Odes and John: Determining Literary Dependence (Part 3)

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

Next, the implications of memory, especially cultural memory, must be further explored in thinking about early Christian writing and interpretation.[1] When considering instances of potential literary dependence, the chief question raised by consideration of memory is whether or not an author needs to have a text in front of them in order to be able to label their use of a text as literary dependence. Many Ignatian scholars, for instance, do not find it necessary to presume that the second century bishop of Antioch had immediate access to the sources he was citing in his letters.[2]

As an example, consider Ignatius’s Letter to Polycarp 2.2, where he writes “Be wise as a serpent in all things and always pure as the dove” (φροωιμος γνιοθ ως οφις εν απασιω και ακεραιος εις αει.).[3] While there is no marker of citation, this passage reads verbatim from Matthew 10:16: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Ἰδού, ἐγὼ ἀποστέλλω ὑμᾶς ὡς πρόβατα ἐν μέσῳ λύκων · γίνεσθε οὖν φρόνιμοι ὡς οἱ ὄφεις , καὶ ἀκέραιοι ὡς αἱ περιστεραί.).[4] Ignatius and Matthew both wrote in prosaic Greek, suggesting that strong levels of verbal similarity should exist between these passages if Ignatius was relying upon Matthew. The slight modifications which Ignatius makes to this verse can easily be explained on the basis of his use of memory—he almost certainly did not carry a copy of the Gospel with him—and literary purposes, namely, this passages context of exhortation for Polycarp to avoid sinful things and seek eternal life. Thus, the application of contextual methodological criteria to Ignatius’s Letter to Polycarp and its relationship to the Gospel of Matthew indicates that in this instance he cited that Gospel, a conclusion which is widely affirmed by Ignatian scholars.[5]

The question for this study is how consistently this principle may be applied to the Odes. It is of course possible that the Odist had a non-canonical version of John in front of him as he wrote, or that he simply recalled the Gospel from another setting.[6] Such theories are increasingly speculative. Much more convincing is a methodology of literary dependence which takes into account the literary and theological contexts of first century Syria—including those of “rewritten Bible”[7]— and gives proper place to the modes of literary dependence which are less exact that contemporary Western academic preferences.

A final methodological point indicates that the purposes of a particular writing may impact the manner in which two texts are related. The Odes have long been posited as hymns for early Christian liturgical gatherings.[8] This being the case, they should be considered in light of other literature of similar period and purpose, where the modern distinction between writing and interpretation was not in place.[9] This is of critical importance when considering a document such as the Odes of Solomon, which appears to draw upon and recast numerous themes and frameworks of earlier writings. Especially important for properly understanding and interpreting literature of this type are “exegetical motifs.” In the words of James Kugel,

An exegetical motif is an explanation of a biblical verse (or phrase or word therein) that becomes the basis for some ancient writer’s expansion or other alteration of what Scripture actually says: in paraphrasing or summarizing Scripture, the ancient writer incorporates the exegetical motif in his retelling and in so doing adds some minor detail or otherwise deviates from mere repetition or restatement of the Bible.[10]

For writers employing exegetical motifs, while there is limited textual reference to a narrative or passage of scripture, the meaning evinced by these references plays an important role in the overall feel and meaning of text employing the motif. Additionally, there may be differences from an original source in the theology or meaning of the text employing an exegetical motif.[11]

[1] George J. Brooke, “Memory, Cultural Memory and Rewriting Scripture,” in Rewritten Bible after Fifty Years: Texts, Terms, or Techniques? A Last Dialogue with Geza Vermes (Supplements for the Study of Judaism 166; ed. Jozsef Zsengeller; Leiden: Brill, 2014), 119-136.

[2] William R. Schoedel, Ignatius of Antioch: A Commentary on the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch (ed. Helmut Koester; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 5. Corwin, Ignatius, 3. Prahlow, Discerning, 75 n25. Christine Trevett, “Approaching Matthew from the Second Century: The Under-Used Ignatius Correspondence,” JSNT 20 (1984), 59-67. Trevett lists thirty-six possible allusions and quotations to Matthew in Ignatius’s corpus, the most clear being Ephesians 5:3 (Matt. 18:19-20), Ephesians 16:2 (Matt. 3:12), Ephesians 17:1 (Matt. 26:6-13), Magnesians 10:1 (Matt. 5:13), Trallians 11:1 (Matt. 15:13), Philadelphians 3:1 (Matt. 15:13), Smyrneans 1 (Matt. 3:15), Smyrneans 6 (Matt. 19:12), Polycarp 1:3 (form of Isaiah 53:4 found only in Matt. 8:17), and Polycarp 2:2 (Matt. 10:16).

[3] Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers, Volume (The Leob Classical Library, LCL 24; ed. Jeffery Henderson; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 312-3.

[4] All Biblical passages are from the English Standard Version Bible (New York: Crossway, 2014) unless otherwise indicated. All Greek citations are from the public domain Robinson-Pierpoint Byzantine Textform 2005 and are cross-referenced with the Novum Testamentum Graece, Nestle-Aland 27th Edition (ed. Kurt Aland et al; Westphalia: Deutsche BibelGesellschaft, 2011).

[5] Prahlow, Discerning, 75 n25. Scholars affirming this position include F. F. Bruce, Bruce Metzger, Eduoard Massaux, Raymond Brown, Virgina Corwin, Milton Brown, Derek Kruger, Allen Brent, Paul Foster, the Oxford committee on the New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers, Charles Thomas Brown, and W. D. Kohler.

[6] Brownson, “Odes,” 50. Brooke, “Memory,” 119-136.

[7] See Marko Marttila, Juha Pakkala, and Hanne von Weissenberg (eds), Changes in Scripture: Rewriting and Interpreting Authoritative Traditions in the Second Temple Period (Berlin: DeGruyter, 2011), especially pages 21-121.

[8] Charlesworth, Reflections, 21.

[9] Kugel, Traditions, 895.

[10] Ibid., 27.

[11] See also Julie Hughes’ distinction between verbal and interpretive parallels (Hughes, 52-54). In this model, exegetical motifs may display verbal similarities, interpretive similarities, or both.


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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