are all about. Joachim Jeremias seems more to the point when he dismisses the distinction drawn between metaphor, simile, parable, similitude, allegory, illustration and so forth “as a fruitless labour in the end, since the Hebrew mashal and the Aramaic mathla embraced all these categories and many more without distinction,” and when he warns us that “to force the parables of Jesus into the categories of Greek rhetoric is to impose upon them an alien law.”[5]

The warning of Jeremias is based upon an understanding of the particular environment within which Jesus functioned. It was the environment of Palestinian Judaism, in which the mashal type of teaching, inherited from the Hebrew Bible, was—as C. H. Dodd correctly observed—“a common and well-understood method of illustration, and the parables of Jesus are similar in form to Rabbinic parables.”[6] Ignaz Ziegler was able to list some 937 parables dealing with comparisons based on “a king” or “the kingdom.”[7] While most of those parables belong to the period after the fall of Bethar in 135 C.E., Israel Abrahams surmised that “some of the oldest parables in which heroes are kings, perhaps dealt in their original forms with ordinary men, and kings was probably substituted for men in some of them (both Rabbinic and Synoptic) by later redactors.”[8] We by no means wish to imply that all of the Rabbinic parables invariably compared religious themes, such as the nature of God, to earthly kings. That was not the case. W. O. E. Oesterley notes, in addition to the royal parables, also those “which present a scene of a feast, and those which deal with some agricultural topic, such as a field or a vineyard.”[9] There were many others as well.

But an important point to be made in this connection is that we would unnecessarily limit our field of vision were we to confine our observation to those Rabbinic statements which are either specifically labelled as a mashal or begin with one of the mashal’s typical introductory formulae. The mashal was but one of the methods of teaching one of the two aspects of Torah.

Torah, for the Pharisaic Jew, was God’s revelation, and, as such, had to have a message for the present. To deduce the message for the present from the wording of the ancient text involved the process of midrash. That term “denotes both the occupation, the expounding and searching of Scripture, and its result, the exposition arrived at.”[10] In later usage, the term midrash came to denote the non-legal utterances of the Rabbis but in the earliest sources, those of the Tannaitic period, midrash was applied to both legal and non-legal interpretations of Scripture.[11]

Two other terms from the early Rabbinic period are somewhat more precise in distinguishing the legal from the non-legal teachings. Halakhah (“the way”) is the term used for the legal rulings.[12] And Haggadah (or, in Aramaic, Aggadah) is the term for the non-legal teachings. The word Haggadah originated in the exegeticalterminus technicusmaggid hakathubh (“the Scripture verse says, or implies”), but, already in very early times, the noun Aggadah came to be exclusively applied to non-legal interpretations.[13]

Moreover, “Halakhah and Aggadah do not exist solely and exclusively in connection with Holy Scripture. Among those who accept the oral tradition as a source of revelation…Halakhah, direction for the conduct of life, is also a quite independent entity, having existence apart from Scripture. In the same way, Haggadah can also exist independently, being no more than a religious tale of an edifying or apologetic tenor.”[14]

We can go even further than this and assert that whatever theology the ancient Rabbis had was taught and understood by them as Aggadah. That is why the wider connotation of Aggadah, rather than only the narrower subdivision of mashal, is important to us in our present investigation. We shall continue to refer to Aggadah throughout the remainder of our presentation.

The theological significance of the Aggadah was stated in the Siphre, the Tannaitic Midrash to Deuteronomy, in the following terms:

Is it your desire to know Him by Whose word the world came into existence? Then study Haggadah, for, by so doing, you get to know Him by Whose word the world came into existence, and you attach yourself to His ways.[15]

It is the merit of the German scholar, Paul Fiebig, that he, perhaps more than anyone else, has endeavoured to demonstrate in detail how the parables of Jesus have to be read in the light of the contemporary literature of Aggadah.[16] Yet it can hardly be conceded that Fiebig was sufficiently at home in the whole realm of Rabbinic literature to warrant the occasional generalizations in which he engages—such as when he asserts that the eschatological-messianic theme “completely recedes into the background in the direction taken by Rabbinic thinking,” or that “for Jesus, the great religious themes and basic ideas move far more into the foreground than they do in the parables of the Rabbis.”[17]

But then, alas, Fiebig is not alone among those aware of Jesus’ Palestinian Jewish background who feel compelled to fault the teachings of the Rabbis in comparison with those of Jesus. Somehow, this whole area of scholarship is still awaiting its liberation from the fetters of polemics and apologetics.

Thus, Gustaf Dalman, another great Christian scholar of Rabbinics, emphasizes that:

one and the same parable or proverb can be used for quite different purposes… He who pays attention to this will find that our Lord not only occasionally, but always deviates from the Rabbis, notwithstanding the similar application made of the same material in both cases.[18]

Again, Oesterley not only stresses that difference, but also introduces a value judgment:

One cannot…fail to notice the immense difference both in subject-matter and treatment and, above all, in application, between the Gospel parables and those of the Rabbis; interesting and instructive as the latter often are, they stand on an altogether lower plane…

We are convinced that any impartial reader of the two sets of parables, the Gospel and the Rabbinical, will be forced to admit that the latter compare very unfavourably with the former.[19]

Rudolf Bultmann, too, finds it necessary to point out that, while the New Testament parables do indeed correspond to the Rabbinic parables in a formal sense, both as a whole and in details, the Rabbinic parables are often forced and artificial, whereas the New Testament parables are the product of a greater originality in intuition.[20]

The list of authorities could be considerably extended. But enough has probably been quoted to illustrate the tendenz. It is, in a way, an understandable tendenz. It also has its theological significance. In the pre-modern period, when traditional Christian dogma was widely accepted, and when people believed in the Virgin Birth, in the Incarnation, and in a literal Resurrection, we find no attempt to demonstrate the “originality” of Jesus’ “contribution” to mankind’s religious thought. Nor were artistic and aesthetic criteria invoked to prove the inferiority of Rabbinic teaching. It was a simple case of accepting Christianity as the truth, and of regarding that which was not Christian as either untrue or superseded.

But, with the decline of traditional belief in the supernatural, it became necessary—for those who wanted to be both Christian and modernist—to resort to more terrestrial criteria to prove that Jesus was superior to his Rabbinic contemporaries. Thus, with Harnack, one endeavoured to show that Jesus’ ethical teachings were superior to those of the Pharisees and the Rabbis,[21] and, with Jülicher and Bultmann, one detected Jesus’ greater skill and originality in parabolic teaching.

It is not our intention to question the spiritual contributions made by Jesus, or to deny his individual originality—any more than we would think of questioning and denying the contributions and the originality of a Hillel, a Rabbi Akiba, or a Rabbi Ishmael. But that is just the point. There would seem to be no real need, in evaluating a religious genius, to downgrade indiscriminately all of his contemporaries. It need not be a case of “either/or.” It could be a matter of “both…and.” At any rate, it is the latter attitude which we shall seek to pursue.

Something that Eta Linnemann stressed may serve as the point of departure for our undertaking:

For the original listeners to the parables of Jesus we cannot presuppose the belief that he is the Christ…. Jesus stood before these listeners as a carpenter from Nazareth, as a wandering Rabbi. Like many at that time who wandered up and down the land with their disciples, as a preacher of repentance, of whom some supposed that he was a prophet. No acknowledged proof of divine authority gave weight to what he said, so that men had to listen to it in advance as a word of revelation. For even his miracles were no sort of authorization. Jesus was not the only wonder worker of his time…, and miracles were not an unequivocal proof for his contemporaries that the power of God was at work in the wonder worker.[22]

In the circumstances, it is perhaps easier for a believing Jew than for a believing Christian to approach the New Testament parables in the frame of mind of the original audiences to which they were addressed. And, when a modern Jew does so, he is quite liable to react in just the way in which Ignaz Ziegler did:

Jesus was an Aggadist, as were, to a greater or lesser extent, all of his learned Pharisaic contemporaries. He did not have to learn the art of parable-making from anybody, for that art was being practised and cultivated in all of the alleys and in all of the synagogues.[23]

Yet all three Synoptic Gospels testify to the strong impression which Jesus made on his listeners: “For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”[24] The meaning of that verse is somewhat problematical. Joseph Klausner may be right when he sees the difference between the scribes and Jesus in the fact that the former made frequent references to the Scriptures in their parabolic teachings, while the latter did not, and that, while the Tannaim and their successors, the Amoraim, mainly practised Scripture exposition and only incidentally used parables, the reverse was the case with Jesus.[25] Also, it is not improbable that, in Jesus’ parabolic teaching, there was more of the force of the speaker’s own personality and the directness of his teaching than the audience was accustomed to hear from the average scribe, who tended to couch his message in the more conventional style of the schools.

But we cannot really be sure. And that, for two reasons. In the first place, Jesus may have been more of a Scripture exegete than the Gospels, in their present form, would allow him to have been. If Joachim Jeremias is right in arguing for the authenticity of the context, in Luke l0, in which the parable of the Good Samaritan is found,[26] we would have an instance where Jesus used a parable for midrashic Scripture exegesis. Perhaps some of Jesus’ other parables, too, may originally have been part of his exposition of Bible passages—even though, for reasons of their own, the Evangelists may have seen fit to rearrange the material.

And that leads us to the second problem: the history of the transmission of ancient texts. If we read the parables of Jesus side by side with the parables preserved in the early Rabbinic texts, we shall have to agree with Israel Abrahams, who said: “Not only were the New Testament parables elaborated by the Evangelists far more than the Talmudic were by the Rabbis, but the former have been rendered with inimitable skill and felicity, while the latter have received no such accession of charm.”[27]

To illustrate, let us take a parable of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai (who died circa 80 C.E.), as preserved in the Tannaitic Tosephta. Yohanan was commenting on the fact that the first set of the tablets of the Law is described, in Exodus 32:16, as being “the work of God,” whereas Moses had to furnish his own raw material for the second set.

To what is the matter like? To a human king who married a woman. He brought the scribe, and the ink, and the pen, and the document, and the witnesses. When she disgraced herself, she had to bring everything. It was sufficient for her that the king would give her his own recognizable signature.[28]

So far the Tosephta. In a much later Rabbinic work, the Midrash Debharim Rabba, which, in its present form, probably dates from the tenth century, we find the following version of the same parable:

They asked Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai: “Why was the first set of tablets the work of God, and the second set the work of man?”

He said to them: To what is this matter like? To a king who took a wife. He brought the scribe, and his own paper (sc. for the marriage contract), and his own (wedding) diadem. And he brought her into his house. The king (then) saw her sporting with one of his slaves. The king was angry with her, and he threw her out. Her agent (thereupon) came to him, and said to him: “My lord, do you not know whence you have taken her? Was it not from among the slaves? And, since she grew up among the slaves, her heart is still bold with them, and she is learning from them.”

The king said to him: “What do you want? That I become reconciled with her? You bring your own paper and scribe; and, behold, here is my signature!”

Thus did Moses say to the Holy One, praised be He, when Israel did that deed (i.e., the making of the golden calf). He said to Him: “Do you not know whence you have taken them? Did you not bring them forth out of Egypt, a place of idolatry?”

The Holy One, praised be He, said to him: “What do you want? That I become reconciled with them? (Then) bring your own tablets; and, behold, here is My signature!”[29]

Now, there can be very little doubt that the original first-century Rabbi Yohanan said considerably less than is here put into his mouth. But, by the same token, it stands to reason that he also must have said more than the bare sketch preserved in the Tosephta. Indeed, it is doubtful whether we could be able at all to interpret the laconic passage in the Tosephta were it not for the more elaborate versions contained in the later Rabbinic literature. As for Rabbi Yohanan’s ipsissima verba, I am afraid that we may never know them.

David Halivni has pointed out that the transmission of materials by the masters of the Rabbinic tradition was not simply a mechanical process, but one in which the thoughts of the transmitters and their relation to the material became part of the transmitted material itself.[30]

Of course, a far shorter period of time elapsed between Jesus’ utterance of the parables and their being edited by the Evangelists than was the case with Rabbi Yohanan’s parable and later Rabbinic literature. Thus, in the case of the parables of Jesus, there was less time for the material to “grow.” Nevertheless, far more skilled editorial work went into the making of the Gospels than into the editing of Rabbinic sources. As Jacob Neusner has aptly remarked, “to no individual in the history of Tannaitic and Amoraic Judaism was half so much attention ever devoted as was given to Jesus.”[31]

This, incidentally, underlines the precariousness of the task, often too lightly undertaken, of comparing the parabolic utterances of the Jesus of the Gospels with those of the early Rabbis—on the basis of purely aesthetic criteria alone.

While there was less time for the parables of Jesus to “grow” than there was for the Rabbinic parables, accretions there nevertheless were. This is obvious from the variations occurring within the parallels of the Synoptic Gospels themselves. It is also taken for granted in modern New Testament scholarship—as when there is a recognition of the fact that parables, originally addressed by Jesus to those who disagreed with him, were recast by the early Church in such a way that they could be read as teachings which Jesus addressed to his own disciples.[32]

And thus we return to our original question: What did Jesus say in his parables? What was it that made his listeners think of Jesus as “one having authority”?

The answer, it must be said, depends upon the kind of Jesus that you have in mind; for, in determining what Jesus did or did not say, various scholars are guided by their overall impression of the role which Jesus actually played. Occasionally, those scholarly views tend to cancel each other out. Rudolf Bultmann, for example, pictures a Jesus whose teachings were different both from the Judaism of his own time and from the Christianity of later generations. Consequently, Bultmann will accept as genuine parables of Jesus only those “where, on the one hand, expression is given to the contrast between Jewish morality and piety and the distinctive eschatological temper which characterized the preaching of Jesus; and where, on the other hand, we find no specifically Christian features.”[33]

By way of contrast, Leo Baeck, while also ruling out of consideration any material which reflects the tendencies and purposes of the generations which came after the first generation of disciples, will accept as genuine words and deeds of Jesus only those which exemplify “the way of life and the social structure, the climate of thought and feeling, the way of speaking and the style of Jesus’ own environment and time.”[34]

Thus, while Bultmann and Baeck agree in ruling out of consideration any material which reflects the views of the later Church rather than those of Jesus, they disagree precisely on what it was that Jesus himself taught. For Bultmann, the yardstick is the contrast to contemporary Jewish piety; for Baeck, it is the agreement.

Further complications arise from the kind of simplistic and fallacious reasoning in which a number of scholars tend to indulge. Schematically, we can represent it as follows:

  • Jesus was crucified.
  • Jesus taught in parables.
  • Ergo : Jesus’ parables led to his crucifixion.

This point of view is, of course, never put quite as simply, although some scholars come perilously close to doing so. Witness Charles W. F. Smith:

Jesus used parables and Jesus was put to death. The two facts are related and it is necessary to understand the connection…[35]

The parables were not simply vehicles of teaching. They were instruments forged for warfare and the means by which his strategy was vindicated—until no further words could serve, but only an act. The parables are the precipitate of a campaign, the final step of which was his surrender to the cross.[36]

Joachim Jeremias, too, thinks that the parables “were predominantly concerned with a situation of conflict,” and he, too, calls them “weapons of warfare.”[37] In the same vein, Dan Otto Via, Jr., states:

Jesus’ behaviour, which challenged the Jewish world of fixed religious values, precipitated a conflict that resulted in his death. Inasmuch as his parables are interpretations of his behaviour, they are a part of the provocation of his conflict; hence he risked his life through his word.[38]

Needless to say, the underlying assumption of this view, however formulated, is that the message which Jesus preached was religiously so offensive to his Pharisaic contemporaries that, to silence him once and for all, he had to be put to death. But it is really nothing more than an assumption. Suppose, for example, that one began with a different assumption—with the assumption that Jesus’ crucifixion by the Romans was a political execution which had nothing whatsoever to do with the religious message of his parables. And that is not even an assumption. It is a fact; for, as S. G. F. Brandon has demonstrated very clearly:

Ironic though it be, the most certain thing known about Jesus of Nazareth is that he was crucified by the Romans as a rebel against their government in Judaea.[39]

Or suppose that one accepts the conclusion of Haim H. Cohn, the Israeli Supreme Court Justice, who argues that, so far from being responsible for Jesus’ death, the Sanhedrin actually tried—unsuccessfully, as it turned out—to save Jesus from the hands of the Roman authorities.[40] What would happen to that whole syllogistic structure which leads from the crucifixion to the contents of the parables? It would certainly be unable to withstand the onslaught; and a new interpretation of the parables would have to come into being.

