Are the Synoptic Gospels Copy Exercises? Jesus and Anacreon

The never-ending story in New Testament studies is first, how the gospels came to be written down (and where, and when) and how they “relate” to each other. The long-suffering faithful have for centuries–since the process of vernacular Bible translation in the sixteenth century got its legs–been encouraged to believe that the canonical order Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is also a chronological order.

The belief is somewhat flimsily supported in fairly early references by writers like Papias, whose reputation as a scholar was already challenged by the man who recorded his words, the fourth century writer Eusebius, and the heresy-fighting bishop, Irenaeus–the real father of giving names and legends to the gospels.

Students studying for divinity and graduate degrees across Europe and North America have learned for more than a century that the matter of who-wrote-what-first is endlessly fascinating. The average opinion in the most prestigious and hyperactive research institutions in North America and Europe is that orthodoxy and canonicity are at best provisional ways of looking at the gospels, and, worse, misleading from the standpoint of solving the puzzle of Christian origins.

Many of these neophytes have been treated to professorial displays of source-theory so brilliant and so complicated that they could well be considered algebra. Others, so deceptively self-assured and literally faithful to ancient testimony that they cannot possibly be correct:

The standard model

Armed with only a smattering of Greek and a stash of newly- minted ingenuity, they are urged to go at the problem as though beneath it is buried a secret jewel, the pearl of great price. But it isn’t. What lay beneath the architecture and power-points, alas, are processes that the gospels themselves conceal by virtue of their simple givenness. Looking for the “origin” of a gospel is bit like looking for Jesus in the tomb on Easter morning: it was here just a minute ago.

The theory of Markan priority and the more ambitious but eventually standard “two source” hypothesis (based on the notion that Matthew and Luke embedded Mark’s gospel and must have possessed a written sayings source to account for materials not found in Mark–the variable Q will do) enjoyed sovereignty of sorts for three generations. –Mainly because it had the simplicity that mnemonics have in helping you to remember chemical formulas. {ML} = Mk+Q.

The so-called Griesbach hypothesis, in and out and up or down in favour in each generation, is just as plausible for the diagrammatics of a case: Matthew wrote first; Luke based his story on Matthew and Mark used both. It has its own bad-boy appeal, while theories of Lukan and even Marcionite priority have gotten less attention.

It is notable but unsurprising that in all of this clatter the traditional idea that consistency is not provided by literary dependence but by revelation is not discussed very much among the algebraists. Needless to say, I am not complaining about the end of supernaturalism; I welcome it, and note that in the closest book-tradition to Christianity–Islam—these priority, hierarchy and relational questions are much less important. The point is not that we should use plenary inspiration as a way of solving source- and dependence- issues, but that the complexity of some of the theories make inspiration an almost welcome relief from the haggling. –Especially (dare I say it) any discussion or theory about Q.

In a sense, Christianity brought this dilemma on itself. While divine inspiration was held up as the proof of the integrity of the gospels from very early in the tradition, it was held up in a heresiological context–that is, in the war between orthodox bishops and the religious “others,” the heretics. It involved the book itself (or books), of course, but just as much it involved the question of who can claim to be inspired and who safeguards the process through which inspiration can be validated. What (book) do you trust was inseparable from the question of who do you trust.

The suggestion that the authors were “apostles” or “apostolic men”–friends of the apostles, like Mark, allegedly, and Luke–seems gratuitous even in the context of the age. And the age, by the way, had a habit of attributing a gospel to anybody of any prominence whose legend would win hearts and minds to their cause: that is why the attribution of gnostic gospels to Thomas, Mary Magdalene, Philip, Judas and even to “Truth” sheds light on the general habit of pseudonymity and forgery.


But as we know, if not through consensus, the Gnostics weren’t the first or only ones to play the name game: it was being played on the Catholic side in Paul’s name after Paul was dead, in Peter’s name, and in James’s and in Jude’s and John’s. But why stop with what we know almost certainly: it was also probably being played in the case of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, whose perilously thin legends and reputations were created after tradition (read: bishops) had named the anonymous writings ascribed to them.

