Category Archives: Reception History

RLST 201: Week 5 Discussion Summary

There were many rich insights this week, which made it difficult to know where to focus my summary reflections. If time were not so limited, I would enjoy following up with pages of reflection on any of the following:

  • The patriarchal and patrilineal bias in the Lukan genealogy, and what the virgin birth of Jesus could have meant in terms of his membership in humanity.
  • The baptismal practices of the Essenes (Dead Sea Sectarians), how John the Baptist is reminiscent of the Essenes, as is Jesus in his desert sojourn.
  • The connections between Aesop’s stories and Jesus’ temptation.

But I also saw a potentially transformative moment for our class in the responses to my footnote on Annas and Caiaphas, which got some pushback. Disclaimer: by no means do I know everything, and I have been and will continue to be wrong about many things, so I welcome students reading, verifying, and checking the scholarly literature about any of the claims I make, this one included.

It’s certainly possible to find commentaries or articles out there that try to explain away the historically inaccurate claim of a dual priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. But there are also many commentaries and articles that honestly accept it and try to understand it, instead of explaining it away. Those who have or will have CRIT lenses, feel free to check me on this!

More broadly, this is one of literally 10,000s of examples of texts in the Bible not being historically accurate. Just in the last few chapters of Luke, we’ve seen that the genealogies of Matthew and Luke are radically contradictory, that the birth stories in Matthew and Luke vary by ten years as to when Jesus would be born, etc. Again, whenever you have your CRIT lenses, use it as an opportunity to check what some of the leading scholars on the Gospel of Luke have to say about the Annas and Caiaphas thing, or the dating of the birth of Jesus, or the contradictions between the Matthean and Lukan genealogies.

Please know here that I’m not trying at all to tear down the New Testament. On the contrary, I love it deeply and passionately! I’ve devoted much of my life, time, talent, and energy to studying it. To me, these texts are incredibly beautiful and powerful.

It is precisely because I respect these texts that I let them speak for themselves and try my best to listen to other ancient voices that would help me hear what was originally being intended in these texts. Because I respect these texts, I let them be whatever they really are, in all of their complexity, their inconsistencies, their biases, etc.

Studying Scripture academically can be kinda like falling in love. At first, you may believe that your beloved is perfect, flawless, and incomparable. And nobody could convince you otherwise, try as they may. That was definitely how I felt about the Bible when I was in my late teens and early twenties, so I get where some of you are coming from.

But if you give love time and cultivate it with prolonged, honest intimacy, they you will eventually come to see that your beloved is actually very imperfect, but still beloved in spite of and even because of these imperfections.

That’s real love. Not trying to make your beloved into something different, but letting your beloved be exactly what your beloved really is.

So we need to be careful to respect these ancient texts enough to let them say whatever it is they are saying, even if we find it to be historically problematic or inaccurate when compared with other sources of information. Our pre-existing assumptions that these texts have to be historically accurate and perfect are far more a self-reflection of our needs rather than an objective interpretation of these texts in their original historical and literary contexts.

Let me conclude with some Socratic questions to ponder, and then a pedagogical prayer.

  • Why would it be a problem for books in the Bible to have historical inaccuracies?
  • Pretty much all human writings that touch upon history have historical inaccuracies, so why not also the books that made it into the canon?
  • What does it say about our theology that we find the humanity of these texts problematic?
  • Do we view God as controlling/dictating humans, our history, and the production of our texts?
  • Is there authentic human freedom, thought, and creativity? If so, why wouldn’t that apply to the Bible as well?
  • Does the Bible really need us to protect and defend it? From what? From itself?

May your love for these texts grow into a fearless maturity that lets them be exactly what they are, and not what we or anybody else wants to force them to be.

RLST 201: Week 4 Discussion Summary: Body and Soul, (No) Birth Narratives, and Interpreting the Interpreters

There were several threads this week that piqued the interest of several students as well as my own interest. Since I can’t cover everything, I’ll pick three matters on which to focus for this post.

Body and Soul

There was some interesting discussion among students about the relationship of the body and soul. It’s important here to note that Christians through the centuries have borrowed the idea of the soul from Plato’s philosophy. In Plato’s thought, psyche (soul) is invisible and immaterial. It pre-exists the body, temporarily inhabits the body, and then leaves the body after death. In Christian theology, this usually is expressed in terms of the soul coming into the body (at conception or later), the soul inhabiting the body, and then the soul leaving the body and going to heaven or hell.

What Christians through the centuries have not recognized (or perhaps not wanted to recognize) is that this view of the soul is not based on the Bible, but instead on Plato. If you scan some translations of the Hebrew Bible / TaNaKh / Old Testament, you can find the terms “soul” and “spirit.” But nefesh (usually translated soul) means “life.” It is not an invisible thing that pre-exists the body or lives on after the body. It is the life-force that courses through the body. Similarly, ruach (usually translated spirit) means “breath” or “wind.” It is not an invisible object or ghostly version of ourselves. It is the breath we breathe, from the moment we are born until the moment we die. (Incidentally, these different understandings of soul and spirit are crucial to why Judaism has a very different ethical assessment of abortion than do most Christian traditions today.)

The New Testament does show hints of being influenced by Platonic thought about the soul, but its anthropology is customarily holistic, in keeping with Hebrew tradition, or focused on the resurrection of the body, in keeping with Zoroastrian tradition.

No Birth Narrative!?!

Several students found in their ancient lenses that there were few if any connections with Luke 1-2. This might have felt like a failure to find connections, but I see it far more as a success to see and be honest about the differences among these texts. Yes, Q did not have a birth narrative. Yes, the Gospel of Phillip did not have a birth narrative. This was also the case for the majority of Gospels written in the 2nd century. In the broader sweep of the earliest Christian literature, Matthew and Luke were strange for their focus on Jesus’ birth. Some roughly contemporaneous texts followed their lead and expanded their themes, especially the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (IGT) and the Protoevangelium of James (PJ).

So then the question is why. Why did Matthew and Luke and IGT and PJ have birth narratives, but most other Gospels did not? Why did Mark, the earliest Gospel written, not say anything about Jesus’ birth or childhood except (maybe) that his mother’s name was Mary (Mark 16:1)? For that matter, why did Paul, the earliest author represented in the texts of the New Testament, say almost nothing about Jesus’ birth and childhood except that he was “descended from David” (Rom 1:3)? Why did John, which speaks so emphatically about Jesus being the incarnate Word of God, ignore his birth and childhood?

When one steps back and looks at these texts with the critical eye of an historian, it leads to a healthy scepticism about the historicity of the birth traditions in Matthew, Luke, IGT and PJ. The earliest Christian texts didn’t say anything about Jesus’ birth and childhood likely because they simply didn’t have much information or interest in them. As time went on, Christians became more curious about the birth and childhood of Jesus, and as their curiosity grew, so did the texts and traditions treating of Jesus’ birth. Matthew’s birth narratives, written between 80 and 120 CE, started down this path of curiosity. Luke’s birth narratives, written between 120 and 150 CE, expanded it. By the late 2nd century, IGT and PJ expanded these traditions even more.

Interpreting the Interpreters

As students read later interpretations of Luke (Later Lenses), a skill that I want everyone to cultivate is to think critically about later interpretations and how they differ from the original meanings of the texts. Interpreters throughout history have their own cultures, biases, prejudices, priorities, and perspectives. If we look carefully at later interpretations of Luke, we can see their self-reflections embedded in their interpretations.

One potentially instructive example of this during week 4 was an interpretation by Ambrose of Milan. Regarding the story in Luke 1 about the elderly Elizabeth finally becoming pregant, Ambrose says, “But once a person has reached a more advanced age, an age more apt for instructing children than for giving them birth, there is a sense of shame in presenting the outward signs of a marriage that has been consummated – however honourable and legitimate that union may have been” (Luke, trans. Tomkinson, p. 24).

Critical scholarly commentaries on the books of the Bible where stories of barren or elderly women become pregnant (e.g., Sarah in Genesis, Hannah in 1 Samuel, and Elizabeth in Luke) give a very different take. (Feel free to check!) In ancient Semitic patrilineal cultures, having a child—especially a male—was seen as a tremendous blessing for a woman. Any prior barrenness would likely have been seen as a curse, and thus an unexpected pregnancy and birth would be a reversal of the curse. Such a woman’s social status and economic security, tied to the son who would take over control of the household, would be elevated greatly.

