20 Things Jesus
Probably Did Not Say
These sayings were
probably formulated by someone other than Jesus and thus are not reliable
evidence of his personal viewpoint. While a negative -- that something never
happened -- cannot be proven, the burden of historical proof always rests on
those who claim it did. Some early Christian ascribed one or another of these
sayings to Jesus. Yet these were not exact on-the-scene transcripts but rather
reports recorded only decades after Jesus' death. In each case
circumstantial evidence does not support the alleged authorship. There are several reasons for questioning the ascription of a saying
it reflects the
writer's unique vocabulary and viewpoint; no one else attributed this
idea to Jesus.
it represents a
common view of Christians after
Jesus' death rather than the voice of a Galilean addressing
it is not compatible
with things Jesus certainly said;
there were no
witnesses to report it;
it was not original;
people believed this even without Jesus.
Of course, Jesus said
many things that were not particularly original & even contradicted himself on
occasion. But after his death one could no longer be sure whether the
commonplace or inconsistency came from him or from someone else.
In voting these sayings
overwhelmingly black , the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar were
making a historical, rather than a theological, judgment. Black sayings are not
eliminated from the gospels; they are only excluded from the data base of things
Jesus of Nazareth
probably said. They are not good evidence of the distinctive mindset of this
Galilean Jew; but they retain historical value as evidence of the views of
Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Thomas, or other early Christians.
For a complete review of
the black sayings, see The Five Gospels (New York: Macmillan, 1993).
"Don't imagine that I have come to annul the Law and the
Prophets. I have come not to annul but to fulfill. I swear to you, before
the world disappears, not one iota, not one serif, will
disappear from the Law, until it's all over. Whoever ignores one of the most
trivial of these regulations and teaches others to do so will be called
trivial in Heaven's domain. let me tell you: unless your religion goes
beyond that of the scholars and Pharisees, you won't set foot in Heaven's
domain." -- Matthew 5:17-20; Luke 16:17 presents a variant of the
This sayings complex is the
thesis statement of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7). Most of its wording
is peculiar to the gospel of Matthew. Yet Luke gives a variant declaration
about a "serif"--a scribal flourish on a letter--disappearing from "the Law"
(i.e., the Mosaic Torah). Like Matthew he appends it to a Jesus saying about
the status of "the Law and the Prophets" (i.e., Hebrew scripture). But
contrary to Matthew, Luke presents Jesus' message about God's domain as
replacing Torah regulations. According to Luke's Jesus, the era of
Torah was over with John the Baptist (Luke 16:16), despite the difficulty in
changing a single letter of the Law. Moreover, Luke presents this
declaration in a completely different context several chapters after his
shorter version of Jesus' sermon (Luke 6:20ff).
Such contrary versions of these
sayings probably reflect conflict in the early Christian community over the
status of Torah (see Paul's letter to the Galatians). Luke's interpretation
clearly supports Paul's arguments that Torah regulations are no longer in
effect, while Matthew sides with those whom Paul called "Judaizers" like Jesus' brother James who
regarded the Torah as immutable. The question is: which interpretation is more
likely to be original & whether either version is traceable to the historical
Both the wording & placement of
these sayings in Matthew's gospel represents the author's own perspective on the
message of Jesus. For more than other gospel writers Matthew repeatedly
highlights things that he claims happened to fulfill some passage of Jewish
scripture (e.g., Matt 1:22f; 2:5f, 23, 17f; 3:3; 4:15). Thus, the odd thing about
his location of this
sayings complex is its defensive character. Where would anyone get the
idea that Jesus intended to
abolish traditional biblical teaching? Before this Matthew tells his readers
nothing to make them think that. In fact, he reports Jesus quoting
verbatim from the book of Deuteronomy three times when tested in the wilderness after
his baptism (Matt 4:4, 7,10). Mark begins Jesus' public ministry by
recounting incidents that create tensions with scribes & Pharisees (Mark 2).
Matthew had to admit that Jesus' behavior scandalized some Torah observant Jews
by telling some of the same incidents after presenting Jesus' sermon
(Matt 9). Therefore, Matthew's interpretation & presentation of the sayings
complex above is clearly intended as a preemptive attempt to counter questions raised by accounts of
Jesus' unorthodox teaching & behavior that were already in circulation.
Since there is no other early source to support Matthew's version of these
sayings, this sayings complex cannot be reliably traced to Jesus himself.
2. "Everyone who acknowledges me in
public, I too will acknowledge before my Father in the heavens. But the one
who disowns me in public, I too will disown before my Father in the heavens."
-- Matthew 10:32-33; the wording in Luke 12:8-9 varies significantly.
Matthew and Luke probably got
this logion from the same collection of Jesus sayings, since they both quote
the same basic formula: "Everyone who acknowledges me in public...but
whoever disowns me in public...." Yet their versions of the rest of this
saying differ in both wording and dramatic detail. Matthew's scenario
explicitly envisions Jesus himself as mediator in the presence of his
"Father in the heavens"--reflecting the viewpoint of a Christian community
after Jesus' crucifixion. This represents a shift in
perspective from that of the historical Jesus himself, who urged
contemporaries to appeal directly to God as their own Father (see sayings
13 & 16 above). Luke's version
of this saying envisions an even more remote heavenly hierarchy with "the
son of Man" intervening only before angels.
Clearly this dual promise/warning
was formulated for a situation in which Jesus' followers were facing persecution
merely for being his supporters. This was not the case before his death.
Jesus' own message focused on the reign of God (see sayings 3,
6, 12, 14 &
15 above) ; the question of personal loyalty to him
became a perennial problem for followers only after his crucifixion as an
3. "Don't get the idea that I came to bring
peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. After all, I have
come to pit a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a
daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A person's enemies are members of
the same household." -- Matthew 10:34-36; Luke 12:51-53 & Thom
16:1-4 differ dramatically in detail.
This graphic saying is
composed of three elements: (a) denial that Jesus was a peacemaker, (b)
admission that he created conflict, and (c) description of a divided family.
While this structure is the same in three gospels, variations in wording
indicate that this was a hard saying to digest even for the early Christians
who echoed it. Matthew alone presents all three elements as Jesus'
deliberate intention. Luke and Thomas, on the other hand, admit that there
was a general perception of Jesus as a peacemaker, but claim this was
mistaken since families will be divided because of him. The
future tense is important here, since it identifies family strife as a social
reaction to Jesus' career rather than the motivation that inspired it.
Moreover, since Matthew's version presents a close paraphrase of the
description of a dysfunctional family by the Hebrew prophet Micah
(7:5-6) it probably reflects his own characteristic theme that
Jesus came to fulfill scripture, more than the actual intentions of Jesus
himself. Finally, instead of mentioning a "sword," Luke just characterizes
the conflict created by Jesus as "dissension." So the original wording of
the synoptic source for this saying is uncertain.
There is ample evidence that
Jesus said and did things that were provocative and controversial & that he
became the focus of social conflict for later generations. But Matthew's
version of this saying in particular goes against authentic sayings of Jesus
instructing people to love their enemies and to counter oppression with
non-violent tactics that Matthew himself included in Jesus' inaugural sermon
(see sayings 1, 2, 4
& 5 above). So, this logion is better read as a retrospective
caution formulated after Jesus' crucifixion than as Jesus' characterization of
his own mission.
4. "Just as the weeds are gathered and destroyed
by fire --- that's how it will be at the end of the age. The son of Adam
will send his messengers and they will gather all the snares and the
subverters of the Law out of his domain and throw them into the fiery
furnace. People in that place will weep and grind their teeth. Then those
who are vindicated will be radiant like the sun in my Father's domain."
-- Matthew 13:40-43
This apocalyptic prediction
is uniquely Matthew's. Though the harvest parable that precedes it is found
also in the non-canonical gospel of Thomas that version lacks this
allegorical interpretation. Matthew's ascription of this saying to Jesus
himself is dubious for three reasons.
First, authentic Jesus parables
were delivered orally and generally circulated without any explicit explanation
(see sayings 6, 9,
12, & 14 above). Allegorical interpretation was a common feature of formal Greek education. So
Jews who wrote literate Greek, like the author of our gospel of Matthew, were
trained to provide their own interpretation of stories they received. The apostle Paul
and Philo of
Alexandria are good examples of this practice.
Second, the language of this
prediction is characteristic of only Matthew's presentation of Jesus' message. While
an eschatological appearance of the son of Man is predicted in other gospels
(e.g., Mark 13:26-27 par), Matthew alone describes this as a last of judgment
resulting in eternal punishment (see Matt 25:31-46). In fact, Matthew is
so fond of the phrases "throw them into the fiery furnace" where people "weep
and grind their teeth" that he repeats them verbatim just a few verses later in
an allegorical interpretation that he alone appends to the parable of the
net (Matt 13:40).
Finally, a threat that "subverters
of the Law" face eternal punishment is more likely based on Matthew's thesis that Jesus came
to fulfill Torah (see saying 1 above) than the views of Jesus whom
even Matthew admits was himself criticized by Pharisees for being a
"crony of tax-collectors and sinners" (Matt 11:19//Luke 7:34).
5. "You are to be congratulated, Simon son of
Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you but my Father who
is in heaven. Let me tell you, you are Peter ('the Rock') and on this very
rock I will build my congregation, and the gates of Hades will not be able
to overpower it. I shall give you the keys of Heaven's domain, and whatever
you bind on earth will be considered bound in heaven, and whatever you
release on earth will be considered released in heaven." -- Matthew
Almost everything about this
passage points to Matthew as its author rather than the historical Jesus
himself. First it is in the form of a personal commission that is unlikely
to have been quoted in an oral culture by anyone other than the designee (Peter)
himself. Second, although Matthew presents it as part of the dialogue from
an incident recounted in all the synoptic gospels, Mark and Luke fail to include it. Third, it envisions the community of Jesus' followers as a
hierarchal organization under the authority of a single central leader, a
situation that did not emerge until more than a generation after Jesus'
It is historically certain that
Jesus had a disciple called "Rock" (Kephas in Aramaic; Petros in
Greek) who was so widely reputed as the first to see the resurrected
Jesus (1 Cor 15:5) that Paul journeyed to Jerusalem just to confer with him
after his own resurrection experience (Gal 1:18). But Paul's description of the
congregation (ekklesia) that he found in Jerusalem indicates that Peter
was not its sole leader or even the most prominent of the group called
"apostles" (missionaries). As Paul tells it, while Peter took responsibility for
the mission to circumcised Jews (Gal 2:8) he deferred to Jesus' brother James
(Gal 1:19, 2:11-12) and even accepted correction from Paul (Gal 2:14), who had
not been a disciple of Jesus himself.
