Odysseus, Jesus, Eurycleia, and the Woman with the Alabaster Jar

We are all familiar with the fact that the Gospels regularly refer to the Jewish scriptures (what we disparagingly call the Old Testament) but it is not so well known that they contain references to the literature of Greece. Some time ago I posted a piece on the way that the story of the death of John the Baptist in Mark’s Gospel reflects a passage from the Greek historian Herodotus (see blog on 12th October 2012), and today I want to point out how the story of the woman who anoints Jesus before his death echoes a passage from Homer’s Odyssey.

Eurycleia washes Odysseus's feet
            When Odysseus returns to Ithaca, he comes disguised as a beggar and spends some time at the house of Eumaeus, the swineherd. Still disguised, he goes to his palace where he meets Penelope, his wife, whom he hasn’t seen for 20 years. She instructs Odysseus’s old nurse, Eurycleia, to bathe and anoint him. While bathing him, Eurycleia recognises the scar on Odysseus’s thigh and realises she is washing her master. When she had washed him ‘she anointed him richly with oil’. Eurycleia is the only one who knows the beggar’s true identity.

An Unnamed Woman Anoints Jesus
            Jesus is in the home of Simon the leper when a woman enters, breaks open an alabaster jar of pure nard and anoints Jesus’s head with it. The apostles are indignant at the waste of money, but Jesus rebukes them, telling them that she is anointing him ahead of his burial; the woman is the only one who realises that Jesus is destined to die. The woman is not named, but Jesus tells his apostles that ‘wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’ Her fame is assured. And what is a Greek name meaning ‘far-flung fame’? Eurycleia, the name of the woman who anoints Odysseus.

            Surely this is no accident. I’ll ask the question again: Where’s the history?

For more on the parallels between Mark and Homer, see The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, by Dennis R. MacDonald. (Yale University Press, 2000)




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