Prophecy Driven Narratives in Ancient Fiction

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

and again

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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15 thoughts on “Prophecy Driven Narratives in Ancient Fiction”

  1. Is it known what was the sociology and economics of these ‘penny-dreadfuls’ of the ancient Mediterranean world?

    In the case of Christian and other cultic writings I can easily imagine devotees from one congregation copying another’s manuscript. Even without a printing press, it would be a reasonably efficient process. Dozens of people would use the same laboriously copied manuscript over and over again–perhaps hundreds over different generations. Something similar might have occurred polemics being used by many people in political clubs, or perhaps training manuals in the military.

    Perhaps one congregation might lend a manuscript to another for a year or two.

    I know too little about that world to know the extent to which there might have been schools, but it would have been relatively efficient to have hand-copied manuscripts of what would already be classics, or orthodox religious teachings to be used repeatedly for groups of students.

    But ‘penny dreadfuls’? It’s not obvious to me how the reproduction of the manuscripts would have worked without printing presses or scanners and printers. Would a rich household send out a literate slave to copy a manuscript and bring it back? Was there a lending library for such a thing? Were they passed around after people got bored with them? Were they read aloud to many people? Is it known?

    1. I think Graham Anderson means for the term “penny dreadful” to be related to the melodrama and crudity of plot and characterization than to the economics and reproduction of the physical copies of the stories. Compare another expression that has become generic, the “Mills and Boon” type of romance, or the stock “western paperback”.

      They were certainly read aloud to groups of guests. More than that I cannot say very much without doing a refresher on the customs of the day.

    2. I read somewhere — I think it was Life in Ancient Rome by F.R. Cowell — that upper class Romans would run low-tech “book factories,” where an employee would read a book out loud, and various slaves or workmen would take dictation and produce copies of the book. I can imagine that this process would cause a lot of errors in the manuscripts, but if I you had trained workmen, it would be a reasonably efficient way of producing cheap books without a printing press.

  2. This is all such rich stuff for the germination of many Gospels .! Not to mention this entry!

    I am already reading between the lines with many of the suggested things here..

    One example…briefly…the beginning of Mark has OT texts of a prophtic nature that drive Mark’s beginnings… a “god” or “man” of God sent as a messenger “appears” out of nowhere…ie. this son is born in the desert during an exile in the wilderness. and so there is an apocalyptic “immediacy” marked by Mark’s language and syntax…. euthus, idou, etc.

    That “prophecy driven” thing has been a staple of scholarship for a long time and it seems only now it is all starting to make sense…. in trying to put these multiple genres together. They seem to be all driven by the present and future conflicts and anxieties about the future of Israel… I personally see both incredible continuity of death and resurrection narratives and also discontinuity with either Jewish or non-Jewish sources…

    In any case there is so much stuff being presented here by the blogs that is sometimes as we all know very overwhelming..

  3. I think this has already been noted by others here that there is a great book by Robert Miller on Helping Jesus Fulfill Prophecy..

    He gets into the Mechanics of Prophecy , the nuts of bolts and it is so thoughtful and helpful in ways you can only imagine…

    and he helps his readers sort through these numerous ancient texts which we are all so interested in…. and sometimes lose sleep over 🙂 🙂 and helps us see things never before… Yikes…!!! We are all getting revelation through critical and thoughful reflection and even judgement on particular aspects of these highly controversial contexts…

    Good luck you all… out there… I sometimes recall the movie “The Warriors” trying to make transitions to the other side of the town …

    I am convinced there were “Apoca-holics” even “Prophetic Kooks” in every age but these prophetically driven agendas were quite “successful” to many,, that is, accomplished (you can here Luke’s own prophetically driven narratives… re all this…

    But cognitive dissonance is already setting in way back in Matthew and Luke -Acts so the prophetic stuff has to be downplayed…how convenient!!!

    Oh,,, what a tangled web we weave only to deceive… and so we have editors with respect to all the genres of the NT being edited by those holding the keys to the kingdom… ie. The Catholic orientation….

    No prophecy is self-driven from an individual but from from a holy spirit that resides in the Catholic papacy headed up by the first one to see the risen Jesus… (2 Pet. 1: 20-21)…

    And we say today as readers,, where does Peter himself say that and where do we get that so-called ” fact” ,, not from Peter’s mouth himself but some hearsay in Luke 24 and I Cor. 15. 2 Peter is considered a forgery and many scholars think I Peter is as well based on the NT itself which tells us Peter was illiterate.. Acts 4.. I don’t much trust much in Acts anymore after teaching it for years and beyond that…I just don’t trust him like I used to… at one time…

    And don’t forget Luke is the NT of prophet-hood and that cool connection to Paul…who sees himself written into the OT as well.. Paul reads himself out of the OT…. see gala. 1… he is channeling the prophets or spirits of the OT , especially Jeremiah… Nothing new. Jesus did it himself with Isa. 6. etc.

    There is more than an ounce of good stuff in the ideas being presented in these initiatory entries on this blog known as Vridar…

    So check out this link!!!


  4. So I would ask a question here for all.. What is behind this prophetic and apocalyptic driven-ness reflected in the gospels if it is mainly fiction? Think now and don’t be hasty…

    This is no insignificant question… I have no secret answer and have no access to the existential or psychological states of the scribes or wrote these things…or the characters speaking about such….


  5. So here is a little journey about prophetic driveness…and how it manifests..

    So then, the stabbing of Jesus by the centurion to ensure the “death” of Jesus is not necessarily a historical event but an event “perceived” as a salvation history event “proved” by prophetically driven texts.? Yes…No? And the prophecy would be used as an infallible proof by Luke as he says himself. quick trick or tool..don’t dismiss what a writer outright tells you what he is up to!! He is somewhat confessing his agenda or motives….Goes to Motive..dear Judge..

    And also why doesn’t anyone else recognize Jesus’ wounds in his body, except John ‘s Gospel. ??? Wouldn’t Jesus have stripped to show everyone???…

    And note every reader of that episode in John that Thomas did not actually touch him… in any narrative context there… He does not touch Jesus!!! Just like Jesus doesn’t drink the water the Samaritan woman offers to him.. and then Mary…don’t touch me woman!!!!

    btw this is interesting in John…contact with flesh in John is suspect … touch is both invited and not fulfilled…with any narrative… ,,,what function does the exposure of his broken body say for a glorious resurrection motif propounded by Paul, not evidenced by wounds but by “light” and others. suggest such.. What purposes or apologetic agendas are being served by these texts… ??? You mean to tell me Jesus has open wounds that one can sink his hands into?

    So why is there no glorified body in the tomb or outside the tomb in terms of appearances????

    No wonder people would freak out at the so-called tombs being opened everywhere in town on those three days where God’s “son” (I think Israel is in view :)) who was suppose to be put t death and then resurrect and did , but not in history per se , except what kind of a history, for Luke it would be a Heilsgeschite..at many points..

    Jesus is a character who has been handed onto Luke as well by many the (polloi)… Ah Ha…!!!

    Luke never had any direct contact with Jesus. What does he know, except by trying to imitate ancient historians to propagate the stories that followed his own image of Jesus , a character in a text…handed on to him as well and now he is handing this onto some original receiver named Theophilus…

    My former professor Dr. Thomas L. Thompson used to suggest and I think also Philip Davies as well that is not a good thing to get married to or really start having an imaginary relationship with any particular character in a text at the metaphysical level or otherwise,,

    it can get you into a lot of trouble… It did for Jesus…and the history of the Nt and Christianity both ancient and modern. Imagine the prophetic drivenness.. Jesus represents the fulness of all that has gone before in Israel’s history and pagan history and he is the “One” at least in Paul’s mind…

    Yes… Prophetic Drivenness permeates all of this literature.

    It is just when you really begin to read these things that you begin to see so many “out of place” and “weird” things that suppose to make sense in some way… but we get fooled because we don’t recognize the literary devices to entice readers with loads of “realisms” bursts of “realness” inherent in the narrative..and apparent fulfillments…

    I don’ t think much of what we find in these texts is worthy of belief to set our sails toward at more levels than just that, . I try to discover what a writer is doing… what he is up to… how he or she is manipulating his audience….. I am a big fan of J:L. Austin’s stuff. And I find it particularly helpful regarding reading prophetic literature.

    and prophecies were held in high esteem “in those days…” a favorite of Luke.. with prophetic overtones…

    It is quite doubtful this is historical writing…. too much myth and motif from the the Semitic- Persian-Hellenistic world. and then some……and then set in a magical-symbolic universe…of this kind of magical thinking and claims…etc.

    Why are we these days so “needy” to believe in these ancient texts?? so apocalyptically driven…??/

    Why? to set us free and finally deliver us from this perceived world of decay, decadence, and destruction?? Many suggest so, but what a way to start one’s day every day…. that simply sucks…

    Hanging around too many prophetically driven “Apoca-holics” can be damaging to your health… even if you try to help those hypnotized by apocalyptic sermons…. even worse than Jesus’ own prophetically driven life right to “the end”… Salvation for Jesus had nothing to do with believing this or that but enduring his apocalyptic revelation received from his father about the destiny of his life. Jesus stuck to the apocalyptic images he gleaned from his own pneumatic or charismatic exegesis of the the prophets, etc. psalms.. etc.

    Jesus believes his birth goes way back to the OT…. what?? Jesus plays with all these prophetic texts due to his own needs.. but might I say,…the needs of the writer wthin his own sitz im leben .. The vast majority of this material is highly polemical and theological as many prophetic visions which become political in “the end”

    So I don’t think one’s quick, divine prophetic providence oriented perceptions from some self-proclaimed prophet can can solve it all ..it is delusion…. most of the time.. because we can all get caught up in apocalypticism and so claim revelations of every sort , even those descriibed in the book of revelations and “fulfill” them in our own ways…

    The gospel writers reflect this kind of mindset in many ways and we hope to learn more as we stay connected here…

    Lots of cutsie tootsie answers and agendas come forward… But But

    I am not compelled, even theological collocations which might even be arranged by some ingenius theologian, trying to show how it all fits….sorry… the fit and the shoe are often too tight or too big to fit and so feel this is “the right fit”..

    Believing in these prophetic texts can get one into a whole heap of trouble… even bring on Jacob’s trouble in one’s mind.. 🙂

    I am so sad about the level of cognitive dissonance , even among evangelical scholars on issues of prophecy… preterists and the whole lot.. much to learn from them all ,, but in the end you really discover they want to simply restate or reinterpret the NT to still keep their own view of “inerrancy” of the Bible intact…

    They are trying to discover if the whole thing is spiritual anyway…… physical death is reinterpreted as spiritual death and vice versa… etc. , What a mess…? What would compel Paul to use Hosea in I cor. 15 and then change the MT/ LXX to something else given his charismatic or pneumatic readings of texts.

    And they have the keys which open up these prophetically driving texts… It is a highly gnostic way of interpreting texts… methods and ideas which if they were awake would dawn on them that those same texts are directed again themselves.!!!

    It is all about internal conflicts among the “faiths”.. Nothing much historical except what this person believed or the general historical context but mostly infighting among religious groups. And why so many MSS,, not necessarily because this is all history but because of the need to propagate their faith which they believed had historical foundations.

    Oh my… I did not want to go this far but the the phenomena of prophetic drivenness got me all excited about its ways and impacts, influences. etc. upon not only texts but upon our existential lives when we feel gripped by some sort of prophetic drivenness which we can’t explain.

  6. I am sorry my dear friends for the grammatical and syntactical slips in my last response. or entry to such a rich field for exploration as often presented by this site…

    please fill in my those lacunae for me upon reading some of my lines… I don’t want to misrepresent something unawares….through certain errors in my blogging .


  7. So what I recall being taught in secondary school was apparently incorrect. I was taught that novels did not exist until around the 1500s or a bit later. Please excuse me if I muse and digress too much into literary genre in whimsical fashion.

    In English, I heard or read, they started with, say, Richardson, Defoe, and especially Fielding. I don’t remember what we were told what was different from what had come before, but perhaps it was that the reader was given a appreciable depiction of the inner life in prose of one or more characters and how the characters reacted to what occurred in their environment.

    I do not know ancient Roman and Greek literature well enough to know whether the ‘novels’ of the era went into great detail into how the world looked to the protagonists. I doubt (but do not know) whether these novels were told as first person narratives.

    However some of the apocalyptic Jewish and Christian literature, where one goes into heaven and feels awe, might verge into being like novels under the criterion of story+innerlife, albeit I suppose without intricate plot. For the few who consider the works attributed to Paul to be purely fictional, I suppose the author or authors of ‘Paul’ could be considered precursor(s) to Laurence Sterne, what with all the dissertations in multiple directions about his described experiences.

  8. The ancient novels are often in first person. Fortunately, I still have my copies of Lucian and Petronius, and they both contain first person narratives. I no longer have my Apuleius (sp?), but I remember it that way also. We shouldn’t get too hung up on the term “novel.” These works are ancient “novels” in the sense that they are fictional tales in prose with primarily an entertainment purpose, and are longer than short tales. That should be good enough. Their point of view and/or similarity to modern novels seems beside the point here.

    1. And being generally shorter than modern novels they are sometimes referred to as “novellas”. Worse, since the ones I have been discussing have love as their central theme they are even called “erotic novels/novellas” — but only because Eros was the god of love! Nothing to see here, move along. The Richardsons and Defoes and Fieldings are the precursors of the modern novel. These ancient novels I have been addressing did not genetically lead to anything that we continue to produce today.

  9. Yep, this is a key issue. Thanks for this example. Virtually all Hellenistic literature is driven by prophecy. Look at The Aeneid, considered one of the main classics of Roman literature. It’s entire centered around prophecy. What I find interesting, and what I am delving into in my new book, is how prophecy has been treated by both classicist and biblical scholars.

    It seems to have become largely dismissed by both. Classicists have tended to just treat it as fictive and literary, and biblical scholars tend to fall into two camps: either those who believe in it and think it is important or those who don’t and tend to just dismiss it or ignore its role.

    Robert Miller’s book is interesting, but he falls into the second camp. Ironically, he goes to great lengths to show how prophecy is all bunk, but then takes the position that we should therefore view prophecy as unimportant and not a central part of Christianity. So in other words, Robert Miller’s goal is to “move beyond” prophecy, and this is the view of many biblical scholars and how its been treated for the past 100 years.

    But the issue is that prophecy IS important to Christianity, it is central to the religion. You can’t simply dismiss it and move on. Many scholars like Miller have taken the view that prophecy was kind of an embarrassment to be moved past, but you can’t move past it. Prophecy IS the magic trick!

    It’s like showing someone how a magic trick is done and and then telling them to continue believing in magic.

    Many biblical scholars seem to be of the view that all this business about prophecy was a distraction and that we can move past the distraction and get to the “real truth” of the religion, but there is no “real truth”, the whole thing was predicted on these ideas about prophecy. There is no “real core” to get to.

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