“He Says…They Say” — The Gospel, the Quran and the Mishna in Conversation

The assumption that sits beneath the monotheistic faith of Jews, Christians and Muslims is that God, the creator of the universe and of everything in it, has chosen, “at sundry times and divers manners,” to communicate with His human creatures. Early on the converse seems to have had a social quality, as when God strolled about Eden of an evening and chatted up Adam for a bit, but usually the communication was more portentous. God spoke up to deliver promises, threats and, most often, instruction to a humankind that was never quite up to the mark. Among the faithful the communication goes by the name of revelation, but what was principally revealed was God’s will and, to avoid misunderstanding, the message was couched in human speech.

God’s communications are not generally made to mass audiences; when the Almighty speaks it is invariably to individuals. Among the monotheists the common term for such privileged humans is “prophet,” someone who speaks on behalf of God or even in God’s own words. “See,” God says to Jeremiah, “I put My words in your mouth.” The record of what these prophets said or did forms the foundation of the sacred books that each community possesses for its own guidance and edification. The Bible, the New Testament and the Qur’an each presents God’s will, chiefly, though not exclusively—there’s a good bit of story-telling involved—in terms of what God had once said to His prophet(s).

The prophetic channels to God take on a variety of forms, as does the transcription of their contents. God may have preferred speech—his brief experiment of chiseling his thoughts in stone was not repeated –but the addressees, though not generally the prophets themselves, preferred to get it in writing. We have the results in the form of documents that record, after a fashion, Godspeech, much of it transcribed, but also translated, summarized, paraphrased or interpreted by its human editors.

What follows here are three examples of such Godspeech as it was believed to have issued from human agents and was then recorded and preserved by Christians, Muslims and Jews. The first is the collection of Jesus’ sayings called Q that is thought to lie behind the Gospels. Though it plays no part in the Christians’ own understanding of Scripture and goes unmentioned in either prayer books or homilies, it is now an essential element in contemporary efforts, Christians’ and others’, to explain both the Gospels and Jesus. The second, the Qur’an, is for Muslims the very heart and soul of revelation: it is entirely Scripture and Scripture is entirely it. Finally, in Abot, a tractate of the rabbis’ Mishna, we stand in the penumbra of Jewish revelation, where the Godspeech is being not so much reported, as Moses had done in the Torah, as echoed at a great distance.

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Contemporary speculation about the meaning and message of Jesus of Nazareth centers on a document that in fact it does not exist. How it came to be, or not be, is thus. The traditional Gospel sequence of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is fixed rather firmly in Christian consciousness, but by the late nineteenth century most of those who addressed the matter were convinced that Mark’s Gospel, the shortest, simplest and most direct, was also the earliest of the four versions of the Good News collected in the New Testament. If so, then the verses in Matthew and Luke that are identical with what is in Mark must have been borrowed from Mark: Matthew and Luke had a copy of the Greek text of Mark in front of them when they came to write their own Gospels. This is an important advance since it shows the editorial process at work in the composition of the Gospels. The Holy Spirit, whatever its gender, if it was an inspirer of the evangelists, as Christian orthodoxy had it, it was also an editor, expanding and correcting in Matthew and Luke its own previous work with Mark.

Placing the Gospels side by side has revealed something more. Matthew and Luke were helping themselves not only to Mark but to something else as well. Once you knew what to look for, it is not difficult to notice that there were 200-odd verses which they share, again, verbatim or nearly so, and which are not in Mark. It was early on concluded that there was another previously undetected source that lay beneath Matthew and Luke. No one knew what it was, but the German New Testament scholars who first detected it called this Scriptural Higgs boson, this thing that should have been there, Q for Quelle, “Source.”

If the nineteenth century discovered—or invented—Q, the late twentieth century gave it life and breath, and a great deal of importance. Its scholars extracted the shared verses and hypostatized them into a “document,” indeed, a Gospel, and proceeded to bestow upon it not only authors but a provenance, a history and an elevated significance. Q can now be found printed as a separate version of the “Good News” in editions of the “Complete Gospels.”

