Friday, 22 April 2011

The historical Jesus reconstructed - Part 4: Miscellaneous traditions


A lawyer invited Yeshua to dine with him. Yeshua went to his house and took his place at the table. A woman who was a notorious sinner learned that he was dining at the lawyer’s house and went to see him, taking with her an alabaster flask of ointment. She knelt behind him, weeping, and began to wet his feet with her tears and to kiss them, to wipe them with her hair and to anoint them with the ointment. When the lawyer saw what was happening, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who this is who is touching him and what sort of woman she is.’ Yeshua said to him, ‘Shimeon, I have something to say to you’. ‘What is it, Teacher?’ he replied. ‘There was a creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled both their debts. Which of them would love him more?’ Shimeon answered, ‘The one who had owed him more, I suppose’. Yeshua said to him, ‘You are right’. Then he said to the lawyer, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house and you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not kiss me, but since I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has washed my feet with ointment. I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, and she has loved much.’ (Lk. 7.36-47)

Two salient features of Jesus’ teaching are illustrated here: firstly, his concern for members of social out-groups; and secondly, his conviction that forgiveness is readily accessible to those with a repentant heart. The dialogue between Jesus and Shimeon/Simon has perhaps been introduced into this story secondarily.

‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of your property that falls to me”, and his father did so. A few days later, the son gathered all he had and journeyed to a far country, where he squandered his property in loose living. When he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to suffer poverty, so he went and entered the service of one of the people of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed his pigs. He would gladly have eaten the pods that the pigs ate, but no-one gave him anything. When he had come to his right mind, he said to himself, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have enough bread and more to spare while I am dying here of hunger? I will leave this place and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son: treat me as one of your hired servants.” And he departed and went to his father. But while he was still at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion on him. He ran and embraced him and kissed him, and his son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But his father said to the servants, “Quick, bring the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and shoes on his feet, and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry. This son of mine was dead, and he is alive again. He was lost, and he is found.”’ (Lk. 15.11-24)

There are parallels to this famous story in Babylonian and Canaanite literature, as well as in Indian texts and ancient Greek papyri.

‘If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that has strayed? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. In the same way, it is not the will of my Father in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. What woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and look diligently until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, and says, “Rejoice with me: I have found the coin which I had lost!”. In the same way, I tell you, the angels of God rejoice over one sinner who repents.’ (Lk. 15.4-10 etc.)

‘Two men went up into the temple to pray; one of them was a lawyer and the other a tax-collector. The lawyer stood and prayed like this, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, adulterers, the unjust, or like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week and give tithes of all that I earn.’ But the tax-collector stood far off, and would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, that man went back to his house forgiven, not the lawyer.’ (Lk. 18.10-14)

‘If you forgive other people their sins, your Father in heaven will forgive you, but if you do not forgive other people their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins either.’ (Mt. 6.14f)

‘Whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins too.’ (Mk. 11.25)

Kepha went to Yeshua and asked him, ‘Master, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’. Yeshua said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven times’. (Mt. 18.21f etc.)

According to the Talmud, the rabbis taught that it was sufficient to offer forgiveness three times - which seems quite reasonable. Here, Jesus tells Peter that the values of the Kingdom require a superabundance of forgiveness, to match the boundless forgiveness of the Father. Seven in the Bible signifies completeness, and seventy-seven represents perfect completeness (cf. Gen. 4.24).

General ethical directives

‘Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and rust consume it and where thieves break in and steal it. No: lay up treasures for yourselves in heaven, where neither moths nor rust consume it and where thieves do not break in and steal it. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be too.’ (Mt. 6.19-21 etc.)

‘There was a rich man who had much money. He said, “I shall put my money to use by sowing, reaping, planting, and filling my storehouse with produce, so that I shall lack nothing”. That is what he intended, but that same night he died. Let him who has ears hear.’ (Lk. 12.16-20)

The sentiment is paralleled in 1 Enoch 97.8-10.

‘Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. No, fear him who has the power to throw both body and soul into hell.’ (Mt. 10.28 etc.)

Who ‘he’ is has been debated. God is the most obvious answer, but it is quite plausible that Jesus is referring to Satan. It is possible that this saying emerged from the early Christian community, worried about defections during a time of persecution.

‘Beware of practicing your piety in front of people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So, when you give alms, do not sound a trumpet in front of you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they will be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. Instead, when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your almsgiving may be done in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites: they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they will be seen by people. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. Instead, when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites: they put on grim faces so that people will see that they are fasting. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. Instead, when you fast, put oil on your hair and wash your face, so that your fasting will not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’ (Mt. 6.1-18)

‘Beware of the lawyers who like to go about in long robes and be greeted in the market-places and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts - who devour widows’ houses and make long, hypocritical prayers. Their condemnation will be all the greater.’ (Mk. 12.38-40 etc.)

