An unexplained or unjustified phrase that I encounter with depressing regularity in works of Biblical scholars is “so and so’s argument does not convince” or “is not persuasive” — and the various equivalents of these, of course. This blot is too often found even in what can be the most informative of academic works. Of course I don’t have a problem with someone not being persuaded by an argument but I expect from scholars an evidence or logically based rationale to justify their reaction to a colleague’s assertions, conclusions or arguments. The unfortunate guilty piece of writing that has most recently crossed my path is an aspiring scholar’s blog review of Dennis MacDonald’s The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. This post’s criticism is not targeted at the author but at the all-too-common practice found throughout the literature of his field.
Dennis MacDonald’s controversial thesis is that the Greek epic poems of Homer, well known among both the literate and non-literate populations of the Greek speaking Hellenistic and Roman worlds, can explain many of the narrative details in the Gospel of Mark. (If you are unfamiliar with the idea and are interested in an overview I have posted details at The Gospel of Mark & Homer’s Epics on vridar.info.)
The blog review in this instance, as many other reviews have done, outlines MacDonald’s list of six criteria that he uses hopefully to establish whether a literary passage has been shaped in some way by the author’s awareness of a completely different work. (In a more recent work MacDonald has since added a seventh criterion, “ancient and Byzantine recognitions”.) So far so good, but when it comes to the details we slip in the mud.
Some of the comparisons come across as extremely forced and even far fetched at times. For example, MacDonald’s comparison of Odysseus’ “untriumphal entry” into the city of the Phaeacians with that of Jesus’s into Jerusalem are not remotely alike. Another example is the death of Jesus with the death of Hector in The Iliad, as Hector dies a hero in combat and Jesus dies a criminal on a cross. While the differences from Mark and Homer are the point at times, according to MacDonald, sometimes these differences are simply too great to be convincing.
Here’s where my frustration surfaces. If the criterion set forth by MacDonald are valid, and if they can be shown to apply in point by point detail to argue for, say, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem being influenced by the depiction of Odysseus’s entry into the city of the Phaeacians, then how can we dismiss MacDonald’s conclusion by declaring that the comparison is “far-fetched” or “extremely forced”?
Don’t the criteria argue against the charge that the comparisons have been “extremely forced” or that they are “far-fetched”? If the argument fails (and it obviously fails at some level if it fails to convince) then I expect a trained scholar to educate his readership by means of cogently explaining why it fails by addressing either the flaws in the argument itself or demonstrating its faulty application to a particular set of data.
In this case the reviewer needs to explain either where the criteria are deficient or why their application to the particular scenes in Homer’s epics and Mark’s Gospel is awry.
Simply saying the two scenes “are not remotely alike” as if that is enough to overturn MacDonald’s very detailed and multi-faceted arguments won’t do. Being “remotely alike” in such a broad sense is not one of MacDonald’s criteria for mimesis. His (and other scholars’) discussions on the nature of ancient literary mimesis demonstrates how completely unalike two passages can indeed appear to be on a casual reading despite the clear evidence for some kind of literary relationship between them.
It is not enough to make visceral appeals to incredulity.
In conclusion I should add that this post is not itself an argument for these two particular scenes in Mark’s Gospel being influenced by Homer. It is an expression of disappointment over just one all-too-common blotch that tends to mar the scholarly standards of Biblical studies.
While on gripes, something else that makes me feel queazy — Amazon encourages readers to review books by offering them a small percentage of sales that are linked to their reviews. Concepts like “marketing” and “conflict of interest” come to mind . . . .
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