Sunday, January 18, 2015

Man of Sorrows: The Messianic Secret and The Relationship Between The Gospel of St. Mark and The Odyssey

"I am a man who's had his share of sorrows."-Odysseus (XIX, 130) 

"He was despised and rejected--a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief." Isaiah 53.3a

'Man of Sorrows,' what a name
For the Son of God who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim!
Hallelujah! what a Savior!

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood;
Sealed my pardon with His blood;
Hallelujah! what a Savior! 

Guilty, vile, and helpless, we, 
Spotless Lamb of God was He;
Full redemption--can it be?
Hallelujah! what a Savior!

Lifted up was he to die,
'It is finished!' was His cry;
Now in heaven exalted high;
Hallelujah! what a Savior!

When he comes, our glorious King;
To His kingdom us to bring,
Then anew this song we'll sing
Hallelujah! what a Savior! 


When it comes to studying the Gospels, there are two categories we use to distinguish the purpose of the books:the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and the Gospel of St. John. John deserves its own category because it was written later and includes more theological nuance than the other three.

Out of the three Synoptics, it's widely accepted that the Gospel of St. Mark was written before the other two. We know this because it's shorter, the writing is simpler than the other two (although the writer of Mark is still deserving of accolades...I'll explain in a minute), and a lot of the content of Mark can be found in Matthew and Luke.

Matthew and Luke also share content with each other that's not in Mark meaning whichever was written earlier could have been used as a source for the other. What's more likely however is that there is a document we don't have which served as a common source for them both (scholars call this document Q).

What I'm trying to say is Mark was written first. It was also written to a primarily Greco-Roman, gentile audience. This is evident by the lack of a Jewish family tree at the beginning and the explanation of Jewish terms and customs, as well as some other factors we'll discuss momentarily.

One of the interesting aspects of Mark is its use of a literary device called The Messianic Secret. In each of its uses, a person identifies Christ as the Messiah only to have Christ instruct them to keep it a secret, though they don't always follow his command. Consider the following examples:


  • The healing of the leper (Mark 1.43-45a NLT): "Then Jesus sent him on his way with a stern warning: 'Don't tell anyone about this. Instead, go to the priest and let him examine you. Take along the offering required in the law of Mose for those who have been healed of leprosy. This will be a public testimony that you have been cleansed.' But the man went and spread the word, proclaiming to everyone what had happened..." 
  • His use of parables to explain the mystery (or secret) of the Kingdom of God (Mark 4.11): "You are permitted to understand the secret of the Kingdom of God. But I use parable for everything I say to outsiders."
  • Peter's confession (Mark 8.29-30): "Then [Jesus] asked them, 'But who do you say I am?' Peter replied, 'You are the Messiah.' But Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him." 

"What does all this have to do with The Odyssey?" You're probably asking.

The Odyssey is an old book, probably hundreds of years older than the New Testament. The events of the Trojan War occurred most likely in the 1180's B.C.E. The story itself had to post-date the war and probably took quite some time to compile. Either way, it's old. 

For those unfamiliar with the plot, the story is about a Greek war hero and smooth talker named Odysseus who is striving to get home to his wife and son after the Trojan War against all odds. He is constantly being prevented from reaching his destination by mishaps and direct attacks from the gods (Poseidon in particular). Odysseus is "a man who's had his share of sorrows," (by the way, this is where the song "Man of Constant Sorrow" from O Brother Where Art Thou comes from but also has a strange biblical parallel in Isaiah 53.3) after having to see many of his men die and face the likelihood of never reaching home.


However, due to a twist in fate, Odysseus reaches his home only to find a pack of suitors trying to court his wife, assuming he is dead. Instead of facing them head on, he disguises himself as an old man, revealing himself to only particular people until the day where he cast off his disguise, killed the suitors, and reclaimed his wife and kingdom.

So again, what does this have to do with the account in St. Mark? First of all, it should be noted that early Christians were more than willing to typify the Christ story using the narratives of cultural legends or myths. For example, Christ was commonly depicted as a phoenix rising out of the ashes in early Christian art. Second of all, there is a Scriptural example which uses this kind of apologetic: Paul's address at Mars Hill where he draws from pagan poetry and philosophy to proclaim Christ as God (Acts 17). 

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego joined by Christ (the Phoenix) in the Fiery Furnace

There's a lot of symbolism going on here but notice the birds above the man's shoulders (it's possible one of those is also a Pelican as that was a common symbol for Christ as well). 
What I'm suggesting by all this is a common thread between the Christ story and The Odyssey. It is very possible that there only a finite number of stories and Christ-figures (even the flawed ones) like Odysseus speak to us on some kind of basic human level and the connection is accidental. However, given what we know about the Gospel of St. Mark, it seems very possible the writer incorporated some of the literary devices from The Odyssey as a way to hint at a symbolic relationship in the mind of his audience. This is why I hesitate when people call the writing in Mark primitive. While the language may be more simplistic, there's genius in the structure. 

The story pattern makes sense. A king reaches his home after being gone, secretly revealing himself to a chosen few until the moment of great revelation arrives and he can take back what is his. This is the Gospel story (with a few tweaks). Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ comes to earth "disguised" as a human being, revealing himself to his chosen few until the day of his ascension. As followers of Christ, our role is to participate with him in the redeeming of our world so he can take back what is his. It's really quite beautiful and gives us another literary angle with which to read the Gospel according to St. Mark. 







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