How Literary Imitation Works: Are Differences More Important than Similarities?

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by Neil Godfrey

Recently I disappointed the pastor of the Diamond Valley Community Church when I declined to respond to his point by point counter-claims to my comparison of the miraculous feeding of the 5000 as told in Mark 6:30-44 with Elisha’s feeding 100 followers with 20 loaves of bread in 2 Kings 4:38-44. This was a pity because he assures us that his efforts were “such a burden”, but we both know that those are the trials of a self-sacrificing follower of the Lord whose every breath is dedicated to banishing spiritual darkness from a godless world.

I have encountered the sorts of objections our burdened pastor made many times before and confess that by now I have lost all interest in engaging with them. Such objections — “this is not a real parallel because the story-reasons for the food shortage are different or because the prompts that led to groups of people sitting down are different in the two stories” — are a pointlessly puerile game of “spot the difference” where the pictures are quite different to begin with.

Original images at:
http://alturl.com/uocjz http://alturl.com/57t8y (centre) http://alturl.com/quprv (right)

The differences in the above images are more striking than their similarities. One can search the net and easily find hundreds more and even more striking variations — different colour schemes, additional figures, different backgrounds, different positions and postures of the central figure . . . But one thing is clear: they are all adaptations of the original Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.

We can spot mimesis so easily in a graphic. And this sort of imitation is easily enough recognized in literature. But when it comes to the Bible there are many apologists (and scholars, too) who just can’t or won’t see it.

A classic instance of literary imitation is Virgil’s adaptation of Homer’s epics. Virgil’s imitation of Homer went so far as to re-structure the original epic narratives, as one can see illustrated in this diagram:

Virgil’s Aeneid was structured around a reversal of Homer’s epics. The travels of Odysseus in the Odyssey followed the period of warfare in the Iliad, but the Aeneid reversed this structure by locating the travels of Aeneas (a greater-than Odysseus) before the hostilities of the second half.

Virgil “re-wrote” Homer’s characters and events in such a way as to present his one hero, Aeneas, as more blessed by the gods and more noble and righteous in character than the Homeric heroes well-known to his readers. An example or two will follow.

Title illustration from The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you haven’t read the ancient classics you almost certainly know of Red Riding Hood and at least one other story that is based upon it. The Tale of Jemima Puddle Duck is quite different from Red Riding Hood with quite a different ending, no red capes, no sick grandmothers, no woodsmen, but it nonetheless draws upon, or is a re-write of, Red Riding Hood (see the links).

The point of all of this is to point out what is obvious in all areas except, it seems, the Bible: that authors can and do adapt either whole narratives or portions of other literature to create entirely new works. The differences will be obvious and often tell us why the imitating author invites us to draw comparisons with an earlier text.

The pastor of Diamond Valley Community Church and his parishioners are the poorer for not recognizing why the author of Mark’s gospel chose to imitate, emulate and transvalue the miracles of Elijah and Elisha.

I copy here a couple of pages from The Birthing of the New Testament by Thomas Brodie in which he offers a few illustrations of literary imitation from the era in which the gospels were composed. The point of these illustrations is to demonstrate the variety of ways authors imitated or drew upon and adapted other literary works.

By becoming aware of how literary imitation was done in the extra-biblical world it hopefully will help us be more open to acknowledging instances of the practice in the books reportedly authored by God. The result will be, hopefully, a deeper understanding of the creative minds behind the texts and the messages they sought to convey.

Bolded emphasis and some formatting is mine.

a. Elaboration

When Euripides described Hippolytus’s fatal chariot accident, he spent one line on Hippolytus’s head.

And his dear head [was] pounded on the rocks.

Five centuries later, Seneca elaborated in vivid detail:

The ground was reddened with a trail of blood;

His head was dashed from rock to rock, his hair

Torn off by thorns, his handsome face despoiled

By flinty stones; wound after wound destroyed

For ever that ill-fated comeliness.


b. Compression or Synthesis

Euripides describes in some detail the ominous thunder that preceded Hippolytus’s accident:

When we were entering the lonely country

The other side of the border, where the shore

Goes down to the Saronic Gulf, a rumbling

Deep in the earth, terrible to hear

Growled like the thunder of Father Zeus.

Seneca, writing for Romans, omitted the references to Greek geography and gods (Zeus). However, he grasped the essence of the text and speeded it up:

At once a peal of thunder broke across the sea.

A rather different form of compression is distillation, that is, the procedure of isolating the significant. It is a procedure that is found, for instance, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses—in his ability to isolate and highlight the crucial elements in old narratives.

(Brodie adds a note here from an Ovid specialist pointing out that Ovid never imitates literally.)


c. Fusion/Conflation

More complex than simple compression is the process of turning two or more elements into one new complex element.

  • As the news of Hippolytus’s death is announced, Euripides speaks of different people: the chorus is tearful, and the messenger has a sorrowful face.
  • Seneca omitted the outmoded convention of the chorus but attributed to the messenger a tearful sorrowful face.
  • In Homer’s text, Menelaus broke his sword in combat and Diomed left his sword,
  • but in Virgil, a single character, Turnus, mistakenly left his own sword and broke in combat the sword he took.

A more general form of fusion is found in the way Virgil, in large part, combined both the battles of Achilles (the Iliad) and the wanderings of Odysseus (the Odyssey) in Aeneas.


d. Substitution of images

Catullus followed Sappho closely yet felt free not only to add and omit but also to substitute new images of his own.

Thus, whereas Sappho had spoken of a jealous passion,

Which has made my heart (kardia) flutter in my breast

Catullus substituted:

Which robs me of all my senses (omnis sensus);

and while Sappho had said:

I see nothing with my eyes,

Catullus wrote:

The light of my eyes is covered with ‘twin night’.


e. Positivization

The Iliad, from its very first line, is largely dominated by the theme of the anger of Achilles. At one point he promises to maintain his quest for vengeance:

As long as breath remains in my bosom

And my good knees have their strength.

In place of this permanent vengefulness, Virgil put the permanent devotedness of Aeneas: he promises to honor the memory of his love of a woman (Dido):

While I remember who I am

And while the breath still governs this frame.

This radical rewriting is an example not only of positivization (turning something negative into something positive, a fairly frequent procedure in Virgil), but also of internalization—replacing emphasis on something external (the knees, symbols of physical strength) by emphasis on the internal (the memory and sense of identity).


f. Internalization

A more complex example of internalization occurs in Seneca’s version of the reaction of Hippolytus’s angry father to the news of the accident.

Where Euripides had written,

For hatred of the sufferer I was glad

At what you told me. Still he was my son.

As such I have reverence for him and the Gods:

I neither sorrow nor rejoice at this thing.

Seneca wrote,

O potent nature

How strong a bond of blood is thine to tie

A parent’s heart. Even against our will

We know and love thee. As my son was guilty,

I wished him dead; as he is lost, I mourn him.

The italics have been added to the foregoing excerpts in order to clarify the complex relationship of the texts. Seneca has taken the central section of the father’s reaction—his recognition, despite his anger, of his relationship to his son and his consequent reverence both for sonship and the gods—and changed it into an awe-filled recognition of nature and parenthood. In doing so he spelled out some of the basic internal factors of parenthood: a bond of blood, a heart that is tied, and—despite the opposition of the will—knowledge and love.

Then, in the last line and a half, Seneca synthesized the opening and closing lines of Euripides’ text: the gladness at Hippolytus’s suffering becomes ‘I wished him dead’; and the rather mechanical ‘I neither sorrow nor rejoice’ becomes the more deeply felt ‘I mourn him’.

Internalization was far more than a literary technique. It was concerned with literature’s central content, with moving the human story from the external world to the internal—to internal qualities and developments.

The roots of this process lie deep in Greek culture and are probably seen most clearly in the tendency, especially among the Ionian thinkers, to change the focus of interest from the gods to what goes on within people, and in the partial replacement of the warlike heroism of the Homeric tradition with the quiet heroism of Socrates.

Virgil, who was apparently the most esteemed writer of imperial Rome, carried this process of internalization further, for not only did he imitate and rival Homer in every way, but he consistently sought to replace the warlike Homeric heroes with the image of a hero who could indeed fight fiercely but who was above all a man of internal qualities—pius Aeneas.

Further instances of the process of internalization may be found, for instance, in two of the most outstanding writers of the New Testament period—Seneca and Tacitus. Thus, when Tacitus was describing even such a well known event as the coup which brought Otho to power in 69 CE, he did not hesitate to describe the onlooking populace through a formula which reflected a stereotyped description of a crowd, but he adapted that description so that it focused on factors that were internal—the crowd’s silent emotions. And as regards Seneca’s adaptations of Euripides, written about 60 CE, ‘Seneca’s tragedies…are modulations of Euripides… Drawing on aspects of technique latent in Euripides, Seneca wholly internalizes the action’ (Steiner 1975: 431).

Internalization is of special interest because it provides a partial analogue for the way in which the biblical tradition, particularly the New Testament, moves the focus inward, from law to spirit, from external traditions to internal dispositions, and from an external temple to a spiritualized one.


g. Form-Change

In Epode X, Horace wishes an evil omen on the voyage of his critic Maevius:

‘With an evil omen (mala…alite) the ship is unmoored and departs, carrying the stinking Maevius:

South Wind, remember to lash each side with wild waves…’

Not only does Horace’s colourful curse seem to involve a careful transformation of a somewhat similar curse written centuries earlier by Archilochus (c. 700 BCE), but it also involves a careful adaptation of a particular poetic form called the propempticon, which consisted of a farewell with words of good omen. Horace’s procedure was radical, subversive almost, but it was typical of the way in which imitation combined careful continuity with bold novelty.


These examples are useful but limited. In order to get a better idea of the richness and complexity of imitation, it is necessary to examine the total procedure of particular authors. Virgil and Ovid, for instance, particularly in their epic poems the Aeneid and the Metamorphoses, show an extraordinary capacity for combining a variety of sources and methods of adaptation.

The conclusion that emerges from this brief survey of poetry and drama is that imitation was widespread and varied. It was used on texts that were contemporary or recent, but among the Romans it was used particularly to appropriate and reinterpret the texts that were often considered normative—those of ancient Greece. It seems reasonable, in fact, to accept G. Kennedy’s conclusion that ‘all of Latin literature is in origin an imitation of Greek’ (1980: 118). (pp. 10-13)


Should we be surprised if on reading the Gospels we find ourselves hearing echoes of passages in the Jewish Scriptures or beyond? If Socrates could emulated alongside Achilles and Achilles be emulated as an examplar for combat against human passions, should we be surprised if some portrayals of Jesus are delineated from Joshua or Samson, or even a Greek hero?

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Neil Godfrey

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174 thoughts on “How Literary Imitation Works: Are Differences More Important than Similarities?”

  1. In comparing the story of the feeding of the sons of prophets in 2 Kings and the story the feeding of the 5,000 in Mark, here are three statements you wrote that are inaccurate:

    1. “Jesus went with his disciples to a deserted place where there was no food.” (The story indicates there was plenty of food in the vicinity.)

    2. “They (the sons of the prophets) have small quantities of 2 types of food: 20 barley loaves and newly ripened grain.” (They also had a pot of poison stew that was made edible by a miracle. The loaves and grain merely extended the meal.)

    3. “[Jesus’} disciples protest that they must send [the multitude] away to find food for themselves” and “Jesus overrides their objections and has his disciples feed the crowd with the little they have.” (The disciples suggested that the multitude be sent away to find food without any previous statement or action of Jesus concerning food or anything else. Then when Jesus prepared to feed the multitude with the loaves and fish, no protest of any kind was raised by the disciples.)

    With these statements, there is no question of how close or far the details of the two stories parallel each other. The question is: were you accurate in representing the parallels? Clearly not.

    1. Bobby wrote: “The story indicates there was plenty of food in the vicinity.”

      I suppose that depends on what you mean by “the vicinity.” In the place where Jesus, the disciples, and the crowd found themselves, there was no food. It was not a “desert,” but open, uncultivated land. The NASB calls it a “secluded” place, which isn’t bad, but the NET is probably more correct with “a remote place.” As R.T. France explains, that’s why there’s grass (not sand, not crops).

      The disciples at first act as if they have no responsibility in the matter, and want to send them away — away from a place where there is no food, to the surrounding towns where there is food. If by “vicinity,” you mean within the surrounding district, then yes, there was food (off in the distance). But not where Jesus was.

      Even if you were right, I’m not sure why you’re arguing this point. In order for there to be a miracle of feeding, you have to have a “need for food” followed by a “supernatural appearance of food.” So your assertion is simply bizarre.

      Bobby wrote: “They also had a pot of poison stew that was made edible by a miracle. The loaves and grain merely extended the meal.”

      You should understand that if you believe that the section of scripture between 2 Kings 38 and 44 comprise a single story, you are in a tiny minority, perhaps a minority of one. There are two stories here, both occurring after Elisha returned to Gilgal, finding the area to be in famine. The first story is about miraculous stew decontamination. The second, starting at verse 42, is about the feeding of the 100.

      Literally, the text says וְאִ֨ישׁ בָּ֜א (wəîš bā) or “And a man came . . .) Less literal translations of the Old Testament try to make that more clear. For example:

      ISV: “Later on, a man arrived . . .”

      NLT: “One day a man from . . .”

      MSG: “One day a man arrived . . .”

      The NRSV, which adds section headers as reading aids inserts “Elisha Feeds One Hundred Men.” The NASB subtly indicates a new story with “Now a man came . . .” I tend to prefer more literal translations when studying the Bible, but even so, a plain reading of the literal text in no way indicates that the men were still eating their stew when the bread truck pulled up. Yours is a very unusual, strained, and unreasonable reading of the text.

      The man from Baal-shalishah arrives with bread, which is good news for the hungry men. The bad news, of course, is that the amount appears to be insufficient to feed 100.

      But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred men?” (ESV)

      The loaves and grain do not extend a meal of stew. They represent another meal at a later time during the same famine.

      Bobby wrote: “. . . no protest of any kind was raised by the disciples.”

      I agree with you. I see no protestations after Jesus tells them to distribute the food. The only protest has to do with their incorrect inference from Jesus’ command to give the people something to eat. They howl:

      “Shall we go and spend two hundred denarii on bread and give them something to eat?” (ESV)

      This reaction is not the same as the servant of Elisha who asks how he can possibly feed 100 men with 20 loaves. However, it does speak to the initial thick-headedness of both.

      To your point, though, once Jesus gave the command the disciples just go and do it.

      1. Do you realize that your analysis — which may be valid linguistically — brings into question Neil’s analysis from another perspective?

        You indicate that Elijah’s traveling to Gilgal and facing famine conditions is part of an earlier story (the feeding that involved the poison stew and the miracle of its being purified). Then the feeding that involved the firstfruits gift of loaves and grain came at a measurable later time as an entirely different event.

        Yet if you’re right, Neil’s analysis has Mark combining the OPENING of one story with the BODY of the other one — while inexplicably treating the unusual miracle in the first story as if it is unimportant and non-existent.

        1. Yet if you’re right, Neil’s analysis has Mark combining the OPENING of one story with the BODY of the other one — while inexplicably treating the unusual miracle in the first story as if it is unimportant and non-existent.

          Not inexplicable at all. That’s the sort of thing one sees in literary intertextuality. It is only a problem when applied to the Bible as if the Bible should be assessed the same way any other literary dependencies are treated. This is the problem when one studies the Bible in isolation from the wider literary world in which it was created.

        2. Bobby wrote: “Yet if you’re right, Neil’s analysis has Mark combining the OPENING of one story with the BODY of the other one — while inexplicably treating the unusual miracle in the first story as if it is unimportant and non-existent.”

          The two stories in 2 Kings happen in the same place. The setting for the stories occurs in 2 Kings 4:38a.

          Place: Gilgal

          Condition: Famine

          Characters in story 1: Elisha, his servant, sons of the prophet

          Characters in story 2: Elisha, his servant, a bread delivery man, 100 hungry men (= sons of the prophets?)

          So Neil is not combining an opening from one story with the body of another. He is citing the establishing info to the stories that occur after Elisha returns to Gilgal.

          He does not treat “the unusual miracle in the first story as if it is unimportant and non-existent.” The first story is not part of the discussion.

          If I can be of further assistance, let me know.

          (By the way, in your comments you can emphasize text with HTML tags.)

          1. This is how literary imitation works. It is not slavish. Odysseus sees many famous waifs when he visits Hades, and Aeneas, on his visit there, sees many of the same people. But there are many Odysseus saw whom Virgil completely omitted from his account. They did not serve any plot function for his narrative of the same scene. So chunks of Homer’s narrative were omitted from Virgil’s counterpart in the same setting.

    1. Contrary to you and Bobby I do not see this as some sort of war over the integrity of the Bible. I am not the least interested in trying to “disprove” the divine inspiration of the Bible (that’s been done by others without any help from me) or the Bible as an enduring foundation for Christian belief or for simply bashing the Bible. I am fascinated in the scholarly works that explore the literary and theological origins of the texts that make up the Bible. I have little time for “fleas” who are those I define as defensive apologists (and their atheistic friends who appear to be struggling with their own personal demons) who see my interest as some sort of “attack” on their beliefs or on the Bible itself. Of course their beliefs are undermined by these sorts of studies that interest me, but that just goes without saying and is beside the point as far as I am concerned. It just doesn’t interest me. I love studying the Bible from a literary point of view and if that doesn’t interest you or you find it offensive then you are free to ignore.

      1. Oh my! Nothing is more misinterpreted that the printed word on the interwebs. I love this blog. I follow you and Tim with the greatest of interest and respect, particularly as my circumstances do not allow for access to the wonderful scholastic materials you guys present.

        Very sorry for any unpleasantness my poor attempt at humor caused you. No offense at all at your response. Keep up the good work on this excellent site.

        I have just been flabbergasted by Bobby’s trying to argue something akin to saying there is no forest here because the tree you thought was an oak was an elm (kindly ignore all those other trees!) and my remark was an effort at humor. I retire from that field, leaving it to Mitchell and Webb.

  2. Well, Mr. Garringer, it is not just Elijah and Elisha Mark relied upon to construct his Gospel, it’s also but not limited to Julius Caesar (Carotta), Odysseus (MacDonald) and your favorite, the 22nd Psalm (the Crucifiction in reverse). So please give it a rest!

  3. You would not address my assertion that nine out of ten of your parallels between two stories are false, though I asked you to either explain or concede the matter three different times.

    So I submitted in the last comment only four of what I take to be false parallels (with two of them closely related). You still refused to address the matter.

    So how about only one?

    You say that Elijah went to a place where there was a famine. This is true. This is stated plainly — and emphasized — in 2 Kings.

    Then you said that Jesus and his disciples went to a place where there was no food. This is false. It is not stated that the place they went had no available food. Instead they were in a place where it could be seriously suggested — as the disciples of Jesus did — that a multitude could go to the farms and villages around them and get something to eat.

    Why not really discuss just this one of your suggested parallels? (They are YOUR suggestions, not mine.)

    This is very simple. You say this parallel is there in both stories. I say it is not.

    The options are not hard to see. You can either say, “I was mistaken about that.” Or you could say here is (are) my reason (reasons) for asserting that there was no food in the place Jesus and the disciples went.

    1. Gosh Bobby, The power of the Spirit in you is overwhelming. How can this godless atheist withstand your searing wisdom! I fall down and confess I was wrong. The place where they were did have food. It was in the satchel of one boy in the crowd who had a few loaves and fish. I stand condemned. Not only that, the author of the narrative was completely wrong, too, when he said three times that it was a desolate place where they were. The place where they were was only reached by people leaving their neighbouring cities or villages and going out to this “deserted place” on foot. Once there, they had nothing to eat, and in order to eat they would have to leave that place and return to their homes — or get to the shops and restaurants in their cities before closing time. And the hour was late. That meant they would have to leave Jesus and would mean in effect calling an end to their day with Jesus — since he had vainly attempted to get far enough away from inhabited areas where crowds would not bother him or his disciples. I am so sorry I did not stop to think that the deserted place they were in was only an hour or so walk away from FOOD! — except for what was in that one boy’s satchel.

      I repent in dust and ashes for my godless error.

      1. Fair point. What was the author trying to communicate. Was Jesus performing an unnecessary miracle just to show off or a necessary miracle because there was an actual need for it?

        1. The issue is not whether there was a need — at some level — for food; and Jesus met the need.

          Instead the issue is:

          Is the story in Mark about Jesus going somewhere with famine-like conditions, similar to the destination of Elisha in the story in 2 Kings? Neil stated — inaccurately — that it is.

          1. Rubbish. You are now just being silly. I nowhere said or suggested that Jesus went to a place with “famine-like conditions”. I said he went to a place where there was no food. Not the same thing at all. (Help! I have no food in the house!) The reasons for the lack of food in each locality in the two stories was different. One picture has a lady with a guitar and another does not. Read the post.

            1. You put in juxtaposition “famine” in 2 Kings and “there was no food” as if it were an actual assertion in Mark. And you give these as similar characteristics of the destinations indicated in each story. It is obvious that you intended the latter to parallel the former.

              1. You are very sharp. Yep, there was no famine involved in the miracle of the feeding of the 5000. Spot on. But if anyone in the crowd said, “Boy am I starving!” I bet everyone within earshot would have remonstrated with him to point out he was not starving, since “starving” suggests a famine, and that they were not experiencing a famine, but only a few hours without food, so he was not starving, just peckish.

                Deep, very deep.

              2. In the end, your explanation that there is a parallel between the two stories regarding a famine motif is — not that Jesus and the disciples went to a place characterized by famine-like conditions — but that staying a long time in a place, getting hungry and avoiding the need to depart and get some food is somehow a re-working of the famine theme that is found in a specific story about Elisha in 2 Kings.

                Mark supposedly took that theme — from that specific story — and somehow improved it, because he’s talking about the Lord (Jesus), not just a prophet of the Lord (Elisha).

                So which type of literary imitation did Mark use? Is the move from “famine” to “staying a long time, getting hungry and avoiding the need to depart and get some food” an: (1) elaboration (2) compression or synthesis (3) fusion/conflation (4) substitution of images (5) positivization or (6) internalization?

                And how does staying a long time, getting hungry, etc. intensify the famine motif in his tale, in contrast with the actual famine in 2 Kings?

                I think one of Mark’s purposes in this story is to contrast Jesus with ALL the prophets of the Lord and with all people. And he has in mind in his contrast — not a specific story about a specific need and a specific prophet — but about ALL needs and all others who may attempt to meet those needs.

              3. You are a casuist in the extreme. I have never spoken of Mark’s use of a “famine motif”.

                One of the many common elements in the stories is the story of people wanting to eat and not having food on hand (whether famine or being away from the their villages and homes in a desolate place) and then discovering what they have is too little. That is the parallel I think most people with normal reading comprehension capabilities would quickly observe.

                Your concluding paragraph is interesting. How do you know that Mark is contrasting Jesus with all of the prophets? I believe you are right and the evidence for this lies in Mark’s allusions in Jesus’ works to other works performed by Moses, Elisha, Joshua, Elijah, David . . . in the Gospel. And the feeding of the 5000 as I have also pointed out can be seen as an allusion to Israel being miraculously fed in the wilderness through Moses. But there is strong indication of intertextuality with the Elisha story, too. (Recall the way authors would weave several stories together to create an original one.) That being so, why do you appear to take such strong exception to the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 being one such piece of evidence pointing to the Elisha miracle?

              4. You describe in one of your latest comments a “common element” in the stories in 2 Kings 4 and Mark 6, as “people wanting to eat and not having food on hand…and then discovering what they have is too little.”

                There is a vast difference between saying this and saying “Elijah went to a place where there was a famine; and Jesus…went to a place where there was no food.” (The common element suggested in this dual statement is non-existent.)

                But the common element you NOW describe is verbally diverse and has only a vague — somewhat abstract — similarity in the two stories. (Generally speaking, the more abstract a point of contact between two texts is, the lower the possibility that one has borrowed from the other.)

                So the stretch comes in claiming that Mark has taken over the famine in the earlier story and altered it to achieve a more impressive restatement by a process of either (1) elaboration (2) compression or synthesis (3) fusion/conflation (4) substitution of images (5) positivization or (6) internalization. This does not appear to be the case.

                Still this shared element in one story — whichever is read first — DOES remind an informed reader of the other story — with the full realization that the circumstances and details are: (1) very different for each (2) very important for each and (3) stated very differently for each. (The earlier story was not simply taken over and re-worked to generate the other.)

              5. Here is the table I used:

                2 Kings 4:38-44

                Mark 6:30-44

                Elisha went to a place where there was a famine in the land.

                Jesus went with his disciples to a deserted place where there was no food.

                The followers (‘sons’) of the prophets were sitting before Elisha.

                All who recognized Jesus went out to him, and in the course of the story he had them all sit down.

                Elisha wishes to feed them.

                Jesus commands that his servants feed them.

                They have small quantities of 2 types of food: 20 barley loaves and newly ripened grain.

                They have small quantities of 2 types of food: 5 loaves and 2 fish.

                His servants protest that they have too little.

                His disciples protest that they must send them away to find food for themselves.

                Elisha overrides their objections and orders his servants to feed the crowd with the little they have.

                Jesus overrides their objections and has his disciples feed the crowd with the little they have.

                Elisha said God had promised there would be more than enough.

                Jesus prayed to God to bless the food.

                They all ate.

                They all ate.

                And there was some left over.

                And there was much left over.

                100 men were fed.

                5000 men were fed.

                You will notice that the first point is that in one place there was a famine and in the other there was a thrice-stated desolate place away from villages and towns. That latter place, if I were to make it more burdensome for you to read by exploring every nuance, is highlighted by being surrounded by themes of “not eating”, “having nothing to eat” or “no opportunity to eat”. So the author has planted into the readers’ minds the theme of not being able to eat when he introduces the desolate place.

                Very specific (not general) details follow in both stories: in both disciples point out that they only have very little food (20 loaves, 5 loaves) to feed numbers that are too great (100 and 5000).

                In response Elisha and Jesus perform a multiplication miracle to make those small quantities satisfy the large numbers.

                I believe most people would see here stories that are in some way related.

                Your attempt to say that what I wrote at any stage is “vastly” incorrect in some way or that I am now saying something different from what I originally said is twisting words and meanings of mine out of context in a desperate effort to save some face.

                What we see here is certainly (4) a substitution of images; famine and desolate place, 20 barley loaves and newly ripened grain for 5 loaves and 2 fish, 100 disciples for 5000 people, etc etc etc

                We also see (5) positivisation — the positive enhancement of the miracle of Elisha by that of Jesus thus demonstrating the superiority of Jesus over Elisha.

                And we see (6) internalization — because Jesus later explains to his disciples that he is not trying to teach them about bread but that bread — and the miracles he performs with it — are symbolic, parabolic, of spiritual truths.

                We also have (2) compression since one half of the Elisha narrative, the poisoned soup, is omitted by Mark.

                And that is why, as you also say, the “details are: (1) very different for each (2) very important for each and (3) stated very differently for each.” You are quite correct.

                You are also partly correct when you say, “(The earlier story was not simply taken over and re-worked to generate the other.)”

                I have emphasized your “simply”. No-one has suggested that. What Mark has done is to base his story upon the Elisha one to create a quite different and new story about Jesus. He also fused it with themes of Moses. That is what I have been trying to point out — that an original story, something quite new, is created through literary mimesis.

                That Mark was using or drawing upon the Elisha story to create his own story is surely undeniable.

          2. On page 176 of the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, written by a raft of Catholic scholars, it says that 2 Kings 4:42-44 is ‘obviously the inspiration for the NT multiplication miracles’.

            I like the word ‘obviously’.

            1. Christopher T. Begg in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary indicates that the 2 Kings story is the “inspiration” for ALL the multiplication miracles in ALL the New Testament.

              NT scholars include, among multiplication miracles, the turning of water to wine and the miraculous catches of fish.

              Begg is asserting a general, relatively abstract connection. But he was not asserting the kind of point-by-point, forced analysis that Neil offered for the stories in 2 Kings 4 and Mark 6.

              By the way, the same commentary you quote includes an article on the historical Jesus written by Paul Meier, a historian who stated, “We can verify as historians that Jesus existed and that certain events reported in the Gospels happened in history.”

              1. Are you talking about the Catholic Priest, John P. Meier? Father Meier has impressive credentials: Doctor of Sacred Scripture, Licentiate of Sacred Theology, a full professor of theology at Notre Dame. I always find it curious that theologians like to call themselves historians. I mean, there’s no law against it. So, whatever makes them happy.

                I was just thinking how I was told that if I worked in Canada, I couldn’t call myself an engineer, because I don’t have a degree in engineering. Never mind that I’ve been working in the IT field (doing software and network engineering) for over 20 years. Fair enough. There should probably be stricter rules in the U.S. about self-trained amateurs like me calling themselves “engineers” on their business cards. On the other hand, in the IT world certifications and competence often do not correlate well.

                Anyhow, I just wonder how people with PhDs in history feel about priests with degrees in theology calling themselves historians.

              2. Orthodox Christianity is based on the presumption that the Gospel narratives originated in historical events. Without historicity orthodox Christianity has no foundations.

                The claim by theologians to be historians is entirely an ideological one. It serves to buttress the foundations of orthodoxy.

                Even non-believing theologians justify their role by defending orthodoxy’s foundations.

              3. You realize, don’t you, that your comment has nothing to do with the problem of using the quotation from The New Jerusalem Commentary in an unwarranted way?

                I repeat: “Begg is asserting a general, relatively abstract connection. But he was not asserting the kind of point-by-point, forced analysis that Neil offered for the stories in 2 Kings 4 and Mark 6.”

              4. Bobby: “You realize, don’t you, that your comment has nothing to do with the problem of using the quotation from The New Jerusalem Commentary in an unwarranted way?”

                Yes, I do. I thought it was fairly obvious that I was responding to your last paragraph. We know Meier believes in the historical Jesus. We own his books.

                Bobby: “Begg is asserting a general, relatively abstract connection. But he was not asserting the kind of point-by-point, forced analysis that Neil offered for the stories in 2 Kings 4 and Mark 6.”

                Forced analysis? I really don’t understand such strong objections to comparing the two stories the way Neil suggests. I believe you’ll find that every commentary on Mark mentions 2 Kings 4 when explaining Mark 6. And not just as a “relatively abstract connection,” but at very specific points. These points are important, because in Mark, the miracle is greater. How so?

                Elisha: 20 loaves

                Jesus: 5 loaves

                Elisha: Predicts what Yahweh will do. The LORD performs the miracle.

                Jesus: Blesses and breaks the bread. Performs the miracle himself.

                Elisha: “Some” bread is left over.

                Jesus: 12 full baskets are left over — more than what they started with.

                I will cite R.T. France again. (BTW, if you don’t have his commentary, you should pick it up; it’s not bad.) He thought that the numbers in the story probably don’t have any special, hidden, or mystical meaning. I disagree. I think we don’t know for sure what the numbers originally meant for certain, but they clearly meant something deeper to Mark.

                At any rate, France wrote:

                The point of the numbers is rather to emphasize the magnitude of the miracle (the more so when the numbers are contrasted with those in Elisha’s feeding miracle, 2 Ki. 4:42-44); as such they would naturally become fixed in the oral repetition of the story.

                So, as you can see, even a conservative exegete like France can see direct, obvious, and valid comparisons to the Elisha story. The difference between him and people like me and Neil is that we think the literary connections are neither accidental nor inconsequential. Other, less conservative, commentators see the large numbers as miraculous embellishment. In fact, I think it’s fair to say they characterize the gospels generally as historical nuggets covered over with supernatural embellishment.

                What Neil and I propose is that the gospels are legendary at the very core, with historical and topographical embellishment added to connect the narratives and to provide verisimilitude. I know this line of reasoning bothers you, but you don’t have to reject the textual comparisons wholesale.

                What I mean to say this: rather than attack the details of Neil’s comparisons, why not focus on the broad questions of historicity, literary dependence, mimesis, etc.?

              5. NT scholars include, among multiplication miracles, the turning of water to wine and the miraculous catches of fish.

                Which NT scholars include turning water into wine and miraculous catches of fish among “multiplication miracles” and where do they do this? I’m not disputing your claim — I have read many logically invalid statements in the works of theologians — but am interested in knowing who does this so I can try to follow their reasoning.

              6. With the meaning I spoke of for “multiplication miracles,” I was reflecting a common, useful designation that distinguishes between types of miracles. When Jesus supplied food miraculously from little or nothing (multiplying it), he was doing something noticeably different from walking on water, calming a storm, casting out demons or healing the sick.

                (The distinction goes back to my training in Bible college.)

                As for direct, recent uses of the term among New Testament scholars generally — with the kind of meaning I communicated — I can only recall John Dominic Crossan speaking of “multiplication miracles in John 6 (the feeding the 5,000) and in John 21 (a miraculous catch of fish and the meal that followed)” in a message he sent to Mark Goodacre’s blog a few years ago.

                Illustrating this use of the term:

                I was taught that Jesus began his miracles in John’s Gospel with turning the water into wine at the marriage celebration in Cana and ends with the miraculous catch of fish and a meal — indicating a similarity in the two miracles and a symbolic reference in both to: (1) the Eucharist and (2) the eschatological table and celebration that will come after the last day.

                And I was only assuming that the “multiplication miracles” in the commentary quotation has the common meaning that I am familiar with. I could have been too quick with that assumption; and I don’t have a copy of the commentary to get the full context.

                Generally, however, I noticed — in the commentary quotation — that it focused on the relationship between the story in 2 Kings 6 and “multiplication miracles” generally, not specific details in Mark’s story alone.

              7. Neil:

                In response to your lengthy, reference to your table, etc.:

                Rather than answering a question, you often try to overwhelm your critics with a flood of phrases. It’s a fallacious rhetorical technique. I’ve seen it done in formal, judged debates and seen the points start dropping from the team that tries it.

                I’m not going to repeat the question I included in the comment that led to your posting the table and test. I’ll just drop it; but you should consider avoiding this in the future — as well as ad hominem attacks.

                I will respond to one assertion in your comment, however:

                You indicate that intertextual and literary imitation studies indicate that “authors would weave several stories together to create an original one.” But surely you don’t believe that such authors as Tacitus, Livy and Herodotus were creating stories that did not correspond to reality when they adapted phrases, images and motifs from earlier writings in describing political, personal and military situations.

              8. So it is not correct that, as you said, “NT scholars include, among multiplication miracles, the turning of water to wine and the miraculous catches of fish.” You are just speaking from memory of bible-class lessons. You do not find any such classification in the scholarly literature. (You may have been confusing the classification of “nature miracles”.)

                As for my comment beneath the table, I was specifically addressing your own specific claims and refuting them point by point. I began by pointing out your claim that I was comparing a desolate place per se with the famine in 2 Kings was false. I even used your numbering in sections where you used numbering. But you can walk away unscathed by interpreting (not demonstrating) demolition of your claims as “a fallacious rhetorical technique”! Oh my my .. . 😉

                I do believe you cannot really grasp what I have said and that for you it really must appear to be fallacious irrelevance to our discussion. I really do believe you are so convinced your perception is the only valid one that any information that contradicts it is incomprehensible to you. (From the beginning you just blustered in without any careful attempt to understand what I was arguing — you somehow appeared to sense that I was in some way undermining the authority of the Bible and jumped in with more indignation and a will to expose the dishonesty of an atheist than with any accuracy and understanding.)

                You indicate that intertextual and literary imitation studies indicate that “authors would weave several stories together to create an original one.” But surely you don’t believe that such authors as Tacitus, Livy and Herodotus were creating stories that did not correspond to reality when they adapted phrases, images and motifs from earlier writings in describing political, personal and military situations.

                Oh my my, Bobby. You really are desperate now, aren’t you. No, I don’t believe that for the bulk of what they wrote. This is one of the oldest of apologistic come-backs that only serves to spotlight your own intent to salvage the authority of the Bible against normal literary criticism.

                If you can show me passages where Tactitus, Livy and Herodotus practiced intertextuality and/or mimesis with earlier literature then you will have an argument. They don’t write like that as a general rule. You did not see any such examples from historians in the post. There was a reason for that.

                But trying now to redefine the debate into a mere adaptation of phrases and images and motifs is blatant misrepresentation of what the discussion has been all about. Of course every author uses stock or recognized phrases, images and motifs that are known in the literature. We are not talking about usages of stock or known phrases, images and motifs. We are talking about intertextuality and “mimesis” (a form of imitation).

            2. Bobby Granger reminds me of the Mormon apologists denying parallels of the “View of the Hebrews” and the Book of Mormon because the parallels do not match exactly. It is the similarities in the narratives that need to be explained, not the differences!

        2. There is nothing real about Mark’s references to crowds, eating, wildernesses, houses, lakes and mountains. Each just happens to appear or disappear whenever as each theological/allegorical message requires. Jesus will heal and crowds not see — they are suddenly not there — as required; but they will suddenly appear whenever the plot requires. Eating is as symbolic as is Jesus standing at the door of a house with crowds outside or being in a house with others breaking the roof apart to lower a paralytic inside — who then suddenly walks out of the house with the crowds conveniently no longer blocking the door.

          If we read the references to food and eating literally we remain as uncomprehending as the author said the disciples were. Jesus corrected them when they thought he was speaking of literal food and reminded them that the numbers of baskets taken up, the numbers in each crowd (who counted 4000 and 5000?) and the walking on the water were all interconnected symbols.

          The feeding in the wilderness is also consistent with Mark’s other images that portray Jesus as greater than Moses — when his life was threatened he fled with a mixed multitude to the sea, and then ascended a mountain to ordain his own new people beginning with the famous twelve, and fed them miraculously in the wilderness – – – it is all arguably part of Mark’s Second Exodus theme drawn from Isaiah.

          1. You write, “Jesus will heal and crowds not see — they are suddenly not there — as required; but they will suddenly appear whenever the plot requires.”

            Why not give your readers some examples of these suddenly appearing and disappearing crowds? (Your examples would have to be enough to show that this is a pattern in a Gospel, because that is what you assert.)

            Part of my job is to study the Gospels very closely, and I can’t remember one example of this occurring in any of the Gospels — unless as is true of so much of what you write, you are over-stating yourself again.

            1. I’ve already written about it before several times, including on vridar.info. When I feel like it I’ll do so again. You might also like to read the scholarly works who point out the same thing. But I have no interest in being distracted from my interests by the unassailable wisdom of God that speaks through you.

    2. Bobby wrote: You would not address my assertion that nine out of ten of your parallels between two stories are false, though I asked you to either explain or concede the matter three different times.

      For anyone who is still reading these comments (and believe me, I wouldn’t blame you if you bailed out) the original 10 points can be found here:


      When I saw the words “preposterous,” “groundless,” “superficial,” and “sophomoric” in the first two paragraphs of the comment from our humble man of the cloth, I decided to ignore it. And, to tell the truth, I’ve been really busy this week.

      But now I’ll summarize and score them (see the comment link above for Bobby’s full text):

      1. Bobby is wrong. The point is that the people are hungry and need food. This establishes the scene for the miracle to come.

      2. Bobby is wrong. The point is that both groups sit down. Bobby has found a distinction without a difference that he baselessly inflates into a error.

      3. Bobby is wrong. He has misread the two stories in 2 Kings as one story, as if the bread were a dessert that the stew-sated sons of the prophets were asked to eat.

      4. Bobby is wrong. He is still strangely stuck on the stew. Beyond the stew strangeness, he cannot see any parallel between the numbers 20 and 5. The parallel, of course has to do with not enough food to feed the group of hungry people.

      5. Bobby is half-right. I think Neil’s point has to do with protestation in general, which is there to heighten the drama. The servant asks how in the world he’s supposed to feed 100 guys with 20 loaves. The disciples ask if they’re supposed to run off and buy a boatload of bread for a bunch of strangers. It’s true that after Jesus commands them to distribute the food, the disciples do not cavil.

      6. This is not really a separate point. See 5 above.

      7. Bobby may have a point, but let’s examine further. I assume what Neil means is that by praying to bless the food, Jesus is indicating that a meal (where all would fed) is about to take place. When the head of a Jewish household stands over the food and prays for a blessing, we expect everyone present will partake. To exclude anyone would be unthinkable. So, if that’s the sense of Neil’s parallel then, yes — Elisha said all would be fed and Jesus blessed and broke the bread, implying all would be fed.

      8. Bobby is wrong. He says “they ate” it isn’t “sufficient to suggest a strong literary tie.” So he concedes it’s a parallel, but rejects it.

      9. Bobby is wrong. He focuses on the word “much” which he says is not in the text of Mark. So Neil points out that “some” food is left over in 2 Kings and that quite a lot is left over in Mark. And that’s the real point of the matter: The leftovers in Mark exceed the original amount of food. (I’m reminded of the song in 1 Samuel 18:7 — “Saul has killed his thousands, but David his tens of thousands.”)

      10. Bobby is wrong. He writes: “But 100 has no obvious or symbolic correspondence to 5000.” He also writes: “So in actual wording, 2 Kings does not say 100 men ate, while Mark does say 5000 men did.”

      We have crossed a line here into the realm of embarrassment. Here’s the text:

      So he set it before them, and they ate and had some left over, according to the word of the LORD. (2 Kings 4:44, NASB)

      In the middle of a famine, a guy comes riding in with some bread. Elisha tells the servant to distribute it, “and they ate” the bread. And Bobby concludes what? That some of them waved a hand and said, “No, no, I’m OK — still full from last week’s stew”?

      Conclusion: Bobby strains at gnats while swallowing camels. Bobby seems rather confident despite his limitations. Bobby says he reads the gospels carefully but misses an awful lot.

      1. Let me respond to your points

        1. If Neil had written as you put it, “The people are hungry and need food. This establishes the scene for the miracle to come,” this would have been accurate, but could just as easily apply to actual conditions as to two texts in literary imitation.

        2. If Neil had said, “At some point, both the sons of the prophets and the multitudes are sitting,” this would have been accurate. (But remember, according to your explanation, the sons were seated up to a week before the feeding with the loaves and grain, so their being seated has nothing to do with that meal.)