It is not far off the mark to call Q “gospel.” Its verses certainly found their way into the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Again, “gospel” or the “Good News” is what Jesus seems to have called his message, and Q’s verses certainly report Jesus’ message. The problem arises in calling Q a Gospel, that is, a formal literary presentation, whole and entire, of Jesus’ message. On the evidence it might seem safer to call them “Selected Sayings of Jesus of Nazareth,” for that is what they appear to be. Unlike the four Gospels in the New Testament, which embed Jesus’ sayings as reported speech in a narrative of his public career, Q’s verses are made up of sayings alone, bare of any narrative framework and, most remarkably, with no reference to Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution, which are treated at length in the Gospels, and with no mention of Jesus’ reported resurrection, the event that convinced his followers that their deceased master was indeed the Messiah of Israel and, incredibly, the Son of God.

Where, then, did these verses come from? Who originally collected them and why? The questions are pressing, but there are some preliminary issues that are pressing as well and do not always figure in the answers. First, if the verses in question were a source for Matthew and Luke and were used verbatim, they must have come to them as part of a textual source, that is, as a written document; and second, that document must have been, like Matthew and Luke, in Greek. To put it another way, this was a scribal or literary borrowing and in the intellectual vernacular, koine Greek, the somewhat less elegant but perfectly adequate descendant of the language of Pericles and Plato.

There are different ways of posing the question of the origins of Q. The simplest and most straightforward answers itself. Why was there a collection of Jesus’ sayings? Because his followers thought he was saying things that were both important and striking, most of them in the aphoristic form favored by Middle Eastern sages and teachers for millennia. His followers remembered them and soon recorded them, not as they were uttered, which was most likely in Jesus’ native Aramaic, but as they later recalled them, in their own Greek.

It is not surprising that Jesus should have had during his own lifetime followers who were both literate and Greek speaking. Though Mark, Matthew and Luke combine all the reports of the adult Jesus’ visits to Jerusalem into a single momentous one, John records that there were, as might be expected from an observant Jew, a number of such on the occasion of religious feasts. Jerusalem was a relatively Hellenized city where both the Greek language and Greek culture had made inroads, to the alarm of some Jews, to the pleasure and edification of others. It is not impossible that Jesus could speak Greek—he was not exactly a furze-cutter in Nazareth—but it is more than likely that in Jerusalem he caught the attention of “Hellenes,” the Greek-speaking Jews who turn up among his earliest followers shortly after his death. Among his Jerusalem audiences in the Temple on those occasions there were surely baal teshuvahs like Paul, Hellenized Jews who had come from the Diaspora to study Torah in Hebrew and Aramaic in Jerusalem.

Whoever recorded Q was then of the same strain of literate Greek-speaking Jews as the authors who produced Mark and the other Gospels. But what the Q collectors made is quite another matter. Those who propose the more complex question–who composed Q and when and why?—are framing it with the supposition that our 200 or so verses constituted an actual document in its entirety and that it was composed, with intent and design, rather than merely assembled.

The answer to the “who” query is closely tied to the “when.” Q was certainly assembled/composed before Matthew and Luke, which were written, it is agreed, after Mark. And Mark was composed, in one of the classic hedges in the dating game, “in 60-70,” that is, either just before or just after the life-altering destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. Jesus, it will be recalled, was executed, according to most estimates, in 30 CE. Q, then, if there was such a thing, could have been put together either before or after Mark since there is no indication that either used the other.

Those who are convinced that there was such a thing as a documentary Q generally favor a composition earlier than Mark on the same grounds that most believe Mark is earlier than Matthew and Luke: it is more primitive, more direct, less worked upon, less “composed.” On that view, that Q was a document and earlier than Mark, Q becomes not only the earliest but also the most authentic source for Jesus of Nazareth.

The consequences of that Q finding on the portrait of the historical Jesus, that he was a Galilean peasant agitator, a social reformer or a rural philosopher in the Cynic mode, all of which are amply documented in some contemporary view of Jesus, is not the concern here, but rather Q itself. As must already be obvious, I do not entirely share the conviction that Q was a deliberate composition: there is no sign of its existence anywhere in the ancient tradition, no mention of it, no textual traces. Nor do I think that we can retrieve the original in its entirety by straining it out of Matthew and Luke. Our reconstruction may be a torso. The evidence for Q says little more than that there was an early—earlier than Matthew and Luke at any rate—collection of Jesus’ sayings in writing and in Greek, We cannot say we have the entire collection, but I am strongly inclined to think that even an enlarged original would not have included the story of Jesus’ passion and death and its sequel.

