To What Shall We Compare the Gospels? — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 3

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by Neil Godfrey

Seven years ago in an online forum I discovered that another person, Ben Smith, had come to a conclusion that I had till then only been toying with. Ben had delved into the question more thoroughly than I had and encapsulated his findings as follows:

What genre do the gospels belong to? I think that they belong to whatever genre the Jewish scriptural narratives belong to. I think that they are conscious continuations of that venerable tradition.

It is not merely that the gospels draw upon and quote the Jewish narrative scriptures; Ozymandias draws upon and paraphrases histories without itself being a history. The issue is that the gospels are, through and through, the same kind of texts as the Jewish narrative scriptures.

Nathanael Vette (NV) in Writing With Scripture likewise speaks of a “biblical style” and what this means for how the reader was expected to respond to the extra-canonical work. Speaking of 1 Maccabees, NV writes,

And as Rappaport and others have observed, the author adopts an evidently ‘biblical’ style of narration. . . .

The scriptural style of 1 Maccabees serves the propagandistic aims of the author. The Hasmonaean dynasty could not easily lay hold of the traditional means of validating their rule, in either Davidic or Zadokite descent. The author thus seeks to legitimize their rule using the Jewish scriptures. (NV, 76 – The link is to the referenced page in Brill.)

The multiple genres across three languages NV selects for discussion:
— Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities (LAB) (Latin: Greek – Hebrew)
Genesis Apocryphon (Aramaic)
1 Maccabees (Greek – Hebrew vorlage)
Judith (Greek – Semitic vorlage?)
Testament of Abraham (Greek)

The second chapter of NV’s Writing With Scripture (WWS) demonstrates how multiple genres across three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek) use the Jewish Scriptures in various ways to create new narratives and literary characters. The point of the exercise is to determine whether one can discern a firm foundation on which to claim that the same techniques were used in the composition of the Gospel of Mark. If the Gospel of Mark reads like an extension of Jewish Scripture and is woven with scriptural allusions, then it is reasonable to conclude that its author was following some of the literary practices we find in other literature of the Second Temple era. Don’t misunderstand, though. NV is not suggesting that the Gospel is entirely fabricated. He will explain in a later section his reason for believing that historical events do lie behind the “scripturalized traditions”.

So let’s resume my discussion or review of WWS. The previous installments (with corrections since I first posted them) are at

1 Maccabees

NV applies the same detailed analysis of “scripturalization” that we saw in pseudo-Philo to the other Second Temple works he addresses but I will be briefer in my treatment of these following four.

As indicated above, the purpose of “biblical language and style” in 1 Maccabees was evidently to showcase the Maccabean brothers as “heirs to Israel’s golden age”, so we see again an implicit exegetical function underlying the compositional use of Scripture. In our first post in this series we noted NV’s reference to Devorah Dimant’s distinction between exegetical and compositional use of Scripture but it is clear that the two very often go together hand in hand.

The military and political triumphs of Judas, Jonathan and Simon are cut from the same literary cloth as those of Moses and David, a fact which was no doubt meant to catch the eye of early readers. But the author of 1 Maccabees does more than just imitate the style of the scriptural histories – scriptural language is woven into the fabric of the narrative, in isolated narrative details and episodes based on scriptural models. (NV, 77)

The types of “biblicisms” vary: some are paraphrases of passages in the Scriptures, some betray idiosyncrasies of the Greek translator, other texts may even have become part of everyday language. Another part of the technique was to bypass contemporary names for surrounding nations and refer to them anachronistically by their biblical names: “sons of Esau”, “Amon”, and “the Philistines”.

Sometimes one reads an outright explication of a Scripture (reminding readers of the reasons for their subjugation to a foreign power, for example, or by providing an explicit parallel between Mattathias killing a “disloyal” Jew and Phinehas spearing an Israelite with his Midianite woman) and other times the reader merely senses hints of Scripture (as when speeches and actions bring to mind similar injunctions and actions from here and there in the Pentateuch or 1 Samuel).

