The Significance of Jesus’ Words “Not One Jot or One Tittle Will Pass from the Law” (Matt. 5:18)

This article was inspired by a question from Jane Allen about David Bivin’s Hebrew Nuggets, Lesson 1: Jesus’ Hebrew Name (Part 1).

In a statement about the continuing validity of the Torah, Jesus uses a difficult-to-understand idiom. The Greek reads: ἕως ἂν παρέλθῃ ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ, ἰῶτα ἓν ἢ μία κεραία οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ ἀπὸ τοῦ νόμου (“…until pass away the heaven and the earth, iota one or one point by no means will pass way from the law…”; Matt. 5:18).

Most English translations have not helped readers understand the idiom:

“Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law…” (KJV)

“…till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law…” (RSV)

“…until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law…” (ESV)

What Is a “Jot” and What Is a “Tittle”?

Behind the translation “jot” is the word ἰῶτα (iōta), the name for the tenth letter of the Greek alphabet (ι), and behind “tittle” is κεραία (keraia). Presuming that Jesus originally made the statement recorded in Matt. 5:18 in Hebrew, iota would stand for י (yod), the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. But what is the meaning of keraia, and what might have been its Hebrew equivalent?

Roman letters with the serif marked in red. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Roman letters with the serifs marked in red. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

According to BDAG, the meaning of keraia is “horn,” “projection,” or “hook” and when used to describe a characteristic of a letter keraia refers to a serif.[1] (A serif is an ornamental barb that adorns a letter.) The most natural equivalent of keraia in Hebrew is kotz.

In biblical Hebrew the word קוֹץ (kōtz) meant either “thorn” or “thorny bush,” but in post-biblical Hebrew kotz took on a secondary meaning referring to the thorn-shaped projections on certain Hebrew letters. In the scrolls found at Qumran along the northwestern corner of the Dead Sea, and on ossuary inscriptions from the first century the kotz is distinctly visible at the top left corners of the letters yod, vav and lamed.

Isa. 53.8
From the Great Isaiah Scroll discovered at Qumran, this image shows part of Isa. 53:8 (1QIsa XLIV, 15).

Isa. 53.8markings
Same image as above, but with the kotzim on the letters yod, vav, and lamed circled in red. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Some scholars have suggested that תָּג (tāg; plural: תָּגִים [tāgim], or תָּגִין [tāgin]), is a better equivalent for keraia in Matt. 5:18.[2] Tag is a loanword from the Aramaic תָּגָא (tāgā’, “crown,” “crownlet on a letter”), but since tag occurs only in very late rabbinic sources, but not at all in Biblical Hebrew, the Dead Sea Scrolls, or Tanaitic literature, it is unlikely that tag existed in Hebrew in the time of Jesus.

The opening words of the Shema' ("Hear, O Israel"; Deut. 6:8) from a mezzuzah parchment. The tagin ("crowns") are visible on the top left corners of the letters ש (far right), ע (the large letter in the middle) and ש (fourth letter from left). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The opening words of the Shema‘ (“Hear, O Israel”; Deut. 6:8) from a mezuzah parchment. The tagin (“crowns”) are visible on the top left corners of the letters ש (far right), ע (the large letter in the middle) and ש (fourth letter from left). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Other scholars have suggested that tagin and kotzim are to be equated, but this suggestion is incorrect.[3] Tagin are scribal ornamentations that appear on certain letters in Torah scrolls or on the parchments encased in tefillin or a mezuzah,[4] but the ornaments referred to as tagin did not exist in the Second Temple Period when Jesus lived. Tagin are a scribal convention that developed at a much later date.


Meaning of the Expression in Jesus’ Saying

Yod with KotzThere are parallels in ancient Jewish sources that can help us clarify the meaning of Jesus’ statement in Matt. 5:18. The Babylonian Talmud relates a legend about Moses who had a vision of the future, when the Torah would be taught by Rabbi Akiva, who would base “mounds upon mounds of religious rulings” on the basis of his exposition of every kotz [על כל קוץ וקוץ] in the Torah (b. Men. 29b). Just as Jesus claimed that not even a kotz would ever disappear from a letter in the Torah, so Rabbi Akiva attached importance to every kots in the Torah, and went so far as to derive religious rulings (or halachot) on their basis.

An even closer parallel to Jesus’ saying is found in the following passage:

אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: לא נצרכא אלא לקוצו של יו″ד

Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: The Torah must be taught according to the kotz of a yod. (b. Men. 34a)[5]

In the phrase kotz of the yod we discover the reason Jesus mentioned “jot” and “tittle” in the same sentence. He did not mean “neither the smallest letter, nor the smallest dot,” referring to two different and unrelated markings, but “neither the smallest letter, nor even the smallest part of the smallest letter.”

To illustrate how essential is each letter of the Torah, the sages told a fanciful story about king Solomon who reasoned that since the prohibition against taking many wives in Deut. 17:17 says, “so that his heart will not turn away,” as long as he did not turn his heart away, it would be permissible for him to take as many wives as he wished:

באותה שעה עלתה יו″ד שבירבה ונשתטחה לפני הקב″ה ואמרה רבון העולמים לא כך אמרת אין אות בטלה מן התורה לעולם הרי שלמה עומד ומבטל אותי ושמא היום יבטל אחת ולמחר אחרת עד שתתבטל כל התורה כולה אמר לה הקב″ה שלמה ואלף כיוצא בו יהיו בטלין וקוצה ממך איני מבטל

At that time, the yod of the word yarbeh [from the commandment lo’ yarbeh lō nāshim, “(the king) must not multiply wives to himself”; Deut. 17:17—DNB and JNT] went up on high and prostrated itself before God and said: ‘Master of the Universe! Hast thou not said that no letter shall ever be abolished from the Torah? Behold, Solomon has now arisen and abolished one. Who knows? To-day he has abolished one letter, to-morrow he will abolish another until the whole Torah will be nullified?’ God replied: ‘Solomon and a thousand like him will pass away, but the smallest tittle [i.e., kotz—DNB and JNT] will not be erased from thee.’ (Exod. Rab. 6:1)[6]

According to this story God promises that not even the kotz of the yod from the word ירבה (yarbeh, “multiply”) in Deut. 17:17 will be nullified. The idea expressed in this story is so similar to the saying of Jesus in Matt. 5:18 that it seems quite likely that Jesus alluded to a familiar saying that also influenced the fanciful story about Solomon that appears in later rabbinic literature.


In order to grasp the full meaning of Jesus’ saying in Matt. 5:18, we suggest the following paraphrase: “Not the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the yod, nor even its non-intregal serif, the kotz, will ever drop out of the Torah!”[7] In a very colorful and dramatic way, Jesus declared that the Torah of Moses would never cease to exist.

An ossuary inscription (first century C.E.) with the name יועזר ("Yo'ezer").
An ossuary inscription (first century C.E.) with the name יועזר (“Yō‘ezer”).

Same image as above, but with the kotzim on the letters yod and vav circled in red. The ossuary that bears this inscription is housed at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago where it is on display in the Megiddo Gallery. Photo courtesy of

The featured image shows the text of Matt. 5:18 in The Holy Bible, Conteyning the Old Testament and the New: Newly Translated out of the Originall Tongues: & with the former Translations diligently compared and revised by his Majesties Special Commandment Appointed to be read in Churches Imprinted at London by Robert Barker Printer to the Kings most Excellent Majestie Anno Dom. 1611 (also known as The King James Version).
  • [1] Walter Bauer, Frederick W. Danker, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (3d ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 540.
  • [2] See, for instance, Michael Avi-Yonah, Views of the Biblical World Vol. 5: The New Testament (Jerusalem: International Publishing Co., 1961), 32.
  • [3] See Avraham Even-shoshan, Ha-Millon He-Hadash (Jerusalem: Kiryath Sepher, 1966), 1181.
  • [4] See the entry for “Tagin” in Encyclopaedia Judaica (16 vols.; ed. Cecil Roth and Geoffrey Wigoder; Jerusalem: Keter, 1971-1972), 15:700.
  • [5] A variant of this statement is found in b. Men. 29a where we find לקוצה של יוד.
  • [6] Translation according to H. Freedman and Maurice Simon ed., The Midrash Rabbah (10 vols.; London: Soncino, 1983), 3:103.
  • [7] The NIV translators should be commended for their translation of this verse: “…not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law…” (Matt. 5:18).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And whose is that?”

“It belongs to those who support orphans.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Talmud contains the following statement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


David Flusser’s Response

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

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

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

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

Robert L. Lindsey’s Response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written, Inspired and Profitable

The Bible provides minimal help for anyone trying to write a description of it for inclusion in a Statement of Faith. As a result, such descriptions typically claim more than the Bible discloses about itself.[1]

When formulating a declaration about Scripture, I recommend adhering to the following guidelines:

1) Echo the language which Scripture uses to speak about itself.

2) Reflect an appreciation of how ancient Jews viewed the Bible—the fountainhead of their literary heritage.

3) Demonstrate an awareness of and appreciation for the achievements of text-critical scholarship, since they constitute a foundation on which all modern English translation rests.[2]

A key New Testament passage for discussing the nature of Scripture is 2 Tim. 3:16-17:

All Scripture inspired by God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work.[3]

A reader well versed in the New Testament will recognize that the above translation reflects the content of a footnote appearing in some English editions. Preferring the note’s alternate wording for the purpose of this essay, I have rendered the passage’s opening phrase as “All Scripture inspired by God” as opposed to “All Scripture is inspired by God.”

Behind the word “Scripture” stands the Greek word γραφή, which is related to the verb γράφειν (to write). Scribes transmitted Scripture by transcribing it. Being written, it was intended to be read (aloud). One can, therefore, characterize Scripture as having a scribal-literary quality. These two verses also establish a close bond between inspiration and profitability for teaching, reproof, correction, and training. When speaking about inspiration, I make a habit of speaking about Scripture’s profitability for instruction or training in the next breath. These concepts are two sides of the same coin and should not be separated one from the other.

At the end of the passage, the desired objective is stated: to prepare a person for an effective life of doing. Although not explicitly mentioned in the immediate context, teachers do have a role to play in the program. Scripture’s usefulness for teaching and training depends not only on the inspiration of the text, but also on that of the teacher. Just as a score of music is ultimately only as good as the conductor who leads, so it is the case with the Bible and those who teach and preach it. A popular rabbinic story about Ben Azzai makes a similar point by tapping the imagery of a different metaphor. On one occasion, while he sat and taught, fire glowed around him.[4]  Ben Azzai’s spontaneous combustion harks back to the giving of God’s fiery Torah. In other words, his auditors were witnessing a sublime event, which was less dramatic, but similar in essence to the one which the original recipients of the Torah at Mt. Sinai had experienced.

1 Chron. 28:19 is a short verse about a text containing building instructions for the temple and its furnishings. It literally says: “All [the specifications of this plan] are in writing and they [come] from the hand of the Lord. I am responsible to explain [them].” At first glance, this verse seems to have little relevance for a discussion centering on 2 Tim. 3:16-17; however, in light of a Talmudic passage, both verses actually address similar issues.

Rabbi Yeremiah once taught the following in the name of another:

[Consider] the scroll which Samuel entrusted to David. It was given in order to be expounded. What is the proof? All of this in writing—This [refers] to its scriptural-literary character. From the hand of the Lord—This [refers] to the Holy Spirit. I am responsible to explain—From this [we learn] that it was given to be expounded.[5]

These remarks belong to a discussion about canonicity. For his part, Rabbi Yeremiah reminded his colleagues that the prophet Samuel gave David a scroll which possessed three defining characteristics of Scripture:[6]

1) The scroll was “in writing,” thereby distinguishing it from Oral Torah.

2) The scroll came “from the hand of the Lord,” meaning that it was inspired like Oral Torah.

3) The scroll was given in order “to be expounded,” meaning that it could serve as the objective of exegesis, thereby distinguishing it from Oral Torah.

The same elements are present in 2 Tim. 3:16-17. The Greek word γραφή (graphae) conveys the idea that Scripture is written. The Greek word θεόπνευστος (theopneustos, i.e., God breathed) parallels the idea of coming “from the hand of the Lord” (i.e., God delivered). The former is regularly called divine inspiration, whereas the latter could be described as divine manipulation. Interestingly, Rabbi Yeremiah attributed this manual act to the Holy Spirit. In Greek, the association of θεόπνευστος with the Holy Spirit (i.e., πνεῦμα ἅγιον) is easy to make, because of the shared etymology. The clause “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” looks like an expanded, but equivalent way of saying “for expounding.”

We now have the benefit of consulting not only an early Christian epistle, but also a conceptual parallel from Talmudic literature before formulating a description of Scripture for inclusion in a Statement of Faith. Ideally, our declarations should echo the content of this old Jewish concept to which the New Testament author subscribed and which the editors of the Jerusalem Talmud included in their compilation. Being inspired (i.e., emanating from the Holy Spirit) and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training are intrinsic attributes of Scripture. These two attributes allow the Bible to play an indispensable and salubrious role in the life of Jewish and Christian communities of faith. When an inspired (and learned) teacher expounds the biblical text, it becomes like a living spring whose cathartic and curative waters nourish, refresh, and stimulate the community, and no matter how often revisited, they remain plentiful and efficacious.

  • [1] An earlier version of this essay was entitled A Jewish Comment about Scripture.
  • [2] Compare the NAB and NASB.
  • [3] Another article that addresses this point is my “Toward an Inerrant View of Scripture.”
  • [4] Lev Rabbah 16:4.
  • [5] J. Meg. 70a (ch 1:1) (Krotoschin ed.).
  • [6] I have benefited from Jose Faur, Golden Doves with Silver Dots: Semiotics and Textuality in Rabbinic Tradition (Bloomington, IN:Indiana University Press, 1986).

Toward an Inerrant View of Scripture

Revised: 15-Feb-2008

When applying the adjective “inerrant” to Scripture, Protestants presumably mean one, two, or three of the following things:

  1. an inerrant autograph written by a biblical author;
  2. an inerrant copy of a manuscript descending from an autograph;
  3. an inerrant translation based on one (or more manuscripts) descending from an autograph.

No biblical autographs have survived. There are only manuscripts which were copied from earlier manuscripts, which were copied from still earlier manuscripts, and so on. To speak of an autograph as inerrant, we are essentially claiming that Scripture used to be inerrant. In theory, if all relevant manuscript evidence were available, we could trace a manuscript’s lineage back to an original autograph. But since we do not possess a single biblical autograph, we are not in a position to comment on an autograph’s character in a meaningful way. Moreover, even if we had access to a biblical autograph, would a spelling error render it errant?

We can comment with greater confidence and credibility on an extant manuscript whose lineage descends from an autograph. Anyone who has worked with manuscripts knows that when transcribing, scribes were prone to mistakes because of physical limitations. To complicate matters, scribes sometimes corrected errors in their exemplars. Occasionally, their emendations were faulty, and in these cases they compounded the problem. Scribes usually made their corrections in the vertical margins of a manuscript or between the horizontal lines of script above the word (or words) in question. Such corrections and notations can be seen in the margins and between the lines of the famous Isaiah Scroll from Qumran.

The entire biblical discipline of textual criticism (lower criticism) rests on the assumption that by comparing a place where manuscripts of the same biblical book differ, scholars can determine which reading should be regarded as preferable or even authentic. For their own benefit and to assist other scholarly types, text critics have constructed a critical apparatus for each book of the Old and New Testaments. In the apparatus, in an abbreviated format, they have listed important variant readings found among manuscripts of the same biblical book. Information originating from a critical apparatus regularly appears in footnotes of English translations in the form of comments like “Dead Sea Scrolls and Syriac (See also Septuagint)…” and “Some witnesses read….”

Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia and The Greek New Testament are two standard critical editions of the Bible that feature critical apparatuses. By including a critical apparatus in each of these editions, text critics have indicated that they have collated and evaluated the variant readings of manuscripts. The committee of The Greek New Testament decided to add capital Roman letters to its apparatus as a means of rating readings that it adopted for the Greek text. The notation {A} signifies that an adopted reading is beyond doubt, whereas {D} indicates that a high degree of doubt is associated with an adopted reading.

