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The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, Dennis R. MacDonald. Book Review

I'm pleased to introduce Dennis R. MacDonald, John Wesley Professor of New Testament at the Claremont School of Theology and author of the recent book The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. Professor MacDonald has agreed to take time out of his schedule to talk to us about his book and his research into the origins of the New Testament. To quote from the publisher's description of The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark:

In this groundbreaking book, Dennis R. MacDonald offers an entirely new view of the New Testament gospel of Mark. The author of the earliest gospel was not writing history, nor was he merely recording tradition, MacDonald argues. Close reading and careful analysis show that Mark borrowed extensively from the Odyssey and the Iliad and that he wanted his readers to recognize the Homeric antecedents in Mark's story of Jesus. Mark was composing a prose anti-epic, MacDonald says, presenting Jesus as a suffering hero modeled after but far superior to traditional Greek heroes.

Much like Odysseus, Mark's Jesus sails the seas with uncomprehending companions, encounters preternatural opponents, and suffers many things before confronting rivals who have made his house a den of thieves. In his death and burial, Jesus emulates Hector, although unlike Hector Jesus leaves his tomb empty. Markís minor characters, too, recall Homeric predecessors: Bartimaeus emulates Tiresias; Joseph of Arimathea, Priam; and the women at the tomb, Helen, Hecuba, and Andromache. And, entire episodes in Mark mirror Homeric episodes, including stilling the sea, walking on water, feeding the multitudes, the Triumphal Entry, and Gethsemane. The book concludes with a discussion of the profound significance of this new reading of Mark for understanding the gospels and early Christianity.

Austin writes:

I'd like to start out by asking a couple of general questions; others with questions or comments should feel free to jump in at any time.

1. Why do you think that no one has written about this relationship before? If some of the parallels are so obvious, surely they must have caught someone's attention?

DRM: Perhaps later in the discussion I will be able to give some evidence that ancient readers saw the relationship of these stories to Homer, but I'll restrict myself briefly to the history of recent scholarship. There is no one cause of this scholarly oversight. One cause surely is the desire by many traditional Christians to view the Gospels as historically reliable. For these people, the notion that Mark wrote alternative mythologies would be heretical. Most critical scholars of the New Testatment, like myself, were schooled in a method called formcriticism that seeks to trace units in the gospels (or other Jewish or Christian narratives) to antecedent stages of transmission. So, for example, some scholars would argue that a particular tale was based on a misunderstood historical event; another may suggest a genesis in early Christian preaching, or magical practices, or popular legends. The origin of these stories, then, come from antecedent traditions, not from a creative author interacting with classical Greek models.

This is not to say that I am alone in comparing the Gospels to other ancient literature; indeed, this has been done repeatedly for at least fifty years. What sets my book apart is that it compares the earliest Gospel (Mark) with Greek epic, not with Jewish books, including the Jewish scriptures, not with contemporary Greek prose. Another reason for the oversight of the Homeric epics is, of course, widespread ignorance about the Iliad and the Odyssey in our culture, including biblical scholars.

By the way, the oversight should not be too surprising in light of the significant differences between the gospels and epic. Homer's writings are poetic, written in a language barely recognizable by many later Greek readers, polytheistic, violent and somewhat naughty.

2. I imagine that your thesis must have upset some people...what sort of reception has your book received, both in academia and among general readers?

DRM: Well, I suppose no author thinks her or his book gets as much response as it should, but that has been my experience. I am gratified that some readers have called it a watershed in the study of the Gospels; I think it should be. Most scholars in the field seem intent on avoiding it, for if I am correct, nearly everything written on early Christian narrative is flawed. Conservative Christians, of course, have not been overjoyed, but some evangelical types recognize that I am not arguing that Mark took over these stories from Homer uncritically. Indeed, he often rewrote the stories to show that Jesus was superior to the likes of Odysseus, Hector, Achilles. One unanticipated use of my work has been by atheists who use it to show that the gospels are not historical. I think most of us have known that for a long time. My work shows, however, that the author of the earliest gospel knew he was not writing history and expected his readers to recognize it as a fictional alternative to the dominating fictions of Greek religion.

That is an interesting point. If the author *expected* people to see the work as basically fictional and serving a religious (or political, or social) purpose, then that should change how we read the Gospels. Today, people writing "history" are doing something very different from what authors in the ancient world had in mind when they wrote "history" or narratives. But everyone seems to forget that.