The “Sayings of Jesus of Nazareth” or Q may have been a substantial element in the original Jesus Movement but it constitutes only one rather unshaped building block—the contextual shaping is supplied in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke—in the edifice called Christianity which rests in turn upon the complex foundation of the New Testament. But Q is important in that it marks an early impulse, perhaps the earliest, on the part of Jesus’ followers toward an understanding and appreciation of him. These are the important things that he said, the collection announces; this is what he was about. That last is added with some reserve since in the end it turned out that Jesus was, in the eyes of his followers, about far more than the aphoristic teachings collected in Q or The Sayings, as it will be called here.

The Sayings adverts briefly to the fact that Jesus the teacher was also Jesus the wonderworker. It does not dwell on his “acts of power” that we call miracles, but the Gospels do; they make it clear that part of Jesus’ appeal and, more importantly, part of the “argument” or “demonstration” of his Messiahship was his power to work cures, cast out demons and even restore the dead to life. While “The Sayings” focuses almost exclusively on Jesus’ public teaching, the Gospels display the full triptych of teaching, miracles and, thirdly and not inconsequentially, the power and right to forgive sins that characterize the Galilean Jesus and all of which become essential ingredients in the finished Christian portrait of Jesus the Christ.

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Islam, Christianity’s supersessionist superior in the Muslim version of the evolutionary history of revelation, has its own sayings collection. This, however, is a genuine book, not something that has to be pried out from under another text. It is not called The Sayings, however, but the more nuanced “The Recitation,” in Arabic al-Qur’an. It also refers to itself as “The Criterion,” “The Guidance,” “The Book” and even “The Good News,” though the community preference was, and remains, “The Recitation.”

Like The Sayings, The Recitation is a collection, a very considerable collection, about the size of the New Testament, of sayings of varying length from the ejaculatory to the aphoristic to the parable to the tale to the discourse. The whole is divided into 114 chapters, units that often seem quite arbitrary, like many such in sayings collections, where the parceling of the text is invariably done by hands other and later than those of the speaker(s). While in Q it is Jesus who is doing all the talking, it is not it all clear from The Recitation who exactly is speaking at any given moment since the speaker or speakers are generally not named in the manner of “And behold, X said…” or “I, Y, say to you…” Instead the reader, and originally the listener, is confronted with a bewildering array of pronouns in all three persons and both singular and plural in number.

If there is uncertainty about the speakers in The Recitation, there is also complete internal silence on who originally put together this collection and who was responsible for its quite obvious editing. The ancient world was fond of authorship. Authors added authority to works, which is one of the reasons the rabbis attached an author’s name to every book of the Bible. Moderns understand the ascription tactic and are no longer greatly interested in individual authors or editors: the process of composition was, it is now thought, a social task, the work of a community rather than of an individual. The Recitation also lacks an author, not however on methodological grounds but on theological ones: Muslims prefer to keep The Recitation as free of human fingerprints as possible.

There are many collections of anonymous wit and wisdom, but The Recitation is assuredly not one of them. Muslims remembered and collected these particular utterances because they issued from the mouth of Muhammad of Mecca, who was repeating what God had given him to speak. Jesus spoke with the authority of God. The rabbis spoke with the authority of Moses who had spoken with God and had made a book—five books, actually–of some of what he had heard and he passed on the rest orally to the rabbis. Muhammad spoke with God who gave him, orally, a book, in fact, The Book, which is contained, for the most part, in The Recitation. Armed with that prior knowledge, we can see more clearly that The Recitation implies just that, though obliquely and, for the historian, with a maddening lack of detail about Prophet Muhammad and all those pronouns.

If we put the two collections side by side, the 200-odd verses of The Sayings of Jesus and The Recitation with its 114 chapters—one of which alone, the longest, has 286 verses–we can begin to note differences beyond the obvious one of scale. The Sayings, compiler(s) unknown, presents itself as a verbatim record, a transcription, albeit (and unmentioned!) in Greek rather than in the original Aramaic of the speaker, of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Though opinions changed later, at the time of his speaking he was regarded by some as a prophet, a man pronouncing as the spokesman of God, whom he referred to as his “Father.” The compiler(s) of The Recitation are also uncertain though there are some traditional (and conflicting) tales about how and where the finished text, our Qur’an, was put into circulation. The material in it was all heard issuing from Muhammad over the course of twenty-two years—Jesus’ public mission lasted less than three years in all—first at his hometown of Mecca and later at Medina, both in western Arabia. He was thought by some who heard him to be a prophet who was repeating what he had been given to say by God.

