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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14 thoughts on “But WHY Does It Not Convince?”
To be fair, there are better examples out there of the unqualified expression of incredulity. While you may be unsatisfied with the book review, at least this example does reference the “differences” between the stories. That is something, as opposed to nothing; the reader is not left hanging as to why, in general, the author found it unconvincing (the “why” being the unspecified differences).
I have to differ on this one. Appeals to the “differences” when it comes to expressions of incredulity over arguments related to literary comparisons are merely question-begging.
Yes, the reviewer (I have avoided his name because I have wanted to stress something that is found across the works of so many authors) — the reviewer did add that the thesis deserves serious consideration despite his failure to be convinced by some of the examples argued. Presumably the review was intended to be very brief and this may be the reason for not going into details but if so a word to that point would have been appropriate.
Certainly you are correct to say that there are many other more blatant examples of the appeal to incredulity in the literature. I may have something of a pet peeve when it comes to reviews of MacDonald’s work because I think this appeal has been so overdone most often without the slightest attempt to tackle the central points of the thesis.
Personally I am not always sure what to make of MacDonald’s comparisons but I justify my caution on the basis of my amateur level of contact with the language, the wider literature and related scholarship. What we have a right to expect from scholarly works is clarity of thought and understanding, not a reinforcement of popular expressions of disbelief.
A blog post on why appeal to “differences” frequently fails to rebut a case for literary influence would be very welcome. It could be considered a fallacy, but it is distinct from failing to explain your own argument. I have seen this kind of thing myself: people who grant the entire case for similarity or borrowing (or fail to criticize it) and then refuse to grant the conclusion because there is this difference or that difference. It may sometimes be a sound argument, but it certainly can be unsound also; which means, of course, that, in the general case, “a difference doesn’t establish non-dependence” (unless perhaps there is some particular feature of this difference that does).
To mention an obvious example, where this breaks down: someone once quoted to me, against the idea that a story about Jesus was developed out of some scriptural references, the “difference” that these scriptural references did not have the word for the name “Jesus” (!).
What I have done here in the past, was to invoke philosophical stuff on essential “Identity.” And the “Distinction Without a Difference Fallacy.” Or the concept of a “class,” as oppose to perfect identity.
Carrier has noted this problem in apologists. This is where I propose the solution is found.
Perhaps I could do a post as you suggest. The point is one I’ve covered from time to time in passing in other posts but have never addressed on its own.
(In very brief for now, it is difference that gives rise to any study of comparison in the first place. If there is no difference then we have identity, not comparison. And the whole point of attempting to decide on valid criteria is to assess the likelihood of a particular relationship between the two. To dismiss the argument because there is difference (whether small or great) between the two is to dismiss the argument without explanation. If we accepted a relationship because of similarities, on the other hand, then we are entering fallacy land that will yield us an abundance of false positives along with genuine relationships, the latter only capable of confirmation by appeal to something other than the similarities.)
I could easily list a dozen very significant differences between “Romeo and Juliet” and “West Side Story.” Such a list would hardly justify a denial that the latter was a rewrite of the former.
Good point. Which should lead to a very majority topic in religious study: why scholars today rejected and are insensitive to, the “literary.”
If we were to accept a relationship only where there were obviously broad similarities then we would in fact be introducing another criterion. We would then have to justify this criterion. When it comes to the ancient practice of intertextuality Brodie has shown that “broad surface similarity” is not always applicable (Birthing of the New Testament).
Damn. I have sloppily used intertextuality and mimesis as if they were interchangeable synonyms. Caveat emptor.
Seems to me that any slight casual resemblance tho, is often a first clue to deeper structural relations. That finally suggest one evolved from the other.
Finally too, false positives can be identified. So we can deal with any wrinkles.
The study of evolution did much of this already. And to me in fact, opposition to mythicism looks related to opposition to evolution. It is the same failure to see the causal significance of structural parallels.
“It is not enough to make visceral appeals to incredulity.”
Biblical scholarship could not survive otherwise.
There is a good reason the Appeal to Incredulity is recognized as a formal logical fallacy. It seeks to deify lack of imagination, or inability to perceive abstract relationships. Which is why it is constantly employed in conservative Christian blogs.
I’ve come to learn that it is technically an “informal” logical fallacy — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_ignorance
I stand corrected.