Odysseus (Latin: Ulixes, English: Ulysses) is one of the most famous characters in ancient Greek legends, not only for his exploits in the Trojan War but also because of long journey to reach home again afterward. Because Odysseus played such a central role in two of the most important epics of Greek mythology, it should hardly be surprising that the stories of Odysseus might influence later culture and religion. What's unexpected is how they might have influenced stories about Jesus. If it's true that Jesus' life was at least partially patterned after Odysseus', then at the very least the reliability of the gospels is seriously in doubt. Even the historicity of Jesus becomes more questionable.
King of Ithaca, Odysseus was not the product of a union between mortals and immortals as was so often the case with Greek heroes. As a fully mortal human being, Odysseus was far more representative of human nature and human potential than most heroes. Also unlike other heroes, Odysseus' status was earned less by force of arms and more by cunning. Unlike Achilles, who was a pure warrior, Odysseus was a clever thinker who had to keep coming up with solutions that were based more upon trickery than brute force. He was, for example, responsible for coming up with the Trojan Horse that helped end the Trojan War.
Jesus, too, was a figure who was supposed to connect far more directly and immediately with human beings. Although described as the Son of God, Jesus was nevertheless born of a human mother and according to Christian theology is fully human in addition to being fully divine. The parallels between Jesus and Odysseus are much more significant than these superficial similarities, though. According to Dennis R. MacDonald, the author of the Gospel According to Mark used Homer's stories about Odysseus as a model on which he based his own stories about Jesus.
Mark never openly mentions Odysseus or Homer, but MacDonald argues that Mark's tales about Jesus are explicit imitations of Homeric tales about characters like Odysseus, Circe, Polyphemus, Aeolus, Achilles, and Agamemnon and his wife, Clytemnestra. The strongest parallels, however, are those between Odysseus and Jesus. There are a number of problems raised in Mark's stories about Jesus which MacDonald argues can all be resolved if we look at how these issues first occurred in Homer:
"Why did Jesus, who nevertheless taught openly and performed miracles everywhere, try to keep everything a secret? Why did Jesus stay asleep in a boat during a deadly storm? Why did Jesus drown two thousand pigs? Why does Mark invent a false story about John the Baptist's execution, one that implicates women? Why are the disciples surprised that Jesus can multiply food even when they had already seen him do it before? Why does Jesus curse a fig tree for not bearing fruit out of season? How does Mark know what Jesus said when he was alone at Gethsemane? What is the meaning of the mysterious naked boy at Jesus' arrest? Why does Jesus, knowing full well God's plan, still ask why God forsook him on the cross? Why does Mark never once mention Mary Magdalene, or the other two women at the crucifixion, or even Joseph of Arimathea, until after Jesus has died? Why is the temple veil specifically torn "top to bottom" at Jesus' death? Why is Joseph of Arimathea able to procure the body of a convict so soon from Pilate? Why do we never hear of Joseph of Arimathea again? Why does Jesus die so quickly? Why do the women go to anoint Jesus after he is buried? Why do they go at dawn, rather than the previous night when the Sabbath had already ended?"
Homeric tales about Odysseus emphasize his suffering life, just as in Mark Jesus said that he, too, would suffer greatly. Odysseus is a carpenter like Jesus, and he wants to return his home just as Jesus wants to be welcomed in his native home and later to God's home in Jerusalem. Upon his return home Odysseus found his wife, Penelope, plagued by suitors who wanted to take Odysseus' throne. Odysseus is forced to remain in disguise at first, as if he were the object of some "messianic secret," but once fully revealed, he does battle, recovers his house, and lives a long and prosperous life.
Odysseus literally "cleaned house" by first killing the suitors and then later killing the suitor's relatives who came looking for revenge. In this, Odysseus acts in manner not unlike Zeus. King of the gods, Zeus was charged with the protection of the legal and political order of the entire universe. Like Zeus, Odysseus was forced to reestablish order in his own home, ensuring that political and social stability would be maintained. Odysseus was not simply a brave and clever warrior, he was also a resolute leader of his people who served as a role model for historical kings in how he managed his own household. Because of his heroic actions cult sites dedicated to him were built in more than once place - and inscription with his name was, for example, found at Ithaca.
Jesus, too, had to clean out his father's house because his "bride" - the Jews - were being constantly beset by suitors who wanted to take them away from their true god. Jesus is also in disguise, in a sense, because he is not recognized for who he truly is for most of his ministry. Jesus, like the ancient Hebrew prophets, is portrayed and bringing a message from God - the true "king" of Israel - about reestablishing the proper social, ethical, and religious order to society. Without the correct and divinely-mandated order, there would only be political and social instability - an assumption that lies behind much of the rhetoric and agenda of the Christian Right in modern America. Eventually, Jesus will be fully revealed and will engage in a final battle against the forces of evil. This apocalyptic belief also drives much of the agenda and attitudes of America's Christian Right today.
Odysseus is plagued with unfaithful and dim-witted companions who display tragic flaws. They stupidly open a magic bag of wind while Odysseus sleeps and release terrible tempests which prevent their return home. These sailors are comparable to Jesus' disciples, who disbelieve Jesus, ask foolish questions, and show general ignorance about everything. It's amazing that either Odysseus or Jesus ever manage to accomplish anything, given the companions they have, but this simply demonstrates the power and ability of the one true leader who has a divine mandate to lead the people out of darkness and into a brighter future.
None of this will be immediately obvious to those who are unfamiliar with Greek hero tales, and even those with a cursory or superficial knowledge of ancient Greek religion may have trouble seeing the connections. First, people are too accustomed to seeing ancient Greek beliefs as mere "mythology," not as religion. Second, people are used to privileging modern religions like Christianity and treating them as if they weren't historically conditions products of human culture.http://atheism.about.com/library/FAQs/religion/blgrk_heroes04.htm