The final days of Jesus, & of the world
(Mark 11-16 -- see the opening comparison back at the beginning, 'The Last Days of Jesus...' for the most densely packed, sequential and distinctive andpoints in common between the Passion of Jesus and the deaths of Odysseus' companions.)
MacDonald observes Odysseus privately delivering prophecies of his return to Penelope. But Jesus' lengthy prophecy in Mark 13 contains much more than assurances that Jesus is about to come soon and unexpectedly to reclaim his kingdom. I suspect that Mark has woven the words and signs Odysseus gave to Penelope with the broad outline of another lengthy prophecy found in the Odyssey, one that warns of many dangers up ahead.
Just before Odysseus was about to lose his entire crew the goddess Circe warned him at length of the events and trials that lay ahead: Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, and the cattle on the island of the Sun-god. Obviously there is very little correspondence between Homer's mythical monsters and Mark's allusions to historical events. Where the correspondence does occur is in the overall placing of the prophecies in the larger story, and in the purposes and warnings within the prophecies themselves. However, there are several interesting details that do match, particularly when comparing Mark with the working out of the prophecies after they had been spoken by Circe (i.e. the points in square brackets). Note the fig tree at the end, for example. Mark also, as we have come to expect, transvalues the dangers and sufferings to be faced by Odysseus and his crew with even greater dangers and suffering to confront the followers of Jesus.
The central prophecy delivered by Circe -- that of the doom that threatened on the island of the Sun-god -- was actually a repeat of the same prophecy that had been delivered to Odysseus by the blind seer Teiresias in Hades. Teiresias followed this prophecy with a warning of the bad characters that were in Odysseus' household in his absence. Jesus also concludes his prophecy with a very similar warning, and one that MacDonald elsewhere notes effectively summarizes the plot of the Odyssey.
Mark 13 Odyssey Bk. 12 The lengthy prophecy immediately precedes the final climactic scene in Mark -- the falling away of the disciples and the death and resurrection of Jesus by which he enters the glory of his kingdom. The lengthy prophecy immediately precedes the climactic scene where the companions of Odysseus fail and are all lost, and Odysseus barely survives. And this story immediately precedes Odysseus' final homecoming and grand climax when he regains his kingdom. Jesus sat and 4 disciples came to him privately Odysseus sat beside Circe privately (Circe gives the prophecy to Odysseus but Odysseus then repeats it to his crew.) Jesus first warns them not to beware of deceiving prophets -- they will deceive many -- and not to be troubled when they hear of wars etc. (This by no means suggests that Mark concocted the notion of false prophets from the Sirens, but that the general structure of the Homeric prophecy helped structure and order Mark's details.) Circe first warns Odysseus and his crew not to listen to the voices of the Sirens (who like prophets tell of past and future events) -- they have enticed many to their doom. Jesus tells the disciples to watch out for themselves, not to worry beforehand .... Circe tells Odysseus that she cannot fully guide him, that he must choose which way he will go Some will be persecuted and killed, but he who endures to the end will be saved Scylla will kill some of Odysseus' crew, but that is better than all dying (so take heed not to go the way of Charybdis) Above the deadly monster Charybdis is a great fig tree with luxuriant foliage overhanging from a crag. The greatest threat is the abomination of desolation standing where it ought not... the only response is to flee ... that will be the time of the greatest troubles ever The greatest test will be the island of the Sun-god with its herds of divine cattle and flocks... the only response is to turn back on them and set out for home ... there will be no hope of escape otherwise None would survive unless God shortened the days, but he has shortened them for the elect's sake -- but only through the greatest tribulation ever to befall the earth If Odysseus and his crew remain true and don't touch the cattle of the Sun-god, then there is some chance they may all reach home, but in hardship -- if Odysseus' companions fail, then total ruin with loss of crew and ship, he alone (the elect?) will survive. Jesus repeats his warning about the danger of the false christs who could deceive even the elect. [Odysseus repeats the warnings to his crew that their deadliest threat comes if they go