The Beginning of Jesus' ministry

(Mark 1-2)

The time has come, the kingdom is at hand
After John is put in prison Jesus begins his mission by preaching that the time has come, the kingdom of God is at hand. If there is any link with this opening message of Jesus in Homer then it is a general narrative structural one. One cannot draw a series of numerous points of contact to test this, however. Nevertherless, in the following paragraph I note some general structural similarities that may be relevant here.

After Achilles was removed from the scene, Agamemnon called his men together and told them the time had come and they must prepare to take a kingdom (Troy) immediately, without delay. A divine dream had revealed to him that the time for taking Troy had come. This was also the message of Hermes from the goddess Athena, that the time had come, there was to be no more delay, and that Odysseus must return home to reclaim his kingdom. The moment Hermes left the island Calypso obeyed, and Homer emphasizes that this was done immediately, and sent Odysseus on his way to his kingdom.

Callings by the sea shore
MacDonald sees Athena's calling of the sailors in the Odyssey as the model Mark used for Jesus calling the fishermen. That may well be so, but one might also ask if he has in mind Achilles seashore encounter with 2 messengers for both specific details, transvaluation of the disciples, and the setting of the callings.

Soon after the imprisonment of John, Jesus walked along the shore of a lake that Mark likes to call a "sea". He saw disciples, in pairs, by their boats. He called them to him, telling them they were to become fishers of men, and they followed him immediately. Also near the beginning of the Iliad, after the removal of Achilles from the rest of the army, Agamemnon sent 2 messengers to walk along the shore of the sea, past the boats, to the semi-divine Achilles who was sitting beside his ship. When Achilles saw the two he called them to come to him, addressing them as messengers of God and men. While Achilles responded immediately to the messengers the messengers themselves and the girl who was to go with them, in contrast to the disciples of Jesus, did so with strong  reluctance.

Jesus calls 2 fishermen
Achilles calls 2 messengers
Immediately after the baptism and removal of John from the scene... Immediately after the ritual bathings and removal of Achilles.... 
Jesus walks along the sea shore... 2 messengers walk along the sea shore...
Jesus sees 2 fishermen 2 messengers see Achilles
2 pairs of fishermen are by/in their boat Achilles is sitting by his boat
Jesus sees the 2 men and calls them to him Achilles sees the 2 men and calls them to him
The 2 respond immediately to his call -- (transvaluing the messengers in Iliad?) The messengers respond most reluctantly to his call -- though Achilles responds immediately to their request.
The messengers in the Iliad have very good clear reasons why they respond to Achille's call as they do, and their fearfulness is contrasted with Achille's greatness and nobleness of spirit in the way he responds immediately before they even have a chance to announce their request. If Mark was attempting to emulate and surpass the qualities of the Homeric heroes then he has lost an explanation for a motive as the price of creating a contrasting set of actions and responses for his new heroes. (Again, see Criteria 6)

A second calling, a faintest of echoes?
The following rests almost entirely on an acceptance of the correspondences in the callings outlined above. (Otherwise I am sure suggesting a possibility of a link between a tax office and a war-booty lyre would seem totally over the top!) It is only when the following notes are viewed within the context the above comparisons that I think there can any degree of credibility be given them. I don't see Mark doing anything more than drawing on general images from the Homeric scene in question, if he is doing anything like that at all.

Jesus' call of Levi has distinctive points in common with the call of the first four disciples. Again he is a walking by the sea, and again Jesus calls him to follow him, and again the would-be disciple immediately rose and followed. (And if there is anything in common between the two callings and a possible relationship with Achilles' encounter with messengers walking along the seashore, then once again we have the role reversal of the hero being the one walking by the sea.) But there are differences, too. Levi is said to be sitting at his tax collector's post, and the call is followed immediately by a feast with Jesus in Levi's house. Is it too faint an echo to recognize something here of the second time Achilles meets two messengers?

Call of Levi and dinner discussions
Iliad Book 9
Jesus walks again by the sea 2 messengers again walk along the seashore
Jesus sees Levi Achilles sees them
who is sitting at his tax collector's post
  • Levi was the name associated with being especially chosen to serve God, with many singled out as Temple singers. 
  • The tribe of Levi in the Old Testament were separate from the 12 tribes, and Levi here is oddly not later listed with the 12. (Matthew appears to have found this strange so changed his name to one meaning 'disciple' and did list him there.)
Achilles is sitting playing his lyre which is especially noted as being stolen war booty
  • Achilles is playing the instrument especially favoured by the god Apollo
  • At this second encounter with messengers Achilles does not, unlike at the first encounter, obey or submit to their requests, although he does feast with them in his hut? He maintains his isolation from the others.
Levi rises and follows Jesus Achilles rises immediately and goes to them
Jesus dines in Levi's house Achilles feasts with them (Aias [i.e. Ajax] and Odysseus) in his hut
with other followers, too with other friends, too (Patroclus and Phoenix)
Discussion about eating and drinking Discussion about the food
Comparing John's followers who are fasting(Once again there seems to be some correspondence between John the Baptist and Agamemnon) But abundance of the food draws the comparison with the thoughts of Agamemnon's messengers who at that moment far from the pleasures of food
A time will come when Jesus' followers will fast Achilles later did expect the rest of the army to fast with him. (See above)

John the Baptist/Agamemnon follow-on? ....
The Question of Fasting (Mark 2:18-22 / Iliad Bk19)
Is it a coincidence or imaginative fancy that every time we see John the Baptist and Jesus together in Mark there appears to be another possible correspondence with a scene between Agamemnon and Achilles in the Iliad? In Book 19 of the Iliad Achilles and Agamemnon are reconciled and the question of fasting quickly emerges. The difference with Mark 2:18-22 is, surprise surprise, that the positions of the characters are reversed from what we see in their apparent counter-parts in Mark. In the Iliad it is the young son-of-a-divinity hero, Achilles, who fasts, while John's template, Agamemnon, and his men, in pointed contrast, do not fast. To complicate the picture somewhat, however, it is Odysseus who argues with Achilles insisting that it is not right at the present moment to fast. Odysseus, of course, is the apparent model for Jesus in the Odyssey

In the Iliad Bk. 19 Achilles insists on the obligation to fast and even initially wants the entire Greek army to likewise follow his example in this until the dead are avenged. It is Agamemnon who holds to the necessity of eating at that time (just prior to battle) and there is a clear division between the two. Odysseus finally persuades Achilles to accept Agamemnon's request that his men eat. Other mortals cannot compete with the resources and powers of Achilles, he reminds him. (Soon afterwards we learn of the secret of Achille's ability to remain so strong without eating when Athena implants divine food into his breast.)

Is it significant that yet again when John and Jesus are mentioned together a similar motif appears? Mark 2:18-22, of course, is the famous discourse between Jesus and others who questioned him about why his disciples did not fast while John's did.


First exorcism in Capernaum
The similarities of Jesus' first exorcism with his later exorcisms are numerous and it is perhaps superfluous to treat this one in any detail. MacDonald has shown how Mark appears to have made considerable use of Odysseus' encounter with Circe in another exorcism.
Exorcism in synagogue
Odysseus and Circe
Demon knew immediately who Jesus is 
Demon knows he is destined to come    
Demon asks Jesus not to harm him    
Jesus enters synagogue
Odysseus enters stone palace of the witch Circe
Jesus commands demon to come out of man
Circe orders Odysseus into a pig and to go out to the pigsty
Demon cries aloud when ordered out by Jesus
Circe immediately shrieks in fear of Odysseus
Demon convulsed the man as it left
Circe drops and falls at Odysseus knees
Audience was astonished
Circe was amazed
Audience asks: What is this? What new doctrine is this?
Circe asks: Who on earth are you? What parents, city, produced such a man?
Audience are astonished that even demons are subject to his authority
Circe is shocked since she has never known a man to resist her power
Circe mysteriously knows the man is Odysseus
Circe had been warned to expect his coming
Circe asks Odysseus not to hurt her
Interpretability (Criteria 6): Mark opens the story with the people in the synagogue being "astonished" at the teaching of Jesus because, he tries to explain, "he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes". Had the audience really never heard a speaker exude self-confidence or dogmatism before? Or are we meant to imagine Jesus shouting more than the scribes like so many evangelicals today as they appear to attempt to inject some sort of "divine authority" into their sermons? Or was Mark beginning with the most memorable climax of the story of Odysseus' encounter with Circe when she was similarly astonished or shocked at the authority and power of Odysseus over her (Point 7 in the table)? This might at least be plausible, since Mark may be seen to be continuing on from the point of that climax -- compare the sequences A, B, C in the above table.

If so, this would explain why Mark has found it necessary to repeat himself by having the audience "astonished" once again at the end of the story (Point 5 in table), only this time with a reason for this reaction that makes more sense. The reason given for the astonishment at the beginning of the story seems anomalous in a gospel that nowhere else depicts Jesus as astonishing by his teaching. Mark's Jesus was a doer, a miracle worker, and he has little to say about his teaching except to note that it was as like as not 'hidden' from the comprehension of listeners (Mark 4:11).

Jesus heals Peter's mother-in-law
After entering Capernaum and exorcising the demon in the synagogue Jesus entered the house of Simon Peter and at the urgent request of of his disciples he healed Simon's mother-in-law. She rose up immediately and served everyone. This scene comes to mind again later as a stark contrast when death and betrayal, not healing, are in the air. After Jesus entered Jersusalem and cast out those polluting the Temple he entered the house of another Simon, Simon the Leper, but healed no-one. (The reader can't help but wonder why this Simon, a follower of Jesus, could be called a "leper" knowing Jesus willingness to heal the same.) A woman entered and served only Jesus, in the midst of disciples who could only criticize her and Jesus.

MacDonald demonstrates the parallels in Simon the Leper's house with those events surrounding the serving woman's washing and anointing of Odysseus. If the events in the two different Simon houses are linked by a blend of similarities and contrasts, is there also anything about the story of Odysseus' anointing that also recalls a similar yet contrasting earlier episode? Are there any distinctive features in the stories that might point to such points of contact? Possibly.

During the scene of Eurycleia washing Odysseus' feet Homer recalls a much earlier event in the life of Odysseus to explain how he received the scar by which Eurycleia came to recognize him. Odysseus had years earlier formed a special attachment with Autolycus, his grandfather, and his sons. Autolycus had addressed his "son-in-law" and daughter, Odysseus' parents, to claim a special godfather status to Odysseus and to choose his name. Later in the house of Autolycus, Odysseus's grandfather, Autolycus and his sons healed Odysseus's wound gradually over some period of time. When he finally recovered they presented him with gifts before sending him on his way.

A disciple's mother-in-law is healed
Son of a son-in-law is healed
Jesus enters house of Simon and Andrew ... Odysseus enters house of Autolycus' sons ...
... with brothers Simon and Andrew ... with Autolycus' sons
Simon's mother-in-law lay sick with a fever Odysseus, who is said to be son of Autolycus's son-in-law, lays sick with a wound
They told Jesus about her "at once" They had "rushed" Odysseus back to house (obviously this is not listed in story sequence)
He came and took her by the hand (transvaluing the ineffective healing attempts in Odyssey?) Odysseus' wound was treated with medicine and magic spells
He lifted her up and she was immediately healed Odysseus lay ill and gradually healed over time
She served them ; while in a later scene that recalls this one a woman serves only Jesus The above story is told as flashback while woman serves Odysseus
This scene stands as foil to Jesus' visit to house of Simon the Leper where he is recognized by one serving woman who serves only Jesus This scene is recalled by Odysseus' return to his own house where he is recognized by the one serving woman, Eurycleia, serving Odyseus
Interpretability (Criteria 6): Why is Andrew said in the early gospel scenes to be linked with Simon Peter as his brother, but nowhere else is he given special mention and almost fades from view? Contrast the treatment of James and John who are consistently linked as brothers throughout. Was his only real purpose to help match the role of Autolycus' sons?

Crowds flock at the doorway
MacDonald's correpondence between the crowds surrounding Jesus when he met blind Bartimaeus and the crowds of departed spirits in Hades flocking to Odysseus adds to the plausibility of similar possible correspondences. The connections between the whole city coming to Jesus at the doorway and all the souls of the dead coming to Odysseus at the trench may well be faint, but a few distinctive points surrounding the scenes at least allow one to pause to consider a possible-maybe.

Jesus at door
Odysseus at trench
At evening after sun had set (note the redundancy) Odysseus reaches a place where even the setting sun can never reach (there is repeated talk of the sun not reaching here)
"they brought" the sick and demon possessed to Jesus souls of the dead, many from unlucky and short lives, come to Odysseus
the whole city came myriads swarming towards him
at the door where Jesus stood at the trench where Odysseus stood
he healed and exorcised many he could not heal or help any
Jesus did not let demons speak (because knew him) Odysseus did not let many of the dead spirits speak

Mark's somewhat tautological introduction (at evening -- the sun had set) seems unusual from the pen of one otherwise noted for his extremely brief and curt style. Odysseus arrival at Hades was introduced by a fullsome discussion of the place of the sun there, that even a setting sun could not bring light to that place.

The trench Odysseus dug was the crossover point that separated him from the myriads of souls who came swarming to him. They would have crossed over and overwhelmed him had he not stood guard here and prevented them. Many souls approached but only those few whom Odysseus allowed were able to know him and speak with him.

Cleansing the leper
Jesus seems to have had a problem with lepers in Mark's gospel. Twice we first meet them as apparently thoroughly faithful followers of Jesus, but both times the encounter ends in an act of betrayal. What follows is complex and obviously largely speculative and I may eventually find it all fall apart rather than come more tightly together, but I have chosen to include it just the same, so once again make of it what you will.

Before going into the possible origin of the first leper encounter a note needs to be made on its place in Mark's overall literary structure. MacDonald sees the swineherd Eumaeus as the inspiration for Mark's Simon the Leper. As I have noted in more detail below (in the section on the sons of Simon the Cyrenian) Mark's gospel contains many scenes at the end of his gospel that are matching reversals of earlier episodes. The one scene in the house of Simon the Leper is reminiscent of two other scenes that are found close together: the time Jesus was in Simon Peter's house (see the notes on the healing of Peter's mother-in-law above) and the time he healed the leper.

This blending of Simon and the leper and their respective episodes is set out in this table:

In house of Simon Peter
  • Disciples are trusting 
  • Healing
  • Jesus and all others are served by woman
Cleansing the leper
  • After cleansing he is told to go to priests
  • But disobeys and betrays Jesus' presence
  • stayed out in deserted places, but ...
  • people from every quarter came out to him preventing him from his plan to preach in cities
In house of Simon the Leper
  • Disciples are critical
  • No healing or cleansing
  • Only Jesus is served by woman (disciples do not share in the life and destiny of Jesus at this point)

  • Judas leaves to go to priests
  • as an act of betrayal
  • went to be alone in Gethsemane, but ...
  • a great multitude came out to him to arrest him and stop him completely
So if Mark was thinking of Eumaeus when he wrote of Jesus staying in the house of Simon the Leper, then we may be justified in expecting Eumaeus was also in his mind when he wrote of the leper Jesus cleansed. Futhermore, if Mark was entwining into one the two earlier episodes and people (Simon and the leper) then he would also appear to be dividing the two acts of the cleansed leper (his faithfulness and then his betrayal) into two persons -- Simon the leper and Judas. Do we have a right to speculate if the two acts of the cleansed leper were also a combination of two similar Homeric figures found together with Odysseus -- Eumaeus the swineherd and Melanthius the goatherd? MacDonald describes the parallels between Judas and Melanthius. There may be more here -- observe the references to "dolius" in the following table. Furthermore it is worth remembering that Judas is always identified as "one of the twelve", as if to implicate all twelve disciples in his act, so it may not be so anomalous to have in the one character the faithful and the traitor. The disciples all begin faithful, but all turn their backs and fail at the end.
Mark 1:40-45
Odyssey Bks 16, 17
Mark 14:1-11
Jesus orders the leper to keep his presence secret, not to tell the town Telemachus orders Eumaeus to keep his presence secret, not to tell the town (Bk 16)  
The leper disobeys Eumaeus obeys (Bk 16)  
  (Bk 17 ...) Odysseus sets out for town ...  
Jesus cannot enter the town openly Odysseus cannot enter the town openly (disguises as a beggar) Jesus stays outside Jerusalem in house of Simon the Leper
Leper came to Jesus Despised goatherd Melanthius, son of Dolius, came to Odysseus  Priests plot to take Jesus by "trickery", translation of Greek "dolius
Jesus was roused to anger(reading, with MacDonald here, the earlier and harder text as the original) Odysseus is roused to wrath (he considered killing him Melanthius) ... Some diciples, Judas included, are roused to indignation ...
... because Melanthius had insulted Eumaeus who was taking care of Odysseus and also insulted and kicked Odysseus  ... and began to criticize sharply the woman serving Jesus 
but does not act on his anger, and heals him anyway but Odysseus controls himself to avoid acting on his anger but Jesus tells them to stop acting on that indignation in their critical treatment of the woman
Cleansed leper 'betrays' Jesus by not going to priests Melanthius speaks of his wish to betray and destroy Odysseus -- and he goes to share company with the evil suitors as act of betrayal Judas betrays Jesus by going to priests
Leper goes to the town in disobedience to and 'betrayal' of Jesus  Melanthius goes to town to meet with the evil suitors in act of betrayal of Odysseus Judas went to the city of Jerusalem to meet with the priests to betray him

Mark's story has a number of oddities for which a Homeric source might offer explanations:
    1. Why is it a problem for Jesus that he "cannot enter the city openly"? MacDonald explains this by Jesus needing to keep his identity secret from those who could too early threaten to end his mission.
    2. Another strange feature is Jesus ordering the healed leper to go to the priest to offer a sacrifice, but this meant a very lengthy journey from Galilee to Jerusalem since it was forbidden to sacrifice anywhere else. That does not seem very plausible historically and seems to be very naive narratively. (Is Jesus really asking him to beg his way to Jerusalem, to face the dangers of such a journey alone?) Do we see rationales for this in the final betrayal by Judas going to the priests who sought to kill Jesus as well as in the possible Homeric template for Judas, Melanthius, who went to the Homeric priestly counterparts, the evil princes who wanted Odysseus dead?
    3. The apparently original text has Jesus being moved to anger by the leper's request for healing. But this point is explained by MacDonald as Jesus fearing his secrecy and safety was in jeopardy. It might be also be observed that if we see the two actions of the leper drawn from Eumaeus the swineherd and Melanthius the goatherd, that Odysseus was roused quickly to extreme wrath by Melanthius' insults and abuse.


    The healing of the paralytic
    I know of only the slightest possible indirect Homeric influence on this story that concludes the first stage of Jesus' ministry. However, since the story brings together significant themes in the previous stories leading up to it, and Homeric influences may be discerned in those, then it seems appropriate to conclude this section with a look at this story, too.

Demon mysteriously knows Jesus' identity -- Jesus does not allow him to speak Jesus knows scribes' thoughts -- he pre-empts them from speaking
Exorcises by word of authority Heals by word of authority
Heals by taking hand and lifting up Heals by combination of touching and speaking Heals by word alone
Power of his authority astonishes Power of his authority astonishes
'Cleansing' Synagogue- 'Cleansing' Temple match Simon Peter's house - Simon the Leper's house match  First faithful, then betrayed Jesus by avoiding priests -- Judas one of the inner 12, betrayed Jesus by going to priests match Lowered down into house by four and then walks out of blocked door - Burial and resurrection of Jesus through great stone door match
There appears to be a progression through the opening acts of Jesus to one that sums up his ultimate saving power through the forgiveness of sins and prefigures his resurrection. If the gospel author mined Homer at all for his climactic healing of the paralytic one might wonder if it was from a the Homeric character MacDonald elsewhere sees in Mark as typifying the death and resurrection of Jesus -- Elpenor. If so, the evidence within the story itself is tangential at best, but gains a little more support in the context of Mark's apparent use of Elpenor in another place in a similar symbolic manner.

