The Last Hours of Jesus / the Last Days of Odysseus' Crew

MacDonald has shown how the death of Jesus appears to emulate that of Hector at the end of the Iliad. The following table strongly suggests, I believe, that the gospel author at this point also entwined distinctive narrative elements from the Odyssey.

The account of the deaths of Odysseus' crew has numerous distinctive and sequential similarities with the events of the last hours of Jesus. Where differences occur one can readily see the gospel author portraying a Jesus who excels Odysseus in both sufferings and piety. In the Odyssey the crew and companions of Odysseus are faced with a final test: they must overcome the temptation to kill and eat the sacred cattle of the Apollo. They fail the test, despite their earlier confidence that they would not fail, and only Odysseus survives, having lost them all. In the gospel the disciples of Jesus are faced with their final test: after having eaten the sacred passover lambs they must stay awake, pray, and stay loyal to Jesus. But though the disciples fail the test, it is Jesus who must die, at the same time losing all his disciples.

(Translations and Greek texts of Iliad and Odyssey can be found by clicking on "Texts" at this Perseus site and for Mark's gospel at Mark Goodacre's Bible tranlations site. )

Both the following Passion story in Mark and its tandem account in Homer are preceded by lengthy prophecies of the dangers to come and warnings of how difficult it will be to survive the coming days. A detailed discussion of these prophecies is found in the final section of these notes under 'private prophecies'. The following details also contain some overlap with the working out of the 'private prophecies' below.

Mark 14:27-15:37
Odyssey Book 12
(& Bk10 for Eurylochus' failure)
Jesus knows his disciples will fail Odysseus fears his crew will fail
He warns his disciples they will fail the coming test He warns his crew they must not fail the coming test
Peter (the chief disciple) protests and strongly insisting he will not fail Jesus Eurylochus (the head of the crew) protests and stronly insists he will not fail
All the disciples vehemently assure Jesus they will not fail All the crew strongly assure Odysseus they will not fail him
The author of Luke-Acts is elsewhere also shown to be in debt to Homeric stories, and in this context it is interesting to note that he had Jesus instruct his disciples to take 2 swords with them to face the coming danger. Circe had told Odysseus that he would be foolish to even think of taking arms with him to face the monster Scylla. But Odysseus ignored her advice and at the last moment grasped 2 spears, although they had no affect in the end.
They leave and head for the (garden of) Gethsemane They beach at pleasant meeting spot for nymphs
Jesus tells his disciples to keep watch Odysseus tells his crew not to fail
Jesus leaves his disciples, Odysseus leaves his crew,
while he goes off alone to pray while he goes off alone to pray
Jesus prays for a way of escape (but willing to submit) Odysseus prays for a way of escape from the coming test
Disciples fall asleep while Jesus is praying Odysseus falls alseep while he is praying
Jesus wakes them to tell them he is being betrayed while they slept Odysseus wakes to find his crew have failed him to their doom while he slept
Begins to leave immediately with disciples As soon as possible he leaves with his crew
But it is too late and he is taken suddenly But it is too late to prevent ruin now
When Jesus went inside the high priest's place, Peter followed at a distance, right up to the courtyard, fearing being caught in same fate as Jesus When companions went inside witch Circe's palace, Eurylochus kept back and stayed at the polished doors, fearing a trap (Bk.10)
First accusation is before the high priest (responsible for the killing and eating of sacred passover lambs) First accusation is before the Sun god (who owned the sacred cattle that had just been killed and eaten)
Peter leaves Jesus to his fate (being condemned worthy of death by high priest and then beaten and struck by hands), denies him, thinks about it, then wept (Contrast Eurylochus who wept over loss of his friends, not his cowardice) Eurylochus waited outside leaving his friends to their doom (Circe struck them with her wand turning them into pigs), tried to talk about it but tears and weeping overwhelmed him (Bk.10)
Second accusation is before Pilate (who alone had the right to kill him) for sentencing Second accusation before Zeus (who alone had the right to kill them) for passing sentence
Pilate sees no reason to sentence him, tries to save him Zeus promises immediately to execute the guilty crew
Jesus is crucified with fulfilled prophecies and ironies and signs The crew is doomed but till then there are signs and portents
Jesus is mocked as a "saviour" who cannot save himself Odysseus cannot save his crew and only he will be saved
Darkness falls over the whole land (from midday until ninth hour -- the time of a watch) Darkness falls over the whole sea (earlier it blotted out the world in the midnight watch)
Jesus then dies on the cross, alone, having lost his disciples The crew then die at sea, and Odysseus alone survives having lost his companions
Jesus hangs on cross till evening (when he was taken down by order of the one who judged him) Odysseus hangs by his hands from fig tree over the deadly waters of Charybdis till "very late, in fact ... till the time when a judge with a long list of disputes to settle between obstinate litigants rises from court for his evening meal."* He then plunged down to the 2 wooden beams, the keel and mast, that he had earlier tied together and that now were lifted up towards him by the rising waters, and on which he was able to paddle to safety.
(*E.V.Rieu's translation)

For Odysseus' companions the test is to not eat the sacred cattle, but they fail this test, and then it is a matter of suspensful waiting till the final judgment falls on them. The author of the gospel shifts the test from the eating of the sacred lamb to the suspensful waiting period afterwards.

Homer sees justice done by having the companions of Odysseus killed by Zeus for their failure. Odysseus suffers the loss of his friends and is left to barely survive alone. Mark of course is creating a greater than Odysseus, who suffers in the same ways but moreso than the classical hero, and achieves more, too. So it is Jesus who dies, but he must do this alone and lose his companions in the process. Unlike Odysseus, Jesus will return with the hope of salvation for his companions in the end.

Sacred holiday settings
One may also note that the special day on which the final judgment by Odysseus took place. Odysseus slew the evil princes who had taken over his house on a public holiday in honour of the same god who owned the sacred cattle, the sun god Apollo (Bk.21). The gospel author similarly timed the failure of Jesus' disciples and Jesus' own death to take place on the sacred day of the Passover. (The day began in the evening and finished the following sunset.)

Of course it is generally assumed that the Passover setting of Jesus' death is in the gospel because it is historical. Such reasoning looks to the story itself as essentially historical, and seeks to explain it within its own terms, without first looking for independent and external corroboration to establish the story's historicity.

Neverending story?
Some scholars have seen the gospel of Mark as structured like a circular tale. The gospel ends with the message that Jesus is going back to Galilee where he can meet Peter and the other disciples; and it begins as abuptly as it ends, with Jesus entering Galilee and finding first Simon Peter and then the rest of his disciples. No explanation is given why the disciples follow Jesus, but if the story is meant as a circular tale then we may see a reason for their willingness to immediately follow in the end of the gospel -- they already knew him? (The original ending was at Mark 16:8 -- the verses after verse 8 are a much later editorial addition apparently written to smooth out the original abrupt ending.)

If one is willing to entertain the plausibility of this view, it might also be of interest to note something of a supporting structure in the Odyssey. When we first meet Odysseus there (Bk.5), it is at a time when he has already lost all his companions. He is wasting his time away in the far away land of Ogygia, eager to set out on his divinely planned mission. (How he lost his companions is later told in flashback.) When we first meet Jesus in the gospel, is it also after he has already lost his disciples? I have no idea.

But to flashback now to Ogygia and the opening wilderness setting of the gospel.....