Through scripturalization, the author of 1 Maccabees is able to associate the Hasmonaean dynasty with the Phinehaic priesthood, whilst also signaling their obedience to the law. Unmarked scriptural language embedded in the narrative contributes to the ‘biblical’ presentation of the Maccabean heroes. Their triumphs are painted, and thus legitimized, with the same colours as the heroes of Israel’s past. (NV, 80)

When NV puts Judas’s conquest of Ephron in 1 Maccabees 5:34-51 under a microscope he identifies its core structure as taken from Moses’ defeat of the Amorite King Sihon of Heshbon (Deuteronomy 2:26-36 and Judges 11:19-21) but discovers that on top of that basic structure are mutations extracted from Deuteronomy 20:5-14. (Recall Bruce Fisk’s terms “primary” and “secondary” Scripture being combined to create new tales.) The battle of Judas in some respects is slightly less “chilling”, is a slightly lesser “atrocity”, and is a less “indiscriminate pogrom” (NV’s descriptions) than the one we read of Moses and his treatment of the people of Heshbon. Yet those differences are accounted for by the applications of “secondary” Scripture, passages taken from other contexts and applied to the new anecdote.

NV’s interest is not merely in the literary techniques, however, nor in reminding readers of the biblical violations of what today we take for granted as “laws of war”: NV again addresses readers who are asking the question, “If 1 Maccabees is ‘written with Scripture’, what does this mean for historicity?” NV responds:

The scripturalization could have been triggered by genuine parallels between the actions of the historical Mattathias and the scriptural Phinehas. (NV, 78)

Does this mean the episode has simply been created out of scripture with no basis in history? (NV, 83)

NV’s answers, though hypothetical in the first and negative in the second response, are a product of the prevalence within the field of biblical scholarship of a gratuitous or theological or cultural-institutional presumption that there must be some “historical core” behind many of the Old and New Testament narratives.

There are certainly reasons to doubt the veracity of 1 Macc. 5:45-51. The parallel account of the siege of Ephron in 2 Macc. 12:27-28 includes none of the above elements, aside from the large number slain. Though there is no mention of an Ephron outside of 1 and 2 Maccabees, it is nevertheless possible a small skirmish took place there. But the implausibility of Judas amassing a military force capable of waging the scale of warfare described in 1 Maccabees 5 (par. 2 Macc. 12) renders the entire episode doubtful. (83f – my bolding)

The unfortunate assumption underlying those reasons appears to be that it would be valid to think such a chronicle is probably historical if the details are plausible and there are no obvious reasons for doubt. Few other historians of ancient times, especially since the influence of the classicist Moses I. Finley, would today read their sources so naively. See, among the many posts that I have written on historical methods, Can We Find History Beneath the Literary Trappings? As Philip R. Davies pointed out in another context, that kind of default assumption of probable historicity — barring implausibility or other “reasons to doubt” — is “grounded” in the logical fallacy of circular reasoning: see Bible Scholars Who Get History Right.

NV is certainly correct when he explains the function of the literary style and scriptural ingredients found in 1 Maccabees:

The issue of historicity aside, the incident at Ephron contributes to the larger presentation of the Hasmonaean warriors as obedient to, and zealous for, the law. The Maccabean brothers, especially Judas, are depicted as behaving τὸν νόμον (1 Macc. 3:56; 4:47, 53; 15:21), carefully following its precepts (3:55-56; 4:42-53; 5:68). Judas’ fulfilment of the laws of ḥērem is a further demonstration of his law-abiding righteousness, rooted in Phinehaic zeal. To an extent, Judas also becomes like the law-giver, Moses. In a conflict that began over the law (1:41-64), Judas begins to fulfil the words of Mattathias (2:64-68), that under his leadership, the law returns to Israel (3:46-56; 4:42-59). Judas thus emerges as the Moses-like defender and restorer of the law. Once more, the author of 1 Maccabees subtly uses the Jewish scriptures to dress the Maccabean family in the garb of the heroes of old.

