The following is a long comment I wrote in response to someone who was daring me to discredit Daniel Gullotta’s awful review (published in the Journal of the Study for the Historical Jesus) of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. So, I picked the section of the review which was about Dennis MacDonald’s book The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark and tore it to shreds. As we will see, pretty much everything Gullotta says about this book is just shamelessly mistaken (and refuted within MacDonald’s book itself) much as the commentary on Carrier’s book is shamelessly mistaken and typically either already answered inside the pages of Carrier’s book or self-evidently false.
Gullotta says, “If Mark intended his audience to notice and understand his ‘Homeric flags’, then this would mean that only MacDonald (and his followers like Carrier) have been intelligent enough to spy Mark’s original intentions.”
Why that’s nonsense: In The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark MacDonald repeatedly points out that ancient people did see the Homeric connections; The Santiaga cult in Spain understood that James and John were Christianized Dioscuri (Homeric Epics p.30-32), and that later Christian legends about John and James were clearly modeled them after the Dioscuri. Ancient artistic depictions (that is: paintings) of the cleansing of the temple are deeply similar to the artistic depictions of the very scenes MacDonald suggests Mark emulated literarily (For example: ancient paintings of both episodes include people using trapezia [small tables] as shields, see p.35).
Gullotta asks, “[W]hat possible polemical situation which centered on Homer would have motivated Mark to write his gospel?”
Homeric polemics were not the primary reason Mark’s Gospel was written, and one can posit Homeric polemics without believing that said polemics were the primary reason the gospel was written. Easy as that.
Gulotta: “Carrier cannot reasonably justify why Mark chose to subvert the image of Odysseus, when other and more logical candidates were available.” [Gulotta suggests the Caesars and Romulus as alternate choice].
John Dominic Crossan’s book The Power of Parable also discusses connections between the Caesars and the gospel depiction of Jesus, though I don’t know that Crossan specifically dubs these similarities “polemics.” One way or another, similairties between Jesus and the Caesars indicate the author trying to depict Jesus as on par with the former. As for Romulus, I would refer you to Richard C. Miller, “Mark’s Empty Tomb and Other Translation Fables in Classical Antiquity” Journal of Biblical Literature [Note: this paper is on iTunes for $6]. Gulotta seems aware that there are indeed polemics / connections between the Caesars and Greek gods, and says, “To put this another way, Jesus rivalling Caesar makes sense, but Jesus rivalling Odysseus does not.” But if Jesus already “rivals” various Jewish Patriarchs and heroes like Moses and Abraham and Joshua, Caesars, and Romulus, why *wouldn’t* he also rival Greek heroes like Odysseus?
Gulotta complains that, “Also problematic is that many of MacDonald’s comparisons, and in turn Carrier’s appeal to them, come across as extremely forced and farfetched at times.”
The point of MacDonald’s book was to see how many parallels there were between the Homeric Epics and the gospel. Critics of the book inevtiably zoom in on the weaker parallels and invariably ignore the stronger ones. The same situation exists with the gospel and the Old Testament: there are weak parallels (Hosea 6:2 and the resurrection, for example) but there are also parallels that are undeniably strong (like the slaughter of the innocents in both Moses’ and Jesus’ life) and the former don’t negate the latter. In fact, MacDonald makes the same point I’d say one of MacDonald’s strongest examples is James and John as the Dioscuri, but you’ll never hear a critic of MacDonald offer a reasonable alternative explanation for the supporting facts that that’s built on.
To return to a point Gulotta makes early on in his review, “Because Carrier’s presuppositions about the Gospels’ genre, style, and meaning is so indebted to MacDonald’s work, much of the criticism applied to MacDonald’s claims can be equally applied to Carrier’s.”
If Gullotta means that Carrier is wedded to MacDonald’s *specific* thesis about Homeric borrowing, that would be false: Carrier’s thesis requires only symbolic interpretations for the gospels, not Homeric ones in particular. If Gullotta means that Carrier’s thesis requires use of, say, MacDonald’s criteria (or something like them) to detect emulation between the Old Testament and the Gospels, that may be true, but then again, nobody at all including Gullotta denies such emulation, nor is it reasonable to deny such.
Who would deny that the scapegoat ceremony of Leviticus 16 is emulated in Mark? In a nutshell, the scapegoat ritual in Leviticus 16:6-10 prescribes that (a) We take two goats (b) release one (c) sacrifice the other for remission of sin. Now look at Mark’s Barabbas narrative (Mark 15:6-15). Little known fact, Barabbas means “son of the father” and Jesus, of course, is a “Son of the Father.” The plot of the story is that (a) We have two sons of the father (b) One is released (Barabbas) (c) The other (Jesus) is sacrificed for remission of sin. These parallels cannot be said to be only in Carrier’s head: Matthew strengthens the connection by dubbing Barabbas “Jesus Barabbas” (Matthew 27:16), and the early church father Origen, one of the first on historical record to comment on this, also noticed Scapegoat imagery in this passage, see for yourself.