        3. If Neil had said, “Elijah (in an unsolicited manner) commanded that the multitude be fed, while the disciples (unsolicited) suggested that the multitude go take care of feeding themselves,” that would have been accurate.( Your contribution here, as already indicated, is that you believe the Elisha story concerns two completely different meals, but Neil said nothing about this in his third point, so I could hardly respond to the idea.)

        4. Again, if we accept your distinction between two separate meals in 2 Kings than my comment about there being more than two kinds of food is mute, But again Neil made no such distinction. And on the other hand, if the man from Baal-shalishah came while the meal of stew was in progress, then the two-foods parallel breaks down.

        5. If Neil had said, at this point, “In each story, there was not enough food to feed a group of hungry people,” this would have been accurate, but it would also be very general and could apply to actual events as well as intentional literary parallels.

        5. If Neil had said “In both stories a protest was raised at the thought of feeding so many people — with no suggestion of where the food would come from in Mark’s story” that would have been accurate. But he did not. He said that, (upon being told to use a small amount of food to feed the multitude) the disciples protested that the people should go get their own meal. This did not happen; and — as you stated — the disciples raised no objection when Jesus indicated he would feed the crowd with the fishes and loaves. (These are not “half-right” assertions on my part; they are simply right.)

        6. You are correct: “This is not really a separate point. See 5 above.” And my comments in 5 apply.

        7. You grant that I may have a point, when I say that Elisha’s prophetic statement that some food would be left is completely different from Jesus blessing the food. But then you give a roundabout explanation that asserts, I suppose, that a prayer like Jesus’ prayer would imply to readers of that time that this prayer is the equivalent of the prophecy of having more food than was needed. (I think you are really stretching it with this explanation.)

        8. Surely you don’t mean, in your criticism, that when a story states, “They ate,” we have a strong literary parallel with another story that states, “They ate.” It is a parallel, but, in itself, is not a strong one. Don’t you agree with that?

        9. If Neil had said, “Elisha said, prophetically, that some food would be left over, and Mark states that 12 baskets full were collected after the meal he describes,” this would have been accurate. (You say this is close enough parallel, which may be right, but — unlike Neil’s way of putting it — the actual wording lacks precision. And it lacks the precision of the example you gave (“1 Samuel 18:7 — ‘Saul has killed his thousands, but David his tens of thousands.'”).

        10. If Neil had written, “100 men were involved in the first story and 5000 were involved in the second,” this would have been accurate, but it would also be trivial. Neil’s statement leaves the expectation that when one reads the two stories, one story will include the statement (“in actual wording”) that 100 men ate, and the other will include the statement that 5000 ate.

        If the one story is an imitation of the other, you say, such direct correspondence as I seek in 9 and 10 is unnecessary, which may be true.

        But it is also true, that — If these were two separate stories, recording two separate events — then the statements that: (1) 12 baskets full of leftovers were collected after the second event and (2) 100 men were involved in the first and 5000 in the other would just be facts that need no further explanation. And if each tells how some people were miraculously fed, then, of course, it is no surprise that (3) they all ate — 100 in the first case and 500 in the second.

  4. Your suggested parallel was that Elisha went to A DESTINATION where there was a famine — which he did; and Jesus and his disciples went to A DESTINATION where there was no food — which they did not. Instead they went to a “deserted” place.

    In the context of the story in Mark, a place that is “deserted” (a translation of the Greek word, ἔρημος) is a place where a lot of people do not usually go. The apparent meaning of ἔρημος in this case is “secluded” or “solitary.” This is the feature of the destination of Jesus and the disciples that is stated and emphasized in Mark’s account. (ἔρημος is used in both Mark 6:31 and 35.)

    If the two destinations in the two stories had actually shared stated, similar features — whatever they might have been — the parallel would have suggested a possible correspondence.

    But, minus the sarcasm, I think you are right when you say that you did not stop to think that the deserted place where Jesus and his disciples went was only a relatively short distance from food. If you had realized this, your suggested parallel would have been expressed much differently.

  5. In Biblical texts generally, concepts like wilderness, wasteland, even famine, have a moral dimension. Leveling the hills and making straight the paths of the Lord are not, after all, injunctions for civil engineers.

    1. More accurately, wilderness, wasteland and famine do not have a moral DIMENSION; they can, however, function as a moral ANALOGY; and this is true, not just in biblical texts, but in a wide-range of texts — religious and otherwise — and in common speech.

      But it is unrealistic to suggest that when such an analogy occurs, we should immediately start looking for some previous text that speaks of a wilderness, wasteland or famine.

      In this regard, the prophet Amos declared, “Hear this! The days are coming — [this is] the declaration of the Lord God — when I will send a famine through the land: not a famine of bread or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11). But we should not assert something to the affect that Amos has adapted an earlier story here, such as the famine in Jacob’s day that eventually sent Israel to Egypt. “Famine” is just a figure of speech in this verse, and not much more can be said about it.

      Besides, in the exchange I’ve had with Neil in the above discussion — Neil has already indicated — Mark does not talk about a famine at all. This being the case, he could not be using famine as an analogy in his story of the feeding of the five thousand.

      And Mark is not talking about a wilderness-wasteland. The Greek word, as used in this passage (ἔρημος) suggests only a place where no one lived and few frequented.

      1. What is it about the Bible that robs us of our wits and prevents us from reading it like any other literature?

        Homer has a trial scene where the crew of Odysseus must pass a test and resist the temptation to eat cattle sacred to Apollo. But they exhausted all their food supplies and really were “starving”. They were at the point, they feared, where they would die if they did not risk eating the sacred cattle. They knew the risk they were taking, but extreme hunger drove them to kill the cattle and eat. This all happened just at the point of the final leg of their journey when they were about to reach their destined land of their birth. But they never saw their homeland — the god destroyed them at sea for their sacrilege.

        Virgil has a scene in which the crew of Aeneas are at the point of finally reaching their destined land. Earlier in the story they had been cursed by a Harpy who put them in great fear by telling them that before they reached their new homeland they would find themselves suffering such hunger that they would eat their very tables! As it happened, just as they were about to enter their “promised land”, they were all enjoying a lovely banquet on a beach, and all happily anticipating what they were about to enter. As they ate, they found themselves so ravenous that they continued eating the very bread-“trays” that their food had been served on. Suddenly one of them made the joking quip that they had just eaten their “tables”! Then they all remembered the curse of the Harpy and were relieved to find it turned out to be more a blessing than a curse.

        Now at the literal level there is absolutely no comparison at all between the two types of hunger in these scenes, both in its kind and in its causes, and least of all in its consequences.

        Yet anyone who studies the Aeneid and the epics of Homer knows very well that Virgil was demonstrating here the overwhelming superiority of the quest of Aeneas to that of Odysseus. This scene is only one of dozens of examples. Aeneas was so abundantly favoured by the gods whereas Odysseus had been cursed. The two hunger scenes really are related and their differences — more numerous than their similarities — are nonetheless related. Virgil is basing his hunger scene upon Homer’s in a way that serves to deliver the lessons he wants to express through the Aeneid.

        The similarities between the miraculous feedings in Mark and 2 Kings are far more striking and more numerous than those in the hunger scenes of Homer and Virgil. Yet apologists seem to freak out with fear whenever they encounter any argument that suggests an author of a gospel was drawing upon sources beyond “eye-witness testimony”.

  6. Reading Mark with this approach, while it can simply be used to discredit religious claims, also gives the book a new appeal. For instance, part of what the atheist objects to about the bible are the miracles, historically, scientifically, morally and so on. In saying that much of Mark should be read symbolically, where it has most often been read literally, the fundamentalist position is undermined but so is the atheist objection (in saying that Mark is intentional ahistorical, the historical objection is itself no longer an objection to the correctly understood message of Mark). Does Mark read symbolically, then, present a religion more amenable to an unbeliever?

    1. Well first of all no religion should care about being more amenable to atheists, unless they’re trying to recruit them. Most atheists would actually prefer peaceful coexistence where religious people keep their religions to themselves and out of the atheists faces and atheists likewise let the religious live and let live with their own practices, no matter how bizarre, as long as nobody is getting hurt. Unfortunately that ideal is impossible in most democracies since democracies are about governing according to the wishes of the governed, and so it forces religious conflicts that normally wouldn’t need to be forced out into the public sphere (less of an issue in Europe than the US probably because of State Church vs. Free Market For Religions reasons, but still there) because people hold certain political beliefs purely for religious reasons (or, more cynically, people hold certain political beliefs and use their religion to justify those beliefs).

      Second of all – I would imagine that a religion that took all of the supernatural elements out of itself and purported to just be a symbolic vision of the world would attract some atheists (see some Buddhists, for example). But since having easy explanations for hard problems is a big reason for why people turn to religion, and a religion that rejected supernatural elements as explanations would not be able to provide much in the way of easy explanations for hard problems, I don’t see how it would gain much of a following.

      1. If we take Paul’s letters as among the earliest sources for “Christianity” then we find Christianity originating with beliefs in entirely supernatural activity. What appears to have happened is that someone like “Mark” has then written an allegory to express the spiritual doctrines, and that this allegory at some point became detached from its original context and took on a life of its own — and was interpreted literally by various factions.

        1. I do believe so. So many scholars have come to look to Mark as the earliest evidence for the historical career of Jesus but when you read it without that assumption and try to read it as you probably did the very first time you decided to tackle it, it can easily be shown to be as symbolic and unnatural as the Gospel of John. It makes no sense read as some sort of “realistic” biography or history. Maybe I should return to posting on this theme some more here to show what I mean.

          1. …and I was trying to suggest seeing things from the position of this allegorical Mark.

            One may reject modern Christianity having proved to one’s satisfaction that the gospels are unhistorical.

            However, if Mark intentionally wrote an allegorical book, and was not attempting to write history, then in attacking the historical nature of Mark, one does nothing to his true argument. If Mark is writing allegory, shouldn’t he be judged by the accuracy of his spiritual (or psychological) truths?

            If this is Mark’s true intent, how should the gospel’s truth/applicability then be judged?

            1. Agreed — we sometimes address one set of questions granting all the assumptions they carry “for the sake of argument”. One of the best ways to demonstrated the nonhistoricity of Mark is to point to its allegorical character.

  7. And Mark is not talking about a wilderness-wasteland. The Greek word, as used in this passage (ἔρημος) suggests only a place where no one lived and few frequented.

    i.e., a desert, a wilderness. As the term is usually translated at 1:3 and 1:12. Your confusion has to do with the valence of that concept in ancient vs. modern understanding. We tend to think in climatological and ecological terms when we hear the word ‘desert’ and for that set of concepts there is no clear ancient equivalent. Topography in pre-modern thought, and overwhelmingly in the biblical texts, is delineated on a social axis. So I agree in a sense, but in your own terms you’re making a significant mistake. What is in view is indeed just a place where no one lived, but your error is that this is nothing other than the ancient definition of ‘wilderness’. And that socio-topographical typology has in the text in question a strong symbolic dimension. Mark’s desert is not one that appears on any map.

    1. I think I understand what you’re saying. (I do not agree, however, that Mark’s desert (as used in Mark 1) does not appear on any map. It was a common designation for specific localities. Mark knew that and so did his readers.)

      But my basic point was — in response to Neil:

      Going to a place that is empty and deserted (Mark 6) does not correspond to going to an inhabited place that is in the grip of famine (2 Kings 4).

      Each term, deserted as well as famine, had certain symbolic implications. But upon seeing the term “deserted” (solitary, unpopulated) in Mark 6, an ancient reader would not automatically think — “famine” (without food, starving) as it is used in 2 Kings 4.

      1. “But upon seeing the term “deserted” (solitary, unpopulated) in Mark 6, an ancient reader would not automatically think — “famine” (without food, starving) as it is used in 2 Kings 4.”

        Correct, Bobby, That’s why my point was expressed as “Jesus went with his disciples to a deserted place where there was no food.” A desolate place is soon associated with the lack of food at hand. People have to leave that desolate place and go to villages to get food. I generally think passages have a right to be understood and interpreted in their context, don’t you? And I did not say “desolate place” per se matches “famine” — I said “a desolate place without food” — which is the whole point of the setting in order to provide the pretext for Jesus’ miracle. Yes?

        But even before we read about the desolate place we have already read that the disciples (and Jesus) did not even have a chance to eat and that is why Jesus led them to get away from the crowds and into the desolate place — an ironical move, since while it can be expected to be a getaway from crowds it is not going to meet their need to eat which had been made explicit. This is one of the many “Markan ironies”. So the reader is set up to wonder how the disciples are going to eat now they are out in the desolate place — and still being unable to escape the crowds.

        It’s a fascinating study. I’d love to prepare a sermon on it for you to use in your church.

      2. So “Mark” + editors + redactors knew specific localities in Palestine? Writing in Rome after the war with the Romans? From what I have read, “Mark” made many mistakes, that I am sure Rev. Garringer will set me straight on. http://www.rejectionofpascalswager.net/markauthor.html

        How does he “know” what Mark “knew” and his readers “knew” after a lapse of 2000+ years. Truly amazing this ability to “know” such things!

  8. Dear Vridar:

    Re your 5/15 post concerning the feeding of the multitude by Jesus; the number fed is not the issue; rather, it is the food, which is the food of the spirit–a food by which the entire world can be fed.

    Best regards,


  9. I did not say that NT scholars do not use the term “multiplication miracles” with a broader significance than the feedings of the five and four thousand. In fact, I gave you an example of one who did.

    I said that I assumed this is the meaning in the New Jerusalem Biblical Commentary — based on usage I was familiar with — and I grant that this may not be the case.


    The criteria for literary imitation includes: (1) a strong correspondence of structure in two texts and (2) strong verbal agreement in phrases that are important in each story. Your stated 10 points of correspondence lack these.

    The sequencing of details and the wording in the two stories is much different.

    If you had been content to recognize a broad kind of relationship, wherein the author of Mark may have reflected on the miracle stories of Elisha and chose to represent a similar pattern of miracles — in a broad sense — in a portion of Jesus’ ministry — that would be one thing and would fit criteria for that kind of adaptation. But this point-by-point alteration of a previous, specific story goes too far and lacks the strong correspondences indicated above.


    In your discussion, you choose to ignore examples of ancient historians and biographers who practice literary imitation, adapting — among other sources — the epic poems of Homer?

    Response: They did; and examples from them should be an integral part of your discussion.


    And all the details in Mark of names, places, sayings of Jesus (some of them superb by literary standards), the deep sense of devotion to him and the struggle within his disciples to grasp what he was saying and doing — all of this is reduced to a massive Markan allegory or a long-opaque parable that has no validity as an expression of remembered events.

    And this particular allegory or parable is not written as others are usually written but is pieced together from a practically endless buffet of previous sources — Jewish, Greek, and Roman.

    Response: There are plenty of examples of allegories and parables, both ancient and modern, to compare with Mark. And many who study such literature with scholarly expertise would say that Mark is clearly not in either of these categories.

    I note that Adam Winn, an advocate of the application of literary imitation to the study of the Gospels (in “Mark and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative”) concludes that Mark is “an eschatological historical biography.”

    1. Whose criteria for literary imitation are you talking about? You speak of two criteria for literary imitation as if they are hard and fast facts. What is your source and more importantly, argument? Mere assertion is not an argument. Ovid, I pointed out, is acknowledged by Ovid specialists to have practiced literary imitation with very little or no “verbal agreement” of any kind — let alone “strong”.

      And what do you mean by “strong correspondence of structure”? I pointed out that it is widely acknowledged that Virgil broke up and rearranged the structure of Homer in his imitation of Homer.

      You do not understand how mimesis works despite an undoubtedly close reading of my post.

      I did not ignore the examples of literary imitation among the historians — I explicitly said they do not as a rule practice literary imitation of Homer. I asked you to provide me examples where they do. I can think of none that are relevant to their actual historical material. I also pointed out that imitation is far more than simply reusing motifs, images etc. Again, your mere assertion that they did is not an argument. Give examples of where “they did”.

      But the key point here — given that you are now moving from the original argument and quite explicitly moving into a defence of the authority of the Bible — is that where they (and the Bible) do speak of genuine historical material, we have clear evidence for that historical material that lies beyond the texts (both pagan and biblical) themselves.

      And when you say “they should be an integral part of my discussion”, I beg to differ. I am the one who is discussing a very specific instance of literary indebtedness and adaptation — not a book on literary mimesis. You are welcome to respect the limitations of my own point.

      And all the details in Mark of names, places, sayings of Jesus (some of them superb by literary standards), the deep sense of devotion to him and the struggle within his disciples to grasp what he was saying and doing — all of this is reduced to a massive Markan allegory or a long-opaque parable that has no validity as an expression of remembered events.

      I am surprised at both your analysis and conclusion. Firstly, there is a lot of blindness and failure to understand but I see no textual evidence that the disciples were “struggling” to understand. Most scholarly works I have read point out that the disciples were thick as bricks according to Mark and could not grasp the most obvious things. Quite unlike the way they are portrayed in Matthew and Luke.

      As for allegory and parable — Mark says Jesus never spoke without a parable. Parables were repositories of deep spiritual truths. A parable is nothing to be sniffed at. And it is scarcely opaque overall. A few details may be mysteries, but readers can follow the spiritual meaning clearly enough.

      “No validity of remembered events”. Quite true. But Jesus would say he is not talking about bread but about the spirit. The kingdom is not of this world. He was on Schweitzer’s side when he argued that the church should not ground its faith in historical events but in something transcendent.

      And this particular allegory or parable is not written as others are usually written but is pieced together from a practically endless buffet of previous sources — Jewish, Greek, and Roman.

      Nothing unusual about that at all if you were familiar with the literary world in which the gospels were composed. (We have not even started on Luke yet.) And there’s nothing to be sniffed at here, either. Ancients valued the previous works as “masters” and prized their abilities to create new works with deeper meanings and more transcendent themes out of the materials of the older works. Mark’s product is a profoundly spiritual work.

      I am an atheist but it appears I have more respect and love of the Bible as it demonstrably is than you do.

      Adam Winn has many good points to make but he is not the sole authority. His criteria for what constitutes a biography is very shallow, even transparently apologetic. Happy to discuss his arguments if you wish.

      1. 1. You ask about the “two criteria for literary imitation” that I cited. I confess that I misstated the criteria of verbal correspondence. According to sources, it is a strong indication of imitation, but not a necessary one.

        Concerning structural correspondence, however, Adam Winn states that “similarities in narrative structures/order of events” is among “crucial” criteria “to demonstrate literary mimesis.” (“Mark and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative: Considering the Practice of Graeco-Roman Imitation in the Search for Markan Source Material”) (The question on this matter, in evaluating Winn’s work, is to determine how well he lived up to his own criteria.)

        2. You indicate there is no “literary imitation of Homer in historians,” but:

        Dennis R. MacDonald , in “My Turn: A Critique of Critics of ‘Mimesis Criticism’,” states that without adapting “Homeric names or quotations,” Herodotus imitated him “repeatedly.” He also describes Josephus as “the Jewish historian…whose ostensible topics were Jewish yet who imitated Homer, sometimes quite clearly.” (p. 10)

        The over-all use of the poets and poetic features by historians is relevant here.

        Andrew Laird, writing in “The rhetoric of Roman historiography,” states that scholars are interested in the fact that ancient Roman historians “employed poetic sources, techniques, and motifs.” (p. 210) And Laird states that the reason why they drew upon these sources, etc. was, “They, like the poets, were concerned with constructing [literary] ‘monuments’ that would last.” (p. 211)

        In, “Metaphor and the riddle of representation,” Laird speaks of “enigmatic revelation” as “a form of literary convention” used even in such historical works as Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita. (p. 227) He also names G. Schmeling as a scholar who confirms that the poetic use of “riddles in antiquity…are not entirely confined to symposia and recreation,” and he gives examples from Herodotus (the historian) and Sophocles (the tragic playwright). (“Metaphor,” footnotes 3 and 5, p. 227)

        So Mark may have imitated other sources (including Homer), used enigma and riddles, and sought to produce a piece of literature to be remembered and appreciated through the ages. While — at the same time — he sought to communicate what he regarded as real events.

        Perhaps his gospel is intended to be a new work “with deeper meanings and more transcendent themes” that incorporates “the materials of the older works.” But historians and biographers of the time did the same thing, while seriously attempting to represent the past.

        3. You say, “I see no textual evidence that the disciples were ‘struggling’ to understand.” But look at these examples from Mark:

        Mark 7:17 ” They asked him about the parable.”

        Mark 9:11 “They were discussing among themselves what rising from the dead meant.”

        Mark 10:10 “They asked him” about his statements concerning divorce.

        2. You say, “The disciples were thick as bricks according to Mark…quite unlike the way they are portrayed in Matthew and Luke.” But the disciples’ difficulty in understanding and retaining the meaning of Jesus’ words and actions is a theme in all the Gospels:

        Matthew 15:16, 17 “Are you still without understanding?…Do you still not understand?”

        Matthew 16:9 “Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember?”

        Matthew 16:23 “Out of my sight, Satan…you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of man,” stated after Peter, for lack of understanding, tried to correct Jesus concerning his betrayal and death.

