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.
First of all, MacDonald’s method makes his thesis about mimesis largely unfalsifiable. A broad range of imagined similarities can be construed as imitation, and an equally broad range of differences can be construed as emulation. So MacDonald can posit similarity when he wants and explain away differences by the notion of emulation. Margaret Mitchell calls this the “‘have your cake and eat it too’ methodology. (p. 48)
Here is MacDonald’s response. One might call it the Sleeping Beauty/Sleeping Ugly response:
The claim that my thesis “is theoretically incapable of invalidation” because I use differences as parallels is nonsense. I never use transvaluations exclusively to link two texts, which must have a sufficient number of other parallels, perhaps in a recognizable sequence, and with sufficiently unusual traits to bind them together into a hermeneutically useful pairing. Each of my parallels thus is theoretically vulnerable to invalidation by failing these criteria. That said, I would insist that differences also can be so strategic in that they, like similarities, notify the reader of the presence of the antetext. The children’s storybook Sleeping Ugly announces that it is a transform of the folktale Sleeping Beauty by means of a contrasting noun: “ugly” for “beauty”; but what most ties the two stories together is the common adjective “sleeping.” For mimetic transvaluation to work one needs both similarities and differences, and both can be evidence of a literary connection.
I will adduce but one illustration from my book on Mark. I use my criteria to argue for the following parallels between Homer’s account of Aeolus’s bag of winds and Jesus’ stilling the storm.
Odyssey 10.1-69 Mark 4:1-2 and 35-41
- Odysseus’s crew boarded and sat down.
- Jesus boarded and sat down to teach.
- On a floating island Odysseus told stories to Aeolus.
- On a floating boat Jesus told his stories to the crowds.
- After a month he took his leave, boarded, and sailed with twelve ships.
- When it was late, he took his leave, and sailed. “Other boats were with him.”
- Odysseus slept.
- Jesus slept.
- The greedy crew opened the sack of winds and created a storm: “[A]ll the winds [άνεμοι] rushed out.”
- A storm arose: “[A]nd there was a great gale of wind [άνεμου].”
- The crew groaned.
- The disciples were helpless and afraid.
- Odysseus awoke (έγρόμενος) and despaired.
- Jesus awoke (διεγερθείς; cf. έγείρουοιν) and stilled the storm.
- Odysseus complained of his crew’s folly.
- Jesus rebuked his disciples for lack of faith.
- Aeolus was master of the winds.
- Jesus was master of winds and sea.
Each of these parallels is congruent, except for the third from the end; whereas Odysseus awoke and was helpless, Jesus awoke and calmed the sea. The difference is strategic and recognizable as a transvaluation.
6. This tendency is documented also by Mitchell, “Homer in the New Testament?” 252.
Mitchell does not use Litwa’s example of Hermes “flying over” rather than “walking on” water.
The second problem is the fudge factor. MacDonald creatively rearranges and tweaks most of his parallels in order to fit the structure of his (often extensive) lists and charts.6 One example is Jesus walking on water (Mark 6:48). MacDonald compares this passage with Homer’s Iliad. 24.340-46 and Odyssey 5.43-55. But in these Homeric passages, Hermes and Athena never actually walk on water; they fly over it. (p. 48)
Hermes does not fly through the clouds with eagle wings sprouting from his shoulders. He “flies” with winged sandals on his feet; the image is of his feet skimming over land and sea. If it’s not exactly walking it’s not conventional flying, either. But let’s look at the comparison that Litwa is discounting on this one detail.
If the only parallel point was Jesus walking // Hermes skimming across water then Litwa’s point would carry more weight. However, what MacDonald draws attention to is the following sequential similarities:
The structures being compared involve a little more than precisely how wet were each god’s feet.
To underscore the ancient trope MacDonald cites a list of references in Greek mythology to heroes or gods walking on water. I have quoted the reference from Iliad book 24 above. Others….
