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The Historical Jesus

All quotations from the gospels are from the new Scholars Version.



20 Things Jesus Certainly Did Say

These are sayings that must be accounted for in any historically accurate profile of Jesus. The overwhelming majority of the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar agreed that they preserve the distinct voice of Jesus of Nazareth better than all other sayings attributed to him. The mind that formulated these sayings had such a consistently unconventional view of God, the world and human relations that the chance of someone else inventing them is slight. The Fellows' consensus was strong enough to weight the first 15 sayings red . Questions about the originality of some of the phrasing of the next 5 left them just short of this level of consensus. So, they were designated pink . The exact Greek wording of these and other sayings varies from gospel to gospel. But in all cases it is clear that the logical structure of these sayings comes from the mind of Jesus rather than that of a later follower.

For a fuller explanation of the Seminar's voting on these and 70 other genuine Jesus sayings, see The Five Gospels (New York: Macmillan, 1993). A collaborative commentary on all these and some less certain sayings of Jesus will be published later under the title, The Wit and Wisdom of Jesus.

1. "When someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well." -- Matthew 5:39; the wording of Luke 6:29 varies slightly.

This is not the common human reaction to an opponent's challenge. Slaps on the cheek are an age old means of putting another person down. In ancient times people would strike others only with their right hand. To touch another person with your left hand was considered a social disgrace. To challenge a social equal to a duel you struck an opponent on the left cheek with the open palm of your right hand. You would have to use a back-handed slap to strike someone's right cheek. This was the way people in positions of authority would put their social inferiors (peasants, slaves, women, children) in their place.

The author of this advice (in Matthew's version) offers those who have been humiliated an unusually clever way of reclaiming their social dignity without overt retaliation. Far from advocating submission to oppression, the speaker was an early advocate of victim's rights. Whether the saying originally specified the "right" cheek or not (as in Luke's version), it remains a startling paradox. It goes so much against the innate human tendency to defend oneself by striking back that it is not apt to have been invented by just anybody. The Fellows agreed that there is no good reason to doubt that this saying's link to Jesus is genuine. For no one else in antiquity was credited with such advice. Whatever else Jesus may have said, the Jesus Seminar was virtually unanimous that he said this.

2. "When someone wants to sue you for your shirt, let that person have your coat along with it." -- Matthew 5:40; the wording of Luke 6:29 varies slightly

Like the turned cheek, this saying offers someone who is oppressed a startling novel reaction to a desperate situation. Since most people in the Roman world wore only two garments, the inner tunic (or "shirt") and the outer robe (or "coat"). The person who is being sued here stands in danger of being stripped of everything. Jewish law forbid creditors from claiming a debtor's outer garment, since a naked person would be totally vulnerable to the elements. The author of this saying tells the potential pauper to shed even this last defense, in an unexpected symbolic gesture that was bound to shame the creditor and shock the audience, particularly if both were Jewish. In Luke this same tactic is applied to a situation of highway robbery, where its effect would be less certain. In either case, the advice shows a total lack of concern about retaining physical possessions. Such an innovative response to oppression was clearly formed in the same mind that thought of turning the cheek as a non-violent way for those at the bottom of the social ladder to demonstrate their freedom when reduced to total helplessness. Thus, the Fellows' votes on these sayings were practically identical.

3. "Congratulations, you poor! God's domain belongs to you!" -- Luke 6:20, Thomas 54; the wording of Matthew 5:4 varies slightly.

This greeting is bound to strike anyone as strange, since people are usually congratulated for their good fortune. The opening word in Greek, makarios (which is usually translated "blessed"), carries precisely this connotation of well-being. Paupers are not usually regarded as well off by themselves or others. So this is not a saying that can be passed off as common opinion. The qualification added in Matthew's version ("poor in spirit") makes the thrust of this saying less socially shocking. But here, the more difficult version is clearly the more original. The author of this greeting assures those who own nothing that they do own all that belongs to God. This is not a pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye saying. The speaker is not promising paupers that they will inherit heaven after they are dead. Rather, the possessionless are invited to join a celebration now. The Jesus who told those who were on the verge of bankruptcy to surrender their last possession probably also formulated this dramatic denial of the common equation of well-being with wealth.

4. "When anyone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile." -- Matthew 5:41.

No one except a government likes the draft. That's what makes the carefree attitude of this saying so unique. Like the first two sayings on this list it addresses those at the bottom of the social power pyramid and offers a creative non-violent way of demonstrating one's independence of domination by others.

