Review, part 3a (Homer and the Gospels) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

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by Neil Godfrey

In this post, I am presenting MacDonald’s case beside Litwa’s criticisms. One may disagree with MacDonald’s thesis and the significance he sees in certain comparisons but that is another discussion. Here I am interested only in an assessment of Litwa’s criticisms.

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:

    1. accessibility to the author of the potential borrowed text
    2. analogy with borrowings of the text by other authors (did other authors also borrow and re-write the same stories?)
    3. density of the numbers of similarities between the texts
    4. order or sequence of the parallels
    5. distinctiveness of special features of the stories
    6. 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. 

(MacDonald, 4f)

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.

1. Unfalsifiable?

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.

(MacDonald, 8f)

2. Fudging?

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:

  • Zeus from a mountain sees his favoured mortal Priam with a servant below in danger on a land journey.
  • Jesus on a mountain sees his disciples below in danger on a sea journey.
  • Zeus sends his son, Hermes, who descends the mountain to go to Priam.
  • Jesus descends the mountain to go to his disciples.
  • “Straightway [Hermes] bound beneath his feet his splendid sandals immortal, golden, which carried him over the water and over the boundless earth with the breath of the wind; he took up his wand, with which he charms the eyes of whichever men he wishes, and rouses them again when they have slumbered; and taking this in his hands the mighty Slayer of Argos flew away. Swiftly he arrived at Troy and at the Hellespont . . .” [Iliad 24:340-346 (Alexander)]
  • Jesus walked on the sea
  • It is night
  • It is night
  • Priam does not recognize Hermes as he approaches.
  • The disciples do not recognize Jesus.
  • The servants cry out in fear (thinking the stranger is about to kill them)
  • The disciples cry out in fear (thinking they see a ghost)
  • Hermes spoke to reassure Priam, “Take heart!” and “Do not be afraid”
  • Jesus spoke to his disciples to reassure them, “Take heart!” and “Do not be afraid”
  • Hermes identified himself as a “messenger from Zeus” — though he pretended to be another mortal.
  • Jesus identified himself — without pretence.
  • Hermes climbed into the chariot with Priam and renewed the energy of the horses to bring a swift arrival to their destination.
  • Jesus climbed into the boat and the boat suddenly reached its destination.

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 . . .

4 Some thought that Orion waded through the sea (so Virgil, Aen. x. 763 sqq.), others that he walked on the top of it (so Eratosthenes, Catasterism. 32 ; Scholiast on Nicander, Ther. 15 ; Hyginus, Astronom. ii. 34).

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. [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?

The parallels between these Passion Predictions and those of Homer’s Achilles are insufficiently dense, sequential, or distinctive, so criteria 3, 4, and 5 do not apply, but they are interpretable (criterion 6). Just as Homer repeatedly reminded readers of Achilles’ willingness to swap a long life for eternal renown, Mark reminds the reader of Jesus’ willingness to die violently because he believes that God will vindicate him after three days. He, like Achilles, will have everlasting fame.(MacDonald, Gospels and Homer, 76)

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.

(Litwa, 48)

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.

(MacDonald, 9)

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.

Litwa continues:

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.

(MacDonald, 7)


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.
Jesus 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 . . .

To order a copy of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here or visit www.footprint.com.au

Please use discount voucher code BCLUB19 at the checkout to apply the discount.

Hinds, Stephen. 1998. Allusion and Intertext: Dynamics of Appropriation in Roman Poetry. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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.

Holdrege, Barbara A. 2000. “What’s beyond the Post?: Comparative Analysis As Critical Method.” In A Magic Still Dwells: Comparative Religion in the Postmodern Age, edited by Kimberley C. Patton. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press.

Litwa, M. David. 2019. How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

MacDonald, Dennis Ronald. 2009. My Turn: A Critique of Critics of “Mimesis Criticism.” Occasional Papers / Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, no. 53. Claremont, Calif: Institute for Antiquity and Christianity.

