Does the New Testament Imitate Homer?: Four Cases from the Acts of the Apostles

Does the New Testament Imitate Homer?: Four Cases from the Acts of the Apostles

by Dennis R. MacDonald

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In this provocative challenge to prevailing views of New Testament sources, Dennis R. MacDonald argues that the origins of passages in the book of Acts are to be found not in early Christian legends but in the epics of Homer. MacDonald focuses on four passages in the book of Acts, examines their potential parallels in the Iliad, and concludes that the author of Acts composed them using famous scenes in Homer’s work as a model.
Tracing the influence of passages from the Iliad on subsequent ancient literature, MacDonald shows how the story generated a vibrant, mimetic literary tradition long before Luke composed the Acts. Luke could have expected educated readers to recognize his transformation of these tales and to see that the Christian God and heroes were superior to Homeric gods and heroes. Building upon and extending the analytic methods of his earlier book, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, MacDonald opens an original and promising appreciation not only of Acts but also of the composition of early Christian narrative in general.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300129892
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Dennis R. MacDonald is John Wesley Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins, Claremont School of Theology, and director of the Institute of Antiquity and Christianity, Claremont Graduate University.

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Does the New Testament Imitate Homer?


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2003 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-09770-2

Chapter One

Cornelius and Peter

Of the texts from Acts to be studied in this volume, the first, 10:1-11:18, is the most significant. Whereas one might remove the other passages from Acts without collapsing the structure of the whole book, the conversion of Cornelius and his household is a pillar supporting Luke's entire literary and theological construction. By this point in the narrative the reader of Acts anticipates God's pouring the "Spirit upon all flesh" so that "everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved." The combination of two visions, one to Cornelius and another to Peter, convinces the apostle that "God does not practice favoritism, but in every nation one who fears God and acts justly is acceptable to him." Just as God had poured the Spirit upon Jewish followers of Jesus at Pentecost, God poured the Spirit upon gentiles assembled at the home of Cornelius. Peter thus told Jewish believers in Jerusalem: "The Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it did upon us at the beginning." This event demonstrated to the church in Jerusalem that "the gentiles received the word of God." When Peter sought to justify thegentile mission in chapter 15, he harked back to the Cornelius episode: God gave the Spirit to gentiles just as to Jews at Pentecost.

The literary context of Cornelius's conversion likewise witnesses to its significance. It precedes Peter's escape from prison (the final narrative devoted primarily to him) and anticipates Paul's career. Furthermore, Luke devoted an unusual amount of papyrus to the event; almost 150 lines constitute his longest unified narrative. "The importance of the story for Luke and for Luke's book is thus unmistakable. It marks the final critical stage in the extension of the Gospel and the expansion of the church.... Luke intended his reader to understand that he was witnessing a decisive step, perhaps the decisive step, in the expansion of Christianity into the non-Jewish world."

Acts 10:1-11:18 is a coherent unit, with an unmistakable beginning and ending. Geographical references divide it into five distinct scenes: (1) the vision of Cornelius at Caesarea (10:1-8); (2) the vision of Peter at Joppa (10:9-16); (3) the summoning of Peter from Joppa (10:17-23a); (4) the meeting of Peter and Cornelius at Caesarea before a private audience (10:23b-48); and (5) the report to the church at Jerusalem (11:1-18). The narrator tells the tale of Cornelius's vision in scene one, but characters within the narrative retell it four times: the centurion tells it to his emissaries (10:8), the emissaries mention it to Peter (10:22), Cornelius regales Peter with it (10:30-33), and Peter refers to it briefly in Jerusalem (11:13-14). Similarly, the narration of Peter's vision appears first in scene two, but Peter refers to it twice later: once obliquely to Cornelius (10:28) and once in detail to the Jerusalem gathering (11:5-10).

Here is the narrator's account of Cornelius's vision.

There was a certain man in Caesarea, Cornelius by name, centurion of the cohort called Italian, pious, fearing God with his entire household, providing many alms for the people, and praying constantly to God. At about the ninth hour of the day [3 P.M.] he clearly saw in a vision an angel of God coming to him and saying, "Cornelius." When he gazed at him, he was terrified and said, "What is it, sir?" He said to him, "Your prayers and your alms have ascended to remembrance before God. So now, send men to Joppa and summon a certain Simon, called Peter. He is residing at the home of Simon, a tanner, near the sea." When the angel speaking to him had left, he called two of his servants and a pious soldier from among those who attended to him, narrated everything to them, and sent them off to Joppa.

Luke's narration of the vision of Peter immediately follows.

