Dale and Patricia Miller and Thomas Brodie discuss the Elijah-Elishah Cycle — 1 Kgs 16:29–2 Kgs 13:25 — as a source of Mark’s gospel.
Brodie does not limit the influences on Mark to the Elijah-Elisha (E-E) narrative. He acknowledges diverse inputs from the broader Hellenistic culture. But in his “Crucial Bridge” he looks closely at the apparent E-E influences.
Before diving into this he comments on what is either an interesting coincidence or design, but what is either way a demonstration of Mark’s complexity and breadth: Mark’s opening combines words and phrases from Genesis 1:1 with the opening words of the Pauline corpus (Romans 1:1); and in addition with citations from the first and last books of the Prophets (Isaiah 40 and Malachi 3). Is Mark attempting to tie together and address the fulfilment of all that has preceded in his gospel?
Length of Mark’s gospel (16 chapters): compares with length of selected biographies of Plutarch (e.g. life of Demosthenes was only about 30 pages); and with the Elijah-Elishah narrative (19 chapters — less if the formulaic reigns like 2 Kgs 8:16-29; 13:1-13 are regarded as padding)
Length of Episodes: In both Mark and the E-E Cycle there is a progression from episodic short episodes to progressively longer ones, both culminating in an extended narrative (the Passion Narrative of Mark 11-16 and the cleansing of Jerusalem of 2 Kings 9-13) . But the progression is spiraling, not linear. Both begin with shorter episodes and then produce longer ones, followed again by a partial return to shorter ones, before finally settling into the concluding extended narrative.
Key point connections:
The messenger of Mark 1:2 is identified by Malachi 3:1, 23 as Elijah.
Mark 1:1-20 recalls Elijah:
- the abrupt beginning — 1 Kgs 17:1
- the wilderness — 1 Kgs 19:4
- the Jordan — 1 Kgs 17:3
- the prophetic speaker’s external appearance — 2 Kgs 1:8
- the animals/ravens — 1 Kgs 17:6
- the angels — 1 Kgs 19:5-7
- the abrupt calling to discipleship — 1 Kgs 19:19-21
Compare D and P Miller on Mark 1:1-44:
- John’s role as wilderness messenger
- cf Mal. 3:1 “I will send my messenger to prepare the way . . .”
- John’s 3 tasks: to baptize, preach repentance, offer forgiveness
- cf 1 Kgs 19:15-16 Elijah’s 3 tasks: to anoint Hazael, Jehu, Elisha
- John succeeds at one task, but not the other two
- cf 1 Kgs 19:17-21 Elijah anoints Elisha but not the other two
- Jesus (=God Saves) succeeds John
- Elisha (=God Saves) succeeds Elijah
- Jesus 2 tasks: offer repentance and forgiveness (Mk 1.14-2.17)
- cf 2 Kgs 8:8-15; 9:1-3 Elisha 2 tasks: anoint Hazael and Jehu
- John wears camel hair
- cf 2 Kgs 1:8 Elijah is known by his hair garment
- Jesus succeeds John at Jordan River
- cf 2 Kgs 2:9-14 Elisha succeeds Elijah at Jordan River
- Jesus receives holy spirit at Jordan
- cf 2 Kgs 2:9 Elishah receives Elijah’s spirit at Jordan
- Jesus hears voice of God (implied) in silence of the spirit
- cf 1 Kgs 19:11-12 Elijah hears voice of God in the silence
- The heavens open at the Jordan for Jesus
- cf 2 Kgs 2:11 Elijah goes up into heaven from the Jordan
- God announces his love for Jesus
- cf Mal. 1:2-6 God loves his children and is to be loved by them
- Jesus is tempted 40 days in wilderness
- cf 1 Kgs 19:1-18, esp 19:8 Elijah is tempted 40 days in wilderness
- Angels serve Jesus in that wilderness
- cf 1 Kgs 19:5-7 An angel serves Elijah in that wilderness
- Jesus preaches repentance when time is fulfilled
- cf Mal. 3-4 Elijah is to return to earth to preach repentance
- Jesus encourages first disciples to leave without farewells to parents
- cf 1 Kgs 19:19-21 Elijah urges Elisha to follow after farewelling parents
- Jesus calls followers away from fishing and mending nets
- 1 Kgs 19:19-20 Elijah calls Elisha away from ploughing
- Demon fears Jesus will destroy him
- cf 1 Kgs 18:40, 2 Kgs 1:9-12, 2:23-24, Mal. 3:2, 4:5 People were killed by Elijah and Elisha; Elijah is predicted to do so
- Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law miraculously
- cf 1 Kgs 17:8-24, 2 Kgs 4:1-37 Both Elijah perform miracles for an old woman
- Jesus heals a leper
- 2 Kgs 5:1-14 Elisha heals Naaman’s leprosy
- Jesus sends the healed leper to the Levitical priests for rituals
- 1 Kgs 18:20-40 Elijah performs priestly role in context with Ba’al priests
Back to Brodie:
Fire came down from heaven where Elijah sat on a mountain top (2 Kgs 1: 10-12) and fire carried him up into heaven (2 Kgs 2:11) — these events occur in the mid-point of the E-E Narrative Cycle.
