The True “Most Embarrassing Verse(s) in the Bible”?

The True “Most Embarrassing Verse(s) in the Bible”? October 13, 2016

Carmelite nuns. Source: WikiMedia Commons
Carmelite nuns. Source: WikiMedia Commons 


C. S. Lewis, the consummate 20th century Christian intellectual and defender of Christianity, once rather famously dubbed Mark 13:30¹ the “most embarrassing verse in the Bible.”

Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.

This line, spoken by Jesus himself, appears near the tail-end of what’s become known as the Olivet Discourse. As might be surmised, there was already contention over its meaning in Lewis’ own time. (The essay in which C. S. Lewis gave this verse its dishonorable epithet can be read in full here.)  And it’s only become more contentious in the decades since.

I’ve discussed the verse and its context numerous times,² but to summarize the problems it poses in the briefest way possible: the saying comes on the heels of Jesus’ prediction of “end of the world”-type events—some of which clearly don’t seem to have met fulfillment within the time-frame of a generation, as Jesus appears to have predicted, and thus potentially implicating Jesus as a failed apocalyptic prophet.

To be sure, although I think there are related verses that are even more problematic than Mark 13:30 itself is, it still ranks as one of the most challenging verses for Christian believers: one for which, to date, there’s been no truly convincing interpretation that’s resolved the fundamental problem here.³ Yet over the past few months, another verse—actually a series of verses—have really come into view for me as what I believe may be the most damning for Christianity, considering their implications and, particularly, the way that history’s unfolded in the wake of the first century.

A well-known episode from the New Testament gospels has Jesus embroiled in a theological dispute with the Sadducees. For those who need a little primer here, the Sadducees were a sectarian Jewish group in the Second Temple period, of some notoriety—we might even say infamy—particularly due to their denial of the eschatological resurrection of the dead: the notion that at the end of history, all dead humans would be resurrected by God in order for the wicked to be judged and for the righteous to inhabit a renewed and paradisaical earth.⁴ 

In the earliest account of Jesus’ conflict with the Sadducees, from the gospel of Mark, the stage is set with the Sadducees identified as those “who say there is no resurrection” (12:18). They then present Jesus with a challenging hypothetical scenario relating to levirate marriage—the Jewish law and practice in which, should a man die before he’s able to produce a child with his wife, the man’s brother steps in to become the husband of his widow, in hopes that they would bear children and thus carry on the lineage of the deceased man.

The scenario that the Sadducees offer is as follows:

There were seven brothers; the first married a woman and, when he died, left no children; and the second married her [=the widow] and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise; none of the seven left children. Last of all the woman herself died. In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her. (Mark 12:20-23)

In this, the Sadducees obviously seek to highlight a kind of logistical problem that they hope will expose resurrection itself as a fatally problematic notion. Yet Jesus dismisses their challenge with ease: “when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (Of course, whether angels had always truly been asexual is another issue—considering, for example, the common tradition in Second Temple Judaism that “fallen” angels had come down to earth and produced offspring with human women. But this was an extraordinary circumstance; one that precisely had to do with their leaving their heavenly dwelling.) Finally, after this, Jesus offers another more general defense of the resurrection itself—though one that, frankly, is bizarre and overall pretty unpersuasive to modern interpreters. 

The same overall episode appears in very similar form in the gospel of Matthew. Yet it’s the version of this story as it appears in the gospel of Luke that I want to focus on in the rest of this post. While the episode here in Luke unfolds in much the same way as it does in the other gospels, Jesus’ response to the Sadducees’ riddle is quite different. Only slightly modifying the translation from NRSV to conform more literally to the original Greek, Jesus’ reply reads

Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.” (Luke 20:34-36)

Now, for most interpreters throughout history—and this continues through to the present day—even though they recognize that there are obviously some differences in Jesus’ reply to the Sadducees here in Luke when compared to in the other gospels, this Lukan version is almost always understood to simply be a more expansive rephrasing of the same thing that’s said in Mark and Matthew: people might marry in this life, like the hypothetical widow who was married no less than seven times; but in the next life—in heaven, as it were—people won’t marry at all.⁵ᵃ

But in the past couple of decades, it’s been sporadically recognized that, in this, there’s been a failure to appreciate Jesus’ words as they appear here in Luke in their own right, and to really grasp their unique import.⁵ᵇ And I want to suggest that this failure comes at least partially from the neglect of contemporary (or roughly contemporary) Jewish parallels to the language used in these verses.

By way of broaching this issue, perhaps first and foremost, we might note that it’s clear that “the sons of this age” and “those who are considered worthy of a place in that age” in Luke 20:34-35 are negative counterparts of each other; but counterparts nonetheless.

