Luke knew Matthew, But still Q (L/MwQ): A Post-Farrer and Post-Two Documents Approach to Synoptic Composition

62432689Proponents both of the majority two-document hypothesis (2DH) and of the main alternative, the Farrer Hypothesis (FH), have usually approached the debate by arguing that the existence of Q depends on whether Luke and Matthew were independent.

Proponents of the 2DH have argued that the material shared by Luke and Matthew (but not found in Mark) must not only derive from a shared source (ie, Q) but is used in such different ways that Luke could not have known how Matthew used the Q material, nor Matthew how Luke used it. The latter point, that Matthew and Luke are independent, is often defended with the strongest rhetoric, with Burnett Hillman Streeter providing the parade example:

Subsequent to the Temptation story, there is not a single case in which Matthew and Luke agree in inserting the same saying at the same point in the Marcan outline. If then Luke derived this material from Matthew, he must have gone through both Matthew and Mark so as to discriminate with meticulous precision between Marcan and non-Marcan material; he must then have proceeded with the utmost care to tear every little piece of non-Marcan material he desired to use from the context of Mark in which it appeared in Matthew–in spite of the fact that contexts in Matthew are always exceedingly appropriate–in order to re-insert it into a different context of Mark having no special appropriateness. A theory which would make an author capable of such a proceeding would only be tenable if, on other grounds, we had reason to believe he was a crank.
The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins, p. 183

Proponents of the FH have argued just as strenuously not only for Luke’s knowledge of Matthew (L/M), but that such dependence precludes the existence of Q.

So, for example, Austin Farrer argued that all was needed to dispense with Q was to show that Luke had read Matthew:

The Q hypothesis is not, of itself, a probable hypothesis. It is simply the sole alternative to the supposition that St. Luke had read St. Matthew (or vice versa). It needs no refutation except the demonstration that its alternative is possible. It hangs on a single thread; cut that, and it falls by its own weight.
– “On Dispensing with Q”, p. 62

More recently, Francis Watson has written:

Q’s existence can only be sustained if Matthew and Luke write independently of each other.
Gospel Writing, p. 121

In each case, strong conclusions are made about the necessity for / redundancy of Q, based on the independence of Luke and Matthew / dependence of Luke on Matthew.

Let us assume, at least for argument’s sake (although, I happen to agree), that the recent defences of Luke’s use of Matthew have been successful. The “coincidences of Q” – the agreements between Matthew and Luke that cannot be well explained under the 2DH – compel us to accept that Matthew and Luke are not independent. If that is the case, there is still no logical reason why Luke might not have used both Matthew and Q (that is, some common source of Matthew and Luke in addition to Matthew). The dependence of Luke on Matthew does not logically entail that there is no Q. The case against Q is not made out by merely showing that Luke is dependent on Matthew.

In order to dispense with Q, we would instead need detailed study of every double tradition saying, to determine whether any are better attributed to a common source rather than Matthew. Luke, after all, did not necessarily think like William of Ockham: economy in the use of sources was not necessarily Luke’s modus operandi and neither should it be our approach to Luke. Luke’s reference to “many” (πολλοὶ) earlier “orderly accounts” of the events in the life of Jesus, and more traditions handed down besides – despite its vagueness and ambiguity – suggests that early authors of accounts of Jesus’ life had no great aversion to redundancy.

One might counter that my objection remains in the realms of possibility, and that we still require a good reason for considering whether parts of the double tradition were based not on Matthew but on a shared source (Q). And that would be a fair objection. But a good reason is not difficult to find in Synoptic scholarship.

We already know that Luke employs one source of Matthew to the exclusion of Matthew itself: the Gospel of Mark. Some sections of Luke follow Mark without including Matthew’s distinctive additions. For example, in Luke 4:14-6:19 there is a significant number of triple tradition pericopae in a row which follow Mark’s content, but not Matthew’s (the return to Galilee; rejection at Nazareth; healings of Simon’s mother-in-law and others; preaching of Kingdom at synagogues; the calling of the first four disciples; healing of a leper; healing of a paralytic; the calling of Levi/Matthew; the question about fasting; the question about the Sabbath; the man with the withered hand; choosing of 12 apostles; teaching and healing before crowd from Judea, Tyre and Sidon). There are too many of these pericopae in a row to claim that all of the Matthaean variants were not “Luke-pleasing”, ie., that Luke rejected them because they did not please his own authorial preferences. Luke has rather followed one of his sources for an extended sequence, to the exclusion of one of his later sources. The pericopae in Luke  4:14-6:19 form a marked contrast to those in Luke 3:1-4:13//Mt 3:1-4:11, where Luke repeatedly includes Matthew’s additions – hardly coincidentally – in the same locations: Mt 3.7b-10//Lk 3.7-9 (JBap on brood of vipers); Mt 3:12//Lk 3:17 (JBap on winnowing fork); Mt 3.27-30//Lk 11.19-23 (Beelzebub); Mt 4.3-11//Lk 4:1-13 (the temptation).

Luke’s tendency, also evident in the works of other ancient historians, is to sometimes rely on a single source to the exclusion of parallel sources. This is also this pattern in the nativity, wherein Luke excludes Matthew’s wise men, Herod’s murder of infants, and the flight to Egypt, preferring a group of family traditions which are strongly coloured by traditions about Jesus’ mother and other women. This is the pattern too in Luke’s Passion and Post-resurrection narratives, which excludes many of Matthew’s expansions (eg resurrected saints, guards, earthquake, disciples go to Galilee to see Jesus).

So if Luke possessed Mark and Q as sources, we could justifiably expect Luke to have relied on one source (Matt or Q) but not the other for the double tradition. On this basis, we have good prima facie grounds to expect that Luke sometimes preferred the source or sources underlying Matthew in preference to Matthew itself. To determine the matter, we would require a careful weighing of all double tradition pericopae, in order to ascertain whether it is more probable that they derive from Matthew or from a shared source of Matthew and Luke. In addition, we should be open to the possibility that the shared source might not be the same shared source used in other pericopae, might originally have been written in either Greek or Aramaic (or other), or may be part oral in addition to written components which are evident in certain verbatim similarities within the double tradition – and therefore may not be a unified Q. Given the baggage of Q – which today typically connotes much more than the undefined shared source(s) underlying some or all of the double tradition – it might even be better to employ a new siglum. Or an older one, like uppercase Λ (for logia).

In conclusion, the dependence of Luke on Matthew does not determine the question of Q’s existence. The Farrer Hypothesis’ compelling challenge to the Two-Document Hypothesis may, rather, be the first step in rehabilitating a reappraised Q.


Austin Farrer driving an Austin


Filed under Ancient Jewish texts

With Or Without Q: From MwQH to M+≈QH?

In 1955, Austin Farrer suggested in a relatively short article that scholars dispense with Q, the hypothetical sayings source behind the double tradition in Matthew and Luke. His alternative theory was that Luke had known Matthew, which Luke used in addition to the earliest gospel, Mark. The theory has often therefore been referred to as the Farrer Hypothesis, FH.

In 1989, the popular introductory book Studying the Synoptic Gospels by Ed P. Sanders and Margaret Davies referred to the Farrer Hypothesis as “Mark without Q” (p. 93), that is, a theory which affirms the priority of Mark without positing the existence of Q. In April 1999, Mark Goodacre adopted the phrase “Mark Without Q” as the name for his website about Q (started two years before, in 1997, with the more grandiose title “World Without Q”).

The title to Mark Goodacre's "Mark Without Q" website, ca. April 1999.

The title to Mark Goodacre’s “Mark Without Q” website, April 1999.

