Why is it that all the modern commentaries on the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (and to some extent John) include discussions of those works’ literary sources but scarcely any raise that question for the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel that supposedly started it all?
Adam Winn (Mark and the Elijah-Elisha narrative : considering the practice of Greco-Roman imitation in the search for Markan source material) suggests the answer to this question
is directly related to the limited paradigm that New Testament scholarship has inherited from source, form, and redaction criticism. (p. 2)
Source criticism presumes that a source for a gospel has to be another gospel or at least something like another gospel (e.g. Q). So if Mark is the first gospel then the question of literary sources can scarcely arise.
Form criticism has declared that Mark’s sources were oral traditions. With this answer firmly entrenched there has been no incentive to ask if there might also be literary sources behind the gospel.
Redaction criticism established very stringent criteria to determine when a gospel author was dependent upon another work. There must be
- specific agreement in details/order
- strong verbal agreement
Winn challenges the assumption that ancient authors limited themselves to using sources so slavishly. He examines ancient instructions and practices to show that authors used their literary sources very often in ways that shunned strong verbal agreement and that freely changed the details and order of material in their sources. Dennis MacDonald made similar points in his earlier work, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark.
Winn argues the need for a new set of criteria that is derived from the typical practices of ancient authors.
The way forward
Gospel studies has traditionally given very little notice to the way ancient authors used literary sources.
Gospel interpreters have virtually ignored perhaps the greatest window we have into the way ancient authors used literary texts in their compositions. Certainly by studying the way in which ancient authors imitated and rewrote extant sources, we can gain insights into how the gospel authors might have used each other or even other extant literature to compose gospels. (p. 9, my emphasis)
The first thing to understand is the important place imitation, or mimesis, had for the practice of all the arts of the time.
Contra the modern literary world, which is obsessed with originality and both new and inventive content, the ancient world was obsessed with imitating the great works (oratory, literary, sculpture, etc.) that were already in existence. (p. 8, my emphasis)
The very idea that imitation itself was the natural state of things was central to the thinking that grew out of Plato’s philosophy and ancient concepts of the universe more broadly. And when it comes to art, including the literary arts, we find the following ideals expressed:
Isocrates stressed the need for students to imitate their teacher.
the student must not only have the requisite aptitude but he must learn the different kinds of discourse and practice himself in their use; and the teacher, for his part, must so expound the principles of the art with the utmost possible exactness as to leave out nothing that can be taught, and, for the rest, he must in himself set such an example of oratory that the students who have taken form under his instruction and are able to pattern after him will, from the outset, show in their speaking a degree of grace and charm which is not found in others. When all of these requisites are found together, then the devotees of philosophy will achieve complete success; but according as any one of the things which I have mentioned is lacking, to this extent must their disciples of necessity fall below the mark.
And it is my opinion that the study of oratory as well as the other arts would make the greatest advance if we should admire and honor, not those who make the first beginnings in their crafts, but those who are the most finished craftsmen in each, and not those who seek to speak on subjects on which no one has spoken before, but those who know how to speak as no one else could.
Cicero, similarly, in On the Orator 2.21.90:
Let this, then, be the first of my precepts, to point out to the student whom he should imitate, and in such a manner that he may most carefully copy the chief excellencies of him whom he takes for his model.
Quintillian stressed the importance of repeatedly reading masters in order to imitate them. Insititutes of Oratory, 10.1.19-20
let what we read be committed to memory and reserved for imitation, not when it is in a crude state, but after being softened and, as it were, triturated by frequent repetition. For a long time, too, none but the best authors must be read, and such as are least likely to mislead him who trusts them. They must be read with attention and, indeed, with almost as much care as if we were transcribing them. Every portion must be examined, not merely partially. A whole book, when read through, must be taken up afresh
Adam Winn argues that if we study the way ancient authors imitated other works we might be in a position to more validly detect sources the gospel authors used. Hopefully we could develop criteria for determining literary dependence.
This potentially opens the way for us more securely to identify literary sources used by the creator of Mark’s gospel.
Simply because Mark’s gospel is regarded as the first narrative account of the life of Jesus does not mean that it was not without literary [precedents] or that Mark was not dependent on literary sources. Our knowledge that ancient writing was an imitative art argues against the conclusion that gospel sources must be other gospels. (p. 7 — Unfortunately the book is full of typos and my square-bracketed ‘precedents’ indicates a correction for one of these.)
Reading Winn’s discussion of Mark’s literary sources leads me to wonder how such an analysis of ancient literary techniques might shed light on arguments that . ..
- Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) is a “mimesis” of the Histories by Herodotus,
- or if it might shed any light on the relationship between the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke,
- or especially on the Gospel of John vis a vis the Synoptic Gospels.
- or even, another curiosity of mine, the Book of Acts and whether there is any plausible case for thinking it is modeled on Virgil’s Aeneid and the Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings).
Nor let us forget to have a re-look at Dennis MacDonald’s argument that many episodes and motifs in the Gospel of Mark are modeled upon Homer’s epics.
How ancient authors imitated the masters
Adam Winn explores in detail (eighteen pages) the way the Roman poet Virgil imitated the epic poet we know as Homer. He identifies six ways Virgil varies or adapts his source material. Through a study of these techniques it is clear that imitation was a free and creative exercise.
Virgil sometimes creates a new single story out of quite separate and distinct episodes in his source.
In Book 10 of the Odyssey we see Odysseus and his crew, having just escaped from an island of giants who ate several of their companions, arrive at another island that they hope will be a safe haven. Odysseus sets out to explore, climbs a rocky crag for a better view, and on his return kills a stag with his spear. He brings it back to his men who are still in mourning over the recent deaths of their friends.
In Book 12 Odysseus sails past the monster Skylla who kills several more of his crew. He comes to a new harbour that is a dwelling place for nymphs. Once again he leaves his crew behind while he sets out to explore the island, but this time returns to find his men have offended the god Apollo by eating his sacred cattle. As punishment they are condemned to die, and soon after their ship is struck by lightning and all drown.
Virgil combined elements from both stories to portray the Roman founding hero, Aeneas, sailing in to a harbour in Libya after losing several ships in a storm. This harbour, too, is a dwelling place for nymphs. Aeneas likewise sets out to explore and climbs a rocky crag for a better view. He does not kill just one but seven stags for his mourning crew. Aeneas promises his crew success, not death, and soon afterwards they are reunited with the crew they thought had died at sea.
One is reminded here of the Mark’s opening quotation from the prophets. The blue is from Malachi and the red from Isaiah. Was the author’s memory faulty, hence the mongrel quotation? Or was he crafting just the right passage from the various scriptures to serve as the introduction?
As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Winn also suggests that there has been conflation in the creation of Mark’s depiction of Jesus in the wilderness. Many commentators have noticed the prototype of this scene in 1 Kings 19 where Elijah goes into the wilderness for 40 days and is also sustained by angels. But was the addition of Jesus being with the wild animals prompted by 1 Kings 17 when Elijah made another journey into a wilderness and was sustained there by wild birds?
Dennis MacDonald in Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark suggests a similar conflation from Books 10 and 13 of the Odyssey. In Mark’s scene where Jesus stilled the storm at sea, Jesus (like Odysseus) embarked late with a number of other boats with him, fell asleep in his boat, was woken by frightened followers, and (unlike Odysseus who lost hope) himself stilled the storm, following which the crew all praised the god of the winds. But there is one detail in Mark’s story that is not found in that comparable scene from Book 10, and that is Jesus sleeping on a cushion. In Book 13 of the Odyssey there is another scene where Odysseus falls asleep in the ship and this time he is said to be sleeping comfortably on a rug.
Others have protested that Mark most likely drew his inspiration from the story of Jonah. But need it be an either-or question? There clearly are distinct details in the Homeric account that mirror what we read in Mark. Was Mark drawing on stories of both Jonah and Odysseus? It would not necessarily be out of the question when we remember that one of Mark’s strongest themes is the uniting of Jew and Gentile believer in Christ.
Reversal is found at many levels, from the overall structure of the story as a whole down reversing the order of events in the smallest story units. Character roles and experiences can also be reversed. So, too, can themes. We find all of these in the way Virgil imitated Homer.
Virgil weaves out of Homer’s two epics a single poem. See how Virgil reverses the larger structure of Homer’s epics.
Homer’s grand narrative begins with the war between the Greeks and Trojans.
This climaxes with the battle between Achilles and Hector and Hector’s death.
Following on from these events is the long and hard-ship filled sea voyage of Odysseus.
When he arrives home he finds his palace overrun by those who would want to kill him and take all he owned for themselves.
Virgil reverses this.
He begins with the home of Aeneas being overrun by the Greek conquerors.
He escapes and begins his long and adventure-laden sea voyage towards his destined new home.
The conclusion of the epic is the war between his Trojans and the Italians
which is finally concluded by the death of Turnus at the hand of Aeneas.
Another type of reversal is most obvious in Virgil’s imitation of the boxing match found in Homer’s portrayal of the funeral games held in honour of Achilles’ beloved Patroclus. This is the sequence found in each, with the reversal highlighted:
- In both versions the prizes are announced
- In both a powerful/skilled boxer steps forward
- In both this first volunteer boasts he will win and seeks to claim the prize
- In both, the onlookers are at first all silent
- In both, a reluctant and clearly inferior challenger steps forward to fight
- In Homer he is much smaller
- In Virgil he is very old
- In both, the inferior fighter appears to be quickly knocked down
- In Homer he is genuinely knocked out
- In Virgil he retaliates in anger and knocks the champion unconscious
- In both, the defeated fighter is carried back, semi-conscious and spitting up blood, to his friends
- In both the second place prize is brought to the defeated fighter’s dwelling
An example of role reversal is when Virgil breaks his pattern of matching his hero Aeneas with Homer’s Odysseus. In the Odyssey it is Odysseus who formally requests assistance from a king who is sheltering him and his crew. But in the Aeneid, Virgil breaks the pattern and instead of having Aeneas begging the help of the queen, he puts forward the lost crew of Aeneas to make this plea.
The point is noteworthy because throughout the entire epic, Virgil is presenting Aeneas as a second Odysseus. It is important to note that Virgil feels free to break from this dominant motif if doing better so suits his narrative. (p. 23)
One sees another example of reversal, a reversal of theme, in the example I opened with above to illustrate “conflation”. Where Odysseus pronounces the judgment of death upon his crew and they all die at sea, Aeneas promises salvation and they all survive to arrive at their new home. There are many examples of this sort of reversal (another is the way Aeneas easily escapes through or completely circumvents some of the dangers that beset Odysseus on his journey) since Virgil is clearly portraying Aeneas as a greater than Odysseus, and one more blessed by the gods.
Compare Mark’s story of the paralytic being lowered through the roof of a house where Jesus is preaching in order to be healed (Mark 2:1-12). The paralytic is confined to his bed; Jesus recognizes the faith of those who have brought him; Jesus forgives him and heals him. Thus the episode in 2 Kings 1:1-17 where a king falls through the roof and is confined to his bed is reversed. In the original story the messengers on behalf of the invalid met Elijah, but Elijah condemned their lack of faith in Yahweh and condemned the patient to die.
To be continued
Other techniques Winn identifies in Virgil’s imitation of Homer are
- Altering details
I’ll continue discussing these in future posts and conclude with the criteria Adam Winn proposes for identifying literary mimesis.
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