On the most basic level, the word for “age” in Luke here, aiōn, is a near-perfect synonym of the Aramaic word עָלַם and Hebrew word עוֹלָם. As such, we can see the distinction between “this age” and “that age” here in Luke as identical to the same contrast that appears through early Jewish rabbinic literature, using the same synonymous word(s): עולם הזה and עולם הבא, “this age” and “the coming age”⁶—or “this world” and “the world to come,” as these are often translated. And, in fact, identical to the early Jewish usage, elsewhere in the New Testament the contrast isn’t between “this age” and “that age,” aiōn ekeinos, but between “this age” and “the coming age,” aiōn mellōn. (And for that matter, just like the Hebrew/Aramaic ע[ו]לם, Greek aiōn can similarly be used to denote both “age” and “world,” as we also find in the New Testament, e.g. in the epistle to the Hebrews.)

As mentioned, Jesus’ response in Luke 20:34-36 is typically interpreted as a mere rephrasing of the parallels to this in Mark and Matthew, in which people are said to marry in this age/world, but won’t marry in the future age/world. But when we look more closely at Luke 20:34-36, again in conjunction with its wider Jewish parallels, we realize several things. First—in a detail totally absent from Mark and Matthew—it’s unambiguous that Jesus’ response in Luke raises the issue of not just what will happen in the future age/world, but of what “deserves to” happen; or rather who deserves to live in this future age. Again, as NRSV translates it, the “sons of this age” are contrasted to “those who are considered worthy of a place in that age”; or, as the Greek text reads more literally, those considered worthy to “attain” or partake in that age.⁷

Once we acknowledge this, it’s a short step toward recognizing that in the Lukan verses themselves, this worthiness isn’t just something that’s, say, determined in hindsight from people’s presence in this future age, despite that this seems to be several prominent interpreters and translations’ understanding of the verse. (That is, in harmonizing the Lukan additions here to the parallels in Mark and Matthew, Luke 20:34-35 is then interpreted as something like “those having been deemed worthy of the age to come—once they’re indeed in the age to come—will neither marry nor be given in marriage [in the age to come].”)

In fact, when we turn toward parallels in Jewish literature relating to the idea of being deemed worthy of the age/world to come, we find that this worthiness is in fact determined by actions in this age. Dale Allison cites a wide range of rabbinic texts that explicate this concept, using nearly identical language to “those who are considered worthy of attaining ‘that’ [future] age” in Luke 20:35:

ʾAbot R. Nat. A 19 (תזכו לחיי העולם הבא, “you will be worthy of the life of the world to come”); ʾAbot R. Nat. B 29 (זכה לי לנחול . . . חיי העולם הבא, “for me to be worthy to inherit . . . the life of the world to come”); Tanḥ. Yelammedenu Tsaw 14 (“זוכה לחיי העולם הבא, “worthy of the life of the world to come”), y. Ber. 11d (7:3) (זוכה לירש העולם הזה והעולם הבא, “to be worthy of inheriting this world and the world to come”); b. ‘Erub. 54b (דתיזכי את ודרך לעלמא דאתי, “that you and your generation might be worthy of the world to come”); b. Git. 68b (זכי לעלמא דאתי, “will be worthy of the world to come”); b. B. Bat. 10b (אזכה לעעלם הבא, “that I may be worthy of the world to come”); Midr. Ps. 78:12 (זכי לעלמא דאתי, “will be worthy of the world to come”). (Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History, 195)

Interestingly, in terms of the correspondence between the respective first parts of the phrases in Luke 20:34-35—between “the sons of this age” and “those who are considered worthy of a place in that age”—we can also find similar examples of this in the Babylonian Talmud and elsewhere. For example, in b. Berakhot 4b, being a “son of the age/world to come” stands in for similar phrases like those we saw immediately above (e.g. “worthy of [the life of] the world to come”):

Whoever recites (Psalm 145:1) three times daily may be assured that he is a son of the age/world to come.⁸

At the end of the enigmatic Parable of the Unjust Steward in the 16th chapter of Luke, we come across this saying: “in dealing with their own generation, the sons of this age are more shrewd than the sons of light are” (16:8).

Whereas, with Luke 20:34-35 in mind, we might have expected that “sons of this age” would be contrasted with a group identified with “that age,” the future age—a la “sons of the age/world to come,” like in the rabbinic texts—instead we find “sons of light” standing in for this here in Luke 16:8. (Incidentally, “sons of light” is a phrase that was also used as a self-designation of a group in the Dead Sea Scrolls.)

In terms of “sons of light,” although it’s certainly possible that the idea here is that this group is quite literally destined to behold/enjoy some sort of eschatological light—which is indeed the destiny of the righteous as it’s portrayed in other texts and traditions⁹—the most important thing to note in regard to the saying in Luke 16:8 is that this verse illustrates the idea that these are two contrasting forces operating in the current age; and going along with the analogy from the Dead Sea Scrolls, we might say that these respective forces are those of light, and those of darkness (cf. also 2 Corinthians 4:4).⁹

And it’s here where all of these considerations come together to suggest that the unique teaching of Jesus in Luke 20:34-35 isn’t just suggesting that the future “age to come” is characterized by the absence of marriage/procreation,¹⁰ᵃ as in the parallel in Mark and Matthew. Instead, what was being taught in Luke 20:34-35 was that it’s the present condition of refraining from marrying/procreation in this current age that deems one worthy of this future age in the first place!¹⁰ᵇ

This is confirmed on grammatical grounds, too: we see that the actions of the worthy in Luke 20:35—oute gamousin oute gamizontai, “they neither marry nor are given in marriage”—are in present tense, not future¹⁰ᶜ; and as such this corresponds perfectly to the present actions of the inferior “sons of this age,” who do “marry and are given in marriage,” gamousin kai gamiskontai. Further—and significantly—it also corresponds to the present-tense verbs of v. 36. (Although I’m saving a full discussion of this final verse for a future post, we can safely say that v. 36 suggests a sort of present attainment and even enactment of future immortality¹¹ᵃ—a perfect parallel to how the absence of marriage which characterizes the afterlife is already to be enacted in this current life, too.)