Matthew's reason for composing
this proclamation becomes clear if one considers its context, as Jesus' response
to Peter's recognition of Jesus as Messiah, and compares his version of this
incident with those in the other synoptic gospels. Mark (8:29f) and Luke
(9:20-21) depict Jesus as immediately silencing his disciples without indicating
that Peter was correct. When Jesus goes on to warn the disciples that he will
suffer a fate that Jews did not expect for their Messiah, Mark (8:32f) claims
Peter presumed to contradict him which led Jesus to utter this startling rebuke:
"Get behind me Satan, for you are not thinking like God but like humans!" Luke
omits the latter interchange, presumably to prevent the impression that Jesus
rejected Peter's identification of him as the Messiah. Matthew surprisingly
reports this rebuke but only after having Jesus declare Peter's confession a
divine revelation and guarantee his future importance in founding the Christian
church. This addition is designed to make it clear to Matthew's readers that Peter's error was temporary and
limited to his failure to see the necessity of Jesus' suffering.
Thus, this passage is better
understood as a single scribe's clarification of a difficult passage in an
earlier gospel text than as a reliable recollection of a pronouncement by Jesus
6. "I swear to you, you who have
followed me, when the son of Adam is seated on his throne of glory in the
renewal (of creation), you also will be seated on twelve thrones and sit in
judgment of the twelve tribes of Israel."
-- Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:30
contains a partial parallel to the final phrase.
Most of the wording of this
saying is characteristic of a view of the last judgment that in the gospels
is unique to Matthew (see saying 4 above).
ends Jesus' last supper with a promise that
those who shared table fellowship with him will "sit on thrones judging the
twelve tribes of Israel." This fragment makes it likely that both gospel
writers are echoing words from an earlier collection of Jesus sayings. But
Matthew and Luke's lack of verbal agreement in the rest of this declaration
makes it impossible to reconstruct their common source with any degree
of certainty, much less identify Jesus as its probable author.
It is reasonably certain that
Israel was originally composed of twelve tribes. But these had been
absorbed into other socio-political configurations (including greater Judea)
long before the time of Jesus. In the first century
CE the number twelve carried
symbolic connotations of national restoration for Jews. So the prominence of
"the Twelve" in the first generation of Jesus' followers (e.g., Mark 3:16-19 &
6:7 par; 1 Cor 15:5) may have been inspired by something like the council
of twelve that governed the sectarians at Qumran (see
Dead Sea Scrolls,
Community Rule 8). But there is nothing in early Christian literature
other than this saying that envisions the Twelve in a
judicial role. In fact the idea of anyone being enthroned other
than God himself is hardly compatible with the topsy-turvy divine realm
restricted to paupers (sayings 3 & 15
above) and little children (Mark 10:14-15 par) depicted by genuine Jesus
sayings. So it is not likely that this eschatological vision echoes a promise
made by Jesus prior to his crucifixion.
7. "You scholars and Pharisees, you imposters!
Damn you! You erect tombs to the prophets and decorate the graves of the
righteous and claim: 'If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we
wouldn't have joined them in spilling the prophets' blood.' So you witness
against yourselves: You are descendents of those who murdered the prophets,
and you're the spitting image of your ancestors. You serpents! You spawn of
Satan! How are you going to escape Hell's judgment? Look, that is why I send
you prophets and sages and scholars. Some you're going to kill and crucify,
and some you're going to beat in your synagogues and hound from city to
city. As a result there will be on your heads all the innocent blood that
has been shed on the earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of
Zechariah, son of Baruch, whom you murdered between the temple and the
altar. I swear to you, all these things are going to rain down on this
Matthew 23:29-36; Luke 11:47-51
presents a shorter variant.
This diatribe stands in stark
contrast with the mindset of the Jesus who counseled others to love enemies
and correct themselves before criticizing others (see sayings
3 & 17 above). If these
were the words of Jesus himself, then he clearly failed to heed his own
advice. But there are ample signs that this outburst is Matthew's own
amplification of fiery rhetoric formed in the heat of conflict with
synagogue officials after Jesus' crucifixion.
First, the opening condemnation
is an oft-repeated refrain found only in this chapter of Matthew (23:13, 15, 23,
25, 27, 29). Luke levels the charges above at "lawyers" (presumably Torah
scholars) rather than Pharisees in general. Moreover, Luke's version lacks
"Serpents! Spawn of Satan!" (lit.: "brood of vipers")--an echo of invective
ascribed to John the Baptist (Matt 3:7//Luke 3:7), not Jesus--as well as the
question about escaping Hell.
Second, Matthew's version of this
tirade is filled with anachronisms and distortions. His description of
preachers representing Jesus being beaten and persecuted in synagogues and even
killed reflects situations described in the letters of the Pharisee Paul (e.g.,
Gal 1:13f; Phil 3:5f; 2 Cor 11:22ff) and the book of Acts (8:1ff, 9:1ff, 14:1ff,
17:1ff) rather than anything reported as happening prior to Jesus' crucifixion.
