Fact or Fiction? Part 4 (Dennis R. MacDonald)

The Homeric Epics (8th century BCE) and the Gospel of Mark (70 CE)

A few months ago I was researching Homer and the Odyssey when I came across the title of a book that I had to check out: Dennis R. MacDonald’s The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark.

The description of the book on amazon.com reads like this:

“In this groundbreaking book, Dennis R. MacDonald offers an entirely new view of the New Testament Gospel of Mark. The author of the earliest gospel was not writing history, nor was he merely recording tradition, MacDonald argues. Close reading and careful analysis show that Mark borrowed extensively from the Odyssey and the Iliad and that he wanted his readers to recognize the Homeric antecedents in Mark’s story of Jesus. Mark was composing a prose anti-epic, MacDonald says, presenting Jesus as a suffering hero modeled after but far superior to traditional Greek heroes. Much like Odysseus, Mark’s Jesus sails the seas with uncomprehending companions, encounters preternatural opponents, and suffers many things before confronting rivals who have made his house a den of thieves. In his death and burial, Jesus emulates Hector, although unlike Hector Jesus leaves his tomb empty. Mark’s minor characters, too, recall Homeric predecessors: Bartimaeus emulates Tiresias; Joseph of Arimathea, Priam; and the women at the tomb, Helen, Hecuba, and Andromache. And, entire episodes in Mark mirror Homeric episodes, including stilling the sea, walking on water, feeding the multitudes, the Triumphal Entry, and Gethsemane. The book concludes with a discussion of the profound significance of this new reading of Mark for understanding the gospels and early Christianity.”

HEGMWho is Dennis R. MacDonald? He is a professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Claremont School of Theology with a solid record of academic publications.

From the first chapter, MacDonald lays out his scientific method of comparing the Gospel of Mark with the Homeric texts, with its six criteria for emulation: accessibility, analogy, density, order, distinctiveness, and interpretability. For accessibility, for example, MacDonald asserts that any person writing in Greek at the beginning of the Common Era—as the author of the Gospel of Mark did—had to have studied Homer, the textbook of every literate young man. So, Mark knew his Homer, MacDonald explains.

Along the way, MacDonald compares storylines, objects, characters, settings, each time finding similarities or inversions. He proposes revolutionary explanations for the passages in Mark that Matthew and Luke discarded because they didn’t make much sense. Those passages make a lot of sense under the assumption that Mark was emulating Homer though, for instance, the portrayal of the disciples, who are for the most part a group of wavering, even cowardly people, who fail to understand Jesus time after time, who wonder and doubt even as they see Jesus performing miracles again and again, as in the case of the multiplication of bread and fish, twice in Mark, mirroring (up to the seating arrangements and the gender of the guests) two feasts in Homer. The disciples, MacDonald argues, are similar to Odysseus’s sailing crew. They are a dramatic device, a dull background against which the hero shines.

I read MacDonald’s book and in parallel reread the Gospel of Mark. The reading is absorbing, MacDonald’s arguments compelling, especially when he points to identical constructions in Greek, which I don’t understand. And did I realize that Odysseus was also a carpenter? He was after all the builder of the Trojan horse.

After I finished the book, I wondered what to do with the knowledge gained from it. As Barbara Tuchman says in Practicing History, I can’t really have a valid opinion about history unless I go to the primary sources and look with my own eyes at the evidence.

That’s what MacDonald did. He studied the Bible and Homer for decades, read the texts in their original Greek, and then set them side by side and analyzed them. Yet for his thesis to be considered valid, we need a second opinion, another person who would dedicate his or her life to studying all the pieces of the puzzle and then come up with the same conclusion. Or not. If the conclusion differs, then we need a third opinion, a third investment in time and energy and money to sort things out.

Obviously, I’m not a scholar and in the absence of my own opinion about this book, I looked to what more qualified readers have to say about it—people who know the Bible, who know Homer, who know ancient Greek and Roman history, and the languages of the writings involved. I found two main groups of reviews:

1. From atheists and science-bent types, cheering the addition of another Jesus-invalidating revelation. If the first gospel, on which the rest are based, is a work of fiction, what does it mean for Christianity as we know it (which is not the same as Christianity of two thousand years ago)?

2. From religious people, pointing that even though MacDonald’s thesis seems convincing at first, a closer look shows that he cherry-picked his dozens and dozens of examples of similarities (20 chapters with such titles as: “Feasts for Thousands” and “Blind Seers” and “Anointing Women”) and that he proved a conclusion he already believed valid.

Of course, there is a third group of people, the largest, who’d rather not come anywhere close to this book. Published in paperback by Yale University Press in 2000, The Homeric Epic and the Gospel of Mark is just an academic paper in book form with a small and specialized readership and not the earth-shattering work that its title would imply.

Reading whatever reviews I could find (here, and here, and here, and here) was like reading a mystery novel in which one character seems guilty of a crime, then he’s proven innocent, then the signs point to him after all. But maybe not. While I can’t believe or not believe MacDonald’s thesis, I’m fascinated by its potential. If it’s true, it would be the ultimate example of fiction turned into reality, surpassing what Jorge Luis Borges and Umberto Eco imagined would be possible, and leaving Dan Brown in the dust. Fiction written two thousand years ago considered fact by billions of people today.

But what does fact even mean? Even if something is recorded on video and documented in detail, where is the ultimate guarantee that things happened that way, that the recording hasn’t been altered, the documents edited? If everybody on the planet believes that Jesus walked on water, does it matter anymore if the historical Jesus actually did? Fiction is indistinguishable from fact as long as enough time has gone by, enough dust has settled, enough history has been made based on that initial fiction. Does it matter today if Mark didn’t write a historical account of Jesus’s life, but instead turned Jesus into a better hero than Odysseus, the best fictional man envisioned by those Greek pagans? Two thousand years resting on that one brick in the foundation of western civilization are solid enough that extracting the original brick from its spot in the foundation doesn’t affect the huge edifice built around and on top of it.

In my alternate-history novel, I take one such brick from the foundation of history and replace it with another. I’m rewriting history, both of western civilization, and of my main character. I don’t know if my attempt will work, but the writers discussed in my 4-part Fact or Fiction series inspire me to at least try.

Previous: How Borges’s and Eco’s warnings came true with the publishing of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

9 thoughts on “Fact or Fiction? Part 4 (Dennis R. MacDonald)

  1. I too was struck by the question you pose: But what does fact even mean? Fact is perception and perception varies depending on one’s focus. Even if an event were filmed and details documented as you suggest, some individual (or a group) is making the decision as to where to focus the lens and which details are to be documented. Fascinating topic, Roxana.

    • And that’s today, in the age of no privacy, everything getting recorded. Think about the times when secrets were secrets, when truth came from the king and the priest only. How do you sort that out? When we don’t even understand or remember the slightly different frame of mind of those people? Like in the case pointed by MacDonald: scholars that analyzed the gospels forgot that Greek culture was ubiquitous two thousand years ago. MacDonald points to many New Testament studies that compare it with the Hebrew Bible and other sources, but never with Homer because these was a long period in history, until the Renaissance, when Homer was forgotten. The link was lost, and, MacDonald argues, it took him a long time to find it again.

  2. Hello Roxana: Your mind is a marvelous engine that finds many ways to probe this continuing investigation into what is real/unreal (or as you know by now from Lupasco–truth, untruth, lie) history/fiction, fiction/fact. I admire the way you dig into the work to bring out the nuances. This nugget tells so much: “Fiction is indistinguishable from fact as long as enough time has gone by, enough dust has settled, enough history has been made based on that initial fiction.”
    Keep going. I’m glad that you refer once again to your own novels.

    • Thanks, Jack. I’m close to starting a rewrite, but before that I needed this kind of inquiry into the main theme of my book. Looking at what other people did with these questions – fact or fiction? and does it matter which? – gives me grounding. How far am I going with my own answers while still making sense…

  3. What does fact really mean? is an important question for me right now. I’ve been sharing the manuscript of my memoir with my family and I am amazed by the layers of memory and how so many of us feel that our own experience is fact. Does fact even exist? In some senses, certainly, in others, maybe, I’m beginning to believe, not. There is only story and story is not about incident but experience…

    • And how do we react when confronted with somebody else’s facts? I’m trying to stay open, though my first reaction is denial. Now: even though I’m forcing myself to remember that I could be wrong, this is a lopsided effort. Most people don’t entertain the idea of being wrong. Great recipe for conflict (to be used in fiction writing).

  4. It’s a lot to think about, this removing of an original brick. And it’s a great conversation for Christians and non-Christians to have; where does your belief begin? If this brick is removed, does it end? Is it that fragile?
    Personally the essence of God is what I read in those Biblical stories, fiction or not. It’s the essence. God is found in the many stories of old, from every culture and from the many interpretations – as Vincent Van Gogh said, ‘To know God, one must love many things.’ Vincent sought God’s essence in every stroke of color and blade of grass. Even from his madness he sought that light, that essence we seekers pursue to the end of our days, why, because there is an undeniable truth within the stories that speaks to our dna.
    Buddha knew this, Jesus knew this, many sons of God knew this and they interpreted his love for us through stories designed to be understood by the limits of the human mind and yet wholly grasped by the boundless human heart.

    This is a great conversation.

    • I think that the “stories that speak to our DNA” are the myths of our ancestors, the myths that shaped them that shaped us. We are those stories and there’s no sane way of separating us from the tales about the world we live in.

      • I agree. With camera in hand standing at the base of Mount Sinai when God supposedly spoke to 500,000 Hebrews about to spend 40 years in the desert there would be little doubt (save photo-shopping techniques) that what happened really happened and the a God, or at least a Hebrew God, existed. But since we don’t have this proof, all we have is a writer’s version of the even, which may have been a metaphor for what Moses (if there was such a man) said. So we have the myth because ….

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