World’s Oldest Biblical Scroll Discovered?

This past Wednesday evening (21 September, 2016) while listening to the BBC news I was startled to hear a report announcing that a scroll discovered in the ancient synagogue at Ein Gedi near the Dead Sea “reveals the earliest text ever found of the Old Testament.”[1] This astounding claim was followed up by the bewildering statement that the scroll, dates “back to at least the third or fourth century.” The BBC report did not specify whether the third or fourth century B.C.E. or C.E. was intended, a distinction of crucial importance in the present context.[2]

Interior of the Byzantine period synagogue at Ein Gedi near the Dead Sea. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Interior of the Byzantine period synagogue at Ein Gedi near the Dead Sea. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As most readers of JP are aware, biblical scrolls from the first century B.C.E. were among the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in the caves at Qumran.[3] One of the most spectacular of these finds was the Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa), which contains nearly the entire text of Isaiah. If the BBC is correct that the scroll from the Ein Gedi synagogue is the “earliest text ever found of the Old Testament,” then this newly deciphered scroll would have to be older than the biblical scrolls from Qumran.

Baffled by the BBC’s report, I wrote to Professor Emanuel Tov of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who kindly assured me in a brief e-mail that the scroll from Ein Gedi dates to the Common Era. Professor Tov also directed me to two publications that are freely available to the public, which describe the scroll and the means by which it was deciphered in accurate detail (clicking on the titles will bring you to the articles themselves):

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has also reported on the scroll from Ein Gedi in an article entitled, “The Most Ancient Hebrew Scroll Since the Dead Sea Scrolls has been Deciphered.”

The above publications explain that the scroll, which was discovered in 1970, was severely burned in the fire that destroyed the synagogue circa 600 C.E. The charred remains of the scroll were so fragile that they could not be unrolled, but a new digital imaging process has allowed experts to “virtually unwrap” the scroll. This digital process has revealed that the scroll contains two columns of the beginning of the book of Leviticus on a single piece of rolled parchment. The first column contains Lev. 1:1-9 and the second column contains Lev. 2:1-11. It is clear that the scroll began with the book of Leviticus, but due to its damaged state it is impossible to determine what more the scroll may have contained beyond the portion that has been preserved. It may have included the entire book of Leviticus, and perhaps other books as well, but it was not a Torah scroll containing the five books of Moses.

Floor mosaic from the Ein Gedi synagogue. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Floor mosaic from the Ein Gedi synagogue. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In order to determine the age of the Ein Gedi Leviticus scroll scholars applied two methods: Carbon 14 dating and paleographical analysis (i.e., judging the date on the basis of how the letters were written). The Carbon 14 analysis indicates that a third or fourth century C.E. date for the scroll’s composition is the most probable, with a lesser probability of a second century C.E. date. Paleographical analysis, on the other hand, suggests that the scroll was written in the second half of the first century C.E. or possibly in the early part of the second century C.E.

The synagogue in which the scroll was discovered was built in the third to fourth century C.E. and destroyed, as we have mentioned, around 600 C.E. But it is not unreasonable to suppose that the scroll was older than the synagogue in which it was housed.

Charred remains of a scroll discovered in the synagogue at Ein Gedi, which was destroyed ca. 600 C.E. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Charred remains of a scroll discovered in the synagogue at Ein Gedi, which was destroyed ca. 600 C.E. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Two attributes of the Ein Gedi Leviticus scroll are unique: First, it is the earliest biblical scroll to have been discovered in the אָרוֹן הֵקּוֹדֶשׁ (‘ārōn haqōdesh, “holy ark”) of an ancient synagogue. Second, the text of this Torah scroll conforms in every respect to the Masoretic text, making this scroll an important witness to the proto-Masoretic text tradition.

The advances in digital imaging technology that allowed for the charred scroll remains to be read without unrolling hold out the promise of revealing the contents of other ancient documents that are too fragile to be unrolled. We eagerly look forward to what other ancient texts this new technology will bring to light.

  • [1] Click here to listen to the BBC report that I heard. The segment about the scroll begins approximately at the 4:13 mark. See also, BBC, “Digital Technology Reveals Secret of Ancient Biblical Scroll,” accessed Sept. 22, 2016, 8:51 A.M. E.S.T.
  • [2] An updated version of the BBC report has now added the all important letters “AD” to the description. It also omits the claim that the scroll contains “the earliest text ever found of the Old Testament.”
  • [3] See David Pileggi, “The Library at Qumran.”

My Search for the Synoptic Problem’s Solution (1959-1969)

Dr. Lindsey wrote this article in preparation for the press conference that took place in October 1969 upon the publication of his A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark.[1] This press conference was held at the Baptist House, Narkis Street 4, in the Jerusalem suburb of Rehaviah. The book contains, in addition to the Greek and Hebrew texts of Mark, which Lindsey spent nearly ten years in perfecting, a Foreword by Professor David Flusser of the Department of Comparative Religions at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a 76-page English Introduction by Lindsey.

Mark’s Unpopularity

The Gospel of Mark was never popular in the Greek-speaking Hellenistic church. Papias, the mid-second-century bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia, was the first church father to mention the Gospel and his statement was probably dictated by the general criticism voiced against Mark by the early Greek readers of the Gospel: “Mark,” Papias says, “did no wrong in writing down the things [he had only heard Peter say].”[2]

The order of the four Gospels in the earliest manuscripts often placed Mark at the end of the four, but in any case always secondary to Matthew (as in the modern order). It is now clear that ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament like Codex Bezae show a deliberate scribal attempt to revise the text of Mark through harmonization with Matthew and Luke. Mark’s Gospel is not quoted at all by such early writers as Clement of Rome or Ignatius of Antioch, and it was only in the fifth century that Mark even rated a commentator: Victor of Antioch.

Saint Augustine wrote rather contemptuously of Mark as “a camp-follower and abridger” of Matthew.[3] Even in modern times the sections for Sundays and Saints’ Days in the Church of England Prayer Book show only three readings from Mark out of a total of seventy from the Gospels.

Various reasons have been given for Mark’s unpopularity. One is that he was not an apostle like Matthew and John to whom Gospels are credited. Another is that his book does not, like theirs, contain many of Jesus’ longer discourses. Whatever the reasons, Mark’s Gospel was never popular in ancient times.

The Theory of Markan Priority

Despite this rather remarkable consensus of ancient authors, modern critical study of the Gospels, which began less than two hundred years ago, has since the 1880’s held almost unanimously that Mark was the first of the Gospels and was used by Matthew and Luke as their principal source when writing their own story of Jesus’ life. The occasional voices lifted in protest—Roman Catholic scholars held out until recent times against the theory due to Augustine’s writings—have again and again been silenced by the weighty words of New Testament scholars, usually of Protestant background, who back Markan priority. The theological libraries and journals of today, like the denominational literature of all the larger Protestant churches, base their studies and remarks on the Markan Priority Theory as a matter of course.

The first Markan priorists, particularly the earlier German and English ones, had glowing words of praise for the author of Mark. He had written, they said, in rough, popular Greek, but he was, like the Grandma Moses of modern art, a primitive genius. His style showed oddities and cliches, but also had a directness and “freshness” which suggested he may even have been an eyewitness of the events he described. According to these Markan priorists, Matthew and Luke had “smoothed out” Mark’s rough Greek and corrected his non-theological language, often agreeing with one another against Mark in some small, word agreement as they did so.

By the early 1900s, however, German scholars were having second thoughts about the authenticity of Mark’s picture. Facing serious verbal discrepancies between Mark’s text and those of Matthew and Luke, these scholars concluded that Mark was a late writer who had strung together a series of narratives and sayings largely developed through the oral retelling of them by Greek Christians. Mark had placed these oral narratives in a chronological frame that was purely of his own invention.

As a result of these academic doubts there issued a new search for the earliest form of the Gospel stories and it was soon held, notably by Rudolf Bultmann in his monumental Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition (1921)[4] that most of the stories in the Gospels had been developed secondarily from some remembered sayings of Jesus. The stories were therefore unhistorical. Bultmann found that even the longer sayings of Jesus had been seriously distorted by Greek Christians (in a process he called the Sitz im Leben, or “life situation,” of the Church) and held that only a small number of these sayings could be said to be closely parallel to their original Semitic counterpart. Almost all the serious critical works of the past ninety years have either been based on Bultmann’s theories or have been the result of an attempt to modify his position.

A “Re-write Man”

As a consequence of my endeavor to produce a Modern Hebrew translation of the Gospel of Mark, however, I began to develop a different picture of the interrelationship of the Synoptic Gospels. This new picture began to emerge from my observation that whereas the portions of Matthew and Luke that have no parallel to Mark translate quite naturally into Hebrew, Mark’s Gospel (and Matthew’s parallel passages) presented certain difficulties. Although Mark also had many lines and phrases that translated easily into Hebrew, these were often interrupted with words and expressions that are nearly impossible to translate into Hebrew. Luke, on the other hand, even when in parallel to Mark, presented no such difficulties. These observations led me to develop the theory that the Synoptic Gospels drew on an earlier account of the life and teachings of Jesus originally written in Hebrew and later translated into a highly literal Greek version.

I further came to the surprising conclusion that Mark was not the earliest of the Synoptic Gospels, but that Mark followed Luke, rewriting and revising Luke’s wording, and that Matthew later followed Mark, but also had access to the earlier Hebraic-Greek account of the life of Jesus that was the basis of Luke’s Gospel. I realized that, if true, my theory would both explain Mark’s traditional unpopularity, and lead to a serious reassessment of the prevailing view of Mark’s position among the Gospels. The basic reason for Mark’s unpopularity is that it was written by an early Jewish Christian who rewrote the gospel story using the midrashic methods of early rabbis, sometimes described as those of “darshehu and sarsehu,” a rabbinic phrase which can be paraphrastically translated as “homilize it [the text, usually of the Bible] and bend it to apply to your need.”

And rather than assuming that Luke used Mark as the basis of his Gospel, as is commonly held by most New Testament scholars, it appears that the opposite is true. Mark employed Luke’s Gospel, along with another early source, and the result is a Gospel that is almost as much annotation and comment as original story. Mark’s principal method was to replace about half of Luke’s earlier and more authentic wording with a variety of synonyms and expressions he culled from certain Old and New Testament books that, today, we can identify usually simply by consulting Greek and Hebrew concordances of the Bible.

Like the rabbis, Mark loved to find linguistic parallels to the text he was copying in other, often unrelated, books, and then mix words and phrases taken from these parallels with others of his sources. This method resulted in an amplified text that many scholars had thought gave an authenticity to Mark’s work, but which, in reality, should be described as a fascinating but rather inauthentic dramatization of the Gospel story. Due to Mark’s quite normal midrashic and aggadic Jewish methods, his Gospel is the “first cartoon life of Christ.” Mark was a “re-write man.”[5]

I am convinced that Mark, who may indeed be the John Mark of tradition, had before him not only Luke and a parallel early source, which I call the “Anthology,” but also Luke’s Book of Acts, five of the earliest epistles of the Apostle Paul (1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans), and the epistle of James. He also knew and quoted from Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts of the Old Testament. Mark’s method was to follow story by story and verse by verse the Anthology and Luke, dropping some stories only to bring them back at a later point in his Gospel, and constantly replacing his discarded stories, sentences or words by other stories, sentences or words found in non-parallel portions of Luke’s Gospel, the Acts, and the other books mentioned above.

I admit that to the modern Bible exegete Mark’s method I have just described sounds too mechanical to be true, but this method would not be strange to Jews of the first century. I myself had the greatest difficulty accepting the picture I paint of Mark when I first encountered the evidence. In fact, I hesitated for some years to publish my conclusions until the picture became clear in most of its details.[6]

A New Understanding of Synoptic Interdependence

The first observation that eventually led to the development of my new theory was that the Greek text of Mark was just a little too easy to translate to Hebrew. The word order and idiom sounded too Hebraic to be good Greek, and too sophisticatedly Semitic to be explained by the usual theory that the Gospels are imitations of the second-century B.C. Greek translation of the Old Testament know as the Septuagint.

At first I supposed that Mark may have been translating directly to Greek from a Semitic text. But this explanation proved unreliable when it became clear to me that Mark’s text had some dozens of odd, non-Hebrew-sounding words that kept reappearing an inordinate number of times. One of these peculiar phrases was the oft-repeated (more than forty times) “and immediately” of Mark. This phrase has annoyed everyone who has ever read a literal translation of Mark’s Gospel. Slowly I realized that these odd stereotypes and redundancies had to be the work of a redactor who was operating from a Greek text and adding expressions that could only be translated to Hebrew with considerable circumlocution.

Faced with the challenge of trying to translate these “non-Hebraisms” in Mark, I turned in some desperation to a word-by-word comparison of the parallel stories and sayings in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Working with the help of Huck’s Greek synopsis of the Gospels[7] and Moulton-Geden’s concordance of the New Testament[8] for two years (1960-1961), I came to my first tentative conclusions, conclusions that surprised me.

The first conclusion was a quite “orthodox” one: the strange non-Hebraisms of Mark often, although not always, appeared in Matthew at points of exact parallel with Mark. In contrast with the seeming dependence of Matthew on Mark was the near absence of the Markan stereotypes from Matthean stories that had no parallel to Mark (in the so-called “Q” and unique Matthean materials). Following this cue, I found that it was remarkably easy to translate the non-Markan portions of Matthew to Hebrew. It thus seemed reasonable to assume that the usual theory of Matthean dependence on Mark was essentially correct.

My second conclusion, however, was disturbing. Luke’s text showed almost no sign or hint of the Markan redactive expressions. Moreover, whether I translated from Markan or non-Markan portions of Luke, I found that the text translated with relative ease to Hebrew, indeed with about the same ease Matthew provides in his non-Markan portions. I am not sure why I did not suspect from this evidence that Luke may not have used Mark’s Gospel, but I think it was due to my supposition that the theory of Lukan use of Mark was too well-attested by modern scholarship to be incorrect.

