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.

Book Review: Who Made Early Christianity? (Gager)

9780231174046Contemporary readers of the New Testament are often struck by the overwhelming influence of the Apostle Paul. After not appearing at all in the gospels and barely appearing in the first half of Acts, he comes to dominate most of the rest of the New Testament canon. Despite his popularity, however, Paul remains a controversial figure, the historical interpretations of his thought incredibly varied and the history of his influence remaining uneven across time. Nowhere is this contestation more evident than in current Pauline Studies, that field of New Testament and Biblical Studies which focuses on understanding the life and theology of the Apostle to the Gentiles. In contribution to this realm of inquiry comes John G. Gager’s latest monograph, Who Made Early Christianity? The Jewish Lives of the Apostle Paul (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), which pushed back against conceptions of Paul and early Christianity which simultaneously sound the triumph of Christianity and the decimation of Judaism. Continue reading

Scripture in Ephrem’s Madrashe

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Ephrem the Syrian and early Syriac Christianity.
Ephrem the Syrian

Ephrem the Syrian

While most analysis of Syrian madrashe has focused on its metrical form, authorship, origins, and liturgical setting, comparatively little attention has been paid to the contents of the madrashe. To form a fully contextualized understanding of Syrian madrashe, additional attention should be paid to the theological nature and contents of madrashe, especially its relationship to scripture. Finally, the particular manner in which Ephrem “rewrites” scripture for his community of faith is worthy of additional attention, as this feature of his writing points to the need for study on how madrashe employ and co-opt scripture. The essay which follows reflects on the place and function of scripture in Ephrem’s madrashe. Continue reading

Ephrem’s Symbolic Transformation

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Ephrem the Syrian and early Syriac Christianity.

TransformationIn his dissertation on Ephrem, Jeff Wickes argues that Ephrem’s symbolic universe constructs a symbolic self through the scriptural world of his hymns (Wickes, 3). In light of an earlier chapter, this is clarified to mean that Ephrem co-identified the scriptural and symbolic selves (Ibid., 3). Overall, Wickes’s presentation of how Ephrem assimilated biblical terminology in order to create a scriptural self for his audience is convincing, especially when read with the perspectives of Alford and Krueger. Yet there seems to be something missing from this presentation of the scriptural self, namely, the concrete manner in which the transformation of the believer through identification with Ephrem’s symbolic universe was to occur. This essay reflects upon the question of whether or not Ephrem’s scriptural universe required concrete expression, or remained a primarily abstract symbolic universe. Continue reading

Investigation and Scripture

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Ephrem the Syrian and early Syrian Christianity.

Investigation and Scripture in Ephrem’s Hymns on Faith 1-9

Open BibleEphrem scholar Jeff Wickes contextualizes the Hymns on Faith as essentially belonging to the post-Nicaea “homoean” camp that remained anti-subordinationist while problematizing the language of Nicaea.[1] This characterization, I believe, proves most helpful for explicating Ephrem’s theology. Here we see that Ephrem’s unique perspective and approach to this stage of the Christological controversies demonstrates his attempt to reset the paradigm of the debate. For Ephrem, theological investigation needs to be done appropriately—there is a certain way to “do” theology. The Hymns on Faith are therefore not just a critique of subordinationist Arian theology, but of a way of doing theology.[2] This reflection examines Hymns on Faith 1-9, arguing that the Christian scriptures serve as Ephrem’s formative theological paradigm and the basis for all proper investigation of God. Continue reading

Ephrem’s Scriptural Simplicity

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Ephrem the Syrian and early Syrian Christianity.

Ephrem the SyrianCentral to Ephrem’s scriptural presentation of Christ as beyond investigation (i.e., of the same order as the Father) is the relative simplicity of his arguments. Instead of constructing complex metaphysical arguments, Ephrem relies upon the re-presentation of narratives from the Old and New Testament’s to demonstrate Christ’s Sonship. In this post, I reflect upon the simplicity of Ephrem’s rewriting of scripture, as well as briefly consider the role of Tatian’s Diatessaron in his conception of Christ. Continue reading

Book Review: Decoding Nicea (Pavao)

Decoding NiceaThe history of Christianity can be a complex, confusing subject, full of competing claims and interpretations. Perhaps no single event in the life of the Church gathers as much contemplation and controversy as the Council of Nicea. Held in 325 CE outside of the newly established capital city of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), this gathering of Christians from around the Roman Empire has been called everything from the paragon of authentic Christian orthodoxy to the great corrupting moment in the history of the Church. In recent decades, Nicea has taken on a new place of prominence in the mind of the average American Christian, as both popular culture (i.e., Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code) and historical scholarship (i.e., Gnostic gospels) have cast the council as an important redefining moment for the Christian Church. Addressing this vital historical event comes the latest edition of Paul F. Pavao’s Decoding Nicea: Constantine Changed Christianity and Christianity Changed the World (Selmer, TN: Greatest Stories Ever Told, 2014. viii+442 pgs.). Continue reading

Reflections on “Ephrem, Athanasius, and the ‘Arian’ Threat”

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Ephrem the Syrian and early Syrian Christianity.
Athanasius of Alexandria

Athanasius of Alexandria

In her chapter “Ephrem, Athanasius, and the ‘Arian’ threat” of Anti-Judaism and Christian Orthodoxy: Ephrem’s Hymns in Fourth Century Syria (CUA Press, 2008), Christine Shepardson compares the anti-Arian rhetoric of these two great defenders of Nicene Christology, arguing that both deployed anti-Jewish rhetoric and language against the Arians in their efforts to defend Roman ‘orthodoxy’.[1] This essay reflects upon her arguments in this chapter, noting some convincing and unconvincing facets of her perspective. Continue reading

Reflections on Ephrem’s Commentaries

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Ephrem the Syrian and early Syriac Christianity.
Saint Ephrem the Syrian

Saint Ephrem the Syrian

Though said to have written a commentary on every book of the Bible, the only authentic and extant prose commentaries of Ephrem the Syrian are those on Genesis and (part of) Exodus. These commentaries, following the more traditional “text and gloss” approach, represent a distinct departure from Ephrem’s approach in his Hymns to commentary and theology. This essay offers several reflections on these commentaries, concluding that they represent an important part of any attempted reconstruction of Ephrem’s conception of scripture and theology. Continue reading

Ephrem’s Boundaries of Investigation: Scriptural and Natural

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Ephrem the Syrian and early Syriac theology.
Saint Ephrem the Syrian

Saint Ephrem the Syrian

Throughout his Hymns on Faith, Ephrem remains especially concerned with recasting the terms of the Arian-Orthodox debate concerning the relationship of the Son to the Father. Instead of simply affirming a Nicene, Homoean, or Subordinationist perspective, Ephrem focuses on what he believes to be the root cause of the Christological controversy of his day: investigation. In Ephrem’s view, improper investigation has lead to the current turmoil and improper debate. While subordinationist theologies are in the wrong Christologically and methodologically, Ephrem does not hesitate to also problematize the methods of those with whom his Christology agree. In this essay, I briefly reflect on Ephrem’s two chief boundary markers for proper investigation: nature and scripture. Continue reading