Homer in the Gospels: Recent Thoughts

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by Neil Godfrey

Matthew Ferguson of the Κέλσος blog has posted an interesting discussion on Dennis MacDonald’s defence at the recent Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) conference of his thesis that a significant influence of the Homeric literature can be found in the New Testament writings, especially the Gospel of Mark and Book of Acts.

For those wondering what the status of his views currently are in the mainstream of biblical studies they will find this an interesting read. Some comments:

Not surprisingly, MacDonald’s thesis has had a number of critics, but has also received a good deal of praise. . .

Overall, the general consensus is that some of the parallels that MacDonald identifies are very strong and interesting, while others are weaker and more speculative. But, one thing that was generally agreed upon at the SBL conference is that mimesis criticism is working its way into mainstream biblical criticism. In fact, MacDonald’s mimesis criticism is likewise going to be discussed at the SBL Annual Meeting in Georgia later this year. . . .

The fact that MacDonald’s arguments will be a central part of this year’s annual SBL conference suggests to me that MacDonald’s new methods are, indeed, making headway into mainstream Biblical Studies. I am not sure whether mimesis criticism will necessarily be central to interpreting the majority of passages in the Gospels and Acts, but I do think that it is very applicable to select examples . . . .

Competing with OT influence?

Ferguson stresses a certain point made by MacDonald in his more recent volume and apparently at the SBL conference: Homeric influence does not mean that the Old Testament writings were not also (or even more) influential on the NT writings. It is not an either-or argument.

Moreover, we know the OT did in places shape the gospel narratives. Some even suggest Jesus deliberately imitated OT stories as a way of explaining this. MacDonald wants to point out that anyone who wrote in Greek in the ancient world could not avoid acquiring some education in Homer and other Greek literature.

Literary creativity or oral tradition?

MacDonald’s thesis means that some of the narratives we read in the Gospel of Mark and Book of Acts have been created by the authors as they have re-worked passages found in some of the classical literature such as the Homeric epics. This contradicts or at least reduces the significance of the claim that oral tradition had preserved the stories of Jesus until they were written down in the gospels. (I have posted various critiques of oral tradition as a source of the gospels and will do many more I hope.) It is difficult seeing the oral tradition hypothesis being abandoned lightly, however. Without it the link between Jesus and the gospels is broken.

Ancient biography?

Another interesting aspect of Ferguson’s discussion is the relationship between MacDonald’s thesis and the genre of the gospels. I have been very critical of Burridge’s argument that they are a form of ancient biography and I get the impression that Ferguson himself has had some reservations about that classification, too. Yet he points out that if the gospels are a form of biography then that would support MacDonald’s thesis. Maybe. I don’t know. The Second Temple era was noted for producing literature mixing the genres to create new types of works. But Ferguson refers to a new work by Tomas Hagg, The Art of Biography in Antiquity. It’s very expensive so I’m going to have to wait a while and find some alternative means to get a hold of that work.

For those too lazy or impatient to return to the top of the page here is the link again:

SBL Pacific Coast Region Conference 2015: Dennis MacDonald


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Neil Godfrey

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  • Scot Griffin
    2015-03-28 02:20:20 GMT+0000 - 02:20 | Permalink

    “Ferguson stresses a certain point made by MacDonald in his more recent volume and apparently at the SBL conference: Homeric influence does not mean that the Old Testament writings were not also (or even more) influential on the NT writings. It is not an either-or argument.”

    Which books of the Old Testament? Several of the Books of the Primary History appear to have been written in the Hellenistic Era and borrow from Homer, as well. The NT reworks many OT stories, and many OT stories seem to rework Homer. MacDonald’s argument assumes that the OT is free from Homeric influences, which is not warranted.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2015-03-28 03:03:56 GMT+0000 - 03:03 | Permalink

      Narratives such as the miraculous feeding of the 5000, the raising of Jairus’s daughter, etc appear to many to be based upon similar miracles by Elijah and Elisha, for example.

      I don’t think MacDonald is expressing or assuming any viewpoint on the question of Homeric influence on any of the OT books, though.

  • Kris Rhodes
    2015-03-28 20:58:35 GMT+0000 - 20:58 | Permalink

    “Mimesis Criticism.”

    That wouldn’t be another phrase for “Parallelomania” would it? No of course not!

  • Pofarmer
    2015-03-30 04:16:14 GMT+0000 - 04:16 | Permalink

    Between Randal Helms and MacDonald, there isn’t a whole lot left to be authentic.

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