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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.

This analogy is particularly striking considering its cultural context. To represent God as  ruler of the whole world was hardly a novel idea for first century Jews.  In fact that conviction was so embedded in Jewish tradition that it led to periodic Jewish uprisings against imposition of Roman imperial authority, all of which culminated in greater suppression by Rome.  Like many other sayings the gospels ascribe to Jesus, this little parable asserts that supreme rule (Greek: basileia) belongs to God.  But instead of invoking a dramatic image of cosmic grandeur to confirm this claim, the author of this parable draws a comparison to the fermenting action of microbial yeast which can eventually permeate and transform a huge mass of dough. The leavening agent can act to achieve this result by being hidden, buried deep within the mass it works to change. This analogy is not apt to have been invented by just any Jewish or Christian mind for several reasons: (a) the fermenting action of leaven was traditionally used as a metaphor for human corruption rather than divine action (e.g., Hos 7:4, 1 Cor 5:6-8); (b) the idea of illustrating God's rule by work generally performed by females is without parallel in Jewish or Christian culture; (c) gospel writers who elsewhere associate God's rule with apocalyptic imagery are not apt to have invented this equation with mundane domestic activity. On the other hand, such twists of conventional wisdom are typical of the mind that created the genuine Jesus aphorisms above.   

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

This injunction is the punch line of a pronouncement story found in both the synoptic gospels and the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. While the wording of the preceding narrative varies in all versions, the concluding aphorism is virtually identical in each gospel. Thomas' version of this pericope is the most succinct: a mini-dialogue in which Jesus is shown a coin & told that the Roman emperor's men demand taxes, to which Jesus gives the above reply. The narrative introduction in the synoptic versions is not only longer but logically more complex: authorities in Jerusalem try to trap Jesus by asking him whether it is "lawful" to pay taxes--a form of tribute--to Rome, to which Jesus replies by asking them to produce a coin and identify the image on it. When they identify the image on their coin as that of the Roman emperor Jesus responds with the injunction above.

The near verbatim presentation of this pronouncement in such varying narrative frames shows its stability in oral transmission. Whatever the details of the occasion that prompted the formulation of this enigmatic advice, it is a masterful piece of repartee consistent with the tactics in the genuine Jesus sayings above.  While counseling non-resistance to coercion, it relativizes imperial authority by countering it with the claims of God.  Instead of telling the audience to pay their taxes or not, the speaker leaves it to each hearer to decide what rightfully belongs to which claimant. Compare the subtle ambiguity of this aphorism to Paul's explicit instructions to submit to governing authorities & pay all taxes (Rom 13:1-7). Unlike the latter, the author of the gospel aphorism does not identify all rulers as "God's servants" but rather juxtaposes the emperor with God & makes the hearer determine whose rules to obey.  Such a stark rhetorical choice is hardly likely to have been invented by any Christian & widely credited to Jesus after his crucifixion if he had not said this.

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

Aiding the needy is an ancient theme of Hebrew wisdom (see Prov 14:21,31, 19:17, 21:13, 22:9, 28:27) that inspired a long history of Jewish charitable contributions. But traditional teaching usually focused on specific cases of need (the poor, the hungry, widows, orphans) just as modern charities target particular causes. Even Tobit, who advised generous giving limited it to "anyone who faithfully obeys God" (Tob 4:7).  The injunction above, however, urges donating to all who ask, without any restriction.  From a pragmatic standpoint this unqualified command is almost as difficult to put into practice as the injunction to love one's enemies.  Taken literally it would quickly leave donors impoverished, so it challenges even the most liberal economic wisdom. But such reckless disregard for retaining possessions is coherent with the thinking of the sage who claimed God's kingdom belonged to paupers (see saying 3 above).

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 be filled." -- Luke 6:21a; Thomas 69:2 varies slightly; Matthew 5:6 more so.

This paradoxical greeting is a corollary of the blessing of the poor (saying 3 above) to which it is linked in the synoptic gospels. Paupers are often left famished since they lack the means to guarantee their next meal. This pronouncement gives substance to the prior blessing, assuring such an audience that the debilitating consequences of their dire economic straits are going to end. The logical link between these aphorisms is weakened in Matthew's version by the qualifying phrase "and thirst for righteousness." This makes the hearers' hunger a metaphor for longing for moral virtue--a conventional value for religious Jews of any economic class--rather than just food. So Luke's wording is probably closer to the original.

11. "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.

Though this parable is reported only by Luke, Luke did not know quite what to do with it.  For he follows it with a string of moralizing aphorisms none of which does justice to the plot of the parable itself. When a man who has been accused of sloppy management is told to prepare his books for a final audit, he uses the little time he has left running the estate to forgive a portion of what each debtor owes his boss.  One would ordinarily expect such a scenario to conclude with the cheater receiving a more severe punishment than just being fired.  But instead the owner commends the wisdom of his actions.  Note: the manager did not embezzle any of his boss' resources for his own use but rather retroactively reduced the burden of the debts others had already incurred. Though he acts purely out of self-interest, his behavior represents his master as generous and forgiving. This parable illustrates the pragmatic wisdom of forgiving others their debts.  Since it challenges traditional economic values, it is not likely to have been formulated by anyone other than the Jesus whom the gospels portray as being himself censored by the self-righteous for discounting the faults of others.

12. "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.

Matthew sandwiches this parable between two versions of Jesus' prediction of an inversion of the first and last. But aside from the order in which the workers get paid neither declaration (Matt 19:30, 20:16) summarizes the story's plot very well. Rather, the conclusion stresses the even-handed generosity of the vineyard's owner to first and last alike. Those who protest that they deserve more are not punished but simply told to be content on receiving what they were promised.  Such a resolution is unexpected in a parable related by Matthew, since he prefers plots that conclude with someone being punished (e.g., Matt 13:50, 18:34, 22:13, 24:30). On the other hand, the startling reversal of expectations is typical of many authentic parables of Jesus (see sayings 6, 9 and 11 above).

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

Less than a generation after Jesus' death the apostle Paul wrote to the community of Gentile Christians that he had founded in Galatia, reminding them that when they were "baptized into Christ" (Gal 3:27) "God...sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying "Abba! Pater!" (4:6). Abba is the term which Aramaic-speaking Jewish children used in addressing their own father, while Pater is a close equivalent in Greek. Paul credits the ability of Christians to address God as "Father" to the influence of the "spirit" of Jesus. The fact that even Hellenized converts were taught to invoke this name in Jesus' mother-tongue indicates that they were echoing Jesus' own practice.  Jesus was distinct in addressing God thus.  Other Jews sometimes still address God with the lofty formula "Our Father who art in heaven" (Abinu de b'shammayim) in a communal prayer called the Qaddish ("Hallowing").  This synagogue prayer clearly influenced the wording of Matthew's version of the "Lord's Prayer," which became standard in Christian worship. Luke's version of that prayer, however, begins with just "Father"--addressing God directly with no hint of deference or distance--which is closer to the practice Paul credits to the spirit of Jesus himself.

14. "(Heaven's reign) 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.

This is one of the best attested parables in the Jesus tradition. But variations in the gospel presentations indicates it was more problematic than it seems at first glance.  Using a mustard seed to illustrate divine dominion must have startled the audience since mustard is a weed whose tiny lightweight seed was a common metaphor for next to nothing. Moreover, as an annual herb which may grow to four feet in a season but not last a year, the mustard plant apparently struck some early Christian as an inappropriate metaphor for the reign of an eternal God. So, the Q version of this parable, used by Matthew and Luke, morphs the mustard into a great tree with birds nesting in its branches.  That just does not happen in nature.  So the more realistic scenario presented by Thomas and Mark, using a common agricultural phenomenon to illustrate divine activity, is probably truer to the analogy created by Jesus for his rural audience.  The point of this parable is that just as the mustard can grow to shelter unsettled wildlife so the message of God's reign will spread and provide shelter for homeless wanderers such as Jesus and his original disciples. The transiency of both is key to the plot (see saying 18 below). Such an analogy is hardly likely to have been created by anyone living a more permanent urban lifestyle.   

15. "It's easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle's eye than for a wealthy person to get into God's domain." -- Mark 10:25 and Matt 19:24; Luke 18:25 is almost verbatim.

The synoptic gospels present this graphic aphorism as Jesus' reaction when a would-be follower decides not to become a disciple after being told to sell all his property and distribute the proceeds to the poor.  To compare the rich to a camel is apt since both accumulate resources to keep them through lean times. The ludicrous image of such a bulky beast trying to pass through a hole that is hard for even the thinnest thread to clear is memorable.  But what makes this saying particularly striking is its use of this impossible feat as a metaphor for the chances of the well-to-do entering the realm of God. Such a pronouncement clashes with the common view that wealth and well-being are divine blessings. But its logic is coherent with the viewpoint of the Jesus who said that God's realm belonged to paupers (saying 3 above). If that is true, then the only way for the wealthy to claim it is for them to divest themselves of all their accumulated holdings.

The narrative surrounding this aphorism in the gospels shows that it was a hard saying for even Jesus' earliest followers to digest.  A few later Christian scribes tried to reduce the saying's difficulty by replacing the Greek word for "camel" (kamelon) with "rope" (kamilon). And a prominent 19th c. pastor of a wealthy congregation even fabricated the claim that "eye of the needle" referred to a narrow gate in the walls of Jerusalem. Such recurrent attempts to make this saying more palatable, however, only demonstrate that the mind that composed it belonged to none other than the historical Jesus himself.

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.

This cluster of sayings is designed to bolster the confidence of those worried about life's needs.  Practically every phrase reflects a perspective traceable to Jesus: God is characterized as a caring parent (saying 13) who feeds the hungry (saying 10).  Like the parables of the mustard seed & leaven (sayings 6 & 14) these sayings illustrate divine Providence by citing lowly things of nature. Traditional wisdom is turned topsy-turvy with humorous hyperbole by portraying Solomon, the epitome of Jewish wealth, as inferior to wild flowers (compare saying 15). Such ideas might not seem pragmatic.  But they betray the same uncommonly optimistic mindset of the Jesus who declared paupers fortunate (saying 3) and advised debtors not to cling to clothes (saying 2).  

17. "You see the sliver in your friend's eye, but you don't see the timber in your own eye. When you take the timber out of your own eye, then you will see well enough to remove the sliver from your friend's eye" -- Thom 26:1-2; Matt 7:3-5 & Luke 6:36-37 have rhetorical additions.

The non-canonical version of this saying begins with the matter-of-fact observation that it is easier to notice a little fault in someone else than to recognize major flaws in oneself. To avoid doing damage the speaker advises removing the obstacle in one's own outlook before trying to correct others.  Such advice is designed to help all parties see better, not to blame anyone.  This is the only saying in the Jesus tradition that uses woodshop imagery & is the sort of practical wisdom one might expect from a craftsman (tekton) as Jesus is described in Mark 6:3. Moreover, the exaggerated contrast between splinter & timber is typical of other genuine Jesus sayings (e.g., sayings 14 & 15 above). This graphic disparity between the sizes of the vision impediments, however, led someone to insert rhetorical flourishes that transform the presentation of this saying in synoptic tradition into a diatribe against nit-picking fault finders.  The irony of the wording of this saying in Matthew & Luke is that by condemning the critic for finding fault in another it does precisely what Jesus advised not to do: criticize another before correcting oneself. The unembellished phrasing in Thomas version is, therefore, probably closer to what Jesus originally said. 

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.

 The subject of this saying is identified by an awkward translation (in Greek) of a common Semitic idiom for any human being (Aramaic: bar enasha; or Hebrew: ben Adam).*  In the gospels, this idiom is only found in sayings ascribed to Jesus as an indirect form of self-reference: some predicting his fate (e.g. Mark 10:32-34), others his exalted cosmic status (e.g., Mark 13:26-27).  What makes this saying particularly striking is its lack of such dramatic details.  Rather, it is an ironic observation of a situation that inverts the classical Jewish view of a human's place in the cosmos.  Instead of ruling over other creatures this human is described as a homeless vagabond who lacks a resting place like that of even local wildlife. This is not a generalization of the condition of generic humanity, since most humans are not homeless.  Nor is it a standard Christian view of Jesus' historical role or ultimate cosmic status.  But such a whimsical inversion of traditional wisdom is characteristic of Jesus who, according to the gospels, adopted the life of an itinerant preacher.

* NB: For a detailed analysis of this idiom see M. H. Smith,  "To Judge the Son of Man."

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.

This brief pronouncement is well-attested since it is ascribed to Jesus in all five gospels. The synoptics present it as Jesus' reaction when his preaching is met with skepticism in Nazareth. John introduces it obliquely as explanation of Jesus' reason for leaving Galilee. Thomas' version is most succinct: a general proverb without indication of self-reference by Jesus.  Despite its proverbial form, however, there is no record of this saying circulating as a piece of anonymous wisdom elsewhere in ancient sources. Like the previous saying, this aphorism expresses an ironic observation.  People who are familiar with a person best are least likely to accept his authority, much less view him as a spokesman for God.  Since the subject is specifically identified just as a "prophet," it is highly unlikely this saying was invented by any voice in Christian tradition other than that of Jesus himself. For gospel authors stress that Jesus was greater than that (e.g., Mark 8:27-29; John 1:1-14).     

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 money." -- Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13 is practically identical; Thom 47:2 lacks the punch line.

This aphorism gives a radical twist to conventional wisdom about divided loyalties. Practically everyone would grant the impossibility of satisfying the competing demands of conflicting interests.  But few would go so far as to declare wealth an obstacle to divine service, except the radical sage who ridiculed the idea of a rich man trying to enter God's domain (saying 15 above), which, according to him is owned by paupers (saying 3).





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 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 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).

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; Luke 16:17 presents a variant of the 3rd sentence.

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 Jesus himself.

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 outlaw.

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 16:17-19

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' death.

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 himself.

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).  Luke, however, 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 generation." -- 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 teaching.

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 varies slightly;
"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. 

11. "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 wording

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 age-old 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 be saved.
"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 Judea--such terrifying 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.

14. "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 son." 

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 Jesus himself. 

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 call "Q."

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 the living;
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 Johannine narrative. 

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 17:1-2

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 18 above).       



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