Numerous and dense parallels rise to the level of highly probable to certain indications of dependence on the Bacchae of Euripides. Such dependence can be seen in a wide range of ways, from identical and unique word choice, to themes and dramatic settings, to character developments and plot twists.
• Like Dionysus, Jesus is a god who comes to earth in mortal disguise.4
• He has a champion heralding him.5
• The people’s leaders reject him.6
• His symbolic names abound.7
• Jesus’s first, stage-setting miracle is clearly a Dionysian one; both bring forth wine miraculously.8
• Yet that is only one of numerous, identity-establishing miracles that the two share in common. Jesus and Dionysus both make old men move as if they are young again.9
• Both prompt devotion from old men in spite of competing family loyalties.10
• The Johannine Jesus provides his own miraculous supply of water and attracts women followers known for their promiscuity, just as Dionysus was famed to do.11
• Both vex their initiates/disciples with the requirement of eating the god’s raw flesh and drinking his blood.12
• Iesus Dionysos is harshly interrogated as to his provenance and paternity.13
• He is the liberator of slaves.14
• He is the one whom his opponents cannot see but the formerly blind clearly can.15
• He is the one who can miraculously escape arrest.16
• He is the one whose initiates travel safely into the underworld and are brought back to life.17
• Jesus and Dionysus are similarly opposed by god-fighters.18
• Yet both are equally acclaimed by many groups of people.19
• Jesus imitates Dionysus even as he rivals him as the true grapevine.20
• Both willingly meet their own arrest.21
• Though the ignominy of the crucifixion and lack of vengeance are uncharacteristic of Dionysus, the Johannine Jesus still plays a Bacchae-inspired role in his imitation of Pentheus, the murdered king.22
• The Johannine resurrection interweaves characteristics of Dionysus and Pentheus in its depiction of the defiled, royal corpse being raised within a garden and women followers who surround him but also do not initially recognize his body.23
• The disembodied apotheosis of the first edition of John is hallmark Dionysus.24
Other adduced parallels run the gamut from uncertain to puzzling. In these occasions, it may simply be that MacDonald knows these texts far better than readers like I do and that he sees connections that have to be explained point by point to the uninitiated. For example, Mary’s anointing of the feet of Jesus is adduced as John’s depiction of Jesus as “a different kind of lover from Dionysus.”25 Yes, Jesus is a murdered king like Pentheus, but why is it that Mary Magdalene rather than Mary the Mother plays the part of the mother of Pentheus, who cannot recognize her son’s body?26 Caveats notwithstanding, these minor quibbles and questions do not impair MacDonald’s Dionysian argument in the least.
(Bilby, 49-51. Formatting is mine)
Bilby, Mark G. 2018. “The First Dionysian Gospel: Imitational and Redactional Layers in Luke and John.” In Classical Greek Models of the Gospels and Acts: Studies in Mimesis Criticism, edited by Mark G. Bilby, Michael Kochenash, and Margaret Froelich, 49–68. Claremont, Calif: Claremont Press.
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:
MacDonald developed a 7th criterion since publishing Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark:
7. Often Greek readers prior to 1000 C.E. seem to have been aware of affinities between New Testament narratives and their putative classical Greek models. Such ancient and Byzantine recognitions often suggest imitations in the original composition of the Gospels and Acts. (MacDonald, Gospels and Homer, 6 f)
Here is what MacDonald wrote about Litwa’s case for a more general cultural influence:
Response to objection 1: Because the Homeric epics were foundational to ancient Greek culture, any similarities between Mark and Homer are more likely to reflect general cultural influence than literary mimesis.To some extent I would agree, but one must not exclude imitation prima facie. Certainly some similarities between Mark and Homer may be due to general cultural influence, but it also is true that many ancient authors consciously imitated the epics; after all, they learned to do so in school. Furthermore, ancient narrative is rife with examples of obvious and subtle imitations of the epics as texts.
The challenge, then, is to test if similarities between two works issue from cultural osmosis or rhetorical mimesis. The last four of my six criteria attempt to do this very thing: (3) density (the number or volume of parallels between the two texts), (4) order (recognizable affinities in the sequence of the parallels), (5) distinctive traits (characteristics found in these two texts and not found widely elsewhere), and (6) interpretability (why the author imitated the target, which may include emulation or transvaluation). To my knowledge, no critic of my work has proposed alternative criteria for establishing literary connections. Although some parallels satisfy these criteria weakly, others do so magnificently and are sufficient to establish mimesis as a dominating strategy in Mark, not merely general cultural affinities.
It is not an either/or argument.
Dennis R. MacDonald and Mimesis Criticism
Mimesis refers to an author’s conscious imitation of another text. The imitation can have a range of functions: the author shows off a certain intellectual sophistication; the author is striving to write a work comparable to the artistry of the “masters”; the author is using the contrast for humorous effect; the author creates a character or event that both recalls and surpasses its traditional counterpart, and probably more.
One rarely encounters objections to the notion that gospel authors (evangelists) copied or played with Jewish scriptures. Litwa implies that the reason for acceptance in this case is that
[t]he evanglists advertised their connection to previous Jewish texts. (p. 47)
But that is not entirely so. Yes, on occasion the evangelists did so advertise:
Then saith Jesus unto them, All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad. — Matthew 26:31
Sometimes they advertised their debt to Jewish scriptures less explicitly but nonetheless quite obviously. We all know that John the Baptist is modelled on the prophet Elijah when he is introduced as follows and subsequently called “Elijah” by Jesus (Mark 9):
. . . in the wilderness . . . John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey. — Mark 1:3-4, 6
But there are many times when there is no advertising at all. 160 scriptural quotations and allusions have been identified in just five chapters of the Gospel of Mark. How many do you think were “advertised” as such? See 160 Scriptural Quotations and Allusions in Mark 11-16.
Recognize that the evangelists were quite capable of “mimesis” on Jewish scriptures without advertising and it follows that we have a right to ask if they similarly work with other literature that we have good reason to believe they knew about.
Litwa’s criticisms of MacDonald’s method
Litwa points readers to earlier more detailed criticisms of MacDonald’s The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark by Margaret Mitchell and Karl Olav Sandnes (links are to their articles on Jstor) and acknowledges MacDonald’s response to those articles, but adds,
In my judgment, MacDonald’s response does not adequately address the concerns raised by Mitchell and Sandnes. (p. 235)
How Is Harry Potter Different Than the Bible? — that’s a recent post by Christian-believing scholar James McGrath, and as one might expect from the title by such faithful convert the post is in effect an exhortation for people to read the Bible more seriously and diligently than they do their Harry Potter novels.
The majority of Harry Potter fans actually READ Harry Potter.
James McGrath continues:
In fact, they read it all the way through, paying close attention to detail, on more than one occasion.
Mmm, yeh, well . . . I happen to know many apologist jerks who can boast just that — having read the Bible right through, close attention to detail, several times.
Yes, yes, of course we all know the next line,
many Christians who claim to take the Bible seriously actually merely pay lip service to it
But isn’t there one little detail being missed here?
The Bible is NOT a single book by a single author like any Harry Potter novel. Unless one believes a supernatural mind was using human scribes to write it all in 66 chapters.
So what motivates a biblical scholar, a professional scholar, to compare the Harry Potter novels with a texts composed across centuries and cultures and compiled some time around the fourth century by a warring church council?
One does not get the feeling that one would be able to engage in a serious non-partisan academic discussion with such a scholar.
But to see the real relationship between Harry Potter and Jesus Christ one can’t go past Derek Murphy’s analogies in Jesus Potter Harry Christ.
One question that interests me here is whether Winn’s analysis can be usefully applied to the question of whether the Gospel of John was based on the Gospel of Mark, and if so, to what extent. Does our knowledge that an author would sometimes radically restructure his source material offer us a window into observing the fourth gospel’s author moving the Gospel of Mark’s “temple cleansing” episode from the last stages of the narrative to its beginning?
Another question: is it possible the techniques of “imitation” can help us decide whether the Gospel of Luke was the last Gospel that in part drew upon the Gospel of John, or whether the Gospel of John imitated, in part, Luke?
The Jesus in Gethsemane story has always been one of the most moving episodes in religious movies. It is also a literary motif that has a long pedigree and would have been well known to any author who had learned to read and write Greek and who knew Jewish writings.
The basic structure and thematic units of the story are prominent in both “classical” Greek and Hebrew literature. It is quite likely one of those stories that may have fallen easily into place in an author’s mind without necessarily consciously imitating another — like a modern superhero drama can be unconsciously built on the motif of a Jesus-like saviour figure.
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.
I pulled out again my copy of “Mimesis and Intertextuality in Antiquity and Christianity” (ed. by Dennis R. MacDonald) thinking to write a layman’s review of its collection of contributions but got sidetracked (again) on re-reading Gregory J. Riley’s chapter, “Mimesis of Classical Ideals in the Second Century”. Some of Riley’s work totally rivets me with comments that provoke new thoughts; some of it leaves me totally flat. This chapter is one of the former. I will have to do a fuller discussion of this asap.
Till asap comes along, I am currently rethinking possibly the earliest surviving literary episode in the life of Jesus, his baptism as told in the Gospel of Mark. John the Baptist there is portrayed as someone of utmost “greatness”: he functions way out in the wilderness, yet despite that “all the land of Judea” went out to see him and submit to him in baptism. Now that is a graphic scene. It is no doubt fictional, or some might wish to say it contains a core of historical truth in that the exaggeration hints at least “lots” of people went out to the wilderness to be baptized. But Mark is telling the story and he creates a picture of the “whole land of Judea” coming out to John in the wilderness, to a man standing outside and in opposition to the city life (“and those from Jerusalem”) with his camel cloak and wild honey diet.
But his message escalates this scene of a truly remarkable man.– His message is about one “who is even greater” who is yet to follow after him! He underscores the point: he, such a great man, will not even be worthy to stoop to loose the sandal of the super-great one to come.
And that even greater one is, of course, the one we know will be from the beginning, from heaven itself even, declared the beloved Son of God himself.
What does all this have to do with a Greek-Roman classical ideal?
Riley writes, “a righteous and powerful Son of God is persecuted by unjust authorities, divine and human, faces his own horrible death with courage, and overcomes. This is not an Israelite story, but it is the oldest and most inspiring plot-line in Greco-Roman literature.” (p.95)
Dare we see the opening scene in Mark as yet another one of “the oldest and most inspiring plot-lines in Greco-Roman literature”? The opening scene of the Iliad was about a son of a goddess (a man-god), Achilles, whose refusal to submit, despite repeated pleas, to the greatest king, Agamemnon, one greater in authority despite Achilles being the far greater in parentage and ultimate personal worth and nobility of (Greek classical) character.
If so, then surely the “criteria of embarrassment” arguments in the literature that attach themselves to the baptism of Jesus beg for re-evaluation at least. Mark demonstrates NO such embarrassment at all. In fact he pushes as hard as he can into the readers/hearers’ faces that the Greater is submitting to the Lesser here!
There is so much to elaborate on here. I know, I have tossed out idle spec on this scene elsewhere, but I would love to do up a much fuller exploration of this and the other ideals expressed in the Christian myth that clearly repackaged and presented anew some of the highest ideals of classical antiquity. (As Burton Mack and others have written, it also included in that package much that was ruinous, too.) But I’m keen to follow through Riley’s argument in this and other aspects of the founding myth of Christianity.
(P.S. It seems almost flippant to comment (i know, again) here that that opening book in the Iliad, iirc, concludes with Agamemnon ordering the ritual washing of all his armed followers — the only one who removes himself from the camp and does not comply is, of course, Achilles.)
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.