Lawrence Wills: “The Life of Aesop and the Hero Cult Paradigm in the Gospel Tradition”

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by Neil Godfrey

61klpcnpoql-_sy344_bo1204203200_Several times I’ve referred to comparisons between the ancient tale of Aesop with the gospel accounts of Jesus, referring readers to Lawrence Wills’ book, The quest of the historical gospel : Mark, John, and the origins of the gospel genre, and Whitney Shiner’s chapter “Creating Plot in Episodic Narratives: The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark” in Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative. (See Evidence for Pre-Gospel Oral Traditions and Related Questions and What Mark’s Episodes Do For Readers (and the real historiographical question to ask) where I discuss Wills and Shiner each; other posts make passing references.)

Well for all you readers who really did want to read those books or who were waiting in vain for me to get around posting on them in depth, this is your lucky day. Matthew Ferguson of the Κέλσος blog has given up waiting for both of us and posted the nitty gritty details on these authors and their studies of Aesop vis à vis the gospels:

Lawrence Wills: “The Life of Aesop and the Hero Cult Paradigm in the Gospel Tradition”

Thanks, Matthew!


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13 thoughts on “Lawrence Wills: “The Life of Aesop and the Hero Cult Paradigm in the Gospel Tradition””

  1. A very important post. On an earlier heroic servant, like Jesus. Telling wisdom tales using farming, animals and homespun characters.

    Anyone also notice the similarity between Aesop, and another very deformed servant: the suffering servant of Isaiah?

    Aesop tales were known in many cultures. Possibly in Judaism.

  2. See also his “Ancient historical writing compared to the Gospels…” on-line.

    Regarding the theological development of Jesus as the Son of God, note the important mytheme in both Hebrew and Indo-European traditions of the Divine Hero in Cosmic Combat with the Evil Reptile.

    1. The story of Bel or Baal and the Dragon or snake, was chapter 14 in the Greek book of Daniel.

      But see especially Balaam’s talking donkey. Still in Catholic bibles?

      1. Baal, Semitic for possessor or Lord, was in part specifically son of the god El. Though Canaanite or Babylonian, El was a Semitic word. And likely related to the Jewish Elohim, I’d suggest.

        If so, then Aesop-like animal and other tales of lords, a son of God, partly Greek and partly Babylonian and partly, Semitic or Jewish, were in circulation around Israel for some time, for hundreds of years if not thousands, before the legend if Jesus finally appears. Modifying the storied El or Elohim.

        Such tales are being taken out of Bibles today, because they make God and Jesus look less Jewish. But that censorship of history loses too much valuable info about non-Jewish influences creating Jesus.

      2. The story of the talking donkey, from what some Jews call the 4th Book of Moses or “Wilderness”, remains intact in both Protestant and Catholic Bibles at Numbers 22.28-30, but not everyone today takes it quite as “literally true” as 2 Peter 2.16.

        1. @ Bee:

          Just my personal opinion, but non-Jewish influences creating Jesus is more logical than the idea he exclusively arose from Judaism…unless you work out from Hebrew or Samaritan his name to mean “God’s Man” or “God’s fire” and relate him to the angel of the burning bush.

          @ David:

          The donkey had more sense and spiritual insight than Balaam, if I get the story right…

          Which made it brilliant satire.

          1. Maybe both. After Griffin’s useful discussion on the status of the Jews as a separate people, I think I’m coming to see most ANE or ancient Near East cultures as warring, but also about 1/3 inextricably interrelated. Especially the many Semitic cultures.

            Baal is seen as a more Canaanite semitism I think. But it makes sense in related Hebrew, you are saying in effect.

            Don’t forget that the Bible attacks Baal though. As Jewish tribalism seeks to separate it’s own tribes from other Semitic ones, like the Canaanites.

            Nice comment on the donkey. Probably it’s an example of the attempt at differentiation of God from Baal that I just mentioned.

            Interesting that a donkey seems to win, though. Suggesting equivocation on the final message. C.f.. Jesus and his donkey?

            1. Re hero-cult paradigm(s):

              Various Egyptian & Babylonian rituals aimed at keeping the entire cosmos going; e.g. the divine order of the sun god Ra was threatened by the rebellious giant water-snake Apep, effectively opposed only by Set. Geraldine Finch suggests that this drama was the ultimate origin of medieval dragon legends (“Egyptian Mythology” [2004] pp.107-8).

              In a rare tale at Daniel 14.23f in RC Bibles, this exile from Judah killed a dragon; an earthly hero, whereas the (arch)angel Michael became the chief heavenly warrior (e.g. Revelation 12.7f). Marduk, who had defeated Tiamat, and became “Bel”, eventually acquired a horned dragon as a tamed pet.

