Discovering the Sources for the First Gospel, 3 — Criteria

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by Neil Godfrey

This post concludes the series of notes from Adam Winn’s Mark and the Elijah-Elisha narrative : considering the practice of Greco-Roman imitation in the search for Markan source material. Winn concludes his first chapter with six criteria he hopes will help us determine literary dependence between two texts. He has derived these criteria from his study of the way we can see Virgil imitated Homer’s epics.

One question that interests me here is whether Winn’s analysis can be usefully applied to the question of whether the Gospel of John was based on the Gospel of Mark, and if so, to what extent. Does our knowledge that an author would sometimes radically restructure his source material offer us a window into observing the fourth gospel’s author moving the Gospel of Mark’s “temple cleansing” episode from the last stages of the narrative to its beginning?

Another question: is it possible the techniques of “imitation” can help us decide whether the Gospel of Luke was the last Gospel that in part drew upon the Gospel of John, or whether the Gospel of John imitated, in part, Luke?

There are several others, but let’s keep our feet on the floor in these early days.

Plausibility of Imitation

How plausible is it that author A could be dependent upon author B? Was the possible source text likely to have been available to the imitating author? That sounds to me like a pretty good place to start. The first step should be to justify why we think an author may have known and used a particular work. The answer to this question must embrace an understanding of the wider relevant literary, educational and philosophical-theological cultures.

Similarities in Narrative Structure/Order of Events

Winn believes that “as long as discernible similarities exist between the two narrative structures, literary dependence is probable.” (p. 31)

By “similarity” Winn does not mean “the same”. We should not overlook that the imitating author (e.g. Virgil) was free to reverse elements within the source, leave out or add in additional structural elements. So similarity of structure, not the same structure, is the key.

By “structure” and “order of events” Winn is presuming something reasonably complex. For example, it is clear from that Virgil’s account of Aeneas among the Libyans is based on Homer’s account of Odysseus’s stay among the Phaeacians. Despite the many very significant differences, the following structure is common to both:

  • Both arrive as the result of a storm
  • Both enter the city in secrecy
  • Both request aid
  • Both interact with the local ruler
  • Both recount their sea voyage
  • Both depart after a brief stay
  • Both leave behind a people to suffer a tragedy

I recall reading in a book of Australian aboriginal legends one tribe’s story of a great drought that was broken when water was released into the desert after a stick was struck into a rock. At the time I read this myth I was a devout Christian and immediately thought of Moses relieving the thirst of the Israelites by striking a rock with his rod to let water miraculously gush out for them to drink. Bingo! Naïve first-thought: Were the aborigines descendants of part of the mixed multitude that the Bible says came out of Egypt with the Israelites?

At least I wasn’t a complete idiot and I did simultaneously wonder if aborigines often found water in the desert by digging out the earth with sticks and stones, so that the image of water gurgling out to green a desert as a result of striking a barren rock might be repeatable among independent cultures. I might also have wondered if there was any likelihood the aboriginal myth only appeared after Christian missionary stories were circulated.

The fact is that one rock does not make a quarry. Had I been more astute at the time I might have thought to compare the Hebrew story of Moses striking the rock with his staff with the Greek play, the Bacchantes by Euripides. There we find not only the image of water rushing out of the ground when struck with a stick by a worshiper of Dionysus, but also other Exodus motifs like a fire that does not burn and rivers of milk and honey.

But those were the days before scholars had raised the possibility of links between Greek and Hebrew myths. Besides, this digression is taking us away from the subject of literary dependence — which addresses narrative structures — and delving into the way myths mutate in transmission. That’s another interesting discussion for another time.

Back to Winn.

Winn gives two reasons for thinking a common narrative structure should be considered a strong indicator of literary dependence:

  1. imitation of narrative structure was a known and used imitative technique, as evidenced by Virgil
  2. the chances of two stories arriving independently at two similar narrative structures is extremely low

And of course the more complexity there is in the common structures the less likely the two are independent.

Similarities in Specific Narrative Details and Actions

Sometimes a similar narrative structure can be almost guaranteed to borrowed from a particular source text if there is, in addition to the structure, a salient common detail.

So with the burial of Misenus in Virgil’s epic, and the burial of Elpenor in the Odyssey, we have this common sequence of events:

  1. mourning for the deceased
  2. cutting of logs for the pyre
  3. burning of the bodies
  4. erecting a tomb

To my mind that simple sequence could be found in any account of a funeral within a particular culture. Or maybe I’m being a little naive. I suppose one might point out that there are other details or structures that might make up an account of a burial: arrival or presence of the mourners, a procession of some kind, the source of the fire, etc. My point is that sometimes the order of events is not strongly persuasive that there is direct textual imitation.

But even if an order of events seems what one might expect from a common cultural matrix, the possibility of literary dependence is enhanced if even that structure is found within a similar context (e.g. taking place on a sea-shore, as is the case with the burials of Misenus and Elpenor). What clinches the possibility in this example, however, is the common detail that an oar is used to mark the graves of both characters. Dennis MacDonald, I think, would call such a striking common factor a “flag” to alert readers to the literary comparison.

I have wondered if the author of Acts alerts readers to the narrative found there being intended to be a theological counterpart to Virgil’s founding epic of Rome, the Aeneid. We have the common details of the names Aeneas (who needs to be revived — by Peter, while Paul goes to Rome itself) and Troy (Troas) which is the starting point for the overseas mission that leads to Rome. We also have the storm at sea leading not to a temporary stay at a royal household but the very reverse, a stay among very primitive peoples. Are the persecutions the counterpart of the battles Aeneas faced and from which he emerged victorious? Was Acts meant to be to some extent a counterpart to the myth of Rome’s origins by narrating the founding of the new spiritual kingdom finding a new home in Rome?

Sorry, getting sidetracked again. That has nothing to do with the Gospel of Mark.

Verbal Agreement

Virgil wrote in Latin and Homer in Greek so we cannot expect verbal agreement between the two.

But clearly this lack of verbal agreement does not undermine literary dependence. This point is particularly important for the field of New Testament studies, a field that for far too long has operated under the false assumption that verbal agreement and verbal agreement alone is necessary to establish literary dependence. The reality is that most imitating authors wanted to avoid verbal agreement, and direct copying of an imitated work was not as admirable as creative imitation. (p. 32, emphasis added)

Obviously where there is verbal agreement we have very strong evidence for direct literary dependence. Winn’s point is that it can never be primary evidence and its absence can never be counted against the possibility of literary imitation. Think again of the Gospel of John against the Gospel of Mark.

Weight of Combined Criteria

If two narratives share a number of specific details and also share narrative structures, literary dependence is highly probable and perhaps undeniable. The weight of combined criteria, therefore, is the most convincing evidence of literary dependence . . . (pp. 32-33)

That is not to say that a single criterion can also be a very strong pointer to imitation if it is sufficiently complex or distinctive.

Do Differences Matter?

A handful of minor similarities between two largely differing texts is clearly not enough to prove literary dependence. (p. 33)

So we come back once again to the difficulty of knowing where to draw a sure line between dependency and independence. There can be no hard and fast dividing line and there will always be murky areas of grey as there are in most things in life.

At the same time, though, it is clear that differences cannot undercut the conclusions we must draw from otherwise strong evidence for imitation.

Sometimes differences are easily explained by different thematic interests of the author. Some differences appear to be part of the creative imitation process, such as varying the order of events, reversals, and changing certain details. Other times we are left with no explanation for differences.

No-one can promise an exact science that will work for all instances of any human endeavours.

Four lists

So that’s it.

I have now posted on four different sets of criteria that scholars have proposed to help assess literary relationships.

The other three belong to Andrew Clark (Parallel Lives), Dale C. Allison Jr, (The New Moses) and Dennis MacDonald (The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark) and are collated in my 2007 post, 3 criteria lists for literary borrowing.

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Discovering the Sources for the First Gospel, 3 — Criteria”

  1. Clicking on your link “3 criteria lists for literary borrowing” pulls out a warning: “Sorry, no posts matched your criteria.”
    Wie Schade!
    Does the link work for you? Is there another way to access the post?

  2. Your discussion of John’s decision to move the Temple “disturbance” from the end to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry reminded me of my word-affinity search earlier this week. The author of the Fourth Gospel uses the word ἄνωθεν at the crucifixion, just as Mark and Matthew do, but he has turned the story inside out.

    In Mark 15:37, Jesus “breathes his last.” In the following verse the temple curtain is torn from top to bottom. And in verse 39, the centurion declares him to be the Son of God.

    Key words to notice in verse 15:36 are (1) ἐσχίσθη (eschisthē) — “was torn” and (2) ἄνωθεν (anōthen) — “top.” A close, literal translation of the verse would be: “And the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.”

    In John, conversely, at the beginning of the crucifixion (19:23) the soldiers take Jesus’ belongings and split them among themselves. They divide his garments into four equal piles, but they notice that Jesus’ tunic is formed of a single piece of woven fabric without seams. John says that the tunic was “seamless from the top (anōthen), woven throughout all.” And in the next verse, they decide not to tear (σχίσωμεν (schisōmen)) the tunic, but cast lots for it instead.

    The garment John describes has reminded several commentators of the priestly vestment described by Josephus: “Now this vesture was not composed of two pieces, nor was it sewed together upon the shoulders and the sides, but it was one long vestment so woven as to have an aperture for the neck; not an oblique one, but parted all along the breast and the back.” (http://www.ccel.org/j/josephus/works/ant-3.htm)

    So John has taken a story about the rending of the temple veil that occurs at the end of the crucifixion and created a new story about a special garment taken from Jesus (with allusions to the vestment of high priest), which is not torn. John’s curious detail about division into four parts could be another allusion to the veil of the temple, which was said to have been woven from four different colors, each symbolizing one of the four elements that make up the world. (See http://www.margaretbarker.com/Papers/BeyondtheVeil.pdf

    Margaret Barker says that the the high priest would take off the vestment (which was also woven from the same four colors as the veil) before entering the Holy of Holies, passing through the veil. In the ritual, the priest bore the name of YHWH and in a sense became the Lord. Barker writes: “He took off this robe when he entered the holy of holies because the robe was the visible form of one who entered the holy of holies. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, which explores the theme of Jesus as the high priest, there is the otherwise enigmatic line: his flesh was the veil of the temple (Heb.10.20). In other words, the veil was matter which made visible whatever passed through it from the world beyond the veil. Those who shed the earthly garments, on the other side of the veil, were robed in garments of glory. In other words, they became divine.”

    We can imagine why John didn’t like the story of the rending of the curtain. As Barker explains, the veil separated the terrestrial from the celestial realm. John also ignores the crack in the firmament that Mark says appeared at the Baptism. In both cases we have portents of the eschaton. If John was promoting a gospel of realized eschatology, then stories about the inbreaking of the supernatural world (including exorcisms) had to be deleted or re-imagined.

    Of course, Ehrman tells us that the scholarly consensus is that John is “independent.” Naturally. They need independent sources. How sad that the anxiety of historicity makes so many scholars miss the fascinating debates John had with the synoptic evangelists.

    1. One might, with a nod and apology to Karl Popper, almost coin a title for a new book about historical Jesus studies, “The Poverty of Historicism”. I see towards the end of “Did Jesus Exist?” that Ehrman argues against the historicity of Matthew’s birth narrative — explicitly “quite apart from” the miraculous nature of the virgin birth — the fact that Matthew is telling the story to demonstrate a fulfilment of prophecy. He is making it clear that this evident motive counts against the likelihood of historicity.

      But then why is the same standard or principle or criteria used to argue against the crucifixion itself? This was also written, quite explicitly, to indicated a fulfilment of prophecy.

      Ditto for the cleansing of the temple scenario. Yet Ehrman also says this must have had an historical core partly because it is testified by multiple and independent witnesses — Mark and John! Your comment about John’s theological indicators begins to open up an explanation for John having moved this scene away from the crucifixion context. I’d love to find the time to do the same sort of detailed study comparing John and Mark as I used to dedicate to Mark alone. The historical Jesus model truly does rob us of so many potential fascinating insights into what was really happening at the birth of Christianity.

      1. One might, with a nod and apology to Karl Popper, almost coin a title for a new book about historical Jesus studies, “The Poverty of Historicism”.

        Ha! It’s funny but the title of that book came to my mind also as I was reading Ehrman’s DJE?. Very apt.

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