The baptism, the dove and the transfiguration . . . continued

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from the previous post . . . .

Two of three ways Greek gods visited earthlings

Jean-Pierre Vernant in Mortals and Immortals: Collected Essays (1991) notes three forms in which gods appeared when they visited earth. But dammit, Dixon cites only two of these:

  1. They simply come “to” the mortal to give that mortal strength. In my previous post I quoted some examples of this sort of visitation. The gods appear all of a sudden, as gods, to the mortal in order to give that moral strength and encouragement after dropping down from the heavens like a bird.
  2. They take on the form of humans in order to keep their divine identity hidden while they walk the earth and converse with mortals. Again several examples are cited in my previous post.

Readers familiar with the first instance might have imagined Jesus receiving strength and encouragement to perform his ministry.

Those of the second, that Jesus had a concealed identity. In support of this view we read of the spirit at baptism descending εις αυτον (“into”? him), the proclamation, heard only by Jesus and the readers, at the baptism by God the Father that “this is my beloved Son”, and the revelation of Jesus’ identity at the transfiguration halfway through the gospel.

In browsing the Iliad to find selections cited by Dixon I came across one that I think he failed to mention — but he does say the examples are very numerous. In book 13 of the Iliad Poseidon is described as visiting the mortals on the battlefield — not openly, but to keep his identity secret — but as a man:

Poseidon on the other hand went about among the Argives to incite them, having come up from the gray sea in secret, for he was grieved at seeing them vanquished by the Trojans, and was furiously angry with Zeus. Both were of the same race and country, but Zeus was elder born and knew more, therefore Poseidon feared to defend the Argives openly, but in the likeness of man, he kept on encouraging them throughout their host. (Iliad 13)

Did the spirit descend To, Into or Upon Jesus?

Mark differs from Matthew’s account of the baptism by saying that the Spirit descended εις αυτον — whereas Matthew unambiguously says the Spirit came “upon” Jesus. εις αυτον can mean “into him”, or perhaps only “to” him or “upon” him. One scholar, Vincent Taylor, argues that the phrase means “to” him when it follows a verb of motion. But Dixon argues that the problem with Taylor’s argument is that Mark’s usage of εις in his gospel does not follow this rule. Mark, Dixon explains, only uses εις after a verb of motion when the object of the motion is normally impersonal. For personal objects of the motion verb he uses the preposition προς. Dixon continues to elaborate this grammatical argument with more references and detail than I feel qualified to summarize. It would take me some paragraphs to explain — or better simply to quote him. Maybe if anyone does not have access to the JBL article and wishes to know the details they can ask and I will be happy to take the time to spill out the details.

In conclusion (and avoiding the middle of the argument), Mark uses the preposition εις 140 times and (in all but two instances when it is not used with a motion verb) it is used to mean “into”. Mark intends to convey the image that the Spirit entered into Jesus. (This, as other scholars have remarked, is also consistent with the subsequent image of that same Spirit “driving” (as if possessing) Jesus into the wilderness.)

This image of the Spirit descending “into Jesus” would, Dixon suggests, have suggested to readers familiar with Greek mythology the idea of a god’s assumption of human form.

It was a common mythical idea that the gods did walk the earth in human form, after all. To cite but one of the many times, for example, that Homer, the basic text of all who learned to read and write Greek at this time, wrote:

The other suitors were much displeased at this, and one of the young men said, “Antinoos, you did ill in striking that poor wretch of a tramp: it will be worse for you if he should turn out to be some god – and we know the gods go about disguised in all sorts of ways as people from foreign countries, and travel about the world to see who do amiss [hubris] and who righteously.” (Odysseus 17: 485-487)

Dixon cites Iliad 20:81-82; Odyssey 7:20; 22.200-235 as additional demonstrations of this belief.

Bird? Man? Divinity in disguise!

Dixon’s interest is in Greek gods who appear disguised as humans but who also assume bird-like form or flight.

Book 13:59ff of the Iliad describes the god Poseidon appearing in the form of the prophet Calchas to the two Ajaxes, and after giving them strength he “took his departure in flight like a swift falcon, which, rising from a huge precipitous cliff, sets out to pursue another bird across the plain.”

