Saturday Series: Mark 3:28-30; Matt 12:31-32; Luke 12:10 (continued)

Mark 3:28-30; Matt 12:31-32; Luke 12:10

In the previous study, I introduced the tradition in Mark 3:28-29 par, as an example of the kind of distinctive critical questions that often apply to passages in the Gospels. The text-critical issue may involve, not simply the manuscript readings of a specific Gospel passage, but different forms of the same (or similar) Gospel tradition—that is, as they are preserved in the different Gospels. In such instances, textual criticism expands to embrace source-, historical-, and literary-criticism as well. Let us consider how this applies and relates to the situation of the tradition in Mark 3:28-29 par.

Source Criticism

Most critical scholars would accept some version of the critical theory known as the “Two Document Hypothesis”, which assumes that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke each made use two distinct source-documents: (1) the Gospel of Mark, and (2) the so-called “Q” (i.e. quelle, “source”) material, the latter consisting primarily of sets of sayings and parables of Jesus. Many scholars assume that this “Q” was a self-contained document or literary work, but in actual fact the designation simply refers to material common to Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark.

According to the “Two Document Hypothesis”, since Mark and “Q” represent two distinct lines of Gospel Tradition, it is possible that each line of Tradition has preserved, independently, the same historical tradition—a saying, parable, or narrative episode of Jesus. This indeed would seem to have occurred in a number of instances, including the tradition we are considering here. The sayings in Mark 3:28-29 and Luke 12:10 are similar, but yet differ in some important details. The Lukan saying is part of the so-called “Q” material, since it also occurs in Matt 12:31-32. Since Matthew contains both the Markan version (albeit in much simpler form) and the “Q” version, this would seem to be evidence in favor of the “Two Document Hypothesis”. Luke evinces a clear tendency for avoiding ‘doublets’, i.e. similar or duplicate forms of the same basic tradition. As an obvious example, Luke records only one miraculous feeding episode (9:10-17), while Mark and Matthew have two such stories (of the 5000 and 4000 respectively, cf. Mk 6:30-44; 8:1-10). If Luke knew of the Markan version of the saying (3:28-29), he did not include it as Matthew did, perhaps simply to avoid having essentially two versions of the same saying.

We can confirm that Matt 12:31-32 contains a form of the same saying in Mk 3:28-29, by looking at the two passages side by side (in a literal translation):

Mark 3:28-29 Matthew 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. Matthew’s version is clearly simpler—for example, it reads “men” instead of the longer expression “sons of men” (see below). The saying regarding the “Son of Man” does not correspond to anything in Mark, but it is close to the Lukan version of the saying (Lk 12:10), i.e. the “Q” version of the tradition:

“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.”

Thus, quite clearly we have two distinct traditions (sayings), which have been preserved independently within two lines of tradition. They are similar in that they each deal with the idea of speaking against the Holy Spirit, emphasizing that to do so represents a sin that will not (ever) be forgiven—a most serious matter indeed! Yet, in spite of this common emphasis, there are other notable differences between the Markan and “Q” traditions, and we must ask if these reflect (a) separate sayings given by Jesus on different occasions, or (b) are they different versions of the same saying which were transmitted and preserved separately? This is the key historical critical question that must be addressed.

Historical Criticism

On this question (above), 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 [tois huioís tœn anthrœ¡pœn]…”
Matthew has the simpler “men” instead of “sons of men”
“Every one who speaks an (evil) word/account unto/against the Son of Man [ton huión tou anthrœ¡pou], it will be released for him…”

Is it possible that the Semitic idiom “son of man” was confused during the process of transmission? Originally, the Hebrew expression “son of man” (ben °¹¼¹m, Aramaic bar °§n¹š) simply referred to human beings generally, as a parallel to “man” (°¹¼¹m). The idiom is foreign to Greek—indeed, quite unusual—and the expression ho huiós tou anthrœ¡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.

Ultimately, the historical-critical question must be addressed as part of a literary-critical approach, examining the historical tradition within the context of the Gospel narrative, as developed and adapted by each author.

Literary Criticism

Let us begin with the context of the Markan saying (Mk 3:28-29); it 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). The saying regarding the Holy Spirit in verses 28-29 must be understood in the light of this setting:

“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).”

Verse 30 which follows in Mark’s account gives a rather clear explanation of the saying:

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

In other words, certain people insulted the holy Spirit of God when they attributed Jesus’ miracles to daimon-power, rather than to the active power of God’s own Spirit at work in him (cp. Matt 12:28 / Lk 11:20).  The Greek verb blasph¢méœ, which is often simply transliterated into English as “blaspheme”, has the fundamental meaning to speak evil or abusive words, i.e. insult, revile, mock, slander, etc. I have translated the verb above simply as “insult”, though it is often used in the specific religious sense of insulting God, at that is very much the sense here as well. The Greek aiœ¡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. The expression “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. Thus, those who insulted God by claiming Jesus worked miracles through the power of daimons would face God’s impending Judgment on them.

Matthew essentially preserves the Markan narrative context—

The “Q” version of the saying occurs at a different point in the Gospel narrative in Luke (see below); Matthew has included it in the Markan location, which results in a blending together of the two saying-forms. In Matthew’s account, certain Pharisees (in Mark they are referred to as “Scribes…from Jerusalem”), in response to Jesus’ healing/exorcism miracles, declare:

“This (man) does not cast out the daimons if not in [i.e. except by] ‘Baal-zebûl’ Chief of the daimons!” (Matt 12:24)

This differs slightly from Mark’s account, where the Scribes declare:

“He has/holds ‘Baal-zebûl'” and “(It is) in [i.e. by] the Chief of the daimons (that) he casts out the daimons!”

Matthew does not include the specific claim that Jesus has (lit. holds) the power of “Baal-zebul”. The focus has shifted away from Jesus’ own person, and instead the emphasis is on the source of Jesus’ power to work healing miracles. The key interpretive verse for the passage is Matt 12:28, a saying added, it would seem, to the Synoptic/Markan narrative from the so-called “Q” material (par in Luke 11:20), which I discussed in the previous study.

The narrative setting of the “Q” saying in Luke (Lk 12:8-12) is very different. Actually, it would seem that the Lukan context involves a sequence of (originally separate) sayings that have been appended together, being joined by thematic or “catchword” bonding (indicated by the bold/italicized portions):

    • Lk 12:8-9— “Every one who gives account as one [i.e. confesses/confirms] in me in front of men, even (so) the Son of Man will give account as one in him in front of the Messengers of God; but the (one) denying/contradicting me in the sight of men, will be denied/contradicted in the sight of the Messengers of God.”
    • Lk 12:10— “Every one who will utter an (evil) word/account unto the Son of Man, it will be released [i.e. forgiven] for him; but for the (one) giving insult unto the holy Spirit, it will not be released.”
    • Lk 12:11-12— “When they carry [i.e. bring] you in upon the(ir) gatherings together {synagogues} and the(ir) chiefs and the(ir) authorities, you should not be concerned (as to) how or (by) what you should give account for (yourselves), or what you should say—for the holy Spirit will teach you in that hour the (thing)s it is necessary (for you) to say.”

There is an important two-fold aspect to the sayings which bracket verse 10:

    • Publicly confessing (or denying) Jesus, the “Son of Man” (vv. 8-9)
    • The witness of believers being inspired by the Spirit (vv. 11-12)

This, I believe, informs the Lukan understanding of the saying in verse 10; I would summarize the interpretation as follows:

    • The person who speaks an evil (i.e. false, slanderous, mocking/derisive, etc) word or account to the Son of Man may be forgiven—this refers essentially to Jesus in the context of his earthly ministry, specifically his Passion/suffering (cf. Lk 22:54-62, 63-65; 23:2, 5, 10-11, 35-37, 39, etc).
    • The person who insults the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven—this refers primarily to the Spirit-inspired witness regarding the person and work of Jesus, i.e. the Gospel.

At first glance, verse 10 seems to contradict the saying in v. 9. However, I believe this can be explained in terms of a distinctive development within the Lukan handling of the traditional material. There is a shift away from the core Synoptic/Markan setting of the tradition (see above)—from Jesus’ ministry as a witness of God’s Spirit, to the proclamation of the Gospel (about Jesus). In the (older) Markan setting, the issue was that people were attributing the power of Jesus’ miracles to daimons rather than the Spirit of God, and thus were giving grave insult to God Himself. The Lukan setting, by contrast, is focused on a rejection of the Spirit-inspired witness of the Gospel, which is deemed the ultimate insult to God.

The “Q” version of the saying, especially as preserved in the Lukan context, can be quite misleading, as though an insult against Jesus Christ the Son of God (or even against God the Father) could be forgiven, but an insult against the Holy Spirit, for some unexplained (and unexplainable) reason, could not be. Such an understanding is reflected in the version of the saying preserved in the “Gospel of Thomas” (saying §44), which clearly represents a still later development (and a more Christianized version). It appears to be a superficial expansion of the “Q” saying, given in a trinitarian form:

“Whoever blasphemes against the Father will be forgiven, and whoever blasphemes against the Son will be forgiven, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven either on earth or in heaven.”

This version grossly distorts the sense and thrust of the original saying, as though a direct insult against God the Father (or against Jesus as the Son of God) will be forgiven. Neither the Markan nor “Q” sayings suggest anything of the sort; in any case, taken thus out of context, the saying is far removed from the point Jesus himself was making at the time. As a miracle working Anointed Prophet—God’s own representative (n¹»î°), who was also His Son—Jesus was specially empowered by the holy Spirit of God. To slander or insult that power is to insult God Himself. This reflects a development of the Prophetic tradition(s) regarding the Spirit, focused uniquely on the inspired person of Jesus himself, as Messiah, Prophet, and Son of God.




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