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BORROWED STORIES AND CHARACTERS? -- MARK 11-16


Summaries of MacDonald's observations from events in Jerusalem to the death of Jesus.







"Untriumphal entries"

Dennis MacDonald observes that Homer's story of Odysseus' entry to the city of the Phaeacians was a well-known  parody and classic case of one ought NOT to welcome a stranger. It was widely imitated in ancient literature. Did Mark find it appropriate to use for his purpose of rejecting the idea that Jesus was a mere son of David, -- that he was rather the son of God? (Homer has adapted the traditional meeting-by-the-well setting by having the young girl go to the seashore to do her laundry: after all, after being washed up to shore naked Odysseus needed clothes more than drink.)
 

Jesus' entry into Jerusalem (Mk.11)
Odysseus enters City of Phaeacians (Od.6-7)
  1. Jesus arrives as a stranger without any means 

  2.  
  3. Jesus sent two of his disciples to go and find a colt for his needs

  4.  
  5. A stranger grants their request (Criterion 6)

  6.  
  7. Jesus' disciples threw cloaks on the colt and Jesus sat on it 

  8.  
  9. Jesus, though hailed as a king, entered inappropriately on another's beast with clothing as a saddle. - parody of idea that Jesus was a mere Davidic King?

  10.  
  11. Crowds of Jerusalem shouted that Jesus was coming in name of God, from God. - parody of belief in a Davidic messiah?

  12.  
  13. Jesus' entered the Temple late in the day

  14.  
  15. He gazed around at everything

  16.  
  17. Cursed fig tree though it was not season for figs
  1. Odysseus arrives as a stranger without anything

  2.  
  3. Goddess Athena sent Nausicaa to go ask her father for mules and wagon for her needs

  4.  
  5. Her father grants her request

  6.  
  7. Nausicaa and maids place washed cloaks in wagon then sit on wagon

  8.  
  9. Odysseus, though a king, entered the city wearing another's clothing and walking behind a mule wagon carrying laundry - a parody of hospitality

  10.  
  11. Nausicaa and the citizens of the city of the Phaeacians thought Odysseus' coming was will of the gods, that he was divine.

  12.  
  13. Odysseus' entry was late in day

  14.  
  15. He gazed at everything,

  16.  
  17. Saw fig trees that bore fruit out of season (Criterion 6)

 
 

Cleansing of the Temple/Slaying of the Suitors

Jesus entered the temple tossing over tables and the things they supported and casting people out, justifying his action by accusing them of making his house a den for robbers. Odysseus and his son also cast over tables and killed the people accusing them of robbing his house. Artistic representations of this scene show overturned tables and dishes all in disarray. (Mk.11:15-19/Od.22)
 
 

Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Mark 12:1-12)

This bears a remarkable resemblance to the plot of the Odyssey:

    1. Odysseus/a man built his house/planted a vineyard
    2. Put his servants in charge/leased it to tenants
    3. went off to fight at Troy/went off to a far country
    4. Suitors/tenants abused master's servants
    5. Consumed produce as if theirs
    6. Odysseus' son/master's son claimed true authority
    7. Suitors/tenants speak of killing the son
    8. So the property will be theirs
    9. Suitors attempt ambush but son eludes them/Tenants kill son and and throw his body out
    10. Odysseus returns/Owner will come
    11. and destroys the suitors/tenants
    12. Suitors feared the people of Ithaca so act with caution/Authorities fear the crowds so don't arrest Jesus

Rulers versus the widows (Mk.12:38-44)

Just as Jesus accused the authorities of loving the first seats at banquets and of devouring widows' houses, so the suitors in the Odyssey loved to take Odysseus's seats at banquets and devoured the "widow" Penelope's house. But just as Penelope's humble generosity highlighted the shame of the suitors, so the poor widow who gave all she owned to the temple shamed the rich in Jerusalem.
 
 

Private prophecies
 
Mark 13
Odyssey 19
  1. Jesus' disciples expressed amazement at the great buildings around the temple

  2.  
  3. Jesus went to Mount of Olives, sat down, with 4 closest disciples, who questioned him in private

  4.  
  5. Jesus gave sure signs that he would return

  6.  
  7. Jesus referred to fig tree as a sign

  8.  
  9. "He is near .... all these things shall come to pass"
  1. Telemachus was amazed at a great light on the walls of his house

  2.  
  3. Odysseus went to Penelope, sat down, with Penelope in private, who questioned him.

  4.  
  5. Odysseus gave sure signs he would return

  6.  
  7. Odysseus consulted sacred oak as sign

  8.  
  9. "He is near .... all these things shall come to pass"

 
 

Master on a far journey -- servants to watch, or...

Jesus then gave the parable of the master who went on a far journey, left his servants in charge of his estate, and commanded them to keep watch or he would return in an hour they least expect. Compare the plot of the Odyssey.
 
 

Anointing of Jesus / Washing of Odysseus
 
Anointing of Jesus (Mark 14:3-11)
Washing of Odysseus (Odyssey 19)
After prophecies given in private by Jesus (Mk.13)...
  • Jesus came into house of leper
  • Woman entered with flask of expensive oil
  • She anointed Jesus' head
  • She broke jar to release oil
  • She alone recognized that Jesus was to die
  • Her fame was to spread throughout world
  • Judas then went to priests to betray Jesus
After prophecies given in private by Odysseus...
  • Odysseus was disguised as a beggar
  • Eurycleia entered with bowl of watr
  • She washed O's feet, later anointed him with oil
  • She dropped vessel spilling the water
  • She alone recognized identity of Odysseus
  • Eurycleia means "far-flung renown"
  • E & O discuss who were the treacherous servants

 
 

Welcome in house of outcast

Odysseus is welcomed in the house of the despised swineherd (Od.14) and Jesus in the house of the leper (Mk.14:3).
 
 

Preparations to eat human flesh
 

Passover preparation (Mk.14)
Prelude to cannibal feast (Od.10)
  1. Arriving at new place, Jesus sent 2 men to prepare for Passover meal

  2.  
  3. The 2 went off, entered city, met a man carrying jar of water

  4.  
  5. They followed the water-bearer, came to owner of a house who showed them large upstairs room, furnished and ready as predicted

  6.  
  7. Jesus' men then prepared for feast of Passover, a symbolic eating of flesh and blood of Jesus
  1. Arriving at new place, Odysseus sent 2 men (plus a herald) to make enquiries

  2.  
  3. The 2 went along road, came to front of city, met a large manlike girl carrying water

  4.  
  5. They asked water-bearer who her king was, she showed them high-roofed house that was described as 'glorious'

  6.  
  7. O's men found king's wife there who called her husband - he prepared to eat one of the men.

 
 

Last meal before death
 

Mark  14
Odyssey 10
  • Jesus and his disciples shared a last meal before leaving for Gethsemane
  • after the meal the disciples slept
  • while Jesus went to pray 
  • when he realized he was to die ...
  • he "grieved unto death"
  • then resigned himself to his fate
  • Jesus returns to find disciples sleeping
  • Tells them they have had enough
  • And must wake  and be going,
  • And as he was speaking..... young man flees (see next)
  • Odysseus and his crew shared a final meal before leaving Circe's island
  • after the meal the crew slept 
  • while O. went to Circe's room to ask way home
  • but learned he was to go to Hades
  • he agonized and wished to die
  • then resigned himself to his fate
  • Odysseus returns to find crew sleeping
  • Tells them they have had enough of that
  • And must wake and go, 
  • And as he was speaking..... young man dies (see next)

 
 

Jesus agonizes at the approach of death
 

Mark 14:35-36: And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed ... He said, Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me. (p.125) Odyssey 10.480-84: But I went up to the ... bed of Circe and besought her by the knees; and the goddes heard ... and I spoke, ... 'Circe [cf.10.306 "The gods can do anything"], fulfil your promise ... to send me home.' (p.125)
Mark 14:33-36: Jesus began to be distressed and agitated, And he said ... 'My soul is deeply grieved even unto death... And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed ... He said, 'Abba, Father, ... remove this cup from me.' (p.126) Odyssey 10.496-502: And my spirit was broken within me, and I wept as I sat on the bed, nor had any heart any longer desire to live ... When I had had my fill of weeping and writhing, then I ... addressed her, saying: 'Who, Circe, will guide us ... to Hades ...' (p.126)

 


 

MacDonald grants that readers may find other similarities between Homer's epics and Mark's gospel. The Passion Story of Jesus appears to me to be one of several additional strong candidates for borrowing many more distinctive and sequential details not noted in MacDonald's book.

 

Young man fled naked/dies

The young crew member Elpenor, described as 'none too brave', woke and, forgetting he was on a roof, fell to his death. His soul fled to Hades where it waited the arrival of Odysseus. This vignette was imitated and adapted by Plato, Vergil, Plutarch, Apuleius, Luke and other early Christian writers. Mark's story of a young man fleeing  for his life, naked, leaving his shroud behind (symbolic of Jesus' death) is part of this literary tradition. (Homer's Elpenor was a young man, none too brave, whose soul tragically fled to Hades at death.) Mark would reappear at Jesus' tomb as witness of his resurrection. (See 'Will the dead live again?' for a fuller discussion.)
 
 


Judas and Melanthus

Judas has much in common with Homer's Melanthius.

Silence before accusers

Odysseus brooded in silence among the suitors as they hoped for his demise and Jesus said nothing at before Pilate and his accusers wanting to kill him.
 
 
 

Reveals his identity with threat of deadly judgment

When Jesus revealed his true identity before his enemies it was with the threat of coming in power and judgment against them. When Odysseus also revealed his identity it was with the threat of killing them, which he quickly proceeded to do.
 
 
 

Barabbas and Irus the beggar-king

Barabbas (meaning 'son of the father') was a revolutionary insurrectionist and was presented as an alternative to the real king and son of the Father, Jesus. The crowd sided with Barabbas over Jesus, and this led to Jesus being given ironic honours (e.g. 'Hail, King of the Jews' -- the only instance Mark used this word 'Hail'), being hailed mockingly as king by those not realizing he really was the king. (Matthew accentuated the superficial similarities between Barabbas and Jesus by naming Barabbas 'Jesus Barabbas'.)

Odysseus appeared as a beggar and was publicly faced by a would-be beggar-king named ironically after a goddess, Irus. The crowds and princes sided with the worthless Irus against the other 'beggar', Odysseus, hoping to see him defeated. The contest between the two beggars led, however, to the onlookers giving Odysseus ironic honours (e.g. 'Hail, father stranger!' -- the same Greek word used by Mark for 'Hail'), not realizing that the he would take their blessings of a good future at their expense.
 
 




The death and resurrection of Jesus



In telling the story of the death of Jesus Mark appears to have switched from the Odyssey to Homer's other epic, the Iliad, that climaxes with the death of the Trojan hero Hector. As noted above, Hector was also destined from the beginning of the story to die. Frequent references were made in the Iliad to the finality of death, that Hector faced no prospect of living again, while Jesus declared he would rise from the dead.
 
 

The loud cry at the moment of death

Both Jesus and Hector uttered loud cries at the departures of their souls.
 
 

Deaths of heroes linked with fall of cities

The Iliad several times speaks of the walls of Troy being destroyed (unusually) "from top to bottom". The veil of the Temple was torn (unusually) "from top to bottom", indicating divine effort. In both the Iliad and the gospel the deaths of the heroes were linked directly with the falls of cities, Troy and Jerusalem.
 


Scoffing over the victim

Just as Achilles scoffed over the dead Hector at his once god-like status in Troy so the Roman centurion scoffed at the claim that Jesus had been thought to be the son of God. (See Criterion 6) (This may be so, but I also wonder if Mark has transvalued Achilles' scoffing by having the centurion ironically turn such a comment into a sincere acknowledgment of Jesus' identity. No?)
 
 

Three women watch from afar

Three women watched Jesus' death from afar, while Trojans watched Hector's death from afar, and three Trojan women lamented.
 