Yet even without such an onslaught, carried out with the weapons of more recent scholarship, the syllogistic structure—apart from its logical fallacy—is doomed to fall on account of its inherent weakness. For it was built on an inadequate knowledge of the very nature of Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism.

Did Jesus come into conflict with assorted scribes and Pharisees? No doubt, he did! But so did the Pharisees among themselves—all of the time. Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism is an argumentative kind of religion. There is hardly a single item of either Halakhah or Aggadah in the entire range of Rabbinic literature which is not contested by one Rabbi or another. That kind of conflict is the very life-blood of Rabbinic Judaism. What is more, even in those cases where a decision was reached by majority vote, the dissenting opinion continued to be transmitted as part of the tradition. The Talmud is a record of discussions, not a law code. That was the situation in matters of Halakhah. When it came to Aggadah, to matters theological, with one or two rare exceptions, no vote was ever taken; and different—often contradictory—views were taught side by side. They had to be, for the Aggadah was dialectical. As Emil L. Fackenheim describes it:

Divine power transcends all things human—yet divine Love becomes involved with things human, and man, made a partner of God, can “as it were” augment or diminish divine power. Israel’s election is a divinely imposed fate—and a free human choice. Man must wait for redemption as though all depended on God—and work for it as though all depended on man. The Messiah will come when all men are just—or all wicked. These affirmations must be held together unless thought is to lose either divine infinity or finite humanity, or the relation between them. Yet they cannot be held together except in stories, parables, and metaphors.[41]

Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism was anything but a rigid and monolithic structure. The fact that Rabbi X came into conflict with Rabbi Y certainly did not mean that henceforth Rabbi Y would be after Rabbi X’s blood. They might even submit to a Heavenly Voice proclaiming: “Both of them are the words of the Living God!” as did the constantly feuding schools of Hillel and Shammai.[42]

It is, therefore, with utter amazement that someone schooled in the Rabbinic tradition comes across Eta Linnemann’s final comment on the parable of The Labourers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). After explaining that Jesus was teaching about the unconditional goodness of God, and was thereby attacking the merit system of Pharisaic Judaism, she concludes by saying:

But those who remain closed to his word must raise the demand: “Crucify him, this man blasphemes God.”[43]

Must they really? It is true enough that many Pharisees and Rabbis did subscribe to Ben He He’s maxim, “According to the labour is the reward.”[44]  It is furthermore true that the alleged Rabbinic parallel to the parable of The Labourers in the Vineyard differs in one crucial respect from the parable told by Jesus. In the latter, the labourers hired in the eleventh hour receive a full day’s wages even though they have only worked for one hour. In the former, the man who received a full day’s wages for two hours’ work is said to have actually earned them, because, during those two hours, he accomplished more than the rest of the labourers had done all day long.[45]

But it is likewise true that Arthur Marmorstein was able to write a whole book of 199 pages about the Rabbinic doctrine of merits,[46] a book in which he traces the changing fate of that particular doctrine. It was a doctrine more firmly held in some generations than in others; one, moreover, which never lacked its opponents among the ranks of the Rabbis. Yet we never find that those who challenged the doctrine were threatened by their opponents with crucifixion.

Nor, to the best of our knowledge, was that threat uttered against Rabbi Yudan bar Hanan, when he taught in the name of R. Berekhiah:

The Holy One, praised be He, said to Israel: “My children, if you see that the merit of the patriarchs is giving way, and that the merit of the matriarchs is declining, go and cleave unto steadfast love (hesed); as it is said [Isa. 54:10], ‘For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed.’ ‘The mountains may depart’—that refers to the merit of the patriarchs; ‘and the hills be removed’—that refers to the merit of the matriarchs. From now on it is a case of ‘but My steadfast love shall not depart from you, and My covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord Who has compassion on you.’”[47]

For that matter, there is no record of the crucifixion of the Rabbi who taught the following Aggadah:

“And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious.” [Exod. 33:19].

At that time the Holy One, praised be He, showed him (Moses) all the treasuries of the reward prepared for the righteous.

He (Moses) said to Him: “Sovereign of the Universe, to whom does this treasury belong?”

He (God) said to him: “It belongs to those who act righteously.”

“And whose is that?”

“It belongs to those who support orphans.”

And similarly in the case of every single treasury—until he saw a particularly large treasury.

He [Moses] said to Him: “Whose is this?”

He [God] said to him: “To him who has (sc. merit), I give of his own. But to him who has none, I give (sc. out of this treasury) for nothing (hinnam = lit. gratis, derived from hen = grace); as it is said: ‘And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious.’”[48]

A sermon like that, addressed to a congregation reared in the more conventional doctrine of “According to the labour is the reward,” would attract attention and stimulate thought. Indeed, it might even cause some astonishment at the preacher and marvel at his self-assured “authority.” But the question of “blasphemy” would not occur to anyone. Why, then, should we assume that Jesus’ audience reacted any differently to the parable of The Labourers in the Vineyard?

Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard from an 11th century Byzantine Gospel text.
Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard from an 11th century Byzantine Gospel text.

Still, once one has made up one’s mind that everything Jesus taught in his parables must have been offensive to his Pharisaic contemporaries, one tries to find “offence” everywhere.

A case in point is Linnemann’s treatment of the parable of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). The fact that the father showed greater affection for, or made more fuss over, the returning prodigal than in respect of the conventionally obedient elder brother means—to her—that Jesus turned “the world upside down,” and she is careful to underline the fact that a man who would thus turn the world upside down must also be ready “to suffer it that people will ‘put him out of the world’ for the sake of the order of the world.”[49]

It would take us too far afield to cite all the numerous passages from the Aggadah which deal with the doctrine of repentance, and which seem to suggest that anyone who did not accept the message of the parable of The Prodigal Son would not have been within the mainstream of Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism. Suffice it to draw attention to a significant literary curiosity.

The Talmud contains the following statement:

Rabbi Abbahu said: The place occupied by repentant sinners cannot be attained even by the completely righteous; as it is said (Isa. 57:19): “Peace, peace, to him that is far off, and to him that is near.” What is the meaning of “far off”? It means someone originally far off (i.e., the sinner who is far from God). And what is the meaning of “near”? It means one who was originally (and still is) near (to God).[50]

This passage is quoted by an eighth-century scholar, Rabbi Aha Gaon—with one significant change. After the statement that the repentant sinners are superior to the completely righteous, Rabbi Aha inserts the following words:

What are repentant sinners like? (The matter can be compared) to a king who had two sons; one walked in the way of goodness, and one became depraved.[51]

Louis Ginzberg, who edited this manuscript, surmises that Rabbi Aha must have had those words in his text of the Talmud, even though later editions of the Talmud no longer contain them. Ginzberg also asserts that they are “the short, original form of the New Testament parable of the prodigal son.”[52]

Israel Abrahams, commenting on this text, finds that Rabbi Aha’s reading of the talmudic passage “looks like a reminiscence of Luke’s Parable,” and goes on to say that “it may have been removed from the Talmud text by scribes more cognizant than Abbahu was of the source of the story.”[53]

We are not interested at the moment in the question of priorities, i.e., did the Aggadah borrow it from Jesus, or did Jesus utilize aggadic material? Nor are we concerned with the question of who removed the words from the text of the Talmud. It is a rather unlikely hypothesis to think of scribes “more cognizant than Abbahu was of the source of the story.” For Rabbi Abbahu, who knew Greek, was famous as a controversialist with Christians.[54]

What is of great importance to us, however, is the simple fact that the parable of The Prodigal Son fitted in so easily and naturally with the Rabbinic scheme of things that it could be used by the Rabbis themselves to illustrate a Rabbinic statement on the subject of repentant sinners. That would hardly have been the case had that parable been meant to “turn the world upside down”—if, by “world,” we mean the world of Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism!

As a final illustration, we may be permitted to refer to The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In the attempt to play Jesus off against his Jewish contemporaries, this parable plays a very significant role. Robert W. Funk summarizes it as follows:

The scribes and Pharisees sought to relate (the law) to everyday existence in countless ways, but it grew less relevant with each step…Jesus attempted nothing less than to shatter the whole tradition that had obscured the law.[55]

While we do not subscribe to Funk’s evaluation of the Rabbinic interpretation of the law, we shall grant him his point for argument’s sake, and confine ourselves to an examination of how, if at all, Jesus’ telling of the parable of The Good Samaritan was an attempt “to shatter the whole tradition that had obscured the law.”

To begin with, we hold, with Jeremias,[56] that there is no reason to detach the parable from its present context.[57] The difficulty, noted by a number of scholars, that the lawyer asks, “Whom must I treat as a neighbour?” while Jesus’ parable answers the question, “Who acted as a neighbour?” is only an apparent difficulty. As Jeremias points out, neither Jesus nor the lawyer is seeking a definition of “neighbour,” but, rather, the extent of the conception of “neighbour.” “The only difference between them is that the scribe is looking at the matter from a theoretical point of view, while Jesus illuminates the question with a practical example.”[58]

It is obvious that Jesus is intent upon giving the conception of “neighbour” its widest possible extent, and upon broadening the lawyer’s horizon. Therefore, the man in the parable, who exemplifies the love of neighbour, is not a representative of the clergy, a priest or a Levite. He is not even a fellow Jew, but a Samaritan. And the fact that a Samaritan is given the role of the merciful neighbour was, according to Linnemann, “surprising and offensive to Jesus’ hearers.”[59] According to Robert W. Funk, Jesus’ question at the end, “Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbour?” is “a question on which the Jew chokes.”[60]

That Jesus meant to “surprise” with this parable is quite likely. It is certainly surprising to be told that your own religious teachings are better put into practice by an outsider than by your own religious leadership. The Rabbis, too, occasionally liked to hold up the behaviour of non-Jews as examples to be followed by Jews.

Rabbi Akiba said: For three things I love the Medes. When they cut meat, they cut it only on the table; when they kiss, they only kiss the hand; and when they hold counsel, they do so only in the field…

Rabban Gamaliel said: For three things I love the Persians. They are modest in their eating habits, modest in the bathroom, and modest in their sexual relations.[61]

But the Rabbis’ use of this teaching device went beyond an admiration of the non-Jews’ good manners and etiquette. They did not shrink from using it in expounding one of the Ten Commandments! In a question, strikingly similar to the lawyer’s question in Luke 10, the disciples asked Rabbi Eliezer: “How far does the honour due father and mother extend?” And the Rabbi answered:

Go forth and see what a certain heathen, Dama ben Nethina, did in Ashkelon!

We are then informed that Dama ben Nethina was head of the city council in Ashkelon. He once refused to disturb his father’s sleep, when, by doing so, he could have made a great profit. He would never sit down on the stone on which his father sat; and, after his father’s death, Dama turned this stone into an object of worship. (A curious point for a Rabbi to single out by way of praise!) And he treated his mother with the utmost deference even when, on one occasion, she insulted him in the presence of the entire city council.[62]

Judging by the record, in both the Palestinian and the Babylonian Talmud, no offence was taken at this illustration. Now, if invoking the heathen of Ashkelon in an exposition of Exodus 20:12 caused no offence in the case of Rabbi Eliezer, it is difficult to see why invoking the Samaritan in an exposition of Leviticus 19:18 should have been so particularly offensive in the case of Jesus.

Admittedly, the relations between Jews and Samaritans were not particularly friendly. But why should the Samaritan not be thought capable of acting the good neighbour? After all, within a strictly legalistic context, Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel once stated:

Whatever commandment the Samaritans have adopted, they are very strict in the observance thereof—stricter than the Jews.[63]

At the time of Jesus, the Halakhah treated the Samaritans in some respects as Jews, and in other respects as Gentiles. It was not until the third century C.E., long after the time of Jesus, that the decision was reached not to regard the Samaritans as Jews.[64]

We are, therefore, no more able to see the “offence” in the parable of The Good Samaritan than we have been able to see it in The Labourers in the Vineyard or in The Prodigal Son. What we are able to see is a Jesus who impresses by his directness of approach, his skill in the use of the parable, and his ability to draw his listeners into the problematik of his presentation. But he does all that within the ambience of the Pharisaic-Rabbinic world of thought and within the broad limits of the realm of Aggadah. The fact that Jesus and the Rabbis spoke the same language and shared the same world of thought must not, however, be taken to imply that a Jesus, or a Hillel, or a Rabbi Akiba did not each have his own very specific emphases. Nor does it mean that either Jesus or the Rabbis were primarily concerned with religious commonplaces or moral generalities. The very concreteness of their language made that impossible. But it is also the very concreteness of their language—the use of parables instead of dogmatic formulations, of folklore motifs in place of theological constructs—which prevents the philosophical dissipation of their central affirmations. Therein lies the abiding theological significance of the parables of Jesus and the Aggadah of the Rabbis—and perhaps not least for an age like ours, when the religious heritage of Jerusalem and the philosophical heritage of Athens almost seem to have reached the end of their common journey through the history of human thought.


David Flusser’s Response

Petuchowski’s article is an important step in the progress of scholarship. Even the best recent books dealing with the parables have neglected the fact that Jesus’ parables are not as unique as they seem to be. They are part and parcel of rabbinic tradition. This simple truth has been forgotten because a German scholar, Jülicher, decided that there is practically no connection between Jesus’ and the rabbinic parables; Jülicher even thought that the other Jews were influenced by him.

Until now, dissident scholars have tried to find concrete sources for Jesus’ parables: they pick out this or that rabbinic parable to show that Jesus had known it and had transformed it in his own way. But the correct approach would be to use the method of the Russian formalists and study the form of the Jewish parable itself, its motifs and literary functions. Most motifs are common to the parables of the rabbis and of Jesus. Two themes are dominant: workers (or slaves), their labour and compensation, and the banquet and the invited guests, but even the image of the net appears in a parable of Jesus and a saying of Rabbi Akiba. A master of this kind of oral literature can, with the help of these motifs, describe an interesting, often paradoxical, situation, which, at the same time, evokes a realistic impression. Occasionally, the situation is so striking that others like to use the new creation, but even so, strictly speaking, they do not repeat a specific parable, but rather change its components, combining them with other popular themes. This happened, for instance, in Jesus’ famous parable of the Sower. The archetype, so to say, appears in Mishna Avoth (Ethics of the Fathers) 5:15: “There are four types of students: Quick to learn and quick to forget…slow to learn and slow to forget…quick to learn and slow to forget and slow to learn and quick to forget…” Jesus worked out this scheme in an “impressionistic” way and applied it to four kinds of soil. That types of disciples, or spiritual rabbis, were compared with various objects is also known from rabbinic literature, take again Mishna Avoth 5:18. Let me cite an example of a rabbinic parable: “This world resembles a householder who hired workers and inspected them to see who really worked…both for those who really worked and for those who did not really work, all was prepared for a banquet” (Seder Eliahu Rabba, ed. Isch Schalom, p. 5). Here, the theme of workers and their work and the banquet motif are dovetailed. Even the paradox of this parable resembles the way of Jesus: both the good and the bad workers are invited to the banquet. The parable is used in an eschatological sense, for the banquet motif is very apt for that purpose: the Gentiles will not partake of the banquet but be condemned to Gehenna, because they speak against the Children of Israel. But the simile itself could also be used for many other purposes and here it is not very well adapted to its aim.

A good parabolist, evidently, had not only to produce tension within the simile itself, but also to forge a dialectical link between the simile and its application. When one does not clarify one’s parable, the simile only offers hints of the object of the teaching, and even then not unequivocally. A parable may explain the meaning of human life, the eschatological expectation, the proper and false behaviour of Man towards God, the study of Torah, Israel’s election. It may even be used, as in later rabbinic literature, to elucidate biblical narratives or individual verses.

The parable itself, then, unilluminated, is really difficult to understand, and there may often be more than one possible meaning. Jesus was right to stress the point that a parable is harder of comprehension than a plain teaching. The study of his parables in connection with rabbinic ones will surely throw light on the development of this genre in rabbinic literature and its typology.

Robert L. Lindsey’s Response

Dr. Petuchowski has very correctly assessed the liberal-Christian point of view of many scholars as one leading to serious distortion of the insistent Jewishness of the New Testament. He is unquestionably right in attacking the shallowness with which many Christians approach and reproach the Pharisaic-rabbinic tradition.

It is of the greatest importance that the approach to the New Testament include a careful and critical understanding of the characteristics of each of the Gospels and their inter-relationship. Although the priority of the Gospel of Mark has long been taken for granted, the consensus of much of the scholarship today is that we cannot view this “assured result of criticism” as self-evident. It is certain that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke preserve materials more historically authentic and deriving from earlier sources than the text we have of Mark. This means not only that Mark is full of readings which are secondary but that we often have, at least in Luke, a far less redacted story.

Luke’s story does not implicate the Pharisees in the arrest of Jesus. The blame is placed on the “high priests,” namely, the ruling Sadducean family which largely controlled the affairs of the Temple and of whom the Essenes complained so bitterly. Luke even has a report that some of the Pharisees warned Jesus against Herod Antipas and, in his book of Acts of the Apostles, he makes it clear that many of the first Jewish Christians were Pharisees in background. It is surely significant that he never suggests that the Sadducees joined the Jesus movement.

Thus, the tendency to chastise the “scribes and Pharisees”—a phrase very frequent in Mark and even more so in Matthew—is almost surely due to Mark’s editorial policy to stereotype and dramatize; in this instance, as even Rudolf Bultmann noted, Mark and Matthew show the ever-growing trend of “the tradition” to involve the Pharisees in the fate of Jesus. Since there are other and serious reasons for accepting Luke’s story as the earliest and, in general, the most exact, we have a further illustration of his preservation of good texts—here, of a picture of the Pharisees which seems to accord with the best that we can learn of the Jewish movements of the first century.

As for the propensity of Christian scholars to see in Jesus’ use of parables a teaching method which led more or less automatically to opposition from the organized movements of the period, one is reminded how Jesus himself argued against those who accused him of casting out demons with the help of the Prince of demons. “If I cast out demons by the aid of the Prince of the demons,” said he, “by whose aid do your sons cast out demons?” If Jesus automatically aroused violent antagonism by using the parabolic method, would not the rabbis have provoked it by their own use of simile and allegory? We must look for other causes than this happy aggadism for the fateful conflict over Jesus.

There is a strong possibility that the famous passage in Mark (4:10-12) about Jesus’ purpose in using parables is more original than it seems. Many have supposed that Mark is suggesting that Jesus deliberately used parables to hide his message. Scholars claim that Jesus could have said nothing of the kind, for, obviously, the whole purpose of the stories that he tells is to make a point; the conjecture is that Mark changed Jesus’ words for his own “theological” reasons.

The puzzle of the passage, which Petuchowski labels a crux interpretum for modern scholars, is the use of the strong Greek word translated “so that.” Luke’s parallel, which—I argue—is earlier, and closer to the original Hebrew undertext, quotes Jesus as saying to his disciples: “To you it is given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of God. To the rest (the message comes) in parables so that seeing they shall not see and hearing they shall not understand” (Luke 8:10). When we translate this passage word for word into Hebrew from the Greek we get a good Hebrew text and we are immediately in the Jewish world of 30-40 C.E. “Secrets” is a Qumranic term, the Kingdom of God is the rabbinic malchut shamayim. Thus, as in other Gospel contexts, Jesus is shown as picking up Qumranic and rabbinic terms and combining them; we need not suppose that this passage is the invention of non-Jewish circles.

More importantly, the expression “seeing they shall not see and hearing they shall not hear” is a plain hint of Isaiah 6:9-10, in which the prophet is bidden to tell the people:

Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn, and be healed.

These verses, like so much of Isaiah, were on the lips of all Jews in the time of Jesus. He had only to hint at the special, classical Hebraism “seeing to see” and “hearing to hear” for all to recognize the kind of people whom he was describing. They knew Isaiah had spoken to his generation in supreme irony, much as a mother might to a rebellious child. Her hope—and the hope of Isaiah under God—is to shock the rebel into a right perception of his erroneous ways.

There are, then, excellent reasons for surmising that this saying is one of the ipsissima verba of Jesus and that the “so that” is a vital part of the hint of Isaiah. One might paraphrase the words of Jesus: “You are my disciples and have willingly followed me, so you understand what I am talking about. These other people have to be told as Isaiah told the people of his day, line upon line, precept upon precept. By using parables, I am trying to cure them of their spiritual blindness.” Everything that we know of Jesus fits this interpretation—he taught in Hebrew, made wordplays on the Hebrew Scriptures as did the Essenes and the rabbis, and had a prophetic concern for his own people. Our New Testament problems, as Petuchowski has so well said, are mostly due to the ignorance of Jewish thought and expression in the first century—and, let me add, a failure to recognize Greek texts which have descended from literal translations of written Hebrew sources.

  • [1] Reprinted from Christian News from Israel 23.2 (10) (1972): 76-86. Used with permission. Christian News from Israel was a publication of the Government of Israel’s Ministry of Religious Affairs. Many outstanding articles were published in this journal during the approximately thirty years of its existence, beginning in 1950. However, unfortunately, it is next to impossible to find copies of this now-defunct journal—even large libraries seldom possess it. Jerusalem Perspective reprints this article with the permission of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, thus resurrecting Petuchowski’s fine work. At the time the article was written, Petuchowski was Professor of Rabbinics and Jewish Theology at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a visiting Professor in the Department of Jewish Philosophy at Tel Aviv University. We have preserved the spelling of the original Christian New from Israel article, which was according to British usage. Flusser and Lindsey’s responses appeared in the following issue: Christian News from Israel 23.3 (11) (1973): 147-50.
  • [2] In The Interpreter’s Bible (ed. George Arthur Buttrick, et al.; Vol. VII; New York and Nashville, 1951), 699ff. But cf. T. W. Manson, The Teaching of Jesus (2nd ed.; Cambridge, 1935), 57-81.
  • [3] See Adolf Jülicher, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu (offset of 1910 edition; Darmstadt, 1969), 1:25-118, for a survey of this kind of interpretation including Jülicher’s own. For a more recent attempt to classify the various types of parable, see Eta Linnemann, Jesus of the Parables (New York and Evanston, 1966), 3ff.
  • [4] Linnemann, Jesus of the Parables, 3ff.
  • [5] Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (New York, 1953), 20. See also Robert W. Funk, Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God (New York, Evanston and London, 1966), 126.
  • [6] C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (revised ed.; London, 1936), 15.
  • [7] Ignaz Ziegler, Die Königsgleichnisse des Midrasch be leuchtet durch die römische Kaiserzeit (Breslau, 1903), passim.
  • [8] Israel Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels (2 vols.; Cambridge, 1917-1924), 1:99.
  • [9] W. O. E. Oesterley, The Gospel Parables in the Light of their Jewish Background (London, 1936), 10ff.
  • [10] J. W. Doeve, Jewish Hermeneutics in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts (Assen, 1954), 54ff.
  • [11] Cf. W. Bacher, Die exegetische Terminologie der jüdischen Traditionsliteratur (Leipzig, 1905), 1:25-7, 103-5.
  • [12] See Bacher, Die exegetische Terminologie, 1:42ff.
  • [13] See Bacher, Die exegetische Terminologie, 1:30-37.
  • [14] Doeve, Jewish Hermeneutics, 56ff.
  • [15] SiphreEqebh, paragraph 49, ed. Finkelstein (Berlin, 1939), 115. The statement there is attributed to the doreshe haggadoth. A variant reading has doreshe reshumoth, probably a group of allegorists. See Jacob Z. Lauterbach, “The Ancient Jewish Allegorists in Talmud and Midrash,” Jewish Quarterly Review (New Series, Vol. 1 [1910/11]): 291-333, 503-31, and Isaak Heinemann, Altjüdische Allegoristik (Breslau, 1936), 66ff.
  • [16] See Paul Fiebig, Altjüdische Gleichnisse und die Gleichnisse Jesu (Tübingen and Leipzig, 1904): Die Gleichnisreden Jesu im Lichte der Rabbinischen Gleichnisse des neutestamentlichen Zeitalters(Tübingen, 1912); and Der Erzählungsstil der Evangelien (Leipzig, 1925).
  • [17] Fiebig, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu, 128ff.
  • [18] Gustaf Dalman, Jesus-Jeshua (London, 1929), 223.
  • [19] Oesterley, The Gospel Parables, 10ff.
  • [20] In R.G.G. (2nd ed.), 1241, as quoted by Theodor Guttmann, Hamashal Bithequphath Hatannaim (2nd ed.; Jerusalem, 1949), 71. Guttmann attempts to rebut Bultmann’s charge by saying that Bultmann’s distinction might possibly be correct in the case of some of the post-Tannaitic parables, but that it does not hold in the case of the Tannaitic parables, i.e., those of the period closest to the New Testament.
  • [21] Cf. Adolf Harnack, What Is Christianity? (New York, 1957), passim.
  • [22] Linnemann, Jesus of the Parables, 35.
  • [23] Ignaz Ziegler, Die Königsgleichnisse des Midrasch, xxii. Jülicher, too, was aware of the aggadic nature of Jesus’ discourse, but he could not get himself to admit that Jesus shared that much with the Rabbis. That is why Jülicher makes a pathetic attempt to divorce the aggadic realm from the purview of Rabbinic concern. “The Rabbi, as such, has one method of teaching only—the Halachah. The scribe is already bound by his very name to forgo originality. He is to be but a channel for the wisdom streaming forth from every word of the Scriptures. The Haggadah, that independent melting down of Scriptural bullion in the fire of imagination and soul, it is not the product of the Rabbinic, but of the Hebraic spirit… It is the voice of the people which can be heard in such pictures. The Haggadah together with its flowers, the parables, grew up in the home—to be sure, in the Hebrew home with its intimate, happy and pure family life. The Rabbi and his Halakhah is (sic) an outgrowth of the school. That is why the Jewish Rabbi, as a Rabbi, had to despise the haggadic element. But, as a human being, as a son of his people, he was nevertheless unable ever to get away from it altogether. Jesus did not want to get away from it. God had saved him from the school” (Jülicher, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu, 1:172ff.). It did not seem to have dawned on Jülicher that such Haggadah as is available to us has come down to us for no other reason than that the Rabbis, in their schools(!), have preserved it. He seems also completely unaware of the fact that, in Rabbinic Judaism, it was usually one and the same person (e.g., Hillel, R. Yohanan ben Zakkai) who was both a master of the Halakhah and a master of the Aggadah. There is, of course, no denying that the Aggadah represented the more popular element in Rabbinic teaching. But, in reading the literature, one hardly gets the impression that the Rabbis, as Rabbis, had to “despise” that element, or that they yielded to it only with the utmost reluctance. On the contrary, as Max Kadushin points out (The Rabbinic Mind [2nd ed.; New York, Toronto, London, 1965], 87): “Characteristic of the Rabbis’ relation to the folk, of the identity of their interests with those of the folk, is the Rabbis’ own attitude toward Haggadah. They did not view it as something fit only for the masses, but to which they themselves were superior; on the contrary, they felt themselves deeply in need of Haggadah, regarding it as one of the great divisions of Torah, and the study of which was incumbent upon them…. Younger scholars were stimulated toward becoming skillful in Haggadah as well as in Halakhah.” And see Isaak Heinemann, Darkhe Ha-Aggadah (2nd ed.; Jerusalem, 5714), 16. Yet there are indeed a few isolated passages in Rabbinic literature which disparage the Aggadah. Leo Baeck has examined those passages in great detail, finding it possible to relate them to very specific circumstances, viz., the usage of aggadic hermeneutics by Christians of the second century, in the allegorical and christological interpretation of the Hebrew Bible (Leo Baeck, Aus drei Jahrtausenden [2nd ed.; Tübingen, 1958], 176-85.)
  • [24] Mark 1:22; Matthew 7:29; Luke 4:32.
  • [25] Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth (New York, 1946), 264ff.
  • [26] Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 205.
  • [27] Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels, 1:96. See also A. Marmorstein’s observation that the sermons, contained in the Aggadah, are so brief and laconic that it is not always possible for us to reconstruct the entire sermon on the basis of the mere sketch which has been preserved (Arthur Marmorstein, Talmud und Neues Testament [Vinkovci, 1908], 47.)
  • [28] Tosephta Baba Kamma 7:4, ed. Zuckermandel, 357ff.
  • [29] Midrash Debharim RabbaEqebh, section 17, ed. Lieberman (Jerusalem, 1964), 91. The parallels in TanhumaKi Tissa, chapter 30, and Yalqut Shime’oniKi Tissa, section 397, introduce yet a further motif, viz., the bride’s agent destroys the original marriage contract.
  • [30] David Halivni, Sources and Traditions (Tel Aviv, 1968), 15 (Hebrew).
  • [31] Jacob Neusner, Development of a Legend (Leiden, 1970), 2.
  • [32] Linnemann, Jesus of the Parables, 42ff.
  • [33] Rudolf Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (New York and Evanston, 1963), 205.
  • [34] Leo Baeck, Judaism and Christianity (Philadelphia 1958), 99ff.
  • [35] Charles W. F. Smith, The Jesus of the Parables (Philadelphia, 1948), 17.
  • [36] Smith, The Jesus of the Parables, 272ff.
  • [37] Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 21.
  • [38] Dan Otto Via, Jr., The Parables (Philadelphia, 1967), 192.
  • [39] S. G. F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots (New York, 1967), 1 and passim. And see his, “The Trial of Jesus,” in Judaism 20:1 (Winter 1971): 43-8.
  • [40] Haim H. Cohn, The Trial and Death of Jesus (Tel Aviv, 1968), passim (Hebrew).
  • [41] Emil L. Fackenheim, Quest for Past and Future (Bloomington and London, 1968), 16ff.
  • [42] B. Erubhin 13b; b. Gittin 6b.
  • [43] Linnemann, Jesus of the Parables, 88.
  • [44] Mishnah Abhoth 5:23.
  • [45] J. Berakhoth II, 8, Krotoshin ed., 5c; Canticles Rabba 6:2.
  • [46] Arthur Marmorstein, The Doctrine of Merits in Old Rabbinical Literature (London, 1920).
  • [47] J. Sanhedrin X, 1, Krotoshin ed., 27d.
  • [48] Midrash TanhumaKi Tissa, section 16, ed. Buber, 58b. Parallels which name different “good deeds” are found in Midrash TanhumaKi Tissa, section 28, and Exodus Rabba 45:6.
  • [49] Linnemann, Jesus of the Parables, 80ff.
  • [50] B. Sanhedrin 99a.
  • [51] Louis Ginzberg, Geonica (2nd ed.; New York, 1968), 2:376–7.
  • [52] Ginzberg, Geonica, 2:351.
  • [53] Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels, 1:92.
  • [54] S. Mendelson, “Abbahu,” in The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1:36-7.
  • [55] Funk, Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God, 221ff.
  • [56] Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 205.
  • [57] Cf. also Funk, Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God, 208ff. Funk summarizes the position of Birger Gerhardsson: “Since the rabbis were fond of the parable in the exposition of scripture, it is not surprising that the lawyer’s question, which had to do with an exegetical point (what is the meaning of re‘akha in the text?), evokes a parable as a midrash on the text.”
  • [58] Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 205.
  • [59] Linnemann, Jesus of the Parables, 53.
  • [60] Funk, Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God, 212ff.
  • [61] B. Berakhoth 8b.
  • [62] B. Kiddushin 31a; j. Pe’ah I, 1, Krotoshin ed., 15c; and cf. Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels, 2:36ff.
  • [63] B. Hullin 4a.
  • [64] See Maurice Simon, “Introduction” to Tractate Kuthim, in A. Cohen, ed., The Minor Tractates of the Talmud, Vol. II (London, 1965).

From Ezekiel 17:24 and 21:3 to Luke 23:31: A Survey of the Connecting Jewish Tradition

“For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?” (Luke 23:31; KJV) Passages such as this demonstrate the indispensability of situating the teachings of Jesus within the context of Second Temple Period history, culture, literature, and language.


Material from Ezekiel 17:24, and more often 21:3 (20:47 in the English Bible) has often been cited as the source of Jesus’ saying in Luke 23:31, “If they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?“ Other commentators have questioned this assumption. If the material was borrowed from Ezekiel, however, was it borrowed directly or was it sifted through hundreds of years of usage, only to find its way into the mouth of Jesus?

When addressing these questions, it becomes immediately apparent that despite the numerous interpretations offered, there has been no attempt to gather all the pertinent sources together. Nor has there been any attempt to offer anything resembling a comprehensive analysis of all the relevant material. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to amass all known possible parallels, and to discuss the impact of each on the understanding of the “green tree/dry tree” imagery from Ezekiel to Luke.

