Apparently it is well-known among Classics scholars that the first few lines of the Letter to the Hebrews are a sort of imitation of the first few lines of Homer’s Odyssey. The word “polytropos” is used in both, and both have alliteration based on the letter P. (I don’t know if the scansion is the same.) And both books take their own sweet time talking about the hero, leading up to it, before finally naming Odysseus and Jesus Christ.
It does not seem to be a well-known fact among Bible scholars; and even the Oxford Study Bible and the Navarre Bible don’t have bupkis about it in the footnotes or introductions to Hebrews. Some patristics types know about it. Nobody seems to talk much about it.
I found out about it by chance, from the Odyssey side, because I heard something doubtful about the Emily Wilson translation of the Odyssey; and so I have been looking into it.
Odysseus is described as the “andra… polytropon”, and in both Iliad and Odyssey he gets described as lots of poly- adjectives. The word “polytropos” means a lot of different things, as varied as “many-traveled,” “versatile,” and “of many guises.”
The Fathers don’t really seem to comment on this, possibly because it seemed too obvious, and possibly because the association with pagan literature was controversial. But they do often comment on how God’s theophanies to Israel were literally “of many guises.” (It might also be that the Fathers were translated by people who didn’t know what the Fathers were alluding to, and therefore the allusions vanished in translation.)
Classics scholars point to a possible comparison of Israel and the Church to Odysseus, in that they went lots of places and did lots of different things, but still stayed focused on “returning home” to God. In this view, Odysseus would be a sort of “all things to all men” prototype. (And apparently the Odyssey does compare Odysseus to an octopus at one point, because he could “fit in” like a sneaky little octopus, which is always fitting into all sorts of holes, spaces between rocks, and other undersea environments.)
But of course Odysseus was also a hero who changed and affected things in the places where he went, and from which he escaped, or when he was helped and then departed. (Also like Paul.) He is identified by Homer as someone who suffers troubles, but also causes troubles to all humans he meets. His great-grandfather on his mom’s side (through Autolycus the famous thief) is Hermes, also described as “polytropos.”
On the lowest level, you could certainly compare Paul’s travels to Odysseus’ travels, right down to all the shipwrecks and escapes. And guess who Paul was mistaken for, in Lycaonia? Hermes! Hermes polytropos!
I still think there has to be more to the Hebrews allusion to the Odyssey, because a proemion is supposed to frame your view of everything that comes after it, all the way to the end. So you would expect mini-allusions throughout, and a wrap-up allusion at the end.
It wouldn’t even surprise me if different sections of Hebrews alluded to different sections of the Odyssey, although obviously it would have to be a bit subtle (because otherwise there would be footnotes all over). But I don’t know enough about the Odyssey in the original, or the Letter to the Hebrews, or Greek, for any of that to “pop up” in my brain immediately.
Odysseus is favored by Athena and others, but he also suffers the wrath of Poseidon because… his buddy Athena is angry at him, and at all the Greeks, for enabling her temple in Troy to be profaned. So she doesn’t help him with her wisdom, and he stupidly and rashly reveals his identity to Polyphemus when escaping. (For once, he acts like a Bronze Age hero, and gets punished for it.)
Odysseus’ mother wanted him to be named “Polyaretus,” “Many times-prayed for,” but his grandfather Autolycus names him “Odysseus,” which means something like “Curse”, “Troublesome,” or even “Odious.” (This is similar to Deirdre being named “sorrow.”) He’s a jinx, a Jonah, the opposite of a Benedict. And throughout the poem, the divine wrath against him, fair and unfair, is associated with the verb “odysthai,” to be wrathful. (And of course the Iliad is all about singing about “menis,” righteous wrath, both by Achilles and the gods. Really really destructive and self-destructive wrath, no matter how justified at first.) Jenny Strauss Clay’s book The Wrath of Athena talks a lot about all this stuff, and it is full of great points.
So you could argue that the children of Jacob/Israel (another trickster like Odysseus) were also both favored by and punished by God. (And they had anger issues, too.)
Odysseus is also called “many-sorrowed;” and certainly this would describe the children of Israel and even Jesus.
Also, both the Iliad and the Odyssey involve a lot of advice sections and proverbs, which is part of why many pagan Greeks and Romans regarded them as a sort of Scripture.
A lot of Hebrews is comprised of OT quotes, and explanations of how a Christian is supposed to live in the world, but also stick with God and care about people nobody cares about. You could argue that it is a book of adventure advice, maybe.
So I think there’s a lot going on with Hebrews which is implicit, and that it is mostly whooshing over our heads. The author is engaging with the whole Jewish tradition, but also with the diaspora’s Hellenic traditions. Otherwise, why the Odyssey reference?
UPDATE: An extended Odyssey reference in Acts 28, by St. Luke. This one I had heard theorized, but it doesn’t apparently involve direct quotes.
This blogger theorizes that Luke wants the reader/listener to put himself into the protagonists’ place, such that Paul’s story becomes the reader’s story.
This goes along with Homer’s tricky way of turning people inside the Iliad and Odyssey into people listening to the same story as us, and us into participants and judges of the story.
Luke also shows the hospitable goodness of pagans on the island, implicitly comparing them to the faerie Phaeacians and their king, who are much more kindly and just than the pagan gods. Paul responds graciously, by healing those who are sick.
So it’s all pretty fun but strange.
UPDATE: Anyway… we’re not used to thinking of God as “versatile” or “resourceful” or any of the other polytropos meanings. But He is. He speaks to us in all ways, by any means necessary. He is single and simple, but He finds and makes all those ways.
UPDATE: The Polymeros kai Polytropos blog listed a 2019 Society of Biblical Literature conference paper about Hebrews and the Odyssey as associated by sound and other poetic devices:
Jeffrey E. Brickle, Urshan Graduate School of Theology
“Sing in Me, Muse”: Converging Soundscapes in the Prologues of the Odyssey and Hebrews (25 min)
“While reflecting radically different eras, outlooks, genres, and styles, both Homer’s Odyssey and the Epistle to the Hebrews capitalize on the theme of an epic homecoming. The “hero” of each work seeks to lead his people on a journey fraught with danger in order to arrive safely at the intended telos. This essay will explore the prospect that the opening of Hebrews may aurally evoke the opening of the Odyssey, a well-known cultural text celebrated in antiquity for its literary characteristics, frequently deemed a mimetic exemplar, and deeply embedded in the psyche and paideia of Greco-Roman society. By investigating (1) key shared words and concepts, (2) the distinctive sound signatures developed by these prologues, (3) subjecting both prologues to the principles for euphonious composition advocated in Dionysius of Halicarnassus’s On Literary Composition (which, incidentally, begins with a quotation from the Odyssey and frequently cites Homer), and (4) examining aural resonances between these passages, the essay will attempt to demonstrate the value of utilizing sound mapping for interpreting biblical texts. Importantly, the study will evaluate the auditory effects obtained when Dionysius’s recommendations on elements such as word order, melody, rhythm, variety, and appropriateness are factored into our comparative analyses. This essay will advance the preliminary inquiry into this topic proposed by the author in his contribution to Sound Matters: New Testament Studies in Sound Mapping, volume 16 in Cascade’s Biblical Performance Criticism series.
UPDATE: Nope, the scansion of the two intros does not seem similar.
Another book that I found helpful and interesting was Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past by Gregory Nagy, which talks a lot about the relationship between the epics and the lyric poets of Greece, like Pindar. It is online at Harvard for free reading, thanks to a donation by some alumnus or fund.
The Wrath of Athena mentions one of Nagy’s earlier books, The Best of the Achaeans, as also very useful for understanding epics.
The audiobook “Homer’s Odyssey 101: How to Understand the Greatest Epic Ever Written” is an excellent and enlightening set of audio courses, by Fr. Gregory I. Carlson. It focuses on the Odyssey’s moral instruction about the consequences of actions, as well as the various strong emotional stories of various characters. IT IS GREAT. And as a Catholic, I found that the Catholic POV was really helpful.
I first read the Odyssey when I was a tad too young to get some of this stuff, so I really learned a lot. (I highly recommend listening to such a complex subject at the speed of recording, by slowing it down, rather than at the “current day audiobook” speed of 1.5x.)
Elizabeth Vandiver has several relevant Great Courses available, including on Audible and on the Great Courses channel on Amazon Prime. I haven’t listened to most of them, but her course on The Iliad of Homer is FREAKING AMAZING. (It also treats of a lot of the gore bits, so maaaaybe not for little kids.)
John Wright, the science fiction writer, posted a discussion of the science fiction and fantasy elements of the Phaeacians (and their telepathy-controlled ship) on his excellent blog. Unfortunately I cannot presently find it.
George Guidall’s amazing audiobook readings of both the Iliad and the Odyssey, from Robert Fitzgerald’s translations, are both out of print and unobtainium, now. They may be available used or at your library. You may also be able to find them online, particularly on YouTube (as with many audiobooks that are unavailable due to licensing having ended).
If you ever wondered why oral poetry epics were popular and enthralling, George Guidall will make you understand. However, there are about one zillion recordings of various translations by various actors, most of whom manage decently with such great material.
If you take Greek 101 from the Great Courses (video only, for obvious reading reasons), you will learn how to read the beginning of the Gospel of John and the Iliad; and the Iliad will take the top of your head off, even without the advantages of divine inspiration. The teacher is eccentric and fun.