Text critics labor hard to make reliable printed editions of the biblical text accessible. Their aim is accuracy. If textual scholars had inerrant manuscripts in their possession, they could greatly reduce their workload, because such an ideal manuscript would eliminate the need for assembling a critical apparatus.

Scholars who serve as translators generally work from printed critical editions and not manuscripts. Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia is based on a manuscript known as Codex Leningradensis. Interestingly, New Testament text critics opted not to base their standard editions on a single manuscript. The text of The Greek New Testament is a composite, hybrid or “eclectic” text that incorporates elements (i.e., adopted readings) from different manuscripts. Generations of skilled text critics contributed to the construction of the Greek text that serves as the base text for The Greek New Testament. Its text is accurate and reliable, but such a Greek text probably never existed in its present form as the actual text of a biblical autograph.

Readers of the Bible know that each English translation has its own character. Most biblical verses can be translated in more than one way. Each standard English translation of the Bible has its strengths and weaknesses. Even the venerated King James Version and the popular New International Version have shortcomings alongside their advantages. Moreover, a translation cannot be superior to the source from which it emanates. If the nature of biblical manuscripts resists the application of the adjective “inerrant,” how much more so the nature of translations, because translations emanate directly (or indirectly) from those very same manuscripts.

The adjective “inerrant” implies singularity. Christians of every historical period (including those living today) are united by a common confession. An affirmation once made by converts undergoing baptism in the third century C.E. encapsulates our confession:

Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, who was crucified in the days of Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose the third day alive from the dead, and ascended into the heavens, and sat down at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the quick and the dead.

Neither today nor in the past have all Christians agreed upon a singular (i.e., inerrant) canonical text. For example, while many North American Christians enjoy their NIV and KJV Bibles, Greek Orthodox believers revere the Septuagint as their canonical Old Testament.

I would suggest that we wean ourselves of describing Scripture with the adjective “inerrant.” To speak of the Bible as inspired reflects the language of Scripture (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16-17), but to speak of it as inerrant forces the adoption of an adjective that Scripture does not claim for itself. As alternatives, I would propose switching to “reliable” and “accurate.” The collective manuscript evidence of the Bible, the critical editions based on it, and the English translations derived from them are indeed accurate and reliable. I cannot easily escape the impression that when preachers and evangelists describe the Bible as inerrant, many of them are really making a claim about the church tradition to which they subscribe. Taking advantage of how dear the Bible is to their listeners, they blow a smoke screen into their faces. Behind the cover of obfuscating rhetoric, they adeptly shift the adjective “inerrant” from the Bible onto their dogmas. The maneuver can be accomplished easily, because the laity tends to be lax when it comes to matters requiring inquiry for verification. In contrast, scholars have invested much effort in trying to explain to the reading public the stages of bringing an ancient biblical book from manuscript to printed English. Articles entitled “Textual Criticism” are among the longest in Bible dictionaries. Sadly, however, they are also among the least read.

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

Revised: 08-Jul-2013

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

The Texts

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

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

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

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

The Terrain

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

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

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

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

The “Two-gospel” View

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

The “Two-source” View

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

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

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

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

A New View

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

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

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

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

The Jewish-Semitic Element in Aland 282-283

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

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

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

The Semitic Element in the “No longer dared” Comment

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

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


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

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

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

“Prophets and Kings”: The Evangelist Luke’s Curious Doublet

Revised: 02-Jul-2013

Luke’s use of “kings” (Luke 10:24) opposite Matthew’s parallel “righteous persons” (Matt. 13:17) creates a conundrum. Assuming that a Hebrew text lies underneath the Greek text of Luke 10:24 may allow us to arrive at a satisfactory solution to the problem.

In a beautiful statement that probably referred to the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus proclaimed to his disciples, according to Luke, that “many prophets and kings” desired to see and hear what they (his disciples) are seeing and hearing. Matthew preserves the same saying, but in Matthew’s account the doublet is, “prophets and righteous persons.”[1] The wording of Jesus’ saying in these two accounts is so similar that it appears likely that their slight differences reflect literary, or editorial, changes rather than different versions of the saying uttered by Jesus on different occasions. If so, which of these gospel accounts preserves the more original form of Jesus’ saying? Did Jesus say “prophets and kings” or “prophets and righteous persons”?

“King” is not a usual Hebrew parallel or synonym for “prophet.” Israel’s kings certainly were not renowned for longing for the days of the Messiah and his Kingdom. Usually, biblical kings were the enemies of God’s prophets![2] Furthermore, the doublet “prophets and kings” does not appear in Hebrew literature. Nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, for instance, is “king” the equivalent of the word “prophet.”[3]

Matthew’s version of the saying also has its difficulties. Like “kings,” “righteous persons” (in Hebrew, צַדִּיקִים, tsadikim) is not a Hebrew synonym for “prophets.” Furthermore, as standard commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew suggest, the doublet “prophets and righteous persons” appears to be a Mattheanism, an expression peculiar to Matthew.[4] In the New Testament, only in Matthew’s text do we find “righteous persons” used as a synonym for “prophets.”[5]

Hebrew Synonyms for “Prophets”

What, then, are the synonyms for “prophets” (in Hebrew, נְבִיאִים, nevi’im)? Since their Greek texts are so full of Hebrew idioms, we need look no further than the Gospels themselves to find an answer to that question. For example, in Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, he exclaimed, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who have been sent to her.”[6] Here, the Greek word ἀπεσταλμένους (apestalmenous, ones who have been sent) stands in parallel to “prophets.”[7]

Another Hebrew synonym for “prophets” is מַלְאָכִים (malachim [sgl. מַלְאַךְ, malach], messengers, sent ones).[8] The name of the biblical book Malachi means “my messenger.” A straightforward example of the word malachim in the sense of “messengers, envoys” is found in Numbers 21:21: “Israel sent messengers [malachim]…to Sihon king of the Amorites.”

Here are two biblical passages in which the word malachim appears as the parallel for “prophets” [nevi’im]. Notice that “His prophets” stands in parallel to “the malachim of God.”

The LORD God of their fathers had sent word to them through His messengers [malachim] daily without fail, for He had pity on His people and His dwelling-place. But they mocked the messengers [malachimof God and disdained His words and taunted His prophets [nevi’im] until the wrath of the LORD against His people grew beyond remedy. (2 Chron. 36:15-16; trans. JPS; italics mine)

In Haggai 1:12, Haggai is called “the prophet” whom “God had sent,” and in the next verse, “the LORD’s malach [messenger] in the malachut [‘messengering,’ the job of being a messenger] of the LORD.” This biblical passage was viewed by the sages as decisive proof that the prophets could be called malachim:

The prophets are called ‘mal’akim’. This is indicated by what is written, And he sent a messenger (mal’ak), and brought us forth out of Egypt, etc. (Num. xx, 16). Was it then an angel of the Lord? Surely it was Moses! Why then does it call him ‘mal’ak’? In fact, from this one learns that the prophets are called ‘mal’akim’… The Rabbis said: What did the wife of Manoah say to him?—A man of God came unto me, and his countenance was like the countenance of the angel (mal’ak) of God (ib. xiii, 6). Evidently she took him to be a prophet, whereas he was not that but an angel. R. Johanan said: There is a decisive passage which shows that the prophets were called ‘mal’akim’, namely, Then spoke Haggai, the Lord’s messenger (mal’ak) in the Lord’s message—mal’akuth (Hag. i, 13). Thus we are bound to conclude from this decisive passage that the prophets are called ‘mal’akim’. (Lev. Rab. 1:1; trans. Soncino)[9]

“Apostles” (in Hebrew, שְׁלִיחִים, shelikhim, sent ones, emissaries, envoys) is a third, and later, Hebrew synonym for “prophets.”[10] Compare, for example, Jesus’ words, “Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles [Greek: ἀποστόλους, apostolous], some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ that the blood of all the prophets….”[11] Notice here the synonyms “prophets” and “apostles.” Subsequent to their groundbreaking mission, Jesus’ inner circle of disciples were called “apostles.”[12]

How “Messengers” Could Have Become “Kings”

