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Who was the Elder John?

You may or may have not heard about a rather obscure individual whom Papias, a bishop in Hierapolis in the early second century CE, referred to as the “Elder John.” Who was the Elder John?

  • Was this figure the aged Apostle John, who would have been a much older man than his younger contemporary Papias?
  • What he the “disciple whom Jesus loved” in John’s Gospel, the evangelist who wrote John’s Gospel, the anonymous “elder” who delivered the epistles, or the seer whose visions are contained in the book of Revelation?
  • Was he an otherwise unknown authority figure in Asia Minor who, nevertheless, had a huge influence on how Christians have been reading the Gospels of Mark and Matthew for the last two millennia?

Check out my article “Would the Real Elder John Please Stand Up?” at the website Bible and Interpretation for an analysis of the scholarship on the Elder John, in both the ancient and the modern world. I make my own case about how the various prominent Christ followers named John were identified with each other in my book The Beloved Apostle? The Transformation of the Apostle John into the Fourth Evangelist.


Can the Christmas Stories be Reconciled?

Check out the debate between Deane Galbraith (cf. the podcasts he collected here), James McGrath, and Bill Heroman. Interestingly, I came to a similar position as Bill in this post where I suggested that is possible to reconcile the stories (e.g. Luke has Joseph transport Mary from her hometown in Nazareth to his temporary lodgings in Bethlehem where Jesus is born and shepherds visit, while Matthew has Joseph and Mary staying in a more permanent home in Bethlehem with a Jesus who could be almost 2 years old when magi visit), but that the major obstacle is Luke 2:39 and its assumption that Mary and Joseph returned to Nazareth as soon as they completed the prescribed temple rites. I looked at this issue from the perspective of the Synoptic Problem and whether Luke did not know Matthew’s account (i.e. did not know about a return to Bethlehem and flight to Egypt before going to Nazareth) or knew it yet purposely chose to skip over it. The theological emphases in each individual Gospel should also be stressed: Matthew’s Jesus is a new Moses who escapes a tyrant’s plot against the infant boys and comes out of Egypt and Luke’s Jesus is set in a particular imperial context (e.g. the census) and reaches out to the poor and marginalized (e.g. the song of Mary, the shepherds).

Update: Deane Galbraith critiques harmonizing interpretations here.

Update II: Jonathan Bernier nuances the discussion here by distinguishing between contrasts and contradictions.

Update III: Neil Godfrey criticizes scholars here for being more concerned about the details of narratives set in Bethlehem 2000 years ago than for the contemporary political situation.

The Twelve-Year-Old Jesus at the Temple

As we work through Ben C. Smith’s Synoptic Project page and Mahlon H. Smith’s Hyper-Synopsis, we come across a distinct Lukan episode in Luke 2:41-51 (here, here). Again, we see the centrality of Jerusalem and the temple in Luke’s narrative (as well as in Acts 1-7), a foreshadowing of Jesus’ remarkable teaching abilities and consciousness of his divine sonship at an early age, and the omniscient narrator’s aside about Mary’s internal reflections (2:51; cf. 2:19). It is uncertain why Matthew would not be interested in this material had the Gospel writer known it and perhaps we can establish a trajectory of increasing interest in Jesus’ early life from Mark (acknowledges Jesus’ family and Davidic descent but omits everything before Jesus’ baptism) to Matthew (genealogy and infancy narrative) to Luke (genealogy, infancy narrative, childhood anecdote). Some of the later apocryphal Gospels attempt to fill in the silence about Jesus’ childhood further and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas concludes its amusing stories about Jesus as a precocious young trouble-maker for his parents, teachers, and peers with this account of when he had matured as a 12-year-old at the temple (19:1-9).

The Visitors of the Infant Jesus

I am working through Ben C. Smith’s Synoptic Project page and Mahlon H. Smith’s Hyper-Synopsis. In Nativity plays, we see shepherds and “three wise men” visit together, which harmonizes Luke 2:8-20 and Matthew 2:1-12 (here, here). The infancy stories conclude in Luke 2:21-40 and Matthew 2:13-23 (here, here, here, here, here, here, here). We can start with a quick summary.

Luke’s story: the shepherds, the angelic announcement about a “savior” and “Christ [the] Lord” in the city of David, the angels glorifying God and either wishing peace among people who are favoured/well-pleasing or peace plus favour/good-will to people (cf. text-critical debate over the genitive eudokias or nominative eudokia), the self-reflection of Mary after the report of the shepherds, the circumcision and naming of Jesus, the purification rite at the temple, and the prophecies of Simeon and Anna (Lukan pair, themes about salvation or redemption, division within Israel, revelation to the nations).

Matthew’s story: the unnumbered magoi (political advisers adept in magical practices and consulting astrology, dreams, oracles) from the East (Persia? Arabia?), the star (cf. Numbers 24:17-19 was an oracle about David read messianically), the inquiry about the birthplace of the newborn king, the magi’s obeisance (proskuneō) to and gifts (gold, frankincense, myrrh) for the king, the slaughter of the infants as recapitulating the tragedy of the exile (cf. Jeremiah 31:15), the escape to Egypt, and the return to Nazareth (was the prophecy a reference to the Hebrew nētser or “branch” in Isaiah 11:1?) in Galilee when Herod Archelaus was ethnarch of Judaea.

  • Interesting Agreements: dating before the death of Herod “the Great” in 4 BCE (cf. Luke 1:5), Mary and Joseph, Bethlehem, “great joy” in the accusative case (charan megalēn), and “Nazareth” (spelled Nazaret in Matthew 2:23 and Nazareth in Luke 2:39, 1:26; 2:4, 51; Acts 10:38; Matthew 21:11) which is described as a “town” (polis).
  • Since Matthew has magi and Luke shepherds, perhaps the former visited much later as Jesus was circumcised eight days after the shepherds visited (Luke 2:21), Joseph’s temporary lodgings in Luke may have been replaced by a more permanent “house” (oikia) in Matthew, and Herod orders the death of those up to two years old. A difficulty with this chronology may be that the family is still living in Bethlehem in Matthew while Luke 2:39 seems to imply that they returned to Nazareth in Galilee after the purification rites at the temple 40 days after Jesus’s birth. Luke either skipped over or fast-forwarded their extended stay in Bethlehem, escape from Herod, and time in Egypt or did not know about these events.
  • The question of Matthew’s and Luke’s literary (in)dependence revolves around why they did not report the other’s stories. Would shepherds appeal to Matthew given the imagery of Jesus as a shepherd (Matthew 9:36; 25:32; 26:31) and concern for the poor (e.g. Matthew 5:42; 6:2-4; 19:21; 25:31-46)? Since Matthew brackets the Gospel with foreigners worshiping Jesus and the command to make disciples of all nations (28:16-20), would this example of moving beyond the borders of Israel appeal to Luke, though I get Mark Goodacre’s counterargument that a magos is a negative figure in Luke-Acts (cf. Acts 13:6-11; cf. 8:9-11; 19:19). Perhaps it is speculative to try to discern the motive of why Luke would exclude “M” material or Matthew “L” material if we accept that they had a literary relationship on other grounds?

Books for Christmas Presents

I have seen a few lists of the books of the year over at the blogs Crux Sola and Jesus Creed. Let me know if you have spotted other such lists relating to the Bible, Judaism and Christianity, or Religious Studies. I have also been advertising my own book The Beloved Apostle? The Transformation of the Apostle John into the Fourth Evangelist (Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.es). For any last-minute Christmas shoppers, would not these books make great presents? 😀

Exciting Online Debate about the Synoptic Problem

I have been dabbling in the Synoptic Problem over the Christmas season, going through the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke and making observations about whether they are independent of each other or whether one has influenced the other. However, I have to tip my hat to those experts who have devoted their PhD theses and their scholarly careers to tackling this issue. I want to point out some of the exciting activity that is going online right now:

I have known about Allan Garrow’s distinctive hypothesis (see his article “Streeter’s ‘Other’ Synoptic Solution: The Matthew Conflator HypothesisNew Testament Studies 62 [2016]: 207-226 and his personal website) since I heard him present at the University of Sheffield while I was a PhD student there. Anyways, a reader of Bart Ehrman’s blog named Evan offered to give a $1000 donation if Ehrman could either find holes in Garrow’s thesis or state that he was convinced by it (see here, herehere). Then, Ehrman found another expert, Mark Goodacre, who posted his response at Ehrman’s site and at his own NT Blog. I will be interested to see how this debate develops.

