In Search of a Fat, Hairy Jesus

Growing up in the Roman Catholic Church, I saw my share of nearly nude Christs hanging on a cross. Jesus is depicted as very thin, but often fit. As Ted Alexandro would say, Jesus has great abs (“He should put out his own work out tapes – ‘Body of Christ’… ‘Cross Training’…”). To an extent this makes some biblical sense since Jesus was poor, and so has the body of a traditionally undernourished man. He just went on a 40-day… air (?) cleanse (manna cleanse?) earlier that year after his baptism (well, from a Synoptic perspective), and he definitely gets his cardio with all that walking.

Consider some Medieval representations:


[And Jesus said, “Bam! Look at those abs!”]

Or some 17th Century depictions:


[“Bro, you gonna hit the gym with me or what?”]

The trend continues in more recent contributions:


Notice that these images range over centuries, cultures, and media. This is somewhat odd, since others can have other body types:


More recently, we even have what appear to be Christians uncomfortable with the image of a weak, mortal Christ on the cross, reimagining Jesus as a ‘roided out bodybuilder:


In discussing the various ways the crucifixion is depicted with my classes, I noticed something else: not only is Jesus unusually fit (sometimes unrealistically fit), he’s also hairless. Bare chests and bare stomachs all around. Sometimes he apparently shaves under his arms. I have no problem with a Jesus who manscapes, but it seems odd that the trend is so pervasive. Why is Jesus never hairy? I would say that most Mediterranean men have some hair on their bodies, yet Jesus consistently does not. Some of this is just painting style / ability. After all, despite his big bushy beard, Peter is also depicted as well-waxed above.

The trend has rubbed off on literature, though. Consider this description of Jesus in Par Lagerkvist’s Barabbas: “A queer man. The beard was sparse and the chest quite hairless, like a boy’s.”

I don’t know that artists are really saying something with Jesus’s hairlessness – body hair is just difficult to paint or to carve. I just think it would be more realistic and obviously different to depict Jesus as more of a Tom Selleck type.

But let’s return to Jesus’s fitness. One thing that being skinny communicated to many people was ordinariness. Jesus represented the average person, not some burly action-movie star, and not some waxed hipster on a kale smoothie diet. Skinny and fit is not strictly average for a guy in his 30s in Western culture, certainly not in ‘Merica where Type 2 Diabetes is a major contributor to our mortality. Due to shifting aesthetics, Jesus’s thin frame has moved from weak and pathetic to a bit idealized and even hot. So what about a hefty Jesus?

Here’s why I think a chubby Jesus would work. Jesus was known as a glutton and a drunk (Matt 11:19; Luke 7:34). Granted, these people are perhaps not Jesus’s best friends, but Jesus doesn’t deny that he likes to eat, and if he were hungry and sober all day, the accusation wouldn’t stick. His point in citing this characterization of himself is not that they’re wrong, only that they’re hypocritical for giving John the Baptist guff for fasting and him for eating—make up your minds, guys. Now, we know Jesus likes to drink: his first public miracle is turning about 120 gallons of water into good wine at a wedding where everyone’s already hammered! His last action before he’s arrested is to institute a ritual that involves drinking wine in memory of him. So there seems to be some evidence to back up the accusation of drinking. But what about the gluttony?

Well, unlike the Pharisees and John’s disciples, Jesus does not ask his followers to fast (Mark 2:18-20; Matt 9:14-17; Luke 5:33-35 [notice that an analogy built on wine follows])—at least not while he’s around! They can do that after he leaves. In fact, they don’t even stop eating when Sabbath rules should stop them because, darn it, Jesus needs his snacks! (Mark 2:23-28 and pars.) He compares the Kingdom of God to food (Mark 4:1-20, 26-32 and pars.), and himself to grain (John 12:24) and to bread (John 6). He declares all foods clean (Mark 7:19) and appears in a christophany to Peter just to tell him to eat (Acts 10). He provides food for mass crowds (four or five thousand) to carb-load on at least twice. Jesus is constantly at meals with people, and his most solemn moment right before his arrest is a Passover meal for which he personally attends to the menu (Mark 14:12-16 and pars.). And again, at this meal he institutes a ritual in which his followers should eat and drink in his memory. I mean, he gets so hangry at a fig tree for not bearing fruit when it’s not even in season that he curses it forever (Mark 11:12-14 and pars.)! A guy who blesses his disciples and says they will inherit the kingdom because “I was hungry and you gave me food” (Matt 25:35, although in context…) is just begging for a husky depiction.

If people don’t like the aesthetics of a fat, hairy Jesus, especially one naked on the cross, all the better. An argument could be made that he’s supposed to be pathetic up there, humble, mortal, and weak. Is it not meant to be that only through the eyes of faith you would see the glory in that moment? If Jesus has been sexualized more and more lately, perhaps it’s because a good portion of the people looking at depictions of him are wondering how many crunches Jesus did that morning, or why the sculptor had to be so historically inaccurate and put a loin cloth on him. An out-of-shape Jesus would be a call to the average person to “take up his cross,” not to go get lipo and a full-body wax.

So if anyone knows where I can get images of fat, hairy Jesus that are still reverent, let me know. And if you create icons or depict Christ yourself, I encourage you to consider a husky, hirsute Savior.



Review of Cain by José Saramago


So last week I bought Cain, José Saramago’s last novel. It’s a slim book, just 159 small pages, but it’s also an incredibly engaging read—despite my inability to read for pleasure in a few years, I whipped right through it.

The book tells the story of Cain from his perspective. There are plenty of connections to the Bible and to ancient legends about Cain. For example, it is suggested that Cain may be the child of Eve and the angel guarding Eden. While the Masoretic text says Cain was Adam’s son, ancient legends depict Cain as the son of the serpent (4 Macc 18:7-11; Gosp. Phil. 61.6-10), the angel Sammael (Targum Ps. Jon. Gen 4:1; 5:3; Pirq. R. Eliezer 21-22), the angel Yaldabaoth (Apocr. John 10.34-35; Eg. Gosp. 4.70.1); or just some angel (Life of Adam and Eve; Apocalypse of Moses). Saramago either knew of these legends, or happened upon a similar way of reading Genesis.

Nevertheless, it is not a conventional Jewish or Christian story. Cain opens with a citation from Hebrews:

By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh.

Hebrews 11:4 Book of Nonsense

Why it’s “nonsense” is not clear at the outset but becomes so over time: there was no difference in the sacrifices made by Cain and Abel, and Abel was no more righteous than Cain. God testifies to nothing in choosing Abel’s sacrifice other than his own arbitrariness and lack of foresight. Saramago does not portray “the lord god” reverently—in fact, God is more or less the villain of Cain, but only because he is so very human. Saramago’s novel fits neatly within a project I’m working on regarding the negative portrayal of God in popular culture. The Nobel laureate is far from alone in depicting God as absent, incompetent, and largely ignorant.

After killing his brother, Cain begins to shift through time to various points in biblical history—the fall of Sodom, the binding of Isaac, Job’s torture, Babel, the golden calf, and finally, Noah’s ark. These are not God’s best moments, especially since Cain sees the human side of things—hearing the innocent children of Sodom screaming as they burn alive, smelling a diseased Job, watching a distraught child walk down the mountain knowing his father will slit his throat on a moment’s notice should God demand it. (Isaac is only saved because Cain is there to stop it—God forgot to tell the angel which mountain they would be on, so it arrives too late).

It’s not clear how much we should trust the narrator. For instance, on one page Japheth and Shem cover their father Noah after the ark lands, but a few pages later Cain has tossed Japheth off the boat and into the flood after making his way onto the ark. Which story actually happens? Are they alternate realities, alternate presents? Or has the narrator lied to us in one or the other case, maybe both? (The narrator is not Cain, by the way, or pretends not to be—Cain is generally honest throughout, barring the lie he uses to lure his brother to his death).

Even granting Saramago his critique of God, the novel is potentially problematic. It could easily be accused of portraying only the “Old Testament God” as one of violence and fickleness, leaving the New Testament to the side. Cain does not watch Jesus die on the cross in God’s place, as we might expect from the writer of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, or jump forward to watch a third of humanity killed by angels in the apocalypse. This quasi-Marcionite schema is appropriate to Cain’s somewhat Gnostic flavor, but it raises questions Saramago doesn’t take the time to answer.

With that caveat, Cain is worth reading. It gives an entertaining, witty, and disturbing look into how non-devotional readers of the Bible tend to view God, and how popular culture has tended to treat God as a character in recent years.

