Does the New Testament Imitate Homer?

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Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? Four Cases from the Acts of the Apostles by Dennis R MacDonald.

MacDonald Does the New Testament Imitate Homer?

Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? is a sequel to author Dennis MacDonald’s Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. MacDonald is a scholar of both New Testament Greek and classical literature, and he is in a surprisingly marginal position in advocating for recognition of the direct literary influence of the Greek classics in the Greek Christian scriptures. This second book allows him to extend his thesis considerably and to answer the critics of his earlier work. He generally classes his intellectual opposition as the proponents of “form criticism,” who want to attribute textual similarities to shared genres and “traditional” tropes, as opposed to what MacDonald represents as mimesis (imitation) and authorial craft.

MacDonald is on very firm ground in proposing mimesis as a key ingredient of ancient composition, since many classical texts do instruct writers in this process as well as demonstrate it. In this book, he focuses on four examples where he maintains that “Luke” (the author of Acts) drew on the Illiad for literary substance in tales about the apostles Peter, Paul, and Matthias. (The Illiad was easily the most popular model for literary emulation in antiquity.) Since these particular biblical stories have no corroboration in ancient historical documents, scholars have generally assigned “traditional” or “legendary” provenance to their accounts. MacDonald is able to demonstrate methodically, however, that they have identifiable literary sources in Homer and that mimesis accounts for details that are difficult to reconcile with the usual explanations of these texts.

MacDonald sets out six criteria to support mimetic authorship, and evaluates them in full for each of his cases. The third and fourth of these are the density and sequence of textual similarities, and these are illustrated throughout the book with parallel columns from the Illiad and the Acts of the Apostles. For those able to work with the original language, there is a 12-page appendix giving all of this matter in the original Greek. There are also some Latin texts, used to illustrate mimesis of Homer by other classical authors.

In his introduction, the author raises an important question: “If Homeric influence on the Gospels and Acts is so extensive and significant, why … in two centuries of critical scrutiny have modern scholars not recognized it?” (13) He gives a number of reasonable answers, invoking Thomas Kuhn’s notion of disciplinary paradigms and pointing to specializations of method in the field of New Testament studies. These could be usefully supplemented, though, with the arguments of Jonathan Z. Smith’s Drudgery Divine, which describe the processes by which a crypto-theological agenda has captured religious scholarship, particularly excluding the consideration of “pagan” sources for Christian beliefs and practices.

On the jacket copy of Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? Mary Tolbert is quoted as saying that MacDonald’s earlier work “poses a profound challenge to current scholarship on the history of early Christianity and the historical Jesus.” In his conclusion to this volume, MacDonald declares that Luke “was by no means a credulous editor of tradition but a sophisticated author; it is we, his readers, who have been naïve” (146-7). For all we know, there was a historical Pinocchio, who in some way informed or inspired the work of Carlo Collodi–and thus all his later adapters and imitators. But it is not any underlying “facts” (however unverifiable) that make Pinocchio’s story compelling and relevant. MacDonald is absolutely right to turn the reader’s attention to the literary craft of the writers of scripture.