2017-01-13

The Gospels as Creative Rewriting (like rewritten biblical books)

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by Neil Godfrey

Back in 2010 the University of Copenhagen published news of a project to “map the development of the four gospels in order to establish that the Gospel of Luke is not, as believed so far, a contemporary of the Gospel of Matthew, and that the shared content of the two is not to be explained by the existence of a lost scripture [i.e. Q], but by the fact that the author of St. Luke’s Gospel used St. Matthew’s Gospel as well as that of St. Mark as basis for his own scripture.” See Scholars will explode the myth of the New Testament.

(For yet another work by Morgens Müller discussed on this blog, see Paul: The Oldest Witness to the Historical Jesus.)

A Facebook reader reminded me of this post a few days ago and asked me what the outcome of this project had been. One outcome appears to be Luke’s Literary Creativity – a work edited by Mogens Müller and Jesper Tang Nielsen that I look forward to reading in the coming months. Meanwhile I can discuss another essay by Mogens Müller that appears to be related to the same project,

The New Testament gospels as Biblical rewritings : On the question of referentiality

By “the question of referentiality” Müller means the question of “whether the story told refers to real incidents.” To what, exactly, do the narrative’s episodes refer? How much is historical? How much fiction? Are our attempts to make such black and white distinctions anachronistic? Müller draws upon Ulrich Luz’s Studies in Matthew in which the gospel is compared with Greek literature that intends to reference and describe “historical” or “factual” events. Luz believes that the author of the Gospel of Matthew

must have known that in his writing, to some extent, he reshaped the Jesus-tradition or even invented it. (p.22)

Müller’s article led me to Luz’s study but it soon became obvious I would not be able to merge the two discussions into a single post. Luz’s book requires separate treatment so I will restrict this post to Müller’s article and a few of his references to Luz. The argument that arises is that the Gospel of Matthew is a re-writing of the Gospel of Mark much as

  • 1 and 2 Chronicles are re-writings of the books of Samuel and Kings,
  • or as Deuteronomy is a rewriting (possibly in King Josiah’s time?) of the Covenant narrative found in Exodus-Numbers,
  • or as Jubilees is a rewriting of Genesis-Exodus,
  • or as the Genesis Apocryphon is a rewriting of the patriarchal narratives in Genesis,
  • or as Pseudo-Philo’s Book of Biblical Antiquities and
  • Josephus’s first eleven books of Antiquities are rewritings of biblical narratives.

Some scholars have even seen parts of Genesis 1-11 as a rewriting of the Epic of Gilgamesh. A re-writing can be found in the same book with a single narrative repeated in different ways: the Abraham and Isaac / Sarah and Rebecca narratives contain three narratives that are all duplicates – Gen. 12:10-20; 20; 26:1-11 – changing to gradually conform more and more closely to Mosaic law.

What is going on here? Why do authors feel at liberty to take existing texts and change them here and there, keeping the original outline more or less in tact but feeling free to add details and to omit others, and changing the way some stories are told so that they present readers with a new lesson that contradicts the original one?

What is going through the authors’ minds as they are reading Genesis or the Gospel of Mark and deciding what elements to change or omit and where to inject new material? Can they really be thinking that Genesis or the Gospel is a true account of historical events that must be preserved for posterity in the way a Greek or Roman historian felt a desire to preserve for posterity the best and most authoritative account of a people’s past?

To try to answer these questions it is useful to identify the characteristics of a “rewritten bible” and here Müller uses the nine characteristics singled out by Philip S. Alexander on the basis of Jubilees, Genesis Apocryphon, Pseudo-Philo’s Book of Biblical Antiquities and Josephus’s Antiquities.

  1. “Rewritten Bible” texts are narratives following a sequential chronological order;
  2. On their face, they are free-standing compositions replicating the form of the biblical books on which they are based;
  3. Despite superficial independence of form, these texts are not intended to replace, or to supersede the Bible;
  4. “Rewritten Bible” texts cover a substantial portion of the Bible;
  5. They retain the biblical order of events but can be very selective in what they represent;
  6. The intention is to produce an interpretative reading of Scripture;
  7. The narrative form means, in effect, that they can impose only a single interpretation on the original;
  8. The narrative form also precludes making clear their exegetical reasoning;
  9. “Rewritten Bible” texts draw on non-biblical sources, whether oral or written.

Müller’s conclusion:

This means that rewritten Bible texts, by their very existence, document that the texts they are rewriting have not exclusively been understood as being referential with regard to the events which have really taken place. This would have precluded the freedom of their “rewriters.”

Apparently, they are foremost perceived as theological texts, not so much aiming at information as at preaching.

Put another way: In their rewriting they intend to mirror the heavenly forces that, according to these authors, are active in their readers’ lives. Thus it is this “truth” and not some “historical” fact, they are aiming at describing. (p. 23, my bold and formatting in all quotations)

Those who are rewriting the biblical texts relate to the same history and same characters as found in the original texts, but they have an entirely new agenda for their readers. Audiences have changed since the originals were composed. Times have changed. New needs have arisen.

Authors are writing for a community that has become accustomed to learning through oral transmission. Even written texts are read to them and expounded orally. As the historical experiences of a community have an impact on the concerns, the problems and stresses facing that community there emerges a need to retell old stories that conform to the community’s evolving needs and interests. That sort of milieu facilitates an ever-changing story from which audiences draw their identity. Thus when we come to the Gospel of Matthew and its rewriting of Mark’s gospel, Müller explains:

[T]he story of Jesus mirrors the history of [the] author’s Jewish-Christian congregation after the death of Jesus, first in Palestine, where the preaching to Israel becomes less and less important, then — after the Jewish War — in Syria where, after the divorce from the synagogue, it passes on to the mission to the pagan world. (p. 22)

Compare what many scholars believe was the impulse for the writing of Deuteronomy as a retake on the Mosaic covenant story known from Exodus to Numbers: Deuteronomy repeats the story of Moses in the wilderness but makes changes to the law so that it is relevant for the time of King Josiah. The re-writings introduce changes to make the stories relevant to the new generation.

I have sometimes used the term “rewritten Bible” so far but since there was no “Bible” (as we understand it) until much later Müller substitutes the term “biblical books” — that is, books that were to become part of later canons — to lessen potential confusion. The question that arises, then, is why and how we can think of the Gospel of Mark as a “biblical book” in the days before any other gospels were written.

For Müller the Gospel of Mark was indeed composed as a “biblical rewriting of the Jesus tradition”.

Thus the Gospel of Mark manifests itself as a “biblical” book in the sense that its Jesus story perceives itself as a continuation of the biblical history contained in the sacred books of Judaism. Its very title, “The beginning of the gospel (’Aρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” recalls both the first words in Genesis and Paul’s appellation of his message of salvation (see for instance Gal 1:7, Rom 1:9, 15:19). The most obvious literary model for this gospel and its successors, therefore, are the books of Samuel and Kings as expressions of deuteronomistic ideology in the shape of historical narrative. This pertains not least to the narratives about the prophets Elijah and Elisha, which apparently have given shape to several of the stories about Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. (p. 29 — On the last point see The Elijah-Elisha narrative as a model for the Gospel of Mark)

That Jesus tradition, Müller believes, began with the historical Jesus and was interpreted theologically by Paul. The  Gospel of Mark is an “outright narrativisation” of Paul’s theology, or a “narrative theology”. The career of Jesus is shaped to reflect the experiences and problems facing the readers/hearers of the gospel.

. . . Müller adds an endnote in part: “Eusebius’ Historia ecclesiastica II 15.2, contains a tradition transmitted by Clement of Alexandria in his now lost work Hypotheseis telling that when Peter’s companion Mark had been persuaded to write down the teaching of his master, and when Peter heard about it he was amused and authorized what became known as the Gospel of Mark to be read aloud in the congregations (κυρῶσαι τε τὴν γραφὴν εἰς ἔντευξιν ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις). In the same work, VI 14.6–7, the same Clement, however, is referred to for saying that Peter neither prevented nor promoted the use of Mark’s Gospel.

If the gospels were written for a “church community”, for worship services (and Müller refers to reasons for thinking this to be very likely), they each intended

to develop further and interpret the meaning of the Jesus event for congregations of believers, not to argue for the truth of Christianity over against people standing outside of it. (p. 28)

Müller disagrees with the approach of those “historical Jesus” researchers who presume that the Jesus tradition that found its way into the synoptic gospels remained completely independent of (and even at odds with) the testimony of Paul. No, for Müller there is too much of Paul’s theology in the Gospel of Mark to sustain the view that its author drew upon Jesus traditions that somehow bypassed Paul altogether.

At this point I should explain something. In this post I am attempting to do justice to Müller’s article while omitting much supporting material for the sake of relative brevity. I had originally planned to have this post published a week ago but I have been delayed as a result of being led down endnote pathways to read at least half a dozen other sources, both monographs and journal articles. Among these additional readings is Henrik Tronier’s “Philonic Allegory in Mark” in which it is argued (not merely surmised) that the entire narrative of Mark was written as an allegory of the descent of the Christ figure from heaven (Galilee) down to earth (Jerusalem) where he is crucified and from where he returns to heaven to share the fellowship of the saints.  I mention this detail now to try to indicate the sorts of ideas that are informing Müller’s argument here.

The story of Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom of God, the miraculous healings and authoritative instruction in what is God’s will in reality depict the resurrected and elevated Christ anticipated in the earthly figure. (p. 29)

Matthew’s gospel is in turn

a biblical rewriting of the Markan story and here we are witnessing a clear re-judaizing. Apparently, this did not happen by “digging up” traditions behind the Gospel of Mark, but exactly by rewriting it. . . . It is neither a free paraphrase of the Gospel of Mark, nor a commentary, but “a re-writing, a second edition.” . . .

That much of the material not taken over from the Gospel of Mark originates with the author of the Gospel of Matthew appears to be confirmed by its unmistakable Matthean features. This also pertains to the beginning of this gospel with its genealogy, which places Jesus in relation to both Abraham and David and tells the story of his birth and how he – like Moses – was rescued from a cruel king’s persecution. It all seems to be the creation of an author well-versed in the Scriptures (Cf. Matthew 13:52). (p. 30)

The Matthean Jesus becomes a new Moses who fulfills both “prophetic” scriptures and the Law. Again, I am cutting out much of the argument that will have to be given in small doses in future posts, although older posts on this blog have often touched on the same points.

Müller argues that Luke-Acts was written much later than Matthew’s gospel, even well into the second century, and even later than the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John, he suggests, was written to solve the problem of the failure of Jesus to return soon after the destruction of the Temple. (I actually wonder if the parousia spoken of in the Gospel of Mark was as much metaphorical as were various geographical locations and that the Gospel of John was in some ways written to bring out the spiritual meanings behind the earlier gospel.)

The author behind Luke-Acts has chosen to re-write the story of Jesus as a continuation of the story of Israel found in the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament). Hence Jesus becomes another prophetic figure.

To sum up:

The Gospel of Mark transforms Paul’s gospel or theology into a narrative.

In the later gospels, we see a theologically correcting, clarifying and supplementing “biblical” rewriting of the predecessor or the predecessors by means that we recognize in the books that have been labelled “rewritten Bible.” Therefore, the interpreter has to be prepared to realize that an apparent referentiality in fact may be only apparent. Because it is not history writing, what is related does not necessarily refer to real events, but stories as well as speeches and parables may very well have been created as narrative expressions of proclamation. Thus the speeches in Matthew and John clearly are Matthean and Johannine respectively, and the same pertains to the parables unique to the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke: they are wholly in accordance with the theology of each gospel respectively.

The assumption that each gospel author has been highly creative in their presentation of the earthly Jesus is strengthened by the acknowledgement that they are written for internal use, that is, for use in congregational worship – in line with the holy Scriptures of Judaism – and in instruction of people who were already sympathetic, if not believers (cf. Luke 1:4). (p. 32f)

Recall that one of the nine characteristics of other “rewritten Bible” texts (e.g. Deuteronomy, Jubilees, Josephus) is that they were not intended to replace the original narrative but to supplement it. Here it seems that the gospels of Matthew and Luke depart from that “rule”. They do indeed appear to have been composed to replace the Gospel of Mark. The judaizing message in the Gospel of Matthew is quite contradictory to the Pauline theology represented in the Gospel of Mark; the prologue introducing the Gospel of Luke declares the inferiority of predecessors. Only the Gospel of John appears to be intended as a supplement rather than a replacement. So it is ironic that all four gospels were chosen for the canon despite their many differences and contradictions.

 

 

 

6 Comments

  • Giuseppe
    2017-01-14 10:22:02 UTC - 10:22 | Permalink

    Is available online the Henrik Tronier’s article ?

    Unfortunately, this link doesn’t work:
    http://www.pitts.emory.edu/hmpec/docs/TronierPhilonicAllegoryMark.pdf

  • 2017-01-14 15:22:07 UTC - 15:22 | Permalink

    “Recall that one of the nine characteristics of other “rewritten Bible” texts (e.g. Deuteronomy, Jubilees, Josephus) is that they were not intended to replace the original narrative but to supplement it. Here it seems that the gospels of Matthew and Luke depart from that “rule”. They do indeed appear to have been composed to replace the Gospel of Mark. The judaizing message in the Gospel of Matthew is quite contradictory to the Pauline theology represented in the Gospel of Mark; the prologue introducing the Gospel of Luke declares the inferiority of predecessors. Only the Gospel of John appears to be intended as a supplement rather than a replacement. So it is ironic that all four gospels were chosen for the canon despite their many differences and contradictions.”

    Excellent observations.

    The Philosopher Jacques Derrida, who was once arrested for transporting drugs, talks a lot about supplements and replacements.
    Think of the person who needs to over-work to survive. Imagine the underpaid person who finds that one job is not enough to support him. He takes a second job to supplement the first. The person finds they now have enough money to survive. However, the person, exhausted from the first full time job naturally falls asleep doing the second job. His solution is to take drugs to keep him awake. The drugs are a supplement to the second job which is a supplement to the first job. The person finds that the drugs keep him awake and he is unable to sleep and this causes him to mess up the first job. The person takes pills to go to sleep to supplement the pills that kept him awake that supplemented his second job that supplemented the first job. Of cause the person finds his/her self in a worse position than when they began, needing to work harder to afford the drugs to keep going. Instead of needing drugs to work, the person needs to work to afford the drugs. The drugs have replaced the work as his raison de existance. The drugs are now a necessity and the person has become a drug addict. At a certain point there is a breakdown and the person goes to rehabilitation, where a person is told not to do drugs or they will end up in rehabilitation. Of course the rehabilition gives the person a chance to start the cycle of work, supplementary work, and supplementary drugs, break down and rehabilitation all over again.

  • James D williams
    2017-01-14 18:22:44 UTC - 18:22 | Permalink

    Via Muller, Alexander, and Godfrey from above:
    “… 8. The narrative form also precludes making clear their exegetical reasoning;…”

    From Raskin and Derrida: We find effective examples of supplement and replacement.
    But, ‘the person’s’ (nor Derrida’s) exegetical reasoning is [still] not made clear in Derrida’s narrative form, despite:
    “…the person who needs to over-work to survive…who finds… [whose] solution… [who] finds… [who] finds… necessity…”
    We [still] do not clearly know how ‘the person’ reasoned what “to survive” meant. Or, how clearly the ‘person’ reasoned not to find a better job, dump the wife and kids, or move to ‘another country’.

  • Matt Cavanaugh
    2017-01-21 17:59:34 UTC - 17:59 | Permalink

    … Henrik Tronier’s “Philonic Allegory in Mark” in which it is argued (not merely surmised) that the entire narrative of Mark was written as an allegory of the descent of the Christ figure from heaven (Galilee) down to earth (Jerusalem) where he is crucified and from where he returns to heaven to share the fellowship of the saints.

    I’ve long contemplated this possibility, especially given that Mark 16:7 is likely the penultimate verse in the original.

  • Matt Cavanaugh
    2017-01-21 18:07:55 UTC - 18:07 | Permalink

    … much of the material not taken over from the Gospel of Mark originates with the author of the Gospel of Matthew appears to be confirmed by its unmistakable Matthean features.

    This would be the perfect opportunity for James McGrath to explain to us plebs his methodology for determining which parts of Matthew are or are not original to the author. (Though I suspect it would run something like, if you were a biblical scholar like me, it’d be self-evident.)

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