Similarity and Dissimilarity in Texts (Shr)
- To: Synoptic (WSW)
On: Birth and Other Narratives (Similarity and Dissimilarity in Texts: Shr)
Like the lepidopterist, the text worker needs to be concerned with the
question of same and different. How much difference is different? How much
difference is still same? The answer is not at once obvious.
In recent discussions of (inter alia) the birth narratives in Mt and Lk, it
seems to have been taken for granted by some that they are two different to
be literarily related, and must come from different "sources." More
recently, the respective Nazareth narratives have been offered as a test of
the degree of acceptable difference.
I think the missing step here is calibration. What, to the extent it can be
ascertained, is the limit of fidelity to a source in, say, Matthew? It seems
to me that a useful test case is the Markan Parable of the Seed, the most
feared passage in the Gospels (in the sense of, how bad does one want to be
assigned this as the text for an audition sermon, half an hour from now,
before a live audience expecting moral edification?).
Mk 4:13-20 ~ Mt 13:18-23 Explanation of the Sower
Mk 4:21-25 > Mt 5:14-16 Image of the Lamp (Mt transfer to Mount Discourse)
Mk 5:26-29 Seed Growing Secretly
Mt 13:24-30 Parable of the Weeds
Mk 5:30-32 ~ Mt 13: 31-32 Mustard Seed
I submit that it is obvious by position that Mt's Parable of the Weeds is
not his creative rewriting of, but his thematic substitution for, the Mk
parable which occurs at that position in the corresponding Mk sequence.
Which yet, on close inspection, turns out to evoke certain themes and
atmospheres of its Markan counterpart. While taking an entirely different
path, edificationally and otherwise.
This being so, is the Lukan thematic substitution for Mt's Birth Narrative
really out of the question? Many have thought so, but I venture to think it
is not. How does one decide?
It perhaps helps to have done something of the kind before. In the Chinese
Classic of Poetry (Shr), a collection of 305 poems which stand in the
Chinese world somewhat as the Rg Veda in the Indic, or the Psalms in the
Hebraic, there are 253 lines or clusters of lines which occur verbatim in
more than one poem. Where the same line occurs in only two poems, the
analytically simplest case and thus the one the beginner is well advised to
begin with, it is usually possible to determine the directionality of the
relationship. Of the 305 poems, 271 take part in at least one common-line
relationship, so there is considerable material. At the low end, the minimal
set, two poems which have only one line in common, are 7 in number. From
those one proceeds to the more tangled cases. Thus pass thirty years.
Some of the borrowings are merely borrowings, and work more or less well in
their new context (though typically with some loss of thematic or tonal
consistency), but others are frankly incompetent, and one wonders how they
could ever have survived respectful performance by the court orchestra of
one or another of the Warring States (05c-03c). But since recent hackwork
does coexist on our modern symphony programs alongside solider fare, there
is no large cultural reason to assert an impossibility. Stuff, including
musical stuff, happens.
If we extend our inquiry to inexact or near-common lines, as Pei Pu-syen
already does in her important if neglected monograph of 1974, we find that
the sort of artistry or lack of it exhibited by the second author can be
even more fully appreciated. This is a most useful extension of an
investigation of only the exact common lines. It confirms what the simpler
study shows, and does so, one might say, with the chiaroscuro left in.
One fertile source of common lines for later writers is the erotic or at
least ritually indecent songs of Jvng (Shr 975-95). The frequent situation
of courtship across a river, without preceding ritual exchange of gifts,
where on the contrary the one who splashes first gets the girl, a practice
which can still (or a century ago could still) be observed among the peoples
of what the geographers call South China, was the basis for Granet's epochal
1919 study Fetes et Chansons Anciennes de la Chine. These rather come-on-ish
lines were borrowed by later writers into far more decorous stuff, where in
a more safely Georgic setting youths and maidens exchange ritual gifts and
plight eternal troth. In short, the common line usages not only identify the
chronological originals (and a sometimes indecent lot they are); they define
a second body of work that is charming without being ritually upsetting,
quaint in its milieu but firmly middle-classical in its morals. Watteau.
Then we come to the last and far the longest of the Jvng set, Shr 96. It has
no common lines, that is, no points of countable contact with anything else
in the section. It also has no inexact common lines, that is, no points of
detectable transmutive contact with anything else in the section. What it
DOES do is breathe the seductive atmosphere of the section, but in a very
sophisticated, high-rise Chicago style, the sort of ambience which is evoked
in the middle movement of Gershwin's Concerto in F. It depicts a deliciously
sophisticated seduction scene between very high-toned persons. No taunting
of the other person, no splashing through questionable village streams;
rather, the clink of ice in tall glasses and the knowing wink. It is
screamingly funny, not least so when one keeps in mind the tauntings and
splashings of the old folk material. In fact, perhaps ONLY when one keeps in
mind that material. But keeping it in mind, in this case, is not aided by a
single prop of the common-line kind. The poet has left us to pick up the
milieu and its transformation simply from our own familiarity with the
material on which he also worked.
Imagine now a group of Markan young ladies visiting an Early Matthean church
(not in some storefront, I assure you, and there is plenty of parking in a
dedicated area). The reading for the day is from Mt 13, which as the
newcomers quickly realize is what they know as Mk 4 - the only sequence of
Jesus parables in existence. They listen dutifully on, gritting themselves
against the appearance of that dreaded bit of nothing, the Seed Growing
Secretly. The moment comes - and as they listen, suddenly they relax. They
look at each other. YES, they wordlessly say, this is what it must have been
all the time. THIS we can use. And as they file out at the end, they say to
each other, That was so wonderful, so improving; I'm coming back again next
week, aren't you?
And to what success, what monopolistic domination of the Gospel scene and
its market for the souls and tithes of the public, THAT soon led, Massaux in
his 3 volumes has crushingly and therefore sufficiently demonstrated. In no
time at all, Matthew has swamped the competition, he has buried, or rather
brought to new life and edified beyond their previous hopes, the whole
Markan public, or near enough as makes no difference.
This, I think, is how, and with what prior exercise of calibration, the
"Matthean" Parable of the Weeds might perhaps usefully be read. After which,
on in due course to the hard stuff.
E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst