Monday, October 20, 2008

The Dating Game IV: What about John?

It is easy to find oneself spending so much time with the vexed question of the chronological sequence of the Synoptic Gospels, and the big Synoptic Problem questions that arise, that one can forget about the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas. To an extent, the relative neglect of these Gospels in this context is understandable. Whereas the Synoptic Gospels are clearly related on the literary level, there is no consensus about whether the same is true of John and Thomas. Does John know the Synoptics? Some say yes, some no. Does Thomas know the Synoptics? Again, opinions are divided. Clearly, this series of blog posts is not the place to solve this fascinating problem, but I would like to suggest a couple of ways in which we might be able to sketch out the possible lines of relationship between the Synoptics and Thomas and the Synoptics and John. I am currently in the middle of a book on the relationship between Thomas and the Synoptics, so the full argument will have to wait for its publication in the (I hope) not too distant future. As for John and the Synoptics, let me just say that I am persuaded by the evidence set out by several including C. K. Barrett and Frans Neirynck concerning John's knowledge of the Synoptics and that I would like to add an observation that may be of relevance.

So let us go to John and focus on an issue related to the phenomenon of fatigue in the Synoptics, discussed in the previous post. One of the indicators of familiarity with prior texts is a rewriting of elements in those texts in such a way that the author inadvertently creates anomalies or inconcinnities. One of the clear examples of this phenomenon in John occurs in his story of the anointing of Jesus by Mary in John 12.1-8. The story is parallel to Matthew 26.6-13 // Mark 14.3-9. The Johannine incident is clearly the same as the Synoptic incident: (1) It takes place in Bethany (2) just before Passover, (3) at a dinner where a woman has a jar of very expensive perfume of pure nard (Mark 14.3, ἀλάβαστρον μύρου νάρδου πιστικῆς πολυτελοῦς; John 12.3, λίτραν μύρου νάρδου πιστικῆς πολυτίμου; (4) she anoints Jesus; (5) there are complaints about the costliness of the perfume (τριακοσίων δηναρίων) which could have been given to the poor (καὶ ἐδόθη πτωχοῖς, John 12.5; καὶ δοθῆναι τοῖς πτωχοῖς, Mark 14.5); (6) Jesus says "Leave her. . . The poor you will always have with you . . . But you will not always have me" (ἄφες αὐτήν . . . τοὺς πτωχοὺς γὰρ πάντοτε ἔχετε μεθ' ἑαυτῶν ἐμὲ δὲ οὐ πάντοτε ἔχετε, John 12.7-8; ἄφετε αὐτήν . . . πάντοτε γὰρ τοὺς πτωχοὺς ἔχετε μεθ' ἑαυτῶν καὶ ὅταν θέλητε δύνασθε αὐτοῖς εὖ ποιῆσαι ἐμὲ δὲ οὐ πάντοτε ἔχετε, Mark 14.6-7); (7) Jesus interprets the anointing in connection with his burial (John 12.7, Mark 14.8).

John appears to have crafted this account on the basis of the Marcan narrative; the structure, the story, the wording have substantial links. The only major fresh elements in John are the naming of the woman as Mary, contextually determined by his resetting of the account as a postlude to the Lazarus story, and the naming of the one who complains as Judas, which itself may be derived from Mark 14.10-11, which comes straight after the anointing, and links Judas with an unhealthy interest in money. But there is one element in John that appears not to be found in Mark, Mary's wiping Jesus' feet with her hair (καὶ ἐξέμαξεν ταῖς θριξὶν αὐτῆς τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ, John 12.3). This detail appears to come from Luke 7.38 (καὶ ταῖς θριξὶν τῆς κεφαλῆς αὐτῆς ἐξέμασσεν. . . ), where it forms part of Luke's story of the anointing, 7.36-50, his version of the Marcan // Matthean anointing. As there, it is an anointing by an anonymous woman in the house of a man called Simon, though Luke relocates it at an earlier point in the narrative, as often (cf. the Rejection at Nazareth, brought forward to Luke 4.16-30; Paul's first visit to Jerusalem, brought forward to Acts 9.25-6 and the Jerusalem Council, brought forward to Acts 15 from its "true" location in Acts 18.22), a move that necessitates some reworking of the details, especially the stress on the forthcoming death and burial. It is now a story about a "sinner", whose hair hangs down.

The anointing in each of the Synoptic accounts makes sense. In Mark and Matthew, Jesus' head is anointed with perfume. No hair is mentioned, no feet are are mentioned. In Luke, the woman wets Jesus' feet with her tears, an act of repentance, and she wipes them with her loose "sinner's" hair before she anoints them with perfume. But John's reminiscence of the Lucan detail about the wiping of Jesus' feet with her hair creates an anomaly. First, there is no reason for Mary, in John, to be wearing her hair like a "sinner", which is the point of the Lucan story. Second, because there are no tears in John, Mary's wiping of Jesus' feet with her hair means that the perfume ends up on her hair and not on Jesus. Jesus is the one who is supposed to be being anointed. This appears to be an example of John's secondary use of prior texts that has generated narrative inconcinnity and which helps us, therefore, to sketch John into a relationship of post-dating the Synoptics.


Stephen C. Carlson said...

You might also want to mention in this connection John 11:2 "It was the Mary who annointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick."

Such a statement, coming before the actually narration of the story in ch. 12 seems to presuppose the audience's knowledge of this Mary, using a detail about wiping the feet that is found in Luke but not Mark and Matthew.

Anonymous said...

