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

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


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

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

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

Storing Treasure and the Language Charity in Jewish Literature

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

If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have. So you will be laying up a good treasure (θησαυρίζεις) for yourself against the day of necessity. For charity (ἐλεημοσύνη) delivers from death and keeps you from entering the darkness (Tob. 4:9-10, emphasis added).[9]

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

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

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

Lay up your treasure according to the commandments of the Most High, and it will profit you more than gold. Store up almsgiving in your treasury (or storehouse), and it will rescue you from all affliction…(σύγκλεισον ἐλεημοσύνην[12] ἐν τοῖς ταμιείοις σου, καὶ αὕτη ἐξελεῖταί σε ἐκ πάσης κακώσεως). (Sir. 29:11-12)

Anderson notes regarding Tobit and Ben Sira,

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

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

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

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

The Gospels, Charity, and the Kingdom

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

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth (Μὴ θησαυρίζετε ὑμῖν θησαυροὺς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς), where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven (θησαυρίζετε δὲ ὑμῖν θησαυροὺς ἐν οὐρανῷ),[17] where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Matt. 6:19-20)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charity, the Hasid, and the Hasidim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Strong statement
  • Amēn
  • Confirming statement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Strong statement or significant action
  • Amēn
  • Confirming statement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hebraisms in the New Testament

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

Revised: 31-October-2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

What are some of the things that make you happy?  I mean truly happy.  While different things make different people happy—different strokes for different folks—I believe there are some keys that can enable us to experience personal happiness.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son

Jesus addressed the issues that relate to personal happiness in a most powerful manner in his poignant parable of the Prodigal Son as recorded in Luke 15:11-32.  There are beautiful lessons as expressed in the unconditional love of the father and the reconciliation of the father with his repentant younger son.  It is easy to see the analogy between God’s unconditional love and his acceptance of the repentant sinner.

But what about the older son?  Have you ever either secretly or openly felt some degree of sympathy for him?  I’ll admit that I certainly have. On the surface, it appears that he has every reason to be disgruntled.  His irresponsible younger brother (hereafter YB) convinced their father to give him his inheritance early and then left immediately for exotic places with one-third of the family fortune.  Besides that, Dad is getting old and Older Brother (hereafter OB) has to oversee the work of the farm by himself—not that YB was that much help when he was at home anyway.  OB is a good, solid, clean living, hard working man and where has it gotten him?  When Dad divided the inheritance he gave the older son the customary two-thirds—but Dad is still alive and everyone still looks to him as the head of the household and the business.  And does Dad appreciate all of OB’s hard work?  He never tells him so.  He just spends his days gazing off down the road—grieving for YB.

But now that YB has run out of money and friends, having wasted his entire inheritance on an extravagant lifestyle, he comes back home and what does Dad do?  He butchers the choice calf, and has a big party to welcome the undeserving YB home as if nothing had happened.  He doesn’t even make him go through a period of testing to be sure his repentance is genuine.  He is immediately reinstated.  Dad never even killed a little goat and gave a small party for OB—and now he has killed the choice calf for his worthless, wayward, undeserving, YB.  And Dad actually expects him to be happy about all this and to come in and pretend that YB has just been away at college and has come home with his magna cum laude?  Not on your life!

“Dad always loved him more than me anyway,” thinks OB.  “If that’s the way he wants it, let him go in there and make a fool of himself with YB.  I’ve got better things to do—I don’t need either one of them.  I suppose I could forgive, but I could never forget.  It’s the principle of the thing.  That worthless brother doesn’t deserve to be part of this family.  He already has brought enough humiliation on us.  I wish he had died and never come back.  Better that Dad should be grieving over him, than making a fool of himself by welcoming him back home and making a party as if nothing had happened.  Forget it!  Count me out!”

Does this scenario sound familiar?  Perhaps many of us have found ourselves in a similar situation at home or at work or at church.  To make a point, I’ve gotten a little over zealous in my speculation as to what finally transpired between the father and the older son in the parable.  Jesus leaves the parable unfinished for a purpose.  It was directed at his religious critics, and they alone could determine how the story would end for each of them.  In like manner, each of us must determine the end of the story.  Let us now attempt to quell our righteous indignation stirred up on behalf of the older brother and take a closer look at the situation from other perspectives.

This parable perhaps should be entitled “The Two Prodigal Sons,” because, in reality, both sons were estranged from their father.  One was physically present, but emotionally he was likely as far from his father as YB who was physically absent.  Something was lacking in OB’s relationship with his father.  Because OB was turned inward, he seemingly was unaware of or uncaring about the depth of his father’s grief that resulted from YB’s actions.  OB’s self-centeredness resulted in bitterness and hatred, rather than compassion for his wayward YB who had suffered such horrible degradation.

When YB asked his father to give him his portion of the inheritance early, he was, in fact, saying to his father, “I wish you were dead so I could have my portion of your money and goods, but since you won’t accommodate me by dying, give me my portion anyway.”  This is shocking enough to us today, but it must have appeared culturally scandalous and unthinkable to Jesus’ audience.  As we further study the parable, we discover that OB and YB share more in common than is first apparent.  There is the implication that OB also wishes their father were dead, so that he could in practice have control of the family estate without his father’s interference.  We also discover that OB has a rather high opinion of himself:  “Never once have I failed to carry out your orders…”  In the final analysis, and perhaps most importantly, is OB happy?  Is it likely that in fact it has been many years since OB has been truly happy?  Well, if he’s not happy, it must be because he has been deprived of his happiness by his worthless YB and his doting father, right?  Wrong!  God has granted to OB and to each of us the power to determine the path on which we will walk through life. We can choose the path of anger, resentment, jealousy, bitterness, hatred, disappointment and regret—or we can choose to walk through life on the higher path that leads to true happiness and contentment as God intended.

