Odes and John: Determining Literary Dependence (Part 2)

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

Developed by Bruce M. Metzger, the second important tool for ascertaining literary connections in ancient literature is that of attribution simplicity. This principle states that when the wording of any possible reference may be explained on the basis of a known source, attribution to that source remains preferable to claiming dependence on an unknown source or the “persistence of primitive tradition.”[1] Attribution simplicity does not constitute a hard and fast rule—instances of where a variant citation is used multiple times, for example, may be taken to suggest an unknown source—yet this criterion offers a way forward through the quandary of locating possible but non-extant sources.[2] These two tools suggest, first, that the lack of any direct ‘quotation’ between the Odes and John cannot indicate that the Odist did not know that Gospel, and second, that where multiple instances of strong verbal similarity exist, it remains methodologically preferable to attribute these parallels to literary dependence rather than  to a “common milieu” of tradition.

Considerations of genre are likewise important for constructing an adequate methodology, especially when comparing different types of literature. The Odes, by nature of their composition as liturgical verse, were crafted quite differently than prosaic pieces of Christian literature from the same time. While a parallel term such as “living water” might not be enough evidence to suggest, for example, that the prose of the Epistles of Ignatius relied upon the Gospel of John, in a poetic work such as the Odes—which must deal in composite and stylistic elements—that term may be the only possible way in which the Odist could reveal his reliance on that Gospel.[3]

Furthermore, the impact of linguistic difference cannot be neglected in determining literary dependence. Translation is never a one-for-one process, suggesting that instances of literary connection across linguistic boundaries may be masked by translation and interpretive differences. The likelihood that the Odes were written in Syriac while John was written in Greek reinforces the real possibility that something may have been literarily lost in translation.[4] Furthermore, geographical considerations are also important for crafting a contextual methodology of citation.[5] The application of geographical considerations to the study of the Odes suggests that if other Antiochene writings demonstrate awareness of John’s Gospel—which they do[6]—it becomes more likely that the Odist had access to the Fourth Gospel as well.

[1] Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 73 n47. Prahlow, Discerning, 8. Andreas J. Kostenberger and Michael J. Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity (Wheaton: Crossway Publishers, 2010), 144.

[2] Ibid. Franz Stuhlhofer, “Der Ertrag von Bibelstellenregistern für die Kanonsgeschichte”, ZAT 100 (1988): 244-261. See also Richard Glover, “Patristic Quotations and Gospel Sources”, NTS 31 (1985): 235-51.

[3] Kugel, Traditions, 23-6. Charlesworth, Reflections, 233.

[4] Charlesworth, Reflections, 233. Also worth noting is J. T. Sanders’ attempt to problematize a Syriac-to-Greek thesis by noting several occasions where terms shift more than translation would indicate. See Sanders, “Nag Hammadi,” 56.

[5] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Changing Shape of Church History (Saint Louis: Chalice Press, 2002), 7-79.

[6] See the connections between the Odes, Matthew, the Apocalypse of John, 1 John, Ignatius of Antioch, Theophilus of Antioch, the Syrian Apostolic Constitutions, and Chrysostom’s homily noted above.


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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