Mark, I am new to your blog so I hope you will forgive my questions if they seems too obvious (or out of place).

But you seem to be speaking of the 'gospel' of Thomas in in the same breath with the canonical gospels, with no explanations or disclaimers attached... Are some things assumed on your blog? In other words, how would a casual (or inquiring) visitor know there is a difference between the 'gospel' of Thomas and the inspired word of God?

Thank you for your time,

Anonymous said...


I'm glad to hear about the progess of your book on the relationship between Thomas and the Synoptics. I am definately looking forward to that one!

Matt Page said...

Thanks for that Mark, I'd never thought of considering the "Fatiguing angle". FWIW you (or your readers for that matter) might be interested in a post I wrote on the "annointing at Bethany" story a year or two ago now where I tabulated and then compared the different details that crop up in the different accounts (I count 40 different details across the 4 gospels, with only 23 mentioned in any one gospel). The ending is a bit rushed but hope it's useful.


Jim Deardorff said...

Regarding whether the writer of John knew the Synoptics, an instance where he assumes the audience knows whom "they" refer to is at Jn 19:15-18. Pilate hands Jesus over to the chief priests to be crucified, and they take Jesus out, bearing his own cross, to Golgotha. Roman soldiers do not appear on the scene until Jn 19:23.

The audience is supposed to know, apparently from the Synoptics, that the soldiers were involved well before this point. "They" had to switch over from being chief priests to soldiers either at 19:16 or 17.

Or did Barrett and Neirynck cover this point?

Stephen C. Carlson said...

Hi Janez,

This is just my personal opinion, but I have little doubt that this blog is geared for an audience that is already familiar with what's in and what's not in the New Testament.

Stephen said...

A pint (about 0.5 l) is a heck of alot of perfume. (Jn.12:3) It's a jar in Mat.26:7, Mark 14.3 - still alot for one or two individuals.

Then how do you break an alabaster jar (the breakage is only in Mark 14.3) with a liqiuid in it and then pour from the jar you have broken? Mat. corrects the problem with no breakage but still has an alabaster jar. John has 'a pint', but no fragile container at all. There seems to be a development from Mark to Matthew to John.

Richard Fellows said...


A tangential point: I am surprised that you still believe that Acts 9:25-26 is chronologically misplaced. Let me explain why I think the phrase "his disciples" (Acts 9:25) works well with the conventional chronology. Gal 1:16-17 suggests that Paul spend most the three years in Arabia and that he worked there without missionary partners. Acts 9:26 says that the disciples in Jerusalem did not trust him and this confirms that the time since his conversion had been spend largely out of contact with the network of believers. Now, since he preached alone in Arabia, rather than as part of a team, the term 'his disciples' is an appropriate term for the converts that he made. The fact that Acts does not mention these conversions is no great surprise, since it does not even mention his visit to Arabia, for whatever reason.

So the term 'his disciples' simply reflects the fact that Acts has omitted a stay in Arabia. It provides no evidence for a flash forward.

I any case the flash forward theory here is hard to sustain for other reasons, and I think it should be dropped. said...

But isn't Saul baffling the Jews living in Damascus very much like Josephus teaching the leading Jews 'of the city' when he was a teenager? Then three years went by for Saul (Acts 9:23), just as they did for Josephus from 16 to 19 years of age. For Josephus there was apparently a period of living in the desert, rather like Saul in Arabia.

Anonymous said...

Although I think it's a fair inference that the author of John knew Mark, for which there is other evidence, I'm not prepared to accept that John's version was a fatigued or sloppy rewriting of Mark. I give the author of John a lot more credit than that.

For one thing, the author of John shows in a number of places that he knows the Bible well. It is traditional to read the Song of Songs at Passover time, and John alludes to it here. Perhaps by having Mary anoint Jesus' feet, the author wishes to avoid a direct "messianic" implication while alluding to Jesus as King indirectly. Consider these verses from Song of Songs (NRSV):

1:12 "the king was on his couch, my nard gave forth its fragrance."

5:2 "Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one; for my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of the night." [Yes, his head is wet, rather than hers.]

7:5 "Your head crowns you like Carmel, and your flowing locks are like purple; a king is held captive in the tresses."

John speaks of the smell filling the room; the synoptics don't. John is very sparing, and I don't think it's a gratuitous detail.

I'm not sure what to make of John's story of the anointing, but there's something going on here. Some say that Jn. 11:2 was an editorial addition; without it, it would be ambiguous from ch. 12 who the anointing Mary was. Might John have been ambiguously pointing to Mary Magdalene?

"Magdala" could mean "hairdresser," but the root is "to make great, enlarge,"presumably because a hairdresser piled the hair up in coils. [Migdal=tower] Calling attention to Mary's hair could be a hint.

Besides the connection of Song of Songs with Passover, John's Jewish readers would have been familiar with the Blessing After Meals, which includes Ps. 18:51 (NRSV) "Great triumphs he gives to his king, and shows steadfast love to his anointed, to David and his descendants forever." In Hebrew, playful punning and a switch of gender could yield "Magdilah Yeshua malkah,osah chesed l'meshichah" "She magnifies Jesus her king, does kindness to her anointed," with a play on Magdalen.

I don't think these things have been noticed but I think they should be taken seriously in view of John's giving prominence to Mary Magdalen as the first person to see Jesus alive on Easter and the only one to see him alone.

I can't yet pull it all together, but it has to be more than a sloppy retelling of Mark's story.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm a bit late on this, but shouldn't we also talk about the Didache since it has clear gospel connections?