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.