Review, part 4 (Gospel & Pagan Gods in Flesh) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

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by Neil Godfrey

We now come to the most interesting chapters of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. We are no longer distracted by protests against those who would deny the historicity of Jesus or, at least not directly, protests against scholars who posit that the evangelists directly imitated Homer. The title of chapter 3 is “Incarnation” and here Litwa enlightens readers to the first-century context of how readers might have understood the very idea of a god appearing in the world in flesh as a human being. To be fair, though, Litwa intends to demonstrate more than this ancient world-view. Litwa also attempts to demonstrate how the evangelists presented the idea of god’s incarnation as plausible history.

Litwa begins with the Gospel of John and right from the start pulls me up with notions that may be old-hat to others but that were noteworthy to me: in the Gospel of John Jesus is never shown to be eating but he does tell others to eat him (or eat his flesh) and similar ideas. So what does “incarnation” mean to the fourth evangelist? Interesting question.

Sent into the world

Moving on, Litwa informs/reminds readers that just as biblical Wisdom was driven away when she tried to dwell among men so the Greek goddess of Justice, likewise, was driven from the unjust world of humanity. But the more detailed comparisons come with Hermes (the Roman Mercury) who was also known as the Logos, the interpreter of the high god Zeus, and messenger from Zeus to mortals. Litwa points to several messenger and creative roles of Hermes but focusses on Hermes assumption of a human body in his errands. We saw one of these roles when recently discussing M. David Litwa’s criticisms of Dennis MacDonald’s thesis. The god Hermes swept down from Mount Olympus to meet and escort the Trojan Priam on his dangerous quest to enter the Greek camp and request the return of the body of his slain son Hector. There Hermes took on the form of a young warrior capable of winning the trust of Priam and safely escorting him to the Greek camp.

Augustus Caesar: Mercury in the flesh

But Litwa informs us that Hermes — as the Roman Mercury — was subsequently portrayed by a Roman poet (Horace) as appearing on earth in the body of Augustus Caesar.

Then there is the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras. Litwa carries us through the biographers who lead readers to understand that the great thinker was also a “god who had come to earth”:

Iamblichus reported a Pythagorean creedal question (akousma) with its correct answer: ‘“Who are you Pythagoras?’ For they confess that he is the Hyperborean Apollo.(Litwa, 69)

Pythagoras: Apollo in the flesh

But from here Litwa becomes more interesting still. Pythagoras revealed his true divine identity (i.e. the god Apollo in the flesh) to one selected follower, Abaris. Pythagoras took Abaris aside to show him, privately, that he had a thigh of pure gold — an unequivocal proof that he was truly a god. Later, at an Olympic Games, Pythagoras was reported by many eyewitnesses as having accidentally revealed the same golden thigh, thus proving to multitudes his divine nature.

Litwa reasonably draws a comparison with Jesus’ private revelation to Peter that he is indeed the Messiah. And this is, of course, reinforced by Jesus demonstrating the fact by the visible transformation of his body in the Transfiguration (as Pythagoras showed his golden thigh) to his select few followers. Litwa’s point, however, is more than mere revelation. Litwa argues that it is the quotidian, the prosaic, the mundane commonplace setting that goes some way to transforming the myth into “plausible history”.

The revelation and transfiguration take place at a well-known urban centre, Caesarea Philippi, and on a nearby mountain. Peter fumbles for words and says something quite silly so readers are clear that he is taken completely by surprise as any mere mortal would be. Litwa compares this circumstantial detail with the ordinariness of details surrounding Pythagoras’s revelation to Abaris. The Gospel of Luke even goes one step further by depicting the disciples as sleeping and needing to be awoken when Jesus’ body is transformed. Sleep, waking up, saying silly things, a well-known city and mountain — all of this context sets the revelation into a “plausible” or “historically sounding” context, according to Litwa.

I am not so sure, however. To return to the scene of Hermes being sent by Zeus to escort Priam, we read in Homer the following. Hermes descends as commanded by Zeus but the details of his meeting with Priam are also very prosaic, as the highlighted words surely indicate:

With this wand in his hand the mighty [Hermes] made his flight and soon reached Troyland and the Hellespont. There he proceeded on foot, looking like a young prince at that most charming age when the beard first starts to grow.

Meanwhile the [Priam and his herald] had driven past the great barrow of Ilus and stopped their mules and horses for a drink at the river. Everything as dark by now, and it was not till Hermes was quite close to them that the herald looked up and saw him. He at once turned round to Priam and said: ‘Look, your majesty; we must beware. I see a man, and I am afraid we may be butchered. Let us make our escape in the chariot, or if not that, fall at his knees and implore his mercy.’ –

The old man [Priam] was dumbfounded and filled with terror; the hairs stood up on his supple limbs; he was rooted to the spot and could not say a word. But the [Hermes] did not wait to be accosted. He went straight up to Priam, took him by the hand . . . . [Iliad 24]

Yet no critic of Homer in later centuries (including the time the gospels were written) thought of Homer as writing more than poetry. Even if the Trojan War were thought to be history and Homer its historian, the universal opinion was that Homer wrote the story in terms of poetic myth. Mundane details may have contextualized the mythical encounters of humans and gods, but they did not demonstrate the “historical truth” of such encounters.

But questioning Litwa’s thesis is a secondary focus of mine. What fascinates me most is the broader cultural context of the ideas or motifs we find in the gospels in the first or second centuries CE. Upcoming — Litwa’s discussions of genealogies and divine conceptions.

To order a copy of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here or visit www.footprint.com.au

Please use discount voucher code BCLUB19 at the checkout to apply the discount.

Litwa, M. David. 2019. How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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Neil Godfrey

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19 thoughts on “Review, part 4 (Gospel & Pagan Gods in Flesh) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa”

  1. OK, so if I understand this, Litwa is saying that some known humans were portrayed in literature as gods, and some gods were portrayed in literature as entering/inhabiting humans. Therefore, when a contemporary reader/listener read/heard one of the canonical gospels–which portray Jesus with godlike features (miracle-working, ascension, etc.)–the person would be willing to give credence to a claim that the Jesus of the gospel had been a human being on earth.
    I think this is a valid inference, and did contribute to the belief among (some) early Christians that the gospel Jesus had been a human being of some sort (let’s not go there). However, this inference is, to me, appropriate for an article or chapter, not an entire book.
    It is unfortunately necessary to state that the fact that some readers/listeners at some time did infer, from their knowledge of a gospel, that the gospel Jesus had been a human being, does not imply that the author of the gospel had had that intention. The gospel writers must have known that at some point, some readers/hearers would infer that Jesus had been a human being. The ignorant always took stories literally. But the gospel writers also must have supposed that the educated would continue to understand the gospel Jesus as a heavenly being (in some way). This bifurcation between ignorant (illiterate) masses and wise (literate, abstract-thinking) educated people had been going on since Plato.

    1. Hope I am not missing your point, but one factor in all of this business is that we see some sort of progression or shift in perspective among the gospels themselves. Does not the Gospel of Luke — I think of this as the last of the canonical gospels to be written but it was certainly later than Mark and Matthew) tend to portray Jesus more like a man, if a divine man, but more prophet than actual divinity or god.

      1. Yes, I agree that is a factor. In GMark, the concept of “Christ” is “heavenly high priest”/anointed one. Luke uses the same term, “Christ,” but makes Jesus a divine man who is the earthly descendant of David. Two different kinds of Christ, under the same name. Luke’s obviously fit better into Gentile culture.

        I think we shouldn’t project the reconciliation by subsequent Christians of four gospels into “the story of Jesus of Nazareth” onto the believers of the late second century. They didn’t read all four gospels. The congregations in the late 2nd century that already used GMatthew or GJohn had no reason to also disseminate GLuke. So the concept of a human Jesus progressed by fits and starts.