MacDonald, Dennis Ronald. 2014. The Gospels and Homer: Imitations of Greek Epic in Mark and Luke-Acts. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

MacDonald, Dennis Ronald. 2000. The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Apollodorus. 1921. The Library, Volume I: Books 1-3.9: 001. Translated by James G. Frazer Sir. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Apollonius of Rhodes. 1959. The Voyage of Argo: The Argonautica. Translated by E. V. Rieu. 2nd ed. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Classics.

Daldianus, Artemidorus. 1961. The Interpretation of Dreams: Digested into Five Books by That Ancient and Excellent Philosopher, Artimedorus. Translated by R. W. Wood. London : Printed by Bernard Alsop. https://trove.nla.gov.au/version/8150149.

Dio Chrysostom. 1951. “Dio Chrysostom — Discourse 3.” Translated by J. W. Cohoon. LacusCurtius. Accessed November 22, 2019. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Dio_Chrysostom/Discourses/3*.html.

Dio Chrysostom. 1951. “Dio Chrysostom — Discourse 11.” Translated by J. W. Cohoon. LacusCurtius. Accessed November 22, 2019. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Dio_Chrysostom/Discourses/11*.html.

Homer. 2016. The Iliad: A New Translation by Caroline Alexander. Ecco.

Homer. 1999. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles. London: Penguin Classics.

Hesiod. 1967. Fragmenta Hesiodea. Edited by Reinhold Merkelbach and M. L West. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hyginus. 2011. “The Fabulae.” Translated by Jason Colavito. Jason and the Argonauts. http://www.argonauts-book.com/hyginus-fabulae.html.

Iamblichus. 1918. The Life of Pythagoras. Translated by Thomas Taylor. Krotona ; Hollywood, Calif. : Theosophical Pub. House.

Isocrates. 2016. “Panegyricus.” In Delphi Complete Works of Isocrates, translated by George Norlin. Delphi Classics.

Josephus. n.d. “Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 19, Whiston Chapter 1, Whiston Section 1.” Translated by William Whiston. Accessed November 22, 2019. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0146%3Abook%3D19%3Awhiston%20chapter%3D1%3Awhiston%20section%3D1.

Lucian, of Samosata. 1905. “Liar.” In The Works of Lucian of Samosata, Complete with Exceptions Specified in the Preface, Tr. by H. W. Fowler and F.g. Fowler, translated by H. W. (Henry Watson) Fowler and F. G. (Francis George) Fowler. Oxford Clarendon Press. http://archive.org/details/worksoflucianofs03luciuoft.

Lucian, of Samosata. 1905. “The True History.” In The Works of Lucian of Samosata, Complete with Exceptions Specified in the Preface, Tr. by H. W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler, translated by H. W. (Henry Watson) Fowler and F. G. (Francis George) Fowler. Oxford Clarendon Press. http://archive.org/details/worksoflucianofs02luciuoft.

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22 thoughts on “Review, part 3a (Homer and the Gospels) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa”

  1. #1 I agree with some of Litwa’s criticisms. This again goes back to issue I’ve addressed with many mythicists and other such cases (I know MacDonald is not a mythicist). A primary issue is that in many cases there are better explanations for the scenes than the influences that MacDonald proposes. I do find the idea that a writer could be basing his story on both Elijah/Elisha and Homeric stories challenging, and I think the evidence for Elijah/Elisha is concrete, whereas the Homeric case is not. This isn’t to say its impossible, and one could argue that if the writer was trying to make a work for both a Jewish and Gentile audience this may have been a way to do that, but that’s a lot to deal with.

    Think about what that involves. Firstly Mark is already derived wholly from Jewish scriptures and the letters of Paul. One had to work out how to fit all those pieces together. On top of that, the whole work is chiastic so one has to work out how to structure this narrative in this whole series of chiasism and super-chiasims, which I think David Oliver Smith convincingly shows in his work. A simple example here is the introduction of Simon early in the story who is renamed Peter, and then the carrying of the cross by Simon later in the story parallel in the super-chiasim to the introduction of Simon. So making this narrative is already a ton of meticulous work. I can’t even imagine how this was accomplished. But, I have a lot of confidence that this is all legitimate because the evidence is so compelling.

    But now we have to propose that on top of all this, that the story is patterned on the Iliad and Odyssey as well? That’s very hard to conceive.

    When it comes to walking on water, for example, we have a few options:

    1) The walking on water scene is based on some independent oral late about Jesus that wasn’t influenced by any prior mythology
    2) The walking on water scene is some oral late about Jesus that itself was influenced by Homeric traditions
    3) The walking on water scene is derived from a literary reference to the Jewish scriptures, which are independent of any Homeric influence
    4) The walking on water scene is derived from a literary reference to the Jewish scriptures, which are themselves influenced by Homeric traditions
    5) The walking on water scene is consciously patterned on Homeric stories
    6) The walking on water scene is unconsciously influenced by Homeric stories

    That’s a lot to sort out of course. The propositions I find most likely given the context of everything else we know about Mark are options 3 & 4.

    Nevertheless, I think that there is also room for 6.

    I think the real importance of MacDonald’s work isn’t showing that the Gospel of Mark was contrived from Homeric narratives, but showing that the writer of Mark wasn’t some barely literate backwoods scribe who was just recording field notes.

    I think MacDonald’s work adds to the case that Mark was a sophisticated writer, and it doesn’t require demonstrating all of these parallels to do that. What MacDonald’s work shows is that Mark fits into a larger context, as a work that was produced by someone who had a broad and sophisticated knowledge of literature. He wasn’t not just some country Jew that could only jot down “oral traditions”. This was a person who was interacting with the broader culture and who understood how to frame narratives for that culture. This doesn’t require that Mark’s narrative is based nearly as concretely on Homeric formulas as MacDonald proposes, but allows that the writer knew how to frame his narrative in a widely accepted style.

    1. #1 I agree with some of Litwa’s criticisms.

      The criticism you make is not made by Litwa. You have made the same mistake as Litwa makes in what you present and that is failing to address what MacDonald himself has said about what you perceive as “unimaginable” difficulty in using two more sources than Mark already uses (“Jewish scriptures” are already multiple sources — e.g. even in the wilderness scene we have Mark blending three stories: Adam, the Exodus and Elijah).

      To make a case for one argument being more credible than another you need to address both arguments, not just the alternative. And you need to address the actual authorial practices of the day.

      Do you think Litwa’s criticisms are not found wanting by what MacDonald himself wrote? If there are any criticisms Litwa made that you agree with then how are they sustained against MacDonald’s words?

      1. I think my point is that you have to weigh all of the possible explanations of a narrative.

        I don’t think MacDonald is doing that. I agree that Litwa’s criticism itself isn’t fully baked either, but I do agree with the statement, “the evanglists advertised their connection to previous Jewish texts,” although I would argue that the “evangelists” are not at issue here, only Mark is.

        But still, its an irrefutable fact that Mark is building from the Jewish scriptures.

        What I think MacDonald fails to do is put his analysis up against comparable explanations rooted in Jewish sources.

        But as I said, some of this gets back to things like I discussed in the preface to my book, about how some mythicsits have tried to claim that the “twelve apostles” are derived from the twelve signs of the zodiac or the Twelve Olympians. Yes, those are indeed “parallels”, but given that we can see that Jews also made use of the number twelve, rooted in the idea of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and that in multiple stories the lead character selects twelve helpers or followers, this seems a far better explanation for the inspiration of the twelve disciples.

        However, one can certainly argue that the idea of Twelve Tribes of Israel is itself rooted in older “pagan” traditions, and that the Twelve Tribes of Israel stems from the zodiac (maybe this is true maybe its not).

        But I think a big complicating factor that we have here is that the whole idea of a distinct barrier between “Jewish” and non-Jewish culture is false to begin with. I think MacDonald’s thesis rests to some degree on the idea that Homeric patterns are absent from Jewish sources, and thus if they exist in Mark they had to have come directly from the Homeric works themselves. Yet, the reality is that so much of the Jewish sources are, as you say, already patterned on Greek sources.

        It’s like a movie critic trying to show that a certain film was inspired by The Seven Samurai, without considering the possibility that the movie was instead inspired by a movie that was itself inspired by The Seven Samurai. So for this example we could use the classic Western, The Magnificent Seven.

        If a new Western movie comes out and someone notes that has many parallels to The Seven Samurai and thus the writer and director must have been inspired by The Seven Samurai, one has to consider the more likely possibility that the movie was inspired by The Magnificent Seven given that it is in the same genre. Yes, there will be many parallels to The Seven Samurai, because The Magnificent Seven copied from The Seven Samurai.

        So, when one is trying to discuss parallels between Greek works/gods and the Gospels, one has to also consider possible Jewish sources for those same parallels, because in many cases, earlier Jewish sources are already patterned on Greek/Egyptian/Babylonian stories/gods. So again we have to guard against pointing to The Seven Samurai and skipping over the possible use of The Magnificent Seven instead.

        I know this isn’t exactly Litwa’s criticism, but I think its an extension of what he’s saying by pointing to the more likely use of Jewish sources.

        1. I think my point is that you have to weigh all of the possible explanations of a narrative.

          I don’t think MacDonald is doing that.

          Statements like this need to be justified by referring to what MacDonald has written.

          But still, its an irrefutable fact that Mark is building from the Jewish scriptures.

          What I think MacDonald fails to do is put his analysis up against comparable explanations rooted in Jewish sources.

          How much of MacDonald’s work have you read? MacDonald does not posit an either or scenario and I have even quoted some of his words in the post that make that very clear.

          but I do agree with the statement, “the evanglists advertised their connection to previous Jewish texts,” although I would argue that the “evangelists” are not at issue here, only Mark is.

          I also agreed that some text sources (in the OT) were advertised in the post. Again, I have a problem when you simply state disagreement without referencing the evidence that has been presented in the post.

        2. Like the proverbial bee of ancient rhetoric, Mark harvested nectar from several blossoms — some Jewish and some Greek — and transformed them into gospel honey.

          — MacDonald, Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, 96

          There’s nothing unimaginably complex about borrowing from more than one source at a time. As mentioned earlier, even the very brief episode of Jesus in the wilderness combines three different stories, those of Adam, Moses and Elijah.

          1. It’s one thing to talk about ideas and themes, another to talk about literary parallels. I find it difficult to envision how a scene is built from parallels from two totally different sources. Even when those sources are already is some agreement.

            For example, if we take The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven. Of course, since one is the copy of the other it would be that the person making a new movie knows this an intentionally makes references to those scenes that are copied in MS from SS, thus making reference to both.

            However, to claim these a scene is derived from two sets of distinct literary parallels that don’t have much in common isn’t plausible. The scene has to be based on one or the other. You can say that a certain scene is derived from Peter Rabbit and also the same scene is derived from Paradise Lost.

            So let’s look at the example of Jesus stilling the storm.

            I’ll give two possible explanations to consider:

            Here is the scene from GMark (NRSV):

            35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

            Here is what I believe is the basis for the scene:

            Psalm 107:
            23 Some went out on the sea in ships;
            they were merchants on the mighty waters.
            24 They saw the works of the Lord,
            his wonderful deeds in the deep.
            25 For he spoke and stirred up a tempest
            that lifted high the waves.
            26 They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;
            in their peril their courage melted away.
            27 They reeled and staggered like drunkards;
            they were at their wits’ end.
            28 Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
            and he brought them out of their distress.
            29 He stilled the storm to a whisper;
            the waves of the sea were hushed.
            30 They were glad when it grew calm,
            and he guided them to their desired haven.
            31 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
            and his wonderful deeds for mankind.

            David Oliver Smith also explains the use of the cushion in regard to the chiastic structure in Unlocking the Puzzle.

            Furthermore, the final line of the scene in Mark is “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

            That question is answered by looking to Psalm 107, which goes on from verse 31 to answer that very question. The answer to the question is that he is “the Lord”. The Psalm closes with: “Let the one who is wise heed these things and ponder the loving deeds of the Lord.” The purpose of the scene is explained by the Psalm, it is establishing that Jesus is the Lord.