Contrary to the impression conveyed by Matthew's version of these charges,
Pharisees did not control Jewish synagogues until after the
destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (70
CE). And they certainly were
not responsible for the murder of the Zechariah who was stoned in the Temple
courtyard by order of Joash (2 Chron 24:20-22), king of Judah from 836-798
BCE, since this happened about 700
years before the Pharisees emerged as a movement within Judaism. Moreover,
Matthew (but not Luke) confuses that Zechariah, whom scripture identifies as son
of the high priest Jehoiada, with the author of the book of Zechariah (1:1),
whose prophecies during the reign of the Persian king Darius (about 520
BCE) led to the rebuilding of the
Temple after the Babylonian exile.
Besides, contrary to Matthew's
charge, Pharisees were never in a position to crucify
anyone. Rather, less than a century before Jesus, 800 Pharisees were themselves
reportedly crucified by the Hellenized Hasmonean ruler of Judea, Alexander
Yannai (see Josephus, Antiquities 13.14). In Jesus' time some Pharisees--including Galileans--were
among Jews crucified by the Romans (see Josephus, Antiquities 17.10, 18.1).
So it is hardly conceivable that the Jesus of Nazareth whom even Matthew admits
countered scathing criticism of himself with self-effacing irony (see Matt
11:16-19//Luke 7:31-35) was the author of this blatantly distorted tirade that
blames Pharisees in general "for all the innocent blood shed on earth."
8. "Immediately after the tribulation of those
days 'the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give off her glow, and
the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly forces will be shaken!'
And then the son of Adam's sign will appear in the sky, and every tribe of
the earth will lament, and they'll see the son of Adam coming on clouds of
the sky with great power and splendor. And he'll send out his messengers
with a blast on the trumpet, and they'll gather his chosen people from the
four winds, from one end of the sky to the other!"
-- Matthew 24:29-31; Mark 13:24-27
and Luke 21:25-28 have minor variations.
This apocalyptic prediction
is a pastiche of echoes of some of the same prophetic passages from Jewish
scripture that inspired other early Christian authors. The
description of the shaking of the heavens paraphrases Isa 13:10 and Joel
2:10,31 & 3:15; similar predictions of cosmic eclipse were ascribed to Peter
(Acts 2:20) & John (Rev 6:12f) without citing Jesus as their source.
Likewise, a vision of the coming of a human figure with clouds is a close
variant of Dan 7:13; compare Rev 1:7, which also depicts "all the tribes of
the earth" lamenting the appearance of one whom they had pierced (Zech
12:10). The sounding of a trumpet was an ancient Hebrew signal of an
imminent theophany (cf. Exod 19:16f; Ps 47:5; Heb 12:18) that was cited in
eschatological predictions by Paul (1 Cor 15:52; 1 Thess 4:16) and John (Rev
11:15ff) without any hint of dependence on a prior prediction by Jesus.
As a Jew, Jesus of Nazareth
might have echoed Jewish scripture on occasion. But the gospels that credit
him with this particular saying were (a) all written a generation or more after
his death when (b) other Christian writers were saying similar things without
citing Jesus as their source. Moreover, this prediction follows a warning
that is clearly intended for the gospels' intended readers (cf. Mark 13:14//Matt
24:15) rather than Jesus' original audience. So it has all the signs of a
literary composition by a Christian evangelist rather than a reliable
recollection of words uttered orally by Jesus himself before his crucifixion.
9. "You have been given the secret of God's
imperial rule; but to those outside everything is presented in parables, so
that 'they may look with eyes wide open but never quite see, and may listen
with ears attuned but never quite understand, otherwise they might turn
around' and find forgiveness."
-- Mark 4:11-12; Luke 8:10 has
minor variations; Matt 13:11-15 gives a longer paraphrase.
The synoptic gospels present
this as Jesus' reply to disciples who question his teaching in parables.
Parables are graphic stories whose point often needs to be inferred by the
audience. Some genuine Jesus parables were presented as
explicit illustrations of the reign of God (see sayings 6 &
14 above). Others circulated without clear indication
of their rationale. So it was natural for people outside Jesus' original audience to be puzzled by such parables.
As worded by
Mark and Luke, however, the explanation above claims Jesus intended ("so
that...") to keep his message of the reign of God a secret for insiders alone.
This was probably not so, since there are many genuine pronouncements by Jesus about
God's realm that were delivered publicly (e.g., sayings
3, 6, 12,
14 & 15 above). Mark's
concluding words ("otherwise...") create further difficulty by making it sound
like the reason for such secrecy was to prevent outsiders from repenting and
being forgiven, thus contradicting Mark's own portrayal of Jesus' mission and
message (cf. Mark 1:15, 2:10, 3:28). So this pericope clearly does not
reflect Jesus' original rationale for speaking in parables but, rather, must
have been formulated for later followers who had difficulty interpreting his
Even the authors of the other
synoptic gospels found this passage problematic. Luke avoided the conclusion
that Jesus did not advocate forgiveness by omitting the final clause. And
Matthew removed the impression that Jesus' parables were meant to promote public
confusion by replacing the "so that..." with "because" and substituting a
verbatim quotation of Isa 6:9-10 for the loose paraphrase about seeing and
hearing in Mark. Matthew's version is clearly a later scribe's editorial
correction of a problematic text since his quotation of Isaiah is an exact
transcription from the Septuagint's Greek translation of Jewish scripture which
was widely used by Jewish and Christian congregations outside Palestine.
