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The New Testament and its Literary Environment

May 27, 2013

A comment in response to a recent posting poses questions about the literary relationship of NT writings to the larger world of classical literature.  Specifically, we can ask whether we see evidence of NT authors either quoting or identifiably alluding to “pagan” texts/authors, and also whether in a less direct way NT writings may reflect the larger literary environment of the Roman period.

With regard to the first question, in fact it is remarkable how few indications there are that NT writers drew consciously on classical literature.  Indeed, as to direct and identifiable citations, they can be counted on the fingers of one hand!  There is, for example, the index of citations and allusions in the back of the Nestle-Aland Greek NT.  Here you find the well-known allusion to Aratus (Phaenomena 5) in Acts 17:28, a possible allusion to Euripides (Bacchae, 795) in Acts 26:14, another possible allusion in 1 Cor 15:33 (to Menander), and possibly an allusion to Heraclitus in 2 Peter 2:22.  In Titus 1:12, the Cretan poet cited has often been identified as Epimenides (listed in the 27th edition of Nestle-aland, though not, I note, in the 28th edition). 

By contrast, the quotations and allusions to biblical (OT) and extra-canonical Jewish texts comprise a double-column list running some 42 pages.  Confining ourselves solely to direct citations (in which a NT author directly indicates that he is citing a text), these are almost entirely to these biblical/Jewish texts.  It is really striking that the NT authors so clearly align themselves with the biblical/Jewish literary traditions, and make so little effort to draw consciously on and to cite the larger literary world of their time.  Clearly, they were either unable to do so, or uninterested in justifying and articulating their intended messages with reference to the literature of classical antiquity.

On the other hand, there are good reasons to think that in more indirect ways their “literary environment” had some influences on them.  For example, with others, I think it right to see the narrative (canonical) Gospels as reflecting the then-emergent interest in biographical-type writings, perhaps more clearly evident in Matthew and Luke.  In Luke-Acts, especially, we likely have an author with some knowledge of literary conventions and genres of his time. 

There have been a number of proposals about how to identify and locate the literary genre of Acts (e.g., as history, as novel, as technical monograph), and one of our recent PhD students, Sean Adams, will soon publish his thesis in which he contends that Acts draws on “collected-biography” conventions in its account of early Christian leaders (you can see more about his forthcoming book on the Cambridge University Press site, here). 

Others have proposed that, for example, the Gospel of Mark is shaped by Homeric narratives (Dennis R. MacDonald), or by Greek tragedy (G. G. Bilezikian), but it is a major problem that ancients (whose acquaintance with classical literature was better than ours) show little awareness of such ideas, and these proposals have not (yet) won wide assent.  It’s entirely plausible to think that NT writers, as people of their time, had some exposure (in varying degrees) to the literary culture of the larger Roman era, and that their writings reflect something of some of the conventions.  But, after we make this general allowance, it’s actually difficult to demonstrate persuasively much in the way of direct literary influences.

For a good introduction to the topic, I think David Aune’s book, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (1987) is unsurpassed.

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16 Comments
  1. Joshua W.D. Smith permalink

    Thanks for the post, Professor Hurtado. You said in a comment that “there are clear means of identifying citations and allusions…” Is there a standard source that discusses those means? I’d like to read up on that to some degree.

    Thanks again.

    • Joshua: One work that draws upon other studies and offers a set of criteria for detecting “allusions” and “echoes” is this one: Hays, Richard B. Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989. Hays focuses on identifying allusions in Paul to OT texts, but his criteria draw upon allusion-studies in the wider world of literature studies.

  2. Isn’t there a tendency to exaggerate and sometimes manufacture literary influences on the Gospels?

    MacDonald’s theory of Homer’s influence on Mark, for example, centers in the idea that Odysseus was traveling “home,” while Jesus was also traveling to his “house” (the temple in Jerusalem). This does not seem to be a parallel. In approaching the temple, Jesus was not returning “home” at all — by any reasonable implication from the way the story is told.

    As another example — this one from the Old Testament — common asserted connections between Elisha’s miraculous feeding and Mark’s feeding of the 5,000 seem to me to stretch the actual data, often by re-wording and re-arranging the details in ways that are not justified by a simple, straightforward reading of both accounts.

