Imitations of Greek Epic in the Gospels
Dennis R. MacDonald
Narrative poetry, the oxygen of Greco-Roman culture, is undetectable to most readers of the New Testament. Despite centuries of erudite attention to early Christian literature, the works of Homer (eighth century BCE), Euripides (ca. 485–407
BCE), and other poets are nearly absent from comparative consideration. The prestigious six-volume Anchor Bible Dictionary does have an entry on Homer: see “Weights and Measures.” A dry measure gets an entry, but the most influential author of antiquity does not. There is no entry for Hesiod (date uncertain but before 675 BCE), Aeschylus (ca. 525–455 BCE), Euripides, or even Vergil (70–19 BCE), the most important Latin author of his time, whose Aeneid significantly shaped Roman imperial identity and propaganda. There is, of course, an entry on poetry; it reads, “Poetry, Hebrew. See Psalms, Book of; Parallelism; Budde Hypothesis.” There is nothing about “Poetry, Greek.”
The standard edition of the Greek New Testament (Novum Testamentum Graece) provides an appendix listing citations and allusions to literature outside the New Testament. One will find about three thousand references to the Old Testament and three hundred from other Jewish sources. For all of Pagan Greek literature, there exist five references, only two from poetry: one from Menander (ca. 342–292 BCE) and one from Euripides. Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, and Sophocles (ca. 495–406 BCE) are entirely absent. This same silence obtains to virtually all introductions to the New Testament, many commentaries, and even books devoted to locating the New Testament in its ancient literary environment.
This silence has multiple causes, including the absence of classical training among many New Testament scholars. More profound, however, may be the distance of classical Greek poetry from the Gospels and Acts in time, culture, and literary genre. When scholars attempt to locate early Christian narrative in its literary environments, they understandably look to Jewish literature, the Bible above all, or to contemporary Greek literature, or to literature that resembles its genre. Polytheistic poetry written nearly a millennium earlier is hardly the most likely repository of literary models or analogues. Other contributing factors to the absence of classical poetry in New Testament scholarship may be the stereo-