The Sayings were, as noted, a translation from Jesus’ Aramaic into Greek in which form it was incorporated, often word for word, into the Gospels. Translation may be the wrong word here, smelling as it does of the scribal drudge and a well-thumbed Aramaic-Greek dictionary. It seems more likely the case that in bilingual Judea some of Jesus’ Jerusalem listeners heard him speaking in Aramaic and understood and remembered it in their own vernacular Greek. It was doubtless these same Greek speaking Jewish “Hellenes” who make such a dramatic appearance in the New Testament Acts of the Apostles, and who are not only responsible for our Greek Gospels but are also behind the radical and far-reaching decision to offer the “Kingdom” to non-Jews.

The Recitation has an equally interesting linguistic history. It is in Arabic, the language, tautologically, of the Arabs. But it is not in the Arabic spoken by Muhammad, which we assume—the evidence is slender here—was some form of Meccan or Hejazi Arabic dialect. Rather, the Qur’an is in arabiyya, a kind of poetic art-speech—“Arabique” may catch the flavor—developed by the Bedouin bards and, though actually spoken by no one, it was roughly intelligible across all the Arab tribes of the Fertile Crescent.

Jesus was an itinerant preacher in the manner of the times. He spoke, apparently impromptu, informally in homes, more rhetorically in open-air venues and didactically in local synagogues; he engaged in some not too dense pilpul with the Pharisees, masters of the art. His tone was varied, from anger and impatience to concern and compassion, but Jesus’ speech in The Sayings is rather direct and pretty much in the same register. Not so Muhammad. “Arabique” was a species of rhymed prose, resonant but often opaque, and its first Meccan audience identified their fellow townsman, with some puzzlement since he had had no training in what was a very specialized guild, as a poet-bard. We know this because The Recitation is filled with the Prophet’s rather vehement denials. There was no denying the first part of the charge: the telltale rhymes and rhythms of the “Arabique” cried out “poetry” if not “poet.” What Muhammad was denying was the bardic implication. Contemporary Arab bards were, like some of their Greek and Celtic counterparts, “possessed”; not, however, by a gracious Muse but by one of the jinn, the demonic figures that haunted the seventh century Arab imagination. Muhammad was not, he insisted, malignly jinn-mad: his utterances were from the same Almighty God (Allah) whom they all recognized and worshipped.

The Recitation, unlike The Sayings, is very self-referential, which is not surprising considering that its unfolding stretches over nearly a quarter of a century, with plentiful opportunities for editing and emendations: it defies imagining that the Prophet performed many of these verses—and the work clearly reflects performance—one time only. Absent all recording and stenographic assistance, memorization requires repetition. What the Qur’an is not, however, is speaker-referential. Neither God nor His Prophet tells us much about the latter and how these words came to be revealed to him. No burning coal is placed on Muhammad’s lips, no fiery chariot descends from the whirlwind in The Recitation. We are not even told how and when and where Muhammad uttered these words from on high. But we can surmise. The Recitation, or at least the parts of it that were recited or, more properly, chanted or cantillated, publicly, in the manner of a poet, was pronounced, we guess, in the shadow of the modest cubed structure (al-Ka‘ba) that stood in the open sacred space in the heart of Mecca and was called the “House of the Almighty” (Bayt Allah).

The Recitation as we now have it is divided, as already noted, into 114 chapters of varying length. Scholars have figured out, on the basis of subject matter, style and diction, which of them belong to the initial Meccan era of the Prophet’s mission when he was attempting to convert pagan idolaters to the unique worship of the Almighty and which to his ten years at Medina when his utterances were intended to instruct and encourage Muslims, those who had submitted to the High God. There is a quite remarkable difference between them. The Mecca poet emotively chanting before the Ka‘ba now appears to be metaphorically sitting rather than standing, talking rather than declaiming; didacticism and steady encouragement have replaced the threats, warnings and promises of the Meccan chapters. Prose has displaced poetry in tone, tenor and tension.

