Two Wilderness Settings

1. John the Baptist

MacDonald has shown the striking similarities between the death of Agamemnon and the death of John the Baptist, so one naturally asks if there is anything comparable for the story of John the Baptist at the beginning of Mark's gospel. There is no question that Mark, unlike some later evangelists, partly modelled his John the Baptist on the Old Testament Elijah. Both spent time in the wilderness and both are said to have worn a leather belt (2 Kings 1:8; Mark 1:6) and Jesus later tells his disciples John was the Elijah to come (Mark 9:13). But we have already seen evidence that Mark drew on both Homeric and Old Testament literature to write some of his stories. And Mark's John is only in a very few particulars modelled on Elijah. Elijah did not baptize anyone, but Agamemnon did order all his men to ritually bathe themselves as a sign of obedience to Apollo. The interplay of John and Jesus, and even John's message, may also have derived from Agamemnon and another prophet in the opening book of Homer's Iliad, while some of the setting and physical description may be a response to various Homeric messengers from God.

Both the Iliad and Mark's gospel open with a special dynamic between two great men, one the greatest prophet/king known till then, and the other a son of a divinity who is the greater prophet/warrior. The greater begins his destiny in an act of submission, one by coercion and the other willingly, to the lesser. (The references to Calypso and Circe from the Odyssey relate to setting and description, while the Iliad references relate to the action and plot.)

Old Testament
*Homer's Iliad, Book 1;  and Odyssey 5, 10, 11
Elijah (mostly setting and description)
John the Baptist
Calypso and Circe (for setting and description)
Then Elijah went into the wilderness (1Ki.19:4) -- not in narrative sequence In the wilderness     Odysseus goes out to remotest places: to a cave dwelling, to a forested wilderness, ...
  All the people came out to John  Agamemnon was king over all the men    
Elijah commanded the worship of God (1Ki.18) -- note this was before the wilderness John baptized them in the Jordan for remission of sins

as a sign of repentance to God

He commanded them to be purified by ritual bathing

as a sign of obedience to Apollo 
-- note this was after the greatness dispute below

Elijah  was a hairy man and wore a leather belt around his waist (2Ki.1:8) Clothed with camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist

and easts locusts and wild honey

    ... where he meets goddesses who live on ambrosia and nectar (Hermesthe messenger was also fed ambrosia and nectar),

and who especially dress in the finest silvery cloth and a golden belt when the time comes for them to send Odysseus on his way to reclaim his kingdom.

  Preached one greater than he to come after him Agamemnon acts to prove he is greater than Achilles. A lengthy discussion occurs over the need for mutual submission among greater and lesser leaders. -- note, the 'baptism' follows but without Achilles Calchas was the greatest prophet of the Greeks but he prophesied that one greater would come after him  
  Whose sandal strap he is not worthy to unbind     Hermesthe messenger of the gods "bound" special sandals on his feet before delivering his message about Odysseus to these goddesses.
  The greater one (the son of God) submits to John in baptism The greater warrior Achilles (with a goddess for a mother) refuses to submit to Agamemnon When the greater prophet, Mopsus (who father is the god Apollo) appears, the two prophets compete  
  Then John is imprisoned and soon executed Agamemnon's death has distinctive similarities with the death of John the Baptist (See   ) Then Calchas dies.  
* While Agamemnon and Calchis are significant characters in Homer's works Mark also appears to have drawn on some well-known details of their lives found outside Homer.

Two "baptisms"
In the opening book of the Iliad Agamemnon called all his men together and commanded them to ritually purify themselvs by bathing. All came to John the Baptist and he commanded them to be baptized. Both actions are linked with repentance, although Agamemnon's change of heart was less than enthusiastic. This one point of similarity would not be worthy of attention if it were not for Mark's apparent later use of Agamemnon's death as a model for John's death. This invites us to see if Mark has used Homer in his opening scenes as well.

