Rhetorical Mimesis and the Mitigation of Early Christian Conflicts

Examining the Influence that Greco-Roman Mimesis May Have in the Composition of Matthew, Luke, and Acts

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Brad McAdon
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , January
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In his Rhetorical Mimesis and the Mitigation of Early Christian Conflicts: Examining the Influence that Greco-Roman Mimesis May Have in the Composition of Matthew, Luke, and Acts, Brad McAdon engages the disputes of early Christianity and situates them within the Greco-Roman mimetic tradition. McAdon’s thesis is that Matthew and Luke “digested, absorbed, and imitated” their sources, much the way Virgil’s Aeneid did with respect to the Homeric epics (72). McAdon adopts and adapts Dennis MacDonald, Thomas Brodie, and Adam Winn’s criteria for intertextuality in an attempt to mitigate their shortfalls. These criteria are: (1) external plausibility (on the basis of dating); (2) significant similarities; (3) evidence of intimate familiarity of source; (4) intelligibility of differences; and (5) weight of combined criteria.

In part 1, McAdon discusses the prevalence and importance ofmimesis/imitation in Greco-Roman literature and education. He asserts that scholarship has ignored the role of mimesis in the composition of the New Testament (35). Rather than representing slavish imitation or word-for-word copying, mimesis in ancient documents often entailed the transformation of one’s sources, fitting them into a new context and agenda as they suited the author’s purposes (25). McAdon supports this robust discussion with a detailed appendix that offers a distillation of fourteen authors’ discussions of mimesis/imitatio stretching from the 5th century BCE to the 5th century CE. Part 1 exhibits strong support for McAdon’s reading of the Synoptic Gospels and Acts, to which parts 2 and 3 pertain. In this reading, Matthew uses Mark as a source and Luke uses both Mark and Matthew; the authors transform their sources in order to cover up scandals and controversies in the early Christian communities.

Part 2 engages the controversy surrounding Jesus’s relationship with his family, with a focus on the circumstances surrounding Jesus’s birth. Chapter 3 advances a rhetorical analysis of the Beelzebul controversy in Mark 3:20-35, and the slurs against Jesus’s family in Mark 6:1-6. Matthew and Luke transform the Markan narrative by removing or displacing references to Jesus’s family from the Beelzebul controversy. Matthew and Luke make efforts to remove potential slurs against Jesus’s family presented in Mark 6:1-6 by referring to Jesus as “the carpenter’s son” (Matt. 13:55) and “Joseph’s son” (Luke 4:22), rather than the “the carpenter, the son of Mary” (Mark 6:3). In their displacements and the language used to describe Jesus’s relationship with his family, McAdon asserts that Matthew and Luke paint over the tension between Jesus and his family.

The scandal and controversy of Jesus’s familial relationships extends to chapters 4 and 5, which pertain to the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke. These chapters consume the largest portion of part 2, evinced by the discrepancy in chapter lengths between chapter 3 (twenty-three pages) and chapters 4 and 5 (forty-five and forty pages, respectively). In these chapters, McAdon asserts that the Infancy Narratives are a cover-up for Mary’s pregnancy prior to her marriage to Joseph. McAdon believes that Mary’s pregnancy is the product of adultery, and suggests that the “genealogy, grammatical constructions, appeals to divine authority and legitimacy, imitations and transformations of authoritative texts” make the cover-up evident (75). McAdon rejects other possibilities for Mary’s pregnancy, including Joseph as Jesus’s natural father and rape. He bases the former on the lack of evidence of Joseph prior to the Matthean tradition, the reference to Joseph as the “husband of Mary” in Matthew, and on the sidelining of Joseph in Luke’s Infancy Narrative. McAdon discounts the latter given that he does not think it applies to the Matthean narrative (101). For McAdon, the only historical kernel in Matthew’s Infancy Narrative is that Mary “was pregnant when she should not have been” (98). Luke goes further than Matthew to exonerate Mary by omitting the women from Jesus’s genealogy, portraying Mary as God’s favored, and omitting Joseph’s response to Mary’s pregnancy. While McAdon admits significant variations between the two Infancy Narratives, he asserts their similarities outweigh the differences and are sufficient to establish dependence (145). These similarities include foretelling of Jesus’s birth, the visitors to Jesus’s birth, and the presence of genealogies. In these counter-narratives, McAdon deciphers efforts to defend Mary in the midst of her untimely pregnancy, and to soften the tension between Jesus and his family of origin.

In part 3 McAdon argues that the author of Acts attempts to cover up the Petrine-Pauline controversy in the early church. He posits that Galatians 1-2 is the source for Acts 7:58-15:30, on the basis of conceptual, verbal, and structural similarities. The author adopts and expands his source to give the illusion of peace between the leaders of Jerusalem and Paul (180). In many of the cases in which McAdon sees dependence, he admits the discrepancies between the accounts and appeals to the author’s capacity to transform his sources (216-17). McAdon highlights a few similarities in rare wordings, vocabulary, and structure to support his claims, but he offers relatively little explanation for the significant components of the narrative in Acts that have no counterpart in the Pauline corpus.

McAdon’s contribution is his attentiveness to the ways in which the Gospel traditions are deeply embedded within Greco-Roman mimesis. Readers interested in Historical Jesus conversations and the capacity of rhetorical criticism to answer the question of how the early church reacted and responded to conflict may find some helpful suggestions in McAdon’s work. At the same time, McAdon takes interpretive liberties and departs from consensus positions in order to make his argument, which may be uncomfortable for some readers. For example, he argues that Luke 1-2 represent a later redaction to the Gospel intended to combat Marcionism. This suggestion necessitates dating Luke 1-2 to 120 CE, if not later. In addition, given McAdon’s attentiveness to Greco-Roman mimesis, and his high estimation of Luke’s level of education, it is surprising that he does not engage Greco-Roman literature—such as historiography or bioi—sources with which Luke was likely to have come into contact. McAdon’s requirement that readers depart from consensus positions and take interpretive liberties in order to answer the question of how the early church responded to scandal and conflict ultimately raises more questions than it answers.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amanda Brobst-Renaud is Assistant Professor of Theology at Valpariso University.

Date of Review: 
March 8, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brad McAdon is Associate Professor of English at the University of Memphis where he teaches Histories of Rhetoric (especially Greco-Roman), Rhetorical Theory, the Bible as Literature, and the History of the Bible as a Book, as an Artifact.



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