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Mahlon H Smith,
Rutgers University

 

What do members of this generation remind me of?
What are they like?
They're like children sitting in the market place
and calling out to one another:
'We played the flute for you but you wouldn't dance;
we sang a dirge for you but you wouldn't weep."
Remember, John the Baptist appeared on the scene,
eating no bread and drinking no wine,
and you say: "He's demented!"
The son of man appeared on the scene,
both eating and drinking,
and you say: "There's a glutton and a drunk,
a crony of toll collectors and sinners!"
Well, Wisdom is vindicated by all her children!

   ---Gospel of Luke 7:31-35 (cf. Matt 11:16-19)

 

 

Who composed this strange argument?  It is longer and more complex than most of the sayings that can be traced through oral tradition to Jesus.  The rhetoric is what one might expect from an urbane orator rather than a small-town sage.  The central motifs---characterizations of children, John the baptizer and the son of man---are at odds with the development of these motifs elsewhere in the the early Jesus tradition.  So this passage did not muster consensus in the Jesus Seminar as a saying that can reliably be traced to the lips of Jesus of Nazareth.

Yet, if Jesus was not the source of this saying, who was?  The slurs at its center are not apt to have been invented by some supporter of Jesus.  Other gospel passages show that both John and “the son of Adam” had opponents.  But this saying is odd because the speaker makes little attempt to salvage the reputation of either.  If this passage was created from nothing by some Christian, then why are the critics’ charges not decisively refuted?  If it is a mere literary fiction, then why does it not fit the pattern of other recorded references to John and “the son of Adam”?

The Greek text, for example, literally accuses John of having a “demon.”  This meant that his behavior was deemed irrational.  Who would have invented such a charge?  Certainly not Matthew or Luke who represent John as God’s herald for Jesus.  Neither of these gospel writers would suggest that John was under the influence of an alien spirit, if they had not found this charge recorded in Q.

Nor was the compiler of Q apt to have invented this criticism of John.  For the lines that immediately preceded this passage portray Jesus as the prime promoter of John’s reputation.  These sayings have Jesus insist, with glowing hyperbole, that John is “more than a prophet” and “among those born of women, none is greater than John” (Luke 7:26-28//Matt 11:9-11 excerpts).  Even if such exaggerations do not represent Jesus’ actual statements about the baptizer’s historical status, the scribe who claimed Jesus said these things would not likely have concocted the charge that John was demented.  For, if it were composed as a postscript, this flat contradiction of the effusive commendation just ascribed to Jesus would challenge not only John’s sanity but Jesus’ own sense of judgment.

The derogatory remark about John’s mental stability not only must be older than the uniformly positive press that the baptizer received elsewhere in Christian and Jewish texts, it probably dates to his own lifetime.  For after John’s death, it would take a pretty petty person to judge him insane just for having abstained from eating bread and drinking wine.  In fact, after John was executed by Herod Antipas, he was widely regarded as a martyred hero.  The baptizer’s reputation as a man of God became so widespread that even Josephus---an aristocrat from Jerusalem---had only positive things to report about him in this sketch that was drafted about the time that the gospels of Matthew and Luke were being composed:

He was a good man.  And to the Jews he advocated training in virtue with bothjustice towards others and piety towards God.  Those who accepted this were to unite in baptism.  Baptism was favored by him for this reason: not to atone for sins committed but to purify the body just as the soul had been already purified by justice.  When others who were quite stirred by his words joined him, Herod (Antipas) feared that persuasiveness like his might lead some men to dissidence.  For they seemed to do anything John advised...So, (John) was sent chained to Machaerus, because of Herod’s suspicion,...and he was slain in that place.  But it was believed by the Jews that God       determined to punish Herod by the destruction that befell his army [in 34 CE].  --- excerpted from Antiquities 18.117-119

This report, like post-mortem assessments of modern assassinated folk heroes, Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy, celebrates only favorable aspects of a person who admittedly was the focus of social agitation when alive.  This is normal, since the tragic death of public figures often stifles the vicious caricatures their opponents circulate freely during their lifetimes.

Before John was imprisoned, however, even more conservative Jews than Herod would be apprehensive of the unsettling effect of this social reformer’s rhetoric on the status quo.  Just as much of middle-class America felt threatened in the 1960’s by the preaching of Martin Luther King on the one hand or the “flower-power” message of the hippie counter-culture on the other, so secularized Jews who prospered in a world dominated by Greek culture and Roman armies were bound to take a dim view of John’s call for religious purification and a return to the moral values of Israel’s more rustic past.  Some Jews may have regarded John’s retreat from civilized town-life to the wilderness area surrounding the Jordan river as a sign that he was “more than a prophet”---perhaps even the reincarnation of that legendary rural firebrand, Elijah, who nine centuries earlier had launched a successful revolution against rulers who ignored the principles of Mosaic law.  But many others---landowners, shop keepers, religious leaders, and especially parents whose idealistic children were attracted to the baptizer’s brand of revival---were bound to judge John’s call for total purification as pure social madness.  Like any slur the suggestion that John was mad is hardly an objective description but someone’s emotional reaction to his social behavior.  That negative opinion is echoed here only because it was still fresh enough to have to be discredited when this saying was composed. 

Yet, it is safe to say that John was a model of total abstinence.  For it is not critics but John’s defender who here recalls that he shunned eating and drinking.  This characterization implies that the baptizer avoided not only specific foods but secular comradery in general.  For bread and wine were the staples of ancient Mediterranean meals.  Whether this saying originally specified these elements (as in Luke) or not (as in Matthew), John is here distinguished by his refusal to share the normal meal ritual that was the focal point of fellowship in Jewish culture. 

Meals, after all, are a time not only for food but for conversation.  The people with whom a first-century Jew would break bread indicated the group to which he belonged.  Josephus, a self-proclaimed Pharisee, provides this outsider’s account of the exclusive communal meal of the Essenes:

They assemble in a private room where no one with other beliefs is allowed to come. Having cleansed themselves as if they were entering some sacred area, they dine. When they are seated in silence, the baker passes out the bread according to rank, and the cook passes each one a portion from a single dish...Now, to those outside the silence of those within seems like some awesome mystery.  But it is really because they are allotted just enough food and drink and so are always sober.
     ---excerpted from Jewish War 2.129-133

Though Pharisees were apparently excluded from eating with Essenes, they too were known for caution about what and where and with whom they ate.  Akiba ben Joseph, a contemporary of Josephus and the chief architect of later rabbinic Judaism, was credited with this warning:

Don’t break bread with a worldly priest, lest you trespass in what is holy...
Don’t get used to eating at banquets, lest you end by eating forbidden things.
       ---The Fathers of Rabbi Nathan 26.2

These passages show that meal segregation in ancient Judaism was not just a matter of social snobbery.  It was a safeguard against contamination by alien ideas served up by one’s table companions.  Thus, in a culture that valued purity and temperance, John the baptizer was recognized as the ultimate purist, though some skeptics obviously objected that his complete withdrawal from ordinary meals took social purification to a crazy extreme.

The real reason the author of this Q saying recalled such criticism of John’s asceticism, however, was to set up a sharp contrast with the critics’ more scathing reaction to the behavior of someone else.  While John was known for extreme standards of sobriety and abstinence, another individual---identified here indirectly as “the son of man”---obviously was not.  John was so discriminating that he would not share a casual meal with anyone.  The speaker characterizes “the son of man” as eating and drinking without any restrictions in either diet or company.  His lack of restraint was so obvious that critics called him “a glutton and a drunk” and complained that he was intimate with “toll collectors and sinners,” an obvious reference to irreligious riff-raff.

For first century religious Jews these were even more lethal allegations than the claim that John was a madman.  After all, Israel’s history was filled with reformers who called for a stricter enforcement of traditional social standards.  The biblical stories of Elijah and other prophets provided precedence for fanatical opposition to moral laxness.  But Judaic tradition provided no comfort for those who were undisciplined and self-indulgent.  Jewish sages regularly advocated self-control and temperance with proverbs like this:

Listen, my son!  Be wise and set your heart on a straight path.
Don’t mix with those who drink wine or with those who eat lots of meat.
For drunkard and glutton become impoverished and rags clothe the lazy.
    --- Proverbs 23:19-21

Gluttony and drunkenness, in fact, became stock charges against Jews who deviated from the religious discipline of their elders, as is evident in this stern warning that the Torah ascribed to Moses:

If a person’s son is stubborn and a rebel, who will not heed his father or his mother’s  voice and will not obey them even if they discipline him, his father and mother will take him into custody and bring him in front of the (court of) elders at the gate of his hometown.  There they will tell those town elders: “This son of ours is stubborn and a rebel.  He won’t obey our voice.  He’s a glutton and a drunk!”  Then all men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus will you purge the evil from your midst.  All Israel will hear about it and fear (God).
      --- Deuteronomy 21:18-21 (italics mine)

Even if such a harsh prescription against deviant behavior was not viable in first century Judaism, this passage clearly shows that the label “glutton and drunk” was one of the most socially damaging rumors that could be circulated about any Jew.

What makes this slur even more shocking in a Christian text is that Jesus is clearly the “son of man” who was the intended subject of this allegation.  “Son of man” was a stock Semitic idiom for any descendent of the first human being.  In Jewish scripture it is used by several authors in a wide range of contexts from humbling observations to divine visions.  But in the gospels it is restricted to comments ascribed to Jesus, most of which reflect upon himself.

