Tactics of Religious Innovation: Deuteronomy and Gospels

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Of the authors of Deuteronomy Bernard M. Levinson writes

. . . their concern was to implement their own agenda: to reflect a major transformation of all spheres of Judaean life — cultically, politically, theologically, judicially, ethically, and economically. The authors of Deuteronomy had a radically new vision of the religious and public polity and sought to implement unprecedented changes in religion and society. Precisely for that reason, the guise of continuity with the past became crucial. The authors of Deuteronomy sought to locate their innovative vision in prior textual authority by tendentiously appropriating texts like the Covenant Code [esp in Exodus], while freely going beyond them in programmatic and substantive terms to address matters like public administration, the role of the monarchy, and the laws of warfare.

Deuteronomy’s reuse of its textual patrimony was creative, active, revisionist, and tendentious. It functioned as a means of cultural transformation. (Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation, p.16)

The authors of Deuteronomy used the very texts they opposed to introduce a contrary set of rules to displace them. The legal code in Exodus knew nothing about an obligatory single cult centre. Sacrifices could be performed wherever the people were — in every place — just as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob sacrificed in every place where they found God’s presence. So Exodus 20:24:

An altar of earth shall you make for me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I record my name I will come to you, and I will bless you.

Twisting your opponent’s words

I cannot repeat here the richness of Levinson’s textual comparison: a broad overview will have to do, so where the detail sounds shallow Levinson is not at fault. The Hebrew for “In every place where” above literally reads: in every [the] place. The Deuteronomist has reused the same words with a slight restructuring in Deuteronomy 12:13-15

Take heed to yourself that you do not offer your burnt offerings in every place that you see; but in the place which the Lord chooses, in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I command you. However, you may slaughter and eat meat within all your gates, whatever your heart desires, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which he has given you; the unclean and the clean may eat of it, of the gazelle and the deer alike.

The Deuteronomist appears to be explaining more fully the old law in Exodus while in fact he is contradicting its basic assumption and instruction. One of his tools for accomplishing this is to reuse but also restructure the targeted phrase in the Exodus law that he seeks to overturn.

The degree of technical scribal sophistication involved is remarkable. (p.33)

The phrase is broken apart, reused and recontextualized. The result of this recycling?

The literary recycling allows the Deuteronomic authors to retain the ostensible validity of the older Exodus altar law or, at least, to cast their innovation in light of the older sacrificial norm and to minimize their departure from it. Nonetheless, in substantive terms, they abrogate it. (p. 33)

1. The reworked phrase now prohibits what the Exodus original assumed: sacrifices at many altars.

2. The reworked phrase simultaneously commands a new law never imagined in Exodus: the obligation to sacrifice at only one central altar (Jerusalem is the subtext)

3. The reworked phrase also introduces something else that is new to Israelite laws and customs: a distinction between cultic sacrifice (at an altar) and secular slaughter (not at an altar)

Before Deuteronomy the laws in Exodus, Leviticus and 1 Samuel made no difference between sacrificing for religious/cultic purposes and slaughtering animals for food. Exodus 24 used the same verb for both (sacrifice/slaughter); Leviticus 17:1-9 requires all “slaughter” to take place at the altar; 1 Samuel 14:31-33 condemns Saul’s troops for slaughtering for food away from an altar.

None of this was accidental. The Exodus altar law had the prestige of antiquity, was ascribed to Yahweh, likely circulated with the Covenant Code, and represented normative practice. Because of its prestige and normative status, the law could not be dispensed with or bypassed. In order to justify their departure from it, the authors of Deuteronomy tendentiously reworked it by means of studied, transformative exegesis, appropriating its very working to express their own innovative agenda. Their implicit argument is that their innovation represents the actual force of that altar law, which they nevertheless replaced by turning its own syntax and lexemes against it. (pp.33-34)

The Deuteronomist chiastically cites and revises Exodus, as per the table:

Exod 20:24

Deut 12:14

A    You shall sacrifice upon it …..your burnt offerings . . . B1    in the place …….which Yahweh shall choose . . .
B    in every place where . . . A1    there you shall offer …….your burnt offerings

Exod 20:24

Deut 12:15

A    You shall sacrifice …..upon it …..your burnt offerings . . . A2     Only, to your heart’s desire ……..you may slaughter ……..and eat meat
B    in every place where I proclaim my name …..I shall come to you and bless you B2     according to the blessing ……..of Yahweh your God ……..in each of your city-gates

In the first bracket (top two rows) we see that the Exodus law placed primacy on the burnt offerings (first mentioned) while the Deuteronomic revision reverses the order to give primary emphasis on the place of sacrifice. In the second bracket, the Deuteronomist has cited the two key elements of the Exodus law (“you shall sacrifice” and “in every place / bless you”) a second time. But he has planted them in new contexts to revise their meanings. He has detached the Exodus verb for “sacrifice” from the “burnt offering” altar association, and given it a new secular meaning (“slaughter”) to refer to normal requirements for eating. The action, as in Exodus, still takes place at any place throughout Israel, but it no longer applies to cultic sacrifice. Sacrifice will only be permitted at one central sanctuary. In the bottom row the word-twisting is particularly cheeky (or “sophisticated”, if one prefers), enough to make any lawyer proud. Where Exodus imagines God personally assuring his devotees that he will bless them in every place where they will be sacrificing, Deuteronomy rewrites the divine words in the third person and continues to affirm God’s blissful presence “in every place” or all the settlements of Israel. But the difference is that God now blesses them with his presence whenever someone decides to kill an animal for a roast dinner.

Gospel truth and revision

In my previous post I mentioned a few of the methods the gospel authors used to demonstrate to readers their integration and conformity with the religion of antiquity:

  1. prophetic fulfilment;
  2. narrative voice and themes of the stories of the Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings);
  3. teachings reasoned as being older than those of Moses;
  4. genealogical links to heroes of antiquity;
  5. disclaiming authorship to direct audiences to “what is written”.

In addition to the above one can add:

6.  linking thematic motifs (e.g. new creations emerging from dividing waters, as in Genesis 1, Noah’s Flood, the Red Sea Exodus, the Jordan crossing, Elijah and Elisha’s brook crossings, Jesus’ baptism and heavens parting, temple veil tearing; mountain theophanies, as with Moses in Sinai, Elijah in Horeb, Jesus on Mt Hermon; etc.)

This post has looked at the textual and syntactic techniques used by an author to introduce new laws while making them appear to be magnifications of the older well-known law.

We see a similar process at work as gospel authors like Matthew and Luke attempt to introduce very different views of Jesus, the disciples and various doctrines from those originally known to anyone familiar with the earliest gospel narrative in Mark. It is significant that the bulk of the words of Mark’s gospel are found in Matthew and Luke, but it is equally significant that each of the latter conveys a very different concept of Jesus in many of their re-tellings of Mark’s scenes.

In an earlier post, Matthew’s “misunderstanding” of Mark’s miracle stories, I addressed Matthew’s re-writing of Mark’s original miracle narratives. I don’t think Matthew “misunderstood” Mark’s story at all. He understood it all too well, and he disagreed strongly with the messages it conveyed. But rather than deny the story outright, he took Mark’s narrative and edited it in a way to preach a very different Jesus and message for readers.

Another post, Reasons for Luke to change Mark’s account of the calling of the disciples, is a similar discussion from an author with a different agenda yet again.

Also That Villainous Pilate (and Centurion) in the Gospel of Mark. This looks at the various agendas of different gospel authors as they re-wrote Mark’s portrayal of Pilate and the Roman Centurion at Christ’s crucifixion.

More recently I wrote about the evolution of Joseph of Arimathea through the gospels. I am not sure I strongly agree with all that I wrote there, now, but a similar set of rewritings motivated by different agendas is evident nonetheless.

But none of these was written with the tactics of the rewriter of the legal texts (Exodus to Deuteronomy) in mind, and how these demonstrate an archaic culture of supplanting an old teaching while appearing to hold fast to the integrity of the old that is being replaced. I would like to look afresh at some of the parallel gospel narratives with this “biblical tradition” in mind, starting with a comparison of Mark’s and Matthew’s John the Baptist scenes. I’m also keen to see if there is anything similar in the syntactical variations found in the “tradition” of the Deuteronomist. Maybe in the next post.

Till then, one thing is clear. Gospel authors did not always subtly rewrite a narrative to introduce a new message. Sometimes they replaced one they had not time for with something completely different. If the author of the Gospel of John knew the Gospel of Mark (and there are, some scholars believe, strong reasons for thinking so), it is interesting to note that there is nothing so ambiguous in John’s gospel as we find in Mark’s in relation to a miracle of raising the dead. Mark’s account of the raising of the daughter of Jairus remains teasingly unclear about whether the daughter was really dead or not. Jesus did say, after all, that she was only sleeping. When “John” tackles a resurrection miracle he doesn’t touch such a pabulum account. He starts afresh with Lazarus, and he makes sure there can be no doubt that Lazarus is very dead before the miracle occurs: Jesus waits three days to make sure the body is, as it is said, stinking, before Jesus decides to act.

Wider significance?

The only author I have read who extensively discusses gospel narratives within the broader cultural/literary matrix of the “Old Testament” biblical literature is Thomas L. Thompson. His book The Christ Myth is unfortunately pockmarked with cavities of apparent ignorance of key discussions, debates and widespread conclusions among New Testament scholars. If a reader can bypass such blemishes and stop and reconsider if the general thesis he proposes holds within the known parameters of New Testament studies, one may begin to explore interesting new pathways in the development of Christian doctrines and narratives.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

5 thoughts on “Tactics of Religious Innovation: Deuteronomy and Gospels”

  1. Just a brief note to thank you for your discussion, which I just discovered. Your application of these ideas to the composition of the Gospels is fascinating.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading