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Odysseus and Paul

Odysseus and Paul

by William H. Benson

December 28, 2017

“Tell me about a complicated man. Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy.” These are Homer’s words, and they open The Odyssey, his poem from the sixth or century B.C.E., the first great adventure story in the Western Canon.

Emily Wilson, a classical scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, became the first woman to translate Homer’s Odyssey, when she published her book last month. Like the men before her, she chose to translate the poem in iambic pentameter—an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, and five of them per line—rather than in Homer’s more difficult rhythm, dactylic hexameter.

Critics are praising Wilson’s translation. One said, “Never have I been so aware at once of the beauty of the poetry, the physicality of Homer’s world, and the moral ambiguity of those who inhabit it.” I agree. Emily uses simpler, less classical words, an easier-to-read style, and the story comes alive. 

When a small child seated in a church pew, I studied the colorful maps I found at the back of the Bible. I noticed three lines—one in blue, one in red, and one in green—that traced Paul’s three missionary journeys around Asia Minor, the Aegean Sea, and Greece; and also a black line that traced his fourth trip, a one-way journey from Palestine to Rome.

Then, when in junior high school, an English teacher introduced our class to The Odyssey and suggested that we read a juvenile version. I did, and in that version I glanced at the map of Odysseus’s travels. It struck me then that Odysseus’s and Paul’s journeys more or less approximated each other. The two men traveled around the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas.

There are obvious differences. Odysseus is a fictional character that Homer created. His story includes men and women involved in wars, bloody battles, struggling marriages, while the gods and goddesses observe them and try to interfere. Paul though wrote letters to the Christian believers in the churches that sprang up at Corinth, Philippi, Thessaloniki, Ephesus, Galatia, and Rome. 

Also, Homer wrote in an “epic literary dialect’ of the ancient Greek language, between 600 and 800 B.C.E., but Paul spoke and wrote in first century Koine Greek, the Greek’s common language. 

Homer’s fictional character, Odysseus, longed to return to his home in Ithaca, back to his wife Penelope, and to his son Telemachus, after a twenty-year absence because of the ten-year war at Troy and another decade of misadventures with gods, goddesses, and monsters.

Athena, a Greek goddess, sees Odysseus’s trials and his longing for home, and she pleads his case before Zeus, who grants Athena permission to assist Odysseus. 

Paul though was an actual person, a missionary, a traveling evangelist, who was overcome with a fierce determination to spread the Christian faith across the Greek-speaking world around the Mediterranean Sea. We know the mind of Paul because he wrote thirteen, or perhaps fourteen, letters to the Christian churches, and a very kind soul decided to save those letters for posterity.

Paul faced enormous opposition, first from a Greek and Roman world devoted to Homer’s gods and goddesses. The Greeks built temples dedicated to their gods. At Corinth there was the temple to Apollo, at Cyrene there was the temple to Zeus, but Paul hated the Greeks’ idolatry.

When at Athens, Paul explained to the Athenians that he believed in their Unknown God, the one that the Athenians knew must exist, but they did not know his name.

In addition, the Jewish leaders in the synagogues were determined to crush Paul’s message, that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Messiah. In Jerusalem, the Jewish leaders had the Romans arrest Paul and ship him to Rome for trial and most likely an execution.

Odysseus and Paul were indeed “complicated” men.

Neither the Greeks, or the Romans, or the Jewish leaders knew then, in the first century, that Western Civilization would adopt Paul’s Christianity in another couple of centuries, and that Zeus and Athena would find themselves tossed into the dustbin of history, ignored and no longer believed.

Today scholars at universities study mythology, translate Homer’s Odyssey, and teach his poetic techniques, but no scholar believes in the Greek gods and goddesses. Yet, Christians in the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant churches still read Paul’s letters and believe his theology.

Travelers today can sign up for a Mediterranean cruise that follows either Odysseus’s or Paul’s travels, depending upon their allegiance, whether to classical or theological scholarship. 

“Now goddess, child of Zeus, tell the old story for our modern times. Find the beginning.” So Emily Wilson translates Homer’s immortal words.