Theoretically, Jesus may have said “prophets and shelukhim (sent ones),” “prophets and malachim (messengers),” or “prophets and shelikhim (apostles),” as the latter three Hebrew words are synonyms for “prophets.” However, because Luke preserves “prophets and kings,” it is likely that Jesus said “prophets and malachim (messengers).” Only “prophets and malachim” can account for the strange “kings” in Luke’s Gospel. Apparently, Luke’s “prophets and kings” resulted from a scribe’s confusion of the Hebrew words מְלָכִים (melachim, kings) and מַלְאָכִים (malachim, messengers).[13] Without the Hebrew vowel signs, which were not created until approximately six centuries after Jesus’ time, the two words are even more similar—מלכם (mlchm) and מלאכם (ml’chm)—especially if malachim is written without its silent aleph (here transcribed with an apostrophe). We may suppose that a scribe saw מַלְאָכִים (malachim, messengers) in the Hebrew text he was copying, but by mistake wrote מְלָכִים (melachim, kings). The exchanging of melachim for malachim, and vice versa, has long been a potential danger for copyists of Hebrew documents, and examples of this confusion are found in the Hebrew Scriptures.[14]

To Sum Up

The meaning of Jesus’ saying that mentions “prophets and kings” is clear enough: the sent-out disciples, who had done battle with demons and overcome them, had experienced something that the great men of old had wished for, but had not been privileged to experience. (For a detailed discussion of the saying, see my article cited in endnote 1 below.) Yet, if we could arrive at the precious saying’s conjectured Hebrew form, it might be even clearer.

It appears that in the transmission of Jesus’ saying (Luke 10:24), the word “kings” replaced the word “messengers.” Written or spoken, the Greek words basileis (kings) and angeloi (messengers) are not similar; however, the Hebrew words melachim (kings) and malachim (messengers) are quite similar, especially to the eye. Therefore, it is probable that a misreading of “messengers” occurred as the word was being copied in Hebrew.[15] Since there are examples of this misreading in the biblical Masoretic text, undoubtedly this scribal error is possible in Hebrew.

It is less probable,[16] although possible, that the transmission error occurred as the biography of Jesus was being translated to Greek. The Greek translator could have seen malachim in a Hebrew scroll and misread it as melachim. Or, alternatively, if the translator was aided by a reader who dictated the Hebrew text to him, the assistant could have misread the text. There also is a slight possibility[17] that, as the assistant dictated the Hebrew text, the translator misheard malachim as melachim.

There are not a few difficulties in understanding the accounts of Jesus’ life that are preserved in the New Testament. It is a fact that the retellings of Matthew, Mark and Luke often differ in the wording of the same story. Evaluating these differences demands great expertise in a number of fields, and sometimes even such expertise is not enough.

Let us look at a difference in wording in the story of Jesus’ baptism. According to Matthew’s Gospel, after Jesus was baptized, a heavenly voice declared, “This is my beloved son…” (Matt. 3:17). According to Luke and Mark’s accounts, the heavenly voice said, “You are my beloved son…” (Luke 3:22; Mark 1:11). Thus, according to Matthew, Heaven spoke to the crowds who had assembled at the Jordan River; but, according to Luke and Mark, Heaven addressed Jesus. In this case, there is simply no way to penetrate behind these retellings of the story to determine what a person present at the baptism with a tape recorder would have preserved. It appears impossible to decide whether the heavenly voice said, “you,” or “this.” Textual and manuscript evidence does not allow scholars to be definite.

There are many enigmatic gospel passages about which we can feel much more confidence regarding its original wording. (Of course, relative certainty about a passage’s original wording does not guarantee an understanding of its depth of meaning.) Matthew 6:22-23 reads, literally: “The lamp of the body is the eye; therefore, if your eye is simple,[18] your whole body will be shining. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be dark….” Surprisingly, this saying is not couched in idiomatic Greek, but in lovely, first-century Hebrew. The saying’s word order and idioms point to a Hebrew predecessor, especially the idiom “bad eye,” which in Hebrew refers to stinginess in giving to the poor. Because we know bad eye‘s Hebrew opposite, we can restore the puzzling “simple eye”—neither idiomatic Greek nor Hebrew—with a degree of confidence. In Hebrew the opposites of the idiom עַיִן רָעָה (ayin ra’ah, bad eye) are the idioms עַיִן טוֹבָה (ayin tovah, good eye) and עַיִן יָפָה (ayin yafah, beautiful eye), both of which refer to generosity in the giving of alms to the poor.[19]

Our surprise at the appearance of “kings” in Luke 10:24 is similar to our perplexity at the enigmatic “simple” in Jesus’ saying about the eye. However, by translating basileis (kings) to Hebrew, we appear to have arrived at a satisfactory explanation of the difference in wording between Matthew and Luke.

This study has shown the importance of examining even the smallest detail in the life and words of Jesus. One relatively new technique, back-translating the Greek of the Gospels to Hebrew, continues to show promise. There does not appear to be a great deal of difference between “prophets and kings” and “prophets and righteous persons,” or even, “prophets and messengers”—all three versions of Jesus’ saying would clearly contrast Jesus’ apostles with the great men of old—yet, every new insight into the texts of the Gospels, no matter how seemingly insignificant, has the potential for helping us better understand one or more of Jesus’ precious sayings.

