Last month I attended the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in Atlanta where there was a special session (Bible, Myth, and Myth-Theory) dedicated to the research of NT scholar Dennis MacDonald. I have discussed MacDonald’s use of mimesis criticism in my post about his presentation earlier this year at the SBL Pacific Coast Region 2015 annual meeting. There were a number of highlights at the annual meeting in Atlanta that are worth discussing on Κέλσος as well (apologies for not writing about this sooner, but I just now got the time to follow up about the conference on the blog).
First, I will discuss the special session on Myth-Theory, which took place Saturday evening, and then I will discuss another session on Markan literary sources, which took place Monday evening, that is also relevant to this topic. In the second session, MacDonald gave a paper comparing the death and burial of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark to that of Hector in the Iliad.
There were four papers that were presented during the Saturday session: Richard Pervo presented a paper, titled “Degrees of Separation: A Mythic Sub-Structure” (abstract here), Austin Busch presented a paper, titled “Revisionary Interpretation of Homeric and Biblical Myth” (abstract here), Paul Robertson presented a paper, titled “Construction of Mythical Founders in the Ancient Mediterranean: Paul’s Jesus and Greco-Roman Philosophical Schools” (abstract here), and Kevin McGinnis presented a paper, titled “Reading Reception: Dennis MacDonald and the ‘End’ of Historical Criticism” (abstract here). MacDonald responded to all of the presenters in his own presentation at the end, which also discussed the use of Homeric mimesis in the Testament of Abraham.
Richard Pervo’s paper discussed the theme of separation in ancient novels. I have also discussed Pervo’s comparison of the Gospels’ literary genre with the Life of Aesop in this earlier post. MacDonald noted that he agreed with a lot of Pervo’s discussion, but also stated that he is less interested in genre criticism, which was the main theory behind Pervo’s approach, than mimesis criticism.
Austin Busch stated that he first became familiar with MacDonald’s research during his PhD program in Classics (my own experience is quite similar, as I first learned of MacDonald’s research in a “Reception of Homer” seminar that I took in Spring 2013). Busch noted that, while many NT scholars are resistant towards MacDonald’s mimesis criticism, his own Classics professors were far more receptive. Busch argued that the author of the Gospel of Mark makes allusions to the Cyclops in Odyssey 9, particularly with the Gerasene Demoniac in Mark 5:1-20.
Paul Robertson out of all the presenters was the most critical of MacDonald. The focus of his paper was on ancient education, and the restrictive nature of elite education. Robertson argued that, while the apostle Paul and the authors of the Gospels were educated in Greek composition, they were considerably less educated than elite authors like Philo, Quintilian, Josephus, and Pliny the Younger. As such, Robertson questioned whether the NT authors would have actually had the formal education in Homeric literature necessary for mimesis. MacDonald responded by pointing out that we possess vastly more Egyptian papyri of Homeric school texts than Septuagint school texts. As such, MacDonald argued that even Greek-speaking Jewish authors would have received an education in Homer due to his central emphasis in Greek education. To support the centricity of Homer, MacDonald also pointed out that Quintilian in his Institutio Oratoria (10.46) lists Homer as the very first author that an ancient student should study, which suggests that Homeric curriculum was foundational and not simply restricted to the elite.
Kevin McGinnis’ paper was about the implications of MacDonald’s research on historical criticism and the Gospels. McGinnis argued that if literary antecedents–whether Hebrew or Homeric–can be identified behind most of the episodes in the Gospels, then this will mark the “end” of historical criticism as the dominant theory for interpreting the Gospels.
Overall, the reception of MacDonald’s research seemed quite positive. Like the earlier Pacific Coast meeting that I discussed, there were scholars who had doubts about the validity of all MacDonald’s comparisons, but most noted that they think at least some of the parallels are strong and worth serious consideration. As such, I would say that MacDonald is a NT scholar whose research is currently controversial, but is gradually becoming more accepted and mainstream in Biblical Studies.