The third conclusion was the most disturbing of all. Comparing the texts of the first three Gospels, I slowly became aware of the so-called “Minor Agreements” of Matthew and Luke against Mark, one of the points at which the theory of Markan priority has often been attacked by adherents of the time-honored Augustinian theory and the Griesbach theory.[9] Neither of these  theories has difficulty in explaining the Minor Agreements, whereas the usual view of Markan Priority (according to which Matthew and Luke are uninfluenced by each other’s work) has difficulty accounting for the approximately six hundred points at which Matthew and Luke agree to disagree with the Markan parallels with respect to wording and omissions.

I decided very quickly that the only way to combine the first and third conclusions was to posit the existence of a common document known to Matthew and Luke and basically parallel in story order with Mark, but verbally very different from it. (This meant that I had returned to a view not unlike that of the first Markan priorists, who had held that a kind of Ur-Markus or Proto-Mark was known to Matthew and Luke instead of Mark, and that the Gospel of Mark was in some ways not quite like Ur-Markus. The major difference between my view and that of the first Markan priorists is that, according to my theory, the common source included not only Ur-Markus narratives, but also Q sayings.) But what was one to do with the second conclusion? Why did Luke show little or no indication that he had seen the redacted expressions in Mark?

Markan Pick-ups

When I arrived at the solution, the second conclusion made sense. I discovered that Luke had not used Mark. Rather, Mark had used Luke. It soon became clear to me that my Markan stereotypes and non-Hebraisms were word “pick-ups,” which I could prove had been borrowed directly from Acts and distant Lukan contexts. For instance, the strange “and immediately” turned out to be first used by Mark in rewriting the scene of Jesus’ baptism as a result of having compared the story with the scene in Acts 10 of Peter’s vision on the Jaffa rooftop. In Acts 10:16 we find Luke’s only use of καὶ εὐθύς (“and immediately”) in the Book of Acts.

And there was that odd word for bed, κράβαττος (krabatos), which Mark had used in two stories (Mark 2:1-12 and 6:53-56) where Matthew and Luke had used a quite different word in parallel. Only in Acts and Mark did the word appear among the Synoptic writers. As in Mark, Luke had used krabatos in two different stories. In Acts 9:33 he stated that a paralyzed man, παραλελυμένος (paralelumenos), had been laid on a krabatos and been healed by Peter. In Acts 5:15 Luke told of people being brought into the streets on krabatoi (plural of krabatos) so that the shadow of Peter might fall on them for healing. Mark, too, had a paralyzed man in 2:1-12 who was brought on a krabatos to be touched by Jesus. Mark had seen paralelumenos in the Lukan parallel (Luke 5:18) and had turned to Acts 9:32-35 to read the story of Aeneas, the paralelumenos there. And, in parallel to the story in Acts 5:15-16, Mark had written of people who were brought on krabatoi into the marketplaces (!) so that Jesus “could touch them” (see Mark 6:53-56).

I kept a growing list of “pick-ups” and soon noticed some were coming from the epistle of James and many more from Acts and the Pauline epistles. One of my greatest surprises was the discovery that the words coming to Mark from Paul were limited to certain epistles—1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans—epistles usually thought to be Paul’s earliest letters.

A Better Way Forward

Despite the support of Professor David Flusser[10] and a few other scholars in Jerusalem, I was under no illusion about the difficulty of proving my theory to modern New Testament scholars. My problem is that I am a source critic living in a post-source-critical age. People suppose the Synoptic problem was solved long ago. Hundreds of living scholars have written books espousing Markan Priority, or at least basing their studies on the “assured” results of this point of scholarship. The latest fad among New Testament students is to ferret out the differences between the writers of the Gospels with a view to finding out how they differ theologically, actually an old discipline of early German scholars.

But it appears that the true solution to the Synoptic Problem has never really been resolved by scholars until now. The theory of Markan Priority is very close to the truth and for this reason has held the field so long. Both Professor Flusser and I view my theory as more a correction of the prevailing hypothesis than a radical departure from it.

However, the whole structure of modern New Testament research has been erected on the scaffold of Mark’s originality. Doubt in the very resurrection of Jesus, that central node of all Christian tradition, stems not a little from the fragmentary Markan account of the resurrection,[11] which differs significantly from that in Luke, whose detailed account is doubted because it is so unlike that of Mark. My theory, by contrast, suggests that the Lukan version of the resurrection may very well be the correct one. Modern skeptical Christian theology has often reveled in the uncertainty of the accounts of the resurrection story and has treated faith as “faith only if it has no facts at its command.”

This is not the traditional view of Christian faith, and it is pretty certain no Christian church would ever have been born without the early apostolic certainty that Christ rose literally from the grave, a fact many have pointed out. My synoptic theory, which maintains that the Gospel discrepancies are due to the odd secondary methods of Mark, opens a road to greater certainty in the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. For the moment, however, this is not my primary interest. What fascinates me is the possibility that the Matthean-Lukan agreements against Mark, and the more Hebraic texts of Matthew and Luke, can be shown to be the earliest Greek materials and may even be processed to yield much of their basic Semitic undertext, which Flusser and I are convinced was in Hebrew.

We even know what kind of Hebrew lies back of the Greek text and we can sometimes reconstruct the Hebrew text with great certainty. The narrative portions and some of Jesus’ formal teaching are clearly in Biblical Hebrew. The conversations of Jesus, on the other hand, are full of late-biblical and post-biblical Hebrew words and expressions. All this fits the linguistic scene of the first half of the first century, as we now know from the Dead Sea Scrolls and recent research in Mishnaic Hebrew sources. The Semitic sophistication of most of the Synoptic texts makes it impossible to hold that they are the creation of a Greek-speaking church, as many scholars think today. When we have laid aside the secondary elements so strongly seen in Mark and sometimes in Matthew (due to Mark’s influence), we have a straightforward story modeled after the Hebrew narratives of the Old Testament. This story had to have been composed very early in the first century, although we cannot tell when it was composed with exactitude.

*This article, originally published in 1969, has been here emended and updated by Lauren S. Asperschlager, David N. Bivin and Joshua N. Tilton.


Sidebar by David Flusser: Who Was John Mark?

Professor David Flusser on R. L. Lindsey’s “revolutionary step” in New Testament scholarship, showing that the Gospel of Mark, which made Jesus “less of a Jew,” was written latter than Luke.

John Mark is the supposed author of the second Gospel in the New Testament. He was evidently a Cypriot Jew and a member of the first Christian community in Jerusalem. He became Paul’s companion in his missionary journeys, quarreled with him, returned to Jerusalem and finally went with Peter to Rome where he met Paul again and was reconciled with him. According to a Christian tradition, he was buried in Alexandria, but his body was finally brought to Venice and buried in the famous San Marco church. His symbol in Christian art is a lion, and this animal became the emblem of the Venetian republic.

The Gospel that John Mark is supposed to have written has recently been translated anew into Hebrew by Robert Lisle Lindsey, the head of the Baptist Church in Israel. This translation has now been published, together with the Greek original and a long introduction. It seems to me to be a revolutionary step in New Testament scholarship.

The first three Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—are called by scholars the Synoptic Gospels because all are based on similar material and can be seen together. They can even be printed in three parallel columns, creating a book called a Synopsis. So it is clear that there is a literary connection between these three Gospels and it is also evident that to understand their interdependence means greater knowledge of Jesus and his teachings. To know more about Jesus’ life and doctrines should be the central aim of all Christian research. This was the opinion of Erasmus of Rotterdam, the Dutch humanist and scholar born 500 years ago. His aim was to propagate the “Christian philosophy,” or, in other words, Jesus’ doctrines. For this purpose he published in 1516 the first edition of the original Greek text of the New Testament. But, as we will see, the “historical Jesus” is not always at the center of Christian thought.

Sir Bedivere returning Excalibur, Arthur’s sword, to the lake from which it came, illustration by Aubrey Beardsley for an edition of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. Le Morte Darthur, the first English-language prose version of the Arthurian legend, completed by Sir Thomas Malory about 1470 and printed by William Caxton in 1485. The only extant manuscript that predates Caxton’s edition is in the British Library, London. It retells the adventures of the knights of the Round Table in chronological sequence from the birth of Arthur. Based on French romances, Malory’s account differs from his models in its emphasis on the brotherhood of the knights rather than on courtly love, and on the conflicts of loyalty (brought about by the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere) that finally destroy the fellowship.
Sir Bedivere returning Excalibur, Arthur’s sword, to the lake from which it came, illustration by Aubrey Beardsley for an edition of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur.
Le Morte Darthur, the first English-language prose version of the Arthurian legend, completed by Sir Thomas Malory about 1470 and printed by William Caxton in 1485. The only extant manuscript that predates Caxton’s edition is in the British Library, London. It retells the adventures of the knights of the Round Table in chronological sequence from the birth of Arthur. Based on French romances, Malory’s account differs from his models in its emphasis on the brotherhood of the knights rather than on courtly love, and on the conflicts of loyalty (brought about by the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere) that finally destroy the fellowship.

Rewritten Source

Modern scholars have, I think rightly, stated that Mark, or another gospel on which Mark is based, was one of the two main sources of both Matthew and Luke. Unfortunately, the laziness of the human spirit later led scholars astray and instead of trying to find out whether the common source of both Matthew and Luke was Mark or his supposed source, they increasingly identified this source with Mark. This led to deplorable consequences for modern New Testament scholarship. As we shall see, Mark is a completely rewritten source. The adaptor had the popular Hellenistic taste for dramatization and his theological acumen was not very strong. One may compare his way of rewriting his sources with that of Sir Thomas Mallory.

For someone who does not know literary criticism, the popular form of expression of this kind of literature may evoke the false impression of original freshness. For instance: “Then Sir Gawayne and Sir Tristram departed and rode on their wayes a day or two and there by adventure they mette with Sir Kay and with Sir Sagramour le Desyrous. And then they were glad of Sir Gawayne and he of them, but they wyst not what he was with the shylde of Cornwayle but by….” An uninformed reader would say: “How many details! This has the freshness of an eye-witness report.”

Let me give an even more characteristic parallel case from Mark’s Gospel, the healing of a blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26). Jesus “took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands upon him, he asked him: ‘Do you see anything?’ And he looked up and said: ‘I see men but they look like trees walking.’ Then again he laid his hands upon his eyes; and he looked intently and he was restored, and saw everything clearly” (see also Mark 7:31-37, and compare with Matt. 15:29-31).

This is not an archaic way of writing, but a popular form of vivid description. Later scholars abandoned the idea of Mark’s original freshness, but, not being versed in literary criticism, they assumed that Mark was the fruit of an “oral tradition” and, because they thought that Mark was the source of both Matthew and Luke, they extended the hypothesis of oral origin to all three Synoptic Gospels.

The following step in New Testament scholarship was caused by modern theology. Today it seems to be difficult to believe in facts and Jesus does not fit modern idealistic theology. Thus, it is easier for many theologians to believe in the kerygmatic Christ, as depicted in the Gospels, than to follow the “historical Jesus.” This historical tour de force is supported by the theory of the oral origin of the Gospels: the oral tradition has, so to speak, its place in the creative power of the Church; the object of its preaching was not the historical Jesus, but the kerygmatic Christ; the Gospels are mainly the reflection of the faith in the resurrected Lord. (Most of the champions of this approach do not believe in the resurrection.)

Even before I had the pleasure of meeting Lindsey, I did not accept all these beautiful ideas. I saw, from my experience with other sources, that also in the case of the Gospels, the philological approach was better suited to the matter at hand. Knowing both Greek and Jewish sources, I recognized that Mark was the fruit of thorough editing. And then I met Lindsey.

Two Crucial Facts

Lindsey approached the problem from another angle. He wanted to make a new Hebrew translation of Mark’s Gospel for his community and thus he was forced to recognize that Mark was rewritten, because his text is a strange mixture of Hebrew memories and of Greek popular style. He pursued this line of investigation and discovered two crucial facts. He saw that, in passages where Mark is lacking, Matthew is more Hebraic and is not imbued with the typical Greek style of Mark. He also discovered that Luke shows no traces of being influenced by the editorial activity of Mark, and the third Gospel, written by a Greek physician, is far more Hebraic than the Gospel supposedly written by the Jew, John Mark. From these two facts Lindsey concluded that Mark had entirely rewritten a source which was known to Luke before it was edited and that Matthew used Mark. But there are many minor agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark in passages from Mark. Thus, Matthew used both Mark and his original source. Further, Lindsey rightly supposes that in rewriting his source, Mark was helped by the extant Gospel of Luke.

Lindsey’s arguments are stringent, but his approach can be tested only when at least two conditions are fulfilled: the investigator must first study most of, if not all, the relevant Gospel materials in the light of the theory, and secondly, he must know enough Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic to understand the argument. Lindsey himself could see the truth only because he speaks Hebrew fluently and can thus read the relevant old Hebrew sources. I do not know if there are scholars studying Chinese or Tibetan Buddhist texts without knowing Sanskrit and Pali. If such scholars indeed exist, it is a great pity. I remember attending in Germany a very important colloquium about New Testament problems. Important German professors were present and I met no opposition—until I claimed that a certain passage in Matthew is a literal translation from Hebrew. Then I was attacked by the whole learned crowd: “How do you know?” they said. Last year I read the same passage at the Hebrew University where the reaction of a Dutch student who has lived here for some years and speaks fluent Hebrew was: “But these words are literally translated from Hebrew!”

Let me provide only one example of the importance of knowledge of Hebrew for an understanding of the Gospels. Jesus said, according to Matthew 6:31-32: “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things.” In Luke 12:30 we read instead of “the Gentiles”: “all the nations of the world.” This is a translation of the Hebrew “kol oomot ha’olam,” an expression common in rabbinical writings. If I am not wrong, Jesus’ words are the first example of the use of this expression (in a not very friendly context).

