Is the Gospel of Mark indebted to Homer?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: Skeptics accuse Mark of copying off of the Iliad because of Joseph of Arimathea and Priam, King of Troy. They say that Priam asks for his son Hector's body from Achilles. Joseph (same name as Christ's earthly father) asks for Christ's body from Pilate

Answer: Greetings friend. I need to make a few assumptions since you did not actually ask a question. First, I will assume that you are at least pro-Bible and perhaps a believer, because you used the word “Skeptics” in the third person, and ascribed a pejorative to such persons via the verb “accuse.” Second, I shall assume that you are asking me what you should say to a skeptic who brings this issue up. Third, I shall also assume, because of its currency in Christian dialogue (and because this work contains your particular example), that you are referencing fallout from professor Dennis R. MacDonald’s The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, (Yale University Press, Sep 1, 2010).

MacDonald avers that the parallels between the Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark show that Mark built a Jesus legend using mimesis more so than relating a true history. (Mimesis is a specialized term in the art world. It means imitation — although not in the sense of copying — but rather as re-presentation.) So, the accusation is that the author of Mark primarily performed a work of art, and not a work of history, by recasting biblical characters and plots to conform to those found in the Homeric Epic. This would make Mark (or whomever) either a fiction writer or a plagiarist. In this scenario, all subsequent New Testament theology would be based on a lie — and this is no small matter to a Christian! But relax. MacDonald’s attack is tepid.

As a primary method, we should study our Bibles straight on. The assumption for the Bible student is that God’s word is true, and we should spend our time studying in the context of belief and not spend great energies chasing after wells without water or clouds without rain (2 Peter 2:17). However, this does not mean that we do not test the veracity of our ancient documents — just the opposite. The Bible thrives under such analysis! MacDonald’s book? It challenges everything but changes nothing. The Bible is still true, and skeptics are still skeptical. As such, they are not inclined to give God the benefit of the doubt. So, when a credentialed author comes up with a plausible challenge to the orthodox view of biblical authorship, they take keen interest. And that’s what we have here — an ostensibly new idea, which is of interest to biblical skeptics, but of no intrinsic worth to us. Yet, we respond.

Before we begin, let me bolster the skeptic’s case. Any Greek-literate person from Mark’s time probably studied Homer as a Greek primer. As such, he would have extensive knowledge of its plots and people. For purposes of this discussion, let us assume that Mark knew Homer. However, this is only one piece of the alleged crime. Sure, Mark had the opportunity — and perhaps he had the ability (although his writing is simple) to create such an art piece… but did he do it? Or are people seeing relationships in the texts that just aren’t there?

The Academy Award-winning movie A Beautiful Mind (2001) is the story of Nobel Laureate, John Nash. The outworking of his mathematical genius was skewed by his schizophrenia. He saw connections everywhere! And chasing them down robbed him of peace and productivity. Nash thought that he was seeing what nobody else could see — secret messages popping out of eclectic data. But the messages were not actually there. Now, there were indeed observed relationships in the data, because Nash saw them! But they were incidental and not purposefully authored. Let us compare Nash to MacDonald.

MacDonald said, “...readers for 2000 years apparently have been blind to this important aspect of Mark’s project” (6–7). Does he really think that the great multitude of biblical and classical scholars (which includes giants from anyone’s list) was blind for the past 2000 years in that they missed a world-changing connection between the most studied documents of the ancient world? I think it far more likely that MacDonald, like Nash, indeed saw connections — but they were perceived and not purposeful connections. In literature, understanding the author’s intention is the first key to context. Without cracking that, you go nowhere. I am not saying that MacDonald did not see those connections. Indeed he did — and he can show them to you so you can see them too. But since they were not the author’s intent, they are stray data that looks connected. That’s all. Nash had an excuse. He was schizophrenic, and I do know about MacDonald. But if he is otherwise healthy, I diagnose hubris.

As for seeing connections, we are all like Nash — at least a little bit. God provided us humans with abundant intelligence, not just enough to get by. The overflow of our intelligence causes us to see relationships in random occurrences all the time. So, it is helpful when assessing any data, and this includes comparing documents one to another, to separate the results of our hyper-awareness from the legitimate results by asking ourselves, is this the author’s intent? Or am I just seeing an incidental association?

Two reviewers of MacDonald’s book, one a skeptic and one a believer, have found the same problem — and for me, it’s the tell. The book is more effective as a whole than it is by its parts. Generalities do fuel itching ears, and details dispel conspiracy. First, let’s hear from “skeptic to the thick” Richard Carrier, as he reviews this book on the website.