        Luke 9:45 “They did not understand…it was hidden from them…”

        Luke 18:34 “The disciples did not understand…it was hidden from them. They did not know what he was talking about.”

        Luke 24:25 “How foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe…”

        The same evaluation of the disciples’ struggle in piecing together Jesus’ meaning is found in John.

        3. The fact that “Jesus never spoke without a parable” has no implications for the nature of Mark’s work as a whole. The Gospel of Mark is not an allegory or parable. We have allegories and parables for comparison, and the Gospel of Mark does not display the characteristics of either.

        1. 1. Criteria for imitation. There are almost as many variations of criteria statements as there are scholars writing about mimesis. They are not absolute laws that will guarantee clear cut answers in every instance. So for example when we look at “structure” as a criterion, we need to be reasonably familiar with a range of ancient literary works to know how to apply such a concept. Seeing common structure does not necessarily imply mimesis — there needs to be more than structure. And then we need to be aware of the way ancient authors played with structure, how they could rearrange it, draw together a new structure from two separate stories in the literature and recombine them into something new, or even reverse elements of structure.

          The key point is that authors were creative and it helps to immerse oneself in the literature, both the ancient literature and scholarly works addressing mimesis. Relying on or critiquing one scholar doesn’t cut it.

          2. Historians imitating Homer? My point stands. I don’t think you would be able to give me an instance of where Herodotus imitates Homer in the composition of his historical material. Herodotus certainly copies points of Homeric style and motifs, and structure. I may be wrong but I don’t know that Herodotus imitates content as Mark imitated the Elisha story by substituting setting and images as the basis of any of his historical material.

          But you will also notice that in that essay MacDonald links Herodotus with non-historians. There is indeed much fiction in Herodotus. As for Josephus, again I would like to know the specific examples MacDonald has in mind. Josephus is basically retelling stories from the Septuagint for much of what he wrote. Maybe he recast some of these in Homeric style? Or his story of the his own sea-adventure in his own life very likely included Homeric motifs. But I would be surprised if there were any historical events that have been based on Homeric content or cut from Homeric cloth.

          Can you go beyond the allusions of the secondary literature and actually explore the content those authors are addressing? I am never content with general conclusions. I always like to dig down to know the basis of their comments. That way I learn something I can really understand and talk about.

          3. Struggling to understand. Okay — maybe there’s a “struggle” in Mark 9:11, but I don’t see a mere asking for the answer to something as “a struggle”. Matthew and Luke portray them differently because they do show some growth of the disciples as they move from total obtuseness to degrees of enlightenment. Mark leaves us with the disciples all running off in fear, denying their Lord, and leaving us wondering if they ever did get to meet Jesus afterwards. There is no growth — what I take to be evidence of some struggle — in Mark’s disciples. Certainly there is no hint of anguish among them over their failure to understand. They in fact do believe they understand but are really in error. That’s not a struggle.

          4. Mark is not an allegory? Your mere assertion is not an argument. There are scholars of Mark who would disagree with you, and with argued reasons from the Gospel itself. I often suspect they may be right. The only way it can be read as making any sense as ‘history’ or ‘biography’ is for the reader to impute all sorts of rationalizations into each scene and sequence from Matthew, Luke, John and generally creative imagination to “make sense” of it.

    2. I note that Adam Winn, an advocate of the application of literary imitation to the study of the Gospels (in “Mark and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative”) concludes that Mark is “an eschatological historical biography.”

      Since we are turning to Adam Winn as an arbiter in this discussion, All rise while Adam Winn comes to the bench:

      Adam Winn, pages 82 and 84 of Mark and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative:

      Mark’s two narratives in which Jesus feeds thousands of people by multiplying loaves of breae (6:30-44 and 8:1-10) finds an obvious — and often recognized — parallel in the Elijah-Elisha narrative. The shared details are numerous. All three stories take place in a context where food is needed. In each story, only a small amount of food is available, with each story specifying the amount. Both Elisha and Jesus give instructions that the small amount of food be distributed, and in all three stories, the instructions are met with doubt/hesitation. In all three stories, the food is distributed to and eaten by a large number of people, with each story specifying the number of people present. Finally, at the end of each story, an abundance of food remains. These shared narrative details, as well as the shared order of events are laid out clearly in the chart below.

      Elisha 2 Kgs 4:42-44

      Jesus 6:30-44

      Jesus 8:1-10

      Hunger — famine in the land (38)

      Hunger — day w/out food (31)

      Hunger — three days w/out food (1-2)

      Small amount of food — twenty barley loaves + fig cakes (42)

      Small amount of food — five loaves of bread + two fish (38)

      Small amount of food — seven loaves of bread + a few fish (5, 7)

      Command to pass out food “Give to the men, so that they may eat” (42)

      Command to provide food “Give them something to eat” (37)

      Command to pass out food impied (2-3)

      Servant responds with doubt/hesitation (43)

      Disciples respond with doubt/hesitation (43)

      Disciples respond with doubt/hesitation (4)

      Command is repeated (43)

      Command to the disciples to sit the people down (39)

      Command to the crowd to sit down (6)

      Food distributed by a servant (44)

      Food distributed by disciples (41)

      Food distributed by disciples (6)

      A large number of people eat (100) (44)

      A large number of people eat (5000) (42)

      A large number of people eat (4000) (8)

      Extra food remains (44)

      Extra food remains (12 baskets full) (43)

      Extra food remains (7 baskets full) (8)

      That the Markan pericopes are dependent on the Elijah-Elisha narrative is strongly supported by the criteria of shared narrative details and shared narrative order. To deny such dependence seems impossible. Certainly there are differences between the two stories, but these differences are easily explained, and do not stretch the bounds of Greco-Roman imitation. Mark has clearly expanded what is a brief episode in the Elijah-Elisha narrative, adding and changing a number of narrative details. Some of these changes can be attributed to to Markan intensification of the Elijah-Elisha account — an intensification that reflects that Jesus is greater than Elisha. . . . . Mark has taken a relatively simple miracle episode from the Elijah-Elisha narrative, and given it a prominent and significant place in the gospel. . . .

      It seems impossible to deny that the Markan evangelist has used the 2 Kings account of Elisha multiplying bread as a pattern for his double account of Jesus doing the same thing. That the Elijah-Elisha narrative is a literary source for Mark at this point in the gospel is virtually certain.

        1. Indeed, Pastor Bobby favorably invokes Adam Winn whose list of comparisons looks an awful lot like Neil’s list — which, as you recall, Bobby had described with words like “superficial” and “sophomoric.”

          1. Bobby has since told us of his real fear that Mark’s story should in any part by sourced from other literature.

            Bobby rightly understands — more deeply than Adam Winn does, I think — that once we acknowledge clear evidence of a particular source for an episode in the life of Jesus then, in the absence of evidence for any other source like eyewitness testimony, it is reasonable to accept that a detail of Jesus’ life really is nothing other than a literary invention.

            That does not prove there was no historical event behind it. But it does mean that we are left without any evidence for historicity while at the same time we do have very strong evidence for a literary fabrication.

            Naturally this state of affairs is a serious threat to one whose faith rests upon the historicity of the tale.

  10. I used to reason that Jesus purposefully did things like Elijah and Elisha did, for example, but in a greater way so that when his later followers finally realized the connection, they would be convinced of Jesus’ superiority. I’m surprised that Garringer does not appeal to this reasoning.

  11. The story of the miracle of the loaves and fishes is obviously structured on the basis of the Elisha story in Kings. But this structural literary source does not tell us the purpose of the story. Mark does not mindlessly copy from Kings but appropriates the old text for his own reasons.

    This is the only miracle that appears in all four gospels (twice in two), so it was obviously of central importance to the early Christian community, despite its obscurity. We can discount any suggestion that Mark is recounting a simple belief of an actual event decades before where Jesus miraculously defied the laws of physics in front of two separate massive crowds, none of whom left any trace in the historical record except via Mark. Mark gives a heavy clue that a literal reading is wrong when he has Jesus say, right in the middle of the miracle at Mark 8:12, just after feeding the 4000 and before explaining the meaning, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.” This is just after Jesus has supposedly miraculously produced abundant food from a meagre source, something that anyone would regard as a sign.

    So, the story must be an allegory or parable, not literal history or a sign of messianic power. The only explanation of what the parable means is at Mark 8:17-19: Jesus asked them “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” “Twelve,” they replied. “And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” They answered, “Seven.” He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”

    These numbers are apparently meant to make the disciples ‘see and understand’ and overcome their hardness of heart, All very cryptic.

    1. You say that the stories of the feeding of the five thousand cannot be expressions of belief in an actual event for three reasons:

      1. Such an event, with so many witnesses, would be recorded by someone besides Mark alone if it really happened. But…

      Other than Josephus, no other first-century writer outside the Bible – Jewish, Greek or Roman – mentions the most significant, devastating series of events for Jews of that time: (a) the fall of their capital (b) the destruction of their temple and (c) the loss of their nation.

      Besides this, Josephus alone – outside the New Testament – wrote about events in Judea during the reign of Herod the Great, his son and grandson.

      And surprisingly, no other first century writer we know of mentions Josephus himself!

      Similarly, all that we know about Thucydides – historian of the Peloponnesian War – is a few remarks he left about himself; no one else in or near his time, whose writings survive, speaks of him.

      This doesn’t mean Jerusalem never fell and Josephus and Thucydides never existed. Instead among other things, it means our resources are meager for many past events and for important people; a lot of documentation has been lost.

      The same is true of the feeding of the multitudes. In terms of meager documentation, the event may have occurred. Our lack of more thorough documentation does not proscribe that it is other than a real event.

      You may not believe it happened, because it’s a miracle; but this means the amount and placement of references has no affect on your belief.

      2. Such an event is not literal, because Jesus says he will give no sign, even though he just did in the feeding of the multitudes; you say, anyone would regard such a miracle – if it really happened – as a sign. But…

      This is not the case.

      The Pharisees had – demanded – that Jesus give them “a sign from heaven” (Mark 8:11). (The word “sign” is not used earlier in Mark, let alone “sign from heaven.”)

      A. T. Robertson indicates that the Pharisees’ demand was not a simple request. He writes, “They began at once and kept it up (present infinitive).”

      And then Robertson indicates the kind of thing the Pharisees were demanding: They wanted, not just a sign, but a sign “from the sky.”

      John Lightfoot, in his Commentary on the New Testament From the Talmud and Hebraica, explains: “They would…have somewhat from heaven, either after the example of Moses fetching manna…or of Elias fetching down fire…or of Joshua staying the sun…or of Isaiah bringing it backwards.”

      3. The numbers 12 and 7 for the baskets of food have some cryptic meaning. But…

      Craig Keener – in his book, The Gospel of John – points out that Jewish sages often spoke in riddles, and misunderstanding by both allies and enemies was common in philosophical biographies.

      Andrew Laird gives examples of “enigmatic revelation” as “a form of literary convention” used by the historian, Livy, and of “riddles” used by the historian, Herodotus. (“Metaphor and the riddle of representation,” p. 227)

      So the numbers, 12 and 7, may have symbolic meaning in Mark that we do not immediately understand; but that in itself does not mean Mark did not intend to retain and pass along real information.

      The biographers of Jewish sages and the historians, Livy and Herodotus, were writing about things they thought really happened – and sometimes corrected those who misreported the facts. So the presence of literary conventions in Mark that are enigmatic is not an indication that he wasn’t doing the same kind of thing.

      1. Bobby: “And surprisingly, no other first century writer we know of mentions Josephus himself!”

        You may not be aware of Justus of Tiberias, a contemporary of Josephus. They apparently hated each other. It is true most of what we know about Justus comes from Josephus himself, since all of his (Justus’s) works are lost. We do have a witness, however, to Justus’s history, thanks to Photius (Photios 1) of Constantinople.

        Because of Photius, we at least know a little bit about many works that did not survive into modern times. In his Biblioteca, Photius writes:

        Read the Chronicle of Justus of Tiberias, entitled A Chronicle of the Kings of the Jews in the form of a genealogy, by Justus of Tiberias. He came from Tiberias in Galilee, from which he took his name. He begins his history with Moses and carries it down to the death of the seventh Agrippa of the family of Herod and the last of the kings of the Jews. His kingdom, which was bestowed upon him by Claudius, was extended by Nero, and still more by Vespasian. He died in the third year of the reign of Trajan, when the history ends. Justus’s style is very concise, and he omits a great deal that is of the utmost importance. Suffering from the common fault of the Jews, to which race he belonged, he does not even mention the coming of Christ, the events of His life, or the miracles performed by Him. His father was a Jew named Pistus; Justus himself, according to Josephus, was one of the most abandoned of men, a slave to vice and greed. He was a political opponent of Josephus, against whom he is said to have concocted several plots; but Josephus, although on several occasions he had his enemy in his power, only chastised him with words and let him go free. It is said that the history which he wrote is in great part fictitious, especially where he describes the Judaeo-Roman war and the capture of Jerusalem.

        The accusation of writing fiction no doubt comes primarily from Josephus, who found it necessary to defend himself against Justus’s accusations.

        The quote above came from http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/photius_03bibliotheca.htm.

        It is supremely frustrating to read through Photius’s short synopses, knowing that he held in his hands many documents that we will mostly likely never see.

        1. We have no writings, contemporary with Josephus, that mention him.

          You cite Josephus as an authority that Justus knew him. But Josephus names a number of people who knew and interacted with him. And Josephus is Josephus, not someone else.

          Then you cite a man living over 700 years after Josephus (Photius I) who says that he is aware of things Josephus said about Justus, but cites nothing Justus said about Josephus.

          The only book of Justus that Photius I cites is “A Chronicle of the Kings of the Jews” in the form of — note this — “a genealogy” that is — note again — “very concise.” Such a document would not mention Josephus; and Photius I does not claim it did.

          So even with the remote, seven-centuries-later statements of Photius I — I repeat — we have no writings, contemporary with Josephus, that mention him.

          1. So what, there is no demand that “I surrender my life to Josephus” in order to be “saved”. We need a lot more evidence for supernatural events like miracles that certify that some illiterate fellow from 2000 years ago was the a god/man the son of the storm god yahweh. Some questions: Who was “Mark” and his editors and redactors. How was “Mark” in a position to “know” the things he is writing about? Mark knows things an writer would know about his fictional characters i.e. their thoughts and feelings. “Mark” never claims to be an “eyewitness”. “Mark” never claims to know “Peter”. “Mark” never introduces himself. This all points to Mark being a literary work.


            1. The level of literacy in which Jesus was raised appears to have been high. Jewish culture, even in Galilee, included schools for boys; and, of course, the reading and teaching of written Scripture was the center of religious life and practice.

              So it is no surprise to find Jesus reading in the synagogue (Luke 4:16).

              It is very likely, according to scholars of various disciplines, that Jesus could speak at least enough Greek to get by as an artisan, capable of doing business in the large Hellenistic city of Sepphoris that was near where he lived.

              Who was Mark? The Mark that early Christians attributed this Gospel to is mentioned in Acts, the letters of Paul and other early Christian writings. He was a relative of Paul’s companion, Barnabas, and had access to the apostles from the earliest stage of the growth of the expanding church. So he would know a lot about Jesus from men who had been trained — in a rabbi-disciple relationship — by Jesus himself.

              Mark was not a primary witness to the events he wrote about, but he lived and learned in the company of men who were.

              As to his knowing about the thoughts and feelings of his characters, there is nothing he records that he could not have easily learned from persons who were directly involved in actual events — the apostles and early converts to the faith.

              The only clear example in Mark of his speaking about what people were “thinking to themselves” is in Mark 2:6-7, where the scribes react to when Jesus declared, in God-like fashion, that a man’s sins were completely forgiven. But the content of the scribe’s thoughts is revealed immediately in Mark 2:8-11 in the words and actions of Jesus. Anyone who heard what Jesus said and saw what he did would understand what he knew about the inner thoughts of his critics.

              Mark is definitely “a literary work,” with apologetic, didactic and liturgical intent. It is written in a way that brings to mind the prophetic and historic traditions and themes of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is structured, in sometimes subtle ways, to stir the curiosity and to satisfy the literary tastes of Mark’s readers.

              But history and biography among the ancients — and not just novels and other fictional texts — have similar designs.

              From an open, positive reading Mark, we can see that the powerful words of Jesus and his amazing deeds left an unforgettable impression on those who knew him, and Mark has weaved some of the more important of these into an interesting narrative.

              You are deeply concerned that Mark nowhere identifies himself or documents his sources. But…

              1) Tacitus wrote his Annals anonymously.

              2) Without naming sources: Seneca, Catullus, Virgil and Herodotus imitated and incorporated information from earlier texts.

              1. So let me get this straight; because the Mark says Jesus could read, then Jesus could read! In fact, no body knows who “Mark” was, it is just a name. There are an entire chain of assumptions your are making that rely on a belief that the things recorded in the bible did in fact happen.

                I don’t know where you get your idea of 1st Century literacy but the scriptures which you seem to think are reliable calls the disciples ” ignorant and unlearned men” Acts 4:13. These folks are from the fisherman and carpenter classes after all. Meir Bar-Ilan Senior Lecturer

                Talmud Department and Jewish History Department Bar-Ilan University says this about first century Palestinian literacy: “Comparative data show that under Roman rule the Jewish literacy rate improved in the Land of Israel. However, rabbinic sources support evidence that the literacy rate was less than 3%. This literacy rate, a small fraction of the society, though low by modern standards, was not low at all if one takes into account the needs of a traditional society in the past. Checkmate apologist! You are spinning. You are assuming things you need to prove like the identity of “Mark” and where he got his information. Since “Mark” was a very common name in the Roman Empire you can’t assume when Mark is mentioned in the NT it is the same person every time. You cannot rely on the bible to prove the bible.

                As for Mark being a literary invention reread Mark 15. The author knows what Pilate is thinking and other things that he cannot know unless by supernatural or by natural creation from his own mind. This entire chapter reeks of a story not history.

              2. Arguments for a relatively high level of literacy among Jews in Jesus’ time come from various sources, including the Talmud, Philo, Josephus, 2 Maccabees and the New Testament — and from a number of recent scholars who are challenging the idea that Jesus was illiterate or that not many Jews in Jesus’ day had any type of “literacy,”

                Archaeological findings include the discovery of rooms attached to synagogues that some historians and archaeologists say are “study-rooms” and “classrooms,” because of the arrangement of what appear to be benches.

                Remembering that “literacy” has various levels, it is entirely comprehensible that Jesus (an itinerant rabbi who had men in training under him) could have been trained as youth to be a Torah-reader in the synagogue. (This would not necessarily imply that he could write well, especially at the level of a trained scribe.)

                The scholars debate the meaning of the evidence, but I feel comfortable saying that I’ve weighed out pretty well what a lot of them are saying; and the case for Jesus’ literacy is good.

                As to your understanding of “ignorant and unlearned” in Acts 13, I’ll give a full quote from Craig Evans, “Jewish Scripture and the Literacy of Jesus” (pp. 42, 43) that other readers of this blog might find useful:

                “John 7:15… directly speaks to the question of Jesus’ literacy, at least in the narrative world of the fourth evangelist. Some in Jerusalem wonder: “How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?” Literally, they have asked how he “knows letters”… “not having studied” or “not having learned”… But the reference here is to a lack of formal, scribal training, not to having had no education whatsoever. Jesus has not sat at the feet of a trained, recognized rabbi or sage.

                “We encounter the same language in Acts, which describes the reaction of the religious authorities to the disciples of Jesus: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were “uneducated”… “common men” …they wondered; and they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). The [Greek words used here] should not be rendered “unlearned and ignorant,” as in the King James Version (and ASV).

                “[The first word] means to lack scribal training [as a professional scribe] (so LSJ) [The second word] does not necessarily mean to be unable to read. [It means] to be one outside of the guild, or outside of the group, as in 1 Cor 14:16, 23, and 24, where Paul refers to the “outsider” (so RSV) or “ungifted” (so NASB)… In 2 Cor 11:6 Paul says of himself, “Even if I am “unskilled” [the same Greek word as used in Acts 4:13].. in speaking . . .” (RSV). Paul, of course, could and did preach, and did so effectively. Yet he conceded that he lacked formal training in rhetoric and oratory. Hence he regarded himself as “unskilled” or outside the guild….

                “The comments in John 7:15 and Acts 4:13 should not be taken to imply that Jesus and his disciples were illiterate. In fact, the opposite is probably the intended sense, as most commentators rightly interpret. That is, despite not having had formal training, Jesus and his disciples evince remarkable skill in the knowledge of Scripture and ability to interpret it and defend their views.”

              3. None of the above offers any evidence at all that Jesus could read and write.

                In fact, the evidence cited is even contradictory. At one point, a room with markings that suggest it contained benches is given as evidence that Jesus that’s how Jesus learned — even though the evidence is nowhere near Nazareth that was so small at the time as to scarcely register any remains from the period at all. Then we are told that a passage in John means he did not receive a formal education from a credited rabbi. So who was teaching the students at the desk in the room attached to the synagogue? The janitor?

