Greek Novels Casting Light On New Testament: Part 2 of “Why NT Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels”

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by Neil Godfrey

A week ago I posted thoughts from a chapter by Ronald Hock, Why New Testament Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels. This post is based on an earlier article by Hock (“The Greek Novel”, a chapter in Greco-Roman Literature and the New Testament, edited by David E. Aune) and looks at many more ways novels can offer us “real-life” glimpses into the world of the New Testament.

That last post was a slap-dash effort. This post provides more illustrations of the way these novels can throw light on both the Gospels and letters of Paul; it concludes with a special focus on the Philippian Hymn in which Christ was abased in order to be exalted above all creation. Further, this time I’m less rushed and have had time to quote passages from the novels themselves.

Hock first explains the point of comparing popular Greek romances with New Testament literature:

The number and variety of parallels between the Greek novels and early Christian literature are legion. The following sampling of these parallels only hints therefore at what a thorough investigation of this genre might accomplish . . . .

Ronald Hock

But first a word of justification: The evidence for earliest Christianity is too fragmentary and culturally alien to be fully understood without recourse to a clarifying and complementary set of roughly contemporary evidence. Typically, however, scholars have sought this evidence largely in Jewish sources; seldom has any scholar looked at the evidence of the novels. But whatever the Jewish roots of Christianity, the earliest Christians lived in a traditional culture and specifically that of the Hellenized oikoumene of the early Roman Empire. The novels, products of this oikoumene, often set their action precisely where Christianity first took root and flourished: Barnabas’ Antioch, Paul’s Tarsus, John’s Ephesus, Mark’s Alexandria, Polycarp’s Smyrna.

But the point of comparison is not mere propinquity, for the novels provide an extensive, concrete, and coherent account of the traditional culture of the New Testament world. It is the novels’ very comprehensiveness — their documenting the habits of thought and action that regulated life in the cities, agricultural areas, and outlying wilderness areas — that justifies their use for interpreting the parallel, but briefer, accounts in the New Testament and other early Christian literature. (p. 139, my emphasis and formatting)

Hock, for space reasons, restricts his parallels to the Gospels and letters of Paul. He compares only novels dated to the first and second centuries.

To depart from Hock for a moment and intrude with my own comments: The examples here are only a smattering of what one recognizes when reading the novels for oneself. The novels are also an especially potent cure for anyone who has the notion that peoples in days before Christianity were somehow especially morally depraved. They are a great invitation to meet our ancestors and to see how like us they were, how humans are not only the same the world over, but the same through the ages.

Another little detail I notice that is not in Hock’s discussion here is the author’s choice of names for his characters. They are very often puns of some sort. So the character in Longus’s novel, Daphnis and Chloe, who is named Megacles (meaning or suggesting “great fame”), carries the name that is most appropriate for one who sits at the right hand of the host in the place of honor. I have posted once or twice on the way the author of the Gospel of Mark deploys puns for the names of many of his characters and topographical settings (e.g. Jairus, meaning Awakened, being the father of the girl awoken from a sleep that was clearly a death to onlookers). But let’s return to Hock . . . .


Corroborating details

Counting the seeds at harvest time:

Mark 4:3-8 (Parable of the Sower)

The harvested grain is counted or measured against the amount originally planted.

Longus 3.30.3 (Daphnis and Chloe)

Nape stayed there with Daphnis, driving the oxen round and grinding the ears of corn in the threshing machine . . . . Then he swept off quickly to Lamon and Myrtale . . . . He found them measuring the barley they too had just been winnowing, and feeling depressed because it was almost less than the seed that had been sown. . . .

Leaving the flock to search for the lost sheep:

Matthew 18:12-14 (Parable of the lost sheep)

If a man has a hundred sheep and one goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine to search for the one that is lost?

Longus 1.5.1-2

An ewe who had recently lambed kept going repeatedly to this shrine and often gave Dryas the impression that she was lost. He wanted to punish her and bring her back to her previous good conduct; so he twisted a green shoot into a loop, to make a kind of halter, and went to the rock, hoping to catch her there . . . .

The shepherd/goatherd knowing his animals by name:

John 10:3

He calls his sheep by name

Longus 4.26.4

And so Daphnis wept over each of these things as he parted with them. . . . He also kissed all of them and spoke to the she-goats and called the he-goats by name.

