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Luke 4.38-44: Primitive or Muted? February 20, 2011

Posted by Lee in Luke's Writing Style.

In a recent reading of Mark 1.29-39, in which Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law, I was compelled to compare Mark’s text with that of Luke’s parallel in 4.38-44. A number of elements struck me as odd, and a brief survey of commentators confirmed my initial puzzlement.

Disclaimer: Now, it must be said that I am no text critic, but merely an amateur who has been taken by (though not wholly given to) the idea of Lukan priority. This blog is a testimony to that, of sorts, in that it rests on the notion that Luke wrote to Theophilus ben Annas, the high priest of 37-41CE, and that his first volume may have been addressed to this Theophilus during his high priestly service – a very early date by any standard.

Essentially, my inquiry regarding this pericope centers on whether Luke’s text is more primitive than Mark’s, or is Luke simply muting or softening Mark in places (odd places in my view). Below I lay out my thoughts and those of a few Lukan scholars of note, concluding each thought with a simple inquiry regarding Lukan primitivity, hoping to offer a fair amount of data with which to work in answering the inquiry. These scholars are I. H. Marshall (NIGTC: The Gospel of Luke), J. A. Fitzmyer (AB: The Gospel According to Luke, vol. 1), L. T. Johnson (SP: The Gospel of Luke), C. F. Evans (TPINTC: Saint Luke), M. D. Hooker (BNTC: The Gospel According to Saint Mark), and B. M. Metzger (A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament).

1. It is odd that Luke should name Simon at 4.38, prior to Jesus’ calling of his disciples (5.1ff.). To be fair, he does not refer to Simon as a follower of Jesus at this point, but simply as a specific player in this miracle story – a player of eventual note. But the same is true of Mark, who has Jesus calling the disciples after this miracle (2.13f.; 3.13ff.). But where Luke only mentions Simon, Mark includes three other eventual disciples: Andrew, James and John. On the awkwardness of Luke’s early mention of Simon, Johnson writes, “Luke has not yet introduced Simon into his narrative (see 5.4). The lapse is caused by his shifting of order of the stories he found in Mark. Luke also eliminates mention of Jesus’ other companions that are listed by Mark 1.29” (84; cf. Marshall, 194; Fitzmyer, 549; Evans, 281, who calls Luke’s retention of Simon as “awkward”).

Inquiry: Is it possible (plausible?) that Luke’s text is the more primitive one on the grounds that Luke mentions only Simon here? Tradition suggests that Mark took from Peter. If that be considered, Peter would have undoubtedly been able to offer details unknown to Luke, in which case Luke’s “elimitaion” of Andrew, James and John is easily explained. Further, the prominence that Mark gives to Simon at this early stage is muted heavily in Luke. (See section 2 for more on this point.) Might Luke have simply been working from a more primitive form than that found in Mark?

2. At this point, Simon is not as prominent a figure in Luke as he is in Mark. The conclusion of this pericope in Mark 1.36 has “Simon and those who were with him” pursuing Jesus, while Luke 4.42 has the general public seeking him. As Hooker notes, “The phrase ‘Simon and his companions’ is an odd one” (76; cf. Fitzmyer, 556, who concludes earlier (467) that “[t]he other Synoptics use this word [ὄχλος/ὄχλοι] frequently, but the Lucan use is baffling; at times he avoids it where they have it, at times he introduces it where they do not have it”; Johnson, 84, who attributes Luke’s lack of this detail to “the public nature of Jesus’ ministry in Luke’s Gospel [emphasis retained]). Luke does not show restraint elsewhere to include Simon by name, and even as “the leader of the disciples in 5.3,4,5,10; 22.31; 24.34” (Fitzmyer, 549).

Inquiry: Is it possible (plausible?) that Luke’s text is the more primitive one on the grounds that here he does not include Simon as the one seeking out, or “pursuing” (so Mark), Jesus while he elsewhere shows no restraint to include him? Can a reliance on Peter (again, if the tradition be accepted) explain why Simon is “pursuing” Jesus in Mark and not in Luke? Asked differently, what does Luke gain by omitting Simon at this point? Is “the public nature of Jesus’ ministry in Luke’s Gospel” enough of an assumption to suggest that Luke omitted Mark’s detail? What does Luke have to gain by portraying this seeking of Jesus as a public endeavor rather than led by Simon?

3. Luke’s final word in this pericope is a reference to Jesus “preaching in the synagogues of Judea” (4.44). Luke had previously referred to Jesus’ synagogue ministry as taking place in Galilee (4.14,15). On this, Metzger writes, “In view of Luke’s earlier reference (in ver. 14) to the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, the reading τῆς Ἰουδαίας … is obviously the more difficult, and copyists have corrected it to τῆς Γαλιλαίας in accord with the parallels in Mt 4.23 and Mk 1.39” (114; cf. Marshall, 198; Fiztmyer, 557-8). Johnson expresses his bewilderment at Luke’s reference to Judea: “But why does Luke have Judea, since he has had Jesus preaching in Galilee (4.16,31) as does also his source (Mark 1.39)? This reading should be preferred as the harder one. …Is this an example of Luke’s geographical ignorance? Is he using ‘Judea’ for the whole of Palestine inclusively, as ‘the land of the Jews’? Or is he simply nodding? In any event, the next verse puts us in Galilee” (85).

Inquiry: Is it possible (plausible?) that Luke’s text is the more primitive one on the grounds that, in this pericope, his concluding reference to Jesus’ ministry places it in Judea while Matthew and Mark place it in Galilee? What does Luke have to gain by changing “Galilee” to “Judea” here, especially in light of his emphasis on Jerusalem throughout his Gospel? Indeed, it seems quite odd that Judea should even be mentioned at this point, considering Jesus’ is progressively moving from Galilee to Jerusalem in Luke (cf. 9.51). I suppose there may be a theory involving Lukan fatigue, of which I am ignorant. Or perhaps one suggesting that Luke has Jesus’ eventual destination in view, as though he can’t wait but get Jesus there, and so inserts “Judea” in place of his source’s “Galilee”. Even so, is such a theory(-ies) sufficient evidence against Lukan primitivity here?

Again, I am no text critic, nor pretend to be. But I am fond of NT texts, and particularly of Luke. And this pericope contains odd details which, to my thinking, may suggest Lukan primitivity. Those in-the-know are welcome to enlighten me further.



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