The Pharisees Ask Jesus for a Sign: A Short Study in Mark, Q, and the Synoptics

July 28, 2018

The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.” Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side. (Mark 8:11-13, NIV)

Thus spoke Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, which is probably the earliest original extant writing about Jesus’ life that I know of. He speaks very similar words in the other two Synoptic Gospels, Matthew and Luke–but with some interesting twists.

Let’s see where those twists take us…

Equivalent Passages in Matthew 12, Matthew 16, and Luke 11

First, the author of Matthew repeats much of Mark’s wording in its equivalent passage (with Mark’s wording below in bold type):

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it… (Matthew 12:38-39)

This is pretty similar to Mark, with a few minor tweaks (“teachers of the law”, “Teacher”, “wicked and adulterous”). Indeed, Luke has Jesus saying much the same thing (with Mark’s wording in bold type):

Others tested him by asking for a sign from heaven. (Luke 11:16)

The “Pharisees” have disappeared from Luke’s account–becoming “others”–but where’s the rest of the passage? Ah! It picks up again 13 verses later (with Mark’s wording below in bold type):

As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it… (Luke 11:29a)

Here there are “crowds” (which isn’t surprising), and Luke agrees with Matthew (but not with Mark) in calling Jesus’ generation “wicked” (although Luke doesn’t add “adulterous”).

But wait! Matthew repeats this passage again a few chapters later (with Mark’s wording below in bold type):

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. (Matthew 16:1)

This time, though, there are now also “Saducees”. Fair enough.

Additions in Matthew 16 and Luke 12 (NOT in Mark’s version)

Then, in the next few verses, the writer of Matthew adds some flair that’s not found in Mark’s (earlier and probably original) account (with Mark’s wording in bold type):

He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away. (Matthew 16:2-4)

Where did this flair come from? The “weather” analogy here is NOT found in Mark…but it IS found in Luke (surprisingly, NOT in the equivalent passage, but rather in the next chapter):

He said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time? (Luke 12:54-56)

Interestingly, although this passage apparently corresponds to Matthew 16:2-3 above, its wording is quite different. (Why? I don’t know.) The only overlap between the two passages is “When…, you say, ‘It…and…You know how to interpret the appearance of the…sky…you…not…interpret…time…”

(Note Luke’s addition of the word “Hypocrites!” here.)

Also interestingly, in both Matthew 12 AND Luke 11, Jesus continues speaking after saying, “none will be given it” (in BOTH accounts). This is the same place where the quotation in Mark ENDS–right before “he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side.”

The “Sign of Jonah” in Matthew 12 and Luke 11 (but NOT in Mark)

In Matthew 16 (remember, there are TWO versions of this passage in Matthew), Jesus adds, “except the sign of Jonah”–right before “Jesus then left them and went away.” He does not explain what this means before the Matthew 16 passage ends.

What, then, IS the “sign of Jonah”? Both Matthew 12 and Luke 11 explain, picking up after “none will be given it”:

…except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth*. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here. (Matthew 12:40b-42)

…except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here. (Luke 11:29b-32)

(In these two passages, I italicized the wording that’s identical in both passages and put the variant wording in bold type. None of this material is found in Mark.)

Jesus’ words in the first sentence (after “For as Jonah was”) are QUITE different in these two passages, although both obviously refer to the Ninevite prophet Jonah from the Old Testament. Here’s what that first sentence says in BOTH passages after removing the variation*:

“For as Jonah was, so will the Son of Man be.”

To me, this sounds exactly like the sort of “drop-the-mic” statement that Jesus often said (especially in the Gospel of Mark) before turning away and leaving a dumbfounded audience to argue among themselves. But what does all this mean?

A Second Source for the Authors of Matthew and Luke?

We began this study with Mark’s simple account of a conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees: they asked Jesus a provocative question, and Jesus replied–and then “left them”).

The end. Right?

No, wait! In Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of the same interaction, we see three apparent additions to the story:

  • a criticism of the Pharisees’ (in Matthew) or the crowd’s (in Luke) inability to “interpret” the “present [or “signs of the”] time[s]”;
  • a reference to the “Sign of Jonah” (in three passages); and
  • its explanation (in two of the three).

Where did these apparent additions to Mark’s passage, as perhaps re-told in both Matthew and Luke, come from–and why do they differ?

Assuming that

  • the Gospel of Mark was written before the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and
  • the authors of Matthew and Luke wrote their Gospels independently of each other,

we can form some conclusions based on comparisons of these (and, indeed, many other) similar passages found in any two or more of the three Synoptic Gospels–that is,

a) in both Matthew and Mark;
b) in both Matthew and Luke;
c) in both Mark and Luke; or
d) in all three.

For choices a and c, it’s reasonable to conclude that the authors of Matthew and Luke were writing their respective Gospels with the Gospel of Mark as a source–open on the table in front of them, so to speak. Indeed, some 97% of the verses found in Mark are reproduced in Matthew or Luke, usually verbatim (as we’ve seen here).

This conclusion would also account for option d. But what about option b, where the authors of Matthew and Luke give very similar accounts NOT found in Mark–especially considering that there’s often variance between THESE accounts, as we’ve seen here?

Examples of this type of “variant similarity” include the additions mentioned above, i.e. the “weather” analogy and the “Sign of Jonah” (and its two very similar, but not identical, explanations). Logically, these examples point to the existence of a second source of accounts of Jesus’ life.

This second source apparently no longer exists.

And now we arrive at a sentence I wrote very early on in this study, but which I’ve been pushing ever farther downward as the essay developed. I’ll just leave it here as a sort of conclusion:

I’d like to use those twists to demonstrate the previous existence of Sayings Gospel Q (an equally early writing about Jesus that is no longer extant, but much of which is preserved in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke).


* Note: Supporting my suggestion that the original saying in Matthew 12:41/Luke 11:30 above might have been the “drop-the-mic” version without further explanation, Jesus (having died on Friday evening and risen on Sunday morning) did not in fact spend “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” like Jonah did inside the “huge fish”–but rather rose again “on the third day.” (See Matthew 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; 27:64; Luke 9:22; 13:32; 18:33; 24:7; 24:21; 24:46.)

Interestingly, there’s no such “on the third day” statement in the Gospel of Mark, leaving the impression that this phrase came to us, through both Matthew and Luke, by way of the now-lost Sayings Gospel Q.

Religion and Spirituality

October 27, 2011

Religion is exoteric and spirituality is esoteric.

Religion focuses on the outer person (appearance or expression), while spirituality focuses on the inner person (thoughts, feelings, and so on).

Religion is form and spirituality is substance.

Religion imitates, but spirituality originates.

Religion fills; spirituality overflows.

Religion brings routine. Spirituality brings freedom.

Religion values ceremony. Spirituality values meaning.

Religion imposes rules. Spirituality discovers truths.

Religion says people are bad. Spirituality says they are good.

Religion empowers others. Spirituality empowers oneself.

Religion is the painting of the flower. Spirituality is the flower.

Religion looks to the past. Spirituality looks to the future.

Religion takes discipline. Spirituality takes curiosity.

Religion burdens. Spirituality lightens.

Religion persuades. Spirituality explains.

Religion fears. Spirituality seeks.

Religion defines. Spirituality expresses.

Religion teaches longsuffering. Spirituality teaches patience.

Religion takes freedom away. Spirituality affirms freedom.

Religion limits. Spirituality expands.

Religion requires the acceptance of a belief in place of experience; Spirituality requires the release of beliefs that hinder experience.

Religion is a bandage. Spirituality is the scalpel.

Religion obscures. Spirituality uncovers.

Religion is the haven of the fearful. Spirituality is the playground of the joyful.

Religion dulls. Spirituality sharpens.

Religion hushes. Spirituality laughs.

Religion cries tears of guilt and shame. Spirituality cries tears of release and joy.

Finding the Real God

September 23, 2011

If you really seek God, it’s up to you to search. God rewards those who persistently seek truth. If you persist in your search, you will find other people helping you along the way and circumstances will line up to lead you to the next step on your path.

God isn’t a dog that comes when called. God is an essential part of you that you have to uncover by clearing away all the garbage in your life that obscures your vision of God and truth.

A good first step in finding God is simply stopping and looking around. Everything here is for your benefit!

What’s blocking your view of God? Problems.

Get rid of them and see what’s left. Your problems, remember, are yours. You created them in some way, and it’s up to you to solve them. Solving them is an effective way to see (God) more clearly.

How do we know what problems to solve? Anything we value more than understanding blocks our view.

God is Love. There is no fear in Love. When you find the true God, your fears will stop dominating your thoughts and you will be free. God is in you and all around you. Look!

(Written in 2005 and freshly edited on December 19, 2016.)

Religious Morality

September 22, 2011

Is belief in a judging or punishing god necessary for people to act morally?

If you behave because of the threat of punishment in the afterlife, then yes, you need a god—or some other being outside yourself—to make the threats that reinforce your morality in this life. Indeed, the rest of us also need you to have this being, if only to protect us from your lack of morality.

But if you behave because of the good that’s already in you and which you see in others, no god is required for you to be moral.

Goodness is its own reward for you.

Many religious people, especially those of a fundamentalist bent (like I used to be years ago), would have poor morals if they didn’t fear a punishing god. They’re attracted subconsciously to the idea of such a god, which is perhaps one reason why as adults they choose to believe in it.

These folks need that fear of punishment to keep them from hurting other people. You can see this tendency expressed in their zeal to condemn others, even if it’s disguised as enthusiasm for their own cause.

If a supernatural being identifying itself as “God” appeared to me and said that raping is good and killing is okay on Sundays, I would recognize that being as not God. Some people would immediately feel free to do these things, though, because (believing the being to be the “real” God) they would no longer fear afterlife punishment as a consequence.

As with any large group, not all religious-minded people are as I described here. Many of them would continue to be moral people—even without the threat of afterlife punishment—because they already have good in them.

This is perhaps one reason why as adults they choose to believe their religion’s strong moral teachings.

(Written in 2005 and freshly edited on December 19, 2016.)

On Believing Religious Writings

September 21, 2011

To believe something is to accept it uncritically—without having direct knowledge of it through your own experience. Religions are generally based on the uncritical acceptance of written doctrines and scriptures.

As such, religious leaders don’t typically permit believers to question the origin or truthfulness of the religion’s writings. If that happened, believers would leave the religions—and religious leaders would lose their paychecks.

Religious leaders’ income depends on the continued acceptance of certain beliefs among their followers.

Religious believers defend their beliefs because they are afraid to admit being wrong. That would mean a complete change in lifestyle on top of being wrong. Anyone with strong beliefs is the same, whether religious or not.

The way out of religious-minded thinking is to replace beliefs with direct knowledge and experience of life. Lots of people have done this, and anyone who really wants this experience can have it. It can be a long road, depending on what wrong beliefs you have now.

All religions teach something good (no matter how tiny that thing might be), and they all have something bad about them, too. Still, there is such a thing as following your own path, using gems from different religious systems to help guide your way. Most people don’t do this, though, because they believe they can’t.

Instead, they accept the religion of their family or community and just go along with whatever the religious leaders and writings tell them. (This is how suicide bombers are made, by the way.)

For more spiritually mature people who have gotten tired of asking questions and not getting answers, looking inward and following your own path is often a more attractive option. It’s a lonely road sometimes, but nothing is more rewarding.

The way to start on your own path of understanding (not belief) is to think and act with extreme honesty and an open mind. The rest is almost automatic. This works because life functions in a certain way, no matter what religious writings say about it.

(Written in 2005 and freshly edited on December 19, 2016.)

Truth-Seeking, Jesus, and Spirituality

September 20, 2011

I’ve always been searching—not for a religious system to follow, but for the truths behind the ideas that have been presented to me as true. I grew up going to church, and I’ve always seen lots of true and good things in the words of Jesus. He is one of my favorite people. But I don’t think he was what they say he was.

I’ve carried 10-foot-tall crosses across town on Good Friday. I’ve baptized people. I’ve read the entire Bible (except for Numbers). I’ve laid my hands on people in prayer. I’ve studied Greek and searched the Bible for years to find the answers to my questions. I’ve studied the early history of the church and its first leaders.

All of these things I have done as an adult. I’ve found that there is a degree of truth in Christianity, but there’s also a lot that I’ve determined not to be true.

I’ve learned about other religions, too. I’ve seen some truth in most of them, and some falsehood in all of them. I won’t say that they all teach the same thing because they don’t.

I love Jesus in a way that most Christians don’t, and I seek to understand him in a way that most Christians never will. I see him as a brother and a teacher. I see him as frustrated with people, even his own disciples, because even they didn’t understand his message.

And I see his words twisted and changed—by people with their own ideas about him—to mean something that he didn’t intend.

I want to be like him in a way that most people don’t. What does it mean to be “like him”?

It means to walk a similar path to the one he walked, and to grow into the kind of person that he was—and more. Like he is supposed to have said, those who believe in him will do even greater works than he did (John 14:12). He was an example of what people can be when they seek love, God, and understanding, without seeking approval from other people who don’t understand anyway.

In other words, to me Jesus was an example of a spiritual person—a person who lives by the guidance of the Spirit within.

I’ve traveled the road of religion, and I prefer the road of the Spirit. When you trust the Spirit to guide you, you don’t need anyone else’s words or ideas to confirm what you know.

It’s a life of faith that brings you everything you need.

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