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Attribution Errors in the New Testament?

In Matt. 27:9-10, more than one prophet is cited in a quote; yet only one is mentioned by name. In 2 Chron. 36:21, the first part of the verse is drawn from Lev. 26:34-35, the second is from Jer. 25:12, yet only Jeremiah is listed.

What does this tell us? That it was an accepted practice to list the prophet who was making the main point. Composite attributions suit a common practice of Jewish exegetes. Z. H. Chages in The Student's Guide to the Talmud [172ff] relates a practice of the rabbis of quoting various persons under one and the same name. The rabbis "adopted as one of their methods that of calling different personages by one and the same name if they found them akin in any feature of their characters or activities or if they found a similarity between any of their actions."

Thus for example Malachi and Ezra are said to be the "same person" (Meg. 15a) because they both say similar things (Mal. 2:2, Ez. 10:2). Chages gives examples of as many as three people being treated as one person because of such similarities.

The purpose of this collapsing down of identities was to enact a principle of praising the righteous and pious, and honoring those due such praise. Thus when Mark attributes the words of Malachi to Isaiah, he is enacting this principle by essentially melding the two prophets and giving attribution to the one who is the most deserving of honor and praise. This example also explains why, as noted below, Jeremiah was used similarly by the Talmud and by Matthew.

A reader sent me this from Noel Weeks, PhD in ancient history and languages at Brandeis University under Cyrus Gordon, as it appeared in Australian Presbyterian, February, 2009, which sums it up well:

Let me tell you a story about when I was doing my PhD at Brandeis University in Boston. Brandeis is a leading Jewish university. I remember sitting in a lecture by a very fine Jewish scholar, Nahum Sarna, who was talking about the canon of the Old Testament as it was understood in early Judaism. One of the topics he touched on was the order of the books. He said, "Well, you know that there was a period in which Jeremiah was regarded as the first book of the prophets."

Of course, nobody in the class knew that. Anyway, he continued, "One proof is that you have a quote from Zechariah quoted as being from Jeremiah because in the Jewish way of labelling things you call a book by its first few words, and you call a collection of books by the first book in that collection. Thus one of the evidences that we have of Jeremiah being the first book of the prophets in the first century is the New Testament." I was sitting there thinking, "This Jewish audience doesn’t understand why that’s an important question, because this particular text has been held up as proof that there are errors in the New Testament. All it says is that the New Testament is a Jewish document. It is speaking in the language that Jews would speak and understand."

I was alerted to a rather pathetic attempt to respond to the above by a wannabe fundamentalist apologist named John Tors. The limited academic capacity of Tors is well illustrated by his comment, "it seems to be a strange argument to say that an untruth is not an untruth if people in the day had a standard practice of saying certain things that were not true." This head-in-sand attitude mirrors that of Norman Geisler in his attacks on Mike Licona; like Geisler, Tors is oblivious to the obvious point that the "true/not true" dichotomy is inapplicable to literary conventions like the ones under discussion here. It is like saying a painting by Picasso is "true" or "false."

Doing his very best to demonstrate risible miseducation, Tors replies to the example of 2 Chronicles 36:21 and huffs that, "this verse does not contain any quotes at all." Tors does his best to minimize the harsh reality; as I note, there are direct quotes made, and Tors now backpedals like a madman, claiming he "actually showed why these are not quotations, as should be obvious to any fair-minded person," where evidently "fair-minded people" are those as misinformed as Tors is.

In a rather strange attempt to get himself out of this egregious error, Tors makes the outlandish claim that this is not a quotation at all, because there are slight variations in word order and tense. This indicates Tors' ignorance of the process of quotation in the ancient world, wherein such variations were the norm. This was primarily because quotations were usually done by memory; or, in some cases, a tense may have been changed to reflect application of the quotation to a slightly different modern situation. Either way, it is absolutely beyond question that the author of Chronicles had the phrase from Leviticus in mind. Only desperate fundamentalists like Tors will deny this rather obvious point. As this chart from Composite Citations in Antiquity: Jewish, Graeco-Roman, and Early Christian Uses (Sean A. Adams and Seth M. Ehorn, eds., p. 127) shows, there is absolutely no doubting that there is a strong and direct connection between the passages; in what is below, the quotes are from Leviticus, 2 Chronicles, and Jeremiah:

It is therefore not as simple as Tors' attempted dismissal of the connection as a mere "reference to information" or as simple as a bare reference to the "Sabbath." These are strong allusions that combine elements specific to Leviticus and Jeremiah, and they include direct quotes of specific words and phrases critical to the context of the passages.