To show the plausibility of the Gospel authors imitating Homer, MacDonald demonstrated similar mimesis in the Testament of Abraham, as evidence that other Jewish authors, besides Christians, were engaging in similar compositional practices. In particular, MacDonald compared a famous scene in Odyssey 19, in which Odysseus’ old nurse Eurycleia washes his feet (while Odysseus is disguised as a beggar) and recognizes a childhood scar, to the archangel Michael traveling in disguise to the patriarch Abraham. Below is a (modified) excerpt from MacDonald’s handout:
|Od. 19||T.Ab. 2|
|Penelope: “Stranger, I myself will ask you first: whence (πόθεν) is your lineage? Where are your city and parents?||Abraham: “Teach me, your suppliant, whence (πόθεν) do you come and from what kind of army?”|
|Odysseus dissimulates: “Among the cities of Crete was the great city (μεγάλη πόλις) of Cnossus”; this was the city of his birth.||Michael dissimulates: “I come from the great city (μεγάλης πόλεως).”|
|Od. 19||T.Ab. 3|
|Penelope: “I have an old woman with a wise heart in her breast … She will wash your feet (πόδας νίψει), though she is frail. Wise Eurycleia, arise now and come; bathe (νίψον) this man who is the same age as your lord.” Eurycleia agreed: “I will wash your feet (πόδας νίψω).” And the old woman took the gleaming basin to wash his feet (πόδας), and poured into it lots of cold water (ὕδωρ), and then drew the hot … So she approached.||Abraham said to Isaac his son: “My child Isaac, draw water from the well, and bring it to me in the bowl so that we may wash (νίψωμεν) the feet of this stranger (τoῦ ἐπιξένου τοὺς πόδας), for he is weary, having come to us on a long journey.” And Isaac drew water (ὕδωρ) into the bowl and brought it to them. And Abraham approached and washed the feet (ἔνιψεν τοὺς πόδας) of archstrategos Michael.|
|Cf. Od. 19.362, of Eurycleia: δάκρυα δ’ ἔκβαλε (she shed a tear); and 209, of Penelope: κλαιούσης (weeping)||The guts of Abraham were moved, and he wept for the stranger (ἐδάκρυσεν ἐπὶ τὸν ξένον). And on seeing his father weeping (κλαίοντο), Isaac too wept (ἔκλαυσεν).|
|When Eurycleia recognized Odysseus’ scar, she dropped his leg; it fell (πέσε) into the bowl and spilled the water (ὕδωρ).||When the archstrategos saw them weeping, he wept with them (κλαίοντο), and the tears (τὰ δάκρυα) of the archstrategos fell (ἔπιπτον) into the water for washing (τὸ ὕδωρ τοῦ νιπτῆρος), and they became precious stones.|
I quite like the parallels noted above. It should be pointed out that both the Iliad and the Odyssey are very, very foundational ancient texts. They are the earliest of Greek literature, emerging as far back as the 8th century BCE. The Testament of Abraham, in contrast, was composed in the 1st or 2nd century CE. By the time the latter text was composed, therefore, there was already a “Homer breathed” culture in which it was written. Tropes such as foot washing were common in Greece and the Near East, but the scene of Eurycleia washing Odysseus’ feet was perhaps the most famous example in all of the contemporary literature of the time. As such, I think that MacDonald has made a good case that the Testament of Abraham mimics the Odyssey, which means that Jewish texts also engaged in such mimesis and not just Christian ones.
MacDonald also noted similar parallels in the New Testament with the woman who anointed Jesus in Bethany in Mark 14:1-11. Here is the chart that MacDonald provided for these parallels:
|Od. 19||Mark 13:1-4 and 28-37 and 14:1-11|
|Odysseus went to Penelope and sat.||Jesus went to the Mount of Olives and sat.|
|Penelope, in private, questioned her husband in disguise.||Four of the disciples, in private, asked him about the destruction of the temple.|
|Odysseus answered and gave her signs that he had seen her husband and that he would soon return.||Jesus answered and gave the sign when he would return.|
|That very day Odysseus was consulting the oak sacred to Zeus at Dodona.||The disciples should consult the fig tree.|
|“He in near.”||“He is near.”|
|“…all these things will come to pass.”||“…until all these things take place.”|
|After giving his prophecies to Penelope, Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, sat by himself.||After giving these prophecies to four disciples, Jesus sat at a table in the humble home of a leper.|
|Eurycleia came in with a bowl of water and washed his feet; later she “anointed him generously with oil.”||A woman came in with an expensive stone jar of ointment and poured the contents on Jesus’ head.|
|When she recognized her master, she dropped his leg into the brass vessel, spilling the water.||She broke the jar to release the oil. She alone recognized that Jesus would soon die.|
I think that the parallels noted above are a bit more speculative than MacDonald’s first example, however, I also think that the if it is true that the Testament of Abraham mimics the same scene in the Odyssey, then that increases the probability that the Gospel of Mark (a roughly contemporary text) might also be engaging in such mimesis.
The second session that I attended with Dennis MacDonald was about Markan literary sources. In that session MacDonald compared Jesus’ death and burial in Mark to that of Hector in the Iliad. First, however, I will say something about the other papers. The session was moderated by Adam Winn, who in The Purpose of Mark’s Gospel: An Early Christian Response to Roman Imperial Propaganda argues that the Gospel of Mark was modeled after Flavian propoganda during the Roman civil war of 69 CE. I am very sympathetic to this idea, and have discussed parallels between Jesus and Vespasian previously.
There were two papers in the session beside MacDonald’s. Andrew Pitts presented a paper, titled “Papias, Peter, and Mark, Yet Again: A Reevaluation of Petrine Speech Material as a Source for Mark’s Gospel” (abstract here), which discussed the Petrine tradition reported in Papias that John Mark structured the Gospel of Mark around the sermons of Peter. I have discussed Papias’ relevance to the authorship of Mark in my previous book review of Michael Kok’s The Gospel on the Margins, as well as in my essay “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels.” Pitts argued that he does not necessarily endorse the tradition that John Mark authored the Gospel of Mark, but that he is investigating the plausibility of Papias’ claim that Mark recorded Peter’s sermons, in light of the practices of ancient stenographers. I have a number of reservations about this comparison (which I also plan to discuss further down the road in evaluating the arguments of Classicist George Kennedy). It is true that authors like Galen would have stenographers attend their lectures and write down notes that would later be published as edited works. A major difference, however, is that these notes were about Galen. The Gospel of Mark, in contrast, is not about Peter, but about Jesus. If Mark was really serving as a stenographer for Peter, then that means that Peter’s sermons were highly biographical, and about another individual, which is not what the lectures of Aristotle or Galen, for example, were like. As such, I think that there are a number of problems with this comparison, but I will have more to say about it at some point down the road.
Justin Smith presented a paper, titled “Famous (or Not So Famous) Last Words: Mark 15:34 and the Tradition of Dying (Last) Words in Greco-Roman Biography” (abstract here), which discussed the importance of last words in ancient biography. I was highly interested this paper, not only because one of my major research interests is Greco-Roman biography, which I have discussed at length here, but also because I wrote a seminar paper some years back about this topic, titled “Vitellius’ Body,” which discussed the significance of the fact that no last words are recorded in Suetonius’ Life of Vitellius (a biography that is very hostile to the ill-fated emperor). What is remarkable about Vitellius’ death in Suetonius (Vit. 17) is that he is the only emperor (out of twelve) for whom Suetonius not only reports no last words, but also denies burial by having his body thrown in the Tiber river. This is noteworthy, since the historian Tacitus (Hist. 3.85) writes that Vitellius’ last words were “Yet I was your Emperor,” and Cassius Dio (65.22) also records a different tradition in which Vitellius’ wife buries his body. I have also discussed these contradictions further here. I spoke with Smith afterward and we seemed to have very similar research interests on this topic, so I was glad to see him present his paper.
Now back to Dennis MacDonald. I will note one major disagreement that I had with MacDonald during the session. At the beginning, he said that if his theory about Homeric mimesis is correct, then the comparison with Greco-Roman biography must be wrong. I disagree with this, since I have argued previously that there are also examples of mimesis in Greco-Roman biographies, such as Suetonius’ Life of Nero. So, I don’t think that MacDonald’s views are at as much of variance with the comparison to Greco-Roman biography as he argues. Regardless, I greatly enjoyed his paper on parallels between the death and burial of Hector and Jesus.
First, MacDonald noted that there multiple deaths in ancient literature that were modeled after the death of Hector in the Iliad. Most notably, Vergil models Turnus’ death after Hector’s in Aeneid 12. That Vergil was influenced by and mimicking Homer is an undisputed premise among Classicists. What is interesting, taking this premise into consideration, is that MacDonald argues that the Aeneid (a Latin text) actually has less parallels with the Iliad than the Gospel of Mark (a Greek text)! So, a fortiori, MacDonald argues that it is not unreasonable to think that the Gospel of Mark imitated Homer, if a better case can be made for Markan mimesis than the mimesis of Vergil. I should also note that there is also Greco-Roman historiographical literature that mimics famous deaths of Homeric characters. Perhaps most notably, Timothy Joseph, in Tacitus the Epic Successor: Virgil, Lucan, and the Narrative of Civil War in the Histories, argues that the Roman emperor Galba’s death (Hist. 1.41) is modeled off of the death of Priam in Aeneid 2. So the kind of parallels that MacDonald is drawing are not uncommon in other contemporary literature.
Between the death and burial of Hector in the Iliad and that of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, MacDonald noted the following parallels in his handout (which I have modified):
|Il. 22||Mark 15|
|Hector knew in his mind and said (φώνησεν), “Alas! Surely the gods (θεοί) have summoned me to death … [T]his was a longstanding inclination of Zeus and the far-shooting son of Zeus, who in the past gladly rescued me.” Cf. 22.213: Phoebus Apollo (λίπεν) left him.||Jesus cried out with a loud voice (φωνῇ), “Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani,” which interpreted means, “My God (θέος), why have you abandoned (ἐγκατέλιπες) me?”|
|And his soul, flying from his limbs, went to the house of Hades, lamenting his fate.||Then Jesus gave a loud cry and expired, and literally, “sent out his spirit.”|
|No one stood over him (παρέστη) without inflicting a wound, and looking (ἰδών) at his comrade would say (εἴπεσκεν), “Truly Hector is softer to handle now than when he burned our ships with blazing fire!” Thus some soldier would speak (εἴπεσκε) and stab him as he stood over him (παραστάς).||Now when the centurion who stood facing him (παρεστηκώς) saw (ἰδών) that in this way he breathed his last, he said (εἴπεν), “Oh sure, this mortal was a son of a god!”|
|Hecuba led the shrieking lament among the Trojan women … She (Andromache) rushed through the hall like a mad woman, her heart pounding, and her maidservants went with her. When she got to the tower (πύργον) and the crowd of men, she stopped at the wall to look and saw him (Hector) being dragged around the city … and the women (γυναῖκες) added their groans.||Women (γυναῖκες) were watching from a distance, among them were Mary of Towertown, Mary the mother of James the short and Joses, and Salome.|
|Hector, Apollo’s favorite, had long eluded death.||Jesus, God’s Son, had eluded death.|
|Il. 24||Mark 15-16|
|Priam, king of Troy, set out at night to rescue the body of his son, Hector, from his murderer, Achilles. The journey was dangerous. He entered Achilles’ abode and asked for the body of Hector.||“When it was late, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a distinguished member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, dared to go to Pilate and ask for the body of Jesus.|
|Achilles was amazed that Priam dared to enter his home.||Then Priam was amazed that he might already be dead.|
|He granted Hector’s body to his father.||When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body.|
|“Then the maidservants washed and anointed the body with oil and wrapped it in a beautiful cape and tunic, and Achilles himself lifted it and placed it (ἐπέθηκεν) upon a bier.”||And having brought a linen shroud and taken him down, he wrapped him in the linen shroud and placed (ἔθηκεν) in a tomb that had been cut out of rock.|
To begin with, there are number of Biblical scholars who doubt the historicity of Joseph of Arimathea, and his burial of Jesus, whom I discuss in my essay “Knocking Out the Pillars of the “Minimal Facts” Apologetic.” Bart Ehrman, for example, who it should be noted does not agree with MacDonald’s mimesis criticism, likewise argues that Joseph of Arimathea may be nothing more than an allegorical character. As Ehrman (How Jesus Became God, pg. 155) explains:
“As the burial tradition came to be told and retold, it possibly became embellished and made more concrete. Storytellers were apt to add details to stories that were vague, or to give names to people otherwise left nameless in a tradition, or to add named individuals to stories that originally mentioned only nameless individuals or undifferentiated groups of people. This is a tradition that lived on long after the New Testament period, as my own teacher Bruce Metzger showed so elegantly in his article “Names for the Nameless.” Here he showed all the traditions of people who were unnamed in New Testament stories receiving names later; for example, the wise men are named in later traditions, as are priests serving on the Sanhedrin when they condemned Jesus and the two robbers who were crucified with him. In the story of Joseph of Arimathea we may have an early instance of the phenomenon: what was originally a vague statement that the unnamed Jewish leaders buried Jesus becomes a story of one leader, in particular, who is named doing so.”
Likewise, there are contradictions between the canonical Gospels about Joseph’s burial. As James McGrath (The Burial of Jesus: History and Fiction, pp. 76-79) points out, there are later embellishments in Matthew, Luke, and John that increase the honor of Jesus’ burial in Mark. Luke (23:53) adds the detail that the tomb had never been used before, making the burial more honorable, and Matthew (27:59-6) adds both the detail that the tomb was unused and that it was even Joseph’s own tomb. John (19:39-41) even further adds the detail that Jesus was anointed with 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes before his burial, even when this explicitly contradicts Mark 16:1, which implies that Jesus was not anointed before his burial. John also adds the detail that Jesus was buried in a garden.
As William John Lyons argues in his recently published book Joseph of Arimathea: A Study in Reception History (pg. 20):
“Despite the temptation to see the Gospel variants about Joseph of Arimathea as complementary, accurate, and eminently harmonizable, they can be easily understood as arising from the interaction of Mark’s account with the ideologies and needs of the three Evangelists who used his Gospel. This being so, it seems perfectly reasonable to suggest that any who wish to search for the Joseph behind these texts must begin and end with the portrayal in Mark, explicitly discarding the uncritical harmonizing tendency assumed by so many scholars.”
And the fact that our information about Joseph of Arimathea depends solely on Mark is the very problem. If Mark invented an allegorical character, or named an unnamed character, then Joseph of Arimathea’s historicity vanishes.
Interesting enough, even scholars who have defended Joseph of Arimathea’s historicity and burial, have still identified problems with the description of his burial in the Gospel of Mark. Dale Allison, for example, in Resurrecting Jesus (pg. 363) asks:
“What is the meaning of Mark’s τολμήσας (“dared,” 15:43)? Does it reflect that fact (or is it rather Mark’s guess?) that because Jesus was executed for high treason the Romans would be expected to deny him burial altogether?”
Here, MacDonald’s research is once more relevant. As MacDonald argues, Joseph’s burial is modeled off of that of Hector in the Iliad. And what does Priam do in order to bury Hector? As MacDonald has pointed out, he *dares* to request his son’s burial. And so we have a parallel between the τολμήσας (“having dared”) in Mark 15:43 and the ἔτλης (“you dare”) in Iliad 24.519, as well as the τλαίη (“he dared”) in 24.565. Allison’s theory that the Romans permitted decent burials to crucified criminals cannot explain why Joseph “dared” to ask Pilate (who should have granted the body as standard procedure), but MacDonald’s theory that the scene is an invention based on Homeric mimesis explains the peculiarity.
It should also be noted that MacDonald has also offered theories for why the character is named “Joseph of Arimathea.” In the Iliad, Hector’s father requests his burial. What is the name name of Jesus’ father? Joseph. Likewise, the name “Arimathea” can be formed by the Greek prefix ἀρι- (“best”) and μάθη, μάθησις, μάθημα, μαθητής (“teaching/disciple”) with the addition of the suffix -αία as a standard indicator of place. Hence, Joseph, who rescued Jesus’ corpse after the other disciples had fled, came from a place that literally means “Best Disciple Town.” This can be explained by the circumstance that Joseph dared to bury Jesus, when all of his disciples had fled, thus making Joseph the “best disciple.”
I should note that I do not think that the argument above is bulletproof. As I have noted, there are a lot of scholars who disagree with MacDonald’s mimesis criticism. Likewise, there are other theories for how Joseph of Arimathea may have been invented. As Roger Aus argues in The Death, Burial, and Resurrection of Jesus, and the Death, Burial, and Translation of Moses in Judaic Tradition (pp. 162-165), the name may be based on the site of Moses’ burial . In Deuteronomy 34:5-6 Moses died in the land of Moab, in the valley opposite of Beth Peor. Traditionally, this is the same site as Mount Nebo, “the top of Pisgah.” There are four instances in the Hebrew Bible where it refers to the slopes of Pisgah (Deut. 3:17; Deut. 4:49; Josh. 3:23; Josh. 13:20). As Aus argues:
“The Aramaic noun רמא in the singular means “hight” … In light of the above evidence I suggest that the early, Aramaic-speaking, Palestinian Jewish Christian who first formulated the narrative of Jesus’ burial borrowed the term (Joseph of) “Arimathea” from Judaic tradition available to him on the site of the death and burial of Israel’s first redeemer, Moses. It was the top of “Pisgah,” in Aramaic the plural רמתא, “Ramatha,” “the heights.” It was also the same form employed for the top of “Pisgah” at the end of the Song of the Well in Num. 21:20. As noted above, early Judaic tradition maintained that the well followed the Israelites to the site of Moses’ death and burial, that is, the Pisgah of Deut. 34:1 (with v 6). The author of Jesus’ burial probably himself added an initial aleph, often done to place names … The Aramaic ארמתא was then basically correctly translated into the Greek as Αριμαθαια.”
Even if MacDonald is wrong about the Homeric literary source for Joseph of Arimathea’s invention, therefore, there are also Hebrew literary sources that can explain the invention, as well. Likewise, as was noted by Kevin McGinnis, who I discussed at the top of this essay, in his paper titled “Reading Reception: Dennis MacDonald and the ‘End’ of Historical Criticism,” if literary antecedents can explain the origins of characters and events in the New Testament, then we do not necessarily need to assume historical antecedents, or, at the very least, such literature does not need to be interpreted primarily through historical criticism. As such, a literary origin of Joseph of Arimathea’s character casts doubt on whether such an individual ever existed or buried Jesus.
 I should thank Michael Alter for calling my attention to Roger Aus’ argument in his newly published book The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry (pp. 213-214).