Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Possible Implausible

entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem-William of Occam


After this exchange on the IIDB, I thought I might post today about the relationship between 2Peter and the Gospels, and why I find Doherty’s position untenable on the matter—that 2Peter does not know the gospel traditions—untenable.

We shall turn our attention first to 2Peter 1:14, a passage that is generally considered to be reliant on the Gospel of John (21.18-19). Contends Doherty:

Helmut Koester, in his History and Literature of Early Christianity, p.295, refers to 1:14 as “the tradition that Jesus had predicted Peter’s martyrdom.” But the verb here is not one of speaking, it is deloo, to reveal, make clear, which places it without much doubt in the realm of revelation.


Doherty, in the discussion linked above, has since withdrawn “without much doubt,” however, since it still stands on his website, it will be addressed again here both for purposes of posterity and completeness.

delow does not necessarily have the connotation Doherty suggests it does. I provided a list on the previously mentioned discussion, which I will repeat here.

The epistle of Barnabas 9.8 refers to Abraham's "revealing" (deloi) "Jesus by two letters and the cross by one." Barnabas hasn't "placed this in the realm of revelation." He means it exactly as it reads: This is what Abraham was showing us here.

Likewise the Hermas Mandate 6.2.10. Hermas isn't suggesting that the information from this commandment comes from "the realm of revelation." It comes from the commandment itself. This commandment "reveals" (deloi) this. Roberts-Donaldson goes with "exhibits" here.

1Clem 24.3 (delonoin) likewise suggests other than your reading. Day and night "reveal" to us a resurrection. This doesn't occur in the "realm of revelation," it's what we observe in the passing of day and night--it was what they make clear, or what they show. Roberts-Donaldson here goes with "declare".

Leaving the ANF, let's take a look at Philo (certainly, I think, relevant for Doherty's suggestions, which necessitate a great deal of "Hellenist Judaism").

A full list of Philo's usage of the word would be quite lengthy, as he was quite fond of the term, but look, for example, at De opificio mundi 1:150 (delonuenwn). Here Yonge opts to translate it as "displayed." The qualities of the animals certainly don't appear in "the realm of revelation." On the contrary, they are clearly watched.

OT examples are abundant, of course. Est.2.22, 1Ez.3.15, 1Kings 8.36, there are a great many.

Josephus was likewise fond of the term, using it more than a hundred times in his writings, rarely in the context Doherty suggests (eg. Ant. 1.3, 13, 33, 39, 71, 125, etc.).

Heading, finally, the New Testament, Hebrews 12.25. Now, to be sure, the "words" in question are God's, which might make it, prima facie, appear to support Earl. But one doesn't need to dig very deep to see why this is incorrect. What is being "revealed" (deloi) isn't revealed by "revelation", it's revealed by proper interpretation of the words, at least in the mind of the author of Hebrews. KJV goes with "signifieth," NAS with "denotes," the RSV with "indicates."

Col.1.8. Epaphras' "revealing" (delosas) of the "spirit" of the Colossians isn't in "the realm of revelation." It's quite plain that what Epaphras did is tell them so. This one is, I think, most damaging, because Doherty suggests that the verb "not [being] one of speaking" rules it out as being received as such. It doesn't: Epraphas told them. Presumably he wasn't a mute.

This list could be expanded hugely. It not only fails to leave us “without much doubt,” it usually does not mean what Doherty suggests it does. It is used regularly for “indicate” or “show,” at a rate far greater than it is used to indicate a “revelation.” It fails to so much as hint at Doherty’s reading; all that can be granted is that it is “not inconsistent with” it.

So we turn, further, to the context—both in John and in 2Pet—to determine what, if any, dependence may exist here. What must be noted first, is that in 2Pet it is clearly assumed that the audience knows what he is referring to. It cannot simply be that Jesus had predicted he would die (which would fail to impress anyone and scarcely be worth noting), it has to be accurate. We need to assume that what was held to be an accurate description of Peter’s death was well-known to 2Peter’s audience. 2Peter cannot be the original author of this. Which, to maintain Doherty’s suggestion, leaves only the possibility that both had drawn from an existing tradition.