  • [1] The saying appears only twice in the Gospels (Matt. 13:16-17; Luke 10:23-24). Most New Testament scholars assume that this “Double Tradition” saying was copied independently by Matthew and Luke from their common Source Q. For a detailed discussion of this passage, see David Bivin, Blessedness of the Disciples.
  • [2] For example, “And the king commanded Jerahmeel the king’s son and Seraiah the son of Azriel and Shelemiah the son of Abdeel to seize Baruch the secretary and Jeremiah the prophet, but the LORD hid them” (Jer. 36:26; RSV).
  • [3] The closest one comes to the doublet “prophets and kings” is Lamentations 2:9: “Her gates have sunk into the ground; he has ruined and broken her bars; her king and princes are among the nations; the law is no more, and her prophets obtain no vision from the LORD” (RSV). I. Howard Marshall (The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978], 439) suggests: “Luke’s wording may reflect Isa 52:15; 60:3, where kings look forward to the era of salvation,” but this seems to me unlikely. In a saying of Rabbi Jonathan (first half of the third century A.D.) we find an example of “kings and prophets”: “Every bride who is modest in the house of her father-in-law is rewarded by having kings and prophets among her descendants” (b. Megillah 10bSotah 10b; trans. Soncino).
  • [4] Apparently, Greek δίκαιοι (dikaioi, righteous persons) is Matthew’s editorial replacement for a word he saw in the source he was copying. According to Abbott, “Matthew—who occasionally shows a tendency to paraphrase—may have habitually paraphrased ‘messengers of God,’ as ‘righteous persons'” (Edwin A. Abbott, Clue: A Guide Through Greek to Hebrew Scripture [London: Adam and Charles Black, 1900], 156). Manson agrees: “The latter collocation [‘prophets and righteous men’] is characteristic of Mt. Cf. Mt. 10:41 (M), 23:29” (T. W. Manson, The Sayings of Jesus [London: SCM Press, (1937) 1949], 80). Elsewhere, Manson observes, “This is a curious variant. Is it an editorial effort on the part of one of the Evangelists (presumably S[t]. Matthew; cf. Mt. 10:41), or does it presuppose a variation of translation?” (The Teaching of Jesus: Studies of Its Form and Content [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1945], 32, n. 3). Hagner writes, “Matthew appears to have substituted δίκαιοι, ‘righteous persons,’ a favorite word of his, for Q’s more difficult βασιλεῖς, ‘kings’ (reflected in Luke 10:24)” (Donald A. Hagner, Matthew [WBC 33A-33B; Dallas: Word Books, 1993-1995], 376.) Nolland concurs, “Matthew’s pair ‘prophets and righteous ones’ is paralleled in Matt 10:41; 23:29, and so is likely to be Matthean” (John Nolland, Luke [WBC 35A-35C; Dallas: Word Books, 1989-1993], 576.).
  • [5] Three times: Matt. 10:41; 13:17; 23:29. Matthew also may have added Greek δίκαιος (dikaios, righteous; righteous person) or δίκαιοι (dikaioi, righteous; righteous persons) to his text, or substituted them for other words he found in the extracanonical source he copied: Matt. 1:19; 13:43; 23:28, 35; 27:19.
  • [6] Matt. 23:37 and Luke 13:34 preserve this saying in identical wording. The Revised English Bible translated Jesus’ exclamation as, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, city that murders the prophets and stones the messengers sent to her!” As the parallel of “prophets,” the REB inserted “messengers” in place of the text’s “those who have been sent.” Today’s English Version rendered the verse, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and stone the messengers God has sent you!” Both versions have substituted “messengers,” the usual translation of מַלְאָכִים (malachim), as the synonym for נְבִיאִים (nevi’im, prophets”).
  • [7] The perfect passive participle ἀπεσταλμένους (apestalmenous, ones who have been sent) is the reading of both Matthew and Luke. Its probable Hebrew equivalent would be שְּׁלוּחִים (shelukhim).
  • [8] In the Septuagint, 201 times the Greek translation of מַלְאַךְ (malach; pl. מַלְאָכִים, malachim), is ἄγγελος (angelos; pl. ἄγγελοι, angeloi). None of the other five Septuagintal equivalents for the word malach/malachim is used more than nineteen times.
  • [9] The Soncino edition’s concluding note (4:2, note 4) to this passage is: “Here Scripture positively, clearly and unmistakably refers to a prophet as ‘mal’ak‘, and to his task as ‘mal’akuth‘ [being a messenger].”
  • [10] The word שָׁלִיחַ (shaliakh, pl. שְׁלִיחִים, shelikhim) is not found in the Hebrew Scriptures; however, by the time of Jesus, it had entered the Hebrew language. Over the course of a few hundred years, beginning about the second century B.C., the word shaliakh gradually replaced malach in the sense of an ordinary earthly messenger, or even, in the sense of a heavenly envoy. While shelikhim was the more normal choice for flesh-and-blood emissaries, the use of malachim came to be limited to heavenly beings (see Marcus Jastrow, A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature [repr. New York: Pardes Publishing House, 1950], 786, 1583; Avraham Even-shoshan, Ha-Millon He-Hadash [Jerusalem: Kiryath Sepher, 1966], 693, 1374). In the non-biblical Dead Sea Scrolls malach appears 169 times, especially in expressions such as malachei El (angels of God), malachei shalom (angels of peace), malachei kodesh (holy angels), malachei shamayim (heavenly angels), and malachei tsedek (angels of righteousness). The noun shaliakh appears only once in the Dead Sea Scrolls (in an Aramaic text designated 4Q539). The rabbis viewed shaliakh as a synonym for “prophet”: “By ten names were prophets called [in Scripture], to wit: ambassador, trusted, servant, messenger [shaliakh], visionary, watchman, seer, dreamer, prophet, man of God” (Avot of Rabbi Nathan 34:7; trans. Goldin)—the verb שָׁלַח [shalakh, send] in Isa 6:8 appeared to the rabbis to be a clear reference to shaliakhShaliakh stands in parallel to malach in the famous rabbinic expression “not by a malach nor by a shaliakh” (not by a messenger nor by an apostle, that is, not by an intermediary), a rabbinic interpretation based on an understanding of Isa 63:9, “In all their distress, no tsir (messenger) nor malach saved them.” See David Flusser, “Not by an Angel…,” in Judaism of the Second Temple Period (trans. Azzan Yadin; Grand Rapids, MI, and Jerusalem: Eerdmans, Magnes Press and Jerusalem Perspective, 2007 [Vol. 1] and 2009 [Vol. 2]), 1:61-65. The expression “not (by) a shaliakh nor (by) a malach” (usually, malach is first in order) appears frequently in rabbinic literature, for example, “He sent not a shaliakh nor a malach, but rather He himself [delivered them], as it is written [Exod 12:12], ‘I [and not another] will pass through the land of Egypt….'” (y. Sanhedrin, chpt. 10.1; y. Horayot, chpt. 12.1). As stated, shaliakh was used instead of the biblical malach in rabbinic Hebrew. On the scripture, “Behold I will send my messenger [malach] before me…” (Mal 3:1), the rabbis commented, “God said to Israel [after the incident of the Golden Calf]: ‘Had you merited it, I Myself would have become your messenger [shaliakh], just as I was in the wilderness, as it says, “And the Lord went before them by day” [Exod 13:21], but now that you have not merited this, I am entrusting you into the hands of a messenger [shaliakh]'” (Exod. Rab. 32:2; trans. Soncino). (Note that when alluding to the malach of Mal 3:1, the rabbis used the word shaliakh.) “[Yet later on, despite His promise that He Himself would bring them into the Land], God said, ‘Behold, I send an angel before thee… [to help bring thee into the place which I have prepared]’ (Exod 23:20). May it be Your will, I beseech You, my Father in heaven [adds the author of this rabbinic work], that You Yourself [will always minister to us and] never put us into the hands of an emissary [shaliakh]” (Seder Eliyahu Rabbah 20:1; trans. Braude and Kapstein). In this passage, too, shaliakh is used as a synonym for the biblical text’s malach. See also Midrash Psalms 18.6; 104.6.
  • [11] Luke 11:49 (RSV). Matthew’s parallel—there is no parallel in Mark’s Gospel—is: “Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth from the blood of innocent [righteous] Abel…” (Matt. 23:34-35; RSV). Notice that, apparently, the author of Matthew substituted “wise men and scribes” for his conjectured source’s “apostles,” “righteous blood” for “the blood of all the prophets,” and “righteous Abel” for “Abel.”
  • [12] Since shaliakh does not appear in the Hebrew Scriptures, its Greek equivalent, the word apostolos (pl. apostoloi) does not appear in the second-century-B.C. translation of those Scriptures that is known as the Septuagint. However, the verb ἀποστεῖλαι (aposteilai), which is derived from the same root as apostolos, was the Septuagint’s standard translation of the Hebrew verb from the same root as shaliakh.
  • [13] An explanation of the problematic “prophets and kings” was suggested in Edwin A. Abbott, Clue, 154-56. This work was the first part of Abbott’s ten-part series entitled Diatessarica. Having surveyed the secondary literature, it appears to me that Abbott was the first to put forward this innovative suggestion. Apparently, scholars since Abbott have rejected the suggestion, or, are unaware of it. Standard commentaries in English, for example, Gundry, Matthew (1994); Hagner, Matthew (1993); Nolland, Luke (1993); Fitzmyer, Luke (1985); Marshall, Luke (1978]; Albright and Mann, Matthew (1971), do not mention it. If present in these works at all, comments about Matthew’s “prophets and righteous ones” or Luke’s “prophets and kings” are brief. Typical is John Nolland’s comment, “Luke’s ‘prophets and kings’ would be a natural designation for the leading figures of much of the OT text” (Nolland, Luke [1993], 576).
  • [14] Abbott noted that “‘messenger’ or ‘angel’ (מלאך [malach]) is frequently confused with ‘king’ (melech) and was thus confused by the Chronicler in the story of Araunah” (Clue, 156): the later, more paraphrastic 1 Chron 21:20, “Ornan [the Jebusite = Araunah] too saw the angel,” is a result of the confusion by its editor of melech and malach (perhaps due to the mention of the LORD’s angel immediately before). The earlier and more historical 2 Sam 24:20 reads, “Araunah [the Jebusite] looked out and saw the king” (Clue, 62-63). For other examples of the confusion of malach (messenger) and melech (king), Abbott cited (Clue, 63, note 1) David Christian Ginsburg, who wrote: “In 2 K. vii.17, we have the primitive form הַמַּלְּאָךְ = הַמָּלָךְ = המלּך ‘the messenger’ without Aleph, as is attested by the Septuagint and the Syriac. The passage ought accordingly to be translated ‘when the messenger came down to him.’ This is corroborated by the statement in the preceding chapter, viz. vi.33. Exactly the reverse is the case in 2 S. xi.1, where the Massorah itself tells us that the redactors of the text inserted Aleph into this very word, converting (ha-melachim) ‘kings’ into (ha-malachim) ‘messengers‘” (Introduction to the Massoretico-Critical Edition of the Hebrew Bible [1897], 141). “The Hebrew ‘messenger’ [malach] is rendered [in the Septuagint] by the Greek ‘king’ or ‘ruler’ in Is. xiv.32; xlii.19; Prov. xiii.17″ (Abbott, Clue , 63, note 1).
  • [15]  If indeed this confusion occurred in the conjectured Hebrew stage of the transmission of Jesus’ biography, before the biography was translated to Greek, then, this story of Jesus probably existed in Hebrew in written form. If so, this would contradict my suggestion that the first written Life of Jesus was the Greek translation of an oral Hebrew tradition of the life and sayings of Jesus. See my “The Discomposure of Jesus’ Biography,” JP 53 (Oct.-Dec. 1997): 28-33.
  • [16] Perhaps one can assume that the biography was copied a number of times in Hebrew, but translated to Greek only once.
  • [17] Since the two words, melachim and malachim, are more distinguishable in speech than in writing.
  • [18] The Greek adjective ἁπλοῦς (haplous) originally meant “simple,” but had a plethora of derived meanings, such as “open,” “without ulterior motive,” “pure,” “upright,” “innocent,” “wholehearted,” and “healthy” (see Otto Bauernfeind, “ἁπλοῦς,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (ed. Gerhard Kittel; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 1:386.
  • [19] Deut 15:9 is an excellent example of the Hebrew idiom “bad eye.” The other references in the Hebrew Scriptures to “good eye/bad eye” are: Prov 22:9 (good eye); 23:6 (bad eye); 28:22 (bad eye); Deut 28:56 (she will begrudge, lit., her eye will be bad towards). For this idiom, see also Tob 4:7-10, 16; m. Avot 5:13, 19; Derekh Eretz Zuta 3:1; 6:5.

