Becoming a Strategic Scholar

The promotional flyer was released today for a series of Graduate Student Workshops I’ll be teaching this Spring at California State University, Fullerton. Excited to build Scholarly Communications more and more into the Library’s instructional programming!

Becoming a Strategic Scholar: Spring 2019 Graduate Student Workshops

Classical Models of the Gospels and Acts featured in CSU Fullerton news

Campus news piece sent out by email today featured our recently edited book on Mimesis Criticism of the New Testament. Thank you to the most excellent team in Strategic Communications for sharing this publication and those of other faculty!

Classical Greek Models of the Gospels and Acts: chapter summaries

The first six chapters look with critical appreciation on MacDonald’s recent work, support mimesis criticism becoming a vital and standard methodology within New Testament studies, and sometimes propose new directions of mimetic inquiry.

The first chapter, “Mainstreaming Mimesis Criticism,” by Mark G. Bilby, recounts the neglect of mimesis criticism throughout New Testament studies, literature, and curricula; calls for scholars to incorporate it as a legitimate, vital, and standard methodology; suggests fora and nuances that can help transition mimesis criticism into a movement; and suggests that faith-based approaches (Christian, Jewish and Muslim) may find much to appreciate in mimesis critical interpretation.

In his chapter, “Even Good Homer Nods,” Michael Kochenash describes numerous strengths of mimesis as a methodology, contemplates a more agnostic accounting of sources for Jesus traditions than in MacDonald’s mythopoesis, and outlines future directions for scholarship in terms of making LXX-epic pairings and addressing how classical emulations eludicate authorial motivations.

In “Mark and Homer,” Kay Higuera Smith challenges MacDonald’s claim that Mark directly depended on Homer, something Smith sees as unlikely because of Mark’s lack of a classical education, his marginal (subaltern) socioeconomic status, and his limited sociolinguistic competence. Smith ultimately acknowledges the tremendous value of mimesis criticism, but only in terms of indirect oral and cultural influence.

In “Neos Dionysos in Textual and Cultural Mimesis,” Richard C. Miller esteems MacDonald’s recent contributions while lamenting the general ignorance of classical epic within Biblical scholarship and the tendency to dismiss major contributions by means of minor objections. Miller appreciates the way MacDonald has broadened mimesis from a methodology focused on texts to one illuminating standard cultural models, and he adeptly frames the Dionysian imitations with the first edition of the Gospel of John as “asceticized Bacchanalia.”

In “John’s Politics of Imitation,” Chan Sok Park situates MacDonald’s work on John and Euripides within two significant areas of Johannine scholarship: its indebtedness to Greek drama and its compositional history. He rhetorically presses on the issue of the “politics of imitation,” wondering whether the Johannine community as well as the Luke-Acts community arose out of Dionysian cults or instead in competition with them. He also wonders what mimesis criticism would say about the absence of the Lord’s Supper in John and what implicit and explicit claims about the Johannine community that MacDonald is making.

In “The First Dionysian Gospel: Imitational and Redactional Layers in Luke and John,” Mark G. Bilby describes how his doubts about mimesis were overcome by the numerous, dense parallels between Euripides’ Bacchae and John. His primary objection is that MacDonald presumes the dependence of John (in three versions) on Luke-Acts (in a single version). Bilby instead provides an alternative, groundbreaking reconstruction of the Synoptic Problem. He shows that the rise of a Marcionite (or proto-Marcionite) exclusive Paulinism and Pliny the Younger’s anti-Bacchanalian trials of Christians are historical, redactional-mimetic pivot points between the first and second editions of both John and Luke. Dionysian appropriations in the first editions of John and Luke are corrected and outdone by Socratic (counter-Dionysian) appropriations and the rehabilitation of Peter in the second editions of John and Luke.

The final three chapters focus on close mimetic analysis of specific passages in the Gospels and Acts, while also tracing out broader literary and theological implications for the New Testament, early Christianity, and the reception of epic literature in late antiquity.

“Scriptural Revision in Mark’s Gospel and Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius,” by Austin Busch, is a major contribution to the study of the Gospel of Mark. By means of a riveting, parallel tour of the reception of Homeric cyclops lore in these two texts, Busch recasts Mark’s entire narrative as a retelling of the anthropophagic redemption myths of Odysseus-Polyphemus and Zeus-Chronos, all the while reframing mimesis criticism within the broader framework of the reception of classical epic.

Ilseo Park offers a glimpse of his doctoral dissertation under MacDonald in his “Acts 2 as an Intertextual Map: Moving from Dionysian to Platonic Identity,” showing how the Pentecost narrative establishes the mimetic program for the entire narrative of Acts, evoking yet displacing Dionysian motifs with Socratic ones. Finally, in “The Scandal of Gentile Inclusion: Reading Acts 17 with Euripides’ Bacchae.”

Michael Kochenash confirms MacDonald’s claim of the clear imitation of Jason the Argonaut in Acts 17:5b-9, yet Kochenash goes further to explain how this imitation functions to provide reassurance that Paul was no political threat. He also finds an additional imitation not previously mentioned by MacDonald: that Acts 17:1-5a evokes the Bacchae in its description of a religious movement arriving across the Aegean, its remarkable success amont prominent women, and the anxious response of those in authority. He finally describes the significance of this imitation as a recasting of Gentile inclusion in Jewish communities as on par with Dionysian sexual scandal and as an assurance that Christians will in Dionysian fashion overcome opposition from the Pentheus-like Jewish leaders.

We will not summarize the conclusion here, except to say that Dennis MacDonald, whose words have inspired this volume, is accorded the honor of having the last word.

Book published: Classical Greek Models of the Gospels and Acts

Classical Greek Models of the Gospels and Acts: Studies in Mimesis Criticism. Edited by Mark G. Bilby, Michael Kochenash, and Margaret Froelich. Claremont, CA: Claremont Press, 2018.

The book is now available for purchase in print format on Amazon.

Thank you to the scholars who read an advanced copy of the book and generously provided blurbs!

“The volume honors the life’s work of Dennis MacDonald by showcasing the voices of a new generation of scholars who engage with his methods and insights on how to appreciate the influence of classical literature on the creative process that led to the writings included in the New Testament. For those colleagues who have never been exposed to such studies, the contributions open a window to an impressive variety of reactions, often connecting standard historical assumptions with an entirely new vision that transcends the classical array of exegetical methods and ventures into the realm of artistic expression through imitation of literary role models. In antiquity, higher education immersed students into mimetic exercises to train them as public speakers. The authors and editors, whose writings have found their way into the canonical collection were no exceptions.” – David Trobisch, Technische Universität Dresden

“New insights and innovations in scholarly methodology generally rely upon a single person who boldly puts them forward and resolutely withstands the criticism of skeptics. Whether or not such ideas prevail depends largely on the tenacity, skill and eloquence of the innovator’s students who have experienced the potential of their teacher’s ideas to generate their own insights. In this collection, the students of Dennis R. MacDonald have justly honored their debt to their teacher and have demonstrated the merits of mimesis criticism, a methodology pioneered by MacDonald. These keen, but clear-eyed students, deftly ply the tools of mimesis criticism to build up the body of evidence substantiating that early Christian authors, like their Greco-Roman contemporaries, imitated the works of revered authors such as Euripides to craft meaningful narratives.” – Jo-Ann Brandt, Goshen College

“‘Mimesis criticism,’ championed by Dennis R. MacDonald, argues that early Christian sources, especially Mark, Luke-Acts, and John, model much of their narratives on Homer, Euripides, and other classical texts. Classical Greek Models contributes substantially to the debates that MacDonald’s approach to intertextuality has generated. While it includes and engages critiques of the method, it extends and applies it in creative ways. While readers will no doubt find the examples of mimesis variously persuasive, the essays in this volume overall offer stimulating insights into the complex literary dynamics of early Christian literature in its Greco-Roman context. – Harold Attridge, Yale University