Biographical authority and authenticity have to be understood against the backdrop of battles with Marcionites and harder-core separatists. It is finally solidified in Book 4 (8.2) of Irenaeus’s turgid work Against the Heresies where he claims to have compiled a book of all the “legitimate” successors of the apostles and the Lord: γενομενος δε εν ‘Ρωμη διαδοχην εποιησαμην μηχρις ‘Ανικητου…”: “And when I had come to Rome I remained there until Anicetus, whose deacon was Eleutherus. And Anicetus was succeeded by Soter, and he by Eleutherus. In every succession and in every city that is held which is preached by the law and the prophets and the Lord.”

Irenaeus the Fierce: Scourge of Heretics

The gospels, in this pitch and toss, are held to be locked away in safety from the corruption of heresy through the lawful succession of the western (Roman) bishops. They are “in” the church, he says as money is in a bank; the heretics are outside, “like so many weeds.” There are four of them, neither more nor fewer—just as there are four winds, four corners of the earth, four providing angels.

Irenaeus and his brother bishops were not especially concerned about the relationship between and among gospels, for the simple reason that (unlike most modern interpreters) he theorized that they constituted four independent testimonies to the truth, miraculous, therefore, precisely to the extent that there had been no consort among the authors and no copying of one to the other source. The heresy fighters were concerned with preserving traditions, the origins of which had already been lost in a century-old fog. The question of a copyist tradition only reveals itself when the belief in the miraculous four-fold testimony unravels, a chapter that began to be written at the end of the nineteenth century.


The Greek lyric poet Anacreon lived in the 6th century BCE. Through the efforts of Aristarchus (2nd century BCE) some of his work, most of its fragmentary, has been collected and survives. He was remarkable for his mastery, in some cases invention, of metrical styles and for his mastery of the Ionic dialect. (If you have not read any Anacreon lately, read, at least, “The Picture” for its lyrical elegance).

I mention Anacreon because he stands at the beginning of a long tradition of preservation through imitation. In a 1958 collection of his work by Bruno Gentili (Rome, Edizioni dell’ Ateneo) the editor for the Classical Review of that year complained that at least 37 of the poems included as genuine–based on his assessment of vocabulary, testimonia, and metrics–were not authentic and should be moved to an appendix or to the nearest dustbin.

There is even a suggestion that the editor tried to smuggle some very obviously non-anacreonic verse into the edition because he thought they were “pretty”—for shame.

What everyone knows about classical tradition, however, is that Anacreon’s name, reputation, style and prestige is preserved through the art of literary imitation. –Through copying.

New Testament scholars are very much more familiar with classical civilization than they used to be. So much so that biblical studies on the New Testament side has matured enormously in the twentieth and early twenty-first century from the parochial theological discipline it was in the nineteenth. But at a programmatic level, it needs to scrap the idea of authorial attribution completely and to acknowledge that the production of New Testament gospels, at least in the case of the synoptics, was an anacreonic process—a process of imitation, based on the desire to imitate and enhance rather than merely to produce or propagate an original. Admirers of the Jesus-story were using a prototype for copy exercises. Whose story it was is of no importance, and remains of no importance well into the second century.

There is no good reason why an anonymous copyist would have done what he did because he thought the copy he was working from was “authoritative”—and indeed it probably came to him without a titulus , that is to say, attribution. Similarly, as with the ancient tradition in letters, some copyists felt moved to add detail, story, to alter, to correct—things that biblical scholars have known to be true about the gospels for a long time–indeed have developed critical methods to cope with them–but have linked to a different set of motivations based not on what we know to be true of classical letters but what we think to be true of a sui generis form of sacred literature..

Paul: a model letter writer for later copyists

The elongation of a source by adding a birth legend or resurrection appearances is completely appropriate to the anacreonic tradition as beautification, as “outdoing” the model. The gnostic gospels which flaunt the model and seem to sing to a different harp, in this way of looking at the process, are simply failed copies. Even within the New Testament, Paul’s “authentic” if composite letters served as models for every aspiring paulinist who wanted to improve on his thought and language, the winner being the author of the letter to the Ephesians.

As with Anacreon, we know enough to know what the essential ingredients—the equivalent of the theme or metrics—would have looked like. I am not cynical about being able to construct, for example, the original narrative structure or gospel prototype. But I am completely unconvinced that any of the current gospels form that structure or that any of the received gospels is that original.

I find it more probable that we possess four of the exercises, and that these exercises have to be submitted to an analysis based not on “redaction” and tendency—fidelity to or departure from a long-gone plumb-line–as much as on the more or less purely artistic intention of the writer in terms of the story he is telling.

In fact, biblical criticism, in some of its operations, does this already but it often does it as though the question of priority is the same as the question of “source.” We do not know who wrote any gospel—not even “John’s” (and the editorial process in the Fourth Gospel is more explicit than in any synoptic). We know only one ancient collector who insisted that the source was anonymous, or more precisely “the true source”– the heretic: Marcion.

It is not surprising that to smother the effect of this radical suggestion, both copyists and fathers insisted on attribution. The gnostic penchant for attributing and the slanders of both Jewish and conservative Roman observers, with their different but equally sharp insistence on literary-historical pedigree is enough to explain the demand for named sources. But the habit, or defense, belongs to the history of apologetics and not to the earliest manuscript tradition. For all we know one such copyist may have been named Mark and another Luke. But if that is so, it is only accidentally so and they were men of no significant personal distinction. They were men who took it upon themselves to imitate, “restore” or amend the lost (or nearly lost) prototype, the master-copy of the Jesus story.

9 thoughts on “Are the Synoptic Gospels Copy Exercises? Jesus and Anacreon

  1. Pingback: Are the Synoptic Gospels Copy Exercises? Jesus and Anacreon (via The New Oxonian) | The New Oxonian

  2. I am wondering why the issue of ”inspiration” doe not seem to be discussed as we consider the synoptic problem. How would the inspiration of each writer be viewed in face of both oral and other possible writers on the subject matter?There are also writers motivational factors.Should we assume that the authors were equally and directionally motivated?

  3. Joe, Your once intellectuual hero, Schubert Ogden: “We now knpw not only that none of the writings of the OT is profetic witness to Christ, in the sense in which the early church assumed them to be, but also that none of the writings of the NT ae apostolic witness to Jesus as the early church itself understood apostolicity.” Then Hans Dieter Betz: “The reasons for our lack of knowledge of Jesus and his teachings are of a hermeneutical sort and csnnot be overcome by an excess of good will (apologetics). The Gentile-Christian authors of the Gospels transmitted to us only that part of the teaching of Jesus which they themselves understood, they handed on only that which they were able to translate into the thouhght cateegories of Gentile-Christianity and which they judged worthy of transmission. From these texts Jesus’ original teaching can neither be reconstructed nor abstracted in their entirety. If such is the judgment from within the Guild of NT Studies, of what relevance is this detailed digging out of what the Gospels do contain? The horse is dead. .

  4. Pingback: [JH] Είναι τα συνοπτικά ευαγγέλια ασκήσεις αντιγραφής; Ιησούς και Ανακρέων | On the way to Ithaca

  5. “And when I had come to Rome I remained there until Anicetus, whose deacon was Eleutherus. And Anicetus was succeeded by Soter, and he by Eleutherus.”
    I thought this quote from Irenaeus interesting for a number of reasons. I am wondering if he is actually referring to real people at all. Soter, Greek for Savior, would be an unusual name indeed for an individual. It is also a highly used epithet among the Greek pantheon; however, it just strikes me as being on the line “too prideful” to be used as a name for a mere mortal. Eleutherus, Greek for Truth, is probably closer to be used as a name by a “real” person. However, given the iffiness of Soter, the fact that Eleutherus indicates a Virtue or rather the truth of particular texts, I just wanted to remark upon this interesting coincidence.

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