Hebrew Bible

The adjective לַח (lach) occurs less frequently in the Bible than it does in post-biblical Hebrew literature. Even-Shoshan and Brown/Driver/Briggs list only six entries for the term.[1] In Genesis 30:37, Jacob is said to have taken “fresh” (“newly picked”) shoots. Judges 16:7 and 8 records the lie of Samson, who says that “fresh bowstrings which have not been dried” לֹא חֹרָבוּ (lo choravu) would render him defenseless. A final occurrence of lach without its antonym יָבֵשׁ (yavesh) appears in Deuteronomy 34:7. Here, Moses’ strength (force, vitality) is described as undiminished despite his old age.

B/D/B add two additional references by way of emendation.[2] In concurrence with R. Kittel, they suggest that the עֵץ בְּלַחְמוֹ (etz b’lachmo) of Jeremiah 11:19 be read בְּלֵחְוֹ (b’lecho). This emendation would cause the verse to be rendered, “Let us destroy the tree while it is still alive,” as opposed to the present reading of the MT, “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit.” The context is judgment, and verse 19 could easily be interpreted messianically. For these reasons, this verse could have suggested itself to Jesus as biblical background for the cryptic saying found in Luke 23:31.

A second emendation suggested by B/D/B occurs in Zephaniah 1:17, where they read וְלֵחָם (v’lecham) in place of וּלְחֻמָם (ul’chumam) which the Masoretes tell us is a hapaxlegomenon. This reading also concurs with that of Kittel, who cites the LXX, the Peshitto, and the Vulgate in support of the emendation. Thus, the passage would be rendered, “Their strength [will be poured out] like dung,” as opposed to the MT reading, “Their flesh [will be poured out] like dung.”

In addition to these references, three instances are cited where the adjective lach (green/fresh/alive) appears in contrast to its antonym yavesh (dry/barren/dead). Because of the occurrence of this same merism in post-biblical Hebrew and indeed, in Luke 23:31, these passages will receive the most extensive treatment. This is not to say that the verses cited above have no bearing on the study. In reality, it could be easily concluded that each of the aforementioned instances contain an implied merismatic statement.

For example, Jacob preferred fresh, strong shoots that were full of vitality to dry, brittle shoots that had no power to transform. Moses is pictured as remaining healthy and vigorous, able to continue functioning as Israel’s leader were it not for the sentence of God upon his life, as opposed to becoming senile, sickly, and weak, and thus unable to provide effective leadership. In the case of Samson, the strong cords would give the desired effect, whereas the dried cords could not. Therefore, at the least, these texts support the conclusion that the lach (green, strong, effective, vital) contains a quality much preferred over its counterpart. For closer verbal parallels, however, the remaining three instances, where both terms occur, must be considered.

The first instance where such terminology appears is in the passage which delineates the special restrictions governing the behavior of the Nazirite. Numbers 6:3 states that the Nazirite is to eat no grapes, fresh or dried. Numbers 6:4 continues, “All the days of his separation he shall eat nothing that is produced by the grapevine, not even the seeds or the skins.” If verse 4 is any indication, the fresh/dry terminology is employed meristically with the intended meaning, “…grapes in any form whatsoever….”

With Genesis 30:37, Judges 16:7 and 8, and Deuteronomy 34:7, the problem is terminology. The merismus is simply not explicit; there is no exact verbal parallel with Luke 23:31. In the restrictions on the Nazirite, however, the problem is context. The adjectives here are entirely descriptive; there is no judgment made on the worth or desirability of the “green” over and above the “dry.” In addition, the context is legal, whereas the logion of Luke 23:31 is prophetic (apocalyptic, possibly even judgment). Nevertheless, the descriptive categories created by this verse are seized upon by later rabbinic authorities in the Mishnah, the Tosefta, and Sifra (see below).

The final two occurrences of the word lach in the Hebrew Bible are found in the book of Ezekiel. Only in Ezekiel does every element of the equation appear: it is used in tandem with its antonym yavesh, the usage makes clear that the “green” is decidedly preferred over the “dry,” and the context is overtly prophetic (including the specific elements of apocalypse and judgment).

The first passage occurs in Ezekiel 17. Here the prophet gives what is called in verse 2 a “riddle” (chidah) and a “parable” (mashal). What follows, according to commentators, is an allegorical account of the deposing and exile of Jehoiachin (the rightful king) and the coronation of Zedekiah (who, though of Davidic descent was not legally entitled to the throne). All this was done by the oppressing foreign power personified by King Nebuchadnezzar.[3]

It is not difficult to understand how someone like Jesus who had an affinity toward parabolic expression might have viewed the events chronicled in 2 Kings 24:10-25:18 as analogous to the recent events of his own life. He had been taken from his position of Davidic Shepherd by the oppressing power (Rome) in deference to an illegitimate Sadducean leadership which would eventually take the nation down the road of rebellion. The end result of both the ancient event and the scenario of Jesus’ day would be the same: destruction of the temple and destruction of the people. If Luke was writing after the destruction of 70 C.E. (which is by no means assured), he may have perceived this parallel even more clearly than Jesus did.

The resolution of the parable in Ezekiel 17 takes place in verses 22 through 24. There, God says that he himself will take charge of the situation and right the inequities. The symbolism of trees representing earthly rulers is maintained in this section as well. “And all the trees of the field [all the inhabitants of the earth] will know that I the Lord bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish” (Ezek. 17:24).

It is apparent that the result of God’s judgment here is less than an exact parallel to Luke 23:31. Here, the green tree is brought down in judgment, which might be construed as roughly parallel to the fate of the green tree in Luke. The dry tree, however, is exalted in Ezekiel’s context, whereas in Luke it seems to be judged even more harshly. Yet the terminology remains parallel, and the exaltation-humiliation theme is co-opted elsewhere in Luke, who reports Jesus as saying, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled [brought low], and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (14:11 and 18:14; this statement, in turn had already been formulated as early as Hillel, cf. b. Eruvin 13b; Leviticus Rabbah 1:5, etc.), probably on the basis of this and similar biblical texts.

It should be noted that the passage is judgmental-apocalyptic in context and that 17:22 could easily be interpreted messianically[4] (cf. Matthew 1:11, where Jesus is said to be a direct descendant of Jehoiachin himself). These elements, along with the fact that the material is parabolic, are all indicative of a passage to which a personality like Jesus would be strongly attracted.

A final passage to be discussed from the Hebrew Bible is Ezekiel 21:3 (English 20:47), “Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I will kindle a fire in you, and it will devour every green tree in you and every dry tree.” In all the passages discussed above, there were minor disjunctive elements that rendered them imperfect parallels to Luke 23:31. In Ezekiel 21:3, however, all the requisite elements are in place. The passage is at the same time prophetic judgment, apocalyptic, and parable (cf. vs. 5, m’mashel m’shalim). Because of the presence of these elements, this text appears to be the biblical locus classicus for Jesus’ logion.

As further evidence in support of this conclusion, the lach/yavesh terminology is here an explicit merism. That this is the intended meaning is evident from statements within the “parable” itself. The judgment will scorch “all faces” (vs. 3) and the sword will go out “against all flesh” (vs. 9b). Indeed, in verses 8 and 9a, Ezekiel seems to use a parallel merism that would render the meaning of the parabolic etz lach/etz yavesh perfectly intelligible. In both places the prophet states, “…and I will cut off from you righteous and wicked.” These statements directly follow Ezekiel’s complaint about the enigmatic nature of verses 1-4, “Ah, Lord God! they are saying of me, ‘Is he not a maker of allegories (m’mashel m’shalim)?’” In this position, the responses by God in verses 8 and 9a appear to function as the interpretation of the parable (cf. Isa. 5:7; Matt. 13:18; Genesis Rabbah 8:9; Leviticus Rabbah 4:6; and Pesikta d’Rav Kahana IV, beginning, as prominent examples of similar parable-interpretation structure). This is indeed the way much of Rabbinic Literature has understood this text (see below), and quite possibly the way Jesus understood it as well.

In Ezekiel 17:24 the disjunctive element was that the dry wood would not only escape the judgment to come, but would actually benefit from the process. This fact prevented its establishment as a bona fide parallel to Luke 23:31. Nevertheless, like numerous other passages, it could be considered to lend general background to Jesus’ logion.

Such a roadblock does not exist in Ezekiel 21:3. Here, the dry tree is included in the description of the coming catastrophic judgment. In addition, this text specifies the agent of judgment: fire. This does not mean that the fire must be interpreted literally, however, as it is only one of many symbols within the larger context of the parable. Indeed, fire often functions as an appropriate symbol for the wrath of God unleashed in the form of a military invasion. On the other hand, sufficient attention should be paid to the word-picture being painted in this text, and the dynamic relationships shared by its various symbols as they occur in the real world.

For example, brush fires, and even forest fires (cf. ya’ar in vs. 1, Jgs. 15:5, and Mal. 3:19) were probably as common in ancient Israel as they are today. People would have been all too familiar with the destructive force of a fire out of control. Sometimes a healthy, well-established tree could withstand the ravages of the flame, whereas the brown grass, dead trees, and prunings around it stood no chance of survival. This vivid picture, or some variation thereof, may have prompted the prophet specifically to include “all the green trees” in the coming destruction.

The effect of such a statement on the mind of the average listener may well have been something like the kal-VaCHomer reasoning of the later rabbis, “If this fire consumes even the greenest and healthiest of trees, naturally those of less admirable characteristics will be devoured all the more quickly.” To then translate this reasoning into the terms of God’s explanation/clarification given in verses 8 and 9a, we would read, “If I cut off the righteous, how much more harshly will I deal with the wicked!” This again is similar to the terminology expressed in several passages in Rabbinic Literature. In this context, E. Klostermann[5] draws attention to Proverbs 11:31, which is quite similar to the sense discussed above, “If the righteous is requited on earth, how much more the wicked and the sinner!” In this light, it is difficult to concur with the conclusions of exegetes like Lagrange and Leaney who protest the relevance of Ezekiel 21:3 to the interpretation of Luke 23:31![6]


Two texts from Hodayot, or the “Thanksgiving Scroll” have direct bearing on the development of the usage of Ezekiel’s imagery. For this reason an entire section is devoted to these passages since: 1) chronologically they stand somewhere between Ezekiel and Luke, 2) they are not a part of Rabbinic Literature proper, and 3) this evidence has not made it into the mainstream of scholarly discussion of Luke 23:31.

Following 11:27 and 28 which speak of the coming judgment משפט (mishpat), wrath אף (af), and anger חרון (charon), lines 29 and 30 echo the vocabulary found in Ezekiel:

The torrents of Belial [used variously as a name for Satan, religious opponents, and military oppressors such as the Seleucids, Hasmoneans, or Romans, depending on the date of the text] shall reach to all sides of the world. In all their channels a consuming fire shall destroy every tree, green and barren [dry].[7]

The remainder of the hymn enlarges upon this statement, describing the effect on the “foundations of the earth… the expanse of dry land… the bases of the mountains… the roots of the rocks” (line 31).

On the surface, it would appear that the Qumranic author, whether he was the “Teacher” or not,[8] was using the words of Ezekiel[9] in a literal manner to refer to vegetation rather than to people. Lines 33 and 34, however, describe the effects on mankind, “And all those upon it [the earth] will rave and will perish amid the great misfortune.” It should be remembered that the terminology of Ezekiel 21:3 is meristic[10] : although it uses the language of the plant world, it intends to be understood as referring to the entire world at large. The same is true with regard to the words of the Qumranic author, who employs the same parable-interpretation structure Ezekiel himself employed. Thus, both the biblical and the post-biblical author explain in their interpretations of their “parables” that the coming apocalypse[11] will leave no thing and no one untouched.[12]

Looking backward to Ezekiel and forward to Luke, this text shares the same terminology, prophetic context, and judgmental/apocalyptic outlook. If a less-than-literal interpretation of the phrase “torrents of Belial” is accepted, the Ezekielian, Qumranic, and Lukan texts share a third common element: historical context. In each of these texts, the oppression of the ruling power culminates in the all-inclusive destruction of the oppressed.

A second relevant passage occurs in column 16. Although fragmentary, the context again appears to be that of judgment. The words of the author are of divine origin and will be like rain for those who thirst for the truth, but will bring the destruction of fire upon those who do not receive them (lines 12-16; these same dynamics are, by the way, present in John the Baptist’s description of the acts of the Messiah in Matt. 3:11-12 and Luke 3:16-17).[13] Rather than the blessing of a steady rain, the waters are here transformed into a flood (line 18), which in turn takes on the destructive force of fire (line 20). In the midst of this description, the author states:

[(My instruction) shall be like the waters of the Flood to every tree], both the green and the barren [dry]; to every beast and bird [they shall be an abyss. The trees will sink like] lead in the mighty waters, fire [shall burn among them] and they shall be dried up (16:18-20).[14]

Although the text of this passage is defective and thus open to a variety of interpretations, it should be noted that the same basic elements occur here which were observed in 11:27-34.

Rabbinic Literature

In the past, rabbinic parallels have received more attention than the evidence from Qumran. Nevertheless, no source consulted contained all of the relevant material, even Strack and Billerbeck, whose critics often claim that they give too much material. For this reason, all known passages will be cited and discussed that might be relevant to the interpretation of the words of Luke 23:31. The reader can then determine which texts bring clarification to the issue and which do not.

In the earliest recorded strata of rabbinic materials that have been preserved, namely the Mishnah and the Tosefta, the couplet lach/yavesh enjoys a surprisingly large amount of usage[15] The problem in both corpora, however, is context. Given the primarily legal orientation of the Mishnah and the Tosefta, it is not surprising that the terminology is confined to legal categories. The words are employed for one of two reasons: 1) to categorize produce as being either dried or fresh for the purposes of sale (which would affect the weight) or separation of the tithe; and 2) to categorize things that can convey cleanness, uncleanness, and holiness. Unfortunately, none of the prophetic, metaphorical, and parabolic elements contained in the texts previously discussed are present.

In the next rabbinic stratum, Tanaitic Midrash, the usage is identical to that observed in the Mishnah and the Tosefta. All the citations in this category appear in Sifra, the halachic midrash on the book of Leviticus.[16]

The usage of the couplet as legal terminology is, in itself, an interesting development. The only other text that contains similar usage is Numbers 6:3. Even here, however, there are apparent differences. The biblical text is only concerned to outlaw grapes in any form. It exhibits no interest in the application of this differentiation to any other produce, nor is it interested in setting a precedent by which to determine whether various things convey cleanness, uncleanness, or holiness. All such expansions result from later rabbinic application of the terms lach and yavesh.

Despite these differences, however, the sheer amount of use these terms receive in halachic literature suggests that the lach/yavesh terminology had become quite common in Israel by the classical rabbinic period. In surveying the parallels which occur in Haggadic Midrash (which lies outside the influence of legal texts such as Num. 6:3), it will be seen that this is very much the case. With regard to the usage to which the evidence of Qumran bears witness, however, it remains likely that Ezekiel is to thank for the popularization of the terminology.

No exegesis on Ezekiel 21 has survived from the period of the Haggadic Midrashim. Ezekiel 17:24, however, is interpreted in a number of texts as referring to God’s miraculous healing of Sarah’s barrenness (Genesis Rabbah 53:1). Tanchuma VaYira adds that with the enlivening of Sarah (the dry/barren tree) comes the strickening of the wife of Abimelek (the green/fruitful tree). Buber’s text of the Tanchuma contains this interpretation along with others (VaYira 53a). The figure of judgment on the green tree and exaltation of the dry tree is also said to refer to Nebuchadnezzar and the three Hebrew children, to Belshazzar and Daniel, and to Pharoah and Abraham. Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer 52 generalizes by interpreting the phrase, “trees of the field,” to refer to the nations of the world who do not have a proper relationship to God. These will be dried up, whereas the faithful Sarah’s breasts will be made to flourish.

More germane to the present study is a group of passages from the Babylonian Talmud and Midrash which contain conceptual, contextual, and/or historical parallels, rather than exegesis of the related texts from the Hebrew Scriptures. The first appears in b. Moed Katan 25b:

Said R. Ashi to Bar-Kippok, What would you say on such a day [about me on the day of my death]? He responded thus:
If a flame among the Cedars fall
What avails the lichen on the wall?
If Leviathan by hook be hauled to land,
What hope have fishes of a shallow strand?
If fish in rushing stream by hook be caught
What death may in marshy ponds be wrought!

