Dennis McDonald's The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark (2000) is a book that was always guaranteed to upset orthodox Christian theologians and biblical literalists and fundamentalists everywhere, since its main thesis held that the author of the first gospel used the Iliad and the Odyssey as literary models. He compares Mark to the apocryphal Acts of Andrew, a Gnostic book, and describes it as a "hypotext" that "relies somehow on a written antecedent" (McDonald, p. 2). Specifically, Mark used Books 22 and 24 of the Iliad as models for the death and burial of Jesus, in which Achilles brutally kills Hector and then releases the body to his father, King Priam of Troy. Hector's soul went to Hades and never returned, but of course Jesus was resurrected on the third day, even if his rather dim disciples in Mark failed to recognize him initially.
This was one of the most familiar texts in the ancient world, at least for the educated elite, and McDonald attempts to make the case that Mark must have borrowed from it. He maintained that the Odyssey was the most important model, however, with Jesus playing the role of King Odysseus and his disciples the frightened, confused and not terribly bright crew of his ship. When he finally arrives back home after many adventures in the Aegean Sea, he finds that suitors of Penelope have been literally eating him out of house and home while he was off fighting the Trojan War, trying to still his kingdom and, incidentally, his spouse. In Mark, these represent the evil and corrupt Temple authorities in Jerusalem, the scribes, priests and Pharisees who collaborate with the Romans and conspire with Pilate to have him executed. Jesus takes direct action against them when he drives the moneychangers out of the Temple, but naturally does not use the same level of lethal force as Odysseus. Mark's Jesus is "more compassionate, powerful, noble, and inured to suffering" than the Greek warrior-king (McDonald, p. 6).
MAIN POINTS OF EACH CHAPTER
Chapter 1 is the most important in the book, in which McDonald explains his main thesis about the Gospel of Mark being a hypotext modeled on the Iliad and the Odyssey. Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, however, the parallels "are seldom word-for-word" but more related to plot, context and background. McDonald admits that he has no direct evidence that Mark ever read these Greek classics and does not even attempt to speculate about Mark's true identity or location when he wrote the gospel, but denies that he was simply as "passive transcriber" and editor of the Q. Source (Quelle) and the parables and oral traditions about Jesus (McDonald, p. 3). He points out that later Christian writers and apologists like Clement and Augustine regularly referred to classical Greek and Roman literature, but mainly to criticize the pagan gods and heroes for "their adulteries, murders, lies, and thefts" (McDonald, p. 2). Other scholars have attempted to demonstrate that Mark had various literary models for his book, such as Plato's Death of Socrates (probably a far more likely candidate than the Iliad and the Odyssey), Jewish martyr traditions, and Greek tragedies. In the Homeric literatures, gods have sons on earth like Achilles, regularly perform miracles, raise the dead and feed the multitudes, but Mark makes Jesus "more powerful and virtuous than Odysseus and Hector" (McDonald, p. 3).
Odysseus was also a carpenter who suffered many things, as McDonald notes in Chapter 2, and even made his own furniture and doors. Homer described his hero as "a man of many sorrows" and "ill-fated above all men," who was also born of the god Zeus, as was Achilles (McDonald, p. 16). Like Jesus, he was stoical, courageous, and persistent, and was opposed by Poseidon, Circe and Calypso, just as Jesus was always opposed by demons and the Temple rulers. He did not openly claim to be the Son of God and when he rose from the dead most of his disciples did not know him, and more than most people in Ithaca recognized Odysseus when he returned home. In Chapter 3, McDonald notes that most of the disciples of Jesus were "fearful, unfaithful and uncomprehending," including one who betrayed him for thirty pieces of silver and another who denied him three times (McDonald, p. 20). When he walked on water, they were frightened that he might be a ghost, but all of Odysseus's men were also inferior to him, like the young man Elpenor who fell down when he was drunk and broke his neck. Two of the disciples earned the nickname Sons of Thunder (Boanerges) in Chapter 4, which Jesus probably did not intend as a compliment. McDonald contents that this was another classical reference that definitely would not have been typical for a Jewish peasant, since this was one of the names for the Heavenly Twins, Castor and Pollux. Castor was a sailor as well, who "died a violent death, yet was granted eternal life" (McDonald, p. 32).
Mark's murderous usurpers in Chpater 5 were the Jerusalem Temple authorities, while in the Odyssey they were the loutish suitors of Penelope, who would have happily killed Odysseus if he ever appeared in Ithaca again. For Mark and all the other canonical gospel writers, the Jewish priests and scribes were the "most determined and dangerous opponents of Jesus," far more so than Pilate and the Romans (McDonald, p. 35). Although the hesitant, Hamlet-like Pilate portrayed in the gospels is almost certainly a fiction, given what Josephus and Philo of Alexandria reported about his corruption, ruthlessness and brutality, Mark and the other early Christian writers were determined to absolve Rome for the execution of Jesus and blame it on the Jews. Penelope's suitors also plot to kill Odysseus's son Telemachus, just like the Jerusalem authorities are constantly conspiring to trap Jesus into making some suspect statement that can be used against him, although of course no clear record exists of Jesus having a wife and children for them to threaten. Only Peter knows the real Son-of-God secret of Jesus, for which Jesus proclaimed him the rock (petra) on which he would build the church. Gnostic tradition also emphasizes the supposed secret teachings and wisdom of Jesus, and in Chapter 6 McDonald compares this hidden nature of the Messiah to Odysseus returning to his kingdom disguised as a beggar, and the suitors murmuring that he might be "some god come down from heaven" (McDonald, p. 44). He claims in Chapter 7 that Mark also relates Jesus to the sea and boats far more than any other gospel writer, and only he mentions that four of the disciples were fisherman. Odysseus is obviously a nautical man, as is his son Telemachus, who acquires a fishing boat to search for his father (McDonald, p. 55). Like the men of Odysseus, his disciples also tend to fall asleep at critical moments, such as in the Garden of Gethsemane.
When not in conflict with the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus struggles with casting out demons, and McDonald compares this to the battles that Odysseus has with sirens, cannibals and Cyclopes on his return to Ithaca. When Jesus cast out Legion from the demoniac of Gerasene in Mark 5:1-10, they are able to bargain with him in order to be relocated into a heard of swine. McDonald finds this scene to be borrowed directly from the Odyssey in Chapter 8, rather than the name Legion being symbolic of the Roman Empire and its armies of occupation. Circe the witch also "turned Odysseus's soldiers into swine," and he had to find some magic to transform them back into men (McDonald, p. 64). In addition, McDonald argues that in no other exorcism in the New Testament were demons given a name, which leads him to the conclusion that this peculiar narrative that has given scholars and theologians so much difficulty over the years must have been borrowed from some classical pagan source, just like the obscure reference to the Heavenly Twins or Sons of Thunder. Once again, a Jewish peasant teacher and prophet would probably not have been familiar with Circe and the Odyssey. Bronze Age Greeks would not have described their soldiers as a Legion, however, which was a Roman term.
According to McDonald in Chapter 9, Mark's narrative in the beheading of John the Baptist also has a parallel with the Odyssey. He doubts the historicity of the story that Herod was so pleased with the dance of Salome that he granted he the Baptist's head, or that he executed the prophet because he insulted his wife Herodias. According to Josephus, he did fear John, but only because of "the seditious potential of his fiery sermons," which was also why Pilate and the Temple rulers feared and hated Jesus (McDonald, p. 78). McDonald believes that Mark reworked this story from the assassination of King Agamemnon by his wife and her lover in the Odyssey, as he related to Odysseus during his…