Yet if this tradition does not originate in the Gospel of John, then where? It is telling that nobody, save 2Peter, seems to have heard of it. Surely the other gospel authors would have seized on a tradition of an accurate prophecy? Even more surely, Mark and Matthew, both of whom are quite sympathetic to Petrine traditions, would have mentioned it? So why didn’t they?

The simplest answer to this, of course, is that it wasn’t known to them. But how, if such a tradition had existed, could they be so ignorant of it? This points not only to their lack of knowledge of such a tradition, but a lack of the tradition itself. This silence is uniform. Which would seem to evidence a Johannine creation. Postulating a third source for this—an independent tradition used by both Peter and John—based simply on lexical ambiguity, simply cannot be sustained. Occam’s Razor quite reasonably demands that 2Peter knows the GJohn.

The Transfiguration

Doherty suggests that the seeming description of the transfiguration (2Pet.1.16-19) is likewise representative of an independent tradition. Firstly, I will address his lexical argument:

Another question: Is all this the language of eyewitness of earthly events? The verb “gnoridzo” (make known—“told”—in verse 16) is a technical term in the New Testament for imparting a divine mystery.


Doherty’s suggestion that “gnoridzo” is a “technical term in the New Testament for imparting a divine mystery” is simply false. Col.4.7 is the proof of this:

Tychicus will tell (gnorizei) you all about my affairs; he is a beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord.

There is no “imparting” of a “divine mystery” here. There is Tychicus telling them about his affairs. Far from a "technical term" for "imparting a divine mystery" it is a common term, sometimes used in relation to "divine mystery."

Moving onward, one must address Doherty’s emphasis on what is not shared in parallel to the gospel narratives:

Now, in 2 Peter, any idea that this scene had taken place during Jesus’ earthly ministry has to be read into things. The writer supplies us with no such context. Moreover, no mention is made of the presence of Moses and Elijah, or of Peter’s suggestion that three tabernacles be set up, or that the voice came out of the clouds, features found in all three Synoptic versions. Nor is any mention made of Jesus’ clothes or face being illuminated, features which might better identify the figure in the writer’s mind as a human one. All this makes it highly unlikely that he has drawn his knowledge of this “incident” from a Gospel account.


While he emphasizes what is different, he fails to mention what is patently the same: The words of God are remarkably similar to those spoken in Matthew. This curious parallelism is worked around by Doherty by suggesting the existence of a prior tradition, upon which both are developed.

For our analysis here, we turn neither to 2Peter, nor to Matthew, whom he most closely parallels. Instead we bring our attention to the Gospel of Mark.

It is first important to note that, putting aside the question of 2Peter for the moment, all existing sources regarding the transfiguration—both in and outside of the canon—are dependent on Mark. Nobody shows any awareness of any other narrative, save, working within Doherty’s suggestion, the words spoken by God on the mount. But if Matthew has another tradition with these words included, why is it in no other way manifested in his text?

The transfiguration fulfills multiple purposes in Mark’s gospel. Firstly, it provides further assurance that the climatic identification made by Peter shortly before is correct (Mk.8.29), this also relates to Jesus’ reception of God’s voice during his baptism (1.11)—what was private before is now shared with his disciples. Secondly, it leads to the confirmation of John the Baptist as Elijah, something Mark has led up to throughout his gospel, beginning in 1.6. Thirdly, it confirms what Mark has consistently negated in his gospel—Jesus is not Elijah (as discussed in Goodacre’s “Mark, Elijah, John the Baptist and Matthew: The Success of the First Intertextual Reading of Mark”,Presented at the Synoptics Seminar, British New Testament Conference, Cambridge, 2002).

More can be adduced from the obvious OT parallelism (eg. Ex.24.9-15). All of this points to two things: Mark is not drawing on an existing tradition, or at least there is no evidence of it. He is drawing in no small part on scripture to narrate the event. What does not spring from scriptural precedent is drawn from Mark’s narrative. It is difficult to imagine the transfiguration—or anything remotely like it—evolving in a different scenario, escaping everyone’s notice (save, again, the quote in Matthew), before finally finding it’s way into 2Peter. Once more, William of Occam’s voice can be heard across the centuries. It informs us, quite clearly, that Mark’s narrative is obviously created by Mark, with no awareness of any other tradition. It informs us equally clearly that 2Peter knows of it.

Disney famously described cartoon physics as “The plausible impossible.” What we have here, in the suggestion of so many independent traditions appearing between 2Peter and the gospels, without their knowledge of each other, is the converse of that. It is the “possible implausible.” It could be true, but it requires a fantastic number of coincidences, not least the silence of all other sources on the matters at hand.

Minor Update: Very minor. Just made some grammatical corrections, and fixed the Josephus reference (it had book and verse, but not what text it came from).

5 comments:

Kevin Rosero said...

Hi Rick,

This is such a fine post, but let me make a few criticisms.

Early in your post, I was thinking that there was an independent tradition about Jesus predicting Peter's death; then you mention this being Earl's position, too. So it's rare, but I agree with him sometimes.

I don't find it persuasive to ask why the Synoptics do not seize on the tradition, because there are so many reasons why they might not include any particular tradition. They may not have known its details confidently; or they may not have regarded it as significant within their own frameworks and goals. And this particular tradition is of the kind that could have remained a private affair for a long time, rather than a public tradition with a developed role in the larger tradition.

As you say, Mark and Matthew are sympathetic to Petrine traditions. But I'm not sure I would describe John that way; yet he includes the tradition. It seems to fit into his framework and goals. A focus on any single apostle's death, in the synoptics, would feel out of place to those texts, IMO.

I agree with you that multiplying entities unnecessarily should be avoided. That can mean that we shouldn't posit an independent source. But I think that a positive claim of 2 Peter's knowledge of John's gospel is also an entity. I'm not sure that Occam's Razor really tells us which scenario is more needlessly complex.

But that doesn't mean that I reject 2 Peter's knowledge of the Gospels; I just arrive there differently. I part ways with Earl, for instance, who feels that 2 Peter, a decidedly late epistle, does not know the gospels because they were relatively new and not yet central to Jesus communities. It looks to me like 2 Peter is quoting Matthew, and is presuming that his audience knows about the tradition regarding Peter's death. For me the latter implies that the tradition had become widely disseminated, perhaps chiefly by being proclaimed in an apostolic Gospel.

As for the transfiguration, is it necessary to argue that the tradition would have had to go unnoticed by all who wrote between Mark and 2 Peter? Matthew and Luke both write about it. Matthew's quote is different from Mark's; and Luke says "after eight days" instead of six, which seems to me like the artifact of an independent source on Luke's table (sitting next to Mark, of course).

I hope to see more posts like this one, though -- and nice research on "delow" and "gnoridzo" !

J. J. Ramsey said...

I can think of one reason why the tradition of the prediction of Peter's death isn't in the Synoptics. That tradition is told as part of a story trying to explain away the tradition that Jesus would come back before John had died. John appears reconciled to Jesus not coming back in a short time frame, while the Synoptics still held out some hope for a return sometime not too long after the fall of Jerusalem.

Rick Sumner said...

Hi J. J. Ramsey,

I'm not sure that the Synoptics are as unsympathetic to such apologia as you suggest. Mk.13.6-28 appears to be precisely that sort of apologetic--referencing current events as a prophecy of Jesus, indicating his time is coming soon, and denying that his time was before. Likewise the prophecy of the temple's fall--this effectively pushes back the date of the parousia until after the event occurs.

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