Also from Homer, a passage with evident dependence on Iliad 24:
Hermes “fastened the supple sandals, ever-glowing gold, that wing him over the waves and boundless earth with the rush of gusting winds. . . plunged to the sea and skimmed the waves like a tern that down the deadly gulfs of the barren salt swells glides and dives for fish, dipping its beating wings in burst of spray — so Hermes skimmed the crests on endless crests.” [Odyssey 5:44-54 (Fagles)]
Poseidon likewise stepped across the sea after seeing from a mountain height his favourites in difficulty:
“But the lord Earth-Shaker kept no blind watch;
for he too sat marveling at the war and battle,
high up on the topmost crown of wooded Samothrace;
from there was displayed the whole of Ida,
the city of Priam was displayed and the ships of the Achaeans.
There, coming out of the sea, he sat and he pitied the Achaeans
beaten down at the hands of the Trojans, and he reproached Zeus violently.
In a moment he descended from the rugged mountain,
swiftly striding forward on his feet; and the great mountains and woodlands shook
beneath the immortal feet of Poseidon as he proceeded.
Three strides he made, and on the fourth he reached his goal—
Aigai; where his illustrious house was built in the depths of the sea,
gleaming golden, imperishable forever.
Arriving there he yoked to his chariot a pair of horses shod with bronze,
swift-flying, with luxuriant manes of gold,
and he clad himself in gold, and grasped his golden
well-wrought whip, and stepped into his chariot.
And he set out to drive across the waves; and the creatures of the sea gamboled at his coming
out of their deep places from every side, nor did they fail to recognize their lord,
and the sea parted in joy; and the horses flew on
lightly, nor was the bronze axle beneath even moistened;
so the swift-springing horses carried him to the ships of the Achaeans.
There is a certain broad deep cave in the depths of ocean
between the islands Tenedos and rugged Imbros;
there Poseidon the Earth-Shaker drew up his horses
releasing them from the chariot, and cast before them ambrosial fodder
to eat; and around their feet he threw golden fetters,
infrangible, not to be loosened, so they would steadfastly await
their lord’s return; and he proceeded to the Achaean army.” [Iliad 13:10-38 (Alexander)]
And there is Euphemus in the story of the Argonauts. He appears in a roll-call of the crew to join the Argo:
After them, from Taenarum, came Euphemus, the fastest runner in the world, whom Europa daughter of the mighty Tityos bore to Poseidon. This man could run across the rolling waters of the grey sea without wetting his swift feet. His toes alone sank in as he sped along his watery path. [Apollonius, 1.179-84 (Rieu)]
Euphemus, son of Neptune and Europe, daughter of Tityus, a Taenarian. It is said he was able to run over water with dry feet. [Hyginus, 14 (Colavito)]
Orion . . .
And Artemis slew Orion in Delos. They say that he was of gigantic stature and born of the earth ; but Pherecydes says that he was a son of Poseidon and Euryale. Poseidon bestowed on him the power of striding across the sea.4 [Apollodorus, 1.4.3 (Frazer)]
Ώρίων. τοΰτον Ήείοδόε φηειν Εύρυάληε τήε Μίνωοε καί Ποεειδώνοε είναι, δοθήναι δε αύτώι δωρεάν ώετε επί τών κυμάτων πορεύεεθαι καθάπερ επί τηε γήε. [Hesiod, frag. 148 (Merkelbach)]
— which Google Translate interestingly renders as
Orion. The Eurovision Song Contest is Minoan and Poseidon is, and they give you a free ride on the waves on the ground.
Then we have mere mortals with divine pretensions, like Xerxes
Then came the later expedition, which was led by Xerxes in person; he had left his royal residence, boldly taken command as general in the field, and collected about him all the hosts of Asia. What orator, however eager to overshoot the mark, has not fallen short of the truth in speaking of this king, who rose to such a pitch of arrogance that, thinking it a small task to subjugate Hellas, and proposing to leave a memorial such as would mark a more than human power, did not stop until he had devised and compelled the execution of a plan whose fame is on the lips of all mankind — a plan by which, having bridged the Hellespont and channelled Athos, he sailed his ships across the mainland, and marched his troops across the main? [Isocrates, 88-89 (Norlan)]
And Gaius Caligula
NOW this Caius I did not demonstrate his madness in offering injuries only to the Jews at Jerusalem, or to those that dwelt in the neighborhood; but suffered it to extend itself through all the earth and sea . . . . He also asserted his own divinity, and insisted on greater honors to be paid him by his subjects than are due to mankind. He also frequented that temple of Jupiter which they style the Capitol, which is with them the most holy of all their temples, and had boldness enough to call himself the brother of Jupiter. And other pranks he did like a madman; as when he laid a bridge from the city Dicearchia, which belongs to Campania, to Misenum, another city upon the sea-side, from one promontory to another, of the length of thirty furlongs, as measured over the sea. And this was done because he esteemed it to be a most tedious thing to row over it in a small ship, and thought withal that it became him to make that bridge, since he was lord of the sea, and might oblige it to give marks of obedience as well as the earth; so he enclosed the whole bay within his bridge, and drove his chariot over it; and thought that, as he was a god, it was fit for him to travel over such roads as this was. . . . [Josephus, 19.1.1 (Whiston) —btw, did you notice his claim to be the “brother of the Lord”?]
And the disciples of Pythagoras
Ten thousand other more divine and more admirable particulars likewise are uniformly and unanimously related of the man: such as infallible predictions of earthquakes, rapid expulsions of pestilence and violent winds, instantaneous cessations of the effusion of hail, and a tranquillization of the waves of rivers and seas, in order that his disciples might easily pass over them. Of which things also, Empedocles the Agrigentine, Epimenides the Cretan, and Abaris the Hyperborean, receiving the power of effecting, performed certain miracles of this kind in many places. Their deeds, however, are manifest. To which we may add, that Empedocles was surnamed an expeller of winds; Epimenides, an expiator; and Abaris, a walker on air; because being carried on the dart which was given to him by the Hyperborean Apollo, he passed over rivers and seas and inaccessible places, like one walking on the air. Certain persons likewise are of opinion. that Pythagoras did the same thing, when in the Same day he discoursed with his disciples at Metapontum and Tauromenium [. . . cities separated from each other by many stadia both by land and sea, and cannot be passed through in a great number of days . . .] [Iamblichus, 28:135-136]
Lucian satirized the trope . . .
‘Ion,’ said I,’ about that one who was so old : did the ambassador snake give him an arm, or had he a stick to lean on ? » ‘ Ah, you will have your joke,’ Cleodemus put in; ‘ I was an unbeliever myself once—worse than you ; in fact I considered it absolutely impossible to give credit to such things. I held out for a long time, but all my scruples were overcome the first time I saw the Flying Stranger; a Hyperborean, he was; I have his own word for it. There was no more to be said after that: there was he travelling through the air in broad daylight, walking on the water, or strolling through fire, perfectly at his ease ! ’ ‘ What,’ I exclaimed,’ you saw this Hyperborean actually flying and walking on water ? ’ ‘I did ; he wore brogues, as the Hyperboreans usually do. . . . [Lucian, Liar 13 (Fowler)]
A few days later, when we had emerged from the milk into blue salt water, we saw numbers of men walking on the sea ; they were like ourselves in shape and stature, with the one exception of the feet, which were of cork ; whence, no doubt, their name of Corksoles. It struck us as curious that they did not sink in, but travelled quite comfortably clear of the water. [Lucian, True History, 2.4 (Fowler)]
Dio Chrysostom did not overlook it . . .
“Socrates,” said he, “you know perfectly well that of all men under the sun that man is most powerful and in might no whit inferior to the gods themselves who is able to accomplish the seemingly impossible — if it should be his will, to have men walk dryshod over the sea, to sail over the mountains, to drain rivers dry by drinking —[Dio Chyrsostom, 3.30 (Cohoon)]
Does not all this in reality remind one of dreams and wild fiction? In the book “Dreams” by Horus people have such experiences, imagining at one time that they are being killed and their bodies stripped of arms and that they rise to their feet again and fight unarmed, at other times imagining they are chasing somebody or holding converse with the gods or committing suicide without any cause for the act, and at times, possibly, flying offhand or walking on the sea. For this reason one might well call Homer’s poetry a kind of dream, obscure and vague at that. [Dio Chyrsostom, 11.129 (Cohoon)]
Ancients even dreamed about it and there was an interpretation . . .
To walke upon the Sea.
FOr to walke upon the Sea, to him which would travell, as also to a ser∣vant and him which would take a Wife: the one shall enjoy his Wife, and the other shall have his master at his own pleasure, it is also good for him which hath a law suit, for the Sea represents the Judge, which handles some well, and others ill: and the woman, by reason of the moistnes: and the Lord, by reason of the might. To a yong man, this dream is love of a delightfull woman, to a woman it is dissolute life of her body, for the Sea is like to a harlot, because it hath a fair appearance and show, but in the end she brings many to evill: this dream is good to all those which live and make profit upon the people, and which govern any publike matter; for they shall have great honour and profit: For the sea is like a multitude, by reason of the disor∣der and confusion of the waves. [Artemidorus, Oneirocritica (Wood)]
3. Variable Selection of Criteria?
Third, MacDonald does not consistently apply all his criteria. Sometimes only density and sequence are applied. Occasionally only a single criterion is applied, such as emulation.8
8. MacDonald, Gospels and Homer, 76.
MacDonald anticipated that objection to his work so wrote a Rocky Mountain defence:
Some parallels between Homer and Mark inevitably will be weaker than others, but the same is true, for example, of parallels between Mark and Luke. Even though few scholars today doubt that Luke rewrote Mark, many parallels between the two works are so weak that interpreters have doubted any genetic, literary relationship between them at all. Even a large number of such weak associations, however, cannot jeopardize the general thesis that Luke rewrote Mark. Rather, the opposite is true: the clearer examples lend plausibility to the fainter. Viewing the front range of the Rocky Mountains from my window, I see clearly the horizon created by the closest peaks, but the mountains in the distance become increasingly faint, so that sometimes I cannot be certain whether the sky’s border results from a mountain, a cloud, or my imagination.
Clearly the Gospel of Mark does not advertise its Homeric hypertextuality and transvaluation as transparently as the Aeneid or the Verae historiae, but these books are exceptional cases; the vast majority of Homeric imitations at the time were more subtle. Stephen Hinds would call Sandnes’s approach “philological fundamentalism” insofar as it sets an unrealistically high bar for mimesis. Hinds notes that allusions to antecedent writings run the gamut from advertised emulation to nearly undetectable echoes. I would suggest that modern readers have been blind to many of Mark’s most magnificent mimetic markers: significant personal and place-names. In large part, this blindness is caused by modern translations that transliterate names without translating them. Throughout the Gospel of Mark the Evangelist not only created significant names but also frequently uses them to evoke antecedents in the Iliad and the Odyssey. The same phenomenon appears in Luke-Acts. — (MacDonald, Gospels and Homer, 76)
Names discussed to illustrate the above: Legion, Boanerges, Judas Iscariot, Jairus, Syrophoenician Woman, Dalmanoutha, Barabbas, Mary the Magdalene, Cleopas, Eutychus, Scevas.
If only select criteria are applied, however, there is too much left to subjective judgments. To be sure, creativity and imagination are good qualities in a scholar. Yet if the imagination is not disciplined and controlled by stricter guidelines, it veers into a kind of solipsistic dogmatism.9
9. Unfortunately anyone who dares to suggest stricter linguistic and structural criteria for MacDonald is in danger of being accused of “philological fundamentalism” (MacDonald, Gospels and Homer, 10).
MacDonald addressed “philological fundamentalism” in his earlier book, too:
On the one hand are philological fundamentalists who require unmistakable markers of dependence, such as shared vocabulary, similar genres, and distinctive grammatical or poetic constructions. Similarities that do not meet these criteria are considered accidental confluences, or topoi. A topos is a convention of speech or composition, a commonplace. “[R]ather than demanding interpretation in relation to a specific model or models, . . . the topos invokes its intertextual tradition as a collectivity, to which the individual contexts and connotations of individual prior instances are firmly subordinate.” In other words, when observing similarities between ancient texts, a scholar may dismiss them as independent occurrences of a topos rather than investigate them as potential evidence of intertextuality. Philological fundamentalists appeal to topoi when parallels do not satisfy their rigid criteria, criteria that conform neither to ancient discussions of imitation nor to the vast majority of actual imitations.
