June 4: Mark 3:28-29; Matt 12:31-32; Luke 12:10

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

These June notes continue those of the earlier series on the Spirit of God in the Old Testament, examining how the Old Testament concepts and traditions were developed by early Christians in the New Testament. When we turn to consider what Jesus said about the Spirit during his ministry, the evidence is surprisingly slight, especially within the Synoptic tradition. Indeed, there are just three instances in the Gospel of Mark:

    • The saying on the “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” (3:28-29)
    • A notice within the Messianic question/debate of 12:35-37 (v. 36)
    • A saying on the coming persecution of his disciples during the time of distress, part of the Eschatological Discourse of chap. 13—13:9-13 (v. 11)

The second of these simply affirms the Spirit-inspired character of the Prophetic Scriptures (which includes the Psalms, and David as a prophet). In the post-exilic period, there came to be an increasing emphasis on the role of God’s Spirit in both the composition of the Scriptures and their interpretation—cf. the earlier note on Neh 9:20, 30, etc, and the article on the Holy Spirit in the Dead Sea Scrolls. This emphasis is less prominent among early Christians than it was, for example, in the Qumran Community, but it is still present in the New Testament—a point to be discussed in the upcoming notes.

The references to the Spirit in Mk 3:29 and 13:11 are more substantial and distinctly Christian in character. The situation, however, is complicated by the fact that, for each of these sayings, there appear to be two distinct forms—one Markan (i.e. occurring in Mark), and the other part of the so-called “Q” material (found in Matthew and Luke, but not Mark). Let us begin with the saying in Mark 3:28-29, which has both Markan and “Q” forms. In such instances, there is a question of whether we are dealing with two distinct historical traditions, or variant forms a single historical tradition. Traditional-conservative commentators tend to opt for the former, while critical commentators typically assume the latter. The situation is further complicated by additional differences between versions of the Markan and “Q” sayings, the possibility of variation as a result of translation from an Aramaic original, and other factors.

Matthew contains both the Markan and “Q” forms, joined together at 12:31-32, while Luke has only the “Q” saying (12:10). Let us compare the Markan saying as it is found in Mk 3:28-29 and Matt 12:31, respectively:

“Amen, I relate to you that all (thing)s will be released [i.e. forgiven] for the sons of men—the sins and the insults, as many (thing)s as they may give insult—but whoever would give insult unto the holy Spirit, he does not hold release [i.e. forgiveness] into the Age, but is holding on (himself) a sin of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal sin].” (Mk 3:28-29)
“Through this I relate to you (that) all (kind)s of sin and insult will be released [i.e. forgiven] for men, but an insult of [i.e. against] the Spirit will not be released.” (Matt 12:31)

Matthew clearly has a simpler version, but this may be a result of the combination with the second (“Q”) form/saying in 12:32. The point of the contrast is that all sins and insults will be forgiven, except for an insult directed against the Spirit of God (Mk uses the expression “holy Spirit”). The term “insult” (blasfhmi/a, vb blasfhme/w) is often used in a religious sense—i.e., something which is an insult or offense to God (thus our English word “blasphemy”). Jesus is speaking of a person insulting God’s Spirit directly. The Markan context for this saying (with the explanation in verse 30) is likely original. Certain religious leaders were attributing Jesus’ power over the evil spirits (or daimons, “demons”) to a certain kind of special demonic power (holding [i.e. possessing] Baal-zebul, the “prince of daimons”). Since Jesus’ ministry, including his healing miracles, was actually empowered and specially inspired by the Spirit of God (cf. the previous note), to claim that it was the result of demonic power was a direct insult to God’s own Spirit.

The Spirit-inspired character of Jesus’ healing miracles is implied throughout the Gospel narratives, but it is given specific expression in at least one saying, found in Matthew and Luke (i.e. “Q” material), with a slight but significant variation. In Matthew, it is part of the same narrative block as 12:31-32, dealing with the same dispute over the origins of Jesus’ miracle-working power. In verse 28, he states most dramatically:

“But if (it is) in [i.e. with] the Spirit of God (that) I cast out the daimons, then the kingdom of God (has already) arrived upon you!”

In Luke 11:20, this saying reads:

“But if (it is) in [i.e. with] the finger of God (that) I cast out the daimons, then the kingdom of God (has already) arrived upon you!”

Almost certainly, Luke has the more original form, using the expression “finger of God” instead of “Spirit of God”. However, the point is the same: it refers to the Divine source of Jesus’ power to work miracles over the spirits of disease, etc (cf. Exod 8:19). The Matthean form is likely a gloss to make this point clear. The connection of this manifestation of God’s Spirit with the coming of His Kingdom suggests a continuation of the Prophetic tradition regarding the role of the Spirit in the restoration of Israel and the New Age for God’s people (cf. the recent notes on the key passages from Joel, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and [Deutero-]Isaiah).

What of the “Q” form of the ‘blasphemy against the Spirit’ saying? Here are the Matthean and Lukan versions:

“And whoever would speak a word against the Son of Man, it will be released [i.e. forgiven] for him; but whoever would speak against the holy Spirit, it will not be released for him—not in this Age, and not in the coming Age.” (Matt 12:32)
“And every (one) who shall utter a word unto [i.e. against] 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.” (Luke 12:10)

Luke’s version occurs in an entirely different context, a clear indication that the saying was preserved separately, and it was the Matthean Gospel writer who included it as part of the ‘Beelzebul Controversy’ pericope, alongside the parallel (Markan) saying of 12:31. The fact that the Markan saying has the expression “sons of men”, and the “Q” saying “Son of Man”, can hardly be coincidental. It raises the possibility that an original (Aramaic) saying of Jesus came to be understood two different ways, as it was preserved and translated (into Greek), where the meaning of the underlying Semitic idiom “son of man” would have been lost, in favor of its familiar use as a title by Jesus (for more, cf. my earlier note on this saying).

In any event, in the “Q” saying, “Son of Man” clearly is a self-reference by Jesus. Such use by Jesus in the Gospels is complex and requires a separate detailed study (cf. my earlier series on the “Son of Man Sayings of Jesus”). It occurs extensively throughout the Synoptic tradition, with several different categories of “Son of Man” sayings. Most frequently, it is a self-reference, whereby Jesus especially identifies himself with the suffering of the human condition. Remember that Matt 12:32 occurs in the context of Jesus’ public ministry, in which he worked to heal people of their suffering and affliction from illness and disease, which, according to the ancient understanding, were caused by evil/harmful spirits. This was an important part of his work as “Son of Man”, especially during the Galilean period of his ministry (in the Synoptic narrative).

The point Jesus is making in the “Q” saying is: to slander his miracle-working power is to insult (directly) the Spirit of God. It is one thing to speak against him personally, as he ministers among the people, but quite another to insult the source of his miracle working power, which is God’s own holy Spirit.

There is yet another version of this 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 (ayb!n`), 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.