Said Bar Abin to him:

[God] forfend that I should talk of “hook” or “flame” in connection with the righteous. Then what would you say? I would say:
Weep ye for the mourners
Not for what is lost:
He found him rest;
‘Tis we [who] are left distressed.[17]

A second example of this kind of thought from the Babylonian Talmud may be seen in a passage from Sanhedrin 93a:

Because they have committed villainy in Israel and have committed adultery with neighbors’ wives, etc. What did they do? They went to Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter: Ahab said to her, “Thus saith God, ‘Give thyself unto Zedekiah,’” whilst Zedekiah said to her, “Thus saith God, ‘Surrender to Ahab.’” So she went and told her father, who said to her, “The God of these hates unchastity: when they [again] approach thee, send them to me.” So when they came to her, she referred them to him. “Who told this to you?” asked he of them. “The Holy One, blessed be He,” replied they. “But I have enquired of Hanniah, Mishael and Azariah, who informed me that it is forbidden.” They answered, “We too are prophets, just as he [sic]: to him [sic] He did not say it, but to us.” “Then I desire that ye be tested, just as Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah were,” he retorted. “But they are three and we are only two,” they protested. “Then choose whom ye wish to accompany you,” said he. “Joshua the High Priest,” they answered, thinking, “Let Joshua be brought, for his merit is great, that he may protect us.” So he was brought, and they were all thrown [into the furnace]. They were burned, but as to Joshua the High Priest, only his garments were singed, for it is said, And he shewed me Joshua the High Priest standing before the angel of the Lord; and it is written, And the Lord said unto Satan, the Lord rebuke thee, O Satan, etc.. [Thus] said he to him, “I know that thou art righteous, but why should the fire have affected thee even slightly; Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah were not affected at all.” “They were three,” said he, “but I am only one.” “But,” he remonstrated, “Abraham [too] was only one.” “No wicked were with him, so the fire was not empowered [to do any harm]; but here, I had wicked men with me, so the fire was enabled [to do its work],” he rejoined. Thus people say, “If there are two dry billets and one wet one, the former burn the latter.”

An incident recorded in Genesis Rabbah 65:22 is of at least equal importance to this study due to the presence of striking historical and conceptual parallels:

Jakum of Zeroroth[18] was the nephew of R. Jose b. Jo’ezer of Zeredah. Riding on a horse he went before the beam[19] on which he [R. Jose] was to be hanged,[20] and taunted him: “See the horse which my master has let me ride, and the horse upon which your master has made you ride.” “If it is so with those who anger Him how much more with those who do His will,” he replied. “Has then any man done His will more than thou?” he jeered. “If it is thus with those who do His will, how much more with those who anger Him,” he retorted.[21]

Another account of this incident is found in Midrash Tehillim (the midrash to the Psalms) 11:7. It is largely parallel to the passage above, but it is here quoted in full for the purpose of exposing the dissimilarities between the two accounts. There seems to be sufficient divergence between the two accounts to militate against interdependence. Instead, it is likely that both passages have their origin in a common oral tradition, which would at the same time account for the popularity of the pericope and for the minor differences between the two accounts.

The upright shall behold his face [Ps. 11:7]. The Sages say that during a time of religious persecution a decree was issued for the hanging of Jose ben Joezer. Jakum of Serorot, the nephew of Jose ben Joezer of Seredah, rode by on a horse, as Jose ben Joezer, bearing the beam for the gallows, was going forth to be hanged. Jakum said: “Look at the horse that my master gives me to ride, and look at the horse thy Master gives thee to ride.” Jose ben Joezer replied: “If so much is given to such as thee who provoke Him, how much more shall be given to those who obey His will!” Jakum asked: “Has any man been more obedient to the will of God than thou?” Jose ben Joezer replied: “If so much is done to those who are obedient to His will, how much more shall be done to those who provoke Him!”[22]

The victim of the story, Jose ben Joezer, had become something of a folk hero. He was among the founders and leaders of the Pharisaic movement, although he was a priest as well. He was a member of the Hasidim who was known for his personal piety (m. Hagigah 2:7; cf. 1 Macc. 7:12-16, which corroborates this persecution of the Hasidim by Jakum/Alcimus). Nevertheless, he was also venerated for his liberality, as witnessed by his nickname “Sharayah,” or “he who permits” (m. Eduyot 8:4; b. Pesachim 15a).[23]

Like most folk-heroes turned martyrs, his story has been preserved with pride and his words have been immortalized. Even if the account had become partly legendary, indeed, even if the proverbial words did not originate with the historical figure, eventually the legend would have taken on a reality all its own. The legend then acquired power to effect the actions and words of its hearers. In other words, the attitudes and words of the righteous martyr became paradigmatic for all of the faithful who follow after him. Further, when his words are repeated by another in a similar situation, the words would be understood by the hearers in light of the context of the original martyr.

Such would be the case with Jesus, the Pharisee, the pietist, the lenient, the one being unjustly led to crucifixion by another oppressor,[24] the one taunted by the High Priest. His purpose would be threefold: 1) to vindicate himself (i.e., although he had been condemned to death, his situation was exactly parallel to his model, the blameless Jose ben Joezer); 2) to show his death to be a part of a continuous historical tradition of “sanctification of the Name,” and thus a model for his disciples to follow; and 3) to reiterate Jose ben Joezer’s hortatory message of repentance (note that in the two accounts cited above, the result was the same: in the ultimate act of repentance and contrition for the betrayal of a fellow Jew, the betrayer went out and executed himself; cf. my forthcoming article on the death of Judas Iscariot).

Strikingly similar to this is the account of the martyrdom of Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon. On his way to be executed, he upbraided his daughter (cf. “Daughters of Jerusalem,” Luke 23:28) who stood nearby weeping and beating her breast. He said:

When thou bewailest and lamentest and beatest thyself, were it not better that [earthly] fire should consume me [a fire which has to be kindled] than the fire [of hell] which needs no kindling?[25]

This folk hero was martyred around the time of Hadrian’s persecutions. Therefore, Jesus’ words and martyrdom may be understood as part of a continuum in which possibly the Moreh Tsedeq of Qumran and, surely, Jose ben Joezer set the precedent, and those like Jesus, Chanina ben Teradyon, and possibly others, followed. In each case, the historical situation is the same, and the “last words” follow a surprisingly similar theme.

A final passage occurring in midrashic literature is found in Tanna d’Be Eliyahu 14. This passage, in conjunction with the others cited in this section, demonstrates the degree to which Ezekiel’s imagery, together with the popular rabbinic logic of the kal-VaCHomer argument (and possibly the influence of Prov. 11:31) pervaded the thought of the day:

In regard to severe punishment for minor sins, the Sages said, [citing a popular proverb]: If fire seizes what is moist, what may one expect it to do to what is dry?[26]

This saying seems to be a more specific application of the proverbial expression that appears at the end of the discussion in b. Sanhedrin 93a cited above. As the bracketed words supplied by the translator suggest, various forms of this saying appear to have become proverbial. The fact that it occurs in numerous places within the rabbinic corpus further reinforces the conclusion that it had become axiomatic. In fact, it so resonated with the popular mindset that a form of it made its way into a sixth- or seventh-century piyyut by Eleazar ben Rabbi Kalir of Kiryat Sefer, which in turn found its way into the liturgy and is chanted on the second day of Rosh HaShanah, “If fire seizes the wet, then the dry cuttings will [surely] tremble [or: be swept away].”[27] Therefore, whether it originated within rabbinic circles (as suggested by “the Sages said” in Tanna d’Be Eliyahu 14) or among the common people (as suggested by the “Thus people say” of b. Sanhedrin 93a), the people who heard Jesus’ words on the way to Golgotha already had sufficient biblical and cultural context with which to understand his words with perfect clarity.


Amidst the jeers and tears accompanying his journey to Golgotha, Luke 23:31 tells us that Jesus uttered these words: “For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” Typical of a number of commentators, one admits that “the [intent] of the passage is clearly difficult to interpret”[28] and that “the exact meaning of the saying… is probably impossible to state with exactness.”[29] Thus it comes as no surprise that no consensus of opinion is discernable among scholars, as is evident in the long list of possibilities which have been catalogued.[30] In light of this lack of consensus, it is difficult to understand why some would adopt a methodology which limits investigation to the Gospel of Luke[31] or dismiss potentially important texts as “irrelevant.”[32]
In the verses that appear prior to 23:31, commentators have recognized that all of the sayings make use of specific texts from the Hebrew Scriptures, thus creating an urgent message of apocalyptic judgment couched in traditional Hebrew terminology. Jeremiah 9:17-22 is suggested as the background for Luke 23:28, whereas Zechariah 12:10-14 is cited in relation to verse 29, and Hosea 10:8 and/or Isaiah 54:1 and 10 for verse 30.[33]

However, verse 31 is an integral part—indeed, it is the conclusion of this section, as indicated by its connection to the aforementioned verses by the conjunction ὅτι (hoti).[34] It therefore appears inconsistent and illogical to accept parallels from the Hebrew Scriptures for all the component parts while denying the background and connecting tradition of these Scriptures for the conclusion. It appears that Jesus is here intending to place himself in line with other prophets who predicted apocalyptic judgment. This he chose to accomplish by allusions to the very words of those prophets whose message he wished to emulate.

Scholars have, however, been willing to admit that the logic, or structure of verse 31 is that of kal-VaCHomer.[35] This kind of rabbinic logic is also often employed in much of the literature discussed in this study. In addition to the reasoning contained within the statement, it appears that the very sentence structure is Semitic. Neyrey mistakes the third person plural subject “they” for “imprecis[ion].”[36] In actuality, however, this seems to point to the fact that the source Luke was following at this point was Hebrew or Aramaic, since both languages use this kind of expression to form the passive.[37] Some translators have actually suggested with regard to the Greek of Luke that the third person plural verb functions in this passage as a passive.[38]

Finally, as we examine the vocabulary of Luke, who was undoubtedly a Greek-speaking Gentile, an interesting detail emerges. Despite the fact that the gospel writer usually employs the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the language of 23:31 is not borrowed from this source. In the Septuagint, the terms that correspond to the Hebrew lach and yavesh of Ezekiel 17:24 and 21:3 are χλωρὸν (chloron) and ξηρὸν (zaeron). Luke’s terminology, however, is ὑγρῷ (hugrow) and ξηρῷ (zaerow). In other words, his word for “green” is entirely different from that of the Septuagint. In addition, minor changes such as change of case (dative rather than accusative) and a different grammatical construction (prepositional phrase in Luke, and adjective-subject word-order as opposed to subject-adjective word-order in the Septuagint) are also evident.

These elements appear to provide enough reason to suggest that Luke does not have the Septuagint, or any other Greek source before him, but rather a source that has been transmitted in Hebrew or Aramaic.[39] One might even legitimately question whether Luke himself was even aware that Jesus was making a reference to Ezekiel. It would appear that, had he understood this, he would have used the language of the Septuagint in his own free translation of the logion in order to aid his readers in making the intended connection with the prophecy of Ezekiel. Whether this is true or not, we can be assured that this material derives from the earliest stratum of gospel material. Further, it is likely that this material was available to Luke alone since no parallel exists in the other gospels.


Having cited and analyzed all known material relevant to the study, it appears that there does indeed seem to be at the very least a loose connection linking all these sources. As B. Z. Wacholder has suggested, Ezekiel may have been much more influential in the Intertestamental Period than previously thought. In the present instance, his terminology is borrowed wholesale at Qumran, probably referred to implicitly in roughly the same time-period by a leading Pharisee, and likely picked up elsewhere in Rabbinic Literature. Finally, it is heard again on the lips of Jesus.

What would be the effect if this proposed connection truly exists? Before this is answered, a brief survey of the conclusions of scholarship is in order. The vast majority of commentators view Jesus’ logion as an oracle of doom pronounced either upon the Jews as a whole for their rejection of him as the Messiah,[40] or specifically upon the city of Jerusalem.[41] A minority views the coming destruction as pertaining to the Zealots alone.[42]

If the reconstruction proposed here is correct, however, a more general meaning should be sought. The words here are stylized; the phraseology is generated more by literary convention and historical precedent than by vindictiveness. Jesus is pictured here as in other places in Luke as a learned, observant Jew. As he is led to a martyr’s death, his words are couched in the terminology of righteous Jews who “sanctified the Name” by martyrdom before him.

Seen from this perspective, even the more general interpretation of Leaney[43] and Fitzmyer,[44] that Jesus is here referring to times, remains too specific. Rather, due to the generalized “all flesh” and the “righteous and the wicked” of Ezekiel 21:3, which is picked up by the Qumranites, Jose ben Joezer, “the Sages,” and the common “people,” an equally generalized interpretation such as that given by F. W. Danker in 1972 is to be preferred. He suggested that the phrase be read, “If God permits this to happen to one who is innocent, what will be the fate of the guilty?”[45] For those who insist on a more concrete frame of reference, the broader historical context might allow the guilty to be identified as the illegitimate leadership of the Sadducee-dominated court which condemned Jesus to his fate, yet remained in power long enough to provide leadership in the revolt that resulted in the sweeping away of righteous and wicked Jews alike. In any event, passages such as Luke 23:31 demonstrate the indispensability of situating the teachings of Jesus within the context of Second Temple Period history, culture, literature, and language.