It is unclear if Homer’s comparisons of the gods with birds are meant to be understood as literal metamorphoses of gods into birds, or if they merely indicate that the gods departed in a manner like that of birds. (Dixon cites a discussion of these ambiguities by Moule in Similes, 135-139.) Similarly, Dixon observes, Mark’s gospel is ambiguous: does the spirit descend in the form of a dove, or does the dove simile refer only to the manner of the spirit’s descent? Jesus sees the spirit descend like a dove, but so also do Homeric heroes see gods descend and ascend like birds. In both cases it is unclear if the comparison refers to the form of the being they see, or the manner of the supernatural being’s flight.

Note how the goddess Athena appears as a man and departs like a bird:

Then she [Athena] went darting down from the heights of Olympus, and took her stand in the land of Ithaca at the outer gate of Odysseus, on the threshold of the court. In her hand she held the spear of bronze, and she was in the likeness of a stranger, Mentes, the leader of the Taphians. . . . . (Odyssey 1:80ff)

Then after speaking at length with the son of Odysseus, Telemachus, who consistently addresses her as “Stranger”, she departs:

So spoke the goddess, flashing-eyed Athena, and departed, flying upward as a bird (Odyssey 1:320ff)

A second time Athena comes to accompany and speak with Telemachus, but this time as the old man Mentor. After her mission was accomplished she “departed in the likeness of a sea-eagle.” (Odyssey 3:371f)

Dixon sees the significance of the above as follows:

In these Homeric examples, a god’s human disguise is connected to the god’s departure as a bird, not the god’s arrival as is the case for the Spirit in the Markan baptism. Nonetheless, the scene in Mark carries enough parallels to Homer to warrant the idea that Spirit’s birdlike descent could have evoked, perhaps even intentionally, thoughts of descending Olympian gods in the minds of those who first produced and heard the story of Jesus’ baptism. Homer’s mere juxtaposition of gods in human form with bird similes provides the necessary elements through which individuals familiar with Greek mythology could have associated the Spirit’s avian arrival and apparent union with Jesus, they may well have envisioned an Olympian god’s birdlike descent to earth and subsequent assumption of human form. The voice from the heavens in Mark 1:11 likely added to this suspicion. The voice says to Jesus, “You are my son, the beloved; in you I am well pleased.” In Greek myth, Zeus was regarded as the father of the gods. To individuals familiar with the Greek pantheon, God addressing Jesus as “my son” would be associated with Zeus speaking to one of his sons, such as Apollo or Hermes. God’s proclamation would have hinted as Jesus’ divine identity by relating to him as father to son. (p. 774)

This reading of Mark against the backdrop of Greek myth is supported, Dixon argues, “by the reappearance of the topos of gods in human form later in the Gospel.”

The topos was for gods to wander about the earth and reveal themselves to selected individuals. One example is how the goddess Demeter came disguised as an old woman but chose to reveal her divine nature to Metaneira, the mother of a child Demeter had hoped to make an immortal god.

When she had so said, the goddess changed her stature and her looks, thrusting old age away from her: beauty spread round about her and a lovely fragrance was wafted from her sweet-smelling robes, and from the divine body of the goddess a light shone afar, while golden tresses spread down over her shoulders, so that the strong house was filled with brightness as with lightning. And so she went out from the palace. (Hymn to Demeter, line 275)

The similarity with the transfiguration scene in Mark hardly needs pointing out. A number of scholars (e.g. Moss, Collins) have argued that the details of Mark’s scene (9:2-8) would surely have been familiar to the original audience as another scene of an epiphany of a god.

The narrative progression and unifying motif of the baptism and transfiguration

  1. Both scenes echo the common Greek mythological topos of gods walking about the earth disguised as humans;
  2. The bird epiphany indicates the arrival of a god on earth who subsequently takes up human form;
  3. The transfiguration marks the point where the god, after a period of secrecy, chooses to reveal his/her identity to a select few.
My own interjection

Going beyond what Dixon discusses here, I am personally intrigued by the larger context of this particular “transfiguration” of Demeter.

