2022-07-06

Creating New Stories from Scripture — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 2

Creative Commons License

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

by Neil Godfrey

This is the second post in my review of Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture: Scripturalized Narrative in the Gospel of Mark. The series is being archived at Vette: Writing With Scripture. For a richer understanding of the creative literary world that gave rise to our Gospel I highly recommend reading these reviews of Vette’s work alongside an earlier series on Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity by Eva Mroczek: those posts are archived at Mroczek: Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity. While Mroczek explores the ways in which authors understood existing “scriptures” and the ways they felt justified in “rewriting” them, Nathanael Vette [NV] takes us into the close-up view of how authors of the era pieced together new stories from elements of existing ones. (Vette twice favourably cites the views of Eva Mroczek.)

Did the author of the Gospel of Mark create events in the life of Jesus by selecting and combining in new ways various passages and motifs from the Jewish Scriptures?

That Mark used the Jewish scriptures in this way depends in large part on whether this practice can be identified in other works from the period. If it can be shown across a diverse group of texts that the Jewish scriptures were regularly used to compose new narrative, then it would be appropriate to speak of scripturalized narrative as a stylistic feature of Second Temple literature. (NV, 29)

And again,

That Mark composed new stories out of scriptural elements will thus appear all the more likely if the practice can be observed elsewhere, and it is to this question the study will now turn. (NV, 31)

Here I will cover just one of the five Second Temple works that NV studies.

It makes sense to begin with having a clear idea on how to identify a “scriptural allusion or echo” in a passage, keeping in mind that the study is about more than explicitly interpreted passages and stories from (Jewish) Scripture. NV relies upon Dale Allison’s list of criteria as set out in The New Moses. Instead of repeating them here, here is the link to where I set them out, with discussion, and in comparison with other criteria for the same purpose: 3 criteria lists for literary borrowing.

NV begins with Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum, or rather with three episodes from the LAB (its standard abbreviation). NV does not discuss the date of this work (Biblical Antiquities) but it is widely accepted as belonging to the Second Temple period. If you want to know why the LAB is dated to the first century see D. J. Harrington’s explanation in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Volume 2 at archive.org, p. 299; further, a more recent discussion appears in the German language thesis of Eckart Reinmuth, Pseudo-Philo und Lukas, also at archive.org, pp 17-26. (Both Harrington and Reinmuth are referenced in NV’s work although Reinmuth has unfortunately been overlooked from the author index.)

We cannot pinpoint precise details of how Scriptures were used in the narrative constructions of LAB since the surviving texts are Latin translations that do no more than leave hints of Hebrew and Greek source texts. Nonetheless, the narratives we have clearly indicate two levels of scriptural sourcing:

  1. a narrative in the LAB can be based primarily on a story we read in, say, the Pentateuch: that is, a retelling of the career of Israel from the time of the twelve spies being sent into Canaan through Korah’s rebellion and Balaam’s prophecies and concluding with the death of Moses;
  2. that same narrative can be supplemented by events and speeches from other, usually comparable, episodes: so sayings and incidents from Genesis, Joshua and 1 Chronicles can be introduced into the main narrative to enrich it with new detail.

Hence, we read in LAB 17:

Then was the lineage of the priests of God declared by the choosing of a tribe, and it was said unto Moses: Take throughout every tribe one rod and put them in the tabernacle, and then shall the rod of him to whomsoever my glory shall speak, flourish, and I will take away the murmuring from my people. 2. And Moses did so and set 12 rods, and the rod of Aaron came out, and put forth blossom and yielded seed of almonds. 3. And this likeness which was born there was like unto the work which Israel wrought while he was in Mesopotamia with Laban the Syrian, when he took rods of almond, and put them at the gathering of waters, and the cattle came to drink and were divided among the peeled rods, and brought forth [kids] white and speckled and parti-coloured.

That’s quite straightforward. But what is of interest to us is when this author (who was once mistaken for Philo) creates new episodes from the raw materials of Scripture.

NV itemizes several examples. One that he does not elaborate on did catch my attention because it stood out from the others as the creation not only of a new event but of a new character.

The figure of Aod the Midianite magician (LAB 34) is based on Moses’ description of the false prophet (Deut. 13:1-4) among other passages. (NV, 37)

I followed up the references and present here a table to demonstrate how this new person is moulded from Scripture.

Deuteronomy 13:1-4 LAB 34
If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. And in that time there arose a certain Aod from the sanctuaries of Midian, and this man was a magician, and he said to Israel, “Why do you pay attention to your Law? Come, I will show you something other than your Law.” And the people said, “What will you show us that our Law does not have?” And he said to the people, “Have you ever seen the sun by night?” And they said, “No.” And he said, “Whenever you wish, I will show it to you in order that you may know that our gods have power and do not deceive those who serve them.” And they said, “Show it. “And he went away and worked with his magic tricks and gave orders to the angels who were in charge of magicians, for he had been sacrificing to them for a long time. Because in that time before they were condemned, magic was revealed by angels and they would have destroyed the age without measure; and because they had transgressed, it happened that the angels did not have the power; and when they were judged, then the power was not given over to others. And they do these things by means of those men, the magicians who minister to men, until the age without measure comes. And then by the art of magic he showed to the people the sun by night. And the people were amazed and said, “Behold how much the gods of the Midianites can do, and we did not know it.” And God wished to test if Israel would remain in its wicked deeds, and he let them be, and their work was successful. And the people of Israel were deceived and began to serve the gods of the Midianites. And God said, “I will deliver them into the hands of the Midianites, because they have been deceived by them.” And he delivered them into their hands, and the Midianites began to reduce Israel to slavery.

Okay, maybe Aod doesn’t earn top marks for creative ingenuity but it is a sign of a new individual being “born”, is it not? Perhaps you will be more impressed with an angelic figure named Nathaniel when we come to the discussion of Jair below.

The Rescue of Abram from the Fiery Furnace

The creative technique shows its potential when we come to the story of Abram and his deliverance from a fiery furnace. We know from Genesis that Abram was called from Ur of the Chaldeans (Gen 11:31; 15:7). If you followed some of the earlier posts on the work of Nanine Charbonnel and Maurice Mergui, as well as other posts here on wordplay in the Gospel of Mark, you will not be surprised to learn that the idea of Abram coming out of a fiery furnace originated from a double-meaning of the word “Ur”. It can also mean “fire”. Since Abram’s brother, Haran, is also said to have died in Ur, our creative wordsmith further concocted a scene in which Haran lost his life by rushing into a burning house in an attempt to rescue his idols.

You can read the LAB account of Abram’s adventure on the Sacred Texts site. The basic outline follows Genesis: the settling in the plain of Shinar, the decision to make bricks burned in the fire, various characters’ names drawn from surrounding verses, and deliverance from Ur/fire. Of course, what most clearly comes to mind are the echoes of the adventures of Daniel’s three friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Abram is one of twelve men who refuse to participate in the building of the tower by throwing bricks into the furnace. He also refuses to escape when given the opportunity to do so and is accordingly thrown into the fire, only for the fire at that moment to leap out and consume 83,500 bystanders while leaving Abram unsinged. Not only the action but some of the dialogue is likewise inspired by the story we read in the book of Daniel. I trust you get the idea even though I have only touched the highlights of NV’s more complete discussion of these and other points of “intertextuality”. One more instance: when you read the passage I linked in the Sacred Texts site you will notice something familiar about the actions of Joktan (or Jectan on that site). If your memory needs prodding, recall how Reuben wished to save his brother Joseph from the schemes of his brothers.

What was our author thinking when he/she wrote all of that? Was he/she sharing a laugh over his/her cleverness? Was he/she feeling mysteriously inspired? The story of Abram is clearly a fabrication, but for what purpose? We can identify its sources in other literature, not to mention its source in a pun on a single key word in Genesis. But why?