 

"Kingdom fathers" bold recoveries and burials of the bodies

King Priam and father of Hector summoned the courage to set out at night to recover the body of his son from his murderer, Achilles. The namesake of Jesus' father, Joseph, who waited for the kingdom, boldly set out late in the day to recover the body of Jesus from Pilate:

  • Both journeys were dangerous, but both determined to ask for the body
  • Pilate was amazed Jesus was already dead and Achilles was amazed Priam dared entered his camp
  • Pilate sent a centurion to check the body (it had already been anointed) and give the body to Joseph; Achilles sent soldiers to get the ransom and summoned maids to wash and anoint the body
  • Jesus' body was saved from corruption by rapid death and burial and Hectors' body was also saved from corruption
  • Jesus' body was wrapped in linen cloth and took the body and himself placed it in the tomb; Hector's body was wrapped in a braided battle shirt and lifted by Achilles himself into the bier.
  • Jesus' body was placed in a rock hewn tomb with a large stone at the door; Hector's body was placed in an ossuary in the ground and covered by stones.
  • Women at the burial

  • Two Marys saw where Jesus was laid by Joseph and Cassandra was the first to see Priam returning with the bier.
  • Three women (Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Salome) brought spices to the tomb and three wome (Andromache, Hecuba and Helen) led the lament over Hector.
  • At dawn they went to administer elaborate treatments of the body and at dawn, after elaborate preparations, Hector's body was burned.
  • The Stone door of the tomb

    Mark emphasizes the huge size of the stone rolled in front of Jesus' tomb, and goes on to create the odd situation of women going to the tomb wondering how they are going to have such a giant stone moved for them. Was Mark thinking of the enormous stone that was rolled in the doorway of the Cyclop's cave and that was far too big for Odysseus and his men to move? This stone was so huge it threatened to keep them from entering and then from escaping alive, and they were wondering the same thoughts as the women in Mark's gospel. (Not even 22 wagons could carry it!) (A later editor of Luke -- Luke himself? -- added to his description that not even 20 men could move the stone in front of Jesus' cave.)
     
     

    Will the dead live again?

    Jesus' followers buried him, but the naked young man (see notes on Elpenor, above; and Indentification and Symbolism, below) appeared as a witness of his resurrection. Odysseus' crew buried the Elpenor with great sorrow -- Elpenor's and Hector's souls went to Hades for eternity. Throughout the Iliad special note is made that death for Hector will be the end, that there will be no return from the grave. Plato re-wrote the Elpenor incident to teach the doctrine, through Er, of reincarnation; Luke re-wrote the same character as Eutychus to symbolize resurrection (Acts 20:7-12).

    Futher, the early morning setting is stressed by Homer and those who re-wrote this story of his (Plato, Plutarch), and by Mark. Just as Elpenor's (and Hector's) bodies were fetched and buried and mourned at dawn, so the women come to anoint the body of Jesus early dawn, but instead of mourning they learn of the resurrection.

    Identification of the fleeing young man with the young man at the tomb:

  • Both (and no others) are labelled by Mark as 'neaniskos' (young man)
  • This 'neaniskos' label renders both of them symbolically enigmatic
  • Both (and no others) are depicted as 'paraballo' (wearing) a garment
  • The garment of each is symbolic
  • The 2 youths bracket the story of Jesus' Passion: one just before his trial and one just after his resurrection
  • One appeared at night; the other at dawn
  • One is with disciples fleeing; the other with women coming to Jesus
  • With the disciples was a 'young man' 'wearing' ... ; With the women was a 'young man' 'wearing' ... (same words, used nowhere else)
  • ... a linen cloth over his nakedness; a white robe, sitting in tomb, on the right
  • the first lost his linen cloth and fled naked -- to reappear in new clothes?

  • Symbolism of the young man:

    Compare Jesus: his clothes were stripped from him at his crucifixion, but then his naked body was wrapped in linen cloth at his burial.

    Jesus was exalted to God's right hand at his resurrection; the young man was found sitting on the right side of the tomb.

    Homer's Elpenor was mourned greatly as a young life trafically lost; Mark (and Luke) recast Homer's tragic story into a story of hope in resurrection.

    Mark did not plan to have Jesus found at the tomb or seen after his resurrection. So he created the young man to stand in the place of Jesus and symbolize his resurrection. (See Criterion 6)
     
     

    Continue to my own additions to MacDonald's observations
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