At the end of 2003, Dennis R. MacDonald released his second
book arguing that the New Testament (and in particular the Gospel of Mark) was
influenced directly by the Homeric epics. His 2003 book, Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? Four Cases from the Acts of the
followed his 2000 book: The Homeric Epics
and the Gospel of Mark. Neither work has been exceptionally well
received within the scholarly community. The criticism of the theory falls into
two broad categories. First, it has been noted that there are problems with the
methodology that MacDonald forwards. Sharyn Dowd, in her review of the earlier
book published in Catholic Biblical
The two questions necessary for the
evaluation of a claim about any mode of inter-textuality are: What is the
evidence? and By what criteria is the evidence to be evaluated? MacD. lays out
the criteria in the first chapter, introducing the evidence in later chapters.
… That some of MacD.’s arguments are less plausible than others is due in part
to the slipperiness of his criteria for evaluating parallels. Ordinarily, the
inherent circularity in the process of developing criteria to prove a case one
has already intuited can be mitigated by using methods commonly agreed upon in one’s
discipline. MacD.’s case is not helped by the fact that, although he alludes to
four scholars in his discussion of method, he does not attempt to show to what
extent his criteria are shared by others working in ancient intertexuality. …
Some of the criteria are obvious: “accessibility,” “order,” and
“distinctiveness” But some are too vague to be useful, such as
“interpretability” – the ability of a parallel to make sense of a problem in
Mark or of a detail that is otherwise problematic or apparently gratuitous.
Appropriate methodology is essential in presenting a case
for textual influence or reliance. The second criticism extended towards
MacDonald’s work was that of rhetorical value of any proposed connection. M.D.
Hooker discusses this specifically in her review of the same work:
To be sure, some of MacDonald’s
parallels are intriguing, but they cannot on their own provide an explanation
of what Mark is doing. Odd details in Mark’s narrative do sometimes ‘echo’
events in Homer’s story (like the feast where participants sat in nine units of
‘five hundred men’) and sometimes provide contrasts (as with the storm, in
which Odysseus was awakened but was helpless to do anything). But are these
parallels and contrasts deliberate? Or are they accidental? … After all, as
MacDonald admits, ‘feasting and sleeping [and] journeys are common in ancient
writings; these and other similarities do not require mimesis’ (p. 127). … One
is left wondering why – if MacDonald is right – Mark should have chosen to
depict Jesus in this way, sometimes in imitation of Odysseus and sometimes in
contrast to him. What would Mark have hoped to achieve? … MacDonald’s
suggestion is that he ‘crafted a myth to make the memory of Jesus relevant to
the catastrophies of his day’, and that he was ‘adapting cultural monuments to
address new realities’ (p. 190). So was Mark’s Gospel simply a re-telling of
Homeric myth? … To show that there are similarities in plot and theme between
two authors is one thing, to prove dependence is quite another. That there are
certain parallels between two narratives is hardly surprising, for similar
themes reappear constantly in stories told by very different people. But
suggestions that there is deliberate mimesis can easily topple into
The application here should be self-evident to Donofrio’s
With Donofrio’s work however, we are faced with even greater difficulties.
Unlike MacDonald, Donofrio offers no discussion of method, no discussion of
criteria used to evaluate the texts. There is simply the presentation of
unqualified evidence. Because of this, we are left to infer the method (if any
was used) and to evaluate the evidence for and against Donofrio’s proposition
without the advantage of understanding his own process.
In responding to Donofrio’s thesis, I wish to take two
separate approaches. The first part of this response will be to examine the
likelihood that these common phrases exist simply as “echoes.” In doing so, I
will demonstrate that we expect a degree of overlap between texts – largely due
to their production within a similar environment. After this discussion, I wish
to take his evidences of literary dependence, and examine them through the lens
of accepted scholarship.
