A Critical Review of Dennis R. MacDonald's Theory about the New Testament

The latest issue of the Journal of Biblical Literature includes an 18-page critique of the work of Dennis R. MacDonald comparing the Gospel of Mark (and also the Acts of the Apostles) with Homer's writings: Karl Olav Sandnes, Imitatio Homeri? An Appraisal of Dennis R. MacDonald’s “Mimesis Criticism,” JBL 124/4 (2005) 715-732. It is MacDonald’s theory that Mark and parts of Acts are “conscious imitations of incidents, characters, and plot patterns in the Illiad and the Odyssey.”

One of the supposed emulations between Homer and Mark that Sandnes selects for criticism is MacDonald’s use of the “hero returning home motif” to equate Odysseus’ infamous and troubled trip home and Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple. As Sandnes points out, it is not really accurate to portray Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem and the Temple as a recasting of Odysseus returning home and confronting the suitors there. Among other differences, Mark views Jesus as coming to replace, not revive, the Temple. It is certainly not his home nor the site of his ministry or greatest triumphs. MacDonald is not oblivious to the incongruences but attempts to explain them as a form of “emulation,” the modeling of another with a rivalry that causes the secondary writer to have his character or story “out do” the earlier one. But as Sandnes explains, the use of emulation in the literature of the time “is certainly more modest than the replacement of the Homeric heroes that MacDonald claims to find in Mark’s gospel.”

Other emulations of Homer found in ancient literature are quite different than what we find in Mark. While “subtle emulation” (reworked similarities that may not on their face appear to be derivative) is found it is accompanied by what we could call “obvious emulation.” Lucian, for example, uses "subtle emulation" but also explicitly uses characters and places from Homer’s poems and incorporates them into his True Story. Mark makes no such obvious use of Homer. What he does use explicitly, however, is the Old Testament which is much more likely to be a literary influence. Ultimately, Sandnes concludes that MacDonald’s central case for dependence on Homer fails because he 1) focuses on subtle emulation without coping with the fact that in other ancient literature it was conjoined with overt emulation, which is completely absent from Mark (or Acts for that matter); and 2) neglects the overt and subtle Old Testament emulations that abound in Mark.

Overall, Sandnes’ critique seems well taken and could have been strengthened even more had he delved further into Mark’s literary relationship with the Old Testament. One other point that Sandnes made that I appreciated was that while knowledge of Homer generally was likely widespread in the ancient Graeco-Roman world, extensive knowledge of Homer’s writings likely was not: “Knowledge of the Homeric poems in their entirety is not easily demonstrated. Some authors quoted Homer abundantly, but they had probably never read the Iliad and the Odyssey. A Homeric interpretation of Mark’s Gospel should account for a more critical use of the literary sources of the elite.”


BK said…
It seems clear to me that it is possible to draw comparisons between almost any two stories if you simply dismiss the differences between the two stories as "emulations". For copying to exist, there seems to me to be a larger nexus needed than MacDonald seems to suggest.
Anonymous said…
Actually I think it is instructive to consider the state of literature. "copyright infringement" couldn't exist, in fact being copied was akin to flattery and vindication in the truth.

I think it very plausible that the author of Mark had a Hellenistic background and would easily be influenced by Homeric literary structure. Emulation, even subconscious, would be expected to a degree.

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