True, not all son of Adam sayings are obviously genuine.  Many echo these exalted descriptions of a human agent of God from Judaic scripture:

What is a man that you should pay attention to him,
a son of man that you should care for him?
You made him a little less than God
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You made him ruler of your handiwork,
you put everything beneath his feet.
    ---Psalm 8:5-7

In the visions of night, as I was watching,
I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven.
He came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.
And to him was given authority and glory and kingship,
and every people, nation and language serve him.
    --- Daniel 7:13-14

These texts invited later Jews to speculate on the identity of the human figure whom God exalted above all the rest of creation.  So, any of Jesus’ supporters could easily have composed sayings after his death that invoked this biblical imagery to refer to the one whom they called “Lord.”

But given this tendency of early Christians to identify Jesus as an idealized heavenly “son of man,” who would have described of him as “a glutton and a drunk”?  As in the case of John, this derogatory assessment of Jesus’ eating habits clearly echoes a charge critics really leveled against Jesus during his lifetime.  Like the description of John as a madman, it is an exaggerated reaction to current behavior that was considered excessive.  But there is a dramatic difference in the critics’ perception of the two men.  John was faulted for advocating an unreasonable standard of purity.  Jesus was criticized for an apparent complete lack of social discrimination. 

Not only was Jesus charged with violating normal limits of sobriety, he was labeled “a crony of toll collectors and sinners.”  This accusation makes sense only on the lips of religious Jews.  The term “sinner” could refer to anyone who deviated from any moral or religious standard of a particular sect.  But when Jews used it as an amorphous characterization of a group, it meant people who were generally non-religious, those who did not even pretend to govern their lives by the laws of Moses: secular Jews and even Gentiles.  Moreover, since Jews were distinguished by the company they kept, this complaint insinuates that Jesus was himself a sinner.

The charge that Jesus was a pal of toll collectors had even more sinister connotations in first-century Palestine.  A Jew with this reputation was more likely to be ostracized than a Kentuckian labeled an accomplice of “revenuers” in Appalachia.  Imagine what it is like to live in a country occupied by a foreign military dictatorship.  Under these circumstances tolls and other taxes are viewed not as necessary assessments for the upkeep of the commonwealth, but as oppressive levies by a regime of slave masters.  Jews who collected tolls for the Herodians or Roman military were not known for being particularly friendly or fair.  In fact, rabbinic texts regularly compare toll collectors to thieves.  So, to be branded a pal of toll collectors was to bear the stigma of an enemy agent at best and a hoodlum at worst.

These caricatures are so distorted that it is tempting to discard them as unreliable evidence of the behavior of either Jesus or John.  But they certainly provide a clear picture of the type of heated negative reaction that both men evoked from some contemporaries.  Such alternative perspectives are important to put the gospels’ overwhelmingly positive assessment of Jesus in proper historical balance.  Moreover, the juxtaposition of these slurs keeps Jesus’ social agenda from becoming confused with John’s.  While John insisted on tightening the standards of religious and social exclusiveness, Jesus was obviously faulted for being too lax.  This impression that Jesus’ lifestyle differed radically from John’s is certainly historically accurate.  The only question is whether this saying is a reliable example of Jesus’ own reaction to his critics.  You may doubt it.  But just compare this passage with the way that the synoptic gospels handle similar complaints about Jesus’ lack of social discrimination elsewhere.

Mark portrays startled Pharisees as posing this question to Jesus’ disciples:

What’s he doing eating with toll collectors and sinners?” (Mark 2:16d).

There is no suggestion here that Jesus himself is guilty of social excess.  Unlike the slurs in Q, he is neither called a “glutton and a drunk” nor a “crony” (philos) of irreligious types.  Yet, to counter any suspicion that Jesus might have been contaminated by his worldly dinner companions, Mark reports this retort:

“Since when do the able-bodied need a doctor? 
It’s the sick who do”  (Mark 2:17cd).

In such a context, this ironic question interprets Jesus’ contact with outcastes as a heroic attempt to restore them to society and preserve communal health.  For physicians treat the infected, not just to save the lives of individual invalids, but to prevent viruses from spreading.

Luke uses a similar tactic in reporting complaints about Jesus’ association with social outcastes in another context.  Here Pharisees are joined by scholars in complaining:

“This fellow welcomes sinners and even eats with them!”  (Luke 15:3).

But in introducing this complaint, Luke is careful to point out that these people were attracted to Jesus and not vice-versa.  Moreover, in order to explain why Jesus does not reject them, Luke appends three parables to justify rejoicing when the lost are found or a wayward son returns.

Compared with these obvious attempts on the part of the authors of the synoptic gospels to disassociate Jesus from the errant behavior of some of his worldly companions, the handling of the accusations in this Q saying becomes all the more amazing.  Not only is Jesus himself branded as an accomplice of intemperate types, there is no obvious attempt to dismiss the terms of this indictment.  Instead the speaker seeks to undermine the charges against Jesus merely by appending them to the critics’ previous assessment of John.  By reminding the critics of their own words (“you say”) the author of this saying points out an apparent inconsistency in their complaints.  They censored John for not eating and drinking, now they censor Jesus for doing just that.  This tactic puts the critics in a position of having to defend their own position without producing evidence to contradict their charges.

Moreover, in exposing the pettiness of the critics’ name-calling the speaker does not himself fall into the trap of issuing counter-accusations. Instead, to help them recognize the ridiculousness of their own position, their vicious invective is introduced by an analogy to the petty complaints of gangs of bored children throwing taunts at each other.  If Jesus were a nineteenth century Romantic who thought children were perfect, then this pejorative picture of infantile behavior might be reason to doubt that this analogy could have been composed by him.  But it is quite consistent with the very realistic picture of sibling rivalry sketched in the parable of the prodigal son.  If Jesus’ signature on the one portrait is deemed genuine, then why not the other?

This saying is a perfect illustration of a muted but effective way of countering hostility.  If it attempted to whitewash the reputations of Jesus and John or if it branded their critics as phonies or liars, then there would be good reason to suspect that the author was someone other than the sage who reminded himself to remove the timber from his own eye, before trying to extract a splinter from his brother’s.  But that is not the case here.  Instead of attacking the enemy, the speaker simply lets them see their own flaws in a mirror.  In comparing his critics’ behavior to that of petulant children, he does not adopt the condescending viewpoint of an adult.  Rather he ends simply by insisting: “Wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”  This is a radically inclusive assertion that embraces not only Jesus, John and their cronies but the “children” who called them names.  Matthew’s version (“Wisdom is vindicated by all her deeds”) misses this point.

At first glance the conclusion to this passage is as startling bland as it is abrupt.  It is the type of sentiment that any Mediterranean sage might endorse.  From Socrates on, Greek sages did not presume to call themselves wisemen (sophoi) but rather “lovers”---or, to keep the translation consistent, “cronies”---of wisdom (philo sophoi).  Wisdom (sophia) was not viewed as the private property of any individual but rather as a transcendent power to which any rational person had access.  Since the word for wisdom was feminine in Hebrew (as in Greek), even earlier Judaic sages developed a mythic image of wisdom as a female pedagogue in passages like this:

Doesn’t Wisdom summon and Understanding raise her voice?...
“I summon you humans!  My voice is for you sons of man:
You who are simple, get smart!  You who are stupid, get some sense!...
Now, children, listen to me!
The one who keeps my ways is to be congratulated.
Wise up!  Heed instruction and don’t reject it.”
     ----Proverbs 8:1,4-5,32-33

Since Jewish sages normally equated the ways of wisdom with sobriety, some who were wise in their own eyes labeled Jesus as “a glutton and drunk” to infer that his ways were folly.  But a classic Judaic text also portrayed wisdom as a hostess summoning guests to a banquet:

'Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed."
      ---Proverbs 9:5

To be sure, the meal language here was meant to be a metaphor for mental digestion.  But at least one Judaic sage before Jesus concluded that eating and drinking per se were the marks of a sage:

There is nothing better for a human (Adam) than to eat and drink
and to make oneself see good in one’s work.
I saw that this too was from God’s hand.
For who can eat and drink without him?
    ---Qoheleth 2:24-25

Thus, the conclusion of this Q passage has more substance than is first apparent.  The claim that wisdom is upheld by all her children is a reminder to self-confident critics that truth is not the private possession of any school but can embrace even conflicting lifestyles: those who abstain and those who don’t, those who refuse to dance and those who refuse to mourn.  As an affirmation of intellectual and social tolerance, this aphorism is the quintessential leveler between all self-styled sages.

Moreover, the speaker who states this as an absolute principle is also reminding himself not to confuse his position with truth itself.  Confronted with members of a rival gang who are all too ready to insult him and others, he simply highlights the irony of the situation, then throws up his hands proclaiming: “wisdom will out!”  If this is not the voice of the Galilean sage who said “love your enemies,” it is surely a good impersonation.

 

copyright © by author 2017
all rights reserved

  • This article is one of the author's contributions to a multi-authored volume on probable authentic sayings of Jesus that never made it to press.  It is published here for the first time.

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- last revised 26 May 2017 -

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