Jesus and Samson: The Remarkable Parallels

A number of Christian commentators have recognized that there are several parallels between the story of Samson and the story of Jesus. In Christian circles, it is often argued that these similarities point to Jesus. Given the strength of several of the parallels, I think an argument could be made that the influence worked in the other direction, with the story of Jesus pointing to the story of Samson as a literary source.

The story of Samson can  be found in Judges 13–16. Here is my list of parallels. See what you think. At the end of the listing, I’ll discuss another parallel that Christians overlook. Samson was almost certainly a deity figure.

Similarities between the Samson and Jesus stories

  • Israel is under the domination of a foreign power. In Samson it is the Philistines. With Jesus it is the Romans.
  • An angel appears to the hero’s mother-to-be and announces she will be the bearer of a child through a miraculous birth, apparently without benefit of sexual activity. In the Samson story, the mother is barren and unable to have children.
  • The angel tells the mother that the child will be the savior of Israel.
  • The spirit of the Lord is involved in the birth of the child.
  • At some point, the spirit of the lord enters into the hero.
  • The hero likes to speak in riddles.
  • The hero has been given authority by God to act as a Judge over Israel.
  • The Jews bind the hero and hand him over to the foreign power ruling over them. In the Samson story, he manages to escape but is re-arrested later.
  • Someone close to Jesus is bribed in order to find a way to take him into custody.
  • After the hero is arrested, his sight is impaired. In the Samson story he is blinded. In the Jesus story he is blindfolded.
  • After the hero is arrested, he is mocked.
  • The hero knows that he will die pursuant to God’s plan.
  • Just before the hero dies, his arms were stretched out in a cross-like fashion.
  • Upon his death a temple is damaged. In Samson’s story, he brings down the Philistine temple. In the Jesus story, the curtain in the Jewish Temple is torn in two.

While the details in each of the two narratives aren’t identical, they are similar and abundant. As to the Samson story, if it did serve as a literary source, it existed in a contextually different situation. It wouldn’t be surprising, therefore, to see modifications made to the literary template to fit in with the later context.

Samson as deity

The name Samson, Shimson in Hebrew, literally means “sun man” or man of the sun.” This is not the kind of name one would expect from an Israelite. It suggests that Samson originates as a solar deity for a non-Israelite cult. This is reinforced by the fact that he has extremely long hair, which serves as the basis of his strength. Long hair frequently has solar implications in mythology as a symbol of the sun’s rays. Horses and Lions, having long manes, are frequently depicted as solar symbols. The Samson story also takes place close to the city of Beth Shemesh, which translates as House of the Sun.

In the story, Samson is identified with the tribe of Dan, which is located on the Mediterranean coast, in Philistine territory. Shortly after the Samson story, Judges tells the story of the Danites moving to the north of Israel, and in later times Dan was considered the northern boundary of Israel.

In the Song of Deborah, she asks “Dan, why did he abide with the ships?” Dan didn’t aid Israel in this particular battle, and Dan appears as a seafaring nation. Some scholars believe that the tribe of Dan may have been the Dnyn, one of the Greek Sea People tribes that entered Canaan at about the time of the Judges setting. Homer used the name Danoi for the Greek nations that fought at Troy.

The Philistines were another one of the Sea Peoples that entered Canaan during the Judges era. In the Samson story, despite being an Israelite and a Judge, Samson seems to spend all of his time with the Philistines, marrying a Philistine woman and socializing with the Philistines and taking up with various Philistine women..

Many scholars recognize at least a similarity between Samson and the Greek hero Herakles, who became a deity upon his death. Portions of the Herakles cycle, such as his sailing through the sky in a golden cup, suggest that he had aspects of a solar deity. In my 101 Myths of the Bible, I explore the connection between Samson and Herakles in more detail. I suggested that the Sea Peoples brought the Herakles myths with them into Canaan and they became the basis of a local solar cult with “sun man, ” i.e., Samson, as the local deity.

The Case for a Proto-Gospel and the Healing of a Blind Man in Bethsaida

I have been doing a series of posts on my new book The Case for a Proto-Gospel. Here are links to previous entries.

Introduction

Standard Source Criticism Theory

The Luke-John Problem

John’s Theological Biases

John’s Editorial Techniques

The Paralytic on the Mat

Mark 8:22-26 tells of Jesus healing a blind man at Bethsaida. According to the story, some people brought a blind man to Jesus  and asked for help. Jesus put saliva in the man’s eye and laid hands upon him. When he finished he asked if the man could see anything. The man indicated that he had some vision but it was not clear. Jesus laid hands on him again, and the man’s vison was restored and he could see clearly. The laying of hands suggests that Jesus healed the blind man through an exorcism.

Scholarly commentaries on this story focus on two elements. First, they are troubled by the allegation that Jesus used saliva to heal the man, and many scholars see this as an indication that the story goes back to an early primitive layer in the Jesus tradition. Matthew and Luke also seem to have been troubled by Jesus’ use of saliva to heal as they both chose not to include this story in their respective gospels. This suggests that as time went by, some Jesus followers were troubled by the way this story portrayed Jesus.

The Case for a Proto-Gospel and the Paralytic on the Mat

Mark 2 and John 5 both have stories about Jesus healing a paralytic lying on a mat that seem to share some common features. Yet the details of the respective stories are so different that many (most?) scholars question whether the two stories share a common literary heritage. The consensus seems to be that they two accounts are unrelated and evolved from different sources. In The Case for a Proto-Gospel I argue otherwise.

The Case for a Proto-Gospel and John’s Editorial Techniques

In my previous post on The case for a Proto-Gospel I outlined the theological reasons behind John’s rewriting of Mark’s source document. In this post I will examine some of John’s editorial practices that frequently make it hard to recognize his use of a story appearing in Mark.

A major Johannine practice was to take multiple stories that shared a similar theme or some other common story details and integrating them into a single narrative such that the constituent stories no longer look like the original versions.

The Case for a Proto-Gospel and John’s Theological Biases

While it is almost universally recognized that Matthew and Luke used Mark as their prime source of information for their respective gospels, it is also well recognized that Matthew and Luke frequently add to, omit or change details present in Mark’s source story, occasionally in significant ways. This is largely attributed to Matthew and Luke editing Mark to fit their respective theological agendas. Yet, when stories in John appear to intersect with stories in the synoptic gospels, John is rarely accorded the same privilege.

While there is obviously a vast library of writings describing John’s theology and how it might differ from the synoptic gospels, there appears to be almost no effort to apply John’s theological principles to any of the synoptic gospels, using the theology as a filter for examining what changes John would likely have made if he knew the story. While there may be an isolated comparison between a Johannine story and a synoptic story here and there, I believe The Case for a Proto-Gospel presents the first scholarly study to provide a full-scale systemic look at all of John and how his theological principles interact with the synoptic gospel stories.

In this post, I will outline how John’s theological concerns can function as a filter for reading the synoptic gospels, which enables us to identify theological problems that would bother John and require corrections if he were to edit the synoptic story. In the next post, I’ll identify some of the editorial techniques John used to make these corrections. In subsequent posts, I’ll examine various synoptic stories and show how John’s theology and editorial practice come together to transform synoptic stories into Johannine versions that share the same underlying story elements present in the synoptic story but which often looks so different from the synoptic story.

Podcast: Does John know the synoptic gospels?

An interesting discussion between Mark Goodacre and Chris Keith about John’s interaction with the synoptic gospels. Both are well-respected scholars and they raise questions about the current consensus that John did not know the synoptic gospels. As a predicate (or follow-up) you may want to look at my article at the Bible and Interpretation site, Is John a Synoptic Gospel?

And, of course, if you want the full story, check out my new book, The Case for a Proto-Gospel: Recovering the Common Written Source behind Mark and John

“The Case for a Proto-Gospel” and the Luke-John Problem

One source criticism problem I explore in The Case for a Proto-Gospel: Recovering the Common Written Source Behind Mark and John concerns the known but surprisingly under-analyzed matter of the numerous synoptic-style parallels between Luke and John that not only agree with each other but which occasionally agree with each other against Mark or contain information missing in Mark. To cite just a few examples out of many:

The Case for a Proto-Gospel and Standard Source Criticism Theory

In order to follow my series of blog posts on The Case for a Proto-Gospel, it will be helpful to understand the basic principles of current gospel source criticism and where I introduce some new ideas that enhance our understanding of gospel origins.

We call Mark, Luke and Matthew the “Synoptic Gospels” because if you read them along side of each other you find numerous instances where all three gospels seem to be telling the same story, often using many of the same words, and these shared stories frequently followed in the same sequential order. This suggests that there is some sort of literary relationship among the three gospels involving at least one written source. Figuring out what that relationship is what scholars call “the Synoptic Problem.”

Further analysis shows that in most instances where two of the three gospels agree against the third gospel as to either words used or sequential order, scholars find that either Mark and Matthew agree against Luke or Mark and Luke agree against Matthew. This suggests that Mark is probably the hub gospel and the other two use Mark as a source. However, there a few “minor” instances where Matthew and Luke agree against Mark.

I’m Starting a Blog Series on The Case for a Proto-Gospel

In my new peer-reviewed academic study, The Case for a Proto-Gospel: Recovering the Common Written Source Behind Mark and John, I explore a number of new paths and insights into the origins of the gospels and early Christian History. It is, to the best of my knowledge, the first systematic study of every incident in the Gospel of John (except for speeches, discourse and “I Am” sayings) that cross-references almost every incident in the Gospel of Mark (except for speeches, discourses, parables, doublets and most exorcisms) and establishes a direct literary relationship between both gospels, both as to story content and substantial sequential agreement in story order. But, like many lengthy academic studies, it is expensive and targeted primarily to an academic audience. The cost probably exceeds the book-buying budgets of many of my readers and followers.

Therefore, in order to share my discoveries with a wider audience, over the next several weeks I will blog about a number of my interesting discoveries on the origins of the gospels and early Christian history. If this interests you, and you’re not a subscriber to this blog, I recommend that you subscribe. There is no charge and your subscription will generate an email notice any time I post something new. Just enter your email address in the subscription box and click “subscribe.” The subscription box appears somewhere on the home page, depending on what sort of device you use for browsing.

“The Case for a Proto-Gospel” is now available.

I just received my author copies from Peter Lang for “The Case for a Proto-Gospel: Recovering the common written source behind Mark and John.” Now i feel like it is officially published. It’s a big book, over 700 pages, and peer-reviewed.

In the course of the work I examine every biographical episode in John’s account of Jesus’s life (excluding speeches, discourses, and “I Am” sayings) and cross-reference them against Mark, looking for literary patterns. My primary technique was to examine the theological differences between Mark and John and show what John would object to in Mark’s gospel and what corrections John would want to make if he knew versions of the same story.

Ultimately, I demonstrate that John knew Mark’s written source (but not Mark itself) and John had profound theological differences with it. He wrote his gospel as a substitute for the earlier source and in a very large number of incidents even follows Mark’s sequence of events with rewritten stories that explored the same issues and themes present in the Markan stories.

Because of the many changes and alterations John made to Mark’s stories, it is difficult to see that John and Mark frequently describe the same incidents from different perspectives. In effect, John serves as a thorough-going critique of Mark’s gospel, challenging it on many levels, theological and historical. There is even some evidence that this earlier source, which I refer to as the Alpha Gospel, preceded Paul’s letters.

From the book’s back cover

In this landmark study of the literary relationship between the gospel of John and the synoptic gospels, Gary Greenberg presents compelling evidence for the existence of a written pre-canonical Alpha gospel that contained almost all of the main episodes in the adult life of Jesus (excluding major speeches, such as discourses, parables, and “I Am” sayings) and which became the written source for the core biography of Jesus in Mark, Luke, John, and Matthew. While Mark used the Alpha gospel with only slight variations, John had profound theological disagreements with it, objecting to its theological message about how to obtain eternal life, the depiction of Jesus, and other matters. This induced him to rewrite the Alpha gospel so that it conformed to his own very different theological agenda. Consequently, John’s gospel functions as a thorough theological critique of Mark, but the changes he introduced made it difficult to see how he and Mark worked from the same written source. By using John’s theological concerns as a filter for reading and understanding what objections John would have with Mark’s Jesus stories, The Case for a Proto-Gospel reverse-engineers the editorial path taken by John and reconstructs the content of the Alpha gospel. Finally, the author discusses the relationship of the other two synoptic gospels to the Alpha gospel, asserting that Luke also knew the Alpha gospel but used Mark as his primary source, and that while Matthew did not know the Alpha gospel, his use of Mark as a primary source ensured that his core biography of Jesus also derived from this earlier source.

This link will take you to the Peter Lang page where you can find a Table of Contents.

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