            Now let’s look at the Odessey for comparison:

            [1] “Then to the Aeolian isle we came, where dwelt Aeolus, son of Hippotas, dear to the immortal gods, in a floating island, and all around it is a wall of unbreakable bronze, and the cliff runs up sheer. Twelve children of his, too, there are in the halls, six daughters and six sturdy sons, and he gave his daughters to his sons to wife. These, then, feast continually by their dear father and good mother, and before them lies boundless good cheer. And the house, filled with the savour of feasting, resounds all about even in the outer court by day, and by night again they sleep beside their chaste wives on blankets and on corded bedsteads.

            [13] “To their city, then, and fair palace did we come, and for a full month he made me welcome and questioned me about each thing, about Ilios, and the ships of the Argives, and the return of the Achaeans. And I told him all the tale in due order. But when I, on my part, asked him that I might depart and bade him send me on my way, he, too, denied me nothing, but furthered my sending. He gave me a wallet, made of the hide of an ox nine years old, which he flayed, and therein he bound the paths of the blustering winds; for the son of Cronos had made him keeper of the winds, both to still and to rouse whatever one he will. And in my hollow ship he bound it fast with a bright cord of silver, that not a breath might escape, were it never so slight. But for my furtherance he sent forth the breath of the West Wind to blow, that it might bear on their way both ships and men. Yet this he was not to bring to pass, for we were lost through our own folly.

            [28] “For nine days we sailed, night and day alike, and now on the tenth our native land came in sight, and lo, we were so near that we saw men tending the beacon fires. Then upon me came sweet sleep in my weariness, for I had ever kept in hand the sheet of the ship, and had yielded it to none other of my comrades, that we might the sooner come to our native land. But my comrades meanwhile began to speak one to another, and said that I was bringing home for myself gold and silver as gifts from Aeolus, the great-hearted son of Hippotas. And thus would one speak, with a glance at his neighbor: `Out on it, how beloved and honored this man is by all men, to whose city and land soever he comes! Much goodly treasure is he carrying with him from the land of Troy from out the spoil, while we, who have accomplished the same journey as he, are returning, bearing with us empty hands. And now Aeolus has given him these gifts, granting them freely of his love. Nay, come, let us quickly see what is here, what store of gold and silver is in the wallet.’

            [46] “So they spoke, and the evil counsel of my comrades prevailed. They loosed the wallet, and all the winds leapt forth, and swiftly the storm-wind seized them and bore them weeping out to sea away from their native land; but as for me, I awoke, and pondered in my goodly heart whether I should fling myself from the ship and perish in the sea, or endure in silence and still remain among the living. However, I endured and abode, and covering my head lay down in the ship. But the ships were borne by an evil blast of wind back to the Aeolian isle; and my comrades groaned.

            [56] “There we went ashore and drew water, and straightway my comrades took their meal by the swift ships. But when we had tasted of food and drink, I took with me a herald and one companion and went to the glorious palace of Aeolus, and I found him feasting beside his wife and his children. So we entered the house and sat down by the doorposts on the threshold, and they were amazed at heart, and questioned us: `How hast thou come hither, Odysseus? What cruel god assailed thee? Surely we sent thee forth with kindly care, that thou mightest reach thy native land and thy home, and whatever place thou wouldest.’

            [66] “So said they, but I with a sorrowing heart spoke among them and said: `Bane did my evil comrades work me, and therewith sleep accursed; but bring ye healing, my friends, for with you is the power.’

            It is my opinion that the Stilling of the Storm scene is not likely to be based on both Psalm 107 and Odyssey 10. Again, the idea that this person is laying out all of these materials, making these references, forming chiasims, and developing his plot, seems quite complicated from the start and to add in that he’s doing this not just with the LXX, but also the letters of Paul, and now we’re adding in the Odyssey? And so here he’s now found a Psalm that he wants to reference and he’s also doing it through the lens of Homer at the same time? And this isn’t the only place, we have to deal with a dozen or more of these occurrences where this writer is supposedly double referencing Homer and the LXX… I can’t get behind that. And furthermore, what does the reference to Homer do? I’ve explained why the author referenced Psalm 107, because Psalm 107 is used to establish that Jesus is the Lord. That is the function of the reference. What is the function o the reference to Odyssey?

            I think MacDonald’s work looks interesting, but when you compare it to the work on Markan use of the LXX and Paul is doesn’t hold up… IMO.

            When we look at the explanations for the elements of the scene provided in the table, we find that Psalm 107 provides explanations for those elements too, in many cases better explanations. My conclusion is that Mark was consciously building a scene from Psalm 107. Any similarity of Odyssey is coincidence.

            1. I want to expand a little on on Jesus being asleep on the cushion.

              Why does Mark say that Jesus is asleep on the cushion? Because he wants to follow the Psalm where it says, “Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress.”

              “A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion.”

              That he was asleep in the stern (back of the boat) on a cushion explains why he wasn’t “aware” of the storm, and thus needed to be called on. Mark wanted to Jesus to be out of the action so that there would be a need for the disciples to cry out to him for him to bring them out of their distress.

              So again, the scene is far better explained as having been based on Psalm 107 than on Odyssey 10.

              1. Some elements are well explained by Psalm 107 and others are well explained by other source(s). It’s not an either/or argument that MacDonald offers. We know the Jewish influences but they do not preclude other sources — as the history of the Jewish religion and people (and literary criticism more generally) surely testifies. You need to address both arguments, the influences that are identified as from Homer as well as the influences picked up from the Psalms. And it is not very complicated to add a third influence in there, too, the story of Jonah. Creative imagination is a multifaceted thing as we know from both modern novels, tv genre programs, the visual arts….

              2. “It’s not an either/or argument that MacDonald offers.”

                I disagree. That may not be what MacDonald thinks he’s offering, but its a problem nonetheless.

                MacDonald is offering Odyssey 10 as an explanation for this scene and he gives no evaluation of Psalm 107 at all.

                MacDonald implies that Mark is writing this scene with Odyssey 10 either in hand, or definitively in his memory and his modeling the scene explicitly to follow Odyssey 10.

                I don’t believe that to be true at all.

                I think its very clear that Mark had Psalm 107 in hand and intentionally patterned the scene on Psalm 107. I don’t believe there was any intentional relationship to Odyssey 10. I think that MacDonald puts forward as a relationship to MacDonald is imagined in his own head and had nothing to do with with Mark.

                I don’t think MacDonald’s analysis provides any legitimate assessment of the scene at all. And this is just one scene, in fact one of the scenes that he uses as one of his best examples, which, actually, IMO, totally fails.

              3. MacDonald gives detailed evidence that you have not addressed. He also makes it very plain that he believes Mark used the Jewish Scriptures — and quoted the ancients who noted the importance of drawing upon multiple sources for mimesis, not just one. I have quoted the passages and evidence from MacDonald to confirm these points but you have not addressed, and now seem to flatly deny, them. (If you are going to disagree you need to address the points you are disagreeing with but I think you have simply ignored them so far and chosen to address “alternative facts” 🙂 . ) Many articles in this blog have demonstrated multiple sources being used by Mark to build up single scenes and characters. Weaving multiple sources into single scenes, narratives and characters was simply no difficulty at all. That’s how Jewish and Greco-Roman authors worked. And how many authors and artists work today.

                True, MacDonald does not address Jewish intertextuality in most cases and makes it clear that the reason is that those studies have already been done and are well known — and are not in dispute at all. I have quoted MacDonald pointing out that it is a both/and argument, not an either/or argument, so I don’t see how you can simply say you disagree with him on that.

              4. Some of these I agree with. They aren’t making the same claims as MacDonald however.

                Recognizing the Triumphant Conqueror in Mark’s crucifixion scene: Agree with this analysis.

                Jesus, a new Dionysus Triumphantly Entering Jerusalem?: Skeptical. I suspect the use of the branches relates to some Jewish Scripture, but I haven’t investigated it. Matthew of course thinks that Mark is making reference to Zech. 9 with the staging of the scene.

                Jesus as Counter-Emperor in the Gospel of Mark: Generally agree with this one, but again we are talking about broad themes there, not literary parallels as MacDonald is suggesting.

                Jesus and the Dove — how a Roman audience may have read the Gospel of Mark: I disagree. Again, I think Jewish scriptural references make more sense. The usage doesn’t fit any augurial interpretation I know of. And again:

                Isaiah 11:
                1 And a rod shall come out of the root of Jesse,
                and a blossom shall some up out of his root.
                2 And the spirit of God shall rest on him,
                the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
                the spirit of counsel and might,
                the spirit of knowledge and godliness.

                The use of Isaiah here is far more likely than some augurial reference.

                Miscellaneous posts — re Stibbe on Euripides in Gospel of John : Makes sense, and I agree with this type of relationship, and could see such a type of relationship between Mark and Homeric works. I don’t think that’s what MacDonald is arguing for though, I think MacDonald is arguing for much more direct relationships.

            2. Probably most authors are influenced by many different types of works that they have read and enjoyed in their lives. It’s a mistake to think of an author being woodenly tied to texts in front of him or her. No, the influence of multiple readings is assimilated and reworked in the imagination of an author (or anyone, really) so that what they are creating is something new, not a wooden adaption of text A and trying to work out chiasms with that, etc, — then of course the idea of introducing a text B into the mix would be problematic. No, that’s not how literary influences work and get reworked in our imaginations. As mentioned earlier, the author of the Gospel of Mark was imagining a wilderness scene for Jesus after his baptism and a host of other wilderness tropes or narratives swirling around in the back of his or her imagination came into play — so that we have allusions to three different characters/times/stories: Adam, Moses and Elijah.

              A study of many major authors will demonstrate many different influences that have gone into their respective literary works. The stories of Homer were no doubt imbibed through a young writer’s educational years, through exercises, rewritings, and many Homeric stories were rewritten and turned inside out and reversed etc as part of that education. The stories were part of one’s imagination, and then other stories told through synagogue readings, say, might be compared and sometimes contrasted and sometimes melded into new stories with strands of many different tropes and character types.

              The more literature one studies the more such multiple mixes of earlier works are seen manifested in new works. There’s nothing magical or extra difficult about one’s imagination being inspired by several different sources in the creation of a new work, whether literary, musical, film, paintings, . . .

              If Jesus can be modeled on both, say, a story of Joseph and a story of Moses and another of David, and perhaps even infused with a letter of Paul, then can it be unimaginable if another popular cultural story hero is also brought in to the mix of ideas to create the new story?

  2. These reviews continue to be interesting and worthwhile, I still don’t know if Litwe’s objection is that he thinks there is an actual historical basis, that the way people who believed there was a historical Jesus would create a fictional account of his life is different from the way someone who knew Jesus to be mythological would, or if it is just specific aspects he objects to (such as the Homeric parallels, which as far as I can tell do t point either way to mythicism or historicism)

    1. Litwa’s proposals do not, in theory, depend on Jesus being historical. In addressing MacDonald’s scenario he is attempting to clear the way for his own view of how historical and biographical writings were conveyed in a world where myths permeated so many areas of society: literature, public life, entertainment, political propaganda. I will show in the next post that Litwa does say that authors writing biographical works believed their subjects to have been historical, though I hope to show that is not necessarily wholly true.

      His objection to the Homer thesis is that it proposes direct borrowing of other texts while Litwa will argue that the evangelists used mythical concepts as a result of more general cultural influence, a result of being part of a world where mythical notions pervaded society. Biographers and historians were immersed in a world where mythical concepts were woven into their narratives because in those days the mythical ideas were considered more plausible than they are to us today. That is his overall idea and one I expect to expand on a little in the next post.

      1. His objection to the Homer thesis is that it proposes direct borrowing of other texts while Litwa will argue that the evangelists used mythical concepts as a result of more general cultural influence, a result of being part of a world where mythical notions pervaded society.

        which would be/is a false dichotomy [on Litwa’s part].

        On two fronts, –

        (i) Od. 10.28-29, 31-33, & 47-52 and Mark 4:35-41, and Od. 10.1-69 and Mark 4:1-2 and 35-41, as tabled above, suggests there was [virtually] direct borrowing of other texts [concepts], and

        (ii) whether the Homeric Epics were mythical or not is beside the point that they had a strongly cultural influence at that time.

      2. I have to say that this contradistinction—“cultural osmosis vs. rhetorical mimesis” —strikes me as misleading from the standpoint of induction. Why are the hypotheses presented mutually exclusive at the expense of other possibilities? Can’t a rhetorical mimesis be included within a cultural osmosis? Isn’t an instance of cultural osmosis discernible in the expression of rhetorical mimesis? And why can’t there be something like “rhetorical osmosis” and “cultural mimesis” as interpretive categories with a rough equivalence of validity? (I am thinking of the likes of the 1963 film “Charade,” a mix of genres one reviewer described as “the greatest Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made.” (….)

  3. OP: “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?”

    • Vorster, W S (1993). “The production of the Gospel of Mark: An essay on intertextuality”. HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies: 385–396 [NOW BOLDED].

    Allusions to and quotations from the Old Testament are usually absorbed into Mark’s story in such a manner that, except for a few cases where he specifically mentions the origin of the quotation, the allusions and quotations form part of the story stuff. They are so embedded into the story that, if it were not for the references in the margins and a knowledge of the Old Testament, the reader would not have noticed that Mark uses an allusion or a quotation (see Mk 15:24).

  4. [Litwa:] All similarities, furthermore, must be contextualized. If a posited similarity is between mythoi</i. 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)

    [Godfrey:] 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”:

    [Litwa:] 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)

    Specifically, “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”, is disingenuous b/c (i) it is just a repeat of a common but simplistic apologist propositional-assertion; (ii) b/c “belonged to common culture Z””is, in the context of those two paragraphs, tautology; and (iii) Litwa denies “the relations between the gospels and Greek lore more as dynamic cultural interaction”when he denies MacDonald’s argument that the Homeric Epics influenced the author of g.Mark.

    The notion that “MacDonald’s method makes his thesis about mimesis largely unfalsifiable” is also disingenuous. It’s lazy and it employs a dubious philosophical concept, ‘falsifiability’ or ‘unfalsifiability’, largely b/c it raises a false dichotomy and engenders black or white thinking in a field that is many shades of grey. (it also implies absolute facts can be false b/c they are [supposedly] ‘unfalsifiable’.)

  5. I’d still chuck the thing in a skip but this deconstruction of Litwa is most helpful in juxtaposing counter-arguments to his “work”.

    One thing to remember about G.Mk vis-à-vis Paul is that Paul was selling his Christ largely to God-fearers who were just a cut away from being full-blown Jews. Note the many women in Paul’s coterie and as benefactrixes of synagogues. It was easier for them to be full-blown proselytes. By the time we come to G.Mk. the Gospel is having to be sold to the Wogs; folk of Hellenistic culture who are not going to be familiar from birth with the Tanakh, Septuagint or no Septuagint. In which, bye the bye, much is lost in translation. The Torah for instance is better translated as instruction or teaching rather than The Law. That word choice has caused no end of woe.

    So the references from the Tanakh are rather likely to go whoosh! over the heads of Goyim; wheras they would grok the Homeric and other Hellenic references maybe not as easily as falling off a log; but several times or more easily than having to have the Tanakh explicated to them.

    Me and thee have basically the SAME wetware as the Evangelist, while NOT sharing much of the culture or its referrants. To concieve that someone in that cultural milieu is not going to better us in the same way as a fish would better us in water is not a very bright assumption. I see no reason the Evangelist shouldn’t be as equally adept with the Hellenic scripture as with the Hebraic: a true amphibian.

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