Key # 1: Unconditional Love

The higher path to true happiness is guarded by a door that is unlocked by three keys that God freely offers to each of us. The first key is Unconditional Love. I believe that a basic need to love and to be loved exists in every person although this need may be unrecognized or even denied by some.  Why does it seem to be so important to love and to be loved?  To begin to understand this need, we must begin with God who created us.  1 John 4:8 states that “God is love.”  Genesis 1:26 tells us that God said, “Let us make humankind in our own image.”  How are we created in God’s image?  In one aspect, this refers to the capacity to give and receive love.  It seems that God created us not only with the capacity to give and receive love, but also with the necessity to give and receive love.  Apparently, it is essential to our sense of wholeness and well being to both give and receive love.

Foremost, we are created to receive God’s love and to reflect that love back to him.  Love emanates from God who is the source of love.  He is the essence of pure unconditional love.  His love reaches out to us, touches us, and draws us unto himself with the expectation that his love will flow through us back to him while producing the desired results in us.

By definition, the love which God extends to us is without preconditions. You don’t have to earn it—and you can’t lose it.  It is always there even when you are unaware of it.  Just as the sun is always shining everyday even though clouds may obscure the sun from our view, God’s love is always reaching out to us, endeavoring to manifest itself in our life.  That doesn’t mean we are not held accountable for our actions.  But it does mean that God still loves us even when we act in an unlovely manner.

It is somewhat difficult for us finite humans to grasp an abstract quality such as the love of God.  It is perhaps easier to grasp the concepts of righteousness and judgement or even mercy—but somehow the idea of a loving God seems too simplistic.  The ultimate manifestation of God’s love is expressed in the incarnation of himself in the person of our Lord Jesus—Yeshua, our Messiah. (For further discussion, see my “Unconditional Love.”)

Key #2: Harmonious Relationship

In Jesus’ parable of The Prodigal Son, one can easily discern that it is an allegory, with the father representing God, the younger son representing repentant sinners, and the older son representing Jesus’ religious critics.  One should be careful not to carry the allegory to excess and attempt to assign some corresponding present day significance to every minute detail as was sometimes done in previous generations.  Rather, one should view the parable in light of its major themes of unconditional love, relationship, and forgiveness.

Relationship equals vulnerability.  When we interact with anyone in any type of relationship, we become vulnerable to a greater or lesser degree.  The more intimate the relationship, the more vulnerable we become.  The potential for great happiness and contentment is counterbalanced by the potential for great disappointment and heartache. When we are wounded by unkind words or actions, we tend to retreat a little further behind our protective facade.  Each time we are wounded, we generally become less trusting and more skeptical of others.  To a degree, this is merely part of our survival mechanism and is part of the wisdom one acquires through life’s experiences.  Experience teaches us that it is generally not wise to become too vulnerable with casual acquaintances.  But there is always the potential danger of imbalance—the danger that one may become so fearful of being wounded should any relationship develop past the superficial stage, that one is unable to experience meaningful relationship on a deep level with anyone.

We are probably most vulnerable to those members of our own family.  It’s somewhat difficult to maintain a facade with those of your own household—not totally impossible—but difficult.  In his Prodigal Son parable, Jesus does not explore the reasons for the two sons behaving as they did.  Did the mother die when the children were young, and the father overcompensate by being too permissive?  Were the sons excessively influenced by their peers?  We can only wonder.  Jesus’ purpose was not to assign blame, but rather to demonstrate the willingness of our Heavenly Father to reach out to estranged humanity—whether overt sinner or more respectable sinner of the heart.  Probably, most of you reading this article would not fall into the category of overt sinner. It is likely, however, that many, if not all, of us can relate to a greater or lesser degree with the challenging attitudes of the older brother in the parable.  It is upon the older brother’s relationships, both to his father and to his younger brother, that we shall focus.

When we consider the character traits of OB, desirable and undesirable, in light of Jesus’ teaching, we find OB wasn’t all bad. In fact, he had a lot going for him—he just had a few serious flaws that prevented him from realizing his God-endowed potential of experiencing true personal happiness and of bringing happiness into the lives of others.  In all probability, he maintained his protective facade so well that he was quite respected in the community—in contrast to his wild, rebellious YB.  All the while his own rebellion smoldered just beneath the surface—only to burst forth with a fury as a result of the welcome home party for his wayward younger brother.

Love is the foundation upon which meaningful relationship is built.  God’s love for us is unconditional and this is the model we should endeavor to emulate.  Realistically speaking, however, I’m not sure that I can express love unconditionally.  I’m sorry, but it is just not my nature to love people who are mean or indifferent to me—or who promise one thing and then do something else.  I like people who are nice to me—people who show integrity.  I can feel a lot of sympathy for the older brother.

In emulating Jesus, however, we must view our feelings and responses in light of what he taught and endeavor to conform our lives to his example.  Jesus taught that we are to respond in a kind and balanced manner to both the kind and the unkind, even as our Heavenly Father sends sunshine and rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.   If we are kind only to those who are kind to us, says Jesus, how are we different from the godless.  Jesus also taught that we are truly his followers if we follow his commandments.  And what did Jesus command?  That we love one another as he has loved us.  And how does he love us?  Unconditionally!  While this sounds quite admirable in theory, probably everyone has found that it is quite another matter to love unconditionally in actual practice.  Could OB have acted any differently than he did?  Was he merely a victim of his life circumstances, both genetic and environmental?  Is there really any hope for OB, and by extension, any hope for us?  These are valid questions and a whole cacophony of voices stand ready with a variety of answers, mostly depressingly pessimistic.

God does not require the impossible. Contrary to the purveyors of pessimism, I can assure you that our loving Heavenly Father, who is constantly reaching out to us in unconditional love does not ask the impossible of us.  Scripture teaches that anything God requires of us, he provides a means whereby we are enabled to conform to his requirement. While we imperfect humans may not be able to express unconditional love in our own power, we must remember, however, that we are not limited to what we are able to accomplish in our own power.  It is of utmost importance to remember that God has entrusted humankind with free will.  And we can use that free will to exercise our choice in allowing God to express his unconditional love through us.  The really amazing thing is that as his pure, unconditional love flows through us out to another person, we can actually begin to feel love and compassion for that person.  Perhaps that person has previously elicited nothing but strongly negative feelings in us, but when we ask God to help us to see that person as he sees them, and to feel for that person what God feels, we become eligible to experience a dramatically different relationship with that person.  We become more keenly aware of our own weaknesses and of God’s mercy and love extended to us in spite of our own imperfections.  We actually begin to see the other person as created in God’s image, though that image may be obscured and distorted beyond recognition, often by forces outside that person’s control.

