Ancient Heroes Surviving Crucifixions

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by Neil Godfrey

Another element that the gospels and ancient fiction have in common is the trope of the innocent hero who is ordered to be crucified by an innocent/ignorant/unjust ruler but who nonetheless survives.

The silent victim

The first instance comes from the same novel that contained the empty tomb adventure, Chaereas and Callirhoe. The chief victim is silent.

They were brought out chained together at foot and neck, each carrying his cross — the men executing the sentence added this grim public spectacle to the inevitable punishment as an example to frighten the other prisoners. Now Chaereas said nothing when he was led off with the others, but Polycharmus, as he carried his cross, said: “Callirhoe, it is because of you that we are suffering like this! You are the cause of all our troubles!” (4.2)

The king changes his mind and orders Chaereas to be taken down from the cross.

This story was greeted with tears and groans, and Mithridates sent everybody off to reach Chaereas before he died. They found the rest nailed up on their crosses; Chaereas was just ascending his. So they shouted to them from far off. “Spare him!” cried some; others, “Come down!” or “Don’t hurt him!” or “Let him go!” So the executioner checked his gesture, and Chaereas climbed down from his cross — with sorrow in his heart, for he was glad to be leaving a life of misery and ill-starred love. As he was being brought, Mithridates met him and embraced him. “My brother, my friend!” he said. “Your silence almost misled me into committing a crime! Your self-control was quite out of place!” Straightaway he told his servants to take them to the baths and see to their physical well-being, and when they had bathed, to give them luxurious Greek clothes to wear. He himself invited men of rank to a banquet and offered sacrifice for Chaereas’s rescue. They drank deep, and there was generous hospitality and cheerful rejoicing. (4.3)

Prayer for salvation from the cross

In another novella, An Ephesian Tale by Xenophon of Ephesus, another injustice is done by the ruler and an innocent man is ordered crucified. The hero prays from the cross and the god miraculously rescues him — twice, actually.

Meanwhile Habrocomes came before the prefect of Egypt. The Pelusians had made him a report of what had happened, mentioning Araxus’s death and stating that Habrocomes, a household slave, had been the perpetrator of so foul a crime. When the prefect heard the particulars, he made no further effort to find out the facts but gave orders to have Habrocomes taken away and crucified. Habrocomes himself was dumbfounded at his miseries and consoled himself at his impending death with the thought that Anthia, so it seemed, was dead as well. The prefect’s agents brought him to the banks of the Nile, where there was a sheer drop overlooking the torrent. They set up the cross and attached him to it, tying his hands and feet tight with ropes; that is the way the Egyptians crucify. They then went away and left him hanging there, thinking that their victim was securely in place. But Habrocomes looked straight at the sun, then at the Nile channel, and prayed: “Kindest of the gods, ruler of Egypt, revealer of land and sea to all men: if I, Habrocomes, have done anything wrong, may I perish miserably and incur an even greater penalty if there is one; but if I have been betrayed by a wicked woman, I pray that the waters of the Nile should never be polluted by the body of a man unjustly killed; nor should you look on such a sight, a man who has done no wrong being murdered on your territory.” The god took pity on his prayer. A sudden gust of wind arose and struck the cross, sweeping away the subsoil on the cliff where it had been fixed. Habro- comes fell into the torrent and was swept away; the water did him no harm; his fetters did not get in his way; nor did the river creatures do him any harm as he passed, but the current guided him along. He was arrested him and took him before the prefect as a fugitive from justice. He was still angrier than before, took Habrocomes for an out-and-out villain, and gave firm orders to build a pyre, put Habrocomes on it, and bum him. And so everything was made ready, the pyre was set up at the delta, Habrocomes was put on it, and the fire had been lit underneath. But just as the flames were about to engulf him, he again prayed the few words he could to be saved from the perils that threatened. Then the Nile rose in spate, and the surge of water struck the pyre and put out the flames. To those who witnessed it the event seemed like a miracle: they took Habrocomes and brought him before the prefect, told him what had happened, and explained how the Nile had come to his rescue. He was amazed when he heard what had happened and ordered Habrocomes to be kept in custody, but to be well looked after till they could find out who he was and why the gods were looking after him like this. (4.2)

Mocking procession

We only have an ancient summary of A Babylonian Story (by Iamblichus). It reads like a set of notes for a story to be fleshed out at a later time. It begins with a summary of the plot:

The characters in the story are the attractive Sinonis and Rhodanes, who are joined by the mutual ties of love and marriage, and the Babylonian king Garmus. After the death of his wife, he falls in love with Sinonis and is eager to marry her. Sinonis refuses and is bound in gold chains. The king’s eunuchs Damas and Sacas are given the task of putting Rhodanes onto a cross for this reason. But through Sinonis’s efforts he is taken down, and they each avoid their fate, he of crucifixion, she of marriage.

The mocking procession to the crucifixion:

When Soraechus was being taken to be crucified, Rhodanes was being led to and hoisted onto the cross that had been designated for him earlier by a garlanded and dancing Garmus, who was drunk and dancing round the cross with the flute players and reveling with abandon.

The king orders the hero to be taken down from the coss and appoints him general of his army:

While this is happening, Sacas informs Garmus by letter that Sinonis is marrying the youthful king of Syria. Rhodanes rejoices up high on the cross, but Garmus makes to kill himself. He checks himself, however, and brings down Rhodanes from the cross against his will (for he prefers to die); he appoints him general and sends him to command his army . . . .

Reardon, Bryan P., ed. 1989. Collected Ancient Greek Novels. Berkeley: University of California Press.


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12 thoughts on “Ancient Heroes Surviving Crucifixions”

  1. There is a strain in Bob Price’s analysis that doesn’t necessarily have to do with mythicism, but rather another type of rethinking of the Gospels. He tries to argue the Swoon (Scheintod – Seeming Death) Theory, among other things, may have been hinted at in the earlier stages of the Gospels, even though it was subsequently redacted out.

    First, Price points out that the desperate prayer in Gethsemane may have originally been envisioned as being granted (compare Heb. 5:7). The willingness of Jesus to die, like Isaac’s, is what answers future Israel’s sins, not the actual death. Moreover, Pilate wondering that Jesus had died so quickly perhaps was meant to suggest Jesus was not dead, but merely drugged by the odorous liquid soaked cloth that was raised to Jesus’ mouth before he passed out. Perhaps Jesus in Mark originally demonstrated his divine Sonship, not by being resurrected, but by escaping death. Maybe the mocking of Jesus by the Sanhedrenists (Mark 15:32) to come down from the cross is pure irony because Jesus would in fact do that. Mark 15: 43-46 seems to echo the account of Josepf bar-Mattias successfully (in part) petitioning Titus to take his friends down from the cross. Matthew adding the detail that Jesus was buried in a rich man’s tomb may have been originally put there as motivation for graverobbers to break into the tomb, like in Chariton’s “Chaereas and Callirhoe,” and Xenophon’s “Ephesian Tale.” The common theme would be robbers breaking into the tomb to find the revived Jesus licking his wounds. Lukes account of the corporeal appearance of the supposedly dead Jesus (providing evidence to his disciples that it was really him) seems to echo a similar scene when Apollonius asks his friends to touch him to prove that it was really him and not just a ghost. The point in the Apollonius story, as perhaps the original intent of the Luke story, was not that Apollonius had returned from the dead, but rather was never really dead in the first place. John probably had a problem with all of this and so added the details that Jesus was nailed to the cross and stabbed through the ribs, emphasizing that he had in fact died.

    This is all laid out, including more alternative theories, in Price’s chapter 9 “Explaining the resurrection without Recourse To Miracles” of John Loftu’s “The End of Christianity.”

  2. Just a question of observation, not interpretation immediately based on theological, which historians are suppose to eschew,, but often don’t.

    I have read the texts of Jesus being crucified.. and then take down which both believer and unbeliever in the story share… did he really die by being crucified or by the last “strike” from God’s spear-man… the centurion! It was all planned… etc. One has to buy super-naturalism in continuity with the the OT ..according to the scriptures language and rule! So what really killed Jesus…the crucifixion or the spearing… nothing is said about crucifixion

    It is highly polemic literature of a faith fighting against another faith. This has always been the problem…faith-ists are seriously culpable for vast atrociities in the world based on diverse theologies…. and yet atheists get blamed …and strikingly atheists keep being called “theists , and their particular “god” is the right one!).

