Monday, April 8, 2013

Mark and Literary Mimesis: An Interview with Adam Winn

Recently, I had the distinct pleasure to interact with Adam Winn concerning his book, Mark and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative: Considering the Practice of Greco-Roman Imitation in the Search for Markan Source Material. Winn's work has been very influential on my own thinking, as I was able to present my first SBL annual paper in the seminar, Markan Literary Sources, in which Winn co-chairs. A copy of my work, "Of Kings and Mark: A Case of Mimesis in the Second Gospel," can be found here. I am happy to say that Winn's influence on my own work will also be witnessed again when I co-present a paper at SBL annual entitled, "Mark’s Mountain Mimesis: Exodus 24; 34 in Mark 9.2-15."

On to the interview:

 1. You astutely note in the introduction to your book that source, form, and redaction criticism have played a major role in ignoring the quest for Mark’s literary sources. Can you explain why this is so?

 Well, source criticism seemed to operate under the presupposition that literary sources for Gospel texts were necessarily other Gospel texts (or other written Jesus traditions). Therefore, when source criticism came to the conclusion of Markan priority, the matter of literary sources for Mark’s gospel became relatively obsolete. If Mark was the first of our extant written records about Jesus, then there was no need to look any further for written sources. After source criticism, form criticism offered the definitive answer about Markan sources—they were oral not literary. This conclusion of form criticism has been dominant presupposition of Markan studies to this day, with few challenging it. With its strict criteria for literary dependence, redaction criticism reinforced the presupposition of source criticism—namely that sources for Gospel texts were necessarily other Gospel texts (or texts such as Q). Literary dependence could only be demonstrated through strong verbal agreement and specific agreement in detail/order. In light of these criteria, the pool from which to draw Markan literary source material is shallow indeed. Thus the form critical conclusion that Markan source material is primarily oral tradition goes largely unchallenged.

 2. As a way forward, talk about the importance of mimesis (imitatio) in the ancient literary world, and how that can impact study of Mark’s Gospel.

 I will give a relatively simple explanation here, but for those interested in a more thorough understanding, I would point them to the work of Thomas Brodie and Dennis MacDonald—two NT scholars who have done a good deal of spade work on mimesis/imitatio. Certainly many classicists have done work on this literary practice as well. But here is my attempt at a simple explanation. In the Greco-Roman world, virtually all arts were imitative arts. That is artists sought to imitate the great works that had come before them. Such was the case with literature. Students began by immersing themselves in Homer (later Virgil). They were first taught to copy these texts, and then eventual to paraphrase them. When they had shown sufficient skill in these things, they began to learn the practice of mimesis/imitation—that is taking the pieces of great literary works and reworking and reshaping them into to something new. The great literary works of the past served as quarry from which the building blocks of new literary works were found. Perhaps the best example of this practice is Virgil’s reworking of the Iliad and Odyssey in his Aeneid. This practice is important not only for the study of Mark’s gospel but for all of the Gospels (perhaps the entire NT) because it undermines the strict criteria for literary dependence demanded by redaction criticism. The practice of mimesis/imitatio demonstrates that Greco-Roman authors were creative with their literary sources—that they did not slavishly copy them, but they found ways to rework them into a new story. The implications for Markan source material are significant. No longer are we limited to considering only like Gospel text as possible Markan sources, but now we can consider any literature that might have been available to the Markan evangelist.

 3. You mention the works of McDonald and Brodie as being foundational for your work in this volume. In what ways have these two recognized the importance of mimesis for Mark’s Gospel?

 Perhaps most importantly, they have recognized the importance of mimesis/imitatio for NT studies in general. But both have also used mimesis as a means for identifying Markan source material—Brodie with his work on Mark and the Elijah-Elisha material (the real foundation for my book) and McDonald with his work Mark and the Homeric epics. For specifics, I would direct readers to their respective works on these topics.

 4. What makes this work distinctive is the methodology it develops with regard to literary mimesis. Could you discuss the decision to use Virgil’s Aeneid and its use of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as a framework for detecting mimesis in Mark’s Gospel?

 Let me first say that when I began my post-doc at the Dominican Biblical Institute with Tom Brodie, I had never heard of the Greco-Roman practice of imitation/mimesis. It was a totally new area of study for me. And while I could read about this practice in secondary literature, I felt that I needed to see it for myself in primary texts. It was this desire to see the literary technique of imitation in practice that led me to the Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey—texts in which the formers imitation of the latter is firmly established. These writings were my first “classroom” for seeing how Greco-Roman author’s imitated the great literary works that came before them. I then began to read both Mark and Elijah-Elisha narrative with an eye on the ways in which Virgil imitated Homer—and I began to see strong similarities. That was the role that Virgil and Homer played in my research. When it came to writing the book, I concluded that my readers would need the same experience I myself had, i.e., they would need to see clear examples of imitation in classical literature before they could ever see it between Mark and the Elijah-Elisha narrative. For this reason, I began my book with an analysis of Virgil’s imitation of Homer. In my book, I outline three reasons for using these two classical authors. 1) Virgil’s imitation of Homer in the Aeneid is indisputable and, it is both universally and historically recognized. As such no one can claim that the relationship between these two bodies of literature are the result of shared oral tradition or well known themes, tropes, etc. 2) Virgil is relatively contemporary with the Markan evangelist, writing approximately 80 years prior to the composition of Mark. As such, the techniques and methods used by Virgil would have been knowable for the Markan evangelist. 3) Virgil’s Aeneid was incredibly popular and was even used as textbook for training children how to read. As such, Virgil’s imitation of Homer was likely familiar to the Markan evangelist, increasing the likelihood that he would have used similar techniques in the composition of his gospel.

 5. Without going into too much detail, I was fascinated with your examples of the similarities between the so-called Elijah-Elisha cycles (1 Kgs 16:29- 2 Kgs 13:29) and Mark’s Gospel, moving from the more general with issues of genre, geographical location, etc., to more specific texts. Could you provide one example of each?

 In the interest of not giving too much away, I will offer a very brief answer here. Regarding general similarities, I would note the episodic style that both Mark and the Elijah-Elisha narrative share as an important similarity. While much of the primary history of the Old Testament is episodic, two episodic motifs distinctly characterize both Mark and the Elijah-Elisha narrative, namely miracle and prophetic motifs. Regarding specific similarities, I would note the similarities between the Mark’s three-fold passion prediction and the narrative of 2 Kings 2:1-12, in which Elisha refuses to abandon his teacher Elijah, before Elijah’s heavenly departure. In both narratives, you have the following pattern repeated three times (well the third time there is a twist!), 1) a prediction of departure, 2) a statement regarding a disciple/disciples understanding of the prediction, and 3) teachings/actions related to faithful discipleship. I think that is all I will share for now. If you want more details on this similarity, you will find the book to be reasonably priced!

 6. Could you briefly address how your work, i.e. mimesis, is different than detecting intertextuality (allusions, echoes, etc.), especially in works that study the New Testament use of the Old Testament?

 The primary difference is that mimesis/imitation is a means of constructing a new text from an old one. It involves taking the pieces of an old text and reusing them (sometimes reshaping them) to create a new text. Allusion and echo are literary devices that bring the meaning of one text to bear on another, but they are not means for creating new texts. I would also note that imitation/mimesis can take place without the imitated text significantly influencing the meaning of the imitating text—such cannot be said of allusions or echoes, which are both literary devices intended to shape the meaning of a text.

 7. What sort of impact would you like to see your work have on Mark studies and the Gospels generally? 

As far as impact, I think my hopes are quite modest. First, I hope my work raises awareness among biblical scholars of the practice of imitation in Greco-Roman literature, a practice that seems ubiquitous and thus can’t be ignored by people devoted to studying what are essentially Greco-Roman texts. Second, I hope my work demonstrates the fruitfulness of considering imitation/mimesis in the study of New Testament texts in general and the gospels specifically. Such consideration opens avenues of research that have either long been closed or never pursued—Markan source material is simply an example of such an avenue.


Steve Allison said...

Thanks for the interview and thanks to Adam for the book. I hope to read it sometime. It is also my hope that the matter of literary mimesis receives more scrutiny. It will be interesting to see what can be learned from that approach.

Matthew D. Montonini said...


Thanks so much for stopping by!

Yes, I think much can be gained by looking at literary mimesis as a tool to better understand the relationship b/t the OT and the NT narratives.