The actions of every person have consequences for themselves and others. We may be tempted to blame God for our disappointments and tragedies in life, but we should never lose sight of the fact that we are imperfect people living in an imperfect world with a lot of other imperfect people.  There are consequences, either good or bad, to every action, whether conscious or unconscious, made by ourselves and others—and those consequences function to shape our lives and the lives of those around us.  A point I wish to emphasize in the strongest terms is that one’s spiritual relationship with God is not a valid excuse that one may use to justify one’s irresponsible behavior.  To the contrary, because we have experienced God’s mercy and unconditional love, we should live by the highest of standards.  As followers of Jesus, we should act with integrity in every area of our life.  Far too often we observe believers who justify their failure to pay their debts by the fact that they are “involved in God’s work” or “preparing for full-time, professional religious service.”  I’m not talking about those situations where sickness, accident, or job layoff has resulted in lack of funds.  I am talking about a pattern of life.  What kind of witness is that to unbelievers?  More often than not, the one taken advantage of is another believer.  What do these and similar patterns of behavior do to a relationship?  Is stressful too mild a term?  How are the perpetrator and the recipient to respond, both outwardly and inwardly?

Jesus’ teaching in the Prodigal Son parable is based on the given of the father’s unconditional love.  The father assumes responsibility for having brought the two sons into existence and as far as we can determine, he loved them both equally.  His love was based upon his capacity to give love, not upon his sons’ ability to earn or to receive his love.  The father also had a need that went unmet by either son, at least for most of the story.  The father had the capacity to love both his sons unconditionally, but in order for his unconditional love to produce happiness within himself, he needed to experience that love flowing back to him as expressions of love through his sons.  A flashlight has the potential to light our path on the darkest of nights—but only if the circuit is complete does electrical current flow through the light bulb and produce the desired result.  As long as the circuit is broken, we do not experience the light.  As long as the relationship is broken, we do not experience the love.  How God’s heart must ache because his love is not flowing through us, back to him—not only because it is not flowing through those who deny his existence and go their own way, but perhaps even more so because it is not flowing through those of us who claim to follow Jesus.

The Result of One’s Turning Inward. At some point, perhaps even at the dividing of the inheritance, OB chose to turn inward.  I suspect it had happened much earlier.  In fact, I suspect he was more than a little mad at God, too.  His choosing to turn inward resulted in a broken relationship with his father and rendered him incapable of experiencing his father’s unconditional love.  Because he chose to stop the flow of love from his father, he was incapable of experiencing love or compassion for either his father or his younger brother.  His well was dry.  He had nothing to give.  Outwardly, he went through the motions of being a good son.  He worked hard and he did what he was told—resenting it all the while.  Inwardly, he was seething, until finally the inner turmoil broke forth in a rage.  So broken was the relationship, that he could not even refer to his brother as “brother” but referred to him as “this son of yours.”  How sad!

Perhaps OB feels justified in his action, but is he happy?  Did he bring happiness to his father or to his younger brother?  Sadly, we must conclude, no.

Our Response to Broken or Strained Relationship. Should we find ourselves in a situation involving a broken or strained relationship, what can we do? Restoration of the broken relationship should be our first priority.  We must recognize, however, that we are responsible only for our own actions and reactions—the other person or persons involved are responsible for their own actions.  We cannot dictate their response—they must choose the course they will take.  On the other hand, we should never hesitate to be the first to reach out to the other party—even if the other person was the one who did the wounding.  Chances are that the other person has real or perceived wounds as well.  If restoration of relationship is our first priority, we will not allow “pride” or “principle” to hinder us from endeavoring to bring about restoration.  Sometimes broken relationship is unavoidable because one party refuses to be reconciled.  Sadly, all involved continue to suffer as a result, but I believe that generally the suffering of the one who endeavors, though unsuccessfully, to bring about reconciliation is small indeed in comparison to the suffering of the one who stubbornly refuses to be reconciled.  We should also remember that Jesus taught that if we refuse to forgive others, our Heavenly Father will not forgive us.  Who among us is arrogant enough to entertain the idea that he or she is able one day to stand before our Heavenly Father and not be in need of forgiveness

Our relationship with Jesus affects our relationship with others and vice versa. Jesus said: “I am the vine, you are the branches; the one who is intimately connected to me bears much fruit.  For without me, you can do nothing (John 15:5). [My paraphrase]  The picture Jesus chose for the analogy of the relationship of his followers to himself was that of the grapevine—a common sight to his audiences, as it is today in modern Israel.  Just as it would be foolish to expect a branch severed from the vine to live very long, much less to produce fruit, Jesus warns that unless his followers continue in close relationship with him, their life will amount to nothing—as evidenced by their fruitlessness. The life of the vine is manifested through its branches and the fruit the branches produce.  It is worth noting that the branches are connected to each other as well as to the vine and it is together that they form a fruit producing entity.  It is essential that we who follow Jesus recognize that our relationship to our Lord is vitally linked with our relationship to each other.

While the analogy of the grapevine relates to Jesus and his followers, our sense of well being and happiness is affected to a greater or lesser degree by our relationship with all those with whom we come in contact.  We cannot control how others respond to us, but we can choose how we will respond to the attitudes and actions of others.  When we encounter situations to which our ability to respond seems inadequate, we can exercise our will in choosing to yield the situation to Jesus and invite him to respond to the situation through us.  I may not be able to respond with unconditional love to someone who has offended me, but I can invite Jesus to respond to that person through me with unconditional love—and then I can feel his love flowing through me.  By exercising this choice, I ultimately benefit as well as the other person.

Key # 3: Unconditional Forgiveness

While unconditional love forms the basis for solid, healthy relationships, unconditional forgiveness serves to maintain solid, healthy relationships.  In fact, without forgiveness, relationships may deteriorate to the breaking point with the result that both parties needlessly suffer physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Unconditional love leads to unconditional forgiveness. In Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, the father provides the model of God’s unconditional love coupled with unconditional forgiveness.  Indeed, it was because of the father’s unconditional love that he could forgive unconditionally.  Because the father loved both his sons unconditionally, he was grieved when his relationship with them was broken and he took the step of unconditional forgiveness that was necessary for the restoration of relationship.  In fact, I suspect that he had already forgiven both the sons long before the fateful day of confrontation at the return of the younger son.

So, the father loved both his sons unconditionally and he had forgiven both of them for their attitudes and actions toward him—therefore he should have been happy, right?  Why not?  Because love was not flowing in both directions—the circuit was not complete.  As mentioned earlier, just as a flashlight contains in its battery the potential for lighting our path but produces no light until the switch completes the circuit, love does not produce personal happiness unless the love is returned by another.  God created us to receive his love, but I suspect that he receives little pleasure from loving us until we respond to his love by loving him in return.  I love my wife, children and grandchildren dearly and I cherish our loving relationships.  I can assure you that should they decide for some reason to withhold their love from me, although I might continue to love them, I certainly would not be happy.  My heart would ache until the flow of love was restored.  I would be miserable until it was restored—whether or not I was responsible for the broken relationship. The restoration of our relationship would be top priority.

Was the older son’s hatred for his brother somehow related to his unforgiveness of both his brother and his father?  Perhaps it was brought about by the dividing of the inheritance, but I suspect that it had gone on much longer.  In searching for reasons for the behavior of the primary participants in the parable, we must consider their behavior from a human standpoint and not carry the allegorical aspect farther than Jesus intended.

The “A” Syndrome. Keith Intrater, author of Covenant Relationships, has noted that in counseling people, he has noticed a certain pattern that he calls the “A” syndrome:  For lack of parental Affection, our need for Approval turns to Achievement instead of Acceptance.  He has observed that when parents demonstrate substantial affection in their relationship to their children, the children generally do not need to overachieve to make up for feelings of insecurity.  To the degree that the child was well loved when he or she was growing up, his or her motivation toward productive labor tends to be balanced and wholesome.  The person can still be achievement oriented, but it will flow out of a source of ease and graciousness that does not put stress on relationships.

Both sons in the Prodigal family are alienated from their father, although their alienation manifests itself in different ways.  Both are, in essence, angry with their father.  The younger son shows his rejection of parental authority, respect, love, and relationship by demanding the share of the estate that he would eventually get when his father died.  The older son, though also angry with his father, internalized his negative feelings for his father.  He went about his work, he allowed his father to continue to run the business (although supposedly he had been given the two-thirds of the estate since he was the elder son) and yet, all the while, he was in turmoil inwardly.  As long as YB was gone, OB was able to keep a lid on the boiling pot.  But when YB shows up unexpectedly and is received back into the family unconditionally—OB’s pot boils over.  His father’s response is to speak kindly to him and to entreat him to come inside and be reconciled to his younger brother.

The older brother has a choice.  At this point, regardless of all that has transpired in the past, OB has a choice.  He stands at a fork in the road of life.  He can choose the path that leads to reconciliation and restoration of relationship and let go of the myriad of emotions raging within—or he can choose the path that leads to destruction, not only of family relationships but also destruction of his physical, emotional, and spiritual health.   But what if he wants to be reconciled to his brother and father, but just can’t bring himself to do it?  Too much has happened.  What if there is no love left—only disgust, anger, resentment, disappointment and a numbness that permeates to the very depths of his being?

I continue to maintain that OB’s free will with which God created him still exists.  Although he obviously has been traumatized by the circumstances of his life, he still has the freedom to choose how he wants to respond.  When we know what is the wise choice that we should make in a particular situation, there is still hope even though we are weary and beaten down by the storms of life.  That is when it is essential to look beyond ourselves, exercise our will and choose to invite Jesus to respond to the situation for us and through us.  When we yield our negative attitudes and actions to him, he is then free to transform them and return to us the positive counterpart.  Initially, at the time of the decision, we may or may not feel any differently—but, if we are serious and really mean business, our attitudes and actions will change.  Our response to unpleasant people and situations will change.  We will feel the load lift and we will experience real freedom.

Jesus said, “Come unto me all who are weary from carrying heavy loads and I will give you rest.  Become my follower and learn from me and you will experience rest in the depths of your being.” [My paraphrase]  How did first-century students learn from the teacher with whom they were studying? They lived with him and observed everything he said and did.  They went with him wherever he went and observed how he responded to every life situation, as well as to what he taught them orally.  How do we learn from Jesus?  We spend time in his presence—not only in studying his words as preserved in the Scriptures, but also in sitting quietly in his presence, allowing him to minister to us in our mind, emotions, and body.  Perhaps too often in our prayer time we make speeches to the Lord without realizing the necessity of taking time to listen as well.  So many of us stay so busy “doing things for the Lord” that we fail to reserve time to spend quietly in his presence where we can be refreshed and renewed.  As a result, too often we burn out and experience attacks of discouragement, disillusionment, and even despair.  We are of little value to ourselves or to the work of God’s kingdom—and we are not very pleasant to be around.

Getting personal. What if we find ourselves in a strained or broken relationship?  What if we are really mad at God?  What if we feel we have done everything right—and others and God as well have let us down?  We feel betrayed and bitter—and then we feel guilty for feeling the way we do.  What can we do to turn our situation around?

The first step is to recognize that we need help.  We need God’s help.  We also need to realize that God does not stop reaching out to us in love just because we have thrown a temper tantrum, just as we don’t stop loving our children if our two-year-old should throw a temper tantrum.  (There are consequences that both we and our children experience to our respective tantrums—the most significant of which is that we become unable to feel the love flowing out to us.)  Because of the emotional or physical trauma involved in the circumstances, however, at this time when we need God’s help most, we often are the least able to pray.  That is when we realize how important it is to be connected to our brothers and sisters in the Lord who can stand with us and intercede on our behalf.  I’m glad God created us so that we need each other.  He didn’t create us to exist in isolation—he created us to care for one another.  But exactly to whom do you turn at a time like this?  The family of God is pretty big.

Degrees of Intimacy. Just as there are degrees of intimacy within our biological families, there are also degrees of intimacy within our spiritual families as well.  Biologically, we have our immediate family and we have our extended family and, generally, we enjoy more intimacy with our immediate family.  Likewise, we need to become part of a small, intimate group within our larger spiritual family.  It is in the smaller, spiritual family that we can build trusting relationships to the point that we are willing to become vulnerable to the greatest degree without fear of betrayal.  This type of relationship takes time to develop but it creates a protective, nurturing environment where wounded people can find trusted brothers and sisters that will pray with them and help them through any difficult situation.

We have experienced this type of spiritual intimacy with a small group of men and women meeting with us for prayer in our home.  As a group, we seem to experience the presence of the Lord in a more powerful manner than when my wife, Lenore, and I are praying alone.  This does not take the place of our own time alone with the Lord.  Rather, it is a natural outgrowth of our personal time with the Lord.  There is great comfort knowing that at any time, there are fellow believers who are spiritually harmonious, on whom you can call to join you in prayer for your own needs or the needs of others.

Much of what we have seen accomplished in these times of prayer is forgiveness and healing of relationships.  Sadly, the emotions and relationships that required healing had grown immeasurably larger than necessary, had the issues only been addressed when the situation was first encountered.  Because forgiveness had not been initiated quickly, unforgiveness provided a fertile environment in which a myriad of problems had grown, often threatening to destroy relationships.  Often, during times of quiet before the Lord, emotions and situations that the individuals had thought that they had dealt with sufficiently in the past, would come rising to the surface of their consciousness where the problem could be personally yielded to the Lord and deeper healing could then take place.

Forgiving God. If we do feel that God has betrayed us, or has just overlooked us when he was choosing to heal, or whatever, then we should tell him exactly the way we feel—out loud.  There are countless people walking around today who are living bitter, disillusioned, negative lives because they are angry with God but they are afraid to admit it.  Go ahead and tell him!  He is big enough to handle it!   Neither from Scripture nor from personal experience have I discovered that God penalizes anyone for being honest with him.

After truthfully acknowledging our real feelings, we can exercise our will in choosing to ask him to forgive us for those feelings, to take them from us, and to transform them so that we may see our relationship with him in the proper perspective.  We may not feel like asking him to do that—but that is where our will comes in—we can choose to ask him even if we don’t feel like it.  And then we can choose to forgive him.  What?  Choose to forgive God when we were wrong in blaming him in the first place?  Precisely!  When we go through the exercise of forgiving God for whatever perceived injustice, we are admitting that we blamed him and thereby we bring closure to the issue.  Unless we choose to forgive God, we otherwise may be tempted to deny that we had the feelings in the first place.  Once we acknowledge the feelings, it is important both to ask God’s forgiveness and to forgive him as well.  Choosing to forgive releases the feelings, even though the feelings were invalid.  Therefore, vertical application of the Third Key of Unconditional Forgiveness is valid as well as its horizontal application.

Endeavor to restore damaged or broken relationships quickly. “Let not the sun go down on your anger” was a scriptural principle that I learned from my parents and that I continue to practice in my personal relationships.   I am a person who feels deeply and who expresses himself forcefully—sometimes too forcefully.  My children are grown now and I am now a grandparent.  But as a parent and as a husband, I have had to ask my children and my wife for forgiveness many times.  Even when a child’s disobedience was involved, I sometimes failed to cope in a mature, loving manner.  Most often, I became impatient and lost my temper with my son.  Since broken relationship was not an option, we always endeavored to restore our relationship to harmony as soon as possible.  After some minutes of cooling off, I usually was the one who would go to my son, and sit down with him, and ask him to forgive me for losing my temper.  We would then pray together and agree to start our relationship anew with no grudges—our angry words were forgiven and forgotten—not to be mentioned again.  Because of our deep love for each other, it was too uncomfortable for either of us to remain estranged for more than an hour or so.

On a certain occasion a woman in our prayer fellowship whom my wife, Lenore, and I have known for many years, lashed out hurtfully at another member during the meeting and, as a result, I directed a disciplinary letter to her.  I felt the letter was justified and chose that means because I felt it indicated less importance than addressing the issue in person.  Sometime later I learned that she had been deeply hurt and offended by the letter.  She had not taken it in the way I had intended.  I could have said, “The letter was justified; if she took it wrong, that’s her problem!”  But since a broken relationship is not an option with us, upon learning of the woman’s hurt, Lenore and I went to visit her, not knowing if she would even let us into her house.  When she came to the door, I said to her, “I am so sorry that I hurt you.  I would never intentionally have done so.  I wrote the letter because I didn’t think it was a really big deal, but I certainly misjudged the way you would respond to the letter.  I realize now that if I thought it was necessary to say anything, I should have come to you personally rather than sending a letter.”  With that she began sobbing and said, “You don’t know how much I wanted to hear that.”  She then invited us in for coffee and we talked for two or three hours.  When we left, the relationship had not only been restored, it was even stronger for having been given the reassurance that no matter what may happen in the future, broken relationship is not an option.  We will take steps to do whatever is necessary to restore a broken or damaged relationship to harmony insofar as we are able.


Let me encourage you to remember to use the three keys with which the Lord has entrusted each of us that will open the door to the high road of personal happiness:  Unconditional Love, Harmonious Relationship, and Unconditional Forgiveness. Regardless of your current situation, there really is hope. As my late father-in-law, Dr. Bob Lindsey, used to say when someone would tell a particularly sad or pessimistic story, “Cheer up!”  I can still see his smile as he would say, “Cheer up!”  So I say to you, “Cheer up!”  Determine today that you will yield that troubling situation or interpersonal relationship in your life to our Lord and allow him to transform it and return it to you as something beautiful.  Ask him to forgive you, cleanse you, and fill you to overflowing with his Spirit.  Ask him to enable you to allow his pure, unconditional love to flow through you back to him as well as out to those about you.  Ask him to enable you to see others as he sees them and to feel for others what he feels for them.  Ask that his perfect will might be accomplished in and through you—for his own honor and glory.  Do this and you will be well on the way to experiencing true personal happiness.