Of course, in spite of this, I suppose it could be objected that, with Luke 20:34-36 interpreted this way, this is somewhat discordant with its actual episodic context in the gospel: Jesus is challenged by the Sadducees about marriage in the afterlife (particularly pertaining to a Jewish woman under the Law, presumably), but then he responds with a saying that talks about things that merit afterlife (and presumably aimed particularly toward the eschatological elect, including and especially Christ-followers).

And yet there’s no dispute that Jesus really does speak about worthiness here in Luke 20:35; and all other things considered, I think that the other grammatical considerations speak for themselves. That being said though, as for the apparent contextual discontinuity: we could also note that elsewhere in the gospels, we find instances in which Jesus is asked about one thing, yet in his response chooses to focus on a different aspect of the broader issue that he was asked about; or sometimes his response seems to be prompted just by some relevant “keyword” in the question (see Jesus’ response in Mark 10:27; and arguably Mark 10:18 too—though of course here he does go on to answer the actual question after this).¹¹ᵇ And this may be precisely the case when we consider—especially in light of 20:34-36’s particular orientation toward procreation as I’ve suggested—the repeated emphasis on childlessness in the Sadducees’ original question (mentioned three times in Luke 20:28-30).

In this current post, I really do want to restrict my focus just to the original context of these teachings/sayings of Jesus.

That being said, there are clearly profound theological implications to this interpretation of these Lukan verses—and they go far beyond the long-standing orthodox position that celibacy is a virtue for Christians. In fact, in many ways, it even goes beyond the suggestion that celibacy is an ideal, instead suggesting that Christian celibacy is practically a requirement for being deemed truly worthy to inherit the age to come (in sharp distinction to the other things that are more commonly understood to render one worthy of salvation).¹²

Or at least that’s how one interpretation of this revised reading of Luke 20:34-36 goes. In a follow-up post, however, I’ll suggest that perhaps the most likely reading or interpretation of this revised understanding of Luke 20:35 is that those worthy of salvation don’t feel compelled to marry/reproduce—which of course differs from the idea that their celibacy itself enacts or secures their worthiness; though it still suggests that celibacy characterizes or even identifies those who are truly worthy of salvation.¹³

In the Babylonian Talmud, we once find a tradition that

In the world to come there is no eating and no drinking, no marriage/procreation [literally being-fruitful-and-multiplying], no trading,¹⁴ no jealousy, no hatred, and no enmity; instead, the righteous sit with crowns on their heads and enjoy the splendor of the divine Presence¹⁵ (b. Berakhot 17a)

While this matches primarily with what was suggested in the original version of the Sadducean controversy episode from Mark and Matthew, focusing just on the nature of marriage in the afterlife itself, the unique Lukan version of Jesus’ response that I’ve discussed throughout this post clearly goes far beyond this tradition. And interestingly, as with our former “most embarrassing verse in the Bible,” we might also draw some specific connections here in terms of an expectation of the imminence of the fulfillment of eschatological hopes.

For example, it seems to have been precisely an expectation of an imminent eschaton that in part prompted Paul’s advice to the Corinthians to refrain from marriage, as we find it in 1 Corinthians 7; and it’s possible if not likely that at least some related material in this chapter in fact draws on an earlier eschatological source, too (“the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none…”).¹⁶

But even more intriguingly, we might also connect Luke 20:34-36—via b. Berakhot 17a, quoted above, and other texts as well—to the characterization of the eschatological second coming of Jesus as the “Son of Man,” also expected imminently by the gospel authors:

Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot: they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and sulfur from heaven and destroyed all of them—it will be like that on the day that the Son of Man is revealed. (Luke 17:26-30)

Here, as in the Talmudic text cited above, we find the elements of eating and drinking, marriage, and commerce—their absence merely characterizing the eschatological age itself in b. Berakhot 17a; yet here in Luke, all of these portrayed as sort of trivial or distracting activities in the current age.¹⁷ᵃ

This all serves to highlight the extreme ascetic dimension of several of Jesus’ teachings preserved uniquely in the gospel of Luke—which at places entails, in no uncertain terms, a negative judgment on wealth and even the continuation of economic activities themselves¹⁷ᵇ—and, perhaps most shocking to ethical norms (both ancient and modern: including, of course, otherwise quintessentially Christian norms), supports or orders an abandonment of family and procreation itself.