                But more to the point — all of this argument is the standard way biblical scholars argue for this and that about Jesus but that would be thrown out as evidence in any real historical discipline. It’s smoke and mirrors.

                Consider: Historians can present all sorts of economic and sociological reasons for why workers joined demonstrations in Tsarist Russia calling for a change of government; they can give all sorts of reasons why Australians went to war in 1914; etc etc etc — but none of any of those general historical reasons, while certainly valid and truly historical reasons, can be said to describe the motivations of any particular individual.

                We know individuals have their own personal reasons for doing things that usually relate to their social networks and personal lives. They do things because they want to belong to what their friends are doing; they may know nothing about politics or diplomatic relations and care less – but we know some joined in for excitement, adventure, to impress a girl-friend, to escape a debt, to take personal vengeance, etc etc

                General social, material and economic conditions tell us about general groups of people but they do not tell us about any individual’s biography. Historians know that. Theologians pretending to be historians play smoke and mirrors.

                All we can say is that Jesus grew up in a culture that was, broadly, characterized by such and such (though remember that Nazereth was not even an average sized village) — but we are also told that Jesus was very exceptional and unlike his contemporaries in important ways. We have no evidence to tell us about Jesus’ literacy beyond gospel narratives.

              4. I’ve listed some of your statements and responded.

                1. “None of the above offers any evidence at all that Jesus could read and write.”

                No, not in the form of specific evidence about the specific man, Jesus, but I included evidence for — the plausibility — of his being able to read.

                2. “The evidence cited is contradictory… [On one hand] a room with markings that suggest it contained benches is given as evidence that that’s how Jesus learned…[But on the other hand, a passage in] John means he did not receive a formal education from a credited rabbi.”

                There is no contradiction, because the Greek phrasing used in John 7:15 and Acts 4:13 indicate that Jesus, Peter and John were not given the in-depth training of a — scribe — which was much more than the training boys and young men received in a local synagogue. (I was responding to the charge that Acts 4:13 meant that Peter and John could not read. I was pointing out that the Greek in this verse and the related verse in John do not imply such a thing.)

                3. “Nazareth…was so small at the time as to scarcely register any remains from the period at all.”

                The biggest problem with doing archaeological research at Nazareth is, it has been continuously occupied through the centuries. When expansion was planned on a church there a few years ago, they uncovered the remains of a good sized residence from the first century; and grave sites have been located near-by with remains from that period that are the primary basis for estimating its size in Jesus’ time.

                And Nazareth is not so small that the existence of a synagogue there in Jesus’ day, as indicated in the Gospels, is implausible.

                4. “General social, material and economic conditions tell us about general groups of people but they do not tell us about any individual’s biography.”

                True. So what we can envision of the circumstances of that time in Galilee make it plausible that a man like Nazareth could have learned to read.

              5. @ Bobby

                Exactly. We agree once again. All you can do is argue for the plausibility that Jesus could read. Plausibility tells us absolutely nothing about whether Jesus really was literate. All it says is that he “could” have been literate! That’s meaningless for the purpose of historical verification. Historical Jesus books are full of this utterly meaningless “could have been” scenarios that are turned into “probably was” fancies.

                As for Nazareth, you are clearly unfamiliar with the actual archaeological evidence for Nazareth in the early first century. Just relying upon general claims (usually — always? — unsubstantiated) by theologians means nothing to anyone who has read the evidence — including a report published in a peer review archaeological journal that was also critiqued in the same journal for its methodological flaws.

                It’s plausible that Jesus could read; it’s plausible that a man called Jesus preached and practiced exorcism. That has not even got us off the starting base as for historical verification.

                By the way, are we agreed that merely borrowing images and turns of phrase from earlier works is not the same as literary mimesis?

              6. Jesus could read because “Mark”+editors+redactors says so! Speculation piled on speculation. Jesus spoke Greek too, and why not, fictional characters are not controlled by factual considerations. Mark was a companion of “Peter” but “Peter” forgot to tell him about meeting Jesus after the resurrection. I Cor. 15:5 (That is if “Cephas” and “Peter” are the same people) There must have been a Sherlock Holmes because Dr. Watson spoke to him!

                “Luke” +editors + redactors says “many have written….” so what, we don’t know anymore about “Luke” than we do about “Mark” or any of the other alleged companions of Jesus. They are just lists of names,in the gospels, that don’t even match up!

                I hear the same thing talking to Mormons “Nephi did this”. “Moroni did this” same type of stuff except the gospels have been redacted and edited in ways we cannot easily discover, unlike the Book of Mormon.

                Next thing you will be telling me that “John” the Palestinian fisherman knew about Philo’s concept of the “Logos” and wrote the gospel attributed to him. No doubt “John” was studying on the boat between fishing expeditions.Perhaps they had a library on their fishing boat. Perhaps all the disciples were all part time Rabbis. Perhaps they knew Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic; amazing! That is the great thing about apologetic efforts you can really use your imagination! There is no hard evidence for any of this stuff. Playing tennis without a net!

                BTW how could Paul “lack training in rhetoric and oratory” if he was a pupil of Gamaliel? According to “Paul” + editors and redactors he was a fabulous student Galatians 1:14! The early rabbinical schools were focused on debate and dialectics http://www.gracenotes.info/documents/TOPICS_DOC/rabbinicalschools.pdf so this ignorance is hard to explain.

              7. No one — not myself and certainly not any scholar — has asserted that — Mark — stated, in a direct way, that Jesus could read. So when you go on about Jesus being able to read, because “Mark+editors+redactors” says so, you are not referring to anything anyone has actually written.

                Concerning the possibility of Jesus speaking Greek, some scholars are open to the idea because Jesus was an artisan (who worked with either wood or stone), who lived a very short distance from a major city in the region, Sepphoris. (Some say his home was less than an hour’s walk away.).

                Sepphoris was a Hellenistic center, with some impressive homes and other structures among the remains that have been studied. In doing business in that city, it is likely that Jesus was good with conversational Greek. (Similarly, Capernaum, the home of Simon Peter was also a Hellenistic city with wealthy patrons of local businesses. So he and his fellow fisherman may have been very proficient in Greek.)

                You ridicule the idea that Mark was a companion of Peter, because “Peter forgot to tell him about meeting Jesus after the resurrection” (I Cor. 15:5). However, in the cryptic style of his Gospel, Mark writes that the announcement to the women in the tomb is: “But go, tell His disciples — and Peter — ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee…'” (Mark 16:7) (Mark — who carefully chooses his words and shrewdly works his themes — is placing great emphasis on the encounter of the risen Christ and Peter.)

                You question whether or not Cephas (in 1 Corinthians and Galatians) is Peter. I doubt that anyone familiar with the Greek language would take your objection seriously.

                You say, “We don’t know about… any of the alleged companions of Jesus.” But…

                Who in the world do you think Paul is writing about in, the two letters I mentioned, 1 Corinthians and Galatians? These are letters that even the most liberal of historians and theologians would say were written by Paul within 20 or so years of the life of Jesus. Yet references to the apostles, to James (the brother of Jesus), to Peter, to Barnabas, etc. are made without the slightest touch of fabrication. Paul is writing to audiences who were familiar with him and these other messengers of the gospel.

                By the time Paul had written these letters, the church had spread far beyond Jerusalem. Yet there is a pattern of inter-communication between the Christians in various places. So these apostles were real people, who walked and talked with the real Jesus. And other messengers, like Paul, focused their life-work in a shared mission centered round these companions of Jesus. Surely, you won’t suggest that Paul was writing fiction when he speaks of these men, by both name and general references, in various specific contexts.

                You ask, “how could Paul “lack training in rhetoric and oratory” if he was a pupil of Gamaliel?” The early rabbinical schools were focused on debate and dialectics.” But…

                Paul is writing to Christians in the Greek city of Corinth. The Greeks would not admire or emulate the methods of the rabbis. The rabbis’ give-and-take over what this or that authority said — and their expositions of the law — did not correspond to the rhetorical traditions of the Greeks.

                You say, “There is no hard evidence for any of this stuff.” But…

                We have here as hard evidence as history offers. The best we can do is gather in as realistic a picture as we can from the available data and work toward what is plausible. So again, it is plausible that Jesus could read. To the point that, I think it would be difficult to amass — from the available data — a strong case that he could not.

                And it is plausible that Mark, a companion of Paul, Barnabas and Peter could have written the Gospel attributed to him.

              8. The common claim that Jesus would have regularly commuted between Sepphoris and Nazareth appears to be based on the assumption that the terrain was in reality as flat as a paper map. Nazareth was in the Nazareth Valley or Basin that had a natural facing south towards Jezreel. Sepphoris, on the other hand, was to the north (slightly more than the commonly given 6 km that seems to be measured from the Nazareth ridge rather than the village site — where it is closer to 7 km), and was separated from the Nazareth village by a very steep gradient on the north side of the village. This terrain suggests there would have been very little concourse between Sepphoris and Nazareth.

                (But of course there is no evidence for continuous settlement of Nazareth at all contrary to many claims of apologists. The evidence used to claim the contrary is invalidly based upon the dating markers from Judea, even though it is known that it took many decades for those markers to be matched in the Galilee.)

              9. Just weigh in on this:

                Scholars of various disciplines (including some archaeologists) believe that Nazareth was occupied in Jesus’ time. And scholars believe that Nazareth’s location, so near to Sepphoris, has relevant implications for understanding Jesus.

                The are not assertions from a radical religious fringe.

              10. I am very well aware of what various scholars write. But I do not take their word for it. (I don’t disbelieve them either.) I always want to know the reasons for their claims, the evidence on which they base their views. I want to learn and understand the arguments for myself. You don’t seem to worry about that sort of in-depth knowledge but are content to repeat what authorities say to support your view. (I think it is my interest in digging down to the foundations of what is often asserted by too many biblical scholars that has attracted so many regular readers to this blog.)

                I have also read the evidence upon which they base their claims (in some cases it is not evidence but merely repeating what some other scholar has said — they’ve never investigated the evidence for themselves, as is clearly indicated when one follows up their endnote references) — and I have read criticisms of that evidence and its interpretation in a peer-reviewed journal, and I have read their responses to that criticism.

                So what I wrote above I can write with some confidence. I suspect I know more about the actual evidence for the presence of Nazareth before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE than you do. I have written several posts on this so you can check my claims for yourself. No-one has responded with an expose demonstrating flaws in my argument or evidence, but they have responded with personal insult. I think such responses are instructive.

                If you would like to discuss the evidence and the basis upon which any particular scholar makes his or her claims I am very happy to do so.

                I am also waiting for you to give me examples where Livy and Herodotus uses literary mimesis (actual literary mimesis as opposed to the borrowing of, say, a phrase or image etc) as the basis of any of their historical stories — Again, you come across as knowing nothing of what you are talking since you are quite content — it constantly appears — to rely upon what you think authorities must be meaning to say about this or that. I don’t say that to insult you; I really wish you would dig a bit deeper so we could have a real discussion from equal positions regarding awareness of the actual evidence.

              11. I’m only expressing what historians and classicists have said about the later historians and their imitation of Homer.

                Jona Lendering states, for example, “Sometimes, Herodotus copies scenes from Homer.” And he adds an example, “In his description of the Battle of Thermopylae, he tells how the Spartans and Persians fought about the body of Leonidas.” He states, That Herodotus’ story “echoes a scene from the Iliad in which the Greeks and Trojans fight about the body of the hero Patroclus.”

                I guess your argument is…

                Literary imitation of the poets is acceptable in the histories as their authors give shape form and content to their narratives — because the imitation is not extensive. But this could not be the case in the Gospels — because their imitation is extensive.

                But it was MacDonald himself who — with no sifting into historical and poetic categories — wrote, “…classicists recognize…imitations of epic repeatedly in Herodotus, the tragedians, the Hellenistic romances, and even other works by Virgil and Lucian.”

                MacDonald continues his examples by referring to “…the Book of Tobit, the Hellenistic Jewish poets, and even the Jewish historian Josephus whose ostensible topics were Jewish yet who imitated Homer, sometimes quite clearly.”

                Literary imitation is literary imitation, and — whether extensive or limited — are no clue that we are reading fiction.

              12. Detlev Fehling, “Herodotus and his ‘Sources’: Citation, Invention and Narrative Art“, pretty much establishes without any reference to Homeric imitation that Herodotus’s account of the battle of Thermopylae was imaginative fiction. It was a fiction that Livy himself imitated, and there is some suspicion that even the “real” historian Thucydides could not resist resorting to it in one moment of his History of the Peloponnesian War.

                So I argue that this example of literary mimesis found in Herodotus actually supports my argument.

                But no, you are doing more than “only expressing what historians and classicists” have written. You are instructing me to “weigh in on” what they say and are using their statements to supposedly contradict my own arguments. And I am replying that I would like to see some specific evidence that addresses my own arguments since I think you have read into their words what you think will argue against me and are using their authority to argue your case.

                But rather than “guess” what my argument is, I invite you to read what I have actually written. No, I do not argue, as you “guess” (why guess when I have tried to spell it out in detail??) that imitation in the histories is acceptable because it is “not extensive”. Rubbish. That’s nothing like what I have argued at all.

                You don’t seem to read my comments apart from every fourth line. You will recall what I myself wrote about Herodotus and Livy and their historical works. You did read my argument, didn’t you? So why comment now as if I never made it. This is as Tim has posted — you think you establish a point with an apologist but it never matters; the apologist will always come back as if you never made the point at all. He just ignores what you say and pretends never to have heard or understood your objections to his arguments.

                But I do acknowledge and thank you for at last giving me an example of the sort of instance where Herodotus uses literary mimesis. Thankyou. I believe my point stands vis a vis literary mimesis and the difference between ancient historians and the gospels. And it has nothing to do with whether it is extensive or limited in use. It has everything to do with the type of content and its function in the larger narrative.

                I do invite you to read my arguments (not ignore them and then “guess” what I might have said) and note that we have reasons beyond literary mimesis itself that enables us to assess the historicity of narratives.

          2. First you said: “And surprisingly, no other first century writer we know of mentions Josephus himself!”

            I reminded you of Justus of Tiberius. By the way, Josephus changed a number of details in War when he wrote his short autobiography, directly in response to Justus’s accusations against him. It would be nonsensical for Josephus to tie himself up in knots in order to invent Justus.

            When, therefore, Justus undertook to write about these facts, and about the Jewish war, that he might appear to have been an industrious man, he falsified in what he related about me, and could not speak truth even about his own country; whence it is that, being belied by him, I am under a necessity to make my defense; and so I shall say what I have concealed till now. — Flavius Josephus

            Unless you are claiming that perhaps Justus of Tiberius did not really know Josephus and did not actually write about him, that he did not write a history of the Jewish War, and that Josephus’s response is some sort of fiction, then the following is true: We do know of a first-century writer who mentioned Josephus, and his name was Justus of Tiberias.

            I am not aware of any ancient historian who would claim that Justus didn’t know Josephus and did not mention him in his history of the war, by the way, but perhaps you have some compelling argument you’d like to share with us.

            You also said: Besides this, Josephus alone – outside the New Testament – wrote about events in Judea during the reign of Herod the Great, his son and grandson.

            That’s why I quoted from Photius’s summary of the Justus’s chronicle. He wrote about the reigns of the kings of the Jews up until the last one: Agrippa II. Therefore, unless you are adding some new stipulation (i.e., not long enough?), this statement is true: Justus also wrote about events in Judea during the reign of Herod the Great, his son and grandson.

            Now you say: “We have no writings, contemporary with Josephus, that mention him.”

            That is true. Suetonius, whose lifespan overlapped Josephus’s, did, of course, mention Josephus in his biography of Vespasian. The Twelve Caesars probably wasn’t written until Hadrian’s reign, which was about 20 years or so after Josephus’s death. Thus while Suetonius was a contemporary of Josephus, the biography of Vespasian is not. We possess no extant writings from Josephus’s lifetime that mention Flavius Josephus.

            1. Justus of Tiberius apparently knew Josephus — according to Josephus himself — but when Photius I cites what Josephus said about Justus he does not claim that Justus said anything about Josephus. (I never said that Justus did not know Josephus; I said that Photius did not say he did.)

              Even if you assumed that Justus mentioned Josephus in his book about Jewish rulers — Photius I does not say so. Your assumption that he did — and your assumption that scholars would say he did — doesn’t change the fact that Photius I did not say that Justus talked about Josephus.

              I concede the point that Justus of Tiberius spoke of the Herods and must have spoken of Jerusalem’s fall, but we do not have his writings.

              I stand corrected on the matters of another writer — whose writing we possess (Suetonius) — who mentions Josephus; and I have discovered that Suetonius also speaks about the fall of Jerusalem.

              Still the testimony is meager — whether we are speaking of Justus, Photius I or Suetonius — which is not surprising in light of the fact that so much documentation has been lost.

              However, the meagerness of written testimony does not, in itself, weigh against the reality of Josephus’ existence or the fall of Jerusalem.

              Similarly, the lack of reference to the feeding of the 5,000 outside the New Testament does not, in itself, weigh against the reality of the event.

              1. I apologize for sloppy writing in my first response. There are two works by Justus that are in play here: (1) A brief history that Photius read (ending with Agrippa II) and (2) a history of the Jewish War against Rome, which possibly nobody (that we know) actually read except for Josephus. Many of the later citations appear to be quotations from Josephus. It’s likely the work simply wasn’t copied for lack of interest.

                There’s a fairly good introduction, here, if you’re interested in the Justus and Josephus: http://web.archive.org/web/20120512072902/http://preteristarchive.com/Books/pdf/Josephus/1910_luther_justus-of-tiberias.pdf

                I agree that the paucity of testimony does not, in itself, weigh against the reality of Josephus. It especially doesn’t matter in the case of the fall of Jerusalem. The Arch of Titus is pretty good evidence in itself.

                But as far as meagerness of written written attestation, that’s not why I don’t believe in the feeding of the 5000, the 4000, or the 100. My reasons are the same reasons for disbelieving Vespasian’s miracles or anyone else’s. More testimony would not help.

              2. In the broad sweep, I guess we agree. The lack of existing textual evidence does not, in itself, indicate that an event spoken of in even one source. (As for monumental evidence, I don’t think anyone expects to find someday, in Jerusalem or Rome, an Arch of Jesus that celebrates a miraculous feeding.)

                But my primary point about miracles recorded in the Gospels is not whether or not they happened, but whether or not the Gospel writers believed they happened.

                My reasoning is: The presence of the miraculous — and the presence of literary imitation, enigmatic elements, etc. — do not necessarily imply that an author is writing fiction.

              3. How can we possibly know what the authors actually believed?

                You have no reply to my own comments on your remarks, and perhaps that is because you realize we agree and you have been barking up the wrong tree: the presence of literary imitation and even of the miraculous does not, of itself, necessarily imply an author is writing fiction. Agreed. And that is why I have never argued that. There are other arguments that are needed in conjunction with those that do not “prove” but certainly do give us very valid reasons for believing that the authors were writing fiction.

                It is just as valid to say that the presence of miracles and literary imitation do not necessarily imply that an author is writing historical fact.

                Again, we need other arguments to shed light on that question — arguments from literature, from natural sciences and epistemology, from historical methodology.

                In the absence of any other arguments we have every right to argue that a text comes from a literary (not historical) source if a literary source is the only verifiable source.

      2. the historians, Livy and Herodotus, were writing about things they thought really happened

        Yes and no. Herodotus’ work is in many ways more like the Primary History of the Bible, Genesis to 2 Kings, and written as a “theological” history to teach lessons of piety, warnings against hubris and for people to humbly submit to the will of the deity and his oracle at Delphi.

        Both Herodotus and Livy included in their “historical” works tales that belong to the realm of myth and the miraculous. They explain why they do so and express some doubts and outright disbelief about the actual historicity of such stories. In this respect they are quite unlike the evangelists who write of miracles as if they are all as much to be taken for granted as day follows night and who express not the slightest doubts, John even declaring that they really are true!

        (Besides, we have evidence that Herodotus did indeed fabricate some of his stories — even his sources! Have a post in the pipeline on this evidence that comes from the scholarly literature.)

        1. 1. Are you offering your comments about Herodotus and Livy to say that you agree with Robert Tulip that the mere presence of cryptic statements in an ancient document indicates that the document cannot be classified as ancient history? And are you asserting that the same is true for a story that cites a Jewish sage who speaks in hard-to-understand riddles?

          Are you arguing that the mere presence of enigmatic wording in a story indicates that the author did not think he was writing about something that really happened?

          This is what Robert claimed. And I responded to that claim.

          It appears that you are really arguing something like: “Any story in an ancient document that cannot have happened — in this purely naturalistic world — cannot have been believed to be objectively real by the author.”

          This argument would amount to saying that there were no ancient writers who believed in miracles. Or put another way — as applied to the writing of Mark — “The author of this Gospel was every bit as much a philosophical naturalist as Neil Godfrey.”

          On the other hand, if Mark was not a naturalist — as is clearly the case — then the fact that an episode in his writing includes a miracle only indicates that he was wrong — by your standards — not they he was writing an allegory, parable or other kind of story with a spiritual meaning.

