Jesus refused to be called ‘good’

“Why do you call me good?”

by Ibn Anwar, BHsc (Hons), MCollT

Jesus is recorded to have denied the epithet ‘good’ that is attributed to him by an unknown person in Mark 10:17-18 (which is retained by Luke in Luke 18:18-19):

“As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” (ESV)

Instead of accepting the title ‘good teacher’, Jesus corrects the person by relegating the modifier ‘good’ to God. He affirms that “no one is good except God alone.” Commenting on this, the Jewish theologian Dr. Joseph Klausner writes:

“That Jesus never regarded himself as God is most obvious from his reply when hailed as ‘Good master’: ‘Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, God.’… Nor did he regard himself as Son of God in the later Trinitarian sense.” [1]

The parallel Matthean version of the same incident alters the story by transferring ‘good’ from its original Markan place to where it stands now in Matthew 19:16. Whereas Mark has ‘good’ as a modifier to ‘teacher’, Matthew has ‘good’ as a modifier to ‘thing’ (or ‘deed’): “And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”” (Matthew 19:16, ESV)
The necessarily low christological message of Mark 10:18 is erased and heightened in the Matthean depiction and Jesus in that regard appears greater than in his source, Mark. Commenting on this point, Distinguished Professor of the New Testament at Denver Seminary in Colorado, Craig Blomberg writes:

“Matthew 19:16 does not have “good” modifying teacher but does have the man refer to a “good” thing he should do. In Mark and Luke, Jesus replies by asking the man why he calls him good, because “no one is good– except God alone” (Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19). Matthew probably wanted to avoid the misunderstanding that Jesus was denying his own goodness, so he paraphrases Jesus’s question as “Why do you ask me about what is good?” (Matt 19:17).” [2]

The example of how the anonymous authors of the gospels purposefully moved words from one place to another as delineated above, thereby changing the meaning of things, vindicate the Qur’anic exhortation below:

“But because of their breach of their covenant, We cursed them, and made their hearts grow hard; they change the words from their (right) places and forget a good part of the message that was sent them, nor wilt thou cease to find them- barring a few – ever bent on (new) deceits: but forgive them, and overlook (their misdeeds): for Allah loveth those who are kind.” (Surah al-Ma’idah, verse 13)

It should be noted that later scribes did not agree with Matthew’s emendation of Mark 10:17-18. Thinking that they had the right to alter the original text that they were making copies of, they corrected the original Matthean emendation to harmonise it with the Markan and Lukan version. That scribal alteration is preserved in the textus receptus and retained in the King James Version:

And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. (Matthew 19:16-17, KJV)

Commenting on this scribal interpolation (corruption), ‘The English Bible, King James Version’ has the following notes:

“Matthew excises the Markan Jesus’ reluctance (10:18) to be called “good,” but retains Jesus’ subsequent insistence that “there is non good but one, that is, God.” Later scribes apparently saw in Matthew insufficient motivation for this insistence, and therefore had the man invoke Jesus as “good master” (v. 16; see note), in addition to restoring the Markan version of Jesus’ question.” [3]

Notes:

[1] Klausner, J. (1926). Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times, and Teaching (Herbert Danby, trans.). New York: The Macmillan Company. p. 377

[2] Blomberg, C. L. (2016). The Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Countering the Challenges to Evangelical Christian Beliefs. Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Academic. p. 87

[3] Hammond, G. & Busch, A. (Eds.). (2012). The English Bible, King James Version: The New Testament and The Apocrypha (Vol. 2) (Norton Critical Editions). New York: W. W. Norton & Company. p. 54

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