Odes and John: Determining Literary Dependence (Part 1)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining the relationship between the Odes of Solomon and Gospel of John.

However, the perspective of “common milieu” is not without its problems, for affirmations of this relationship are often founded upon an inexact methodology of determining literary dependence. This approach often precludes the possibility of finding clear connections between pieces of literature by arguing that only direct quotations may demonstrate such dependence. To explain parallels between extant texts scholars often fall back on the least common denominator—often “oral tradition” but here “common milieu”—instead of taking into consideration how literary culture, geographical and linguistic factors, communal memory, and exegetical practice effect how existing pieces of literature were co-opted and employed ancient writers for their new compositions.[1] Unfortunately, many scholars have simply affirmed the “common milieu” of the Odes and John without considering the way in which this milieu would have functioned for both the Odist and Gospel writer.[2] An informed contextual methodology for the examination of the Odes of Solomon must move beyond mere affirmation of common milieu or terminology and recognize the manner in which literary citation, genre, linguistic difference, geography, memory, and literary purposes influence considerations of textual dependence.

Deciphering literary relationships, especially possible instances in early Christian texts, remains a complex task. Fortunately, those in Early Christian Studies have developed two important tools for discerning the existence and meaning of literary citation in extant texts: definitional clarity and attribution simplicity.[3] Definitional clarity involves the application of strictly defined terms in order to differentiate the varying ways in which ancient authors made use of the sources available to them. Typically this involves drawing distinctions between formal quotation, quotation, strong allusion, loose allusion, and reference, and determining the implications of these types of usage within a text.[4] While the existence of a single, well-marked “formal” quotation may sufficiently demonstrate the dependence of one text upon another, it is also possible that several strong allusions or multiple less-clear forms of citation may sufficiently indicate textual connections.[5] For example, the hymns of the fourth century poet Ephrem the Syrian often do not formally quote any written works, but nonetheless are commonly understood as literarily dependent upon Christian texts. To briefly demonstrate, consider Ephrem’s Hymn on Faith 7.4:

The sea saw him and shook.

Its waves crashing,

It lowered its back and carried him—

Better than a foal it bore him.

When he was sitting in the boat,

The shipmates supposed he was human.

When he descended and subdued the sea,

Those on board were astonished by him.

They did not investigate him at all,

They simply marveled at him:

They glorified and stood silent in awe.”[6]

Although here Ephrem does not explicitly quote any Biblical passages, in this hymn he quite clearly references the story of Christ walking on the water recorded in the gospels, especially when his concerns for poetic meter and theological meaning are taken into account. [7] However, if the type of reading often applied to the Odes of Solomon were applied to Ephrem’s hymn, then little more than a common milieu of stories about Jesus could be affirmed.

[1] Ibid., 71-4.

[2] Brownson, “Odes,” 51.

[3] As noted earlier, see Gregory and Tuckett, 61-82 and Prahlow, 1-16.

[4] Julie Hughes, Scriptural Allusions and Exegesis in the Hodayot (Studies on the Texts of the Deserts of Judah, LIX; ed. Florentino Garcia Martinez; Boston: Brill, 2006), 35-62. Gregory and Tuckett, 64-5. There are also the rightly noted problems of non-extant materials (since many early Christian writings are no longer extant, there may be quotations present from materials which are undetectable) and textual criticism (even when there is access to the modern form of the text, this does not necessarily indicate this form matches that which would have been known by an ancient author), which add even further complexity to this issue. Definitional clarity seeks to overcome these concerns by indicating that claims of literary dependence are only possible in the case of extant sources and by noting the assumption of relative textual stability. For a discussion of these issues, see Prahlow, Discerning Witnesses, 5.

[5] Ibid., 65.

[6] Jeffrey Wickes, Hymns on Faith (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, forthcoming), 56, especially n238.

[7] Matthew 14:22-36 and Mark 6:45-52. Cf. John 6:16-21. Ephrem almost certainly had access to the Syriac edition of the Diatessaron, which combined the Gospel accounts and negates any consideration of finding reliance on a specific account. For a possible reconstruction of Ephrem’s Diatessaron text of the account of Jesus walking on the water, see Diatessaron Leodiense (ed. C. C. De Bruin; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1970), 101. Also see J. Hamlyn Hill, The Earliest Life of Christ Ever Compiled from the Four Gospels: Being the Diatessaron of Tatian: Literally Translated from the Arabic Version and containing the Four Gospels woven into One Story (Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias Press, 2001), 77-78, especially 18.44-19.13.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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