“Some Underlying Tradition” — a review of Writing With Scripture, part 10

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by Neil Godfrey

All posts reviewing Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture are archived at Vette : Writing With Scripture

With thanks to T&T Clark who forwarded me a review copy.

The claim that the scriptural character of early Christian narrative illustrates its non-historical character is one conservative exegetes have been anxious to dismiss and radical exegetes have been eager to embrace. For conservative exegetes, the scriptural language of the Gospel narratives always has its basis in ‘fact’.

. . . .

Radical exegetes, on the other hand, begin by assuming the non-historical character of the Gospels. On this basis, anything and everything can be seen to have a scriptural origin.

. . . .

Both are remarkably confident about the ability of scholarship to uncover the historical details behind the Gospels, in their presence or their absence. Both affirm that the scriptural character of the Gospels has its basis in either ‘fact’ or ‘fabrication’ . . . . . Given the choice between ‘history remembered’ and ‘prophecy historicized’, the exegete will inevitably choose whichever confirms their presuppositions. (NV, 199f)

Those words, extracted from the opening pages of the concluding chapter of Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture, indicate to me, an outsider, that the study of Christian origins through the Gospels is fundamentally about faith, belief, or challenges to faith and belief than about historical research as it is understood and practised in History Departments and Faculties. Note the words “anxious”, “eager”, and “remarkably confident”. Those words describe an emotional commitment. Note the terms “begin by assuming” and “confirms their presuppositions”. Those words point toward a flawed methodology that I will address below.

Mark Goodacre’s mid-way position between conservatives and radicals, as I understand it through NV’s discussion, posits that each “story unit” (or pericope) in the Gospels should be assessed in its own right for whether or not we might reasonably conclude that it derives from a prior source of some kind, whether that source be historical memory or some kind of legendary tale. So when we read an episode in the Gospels that borrows terminology from Scriptures, instead of concluding that we are reading either history that happened to coincide with words of Scripture or fiction composed entirely out of Scripture, we would do better to infer that we are reading “tradition scripturalized”. But this is the same flawed methodology simply working from different assumptions.

NV goes “one step further” than Goodacre:

But this analysis can go one step further: scripturalization can also describe the literary process by which Mark as an author used scriptural elements to compose and model episodes in their life of Jesus, creating scripturalized narrative. 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)

At the end of his study NV concludes:

We found that scripturalized narratives usually have their basis in some underlying tradition. This is seen most clearly in those episodes which relate to a scriptural figure or episode. At one end, scripturalized narratives can result from a close and profound exegetical engagement with their source: by narrating Gen. 9:1-7 in the language of Genesis 13 and 15, the Genesis Apocryphon ties the Abrahamic covenant to the Noachide covenant (part 3). At the other end, long and complicated narratives can be triggered by a single word – i.e. the two fiery furnaces of Pseudo-Philo or simply reflect the similarity of one figure with another – i.e. Abraham with Job in the Testament of Abraham (part 4)Whilst it is possible for a figure to be pieced together entirely out of scriptural material for no perceptible reason – i.e. Pseudo-Philo’s Kenaz and Zebul (part 2)this is the exception not the norm. In most cases, the compositional use of scriptural elements in scripturalized narratives has been triggered by some aspect of the source text or tradition. (NV, 201)

The Methodological Flaw

A historian cannot verify any account as “historical” or otherwise without some external or independent reference. To attempt to do so entirely through internal analysis cannot avoid circularity: assumption becomes the final arbiter. A selection from the many Vridar posts on historical method:

  1. An Ancient Historian on Historical Jesus Studies, — and on Ancient Sources Generally
  2. Can We Find History Beneath the Literary Trappings?
  3. Ancient History, a “Funny Kind of History”
  4. The Basics of History — They’re Still the Basics
  5. Contrasting methods: “nonbiblical” historians vs “Jesus” historians
  6. Bible Scholars Who Get History Right
  7. How to Read Historical Evidence (and any other information) Critically
  8. How Historians Work — Lessons for historical Jesus scholars
  9. The relevance of “minimalists’” arguments to historical Jesus studies
  10. Theologians Reject Basics of History: A Way Forward
  11. Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels
  12. Ouch! A “professional historian” has something to say about the methods of “biblical scholars”

A text can only tell us what someone wanted someone to read. It can tell us what was being told and retold at the time it was composed.

A historian works with sources. At his or her best, a historian begins by analysing what the source tells him or her about the person who wrote it and the world from which it came and the society for which it was written.

Before a historian can accept any statement a text makes about the past as “true”, he or she must learn who wrote the words and why, and test claims about the past against contemporary independent testimonies. Often only relatively few claims can be tested that way, but through those tests, combined with a knowledge of the author and provenance of the text, the historian can make judgements about the reliability of what he or she is reading.

In the case of the Gospels, we do not know who wrote them or why and we can only speculate about the provenance of each. And we have no contemporary independent witness against which to test any of their claims.

It does not follow that a historian must reject them as worthless. They are still evidence of what someone wanted to say at a particular time and that can tell us something. But the narratives within the Gospels are themselves unable to offer any testable information about the historicity of any part of those narratives. What this means for the historian of Christian origins is that the question to be explored is: What gave rise to the Gospels? The historian cannot begin with the assumption that they grew out of oral traditions or other hypothetical sources.

Even when one says that the Gospels can give us “nothing but the bare fact of the crucifixion” as absolutely certain, one is still doing nothing more than paraphrasing part of the plot of an untestable narrative.

To say that “the names of these characters did not come from Scripture and therefore they are likely to be remnants of historical memory” begins with the assumption that has not been (and cannot be) tested: that there is some historical tradition behind some of the Gospel narratives.

To say that a Gospel narrative is probably based on pre-existing tradition because the Gospel shares stylistic features in common with other literature that generally draws on pre-existing tradition is nothing more than a statement of prior probability. Prior probabilities are always subject to refinement and reassessment as one delves more deeply into the relevant data. (I think that in the case of the Gospels that kind of reassessment leads to the strong probability that the pre-existing source behind the crucifixion is the Jewish War.)

If the historicity of any part and all of the Gospel narratives is untestable then the best a historian can do is to leave the question of the narrative’s historicity aside. One does not have to take sides in a theological war between conservatives and radicals over whether a literal historical tale is more worthy of belief than a spiritual parable. I prefer to ignore that question and work with other questions that the sources can help us answer. NV’s book is actually helping pave the way for such explorations.

Returning to Nathanael Vette’s Conclusion

Overly cautious

The precise relation of these texts to historical memory is for the most part unrecoverable. Some provisional comments can nevertheless be made. On the one hand, scholars are relatively confident 1 Maccabees reflects the broad outlines of history . . . . On the other hand, scholars are equally confident the book of Judith, though presented as historiography, contains almost nothing of history. Where the Gospel of Mark sits in relation to these two works is not immediately clear, especially since the events narrated in the Gospel are often of a supernatural or thaumaturgic character, unlike 1 Maccabees and Judith. (NV, 201)

NV is too cautious, in my view. Rather than saying Judith “contains almost nothing of history” I would say Judith “contains nothing of history”. One might reply that Judith contains accurate details about life at the time, to which Moses Finley would reply,

That still does not tell us anything about the narrative details, and they are what matters. (Aspects, 183. See the post linked at #1 of the 12 above.)

As for the “often supernatural or thaumaturgic character” of the Gospel of Mark, is it not “immediately clear” that such stories are ahistorical by definition? After all, take away the supernatural and thaumaturgic elements and one is left with nothing much of interest to talk about and nothing has been added to give us any reason to think there might have been a “historical core”.

Removing the unbelievable and the impossible, correcting what is clearly wrong and tendentious, and reconstructing what remains in a more or less coherent account is hardly adequate and fails to deal with the Bible’s unhistorical qualities. Removing miracles or God from the story does not help an historian, it only destroys narratives. One can never arrive at a viable history with such an approach.

. . . .

Reasonableness or plausibility, or any argument that attempts to show that an event in a story was possible, does little to distinguish ancient stories from ancient fiction. Nor does it do to use the occurrence of miracles and divine acts as criteria of the obviously fictional. The wonder of divine action is, after all, the very reason that many of these narratives were written and preserved.

. . . .

But to dismiss accounts of such events simply because they are impossible isn’t much help, as we can always imagine the story minus the miraculous. Would that make the less miraculous more historical? Two different accounts, one with a miracle and the other without, cannot be distinguished in their power to be evidence for history. (Thompson, Mythic Past, 44, 209, 229)

Possibilities and widely known facts

It is possible Jesus patterned his own actions after Elijah, as John the Baptist may have done, and later Rabbis and Christian ascetics certainly did. Jesus appears to have been associated with Elijah at an early stage (Mk 6:15; 8:28) and it is possible the episode originates from this identification. But at the same time, the scripturalized episode could have been triggered by the knowledge of a single detail: the widely known fact that Jesus himself had disciples may have led Mark or their source to the most famous of teacher-disciple relationships: Elijah and Elisha. (NV, 202)

Here we see the assumption that historical tradition or memory very likely lies somewhere behind the narrative, an assumption that is prevalent in New Testament studies. Why not simply accept the narrative as we have it and acknowledge that the reason Jesus is given disciples is, at least in part, to make him conform to the Scripture source?

If we can accept that position then we are surely working with a more justifiable method that relies entirely upon known sources and avoids appeals to unknown sources. (Of course, all such conclusions are tentative pending further evidence and insights.)

Well attested

The reputation of Jesus as a miracle-worker, however, is well attested (Mk 3:22; 6:14-16) and no scriptural figure is better associated with the miraculous than Elisha. It may have been this association alone that led Mark to compose not one but two scripturalized narratives of Jesus multiplying bread like Elisha. (NV, 203)

Ye olde “criteria of authenticity” are lurking here — criteria that are nowhere so comprehensively used to establish “well-attested facts” among other historians. The way NT scholars use these criteria is unique to biblical studies, as far as I am aware.

Confirmed by an independent account

On Mark’s account of the execution of John the Baptist,

The broad historical outlines of the episode are, however, confirmed by the independent account of Josephus (Ant. 18.116-119): John was indeed executed by Herod Antipas – though Josephus understands it as a political calculation by the tetrarch. (NV, 203)

If only we could be so sure. Unfortunately, Josephus’s account is a matter of some debate since there is room for reasonable doubt. We have posted about Rivka Nir’s views in The First Christian Believer. See also


What is left after subtracting the scriptural language?

If the scriptural language is taken away from the crucifixion, however, the bulk of the narrative remains:

  • the compelling of Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross,
  • the location of Golgotha,
  • the offer of wine mixed with myrrh,
  • the crucifixion itself,
  • the time of the crucifixion,
  • the inscription,
  • the crucifixion of two bandits – though this was later seen to have scriptural significance (Mk 15:28) –
  • the mockery of the chief priests, scribes and bandits,
  • the time of Jesus’ death,
  • the non-appearance of Elijah.
  • Jesus’ final breath,
  • the tearing of the Temple curtain,
  • the confession of the centurion
  • and the presence of named women from Galilee.

Not all of these details can be easily traced back to the historical memory of Jesus’ death.

  • The invocation of the Temple’s destruction,
  • the tearing of the curtain,
  • the confession of the centurion
  • and even the rejection of Jesus by the chief priests and scribes

are perhaps best seen as an attempt to foreshadow the destruction of the Temple and its elite, as well as the victory of the Romans, in the unjust death of Jesus. The other details may well be genuine historical recollections preserved in the earliest kerygma or else speak in some way to the present situation of Mark’s community, or both in the case of the named men and women. (NV, 204. My formatting)

On a point of consistency of interpretation: When we read in the opening chapter about Jesus being in the wilderness for forty days we can readily understand the author imagining Jesus to be a personification of an ideal Israel; would it not be reasonable to picture Jesus crucified then placed in a tomb hewn from rock (a metaphor for the temple in Isaiah 22) as a personification of the nation of Israel destroyed by the Romans?

Here I am recalling my previous post in which I referred to Nicole Duran’s view that Mark is searching for meaning in the traumatic outcome of the Jewish War. He finds hope in a resurrected Israel to be found in the place symbolized by Galilee.

NV is right to alert us to Mark’s creativity with his use of Scriptures. At the same time, NV embraces the fundamental assumptions at the heart of mainstream historical Jesus studies. Mark could create a narrative from Scripture but it does not follow that when he is not using Scripture his narrative is in some way sourced from other traditions, some of them rooted in historical memories. (See part 1 for the more complete discussion of this point.)

The one indispensable presupposition

The one indispensable presupposition of the narrative is the brute fact of the crucifixion itself. Jesus was crucified by the Roman authorities in Jerusalem. Everything else, including the scriptural language, is framed around this fact. (NV, 204)

To which a classicist and historian of ancient times might reply,

I do not know what decisive tests of verifiability could possibly be applied. The myth-making process has a kind of logic of its own, but it is not the logic of Aristotle or of Bertrand Russell. (Finley, Aspects, 178)

It should not be overlooked that the crucifixion is also a “well attested” theological construct. “Criteria of authenticity” cannot justifiably turn that theological fact into a historical one.

Clothed in the Scriptures

In the Gospel of Mark one can see that . . .

Jesus lived and died as one clothed in the scriptures. (NV, 206)

And here on a positive note I can agree wholeheartedly with NV.

Finley, M. I. Aspects of Antiquity: Discoveries and Controversies. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1972.

Thompson, Thomas L. The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

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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5 thoughts on ““Some Underlying Tradition” — a review of Writing With Scripture, part 10”

  1. Taking off from the conclusion: “In the Gospel of Mark one can see that . . .
    Jesus lived and died as one clothed in the scriptures. (NV, 206)”
    Yes. Living as we do amidst a seemingly infinite number of available texts, we have to imagine Mark in a seller’s market of texts. He also had a mentality constrained by intense focus on those texts chosen in education for emulation.
    Who in the modern world has such a mentality? Most closely, I think, proficient students of Talmud. Experts in a dense alternate-world video games. I think of their precursors, the Pickwick Clubs of the 1830s https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/mar/13/why-pickwick-was-like-peaky-it-brought-dickens-devotees-together. I can see any of those enthusiasts capable of stitching together pieces of these and basic education texts in new ways, together with topical references.
    I think that Mark’s use of Scripture seems more ‘religious’ to us than it did to him. Why? Scripture was his basic go-to mental library for creating secular culture as well.
    Mark was a skilled emulator. I think that his audience knew exactly what he was doing, and appreciated it to the extent they were also trained in emulating Scripture.
    That said, I think that some–perhaps many–of the combinations of Scripture found in GMark were already created by his emulation-trained precursors in the Jesus movement as ‘what must be’ the characteristics of their Jesus figure. Mark took them one step further and concretized a story; he ‘brought it down to earth,’ literally and figuratively.

    1. “Experts in a dense alternate-world video games.” Bit like those who worked so hard dreaming up the magical manic Essene monastery to patch together their various plots.

      The Dating Of The Latest Dead Sea Texts [a section from: https://www.thepostil.com/the-revelation-of-saint-john-and-post-christianities-a-response-to-nascent-messianism-and-spiritualism/?print-posts=pdf ]

      Confusion surrounds the dating of these manuscripts; they are usually said to have been buried before the year 70 (end of the First “Jewish War”), which tends to present them all as pre-Christian. However, this terminus ad quem is arbitrary: such a deadline has no other reason than to harmonize the age of the manuscripts with the myth of the “Essenes of Qumran,” whose existence one cannot decently posit after the year 70 AD. Now, it should be considered that the eleven caves of the Dead Sea – twelve now and located many kilometers from each other, certainly have different histories; to assign a priori the same date for the caves is absurd.

      In addition, in 95 AD, the Pharisee Synod of Yabneh decided to suppress a number of writings deemed to be non-conforming; and if they contained the name of YHWH, it was out of the question to destroy them, they were to be stored in inaccessible caches. Many of the Dead Sea writings meet this criterion, some have even been burned on one side, as a sign of being excluded. It is therefore most certainly in the year 135 AD (end of the Second “Jewish war”) that we must locate the terminus ad quem.

      An additional argument for the year 135 comes from the discovery, at the end of 2016, of a twelfth manuscript cave in the Judean Desert. This Cave 12 of the Dead Sea (very difficult to access) contained manuscript jars – they were most likely broken and looted in the 19th century – but a few fragments of manuscripts were found on the ground. However, it was occupied during the Second “Jewish War,” as evidenced by the coins linked to this second uprising and the remains of weapons found there. Recall that two fragments of the New Testament in Greek were found in Cave 7: 7Q4 (1Tim 3,16.4,3) and 7Q5 (Mk 6,52-53).

      Moreover, it was obvious that the Dead Sea Scrolls dated from various periods and in particular after the year 70 AD. Some of them bear witness to different versions, in which there are additions – which presupposes successive editorial periods. Some of these additions have a “Christian” aftertaste, which corresponds well to a period between 70 and 135 AD.


    1. NV is arguing against the view that the Gospels are entirely made from Scripture as much as he is arguing against the view that they are entirely based on history.

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