2007-09-22

Odysseus, Moses and Jesus in Gethsemane

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by Neil Godfrey

The Jesus in Gethsemane story has always been one of the most moving episodes in religious movies. It is also a literary motif that has a long pedigree and would have been well known to any author who had learned to read and write Greek and who knew Jewish writings.

The basic structure and thematic units of the story are prominent in both “classical” Greek and Hebrew literature. It is quite likely one of those stories that may have fallen easily into place in an author’s mind without necessarily consciously imitating another — like a modern superhero drama can be unconsciously built on the motif of a Jesus-like saviour figure.

There are approx ten or more significant sequential parts that make up this motif:

  1. The leading character of the narrative with his followers comes to a hallowed or secluded meeting place.
  2. The hero gives strict instructions for his followers before leaving them.
  3. His followers promise to be good
  4. The hero left his followers in that place while he went on alone to speak with privately with god.
  5. Left alone, all his followers grow weary with waiting
  6. They weaken and fall into disobedience
  7. A close companion of the hero and leader of the followers is singled out as especially culpable
  8. While the leader was returning but before reaching his followers he knew of their disloyalty .
  9. He also understood that they were destined for divine retribution.
  10. He attempted to save them nevertheless.
  11. But his efforts were only momentarily successful.
  12. The context of the above sequence is related to the eating of a meal provided by god and a threat of death.
  13. This episode was a key turning point in the narrative.
  14. The leader himself underwent extreme anguish in the trial facing him and his followers

To see how these work in the great stories of the Greeks, Jews and Christians:

Odysseus: Odyssey, Book 12
Moses: Exodus 19-34
Jesus: Mark 14

Odysseus – Moses – Jesus

  1. The leading character of the narrative with his followers comes to a hallowed or secluded meeting place.
    1. Odysseus arrives with his crew at an island sacred to Apollo, and specifically at a meeting place for nymphs on that sacred island.
    2. Moses arrives with the Israelites at Mount Sinai, the mountain of God
      1. In a parallel subtheme Moses climbs half way up the mountain with a closer in-group including 70 elders
    3. Jesus comes to a garden on the Mount of Olives called Gethsemane
  2. The hero gives strict instructions to his followers before leaving them.
    1. Odysseus warns his crew not to touch the sacred cattle of Apollo, knowing they are fickle and will be tempted
    2. Moses warns his people not to come near the mountain and to do all that God commands.
    3. Jesus warns his disciples they will fail, but commands them to stay on watch
  3. His followers promise to be good
    1. Odysseus’ crew, led by Eurylochus, assure Odysseus they will not touch the sacred cattle of Apollo
    2. Israel assures Moses they will obey all the they are commanded to do.
    3. Jesus’ disciples, led by Peter, promise Jesus they will not fail.
  4. The hero left his followers in that place while he went on alone to speak with privately with god.
    1. Odysseus went out alone to find a place to pray for a way of escape from their trial — they were facing starvation and death if they ate the sacred cattle.
    2. Moses went up the mountain alone to commune with God
    3. Jesus was facing death and went off alone to pray for a way of escape if possible.
  5. Left alone, all his followers grow weary with waiting
    1. Odysseus’ crew could wait no longer fearing they would die a slow death, and that it would be better to eat the sacred cattle and honour Apollo afterwards.
    2. Israelites complain they do not know what has happened to Moses and that they must take responsibility for themselves.
    3. Jesus’ disciples fail to keep watch.
  6. They weaken and fall into disobedience
    1. Odysseus’ crew give in to human weakness and round up and slaughter the sacred cattle of Apollo
    2. Israelites choose to make a new god for themselves.
    3. Jesus’ disciples surrender to human weakness and fall asleep while on watch.
  7. A close companion of the hero and leader of the followers is singled out as especially culpable
    1. Eurylochus, the leader of Odysseus’ crew, persuades them all to defy Odysseus’ instructions
    2. The people pressure Aaron to lead them in making the new god.
    3. Peter is singled out as the leading disciple and the one rebuked by Jesus for falling asleep.
  8. While the leader was returning but before reaching his followers he knew of their disloyalty.
    1. Odysseus smelled the roasting meat before reaching his camp
    2. Moses heard the noise of the Israelites celebrating their new god before reaching them and that God had wished to destroy them.
    3. Jesus knew his betrayers were coming before anyone had seen them.
  9. He also understood that they were destined for divine retribution.
    1. Odysseus knew immediately what his crew had done and that they all faced destruction.
    2. God had told Moses he would destroy the people
    3. Jesus had known his disciples would fail and now he was to be betrayed.
  10. He attempted to save them nevertheless.
    1. Odysseus prayed to Zeus complaining that the god had let him fall sleep to bring about the doom of his crew — on returning to his crew he confronted them but could find no way to rescue them.
    2. Moses begged God to spare Israel.
    3. Jesus attempted several times to keep his disciples awake.
  11. But his efforts were only momentarily successful.
    1. Odysseus’ crew lasted only 6 more days before being destroyed in a storm at sea by Zeus.
    2. 3000 were slaughtered immediately and that whole generation of Israel eventually died in the wilderness.
    3. Jesus’ disciples all fled, one having betrayed him, one naked, one denying him three times.
  12. The context of the above sequence is related to the eating of a meal provided by god and a threat of death.
    1. Odysseus’ crew should have survived on the bread and red wine provided for them by the goddess Circe, and not have yielded to human weakness (hunger) and have eaten the sacred cattle of Apollo as well
    2. Moses and Israel had just earlier eaten the Passover that was the beginning of their coming to Mount Sinai; and Moses and Aaron and other elders had also eaten a meal provided by God in God’s presence on the mountain.
    3. Jesus and his disciples had just eaten a Last Meal (arranged by Jesus) redolent of Passover symbolism in preparation for the death of Jesus.
  13. This episode was a key turning point in the narrative.
    1. It was on the sacred island of Apollo, at a meeting place of Nymphs where, in fulfillment of earlier divine prophecies, Odysseus lost all his companions just prior to arriving home; Odysseus himself faced death with his crew but was saved by grasping and hanging from a great fig tree on a cliff as his ship was shattered.
    2. The Mount Sinai episode – with the accompanying failure of Israel – was a central point in the story of Israel.
    3. Jesus in Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives and the failure of his disciples was the dramatic high point prior to his death.
  14. The leader himself underwent extreme anguish in the trial facing him and his followers
    1. Odysseus was angry and anguished over how he felt betrayed by the gods for casting him in to a deep sleep while praying thus allowing his crew to commit their crime
    2. Moses desperately pleaded with God not to carry out his plan to destroy Israel immediately
    3. Jesus was in great anguish as he prayed in the face of death.

The stories of Moses and Jesus are well known. Here is a bit more background detail to the story involving Odysseus — perhaps not too hard to find many other echoes in Old and New Testament literature, gospels included:

Odysseus

While Odysseus’s crew were sleeping a goddess told him the way he must go to Hades (death) and return again. As soon as she finished, Odysseus returned to his men and ordered them Awake saying they must Get Going immediately.

After this adventure the goddess (Circe) foretold Odysseus of the extreme trials he and his crew would have to endure (including reference to a great fig-tree that would turn out to save Odysseus’ life), and Odysseus begged the goddess for some way to avoid these. The goddess told him he was a fool for trying to avoid his divinely appointed fate.

They then endured the temptations of the Sirens, and the dangers of Scylla and Charybdis. But the greatest trial was yet to come.

Odysseus told his crew they must suffer the hardship of continuing their journey and avoid visiting the holy island of Apollo which would give them rest, but danger. The leader of Odysseus’s crew, Eurylochus, took his leader Odysseus to task, telling him he was wrong about the way they should go. He accused Odysseus of denying himself the ordinary needs of mortals, and expecting his crew to be just as self-denying. Odysseus relented and allowed himself to be persuaded by Eurylochus and his crew.

Odysseus warned his crew, with a prophecy from a goddess (Circe), that they faced the danger of a great trial; his crew gave him their word they would not fail the test.

Odysseus and his crew then ate a meal — bread and red wine — that had been provided for them by a divinity (the goddess Circe).

After the meal the crew were in deep sorrow over thoughts of their recent tragic experiences.

Later they beached at a new part of the island, where there was “a cave, a pleasant spot which the Nymphs used as a dancing ground and meeting-place.”

At this pleasant place Odysseus ordered his crew to obey his commands lest they come to serious harm.

His crew accepted this reminder.

Odysseus went off alone to find a place to pray for a way to escape the trial they were enduring.

He was praying (– but while praying he fell asleep — and this sleep proved to be the ruin of his crew.)

His crew, led by Eurylochus, broke their promise to Odysseus, even knowing it could mean death.

Odysseus woke and started walking back to his crew.

On his way back he detected evidence of his crew’s fatal disobedience.

Odysseus cries out in prayer to Zeus fearful that he will now be ruined by their disobedience — which was enabled by his sleep.

Zeus soon learned of the sin of the crew and vows to punish them.

Odysseus reaches his crew and rebukes them.

Great supernatural signs — including unnatural darkness — appeared.

The crew were all killed by Zeus and Odysseus was left scarcely escaping death himself by hanging from a fig tree.

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Neil Godfrey

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