What do I think of Dennis MacDonald’s book by Yale University Press? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
It’s hard to really know how to describe a book like this. Reading MacDonald’s book is like reading a prime example of parallelomania. Of course, we can’t doubt that mimesis was used in ancient literature. This is the process of imitating another work in your own writing. We still use this today when we do imitation as well to an extent.
MacDonald’s thesis is that in reading the Gospel of Mark, one can see traces of the Homeric classics being copied. Unfortunately, this is done with a lot of hopscotch as you will take this one part here and then jump over to this other part way over here and then jump back to this other part long long before that. My thinking is if someone did this consistently, they could show that this happens with any ancient work. In fact, I would be quite interested in knowing if anyone has done this.
Something that should give us pause about this is that for nearly two thousand years, no one noticed this but MacDonald. Now that doesn’t mean it’s false of course, but it does mean view with suspicion. After all, these people were even more seeped in the ancient classics than we are. Some of them wrote commentaries on these classics and yet none of them saw any mimesis taking place.
We could also ask what difference it would make. Suppose Mark told his story in the style of Homer. Okay. And? Does that make it false? Could not Mark have taken a true story and used language that he thought was reminiscent of the Homeric Epics? This kind of idea never seems to occur to MacDonald.
Unfortunately, MacDonald often forgets that if there was any place where imitation would take place, Mark already had a ready one. It was the Old Testament. In fact, not only did it happen, we should expect that. If Jesus is showing that He is the fulfillment of the Old Testament covenant YHWH made with His people, then we should expect He will not only imitate the older prophets, but He will essentially one-up them. This He does repeatedly.
Moses gave the Law in the Old Testament. Jesus gives it in the Sermon on the Mount. Elisha feeds 100 with a small amount of food. Jesus feeds 4,000 and 5,000 with a small amount of food. Jonah calms the storm by having himself thrown into it. Jesus calms it by word alone. This is why Jesus can make statements like “One greater than David is here.”
Still, as I said earlier, we could grant MacDonald his thesis and say this is no problem. It’s not as if imitation demonstrates that there is falsity. That needs to take place on other grounds. Those who are too quick to jump to MacDonald don’t seem to realize this.
Despite that, the similarities are often very much strained. Some of them are so commonplace (Jesus getting into a boat with His disciples) that they are really nothing. Others are such a stretch you wonder how MacDonald got to them. Jesus cleaning out the temple in the Gospels is to mirror Odysseus clearing the suitors out of his house?
MacDonald also writes about the Sons of Thunder and how James and John are pictures of the divine twins. Why not call them the Sons of the Thunderer then instead of Thunder? MacDonald sees this even in Acts when a ship is said to have the sign of Castor and Pollux and that this is the only time such a thing is mentioned of a ship. This sounds interesting until you realize that ships aren’t mentioned that much in the account. Are we to think Luke was trying to make a far distant tie to this pagan theme?
MacDonald also has themes in there like clothes that are incredibly white are meant to be a mirror to the Transfiguration or that the healing of Legion is meant to be a mirror to the defeat of a Cyclops. One of the best ways to see how bad the arguments are overall is simply to read the book for yourself. Many times you’ll be left scratching your head wondering what on Earth MacDonald is seeing that is such a clear parallel. If Jesus does something that Odysseus did that’s really similar, it’s a parallel. If Jesus does the exact opposite, it’s a parallel. What doesn’t count then?
It’s a wonder to me that people like Carrier and others place so much stock in this. Where there are parallels, they are not really remarkable but are commonplace and don’t require borrowing from Homer. Where there aren’t, MacDonald will strain and strain at anything to get this to work. Overall, it’s entirely unconvincing because of this.