John the Baptist Foreshadowed in Homer’s Odyssey?

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by Neil Godfrey


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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7 thoughts on “John the Baptist Foreshadowed in Homer’s Odyssey?”

  1. 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.

    1. 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.

  2. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. The death of John the Baptist seems to serve a neat literary role in Mark. While John the Baptist’s “quick” death accomplished nothing except providing a gift for the daughter of Herodias (who didn’t even really want it but was just fulfilling the request of her mother), by contrast Jesus’ excruciating drawn out death from flogging to crucifixion accomplished everything.

    Regarding the literary nature of John the Baptist’s death, Price summarizes Dennis MacDonald that:

    The story of John’s martyrdom matches in all essentials the Odyssey’s story of the murder of Agamemnon (3:254-308: 4:512-547; 11:404-434), even to the point that both are told in the form of an analepsis or flashback. Herodias, like Queen Clytemnestra, left her husband, preferring his cousin: Antipas in the one case, Aegisthus in the other. This tryst was threatened, in Clytemnestra’s case, by the return of her husband from the Trojan War, in Herodias’, by the denunciations of John. In both cases, the wicked adulteress plots the death of the nuisance. Aegisthus hosted a banquet to celebrate Agamemnon’s return, just as Herod hosted a feast. During the festivities Agamemnon is slain, sprawling amid the dinner plates, and the Baptizer is beheaded, his head displayed on a serving platter. Homer foreshadows danger awaiting the returning Odysseus with the story of Agamemnon’s murder, while Mark anticipates Jesus’ own martyrdom with that of John. The only outstanding difference, of course, is that in Mark’s version, the role of Agamemnon has been split between Herodias’ rightful husband (Philip according to Mark; another Herod according to Josephus) and John the Baptizer. (Dennis R. MacDonald, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000 , 80-81, 176)

    I’m not sure that the historical Jesus (if there ever was one) ever met the historical John The Baptist.

    Mark seems to be portraying Jesus as a greater Apocalyptic Prophet than John the Baptist, and as the successor to John the Baptist’s ideology. To do this in a metaphorical religious context, Mark figuratively casts John the Baptist in the role of Elijah. Regarding Elijah and Elisha, some see in the Jordan baptism and the endowment with the spirit of Jesus as a repetition of 2 Kings 2, where, near the Jordan, Elijah bequeaths a double portion of his own miracle-working spirit to Elisha, who henceforth functions as his successor and superior. Later Gospel writers see John baptizing Jesus as embarrassing, but there is no reason to think Mark was embarrassed. As I said, John the Baptist was to be held in the same esteem as Elijah: Mark says “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ ; as it is written in the prophets.” Mark immediately interprets John the Baptist as a forerunner of the Messiah (a la Elijah in II Kings 1:8). Mark then clothes John similar to Elijah (Mark 1:6. II Kings 1:8.) He then says John ate locusts and wild honey,the food of the wilderness in which Elijah lived (and so on and so on).

    Importantly, Jesus was understood as being an evolved understanding of what the Messiah would be. John the Baptist would have understood the Messiah to be a military conqueror, so John sent word to Jesus questioning him if he was really the chosen one (Luke 7:18-23), since Jesus wasn’t engaging in any political conquest. Jesus replied that he was the chosen one, but John the Baptist needed to approach his understanding from a spiritual, non-violent point of view.

    This makes me think of the way the New Testament writers “fudged” sometimes when portraying Jesus’ suffering. Mark seems to be exaggerating a bit to show that Jesus went through the worst suffering possible to serve God’s plan. A Jesus who merely died wasn’t enough, and this is understandable – the more excessive the suffering, the more noble the act. Analogously, Is it more an expression of love (a) to come home after a hard day of work and clean the house, cook dinner, and do the dishes so your wife doesn’t have to, or (b) just come home, kiss your wife, and plop on the couch and put on the T.V? Mark’s Jesus was portrayed as terrified of the suffering he was about to endure, but he pressed on anyway to serve God’s plan (Mark 14:36).

    Paul also sees Jesus’ death as part of God’s plan. Ehrman comments that:

    The word Paul uses in the passage is PARADIDOMI. It is the word that literally means “handed over.” So the passage says “In the night in which he was handed over, the Lord Jesus took bread….” What does that mean though? Traditionally it has been thought that it means “the night Judas betrayed him.” The problem is that there is a different, and related, word that means “betrayed.” That is the word PRODIDOMI. If Paul wanted to refer to Judas’s betrayal, he would have used that word. Instead he uses PARADIDOMI…. Paul uses PARADIDOMI on other occasions, and when he uses it in reference to Jesus, it is *not* to an act of Judas, but to an act of God. Paul talks about God “handing Jesus over” to his fate. As an example, see Romans 8:32: God did not spare his son but “handed him over” for us. That appears to be what Paul is referring to in 1 Cor. 11:23 as well. It is a mistranslation, then, to translate PARADIDOMI as if it were, instead, PRODIDOMI. Paul is saying that the last supper happened the night in which God handed Jesus over to fulfill his destiny.

    The 2nd edition of The Jewish Annotated New Testament provides a nice summary scriptural fulfillment surrounding the crucifixion account in Mark. Regarding this, the 2nd edition of “The Jewish Annotated New Testament (text box, pg. 99) ” points out:

    “Mark highlights a number of events in such a way as to fulfill passages from Psalms and Isaiah:

    14.1 Kill by stealth, Ps 10.7-8
    14.10-11 Betray him, Isa 53.6, 12
    14.18 The one eating with me, Ps 41.9
    14.24 Blood poured out for many, Isa 53.12
    14.57 False testimony, Ps 27.12; 35.11
    14.61;15.5 Silence before accusers, Ps 38.13-14? Isa 53.7?
    14.65 Spit, slap, Isa 50.6
    15.5, 39 Amazement of nations and kings, Isa 52.15
    15.6-15 Criminal saved, righteous killed, Isa 53.6, 12
    15.24 Divided his clothes, Ps 22.18
    15.29 Derided him and shook their, Ps 22.7; 109.25
    15.30-31 Save yourself!, Ps 22.8
    15.32 Taunted him, Ps 22.6
    15.34 Why have you forsaken me, Ps 22.1
    15.36 Gave him sour wine to drink, Ps 69.21

    “These connections call into question whether the events Mark depicts actually occurred or whether they were introduced into the narrative to establish that Jesus died in “accordance with the scriptures (1 Cor 15.3-4).”

    It is interesting that the JANT doesn’t identify Psalm 22:16 b in this regard. There is a possible derivation of the implicit piercing of hands and feet from the Septuagint Psalm 22:16 b = ωρυξαν χειράς μου και πόδας (“they have dug my hands and feet”). When translated into English, the syntactical form in the Hebrew phrase of Psalm 22:16b appears to be lacking a verb. In this context the phrase was commonly explained in early Rabbinical paraphrases as “they bite like a lion my hands and my feet.”

    Also, Paul’s understanding of the crucifixion as Christ dying “according to the scriptures” is one of Jesus being “hung on a tree” in the sense explained in the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul writes:”Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us. For it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree (Galatians 3:13).” This is Paul’s interpretation and application of Deuteronomy, which says “His corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God), so that you do not defile your land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:23).”

    Paul may have recorded no narrative details of that event because there were no narrative details at the time he was writing. That is quite possible, because Mark tells us that when Jesus was arrested ALL the disciples “took flight and fled (14:50).” There is no reason for Mark to recount the embarrassing abandonment if it were not true. This would mean Jesus in all probability died alone, without any eyewitnesses. This would, of course, have made the details of the crucifixion impossible to record, since no one witnessed the event. The story also seems fictional because of us being told what Jesus said from the cross, but also what Jesus and the high priest said to each other, and what Jesus and the crowd said to each other (who would have been around to record these conversations?).

    Perhaps Jesus’ followers didn’t know what happened to Jesus after he was arrested and so just assumed he was crucified because that would fulfill an allegorical reading of Deuteronomy 21:23. Or, from a mythicist point of view, maybe the first Christians learned Christ was crucified through an allegorical reading of Deuteronomy 21:23 and Psalm 22:16b.

    I think it would fit in with demonstrating how noble Jesus was. What better way would there be to demonstrate Jesus’ nobility/piety than to endure the worst scourging/death possible by flogging and crucifixion in order to fulfill God’s plan. I think it fits in with the theme of the desperate prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane – how much more impressive Jesus is to continue on with God’s plan despite terrible fear, as opposed to someone who went merrily to his death!

    I’m nasalized. Something doesn’t smell right. Jesus was going around prophesying the apocalypse, and then right after his death his followers were proclaiming, not only that Jesus had been raised, but that this event was the first stage of the eschaton, and in fact this entire drama was unfolding according to scripture.!

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