Second, courtesy of The Jesus Blog, I learned that the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus has published review articles (by Sarah Rollens, Rafael Rodriguez, Robert Derrenbacker, and Mark Goodacre) of Alan Kirk’s monograph Q in Matthew: Ancient Media, Memory, and Early Scribal Transmission of the Jesus Tradition. I have not read the book yet, but I have met Kirk and listen to some of his presentations which I remembered as quite compelling, so I would be interested in checking out these reviews. I am convinced of Markan priority but my position of the double tradition wavers between Q, multiple oral and written sources, and Luke’s use of Matthew depending on what day I wake up. Another article of note in the same volume is Daniel N Gullotta’s “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts: A Response to Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt.”

Update: Alan Garrow responds to Mark Goodacre on Ehrman’s blog.

Update #2: Mark Goodacre responds to Alan Garrow’s response. Also, for more general arguments against Matthew’s use of Luke, see his post from 2009.

The Birth of Jesus

I am working through Ben C. Smith’s Synoptic Project and Mahlon H. Smith’s Hyper-Synopsis. This section is on the circumstances of Jesus’s birth in Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 2:1-7 (here, here, here). For the similarities, the last post discussed the six-word verbatim agreement kai kaleseis to onoma autou Iēsoun (and you will call his name Jesus) in Matthew 1:21 and Luke 1:31 and the striking fact that an angel (named Gabriel in Luke) appeared to the opposite parent in Luke 1:26-38 and Matthew 1:20-21. There is agreement about Mary’s betrothal [lexical form mnēsteuō] to Joseph (cf. Mark 6:3; John 6:42), Joseph’s descent from David (Matthew 1:20; Luke 2:4; 1:27; 3:23, 31), Mary’s virginal conception via the power of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18, 20, 23), the wording that Mary “bore a/the son” (eteken [ton] huion Luke adds “of her” [autēs] and adjective “the firstborn” [ton prōtotokon]), and the city of Bethlehem (Luke 1:4; Matthew 2:1). However, the differences outweigh the similarities:

  • Luke 1:26-56 focused on Mary’s perspective (e.g. her humble response to the angel and song of praise), while Matthew 1:18-25 focused on Joseph’s perspective (his “just” decision to divorce Mary quietly so as not to subject her to public disgrace, the vision that re-assured him, and the note that he “did not know” [eginōsken] her until after the birth of the son). Is this a sign that the two accounts are independent or that one writer switched to the opposite parent in reaction to the other?
  • Matthew builds on the etymology of the name Jesus to explain how he will save his people from their sins and cites a proof-text from the Septuagint version of Isaiah 7:14 to support the virginal conception of Jesus. Luke offers no scriptural justification for this, but seems to suggest that “on account of” (dio) the virginal conception Jesus has the status of God’s son (1:36; cf. 3:38).
  • According to Luke 2:1-5, Joseph had to journey to Bethlehem to register for the “first census” (apographē prōtē) covering the inhabited (Roman) world (oikoumenē) when Quirinius was governing Syria.
    • Josephus reports a census under the governor Quirinius that took place after the ethnarch Archelaus, the son of “Herod the Great” who ruled over Judaea, Samaria, and Idumaea, was disposed from office by the Romans and his territory was annexed by Syria in 6 CE (Antiquities 17.342-44, 355; 18.1-4). It was for the purposes of liquidating Archelaus’s assets and for taxation. Luke, however, seems to date the census in the reign of Herod “the Great” who died in 4 BCE (cf. Luke 1:5) as opposed to the reign of his son “Herod” Antipas, the “tetrarch” ruling Galilee and Peraea (cf. Luke 3:1). The historical questions would take us beyond the scope of this post (e.g. a previous census before 6 CE, a translation error, a chronological mistake on either Luke’s or Josephus’s part?).
  • Because Mary and Joseph did not have a “place” (topos) or “room” (marital chamber) in their “accommodations” (katalyma) in Bethlehem for them to care for their newborn, they put baby Jesus in a manger or animal feeding trough that was inside a village house. For this re-reading of the text, in contrast to the traditional Christmas image that Jesus was born in a barn because there was no room at the inn, see Stephen C. Carlson, “The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem.”
  • Matthew does not narrate that Mary was from Nazareth (Luke 1:26, 56) or the reasons why the pre-married couple travelled to Bethlehem; Joseph’s accommodations in a “house” (oikia) in Bethlehem will be described in Matthew’s next chapter (2:11).

The Predictions to Elizabeth and Mary

I am working through Ben C. Smith’s Synoptic Project page and Mahlon H. Smith’s Hyper-Synopsis. Read the verses in Luke 1:5-25 (here, here), 1:26-38 (here, here), 1:39-56 (here, here, here), and 1:57-80 (here, here, here, here).

In this section, we have unique Lukan material (“L”) that provides predictions of the births of John and Jesus. There are many important key themes in these verses that will be echoed throughout Luke:

Whether one judges Luke to be independent or dependent on Matthew, I can see why Luke wanted to include these stories because they are so positive and memorable. On the other hand, if one were to judge Matthew to be dependent on Luke, I have a harder time seeing why Matthew would want to exclude these stories. Sure, Matthew’s infancy story echoes some of Matthew’s themes elsewhere too, but one would wonder why Matthew would pass over this section if he either knew Luke or these underlying traditions:

  • John’s parents (cf. Luke 3:2): their Torah-observant piety might have appealed to Matthew and, to explain how John the Baptizer recognized Jesus when he tried to dissuade him from getting baptized (Matthew 3:15-16), Matthew could have found Luke’s notice that John’s mother Elizabeth was Mary’s kinswoman to be helpful (Luke 1:36, 40-45).
  • Continuity with the Jewish Scriptures:
    • the fulfillment of promises made to Abraham and his descendants (1:55, 68-75)
    • the scriptural trope of the barren woman who is granted fertility (Sarai, Rebekah, Rachel, Manoah’s wife, and especially Hannah who dedicated her hoped-for child in the temple),
    • the name of the angel “Gabriel” (cf. Daniel 8:16; 9:21)
    • the Nazarite vow (Luke 1:15; cf. Luke 7:33/Matthew 11:18)
    • the allusion to the prediction in Malachi 4:5-6 about Elijah redivivus (Luke 1:17), especially when Matthew makes the connection of Elijah and John more explicit than Mark (Matthew 17:13; Matthew 17:10-12/Mark 9:11-13).
    • the expression “house” or “throne” of David (Matthew 1:1, 20 describes Jesus and Joseph as “son of David”).
    • the explicit explanation of how the Holy Spirit enabled the virgin Mary to conceive and the link to Jesus’s divine sonship (1:34-35; compare to Matthew 1:18, 23).

Nevertheless, there are a few potential agreements that are worthy of further consideration:

  • It is not unfathomable that Matthew and Luke independently supplemented Mark’s account with an infancy narrative given that this was a feature of other ancient bioi or “lives,” while it is harder to explain Mark’s omission of Jesus’s birth (e.g. perhaps Mark begins with the church’s proclamation of the preaching of John the Baptizer like in the speeches in Acts).
  • Nevertheless, the focus on Joseph in Matthew and on Mary in Luke could either be a coincidence (e.g. Luke distinctly spotlights other named women in 1:5-25, 39-45, 59-80; 2:36-38; 8:2-3; 10:38-42) or could be a deliberate shift in response to the other Gospel.
  • There is an agreement in Luke 1:31 and Matthew 1:21: Luke’s “you will bear a son” [texē huion] and Matthew’s “but she will bear a son” [texetai de huion] differs due to the weak conjunction de and the second person address to Mary in Luke or third-person reference to Mary when addressed to Joseph in Matthew. There is a six-word verbatim agreement in the line “and you will call the name of him Jesus” [kai kaleseis to onoma autou Iēsoun] which Matthew follows with an explanation of the name. Does this demand literary contact between the Gospels, a shared infancy source, or a short saying preserved intact in the oral tradition and put in two different contexts in the respective narratives?

Gospel Synopsis: The Genealogies

For a word-by-word comparison of Matthew 1:2-17 and Luke 3:23-28, see “the genealogy of Jesus” by Ben C. Smith and “Jesus’ Lineage” in Mahlon H. Smith’s Hyper-Synopsis. I found some resources online (let me know by email if I should include further posts):

If you looked at the posts above, you read a range of historical and theological approaches to the two distinct genealogies. These posts have helped my own thoughts as they relate to the “Synoptic Problem.”

  • Ancient biographers were interested in the ancestry and birth of their principal subjects. It is not unfathomable that Matthew and Luke independently supplemented Mark’s biography, while it is harder to explain Mark’s omission of Jesus’s genealogy, birth, and upbringing (e.g. perhaps Mark begins with the church’s proclamation of the preaching of John the Baptizer like in the speeches in Acts).
  • Drawing on the Jewish Scriptures or early Christian tradition:
    • Jesus’s immediate family (Mark 6:3; John 6:42)
    • Jesus’ descent from the patriarchs (Acts 3:13, 25-26; Galatians 3:16; Romans 4:13; Hebrews 7:14)
    • Jesus’ descent from David (Mark 10:47-48; John 7:42; Acts 15:16; Romans 1:4; 2 Timothy 2:8; Revelation 5:5; 22:16)
    • Shared names: Abraham (Genesis 17:15; 1 Chronicles 1:27), Isaac (Genesis 21:3; 1 Chronicles 1:28), Jacob (Genesis 25:26; 1 Chronicles 1:34), Judah (Genesis 29:35; 1 Chronicles 2:1), Perez (Genesis 38:29; 1 Chronicles 2:4), Hezron (Genesis 46:12; Ruth 4:18; 1 Chronicles 2:5), Amminadab (Ruth 4:19; 1 Chronicles 2:10), Nahshon (Ruth 4:20; 1 Chronicles 2:10), Salmon/Sala (Ruth 4:20; 1 Chronicles 2:11), Boaz (Ruth 4:21; 1 Chronicles 2:11), Obed (Ruth 4:22; 1 Chronicles 2:12), Jesse (1 Samuel 16:1; Ruth 4:22; 1 Chronicles 2:12), David (1 Samuel 17:12; Ruth 4:22; 1 Chronicles 2:15), Shealtiel (1 Chronicles 3:17), Zerubbabel (1 Chronicles 3:19; Ezra 3:2; Nehemiah 12:1; Haggai 1:1)
  • Independent Evangelists?
    • They borrowed their genealogies from older sources (cf. possible explanations for the discrepancies in the links above) or freely created their genealogies for theological reasons, but without knowledge of the other. This may explain why there is little overlap of names, including even Jesus’s grandfather.
  • Matthew influenced Luke?
    • Observing the many wicked kings of Judah and that Jehoiachin’s descendants were cut off from the Davidic covenant of a perpetual dynasty (Jeremiah 22:30; 36:30; cf. 2 Kings 24:6-16; 25:27-30; 2 Chronicles 36:9-10), Luke drew on or created a different genealogy from another son of David named Nathan (2 Samuel 5:14; 1 Chronicles 3:5). Luke traced Jesus’s divine sonship back to God, stressed Jesus’s connection to all humanity with the line from Adam to Terah, and drew on or created a different list from Rhesa to Heli.
  • Luke influenced Matthew?
    • Observing that Luke listed several descendants of David that are otherwise unattested, though some names are reminiscent of other biblical characters (cf. 1 Chronicles, Amos, Nahum), Matthew chose the straightforward royal line (with some omissions) from Solomon to Johoiachin. Note that the curse against Jehoiachin was removed from his grandson and Davidic governor Zerubbabel (Haggai 2:20-24; Zechariah 3:8) and Matthew drew on or created a different list from Abiud to Jacob. Matthew restricted Luke’s universalistic focus to the covenant people descended from Abraham and thematically arranged the list into sets of 14 regardless of how the individual names are counted (cf. possible explanations in the links above).
  • Source Question about Matthew’s inclusion of the women Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba
    • Did Matthew name these women because they helped to advance the divine purposes just like Mary did, despite the unconventional means in their patriarchal cultural context, or because of their non-Jewish origins (Rahab the Canaanite, Ruth the Moabitess, Bathsheba as the wife of Uriah the Hittite)?
    • If Luke knew Matthew, would the author have excluded these names despite the text’s concern for women (e.g. 8:2-3; 10:38-42) and Gentiles (2:32; 4:16-30) or were the names omitted so the genealogy sticks to the line of patrilineal descent?



