A Reflective Christian

All for God’s Kingdom

Matthew 19:16-17 and the Gospels’ sources

In Matthew 19:16-17, we have a very interesting passage, that starts out the narrative of the rich young ruler. What makes this passage interesting is that it is different from the other two parallels in the other two synoptics, Mark and Luke.

Matthew 19:16 portrays the ruler asking Jesus asking about what “good thing” he should do. Mark 10:17 and and Luke 18:18 call Jesus “Good teacher.” And we move forward to Jesus’ response, in Matthew’s account, it has him asking the ruler why he is asking him about what is good to do. Whereas Mark and Luke have Jesus asking why the ruler attributing Jesus with the description of being good. And in all three accounts, Jesus says “None is good but God.” (although Matthew refers to “the One” rather than “God”).

More skeptical scholars would perhaps explain this due to later influence trying to preserve Jesus divine status in Matthew. However, there is a much better explanation that accords with information we do have already.  The divergence in the accounts can be attributed to a certain type of Hebraism associated with the use of the genitive.

First off, if the story is genuine, the conversation had between Jesus and the rich young ruler would have in all likelihood happened in Hebrew/Aramaic, not Greek. So somewhere between the story and the gospels as we have them, there would have to have been a translation from Hebrew/Aramaic to Greek. And if there was a translation from it, it is not at all unfeasible that there could have been a couple different translations of the original version to Greek.

Supposing in the original language (or at least recording(s)), the rich young ruler use the genitive noun for good to describe teacher. A basic translation of it would turn out to be “Teacher of good.” One way of interpreting it is to say that the rich young ruler was referring to Jesus as a Teacher who taught about good things. We would call this the objective genitive, where the genitive noun is kind of a direct object of the head noun, when the head noun has an implied action behind it. And the word “teacher” implies the act of teaching. Using this, the rich young ruler could have been interpreted as referring to Jesus as “One who teachers about what is good.”

However, there is another possible way it could be translated, with the Hebrew genitive. The Hebrew genitive used the genitive to attribute a certain characteristic to the head noun. So, in other words, “teacher of good” could be interpreted as “good teacher” or “teacher that is good.”

Matthew and Mark/Luke both take upon these type of interpretations of the rich young ruler, respectively. Matthew’s ruler sees Jesus as the teacher of good things, wheras Mark’s and Luke’s ruler sees Jesus as the teacher who is a good (or righteous) person. So, we have a fairly simple explanation that doesn’t require skepticism and/or certain unproven historical assumptions to make sense of the diverging accounts.

But there is one difficult with the genitive theory. Why didn’t Matthew’s description have the ruler calling Jesus something along the lines of “a teacher about good things” instead of shifting the adjective to the actions to be perscribed? This we can not answer with any certainty. Perhaps he was trying to offer an account that was different form the interpretation that Mark and Luke used and wanted to show a definitively different interpretation. Or maybe he felt that it would make more sense to his readers, if the question is about the good things one is to do, to dynamically render it as he did. This we can not know for certain, but there are plausible explanations, so we need not have to make this difficulty as reason for rejection.

If all that I have said so far is true, it can lead us to make some educated speculations about the sources behind the synoptics (at least for this narrative in question).

1) It requires there to be a translation into the Greek, from a Hebrew or Aramaic source. This would fit with what Papais wrote: “Matthew put together the oracles in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.” (Papias Fragment VI).

2) We must likely conclude the source for Matthew, Mark, and Luke was indeed one source at a certain time, since the basic structure of the narrative in all accounts are the same, and the language is similar or can be argued to be from the same basic language.

3) Since the form and basic narrative is the same, the source can not be from the hypothetical Q source, but it must come from a source that has Jesus’ sayings supplied along with the narrative.

4) There had to be two different basic translations, one for Matthew, and one for Mark and Luke.

5) Matthew’s account reflects a translation from a text. The different words and phrases do not reflect an oral tradition which would tend towards a more condensed account.

6) Matthew’s account reflects a Hebrew influence, indicating likely Matthew translated or used a source that translated form an original Aramaic account. For instance the Greek for “complete” (“If you wish to be complete”) is teleiois, which is used throughout the LXX (see Genesis 6:9, Exodus 12:5, Deuteronomy 18:13).

7) Mark and Luke’s account reflects an oral tradition. The language is more condensed. There are also minor divergences in the language of the two accounts.

8 ) Mark and Luke’s account has “One thing you lack…” instead of “If you wish to be complete…” indicating less of a Hebrew influence upon the oral tradition. Perhaps, the oral tradition that had less off a Hebrew influence didn’t see the Hebrew significance of teleiois, and thus translated it in terms of lack.

9) Tradition also associates Mark and Luke with Peter and Paul respectively, both of whom either tradition and/or sources indicated were involved with areas outside of Israel (for instance, Peter founding the church in Rome). Also, Mark is also associated with Barnabas, another apostle to the Gentiles. Thus, Mark and Luke could have gotten their source from Gentile oral tradition (or at least an oral tradition that was then written down afterwards).

So, here we have a theory of sources that makes sense of tradition, makes logical sense, is fairly simple, explains the divergences and similarities, and isn’t entirely based upon a single unfounded historical assumption to explain the divergence. Doesn’t make it right for sure, but it is enough for me to cast doubt on a Q source or assume there was an disingenuous rendition and/or manipulative motive behind the gospel accounts.


October 4, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment