Tag Archives: MacDonald: Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark

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

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 J. 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. read more »

A silly argument encountered so often in biblical studies

A silly argument I encounter surprisingly often in biblical studies literature and discussion groups goes like this:

Perhaps the most fundamental methodological problem with MacDonald’s approach is that he has set things up so that not only do supposedly positive parallels and allusions support his theory, but so also do contrasts between Homer and Mark. These contrasts are counted as evidence of Mark’s conscious “transvaluation” of Homer. Thus both similarities and differences are taken as evidence of Mark’s use of Homer, which means, of course, that his thesis is rendered virtually unfalsifiable. (The Jesus Legend, p. 340)

Eddy and Boyd point to the widespread propensity to use this sort of reasoning by adding M. M. Mitchell and S. Dowd to those who have argued the same point in relation to MacDonald’s thesis. The same sophistic reasoning is encountered often enough in other contexts, too.

Comparisons can only exist where there are both similarities and differences. That’s a basic concept of nature one learns on Sesame Street or Play School. Without differences or contrasts we are left with nothing but “same, same”, reproduction, identity.

Eddy’s, Boyd’s, Mitchell’s and Dowd’s sophism would lead them to conclude that George Orwell’s Animal Farm has nothing to say about Soviet Russia, there are no spoofs of Cinderella or Red Riding Hood, the apostle Peter could never be compared with a contemporary well-meaning backslider, and there is no basis for comparing Jesus with Moses or Elisha or Superman.

No one doubts that Aeneas, the heroic refugee who sailed from Troy to establish a new home in Italy for those who became the progenitors of the Romans, was modelled in epic literature after Homer’s Odysseus. The similarities draw attention to the differences. Romans can take pride in their ancestor being more favoured by the gods than his Greek counterpart. The differences are at least half the point of the comparisons.

To be able to point to differences presupposes that there is a common type being compared. No common type, no differences can be observed. By taking both similarities and differences as evidence of a relationship between texts does not render a thesis unfalsifiable at all. It would only be unfalsifiable if one attempted to argue for contrasts in the absence of common types. But in that case (as in my illustration below) the whole idea of comparison simply does not exist in any meaningful way.

It is sheer sophistry, and illogical nonsense, to suggest that valid comparisons mean that only similarities ought be in evidence.

.

Spot the difference:

Homer Simpson
Image via Wikipedia

No common type, no basis for either similarities or comparative contrasts.

Re a common error made when critiquing “parallelomania”

One thing bugs me when I read an article by a scholar or student who is attempting to demonstrate that an author like Dennis MacDonald (The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark) has lost his marbles and supposedly proclaims even the “absence of parallels” is evidence of parallels. And that one thing is ignorance (or forgetting) how parallels are known to work in non-biblical literature.

The sort of false or erroneous critique I am thinking of goes like this: Since Odysseus loses all hope in a storm at sea while Jesus rises to command the storm to cease, the reactions of the characters are arguably polar opposites so it is ludicrous to imagine there is any sort of parallel here at all. The reason I am not quick to agree with this sort of argument is twofold: (1) the context of other direct parallels is ignored; while at the same time (2) “polar opposites” are indeed by definition connected conceptually, and are known very well in other literatures to be a form of direct “transvaluation” of one character by the simple fact of the new character surpassing the feats or attitudes of an earlier one in the literary tradition.

G. N. Knauer demonstrated the rich complexity of the techniques used by Virgil in his imitation of Homer as far back as 1964 (Vergils’ Aeneid and Homer, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, 5, pp. 61-84 — published again with revisions elsewhere in 1984 and 1990). What Knauer discerned in the ways Virgil studied and imitated Homer deserve to be considered in any discussion of possible indebtedness of biblical narrators to non-biblical works.

. . . Aeneas is represented throughout as a hero surpassing his Greek counterpart, Odysseus, who had passed through the same or similar situations shortly before him (in epic time). Odysseus, the victor, destroys Ismaros in Thrace; Aeneas, the exile, . . . founds Ainos in the same region. On his way home to . . . [western] Ithaca, Odysseus is shipwrecked by a storm at Cape Malaia; Aeneas, in spite of a storm, successfully passes this cape on his way west, where in the end he will find . . . home, Hesperia. Here, for the first time, one begins to sense Vergil’s purpose in following Homer. . . .

It seems clear that Aeneas, who excelled Odysseus in the first part of the Aeneid, now surpasses the Greeks who had been victorious at Troy. . . . The way in which he completes the divine mission to found a new Troy, that is Rome, elevates him morally far above the Greek heroes.

This sort of transvaluation cannot be effected apart from differences in action and character that nonetheless are connected by polar opposition. Aeneas, the exile, builds; Odysseus, the victor, destroys. Odysseus, sailing towards X is shipwrecked at Z; Aeneas, sailing towars his own X, pointedly has smooth sailing.

There is much more to the way Virgil “deconstructed” and used Homer. It was far more than just reflecting a few lines of verse here and there. At least as noteworthy as the above transvaluation goal, Virgil had clearly studied the very structure of Homer’s epics and reshaped those structures in his own work. The battles of the Iliad that preceded the wanderings of Odysseus are mirrored at the dramatic conclusion of Virgil’s epic. Odysseus is only released from his captivity to the charms of the divine queen Calypso just prior to the moment he is to fulfil his destiny; Aeneas is released from his long captivity to the queen Dido long before he can fulfil his destiny.

The differences found between the Aeneid and Homer’s epics do not all indicate absence of contact.

Some differences are as distinctly related as strong echoes off opposing walls.

Dennis MacDonald’s ‘Turn’ to reply to critics of his Mark-Homer work

I have been absent from web discussions for some time now and may be the last one to notice Dennis MacDonald’s reply to critics of “mimesis criticism” — his work arguing that the Gospel of Mark is as much an imitation and transvaluation of Homeric characters as it is of those from the Jewish scriptures.

It is well worth reading. Not least his concluding pages suggesting a more subtle reason for many of the objections raised against his work.

If anyone else apart from me is also late to this reply, check it out at DRM’s website — look for the article there titled My Turn.

(I’ve discussed aspects of MacDonald’s work elsewhere on this blog some time back.)

Mark and Homer

One more catch-up link for this new trial blog: notes I made from Dennis MacDonald’s book on the Gospel of Mark and Homeric epics. One plan for the future would be to go have checkboxes against each comparison indicating which criteria are met, and to what extent. I’m not confident that all of my own comparisons would go very far — I’m sure some are way “out there” but hey, why not push an idea to its limits and see what happens? It would be interesting to checkbox each one against the criteria some time.

Book details

Neil Godfrey


Technorati Tags:
gospel+of+mark, homer, iliad, odyssey, literary+mimesis, intertextuality