BMCR 2000.09.16

The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark

, The Homeric epics and the Gospel of Mark. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. viii, 262 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0300080123. $30.00.

Early in Chariton’s Callirhoe the narrator, using a line from Homer, describes a girl’s reaction to the news of her impending marriage: “At this her knees collapsed and the heart within her” ( Od. 4.703 and elsewhere). With the repetition of a single line, Chariton creates the expectation (later fulfilled) that his work can be viewed as a humorous epic in prose. Prose authors and poets in the ancient world exploited and imitated the Iliad and Odyssey for a variety of motives. In this book, Dennis R. MacDonald advances the claim that Homer exercised a pervasive influence over the composition of the Gospel of Mark and thus played a more significant role in the development of early Christianity than has yet been realized. According to Professor MacDonald, an extensive network of parallels between the Gospel of Mark and the Homeric poems reveals that the first of the Synoptic Gospels is “a prose epic modeled largely after the Odyssey and the ending of the Iliad” (3). Parallels are said to occur mostly in the form of borrowed motifs and plot elements. Only a few words from Homer were taken over and no lines repeated. MacDonald recognizes that the lack of more direct verbal signs of dependence might be troubling to “philological fundamentalists” (7). Nevertheless, he argues that for two thousand years scholars and readers have been blind to Homeric influence on Mark’s Gospel (7) because the evangelist wrote in prose, altered Homeric vocabulary, rearranged episodes from the epics, and also borrowed at will from a number of Jewish sources (6).

MacDonald creates the context for his argument in Chapter 1 (“Mark and Mimesis”), where he summarizes the central role of the Homeric poems in the educational and cultural life of the ancient world. He points out that students in antiquity learned to write through a process of mimesis or imitation and that this practice continued into adult life. The most sophisticated form of literary mimesis being rivalry or aemulatio, literary works were often exploited in subtle ways by authors who wished to “speak better” (6) than the sources they imitated. (MacDonald is perhaps supposing the operation in the ancient world of something akin to Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence.”) The works most often imitated in antiquity, the Homeric poems naturally became major targets of literary aemulatio. Following G. Genette, MacDonald describes an antecedent, imitated literary text as a “hypotext.” A text imitating a hypotext is defined as a “hypertext.” A hypertext becomes transvaluative when it is the object of aemulatio, “when it not only articulates values different from those of its targeted hypotext but also substitutes its values for those in its antecedent” (2). In the scheme envisioned here, the Gospel of Mark, emulating the Homeric epics, may be understood as a “transvaluative hypertext” of the Iliad and Odyssey. Mark’s aemulatio arises from a desire to provide a Christian corrective to the pagan values exemplified in the epics (2).

In Chapter 1, MacDonald also outlines the major parallels to be developed between the Iliad and Odyssey over the course of the book, and he explains the method he will employ in elucidating these parallels. His general scheme couples Jesus with Odysseus, Jesus’ disciples with Odysseus’ crew, and the Jewish authorities with Penelope’s suitors (2). (MacDonald even suggests that Jesus was depicted as a carpenter mainly because Odysseus was one [18].) The criteria for assessing the likelihood of parallels between the Homeric epics and the Gospel of Mark are listed as accessibility, analogy, density, order, distinctiveness, and interpretability (8). Criteria one and two are “environmental.” They have to do with literary activity in the author’s cultural milieu, accessibility referring to the likelihood that the author had access to the hypotext and analogy placing parallels within a tradition of imitations of the same model. Criteria three, four, and five test for similarities between the texts themselves. The oddly named sixth criterion, interpretability (or intelligibility), looks for differences between texts as evidence of emulation (8-9).

Following the introductory chapter, the author argues his case in twenty-one dense and compact chapters. Odysseus and Jesus are carpenters who suffer and endure many things (Chapter 2). They undertake heroic endeavor against a landscape of mountains, uninhabited regions, villages, and, most importantly, the sea (Chapter 7). Each is surrounded by a band of foolish companions (Chapter 3), and each faces threats not only from a group of murderous usurpers (Chapter 5) but from dangerous supernatural foes like Circe and the demoniac in Mark 5:1-20 (Chapter 8). Both must therefore resort to secrecy (Chapter 6). Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain (Mark 9:2-8) is said to be based on Odysseus’ appearance to his son Telemachus in Odyssey 16 (Chapter 11), while his confrontation with the blind beggar Bartimaeus in Mark is modeled on Odysseus’ meeting with Tiresias in Odyssey 11 (Chapter 12). Odysseus’ entry into the city of the Phaeacians prefigures Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Chapter 13), while Jesus’ anointing by an unnamed woman in Mark 13-14 owes much to Odysseus’ anointing by Eurycleia in Odyssey 19 (Chapter 14). Following his anointing, Jesus’ disciples are dispatched to procure a location for the observation of Passover, being ordered to follow a man carrying a jar of water. This scene is supposedly modeled on both Odyssey 10, where the Laestrygonian girl draws water and also on the Nausicaa episode from book 6 (Chapter 15). Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane to avoid his execution resembles the end of Odyssey 10, Odysseus’ “last supper” with Circe before sailing to Hades (Chapter 16).

As Mark approaches his account of Jesus’ death, he switches from the Odyssey to the Iliad as his primary source. Jesus imitates Achilles in his predictions of his imminent death (Chapter 17), but otherwise he resembles Hector: both meet violent deaths (Chapter 18) and have their corpses rescued for burial — by Priam in the Iliad and Joseph of Arimathea in Mark (Chapter 20). Finally, the young man at the tomb on Easter morning in Mark is said to imitate — or rather “emulate” (166) — Elpenor from the Odyssey (Chapter 21).

Chapters 4, 9, 10, and 19 take up themes peripheral to the comparison of Jesus with Odysseus, Achilles, and Hector. In Chapter 4 (“Sons of Thunder”), MacDonald argues that the depiction of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, derives from legends associated with Castor and Pollux. Chapter 9 argues that Mark’s account of the death of John the Baptist was influenced by Homer’s depiction of the death of Agamemnon. Chapter 10 claims that Mark describes two feasts at which Jesus feeds the multitudes in order to signal affiliation with the two feasts that begin Odyssey 3 and 4. Chapter 19 (“Hydropatetics”) finds Jesus walking on the water in imitation of the god Hermes, who flies over the water in both the Iliad and Odyssey.

In the concluding chapter, MacDonald summarizes his case by characterizing the Gospel of Mark as “theological fiction” derived largely from Greek religious traditions and much less indebted to Jewish scriptures and stories about Jesus than scholars have commonly supposed (189). While we are told in Chapter 1 that Mark was “long on concealing, short on revealing” his debt to the Homeric epics (6), Chapter 22 emphasizes that Mark wanted his readers to recognize this extensive network of parallels and connections with the Homeric epics (170). The book concludes with three appendices that together provide a synoptic overview of the relationship between the nostos (homecoming) of Odysseus and the hodos (journey) of Jesus.

The author develops his argument by setting parallels between the Homeric epics and the Gospel of Mark in side-by-side columns, which are explicated in accordance with the criteria listed above. Individual chapters often conclude with a statement of the transvaluation that the hypertext is supposed to accomplish. A typical example of this procedure should make the flavor of the argument clearer. (I quote consecutively what appears in the book in parallel columns.)

Iliad 24:

“Priam, king of Troy, sets 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. Achilles was amazed that Priam dared to enter his home. Achilles sent two soldiers to get the ransom, and summoned maidservants to ‘wash and anoint him’. Hector’s body had been saved from desecration. ‘So when the maids had bathed and anointed the body sleek with olive oil and wrapped it round and round in a braided battle-shirt and handsome battle-cape, then Achilles himself lifted it and placed it upon a bier’. [Hector’s bones would be placed in an ossuary, buried in the ground, and covered with stones.] [Priam left with the body at night and brought it to Troy for a fitting burial.] Cassandra was the first to see Priam coming with the bier in the wagon. Three women led in the lament: Andromache, Hecuba, and Helen. After elaborate preparations, they burned Hector’s body at dawn.”

Mark 15:42-16:2:

“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 asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate was amazed that he might already be dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. [A woman earlier had anointed Jesus.] When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. [Jesus’ rapid death and burial saved the corpse from desecration.] Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth and placed it in a tomb that had been hewn out of rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid. When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb” (159).

Some of the parallels laid out in the book seem persuasive, especially the argument in Chapter 4 that the depiction of the sons of Zebedee owes something to mythological traditions about the Dioscuri. (Yet this chapter rests uncomfortably in a book devoted to parallels between Mark and the Homeric epics, since evidence is derived mostly from sources other than Homer.) Chapter 2 makes a reasonable point: the figure of Odysseus may lurk somewhere in the background of the depiction of Mark’s much-suffering protagonist. In their own ways, both Mark and Homer in the Odyssey are concerned to emphasize the heroic triumph of life over death. Yet, we are told, Mark was also interested in transvaluing the Iliad on this matter, since the death of Jesus is modeled on the death of Hector: Hector’s tomb would forever hold his remains, while Jesus would rise from the dead after three days (162). The general depiction of Jesus’ disciples as fearful, unfaithful, and uncomprehending may owe something to Homer’s depiction of the comrades of Odysseus (Chapter 3). Similarly, the “blind seer” Bartimaeus may have a precedent in the depiction of Tiresias in the Odyssey, since later Christian sources sometimes fashioned blind men after the model of Homer’s Tiresias (99-100).

I think, however, that Professor MacDonald often practices analytical overkill. Persuasive arguments are set side-by-side and given equal emphasis with farfetched comparisons, the cumulative effect of which is to undermine the force of the book’s major thesis. (This despite the fact that MacDonald acknowledges early on that some parallels between Homer and Mark are weaker than others [9].) It seems implausible to find Homeric influence operating on Mark’s depiction of Peter, which MacDonald sees as derived from Homer’s characterization of Eurylochus. Both are said to be viewed in a favorable light initially and then to take on more unattractive characteristics (22). Yet as evidence for Eurylochus’ good character MacDonald cites only two epithets (“godlike” [ Od. 10.205] and “great-hearted” [ Od. 10.207]); however, these epithets are probably only ornamental, no more meaningful in context than Penelope’s “fat” hand at Odyssey 21.6. Chapter 9’s argument that Mark’s depiction of the death of John the Baptist owes something to Homer’s account of the death of Agamemnon has little to recommend it. Likening Odysseus’ “untriumphal entry” into the city of the Phaeacians to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem seems forced and strained (Chapter 13). Mark’s water-carrier shares little in common with Homer’s (Chapter 15). MacDonald goes so far as to compare Jesus walking on water to Hermes flying through the air over the water (Chapter 19). Nor does the fleeing Hector of Iliad 22 offer a convincing precedent for the Twelve, who “lost their starch when it became clear that the authorities would succeed in killing their master” (134). Is the death of Jesus really modeled on the death of Hector? Does the young man at the tomb in Mark recall Elpenor in the Odyssey ? According to MacDonald, Mark based the death of Jesus on the death of Hector and then conflated the Iliad with the Odyssey by weaving in elements from the tragic story of Elpenor. Turning these tragic stories into a climactic tale of resurrection, Mark is supposed to have transvalued Homer, performing “a remarkable demonstration of literary dexterity”(167). This argument relies upon the most procrustean and reductive methods of interpretation.

Not being a biblical scholar, I am reluctant to say much about the relationship MacDonald envisions between the Gospel of Mark and the other gospels. His claim for the temporal priority of Mark in relation to the other Synoptics (189) will likely prove uncontroversial. However, some biblical scholars may question the scenario according to which Matthew, Luke, and even John are imagined to have stripped from their own narratives various markers referring to the Odyssey, failing to understand their significance and function (216, n.46). It seems to follow that where the other Synoptics agree with Mark Homeric influence has crept in without the author’s awareness. For example, when Odysseus learned that he had to “go to the House of Hades and dread Persephone,” he lost all interest in living. Ironically, he wanted to go to Hades at the very moment when he learned, to his horror, that he had to go ( Od. 10.497-98). MacDonald believes that Mark deliberately reproduced Homer’s irony when he depicted Jesus as “deeply grieved even unto death” (Mark 14:34) at Gethsemane because he knew he would have to die at Golgotha (127). Since Mark’s words occur in identical form at Matthew 26:38, we must conclude on the basis of MacDonald’s principles that Matthew is not reproducing traditions about Jesus but rather letting Homer creep into his text unawares.

Parallels do not necessarily signal direct influence, especially in the case of the Homeric poems, which have exercised a pervasive influence, both direct and indirect, over many aspects of Western culture, ancient and modern. One can discern literally hundreds of close parallels between the Iliad and, say, Clint Eastwood’s hero’s tale Unforgiven. Many elements of the Western owe much to the Iliad and its distinctive vision and critique of the nature of heroism, even where direct influence seems to be lacking. Far fewer parallels link Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman to the Odyssey, though the composer cited the Homeric poem as one of his major influences. Many readers, and not just the “philological fundamentalists” (7) are likely to come away with the impression that — in the words of Groucho Marx — there’s less here than meets the eye.