Theology & Spirituality

Man of Sorrows: The Messianic Secret and The Relationship Between The Gospel of Saint 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 into which we sort the books: the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and the Gospel of Saint 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 Saint 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 still deserves accolades, as… I’ll explain), and much of the content of Mark can be found in Matthew and Luke.

Matthew and Luke also share material with each other that isn’t present in Mark, suggesting that whichever text was written earlier could have been used as a source for the other. What’s more likely, however, is that a document we don’t have served as a common source for them both (scholars call this document Q).

Presumably, however, Mark was written first. It was targeted at a primarily Greco-Roman, Gentile audience. This is evident by the lack of a Jewish family tree at the beginning and the author’s explanation of Jewish terms and customs, as well as some other factors.

One of the interesting aspects of Mark is its use of a literary device called the Messianic Secret. At several points in the Markan narrative, 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?

The Odyssey is an old book, hundreds of years older than the New Testament. The events of the Trojan War occurred most likely in the 1180’s B.C. The story itself had to postdate the war and probably took quite some time to compile. Still, it’s much older than the Gospels.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, the story is about a Greek war hero and smooth talker named Odysseus who is striving against all odds to get home to his wife and son after the Trojan War. He is constantly 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,” which finds 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. Instead of facing them head on, he disguises himself as an old man, revealing himself to only particular people until the day he casts off his disguise, kills the suitors, and reclaims his wife and kingdom.

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

What does this have to do with the account in Saint 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, 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).

What I’m suggesting in all this is a common thread between the Christ story and The Odyssey. It is very possible that there is a finite number of stories; Christ-figures like Odysseus may speak to us on some kind of basic human level and so any connection is accidental. However, given what we know about the Gospel of Saint 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 simpler, 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. The major difference between the two stories occurs when the characters reveal themselves. When Odysseus reveals himself to the suitors, he destroys them with violent slaughter. However, when Christ reveals himself to his enemies, the Pharisees, he is the one who is killed through a violent death on the cross (Mark 14:53-65). This subverts the Greek heroic ethic by replacing it with the self-sacrificial nature of Christ’s death on our behalf. Whether he meant to or not, Mark gives us strong parallels between Jesus and Odysseus but in the end proclaims that Christ is the ultimate hero.

Wesley Walker

Wesley Walker

Wesley is from Raleigh, North Carolina. He went to Liberty University for his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Biblical Studies where he was also on the debate team. He currently resides in Annapolis, Maryland and is a priest at St. Paul's Anglican Church (APA). He lives with his wife Caroline, their son Jude, and their two dogs. He co-hosts the podcast, The Sacramentalists.

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