All scholars acknowledge Mark's debt to Old Testament stories and sayings. What is not often remembered, however, is that Homer's epics were the basic educational texts of everyone in the ancient world who could write Greek and that their stories were widely known and often adapted and imitated by ancient writers. Mark certainly knew them well and may also have adapted them to create his gospel story of Jesus. This site summarizes some points from Dennis R. MacDonald's 'The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark' (and adds a few of my own) that might suggest Mark's story of Jesus was an adaptation of Homeric stories about heroes like Odysseus, Achilles and Hector.
The Gospel of Mark & Homer's Epics
- Book reviews
- Does this mean the Jesus stories are not true?
- Criteria for judging a text's likely dependence on another
- To test the likelihood of MacDonald's thesis
- Preliminary notes: the epics & the gospel
- The same plot twice over?
- Similar story openings?
- Similar story structure and settings?
- Borrowed stories and characters? (Mark 1-10)
- More borrowed stories and characters? (Mark 11-16)
- Additional comparisons -- my own thoughts and musings
To test likelihood of stories being borrowing from Homer
Some dismiss MacDonald's thesis by looking for major differences between the epics and the gospel, but such criticisms avoid addressing the validity of the criteria MacDonald has used and the many similarities that do cry out for explanation. For these similarities to be invalidated then either:
1. the above criteria will have to be demonstrated to be inadequate, or
2. the illustrations given will have to be shown not to meet the criteria.
MacDonald's arguments are far more extensive than the summaries on this page might sometimes indicate. Detailed expositions of similarities in the original wording, narrative sequences of details, explanatory power of obscure and odd passages, and telling comparisons with other gospels are marshalled to add weight to what might seem at first sometimes superficial or obscure similarities. But even some less prominent examples may take on more plausibility if found in the context of several other very strong parallels.
At first glance some people find the very idea that a book widely revered as sacred scripture could have borrowed anything from the literary world it emerged from is offensive. MacDonald, as other scholars have also observed, Mark is not the only biblical writing that reflects the influence of other non-Jewish literature and stories widely known in the ancient world.
Homer is said to be the author of two epic Greek poems that date from about 700 BCE. The Iliad tells the story of the last year of the Greek war against Troy (Troy=Ilium in Greek, hence Iliad). It begins with the King of the Greeks, Agamemnon, arguing with his greatest warrior, Achilles. Achilles is so offended that he withdraws from the conflict leaving the rest of the Greeks to suffer major reversals until his own close friend, Patroclus, is killed. Achilles then returns to the fray and eventually kills the greatest Trojan hero, Hector. The second epic is the Odyssey. This tells the story of Odysseus, another Greek hero who fought at Troy, as he encounters many adventures and delays on his way home. However his household in the meantime has been taken over by evil princes who hope to marry his wife, Penelope, and inherit his kingdom. Odysseus finally returns disguised as a beggar. He is unrecognized, suffers insults, but at the right moment reveals his true identity and slays all the wicked princes who had been living off his estate and hoping for his death.
Fundamentalist readings of any one gospel often seek to explain details in the gospel by reference to other gospels or biblical writings. I speak of the Gospel of Mark as a literary unit its own right, with its own distinctive and internally coherent view of Jesus and the disciples. This means, for example, that when the disciples are shown to have increasingly distanced themselves from Jesus until they completely failed at the end, that this was the ending that the author intended to leave with his audience. The study is about Mark's gospel alone, not theological questions that later arose when other gospels appeared on the scene. For that reason it is irrelevant that other gospels portray Jesus and the disciples and other stories quite differently.
Further, the manuscript evidence available to us suggests the gospel of Mark originally ended at 16:8. Later editors appear to have found this ending unsatisfactory in light of the fuller endings in other gospels, and so attempted to combine these other endings into a singly harmonious unit and re-write Mark's conclusion.
Finally, no-one knows for certain that the author of the gospel was named Mark. This name first appears linked with the gospel as we pretty much know it for the first time late in the second century. Nevertheless, for the sake of convenience, I have often used the name "Mark" when referring to the author.
Comparing Homer's epics with Mark's gospel
Homer's epics are highly eloquent poetry. Mark's gospel is rough, crude prose that has more in common with low class colloquial speech than ancient high class classical language. MacDonald suggests that that is perhaps the main reason Mark's debt to Homer has been unrecognized till now. Mark's gospel is a message about turning the world upside down, about the first being last and the last first, about the overthrow of the ruling powers of evil through death and suffering, and so on. If his Jesus emulates the heroes of Homer, he does so by excelling them in humility, modesty, poverty, suffering, as well as with greater works. If the grand princely feasts of Nestor and Menelaus are outdone by the simple Jesus feasts of plain bread and fish, so Mark has brought low the high language and poetic grandeur of the epics so it reaches the poor and humble audiences in their own words.
Homer's Odyssey and Mark's gospel share the same basic plot lines:
(a) his inheritance is taken over by evil princes
(a) his inheritance is taken over by evil rulers
*Jesus suffers more than Odysseus because he must actually be killed at the end
** The Gospel of Mark, unlike other gospels, portrays the disciples as eventual failures
Homer's Odyssey and Mark's gospel share similar openings:
Has Mark drawn on Homer's Odyssey here?
Note density, distinctiveness (bold) and sequence of the similarities (italics -- variant sequence):
- both open with appeal to divinity by prayer / prophecy;
- divine messenger flies down from heaven
- departs like a bird / arrives like a dove
- to speak to son
- and assure him he is son of a great king/God
- and only he can hear, despite presence of others
- and son then goes off to face tests
- and announces warning of new rule over kingdom
- double divine calling of strangers by sea (sailors/fishermen) for journey
- one opens with a prayer to the divine Muses for inspiration in the telling of the story of the hero, while the other opens with a divine prophecy as a witness to the hero of the story
- one has the goddess Athena flying down from Zeus to speak to the son (Telemachus) to assure him he is the son of a great king and has a mission to reclaim that kingdom, and then flies back to heaven like a bird, while the other has the Holy Spirit descendinglike a dove from God to the son (Jesus) and proclaims him to be the son of God. In both cases the divine voice speaks to the hero so only he can hear despite the presence of others.
- after these divine assurances the encouraged hero goes off to face the threats and tests of enemies and give warnings that his kingdom will soon replace their evil rule: in the Odyssey these enemies are the robber-suitors, and in the gospel they are Satan in the wilderness and authorities who have arrested John.
- The goddess Athena appeared in the shape of Telemachus and asked strangers, in two separate stages, to follow 'him' as his sailors; in the second stage 'he' went along the seashore and asked for the boat of "Noemon the ... son of Phronius" who offers it readily. Jesus also, while walking along the 'seashore', called strangers, fishermen, for his journeys in two stages; in the second stage mention is made of the boat of "James the son of Zebedee", and they all followed him 'readily'.
MacDonald draws attention to the similarities between the openings of Mark's gospel and the Odyssey. But his comparisons do not account for the role of John the Baptist, special features of the wilderness scenes of both John and Jesus, the beginning of Jesus' message and omits significant details of the the calling of the disciples. I suspect these, too, were derived from Homer's epics. The linked information is not MacDonald's, however.
- the first half of both the Odyssey and the Gospel involves adventures at sea and places near the sea (see criterion 6, note 2), with winds, waves and ships prominent.
- The first half of each is replete with travels and stories; while the last section of each narrates in detail the climactic contest between the hero and the evil rulers who want him dead.
- both Odysseus and Jesus must keep their identities secret so not to be killed prematurely, but in both cases their godlike strength often threatens to give them away and they must silence anyone who learns their identity (unless the rulers already overheard)
- the audience knows from the beginning of both the Iliad and the Gospel that the heroes (Achilles/Hector, Jesus) will die
- the hero's companions (Odysseus' crew; Jesus' disciples) begin the story as devoted, loyal and likeable, but as the plot unfolds they are increasingly seen to lack the depth of character to endure hardship and suffering, and in both stories they are all lost before the end