If there’s hesitation in affirming Luke 20:34-36’s meaning along the lines that I’ve suggested throughout this post, this is certainly lessened by reading this alongside another infamous text from Luke:

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26-27)¹⁸

Finally, looking at Luke 20:34-36 as a whole now: if we can say that the vision and expectation of the one who formulated this teaching—whoever it might have been¹⁹—was of the Christian elect being so assured of their immortality in the afterlife that they’d actually forego the typical steps to ensure what was normally thought of as an earthly “immortality” (a continuing line of descendants was often construed in this way: cf. Plato, Symp. 208e),²⁰ then the fact that this celibacy was expected to be enacted in this current life and not merely the future one might also implicitly suggest that the earliest Christians were so sure that the end of history as they knew it was upon them that, even if they stopped marrying and bearing children (and despite their small numbers, too!), they didn’t believe that this would cause any problems down the road.

To them, the world had already been called forth to a regeneration to its primeval Edenic state, without pain (especially labor pain; Genesis 3:16)²¹ or death at all—an end-point soon to be reached, and in fact proleptically enacted in the lives of the Christian elect, even now already “equal to the angels.”²²

⁂       ⁂       ⁂


[1] The same saying also appears in Matthew 24:34 and Luke 21:32; and see other parallels in Mark 9:1 and Matthew 10:23, etc.

[2] I’ve (briefly) outlined and responded to a few different apologetic explanations for this verse in particular here. I’ve discussed this verse and its context in the Olivet Discourse, as well as related matter of Biblical eschatology, in some detail here. Finally, quite recently, I’ve responded in detail to new apologetic suggestions that attempt to affirm its non-fulfillment and yet also re-contextualize it so that it doesn’t actually render Jesus a failed prophet (detailed in various essays in the volume When the Son of Man Didn’t Come: A Constructive Proposal on the Delay of the Parousia).

[3] The most common apologetic strategy in recent times has been to suggest that the events that Mark 13:30 intended to refer to didn’t include the final eschatological coming of the Son of Man and related events—the universal resurrection, etc.—but referred to the destruction of Jerusalem in particular (which indeed took place in 70 CE). The most recent defense of this can be found in Robert Stein’s Jesus, the Temple and the Coming Son of Man: A Commentary on Mark 13. But see, again, the links in Note 2 (especially this) for more on this—or, now, see the long, multi-paragraph parenthetical immediately following this sentence.

(Stein puts an inordinate weight on Mark 13:4 and its immediate context relating to the destruction of the Temple, etc., and then on the [minor] linguistic connection between this and 13:29 and 30. James Edwards follows suit, writing that the phrase “[all] these things” throughout Mark 13 is used “with reference to the destruction of the temple, not to the end of the age” [The Gospel According to Mark, 385]. Collins notes that “Mark seems to have composed the question of the disciples in v. 4 in such a way as to link the discourse of vv. 5b-37 with the anecdote of vv. 1-2.” In particular, in v. 4b, “The second part of the question anticipates the discourse itself” [Mark: A Commentary, 602]. Whatever the case, there’s plainly a disjunction between Jesus’ short prediction in 13:2 and the disciples’ two-part follow-up question in v. 4, the latter of which specifically asks about “all these things.”

We might even suggest that here in 13:4, the author of Mark has carelessly put language into the mouth of his characters: language that betrays the fact that “they”—these characters’ voices, of course, being channeled through or constructed by the Markan author himself—already know the content and outcome of Jesus’ discourse that’s to follow. We might also note the parallel between Mark 13:4 and Daniel 12:6, 8: εἰπὸν ἡμῖν πότε ταῦτα ἔσται καὶ τί τὸ σημεῖον ὅταν μέλλῃ ταῦτα συντελεῖσθαι πάντα || ἕως πότε τὸ πέρας ὧν εἴρηκας τῶν θαυμασίων . . . εἶπα κύριε τί τὰ ἔσχατα τούτων. OG Daniel 12:6 here reads πότε οὖν συντέλεια ὧν εἴρηκάς μοι τῶν θαυμαστῶν καὶ ὁ καθαρισμὸς τούτων [συντέλεια renders קֵץ]. John Markley notes that 

Marcus comments that the question about when ‘these things’ will happen “echoes one that is frequently asked in the apocalyptic literature.” He cites 4 Ezra 8:66-9:2; 4:53; 2 Bar. 25:2 as parallels (Marcus, Mark 8-16, 874). (Peter—Apocalyptic Seer: The Influence of the Apocalypse Genre on Matthew’s Portrayal of Peter, 131 n. 50)

[See also 4 Ezra 4:33. Similarly, Mark takes several other things over from Daniel rather directly, like 13:14 from Daniel 9:27/11:31/12:11 and 13:19 from Daniel 12:1; see Joel 2:2, too. For Mark 13:19, Hogeterp also cites CD-A II 17 and III 19-20 from the Dead Sea Scrolls: cf. Expectations of the End: A Comparative Traditio-Historical Study of Eschatological, Apocalyptic and Messianic Ideas in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament, 151 n. 149.]

In fact, from the very first verse in Mark 13 here, things seems pretty contrived: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” It seems like the disciples [rhetorically] build these up, practically begging Jesus to [prophetically] knock them down—which, coincidentally, is precisely what Jesus is accused of predicting quite literally in Mark 14:58. On this device in Mark 13, Joel Marcus notes, referring to relevant sources, that “The reaction of amazement at the magnificence of the Temple . . . is natural, but it also has a narrative function, namely, to prepare for the prophecy of Temple destruction in 13:2, just as the women’s question in 16:3 anticipates the description of the rolled-away stone in 16:4” [Mark 8-16, 868]. As quoted by Markley, Becker in her “Markus 13 Re-Visited” writes “In Mk 13…gestaltet Markus nicht nur die Rede Jesu, sondern auch die vorausgehenden Dialoge mit den Jünger im dramatischen Modus, so daß der Leser auch mit den Anfragen der Jünger unmittelbar konfrontiert wird” [103].

Further, especially from the close parallels in 4 Ezra [which John Markley discusses], we can clearly speak of questions like the kind we find in Mark 13:4 being sort of contrived stock invitations for another character—in the case of 4 Ezra, Uriel—to expound on some preformed idea or pre-existing block of material.

Perhaps tellingly, in Matthew’s rewrite of Mark, he replaced Mark 13:4’s contextually-awkward “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” with the more satisfactory “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” [Matthew 24:3]. In any case, what’s been suggested about Mark 13:4 itself might also further indicate that Mark draws on a prior eschatological source throughout what follows, too. As Collins notes, “It is clear that chapter 13 is composed of a variety of materials” [Mark, 598]. Perhaps there was some preceding material in an earlier source drawn from here that made 13:4’s “what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” less awkward.

In any case, this all goes to weaken the idea that 13:4 and other things relating to “[all] these things” were intended to refer specifically to Jerusalem’s destruction; and we have no reason to believe that the events of Mark 13:5-29 weren’t originally understood as a genuine eschatological discourse that went far beyond the events of the destruction of Jerusalem, and that 13:30 indeed supplies the time-frame that governs their fulfillment.

For a still incisive earlier analysis along several of the lines mentioned here, see the reprint of Kümmel’s “The Pressing Imminence of the End” in the volume The Historical Jesus in Recent Research, 195-96. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to fully consult Marcus’ commentary, Mark 8-16 [pp. 873-74 on 13:4; 911-12 on 13:30], yet. In terms of different interpretations of Mark 13:30, cf. for example Lövestam’s “The ἡ γενεὰ αὕτη Eschatology in Mark 13.30 parr”; but this has been challenged in Geddert’s Watchwords: Mark 13 in Markan Eschatology, among other studies.)

[4] Already in the early rabbinic period, the doctrine of the resurrection played a crucial role in what was construed as normative Jewish belief; and as such, it appears among Maimonides’ 13 principles of Jewish faith—a kind of creed that’s played a role somewhat like the Nicene Creed has in Christianity.

[5a] Although I don’t have full access to it, to the extent that I can tell, one of the most recent major commentaries on Luke, the 2015 one of James Edwards, actually just replicates some of his commentary on Mark 12 for his section on Luke 20:34-36. In John Carroll’s 2012 commentary, he also doesn’t seem to have advanced the discussion beyond this:

Jesus depicts the age to come (lit., “that age,” the era of the eschatological resurrection, already mentioned by Jesus in 14:14) in terms of transcendence of marriage and also of death (Luke: A Commentary, 406)

In terms of German commentaries from the past decade, I haven’t been able to consult François Bovon’s or Michael Wolter’s.

[5b] See especially Aune’s “Luke 20:34-36: A ‘Gnosticized’ Logion of Jesus?” and the discussion in Fletcher-Louis’ Luke-Acts: Angels, Christology and Soteriology. See also Seim’s “Children of the Resurrection: Perspectives on Angelic Asceticism in Luke–Acts.”

For a more complete list of commentators who’ve suggested what I argue for here, cf. Fletcher-Louis, Luke-Acts, 82 n. 234:

Preisker 1927:118-119; Diderichsen 1947; 1962; Cross 1958:73-4; Balch 1972:354; MacDonald 1987:71 n.15; D’Angelo 1990:456, cf Baumbach 1963:197-200 & Tuckett 1983:615.

See also Note 10b.

[6] For texts which explicitly have this contrast, see the examples that Dale Allison gives here, following “In like manner, m. ʾAbot 4:17; ʾAbot R. Nat. B 33; Lev. Rab. 3:1; Eccl. Rab. 4:5 declare the world to come to be of incomparable worth…”

[7] Greek tychein.

[8] כל האומר (תהלים קמה, א) תהלה לדוד בכל יום שלש פעמים מובטח לו שהוא בן העולם הבא. Compare also the Hekhalot literature (e.g.  Ma’aseh Merkavah §§547ff.), in which “The phrase son of the world to come seems to be a technical term for an individual who has successfully ascended” (Janowitz, The Poetics of Ascent: Theories of Language in a Rabbinic Ascent Text, 34 n. 11).