Thus, it presents good evidence that early Christian scribes did not treat words
ascribed to Jesus in a gospel as infallible scripture and, so, did not hesitate
to emend them.
10. "Those who want to come after me should
deny themselves, pick up their cross and follow me!"
-- Mark 8:34//Matt 16:24; Luke 9:23
"Those who do not carry their own cross and come after me cannot be my
disciples." -- Luke 14:27; Matt 10:38 varies slightly; Thom 55:2
contains a fragment
These sayings are evidence
that a saying can circulate in an oral culture in two different forms, one
positive the other negative. In either case the author clearly knows
how Jesus died. Since (a) the gospels were all composed after his
crucifixion and (b) there is no outside evidence that carrying a cross was a
metaphor for self-sacrifice before that event, these calls to martyrdom were
clearly not delivered during Jesus' own lifetime. The former presupposes that he has
gone ahead and urges supporters to follow his example. The latter even makes
readiness to die as he did the litmus test of discipleship. Neither warns of
events to come. Rather, both address a current crisis where a life and
death choice has to be made. There is no evidence that Jesus'
supporters faced execution before his arrest yet ample references to many
being killed in following decades. So these sayings preserve the
voiceprint of an early Christian prophet channeling the risen Christ for
Christians faced with persecution rather than that of the pre-crucified
Jesus addressing contemporaries.
"Listen, we're going up to Jerusalem, and the
son of Adam will be turned over to the ranking priests and the scholars, and
they will sentence him to death, and turn him over to foreigners, and they
will make fun of him, and spit on him, and flog him, and put him to death.
Yet after three days he will rise!"
-- Mark 10:33-34; Matt 20:17-19 & Luke 18:31-34 have minor variations in
Each synoptic gospel presents
this as the last and most explicit of three forecasts of Jesus' fate.
Matthew (20:19) even has Jesus predict his crucifixion; and both he and Luke
correct Mark's chronology by saying Jesus would rise "on the third
day." It is important to remember that all these accounts were written
after Jesus had been executed and that their narrators already knew the
details of the passion story they were going to tell. So within the gospels
themselves, these predictions function as plot synopses alerting readers
to what is coming next. Like any plot synopsis they were all probably
composed later than the story they summarize. And like any after-the-fact
report of prior predictions they are virtually impossible to verify
without some datable documented evidence. What makes this saying
particularly suspect is that none of the gospels report any reaction on the
part of Jesus' disciples but, rather, portray them as blithely unaware of
coming events. So, while it is conceivable that the historical Jesus
realized that going to Jerusalem was dangerous, he probably did not make
this or any other explicit warning of what was going to happen.
12. "How can the scholars claim that the
Anointed is the son of David? David himself said under the
influence of the holy spirit, 'The Lord said to my lord: "Sit here at my
right, until I make your enemies grovel at your feet."' David himself
calls him 'lord,' so how can he be his son?" -- Mark 12:35-37; Matt 22:42-45 &
Luke 20:41-44 vary slightly
By citing Ps 110, which was
widely regarded as messianic, the author of this argument cleverly
challenges the rabbinic consensus that any future Messiah had to descend
from David due to an eternal divine covenant (cf. 2 Sam 22:51, Ps
18:50 & 89:3-4 and Jer 33:19-24). Taking the psalm's ascription
literally, the one pressing this case claims "David" called the Messiah is his "lord." Then, relying on the
social assumption of patriarchal supremacy, he asks: what father would
describe his offspring as "my lord"?
The argument itself is clever;
but there are problems in proving Jesus himself invented it. Even before the
synoptic gospels were written Ps 110 was widely used by Christians to describe
the resurrected Jesus (cf. Acts 2:34-36 & Heb 1:1-13 and echoes in Rom
8:34, Col 3:1 & 1 Pet 3:21f) without questioning the Messiah's descent from
David. If this was a genuine saying of the historical Jesus one would expect an echo of it in at least some post-crucifixion
christology. Yet, Paul
had no problem insisting that Jesus was "descended from David according to the
flesh" (Rom 1:8). And even Matthew and Luke introduce Jesus as a descendent of
David (Matt 1:1-17; Luke 2:4, 3:31f).
Mark, however, does not. Though
he introduces Jesus as Christos (Mark 1:1) he omits details that link
Jesus to the line of David (e.g., genealogy, birth in Bethlehem). Rather than
invoke traditional messianic themes, he focuses on scenes that distinguish Jesus
from Jewish folk heroes. According to Mark, as soon as Peter identified
Jesus as Messiah, Jesus silenced him and chastised him for resisting the idea
that he would be killed (Mark 8:29-33; see discussion of saying
5 above). Thus, arguing that David is not the
messianic prototype is integral to Mark's narrative. The
fact that Matthew and Luke include this passage too only proves their dependence on Mark.
It reflects that evangelist's personal viewpoint, rather than an issue that Jesus
himself probably addressed.