In his on-line article, Book
of Mormon Tories, near the end of a large list of parallels, Donofrio makes
the following comment: “Suffice it to say, the tally of similarities begin to
defy random chance.” Without anything to compare it to, this would certainly
seem to be the case.
In order to investigate this claim, I took four texts which
Donofrio uses, and ran them through a computerized lexical tool. The four texts are the Book of Mormon,
Spaulding’s Manuscript, Ramsay’s The Life of George Washington (I did not
have easy access to an electronic text of Ramsay’s History and so do not use it for this study) and Warren’s The Rise, Progress and Termination of the
American Revolution (all three volumes).
For further consideration, I also included a text of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days.
Because of the nature of e-texts, the statistical count will be an
approximation. The reasons
for this will be to determine what if anything can be said about the
relationships between these texts from a purely statistical perspective.
In comparing these five texts, I first surveyed the
frequencies of the unique terms in each text, compared the different texts for
similar vocabulary. Then, I produced a series of locutions. Two series were
produced, one taking every occurring sequence of three words, and then one
taking every occurring sequence of four words. These two series were then
mapped onto the same series produced for each of the other texts to develop a
list of exact three word and four word phrases common to each pairing of texts.
The results would then show some degree of comparison between the different
sources – as well as to provide information on what we should expect in terms
of overlapping vocabulary and simple phrases. The following table lists the
texts, their total word count, and the number of unique terms found in each
text (as produced by the lexical tool – these numbers should be considered
This would appear to give us a reasonable sampling across
the spectrum. Notably, although they have a wildly variant vocabulary, the BoM
and the Warren text are of reasonably similar length.
Figure 2 represents the common vocabulary shared between
pairs of texts. The number under the shaded cells represents the total number
of unique terms shared between the crossed texts. The number above the shaded
cells represents the proportion of the vocabulary of the text which is shared –
the first percentage represents the text in the row, and the second number
represents the text for the column. Thus, the Book of Mormon and Warren’s text
share 3,410 unique terms – representing 27% of the vocabulary of the Warren text,
and 61% of the vocabulary of the Book of Mormon. We can see from this that
there are no unusual features of the Book of Mormon relative to its vocabulary.
A Matter of Method
The first issue which has to be brought up is how to
distinguish from an actual borrowing – and intentional movement of text from
one source to another, and an echo. As Konrad Schaefer explains, an echo is:
…often unintentional, which results from the use of stock language in common
circulation. The author reflects or replicates ideas that can be found in
previous literature, but he may be unaware of the background source, and he
does not wittingly advert to the original. Because an echo is unintentional,
its understanding does not require knowledge of a particular source. The
interpreter who fails to distinguish between allusions which are intentional
and echoes which are not can err in attributing what recalls a source by chance
and what is a deliberate reference; this leads to misapprehension in the
exegesis of a text.
In other words, while an intentional movement of text is
capable of providing evidence for a directional movement of material from a
source to a “borrower”, an echo is not. In studies of intertexuality, criteria
have been formulated to help differentiate between the two. In my introduction,
Dowd mentions a series of useful criteria in discussing intertextuality. These
were accessibility, order, and distinctiveness. A more complete list is found
in Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of
Paul by Richard B. Hayes.
Hayes offers seven specific questions that can be used to test the presence of
literary reliance (intentional or as an “echo”) between texts:
1) Availability: Was the source of the alleged reference available to
the author and/or the original reader?
2) Volume: How extensive is the explicit repetition of words or syntax
(or other indicators)? How prominent is the material in the source text? How
much rhetorical stress does the reference receive in the borrowing text?
3) Recurrence: How often does the author cite or allude to the same
4) Thematic Coherence: How well does the alleged parallel fit into the
argument that the alluding text is developing?
5) Historical Plausibility: Could the author have intended the alleged
meaning? Would his readers have understood it?
6) Historical Interpretation: Have others seen the same relationship?
7) Satisfaction: Does the proposed reading make sense?