Ambrose, therefore, is likely not reflecting the original context of this passage. What is he reflecting then? Himself, his time, culture, and context!

Ambrose was an aristocrat and politically connected bishop in late 4th century northern Italy. His claim that Elizabeth’s late-aged pregnancy brings shame reflects his own aristocratic Roman cultural context.

This is the exact kind of gap or dissonance that I want to train you all to see with every passage in the New Testament. These texts had ancient contexts and meanings (revealed by the use of Ancient Lenses), but later interpreters had different contexts and thus transformed these meanings.

Every week, every assignment in this class is a chance to find and explore examples of this ancient vs. later dissonance. The research bibliography, discussion forums, topic paper, and even the creative project.

RLST 201: Week 2 Discussion Summary

Week Two’s survey of methods prompted lots of good discussion about what methods/approaches students felt strongly about, both pro and con. While it is certainly fine for everyone to have preferences, it’s also important that we not entrench ourselves in preconceived notions and biases.

For example, some very strongly worded concerns were expressed about about foisting postmodern perspectives/ethics (such as LGBTQ Criticism) upon ancient New Testament texts. One comment went so far as to call such readings “dangerous.”

Let me give a cautionary note here, both in terms of civility and in terms of academic honesty. Word choice matters, and it’s important that we do not offend others unnecessarily. Even when we disagree, we can disagree agreeably.

Academically speaking, it is true that lenses such as LGBTQ Criticism reflect a postmodern/subjectivist tendency, yet this doesn’t make them necessarily less important in terms of prompting us to situate and understand the New Testament in its original historical context. We shouldn’t make the false assumption that homoeroticism is merely a modern phenomenon in Western, liberal societies. Homoeroticism is found in many cultures throughout history, and it was quite common across the Greco-Roman world in which the New Testament came into existence. Given this, we should at least be open to the possibility that homoeroticism may have been accepted and practiced by some of the Hellenistic-Jewish and Gentile-Christian communities out of which the New Testament texts arose. We should also be careful not to assume that every voice and text represented in the New Testament takes an unequivocally negative view of homoeroticism, especially when the vast majority of Jewish and Christian Biblical texts are simply silent on the issue.

True enough that Paul in Romans 1:26-27 equates homoeroticism (male and female) with idolatry, in 1 Cor 6:9 includes homosexuals in a list of “wrongdoers” who won’t “inherit the kingdom of God.” Paul’s later followers who wrote 1 Tim 1:10 repeats 1 Cor 6:9. But Historical Criticism and LGBTQ Criticism can both help us understand that Paul’s ethics were highly influenced by Stoic philosophy, which was dismissive of homoeroticism as contrary to nature.

Conversely, Platonism and other Greco-Roman philosophical schools readily accepted homoeroticism as normal and natural. Thus it is worth considering whether New Testament texts that were much more influenced by Platonism than Stoicism (such as the Gospel of John) might also assume/convey a more positive sensibility regarding homoeroticism. The frequent depictions of the intimate relationship of “beloved disciple” to Jesus in the Gospel of John may not be explicitly or clearly homoerotic, but they may be suggestive. While the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark is likely a modern forgery, its homoerotic interpretation of the young man in Mark 15:52-53 (who was only wearing a linen garment and who ran away naked!) may not be completely baseless.

In sum, a diversity of methods for studying the New Testament is vital, not only to respect the diversity of our fellow human beings who read these texts, but also because of the enormous diversity of the texts themselves. While a simplistic kind of faith tends to see everything in the Bible or New Testament as bound by a divinely imposed uniformity, a close, scholarly reading of these texts sees tremendous linguistic, cultural, philosophical, rhetorical, theological, and even ethical diversity.

If the New Testament is a song, it’s not a solo. It’s a gloriously diverse choir. 😊

RLST 201: Week 1 Discussion Forum Summary

As part of an online New Testament class I’m teaching at CSU Fullerton, I am writing up summaries of the weekly discussion fora. This seemed like a good opportunity to do some public-facing writing, so I’m posting these summaries in the online course but also to my blog. No information about individual students will be posted unless that student has given permission.


