Does the New Testament Imitate Homer?

Does the New Testament Imitate Homer?: Four Cases from the Acts of the Apostles

Copyright Date: 2003
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Does the New Testament Imitate Homer?
    Book Description:

    In this provocative challenge to prevailing views of New Testament sources, Dennis R. MacDonald argues that the origins of passages in the book of Acts are to be found not in early Christian legends but in the epics of Homer. MacDonald focuses on four passages in the book of Acts, examines their potential parallels in theIliad,and concludes that the author of Acts composed them using famous scenes in Homer's work as a model.Tracing the influence of passages from theIliadon subsequent ancient literature, MacDonald shows how the story generated a vibrant, mimetic literary tradition long before Luke composed the Acts. Luke could have expected educated readers to recognize his transformation of these tales and to see that the Christian God and heroes were superior to Homeric gods and heroes. Building upon and extending the analytic methods of his earlier book,The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark,MacDonald opens an original and promising appreciation not only of Acts but also of the composition of early Christian narrative in general.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12989-2
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    “Who would claim that the writing of prose is not reliant on the Homeric poems?”¹ This rhetorical question by a teacher of rhetoric requires a negative answer: no ancient intellectual would have doubted that theIliadand theOdysseyinformed the composition of prose, including potentially the stories of the New Testament. InThe Homeric Epics and the Gospel of MarkI argued that the author of the earliest Gospel used theOdysseyas his primary literary model for chapters 1–14; he used theIliad,especially the death of Hector and the ransom of his corpse, as his model...

  5. Part One: The Visions of Cornelius and Peter and Iliad 2
    • 1 Cornelius and Peter
      (pp. 19-22)

      Of the texts from Acts to be studied in this volume, the first, 10:1–11:18, is the most significant. Whereas one might remove the other passages from Acts without collapsing the structure of the whole book, the conversion of Cornelius and his household is a pillar supporting Luke’s entire literary and theological construction. By this point in the narrative the reader of Acts anticipates God’s pouring the “Spirit upon all flesh” so that “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”¹ The combination of two visions, one to Cornelius and another to Peter, convinces the apostle...

    • 2 Lying Dream and True Portent
      (pp. 23-28)

      According to the first book of theIliad,in the ninth year of the Trojan War, Apollo destroyed many Greeks to punish Agamemnon, their commander, for having taken captive the daughter of Apollo’s priest. To avert the plague, Agamemnon begrudgingly freed the girl and in her place took to his tent Achilles’ beloved concubine Briseis. Enraged, Achilles withdrew from the war and asked his mother, Thetis, to implore Zeus to punish Agamemnon. The king of the gods thus decided to send him a “destructive dream.” Hera, Zeus’s wife, stiffly opposed Troy, so without telling her or any other god, the...

    • 3 More Dreams and Portents
      (pp. 29-43)

      Cicero’s interlocutor was right: “history is full of examples” of dreams.¹ So common was the literary dream that rhetoricians considered it a cliché, and perhaps no dream was generative of more imitations than Agamemnon’s inIliad2.² What William Stuart Messer said of tragedy applies as well to prose.

      I am fully convinced that the different types of dreams employed in tragedy find their being in an imitation, more or less direct, of the dreams used by Homer. . . . [T]he embryo of all the various forms [of dreams] is extant in the early epic. . . . The...

    • 4 The Visions of Cornelius and Peter
      (pp. 44-55)

      The visions of Cornelius and Peter conform to this venerable tradition. This chapter will investigate each of the five scenes in Acts 10:1–11:18, four of which resonate withIliad2. Chapter 5 will argue that the best explanation for the parallels is mimesis.

      Luke begins his tale like this: “There was a certain man in Caesarea, Cornelius by name, centurion of the cohort called Italian, pious, fearing God with his entire household, providing many alms for the people, and praying constantly to God.”¹ Later his soldiers praise his integrity by calling him “a righteous man, fearing God and attested...

    • 5 Local Legend or Homeric Imitation?
      (pp. 56-66)

      The Introduction presented six criteria for detecting mimesis: accessibility, analogy, density, order, distinctive traits, and interpretability. The first criterion is the availability of the proposed model. Luke and his educated readers clearly could have known Agamemnon’s lying dream and the portent at Aulis. TheIliadwas the most famous book in Greek antiquity, and surviving school exercises witness to it as the most common mimetic target for ancient education, as I attempted to show toward the end of Chapter 2.

      The second criterion is analogy, evidence that other authors used the same proposed model for their creations. Imitations of the...

  6. Part Two: Paul’s Farewell at Miletus and Iliad 6
    • 6 Hector’s Farewell to Andromache
      (pp. 69-73)

      Few passages in Acts have attracted as much scholarly attention as Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders at Miletus (20:18–35). More than in any other speech in Acts, it is so saturated with echoes of Paul’s epistles that many interpreters think, perhaps rightly, that Luke had access to several of them.¹ But the epistles alone cannot explain the form, function, and genre of the speech. Nearly all commentators of Paul’s farewell address suppose that Luke modeled it after Jewish testaments.² According to the detailed treatment by Hans-Joachim Michel, Luke’s account follows the testamentary form in Paul’s summoning listeners...

    • 7 Paul’s Farewell to the Ephesian Elders
      (pp. 74-92)

      The reader of Acts learned already in 19:21 that Paul, in Ephesus, “resolved in the Spirit to go through Macedonia and Achaea, and then to go on to Jerusalem [πopεύεσθαι είς ’Iεpoσóλυμα]. He said, ‘After I have gone there, I must also see Rome.’” As many commentators have noted, this passage echoes Jesus’ resolve in Luke 9:51: “He set his face to go to Jerusalem [τoύ πopεύεσθαι είς ’Iεpoυσαλήμ].” Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem; similarly, nothing but trouble awaits Paul there. It also would be his fate (δεί) to see Rome, Where he would die.¹

      Acts 20 and 21 contain...

    • 8 Jewish Testament or Homeric Imitation?
      (pp. 93-102)

      This chapter concludes the discussion of Acts 20 and seeks to answer one simple question: Why should one abandon the rich tradition of Jewish testamentary literature in favor of a single Greek literary model to explain the composition of Paul’s farewell at Miletus? The answer lies in the application of the six criteria. Criteria one and two surely apply: Hector’s farewell to Andromache not only was accessible to Luke and his readers, it was a popular target for analogous imitations. Aristophanes, Sophocles, Plato, Herodotus, Xenophon, Apollonius Rhodius, Chariton, Vergil, and Silius Italicus not only imitated the scene, some of them...

  7. Part Three: The Selection of Matthias and Iliad 7
    • 9 The Selection of Ajax to Face Hector
      (pp. 105-106)

      After Hector bade farewell to Andromache, he rushed back to the field and challenged the Greeks to send him their best man for a battle of champions, manto-man. The Greek army sat in stunned silence; no one dared meet the challenge until Menelaus, whose wife had caused the war, thought it his duty to face Hector himself. As he put on his armor, his brother Agamemnon told him to sit down with the others; he was no match for the Trojan.

      Then “Nestor rose up among the Argives and spoke.”¹ He complained that their cowardice was disgraceful. If he still...

    • 10 The Selection of Matthias to Replace Judas
      (pp. 107-112)

      Luke wrote that after the Ascension the church at Jerusalem cast lots to determine whether Joseph Barsabbas Justus or Matthias would replace Judas among the Twelve. Throughout Acts 1:15–26 one can hear echoes of the casting of lots to determine who would fight Hector.¹ According to Acts 1:13–14, the believers who gathered after the ascension consisted of the eleven apostles together with “the women, Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers,” but in verse 15 the group inexplicably expands to one hundred and twenty.² By inflating the number, Luke set the stage for a situation somewhat more...

    • 11 Jerusalem Legend or Homeric Imitation?
      (pp. 113-120)

      As we have seen, Luke surely knew a tradition about the death of Judas insofar as he shares intriguing details with Matthew’s version; some of Papias’s account likewise may be independent of Acts. For the casting of lots to replace Judas, however, no independent evidence exists. Furthermore, “The structure, vocabulary, style, motifs, and line of thought in verses 21ff point to Lucan formation so strongly that any underlying tradition in these verses is unrecognizable.”¹ But typically Lucan traits have not deterred form critics from positing a tradition behind this material as well. The proposals run the gamut from oral tradition...

  8. Part Four: Peter’s Escape from Prison and Iliad 24
    • 12 Priam’s Escape from Achilles and Its Imitators
      (pp. 123-130)

      Ancient literature is peppered with stories of gods, heroes, or “divine men” escaping dangerous situations by means of magically opening doors. In fact, in the Acts of the Apostles one finds three prison escapes: two by Peter (5:17–42 and 12:3–17) and one by Paul (16:16–40). Some scholars have interpreted the empty tomb stories in the gospels as adaptations of the tale-type, and the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles employ the genre repeatedly.¹ Over a dozen other examples appear in ancient texts. According to Acts 12, while Peter slept in prison an angel woke him and facilitated his...

    • 13 Alexander’s Escape from Darius
      (pp. 131-136)

      A particularly fascinating imitation of Priam’s escape from the Achaean camp appears in theAlexander Romance,pseudonymously attributed to Callisthenes, historian to Alexander the Great, and composed in the late second or the third century C.E. Among other things it tells how Alexander, disguised as Hermes, daringly entered and escaped from Darius’s palace. This episode merits special treatment insofar as it entices its readers to recognize it as a parody of the end of theIliad.¹

      That night Alexander slept and in a dream saw Ammon standing by him in the guise of Hermes—with his herald’s staff [kηpύιov], cloak,...

    • 14 Peter’s Escape from Herod
      (pp. 137-140)

      According to the Acts of the Apostles, “King Herod” locked Peter in a prison, where, in the middle of the night, an “angel of the Lord” told him to leave, opened the doors of the prison, and apparently shed sleep over the guards so that the apostle could leave undetected. Only in Acts is Julius Agrippa I called Herod. The prison escape is sandwiched between his execution of James, John’s brother, and his death as divine punishment for hubris. Acts 12:1–23 thus forms a literary unit bracketed by two passages on Herod Agrippa, both of which Luke probably received...

    • 15 Hellenistic Legend or Homeric Imitation?
      (pp. 141-145)

      For determining whether parallels between two texts are generic or mimetic, the greatest desideratum is the existence of shared features that bind two texts together, traits not found in the genre as a collectivity (criterion five, distinctive traits). To his credit, Reinhard Kratz recognized that one major aspect of Peter’s escape is entirely foreign to escape miracles generically: Peter’s reception at the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark.¹ Like Weinreich before him, Kratz avoids discussing Acts 12:12–17, and commentators usually ascribe the genesis of the tale to Jerusalem traditions preserved by Luke independent of Peter’s escape.² It...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 146-152)

    The composition of Acts surely was a complex interplay between historical memory, legends, popular preaching, and literary creativity. Even though the four cases treated in this book seem to imitate tales from theIliad,some of them also contain traits that suggest the presence of historical memory and tradition. For example, behind Acts 1:15–26 almost certainly lurks information about the death of Judas; otherwise, it would be difficult to explain the similarities between Luke’s account and Matt 27:1–10. Even though Luke seems to have modeled Peter’s prison break after Iliad 24, he also knew traditions about the deaths...

  10. Appendix: Greek and Latin Parallels
    (pp. 153-166)
  11. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 167-170)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 171-208)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 209-220)
  14. Index
    (pp. 221-228)