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February 20, 2002
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Was the Gospel of Mark a rewrite of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey? The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark is a book that sets out to show just that. Several scholars who reviewed or commented on it have said this book will revolutionize the field of Gospel studies and profoundly affect our understanding of the origins of Christianity. Will it?
posted by willnot (31 comments total)

 
Of course - this doesn't suggest (to my knowledge) that Jesus did or didn't exist, and we've debated that or something similar to death. Still, it does cast some of the stories into an interesting light. I also think that Mark is believed to be the first of the Gospels that was written. I'm not sure how much the others borrow or were influenced by it. Clearly there are some differences that the linked review discuss.
posted by willnot at 5:59 PM on February 20, 2002


Mark was indeed probably the first of the gospels, and very heavily borrowed in Luke and Matthew. While the hypothesis seems interesting enough, I doubt that it will make any real headway in Early Christian Gospel studies. The similarities between the gospels and a number of other ancient texts have been duly noted already.

Without re-reading Mark or the study in question, I can hardly comment thoroughly on the work. However, my best guess is that this piece will be dismissed by the greater amount of Early Christian scholars as taking a comparison of the two much too far.

Those who have never studied the subject will probably find it revolutionary, though.
posted by dogmatic at 6:15 PM on February 20, 2002


The key problem is lightly touched on in the linked piece: how much can we infer from a similarity? There could be several explanations, dependent to some extent on whether you consider Jesus an historical person. The other one which immediately occurs to anyone who's studied literary structure is that there are universals in the narrative form. They can be pretty superficial, or they can be fairly deep in the Jungian or Campbellian sense.

Certainly the extent to which elements of the New Testament recast episodes and elements of the Old Testament should be considered. I would consider this more important by far than these allegedly subtle structural parallels.

Then of course we have the deeper questions of authorship, which in all of the gospels is various to some degree, according to modern textual analysis.
posted by dhartung at 6:32 PM on February 20, 2002


How much can we trust a beaming review of a book which debunks Christianity posted at infidels.org?
posted by croutonsupafreak at 6:33 PM on February 20, 2002


Let's get this straight:

Attack on Atheism or secularism on Metafilter = BAAAAAD

Attack on Christianity or religious foundation on Metafilter = GOOOOD
posted by aaronshaf at 6:51 PM on February 20, 2002


Isn't this the sort of thing that Joseph Campbell would have smacked his forehead and said "duh!" about? I mean, unless we make the increasingly unpopular decision to interpret the bible as an utterly perfect, divine, and unchanging writ, then we accept it rather as an historical document with varying degrees of divine inspiration and/or good advice. From this, it's not a huge leap of logic to figure that the various authors must have had their influences. Interesting find, good link, but it doesn't blow my hair back or anything..
posted by Hildago at 7:08 PM on February 20, 2002 [1 favorite]


the reviewers first two examples are open for contention. Judas(assuming a historical Jesus existed) could have been placed between a rock and a hard place. Kazantzakis portrays Judas as a underground opertive for the zealots, oppossers to Rome in ROMES eyes (guilt by knowing the next guy) Judas was told by Jesus to portray him as death was what was "inevitable" This could save Judas' life, fight the next fight etc., but betrayal?, they would all betray in one fashion or another. Judas led the guard to provide witness, to absolve his ties. (wiether selfish or not) I believe Judas' betrayal was perhaps altruistic. Also, what of Barabbas' path to redemption? Irus redemes himself?. Plus the phrase "approved by rome" confuses. Does this mean word from The Emperor or senate or the power on scene in Judea. We know what the power there did. Roman law allowed other customs to be observed if it did not interfere with Rome. The letting free a prisoner is a communal sign of mercy. The choice for Barabbas' freedom was paid for in roman bronze and silver; another custom of rome.
posted by clavdivs at 7:21 PM on February 20, 2002


of course jesus, being god, could well have done all sorts of things that would already have been memes to the people of the time.

makes perfect sense that the writers of the bible would have written in similar style to such well-known literature.

but to become a hero of the people, what could be smarter than to emulate the heroes already known by the people?
posted by dorian at 7:36 PM on February 20, 2002


aronshaff - were I a Christian, I would expect that a better understanding of the authors' structures and intents in one of the fundamental texts of my faith would give me a deeper appreciation of the source material.

Read the linked review if you haven't already. I don't think it says what you may be assuming it says.

The thread will develop as it will, and you're welcome to take anything from it that you want, but to restate the first line of the first comment Of course - this doesn't suggest (to my knowledge) that Jesus did or didn't exist, and we've debated that or something similar to death.
posted by willnot at 7:39 PM on February 20, 2002


The gospel of Mark is quite odd and unpolished compared to the other three. I've read it a number of times in many different translations and, as the article points out, it contains a number of problematic passages that seem to make little or no sense in the context of the larger story. I'm interested in the comparisons to the Odyssey and it certainly seems logical that the author of Mark would attempt to tailor his message to his audience, which was largely Greek or greek-speaking. However, I've read alternate explanations of all of these troublesome texts that seem equally plausible.

But what I'd really like to know is whether there's a Homeric spin that can be put on the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark.
posted by MrBaliHai at 7:45 PM on February 20, 2002


aaronshaf: where in this thread do you see an attack on Christianity?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:50 PM on February 20, 2002


Attack on Christianity or religious foundation on Metafilter = GOOOOD

I fail to see the attack in question, but it could just be that I'm an infidel.
posted by dogmatic at 7:54 PM on February 20, 2002


Or... just maybe Homer was a time traveller who ripped off the Gospel of Mark. Think about it; what better way to get a number one best seller than to travel back in time to when they had really boring stories with a copy of the highest selling book of all time?
posted by Lionfire at 7:59 PM on February 20, 2002


aaronshaf: where in this thread do you see an attack on Christianity?

He posted the exact same thing in here. Maybe he's written a macro.
Seriously isn't cross-posting a violation of some MeFi bylaw?
posted by jonmc at 7:59 PM on February 20, 2002


Joseph Campbell also brought out the fact that Mark was Greek... he's the only one to mention the virgin birth, which was an important element in Greek faith at the time. And to think society is so repressed because of Zeus et al..
posted by phoenix enflamed at 8:29 PM on February 20, 2002


MrBaliHai - Well, you know how those Greeks were (my fingers are desperately trying to type out the winky emoticon, but I hate emoticons so...I...must...resist...).
posted by willnot at 8:49 PM on February 20, 2002


The whole story of Christ has strong threads with the Fisherking story... it's all recycled... take it or leave it.
posted by geoff. at 8:53 PM on February 20, 2002


Joseph Campbell also brought out the fact that Mark was Greek... he's the only one to mention the virgin birth, which was an important element in Greek faith at the time. And to think society is so repressed because of Zeus et al..

As far as I can recall, there were no births in Mark; the infancy narratives - and for that matter the ascension - weren't part of Christian record until Matthew and Luke copied Mark 30-50 years later.
posted by dogmatic at 9:12 PM on February 20, 2002


It's like deja voodoo all over again.
posted by glenwood at 9:25 PM on February 20, 2002


The ascension is described in Mark 16:19.
posted by willnot at 9:58 PM on February 20, 2002


It is hardly surprising that the gospels track story lines from the most popular literature of the day. As dogmatic notes in comment #2, this is hardly revolutionary. And it’s not just Mark, either.

Here’s an example I came across the other day: The Roman historian Livy, author of the history of Rome that included the founding of that great city by twin brothers Romulus and Remus, died a few years before the start of Jesus’ ministry. His history of Rome was enormously popular. When Mark’s gospel was written, generally accepted as around 66-70 AD, Livy was effectively number one on the bestseller list and Mark was competing for shelf space. It is entirely possible, even likely, that Mark felt compelled to exalt Jesus, the Son of God, at least as high as the pagan founders of Rome. Romulus and Remus, you see, were the products of a virgin birth. Their mother, Silvia, was a Vestal Virgin and their father was Mars.

The apostles were on a mission to communicate and popularize the story of Jesus, a no-name Galilean carpenter, and they had serious competition. There were Jews not only in Judea, but also in Alexandria and other more cosmopolitan cities where the Greek influence was strong and the literary culture rich. Surely they must have asked themselves, “How do we make this story exciting enough to catch people’s interest?”
posted by JParker at 10:06 PM on February 20, 2002


Also, if
"Joseph Campbell also brought out the fact that Mark was ... the only one to mention the virgin birth",
then he's wrong. Check out Matthew 1:18.
posted by JParker at 10:18 PM on February 20, 2002


How much can we trust a beaming review of a book which debunks Christianity posted at infidels.org?

Here is a review from a reputable scholarly source, the Society of Biblical Literature (actually, this particular review is reprinted from Bulletin of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity).
posted by Zurishaddai at 11:03 PM on February 20, 2002


The ascension is described in Mark 16:19

It is, but most modern scholars agree that the last 12 or so lines of Mark were later additions to the original text. The earliest copies of Mark don't include the appearance of Jesus or the ascension; it seems to be a scribal 'correction' to match the endings of Luke and Matt.

Also, if "Joseph Campbell also brought out the fact that Mark was ... the only one to mention the virgin birth", then he's wrong. Check out Matthew 1:18.

I think he got Matt and Mark confused. I checked, and there is no virgin birth in Mark...The gospel begins with John preaching in the wilderness.

As for Mark borrowing and attributing stories to Jesus that may or may not have happened: this is nothing new or surprising. Neither is the use of popular conventions across sage or god stories, as JParker and dhartung point out. Other than that, I don't see how strong a parallel the author of the book in question could possibly draw.
posted by dogmatic at 11:29 PM on February 20, 2002


G. K. Chesterton already covered this territory. In his writings, he cited many different religions dating before Christianity (including the stories of gods & heroes worshipped by the greeks), and he argued that what all other previous religions failed to achieve, Christianity accomplished. That's what they mean by "the word made flesh." Everything prior to JC was just prophesying his arrival.

Personally, I don't recall any mention of a cyclops in the Gospel of Mark.
posted by ZachsMind at 11:58 PM on February 20, 2002


I'm intrigued by a couple of comments that suggest it is only natural that the author tried to appeal to common heroic tales of the time in an effort to "sell" the story.

I'm sure it's true that in writing these stories down, an attempt was being made to sell something, but there couldn't have been too many copies to go around. If I place my timeline correctly, by the time everything was translated into Latin, most bibles had become the exclusive province of the church. My impression was that it wasn't until Gutenberg that bibles were opened up to the masses (much to the horror of some members of mother church).

So, who were the early Greek bibles written for? What would the literacy rate have been like at the time? I know there is a great oral tradition that pre-dates any of the written texts, and maybe the structure of the books came out of that, but does anybody know what was done with the early texts? Who would have read/owned them and to what end?
posted by willnot at 12:08 AM on February 21, 2002


So, who were the early Greek bibles written for? What would the literacy rate have been like at the time? I know there is a great oral tradition that pre-dates any of the written texts, and maybe the structure of the books came out of that, but does anybody know what was done with the early texts? Who would have read/owned them and to what end?

The collection of writings that we now know as the New Testament didn't come together until the fourth or fifth century, I believe...And even then, it was only after a century or more of gathering the stories. So there really wasn't a 'Bible' or NT until the early Roman Catholic Church created it.

Before that, what you'd most often find is a scrap of papyrus or two with maybe one story of Jesus' acts or sayings in each community. Some were more popular than others, of course (Matt was the most popular, I believe) and were distributed accordingly. At that point, it was mainly just the random distribution of stories from one community to the next, and more often than not it was through oral tradition rather than writing, since the literacy rate was much lower at the time.

On top of that, each community worshipped a different aspect of Jesus and their writings can be seen as political jobkeying as the 'lead community.' This is best shown in John's gospel. If you read John as a metaphor for the different Jesus communities of the time, you have the favorite disciple representing the John community, Peter representing the Roman church, and Thomas representing the gnostics (the gnostics didn't belief in the resurrection, just as Thomas doubts that Jesus is risen). So in most cases, the stories of a given community will reflect the important political happenings going on at the time.

But I'm way off topic. If you're interested in furthering the conversation, we can take it to e-mail.
posted by dogmatic at 1:51 AM on February 21, 2002


Thanks for a mostly non conforntational and interesting thread on religion and Chritisnity in particular. I can now go around feeling a little less like an opressed minority. :-)

I do find it interesting than everyone's abbreviated the gospel of Matthew to the Gospel of Matt though...

(MeFi is heresy, the rest are just details)
posted by nedrichards at 3:24 AM on February 21, 2002


Well, you know how those Greeks were

There are two common interpretations of the "secret" gospel passages quoted by Clement; the first is homoerotic which is what you are probably alluding to, and the second is that it represented an baptismal initiation rite which apparently was performed in the nude. The first interpretation would seem to be more "greek" as it plays on that ancient culture's infatuation with man/boy love. Somehow, I can't see Mark taking the cultural adaptation that far just to win a few converts. The apostle Paul would've had a hissy fit, I think.

Either way, most scholars seem to feel that the fragments are pseudoepigraphs concocted by gnostics and not the actual work of Mark.
posted by MrBaliHai at 5:36 AM on February 21, 2002


Joseph Campbell also brought out the fact that Mark was Greek... he's the only one to mention the virgin birth, which was an important element in Greek faith at the time.

Just to clarify - Campbell said that about Luke, not Mark.
posted by dnash at 7:30 AM on February 21, 2002


there's also robert taylor's diegesis (1829), "Being a Discovery of the Origin, Evidences, and Early History of Christianity Never Yet Before or Elsewhere so Fully and Faithfully Set Forth," with stuff like:

CHAP. XVIII. --- Ultimate result ... The monks of Egypt, the fabrications of the whole Christian system
posted by kliuless at 8:24 AM on February 21, 2002


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