Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.08.13

Dennis R. MacDonald, Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? Four Cases from the Acts of the Apostles.   New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2003.  Pp. 224.  ISBN 0-300-09770-0.  $38.00.  

Reviewed by Manfred Lang, University of Halle (
Word count: 1059 words

The work of Dennis R. MacDonald to be reviewed here continues his studies in which he tried to connect the Gospel of Mark with Homeric epics1 by saying that Mark ch. 1-14.15-16 are stamped by the Odyssey and the Iliad. The study discussed here continues in the same direction inasmuch as it wants to show that Homer's works are also underlying Acts.

At present a lively discussion is going on among New Testament specialists about the cultural background of the author who is commonly called Luke.2 The argument has lately been leaning in the direction that Luke belongs to Jewish thinking and does not care about Hellenistic ideas. This means that, e.g., Paul's famous sermon on the Areopagos (Acts 17) has to be considered of less importance, and many authors who represent this line of thought actually say so.3 The other opinion, according to which Luke was definitely familiar with Hellenistic ideas, has been expressed by many authors but is now challenged by those representing the first position. MacDonald's book therefore supports the group which is currently under pressure.4 How does he do that?

MacDonald discusses four "cases":

1st: The visions of Cornelius and Peter (Acts 10, 11) and Iliad 2;

2nd: The farewell of Paul at Miletus (Acts 20) and Iliad 6;

3rd: The selection of Matthias to replace Judas (Acts 1,15) and Iliad 7,123;

4th: The escape of Peter from prison (Acts 12) and Iliad 24.

Almost every section (except the first) begins with an introduction to Homer's background after which the New Testament counterpart is analysed. In the final part MacDonald asks whether these texts come from a mutual Jewish background or whether they can be addressed as Homeric imitation. The decision is to be based on seven criteria which MacDonald defines as follows:

(1) The first criterion is "accessibility", which is the assumption that the Iliad was the most widely known book in ancient times and could easily be absorbed.

(2) The second criterion is "analogy". Here the question is in which way other ancient authors imitated the same story. For example, the theme of Hector taking leave of Andromache can be found in Greek authors of later times like Aristophanes, Herodotus, Plato, Apollonius Rhodius, and also in Latin authors like Vergil, to name only a few.

Then follow the third and fourth criteria of "density" and "order", which belong together: it will not be sufficient just to compare parallel motifs which could have their own history apart from Homer's work. Instead the motif and the related textual connection form the basis of the final evaluation. For this purpose, MacDonald lists in the Appendix several Greek and Latin parallels which can be read synoptically with Acts.

The fifth criterion is called "distinctive traits" and mainly refers to linguistic phenomena. It is, for example, noteworthy that some words in Acts 1:15-26 are hapax legomena in the New Testament but are also used in Iliad 7. Another example: Iliad 2 and Acts 12 share some vocabulary that cannot be found elsewhere in the New Testament.

(6) In addition to the shared vocabulary, some scenes and their rationale have the same background motivation. Compare for example Paul's farewell to the elders of Miletus (Acts 20:17ff.) with Iliad 6 and its unusual settings and timings. Both Paul and Hector are victims and now meet their fate -- Paul the elders of Miletus and Hector Andromache at the gates of Troy.

The final criterion is the so-called "interpretability": Cornelius's dream (Acts 10:1-11:18) and the sleeping Agamemnon's vision sent to him by Zeus. The result of both dreams is structurally similar: Cornelius thanks the angels, the message that heathens are now also summoned is correct, and the now valid instruction is later carried out by summoning heathens. In the case of Agamemnon, however, the dream leads to disaster: He leads his troops against Troy and many people die; the dream was treacherous. The effect of these dream visions for example on Xerxes or Hannibal is well-known and obvious in their tragic fates.

Notes, which reflect the critical discussion, a bibliography and an index complete the book.

In my opinion it is basically convincing to locate Luke in ancient Hellenistic thought, but that does not mean that one has to forget the constitutive value of Jewish salvation history for Luke. Alternatives are not called for here. This background, with Homer as undoubtedly one of the mostly read authors of antiquity, is shown by MacDonald again and again. The quoted texts from Acts 1; 10-12; 20 clearly demonstrate how well this fits. At this point MacDonald certainly puts his finger on the right spot.

Despite this convincing starting-point, I find the following aspects problematic:

Was the influence conscious or unconscious? MacDonald answers [149]: "In many cases, one might argue that an author was so thoroughly steeped in the Hebrew Bible or Homeric epic that he or she imitated unconsciously." First, it is not clear to me what is meant by "many cases". In this context this does not mean very much and remains vague. Second, if he/she takes up the material unconsciously, this can hardly be reconstructed by us today and is therefore rather irrelevant. The more interesting question, which MacDonald -- as far as I can see -- does not answer at all, is the purpose of such an imitation. For example, Euripides' Bacchae is arguably as important a source as Homer and one whose purpose is easier to imagine. Not only does Paul refer to Bacchae 794 in Acts 26:14 and the motif of theomachy is taken up in Acts 5:39, but if Acts is really influenced by Euripides, this opens up the possibility of reading Paul in the light of this tragedy: if Pentheus was the θεομάχος, then all persons involved should think twice whether they want to fight against this god, who -- according to Gamaliel's wise advice -- will make sure that the new teaching endures, or not. Those, however, who still act as θεομάχοι will die (Acts 12:1ff.). In other words, this motif helps to explain complex connections and to put them together for a theological statement. But to which statement does Luke's reference to Homer belong?

In any case, the author deserves our thanks for his stimulating analysis, which helps to see Luke in a more varied cultural setting than is usually the case in current research.


1.   Dennis R. MacDonald, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, New Haven 2000.
2.   Udo Schnelle, The History and Theology of the New Testament Writings, transl. by M. Eugene Boring, Minneapolis 1998, 259-275: Authorship, outline, historical setting, theological structure and tendencies of recent research of Acts (pp. 238-257 on the gospel of Luke).
3.   Cf., e.g., Jacob Jervell, Die Apostelgeschichte, Kritisch-exegetischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament vol. 3, Göttingen 1998 (unfortunately called "Evangelisch-katholischer Kommentar" by MacDonald).
4.   Cf., e.g., Ernst Haenchen, Die Apostelgeschichte, KEK 5, Göttingen 1977; Eckhard Plümacher, "The Mission Speeches in Acts and Dionysius of Halicarnassus", in Jesus and the Heritage of Israel. Luke's Narrative Claim upon Israel's Legacy, ed. by David P. Moessner, Harrisburg 1999, 251-266. Unfortunately MacDonald, who is well versed in German discussion, did not know the widely known essays of Eckhard Plümacher, e.g., Lukas als hellenistischer Schriftsteller. Studien zur Apostelgeschichte, Studien zur Umwelt des Neuen Testaments 9, Göttingen 1972; "TERATEIA. Fiktion und Wunder in der hellenistisch-römischen Geschichtsschreibung und in der Apostelgeschichte", Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirchengeschichte 89 (1998), 66-90; "Eine Thukydidesreminiszenz in der Apostelgeschichte (Act 20,33-35 - Thuk. II 97,3f.)", Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirchengeschichte 83 (1992), 270-275.

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