The one element from Dowd’s list not covered here is that of
distinctiveness (or uniqueness). When material can be found in multiple
sources, reliance can only be demonstrated by showing that the material in the
text in question only occurs “in a form which one would not have used them had
it not been for a knowledge of their occurrence in this particular form in
In dealing then with Donofrio’s proposal, we should look at
these several points and examine whether or not he has presented sufficient
evidence to make his argument.
Donofrio suggests that Joseph used the following sources in
the production of the Book of Mormon:
Mercy Otis Warren's History
of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution,
David Ramsay’s History
of the American Revolution, 1789
David Ramsay’s Life
of George Washington
Samuel Adams, American
Independence speech to the State House in Philadelphia on August 1,
Jefferson’s first and second inaugural addresses.
Thomas Paine, Common
Sense in 1776.
McClintock's sermon on the New Hampshire constitution, given June 3, 1784.
Keteltas, a sermon on October 5, 1775 entitled, God Arising and Pleading His People's Cause.
Sherwood, The Church's Flight into the
Wilderness, a sermon delivered on January 17, 1776.
Dwight, from his sermon The Duty of
Americans, at the Present Crisis (1789)
Edwards from assorted sermons.
Whitefield from assorted sermons.
Edwards, Jr. from assorted sermons.
Nowhere is addressed the question of how likely it was that
Joseph was exposed directly to these sources. (It is insufficient to suggest
that he merely had contact with the text through a third party, since Donofrio
is relying on explicit points of verbal contact that would not be present if we
were getting a paraphrase filtered through a third party). This is significant
because Donofrio’s argument seems to be largely built on circumstantial
evidence. As Dowd points out, the argument has a certain circularity to it.
Donofrio does not start by listing sources to which we know Joseph had access.
Rather, he determines first that Joseph was borrowing material – and then he
goes in search of just such material. Finding, in the plethora of later 18th
century and early 19th century texts, those which most closely match
his purpose, he constructs his argument using a stacked deck. (I know how easy
this is, since I have dozens of volumes of history, theology and collections of
sermons from that time period myself).
So, whether or not Joseph Smith had access to these sources
would seem to be an unknown (perhaps unknowable). But on this first point, the
thesis receives its first strike.
The evidence which is presented varies quite a bit on this
point. Donofrio’s selections seems questionable at times. Frequently, parallels
are seen in a single word. For example, the following single words are listed
as parallels between the BoM text and various sources:
Freemen, Morianton, inexpressible, havoc, combinations,
alarming, slavery, priestcraft, providence, dissensions, plunderers, etc.
How does one show textual reliance in a single word? Paulien
argues that a verbal parallel requires that “at least two words of more than
minor significance are parallel between a passage.”
I would be willing to concede that a single word could represent a significant
point of contact if it is used with repetition as part of a rhetorical
construct. But, a
single word in general does not make an acceptable point of contact –
particularly when context is not considered. Furthermore, Donofrio on occasion
offers multiple sources for the same word. For example, with reference to
freemen, Donofrio connects Alma 51:6 with Warren (p. 175) and with Samuel Adams
in his American Independence speech delivered to the State House in
Philadelphia on August 1, 1776. Well, which is it? Obviously both cannot be
direct sources for the Book of Mormon text. And the presence of the term in
multiple contemporary texts argues much more for the term being used as an echo
(if a single word can be called intertextual at all) than as an intentional
Apart from the list of single word parallels, there are
dozens of two word parallels. Many of these do not meet Paulien’s criteria of
significance. I didn’t bother to produce two word phrase comparisons in the
statistical portion of this response largely because the numbers were large
enough so as to be meaningless. Unless there is additional reason to regard
them as being evidence of intertextuality, the clear preference is to view them
as coincidental – as echoes created by common language used in a sufficiently
large body of text as to produce such repetitions. This is all the more so
because of the problems which I associate with the selection of texts.
Furthermore, a majority of the proffered evidence does not
represent exact duplications of material, but rather closely connected (or
apparently closely connected) text. This is not an indication of explicit
movement of text – rather it is a further indication of environmental
similarities effecting the language of both writers.
I suppose that this one is debatable. If we were to accept
all of the evidence offered, this could be a very strong argument (in fact, it
would be tantamount to a sure thing). The evidence when examined a piece at a
time is highly suspect – and unless it can be further established with a case
by case argument, it seems unlikely to really meet this criteria.
Here, Donofrio comes about as close as at any point to any
of these criteria. He discusses context with regards to some parallels.
However, his application is not consistent. One of the earliest parallels
between the BoM and Warren’s text reads:
W: that man, in a state of nature (p. 12)
BoM: men that are in a state of nature (Alma 41:11)
Both texts do use similar phrasing. However, the BoM text
equates this “state of nature” with “a carnal state” and being “without God”
and “contrary to the nature of God”. Warren’s text does not deal with the
“state of nature” as a theological construct. Rather, it is the opposite of
civilization – it represents the savagery of primal man. As noted on page 12,
“moral evil is foreign to man, as well as physical evil” a point which directly
contradicts the content of the BoM. Later in Warren’s text we read that there
is a “just and happy
medium between the ferocity of a state of nature, and those high stages of
civilization and refinement” or that “In the state of nature, the savage
may throw his poisoned arrow at the man …. [and] boast his bloodthirsty deed
among the hordes of the forest without disgrace …” It seems clear that the
reading of Warren is foreign to that of the Book of Mormon. The language is the
same, but the intent and meaning is not. This type of occurrence is frequent
within the paper. It is true that when both texts speak of warfare, that there
is common content. When they speak of revolution, there is a commonality. Yet,
there are many texts that refer to warfare and to revolution, and we can hardly
suppose (without an argument for uniqueness as I pointed out earlier) that any
specific text is the source of similar narratives in the Book of Mormon.
This is one of the more subjective categories. Without
examining it on a case by case basis, it seems preferable to either concede
that in general, any argument which is raised from texts contemporary with
Joseph Smith is in itself an adequate answer to this question.
With few exceptions (and all of these involve critics of
Joseph Smith), the answer is no. The casual reader of the Book of Mormon did
not comment (either in 1830 or today) on the apparent parallels to these other
texts. I suppose that part of this could be the limited number of people who
have actually read Warren (and then remembered enough of that 200,000 plus word
text to identify references to it in the Book of Mormon). Certainly, the types
of parallels that are fronted here as evidence do not seem striking enough that
they would be noticed without looking for them.
Once more, this is a case by case question. And really will
only be seen as a summary view of the previous evidence. Is the argument
compelling? Well, that is for each individual to decide, although it should be
evident from my comments here that for the most part, I do not find it so.
Finally, a few comments on uniqueness. I wish to demonstrate
the ease at which such an argument can be constructed. If I were to take
Warren’s text as a basis for comparison, I can (by visually examining a text –
which is how I came up with the following sets of parallels, or through the
more complete process of lexical analysis on a computer) create similar lists
of parallels. Take these from a work entitled History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, by Daniel
Alexander Payne (1811-1893).
It is not as lengthy as Warren’s work, but it is of sufficient length:
W: sets at defiance
both human and divine laws
P: and in defiance
of the laws of God
W: learn wisdom
P: get wisdom
flocked from every quarter to the American standard
P: people flocking
to the standard of truth
W: that manly spirit
P: the spirit of
W: a free people
P: free colored
W: cause of liberty
P: spirit of liberty
P: the rights and
W: the cause of
P: the cause of
W: to take up arms
in defense of their rights
P: to take up arms
in defense of our wives, our children, our country
W: deprive them of
P: deprived of their
W: class of men
P: class of persons
W: the God of nature
P: the God of nature
W: at their head
P: at their head
but had not bade
adieu - John Keats. (1795-1821) 626.
Ode to Psyche
I bade adieu/and
bade adieu/to bid adieu - James Thatcher, Military Journal, 1823
Alarming – found verbatim in the following texts:
Around the World in 80 Days – Jules Verne, published 1875
The History of Protestantism Vol. 2 Book 13 - James A.
Wylie, published 1878
Narratives of Colored Americans – Abigail Mott (1766-1851)
poublished posthumously in 1875
James Thatcher, Military Journal, 1823
Thomas Jefferson – Letter to John Banister, Jr. - Paris,
October 15, 1785
genius to take advantage (I am not going to bother searching
for an exact one here – the alleged parallel is as follows: prospered according
to his genius – and this is hardly a parallel)
influenced doubtless by the evident bent of his genius - The
History of Protestantism Vol. 2 Book 13 - James A. Wylie, published 1878
few men of his age would have excelled him in knowledge or
genius - Narratives of Colored Americans – Abigail Mott (1766-1851) published
posthumously in 1875
to see him hold that rank in the profession to which his
genius and application must surely advance him. - Thomas Jefferson – Letter To
Thomas Turpin Shadwell, Feb. 5, 1769
and the colonising genius of the English has created upon it
- Around the World in 80 Days – Jules Verne, published 1875
Hence forth thou art the Genius of the shore - Milton
In these circumstances (in the few sources I am working
with, I have no exact duplicates of this phrase)
the circumstances/very different circumstances - The History
of Protestantism Vol. 2 Book 13 - James A. Wylie, published 1878
the circumstances/ in my circumstances/ the following
circumstances/ in his circumstances/ the like circumstances - Narratives of
Colored Americans – Abigail Mott (1766-1851) published posthumously
the most embarrassing circumstances - James Thatcher,
Military Journal, 1823
The circumstances under which - Around the World in 80 Days
– Jules Verne, published 1875
these are the circumstances - Thomas Jefferson – Letter To
Patrick Henry, Albemarle, March 27, 1779
To shrink: Verbatim in the following sources
Narratives of Colored Americans – Abigail Mott (1766-1851)
back - The History of Protestantism Vol. 2 Book 13 - James A. Wylie, published
I shrink in fear -
William (Johnson) Cory. 1823-1892 “758. Mimnermus in Church”
But he shrank from -
Around the World in 80 Days – Jules Verne, published 1875
Awful reality - The History of Protestantism Vol. 2 Book 13
- James A. Wylie, published 1878
unfortunate situation - Narratives of Colored Americans –
Abigail Mott (1766-1851) published posthumously
Awful scene/ situation became desperate - James Thatcher,
Military Journal, 1823
Awful crisis (of special note since awful crisis is the
parallel in the BoM to Dangerous crisis below) - Thomas Jefferson – Letter To
Benjamin Hawkins, Washington, Feb. 18, 1803
dangerous venture/every crisis - The History of
Protestantism Vol. 2 Book 13 - James A. Wylie, published 1878
The crisis – the danger - Edgar Allan Poe. 1809-1849 696.
In such a crisis - The Texas Declaration of Independence
(March 2, 1836)
Awful crisis - Thomas Jefferson – Letter To Benjamin
Hawkins, Washington, Feb. 18, 1803
at this critical conjuncture/the critical moment/era was
truly critical (another one that has no real resemblance to the BoM text that
is supposed to follow from it – the key word being critical, I will focus on
that for these three)
At this critical moment - Narratives of Colored Americans –
Abigail Mott (1766-1851) published posthumously
The critical and distressing situation/ a very critical
situation - James Thatcher, Military Journal, 1823
a critical moment - Thomas Jefferson – Letter To Abigail
Adams, Paris, Feb. 22, 1787
at the most critical time - Thomas Jefferson – Letter To
John Randolph, Monticello, August 25, 1775