Beware New Artifacts, or How “First”-Century Mark Fits a Pattern

Recently, Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 5345 was finally published. I know, we’ll all go out for drinks later to celebrate… Rumors have been circulating about this manuscript for about 6 years with the idea that it is a fragment of the Gospel of Mark dating from the first century CE, so within a few decades of when Mark was written. Given that there is only one other manuscript of Mark dated before the fourth century, and that a first century manuscript would be the oldest manuscript of any New Testament text, this would be a huge deal. Unfortunately, the editors have now dated it to the 2nd to 3rd century, which is more typical and means it is not even the oldest manuscript of Mark. Daniel Wallace has since owned up to his role in spreading what turned out to be false information – false information he was prevented from correcting by a non-disclosure agreement until now.

For more on “First-Century Mark,” see here, here, and here.

I have no reason to doubt Wallace’s integrity, so it is unfortunate that he has gotten wrapped up in this. To an extent, however, it fits a pattern in the handling of newly discovered archaeological artifacts related to the Bible that has played out multiple times, a few in just the last couple of decades.

Step 1: Find an object – or if you can’t find one, forge one – that fits a well-established narrative.

In 2002, an ossuary (a bone box, long story) was discovered with the inscription, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” This seemed to belong to James, Jesus’s brother and writer of the epistle of James in the NT. That would mostly just be neat, except the inscription called him out as “brother of Jesus,” not a common way of naming someone unless his brother were highly notable. It would be very early physical evidence for the importance of Jesus. Granted, these are three of the top 11 most popular names in Palestine at the time according to Tal Ilan’s Lexicon, so it’s not crazy to find this configuration, but one presumes it is still rare.

In 2007, a Hebrew apocalypse called Hazon Gabriel came to light. HG is written in ink on stone (so difficult to date), and its provenance is unknown – which raises some questions. On paleographic and linguistic grounds, it has been dated before the NT, perhaps before Jesus. The text has the angel Gabriel delivering a message to someone associated with David (I argued it was the prophet Nathan [cf. 2 Samuel 7] in an article I wrote a few years back), in which the angel commands (in the initial translation), “In three days, live!” If accurate, it would seem (to some) to undermine the originality of Jesus’s resurrection.

In 2012, a fragment of a text labeled “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” was announced. Although a small fragment (about as small as “First-Century Mark”), it appears to have Jesus refer to “my wife,” which has obvious resonance with speculations of the Da Vinci Code variety. Since it was thought to be a 4th century Coptic text, there was little value to studying the historical Jesus, but some thought it would be evidence for Gnostic or some alternative understanding of Christ as married.

Also in 2012, we have the announcement of a “First Century Mark.”

Step 2: Get a scholar who already supports the intended narrative to legitimize the object before proper study has been done.

The inscription on the James ossuary was dated to the first century by epigrapher (he studies inscriptions) André Lemaire. Lemaire is Director of Studies at the École pratique des hautes études and well-respected in the field. However, he also dated an ivory pomegranate to King Solomon’s temple based on an inscription, while the inscription was later questioned. In other words, Lemaire may have been a good mark to legitimize an inscription added to an object as long as the handwriting looked good.

With Hazon Gabriel, Israel Knohl went in whole hog. Again, Knohl is a well-published, senior scholar. He had already written books advancing the theory that the “Messiah son of Joseph” (the patriarch, not carpenter from Nazareth) had been developed by the first century. The Messiah ben Joseph had to die for the Davidic Messiah to arrive. Knohl speculated that the “catastrophic messianism” of Jesus (a son of [a] Joseph, although by all accounts descended from Judah) was based on this tradition. In Knohl’s reading of HG, a figure called Ephraim (also a son of the OG Joseph) is told to live (rise from the dead?) in three days. Knohl wrote multiple articles and a commentary on the text within two years.

Harvard professor Karen King announced the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” King had previously written about Gnostic Christianity, specifically about how their attitudes toward women and sex differed from the mainline church. King was always upfront about the fact that such a text says nothing about whether Jesus himself was married (conventionally, not to the Church as in Revelation 21), only that it might say something about the Gnostics.

As to “First Century Mark,” Wallace brought it up six years prior to publication for a specific purpose: to counter claims made in a debate with Bart Ehrman that we cannot be certain of the reliability of the NT since we have so few early manuscripts (2nd century?), and no truly early texts (i.e. 1st century). Wallace busts in with a first century copy of Mark that mostly matches later copies, (minor) evidence that the text was largely consistent. In fact, according to Wallace, the editors of “First Century Mark,” although already aware of evidence that the text was later, encouraged him to name-drop their manuscript during this debate! As he now admits, he did so without checking the data himself out of trust, but one suspects also because their interpretation fit what he wanted to be true. Had they told him they had a first century copy of Mark that had “follow me and I will make you just the best male prostitutes,” or that began, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus, son of Mary,” Wallace would have asked to inspect the thing more closely before he made any announcements.

Step 3: The media goes crazy.

The James ossuary went on display at the Royal Ontario Museum almost immediately. There were write-ups in the New York Times, a Discovery Channel documentary, and the Biblical Archaeology Review threw their support behind the find. The Hazon Gabriel went on display in the Israel Museum, got a write-up in the New York Times and Time magazine, and got two documentaries, including one by National Geographic. The “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” was covered multiple times in The Atlantic and by the Smithsonian Channel. “First-Century Mark” wasn’t even published yet, but lots of rumors flew around about it, including that it came from the cartonnage of a mummy mask, a mask which was featured in The International Business Times while the world still waited to see the manuscript itself.

Step 4: Scholars finally get to examine the artifact.

When scholarship is allowed to actually do its job, the results don’t tend to support the initial headline-grabbing interpretations.

Årstein Justnes justifiably raised questions about the authenticity of the Hazon Gabriel, but his arguments for a forgery are unconvincing, or at least highly inconclusive. More damaging to Knohl’s controversial reading, however, were simply better photographs. The original transcription gave “In three days, live,” but “live” was spelled weirdly and the editors marked it with [?]. With clearer images, an alternative reading presented itself: “In three days, the sign,” with “the sign” spelled normally. A sign had already been mentioned in the text. No resurrection after three days, so no bearing on Jesus. Knohl continued to push his reading even while recognizing the new reading, but HG is probably just a typical Hebrew apocalypse.

“The brother of Jesus” on the James ossuary, meanwhile, was deemed a forgery by the Israel Antiquities Authority, and the artifact’s owner was tried on a few dozen counts of forgery and fraud, including the ossuary. The patina (the build-up of gunk on the stone over the course of the centuries) is absent on the part mentioning Jesus, and some claimed to have seen the ossuary without these words yet carved into it. The owner was eventually acquitted, though, and the ossuary still has its defenders. There’s a small chance it’s genuine, and if so, there’s a small chance it’s from the first century, and if so, there’s a small chance it is Jesus’s brother’s ossuary. That’s too many “if sos” for a headline.

Scholars quickly suspected the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” was a forgery, although written on 4th century papyrus: the pen was weird, the handwriting was weird, and the content was too perfect for the sorts of headlines it got. Furthermore, the grammar was off, and specifically off in a way that matched typos in a lexicon for the Gospel of Thomas! The definitive verdict did not come from scholarly analysis but from journalism: Ariel Sabar at The Atlantic wrote a fascinating piece on the forgery simply by tracking down the forger.

There’s little doubt the papyrus of Mark is authentic, it’s just that it dates from centuries after Mark was written, not decades. Brice Jones has raised some suspicion that the owners were trying to drum up the price in order to sell it, and there is certainly more discussion of the 83rd volume of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri than previous volumes. At $147.50, Amazon has only 10 copies left, and the first review mentions “First-Century Mark.” Since the Greens (of Hobby Lobby fame), who are sponsoring a new Museum of the Bible, are apparently involved, rumors of a first-century Mark would fit their ideology and boost the museum’s profile had it panned out.

The lesson here is to not get too wrapped up in newly discovered artifacts, especially ones associated with the Bible, until they can be adequately evaluated by scholars. Moreover, it seems scholars should be particularly wary of interacting with the media regarding artifacts that just so happen to fit narratives they’re already pushing before they can do the legwork necessary to validate those claims. That being said, if anyone needs an endorsement for their artifact depicting a fat, hairy Jesus, I’m your man no questions asked.

Why Thanos’s Plan Won’t Work

I just saw Avengers: Infinity War on Wednesday, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. I used to collect comics as a kid, including The Infinity Gauntlet, the Marvel comics series the movie is based on, so it was fun to watch all this on the big screen.

However, I want to offer a critique of the plan of the villain, Thanos. So first, it is a bit off topic, and second, if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to be spoiled, turn back now.

Thanos, the villain from Avengers: Infinity War, wants to kill half the population of the universe. This story element is borrowed from The Infinity Gauntlet. Where the comics and the movie differ is Thanos’s motive. In the comics, he’s in love with Death, who is an actual figure (this is why people were wondering if Hela from Thor: Ragnarok would show up in A:IW). The trillions of deaths are a gift to his crush. This plotline is understandably dropped in the movie, replaced by a more familiar motive: population control. Thanos wants to kill half the population of the universe because it is finite, and population growth leads to poverty because resources become scarce.

At different points, Thanos tells the stories of two planets with different fates. One is his home planet, Titan, which was dying due to overpopulation and the resulting wars over resources. He had offered a plan to cull the planet of half its population randomly, discriminating against no one. They didn’t listen to him, so the planet died—and it is depicted as completely dead: no plants, no animals, nothing. The other story is one of his “successes,” where he killed half the planet and now every child grows up with food in abundance, no wars due to overcrowding, etc.


[Pictured: clouds in the sky, but not a single weed].

It is not surprising that effective population control is presented in terms of mass homicide. At this point it’s cliché. Soylent Green (1973) imagines a villainous regime that kills the poorest to feed them to the marginally less poor. The Rampage movies (2009-2016) feature a social darwinistic killer culling the population. The Kingsmen (2014) has an environmentalist trying to kill huge portions of the human population to save the planet. And The Thinning (2016) imagines systemic homicide dictated by SAT. Calm down high schoolers. In every case, the only way filmmakers can imagine stemming growth is by killing huge numbers of people, and therefore the only people advocating sustainable growth are villains. It’s worth asking why this thinking is so common, and why, even putting ethical concerns aside, it is so flawed.

First let’s attend to the flaws in the thinking by the villains in each of these movies. When I taught math, we would discuss population growth (exploring exponential and logistic functions). Without fail, when I brought up the topic of population control, students immediately asked, “So you want to kill a bunch of people?!?!” Of course, I had never said anything like that, but these kids, like the adult writers of these movies, could not imagine any other way to address the issue. Humans certainly weren’t going to stop having too many babies too quickly, stop fighting over resources, stop killing other species to make room for their nurseries—the only way to stop them must be by killing humans. So I developed an in-class project where we looked at the great loss of human life in World War II. Tens to hundreds of millions of people dead in a devastating conflict. If any event had the chance to stem the tide of population growth through killing, this should be it. But the population was back to pre-war levels by the 1950s (a bit younger, admittedly). Growth rates increased proportionally to population loss as a sort of correction factor. We had a baby boom!

Now think of Thanos’s positive example, where he had succeeded in killing half the population. He must have put considerable effort into it—he wasn’t yet as powerful as he is in A:IW, so think of how long it would take to kill billions of people, how much man-power (Chitauri-power?) it would take to kill that many people. Now, he says, the planet lives in abundance. But how long will that last? The human population of Earth is now 7.6 billion people. It was at 3.8 billion around 1973, or about 45 years ago. So we are doubling our population every 45 years. If Thanos succeeds in killing half of Earth, widdling us down to 3.8 billion people right this moment, then by 2063 we’d be right back where we started: resources just as scarce, just as over-crowded, plus bearing the enormous cultural and psychological scars of a massacre of that scale. I don’t think it would be a swell time. And this is assuming “half of all life” isn’t literal, but rather “half of all sentient, (potentially) civilized life,” because otherwise—if you kill half our food too—we’re not going to be living high on the hog, so to speak, since half the hogs would be dead.

So Thanos’s plan does not accomplish its goal, just as WWII did not seriously impact population growth. It doesn’t even take that much time thinking about it to realize how flawed the plan is. So why is it so common in cinema?

It’s because the writers are all part of civilization, and civilization cannot function without population growth. Civilization does not require many people, it requires too many people—disposable people whom we can turn into soldiers and gang-members and scapegoats to die for us. We need under-valued people to work way too hard for subsistence living to generate wealth for the rest of us. If it sounds like I’m talking about capitalism, sure, but only because capitalism is fundamentally civilized. Communism did nothing to stop producing soldiers to fight wars and die, or to stop producing workers to live in poverty to maintain the power of the state. Sure, China briefly instituted weak population control measures to limit (inconsistently) the number of children people had, and they sent waves of soldiers to die in WWII and Korea since they had them to spare, but that was brief and not terribly effective. They are now relaxing pregnancy restrictions because they have found that a growing population facilitates economic stability. Their attempts at conscious population control failed because the Chinese system is founded on civilized principles, and so will act as a civilized system that depends on population growth. In the same way, while pockets of Europe have low birth rates, these are balanced by “natural” corrections (migration from higher density areas) and artificial ones (e.g. tax breaks for children if the parents can afford them, and public support for children if the parents can’t). In a rare moment of honesty on the topic, State Rep. Scott Allen (R – WI) admitted last year that he supports the abolition of abortion in part to avoid labor shortages in the future.

A fundamental and necessary belief in any civilization is the belief that human life is more important than any other form of life. It is, after all, what allows you to mow down a diverse field of plants and animals to grow just one plant, like corn: corn grows more people, so the rest of the plants and animals who lived in the field yesterday can be sacrificed in the interest of growing more of us. Civilization is fundamentally narcissism (and I’m just as bad as anybody – no soapboxes here). And this gets to a second flaw in the Thanos’s thinking, or at least the way it’s illustrated in A:IW. As I said, Titan is depicted as utterly dead. Why? So the Titans killed each other—wouldn’t that just leave a bunch of dead bodies filled with microbes lying around to decompose, which is to say, to grow more microbes? No insects housing babies in the corpses? No rats or cockroaches scurrying around after all the Titans died?

Civilization is not wiping out life altogether, it’s converting bio-diverse life into human bodies. We are killing other species to grow more people. Bio-diversity is diminishing under the influence of one species (humans), many of whom fundamentally believe bio-diversity is bad since only one species really matters: us. If we diminish bio-diversity to a catastrophic point, it is not likely to kill all of us, just a large percentage of us. But even if we did wipe each other out… there will still be life. The leftover species will continue evolving toward greater bio-diversity, and without one species systematically working against it, bio-diversity will increase. The bacteria and insects and rats will feed on our corpses for a few days, and that will be the end of that. The filmmakers behind A:IW envision a totally dead planet because, like little kids, they cannot imagine life going on after them, after civilization. Civilization is the culmination, the climax. There cannot be anything after it, because if there were, we might have an ethical responsibility to explore what that might look like.

This is nothing new, by the way. Ancient theological constructions imagined a beginning with zero population growth, a system upended by humans (Genesis 1-3); and they imagined the end of time as a new world with zero population growth (cf. Mark 12:25 // Matt 22:30), but that world could only be brought on after the utter destruction of this one.

Comparing Jesus-Sayings Traditions (Part IV: Measuring Agreement)

Here I want to explore a way of measuring agreement between two versions of a saying, one that takes into account vocabulary, but also syntax. In other words, if one version alters the word order—and so alters the emphasis, the focus, the topic, etc.—then that is an element that has not been controlled. It should negatively impact the amount of control we find in the saying. What I propose is a correlation.

Take two versions that were close, Mark’s and Matthew’s. To remind you:

Mark 6:4: Οὐκ ἔστιν προφήτης ἄτιμος εἰ μὴ ἐν τῇ πατρίδι αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐν τοῖς συγγενεῦσιν αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ αὐτοῦ.

Matt 13:57: Οὐκ ἔστιν προφήτης ἄτιμος εἰ μὴ ἐν τῇ πατρίδι καὶ ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ αὐτοῦ.

Matthew omits only a few words (“and among his relatives” and “his”). In a previous post (here), I correlated the words in Mark with the words in Matthew. For example, in this case the first word in both versions is οὐκ, so we would have a point (1,1). The second word is ἔστιν in both cases, so we add the point (2,2). So far, so good. However, οὐκ is a negating adverb, but so is μή. With this saying we would hardly be tempted to correlate one to the other, but what if Mark says, “she does not look” (οὐκ βλέπει) where Luke has, “not looking” (μὴ βλεπομένη). The same verb, but in participle form rather than active indicative, which requires a different negating adverb. Should we not at least partially correlate the two?