As I had hoped to do, I’m now finally getting around to writing my first weekly (appreciative and critical) summary of the weekly Discussion Forums.

I’d like to start first by commending the class for the positive energy, optimistic tone, kind encouragement, and willingness to learn, grow, and be challenged. There were numerous posts that gave me immense joy to read. Connecting Harry Potter and the baby Jesus. Being open for the first time to consider the influence of Homer on the New Testament. Thinking about all the ways the New Testament has influenced art, literature, movies, and even some of the names our parents gave to us. For those with eyes to see, the New Testament is in us and all around us! In many ways, this class—especially by including the reception of the Bible throughout history and in a diversity of media—will give us the vision to see this for ourselves.

As we saw from many posts, studying the New Testament can be very personal for many of us. I was actually somewhat surprised to find that there was a much stronger religious/spiritual tenor to the conversation than I had anticipated or even than I’ve experienced in the past when teaching at various private Christian Liberal Arts colleges! I suppose part of the reason is that private Christian colleges are sometimes more of a priority for wealthy, tuition-paying parents than for some (many?) of the students who attend them. Some of it may be because New Testament here at CSUF is not a required General Education class, but instead an elective, so students are taking this class because they want to take it. According to the roster, most of our students in this class are seniors, which makes me appreciate all the more that you would take this class as one of your final classes here at CSUF.

On this note, I did want to caution against using the pejorative word “secular” to describe our freakin awesome, vibrant, and diverse public university. 🙂 Just because an institution is public does not mean that its professors, students, or even learning experience has to be “secular” (or, “this-worldly”). Just because public education is focused on this world, prioritizes evidence-based arguments, etc., does not mean that beliefs about a greater reality or future existence are off-limits or foreclosed. Just because a university does not have a shared religious creed does not mean that its members are not together devoted to the shared pursuit of truth.

It should also be noted that the most prestigious Christian universities in the country (Baylor, Notre Dame, etc.) are deeply humanistic, even while they maintain ties to their sponsoring religious organizations. Rather than seeing the world and education in terms of the mutually exclusive categories of sacred and secular, I would continue to invite us to be open to paradox, that our education can be spiritual and humanistic, fully divine and fully human at the same time. Labwork can lead to awe. Software can be a prayer. And business can be a burden of love.

Let me also add a caution about our use of the terms “Christian” and “Catholic.” Several students told stories of converting from “Catholicism” to “Christianity.” While your story is your own to tell, let me frame our stories within a scholarly context:

  1. Catholicism is one type of Christianity and happens to be the largest group within Christian tradition, representing over a billion of the some two billion Christians on the planet.
  2. It would be more accurate, historically speaking, to speak of changing or converting from “Catholicism” to “Protestantism” or even “Evangelicalism,” or vice versa.
  3. Many Catholics confess to identical beliefs and experiences as Evangelicals: having a personal relationship with Jesus, reading the Bible devotionally, focusing on God/Jesus in prayer, and not worshipping saints (even if still honoring/remembering them).
  4. In terms of a colonial and post-colonial reading of Christian history, Catholicism and Protestantism / Evangelicalism have both been shaped predominantly by European culture in which Christianity is defined and dominated by white males, conversion is conquest, individualism is paramount, and experience is sacred. American Christianity, both in its 10,000s of denominations and non-denominations, is deeply influenced by modern capitalism, whereby conversions are market-share, success is defined by numbers and dollars, pastors are brands, and worship is entertainment. So my tough question for our class is this. How have our stories, our experiences, even our conversions been shaped by our cultural context?

It is easy to go through life unaware and uncritical of the kinds of religious beliefs/practices with which we are familiar, and this includes the ways we have been taught to read the Bible. Our class trip back into ancient Christian literature and history may lead to culture shock, but it may also let us see ourselves and our culture more clearly.

The ways that most of us self-identified also got me thinking, where are our fellow students and neighbors? Where are our Eastern Orthodox students? Mormons? Jehovah’s Witnesses? Jews? Muslims? Did our fellow students, our friends and neighbors, not take this class because they did not find it personally meaningful? Educationally significant? Did they think it would challenge them in undesirable ways? In the midst of the first week student shuffle, one or two students who self-identified as agnostic or atheist left the class. Perhaps it was just scheduling or something else, but I wonder whether they felt safe to be themselves.

More reviews of my first book

Here I continue the initial summary of reviews of my 2013 monograph, as well as my summary of the review in Bryn Mawr Classical Review. Again, allow me to provide quotes directly from the reviews in their original languages, along with English translations for those who would prefer them.

Review 5. Meiser, Martin. Review of As the Bandit Will I Confess You: Luke 23.39-43 in Early Christian Interpretation, by Mark Glen Bilby, Theologische Literaturzeitung 140.5 (May 2015): 488-490.

Meiser’s thorough and positive review is summarized in two specific statements:

B., der auch des Syrischen mächtig ist, kann für sich beanspruchen, ein facettenreiches und lebendiges Panorama altkirchlicher Schriftauslegung vermittelt zu haben.

B(ilby), who is strong in Syriac, can claim for himself to have conveyed a multifaceted and lively panorama of the ancient church’s interpretation of Scripture.

B. kann man zu seiner materialreichen, problembewussten und methodisch stringent argumentierenden Arbeit nur gratulieren.

One can only congratulate B(ilby) on his materially rich, problem-conscious, and methodically stringent argument.

Review 6. Dulaey, Martine. “Patristique latine,” Recherches de Science Religieuse 103.2 (2015): 302-303.

Dulaey gives a positive summary toward the end of the review:

On trouvera encore dans le livre nombre de thèmes parénétiques exploités par les auteurs grecs, latins, syriaques et coptes sur la base de ces versets. On aura profit à lire cette étude qui est d’une remarquable exactitude pour tout ce qui touche à l’authenticité des oeuvres et à leur datation.

We can find in this book a number of parenetic themes exploited by Greek, Latin, Syriac and Coptic authors on the basis of these verses. One can profit by reading this study, which is of a remarkable exactitude on everything it treats regarding the authenticity of works and their date.

Right after this summary, Dulaey calls critical attention to my tendency to find more influence between one interpreter and another than may be merited at times, and also to note that some ideas could become widespread without passing directly from one known interpreter to another. I saw the attempt to draw possible connections as part of the value of a diachronic, comprehensive study of the early reception history of a single passage of Scripture. Raising the possibility of specific connections (e.g., between the poems of Ephrem and those of Gregory of Nyssa and Nazianzus) points out openings for future studies. In my defense, I often qualified these possible connections with tentative language (“may have influenced,” “might have read,” etc.).

Prior to this summary, Dulaey expressly disagrees with my diachronic case for Augustine changing his interpretation. I concede Augustine makes other references to martyrs being defined not by their death but by the cause/reason for their death. But that misses the point of my argument, that Augustine implicitly disagrees with Cyprian’s martyr-reading of Luke 23:39-43 prior to 419 and expressly agrees with Cyprian in 419 and after, and that Vincent Victor (not merely the Donatist controversy) was the reason for this shift in his interpretation.

Unfortunately, Dulaey (an Augustine specialist) elsewhere misreads or misconstrues the book on some important points, such as the range of options early interpreters evinced regarding synoptic disparity (not just chronological or sylleptical harmonization). Most astonishing to me was the claim that the church fathers “hesitated to see in him a martyr” (!). Augustine did not hesitate in this regard; he wavered from one position (that the bandit wasn’t a martyr) to another (that we was a martyr). Many other interpreters (such as Cyprian, Eustathius of Antioch, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose, Jerome, Chromatius) were quite explicit and consistent in claiming that the bandit became a martyr on the cross.

– Mark G. Bilby

Supplemental Notes on Scott McGill, Juvencus’ Four Books of the Gospels: Evangeliorum Libri Quattuor (New York: Routledge, 2016)

Scott McGill kindly shared the working drafts of his translation and notes on this seminal early Christian epic poem. Now that his book is published, I am informally publishing all of the comments that I sent to Scott between March and May of 2015. Some of these comments made their way into his monograph, while others (understandably so) did not. I publish the this feedback online as a supplemental resource to Scott’s excellent and valuable monograph. I would like to thank Scott for allowing me to provide feedback and for his gracious acknowledgement of my assistance.

Review of first book in Bryn Mawr Classical Review

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Here I continue the initial summary of reviews of my 2013 monograph.

Review 4. Feldmeier, Reinhard. Review of As the Bandit Will I Confess You: Luke 23,39-43 in Early Christian Interpretation, by Mark Glen Bilby. Bryn Mawr Classical Review (2015.09.58).

Reinhard Feldmeier, Professor of New Testament at Georg-August-University, Göttingen, recently reviewed my first monograph for Bryn Mawr’s prestigious Classics review journal. As is customary in scholarly book reviews, much of it represents a thoughtful and appreciative summation of the various chapters of the book.

Two critical comments appeared in the review. First, he (rightly) pointed out that my initial presentation of the “Roman-sympathizing sentiment of Luke-Acts” was eindimensional. In my defense, an overview of modern critical scholarly viewpoints on Luke-Acts was not the focus of the book, and Feldmeier recognizes this. Still, it would certainly have strengthened my monograph had I included a more nuanced and slightly more involved discussion of modern interpretations of the social and political significance and context(s) of Luke-Acts. Second, Feldmeier deems fraglich (questionable) my reconstruction of the Luke vis-à-vis the Gospel of Peter. I had come to the conclusion that the Gospel of Peter actually represents an earlier version of the story of the crucified bandits than does that of Luke. Feldmeier’s disagreement with my conclusion here certainly reflects the majority scholarly view, including that of Paul Foster in his recent critical edition and commentary on the Gospel of Peter. I would only mention that the textual evidence, at least in regard to the tradition of the co-crucified criminals, weighs against the majority scholarly view here and that alternate scenarios regarding the relationship of Luke (which scholars are increasingly viewing as a second century text) and the Gospel of Peter should be given serious consideration based on that evidence.

Overall I took the review as quite favorable, based on the two following, summary statements, which I translate for those who do not read German:

Der Schwerpunkt der Monographie liegt in dem, was der Untertitel andeutet: in der sorgfältig recherchierten und ausgelegten Rezeptionsgeschichte dieser Perikope in der alten Kirche (bis ca. 450 n.Chr.).

The main focus of the monograph lies in that which the subtitle intimates: in the meticulously researched and presented reception-history of this pericope in the ancient church (up to 450 AD).

Es ist das unzweifelhafte Verdienst dieser Studie, anhand der Rezeptionsgeschichte eines einzigen Textes gezeigt zu haben, welche Vielfalt und auch theologische Originalität die patristische Exegese auszeichnet. Auch für den modernen Interpreten ist es immer wieder faszinierend, welche Facetten einem Text abgewonnen werden können und wie dies seine eigene Ratio hat.

It is the indubitable merit of this study to have shown, on the basis of the reception-history of a single text, that variety and also theological originality distinguishes patristic exegesis. It is also always fascinating to modern interpreters which facets could be acquired from a text and how it has its own reason.

I take it as high praise to have an esteemed German professor at Göttingen call the work of this North American scholar “meticulously researched and presented” and accord it “indubitable merit.”

– M. G. Bilby

First Reviews of First Book

While several copies are still out for review in different journals, the first few reviews have started to appear:

Review 1. Clark, Roland. Review of As the Bandit Will I Confess You: Luke 23,39-43 in Early Christian Interpretation, by Mark Glen Bilby. Catholic Library World 85.2 (December 2014): 122-123.

Review 2. Phillips, Thomas E. Review of As the Bandit Will I Confess You: Luke 23,39-43 in Early Christian Interpretation, by Mark Glen Bilby. Religious Studies Review 41.2 (June 2015): 75.

Review 3. Widdicombe, Peter. Review of As the Bandit Will I Confess You: Luke 23,39-43 in Early Christian Interpretation, by Mark Glen Bilby. Journal of Theological Studies 66.1 (April 2015): 435-437.

– Mark Glen Bilby

Reflections on Juvencus, Evangeliorum libri, Book 4

Today I completed my feedback on Scott McGill’s forthcoming annotated translation of Juvencus’ Four Books of the Gospels, the first major Christian epic poem, a metrical retelling of the Gospel of Matthew (more or less). My interests in the text are manifold, but especially for the ways in which the Gospel of Luke finds its way into the retelling.

As noted in a previous blog post, book 1 of the Evangeliorum relies heavily on Luke, especially its birth and childhood narratives. As is well known, John and Mark have nothing to say about Jesus’ earthly life before his ministry, and Matthew’s infancy narrative is much shorter and quite different than Luke’s. So it makes sense, given the canonical sources available and Juvencus’ efforts to retell the whole life of Christ, that he would depend so heavily on Luke for his birth narratives, even while taking Matthew as his base text for the bulk of his composition.

What I found among books 2-4 were rare and fairly brief references to Luke’s Gospel. For example, in 3.81-83, Juvencus borrows Luke’s unique phrase, “that is enough,” in order to make a clever intertextual connection between the Gethsemane arrest and the feeding of the five thousand:

The disciples showed that there was nothing more
to eat but two fish and five pieces of bread.
“This is enough,” he said.

Besides the Lukan infancy narratives, the longest episode pulled from Luke is 14:7-11, a passage Aland’s synopsis entitles “Teaching on Humility,” but one that amounts to instructions on where to sit as a guest at a feast, and on whom to invite to the feasts one hosts. In 3.614-621, Juvencus weaves in this uniquely Lukan teaching so as to bolster the brief Markan/Matthean counsel about how those who humble themselves will be exalted. This appears immediately after Jesus’ rebuke of the sons of Zebedee for their request for eschatological places of glory. Apparently Juvencus thought that meal decorum, humility, and (perhaps) the inclusion of the poor were important enough so as to adventure out from his base text.

Surprisingly, book four had only one clear and very brief reference to Luke, specifically 17:34, about judgment dividing two people “in the same bed.” He inserts this saying in place of the Matthean mention (24:41) of two women at the mill. Perhaps he found the Matthean text too rustic.

What is most surprising about book four of the Evangeliorum is that the uniquely Lukan details and narratives related to the Passion and Resurrection are almost entirely absent. Juvencus’ retold Gospel has no second cup at the passover, no miraculous healing of the servant’s ear, no Annas, no Herod, no threefold assertion of innocence, no repentant criminal, no mourning crowds, no Emmaus road encounter, no post-resurrection feast with the disciples, and no ascension.

In summary, Juvencus was not primarily interested in navigating through or creating a harmonized Gospel (akin to Tatian’s Diatessaron). Instead, he sought to fashion a harmoniously epic version of the life of Jesus. Given the priority of Matthew’s Gospel for many early Christian interpreters, it makes a lot of sense that Matthew’s Gospel remained his consistent default.

– Mark G. Bilby

Reflections on Juvencus, Evangeliorum libri, Book 3

This is the third in a sequence of reflections on Scott McGill’s forthcoming (December 2015)  annotated translation (the first ever complete English translation) of the Four Books of the Gospels by Juvencus, the first great Christian epic poet. I continue to be impressed at the way Juvencus interweaves allusions to Latin classical poetry (especially that of Vergil), the narrative of Matthew, and also intertexts with other scriptures.

One such interweaving appears in lines 630-635 of book 3. This one stands out to me not only for its content, but also for its creative resequencing. As McGill mentions in his preliminary notes, these lines invert the order of Mt 21:4-7 (630-632 render Mt 21:6-7, while 633-635 render Mt 21:4-5).

Without delay, the disciples did as told.
They led the pair, spread a soft cloak upon
the gentle foal, and made a place to sit.
The ancient prophet’s vatic voice streamed down:
“Behold, your kind king comes; a gentle ass
and trailing foal bring him upon their backs.”

In my view, this inverted sequence dramatizes the episode. Rather than keeping with Matthew’s customary narrative pauses to quote a prophecy fulfilled, Juvencus makes the ancient speech into a present heavenly portent and voice that accompanies Jesus’ ascent. This shift also creates a resonance with other heavenly portents in the scriptures, most notably the “voice from heaven” at the baptism (Mk 1:11, Mt 3:17, Lk 3:22) and elsewhere (Dn 4:31, Jn 12:28, Ac 11:9, 2 Pt 1:18, Rv 10:4, 8, 11:12, 12:10, 14:2, 7, 13; 18:4). The inclusion of a heavenly portent here at the triumphal entry also recalls many possible scenes from Greek and Latin epic poetry.

– Mark Bilby