Thus the greatest difficulties for the acceptance of Lindsey’s approach to the synoptic problem will be: 1. Ignorance of Greek and Hebrew linguistics; 2. Lack of training in literary criticism; 3. A hypertrophy of idealistic theological mist; 4. The inveterate “oral” approach to the Gospels; 5. The belief in a kerygmatic Christ and the distrust of a Jewish “historical Jesus.” Thus, the psychological obstacles for Lindsey’s solution will be great today, but it is always difficult to find belief on earth.

Meanwhile, I am enjoying the good fortune of being able to use Lindsey’s achievements for my own research. My German book about Jesus, which has already appeared in English, is based upon Lindsey’s solution to the synoptic problem. I hope that my book will pave the way for the acceptance of Lindsey’s method by non-committed scholars, and especially by students. It seems to me that it is of vital importance for the understanding of Jesus that the new hypothesis be tested. To what extent Mark obscured the intentions of his source by rewriting and dramatizing his source can be shown by inner analysis and by comparison with the other two Synoptic Gospels. My own experience has proven that these profound changes made by Mark had the effect of making Jesus’ image less clear. And if in Mark the picture of Jesus the man became unclear, it is natural that Jesus became also less of a Jew. This can now, after Lindsey’s discovery, be proved by objective textual analysis. Thus, even if Lindsey’s achievements are not immediately accepted by academic pontificators, it will eventually help the real pontifices, the “bridge builders,” those who want better understanding between Judaism and Christianity.[12]

  • [1] Robert L. Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark. Jerusalem: Dugith Publishers, 1969 (1st ed.); 1973 (2d ed.). xxvi + 162 pp. (Preface to the 2nd ed., pp. v-xxvi. Foreword by David Flusser, pp. 1-8. Introduction, pp. 9-84. Greek text and Hebrew trans., pp. 85-159.)
  • [2] Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.39.15.
  • [3] De Consensu Evangelistarum 1.2.4.
  • [4] English translation: Rudolf Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (trans. John Marsh; Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963).
  • [5] David Flusser remarked at the press conference that Lindsey’s Hebrew translation of Mark is of much significance in the long history of New Testament Hebrew translations, but that the importance of Lindsey’s work lies mainly in Lindsey’s theory of the composition of Mark and Mark’s relationship to that of Matthew and Luke. See David Flusser’s references to Lindsey’s research in David Flusser, The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 3-4, 122. Flusser states: “My approach to the [“Synoptic Problem” is]…chiefly based on the research of the late R. L. Lindsey…The present biography [The Sage from Galilee] intends to apply the methods of literary criticism and Lindsey’s solution to unlock these ancient sources [the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke]” (pp. 3-4). See also the references to Lindsey in Flusser’s entry, “Jesus,” in The Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter; New York: Macmillan, 1972), 10:10.
  • [6] Flusser explained at the press conference that the very way in which Lindsey came to his conclusions has a certain authenticity which is to be admired: “Lindsey started out only to get a modern Hebrew text of the Gospel of Mark that would update the excellent but antiquated translation of Franz Delitzsch. He had been taught, as we all were, that from the last quarter of the nineteenth century it had been proved that Mark had served as one of the sources of Matthew and Luke. He had no reason to disbelieve this theory. It was while he was making his first draft that he ran into the difficulties that drove him to his long and painstaking research and which, in my view, ended in the most important and decisive correction of the usual view of Markan priority ever made.”
  • [7] Albert Huck, Synopsis of the First Three Gospels (9th ed. rev. by Hans Lietzmann; New York: American Bible, 1936).
  • [8] William F. Moulton and Alfred S. Geden, eds., A Concordance to the Greek Testament According to the Texts of Westcott and Hort, Tischendorf, and the English Revisers (3rd ed.; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1950).
  • [9] The Augustinian theory insists that Mark used Matthew only to be followed by Luke who used both Mark and Matthew. A modern defense of this position may be found in B. C. Butler’s The Originality of St. Matthew: A Critique of the Two-Document Hypothesis (Cambridge, 1951). On the other hand, the Griesbach theory concludes that Luke used Matthew only to be followed by Mark who used both Luke and Matthew. The strongest defense of this theory is provided by W. R. Farmer’s book, The Synoptic Problem: A Critical Analysis (2nd ed.; Dillsboro, NC: Western North Carolina Press, 1976).
  • [10] I met Professor Flusser for the first time in the summer of 1961.
  • [11] The end of Mark’s Gospel was lost at an early stage, but some scholars believe it may have been preserved in the last chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.
  • [12] This article appeared on page 11 of the Friday, October 24, 1969 Jerusalem Post Magazine [the weekend supplement].

The Numbers Game: Bible Codes (Numerology and Gematria)

Double question received from Ted Hesser (Copper Center, Alaska, U.S.A.) that was published in the “Readers’ Perspective” column of Jerusalem Perspective 55 (Apr.-Jun. 1999): 8.

I have two questions, the first of which concerns the genealogy in Matthew. Dr. Lindsey said that Matthew’s genealogy is quite Hebraic, and that much of the Gospels was taken from material translated from the Hebrew. I am convinced, but wonder how Matthew 1:1–11 was written in Greek with such perfect mathematical symmetry. In these eleven verses, there are seven substantive nouns, 35 (7 x 5) names, seven other words, and a total of 49 (7 x 7) words in the vocabulary. In the 35 names there are 196 (14 x 14) letters, and in the three women’s names there is a total of fourteen letters. And of course, I will add that the evangelist built into his genealogy a pattern based on fourteen generations. Could that have resulted from a translation from the Hebrew? Or was it divinely or humanly altered to create such a pattern, and if so, for what reason?

The second question relates to The New Testament in the Original Greek by Westcott and Hort (1881). Gail A. Riplinger in her book New Age Bible Versions gives information concerning Westcott and Hort which casts doubt on the authenticity of their work. The omissions, based on the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament and the United Bible Societies’ text (3rd ed.), found in the margin of my NKJV do seem to show a pattern that could reflect a theological bias. Moreover, these omissions seem to conflict with the abundance of mathematical patterns in the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament. Note particularly the numerical patterns in Genesis 1:1—seven words, 28 letters, and the addition of the gematria of various words yielding 777, 888 and 999. The patterns in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are also remarkable.

Randall Buth responds:

Biblical writers infrequently consciously used numerical patterns or codes in their compositions. As you mention, Matthew himself structured his genealogy around a repeating pattern of 14 generations. Gematria—playing with the numerical value of words in Hebrew or Greek—is, however, distracting at best. The prophets communicated their message in a manner which they expected their audiences to understand. Men of old penned the books of the Bible so that their contents would be understood.

In the past, many have tried to use gematria as proof of the Bible’s perfection. In our day, newcomers repeat the efforts of others despite the fact that such an exercise runs up against serious objections. First of all, number patterns like the ones identified in your letter are selected with a certain subjectivity. For example, assigning a numerical value to each letter of each word in Genesis 1:1 and, then, totaling the numerical value of each word yields the following series: 913, 203, 86, 401, 395, 407 and 296. I do not see a divine message in these numbers. Ah, but the content! “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.”

The Matthean example also serves well for showing how selective subjectivity is at work to “produce” a pattern. Why were the verbs not counted in your selection? There are 27 (3 x 9). Why was verse 11’s “Babylon” chosen as a break? A more natural break in Matthew’s list is verse 1:6b: “…fathered David the king.” For comparison, the statistics for verses 1–6 are: 90 words (that is 2 x 3 x 3 x 5, and the factors add up to 13!), 6 substantive nouns, 34 names (2 x 17), 21 different names, excluding repeated names (3 x 7), 15 conjunctions (3 x 5), 19 articles, 3 prepositions, and so on. Within any section of text, one may define and find a multitude of things. By necessity, assigning numerical values will produce numbers, and by necessity, numbers will frequently be multiples of 3, 7, etc. A person only needs to keep counting different subsets until a pattern of sevens, or another auspicious number, emerges. Once it does, the “decoder” then moves on to another text and repeats the procedure.

Wescott & HortRegarding Westcott and Hort, a gentle warning to be careful of ad hominem arguments is in order. What is an ad hominem argument? For example, theory A is associated with person B. Person B is alleged to be a bad person by person C. Therefore, theory A is suspect, or worse. A better question would be: Is theory A sound? If so, fine.

Today’s published New Testament Greek texts are based on a sifting of manuscript evidence. They happen to line up closely with Westcott and Hort’s text produced in the last century. This may be taken as a compliment to Westcott and Hort’s critical acumen. They had to make textual decisions based on less evidence than is available today, yet they were able to reach many of the same conclusions that twentieth-century textual critics have reached.

For more on Bible codes, see Jack Poirier, “ Does God Play Scrabble?“—JP

The Textus Receptus, or “Majority Text,” Theory

Question submitted by Mike Gascoigne (Camberley, Surrey, U.K.) that was published in the “Readers’ Perspective” column of Jerusalem Perspective 55 (April-June 1999): 8-9.

Have you read a book called New Age Bible Versions by Gail Riplinger? She denounces a large number of Bible translations (RSV, NIV, NASB, etc.) as being rather too accommodating towards New Age philosophies. She also criticises the Greek texts on which these translations are based, including Nestle, Westcott and Hort, UBS 3 and 4, and Codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus.

She claims that the only reliable translation of the Bible is the King James Version, which is based on the Textus Receptus. She considers this to be the most reliable Greek text because it was compiled from a large number of documents, mostly of Byzantine origin, that were substantially in agreement with each other and are therefore faithful copies made from a common source. The idea is that there is safety in a large number of manuscript witnesses that agree with each other.

Regarding Codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, the story of their history is something like this: The Roman emperor Constantine was concerned that his empire was divided into two distinct groups, Christians and pagans. They could not agree with each other about anything. So, he commissioned Eusebius to produce a Greek New Testament that would suit both groups, to try and bring them together. Fifty copies of this text were made, and some of these copies were sent to Alexandria where they were further corrupted by Origen, a Gnostic philosopher. The only two surviving copies of this corrupt text are the Vaticanus and Sinaiticus manuscripts [dating from the 4th century A.D.].

Have you heard of this story, and do you think it could possibly be true?

Randall Buth responds:

Your query is both easy and difficult to answer. It is easy because the “majority text” theory that Riplinger would support is basically a “falsified” theory. The Textus Receptus theory argues that the text of the church throughout the ages was the “majority text.” Unfortunately, the early church fathers did not know of such a text.

While most individual readings associated with the “majority text” can be found in an old source somewhere, they were never assembled together in one textual tradition until after Eusebius’ time. So the early church fathers effectively falsify the theory. The “majority text” did not exist in the time of the ante-Nicene fathers and, therefore, cannot be as old as Riplinger would like it to be.

On the positive side, it should be pointed out that there exist early examples of a text like Codex Vaticanus, the best single extant text of the New Testament. A gospel papyrus, designated P75, shows that a Vaticanus-type text already existed in 200 A.D.

Now for the difficult part: allusions to a “conspiracy theory” of the New Testament text. From a chronological point of view, the story about Origen lacks all credibility, since he lived in the century before Eusebius. The story about Eusebius is a weaving together of history and fantasy. Jerusalem Perspective magazine is not the right forum to unravel this. Sadly, a non-specialist reading Riplinger’s New Age Bible Versions runs the risk of concluding that a “conspiracy theory” sounds plausible. For the non-specialist, her book cannot be recommended. A specialist might read the book out of curiosity, though at the risk of wasting precious time.

Treasures in Heaven

The image above shows Jonah being swallowed by the great fish as illustrated in the Kennicott Bible of 1476. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the Gospel of Luke we find an interesting sequence of verses:


The men of Nineveh shall stand up with this generation at the judgment and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah. And behold, something greater than Jonah is here. No one, after lighting a lamp, puts it away in a cellar, nor under a peck-measure, but on the lampstand, in order that those who enter may see the light. The lamp of your body is your eye. When your eye is clear, your whole body also is full of light, but when it is bad, your body also is full of darkness. (Luke 11:32-34)

What is the relationship between the preaching of Jonah and putting a lamp on a lampstand? The prophet Jonah in classical Jewish thought calls to mind repentance. In Rabbinic literature we read that many prophets were sent to Jerusalem and the people did not listen, but to Nineveh one prophet was sent, and the people repented.[1]

The sign of Jonah indicated repentance. In fact, during public fasts in ancient Israel the Torah ark was wheeled out into the city square. An elder then addressed the people with these words, “Brethren, it does not say about the men of Nineveh that God saw their sack cloth and fasting, but that God saw their deeds, that they had turned from their wicked ways.”[2]

In the same context as the men of Nineveh, Jesus also mentioned the Queen of the South. What business does the Queen of the South have with the men of Nineveh? The queen and the Ninevites were Gentiles, which to a Jew living in the first century meant that they were sinners (cf. Galatians 2:15). As sinners, no Jew had any serious expectations of them in terms of spirituality or piety. Nevertheless, the Queen of the South and the Ninevites responded to God in a manner that surpassed expectations.

Two verses follow which mention the Greek word luxnos[3] (or “lamp” in English). Verse 33 says: “No one after lighting a lamp, puts it away in a cellar, nor under a peck-measure, but on the lampstand…” Verse 34 adds, “The lamp of your body is your eye; when your eye is clear, your whole body is also full of light…”

Once when teaching about treasures in heaven, I asked the audience the following question: “If I were to assign the task of preaching a sermon from these verses, what would you preach?” One person immediately commented that the content of Luke 11:33 appears also in Matthew 5:15. His textual instincts had told him to flee from this awkward Lukan passage and consult the Matthean parallel. Approaching the text in such a manner reflects textual-critical thinking. This person recognized the difficulty of interpreting the Lukan passage, and before expounding the text, he felt a need to look at the Matthean parallel.

I designed this short exercise in textual criticism in order to demonstrate the importance of giving thought to which version of a passage in Matthew, Mark, and Luke we rely upon as we prepare to preach or teach. Luke 11:33, which reads, “No one, after lighting a lamp, puts it away…,” is repeated in Matthew 5:15. In Matthew 5:14 Jesus declared, “You are the light of the world…” In Matthew 5:13 he declared, “You are the salt of the earth….” Jesus envisaged his disciples to be like light and salt. In other words, they were to be distinct. These Matthean verses constitute the longer, original context to which Luke 11:33 once belonged.

Luke 11:34, which says, “the lamp of your body is your eye,” is repeated in Matthew 6:22. The Matthean context is a homily about money. Here Luke 11:34 makes better sense because in Hebrew the idiom, “good eye,” means generosity.[4] When reading the synoptic gospels, checking parallel passages is important. Sometimes it makes a significant difference in exegesis.

Jesus on Long-term Investing

We will now direct our attention to the full context of Matthew 6:22 (and Luke 11:34):

Do not lay up for yourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light. But, if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then, the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

Matthew 6:19-24 represents a homily on maintaining a proper attitude toward money. Luke, however, has dispersed the same homiletic material throughout his gospel. For example, Matthew 6:19-21 parallels Luke 12:33, 34, Matthew 6:22, 23 parallels Luke 11:34-36, and Matthew 6:24 parallels Luke 16:13, which comes after the Parable of the Unrighteous Steward.[5]

Ben Sirach on Laying Up Treasure

In the Apocrypha[6] we find parallels to the phrase “laying up treasures in heaven.” I will quote two of them. The first comes from the Wisdom of Ben Sirach, which was written nearly two centuries before the birth of Jesus:

Help a poor man for the commandment’s sake, and because of his need do not send him away empty. Lose your silver for the sake of a brother or a friend, and do not let it rust under a stone and be lost.[7] Lay up your treasure according to the commandments of the Most High, and it will profit you more than gold. Store up almsgiving in your treasury, and it will rescue you from all affliction; more than a mighty shield and more than a heavy spear, it will fight on your behalf against your enemy.[8]

This passage challenges the reader to lay up treasure according to the commandments of the Most High. That reminds us of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:20, “But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal!” Note also Ben Sirach’s exhortation, “Store up almsgiving in your treasury, and it will rescue you from all affliction.” In this sentence, he may have been hinting at Proverbs 10:2: “The treasuries of the wicked are of no benefit, but righteousness rescues from death.” Underneath the English translation “righteousness” stands the Hebrew noun tsedakah,[9] which in the biblical period generally meant “righteousness.”

During the centuries between the Old and New Testaments, the Hebrew language evolved. Some words that had meant one thing in the biblical Hebrew now could mean another in the mishnaic Hebrew. The Hebrew noun tsedakah serves as an excellent example of linguistic development between the biblical and mishnaic periods. In the mishnaic Hebrew, tsedakah may mean more than “righteousness”; it often meant “almsgiving.” Consequently, Proverbs 10:2 was understood as a reference to almsgiving.[10] In the first century A.D., a Jew would have translated this verse into English as “charity rescues from death.” I suspect that Ben Sirach had Proverbs 10:2 in mind when he wrote, “…it [almsgiving] will rescue you from all affliction.”[11]

Using Proverbs 10:2 as an example, I have tried to offer a glimpse of the manner in which Jews in Jesus’ day read their Bible. This endeavor is significant because their emphases were not always our emphases. Their preaching and teaching did not sound like our preaching and teaching. And, obviously, their word studies did not resemble our word studies. Moreover, when reading the New Testament, we encounter subjects for which little or no explanation is offered. The writers of the New Testament did not bother to explain certain concepts, because they assumed that their audiences were familiar with them. Examples of such concepts include marriage,[12] the Kingdom of Heaven, and, of course, treasures in heaven. An example is laying up treasures in heaven. First century Jews were very familiar with this idea. For them, treasures in heaven represented a sort of technical phrase and, therefore, required no explanation.

Tobit on Laying Up Treasure

A second parallel comes from another pre-Christian, apocryphal book called Tobit. It, too, is found in versions of the Bible prepared by the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches:

Give alms from your possessions to all who live uprightly, and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it. Do not turn your face away from any poor man, and the face of God will not be turned away from you.

The warning, “Do not turn your face away from any poor man, and the face of God will not be turned away from you” represents an example of a principle known in Hebrew as midah keneged midah. This literally means, “measure for measure.” In Modern English, the same idea may be expressed by the aphoristic sayings “reaping what one sows” and “what goes around comes around.”

What passages from the Bible would generate this identification of God with the poor? I am reminded of Isaiah 57:15 and 58:6-11, and Psalms 34:18. The psalmist sang that the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. In a similar vein, Isaiah preached that God dwells with the crushed and lowly of spirit. Thus, the Bible clearly affirms the closeness of the Divine Presence to the lowly, the oppressed and the crushed.

Now we can more clearly see how the principle of midah keneged midah finds expression in this passage. The writer of Tobit was drawing from a complex of verses in the Bible, where God affiliates with the poor, downtrodden and crushed. Because God so closely identifies himself with such people, to turn away from the poor is tantamount to turning one’s back on God. This conclusion gains strength from the logical implications of Proverb 19:17: “He who is gracious to a poor man lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his good deed.” The proverb indicates that God has rated the poor as a wise investment. More subtle, but just as significant, one who turns away the poor, rejects God and considers him a bad credit risk.

The passage in Tobit continues: “If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have.” Tobit’s ethical advice to his son Tobias contains a very early expression of an idea which has become central to Jewish teaching on charity: a person who receives alms is himself required to give alms to another who is less fortunate than he. Approximately six hundred years after the writing of Tobit, the exilarch Mar Zutra declared, “A poor man who sustains himself by receiving charity, even he will give charity to another.”[13]

Luke wrote that Jesus once looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury (Luke 21:1-4). Then a poor widow came and deposited two copper coins. That caught Jesus’ attention. This poor widow certainly stood as a candidate herself for receiving assistance. Nevertheless, she felt obliged to donate to the temple treasury. Perhaps some ethical instruction similar to Tobit’s echoed in her mind: “Fear not to give according to the little you have.” From this perspective, Jesus’ pointed remark may have been just as much a comment on the charitable under-achievement of the rich as it was on the over-achievement of the widow. She had acted in accordance with what she had been taught. Although the gifts from the rich may have been large, proportionally speaking, the widow’s two copper coins dwarfed their gifts.

Tobit continued his exhortation:

So you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity. For charity delivers from death and keeps you from entering the darkness; and for all who practice it charity is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High.[14]

Here we see a definite allusion to Proverbs 10:2: The Hebrew tsedakah (righteousness) from Proverbs 10:2 was translated in the Greek version of the Old Testament, otherwise known as the Septuagint, as dikaiosunae, which in Koine Greek may mean almsgiving. Interestingly, this passage from Tobit reads very closely to the Septuagint’s Greek version of Proverb 10:2.[15] The manner in which the author of Tobit alluded to Proverbs 10:2 indicates that Jews in Jesus’ day understood the proverb to mean “charity delivers from death.”[16]

We have surveyed these two passages from the Apocrypha for the sake of proper orientation. Ancient Jews placed a premium on charitable deeds. Moreover, reading their Bibles in a manner that accentuated the importance of such deeds, they discovered almsgiving and other charity-related activity throughout the Bible in places (such as Proberbs 10:2) where we as modern readers would not anticipate finding it.

Monobazus on Laying Up Treasure

Rabbinic literature contains a wonderful story about laying up treasures in heaven. In the first century A.D., Helena, Queen of Adiabene in northern Mesopotamia, and her son Izates, as Josephus called him, converted to Judaism. At a time of famine in Judea, this royal family purchased grain from Alexandria as well as dried figs from Cyprus, and sent these along with large sums of money to Jerusalem for relief of the poor. Apparently, this was the famine Luke mentioned in Acts 11:27-30. In the rabbinic version of the story, Monobazus, King of Adiabene, the brother of Izates and son of Helena, is singled out as the hero.[17]

According to the rabbis, an argument ensued when relatives learned about the great sums of money the king had spent to feed the starving inhabitants of Jerusalem. His response to his charitably challenged relatives was: “My fathers hoarded their treasures in storehouses here on earth, but I am depositing them in storehouses in heaven.”

The fame of the royal family of Adiabene endures even in our day. In 1863 the French archaeologist F. de Saulcy excavated a majestic tomb in East Jerusalem. The tomb’s grandeur suggested to him that it may have belonged to the kings of Judah, hence its name Tomb of the Kings. Later investigation revealed, however, that this tomb belonged to Queen Helena whose bones, according to Josephus, had been buried there.[18]

New Testament Writers on Laying Up Treasures

As part of a caveat issued against avarice, the epistle writer James mentioned laying up treasures in heaven, but with a negative application. James 5:1-3 says:

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure!

James was warning people who had pursued a life of opulence that their riches would not endure. Apparently ignoring Jesus’ advice, they had laid up for themselves treasures on earth, where rust and moth consume.

What about the apostle Paul? Although in his extant writings he did not use the phrase “treasures in heaven” or the accompanying imagery of gold rusting and moths consuming, he did not neglect such a foundational Jewish concept as almsgiving in his teachings. A modern reader might conclude otherwise because Paul expended considerable energy explaining the “mystery”[19] of the gospel and preaching and teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven and Jesus.[20] A revolutionary concept, the mystery of the gospel centered around Paul’s claim that God was now placing his Holy Spirit on uncircumcised Gentiles and extending to them the privilege of being grafted into the redemptive heritage of Israel.

A Digression on the Mysteries of the Gospel

Conventional Jewish thinking wrestled with this proposition. Jesus’ messianic claims were not solely, and perhaps not even primarily, responsible for early Rabbinic Judaism’s distancing of itself from the followers of the Way. Throughout the Book of Acts, the apostles are described functioning within the parameters of Judaism. Prior to Stephen’s stoning at the hands of diaspora Jews belonging to the Freedmen Synagogue and the scattering of the Jerusalem Church throughout Judea and Samaria, the esteemed Pharisee Gamaliel came to the apostles’ defense. His wise advice was, “…stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan…is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them” (Acts 5:38-39). Later, when a riot erupted on the Temple Mount, Jews from Asia accused Paul of preaching against the Law and bringing Greeks into the temple (Acts 21:28). They did not mention anything about Jesus. The source of tension ultimately was stemming from God’s decision to place his Holy Spirit on the Gentiles. Perhaps this helps explain why a voice repeated, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy” three times to Peter in a vision (Acts 10:15-16). God had to prepare Peter for Cornelius’ invitation, because entering a Gentile’s home was an uncomfortable proposition for an observant Jew in the land of Israel.[21]

In our day a large number of Jews from the Lubavitch community have come to regard Rabbi Schneerson as the Messiah. Have these Messianic Jews been pushed outside of Judaism? Judaism is able to accommodate Messianism within its ranks, but the idea of God lavishing his Holy Spirit on men with uncircumcised sexual organs is more theologically challenging. For Paul, this stood at the heart of the mystery of the gospel, namely that the Gentiles (or sinners, as Jews called them) had been given an equal share in Israel’s redemptive heritage.

Writing Galatians 2:11-14, Paul described an incident where the new spiritual status of the Gentiles had generated some friction. Peter had lapsed into conduct that offended the non-Jewish believers. Hence, dealing with some practical ramifications of the mystery of the gospel, Paul found himself in Antioch charting a course between the conservative (and perhaps slightly ethnocentric) Jewish faction under James’s Jerusalem-based leadership on the one hand, and some insensitive (and perhaps ungrateful) Gentiles on the other.[22]

Is the mystery about which Paul preached and wrote new to us? Generations of Christians have been living with this mystery of the gospel for nearly two thousand years. Paul was explaining something new and marvelous for his generation. For us living today the mystery remains marvelous, but it is no longer new. Ironically, we feel very comfortable with the mystery of the gospel, perhaps so much so that we run the risk of taking our “engrafted” status for granted. Moreover, no longer is it the mystery of the gospel that we have difficulty understanding, but the other topics addressed in the New Testament that reflect traditional Jewish thinking. Because Christianity’s organic bond with ancient Judaism has eroded badly over the centuries, a number of concepts and topics that would have been clearly understood by first-century Jewish audiences and would not have required explanation have become difficult to comprehend. Jesus and Paul’s expectations for their first-century Jewish audiences were appropriate, but not for twentieth-century Christians who belong to a radically different age and culture.[23]

Returning to Paul’s letter, consider Galatians 2:9, where Paul recorded his brief description of the Jerusalem Council:

…and recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James, and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we might go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They only asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.

Notice the little phrase, “the very thing I was eager to do.” As Paul traveled on his missionary journeys, he paid special attention to the needs of the poor. Paul did not limit himself to preaching and teaching. He also helped the poor.[24]

Shrinking the Camel

Each of the first three Evangelists recorded the story about a rich, young man who asked Jesus what was necessary to be a candidate for inheriting eternal life (Matthew 19:16-22; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 18:18-23). According to Matthew, the man asked, “What good thing must I do to have eternal life?” What verse of Scripture motivated that question? In Micah 6:8, the prophet said, “He has told you, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you…” Pastor Robert Lindsey suggested that the young man (who most likely posed his question in Hebrew) asked Jesus something close to “What good shall I do in order to inherit eternal life?”[25] The link to Micah 6:8 becomes more apparent once the question has been put into Hebrew. The key phrase is “mah tov” literally, “what good.” The rich young ruler had asked a sincere question. He sought to know what God required of him to inherit eternal life.

According to Luke, Jesus answered:

You know the commandments: Do not commit adultery, do not kill, do not steal, do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.

To this the young man replied, “All these I have observed from my youth.” This young man apparently felt that there was still something more. He was obeying the commandments—you shall not kill, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, etc.

Now Jesus began to apply the pressure:

One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.

