M. David Litwa opens chapter 2, “A Theory of Comparisons”, of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths, with the following epigraph:
The issue of difference has been all but forgotten.
—Jonathan Z. Smith
It is all too easy to overlook differences, agreed. I seem to recall drawing questionable conclusions about the world’s religions from reading, many years ago, certain works by James George Frazer and Joseph Campbell. On the other hand, much of my reading in more recent years has been of scholarly discussions that give renewed insights into the significance and meaning of the differences between the compared works. Indeed, Smith is quoted elsewhere in that same book (A Magic Still Dwells) making that same positive point:
“. . . . The issue of difference has been all but forgotten.” Smith attempts to counter this trend by emphasizing that questions of difference are constitutive of the very process of comparison. “[C]omparison is, at base, never identity. Comparison requires the postulation of difference as the grounds of its being interesting (rather than tautological) and a methodical manipulation of difference, a playing across the ‘gap’ in the service of some useful end.” See Smith, “In Comparison a Magic Dwells,” pp. 21, 35; 25-26, 40. Smith reiterates this point in his critique of Eliade in chapter 1 of To Take Place, pp. 13-14.”
(Holdrege, 89. Bolded highlighting in all quotations is mine.)
Unfortunately, Litwa continues to operate with the assumption that “comparativists” who have not embraced his methods of comparison have continued to “forget” the importance of differences. As we saw in my previous post, I think Litwa is mistaken here, and that the mythicist he sought with the most detail to expose as flawed did not at all fall into the “forget the differences trap”. Litwa made assertions without providing evidence, and the evidence that I cited, I believe, demonstrated that Litwa’s criticism was misguided in this particular area. I cover this ground again because Litwa recapitulates it in the opening of his second chapter:
To understand how mythic historiographies work, they must be compared in a way that is both thoughtful and sound. In chapter 1, I presented some instances of unsound comparison in my discussion of Jesus Myth Theory. In short, mythicists tend to genetically connect words and motifs for religious (or antireligious) ends. Often their zeal induces them to ignore or paste over differences in cultural setting and storyline.
No evidence (or cherry-picked evidence that went contrary to the main arguments) was offered to support that claim.
. . . . Similarities that are isolated and superficial often conceal greater differences. What is worse, superficial similarities are sometimes employed to prove historical causation. Yet individual words, phrases, and ideas that are similar (in some respect) are not necessarily genetically related. Similarities, no matter how precise, never amount to causation. (p. 46)
At this point, I am inclined to direct the reader to the words of Holdrege (citing Smith) above. Most of us are well aware of the dangers of confusing correlation with causation. When we have sound theories or explanations for particular types of similarities (e.g. comparing DNA samples) then comparisons can indeed be strong supports for appropriate arguments ranging from causation to coincidence.
Despite early slight missteps, Litwa does make an important point:
All similarities, furthermore, must be contextualized. If a posited similarity is between mythoi in two different texts, then one must situate the texts in their sociocultural settings. When were the texts written? Where were they written? Who wrote them? For what purposes? Do they belong to the same culture or sphere of cultural codes? And so forth.
Only after this contextual work has been done can one even think about positing a relation between stories. The relation, moreover, is not always that the author of text B knew and copied text A. Sometimes the authors of texts A and B depended on another text, C, or perhaps they saw the same event X or heard a similar oral report Y or belonged to common culture Z. (p. 47)
Precisely. The only flaw I see in Litwa’s discussion is his inconsistency is acknowledging that even Jesus myth theorists, and another “comparativist” he discusses in-depth in this second chapter, do contextualize their comparisons as per above. And sometimes such contextualizing questions do lead to a strong case that the author of text B knew and copied text A. We know Virgil did copy Homer and that the authors of the gospels did indeed know and copy and adapt the Jewish scriptures.
The reason Litwa is attempting to cordon off arguments confusing correlation with causation and to demean suggestions that “genetic relationships” explain similarities is to establish the thesis of his book, “dynamic cultural interaction”:
We need to think of the relations between the gospels and Greek lore more as dynamic cultural interaction: the complex, random, conscious and unconscious events of learning that occur when people interact and engage in practices of socialization. (p. 47)
I don’t know of any Jesus mythicist — and I’m thinking of Wells, Doherty, Price, Brodie, Carrier — who would disagree. Nor does Dennis R. MacDonald disagree with the reality of such a process leading to similar literary motifs appearing in diverse literature. In this second chapter, it happens to be Dennis MacDonald’s turn to come under Litwa’s critical eye.
