Bible and the Argonauts: Chapter 3 (Book 2)

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by Neil Godfrey

Clashing Rocks Parted by Poseidon

Continuing here my commentary on the points of literary, thematic, religious and cultural contacts between ancient popular literature and the Bible, with the Argonautica as a case study. [See the other posts in this series.]

From my initial post:

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 2 — this links to Seaton’s translation of the second of the four books of the Argonautica. (The “chapters” in my titles are only for convenience to follow the sequence of posts on the blog and are not part of any formal numbering system.)

The Dual, the Prophecy, the Parting Rocks, and Seeing the Glory of God

Book two opens with a popular motif as old as the Epic of Gilgamesh: a challenge to a dual and the contest between two mighty heroes. The Argonauts (crew of the Argo) find themselves confronted by the haughty and insolent King Amycus who challenges all visitors to a boxing match. But Queensberry rules don’t apply; it’s a match to the death. Heracles has been left behind (fortunately, or there would have been little opportunity for Apollonius to describe much a genuinely interesting fight) but Polydeuces, the boxing twin of Castor (of Gemini fame) takes up the challenge. He wins, of course, and does the region a favour by killing Amycus in the process.

The Bible’s classic tale of such a challenge and contest is, of course, David and Goliath.

There follows a lengthy encounter with a prophet who delivers the details of all the dangers that lie ahead, and gives Jason and his crew specific warnings they need to follow if they are to survive certain inevitable troubles. One finds the same type of lengthy prophetic discourse in Homer’s and Virgil’s epics. They are always delivered at the critical juncture just prior to the hero and his followers entering their moment of climactic trial. The prophecies usually involve the threat of losing all the followers of the leader, and utmost diligence to heed the warnings of the seer is enjoined if any are to survive at all. The prophecy speaks of coming fact to face with death, sometimes even descending to Hades itself. And as the dangers mount, there is also the promise of timely divinely sent help. But the reward of heroic diligence will be a peaceful homecoming and a glorious name. The prophet who delivers this prophecy in the Argonautica is Phineus.

Wherefore now obey my counsel, if indeed with prudent mind and reverencing the blessed gods ye pursue your way; and perish not foolishly by a self-sought death, or rush on following the guidance of youth. . . . Oh hapless ones, dare not to transgress my divine warning . . . . And as these things will fall, so shall they fall. . . . .

Now an unspeakable help will come to you from the bitter sea . . . .

Fear not, for a deity will by the guide from Aea by another track, . . . . But, my friends, take thought of the artful aid of the Cyprian goddess. For on her depends the glorious issue of your venture. . . .

A regular feature of such prophecies is that not every detail can be revealed.

[Zeus] wishes to deliver to men the utterances of the prophetic art incomplete, in order that they may still have some need to know the will of heaven.

A sign is always announced in these prophecies, and the hearers must pay attention to this to know what course of action to take at a particular juncture in their odyssey. In the case of the prophecy of Phineus, the sign they are to look for is the fate of a dove as if flies between clashing rocks — at which sign they are to act without delay if they wish to survive.

The synoptic gospels contain the same literary motif. The Olivet Prophecy or Little Apocalypse (Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21) is set at the juncture between Jesus’ earlier travels and the moment he is now to take on his final and climactic adventure. He likewise is to go to death and return. It is significant that commentators sometimes remark on the images in this prophecy and their counterparts in the narrative of Jesus’ Passion that follows. The danger to Jesus’ followers in their future trials is made clear, and they also are given clear warnings to heed the prophecy, and to trust in the divine aid that will come at critical moments.

Not every detail is spelled out. The exact time of Jesus’ coming is kept hidden from them. This is also part of the literary device. The sign they are given is an “abomination of desolation” that comes at a life and death moment when the disciples must act quickly, immediately.

I wonder about the validity of using this chapter to date the gospels as if it is “historical” (or based on a free-floating Jewish apocalypse with historical embellishments) even though it is chock full of allusions to OT passages and is one of the most distinctive rhetorical devices in fictional epic and dramatic literature.

The dramatic moment — when the Argonauts are to enter the general locale where they are to find the golden fleece — comes when the Argonauts slip through giant rocks that open up for them to pass, but close again to bring certain death if any had remained behind.

The Bible does not have floating rocks in the sea open up and close in again, but it does have the sea itself opening up to allow Israelites to escape and enter their new land, only to close in again drowning all their enemies.

After this the heroes come ashore on a desert island, Thynias, and at twilight they are blessed to catch a glimpse of Apollo in all his glory. But they only see him momentarily as he is dashing past them.

Now when divine light has not yet come nor is it utter darkness, but a faint glimmer has spread over the night, the time when men wake and call it twilight, at that hour they ran into the harbour of the desert island Thynias and, spent by weary toil, mounted the shore. And to them the son of Leto, as he passed from Lycia far away to the countless folk of the Hyperboreans, appeared; and about his cheeks on both sides his golden locks flowed in clusters as he moved; in his left hand he held a silver bow, and on his back was slung a quiver hanging from his shoulders; and beneath his feet all the island quaked, and the waves surged high on the beach. Helpless amazement seized them as they looked; and no one dared to gaze face to face into the fair eyes of the god. And they stood with heads bowed to the ground; but he, far off, passed on to the sea through the air; and at length Orpheus spake as follows, addressing the chiefs:

Come, let us call this island the sacred isle of Apollo of the Dawn since he has appeared to all, passing by at dawn; and we will offer such sacrifices as we can, building an altar on the shore . . . .

This scene is the Greek equivalent of Moses seeing the back of Yahweh on the mountain and the apostles seeing Jesus transfigured in all his glory. Just as Moses caught a glimpse of God (Exodus 33:18-34:9) and Elijah experienced the earthquake when God came down to speak with him on the mountain, so Jason and his followers are privileged to glimpse the glory of Apollo as the earth quaked. And just as the disciples were left in helpless amazement on seeing the divine glory of Jesus, and responded by suggesting they make tabernacles at the place of revelation, so the Argonauts are struck helpless and offer to erect altars and make offerings at the place where they saw the glory of god.

Sea adventures, being welcomed as a god, meeting strangers

Fearsome waves and storms offer more fearful adventures to the seafarers, but they come through them all with great skill, courage and favour of the gods. Since Polydeuces had killed the cruel Amycus the neighbouring peoples greeted him “as a god”. Some encounters led to battles, others led to discoveries of distant kinfolk and the forging of alliances. Escapes are related, and how the lucky ones would also emerge with plundered wealth.

Sea adventures fill the New Testament, with one apostle even being welcomed on two occasions as a god. Some encounters lead to battles in the Old Testament, and persecutions in the New. Exodus narratives on small and large scales often are accompanied by the escapees emerging with extra wealth. On occasion, heroes encounter those they think or really are distant relatives or those to whom they owe debts (e.g. Gideonites, Agag, family of Saul) and with whom they should make peace — even in the New Testament we find the same motif when Paul encounters followers of John the Baptist at Ephesus, and meets Apollo who knows a lot and need only learn a little more to become a fellow-labourer.

Next: Book 3 (chapter 4)

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Neil Godfrey

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