        One has to wonder if the Diatesseron (whenever it was written) was a factor also.

  2. Even if the Trojan War were thought to be history and Homer its historian, the universal opinion was that Homer wrote the story in terms of poetic myth.

    Even if Celsus or Porphyry thought that the Gospels were inventions, their common opinion was that Jesus had been on earth, and they believed that only in virtue of Gospel-based hearsay.

  3. #1 Everyone was certain that the Trojan War was real.
    #2 Essentially everyone believed that the Homeric tales were basically true. Yes, there were disagreements about details, but all of the characters in the epics were believed to be real and the basic events were thought real. Some disputed various prophecies or miraculous aspects and interventions of the gods, but the Homeric stories were treated as history generally.
    #3 To this end, multiple major elements of identify were based on the Homeric tales, like the Roman belief that the Roman people were descendants of Aeneas, which was certainly a real an central belief.

    And of course Pythagoras was believed to be real, and still mostly is, thought even this is actually questionable.

    But to me, this is the problem with trying to be too precise about definitions of ancient history. Many things that were doubted by certain educated scholars, such as Aristotle or Cicero, were still widely believed by 95% of the population, including emperors, senators, and other scholars, especially Stoics. And as Giuseppe, even if certain people may have doubted some aspects of stories, they typically believed the “general narrative.” I can’t think of a case where an ancient scholar declared an entire narrative 100% fiction (that was otherwise believed to be true by others) unless there was an accusation of forgery with some evidence.

  4. The intellectual environment of Alexandria was comprised of an eclectic mix of commonplace philosophical and religious assumptions—drawn from Pythagorean, Aristotelian, Stoic, and especially Platonic thought—which variously informed the educated elite.

    For those who participated in this intellectual environment the imperfections of the material world and the human body were viewed as problematic in their attempts to account for the existence of a:
    • perfect,
    • rational,
    • and non-corporeal God.

    Aelius Aristides (117–181 CE) in his work Sacred Tales (Hieroi Logoi), recorded his divine communion (via dreams) with the god Asclepius. Aristides in a separate work, derisively criticizes a group of people by comparing them to “impious men of Palestine” that “do not believe in the higher powers”.

    Whether Aristides meant Jews or Christians is unknown. However given the earliest accounts that Asclepius was the son of Apollo and a mortal woman, then Aristides would likely have no prima facie objection to an incarnate Jesus.

    1. Iamblichus (1919). “The Life of Pythagoras, translated by Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie”.

      [Abaris the Scythian] Believing that Pythagoras resembled to no man, but was none other than the God himself, Apollo, both from the venerable associations he saw around him, and from those the priest already knew, he paid him homage by giving him a sacred dart. . . .
      Pythagoras, however, accepted the dart, without expressing any amazement at the novelty of the thing, nor asking why the dart was presented to him, as if he really was a god. Then he took Abaris aside, and showed him his golden thigh, as an indication that he was not wholly mistaken (in his estimate of his real nature).

      Huffman, Carl (2018). “Pythagoras”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

      Aristotle emphasized his [sc. Pythagoras] superhuman nature in the following ways: there was a story that Pythagoras had a golden thigh . . . (all citations are from Aristotle, Fr. 191, unless otherwise noted).

      Iamblichus’ report (VP 140) that a priest from the land of the Hyperboreans, Abaris, visited Pythagoras and presented him with his arrow, a token of power, may well also go back to Aristotle (Burkert 1972a, 143).
      Abaris was a shaman from Mongolia (part of what the Greeks called Hyperborea), who recognized Pythagoras as an incarnation of Apollo.