Overlooking MacDonald’s agreement with the principle of “dynamic cultural interaction”, Litwa misguidedly objects to MacDonald’s argument for “genetic” connections between the Gospel of Mark and Homeric epics and wants to posit, instead, a more “complex, random, conscious and unconscious” series of interactions as an explanation for apparent similarities (or to deny even the reality of many of the similarities on the grounds that differences outnumber points in common). I don’t see the point of this argument. Does this sound like déjà vu back to my discussion of Litwa’s chapter on the Jesus myth theory? There is surely no problem with accepting Litwa’s overall explanation for similar motifs appearing in the gospels and classical literature but that explanation for some similarities does not mean another explanation for a more limited number of similarities must be ruled out. I know MacDonald’s Homeric thesis is of interest to many readers so I’ll take time to address Litwa’s criticism of it in detail.
The criteria MacDonald uses to judge probability of a text’s dependence on other works:
- accessibility to the author of the potential borrowed text
- analogy with borrowings of the text by other authors (did other authors also borrow and re-write the same stories?)
- density of the numbers of similarities between the texts
- order or sequence of the parallels
- distinctiveness of special features of the stories
- interpretability or intelligibility — the capacity of the original text to make sense of some detail in the new work (e.g. why does Jesus want his Messiahship kept secret?)
MacDonald developed a 7th criterion since publishing Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark:
7. Often Greek readers prior to 1000 C.E. seem to have been aware of affinities between New Testament narratives and their putative classical Greek models. Such ancient and Byzantine recognitions often suggest imitations in the original composition of the Gospels and Acts. (MacDonald, Gospels and Homer, 6 f)
Here is what MacDonald wrote about Litwa’s case for a more general cultural influence:
Response to objection 1: Because the Homeric epics were foundational to ancient Greek culture, any similarities between Mark and Homer are more likely to reflect general cultural influence than literary mimesis.To some extent I would agree, but one must not exclude imitation prima facie. Certainly some similarities between Mark and Homer may be due to general cultural influence, but it also is true that many ancient authors consciously imitated the epics; after all, they learned to do so in school. Furthermore, ancient narrative is rife with examples of obvious and subtle imitations of the epics as texts.
The challenge, then, is to test if similarities between two works issue from cultural osmosis or rhetorical mimesis. The last four of my six criteria attempt to do this very thing: (3) density (the number or volume of parallels between the two texts), (4) order (recognizable affinities in the sequence of the parallels), (5) distinctive traits (characteristics found in these two texts and not found widely elsewhere), and (6) interpretability (why the author imitated the target, which may include emulation or transvaluation). To my knowledge, no critic of my work has proposed alternative criteria for establishing literary connections. Although some parallels satisfy these criteria weakly, others do so magnificently and are sufficient to establish mimesis as a dominating strategy in Mark, not merely general cultural affinities.
It is not an either/or argument.
Dennis R. MacDonald and Mimesis Criticism
Mimesis refers to an author’s conscious imitation of another text. The imitation can have a range of functions: the author shows off a certain intellectual sophistication; the author is striving to write a work comparable to the artistry of the “masters”; the author is using the contrast for humorous effect; the author creates a character or event that both recalls and surpasses its traditional counterpart, and probably more.
One rarely encounters objections to the notion that gospel authors (evangelists) copied or played with Jewish scriptures. Litwa implies that the reason for acceptance in this case is that
[t]he evanglists advertised their connection to previous Jewish texts. (p. 47)
But that is not entirely so. Yes, on occasion the evangelists did so advertise:
Then saith Jesus unto them, All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad. — Matthew 26:31
Sometimes they advertised their debt to Jewish scriptures less explicitly but nonetheless quite obviously. We all know that John the Baptist is modelled on the prophet Elijah when he is introduced as follows and subsequently called “Elijah” by Jesus (Mark 9):
. . . in the wilderness . . . John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey. — Mark 1:3-4, 6
But there are many times when there is no advertising at all. 160 scriptural quotations and allusions have been identified in just five chapters of the Gospel of Mark. How many do you think were “advertised” as such? See 160 Scriptural Quotations and Allusions in Mark 11-16.
Recognize that the evangelists were quite capable of “mimesis” on Jewish scriptures without advertising and it follows that we have a right to ask if they similarly work with other literature that we have good reason to believe they knew about.
Litwa’s criticisms of MacDonald’s method
Litwa points readers to earlier more detailed criticisms of MacDonald’s The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark by Margaret Mitchell and Karl Olav Sandnes (links are to their articles on Jstor) and acknowledges MacDonald’s response to those articles, but adds,
In my judgment, MacDonald’s response does not adequately address the concerns raised by Mitchell and Sandnes. (p. 235)
Okay, so I’ll let you be the judge. I’ll quote each objection of Litwa along with MacDonald’s indirect response. Continue reading “Review, part 3a (Homer and the Gospels) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa”