3 criteria lists for literary borrowing

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by Neil Godfrey

Following are the different criteria lists used by three authors who have studied literary borrowings within the gospels and Acts: Allison, Clark and MacDonald.

Included are two extracts that discuss the ancient literary expectations and customs of authors borrowing from past masters.

Names and titles are hyperlinked:

From Dale C. Allison, Jr. The New Moses

In his book on Arshile Gorky, H. Rosenberg wrote this:

In this century, every major work of art, whether pictorial or not, is charged — the word is Ezra Pound’s — with allusion: to things or events, read, dreamed or half-remembered, but, above all, to high points in the history of its medium.

We can adapt these words for our own purposes: in the Bible, almost every book is charged with allusion: to things and events, above all to the high points in salvation-history — this includes the New Testament — is to significant degree a chain of responses to foundational traditions . . . . Thus the biblical books are all “fraught with background,” [phrase from E. Auerbach, Mimesis, 1953], and their meaning largely depends on knowing that background. . . .

The canonical writings, literature of inheritance, are deliberately interactive and full of allusive reciprocal discourse; hence . . . poets such as Shelley and Eliot, . . . consciously made themselves members of the Western literary tradition through regular allusion to it. In like manner, resonances in Scripture are there neither for erudite display nor for the playing of sophisticated hide and seek. Inexplicit biblical parallelism is instead a natural, if eloquent, method of communication:”this is like that” means, if the latter is sacred, that so is the former: both belong to holy history.

There is, however, a problem. Ovid imitated Virgil, non subripend, causa sed palam mutuandi, hoc animo ut uellet agnosci: not to steal, but to borrow openly, with the intention of being recognized (Seneca the Elder, Suasoriae 3.7). But how does a contemporary reader of an ancient work recognize such an intention? . . . How then does one decide? . . . As modern readers of the Bible are we not in the position of the college student struggling to understand Dante or Milton . . . ? Every phrase has something in it, much more than initially perceived; but how to perceive it? (Allison, p.15-17)

Allison advises those readers who are so “historically conditioned [to] deafness” to these Biblical allusions that they might even doubt their existence, to think of a modern analogy. Remembering that ancient “readers” were really always “listeners”, think of those today who listen to music often enough to be able to identify an entire song or composition from listening to just the smallest portion of it. Today we need concordances to see connections between texts that were once immediately grasped by those with trained and encultured ears.

Sure people are capable of “auditory hallucinations” (Allison, p. 18 ) and past excesses in “parallelomania” and “typologicalmania” have led scholars to swing to the opposite extreme of “the ability to declare typology absent is a kind of proof of sound modern critical method.” (Miner, 1977, cited in Allison, p.19)

Dale Allison lists 6 tools by which a modern reader might assess the probability of cross-textual allusions:

  1. explicit statement by the author that he is comparing with another work
  2. inexplicit citation or borrowing (e.g. Mark 1:6 And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; . . . . ; 2 Kings 1:8 And they said to him, He was a man in a hairy garment, and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins. And he said, It is Elijah the Tishbite.)
  3. similar circumstances in the narrative of the text (c.f. Moses crossing of the Red Sea and Joshua’s crossing of the Jordan River)
  4. keywords or phrases similar across the texts (e.g. the gospels’ story of the miraculous feeding of the 5000 and the tale of Elisha miraculously feeding 100 men with 20 loaves – 2 Kings 4:42-44 -share words.)
  5. similar narrative structure (e.g. Compare the calling of the disciples with the calling of Elisha – Mark 1 and 1 Kings 19 – Elijah appears/Jesus appears; Elisha is working/Disciples are working; Call to follow/Call to follow; Elisha follows Elijah/Disciples follow Jesus)
  6. word order, syllabic sequence, poetic resonance

Clearly most of the above in isolation are not sufficient to establish a textual borrowing. So Allison lists another 6 guidelines that can be used to help one make judgments about possible textual allusions. No list, Allison explains, is a guarantee that can be applied like a hard and fast rule. Judgment will always come into it — and the more experienced we are in the literary culture as a whole the more trustworthy our judgments are likely to be.

  1. the earlier text must be the one copied by the later text (duh!) — but the relative chronology is not always clear
  2. show that the subtext belongs to a book or tradition that on other grounds has significance for its author
  3. if no explicit or clear unacknowledged borrowing there must be some combination of 3-6 in the above list
  4. a type should be prominent
  5. if its constituent elements been used for typological construction in more than one writing the likelihood that is used again is increased
  6. unusual imagery and uncommon motifs

From Andrew C. Clark Parallel Lives
Andrew Clark wrote Parallel Lives as an examination of the relation of Paul’s career to the lives of the other apostles, particularly Peter, in Acts. He likewise lists 6 criteria for assisting with judgments about literary borrowing or imitation:

  1. content – similarity in language (not necessarily identical language)
  2. literary form (e.g. distinct literary technique or motif — e.g. a double dreams in the narratives of both Peter’s call to the gentiles and Paul’s conversion)
  3. sequence – the more extensive the stronger this criterion is
  4. structure (e.g. the parallel structures of the birth of John and Jesus strongly indicates it was the author’s intention to create the parallel)
  5. parallel theme – this cannot stand on its own but adds strength where it exists to other criteria
  6. disruption of the text where the parallel is introduced – suggesting the parallel was deliberately created even at the cost of doing something awkward with the text

Dennis MacDonald author of The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark

Texts discussing rhetorical imitations frequently mention the practice of occulting or disguising one’s reliance on a model, for servile imitation could lead to charges of boorish pedantry and even of plagiarism. These disguises included altering the vocabulary, varying the order, length, and structure of sentences, improving the content, and generating a series of formal transformations. (MacDonald, p.5)

  • Notes: Cicero encouraged paraphrase instead of word-for-word replications even when translating from Greek to Latin (De optimo genere oratorium 5.13-15)
  • Quintilian gave precise instructions on how to teach the imitation of narrative to “those who are not yet ripe for the schools of rhetoric” so as to avoid servile dependence (Institutio oratoria, 1.9.106)
  • Hermogenes wrote a chapter on “the art of speaking without anyone perceiving that others or one’s self had already said it.” (MacDonald, p.206)

The most sophisticated form of ancient imitation, however, was . . . aemulatio, “rivalry.” Such emulations announce, albeit subtly, their reliance on their model, and at the same time attempt “to speak better. The observant reader, noticing the markers, will compare the model or hypotext with the hypertext and perhaps judge the imitation superior, whether in literary expression, philosophical acuity, or religious power. Many ancient imitations of Homeric epics fall into this category, whether the emulations are parodies, like the Batrachomyomachia or Margites, or Latin philosophical belletristics, like the Aeneid. The success of these transvaluations required the reader to detect the presence of the hypotext, and to this end the author supplied hypertextual clues. Favourite flags for hypertextuality in prose were signifying names. Petronius expected his readers to make the proper associations when they confronted his characters Menalaus, Agamemnon, and Circe. His characters frequently parodied Homer’s contrasting epic nobility with the flabby hedonism of contemporary Romans. (MacDonald, p.6)

The criteria MacDonald uses to judge probability of a text’s dependence on other works:

  1. accessibility to the author of the potential borrowed text (How likely is it that the author of a text had access to another he appears to have borrowed from?)
  2. analogy with borrowings of the text by other authors (did other authors also borrow and re-write the same stories?)
  3. density of the numbers of similarities between the texts (The more details there are in common and the more closely packed these are in the two episodes the more likely it is that one text has borrowed from the other.)
  4. order or sequence of the parallels (The more closely the similar details in a text follow the same sequence of similar details in another text, the greater the likelihood of borrowing.)
  5. distinctiveness of special features of the stories (e.g. 2 stories describing how people sat down and ate is hardly a distinctive parallel, but two stories of a mass feeding similar numbers of thousands of males who sit down in similar groupings is more distinctive)
  6. interpretability or intelligibility — the capacity of the original text to make sense of some detail in the new work (e.g. Is there some detail or theme in a story that has mystified modern readers over why it was included, with a satisfactory explanation appearing if the author knew another text where the same detail made more sense? Sometimes borrowing from another text may produce awkwardness or some incoherence in order to fit it in the new work.)
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Neil Godfrey

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