We are looking at the gospel narratives in their literary-narrative context. First, we saw a tale of an empty tomb; then several instances of innocent heroes surviving crucifixion, followed by the entertaining notion of a bodily resurrection from the dead, and we’ll conclude with another favourite of mine, the prophecy-driven plot. The story in the Book of Acts is driven by prophetic announcements. Jesus instructs his followers to wait in Jerusalem for the moment they will be infused with the holy spirit. Paul is likewise told that he is chosen to gentiles and kings and that he will suffer persecution, and lo and behold, that’s just what happens. The gospels similarly contain the pronouncement that Jesus will have to suffer, die and rise again, and that, too, happens in the ensuing story.
That technique of a prophecy-led series of events is very common in ancient Greco-Roman fiction, too. (It is found more widely than that, extending back to epic poetry, beyond the Greek world, too, and of course in Old Testament narratives, but let’s continue with our theme of what we find in ancient Greek novels from the early Christian era.)
An Ephesian Tale of Anthia and Habrocomes, by an otherwise unknown Xenophon, is introduced by its translator Graham Anderson . . .
The main interest of Xenophon’s Ephesian Tale of Anthia and Habrocomes, to give it its full title, is as a specimen of penny dreadful literature in antiquity; it exhibits in vintage form the characteristics of the melodrama and the popular novel as it portrays the tribulations of a pair of lovers harassed by misfortune. The narrative exemplifies the basic pattern of late Greek romance: initial felicity rudely broken by journey and separation; danger to life, limb, and chastity; rescue by divine agency; and eventual reunion through similar means. . . . . Of the work’s date we know even less; suggested termini are inconclusive, and the most likely guess is the second century A.D. (p. 125)
Near the beginning of the story we read an oracle from Apollo that we will see sets out the outline of the rest of the plot:
The temple of Apollo in Colophon is not far away; it is ten miles’ sail from Ephesus. There the messengers from both parties asked the god for a true oracle. They had come with the same question, and the god gave the same oracle in verse to both. It went like this.
Why do you long to learn the end of a malady, and its beginning?
One disease has both in its grasp, and from that the remedy must be accomplished.
But for them I see terrible sufferings and toils that are endless;
Both will flee over the sea pursued by madness;
They will suffer chains at the hands of men who mingle with the waters;
And a tomb shall be the burial chamber for both, and fire the destroyer;
And beside the waters of the river Nile, to Holy Isis
The savior you will afterwards offer rich gifts;
But still after their sufferings a better fate is in store. (1.6)
And just as we read in the gospels how the disciples could not understand a prophecy that sounds clear enough to the reader, so we read the response of those for whom the oracle was meant:
When this oracle was brought to Ephesus, their fathers were at once at a loss and had no idea at all what the danger was, and they could not understand the god’s utterance. They did not know what he meant by their illness, the flight, the chains, the tomb, the river, or the help from the goddess. (1.7)
Similar oracles and divinely sent dreams occur too often in the novels for me to cite every one of them.
Another example, this one from Achilles Tatius’s Leucippe and Clitophon, one that includes a version of a burning bush as a sign of the presence of a deity:
The Byzantines received an oracle that said
Both island and city, people named for a plant,
Isthmus and channel, joined to the mainland,
Hephaistos embraces grey-eyed Athena,
Send there an offering to Herakles.
They were all puzzling over the meaning of the prophecy when Sostratos (who, as I mentioned, was one of the generals in this war) said:
“We should send to Tyre a sacrifice in honor of Herakles. Tyre holds the solution to every one of these riddles. The god spoke of a people named for a plant. Tyre is an island of Phoenicia, and the phoenix is a species of palm. Land and sea are locked in combat around her; the sea claims her on one side, the land on the other — in fact she physically belongs to both. She rests on the sea but has not severed her connection with the land. A narrow neck joins her to the mainland, like the island’s throat. But she has no foundation in the sea, and the water flows freely under her. Below the isthmus lies the channel crossing. It is a novel sight: a sea-city and a mainland-island.
“ ‘Hephaistos embraces Athena’: a riddle about the olive and the fire, which live in close community in Tyre. There is an enclosed holy precinct where olive trees grow with gleaming branches, accompanied by fire that ignites spontaneously and plays abundantly along the boughs. The smoky vapors from the fire husband the plant. This is the friendly affection of fire and tree: Athena welcomes the attentions of Hephaistos.”
Another instance of a prophecy being fulfilled in an unanticipated manner:
Sostratos wept and wailed, invoking Artemis. “Is this why you led me here, O Lady? Is this the kind of prophetic message you send in dreams? And to think I trusted your dreams and expected to find my daughter in your city. A fine present you hand me! All you have helped me find is her murderer!”
Kleinias, however, on hearing of the dream of Artemis, was overjoyed and said: “Courage, Father; Artemis does not lie. Your Leukippe is alive. Have faith in my predictions. Don’t you see how she just saved this man too, snatching him from the torturers as he hung in the ropes?” . . . . Kleinias said to Sostratos, “My prophecies have come true. Father.” . . . .
But many times the prophecies were straight-forward and clear enough. From An Ethiopian Story by Heliodorus,
I entered the temple, and as I knelt in private prayer, the Pythian priestess broke into speech.
From Nile’s corn-rich banks your path has led
As you flee from far-reaching Fate’s spun thread.
Fear not. The hour is near when I shall lead you home
To black-soiled Egypt. For now, friend, welcome!
“When she had delivered this oracle, I prostrated myself on the altar and besought the god’s favor in all things.
From the same novel:
Employing apparently more powerful spells of compulsion this time, she repeated her string of incantations into his ears, and, leaping, sword in hand, from fire to pit, from pit to fire, she succeeded in waking the dead man a second time and, once he was on his feet, began to put the same questions to him as before, forcing him to use speech as well as nods of the head to make his prophecy unambiguous.
So she died, bringing instant and fitting fulfilment to the prophecy that her son had given her.
But to the gods it is possible; they gave us this prophecy, and they will see that is is fulfilled. Their prediction concerning me at any rate has, as you know, already been effected as they willed it.
We read the same motif in a historical novel, the Alexander Romance by one we know of as Psuedo-Callisthenes:
“Yes, lady,” he replied. “I was reminded of an oracle given to me by my own gods that I must be consulted by a queen, and, look, it has come true. So now tell me what you wish.”
Now Alexander was crowned and, wearing his victory crown of wild olive, went up to the temple of Olympian Zeus. And the prophet of Zeus said to him: “Alexander, Olympian Zeus makes this prediction for you: ‘Be of good cheer! As you have defeated Nikolaos, so shall you defeat many in your wars.’
Turn, now, to the stories in the gospels and Acts and one finds oneself in the same surroundings, the same world — empty tombs leading to belief in a divinized corpse, innocent heroes surviving crucifixion, bodily resurrections and prophecy driven narratives.
. . .
One more device that is used to drive the plot in some of the novels is the god-like appearance of the hero and/or heroine. What makes them admired by all who see them is their “divine” beauty. Similarly, it is the “divinity” of Jesus, his powers to perform miracles that wins him followers. Unlike the novels, though, there is no physical description of Jesus. His divine attraction is in another sphere. This contrast with the glorificaion of physical beauty is a key theme of later Christian novels in which extreme piety (often the commitment to chastity) replaces the motif of physical attraction.
. . .
Reardon, Bryan P., ed. 1989. Collected Ancient Greek Novels. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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