Whitney Shiner, “Creating Plot in Episodic Narratives: The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark”

Screenshot 2015-11-19 at 10.29.53 AMIn my last post I discussed Lawrence Wills’ comparison of the Gospels’ literary genre to the Life of Aesop, as a hybrid of ancient novel and biography, in The Quest of the Historical GospelIn this followup post, I will also discuss Whitney Shiner’s comparison of the Life of Aesop to the Gospel of Mark in Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative. The same book also includes an article by Richard Pervo–titled “A Nihilist Fabula: Introducing the Life of Aesop”–which (as the title suggests) likewise discusses the Life of Aesop, and so I will discuss a few points of Pervo’s contribution, as well.

Pervo, “A Nihilist Fabula: Introducing the Life of Aesop”

Pervo (pp. 77-79) begins his chapter with many of the same observations as Wills about the similar length of the Life of Aesop compared the Gospels, the “unpretentious style” shared between these narratives of popular heroes, and the common theme of vindicating the death of a venerated hero. Likewise, Pervo (pg. 79) discusses how, after Aesop earns manumission and freedom, the former slave becomes an “itinerant philosopher-sophist not unlike Dio of Prusa,” but also quite similar to Jesus. On his journey, “Aesop, like Jesus and Paul, sets out for his city of destiny, Delphi, with its oracle of Apollo,” where “he is found guilty of sacrilege and compelled to die” (pp. 79-80).

Pervo (pg. 81) categorizes the Life of Aesop as a novel, but also notes how the text has biographical features, similar to the Alexander Romance (as well as the Certamen of Homer and Hesiod, I might add). Pervo also makes an important note, however, about how the frequent use of dialogue in the narratives is “a mark of novelists rather than of pseudo-historians or pseudo-biographers.” The frequent occurrence of direct speech in the Gospels, with Jesus’ sermons, parables, and dialogues is quite similar. Pervo (pg. 82) also notes “similarities to fictitious lives of philosophers and sages, such as Socrates, Ahikar, and Apollonius of Tyana, as well as themes, motifs, and techniques shared with romantic novels.”

To summarize the genre of the Life of Aesop, Pervo (pg. 28) concludes:

“Since all novels are, in some way, fictional biographies, Aesop is aptly labeled as an historical novel, the fictional biography of a presumably historical individual.”

In terms of the date and provenance of the text, Pervo (pg. 82) argues that papyrological evidence suggests a 2nd century CE terminus a quo, but also notes (pg. 83) how the Life of Aesop makes use of a number of earlier sources and traditions (quite similar to the Certamen, as well as the Gospels). Pervo (pg. 84) argues that the “old view” was to view the Life as “random collections of material largely devoid of structure.” The same view has been held towards the Gospel of Mark, though Pervo also argues that both texts’ have greater aesthetic value and organization than this. Regardless, it is still interesting how both texts have provoked the same reaction.

On this point, I think that it is now a good time to turn to Whitney Shiner’s analysis, since he discusses how both the Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark create plot through “episodic narratives.”

Shiner, “Creating Plot in Episodic Narratives: The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark”

Shiner (pg. 155) begins his analysis by noting that there are “two distinct ways” that the Gospels have been read. One approach, following the form critics, is to view the Gospels as a conglomeration of self-contained episodes that have been stitched together from oral tradition. The other approach is to view the Gospels as a continuous narrative. Shiner argues, however, that these approaches can be harmonized through an “extended episodic narrative.” As Shiner (pp. 155-156) explains:

“In reading the Gospels as episodic narrative, one must see the narrative as simultaneously episodes and as extended narrative. The extended narrative is built from more or less self-contained blocks. Continuity in the extended narrative is found not so much in the continuity of detail in action and characterization between episodes as in continuity in the overall impact of the episodes. To take an analogy from art, extended episodic narrative is like a mosaic.”

Shiner goes on to note that the Life of Aesop, much like the Gospels, is built around narrative episodes that are largely independent. These independent episodes, however, are organized to advance the plot of the macronarrative. As Shiner (pg. 156) explains:

“This is especially true of the most extensive section of the Life, in which Aesop repeatedly outwits his master, the philosopher Xanthus. Much of the macronarrative structure of Aesop, such as Aesop’s sale to the philosopher, his manumission, and his entering into service to Lycurgus, serve to move the narrative from one type of episode, appropriate to Aesop’s earlier situation, to a different style of episode, appropriate to the new plot situation.”

Shiner (pp. 169-174) identifies eight different narrative strategies shared between the Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark that are used to weave episodes into a continuous plot:

  1. Similar episodes are repeated to develop a point: Shiner notes that Jesus’ healing miracles in Mark 1, rather than being organized by a single extended healing event or a summary of miracles, are instead repetitious to show “by cumulative effect Jesus’ ability to heal.” Shiner likewise notes similarities in the repeated theme of Aesop’s ability to outwit others through his wit and fables across episodes, such as in his dealings with Xanthus, Croesus, his adopted son, Lycurgus, and the people of Delphi.
  2. Within the plot as a whole discrete sections are created that are, in terms of size and content, amenable to episodic development: Shiner notes how Mark 1:21-2:12 constitutes a healing section with one exorcism, three healings, one summary of healing and exorcism, and another summary of exorcism. This organization is similar to how Aesop uses three fables in succession in his dealings with Croesus (93-100), which ends with Aesop writing down his fables.
  3. The discrete sections are ordered to suggest a coherent plot development from one to the other: Shiner (pg. 170) notes how the healings in the first chapter of Mark “lead, through a combined healing/dispute to the dispute material of chapter two ending in one more healing/dispute, leading after a short interlude to the dispute about the meaning of the the exorcisms that explains the tension between the acclamation of the crowd and the opposition of the authorities.” This method of pre-empting later episodes with earlier episodes is similar to how Aesop’s sell by his first master (10-12) is prepared by an earlier episode showing how the stewart wanted to get rid of the slave (9), just as how Aesop’s manumission (90) is prepared by Xanthus’ offer (which he later withdraws) for Aesop to buy his freedom (80).
  4. Sustained conflicts between the hero and another person or group are established and episodes are used to illustrate conflict: Shiner notes how Jesus’ repeated conflicts with the religious authorities set the plot leading up to the passion narrative. For example, the first episode (2:1-12) brings up the charge of blasphemy, which foreshadows the charge at Jesus’ trial. This is followed (3:1-6) by the authorities decision to kill Jesus, which is then followed by a later series of disputes (11:27-12:40), which set the stage for the passion. A similar buildup is seen in the conflict between Aesop and his master Xanthus’ wife. Originally, the philosopher’s wife instigates the purchasing of a slave (22), and when Aesop arrives at the house he charges her with lewd intentions (29-32), which is then followed when she does in fact demand to have sexual relations with Aesop (75-76).
  5. Episodes of various lengths are presented to create variety: Shiner notes how larger episodes are interrupted by shorter episodes, in order to provide thematic breaks in material. For example, Aesop’s aphoristic teaching to his adopted son (109-110) is a shorter episode surrounded by more elaborate material. The extensive miracle stories in Mark 4:35-8:10 are similarly interrupted by sub-episodes, such as the narrative of John the Baptist’s death (6:14-29).
  6. Narrative within episodes is elaborated to enhance the narrative quality of the whole: Shiner notes how most of the episodes in the Life of Aesop are “highly elaborated.” This feature is less common in Mark, but Shiner also points out that certain episodes, such as the healing of the demoniac possessed by the legion (5:1-20) and the death of John the Baptist (6:14-29) are given greater narrative detail, to create “the effect of sustained narrative for the Gospel as a whole.”
  7. Discrete episodes are interwoven to extend narrative tension or to provide keys for interpretation: Shiner points out how a well-known feature of Mark is the interweaving of one episode within a broader episode, in order for one to interpret the other. For example, the cursing of the fig tree (11:12-25) is interrupted by Jesus driving out the money changers from the Temple court, symbolizing the withering of the Temple as a place of divine worship. A similar interruption occurs when Aesop gives delicacies intended for Xanthus’ wife to his dog (44-46; 49-50), which is interrupted by witty sayings of Aesop at a banquet, forming (no pun intended) a thematic sandwich.
  8. Similar episode plots are presented at different places in the narrative to recall earlier episodes and to suggest an underlying unity of theme or plot: One section early in Mark portrays conflicts between Jesus and various religious authorities regarding his miracles (2:1-3:6). Another episode not long after (3:22-30)–which includes Jesus’ famous saying “a house divided against itself cannot stand”–provides a context for interpreting the earlier conflicts, through Jesus’ explanation that he cannot cast out demons by the power of Satan, since Satan cannot stand against Satan. Shiner notes how the narrative then turns to other details such as parables and miracles, but then the conflict is refreshened in the reader’s mind by another set of conflicts later in the gospel (7:1-23; 8:11-12; 10:1-12). Shiner points out how recurrent themes also create a sense of familiarity in the Life of Aesop, such as the repeated theme of Aesop’s narrow escapes from danger, including: his punishment for stealing figs (2-3), his possible death at the hands of an overseer (9-11), taking a beating from Xanthus (56-64), being sent to jail (65), the anger of Croesus (95-99), and a sentence of death due to a false accusation, (103). These themes buildup up a sense of invincibility, which is then reversed when Aesop’s cleverness fails him and he is unable to escape his death at Delphi (127-142).

Through these narrative strategies, therefore, Shiner argues that the episodic structure of the Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark does not conflict with a continuous narrative. Instead, these strategies are employed to weave continuity within the narrative and a continuous plot.

My Thoughts: 

A crucial agreement that is worth pointing out between Lawrence Wills, Richard Pervo, and Whitney Shiner is that they all argue that the Life of Aesop is more similar to Mark and John, than it is to Matthew and Luke. This argument is based, in part, on the fact that there is no genealogy of Aesop. In my comparison with The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod, however, I noted how the Certamen does include an account of the ancestry of Homer and Hesiod. In fact, the Certamen can be broken into three sections:

  • Part I (sections 1-5) the ancestry and place of birth of the two poets
  • Part II (sections 6-13) the ἀγών, or “contest”
  • Part III (sections 14-18) the fate and deaths of the two poets 

I wonder if this structure is, in some respects, a little bit more similar to Matthew and Luke, by the inclusion of the ancestry. Likewise, there is a specific bias that leads the author of the Certamen to favor a genealogical tradition that has Homer and Hesiod born at around the same time period. The reason why is because, if they were not contemporaries, there could be no contest. This bias is not dissimilar to Matthew and Luke’s agenda to have Jesus born as a descendent of King David, perhaps illustrating some of the licenses taken by these authors of novelistic biographies.

-Matthew Ferguson

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16 Responses to Whitney Shiner, “Creating Plot in Episodic Narratives: The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark”

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

  2. Don Camp says:

    As a student and teacher of literature I find the comparisons between _Mark_ and _The Life of Aesop_ interesting. But I don’t think that the similarity is warrant to consider _Mark_ as fiction.

    As I have studied the art of the story through history, structure has been a common element even if we go back further than _The Life of Aesop_. Basic structure can be described as *exposition, rising action* in which the *main conflict* is developed and *minor conflicts* might be introduced, *climax* where the plot begins to turn, *falling action* in which minor conflicts are resolved and the the main conflict heads toward resolution, *resolution* of the main conflict, and *denouement*.

    These elements are so common that one might conclude they are part of the way humans understand the world. (Post-modern literature doesn’t always follow this structure because the post-modern worldview doesn’t recognize a natural structure to life. There is often no resolution of conflict because post-moderns don’t believe life is like that.) But apart from this modern aberration, most literature follows this basic structure.

    That is sometimes true even when the literature is history and not fiction. History writers like to follow the flow of the event from *exposition* to *conflict* to *climax* to *resolution* to *denouement* just as fiction writers do. Take up any world history text book and notice how WWII is narrated. For a comparison read about WWII in a history text written by the Chinese or the Japanese. It’s the same story, but it is told significantly differently. It is told to make the authors’ points.

    Read William Bradford’s _Plymouth Plantation_. He is writing history. Yet he has a point to make as well. I think that kind of organization and structure can be seen in most histories, except those that are basically journals. BTW that is why journals are considered better primary sources than more structured histories.

    When we come to the gospels we see a blend of story telling technique and history. They are telling history But the authors certainly have a point to make.

    In the telling of history to make their point they use the story structure that has been used in almost every story they have known. Think of the book of Ruth. It is a perfect short story. The book of Esther, Isaiah’s telling of the siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrians, they are all structured like a story. Yet the story of the Assyrian siege is certainly a historical event and is told by the Assyrians as well, though with a slightly different point.

    My point is that history and story are not discreet genres. The gospel writers had a point to make. They may have arranged events to better make their point, They are not merely writing journal entries. But that does not mean they were writing fiction. Nor does the similarity of narrative technique between _The Life of Aesop_ and Mark mean that Mark followed the Greek writer’s structure. You’d have to show that Mark had knowledge of _The Life of Aesop_ before you could begin to make that case. But in any case, it does not matter. As we see, using story structure does not make history less than history.

    • Hi Don,

      Apologies for my delay in getting back to you.

      First, I will say something about the relationship between history and narrative. Although the modernism and historicism of the 19th and early-20th centuries once created the impression that history is purely objective (and even “scientific”), contemporary historiographers have largely rejected this approach. In particular, Hayden White has written a lot about the relationship between history and story-telling, and how plot and characterization are used to shape historical narrative. You may be interested in his Tropics of Discourse, and particularly the chapters “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact” and “The Fictions of Factual Representation”:


      What White interestingly (and in my opinion, persuasively) argues is that historical narratives actually share several similarities with the fictional narratives seen in poems, plays, and novels. The difference is that historical narratives make rhetorical claims about actual space-time realities, though White also points out that even fictional narratives can depict actual space-time realities (e.g. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar), in addition to imagined realities (e.g. Lord of the Rings).

      The major difference between history and fiction, I would argue, does not lie in whether they do or do not have plot and narrative, but rather in the different literary conventions by which they structure plot and narrative. Modern history generally uses footnotes and citation, in addition to other organizing paradigms, which distinguish it from the kinds of narratives seen in novels and plays, for example.

      The literary conventions that distinguished history from fiction in antiquity, however, are somewhat different from those of today. To begin with, “history” (Greek ἱστορία) was a genre first created by Herodotus, and he organized his narrative in a distinct way that distinguished it from the previous genres of his time, such as epic and tragedy. To begin with, Herodotus placed a lot of emphasis on sources, which distanced him from having omniscient knowledge of the past, such as Homer invoking the Muses. Herodotus also talked a good deal about his research in the first-person, where he lays out his credentials and the sources he interviewed. Thucydides, who came shortly after Herodotus, placed a great deal of emphasis on reporting speeches accurately, and he often notes when he does not know precise words through devices such as paraphrase.

      The conventions discussed above, therefore, distinguished ancient historical narrative from fictional narrative in some important ways:

      First, in ancient historical narrative, the author served as the narrator and often discussed himself in the first-person, in addition to his methods and sources. This was different from the external, third-person narration seen in epic and certain novels, for example. In fact, Armin Baum has pointed out in “The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books” that ancient historians almost always used the first-person in their narratives:


      The Gospels, however, don’t really do this, especially Mark and Matthew. Those two gospels have an external, third-person narrator that is not typical of historical biographies, but does resemble the style of narration seen in novelistic biographies, such as the Life of Aesop and the Alexander Romance. John is a somewhat different case, because of the unusual use of the anonymous “beloved disciple.” The only gospel, therefore, to use any first-person narration is Luke (and also Acts), and this is only in the prologues (it’s disputed whether the “we” passages reflect authorial narration). I will grant that Luke is the most historiographical of the Gospels, but it also has other conventions which distinguish it from historiography.

      Second, historical narratives generally include a lot less direct speech than fictional narratives. As discussed above with Thucydides, ancient historians generally did not like to quote a bunch of words that they did not know were actually spoken. As such, historical narrative would far more often employ indirect speech. This can even be statistically measured. In fact, Richard Pervo has shown that Acts of the Apostles contains 51% direct speech, which is much greater than any historian of Greco-Roman antiquity (the only one that even comes close is Sallust’s Cataline War at 28.3%), and is instead typical of both Jewish and Hellenistic novels:


      Third, dialogue between people speaking back and forth is a dramatic device (and one of the uses of direct speech) that is typically not seen in ancient historiography. In fact, Thucydides only uses dialogue twice in his entire history (with the Ambraciot herald and the Melian dialogue), which was so unusual that ancient commentators, such Dionysius of Halicarnassus, even noted that Thucydides was dramatizing those portions of the narrative. In contrast, the Gospels contain so many dialogues that sometimes even the speaking verbs drop out of the conversation (see John 1:21, for example). That would be rather unusual of historical biographies, but it is seen in fictional biographies, such as the Life of Aesop. If educated readers like Dionysius could pick up on the dramatic use of dialogue in Thucydides, my thought is that they would have probably seen the Gospels as highly dramatic and not typical of historiography.

      So, I think that, even if history contains plot and narrative, the ways that the Gospels structure plot and narrative is not typical of the historiography of their time. That said, the Gospels are similar to Jewish and Hellenistic novels in this regard, in addition to the Old Testament historical books (which were not actual “histories,” since that title was not applied to them until Athanasius in the 4th century CE).

      Personally, while I think that the Gospels *genetically* owe most of their influence to Jewish novels and the OT, *generically* they are most similar to popular-novelistic Greek biographies, like the Life of Aesop and the Alexander Romance. I should also note that Mark does not necessarily need to have *known* of the Life of Aesop (though it was a very popular text, so the author may have) to share these generic features. Rather, Mark was writing in a similar literary genre, which is why one sees the similarities that Shiner is discussing.

      I identity the Gospels with popular-novelistic biographies based on a number of considerations:

      First, the Synoptic Gospels are not independent accounts but share and redact a large amount of material, sometimes verbatim (John is somewhat different but the text still contains a common Passion narrative). That’s highly unusual of historical Greco-Roman biographies, such as those of Plutarch and Suetonius, who each wrote in a unique style. In contrast, the Life of Aesop and the Alexander Romance exist in multiple versions which likewise share and redact material from earlier versions. This kind of open textuality is a feature of the Gospels, therefore, that is typical of novelistic biographies and different from historical biographies.

      Second, the Gospels are written in a much lower language register than the biographies of authors like Plutarch and Suetonius. Their Koine Greek is typical of popular literature, and not elite literature. Once more, the Life of Aesop and the Alexander Romance share this feature, being written in Koine.

      Finally, the rearrangement of material according to chreia (something that even Craig Evans discusses) is what causes the Gospels to often locate stories and sayings at different parts of the narrative, sometimes out of chronological order. This also happens in popular-novelistic biographies. Some of the pericopes in the Alexander Romance, for example, are located at different parts of the narrative between the different versions, which can even cause chronological errors about Alexander’s life.

      Now, what does all of this mean for the historical reliability of the Gospels? I think that’s a complex question, so I will only leave a couple thoughts for now, hopefully with some nuance.

      First off, even popular-novelistic biographies can depict real events. The Alexander Romance, for example, contains several accurate details about Alexander’s life. The manner of telling the story, however, is one that is prone to dramatization and embellishment, and these kinds of narratives are not generally written according to historiographical conventions, such as discussing methods and sources, so that it is difficult to sort between fact and exaggeration (except through historical sources about Alexander outside the Romance, but we don’t have any outside sources like this for Jesus).

      I think that the way the Gospels structure the order and cause-and-effect relationships in their plots frequently results in narratives, which, while rhetorically interesting, strain historical credulity. One example of this is Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree in Mark 11:12-25. In that passage, Jesus curses the fig tree, then enters Jerusalem, clears the Temple courts, then leaves Jerusalem, and returns to find the fig tree withered. Now, what’s interesting is that this passage uses ring composition. The cleansing of the Temple is “sandwiched” between the fig tree being cursed and withering. The rhetorical effect created is that the fig tree is a metaphor for the Jewish Temple. Just as the fig tree withered, so too will the Temple be destroyed.

      Now, I think that the narratological technique used with the fig tree is interesting, but it strains historical credulity. Are we to expect that Jesus simply walked into the Temple, caused a major disturbance clearing out its courts (which was a very large area), and then merely walked out of Jerusalem again with no one apprehending him, in order to return to the fig tree? I think it is more likely that this scene is used rhetorically, in order to prophesize the Temple’s destruction, and does not depict a historical sequence of events.

      That’s just one example of how I think narrative techniques can impinge on historical reliability, but in general I would say that the overall literary character of the Gospels is one prone to embellishment and dramatization. I also think that there is a lot of mimesis in the Gospels of OT figures and episodes, where Jesus is modeled on Moses, David, Elijah, and Elisha, which was probably the inspiration for claims about his feeding miracles and being born in Bethlehem, for example, rather than real historical events.

      So, while I do think that there are historical kernels in the Gospels, I don’t think that they are historical in genre. Their narratives are more often dramatic, rhetorical, and theological than historical, IMO.

      • Wade says:

        Thank you for writing so articulate, concise and intelligent about similarities between Christian stories and other stories of the time.

  3. Don Camp says:

    I don’t debate that the gospels are dramatic, rhetorical and theological. They are not books of history and don’t claim to be. Each of the authors has his own unique rhetorical purpose which can be identified in the way the authors put together the narrative and sometimes specifically stated in the text. (See John and Luke) But that has been identified by biblical scholars for a lot of years. And yet that does not mean there are only kernels of history.

    In the synoptics the saying and deeds of Jesus clearly were earlier than the writing of any of the gospels. Scholars have called that source Q. Luke identifies the source or sources (an example of early documentation) as the reports of eyewitnesses and likely the teaching of the Apostles (Acts 2). Those earlier sayings and deeds can be recognized as originally in Hebrew because of the many Hebrew idioms that are not in the narrative matrix written by the several gospel authors. There is no reason to think that these were not historical.

    My thesis in the book I wrote on the Gospel of Matthew is that Matthew was one of the Apostles, so the teaching of the Apostles were partly his own eyewitness accounts which took a narrative form within the first two decades after the beginning of the church and was first addressed to Jews in their language just as Papias reported.

    Even the birth narratives bear marks of being extant before the writing of the gospels. The two narratives in Matthew and Luke dovetail in ways that could not have happened had they been created by the gospel authors. They must be parts of a single earlier birth narrative. The authors Matthew and Luke simply used the parts that fit their rhetorical purposes and the siitz im leban of the middle 1st century. .

    So I am inclined to see the gospels as fundamentally historical with the arrangement of the events intended to fit the rhetorical purpose of the authors and more or less in line (in the synoptics) with the pre-existing oral narrative of Q.

    • Hi Don,

      I’ll get back to this comment in the near future. I hope that you don’t mind, but I am working heavily right now on my dissertation and some articles that I am publishing, so I don’t want to get too bogged down with dialogues on the blog.

      For now, I will make one clarification:

      When it comes to issues such as authorship and the source materials in the Gospels, those are largely questions of *historical criticism* rather than *genre criticism*. I do have several thoughts on these issues as well, and I will discuss them in more detail when I get back to you. For now, though, I will say that I don’t think, even if the stories of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem pre-dated Matthew and Luke, that this points toward the stories’ historical reliability. Jesus was connected with the ancestry of David even outside the Gospels in the writings of Paul (Rom. 1:3). This is not surprising, too, since the Messiah was thought to descend from David. There are also things like the feeding miracles, which likely pre-dated the Gospels also in source materials, that model Jesus on Moses.

      The thing about these source materials is that it is still easy to see them as inventions and embellishments, which modeled Jesus on previous heroic archetypes such as David and Moses. Such inventions can happen very quickly. Alexander the Great, for example, was thought to have had a divine birth and to have visited Amazonian warriors (modeling him on Hercules and Achilles), which is documented in eyewitness and contemporary source materials dating to or shortly after his lifetime, even though virtually all classical historians agree that they are legendary inventions. Beyond the mention of Jesus’ hometown in Nazareth probably preserving a historical kernel of his actual place of birth (and, unlike Bethlehem, this is not something that would be as likely as an invention), and the fact that Matthew and Luke depict the birth in Bethlehem in different ways, there are also details added to the infancy narratives which are likely inventions of the Gospel authors themselves. Even Robert Gundry, for example, who has defended traditional Matthean authorship, argues that there are inventions in Matthew’s infancy narrative, such as the Magi being invented as an allusion to Daniel, etc.

      I have several more thoughts about your points above, so I’ll get back to you on them in a subsequent comment.

      • Hi Don, here is my subsequent comment:

        I haven’t looked at your book on the Gospel of Matthew, but I did see that you wrote a blog response to my writings on the Gospels’ authorship a while back:


        Here are some of my thoughts, which are in response both to your comments here and to what you wrote on your blog:

        First off, when you say that I “do not engage counter arguments from qualified scholars, but choose to reference people who are not scholars but Christian apologists,” that’s not really true. In my articles on authorship I critically interact with at least 7 different scholars on the other side–Craig Blomberg, W. F. Albright, C. S. Mann, Jonathan Bernier, Ben Witherington, Martin Hengel, and Richard Bauckham. (I’ve also written elsewhere either in blogs or private correspondence critically interacting with Robert Gundry, B. Ward Power, and Michael Licona on the issue of authorship). That’s in addition to countless other scholars whom I interact with in those articles (such as George Kennedy, Michael Kok, Maurice Casey, Raymond Brown, Michael Wolter, Bruce Metzger, William Campbell, Barbara Reid, the Oxford Annotated Bible, ect.) on varying points. I wouldn’t call that “cherrypicking.” In fact, what I do in those articles is provide a systematic analysis of how to assess authorial attributions–addressing issues of both internal evidence (e.g., titles, authorial identification, use of the first person, etc.) and external evidence (e.g., external quotations, textual reception, etc.)– for both the Gospels and other texts from antiquity, of which I compare Tacitus’ Histories in the most detail. That’s about as comprehensive of an approach as you can take to assessing the Gospels’ authorship, at least in lengthy online articles. I’ll admit that more can be said, and I plan to still write more as I move forward, but providing a systematic epistemology of how to assess ancient authorial attributions is a serious way to assess the Gospels’ authorship.

        I also wouldn’t call Markan priority, and Matthew’s dependence on Mark, an “urban myth.” As I discuss in the analysis below, that is the view held in the large majority of academic commentaries on Mark. I do agree that it’s a complex issue, and that there are counter-arguments to this view, but it’s not a fringe or unscholarly premise to hold in such an analysis. Furthermore, I have actually written on the possibility of whether Matthew was a Levite in my previous writings (to be discussed below), and how his occupation as a tax collector (toll booth collector, more precisely), would have related to his literacy. So, I think that I am treating these issues with more nuance than you seem to acknowledge in that post you wrote a while back. That said, you have been polite here in your recent comments, so I will look past the older remarks.

        Regarding the testimony of Papias, while I agree that his fragments about Matthew and Mark are important, I also think that they pose some considerable difficulties. To begin with Matthew, Papias states that he composed λογια (“oracles” or “sayings” or “reports”) in the Hebrew dialect (Εβραιδι διαλεκτω). This description does not match our current Gospel of Matthew, which is written in Greek. Likewise, there is considerable debate over what is meant by λογια, but the term seems to be an odd description for the Gospel of Matthew, which is not just sayings or deeds of Jesus, but rather a complete and organized narrative about his birth, ministry, and death. I’m not saying that these problems are insurmountable, but they do invite further analysis over what Papias meant.

        One possibility is that Papias is not referring to the final text of Matthew, but rather to an earlier form of source material, which may have been incorporated into Matthew (and perhaps Luke, and even Mark). Some scholars have identified this hypothetical source as an earlier collection of sayings, although λογοι is a better word choice for “sayings” than λογια, which seems to be interchangeable with sayings and deeds. This hypothetical source may have been written in Hebrew/Aramaic, before it was translated into material that later appears in the Gospels. If this is the case, I think that it is difficult to identify with any certainty which specific material in the Gospels goes back to this hypothetical source (although some scholars argue that this hypothetical source may lie behind some of the double traditions between Matthew and Luke).

        On a side note, it has also been argued that Papias’ testimony regarding Mark does not refer to the final version of Mark, but rather to a previous collection of source material. Papias states that Mark wrote down things “said and done” (λεχθεντα η πραχθεντα) by Jesus, but “without compositional arrangement” (ου μεντοι ταξει). What’s difficult about this testimony is the meaning of the word ταξις. Sometimes it is translated as “chronological order” (implying that Mark was not written in chronological order), but I think a more likely translation of this passage is “lacking compositional arrangement.” Compare the opening of Luke (1:1) where he refers to previous authors who have αναταξασθαι διηγησιν (“compiled a narrative”). The verb αναταξασθαι is related to ταξις, and seems to refer to composing the final version of a text or narrative. If Papias’ description of what Mark wrote lacked ταξις, therefore, what he could be referring to is not the final version of Mark, but rather a previous collection of source material that Mark (or another author) later incorporated into the gospel.

        If what Papias is referring to is not the completed version of either Matthew or Mark, his testimony becomes problematic, both in terms of the Synoptic problem and to what extent Matthew (as a putative eyewitness) was responsible for the final version of Matthew. I must confess that I find the two-source hypothesis, as well as the Farrer hypothesis, to be a more probable explanation of the Synoptic Gospels’ interrelation than either the Griesbach hypothesis or the Augustinean hypothesis. As such, I agree with Markan priority and that our final Gospel of Matthew is derivative of Mark. There is a lot of complexity regarding these issues, but Markan priority is the majority view in scholarship by a fairly wide margin. As NT scholar Michael Kok (who is an expert on the Gospel of Mark) explains:

        “One sign of the consensus is that of the innumerable academic commentaries on Mark’s Gospel, C. S. Mann’s commentary on Mark for the Anchor Bible series is one of the rare exceptions in working from the basis of the Griesbach hypothesis and it has since been replaced by Joel Marcus’ two-volume commentaries that is firmly in support of Markan priority.”


        As such, the large majority of academic commentaries agree that Matthew is derivative of Mark. This raises issues for Matthew originally being written in Hebrew/Aramaic, however, since Mark is a Greek text. It seems likely, therefore, that the final version of Matthew was originally a Greek text, which borrowed a large amount of Markan material (as well as the basic structure of Mark, to which the author of Matthew added the genealogy and infancy narrative of Jesus, among other material).

        If the final version of Matthew was originally written in Greek, and based heavily on Mark, this makes it difficult to accept the view that Papias’ testimony is referring to the final text of Matthew. It is still possible, however, that Papias is referring to an earlier collection of source material, written in Hebrew/Aramaic, which was incorporated into Matthew. But, if that’s the case, I still think that it’s difficult to identify with any certainty which material in Matthew goes back to this source.

        It is also possible that the disciple Matthew authored such a hypothetical source, and perhaps his connection with this material is even the reason why the later, Greek version of Matthew was ascribed “according to Matthew.” But again, how much of his own eyewitness experience would have made into the final version of Matthew? I don’t think there is any decisive way for knowing.

        One thing I will say, though, is that I think it is unlikely that Matthew, a toll collector from Galilee, could have authored the final Greek version of the Gospel of Matthew. I did a research project on this a couple of years ago, and here is the write-up:


        One thing that I learned (interacting with Fabian Udoh’s work on tax collection in Roman Palestine) is that toll collectors (τελωναι) did not work for the Roman authorities. Rather, the levying of tolls was leased out by the Jewish government (Herod Antipas in Galilee) to Jewish agents. There was the wealthy αρχιτελωνης (“chief toll collector”) who bought the right to collect tolls, and beneath this role was the τελωνης (“toll booth collector”), who worked for the chief toll collector. Zacchaeus is described as a chief toll collector, but Matthew only as a toll booth collector. It seems unlikely to me that Matthew, as a toll booth collector, would have had an extensive education in Jewish scripture and law, such as what is seen in the final Greek version of Matthew. It’s also unlikely that Matthew could have written in advanced Greek prose, since the documents of the Jewish tax bureaucracy would have been in Aramaic (and even this would not have been like advanced Hebrew/Aramaic scripture).

        Some have argued that Matthew was a Levite (based on the name change from “Levi” in Mark and Luke to “Matthew” in Matthew), and that he thus had an education in Jewish scripture and law sufficient to author a text like the Gospel of Matthew. There are problems with this suggestion, however. To begin with, even Richard Bauckham does not think that Matthew and Levi are the same person, based on the fact that it would be extremely odd to have the same character referred to by two common Semitic name (as opposed to one Greek name and one Semitic name). But more problematic is the fact that, even if Matthew was a Levite, he still would probably not have been educated in the Septuagint (which is the Greek version of the OT scriptures used in the Gospel of Matthew), but only in the Hebrew scriptures. I emailed Jewish literacy scholar Catherine Hezser and she confirmed this, since Jews educated in Greek and the Septuagint lived primarily in the Diaspora. I also think that the final Greek version of Matthew was composed by a Greek-speaking Jew in the Diaspora, and so, it probably had an author other than a toll collector from Galilee.

        Now, that being said, could Matthew have authored, perhaps in shorthand, an earlier collection of notes in Hebrew/Aramaic, which were later incorporated into the final Greek version of Matthew? I think that this scenario is more plausible, but again, I am skeptical that we can identify specific material in the Gospel of Matthew that goes back to this source, and thus to the disciple Matthew.

        When I say that there are historical “kernels” in the Gospels, what I mean is that there is a historical core of basic information about Jesus that has been embellished by legendary material. I agree that Jesus was an itinerant apocalyptic prophet from Galilee, who probably taught in parables and was thought of as a miracle worker (though, I think that these “miracles” were probably psychosomatic). I also think that it is quite likely that some of the sayings and teachings of Jesus in the Gospels are historically authentic (though, funny enough, his statement about “rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” is probably spurious, since the Roman denarius was not used for tax collection during Jesus’ time, which I discuss in the essay linked above). But, that said, I also think that things like the infancy narratives, the miracles that model Jesus on Moses, Elijah, and Elisha, the high christological statements in John, etc., are later legendary embellishments.

        It is often argued that, if the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses of Jesus (or their attendants), then such material is not legendary. But, I think that this is overly simplistic. To begin with, legendary material about people can even emerge from eyewitness sources, such as in the case of Onesicritus and Alexander. But furthermore, even lending a lot of credence to Papias’ testimony, I don’t think that he is referring to the final version of Matthew (and probably not to the final version of Mark, either). At best, Papias seems to be referring to earlier source materials behind the Gospels (if not to entirely different texts, or even texts that did not exist, which he only learned of through rumors). But, even if eyewitnesses lied behind such material, such as the disciple Matthew authoring a Hebrew/Aramaic source for the Gospel of Matthew, I don’t think that we can use such a possibility to stamp eyewitness status onto everything in the Gospel of Matthew, such as its genealogy and infancy narrative.

        Apologies for my lengthy reply above, but even this is a highly abbreviated summary of my thoughts on this issue. I have a lot more to say and that I am currently thinking about on the question of authorship, but I wanted to get back to your comment with a thoughtful reply, since I think that this is a complicated issue.

        • Wade says:

          Hi Matthew, I find you somehow an unique author who argue so brilliantly about Greek and Jewish literature that I would call the “birthers” of Christian religious literature. I do read a lot of blogs, and read a lot of books about Christian religion, but I found you like a “voice in the desert” of Christianity, I see many respondents to your articles that seem to scold you when you try to find similarities between Jewish/Greek literature genre with the “holy” Christian stories. I think that those Christians think that you try to “muddle” their holy stories with human common sense, trying to throw out the “divinity” out of their religious tall-tales

  4. Don Camp says:

    Thanks. It took me a while to get back to read your reply, and I appreciate the thought and scholarship you’ve put into it. I too will reread and comment a bit later. Just this quick comment on the last idea.

    Obviously, the infancy narrative could not be an eyewitness account. But the fact that the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke dovetail suggest that it was a pre-gospel piece that Matthew and Luke each used selecting those parts that fit their rhetorical purposes.

    Also on the two names for Levi/Matthew: we don’t have to look far in the Old Testament to find several names for some of the kings. And as I suggest in my book, if Levi/Matthew was a Levite as his name suggests it would not be a stretch to see Matthew the tax collector as a religious dropout and more than willing to leave behind his religious name and perhaps even more so as a disciple of Jesus.

    Thanks again.

  5. Don Camp says:

    “Although the modernism and historicism of the 19th and early-20th centuries once created the impression that history is purely objective (and even “scientific”), contemporary historiographers have largely rejected this approach.”

    I agree completely. The historian must select from a mass of details and facts and organize them into a narrative that makes sense out of them.

    We could describe any such work to be a story, though some history stories are detailed and others are simplified. In either case, I agree with White that histories are interpretations (White, 51) of the facts and impressions of others and are usually selected and organized to make the point which we may call the historian’s interpretation of history.

    The Gospels are no different; they are interpretations of the facts and opinions of others, selected and organized to make the authors point. In the case of Matthew, that point seems to be that Jesus was the Messiah expected by the Jews.

    The question is whether the Evangelists followed the tradition of Herodotus or the tradition of the Hebrews. Herodotus emphasized sources and often wrote in the first person. The Jews wrote in the third person and often quoted the characters in the historical drama directly. (See 1 Maccabees chapter 2.) As I read Maccabees along with Matthew, I find a great deal of similarity in style. Even Josephus writing in The Wars of the Jews used the first person very rarely, though he wrote about his people and about a war in which he took part.

    “The Synoptic Gospels are not independent accounts but share and redact a large amount of material, sometimes verbatim.”

    I would say that the narratives of the Synoptics depend almost wholly on sources that are redacted to some degree by the Evangelists. The birth narratives would almost certainly have been composed prior to the writing of Matthew and Luke. Neither Luke nor Mark were present at the passion of Jesus, so their narratives must have been composed prior to the Gospels. There is even a Pre-Markan Passion Narrative extant dated to perhaps as early as 37 A.D. (http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/passion.html).

    The larger part of the Synoptics, however, are the sayings – might we call them the Λόγια – and deeds of Jesus. All of these reflect source that was originally in Hebrew. Notice the prevalence of Hebraisms (http://jewishstudies.eteacherbiblical.com/cataloging-the-new-testaments-hebraisms-parts-1-5/ ) which have been retained in a rather literal Greek translation. So, yes, most of the Synoptics is borrowed.

    Today many scholars following a two-source hypothesis attribute the shared material to Mark and an earlier source which has been called Q. But even if Mark was the first Gospel written, the Λόγια are not Mark’s. If Papias can be trusted, Mark’s source was Peter. And that fits very well my hypothesis that there was an early source and that this source was used by all the Synoptic writers. Call it Q if you will. I call it the τῇ διδαχῇ τῶν ἀποστόλων.

    The idea is that within days of Pentecost when many new followers of Jesus were added to the church the Apostles began to pass on the stories of Jesus (Acts 2:42). They did so in Greek because most of these new disciples were not Hebrew or Aramaic speakers. Greek was the common language. But they were not for the most part of the literary elite. Rather their language would have been Koine, and that accounts for the “Lower Language register.”

    The original words of Jesus, however, were not Greek and probably not Aramaic because Aramaic does not share all the Hebrew idioms we find in the Λόγια. They needed translation. But the Apostles were likely not fluent Greek speakers. So their translation of the Λόγια into Greek was rather wooden and literal, very much like my translation of English into Spanish might be.
    “The rearrangement of material according to chreia (something that even Craig Evans discusses) is what causes the Gospels to often locate stories and sayings at different parts of the narrative, sometimes out of chronological order.”

    The rhetorical purpose of the Gospel author was not to write a biography; we might expect chronological order in a biography, but perhaps not if the Gospels are really portraits of Jesus rather than biographies (Ryken, 133). They are portraits told in story form having many of the characteristics of plot we have come to recognize in most well told stories.

    I, however, would go further. The Gospels are tracts. Their purpose is to promote Jesus as the Messiah (Matthew) or the ideal man (Luke) or the Son of God (John).

    The puzzle is, however, that Synoptics follow a similar chronology. If the Λόγια were disconnected pericopae that similarity would suggest borrowing from a first Gospel, perhaps Mark because Mark has the least editorial matrix. But that need not to have been the case. It is likely that the τῇ διδαχῇ τῶν ἀποστόλων evolved into a narrative that was passed on orally and perhaps also written down before the Apostles wrote the Gospels. If so, that would account for the similarity. If that were so, the issue of Markan priority is moot.

    “I also think that there is a lot of mimesis in the Gospels of OT figures and episodes, where Jesus is modeled on Moses, David, Elijah, and Elisha. . .”

    Yes, and particularly so in Matthew. But that is not surprising. Matthew’s purpose was to communicate to Jews and present Jesus as the Messiah. The recapitulation of these famous OT characters would have been expected by Jewish readers.

    So I do not find the Gospels novels. I do think that they follow the Jewish tradition of telling history rather than the Greek tradition. But I don’t find that a reason to question their historicity.
    The issues of the authorship of Matthew I will address later.

    Ryken, Leland. How to Read the Bible as Literature. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984
    White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. The John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore.

  6. Don Camp says:

    Greetings again, Matthew. I am finding our discussion stimulating.

    RE: Markan priority. As I said I think of it as a non-issue. But I also find that there are trends in biblical studies – as there are no doubt in all historical studies. One trend has been to see Mark as the first Gospel and Matthew and Luke both using much of Mark in their Gospels and following Mark’s basic chronology of Jesus’ life. When a trend gets to the point where it is not examined but taken for granted, that’s when I think of it as an urban myth. The good news is scholars are beginning to reevaluate that idea.

    RE: Papias’s τὰ λόγια. I think that Papias’s reference to τὰ λόγια in Hebrew refers to a collection of the sayings and deeds of Jesus that are now considered to be Q. It would fit with what appears to be Matthew’s target audience, the Jews.

    I am not sure what your point is about the difference between τὰ λόγια and λογοι . Being accusative τὰ λόγια works grammatically as the direct object of συνετάξατο (1st per., aorist). The nom. pl. λογοι doesn’t seem to me to work at all grammatically unless it were to be regarded as an informal title. Perhaps you meant λογίων as Papias uses it referring to Mark’s collection of sayings.

    The difficulty in Papias is not so much the grammar as it is that Papias was seemingly not acquainted with the finished Greek Book of Matthew. That may have been simply because being in Turkey the Greek Book of Matthew was not yet known. The traditions of Matthew are that he preached first among the Jews in Syria and then traveled east teaching the Jews about Jesus the Messiah. That might mean the Greek Gospel of Matthew was not yet available.

    Or it might be that the Greek Book of Matthew was composed later than Papias.

    What does seem clear is that there was a collection of τὰ λόγια which Papias identified with Matthew. Since Papias cites Mark’s source as Peter and doesn’t identify a source for Matthew the implication is that Matthew wrote from his own experience and memory or, as I argue elsewhere, from the collective memories of the Apostles and first person experiences of the Apostle Matthew.

    I do think we can be confident that τὰ λόγια of Matthew are as close to the actual words of Jesus as we could hope. They are, as Papias says, in Hebrew. And that is what we can see in the pericopae; the Hebrew idioms and in some cases transliterated Hebrew/Aramaic phrases imply a Hebrew original. They are also almost certainly from an earlier source.

    But could Matthew the Apostle have even written the Gospel? As you note, the Gospel is in relatively high quality Greek. Could Matthew the tax collector have been capable of writing this quality?

    Your analysis and conclusion is based on some assumptions about tax collectors. I’d like to begin with Matthew’s name Levi.

    The name Levi suggests that Matthew was a Levite. And that is the name the other Evangelists, Mark (chap. 2) and Luke (chap. 5), use in the calling of Matthew. If so, being a tax collector is an anomaly. Tax collectors were among the most despised people in Jewish society. They are constantly being put in the same box as “sinners.” So how can we account for that?

    I think we can account for Matthew as both a Levite and tax collector by seeing him as a disaffected Levite. He had seen the religious hypocrisy of the elite, and he rebelled, and that rebellion took Levi in the very opposite direction, as it does for many young people today. That can account for the many scenes included in the Gospel in which Jesus is at odds with the priests and Pharisees, especially the long 23rd chapter in which Jesus excoriates these men. It also accounts for Matthew not using the name Levi at all in his Gospel; he was disassociating himself from his heritage.

    And, as an aside, Matthew alone identifies himself as a tax collector, which can only have been an example of humble self-depredation. In addition, Matthew alone does not use the name Levi when describing the calling of the tax collector. If the author was someone other than Matthew, a later editor or compiler for example, why would he change the name in this pericopae?

    However, being a Levite probably means Matthew had a better than average education. He certainly would have known the Old Testament well, something we see in the Gospel. He would have been versed in the rabbinical style of teaching, something we see in the Gospel. He would have known Hebrew, which fits with Papias’s mention of the Hebrew τὰ λόγια. But what about his Greek?

    You suggest that Matthew was probably a Jew of the diaspora, and I would tend to agree. It is unlikely that a Jew reared in Judea whose first language would have been Aramaic would have acquired the quality of Greek Matthew exhibits. (The very few Hebrew idioms that creep into the narrative matrix of the Gospel argue for a native and fluent speaker of Greek.) But a Jew in the diaspora might very well have had a good command of Greek, as you note of Paul.

    Though Matthew does not tell us his story as Paul does, it would not be hard to see Matthew and Paul coming from similar backgrounds, educated as Greek speakers, yet deeply religious and ultimately drawn to the center of their religion in Jerusalem. But at that point their stories diverged. Paul immersed himself in the religious scene and studied to be a rabbi. Matthew, having a unique “in” as a Levite with the establishment saw the religion he encountered there as bankrupt. Paul became more committed. Matthew left the whole thing.

    BTW when we first see Levi, he is a tax collector in Galilee, not Judea. Galilee was the back woods for a Jew, especially one who might have had all the advantages of Levitical heritage and diaspora education. But Galilee was also multi-ethnic and multilingual. A man with two languages might find a way to make a living there as a tax collector where good command of Greek would have been an advantage, not so much in Jerusalem.

    The other clue identifying Mathew as both the author of the Gospel and the Apostle is the Didache. Written sometime in the early 2nd century the Didache was known as the teaching of the Apostles, and at the heart of the Didache are many quotes from the book of Matthew, quotes which are not found in the other Gospels. It would seem that the writer of the Didache and those for whom it was written identify the Apostle Matthew as the author of the Gospel.

    RE: the Roman coin put forth by the Pharisees in Matthew 22. Remember the purpose of the Pharisees was to embarrass Jesus. Obviously they could have presented a shekel. But presenting a Roman coin was a taunt. It was a reminder to all of how oppressive Roman rule was. And it would have pushed Jesus, if he was concerned about the inferences others might make, to take a stand against paying the tax. That would have played into the Pharisees’ hands; they could have accused him of rebellion. A shekel, being more common, would not have created quite the heightened dilemma.

    Now, you could say that this was a contrived storytelling device. Or it could simply be both historical and ironic. But I don’t think that it can be explained as anachronistic.

    Bottom line: I don’t see any reason why Matthew could not be as the church has from early in church history described him, an Apostle and eyewitness to Jesus.

    Hey, I appreciate the work you’ve put into the research on this subject. I am impressed.

    • Hey Don,

      I will respond to a couple of your points above now, and then get back to the rest at a later time.

      Starting with Josephus, I think he is following more in the Greek historiographical tradition than you seem to imply. Not only does he name himself at the beginning of his work, but he also devotes large sections of the narrative to describing his role in the war, providing an eyewitness perspective. Now, while he describes himself in the third person in these sections, it’s important to note that this form of narration is very similar to how Julius Caesar writes about himself in his commentaries, and it also similar to Xenophon in his Anabasis.

      Now, the way that Josephus writes about himself in the third person is quite different from how Matthew is described in the Gospel of Matthew. Rather than being a continual character whose perspective the narrative is being shaped around, Matthew is only mentioned briefly as a tertiary character in a few scenes. That’s not how Josephus, Caesar, or Xenophon relate eyewitness experience in the third person. Furthermore, if we grant Markan priority, the author of Matthew actually borrows the calling of Levi/Matthew from a previous source. That’s highly peculiar if the Gospel of Matthew had actually been written by the disciple Matthew. He wouldn’t have even described his own calling by Jesus from his unique point of view, but would have rather borrowed it from a previous text. I agree with Richard Bauckham that this is best explained by the circumstance that the Greek Gospel of Matthew was not written by Matthew, but rather a later editor who wanted to connect the text with his name, either as a pseudepigraphal device, or because he was associated with some source or school connected with the text. On this point you state:

      “If the author was someone other than Matthew, a later editor or compiler for example, why would he change the name in this pericopae?”

      For that very reason, to associate the text with Matthew (for whatever reason). In contrast, it makes less sense for Matthew to have borrowed a pericope from an earlier source, about his own calling to ministry, and not to change the pericope to include any eyewitness details.

      Regarding 1 Maccabees, I don’t think that it is the best parallel text, even in the Jewish historiographical tradition, for comparing with the Gospel of Matthew. Rather, I think that the Elijah-Elisha cycle would provide a better model (in addition to material about Moses and David in the Septuagint). First off, the Gospels actually cite passages from the Elijah-Elisha cycle, whereas they don’t cite 1 Maccabees, which demonstrates more of a genetic relationship between the two. But furthermore, 1 Maccabees is more of a history of a broader period, whereas the Elijah-Elisha cycle focuses more on the travels and actions of a central character.

      But furthermore, even Jewish historiography doesn’t use dramatic dialogues and direct speech as frequently as the Gospels. Richard Pervo in “Direct Speech in Acts and the Question of Genre” discusses how both 2 Maccabees (11.2%) and 3 Maccabees (21.5%) contain vastly less direct speech than the Book of Acts (51%). And, although he doesn’t include the Gospel of Matthew in his study, that text likewise contains a very large amount of direct speech. In fact, there are whole chapters in Matthew that contain almost nothing else besides direct speech. Pervo also doesn’t include 1 Maccabees in his study, but I think it probably includes much less direct speech than either Acts or Matthew.

      The only comparison texts that contain as much direct speech as Acts or Matthew are Greek and Jewish novels. Michael Vines in The Problem of Markan Genre compares the Gospel of Mark to the Jewish novel. I think that there is much to recommend for this comparison, but a major critique I have of Vines is that even he acknowledges that the rhetorical use of chreia in Mark is more characteristic of the Greek biography (including biographical novels). Vines (pg. 159) writes:

      “The episodic structure of chapters 1-10 is uncharacteristic of the Jewish novels, which, overall, present more tightly formulated plots. The introduction of significant amounts of chreia and anecdote also distinguish Mark from the Jewish novel.”

      Now, in making this concession, Vines already notes that 10/16 of the chapters in Mark are more similar to the Greek novel. (I would also add chapters 11-13 to that list, since there are similar uses of Greek literary devices in those chapters.) The rhetorical organization of chreia is highly characteristic of Greek literature, using literary devices found in Greek rhetorical handbooks, and you see the exact same kind of devices in texts like the Life of Aesop, which Whitney Shiner discusses in the chapter that I review above. That is an aspect of the Gospels which is not as characteristic of Jewish literature as it is of Greek literature.

      Now, when you say:

      “So I do not find the Gospels novels. I do think that they follow the Jewish tradition of telling history rather than the Greek tradition. But I don’t find that a reason to question their historicity.”

      First off, it should be noted that even Greek novels can contain historically accurate information. The Alexander Romance is a good example. Furthermore, it should be clarified that when I compare the Gospels to novels, I am not talking about Greek Romance novels, which would have been considered fiction, but rather biographical novels, which were always about historical (or putatively historical) subjects.

      Scholars debate how biographical novels are related to fictional novelistic literature. The former usually contains less sophisticated language than the latter, and it likewise exhibits more multiformity and adapts more received material, as opposed to the author writing in a distinct style. In this regard, the Alexander Romance and the Life of Aesop are also like the Gospels, since they are compiling and redacting a large amount of earlier literary units and oral traditions, similar to how the Gospels were composed. You also write:

      “The rhetorical purpose of the Gospel author was not to write a biography; we might expect chronological order in a biography, but perhaps not if the Gospels are really portraits of Jesus rather than biographies…”

      It’s actually not the case that biographies were always written chronologically. The biographer Suetonius is notable for his topical, rather than chronological, arrangement of material. The Alexander Romance likewise shifts material out of chronological order, as part of its chreia organization. The fact that Matthew and Luke include genealogies of Jesus (highly characteristic of Greco-Roman biography), and even Mark and John focus so much on the role of a single character (whereas historiography usually focuses on a wider range of characters), suggests that they are in some sense biographical. Now, I agree, the earlier sources the Gospels used (sayings, miracles collections, etc.) may not have been biographical in structure, but the overall synthesis of the material and the way that it is arranged produces a highly biographical organization of the final text. The Alexander Romance (epistles) and the Life of Aesop (fables) likewise adapt non-biographical material from their source materials, but then they compile it into a biographical narrative. You also say:

      “Herodotus emphasized sources and often wrote in the first person. The Jews wrote in the third person…”

      The thing is, though, that not all Greek literature is written with an emphasis on the first person. Greek populer-novelistic biographies are likewise anonymous and don’t typically use the first person. So it’s not just Jewish literature that does this, and I would argue that the chreia organization is more typical of Greek literature.

      Now, regarding earlier source materials, I agree that there may have been an earlier Passion narrative, miracle collections such as the feeding miracles, and perhaps an earlier infancy narrative. I doubt that we can show that the Passion narrative was written as early as 37 CE. It’s based on the assumption that, because Caiaphas is not named as the “high priest,” he must have still been alive when the Passion narrative was written. However, the same article you cite from Early Christian Writings states, “Although this argument is not secure, given the counter-example that the pharaoh in the exodus story is not named either.” The article also notes that this hypothetical Passion narrative could have been composed anytime from 30-60 CE. I don’t think there are any secure arguments that can provide a certain case for early dating.

      The thing about these earlier source materials is that they all reflect early mimesis of Jewish scripture. The infancy narrative is modeled around passages like Isaiah 11:1, Micah 5:2, and Hosea 11:1. The feeding miracle collection is modeled around the feeding miracles of Moses and Elisha. And the Passion narrative is modeled on passages like Psalm 22. In the latter case, I doubt that the soldiers who crucified Jesus actually cast lots for his garments, for example, because this detail is clearly lifted from Psalm 22:18. Now, you write:

      “Matthew’s purpose was to communicate to Jews and present Jesus as the Messiah. The recapitulation of these famous OT characters would have been expected by Jewish readers.”

      The problem is, however, that this provides an excellent explanation for how legendary and non-historical information could have crept into the narrative. As historiographer Aviezer Tucker (Our Knowledge of the Past, pg. 99) explains about interpreting the historicity of ancient texts, the real question that must be asked is:

      “‘What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?’ The center of research is the explanation of the evidence, not whether or not a literal interpretation of the evidence corresponds with what took place.”

      And, the reason why Jesus is performing similar miracles to Moses, Elijah, and Elisha could very likely be that the authors of the Gospels are *modeling* Jesus on these figures’ miracles, not that they actually took place. What the earlier literary antecedents do is they provide alternative explanations to assuming that the material described actually goes back to historical events, since they could also go back to earlier literary sources. This alternative possibility only has to be 50/50 (I think it is actually much greater) to make the historicity of such material untenable.

      I do think that eyewitnesses must have had a hand in shaping the oral traditions, and perhaps the earlier literary materials, behind the Gospels. The difficulty with such traditions and sources is that they are prone to grow over time, to have new material added, and to be redacted. The Passion narrative, for example, may have only originally included Jesus’ crucifixion, but then had the material about the empty tomb tacked onto it. Given that common traditions grow and have new details added even between the Synoptic Gospels, there could have been even greater growth during the oral period before their composition, which has a tendency to introduce later material that is less likely historical.

      Now, as a final note on the question of genre, I also do not always trust historiography and historical biography either. Suetonius, for example, claims that Nero set fire to Rome, which is much like modern 9/11 conspiracy theories. Josephus was an eyewitness of the Jewish War, and yet he still describes things such as cows giving birth to lambs (6.5.3), which I doubt was historical. I describe in the essay below questionable material that appears in the writings of Roman historians (which is even mundane and not miraculous in character) that I do not think we can show is historical:


      I will conclude with some discussion about the identity of Levi/Matthew. I don’t know if Jewish kings are the best comparison for a double name. A better comparison is the other disciples who took second names, when they were called by Jesus. Peter, for example, went from Simon to Cephas. But, Cephas is not a formal name, just a nickname meaning “stone.” Paul went from Saul to Paul, but the former is a Semitic name and the latter is Greek. Both Matthew and Levi, in contrast, were common Jewish names, and Bauckham’s onomastic study (although I don’t agree with all of its conclusions) has shown that this configuration would at least be highly atypical.

      Note also that, whereas Mark and Luke describe Levi as “the son of Alphaeus,” Matthew does not call the disciple Matthew “the son of Alphaeus.” We may have a better case for them being the same character, if they had, but this adds more ambiguity. I wonder if James the son of Alphaeus is meant to be Levi’s brother, and if he is, there is no indication that James is a Levite. You also say:

      “The name Levi suggests that Matthew was a Levite.”

      I’m not sure that it does. Bauckham has shown that Levi was also just a common Semitic name (the 17th most common of the period), and I doubt that everyone who held it was a Levite. Also, Matthew is mentioned in a list of the disciples later in Mark (3:18), but the author doesn’t mention that this is Levi who had his name changes, even when an earlier verse (3:16) specifies that Peter was given a new name.

      You state:

      “The other clue identifying Mathew as both the author of the Gospel and the Apostle is the Didache. Written sometime in the early 2nd century the Didache was known as the teaching of the Apostles, and at the heart of the Didache are many quotes from the book of Matthew, quotes which are not found in the other Gospels. It would seem that the writer of the Didache and those for whom it was written identify the Apostle Matthew as the author of the Gospel.”

      Actually, the Didache does not say that Matthew authored a gospel, nor does it even mention him. In fact, the Didache (8:2) cites the Lord’s prayer in Matthew (6:9-13) as being written in “His (Jesus’) Gospels,” which gives the implicit title, “Gospel of Jesus.” I think that this was the original title of the Gospels, before they were ascribed “according to” individual names, like Matthew. And it is noteworthy that this title is anonymous. You also say:

      “You suggest that Matthew was probably a Jew of the diaspora, and I would tend to agree … Though Matthew does not tell us his story as Paul does, it would not be hard to see Matthew and Paul coming from similar backgrounds, educated as Greek speakers, yet deeply religious and ultimately drawn to the center of their religion in Jerusalem. But at that point their stories diverged. Paul immersed himself in the religious scene and studied to be a rabbi. Matthew, having a unique “in” as a Levite with the establishment saw the religion he encountered there as bankrupt. Paul became more committed. Matthew left the whole thing.”

      This is all imputing much that isn’t available in the sources. Paul is explicitly said to be from the Diaspora, whereas Matthew is not. (I think the *author* of Matthew was from the Diaspora, based on the gospel’s style, but I doubt he was the disciple Matthew.) Furthermore, it is disputable that Galilee was highly multi-ethnic. Mark Chancey, among others, has called that assumption into question. But more importantly, if Matthew really had the wealth to be educated in the Jewish scriptures, and to learn advanced prose composition, to the degree that the author of Matthew was, it’s amazing that, as a religious dropout, he picked such a low level occupation. Matthew is not a “chief toll collector” (αρχιτελωνης), like Zacchaeus, but is a low level functionary at the toll booth (a regular τελωνης). It would be one thing if Zacchaeus had been said to author Matthew, which would be more probable, but not not a simple toll booth collector. You also say:

      “RE: the Roman coin put forth by the Pharisees in Matthew 22. Remember the purpose of the Pharisees was to embarrass Jesus. Obviously they could have presented a shekel. But presenting a Roman coin was a taunt.”

      I’m not sure that is the best interpretation of that passage. The passage discusses paying imperial taxes to Caesar. The Jews in Galilee and Jerusalem did no such thing prior to 70 CE. All taxes went to the Jewish authorities, not to Caesar. (Julius Caesar had banned Roman taxation decades earlier.) Even if such taxes were collected in shekels and not the denarius (which the passage hypothetically used to heighten the drama), the taxation described did not historically exist at the time. You also say:

      “Now, you could say that this was a contrived storytelling device. Or it could simply be both historical and ironic. But I don’t think that it can be explained as anachronistic.”

      But *there were* such taxes collected by the Romans after 70 CE, explicitly using the denarius. That does make a fair case for anachronism.

      Also, our sources for what happened to Matthew after Jesus’ death are even more ambiguous. As the Catholic Encyclopedia notes:

      “Of Matthew’s subsequent career we have only inaccurate or legendary data … Ancient writers are not as one as to the countries evangelized by Matthew, but almost all mention Ethiopia to the south of the Caspian Sea (not Ethiopia in Africa), and some Persia and the kingdom of the Parthians, Macedonia, and Syria.”

      And about the manner of his death:

      “There is a disagreement as to the place of St. Matthew’s martyrdom and the kind of torture inflicted on him, therefore it is not known whether he was burned, stoned, or beheaded.”

      If we don’t even know where and when Matthew went, and how he died, I think we even have less certainty about where and when we wrote his hypothetical Hebrew (or Greek?) gospel. So, when you say:

      “Bottom line: I don’t see any reason why Matthew could not be as the church has from early in church history described him, an Apostle and eyewitness to Jesus.”

      What I am arguing, though, is that we don’t have any certain reason to think that Matthew authored the final Greek version of Matthew. First off, the way the church tradition describes its composition already has complications. Irenaeus (writing after Papias) says that Matthew wrote a gospel in the Hebrew dialect, but we have a Greek gospel, which most scholars agree is based on the Gospel of Mark, and there also many objections to reading Matthew as translation Greek. But furthermore, the 2nd century church traditions are not entirely clear to begin with about the Gospels’ composition. For example, Irenaeus seems to imply that Mark wrote his gospel after Peter and Paul had died (another argument for placing it after the late-60’s CE, btw), whereas Clement of Alexandria seems to imply that he did so while Peter was still alive. But likewise, form criticism has also raised complications for the patristic traditions about Mark’s authorship and its relation to Peter. As Michael Kok (The Gospel on the Margins, pg. 27) explains:

      “A fundamental insight of form criticism is that Papias simplified a complex process by excluding all oral tradents for Mark save for Peter.”

      So, by the time we even get the authorial attributions, we already have oversimplifications and problems about the descriptions how the Gospels were composed. I also don’t think that the church fathers were concerned with analyzing the Gospels’ composition, rather than seeking to assign them to early church figures when there was other Christian literature (often considered heretical) that was being assigned to church figures in the 2nd century CE.

      When you take into account the ambiguity over Matthew’s character, who cannot be identified as Levi with any certainty, the fact that Matthew would have not even described his own calling by Jesus (on the assumption of Markan priority), the fact that so much of Matthew is based on received material, the fact that at no point are there any first-person statements in Matthew to identify authorial eyewitnesses (and likewise the fact that the use of the third person is not a clear example of authorial eyewitnessing, as it is in Josephus, Caesar, and Xenophon), and the fact that our traditions about Matthew’s later career are so contradictory and legendary, I think we think we have enough ambiguity and problems with the data to cast doubt on the assumption that he wrote the final version of the Greek Matthew.

      At the very least, I do not think that there is any passage in Matthew that we connect with the personal experiences of an eyewitness, whose background and personality we know. This includes Jesus physically appearing to his disciples in an earthly setting after his death (Mt. 28:16), which, in setting the scene on an unnamed mountain, already seems to be modeling the scene on Moses, providing a literary, as opposed to historical, motive for its description.

      I’ll get back in a subsequent post about the meaning of λογοι vs. λογια, as well with some more notes about Markan priority.

  7. Don Camp says:

    “Actually, the Didache does not say that Matthew authored a gospel, nor does it even mention him.”

    I agree. But neither did I imply that it did. What I suggested was that there are many quotes in the Didache from the Gospel of Matthew and that the Didache identifies itself as the teaching of the Apostles. That implies that author of the Gospel of Matthew was seen by the author of the Didache as one of the Apostles if not his chief source for apostolic teaching.

    I am reading your replies with interest. Thank you for giving me food for thought. I’ve also enjoyed defending my position. Each time there seems to be more to observe. Probably we will not end up convincing the other, but the exercise is valuable.

    • Thanks. I also appreciate the constructive dialogue.

      Justin Martyr likewise associated the Gospels with the apostles (calling them “Memoirs of the Apostles”). I wonder if that’s because he and the Didache had biographical knowledge of their authors and the process behind their composition, or if it’s because the texts were viewed having apostolic authority and to have originated from their teachings (perhaps implying a source relation rather than direct authorship).

      Just FYI, I have a dissertation deadline at the end of the month, and so I won’t be able to get back to the second part of my reply until September.

    • Hi Don,

      I’ve been quite busy lately, and so I am only now getting back to this. Truth be told, I don’t have much time to talk now, and so I am only going to address two of the issues above.

      “I am not sure what your point is about the difference between τα λογια and λογοι . Being accusative τα λογια works grammatically as the direct object of συνετάξατο (1st per., aorist). The nom. pl. λογοι doesn’t seem to me to work at all grammatically unless it were to be regarded as an informal title. Perhaps you meant λογίων as Papias uses it referring to Mark’s collection of sayings.”

      On that point, I was referring to a distinction made by Michael Kok in The Gospel on the Margins (pg. 193):

      “A minority of scholars equate the λόγια with “Q” in contrast to the words and deeds (λεχθεντα η πραχθεντα) that make up Mark. A better term for a sayings collection is λογοι (sayings) rather than λογια (oracles) and, from Papias’s title and the comparison with a narrative Gospel like Mark, λογια seems interchangeable with sayings and deeds.”

      Papias could have still put λογοι in the accusative, which would have been λογους. It wasn’t uncommon in antiquity to use λογοι (“words”) as a title for a collection of sayings attributed to an individual. The fact that Papias uses λογια (“oracles”) is a bit more odd, however, which is all that I was getting at. A text like Q would presumably be called λογοι, so it makes the identification of Papias’ λογια a bit harder to discern.

      As far as Markan priority is concerned, it’s a very complex issue and I am not specifically a scholar on the Synoptic Problem. There is no space here to discuss all of the issues involved, and so I will only share something specific that recently came up in my research. Something I have been dealing with in analyzing the Gospels as ‘open texts’ is how they compare to other literature that borrows and redacts large amounts of material from earlier narratives. During my research, I came across a very interesting article by Armin Baum:


      Basically, what Baum argues is that the way the double and triple traditions appear in the Synoptic Gospels does not suggest direct literary dependence. The reason why is that they don’t redact pericopes consistently, but instead, the direction of redaction seems to be far more half-hazard. Baum contrasts this with the Alexander Romance. The way that recension β redacts recension α suggests a far more simple literary dependence, in that individual episodes are consistently redacted in a similar fashion (e.g., changing lines of verse to prose).

      What Baum concludes is that you can’t account for all of the differences between the Synoptic Gospels through literary dependence alone. You have to take into account oral tradition and additional literary sources. And, in this regard, I think that Baum’s study points toward the two-source hypothesis of Matthew’s composition (or something like it), and not toward Matthean independence or priority, since it allows for a greater plurality of sources. But even more importantly, I think Baum’s study makes Markan posteriority highly unlikely.

      If one follows the Griesbach hypothesis, then Mark is almost entirely an abridgment of material from Matthew and Luke. A major problem for this view, though, is that it suggests a very strong literary dependence, of the sort that Baum has found improbable. The Augustinian hypothesis may fare better, but one of the implications of Baum’s study is that, due to oral tradition and a plurality of sources, narratives are more likely to grow over time than shrink. And so, it would be very weird for Mark to abridge material in Matthew, rather than for Matthew and Luke to expand Mark, while incorporating additional sources.

      Of course, there are also other issues about the unique material that appears in Mark. One example is the curing of the blind with saliva. Matthew keeps the curing of the blind, but removes the saliva. The reason why, I think, is that the former miracle comes off as too Pagan. (Magical healing tended to use physical objects.) But, it would be hard to explain this change through Markan posteriority. Why would Mark add Pagan elements to a healing miracle in Matthew? I think it makes more sense for Matthew to omit Pagan elements.

      Again, those are just some ideas from my present research. I’m glad that I have been able to offer you some food for thought. Truth be told though, I have been quite busy lately, and writing comments like this can be draining on my end. I appreciate the topics discussed, but I also need to focus on doing research right now. I’m actually going to take a break from blogging for the month of October (and possibly longer) to focus on dissertation work.

  8. Pingback: Aesop and Jesus | Marmalade

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