Hello Perry Willis,
Pretty good review. I think that Homer's use in education is well known since even Plato and Aristotle had discourse on him. However, The Challenge of Homer: School, Pagan Poets and Early Christianity (The Library of New Testament Studies) provides a different perspective on Homer and early Christianity than what MacDonald says. It is good to consider alternative views on this because MacDonald's conclusions are not widely accepted by researchers - for many powerful reasons.
MacDonald believes that Jesus existed but that it is difficult to find out much about him after all the "Homerizing". MacDonald makes his case for Homer in Mark, "In this book I argue, however, that the key to Mark's composition has less to do with its genre than its imitation of specific texts of a different genre: Mark wrote a prose epic modeled largely after the 'Odyssey' and the ending of the 'Illiad'." (p.3)
"Readers for two thousand years apparently have been blind to this important aspect of Mark's project. The earliest evangelist was not writing a historical biography, as many interpreters suppose, but a novel, a prose anti-epic of sorts. More striking than the similarities between the epics and the Gospels are their differences: Poetry versus prose, mythical heroes vs a historical hero, many gods versus one god, and on and on. These differences are significant, but they are precisely what one would expect. Homer and Mark wrote in vastly different literary, cultural, religious, and political environments; they had widely divergent literary objectives. These differences require no special explanation, but frequent parallels between the epics and the Gospel cry out for explanation." (p.7)
He also says, "In this volume I will present texts in parallel columns in a manner unfamiliar to some readers. The parallels are seldom word-for-word, as they often are among the Synoptic Gospels. Occasionally the same or a similar Greek word occurs in both texts (when they do, they appear in parentheses), but for the most part the parallels pertain to motifs and plot elements. Such similarities are more difficult to detect than the verbal parallels between Mark, Matthew or Luke, and they place special demands on the reader: patience, generosity, and, above all, imagination. Ancient imitations almost never were as wooden with their sources as Matthew and Luke were with Mark and thus require a more generous eye for appreciating them. Some parallels between Homer and Mark inevitably will be weaker than others, but the same is true, for example of parallels between Mark and Luke. Even though few scholars today doubt that Luke rewrote Mark, many parallels between the two works are so weak that interpreters have doubted any generic, literary relationship between them at all. Even a large number of such weak associations however, cannot jeopardize the general thesis that Luke rewrote Mark. Rather, the opposite is true: the clearer examples lend plausibility to the fainter." (p. 9)
When one looks at the supposed parallels, one should have handy a New Testament and even a copy of Homer's Odyssey to read the actual verses he cites (sometimes Odyssey is cited without specific passages). He does mention very little from Iliad. Sometimes he quotes the texts, but he very frequently summarizes parts of Mark and Homer's Odyssey (the main text MacDonald found parallels in) and one can see that his summary of points don't really match up well, are very spurious and quite randomly selected, or are very generic enough as to conclude the opposite - that Mark was not a Homeric "hypertext". Most of the parallels are from Odysseus in the 'Odyssey', but when Odysseus fails to provide a parallel, MacDonald uses other characters to justify supposed parallels. For sure, one has to really ignore a lot of details in Mark and the Odyssey in order to see any commonalities even at the level of plot structure or motifs, which does make the parallels more forced. Perhaps this is why this is not a prominent view at all in New Testament scholarship.
In the conclusion, he mentions how many citations for parallels exist for the New Testament from the Old Testament, Apocrypha, but there is very few from pagan sources. Part of MacDonald's conclusion is that "Despite incontrovertible evidence that no author was more influential than Homer in the training of Greek authors, even prose authors, his works are virtually invisible in New Testament scholarship. Why? The simplest answer is that classical poetry in fact exerted no influence on early Christian texts. Homer's invisibility in scholarship mirrors his invisibility in the early church. I beg to differ. The parallels offered in the preceding chapters surely qualify for attention equal to many putative biblical models. One source of this amnesia may be the authorial intention. Mark hid his dependence by avoiding Homeric vocabulary, transforming characterizations, motifs, and episodes, placing episodes out of sequence, and employing multiple literary models, especially from Jewish scriptures. On the other hand, he left scores of flags signaling the reader to compare these stories with their methods." (p. 170)
There are numerous issues here because for one, there are no good reasons to believe that Mark was trying to write Homerically by stealth. The fact that the parallels MacDonald cites for both Mark, Odyssey, the few from Iliad are not usually quote by quote or even parallel in Greek does not inspire much hope. Another major issue is that the early Church fathers had been educated in Homer. If the Homer-Mark link were plausible, the Church Fathers would have been able to see Homer in Mark and would have commented on it, especially since some in their works it shows that they wanted to convert pagans by showing them that Jesus had similar features to some pagan counterparts. The fact that they too did not see such Homer in Mark, in the way MacDonald does, sure is a red flag on the imagination of parallels. Homer could have been used in some instances (presumably as a very loose template for plot or motif) since Homer was apparently used by the fathers of Western history: Herodotus in his The Histories, Revised (Penguin Classics) (the intro talks a bit on Homer's influence on Herodotus) and Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. Both are not seen as writing fiction even when they used Homer, so why all of a sudden assume that if Mark would have used Homer, that he was writing fiction? Homer is simply not a gauge for historicity or fiction. A good source on how Greek historians made their historiography is Between Thucydides and Polybius: The Golden Age of Greek Historiography (Hellenic Studies Series). It is sheds light on how they wrote their history, even when using Homer.
The Tragedy in History: Herodotus and the Deuteronomistic History (The Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies) adds some more context on uses of Homer. I have even read that even Josephus used Homer, but it sure does not mean that Herodotus or Josephus or others who utilized Homer, were necessarily writing myth or fiction. MacDonald concludes that using Homer means fictional writing the end (p.190), but to conclude that is quite a stretch because many in the ancient world saw history in Homer to some degree too. One should be careful of the slippery slopes.