2010-10-10

Jesus and Heracles

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by Neil Godfrey

Heracles carrying the "Pillars of Hercule...
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An interesting tidbit appears in a University of Notre Dame thesis by Eric C. Stewart (Gathered around Jesus: An Alternative Spatial Practice in the Gospel of Mark, pp. 261-2) referring to a study that argues Jesus’ voyage to the Gadarenes — where he exorcises the man possessed by Legion — is best read against the Greco-Roman traditions of sailing through the Straits of Gibraltar that were considered the gateways to land of the dead. (I have reformatted the paragraph for easier reading and added hyperlinks to the biblical references.)

Roy Kotansky argues that the story of the Gerasene demoniac is best read against the Greco-Roman traditions of sailing through the Straits of Gibraltar at the edge of the world.837

He first notes that the “other side” in Mark 4:35 has as its antecedent the sea in Mark 3:7.838 This sea is not identified in 3:7 as the Sea of Galilee. Kotansky argues that this sea should be read as the Mediterranean rather than the Sea of Galilee.839 The trip, then, becomes a voyage to the “Other Side,” that is, to the edges of the oikoumene. “Accordingly, all the sea-crossings of both miracle catenae, at least in the mythic imagination, are to be construed as true sea-voyages; their destinations, when recorded, will not tally well with known geographies of the circum-Galilean region.”840


Kotansky notes that the context of Jesus’ landing fits better within the context of a westward journey on the Mediterranean. Sailing past the edges of the earth to the west in Greek mythology, one would arrive at the land of the dead, that is, the house of Hades.841 This context, the realm of the dead, is the one into which Jesus lands in Mark 5:2. Kotansky’s argument relies heavily on the textual variants in Mark 5:1. He supposes that the textual problem indicates that the text was not originally set in a circum-Galilean locale, but rather at Gadeira, the symbolic end of the earth to the west.842

While Kotansky’s argument as a whole contains certain problems,843 the idea that Mark’s text (or its pre- Markan source) alludes to the traditions of seafarers arriving in strange and distant lands seems likely.844 There are many common elements between the stories of sea travel discussed in chapter 4 and this Markan unit.845 The disciples and Jesus are threatened with shipwreck and death (4:37-38) and land on a distant shore in which the “natives” behave in uncivilized fashion—living among the tombs and in the mountains (5:2-5). This wild figure, ironically, is the only one to show Jesus hospitality, treating him with the reverence due to him (5:6—where he “does obeisance” to Jesus). The “civilized” people of the region, upon seeing evidence of the exorcism, ask Jesus to leave their “borders” ( οριων   5:17).

837 Kotansky, “Jesus and Heracles in Cádiz (τα Γαδειρα): Death, Myth, and Monsters at the ‘Straits of Gibraltar’ (Mark 4:35-5:43),” in Ancient and Modern Perspectives on the Bible and Culture: Essays in Honor of Hans Dieter Betz (ed. A. Y. Collins; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998), 160-229.

838 Kotansky, Jesus and Heracles,” 165. 839 Kotansky, “Jesus and Heracles,” 168-70. 840 Kotansky, “Jesus and Heracles,” 171.

841 See chapter 2, section 1 and chapter 4, section 2.3. Also Kotansky, “Jesus and Heracles,” 173-6. Kotansky notes many elements of the sea-crossing and Jesus’ arrival that hint at themes of death and dying in the narrative.

842 Kotansky, “Jesus and Heracles,” 185-92.

843 For several criticisms see David E. Aune, “Jesus and the Romans in Galilee: Jews and Gentiles in the Decapolis,” in Ancient and Modern Perspectives on the Bible and Culture: Essays in Honor of Hans Dieter Betz, 230-51.

844 Kotansky, “Jesus and Heracles,” 183: “The particular phrase, ‘they came into the land of x,’ carries with it a ring of a far and distant place. We have already met up with it in the epic narratives describing the lands of the Laestrygonians and the Phaeacians, and, in the apocryphal acts, the land of the cannibal Myrmidons. The notion of an entrance into a faraway country signifies the wayfarers have disembarked onto the mysterious shores of fable and not into the familiar territory of history. The expression calls to mind distant and unfamiliar places not belonging to the known geographies of the hero’s frame of reference—for Odysseus, his island home of Ithaca; for Jesus, his Galilean homeland.”

845 See chapter 4, section 4.1.

Stewart then discusses Aune’s criticism of Kotansky’s thesis, but does not dispute the possibility that Kotansky’s identifications could be correct since ancient readers would not bring the same scientifically accurate view of geography that modern readers bring to the text.

I came across this after reading a review of a book based on this thesis by Christopher Markou on the Sheffield Biblical Studies blog. I am a bit dizzied (dismayed?) by the way such concepts as “critical spatial theory” can be waded through to arrive at a conclusion that says people are identified or defined by how close they are to Jesus, but I won’t go there in this post. I was disappointed that the thesis did not discuss Notley’s explanation for one of the most discussed geographical oddities in Mark, but I did make allowances here when I realized Notley’s article appeared in 2009 while the thesis was defended in 2005.

I was intrigued enough to locate the original thesis, and that was when I stumbled across this interesting detail. I admit it sounds nonsensical on first reading, but then I have to concede I do bring in a modern concept of the geographical realities of the area. I see that Kotansky’s chapter costs close to $300 second hand on Amazon. It may be a while before I get around to accessing a copy and reading it for myself.

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Neil Godfrey

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