[9a] Cf. Isaiah 60:19; Revelation 21:23; 22:5; cf. b. Sanhedrin 100a; Genesis Rabbah 3.6.

[9b] Referring back to Luke 16:8 as above, Fletcher-Louis writes that “οἱ υἱοὶ τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου’ set over against ‘οἱ καταξιωθέντες τοῦ αἰῶνος ἐκείνου τυχεῖν’ should be read as parallel to the distinction in 16:8 between ‘οἱ υἱοὶ τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου’ and ‘οἱ υἱοὶ τοῦ φωτός'” (Luke-Acts: Angels, Christology and Soteriology, 82).

[10a] It was virtually a given for most of the relevant cultures in antiquity here that marriage was integrally connected with procreation, or even exclusively intended for this purpose. (See the discussion of what she dubs “procreationism” in Gaca’s The Making of Fornication: Eros, Ethics, and Political Reform in Greek Philosophy and Early Christianity.)

Interestingly, several manuscripts of Luke 20:34 actually explicitly include words associating marriage and procreation here: (the sons of this age) γεννῶνται καὶ γεννῶσιν, γαμοῦσιν καὶ γαμίσκονται, “are born/begotten and beget, marry and are given in marriage.” You can see this addition in photos of the 5th century Codex Bezae here; I’ve highlighted the relevant lines here.

Speaking of this addition, Aune notes that “Black argues . . . the phrase in Beza probably arose as an attempt to translate the Aramaic phrase ילידיו ומלדיו (“bear and beget children”) into Greek” (“Luke 20:34-36,” 119 n. 12), though this almost certainly goes too far.

Somov, in his dissertation “Representations of the Afterlife in Luke-Acts,” writes

Marshall indicates that the first variant [γεννῶνται καὶ γεννῶσιν only] may preserve the original text, while most of the manuscripts have been assimilated to Luke 20:35. The second variant [γεννῶνται καὶ γεννῶσιν, γαμοῦσιν καὶ γαμίσκονται] looks like a conflation. However, there is no strong evidence of this from Greek texts and the variety of wording in the Latin and Syriac texts also militates against this; see Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, 741. (139, n. 535)

[10b] Somov notes that “The idea of being accounted worthy for eternal life also occurs in Lucan writings in Luke 9:56 and Acts 13:46 (cf. 2 Thess 1:5); Evans, Saint Luke, 716″ (“Representations,” 141, n. 541).

More generally speaking, Somov can be enlisted alongside Fletcher-Louis, Aune, and Seim as a supporter of the interpretation here. As he describes at greater length, 

Luke 20:27–40, which is a modified version of Mark 12:18–27, deals with collective destiny of the righteous. Instead of the Marcan construction ὅταν . . . ἀναστῶσιν (“when they rise from the dead,” Mark 12:25) with the verb in the aorist subjunctive form Luke uses the aorist passive participle καταξιωθέντες (“considered worthy,” Luke 20:35), i.e., he transfers the future eschatological issues of 20:34–36 to the present, as if those who are worthy of being resurrected have already been raised up. Further, in 20:38b Luke makes a significant addition to Mark 12:25 with the words πάντες γὰρ αὐτῷ ζῶσιν (“for everybody is alive to him”) and puts ζάω in the present tense, since it may indicate the present, not the future, state of the patriarchs and may relate to “the present state” of the resurrection in 20:34–36.

A similar issue occurs in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32). The father declares that his son was dead and has come to life again (νεκρὸς ἦν καὶ ἀνέζησεν [ἔζησεν]; Luke 15:24, 32). This passage deals with the destiny of an individual but seems to transfer it from the postmortem state into the present (cf. also Luke 15:4-8). (78-79)

Several other recent commentators either tacitly or explicitly support these interpretations, too. Stephen Patterson writes of Luke 20:34-36 that “David Aune rightly argues that this saying speaks of persons who have already been deemed worthy (note the aorist participle, καταξιοθέντες) in this life” (“The Gospel of Thomas and Christian Beginnings” in The Gospel of Thomas and Christian Origins, 274). Lehtipuu, in his Debates Over the Resurrection of the Dead: Constructing Early Christian Identity, might be understood to tacitly support this as well, with reference to Seim:

Turid Karlsen Seim has suggested that the distinction in Luke’s version is not so much between now and then but between two groups of people: “children of this age” and “children of the resurrection.” These are two coexisting but morally different groups, such as “children of this age” and “children of light” elsewhere in Luke’s narrative. If this reading is correct, “those worthy to attain resurrection” refers to an already existing group whose members do not marry. For this reason, they can no longer die, since they are equal to angels. In the light of this reading, resurrection is something that is experienced here and now and attained by practicing a distinctive, ascetically inclined lifestyle. (52-53)

And again refer to Note 5 for a more comprehensive list of scholars who’ve proposed/supported these interpretations.

[10c] Contrast the form of Justin Martyr’s citation of this: Οὔτε γαμήσουσιν οὔτε γαμηθήσονται, ἀλλὰ ἰσάγγελοι ἔσονται… Aune writes of

The widespread “misquotation” of Luke 20:36 . . . ἰσάγγελοι of Luke 20:36 is frequently quoted as ἔσονται ὡς ἄγγελοι, or ἔσονται ἰσάγγελοι, “they shall be like angels.” (“Luke 20:34-36: A ‘Gnosticized’ Logion of Jesus?”, 126)

[11a] We might compare some texts from the gospel of John to this, e.g. John 5:24: “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” And see especially John 8:51-52.

See Note 20 for a bit more on 20:36.

[11b] Grouping sayings of Jesus simply by keyword seems to have been an editorial technique used in the gospels. For a good example of this, see Mark 9:50, which almost certainly had nothing to do with the preceding saying other than that they share a keyword.

[12] Aune expresses this pretty forcefully in his “Luke 20:34-36: A ‘Gnosticized’ Logion of Jesus?”, especially in conjunction with Gnostic and Syrian traditions; though see my comments on this further below.

[13] I suppose it could be argued that this could still be understood in light of the idea of different “tiers” of righteous individuals in the eschatological age. (On this tradition more broadly, again see Allison’s monograph here, beginning “The same idea appears with reference to paradise or the world to come in…” Further, I suppose we could also look toward the arguments in Herms, ‘Being Saved without Honor’: A Conceptual Link between 1 Corinthians 3 and 1 Enoch 50?”; though whether the text of 1 Enoch 50 that Herms relies on here truly was the original reading has been disputed: see Nickelsburg’s recent commentary.)

However, again, it might be noted that the saying in Luke 20:34-35 itself proclaims a sharp dualism, between the “sons of this age” and (in effect) the “sons of the future age”—the former engaging in normal marriage and procreation, the latter refraining from such. (Again, also recall the dualism of the “sons of light” and the “sons of darkness” from the Dead Sea Scrolls. And as I point to later, the analogy in Luke 17:26-30 suggests that normal activities of eating and drinking, marriage, and commerce characterized those who were destroyed in the flood; and if it’s fair to draw a connection here, this leaves little room for different tiers of those saved—though of course, again, see discussion of “least in the kingdom”; and see Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 5.36.1-2.)

[14] Similar to being-fruitful-and-multiplying just prior to this, this is actually a compound phrase—one that could be roughly translated as something like taking-and-giving, but particularly used to refer to commerce.

[15] העולם הבא אין בו לא אכילה ולא שתיה ולא פריה ורביה ולא משא ומתן ולא קנאה ולא שנאה ולא תחרות אלא צדיקים יושבין ועטרותיהם בראשיהם ונהנים מזיו השכינה.

[16] As is argued in Will Deming’s Paul on Marriage and Celibacy: The Hellenistic Background of 1 Corinthians 7. (More discussion of this here.)

[17a] In conjunction with this, we might also think of the Cynics. Deming notes, quoting Ragnar Höistad, that

the Cynic idea of freedom necessarily also included freedom from the responsibilities of conventional existence: “from all care about food, clothing, house, home, marriage, children, etc.; freedom from all ties which morality, law, state, and community life in general may put upon the individual.” For this reason they resolutely excluded marriage from their sphere of moral concern. (Paul on Marriage and Celibacy, 57)

See also Philo of Alexandria’s remarks here

[17b] Re: a rabbinic story that should be of interest for several reasons here (in conjunction with several gospel teachings), Allison notes that

In a story preserved in t. Pe’ah 4:18–19; y. Pe’ah 15b (1:1); b. B. Bat. 11a, a king who distributes all his possessions to the poor saves himself and stores up treasures for the world to come. (Constructing Jesus)

[18] See also Fletcher-Louis’ “Jesus Inspects His Priestly War Party (Luke 14.25-35),” which especially looks at the background of Deuteronomy 33:9 here. Joan Taylor notes of Philo on the Therapeutae that “These men leave behind their property ([De Vit. Cont.] 13) and ‘brothers/sisters (ἀδελφούς), children, wives, parents, numerous relatives…’ (18)” (“Spiritual Mothers: Philo on the Women Therapeutae”).

[19] Throughout this post (and for convenience) I’ve attributed the saying to “Jesus,” in light of the ascription in Luke’s actual narrative; but I think this is one of the clearer cases in which a gospel saying almost certainly doesn’t go back to the historical Jesus—especially considering that it’s more or less a radical reformulation of the original Markan version of the saying on which Luke presumably depends.

That being said, at the same time, Aune talks about the “independent” formulation of this saying. (Seim also notes that “The differences are such that T. Schramm, Der Markus-Stoff bei Lukas: Eine literarkritische und Redaktionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung [1971] . . . 170ff., argues that the Lukan version is based on a tradition different from Mark” [“Children of the Resurrection,” 124 n. 21 ].)

As suggested in the title of his article itself (“Luke 20:34-36: A ‘Gnosticized’ Logion of Jesus?”), Aune believes that this is a saying with something of a “Gnostic” character (at least relating to some attested Gnostic views on sexuality)—though to be more accurate, we might instead talk about an Encratite or even proto-Encratite character here. What Aune’s certainly correct to note, however, is the particularly affinity that the saying in Luke 20:34-36 has with early Syrian traditions. Incidentally, some of the sources that Aune discusses were also the most unequivocal in terms of associating salvation itself with adhering to celibacy.

[20] Especially in conjunction with Luke 20:36 (Plummer writes that the connector “means that the abolition of death involves the abolition of marriage, the purpose of which is to preserve the human race from extinction”). I’ll discuss this further in my follow-up post.

More broadly though, this understanding was known in Judaism (see Sirach 30:4-5; 40:19; 41:12-13; Gregory, Like an Everlasting Signet Ring: Generosity in the Book of Sirach, 83f.). For the time-being, we might also note in particular Philo of Alexandria, De Vita Contemplativa 68, on female Therapeutae, who seek after a different kind of immortality: 

The feast is shared by women also, most of them aged virgins, who have kept their chastity not under compulsion, like some of the Greek priestesses, but of their own free will in their ardent yearning for wisdom. Eager to have her for their life mate they have spurned the pleasures of the body and desire no mortal offspring but those immortal children which only the soul that is dear to God can bring to the birth unaided because the Father has sown in her spiritual rays enabling her to behold the verities of wisdom. (Translation by Colson)

(See on this Waters, “Saved through Childbearing: Virtues as Children in 1 Timothy 2:11-15,” and Philo’s other observations about celibate groups, quoted in the link at the end of Note 17a.)

Fletcher-Louis suggests

If it is believed that one already, before literal death and resurrection, lives the angelic life in the heavenly realm then by the same token marriage and sexual intercourse are neither necessary nor desirable. They are no longer necessary because the principal purpose of marriage in Israelite thought is the raising up of seed to bear the father’s name a kind of immortality through progeny. If an individual has already attained, by other means, his own immortality then he no longer needs children to do it form [sic: for] him. (All the Glory of Adam: Liturgical Anthropology in the Dead Sea Scrolls, 133)

[21] I simply mean here that labor pain was one of the most prominent of the curses upon Eve/women due to the Fall—and that the eschatological triumph of Christ (and Christians) invariably/ultimately meant the reverse of the Edenic curse. In particular though, see Jacques van Ruiten’s note on the use of the word ܟܐܒܐ in 2 Baruch 56.5-7:

illness (56:6e) is a common word for “grief ” and “pain”. However, it is possibly used to refer to the pain which is mentioned in connection with childbirth in Gen 3:16, since the Peshitta of Gen 3:16, 17 uses this word (k’b’) as a translation of עצב, whereas in 2 Baruch 73:7 it is used to describe “the pain” of childbirth which will be eliminated in the new aeon. (“Eve’s Pain in Childbearing? Interpretations of Gen 3:16a in Biblical and Early Jewish Texts,” 20)

2 Baruch 73.6-7 reads, in Gurtner’s translation,

And wild beasts will come from the forest and serve men, and asps and dragons will come out of their holes to subject themselves to a child. And women will no longer have pain when they bear, nor will they suffer torment when they yield the fruits of their womb.

(This continues “And it will happen in those days that the reapers will not grow tired, nor will those who build be worn out from work…”, which begins the next chapter.)

This submission of animals in 2 Baruch 73.6, although clearly ultimately indebted to traditions like Isaiah 11:6f., is particularly similar to the eschatological saying of Jesus himself found in the fragment of Papias preserved in Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.33.3-4. Cf. also the similar mention of “dew” in the Papias fragment (“will bring forth from the dew of heaven”) and in 2 Baruch 73.2 (“then healing will descend in dew”); cf. 2 Baruch 29 (“distilling the dew of health,” 29.7) as well.

Back on track, however: perhaps we should say here that texts like 2 Baruch simply differ from other traditions in assuming the continuation of childbearing, etc., in the eschaton (although, as suggested, without the accompanying labor pain). Alternatively, perhaps this is just a facet of the preliminary stages of the eschatological kingdom. Or it could be, as Nickelsburg argues—though “in perhaps too systematising a manner,” as Loader suggests—that 2 Baruch envisions different classes of righteous and rewards, and that this new earth “will not be the home of the resurrected righteous,” who instead “will ascend to heaven . . . where they will be transformed into the splendour of the angels and the stars (chapters 49-51)” (“Where is the Place of Eschatological Blessing?”, 67).

For the more general tradition of the lack of pain in the eschatological age, as well as the reversal of the Edenic curse, cf. Gilchrest, Revelation 21-22 in Light of Jewish and Greco-Roman Utopianism, 258f. Incidentally, on that note, a number of studies have (on philological and other grounds) understood Genesis 3:16 not just to be about labor pain, but about broader and more fundamental woes involved in the begetting of children themselves. Cf. somewhat recently Provan, “Pain in Childbirth? Further Thoughts on ‘An Attractive Fragment’ (1 Chronicles 4:9–10).”

[22] Here I’m referring to the adjective isangelos used in Luke 20:36. The seminal studies of angelic/angelomorphic life in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in early Christianity are those of Fletcher-Louis—again his Luke-Acts: Angels, Christology and Soteriology, as well as his All the Glory of Adam.

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