Pieces to the Synoptic Puzzle: Papias and Luke 1:1-4

When the argument is advanced for a Hebrew “undertext” behind the Greek of the Synoptic Gospels, the evidence may be separated into two categories: internal and external. Internal evidence refers to evidence that is contained within the Greek text such as Hebraisms and the presence of parables or other types of rabbinic literary forms. External evidence refers to statements preserved in other ancient literature that affirm that Jesus’ life was originally recorded in Hebrew. The most important external evidence is a statement made by Papias, bishop of Hierapolis.

Sometime in the middle of the second century A.D., Papias wrote, “Matthew recorded the sayings [of Jesus] in Hebrew, and everyone translated them as he was able.” Papias’ statement was quoted by another bishop named Eusebius, who lived between 263-339 A.D. It is in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History[1] that Papias’ testimony has survived.

Papias provides us with two very important bits of information. The first is that the disciple Matthew recorded the teachings of Jesus in the “Hebrew language.” Although some would argue that Papias’ Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ (Hebraidi dialekto) really means Aramaic, this is probably not the case, as Jehoshua Grintz has demonstrated.[2]

The second important bit of information is that other individuals reworked this original Hebrew composition. The question is, in what manner? The Greek verb ἡρμήνευσε (hermeneuse), rendered above as “translated,” can mean “to explain, interpret, or translate.” The ambiguity is generated more by the English language than by the Greek. Apparently, the ancients did not make the fine and often arbitrary distinction we do between translation and commentary. To put it another way, the ancients had a different approach to translating sacred texts than that which is taken by modern scholars. They tended to be less rigid. If there was an unclear verse, it was not uncommon for an ancient translator to help clarify it. If a strong tradition surrounded a certain passage, it was not unusual for elements of that tradition to creep into the text.

A good example of an unclear verse that has been clarified in the process of translation is Genesis 4:8, “And Cain told Abel his brother. And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against his brother and killed him” (New American Standard Bible).

Obviously some important details, such as what Cain told Abel, are missing. These were supplied by the Septuagint translator: “And Cain told Abel his brother, ‘Let us go out into the field….'” It is possible that the translator of the Septuagint had a manuscript in front of him that included the clause, “Let us go out into the field,” but it is just as likely that he felt the text was incomplete and supplied the information.

A more radical example appears in the targumim, where such liberties are more common and pronounced. For example, Targum Neofiti’s rendering of Genesis 22:1 is:

Now it came about after these things that the LORD tested Abraham with the tenth test. He said to him, “Abraham!” And Abraham answered in the tongue of the House of the Holy One. And Abraham said to him [the LORD], “Here I am.”

In this one verse two new elements have been introduced: God is testing Abraham for the tenth time; Abraham (the Aramean) answered in Hebrew, the Holy Language. The first is an early and well-known Jewish tradition about this passage. The second represents an issue of great concern to the sages at the time this Targum was composed—the displacement of Hebrew by Aramaic.[3] Both accretions became part of an Aramaic translation of Scripture.

Returning to Papias’ claim, we now ask: What were those individuals who were translating “…as they were able” doing with Matthew’s composition? No definite answer to this question is available. From the above examples, especially that of the targumim, it is safe to postulate that all of them were not producing translations akin to the King James Version. Some translators treated Matthew’s Hebrew composition conservatively, but others may not have. One can imagine that from the very start a proliferation of materials about Jesus’ life occurred.

At this point assistance is available from another quarter. In the prologue to his Gospel, Luke writes:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us…it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you might know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.” (New American Standard Bible)

Luke is providing another clue to the transmission process of the Gospel sources. Like Papias, he writes that a number of individuals had attempted to compile an account of Jesus’ life. He, however, says something more.

Luke’s use of καθεξῆς (kathexes, consecutive order) implies that confusion had arisen, not just from a proliferation of sources, but from the loss of the story’s chronological order. Though this sounds very strange, it is not without precedent in the transmission of other ancient, religious texts. For example, the sages believed that the Book of Isaiah originally began with chapter six. In addition, the chronological discrepancies in the Synoptic Gospels themselves attest to the disruption of the story order. The reason for this disruption remains a mystery. Perhaps it had something to do with lectionary readings in the early church.[4]

Viewed together, Papias’ and Luke’s statements offer a glimpse of the stages of transmission for the Gospel materials. They inform us that the original story of Jesus was written in Hebrew, that this story was translated and probably reworked by many individuals, and that somehow the original order of events was obscured.

The scenario described above is foundational to Robert Lindsey’s synoptic theory. He believes that Matthew’s composition, like the Pentateuch of the Septuagint, was translated literally into Greek. Then, this translation was rearranged according to literary form: incidents in Jesus’ life, teachings, and parables. In his prologue Luke seems to be describing conditions that resulted from this reorganization.

Once the composition had been rearranged, attempts were made to piece the story back together. Luke decided to use one such attempt, in conjunction with the reorganized text, in writing his Gospel. Mark based his story primarily on Luke’s, though apparently he also knew the reorganized text. The writer of Matthew, who is neither the disciple Matthew nor the Matthew of the Papias tradition, used Mark’s account and the reorganized text.

Interestingly, the attempts to restore order to the events of Jesus’ life do not end with the Synoptic Gospels. Sometime about 160 A.D. Tatian, a disciple of Justin Martyr, composed a harmony of the Gospels known as the Diatessaron. This harmonization became the standard Gospel text of the Syriac-speaking church until the fifth century. The adoption of the Diatessaron by Christians in the East further underscores the liberties that early Christianity allowed in regard to the transmission and reworking of the Gospels.[5]

Despite a rather turbulent transmission process, the Synoptic Gospels retain an astonishing amount of authentic and reliable material. This we know from the internal evidence. Indeed, Luke did not wholly succeed in restoring the original order of the story, as is evident from the success of Lindsey’s reconstructions,[6] but he did transmit in a conservative manner his two Greek sources, one of which contained highly Hebraic material stemming directly from the original Greek translation of the Hebrew.

  • [1] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History III 39, 16.
  • [2] Jehoshua Grintz, “Hebrew as the Spoken and Written Language in the Last Days of the Second Temple,” Journal of Biblical Literature 79 (1960): 33.
  • [3] M. H. Segal, A Grammar of Mishnaic Hebrew (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927), 14-15.
  • [4] Brad H. Young, Jesus and His Jewish Parables (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989), 145.
  • [5] James Kugel and Rowan Greer, Early Biblical Interpretation (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986), 115.
  • [6] Robert L. Lindsey, Jesus, Rabbi and Lord: A Lifetime’s Search for the Meaning of Jesus’ Words.

Reconstructing the Words of Jesus

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

Copying and Translating

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

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

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

Biblical Manuscripts

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

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

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


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

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

Scirbal Scribal Errors

Revised: 5-Nov-2012

There are about 1,500 scribal errors in the Hebrew Scriptures. The letters ו (vav) and י (yod), for instance, were often confused by ancient copyists of the Bible. The two letters are so similar that they are easily confused. In fact, writing by mistake a vav instead of a yod, or vice versa, is the most common scribal error in the Bible.

Artists depiction of the clay jars with lids that contained the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered at Qumran.
Artists depiction of the clay jars with lids that contained the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered at Qumran.

The only difference between the Hebrew personal pronouns for “he” and “she” is the middle letter yod or vav. Confusion of vav and yod often resulted in a copying mistake, the writing of הוא (hu, he) instead of היא (hi, she), and vice versa. If, for instance, an earlier scribe happened to make the letter י (yod) of היא (hi, she) a little too long, then the scribe who next copied that text might mistakenly read the היא as הוא (hu, he) (e.g., 1 Kgs. 17:15; Job 31:11; Isa. 30:33). Or, conversely, if a scribe made the ו (vav) of הוא a little too short, then the next copyist might read the הוא as היא (e.g., 1 Kgs. 17:15; 1 Chron. 29:16; Job 31:11; Ps. 73:16; Eccl. 5:8).

Usually the mistake is obvious because the rest of the grammatical forms in the sentence are in the opposite gender? However, scribes were not permitted to alter the sacred text, even if they detected an obvious mistake. They could correct the mistake only by writing the correct spelling in the margin of the manuscript.

Such scribal errors are rarely noted in English versions of the Bible. Translators are so sure the marginal readings are correct they usually do not even mention in a footnote that they are not actually translating the consonantal text. Proverbs 23:31, for example, is usually translated, “Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup….” English Bible translations are unanimous in rendering “cup” (כוס, kos), a marginal reading, even though the text itself reads כיס (kis, purse; bag).

Another common scribal error is the writing of לֹא (lo, no) for לוֹ (lo, his), or vice versa (about twenty times in Scripture, e.g., Lev. 11:21; 1 Sam. 2:16; Ezra 4:2; Isa. 49:5). Although these two words are spelled differently, both are pronounced exactly the same way. The most famous example of this scribal error is that found in Psalms 100:3, which the King James Version translates as, “Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves.” The consonantal text of the second part of this verse reads: “He has made us וְלֹא (velo, and not) we.” However, if one translates according to the scribal correction וְלוֹ (velo, and his) in the margin, one gets, “He has made us and his we are.” Therefore, the Revised Standard Version renders, “Know that the Lord is God! It is he that made us, and we are his.” And the New International Version follows closely with, “Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his.” Both translations render the marginal correction rather than the apparent error in the preserved text.

The text of 2 Chronicles 11:18 also contains a scribal error: “And Rehoboam married Mahalath the son of Jerimoth….” Somehow, as the text was copied generation after generation, a scribe substituted בֵּן (ben, son) for בַּת (bat, daughter). Perhaps this happened because of the similarity of the two words or because the scribe’s eye jumped to the word “son” two words later in the text. The scribal correction bat (daughter) in the margin is certainly the more original reading. Only if we assume that Rehoboam married a man is it possible to hold that there is not an error in the transmitted text.

Modern Scribe with quill making repairs to a Torah scroll. (Courtesy of the Israel Government Press Office)
Modern Scribe with quill making repairs to a Torah scroll. (Courtesy of the Israel Government Press Office)

Jesus’ Education

Revised: 28-Oct-2016

A careful reading of the New Testament suggests that Jesus was a scholar learned in the Scriptures and religious literature of the period, which was vast and varied. Yet the popular Christian view of Jesus is that he was a simple, uneducated character from the provinces. This misunderstanding is due in part to a number of disparaging statements made about Nazareth and the Galilee such as, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46), and “Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans?’” (Acts 2:7).

These New Testament statements may reflect a Judean bias against Galileans. Some Judeans may have seen themselves as cultured and cosmopolitan. To them, the Galileans were provincials whose accent seemed coarse and unrefined.

Actually, however, the reverse may have been true: the Galileans were the more exposed to the outside world while the Judeans, living in the interior of the land, were partially sheltered from contact with foreign nations. The Galilee also was more urban, with many developed villages. Judea, by contrast, was generally more rural in character.

No doubt this same disdain toward Galileans prompted the assumption, preserved in John 7:15, that Jesus had no education: “The Jews were amazed and asked, ‘How did this man get such learning without having studied?’”

Conservative Galileans

Such passages have given rise to the idea that Jesus and his disciples were uneducated simply because they came from Galilee. Surprisingly, however, the standard of education and religious training in Galilee surpassed that of Judea.

According to Shmuel Safrai, Hebrew University Professor of Jewish History of the Mishnaic and Talmudic Periods, not only do the number of first-century Galilean sages exceed the number of Judean sages, but the moral and ethical quality of their teaching is still considered more highly than that of their Judean counterparts (“The Jewish Cultural Nature of Galilee in the First Century,” Immanuel 24-25 [1990], 147-186). Such first-century Galilean sages as Yohanan ben Zakkai, Hanina ben Dosa, Abba Yose Holikofri of Tiv’on, Zadok and Jesus of Nazareth helped impart a deep understanding of the Torah to the residents of Galilee.

In addition to their high level of knowledge of and reverence for Scripture, the Galileans could be seen as the religious conservatives of the period. Jewish messianic nationalism flourished in the Galilee. Judah the Galilean, for example, was the founder of the “Zealots” movement, and it was in Galilee, not Judea, that the great revolt against Rome broke out in 66 A.D. (For a full discussion, see Martin Hengel, The Zealots [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989].)

Early Training

The New Testament says almost nothing about Jesus’ life from after his birth until he appeared in the temple at age twelve, and from then until he began his public ministry at about the age of thirty. Yet a good indication of what a young Jewish man in Jesus’ day would have been doing may be found in Avot, one of the tractates in a collection of rabbinic sayings called the Mishnah, which states:

At five years of age, one is ready for the study of the Written Torah, at ten years of age for the study of the Oral Torah, at thirteen for bar mitzvah [the religious coming-of-age ceremony], at fifteen for the study of  halachot [rabbinic legal decisions], at eighteen for marriage, at twenty for pursuing a vocation, at thirty for entering one’s full vigor…. (m. Avot 5:21)

Although this statement cannot be dated with certainty, and may date to 100 years after the time of Jesus, there are many other passages in rabbinic works that indicate the importance placed upon the education of children and provide some insight into how the young Jesus was probably spending his time.

Education was highly valued in Jewish society of Jesus’ day. In his apology for Judaism, Against Apion, written to counter anti-Semitism, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus states:

Above all we pride ourselves on the education of our children, and regard as the most essential task in life the observance of our laws and of the pious practices based thereupon, which we have inherited. (Josephus, Against Apion 1:60 [Loeb ed.])

The Babylonian Talmud even suggests the preferred class size:

The maximum number of elementary pupils that should be placed under one teacher is twenty-five; if there are fifty, an additional teacher must be provided; if there are forty, a senior student should be engaged to assist the teacher. (b. Bab. Bat. 21a)

High Standard of Education

A synagogue in the first century usually had its own בֵּית סֵפֶר (bet sefer; elementary school) and בֵּית מִדְרָשׁ (bet midrash; secondary school) in which children and adults studied Torah and the oral traditions. Formal education ended at the age of twelve or thirteen when most children went to work. The more gifted students who so desired could continue their studies at the bet midrash together with adults who studied in their spare time.

A few of the most outstanding bet midrash students eventually left home to study with a famous sage, being encouraged and sometimes supported by their families. Only the very promising students were urged to continue studying since their assistance was usually needed in agricultural work at home. (See Shmuel Safrai, “Education and the Study of Torah,” in The Jewish People in the First Century [ed. Shmuel Safrai and Menahem Stern; Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 1976], 953.)

One might assume that the synagogue, as the place of worship, would be considered more important or more sacred than the schools, but this was not the case. To this day the bet midrash is given more prominence in Jewish society than the synagogue—not because education is valued more highly than worship, but because Judaism does not make a distinction between the two. Indeed, Judaism has always held that study of Torah is one of the highest forms of worship (b. Shab. 30a).