    Folks, please read the NT and see again and again that the NT is not about “Jews addressing atheists.. the culture was monotheistic and polytheistic, and much more divided into various groups… No atheists really around… right! The main kingdom of god gospel is addressed to Jews… and then Matthew tries to make this explicitly so in Mt. 10.. a catechetical book about Jesus’ Torah… and then in the end caves in or gets superceded by the final redactors of Matthew who give some room for a mission to Gentiles,,, which Peter, btw seems to fail in at the beginning of Acts and then needs new teaching again since he is still blind and deaf to what Jesus told him earlier… What a mess!!!!

    So Luke records these weird stories of Peter.. to build him up as the Chepha of the new temple priests….in contrast to Caiphas….. !!! Luke is clear… many priests became obedient to the new way interpretation of the early origins of the faith…

    Christians today simply like using scripted language to propagate particular religious views that they have bought into during their own desperate need to get out of a cacophany of views that the Internet has let loose.

    Plus another question I raise… If it is true that Paul believed the resurrection to be the actual main teaching by Jesus, et. al. then why doesn’t Paul say in I Cor. that he doesn’t care that much or even at all about any resurrection , but about Crucifixion.. as the core!!! That is Paul’s focus,, and I am sure that this problem , quite clear…. in many of his texts…. Paul is really into suffering in his epistles , even more than living…. he likes the pain, the passion, of the Jesus…. more than a resurrection which he perceived as an escape from his terrible existential angst as a “sinner” in the world (Rom. 6-7)

    The Crucifixion is mainly a concept and powerful image to Paul…. and he believes that he himself has already turned into that same resurrected Christ…animated by that spirit..

    I am still convinced in many respects that it is Paul’s diverse experiences of God’s breath in different ways , lies behind Paul’s enthusiasm…in goddedness…. and not the” resurrection” mofit itself that got him all excited and passionate….

    So Paul ties spirit and suffering closer together than perhaps suffering and resurrection…. yet there is overlap as I admit the collocations set and organized in other ways…

    So when I read I Cor. I find “Paul”

    (not him actually if an interpolation,orthodox or in-orthodox , whether true or not, whatever .. something was passed on him , either from a human or a heavenly being)

    The text says…. “Christ died for our sins in accord with the scriptures> Why didn’t he say “Christ was crucified for our sins according to the scriptures.”

    It is very vague and surprising to me as I read this. I don’t fear if I get it wrong. There is always a better or more transcedent observation and perhaps interpretation which can shed light on a puzzle or problem , needing to be solved, but only depending on a real needs…

    And finally why should a crucified person be so elevated in the ancient Christian world and today.. If I happen to end up dying in some hospital bed in some propagandist Catholic hospital some day,,,I don’t want to be looking on the wall across from me of some guy , half-naked being crucified! If it was just a cross I could handle that but a guy being being beat to shit and then this and then that and the crucified and then thrown into the garbage dump outside the city.. well , not too comforting before my death…

    Oh boy!!! Crucifixion is a reality that was turned into quite a myth… Why? and How… and what is the psychological output produced by cultic members of a crucified god or lord or whatever will follow their twisting and telling of the crucified Jesus…

    Here is the afterlife of a historical reality…crucifixion or better yet (Cruci-fiction with good words to R. M. Price. )

    I thought that long ago we had abhored any form of human sacrifice…but I guess not…

    the NT perpetuates the need for blood to be shed….. because it has precedent in the story of Jesus… more so the god-talks that NT writers have put into the mouth of Jesus…

    I have gone far beyond the implications of the motif here..

  3. Not I suppose a ‘hero’ but a goddess, so a bit off-topic, but Inanna was said by Sumerians to have killed in the underworld for misdeeds and hung on a hook for 3 days and 3 nights but eventually revived through the efforts of a loyal follower. I think I learned about Inanna’s approximate crucifiction and resurrection on this site. The theme had been around for quite a while, convenient for recycling or maybe easy enough to think up anew.

    (The theme in a negative form is still a bit of an entertainment crowd-pleaser. There are the horror movie monsters of the past century or so who survive being killed–though not to my knowledge execution by crucifixion–to go on to do ghastly things.)

