For an annotated list of previous posts in this series see the archived page:
I ended my previous post with these words:
From this point Gullotta loses sight of Carrier’s own line of reasoning, sometimes erroneously conflating MacDonald’s and Carrier’s views, and even at one point distorting the meaning of MacDonald’s words in order to fire a salvo at “mythicists” in general.
As I said, trying to get a complete handle on Gullotta’s fifth point is a long haul. I’ll set out the evidence for the assertions in the previous paragraph in my next post.
So from that point I continue.
That mis-aimed salvo
Because almost every event in Mark has some sort of Homeric counterpart according to MacDonald, many mythicists have taken his work to indicate that the Gospels have no historical value whatsoever. This, however, is not the conclusion MacDonald has come to, and because of the popularity of his research among mythicists, he has had to clarify his own confidence in the existence of the historical Jesus.97
97. For example, ‘A Jewish teacher named Jesus actually existed, but within a short period of time, his followers wrote fictions about him, claiming that his father was none other than the god of the Jews, that he possessed incredible powers to heal and raise from the dead, that he was more powerful than ‘bad guys’ like the devil and his demons, and that after he was killed, he ascended, alive, into the sky’, in Dennis R. MacDonald, Mythologizing Jesus: From Jewish Teacher to Epic Hero (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2015), pp. 1–2. Also see Dennis R. MacDonald, Two Shipwrecked Gospels: The Logoi of Jesus and Papias’s Exposition of Logia about the Lord (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012), pp. 543–560.
(Gullotta, pp. 337f)
Yes, indeed, Dennis MacDonald has always made it clear that he does not dispute the historicity of Jesus and that he has never intended his research to lead to such a conclusion. But not even the quotation Gullotta finds to repeat this point can support his insinuation that MacDonald’s arguments believing in the historicity of Jesus somehow equates with the gospels containing some kind of “historical value”. Gullotta appears not to notice that the quotation he supplies to supposedly rebut the idea that the gospels have no historical value itself says that the gospels are indeed fictions! One does not need to believe in the historical value of the gospels to believe in a historical Jesus as a good number of scholars can testify. (Again, where were the peer reviewers part of whose job, I thought, is to prevent such non sequiturs going to into print?)
An erroneous conflation
Almost amusing is Daniel Gullotta’s attempt to use Margaret Mitchell’s 2003 critical review of Dennis MacDonald’s Homeric thesis in support of his contention that Carrier has as much egg on his face as MacDonald for (supposedly uncritically) jumping on MacDonald’s bandwagon. But if Gullotta has paid closer attention to both what Mitchell faulted in MacDonald to what Carrier himself concluded about MacDonald’s views, he would have seen they were not very far removed from one another!
Abandoning the extreme form of the argument would allow one to avoid the dilemma MacDonald creates for himself throughout the book, as he repeatedly tries to deny the obvious influence of the Septuagint on the final form and the earlier traditions of Mark. It seems a futile task to deny that . . . the Scriptures of Israel, usually in the Greek version called the Septuagint . . . is a hypotext of Mark’s gospel, when the prophet Isaiah is quoted by name in the second line of the work! Placing attention on smaller units rather than the whole composition would involve a turn back to the form-critical approach that MacDonald claims to have dismantled (pp. 189-90), but it would make much better sense of some possible Homeric typologies and slight allusions than the proposed full-scale narrative weaving in and out of disparate episodes and discrete characterizations in the Odyssey and the Iliad. Abandoning the dichotomous approach would also open the way for what is most needed and what promises to be most productive: a study of how early Christian authors incorporated — sometimes integrating, sometimes merely juxtaposing — a range of cultural references, fragments, artifacts, and concepts into their writings,42 and, further, investigation of what that process and result mean for the rhetorical construction, historical makeup, and readerly possibilities of their presumed audiences.
42 For example, Roy D. Kotansky examines the sea voyages of a single section of Mark in reference to epic and folkloristic motifs about mythical geography from Homeric tales of the travels of Odysseus, together with a host of other Greco-Roman and ancient near east- ern sources, in order to reconstruct a range of resonances the narrative might have for ancient readers (‘Jesus and Heracles in Cadiz …. : Death, Myth, and Monsters at the ‘Straits of Gibraltar’ [Mark 4:35-5:43],” in Ancient and Modern Perspectives on the Bible and Culture: Essays in Honor of Hans Dieter Betz, ed. Adela Yarbro Collins [Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998], pp. 160-229). But where some see such evocations, others see modern scholarly allegory (as in the response by David E. Aune, ‘Jesus and the Romans in Galilee: Jews and Gentiles in the Decapolis,” in ibid., pp. 230-51).
(Mitchell, pp. 255f)
Compare Richard Carrier on Dennis MacDonald’s contribution. After listing the incidents in the Gospel of Mark that MacDonald suggests are sourced from Homer, Carrier notes
Among all these, not every case is as certain as MacDonald claims (in some cases mere coincidence can be as likely an explanation of the noted parallels), and many cases may simply reflect adaptive coloring (the core narrative is not Homeric but has simply been tweaked using Homeric allusions and motifs), but in several cases the emulation is well established (where ‘coincidence’ is far too improbable an explanation) and extends to the very root and purpose of the story (and thus is far more likely a story Mark wholly invented than anything he inherited from prior myths and legends of Jesus), and this happens in enough places in Mark to firmly establish that such a method of invention and composition was a pervasive trend for Mark.
(Carrier, p. 438)
But note especially that while Mitchell faults MacDonald for too often making light of the possibility of a source in Jewish Scriptures in preference to Homer, Carrier regularly points to the scriptural source as apparently coloured by Homeric influence. Thus for Carrier Mark’s portrayal of the dimwittedness of Jesus’ disciples owes at least as much to the fickleness of Moses’s followers as those of Odysseus. For Carrier (p. 411), Psalm 22 is shown in detail to be the primary source of Mark, with allusions to Homer being secondary (pp. 408f), five miracles of Jesus are said to owe their source to the stories of Moses rather than MacDonald’s views attributing them to Homer, and so forth several times over.
In fact, the entire crucifixion scene is a fabrication, a patchwork assembled from verses in the Psalms, in order to depict Jesus as a standard Jewish mytho-type of ‘the just man afflicted and put to death by evildoers, but vindicated and raised up by God’.48 Numerous Psalms were mined for this purpose, but especially Psalm 22 . . . .
Even the whole concept of a crucifixion of God’s chosen one arranged and witnessed by Jews comes from Ps. 22.16, where ‘the synagogue of the wicked has surrounded me and pierced my hands and feet’. Other texts Mark used to construct his crucifixion narrative include Psalm 69, Amos 8.9, and elements of Zechariah 9-14, Isaiah 53, and Wisdom 2.49 This is myth, not memory. Many scholars agree.
(Carrier, p. 408)
Compare what Carrier says about Homeric influence on the crucifixion at one point:
Often Mark finds agreements between the Bible and Homer and thus uses details to double effect, simultaneously evoking both. For example, MacDonald sees Jesus’ refusal of an offer of wine on his death-march (Mk 15.23) as an imitation of Homer’s narrative of Hector’s death, who also refused an offer of wine. But this was also a fulfillment of Jesus’ own ‘Nazirite’ promise not to drink the fourth seder cup (the Cup of Redemption) until the end of days (Mk 14.25).106 Mark likely intended both allusions, specifically to exploit the overlap of double meaning.
(Carrier, p. 438)
Another of many possible excerpts demonstrating Carrier’s primary view that the gospels were sourced from Jewish scriptures even when Homeric influences are arguable:
It’s also known that much of the Gospels consists of rewrites of pre-Christian Jewish tales (and sometimes pagan), from scripture and beyond, such as the way Matthew borrows from stories about Moses and then expands on that to turn Jesus into a full-blown Rank-Raglan hero . . . . or borrows from Daniel to rewrite the empty-tomb narrative of Mark, or (as we shall see) how Mark created the crucifixion narrative out of Psalm 22, or invented the notion that the disciples were fisherman in order to make Jesus into the new Odysseus with his clueless sailors. We already saw how nearly the whole core Gospel narrative can be derived from scripture . . . . , and that’s not even including the many scriptures we no longer have and which could thus have contained even more inspiration than we know about . . . . In fact. we’ll see that creating the Gospel narratives by rewriting both pagan and Jewish ‘scripture’ was the norm, not the exception. Parables and sayings in the Gospels also resemble those in Jewish rabbinical legends, often in style and sometimes even in content, and those legends also contain dubious narratives similarly constructed to communicate the moral of a story, not to preserve any real historical memory. Often influences from either Jewish or pagan moral traditions can be detected or suspected . . . . .
(Carrier, pp. 398f, my bolding)
In the above passage Carrier indicates his agreement with MacDonald about the origin of Mark’s fickle and clueless disciples. But notice elsewhere that he writes
This literary fiction of the dense lackeys is adapted either from Homer’s similarly unrealistic depiction of the fickleness and incomprehension of Odysseus’s crew or from Exodus’s equally unrealistic depiction of the fickleness and incomprehension of the Jews — most likely both (as l suggested before). In each case such ‘group stupidity’ only makes sense as a deliberate literary device; in Mark’s case, to illustrate something he wanted to say about the gospel — and possibly about the pre-Pauline sect Mark was dissenting from, which was associated with the first apostles, most especially Peter, James and John. . . . .
. . . . .
Another double parallel is how Mark patterns the disciples after the Jews in the Exodus, who are likewise implausibly fickle and stupid, never under standing anything even after repeatedly witnessing Moses perform incredible miracles just like the disciples with Jesus), but also after the crew of Odysseus, who are likewise fickle and stupid.
(Carrier, pp, 411 and 440)
In his eagerness to conflate criticism of MacDonald and Carrier Gullotta even lists what he asserts are utterly implausible parallels between the Gospel of Mark and Homer’s epics that Carrier nowhere makes. To take one example to keep this post from getting any far too long:
For example, MacDonald compares Odysseus’ ‘untriumphal entry’ into the city of the Phaeacians with that of Jesus’ into Jerusalem, but these events are not remotely alike and the latter clearly draws its inspiration from Zechariah 9.9.
(Gullotta, p. 340)
No doubt a reader can correct me if I have missed it, but I cannot see anywhere in Carrier’s OHJ where he made any approving reference to MacDonald’s attempt to find suggest Mark based Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Odysseus’s “untriumphal entry” into the city of the Phaeacians”. I can, however, read at least two occasions where Carrier clearly agrees with Gullotta’s “criticism” that the scene is derived from Zech. 9:9
Which narrative Mark literarily constructs from a number of scriptural source texts, demonstrating he had no need of historical sources.71
71. For the many scriptural inspirations and allusions Mark employed in constructing this narrative see Deborah Krause, ‘The One Who Comes Unbinding the Blessing of Judah: Mark 11.1-10 as a Midrash on Genesis 49.11, Zechariah 9.9, and Psalm 118.25-26′, in Early Christian Interpretation of the Scriptures of Israel: Investigations and Proposals (ed. Craig Evans and James Sanders; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), pp. 141-53 (e.g. ‘Mark 11.1-10 presents a complex web of organically related Scripture traditions’, p. 147).
(Carrier, pp. 423f, my bolding)
Matthew also ‘improves’ on Mark by actually quoting the scripture that Mark clearly also used as his source material but didn’t actually mention: Zech. 9.9, ‘Behold! Your king is coming to you! He is righteous and brings salvation. He is meek, and riding on a don key [and] on a baby donkey’.
(Carrier, p. 459, my bolding)
One can only wonder how Gullotta came to write what he did by way of criticism of the book he was reviewing.
Carrier, Richard. 2014. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.
Gullotta, Daniel N. 2017. “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 15 (2–3): 310–46. https://doi.org/10.1163/17455197-01502009.
Mitchell, Margaret M. 2003. “Homer in the New Testament?” The Journal of Religion 83 (2): 244–60.
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