    In the latter case, I think anyone familiar with the Old Testament would recognize a real parallel between the stories.The author of the Markan story, himself, surely made the connection and may have shaped a few details of his account accordingly.

    But I can’t see how anyone in the first century — who really understood the Gospel of Mark — would have made even a casual connection between the House of the Lord — where he is to be worshiped — and the home of Odysseus.

    The epic journey of the latter toward his native land does not suggest the triumphant march of Jesus toward Jerusalem.

    Then after getting home, Odysseus chases out the men who had taken advantage of his family in order to restore the place. But Jesus chases out the money-changers in the temple in anticipation of a coming final destruction of the place.

    In all this, Jesus is more like the prophets of the Lord. His story recalls previous judgments on the nation, anticipated in the prophetic word. So Mark’s story certainly brings the prophets to mind.

    But Odysseus? I just can’t see it.

  3. This discussion is complicated by the purpose of early Christian documents being quite focussed on specific communities (though not always) and specific goals of encouraging and maintaining faithfulness. However, some documents do show an awareness of perhaps not literary culture, but definitely wider pagan ideas that have been accommodated (in the sense outlined by John Barclay). Thus, I think of Paul Trebilco and others who have noted the accommodated use of the ἐπιφάνεια concept in the Pastoral Epistles, and there are several other concepts and ethical ideas (the cardinal virtues for example) that have been co-opted in service of explaining Christian teaching. Surely that does suggest an engagement of some sorts with contemporary ideas, which raises the question of where these supposedly Jewish Christians were coming into contact with these distinctively pagan ideas. Or do we imagine they were just part of the “air” of the Graeco-Roman world?

    Thanks for this very interesting discussion!

    • Sean: Oh yes, the NT writings certainly show engagement with the wider Roman world, including religion (typically critical), some ideas and categories (e.g., “conscience”) and such. I don’t mean to deny that. I repeat: My posting was on the question of whether the NT writings evidence much in the way of citation of or allusion to classical literary texts of the time.
      Early believers, Jewish or Gentile, would have had no trouble encountering “pagan ideas”, for they were very much “in the air” at the time.

  4. famorod permalink

    it´s almost improbable that the NT texts don´t have influence of the literature of his era. Maybe we´ll see so soon studies about these influences; as Dr. Hurtado said the book of Aune is the recommended book.

    • The question has been explored, with various proposals made, including some that have not won wide support. Again, there are clear means of identifying citations and allusions, and when applied it’s hard to find many instances of the citation/allusion to classical literature in the NT writings.

      • Quite correct.

        For example, one of the few In know is in Act’s account of Peter’s escape from prison.

        In Euripides’ Bacchae, line 447, we read the following ‘Of their own accord (autamato), the chains were loosed from their feet and keys opened the doors (thura) without human hand.’ In Acts 10:12, we read how doors opened for Peter of their own accord (automatos) and in Acts 16:26, we read how an earthquake loosed the chains from everybody and all the doors opened by themselves.

        F.F.Bruce in his book ‘The New Testament documents – Are they reliable?’ that Acts 14:12 ‘ho hegoumenon tou logou’ comes from ‘The Egyptian Mysteries’ of Iamblichus, where Hermes is described as ‘the god who is the leader of the speeches’ (theos ho ton legon hegemon).

        Clearly, Luke was well acquainted with Greek classical literature. As an educated man, he must have been.

      • Yes, Steven, the author of Luke-Acts does seem to display a higher level of vocabulary, Greek style, and use of some phrasing that likely derives from the literary environment. But again, that’s not the issue or point in my posting. The point I was asked to address was how much the NT writers cite and/or seem intentionally to make allusion to classical (“pagan”) literature. In our time, given how such phrases have gone into the cultural “groundwater”, one could include “all the world’s a stage” or “life is a tale told by an idiot” or any number of other Shakespeare lines and yet not be intending an allusion to Shakespeare, or even have read the actual plays. The evidences of use of phrasing that can be traced to classical authors in the NT seems to be largely such, phrases that appear to have become almost commonplaces at the time.