After an insulting and rather bigoted description of the Jewish practice above as "bizarre," Tors denies that applicability of Chages' comments because it is not an example of two quotations from different sources being attributed to one person. Tors, as a western fundamentalist, is oblivious to the point made by Chages: The practice of subsuming multiple identities under one name is a much broader phenomenon, of which the practice of quotation attribution is but one expression. Nor is the example of Malachi and Ezra meant to be an example of such quotation; it is an illustration of the broader phenomenon which leads to the practice of subsuming quotations. In making the arrogant assertion that "any thinking person" would reach the same conclusion he has, Tors merely exemplifies the state of the uneducated layman whose arrogant disrespect for experts Tom Nichols discusses in The Death of Expertise. Tors is no more an authority to declare Chages in error than Thomas Paine was right to say than Age of Reason could not be refuted with a library of church books. No less than Paine, Tors thinks that sneering arrogance is a reply to someone like Chages who has spent a lifetime studying these issues.

To hammer the point home further, we may also note the same practice being used in the work of Plutarch, as related by Ehorn (45, 56):

While Plutarch here attributed the wording of the citation entirely to Agamemnon, the ??nal line is actually spoken by Alexander in response to a rebuke from his brother, Hector (Il. 3.58). In this instance, Plutarch’s misattributation must be judged carefully because his citation of Il. 3.69- 72 in Mor. 741e—just a few lines earlier—correctly attributed the very same wording to Alexander. It is highly unlikely that Plutarch would make this mistake within the span of just a few lines of Greek text.

A few times Plutarch merged different authors together. In the example from Mor. 497b a citation from Euripides was con??ated with a text from Sophocles. However, because the wording drew primarily from Euripides, the attribution also lies with him. Less clear, however, is the citation from Demosthenes and Euripides (Mor. 88c). In this citation the wording is relatively split between authors and there is no apparent reason for the attribution to the one and not the other.

Tors complains that Chages never said anything about a broader phenomenon. I never said he did. My information on that comes from a much broader study of the social world of the Bible, wherein, to use the most well-known example, all who become Christians are identified with Christ, such that we are said to be "crucified with Christ." This is the language of a collectivist society, wherein our identity is subsumed under that of Christ, just as we argue here that the identity of one writer was subsumed under that of another writer. I hardly expect Tors to be aware of such things; as a Western fundamentalist white man, he is culturally insensitive to the ways and thoughts of people in other cultures, and is clearly devoted to the precept that his Caucasian "any thinking person" is automatically superior to any Jewish scholar. That it why he asserts that I am "making stuff up" -- which is the same thing bigoted fundy atheists like Farrell Till said, too.

Tors also denies the applicability of the Biblical examples above. For Matthew 27:9-10, Tors merely denies any connection to anything in Jeremiah, which is nothing more than denial, and a rather sorrowful denial at that: Jeremiah has much more than "a reference to a field [with] no real connection with Matthew 27:9-10", it relates the purchase of a field, with silver. Tors instead opts for an otherwise unevidenced oral prophecy of Jeremiah as the source, which is the only desperate move in evidence here: There is no evidence for such a prophecy, and Tors can invent any such textual or oral prophecy out of thin air any time he pleases, with just as much evidence or authority. This is not a "reasonable solution" by Tors; it is a made up out of thin air solution, the ravings of a fundamentalist caught in the throes of confirmation bias. Tors is no better than the worshipper of the Zeitgeist movie who freely invents crucified savior figures, and argues that there must have been a story of Mitrha being crucified that we don't know about.

(Tors attempts to defend his thin-air solution by claiming that he "showed two clear examples (Matthew 2:23 and in 2 Kings 14:25) of the fulfillment of a prophecy being recorded in Scripture although the original prophecy was not recorded". Supporting thin air with thin air isn't any sort of argument, but in any event, it is an argument from silence, since Tors has no idea whether the source of the mateial was strictly oral or was in some document now lost to us. That said, as Glenn Miller aptly demonstrates, Matthew 2:23 has roots in texts that say the Messiah will be despised; as for 2 Kings 14:25, it just as well serves as the original written record of the prophecy of Jonah referred to. It almost certainly does not occur to a bigot like Tors that much of what is recorded in the Bible began with an oral message, making the Bible the first written record of the same.