Compare Mark 9:2-3, mid-point in the gospel, with the Transfiguration on the mountain top. Not fire, but “unearthly light”. This episode is followed by five mentions of the name of Elijah — 9:4-13.
2 Kings 13:20-21:
Elisha died, and they buried him. Now the bands of the Moabites would invade the land in the spring of the year. As they were burying a man, behold, they saw a marauding band; and they cast the man into the grave of Elisha. And when the man touched the bones of Elisha he revived and stood up on his feet.
Brodie comments on p. 90 of The Crucial Bridge.
While the essential content of Mark’s ending is new, its abrupt and enigmatic (16:8) manner corresponds in part to the abrupt and enigmatic account of Elisha’s death and burial, including the dead man’s rising to life (2 Kgs 13:21). (Is it coincidence that Mark’s picture of the women fleeing frightened from the tomb is partly matched by the apparent fright of the pall-bearers and by their implied flight from the tomb of Elisha?)
Note also Mark 15:35-36 with Jesus being thought to call on Elijah from the cross.
1. The call of the disciples: (1 Kgs 19:19-21 and Mk 1:16-20 — near the beginning of Mark)
- action begins with caller who moves towards those to be called
- those called are working
- the call is brief
- the called leave their livelihood
- the means of livelihood are later destroyed (the plough) or mended (the nets)
- further movement followed by leaving home
- leaving other workers
- those called follow the caller
2. The healing of the leper (2 Kgs 5 and Mark 1:40-45 — near the beginning of Mark)
- these are the only 2 explicitly recounted healings of lepers in the Bible
- action begins with the leper and with movement towards the healer
- healer should/does extend his hand
- leprosy is immediately cleansed
- aftermath concerning worship
3. Multiplication of the loaves (2 Kgs 4:42-44 — near Naaman’s healing — and Mark 6:30-44; 8:1-1 — near the middle)
For a detailed comparison see my Feeding of the 5000 (discussed also in relation to my review of Bauckham.)
4. The entire middle section of Mark (6:14-9:13) is replete with Elijah references — 7 mentions of his name. Note
- Herod and the opinion that John is Elijah (6:15)
- Miracles of the loaves (6:30-44; 8:1-10)
- Opinion that Jesus is Elijah and 5 refs to his name after Transfiguration (9:4-5, 12-13)
5. Purging of the Temple (2 Kings 9-13 and Mark 11-16 — the long unbroken narrative at the end of each)
Both narratives focus on the Temple/s.
In the E-E Cycle:
- Jehu’s narrative climaxes with the destruction of the temple of Baal
- Ensuing narrative centres on takeover and renewal of Jerusalem temple
In the Gospel of Mark:
- Jesus first act on arriving at Jerusalem is to cleanse the temple
- He teaches in the temple, shows good lessons of giving in the temple
- He speaks of the temple’s destruction
- The temple features in his trial
- His death results in the tearing of the temple veil
6. Anointing and conspiracy (2 Kgs 9:1-11 and Mark 14:1-14)
- Elisha secretly anoints Jehu king to initiate a conspiracy to destroy the house of Ahab
- Woman secretly anoints Jesus but not to be king and this initiates a conspiracy against him
7. Accession, cheering, cloaks on the ground (2 Kgs 9:12-13 and Mark 11:7-10)
- Jehu’s followers place their cloaks under him on top of the steps and hail him the king
- Jesus’ followers place their garments under him on donkey and on the road and hail him as their king
8. Challenging the authorities (2 Kgs 9:22-10:27 and Mark 12:41-44)
- King Joram of Israel
- and King Ahaziah of Judah
- and Queen Jezebel
- 70 princes, Ahab’s sons
- 42 princes, Ahaziah’s brothers
- the remainder of Ahab’s family
- the worshippers of Baal
- the temple establishment
- the scribes
- the chief priests
- the elders
- the Pharisees
- the Herodians
- the Sadducees
9. Giving money for the temple (2 Kgs 12:5-17 and Mark 12:41-44)
- To repair the temple a chest was placed for the collection of money, generous giving
- The widow gave a mite, but it was all her living, for the temple
Brodie is able to say that while the OT text does not account for Mark’s text it makes a significant contribution to it. Behind Jehu’s bloody political acts was his religious purpose and this purpose was fulfilled in Mark.
Marks’ geographic movement is relatively simple. Begins in Galilee and then moves to Jerusalem.
Similarly Elijah and Elisha live and work in northern Israel but towards the end events the Temple and Jerusalem in the south become the focus.
Within this simple framework there are complications at 3 critical points:
- at the beginning Jesus is in wilderness and Jordan (1:9)
- near middle Jesus goes to Tyre and Sidon (7:24, 31)
- at end Jesus goes ahead to Galilee (16:7)
- at the beginning Elijah is east of Jordan and in Sidon (1 Kgs 17:2-10)
- near middle Elijah is at the Jordan (2 Kgs 2)
- at end Elishah apparently faces east and Damascus (2 Kgs 13:17)
The Elijah-Elisha narrative is history-biography; Mark is more biography.
Elijah, Elisha, Elishah, Mark, GospelofMark
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23 thoughts on “The Elijah-Elisha Narrative and the Gospel of Mark”
This kind of ‘parallelomania’ is underwhelming, to say the least. At most it can establish that Mark thought he was writing a ‘bios prophetou’, a life of a prophet. None of the specific connections between Jesus’ actions and those of Elijah and Elisha are all that interesting or noteworthy, except perhaps the healing of the Shunamite woman’s son and the feeding of the 100. Elijah’s journey into the wilderness was not a temptation, it was simply a journey to find out the will of God after he had fled for his life from those who were seeking to kill him. The fear of demons that Jesus will destroy them is hardly in the same league with Elijah and Elisha killing people.
Why, I wonder, are some people so anxious to demonstrate that the Gospels are fictional adaptations of earlier sources?
You misunderstand the nature of the bulk of this scholarship. Brodie is not “demonstrating” the “fictional” character of the gospels but the literary influences in their telling — and the light these cast on how the author was interpreting the events.
Most sholars and lay believers have no problem embracing the OT allusions found throughout the Passion Narratives, and fully acknowledge that the OT has influenced the way the story is told, and intended to shed light on how the story is intended to be interpreted.
The emperor Augustus was also written up in mythical terms — for political interpretative reasons. But we can accept that Augustus was not fictional because there is evidence beyond those literary-mythical descriptions.
Maybe I did misunderstand the purpose of these particular scholars, but I know from experience that many would-be debunkers of Christianity DO try to establish the fictional nature of the Gospels using such arguments. It is quite obvious that Mark tells the story of Jesus expecting his audience to recognize him as a great prophet, indeed as “more than a prophet”. In that vein one recognizes a call narrative of sorts in the Baptism, the choosing of disciples, teaching, healing, etc. This much is uncontroversial. But it seems that at least some of the parallels listed above aim to establish that the evangelist made up stories about Jesus by adapting the stories of Elijah and Elisha. As such, they are very unconvincing.
I don’t see any question of “debunking” Christianity. My interest is in understanding its origins and that means firstly attempting to understand the nature of the evidence we have to work with.
For example, you mentioned “parallelomania”. No-one has any problem seeing the “parallels” (direct influences) of the Homer’s Odyssey on Virgil’s Aeneid. The study of literary influences in secular literature is standard fare. And if there is no other source detectable for an event in the Aeneid apart from a similar (or even inverted) one we read in the Odyssey, then it is acceptable practice to see the Odyssey as the source for that event in the Aeneid. Why the reluctance to apply the same standards to the biblical literature — even by the scholars who study these literary influences?
I don’t think there is a double standard in biblical scholarship. There may be some scholars who argue vigorously against any sort of parallel between the Gospels and other contemporary (to the Gospels) literature because they believe that they are utterly unique. I am not one of them, and I am quite willing to acknowledge influences when I see them. But things can easily go to the other extreme where you have someone like Denis MacDonald arguing that Mark basically drew his life of Jesus from Homer. The problem with theories like this is that they fail to appreciate the actual context and purposes of the Gospel writers. Scholars are right to see the influence of Homer’s Odyssey in the Aeneid, as both are clearly epic poetry and Virgil was clearly enamored of Homer as a writer. The Gospels were written to preserve traditions about Jesus that were in danger of being lost as his original followers began dying out and the war of 70 threatened to sever any link the Gentile churches outside Judea had with the founder of their movement. This constrains the possible literary analogies available to us.
More briefly, all I want to point out is this: discerning literary influences (in terms of style, structure, etc.) is indeed standard fare and I have seen some of the greatest conservative New Testament scholars use such analysis to great advantage. This is to separated, however, from a ‘parallelomania’ in which skeptics scour the Gospels for the tell-tale signs of a fictional composition (usually by trying to link specific episodes or ‘stock’ events in other ancient literature with events in the Gospels implying that those were the Gospel writers’ ‘real’ sources), thus invalidating the historical claims of the Christian faith.
How can the historical claims of the Christian faith be validated?
If one finds evidence for a gospel story originating in other literature and there is no other evidence of any sort for that story, then what’s wrong with assuming that the gospel story was copied from that other literature?
First, as I have been noting, the evidence often put forward arguing that a gospel story originated somewhere else is quite weak. One must already start in most cases with a view to discredit the Gospels before such literary clues may be taken seriously (i.e. Freke and Gandy, Harpur, Doherty, Carrier, etc.). Second, we can reconstruct a plausible context for the Gospel writing (as I hinted at in my last message) and try to determine what sort of documents they are, or in Jesus’ words, “to what shall they be likened” in the literary environment of late antiquity. Such a study shows that the Gospel writers were concerned to accurately (within their overall theological vision) preserve traditions about Jesus which were handed down from eyewitnesses and the eyewitnesses’ disciples. As I said before, this constrains the range of literary analogies which we can plausibly apply to the Gospels.
As for the historical claims of the Christian faith, I think that there is no neutral ground from which evaluate the evidence for them. Accepting Jesus as Lord is not only an intellectual affair, it involves a total reorientation of one’s volitional and affective stance. The Christian faith can only be validated by what is seen AFTER conversion as the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit (see William J. Abraham, “Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation”). On the ‘other’ side of divine revelation, however, the historical claims of Christianity must be plausibly grounded in what might be called ‘neutral’ historical facts. For example, if it were in fact shown that the Gospels are entirely or mostly fictional, one would have little reason to take the historical claims of Christianity seriously. On the other hand, if one can argue, for example, that an extraordinary explanation is required to explain the sudden and early emergence of an extremely ‘high’ Christology among devout monotheistic Jews (i.e. Larry Hurtado, “Lord Jesus Christ” and Richard Bauckham, “God Crucified”), a plausible reconstruction of the origin of Christian belief may very well include the first followers of Jesus’ experience of his resurrection. Like I said, there is no neutral way to establish the superiority of this explanation over other, naturalistic competitors (though it seems to me that most naturalistic explanations are somewhat ad hoc and desperate), but at the very least such scholarship can make an orthodox interpretation of Christian origins plausible, or not unlikely.
Scholars are only applying the same standards to the Gospels as they do to other works, for example, the Book of Mormon and the Koran.
See my article http://www.bowness.demon.co.uk/mirc1.htm
Or from my my debate with Dr. Paul Marston http://www.bowness.demon.co.uk/marston2.htm
‘While we are discussing the events of Herod’s last few years, Josephus’s ‘Antiquities’ records that Herod ordered many people to be killed when he died, so that there would be people who mourned that he was dead. Emil Schuerer’s ‘The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ’, says that this may not be historically reliable, because it resembles a legend about Alexander Jannaeus. It is not only religious works where people examine stories to see if they have a literary source. I am not singling out the New Testament for treatment I would not apply to other works.’
As an aside http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/log/2007/resurrection.html has an interesting parable of how naturalistic explanations are to be preferred when members of the Joe Bloggs fan club write how Joe Bloggs broke the speed of light . Not totally relevant to the posting on this blog, but relevant to why orthodox interpretations of Christian origins are not really plausible after all.
Scholars generally do not see much literary invention or borrowing in the Gospels. It is mostly those who already have an agenda to discredit the New Testament. I have already read your article on the sources of miracle stories and actually wrote you a lengthy email over the summer detailing the many deficiencies in the arguments (including errors of Greek), which you chose to simply dismiss rather than respond to. The problem with the whole literary borrowing scheme is that all individual lives and histories invariably have much in common simply due to the fact that we share a common human experience. As Qoheleth perceptively commented, nothing is new under the Sun. At some point in history or literature we can find striking parallels for just about every other event in history and even conjure plausible ‘sources’ for making them up. Resemblance to a legend does little or nothing to establish an event’s ahistoricity. It can easily lead to methodological absurdity.