              Anyone interested in explaining religion largely as a human response to “nature”, and especially its astronomical phenomena, can discover a wealth of information about a divine hero defeating the wicked reptile (serpent, lizard, crocodile &c) in several cultures – from numerous reference-works on religion, mythology & symbolism, with many specific monographs and articles, or on-line sources like Wikipedia (e.g. ANE & I-E beliefs, ‘Chaos’, ‘Draco’, ‘Dragonslayers’, ‘Khidr’ &c).

              The major studies in my own library are: Bernard Batto, “Slaying the Dragon” (1992), Norman Cohn, “Cosmos, Chaos & the World to Come” (1993), Hilda Davidson, “Gods & Myths of Northern Europe” (1974), Erastothenes &c “Constellation Myths” (tr 2015), Neil Forsyth, “The Old Enemy: Satan & the Combat Myth” (1989), Samuel Hooke, “Middle Eastern Mythology” (1971), Daniel Ogden, “Dragons, Serpents, & Slayers in the Classical & Early Christian Worlds” (2013), Elaine Pagels, “Revelations” (2013), Martin West, “Indo-European Poetry & Myth” (2012), Calvert Watkins, “How to Kill a Dragon” (2001), and Shan Winn, “Heaven, Heroes & Happiness” (1995).

              Vridar previously posted in a McGrath dispute a reference to Lord Raglan, “The Hero” [1979 ed. introduced by “liberal Nietzschean” Walter Kaufmann].

              Diverse writers with relevant observations include: Frederick Borsch, Joseph Campbell, Richard Cavendish, Nicholas Campion, Thomas Carlyle, Christopher Fee, Arthur George, Adrian Gilbert, Herman Gunkel (tr. 2006), Robert Graves, Jan Irvin, Alexander Jacob, Donald Mackenzie (1915), Albert McIlhenny, Dean Miller, Georgio De Santillana, Julius Stahl, Michael Witzel, &c &c.

              Is there something “primordial” about human fear of the deadly cold-blooded yet cunning “alien” species of lizards, snakes or crocodiles from the depths or darkness? What about China?

              What is the link with the perennial desire for some superhero or messiah to triumph over natural and human evils, restore a golden age of happiness/Eden, or to achieve a City of God/New Jerusalem/Utopia?

              How much does antisemitism owe to e.g. a development of Matthew 3.7 & 23.33 in John 8.44 (Light v Darkness)?

              Does the transition from worship of maternal earth goddess to that of the masculine sky-god confirm the concept of faith as a superstructure dependent economics, social hierarchies and ethnic conquest?

              How durable are metaphors like Hercules & the Hydra today in e.g. vanquishing Isis?

              Siegfried, Beowulf, St George &c as modern pseudo-political cult- exemplars? Tolkien (and Sauron) adopted by e.g. Italian neo-fascist youth?

              What of the Last Days battle in Christian, Islamic and Jewish tradition?

              The myth persists in the struggle of modern heroes against reptilian enemies from outer space, in prose, comics, films and video-games.

              Peter Nicholls in “The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction” (1999, p.817) explains the appeal of monster movies to fear of the unknown breaking into our fragile enclosure of reason, possibly as revenge of the Freudian id over the ego or the irruption of Jungian archetypes into our conscious life, even the primitive hind-brain asserting its strength over the smug sophistication of civilization – thus this most childish genre asks “some of the most unanswerable questions of our world”.

              1. PPS. I have only just seen details of Adela Yarbo Collins, “The Combat Myth in the Book of Revelation” (2001) which should be added to the list. Here endeth the troll.

  3. I’ve been seeing Peter for some time as standing for, being a symbol of, this more rustic, fisherman kind of tradition. Which would have used animal stories and so forth. And which would have appreciated Aesop. Maybe he’s an editor’s symbol for the rustic/Aesop traditions that fed into the creation of the Jesus legend.

    1. Just possibly (also) an astrological connection with the age of Pisces re the two escapees from the great evil reptile Typhon disguised as fish. Two fisherman, brothers Simon & Andrew, and two fish to feed the 5000 with a final collection in 12 (Zodiacal?) baskets? The NT represents Simon as an impulsive Galilean and his nickname “rock” may be seen as one among several examples of irony. There is a good deal of astral metaphor (not idolatry) in the NT.

      1. PS Re serpents & varanidae. Scott Atran notes a probable evolutionary imperative to watch out for and avoid predators, such as poisonous snakes, ferocious beasts and deceptive humans, which breeds cognitions of demons, devils and vampires, &c. (“In Gods We Trust” [2002] p.77). Some non/pre-Christian societies, of course, have worshiped snakes and still do so, though this may entail an attempt defensively to placate them or some phallic aspect. Possibly a few eastern monitors were known to medieval western peoples. The idea of “worms” hiding in water or under rocks is not an uncommon feature of British and other European folklore.

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