May 15: Mark 3:28-29; Matt 12:31-32; Lk 12:10

Mark 3:28-29; Matthew 12:31-32; Luke 12:10

The next passage to be discussed, in this Pentecost-season series of daily notes on the Holy Spirit in the Gospel Tradition, is the famous (and controversial) saying of Jesus regarding the so-called “sin (or blasphemy) against the Spirit” in Mark 3:28-29 par. Over the centuries, this has proven to be one of the most challenging sayings of Jesus for commentators and believers generally to interpret and apply. The interpretive difficulties are complicated by the questions surrounding the differing forms of the saying (or sayings) as preserved in the Synoptic Tradition.

I begin with the version in Mark 3:28-29, which is set in the context of Jesus’ exorcism miracles (vv. 22-27, cf. verses 11-12, 15). This central section is framed by two episodes which express the misunderstanding and/or opposition to Jesus by his family and relatives:

    • vv. 20-21—”the ones alongside him”
    • vv. 31-35—”his mother and his brothers”

The pericope concludes with the declaration that Jesus’ followers are his true family (vv. 34-35). Here is the saying regarding the Holy Spirit in verses 28-29:

“All things will be released [i.e. forgiven] for the sons of men—the sins and insults, whatever they may insult—but whoever gives insult unto the holy Spirit, he does not have release into the Age, but is held in (guilt) of a sin of the Age(s).”

This use of the Greek ai)w/n, indicating an age/era or (long) period of time, is hard to render meaningfully into English, often being generalized as “(for)ever, eternal(ly)”, etc.; however, in the Israelite/Jewish idiom and thought world, there is a strong eschatological aspect which must be preserved—”into the Age” specifically refers to the “Age to Come”, which is ushered in by God’s Judgment upon the world at the close of the present Age. Also, I would call attention to the Greek verb blasfhme/w, which is often simply transliterated into English as “blaspheme”, but this tends to gloss over and distort the fundamental meaning—to speak evil or abusive words, i.e. insult, revile, mock, slander, etc. I have translated blasfhme/w above simply as “insult”. At first glance, there would seem to be relatively little difficulty in the interpretation of this saying, since verse 30 which follows in Mark’s account gives a rather clear explanation:

“(This was in) that [i.e. because] they said ‘He has/holds an unclean spirit’.” (cf. verse 22)

Matthew essentially preserves the Markan narrative context—

Luke’s account differs even more, with the varied inclusion of (so-called) “Q” material:

However, the Lukan version of the Holy Spirit saying occurs in a very different context—that of believers acknowledging/confessing Jesus (the Son of Man) publicly (Lk 12:8-12). The saying in verse 10 would seem to be based on a “Q” version that corresponds to Matt 12:32. Let us first examine Matthew 12:31-32 in terms of the Markan version:

Mark 3:28-29Matthew 12:31-32
“All things will be released [i.e. forgiven] for the sons of men—the sins and insults, whatever they may insult—but whoever gives insult unto the holy Spirit, he does not have release into the Age, but is held in (guilt) of a sin of the Age(s).”Every sin and insult will be released [i.e. forgiven] for men, but the insult(ing) of the Spirit will not be released. And whoever should say an (evil) word/account against the Son of Man, it will be released for him; but whoever should say (evil) against the holy Spirit, it will not be released for him—not in this Age and not in the (Age that) is about (to come).”

The italicized portions in Matthew indicate the portions shared by the saying in Mark. The saying regarding the “Son of Man” does not correspond to anything in Mark, but it is similar to the Lukan version of the saying (Lk 12:10):

“Every one who will speak an (evil) word/account unto the Son of Man, it will be released for him; but for the (one) giving insult unto the holy Spirit, it will not be released.”

According to the standard critical theory, Matthew and Luke each made use of Mark, as well as a collection of sayings and traditions commonly referred to as “Q” (from German quelle, “source”). Luke 12:10 and the non-italicized portion of Matt 12:32 above represent the “Q” version of the saying. Matthew has apparently combined the Markan and Q versions. As always, when dealing with similar and/or parallel sayings of Jesus in the Gospels, the key critical question is: (a) do these represent separate sayings given by Jesus on different occasions, or (b) are they different versions of the same saying which were transmitted and preserved separately? Traditional-conservative commentators usually opt for (a), while critical scholars and commentators tend to choose (b). In most instances, valid arguments can be offered for each position, and it can be difficult to come up with a definitive solution on entirely objective grounds (i.e., without relying on doctrinal or ideological presuppositions). In the case of this particular saying, there is one strong argument that favors the common critical view, which can be illustrated by a comparison of the first portion of the Markan and “Q” versions respectively:

Saying/Version 1 (‘Mark’) Saying/Version 2 (“Q”)
“All/every sin(s) and insult(s) will be released for the sons of men [toi=$ ui(oi=$ tw=n a)nqrw/pwn]…” “Every one who speaks an (evil) word/account unto/against the Son of Man [to\n ui(o\n tou= a)nqrw/pou], it will be released for him…”

Mark has likely preserved the original wording “sons of men” (Matthew simply reads “men”). Is it possible that the Semitic idiom “son of man” was confused during the process of transmission? Originally, the Hebrew expression “son of man” (<d*a* /B#, Aramaic vn`a$ rB^) simply referred to human beings generally, as a parallel to “man” (<d*a*). The idiom is foreign to Greek—indeed, quite unusual—and the expression o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou (“[the] son of man”) is found in the New Testament only in the words of Jesus, and in a few citations of the Old Testament. With regard to the words of Jesus, the Greek is generally assumed to be a rendering of sayings originally spoken in Aramaic; and, by the time the Gospels came to be written (by 60 A.D. and following) and transmitted to the wider Greek-speaking world, many of the Semitic idioms and expressions had long since been translated or reworked into meaningful Greek. I have addressed the difficulties surrounding Jesus’ use of the expression “Son of Man” at length in earlier notes and articles.

Returning to the saying in question, did “son of man” in the “Q” version originally have the general/generic meaning—i.e., “whoever speaks (evil) against a(nother) human being…”? If so, then it would correspond roughly to the Markan version, and could conceivably be traced back to a single (Aramaic) saying by Jesus. However, it should be noted that Luke definitely understands this “Q” version of the saying as referring to Jesus himself (“the Son of Man”), as the context clearly indicates. Let me here summarize briefly Jesus’ self-identification as “Son of Man” in the Synoptic tradition, especially the Gospel of Luke, isolating the following usage:

    • In the generic sense—”human being”—but often, it would seem, as a substitute for the pronoun “I”, i.e. “this human being” (myself).
    • Many of the Son of Man sayings are related to Jesus’ earthly life and existence, by which he identifies himself with the human condition—especially in terms of its mortality, weakness and suffering.
    • A number of these sayings refer specifically to Jesus’ Passion—predictions of the suffering and death which he would face in Jerusalem.
    • There are also additional sayings where Jesus identifies himself with a heavenly figure (“the Son of Man”) who will appear, as God’s representative, at the end-time Judgment, largely influenced by Daniel 7:13-14 and resultant traditions.

In the next daily note, I will examine further how Matthew and Luke understand the Holy Spirit saying, as well as the additional (related) saying in Matt 12:28 / Lk 11:20.