MacDonald's case is thorough, and though many of his points are not as conclusive as he makes them out to be, when taken as a cumulative whole the evidence is so abundant and clear it cannot be denied. And being a skeptic to the thick, I would never say this lightly. 

Now let us hear Christian reviewer James Patrick Holding, as he weighs in for the Christian Research Journal, volume 24, number 2 (2001). 

The overwhelming majority of parallels drawn in The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark are the product of MacDonald’s vague generalizations, fertile imagination, and literary manipulations. It is significant that MacDonald tells the reader early in his book that detecting and appreciating the parallels he draws requires “patience, generosity, and above all, imagination” (9). In the final analysis, MacDonald’s attempt to rewrite Christian origins, and to interpret Mark’s Jesus as a refashioned Odysseus, is little more than an exercise in creative writing with a serious Achilles’ heel.

How, then, should you address the skeptic? First, find out if he is indeed a skeptic, like our Richard Carrier from above, or if he is a mere complainer. Ask him, Have you read both the Bible and the document? — and I mean the entire Bible and the entire document. It is axiomatic that snippets of writing cannot be understood apart from their whole, and a person who is not conversant in both documents has no warrant to impugn the Bible — especially when the point of discussion is to compare the two! Most likely, a complainer will be repeating something that he has heard somewhere … from someone… who might or might not have read it either. Please note well that a person who has an opinion but who has not prepared adequately, is immature — and he is not ready to sit at the grown-up’s table for a discussion. But, we are Christians, and our hallmark should be humility. So treat all people with love and ask God how to proceed.

I have a few general comments about these document comparison issues. First, should it be surprising that anything has been said more than once?

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9, ESV)

“My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12, ESV)

I agree with Solomon. There is nothing really new…and all this study is wearisome. One good reason for the weariness is that there are only thirty-six different story plots in all of literature, and we just keep working them over and over. Therefore, whatever we have heard, someone has said it before — or something very like it. This is not plagiarism. It is just how variation plays out in a limited field. Plots are like other plots. Characters are like other characters. Places are like other places. This is not a conspiracy. This is math.

As to your initial comment, is it reasonable to assume that only one person in history or literature could legitimately ask for a dead body and that any others who have done this must have copied the first? Does the same apply to names?— because I know over twenty people named Joseph. Furthermore, Homer’s characters are (by the author’s design, I assume) plausibly human. Should we think it strange that they have performed certain acts that other people have subsequently done… but without copying? Do we have a rule of literature that restricts our writing of historical narrative to tell only original events and avoid the reporting of all repeated scenarios? That would be unworkable, to say the least! But isn’t that the general form of your reported complaint — that Homer came first and shares elements with Mark, therefore, Homer caused Mark? That sounds plausible, but it is not necessarily true, and it is not true at all in this case.

Additionally, there are forces in the world that are beyond a skeptic’s comfort, but a Christian needs to hear this. The propensity for story itself is unexplainable except that it comes directly from God — and it is so essentially human! All stories come from an omniscient Creator who has a story to tell and who has chosen us to tell it. Therefore, a story is always “in the air” if you will. Pagans are notorious for co-opting God’s meta-narratives and retelling them through sin-skewed filters. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a good example of the Flood story told through a pagan filter. In this case, the pagans have an older written record, but the stories run parallel from the same source. One is true. One is false. One does not cause the other. And whichever one has the oldest extant document does not matter.

In like manner, the great meta-narratives of sacrifice, hardship and glory that we find in the Gospels run parallel to the pagan Homeric tales… but parallelism is not causation. It is an indication of a common source. The story of the redemption of humankind was wrought by God before the foundations of the earth (Ephesians 1:4), and it has run the path of truth all throughout the Bible, culminating in the Gospels. Pagan stories like Gilgamesh, Homer, and a host of others, have run alongside God’s long story, but they are myth, while God’s story is historical narrative. They are parallel. One is true. One is false. One does not cause or undo the other. They play out, side by side, until the day of Jesus Christ when all falsehood will finally be put away.

As a final thought, when God decided to use common men and common language to teach us uncommon things, he invoked a writer’s ethic: to communicate in the human idiom. Although God works through his word in ways that are often mysterious to us, it is not because the language itself is spooky or different. In fact, it would be unethical for God to write words that were ostensibly human, but to mean something else by them. People see non-authored connections within the Bible all the time—that’s part of our brilliance. But just because they are in the Bible, that does not make them legitimate. Therefore I ask, how much more illegitimate are the ones that unbelievers see from the outside?

(For comments, or to join the Monday Musings mailing list, contact us at To submit a question about God, the Bible or the Christian culture, click here.)