We are told that the young man departed saddened because he had much wealth.

About what did the young man originally come to ask Jesus? Eternal life. With what did Jesus end the discussion? He ended with an invitation to follow him or to become a member of his redemptive movement. Is the Kingdom of Heaven the same thing as eternal life? The NIV Study Bible suggests that the two are synonymous.[26] But, if a person spends time reading ancient rabbinic literature, he or she knows that eternal life and the Kingdom of Heaven are two different concepts. Eternal life is basically what we understand it to be, where a person goes after death. The Kingdom of Heaven, however, remains in full force now for those people who have made Jesus, Lord—not tomorrow, not when the Son of Man comes back to judge, but today. People who have said “yes” to Jesus belong to his redemptive movement, which he called the Kingdom of Heaven.[27]

In this story, the rich young man came to Jesus with a question about inheriting eternal life. Jesus basically answered, “You know the commandments—keep them.” Although the young man lived in accordance with the commandments, he wanted to experience a deeper level of spirituality and communion with God.[28] Yet, when faced with the cost of discipleship, which included freeing himself from the snare of materialism by laying up treasures in heaven, he hesitated to make Jesus Lord.[29]

Matthew, Mark and Luke each preserve a dialogue, which Jesus had with a lawyer.[30] According to Matthew, the lawyer came and asked Jesus, “What is the great commandment of the Torah?” And a similar discussion ensued.[31] In the end, Jesus complimented the lawyer by saying, “You have answered right; do this, and you will live,” [32] which includes an allusion to Leviticus 18:5.[33] I find it fascinating that Jesus did not deal with the lawyer in the same manner in which he dealt with the young man. Jesus did not offer the lawyer a personal invitation to become a disciple and thereby join God’s unprecedented redemptive movement over which Jesus presides. I suspect that Jesus viewed this conversation between him and the lawyer more in terms of a professional encounter. The lawyer seems to have been sparring with Jesus,[34] but not necessarily searching like the rich young man.

From the Rich Young Ruler story we learn that the phrase “treasure in heaven” functions as a sort of technical term for giving charity to the poor. Surely the concept drew inspiration from Proverbs 19:17. God has rated the poor as a wise investment. He acts as their guarantor. When we turn away from the poor, perhaps we underestimate God’s solvency or doubt his intention to repay his creditors.

The Rich Young Ruler story also indicates that Jesus’ followers or disciples pursue a lifestyle characterized by laying up treasure in heaven. The snare of materialism ranks among the more menacing threats for impeding obedience to God’s will. Jesus forcefully made this point when he said, “It is hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). Over the centuries, passing through the eye of a needle has not become an easier task for a camel, even if our preaching or lifestyles would suggest otherwise.

Yours and Mine

Luke recorded a story that Jesus told about a rich man and Lazarus. The story appears in Luke 16:19-31, and it reads as follows:

There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.” But Abraham said, “Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And, besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” And he said, “Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” And he said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:19-31)

This story illustrates a point that A. Marmorstein made: “Legends were more powerful allies of the theologians and teachers, apologists and preachers, than generally thought of.”[35] Teaching with legends and other story-line forms was an effective mode for communicating and influencing people’s thinking. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus did much teaching in the form of parables and stories. The challenge for modern readers is that Jesus presented theology in story form. Consequently, the responsibility rests upon us to coax the theological implications out of Jesus’ stories and parables.

The ancient sages of Israel sometimes spoke of humanity in terms of a threefold categorization: the saints, the average folk, and the wicked.[36] They observed that the wicked often accumulated wealth and had an easier lot in this world. In other words, good things such as wealth sometimes accrued to people who did not seem to merit them. Conversely, bad things sometimes happened to people who did not seem to deserve them. They also recognized that some people were born into miserable circumstances, while others enjoyed wealth and comfort. Accordingly, they concluded that a person’s lot in this life could be a mitigating factor, when he or she stands at the Great Judgement.[37]

How is the beggar Lazarus described when he was alive? He lived as a poor man who suffered from sores. He had a wretched lot in this life. That is all we hear about Lazarus. He lived mired in poverty and was chronically ill. The story does not comment on his piety—it merely says that he was poor.

Every day Lazarus sat outside the rich man’s gate and slowly wasted away because nobody clothed, fed or nursed him back to health. Lazarus owned nothing, whereas the rich man possessed much, but he made little or no effort to relieve Lazarus’ suffering. Perhaps he assumed that Lazarus deserved his lot because of some undisclosed sin or a simple lack of industriousness. Whatever his reasoning, the rich man certainly had multiple compelling justifications for neglecting Lazarus.

Sometime in the second century A.D. the rabbis formulated a saying that may hold relevance for a discussion about the story of Lazarus and the rich man:

There are four types among people: The one who says, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours.” This is the average person. The one who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.” This is the simpleton. The one who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours.” This is the saintly person. The one who says, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine.” This is the wicked person.[38]

Why did some rabbis claim that the person who says, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours” resembles a person from Sodom? The prophet Ezekiel once said something about the people of Sodom that is often overlooked in Christian preaching and teaching. They were proud, had plenty of food, were at ease, but the hand of the poor and the lowly they did not strengthen (Ezekiel 16:49). Therefore, according to Ezekiel, this was the sin of Sodom. Although the cardinal sin of the men of Sodom in Genesis 19 was lewd misconduct, in ancient Jewish interpretation, Sodom’s sin became linked to pride and contentment, which resulted in neglect of the poor.[39]

Ezekiel addressed an issue similar in nature to one raised by the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus. The rich man saw Lazarus sitting outside his gate but did not do anything to relieve his suffering. He may have reasoned, “What is mine is mine, and what is Lazarus’ is Lazarus’.” In Jesus’ day that attitude would have been booked as a spiritual felony. The rabbis emphasized this point by suggesting that even an average person, who thinks what is his is his, runs the risk of being like a Sodomite.


In this study I have tried to bring into focus one area that pious Jews in Jesus’ day stressed for proper conduct. Sometimes their emphases differed from the ones we see in the text. In Ezekiel, we read a verse about Sodom, which identifies the sin of Sodom as a failure to strengthen the hand of the poor. Jesus told a story about a rich man who was finely clothed and ate sumptuously. He was at ease, while poor Lazarus was at his gate.

This simple story highlights a major theme in Jesus’ theology: reaching out to the poor and downtrodden. Ancient Jews referred to such activity as laying up treasures in heaven. This concept constitutes a foundational component in the overall message of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Laying up treasures in heaven pertains to helping the poor as Sirach 29:9-13, Tobit 4:7-11, and Matthew 19:21, Mark 10:21, and Luke 18:22 indicate. To this collection of passages we may also add Luke 14:12-15: “…when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be paid at the resurrection of the righteous.”[40]

Realizing that laying up treasures in heaven functions as a sort of technical term for helping the poor in Jewish tradition challenges Christians in affluent western countries in a significant way. We regularly drop money into the collection baskets during the morning offertory each Sunday. But for what purposes is this money used? Although maintaining the church building, keeping the property landscaped, and paying the utilities are worthy endeavors, only gifts of time and money that relieve the suffering of the needy is credited to our heavenly bank accounts. At least this is what Jesus and other Jewish sages taught. As David Bivin once preached from the pulpit of the Narkis Street Congregation in Jerusalem, “We may be surprised to one day learn that we have little balance in our heavenly bank account, because we were not helping the poor. Jesus said, ‘Lay up treasure in heaven.’ In Hebrew, this heavenly treasure is called tsedakah, or, in English, alms or charity.”[41]

From studying the Bible, I have come to see two places where, as a general principle, God dwells with people. One is with the community of faith. God’s redemptive power flows through people who have made Jesus Lord. Jesus stands at the head of a redemptive movement, and those who are part of it are described as poor in spirit.

The Divine Presence is attracted to people who are poor in spirit. They are spiritually dependent upon God, contrite in spirit, and readily yield to his desires. This reminds us of the beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for these type of people constitute the Kingdom of Heaven.” (In English translations of Matthew 5:3, the genitive Greek pronoun αὐτῶν (auton) is treated as a possessive, yet auton would be better translated as a partitive genitive, i.e. “from these” instead of “belonging to these.”)[42]

The other place where God remains active is among the brokenhearted (cf. Isaiah 57:15). Based upon what Scripture says, God dwells with the crushed, the brokenhearted, and the downtrodden. People whose dignity has been crushed, whose physical bodies are failing, whose hopes and aspirations have been shattered, whose lives are mired in poverty attract the Divine Presence. Acute and chronic suffering tends to purge a person of pride and self-reliance and to produce in him or her a genuine longing for a touch from God. For that reason Jesus provoked his audiences by suggesting that tax collectors and harlots would enter the Kingdom of Heaven before others.

Laying up treasures in heaven resembles the classical message of the prophets—feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit those who are sick and imprisoned—but approached from the perspective of God’s faithfulness in rewarding those who do these kind acts. Laying up treasures in heaven for a follower of Jesus is like higher education for a university professor. It is already an integral part of that person’s life. To make Jesus Lord and to become a participant in the Kingdom of Heaven is to dare to go beyond the classical message of the Prophets. It means being on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with our God-given talents, skills, and resources in hand as a partner with God in spreading hope, healing and redemption in a hurting world.

  • [1] Lamentations Rabbah, Proem 31. For an English translation, see Lamentations in Midrash Rabbah (trans. A. Cohen; 3rd ed.; London: Soncino, 1983), 57.
  • [2] M. Taanit 2:1. For an English translation, see The Mishnah (trans. Herbert Danby; Oxford: Oxford University, 1933), 195.
  • [3] For further discussion about Luke’s use of “stichwords,” see Joseph Frankovic, Reading the Book (Tulsa, OK: HaKesher, 1997), 37-38 and David Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnus Press, 1988), 152.
  • [4] The precise meaning of the Greek adjective haplous in Matthew 6:22 remains elusive. It may mean “clear, healthy, sound, simple, single, or sincere.” Note that haplous is antithetically paired with the Greek adjective ponaeros, which means “evil, bad, wicked, sick, in poor condition” (see Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature [5th rev. ed., 1958; Chicago: University of Chicago, 1979], 86, 690-91). In light of the context and the pairing of ophthalmos…haplous with “bad eye,” I am inclined to say that the Hebrew idioms “good eye” and “bad eye” inspired the Greek phrases “ophthalmos…haplous” and “ophthalmos…ponaeros.” The idiom “good eye” appears in Proverbs 22:9: “A good eye will be blessed, because it has given of its bread to the poor.” Even today in Israel, collectors of charity say, “Give with a good eye.” Note, too, that in Romans 12:8, the noun haplotaes, which is related to haplous, means “generosity.” The idiom “bad eye” appears in m. Avot 5:13.
  • [5] David Flusser has pointed out that Luke joined this saying about serving God and Mammon to the parable because the word “mammon” was common to both (cf. Luke 16:13 and 19) (see Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity, 152).
  • [6] Editions of the Bible prepared by the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches include the Wisdom of Ben Sirach. In the wake of the Reformation, abandoning the cannon of the early church (namely the Septuagint) and following the lead of the rabbinic canon, Protestants elected not to include the Apocrypha as part of their Bible.
  • [7] In antiquity, people often hid their valuables in the ground. They viewed this practice as being responsible and prudent, similar to the way people today view storing valuables in a safety deposit box. This sort of thinking is clearly reflected in a variety of ancient sources. From Roman literature, one may cite the behavior of the miser in Aesop’s fable entitled “The Miser.” In Matthew 25:25, one of Jesus’ parabolic characters explains to his demanding master, “So I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” Writing about the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, Josephus described how Roman soldiers tortured Jewish prisoners in order to learn the location of their buried treasures (Jewish Wars 7:112-114). Lastly, one may call attention to the famous maxim of St Basil, “…and the gold that you have hidden in the ground belongs to the poor.”
  • [8] Sirah 29:9-13. The Oxford Annotated Apocrypha (ed. Bruce Metzger; expanded ed.; New York: Oxford University, 1977), 166.
  • [9] The development in meaning of the word tsedakah from the biblical to mishnaic period, already finds expression in Daniel 4:24(27), where the Aramaic cognate tsidkah is in parallel with “showing mercy to the poor” (Everyman’s Talmud, 219). For further discussion, see Joseph Frankovic, The Kingdom of Heaven (Tulsa, OK: HaKesher, 1998), 3-8.
  • [10] Everyman’s Talmud, 221. Also is the verse on Tsedakah Box.
  • [11] Note that Ben Sirach claimed that almsgiving protected more effectively than a mighty shield. The Hebrew word tsedakah was often rendered in Greek as dikaiosunae, even when it carried the meaning of almsgiving. Compare Matthew 6:1. Keeping this in mind, one wonders whether the breastplate of righteousness mentioned in Ephesians 6:14 should be understood in similar terms.
  • [12] Overall, the Old and New Testaments have little to say on marriage. Nevertheless, Jewish thinking on the subject was highly developed. As part of Jewish tradition and the Oral Law, Jewish views on marriage and family life have had a limited influence on Christian preaching and teaching. Although the New Testament does not preserve much information about Jesus’ and Paul’s views regarding marriage and the family, I am sure that both were well versed on what Jewish tradition prescribed. I am always amazed to enter a bookstore that caters to Evangelical/Charismatic Christians and see the numerous books that Christian authors have written on marriage. Few of these authors have made any serious attempt to consult Jewish sources on marriage. Yet Jesus and the apostles after him viewed marriage through the lenses of their Jewish religious heritage. Some of that heritage flowed into rabbinic Judaism and today remains preserved in the literature that the rabbis wrote.
  • [13] B. Gittin 7b (top).
  • [14] The entire passage comes from Tobit 4:7-11 (The Oxford Annotated Apocrypha, 66).
  • [15] Tobit 4:10 differs from Proverbs 10:2 in syntax, the tense of the verb, and eleaemosunae appears in place of dikaiosunae.Unlike dikaiosunae, which carries several meanings, eleaemosunae only means “kind deed” or “charitable giving.” See Walter Bauer, William Arndt, and Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (2nd rev. and augmented ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago, 1979), 249.
  • [16] Note that eleaemosunae is underneath the English “charity” in Tobit 4:10 and “almsgiving” in Tobit 12:9 (The Oxford Annotated Apocrypha, 66, 73). See also A. Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud (New York: Schocken Books. 1975), 221.
  • [17] For the rabbinic version, see t. Peah 4:18. See also Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20:17-96.
  • [18] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20:4, 92-96.
  • [19] See Romans 11:25-26, Colossians 1:27 and Ephesians 3:3-6.
  • [20] See Acts 19:8, 20:25 and 28:31.
  • [21] Note the effort that the centurion made to prevent Jesus from having to deal with a similar awkward situation (Luke 7:6-8).
  • [22] Regarding the awkward circumstances for social contact between Jews and Gentiles in the first century, see the insightful remarks in Robert Lindsey, Jesus, Lord of Capernaum (Tulsa, OK: HaKesher, 1998), 10-12, 20-21. A brief, helpful discussion of the confrontation between Paul and Peter in Antioch may be found in Wayne Meeks and Robert Wilken, Jews and Christians in Antioch in the First Four Centuries of the Common Era (Missoula, Montana: Scholars Press, 1978), 1-2, 13-20.
  • [23] We must work at developing sensitivity to the text that enables us to identify the major concerns of first-century Jews. They appear throughout the synoptic gospels and epistles, but too often escape the attention of twentieth-century English readers. When there is widespread recognition of this challenge in the church, those sitting in the pews will initiate changes that will bring about a sweeping reform in the way we educate those who stand in our pulpits. For further discussion, see Frankovic, Reading the Book, 47-52.
  • [24] In 2 Corinthians 9:6-9, Paul wrote some advice about giving.

    Now this I say, he who sows sparingly shall also reap sparingly. And he who sows bountifully, shall also reap bountifully. Let each one do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion; for God loves a cheerful giver. And, God is able to make all grace abound unto you, that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed.

    Now follows his proof text from Psalms 112:9: “As it is written, ‘He scattered abroad, he gave to the poor, his righteousness abides forever.’” How did Paul understand the Hebrew word, tsidkato, from Psalms 112:9? It is translated as dikaiosunae autou in the Greek of 2 Corinthians 9:9. How could we translate his righteousness in 2 Corinthians 9:9 more dynamically? Could we say that God’s charitable deeds endure forever? First-century Jews saw a connection between God giving to the poor and his charity (righteousness) abiding forever. They interpreted Psalms 112:9 to mean that God’s redemptive activity endures forever. (Or, if one prefers, in a more narrow sense, his charitable activity endures forever.) God is always reaching out to the poor, to the broken, to the crushed; therefore, his righteousness abides forever! Paul apparently understood Psalms 112:9, which he quoted in 2 Corinthians 9:9, in the same manner the author of Tobit understood Proverbs 10:2. For both writers, tsedakah meant something like charity or almsgiving.

  • [25] See Robert Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark (2nd ed.; Jerusalem: Dugith, 1973), 127, and David Bivin, “Jerusalem Synoptic Commentary Preview: The Rich Young Ruler Story,” Jerusalem Perspective 38 and 39 (May-Aug. 1993): 15.
  • [26] The NIV Study Bible offers this comment on Matthew 19:16: “eternal life. The first use of this term in Matthew’s Gospel (see v. 29; 25:46). In John it occurs much more frequently, often taking the place of the term ‘kingdom of God (or heaven)’ used in the Synoptics, which treat the following three expressions as synonymous: (1) eternal life…, (2) entering the kingdom of heaven…and (3) being saved” (The NIV Study Bible [ed. Kenneth Barker; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985], 1469, 1470.
  • [27] See Joseph Frankovic, The Kingdom of Heaven (Tulsa, OK: HaKesher, 1998), 7, and Brad Young, The Jewish Background to the Lord’s Prayer (Austin: Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, 1984), 10-17.
  • [28] Matthew has underscored this element of the story. In his gospel the young man asked, “What do I still lack?”
  • [29] Regarding the cost of discipleship, see Luke 14:26-32.
  • [30] See Matthew 22:35-40, Mark 12:28-34, and Luke 10:25-28.
  • [31] Apparently, Luke was reminded of the Rich Young Ruler story when he wrote about this lawyer. He introduced this story as being about inheriting eternal life. Luke may have realized that Jesus’ allusion to Leviticus 18:5 in verse 28 pertained to eternal life.
  • [32] See Luke 10:28.
  • [33] In Jewish tradition, Leviticus 18:5 was understood to be a reference to eternal life. See Rashi on Leviticus 18:5. See also the references listed for τοῦτο…ζήσῃ in The Greek New Testament (eds. K. Aland, M. Black, C. Martini, B. Metzger, and A. Wikgren; 3rd corrected ed.; West Germany: United Bible Societies, 1983), 253.
  • [34] See Joseph Frankovic, “Is the Sage Worth His Salt?” Jerusalem Perspective 45 (July/August 1994): 12, 13.
  • [35] A. Marmorstein, “The Unity of God in Rabbinic Literature,” Hebrew Union College Annual (1924): 469.
  • [36] See Sifre Zuta, p. 27 and Rosh HaShanah, 16b.
  • [37] See Sifre Zuta, p. 27 and Rosh HaShanah, 16b.
  • [38] M. Avot 5:10. For an alternative English translation, see Danby, 457. Jesus probably knew this saying from Avot in an earlier, simpler form. In the parable of the day laborers in the vineyard and their wages (Matthew 20:1-15), Jesus depicted the landowner, who represents God, as if he is the saint, and the day laborers as if they were average men (or perhaps Sodomites). Note Matthew 20:14-15. See Brad H. Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 136-37.
  • [39] See also “Emulating the Ways of Sodom,” Jerusalem Perspective 55 (Apr.-Jun. 1999): 38.
  • [40] Years ago, Father Richard Thomas and others working with him at Our Lady’s Youth Center in El Paso, Texas did just what this passage said. They hosted a Christmas meal at a city dump in Juarez, Mexico. What happened that day revolutionized the ministry that Father Thomas continues to oversee in the Juarez and El Paso area.
  • [41] David Bivin, “Doers of the Word” in Sermons from Narkis (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Perspective, 1996), 15.
  • [42] See Brad H. Young, Jesus and His Jewish Parables (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1989), 230-35.

Sunshine For Everybody

Song of Songs Zuta is a rabbinic commentary on the Song of Songs. It may be characterized as exegetical and haggadic. In contrast to the better known Song of Songs Rabbah, Song of Songs Zuta is shorter in length. The words rabbah (great) and zuta (small) imply this contrast.

The learned Jew who compiled Song Zuta wrote his commentary entirely in Hebrew. He did not inform his readers when and where he worked. Solomon Schechter, the first modern, critically-trained scholar to publish an edited transcription of this text, suggested that it had been written in the 10th century C.E.[1] When Schechter made his transcription in the late 19th century, he was apparently unaware of a large fragment of Song Zuta that a Russian Orthodox archimandrite named Antonin had acquired from the genizah (manuscript storage chamber) of the famous Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, Egypt. Later this fragment passed into the possession of the Leningrad, Saltykov–Schedrin library.[2] Certain features of this fragmentary manuscript from the Cairo genizah weigh in against describing Song Zuta as a medieval work.[3]

More recently, several Israeli scholars such as G. Scholem, Z. Rabinowitz, M. Lerner, and M. Hirshman have suggested that Song Zuta was written considerably earlier than Schechter’s date, probably in the 3rd century C.E.[4] In my opinion, Song Zuta was most likely written in Israel between 300 and 600 C.E.[5] The contents of the commentary include numerous tannaic traditions, exclusively tannaic names of rabbis, and seem to fit well within the context of Late Roman Antiquity and the Byzantine period.

The diverse and rich contents of Song Zuta give this little commentary a notable character. Among them are a few passages that may interest students of the synoptic Gospels. For example, consider the commentary’s opening remarks on the Song of Songs:

Rabban Gamliel said, “The Holy One composed it,” just like [Scripture] says, “The Song of Songs.” [In other words,] this song is superior to all other songs. Moreover, the Patriarchs, the righteous, the prophets, and the ministering angels sang it. To whom did they sing it? To The-One-To-Whom-Peace-Belongs. [Consider how] God constantly deals with all of his creatures. The sun shines on the wicked just as [it shines] on the righteous. He also makes peace among his angels, thus Scripture says, “He makes peace in his high places” [Job 25:2]. Lightning shoots forth amidst the rain, and the rain does not extinguish its fire, nor does [it] scorch the rain. The expanse of the heavens [stores] water, whereas the sun, moon and stars [contain] fire. These move [through the watery expanse], and [they neither burn its water, nor does its water extinguish their fire].[6]

For the reader who is versed in the synoptic Gospels, one sentence from this passage immediately attracts attention: “The sun shines on the wicked just as [it shines] on the righteous.” This sentence resembles part of a longer sentence that the gospel writer Matthew included in his version of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. According to the RSV, Jesus said: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:44-45).

Van Gogh, "Thatched Cottages in the Sunshine" oil on canvas (1890).
Van Gogh, “Thatched Cottages in the Sunshine” oil on canvas (1890).

As a sage, Jesus flourished within the broad and diverse arena of Pharisaic Judaism. He both benefited from and contributed to the achievements of Late Second Temple-period Judaism. Regarding his simple, but profound saying about God making his sun rise and rain fall, I suspect that Jesus borrowed the parallelism from an ever-expanding fund of Jewish haggadic tradition. Included in that fund were pithy sayings, proverbs, exegetical traditions, as well as biblical, parabolic, fabulous and anecdotal characters and motifs. Moreover, Jesus’ words were based upon meteorological observation (as much as inspired by a humane reading of Scripture). I would not be surprised, therefore, if somebody were to call to my attention a similar maxim in ancient Greco-Roman literature. In other words, the parallelism may not have necessarily had an exclusively Jewish provenance. In Jesus’ day intense intercourse took place between the dominant Greco-Roman culture and the sub-cultures of the Jewish people. (Note, for example, the Apostle Paul who felt at ease in the dominant culture and the sub-cultures of Hellenistic Judaism and Palestinian Pharisaic Judaism.)

A similar explanation may be applied to Song Zuta’s version of the saying. Centuries later, its rabbinic author made a “withdrawal” from the fund of Jewish haggadic tradition. Between the end of the first century C.E. and the time when Song Zuta was composed, the fund had grown. The rabbis deposited much new material into it. They also drove some of its older material out of circulation.[7] Nevertheless, material having its origins in the Late Second Temple period remained an integral part of the fund. This assumption dovetails with the conclusions of such scholars as Geza Vermes, James Kugel and Avigdor Shinan who have done significant textual-critical research in tracing the history and development of haggadic traditions.[8]

Assuming that the haggadic fund scenario offers the most satisfying explanation, I will speculate further on two points:

  1. This rabbinic version of the saying appears in a truncated form. The Hebrew mind delights in communicating ideas in pairs. Jesus’ words contain a parallelism about the sun rising and the rain falling. In Song Zuta only the first half of the parallelism has been transmitted. Without the benefit of Matt. 5:45, one could argue only with difficulty that the saying in Song Zuta constitutes half of what was probably originally a parallelism.[9]
  2. Jesus and the writer of Song Zuta each contributed to the respective Judaisms (Pharisaic and rabbinic) of their day. Each recycled a maxim already in circulation, and by doing so, each made a distinctive contribution. The distinctiveness of each one’s contribution may be seen in the integration of the recycled saying into a new context. Jesus employed it as part of an exhortation to emulate God. By causing the sun to shine and rain to fall, God expresses good will even toward those who rail against him. The rabbinic writer used the saying in a different way. He called attention to God’s role in spreading peace among the antithetical elements of his universe. Go and marvel at God’s awe-inspiring creation, and emulate his kindness toward your adversary!
  • [1] Solomon Schechter, Agadath Shir HaShirim (Cambridge: Deighton Bell, 1896), 100-104.
  • [2] See Abraham J. Katsh, “The Antonin Genizah in the Saltykov–Schedrin Public Library in Leningrad” in The Leo Jung Jubilee Volume: Essays in His Honor on the Occasion of His 70th Birthday (ed. M. Kasher; New York: Jewish Center, 1962), 115-131, and Benjamin Richler, Guide to Hebrew Manuscript Collections (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences & Humanities, 1994), 8, 61-64.
  • [3] Zvi Rabinowitz, who edited this large Antonin fragment of Song Zuta, expressed reservations about Schechter’s late date and briefly explained his reasons for viewing Song Zuta as having been written centuries earlier (Ginze-Midrash [Israel: University of Tel Aviv, 1977], 252-253).
  • [4] Hirshman wrote, “Rabinowitz suggests in his introduction [to ch. 23 of Ginze-Midrash] that this midrash should perhaps be considered a tannaitic work, and this is also the opinion of a foremost aggadist, M. B. Lerner. This view was espoused by [Gershom] Scholem in Jewish Gnosticism [Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition], 56. I tend to agree with this view, excepting passages that seem to be later additions…” (A Rivalry of Genius: Jewish and Christian Biblical Interpretation in Late Antiquity [trans. Batya Stein; Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996], 148).
  • [5] This is essentially the opinion of Shmuel Safrai on the dating of Song Zuta (Private conversation, Jerusalem, April 2001). Song Zuta resembles Midrash Ruth (Ruth Rabbah) in its exegetical-haggadic character, whereas its long eschatological narrative is reminiscent of Sefer Zerubbabel. Cf. H. L. Strack and G. Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 344, 363.
  • [6] This translation is based on a manuscript belonging to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America: JTSA R-1681, p. 1a, lines 4-13.
  • [7] Cf. Alan Kensky, “Moses and Jesus: The Birth of the Savior,” Judaism (1992-1993), and Shalom Spiegel, The Last Trial: The Akedah (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1993).
  • [8] Cf. Geza Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1961); Avigdor Shinan, The Biblical Story as Reflected in Its Aramaic Translations (Israel: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1993); and James Kugel, In Potiphar’s House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts (San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 1990).
  • [9] Cf. Brad Young’s “ADDITIONAL NOTE” that he contributed to David Flusser’s study entitled “Johanan Ben Zakkai and Matthew” in his Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (ed. Brad Young; Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1988), 493. The rabbinic anecdote about Alexander of Macedon (that Young cites) includes the following exchange between a local king and Alexander: “[The king] asked Alexander, ‘Does rain fall on [your homeland]?’ He replied, ‘Yes!?’ ‘And does the sun shine on [your homeland]?’ He replied, ‘Yes!?’” (Lev. Rab. 27:1). The pairing of the “sun shining” with the “rain falling” in the king’s series of rhetorical questions strengthens the claim that this meteorological saying once circulated in the form of a parallelism. (Young cites the places in rabbinic literature where the anecdote is repeated.)

