How to Spot an Allusion

In this post, I am going to outline a methodology for finding allusions in the Scriptures proposed by Dale Allison in The New Moses: A Matthean Typology. This post will outline a few details from his book with a few emendations of my own.

The authors of Scripture were steeped in the world of Scripture. Every epistle and book of the New Testament alludes to, cites, and quotes the Old Testament. For the most part, we can recognize a few of the more obvious quotes. Matthew helpfully points out a few, while Paul noticeably cites a few passages in central parts of his argument. We may catch allusions to the call of the prophets in Paul’s conversion in Galatians; we may notice allusions to Exodus in 2 Corinthians; if we’re lucky, we might see the use of Zechariah in Revelation. If we’re lucky, we might catch a single shared word, a happy accident, when we see the meaning of ekklesia expanded when we notice how the Septuagint uses the same word in Exodus. For the most part, we are beholden to the authors to show us these allusions. If the author doesn’t point it out, we start to doubt it’s there.

Those who witnessed the ministry of Jesus firsthand had an intimate knowledge of the Scriptures that Christians today could only dream of. Not only are we distracted by Netflix, superhero movies, hours of sports commentary, young adult dystopian novels, and political theory, but we also hear the Scriptures differently. Few churches read the Scripture in unbroken passages; some churches may not use the Scriptures at all! When we don’t hear the Scriptures aloud, we are already at a disadvantage under those who heard the Scriptures audibly read (as they may not have been literate enough to read it for themselves, if they had access to a copy!)

Because of our distractions, and the fundamentally different way we access the Scriptures than the writers of the Bible, we are unable to hear the echoes of Scripture in the letters of the New Testament or the gospels. This is where the doubt comes in. Are we imaging something when the author didn’t point it out? Are we familiar enough with the Scripture to hear something when it’s not pointed out in the first place?

Thankfully, for those who make an effort to hear the Scriptures, and hear the echoes, those who have ears to hear have laid out a few methodologies in order to hear and become a bit more confident in asserting allusions when we may not normally. Following these guidelines and understanding the methodology, we may be more confident asserting that an allusion exists without the hand holding of the author.

First, Dale Allison:

“In order to gain, in our present circumstances, so far removed from those of ancient Jews and Christians, some way of measuring the probability or improbability of a proposed allusion in the Bible, we must begin by asking in what ways one text may be linked to another. There are at least six:”

  1. Explicit statements. He cites John 3:14. I would add something like the Infancy Narrative of Matthew which says, repeatedly, “to fulfill what was written in the Scripture”.
  2. Inexplicit citation or borrowing. Allison talks about the recreation of Exodus 4:19 LXX in Matthew 2:20. Other examples would be Mark’s use of Exodus, Isaiah, and Malachi in talking about the path of the Lord.
  3. Similar circumstances. Allison mentions Joshua crossing the Jordan as similar to Moses crossing the Sea of Reeds. Another might be Jesus on the Mount of Olives in a similar situation to David on the Mount of Olives. Both shed light on the other, but there aren’t any explicit word links.
  4. Key words or phrases. Allison shows how the feeding of the five thousand share words with 2 Kings 4:42-44. He also notes the way that the Chronicles, 21:24, change the language of 2 Samuel 24:24 to make the story of David buying a threshing floor from a foreigner to Abraham buying a burial place from the Hittites.
  5. Similar narrative structure. Allison displays this by showing how Matthew is divided into five portions, bringing to mind the Pentateuch, and, I would add, the five fold structure of the Psalms.
  6. Word order, syllabic sequence, or poetic resonance. This one seems like it would be the hardest to identify, but it doesn’t have to be. Not only does Genesis 1:1 LXX begin with “en arche”, but so does John 1:1. Not only that, but both passages preface their books with the same phrase, but both use similar verbs (“epoiesen/en:e and n are common”), the use of “ho”, and a two-syllable subject with a vowel ending in -os (cf. theos to logos).

Allison shows that none of these proofs are infallible. We may begin to draw connections when none are made though they fall into one of these criterion. He shows that similar uses of “anachoresomen” in the Testament of Job 34:3 and Matthew 2:12 may not show dependence. How do we differentiate between what is legitimate and illegitimate? We may not be able to confidently and with 100% accuracy: “Only a delicate and mature judgment bred of familiarity with a tradition will be able to feel whether a suggested allusion or typology is solid or substantial: the truth must be divined, groped for by ‘taste, tact, and intuition rather than a controlling method.'”
Nonetheless, he says, we might be able to ascertain a higher objectivity with a few more controlling parameters that he uses:

  1. Chronology. A text can only refer to a text that came before it. This seems obvious, but he uses it as a tool to block us from searching out too much intertextuality in the Old Testament as he believes the timeline of the OT is too jumbled to know for certain.
  2. The subtext of the passage and the citation must be similar enough that they could reasonably belong to the same tradition.
  3. Sometimes, similar words cannot suffice as grounds for making a meaningful connection if there are no contextual links.
  4. A type should be prominent in the work of the author. He says that allusions to Moses in Matthew are much more obvious than allusions ot “Ittai, the Philistine commander” and that on the basis of the obscurity, we cannot fully make the connection. I would, of course, disagree here. I think the creative Triune God who made the world as a prophet would use every opportunity to teach us, even in the most obscure levels.
  5. A typology makes more sense if there exists a precedent for using that typology. That Matthew would describe Jesus as a new Moses makes sense because the Chronicler has already described David as a new Moses. Though there is a first for everything, if Jabez is used as a model for Christ first in the writing of a 21st century author, the allusion may fall apart.
  6. Unusual examples and uncommon motifs. If two passages use similarly strange and out of place examples or themes, this might draw us to conclude that the latter had the former in mind. Allison does not list an example from the Bible at this point. I don’t know if, with a proper understanding of biblical theology, there would be too many examples with “unusual motifs” as a motif, in the Bible, is part of a larger tapestry and no symbol comes on its own.

For example, we would say that the song of the saints who washed their robes in Revelation 7:16 is a direct reference to Isaiah 49. They both use similar words, phrases, images, both come from similar exodus contexts and themes, and John clearly uses Isaiah throughout the Revelation. This one we can be more sure of. We can be similarly sure of the use of Ezekiel 40-48 in 7:17. Again, the phrase “living water” connects the shepherding of the Lamb (cf. Psalm 23) to the vision of the Temple out of which flows living water. The constant use of Ezekiel to shape the narrative also points out the use.

It is less obvious, but can we say that the Anti-Glory Cloud/locusts/army/horses/locusts of Revelation 9:7-11 are shaped by the Song of Solomon? I think so. It obviously draws more on Joel 2 in the immediate sense. But, using Allison, we might be able to link the vision with the Song. First, we can show that there are similar circumstances. The Song of Solomon is a visionary recreation of Adam and Eve in the garden-temple. The Revelation shows Christ as a warrior-king coming to receive his warrior-bride, where Christ is the new Adam restoring Creation and protecting his Bride, who is now armed with the Spirit of God. Secondly, there is a similar poetic style. Both are poetic and draw heavily on symbols to show the forward progression of the story. Both use similar poetic styles in that they both give an “up-down” of the Bride. The man of the Song describes his bride’s body moving from top to bottom. John describes the anti-Bride, the locusts, from faces to their tails. Revelation is obviously later than the Song, and, I argue, John cites or alludes to every book of the Bible to describe his vision. If not, Revelation clearly exists within the tradition of wisdom literature. The Bridal imagery is used throughout the Bible, so there is precedent. Revelation also alludes to Solomon by the use of “666”, so another traditional link is easily established. Using Allison’s methodology, we can reasonably say that there exists a relationship between Revelation 9:7-11 and the Song of Solomon.

Try it on your own: can we establish a link between the jealousy trial of Numbers 5:27-28 with Colossians 3:19?


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