But classicists recognize — without the help of Homeric names or quotations — imitations of epic repeatedly in Herodotus, the tragedians, the Hellenistic romances, and even other works by Vergil and Lucian. What would Sandnes do with the Book of Tobit, the Hellenistic Jewish poets, and even the Jewish historian Josephus whose ostensible topics were Jewish yet who imitated Homer, sometimes quite clearly?
In fact, the kinds of Homeric imitations in the Aeneid and the Verae historiae are exceptional. Sandnes is correct: Mark’s similarities with epic are not like those in these works; instead, they are like the vast majority of Homeric imitations that are more “subtle” and whose identifications are tantalizingly “slippery.” Indeed, one might say that the very subtlety, even opacity, of these imitations enhances their charm by inviting the reader to pay attention to clever allusions or echoes. 29 ///see again Genette!///
29 The literary critic Gérard Genette demonstrates how sophisticated these “hypertextual” uses of a model can be.(Palimpsests. La littérature au second degré [Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1982], ///and English translation/// )
(MacDonald, My Turn, p. 12)
4. Trite Comparisons?
Fourth, sometimes the parallels that MacDonald points out are trite. (p. 49)
I think this criticism has been covered by the words of MacDonald that I have quoted above in points 2 and 3. But let’s look at Litwa’s example here and check it against MacDonald’s presentation.
The fact that Odysseus was on a floating island and Jesus on a floating boat, for example, is not very significant.10 What else would a seaworthy boat do?10
10. (MacDonald, Gospels and Homer, 206).
Certainly, the solitary image of a floating island beside a floating boat tells us very little. Again, however, Litwa pulls out a single comparison from a much larger structure of comparisons and it is that larger structure that is of greater interest. Notice Litwa’s point in the full context of MacDonald’s discussion:
Jesus Awakes in a Storm (Mark 4:35-41)
In Mark 4:35-41 Jesus calms the wind and the sea and thus resembles the God of Israel as portrayed in the Psalter, which portrays God as master of the sea in Pss 64:8, 76:17, 88:10, and 106:23-32 (MT 65:7, 77:16, 89:9, and 107:23-32). For the plot of the story, however, scholars rightly have turned to the Book of Jonah (cf. Jonah 1:1-16 and Mark 4:35-41). An even more compelling analogy appears in the Odyssey. To appreciate the influence of the epic here, one must begin at the beginning of Mark 4.
The Evangelist received much of the Parable Sermon (4:3-34) from a source, probably the Logoi of Jesus. Verse 10 seems to require a setting on land where Jesus could privately explain why he spoke in parables to “those with him, along with the twelve,” but Mark brackets the entire speech with passages that place Jesus on a boat. Mark 4:1-2: “And he began to teach beside the sea, and a huge crowd gathered around him, so that he embarked on a boat to sit on the sea. The entire crowd was on the ground near the sea, and he was teaching them many things in parables.” After the Parable Speech one reads, “On that day, when it was late, he says to them, ‘Let us pass over to the other side.’ They left the crowd and took him—he already was in the boat. Other boats were with him” (4:35-36).
This unusual setting resembles Odysseus’s sojourn on the floating island of Aeolus, where for a month he delighted the god of the winds and his large family with epic tales about “Ilium, the Argives’ ships, and the returns of the Achaeans. / I properly narrated everything to him” (Od. 10.15-16). The story that Homer tells next is strikingly similar to the stilling of the storm.
Od. 10.28-29, 31-33, and 47-52 Mark 4:35-41 [Odysseus told Alcinous, on a floating island, tales of the Trojan War.] [Jesus taught the crowds while floating on a boat.] “For nine days, night and day alike, On that day, when it was late, he says to them, “Let’s pass over to the other side.” 36 They left the crowd and took him—he already was in the boat. [Odysseus had twelve ships] we sailed, / and already on the tenth our homeland appeared. /.. . Then sweet sleep [ύπνος] came over me, for Other boats were with him. I was weary / from continually adjusting the sheet of the ship, never handing it over to another / of my comrades, so that we might arrive at our homeland quickly. / . .. [Odysseus’s crew] untied the bag, and all the winds [άνεμοι] rushed out. / The gale immediately snatched them and drove them out to sea / weeping, away from their homeland.” 37 And a great gale of wind [άνεμου] came up, and the waves beat into the boat, so that it already was filling. [10.27: “By our own folly 38 He himself was in the stern asleep on a pillow. They woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we were perishing (άπωλόμεθα).”] we are perishing [άπολλύμεθα]?” “But I / rose up [έγρόμενος] and pondered in my blameless heart / whether to jump from the ship and perish in the sea / or calmly to endure and remain still among the living.” 39 He rose up [διεγερθείς], rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Silence! Be still!” The wind died down, and there was a great calm. 40 And he said to them, “Why were you such cowards [δειλοί]?89 Do you still have no faith?” 41 They were greatly afraid, and were saying to each other, “What kind of person is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
This rhetorical question in Mark expects the reader to answer that Jesus is the Son of God with powers over the winds like those of Aeolus.
It would appear that Mark created his narrative eclectically by imitating both the Book of Jonah and the Odyssey. Perhaps the most compelling reason to think that Mark imitated the epic pertains to the next story in Mark: as we have seen, the Gerasene demoniac imitates Homer’s Polyphemus, the adventure that appears immediately before Aeolus’s bag of winds.
The similarities between Homer and Mark are dense and sequential (criteria 3 and 4).
Od. 10.1-69 Mark 4:1-2 and 35-41
- Odysseus’s crew boarded and sat down.
Jesus boarded with his disciples and sat down to teach.
- On a floating island Odysseus told stories to Aeolus.
On a floating boat Jesus told his stories to the crowds.
- After a month, he took his leave and sailed with twelve ships.
When it was late, he took his leave, and sailed. “Other boats were with him.”
- Odysseus slept.
- The crew opened the sack, and “[A]ll the winds [άνεμοι] rushed out.”
“A great gale of wind [άνεμου] came up.”
- The crew groaned.
The disciples were helpless and afraid.
- Odysseus awoke (έγρόμενος) and despaired.
Jesus awoke (διεγερθείς) and stilled the storm.
- Odysseus complained of his crew’s folly.
Jesus rebuked his disciples for lack of faith.
- Aeolus was master of the winds; Poseidon was master of the sea.
Jesus was master of winds and sea.
It is worth noting that Mark 4:35-41 contains expressions that are unusual in Jewish and Christian writings but are frequent in the Odyssey. For example, the word for gale, λαΐλαψ, is rare and never appears in a narrative in the LXX. It occurs six times in nautical narratives in the epic (9.68; 12.314, 400, 408, and 428; and 24.42). Mark’s word for calm is γαλήνη, which never appears in the LXX and appears in the New Testament only here in Mark and in the parallel episodes in Matthew and Luke. It occurs five times in the epic, usually in the context of a god causing the winds to cease (5.391 and 452, 7.319, 10.94, and 12.167-168). Furthermore, viewing Mark 4:35-41 as an imitation of Homer’s story explains Jesus’ unfair rebuke of the disciples and the appearance of “other boats,” which have no function in the story except to flag the relationship of the story to the epic. Only here in the New Testament does Jesus sail with a flotilla. Surely these are distinctive traits (criterion 5).
If a reader compared the calming of the storm with Od. 10, she should have recognized its theological transformation (criterion 6). When the storm arose in the epic, Odysseus could only hold on for dear life until the storm passed. He was terrified and even considered suicide. Although he survived, winds blew him back to Aeolus, from whom he requested another bag, but the god refused. The hero’s bad luck proved that the Olympians had cursed him. Jesus, on the other hand, was master of winds and sea, thus playing a role that Homer gave only to gods like Aeolus and Poseidon. (MacDonald, Gospels and Homer, 205-208)
Let’s allow Litwa’s objection to the floating island/boat comparison: so much is left over one might not even notice the loss.
5. The Key Problem?
This brings me to perhaps the key problem with mimesis criticism: it exists primarily to make genetic connections between texts. (p. 49)
Once again we enter the murky waters of ad hominem when Litwa continues
MacDonald boasts that he discovers dense parallels in texts that correspond in order and sequence. Yet no amount of similarity between texts can prove a genetic connection. In his recent work The Gospels and Homer (2015), MacDonald quotes Francis Cairns: “It is all too easy to suppose that imitation is present where it is not, or, where it is present, to make incorrect identifications of sources.”12 One wonders if MacDonald has sufficiently heeded this warning. He rarely expresses uncertainty about his method; and when legitimately criticized on direct and specific points, he continues unrepentant. (p. 49)
“No amount of similarity between texts”? Surely Litwa does not deny a genetic connection between the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. But more to the point here is that Litwa omits entirely the grounds for MacDonald’s genetic links. Genetic mimesis is how ancient authors so often worked beginning with their early training. One should read MacDonald’s appeal to the Francis Cairns quote in context:
We coincidentally quoted the same passage from Thomas Rosenmeyer in another post recently: Once More — Homer, History and the Gospels-Acts
As an alternative to such generic explanations I propose one that is genetic: Gospel authors directly imitated Homer. Thomas G. Rosenmeyer rightly noted that modern scholars often have been insensitive to such imitations in ancient literature:
Instead of genre criticism, the ancients practiced model criticism. Their allegiances and affiliations connect, not with a mode or a kind, but with a father . . . not a fatherless text or a textual segment or a generic idea. . . . Where genre thinking is scientific, inferred from a sufficient sampling of texts and their properties, model thinking is, as it were, moral, and trigged by predecessors. Quintilian’s history of literature (Instit. orat. 10.1) recites, not genres, but practices, and above all, proper names [of earlier authors].13
Although ancient Greek and Latin authors imitated successful predecessors, identifying mimesis has proved to be a dicey business. According to one classicist,
Imitation is one of the most difficult concepts in literary criticism. It is hard to establish in any literature criteria for determining with certainty when one passage is a conscious imitation of another. But in ancient literature there are additional obstacles. . . . It is all too easy to suppose that imitation is present where it is not, or, where it is present, to make incorrect identifications of sources.14
Mimesis Criticism (similar to Rosenmeyer’s “model criticism”) attempts to assess texts for evidence that they are direct, extensive, advertised, and hermeneutically freighted imitations of earlier writings.
13. “Ancient Literary Genres: A Mirage?,” in Oxford Readings in Ancient Literary Criticism, ed. Andrew Laird (ORCS; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 43 5-3 7.
14. Francis Cairns, “Self-Imitation within a Generic Framework: Ovid, Amores 2.9 and 3.11 and the renuntiatio amoris,” in Creative Imitation and Latin Literature, ed. David West and Tony Woodman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 121.
Francis Cairn’s chapter demonstrates a methodical analysis that establishes literary imitation. Ovid is found to “forge word links” and not only verbal links but also conceptual contrasts:
Such devices, which can be conceptual or verbal or both, commonly link different parts of the same work in Hellenistic poetry. . . . [The text displays] ‘parallel’ structure, which reveals a few further verbal links between the two parts. . . . Here in a pointed verbal and conceptual contrast . . . . Having made his dependence on his own 2.9 evident in 3.11.1—6
(Cairns, 129, 132, 133, 133)
Cairns’ warning is not a signal that MacDonald’s thesis must be wrong but that it ought to follow the same sorts of careful analysis as Cairns himself deploys.
Litwa’s final words on MacDonald’s thesis:
Nevertheless, the goal of comparison is never simply to trace links between words or ideas in texts. It is to compare whole stories, structures of thought, and discursive practices. If scholars want to posit historical interaction between stories, they should think less about genetic relations between texts and more about shared cultural conceptions communicated through a broad array of cultural media. (49 f)
Read again Thomas Rosenmeyer:
Instead of genre criticism, the ancients practiced model criticism. Their allegiances and affiliations connect, not with a mode or a kind, but with a father . . .
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Cairns, Francis. 1980. “Self-Imitation within a Generic Framework.” In Creative Imitation and Latin Literature, edited by David West and Tony Woodman, First Edition edition, 121–41. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
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Litwa, M. David. 2019. How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
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