Demeter’s transfiguration comes after a dramatic build-up involving tension between her devotee, Metaneira, who only dimly comprehends the extent of her noble status (see line 212), and is truly blind to her real identity and divine mission or intent.

This divine purpose of Demeter involves (at least apparent) suffering, torment, as the gateway to immortal life and glory for the son of the devotee. She was entrusted with the care of Metaneira’s son, and secretly placed him in the fire at nights to burn away his mortal parts and gradually transform him into a god. But Metaneira fails to comprehend Demeter’s ways, and rebukes her sharply, and insists on adhering to the ways of “men”  instead of the goddess, thus losing the opportunity for her son to become immortal.

Demeter proves the authority of her words and ways be revealing her identity through a transfiguration from her appearance as an old women to a glorious goddess. Metaneira is left speechless.

The transfiguration scene in Mark’s gospel and its preliminary scene mirror this thematic structure. Jesus is acknowledged as someone very noble by the disciples, but they lack full comprehension.

When they learn the secret of Jesus’ true mission, to gain immortality by suffering and death, they protest violently, and Jesus rebukes them sharply.

He then reveals his true full identity by a transfiguration scene. The elect witnesses don’t know what to say.

This common structure suggests some literary or other conceptual background to Mark’s scenes that links the two as one: the first being the conflict between a god and mortals over the identity and ways of that god, the ways involving suffering and death; and the second being the transfiguration to confirm the authority and identity of the divinity.

If so, then the idea one often reads in the literature that the transfiguration scene is a misplaced resurrection appearance from earlier tradition is unlikely. The transfiguration would be an integral and central part of the narrative – its position is just where it was intended to be from its inception.

Greek Myth and Markan Secrecy

The Markan secrecy motif for Jesus — the way Mark depicts Jesus’ identity as Messiah and Son of God secret throughout till the transfiguration and the time of his trial and resurrection — must surely be seen in a new light against the background of the well-known Greek myths of gods appearing on earth as mortals and hiding their real divine identities.

More than this common secrecy motif is the revelation of the gods — the revealing of the secret — through bird similes. In Greek myths the gods who appear disguised as mortals to other mortals often reveal their true identities at their sudden departures “like birds”.

Cases of this were listed in my previous post. To summarize some:

  1. Poseidon’s sudden bird-like departure revealed to the two Ajaxes that they had not been talking with the seer Calchas at all, but with a god. (Iliad 13:66-72)
  2. Athena’s departure like a bird from Telemachus reveals to Telemachus that the one he thought was Mentes was really the goddess. (Odyssey 1.323)
  3. Athena appears again to Telemachus and Nestor but this time as the elderly Mentor. Again when she departs like a sea-eagle Telemachus and Nestor are suddenly aware they had been with the goddess. (Odyssey 3.375-78)

In each of these scenes the god appeared as a mortal to disguise his/her true identity. Only the readers know the true identity. This identity was only belatedly revealed to characters in the narrative through the bird-like apparition at their departure.

In Mark, only the readers know the identity of Jesus, and this is revealed clearly at the bird-like descent of the Spirit at baptism. The readers know that had the other characters in the Gospel also seen this bird-like descent, they, too, would have known Jesus’ true identity.

Implications for Christology

Dixon thinks much of the scholarly community has gone too far in seeking for the background to the Gospel Jesus exclusively in the Old Testament and Jewish backgrounds. In rejecting the Hellenistic theios aner or divine man christology, they have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. The gospel emerged and spread from a matrix of cultural plurality.

