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BORROWED STORIES AND CHARACTERS? -- MARK 1-10
Summaries from MacDonald's observations -- Mark 1-10
MacDonald tells readers that they may find other similarities between Homer's epics and Mark's gospel. I have linked additional observations of my own for consideration and feedback.
Both Odysseus and Jesus were known as carpenters. Odysseus' skill in building his own palace, a special bed, boats, the Trojan horse, enhanced his reputation for wisdom. Jesus' reputation as a carpenter was, on the other hand, seen as a sign that he lacked the wisdom and power his reputation told about him. In fact, however, his wisdom and power far exceeded that of carpentry.
Homer sometimes calls Odysseus 'divine' and 'son of Zeus', labels comparable to those given to Jesus.
Telling stories while afloat
Mark describes a difficult-to-imagine scene where Jesus, though floating at sea on a boat while he is telling parables (stories) to a large crowd onshore, finds himself alone and surrounded by his twelve disciples and others for a private talk. MacDonald asks if Mark may have been thinking of Odysseus entertaining his hosts with many stories on a floating island. (See Criterion 6)
Like Homer, Mark suggests no (theological) ill-will against these failures since they are literary creations for the purpose of enhancing the hero's virtues.
- Both Odysseus' crew and Jesus' disciples are foolish, fearful and ignorant.
- In both stories these companions at first appear likeable and loyal, but gradually we see their folly till in the end they fail altogether
- Both stories treat them as a unified group, with few having any distinguishing characteristics
- In both stories they fail because, unlike the hero, they were unable to endure hardships
- Peter plays a role similar to Eurylochus, Odysseus' second in command.
Sons of Thunder
James and John Castor and Polydeuces
- J & J were by birth the sons of Zebedee
- Renamed as Boanerges = sons of Thunder
- Were both fishermen
- James died a violent death
- John was thought to live till second coming
- James and John asked Jesus to sit at his right and left in glory
- Jesus refused their request (they were replaced to 2 thieves on his right and left on the cross)
- C & P were by birth the sons of Laertes
- Renamed Dioscuri = lads of Zeus, the Thunderer
- Were both Argonauts (sailors on the Argo)
- Castor died a violent death
- Polydeuces could have lived forever
- Polydeuces asked Zeus to allow Castor and he to share immortality
- Zeus granted their request (in art they are depicted on right and left of Zeus)
(Luke, who wrote of the Dioscuri in Acts as protectors of Paul's ship, adds the story of James and John desiring to bring fire (lightning) down from heaven to destroy a village, and Castor and Polydeuces had a reputation as sackers of cities.)
Sleeping heroes and the storms at sea
Compare distinctive points and their sequences
Jonah (ch.1) Jesus (Mark 4:35-41) Odysseus (Odyssey Book 10)
- Jonah flees from God
- Storm arose
- Sailors afraid
- Jonah asleep below deck
- Captain woke Jonah
- Jonah thrown into sea
- Storm ceased
- Crew feared and worshipped God
The similarities of Jesus with Jonah appear slighter than those with Odysseus
- Jesus finishes telling stories/parables from a boat
- Leaves late (evening)
- A number of boats with him*
- Fell asleep in boat
- In the stern of the boat, on a cushion
- Storm arose
- Disciples cried out in fear
- Jesus awoke
- Stilled storm
- Rebuked disciples for lack of faith
- Jesus was acknowledged as master of wind and sea
- Jesus finishes telling stories on floating island of Aeolia
- Leaves late (after a month)
- A number of boats with him
- Fell asleep in boat
- (In stern on rug in another sleeping episode, Bk.13)
- Storm arose
- Crew cried out in fear
- Odysseus awoke
- Odysseus lost all hope
- Rebuked his crew for their foolishness
- Aeolus was acknowleged master of winds
*(See Criterion 6)
After telling stories (parables) to a crowd from a boat, Jesus took his leave when it was late, sailing with his disciples with a number of boats. (Why did Mark mention these other boats?) After he fell asleep (in the stern of the boat, on a cushion) a storm arose, the disciples cried out in fear, Jesus awoke, stilled the storm and rebuked his disciples for their lack of faith, and was acknowledged as master of the wind and sea. The main difference between this story and the one following from Homer is that Mark appears to have emulated the character of Odysseus by making his hero 'a greater than Odysseus'.
Compare the story of Odysseus who, after telling stories on a floating island, took his leave after a lengthy stay (a month), sailed away with twelve ships (Is this why Mark mentioned other boats?), and fell asleep. While asleep (in another sea story Odysseus slept in the stern, on rugs), his greedy crew opened a sack from the god Aeolus that happened to let out winds creating a violent storm. The crew groaned in helplessness and Odysseus also woke and gave up all hope. He rebuked his crew for their foolishness. The god Aeolus was acknowledged as master of the winds.