‘When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or your rich neighbours, in case they also invite you in return and repay you. No, when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.’ (Lk. 14.12-14)

‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honour, in case someone more eminent than you has also been invited. Then the man who invited you both will come and say to you, “Give your place to this man”, and in shame you will take the lowest place. No, when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, “Friend, go up higher”. Then you will be honoured in front of everyone who is at the table with you.’ (Lk. 14.8-10)

When Yeshua reached his house in Kfar Nahum, he asked his disciples, ‘What were you discussing on the journey?’. They did not reply, since on the journey they had been discussing amongst themselves which of them was the greatest. Yeshua sat down, called the Twelve together, and said to them, ‘If any of you wants to be first, he must be last of all and servant of all’. (Mk. 9.33-37 etc.)

‘Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? And how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye!’ (Mt. 7.3-5 etc.)

The Talmud quotes a very close parallel from the first-century Rabbi Tarphon: ‘If one says, “Take the speck from your eye”, he answers, “Take the log from your own eye”’ (Arachin 16b).

Yeshua sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowds of people putting money in. Many rich people put in large sums, but a poor widow came and put in two copper coins worth one penny. Yeshua called his disciples to him, and said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are putting money into the treasury. They all contributed out of their wealth, but out of her poverty she has put in everything she had, her whole livelihood.’ (Mk. 12.41-44 etc.)

‘No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.’ (Mt. 6.24 etc.)

‘He who gives is more blessed than he who receives.’ (Acts 20.35)

‘Be merciful, as your Father is merciful.’ (Lk. 6.36)

On God as merciful, see in the OT Ex. 24.6, Deut. 4.31, Joel 2.13 and Jon. 4.2.

‘Whoever causes one of these little ones to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.’ (Mk. 9.42 etc.)

‘See that you do not despise any of these little ones, for I tell you that in heaven their angels are constantly before the face of my Father.’ (Mt. 18.10)

Jesus here enunciates a belief that was widespread in contemporary Judaism.

‘The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. And if the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!’ (Mt. 6.22f etc.)

In the OT, to have a healthy eye meant to be generous. It is not certain, however, how far this meaning is to be pressed here.

‘Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’ (Mk. 9.50)

‘Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its taste be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot.’ (Mt. 15.13 etc.)

Faith and prayer

‘I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, about what you are going to eat or what you are going to drink, nor about your body and how you shall clothe yourselves. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they do not sow or reap or gather crops into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not more valuable than them? Look at the lilies of the field, and how they grow. They neither labour nor spin, yet, I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not decked out like one of them. If this is how God clothes the plants of the field, which are alive today and are thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not take all the more care to clothe you, you men of little faith?’ (Mt. 6.25-30 etc.)

‘Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Let today’s troubles be enough for today.’ (Mt. 6.34)

‘Which of you can add one cubit to the length of his life by being anxious?’ (Mt. 6.27 etc.)

‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unless your Father wills it. So do not be afraid: you are worth more than many sparrows. Even the hairs of your head are numbered.’ (Mt. 10.29-31 etc.)

‘Truly, I say to you, if anyone says to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea”, and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.’ (Mk. 11.23 etc.)

‘If you had faith as small as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted, and be planted in the sea’, and it would obey you.’ (Lk. 17.6 etc.)

‘I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.’ (Mk. 11.24 etc.)

‘Which of you who has a friend who will go to him at midnight and say, “My friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey and I have nothing to put before him”? The answer comes from inside, “Don’t bother me! The door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even if he does not want to get up and give him anything, because the other man is his friend, he will get up and give him whatever he needs because of his persistence.’ (Lk. 11.5-8)

‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected men. There was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, “Give me justice against my enemy”. For a while he refused, but then he said to himself, “I neither fear God nor respect men, but nonetheless, because this widow is pestering me, I will give her justice, or she will wear me out by her continual bothering”.’ (Lk. 18.2-5)

‘Which of you, if his son asks you for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If, then, you, who are sinners, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!’ (Mt. 7.9-11 etc.)

‘Ask, and it will be given to you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who seeks finds, and to everyone who knocks the door will be opened.’ (Mt. 7.7f etc.)

‘When you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the gentiles do: they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray, then, like this: “Our Father in heaven, may your name be held holy. May your kingdom come. May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us the food we need for today, and forgive us our debts just as we have forgiven our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the Evil One.”’ (Mt. 6.7-13 etc.)

It has often been remarked that the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer is very similar to the great Jewish prayer known as the Kaddish: ‘Glorified and sanctified be God's great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon’. The reference to the Name of God is strongly redolent of OT language. The references to temptation (peirasmós in Greek) and deliverance from the Evil One have been thought to have an eschatological flavour: they may relate to events to take place at the end of time rather than to ongoing temptations.

Sayings about his mission

Yeshua came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. On Shabbat, he began to teach in the synagogue. Many of those who heard him were astonished, and said, ‘Where did this man get all this from? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? Is this not the carpenter, the son of Miryam and the brother of Yakov and Yosef and Yehuda and Shimeon, and are not his sisters here with us?’. And they took offence at him. Yeshua said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honour, except in his own country and in his own house’. (Mk. 6.1-5 etc.)

Yohanan’s disciples were fasting, and people came and said to Yeshua, ‘Why are Yohanan’s disciples fasting, but not yours?’ Yeshua said to them, ‘Can the guests at a wedding fast while the bridegroom is with them?’. (Mk. 2.18f etc.)

