Around 15 years ago, John Shelby Spong’s book Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes got me obsessed with the topic of biblical patterns. Then and now, I’ve been focused on where these patterns repeat in the life of Jesus. That said, I’ve found increasingly that understanding patterns already occurring in the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) alone is indispensable to deeper incite regarding the later.
This is perhaps especially true when it comes to the topic of “composites” within the Gospels. What are “composites” ? Composites are when two or more distinct passages in an existing text (here: the Old Testament) are quoted or alluded to (or theologically: fulfilled) together in a new text/event (here: the Gospels) in a singularly or united fashion.
Let’s consider some examples.
Composite Quotations: The Foundation
Let’s start with composite quotations. As a recent study from a group of Bible scholars pointed out:
“Over 20 percent of Paul’s quotations are composites. More than 17 percent of the citations in the Synoptic Gospels are [also] composites.”
That’s 1 out of every 6 scriptural quotations in Mark, Matthew and Luke all being constructed using this literary technique! And it gets better.
As to find our first Gospel composite quotation example, we need look no further than the very first paragraph of the very first gospel written: Mark chapter 1, verses 2-3. That’s right! As you perhaps guessed, this means the very first scriptural quotation in the entire canonical Gospel tradition is itself a composite quotation!
In this case, the composite citation in Mark 1:2-3 combines quotes from two scripture passages that are both about preparing the way. Seemingly an Old Testament pattern seen as “fulfilled” in a concentrated fashion in John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus.
- In Mark 1:2-3, the singular/blended quotation of Isaiah 40:3 and Exodus 23:20 (and Malachi 3:1) presented as one quote (3) (Biblegateway.com side-by-side)
- In Matthew 21:5, the singular/blended quotation of Zechariah 9:9 and Isaiah 62:11 presented as one quote (4). (Biblegateway.com side-by-side)
- In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus’ own blended quotation of Isaiah 61:1-2 and Isaiah 58:6 presented as a single quote (5). (Biblegateway.com side-by-side)
- Apparently, Jesus used “composite quotations” himself? (if you’re a literalist.)
Note: All the above examples are from the aforementioned study as published in the book, Composite Citations in Antiquity – Volume 2: New Testament Uses. And as also mentioned before, that each of these examples can be demonstrated to combine elements from two or more Old Testament passages that are already thematically-linked to each other.
With the aforementioned study showing that these examples are just the tip of the iceberg of Mark, Matthew and Luke using this technique in their quotations repeatedly (in 17% or 1/6 of them), we might wonder…
Where else might the Gospel authors be utilizing this technique of blending thematically-linked scriptural passages beyond explicit quotations?
Let’s consider some candidate examples.
Composite Allusion: The Missing Link
Unlike composite quotations, looking for examples of more subtle or hidden composites is by its vary nature more theoretical and open to debate. After all, these examples are not necessarily acknowledged explicitly as references to the Jewish scriptures by the Gospel authors the way the citation examples are (“As it is written…”), tipping us off to the fact that we’re on safe ground to assume they had such background texts in mind. Nevertheless, I think most readers will agree that some candidate examples of composite allusions (or “composite fulfillment” not involving quotations) are quite convincingly clear.
For example, let’s take the parents of John the Baptist, who appear in Luke’s nativity narrative. John’s parents are old in age but by an angel-announced miracle become pregnant with John despite this fact. Many readers will have realized by now that this event repeats the foundational miracle of Abraham and Sarah having Issac in their old age found in the book of Genesis.
Consider then if you imagine it coincidental that the first two sentences describing John’s parents can be seen as a “composite allusions” to Genesis passages describing Abraham and Sarah.
There’s actually more we could explore regarding thematically-linked passages being alluded to – or “fulfilled” – together in Luke’s nativity. Perhaps a topic for a future article of its own.
For now, let’s recognize that the above “composite allusion” or fulfillment might be sub-categorized as narrator descriptive word choices, and not as clearly examples of “composite fulfillment” in a direct detail of the event itself? In other words, the narrator could have chosen other words to describe the same circumstances without the composite appearing in the narrative at all.
But what about examples of “composite allusion” that go more into the actual details of an event itself? Do we find candidate examples of composite allusion/fulfillment of this kind within the Gospels as well?
Composite Fulfillment: Beyond Description
Moving beyond “composite allusions” that are merely a matter of the narrator’s choice of descriptive wording, here’s a list of events with collective or more specific details that can be explained as following the “composite” pattern as allusion or fulfillment:
- Mary’s Song of Praise (The Magnificat) (Luke) (6)
- God’s words to Jesus at his Baptism (Mark)
- The Spirit descending specifically as a Dove at Jesus Baptism (Mark)
- Jesus wilderness temptations (Matthew)
- The feeding of the 5k, the miracle and other event details (Mark)
- Judas and his betrayal details (Mark, Matthew, Luke)
- The “field of blood” and its purpose (Matthew)
- The repentant thief’s words to Jesus on the cross and Jesus’ response (Luke)
- Even the very names of both John the Baptist’s parents fit the pattern (Luke)
- And there’s a lot more.
You can find explanations of three of the examples above as “composite fulfillment” events in other articles already on this blog as follows:
- The Spirit descending like/as a Dove at Jesus Baptism (Mark) -> here.
- The repentant thief’s words to Jesus on the cross and Jesus’ response (Luke) -> here.
- See “Ask the Righteous Man: What is My Fate?” section.
- The feeding of the 5k, the miracle and other details (Mark) -> here.
- See “Food Providence & The Good Shepherd” section.
In future articles, I’ll delve into how these others can also be understood to “compositely fulfill” thematically-linked Jewish scriptures as well.
In studying biblical patterns and how they can be seen as repeating (or “fulfilled”) in the life of Jesus, the sub-category of “composite” citation and allusion opens whole new dimensions of “explanatory power” to explore. Where more direct “fulfillment” of specific things that have come before can offer a depth of incite into this topic, it has its limits in illuminating many details in Jesus’ life. Some of the Gospel phenomena that this more linear examination of Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament alone can not explain, a reconsideration in light of the frequently appearing “composite” pattern in the Gospels (clear in their quotations) may offer answers that were previously unattainable.
- First quote from here: http://www.christianorigins.div.ed.ac.uk/2017/03/23/composite-citations-in-antiquity/
- (2) All the above examples are from the aforementioned study as published in the book, Composite Citations in Antiquity – Volume 2: New Testament Uses.
(3) Ibid – pg. 17-25. The way the first quote portion in Mark 1:2-3 follows Exodus 23:20 (even more so than Malachi 3:1) is all the more clear in the Greek side-by-side on page 22.
(4) Ibid – pg. 48-49. First line in Matthew 21:5 quote from Isaiah 62:11 and rest from Zechariah 9:9.
(5) Ibid – pg. 63-68. Most of quote is Isaiah 61:1-2 but setting free the oppressed line is Isaiah 58:6. As often, this is far more clear in the greek. See LXX vs Luke side-by-side on page 64.
- (6) Michael D. Goulder, Luke: A New Paradigm. Goulder describes Mary’s song of praise (The Magnificat) as a blending of Hannah’s Song in 1 Samuel and other OT allusions together (p. 225-230).