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.

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