13. "Stay alert, otherwise someone might
delude you! You know many will come using my name and claim 'I am the one!'
and they will delude many people. When you hear of wars and rumors of
wars, don't be afraid. These are inevitable but it is not yet the end.
For nation will rise up against nation and empire against empire, there will
be earthquakes everywhere, there will be famines. These things mark the
beginning of the final agonies.
"But look out for yourselves! They will
turn you over to councils and beat you in synagogues and haul you up before
governors and kings, on my account, so you can make your case before them.
Yet the good news must first be announced to all peoples. And when
they arrest you to lock you up, don't be worried about what you should say.
For it is not you who are speaking but the holy spirit. And one
brother will turn in another to be put to death, and a father his child, and
children will turn against their parents and kill them. And you will
be universally hated because of me. Those who hold out to the end will
"When you see the 'devastating desecration'
standing where it should not (the reader had better figure out what this
means!), then the people in Judea should head to the hills; no one on the
roof should go downstairs; no one should enter the house to retrieve
anything; and no one in the field should turn back to get a coat. It's
too bad for pregnant women and nursing mothers in those days! Pray that none
of this happens in winter! For those days will see distress the likes
of which has not occurred since God created the world until now, and will
never occur again. And if the Lord had not cut short the days no human
being would have survived! But he did shorten the days for the sake of
the chosen people whom he selected." -
Mark 13:5-20; Matt 24:4-22 & Luke 21:6-24 present variant versions
This lengthy warning opens an
even longer speech which scholars have dubbed the "Little Apocalypse" since it
focuses on end-time catastrophes like those in the book of Revelation (Greek:
Apocalypsis). The synoptic setting is the Mount of Olives
overlooking Jerusalem just before Jesus' last supper. But the events
described clearly envision a period after Jesus' crucifixion since
they are introduced by the appearance of false Messiahs claiming to be him.
The passage as a whole is clearly
a literary composition by a gospel writer rather than an exact transcript
of what Jesus himself told his disciples prior to his arrest and crucifixion. Given the gospels' own descriptions of the disciples' traumatic reaction
to those events, it is unlikely that they would have accurately recalled
predictions that had no immediate relevance, especially not at this length.
These warnings mirror descriptions of things
that occurred years, even decades, after Jesus' death. In particular, concern
to "announce the good news to all people" despite beatings in
synagogues, arraignment by secular rulers & imprisonment sounds like a
summary of the mission of Paul (Phil 1:12-18; 2 Cor 11:22-25; Acts 14:1-7,
16:19-24, 18:12, 25:1-32), who claimed to have initiated the Christian mission
to non-Jews (Gal 2:7-9) and did not even meet Jesus' disciples until years after
the crucifixion (Gal 1:13-20).
But the most obvious sign that
these warnings were not words Jesus addressed orally to his disciples prior to
his crucifixion but those Mark drafted for his own audience is the parenthesis
urging the reader to grasp the meaning of the cryptic term "devastating
desecration" (Greek: to bdelygma tēs erēmōseos). In copying this passage,
Matthew gave his readers a clue by adding the words, "the saying of the prophet
Daniel." The reference is to Dan 11:31, which describes the forces of a foreign
king desecrating the temple in Jerusalem. The author of 1 Maccabees (1:54)
provides a historical framework by using the same idiom to describe the image
(probably of Zeus) that the Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, ordered erected
on the altar of sacrifice in Jerusalem in 167
BCE. There is no evidence of the
temple in Jerusalem being threatened with such desecration in Jesus' lifetime.
But in 70 CE, four decades after his death
when the temple was destroyed, according to Josephus (who was an
eye-witness) Roman soldiers celebrated their victory by planting their standards
with the emperor's image there and offering sacrifices to him (Jewish War
6.316). Luke confirmed this passage's reference to events of that period by replacing the cryptic
allusion to Daniel with this explicit
warning: "When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, know that its destruction
is near" (Luke 21:20). Thus, according to Mark and his synoptic editors,
the signal for any Jewish supporter of Jesus to flee to the hills was the Roman destruction of the Judean capitol and its sanctuary. Many
probably did. For, as Josephus described the siege of Jerusalem, the Romans caught many who
tried to flee the city and had them scourged and crucified (Jewish War
5.446-451). From the perspective of early Christians--especially those still in
events must have seemed a "distress the likes of which has not occurred
since God created the world" (Mark 13:19// Matt 24:21).
So, while this passage cannot be
cited as reliable evidence of things Jesus himself really said, it does provide
information for dating the composition of the synoptic gospels.
"My Father has turned
everything over to me. No one knows who the son is except the Father, or who
the Father is except the son---and anyone to whom the son wishes to reveal
him." -- Luke 10:22//Matt 11:27
This saying is the second half of
a doublet that Matthew and Luke got from the non-Markan sayings gospel that
scholars call Q [short for Quelle, meaning "source"]. Despite this link,
however, the two sayings reflect incompatible views of divine revelation. The
one above claims "the son" has privileged knowledge of "the
Father," third person designations found widely in Christian creeds and
liturgical formulae composed long after the crucifixion but not in other sayings
the synoptic gospels ascribe to Jesus. Moreover, this saying asserts that no one
else can really know "the Father" except those who learn from "the
The author of the prior saying,
addressing "the Lord of heaven and earth" simply as "Father," thanks him for
hiding from sages what he reveals directly to infants--children too young to
receive instruction from anyone. Such a paradox may have originated in the
mind of Jesus since, like many genuine Jesus sayings, it turns traditional wisdom
topsy-turvy (see red and pink
sayings above) by tweaking common Jewish ideas (cf. Ps 8). And it is consistent
with Jesus' insistence that God's realm is for children (Mark 10:14 par).