  5. Ben Haupt permalink

    You say above that “confining ourselves to direct citations…” we essentially find no reference to classical literature, only to Jewish texts, and then conclude “Clearly, they were either unable to do so, or uninterested in justifying and articulating their intended messages with reference to the literature of classical antiquity.” I don’t think it is fair to expect biblical authors to cite directly and then because they do not, assume that they are unaware of their literary environment. In textual criticism, we acknowledge several different kinds of citations – direct, allusions, adaptations, alterations, etc. So, I think it is entirely plausible that the biblical writers used certain allusions to classical literature as a way of speaking the language of their audience. As you acknowledge in the most recent comment, Justin Martyr says, “And in that we say that He made whole the lame, the paralytic, and those born blind, we seem to say what is very similar to the deeds said to have been done by Aesculapius.” (ANF 1:170) This shows that Justin heard in the Gospel descriptions of Jesus allusions being made to classical literary characters. If you read the description of the birth of Hercules in Illiad XIX 103-111 and compare it to the Johannine prologue, you see a lot of similar themes – Jesus as the more perfect Hercules? It seems at least plausible to me that Gospel writers were alluding to classical literature as well as Jewish lit. Justin seems to have noticed this.

    • Thanks, Ben. Detecting allusions is, as you may well know, now a somewhat contested industry. Normally, we expect at least some phrasing that is found in the text putatively alluded to, or at least some highly unusual word that could only come from it, etc. But proposing more general similarities, e.g., this healing story reminds me of that one, that’s . . . well, in the eye of the beholder, shall we say.
      In my posting my point was (and remains) that identifiable references or allusions in NT writings to other texts are overwhelmingly to biblical (OT) and other Jewish texts, and that this is remarkable for a religious movement that so clearly sought to commend itself to the wider Roman populace. The question isn’t whether you or I can see some rough similarities, or whether later Christians posited them (for aplogetic purposes), but whether, using the same methods for identifying direct references or allusions that we use for other texts, we can persuasively posit many in NT writings to classical texts.

  6. This is a very important and insightful blog post, instructive and knowledgeable. I hope it gets the wide audience it deserves.

    ‘ It is really striking that the NT authors so clearly align themselves with the biblical/Jewish literary traditions….’

    It is very striking.

    For example, a lot of the miracles in the Synoptics are clearly modelled after the Elijah/Elisha cycle of miracle stories, often with almost identical wording (eg Luke 7 ‘kai edoken auton te metri autou’, copied word for word from the Septuagint version of 1 Kings 17.)

    Similarly, there are allusions in Acts.

    In Acts 10, Peter is told in a dream to eat unclean animals. In the Old Testament, Ezekiel 4 also has a story of somebody who is asked to eat unpalatable food. Both stories have ‘Medamos, Kyrie’ (by no means Lord).

    Clearly Luke was very familiar with the LXX which informed his work.

  7. John M. Harris permalink

    There are, however, many idioms and phrases in common with inscriptions as well as functional equivelants to Latin legal terms. The NT doesn’t consider itself “literature”

    • John: Your first statement is correct and undebatable. The NT writings were composed in the Greek of their time, and so many terms and expressions in common usage, as Deissmann showed over 100 yrs ago. I’m not sure what you mean by the second sentence (or its relevance to the first). The NT writings are what we call “literary” texts, as distinguished from “documentary” texts. The Gospels and Acts are narratives. The letters are . . . letters, but in Paul’s case they seem as to contents more like discourses at least in places. They reflect rhetorical devices of the time.
      But my posting was about whether we can find indications that the NT authors were consciously influenced by, and/or referred intentionally to, classical literature of the time. Answer = apparently not.

  8. James E permalink

    Interesting to fast-forward from these NT phenomena (or non-phenomena) through such figures as Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Basil of Caesarea. At Alexandria, Clement quotes pagan lit copiously, Athanasius never. Why?

    • Yes, James. As we move into the 2nd century, with figures such as Justin Martyr, and others thereafter, we have examples of Christian writers seeking to refer to and draw upon the classical literary and philosophical traditions as a means of articulating and defending Christian faith to the larger cultural and intellectual world of the time.

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