          2. You assert, “The evangelists” wrote about “miracles as if they are all as much to be taken for granted as day follows night and who express not the slightest doubts.”

          But this does not accurately represent the Gospels. Instead the miracles of Jesus recorded there astound and amaze, because they were unexpected and are not at all like ordinary experience. Jesus’ miracles are of such a nature that they cannot be taken for granted.

          And there was plenty of doubt to go round on the part of his enemies and his friends.

          1. I am not responding to or engaging with Robert Tulip’s comment in any way. I was only responding to the statement you made (and one that is heard often enough) that ancient historians like Livy and Herodotus:

            the historians, Livy and Herodotus, were writing about things they thought really happened

            Your second point is misdirected. I said the evangelists narrated the occurrences of miracles as if they were a matter of course. They also narrated the crowd responses of amazement as a matter of course. You need to keep in mind the distinction between narrative voice and narrated content.

            (P.S. I might also add that Livy and Herodotus often enough report the gullible astonishment of crowds on witnessing what they believed were miracles or manifestations of divinities 🙂

            1. Let me try to be a bit clearer:

              The claim that the gospels should be accepted as the reports of authors who fully believed they were recounting events that really did happen because that is how we read the works of ancient historians is misguided. The fact is that ancient historians did not believe that everything they recounted in their Histories really happened, and they said so. We know that Herodotus and Livy did not believe everything they wrote in their histories. We even have very good evidence that Herodotus made up some of his supposed sources.

              The Gospels, unlike the works of Livy and Herodotus, record miracles as matter-of-fact events. They express no doubts at all about their historicity. They are recorded without any authorial comment at all — unlike the miracles in the works of Livy and Herodotus that are accompanied by judgements as to their authenticity by those authors.

              For the evangelists, Jesus performed miracles as surely and matter-of-factly as he traveled by boat across the Galilee lake or preached in a synagogue. The crowds were awe-struck, etc, and that was all part of the way they narrated these miracles. The evangelists narrated them as if they were all as “true” as Jesus walking beside the sea-side or preaching to large crowds. Not the slightest doubt about their happening as told is ever expressed and there is no attempt made to marshal arguments to persuade anticipated sceptical questions on the part of readers. (With one exception, perhaps: Matthew’s explanation for why the Jews do not believe Jesus was resurrected.) All this is most unlike the way Livy and Herodotus so frequently describe the miraculous.

              My point is that it is misguided to compare the gospels with the works of historians like Livy and Herodotus and to use such a comparison to argue that we should take the gospel accounts as much for granted as some of us might take the historical narrative of the historians for granted.

              1. So you agree with me. Livy and Herodotus were attempting to write about the past in terms of what they believed really happened. That’s why they questioned some of their sources, not just about miraculous and mythical elements, but about the course and content of other details.

                You cannot have it both ways, either they were attempting to write about the real past — as I asserted — or they were not. (How well or poorly they accomplished their purpose is a different question.)

                And Herodotus and Livy — as well as other ancient historians and biographers — “employed poetic sources, techniques, and motifs,” some from Homer himself (a fact that you questioned in an earlier comment). Therefore, the presence of such factors does not indicate that a writer is not concerned about preserving a record of past events. This is the point I was making.

                My only comparison between ancient historians and biographers, on one hand, and the Gospel writers, on the other, was to say that the presence of poetic features in any or all does not indicate purely fictional writings — down to the presence of a “sage” who utters difficult sayings.

                If you grant the above, then that is enough.

                You may say the Gospel writers did not record things that really happened, because you do not believe what they said about miracles. That is a legitimate point of view. But it is not legitimate to say that because they have recorded miracles, we know they wrote allegories, parables or some such type literature.

                Your assertion — which is essentially, “If the Gospel writers were serious about recording the past, they would have rejected all miraculous elements” — goes back to what I said earlier:

                You unconsciously assume that the Gospel writers are philosophical naturalists. Herodotus and Livy essentially were. But Mark and the other Gospel writers were not. The fact that they were not is reflected in their authorial voice. And their authorial voice is reflected in the details of their stories, including miracles, the reaction of crowds and the struggle between Jesus and those who opposed him.

                Mark soberly recorded miraculous events, because he — as his Lord about whom he wrote — had a supernatural point of view.

              2. ‘Mark soberly recorded miraculous events, because he — as his Lord about whom he wrote — had a supernatural point of view.’

                And the anonymous author of ‘Mark’ soberly read his Bible – the LXX – to find out more about suitable miracles for his Lord to have done, and wrote stories based on what he read about Elijah, Elisha, Jonah…

                Because that was the point of view of believers. The Bible was their authority.

              3. Your account about Mark reading Old Testament stories and making up stories about Jesus to match them is one way to understand his method.

                However, I think it’s a superficial way of treating: (1) his technique (2) the deep sense of devotion he had to Jesus (3) the role belief in the supernatural played in what he wrote about and how he wrote it — this latter being the point I was making to Neil.

                In addition, your analysis is a superficial way of applying the concept of literary imitation to the Gospels.

              4. It should be remembered that Paul scoffed at Jews for demanding to hear stories of miracles.

                1 Corinthians ‘Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,’

                Jews wanted to hear miracle stories.

                Where there is a demand, somebody, sooner or later will produce a supply.

                That’s the way the market works.

              5. Paul’s statement, in 1 Corinthians, about the Jews demanding signs cannot include the idea that Paul rejected miracles and did not talk about them.

                He claimed that he performed them himself [“signs, wonders and mighty deeds” (2 Corinthians 12:12)]; and even spoke openly and plainly — without “expressing the slightest doubt” to quote Neil — about being performed by some of the Corinthians themselves (1 Corinthians 12:9-10).

              6. No, I do not agree with you. It is not a matter of black or white, either/or, that they were attempting to write about a real past or not. Livy quite clearly intimates that he cannot be sure if some of what he is writing really happened or not. Herodotus, we have reason to believe, fabricated some of his stories. Perhaps it was a long time ago that you read Livy and Herodotus and have forgotten much. That’s the only way I can excuse theologians like Keener and others who write similar untruths about them. (Keener is particularly appalling for his many mis-statements about ancient historians.)

                And I do not understand why now, after all we have said in this thread, you say that the presence of “poetic sources, techniques and motifs”, including some from Homer, does not contradict the historicity of the events being written about. You agree with me because I said that very same thing! But I also said literary mimesis is not about merely using motifs, techniques and poetic phrases from Homer or other literature. I said of course known turns of phrase and images are used from the poets in works of some history. So why are you now bringing this up as if it is some sort of rebuttal? It is exactly what I said.

                You referred to criteria earlier. The whole reason for criteria is to help scholars ascertain if an account in the Gospels is based upon another in another work — and not merely a simple borrowing, say, of an image or phrase or coincidence or such.

                Do you understand the difference between literary mimesis and intertextuality and a simply borrowing of phrases, images, etc?

                We are talking here about literary mimesis, not mere borrowing of this or that phrase or image. We are talking about an entire story being a re-working of a story in Homer or 2 Kings or elsewhere. That is a quite different matter.

                Now I have also pointed out that not even that proves the gospel story is fiction. But in the absence of other evidence to the contrary, it leaves us with no valid reason to presume that there is any source for the story other than the original literature and the imagination of the author.

                I have said nothing here about the reality of miracles, by the way. That is an entirely separate argument and I have avoided it here.

                Of course the evangelists were not philosophical naturalists. I ask you to re-read what I wrote.

                I said that the evangelists at no point express their accounts of miracles in any way that leads readers to think we should doubt them having happened. They are as natural as a storm on Galilee in the voice of the evangelists. They make no attempt to even prove to sceptical readers that the miracles even happened — they simply state that they did as a matter of fact.

                My point is that the gospels are completely unlike the historians when it comes to describing miraculous events. There is no comparison. It is wrong to compare the gospels with histories in order to justify believing the accounts of the gospels.

                I might add that some historians who were apparently persuaded by some miraculous events did indeed anticipate reader scepticism and so were careful to give reasons to justify their account for the benefit of sceptics. You do not find anything like this in the narration of the miracles throughout the gospels (except, as I said, the tale of Matthew about the guards being bribed over the resurrection.) Whether they believed or disbelieved, they expressed reasons because such events are indeed unnatural — and need justification. The gospel narratives are not comparable to the ancient histories.

          2. ‘ Instead the miracles of Jesus recorded there astound and amaze, because they were unexpected and are not at all like ordinary experience.’

            People rushed to the nearest synagogue to check in the Old Testament how they were supposed to react.

            Mark 5:42 says that after the miracle, the parents were ‘amazed with great amazement’ (exestesan ekstasei megale), while 2 Kings 4:13 we have ‘amazed with all amazement’ (exestesas… pasan ten ekstasin tauten)

            In the miracle of the calming of the sea, the disciples remembered to be afraid with great fear, because in Jonah people were afraid with great fear , while in Mark 5, the parents remembered to be amazed with great amazement, because in 2 Kings 4 people were amazed with all amazement.

            Matthew 8:25:- ‘they went and woke him, saying, Save (soson), Lord (kyrie), we are perishing. (apollymetha) Cf Jonah 1:6, So the captain came and said to him, What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call upon your God (Kyrie)! Perhaps your God will give a thought to us. (Greek ‘save us’ diasose), that we do not perish (apollometha).

            Matthew 8:27 ‘And the men (hoi de anthropoi)… Are they an echo of Jonah 1:16 -Then the men (hoi andres) feared the Lord exceedingly.?’ When else does Matthew call the disciples ‘the men’?

            Of course, copying out key phrases from the LXX from the corresponding miracle stories does not indicate plagiarism in the world of Christian apologetics, where only the Book of Mormon and the Koran can be indicted for such a crime.

            1. I don’t think scholars would sat that literary imitation necessarily implies plagiarism, especially in the sense of merely “copying out key phrases” from an earlier source.

              Concerning the Gospels:

              Both writers and readers — who were familiar with Old Testament stories from childhood — would recognize correspondence between certain stories told in the Gospels and certain stories in the Old Testament.

              And authors of the Gospels might shape their narratives — down to repeating certain key, recognizable phrases — to reflect parallels with the earlier stories. But this does not mean that the later stories were not expressing what the authors believed to be real events.

              Ancient historians and biographers did the same kind of thing with classical stories from their past. And scholars take many of these accounts to be representations of real events.

              1. ‘Both writers and readers — who were familiar with Old Testament stories from childhood — would recognize correspondence between certain stories told in the Gospels and certain stories in the Old Testament.’

                Of course. That is why they were made up.

                Jesus had to be greater than Jonah. So people made up stories about storms being calmed.

                It’s called fraud and lies, or in other words, religion.

                People fall for it even today, Make up Gospel stories and you can get the rubes to claim they really happened. even when you show them the same sorts of plagiariasm and frauds you would find in all religions.

              2. Bravo Steve! Bobby ought to read some Mormon apologists they say the exact same things he does. We also have witnesses to the Book of Mormon who we have extensive biographical information on. Not just “Matthew”, “Mark”, “Luke” and “John” whoever these folks were! Bobby should become a Mormon! They have a heck of a lot more evidence than he does!

  12. Neil:

    Plausibility is precisely what historians are working toward.

    To be kept and followed, a suggested explanation must first be plausible. Then it must be weighed against other explanations to determine the relative scope and power of each.

    So I would say, in light of what we know of Jesus’ circumstances in Galilee, it is more likely that he could read than that he could not. (Someone else might say that is only possible.) But I believe those who say it is not possible, have failed to take in the scope of data.

    This is not smoke and mirrors. I’ve read what various theorists have said about it. I’ve taken in as best I can the information that is available. And I think it is best to conclude that Jesus could read.

    As to Nazareth, we have a few fairly clear indications of its size and circumstance in Jesus’ day. And we are not likely to get much more information, because of the city that is built over the site.

    1. We have no evidence that Jesus could read outside the gospels. None. Of course it is possible and even plausible that a religious leader could read but we don’t know if Jesus did or not. Probability makes no difference to that simple fact.

      Historians do not work towards the plausibility of Caesar crossing the Rubicon. Of course he did. We don’t have to ask if it’s plausible. Of course it’s plausible because we know it happened. Anything that happens is by definition plausible.

      Historians do not have to work towards the plausibility of Churchill being the British PM in WW2. They know he was. We don’t have to ask if it’s plausible. Of course it’s plausible because . . . .

      Historical Jesus study is quite different from normative historical studies.


      Yes, I have read much of “The Quest for the Plausible Jesus: The Question of Criteria” by Theissen and Winter. Will be doing a blog post on it some day.

      1. How plausible is it that Jesus walked on water?

        A) Very plausible because the Bible says so.

        B) Not at all plausible, because you are a closed-minded prejudiced bigot who does not believe that what the Bible says is what happened.

      2. The events leading to the death of Julius Caesar (Rubicon, etc.) are documented — with differences — in part in Caesar’s own account and in the fuller accounts of historians removed from Caesar’s time by 70 to 150 years.

        Besides this documentation, there are historical developments in Roman politics that make no sense unless the core of the accounts depicts a real series of events.

        The issue of plausibility enters when someone questions this or that detail about events surrounding Caesar’s death, as has been done — or if someone were to assert that the whole thing is a mere tale; and the first Caesar never existed, as I don’t think anyone has done.

        But we have a similar situation with Jesus and his crucifixion.

        In light of Paul’s letters, with their intentional and incidental references to his consistent communications with those who knew Jesus, it seems clear that those closest to him affirmed both Jesus’ death by crucifixion and his resurrection. Other New Testament documents, including the Gospels and Acts, chime in and amount to rather clear relevant textual testimony, because all of these documents were written within 20 to 60 years of Jesus’ time.

        So most historians regard it as absurdly implausible to deny that Jesus was crucified or to deny that — from the earliest period of the apostolic church — belief in his resurrection was affirmed as vital to the church’s testimony concerning Jesus. (Most historians would say that they don’t believe the resurrection happened in any objective sense, but they would just quickly add that the early church did believe it to the point that it transformed the fledgling movement in Jerusalem.)

        As with Julius Caesar, there are historical developments that make no sense unless the core of the New Testament testimony is sound — “core” being defined somewhat differently by different historians.

        According to historical analysis, of course, denial of the very existence of Jesus is even more absurd than questioning details about how he died and whether or not his immediate followers believed he had risen.

        In closing…

        Plausibility does calculate heavily in the arsenal of the historian when it is called for.

        And — going back to how this conversation began — when someone asserts that Jesus was a peasant who couldn’t even read, it is good historical practice to check the plausibility of such a statement.

        1. ‘Plausibility does calculate heavily in the arsenal of the historian when it is called for.’

          Unless it yields the wrong results, in which case miracles are declared plausible.

          But frauds are impossible, no matter how obvious it is that the Gospellers used the tried and tested methods used by religious frauds throughout the ages of taking stories and rewriting them to peddle.

          After all, even Paul complained about people peddling the word of God for profit (unlike so many….)

          Hence there are no miracle stories in Paul. They had not yet been invented.

          1. It sounds like you are asserting two questionable propositions:

            (1) “The presence of the miraculous in a story indicates fraud.” But…

            Even Suetonius’ account of Caesar crossing the Rubicon includes supernatural elements. But however you assess his references to a messenger from God, Caesar’s horses crying, etc., it would be amateurish to write off his entire account as “fraud.”

            Those of us who do not reject miracles outright — and those who write about miracles — do not accept any and all miracles, indiscriminately, and should not be labeled as frauds for holding this understanding of reality.

            You may think the Gospel writers were wrong, but it is frankly — implausible — to assert that they ransacked older writings and made up purely fictional stories in order to make money.

            (2) “Literary imitation indicates fraud.” But…

            What moderns would call “non-fiction” texts consistently incorporate imitation and other literary techniques.

            In conclusion…

            You should keep it simple and say that you’re not going to believe what the evangelists wrote — or what Paul wrote or what the Apostolic Fathers or what any of the heirs of the apostles wrote — period.

            You don’t have to examine in detail what they wrote or how they wrote it. (The outcome of any such research on your part is predetermined.) You don’t have to call them frauds — which sounds more argumentative than reasonable — and you don’t have to explain anything.

            You just don’t believe them. I understand. You don’t need to say anything else.

            1. ‘What moderns would call “non-fiction” texts consistently incorporate imitation and other literary techniques.;

              Really? I thought you were complaining there were no parallels.

              ‘imitation and other literary techniques’ = plagiarism and fraud, when practiced on the scale that the Gospellers do.

              The anonymous author of Luke/Acts who chose to hide his identity, seems to have based some of Acts on classical Greek literature, especially Euripides’ Bacchae. In Acts 26:12, Luke says that Paul heard Jesus say , in Aramaic or Hebrew, ‘It is hard for you to kick against the pricks’. ‘Kick against the pricks’ (laktizo pros kentron) was a well known Greek saying, which first seems to appear in line 790 of Euripides’ Bacchae.

              In Euripides’ Bacchae, line 447, we read the following ‘Of their own accord (autamato), the chains were loosed from their feet and keys opened the doors (thura) without human hand.’ In Acts 10:12, we read how doors opened for Peter of their own accord (automatos) and in Acts 16:26, we read how an earthquake loosed the chains from everybody and all the doors opened by themselves.

              Did an earthquake really loose a chain from a prisoner, not a noted result of seismic activity? Or did Luke base his account of Peter and Paul’s escapes on Euripides’ play about the persecuted followers of a persecuted and misunderstood deity, the son of Zeus and a young , mortal woman?

              After all, if you are writing ‘history’, what could be more natural than to plagiarise scenes from a famous play…..?

              1. A well-known saying does not indicate literary imitation, let alone “plagiarism,” if it appears in any number of documents.

                And the fact that one word, αὐτομάτη, appears in two texts does not indicate a significant parallel. (If real doors actually opened on their own, it would be hard to say so without using some such term.)

                You suggest that the accounts have another Greek word in common, “door.” But the word used in Acts 12:10 is πύλην (“gate”), not door; and it is a gate that opens onto a street, similar in structure to the kind of gates that stood before larger homes and other complexes in cities like Jerusalem.

                Furthermore, the possibility that the latter story (in Acts) is meant to suggest in some way the earlier one (in Euripides) and the possibility that the story includes some conscious repetition of phrases, are not indications that the author of Acts was — ransacking — traditional accounts and fraudulently — making up — stories of things that did not happen. (Herodotus and Livy did the same kind of thing in using the poets, especially Homer, to speak of real events.)

                You also cite Acts 16:26 as a parallel to the story in Acts 12. But this verse gives no indication of a miraculous release from chains or doors coming open on their own. The phrasing “all the doors were opened, and everyone’s chains came loose” is a good description of what you call the “result of seismic activity.” The phrase in Acts 16 does not parallel “the chains fell off his wrists” after an angelic visitation as is reported in Acts 12: 7.

                If you observe block buildings after earthquakes, you will sometimes see doors hanging open — with none of them in a closed position — and you sometimes see solidly mounted fixtures that have been shaken loose from cracked walls, as the chains did in the Philippian jail. This seems to be all that is being described in Acts 16.

                We should stop this. You are going to keep believing what you believe; and will never accept the idea that the Gospels are written with a deep sense of devotion to Christ and a desire to inform people about who he is and what he did.

                I assert that there is nothing in the Gospels that is inconsistent with these concerns. You keep asserting — mistakenly, I think — that there is.

                I believe that you you will keep referring to me and the Gospel writers with defamatory labels and will keep ridiculing the idea that a reasonable person can consider these matters and reach the kinds of conclusions I have. I don’t think I can write anything to you to convince you to reconsider.

                So let’s end with this comment.

              2. (Herodotus and Livy did the same kind of thing in using the poets, especially Homer, to speak of real events.)

                Can you give us an example from each, please?

                (You seem to be still struggling to argue that historians practiced literary mimesis rather than simply borrowed images etc from the poets. Can you give an example of mimesis if that’s what you really mean?)

        2. Bobby, saying some historical events are “documented” is getting to the very problem of HJ studies. For “documentation” to have any value it needs to have some verifiable authenticity. We need to have reasons to believe the documentation is reliable, that it really is what it purports to be, etc. We don’t know who wrote the gospels; we don’t know when they were written (any time between 40 ce and 140 ce have been proposed), and we don’t know if they are even intended to convey “historical” information. Of course we have many people claiming to believe certain things about the gospels but that’s not the same thing as evidence or verifiability.

          Further, to say the resurrection is necessary to explain the change of heart of the disciples is saying nothing more than that the given plot in the narrative requires it. Pinocchio turned into a real boy and that can only be explained by the fairy performing her magic. No other explanation works. This is the sort of nonsense theologians write, and even historians like Michael Grant when they are misbehaving and going against all that they otherwise claim they do. (http://vridar.wordpress.com/category/book-reviews-notes/grant-jesus-historians-view/)

          1. Note: I did not say that the resurrection is necessary to explain a change of heart in the disciples. I said that many historians conclude that belief in the resurrection was a vital part of the Christian message from the beginning and that this belief explains the re-energizing of the fledgling church in Jerusalem — after the seeming tragedy of his death, I add to explain my point further.

            We have very good testimony concerning the origin of the Gospels — within earshot and eye-shot, historically speaking — of the events of Jesus’ ministry and the spread of Christian faith around the Mediterranean.