Legion into the herd of swine and the defeat of the Giant
(this story is adjacent the above story of the storm in both Mark's gospel and its Homeric counterpart)
Two Homeric stories may have worked together to shape Mark's story --
Story A. Odysseus and the witch Circe
- Circe had turned a large number of Odysseus' men into swine; Jesus cast the many demons into swine. (Odysseus armed himself with a special drug from Hermes to protect himself from her spells and went to her to demand she restore his soldiers back to men.)
- Circe came "running" to Odysseus with a loud cry, clasped his knees and wailing said: "Who (Gk. 'tis') are you among men, ... Odysseus of many tricks... Put up your sword..." Similarly the demoniac whose demons were about to be cast into swine came "running" to Jesus, knelt before him and cried aloud: "What (Gk. 'ti') do you want with me, Jesus son of God... Do not torment me..."
- Both Circe and the demoniac mysteriously knew the name of the hero and addressed him in a similar way, and asked not to be hurt. (In the Odyssey Circe had reason to fear she would be punished because she had turned his men into swine; in Mark's gospel, however, there is no reason why the demoniac would have feared being hurt, so Mark has to add as an afterthought that Jesus had earlier ordered the demons to leave. Was this anomaly the result of following Homer's story? See Criteria 6)
Story B. Odysseus and the giant Cyclops
Deaths of John the Baptist and Agamemnon
- Both Odysseus and Jesus arrive with their crews and convoy of boats to new lands.
- Innumerable/thousands of goats/swine grazed in both places.
- Both heroes with their crews disembarked and met a savage, lawless, cave-dwelling giant/untameable, wild, demon-possessed man who lived among caves.
- Just as the demoniac asked Jesus not to torment him, so the Cyclops asked Odysseus if he had come to harm him.
- Just as Jesus asked the demon his name and he replied 'Legion' (= 'Many'), so the one-eyed giant Cyclops (whose own name was Polyphemus, meaning 'Many Eyes') asked Odysseus his name, and he replied 'Nobody'.
- Jesus conquered the demons by his divine power and sent them into the swine to drown in the sea, while Odysseus defeated the giant with violence and trickery.
- After this dramatic victory, the swineherds called their neighbours to see what had happened and found the demoniac now clothed instead of in his usual naked state; and in the comparable episode in the Odyssey the shepherd Cyclops called out to his neighbours who came to see what had happened.
- The demon possessed man was naked, and the central Cylcops in Homer's story, Polyphemus, is usually depicted nude in art.
- The healed man asked Jesus after he boarded his ship to allow him to go with him, but Jesus refused the request and sailed away with his disciples; the giant asked Odysseus, now on board his ship, to come back, but Odysseus refused the request and sailed away with his crew.
- When Jesus and his disciples reembarked Jesus told the healed demoniac to proclaim to all that he had healed him; similarly when Odysseus and his crew reembarked Odysseus told the giant to tell everyone that it was he, Odysseus, who had blinded him.
Feedings of 4500 and 5000
- Both stories are told as flashbacks.
- Both have a faithless wife who leaves her royal husband for a near relative,
- and who seeks to kill John/Agamemnon
- each of whom is a threat to their affairs.
- In both stories her new husband holds a royal banquet which is polluted by a murder,
- (both by beheading -- art depicts Clytemnestra beheading Agamemnon with an axe).
- Just as the murder of John the Baptist anticipates the fate of Jesus, so the murder of Agamemnon foreshadows the perils to be faced by Odysseus.
(Compare 'A second mass feeding' below)
Some of the parallels that follow, as MacDonald notes, "are pedestrian". But those in bold type are distinctive. Especially distinctive, moreover, is the presence of two very similar feasts in each of the Odyssey and Gospel.
Walking on water
- Jesus and his disciples, like Telemachus and Athena, sailed and disembarked,
- where they found a crowd of thousands of males (of 5000 (Mark)/4500 (Homer).
- Jesus ordered them to sit in groups of 100's and 50's, much like the crowd met by Telemachus that sat in 9 groups of 500 each.
- Mark used the words for "drinking group by drinking group" to describe the groupings, while Homer used the word "symposia" (a special type of Greek drinking gathering for men)
- Also Telemachus and his companion, like Jesus' crowd, were ordered to sit down.
- Both feasts were sacred meals: as Jesus gave thanks to God and took the loaves and fish (a simple repast by contrast with the lavish meal in Homer?) and divided them, so Nestor sacrificed while others prayed and they all took the meat and divided the food.
- In both stories everyone ate and was filled (by the power of Jesus in one story, by the fabulous wealth of the host in the other), but the gospel went one better by having baskets of food left over.