In the first century Mediterranean world the Roman occupying armies and native aristocrats who collaborated with them could co-opt the services of common people almost at will. Those who resisted were quickly dispatched to show who was in control. In the early years of the first century of this era, several independence-minded firebrands urged their fellow Jews not to submit meekly to such totalitarian power. Thousands lost their lives in this type of resistance.

The tactic proposed by the author of this saying allows the powerless to make it clear that they are free agents without provoking the enemy to retaliate. A person who obeys another's command is that person's servant. But when you offer to do another a favor you put that person in your debt. The similarity of the logic of this saying to the two to which it is attached (sayings 1 & 2 above) indicates that it is the product of Jesus' distinctive way of thinking. These sayings show the same commitment to the survival and dignity of social underdogs.

5. "Love your enemies!" -- Luke 6:27b, Matthew 5:44b.

No injunction could be more paradoxical than this. For enemies and love are practically incompatible concepts in most people's minds. Luke and Matthew offer different constructive suggestions on how to make this advice practical (Matt: "pray for your persecutors"; Luke: "do favors for those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for your abusers"), so it is uncertain whether the original saying specified some particular reaction to enemies or not. At any rate, this advice short circuits the innate human impulse to defend oneself by attacking opponents. It eases social tensions with an uncommon mindset that makes possible the creative approach to oppressive situations like those in the 3 case parodies above (sayings 1, 2 & 4).

6. "What does God's imperial rule remind me of? It is like leaven which a woman took and concealed in fifty pounds of flour until it was all leavened." -- Luke 13:20; Matthew 13:33 varies slightly.

7. "Give the emperor what belongs to the emperor! Give God what belongs to God!" -- Thomas 100:2; Mark 12:17, Matthew 22:21, Luke 20:25, and Luke 20:25 vary slightly.

8. "Give to everyone who begs from you!" -- Luke 6:30a; Matthew 5:42 varies slightly.

9. "There was a man going from Jerusalem down to Jericho when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him, beat him up, and went off, leaving him half dead.
         Now, by coincidence, a priest was going down that road; when he caught sight of him, he went out of his way to avoid him. In the same way, when a Levite came to the place, he took one look at him and crossed the road to avoid him.
        But this Samaritan who was traveling that way came to where he was and was moved to pity at the sight of him. He went up to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring olive oil and wine on them. He hoisted him onto his own animal, brought him to an inn, and looked after him. The next day he took out two silver coins, which he gave to the innkeeper, and said: 'Look after him, and on my way back I'll reimburse you for any extra expense you have had." -- Luke 10:30-35.

Luke was probably a non-Jew who wrote his gospel for a non-Jewish audience. Both the author and original auditors of this parable, however, were Palestinian Jews. To get its full impact one has to realize that in the first century Jews and Samaritans were not just neighbors but blood enemies who all too often got caught up in cycles of escalating violence against each other. The priest and Levite on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho would be expected to be allies of the Jewish merchant whom bandits had left dying in the ditch. But they do not come to his aid, probably because contact with a dying man would have made them ritually impure according to the Torah. The author of this short story gave this potentially tragic plot a totally unexpected happy ending by portraying the man's enemy who happens along as an angel in disguise. This story puts an ironic twist on the principle of loving the enemy by making the enemy the benefactor. The same paradoxical logic of the previous sayings is at work in this parable, subverting ethnic fears and hatreds that were (and are) all too common.

10. "Congratulations, you hungry! You shall have a feast." -- Luke 6:21a; Thomas 69:2 varies slightly; Matthew 5:6 more so.

11. "Congratulations, you who weep now! You will laugh." -- Luke 6:21b; Matthew 5:4 varies slightly.

12. "There was this rich man whose manager had been accused of squandering his master's property. He called him in and said: 'What's this I hear about you? Let's have an audit of your management, because your job is being terminated.'
           Then the manager said to himself: 'What am I going to do? My master is firing me. I'm not strong enough to dig ditches and I'm ashamed to beg. I've got it! I know what I'll do so doors will open for me when I'm removed from management.'
          So he called in each of his master's debtors. He said to the first: 'How much do you owe my master?' He said: 'Five hundred gallons of olive oil.' And he said to him: 'Here is your invoice. Sit down right now and make it two hundred and fifty.'
         Then he said to another: 'And how much do you owe?' He said: 'A thousand bushels of wheat.' He says to him: 'Here's your invoice; make it eight hundred.'
        The master praised the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly." -- Luke 16:1-8a.

13. "Heaven's imperial rule is like a proprietor who went out the first thing in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the workers for a silver coin a day he sent them into his vineyard.
           And then coming out around 9 a.m. he saw others loitering in the marketplace and he said to them: 'You go into the vineyard too, and I'll pay you whatever is fair.' So they went.
          Around noon he went out again, and at 3 p.m., and repeated the process. About 5 p.m. he went out and found others loitering about and says to them: 'Why did you stand around here idle the whole day?'
         They reply: 'Because no one hired us.'
         He tells them: 'You go into the vineyard as well.'
         When evening came the owner of the vineyard tells his foreman: 'Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with those hired last and ending with those hired first.'
         Those hired at 5 p.m. came up and received a silver coin each. Those hired first approached thinking they would receive more. But they also got a silver coin apiece. They took it and began to grumble against the proprietor: 'These guys hired last worked only an hour but you have made them equal to us who did most of the work during the day.'
          In response he said to one of them: 'Look, pal, did I wrong you? You did agree with me for a silver coin, didn't you? Take your wage and get out! I intend to treat the one hired last the same way I treat you. Is there some law forbidding me to do with my money as I please? Or is your eye filled with envy because I am generous?'" -- Matthew 20:1-15.

14. "(Abba) Father..." -- Luke 6:2b; Matthew 6:9 is more formal.

15. "(Heaven's imperial rule) is like a mustard seed. It's the smallest of all seeds; but when it falls on prepared soil, it produces a large plant and becomes a shelter for birds of the sky." -- Thomas 20:2; Mark 4:30-32 is a slightly expanded version. Details of Matthew 13:31-32 and Luke 13:18-19 vary.

16. "Don't fret about your life -- what you're going to eat and drink -- or about your body -- what you're going to wear. There's more to living than food and clothing, isn't there? Take a look at the birds of the sky: they don't plant or harvest or gather into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. You're worth more than they, aren't you? Can any of you add one hour to life by fretting about it? Why worry about clothes? Notice how the wild lilies grow: they don't slave and they never spin. Yet let me tell you, even Solomon at the height of his glory was never decked out like one of them. If God dresses up the grass in the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, won't (God care for) you, you who don't take anything for granted?" -- Matthew 6:25-30; Luke 12:22-29 varies slightly; Thomas 36:1 is a shorter fragment.

17. "Is there any woman with ten silver coins who, if she loses one, wouldn't light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? When she finds it, she invites her friends and neighbors over and says: 'Celebrate with me, because I've found the silver coin I'd lost." -- Luke 15:6-9.

18. "Foxes have dens, and birds of the sky have nests; but the son of Adam has nowhere to rest his head." -- Matthew 8:20 & Luke 9:58; Thomas 86:1-2 is a slightly expanded version.

19. "No prophet is welcome on his home turf." -- Thomas 31:1; the wording of Mark 6:4, Matthew 13:57, Luke 4:24 & John 4:44 varies slightly.

20. "No one can be a slave to two masters. No doubt that slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and disdain the other. You can't be enslaved to both God and a bank account." -- Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13 is practically identical.






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. But in each case the circumstantial evidence does not support that claim. There are several reasons for questioning the ascription of a saying to Jesus:

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 contemporaries.

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 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).

1. "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.

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

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

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

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 16:17-19

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

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 generation." -- Matthew 23:29-36

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 25:29-31

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

10. "How accurately Isaiah depicted you phonies when he wrote: "This people honors me with their lips but their heart stays far from me. Their worship of me is empty, because they insist on teachings that are human commandments.' You have set aside God's commandment and hold fast to human tradition!" -- Mark 7:6-8

11. "Those who are ashamed of me and my message in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the son of Adam will likewise be ashamed when he comes in his Father's glory accompanied by holy angels." -- Mark 8:38

12. "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

13. "I swear to you, this generation certainly won't pass into oblivion before all these things take place! The earth will pass into oblivion and so will the sky, but my words will never be obliterated." - Mark 13:30

14. "Look, I have given you authority to step on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will ever harm you." -- Luke 10:18.

15. "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.

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." -- John 3:16-18

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

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

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 real life to everyone you have given him. This is real life: to know you as the one true God and Jesus Christ, the one whom you sent." -- John 17:1-2

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














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