At about the sixth hour [noon] on the following day, while those men were traveling and nearing the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted to eat, and while others were making the preparations an ecstasy overtook him. He sees the sky opened and a container, descending like a huge sail, let down to the ground by four corners. In it were all types of quadrupeds, reptiles of the earth, and birds of heaven. A voice called to him: "Peter, arise, slay, and eat." But Peter said, "Never, Lord! I never ate anything profane or unclean." The voice came to him a second time: "What God has made clean, you must not make profane." The same thing happened three times, and suddenly the container was taken into the sky.

At first Peter was confused about the meaning of his vision that seemed merely to abolish Jewish distinctions between clean and unclean animals, but on learning of the coincident vision to Cornelius, he understood the animals to represent humankind. The command to eat unclean animals symbolized the removal of taboos against associating with gentiles.

This apparent disparity between the vision and its interpretation has triggered speculation. The command to eat unclean animals contravenes Jewish distinctions between clean and unclean meats, but Peter's interpretation involves not what one serves on the table but with whom one eats. Many scholars thus argue that Luke inherited two originally independent sources, each of which narrated one vision. In one, an angel told Cornelius to summon Peter, and he did so. When Peter arrived, he preached, and Cornelius converted and was baptized. Here we have a simple conversion story, much like Philip's conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch in 8:26-40 that credited Peter for not requiring circumcision. At some point, the legend was recorded-perhaps at Caesarea or Jerusalem-to justify the inclusion of all believing gentiles. The second putative source consisted of Peter's vision (and perhaps his report of it in 11:1-10), the original function of which was to pronounce all foods clean, like Mark's declaration that Jesus had purified all foods (7:19). It was Luke who skillfully combined the two sources, though without entirely removing the tension between Peter's vision and his interpretation.

Even though this reconstruction of the compositional history of Acts 10:1-11:18 is the most popular, it has difficulties, and rivals exist. A few scholars have attributed the entire episode to Luke. Others have been willing to grant a pre-Lucan Cornelius legend, but attribute Peter's vision to Luke himself insofar as Paul seems not to have known an abolition of dietary regulations by the Judean church. Still others claim that the two visions existed together at the earliest stage of tradition as coordinating visions to create "a Jewish-Christian mission legend." These scholars note that twinned, confirming dreams and visions were common in antiquity.

Despite these differences in reconstructions of the compositional history of the Cornelius story, a recent commentator confidently declared: "It is undoubtedly derived from a Palestinian source." Few interpreters would disagree. According to most, Luke's redactional contributions consist primarily of his addition of Peter's vision with its interpretation, Peter's sermon at Caesarea, the receiving of the Spirit, and the report to Jerusalem. Luke also located the Cornelius narrative strategically between the ministries of Peter and Paul, thereby inflating a simple conversion story into the decisive turning point for the conversion of gentiles, "an etiology for the gentile mission."

The following chapters, however, will argue that Luke composed these tales with attention not to Jewish-Christian sources but to the beginning of Iliad 2: the lying dream to Agamemnon and Odysseus's recollection of a portent seen by the Greek army. Peter's identification of the animals in his vision with humans stands in a tradition at least as old as Homer and at least as widespread as Homeric imitations. The apostle might have converted a god-fearing centurion, and early Christians might have celebrated it in legend, but Luke needed no history, legend, or source for the creation of Acts 10:1-11:18. All he needed was Iliad 2.1-335.

The next chapter provides a summary and new translations of the relevant Homeric passages. Chapter 3 monitors imitations of the dream and portent in ancient Greek and Latin literature. Chapter 4 compares the dream and portent with the visions of Cornelius and Peter in Acts and exposes the remarkable density of parallels between them. Here I also argue that the alleged discrepancy between Peter's vision and his interpretation is no discrepancy at all; the literal and the allegorical not only dovetail but also are mutually dependent. Further- more, symbolic interpretations of animals as humans are firmly rooted in ancient interpretations of visions as early as Homer. Chapter 5 argues that the similarities between Acts 10-11 and Iliad 2 derive from literary imitation and not from a tradition or a source.

Chapter Two

Lying Dream and True Portent

According to the first book of the Iliad, in the ninth year of the Trojan War, Apollo destroyed many Greeks to punish Agamemnon, their commander, for having taken captive the daughter of Apollo's priest. To avert the plague, Agamemnon begrudgingly freed the girl and in her place took to his tent Achilles' beloved concubine Briseis. Enraged, Achilles withdrew from the war and asked his mother, Thetis, to implore Zeus to punish Agamemnon. The king of the gods thus decided to send him a "destructive dream." Hera, Zeus's wife, stiffly opposed Troy, so without telling her or any other god, the Olympian ordered Oneiros, "Dream," to tell Agamemnon that the Greek troops could "now [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" take the city. The subsequent attack would cause the death of many. The opening lines of Book 2 describe the sending of Oneiros to Agamemnon.