- Mark's story mentions them sitting on green grass and Homer's says Nestor's guest sat on downy fleeces. (See Criterion 6)
A second mass feeding
- Both Jesus and Zeus saw their suppliants (the disciples/King Priam)
- from a mountain (both)
- at night (both)
- as they were travelling with difficulty in a boat/in a chariot.
- Jesus walked on water to his disciples, while Zeus in pity sent Hermes to cross by sandalled feet the waters to Priam.
- Both the disciples and Priam (with his herald) shouted in terror,
- but in each case the divine one reassured them not to fear.
- Jesus and Hermes then climbed into the boat/chariot with them,
- and in each case they arrived suddenly
- and safely (both)
- through a now-calmed sea/now-sleeping guards at their destinations.
(Compare 'Feeding of 4500 and 5000' above)
A second mass feeding is seen by many Bible scholars as problematic (was the second story an accidental oversight by a later editor?), but was Mark simply following the two great feasts found in the Odyssey? (The Greek wording in Mark 8:1 -- "the multitude being again great" -- assures the reader that the second feast is not an accidental oversight or awkward editorial insertion.) (See Criterion 6)
- This time Jesus walked across land to the Decapolis at the Sea of Galilee as Telemachus rode across land to Sparta
- where once again large numbers (mixed company) were fed, 4000 by Jesus and many men and women by Menelaus,
- each host stating their refusal to send them away unfed.
- All sat in both stories,
- and as Jesus took bread and fish and distributed them so Menelaus took bread, wine and meat and distributed those.
- All ate to the full in both,
- and both stories were pointedly intended to teach the importance of hospitality and generosity, with the addition that Mark also saw the disciples educated in Jesus power, and with focus on meeting needs rather than luxuries.
Odysseus was sometimes suspected of being more than a mere travelling beggar, and when Eurycleia recognized his true identity he ordered her silence. Jesus likewise was sometimes suspected of being a prophet or John the Baptist or Elijah, and when Peter recognized who he really was Jesus ordered his silence.
Destiny and acceptance
Jesus then predicted he must suffer many things, even death; but Peter optimistically rejected that necessity. Likewise, Odysseus was regularly characterized as one destined to suffer many things. Achilles in Homer's Iliad courageously accepted his fate even knowing he was to die. Like Achilles, a son of a goddess and greatest among the Greek warriors, Jesus the son of God courageously continued on with his mission or destiny even knowing his life was to be short, that death was imminent. The disciples, like Hector, ignored Jesus' warnings of imminent death and optimistically rejected this possibility. Like Hector, when faced with the inevitable, the disciples ran for their lives. Nevertheless, Hector was a favourite with the gods.
- Both Jesus and Odysseus were divinely transformed
- to show their true identity to their closest followers (Jesus alone with Peter, James and John; Odysseus alone with his son Telemachus).
- Athena transformed Odysseus to look like a god; Peter wanted to worship Jesus when he was transformed.
- Athena dressed Odysseus in a "well-washed cloak" and Jesus clothes were transformed to appear a dazzling white beyond what "any launderer" could do.
- Odysseus's son was terrified by the sight and in the belief he was a god he offered him gifts; Jesus' disciples were also terrified and offered to make tents for worship.
- As Odysseus refused the offered gifts and said that he was his father, so a voice rebuked Peter and said Jesus was God's son.
- Both Odysseus and Jesus commanded their identity be kept secret, a command that was obeyed in both stories.
Two blind seers
Clement of Alexandria, an early Church Father, wrote of Christ calling on Tiresias to be healed of his blindness and to leave Hades and journey to heaven.
- Jesus in the presence of a large crowd
- meets blind Bartimaeus on his way to die
- B, though blind, recognized Jesus as the son of David
- Bartimaeus was healed then followed Jesus
- Bartimaeus cast off his cloak (symbolic of death). The cloak Mark speaks of was his "himation".
- Bartimaeus, a symbolic name meaning son of prize or honour, was the only one healed who is named in the gospel.
- Odysseus surrounded by many ghosts of the dead
- meets the blind seer Tiresias in Hades
- T, though blind, recognized Odysseus as the son of Laertes
- Odysseus left Tiresias behind unable to heal him
- Art shows T. with same distinctive himation, loose fitting and draped over his head like a woman.
- Tiresias is a symbolic name, meaning sign or portent, appropriate for a prophet at the centre of the Odyssey.
Turning point in story: Arriving in Jerusalem/Ithaca
Odysseus's arrival in his home of Ithaca marked the end of his wanderings and fighting giants and divinities. Now his enemies were to be mortals, princes who were robbing his household.
So Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem marked the end of his wandering adventures with his confrontations with demons. From now on his enemies were to be mortals, those who had made his house 'a den of robbers'.
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