Science writer Steuart Campbell reviews Mythologizing Jesus: From Jewish Teacher to Epic Hero by Dennis R MacDonald.
Did the first Gospel writers raid the Homeric epics of Greek literature to turn Jesus into a super-heroic figure to compel their readers into life-changing decision to follow Jesus? Dennis R MacDonald thinks they did and that he has found them out.
As the John Wesley Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Claremont School of Theology in California, he is known for his controversial theory that the Homeric epics are the foundation of various Christian works including the Gospel of Mark and the Acts of the Apostles. The methodology he pioneered is called Mimesis Criticism, which tests for the literary influence of one text on another.
If his theories are correct and the earliest books of the New Testament were responses to the Homeric epics, then nearly everything in the Early Christian narrative is flawed. According to him, modern biblical scholarship has failed to recognise the impact of Homeric poetry.
It is not news that the Christian scriptures were not written in literary isolation (their main influence was the Jewish scriptures), but it is a stretch of imagination to see them as constructed from the classical Greek texts, especially the epic poems – the Iliad and the Odyssey.
However, undaunted, MacDonald presents a cogent comparison of Homeric tropes with the Christian gospels of Mark and Luke. To that end, in brief chapters, the author shows some 24 major parallels explored chapter by chapter, from “Born Divine and Human” to “Disappearing into the Sky”.
Some examples may strike readers as a stretch, but the evidence appears to demonstrate that at least some dependence by the gospel writers on their masterful Greek predecessor in their stories about and portrayals of Jesus.
However, it surprises me that he makes no mention of Mithraism, the dominant religion of the Levant at the time. To most biblical scholars, Christianity grew out of a mixture of Persian Mithraism, Judaism and the works of individuals such as Paul, who gave us written records of this synthesis. But perhaps recognising this would clash with his thesis.
MacDonald’s idea is all very well, but it suffers from a major defect: his lack of understanding of the gospel story. For example he mistakes the story of the Gerasene Swine for a story about casting our devils when in fact it is an allegory about Israel’s suffering under Roman occupation.
This completely undermines his explanation: that it came from a story about Odysseus. Also, his complete failure to grasp Judas’ mission and the episode in the Garden of Gethsemane makes nonsense of his explanation.
I cannot take a biblical scholar seriously when he translates Luke 1:28 as “Mary was in her bedroom”! It is also disappointing that he thinks that Jesus came from Nazareth; that is not justified by the Greek text of the Gospels. As the author of a book about Jesus, I think I know what Jesus’ plan was and how it turned out. It does not owe anything to the Homeric epics, but everything to the Jewish scriptures.
Freethinkers might find MacDonald’s mimesis interesting but only as a fancy, not as enlightenment about the origin of Christianity.
Steuart Campbell is the author of The Rise and Fall of Jesus (WPS, 2009).