Does inspired mean original?
When pondering Ellen G. White’s use of sources, we need to be aware that the Bible writers also drew extensively from non-Biblical works. Their usage goes far beyond Paul’s occasional quotations from pagan poets such as Epimenides (Titus 1:12), Aratus (Acts 17:28), and Menander (1 Cor. 15:33).
The Gospels and sources
The writers of the New Testament, and even Christ Himself, seem to have drawn a surprisingly large number of their motifs from some of the intertestamental religious writings. Today we know this literature as the Apocrypha (included in the Roman Catholic Canon) and the pseudepigrapha (books not included in the Apocrypha, often written under the pseudonym of some Old Testament figure such as Baruch or Enoch). 1
Jesus may have drawn from the Story of Ahikar, written about the fifth century B.C. The prodigal’s confession (Luke 15:18, 19) sounds very much like the words of Ahikar’s son Nathan: “Father, I have sinned unto thee. Forgive me, and I will be to thee a slave henceforth forever” (chap. 8:24, Armenian). And Christ’s parable of the unproductive fig tree, in Luke 13:6-9, resembles Ahikar 8:35 (Syriac): “My son, thou hast been to me like that palm-tree that stood by a river, and cast all its fruit into the river, and when its lord came to cut it down, it said to him, Let me alone this year, and I will bring thee forth carobs.”2
The second-century B.C. Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, which the New Testament parallels in many places, may have influenced Christ’s parable of the sheep and the goats: “I was beset with hunger, and the Lord Himself nourished me. I was alone, and God comforted me: I was sick, and the Lord visited me: I was in prison, and my God showed favour unto me: in bonds, and He released me” (Testament of Joseph 1:5, 6; cf. Matt. 25:35,36).
Matthew 11:28-30, the passage of Scripture most frequently quoted by Ellen White (according to my count), echoes a speech Ben-Sira (about 180 B.C.) puts in the mouth of personified Wisdom: “Come unto me, ye unlearned, and lodge in my school. . . . Put your necks under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by. See with your eyes that I have labored little, and found for myself much rest” (Sirach 51:23-27).
Other teachings of Christ also reflect themes from Sirach, such as Ben-Sira’s counsel against repetitive prayers (chap. 7:14), that one must forgive to be forgiven (chap. 28:2), and that old wine is more desirable than new (chap. 9:10). Christ’s story of the rich fool with his barns (Luke 12:16-21) finds a parallel in Sirach 11:18, 19: “There is a man who is rich through his diligence and self-denial, and this is the reward allot ted to him: when he says, ‘I have found rest, and now I shall enjoy my goods!’ He does not know when his time will come; he will leave them to others and die.”
Christ may also have been acquainted with some non-Jewish writings. The Cynics’ practice of possessing only a cloak, wallet, and staff reminds one of Mark 6:8. Part of Christ’s sermon on the mount (Matt. 6:26-30) resembles a passage from a speech by Diogenes (Cynic founder, died c. 320 B.C.) recorded in Dio Chrysostom 1:429: “Consider the beasts yonder and the birds, how much freer from trouble they live than men, and how much healthier and stronger they are, and how each of them lives the longest life possible, although they have neither hands nor human intelligence. And yet, to counterbalance these and their limitations, they have one very great blessing they own no property.”
These examples from the Gospels could be multiplied several times over. Many of Christ’s parables are modifications of contemporary rabbinic stories.* Some idea of the extent of these parallels may be derived from the multivolume work of Strack and Billerbeck, which contains a partial list of them.’
An interesting comment Ellen White makes regarding Christ’s use of sources sheds light on her own rationale in using sources so freely without giving credit: “It was the work of Christ to present the truth in the framework of the gospel, and to reveal the precepts and principles that He had given to fallen man. Every idea He presented was His own. He needed not to borrow thoughts from any, for He was the originator of all truth. He could present the ideas of prophets and philosophers, and preserve His originality; for all wisdom was His; He was the source, the fountain, of all truth.” 4
Most of Ellen White’s use of sources occurs in her historical works. Similarly, Old Testament histories are obviously compiled from earlier court annals and such. Ellen White’s use of sources in theological and prophetic passages is less frequent but perhaps raises more questions about inspiration.
It is therefore interesting to note that Romans, a theological treatise, and Revelation, a prophetic vision, use noncanonical sources very extensively. And what they pick up lies in the realm of theology and prophecy, not history. For example, Paul’s argument in Romans 1 and 9 at several points borrows ideas from the first-century B.C. book of Wisdom, found in the Apocrypha. Paul wrote, “Ever since the creation of the world his [God’s] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20, R.S.V.). Compare his words with “From the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator. . . . Yet again, not even they are to be excused; for if they had the power to know so much that they could investigate the world, how did they fail to find sooner the Lord of these things?” (Wisdom 13:5-8, R.S.V.).
And Paul said, “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use?” (Rom. 9:21, R.S.V.). Compare that, again, with “For when a potter kneads the soft earth and laboriously molds each vessel for our service, he fashions out of the same clay both the vessels that serve clean uses and those for contrary uses, making all in like manner; but which shall be the use of each of these the worker in clay decides” (Wisdom 15:7, R.S.V.).
It is even more difficult to understand how a prophet could make use of non-Biblical sources when relating a personal vision of future events. Yet this is a common feature of inspired eschatalogical presentations. For example, Ellen White described future events she had seen in vision in terms drawn from Henry Melville’s Sermons.5 The same phenomenon occurs in the book of Revelation, where we find the most extensive borrowing of any book in the New Testament. Although John was writing out his own vision, apocalyptic literature of his time clearly influenced his description of future events. Sometimes this merely means that John used apocalyptic ideas common to his time. We find examples of this among the parallels between Revelation and the book of 4 Ezra (sometimes called 2 Esdras), composed about the same time as Revelation. The cry of the souls under the altar for vindication (Rev. 6:9-11) has a remarkably close parallel in 4 Ezra 4:35, 36: “Did not the souls of the righteous in their chambers ask about these matters, saying, ‘How long are we to remain here? And when will come the harvest of our reward?’ And Jeremiel the archangel answered them and said, ‘When the number of those like your selves is completed'” (R.S.V.). (Second Baruch 23:4, 5 and 1 Enoch 22:3-7; 47:4 contain other versions of this same theme.)
There are numerous other parallels. Ellen White’s first vision, printed in “A Word to the ‘Little Flock,'” was also influenced by 4 Ezra, which was in her Bible. For example, her statement that Mount Zion was surrounded by “seven other mountains, on which grew roses and lilies” 6 is similar to 4 Ezra 2:19. Other parallels are the description of the handing out of the crowns,7 and in a later vision, the streams ceasing to flow and the dark clouds. 8
Other, older works also supply Revelation with imagery. The entire structure of Revelation 19:11-22:5 is paralleled to some extent by the structure of the last part of book three of the Sibylline Oracles (probably written between 163 and 145 B.C.). Lines 635-651 of that work tell of earthly kings meeting in a final conflict in which corpses are left unburied to be eaten by birds and beasts, and the earth is left “unsown and unplowed, . . . for many lengths of yearly recurring times.” Lines 652-701 tell of God coming to earth, and the wicked launching an attack “to destroy the Temple of the great God,” but God speaks, and rains down fire upon them. Lines 702-795 describe the reward of the righteous and the conditions of the new age in terms similar to Revelation 21:4ff. Like Revelation 21:8, lines 762-766 warn against abominations.
Babylon’s retribution of blood for having shed the blood of saints and prophets (Rev. 16:6; 17:6; 18:24) resembles the Sibyl’s prophecy that Babylon “will be filled with blood, as you yourself formerly poured out the blood of good men and righteous men” (lines 311,312).
Revelation and 1 Enoch
Many other intertestamental works influenced Revelation. However, the most important one is the apocalyptic work known as 1 Enoch (Ethiopic), whose influence on the New Testament, by my calculation, is exceeded by only twelve Old Testament books. More than eighty of the 404 verses in Revelation show some relationship to this work. The first section of the box accompanying this article gives just a few of the more salient similarities.
In both works everything in the sea dies (Rev. 16:3; 1 Enoch 101:7); the souls/spirits of the righteous dead plead for judgment (Rev. 6:9, 10; 1 Enoch 9:1-3; 22:5-7;47:l, 2); the kings and the mighty men are terrified when they see the Lamb/Son of Man sitting on his throne (Rev. 6:15, 16; 1 Enoch 62:1- 10); the wicked cower before the Lord and say something about not being able to stand (Rev. 6:17; 1 Enoch 89:31); the wicked are tormented with fire in the presence of the angels/elect (Rev. 14:10; 1 Enoch 56:8; 48:9) in a lake/river of fire and brimstone (Rev. 20:10; 1 Enoch 17:5; 10:12-14; 67:4); and God/the Elect One dwells with men (Rev. 21:3; 1 Enoch 45:4; 71:16) in eternal daylight (Rev. 22:5; 1 Enoch 58:3-6).
Both mention the seven angels who stand before God (Rev. 8:2; 1 Enoch 90:21; 81:5), the angel who is in charge of the waters (Rev. 16:5; 1 Enoch 69:22; 61:10; 66:2; 60:16), the predetermined number of slain elect (Rev. 6:11; 1 Enoch 47:4), a great mountain burning with fire (Rev. 8:8; 1 Enoch 21:3), and the preparing of the river Euphrates for the crossing of the kings of the East (Rev. 16:12cf.; 1 Enoch 56:5ff.). Every part of the “great white throne” judgment scene in Rev. 20:11-15 finds a parallel in 1 Enoch 47:3; 90:20-27; 51:1. There are even two brief parallels to the Laodicean message (Rev. 3:14-21; 1 Enoch 97:8; 62:14).
Even though much of Revelation’s imagery may originate in the Old Testament, it often seems that John got it via Enoch. Although the white, red, and black horses of Revelation 6:2-5 were probably influenced by the red, sorrel, and white horses of Zechariah 1:8, yet their colors and their order are identical to the white, red, and black bulls of 1 Enoch 89:9. And while Revelation 21:1 (“I saw a new heaven and a new earth”) is similar to Isaiah 65:17, it is even more similar to 1 Enoch 91:16. The sea beast and the land beast of Revelation 13:1, 11, respectively, are probably modeled after the sea monster (Leviathan) and the land monster (Behemoth) of 1 Enoch 60:7-10, though details of the description of the sea beast come from Daniel.
But not only does John portray his visions in words and imagery drawn from extra-Biblical sources. Even when he is ostensibly describing his own reactions to the vision he has just seen, he may be borrowing. Notice, for example, how similar the account of John’s impulsive angel worship (Rev. 19:10; 22:8, 9) sounds to a passage from the (probably earlier) Apocalypse of Zephaniah: “Then I arose and stood, and 1 saw a great angel standing before me. . . . And when I saw him, I rejoiced, for I thought that the Lord Almighty had come to visit me. I fell upon my face and I worshiped him. He said to me, Take heed. Don’t worship me. I am not the Lord Almighty, but I am the great angel, Eremiel, who is over the abyss and Hades’ ” (chap. 6:11-15).
“I saw” and sources
To some minds, the fact that in Ellen White’s writings even her expression “I saw” is occasionally (though rarely) followed by an idea drawn from one of her sources poses a serious problem. 9 We find, however, Biblical parallels for this use of sources. For instance, the words of Christ in Paul’s vision “It is hard for you to kick against the goads”(Acts 26:14, N. A.S.B.) echo a line from the mouth of the wicked character Aegisthus near the end of the first play of Aeschylus’ Orestean trilogy, Agamemnon. More to the point, we are aware of more examples of this same phenomenon in the Apocalypse alone than in all of Ellen White’s writings.
Please note that while there are verbal parallels between 1 Enoch and Revelation, the theological differences are very significant. And note that it seems rather unlikely that John had a copy of 1 Enoch, or for that matter a copy of the Old Testament, open before him as he wrote Revelation. Revelation contains more than fifty allusions to 1 Enoch and more than four hundred to the Old Testament, but not one actual quotation from either. It appears that the apocalyptic imagery that originated in these sources was buried deep in John’s mind through previous reading, and molded his description of the future conflict between good and evil. 10
Like John the revelator, Jude was evidently a devoted reader of 1 Enoch–it had a strong influence on his Epistle. The use of the angels, the Flood, and Sodom as examples of what happens to the ungodly in Jude and 2 Peter had a long prehistory in Sirach 16:7, 8; Testament of Naphtali 3:3-5; Jubilees 16:5, 6; and 3 Maccabees 2:3-5.” It is no exaggeration to say that the New Testament uses sources just as extensively as did Ellen White. This article lists only a fraction of the known New Testament parallels to noncanonical literature, and many other possible New Testament sources have disappeared. Keep in mind that Ellen White’s writings are one hundred times the volume of the New Testament, so we could expect a similar ratio of parallels.
In conclusion, we see that originality is not one of the tests of a prophet. 12 God does not need to use supernatural means to impart to His prophets ideas that they can get through natural means. Unless we are ready to discard the New Testament, I suggest that we accept the extensive use of uninspired sources as a typical phenomenon of inspiration.
Does Inspiration Always Mean “Canonical”? Through what Channel is the Spirit of Prophecy (Rev. 19:10) Communicated?
Does Inspiration Always Mean “Canonical”?