2010-09-14

Comparing the baptism of Jesus with Greek gods descending like birds and appearing as humans

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by Neil Godfrey

Descending Spirit and Descending Gods: A “Greek” Interpretation of the Spirit’s “Descent as a Dove” in Mark 1:10 by Edward P. Dixon was published last year (2009) in the Journal of Biblical Literature (128, no. 4). It is a welcome breeze of fresh sanity into the so many contorted attempts to explain Gospel themes and images exclusively in terms of very non-Christian and even sometimes anti-Christian Jewish motifs. Of course the Gospel narratives draw much from the Old Testament. But there is no need to insist upon and either-or scenario. The evidence is surely overwhelming that they also drew on Hellenistic motifs. There is surely nothing controversial about this. Intertestimental Jewish literature, fictional, philosophical and historical, did the same. It would surely be an anomaly if the Gospels indeed were composed entirely from a heritage that was alien to non-Jews and yet came to be embraced by non-Jews.

In the following I add a little to Dixon’s citations by quoting certain passages in full with links to their online contexts. (I also omit quite a few details of Dixon’s discussion.)

Traditional interpretations of the spirit descending as a dove

Dixon begins by discussing the scholarly attempts to explain Jewish sources for the image of the spirit of God descending like a dove at the baptism of Jesus. A common one is Genesis 1:2 which describes the spirit of God “hovering” over the face of the waters at the moment creation is about to begin.

Many like to associate the baptism image with this passage because doves are said to “hover” and it was common for the early church to associate the arrival of the Messiah with images of a new creation superior to that described in Genesis.

Dixon cautions against the “hovering” association on methodological grounds, however. The association of “hovering” and “doves” is not known till the rabbinical literature several centuries after the supposed composition of the first Gospel. Besides, Mark does not describe the dove-like spirit hovering over Jesus, but descending to or into him.

Furthermore . . . no ancient Jewish text depicts a “descent” of any heavenly being in the form of a bird. The OT tells of many descents — of angels, of the Lord, of the Spirit from the Lord . . . and so on — but the idea that these figures should descend as birds is completely foreign to the OT and other pre-Markan Jewish literature. [p. 764]

Gods as birds well known to Greek mythology

Homer’s epics were the basic texts of anyone learning to read and write Greek through the period we are discussing. Any author composing in Greek almost certainly knew them well.

Homer describes

  1. the descent of Apollo from Olympus to assist Hector on the battle field of Troy “like a swift dove-slaying falcon, that is the fleetest of all winged creatures” (Iliad 15.237-38)
  2. the descent of Thetis from Olympus to supply her son Achilles with new armour from Hephaestus: “like a falcon she leapt down from snow-capped Olympus ” (Iliad 18.616-17)
  3. Zeus sending Athena down to strengthen Achilles: “like a bird of prey, long-winged and shrill-voice, [Athena] leapt down from heaven through the air” (Iliad 19.349-50). There her presence was unnoticed by all while she “secretly puts nectar into Achilles’ breast and returns to Zeus’s house undetected.”
  4. the god Poseidon appearing in the form of the mortal Calchas and then departing “in flight like a swift falcon.” (Iliad 13.62-65)
  5. the goddess Athena coming to earth and appearing in the form of the mortal Mentes to deliver a message to Telemachus, the son of Odysseus; after finishing her mission, she departs “flying upwards as a bird.” (Odyssey 1.320)
  6. the next day Telemachus prays for Athena to return: she does so, again in the guise of the mortal Mentes, and then departs in flight again “in the likeness of a sea-eagle.” (Odyssey 3.371-72)

Virgil in his Aeneid (a founding myth of Rome) also likens gods to birds descending and ascending to and from earth:

Jupiter sends his son, Mercury, down from heaven to remind Aeneas, sidetracked by the charms of Dido, queen of Carthage, of his mission to found a new Troy (Rome). To quote the key passage from the John Dryden translation:

Hermes obeys; with golden pinions binds
His flying feet, and mounts the western winds:
And, whether o’er the seas or earth he flies,
With rapid force they bear him down the skies.
. . . .
Thus arm’d, the god begins his airy race,
And drives the racking clouds along the liquid space;
Now sees the tops of Atlas, as he flies,
. . . .
Here, pois’d upon his wings, the god descends:
Then, rested thus, he from the tow’ring height
Plung’d downward, with precipitated flight,
Lights on the seas, and skims along the flood.
As waterfowl, who seek their fishy food,
Less, and yet less, to distant prospect show;
By turns they dance aloft, and dive below:
Like these, the steerage of his wings he plies,
And near the surface of the water flies,
Till, having pass’d the seas, and cross’d the sands,
He clos’d his wings, and stoop’d on Libyan lands:

Virgil writes of the goddess Iris that she being “poised on wings rose into the sky, cleaving in flight her mighty bow beneath the clouds” (Aeneid 5.657-58)

The rending of the heavens

The Gospel of Mark’s baptism scene is accompanied by the rending of the heavens as well as the descent of a divine spirit like a bird.

Again in Book 9.14-15 where Virgil had written a similar scene, he goes on to explain that

Iris’s bird-like departure is accompanied by a tearing of the heavens. As she flies away, Turnus yells after her, “Iris, glory of the sky, who has brought thee down to me, wafted upon the clouds to earth? Whence this sudden brightness of the air? I see the heavens part asunder, and the stars that roam in the firmament. I follow the mighty omen, whoso thou has callest to arms!”(9.18-22)

Turnus interprets the parting of the heavens as an omen that verifies the words of the goddess.

Cicero also testifies that the rending of the heavens was one of several well-known omens that warned Romans of “mighty wars” and “deadly revolutions”:

I now return to instances at home. How many times the Senate has ordered the decemvirs to consult the Sibylline books! How often in matters of grave concern it has obeyed the responses of the soothsayers! Take the following examples: When at one time, two suns and, at another, three moons, were seen; when meteors appeared; when the sun shone at night; when rumblings were heard in the heavens; when the sky seemed to divide, showing balls of fire  enclosed within; again, on the occasion of the landslip in Privernum, report of which was made to the Senate; and when Apulia was shaken by a most violent earthquake and the land sank to an incredible depth — in all these cases of portents which warned the Roman people of mighty wars and deadly revolutions, the responses of the soothsayers were in agreement with the Sibylline verses. (Cicero: Div. 1.43.97)

Other bird-like movements of the gods

Homeric Hymn 2 (To Demeter)

Bitter pain seized her [Demeter’s] heart, and she rent the covering upon her divine hair with her dear hands: her dark cloak she cast down from both her shoulders and sped, like a wild-bird, over the firm land and yielding sea, seeking her child.

Odyssey 5.50-51

Thus he spoke, and Hermes, guide and guardian, slayer of Argos, did as he was told. Forthwith he bound on his glittering golden sandals with which he could fly like the wind over land and sea. . . .  then he swooped down through the firmament till he reached the level of the sea, whose waves he skimmed like a cormorant that flies fishing every hole and corner of the ocean, and drenching its thick plumage in the spray. . . .

Apollonius’s Argonautica, 4.769-70

So [Hera] spake, and straightway Iris leapt down from Olympus and cleft her way, with light wings outspread.

Contact points with the Gospel of Mark

  • The bird simile to describe the heavenly entity’s descent from heavens to earth
  • The bird simile is used to mark not just the descent, but to mark the arrival of a god on earth

Add to these points the fact that the OT never uses a bird simile to describe a heavenly descent.

To continue

This sums up the first part of Dixon’s discussion. Next come the implications for Mark’s Christology, and this is bound up with the common mythology of God’s descending to appear (unrecognized) disguised as human personalities.

Will have to finish this in a future post.

“I now return to instances at home. How many times the Senate has ordered the decemvirs to consult theSibylline books! How often in matters of grave concern it has obeyed the responses of the soothsayers! Take

the following examples: When p329at one time, two suns and, at another, three moons, were seen; when

meteors appeared; when the sun shone at night; when rumblings were heard in the heavens; when the sky

seemed to divide, showing balls of fire108  enclosed within; again, on the occasion of the landslip in Privernum,

report of which was made to the Senate; and when Apulia was shaken by a most violent earthquake and the

land sank to an incredible depth — in all these cases of portents which warned the Roman people of mighty

wars and deadly revolutions, the responses of the soothsayers were in agreement with the Sibylline verses.

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4 Comments

  • Henk van der Gaast
    2010-09-14 14:25:35 UTC - 14:25 | Permalink

    Thanks, I’ll take the hummingbird on board!

    Cicero, damnit I wish I could read latin the way he talked it! I really don’t think translations quite do things the just they deserve.

    Thank you for another inspiring post.

  • Pingback: The baptism, the dove and the transfiguration . . . continued « Vridar

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  • pakeha
    2014-02-02 13:44:42 UTC - 13:44 | Permalink

    I’ve long suspected that the Roman world and Hellenism were sources for much of the gospels’ imagery without knowing exactly why.
    Thanks for confirming that feeling and helping to give a direction to my further studies.

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