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Life Arts    H4'ed 12/8/16

How the Historical Jesus Became a Superhero (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Spring 2016 Meeting - Westar Institute
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Duluth, Minnestoa (OpEdNews) December 8, 2016: My favorite scholar is the American Jesuit cultural historian and theorist Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955) of Saint Louis University (SLU), the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri. I'd like to discuss his work a bit here before I turn my attention to the work of the New Testament scholar Dennis R. MacDonald (born in 1946; Ph.D. in New Testament studies, Harvard University, 1978) of the Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, California. OEN readers who are interested in understanding how the historical Jesus was transformed into the superhero portrayed in the New Testament might want to consider studying MacDonald's work.


In Ong's massively researched book Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason (Harvard University Press, 1958), Ong discusses the history of the verbal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic (also known as logic) from ancient times through medieval times down to the time of the French logician and educational reformer and Protestant martyr Peter Ramus (1515-1572) -- and beyond in the case of formal logic.

For many years, Ong was listed in the Quarterly Journal of Speech as the advisory editor for classical rhetoric. He also served as the elected president of the Modern Language Association of America in 1978.

In his study of the history of rhetoric, Ong became familiar with various aspects of rhetorical education, including the use of commonplaces in composing speeches and in writing texts. As a Renaissance specialist, Ong served as the director of Sister Joan Marie Lechner's SLU doctoral dissertation in English, which as published as the book Renaissance Concepts of Commonplaces (Pageant Press, 1962) -- with a preface by Ong. Recently Heinrich F. Plett has referred to Lechner's book in his article "Rhetoric and Intertextuality" in Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric, volume 17, number 3 (Summer 1999): pages 313-329.

As I will explain momentarily, MacDonald has published an impressive body of scholarly work based on a certain aspect of rhetorical education -- imitation. At first blush, imitation may sound like something that we today do not deliberately practice. But the practice of imitation in rhetorical education can be likened to all forms of learning through practice involving an example such as all forms of apprenticeship learning. Basically, imitation involves mimicry -- saying, in effect, "I can do that." MacDonald's methodology in analyzing New Testament texts has come to be known as Mimesis Criticism. For all practical purposes, MacDonald treats all the Homeric examples he discusses in connection with imitations as what Ong and the rhetorical tradition refer to as commonplaces.


MacDonald's impressive body of scholarly work involving imitation includes the following books: The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark (Yale University Press, 2000), Does the New Testament Imitate Homer?: Four Cases from the Acts of the Apostles (Yale University Press, 2003), The Gospels and Homer: Imitations of Greek Epic in Mark and Luke-Acts (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), Luke and Virgil: Imitations of Classical Greek Literature (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), Mythologizing Jesus: From Jewish Teacher to Epic Hero (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), and John and Euripides: The Dionysian Gospel (Fortress Press, 2017, forthcoming).

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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