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.

Scholars and Saints: A Critical Collaboration

Revised: 15-Feb-2008

Most academics would question the value of attempting to identify material originating from the historical Jesus because Matthew, Mark and Luke are not historical narratives in the modern sense. They would argue that what may be authentic and originate from reliable eyewitness accounts cannot be separated with objectivity or confidence from other homiletic, liturgical, polemical or apologetic accretions. In essence, the effort would be doomed to failure from the start. Conservative Protestant spokesmen such as pastors and preachers would have their own reservations about such a project. For them, the Gospels are authentic and reliable in every sense, and their message infallible. They would view any attempt to separate historical fact from commentary as unnecessary.

For different reasons, both groups would not be enthusiastic about pursuing a methodology whose aim is to isolate the earliest (and presumably the most historical) elements of the Synoptic Tradition. On the one hand, post-modern academics know that any portrait one offers as a realistic representation of Jesus probably reflects the ideas and prejudices of the portraitist as much as the likeness of the subject. On the other hand, theological conservatives know that a strict academic approach cannot address fully the Bible’s unique and multifaceted character. They would be reluctant to support efforts that critically mutilate a living text.

Lindsey’s Synoptic Hypothesis

I subscribe to Robert L. Lindsey’s two-document source theory of Lukan priority. As a subscriber, I own a worn Synopsis of the Four Gospels and read Matthew, Mark and Luke with a critical eye. When reading critically, I try to locate material that emanates from the longer and earlier of the two hypothetical sources to which Luke presumably had access. I also assume that in addition to relying on Mark, Matthew used this same long source years after Luke wrote his Gospel. To identify places where this hypothetical source may be percolating through the Greek of the Synoptic Gospels, I look for two clues: 1) Hebraisms embedded in the Greek, especially places where their presence is concentrated; and 2) congruity of thought and content with other writings of the Late Second Temple period and with early rabbinic literature. In essence, as I work from my Synopsis, I pick-and-choose my way down the parallel columns in an effort to isolate and consolidate material emanating from this source. Although these two controls ensure a modicum of objectivity, the process is still quite subjective.

Toward the goal of reducing subjectivity and giving life-support to my critically mutilated Synoptic texts, I would add another, very different type of control to the two mentioned above. To appreciate how this third control might work, we must exit momentarily both the lecture hall and pulpit and enter the domain of radical (and recognized) religious experience.

© 1986 Túrelio (via Wikimedia-Commons), 1986 / Lizenz: Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-2.0 de
Mother Teresa © 1986 Túrelio (via Wikimedia-Commons), 1986 / Lizenz: Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-2.0 de

Mother Teresa stands among the great personalities of the last millennium. Although this Nobel Peace Prize recipient did not write theological treatises, her simple sayings are laden with theological significance. As a friend of the forgotten, she earned a formidable reputation, and living among those she served, she enjoyed absolute credibility. She prayed regularly for the sick and on occasion received inspired words of encouragement and guidance for the benefit of those around her. Few would challenge the claim that she excelled in obedience as a modern practitioner of Jesus’ teachings. In Synoptic parlance, this woman entered the kingdom of heaven. For these reasons, I have selected her as a model for introducing the third control.

Jesus’ distinctive conceptual approach to the kingdom of heaven and his response to its dynamism are foundational to the Christian faith. If the kingdom of heaven (according to the Synoptic depiction of it) has remained constant for the past two millennia (except for some expansion and contraction), then Mother Teresa’s words and eyewitness accounts of her work should contain relevant clues for the task of isolating the authentic elements of the Synoptic Tradition. One potential way of gathering those clues would be to search her sayings, writings and interviews for quotations of and allusions to Synoptic passages. Such quotations and allusions could then be collected and perhaps even recorded in an index. I have a hunch that those passages toward which Mother Teresa inclined overlap considerably with the Synoptic material that Lindsey’s theory fingers as authentic.

What advantages may be gained by making a saint part of a text-critical methodology? As a start, it may reduce subjectivity. I cannot imagine that Mother Teresa kept abreast of scholarly trends in Synoptic research. Her problems were of another hue, and she was guided in her choice of Synoptic verses by other considerations. One of those considerations was her uncritical, unscholarly understanding of the kingdom of heaven. Assuming that the kingdom of heaven is conceptually stable through time and its dynamism persists, then agreement between her perception of it and that which emerges from a particular methodological approach may be noteworthy.

Absorbing a modern saint into a text-critical methodology might also make the methodology more compatible with the Bible as a sacred tome. Literary theories can shed much light on Scripture. They can help us listen more attentively as we read. Nevertheless, they cannot adequately accommodate all facets of a sacred text. Form, source and textual criticism are useful tools in the hands of skilled exegetes. For example, they allow scholars to identify scribal errors and accretions. Yet a purely critical approach runs the risk of draining the Bible of its vitality. A “saint-critical methodology” may enable readers to engage more of the authentic elements of the Synoptic Tradition on their own terms. This creative approach could help resuscitate living texts suffering from dismemberment or dehydration. It also implies that in addition to narrow-halled universities and seminaries, other campuses may be fertile for Synoptic learning. Who knows what sublime exegetical insights may have been gleaned, if a few more New Testament scholars had opted for spending a sabbatical on-loan to the frail saint of Calcutta?

“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.

Leah’s Tender Eyes

Revised: 14-May-13

The King James Version translates Genesis 29:17 as follows: “Leah was tender eyed; but Rachel was beautiful and well favoured.” The New International Version has, “Leah had weak[1] eyes”; while the New American Bible reads, “Leah had lovely eyes.” The Hebrew text reads, literally, “And the eyes of Leah were tender, and [i.e., but] Rachel was beautiful of stature and beautiful of appearance.”

The Septuagint, the second-century B.C. Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, used the Greek adjective ἀσθενεῖς (astheneis, weak; feeble, sickly) to describe Leah’s eyes. The uncertainty of the Targums (Aramaic translations of Scripture) about how to translate the Hebrew adjective רַכּוֹת (rakot, tender, delicate) created a plethora of paraphrases: Targum Onkelos: “And the eyes of Leah were beautiful”; Targum Jonathan: “And the eyes of Leah were moist[2] from weeping and praying before the LORD that he would not destine her for Esau the wicked”; Palestinian (Geniza) Targum: “And the eyes of Leah[…] because she would cry and pray not to emerge in the lot of Esau;[3] Targum Neofiti: “And the eyes of Leah were raised in prayer, begging that she be married to the just Jacob.”

E. A. Speiser is able to capture in English translation the nuances of biblical Hebrew better than any modern Bible translator or commentator. In his commentary on Genesis[4] he translated Genesis 29:17, “Leah had tender eyes, but Rachel was shapely and beautiful,” and commented:

“Tender,” not necessarily “weak,” for the basic sense of Hebrew rach is “dainty, delicate”; cf. Genesis 33:13 [“frail, tender” (children)]. The traditional translation has been influenced by the popular etymology of the name Leah as “weak.” What the narrative appears to be saying is that Leah had lovely eyes, but Rachel was an outstanding beauty.

It appears to me that Speiser is right. The Hebrew word order demands a contrast between Leah and Rachel. The second ו (vav, and) has to be understood as carrying the sense, “but, however.” The contrast cannot be “Leah was ugly, but Rachel was beautiful,” since the text does not contrast Rachel’s eyes with Leah’s, or Rachel’s body with Leah’s, but rather one part of Leah with the whole of Rachel. Therefore, the contrast is: Leah’s eyes were beautiful, but Rachel was beautiful in all parts of her body.

Perhaps Leah did have exceptional eyes, or perhaps she was so plain that her friends commented only on her eyes: “She has pretty eyes!”—a compliment that said less about her eyes than the rest of her body.

  • [1] In a footnote, the NIV adds: “Or delicate.”
  • [2] Or, “dripping, running.”
  • [3] Or, “that the fate of Esau would not befall her.”
  • [4] E. A. Speiser, Genesis (The Anchor Bible, vol. 1; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), 224.

The Transparent Agenda

Revised: 15-Feb-2008

I recently submitted my dissertation proposal for review by an academic committee. I hope that it will be approved without major changes. With that task behind me, I have refocused my attention on transcribing the text-witnesses of Song of Songs Zuta. To do this type of work, I must frequent the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. The world’s best rabbinic scholars use the library for textual research because of its extensive microfilm and Photostat collection of rabbinic manuscripts. Each time that I enter the large rectangular room where scholars can access microfilm, I am grateful for the opportunity to prepare an edition of an ancient rabbinic commentary.

Woodcut depicting a disputation between Christian and Jewish scholars. Johann von Armssheim (1483).
Woodcut depicting a disputation between Christian and Jewish scholars. Johann von Armssheim (1483).

In addition to enjoying this type of work, I obviously have a professional interest in it. Transcribing old manuscripts is foundational to obtaining my doctorate. Yet beyond personal inclination and professional interest, there is another incentive for me to keep working: I derive satisfaction from assisting the Jewish community collate and preserve its literary heritage. Jews and Christians have dueled over interpreting the Bible for centuries. Sometimes their vying became ugly, like when papal agents marred rabbinic texts. I find copying manuscript folios bearing marks of a censor to be both fulfilling and reparative labor. It may also be an effective way for fostering interfaith confidence, friendship and esteem.

The Jewish community treasures its literary heritage. The manuscripts with which I work are rabbinic and not pre-Christian (i.e., they were written centuries after the late Second Temple period). While transcribing, I occasionally encounter material which would benefit a New Testament exegete. My principal interest in rabbinic texts, however, emanates from an esteem of Judaism based on its own terms. I am not principally concerned with profiting as a New Testament exegete or advancing a religious program. I want my relationship with the Jewish community to be one of simplicity and transparency. I offer a helping hand to the Jewish community in a way which I hope that it welcomes and which conceals no stealth.

I am concerned that a lot of Christian activity (particularly conservative Protestant activity in Israel) does not meet these two criteria. For example, there are groups promoting the rebuilding of the temple. Within Judaism, only a radical fringe would welcome this agenda. Even more disturbing, this agenda is birthed out of aspirations to advance a prophetic timetable peculiar to Fundamentalist and Evangelical doctrines. Others are fully engaged in encouraging the emigration of Eastern European and Russian Jews to Israel. Many Israelis would applaud the assistance offered to their coreligionists. However, if the same Israelis were informed about the eschatological program underlying the effort, I suspect that much of the appeal would be lost. Furthermore, Christians who are engaged in Zionistic activity are sucked easily into Israel’s political and ethnic maelstrom. Once this happens, they can no longer aid Israelis in the task for which they desperately need urgent assistance: overcoming the enmity between them and their Palestinian neighbors. These Christians jettison the opportunity to lay themselves down as a bridge of rapprochement between the two peoples, because their actions too often take on a political dimension, or even an anti-Palestinian character.

We are in need of creating new models for serving in the Holy Land. Our models need to reflect sensitivity to the Jewish community. They need to be anchored in Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of heaven, so as to prevent us from being swept away by polarizing political and ethnic currents. They also need to be birthed out of pellucid motives. The fine print of our programs cannot include ulterior agendas, no matter how inerrant they may seem to us. In essence, we should strive to reapply the Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Or if one prefers the rabbinic form of the same aphorism: “What you consider unpleasant, do not do to another.” If I were standing in Jewish shoes, on the one hand, I would welcome succor from those who are sensitive to my history, pains and shortcomings. I also would value assistance in accomplishing what I cannot achieve on my own. On the other hand, however, I would not be thrilled about the actions of someone motivated to help for gain, whether that gain be material or ideological.

As practitioners of Jesus’ teachings, our conduct certainly should be characterized by charity, but a helping hand with strings attached or expectations appended is not pleasant. This constitutes one of the mysterious aspects of the kingdom of heaven. It is The Transparent Agenda, a mandate to do good to all without prejudice and without expectations. In the meantime, I will continue copying worn and marred manuscripts while looking for signs of new thinking in an old land.

Paraphrastic Gospels

As Robert Lindsey realized in 1962, Mark reworked Luke’s Gospel in writing his own. Mark liked to substitute synonyms for nearly anything that Luke wrote. If, for instance, Luke used the singular of a noun, Mark substituted the plural form of the same noun in writing his Gospel. And vice versa: if Luke used the plural, Mark substituted the singular. In this article, Robert Lindsey surveys a unique substitution category found in Mark’s Gospel: the replacing of one verse of Scripture with another.

The four Evangelists of the Greek New Testament, though concurring at many points, demonstrate a remarkable degree of disparity when retelling their versions of the life of Jesus. This is especially true of Mark and John.[1] Their accounts are very early Greek paraphrases of the gospel records.[2] Mark’s Gospel predates John’s by about forty years, and it will be the Markan paraphrastic method that will occupy our attention here.

When reading Matthew, Mark and Luke in modern translation, a reader generally cannot see the differences in wording of the underlying Greek texts. This is because the differences are often synonymic. If perceptible at all, they can easily escape notice. In scores of places, where Luke used a certain word or phrase, Mark used an equivalent, but different word or phrase. The best way to grasp how Mark operates is to look at examples from the Gospels themselves.

Markan Synonyms

In Matthew 9:1-8, Mark 2:1-12 and Luke 5:17-26, there is a story about a paralytic who is carried to Jesus on some sort of stretcher. Matthew and Luke agree against Mark that the paralytic was carried on a κλίνη (kline).[3] Mark has chosen κράβαττος (krabattos) as a synonym.[4] The variance is reflected in the New American Standard BibleKline is translated as “bed” and krabattos as “pallet.”

Added Detail and Dramatization

Late third-century fresco from the catacombs in Rome depicting the woman who touched one of the tassels (tsitsiyot) of Jesus' garment.
Late third-century fresco from the catacombs in Rome depicting the woman who touched one of the tassels (tsitsiyot) of Jesus’ garment.

A slightly different example is found in the story about the woman with a hemorrhage. Matthew 9:20 and Luke 8:44 both say that the woman “came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment,” whereas Mark 5:27 says that “she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment.” In this case, the slight change from προσελθοῦσα (proselthousa; coming, approaching) to ἐλθοῦσα (elthousa; coming) is not reflected in English translations;[5] but Mark’s addition of ἐν τῷ ὄχκῳ (en to ochlo, in the crowd) and omission of τοῦ κρασπέδου (tou kraspedou, the fringe) are.[6] Furthermore, Mark 5:26 includes details that are absent in Matthew and Luke: the woman “had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent everything she had, but instead of getting better she grew worse.” These added details are characteristic of Mark’s method. He enjoys enriching his story with vivid tidbits of information. In Mark 1:41 he reports that Jesus was moved with compassion; in Mark 4:38, that Jesus was fast asleep on a cushion; in Mark 6:39, that the people sat on green grass; and in Mark 6:13, that the twelve anointed the sick with oil.[7]

Replacement of Scripture Quotations

The above synonymic interchanges and supplemental details are mild examples of Mark’s paraphrastic tendencies. To catch a glimpse of more dramatic ways in which Mark paraphrastically handled his primary written source (i.e., Luke’s Gospel), we need only examine Mark’s quotations from Scripture. When Luke quotes from Scripture, Mark usually cites a different verse or alters Luke’s verse by expanding or changing certain of its features.

Isaiah or Malachi?

In Matthew 3:1-6, Mark 1:1-6 and Luke 3:1-6, John’s preparatory ministry is described. To clarify John’s role, Luke quotes from Isaiah 40:3-5. He specifically informs the reader that the quotation comes from the prophet Isaiah. Mark, too, says that he is quoting from Isaiah, but only includes Isaiah 40:3. Perhaps compensating for the dropping of Isaiah 40:4-5, Mark inserts (before the quotation from Isaiah!), “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way.” For one reason or another Mark does not inform the reader that he has introduced Malachi 3:1 into a context supposedly representing what was said by Isaiah.

Emmanuel Tzanes-  St. Mark the Evangelist
Icon of St. Mark the Evangelist by Emmanuel Tzanes. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

What motivated Mark to do such a thing? It appears that Mark has been influenced by a second gospel story that speaks about John the Baptist. In Luke 7:27, Jesus claimed John to be the one whom the prophet Malachi described. Despite the fact that John did not formally join Jesus’ movement, Jesus strongly affirmed John’s ministry by saying that “none of those ‘born of women’ is greater than John.” Having been impressed by such marvelous statements about John, Mark lifted Malachi 3:1 from this second John the Baptist context. When he placed the Malachi verse from Luke 7:27 into the first John the Baptist context of Luke 3:4, he inadvertently ended up suggesting that the compound reference stems from Isaiah. Note also that Mark chose to drop, in its entirety, the second John the Baptist context at the place where Jesus affirms John’s role of heralding the Coming One.[8] The placement of the Malachi verse at the beginning of his Gospel in the context of John’s preaching and baptizing activities strongly suggests that Mark knew the material preserved in Luke 7:24-35, but opted not to include it in his retelling of the gospel story. Instead, he merely hinted at Jesus’ affirming witness of John by relocating a key verse.

Psalms or Isaiah?

Earliest known representation of the Jewish form of baptism. This fresco, found in the second-century Callistus catacomb in Rome, depicts Jesus after he had immersed himself being assisted out of the Jordan River by John the Baptist.
Earliest known depiction of Jesus’ baptism. After immersing himself, Jesus climbs out of the Jordan River with John the Baptist’s assistance. A dove hovers in the upper left corner of the image. This fresco was found in the late second-century crypt of Lucina in the catacombs of Rome.

According to Luke 3:22, the heavenly voice at Jesus’ baptism quoted Psalms 2:7: “You are my son. Today I have begotten you.”[9] According to Mark 1:11, however, the heavenly voice said: “You are my son, my beloved. With you I am well pleased,” which is apparently a combination of Psalms 2:7, Isaiah 44:2 and 62:4.[10]

Psalms 31 or 22?

The last words Jesus spoke on the cross are not identical in the first three Gospels. Luke records that Jesus quoted from Psalms 31:5: “Into your hands [literally, ‘hand’] I entrust my spirit. You will redeem me, O LORD; you are a faithful God” (Luke 23:46). Mark, however, writes that Jesus quoted in Aramaic from Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you far from delivering me, from the words of my groaning?” (Mark 15:34). Mark’s version is certainly difficult to grapple with theologically. Did God abandon Jesus? Or is this simply another example of Mark’s editorial replacement habit? Throughout his Gospel, Mark does portray Jesus as being abandoned by family members, trusted disciples, and here, perhaps, even by God.

As Shmuel Safrai has noted, “It seems likely that Jesus, who in the last days before his crucifixion had already told his disciples of his impending death and its meaning, would recite in his final moments the verse from Psalm 31, ‘Into your hands I entrust my spirit,’ rather than the verse from Psalm 22, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”[11] Luke has preserved a magnificent glimpse of Jesus as an observant Jew. Psalms 31:5 is even today still part of the standard, Jewish deathbed confession.[12] This prayer is exactly what one would anticipate on the lips of a dying, observant Jew.

Editorial Changes

These differences between Mark and Luke in quotations of Scripture appear to be due to the editorial changes of one of the authors. In nearly every case, evidence exists suggesting that Luke’s text is earlier, more Hebraic, or more comprehensible. To my mind, Mark had Luke’s Gospel before him as he wrote and did not hesitate to lace the story with additional elements.


How does Mark’s paraphrastic habit affect our perception of the formation of Scripture? Ancient Jews, including the followers of Jesus, did not make the often arbitrary distinction moderns make between translation and interpretation.[13] This ancient attitude can be readily seen when we study the Septuagint and targums vis-à-vis the Hebrew Masoretic Text. The Septuagint and targums are often as much paraphrastic interpretations as they are translations. The eminent Jewish scholar, Saul Lieberman, once described the Septuagint as the oldest of the preserved midrashim.[14] Moreover, Josephus, a famous contemporary of Mark, claimed in his Jewish Antiquities to be recording in Greek a precise account of Israel’s history based upon the Hebrew Scriptures themselves (Ant. 1:5, 17), but according to modern standards, produced a free, paraphrastic retelling of the biblical narrative.

Thus, Mark’s manner of writing should neither surprise nor undermine our concept of the formation of Scripture. Rather, our concept of the formation of Scripture must be broad enough and sufficiently informed to accommodate Mark’s methods. The ancient records indicate that Jews and Christians living in the first two centuries of this era embraced an understanding of inspiration of Scripture that was broader and less rigid than that embraced by many Christians today. Our views of inspiration often place demands on the Synoptic Gospels that they were never intended to bear. The Jesus who is forced out of the text under such demands tends to have a steamrolled appearance. He usually resembles one of us—a good Baptist, Mennonite, Methodist, Nazarene, Pentecostal, or whatever the denominational orientation of the reader may be. To correct our habits, we must strive to see the Gospels as an organic part of Second Temple-period Judaism’s rich diversity. Only then can we come to terms with Mark’s method and begin to bring the demands we place on the gospel texts in line with those they are able to bear.

Editors’ note: Out of esteem for our teacher, Robert Lindsey, we have collaborated to make this article and his “Unlocking the Synoptic Problem: Four Keys for Better Understanding Jesus” (Jerusalem Perspective 49 [Oct.-Dec. 1995], 10-17, 38) available to our readers. These articles mark the end of Robert Lindsey’s scholarly career. With his health waning and incapacitated by a series of strokes that accompanied the diabetes from which he suffered, Dr. Lindsey was able to complete only a first or second draft of each article. Though we could not preserve Dr. Lindsey’s writing style, great effort was made to preserve faithfully the content of his articles. We are responsible for the articles’ conclusions and footnotes. — David Bivin and Joseph Frankovic

  • [1] A rule of thumb is: Opposite a parallel story in Luke, Mark will change up to fifty percent of Luke’s words; where Matthew has a story parallel to Mark, Matthew will copy about seventy percent of the words found in Mark, but give, against Mark, about ten percent of the words Luke uses; where John has a story parallel to one found in the synoptic tradition, he will have phrases reflecting one or more of the synoptic documents, resulting in a mixing of the words, especially the words of Mark and Luke—less often copying readings from Matthean parallels.
  • [2] One helpful way of viewing John’s Gospel is in light of the Book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is a retelling of the Exodus and wilderness experience. It is a theological reflection on the past and a restating of the commandments, to prepare the Israelites for the transition from a nomadic to an agriculturally based, sedentary lifestyle. In particular, certain aspects of the biblical commandments were developed and emphasized to meet new challenges. The Gospel of John is similar. It represents a theological development in the presentation of who Jesus is. Moreover, John’s method is freer than Mark’s.
  • [3] Cf. Matt. 9:2 with Luke 5:18, and Matt. 9:6 with Luke 5:24. In Luke 5:24 the word κλινίδιον (klinidion, a little bed), the diminutive of κλίνη (kline), is used.
  • [4] Cf. Mark 2:4, 11.
  • [5] The change from proselthousa to elthousa in Mark 5:27 and the change from kline to krabattos in Mark 2:1-12, both examples from the Triple Tradition, are places where Matthew and Luke agree against Mark. Such agreements are termed “minor agreements” by scholars. For the significance of these minor agreements against Mark, see Nigel Turner, “The Minor Verbal Agreements of Mt. and Lk. Against Mk.,” Studia Evangelica 73 (1959): 223-234; and E. P. Sanders, “The Overlaps of Mark and Q and the Synoptic Problem,” New Testament Studies 19 (1973): 453-465.
  • [6] The Greek κράσπεδον (kraspedon) is used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew צִיצִית (tsitsit, tassel). Cf. Numbers 15:38. Matthew and Luke make clear that the woman touched the braided tassels that were attached to the corners of an observant Jew’s garment.
  • [7] Some scholars term the additional details provided by Mark “Markan freshness” and view such additions as evidence of the primitive nature or originality of Mark. These extra details, however, are often lifted from other books of the New Testament or the Septuagint. Already at the turn of the twentieth century Benjamin Bacon had noticed Mark’s habit of lifting material from other sources. See Bacon’s comments to Mark 1:1 (Hosea 1:2, LXX), Mark 1:13 (Naphtali 8:4), Mark 6:13 (James 5:14), Mark 6:23 (Esther 5:3), and Mark 7:19 (Acts 10:15; 11:9) in The Beginnings of the Gospel Story: A Historico-Critical Inquiry into the Sources and Structure of the Gospel According to Mark, with Expository notes upon the text, for English Readers (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1909), 8, 13, 66, 75, 89.
  • [8] Cf. Matt. 11:7-19 and Luke 7:24-35.
  • [9] In most English translations all three synoptic writers appear to agree upon the words of the heavenly voice: “You are my son, my beloved. With you I am well pleased.” Yet, there is a variant reading for Luke 3:22. This reading is attested by the fifth-sixth-century Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis manuscript, the Old Latin manuscripts, the Gospel of the Ebionites, and by several church fathers. The variant reading is, “You are my son. Today I have begotten you.” This is a quotation from Psalms 2:7 and is much more suitable in the context of Jesus’ baptism, the commencement of Jesus’ public ministry. Luke’s text was likely “corrected” by a scribe to bring it into alignment with Matt. 3:17 and Mark 1:11. This scribal tendency of aligning the wording of one synoptic text with the other two can be seen in numerous places, if we pay close attention to the readings of the various New Testament manuscripts.

    For a discussion of this variant reading, see Alfred R. C. Leaney, A Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke, in Black’s New Testament Commentaries (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1958), 110-111. Though agreeing with the editors of the United Bible Societies’ third corrected edition, who accept the reading, “You are my son, my beloved. With you I am well pleased,” Joseph A. Fitzmyer has a helpful discussion of the variant in The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX), The Anchor Bible, Vol. 28 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1981), 485.

  • [10] Mark may have been influenced by Luke 20:13 in his choice of “beloved.”
  • [11] Shmuel Safrai, “Spoken Languages in the Time of Jesus,” Jerusalem Perspective 30 (Jan./Feb. 1991): 8. Note that Stephen also quoted from Psalms 31:5 as he was being put to death (Acts 7:59; cf. John 19:30), and Peter exhorted those who were sharing the sufferings of Jesus to commit their souls to God (1 Pet. 4:19).
  • [12] Cf. The Authorized Daily Prayer Book, ed. Joseph H. Hertz (rev. ed.; New York: Bloch Publishing, 1948), 1065.
  • [13] See Joseph Frankovic, “Pieces to the Synoptic Puzzle: Papias and Luke 1:1-4,” Jerusalem Perspective 40 (1993): 12-13.
  • [14] Saul Lieberman,Greek in Jewish Palestine/Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1994), 50.