Anyone who treats the Bible too seriously as history needs to take time out to read Jason and the Argonauts, or the Argonautica, composed in the third century BCE by Apollonius of Rhodes. They could also read a lot of other ancient literature, epic poetry, tragic dramas, Hellenistic novellas, to find a more grounded perspective for the Bible as literature, but here I focus on the Argonautica.
Book 1 — this links to Seaton’s translation of the first of the four books of the Argonautica.
It opens with a prophecy that sets the action in motion. King Pelias had been warned that he would be murdered at the behest of a man he saw approaching with one sandal. It just so happened that Jason happened to have lost one sandal while crossing muddy waters when he came to King Pelias to enjoy a banquet. Pelias could hardly kill him on the spot for losing his sandal, so sent him on a mission (to a distant land to retrieve a golden fleece) from which he believed he could scarcely return.
So begins the action. And it is not just an ordinary adventure of ordinary folk. It is to be a tale of famous deeds by some of the most renowned of ancient heroic names. And the plot is driven by prophecies from the gods and their agents. This is the stuff of ancient epics, dramas and novellas.
The Bible stories are in no way inferior. The Gospels all begin with prophecies and pronouncements of the beginning of the story of the Son of God. Mark’s gospel, in particular, is all about “the way” (the journey) the Son of God must travel before reaching his goal. The Old Testament stories, likewise, are about the famous heroes of Israel’s past, and the actions of all their adventures are driven by divine prophecies. Abraham is promised a new land if he leaves his home and voyages in faith into the unknown. God speaks on a number of occasions to Moses to foretell what he must do, and how he, too, must embark on a long voyage in order to reach a prized goal.
Not that prophecy-driven plots are reserved for fictional epic tales. Ancient histories could also be narrated through prophetic tales. The Greek historian Herodotus will introduce prophecies from the Delphic Oracle as predictions of what is to follow in his historical work. But Herodotus’ history is in some ways quite remarkably like the Primary History of Israel (Genesis to 2 Kings), with its theological message of the need for humankind to humbly submit to the inscrutable will of God, and its mix of clearly mythical stories (golden apples, garden of Eden) with ostensibly more ‘historical’ ones.
The vessel that is to carry the heroes (more or less) safely through their adventures, the ship Argo, was built by Argus through the inspired guidance of the goddess Athena:
The ship, as former bards relate, Argus wrought by the guidance of Athena.
Divine guidance is also to be found in the telling of the tale. The author must call on the power or inspiration of the Muses to ensure that truth be told.
This is always the way of important constructions in the Bible, too. Whether Noah’s ark, or the Tabernacle of Israel and its Ark of the Covenant built by the divinely guided Bezaleel (Ex. 35:30-31), the hand of a divinity is guiding the human hands to make it turn out just right.
See, the LORD hath called by name Bezaleel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; And he hath filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship; And to devise curious works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, And in the cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of wood, to make any manner of cunning work. (Exodus 35:30-33)
And of course we know that the Bible’s books, too, were written under the inspiration or direction of God.
The Argonautica quickly brings readers to the details of every one of the heroes called to participate in the adventure. Around 50 names are listed. (See Argonauts for one list.) But the names are not just telephone book entries. Many of them are explained to be brothers, being introduced in pairs; we learn the parentage of many; and with some we are given inklings of what fate awaits them later in the story; and we are also regaled with past adventures and family histories of a few of them. The special skills and strengths of each are also cited. The detail is astonishing. No human imagination could ever manufacture such personal details of so many unless they were all genuinely historical.
Two of the heroes stand out by the way they come running to Jason. One of these, Acastus, is leaving his father who was responsible for sending Jason on this quest in hope that he would not return. That Acastus should be more devoted to Jason and the glory he promised, than to his own father who was plotting against Jason, serves to enhance his noble character.
True, there are inconsistencies among some of the names in different lists. But willing readers can generally find an explanation for these.
Biblical genealogies, tribal names of those who enter Egypt (70 all told), and of the leaders of Israel who left Egypt, the prophecies pronounced upon each of the twelve or thirteen fathers, and later the names of the twelve apostles, their sibling relationships, nicknames, and fates and roles some were destined to act out — it’s all part and parcel the audience wants to hear and remember and talk about.
Jesus and Elijah’s disciples leave everything to follow their master. One rich man even comes running to Jesus in hopes to join him. And few readers having read of the love between Jonathan, the son of the king Saul who plotted to kill David, and David himself, can forget such a moving story.
The variations of some names in the lists as presented in different biblical books are of little concern to those who focus on the main story.
As the heroes walk towards their fate, towards the Argo waiting to take them on their adventure, they are mourned by elderly loving fathers and grief-stricken mothers and other women. It would have been better had they died before seeing their hopes take leave into the unknown.
And now many thralls, men and women, were gathered together, and his mother, smitten with grief for Jason. And a bitter pang seized every woman’s heart; and with them groaned the father in baleful old age, lying on his bed, closely wrapped round. But the hero straightway soothed their pain, encouraging them . . .
The hero walks through the crowd like a god in his glorious beauty.
The Bible’s stories are just as rich in human pathos. We know of elderly Jacob’s grief, a grief that almost brought him to the grave, over the loss of his favourite son Joseph; and the mourning onlookers and women as Jesus was led to his crucifixion, and again his mother at his cross; and how in both such stories it is the hero, Joseph and Jesus, who turn to encourage their grief stricken loved ones.
The Bible’s New Testament heroes are less renowned for their physical beauty. David and Joseph were physically attractive. But Jesus stands out as for his ability to issue divine protective power. Christian stories were composed at a time when the physical was no longer glorified as before, but at a time when people sought escape from this world to be united in the next one. Indeed, early Christian writings interpreted Isaiah to indicate that Jesus had no physical beauty, and Paul is described as having an unbecoming presence.
Leadership is always a contentious issue. Jason wisely calls on those who have come to join him on his quest to elect a leader. They choose — Heracles (Hercules)! Obviously. Who else is stronger, mightier, braver? Heracles does the right thing, however, and declines the vote. He insists they all give their loyalty to Jason himself. And at Heracles’ advice, they do so. Jason is thus exalted by having even the “bravest” of his followers declare his support for him, and directing all his followers turn their allegiance to him.
A similar motif opens up the story of Homer’s Iliad. The great hero Achilles, born of a goddess and a mortal, must defer to the leader of their expedition, king Agamemnon, even though Agamemnon is a mortal through and through. But Achilles has a quarrel with Agamemnon, and goes off to his tent to sulk and refuses to fight under his command. He only re-emerges to perform his heroic deeds when he returns to his proper role of fighting Trojans under the leadership of Agamemnon.
The same themes run through the Bible. The people choose the mightiest and most kingly looking man, Saul, to be their king. But he eventually learns that he is to be replaced by the younger David. The theme of God choosing the younger to take a position greater than the older or the more ‘natural’ heir is found as early as Isaac and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, and it partly serves to teach the lesson of acceptance of the divine will despite normal human inclinations.
No man was greater than John the Baptist, but Jesus is greater even than he. Jesus even submitted to John at Baptism, and John directed his followers to turn to Jesus.
End of chapter 1
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