Yeshua was sitting at dinner in his house with his disciples, and many tax-collectors and sinners were dining with them. The lawyers saw what was happening, and said to his disciples, ‘Why is he eating with tax collectors and sinners?’. When Yeshua heard what they were asking, he said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’ (Mk. 2.17 etc.)

‘This man has come to seek and to save the lost.’ (Lk. 19.10)

‘This man came not to be served but to serve.’ (Mk. 10.45 etc.)

‘I will destroy this temple which has been made by hands, and in three days I will build another, not made by hands.’ (Mk. 14.58 etc.)

In John, this saying appears as ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up’ (2.19). It offers a rare glimpse into Jesus’ own perception of the part that he would play in the end times. I suggest that Jesus believed that, with the coming of the Kingdom in its fullness and the passing away of the present age, certain existing places and institutions on earth would be transformed into or replaced by perfect God-made equivalents. One such place or institution was the Temple, and Jesus saw himself as having a central role in its replacement or transformation.

Miscellaneous sayings

‘Everyone who hears my words and acts upon them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock: the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon the house, but it did not fall, because it had been built on the rock. And everyone who hears my words and does not act upon them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand: the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against the house, and it fell with a great fall.’ (Mt. 7.24-27 etc.)

‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and the clever and revealed them to children.’ (Mt. 11.25 etc.)

‘Why does this generation look for a sign? It is an evil generation, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah became a sign to the men of Nineveh, so will this man be to this generation. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will arise at the judgement with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here.’ (Mt. 12.39-42 etc.)

‘Something greater than Solomon’ probably refers to Jesus himself, though it may perhaps refer to the Kingdom. As usual, Jesus fights shy of saying explicitly, ‘I am greater than Solomon (or Jonah)’.

‘You sons of vipers! How can you speak good when you are bad? The mouth speaks out of the treasure-house of the heart. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the bad man out of his bad treasure brings forth bad.’ (Mt. 12.34f)

The Perushim and the Herodians sent some of their men to trap Yeshua. They came to him and said, ‘Teacher, we know that you speak the truth and have no care for any man’s opinion: you do not respect the position of men, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?’ He saw through their pretence, and said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a coin, and let me look at it.’ They brought one, and he said to them, ‘Whose portrait and inscription is this?’. They said to him, ‘The Emperor’s’. Yeshua said to them, ‘Give to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and to God what belongs to God’. (Mk. 12.13-17 etc.)

Some Zaddukim, who say that there is no resurrection, came to Yeshua, and asked him a question. ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but leaves no child, the man must take the wife and raise up children for his brother. There were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and when he died left no children; and the second took her, and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise; and the seven left no children. Eventually, the woman also died. In the resurrection, whose wife will she be? For all seven men had her as their wife.’ Yeshua said to them, ‘You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. When they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.’ (Mk. 12.18-25 etc.)

‘Wisdom is justified by her children.’ (Lk. 7.35 etc.)

In Matthew, this saying appears as ‘Wisdom is justified by her deeds’, a formulation which is probably secondary and which tends to identify Jesus himself as Wisdom. The Lucan version is significantly different - if Jesus applied the saying to himself, which is not unlikely, he was identifying himself as a child of Wisdom. Of course, he may not have been referring to himself. For children of Wisdom in the OT, see Ecclus. 4.11 (cf. Prov. 8.32).

‘A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully taught will be like his teacher.’ (Lk. 6.40)

‘Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit?’ (Lk. 6.39)

Yeshua said to Kepha, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ (Mt. 16.23)

A surprising and distinctive rebuke which has a ring of historicity. The original context of the admonition can probably not now be recovered.

Miscellaneous traditions

Yeshua said to the Twelve, ‘Let us go away by ourselves to somewhere deserted and rest for a while’; for many people were coming to see him, and they had no time even to eat. They went off in a boat, but many people saw them going and recognised them, and people ran ahead of them from all the villages to where they were going. As they went ashore, Yeshua saw a great crowd of people, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he taught them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a lonely place, and it is late. Send the people away, so that they can go into the countryside and the villages around here and buy themselves something to eat.’ But Yeshua replied, ‘You give them something to eat’. They said, ‘We have no more than five loaves and two fish, unless we are to go and buy food for all these people’. Yeshua said, ‘Make them sit down in groups, about fifty each’. They did as he said, and made all the people sit down. Yeshua took the five loaves and the two fish, looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to give to the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. Everyone ate and was satisfied, and the disciples collected twelve baskets full of broken pieces of bread and fish. The people who ate the loaves and the fish numbered five thousand. (Mk. 6.30-44 etc.)

Because of the resemblance of this episode to a story told about the ancient Israelite prophet Elisha at 2 Kgs. 4.42-44, and because it does not resemble any of Jesus’ other miracles, some have doubted its historicity - perhaps correctly. It should not be dismissed out of hand, however, not least because it is one of few reports about Jesus’ ministry to appear in all four gospels. The symbolism of the meal is perhaps to be evaluated in the light of the Jewish and early Christian idea of the Messianic Banquet.