“Dennis R. MacDonald, whose essay concludes this volume, is the pioneer in employing mimesis criticism to illuminate narratives in the New Testament. His studies have called attention to striking reflections in Christian writings of well-known Greek and Latin literature—Homer, Euripides, and Vergil among them. In Classical Greek Models of the Gospels and Acts, Mark Bilby, Michael Kochenash, and Margaret Froelich have collected a number of studies that call for the mainstreaming of mimesis criticism and demonstrate its value in placing the New Testament within the context of that literature that was familiar to its first readers.” – Joseph Tyson, Southern Methodist University

“What is Mimesis Criticism? This volume of essays critically engages mimesis criticism and the stimulating work of Dennis MacDonald in locating NT writings in relation to classical Greek and Latin literary works. These essays are explanatory, evaluative, and envisioning. Sceptics, inquirers, and the convinced welcome.” – Warren Carter, Brite Divinity School

“The First Dionysian Gospel: Imitational and Redactional Layers in Luke and John”: chapter summary

This chapter in my recently published Classical Greek Models of the Gospels and Acts proposes a novel solution to the synoptic problem. Noting the gradual expansion of classical/mimetic sources over time, as well as the key role of Marcion’s Gospel and Pliny the Younger’s correspondence as pioneering legal precedent, I summarize the history and interrelationships of the canonical Gospels as follows:

  • Early/Shorter Mark (ca. 70–80) thoroughly imitated Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey;
  • Matthew (ca. 80–100) used Q and Mark, borrowing Mark’s imitations of Homer, and adding imitations of Plutarch (Vita Alexandri);
  • First Edition of Luke (ca. 80–100) used Q and Mark, borrowing Mark’s imitations of Homer, and added emulations of the Bacchae (Luke 4:29–30; 5:1–11; 8:1–3; 19:1-2, 8-10) which were later attested by Marcion;
  • First Edition of John (ca. 100–111) used Mark (including its imitations of Homer) and Luke (including its Dionysian content, e.g., Luke 4:29–30 inspired John 8:58b–59 and 10:39), but developed its own focused, thoroughgoing imitation of the Bacchae of Euripides;
  • Second and Third Edition of John (ca. 112–138) qualified its earlier Dionysian imitations by adding new imitations of Plato (Socrates);
  • Second Edition of Luke (ca. 117–150), inspired by the second and/or third edition of John and using Matthew, added new imitations of Euripides, Homer, Josephus, Livy, Plato (Socrates), Plutarch, Suetonius, Vergil, and Xenophon, all of which are not present or unattested in Marcion and all of which lack clear parallels in John;
  • Acts, created jointly with the Second Edition of Luke (ca. 117–150) and inspired by the second and/or third edition of John, developed new imitations of Aeschylus, Euripides, Homer, Josephus, Pindar, Plato (Socrates), Vergil, and Xenophon.

This solution resolves the classic debate between the majority of critical scholars who support the existence of Q, while also making sense of the objections raised by those arguing for Matthew as a source for Luke.

My hope is that this argument gets taken seriously as a major, new proposed solution for the synoptic problem, one that simultaneously shows the value of Mimesis Criticism as key to understand the ever-expanding literary/classical/mythic models across the history of earliest Christian literature.

Table of contents: Classical Greek Models of the Gospels and Acts

Thank you to all of the contributors to the recently published volume Classical Greek Models of the Gospels and Acts!

Part 1. SBL Panel Papers on The Gospels and Homer and Luke and Vergil

“Mainstreaming Mimesis Criticism,” by Mark G. Bilby

“Even Good Homer Nods,” by Michael Kochenash

“Mark and Homer,” by Kay Higuera Smith

Part 2. SBL Panel Papers on The Dionysian Gospel: The Fourth Gospel and Euripides

“Neos Dionysos in Textual and Cultural Mimesis,” by Richard C. Miller

“John’s Politics of Imitation,” by Chan Sok Park

“The First Dionysian Gospel: Imitational and Redactional Layers in Luke and John,” by Mark G. Bilby

Part 3. Mimesis in Practice: Discovering Old Imitations Anew

“Scriptural Revision in Mark’s Gospel and Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius,” by Austin M. Busch

“Acts 2 as an Intertextual Map: Moving from Dionysian to Platonic Identity,” by Ilseo Park

“The Scandal of Gentile Inclusion: Reading Acts 17 with Euripides’ Bacchae,” by Michael Kochenash

“Objections, Reflections, and Anticipations,” by Dennis R. MacDonald

Regensburg Conference on the Prehistory of the Byzantine Liturgical Year

In early July 2018 the University of Regensburg is hosting a conference on the Prehistory of the Byzantine Liturgy, and I was delighted to have my presentation accepted.

The official program bulletin for this conference was recently distributed. I’m glad to see several friends will be in attendance, including Stephen Shoemaker and Richard Bishop. I’m looking forward to seeing them and to meeting scholars whose work I have long admired, particularly Wendy Mayer. I also want to express my gratitude in advance for the hard work of the conference organizers, Harald Buchinger and Stefanos Alexopoulos, as well as the generosity of the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung for underwriting travel and accommodation costs.

My presentation is entitled, “Festal Breadcrumbs of the Byzantine Eucharist: Patristic Antecedents of the Troparion tou deipnou.” The abstract follows:

According to Robert Taft, the tou deipnou troparion first arose in Constantinople, by 573-574 was established as a standard hymn for Holy Thursday, and by the 11th century became a regular feature of the Eucharistic ritual of Constantinople and other traditions indebted to the Byzantine Rite. The prior origins of this troparion are clouded, but this author’s careful examination of patristic exegesis in his dissertation uncovered several possible sources of influence, including Ephrem the Syrian, an anonymous Syriac dispute poem, and Nyssen’s Vita Macrinae. Continuing that research, and in preparation for a forthcoming monograph, the author has translated numerous homilies on Luke 23:39-43, most of which have a Holy Week liturgical setting and many of which have never been translated into a modern language. These include Greek homilies by Chrysostom (CPG 4110, 4116, 4338, 4339, 4877), Severian of Gabala (CPG 4103, 4728), Proclus of Constantinople (CPG 4062, 4604, 5828), among others. Several features of the tou deipnou are anticipated in these patristic homilies, as well as in patristic commentaries, hymns, and poems. These features include the emphasis on confession, the juxtaposition of Judas and the bandit, and several notable textual variants in Luke 23:42: “Remember me, Lord,” rather than “Jesus, remember me;” the absence of the term “come;” and the dative “in your kingdom” rather than the (earlier attested) accusative “into your kingdom.” While a singular influence cannot be illustrated, patristic homilies do evince common textual and interpretive patterns that helped shape the tou deipnou troparion of the Byzantine Rite.

A Public Prayer for the World: Silent Vigils for Justice

In our Academic Senate meetings at CSUF, we sometimes pause to have a moment of silence for CSUF faculty who have passed. While not overtly religious, it is a beautiful and meaningful ritual and tradition.

I can’t help but think about the many persons who never had an opportunity to be part of our community because of systemic injustice, and that we also have a solemn duty to be vigilant in remembering them.

For them, I offer this guidance and encouragement to all of us at CSUF and everywhere. In all public meetings in which we participate, let us find the courage to read the following and observe a minute of silence.

“Let us observe a moment of silence to remember those absent from among us because they were discriminated against, arrested, imprisoned, and murdered for their color, citizenship, companionship, creed and culture and not for the content of their character. Let us consider ways we can repair this damage and make our world whole.”

Shema / First Commandment / Great Commandment

An inquisitive, contemplative, beloved friend and all-around glorious person recently asked me, “Is it commonly cited in the first commandment, when they say to love the Lord, that they say with your heart, soul, and mind? All three things?”

Simply put, the answer is “sometimes.” 🙂 To be more precise, the answer is “it’s complicated.” 🙂

To explain the earliest history of the so-called First Commandment or Great Commandment, it is important to note three distinct stages.