  • [1] Avraham Even-Shoshan, Konkordantsiah Hadashah LaTanach (Jerusalem: Kiryat-Sefer, 1982), 595; Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles Briggs, The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon (Lafayette, Indiana: Associated, 1980), 535, hereafter referred to as B/D/B.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] This is the consensus interpretation. E.g.: W. Zimmerli, Ezekiel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979), 359-68; Timothy Polk, “Paradigms, Parables, and Mesalim: on Reading the Masal in Scripture,” Catholic Bible Quarterly 45 (1983): 580.
  • [4] So Zimmerli, 368 and Horacio Simian-Yofre, “Ezekiel 17,1-10 como enigma y parabolo,” Biblica 65 (1984): 39. Cf. also his extensive bibliography for this interpretation on the same page.
  • [5] E. Klostermann, Das Lucasevangelium (Tubingen: Mohr, 1929), 228.
  • [6] F. M.-J. Lagrange, Evangile Selon Saint Luc (Paris: J. Gabalda, 1948), 586; A. R. C. Leaney, A Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Luke (London: Black, 1966), 283-4.
  • [7] The translation followed here is that of Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (New York: Penguin, 2004), 267; cf. also Florentino Garcia Martinez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997-1998), 1:166 for the Hebrew text and 167 for an alternate English translation.
  • [8] Dale C. Allison, Jr. “The Authorship of 1QS III, 13 to IV 14,” Revue de Qumran 38 (May, 1980): 267 builds on the work of J. Jeremias, based on the use of the word ’esh.
  • [9] Sven Holm-Nielsen, Hodayot: Psalms from Qumran (Denmark: Universitetsforlaget, 1960), 72 and M. Delcor, Les Hymnes de Qumran (Paris: Letouzey et Ane, 1962), 132; J. Carmignac, “Les citations de l’Ancien Testament, et specialement des Poemes du Serviteur, dans les Hymnes de Qumran,” Revue de Qumran 7 (1960): 370 lists 11:29-30 as an exact parallel and 16:18-19 as a partial parallel along with 15 other instances where the Hymns are parallel with Ezekiel. On pages 362-9 and 372-80, Carmignac unintentionally demonstrates that only Isaiah (99), Jeremiah (27), Psalms (116), and Proverbs (18) exceed Ezekiel in number of allusions in Hodayot. Cf. also Joze Krasovec, “Merism-Polar Expression in Biblical Hebrew,” Biblica 64 (1983): 236.
  • [10] Zimmerli, 368; Joze Krasovec, 236; Holm-Nielsen, 72; and Yaakov Licht, Megillat HaHodayot (Jerusalem: Bialik, 1957), 87.
  • [11] Delcor, 206.
  • [12] Cf. the review by M. Delcor of G. Morawe’s Aufbau und Abgrenzung der Loblieder von Qumran: Studien zur gattungsgeschichtlichen Einordnung der Hodajoth (Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1961) in Revue de Qumran 15 (Oct, 1963): 444-5; J. Carmignac, “La Notion d’Eschatologie Dans La Bible et a Qumran,” Revue de Qumran 25 (1969): 23; “Le Document de Qumran sur Melkisedeq,” 27 (Dec. 1970): 370; the review of Luigi Moraldi’s I Manoscritti di Qumran (Unione Tipografico-Editrice Torinese) in Revue de Qumran 30 (March, 1973): 284-5; “Qu’est-ce que L’Apocalyptic? Son emploi a Qumran,” Revue de Qumran 37 (Sept. 1979): 25, quoting J. Schreiner in support, but giving no specific citation; Jonathan A. Draper, “A Targum of Isaiah in 1QS III, 2-3,” Revue de Qumran 11.2 (March, 1983): 269, note 28, which cites CD 1:1 and 2:2 as parallels; Emile Puech, “La racine SYT-S’T en arameen et en hebreu. A propos de Sfire 1 A 24, 1QHa III, 30 et 36 (=XI, 31 et 37) et Ezechiel,” Revue de Qumran 11 (December, 1983): 374.
  • [13] Cf. Holm-Nielsen, 148, note 3; 153, note 30; and 154­-5, note 42 for this and other interpretations.
  • [14] The translation followed here is that of Vermes, 285. Cf. Martinez and Tigchelaar 1:180 for the Hebrew text and 181 for an alternate translation.
  • [15] For those interested in completeness or in Torah le-shmah (“the study of Torah for its own sake”), the pertinent references are m. Demai 2:3, 5; 6:9; Nedarim 7:1; Eduyot 5:4; Niddah 4:3; 7:1, 2; Bekhorot 6:3; Kelim 17:11; Menachot 9:5; Bava Batra 5:11; Peah 3:3; Sheviit 9:6; Shabbat 4:1; 7:4; Pesachim 2:6; Avodah Zarah 2:4; and Uktsin 1:2 (C. J. Kasovsky, Otsar Lashon HaMishnah[Jerusalem: Massada, 1958], 3:1066); t. Eduyot 2:8; Niddah 5:6; Bekorot 4:4; Kelim (Bava Metsia) 5:2; Machshirin 3:10, 11; Demai 6:8; Zevachim 9:11; Nedarim 4:3; Bava Batra 5:3; Menachot 10:7;Niddah 3:11; Pesachim 2:21 (incorrectly cited as 1:33 or 1:13 by Kasovsky); Sheviit 4:14; Mikvaot 6:9; and Uktsin 1:1 (C. J. Kasowski [sic], Otsar Lashon HaTosefta [Jerusalem: J.T.S., 1951], 4:315-6).
  • [16] Shmini 6:2, 7; Tsav 1:12; and Kedoshim 8:9 (C. J. Kasovsky, Otsar Lashon HaTanaim (Jerusalem: J.T.S., 1968), 3:1144-5).
  • [17] Quotations from the Talmud are taken from the translation of I. Epstein in The Babylonian Talmud (London: Soncino, 1935, 1938). In connection with this passage, cf. his comment in 8:160, note 3; cf. also the beautiful merisms in 1 Kgs. 5:13 [English 4:33] and Mal. 3:19 [English 4:1], both of which employ language from the plant world, but neither of which is cited in Epstein’s note. All these texts underscore the popularity of such language in the agriculturally oriented societies of Israel in the periods of the Hebrew Bible, Second Temple, and New Testament.
  • [18] It is almost certain that this Jakum of Zeroroth is the High Priest “Jakim/Jakeimos/Alkimos/Alcimus” of 1 Macc. 7:5-25; 9:54-57; 2 Macc. 14:3-26; Josephus Ant. 12:385, 387; and 20:235. He is so identified in Alexander Buchler, “Alcimus” in Jewish Encyclopedia, ed. Isadore Singer (New York: Ktav, 1901), 1:333; “Alcimus,” Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, ed. Isaac Landman (New York: Ktav, 1969), 1:166; Abraham Schalit, “Alcimus” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, first edition (Jerusalem: Keter, 1971), 1:549; second edition, eds. Fred Skolnik and Michael Berenbaum (Jerusalem: Keter, 2007), 1:603.
  • [19] I.e., the cross-bar of the cross.
  • [20] I.e., crucified. Cf. the same synonymy at work in Gal. 3:13.
  • [21] Here the translation is taken from Midrash Rabba: Genesis Rabba, translated by H. Freedman (New York: Soncino, 1983), 2:599-600.
  • [22] The Midrash on Psalms, translated by W. G. Braude (New Haven: Yale, 1959), 1:166-7.
  • [23] Isaac Broyde, “Jose ben Joezer of Zeredah” in Jewish Encyclopedia, 7:242.
  • [24] For the purposes of this study, it does not matter whether the oppressor was Alexander Jannaeus, as suggested by Gustaf Dalman, Jesus-Jeshua: Studies In the Gospels, translated by Paul P. Levertoff (New York: Macmillan, 1929), 190, who cites Ant. 13.14.2 and War 1.4.6 in support, or whether it was Bacchides, as suggested by Freedman (599) who cites 1 Macc. 7:16 as evidence.
  • [25] B. Semachot 8. Cf. Dalman, 193 for the translation.
  • [26] The translation is here taken from Tanna deBe Eliyyahu, translated by W. G. Braude and I. J. Kapstein (Philadelphia: J.P.S., 1981), 187.
  • [27] Original translation from the text of M. Ish-Shalom, Seder Eliyahu Rabba VeSeder Eliyahu Zuta (Jerusalem: Vahrman, 1969), 65, note 50.
  • [28] Jerome H. Neyrey, “Jesus’ Address to the Women of Jerusalem—A Prophetic Judgment Oracle,” New Testament Studies 29 (January, 1983): 74.
  • [29] Ibid., 78.
  • [30] Ibid., 78-9; J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (Garden City: Doubleday, 1985), 1496, 1498; A. Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke(I.C.C.; Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1922), 529-30; F. W. Danker, Jesus and the New Age (St. Louis: Clayton, 1972), 237; E. J. Tinsley, The Gospel According to Luke (Cambridge: University, 1965), 201; and Leaney, 283-4.
  • [31] Neyrey, 74.
  • [32] Leaney, 283-4; Lagrange, 586.
  • [33] Cf. Neyrey, 74, 77, and 84, notes 7 and 8 for a brief survey.
  • [34] J. Reiling and J. L. Swellengrebel, A Translator’s Handbook on the Gospel of Luke (Leiden: Brill, 1971), 729.
  • [35] Neyrey, 79; Fitzmyer, 1498.
  • [36] Neyrey, 78.
  • [37] R. Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), 37, 115-6; M. Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967), 126-7; and S. G. F. Brandon, The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church (London: S.P.C.K., 1957), 207, note 4.
  • [38] Reiling and Swellengrebel, 729.
  • [39] Mark G. Schneider, Das Evangelium nach Lukas (Gutersloh/Wurzburg: Mohn/Echter, 1977), 2:436.
  • [40] E.g., Plummer, 529.
  • [41] E.g., Fitzmyer, 1498; Neyrey, 74.
  • [42] E.g., Brandon, 102-3, 198-9, 207; Tinsley, 201.
  • [43] Leaney, 283-4.
  • [44] Fitzmyer, 1498.
  • [45] Danker, 237; cf. also Plummer, 529-30.

Links with Tabernacles and Hanukkah in the Gospel Accounts of Palm Sunday


The Feast of Tabernacles (or Sukkot or Festival of Booths) as celebrated during the late Second Temple era included elements which were not prescribed in Scripture, and some of which ended with the destruction of the Temple. Torah said that everyone should live in booths for a week, and wave branches in celebration. Rabbinic law defined living in a booth as eating and sleeping in it, and prescribed how to construct a booth and a lulav. The lulav is a bunch of palm, myrtle, and willow branches with a citron (m.Suk. 3.1-8), which was waved (or “shaken”) during parts of the Hallel Psalms (m.Suk. 3.9).[1]  In addition, other ceremonies had become popular during Tabernacles – beating willows, pouring water, and dancing with lights – and references to these ceremonies are found in Gospel accounts.

The Gospel accounts of Palm Sunday have some significant links with activities during Tabernacles, especially the chants from Psalm 118 and waving of branches, but these activities were also part of the early celebration of Hanukkah. Some of the extra activities during Tabernacles in Temple times may also have been inspired by the celebration of Hanukkah, so these festivals were intricately related to each other. The Gospel accounts do not hide the links between the events on Palm Sunday and these festivals, and perhaps they accentuated them. If this is the case, the festival that they are attempting to highlight may give us an insight into the significance of this event for the Gospel writers.

Ceremony of Willow Beating

The ceremony of willow beating is still performed in synagogues during celebration of Tabernacles, though the meaning is as uncertain as its origins. In Temple times, people cut down long willow branches and processed around the altar all day while chanting from Psalm 118.25: “Please Lord, save now!, Please Lord, prosper now!” (m.Suk.4.5). In English this sounds impolite and insufficiently reverential, so it is usually translated as something like “We pray you, Lord, please save us”.

This was a very popular ceremony which the ordinary people insisted on performing. Even when the Sadducees put stones on top of the willows to stop them being used on a Sabbath which coincided with the final festival day, the people broke the Sabbath by moving the stones, and carried on as normal (t.Suk. 3.1-2).[2] Reading between the lines of the mishnaic account may indicate that the early rabbinic halakhah also tried to impose some restrictions, as implied by an implicit contradiction in the Mishnaic account. An anonymous tradition says “The whole day they circle the altar one time (פעם אחת)” and then a tradition by R. Judah adds “on that [last?] day they circle seven times” (m.Suk. 4.5). It is difficult to understand how the extra-large crowds on the last day (which, unlike the other days, was a public holiday) could circle the altar seven times when the smaller crowd took all day to circle it once on other days. It is likely that R. Judah was recalling the original practice which the anonymous halakhah attempted to restrict. This is corroborated somewhat by Jubilees which says:

Abraham used to “take branches of palm trees and the fruit of goodly trees and every day going round the altar with the branches seven times in the morning, he praised and gave thanks to God for all things in joy” (Jub.16.31).

There is no explanation of the term “beating” in the earliest accounts (t.Suk. 3.1), but there may be a clue in the phrase “they waved them at the sides of the altar, with their heads bent over the top of the altar” (m.Suk. 4.5) which might imply that they hit the sides of the altar to make the top of the branch overhang the top of the altar. If this is correct, we can well understand why the authorities wanted to restrict this raucous and potentially unruly custom.

Ceremonies of Water and Lights

The ceremonies of water pouring and lights were also very popular, though they ceased with the destruction of the Temple. The title Bét haShoebah (“House of Drawing” or “The Well”) referred to the celebration of lights (m.Suk. 5.1, 3) but it relates better to the celebration of water, and perhaps it was a title for both ceremonies. The ceremony started when a priest collected water from the pool of Siloam, and carried it back to the temple with a procession of people accompanied by trumpet blowing. At the altar, he poured it at the same time he poured out some wine, from two separate bowls. On one infamous occasion the priest poured them over his feet, and the crowd pelted him with their citrons (m.Suk. 4.9).[3]

The ceremony of lights included the erection and lighting of two huge golden lampstands in the Women’s Court, and dancing with burning torches by “the Ḥasidimand men of deeds” to the music of flutes and many other instruments (m.Suk. 5.1-4). This celebration was known as “the flutes” (m.Suk. 4.1; 5.1), though arguably the light was more significant because it could be seen throughout Jerusalem (m.Suk. 5.3).

It is possible that some of the details about these ceremonies were invented (or creatively remembered) later, but we can be certain that ceremonies something like these did occur because there would be little point in creating details which had no basis in Scripture and which were not needed to explain later practice.[4]  We have some corroboration of the water-pouring ceremony in Josephus’ account concerning Alexander Jannaeus when he was High Priest (103-76 BCE):

As to Alexander, his own people were seditious against him; for at a festival which was then celebrated, when he stood upon the altar and was going to sacrifice, the nation rose upon him, and pelted him with citrons…. They also reviled him as derived from a captive and therefore unworthy of his dignity and of sacrificing. (Jos. Ant. 13.13.5=372).

Mishnah also records this incident but it does not name the priest. The Tosephta says he was a “Boethusian” which the Babylonian Talmud interpreted as “Sadducee”, and the Jerusalem Talmud debates whether he was the same Sadducee who made a mistake with regard to the incense on the Day of Atonement and the Red Heifer (y.Suk. 4.6 II.4). It is possible that the Mishnah recorded an old tradition which was silent on this identity for political reasons and then later versions felt it increasingly necessary to provide some identification. It may therefore be unsafe to conclude from this tradition that the Sadducees rejected the water pouring ceremony.[5]

Water and Lights in John’s Gospel

The earliest corroboration we have for the ceremonies of water and of lights is the Gospel of John, which records that Jesus was in the Temple at the Festival of Tabernacles when he declared that he was both the source of the water of life and the light of life (Jn. 7.2, 37-38; 8.5). Both of these sayings are followed by a long exposition, the first of which includes an attempt to arrest him (Jn. 7.44-46) and the second ends with: “These words he spoke in the treasury… and no-one arrested him” (Jn. 8.20). They are separated by the section about the woman caught in adultery, which is found in various positions in different manuscripts, so it was probably not originally in this position in the gospel. It is therefore very likely that Jesus’ saying about light followed immediately after his saying about water, and that they both referred to the twin ceremony of water pouring and of lights which were known as the House of Drawing.

Jesus made these proclamations “on the last day of the feast, the great day” (Jn. 7.37). This is almost certainly a reference to the High Festival Day on the eighth day, which was celebrated with virtually the same restrictions as a Sabbath, so that it was a public holiday (Lev. 23.36, 39; Num. 29.35).[6]  This meant the crowds were much larger on this day, though many of them would have been disappointed because the ceremony of water and lights did not occur on the eighth day.[7]  We can imagine that pilgrims who did not come very often, and who were therefore not used to the normal timetable of events, would be looking around and waiting for the water-pouring to happen. Their disappointment made this the perfect time for Jesus to make his proclamations and get the maximum attention.

Chanting at Tabernacles

The earliest accounts in Mishnah do not mention any chanting while waving the lulav. However, it is safe to assume that the chanting while carrying the willows (m.Suk.4.5) was a copy of chants which occurred while shaking the lulav, because the chanting repeated words from Psalm 118.25. These chants were particularly appropriate for the shaking of lulav which occurred when this verse was reached in the Hallel Psalms (m.Suk.3.9) but they had little to do with the willow ceremony. It is likely that the first tradition to became established was the chanting of Psalm 118.25 while shaking the lulavs, and then this led to the same chants occurring during the Willow Beating.

The Hillelites probably did not approve of chanting the second half of verse 25 (“Please Lord, prosper us now!”) because they tried to restrict the shaking of thelulav to only the first half of the verse (m.Suk. 3.9). Perhaps they felt that this chant promoted something similar to the popular modern theology of prosperity. But the records of the chants at m.Suk.4.5 suggests that the crowd did actually chant both halves,[8]  and they probably continued chanting further because the words of verse 26 (“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”) was also a popular chant (y.Suk. 3.10, 54a; b.Suk.38b).

There was nothing in the willow beating ceremony which made it particularly appropriate to chant Psalm 118.25, so it is likely that they used these chants simply because they associated them with waving branches. This appears to be an example of learning chants in one place and then employing them elsewhere.

They also performed a more appropriate chant while circling the altar with willow branches: “Beauty [or ‘strength’, יופי] to you O altar!” Later commentators suggested that they might have said (or should have said): “To Yah (ליה) and to you O altar!”, probably because this would be less likely to be interpreted as worship of the altar.

There was similar disagreement over the chanting of “Please Lord” when quoting Ps. 118.25. R. Judah recalled that they actually chanted “Ani waho” (אֲנִי וָהוֹ) instead of the biblical “Ana haShem” (אָנָא יהוה), where haShem represents the actual name of God which was pronounced by ordinary people during Temple times (m.Ber. 9.5). We do not, of course, know how haShem was pronounced, though some later commentators have tried to argue that Ani waho was a correct form.[9] However, the most likely reason they chanted it in this form is that during the constant chanting all day long they slurred the syllables. In later traditions the rabbis have similar complaints about the slurring of “Halleluyah”, which they said should be pronounced as two distinct words (y.Suk. 3.10, 53b).

Chanting on Palm Sunday

The chants on Palm Sunday were probably identical to the chants from Psalm 118.25 which were used while shaking the lulav.[10]  The first half of this chant was “Please Lord, save now”, “Ana haShem hoshiah-na”. The Gospels record the last part of this chant as hosanna (ὡσαννά – Mk. 11.9; Matt. 21.9; Jn. 12.13) which is similar to the modern imperative hoshanna. It is difficult to know when the change in the imperative occurred, so we do not know whether the crowd was moderninsing the Hebrew or whether they were merely slurring the words, as with other chants. Whatever the reason, the Pharisees and other learned listeners no doubt despised the ignorant crowd for quoting Scripture incorrectly.

The other chant recorded in the Gospel account of Palm Sunday was “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Mt. 21.9; Mk. 11.9; Lk. 19.38; Jn. 12.13) which is from the next verse of Psalm 118, and may indicate that the crowds recited more of this Psalm than just verse 25. Later Talmudic traditions refer to this chant when they record rules about how public chanting should work. If someone started off a chant, it was impious for others to ignore it — they should join in and complete the chant — and this was the case even if the chant was initiated by a minor (b.Suk. 38b). Both Talmuds give the same example: if someone shouts “Blessed is he”, everyone should respond “…who comes in the name of the Lord” (Ps. 118.26; see y.Suk. 3.10, 54a; b.Suk. 38b). This implies that Psalm 118.26 was a popular public chant which could be used in informal contexts where even a child could initiate it.

Matthew records that the Pharisees were specifically concerned about the role of children on Palm Sunday (Mt. 21,15-16). It is likely that the children were not only chanting themselves, but they were egging on the crowd by initiating chants which the adults then felt obliged to complete.

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees also alludes to Psalm 118 (according to Lk. 19.40). He says that if they prevented this praise, “even the stones will call out”, which brings together the rejected stone of verse 22 with ‘anah (עֲנַה, ‘answer, shout, call out’) in verse 21. By combining these ideas, Jesus implies that the one who “called to me and saved me” in verse 21 is identical to “the stone which the builders rejected” in the following verse. The Pharisees would have recognised those who “rejected” as an implied reference to themselves, as well as a claim by Jesus that he would become “the head cornerstone” (Ps. 118.22). This would confirm to them that Jesus was a dangerous individual who had to be silenced.

Kingship implied at Palm Sunday

One aspect of the chanting on Palm Sunday which cannot be traced to the Hallel Psalms is the repeated references to kingship: “the Son of David” (Mt. 21.9,15); “kingdom of our father David” (Mk.11.10); “blessed is the king” (Lk. 19.38); “the king of Israel” (Jn. 12.13). The versions which include “David” imply that a Messianic kingship is in view, because David is a very frequent messianic reference in early Judaism. At Qumran the messianic figure of the “branch of David” occurs frequently[11]  and in rabbinic traditions the messianic references to “son of David” are very frequent, so that even though few or perhaps none of these can be safely dated before 70 CE, the widespread use of this term indicates that it has an old tradition behind it.[12]

Even without these verbal clues in the chanting, there is a very clear kingship theme in the act of riding into Jerusalem on a donkey to be met by a palm-waving crowd. The prophesy of Zechariah was highlighted by the Gospel writers (Zech. 9.9; Mt. 21.5; Jn. 12.15), though even if this text had not been referred to, the minds of readers would have been drawn to it by the reported behaviour of the crowd.

An even stronger parallel was obvious between the behaviour of this crowd and a crowd on two relatively recent occasions. Waving of palm branches to welcome a new ruler as he enters Jerusalem had happened both when Judas Maccabaeus cleansed and rededicated the Temple in 165 BCE having defeated Antiochus (2Macc. 10.6-8) and when Simon Maccabaeus declared himself ruler of Jerusalem (with the blessing of Demetrius) as a political High Priest in 141 BCE (1 Macc. 13.51). The memory of this latter event was extended by the coins which Simon Maccabaeus had minted, showing a palm-tree and the words “for the redemption of Zion” (לגאולת ציון ).[13]

These events remained in the public consciousness, as seen by the repetition of this symbolism on the coins of the revolts in 66-70 and 131-5 CE. Raphael Lowe pointed out that carrying a lulav was punished with 100 lashes in the time of Hadrian, probably because he too recognised the nationalistic fever this engendered, and for a similar reason Bar Kokhba ordered the delivery of lulavs for his troops to celebrate Tabernacles even during a time of battle.[14]

It is impossible that the Gospel writer or their readers could have missed this symbolism, and yet they do nothing to hide it,[15]  though the image of a king is mollified by riding on an ass instead of a horse (Mt. 21.2-7; Mk. 11.2-7; Lk. 19.30-35; Jn. 12.14-15). In fact the symbolism with regard to Judas Maccabaeus is heightened in the synoptic Gospels because Jesus’ entry into the city is followed immediately with his cleansing of the Temple, just as Judas cleansed the Temple from the defilement by Antiochus.

Hanukkah celebrations and Tabernacles

The rededication of the temple on the 25th of Kislev, 165 BCE was later celebrated by the new festival of Hanukkah, though we do not know when this started, or what the festival consisted of. In 2 Maccabees the original celebration is described:

They kept eight days with gladness in the manner of Tabernacles, remembering how that not long before, during the Festival of Tabernacles, they were wandering in the mountains and in the caves like wild beasts. (7) Therefore, carrying branches wreathed with leaves and fine boughs and palms, they offered up songs of thanksgiving. (2 Macc. 10.6-7)

The only celebrations which are specifically described are identical to the celebrations at Tabernacles. This passage indicates that they celebrated aspects of Tabernacles which they had been unable to celebrate before while hiding in the mountains. It appears that they regarded this celebration in a similar way to the Second Passover when people, who were prevented from celebrating Passover at the correct date, could make up their loss. Indeed, the opening of 2 Maccabees refers to Hanukkah as “the feast of Tabernacles of the month of Kislev” (2Macc. 1.9, cf. 1.18).

The entrance of Simon Maccabaeus into Jerusalem occurred on an entirely different date (23rd of the second month, between Passover and Pentecost – 1.Macc. 51) though it is described in a very similar vein:

“… with praise and palm branches and with harps and with cymbals and with viols and with hymns and with songs… (52) and he ordained that they should keep that day every year with gladness.”

Unlike Judah’s entrance, which was remembered annually at the festival of Hanukkah, this day was not remembered as an annual festival, despite the urging in this passage to do so.[16]  However, it is possible that it was remembered during one of the additional celebrations at Tabernacles, because the list of instruments in this description is reminiscent of the description of the celebration of “flute playing” which was part of the celebration of the House of Drawing at Tabernacles:

The flute playing in the House of Drawing…. They said: Anyone who has never in his life seen the rejoicing of the House of Drawing has never seen rejoicing. (4) The Hasidim and men of deeds would dance before them with flaming torches in their hand, and they would sing before them songs and praises. And the Levites beyond counting played on harps, lyres, cymbals, trumpets, and [other] musical instruments. (m.Suk. 5.1, 4, based on Neusner)

The fact that this was part of the celebration of lights might suggest that the entrance of Judas Maccabaeus was also celebrated at Tabernacles. The story of his rededication was associated with a miracle of lights from at early stage, though the actual story was told in two complimentary forms – a story of miraculous fire (2Macc. 1.18-23) and of miraculous oil (b.Shab. 21b). By the first century it was already known as a festival of “light”, though the reason for this was obscure because when Josephus reports it he clearly does not know the origin of the name. He said he supposed it was because the sudden freedom to worship God was like an unexpected ray of light. (Ant. 12.7.7=325)

These stories of the miraculous fire and lamps in the temple would have been commemorated very suitably by some of the aspect of the celebration of lights at Tabernacles:

In the women’s courtyard… there were golden candleholders, with four gold bowls on their tops, and four ladders for each candlestick. And four young priests with jars of oil containing a hundred and twenty logs, [would climb up the ladders and] pour [the oil] into each bowl. (3) … And there was not a courtyard in Jerusalem which was not lit up from the light of The House of Drawing. (m.Suk. 5.2-3, based on Neusner)

Therefore it is possible that these additional elements in the Festival of Tabernacles were added in order to celebrate the cleansing of the Temple by Judas, and also the joyful liberation of the city by Simon.

By the first century Hanukkah was already being celebrated as a separate festival. It is mentioned by Josephus (Ant. 12.7.7=325) and John (Jn. 10.22) who calls it a “Festival of Dedication” – probably an abbreviation of “dedication of the altar” (1Macc. 4:59) or of “dedication of the Hasmonean Temple” (ḥanukkat bét Ḥashmonai). But even when it was celebrated as a festival in its own right, the association with Tabernacles was already established:

We are now about to keep the purification of the temple in the month Kislev, on the 25th day. We thought it necessary to certify that you also should keep a Feast of Tabernacles and a memorial of the [miraculous] fire with which Nehemiah offered sacrifices (2 Macc. 1.18, based on RV)

It is likely that when the Temple was destroyed, and the giant lampstands were lost, the celebration of light reverted back to the festival of Hanukkah, which was celebrated as a domestic or synagogue-based ceremony. David Moshe Herr concluded that Hanukkah originally included the lulav and perhaps other features of Tabernacles, though not the booths because the original celebrants had succeeded in celebrating this in the caves they occupied (cf. 2 Macc. 10.6).[17]  It is likely that the domestic celebration of lights was already established by the first century, as witnessed by the Schools’ dispute (Scholium to Megillat Ta’anit; Shab. 21b). Probably when the Temple was destroyed, the House of Drawing ceremonies and the links between Tabernacles and Hanukkah were gradually forgotten. The lulavdisappeared from Hanukkah and only a few similarities such as the Hallel remained to link the two.

Was Palm Sunday like Tabernacles or Hanukkah?

The Gospel accounts of Palm Sunday contain some elements which are similar to both the celebration of Tabernacles and the early celebration of Ḥanukkah — the chanting from Psalm 118 and waving branches. Neither festival featured riding on a donkey or paving its way with cloaks and willows, though this was reminiscent of the welcome for both Simon Maccabaeus and Judas Maccabaeus (which Ḥanukkah celebrated). The reference to kingly language in all four Gospels confirms that they wished to promote this link in the readers’ minds, and the fact that the synoptic Gospels follow this event with the Temple cleansing confirms that they want the readers to remember the rededication of the Temple by Judas.

We can therefore conclude that the Gospel writers wished to promote these links. Does this mean that they invented the chanting in order to make the reader see these links more clearly? Would a crowd have used chants derived from the celebrations of Tabernacles and Ḥanukkah during the Passover celebrations?

Chanting Psalm 118 was by no means inappropriate during Passover, because the Hallel Psalms were used also at this festival – they were recited at the Passover meal (m.Pes. 10.6), and they featured in the Temple worship (m.Pes. 5.5,7). But, in any case, enthusiastic crowds are not concerned about what is appropriate. Today we can hear crowds at sports stadiums singing popular songs that are entirely unrelated to sport, and crowds in a bar are equally likely to shout out sporting chants for no apparent reason. The reaction of the Pharisees indicates that they certainly regarded the crowd’s chanting as inappropriate. Such inappropriate chanting is to be expected among enthusiastic crowds. We saw above that the chanting of Psalm 118.25 at the Willow Beating ceremony was probably introduced as an inappropriate chant, though it became a traditional chant by means of repetition.

The chants which the Gospels report are those which one would expect an undisciplined crowd to employ. The chant ‘Hosanna’ is an inaccurate quotation of the biblical ‘Hoshi’ah-na’, with slurring which is similar to that which rabbis complained of elsewhere. The chant “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” is identified in rabbinic traditions as one which when started by anyone, including a minor, has to be completed by everyone. The chant ‘Hosanna’ was a key phrase in the chant which crowds repeated all day long while circling the altar with branches of willows. For anyone who ever attended that celebration, the chant must have become embossed in their brain by the constant daylong repetition. The fact that this chant was associated with carrying a branch would immediately bring it mind when they waved the branches to welcome Jesus on Palm Sunday.


The details presented by the Gospel accounts of Palm Sunday are consistent with what we would expect a crowd to do, whatever time of year this occurred at. But more significant than what actually happened is the fact that all the Gospels chose to record the events in this way. They could have obscured the links between this and the entrance of the Maccabaean brothers into the city. The Romans were already becoming suspicious of any nationalistic fervour and it might have been wise to de-emphasise this apparent bid for kingly recognition by Jesus.

However, this occurrence highlighted two important implications. This event was the final signal to the Jewish rulers that Jesus was a dangerous individual, and without it their sudden and untimely rush to get him killed before Passover would be inexplicable. Secondly, it sets the scene for Jesus’ clearing of the sellers out of the Temple. This event could have been interpreted as an entirely unwarranted disruption of proper Temple business. Everyone needed to buy offerings, and most people needed to change their money, and the Temple court was the best place to do this. By setting this event in the context of the Maccabean cleansing of the Temple, the Gospels can show that Jesus’ motive was the purity of the House of God.

The Gospel writers therefore wished their readers to be reminded more of Hanukkah than Tabernacles, when they read the account of Palm Sunday, though the similarity of these two festivals in Temple times has obscured this distinction.

  • [1] According to m.Suk. 3.9 they also shook them at the first and last verses of Ps. 118, but this detail is not confirmed by an early tradition like the shaking at Ps. 118.25, so we cannot be so certain about this.
  • [2] Some later traditions assumed that only priests carried willows round the altar (first suggested by Johanan b. Nappaha [late 3rd C, PA2] – b.Suk. 44a), but Mishnah implies that ordinary people cut down the willows and processed.
  • [3] This person may have been Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BCE) as described by Josephus (Jos. Ant. 13.13.5=372). Mishnah is silent about his identity, though Tosephta says he was a “Boethusian” which the Babylonian Talmud interpreted as “Sadducee”, and the Jerusalem Talmud debates whether he was the same Sadducee who made a mistake with regard to the incense on the Day of Atonement and the Red Heifer (y.Suk. 4.6 II.4). It is possible that the Mishnah recorded an old tradition which was silent on this identity for political reasons and then later versions felt it increasingly necessary to provide some identification.
  • [4] For detailed discussion of the dating of individual traditions, see my Traditions of the Rabbis in the Era of the New Testament vol.2B (Eerdmans, forthcoming)
  • [5] For other reasons to doubt that the Sadducees rejected the water pouring ceremony see Jeffrey Rubenstein, “The Sadducees and the Water Libation,” JQR 84 (1994), 417-444. He concludes that although there was a dispute with the Sadducees, it may have concerned the location of the pouring or whether it overrides the Sabbath.
  • [6] Some commentators think that this refers to the seventh day of the festival, but the addition of the phrase “the great day” indicates that this was the final High Festival Day.
  • [7] The summary at m.Suk.4.1 can be understood with the commentary throughout the chapter. The water pouring occurred only on the first seven days, and the ceremony of lights (which is referred to in this mishnah by the “flute playing” which accompanied it) could not occur on Sabbaths or High Festival Days, presumably because they involved lighting a fire and dancing.
  • [8] Although some editions of the Mishnah replace the second half with a repetition of the first half, it is likely that this was a later attempt to show that the crowd followed the Hillelites, because it is unlikely that an editor would change the text in order to show the Shammaites having the upper hand.
  • [9] According to b.Shab.104a, Hu is one of the names of God, and some commentators thought that when Hillel said “I” (Ani) in the saying “If I am there, all are there…” (etc. – see b.Suk. 53a) he used this as a circumlocution for God. See notes in C.J.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, A Rabbinic anthology (London : Macmillan 1938): 13. This may explain the pointing in the Kaufmann MS of Mishnah: אֲנִי וְהוּא (“I and he”).
  • [10] This was argued convincingly by Raphael Lowe in “Salvation” is not of the Jews” (Journal of Theological Studies 32, 1981: 341-368).
  • [11] See esp. Florilegium=4Q174 f1 2i:7-13; Commentary on Genesis=4Q252 5:2-3; Sepher haMilhanah=4Q285 f7:3-4+11Q14 f1i:7-13; cf. CD 7:16.
  • [12] A search of Babli and Midrash Rabbah in Davka software found 34 examples of “son of David” used in a messianic sense.
  • [13] W.R.Farmer “The Palm Branches in John 12.13” (JTS NS 3, 1952: 62-6) “He warns that the coin may have originated from elsewhere because there were several people called ‘Simon’ concerned with the revolt.”
  • [14] Lowe “Salvation”: 352-53.
  • [15] Conta Lowe “Salvation” who says that the Gospels tried to underplay it because only John actually calls the branches “palms”. The messianic and regal chants are far more significant than the species of the branches being waved.
  • [16] It is named as one of the 35 days on which fasting is forbidden in the Megillat Taanit, but we do not know how widely this was followed.
  • [17] Moshe David Herr, “Ḥanukkah” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. Vol. 8. 2nd ed. (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007): 331-333.