Gospel Synopsis: The Prologues

Ben C. Smith has posted the Greek texts here and provided his Greek notes on their interpretation and reception among Patristic theologians here.

The opening in Mark 1:1 is abrupt and grammatically awkward. The verbless sentence “beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ [Son of God]” has no predicate and the link with the “as [kathōs] it has been written [gegraptai]” in verse 2 is unclear. Some argue that the prophetic proof texts in verses 2-3 belong with verse 1, noting that kathōs (Mark 4:33; 9:13; 11:6; 14:16, 21; 16:7) and gegraptai (Mark 7:6; 9:12-13; 11:17; 4:21, 27) are usually preceded by something, or verse 1 is an independent title to the beginning section or the whole narrative with verses 2-3 explicating the following appearance of the Baptizer in verse 4. The term “gospel” or “good news” (euangelion) encapsulates the content of Jesus’s message about the kingdom of God or the disciples preaching (about the kingdom or the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus?) in Mark 1:14-15, 8:35, 10:29, 13:10, and 14:9 (cf. 16:15; Matthew 9:35; 24:14; 26:13), but the “good news” here focuses on Jesus Christ. “Son of God” is in square brackets because it is uncertain whether the words were original or a scribal interpolation; a recent overview of the textual evidence and scholarly debate with the aim of defending the originality of the longer reading can be found here, here, and here.

Matthew 1:1 also lacks a predicate containing a verb and verse 2 begins a new sentence. The “book” (roll) or “record” of the “genealogy” or “genesis/origin” of Jesus Christ stands alone as either the heading for the following genealogy or infancy story or for the literary work as a whole. The Greek Christos translates the Hebrew mashiach or “anointed one” and his status as “son of David” alludes to the fulfillment of the perpetual dynasty promised to David and his descendants (2 Samuel 7:12-14; 1 Chronicles 17:11-14). He was born into the covenant family of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1-21; 17:1-27) and the genealogy will trace his descent through the patriarchs.

The prologue in Luke 1:1-4 imitates literary conventions of the wider Graeco-Roman world, though the generic classification of Luke-Acts is debated (cf. David Aune, Loveday Alexander, Sean A. Adams, David P. Moessner, Marianne Palmer Bonz, Claire K. Rothschild, Gregory E. Sterling, Daniel Marguerat). The author remains anonymous, but the text is addressed to Theophilus, either a wealthy patron who sponsored the writer’s project or a cipher for the church (“friend of God”). “Many” (polloi) “attempted” or “undertook” (epecheirēsan) “to compile or arrange” (anataxasthai) a “narrative” (diēgēsis), but the sources are not named (e.g. Mark/Q/L, Mark/Matthew, John, Papias, non-extant written or oral sources, rhetorical hyperbole?). The matters fulfilled or accomplished in the author’s day were transmitted from the start by “witnesses and subordinates” (autopai kai hupēretai), referring to either a chain of transmission from the eyewitnesses to their followers or to a single group modified by the phrase “being of the word [literary composition?]” (genomenoi tou logou). The prior attempts may be subtly criticized by the evangelist who, following everything “precisely” or “accurately” (akribōs) from the beginning, wrote it up “in order or sequence” (kathexēs). Luke re-arranged his sources to either offer a better chronological arrangement or rhetorical presentation of the material.