Great Pushback on the Omission-for-literary-purpose-reasons:


[July 2010]

 I got this great email:

Someone on a forum mentioned your article concerning the validity of Matthews story about the dead saints rising after the death of Christ.  Here were my thoughts, your article statements are bolded:

 

I know Matthew was primarily written for the Jews but the event he writes about is so grand it's truly amazing that he's the only one to write about it.

The author states:

So, in keeping with Matthew's Jewish-oriented message, it makes sense for him to record this action of the Messiah.


It's kinda like several reporters going to an event, while there a UFO lands briefly and then takes off. Only one reporter mentions it, a reporter who's known for writing about UFO cases. Logic tells us that even though the OTHER reporters aren't there to focus on any UFO's, they're surely going to mention it, it's a huge deal!


I did find this interesting:

Indeed, stories and legends of these risen saints circulated and were embellished over time. They show up in several of the NT apocryphal works (e.g. The Greek Apocalypse of Ezra 7.1-2, Gospel of Nicodemus 17ff). For example, in this later work (Gospel of Nicodemus/Acts of Pilate), there is the story of Simeon and his sons (living in Arimathea), who were raised at that time, whose tombs were still open (for inspection!), and who wrote sworn testimony to their resurrection. While many of these stories are no doubt fanciful embellishments of the passage in Matthew (apocryphal writings generally "filled in the gaps" left by the biblical writers), there may be some historical core behind such related stories as this one about Simeon.

 


I find it odd that other resurrection stories are 'embellishments' but the story Matthew mentions isn't. To me it seems more likely that Matthews story is an embellishment due to the fact that none of the other Gospels mention it at all and one would think they surely would.

I know in the past many people have stated why they believe in the global flood, they say "Jesus confirms the story in the new testament". What those people are saying is, by the fact that other people mention the incredible event, that adds validity to the idea that it actually happened.


[Also, from this analysis, it should be quite clear as to why it did not show up in Luke-writing to the Gentiles, and in Mark-an abbreviated version of Peter's core preaching (written down by a Hellenistic Jew). It would not have been relevant to their literary purposes.]



I'm blown away by this ending statement. Again, he's saying since they weren't specifically targeting the Jewish audience, you have to admit the story is just too incredible to pass up. Dead people rising from their graves and going out to once again meet their friends and family isn't a 'non-issue'.



I replied:

XYZ,

 

Thanks for your thoughtful comment—

 

I tend to agree with your “UFO” analogy argument. If this passage/event were as unique as a UFO would be to our 21st century experience, ‘literary purpose’ might not be strong enough a reason to omit it.

 

But when I got your thoughtful email, I started to wonder about how ‘too incredible to pass up’ this event would have been for the other gospel authors—in context of Jesus’ life.

 

I went to my series on the miracles of Jesus and found this table:

 

 

The only miracle considered ‘too incredible to pass up’ by all four gospel authors is the feeding of the 5000. Three post-mortem revivifications, the feeding of the 4,000 (!), walking on water, calming a violent storm with a two-word phrase, and turning water into wine didn’t make the cut…

 

So, I realized that your argument would have applied more closely in this case IF THERE HAD ONLY BEEN ONE or TWO or THREE ‘UFO-class’ events—but we have at least 36 (of varying scope and intensity) ‘UFOs’ recorded, which means that selection/omission for literary purposes is still very reasonable as a possible explanation for that selection/omission (and seemingly, practiced by all the evangelists—since only one UFO is actually noted by all 4).

 

I have learned (over the last decade or so) to not impose my ‘expectations’ on what should/should not have been included in the gospels (and most other ancient writings too, I might add.) I still ‘slip’ and make these arguments myself (what I call the ‘begins with Surely” type arguments—lol). I would have expected (on the simple basis of ‘interest’) Matthew to have included the healing of the Centurion’s son in his home city – likely a former business colleague of Matthew the tax-collector—and I would have expected John to have included the story of the healing of the High Priest’s servant, since he was a close associate of the High Priest’s household and staff. I would have expected the medical practitioner Luke to have included the stories which were medically ‘without precedent’—the man born blind, or the long-term paraplegic at the Pool of Bethesda. But they didn’t, and I can agree with the commentators who argue that omitting those (otherwise interesting to the authors) details fits with the narrative and rhetorical flow of their respective gospel documents.

 

So, I still think in this case that there is still room for my argument about omission/selection for literary purpose.

 

I should also point out though, that selection/omission for literary ‘limitations’ might also apply (see quote below).  Matthew and Luke, for example, are close to the maximum length of a standard scroll, so they really could not have added much additional material (UFO-ish or not). John could have included more, but he includes so much more verbal events (e.g. Jesus’ back-and-forth with His audiences and opponents). He could have included more miracles, but didn’t—he has the lowest number of miracles by far of all the gospels. All of his are chosen/selected carefully for his narrative purpose, even though he admits at the end that ‘all the books in the world could not hold all the things Jesus did’ (John 21.25).

 

“Luke–Acts may be closer to standard forms of Greco-Roman historical writing than are the other Gospels, which resemble ancient biography. Whereas Matthew, Mark and John wrote forms of ancient biography, Luke’s second volume shows that he wrote history as well. Luke and Acts are each roughly the same length as Matthew, with Mark one-half and John two-thirds that length, indicating scrolls of standardized lengths (Matthew, Luke and Acts were each close to the maximum length for scrolls, between thirty-two and thirty-five feet). “ [Keener, C. S., & InterVarsity Press. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary : New Testament . Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.]

 

Matthew and Luke are full scrolls yet still only contain about 2/3rds of the miracles in that list. So, scroll size limitations probably FORCED some level of selection/omission, and this would have (ideally) forced the authors to select only events/discourses immediately relevant to their purpose in writing (i.e. ‘literary purpose’). Publication of a single scroll was very expensive in itself, so ‘more material in a second volume’ was probably not an option:

 

"The writing of a book of this length (i.e. Luke) was an expensive endeavor in the ancient world, both in terms of time and resources, and it was common to dedicate such a work to an influential patron” [Arnold, C. E. (2002). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary Volume 1: Matthew, Mark , Luke. (322). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.]

 

Of course, the reality of literary purpose and literary limitation doesn’t mean AT ALL that Matthew didn’t ‘invent the story’ (as even a few good evangelical scholars believe), but it DOES create a plausible scenario in which omission by other gospel writers (for reasons of literary purpose and/or literary limitation) is a reasonable position to take, historically considered.

 

One other/minor point: on the embellishment issue, I was actually talking about the kind of ‘embellishment’ that starts with a ‘base story’ and embellishes/expands THAT BASE STORY with additional details, exaggerations, dialogue, etc (e.g., the expansions to the Book of Daniel, or Infancy Gospels). This is different from ‘fabrication’ or ‘invention’ of the whole base event- story. The existence of ‘seriously expanded versions’ of a pre-existing story normally indicates that the base (i.e. ‘unexpanded’) version was considered ‘important enough’ or ‘recognized enough’ or ‘authoritative enough’ to be used as a Trojan Horse for some additional ‘information’(normally of the polemical type…sigh). So the examples I gave in that article were of that specific ‘type’ of embellishment.

 

Of course, people DO use the term ‘embellishment’ when suggesting that ‘un-precedented fabrications’ were introduced into an existing story-line (e.g. this unique passage introduced into the story line of Jesus’ life), but that’s a different sense of the word. My point was that the more specific type of embellishment (i.e. additional material ‘inside’ a pre-existing story) provided some evidential data for the story’s initial acceptance (not, btw, whether it was originally a ‘fabrication’ or ‘invention’ of Matthew).

 

Anyway, thanks very, very much for your thoughtful email and critical thinking about this! This re-analysis has certainly been of value to ME, in thinking about to what extent and under what conditions your excellent ‘UFO analogy’ might apply to (especially) miraculous – or at least ‘massively memorable’—events in the gospels.

 

Thanks again,

Warmly,

Glenn




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