The seer Calchas and prophet John
But this act of Agamemnon was in response to the prophecy of the great seer Calchas. Calchas (the name means 'bronze') was renowned without equal as a prophet in Greece. But there was a prophecy that he would die when he met an even greater seer to come after him. That seer was Mopsus and he also had a god for a father, the same Apollo who features so prominently in other comparisons noted here. The one message that John the Baptist delivers in Mark's gospel is that one greater than he is to come after him. That greater one, of course, was the greatest prophet of all, Jesus the Son of God. Calchas died in self-pity after being outdone in a prophecy contest with Mopsus. After the coming of the greater one in Mark's gospel John was arrested and soon after executed. While Calchas died in self-pity, John died a more worthy death. If this role of J
ohn was modelled on the Calchas myth then it would help explain Mark's stark implication that John was so great without suggesting any reasons for his special greatness.

An explanation for Jesus, the greater, being baptized by John, the lesser? (See Criterion 6)
Mark created one of the great conundrums for later Christian theologians when he wrote that Jesus, though greater than John, was baptized by John. Later gospel narrators demonstrate some embarrassment over this: Matthew re-wrote Mark's episode with John protesting that Jesus should baptize him; Luke re-wrote it in such a way that John is imprisoned before Jesus is said to have been baptized. Yet Mark demonstrates not one hint of embarrassment. Does the central opening theme of the Iliad on which the whole plot turns -- the refusal of one greater than Agamemnon to submit to him -- suggest an explanation for Mark's lack of embarrassment over such a detail? Was he presenting Jesus as one who was more worthy and noble than Achilles (also the son of a divinity) by his willingness to submit to the lesser man?

Such an interpretation carries some weight given Mark's use of Agememnon as a model for John the Baptist in his death (and baptizing?) and the similarities between Achilles and Jesus also noted elsewhere. Also significant is the prominence given in the opening book of the Iliad to a speech by the venerable Nestor delivering examples past greats submitting to lesser greats, and the current need for two great men to submit to one another, especially the greater (the son of a divinity) to submit to the other. Indeed, the whole plot of the Iliad turns over the inability of the greater warrior, Achilles, the son of a divinity, to submit to Agamemnon. If Mark knew the Iliad from his years of training to write Greek narratives, and made use of it elsewhere in his gospel, it is surely very plausible to think that these opening scenes of the Iliad were in his mind when he had Jesus submit to the baptism of John.

Is it also significant that Mark later has Jesus teach that the truly great one (even one exalted to the right and left hand of God) is the one who humbly submits to others rather than ruling over others (as Agamemnon does), and that this teaching is linked with his own baptism (Mark 10:35-43)?  Mark's Jesus certainly appears to have emulated Achilles here, just as he appears later to emulated the death of Hector in his own death.

When Agamemnon ordered all his men, as a sign of renewed obedience to Apollo, to be ritually purified by bathing, Achilles had removed himself from their company in defiance. Mark used Jesus to transvalue Achilles. Jesus did submit to the baptism that Achilles would take no part in.

John and Elijah
John the Baptist has other distinctive features and words that, with one exception, cannot be accounted for either by allusion to Elijah of the Old Testament or any of the characters in the opening scenes of the Iliad. When Mark says John wore a leather belt around his waist he may just as well have said he was "like Elijah". Yet a glance at the chart above is enough to show that there is very little else that is distinctive in comparison between John and Elijah. Elijah sought temporary escape by fleeing to a wilderness at one time, but that compares poorly with John making the wilderness his more permanent place of abode. If Homer's Odyssey as well as the Iliad was a main spring of stories and characters for much of Mark's gospel, was it also in Mark's mind when he crafted his divinely sent messenger to meet and then send Jesus on his way?

Wilderness abodes, strange foods and distinctive clothing
Odysseus twice begins his homeward mission with a send-off from a divinely ordered messenger in a very remote or wilderness area. In the first mentioned case, Hermes is sent by Zeus as a messenger to re-start Odysseus on his mission home. Homer emphasizes the remoteness of the place where Odysseus is waiting. It is on an island that lay afar off, well beyond vast desolate expanses of ocean. Later mention is made of another island, heavily forested and remote from civilized areas, that was also the setting for a goddess-prophetess sending Odysseus off on his perilous mission, via death, to return home. John the Baptist lives in a remote wilderness and it is from there that Jesus begins his mission. After arriving at Calypso's most isolated island Hermes eats ambrosia and nectar. The prophetess goddesses, Circe and Calypso, in their respective 'wilderness' islands, also eat ambrosia and nectar. Was John's diet of locusts and wild honey (a cruder product of nectar) in the wilderness a conscious humble response to the food of the divine messengers in those distant islands? Such a transvaluation would be consistent with Mark converting the opulent feasts of Nestor and Menelaus into servings of humble bread and fish.