We can weight points more or less heavily depending on how strong the correlation is. For example, the same verb in the same form may be given more weight than the same verb in a different form, or a synonymous verb in the same form. Consider a trivial comparison of John 1:51 and 4:48:

John 1:51: And he [Jesus] said to him (καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ)…

John 4:48: Then Jesus said to him (εἶπεν οὖν ὁ Ἰησοῦς πρὸς αὐτόν)…

The basic thrust is the same, but if we strictly matched one to the other, there would be no points of agreement! One names the speaker, the other doesn’t. One uses the historical present tense of λέγω, the other uses the aorist (past tense). One uses the dative for “to him,” the other a preposition with the accusative. Yet it would be silly to say that these two phrases have nothing in common.

There are at least two points of contact: they use the same verb (“said”), and the statement is addressed to a single, masculine third party (“to him”). We might, for example, assign points based on pre-set criteria:

Verb:   Same verb        +2                                Noun: Same noun        +2

Synonym         +1                                              Synonym         +1

Same person    +1                                            Same number   +1

Same tense       +1                                            Same case        +1

In this case, λέγει and εἶπεν would get a weight of 3 out of 4 for being the same verb with the same person, but different tenses. αὐτῷ and αὐτόν would get also get 3 out of 4 for being the same pronoun with the same number, but different cases.

Scholars generally treat verbs and nouns as more important, and this weighting would recognize that. For other types of words, we might give them less weight:

Adverb/preposition/particle:    Same word       +2                    Article: Case                +1

Synonym         +1                                    Number           +1

So now let’s return to Mark and Matthew:


Mark Matt

This gives the following correlation:

Mark Matt Correlation

Two things to note. First, the correlation is still strong (r2 > 50%) even with all the duplications. Second, the slope of the best fit line is 0.539, which is positive and deviates from the ideal slope (1) by 46.1%.

Now let’s take two versions of the saying that are not particularly close, John’s and Luke’s. To remind you:

Luke 4:24: Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι οὐδεὶς προφήτης δεκτός ἐστιν ἐν τῇ πατρίδι αὐτοῦ.

Amen I tell you, no prophet is acceptable in his homeland.

John 4:44: προφήτης ἐν τῇ ἰδίᾳ πατρίδι τιμὴν οὐκ ἔχει

A prophet in his own homeland does not have honor.

Each uses the words prophet, in the, and homeland. However, there are other similarities, at least in sense. For example, “his” (αὐτοῦ) and “his own” (ἰδίᾳ) are in different positions, different cases (genitive and dative), and use different vocabulary, but they are synonymous to an extent. Also, do we consider “acceptable” to be completely devoid of contact with “honor”? Or, since one is a feminine noun in the accusative, and the other is a masculine adjective in the nominative, has the grammar strayed too far to compare them, even if there is some similarity in sense? Would it be better if John used τίμιος (honorable)?

Under the above rubric, this gives the following correlation:

Luke John Correlation

That’s a very strong correlation with a slope even closer to 100%. However, only 5 of Luke’s 12 words, or 5 of John’s 8 words, are correlated. That is, 10 of 20 total. It seems like cheating to say Luke and John correlate strongly. What we could do is create a new metric multiplying the r2 (which is interpreted as a percentage) with the percentage of words correlated, in this case (84.4%)(50%) = 42.2% for Luke and John. By contrast, if we do the same with Mark and Matthew, we get (60.6%)(97.1%) = 58.8%. Mark and Matthew are still strong, Luke and John are now only moderate. If we apply the same metric to all the combinations, we get:


Or put another way:

All Correlations

Here we can see the strongest pairing is between Matthew and Thomas, while the strongest triplet is between Matthew, Thomas, and Mark. John performs well with Luke, but with nobody else, perhaps strengthening the arguments of Mark Matson or Barbara Shellard that Luke used John as a source. If I had to create a diagram of relationships based on these numbers alone, it would go something like:


I imagine most people would put John down the line from Luke, but his 42% agreement with Luke, but 0.7% agreement with Thomas and 0.2% agreement with Matthew, weaken the case for it. It may be an interesting project to develop a metric like this, look for sayings in multiple gospels, and see if the resultant ‘genealogies’ tend toward certain structures. At any rate, only four of the ten pairings show strong agreement, and John shows moderate agreement only with Luke, who shows strong agreement only with Thomas, of all gospels.

This case does not provide much evidence for the strict control of sayings in oral storytelling. Five early texts quote Jesus as saying something about prophets having a rough time in their homeland, but with widely variant phrasing. If each of these texts paraphrase, but we have no idea who is original (e.g. Mark, or maybe Matthew or John), we cannot make much of a judgment on Jesus’s original saying. Maybe the eyewitnesses and the oral culture of the early church was incredibly reliable and incredibly controlled up to the moment of written composition, but since the literary ethic of the first century valued paraphrase, there is little chance of recovering Jesus’s precise phrasing, his original rhetorical intent, or even the original context of his statement from the written texts.

Historical Jesus scholars often assume that maintaining precise data about Jesus was a concern of the early church. This assumption facilitates their work: artistry and flexibility put too much noise in the data. So the question is often how well they could have remembered this information until it was recorded, not the extent to which they wanted to. I would agree that Jesus said something bout prophets in their homelands, but how he said it, why he said it and when are difficult to determine.

Comparing Jesus-Sayings Traditions (Part III: A Prophet without Honor in the Gospel Tradition)

In the previous posts (here and here), I’ve looked at how the Synoptic Gospels tell the story of Jesus’s rejection at Nazareth. Matthew follows Mark closely, with some subtractions and substitutions (or, for the Griesbachians and Augustinians, Mark elaborated Matthew with minor additions). Luke, meanwhile, elaborates extensively, adding elements, substituting them, and subtracting them as needed. The saying has “a prophet” and “is… in his homeland,” but everything else is altered and transposed. A similar saying appears in two other early Gospels. So here I want to look more closely at how well-controlled the saying itself was in the first century, and how free each evangelist is to paraphrase.

So far we have examined three versions of the sayings:

Mark 6:4: Οὐκ ἔστιν προφήτης ἄτιμος εἰ μὴ ἐν τῇ πατρίδι αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐν τοῖς συγγενεῦσιν αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ αὐτοῦ.
A prophet is not honorless except in his homeland and among his relatives and in his household.

Matt 13:57: Οὐκ ἔστιν προφήτης ἄτιμος εἰ μὴ ἐν τῇ πατρίδι καὶ ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ αὐτοῦ.
A prophet is not honorless except in his homeland and in his household.

Luke 4:24: Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι οὐδεὶς προφήτης δεκτός ἐστιν ἐν τῇ πατρίδι αὐτοῦ.
Amen I tell you, no prophet is acceptable in his homeland.

Or, put another way:

Word Moves

Comparing the first two, Matthew subtracts “among his relatives” from Mark. This has two effects in Matthew’s version of the story: it shortens the saying, as Matthew shortens Mark’s story generally, and it avoids criticism of Jesus’s relatives. This is a tendency we see elsewhere in Matthew (cf. Mark 2 and Matthew 12), while Mark seems more critical of Jesus’s family.

Comparing Luke and Mark, Luke adds “Amen I tell you” where Mark (or Matthew) does not have it, restructures the sentence more efficiently (“a prophet is not without honor except” becomes “no prophet is acceptable”), and changes the focus from honor to favorability. All of these changes bear the marks of paraphrase as Greek students learned it: the subtractions allow a leaner statement that still connects to mentions of “prophet” and “homeland” elsewhere, additions make sure the sentence is in the character of the speaker (“Amen I tell you” sounds like Jesus), and the major substitution (“no prophet is acceptable [δεκτός]”) connects Jesus’s saying to the scriptural citation earlier in the story (4:19: “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor [δεκτόν]”). Luke’s Greek education would have told him to quote sayings in the clearest, most eloquent, and most efficient way possible. It would not be any violation to alter the wording if the sense was kept while improving the speech. Evidently, in this case, it does not matter that Jesus made this statement in particular.

The Synoptic Gospels aren’t the only ones to adapt the saying, however. First, there is the Gospel of John:

John 4:44: προφήτης ἐν τῇ ἰδίᾳ πατρίδι τιμὴν οὐκ ἔχει

A prophet in his own homeland does not have honor.

John’s version of the saying itself is considerably different, although its dependence on Mark (or all the Synoptics) still has its defenders. Compared to Mark, John transposes the verb to the end of the sentence and substitutes the phrasing (“is not without honor except” becomes “does not have honor”). This is not typical Johannine phrasing; usually he likes the verb, “to honor” (τιμάω, cf. 5:23-24; 8:49; 12:26), so we cannot easily credit the verb change to a careless tic. John’s “honor” (τιμή) echoes Mark’s “not without honor” (oὐκ… ἄτιμος), but John also discusses honor in the next chapter in Jerusalem (cf. 5:23: “so that all may honor the Son as they honor the Father. Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him”). In fact, apart from this verse, Jerusalem is the only place honor (or dishonor) comes up in John. He also substitutes the adjective ἰδίᾳ (“his own”) in place of the genitive pronoun αὐτοῦ (“his”), perhaps connecting to John’s prologue, where Jesus “came to his own (ἴδια), and his own [people] (ἴδιοι) did not receive him” (1:11). Here, we have Jesus being rejected in “his own homeland.” It is difficult to tell how much these intratextual echoes influenced John’s paraphrase of Jesus.

The Gospel of Thomas also features a version of the saying, and it survives in a Greek fragment (P. Oxy. 1 30-35; cf. NHC 2.39:5-7):

Gosp. Thom. 31: Οὐκ ἔστιν δεκτός προφήτης ἐν τῇ πατρίδι αὐτοῦ.

A prophet is not acceptable in his homeland.

Thomas’s phrasing is apparently closer to the Synoptics than to John’s: it begins with “is not” (like Mark and Matthew), uses “acceptable” and a simpler construction (like Luke; Thomas also features a saying about a doctor curing people after this one, while Luke has the saying, “Heal yourself, doctor!” just before his), and phrases “in his homeland” like all of them (barring the odd abbreviation / misspelling / nomen sacrum [?] of “homeland,” ΠΡΙΔΙ). Thomas’s transposition may put emphasis on “it is not acceptable,” with “a prophet in his homeland” defining what is condemned.

So what can we say about all the different versions? It was certainly widely attested that Jesus said something about a prophet having difficulties in his homeland, but what else can we say?

First, the context varies widely. Matthew and Mark place it in the middle of the last year of Jesus’s ministry, while Luke (who probably knew at least one of the other Synoptic Gospels) moves it to the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. John refers to it more than a year (at least) before Jesus dies, and Thomas just… says it. Was Mark “right,” and Matthew “right” to follow him? Or was Luke right to move it earlier, like John? (Did Luke, as some would argue, see that John had it earlier and followed John?) Does John apply it to Galileans (who are nevertheless about to welcome him), like the Synoptics, or to Judeans (whom he just left, and to whom the context connects the saying through an allusion to John 2:23-25, a reading going back to Origen)? That is, where is Jesus’s homeland in John, Galilee or Judea? If he refers to Galileans, anticipating a rejection at a synagogue (in Capernaum, not Nazareth; John 6:26-60) as Garský argues, then apparently one element of control was not that the saying be attached to the story (nor were the timing or location of the event).

The variation in context cannot simply be dismissed. Gnostic texts cite God’s famous saying, “I am God and there is no god before me,” accurately. But when they cite it in service of portraying Yahweh as a stupid angel acting like an arrogant buffoon, the ability to replicate the words literally is of little consolation.

If we were trying to do the neat historical work that some scholars want to do with the Gospels, then we have a saying made in multiple settings and in service of multiple rhetorical purposes. Did Jesus say this in his hometown after building up a considerable following (Mark / Matt)? Or did he experience rejection from the outset of his ministry, hinting at how the story would end right at the beginning (Luke)? Or did he use the saying as a criticism of signs belief, perhaps directed at Judeans and Galileans (John)? Or was it part of his post-resurrection revelations, instructing his disciples about what to expect as he sends them out (Thomas)? The knee-jerk reaction among scholars is to trust Mark (Matthew is weak support since he just fails to go against Mark, which could be explained simply as laziness), and there are some elements that would make his story memorable: with all the successes he’s experienced, it would be shocking to go to his hometown and see Jesus rejected by the people who grew up with him. Historical scholars tend to dismiss the predictive aspects of Luke’s presentation (and possibly of John’s), but this assumes 1) Jesus was incapable of making predictions (so a naturalistic assumption, which is fine but should be understood for what it is), and 2) that Jesus did not have an agenda that involved his rejection (so an assumption that warm and cuddly Jesus was just doing his best). If we were to examine other sayings and find that the context and rhetorical aim of the saying generally varied to this extent, we would say that such a historical concern was largely uncontrolled even in the literary stage.

Since the common claim, however, is about the phrasing of the saying and not about the narrative details, in the next post I want to focus on how well they correlate to each other. Can we measure how close the phrasing of one is to the other in a meaningful way? Would these metrics tell us anything about the relationships between the gospels? That is what I want to tackle next.

Comparing Jesus-Sayings in the Gospels (Part II: Electric Booga-Luke, or… Mark and Luke)

So in the last post, we saw that Mark and Matthew present, for the most part, a very similar story about Jesus’s rejection at Nazareth, told in a similar order using similar vocabulary. In fact, they place it sequentially and chronologically in a similar position in Jesus’s life. Matthew makes Mark’s story leaner, omitting details and redundant phrasing, and he cleans up Mark’s grammar.

Luke, on the other hand, tells a very different story about Jesus’s rejection with only a few similar elements. He moves it from mid-ministry to the opening of Jesus’s public career, right after his baptism. Luke frames it as a story about Jesus reading and interpreting Scripture in a synagogue, and has the people go beyond disbelief to openly kicking him out of town. Yet, by most redaction theories, Luke knew at least one of the other gospels when he wrote his version. Did he have oral testimony placing the story in a different context, adding different details, and changing the ending? Or did he simply alter the story to suit his own narrative ends? The answers are open to dispute.

What we will look at here is: how controlled is the story? According to Bauckham (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses), Luke used the best historiographic principles while writing his gospel, consulting eyewitnesses and authorized tradents who actively guarded against variations in the story (especially the saying). So how much control did they exert over Luke?

To begin, here is the graph comparing Mark and Luke with no filter:

Mark Luke No Filter

Καὶ ἦλθεν εἰς Ναζαρά, οὗ ἦν τεθραμμένος, καὶ εἰσῆλθεν κατὰ τὸ εἰωθὸς αὐτῷ ἐν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῶν σαββάτων εἰς τὴν συναγωγήν, καὶ ἀνέστη ἀναγνῶναι. καὶ ἐπεδόθη αὐτῷ βιβλίον τοῦ προφήτου Ἡσαΐου, καὶ ἀναπτύξας τὸ βιβλίον εὗρεν τὸν τόπον οὗ ἦν γεγραμμένον Πνεῦμα Κυρίου ἐπ’ ἐμέ, οὗ εἵνεκεν ἔχρισέν με εὐαγγελίσασθαι πτωχοῖς, ἀπέσταλκέν με κηρῦξαι αἰχμαλώτοις ἄφεσιν καὶ τυφλοῖς ἀνάβλεψιν, ἀποστεῖλαι τεθραυσμένους ἐν ἀφέσει, κηρῦξαι ἐνιαυτὸν Κυρίου δεκτόν. καὶ πτύξας τὸ βιβλίον ἀποδοὺς τῷ ὑπηρέτῃ ἐκάθισεν· καὶ πάντων οἱ ὀφθαλμοὶ ἐν τῇ συναγωγῇ ἦσαν ἀτενίζοντες αὐτῷ. ἤρξατο δὲ λέγειν πρὸς αὐτοὺς ὅτι Σήμερον πεπλήρωταιγραφὴ αὕτη ἐν τοῖς ὠσὶν ὑμῶν. καὶ πάντες ἐμαρτύρουν αὐτῷ καὶ ἐθαύμαζον ἐπὶ τοῖς λόγοις τῆς χάριτος τοῖς ἐκπορευομένοις ἐκ τοῦ στόματος αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἔλεγον Οὐχὶ υἱός ἐστιν Ἰωσὴφ οὗτος; καὶ εἶπεν πρὸς αὐτούς Πάντως ἐρεῖτέ μοι τὴν παραβολὴν ταύτην Ἰατρέ, θεράπευσον σεαυτόν· ὅσα ἠκούσαμεν γενόμενα εἰς τὴν Καφαρναοὺμ, ποίησον καὶ ὧδε ἐν τῇ πατρίδι σου. εἶπεν δέ Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι οὐδεὶς προφήτης δεκτός ἐστιν ἐν τῇ πατρίδι αὐτοῦ. ἐπ’ ἀληθείας δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν, πολλαὶ χῆραι ἦσαν ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις Ἡλίου ἐν τῷ Ἰσραήλ, ὅτε ἐκλείσθηοὐρανὸς ἐπὶ ἔτη τρία καὶ μῆνας ἕξ, ὡς ἐγένετο λιμὸς μέγας ἐπὶ πᾶσαν τὴν γῆν, καὶ πρὸς οὐδεμίαν αὐτῶν ἐπέμφθη Ἡλίας εἰ μὴ εἰς Σάρεπτα τῆς Σιδωνίας πρὸς γυναῖκα χήραν. καὶ πολλοὶ λεπροὶ ἦσαν ἐν τῷ Ἰσραὴλ ἐπὶ Ἑλισαίου τοῦ προφήτου, καὶ οὐδεὶς αὐτῶν ἐκαθαρίσθη εἰ μὴ ΝαιμὰνΣύρος. καὶ ἐπλήσθησαν πάντες θυμοῦ ἐν τῇ συναγωγῇ ἀκούοντες ταῦτα, καὶ ἀναστάντες ἐξέβαλον αὐτὸν ἔξω τῆς πόλεως, καὶ ἤγαγον αὐτὸν ἕως ὀφρύος τοῦ ὄρους ἐφ’ οὗπόλις ᾠκοδόμητο αὐτῶν, ὥστε κατακρημνίσαι αὐτόν· αὐτὸς δὲ διελθὼν διὰ μέσου αὐτῶν ἐπορεύετο.

And… into… and… to him in the… of the… in the… and… and… to him… and… and… in… and… and… the… in the synagogue… to him. He began… to… that… the… in the… and… to him and… to the… of the… to the… his, and… son is… this? And… to… the… in the… and here in the homeland… that… a prophetis in his homeland… in… in… the… and… the… and to… unless in… of the… to… and many… in… and… unless… the… and… in the synagogue who heard these things, and… of the… and… the… through… their…

This fragment is… fragmentary. Luke expands on, subtracts from, and reshapes Mark’s story so thoroughly that barely anything substantive of Mark remains. The graph is a clutter of conjunctions, articles, and prepositions with little visible pattern of agreement. Furthermore the saying is not even the longest point of agreement, but rather “who heard these things in the synagogue, and.”

Since there is not that much to work with in the first place, let’s skip to the final filter:

Mark Luke 4 points

εἰς τὴν… καὶ… καὶ… προφήτης… ἐστιν ἐν τῇ πατρίδι αὐτοῦ.

…in the… and… and… a prophetis in his homeland

So a fragment of the saying survives (along with a preposition, an article, and two ands). This would seem to confirm that the saying was a relatively high point of agreement, even when everything else is greatly altered.

I will look at how the saying is different in a future post, but for now let’s look at how it is similar. The nouns, “prophet” and “homeland,” each appear elsewhere in the Lukan passage. In both cases, it is probably the saying itself that influenced how Luke elaborated the story. Elaboration and paraphrase were exercises taught to adolescent students, either by the grammarian (with young students, i.e. why you call it “grammar school”) or early on by the rhetorician (basically, high school). A story, often with a famous saying, would be given to the student to paraphrase and tell in a certain style (e.g. like Demosthenes would tell it), for a new setting (e.g. in a courtroom or in a classroom), or simply to improve the story. Luke’s elaboration of Mark’s (or of Matthew’s, or of both) story is well in line with how he would have been taught to elaborate a chreia with a punchline, incorporating elements like “prophet” and “homeland” from the saying into the story (the reverse is also often true – they would incorporate elements from the story into the saying; see how δεκτόν [favorable] from the scriptural citation in 4:22 brings Luke to change “not honorless” to “acceptable,” δεκτός, in the saying).

So Luke expands a story including a saying about a prophet in his homeland with a citation of “the prophet Isaiah” and a supporting story about “the prophet Elisha.” The first announces who Jesus is and why he should be accepted, and the second draws out the consequences of his rejection by Israel: “he” (or his followers) will move on to Gentiles. Likewise, Luke anticipates the saying by having Jesus claim they will ask him to do miracles in his homeland like the ones he did in Capernaum. The main saying, then, becomes a counter-statement to what Jesus supposes they would ask him to do. In Mark, Jesus cannot perform miracles because of their unbelief, and in Matthew he chooses not to, but in Luke they simply drive him out of town. Anticipating the saying like this acknowledges their desire for miracles and presents the saying as a counter-argument before the fact: they want him to heal people in his homeland, but they do not accept him in his homeland (note that both “in his household” and “among his relatives” are absent in Luke).

Beyond the important nouns, Luke has “is” before “in his homeland,” and he uses “his” (αὐτοῦ) rather than “his own” (ἴδιος) (as John does). The coincidence is not terribly striking: Luke uses “his own” only six times (compared to John’s 15), so he is by far more likely to use “his” anyway.

What we have to contend with while advocating for control in early Christian storytelling, even after the literary stage, is this type of paraphrastic elaboration. Matthew feels free to subtract here and there from Mark, and to improve Mark’s phrasing. Luke borrows barely anything from Mark (or Matthew, or both), even while telling the same story. If he had Mark and Matthew in front of him, the combined force of Mark and Matthew in written form did not control how he told this story, or how he quoted Jesus’s saying. Did the oral sources exert greater control than Mark or Matthew? If so, we have at least two divergent traditions regarding this saying already in the first century.

Or, as redaction-critical scholars advocated, was Luke simply uncontrolled by the other Synoptic texts in this case, placing the composition of a well-crafted story over faithful replication of Jesus’s words? This is probably the case, and it draws attention to the fact that variance in wording is not enough to suggest the influence of oral tradition. Nor do we have to imagine some *overwhelming* theological or ideological concern that led Luke to deviate from his written source. It’s entirely possible that Luke thought he could tell the story better, so he did.

Elaborations were taught as exercises of opportunity — paraphrase when you can, because you can do it better. Some scholars want the evangelists to be slaves to tradition. Therefore in Luke’s case, either he is obedient to Mark (and Matthew?), or he is obedient to his oral sources. We don’t really have the evidence to back that up. We’re projecting, because it would make our jobs easier (as historians), and it would make us feel better (as Christians). It’s entirely possible, however, that Luke omitted Mark’s stories when he simply didn’t like them or didn’t know what to do with them, kept his stories when he couldn’t think of anything better, and altered his stories when the opportunity presented itself.

Comparing Jesus-Sayings in the Gospels (Part I: Mark and Matthew)

I recently reviewed Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (it will be in the next issue of Reviews in Religion and Theology), where he wants to claim that eyewitness testimony regarding Jesus is generally reliable. While he acknowledges that the authors (Mark, [someone close to] Matthew, Luke, and John) edited the stories as they incorporated them into the Gospels, he also wants to claim that much of the variation between parallel stories may only reflect typical variations in oral performance.

In support of this point, he reiterates a widely made claim that sayings material shows much higher agreement than other narrative elements. Bauckham suggests that sayings material was not only easier to remember, it was controlled more strictly than other narrative elements. In other words, you can tell the joke in your own way, just don’t mess up the punchline. Bauckham does not substantiate the impression that sayings material is more controlled, and when I’ve looked at previous arguments, they usually consist of large, overly complicated tables. So here I wanted to try something different.

Mark and Matthew

First, let’s compare the story of Jesus’s rejection at Nazareth in Mark 6:1-6 and Matthew 13:54-58. Mark’s story has 132 words, Matthew’s 96. The general plan of attack on a question about agreement is to ask what percent agreement exists from Mark to Matthew, or from Matthew to Mark. That is, how many of Mark’s 132 words are adapted without change by Matthew, and how many of Matthew’s 96 are borrowed directly from Mark? In this case, 84 of Mark’s 132 words (~64%) have an exact match in Matthew, and 69 of Matthew’s 96 words (~72%) have an exact match in Mark. This isn’t always exactly the way they go about it, but you get a sense that about 2/3 of the words overlap in vocabulary and grammar.

The method has a rough time taking account of syntax, though—that is, the order of the words. Maybe another column will be added with the maximum number of words in sequential agreement. However, if one text changes just one word in the middle of all that (omits a particle, adds a conjunction), it will hide what is in reality a large amount of agreement. What we want is a measurement that takes into account both agreement and word order.

Borrowing a bit from the method developed by Zbyněk Garský (, I’ve correlated every place where Mark’s and Matthew’s vocabulary overlap. That is, if the same word appears third in Mark and seventh in Matthew, a point will appear at (3,7). Below is the graph along with the “fragment” that is left after correlating them (in Matthew’s order):

Mark Matt No Filter

καὶ ἐλθὼν εἰς τὴν πατρίδα αὐτοῦ ἐδίδασκεν αὐτοὺς ἐν τῇ συναγωγῇ αὐτῶν, ὥστε ἐκπλήσσεσθαι αὐτοὺς καὶ λέγειν Πόθεν τούτῳ ἡ σοφία αὕτη καὶ αἱ δυνάμεις; οὐχ οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ τοῦ τέκτονος υἱός; οὐχ ἡ μήτηρ αὐτοῦ λέγεται Μαριὰμ καὶ οἱ ἀδελφοὶ αὐτοῦ Ἰάκωβος καὶ Ἰωσὴφ καὶ Σίμων καὶ Ἰούδας; καὶ αἱ ἀδελφαὶ αὐτοῦ οὐχὶ πᾶσαι πρὸς ἡμᾶς εἰσιν; πόθεν οὖν τούτῳ ταῦτα πάντα; καὶ ἐσκανδαλίζοντο ἐν αὐτῷ. ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς Οὐκ ἔστιν προφήτης ἄτιμος εἰ μὴ ἐν τῇ πατρίδι καὶ ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ αὐτοῦ. καὶ οὐκ ἐποίησεν ἐκεῖ δυνάμεις πολλὰς διὰ τὴν ἀπιστίαν αὐτῶν.

And… in his homeland… in the synagogue… and… “From where did… the wisdom [come] to him? And the miracles? Is this not the… son? Is his… not… and his… and… and… and…? And his sisters… are with us? From where… did these things to this one…?” And they were offended by him… Jesus… to them, “A prophet is not honorless except in his homeland and in his household.” And not… miracles there… because of their unbelief.

Looking at the graph, there is lots of clutter, but a clear (if squiggly) through-line where Mark’s and Matthew’s vocabulary overlaps. If we look at the resulting fragment, we get:

  • The location in his homeland, specifically in the synagogue.
  • Questions regarding his wisdom and miracles.
  • Questions regarding his parentage and something about his family.
  • Offense
  • Not doing miracles because of their unbelief.

It is fragmentary in some cases because Matthew omits words, in others because he alters Mark’s grammar (e.g. the names of Jesus’s brothers are similar in both, but Matthew lists them in the nominative (“Aren’t his brothers James and Joseph and…?”) while Mark lists them in the genitive (“Isn’t he the brother of James and of Joses and…?”). There are ways of dealing with grammatical changes like this, which I may get to in a future post.

However, there are no breaks in the punchline, Jesus’s saying about prophets being without honor in their homeland (note that if we wrote the fragment in Markan order, there would be a big gap when Jesus includes “among his relatives”). This supports in part the general contention that storytellers were less likely to vary sayings of Jesus than they were other, incidental detail.

Unlike Garský, I want to apply a filter to get rid of the clutter in our graph. Previously I have applied density filters: only if there were enough points in a given area would the points survive the filter. Since we want to see how closely one text follows another in vocabulary and in order, here I will apply a correlation filter – only if enough points in a pre-set area have a strong correlation (r2 ≥ 50%) will they survive the filter. In the following case, I require only a minimum of 2 points since 2 points are needed to calculate the strength of a correlation:

Mark Matt 2 points

καὶ ἐλθὼν εἰς τὴν πατρίδα αὐτοῦ ἐδίδασκεν αὐτοὺς ἐν τῇ συναγωγῇ αὐτῶν, ὥστε ἐκπλήσσεσθαι αὐτοὺς καὶ λέγειν Πόθεν τούτῳ ἡ σοφία αὕτη καὶ αἱ δυνάμεις; οὐχ οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ τοῦ τέκτονος υἱός; οὐχμήτηρ αὐτοῦ λέγεται Μαριὰμ καὶ οἱ ἀδελφοὶ αὐτοῦ Ἰάκωβος καὶ Ἰωσὴφ καὶ Σίμων καὶ Ἰούδας; καὶ αἱ ἀδελφαὶ αὐτοῦ οὐχὶ πᾶσαι πρὸς ἡμᾶς εἰσιν; πόθεν οὖν τούτῳ ταῦτα πάντα; καὶ ἐσκανδαλίζοντο ἐν αὐτῷ. ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς Οὐκ ἔστιν προφήτης ἄτιμος εἰ μὴ ἐν τῇ πατρίδι καὶ ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ αὐτοῦ. καὶ οὐκ ἐποίησεν ἐκεῖ δυνάμεις πολλὰς διὰ τὴν ἀπιστίαν αὐτῶν.

And… in his homeland… in the synagogue… and… “From where… wisdom…? And the miracles? Is this not the… the… his… and the… his… and… and… and…? And his sisters… with us? From where… did these things to this one…?” And they were offended by him… Jesus… to them, “A prophet is not honorless except in his homeland and in his household.” And not… miracles there… because of their unbelief.

Some words were filtered out (some pronouns and a verb), but the gist remains. Notably, the saying was untouched. Now let’s apply a tighter filter requiring three words in strong correlation:

Mark Matt 3 points

The clutter is diminishing, and the intertextual overlap is emerging more clearly. Here is the fragment after this filter:

καὶ ἐλθὼν εἰς τὴν πατρίδα αὐτοῦ ἐδίδασκεν αὐτοὺς ἐν τῇ συναγωγῇ αὐτῶν, ὥστε ἐκπλήσσεσθαι αὐτοὺς καὶ λέγειν Πόθεν τούτῳ ἡ σοφία αὕτη καὶ αἱ δυνάμεις; οὐχ οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ τοῦ τέκτονος υἱός; οὐχμήτηρ αὐτοῦ λέγεται Μαριὰμ καὶ οἱ ἀδελφοὶ αὐτοῦ Ἰάκωβος καὶ Ἰωσὴφ καὶ Σίμων καὶ Ἰούδας; καὶ αἱ ἀδελφαὶ αὐτοῦ οὐχὶ πᾶσαι πρὸς ἡμᾶς εἰσιν; πόθεν οὖν τούτῳ ταῦτα πάντα; καὶ ἐσκανδαλίζοντο ἐν αὐτῷ. ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς Οὐκ ἔστιν προφήτης ἄτιμος εἰ μὴ ἐν τῇ πατρίδι καὶ ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ αὐτοῦ. καὶ οὐκ ἐποίησεν ἐκεῖ δυνάμεις πολλὰς διὰ τὴν ἀπιστίαν αὐτῶν.

And… in his homeland… in the synagogue… and… wisdom… And the miracles? Is this not the… the… his… and… his… and… and… and…? And his sisters… with us? From where… did these things to this one…?” And they were offended by him… Jesus… to them, “A prophet is not honorless except in his homeland and in his household.” And not… miracles there… because of their unbelief.

Only two words were lost (πόθεν and οἱ), and the saying was not affected.

As one last example, let’s turn the filter up to four points:

Mark Matt 4 points

Things are now very refined, with little clutter outside of the agreements. Here is the new “fragment”:

καὶ ἐλθὼν εἰς τὴν πατρίδα αὐτοῦ ἐδίδασκεν αὐτοὺς ἐν τῇ συναγωγῇ αὐτῶν, ὥστε ἐκπλήσσεσθαι αὐτοὺς καὶ λέγειν Πόθεν τούτῳσοφία αὕτη καὶ αἱ δυνάμεις; οὐχ οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ τοῦ τέκτονος υἱός; οὐχ ἡ μήτηρ αὐτοῦ λέγεται Μαριὰμ καὶ οἱ ἀδελφοὶ αὐτοῦ Ἰάκωβος καὶ Ἰωσὴφ καὶ Σίμων καὶ Ἰούδας; καὶ αἱ ἀδελφαὶ αὐτοῦ οὐχὶ πᾶσαι πρὸς ἡμᾶς εἰσιν; πόθεν οὖν τούτῳ ταῦτα πάντα; καὶ ἐσκανδαλίζοντο ἐν αὐτῷ. ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς Οὐκ ἔστιν προφήτης ἄτιμος εἰ μὴ ἐν τῇ πατρίδι καὶ ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ αὐτοῦ. καὶ οὐκ ἐποίησεν ἐκεῖ δυνάμεις πολλὰς διὰ τὴν ἀπιστίαν αὐτῶν.

And… in his homeland… the… and the miracles? Is this one not the… and his sisters… From where… these things to him… And they were offended by him. Jesus… “A prophet is not honorless except in his homeland and in his household.” And not… there… because of their unbelief.

Few of the narrative details remain – something about his homeland, miracles, his sisters, and offense followed by unbelief. But the whole saying remains intact. Again, this wouldn’t be the case if we ran the test backward, following Mark’s order instead. It only means that subtractions are more difficult to detect using this method, while additions, substitutions, and transpositions are easier to detect. Still, all the words Mark shares with Matthew in the saying would survive, only with a gap in the middle.

In any event, the saying has been objectively shown to be more similar in vocabulary and syntax than the rest of the story.

However, since Luke greatly alters the story and the saying, in the next post we will look at what happens when we apply the same technique to Luke.

A Refreshing Evangelical, Biblical Position on Gay Marriage

I’ll post this briefly, since it presents a Christian, Evangelical position on homosexuality that one rarely hears in the media, where all too often Christian = anti-gay and gay-accepting = secular, non-religious.

Essentially, Pastor Judy Howard Peterson of the Evangelical Covenant Church lost her credentials for officiating at the wedding of a member of her community who happened to marry someone of the same gender. Without her credentials, she lost her job as campus pastor at North Park University. While she was open to discussion with her church about why officiating this wedding was problematic (she had even sought it out prior to the event), this was apparently a line the church did not want crossed, and so a discussion they did not want to open.

The link to her description of her dismissal is here, and it is worth a read. She argues with great care that the church needs to find a way to love its members and to be friends to them, even when they are LGBTQ. Furthermore, she argues this from a Christian, biblical perspective. I know of at least one man — an intelligent, capable, and welcoming person who would be an incredible benefit to any church — who is seeking to heed the call to ministry, and he was very attracted to North Park U for a number of reasons. However, he has been reluctant to begin his pastoral training there in particular due to an attitude he perceived of exclusion toward LGBTQ people.

I’m in no position to judge a tradition outside of my own, so I will let Pastor Judy speak for herself, and let anyone interested in the situation follow up on their own. However, I will say that this is the sort of discussion of Christian attitudes toward human sexuality that will help move this issue forward.

The Johannine Jews in Scholarly Debates

L'évangile selon saint Jean (1–12)

Right now, I’m reading through Jean Zumstein’s 2014 commentary on John 1-12 for Review of Biblical Literature. So far I am enjoying it quite a bit, which is remarkable when reading a commentary straight through like a book, rather than consulting it a piece at a time.

Anyway, in his comments on John 1:19-28, Zumstein provides an excursus on the exegetical issues regarding the Johannine “Jews.” The problem with John is that it most often refers to “the Jews” (hoi Ioudaioi; lit., the Judeans) rather than narrower historical groups like the Sadducees, Pharisees, or scribes. “Jews” became the blanket Greek term that outsiders used to refer to Torah-observant but non-Christ-following believers in the God of Israel (rather than insider terms like, say, “sons of Israel” or “Israelites”), so John sounds to us like it is commenting on Jewish people generally, both when it says that “salvation is from the Jews” (4:22), and when John’s Jesus declares to a group of Jews (who had believed in him, though…), “You are of your father, the devil” (8:44). Antisemites, including the Nazis and our “Alt-Right” neighbors, gravitate toward the latter and ignore the former.

Zumstein’s reading incorporates aspects of narrative criticism, but acknowledges historical critical issues, including signs of editorial development in the text. He first acknowledges four senses detected by other commentators before giving his own list of what sort of characters are referred to by “Jew / the Jews” in John:

  • People who are simply Jewish (e.g. 12:9)
  • Unbelieving opponents of Jesus (e.g. 5:10)
  • Representatives of an identifiable religious tradition (e.g. 2:6)
  • …and sometimes of a positively assessed religious tradition (e.g. 4:22)
  • Interlocutors of Jesus (e.g. 2:18)
  • A group divided in the face of revelation (e.g. 6:52)
  • Jesus sympathizers (e.g. 3:1)
  • Jesus himself (4:9)

Zumstein concludes (my translation), “It is thus reductive to attribute a single significance to this term” (p. 73). The Johannine Jews are a literary construct of a particular text (the Gospel of John), referring to people who lived in a particular place (Palestine) in a particular time (first century), and yet still a group that shows remarkable diversity in its attitudes and behaviors.

This discussion reminded me of another book I reviewed last year for Reviews in Religion and Theology, Stanley Porter’s John, His Gospel, and Jesus (2015). Here, Porter surveys previous treatments of “the Jews” in John and criticizes them for being too reductive. To quote from myself (obnoxious, right?):

Porter’s next essay (chapter 6) is quite typical in its conclusion—that John uses the term “the Jews” in diverse ways, not in universal or only negative ones—while relying on false conflicts to strengthen his apologetic argument that John should not be considered anti-Jewish. After surveying the positions of a number of scholars, Porter claims that they “all appear to endorse the notion that there is a single referent for the term [the Jews]” (p. 159, emphasis mine), i.e. that “the Jews” indicate in every case hostile religious leaders, etc. Few if any of the scholars cited would agree.

In particular, I called Porter out for using a 30 year-old focused article by Urban von Wahlde which addressed the hostile uses of the term, rather than his 2010 commentary which highlights the various ways that John uses “the Jews.”

So despite, at the very least, von Wahlde’s 2010 commentary and Zumstein’s 2014 commentary (which also points to Schnelle’s catalogue of various meanings for “the Jews”) already acknowledging the diverse meanings of “the Jews” in John, Porter presents the same position as revolutionary and new. To me, it seemed clear that he had taken select positions out of context to heighten the apparent impact of his analysis.

Yet oddly one of his straw men, von Wahlde, accuses others of being reductive regarding “the Jews” in a 2017 New Testament Studies article against narrative criticism. His abstract begins, “Recent narrative critical studies of the religious authorities in the Fourth Gospel have proposed… that the term ‘Jews’ has only one meaning in the Gospel” (p. 222). As evidence, he cites Bennema (2009) and Zimmermann (2013). Neither Bennema nor Zimmerman seems to argue that John uses “the Jews” in only one way, even in the passages von Wahlde cites. Nearly every citation of Zimmermann highlights the variety of images given for the Jews in John, or in narrative critical terms, to the complexity of this group character.

The issue seems to be this: Zimmermann is comfortable with John’s complex characterization, von Wahlde is not. This is not surprising since von Wahlde’s methodology rests on the assumption that ancient authors are entirely consistent, so different uses of the same term must imply different authors. In other words, he acknowledges the same inconsistencies (or variety) in the use of “the Jews” in John that Zimmermann does, he simply accounts for them differently.

One method acknowledges that “Jews” could refer to the ethnos of the people of Judea, or more narrowly to a particular religious tendency within Judea, or more narrowly still, to the leaders of such a group. As characters, the Jews can signify any of these meanings, or can be put forward to represent the unbelieving “world.” Due to this polyvalency and functional diversity, the Jewish parents of a man born blind can be both Jewish and “afraid of the Jews” (9:22), just as Nicodemus, a Pharisee and the only ruler we know of who believed in Jesus yet did not confess it publicly, would remain silent “because of the Pharisees” (12:42).

The issue isn’t, “When John uses the Jews, he wants to communicate hostile disbelief,” which is the sort of statement some scholars want to make, but something more like, “When John needs a group to represent hostile disbelief, he often uses the Jews” (but sometimes uses the Pharisees, the crowds, or Pilate). In the same vein, the disciples are often the ones John uses to make profound statements about Christ (e.g. that he is the Christ, Son of God, King of Israel, etc.), but others can as well (e.g. the Baptist, the Samaritan), while the disciples as a group contain one betrayer, one denier, and a number of occasional idiots. John isn’t necessarily inconsistent in how it portrays the disciples, just not overly simple.

The other method acknowledges a similar set of uses for “the Jews,” but accounts for them without appeal to complex characterization. Rather, a complex authorial history is posited where three separate authors independently contributed to the Gospel. One author (rarely) refers to the Jews as an ethno-religious group, another as a group hostile to Jesus, and a third apparently just picks up whatever term the previous author used (and so is inconsistent in his characterization of “the Jews,” but only due to his carelessness and ignorance). While the implied author in narrative criticism may be simple and unified, but may create complex characters, the source critical model imagines a complex authorial history, but with each author creating very simple characters.

Porter’s method, meanwhile, favors any reading that makes the New Testament look good.

So we are in the odd position that almost everyone seems to recognize that the Gospel of John does not use “the Jews” in a simplistic manner, but they disagree about how to account for it. The difference is a matter of methodology. It would seem that these discussions would be more productive if they focused on methodology, rather than being tempted into creating a caricature of others’ conclusions.