This saying leaves Jesus'
followers with a problem, however. For if knowledge of God is innate with
children in general, then there is no need for a teacher, not even Jesus. So
some early Christian scribe probably presumed to "correct" that impression by
ascribing the church's claim that Jesus is sole mediator of divine revelation to
15. "This generation is an evil generation.
But it will be given no sign except the sign of Jonah. You see, just
as Jonah became a sign for the Ninevites, so the son of Adam will be a sign
for this generation. At judgment time, the queen of Sheba will be
brought back to life along with members of this generation, and she will
condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to
Solomon's wisdom. Yet take note: what is right here is greater than
Solomon, At judgment time the citizens of Ninevah will come back to life,
along with this generation, and condemn it, because they had a change of
heart in response to Jonah's message. Yet take note: what is right
here is greater than Jonah."
-- Luke 11:29-32; Matt 12:39-42
differs extensively; Mark 8:12 is only a fragment.
The disagreement of the
synoptic gospels on the details of this denial of a sign makes it impossible to trace any version of this saying to Jesus
with historical confidence. Mark's version is the shortest.
When Pharisees demand that Jesus produce a sign, Jesus swears that "this
generation" will have none. He allows for no exceptions. Matthew and
Luke, however, present a longer response which (a) characterizes the current
generation as "evil"; (b) allows "the sign of Jonah" as sole exception
to the general denial of signs; and (c) predicts condemnation of "this generation" by both the Ninevites who listened to Jonah and the queen who
sought out Solomon, since (d) something greater is "right here." This
longer version probably came from the synoptic sayings source that scholars
Clearly someone has done some
extensive editing of this saying. If Mark knew the longer version, he
deliberately deleted most of it. If, on the other hand, Mark's shorter
version is the original form, then the collator of Q deliberately altered it by introducing Jonah as a sign and turning the saying
into a threat of eschatological condemnation. Moreover, since Matthew and Luke provide completely different interpretations of the sign of
Jonah and introduce the eschatological witnesses in different order, the Q
version obviously underwent further editing. For Luke, Jonah himself
was a sign to the people of Ninevah who responded to his preaching. Yet he
disrupts that idea by putting testimony by the queen of Sheba before
that of the Ninevites. Matthew keeps references to the Ninevites together but
identifies the sign as reference to Jonah stay in the belly of the sea monster
(three days and nights), rather than his message to the people of Ninevah.
In either case, this saying seems
designed for a "generation" after the crucifixion rather than Jesus'
contemporaries since it presupposes that the audience has already rejected the
message of "the son of Man." That is especially true of Matthew's version, given
its analogy of the sign of Jonah to Jesus' burial. Yet, even Luke's
interpretation fits the circumstances of the early Christian mission to Gentiles
better than Jesus' own ministry since both the Ninevites and the queen of Sheba
were non-Jews who listened to an Israelite, while--according to the
speaker--"this generation" did not. Thus, this saying more likely captures the
voice of an early Christian prophet instead of Jesus himself.
16. "This is how God loved the world: God gave
up an only son, so that everyone who believes in him will not be lost but
have real life. After all, God sent this son into the world not to condemn
the world but to rescue the world through him. Those who believe in him are
not condemned. Those who don't believe in him are already condemned: they
haven't believed in God's only son. This is the verdict on them: Light
came into the world but people loved darkness instead of light." -- John 3:16-18
By itself there is nothing
in this passage to commend it as a statement by the historical Jesus of
Nazareth. Both in viewpoint and vocabulary it is indistinct from the
prologue to the Fourth Gospel (John 1:18) which clearly presents the voice
of the gospel narrator, not that of Jesus himself. The words "world,"
"light" and "darkness" reflect this author's own dualistic cosmic
perspective, which is more indebted to the opening words of the book of
Genesis than to Jesus' message about the character and conditions of the
realm of God (e.g., sayings 3, 5,
6, 14, 15
above). While Luke and the author of Hebrews use the Greek word monogenēs
("only[begotten]") to characterize the sole scion of a human being,
the Johannine prologue is the only other New Testament text where it is used
to characterize an offspring of God. Since it is reasonably certain that
Jesus himself taught others to view God as their own father (see sayings
13 and 16 above), it is hardly
likely that he would have alluded to himself as the only genuine offspring
of God. So, on its own, this passage reads more like early Christian creeds
than any saying that can be reliably traced to Jesus.
The only reason that it
has been widely read as a pronouncement by Jesus himself is that it is appended
directly to the Fourth Gospel's account of Jesus' dialogue with the Pharisee
Nicodemus. But dialogues were a common literary device of ancient Greek authors.
