Mark and Homeric Emulation

Mark and Homeric Emulation October 18, 2021

Achilles tried to mutilate Hector’s corpse behind his chariot, but the gods kept it from decay, birds, and dogs. Despite the danger and because of Hermes’ help, Priam arid his servant Idaeus safely reached Achilles’ bivouac, and there the Greek hero granted them the body. They drove it back to Troy, where the women raised their laments and the Trojans prepared the funeral. Similarly in Mark, Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate to rescue Jesus’ body and buried it properly, then women came to the tomb to care for it. As we shall see, the parallels between the burials of Hector and Jesus extend far beyond these superficialities. [The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, Dennis R. MacDonald, p. 154]

I recently posted a discussion between scholar Dennis R. MacDonald, Richard Carrier and Derek Lambert where they talked about the Greek sources for certain Gospel stories, such as the anointing of Jesus with expensive oil.

Dave Armstrong took umbrage with such connections, and wrote some kind of attempted refutation. Ah well.

So what I thought I would do here, because Armstrong has clearly never read a book by MacDonald in his life, is just detail some of the claims that he makes regarding specifically and only Jesus’ burial and Joseph of Arimathea, and how Mark is emulating previous Greek works he would have studied in order to have become a learned Greek writer.

Bear in mind that everything I detail here comes on the back of 150 pages of work where MacDonald sets out the clear emulation that Mark is involved in with regard to the Homneric epics. This article must be seen within that context, not just as a single example of emulation. It is part of a cumulative case. Indeed, pages 75-75 detail the context of the tomb and Joseph in Mark 15, and similarities to the Odyssey.

Mark needs Joseph of Arimathea as a vehicle in which to introduce an empty tomb so he can have Jesus disappearing from it in order to provide a mechanism to argue for a bodily (i.e., not spiritual) resurrection. Or, at the very least, to provide supposed evidence for the Resurrection.

MacDonald states, though I am unable to transcribe the Greek here [grrr, that’s the main thing about this!] (p. 154-55):

Once Joseph had offered this service, he vanished from the story. The evangelist portrayed him as a distinguished member of the very group of Jewish authorities that had condemned Jesus, but Joseph secretly sided with him or at least identified with “the kingdom of God.” His ambiguous status provides Jesus a silent patron with enough credibility to coax his body from Pilate and sufficient means to provided him a cave-tomb hewn from rock. As king of Troy, Priam, too, was distinguished and wealthy, able to offer Achilles an enormous ransom and provide for Hector a lavish funeral. Like Joseph, Priam was noted for his piety. 2

Priam began his journey at nightfall and arrived at Achilles’ camp at the dinner hour. 3 Joseph went to Pilate at the same time of day: “when evening had come . . . the day before the sabbath.”4 Apparently he wanted to bury Jesus before the sabbath meal.

Joseph’s request for the body was risky: “Joseph . . . dared to go to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.” The phrase “dared to go [‘toAJ.UlGa� eicrijA.eev]” is similar to Homer’s description of Priam’s courage. Achilles asked him, “How did you dare [t’tATJ�] to come [£A.9£J.Lev] to the ships?” Later he observed, “No man alive, not even a rugged young fighter, would dare [ ‘tAatTJ] to come [ £A.eeJ.Lev] into [ t�] our camp.” Both Homer and Mark use the aorist of EPXt:G9at, “to come,” and ‘tAfjvat or ‘tOAJ.L&v, “to dare,” both from the root ‘taA..5

Joseph here plays the role Homer gave to Hector’s father. Later gospels, of course, named Jesus’ father Joseph, and Mark surely could have known this tradition. Jesus’ father does not bury his son, but his namesake from Arimathea does. A similar wordplay applies to Mark’s Simon Peter, who failed to fulfill his promise to die with his Lord. Two other Simons play roles one might have expected of him: Simon the leper entertained him, and Simon the Cyrenian carried his cross. We shall see a similar play on the name Mary for the women who came to the tomb to care for Jesus’ body. By having Joseph of Arimathea assume Joseph’s responsibility for the burial of his son, Mark again may be criticizing Jesus’ family.6

Mark makes a point of how unusually short and painless the death of Jesus was, especially for a mode of death that was supposed to be long and torturous. Origen even defended this short death on account of people thinking Jesus was some kind of weakling. The reason, one might suppose, was to keep his body intact for rising.

In the wider Roman Empire, bodies were left on crosses to be picked at by carrion and wild dogs. This is why scholars like John Dominic Crossan and Bart Ehrman think that Jesus would have been left on the cross to act as such a deterrent. Indeed, Hellenised writers like the Gospel writers might have thought this too (I argue in my book that Jerusalem and immediate Judea would have had an arrangement with the Roman authorities to take dead bodies down by sundown in accordance with Jewish law, though we know this didn’t happen elsewhere).

MacDonald continues on page 156:

The theme of guarding a corpse against mutilation also dominates the burial of Hector. Achilles predicted that “dogs and birds” would have their way with his body, and Hector pled with him not to give his body to the dogs.13 Achilles refused; indeed, he tried to mutilate his corpse by dragging it behind his chariot and exposed it “for the dogs to rip him raw.”14

So he threatened,
but the dogs were not about to feed on Hector.
Aphrodite daughter of Zeus beat off die packs,
day and night, anointing Hector’s body with oil,
ambrosial oil of roses, so Achilles could not rip
the prince’s skin as he dragged him back and forth.
And round him Phoebus Apollo brought a dark cloud down
from high sky to the plain to shroud the entire space
where Hector’s body lay, before the sun’s white fury
could sear away his flesh, his limbs and sinews.15

Hermes assured Priam, on his way to Achilles’ hut, that

no birds or dogs have eaten him [Hector].
No, there he lies – still there at Achilles’ ship,
still intact in his shelters.
This is the twelfth day he’s lain there, too,
but his body has not decayed, not in the least. 16

Achilles and Pilate both marveled at the requests of their uninvited guests; Achilles was astounded that Priam, the father of his slain enemy, dared to enter his home and kiss his murderous hands.17 For his part, Pilate marveled that Jesus already was dead. Both Achilles and Pilate then gave, orders to their soldiers: Achilles sent two soldiers to get the ransom and summoned (ik:JCaA.ioa<;) maidservants to “wash and anoint” Hector.1s Pilate summoned (7tpoOKaM:oaJ.I.£Vo<;) the centurion to see whether jesus already had died. Compare the shroudings of Hector and Jesus.

There is something of a similarity in the shrouding:

The detailing of the post-death events marry well across the two.

The preparations of the corpse follow a traditional progression: bathing, anointing, shrouding, burning, burial. The burning of corpses was no longer practiced in Mark’s day, though bathing, anointing, shrouding, and burial were. Throughout Greek antiquity, the preparation of corpses fell primarily to older women.20 Mark put these preparations in a unique and curious order. Jesus was anointed for his burial by the unnamed woman at the home of Simon the leper, then shrouded and buried, but on Easter morning, the two Marys and Salome came to the tomb to anoint Jesus, after he had been shrouded and buried, apparently oblivious to his previous anointing.21

Why did Mark rearrange the usual order of funeral preparations? Apparently he needed to provide the women some motivation for entering the tomb Easter morning. This was his way of placing the three women back on location to play roles similar to those of Andromache, Hecuba, and Helen.

The laments of the women take the emulation further. Three women in each take on the roles of anointing and mourning.

This is where we see a rich vein of reversal of expectation motif. This is common throughout the Gospels where the people we encounter do the opposite to what we might expect. We might expect his closest friends and supporters to be with him at the end, but they scarper, denying him. His family aren’t to be found at his death and burial, but instead we see other people called Joseph and Mary. Instead of Simon Peter helping him, it is Simon of Cyrene who comes off of the fields (itself not possible since it was a Sabbath) to help him carry the cross.

It is not, indeed, his disciples, or his father, who takes him down from the cross but someone else called Joseph, from “best disciple-town” (given a lexical analysis of the Greek from Richard Carrier). This is, to me, clearly symbolic, driving home a motif and point.

MacDonald continues (p. 158-60):

The women who mourned the death of Hector in the Iliad were his mother (Hecuba), his wife (Andromache), and a promiscuous beauty (Helen). Mark provides virtually no information concerning the identities of the three women at the tomb, and one cannot know how much the earliest evangelist knew of later traditions about these women. Mark designates one of the two Marys at the tomJses.”27 Mark probably did not think of this Mary as jesus’ mother, but 6:3 indicates that Jesus’ mother also was the mother of a James and a Joses – as well as the mother of a Judah and a Simon and unnamed sisters. Just as Joseph of Arimathea performed a task befitting a father, namely the burial of his son, this Mary, with two sons who bore the same name as Jesus’ brothers, performed a task befitting a mother, namely the preparing of her son’s body for interment. The similarity in names may not issue from confusion but from a conscious criticism of Jesus’ family. If so, this Mary is an ironic analog to Hector’s mother, Hecuba. The play on the name Mary restates Mark 3:35: ”Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”…

The parallels between Priam and joseph, Hector and Jesus, and the women of Troy and those at the tomb are thematic and seldom verbal, but the resemblances are dense and often appear in the same order. The right column in the following quotation reproduces Mark 15:42-16:2, virtually every motif of which appears in the paraphrase of Iliad 24, on the left.

Mark’s narrative also retains distinctive traits from the burial of Hector: the rescue of a corpse at night and the appearance of three women at the tomb to care for the body. Dependence on the last book of the Iliad also explains peculiarities in Mark, such as its unique reference to the dangers Joseph risked to claim the body and the preservation of Jesus’ corpse from defilement. Emulation of the epic is the topic of chapter 2 1 , but one can easily anticipate it. Hector’s tomb remained inhabited, and the epic has forever remained a monument to Hector’s mortality. After three days, Jesus’ tomb would be empty, and Mark’s Gospel would become a monument to immortality. Homer’s lamentations contrast with Mark’s joyful proclamation of the resurrection.

Of course, there is more detailed in Chapter 21, but this is a taster.


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