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



(sequence of events in chapters 13 to 15)
(sequence of events in books 12 and 10)
After a lengthy prophecy warning of dire trials ahead and then the symbolic eating of Jesus body -- After a lengthy prophecy warning of dire trials ahead and then the eating of some of Odysseus' crew --
Jesus warns his disciples, with another prophecy, that they will fail;  Odysseus warns his crew, with a prophecy, that they may fail; 
His disciples, led by Peter, assure him they will remain true; His crew, led by Eurylochus, assure him they will remain true;
They then go out to the scene of the coming trial, the garden of Gethsemene; They then beach at the scene of the coming trial, a pleasant meeting spot for nymphs;
Jesus agonized over the thought of his imminent death (Bk 10) Odysseus agonized over the thought of his coming visit to Hades (Bk 10)
Jesus went off alone to pray for a way of escape Odysseus went off alone to pray for a way of escape
But sleep (of the disciples) while he prayed brought their ruin But sleep (of Odysseus) while he prayed brought his crew's ruin
After 3 prayers a mob from the priests dragged Jesus off to trial before the high priest After 3 prayers a daughter of the Sun-god brought accusations against the crew before the Sun-god 
Peter fearfully followed his doomed master at a distance and finally wept (Bk 10) Eurylochus fearfully followed his doomed companions at a distance and finally wept (Bk 10)
Jesus faced a second trial before Pilate The crew faced a second accusation before Zeus
Unnatural darkness covered the land just prior to Jesus' death Unnatural darkness covered the sea just prior to the crew's death
Jesus dies alone having lost all his disciples Odysseus alone survives having lost all his companions
Jesus hangs on the cross till evening Odysseus hangs from the fig tree till evening


MacDonald has shown how the death of Jesus appears to emulate that of Hector at the end of the Iliad. He also observes reflections of Odysseus' encounter with the goddess Circe (book 10 of the Odyssey) in the events leading up to Jesus' death. The following table strongly suggests, I believe, that Mark at this point modelled the basic story structure on the Homeric story of the failure of Odysseus' crew on the island of the Sun-god, entwining many more distinctive narrative elements from that story. The table below incorporates some of MacDonald's observations from Odysseus' adventures with Circe with mine of his adventures on the Sun-god's island. I have also shown what I believe was Mark's model for the story of Peter's betrayal from the earlier Circe episode.

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.

(I have also noted with grey background some widely acknowledged sources of story details that do not derive from Homer, but appear to have been fitted into the Homeric framework.)

Mark 14:27-15:37
(Note Peter in gospel often mirrors Eurylochus)
Odyssey 12.260-446
(& 10.230-250 for Eurylochus' failure)
Lengthy prophecy and parables by Jesus warning disciples to watch, not to sleep, and to endure to the end through great tribulation -- this was followed by.... Lengthy prophecies from Teiresias & Circe that Odysseus passed on to warn his crew (i.e. warning them not to yield to temptation on the island of the Sun-god, and to endure horrendous hardships) -- followed by....
The symbolic eating of Jesus -- and immediately following this.... The eating of some of the crew by Scylla -- and immediately following this....
... They went out to the mount of Olives (symbolically a new holy place in place of the Temple) ... They came to the island of sun-god (a place so holy it will seal their doom)
Jesus left Jerusalem after his betrayer acted against him and went with his disciples to the Mount of Olives David fled for his life from Jerusalem after Absolam betrayed him and went with a few loyal followers to the Mount of Olives (2 Samuel 15:12-30)
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 
He cites a prophecy to support his knowledge (Jesus, greater than Odysseus) knows without the prophecy and only cites the prophecy to try to convince his disciples) He tells them of the prophecy which is the reason he knows (Odysseus knows of the risks only because of the prophecy)
Peter (the chief disciple) protests and strongly insisting he will not fail Jesus Eurylochus (the head of the crew) protests that his body is weaker than Odysseus' but also strongly 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 (Luke 22:38). 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.
Odysseus' crew are overcome with grief over the deaths of their companions that they fall asleep
Time references: 'the third watch ... Dawn'
They leave and head for the (garden of) Gethsemane (This is not mentioned again by name but is the place where the disciples failed and Jesus was taken to be accused before the high priest and Pilate) They beach at pleasant meeting spot for nymphs (This is not mentioned again as such but is the place where the crew failed and from where they were accused before the Sun-god and then Zeus.)
Jesus is 'exceedingly sorrowful even to death' so tells his disciples to stay awake and keep watch
Jesus tells his disciples to keep watch Odysseus tells his crew not to fail
Time reference: 'a whole month' (i.e. the time Odysseus' crew could not last against temptation that will seal their fate - to break promise not to kill Sun's cattle)
Jesus leaves his disciples, Odysseus leaves his crew,
while he goes off alone to pray while he goes off alone to pray
1st prayer: Jesus prays for a way of out of the coming trial (but willing to submit) 1st prayer: Odysseus prays for a way of out from the coming test
MacDonald observes of 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) MacDonald observes of 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)
MacDonald observes of 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) MacDonald observes of 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)
Disciples fall asleep while Jesus is praying Odysseus falls alseep while he is praying
Time reference: 'one hour' (i.e. the time Jesus' disciples could not last against the temptation that will seal their fate - to fall asleep instead of keeping watch)
2nd prayer: Jesus addresses Peter then returns to pray the same prayer a second time (Mark likes '3's' but his imagination appears to have failed him this time when he has Jesus praying the same short prayer three times, apparently an hour each time.) 2nd prayer: Eurylochus addresses his companions and they pray while Odysseus sleeps
3rd prayer: Jesus prays the same prayer again after finding his disciples still sleeping 3rd prayer: Odyesseus prays to complain of the ruin caused by his companions while he slept
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
MacDonald observes of Mark 14:41-43: He (Jesus) came,and said to them, 'You are still sleeping and taking your rest! Enough! ... Get up, let us be going, See my betrayer is at hand' ...While he was still speaking.... (p.126) MacDonald observes of Odyssey 10.546-50: I (Odysseus) went ... and roused my men with winning words, ... 'Although you are sleeping, no longer take your fill of sweet sleep, but let us go; lo! ... So I spoke.... (p.126)
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
Judas, one of Jesus friends, betrayed Jesus by giving him a kiss of greeting David gave his betrayer, his son Absolam, a kiss of greeting -- an act of misguided acceptance that precipitated Absolam's betrayal -- and Absolam continued to betray David by winning others with a kiss of warm greeting (2 Samuel 14:33-15:6)
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 (10.230-234)
Those who arrested Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane to face trial before the high priest "belonged to" the chief priests, scribes and elders. The one who brought to the Sun-god the accusation of the crew's crime at the meeting place of the nymphs was the daughter of the Sun-god, the nymph Lampetie.
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 (10.234-250)
Time references: 'immediately ... in the morning'
Second accusation is before Pilate (the high priest taking it to higher court) (who alone had the right to kill him) for sentencing Second accusation before Zeus (the Sun-god taking it to higher court) (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 was made a mock king by soldiers -- clothed him in purple cloak, crowned him with thorns, saluted him and knelt before him as their king.  Madman Carabas (cf Barabbas) was made a mock king by rioting mob -- clothed him with a door mat for a royal robe, crowned him with a leaf of papyrus, gave him a papyrus reed for a sceptre, and loudly hailed him as their king. (Philo, 'Against Flaccus', 32-39)
Mark has left many scholars sceptical about the historicity of the trial scenes since his story makes witnesses an impossibility. Mark leaves the reader wondering how he knew such details that happened behind closed doors with Peter outside and the other disciples having fled. Homer has his narrator, Odysseus, explain to his listener how he knew of the above 'trial scenes in heaven' since he (Odysseus) could not possibly have witnessed them. Odysseus explains that he learned the details from the goddess Circe who had been told by the god Hermes.
Jesus is crucified with fulfilled prophecies and ironies and signs -- but no miraculous signs are given despite mocking calls for them (calls for him to come down from cross, for Elijah to appear -- and the people remain ignorant of their guilt) The crew is doomed but till then there are signs and portents (the hides of the slaughtered cattle crawl about, the dead meat makes lowing noises -- and the crew know their guilt)
Time reference: the 3rd hour (repetition to bring this time reference in) Time references: 6 days, the 7th day
Jesus is mocked as a "saviour" who cannot save himself Odysseus cannot save his crew and only he will be saved
Time reference -- as below... Time reference -- as below...
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)
Then Jesus dies on the cross, alone, having lost his disciples (The prophecy is fulfilled) Then the crew die at sea, and Odysseus alone survives having lost his companions (The prophecy is fulfilled)
Time reference -- as below... Time reference -- as below...
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)
Jesus is crucified in between 2 thieves. Jesus is taken down at a request to the Roman governor Pilate from Joseph of Arimathea and is resurrected. Josephus bar Matthias requests the Roman general Titus for his 3 crucified friends to be taken down from their crosses. Two die but one survives the ordeal. (Josephus, 'Life', 75) Also note MacDonald's observations of Priam requesting body of Hector for Mark's story structure.

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. Both Homer and Mark also build a suspenseful immediacy in their respective stories by the frequent time references throughout.

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.) In their literary contexts such time-settings serve to heighten the dramatic impact and ironies of the stories.

Of course it is generally assumed that the Passover setting of Jesus' death is in the gospel because it is historical. My concern here, however, is to analyse and compare the literary texts within their own terms. Corroborating historical data external to the texts is another question entirely. One nevertheless can't help but wonder about the extent to which our views of what was historical may have been influenced by a story well told and revered for theological reasons.

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 are primarily literary symbolic characters from whom we do not expect biographical realism? (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? Are we meant to re-read the gospel with the fate of the disciples, and their symbolic and theological significance, in mind?

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