In a 2003 review article of Mark Goodacre’s The Case Against Q (2002), John Kloppenborg came to the decision that the “more apt name” for the Farrer Hypothesis is the “Mark-without-Q hypothesis” (NTS 49.2, p. 213). Kloppenborg further notes that this expression comprised the “original name of Goodacre’s web site” (which is not quite correct: the original name was “World Without Q”). But Kloppenborg’s own lasting contribution to this nomenclatural epic was the siglum “MwQH” — adopted since in numerous Synoptic studies. If Kloppenborg had been as internet savvy as Goodacre, we probably would have had “w/0” instead of “w”. Yet this was the early noughties after all, and Kloppenborg, as far as we know, had never used an emoticon let alone written LOL.

An interesting twist in the rollercoaster ride which is the MwQH has occurred with the publication of Francis Watson’s Gospel Writing (2013).  Watson provides a vigorous defence of Luke’s creative use of Matthew (L/M) and therefore of Q’s seeming redundancy. Yet Watson also argues that the Gospel of Thomas, in particular, provides evidence of a not dissimilar “Sayings Collection” (SC) behind the double tradition in Matthew. Although Luke did not use the Sayings Collection as Matthew did, relying instead on Matthew itself, Watson concludes that Luke also had access to this Sayings Collection.

But this Sayings Collection – underlying Matthew and perhaps parts of Luke –  is not at all dissimilar to Q itself. So the MwQH camp has now provided a defence of something fairly Q-like in Matthew and Luke. The siglum for this Q-like source should be, I suppose, “≈Q” (“almost equals Q”).

And so I ask: should we now refer to the Theory-Formerly-Known-As-The-Farrer-Hypothesis as MwQH or as M+≈QH?


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The Nephilim are on TV: Shadowhunters

I just watched the first episode of the new television series Shadowhunters and it’s quite watchable – even exciting. Some good casting, also, has the potential to make this adaptation of Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments novel series a success. Probably even better than the film.

Katherine "Kat" McNamara plays Clary Fray

Katherine “Kat” McNamara plays Clary Fray

The shadowhunters are demon-fighting angelic-human hybrids (as a result of partaking of the Mortal Cup, given sometime in the Middle Ages by the Angel Raziel to Jonathan Shadowhunter, the first of the Nephilim).


As human-angel hybrids, the shadowhunters are loosely based on the angelic interpretation of Genesis 6:4, which describes the “sons of God” having sex with the “daughters of men”. Genesis 6:4 calls the offspring of this union … the “Nephilim”, a breed of heroes of ancient renown.

Now that Nephilim are on TV every week, the mission of Remnant of Giants is complete. Let the reader understand.


Filed under Ancient Jewish texts, Biblical Giants, Genesis 6.1-4, Nephilim, Television

Narrative Sequence in Q? Or from Mark?


In a couple or so works, Mark Goodacre has argued that the first third of Q has a narrative sequence. [He bases this on the delineation of Q in the International Q Project’s Critical Edition.] His assessment brings into question, therefore, those who would categorize Q as a “sayings source” or “Sayings Gospel”. In The Synoptic Problem (pp. 151-52) he sets out this sequence, making further comments on it in chapter 9 of The Case Against Q. The alleged sequence in Q is as follows:

(a) John the Baptist appears in the region of the Jordan (Mt.
3.6//Lk. 3.3).
(b) John baptizes people with ‘his baptism’ (Mt. 3.7//Lk. 3.7), a
baptism apparently connected with ‘repentance’ (Mt. 3.8//Lk.
(c) John preaches about a ‘coming one’ (Mt. 3.11//Lk. 3.16).
(d) Jesus appears on the scene and there is a baptism involving
the ‘spirit’ in which Jesus is recognized as a ‘son’ (Mt. 3.13-
17//Lk. 3.21-22).
(e) Jesus is led into the wilderness by ‘the spirit’ to be tested as
‘son’ (Mt. 4.1-1 1//Lk. 4.1-13).
(f) Jesus appears in a place called ‘Nazara’ (Mt. 4.13//Lk. 4.16).
(g) Jesus preaches a great Sermon (Mt. 5-7//Lk. 6.20-49).
(h) Jesus finishes his Sermon and goes to Capernaum where a
Centurion’s Boy is healed (Mt. 7.28-29; 8.5//Lk. 7.1).
(i) Messengers come from John the Baptist, asking whether Jesus
is indeed ‘the coming one’ (Mt. 11.2-19//Lk. 7.18-35).