“They Didn’t Dare” (Matt 22:46; Mark 12:34; Luke 20:40): A Window on the Literary and Redactional Methods of the Synoptic Gospel Writers

Revised: 08-Jul-2013

Mark’s placement of Jesus’ “no longer dared” comment is very awkward: first, because the comment comes in the middle of a lovefest between Jesus and a scribe; and second, because the comment immediately follows Jesus’ appreciation of the scribe’s wisdom: “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

The Texts

Here are the three “no longer dared” texts in Greek and in literal English translation, from the shortest to the longest:

Luke 20:40: οὐκέτι γὰρ ἐτόλμων ἐπερωτᾶν αὐτὸν οὐδέν (ouketi gar etolmon eperotan auton ouden; For no longer were they daring to keep questioning him anything).

Mark 12:34c: καὶ οὐδεὶς οὐκέτι ἐτόλμα αὐτὸν ἐπερωτῆσαι (kai oudeis ouketi etolma auton eperotesai; And no one no longer was daring him to question).

Matt 22:46: καὶ οὐδεὶς ἐδύνατο ἀποκριθῆναι αὐτῷ λόγον οὐδὲ ἐτόλμησέν τις ἀπ᾽ ἐκείνης τῆς ἡμέρας ἐπερωτῆσαι αὐτὸν οὐκέτι (kai oudeis edynato apokrithevai auto logon oude etolmesen tis ap’ ekeines tes hemeras eperotesai auton ouketi; And no one was able to answer him a word nor dared anyone from that day to question him any longer).

The Terrain

Let’s look at the terrain in which these three texts are found: “The Question about the Resurrection” (Aland pericope no. 281); “The Great Commandment” (Aland 282); and “The Question about David’s Son” (Aland 283). Here are the observable details:

Luke, Mark and Matthew conclude successive pericopae with similar words, “No one dared to question him [that is, Jesus] any longer” (Matt 22:46; Mark 12:34; Luke 20:40). Luke places the phrase at the conclusion of the “Question about the Resurrection” (Luke 20:27-40). Mark positions the phrase at the end of the discussion of the “Great Commandment” (Mark 12:28-34), and Matthew uses it to conclude the “Question about David’s Son” (Matt 22:41-46). Not only does the “no longer dared” statement appear in a certain sequence, but it is always one gospel writer who has the statement against the other two, who do not have it. All three gospels agree in placing the statement during the events of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem, and each of the Evangelists places the statement at the conclusion of a series of dispute episodes between Jesus and the religious leaders in Jerusalem.

A major difference between the three synoptic writers in this series of stories (Aland 281-283) is that Luke drops out of order with Matthew and Mark by giving the “Great Commandment” pericope in his chapter 10. Matthew matches Mark’s placement of the “Great Commandment” pericope, yet he drops Mark’s expansion (Mark 12:32-34), creating an agreement (in omission) with Luke. In addition, there are several Matthean-Lukan “minor agreements” against Mark, the most obvious being νομικός (nomikos, lawyer; Luke 10:25; Matt 22:35), against Mark’s εἷς τῶν γραμματέων (heis ton grammateon, one of the scribes; Mark 12:28). Jesus is addressed as διδάσκαλε (didaskale, teacher; Luke 10:25; Matt 22:36), against Mark’s absence of an epithet. Furthermore, Luke and Matthew agree on ἐν τῷ νόμῳ (en to nomo, in the law; Luke 10:26; Matt 22:36) against Mark’s πάντων (panton, [first] of all; Mark 12:28).

The most dramatic difference between the three versions of the “Great Commandment” story is that in the Lukan account it is not Jesus who responds to the lawyer’s question, but, following a counterquestion from Jesus, the lawyer answers his own question! If, historically, it was the lawyer who linked the two וְאָהַבְתָּ (ve-‘ahavta, and you shall love) scriptures—and we know that this linking was already part of first-century Judaism[1] then, the “Great Commandment” story is inherently non-confrontational! Luke has preserved an original form of the story since it is implausible that Luke would place “innovative teaching” of Jesus in the mouth of a bystander unless that was what Luke found in his source.

The “Two-gospel” View

The “Two-gospel” solution to the synoptic problem assumes that Matthew was copied by Luke, who was in turn copied by Mark. Mark also used Matthew in creating his account.[2] However, if Mark saw Matthew’s account of these three stories (Aland 281-283), why did Mark not leave the “no one dared to question” comment in Matthew’s more logical and rhetorically forceful location? Why did Mark transfer this comment from the “David’s Son” story to the “Great Commandment” story? Why would Mark (in the “David’s Son” story) omit Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees, which caused them to be afraid to question Jesus further? Finally, if Mark was looking at the texts of Matthew and Luke when he wrote the “Great Commandment” story (Aland 282), why did he drop the reference to “lawyer” (vomikos) and to “to test (him)” found in Matt 22:35 (πειράζων, peirazon) and Luke 10:25 (ἐκπειράζων, ekpeirazon).

The “Two-source” View

The Two-source Hypothesis is today’s most widely accepted solution to the synoptic problem.[3] Proponents of this view assume that Luke 20:40 is “a modified form of Mark 12:34” (so Joseph A. Fitzmyer).[4] “For this verse Luke draws on Mark 12:34b” (so John Nolland).[5]

In copying Mark, Luke drops the “Great Commandment” story from its original location (Aland 282). Matthew follows Mark in pericope order, yet produces minor agreements with Luke’s version of the “Great Commandment” story (located in Luke 10), and Matthew, like Luke, eliminates the scribe’s praise of Jesus (Mark 12:32-34), creating with Luke a major agreement in omission. If the author of Matthew does not know Luke’s Gospel, how does Matthew in copying Mark reach such agreement with Luke?

Compared to Matthew and Luke’s accounts of the “Great Commandment,” Mark’s account is expansive. A Markan priorist must say that at this point in the synoptic tradition (Aland 282), Luke is a reductionist, and explain Luke’s reason for dropping the “Great Commandment.” Two-Source adherents also must explain why Matthew drops and replaces Markan words, creating agreements with Luke, whom, by definition, Matthew has not seen.

Markan priorists acknowledge the difficulties this synoptic situation poses for the Two-source Hypothesis. R. T. France remarks about Mark 12:34: “After such an encouraging comment [France refers to Jesus’ words to the scribe, ‘You are not far from the Kingdom of God’] it is surprising to read that no one dared ask any more questions.”[6] Craig Evans comments: “The most difficult question facing interpreters concerns the relationship of Mark 12:28-34 to Matt 22:34-40 and Luke 10:25-29. Matthean and Lukan dependence upon Mark cannot account for Luke’s very different form and context of the tradition, for in Luke the question is ‘What shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ and it is the one who asks the question, not Jesus, who articulates the famous double commandment to love God and one’s neighbor….”[7]

A New View

Let us assume that Mark is the middle term, but that the order of writing of the synoptic gospels is linear, and that this order is Luke-Mark-Matthew. Let us also assume that Luke has before him two extracanonical sources, the first of which is the source he shares with Matthew—call it Q if you wish—and the second source, an abridgment of the first. Let us further assume, like Two-Source adherents, that Matthew and Luke did not see each other’s gospels.

Assuming such an hypothesis, then Luke has copied from one of his two sources (or both) the “no longer dared” statement, which constitutes the conclusion of the “Question about the Resurrection” pericope. Mark notices Luke’s string of “Jesus in conflict with the Temple authorities” stories. Remembering Jesus’ encounter with a lawyer ten chapters earlier in Luke’s account, Mark moves his heavily redacted version of the story to a position following the “Question about the Resurrection” story. Matthew follows Mark in making this move.

In reality, Mark does not add his version of the “Great Commandment” story after the “Question about the Resurrection” story, but rather he inserts it before the “no longer dared” comment. That is, Mark interjects his “Great Commandment” story between Luke 20:39 and 20:40, between “And some of the scribes, answering, said: ‘Teacher, you have spoken well'” and “For they no longer dared to ask him anything.” Notice that the first verse of Mark’s “Great Commandment” story contains γραμματέων (grammateon, scribes) and καλῶς (kalos, well), while Mark’s long expansion (Mark 12:32-34) begins with γραμματεύς (grammateus, scribe), διδάσκαλε (didaskale, teacher) and καλῶς (kalos, well). These words Mark brings over from Luke 20:39 (or Luke’s source for 20:39). In effect, Mark expands on Luke 20:39 with its grammateondidaskale, and kalos. Mark simply postpones the “no longer dared” comment until the end of his “Great Commandment” insertion. Mark agrees with Luke that the “no longer dared” statement comes after Jesus had disposed of the Sadducees and after the scribes’ compliment, except that Mark has expanded the scribe’s compliment and repeated it. In Luke 20:39, the scribes (probably Pharisees) are pleased with Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees. By his “Great Commandment” insertion, Mark continues the joy of one of these scribes (Mark 12:28), even extending it by creating an expansion (Mark 12:32-34). Mark takes a story without the tension and hostility of the previous story and places it at the rhetorical pinnacle. He lengthens the confrontation, but also exposes his editorial insertion. Apparently, Matthew wanted to have Jesus demolish the Pharisees, as well as the Sadducees and the scribes; therefore, he postponed the “no longer dared” statement until the end of his next pericope (Aland 283), in which Matthew alone identifies Jesus’ hearers—these are “the Pharisees.” Because there is only one Pharisee in the “Great Commandment” story—one scribe in Mark’s account, and one Pharisaic lawyer in Matthew’s account—Matthew needs an additional dispute (Aland 283) before he can sum up by using the “no longer dared” comment. Matthew has Jesus first defeat the Sadducees (Aland 281), then one Pharisee (Aland 282), and finally, many Pharisees (Aland 283).[8]

How can a synoptic theory of Lukan priority account for the “minor agreements” in the “Great Commandment” story? After all, Aland 281-283 are Triple Tradition stories, and according to most Markan priorists, Q is a sayings source. In this new hypothesis, these Matthean-Lukan agreements can be accounted for by the assumption of a shared source like Q that contained narrative as well as sayings material.

The Jewish-Semitic Element in Aland 282-283

According to Luke’s account, a lawyer puts a question to Jesus “to test him” (Luke: ekpeirazon auton; Matt: peirazon auton) (in Jewish parlance, to test his orthodoxy; perhaps the Mishnaic Hebrew לבדוק אותו [livdok ‘oto]). Instead of providing an answer (as in Mark and Matthew’s accounts), Jesus, the master teacher, in traditional Jewish style, responds to the lawyer’s question with a question, eliciting the correct answer from the lawyer. Jesus asks, “What is written in the Torah? How do you read?” (Luke 10:26), a significant Semitic doublet, probably reflecting, מה כתוב בתורה כיצד אתה קורא (Mah katuv ba-torah? Ketsad ’atah kore’?). The lawyer responds with the “And you shall love…and you shall love” (ve-‘ahavtave-‘ahavta) midrash (Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18), and all that remains for Jesus to do is to pat the lawyer on the back. There is no conflict, rather, a rare glimpse of the harmony of beliefs that existed between Jesus and the Pharisees.

The “David’s Son” story, too, is Jewish and Semitic. Jesus opens with a question, a common way for a Jewish sage to begin a lesson (This pedagogic technique culminated in a collection of midrash known as Tanhuma Yelammedenu.) Moreover, in Luke’s account only, Jesus’ opening contains a probable Semitism: πῶς λέγουσιν (pos legousin, “How can they say…” that is, “How can one say…?” or “How can it be said…?”), the 3rd person of the plural form of the verb used idiomatically in an impersonal sense.[9]

We might retrovert Jesus’ question found in Luke 20:41 to Hebrew as, כֵּיצַד אוֹמְרִים שֶׁהַמָּשִׁיחַ בֶּן דָּוִד (ketsad ‘omrim she-ha-mashi’ah ben David? How can they say that the Messiah is the son of David?). In Luke’s account there is not necessarily conflict or animosity. However, Mark specifies the subject, “How can the scribes say…?” altering his source from impersonal to personal. Matthew turns the story into a dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees.

The Semitic Element in the “No longer dared” Comment

Although penned later than Luke, the Matthean version of the “no longer dared” statement preserves Semitic elements absent in Luke. These Semitisms point to an earlier form of the text. Whereas Luke adds the postpositive γάρ (gar), and gives the verbs τολμᾶν (tolman) and ἐπερωτᾶν (eperotan) in the continuative tense (that is, “were daring” and “to keep questioning”), Matthew prefaces the statement with καί (kai, and), and preserves both verbs (ἐτόλμησεν [etolmesen]; ἐπερωτῆσαι [eperotesai]) in the aorist tense, features which better fit a Semitic narrative. Matthew also exhibits verb-first word order in his second clause. In addition, and perhaps most strikingly, in Matthew’s version, the sentence is in the form of a parallelism (“nobody could answer…nobody dared ask”), a classic feature of Hebrew. Matthew’s version of the sentence is much longer, but it is closer to an original Semitized Greek source. Although Luke has the more original placement of the “no longer dared” saying, Matthew has better preserved its wording.

Mark’s editorial hand is evident in his version of the “no one dared” sentence. Mark fronted two items, οὐδεὶς οὐκέτι (oudeis ouketi, no one no longer), changed the order of ἐπερωτῆσαι (eperotesai, to ask) and αὐτόν (auton, him), and gave the verb τολμᾶν (tolman) in the imperfect (i.e., “was daring”). Vincent Taylor wrote: “As in [12:]28, so in 34b Mark’s hand is to be seen in the concluding statement…. For the double negative v. the note on 1.44; ἐπερωτάω v. 9. τολμάω, xv. 43.”[10]


It is unlikely that Luke got his “no longer dared” comment from Matthew or Mark since the comment makes sense contextually only in Luke’s “Question about the Resurrection” story. Only in Luke does the comment find its context within a true dispute. Matthew follows Mark’s story order as well as Mark’s text, but his agreements with Luke and his omissions of Markan material show that he is also copying from the source he shares with Luke. While it is true that Luke, or the second extracanonical source he was copying, has redacted the “no longer dared” comment, Luke’s version of the comment is not dependent on Matthew or Mark. The “no longer dared” statement has been relocated by Mark and Matthew, or their source(s), even though Matthew has retained more of the statement’s hypothetical Semitic undertext.

This study illustrates the importance of a correct and full methodology for interpreting the synoptic gospels. Although necessary, a correct synoptic hypothesis is not enough! Without sensitivity to the Semitic elements embedded in the text, one might assume, based on the “no longer dared” comment’s correct placement by Luke, that Luke preserves the earliest form of the text. However, by paying close attention to Semitisms in the text, one can correct first impressions, illustrating the added value of a Semitic approach to the synoptic gospels.

  • [1] See David Flusser, “The Ten Commandments and the New Testament,” in The Ten Commandments in History and Tradition (ed. Ben-Zion Segal; Jerusalem: Magnes, 1990), 229-30.
  • [2] The Griesbach Hypothesis was revived in 1964 by William R. Farmer (see Farmer, The Synoptic Problem: A Critical Analysis [2nd ed.; Dillsboro, NC: Western North Carolina Press, 1976]). This solution to the synoptic problem posits that the Gospel of Matthew was written first, that Matthew was used by Luke in writing his Gospel, and that Mark’s Gospel was a conflation of Matthew and Luke.
  • [3] The Two-source hypothesis assumes that the authors of Matthew and Luke independently copied from the Gospel of Mark and a non-canonical collection of sayings of Jesus known as “Q.”
  • [4] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (AB 28A; Garden City: Doubleday, 1981), 1307.
  • [5] John Nolland, Luke (WBC 35C; Dallas: Word Books, 1993), 968.
  • [6] R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 482.
  • [7] Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20 (WBC 34B; Dallas: Word Books, 2001), 262.
  • [8] For the analysis of Mark’s redactive activity described in this paragraph, I am indebted to Randall Buth.
  • [9] For a discussion of the use of impersonal plural in the New Testament, see Matthew Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts (3d ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), 126-28.
  • [10] Vincent Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark (2d ed.; London: Macmillan, 1966), 490.