Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Intertextual Density, Quantifying Imitation

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Intertextual Density, Quantifying Imitation

Article excerpt

The present article examines the quantitative parameter of intertextual density as a way of determining hypertextual imitation. The article reflects on the thesis put forward by NT scholar Dennis R. MacDonald, namely, that the Gospel of Mark stands in a relationship of imitation with Homer's Odyssey and Iliad.1 Specifically, he argues that passages in Mark 4-6, 8-9,11, and 13-14 primarily imitate Odyssey 3, 4, 6-7, 10, 16, and 19.2 Furthermore, he claims that passages in Mark 15-16 primarily imitate Iliad 22 and 24.3 MacDonald's argument is that text B (Mark) uses text A (Odyssey/Iliad) as the primary model when it comes to story elements, plot (the linking of events in a meaningful way), and characterization (the way literary characters are described and communicated to the reader). MacDonald is using a concept of "bulk density" that is not well defined and relies heavily on hermeneutics rather than on a method of quantitative measurement.4

Systematic studies of intertextual density are still lacking in the scholarly discussion of imitation and hypertextuality. In a recent contribution, biblical scholars Serge Frolov and Allen Wright draw on MacDonald's model in their discussion of the intertextual relationship between the account of David's victory over Goliath in 1 Samuel 17 and The Epic ofGilgamesh together with The Story ofSinuhe.5 They state that "the density of parallels" is "very substantial."6 They have found "four major and six minor parallels" and "at least two and possibly three distinctive details."7 From their presentation it is not clear why the "bulky" parallels, forming textual clusters of sorts, are in the final analysis accounted for separately from the distinctive details, and what exactly constitutes major and minor parallels respectively.8 Finally, the authors state that the density is particularly impressive since "the biblical fragment," that is, the hypertext, "is relatively short."9 Here, a notion of relative density, expressed as volume of parallels over total volume of text, is hinted at but not explicated further.

Although the focus in the following will be on density, I will attempt to review it in a framework of both qualitative and quantitative parameters. Since it would be impossible to do justice to the whole of MacDonald's complex argument, I will give particular attention to the episode of the Gerasene demoniac in Mark 5:1-20 and its supposed imitation of the story of the Cyclops in Odyssey 9. This is, in MacDonald's view, one of the most convincing instances of imitation, not least due to the sheer density, volume, of the parallels. The case revolves around fifteen parallels, in conjunction with one motif from the story of Circe in Odyssey 10.

I. Copying versus Imitation

The consensus on Markan priority among the Synoptic Gospels is shared by MacDonald. Biblical source criticism has paid some statistical attention to "verbal agreement," that is, word-for-word parallels between the Synoptic Gospels.10 A recent statistical model on conditional probability of the relations of verbal agreement safely places Luke last in the chain of direct influence, whereas some statistical doubt remains as to whether Mark or Matthew came first.11

It should be obvious that one can use statistical methods and quantitative data to determine intertextual relationships of direct influence when it comes to surface text, and even more so if a verbal agreement is understood to be words appearing in the same grammatical form. Intertextual relations that constitute or come close to surface text copying eliminate a number of subjective factors in the analytical process, although weighing in contextual information on different possible scenarios and premises remains important.

An exact quotation or allusion may function as an indicator of imitation. For such instances, MacDonald provides the original Greek expression in his presentation. But MacDonald's focus lies on more imaginative, innovative imitation of story, plot, and characters rather than discourse. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.