near the Island of the Sun, but they do not listen] False christs will show signs and wonders [after the crew do fail the test and eat the cattle there were many signs and wonders] After that tribulation the sun to be darkened, the moon will not give light, and stars will fall, and powers of heaven will be shaken ... (What Homer's Sun-god had only threatened to do actually is said to be destined to happen in the gospel.) [After the crew failed, the sun that put the stars to flight threatened to go down to Hades and shine among the dead] (i.e. the natural order of the heavens is threatened with being overturned) Then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory [Then as divine judgment was about to fall Zeus came with a sombre cloud above the crew and darkened the sea by its shadow -- he then unleashed his great power with lightning and hurricane] He will gather his elect from the four winds [He scattered Odysseus' crew to die by the winds and sea] When the fig tree puts forth leaves you know summer is near, .... (MacDonald notes the fig tree parallels but not with its connection with Charybdis.) [Odysseus was saved by clinging to the leafy fig tree, ....] .... so when you see all this happen then know that the kingdom is near [.... Odysseus had been given several prophecies to know that what he had just seen, the loss of his crew, meant that he would soon be home to his kingdom] Take heed, watch and pray .... like a man going to a far country, who left his house and gave authority to his servants .... watch... lest he find you sleeping.... (MacDonald noted this parallel between the man going to a far country and its comparison with the Odysseus story, but I suspect Mark is also transvaluing Odysseus by the reference to sleeping.) [Teiresias (Bk.11) .......
[Odysseus failed to keep awake and on watch while praying ... he went to a far country (Troy) and left his house to be devoured by wicked princes, only some of his servants remained watchful waiting for his return ... Odysseus falling asleep brought ruin to his companions.]
Rustics compelled to assist executions
If MacDonald is correct in seeing Simon Peter's namesake, Simon the Leper, being drawn from Eumaeus the swineherd, then there may be some significance in another Simon also associated with Jesus' last hours bearing similarities with the same Eumaeus.
Both Simon the Leper and Simon a Cyrenian appear to stand in place of Simon Peter (whose house Jesus had orginally visited, and who promised to die with him) just as Eumaeus appears to be a humbler but more worthy friend and servant of Odysseus than the failed head of Odysseus original companions, Eurylochus.
*Again Jesus suffers more than Odysseus. Odysseus had to put up with the taunts and kicking of one who wished him dead, while Jesus was mocked and beaten by those actually preparing to kill him. Odysseus' humiliation took place beside a refreshing spring, while the only refreshment Jesus was offered was drugged wine that he refused.
Simon a Cyrenian Eumaeus the swineherd After the officers taunted and beat Jesus and prepared to execute him, not knowing his real identity ....* After Melanthius taunted and kicked Odysseus and wished him dead, not kowing who he really was, (but later taunts by the suitors came after Eumaeus had come in from the field) ....* .... Simon came out from the field .... Eumaeus came out to town from the field Simon was described as a father Eumaeus was addressed as an honorary father and compelled and compelled to carry the cross to carry the great bow that belonged to Jesus that belonged to Odysseus and take it to the place where Jesus was crucified and take it to Odysseus to enable him to begin the slaughter
Four literary Simons
Regardless of whether Simon was a real historical follower of Jesus, the gospel author treats the name as a literary character who serves literary and theological purposes. So it can only be in this capacity that we can discuss him and his namesakes. Mary Tolbert shows how the author made the head apostle, Simon, a symbol of the rocky soil (hence his designation "Peter" meaning "rock") who hear the word (Simon means "hearing") enthusiastically at first but, lacking root, soon fall away.
The three other instances of Simon's namesake appear to be placed in ways and places that recall the first Simon and his failure, and the failure of all the disciples.Thus in the list of the 12 apostles we have Simon heading the list and another Simon, Simon the Canaanite, rounding off the list of all except for Jesus who is added at the end with an explanatory note to explain his distinction from the rest. It might appear, though only the rest of the story will confirm or deny this, that Simon represents the inner disciples, apart from Judas.
The next Simon, Simon the leper, recalls the time when Jesus entered the house of Simon Peter with all the disciples he had at the time. Both scenes occur at the opening of the two parts of Jesus' adventures: the first in Galilee and the second in Judea. In the first the disciples show total faith in Jesus; in the second they are so critical of him the house is the setting of the beginning of the plot to betray him. In the first, a healing takes place; in the second we are left wondering why this Simon is still known as "the leper". In the first a worshipful woman serves the needs of all; in the second she tends to only one.
Two Simons stand either side of Simon Peter's failure when, despite his strongest assertion that even if he had to die with Jesus he would never deny him, Peter runs for his life and later denies Jesus three times. The first was Simon the leper, above. Finally we meet Simon a Cyrenian. Is the geographic label a flag to remind the reader of the second Simon closing the list of the 11 apostles, Simon the Canaanite? Does the action of this final Simon stand for the symbolic completion of the utter failure of all the other disciples, and not just Judas?
This final namesake of Simon Peter, Simon a Cyrenian, does not voluntarily pick up his own cross, as Jesus had once earlier commanded any who would follow him. This Simon is compelled to pick up the cross belonging to Jesus and by so doing to assist directly in his crucifixion. As Simon the Leper was the house where the plot to betray Jesus was hatched, and as Simon Peter was the one who failed miserably to keep his promise to die and remain loyal to Jesus, so this Simon, with a name reminiscent of both the first and the last of the 11 disciples, Simon a Cyrenian, helplessly but directly assisted the carrying out of the crucifixion of Jesus.
Simon Peter Simon the Canaanite Simon the leper Simon a Cyrenian First of the 11 (with Judas making up the 12) Last of the 11 -- with a geographic identifier First of the final Simons in Judea Last of Simons -- with a geographic identifier
- Jesus enters his house,
- with all disciples
- who show faith in him
- at beginning of ministry
- woman serves all
- Jesus inside his house
- with all disciples
- many criticize (and one plots)
- at beginning of end of his ministry
- no healing
- woman serves one
Promises to die with Jesus, but helplessly denies him If 'Canaanite' meant 'zelot' to Mark then his character was to die and kill for the kingdom The place where treachery and betrayal begins - Judas began his final act from here. Helplessly forced to assist in the crucifixion of Jesus His name Peter, with his fluctuating character, indicates his symbolic representation of the rocky soil, and hence of all the disciples. The position of Simon's namesake at the end of the 11, which were headed by Simon, suggests "Simon" is a cipher for all disciples apart from Judas. Eumaeus the model?-- the outcast welcomed Odysseus into his humble house outside the main city Eumaeus the model?-- both came in from the field, both called fathers, both compelled to carry the means of death to their lord
Where do Alexander and Rufus fit in?
The following is a discussion on the nature of the gospel's reference to the two sons of Simon a Cyrenian, in particular whether they are intended as literary/theological constructs or references to historical people actually known to Mark's audience. Of course the former does not necessarily preclude the latter, but neither does it of itself establish it. I have tagged it on the end of the discussion about possible Homeric influences in part because the mention of their names might be seen by some as an argument against Simon the Cyrenian himself being modelled after Eumaeus.
Many scholars insist that the mention of these names can serve no purpose other than to honour historical (and oral) witnesses to the events the gospel author narrates, despite them being dropped by the other evangelists. Yet many (even the same?) scholars also admit that Mark has spared no effort to undermine the credibility of those who would otherwise be considered the most valid of oral witnesses! Werner Kelber argues (1983) that the literary treatment of the disciples (and false prophets) in Mark's gospel was intended to undermine the significance of the oral teachings about Jesus and to replace them with the authority of his written text. If this is the case then it makes no sense that the author of the gospel would seek to honour names of additional oral witnesses and so undermine perhaps the main point of his gospel.