    1. Also veering off-topic:

      I spend time on many websites of diverse outlooks. One that I often go to happens to have an item right now that is almost relevant. This carefully put together and erudite web site, which sometimes reads a tiny bit if it came from a bureau desk in the old east zone of Germany (it’s actually from Hamburg), interesting for its comments as well as the main portion, gives a perspective different those of many quasi-official news sites and even many alternative news sites, useful for one’s reality testing one way or another:


      In any case, the death and resurrection theme remains popular. No crucifixion in this particular item though.

  4. My main criticism of the crucifixion-resurrection scheme in the NT is that the whole thing is incoherent. Jesus supposedly dies and is resurrected but Jesus is god so how could he actually die? Surely this is just a stage play for the rubes watching. And how is his death an atonement which is conditional? And why was anyone “blamed” for his death when he was guaranteed a resurrection and the death was a necessary component to enact the atonement? How was Jesus allowed to walk around Jerusalem after his death and not get snapped up by the Romans and executed for good?

    The whole story stinks as it seems to be cobbled together from various known fragments to please an audience wanting a back story for Paul non-physical Jesus.

  5. The Chaereas and Callirhoe empty tomb story, if it’s later than 100 AD, is further evidence in favor of the Jesus resurrection story, as a historical fact. Because if it’s later, then the only way to explain its similarities to the Gospel story is that it was inspired by that earlier writing; and also without this Chaereas and Callirhoe story there’s no evidence that empty tombs and dead bodies coming to life was any part of the literary culture in the 1st century AD. Most scholars are putting this Greek story too late, 2nd century, for it to have been an influence on the Gospel writers.

    1. If . . . “the only way to explain . . .” — have a look at this post: https://vridar.org/2020/04/18/logical-fallacies-of-historians-the-false-dilemma-dichotomy/ — your comment, I fear, is another example of the “false dilemma”.

      Further, the post does not suggest that the gospels were influenced by Chariton’s novel. I don’t know of anyone who suggests that possibility. But to jump from that to the reverse, to suggest that the gospels influenced that novel, is entirely unwarranted.

      And to go even further and suggest that if the Chariton novel is influenced by the gospel resurrection story then we have evidence that the gospel resurrection story is historical fact is surely a logically invalid leap. It is like saying that the story of Heracles’ ascent to heaven was not influenced by any earlier myth, but did influence later myths, so it is evidence that Heracles’ ascent to heaven is historical fact.

    2. I don’t know what most scholars say.

      I do know what some scholars say.

      The latest date for Chariton (established by manuscript) is around 200 CE, but the earliest is a matter of conjecture and argument. Reardon comments

      “written in the archaizing Greek fashionable from the late first century A.D. onward . . . and Chariton has been placed as early as the first century B.C. My own guess at his date is about the middle of the first century A.D.”  (p. 17)
      (Collected Ancient Greek Novels ed. by B. P. Reardon, 1989)

      Cueva argues that Chariton modelled his novel on Plutarch’s versions of the myth of Ariadne. If this is the case, then the novel would have appeared rather late to be a source for Mark. (That is, assuming that Mark was written around 70 CE.) Cueva does suggest that it is possible that Chariton used the same source as Plutarch, an obscure mythographer, Paion of Amathus. If this is so, it allows the possibility that the novel could be earlier.

      Cueva, Edmund P., 1996, “Plutarch’s Ariadne in Chariton’s Chaereas and Callirhoe” American Journal of Philology, Volume 117, Number 3 (Whole Number 467), Fall , pp. 473-484 (Article)

      Whitmarsh, however, is not at all convinced by Cueva’s argument, and criticises it sharply here.


      Furthermore, Persius, in his Satires, makes a reference to a work titled Callirhoe. Since Persius died in AD 62, this Callirhoe must have been written before the Gospels. We do not know whether it is Chariton’s novel or not.

      Given the uncertainty, it seems at least possible that the novel was written early enough to be a source, or that empty tomb stories were known before the Gospels were written.

      And of course, the Gospels could have been written later than the standard dates. (I am inclined to believe that they were.)

      1. I don’t see any reason to think there was a direct influence either way between the novel and the gospel. That was not the point I was making in the post.

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