The scripturalized narrative in 1 Macc. 5:45-51 shows the compositional use of scriptural material occurs outside of the so-called Rewritten Bible, even to historical works. Like Pseudo-Philo and the Apocryphon, 1 Maccabees composes a new episode by following a scriptural model, inserting distinctive elements and phrases into its narrative. But whilst the siege of Ephron may well have its roots in a more modest historical event, the episode as it is in 1 Macc. 5:45-51 has been pieced together out of the scriptures, specifically Deut. 2:26-36, Judg. 11:19-21 and Deut. 20:10-14. (NV, 84 — my bolding in the first paragraph highlights the positive argument of NV; the bolding in the second paragraph points to what I consider an unnecessary comment on the main thesis.)

Although NV does not refer in this section to the Gospel of Mark one can begin to see how similar literary features function in that work, too.

The Genesis Apocryphon


I discussed 1 Maccabees first because it segued most smoothly from the theme of a “biblical genre” with which I began this post; NV, on the other hand, addressed 1 Maccabees after his discussion of The Genesis Apocryphon. (An online translation of the Apocryphon is available on John C. Reeves’ page.)

Of most interest in the Apocryphon (apart from the first person narrations by Lamech, Noah and Abram) is how the author weaved features and theological roles of Noah and Abraham so that they emerge as distinctively new individuals to anyone who has only read canonical Genesis. Noah is given a commission to walk through the land and is given covenant promises that are harbingers of those later given to Abraham. Noah’s birth is surrounded by drama involving visits to heaven and recollections of fallen angels so that he, Noah, emerges as a vital and clearly more significant person than Abraham. After all, Noah was the founder of the entire new world and his personality and career are elaborated accordingly. Even Noah’s drunken stupor that we read about in Genesis 9 is “rewritten” so that instead of the disgrace of getting drunk, we learn from Noah’s own personal testimony that imbibing wine led him to experience a prophetic vision of universal import.

The larger story of the Apocryphon is not only pieced together from disparate strands of Genesis but shares content with Jubilees and 1 Enoch. And Abram’s part in the Apocryphon combines passages from the Psalms, Deuteronomy, Ezekiel, Esther, Proverbs and Solomon’s Song of Songs.

The inclusion of Abrahamic elements (Gen. 13:14-17; 15:1) in the account of Noah has its roots in . . . exegesis. Noah is modelled on Abram because they are beneficiaries of the same covenant. That this covenant also extends to Abram’s descendants explains how elements from the story of Isaac (Gen. 26:24) find their way into the narratives of Noah (IQapGen 11:15) and Abram (IQapGen 22:30).1:3 For the Apocryphon, the promise of land to Israel does not originate with Abram, but is traced through Isaac and Abram, all the way back to Arpachshad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah.124 The scripturalized narrative in IQapGen 11:11-17 reflects this by merging the descriptions of Abram and Isaac with Noah. The Apocryphon thus elaborately threads together four passages concerning the multiplication of offspring: the promise to Isaac (Gen. 26:24), the promise to Abram (15:1-6), the post-diluvian mandate (9:1-7) and the creation mandate (1:28-30). Just as Jubilees grounds the giving of the law long before Sinai, the Apocryphon is able to find a primordial origin for the promise of land to Israel, so for both, the adage applies: the older, the better. (NV, 74 – my bolding)

Here we are meant to understand that even if some details of “scripturalized” additions add aesthetic touches to a narrative they are part of a package that serves a larger thematic purpose.

In my previous post I noted that I expected to conclude my discussion of this second chapter in this post. But I need a break and pray be excused if I finish NV’s Chapter Two tomorrow.

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

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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “To What Shall We Compare the Gospels? — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 3”

  1. It seems to me that 1 Maccabees has probably a historical nucleus even if (pace Finley) we had not secular evidence about the existence of the Maccabees, since, afterall, the Maccabees are described as human leaders and not divinized. Hence, even if both 1 Maccabees and the gospels are of the same genre “new Scriptures”, hardly they may be compared as to claim to historicity.

    1. There is no question about the historicity of the Maccabean revolt; my point about historicity was intended to apply only to the scripture-laden story of the siege and razing of Ephron for which we have no independent corroboration.

      1. I would like to insist on my point above: once we assume the historicity of minor rebel figures, it is not far from plausible that they had done some siege and razing of some minor village, even if the latter was not called Eprhon.
        At contrary, with the Gospels, it is just the existence of a minor figure that is in doubt. Hence, even the application of a fuzzy logic is prevented a priori.

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