It is otherwise very obvious that one can "get" Matthew 27:9-10 out of these passages by noting the obvious and unique connections: thirty pieces of silver; the reference to Jeremiah; the potter, and the purchase of a field. These are all unique elements grouped together. That there might be "predictive prophecy" involved is irrelevant; that there might also be non-common elements is also irrelevant. Tors is merely utterly oblivious to the allusive nature of Jewish exegetical practice. In short, he again comes to the text as modern literalist fundamentalist in order to deny that the text should not be read the way a modern lietralist fundamentalist reads it. Typical of such practitioners, Tors argues for his own authority in a circle.

It's worth noting a further example of Tors' lack of education regarding this:

The first and obvious thing that should be noted is that neither passage is a predictive prophecy; both are instructions to prophets as to what they are to do, and they do it when told. So there is nothing to fulfill here.

It is hardly shocking at this point to see the modern and uneducated Tors ramble in this way: To him, Biblical passages are only "fulfilled" by being prophecies of a future event. This is not the case at all, and it the sort of error Thomas Paine made as well. Rather, future persons "fulfill" passages by re-enacting what the passage describes.

Regarding Sarna's testimony, Tors -- who has no discernible or worthwhile credentials to speak to this issue -- arrogantly declares that myself and Sarna are wrong, and he reaches this conclusion through no means that would impress anyone who was not also a fundamentalist. First, he merely denies Sarna's point that Jeremiah was once regarded as the first book of the prophets. Such a bare denial from a relative nobody like Tors, against a seasoned scholar like Sarna, does not deserve to be taken seriously.

That said, the explanation isn't Sarna's special creation at all. Tors embarrrasses himself mightily with the remark that "Sarna’s argument is indeed so weak that anyone who is willing and able to think will dismiss it almost immediately, whether or not he is a fundamentalist." If that's the case, then let's pile some more scholars who agree with Sarna on top of Tors' head, starting with Walter Kaiser:

Matthew probably attributed the text to Jeremiah because Jeremiah, in many Hebrew manuscripts, headed up the collection of the prophets and his name was used to designate all in the collection. Our book titles with those chapter and verse divisions are a fairly recent innovation. Also Matthew may have attributed this quotation to Jeremiah because this text was paired with Jeremiah 18:1-4; 32:6-9. Thus he used the name of the better known and more prominent prophet. In fact, not one of the four other places where the New Testament quotes from Zechariah does it mention his name (Mt 21:4-5; 26:31; Jn 12:12-14; 19:37). -- Hard Sayings of the Old Testament, 242

And Gleason Archer also can jump on the dogpile over Tors:

Matthew is therefore combining and summarizing elements of prophetic symbolism both from Zechariah and from Jeremiah. But since Jeremiah is the more prominent of the two prophets, he mentions Jeremiah's name by preference to the minor prophet. A similar procedure is followed by Mark 2:1-3, which attributes only to Isaiah a combined quotation from Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. In that case also, only the more famous of the two prophets is mentioned by name. Since that was the normal literary practice of the first century A.D., when the Gospels were written, the authors can scarcely be faulted for not following the modern practice of precise identification and footnoting (which could never have become feasible until after the transition had been made from the scroll to the codex and the invention of the printing press). -- Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, 345.

E.J. Young is another scholar who can add to Tors' major ouchie:

In the Babylonian Talmud ... Jeremiah is placed at the head of the prophets. It is possible that this tradition of the priority of Jeremiah was far older than the Talmud. Thus, when the disciples reported to the Lord what men said concerning Him, they mentioned 'Jeremiah or one of the prophets' (Matthew 16:14). It may be that the name Jeremiah was in this instance singled out inasmuch as his work was commonly regarded as standing at the head of the prophetical books. In mentioning Jeremiah, therefore, Matthew may have in mind the entire prophetical section of the Old Testament. -- Thy Word Is Truth, 172-175

Ah yes, the Talmud. That refers to Baba Bathra 14b, which states:

The Gemara further asks: Consider: Isaiah preceded Jeremiah and Ezekiel; let the book of Isaiah precede the books of those other prophets. The Gemara answers: Since the book of Kings ends with the destruction of the Temple, and the book of Jeremiah deals entirely with prophecies of the destruction, and the book of Ezekiel begins with the destruction of the Temple but ends with consolation and the rebuilding of the Temple, and Isaiah deals entirely with consolation, as most of his prophecies refer to the redemption, we juxtapose destruction to destruction and consolation to consolation. This accounts for the order: Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah.

So much for Tors' complaint about "circular arguments." He was just too uneducated to have any idea what "evidences" Sarna was referring to.

Of course, we will no doubt be told by Tors that the authors of the Talmud were a bunch of Satan-worshipping heathens intent on destroying the precious Gospel message, so they made up some story about Jeremiah being the first book of a collection in order to make Christians like Archer and Kaiser looks like fools 2000 years later. Ay any rate, take your pick:

(Not so incidentally, this also smashes Tors' claim that if the above is true, then the supposed “dual prophecy” in Mark 1:2 should also be attributed to the prophets designated by the name “Jeremiah”! So if Sarna and Holding are correct, Mark 1:2 should read, “As it is written in Jeremiah the prophet,” not “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet.” As has been made clear, this was but one way of reckoning the collection; it is obvious that nothing compelled Mark or anyone else to follow that particular convenience -- it simply means that one could refer to either Jeremiah or Isaiah, and still be correct no matter which they chose. This shows that Tors has the mentality of the fundamentalist and is incapable of grasping more than one solution to a problem.)

Second, Tors misuses references from Josephus and the New Testament to say that "in the 1st century AD the second division of the OT was referred to by the title 'the prophets,' and not by the name of the first book in the collection," which is utterly irrelevant: Tors fails to distinguish between referring to the books as a topical collection (which, contrary to Tors, is not what Sarna was on about), and referring to them in terms of personal attribution. (Tors responds to this by explaining that it was over his head, as he somehow gets the idea that "Sarna’s entire claim was that the TOPICAL COLLECTION was referred to by the “personal attribution” of Jeremiah. How Tors gets this idea is hard to say, but it proably required him to ingest several foreign substances; perhaps he rolled up some banana peels inside some KJV pages and smoked them. The reference to a "topical collection" designation was to what was said by Josephus, who says nothing about using a personal name of an author in a collection of books to refer to that collection of books. Sarna and Josephus are both using designations of convenience, but of entirely different types.)

Finally, Tors notes that Matthew clearly quotes other OT figures like Isaiah, but these are beside the point: None is a composite quotation where Matthew was referring to material from two different persons in the same collections of books. Not surprisingly, in response to all of this all Tors can do is declare himself smarter and more informed than everyone else, which we remind the reader is the same thing Peter Joseph does too whenever he is called on the carpet for incompetence.

Frankly, Tors should leave apologetics and scholarship to the professionals and cease embarrassing Christians with his poor answers. His proclaimed degree (M. Div.) is 100% worthless for the purposes of academics; it is a pastoral degree, not a degree of a scholar. I predict that Tors will become a "fundamentalist atheist" within the next decade, though I also predict his arguments will not improve as a result.

In close, here's an ironic little authoritarian demonstration of the mindset Tors occupies:

It is also passing strange that Holding should fault a “relative nobody” [sic] for challenging a “seasoned scholar” such as Sarna when our master of library science who can look up things himself not only challenges but foully insults Dr. Norman Geisler, B.A., M.A. (in theology), Th.B, Ph.D, author or editor of ninety-one books on Biblical topics, and accords the same treatment to Dr. Paige Patterson, B.A., Th.M, Ph.D. The hypocrisy of this librarian is truly breathtaking.

Well, leave it to a moral failure like Tors to support an authoritarian persecutor like Geisler and a mishandler of sex abuse like Paige Patterson (see here also). Maybe that is what Tors means when he says that Patterson "agree[d] with the Bible on the proper role for women in the church."

But then again, since Tors is so hot to trot for Geisler, maybe he'd better have a peep at this passage from Geisler's 1980 book Inerrancy (63):

Geisler's criteria is different (he says it is the author's fame rather than position in the canon that determines who is cited), but functionally, his answer is the same as my own. Was that the sound of Tors dropping Geisler like a hot potato and running away crying? It sure sounded like it.

Let's savor the irony of Tors comparing me to a "hapless Jeopardy contestant" -- in light of him now being the star of his own game show in my new video above. It is probably going to be the highlight of his career since his own videos on his channel average about 2 views each.