Stage 1: The Shema in the Hebrew Bible

Deuteronomy 6:4-5, probably written around the late 7th century BCE, is the opening of the Shema. I would translate it as follows:

(6:4) Listen, Israel! YHWH our god, YHWH (is) one. (6:5) You will love YHWH your god with all your heart and with all your life and with all your might.

The words “life” (Hebrew, nefesh) and “might” (Hebrew, meod) are particularly fascinating and important. Often “life” gets translated as “soul,” but this Hebrew term should not be confused with Greek/Platonic notions of an invisible and immortal soul. It is instead the life-force within persons and animals. Meod is often translated as “strength,” but could also be translated as “force” or even “excess.” In Rabbinic interpretation, it was common to read meod as a command to demonstrate love for god with all of one’s financial means.

Stage 2: The Shema in the Septuagint (Hellenistic Jewish Bible)

The translation of the Hebrew Shema into Greek in the Septuagint (created 2nd century BCE) transformed its meaning in certain ways.

(6:4) Listen, Israel! Lord our god, Lord is one. (6:5) And you will love Lord your god with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your power.

The Greek translation of the Hebrew nefesh (“life”) as psyche (“soul”) lends itself to more Greek/Platonic notions of the soul, and the Greek translation of the Hebrew meod (“power/force/excess”) as dunamis (“power/strength/energy/ability”) may narrow its semantic potential and make financial/economic interpretations less likely.

Stage 3: The Great/First Commandment Identified by Jesus in the New Testament

In the Gospel of Mark (12:29-30), written around 70-75 AD/CE, Jesus is quoted as saying that the “first” (prote) commandment is that mentioned at the outset of the Shema:

(12:30) You shall love the lord your god with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your thought and with all your strength.

The text of this commandment is later followed/copied word for word by the Gospel of Matthew (22:37) and Luke (10:27). The word for “strength” here (ischuos) is slightly different than what is found in the Septuagint, but it probably doesn’t transform the meaning very much.

Far more significant is the addition of a fourth term, dianoias, which is typically translated into English as “mind” or “understanding,” but could also be translated as “thought” or “thinking.” Through the expansion of terms from three to four, the New Testament (proto-Christian) version of the Shema becomes more involved, more internalized, more a matter of patterns and habits of thought. In other words, the way we think becomes a way of worshiping, honoring, and loving God.

It should also be said that Matthew and Luke do recontextualize Mark’s quotation, though. Mark has Jesus quote it in response to scribes, but Matthew and Luke make it a response to a “lawyer” or “Torah-expert.” In Matthew, it is described as the “greatest” (not “first”) commandment, whereas in Luke it is not called “first” nor the “greatest” commandment, but is instead simply a response to a question about how to inherit eternal life. In other words, the custom to call this the “First Commandment” comes from Mark, but the custom to call it the “Great/Greatest Commandment” comes from Matthew.

RLST 201: Week 6-14 Highlights

Where has time flown? The last week of the semester is upon us. During the last half of the semester, I participated more in specific discussion threads instead of giving the bird’s eye view that I had during the first part of the semester. Given that, I thought a selection of highlights from my posts would be useful to share.

Luke 11-12: On the Lord’s Prayer

Socratic question: since we have three different versions of Jesus giving instructions about what to say in prayer in early Christianity (in Luke, in Matthew, and in the Didache), is there actually such a thing as “the Lord’s Prayer” in the Bible, or is the idea of “the Lord’s Prayer” a later imposition on the Bible?

Same thing could be said about “the Ten Commandments.” Exodus and Deuteronomy give two different versions. So which one, if any, is the “real Ten Commandments”?

To put it differently, why did later Christian interpreters want to boil down these diverse texts into one definitive “Lord’s Prayer” and one definitive “Ten Commandments”? What does that say about how they saw and used the Bible?

Hint: liturgical/worship and educational interests can overshadow and overdetermine interpretation of the Bible!

Luke 11-12: On Judith and the Fall of Jerusalem

Fascinating connections between Judith to the suffering of Jerusalem. You might be interested in a popular article I wrote about Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds as a kind of modern day Judith.

Judith and Revelation in the New Testament have quite a bit in common. Revenge fantasies lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, and a call to resistance against imperial rule.

Luke 13-14: Theological and Social Readings

When I read Luke 13:22-30, I read it as a warning against presumption. That theme is very strong in Calvin’s theology. While he says that those predestined to salvation can have assurance, he also stresses that believers should not be presumptuous, and that salvation/election manifests in mortification (self-denial) and good works.

Another way to read the passage is a warning not simply to go along with the crowd.

Yet another way is to read it as a warning to Jesus’ Jewish co-religionists not to assume that their Jewish religious/ethnic standing guaranteed them a place in the eschatological family reunion of God’s people. Gentiles may show themselves more devoted to YHWH than YHWH’s own people.

Lots of possibilities. I wonder if the Jewish/Gentile one is more in keeping with the original context of Luke in its historical context. If so, we should note Calvin’s focus on predestination is itself a profound transformation of the meaning of this passage. My master’s thesis on election and predestination in early Christianity may be helpful here. Early Christian theologians before Augustine saw election and predestination as corporate/ecclesial, not individual. Calvin’s individualistic way of thinking about election and predestination was quite likely a very different way of thinking than what was initially reflected in Luke within its original historical contexts.

Luke 13-14: Individual vs. Communal Interpretations

Ambrose’s interpretation reminds me of the point I made in my reply to another student’s post. Even in ancient Latin Christianity, interpreters took passages (like the fig tree) that had corporate/national/historical significance (as about the fall of Jerusalem) and reinterpreted them to be about the salvation of individuals. If we compare Western (Latin) interpreters to Eastern (Greek/Syriac) ones, often you’ll see that the Western interpreters are more individualistic, and that Eastern interpreters are more corporate/community focused.

Luke 13-14: Calls to Repentance

I’m curious as to whether you would describe these passages as focused on national/corporate repentance and judgement or individual repentance and judgment.

I was meeting with one of my grad student mentees today and we were talking about how English translations of the Bible are so stilted because there is no second person plural (as in Spanish and most Western languages). Because of this, and our individualistic culture, we tend to read the Bible as all about individuals when in its original context it is often speaking to groups of people (families, cities, nations, etc.).

For those of you who read Spanish, French, German, or other Western languages with a second person plural, be encouraged to compare English translations to translations in those languages so you can have more insight into the group-focused mentality that is typical of the books in the New Testament.

My favorite example of this is 1 Cor 6:19. Most people in the US today read that as about individuals (i.e., my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit), and then make it about working out or fitness or something that has nothing to do with the original context of the passage, when the original passage uses all 2nd person plural pronouns and possessives and is speaking of the Church as the collective/shared temple of the Holy Spirit.

Luke 19-20: A Soldier’s Devotion

In addition to the parable of the pounds, the story of the centurion in Luke 7 is also quite reminiscent of the teaching of Epictetus about the taking of oaths. Interesting to think that Jesus expected soldier-like devotion among his disciples.

It’s not well-known in popular circles, but many scholars would say that the historical Jesus led a guerilla warrior movement, and that this is what got him executed. Romans didn’t execute people for teaching about love and forgiveness. They did execute people who were seen as leading revolutionary/independence movements. The fact of the crucifixion is the most important evidence in this argument, but there are other hints throughout the gospels (e.g., the disciples carrying swords and staffs).

After the death of Jesus, and especially after the fall of Jerusalem to Rome in 70, the authors/editors who gave us the Gospels very carefully attempted to make Jesus sound less and less threatening to the so-called Pax Romana. The later the Gospel, the more involved its commitment to picturing Jesus as innocent and that his trial was a travesty of justice.

Luke 19-20: Religious-Corporate Personhood

We don’t often think today about “corporate personhood” in religious terms. It’s interesting to think about the character of Jesus in the Gospels as representing the life and history of a community. In this case, the cleansing of the temple may represent how early (proto-)Christian communities practiced worship that did not exploit the poor, but instead supported them, and the conspiracy to kill Jesus may reflect the sense of opposition these communities had to their way of life in solidarity with the poor.