2011-05-14

John the Baptist foreshadowed in Homer’s Odyssey?

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by Neil Godfrey

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Another interesting observation in Bruce Louden‘s Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East is his drawing a possible link between John the Baptist and Halitherses in the Odyssey. Louden explains that Halitherses is an aged prophet, close to the hero Odysseus, who warns the nobles in Odysseus’ absence to stop their evil plans or they will suffer the judgment of Odysseus upon his return.

That was enough to send me back to reading the Odyssey and I think the following passage that depicts Halitherses’  “preaching” worth quoting in full. I conclude with another in which Louden shows us that the message of the return of the king to his kingdom in the Odyssey is in a sense called “good news”, a word very similar to “gospel”.

In Book 2 of the Odyssey the son of Odysseus calls an assembly of nobles and begins to berate them for outwearing their welcome at his palace in his father’s absence.

As he spoke Zeus, who is said to speak from heaven to those afar off on earth, sent down two eagles from Mount Olympus as a sign to all. At this point an elderly prophet, one who surpassed all others with his gift, Halitherses (a name that means Sea-Bold), stood up and explained what this omen meant in a prophecy.

The passage is interesting for the echoes we hear of the message of John the Baptist at the outset of the Jesus story. I’ve hinted at a few in the preceding paragraph. There is also the message that the king is about to return — very soon — and bring judgment with him. One cannot imagine a starker contrast to the image of a dove, however, than two eagles coming down and threatening death to all the onlookers. Transvaluation?

So spoke Telemachus, and in answer Zeus, whose voice is borne afar, sent forth two eagles, flying from on high, from a mountain peak. For a time they flew swift as the blasts of the wind side by side with wings outspread; but when they reached the middle of the many-voiced assembly, then they wheeled about, flapping their wings rapidly, and down on the heads of all they looked, and death was in their glare. Then they tore with their talons one another’s cheeks and necks on either side, and darted away to the right across the houses and the city of the men.

But they were seized with wonder at the birds when their eyes beheld them, and pondered in their hearts on what was to come to pass.

Then among them spoke the old lord Halitherses, son of Mastor, for he surpassed all men of his day in knowledge of birds and in uttering words of fate. He with good intent addressed their assembly, and spoke among them:

“Hearken now to me, men of Ithaca, to the word that I shall say; and to the wooers especially do I declare and announce these things, since on them a great woe is rolling. For Odysseus shall not long be away from his friends, but even now, methinks, he is near, and is sowing death and fate for these men, one and all. Aye, and to many others of us also who dwell in clear-seen Ithaca will he be a bane. But long ere that let us take thought how we may make an end of this—or rather let them of themselves make an end, for this is straightway the better course for them. Not as one untried do I prophesy, but with sure knowledge. For unto Odysseus I declare that all things are fulfilled even as I told him, when the Argives embarked for Ilios and with them went Odysseus of many wiles. I declared that after suffering many ills and losing all his comrades he would come home in the twentieth year unknown to all; and lo, all this is now being brought to pass.

This return of the king to his kingdom is later prophesied again by the king Odysseus while he is still unrecognized. Bruce Louden (Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East, p. 270) points out that after doing so he asks for a “reward for this good news”, euangelion, ευαγγέλιον, which is a word very similar to the word for “gospel” in the New Testament. Louden writes:

In the Odyssey, as in some respects in the gospels, the good news is the return of the king to his kingdom.

The disguised Odysseus is speaking in the opening paragraph:

Odysseus shall return. And let me have a reward for bearing good tidings (ευαγγέλιον), as soon as he shall come, and reach his home; clothe me in a cloak and tunic, goodly raiment. . . . . verily all these things shall be brought to pass even as I tell thee. In the course of this self-same day Odysseus shall come hither, as the old moon wanes, and the new appears. He shall return, and take vengeance on all those who here dishonor his wife and his glorious son.”

To him then, swineherd Eumaeus, didst thou make answer, and say: “Old man, neither shall I, meseems, pay thee this reward for bearing good tidings (ευαγγέλιον) . . . .

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  • Erlend
    2011-05-14 20:00:21 UTC - 20:00 | Permalink

    You will probably be wanting to read Karl Sandnes’ new book ‘The Gospel According to Homer and Virgil’ that looks at (and argues against) suggestions that the NT consciously paralleled Homer. He also looks at how any intentional parallels can be shown to exist between the N.T. and other literature, rather than relying on this ad hoc, parallel-mania.

    • 2011-05-14 21:53:24 UTC - 21:53 | Permalink

      Centos are another genre entirely. Apollonius, Virgil, authors of the Hellenistic and Jewish novels, including Acts, and the gospels, were not centos. Mimesis is not something made up and it is part and parcel of the study of classicists, and Bruce Louden is a classicist. You might like to have a look at “Mimesis and Intertextuality in Antiquity and Christianity”. These sorts of studies that range from Virgil to Acts are not ad hoc parallel-mania but use the same disciplines as Dale C. Allison used with his studies comparing Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew with Moses, and Andrew Clark in his study of the parallel lives of Paul with the apostles in Luke-Acts.

      There seems to be a lot less upset with the view that Gospel stories are influenced by OT stories than there is with acknowledging the non-Jewish influences. I don’t see the need for this. Those who learned to read and write Greek were more than likely familiar with Homer.

  • Erlend
    2011-05-14 23:05:59 UTC - 23:05 | Permalink

    Neil,

    Sandnes is not saying the gospels are centos (obviously). He is arguing against the view that the gospels are imitations, or in places try to imitate, classical texts though. His argument brings in quite a lot of useful information. I will leave you to consult his book and see whether it will provoke a change in your views or not. But I thought it relevant to point out to you and your followers a resource that has an opposing view.

    As for MacDonald’s view of mimesis, you might want to consult (if you haven’t already) Sandnes’ article in JBL: “Imitatio Homeri? An Appraisal of Dennis R. MacDonald’s “Mimesis Criticism”, again to find a counter-point.

    I am also quite well aware of just how important Homer was to the education of Greek speakers and his use and influence on early Christians. But interesting, the chief text on that, “The Challenge of Homer: School, Pagan Poets and Early Christianity” 2009, was written by… Karl Olav Sandnes. The very person who has provided a substantial critique of attempts to suggest its emulation in the N.T.

    As for seeing O.T. influence rather than Graeco-Roman well there are numerous reasons for that. The Graeco-Roman influence on Christianity was the the default position in many circles actually until that 1950’s, as I’m sure you know. Ultimately the case was found to be tenuous and, well, severely overstated and a run of the imagination, finding parallels and influences that (though they sounded persuasive) turned out to be a chimera. It’s a continually attractive theory though. But the strong, indeed, dominant influence on the N.T. has been found to be Second Temple Judaism. In fact it was the Dead Sea Scrolls that put pay finally to most of the theory of mass Graeco-Roman influence on the N.T. and its ideas. Perhaps the second time around this new generation can avoid the errors of the first. Its certainly not something to dismiss, but its something I have qualms about.

    • 2011-05-14 23:20:50 UTC - 23:20 | Permalink

      Some people may not be aware of MacDonald’s response to Sandnes’ article. It is linked as “My Turn” on his webpage at http://iac.cgu.edu/drm/index.html

      I don’t understand why you introduce MacDonald here. My recent posts have attempted to single out the role of a classical scholar, not a biblical one. Though MacDonald is editor of the book I referred to, I mention it because it does also include views of other classicists.

      • Erlend
        2011-05-15 00:13:59 UTC - 00:13 | Permalink

        Thanks. I wasn’t aware of MacDonald’s reply.

        I mentioned MacDonald precisely because he was the editor the book you appealed to. Sorry if you felt I was trying to detract attention away from the flow of your post.

  • John
    2011-05-15 00:43:27 UTC - 00:43 | Permalink

    There might be something to this. I like what MacDonald says, and thus tend to assume that Homeric memesis is what happened in the creative process of some of the NT. I wonder if this has any bearing on the picture of John in Josephus, though.

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