[S]cholars must continue to allow for a conflation of backgrounds and cultural traditions in both the Gospel’s production and its reception. Allusions such as the Spirit’s avian descent at the baptism and Jesus’ epiphany at the transfiguration, among other scenes and phrases throughout the Gospel, should be conceived of in the fulness of their Judeo-Greco-Roman culture. (p. 778)

Possible Greco-Roman resonances of the Gospel imagery

Pythagoras, a miracle worker

Porphyry preserves a list of Pythagorean miracles in which Pythagoras reveals he is the Olympian god Apollo

Iamblichus wrote that some regarded Pythagoras as “one of the Olympian Gods, who, in order to benefit and correct the mortal life, appeared to men of those times in human form” (Vit Pyth 30)

Philostratus (3rd century) “wrote that Pythagoras has certain knowledge of his divinity because Apollo had come to him acknowledging that he was ‘the god [i.e. Apollo] in person’ (Vit Apoll. 1.1)”

Lucian of Samososta “in a farcical description of Pythagoras’s divinity, closely identified Pythagoras with Apollo in human form — and does so by means of a bird. A cock, enlivened by Pythagoras’s soul, says,

How my soul originally left Apollo, flew down to earth and entered a human body and what sin it was condemned to expiate in that way would make a long story. (Gall. 18)

Augustus, Roman emperor

Horace interprets the purpose of Augustus’ life an epiphany of Hermes or Apollo:

Whom of the gods shall the folk call to the needs of the falling empire? . . . To whom shall Jupiter assign the task of atoning for our guilt? Come thou at length, we pray thee, prophetic Apollo . . . or thou, winged son of benign Maia, if changing thy form, thou assumest on earth the guise of man, right ready to be called the avenger of Caesar (Carm. 1.2.25-44)

Virgil describes Augustus’s birth through the lens of Apollo’s descent to earth to establish peace:

The last age of the Sybyl’s poem is now come. . . . Now a new offspring is sent down from high heaven. Do thou, chaste Lucina, favour the birth of the child under whom the iron breed will first cease and a golden race arise throughout the world. Now shall thine own Apollo bear sway (Ecl. 4.4-10)

Dixon explains the point of presenting these potential resonances to the Gospels:

The intent here is simply to note that other figures around the time of Jesus who were proclaimed to be divine or semi-divine were also depicted as Olympian gods on earth. The topos was a part of the cultural landscape. (p. 779)


The dove alone at the baptism may have been drawn from the story of Noah or Hosea’s comparison of Israel with a dove. But there is no antecedent in Jewish literature for a Spirit’s birdlike descent. That, along with related concepts of gods appearing in human form and in secret, is a motif that draws on Greek myth.

My immediate reflections in relation to Jesus mythicism

Again departing from Dixon:

The examples Dixon gives of Pythagoras and Augustus are instructive. Augustus is described by the poets as a god in human form. But this description is superfluous for any question about his historicity. We have an abundance of primary evidence, and the secondary evidence can be read with confidence as referencing this historical figure. Much of both the primary and secondary evidence may not be “true” historically, but the historicity of Augustus is unassailable. That he was an emperor, that he passed certain decrees, that his reign was viewed as the ushering in of a new age, all these are clear facts based on tangible and verifiable evidence. Secondary evidence is supported by external controls to testify to the core historicity of its historical references.

Pythagoras is another question entirely. It is probably impossible to know if such a person really existed.

But the more a person can be identified and his works and sayings explained in terms of other literature and mythical or theological agendas, the less reason we have to think that person’s creation itself is anything other than myth.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

6 thoughts on “The baptism, the dove and the transfiguration . . . continued”

  1. JW:
    My own discussion of the into/upon issue:


    The possession (so to speak) of Jesus by God’s spirit at 1:10 combined with the X-or-cism of God’s spirit from Jesus at crucifixion and the major theme of spirit possession in general leaves (so to speak) little doubt that “Mark” is Separationist. “Mark”, as usual, just fleshes out (so to speak) Paul’s major theme that looking at Jesus in the context of Messiah/Jewish is wrong. Looking at Jesus in the context of Son of God/Greek is right. “Mark’s” great irony here is that it is one who is himself possessed by a spirit that exorcises spirits from others. But who better qualified?

    Who let the Dogmas out? Who, Jew?


  2. While there’s no bird imagery involved, this visitation/transformation motif reminds me of the story of the selection of Saul to be the first king of Israel. Samuel anoints him, calls him the chosen ruler, and then sends him off on a journey. I like the directness here of the New Jerusalem Bible (Sam. 10:6), where Samuel tells Saul, “The spirit of Yahweh will then seize on you, and you will go into ecstasy with them [the band of prophets], and be changed into another man.”

    Saul is selected and anointed. The spirit of Yahweh takes hold of him and transforms him. Is this what Mark imagined happening at the baptism?

    When Saul is seized by the spirit, the people who had known him before are astonished and ask, “What has come over the son of Kish? Is Saul one of the prophets too?” This scene is reminiscent of Jesus’ family wondering if he has lost his mind (Mark 3:21). Or when the people of his home town ask, “Is this not the son of Mary?”

    BTW, I always feel bad for Saul. He screws up a couple of times, and Yahweh turns his back on him. Poor Saul.

  3. Just as an aside, I saw this sort of thing again last night. There always seems to be a god’s birthday being celebrated somewhere in Singapore by the Chinese. It’s a big occasion usually spanning three nights. I think one went on for nearly the entire week.

    The spirits of the god and his companion gods come into (usually) three chosen people. There is some obvious stress or tension at the time the spirits enter them, but once possessed, they “become” those gods for the next few hours. Attendants wait on them, wiping their brow, consulting their directions, making way for them, instantly complying with their every request. The gods talk in high pitched screechy voices through them. They often move their feet and walk in some odd shuffling way. All the while drums are beating to foster the trance state.

    One of them is generally a “baby god” and is always sucking a dummy or drinking milk from a baby bottle. This one (man or woman) will also hand out lollies to children (and once even to me as a curious onlooker).

    Last night was the first time I saw a monkey god in action. I didn’t realize till then that even as gods monkeys have to scratch themselves for fleas.

    One Chinese person once told me that she did not believe they were really possessed, but had come to think they were really only acting. Such unwarranted scepticism!

    The most grotesque moment I saw was one of the possessed taking a sword and slashing his tongue to draw copious blood that even spread to cover half of his face. This tongue-blood was used to print messages on special paper from the god. I still squirm at the memory of it.

    Those possessed are dressed by attendants in special clothes appropriate for the god in them. They are the centres of the rest of the ceremonies of offering prayers and drink and other offerings, cracking whips, writing messages on paper and marking spots for where they should be fastened.

    When the time comes for the gods to leave their human homes, there is again a bit of stress while the exorcism is performed. Not so with the departure of last night’s monkey god, for some reason. That god left relatively calmly without need for attendants to grab hold of the person to be sure he would not hurt himself with a bad fall. I think if I had to be possessed by a god I’d opt for the monkey god, though I am not sure I could endure the fleas.

    It is easy to be sceptical of course. One begins to think that how they are acting is, well, just how they are acting. One god seemed to be making the most of it by ordering a pipe to smoke at regular intervals. But after the exorcism at the end of it all (till the next night when they are possessed again) it is really striking to observe the change in their faces and manner as they return to normal. At that moment I realized how much I had forgotten what the normal person was like, and that for the past hour or so I had come to see them entirely as the gods in them.

    Okay, this has nothing but the most distant irrelevant association to the comment, but when else will I get an opportunity to share the experience of witnessing customs that must be centuries old and that cannot be too far removed from what some of the bible depicts when it is speaking of spirits entering mortals so that those humans “become another man”?

    ETA: And yes, Saul is the classic tragic hero. Very Greek. The same theological message, too — the ways of mortals, even the best of them, are nothing beside the iron will and ways of the godfather.

    1. It sometimes seems to me that the most humanly decent characters in the narrative of Kings, these being Saul, the women of Saul’s family, the witch of Endor, even Ahab when he says there has been enough blood, are those whom the narrative condemns. One almost suspects satire, unless with Thompson one sees the point of the story as being that what is good in our eyes matters no wit compared with what is good in the eyes of God.

  4. Moses is said to represent the law and Elijah is said to represent the prophets. Does Jesus represent the greatest commandments, does the law of Moses and the prophets represented by Elijah hang on Jesus, the central figure in the transfiguration?

    Can the Gospel of the transfiguration, hang and depend on the greatest commandments?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading