Homer and the Gospel of Mark

Is Mark's Gospel Based on Homer's Odyssey?


Most scholars treat the gospels as their own independent literary genre which ultimately derives from the work of the author of Mark — a combination of biography, aretology, and hagiography among other things. Some, though, argue there is much more going on than is initially understood, and one recent line of research has involved tracing much in Mark to the influence of the Greek epics of Homer.

Dennis MacDonald's View

Dennis MacDonald is the primary proponent of this view, and his argument has been that the gospel of Mark was written as a conscious and deliberate imitation of the stories in the Homeric epics. The goal was to give readers a familiar context to discover the superiority of Christ and Christianity over pagan gods and beliefs.

MacDonald describes what scholars of antiquity already know: anyone who learned to write Greek in the ancient world learned from Homer. The process of learning was mimesis or imitation, and this practice continued into adult life. Students learned to imitate Homer by rewriting passages of Homer in prose or by using different vocabulary.

The most sophisticated form of literary mimesis was rivalry or aemulatio, in which literary works were exploited in subtle ways by authors who wished to "speak better" than the sources they imitated. Because the author of Mark was demonstrably literate in Greek, we can be confident that this author went through this process just like everyone else.

Important for MacDonald's argument is the process of transvaluation. A text becomes transvaluative "when it not only articulates values different from those of its targeted [text] but also substitutes its values for those in its antecedent". Thus he argues that the Gospel of Mark, emulating Homeric epics, can be understood as "transvaluative" of the Iliad and Odyssey. Mark's aemulatio arises from a desire to provide a "new and improved" role model which is superior to the pagan gods and heroes.

Parallels Between Mark and Homer

Mark never openly mentions Odysseus or Homer, but MacDonald argues that Mark's tales about Jesus are explicit imitations of Homeric tales about characters like Odysseus, Circe, Polyphemus, Aeolus, Achilles, and Agamemnon and his wife, Clytemnestra.

The strongest parallels, however, are those between Odysseus and Jesus: Homeric tales about Odysseus emphasize his suffering life, just as in Mark Jesus said that he, too, would suffer greatly. Odysseus is a carpenter like Jesus, and he wants to return his home just as Jesus wants to be welcomed in his native home and later to God's home in Jerusalem.

Odysseus is plagued with unfaithful and dim-witted companions who display tragic flaws. They stupidly open a magic bag of wind while Odysseus sleeps and release terrible tempests which prevent their return home. These sailors are comparable to the disciples, who disbelieve Jesus, ask foolish questions, and show general ignorance about everything.

Eventually, Odysseus can return home, but he must do so alone and only in disguise, as if he were the object of a "messianic secret." He finds his house taken over by greedy suitors for his wife. Odysseus remains disguised, but once fully revealed, he does battle, recovers his house, and lives a long and prosperous life.

All of this is remarkably similar to the trials and tribulations which Jesus has to endure. Jesus, however, was superior to Odysseus in that he was killed by his rivals but rose from the dead, took his place at God's side, and will eventually judge everyone.

MacDonald's thesis also can be used to solve certain problems:

  • “...Mark's dependence on the Odyssey suggests elegant solutions to some of the most enigmatic and disputed aspects of the Gospel: its depiction of the disciples as inept, greedy, cowardly, and teacherous; its interests in the sea, meals, and secrecy; and even its mysterious reference to the unnamed young man who fled naked at Jesus' arrest.”

The details of MacDonald's argument are much too complex to further summarize here, but they aren't that hard to understand when you read them. There is some question as to whether or not his thesis is stronger than it needs to be — it is one thing to argue that Homer was an important, or even primary, influence on the writing of Mark. It is quite another to argue that Mark was designed, from beginning to end, to emulate Homer.

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Your Citation
Cline, Austin. "Homer and the Gospel of Mark." Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, learnreligions.com/homer-and-the-gospel-of-mark-248662. Cline, Austin. (2023, April 5). Homer and the Gospel of Mark. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/homer-and-the-gospel-of-mark-248662 Cline, Austin. "Homer and the Gospel of Mark." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/homer-and-the-gospel-of-mark-248662 (accessed June 3, 2023).