  5. “Yet no critic of Homer in later centuries (including the time the gospels were written) thought of Homer as writing more than poetry.”
    [“Even if the Trojan War were thought to be history and Homer its historian, the universal opinion was that Homer wrote the story in terms of poetic myth. Mundane details may have contextualized the mythical encounters of humans and gods, but they did not demonstrate the ‘historical truth’ of such encounters.”]
    …That may be true of any “critic of Homer in later centuries,” but was it true of the quasi literate types the likes of which for whom the gospels were intended? What I mean is something analogous to this: children having Grimm’s tales told them undoubtedly believed the ‘historical truth’ of the tales, in the sense that they were at least ABOUT events that really happened. They were in all probability passed on orally for generations BECAUSE they were believed ‘true’ or the expression of great truths built into occurrences which–though they may not have happened exactly as described–nevertheless are true stories that merit retelling just because of their truth content. The later collectors, critics, etc “know better” but what of the initial audiences?
    Too we have to remember the extent to which people believed in the existence of “moral facts.” In our scientific age we recognize (if we are honest) that there are no “moral facts” inhering in reality–only moral interpretations of facts. (Though plenty are superstitious enough to believe in karma or similar kinds moralistic ‘fate’).
    I tend to think that gospel hearers weren’t unlike the early hearers of Homer who in a very childlike way DID believe the degree of poetic myth did indeed mark the expression of the degree of actual truth content. Even today in church people listen with almost hypnotic, rapt attention to the gospel stories when they are being proclaimed, in a kind of daze, not unlike their medieval forbears. For they express in narrative fashion the depth of truth in an inexplicable evemtuality, much as the tale of “Schroedinger’s Cat” expresses accurately the impossible truth of an ineluctable mystery!

    1. Do you really think so? I suspect people deep inside their heads are a real mix — some questioning, some wondering, some believing but then forgetting and believing something incompatible later…..

    1. Messengers of the gods had many common attributes. It does not follow that the different messengers of the different gods were one and the same person. In the case of John the Baptist, if we accept the evidence that he was a figure added to the Jesus story some time into the period of emerging “proto-orthodoxy” then the identification with Hermes is even less likely — despite their similarity of some functions.

      1. Really the point of Jean Magne is that John was Hermes euhemerized (by the Gnostics). The original baptism was made before John and not by John, in conformity to the Hermetic imperative: “Baptize yourself”, implicit: by yourself.

        So there is no embarrassment by the Catholics/Judaizers about a Jesus baptized BY John. It was better, from their POV, that Jesus was baptized BY John, rather than Jesus was baptized BEFORE John. The risk, for them, was that the latter case would have made more explicit the reference to the Self-Baptism required by Hermes to his disciples.

        1. It was the same difference between the coronation of Charlemagne and the self-coronation of Napoleon: what was, among them, more embarrassing for the pope?

      2. John was not added but essential in the beginning of Christianity as the Judaization of the Hermetic preacher (keryx) of baptism. It cannot be demonstrated that the passages of CH1 and CH4, as used for the derivation of the later Cjhristan baptism, was assigned already then to Hermes Trismegistus, as the received texts are renaissance discoveries from probably later antiquity; but the logical steps of the transition from the topic of baptism in the crater to the baptism in the Christian churches can be traced in the new testament and adjacent literature.

        The stated goal of the baptism in the CH, which each canditate has to perform on oneself, is the acquisition of what is called noûs, the faculty of thought, reasoning, insight, and comprehension. This hellenic word has no obvious counterpart in the Hebrew language, and it appears quite rarely in the septuagintic texts as translation of ruah or similar, which is breath, wind, or similar things. Ruah is usually translated as pneuma in the septuagint; and it means one of at least two things, either (as a supernatural being) the Holy Spirit or (as an imaginary substance) the charismatic spirit filling the prophets of old. The New Testament conflates these meanings occasionally.

        It is still necessary to explain the usage of the word “metanoia” in both the CH and the NT, but this goes far beyond the scope of a single comment.

  6. Based off what I’ve heard from some scholars about the meaning of thigh in some biblical passages. I have to ask. When Pythagoras is said to have showed his golden thigh. Was that understood to be a euphemism for his penis?

    1. I looked up something to answer your query and that led me to looking up something else which led me to more looking up of other sources and now I’m preparing a whole post by way of response.

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