Pseudo-Philo’s extensive use of Daniel to shape the legend is . . . without parallel in antiquity. (NV, 42)

Keep in mind that one does not need to have ever read the books of Genesis or Daniel to appreciate and follow every step of that Abram and the fiery furnace narrative. There are no explicit references to those other sources. They are “seamlessly” woven into an entirely new scene.

However, the story has its flaws. To make use of the different Scriptures the author has at times found him or herself in a bit of a muddle: first, a furnace had to be fired up for heating the bricks, but then a second furnace had to be started for burning Abram and the bricks were thrown into that subsequent furnace, too; secondly, by combining Abram’s rescue with the Tower of Babel episode, the author had to create two starts to the tower – one that was halted by the disastrous conflagration when Abram was tossed in the furnace and another when God had to step in to confound the builders. In NV’s view, these disjunctions are signs of a single author not quite succeeding in creating a coherent narrative from the Scriptural material. Perhaps so, but then I wonder what to make of other scholars pointing to inconsistencies in narratives as indicators of different authors patching a new work on an earlier one.

Jair and the Fiery Furnace

You can be forgiven for not recalling what was said of Jair in the book of Judges. This is all there is:

[Tola] was followed by Jair of Gilead, who led Israel twenty-two years. He had thirty sons, who rode thirty donkeys. They controlled thirty towns in Gilead, which to this day are called Havvoth Jair. When Jair died, he was buried in Kamon. (Judges 10:3-5)

No problem for “pseudo-Philo”. In LAB 38 we find a more lively and lengthy narrative sprouting out of such sparse material:

(Then did Jair judge Israel 22 years.) The same built a sanctuary to Baal, and led the people astray saying: Every man that sacrificeth not unto Baal shall die. And when all the people sacrificed, seven men only would not sacrifice whose names are these: Dephal, Abiesdrel, Getalibal, Selumi, Assur, Jonadali, Memihel. The same answered and said unto Jair: Behold, we remember the precepts which they that were before us commanded us, and Debbora our mother, saying: Take heed that ye turn not away your heart to the right hand or to the left, but attend unto the law of the Lord day and night. Now therefore why dost thou corrupt the people of the Lord and deceive them, saying: Baal is God, let us worship him? And now if he be God as thou sayest, let him speak as a God, and then we will sacrifice unto him. And Jair said: Burn them with fire, for they have blasphemed Baal. And his servants took them to burn them with fire. And when they cast them upon the fire there went forth Nathaniel, the angel which is over fire, and quenched the fire and burned up the servants of Jair: but the seven men he made to escape, so that no man of the people saw them, for he had smitten the people with blindness. And when Jair came to the place (or it came to the place of Jair) he also was burned. But before he burned him, the angel of the Lord said unto him: Hear the word of the Lord before thou diest. Thus saith the Lord: I raised thee up out of the land of Egypt, and appointed thee ruler over my peoples. But thou hast risen and corrupted my covenant, and hast led them astray, and hast sought to burn my servants in the flame, because they reproved thee, which though they be burned with corruptible fire, yet now are they quickened with living fire and are delivered. But thou shalt die, saith the Lord, and in the fire wherein thou shalt die, therein shalt thou have thy dwelling. And thereafter he burned him, and came even unto the pillar of Baal and overthrew it, and burned up Baal with the people that stood by, even 1000 men. (LAB 38)

The passage draws upon Nebuchadnezzar’s decree for all to worship a golden statue and the refusal of three men to do so per the Book of Daniel; words of Deborah are taken from Joshua 1:7-8 and a challenge to Baal from 1 Kings 18:24; the throwing of the pious men into the furnace, the burning of those who threw them into the fire, the appearance of a protecting angel with the men, and so forth . . . These elements from Daniel and elsewhere are pieced together to create a new episode in the annals of Israel.