Elpenor died when, with his senses dulled from wine and sleep, he failed to go down from the roof of a house by the correct way and fell from the roof instead. The paralytic was symbolically buried in the most unusual manner of being lowered through the roof of the house. (The symbolism of the act has been noted by scholars. The door to Jesus had been blocked, a scene in Mark that has every appearance of symbolism culminating in the massive stone rolled in the doorway of his tomb. Four friends lowered him as if lowering a beir into the ground, and Jesus responded to their faith, not the paralytic's, as though he were dead.)

If Mark used Elpenor at the end of his gospel to prefigure the death and resurrection of Jesus, as MacDonald discusses, did he also gain more mileage out of him in the earlier scene that likewise depicted death and resurrection?

Plucking corn on the Sabbath (2:23-28)

There may be some distant echo in Mark's mind of the time when Odysseus (Bk 12) and his crew were on the sacred Island of the Sun. The crew were tempted to break the divine ordinance not to eat the cattle sacred to the Sun god, and for their weakness were condemned to die. Odysseus was helpless to save them from the consequences of their act. If there was some distant echo of this then Mark has transvalued it so the greater than Odysseus not only saves them from their crime of eating to satisfy their hunger (the exact same motive that led Odysseus' crew to defile the Sun god's cattle), but he declares himself the new authority over what is holy and its purpose for mankind.

One point in favour of the suggestion that this Homeric story was in Mark's mind is that there appears to be a strong case for seeing the same episode as the template for the final Passion scene when the disciples do fail. A feature of Mark's gospel is his tendency to relate in various ways his Passion story at the end of his story to episodes he chronicled at the beginning. Here in the cornfield story we are at the beginnings of the opposition to Jesus and his disciples that is destined to culminate in that final scene.

The parallels are somewhat complicated by Jesus telling a story of David by way of comparison with the events that have just unfolded in the narrative about his disciples. Jesus' story is quite interesting, however. The way Mark tells it, it is quite at odds with it's supposed Old Testament original. In fact his re-telling of this Old Testament story of David has more in common with the Odyssey than with 1 Samuel!

Mark 2:23-24 & Odyssey Bk 12
Jesus went through the cornfields on the Sabbath Odysseus went through the sacred isle of the Sun-god
As they went his disciples began to pluck ears of corn His crew began to prepare sacred cattle for eating
Pharisees to Jesus: Look, why do they break law on sabbath? Accusations in heaven fly

Mark 2:25-28 & Odyssey Bk 12
Jesus replied: Read what David and those with him did when they were in need and hungry? Odysseus and then his crew went through the island, the crew being very hungry.
He went into House of God They prepared the sacrifice
He, and those with him, ate the shewbread contrary to the law They ate the sacred cattle, contrary to the law
Sabbath made for man -- Lord of Sabbath The 7th day = the day of killing the men who broke the law

The most bizarre aspect of Mark's story of David as he tells it through Jesus is that it simply is not consistent with its supposed original source, 1 Samuel 21:1-6. Many commentators focus on Mark getting the name of the high priest wrong. But that is a minor discrepancy. As Mark has Jesus tell it, David was with his men when they were all desperately hungry, and so they were all permitted to eat the sacred bread. But the clear intent of 1 Samuel 21 is to tell the story of David who alone requested the sacred bread, and that his claim to that he was about to share it with others who were supposedly with him, though in hiding some distance away, was an outright falsehood.

Can one explain this blatant error by having Mark "thinking Odyssey" while "penning" I Samuel?