As for the Book of Mormon, there is not one single external constraint which can be applied in terms of archeology, local tradition or external secular references to any of the New World history it presents, in contrast to the world of the Bible and the New Testament more particularly. As for the Koran, it is largely dependent on the Bible anyways for its information (which it presents as such, not as works of fiction) so it is not a useful comparison.
‘Scholars generally do not see much literary invention or borrowing in the Gospels’
And imams generally proclaim the Koran as the word of God.
‘ I have already read your article on the sources of miracle stories and actually wrote you a lengthy email over the summer detailing the many deficiencies in the arguments (including errors of Greek), which you chose to simply dismiss rather than respond to.’
Your response was rubbish.
As for your comments on the Book of Mormon, my article shows Christians dismissing stories in the Book of Mormon as coming from a plausible source – the King James Bible.
Of course, you claim ‘we can find striking parallels for just about every other event in history and even conjure plausible ’sources’ for making them up. Resemblance to a legend does little or nothing to establish an event’s ahistoricity. It can easily lead to methodological absurdity.’
Tell that to the Christian scholars who maintain that Joseph Smith cribbed from the King James Bible.
‘As for the Koran, it is largely dependent on the Bible….’
So you think the story of Jesus breathing life into birds of clay was dependent upon the Bible, and you don’t dismiss it as having a ‘resemblance to a legend’?
The double-standards of Christians are breathtaking. They are such hypocrites that I feel duty bound to expose their hypocrisy where ever I can.
13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come
What parallels are there between John the Baptist and Elijah?
Jesus seemed to think there were some, but perhaps he was suffering from ‘parallelomania’
Are there any interesting or noteworthy parallels between John the Baptist and Elijah, parallels which are as interesting and noteworthy as the parallels between the ‘paidarion’ who brings Elijah barley bread to feed a crowd of people and the ‘paidarion’ who brings Jesus barley bread to feed a crowd of people?
JD Walters Says:
“As for the historical claims of the Christian faith, I think that there is no neutral ground from which evaluate the evidence for them.”
Does this mean that God/Christians do not respect even-handed weighing up of rationally verifiable evidence, and that he/they want us to begin with an agenda to believe the gospels are God’s word?
JD Walters Says:
March 31st, 2007 at 8:36 am e
“Scholars generally do not see much literary invention or borrowing in the Gospels.”
Most scholars I know who address the topic have no problem admitting that Matthew and Luke borrowed from Mark, and many conservative Christian scholars will also go along with a borrowing from Q. (So much for Bauckham’s eyewitness testimony theory. You mentioned Bauckham: I have yet to finish my discussion of his final chapter elsewhere in this blog, along with a presentation of a much simpler and immediately verifiable argument for the sources of the gospel material.)
So my response on your article on the miracle stories was rubbish. Ooh, I’m convinced! Just because you say so! Never mind that I grew up in Greece and learned both ancient (Attic and Koine) and modern Greek and are perhaps in a better position to evaluate linguistic parallels. In any case, since you simply say my response was rubbish there is no room any more for rational argument. I am not one of those you cite in your article who dismiss the Book of Mormon by trying to show that it derives from the Bible. My dismissal is based on utter lack of any external constraints on the story and on theological differences. I don’t see what the story from the infancy Gospels has to do with any of this. As for Elijah, pay closer attention to the text. It says “Elijah who is to come”, NOT the original Elijah.
No, it is not that God does not appreciate even-handed weighing up of rationally verifiable evidence. It’s just that that by itself is not sufficient to motivate the personal transformation God wants to effect in those who believe. Rational deliberations can make a plausible case for the Christian faith, but they can never rule out all possible alternatives and caveats to make the case completely air-tight and completely convincing so that everyone regardless of the condition of their own heart before God will be forced to believe.
Maybe I wasn’t clear enough about borrowing. I did not mean borrowing in your sense, i.e. taking information from other sources about Jesus. I mean the borrowing wholesale of stories and stereotypes from other literary sources so as to create episodes in Jesus’ life out of whole cloth. As for Q, I am not entirely convinced that a document which nobody has seen and of which there is no manuscript evidence can plausibly aid us in reconstructing Christian origins. I am reading Bauckham’s book right now. I am not entirely sure of all his reconstructions either, but I think overall he makes a good case that traditions about Jesus were associated with specific eyewitnesses. This does not necessarily preclude a written source of Jesus’ teaching circulating in the form of a Q document, though. The sayings therein could well have been written down by the original eyewitnesses. Note that many Q sayings are also found in Mark, which Bauckham claims derives from the preaching of Peter. I don’t have time right now to evaluate his whole case so far, but I think it deserves better than you have given it in your review posts, especially since his ‘detective work’ which you claim is forcing more out of the evidence than is merited is no different than the speculations many unbelieving scholars make (such as Crossan, Mack, etc.) when they try to reconstruct Christian origins.
Do you mean to imply that unless a rational enquiry concludes by making a plausible case for the Christian faith that it is not truly rational, fully informed or honest? Do you assess a person’s intellectual arguments and conclusions according to whether they support your faith or not? This sounds as circular and anti-intellectual as 1 John 4:6: “We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”
As for Q, you said “Note that many Q sayings are also found in Mark”. If that is what you meant then it is worth pointing out that the entire theory of Q rests on the premis that that no Q sayings are found in Mark. Perhaps you meant that there is some narrative material in common, such as the baptism of Jesus.
Are you really saying that Mark’s John the Baptist story owes nothing to the Elijah character in the OT? I would be curious to know on what criteria you decide a text is adapting or not adapting another text: Would I be correct in thinking your criteria is that a story about Jesus in the canonical gospels is original and unique because it is a story about Jesus in the canonical gospels, so no other rules of literary mimesis apply?
No, that’s not what I’m implying. I am willing to accept that a person can honestly and sincerely (as far as they are aware) evaluate the evidence and come out convinced that it is unlikely that God exists. All I am getting at is the importance of one’s affective and personal stance toward the evidence. In my view a certain affective stance is required in order for someone to appreciate the full impact of the evidence for theism. This kind of claim goes counter to a narrow empiricist understanding of the evaluation of evidence, but it is also more realistic psychologically and philosophically. See William J. Wainwright’s “Reason and the Heart” for the detailed case.
As for Q, I don’t think it’s quite right that the whole theory of Q rests on their being no Q sayings in Mark. The idea is that Q was a sayings Gospel which contained sayings also in Mark but which for the most part consisted of sayings used by both Matthew and Luke which were not in Mark. It is also worth pointing out that there is no consensus on what exactly the content of Q was (see http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/q-contents.html. And though I am open to the possibility of its existence, I remain skeptical that we need to posit Q to account for the synoptic problem (See Mark Goodacre’s “The Case against Q”).
Again you misunderstand me about ‘borrowing’. That’s not the right word for what I think the Gospel writers are doing. You ask “Are you really saying that Mark’s John the Baptist story owes nothing to the Elijah character in the OT?” As it stands this is ambiguous. If you are implying that Mark pulled his characterization of John the Baptist straight from the Elijah stories then I reject that inference. If, on the other hand, you are suggesting that Mark structured his John material so as to evoke in the reader’s mind the image of a prophet like Elijah, then that is uncontroversial. After all, the evangelist himself intends for that connection to be made by quoting from Isaiah before he begins describing John’s ministry! The point I was making in reference to Steven Carr is that the evangelists thought of John the Baptist as “The Elijah who was to come”, i.e. a prophetic figure that will have “the spirit and power of Elijah” and who will prepare the way of the Lord. But Steve Carr seems to think that Matthew 11:14 implies that the evangelists basically created the story of John the Baptist out of whole cloth from the Elijah stories.
Now, to be more specific about my criteria for judging whether one text has ‘borrowed’ from another: you would NOT be correct in thinking that I insist a story is unique just because it is of Jesus in the canonical gospels. I do tend to be skeptical of literary borrowings in general, because I think that real life supplies plenty of ‘stock’ episodes which resemble one another, without having to resort to the idea that a writer was deliberately adapting and/or crafting an episode in honor of (or even in ridicule of) a previous literary work. I would accept the latter idea only if we are sure that we are dealing with fiction, and we know that the writer was indeed heavily influenced by other writers and/or stories and held them in high esteem. Take for example Stephen King’s “The Green Mile”, about a man named John Coffey who has healing powers. We know that it is a work of fiction. We know that Stephen King is steeped in biblical imagery and themes in general in his work. And the parallels are too obvious to deny. The man’s name has the initials J.C. (Jesus Christ). He has the power to “take back” wrongdoings (i.e. he “takes upon himself the sins of the world”) and effect miraculous healings. Finally, he is unjustly condemned and executed as common criminal, with a crowd of angry, vengeful people approving of his death (“he was despised and rejected of men”). But for all that, I find it conceivable that somewhere in this world there could be such a person, not Christ or John Coffey, who was unjustly condemned and who had an unusual impact on those around him. Upon hearing about such a person I do not automatically think that it is a fictional tale based upon earlier stories of such people.
All that to say this: overall I think the case for direct, inventive literary ‘borrowing’ of the Gospels from other stories and texts is fairly week. But I think a strong case can be made that the Gospel writers used vocabulary and imagery from these other sources in order to deliberately evoke comparison. For example, Dale Allison has noticed how in Mark’s story of the feeding of the five thousand the detail of the multitudes settling down on ‘green grass’ is meant as an illusion to Psalm 23. The evangelist is explaining for us the MEANING of what Jesus did. But I don’t think that the whole episode was created out of nothing more than Psalm 23 and the story in Kings about Elisha’s feeding of the 100.
JD Walters Says:
Please, that sort of formal address really grates an Australian’s ears. My name is Neil.
JD Walters Says:
“I am willing to accept that a person can honestly and sincerely (as far as they are aware) evaluate the evidence and come out convinced that it is unlikely that God exists.”
This does imply my original contention was correct: “Do you mean to imply that unless a rational enquiry concludes by making a plausible case for the Christian faith that it is not truly rational, fully informed or honest?” — by tossing in “as far as they are aware” you do seem to be conceding my point that you do not believe a truly “fully informed” enquiry (given true honesty and rationality with it) can possibly lead anywhere but to making a plausible case for Christianity.
JD Walters Says:
“All I am getting at is the importance of one’s affective and personal stance toward the evidence.”
My affective and personal stance toward the evidence is a strong compulsion to humanism and a few other related things — a sense of identity with the fundamental stuff of the evidence itself. One can attribute all our awareness and senses to the grey stuff in our craniums without being “narrowly empirical” – the more one sees what the “evidence” generates the greater the awe and amazement and appreciation for life and others — no need for anything beyond the evidence to experience and appreciate any of this.
As for the John the Baptist allusion, we concede that Mark does draw on the OT for some part of his portrayal of John. We rely on evidence external to the text to understand how it came to be the way it is. Ditto for any text: e.g. we know Josephus is real history in some of his chapters because we have evidence external to his text for the reality of many of the events in those chapters. But in some of his chapters he is only paraphrasing sections of the OT — e.g. Eve was made from Adam’s rib. Same for histories of Alexander the Great, of Julius Caesar, ….. external evidence informs us that certain texts have a historical basis.
My point is, we can see many textual allusions in the gospels which inform us that the authors relied in part on certain texts for their stories, but we have either no external evidence, or contradictory external evidence, for any of the events in the life of Jesus in the gospels. Sure some character and place names are there, but there is no evidence that any of these really “witnessed” the stories we read in the gospels.
I’m not sure I understand your point about the Steven King novel. You know it is fiction, you know the sources of much of the plot and character, so it is clearly fiction and you can identify its main influence. I’m not sure what you seem to be saying after that about appearing to think it may not be fiction? Surely i misunderstand… Sure there may have been someone “like” that in real life by some coincidence, but we know that’s not who the novel is about or who it is based on.
My conviction that Christianity is true does make me skeptical that those who do not believe are not evaluating the evidence correctly, but that is an inevitable consequence of such a conviction in any field, whether religion or science or social interactions. Of course it is entirely possible that I will be proven wrong about this: I accept the metapossibility that I am mistaken in thinking that those who disagree with me are mistaken. But as long as I am convinced by my own evaluation of the evidence that I am right, in order to be consistent (unless one prefers suspending judgement) I must believe that others who come to another conclusion are doing something wrong. I do not pretend to be able to prove this, however. I hope you are not implying that it is intellectually dishonest to do so. As I said, it is an inevitable consequence of holding a conviction about any issue on which there is disagreement (I am sure you would agree that your own humanist convictions lead you to similar conclusions about ‘apologetic’ NT scholars). Again, please see William Wainwright’s book. He deals with all of these issues and more, including the potential threat of epistemic relativism.
I agree in general about the importance of external evidence, but good historical practice also includes an appreciation for what kind of external evidence we can reasonably expect in certain historical epochs and for certain events and peoples. For example, we surely do not possess all the important written records of the 1st Century, even from the earliest Christians (we know of at least one letter of Paul that never made it into our hands).
My point about the Stephen King novel is that literary allusions are potentially misleading if we do not already know that we are dealing with fiction, because it could be that real life has thrown up an event which is remarkably reminiscent of certain fictional episodes but which actually happened. Literary allusions cannot be used to prove ahistoricity, especially in a Judeo-Hellenistic culture which drew extensively on existing literary models in fashioning their literature, whether historical or fictional. And I wouldn’t agree with you that we have no evidence that the people mentioned in the Gospels actually witnessed the events reported. 2 Peter describes in detail the transfiguration of Jesus as recorded in Mark, apparently from the perspective of an eye-witness (I know that the authorship of this epistle is disputed). The Gospel of John insists that the Word dwelt “among us” and that “we beheld his glory”. To dismiss these as apologetic rhetoric is question-begging. I can’t get into a long discussion of the indicators that we do have eye-witness testimony, but the fact that the reports appear to conflict in places does not imply that they are not eye-witness reports. Skeptics are eager to point out that eye-witnesses do not always agree. I agree, but ironically that means that the fact of contradictory reports cannot be used to rule out the possibility that we have eye-witness testimony.
Philosophy of religion is not something I can read easily given its starting assumptions, though I did read Robert Holyer’s review in the International Journal for Philosophy of Religion. I find far more value in approaching Wainwright’s questions through the sciences. The intertwining of “passions” or feelings and states of consciousness and thinking/reasoning as studied by neurologists et al is far more feet on the ground stuff. I also reject the relativist charges against enlightenment values leveled by the strange bedfellows of religionists and post-modernists.
When you speak of “skeptics being eager” to debunk or find contradictions I think this is an unnecessary blanket dismissal of challenges to your faith. Sceptics aren’t of one mind (or “passion”) and the charge does border on ad hominem, certainly mind-reading.
But it is surely not question begging to dismiss texts that come from the same general school or religious position when at best they support each other while at the same time each one remains without the support of external confirmation of any of its historical claims.
If you want a more scientific approach to the intertwining of passional and intellectual cognition, see Mark Wynn’s “Emotional Experience and Religious Understanding”. He discusses the recent neuroscientific work on the emotions by LeDoux and Damasio. I am also working towards a certificate in neuroscience and I can point you to some of the literature on the subject if you’re interested.
No, I do not use the skeptics’ eagerness to debunk as a blanket dismissal of challenges to my faith, and I am not mind-reading either. Just read some of the mail Earl Doherty gets on his ‘Jesus Myth’ site. There are so many people who are writing expressing their great relief and enthusiasm at finding Doherty’s work so that they can answer their ‘pesky’ Christian friends. You can tell that they are grasping for anything which enables them to ignore the challenge of Christianity. As for challenges to my faith, I take them as they come. Some are objectively stronger than others. For example, Richard Carrier of Internet Infidels is usually well below-par, but I thought that Taner Edis’ skeptical book “The Ghost in the Universe” was much more cogent and thought-provoking, since he is obviously thoroughly familiar with the most sophisticated literature in philosophy of religion. Ditto for Richard Gale and Evan Fales.
Yes, it is question-begging to do as you say. Who says that sources from the same ‘general school’ cannot be reliable? Shall we throw out all Roman historians who supported one or another Emperor cult, or Josephus who insisted that messianic prophecies were fulfilled in Vespasian and therefore obviously biased toward his Roman patrons?
“You can tell that they are grasping for anything which enables them to ignore the challenge of Christianity. ”
You can? Or maybe some of them have been burned and scarred by Christianity in a way that you cannot appreciate.
What is so special about the “challenge of Christianity”? If the flat-earthers or UFO’ers were a dominant institutions in my society I would probably look gratefully at anything that would help ignore them too. But they are marginal so I can easily ignore them. They are not in a position to do as much damage to others.
I said that it is question begging to dismiss TEXTS that come from the same school. You have reproduced my argument as if I said SOURCES, which I did not. Historians validate texts by external reference to other sources, non-literary ones by preference, such as datable monuments, coins, archaeological matter. There is nothing comparable to support the canonical gospel stories. We may not expect archaeological evidence but this is surely a case where non-partisan texts would be expected to support the claims, but there is simply nothing there that has not been subject to controversy and doubts. Nothing undisputable. That is why we cannot use the canonical gospels as bedrock history. Historians in any other area would be remiss if they were found resting theories on sources which they could not date or determine the provenance of or externally validate.
“We may not expect archaeological evidence but this is surely a case where non-partisan texts would be expected to support the claims”
Like which texts exactly? The memoirs of Joseph Qayafas? The official governmental records of Pontius Pilate? I think you’re forgetting just how fragmentary our knowledge of 1st century Palestine really is. You right as if everywhere else the history of the 1st Century is completely filled in with adequate geographical, historical, archeological and literary coverage, but there’s only this one dark patch we call Christian history where everything’s obscure. The fact is that the New Testament comprises a significant bulk of the written records that we have of the middle-to-late 1st Century (or early 2nd, if you accept the claims of the Dutch radical critics).