Kamon, where our biblical tale tells us Jair was buried, may be the seed for the entire narrative:

Here the Hebrew place-name קמון could be read as the Aramaic קמין, derived from the Greek καμίνος for ‘furnace’. This would explain the words of the angel to Jair, ‘And in the fire in which you will die there you will have a dwelling place’. . . (NV, 50)

The angel appearing in the fire with the would-be martyrs is taken from the angel appearing in the furnace with the three young men in the book of Daniel. But whence the name Nathaniel?

Given that other angelic names in LAB originate in word-play, Ginzberg speculates the name may derive from Atuniel reflecting the Aramaic for ‘furnace’ (ןותא). (NV, 49)

Another scholar, Richard Bauckham, holds that each segment of the overall storyline in LAB is intended to comment on and explain some portion of the Jewish Scriptures. But NV finds the evidence lacking for such a sweeping conclusion. In NV’s words,

Instead, the episode presents a self-contained narrative which, though inspired by scriptural interpretation, does not attempt to explain this exegesis to the reader and can be understood without consulting the scriptural passage. It would be a mistake to confuse the interpretation that inspired the episode with the purpose of the episode itself, especially when the text bears no signs of it.

And citing the view of Eva Mroczek . . .

The tendency of some scholars to treat so-called pseudepigraphical works as little more than supplements to the Jewish scriptures reveals more about their own attitude towards the scriptures than those of Second Temple authors, like Pseudo-Philo. (NV, 51)

Kenaz, a New Hero Alongside Moses and Joshua

The third account from LAB to be analyzed is that of the judge Kenaz. (NV has made his published paper on this same figure available on request through his researchgate page.) The LAB’s life of Kenaz stands apart from that of other judges in that it covers four chapters, 25, 26, 27, 28, which amounts to as much space as are assigned to Moses and Joshua.

You can read all that the Bible has to say about Kenaz in Joshua 15:17, Judges 1:13; 3:9, 11; 1 Chronicles 4:13. Although Judges 3:9 tells us that Othniel the son of Kenaz was the first judge to rule Israel after the death of Joshua, pseudo-Philo and Josephus both give that honour not to Othniel but to Kenaz himself. Clearly, at least some Second Temple authors did not consider the words of our Biblical chronicles to be set in stone.

NV helpfully illustrates the connections between Biblical and extra-biblical texts with tables and I copy one of those here. Note that this covers only the mid-portion of the tale, picking up after the report of the identification of sinners by lot and their respective confessions and fates.

LAB 27 Primary Scriptures Secondary Scriptures
Kenaz selects three hundred men and horses to go down to the Amorite camp at night (27:5). Gideon selects three hundred men to go down to the Midianite camp at night (Judg. 7:6-9).
Kenaz takes trumpets and goes down with the three hundred, delivering instructions on what to do if he blows the trumpets (27:6). Gideon takes trumpets and jars and gives them to the three hundred, delivering instructions on what to do when he blows the trumpet (7:16-18).
Kenaz goes down to the camp alone (27:7). Gideon goes down only with his servant Purah (7:10-11).
Kenaz prays for his sword to be a sign by which the Amorites recognize him, so he will know they have been ‘delivered into [his] hands’ (27:7). For the Midianites, the ‘sword of Gideon’ is a sign God has delivered the Midianites ‘into his hand’(7:14).
Kenaz overhears the Amorites saying ‘Rise up, and let us fight against Israel. For we know that our sacred nymphs are there with them, and they will deliver them into our hands’(27:8; cf. 25:11). Gideon overhears the conversation of the Midianites (7:13-14). The Amorite call to arms recalls Gideon’s call to arms, ‘Get up; for the Lord has given the army of Midian into your hand’ (7:15; cf. LAB 36:2).
Kenaz is clothed with the ‘spirit of the Lord’ (27:9). The ‘spirit of the Lord came upon’ Othniel (Judg. 3:10). ‘The spirit of the Lord took possession of Gideon’ (6:34).
The sword of Kenaz ‘shone on the Amorites like a lightning bolt’, leading them to exclaim, ‘Is not this the sword of Kenaz[?]’ (27:9). The interpretation of the Midianite dream is ‘This is no other than the sword of Gideon’ (7:14).
Kenaz is ‘clothed with the spirit of power and was changed into another man’ (27:10). Samuel tells Saul the ‘spirit of the Lord will possess you, and you will be…turned into a different person’ (1 Sam. 10:6).
The Lord strikes the Amorites with blindness so they slay one another (27:10). ‘The Lord set every man’s sword against his fellow and against all the army’ (Judg. 7:22).
The angel Zeruel ‘bore up the arms of Kenaz lest they should sink down’ (27:10). Othniel’s ‘hand prevailed over’ Israel’s enemies (3:10). God promises Gideon ‘afterward your hands shall be strengthened to attack the camp’ (7:11). The Midianites are delivered into Gideon’s ‘hand’ (7:7, 9, 14-15).
Kenaz’s hand clings to his sword so he cannot release it (27:11). Eleazar ben Dodo ‘struck down the Philistines until his arm grew weary, though his hand clung to the sword’ (2 Sam. 23:10).

The middle column points to the primary story from which the Kenaz campaign is based (recall that Kenaz replaces our biblical Othniel) while the third column marks the many other Scriptures from analogous passages that have been carried over to the new report of Kenaz (Othniel).

Again NV identifies inconsistencies in the LAB depiction — e.g. Kenaz selecting 300 warriors in imitation of Gideon’s exploit only to sally forth to defeat the enemy single-handedly — that he explains as the result of a single author not quite being able to reconcile the diverse material he wanted to incorporate into a new whole. (A reader is surely preparing mentally to see if similar slip-ups will be found in the Gospel of Mark.)

The significance of the Kenaz complex is that the author has not merely elaborated on an existing tale. He or she has created something entirely new:

The episode is not simply ‘an expansion of Judg 3:9-10’.85 Nor is the figure of Gideon absorbed into Kenaz, as Pseudo-Philo later epitomizes the career of Gideon (LAB 35-36), including his rout of the Midianites (36:1-2). Rather, Pseudo-Philo has once more freely composed a new and independent episode in the life of this marginal figure using the scriptures as a model. (NV, 61. My bolding)

The conclusion of the portrayal of Kenaz (LAB 28) is even more strikingly divergent from any of the primary and secondary Scripture allusions outlined above. In Joshua 15:19 and Judges 1:15 the reader passes over references to an inheritance of certain springs. Whatever significance these waters once had is now lost to us, it would appear. So how are we to understand the pseudo-Philo’s closing scene of Kenaz in which he introduces those springs into an apocalyptic vision! Here in an unearthly context the upper and lower springs are in the divided firmament and the reader is swept back into imagining the creation scene of Genesis 1:6-9.

Again, NV is not satisfied with Richard Bauckham’s explanation that the LAB history of Kenaz is an exegetical commentary on Scripture. I will quote Bauckham’s discussion in full here so you can better judge the question for yourself:

The long account of Kenaz in LAB 25-28 is the longest and most remarkable of Pseudo-Philo’s excursions from the biblical narrative. At first sight it may look as though the whole is free invention, unrelated to the biblical text, but closer inspection reveals that the material is anchored, even if sometimes rather tenuously, in the text of the early chapters of Judges. Kenaz is a substitute for Othniel, the first judge (so also Jos. Ant. 5: 182-184), and is also identified by Pseudo-Philo with the ‘Judah’ of Judges 1:2 (similarly Cant. Rab. 4:7 identifies this ‘Judah’ with Othniel).
The beginning of LAB 25 is an interpretation of Judg 1:1-2. The ‘Canaanites’ of Judg 1:1 become ‘Philistines’ in LAB 25:1, perhaps because Pseudo-Philo knows that ‘Judah’ (i.e. Kenaz) conquered Philistine territory (Judg 1:18) and he is interested in this fact (LAB 29:2). The Lord’s appointment of ‘Judah’ (Judg 1:2) is explained as taking place by lot (LAB 25:2), and it is coupled with a requirement to uncover the sin of the people before they can fight the Philistines, because Judg 2:10-14; 3:7-8 indicate that between the death of Joshua and the election of Kenaz Israel forgot the acts of God on behalf of their fathers and fell into sin which kindled the Lord’s anger (cf. especially LAB 25:6; 26:1). The emphasis on the sinners and sins of each tribe (LAB 25:4,9-10,13) may be intended to explain the account of the failure of each tribe in Judg 1:19-33. In this way the rest of the legendary material in LAB 25-26 is at least loosely tied to the narrative of Judges.
LAB 27 is an expansion of Judg 3:9-10 (note especially LAB 27:9-10: the Spirit comes upon Kenaz; 27:7: God delivers the Amorites into the hands of Kenaz; 27:12-13: the salvation of Israel by the hands of Kenaz). It is also possible that behind this narrative, especially the prayer (LAB 27:7), lie Deut 33:7 (about ,Judah’) and 1 Chron 4:10 (the prayer of Jabez, who is identified with Othniel in b.Tem. 16a; Cant.Rab. 4:7). Kenaz’ vision in LAB 28:6-9 is based on the reference to ‘the upper springs and the lower springs’ in Judg 1:15 (= Josh 15:19) – a remarkable exegesis which is also preserved in b. Tem. 16a.
No doubt a feeling that the first of the judges, and in particular the only judge from the tribe of Judah (cf. especially LAB 21:5), deserved more attention than Judges appeared to give him, has led to the development of a full narrative account of Kenaz out of the hints provided by Judges. As well as traditional legends, including perhaps some very ancient ones, and folklore motifs, the development of this account has probably incorporated ideas from and analogies with other parts of Scripture, though these are not easy to identify since verbal allusions are scarce.
The following are more or less probable influences on LAB 25-27:
25:2 ___________ 1 Sam 10:20-21
25:3 ___________

1 Sam 14:39
25:1, 4 _________ Josh 7:10-18
25:5 ___________ Deut 29:18 . . .
25:8, 9 (Elas) ____ Gen 35:4 (הלא, ‘terebinth’);
Gen 49:21 LXX (στέλεχος, translating. הלא)
25:10 (Shechem) _ Gen 35:4
25:11 __________ Gen 2:11-12

 

26:1,5 _________ Josh 7:15,25-26
26:1; 27:15 _____ Gen 2:11
26:10-11 _______ Exod 28:17-21
26:13 __________ Isa 64:4; 60:19-20; 54:11-12
27:2 ___________ 2 Sam 11:11
27:5-6 _________ Judg 7:7-8
27:7 ___________ Ps 33:16-17
27:9 ___________ Judg 7:14
27:10 __________ Judg 7:11,22;
27:11 __________ 2 Sam 23:10;
27:14 __________ Ps 33:16-19.

 

Clearly some, if not all, of these passages have influenced the narratives in LAB 25-27. To what extent they have contributed to the actual creation of the stories it is difficult to tell. (Bauckham, 48-50 – my formatting and bolding)

NV takes another view:

. . . [T]he acts of Kenaz . . . do not appear to answer an exegetical query. What exactly led Pseudo-Philo to narrate the career of Kenaz will perhaps remain a mystery. But as it is, the figure of Kenaz has been created out of the descriptions of Joshua, Gideon, Saul, Eleazar ben Dodo and Zelophehad. As with the fiery furnaces of Abram and Jair, the author does not simply replicate the scriptural model, but uses it as a template to tell a new story, loosely following its structure whilst including distinctive elements from its narrative, to which additional scriptural language is added as well as flights of creative fancy. (NV, 63)

In a footnote he drives home the point more comprehensively:

There is still the question of what inspired Pseudo-Philo’s distinctive use of scripture. Reinmuth (Pseudo-Philo und Lukas, 118) thinks the author was governed by a principle of correspondence, ‘Das Korrelationsprinzip setzt voraus, daß Ereignisse durch das Wirken Gottes so korreliert sind, daß sie im Verhältnis der einfachen oder reziproken (bzw. kontrapunktischen) Entsprechung zueinander stehen’ [=The principle of correlation presupposes that events are correlated by the action of God in such a way that they stand in the relationship of simple or reciprocal (or contrapuntal) correspondence to one another]. The principle of correlation presupposes that events are correlated by the action of God in such a way that they stand in relation to each other in simple or reciprocal (or contrapuntal) correspondence. So too Murphy, who thinks Pseudo-Philo’s association of similar scriptural episodes ‘underlines the structure and interconnectedness of history, which in turn illustrates God’s control of events’ (Murphy, Pseudo-Philo, 59). Fisk, on the other hand, concludes Pseudo-Philo writes from ‘a hermeneutical conviction that the key for unlocking Scripture’s meaning is to be found in Scripture’ (Do You Not Remember?, 327, emphasis original). Bauckham makes the similar claim that Pseudo-Philo is always ‘interpreting scripture by scripture’ (‘Pseudo-Philo and the Gospels as “Midrash”’, 34, 59). This may be true when applied to Pseudo-Philo’s characterization of Moses and Joshua, impressively studied by Fisk (Do You Not Remember?, 264-313). But as the narratives of Kenaz and Zebul show, an exegetical purpose is not always present. In the final analysis, something as small as the intrusion of a detail from the death of Jacob in the death of Joshua (LAB 24:5; cf. Gen. 49:33) may be purely aesthetic. (NV, 64 – my bolding and translation of the German quotation)

We can begin to see the route NV is taking as he approaches his section on the Gospel of Mark. Scriptural allusions (as we know so well from the Passion Narrative, but elsewhere in the Gospel, too, such as the vignettes borrowed from the Elijah-Elisha cycle that we have studied in earlier posts) are not necessarily functioning as some sort of playful exegesis to explain or illustrate the Scripture itself. We may at this stage find that difficult to accept when we think of Gospels because we are so used to searching for and finding meaning in all Scripture references that we can identify, so we will want to persevere with NV’s argument to see how far it can take us. One should note, though, that NV is not claiming that all use of Scripture by pseudo-Philo is aesthetic. Certainly much is exegetical — as the above quotation acknowledges in respect to the treatment of Moses and Joshua in the LAB.

There is another point that I think calls for special attention given NV’s notice that at the end of the book he will address the question of whether one can discern actual history behind the “scripturalized narrative”.

Instead of originating in tradition, the figure of Kenaz has been pieced together from a variety of episodes and figures in the Jewish scriptures. (NV, 62)

Indeed. We can identify the sources of those various episodes and figures in the LAB. At the same time, we don’t quibble over the appearance of certain details that are nested within those allusions to Scripture. An author imaginative enough to weave new annals out of pre-existing Scripture is surely imaginative enough to invent names and numbers to add colour to the plot: we don’t assume every non-Scripture particle likely comes from oral tradition tied to real history.

I’m jumping the gun now by commenting on an argument that will arise, unnecessarily, I think, as we approach the conclusion of the book. Should we consider details that cannot be found in the Scripture source to be probably historical? That’s not the way historians in other fields decide what is historical. That approach is essentially a process of circular reasoning as Dale Allison (with whom we began this post) acknowledges — although he cannot see a way out of that problem. See Clarity about Circularity from Historical Jesus Scholar Dale Allison. Allison suggests that circularity is inevitable but that is simply not so. There is a way out but it requires stepping back from current models of Christian origins that really are grounded in circularity and learning from recent “mavericks” (e.g. Philip R. Davies) in the field of Old Testament studies.

In the next post in this series I’ll cover the remaining discussion of this second section much more briefly and perhaps begin NV’s treatment of the Gospel of Mark.


Bauckham, Richard. “The Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum of Pseudo-Philo and the Gospels as ‘Midrash.’” In Gospel Perspectives: Studies in Midrash and Historiography. Volume III, edited by R. T. France and David Wenham, 33–76. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1983.

Vette, Nathanael. Writing With Scripture: Scripturalized Narrative in the Gospel of Mark. London ; New York: T&T Clark, 2022.


The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

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


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


11 thoughts on “Creating New Stories from Scripture — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 2”

  1. “This book, dating from the late first century C.E. (after the destruction of the second temple, 70 C.E.) is…”

    Mark and LAB perhaps being written around the same time, would imply to me that similarities originated from something older yet. Considering the time it takes to write, and distribute texts, become well known enough to have someone else at a later date copy stories, in primitive times, with oral stories being the predominate transfer of info, it is just as likely that LAB copied from Mark. Or both copied from older oral stories. The comparison would hold more weight if one was clearly 100 years older than the other. He should have tried to compare stories in Maccabees to Mark. If the dates of LAB are shaky, the whole argument is shaky.

    1. The similarities could be that Mark and the author of LAB were both trained in the same rhetorical style, because they attended schools influenced by Greco-Roman writing techniques. On this see Brad McAdon, Rhetorical Mimesis and the Mitigation of Early Christian Conflicts, pp. 17-50. He makes the cases that “mimesis,” or imitation of an earlier source in their voice and style but with new content, was a widespread practice at the time. If Mark and LAB were both trained in mimesis, then the priority date of LAB is irrelevant and there is no need to establish dependence.

  2. Yes, I should be clearer that Vette is not suggesting the Mark borrows from pseudo-Philo in any way — the point Jonas makes. The argument is that it is easier to justify the claim that Mark was creating new stories out of Scripture if it can be demonstrated that others in the same era were doing the same.

  3. In both your consideration of Nathanael Vette and your earlier summary of Eva Mroczek, references are made in passing to changes made to the biblical narratives by Josephus in his Antiquities. I was wondering if you had seen more detailed analysis by them (or anyone else) of the way that Josephus reworked the Israelite history. Clearly the examples that you have presented are of the right period and highly relevant, but considering that it has been considered that the work of Josephus had a direct impact on Luke’s gospel and especially Acts, this would be very significant. Yes – I’m aware that you are currently driving towards Mark rather than Luke!
    P.S. there is an analysis by Sabrina Inowlocki of Josephus’ reworking of the Babel story for political-theological motives at https://www.jstor.org/stable/24669715.

    1. NV refers to Josephus more frequently in his chapter on the Gospel of Mark and I’ll keep your question in mind as I re-read that when I come to post about it.

      I have a long list of reading to get through on Josephus and am sure there is more along the lines of Sabrina Inowlocki’s article in that list. Feldman wrote a series of articles on J’s different treatments of biblical heroes – I suppose you have seen those, but if not, let me know and I can provide you with a list that may cover the sorts of questions you raise.

      Three of the books that I picked up from a glance at titles alone that may be of interest to you:

      — Noam, Vered. Shifting Images of the Hasmoneans: Second Temple Legends and Their Reception in Josephus and Rabbinic Literature. Oxford University Press, 2018.

      — Pastor, Jack, Pnina Stern, and Menahem Mor. Flavius Josephus: Interpretation and History. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2011.

      — Pere, Villalba i Varneda. The Historical Method of Flavius Josephus. Brill, 1986.

      I think I would see more direct relevance of Josephus to Mark than NV does since I happen to think that Mark drew upon Josephus in various moments: the baptist image partly from Banus, the signs of the end partly from Josephus’s signs of the end, the story of Jesus ben Ananias, the slaughter in the lake of Galilee, John and Simon, the mass crucifixions including those of Josephus’s friends. Perhaps, also, I might add Josephus’s interpretation of Hasmonean history after I have more time to engage with Bedenbender’s book about Mark.

  4. Thanks Neil for this reading list. I’ve started working through the Feldman articles (downloaded from Jstor). These give a fascinating insight into how Josephus felt at liberty to rewrite Israel’s history in order to eliminate embarrassing episodes and enlarge on those that he felt would go down well with his audience.

Leave a Comment

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

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

%d bloggers like this: