Pearce’s Potshots #49: Homer & the Gospels

Pearce’s Potshots #49: Homer & the Gospels October 15, 2021

Mythmaking Scholar Suggests the Story of Priam in the Iliad as the Model for a Fictional Joseph of Arimathea

Atheist anti-theist Jonathan M. S. Pearce is the main writer on the blog, A Tippling Philosopher. His “About” page states: “Pearce is a philosopher, author, blogger, public speaker and teacher from Hampshire in the UK. He specialises in philosophy of religion, but likes to turn his hand to science, psychology, politics and anything involved in investigating reality.” His words will be in blue.


Presently, I am responding to his article, Mimesis, the Gospels, and Their Greek Sources (10-14-21).

forgot – literally forgot – to put in my Joseph of Arimathea section in my Resurrection book the very robust theory that Joseph of Arimathea was modelled mimetically on Priam from Homer’s Iliad.

I really do need to release a second edition already because there is so so much about the Gospels is a case are emulating – openly and intentionally – these Greek sources. . . . 

I have been privy to [Dennis R.] MacDonald’s Magnum Opus on this, hopefully forthcoming from someone, somewhere. It’s masterful and leaves you with no doubt. After all, when every Greek writer would have learned Greek through reading and writing the Greek epics and classics, such as Homer’s works, then there is no surprise that such works end up being used and reformulated into the Gospels.

“Lex Lata” in the combox:

My inexpert sense is that some of MacDonald’s connections might be on the unduly tenuous and speculative side, but his overall argument is pretty solid. There’s no question the NT authors were, if not actually Έλληνες themselves, Hellenized Jews and Christians who were literate in Koine Greek. And, as noted in this video, becoming literate in Greek in antiquity routinely involved memorizing, reciting, transcribing, and translating elements of particularly renowned works, such as the Iliad and other literary and philosophical classics. So, unsurprisingly, there is not only a substantial likelihood of direct or indirect narrative mimesis in certain NT passages, but also a number of known borrowings from pagan writers like Menander and Epimenides.

Early Christianity wasn’t merely Judaism 2.0–it was a fusion of Hebrew and Greco-Roman traditions, cultures, rhetoric, and metaphysics.

St. Paul mentioned Menander and Epimenides in the course of his evangelism, in order to connect with his particular audience of Greek intellectuals (in his interaction with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens: Acts 17). But this is worlds away from supposedly grabbing elements in Greek literature as a basis of fabricated stories within an overall alleged fictional Gospel.

The scholar that Pearce is appealing to in this post is Dennis R MacDonald (born 1946). According to his Wikipedia page, he is “the John Wesley Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Claremont School of Theology in California. MacDonald proposes a theory wherein the earliest books of the New Testament were responses to the Homeric Epics, including the Gospel of Mark and the Acts of the Apostles. The methodology he pioneered is called Mimesis Criticism.”

The article describes his central thesis:

In Christianizing Homer, MacDonald lays down his principles of literary mimesis, his methodology for comparing ancient texts. There are six aspects he examines 1) accessibility, 2) analogy, 3) density, 4) order, 5) distinctive traits, and 6) interpretability.[1] According to his hypothesis, not only was Homer readily available to the authors of the New Testament, but the Homeric epics would have been the basic texts upon which the New Testament authors learned to write Greek. MacDonald also argues that the number of common traits, the order in which they occur, and the distinctiveness thereof between the Homeric Texts and early Christian documents help to show that the New Testament writers were using Homeric models when writing various books.

In his earliest reviews, MacDonald only applied his hypothesis to works such as Tobit and the Acts of Peter. In later works, he posits the Acts of the Apostles, the Gospel of Mark, and Gospel of Luke merged two cultural classics of his time period in order to “depict Jesus as more compassionate, powerful, noble, and inured to suffering than Odysseus.”

MacDonald’s most famous work, however, is The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. According to MacDonald, the Gospel of Mark is “a deliberate and conscious anti-epic, an inversion of the Greek ‘Bible’ of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which in a sense updates and Judaizes the outdated heroic values presented by Homer, in the figure of a new hero.”[4]

The book begins by examining the role that the Homeric Epics played in antiquity—namely that anybody who was considered educated at the time learned to read and write, and they did so by studying the Odyssey and Iliad. Students were expected, not only to understand the epics, but be able to rewrite the stories in their own words. Rewriting the Homeric Epics was commonplace and accepted in Biblical times.[4] 

. . . “Mark’s purpose”, he argues, “in creating so many stories about Jesus was to demonstrate how superior [Jesus] was to Greek heroes. Few readers of Mark fail to see how he portrays Jesus as superior to Jewish worthies… He does the same for Greek heroes.”[1]

The same article presents withering criticism of MacDonald’s work from other scholars:

MacDonald’s thesis has not found acceptance and has received strong criticism by other scholars.[5][6][7][8][9] Karl Olav Sandnes notes the vague nature of alleged parallels as the “Achilles’ heel” of the “slippery” project. He has also questioned the nature of the alleged paralleled motifs, seeing MacDonald’s interpretations of common motives. He states, “His [MacDonald’s] reading is fascinating and contributes to a reader-orientated exegesis. But he fails to demonstrate authorial intention while he, in fact, neglects the OT intertextuality that is broadcast in this literature.”

Daniel Gullotta from Stanford similarly writes “MacDonald’s list of unconvincing comparisons goes on and has been noted by numerous critics. Despite MacDonald’s worthy call for scholars to reexamine the educational practices of the ancient world, all of the evidence renders his position of Homeric influential dominance untenable.”[10]

Adam Winn, though adopting MacDonald’s methods of mimetic criticism, concluded after a detailed analysis of MacDonald’s theses and comparisons between Homer and Mark that “MacDonald is unable to provide a single example of clear and obvious Markan interpretation of Homer… because MacDonald’s evidence is at best suggestive, it will ultimately convince few.”[11]

David Litwa argues that problematic parts of MacDonald’s thesis include that he construes both large ranges of similarity in addition to large range of difference as evidence for parallel, that he alters his parallels in order to make them more convincing like suggesting that Jesus walking on water is comparable to Athena and Hermes flying above water, that he has an inconsistent application of his own six criteria (where he often uses only one or two to establish parallel and thus relies largely on loose structural standards of similarity), and that he often has completely unconvincing parallels such as his comparison of Odysseus on a floating island to Jesus sitting in a boat that floats on water.[12]

What has Pearce so excited that he can hardly contain himself, is MacDonald’s comparison of Joseph of Arimathea with the character Priam, in Homer’s Iliad. Encyclopaedia Britannica (“Priam”) describes the material that is the basis for such a comparison:

In the final year of the conflict, Priam saw 13 sons die: the Greek warrior Achilles killed Polydorus, Lycaon, and Hector within one day. The death of Hector, which signified the end of Troy’s hopes, also broke the spirit of the king. Priam’s paternal love impelled him to brave the savage anger of Achilles and to ransom the corpse of Hector; Achilles, respecting the old man’s feelings and foreseeing his own father’s sorrows, returned the corpse.

This is compared to the Gospel accounts:

Matthew 27:57-58 (RSV) When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathe’a, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. [58] He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. (cf. Mk 15:43-45; Lk 23:50-52; Jn 19:38)

Now note how MacDonald accuses the Gospel writers of pure fabrication:

Although it is possible that a woman of this name [Mary Magdalene] once existed, it is more likely that Mark created her to populate his narrative.

. . . It will not be Joseph of Nazareth who buries him but Joseph of Arimathea. Mark’s penchant for creating characters to contrast with Jesus’ family and closest disciples applies also to the names of the women at the tomb. (The Gospels and Homer, 2014, p. 95)

I’d like to know how one proves that a named person didn’t exist, but was merely made up? On what basis is that done? How does MacDonald know that “it is more likely” that Mark made up or “created” Mary Magdalene? The Christian would say that if the Gospel writers’ historical accuracy has been established times without number from archaeology and historical verification (as they assuredly have been), then they can be trusted in cases where they mention a person or event for the first time. MacDonald’s skepticism is arbitrary and unfounded.

He asserts this numerous times in this book:

Mark . . . adds fifteen other place names, five of which are not independently attested: Dalmanoutha, Bethphage, Arimathea, Gethsemane, and Golgotha. As we shall see, he likely created them. (Ibid., p. 2)

In fact, Bethphage “occurs in several Talmudic passages where it may be inferred that it was near but outside Jerusalem; it was at the Sabbatical distance limit East of Jerusalem, and was surrounded by some kind of wall. (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, “Bethphage”). The Talmud was based “on Jewish religious teachings and commentary that was transmitted orally for centuries” (Encyclopaedia Britannica: “Jerusalem Talmud”), Thus, MacDonald is wrong about its non-biblical attestation.

[T]he Markan Evangelist apparently did not inherit most of his characters and episodes from antecedent traditions and texts; he created them by imitating classical Greek poetry, especially the Homeric epics, the Odyssey above all. (Ibid., p. 2)

She assumes that Mark inherited this tale from oral tradition, but more than likely he created it in imitation of Il. [Iliad] 24. (p. 101)

Virtually all solutions have presumed that the anointing story [Mt 26:6-13] was pre-Markan, but it is more likely that Mark himself created it with an eye to Eurycleia’s anointing of Odysseus . . . (p. 156)

If Mark created Jesus’ prayer from antecedents in Od. [Odyssey] 10.496-501 . . . (p. 223)

Luke . . . apparently created a story . . . (p. 239)

Mark . . . more than likely created his account from literary models. (p. 241)

If Mark created the choice between Jesus and Barabbas by imitating the suitor’s choice between Odysseus and the violent beggar Irus . . . (p. 297)

If Mark were responsible for creating the episode of Judas’s betrayal after the treachery of Homer’s Melanthius . . . (p. 318)

Protestant theologian Ronald V. Huggins offers an exhaustive critique of MacDonald’s questioning of the existence of Judas Iscariot and the stories about him: “Did Judas Exist? A Friendly Critique of Dennis R. MacDonald’s Easter Time Blog” (4-22-16). Other critical pieces:

Homer in the New Testament? (Margaret M. Mitchell, The Journal of ReligionVolume 83, Number 2 Apr., 2003).

Imitatio Homeri? An Appraisal of Dennis R. MacDonald’s “Mimesis Criticism” (Karl Sandnes, December 2005, Journal of Biblical Literature 124(4):715).

Arbitrary claims that the Gospel writers simply “made up” fictional elements in real-life persons, based on characters in Homer or other Greek writers can’t be proven. It’s subjective mush: like much of atheist “exegesis” of the Bible and delusional, fictional, self-serving theories of Bible-writing.

The ridiculous notion that any conceivable similarity with pagan Greek literature in the Bible must be because of deliberate causation (and furthermore, in the service of supposed invention of mythical persons and events), is the fallacy (among others, no doubt) of post hoc ergo propter hoc (Latin: ‘after this, therefore because of this’).

Atheists (in this case and others, drawing from skeptical, anti-traditional, heterodox Christian scholars) have all these theories about how the biblical stories came to be, without any hard evidence that it is so. They don’t, of course, believe in revelation as we do. We think the Bible is historically reliable (for various reasons: independent confirmation from history, archaeology, etc.), and believe in faith that it is inspired, in part based on this reliability, and so we accept its report on miracles.

With the atheist, on the other hand, with no God and no miracles or supernatural phenomena, the burden is to prove things strictly based on the hard evidence of historiography, texts, etc. What evidence would there be for this theory? None that I can see . . . So there was a similarity between Joseph asking for the body of Jesus and a character in The Iliad. So what? One could find hundreds of similarities, and they all would prove exactly nothing.

To some extent it’s true that the gospels were influenced by Greco-Roman literary culture. Influence is always a factor: just by the nature of ideas and thinking persons. What orthodox Christians oppose is the notion of deliberate mythmaking.


Photo credit: Marble terminal bust of Homer. Roman copy of a lost Hellenistic original of the 2nd c. BC. From Baiae, Italy. In the British Museum [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


Summary: Atheist Jonathan MS Pearce enlists NT scholar Dennis R. MacDonald, who writes on “Homer & the Gospels” & posits widespread mythical creation in the Gospels.

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