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.


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.