[Author’s note: Although the author is a Christian writing from a Christian perspective, he acknowledges that Jesus was Jewish, functioning as a Jewish sage when speaking the Parable of the Prodigal Son to a Jewish audience. Therefore, the author hopes that Jewish readers, as well as Christian readers, will find the following article meaningful.]

Covered in the Dust of Your Rabbi: An Urban Legend?

Some months ago, pastor-blogger Trevin Wax posted an article called “Urban Legends: The Preacher’s Edition.” There he lists several “urban legends” that he’s heard floating around lately in sermons. Like Internet rumors that people forward on ad infinitum, these preaching illustrations don’t have much grounding in fact.

One potential fallacy on his list caught my eye. It’s the saying, “be covered in your rabbi’s dust.” Trevin writes:

This is one of the most pervasive and fast-spreading stories to flood the church in recent years. The idea is that as you walked behind your rabbi, he would kick up dust and you would become caked in it and so following your rabbi closely came to symbolize your commitment and zeal.

I heartily agree with Trevin’s much-needed reminder to double-check your facts. But I’ve written about this idea myself. If you haven’t heard it from me, you may have heard a sermon about “getting dusty” from preachers like John Ortberg, Ed Dobson or Rob Bell, or watched Ray Vander Laan’s DVD, “In the Dust of the Rabbi.”[1] It seems reasonable, then, to explore the historical background of being “covered in dust.” Is it just a faddish fairytale? Let’s take a closer look.

Powdering Yourself in Dust

The source of this saying is the Mishnah, Avot 1:4. (The Mishnah is a collection of rabbinic thought from 200 BC to 200 AD that still forms the core of Jewish belief today.) The quotation is from Yose ben Yoezer (yo-EHZ-er). He was one of the earliest members of the rabbinic movement, who lived about two centuries before Jesus:

Let thy house be a meeting-house for the wise; and powder thyself in the dust of their feet; and drink their words with thirstiness.[2]

The overall idea here is to encourage people to make their homes places of Bible study, and to welcome itinerant teachers and eagerly learn from them. These teachers were called “sages” before 70 AD (hakamim, or “the wise”). After that the title “rabbi” began to be used.[3]

The middle line is sometimes translated as “sit amid the dust of their feet,” and understood as being about humbly sitting at the feet of one’s teacher to learn from him. This is because it was customary to honor a teacher by sitting on the floor while he taught seated in a chair.

From this arose a widely-used idiom for studying with a rabbinic teacher, that you “sat at his feet.” Paul even says that he was educated “at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3). The fact that Mary “sat at Jesus’ feet” in Luke 10:39 suggests that she was learning from him as a disciple, too.[4]

If you look more closely at the Hebrew text of Avot 1:4, however, it does not explicitly talk about sitting. It reads, hevei mitabek b’afar raglehem—literally, “and be powdering yourself with the dust of their feet.” The verb mitabek is the hitpael form of avak, and it means “to powder yourself,” like a woman powdering her face. It comes from the noun avak, which is very fine powder, often that which is kicked up by feet on a dusty road. (See Ezekiel 26:10, Nahum 1:3; Mishnah Shabbat 3:3, 12:15).

Read literally, Yoezer’s saying sounds more like it’s describing the idea of “powdering yourself” by walking through clouds of dust billowing up along a dirt roadway. Because of this, some highly respected scholars believe that “walking in your teacher’s dust” was the original intent of Avot 1:4.[5]

They also note that rabbinic literature records numerous discussions between rabbis and disciples as they traveled from town to town. The teacher always walked in front, and his students behind. Here’s how one scene begins (~120 AD):

Once Rabbi Ishmael, Rabbi Eleazar and Rabbi Akiva were walking along the road followed by Levi the net-maker and Ishmael the son of Rabbi Eleazar. The following question was discussed by them: “Whence do we know that the duty of saving a life supersedes the Sabbath laws?”[6]

Apparently, three scholars decided to confer on an issue as they journeyed together, while two of their disciples followed closely behind, taking mental notes.

In earlier periods, discussions between rabbis and disciples are often set within daily life—while sitting under a tree, in a marketplace, sharing a meal, or walking along a road. It was about a century after Christ that rabbinic study became confined to study halls and synagogues.[7] The Gospel accounts firmly fit Jesus into the earlier tradition of training disciples through living and traveling together.

Walking or Sitting?

So, how should we read Yoezer’s adage? Is it about sitting or about walking? Both readings are possible. The first line of Avot 1:4, about “making your home a meeting place” suggests that it’s about inviting him in and sitting at his feet. The second two lines suggest traveling behind him—not only does a disciple get dusty journeying behind his teacher, he gets thirsty too.

Modern commentaries realize that Avot 1:4 has more than one possible interpretation, so many mention both. The well-known Soncino Talmud, for instance, states:

Either: let the dust of the feet of the Sages, as they walk, cover you (i.e., follow them closely), or, sit in the dust (on the ground) at their feet whilst they teach.[8]

In The Moral Maxims of the Sages of Israel: Pirkei Avot, Martin Sicker writes:

What is the sage attempting to convey by his urging that one “become covered with the dust of their feet”? Some consider this to reflect the imagery of a group of disciples sitting on the earth at the feet of their master, who is seated on a stool before them…. Others, however, see it as urging the disciple to follow in the footsteps of his master wherever he goes, figuratively as well as literally. In either case, the teaching may be understood to convey the idea that the disciple should always remain within the ambit of his master’s “dust” or influence.[9]

That’s why I usually quote this line as about “being covered” in the dust of your rabbi, which can suggest either walking or sitting. The point, of course, is to humbly follow in Christ’s footsteps, staying close beside him and drinking in his words.

My thanks to David Bivin for his help with the Hebrew here. For readers who want to learn about the Gospels in context, JP is an excellent resource.