One explanation of the lowered register of the Medina chapters of The Recitation is that they were no longer declaimed or chanted but were rather being dictated to a scribe. The Muslim tradition in fact insists that parts of the Qur’an were written down during the Prophet’s lifetime, not by Muhammad certainly, who was incontestably illiterate, but by other of his followers. The claim seems highly implausible. First century Palestine was filled with scribes, professional and amateur. It was one of the most literate places in the entire Mediterranean area, and there is plentiful epigraphical evidence that the Hebrew script was a facile instrument for expressing complex notions in either Hebrew or Aramaic. Not so its Arabic counterpart. By all indications literacy was extremely low at both Mecca and Medina and the degree of stenographic skill required to take dictation, non-existent. And even if there were scribes in either place, Arabic script was at that point in the early seventh century so crudely undeveloped that expressing the intricacies of the “Arabique” expression of the Qur’an’s thought is unimaginable. Whoever wrote down Muhammad’s utterances did so at a later date, perhaps even a much later date, and very likely in another place.

It is reasonable to think that Mark had some Q-like collection of Jesus’ sayings before him when he came to compose his Gospel. And what he did with it is plain to see: he provided context for the sayings in the form of first, a rather rudimentary timeline that moves forward, however vaguely, in time and imparts a sense of forward motion to the narrative; and second, Mark places individual sayings or groups of Jesus’ sayings in a concrete, though not highly detailed, setting. The Galilean backdrop, again, not overly specific, is a lakeshore, a hillside, a home, a synagogue. And individuals, deftly thumbnailed, enter stage left and right. The mis en scène adds color and vivacity to the story and, from time to time, illumines the saying that is embedded in it. To change the figure, in Q we are allowed to see the bricks before they have been built into a wall, the pearls before they were strung into a necklace.

Muslim converts came to Islam from an animist and polytheistic paganism. They were not like Jesus’ original followers who figured the behavioral patterns of their new faith on a highly detailed and functioning Jewish model. Christians could modify or discard; we can see them behind Paul’s letters tinkering with their heritage. The earliest Muslims had no heritage; they had to construct an Islamic life from scratch, working only from a blueprint, a Qur’anic blueprint that was only a ground plan without benefit of elevation or even scale.

The Qur’an can be recited as an act of piety, and the simple recitation of the sacred text may bring not only divine favor but an illumination of the understanding. But for the canon lawyer or the moralist, a Recitation filled with sayings without context yields only a moral uncertainty that falls on the one side into over-scrupulousness and on the other into a damnable laxity. During his lifetime his followers could turn to the Prophet to amplify or explain the sometimes opaque directives of The Recitation, but at his passing their successors were on their own. The second and third generations of Muslims attempted to solve their problem of fashioning a Muslim life by increasing resort to the “Prophetic reports,” attempting to retrieve recollections of what Muhammad had said and done in certain circumstances. The results were somewhat scattershot and not always reliable.

What addressed the moral quandary of the early Muslims more directly, however, was the literary project of laying the first generation’s memories of the life and times of Muhammad over the text of The Recitation in an effort to provide the latter’s missing context. We are not well informed about the process, but the fruits of this labor of early Muslim scholars are available and impressive. One line of inquiry, which bears the jurists’ stamp all over it, ended in the highly specialized literature known as “The Occasions of Revelation,“ a straightforward attempt to recover, or imagine, the precise circumstances of Muhammad’s life that occasioned the “sending down” of a given verse in The Recitation. What led to the ban on gambling? On oaths? On wine drinking? Why only four wives? Why the fast in Ramadan? The point was not to contest the prescriptions or proscriptions, which were clear enough, but rather to insure that they were correctly observed.

The other enterprise followed the path that Mark had taken, to construct, rather than the atomistic “Occasions,” a full-scale narrative biography of the Prophet into which the sayings recorded in The Recitation would be fitted at the appropriate points and in the appropriate settings. Mark is not all about “sayings” however; a substantial portion of his Gospel is given over, like the others after his, to a highly detailed “Passion Narrative” that is based on a source quite different from Q or its siblings. So too the Lives of the Prophet. Once Muhammad migrates from Mecca to Medina and begins his career as a statesman and military leader, the classical biographies strike out on another track. Here the material is no longer built around the material in The Recitation, though that is still integrated into the narrative, but on a collection of epic retellings, quite in the Bedouin style, of the Prophet’s “raids,” his near annual military campaigns against neighboring tribes and oases in the name of Islam.

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The Jews too had their “sayings” collections. It was they, after all, who started the Almighty talking. A couple of such collections, not of divine but of human sayings, made it into the Bible (Proverbs, Qohelet) and a couple of others, not quite (Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Ben Sirah), and all of them save the Ben Sirah collection were doubtless leveraged by their attribution to Solomon, who wrote none of them. The only one with a claim to historical authorship is Ben Sirah. It was originally written in Hebrew as the Wisdom of Yeshua ben Sirah and then, according to the preface to our version, in 132 BCE it was translated by the author’s grandson into Greek (where Yeshua became Jesus) for the benefit of the Greek-speaking Jews of Egypt.

All of these works are unmistakably literary creations in either Hebrew or Greek from the pens of professional editor-scribes even though the material in them may be much older than the time of their composition. More importantly for our purposes here, their contents are not “sayings” in the same sense as the “raw” material in Q and the Qur’an. The contents of these Jewish collections are sayings only in the sense that they are purported to have come from someone’s mouth; what they are in fact are proverbs, aphorisms originally uttered by some long forgotten wag or beldame and worn smooth by decades, even centuries of use. They all represent, again save Ben Sirah, not the intuition or understanding of an individual but the wisdom of a community. As for Ben Sirah, a well-travelled Jerusalemite who operated an expensive school in the Holy City, the work is cast in the form of a Polonius-like aphorism-laden monologue addressed to the younger generation by a sophisticated Jewish academic of the second century BCE. We may be excused from thinking they all originated with the professor.

The most important and influential Jewish work of the post-70 CE era is undoubtedly the Mishna or “Repetition” and thence also was understood, by an illuminating usage, as “Instruction.” The subject of the Mishna is almost exclusively the legal guidelines that should regulate Jewish religious conduct. Formally what the Mishna is is a collection of collections. The basic unit throughout is, to be sure, the “saying.” Individual entries are in the form of ”X said…” or “The School of Y said…” which the editors have arranged so that the speakers, often from different eras, appear to be in dialogue with one another on a given topic. The speaking is only an illusion, however, a literary illusion. The Mishna is in fact an organized written composition of what was once oral material.

The editors of the Mishna’s organized its contents not by speaker or chronologically, but rather topically, into discussions of agricultural regulations, for example, festival days, damages, ritual impurity, etc. The individual speakers are generally named, but no author’s name is attached to the whole. We are later told by tradition, which usually has an answer for every question, that the Mishna was edited by Judah, called the Prince or Patriarch, the Davidic descendant anointed by the Romans to serve as the leader and spokesman for the Jews within their empire. This seems highly unlikely; the Mishna is far too complex an assemblage and gives too many signs of evolutionary growth to have been the product of a single creative editor.

What is far more likely the case is that this Mishna was “published” under the auspices and blessed with the authority of the Patriarch Judah, and thus its date of appearance will be roughly the same as Judah’s own, ca. 200 CE.
Our Mishna is a written document but, like the later Qur’an and unlike the earlier Q source, which must have had an exceedingly brief life as a purely oral recollection, it long circulated in oral transmission, memorized by masters and students in succession. We know nothing of the original form of Q, but the material in the Mishna is far more carefully arranged than the impenetrable chapter divisions of the Qur’an. The Mishna’s topical organization is intended to be useful. It was probably intended for the instruction and guidance of officials—in the first instance the officials of the Patriarch—charged with legal and administrative responsibilities toward their fellow Jews. The pre-history of the Mishna and its redaction is a highly complex affair, but the organization of the mass of legal opinions, objections and discussion into the current six named “Orders” must have occurred very early on, and perhaps the subdivision of each into named “tractates” as well, though the evidence for their names is somewhat later. Each tractate was at some point further subdivided into a varying number of unnamed chapters. All these divisions of the matter were, like much else in the Mishna, designed to ease the task of memorization, not of the Mishna itself, the literary work, but of its contents.

In the midst of the work there stands an anomaly. The bulk of the Mishna is devoted to jurists’ conversations on the norms regulating Jewish behavior. But one tractate is given over to something quite different, not to regulating conduct but to informing it, to ethics rather than decrees. If the bulk of the Mishna is halakhic, that is, chiefly concerned with rabbinic rulings, this isolated tractate is unmistakably haggadic: it has to do with “norms of belief, right attitudes, virtue and proper intention.” What is being described here is the sayings collection that is thrust, rather disconcertingly, into the Order called “Damages” and is entitled Abot, “Fathers” or, more fully, Pirqei Abot, “Principles of the Fathers.” The “Fathers” in question are no longer purloined identities from a distant Biblical antiquity but named rabbinic sages from the near past, that is, the post-70 CE era, and most in fact date from the sixty-odd years immediately preceding the completion of the Mishna.

Though the subject matter is different, The Fathers is, like the rest of the Mishna, a collection of variously attributed sayings in dialogue one with another. It opens, however, not with a moral maxim from one of those sages but with a straightforward declaration of fact that is an explanation, and just possibly a defense, of the very premise of the Mishna. What gives these sages, these “Fathers” who are in fact rather ordinary rural academics from a war-battered Palestine, the right to lay down rules and why should Jews feel obliged to observe them? The reason, The Fathers declares in its opening verse, is that they are not merely talking about the Torah; their talk somehow is Torah. Theirs is a wisdom whose chain of custody runs in unbroken succession from the current speakers back through a series of known links to Moses receiving instruction from God on Sinai. Moses committed part of that instruction to writing, our Biblical Torah, but a substantial part was passed on orally until it was finally transcribed. The Mishna embodies that transcription; its contents, the sayings of all those “Fathers,” is thus, it is claimed, a form of serially mediated revelation anchored at the far end by Moses on Sinai and represented in the present by sages like Hillel and Shammai, Gamaliel and Rabbi Judah the Patriarch.

Neither the Gospels’ Q nor the Qur’an represents itself as serially mediated revelation. Muhammad at Mecca is the Moses on Sinai of Muslim revelation and so the collected utterances of the Qur’an represent not Mishna but Torah and, like the written Torah of the Jews, contains both halakha and haggada in abundance. But while Moses is credited with the authorship of the Torah book, no such claim is made by or for Muhammad with respect to The Recitation. Muhammad recited his Torah and other hands wrote it down: he delivered The Book; Muslims composed the book in our hands.

Jesus for his part starts at the opposite pole from the sages of the Mishna and its tractate called The Fathers. Though at
times his contemporaries identified Jesus as a prophet, as in fact Muhammad did, that is, as someone speaking on behalf of God, they recognized as well that Jesus was also a rabbinic type, someone wise in the Law, but with a remarkable difference. Jesus “taught on his own authority, unlike the sages,” that is, unlike the teachers of his own day or, we might add, unlike the “repeaters’ (tanna’im) of the Mishna whose authority rested, like Paul’s, on the claim that they were simply “passing on” what had been “handed down” to them, Jesus spoke in his own voice, not in that of tradition, and indeed felt free to modify tradition at its very Mosaic source .

One of the reasons for thinking that The Fathers was a late and awkward insertion in the Mishna is the absence of any treatment of Abot in the two canonical “completions,” that is, commentaries on the Mishna, the Jerusalem (or Palestinian) and Babylonian Talmuds. But The Fathers did not lack for attention: it soon received its own expansion and commentary in the Abot de Rabbi Natan or “The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan.” Somewhat in the manner of the Gospel pericopes vis a vis a sayings collection like Q, this latter work attempts to provide some narrative context for the bare aphorisms of his multiple authorities, chiefly by adducing Biblical texts that seem to fit the circumstance. The Fathers is remarkably free of Biblical allusion, textual or contextual; Rabbi Nathan supplies both. But whereas Mark embedded his Q-like sayings source in a biography and Ibn Ishaq did the same for the verses of The Recitation, Rabbi Nathan, who was as little interested in history as his rabbinic fellows, swaddled his “Fathers” in anecdotes.

The sayings in The Fathers are recorded in Hebrew, not the Hebrew of the Bible, to be sure, but in an evolved form of that tongue, an evolution hastened by pressures from the surrounding Aramaic, and sufficiently different from its prototype to be identified as a dialect of Hebrew and dubbed by modern scholars “Mishnaic Hebrew.” It was the Hebrew still spoken here and there in Palestine, alongside the more widespread Aramaic and Greek, at least down to the Bar Kokhba revolt of 135 CE when the demographics of the area changed once again. Thereafter the evidence becomes uncertain.

Did the speakers represented in The Fathers actually speak, at home, for example, or in the marketplace, the Hebrew dialect in which their sayings are recorded? Given that time and place, Galilee in the late second century CE, it seems doubtful. But it is quite possible that Mishnaic Hebrew was the language of both instruction and discussion in the scholastic settings in which such took place, much in the way that late medieval scholastics in the Western tradition lectured and disputed in Latin at the university and spoke German or Romance at home or on the street. The Mishnaic Hebrew of The Fathers has been called, with some justification, a “living literary language,” a perfectly adequate instrument, and one with a distinguished and venerable pedigree, for both written and oral discourse among a limited religious elite.

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None of the collections discussed here represents a “verbatim” transmission of the words of its reported speaker, no matter how profoundly the theology of its religious culture requires that or how long and loud the later (literary) tradition insists on its accuracy. In the Babylonian Talmud, for example, one of the later rabbis’ two main commentaries on the Mishna, we are told a pretty tale of Moses repeating Oral Torah to Aaron in the presence of students, and then Aaron repeats it to his student and so on until everyone in the room has heard the same report at least four times. And so the saying was “fixed,” presumably forever. We are not convinced. “Verbatim transmission” with its subliminal quotation marks is an ideal, or a conceit, of a literate society in possession of a literary tradition: texts become fixed, and hence transmittable word for unchanging word, only after they have been committed to writing. Sayings of ancient sages, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim, become chiseled in stone only after they’ve been chiseled in stone, or at least set down with pen and ink.

Of the three works under consideration, The Fathers is the most purely aphoristic, and in that sense, and in its anonymity, it is a more typical representative of Middle Eastern wisdom collections than either Q or the Qur’an. The earlier Christian and the later Muslim collections have the stamp of an individual upon them, a distinctive voice. And behind the voice there lies a program. There is no mistaking the eschatological urgency in either Q or the Qur’an. But if the tone of The Fathers is more relaxed and more humanistic, it is also narrower in its focus. Jesus was addressing all Israel, a target audience his followers found easy to enlarge to all humankind. Likewise Muhammad, though his immediate audience was limited by the circumstances of time and place, his message readily filled the same broad horizons that Jesus’ did. The ethical counsels of The Fathers, as the Rabbi Nathan commentary makes even clearer, was delivered in a “scholastic” setting and intended for the formation and edification of Torah scholars, a kind of Rabbinopaideia. Its message is not “Repent!” but “Study!”

The three works passed here in quick review offer a glimpse of how revelation worked, not as viewed from the High Place but from the ground-level perspective of the scribe’s desk amidst the stacks. Revelation starts out as the Word, but it invariably ends up as words on a page, which gives us license to look at it as precisely that, something written down,

All three of our examples, The Sayings, the Recitation and the Fathers, hearken back to an earlier stage in the revelation process, to the point where the Word had become the spoken word but not yet the written word. They are all written, but they purport to report the exact spoken words of Jesus, Muhammad and the second century Palestinian sages who were repeating what they had heard—how is a long story—from Moses, “our rabbi.” And they have all been integrated into the pattern of revelation that began with the Israelites: God speaks, a privileged human listens, the results are remembered, recorded and broadcast.
The Recitation is not so much integrated into revelation as constituting it: its contents is the revelation, whole and entire. It supersedes what went before; there will be no more after it.

While Muhammad fits comfortably into the Biblical prototype, the promised “prophet like Moses,” Jesus does not, though it was thought so at times during his career. He was, in the eyes of his followers, not so much the revealer as the revelation itself: the Word became not words but flesh. But there were words as well, Jesus’ teachings as reported in The Sayings, and they were quickly worked into a larger Gospel framework that encompassed his life, death and resurrection. Jesus’ sayings are only a part, a small part, of a very expansive and very complex mosaic of narrative, explanation, argument and vision that constitutes the Christians’ platform and program, the New Testament. If the Qur’an explains, in God’s own words, “Here is what I want you to do,” the New Testament authors argue, “Something has happened. Everything is different.”

In the case of The Fathers we are at a far remove from revelation, which took place once and for all and long ago on Sinai, though subsequent prompts, clarifications and warnings have been issued from time to time via the prophets. The “Fathers” of our tractate were not interested in prophets or in hearing the voice of God direct. The voice the sages hear is that of Moses, the sage who spoke with God, and their connection to him is their warrant to speak, to decide, to decree. But if the voice of The Fathers is somewhat muted and distant, one can still catch there the sounds of Sinai.

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