Mythologizing Jesus by Dennis R. McDonald - An Excerpt


Excerpts from Mythologizing Jesus, by Dennis R. MacDonald

The gods and goddesses of the Greeks . . . walked on water, flew through the air, visited the land of the dead, and lived forever. They possessed superhuman knowledge, skills, and strength, and this is how they appeared already in the earliest literature of the Greeks, two enormous epics attributed to a poet named Homer (ca. 700-620 B.C.E.).

Ancient Christians told similar stories about Jesus, their primary superhero. A Jewish teacher named Jesus actually existed, but within a short period of time his followers wrote fictions about him, claiming that his father was none other than the god of the Jews, that he possessed incredible powers to heal and raise the dead, that he was more powerful than "bad guys" like the devil and his demons, and that after he was killed he ascended, alive, into the sky.  This is how Jesus is depicted in the New Testament. The book you are reading will show that the two Gospel authors we now call Mark and Luke reshaped memories of Jesus by emulating the Iliad and the Odyssey. . . .

The Markan Evangelist, as we shall see, created most of his characters and episodes without the help of antecedent traditions or sources; instead, he imitated the Homeric epics that centuries earlier had come to define Greek cultural identity and retained this unrivaled status for at least a millennium. The author of the Gospel of Luke rightly read Mark as a historical fiction and expanded its imitations to include even more Homeric episodes. Thus, to read the Gospels as historically reliable witnesses to the life of Jesus obscures their authors' intention to demonstrate for their first readers that Jesus was the ultimate superhero, superior to gods and heroes in books such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as Jewish Scriptures. Not only is he more powerful, he also embodies different ethical values, such as justice, compassion, and love. . . .

The indebtedness of Mark and Luke to the Homeric epics does not call into question Jesus' existence; the Evangelists simply injected him with narrative steroids to let him compete with the mythological heroes of Greeks and Romans. As we noted in Justin's tortured logic, this literary rivalry became an embarrassment and remains so for many modern Christians, who insist that the Evangelists inherited their information from reliable eyewitnesses. I am convinced, however, that one should evaluate Gospel stories not as naïve attempts to record a historical biography, but as sophisticated attempts to create a rival to Greek and Roman superheroes. Their value lies not in their historical reliability but in their mythological and ethical power, in their ability to compel readers to life-changing decisions to follow Jesus.

. . .

All superheroes are creations of human imaginations, but not all superheroes are created equal. Some are dangerous monsters; some are saviors of the helpless; some are clever; some possess special gadgets. Early Christians elevated Jesus of Nazareth into a superhero with powers beyond those of mortals, but they never forgot that he also was a Jewish teacher who taught people to be honest, just, kind, and compassionate. The few times when the Evangelists depict him using violence, he is helping others: to free a madman infested by demons or to put out of business those who exploited the poor. In this respect, Jesus was different from Greek gods, who infamously engaged in warfare against mortals, destroyed people out of jealousy, and abused them to satisfy their passions and whims. This book will show that Jesus, as depicted in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, is a morally admirable superhero. Most of the stories discussed here are fictions-they never happened-but they are fictions advocating a higher ethical standard than superheroes in Homer-or Hollywood.


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Rowman & Littlefield releases

Mythologizing Jesus

From Jewish Teacher to Epic Hero

By Dennis R. MacDonald

Our culture is well-populated with superheroes: Superman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, and more. Superheroes are not a modern invention; in fact, they are prehistoric. The gods and goddesses of the Greeks, for example, walked on water, flew, visited the land of the dead, and lived forever.


Ancient Christians told similar stories about Jesus, their primary superhero-he possessed incredible powers of healing, walked on water, rose from the dead, and more.


Dennis R. MacDonald shows how the stories told in the Gospels parallel many in Greek and Roman epics with the aim of compelling their readers into life-changing decisions to follow Jesus. MacDonald doesn't call into question the existence of Jesus but rather asks readers to examine the biblical stories about him through a new, mythological lens


"The Christian scriptures took shape within a rich literary landscape, as the gnostic gospels and the Dead Sea Scrolls make clear. But MacDonald, a biblical studies professor at Claremont Graduate School and Claremont School of Theology, sheds light on a different dimension of literary dependence: Homeric material, especially the epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey. MacDonald (author of The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, to which he directs interested readers for more scholarly treatments) aims here to distill his findings and present a cogent comparison of Homeric tropes with the Christian gospels of Mark and Luke. To that end, in brief chapters, the author shows some 24 major parallels explored chapter by chapter, from 'Born Divine and Human' to 'Disappearing into the Sky.' . . . The evidence certainly seems to demonstrate . . . dependence by the gospel writers on their masterful Greek predecessor in their stories about and portrayals of Jesus."

_ -Publishers Weekly _

"This book distills much of MacDonald's decades of scholarship on the Homeric debt of popular literature at the time of Jesus. Mark's and Luke's stock of story motifs were in many cases influenced by Homer: the storm on the sea, the mentally ill man who lived among the caves, the hero walking on the water, the message from the dead to the living, the hero turning over the tables in his house, and many others. Early Christian authors and Byzantine scholars alike noticed the similarities, and now MacDonald has laid out the case clearly and forcefully.

-Lawrence M. Wills, Ethelbert Talbot Professor of Biblical Studies, Episcopal Divinity School)

Dennis R. MacDonald is professor of New Testament and Christian origins at Claremont School of Theology. He is the author of several books, including The Gospels and Homer and Luke and Vergil.


A sample chapter and table of contents can be seen at this link.



Mythologizing Jesus

From Jewish Teacher to Epic Hero

Dennis R. MacDonald

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers 2015

ISBN-13: 978-0-7425-5891-5

Hardback: 178 pages; 6" x 9"

Price: $34.00

Language: English

Subject: Religion/Christianity/Literature & the Arts/Religion/General, Religion/History


Mythologizing Jesus is available at,, and local bookstores and other online booksellers.