This post continues my notes from Adam Winn’s book that he produced from a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the Dominican Biblical Institute, Mark and the Elijah-Elisha narrative: considering the practice of Greco-Roman imitation in the search for Markan source material. The first post explained why Winn believes a study of the ways in which the Roman poet Virgil imitated and rewrote Homer’s epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, in order to compose his own epic, the Aeneid, has potential relevance for a study of how the author of the Gospel of Mark might have used his written sources.
We outlined two of Virgil’s techniques of imitation in that first post, conflation and reversal, and in this post we look at the other techniques. A third post will list and explain criteria Winn will propose to assist us in analysing the Gospel’s literary sources.
Diffusion refers to Virgil’s technique of taking a single episode or character from his source (Homer) and dividing it into multiple episodes or characters. To illustrate this technique Winn points to the way Virgil has based three different characters on aspects of the life (or rather death) of one person in Homer’s Odyssey, Elpenor.
- Elpenor was the youngest of Odysseus’s crew. While on Circe’s island he climbed up to a roof-top to sleep, but in the morning he forgot where he was and fell to his death.
- Odysseus, leaving in haste to carry out his mission to visit Hades, was unaware of his fate. In Hades Elpenor’s ghost was the first one Odysseus met. Elpenor explained how he died and begged Odysseus return to where he died and give him a proper burial.
- Odysseus carried out Elpenor’s wishes. He returned to Circe’s island to carry out Elpenor’s wishes. Odysseus mourned, cut logs for a pyre, burned the body and erected a grave marked with an oar.
- Virgil used the Elpenor narrative as his template for the death of Palinurus.
- At sea Palinurus, the helmsman, fell asleep and thus fell to his death in the sea.
- When Aeneas, like Odysseus, visited Hades, Palinurus was the first to meet him. Like Elpenor, Palinurus told Aeneas how he had died and also begged for a burial. But Virgil never recounts Aeneas burying Palinurus.
- In Virgil’s epic, the Sybil oracle instructed Aeneas to bury Misenus before he attempted to enter Hades. This Aeneas did. He found the body, mourned, cut logs for a pyre, then erected a grave marked with an oar.
Homer’s epic portrayed Odysseus returning from Hades to bury Elpenor. Virgil did not depict Aeneas burying Palinurus, but he did have Aeneas, on his return from Hades, burying his nurse, Caieta.
In Virgil’s imitation of the Homeric episode of Elpenor, we see Virgil using imitative techniques we have not yet seen . . . He essentially turns one Homeric character into three, i.e., Elpenor becomes Palinurus, Misenus, and Caieta. He also takes the events of one Homeric episode and diffuses them into three different episodes. (p. 29)
Compare what we find in the Gospel of Mark.
The table is slightly modified from Winn’s. (I have corrected typos — there are many typos in the book — and misalignments and added bolding.) One can see how the evangelist has quite likely broken up the consecutive narrative in 2 Kings 2:1-11 about the imminent departure of Elijah and his instructions to his disciple, Elisha. The Gospel scatters the three stages of the Elijah narrative through a longer narrative, and in addition reverses some elements of the original (e.g. the statements of understanding on the part of Elisha are converted to confusion and misunderstanding in Mark).
2 Kings 2:1-11
Mark 8:27 – 10:45
1st Prediction of Departure (3-4)
|Confession at Caesarea Philippi (8:27-30)
1st Passion Prediction (8:31—9:1)
|Transfiguration (9:2-8)Discussing the Role of Elijah (9:9-13)Healing a Boy with an Evil Spirit (9:14-29)
|2nd Prediction of Departure (5-6)
|2nd Passion Prediction (9:30-37)
|Another Exorcist (9:38-41)Teaching on Temptation (9:42-50)Teaching about Divorce (10:1-12)Jesus Blesses Children (10:13-16)The Rich Man (10:17-31)
|3rd Prediction of Departure (9-10)
|3rd Passion Prediction (10:32-40)
Teaching on Discipleship (10:41-45)
Omission is another common imitative technique of Virgil. His imitation of a particular episode never demands that he imitates all details. (p. 30)
This point might scarcely need further demonstration. It has been clear in the examples already given. See, for example, in my previous post the comparison of Mark’s leper being lowered through the roof to be healed by Jesus with the narrative in 2 Kings of the king falling through the roof and being condemned to die by Elijah. Still, omission of details can sometimes blind a casual reader to a source. Such a reader may sense some sort of resonance with an earlier account in the Old Testament (or even in Greek literature) but not be able to put a finger on exactly what the relationship might be. Awareness of the technique of omission helps us identify what is going on.
Here is another example from the Gospel of Mark.
In both 2 Kings 5:1-18 and Mark 1:40-45 we read narratives that both, in the same sequence, speak of:
- a leper seeking healing
- a prophet giving instructions for healing / touching to heal
- the leper being made clean by following the instructions / being touched
- the healed leper promising to offer sacrifice / the healed leper being commanded to offer sacrifice
But there is much detail in the former story that is omitted from Mark’s. In 2 Kings the leper, Naaman, expresses indignation when first instructed to wash in a river; Naaman’s relationship with his king is explored within the same narrative; Naaman offers a reward, etc. But of course none of these details served the purpose of the author of Mark’s Gospel.
Again we have observed this technique in the earlier examples above and the previous post. Another illustration Winn offers to help grasp the wider understanding of how an imitator will alter details, because sometimes it is different details that can hide a source from the mind of the unwary reader, is Virgil’s “conversion” of a song in Homer into a work of relief sculpture.
While Homer’s Odysseus was being entertained in the court of King Alcinous a bard, Demodocus, entered and, without knowing who Odysseus was, began to sing of hardships Odysseus himself experienced in the recent Trojan war. All expressed pleasure at the beauty of the song but Odysseus wept. In Virgil’s epic Aeneas was waiting at the Temple of Juno for his hostess, Queen Dido, when he saw the events of the Trojan war depicted in magnificent artwork on the temple’s walls. Like Odysseus, we wept at the bitter reminders of his recent experiences.
Imitation does not mean that details cannot be omitted, reversed or changed.
Finally, we also see Virgil using the technique of intensification, by which he might increase the number or grandeur of a particular detail in the imitated text, (e.g., Aeneas kills seven large stags while he is exploring Libya, while Odysseus kills only one large stag while exploring Circe’s Island. (p. 30)
Intensification is comparable to Dennis MacDonald’s criterion of “transvaluation”. The new hero is shown to be greater in some way than the one on whom he is modeled. So in the above example of the healings of the lepers, where Elisha instructed the leper to go and do certain washings in order to be healed, Jesus was able simply to touch the leper to heal him.
One more of a number of examples of intensification that Winn draws to our attention in Mark’s Gospel is found in Jesus’ calling of his disciples.
- Elijah finds one disciple, Elisha; Jesus finds two disciples, Simon and Andrew, then another two, James and John.
- The disciple is working at the plough; the disciples are working as fishermen
- Elisha leaves his livelihood; the four disciples leave their livelihood
- Elisha requests to return temporarily to his family; the disciples leave their family without hesitation
Jesus not only calls more disciples than Elijah; the disciples he calls are more willing to leave their families without hesitation. Jesus is being depicted as having a greater power and influence than his predecessor.
Next in this series will look at criteria Winn considers for detecting literary imitations.
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