Does the New Testament Imitate Homer?

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? Four Cases from the Acts of the Apostles by Dennis R MacDonald.

MacDonald Does the New Testament Imitate Homer?

Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? is a sequel to author Dennis MacDonald’s Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. MacDonald is a scholar of both New Testament Greek and classical literature, and he is in a surprisingly marginal position in advocating for recognition of the direct literary influence of the Greek classics in the Greek Christian scriptures. This second book allows him to extend his thesis considerably and to answer the critics of his earlier work. He generally classes his intellectual opposition as the proponents of “form criticism,” who want to attribute textual similarities to shared genres and “traditional” tropes, as opposed to what MacDonald represents as mimesis (imitation) and authorial craft.

MacDonald is on very firm ground in proposing mimesis as a key ingredient of ancient composition, since many classical texts do instruct writers in this process as well as demonstrate it. In this book, he focuses on four examples where he maintains that “Luke” (the author of Acts) drew on the Illiad for literary substance in tales about the apostles Peter, Paul, and Matthias. (The Illiad was easily the most popular model for literary emulation in antiquity.) Since these particular biblical stories have no corroboration in ancient historical documents, scholars have generally assigned “traditional” or “legendary” provenance to their accounts. MacDonald is able to demonstrate methodically, however, that they have identifiable literary sources in Homer and that mimesis accounts for details that are difficult to reconcile with the usual explanations of these texts.

MacDonald sets out six criteria to support mimetic authorship, and evaluates them in full for each of his cases. The third and fourth of these are the density and sequence of textual similarities, and these are illustrated throughout the book with parallel columns from the Illiad and the Acts of the Apostles. For those able to work with the original language, there is a 12-page appendix giving all of this matter in the original Greek. There are also some Latin texts, used to illustrate mimesis of Homer by other classical authors.

In his introduction, the author raises an important question: “If Homeric influence on the Gospels and Acts is so extensive and significant, why … in two centuries of critical scrutiny have modern scholars not recognized it?” (13) He gives a number of reasonable answers, invoking Thomas Kuhn’s notion of disciplinary paradigms and pointing to specializations of method in the field of New Testament studies. These could be usefully supplemented, though, with the arguments of Jonathan Z. Smith’s Drudgery Divine, which describe the processes by which a crypto-theological agenda has captured religious scholarship, particularly excluding the consideration of “pagan” sources for Christian beliefs and practices.

On the jacket copy of Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? Mary Tolbert is quoted as saying that MacDonald’s earlier work “poses a profound challenge to current scholarship on the history of early Christianity and the historical Jesus.” In his conclusion to this volume, MacDonald declares that Luke “was by no means a credulous editor of tradition but a sophisticated author; it is we, his readers, who have been naïve” (146-7). For all we know, there was a historical Pinocchio, who in some way informed or inspired the work of Carlo Collodi–and thus all his later adapters and imitators. But it is not any underlying “facts” (however unverifiable) that make Pinocchio’s story compelling and relevant. MacDonald is absolutely right to turn the reader’s attention to the literary craft of the writers of scripture.

A Princess of Roumania

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews A Princess of Roumania by Paul Park.

Park A Princess of Roumania

A Princess of Roumania is the opening of a multi-volume fantasy work by Paul Park. It is an ambitious portal fantasy, with a protagonist who is a teenage girl–in our world, anyway. It postulates a reality of which ours is a disposable alternative. It’s an interesting match for my recent viewing of the (commendable) first two seasons of the Amazon television series based on PKD’s Man in the High Castle. In the world where Roumania and Germany struggle for supremacy in Europe, sorcery is possible (though illicit) and mastodons roam a barely-settled North America. The means of transition from one world to the other is a book, with considerable metafictional implication (again, compare The Man in the High Castle).

The heroine Miranda is named after the author’s daughter, and the New England town where the story starts is a match for one in which the author has lived. I was alerted to these para-autobiographical elements by John Crowley’s essay on Park’s fantasy (included in the book Totalitopia), and it was this essay that led me to read the book in the first place. Miranda is reasonably sympathetic, but the strongest characterization in the book is for the villain (?) Baroness Ceaucescu. The omniscient narrator jumps around quite a lot, and the two main viewpoint threads are those for Miranda and the Baroness.

I liked this book very much, and while it would probably satisfy the YA fantasy market these days, it seemed like mature fare to me. It is, as I mentioned at the outset, only a beginning. Despite its considerable length, there is little resolution of the plot, although there are some deaths of principal characters and other crucial events. I expect to continue reading this work, borrowing the subsequent volumes from the public library in due course, while I hope to pass on my copy of the first one to a sympathetic reader.

This is my fault for being the departmental computer guy: when the machines break, I wave my dead chicken and write voodoo words on their keyboards until they work again.

Charles Stross, The Atrocity Archives

Hermetic quote Stross Atrocity voodoo

He knew then there was no going back. All paths were closed to him except the plain horror of the present.

Matthew Lowes, Old Growth

Hermetic quote Lowe Growth present

The Rune Oracle

Bkwyrm reviews The Rune Oracle by Nigel Jackson and Silver RavenWolf in the archive of Bkwyrm’s Occult Book Reviews.

Jackson RavenWolf The Rune Oracle

At first sight, I was impressed by the rune cards that came with this book; the graphics were colorful, well-drawn, and consistent with Germanic imagery and belief. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the book itself. The author does provide some layout methods that I found useful, but her religious background shows in the meaning she gives for each rune. (Norse Wiccans may find them acceptable; Asatruar probably won’t.) She also uses mixed rune names, upright/reversed interpretations, and the blank rune–not a good sign, on the whole. Since there are a few useful tidbits here, though (and GREAT-looking cards!), I’d put this on the “may be useful” list.

The Rosicrucian Enlightenment

Randall Bowyer reviews The Rosicrucian Enlightenment by Frances Yates in the archive of Bkwyrm’s Occult Book Reviews.

Yates The Rosicrucian Enlightenment

At first, the thesis of this book reminds one of conspiracy fantasies like Holy Blood, Holy Grail. It takes a while to accept the idea that Rosicrucianism began as an odd sort of political propaganda for the Palatine Elector Frederick V, but Yates has piled up enough evidence that one eventually gives in. Occasionally her evidence is inconclusive, and now and then it is just silly (e.g., on p. 160 she sees the Rose Cross motif in a picture of a table with roses on it, where the “cross” is obviously no more than the truss-and-wedge which holds the table together!), but still Yates is onto something. An appendix provides the texts of the Fama and the Confessio, making the book useful even if you’re not interested in the author’s theory.

“Is Jane magic?” Martha whispered to Katharine. “I don’t know. I think so,” Katharine whispered back. Jane glared at them. They went for two blocks in silence. “Are we magic, too?” “I don’t know. I’m scared to find out.”

Edward Eager, Half Magic

Hermetic quote Eager Magic scared