May 16: Mark 3:28-29 par (continued)

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

In the previous day’s note, I examined the saying of Jesus regarding the “sin/blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” in the Synoptic Tradition. Mark’s version includes an explanation of the saying (Mk 3:30), but it is necessary to look a bit closer at just how Matthew and Luke understood the saying—this I will do in today’s note.

Matthew includes the ‘Markan’ form of the saying, and also preserves the same narrative context. If one accepts the critical theory that the Gospel writer knew and made use of Mark, then it is surely significant that he did not include the explanation of Mk 3:30:

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

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” (on this name, cf. “Did You Know?” below). 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 will be discussed below.

As I pointed out in yesterday’s note, Luke contains a different form of the Holy Spirit saying, corresponding to Matt 12:32 (“Q”) rather than Mark 3:28-29 / Matt 12:31. The narrative setting (Lk 12:8-12) is also 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.

Matthew 12:28; Luke 11:20

Turning back to Matthew’s version, it is necessary to consider the “Q” saying in 12:28 (along with its Lukan parallel). At the position between Mk 3:26 and 27 in the core Synoptic narrative, Matthew and Luke include the following (I use Matthew as the reference point, with the material corresponding to Mk 3:26-27 in italics):

“…if the Satan casts out Satan, he is separated/divided upon himself—how then will his kingdom stand?” (Matt 12:26 [Mk 3:26])

“And if I cast out the daimons in (the power of) ‘Baal-zebûl’, your sons—in what (power) do they cast (daimons) out? Through this(, then,) they will be your judges.” (Matt 12:27)

“But if I cast out the daimons in (the power of) the Spirit of God, then (surely) the kingdom of God has come first/already/suddenly [e&fqasen] upon you!” (Matt 12:28)

Or how is any(one) able to come into the house of the strong and seize his tools/vessels, if he does not first bind the strong (one)…?” (Matt 12:29 [Mk 3:27])

In many ways vv. 27-28 appear to be intrusive, inserted into the context of vv. 26, 29 (Mk 3:26-27); however, as we find the exact same sequence in Luke 11:18-21, the matter is far from clear. Also uncertain (and much disputed) is the precise force and meaning of the verb fqa/nw, which can be rendered here a number of ways:

    • “…has come suddenly/unexpectedly upon you”
    • “…has already come upon you”
    • “…has come near to you” [similar to the use of e)ggi/zw in Mk 1:15 etc]
    • “…has actually arrived for you”
    • “…has first come upon you [i.e. Jesus’ opponents, by way of Judgment?]”
    • “…has overcome/overtaken you”

The second option above probably best captures the meaning.

Luke 11:19-20 is virtually identical with Matt 12:27-28, the major difference being that in Luke it reads “finger [da/ktulo$] of God” rather than “Spirit of God”. Most likely, Luke has the more original form of the saying, with “Spirit of God” best understood as an interpretive gloss for the anthropomorphic idiom “finger of God” (cf. Exod 8:19, also Ex 31:18 / Deut 9:10). Jesus admits that other healers may perform certain kinds of exorcism—indeed, according to the ancient worldview, illness and disease was often seen as the result of angry/malevolent deities or spirits at work; healing acts and rites typically involved some form of ‘exorcism’. However, Jesus effectively claims that his healing acts (miracles) are performed through the power (i.e. the ‘finger’/Spirit) of God. To assert that it is the work of evil forces (the daimons/demons) themselves would be an insult to God’s holy Spirit.


It is possible to offer at least a basic interpretive summary of the Holy Spirit saying in each of its three Gospel settings:

Mark 3:28-29—The insult to the Holy Spirit is explained (v. 30) in terms of Jesus’ opponents claiming that he himself had (control of) an unclean spirit or daimon (“demon”).

Matthew 12:31-32—The explanation is similar to that in Mark, but it no longer emphasizes an insult to Jesus’ own person:

    • The claim by the Scribes/Pharisees that Jesus “has/holds Baal-zebûl” (Mk 3:22a) is not included
    • The variant/parallel “Q” saying involving the “Son of Man” (v. 32 / Lk 12:10) has been added to the ‘Markan’ version
    • The explanation of Mark 3:30 is not included

Rather, as discussed above, the issue involves the source of Jesus’ healing power and authority over the daimons and disease. To say that it comes from the Devil (“Baal-zebul”) or daimons themselves insults the very Spirit of God.

Luke 12:10—According to the Lukan context (Lk 12:8-12), the insult to the Holy Spirit is related to evil speaking and opposition to the Spirit-inspired testimony (of believers) regarding the person and work of Jesus. This theme is further illustrated and expounded through the persecution of believers and opposition to the Gospel recorded throughout the book of Acts.