When both Circe and Calypso send Odysseus on his destiny they each especially dress in the finest silvery garment and wear a golden girdle around their waists. Were John's cloak of coarse camel hair and the Elijah-like leather girdle created as humbler alternatives to the divine pagan messengers?

Finally, the divine pagan messenger par excellence, Hermes, is vividly portrayed by Homer as binding special sandals on his feet before his journey. For all I know mentions of sandals and messengers together may well be a standard literary topos without any special significance in any particular text: in Homer we see Athena, Hermes and Eumaeus all binding their sandals when about to embark on a mission for Zeus or Odysseus. Nevetheless the mention appears here so one might note that John makes special reference to loosing the sandals of the greater one to come after him. Obviously it would be foolish to see a contact between these two particular points if there were nothing else more substantial surrounding them. I only include the binding/unbinding sandals of messengers as an aside in the larger discussion.

Historicity note

It does not follow that no real person existed in an author's mind just because the author employs Homeric images for description. It is quite possible that the author has simply dressed an historical person in very different clothes and re-written real history for any number of purposes. But on the other hand we cannot simply assume a real person existed without some other recourse to evidence outside such literary flourishes. For corroboration we need external evidence. If the only evidence we have are details that can be traced to an imaginative literary origin then we will need a different kind of evidence before we can say there was more than a literary character there.

That Mark's portrayal of John as another Elijah was a literary device and not historical tradition is strongly suggested by Luke's and John's explicit rejection of this comparison: Luke compares Jesus, not John, to Elijah in his opening sermon at Nazareth, in his response to his disciples wish to bring fire down from heaven on sinners, and his miraculous ascension into heaven; John more bluntly simply has his John the Baptist say he is "not" Elijah. Against the assumption that Mark drew on oral traditions for his account of John and Jesus, we have no prior trace of any such tradition, but we do have the strong literary parallels above. We also can note the explanatory power those literary allusions give one of the more problematic of Christian episodes, the baptism of greater Jesus by the lesser John.

The Jewish historian Josephus has a passage about John, his baptizing activities, and his death. Yet this reference would appear to preclude any contact between John and Jesus. In Josephus John appears years too late for the gospel account and is executed in 36 C.E., while Jesus was said to have been crucified about six years earlier.

A pioneer luminary on mythology, Joseph Campbell (1965, pp. 349-350), writes of John the Baptist:

"And the rite of baptism that he preached, whatever its meaning at that time may have been, was an ancient rite coming down from the old Sumerian temple city Eridu, of the water god Ea, "God of the House of Water," whose symbol i sthe tenth sign of the zodiac, Capricorn (a composite beast with foreparts of a goat and body of a fish), which is the sign into which the sun enters at the winter solstice for rebirth. In the Hellenist period, Ea was called Oannes, which is in Greek Ioannes, Latin Johannes, Hebrew Yohanan, English John. Several scholars have suggested, therefore, that there was never either John or Jesus, but only a water-god and a sun-god. The chronicle of Josephus seems to guarantee John, howerve; and I shall leave it to the reader to imagine how he came both by the god's name and by his rite."

Dennis MacDonald joins with most scholars in believing Mark draws on historical traditions for much of his gospel despite his literary embellishments. But if we have literary evidence for the origin of all of Mark's details about John, what room is left in any of Mark's account for historical tradition?


A faintest of echoes?
Jesus and John are next discussed together after Jesus calls another disciple and feasts with him. I discuss the possibility of this containing echoes of the next (indirect) encounter between Achilles and Agamemnon as a postscript to the section "Callings by the seashore".