Now the other gods and men, furnished with horses, slept through the night, but sweet sleep did not hold Zeus, but he was planning in his mind how to honor Achilles and destroy many soldiers near the ships of the Achaeans. The following plan seemed to him the best: to send a destructive dream to Atreides Agamemnon. He spoke winged words to him, saying, "Go up, destructive Oneiros, to the swift ships of the Achaeans, and on arriving at the hut of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, tell him everything precisely as I command you. Command him to arm the long-haired Achaeans at once, for now he can take the wide-laned city of the Trojans. No longer are the immortals who dwell on Olympus of two minds, for Hera's pestering has bent them all to her side, and sorrows now are stuck to the Trojans." When he heard the message, Oneiros left. Quickly he arrived at the swift ships of the Achaeans and went to Atreides Agamemnon. He found him sleeping in his hut; ambrosial sleep had engulfed him.

In Homeric epic, mortals do not have dreams; they receive them as messengers of the gods. Dreamers are spectators, and dreams are not abstractions or projections but actual beings, like Oneiros. Oneiros identifies himself as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ... [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], "an angel of Zeus," usually and aptly translated "a messenger of Zeus." Greek artists sometimes depicted Oneiros as a young man with wings, similar to angels in Christian art. The poet next turns to the appearance of the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] to Agamemnon.

He stood above his head in the likeness of Nestor, son of Neleus, whom Agamemnon esteemed most among his elders. Appearing like him, the divine Oneiros spoke. "Are you sleeping, son of wise Atreus, breaker of horses? A man burdened with decisions, on whom his people rely, with so many worries, ought not sleep through the night. Now listen attentively. I am an angel to you from Zeus, who, though he is far away, cares for you greatly and takes pity on you. He ordered that you arm the long-haired Achaeans at once, for now you can take the wide-laned city of the Trojans. No longer are the immortals who dwell on Olympus of two minds, for Hera's pestering has bent them all to her side. Zeus now has stuck the Trojans with sorrows. Hold this in your thoughts, and do not let forgetfulness overcome you when honey-minded sleep releases you." And when he had spoken, he went away. He left him pondering in his heart things that would not come to pass. He thought that he would take the city of Priam that very day-the fool-not knowing what events Zeus was intending. For he was yet to bring pains and groaning on the Trojans and Danaans in fierce battles. Agamemnon awoke from sleep, and the divine voice engulfed him.

Zeus had told him that "now [vuv] you can take the wide-laned city of the Trojans"; but the king thought "that he would take the city of Priam that very day [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]]." Agamemnon's careless exegesis of Zeus's perniciously ambiguous "now" would bring disaster. Agamemnon had reason to trust the dream. Despite his manifest flaws, he faithfully had offered prayers and sacrifices to the gods, and several portents had promised victory. The lying dream and other signs guaranteed a victory, but it would not come until many Greeks had fallen to atone for Agamemnon's hubris against Achilles.

The king then convened his council and told them the dream nearly verbatim. Nestor replied that if he had heard it from anyone other than the commander in chief he would have considered the dream a lie-which, of course, it was. The council called an assembly of the entire army, but Agamemnon did not tell them his dream. On the contrary, testing their loyalty, he said that Zeus "now has planned an evil deceit and commands me to return to Argos infamous after having lost so many men." The troops were free to return home.

After nine years of futile warfare, they understandably broke for the ships. To halt the flight, Odysseus reminded them that, as they were about to sail from Aulis for Troy, they had seen a divine portent that promised them success.

We all know this well in our minds, and you all are witnesses ... [it was as] yesterday or the day before that the ships of the Achaeans were assembling at Aulis to bring harm to Priam and the Trojans. Around a spring and at holy altars we were sacrificing perfect hecatombs to the immortals, beneath a beautiful plane-tree from which clear water flowed. There a great sign appeared: a serpent-blood-red on its back, terrible, that the Olympian [Zeus] himself brought to the light-darted from under an altar and rushed for the plane-tree, where, on the highest branch, were nestlings of a sparrow, eight helpless chicks, crouching beneath the leaves; their mother who birthed the chicks made nine. Then the serpent devoured them as they chirped pitiably, and their mother flitted around them, lamenting her beloved little ones. Coiling back, it grabbed her wing as she squawked. When the serpent had devoured the chicks and the sparrow herself, the god who had revealed it made it disappear, for the son of crooked-counseling Cronos turned it to stone. We just stood there, amazed at what had happened.

According to Odysseus, the prophet Calchas then offered his interpretation: "Why are you speechless, long-haired Achaeans? All-wise Zeus has shown us a great sign-late in coming and late in fulfillment-whose fame will never perish. Just as this serpent devoured the chicks and the sparrow herself-eight and the mother who birthed them making nine-so we will fight there for as many years, but in the tenth we will take the wide-laned city."


Excerpted from Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? by DENNIS R. MacDONALD Copyright © 2003 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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