Simon a Cyrenian is said in the narrative to be the father of 2 sons, Alexander and Rufus, and this descriptor has traditionally assured many readers that the reference is to historical persons known to the original audience of the gospel. That may have been the case -- there is no external corroborating evidence -- and Mark could also still have crafted Simon after Eumaeus.
But one wonders if this assumption is made in order to claim some historical basis in a gospel containing so many other names and events with distinctly symbolic flavours. The most unusual way identifying a person by his sons instead of by his parent should have been a warning that there was something else going on here. A consideration of MacDonald's observations of the links (not only in Mark but also in Luke, John and Acts) between James and John as the sons of Thunder and Castor and Pollux as the sons of the Thunderer (Zeus) should also give even more cause to pause before assuming too quickly.
But a glance at the literary structure of the gospel suggests that the naming of these brothers with their father serves some literary cum theological function, first and last, for the author. (Of course one can always say that the author has used real historical people for symbolic, literary or theological purposes, but in the absence of evidence that the author saw his characters in any way apart from being created to fulfil a literary role, then it is only the literary characters that one can legitimately discuss and all that is relevant here.)
One of the striking literary features of Marks' gospel is how his beginning and ending contain so many motifs that appear to mirror-reverse each other, and the same applies to the curious ways he names 2 pairs of brothers in connection with their parents.
Some examples of the mirror reversals at the beginning and ending of the gospel:
So Mark is the master of reversals. Jesus entry into the glory of his kingdom is his dying on the cross. Where James and John requested to be at his right and left in his glory the reality was fulfilled by two thieves crucified on his right and left. The first and great ones are those who become slaves and servants. Peter is Satan. Jesus' mother and brethren are replaced by others who are his real mother and brethren.
- The opening declaration that Jesus is the son of God (by God -- or in the opening verse?); the closing scoffing declaration that he was 'the son of God' (by the centurion)
- Baptism at the beginning; a death ordeal that is described as another baptism
- Heavens part; the temple veil (which bore the image of the heavens) parts from the top
- Disciples immediately follow; disciples immediately flee
- Cleansing of a synagogue; cleansing of the temple
- A withered hand is healed in a synagogue; a fig tree is withered outside the temple
- In house of Simon with all disciples who are faithful, heals, and all are served by a woman; In house of Simon the leper with all disciples who criticize and plot against him, no healing, and one is served by woman
- Unclean spirit leaves a body in torment, with a loud cry; spirit of Jesus exits at his death with loud cry
- At evening, many come to door of house to see Jesus; At evening, few come to door of tomb to see where Jesus is laid
- In morning people come looking for Jesus but cannot find him; at morning, women come looking for Jesus but cannot find him
- Jesus leaves to go throughout all Galilee; Jesus is said to have gone on to Galilee
- Jesus orders silence but the cleansed leper disobeys and tells many; Women are ordered to tell disciples but they disobey and remain silent.
So it will not surprise us if we find a similar turning inside-out of some of the disciples and family relationships when comparing those at the beginning with those at the end of the gospel narrative:
The first disciples described in relation to a parent are given pride of place throughout the gospel, while their father is left behind as a name only: James and John, the sons of Zebedee.
- At the end a parent is given pride of place (going albeit under compulsion with Jesus to his death) while his 2 sons are mentioned as names only: Simon, father of Alexander and Rufus. (Note that Homer had Eumaeus, the possible source of Mark's Simon here, addressed as an honorary father, so it is not beyond possibility that Mark for this reason was prompted to allocate the literary balance in Simon as the honoured father here.)
Next, 2 sons are mentioned quite separately, one honoured but to be left out of the inner circle, the other to be included, but both are linked independently with their father. Again the father is merely a name; it is the sons who are honoured. Levi the son of Alphaeus is called from his tax office, and James the son of Alphaeus is listed with the 12. Again at the end, 2 sons are mentioned quite separately, one mentioned as son of an honoured Mary who visits the tomb to see the burial of Jesus, the other as son of the same mother who discovers the empty tomb. The mother is the one honoured; the sons are merely names. Thus Mary the mother of Joses observed where Jesus was laid for burial; and the same Mary, Mary the mother of James, came to anoint him the next morning only to discover the empty tomb.
Apart from Jesus the heroes of Mark's gospel are, like the beloved disciple in John's gospel, intentionally anonymous. Mark's audience relates to the unnamed ones and agonizes over the failure of the names who should have entered the kingdom ahead of them.
The mother of Jesus is named Mary, and she is also the mother of James, Joses, Judas, Simon and unnamed daughters. But Jesus had already anounced that this Mary and these brothers were not his real mother and brothers. The Mary at the conclusion of the gospel is introduced as "Mary the mother of James the Younger and of Joses". Many have taken this to be another way of referring to the mother of Jesus. But we know Mark plays games with names. Given the literary context of the two Simon namesakes popping up at this part of the narrative, both of whom recall the failings of the original Simon, the assumption that the Mary here is the same as the mother of Jesus would seem less than secure. One might especially recall that Jesus had already declared his real mother was someone else, indeed many others, unnamed. I suggest that this Mary is intended as merely a namesake of Jesus' mother, and her two sons likewise as namesakes of two of Jesus' brethren. They are the sons of a woman who pointlessly went to a tomb to anoint Jesus when he had already been anointed for burial (at Bethany) and was no longer even there. Their mother was also one who fearfully kept silent in disobedience to the young man who told her to inform the disciples. She failed as dismally as the inner twelve. What credibility can the author have intended for her sons if their only claim to fame was that such a one was their mother? (Similarly one wonders if Joseph of Arimathea was a name chosen as a namesake of one whom other stories said was the name of Jesus' supposed father. Joseph of Arimathea does, after all, perform the duty of a father toward his dead son.)
James and John, sons of Zebedee (a normal way of identification: to note one's parent) -- this description appears in context of having to share the death and suffering of Jesus.
Simon, father of Alexander and Rufus (abnormal to identify one by one's sons) -- their mention is in context of their father sharing with Jesus his suffering and death.
Levi son of Alphaeus, honoured, but excluded from the 12; James son of Alphaeus, honoured more greatly as one of the inner 12. (Again a normal way of identification: to note one's parent)
Mary mother of Joses, observes the burial of the dead Jesus; Mary mother of James the Younger, oberves empty tomb of the resurrected Jesus. (Again abnormal to identify by one's sons)
Mary mother of James, Joses, Judas, Simon and daughters -- and Jesus
Mary mother of Joses and James the Younger -- a would-be spiritual mother of Jesus who also failed?
Just as Mark discredited the inner twelve, plus Levi who never even made it to the inner twelve, as reliable witness of Jesus (as the story moves on they understood less and less till they all finally fled or betrayed him, never even to receive the message of the resurrection) so he discredited their apparent namesakes at the end, those who the audience expected might take their place. So Jesus abides with a follower named Simon the Leper, implying that was his condition, and that he was not healed; Simon a Cyrenian was compelled to assist in the execution of Jesus; the Marys who followed Jesus vainly sought to anoint a body that had already been anointed and was no longer to be found.
And not only did he discredit their namesakes who an audience would vainly hope would succeed in their place. He also by implication discredited the names of their sons as sons of failure. Oral testimony is thoroughly discredited, root and branch, by the written word of "the beginning of the gospel".
Is it a coincidence that the names of the would-be faithful followers of Jesus make up the same number as the twelve, with Levi as an appropriate 13th spanning both camps? (Levi was the tribe that was generally counted as the 13th and set apart from the other twelve.)
- Simon the Leper
- Simon a Cyrenian
- Joseph of Arimathea
- Mary Magdalene