"VERILY" or "AMEN" ? WHAT DID JESUS SAY?
by Robert L. Lindsey
Everyone who has read the Gospels knows the phrase, "Verily I say unto you," or, "Verily, verily, I say unto you." -1- According to the standard English translations of the Old and New Testaments, Jesus alone is said to have used this preamble.
Most Christians, long accustomed to such expressions in the Bible, and perhaps long lulled by them, have taken for granted that "Jesus talked that way." But, for me, it was a challenge.
In my translating of the Greek of the Gospels into Hebrew, I had found that many passages in the Synoptics could be rendered verbally with almost no change of word order, with the result that a Hebrew version of that kind often shed fascinating light on the meaning of a given passage, so much so that I no longer doubted that our authors had used Greek texts which had been rendered very literally from Hebrew originals.
What at first struck me in "Verily I say onto you" was that the Greek text used the Hebrew Amen for "verily." That in itself is not altogether surprising, for elsewhere in the New Testament, notably in the Epistles of Paul, Amen often comes at the end of an expression of honor or praise of God. Paul speaks of God as the Creator "Who is blessed forever! Amen" (Rom. 1:25) and exclaims, "To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen." (I Tim. 1:17) In the Book of Revelation, honorific Amen responses appear several times. All this is in perfect accord with occasional Old Testament usage -2- and with present-day practice in the synagogue, and in all Christian churches. Perhaps Amen entered the early Greek-speaking synagogues and churches mainly on account of a predilection to keep liturgical words alive even when transferring material from one language to another. More puzzling, however, was that Amen came, or seemed to come, at the beginning of something which Jesus was quoted as saying. There are no other instances in the New or Old Testament of a statement beginning, "Amen I say to you." Amen is a response. The Psalmist writes, "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! Amen and amen." (Ps. 41:14) Before the priest gives her the "bitter water," a wife suspected of infidelity must hearken to his words and responsively add, "Amen, Amen." (Num. 5:22) Again and again we hear the phrase, "And the people all said, Amen." (Cf. Deut. 27:16-26) There is no exception in all our biblical literature, save this mode of Jesus, "Amen, I say unto you."
Many writers and commentators have noted the uniqueness of Jesus' use of Amen. The first that we know of is the author of the Revelation, who, writing of the resurrected and ascended Jesus, calls him "The Amen": "Thus saith the Amen." (Rev. 3:14) It would appear that, because Jesus was so often quoted in the Gospels as using Amen, the author felt a poetic license to use this appellative. Although, it may be surmised, not wholly comfortable with the oddity of the locution, modern commentators have accepted that the words were as unique as Jesus himself was, and one of them has popularized the idea that, since the phrase is too out of the ordinary to have been invented and put into the mouth of Jesus, most of the "Amen I say unto you" occurrences are sure evidence that we are reading his ipsissima verba. -3-
More recently, scholars have come more and more to suppose that the Gospels are mainly a collection of late re-edited sayings which were greatly changed from their original form before final redaction towards the end of the first century. Hence, they have aired the notion that the phrase is a convenient formula under which many invented sayings of Jesus were collected to preserve their authority. -4-
My experience made it very difficult to endorse any of these suggestions. If it is, indeed, possible in many cases to get back to a Hebrew original of Jesus' words simply by finding the right Hebrew equivalents to a Greek passage and putting them down in the order of the Greek text, we cannot speak of a long period in which our Gospel stories and sayings took form at the demand of a Greek-speaking Church.
Theoretically, the formula may be as fully original with Jesus as the Hebraic "behold" and "eat and drink" idioms so common in his speech. Nor would it be strange if the earliest translators of the Hebrew life of Jesus simply transliterated Amen as they wrote down their Greek text.-5-
Assuming, then, that Jesus did use Amen frequently, why should he have used it unidiomatically? We may concede that even our Gospel writers felt that the phrase was unusual and either, as in Luke, preferred to omit the offending Amen or, as probably in Mark, inserted it in some sayings in the editorial process just because it was unusual. But to find Jesus deliberately reversing its position in speech even when he seems to be speaking an otherwise normal Hebrew strains the imagination.
I checked all the appearances of Amen in the Septuagint. It was interesting to find that, whereas in the earlier portions of the Old Testament the Jewish translators had attempted to give a Greek equivalent for Amen (often genoito, twice alethinon, once alethos),-6- they had not troubled to do so for the latest mentions, those in Nehemiah and I Chronicles. The translator of the original Hebrew texts of the Gospels may well have followed suit. This offers a precedent for the retention of Amen in the Greek text of our Gospels.
The same variation is visible in the Gospel of Luke: the author uses "Amen I say unto you" six times, but three times writes, "Alethos (truly) I say unto you."-7- Matthew, in his general parallel to three of the eleven passages in which Luke writes only "I say unto you," has, in each, "Amen, I say unto you." (Matt. 8:10; 11:11; 18:18) Since it seems certain that Matthew and Luke independently used at least one common literary source, and Matthew produces the Amen formula more than thirty times, it is a good guess that the Greek text or texts standing behind our Gospels kept the expression, "Amen I say to you," up to forty or fifty times.
I then turned to an analysis of each use of Amen in the Gospels. A first impression was that the "Amen I say to you" phrase has a kindred one--"I say to you" or "But I say to you." Matthew and Luke join in reporting that Jesus said concerning John the Baptist, "But what did you go to see, a prophet? Ah yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet." (Matt. 2:9; Luke 7:26) Here, "I tell you" is the same in Greek as "I say to you," and there is no suggestion of Amen in either Gospel. In reprimanding Chorazin and Bethsaida, both Matthew and Luke report in the same words that Jesus compared them to Tyre and Sidon, saying that Tyre and Sidon would long since have repented had those ancient cities had the miracles wrought in them which had been wrought of late in Chorazin and Bethsaida; "But I tell you, Tyre and Sidon will suffer less judgment than you in the day of judgment." There are many "I tell you" or "I say to you" sayings.
Parallels to the expressions "And I say" and "But I say" have been found in rabbinic literature-8- and, in the contexts, a statement attributed to another rabbi will often be contrasted with one introduced by "But I say" or "And I say." However, there does not appear to be a complete rabbinic parallel to "I say to you" or--certainly--to "Amen I say to you."
Hardly less intriguing, and perhaps more decisive as a clue, is that both "I say unto you" and "Amen I say unto you" regularly occur in the Gospels, not at the beginning of a logion, but in the middle of an extended series of sentences. In the Parable of the Unjust Steward, Jesus says that the "sons of this age are wiser than the sons of light" and adds, "and I say unto you, make yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness." (Luke 16:9) In a short logion, he says, "See that you look not down on one of these little ones. I tell you that their angels in heaven do always behold the face of my father." (Matt. 8:10) "Blessed are those servants," says Jesus, "who stand watching when their Lord comes," and adds, "Amen, I say to you that he shall gird himself up, and cause them to sit at table and then go about serving them." (Luke 12:37) In these and many other examples, "I say to you" or "Amen I say to you" both serve the purpose of providing a speech formula by which an additional emphasis or piece of information can be joined to an earlier statement.
Is there, in fact, any difference in the function of these outwardly different expressions? After all, if you remove the Amen from the one phrase, you have exactly the same words left as are found in the other: "I say to you." Patently, the Amen either acts like the adverb "truly" to strengthen "I say to you," or somehow stands on its own and is unlinked syntactically to "I say to you." It is clear that Luke, at least, has decided that the first possibility is the more likely and therefore has not hesitated at times to use alethos (truly) in place of Amen.
But the second possibility also exists, particularly if there is good reason to think that the appearance of Amen in our Greek texts is an untranslated Hebraism. It has been retained because it had become popular and understandable in Greek-speaking synagogues
and churches. In other words, it is possible that we should read Amen as the response that it normally is, and separate it from "I say to you" by placing a full stop after it.-9-
In my search for clues to explain the Amen formula, I did not at first see the connection between "I tell you" and "Amen I tell you." I was induced to conjecture that Amen was still a response by observing that its normal position was not at the beginning of a saying but after a strong statement, and that the following "I say to you" introduced an additional sentence of emphasis and confirmation. The Amen was, therefore, a way of reinforcing the original affirmation, and "I tell you" added a further point of stress.
Carefully studied, it will be seen that the Amen occurrences normally show the following pattern: Original Strong Statement--Amen--Further Confirming Statement.
This is particularly evident in Jesus' makarioi (blessed) sayings.
Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Amen! I tell you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see and to hear what you hear and did not hear it. (Matt. 13:16-17 [cf. Luke 10:23])
Blessed is that servant whom his master when he comes will find so doing. Amen! I tell you, he will set him over all his possessions. (Matt. 24:46 [cf. Luke 12:43])
Blessed are those servants whose Lord shall find them watching. Amen! I tell you that he will gird himself and make them to sit down at table and will come and serve them. (Luke 12:37)
These are undoubted examples of the Strong Statement--Amen--Confirming Statement pattern, and the use of the Hebraic makarios almost as an expletive underlines the claim that a strong affirmation introduces the formula.
In more than one example, another speaker affirms strongly and Jesus responds with "Amen," going on to add, "I tell you." Matthew (21:28-29) recounts the story of the Two Sons. One son tells his father that he will not do a certain thing the father requested but changes his mind and does it. The second son says he will obey a certain thing the father orders but does not do it. Jesus asks, "Who of the two did the father's will?" The listeners answer, "The first." Jesus then says, "Amen! I tell you, the publicans and harlots enter into the kingdom of God before you!" (Cf. Luke 18:28-29 and 23:43)
The explanation that Amen appears here as a response is very convincing. If there were no Amen, and "I tell you" were used alone, it would hardly be so; by saying "Amen!", Jesus responds like the conversationalist and teacher that he is.
On one occasion, Amen appears as the reaction to something impressive. In the story that we call The Widow's Mite, Luke (21:1-4 [cf. Mark 12:41-44]) describes Jesus watching with his disciples near the treasure bin in the Temple as the affluent pass by to make their gifts. A widow drops in her "mite." The story says simply, "And he said, Truly I say to you, this widow has put in more than all the rest, for all of these have contributed out of plenty but she out of poverty." The original response must have been simply, "Amen! I tell you that she has given more than all..."
In the light of this illustration, we should widen our pattern of the Amens of Jesus. There is no conversation between the widow and Jesus. Jesus prefaces his Amen not with strong words but with an account of something seen. The pattern becomes: Strong Statement or Significant Action--Amen!--Further Confirming Statement.
Almost every utterance of Amen in Jesus' sayings will be found to conform. All the Lukan and most of the Matthaean instances fit. Two or three in the Gospel of Mark are without an introductory statement and Matthew usually follows Mark there. It is probably because Mark is freer towards his texts and Matthew tends constantly to copy him even when his parallel source disagrees textually. In John, the formula has been extended to Amen, Amen, and Amen is clearly thought of as adverbial, the repetition being a means of dramatizing. The fact that in John no introductory statement or action is necessary again exemplifies that author's method of picking out a Synoptic literary device and enlarging its
use without conserving original contexts.
Fascinating, perhaps even amusing, is a kind of ironic use of the formula, found once in Luke and twice in Matthew. The Matthaean examples are connected with the phrase, "they have their reward" (Matt. 6:2,5). In the first, Jesus teaches how one should not give alms. "Do not be like the hypocrites, sounding a trumpet in front of you so men will praise you." Then comes Amen, and Jesus adds, "I tell you, they have their reward already." In the second, he warns his hearers not to pray like the hypocrites, "on the corners of the streets, so they will be seen by men." Once more Amen and "I tell you, they have their reward already!"
To think that Jesus would have used this strong Amen almost in mockery seems at first somewhat curious. It could be argued that Matthew added Amen to "I tell you" by analogy. But in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke is a remarkable episode in which this ironic nuance can scarcely be absent. It is just possible that this, as a rule called the Lukan story of the Rejection in Nazareth, provides the final clue to the origin of Jesus' use of the pattern. It is a superb example of Hebrew narrative. As so often in Luke, the literal translation of the Greek text into Hebrew yields a passage brim full of Hebrew idioms, proverbs, and ways of thought. It appears as the first event of Jesus' ministry in Galilee. There is, therefore, good reason to suppose that Luke placed it here (Luke 4:16-30) as an introduction to the teaching of Jesus concerning his entire mission. Jesus comes to
Nazareth and goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath day "as was his custom." He is given the Book of Isaiah and reads from it:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good tidings to the afflicted;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor... (Is. 61:1-2)
From the rabbinic literature, we know that the verse was considered a prophecy of the coming Son of David, because of its use of the word "anointed" ("Messiah" being, literally, "the Anointed One"). It was a bold claim when Jesus announced to his listeners that the prophecy had been "fulfilled today in your ears." Little more of what he said about himself is narrated but he must have spoken at some length, for the crowd is said to have marveled "at the words of grace which proceeded from his mouth." At the same time, the crowd appears to have been more intrigued than affected, remarking that Jesus is, "after all, just Joseph's son."
Jesus retorted, "You will doubtless quote me the parable, 'Physician, heal yourself.' What we have heard you have been doing in Capernaum, do here too." Then he said, "Amen! I tell you, no man is a prophet in his own town." He ended by suggesting that, just as Elijah and Elisha worked miracles of healing and feeding for outsiders only, so his own miracles would be limited to the people beyond the confines of his own village.
As in so many stories in the Gospels, Jesus' preoccupation with the writings and works of the Old Testament prophets is striking, and it is perhaps not astonishing to find a parallel to his way of speaking in an incident in the twenty-eighth chapter of Jeremiah. In verses 1-11 we learn that the prophet Hananiah of Gibeon appeared before Jeremiah and "the priests and all the people" and dramatically declared that the recently exiled Judaeans, together with the captured vessels of the Temple, would soon be sent back to Jerusalem. Such a promise ran contrary to the message of Jeremiah, who answered: "Amen! May the Lord do so! May the Lord make the words which you have promised come true, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord and all the exiles." Jeremiah then corrected Hananiah's false prophecy by using the phrase, "But hear the words I speak in your ears."
The parallels are too close to be accidental. Jeremiah talks "in the ears" of the people; Jesus says the Scripture is fulfilled "in your ears!" Jeremiah can say Amen to a prophecy that he wishes would come true but knows will not; Jesus can say Amen to a hope of the working of miracles in Nazareth although he knows that he must deny it. Jeremiah counters the words of the false prophet with his own "I speak"; Jesus counters the false hopes of the inquisitive with his own "I tell you." The ironic use of Amen by both suggests that Jesus deliberately adopted the pattern of Amen and "I tell you" from the almost exactly similar speech pattern of Jeremiah.
I submit, then that the word Amen, which appears again and again in the Greek texts of our Gospels, is a transliterated Hebrew expression used by Jesus as a response, and that the "I tell you" which invariably follows was added by Jesus to introduce a new affirmation designed to strengthen in some way the original purpose for which the Amen was uttered. The contention that Jesus used "Amen I say to you" as a phrase characterized by an adverbial Amen is untenable, but it remains true that, when he said "Amen!" and added "I tell you," Jesus was adopting a prophetic speech mode known from the example of the prophet Jeremiah, and we may infer that he wished his adherents and listeners to understand that this device of speech matched his prophetic career and messianic claims.
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Dr. Robert Lindsey's preparation for biblical research began when his local pastor in Norman, Oklahoma, encouraged him to study Greek and Hebrew for a deeper understanding of Scripture. Dr. Lindsey pursued his studies at the University of Oklahoma, where he earned a B.A. degree in Classical Greek, and he continued to concentrate in classical languages and biblical studies during his graduate career at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Princeton School of Divinity.
He first came to Israel in 1939, spending fifteen months acquainting himself with the country and people, and refining his knowledge of the Hebrew language. This initial exposure to the Hebrew Scriptures in their natural setting marked the beginning of a long and remarkable career in biblical research. He returned to Israel to serve as pastor of the Narkis Street Baptist Congregation in West Jerusalem from 1945-52. After completing his doctorate in the United States in 1954, he resumed his work with the church in Israel, eventually coming back to the Baptist Congregation in Jerusalem where he continued to serve until just recently.
In addition to his work as a pastor, Dr. Lindsey has distinguished himself in New Testament scholarship, focusing particularly on the Gospels and working closely with leading Israeli Jewish scholars in the field. His years of carefully studying the Greek texts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke have revealed their profoundly Hebraic character, and led Dr. Lindsey to conclude that it is possible to form a far more reliable picture of the person and life of Jesus than is commonly held by scholars today.
A number of other Christian and Jewish biblical scholars in Jerusalem have joined Dr. Lindsey in forming the Jerusalem School for the Study of the Synoptic Gospels, which is dedicated to tracing Christianity back to its original Hebraic roots. The Jerusalem School's current project is the preparation of a verse-by-verse commentary on the synoptic Gospels which will reflect the renewed insight provided by a Hebraic perspective
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-1- The latter phrase appears only in the Gospel of John.
-2- For example, Deuteronomy 27:15 and I Chronicles 16:36.
-3- Cf. J. Jeremias, Neutestamentliche Theologie, pgs 43, 44.
-4- Cf. V. Hasler, Amen, pg 177ff in particular.
-5- The word Gehenna (hell), used throughout the Gospels, is clearly such a case, from the Hebrew Ge ben Hinnom, "Valley of the son of Hinnom." RETURN
-6- genito -- "let it be so;" RETURN
-7- Mark gives Amen in each of his parallels to Luke's alethos. RETURN
-8- Cf. Morton Smith, Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels, pgs 25-29. RETURN
-9- In early Greek manuscripts, to be sure, there was no period to mark the end of a sentence, and words were not divided, so that there is nothing to prevent us from adopting for this usage whatever punctuation the facts may demand. RETURN
Yavo Digest Vol. 2, No. 1, 1988
Bible Scholars -- Question the Answers
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