Plato wrote dialogues between Socrates and some other person to report his own
philosophical ideas. Similarly, the author of the Fourth Gospel often uses a
dialogue involving Jesus to launch his own theological monologue without
indicating where one ends and the other begins. Since Greek manuscripts lack
quotation marks, those printed in all translations have been introduced by
modern editors and, thus, are no evidence that this passage was designed to be
read as a quotation of Jesus himself.
17. "I am resurrection and life; those who
believe in me, even if they die, will live; but everyone who is alive and
believes in me will never die."
-- John 11:25
Though this is presented as
what Jesus said to comfort Martha grieving for her brother Lazarus, it was
clearly formulated well after his crucifixion by the author of the Fourth
Gospel. Emphasis on "believing in" Jesus is a favorite theme
of Christian authors like Paul (Rom 1:9ff, Gal 2:16; Phil 1:29), Luke (Acts
9:42, 10:43, 11:17, 19:4), and this evangelist (John 1:12, 3:18, 9:35f,
14:1, 17:20), but is notably absent from sayings ascribed to Jesus himself
in the synoptic gospels. Likewise, the notions of resurrection and
everlasting life are eschatological motifs understandably stressed by this
author and other early Christian preachers but are marginal, at best, to the
message of Jesus (cf. Matt 7:14, 18:9, 19:16, 22:23ff; Luke 14:14).
More significantly, in form as well as content this passage is akin to the
way the resurrected "son of Man" identifies himself to John in his
vision on the Isle of Patmos decades after the crucifixion:
"I am the first and the last and
I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever,
and I have the keys of Death and Hades." (Rev 1:17-18)
Similar "I am..."
declarations are ascribed to Jesus six more times in the Fourth Gospel but are
without parallel in the synoptic sources. So it is virtually certain that this
formula is a typically Johannine rhetorical device rather than a reliable
record of the voice of Jesus of Nazareth himself.
18. "I am the way, and I am truth and I am life.
No one gets to the Father unless it is through me."
-- John 14:6
The Fourth Gospel's setting
for this pronouncement is Jesus' last supper. But there is nothing akin to
it in the other accounts of this event in the synoptic gospels; and it does
not even answer the question that the author of this gospel claims prompted it.
Rather, in both form and content it is a timeless generalization by a
disembodied voice rather than a credible claim by a flesh and blood Galilean
just hours before his arrest and execution. If any Jew said
this to other Jews he risked stoning for blasphemy. For the
threefold "I am..." formula makes absolute claims that Jews might accept
from the transcendent voice of YHWH but not from of any earthly human being
(cf. Exod 3:14; Isa 45:5-6, 18-19; Mark 14:61-64; John 10:25-31).
The Fourth Gospel, however,
introduces Jesus as the incarnate eternal Word of God (John 1:1-18). So it has
no problem telling readers that Jesus is just the mouthpiece for the voice
of God himself (John 12:48-50, 14:23-24, 17:6-8). Then it has him promise a
"Spirit of truth" to speak for him after he has gone (John 16:12-15),
deliberately blurring the line between words of the fleshly Jesus himself and
things uttered in his name by others after his crucifixion. The tone and
terminology of the "I am..." pronouncement in question make it more likely a
product of the latter situation than the former, despite its placement in the
19. "Father, the time has come. Honor your son,
so your son may honor you. Just as you have given him authority over all
humankind, so he can award lasting life to everyone you have given him. This is
lasting life: to know you as the one true God and Jesus Christ, the one whom
you sent." -- John
These words open what the
Fourth Gospel purports to be the prayer concluding Jesus' last
supper. Yet there are ample signs that this is the gospel author's own
literary composition rather than a reliable recollection of what Jesus
actually said on that occasion. No other gospel alludes to this prayer; and
it is too long (26 verses) for accurate aural recollection, especially given
the traumatic events that reportedly followed within hours. By opening with
"the time has come" the author makes this a farewell address before Jesus'
scheduled departure, thereby precluding Jesus' arrest and execution from
being seen as a tragic failure. In fact most of the prayer has him reporting
his mission accomplished and requesting due recognition ("honor your son")
instead of preparing him for an imminent ordeal. Synoptic gospel reports of
Jesus' agonizing prayer in Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42; Matt 26:36-46; Luke
22:39-46) present a more credible glimpse of Jesus' mental state on the eve
of his crucifixion than the placid and triumphant tone of this prayer. But
it is the echo of the distinctive Johannine equation of "lasting life" with
knowing "the one true God and Jesus
Christ" that is the best evidence that these are not the words of Jesus
(cf. 1 John 5:20). The only element in this prayer that can credibly to
traced to Jesus himself is his characteristic manner of addressing God as
"Father" (see saying 13 above). But that is not
enough to keep it from being considered a literary fiction.
20. "I am the light that is over all things. I
am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained. Split a piece of
wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there."
-- Thomas 77
Like the "I am..." sayings in
the gospel of John, this is clearly a pronouncement from a
disembodied voice rather than a quotation of what a physical person
like Jesus of Nazareth said to contemporaries. To claim to be the source,
goal and totality of everything and to be present anywhere is credible for
the timeless metaphysical concept of absolute Being but not a distinct
individual living in time and space. This saying's blatant pantheism exceeds
Paul's eschatological prediction of God ultimately becoming "all in
all" (1 Cor 15:18). And it has even less in common with the perspective of
the Galilean Jew who claimed he had no place to rest (see saying