Diligent Study

Jewish tradition contains many statements enjoining continued and diligent study, such as the mishnaic saying: “Discipline yourself to study Torah, for you do not acquire it by inheritance” (m. Avot 2:12). This point of view is echoed throughout the New Testament in such passages as the following:

[The Jews of Berea] were more noble…examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. (Acts 17:1)

Do your best to win God’s approval as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, because he knows how to interpret the word of truth correctly. (2 Tim. 2:15)

Make every effort to add to your faith goodness, and to goodness, knowledge…. (2 Pet. 1:5)


Although scrolls were used for reading and study and the practice of writing was highly developed, written material was expensive because all manuscripts had to be hand-copied by trained scribes. Scrolls, therefore, were relatively scarce, and even though in Jesus’ time every Jewish home had at least one of the approximately twenty biblical scrolls, few people had immediate access to more than a very small part of the entire library of sacred literature. Learning, consequently, involved a great deal of memorization. Professor Safrai has detailed the educational methods of the period:

Individual and group study of the Bible, repetition of the passages, etc., were often done by chanting them aloud. There is the frequent expression, “the chirping of children,” which was heard by people passing close by a synagogue as the children were reciting a verse. Adults too, in individual and group study, often read aloud; for it was frequently advised not to learn in a whisper, but aloud. This was the only way to overcome the danger of forgetting. (Safrai, The Jewish People in the First Century, 2:953)

In the eyes of the sages, repetition was the key to learning, as the following passages illustrate:

A person who repeats his lesson a hundred times is not to be compared with him who repeats it a hundred and one times. (b. Hag. 9b)

If [the student] learns Torah and does not go over it again and again, he is like a man who sows without reaping. (b. Sanh. 99a)

Many methods were used to assist the student in memorizing his lessons, and one passage in the Talmud describes in detail the mnemonic devices employed to teach small children the Hebrew alphabet (b. Shab. 104a). Elementary school students, who studied seven days a week, were given no new material on the Sabbath, but rather used that time to memorize material learned earlier in the week (Safrai, The Jewish People in the First Century, 2:954).

Students enjoyed memorizing their lessons while strolling outdoors, but they were tempted to shift their attention to the surrounding scenery. The Mishnah specifically warns against this:

A person walking along the road repeating his lessons who interrupts his memorization and exclaims: “What a beautiful tree!” or “What a beautiful field!” it is imputed to him as if he were guilty of a crime punishable by death. (m. Avot 3:8)

Such peripatetic memorization is still practiced today in the Middle East, and is the foundation of the Muslim system of education. In the Arab world one frequently can see young men walking back and forth along the roads at the outskirts of villages and towns, apparently talking to themselves. They actually are repeating and memorizing their lessons.

Jesus’ Contemporaries

From accounts found in Jewish sources such as those referred to above, one can form a reasonably accurate picture of what Jesus was doing in his childhood and adolescence. He was studying, committing to memory large amounts of material—Scripture and commentary on Scripture—all the available sacred literature of the day.

This was exactly what most of the other Jewish boys of Jesus’ day were doing. The memorization of Written and Oral Torah was such a large part of Jewish education that most contemporaries of Jesus had large portions of this material—at the least, almost all of the Scriptures—firmly committed to memory. As Professor Safrai has stated:

The Scriptures were known almost by heart by everyone. From quite early in the Second Temple period, one could hardly find a little boy in the street who didn’t know the Scriptures. According to Jerome (342-420 A.D.), who lived in Bethlehem and learned Hebrew from local Jewish residents in order to translate the Scriptures into Latin [producing the Vulgate Bible]: “There doesn’t exist any Jewish child who doesn’t know by heart the history from Adam to Zerubbabel [i.e., from the beginning to the end of the Bible].” Perhaps this was a bit of an exaggeration on Jerome’s part, but in most cases his reports have proved reliable. (From a lecture delivered by Safrai on June 5, 1985)

The Traveling Teacher

Revised: 26-Dec-2012

Jewish teachers of first-century Israel lacked the sophisticated methods of mass communication we have today. Consequently, the sages of Jesus’ day spent much of their time traveling the land of Israel—much like the biblical prophets—to communicate their teachings and interpretations of Scripture.

The biblical prophet traveled with a band of followers called “sons of the prophets” (e.g., 2 Kgs. 2:3, 5, 7, 15). These were not the prophet’s physical sons, but rather the prophet’s disciples. The use of “son” as a synonym for “disciple” still persisted in Hebrew during the time of Jesus, as illustrated by this example from the Gospel of Luke:

If I cast out demons by [the power of] Beelzebul, by [the power of] whom do your sons [i.e., your disciples] cast them out? (Luke 11:19)

Itinerant Teachers

According to Professor Shmuel Safrai of the Hebrew University, an itinerating sage was the norm rather than exception. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of such sages circulated in the land of Israel in the first century. These teachers did not hesitate to travel to the smallest of villages or the most remote parts of the country. Occasionally, they would conduct their classes in someone’s home, but frequently classes would be held in the village square or under a tree.

We learn from the Gospels that Jesus likewise moved from place to place a great deal, often accompanied by crowds. Mark 6:6, for example, records that Jesus “went around from village to village teaching.” He traveled considerably in Galilee, especially in the vicinity of the Sea of Galilee, and there may be evidence in the synoptic Gospels of at least one teaching tour in Judea (see “Jesus in Judea”).

Much of Jesus’ teaching was done indoors: in homes (Luke 10:38-42), synagogues (Matt. 4:23), even in the temple compound (Matt. 21:23; Luke 21:37). However, we also find Jesus, like a typical first-century sage, teaching outdoors in impromptu situations. In Luke 5 there is a picturesque account of Jesus teaching from a boat. The feeding of the five thousand occurred in “a lonely place” (Matt. 14:13; Mark 6:32; Luke 9:12), and the Sermon on the Mount was so named because it was delivered in a rural location.

Jesus walked these hills along the Sea of Galilee with his disciples. The traditional Mount of Beatitudes, shown here, is located near Jesus' hometown of Capernaum. Photograph by Todd Bolen. Photo ©
Jesus walked these hills along the Sea of Galilee with his disciples. The traditional Mount of Beatitudes, shown here, is located near the fishing village of Capernaum. Photograph by Todd Bolen. Photo ©

Although classes tended to be crowded, a Jewish sage of first-century Israel was perfectly willing to conduct a class for two or three students. The sages were sincerely interested in changing people’s lives, in leading more and more people to “receive the kingdom of Heaven,” a rabbinic expression for accepting God’s reign in one’s life. To accomplish this, the sages not only trained advanced students as disciples, but also taught the masses.

Making Disciples

Jesus had an inner circle of twelve disciples who received special training, but these were not his only disciples. He called others to follow him, including Levi, a tax collector. According to Luke 5:28, when Levi was challenged by Jesus to follow him, he immediately “left everything” to respond.

We hear in Matthew 8:19 of another man who was warned by Jesus of the price he would have to pay after he perhaps too quickly and easily blurted out, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go!” Two would-be disciples were rebuked by Jesus when they asked his permission to tend to important family responsibilities before answering his call (Luke 9:59-62). Jesus also called a rich man, demanding that he divest himself of his wealth before becoming his disciple (Mark 10:21).

The Gospels show that Jesus also had part-time students. Mary was one such disciple. As Jesus taught in her sister’s home, Mary left her kitchen duties to “sit at Jesus’ feet.” Mary had chosen the “best portion,” Jesus said, referring to her desire to listen to his teaching (Luke 10:42).


Rabbinic literature contains many prohibitions against charging for teaching the Scriptures, such as the following:

He who makes a profit from the words of Torah has brought about his own destruction. (Mishnah, Avot 4:5)

Do not charge for teaching Torah. Accept no remuneration for it. (Derech Eretz Zuta 3:3)

Because of such interdictions, almost all sages practiced a trade. Some were scribes; others, sandal makers, leather workers or bakers. Jesus himself, according to Mark 6:3, was a craftsman, and Acts 18:3 notes that Paul supported himself by making tents (or working leather, according to F. J. Foakes Jackson and Kirsopp Lake, The Acts of the Apostles [5 vols.; London: Macmillan, 1920-33], 4:223).