There is, then, no one simple meaning to the saying—a proper and accurate interpretation involves careful study of the context of the saying in each Gospel. If an original (Aramaic) form of the saying ultimately derives from a different historical setting—a speculative proposition at best—this is no longer possible to reconstruct. We must deal with the Gospel Tradition as it has come down to us.

The Greek Beelzeb[o]u/l (Beelzeb[o]úl) is a transliteration of lWbz+ lu^B^, “(the) Lord (the) Exalted One” (or “Exalted Lord”), combining two titles regularly used for the Canaanite sky/storm deity Hadad/Haddu. As the main (pagan) Canaanite rival to YHWH in Israelite history, especially during the Kingdom period, it is not surprising that “Prince Baal” would come to represent all of the “demons”—that is the daimons, the (lesser) deities or spirits, which were relegated to the status of evil/unclean spirits in the context of Israelite/Jewish monotheism. The name bWbz+ lu^B^ (Baal-zebub, 2 Kings 1:2-3, 6, 16) is probably a polemic parody through the alteration of one letter, i.e. “Exalted Lord” becomes “Lord of the flies”.

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.

March 30: Luke 12:10

Today’s Easter-season note is on the saying in Luke 12:10, one of the more famous and controversial sayings by Jesus in the Gospels. It is found in all three Synoptics, though in different narrative contexts. The saying itself provides an interesting example of how Gospel tradition developed—the collection and combination of Jesus traditions (sayings, parables, short narratives, etc). Based on the critical theory that both Matthew and Luke drew upon the Gospel of Mark, as well as a second source (so called “Q”), the saying corresponding to Luke 12:10 may have been transmitted independently in these two sources (Mark and “Q”). The version in Mark (Mk 3:28-29) has been included as part of a controversy-narrative episode (Mk 3:19b-30). However, a parallel version of this saying, referring to the “Son of Man”, appears to have been preserved in Matt 12:32 / Luke 12:10. Matthew includes it in the same position as Mark—as part of the Jesus/Beelzebul controversy (Matt 12:22-31)—but Luke has it in a different location, indicating its origin as a separate saying. A third version of the saying is to be found in the (Coptic) Gospel of Thomas (logion §44), but, as is often the case with this work, one cannot be certain if it preserves an independent tradition or has been derived in some way from the canonical Gospels. Let us example the saying in Luke:

Luke 12:10

The various sayings and teachings recorded in chapter 12 represent instruction by Jesus to his disciples on a relatively wide range of subjects and themes, much of which has an eschatological emphasis (cf. Lk 12:2-3, 8-9, 35-40, 41-48, 49ff, 54-56). The same (or similar/parallel) material is found, in different locations, in the Gospel of Matthew (e.g., Matt 10:26-33; 6:19-21, 25-34; 24:45-51; 10:34-39; 16:1-4; 5:25-26). The particular Lukan arrangement of sayings, etc., therefore, is best seen as literary, not historical/chronological. Luke 12:8-12 is a collection of three separate sayings, joined together by thematic/”catchword”-bonding:

    • Vv. 8-9: a Son of Man saying (par Matt 10:32-33), similar to that of Lk 9:26
    • V. 10: the warning against slandering the Holy Spirit (par Mk 3:28-29; Matt 12:31-32); the version in Matthew/Luke is a Son of Man saying
    • Vv. 11-12: instruction to the disciples to rely on the Holy Spirit when facing persecution and/or interrogation by the (Jewish) authorities (par Matt 10:19-20; cf. also Mk 13:11)

The block Luke 12:2-9 corresponds to Matt 10:26-33; the Lukan verses 10-12 have been appended by way of “catchword”-bonding:

    • Verse 10 is joined with vv. 8-9 by their common reference to the Son of Man
    • Verses 11-12 are joined with v. 10 by the common reference to the Holy Spirit

The Son of Man saying of verses 8-9 has already been discussed in reference to the parallel/doublet saying in Lk 9:26f (see the earlier note). At first glance, verse 10 almost seems to contradict vv. 8-9, as well as the context of the parallel version in Mark 3:28-29. The saying in Luke is as follows:

“Every one who speaks a word unto the Son of Man, it will be released [i.e. forgiven] to him; but to the one slandering unto the Holy Spirit, it will not be released.”

Matthew uses the preposition kata/ (“against”) instead of ei)$ (“unto”) in order to clarify the meaning—”a word against the Son of Man / speak against the Holy Spirit”. There are two main interpretive issues which must be addressed in this difficult saying: (1) how is “Son of Man” to be understood in the Matthean/Lukan version? and (2) what is the exact meaning of “slandering the Holy Spirit”?

As to the first point, the expression “Son of Man” here may be understood three different ways:

    1. In its ordinary, fundamental meaning as “human being, humankind”, with “son of man” as a synonymous parallel to “man”. According to this interpretation, the contrast would be between speaking against another human being and the (more serious) act of speaking against the Holy Spirit.
    2. As a reference to Jesus himself, especially in so far as he identifies himself with humankind, as a human being—i.e. during his earthly life and ministry. Jesus frequently appears to use “son of man” as a surrogate or circumlocution for the pronoun “I”, and perhaps it should be understood this way, at least on the historical level. Slander and abuse against his own (human) person will be forgiven, but that which is against the Spirit (and thus against God Himself) will not be forgiven.
    3. As a reference to the heavenly/Messianic figure that is to appear at the end time, and with which Jesus identifies himself at various points in the Gospel tradition. The interpretation then might be that words spoken against God’s Messenger will be forgiven, but those spoken against the Spirit of God (i.e. God Himself) will not be.

The second option best fits the overall evidence and use of the expression within Synoptic tradition, and, in particular, throughout these sections of the Gospel of Luke. Given the references to the suffering of the Son of Man—especially in the Passion predictions (Luke 9:22, 43-45 par)—it might be possible to qualify the interpretation above to emphasize Jesus’ own suffering, which included abuse and slander leveled against him. If the author has this in mind, then the saying actually presents a moving example of forgiveness (a theme prominent in this Gospel)—even those who participated in Jesus’ suffering and death may be forgiven (cf. Luke 23:34).

The second question—on the meaning of “slandering the Holy Spirit”—has haunted readers and commentators for centuries. Many attempts have been made to explain more precisely what is involved—some more plausible than others. In the Gospels themselves, only the version in Mark offers anything like a direct explanation (cf. Mk 3:30), connecting the “slander” against the Holy Spirit with the accusation that Jesus “has an unclean spirit” (v. 22) rather than the Spirit of God. However, none of this context is in Luke’s version of the saying, and Mark’s version should not be imported to explain it. How does the author himself understand the saying, and how would he have us to understand it? It is best, I believe, to examine: (a) Luke’s use of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel, and (b) use of the verb blasfhme/w.

Here are the most relevant references to the Holy Spirit:

    • Following his baptism, Jesus is “full of the holy Spirit” (Lk 4:1), and returns to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit” (Lk 4:14).
    • In the scene at Nazareth, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1ff (“the Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”), applies this to himself and identifies himself as a fulfillment of the prophecy (Lk 4:18-21).
    • In Luke 10:21, Jesus is said to have “leaped (for joy) in the holy Spirit”—the context being that of the sayings in vv. 21b-22, that the Father has revealed hidden secrets to the disciples of Jesus, in particular of Jesus as the Son of God.
    • In Luke 11:13 we find the promise that the Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.
    • Finally, in Luke 12:12, the saying directly following that of verse 10, there is a similar promise that the Holy Spirit will inspire the disciples, giving them the words to speak when they are interrogated by the authorities. Luke records the fulfillment of this promise in Acts 4:8, etc.

As for the verb blasfhme/w, which can have either the general meaning of “speak abusively, insult” or indicate more specifically “slander”, etc, it is used only twice elsewhere in the Gospel, during the Passion narrative, as part of the suffering and abuse endured by Jesus (Lk 22:65; 23:39, inherited as part of the Synoptic tradition). In the first instance (22:65) it refers generally to the abuse and insults delivered against Jesus, in the second (23:39), it is a derisive taunt drawing upon the idea that Jesus might be the Anointed One (Messiah/Christ). The verb occurs four more times in the book of Acts (13:45; 18:6; 19:37; 26:11). The first two of these references involve Jewish opposition to Paul and his message, speaking against him and inciting the crowds to oppose him. The last reference (Acts 26:11) is especially interesting, since it is part of Paul’s testimony regarding his previous persecution of the early Christians (cf. Acts 8:1-3; 9:1ff): “…many times, laying a charge upon them I forced/compelled them to ‘blaspheme’ [blasfhmei=n]”—that is, to speak against Christ and, effectively, to deny their faith. In the context of early persecution of Christians, a reverse confession was often forced upon believers, involving the reviling or cursing of Jesus (as noted in Pliny’s letter to Trajan [10.96] and in the Martyrdom of Polycarp 9:3; cf. also the reference in 1 Corinthians 12:3). The usage here is important, since it fits perfectly with the verses (vv. 11-12) that follow the saying in Lk 12:10, as well as the prior vv. 8-9 which refer to confessing/denying Christ.

On the basis of this brief study, I would suggest the following explanation of Luke 12:10:

    • Those who speak against the Son of Man = Those especially who abuse/insult/slander Jesus during his earthly ministry — these acts may be forgiven
    • Those who slander/insult the Holy Spirit = Those who publicly oppose the Gospel message and/or deny faith in Christ (including the revelation of who he is) — these will not be forgiven (cf. vv. 8-9)

This appears to best fit the context of Luke 12:8-12 and the overall evidence from the Gospel.