Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Saying 44


Jesus said, ‘Whoever slanders the Father will be forgiven, and whoever slanders the son will be forgiven, but whoever slanders the holy spirit will not be forgiven, neither on the earth nor in the sky.’


Thomas and the three synoptic gospels each provide a different version of this saying. A similar teaching is also given in the Didache.

Mark places it in an episode where Jesus’ enemies accuse him of being empowered by demons. The message is that attributing God’s work to demons is unforgivable blasphemy. Matthew follows Mark on this. Luke moves the saying to a passage in which Jesus warns his disciples not to publicly deny their trust in him. The context in Thomas is somewhat like the first two gospels, found in the sequence of instructions to resist the influence of the Pharisees: they blaspheme the holy spirit. The Didache says that challenging the legitimacy of a prophet ‘speaking in the spirit’ cannot be forgiven. The saying is slightly different between these five versions.

  • The Didache lacks any mention of a ‘son’. The other four versions differ on this point. Thoms says slander against the ‘son’ may be forgiven. Matthew and Luke clarify this is the ‘son of man’. Mark uniquely pluralizes both nouns in the phrase, ‘sons of men’.
  • Thomas alone mentions slander against ‘the Father’.
  • All five versions say slandering the holy spirit will never be forgiven. Thomas, Matthew, and Mark contain embellishments that mean essentially the same thing: this slander ‘will not be forgiven, neither on the earth nor in the sky’ (Thomas) or ‘neither in this age nor in the age to come’ (Matthew), because it is an ‘eternal sin’ (Mark).

The variations on the ending in Thomas, Matthew, and Mark are likely embellishments from the authors to clarify that the sin being unforgiveable is not hyperbole. Thomas’ version uniquely mentions the Father to force the reader to adopt a triadic expression of divine authority (Father, son, holy spirit). This detail may be an addition to Saying 44, reflective of a later theological development (cf. Matt 28.18–20).

The remaining detail, the variations on a ‘son’ or ‘sons’, appear to all branch out from an older form which originally said ‘a son of man’. This phrase is a generic biblical idiom which means ‘person, human, mortal’ (e.g. Num 23.19; Job 25.6; Psa 8.4; Isa 51.12; Jer 49.18; Ezek 2.1; Dan 8.17). This ‘son of man’, Jesus said, could be forgiven for any sin except one. As the ‘son of man’ phrase in Daniel 7 was interpreted by early Christians as a messianic prophecy about Jesus, each of the five authors was left trying to make sense of a saying which seemed to say Jesus was guilty of sin. Thomas changed it to slander against ‘the son’ Jesus, rather than slander from him. The Didache omits any reference to a ‘son’, possibly because the author received the saying through oral tradition which had already removed such a mention. Mark kept the ‘son of man’ idiom, but pluralized both nouns, ‘son of men’, to make it clear to readers that the idiom referred to any person who commits this slander.

The author of Matthew knew both the Didache and Mark (changing Mark’s plural ‘sons of men’ to simply ‘men’), but also knew another form. Matthew merges his sources together, giving the reader two versions of the saying, one right after the other. Luke, dependent on Matthew, kept only the second, simpler version. Comparing these differences, and considering them in light of each authors’ editorial decisions in their respective books, may reveal the earliest form of the saying. The vorlage behind all five versions may have said something like: ‘The son of man [i.e. any person] will be forgiven for his sins and slanders, but whoever slanders the holy spirit will not be forgiven.’



11.7 While a prophet is speaking in the spirit, you must not test or examine him. For every sin will be forgiven, but this sin will not be forgiven.


3.28–29 ‘Truly I tell you, sons of men will be forgiven for their sins and whatever slanders they utter, but whoever slanders the holy spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.’


12.31–32 ‘Therefore I tell you, men will be forgiven for every sin and slander, but slandering the spirit will not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the son of man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the holy spirit not be forgiven, neither in this age nor in the age to come.’


12.10 ‘And everyone who speaks a word against the son of man will be forgiven. But whoever slanders the holy spirit will not be forgiven.’

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