[In this, Goodacre is followed by Francis Watson, who in Gospel Writing (p. 249), distinguishes Q from the Gospel of Thomas on certain grounds, the first of which is that “unlike Thomas, Q contains extensive narrative material (the ministry of John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptism and temptations, the centurion’s servant).”]

But are these really narrative sequences found in Q? Or is it the result of Matthew (then Luke) placing Q material into what is essentially Mark’s narrative sequence? I argue it’s the latter [contrary to the Critical Edition of Q, on which Goodacre bases his narrative sequence]. (In what follows, I leave the larger questions of Q’s existence or Luke’s use of Matthew largely to the side – just so Q skeptics, like Goodacre himself, shouldn’t feel left out!)

Matthew 3:1–4.22, in which the first five elements of Goodacre’s narrative sequence occur, closely follows the sequence in Mark 1:1-21. The parallel material in this passage consists of the introduction of John the Baptist (Mark 1:1-8//Matt 3:1-5, 11); John the Baptist’s baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:9-11//Matt 1:13, 16-17); Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the desert (Mark 1:12-13//Matt 4:1-2, 11); Jesus’ arrival in Galilee (Mark 1:14a//Matt 4:12); Jesus’ proclamation that the kingdom of God has come near (Mark 1:14b-15//Matt 4:17); and Jesus’ calling of Simon, Andrew, James, and John as followers (Mark 1:16-20//Matt 4:18-22). Matthew expands this with other material, including double tradition (Matt 7b-10, 12; 4:3-10) and material unique to Matthew (Matt 3:7a, 14-15).

The Markan sequence clearly provides the basis for the sequence in Matthew. Moreover, the triple tradition follows the sequence from John the Baptist’s baptism of many people in the Jordan (Mark 1:5//Matt 3:5-6//Luke 3:7), to John’s prediction of the coming of one more powerful than he (Mark 3:7; Matt 3:11; Luke 3:16), to Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:10-11//Matt 3:16-17//Luke 3:21-22), and finally to Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the desert (Mark 1:12-13//Matt 4:1-2, 11//Luke 4:1-2). The Q material which refers to John the Baptist and the temptation in the desert need not have itself included any chronological markers. Only when combined with Mark’s sequence did it receive its own sequence. Goodacre’s narrative sequence (a)-(e) is supported by Mark, but not by Q.

What is more, Matthew continues to rely upon Mark’s narrative sequence right up until chapter 8, and this accounts for most of the remainder of Goodacre’s narrative sequence. Matthew’s continued adherence to Mark’s narrative sequence is obscured by the insertion of the large sermon in Matt 5:1–7:27. But we should not let that distract us from the continued dependence on Mark’s narrative sequence.

We had examined the sequence up until Jesus’ calling of his first followers (Mark 1:16-20//Matt 4:18-22). From there, Matthew employs Mark’s statement that Jesus came to Capernaum (Mark 1:21) as his introduction to the healing of the Centurion’s boy in Matt 8:5a. Immediately before the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew had made a more general geographical description of Jesus’ teaching and healing in Galilee (Matt 4:23-25)–which he had also taken from the first chapter of Mark (1:28, 35-39). Then, shortly after the completion of the Sermon, Matthew follows Mark 1:21 in having Jesus enter Capernaum. Matthew employs the following verse in Mark (Mark 1:22) immediately after the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 7:28-29), describing the crowds as astounded at Jesus’ teaching. The episode of the healing of the centurion’s boy is itself double tradition, so does not appear in Mark. But Mark has furnished the geographical introduction to the healing of the centurion’s boy as Capernaum (Mark 1:22) in close connection to the the crowd reaction which Matthew places at the end of his Sermon (Mark 1:22). Mark’s sequence has therefore provided the material for Matthew’s narrative sequence, even though Matthew has altered the sequence. In addition, Mark 1:23-24 refers to Jesus as “Jesus of Nazareth”, a reference picked up in Matt 4:13a.

Thus while Matthew does not follow Mark’s sequence in Matt 4:23–8:5 as closely as he does in Matt 3:1–4:22, there is a good basis for attributing the later sequence not to Q but to Mark. Mark’s narrative sequence furnishes Matthew with Jesus’ departure from “Nazara” (Mark 1:23-24//Matt 4:13a//Luke 4:16a), the crowd reaction to Jesus’ sermon (Mark 1:22//Matt 7:28-29//Luke 4:32), and the entry into Capernaum to heal the Centurion’s boy following the Sermon (Mark 1:21//Matt 8:5a//Luke 7:1). Matthew certainly departs from strict adherence to Mark’s narrative sequence, with insertion of the lengthy Sermon and relocation of the account of the healing of the leper (Mark 1:40-44//Matt 8:1-4), but he also–in creating that sequence–relies on Mark’s own narrative sequence. Mark furnishes Matthew’s narrative sequence in 4:23–8:5, not Q. Goodacre’s narrative sequence (f)-(h) is supported by Mark, not Q. And that only leaves (i), which is no longer part of a narrative sequence without (a)-(h).

In conclusion, while Matthew differs from Mark’s narrative sequence in Matt 3:1–8:5, inserting material attributed to Q and other material, it has been argued that Matthew relies on Mark’s sequence in order to construct his own. By comparison with the chronological and geographical markers in Mark 1, we see that the narrative sequence in Matthew 3-8 is – far from a “radically restructured Mark” – based essentially on Mark 1. If we accept the existence of Q, there are insufficient grounds to treat it as possessing any sustained narrative progression. In this respect, Q is much like that extant sayings gospel, The Gospel of Thomas.




Filed under Ancient Jewish texts

Pure Forms, the Giant Jesus, and Chris Keith on Social Memory

Harry Anderson, "Prince of Peace"

Harry Anderson, “Prince of Peace”

In the 1980s-1990s, Dominic Crossan, Helmut Koester, and Arthur Dewey argued that a version of the Gospel of Peter predates Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. They also argued that this version of the Gospel of Peter was a source for the four canonical gospels. Some earlier scholars had already suggested a direction of dependence from the Gospel of Peter to the canonical gospels (e.g. Adolf von Harnack, Percival Gardner-Smith, Benjamin Arlen Johnson, and Jürgen Denker). Yet the opinion had always been in the minority (and still is).

Rather than assess the proposal in full here, I want to mention a couple of the reasons they offered, both of which relied on form-critical arguments. The first, following the earlier contention of Martin Dibelius (in “Die alttestamentlichen Motive in der Leidensgeschichte des Petrus- und des Johannes-Evangeliums”), was that the Gospel of Peter must be older because it much more directly incorporated references to the Old Testament in its composition of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. The basis of the argument is that “the way in which the suffering of Jesus is described [in the Gospel of Peter] by the use of passages from the Old Testament without quotation formulae is, in terms of the history of the tradition, older than the explicit scriptural proof; it represents the oldest form of the description of the passion (of Jesus)” (Philipp Vielhauer, quoted in Helmut Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels, p. 218).

Yet this argument relies on a fairly wooden view of tradition history, without due regard for the specific social-contextual reasons for quoting from the Old Testament. In addition, the basis for the supposed tradition-historical law has few (if any?) concrete examples behind it. Its evolutionary view of tradition relies mainly on assertions about what early Christian oral preaching must have been like. For example, Dibelius claimed, “At the origin [of Christianity] was the sermon; it preached the passion of Jesus by recounting Old Testament sayings, and it maintained – according to its devotional tendency – as close a literal connection to the sacred text as possible.” Well, this might have been a feature of the traditions on which later written gospels drew. But it certainly isn’t a necessary or exclusive feature. In fact, there is no good basis for positing a unidirectional development from a high level of citations of the Old Testament to a lower level of citations.

Second, Crossan, Koester, and Dewey each argued that they could identify the earliest level of the resurrection narrative in the Gospel of Peter on the basis that it had the pure form of an epiphany narrative. So, all the bits that didn’t fit a (purported) pure form of an epiphany narrative must, they argued, be later additions. For Koester, the resurrection narrative “reveals the basic formal features of an epiphany story”, i.e., “(1) an introduction which sets the scene for the epiphany, (2) the appearance of heavenly figures, (3) a miracle, (4) the epiphany of the risen Lord, and (5) the reaction of the witnesses”. So Koester treated any parts of the actual resurrection narrative which did not fit into this alleged pure form – such as Jesus’s transformation into a giant who stretched all the way to heaven and the mobile, talking cross – as secondary, “novelistic features”. For Koester, only the elements of the pure epiphany form “belong to the older oral tradition of epiphany stories related to Jesus’ resurrection”. Which is all very well to assert, but as there are no pure epiphany stories in reality, it is more difficult to demonstrate.

More fundamentally, recent work on social memory has severely criticised, if not discredited, the use of form-critical methods to neatly separate authentic from inauthentic Jesus traditions. There is an excellent summary of social memory scholarship in relation to the Gospels in a recent two-part article by Chris Keith: “Social Memory Theory and Gospels Research: The First Decade” (Part One; Part Two). In the first part, Keith outlines the theories of three major proponents of social memory theory (Maurice Halbwachs, Jan Assmann, Barry Schwartz); in the second, he discusses its key findings when applied within Gospel scholarship.

In respect of the form-critical assumptions I discussed above, social memory studies, writes Keith, “point to a much more complex interaction between the present and the past than form criticism’s unidirectional theory of the transmission of the oral gospel tradition can accommodate”. In addition to the criticisms of Crossan, Koester, and Dewey identified above, social memory research indicates that there are continuities between early and later contexts which problematize attempts to strictly separate formal tendencies. Summarising Jens Schröter’s approach, Keith contends that social memory studies have revealed the inadequacy of “a reconstruction of the past built with snippets that scholars have supposedly excavated from the evidence that exists”. Instead, “the historical task inevitably requires historical imagination based upon the available knowledge of the socio-historical contexts in which memories of Jesus formed and circulated.”

In order to understand the presence of a giant Jesus in the Gospel of Peter‘s resurrection narrative, we therefore need a specific, tailored understanding of the work’s actual use of the Old Testament, and how this might have influenced its construction of what is seemingly its most innovative scene. We also need useful comparisons with other contemporary texts which portray Jesus as a cosmic giant or the cross as a salvific and cosmic actor – not just an excavation of some putative ‘pure form’ from the text. More on this at a later date…





Filed under Biblical Giants, Gospel of Peter

Ben Dov – Haaretz article on influence of Mesopotamian Texts and Images on the Watcher Myth

Since my last post on Jonathan Ben-Dov’s theory that Mesopotamian texts and images influenced the composition of the Watcher myth, Jim Davila noted Ben-Dov’s Haaretz article on the same topic, “Turning to the angels to save Jewish mythology” (18 October 2013).

I’ve found that the article is available in full at this url.

In the Apocryphal Book of Jubilees, we read a description of a stone inscription in an unclear language, which the writer understood as a manual of divination according to the sun, the moon and the stars. There is an amazing similarity between the fantastic description in the Book of Jubilees and actual stone inscriptions created by Babylonian kings, which have been preserved to this day in Jordan, Arabia and mainly Lebanon. The kings Nebuchanezzar and Nabonidus engraved their images on rock, and topped them with symbols of the sun, moon and stars − the protective deities of the neo-Babylonian dynasty. The scenes were accompanied by a long cuneiform text praising the king’s enterprises.

We, therefore, encounter a rare instance of coordination between a fantastic literary description and a material find that has survived to this day. In the absence of a chain of transmission, the explanation of the mysterious pictures etched in the rock was left to imagination. While the older traditions about the origin of knowledge persisted, they now found a new iconographic garb.

The Jewish writer of the Book of Jubilees considered the inscriptions vestiges from the time before the Flood, because he had no way of knowing that the inscriptions preceded him by about four centuries at most. The sun and moon appearing above the inscriptions are, as he understands them, the subjects of the scientific wisdom carved on the rock.

Accordingly, the giant figure engraved in the rock ‏(originally either Nebuchadnezzar or Nabonidus‏) is no more than the “Watcher,” the primordial angel who descended from heaven and bequeathed wisdom to human beings.

Aramaic writings thus preserved a historical memory of Mesopotamian kings in two ways. While the more direct channel was expressed in the legends of the Book of Daniel, the second, more oblique, channel came by means of the myth of the Watchers, transmitted mainly in the book of Enoch. Here, the ancient angels were portrayed as mythological giants, judging by their artistic representation on the rock reliefs.

In particular, Ben-Dov finds that the type of images found at the site of Brisa, in Lebanon, may have influenced some of the elements of the Watcher tradition:

Yet another confirmation of the connection with Lebanon is an additional, common motif in the literature of the watchers, one that until now was not completely understood. These books often describe dreams, all of which include a scene of a forest, usually of cedars, which is either cut down or destroyed by flood or fire. Such scenes appear repeatedly: In the Book of Giants ‏(also an Aramaic text from Qumran, with its own surprising transmission history‏), in Daniel 4 and in an Aramaic midrash (apocryphon) on Genesis from Qumran. The ancient authors repeatedly invoke the forest scene, always in a dream account. Particular attention should be given in this regard to Nebuchadnezzar’s stone engravings and reliefs from the site of Brisa in the northern Lebanon valley. Although the reliefs were discovered as early as the mid-19th century, they were not properly documented until recently. This turned out to be most unfortunate, since in subsequent years the reliefs were repeatedly damaged.

When they were photographed and published in 1906, the ensuing assyriological research dealt mainly with the text of the rock inscriptions from Brisa rather than with the reliefs. Recently, Catalonian scholar Rocio Da Riva returned to Lebanon and discovered that the reliefs had suffered heavy damage from shooting, so that almost nothing remains of them today. Nonetheless, she was able to improve on the reading of the inscriptions.

These are large monuments, each one approximately 2.5 meters in height. On one relief, Nebuchadnezzar is described fighting a lion, and opposite it, on the opposite cliff of the riverbed, Nebuchadnezzar is seen standing in solemn pose, next to a large tree with multiple branches. The tree is erect and bare, as though created to fulfill its role in the eyes of Babylonian kings: to provide wooden beams for the temples in Mesopotamia. The tree bears no fruit, nor does it offer shade. The cuneiform inscriptions were not understood already in Antiquity, while it was the image alone that remained to work its effect on the collective memory.

The figure of the giant standing next to the tree threatening to cut it down comprises a frequent scene in generations of literature on the Watchers, such as Daniel 4:10-11 and in the Book of Giants. While the Aramaic source of the latter was preserved only partially, translations of it survived until the medieval period in various sundry versions, from Hebrew to Turkish. In the Hebrew version preserved in Midrash Bereisheet Rabati ‏(Provence, 11th century‏), we read the dreams of two giants. Quite surprisingly, the content of the dreams in this midrash gives a very reliable description of one of the Brisa inscriptions. The text is as follows: “ These two sons of Shemhazai, Hiwwa and Hiyya by name, dreamed dreams. The one saw a great stone which covered the earth, and the earth was marked all over with lines upon lines of writing. An angel came, and with a knife obliterated all the lines, leaving but four letters upon the stone. The other son saw a large pleasure grove planted with all sorts of trees. But angels approached bearing axes, and they felled the trees, sparing a single one with three of its branches.

In the first dream, the rock is covered with many rows of writing, as the angel descends with a knife in hand to erase them. The second dream draws a scene in a forest, with the angel descending with an ax to cut down its trees, until only one remains.

In the Brisa relief, the middle of the figure had already been destroyed in 1906, and therefore there is no way of knowing whether or not the king carried an ax ‏(the text in fact reports that Nebuchadnezzar cut down the trees with his “pure” hands, rather than an ax‏). There is no certainty as to whether the Aramaic text describes this particular inscription or similar inscriptions in Lebanon, but the resemblance is nonetheless quite strking.

Two things become clear, in any case: first, that the Aramaic authors cite the stone engravings and convey them in the form of a dream, for that is their way of giving epistemological validity to the mysterious reliefs. And second, the reliefs were interpreted as a message of divine punishment, represented by the erasure of the writing and the chopping down of trees. The relief in which the king is fighting a lion ‏(which also appears at another site in Lebanon, outside of Brisa‏), is also echoed in the Watchers tradition: both in a description of the violence of the watchers against wild animals (1 Enoch 7: 5, cp. Habukkuk 2: 17‏), and in Daniel 4:12-13, where the king is expelled from the shelter of the tree and sent to confront wild animals.

Read the full article here.

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Is the Watcher/Fallen Angel Myth a reinterpretation of Mesopotamian inscriptions?

Jonathan Ben-Dov (University of Haifa) has developed a very interesting theory about the origin of the early Jewish tradition of the Fallen Angels and Giants. He presented it at Boston College on November 20, 2013, in a paper entitled “Iconography and Myth: From Nebuchadnezzar to the Fallen Angels”.

Ben-Dov’s theory is that the Watcher tradition derives, at least in part, from an attempt to interpret the gigantic iconography of great Mesopotamian kings on Assyrian, Babylonian, and Achaemenid monuments and reliefs. This was carried out in the third or second century BCE, long after the inscriptions were made, by which time they were not properly understood.

In his presentation, Ben-Dov examines many of the elements shared, on the one hand, by Mesopotamian inscriptions and monuments and, on the other hand, by Jewish literature such as 1 Enoch, the Book of Giants, Jubilees, etc.


In one part of his presentation, Ben-Dov discusses this interesting passage from Jubilees, which provides an example of a later generation (mis)interpreting an ancient inscription as referring to the Watchers:

And he [Kainam] found a writing which former (generations) had carved on the rock, and he read what was thereon, and he transcribed it and sinned owing to it; for it contained the teaching of the Watchers in accordance with which they used to observe the omens of the sun and moon and stars in all the signs of heaven. And he wrote it down and said nothing regarding it; for he was afraid to speak to Noah about it lest he should be angry with him on account of it. (Jubilees 8.3-4)

Ben-Dov also discusses inscriptions left by Nebuchadnezzar in Lebanon, studied recently by Rocío Da Riva.

Ben-Dov’s theory is well worth consideration, as identifying one of the concrete contributing causes of the Watcher tradition. I don’t know, due to the nature of the evidence, whether his theory could ever be conclusively established, but I do think it is at least plausible that the reliefs and inscriptions contributed to the construction of the Watcher myth. Have a watch of his lecture here.

Note also Brian Doak’s discussion of depictions of gigantic figures in ancient Near Eastern iconography in his The Last of the Rephaim, pp. 14-16.

Update (10 January 2016): Jim Davila notes that Ben-Dov’s theory was also set out in an article in Haaretz on October 18, 2013, “Turning to the Angels to Save Jewish Mythology” (subscription required).

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Filed under Biblical Giants, Biblical Giants' relatives, Fallen angels, Jubilees