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December 8, 2016

How the Historical Jesus Became a Superhero (REVIEW ESSAY)

By Thomas Farrell

Liberals and progressives who are interested in how the historical Jesus was transformed into the superhero portrayed in the New Testament might find Dennis R. MacDonald's accessible book MYTHOLOGIZING JESUS: FROM JEWISH TEACHER TO EPIC HERO (2015) repays careful reading. It is a summative distillation of MacDonald's impressive body of scholarly work. It can also serve as an introduction to his other scholarly books.


Spring 2016 Meeting - Westar Institute
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).

Now, Albert B. Lord in comparative literature at Harvard University published his landmark study based on anthropological field work and recordings, The Singer of Tales (Harvard University Press, 1960). Ong reviewed Lord's book in Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts, volume 4, number 1 (Winter 1962): pages 74-78. Ong's review is reprinted in the 600-page anthology An Ong Reader: Challenges for Further Inquiry (Hampton Press, 2002, pages 301-306). Ong never tired of referring to Lord's landmark book. In effect, Lord details how the composing practices of non-literate singer of tales involve the use of commonplaces like the commonplaces used by orators and writers trained in rhetorical education.

The New Testament scholar Werner H. Kelber of Rice University in Houston, Texas, draws on various aspects of Ong's impressive body of scholarly work and on Lord's landmark book in the following books: The Oral and the Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul, and Q (Fortress Press, 1983) and Imprints, Voiceprints, and Footprints of Memory: Collected Essays of Werner H. Kelber (Society of Biblical Literature, 2013). As Ong points out, the art of memory was cultivated in ancient rhetorical education.

Now, in MacDonald's book Mythologizing Jesus, MacDonald refers to Lord's landmark book in the classified list of further reading at the end of the book (page 156). However, MacDonald gives no evidence of being familiar with Ong's impressive body of scholarly work.

Ong's impressive body of scholarly work in which he refers to Lord's landmark book includes the following books: The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for cultural and Religious History (Yale University Press, 1967), the expanded version of Ong's 1964 Terry Lectures at Yale University; Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture (Cornell University Press, 1971); Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture (Cornell University Press, 1977), and Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (Methuen, 1982).

Ong's book Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness (Cornell University Press, 1981), the published version of Ong's 1979 Messenger Lectures at Cornell University, is relevant to MacDonald's theme of the spirit of rivalry involved in imitation in his book Mythologizing Jesus. As Ong explain, the Greek word agon means contest, struggle, and rivalry involves contest, struggle.

MacDonald's theme of the spirit of rivalry involved in imitation in his book Mythologizing Jesus is also relevant to Yale's literary critic Harold Bloom's book Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism (Oxford University Press, 1982).

The spirit rivalry in our Western literary tradition is central to the poet T. S. Eliot's famous essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919).

In Mythologizing Jesus, MacDonald likens the character portrayed as Jesus in the New Testament to a superhero. He says, "Hollywood did not invent superheroes; they are pre-historic" (page 1). Thus superheroes were also not invented by comic books. Because the Homeric epics were central to ancient rhetorical education as exemplars of style and expression, MacDonald concentrates on them as sources used for the New Testament portrayal of Jesus as a superhero. (MacDonald's focus on the Homeric epics as sources of motifs in the New Testament does not rule out the Hebrew Bible as another source.)

But according to MacDonald, the fictional stories in the New Testament "are fictions advocating a higher ethical standard than superheroes in Homer -- or Hollywood" -- or the comics (page 11).

Incidentally, as a young literary scholar, Ong took the comics seriously enough to comment on them -- for example, in his article "The Comics and the Super State: Glimpses Down the Back Alleys of the Mind" in the Arizona Quarterly, volume 1, number 3 (Autumn 1945): pages 34-48, which was written up in Time Magazine (on October 22, 1945, pages 67-68 and again on November 5, 1945, page 23).

Even though I admire MacDonald for likening the portrayal of Jesus in the New Testament to superheroes in Hollywood movies and comic books, I think that his theorizing of his methodology known as Mimesis Criticism could be strengthened by also taking into account Ong's work related to Lord's landmark book and the rhetorical tradition.

No doubt the portrayal of Jesus as a superhero in the New Testament has dominated the Christian imagination and Christian identity over the centuries down to the present time, just as the Hebrew Bible has dominated the Jewish imagination and Jewish identity over the centuries down to the present time. Both of these religious traditions are still living traditions that influence the identities of Christians and Jews today.

By contrast, the Homeric epics rarely influence the identities of people today, even though they remain influential works of imaginative literature in the Western literary tradition -- influencing, for example, James Joyce's experimental novel Ulysses (1922). Of course both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament also remain influential works in the Western literary tradition.

But speaking of identities of people today, we have heard a lot about so-called "identity politics," which until the 2016 presidential election was associated with the Democratic Party. However, because of the substantial number of white people who voted for Donald J. Trump, the Republican Party's 2016 presidential candidate, we are now hearing references to white identity politics.

Taking a hint from the title of t. S. Eliot's famous essay, perhaps we Americans today should think of our Western cultural heritage, including of course our religious traditions, and our individual identities.

Even though I find MacDonald's thesis and supporting arguments cogent and compelling, I admit that many Christians may resist and reject his approach to analyzing New Testament texts. For example, according to exit polls, many culturally and politically conservative Christians voted for Trump. I suspect that many culturally and politically conservative Christians who voted for Trump would most likely resist and reject MacDonald's approach to analyzing New Testament texts.

If liberals and progressives who are not culturally and politically conservative Christians are interested in exploring how the historical Jesus was transformed into the superhero portrayed in the New Testament, they might find MacDonald's work interesting.

In conclusion, MacDonald's Mythologizing Jesus can be read as a summative distillation of his impressive body of scholarly work, or as an introduction to his impressive body of scholarly work -- for those people who might want to read more of his work.

Authors Website:

Authors Bio:

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 WALTER ONG'S CONTRIBUTIONS TO CULTURAL STUDIES: THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF THE WORD AND I-THOU COMMUNICATION (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2000; 2nd ed. 2009, forthcoming). The first edition won the 2001 Marshall McLuhan Award for Outstanding Book in the Field of Media Ecology conferred by the Media Ecology Association. For further information about his education and his publications, see his UMD homepage: Click here to visit Dr. Farrell's homepage.

On September 10 and 22, 2009, he discussed Walter Ong's work on the blog radio talk show "Ethics Talk" that is hosted by Hope May in philosophy at Central Michigan University. Each hour-long show has been archived and is available for people who missed the live broadcast to listen to. Here are the website addresses for the two archived shows:

Click here to listen the Technologizing of the Word Interview

Click here to listen the Ramus, Method & The Decay of Dialogue Interview