Considering your work on how other early Christian and Jews works may have made use of ancient Greek literature... do you suppose that one of the changes which scholars need to consider is that early Christianity (and perhaps even Judaism of the time) rely much more heavily upon Greek influences than has been assumed? I know that scholars have long noted many ways in which Greek philosophy impacted early Christianity, but perhaps because of Greek mythology, the impact was larger than previously thought.

Perhaps Christianity owes more to Athens than to Jerusalem? Or at least, more than we realize.

DRM: YES! Scholars long have recognized potential influence of Greek philosophy on the New Testament, especially on Pauline letters, but the influence of Greek mythology, especially Homeric poetry, has gone unrecognized. I have litte doubt that behind the mass of early Christian narratives, both in and outside the New Testament lies a mimetic (imitative) substratum awaiting exploration. I find a new potential parallel almost every month, especially in the so-called apocryphal Acts of the Apostles.

Do you feel that such parallels suggest that the intended audience for these works was primarily Roman/Greek/Gentile? How would Jewish audiences reacted to such parallels... would they have simply not noticed? Might they have been upset at a supposedly Jewish Messiah being compared to Greek gods and heroes?

DRM: Austin, my work merely confirms conclusions made by others that Mark's primary audience was Greek-speaking and gentile. Jews are spoken of as others and, more important, rather basic Jewish practices need to be explained to the reader. What is more, the explanations sometimes are off the mark (sorry for the unintended pun) making it likely that the author himself was gentile. That said, it also is true that the author has a rather sophisticated knowledge of the Septuagint (Greek Bible) and may expect some of his readers to recognize biblical allusions.

No, if Jewish readers saw what Mark was doing I doubt they would have been particularly upset. Several Jewish poets had imitated Homer and so did the author of the Book of Tobit, in my opinion. What probably made them more upset was Mark's claim that Jesus was a Messiah but not a son of David, that it was Jewish authorities, not Romans, who killed Jesus, and that Jesus was superior to all Jewish antecedents.

As I understand it, Jews and Christians were not so strongly differentiated in the first couple of centuries - graveyards are identical while churches and synagogues are very similar in style and decoration. Would the writing of such documents have helped to split Christianized Jews from other Jews in the community?

DRM: I doubt that Homeric influence on early Christian writings played anything other than a modest role, if any, in the split between Christians and other Jews. Judaism of the period was so diverse and so many other issues were more important that such imitations, if noticed at all, would have had little to contribute. On the other hand, I think it interesting that Mark and Luke/Acts, the books most laden with Homeric influence, also are stridently anti-Jewish.

3. Do you think that any other early Christian documents besides Mark were written to emulate Homer or other ancient literature?

DRM: Indeed they did. My first book, Christianizing Homer, demonstrated imitations of Homer, Euripides, Sophocles, and Plato by the author of the Acts of Andrew (ca. 200). I have published several articles on Homeric imitations in the Book of Tobit (Jewish), the Gospel of Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles. I also see similar imitations in other Christian apocryphal texts. I think we are at the beginning of breaking the code of ancient religious narrative.

What is your opinion of the work of the Jesus Seminar? Does it, as is claimed, produce a consensus among scholars about what is most likely true and original, free of later mythologizing?

Or are the critics right when they say that it is more anattack on conservative and fundamentalist readings of the Bible, motivated more by theological disagreements than by objective scholarship?

DRM: Your questions are appropriate but difficult to answer. First, any claim to produce a consensus is overstated. The most one might claim is that this self-selected group of critically trained scholars have dicussed and voted on the likely authenticity of information about Jesus in early Christian texts. This is, in fact, what is usually claimed, but sometimes seminar members claim more--especially some of the organizers.

The Seminar itself is not monolithic religiously; indeed, some of the members are quite traditional, including more than a few ministers and priests. Some of the members, however, are bitter to traditional Christianity and their scholarship and rhetoric occasionally reflect that bias. This is by no means the case for everyone.

Blair writes:

Thank you for taking the time to come here and discuss your book.

I only have two immediate questions. First, is Mark the only gospel that emulates the Odyssey and the Iliad or do the other gospels attempt to do the same?

DRM: Matthew and John, in my view, have some connections with so-called topoi of Greek poetry but they apparently do not imitate the epics as thoroughly as Mark. Luke, on the other hand, imitates Homeric epic repeatedly. For example, compare the story of the recognition of Jesus by the disciples on the road to Emmaeus that ends the gospel with the ending of the Odyssey, where Laertes recognizes Odysseus by the scar on his leg. I've published several articles on Homeric imitation on the Acts of the Apostles (including the shipwreck in ch. 27 and the famous "we-passages"), and I'm now working on a book on Acts showing that Peter's prison break in ch. 12 and Paul's farewell in ch. 20 are strategic and profound imitations of passages in the Iliad.

Second, if Mark was intent on emulating these stories then how does that affect Christianity, and more specifically, Jesus himself.

DRM: How will my work effect contemporary Christianity?

For the most part churches seem to survive, even thrive, quite oblivious to biblical scholarship. I expect the same will be true of my work. That said, if I am correct, I would think the following conclusions would follow.

1. We need a new appreciation of early Christianity as a multicultural phenomenon, borrowing both from Jerusalem and Athens, as you aptly put it.

2. The church needs to accept its own mythology as a mythology. Myth is not falsehood; in fact, myth is how religions express their highest values. In addition to appreciating myth, the church should learn to appreciate aesthetics as a theological enterprise: to value creativity, art, and literature. Too often theologians and others have conversed with science and history ignoring myth, art, and creativity.

3. The church needs to accept the fact that we can know amazingly little about the historical Jesus. One implication of my work is to shrink the already slender information about Jesus that can be critically recovered.

4. I would hope that my work would promote conversations between Christians and adherents of other religions without prejudice.

Who is your intended target for your book?

DRM: I thought it necessary to pitch the book for two audiences: first for scholars so that the documentation and argumentation is sufficient to avoid disdain, but second for the generally literate reader familiar with comparative approaches to narratives. I don't know if I've succeeded, but I'm delighted the book is already used in some college literature courses.

Sure, I think some people will fear "putting Jesus and Zeus on an equal pedestal," but this response surely is superficial. The differences are substantial and significant: what we need is a comparative attutide to religious fiction. By the way, "religious fiction" probably produces fewer misunderstandings than "mythology."

I, myself, have been a member of the Jesus Seminar, and I still go to meetings now and then, but my approach is almost 180 degrees to theirs. I don't think we need Christianity based on history but not myth (even without God), but a Christianity conscious of its own "religious fictionality," but also open to scientific and historical findings.

Can we be sure that the gospel(s) are emulating Odyssey or Iliad or should we dig deeper and see if all three are emulating a previous work or a cultural cliché?

DRM: It is to treat this question that I have developed my criteria for mimesis: (1)accessibility, (2) analogy, (3) density, (4) order, (5) distinctive traits, and (6) interpretability. The most important of these is distinctive traits, the presence of features not found in oral traditions or literature conventions generally, features that bind two texts into a hermeneutical, chemical reaction. Authors ancient and modern use such distintive traits to alert the reader to compare the next with the target. Favorite flags are proper nouns, locations, titles, unusual words or phrases, or inversions. I don't deny the use of general conventions in the composition of early Christian narratives, but many such narratives raise flags that point to well-known literature models.

For the layperson in the church, do you think there is a distinctive path they should take in order to reach the point where they can make such comparative approaches? I know there is no specific path, because each of us kind of makes it up as we go along, but we all seem to flow in the same general direction. Is there a generalized approach?

DRM: I am writing two books now: one more scholarly than the other, but both intended to be more accessible. One I am calling "Does the New Testament Imitate Homer?" which will analyze only three stories, all in Acts. I hope that by dealing with stories about the apostles I will avoid the debates about Jesus and that by dealing with only three stories somewhat more completely, I will make my case in more detail.

The second book might be called Homer for the reader of the New Testament (Greek epic for dummies?). Here I plan to work my way through both the Iliad and the Odyssey, providing new prose translations of seminal passages and providing notes, bibliography, etc. I know the Homeric epics are long, difficult both in Greek and in English, loaded with historical and literary difficulties, and, in large measure, inaccessible to all but the expert. I want to provide a reference guide to address this. If anyone has an idea how best to do this, I'm all ears. I'm just now designing this work.

Keepwe writes:

I'm pleased to be able to say that I had read the book even before it was assigned as homework for the assistant moderators and it was very interesting. I think you've definitely made the idea plausible. A question though: have you ever done a null test for spotting parallels? That is, have you ever sat down with another randomly chosen text, Moby Dick, say, and conscientiously looked for parallels to Homer?

DRM: Keepwe, great question. As you know, in the book I use six criteria for evaluating parallels between any two works: accessibility of the model, parallel imitations, density of parallels, order of parallels, distinctive traits, and interpretability. I would use these criteria on any putative parallels.

But that is not precisely to your point. Take your example, I fully expect that in Moby Dick, a sea adventure of epic proportions, one may find lots of parallels to the Odyssey (as one can in Ulyse's Gold or O Brother, where Art Thou?). When one writes a sea adventure one is likely to use literary motifs and props characteristic of the genre. This, in my view, is not necessarily mimesis. If the author wishes the reader to recognize the echoes with Odysseus by using distinctive devices or motifs not generally found in sea adventures, one then is more likely to make the case for imitation. There is a slippery slope from quotation to allusion to echo, with many intermediary points. This ambiguity may be frustrating, but it makes reading exciting.

If you have an idea about how to test this method further with your nul reading, I'd love to hear about it.

Susannah writes:

Why didn't Mark have Jesus married as Odysseus was? And if Mark invented so much about Jesus, then what was the purpose of doing that in the first place?

DRM: Susannah, I presume Mark did not have Jesus married because Jesus was not married. Mark didn't invent Jesus!

Mark's purpose in creating so many stories about Jesus was to demonstrate how superior he was to Greek heroes. Few readers of Mark fail to see how he portrays Jesus as superior to Jewish worthies, such as David or Moses or Elijah. He does the same for Greek heroes. In other words, the earliest Evangelist was evangelizing.

One example: at the end of the Iliad Hector is buried and remains so. The death of Jesus shares many traits with the death of Hector, but by the end of the gospel he has been raised from the dead, unlike Hector. Virtually every narrative in Mark with parallels to Homer shows such emulation tilted in favor of Jesus. He is more compassionate, more powerful, wiser, and more innured to suffering than the likes of Odysseus.

You say that Jesus was a real person, but that Mark created stories about Jesus to prove that he was superior to the Greek heroes. What I'd like to know is, what was there about Jesus in the first place that made Mark want to mythologise him at all? Jesus was obviously worthy of being mythologized at least in Mark's eyes, but why? What was so special about Jesus that made Mark want to do this?

And another point: was the claim to be the Son of God just another example of mythology or did Jesus actually claim that?

DRM: Let me begin with your second question. I know of no critical New Testament scholar who holds that Jesus understood himself as the Son of God, unless what he meant by Son of God was child of God or, better, agent of God, like a prophet. It is somewhat more likely that he spoke of himself as the Son of Man, but there is reason to question that as well.

Jesus must have been a remarkable teacher, a charismatic presence, and a religious innovator. But it probably was his unjust execution by the powers-that-were that propelled his reputation, much like the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. made of him a hero larger than life. In addition, rumors of sightings of Jesus after his death generated the notion that he had been exalted or raised, rather like the deification of Heracles after his death. The combination of Jesus' teachings, charismatic presence, and tragic death surely was powerful religious chemistry.

What I'd like to know is, why did it take so long for a gospel to be written about Jesus? One would think that something would have been written about him at the time rather than 60 years later. To me that seems to suggest that his impact on society at the time wasn't so great, and that only later, perhaps for political reasons, was he turned into a hero.

DRM: The time span between Jesus' death and Mark is about 40 years. It is likely, however, that some of Jesus' sayings were recorded somewhat earlier, as in Q (the likely hypothetical source behind Matthew and Luke other than Mark).

Your assessment of the growth of Jesus' popularity probably is correct. The Roman/Jewish historian Josephus knew of Jesus and the movement around him, but does not give it much significance. The same is true of other Roman historians prior to the end of the second century CE (e.g., Suetonius and Tacitus). Jewish sources from the period also say little concerning Jesus. Even so, the expansion of Christianity in Europe in the 50s and 60s is quite impressive (Paul's mission, for example).

Rob writes:

Professor MacDonald -- I hear you to be arguing that while Mark wants his book to be read in light of Homer, he particularly wants Jesus to be seen as *greater* than Homer's heroes. Perhaps I'm getting too caught up in wordings, but how much of Mark's argument concerned "greater" and how much concerned "different" ( e.g., echoing Deutero-Isaiah's suffering servant -- does that have an equivilent in Homer?)?

DRM: Rob, no. You are not quibbling over words; the distinction between greater and different is important. In the lingo of intertextuality one might call greater "transvaluation" that implies a denigration of that which is imitated. One then might call different from "revaluation" which does not imply a denigration. I think both are happening in early Christian imitations of Homeric epic, though I am not sure the authors would have been alert to the differences. For example, in several respects Jesus is LIKE Odysseus: wise, able to endure great hardship, a friend of the divine, etc. To be sure, Jesus is different from Odysseus, but there is no implied critique of Odysseus here. In other respects, however, Jesus is greater than Odysseus: he can calm the sea, he does not blind a savage but exorcises him, he does not inflict violence but endures it.

It would be interesting to compare the suffering servant tradition with the Odyssey, but I've not tried it. I'm suspicious for several reasons: suffering is a universal problem, as our Buddhist friends quite rightly point out.

Apollonius writes:

Is it not ironic that during Homeric times the Greek world was still narrow and uncharted, and yet the Iliad and Odyssey are full of adventure in a very physical sense, whereas by the time of Mark, when the world was wide and even humbler folk could travel the whole Mediterranean, Jesus is portrayed as someone who never strayed far from his native land?

DRM: Well, I guess there is an irony here, but two things should be said. First, Jesus doesn't travel far and wide in Mark because Jesus himself did not travel far and wide. Again, Mark is not inventing Jesus or all of the traditions about him. Second, while it is true that travel in the Roman Empire was more common than in Homer's day, it would be a mistake to think of Homer's world too narrowly. References to amber suggest travel to northern Europe; references to Ethiopians in the east and west suggest awareness of a larger world; references to Egypt and perhaps the Black Sea are impressive; the story of the Laestrygonians speaks of a land where the sun never sets and the Cimmerians live where the sun never shines, suggesting knowledge of the far north. Furthermore, parallels between the epics and stories from India and especially the middle east evidence broad cultural contact.

Rundarren writes:

The thesis of your book is so fascinating. I gotta read it soon. I must admit my ignorance of Homeric epics, but I'm familiar with Mark--I've even read it in the Greek original. If your hypothesis is correct, which it seems likely, how do you suppose the author has blended and balanced together the writing of the gospel with Homeric and Old Testament patterns? Because it seems to me that the author was very conscious of some Old Testament patterns in the formulation of the gospel. For example, the number of healing stories (12 Jews and one gentile - Mark 7:26 - healed), of names of men Jesus called (12 apostle and Levi), and of loaves of bread (12 total loaves in the two feedings and one in the boat, where the feedings are reviewed - Mark 8:14-21) are exactly the same - thirteen - which seems too coincidential for it to represent anything other than an allusion to some Old Testament symbol, perhaps the 13 actual tribes of Israel, that is, the 12 (lay) tribes and the (priestly) tribe of Levi. Also, the narrative pattern in Mark 3:7-19 seems to allude to Moses and the exodus story perfectly: 1) the coupling of two Greek terms unique in Mark, 'anachorein' (to withdraw - 3:7) and 'plethos' (multitude - 3:7, 8) to describe Jesus withdrawing to the sea with a special crowd following him seems to allude to the exodus of Moses and the Hebrews to the Sea of Reeds, 2) the fact that Jesus, in a boat, used the sea to escape from the crowd (3:7-9) seems to allude to the Hebrews using the parted sea to escape from the Egyptian army, 3) the utterance of the unclean spirits "You are the Son of God!" to Jesus (3:11) seems to allude to the doxology of the Hebrews immediately after the destruction of Egyptian army by the sea, and 4) Jesus going up the mountain and appointing twelve apostles (3:13-19) seems to allude to Moses going up Mount Sinai to make a covenant with Yahweh for the "twelve" tribes of Israel. These examples of Old Testament allusions are but a few of many, many Old Testament allusions that are apparent in Mark. So how would you explain how the author could possibly consciously structure the writing of the gospel based on the story and symbolic patterns in BOTH Homeric epics and the septuagint?

DRM: What a wonderful question! I agree entirely. Mark is an equal opportunity imitator. Mark's indebtedness to the Septuagint (the Hebrew Bible in Greek) is profound, extending well beyond the explicit citations. I hope someday someone will write a commentary that takes into account all of the literary influences, including, in my view Homer and at least one play of Euripides I have not yet studied sufficiently.

So let's say Mark borrows from the LXX and from Greek literature. This would conform to the widespread practice of eclecticism, of imitating several works at once. The idea is this: one way of composing a narrative superior to one's primary model is to use other models as well, as many as five models, according to rhetoricians. The example (sexist by our standards) was a sculptor assigned to make a statue of Helen, the most beautiful of Greek women. No one mortal woman would have all the desireable traits, so the sculptor asked the city for five models, from which he took features eclectically to produce his statue. In the case of Mark (and Luke-Acts) there was a religious reason for doing so: to claim the literature, religion,and traditions of Jews for interpreting Jesus. Ancient rhetoricians would have recognized Mark's blending and approved of it formally.

Thanks to Professor MacDonald for taking the time to talk to us and for writing such an interesting book. I encourage people to take a look at, because it provides a different perspective on origins of the Gospels.

Learn more about Professor MacDonald's book!

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