The idle men in the marketplace suborned to cause mischief:

Acts 17:5

But the Jews who believed not, moved with envy, engaged certain wicked fellows of the baser sort, and gathered a crowd and set all the city in an uproar, and assaulted the house of Jason and sought to bring them out to the people.

Xenophon 3.12.6 (An Ephesian Tale)

When night came she killed Araxus, intending to have Habrocomes as her husband . . . . But he could not tolerate the woman’s shameless act and left the house, leaving her behind . . . . When she came to her senses, she went at dawn to the assembly at Pelusium, lamented over her husband and accused their newly brought slave of murdering him, put up a great show of grief, and persuaded the assembly that she was speaking the truth. They at once arrested Habrocomes and sent him in chains to the current prefect of Egypt . . . for punishment for the alleged murder of his master, Araxus.

“Great is Artemis of the Ephesians”:

Acts 19:34

but when they perceived that he was a Jew, all with one voice for about the space of two hours cried out, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!”

Xenophon 1.11.5

I swear to you by the goddess of our fathers, the great Artemis of the Ephesians . . .

Many athletes compete but only one takes the prize:

1 Corinthians 9:24

Know ye not that those who run in a race all run, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain it.

Chariton 1.2.2-3 (Chaereas and Callirhoe)

The suitors were distressed and angry at their failure to win Callirhoe’s hand. So whereas they had so far been rivals, they now fell into accord . . . A young Italian, the son of the tyrant of Rhegium, rose to speak first. “If one of us had married her,” he said, “I should not have been angry; as in athletic competitions, only one contestant can win.”

The route of the sea voyage along the coast of Asia Minor:

Acts 20:15; 21:1

from Samos to Cos to Rhodes

Xenophon 1.11.2-6

And that day they had a favorable wind; they finished this stage and reached Samos, the sacred island of Hera. There they sacrificed and took a meal, and after offering many prayers they put out to sea the next night. Once more the sailing was easy, and they talked a great deal to each other. . . . Meanwhile the ship passed by Cos and Cnidus, and already the great and beautiful island of Rhodes was coming into view; here they all had to disembark, for the sailors said that they had to take on water and rest in preparation for the long voyage ahead.


Clarifying details

A pit into which a sheep might fall:

Matthew 12:11

This seems an odd thing to happen, until one reads in the romance why a sheep would be near a pit in the first place. We learn that pits were dug to protect the flock from wolves, and we even read of a scene where a goat falls in a pit and is subsequently rescued. (Unfortunately for the poor goat in this story it was later handed over to be sacrificed!)

Longus 1.11.1-2 (12.2-5)

A she-wolf carried off many of the sheep from the other flocks in the neighborhood; she was raising young cubs and needed a great deal of food to rear them. The villagers got together at night and dug some pits, six feet wide and twenty-four feet deep. They carried off most of the soil that was dug up and scattered it some distance away; but over the opening of the pits they stretched long pieces of dry wood and sprinkled the rest of the soil over them, to make the ground look the same as before. . . .

Two he-goats got excited and started to fight. In a violent clash one of the goats had a horn broken and ran away snorting and leaping with pain. The victor followed him closely and kept up the chase . . . Daphnis was upset . . . and took a club and his shepherd’s staff and pursued the pursuer. As you might expect . . . they didn’t pay close attention to what was at their feet, and they both fell down a pit, first the goat and then Daphnis. Indeed, what saved Daphnis’s life was his using the goat to break his fall. . . .

Chloe had seen the accident, and now she came running up to the pit . . . . She took off her breast band and gave it to the cowherd to let down. So the two of them stood on the edge and pulled, and he climbed up with his hands as they pulled the band. They also pulled out the poor goat . . . .

Master, you gave me five talents; they have yielded five talents more:

Matthew 25:13-40 (The Parable of the Talents)

The first two slaves double their master’s money.

Longus 4.4.2-3 (cf 3.29.2)

Lamon also encouraged Daphnis to fatten up the goats as much as possible, saying that the master would certainly look at them, since he hadn’t been there for so long. Daphnis was sure he would be complimented on them; he had doubled the number he had taken over, not a single one had been snatched by a wolf, and they were fatter than the sheep . . . .

cf . . . And Chloe can witness how I graze a flock; I took over fifty she-goats, and I’ve made them twice that number. . . .


Details that challenge the standard interpretation

The Parable of the Prodigal Son:

Luke 15:11-32

Many have remarked on the unlikelihood of an older man forsaking his dignity by running to greet his returning son. But the novels demonstrate that this was conventional behaviour in such situations. They also illustrate the same kind of celebrations after the return of the son that we read of in the Parable. One story even has the father delicately soothing the son who remained at home and who might appear slighted over the changed conditions favouring the son who had been lost.

Chariton 8.6.8

Beyond all expectation they saw an incredible sight. Hermacrotes leapt on board, ran to the tent, and threw his arms around his daughter. “Are you alive, my child,” he cried, “or is this an illusion?” . . . . They all wept for joy.

Longus 4.23.1

Daphnis stopped and waited for Astylus as he ran towards him, and kissed him as he came up. While Daphnis was kissing him, the rest of the crowd came streaming up, . . . his father himself, and his mother at his side. They all started throwing their arms around him, kissing him . . . .

Longus 2.30.1

From a high look-out, Daphnis saw the flocks and Chloe and shouted out loud, “O Nymphs and Pan!” He ran down to the plain, threw his arms around Chloe, and fell down in a faint.

Longus 4.36.3  (I include here some citations included by Hock without accompanying quotations because I do not have access to a translation that clarifies the argument.)

Achilles Tatius 1.4.1

When my father had read this letter, he got up and once and hurried down towards the shore.

Achilles Tatius 7.16.3

Longus 4.24.3-4

And you, Astylus, don’t be upset at receiving part of my property instead of the whole; to sensible men nothing is more valuable than a brother. Both of you, love each other; as far as wealth goes, you can compete with kings. For I shall leave you both a great deal of land, a large number of useful servants, gold, silver, and all the other possessions that rich men have. . . .


Elaborating accounts of institutions and conventions

Epistolary conventions:

The conventional letter greeting was a simple “greetings”

Acts 15:23 and James 1:1

And they wrote letters to accompany them in this manner: “The apostles and elders and brethren send greetings unto the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia . . . .

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad: Greetings.


Chariton 8.4.5; Xenophon 2.5.1; Achilles Tatius 1.3.6

She took a writing tablet and wrote the following:

From Callirhoe: greetings to Dionysius, . . .


Manto could hold out no longer . . . and wrote a note to Habrocomes. Its contents went like this.

From his mistress to the fair Habrocomes, greeting.


A messenger arrived on the boat from Byzantium with a letter that read as follows.

Sostratos to his brother Hippias:


The sending of greetings to specific individuals in the closing portion of the letter

Romans 16:3-16

Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my helpers in Christ Jesus,who have for my life laid down their own necks, . . . .

Chariton 8.4.6

. . . . Plangon, my greetings to you . . . .

Assurances that the letter is in the sender’s hand

1 Corinthians 16:21; Philemon 19

The salutation of me, Paul, with mine own hand.

I, Paul, have written this with mine own hand . . .

Chariton 8.4.6

. . . this letter is written in my own hand . . .


Narrative contexts of the letters:

2 Corinthians 2:4

For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote unto you with many tears

Chariton 4.4.6

I never thought to find you married. Change your mind, I beseech you — this letter of mine is drenched with the libation of my tears and kisses!


Ephesians 6:21-22

But that ye also may know my affairs and how I do, Tychicus, a beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord, shall make known to you all things. I have sent him unto you for the same purpose, that ye might know our affairs, and that he might comfort your hearts.

Xenophon 2.12.1; Achilles Tatius 1.3.5; 4.11.1

Chariton 4.5.1

Mithradates gave this letter to Hyginus, a very trusted man who administered all his possessions in Caria; he had revealed his own passion to him as well. . . .


Ephesians 6:21-22

But that ye also may know my affairs and how I do, Tychicus, a beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord, shall make known to you all things. I have sent him unto you for the same purpose, that ye might know our affairs, and that he might comfort your hearts.

Chariton 8.4.9; Achilles Tatius 5.21.1

Callihroe leaned a little towards Statira, blushed, and gave her the letter. “Give this to poor Dionyius,” she said. “I recommend him to your care and the King’s. Comfort him . . .


Detailed accounts of the recipients:

Note three things in the following passage from Chariton’s novel Chaereas and Callirhoe:

  • The recipient, Dionysius, recognizes the hand-writing of the sender. While this is a common enough conventional response in the novels, in this case there is a particular poignancy to the recognition. Earlier, Dionysius had reason to believe he had come across a forged letter. Here he finds the handwriting reassuring that this time the letter is genuine.
    • Compare the suspicion of forgery in Paul’s letters being met with a declaration that the letter is written in the same hand as the claimed sender: 2 Thess. 2:2; 3:17.
  • Dionysius clutches the letter tightly and holds it to his breast as if the writer of the letter were herself present with him in the letter — in spirit.
  • Dionysius pauses over the way he has been addressed in the letter’s salutation as a “benefactor”. He sees here a pointed declaration of his relationship with the sender. Scholars have wondered if the various ways in which Paul introduces himself in his letters to different audiences is an indication of a different relationship with each: to the Corinthians he is an apostle, but to the Philippians he is a slave. This episode in the novel would suggest that they are right.

Chariton 8.5.12-14 (cf. Xenophon 2.10.1; Achilles Tatius 5.18.2; Chariton 8.4.6; Achilles Tatius 5.20.5)

Statira unobtrusively gave [Dionysius] the letter.

Dionysius went back to his quarters and shut himself in. When he recognized Callirhoe’s handwriting (cf 1 Cor. 16:21; Gal.6:11; Phlm19), he first kissed the letter, then opened it and clasped it to his breast as if it were Callirhoe present in the flesh. He held it there for a long time, unable to read it for crying. After copious tears he began to read it, with difficulty; and the first thing he did was kiss the name “Callirhoe.” When he came to the phrase “to Dionysius, my benefactor,” he groaned: “Ah, no longer ‘my husband!’ No, it is you who are my benefactor — what have I done for you to deserve that name?” But he was pleased with the plea that the letter contained, and read the same passage time and time again, for it seemed to suggest that she had left him unwillingly; Love is such an irresponsible thing and can easily persuade a lover that he is loved in return! . . . . .



The novels present readers with the full range of slaves: from the trusted rulers of households and estates through to those who are lowly laborers, cruelly tortured, sexually abused and to those who are rewarded with their freedom.

The Philippian Hymn

Reversal of status #1

Philippians 2:6-11 is considered by many to be a pre-Pauline hymn, and as such has a significance for Christian beliefs before the time of Paul. It speaks of a high-born heavenly person who descends to the lowest possible status on earth (a slave who suffers the most ignoble of deaths, crucifixion), only to be exalted again to become the highest-ranked person imaginable.

Ronald Hock points to the way the popular Greek romances present readers with comparable social enactments of this climactic theological message:

One convention becomes apparent in Chariton’s novel. Callirhoe, after her sale to Leonas, Dionysius’ steward, is on this aristocrat’s rural property. She meets her master for the first time when he travels out to this property in order to inspect his herds and crops. They see one another in a temple of Aphrodite on this property. Her beauty astounds him, and he says: ” ‘Be gracious, Aphrodite, and may your appearing to me be a good omen!’ Leonas, however, spoke up just as Dionysius was falling to his knees, and he said: ‘This woman, master, is the newly purchased slave. Don’t be confused. And, as for you, woman, come forward to your master.’ Callirhoe, accordingly, at the name ‘master’ bowed low” (Chariton, 2.3.5-6).

The parallel between this passage and the hymn is obvious. Callirhoe’s bending down at the mention of the word ‘master’ is clearly the social convention that grounds the bending of knees of those in heaven, on earth, and under the earth at the mention of the name “Jesus,” their master (Phil 2:10-11).

So the slave Callirhoe bows at the proclamation of her “master”.

However, soon afterwards her master, Dionysius, learns of her free-birth and, out of love for her and in hopes of marrying her, commands that she be given every respect and honour. Even the servants in the temple of Aphrodite (Venus) on Dionysius’s property acknowledge and proclaim her to be “the mistress of us all“.

Callirhoe’s experience of becoming a slave but later being made mistress of all in Dionysius’ household illustrates the remarkable change of status a slave might undergo, but it also provides a more fundamental parallel with the hymn, as Jesus, too, after becoming a slave (Phil 2:7) was later made master of all (vv. 9-10).

Reversal of status #2

Xenophon narrates a similar reversal of status. While a slave in the household of Apsyrtos, Habrocomes soon arouses the desire of the daughter Manto. When Apsyrtos is away, she sends a seductive letter to Habrocomes, but he rejects her offer. When her father returns, she feigns rape out of spite for Habrocomes and has her father punish him cruelly and put him in a guarded room. Eventually, Manto is married off, and Apsyrtos finds the letter she had written. Then he “realized that he had punished Habrocomes unjustly. Consequently, he immediately ordered a slave to release and bring him to him. Habrocomes, having already suffered terrible and pitiable punishment, fell at Apsyrtos’ knees. But Apsyrtos raised him up and said: ‘Cheer up, young man. I condemned you unjustly, having been persuaded by my daughter’s words. But now I will make you a free man instead of a slave, and I give to you my household to rule, and I will procure for you a daughter of one of the citizens to be your wife. As for you, do not bear a grudge for what has happened, for I did not knowingly treat you unjustly;’ ” (Xenophon, 2.10.1-2).

To be sure, Habrocomes is not master but as Apsyrtos’ steward he nonetheless rules “all in the household” (cf. 2.10.3-4).

Here, then, is the precise social convention that the author of the Philippian hymn used to make credible his central Christological claim: just as Callihroe or a Habrocomes could have their status reversed so quickly and completely, so could the author of the hymn assert on the religious plane that Jesus, after becoming a slave and dying the horrible death of crucifixion, could have been raised up by God and given the status of master of all in creation (Phil 2:7-11).

That is, the convention of bowing down at the hearing of the name of the master, and that of a slave being made a master or at least given a position of authority, “provide the social reality that renders the religious claims about Jesus meaningful and true — meaningful in the sense of giving them a coherent context and true in the sense of their being true to experience.

The novels thus cast in relief even the central confession of the faith as found in the earliest Christian literature.

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Greek Novels Casting Light On New Testament: Part 2 of “Why NT Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels””

  1. This view of the then-current literature certainly gives context to the biblical stories. It seems to me that there is so much gentile influence and so little Jewish influence that the first Christians must have been gentile “god-fearers,” not Jews.

    1. I’m not sure of that. The top of this article said early Christians lived in Greek Roman dominated civilization and that ideas in the New Testament resonate with ideas found in Greek novels of the period. OK but that says nothing about the origin of those ideas. For instance the idea that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, that the abused slave becomes master, is prefigured in Isaiah’s Suffereing Servant found in the Old Testament. Jews wrote the New Testament and for all we know other Jews may have authored novels of period. The article doesn’t say anything about their authors origins.

      Reply by Pierrot,

        1. This is the conventional wisdom. But it is only a guess based on generalizations and stereotyping. This traditional guess also presumes a clear demarcation between Greeks and Jews, again another black and white stereotyping. Real Greeks and Jews were not always so uniformly or starkly identifiable from one another any more than they always are today.

          1. Well some say Greek others say Syrian, Richard Heard, M.A., M.B.E., M.C., was a Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge and University lecturer in Divinity at Cambridge (1950) writes the following:

            Luke is a Syrian of Antioch, a doctor by profession, who was a disciple of apostles, and later followed Paul until his martyrdom. He served the Lord without distraction, unmarried, childless, and fell asleep at the age of 84 in Boeotia, full of the Holy Spirit.

            He, . . . impelled by the Holy Spirit, wrote this whole gospel in the regions of Achaea . . . and afterwards the same Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles.


            1. And other scholars and well-informed non-scholars say differently and provide their very plausible reasons. What you say does nothing to counter my point: no-one knows who wrote the Gospels, or even if one of them was written by someone named Luke. We only have arguments based on generalizations and stereotypes and people either pick the one they like best or more wisely declare we do not know.

              Scholars are not being honest with their lay readers if and when they dogmatically declare their own view as if it were “the true one”.

  2. We simply don’t know who the authors of the gospels were. All scholars can do is assess probabilities based on generalizations. Such a method can give us nothing but a stereotypical possibility.

    The point is that many of the ideas and images in the New Testament were not unique to the NT or Christianity. They were found throughout the wider society, both Jewish and gentile.

    Besides, even the OT books echo Greek ideas.

    Scholars were moving towards this view of Christian origins (that it was more gentile than Jewish) up until the Second World War. After that time there was an strong reaction against anything that appeared to slight or diminish the place of Jews in society, and to diminish the importance of Judaism to the rise of Christianity was even sometimes attacked as an expression of anti-semitism. So far did the pendulum swing that scholars did not even bother to read contemporary literature that was not directly related to Judaism.

    It is time to study the evidence as completely as possible before attempting to make any decisions about persons who did not leave us clear records of their identities.

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