Alastair has asked me to blog about something Jesus said during His earthly ministry. This being Lent, I thought it might be good to focus on something he repeats three times during the Passion week. Thrice Jesus answers a question by su eipas “you have said (it),” or su legeis “you say (it)”. With this reply, He is answering momentous questions: “Is it I [who am to betray you], Lord?” by Judas (Mt. 26:25); “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” by the High Priest (Mt. 26:64); and “You are the king of the Jews?” by Pilate (Mt. 27:11, Mk. 15:2, Lk. 23:3, Jn. 18:37). The reply to all three is mistranslated by many Bibles as “It is as you say,” i.e. a direct affirmation of the proposition put in the question. It is amusing to look at the NKJV and find “It is as you say” – the italics indicating the translators’ supplements.
David Daube, in an article on Judas, traces Jesus’ utterance to the Hebrew ‘amarta, which Strack-Billerbeck equate with wie du sagst, so ist es: “as you say, so it is.” But this is not the true meaning of the phrase. Daube cites an episode from t. B. K. Kelim 1:6, which concerns a dispute over whether a certain entrance to the Temple had required a washing of hands and feet. After the war with Rome, Rabbi Simon the Modest, in the presence of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, professed that he used to enter that particular gate without washing. “Whereupon Eliezer, a giant in learning and piety yet rudely domineering, asked him which was more esteemed, he or the High Priest. Simon kept silent. Eliezer: “You are ashamed to admit that the High Priest’s dog was more esteemed than you.” Simon: “Rabbi, you have said it.” Eliezer: “By the Temple service, they would break even the High Priest’s head with their clubs [were he to enter unwashed]; what would you do that the guard might not find you?”
R. Simon’s use of ‘amarta is a reply to Eliezer’s rude comparison of himself with the High Priest’s dog. It is a mistake to read it as “Yes, you’re absolutely right.” It is far more subtle than that: something more like, “I take no responsibility for the proposition you have just put. It came out of your mouth, not mine. To say more would be to cross a line into impropriety.”
Consider: a straight “Yep” would be absolutely inappropriate in Judas’ case. “One of you is going to betray me.” Judas: “Is it I, Rabbi?” Jesus: “Bingo.” This would be mere fatalism, not Biblical prophecy. Judas becomes a sort of Oedipus, betraying the Messiah malgré lui. But Jesus’ answer is a non-denial, not a straight affirmation. Judas will betray, but not because Jesus has compelled him.
The answers given on the witness stand before the Sanhedrin and Pilate would be less troublesome if they were reduced to “yes.” But there, too, Jesus has His reasons for evasion. Of course, Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One. And the reaction of His opponents to his use of su eipas is to treat it as a “yes.” But this is because in their eyes only a denial of His Messiahship would do. As for Pilate, N.T. Wright points out that his question is in the form of a statement: “You are the king of the Jews” – su ei ho basileus twn Ioudaiwn. The answer “Thou sayest” has a further nuance to it: You think you are asking, but you are in fact declaring. Pilate will end by writing Jesus’ title on a sign over His head.
Jesus’ answer before the Sanhedrin and Pilate is of a piece with the rest of His earthly ministry. He never denies His messiahship, but He seldom asserts it verbally. Rather, by His actions, He lets the Father and Spirit testify of Him, while He testifies of Them. Of course, He is the king of the Jews. But recall to what lengths he had gone to avoid oral professions of it. When John’s disciples asked him if He was the Coming One, “or do we wait for another”, Jesus directed them to “Tell John what you have seen and heard,” and adverted to His miracles and His preaching of the kingdom. When confronted by the Pharisees about the crowds who were hailing Him as Messiah, He replies that if they do not do it, the stones will cry out. He tells the Jews that “If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true…There is one who testifies.” What wonder then that when on the witness stand, Jesus still refuses to testify? “You will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds, and sitting at the right hand of God.” The Father will vindicate Him. He does not need to argue His way to a “not guilty” verdict.
Klaas Schilder likes to point out that though Jesus is in the dock, it is really the Sanhedrin and Pilate who are on trial. Jesus is pronouncing sentence on them. He has come to Israel and done the works of His Father. All Israel is on trial to see what she thinks of God’s anointed. Peter passed the same test with his profession: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God,” and Jesus congratulated him. But then He immediately commanded his disciples to tell no one (Mt. 16:20).
The Jews of Jesus’ day took His reticience for a “yes”: “What further need of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy.” But many modern Jews take it as a “no.” A. Kolatch, The Second Jewish Book of Why, p. 71:
Many Jewish scholars believe that Jesus considered himself a prophet only. They reject the contention of Christian scholars that when Jesus used the phrase “Son of Man” in his preaching (first mentioned in Daniel 7:13, where the Aramaic phrase bar enash is used), he was referring to himself as the Messiah. The phrase “Son of Man,” in the Jewish view, is used in the third person, and more likely than not, when Jesus used the phrase he was referring to someone other than himself. Jewish scholars also point to the fact that there is little evidence in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) – the earliest account of the life of Jesus – that Jesus regarded himself as the Messiah.
“Little evidence”?? What kind of evidence did Kolatch want? Miracles?
The trial continues to this day. Who do you say that He is?
Matt Colvin holds a PhD in Classics from Cornell University, and has published articles in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy and the Classical Quarterly. He has worked as a quarry truck driver, and a teacher at Mars Hill Academy in Cincinnati, OH (to which he will return this fall). He blogs at Fragmenta.