Tag Archives: Virgil

How Literary Imitation Works: Are Differences More Important than Similarities?

Recently I disappointed the pastor of the Diamond Valley Community Church when I declined to respond to his point by point counter-claims to my comparison of the miraculous feeding of the 5000 as told in Mark 6:30-44 with Elisha’s feeding 100 followers with 20 loaves of bread in 2 Kings 4:38-44. This was a pity because he assures us that his efforts were “such a burden”, but we both know that those are the trials of a self-sacrificing follower of the Lord whose every breath is dedicated to banishing spiritual darkness from a godless world.

I have encountered the sorts of objections our burdened pastor made many times before and confess that by now I have lost all interest in engaging with them. Such objections — “this is not a real parallel because the story-reasons for the food shortage are different or because the prompts that led to groups of people sitting down are different in the two stories” — are a pointlessly puerile game of “spot the difference” where the pictures are quite different to begin with.

Original images at:
http://alturl.com/uocjz http://alturl.com/57t8y (centre) http://alturl.com/quprv (right)

The differences in the above images are more striking than their similarities. One can search the net and easily find hundreds more and even more striking variations — different colour schemes, additional figures, different backgrounds, different positions and postures of the central figure . . . But one thing is clear: they are all adaptations of the original Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.

We can spot mimesis so easily in a graphic. And this sort of imitation is easily enough recognized in literature. But when it comes to the Bible there are many apologists (and scholars, too) who just can’t or won’t see it. read more »

Old Testament based on Herodotus? Acts on the myth we read in Virgil?

Before continuing with the scholarship that questions the traditional view that many of the Old Testament books were stitched together from much older texts, let’s lay out on the table a very broad overview of the thesis of a Dutch scholar, Jan-Wim Wesselius (I love his homepage photo and caption), as published in The Origin of the History of Israel: Herodotus’ Histories as Blueprint for the First Books of the Bible. (This was the most expensive book I had ever purchased in my entire life, so I continue to guard it well.)

In this post I select just one detail that is not meant to persuade the sceptical (and scepticism is a virtue) but only to stimulate thoughts anew among anyone who has not traveled this road before. There is much more to be said along with the snippet of data I present here, and I have posted one of those snippets on vridar.info comparing Moses with Herodotus’ portrayal of the Persian king Xerxes (and the Plagues of Egypt with the catastrophes inflicting the army of Xerxes). A serious treatment comparing Herodotus’ Histories would need to start with a 1993 publication, The Relationship Between Herodotus’ History and Primary History by Mandell and Freedman. One of the more fascinating insights is that the Greek history is in many ways a “theological” history like the Bible’s historical books. The same lessons of the the role of the divine in and over human affairs are found like a unifying thread in both works. But such details are for another time.

To appreciate what is to follow it would help to have some knowledge of both Homer’s epics, the Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s epic poem of the founding of the Roman race, the Aeneid. G. N. Knauer sums up the way Virgil did not merely serendipitously draw upon recollections of what he had read in Homer’s epics, but he clearly studied the structures of Homer’s epics and built his own epic upon a reassembling of that structure, perhaps in an effort to surpass the artistry of the original.

. . . Vergil clearly realized how Homer conceived the structure of the Odyssey and . . . therefore did not simply imitate sporadic Homeric verses or scenes. On the contrary he first analysed the plan of the Odyssey, then transformed it and made it the base of his own poem.

What is especially significant is that this is one case-study of how ancient literature very often worked. Reworkings of earlier masters was a highly respected skill.

I don’t think I’m alone in also thinking Virgil reworked a single epic out of Homer’s dual effort. The Aeneid is an epic poem of the travels of Aeneas, founder of the Roman race, from the time he fled the conquered and burning Troy until the time he found a secure place in Italy after many battles with the local Latin tribes. The Roman epic begins with the adventures of a long voyage of Aeneas to his destined homeland — just as the second Homeric epic, the Odyssey, narrates the adventurous travels of the Greek hero. The second half of the Roman epic recounts many battles reminiscent of Homer’s first epic, the Iliad. Both conclude with the climactic death in battle of a warrior protagonist — Hector and Turnus. (Of course, the Odyssey likewise ends in much bloodshed, but this action is actually a small part in a larger narrative of deception, plotting and homecoming.) So a very broad comparison of the larger structures of these epics looks like this:

But there’s more. Much more. Knauf also writes (my formatting and emphasis): read more »

Discovering the Sources for the First Gospel, 3 — Criteria

This post concludes the series of notes from Adam Winn’s Mark and the Elijah-Elisha narrative : considering the practice of Greco-Roman imitation in the search for Markan source material. Winn concludes his first chapter with six criteria he hopes will help us determine literary dependence between two texts. He has derived these criteria from his study of the way we can see Virgil imitated Homer’s epics.

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?

There are several others, but let’s keep our feet on the floor in these early days. read more »

Discovering the Sources for the First Gospel, 2

Aeneas tells Dido the misfortunes of the Troja...
Aeneas tells Dido the misfortunes of the Trojan city. Oil on canvas, 1815. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This post continues my notes from Adam Winn’s book that he produced from a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the Dominican Biblical Institute, Mark and the Elijah-Elisha narrative : considering the practice of Greco-Roman imitation in the search for Markan source material. The first post explained why Winn believes a study of the ways in which the Roman poet Virgil imitated and rewrote Homer’s epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, in order to compose his own epic, the Aeneid, has potential relevance for a study of how the author of the Gospel of Mark might have used his written sources.

We outlined two of Virgil’s techniques of imitation in that first post, conflation and reversal, and in this post we look at the other techniques. A third post will list and explain criteria Winn will propose to assist us in analysing the Gospel’s literary sources.


Diffusion refers to Virgil’s technique of taking a single episode or character from his source (Homer) and dividing it into multiple episodes or characters. To illustrate this technique Winn points to the way Virgil has based three different characters on aspects of the life (or rather death) of one person in Homer’s Odyssey, Elpenor.

  • Elpenor was the youngest of Odysseus’s crew. While on Circe’s island he climbed up to a roof-top to sleep, but in the morning he forgot where he was and fell to his death.
  • Odysseus, leaving in haste to carry out his mission to visit Hades, was unaware of his fate. In Hades Elpenor’s ghost was the first one Odysseus met. Elpenor explained how he died and begged Odysseus return to where he died and give him a proper burial.
  • Odysseus carried out Elpenor’s wishes. He returned to Circe’s island to carry out Elpenor’s wishes. Odysseus mourned, cut logs for a pyre, burned the body and erected a grave marked with an oar.

1. Virgil used the Elpenor narrative as his template for the death of Palinurus.

  • At sea Palinurus, the helmsman, fell asleep and thus fell to his death in the sea.
  • When Aeneas, like Odysseus, visited Hades, Palinurus was the first to meet him. Like Elpenor, Palinurus told Aeneas how he had died and also begged for a burial. But Virgil never recounts Aeneas burying Palinurus.

2. In Virgil’s epic, the Sybil oracle instructed Aeneas to bury Misenus before he attempted to enter Hades. This Aeneas did. He found the body, mourned, cut logs for a pyre, then erected a grave marked with an oar.

3. Homer’s epic portrayed Odysseus returning from Hades to bury Elpenor. Virgil did not depict Aeneas burying Palinurus, but he did have Aeneas, on his return from Hades, burying his nurse, Caieta.

In Virgil’s imitation of the Homeric episode of Elpenor, we see Virgil using imitative techniques we have not yet seen . . . He essentially turns one Homeric character into three, i.e., Elpenor becomes Palinurus, Misenus, and Caieta. He also takes the events of one Homeric episode and diffuses them into three different episodes. (p. 29)

Compare what we find in the Gospel of Mark. read more »

Discovering the Sources for the First Gospel, 1

Why is it that all the modern commentaries on the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (and to some extent John) include discussions of those works’ literary sources but scarcely any raise that question for the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel that supposedly started it all?

Adam Winn (Mark and the Elijah-Elisha narrative : considering the practice of Greco-Roman imitation in the search for Markan source material) suggests the answer to this question

is directly related to the limited paradigm that New Testament scholarship has inherited from source, form, and redaction criticism. (p. 2)

Source criticism presumes that a source for a gospel has to be another gospel or at least something like another gospel (e.g. Q). So if Mark is the first gospel then the question of literary sources can scarcely arise.

Form criticism has declared that Mark’s sources were oral traditions. With this answer firmly entrenched there has been no incentive to ask if there might also be literary sources behind the gospel.

Redaction criticism established very stringent criteria to determine when a gospel author was dependent upon another work. There must be

  • specific agreement in details/order
  • strong verbal agreement

Winn challenges the assumption that ancient authors limited themselves to using sources so slavishly. He examines ancient instructions and practices to show that authors used their literary sources very often in ways that shunned strong verbal agreement and that freely changed the details and order of material in their sources. Dennis MacDonald made similar points in his earlier work, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark.

Winn argues the need for a new set of criteria that is derived from the typical practices of ancient authors.

The way forward

Gospel studies has traditionally given very little notice to the way ancient authors used literary sources.

Gospel interpreters have virtually ignored perhaps the greatest window we have into the way ancient authors used literary texts in their compositions. Certainly by studying the way in which ancient authors imitated and rewrote extant sources, we can gain insights into how the gospel authors might have used each other or even other extant literature to compose gospels. (p. 9, my emphasis) read more »

Aeneas and Jesus: how they were each created from mythical heroes

Luca Giordano, Enea vince Turno, Olio su tela,...
Image via Wikipedia

There should be nothing controversial in the title of this post. I understand “critical scholars” generally agree that the Gospel narratives of Jesus are largely fictitious, exaggerations, theological metaphors, expressing what Jesus “meant to the authors” rather than what he historically did or said. Many scholars agree that there are a few core events that really do lie behind the Gospel narratives, but except for one or two (the crucifixion and baptism) they do not all agree on what these were.

Classical scholar John Taylor, in Classics and the Bible: Hospitality and Recognition, shows us how the creators of both the Gospel narratives about Jesus and the Roman epic about Aeneas used the same technique for creating their respective characters (p. 85). read more »