            In the process of this expansion, consistent communications and care for the newer churches continued from Jerusalem where the companions of Jesus were established, at first, and dispatched, in time. (We have no historical reason to doubt that this was the situation; and we have strong indications to support it in Paul’s letters and Acts.)

            The Gospels are literary expressions — with obvious apologetic, didactic and liturgical purposes — that are unanimously attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John among early Christian writers who speak to the issue, .

            And all the extant manuscripts that include the first page of each Gospel display titles that indicated these same authors.

            Finally, the Gospels, broadly speaking, assert the same essential ideas concerning Christ.

            We have no reason — none — for thinking the authors of the Gospels were not known from the start.

            To assert, as some do, that the titles were added much later has no historical basis. That they were “added” is surely the case, probably in the form of library tagging in church libraries, as a practice that historians tell us was the practice in ancient libraries. But they were added, not as a result of guesswork or in a pseudopigraphic way — because we have no confusion or conflict about them in any of the manuscripts — that were widely spread across the empire — or in comments from early Christian writers.

            So Jesus, the rabbi, chose his apostles; exhibited his authority over all things; carefully trained them; suffered as he said he would; and — according to those who knew him — rose from the dead, again, as he had told them he would.

            The story is clear enough in outline, specific enough in detail — including the unique quality of his parables and other sayings — and broadly attested to as coming from the hands of two apostles and two others who were closely associated with them.

            Then, as already stated, within all pertinent existing evidence, the source of each of these Gospels is unanimously recognized as having been written by these men.

            The fact that the authors created literary works to express, in memorable and interesting ways, what they knew does not weigh against their testimonial quality.

            This is “documentation.”

            You will find many who object to the above analysis. But as I read what these objectors have to say, I find their reasons weak on several levels.

            This is all I can say about it, so please do not accuse me, as you have in the past, of some obsessive blindness that will not consider these matters with an open mind.

            1. I have never doubted that the authors of the Gospels were once known. But that doesn’t help us today.

              Your argument is quite logical and mainstream. It is also based on a fallacy. You are beginning with the assumption that the events of the narrative reflect historical happenings. Accordingly, the argument you present here, and that is the conventional wisdom, begins by assuming at the outset the historicity of events even though it is the historicity of those events that is the question raised.

            2. Bobby wrote: “And all the extant manuscripts that include the first page of each Gospel display titles that indicated these same authors.

              It’s true that by the time the four gospels we bound together in a single volume, we see titles affixed in order to differentiate them. The titles — according to Matthew, Mark, etc. — are traditional.

              Bobby wrote: “We have no reason — none — for thinking the authors of the Gospels were not known from the start.”

              For anyone interested in textual criticism, I highly recommend the works of Bruce M. Metzger. In The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance he explains that titles for written works didn’t have the significance and importance that they do in modern times. When the gospels were first written (on scrolls), each was referred simply as “the gospel.” He writes:

              Only after several Gospels or several Epistles had been collected together was there a need for separate designations in order to distinguish one from another.

              Let me direct your attention to mathfrak{P}1 (Papyrus 1) here:




              If you read up on Papyrus 1, you’ll see that most scholars think it’s the first page of a New Testament collection. I am not an expert, but it seems to me that since alpha is at the top of the recto and beta is at the top of the verso, we could just as easily be dealing with a codex of the gospel of Matthew. Note that κατά Ματθαίον is missing from the first page. Either way, we’re looking at the gospel of Matthew without the attribution “κατά Ματθαίον.” This is how the individual gospels would have been copied and distributed for the first several decades of their existence.

              You may think there is “no reason — none — for thinking” people did not know the names of the gospels’ authors from the start, but I think a strong case can be made that early on it wasn’t important who wrote the gospels. That is to say, the message was infinitely more important than the messengers, and it only became an issue when several books (viz., the gospels) were collected into a single volume (viz., the New Testament).

              Bobby wrote: “. . . and broadly attested to as coming from the hands of two apostles . . .”

              This is a rather strained assertion, especially in the case of Matthew. If the author of the Gospel according to Matthew was one of the Twelve, then one has to explain why his gospel relies so heavily on secondary works. Yes, I think many people in the third and fourth centuries believed that Matthew was written by a disciple, but it clearly was not.

              1. Is the anonymity of a gospel a characteristic of “Klein Literatur”?

                On the other hand, if the Gospels were written consciously in the tradition of the historical books of the Jewish scriptures then the authority of the anonymous human voice would be part and parcel of such a literary venture, yes?

              2. Yes, the anonymous, authoritative voice is common within Jewish scriptures. And we can see that the gospel writers, while not demonstrating any real proficiency in Aramaic or Hebrew, were content to use “Hebraisms” continually. But isn’t this evidence of a conscious affectation?

                I once went through the book of Mormon on line, looking for the phrase “and it came to pass.” I don’t think for one second that Joe Smith knew any Hebrew at all, but he certainly loved this particular Hebraism. Similarly, I think the evangelists often employed certain literary affectations to sound more “scripture-like.”

                It’s also true that folkbooks and other examples of Kleinlituratur tend not to be interested in the person telling the story. The story is decidedly more important than the story-teller.

                On the other hand, if the gospels really were memoirs of the apostles, we would certainly see more first-person passages — and not just the coy references in the Gospel of John.

              3. One might even say that historiography is necessarily form of literature that demands authorial identity and self-justification. Given the “variable” nature of historical accounts one of the keys to readers lies in understanding the qualifications and interests of the author of history. Authors are very often (almost always?) been concerned to justify their account in some way and give readers reasons to have confidence in their work.

              4. TIM

                I once went through the book of Mormon on line, looking for the phrase “and it came to pass.” I don’t think for one second that Joe Smith knew any Hebrew at all, but he certainly loved this particular Hebraism.


                In *exactly* the same way, the anonymous author of ‘Luke/Acts’ copied ‘kai egeneto’ (and it came to pass) from the LXX.

                Of course, Joseph Smith was a fraud while the anonymous author of Luke was an honourable man.

                You can tell that because both of them ransacked old scriptural texts and liked the sound of one phrase so much they used it a lot when composing their scriptures.

                That is why we can condemn Joseph Smith as a fraud and a plagiarist while praising ‘Luke’ as somebody who used literary imitation.

                No Christian double standards there….

              5. Mark Twain wrote:

                Wherever he [Joe Smith] found his speech growing too modern — which was about every sentence or two — he ladled in a few such Scriptural phrases as “exceeding sore,” “and it came to pass,” etc., and made things satisfactory again. “And it came to pass” was his pet. If he had left that out, his Bible would have been only a pamphlet.

              6. First you say the titles of the Gospels were “affixed” “by the time the four gospels we bound together in a single volume” …only when “the gospels were collected into a single volume (viz., the New Testament).” But…

                This is clearly wrong and is in conflict with what you quote from Metzger who indicates that the titles were added, before the time that bound codices became the norm. He is speaking of separate — scrolls — in early libraries. And the fact is in all the manuscripts — scrolls and codices — that have been recovered and that include the first page, the authors of the Gospels are clearly identified. Your example from Aland Papyrus 1 is not evidence against this. (See below.)

                It’s true that titles may have been added “only after several Gospels or several Epistles had been collected together” in a church library. But that fits what I said in the first place. Metzger does not indicate that the titles were added in some arbitrary manner. He indicates only that they were intended to distinguish between authors — the real authors, as understood by those who kept the libraries.

                You mistakenly say, “alpha is at the top of the recto” of the Aland Papyrus 1 and that this indicates it was part of a manuscript that did not include an indication Matthew was the author.

                But click on the image attached to the wiki article you reference; then click it again to enlarge it. Then look at the enlarged image closely. You will see two very small pieces of the fragment — above — the part of the text you cite. One of these pieces has a small botch of ink on it. So the bulk of the upper part of the fragment — that would include a title — is missing.

                Back to my main point…

                In terms of objective historical data, there is no indication that anyone else wrote these Gospels, and the evidence that exists is in perfect agreement.

                Turning to internal evidence…

                That Matthew wrote, utilizing the Gospel of Mark and other sources, is not necessary evidence that the apostle was not the author. By everyone’s calculation, the Gospel was written after years of preaching and the accumulation of standard of “forms” used to convey the message. His goal is not to produce something entirely unique — in terms of content — but to preserve and pass along traditional material.

                You state correctly that “many people in the third and fourth centuries” believed Matthew wrote the first Gospel…

                They did not come up, in the third century, with the idea that Matthew wrote the Gospel. They testify that this was passed along to them by previous generations of believers.

              7. “That Matthew wrote, utilizing the Gospel of Mark and other sources, is not necessary evidence that the apostle was not the author. By everyone’s calculation, the Gospel was written after years of preaching and the accumulation of standard of “forms” used to convey the message. His goal is not to produce something entirely unique — in terms of content — but to preserve and pass along traditional material.”

                The problem with this argument is that “Matthew” frequently altered the material he copied from “Mark”. While some alteration were merely improvements in style and language, in some cases Matthew clearly tries to alter Mark’s portrayal of Jesus. The Jesus of Matthew is greater in power than the Jesus of Mark and generally tends to have a more composed temperament than the latter. Examples can be seen in the following links:



                Matthew didn’t try to preserve Mark, he used him as a base for his own gospel and altered his source whenever he saw fit.

              8. You’re reference to “the apostle Matthew” is still based on the assumption that the gospel narratives about Jesus, including his having disciples one of whom was named Matthew, are all historically based. Yet that is the very question that others are arguing and that you, I think, are ultimately wanting to prove. You can’t begin with the assumption that the point you are trying to prove to be true is true. You have to prove it first.

              9. I guess it’s a matter of burden of proof.

                In terms of objective data, there is no reason to suggest any other author. All the evidence indicates that Matthew wrote the Gospel. (The burden of proof is on the one who offers another explanation.)

                In terms of internal data — which is what I was commenting on — there is no indication that the apostle Matthew did not write the Gospel.

                This is not a matter of assumption. It’s a matter of beginning with the external data — attestation among early Christians and titles in the manuscripts — and moving to the internal data.

              10. Two points:

                You are once again simply choosing to ignore my argument and responding as if I remained silent. My point was that your argument for Matthean authorship is logically fallacious for a specific reason that you bypassed. It is based on the assumptions that the narrative contents of the gospels have an historical basis and that there really was a Jesus who had a disciple called Matthew. Any later Christian testimony is also writing with the same assumption that is invalid if there is any attempt to establish the historical authenticity behind the Gospel narratives.

                The same argument is logically fallacious no matter who makes it.

                So the evidence you or any later source presents is not logically valid if there is any intent to establish the historical underpinnings of the Gospel narrative.

                Second point: The burden of proof is always on anyone making the claim. I am not claiming that Matthew wrote the gospel nor am I claiming he did not write the gospel. I am saying we don’t know who wrote the gospel. It’s irresponsible to simply take any external data “because it’s all we’ve got” and use that as the basis of an argument without first addressing an evaluation of the reliability and authenticity of that external data. I have posted here on historical methodology a few times and I believe you will find that sort of approach stressed in any book on the craft of historiography: critical evaluation of source material is a sine qua non.

                The closest theologians come to “critical evaluation” — many of them, thankfully not all — is the old fatuous “there is no reason do doubt” line! I know they can get away with it, but we should not lower ourselves to that level; we should have more respect for readers.

              11. If the all the statements in my comment are true, then this means you cannot explain Mathew’s reliance on Mark as being due to “[wanting] to preserve and pass along traditional material” (your words). If I’m correct than this means you’ll have to find some other reason to explain why a supposed eye-witness to the life of Jesus uses a secondary work as a source for the vast majority of narrative content in his gospel.

  13. “In the process of this expansion, consistent communications and care for the newer churches continued from Jerusalem where the companions of Jesus were established, at first, and dispatched, in time. (We have no historical reason to doubt that this was the situation; and we have strong indications to support it in Paul’s letters and Acts.)”

    jews are able to spread stories about jesus that were widely known in matthews days. this means that flying angels and deciples didn’t have the power to spread thier version of the story. if christian churches were making up stories about jesus in different parts of jerusalem, how did the deciples correct the growing church? matthews post ressurection story is unlike johns post ressurection story, the deciples couldn’t set the story straight. maybe because they were expecting thier god to come back and set the story straight for them?

  14. If an apostle named Matthew wrote an account of his Lord and Savior’s life, including his personal interactions with him, isn’t it strange that he never once identifies himself as the author of this remarkable story? Nor does he ever speak of his interactions with the one and only Son of God in the first person.

    1. One aspect of this discussion that has not resurfaced so far is that the earliest external witness (Justin) is that the gospels were not assigned author names (apart from “the apostles”) and that it is only after the emergence of rival gospels that do come with the authority of apostolic names (Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Philip, etc) that the original four gospels appear to have been assigned such names as to secure their authority.

      1. You speak of Justin Martyr as “the earliest external witness” concerning the authorship of the Gospel. But his Dialogue with Trypho is dated at 160, while the Muratorian Fragment is dated at 170 and Irenaeus’ Against Heresies is dated at 180.

        In Against Heresies, Irenaeus names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as the authors of the four Gospels and speaks of the apostles as “those men…who handed the Gospel down to us.” He states that the pedigree of the Gospels has been investigated “from their very fountainheads.”

        Irenaeus does refer the the Gnostic Gospel of Truth, but he says that those who accept it have rejected the real Gospel of Truth and “entitle their comparatively recent writing ‘the Gospel of Truth,’ though it agrees in nothing with the Gospels of the Apostles.”

        The Muratorian Fragment has the first lines missing, but begins, “. . . at which nevertheless he was present, and so he placed [them in his narrative]. The third book of the Gospel is that according to Luke. Luke, the well-known physician, after the ascension of Christ, when Paul had taken with him as one zealous for the law, composed it in his own name, according to [the general] belief. Yet he himself had not seen the Lord in the flesh; and therefore, as he was able to ascertain events, so indeed he begins to tell the story from the birth of John. The fourth of the Gospels is that of John, [one] of the disciples.”

        Justin indicates that he has a more specific knowledge of the authorship of the Gospels than the general designations he is in the habit of using (“the Gospel” “the gospels” and his favorite, “the memoirs of the apostles”). He uses, in his Dialogue with Trypho, the phrase, “the memoirs which I say were drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them.” He expresses — in this phrase, “and those who followed them” — an awareness that at least two (more than one) of the Gospels’ authors were not apostles themselves, which applies well to Mark and Luke.

        Some have suggested that Justin and the churches he was associated with used a compiled, liturgical version of the Gospels that was, perhaps, similar to the document produced by his pupil, Tatian, who went to Syria and compiled the four-fold Gospel known as the Diatessaron (sometime between 160 and 175). If Justin and his colleagues made use of such a document, this may explain his preference for referring to the Gospels in the unique ways he did. (Some of his references to the contents of the Gospels imply a liturgical arrangement, according to some researchers.)

        All of these sources — Irenaeus, the Muratorian Fragment and Justin — indicate that they are preserving and passing along — not a new idea about the Gospels — but an understanding that had been handed down to them.

        Justin was converted in about 130 — that is, within 100 years of the death of Christ and 63 years of the death of Paul. Irenaeus was serving as a priest in Lyons sometime shortly after 150, so he was somewhat younger than Justin, but was his contemporary. And the date of the Muratorian Fragment indicates that it also was a contemporary source.

        So in context, it is not realistic to say that up to the time of Justin, the books were known only by an indiscriminate title “Gospels” and to assert that more specific designations were decided upon in order “to secure their authority.” They already had all the authority they needed, and their authors were well known.

        1. Ah, the passive voice is ever the path to all evil! 😉 “Dialoge with Trypho is dated at 160“! Indeed! But Who dates it at 160? And on what grounds? And how do those grounds compare with those used to surmise a different date? You do like to rely upon secondary authorities, don’t you. Why not get to the evidence that the “authorities” themselves supposedly use as the basis of their arguments and argue the facts of the matter?

          Irenaeus states that the pedigree of the gospels has been investigated from their very foundations? Do you know what else Irenaeus said? Do you believe everything he says or do you read all he says and assess the context in which he was writing, and what is motives for making certain claims were? Do you compare what he wrote with what others wrote?

          Have you read widely on the scholarship of the Muratorian Fragment and gained more than a superficial knowledge of the evidence that is brought to bear when assigning various dates to this artefact? Or do you read what the apologists say about it and trust that without any further investigation?

          Have you studied the research on the writings of Justin and come to appreciate the problems in understanding the integrity of his works as we have them today? Or are the claims of scholars who write in their prefaces and epilogues “Praise the Lord” all you need to know?

          If Justin did this then this would explain that. What sort of evidence-based argument is that? I can say if Justin did the other thing then your point is demolished. Would you accept that?

          Do you have any notion of the battle for apostolic authenticity that was raging in the latter second century? If so, don’t you think it just a wee bit suspect that all the evidence you need to support your argument comes from this period?

          A fundamental part of the historian’s work is to critically evaluate his or her sources for authenticity and bias. Yet so many biblical scholars seem to have a different approach: quote at face value whatever evidence supports your view and then critically evaluate the contrary data so it can all be dismissed as counter-evidence.

          Irenaeus was writing political tracts — he was arguing to prove a certain perspective for what became orthodoxy.

          How do you know he was right? How do you know those he was opposing were wrong?

          1. On the subject of quoting “at face value whatever evidence supports your view,” I’m amazed at how much stock people place on the second-hand testimony of Papias. I doubt very much if people are aware of some of the other strange stuff that guy is supposed to have said.

            And I wonder if apologists have read anything written by Josephus, Tacitus, or Suetonius besides the passages they rely on so heavily. It reminds me of creationists who quote the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I seriously doubt any of them could tell you what the first law is or, for that matter, define or spell “thermodynamics.”

              1. Integrity? Where did I accuse anyone of intentional deceit? I’m referring to a rampant problem in NT studies — namely, the cherry-picking of information to fill certain, specific requirements. Too often people (and I’m talking about lay people and scholars alike) will selectively quote from secondary sources.

                For example if you sit down and read The Twelve Caesars in one sitting, you’ll learn about Chrestus, a guy who apparently stirred up the Jewish population in Rome, causing Claudius kick them (and him?) out. And then a few pages later, Suetonius tells about the Neronian persecution of Christians. It seems reasonable that Suetonius knew how to spell Christ, since he could spell Christian. Further, the plain reading of the text indicates that Chrestus was a living person in Rome, instigating bad behavior.

                But you might never know this unless you read the text on your own, because many lecturers and authors tell you “just enough” to make it seem as if Suetonius probably was talking about Christians with the Claudius incident. Are some of these guys aware of the full story, but not telling it? Perhaps. But I think many just memorize the talking points and repeat them on demand.

                For a long time I did not realize we don’t have any extant works by Papias, and that all we know is from quotations of later writers. Nor did I know of Papias’s wild story of how Judas “really” died. That’s because most HJ scholars focus like a laser on a couple of sentences.

                After taking an audio course on the historical Jesus, I thought Papyrus 52 was securely dated at 125 CE. I should have been suspicious, since the Codex Sinaiticus is dated to sometime in the middle of the 4th century. All that paleographical evidence, and we can only nail it down do a few decades.

                Well, it turns out the first experts who dated P52 said it was probably written in the first half of the second century. That got translated to c. 125 CE, which implies a kind of bell curve with 125 at the peak; however, when you’re dealing with an imprecise science like paleography, 100 CE is just as likely as 150 CE. And given the tiny sample, we should have, from the very beginning, been very skeptical of its dating. Nor will many scholars tell you up front just how imprecise this science really is.

                The thing is, some people have a proclivity to latch onto weak evidence and, perhaps subconsciously, see only the positive aspects. It is incumbent on all of us who study the New Testament to read as much as we can from all quarters — even the “old stuff” that Richard Carrier denigrates.

                I don’t think any less of people who disagree with me, but I’m fed up with scholars who can’t or won’t do their job — the ones who either deliberately misrepresent or perhaps simply can’t understand the source material. No matter what the motivation, the effect is the same.

            1. I wrote an essay about “Papias” once. I won’t go into details here unless Bobby throws him in but the phrase “religious nut” does come to mind when reading his fragments.

          2. Here are your objections — with some combining and rearranging — and my responses:

            1. “The Dialogue with Trypho is dated at 160! Who dated it?” “Have you studied the problems in understanding the integrity of his works as we have them today?”

            The date is widely accepted; and the matter I quoted from the Dialogue are considered genuine in the academic world.

            2. “Have you read widely on the scholarship of the Muratorian Fragment?”

            Yes. We had to study it in Bible College. The dating and translation I used were those given by Bruce Metzger, who indicates that mainstream scholars favor the earlier date (170) over those who argue for a later date.

            3. “Do you believe everything Irenaeus says?” “Irenaeus was arguing to prove a certain perspective. How do you know he was right?”

            The answer to your first question is, No. (Your question is really a dodge and a logical fallacy.) As far as I know, there was no one — even among the “heresies” Irenaeus opposed — who left a trace that they did not believe the apostles Irenaeus named did not write the Gospels. That was the only matter I was addressing.

            4. “Do you compare what Irenaeus wrote with what others wrote?”

            Again, I was speaking of the authorship of the Gospels and the fact that Irenaeus was confirming what had been known in the generations of believers before him. There are no opposing views to be studied and compared on this matter.

            5. “What sort of evidence-based argument is there that Justin used a liturgical combination of the Gospels?”

            Scholars are interested in Justin’s unusual way of referring to the Gospels. This is one explanation. But my larger point was that your theory of why and when the titles were added to the Gospels was — contrary to — the evidence. (And broadly speaking, I add now, that your own theory comes under scrutiny in terms of your criterion of the need for “evidence-based argument.” Your theory included explanations of — the motives — of the early Christians that lack hard evidence.

            7. “Do you have any notion of the battle for apostolic authenticity that was raging in the latter second century?”

            There was no battle over who wrote the Gospels.

            8. “A fundamental part of the historian’s work is to critically evaluate his or her sources for authenticity and bias.”

            The early church had their biases, and so did their enemies. However, the facts favor the early church when it comes to the integrity of what they asserted concerning Jesus.

            The authoritative texts we have from their enemies: (1) present, for the most part, an elaborate Gnostic make-over of Jesus (2) were written in the late 2nd century and afterward, according to conventional, mainstream scholarship (3) incorporate sweeping cosmological elements and entities that are foreign to early Palestinian Judaism and the early church.

            1. The date is widely accepted; and the matter I quoted from the Dialogue are considered genuine in the academic world.

              In other words you don’t know? It’s something you have always taken for granted from what you have read in a few secondary sources? You have not read any scholarly discussion on the questions? (This leaves us with some awkward questions about some specific content in the Dialogue.) I wonder that you are not curious enough to learn how scholars know they things they say. And do they all agree? What are the questions they grapple with? Why do they say what they do?

              Yes. We had to study it in Bible College. The dating and translation I used were those given by Bruce Metzger, who indicates that mainstream scholars favor the earlier date (170) over those who argue for a later date.

              So long as you have Metzger telling you that the majority think one way you don’t have to seriously consider arguments to the contrary.

              The answer to your first question is, No. (Your question is really a dodge and a logical fallacy.)

              You missed my irony. You have so often quoted an authority to me and I have tried to point out that that is not an argument. But your argument is based on silence. That only works if we have compelling reasons to expect noise.

              Again, I was speaking of the authorship of the Gospels and the fact that Irenaeus was confirming what had been known in the generations of believers before him. There are no opposing views to be studied and compared on this matter.

              There are contradictions in the genealogies of “right doctrine”. My point was that the genealogies back to the Twelve are, on the strength of the provenance of the evidence, late political fabrications. This is how genealogies of all sorts were created and why– for political propaganda. No different with the 12 Apostles to establish a pedigree for one faction of Christianity of the day.

              Your theory included explanations of — the motives — of the early Christians that lack hard evidence.

              You will have to justify that. I am trying to explain the evidence we have. I asked you to sift out the evidence itself from interpretation of that evidence and you did not do so. I suspect you find it very difficult since you can no longer tell the difference?

              However, the facts favor the early church when it comes to the integrity of what they asserted concerning Jesus.

              ? That’s the point that has to be proven! You can’t convince me by beginning with the assumption that it’s true!

              As for the second century provenance of the gnostic gospels, we have the same evidential testimony pointing to the canonical gospels being dated in second century too! Of course scholars generally reject that. They do have a conflict of interest, however, being scholars of the Christian faith, after all. I would have no problem dating them early, too — IF I could do so with any consistency of method: Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels

        1. In Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, we are dealing with apologetic, didactic and kerygmatic subject matter that belonged to the whole church — yet had not been brought together in a full narrative form. So the Gospel writers were not acting as mere story-tellers or chroniclers of events. (They are not so much authors as conduits of a tradition that they were putting in interesting literary form.)

          With this kind of purpose, the strange material would be to identify themselves as authors and spend time recounting purely personal interactions with Christ.

          So you asked, essentially, “Isn’t the lack of an author’s identity and the lack of personal interactions with the Son of God — strange — in a Gospel?”

          And the simple answer is, “No.”

          1. you guys call out to jesus, but there were many jesus’

            Jesus the son of Sirach Source: Author of the book, Wisdom of Ben Sirach

            2. Jesus the son of Anannias Source: Josephus B. J. VI: 5, 3

            3. Jesus the son of Damnaeus Source: Josephus Ant. XV: 9, 1

            4. Jesus the son of Gamaliel Source: Josephus Ant. XX: 9, 4

            5. Jesus the son of Phiabi Source: Josephus Ant. XV: 9, 3

            6. Jesus the son of Shapphias Source: Josephus B. J. II: 21, 3

            7. Jesus the son of See Source: Josephus Ant. XVII: 13, 1

            8. Jesus the son of Thebuh Source: Josephus B. J. VI: 8, 3

            9. Jesus the son of Sapphas Source: Josephus B. J. II: 4, 4

            10. Jesus the rival of Josephus Source: Josephus Vita 22 / 105 -11

            11. Jesus the brother-in-law of Justus of Tiberias Source: Josephus Vita 35 / 178, 37

            12. An undefined Jesus Source: Josephus Vita 48 / 246

            if christians like you existed in jesus’ time and prayed to baby jesus, the jesus’ mentioned above would think you are calling out to them. what does it mean “according to matthew” when you have no evidence to identify who this authour was ? i quote to you islamic apologist talking about how IMPORTANT it is to know exactly who is who


            Some hadith narrators are known by different names and this can give rise to error and confusion; hence a branch of hadith sciences is devoted exclusively to the knowledge of those who are known by different names (ma ‘ rifat man dhukira bi—asma’ mukhtalifa) .This is not just a function of the fact that Arabic names often consist of long series of attributions to father, son, mother, etc., but also that pen-names, nicknames and appellations were sometimes used by those who might have known the individual narrator by any of his other attributes or names.

            Another branch of hadith sciences, known as ma’rifat al-mu ‘talif wa’l-mukhtalif min al-asma (knowledge of the look-alike but different names and genealogies) discusses names which are written similarly but pronounced differently. There are numerous names of this type, so much so that some have written individual works on the subject. Names such as Salam Sallam , ‘Umara and Imara, Kurayz and Kariz, Safr and Safar, etc., are written similarly in the Arabic script and text which may not provide the vowelling and declensions of words; and most often they are not given, hence the possibility of confusion of one name or narrator for another. Resembling this last branch of hadith sciences , there is yet another branch of hadith which addresses hadith narrators that had identical names and could easily be confused with one another. There were, for example, no less than six hadith narrators by the name Khalil ibn Ahmad , and four Ahmad b.Ja’far b Hamdan, all of whom lived in the same generation, and many other cases of this kind. These have been isolated and identified by reference to other indicators such as the father’s name, locality, teachers and disciples of the narrator in question, etc.

            hadith studies by H Kamali page 7-8

            end quote

              1. And there was no confusion for Christians over who wrote the first five books of the Old Testament – Moses an entirely fictional person!

            1. Luke states that he “carefully investigated from the very first” what “the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed…down to us.” He said his intention was to put everything “in orderly sequence” so that his patron, Theophilus, “may know the certainty of the things about which [he had] been instructed.” (Luke 1:2-4)

              Each of the Gospels shows evidence that the authors have adapted sources — some written, some perhaps oral and some of them shared — that exhibit expressions, characterizations and forms that had been standardized in some sense.

              The connection between Mark, Matthew and Luke is obvious, but Matthew and Luke have shared — another source — or other sources in common that are, with what evidence we have, as old as Mark.

              The end results are very different for each writer. I think it could be argued that each Gospel is so unique that they could be placed in different genre.

              John depends so much on interactive conversation that draws the reader into a meditation on deep truths. Luke intones a kind of historiography and heroic biography in his two volumes. Matthew is didactic and liturgical and was more popular in the early church, as a whole, than the other Gospels. And Mark has a swift narrative that utilizes words and actions in intriguing, cryptic ways.

              However, I think some more recent writers are on target when they say that literary critics are probably too specific when they try to label ancient writings by strictly defined genre. In practice, the ancients were not so careful in their distinctions. And it is probably misguided to imagine that picking a genre for any particular writing is some climactic form of problem solving.

              My point is…

              The Gospel writers were not authors in a strict sense. They were not interested in identifying themselves. Even the short reference to the source of Gospel John was added by a later editor, according to most scholars. And they were interested in taking the things in which Christians had “been instructed” and clarifying and reinforcing in interesting narratives. The final products were unified in essence but distinct in form.

              1. So you say you “know the gospels were conduits of tradition” because

                1) the English translation of Luke’s opening indicates this;

                2) they used sources.

                As for point number one, you might like to read more critical studies of “Luke’s” Prologue:

                Three studies by John N. Collins, explaining the flawed translation that serves Christian ideology but little more

                Other critical studies on Luke’s Prologue in the context of similar prologues of the day:

                Luke’s Prologue — historical or historical illusion?

                Marcion and Luke-Acts: The Preface of Luke

                The literary genre of Acts. 1: Ancient Prologues

                As for their using sources, I agree. In fact many scholars can identify the source used for the miraculous feeding stories. It was the similar tale about Elisha. There is no evidence whatever for any other source. Sure they could have had other sources, but history is not about what could have happened but what we can say happened based on the available evidence we have now. If something new turns up later then we can revise our views.

                As for your claims about genre, it is clear you have not been reading Tim’s recent posts on gospel genre. 🙂 He also has been addressing the sort of literature that has come down to us without author’s names attached. There is so much more to understand about the Gospels if we are willing to expand our knowledge to the wider literary world of the day. Just repeating what theologians say (when they clearly have not been keeping up to date with genre studies or expanding their understanding beyond the Bible itself) becomes a dead-end intellectually.

                You make some rather odd statements about genre that appear to be based on what some theologians who clearly have never studied genre theory say. Firstly, there can by definition be no such thing as a totally unique genre. Secondly, ancients as much as moderns knew how to mix genres to create new works. In addition to Tim’s posts on genre I have also written a few, including some addressing genre theory (one of them argues that Mark was a Jewish novel — I’m not sure that is the final word, but the discussion is nonetheless worthwhile.) Articles discussing the question of genre are archived here. I show you these posts to let you know that genre is something we have thought about in some depth, and read reasonably widely on, — there is so much more to learn about the bible when one understands the wider literary context of the Bible — something few theologians seem to have time for.

  15. The companions of Jesus lived and worked in Jerusalem and were consistently communicating with Paul over a period of years — as evidenced in one of the most historically interesting type of sources — LETTERS that have both intentional and incidental references to relevant matters — in this case, references to the relationships between Jesus, his apostles and Paul.

    Jesus, his intentional training of the apostles and their on-going work as his “sent ones” are represented in Paul’s letters as sober realities, not parabolic non-entities.

    Therefore, most historians rightly reject the implausible idea that Jesus did not exist, and many of these historians are just as outspoken against the idea that the apostles did not exist — as named in the Gospels and referred to by Paul.

    Later writers — some from the late first and early second centuries — substantiate information picked up from Paul’s letters and reflect knowledge of: (1) Jesus (2) his relationship to his apostles (3) the other apostles’ relationship to Paul and (4) the chain of teaching that link from Jesus through the apostles to the church.

    Are you suggesting that some kind of inter-generational conspiracy explains away the recollections of Paul and his predecessors? That they blatantly propagated mere metaphors as if they were realities? If so, note that this kind of thinking is grounded in unrealistic assumptions, as opposed to a straightforward reading of Paul and a recognition of the unavoidable implications.

    1. I think what Bobby is saying is that there is not one document in the first century where the author names himself as ever even having heard of Thomas, Judas, Lazarus, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea etc etc.


      Jesus, his intentional training of the apostles and their on-going work as his “sent ones”


      1 Corinthians 12

      And God has placed in the church first of all apostles


      Paul is clear that it was God who sent apostles. He does not regard Jesus as having anything to do with it, despite Bobby’s claim that they were ‘his’ sent ones.

      That is the trouble with talking to Christians . You constantly have to remind them of the facts, because they have their heads buried in their books of apologetics, and never look up to see what the facts are.

      Paul, of course, denies that there were miracles associated with Christianity and mocks Jews for demanding to hear miracle stories.

      Little did Paul suspect that Christians were going to rape the Old Testament looking for miracle stories that they could adapt for their Gospels, in the same fraudulent way that Muhammad and Joseph Smith raided old works of scriptures for material for their books.

      1. Steven:

        1. You say, “Paul is clear that it was God who sent apostles. He does not regard Jesus as having anything to do with it.” But…

        Here are statements from Paul about the source of apostleship:

        1 Corinthians 1:1: “Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ”

        Romans 1:4b-5a: “Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we received grace and apostleship…”

        Galatians 2:8: “…neither did I receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came to me through revelation of Jesus Christ.”…“he who appointed Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision appointed me also to the Gentiles…”

        2. You say, “Paul, of course, denies that there were miracles associated with Christianity and mocks Jews for demanding to hear miracle stories.” But…

        Here are statements from Paul about miracles — first, in his own ministry —

        2 Corinthians 12:12: “The signs of an apostle were performed among you in all endurance — not only signs but also wonders and miracles.”

        And — second, in the ministry of the Corinthian believers —

        1 Corinthians 12:8-11: “For to one is given through the Spirit the word of wisdom, and to another the word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit; to another faith, by the same Spirit; and to another gifts of healings, by the same Spirit; and to another workings of miracles; and to another prophecy; and to another discerning of spirits; to another different kinds of languages; and to another the interpretation of languages. But the one and the same Spirit works all of these, distributing to each one separately as he desires.”

        3. You say, “Christians raped the Old Testament looking for miracle stories that they could fraudulently adapt for their Gospels.” But…

        My response is, for the time being, Look carefully at points 1 and 2 above to see if you have understood what Paul says about Jesus and apostleship and to see if you understand what Paul says about signs and miracles.

        If you will agree that you were mistaken in these two matters, then we can discuss whether you are mistaken about the intent and character of the Gospels.

        1. Oh God, spare us from your followers!

          In an effort to show that Jesus trained the apostles, Garringer rips out the following

          1 Corinthians 1:1: “Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ”

          Romans 1:4b-5a: “Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we received grace and apostleship…”

          Galatians 2:8: “…neither did I receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came to me through revelation of Jesus Christ.”…“he who appointed Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision appointed me also to the Gentiles…”


          Paul never met Jesus.

          Doesn’t Garringer know that sceptics have read the Bible and are aware that Paul thought he had been sent by the heavenly Christ?

          So what the Hell is the point of Garringer trying to show that ‘Jesus trained the apostles’ by reminding us that Paul thinks he and Peter had been appointed by a Jesus Paul had never met?

          Does Bobby think we are dumb?

          Similarly Bobby’s argument about ‘miracles’. The last thing Paul wanted to imply is that Jesus had performed miracles.


          2 Corinthians 12:12: “The signs of an apostle were performed among you in all endurance — not only signs but also wonders and miracles.”


          How strange…. I thought the sign of an apostle was that he had been trained by Jesus (even if he never met Jesus on earth), not being able to perform wonders and miracles.

          But as Bobby says, I was wrong.

          Turns out you can tell who was an apostle, not by their having known Jesus, but by their performing signs.

    2. ‘Jesus, his intentional training of the apostles …’

      This is amazing. Where does this come from? Where do the letters of Paul or James or Hebrews say that Jesus trained up his apostles?

      No wonder people have no respect for Christian ‘scholars’…..

      1. Steven:

        Who were the twelve apostles? Where did they come from? Why were they given the recognition they received in Paul’s letters?

        You think there were apostles — appointed by God — who had nothing to do with Jesus.

        Similarly, a related question comes to mind:

        Who was James, this man who Paul called “the brother of the Lord?” Did he have nothing to do with Jesus either?

        I think what you are trying to believe that there never was a Jesus. This is preposterous. His reality and his Lordly influence in the early church — by way of the apostles — is obvious. Paul’s letters make no sense without this understanding of the twelve apostles and their central role in the life and expansion of the church.

        1. (Excuse my butting in here, but a trope that has appeared in several comments directed at me has resurfaced here and it is time I responded: Re the notion that “incidental”, “by-the-way” references to anyone or to any event in a letter is a sure indication of historical authenticity, well, — that is (with respect), simply bollocks.

          (Check out my post on this blog on Rosenmeyer’s book on “Epistolary fictions“.

          (It is those “incidental”, otherwise supposedly “meaningless”, aside references to persons and situations that the authors of fiction were taught to emulate so well by tutors in order to simulate verisimilitude in fiction — including the fiction of a corpus of epistles! That’s just how it was. Why don’t theologians who call themselves historians ever address Rosenmeyer’s work?)

          1. The letters of Paul referred to are considered genuine by scholars of many different fields; and these letters speak of specific personalities who were active in the local, regional and expanded churches. Paul’s letters and travels were destined for various locations where believers were familiar with the people he spoke of. The suggestion that all these — including especially Peter and the twelve — were faked by Paul is ludicrous.

            You are concerned about historians being left out of the picture in these discussions. But I don’t know of any historian, who has weighed in on this issue, who would declare that Paul’s references to those who inter-acted with Jesus are purely fictitious.

            But why not go the distance, if this is the tack? Why not declare that there are absolutely no authentic letters from Paul; and Paul is himself a fiction?

            It’s a very slippery slope when you decide that Jesus is a myth, because you are then under obligation to destroy all evidence to the contrary.

            Historians have warned that the first move of Jesus mythology is absurd; but then the absurdity must be multiplied.

          2. I haven’t found much discussion or reviews of Rosenmeyer.

            But what I have found makes me wonder if, in the long run, she is much interested in whether or not ancient letters are fictitious and more interested in their function in a narrative.

            If a major thrust of her thesis is to discredit certain letters, then she will have to make clear the characteristics of a genuine ancient letter; and specifically how they differ from those that are fictitious throughout.

            1. You say you can’t find discussion about Rosenmeyer’s book. I haven’t read much discussion either, but I have read her book. You even go on to speculate on the value of her work given certain conditionals — yet you have no idea what its argument actually is. Once again you come across as needing to rely upon conventional authorities rather than grapple with the actual evidence itself.

              Her book is NOT about “discrediting” anything! It is about UNDERSTANDING the craft and art of writing letters in the ancient world, and the education of literate people in that art — regardless of the purposes of the letters. Her work opens ones minds to the vast array of letter functions and techniques of the day.

              I would have expected anyone who is interested in a serious study of Paul’s letters would suspect that a work such as Rosenmeyer’s to be essential reading.

              But as Atran points out, learning facts about the world only has a support role for religious belief. That is the difference between us. I am seeking to learn about the way the world was and is; you are seeking to defend your faith, so facts are only relevant as they serve this purpose.

    3. Are you suggesting that some kind of inter-generational conspiracy explains away the recollections of Paul and his predecessors?

      Bobby (presumably you are addressing me) I wonder so soon yet once again you resort to trying to guess or have to ask me what I am arguing when I have told you exactly what I am arguing — you seem not to want to take notice of my own words and wish to find bizarre insinuations in them that never crossed my mind. No, of course I don’t suggest any kind of inter-generational conspiracy or any other kind of conspiracy! Why on earth do you ask such a thing? What have I said that even would lead you to think such an idea was behind anything I have written?

      You completely avoid, once again, the critiques I make of your argument (either factual or logical) and resort to suggesting some utterly weird insinuation.

      I know perfectly well what most historians say, and I also know (I think better than you actually) why they say the things they do — that is, the sources they rely upon as the basis for their opinions. But that’s not what we are talking about, is it? I am interested in the arguments from the evidence itself. Like if Herodotus did employ literary mimesis based on Homer, then I want to know exactly where and how. Did he use it to describe a scene that on other grounds can be demonstrated to be imaginative fiction? I find this level of discussion much more profitable than tossing back and forth what theologians who call themselves historians believe or write.

      As a way forward, if you really want that, then rather than my simply giving my own answer to the points you raise to argue for the historicity of Jesus (I am surprised you appear not to be aware of the arguments of mythicists and the obvious answers to your arguments, responses that have been posted here many times, even from historicists) — as a way forward, I would ask you to break down your argument into two sections:

      In section A, list in dot-point form the literal, material, physical bits of evidence that is the basis of your argument;

      In section B, list the parts of your argument that are interpretation of those bits of hard tangible evidence.

      Once you do that, I think you might begin to see the hollowness of the argument you have just presented. If not, then that’s fine — we can work through it together. That is, teasing out what is actual fact from what is interpretation of that fact.

      Once we have done that, we can then take a fresh look at the facts and apply Occam’s razor — and see if there is a much simpler way of interpreting the hard evidence.

  16. ‘Jesus, his intentional training of the apostles …’

    in the training did jesus help them to remember easy to remember things like god in flesh coming back to life after a few days? peter told mark that the women said nothing to anyone, but peter told matthew that the women did say something to someone and that someone was jesus outside of the tomb.

    so why did pete lie to mark? was there a problem with his memory? or did mark twist what pete said? how can you say that the women said NOTHING to anyone and were afraid when they met jesus AFTER they deparated from the tomb? why do christians try to mend the story in 2013?

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