  • [1] Ray Vander Laan is the author of the Faith Lessons DVD series, which is based on his years of leading study trips to Israel, Greece and Turkey. Ray was actually the first to preach widely about the idea of “becoming dusty” as a disciple of Jesus. When I spoke with him about it, he said that he first heard this saying being used in conversation when he was enrolled at an Orthodox Jewish university. It was not uncommon, he said, to hear fellow students and professors quote Avot 1:4 to stress the importance of studying intensively from a teacher.
  • [2] Pirqe Aboth 1:4 (Charles Taylor, trans.)
  • [3] For more on the use of the term “rabbi,” see my article, “Can We Call Jesus ‘Rabbi’?”
  • [4] In Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus (Zondervan, 2009), we discuss this on page 14. (I was fully aware of this debate as I chose the title for my next book, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus. (Zondervan, 2012))
  • [5] See Shmuel Safrai, The Jewish People in the First Century (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976) 958-69. Safrai was an acclaimed Jewish scholar who won the national Israel Prize for his research on early Judaism in 2002. David Bivin explains more fully in New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus (Holland, MI: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2005), 14.
  • [6] Mekhilta, Shabbeta 1, on Exodus 31:13. Interestingly, Jesus has this same debate with some Pharisees (about putting aside Sabbath laws) when he’s walking with his disciples and they pluck some grain to eat (Luke 6:1-5).
  • [7] The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature (C. E. Fonrobert, M. S. Jaffee, eds), 58-74. The author, Jeffrey Rubenstein looks at the social context of rabbinic sayings. He also discusses the difficulty of using later rabbinic sources to determine earlier historical reality.
  • [8] Comment on Avoth 1:4, the Soncino Talmud, Soncino Press.
  • [9] Martin Sicker, The Moral Maxims of the Sages of Israel: Pirkei Avot (iUniverse, 2004), 29.

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.”

Sensational New Articles at JerusalemPerspective.com!

JerusalemPerspective.com has become synonymous with the clearest, most accurate and most up-to-date information about the life and words of Yeshua (Jesus). Jerusalem Perspective does not rest on its laurels, but works continuously to add content to an already important learning resource.

Jerusalem Perspective.com has published several exciting new articles. Never before available on the Internet, and exclusively available to Premium Content subscribers, these articles are among the most important we have published.

The two most significant new articles, 21,633 words and 7,230 words in length, respectively, were penned by Shmuel Safrai, the legendary Hebrew University scholar. These articles are monumental in scope, and from a scholarly standpoint, revolutionary.

Professor Safrai’s conclusions will come as a shock to many New Testament scholars. For example, the prevailing opinion among today’s scholars is that first-century Galilee was culturally and spiritually deprived, and that, therefore, Jesus came from an underdeveloped and backward Jewish region of the land of Israel. In “The Jewish Cultural Nature of Galilee in the First Century,” Safrai shows that Galilee was the Jewish cultural center in the time of Jesus; that almost all famous rabbis of the first century hailed from the Galilee, not Judea; and that the level of Torah study in Galilee surpassed all other regions of the land.

In “The Value of Rabbinic Literature as an Historical Source,” Safrai challenges the notion that because rabbinic sources were only put in writing after 200 A.D., they are not reliable historical witnesses to events that took place in the first century A.D., and before.

Another intriguing new article (3,329 words in length), “From Melchizedek to Jesus: The Higher Eternal Priest in Jewish Second Temple Literature,” was written by Dr. Moshe Navon. Navon discusses one of the most fascinating Dead Sea Scrolls. Known as “Pesher Melchizedek,” the scroll focuses on a biblical figure mentioned only twice in the Hebrew Scriptures (Gen. 14:18; Ps. 110:4). In this amazing scroll, Melchizedek combines the roles of kingly messiah, priestly messiah, messiah of the spirit, end-time judge, and even God. Pesher Melchizedek is extremely exciting for New Testament readers because the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews makes an equation between Melchizedek and Jesus (Heb. 5-7).

David Bivin contributed two new articles, of 8,916 words and 14,241 words in length, respectively. The first, for example, “Jesus and the Enigmatic ‘Green Tree,’” is a study of Jesus’ saying, “For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?” (Luke 23:31). If it is true that during a moment of intense mental anguish and physical pain, Jesus employed the “green tree” motif to stress his messiahship, then it cannot be true that by this time in his life he had already realized his messianic pretensions had come to nothing. We can assume that Jesus viewed his death as an integral part of his messianic mission. Jesus had not been disillusioned by his arrest, scourging, and the prospect of a cruel death, but marched to Golgotha confident of his divinely ordained task.

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

Revised: 21-May-2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus’ Last Visit(s) to the Temple

The “Cleansing” according to the Synoptic Gospels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Jesus and the Enigmatic “Green Tree”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messianic Titles Used by Jesus’ Disciples to Refer to Him

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attempting to Unravel the “Green Tree” Enigma

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Context of Jesus’ “Green Tree” Saying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is “Green Tree” a Messianic Title?

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

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

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

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

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

The Saying’s Hebraisms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literary Parallels to Jesus’ Saying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hebrew as a Spoken Language in First-century Israel

An extremely interesting discussion is now taking place on the Bible Translation Discussion List (Bible-Translation@lists.kastanet.org). Jack Kilmon has stated (13Nov08), “Jesus/Yeshua’s native language was Aramaic. That is no longer disputed in serious scholarship,” and (15Nov08), “There is no evidence whatsoever that ordinary people spoke Hebrew in the late 2nd temple period.”

Contra Kilmon: Hebrew was a living language in first-century Israel, part of a multilingual environment (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek). Jewish teachers of that period (first-century tannaim from both Galilee and Judea) ordinarily passed on their teachings in Hebrew. For example, parables were preserved in Hebrew. Shmuel Safrai writes,

The parable was one of the most common tools of rabbinic instruction from the second century B.C.E. until the close of the amoraic period at the end of the fifth century C.E. Thousands of parables have been preserved in complete or fragmentary form, and are found in all types of literary compositions of the rabbinic period, both halachic and aggadic, early and late. All of the parables are in Hebrew. Amoraic literature often contains stories in Aramaic, and a parable may be woven into the story; however the parable itself is always in Hebrew (b. Baba Qam. 60b; or b. Sotah 40a). There are instances of popular sayings in Aramaic, but every single parable is in Hebrew” (“Spoken and Literary Languages in the Time of Jesus,” in Jesus’ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels, Vol. 1 [ed. R. S. Notley, M. Turnage and B. Becker; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2005], 238; see also Randall Buth and Brian Kvasnica, “Temple Authorities and Tithe Evasion: The Linguistic Background and Impact of the Parable of the Vineyard, the Tenants and the Son,” in Jesus’ Last Week, 58, n. 17).

Hebrew also was typically chosen for written accounts of Jewish religious significance, as evidenced by post-biblical writings such as Ben Sira, 1 Maccabees (according to consensus), by the Qumran texts and tannaic Hebrew texts. On the significant lack of Aramaic targum at Qumran, see Randall Buth, “Where Is the Aramaic Bible at Qumran? Scripture Use in the Land of Israel.”

The Second Temple period epigraphical material is more frequently Hebrew than Aramaic. Just last month Israeli archaeologists unearthed part of a first-century limestone sarcophagus cover with the Hebrew inscription בן הכהן הגדול (ben hacohen hagadol, son of the High Priest).

If it is likely that the literary language of Jews in the time of Jesus was Hebrew, and the ordinary language of teaching was Hebrew, what was the primary spoken language of the Jewish residents of the Land? It appears that it, too, was Hebrew.

Randall Buth has pointed out to me a fascinating indication that Hebrew was the spoken language in the first century. The Jewish historian Josephus describes an incident that took place during the siege of Jerusalem (War 5:269-272). Josephus relates that watchmen were posted on the towers of the city walls to warn residents of incoming stones fired from Roman ballistae. Whenever a stone was on its way, the spotters would shout “in their native tongue, ‘The son is coming!’” (War 5:272). The meaning the watchmen communicated to the people was: האבן באה (ha-even ba’ah, the stone is coming). However, because of the urgency of the situation, these words were clipped, being abbreviated to בן בא (ben ba, son comes). (This well-known Hebrew wordplay is attested in the New Testament: “God is able from these avanim [stones] to raise up banim [sons] to Abraham” [Matt. 3:9 = Luke 3:8].)

The wordplay (and pun) that Josephus preserves is unambiguously Hebrew. This wordplay does not work in Aramaic: kefa ate (the stone is coming), or the more literary, avna ata, when spoken rapidly, do not sound like bara ate (the son is coming). Another Aramaic word for “stone,” aven, which is related to Hebrew, changes the gender of the verb and, in any case, does not work with “son.”

Certainly, a warning about an incoming missile needs to be as brief as possible (and, of course, shouted in the language of speech). How many words would an English-speaking soldier use to warn his unit of an incoming artillery shell? The Hebrew-speaking spotters on the walls of the besieged city of Jerusalem needed only two, and these they abbreviated to one syllable each.

Jerusalem Perspective’s Perspective on Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code









In the marketplace of ideas, legitimate biblical scholarship competes with the likes of Erich von Deniken (Chariots of the Gods) and Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code), and other sensationalists. The sensationalists, of course, always win, hands down. As Jerusalem Perspective author Magen Broshi commented,

For every one hundred persons who know (and quote) Erich von Deniken, there are barely ten who know who William Foxwell Albright, the Nestor of Biblical archaeology, was, and hardly one who knows the name of Henri Frankfort, one of the most profound and original students of the Ancient Near East (“From Allegro to Zeitlin”).

A movie based on The Da Vinci Code is scheduled for release at the end of this week. To help its readers better evaluate Dan Brown’s book, Jerusalem Perspective has published “Historical Howlers, Funny and Otherwise: Dan Brown’s Backward Understanding of Gnosticism” by Jerusalem Perspective author Jack Poirier. Poirier points out some of the major historical and factual errors made by Brown. Read Poirier’s article and you quickly realize the scope of the inaccuracies in Brown’s book.

Poirier’s article begins,

Many readers from my generation probably remember the hilarious riposte by Bluto, a character in the movie Animal House: “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?!” One could not ask for a funnier example of a historical howler than that, and John Belushi’s performance made it even more hilarious. But historical howlers are not always funny. Consider, for example, the factual errors strewn throughout Dan Brown’s runaway bestseller, The Da Vinci Code. The howlers and other factual errors in the middle chapters of that book are almost too numerous to count (on p. 234, there are sixteen errors in the space of just three small paragraphs!), and they are so absurd that debunking the book’s virtual history has been compared to shooting fish in a barrel. Unfortunately, probably only a fraction of that novel’s readers are any the wiser, and that is why these howlers are ultimately not funny. They will be even less funny when the movie comes out.

David Bivin’s New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights From His Jewish Context counters at least one suggestion embedded in Brown’s best-selling novel. In the En-Gedi Resource Center newsletter, Lois Tverberg and Bruce Okkema write:

The book [The Da Vinci Code] suggests that Jesus was actually married even though the Gospels never mention it. To quote a character in the book, “Jesus as a married man makes infinitely more sense than our standard biblical view of Jesus as a bachelor, because Jesus was a Jew, and the social decorum during that time virtually forbid a Jewish man to be unmarried….” (p. 245).

Was Jesus married? Would he and Paul have been condemned for being single? According to scholar David Bivin, the answer is no. In New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, he writes [quoting Professor Shmuel Safrai], “A bachelor rabbi functioning within Jewish society of the first century was not as abnormal as it might first appear. Rabbis often spent many years far from home, first as students and then as itinerant teachers. It was not uncommon for such men to marry in their late thirties or forties. Just as some students today wait to marry until they finish their education, so there were disciples and even rabbis who postponed marriage until later in life” (p. 67).

Bivin then gives two examples [suggested by Professor Shmuel Safrai] of rabbis from Jesus’ time who married after having disciples, or were putting off marriage until later because of their dedication to teaching the Scriptures. This fits well with Jesus’ statement that “others have renounced marriage because of the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 19:12) and Paul’s affirmation of singleness as well. Rather than being an impossibility, singleness was a sign of a rabbi’s great commitment to God.

Download the chapter, “Why Didn’t Jesus Get Married?” from David Bivin’s new book.

Purchase New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus.