What artist wouldn’t like to take on the challenge of besting Homer’s famous Iliad and Odyssey? From Sappho and Vergil to James Joyce and Seamus Heaney, from the Coen brothers’ Oh Brother Where Art Thou? to Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson & the Olympians and yes, even Matt Groening’s The Simpsons, more people than we can count have given homage to Homer by attempting to outdo him, parody him, revise him, elaborate upon him, and, in short, do what all artists love to do with a rich source of inspiration: make it their own. So should it come as a surprise to anyone that the writers of the New Testament did it, too?

This question has provoked decades of work on the subject of New Testament allusions to classical texts by our guest speaker at the Westar Institute Spring 2016 national meeting, Dennis R. MacDonald. MacDonald recently retired as John Wesley Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Claremont School of Theology, where he now serves as a Research Professor. The former director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at Claremont Graduate University, he has appeared on A&E, PBS and the History Channel authored numerous books, including The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark (2000) and Mythologizing Jesus (2015). At this presentation, he focused specifically on the Gospel of Mark.

Mark and the Other Gospels: It’s Complicated

Dennis MacDonald sought in his presentation to challenge two common presuppositions:

  1. Mark was ignorant of the lost Gospel conventionally called Q.
  2. The Evangelists never imitated classical Greek literature, certainly not Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

MacDonald disagrees with these presuppositions and can demonstrate why, but since he knew most of us would shudder at the thought of slogging through dense comparisons of texts, MacDonald opted in good Homeric form to dramatize the experience by assigning volunteer readers to the roles of Homer, the Gospel of Mark, the Testament of Abraham, and the Logoi of Jesus, more commonly known as the Quelle or “Q” Gospel. In a choreographed presentation, MacDonald offered each layer of his argument and then paused to let the early texts (literally) speak for themselves!

Dennis MacDonald (center) chatting with volunteer readers Natalie Renee Perkins (right) and Stephen Tickner (left) in between sessions

Dennis MacDonald (center) chatting in between sessions with volunteer readers Natalie Renee Perkins (right), reading from the Gospel of Mark, and Stephen Tickner (left), reading from the Testament of Abraham

Because of the density and detail in MacDonald’s presentation, I’m hesitant to try to reconstruct it here for you from memory. If you’re interested in the nitty-gritty details, I recommend that you pick up one of MacDonald’s many books on this subject. Mythologizing Jesus is a good general orientation, but look to his other books for more in-depth analysis. In this online report, I focus on MacDonald’s key themes.

If you’ve read the New Testament—and I hope you have done so at least once in your lifetime!—you may have noticed that the stories in Matthew, Mark, and Luke overlap. When I was a kid growing up in a Pentecostal Foursquare church, the rationale for that was pretty straightforward: “The stories were all written by eye-witnesses, so of course they overlap.” Well, it turns out to be more complicated due to two issues:

  • Many aspects of the stories reflect the concerns of people who lived at least one or two generations after Jesus, which means they couldn’t have been written by eyewitnesses. At the very least, the stories were edited extensively.
  • In many cases the overlapping words and phrases are so similar that they clearly were copied from one text to another.

This brings us back to MacDonald. Most of the time scholars explain the overlap between Matthew and Luke by suggesting there are two major sources: Mark and Q. Traditionally, Q has been reconstructed first by removing influence from Mark, then by evaluating the leftover materials to determine if there is enough overlap in style and content to suggest the content belonged to the same original document. Most advocates of the two-document hypothesis, including many of the scholars who were involved in the Jesus Seminar, prefer to hold that Mark and Q are independent sources. MacDonald wants to challenge this with a more complex literary story he presents in his forthcoming book, How did Mark know about Jesus?

Many scholars have not bought into Mark’s reliance on Q because they believe there was a vibrant oral tradition. By this logic, parallels make better sense when attributed to a shared oral tradition rather than a shared literary tradition. Is it enough that there are parallels? No, suggest some, because you need to be able to see meaningful editorial activity. MacDonald sees this as problematic because we don’t have the original of Q, which is needed to really uncover the editorial activity of Mark. Also, not enough people recognize the interest of Q in Deuteronomy and the law. MacDonald suggests a distinctive Q redaction can be carried out, given the indebtedness of the Q document to Deuteronomy, because we can see the same project was going on in Mark.

When we compare Q to Mark, we see that Mark’s version of the story expands or extends passages, sometimes awkwardly, such as by creating too much time between actions. In general, Mark’s changes reveal secondary, Christianizing tendencies over against Q. Mark 13:31 allows Jesus’ words to replace Jewish law in Q 16:17. Q’s Jesus claims that he himself will destroy the sanctuary, Mark’s does not (and in fact this appears only in the mouths of mocking bystanders). Mark apparently thought that recent history had proven false the prediction in the Logoi (10:7b), so he adapted accordingly in 13:30.

This is where Homer enters the picture. Mark’s reliance on Q is only on sayings and not on the narrative framework (the plot). Most scholars attribute Mark’s structure to Jewish writings, but MacDonald argues that Homeric epics provide a more compelling framework for Mark’s Gospel, especially the story of the anointing woman in Mark 14.

Stumbling onto Homer

Early in his career, Dennis MacDonald worked on fragments of the Acts of Andrew, which was written around the end of second century, probably in Egypt. At one time the Acts of Andrew was much larger than the canonical Acts of the Apostles. As he read the remaining text, it occurred to him that a lot of it was informed by Homer, and he came to believe that the Acts of Andrew intended to be a Christianized Homeric epic. When he published on that, he was often asked if he saw the same thing in the canonical writings, and at the time he didn’t think so. He thought the Acts of Andrew was unique. That all changed in 1990 when he decided to do a close rereading of Mark and was struck by the Homeric parallels. In fact, we can see such borrowing also in the Acts of the Apostles, the Testament of Abraham, 3 Maccabees and other Judeo-Christian texts: these authors relied on earlier ancient texts like the Bacchae and the Homeric epics.

Book 19 of the Odyssey was widely imitated in ancient times, such as in the work of Aeschylus and Euripides. Book 19 is the scene in which Odysseus reveals his identity to his father, encounters a traitorous slave, and holds his first, moving conversation—still in disguise—with his wife Penelope after their long separation. There are also parallels between this book and the Testament of Abraham, a Jewish document written in relatively easy-to-read Greek in late first or early second century, possibly in Egypt, although both the date and location are difficult to place. In this apocryphal tale, Abraham in typical Abrahamic fashion negotiates with the disguised archangel Michael about when he should die. Likewise, Jesus has an evasive exchange with his four most intimate disciples in Mark 13. Odyssey 19 also shows Odysseus receiving an oracle from an oak tree, just as in Mark 13 Jesus has an encounter with a prophetic tree—a fig tree.

The parallels here are dense and overlapping. Compare the bathing of Odysseus to the bathing of the stranger in the Testament of Abraham. The two stories share an emotional outpouring of tears, the disruption of the bowl of water for washing, and the secrecy at the conclusion. Old Sarah recognizes the stranger as one of the divine visitors who came before, much as old Eurycleia recognized her master from her familiarity with his body.

Borrowing from one text by another usually has a specific purpose. In the case of Mark 13, Mark’s language contrasts the monstrous act of the traitorous servant of Odysseus to the beautiful act of the woman with the jar of oil who anoints Jesus. Mark even notes the concern for the poor as secondary in this particular moment for Jesus’ sake. Jesus will soon suffer, and she had acknowledged that. Another important parallel can be seen between the anointing woman in Mark and Odysseus’ devoted servant Eurycleia. Just as Eurycleia breaks her basin, so too does the anointing woman break her stone jar. Both of them in their extravagance contrast the stingy response of others, and they do so just before a crisis event. In the Markan case, the choice of a woman to anoint Jesus is also an interesting contrast with the normal Jewish prophetic tradition of a male anointer.

What does one gain by viewing the gospels as imitations of ancient Greek literature? The answer to this question depends on us relinquishing the idea that what we’re reading is “straight history.” Reading the stories as historically reliable does an injustice to Mark and Luke’s intent in wanting to portray Jesus as an ethical hero to rival the heroes of the ancient world. All religions including Christianity have crafted heroes who express their deepest values and aspirations. We need to bring critical honesty and historical humility and opens up new possibilities of interfaith understanding. Jesus embodies justice, courage, and compassion—surely the story of a hero worth preserving. Jesus is a good hero to emulate.

Even though MacDonald’s work tends to shrink the number of sayings that can be directly attributed to Jesus, he nevertheless feels based on the evidence that we can know quite a lot about him, that he lived and died, and that he made a proclamation of the Kingdom of God that proposed an ethic that differed from standard teachings of his time, e.g. “Love your enemies.”

The Gospels are cultural hybrids. They are more cross-cultural than most of us have ever acknowledged. Eclectic imitation was preferred even by ancient writers over direct plagiarism. We know that Hellenistic culture was hybrid and complex because so many cultural streams converged there. How do we determine which parallels are promoted as part of the reading process? What was the interpretive value of using and sharing them? For scholars, what is the best methodology for tracing the influences? This is the sort of work that remains to be done.

Thank you for reading this report on the Westar Institute Spring 2016 national meeting, which took place in Santa Rosa, California. To see all meeting-related reports, visit the Spring 2016 program page.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

1 reply
  1. Gene Stecher says:

    Hi Cassandra, I think that the following is the most important sentence in your review: “…Mark and Luke’s intent in wanting to portray Jesus as an ethical hero to rival the heroes of the ancient world.”

    I’ve been reading Mythologizing Jesus, and there McDonald suggests that by ‘mimicking’ the stories by Homer and Virgil, e.g., the gospels were placing Jesus in competition with the other Ancient heroes and demonstrating that he was their moral and ethical superior. Certainly this would be an important advantage in the mission to the nations.

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