How do we determine the best way to interpret patterns and parallels between the Gospels and other literature?
Here is one parallel that someone asks us to consider:
Fishing for men.
While at the Sea of Galilee, Jesus predicted that his followers would fish for men.
“From now on you will catch men.” Luke 5:10
Titus’ followers then fish for men on the Sea of Galilee.
“And for such as were drowning in the sea, if they lifted their heads up above the water, they were either killed by darts, or caught by the vessels.” Wars of the Jews, 3, 10, 527
I am not convinced for the following reasons:
There is no overlapping of theme or idea. The context of the passage in Luke tells us that the idea of “fishing for men” is to “catch” disciples, converts. The metaphor originates in Jeremiah where it means judgment:
“But now I will send for many fishermen,” declares the LORD, “and they will catch them. After that I will send for many hunters, and they will hunt them down on every mountain and hill and from the crevices of the rocks. My eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from me, nor is their sin concealed from my eyes. — Jeremiah 16;16-17
So the evangelist (author of the Gospel) has inverted the metaphor from one of condemnation to one of salvation.
The Josephus passage makes no reference to “fishing” and any normal reading of the slaughter would scarcely bring to mind images of “fishing”.
The reason I am persuaded that the Lukan saying is taken from Jeremiah and not from Josephus is that it matches a core criterion often listed as a vital indicator of a genuine literary relationship:
Dennis MacDonald calls it “interpretability”. I have summarized the idea as:
interpretability or intelligibility — the capacity of the original text to make sense of some detail in the new work (e.g. Is there some detail or theme in a story that has mystified modern readers over why it was included, with a satisfactory explanation appearing if the author knew another text where the same detail made more sense? Sometimes borrowing from another text may produce awkwardness or some incoherence in order to fit it in the new work.)
Andrew Clark calls it “parallel theme” and says it adds meat to other indications of borrowing:
parallel theme – this cannot stand on its own but adds strength where it exists to other criteria
Thomas Brodie also uses the term “interpretability” — “or the intelligibility of the differences”
Differences will sometimes be very great, but what counts is whether the differences can be explained in a way that deepens our understanding of the new text. Sometimes such explanations can reveal new surprises about the nature of the reworked document.
One may object that the proposed parallel between Luke and Josephus in the above example may not work on its own but does carry weight when set in the context of a number of other parallels. My objection to this argument is that there is no reason to see the massacre in the sea as a parallel at all no matter what setting it appears in.
Is it possible that the evangelist has used both Jeremiah and Josephus? Anything is possible, but since the argument for the use of Jeremiah as the source is entirely sufficient there is no need to involve the Josephan passage.
But what about the following parallels between Theudas (in Josephus) and John the Baptist, this time from Lena Einhorn:
If we — for the time being — assume that Jesus and “the Egyptian” is the same person, then we have the following situation:
1) The last messianic leader Josephus names before “the Egyptian” is Theudas. And he uses the same term to describe them (“goes”). (In Time Shift L.E. expands on this to point out that John and Jesus are described in similar terms in the NT.)
2) Both Theudas and John the Baptist gather their followers by the Jordan river. (In Time Shift L.E. adds that they are both “spiritual” leaders.)
3) Both Theudas and John the Baptist are attacked by the authorities.
4) Both Theudas and John the Baptist are caught alive, but then decapitated. And the head is carried to the authorities.
5) And last, but not least: There is not much logic in Herod Antipas having John the Baptist arrested, since John was not active in the area under Antipas’ jurisdiction (Galilee and Perea). The procurator who has Theudas arrested, however, is really the ruler of Judea, where both Theudas and John the Baptist were active.
Let’s look at point 1. Yes, Josephus links Theudas and the Egyptian though the common term “goes” — magician. Josephus classifies them as the same type of figure. In the Gospels outsiders do notice similarities between Jesus and John but Jesus is viewed as so much greater by virtue of his miracles, hence he is thought to be the Baptist raised from the dead. Otherwise the gospels devote more attention to their differences in life-style and works.
Point 2: There is a common setting, the Jordan River. And both figures are associated with large crowds there. (The people follow Theudas to the river while they come out to meet John at the river.) A charismatic leader with a large crowd at the Jordan River is one thing. But I would prefer there to be more than the setting of a leader and his following. What relationship is there between Theudas apparently promising to repeat the miracle of Joshua of parting or holding back the waters to allow a dry foot crossing on the one hand and John the Baptist who performed no miracle and was living a solitary life wilderness existence and to whom people came to be baptized on the other? I find it difficult to see a meaningful connection between these two descriptions.
But is not the Gospel somehow “transvaluing” the Theudas of history? Is the Gospel crafting a John the Baptist who stands as a more humble and pacifist foil to Theudas? We see such transvaluation in classical literature and even within the biblical literature itself. Virgil’s Aeneas is clearly a “higher” or “surpassing” foil to Homer’s Odysseus. Where Odysseus must struggle and endure hardship through encounters with Scylla and Charybdis, for example, Aeneas is more well favoured by the gods and sails right past that area without any trouble at all. Many such transvaluation type comparisons can be listed. Jesus likewise transvalues Elijah and Elisha by miraculously feeding far greater numbers of hungry mouths with far less to begin with. And so forth and so forth.
So what about John the Baptist being a transvalued foil of Theudas? It is difficult to see such a connection, I think. The connections between Odysseus and Aeneas, and between Elijah and Jesus, are strongly singled by the imitating authors by connecting distinctive and numerous or strong contextual resonances. Both “pagan” heroes are leading sea voyages and facing similar trials or temptations towards their respective destinies and both emerge victorious through parallel methods in the end. The latter text is pointedly bouncing off the former at as many points as possible to drive home the message. Ditto for Elijah-Elisha and Jesus. Both are faced with comparable situations of physical need and both perform a similar type of miracle to meet those needs, and there are a range of semantic echoes in each tale, too.
With respect to Theudas and John the Baptist, I suggest that we have very little in the way of parallel careers, goals, person-types. There is a common setting, both are leaders, both are decapitated, but those sorts of details do not match one another thematically or narrative/plot-wise. The narratives and plots and themes are very different indeed.
Point 3: Theudas is “attacked” but really his entire following is attacked. His movement was seen as a threat. John is arrested because he denounced the morals of Herod Antipas. His movement is not the issue and does not need to be crushed. We are in a different territory at this point. John being arrested and then not executed because of Herod’s respect for him (according to the Gospel of Mark) has little thematic or narrative overlap with a Roman troop charging a mob with deadly intent.
Point 4: Both are decapitated, one after capture and the other after arrest. Yes. But what reason is there to think that the gospel narrative is adapted from Theudas’s misadventure? Is there anything apart from the decapitation itself to link the two narratives? I am not sure even the carrying of the head to the authorities applies because John’s head was carried to Herod’s wife at her command, not Herod.
We do well to keep in mind Dennis MacDonald’s identification of numerous contacts between Homer and Mark and the decapitation element applying to both Agamemnon and the Baptist.
Point 5: The Gospel account of John’s arrest presents an anomaly. Why was he arrested in Galilee or by the tetrarch of Galilee if he was operating in Judea or Perea? I agree. It does not make a lot of sense. But I suggest that this detail counts against the argument that JtB in the Gospels is based on Theudas.
When it comes to John the Baptist I suspect we have all the source material we need in the Jewish Scriptures to explain his appearance in the Gospels. For example:
Malachi’s last chapter anticipates an Elijah figure to come prior to the advent of the Lord — and the Gospel of Mark alludes to this passage when it introduces John;
The Elijah figure is physically described (clothing, diet, location) in 1 Kings and in the Gospel of Mark John matches this description in clothing, diet and location;
The baptism ritual is known in early Christianity as symbolic of death and resurrection (explained by Paul) and compared with the Jewish Scripture narrative of the crossing of the Red Sea — a miracle sort of repeated at the Jordan by Joshua.
That leaves not much else. Joseph Campbell the mythologist did express some curiosity over the name of John itself being derived from Oannes, the Babylonian water god. Perhaps there was a real John the Baptist after all, although Josephus’s account does raise more questions than it answers with respect to this question.
The tale of Theudas shows us that alternative leaders could indeed find inspiration in leading followers to the Jordan River from Jewish legends. It is not surprising to find John the Baptist finding a setting within the same tradition. He does not need to have been based on Theudas to be the leader of crowds at the Jordan.
As for dates, we should keep in mind that Josephus’s account of Theudas did not appear until the early 90s while majority opinion places the Gospel of Mark around 70 CE. I have no problem dating this earliest gospel anywhere between 70 and the early decades of the second century but mention this detail by way of reminder of the implications of a thesis about borrowing. Of course this “problem” can be avoided if we think of the evangelist relying upon his own memory of the event and not having read Josephus. Nonetheless we are still bound by the details Josephus provides as the basis of our comparison.
What are some of the other criteria cited as controls to help assess literary relationships?
I copy from an earlier post on Thomas Brodie:
2. Significant similarities between the two documents, beyond the range of coincidence
Is some of this evidence strong and requiring more than coincidence to explain? Ignoring the strong evidence by focusing on the weak only obscures the question, as we saw Brodie point out in an earlier chapter.
The similarities can include:
- pivotal clues
- tell-tale details, including details of wording
Here is part of Adam Winn’s list:
Similarities in Narrative Structure/Order of Events
Winn believes that “as long as discernible similarities exist between the two narrative structures, literary dependence is probable.” (p. 31)
By “similarity” Winn does not mean “the same”. We should not overlook that the imitating author (e.g. Virgil) was free to reverse elements within the source, leave out or add in additional structural elements. So similarity of structure, not the same structure, is the key.
By “structure” and “order of events” Winn is presuming something reasonably complex. For example, it is clear from that Virgil’s account of Aeneas among the Libyans is based on Homer’s account of Odysseus’s stay among the Phaeacians. Despite the many very significant differences, the following structure is common to both:
- Both arrive as the result of a storm
- Both enter the city in secrecy
- Both request aid
- Both interact with the local ruler
- Both recount their sea voyage
- Both depart after a brief stay
- Both leave behind a people to suffer a tragedy
Similarities in Specific Narrative Details and Actions
Sometimes a similar narrative structure can be almost guaranteed to borrowed from a particular source text if there is, in addition to the structure, a salient common detail.
So with the burial of Misenus in Virgil’s epic, and the burial of Elpenor in the Odyssey, we have this common sequence of events:
- mourning for the deceased
- cutting of logs for the pyre
- burning of the bodies
- erecting a tomb
To my mind that simple sequence could be found in any account of a funeral within a particular culture. Or maybe I’m being a little naive. I suppose one might point out that there are other details or structures that might make up an account of a burial: arrival or presence of the mourners, a procession of some kind, the source of the fire, etc. My point is that sometimes the order of events is not strongly persuasive that there is direct textual imitation.
But even if an order of events seems what one might expect from a common cultural matrix, the possibility of literary dependence is enhanced if even that structure is found within a similar context (e.g. taking place on a sea-shore, as is the case with the burials of Misenus and Elpenor). What clinches the possibility in this example, however, is the common detail that an oar is used to mark the graves of both characters. Dennis MacDonald, I think, would call such a striking common factor a “flag” to alert readers to the literary comparison.
Virgil wrote in Latin and Homer in Greek so we cannot expect verbal agreement between the two.
But clearly this lack of verbal agreement does not undermine literary dependence. This point is particularly important for the field of New Testament studies, a field that for far too long has operated under the false assumption that verbal agreement and verbal agreement alone is necessary to establish literary dependence. The reality is that most imitating authors wanted to avoid verbal agreement, and direct copying of an imitated work was not as admirable as creative imitation. (p. 32, emphasis added)
Obviously where there is verbal agreement we have very strong evidence for direct literary dependence. Winn’s point is that it can never be primary evidence and its absence can never be counted against the possibility of literary imitation. Think again of the Gospel of John against the Gospel of Mark.
Weight of Combined Criteria
If two narratives share a number of specific details and also share narrative structures, literary dependence is highly probable and perhaps undeniable. The weight of combined criteria, therefore, is the most convincing evidence of literary dependence . . . (pp. 32-33)
That is not to say that a single criterion can also be a very strong pointer to imitation if it is sufficiently complex or distinctive.
Do Differences Matter?
A handful of minor similarities between two largely differing texts is clearly not enough to prove literary dependence. (p. 33)
Here is Dale Allison‘s list:
- explicit statement by the author that he is comparing with another work
- inexplicit citation or borrowing (e.g. Mark 1:6 And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; . . . . ; 2 Kings 1:8 And they said to him, He was a man in a hairy garment, and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins. And he said, It is Elijah the Tishbite.)
- similar circumstances in the narrative of the text (c.f. Moses crossing of the Red Sea and Joshua’s crossing of the Jordan River)
- keywords or phrases similar across the texts (e.g. the gospels’ story of the miraculous feeding of the 5000 and the tale of Elisha miraculously feeding 100 men with 20 loaves – 2 Kings 4:42-44 -share words.)
- similar narrative structure (e.g. Compare the calling of the disciples with the calling of Elisha – Mark 1 and 1 Kings 19 – Elijah appears/Jesus appears; Elisha is working/Disciples are working; Call to follow/Call to follow; Elisha follows Elijah/Disciples follow Jesus)
- word order, syllabic sequence, poetic resonance
And Andrew C. Clarke‘s:
- content – similarity in language (not necessarily identical language)
- literary form (e.g. distinct literary technique or motif — e.g. a double dreams in the narratives of both Peter’s call to the gentiles and Paul’s conversion)
- sequence – the more extensive the stronger this criterion is
- structure (e.g. the parallel structures of the birth of John and Jesus strongly indicates it was the author’s intention to create the parallel)
- parallel theme – this cannot stand on its own but adds strength where it exists to other criteria
- disruption of the text where the parallel is introduced – suggesting the parallel was deliberately created even at the cost of doing something awkward with the text
And Dennis MacDonald‘s:
- accessibility to the author of the potential borrowed text (How likely is it that the author of a text had access to another he appears to have borrowed from?)
- analogy with borrowings of the text by other authors (did other authors also borrow and re-write the same stories?)
- density of the numbers of similarities between the texts (The more details there are in common and the more closely packed these are in the two episodes the more likely it is that one text has borrowed from the other.)
- order or sequence of the parallels (The more closely the similar details in a text follow the same sequence of similar details in another text, the greater the likelihood of borrowing.)
- distinctiveness of special features of the stories (e.g. 2 stories describing how people sat down and ate is hardly a distinctive parallel, but two stories of a mass feeding similar numbers of thousands of males who sit down in similar groupings is more distinctive)
- interpretability or intelligibility — the capacity of the original text to make sense of some detail in the new work (e.g. Is there some detail or theme in a story that has mystified modern readers over why it was included, with a satisfactory explanation appearing if the author knew another text where the same detail made more sense? Sometimes borrowing from another text may produce awkwardness or some incoherence in order to fit it in the new work.)
Thomas Brodie points out with abundant illustrations that literary borrowing was not always as explicit and mechanical as some of the above criteria appear to assume. (I think those who devised the criteria were well aware of this but were conservative in compiling lists in order to have stronger cases to defend.) But thematic or ideational parallels are a given. Interpretability is key. Mere semantic or image matches are not sufficient.
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