Sunday Morning Greek Blog

April 17, 2011

Guarding against Yeast

Filed under: Biblical Studies,Luke Gospel of,New Testament — Scott Stocking @ 3:01 pm

Luke 12:1 offers some interesting grist for this blogger’s mill this morning. The chapter begins with Jesus telling his disciples: “Guard (προσέχω, prosechō) yourselves from the yeast (ζύμη, zumē ‘leaven’, ‘yeast’), which is hypocrisy, of the Pharisees,” which represents the literal word order in the Greek text. It is punctuated in the UBS 3rd and 4th editions to emphasize that “yeast” and “hypocrisy” are in an appositive relationship. Of this, I have no doubt. But the writings of Scripture in their original hand almost certainly did not have punctuation, let alone word spaces. Papyrus and other epigraphic surfaces were precious, and the writers didn’t waste space with punctuation. Perhaps I’m overanalyzing here, but there are times when it is appropriate to be suspicious of punctuation in the Greek text. I have, after all, written a 20-page paper about a comma in Acts 2:42, but I promise I will not spend 20 pages on the comma here.

There are two ways the passage could be read, and I will make a quick comment on the difference before moving on. Most English translations render the verse similar to the NIV/TNIV: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” In this translation, translators move what they consider to be the appositive phrase, “which is hypocrisy,” to the end of the sentence. But word order in Greek is often significant. What if the appositive phrase is not just “which is hypocrisy,” but “which is the hypocrisy of the Pharisees” (i.e., what if there shouldn’t be a second comma)? Then the passage takes on a subtle nuance: “Guard yourselves from yeast, which is the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.”

Now I don’t want to imply here that the real substance “yeast” is inherently evil or bad for you (any dieticians out there are welcome to chime in on any nutritional properties of yeast). Nor do I want to say that bread made with yeast is bad, because Jesus calls himself “The Bread (ἄρτος artos) of Life” in John’s Gospel, but stick with me for a minute and I’ll come back to that. I think I am on solid ground to suggest that Jesus is not talking about yeast itself, but its properties. Most of us know that yeast is added to bread to give it more “volume” and to soften the texture. Unleavened bread, what many of us in the Independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ use for our weekly celebration of the Lord’s Table, is dry and flat. Some congregations use the Jewish unleavened matzo crackers for the same purpose. Jews had to rid their houses of yeast at the first Passover, not because it was an unclean food, but because they didn’t have time for the “fluff and flavor” before they escaped Egypt.

Yeast “bloats” the dough, makes the final product less dense, but does add some flavor to the product. I believe Jesus is speaking here of yeast in the context of Passover. The hypocrisy of the Pharisees (for which yeast is a symbol in Luke 12:1) is that they were adding requirements to the law that weren’t essential to the core principles of the law. In some cases, they bloated the law, adding more to it than was required. For example, in the previous chapter (Luke 11:38), the Pharisees were amazed that Jesus did not “immerse” (βαπτίζω baptizō) his hands, (presumably his hands are meant and not his whole body, although the text does not say that specifically) as was their custom, even though, according to Craig Keener in the IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, this was not a requirement of the Old Testament law. He had also issued several warnings (“woes”; see earlier blog on that topic in Matthew) to Pharisees and teachers of the law at the end of the previous chapter for adding burdens to the people.

The Pharisees often soften the law in places as well, but typically this happens when the money trail leads back to them. In Mark 7:11, Jesus condemns ––the Pharisees for nullifying the commandment to honor your father and mother so they could take the Korban into the Temple treasury.

So those warnings are fresh in the minds of his disciples when Jesus speaks to them in Luke 12:1. Jesus is, in one statement, giving his disciples some reassurance that his harsh words to the Jewish rulers (one of them mentions Jesus’ “hubris” for confronting the Pharisees and teachers of the law even though Jesus was their guest at dinner!), but also preparing them for his teaching about whom to fear in the first part of chapter 12.

Jesus’ ministry was all about simplifying and restoring what the Pharisees, Sadducees, and teachers of the law had mucked up over the years. Love God. Love your neighbor. Act justly. Show mercy. Repent. Have faith. Forgive. Fear God. I am speaking to myself with this next statement as much as I am speaking to others: “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”

I said I would return to Jesus’ statement about being the Bread of Life. Jesus does use this statement about himself, but it comes on the heels of the feeding of the 5000+, and he directly references that event in the pericope leading up to his statement. But he also uses the more general word for food in that section, βρῶμα (brōma), so it is fairly clear to me that he is not referencing the leavened bread that the 5000+ ate for their lunch, but is using “bread” as a symbol for “food” (the technical name for that kind of figure of speech is synecdoche /sin EK doe key/, the part represents the whole). Johannes Behm, in his article on ἄρτος in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Vol. 1, pp. 477–78) says the phrase has no parallel in Jewish literature. He also says that some ancient Greek writers still distinguished wheat bread from barley bread (μᾶζα maza, could this be matzo?).


1 Comment »

  1. Wouldn’t you know it? I should have taken a few extra minutes to look up the occurrences of “yeast” in the NT. Most of the references are negative, but leave it to Luke to use a positive reference to it in 13:21 (parallel Matthew 13:33). Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman puts into 3 σάτα (plural of σάτον saton ʼ13-liter measureʼ) of dough and works through the whole batch.
    I mentioned previously about the number “12” being used six times in Luke 8-9. In chapter 13, the number “18” appears three times (twice as δεκαοκτώ dekaoktō in vv. 4, 11; once as δέκα καὶ ὀκτώ deka kai oktō in v. 16). The number “3” (τρία tria) appears twice (vv. 7, 21). Guess what the other number is that occurs in Luke 13? Do a little math: 18/3 = “6” (ἕξ hex), in verse 14. I suppose you could argue that “Sabbath,” which comes from the Hebrew word for “7”, is yet another number in the text, but the Greek word for “7”, ἕπτα (hepta), is not in the text. And if all that isn’t enough, get this: “Sabbath” occurs, you guessed it, seven times in Luke 13-14. it is also mentioned seven times at the beginning of Matthew 12, and ἕπτα occurs once at the end of that chapter; the parallel account in Luke 6 only has “Sabbath” six(!) times. As a math teacher, this concentration of numbers is intriguing, but with the possible exception of Sabbath being mentioned seven times, I doubt any of it has any exegetical or mystical significance.

    Comment by Scott Stocking — April 20, 2011 @ 6:11 am | Reply

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