Chapter six of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History : Jesus and Mediterranean Myths is an engaging discussion comparing dreams and prophecies in the gospel stories surrounding the birth of Jesus with similar happenings relating to the births of pagan heroes. Of course, Litwa is not suggesting that the gospel accounts borrowed directly from the pagan myths. Rather, his thesis is that such stories were acceptable among ancient audiences as compatible with historical narratives.
Part of Historical Narrative
Litwa sketches the bare outlines of these comparable pagan dreams and prophecies but the interest his discussion inspires me to quote more extensively from the ancient sources themselves. Notice in the first passage Cicero’s strong linking of what we would call a fanciful tale with “history” and “historians”.
“But why am I dwelling on illustrations from Greek sources when—though I can’t explain it —those from our own history please me more? Now here is a dream which is mentioned by all our historians, by the Fabii and the Gellii and, most recently, by Coelius:
During the Latin War when the Great Votive Games were being celebrated for the first time the city was suddenly called to arms and the games were interrupted. Later it was determined to repeat them, but before they began, and while the people were taking their seats, a slave bearing a yoke was led about the circus and beaten with rods. After that a Roman rustic had a dream in which someone appeared to him and said that he disapproved of the leader [viz, the slave just beaten] of the games and ordered this statement to be reported to the Senate. But the rustic dared not do as he was bid. The order was repeated by the spectre with a warning not to put his power to the test. Not even then did the rustic dare obey. After that his son died and the same vision was repeated the third time. Thereupon he became ill and told his friends of his dream. On their advice he was carried to the Senate-house on a litter and, having related his dream to the Senate, his health was restored and he walked home unaided. And so, the tradition is, the Senate gave credence to the dream and had the games repeated.
And the Roman historian Livy gives us more details of the same, in his History of Rome, 2.36
It so happened that at Rome preparations were making to repeat the Great Games. The reason of the repetition was as follows:
at an early hour of the day appointed for the games, before the show had begun, a certain householder had driven his slave, bearing a yoke, through the midst of the circus, scourging the culprit as he went. The games had then been begun, as though this circumstance had in no way affected their sanctity. Not long after, Titus Latinius, a plebeian, had a dream. He dreamt that Jupiter said that the leading dancer at the games had not been to his liking ; that unless there were a sumptuous repetition of the festival the City would be in danger; that Latinius was to go and announce this to the consuls. Though the man’s conscience was by no means at ease, nevertheless the awe he felt at the majesty of the magistrates was too great ; he was afraid of becoming a laughing-stock. Heavy was the price he paid for his hesitation, for a few days later he lost his son. Lest this sudden calamity should leave any uncertainty as to its cause in the mind of the wretched man, the same phantom appeared again before him in his dreams, and asked him, as he thought, whether he had been sufficiently repaid for spurning the gods ; for a greater recompense was at hand unless he went quickly and informed the consuls. This brought the matter nearer home. Yet he still delayed and put off going, till a violent attack of illness suddenly laid him low. Then at last the anger of the gods taught him wisdom. And so, worn out with his sufferings, past and present, he called a council of his kinsmen and explained to them what he had seen and heard, how Jupiter had so often confronted him in his sleep, and how the threats and anger of the god had been instantly fulfilled in his own misfortunes. Then, with the unhesitating approval of all who were present, he was carried on a litter to the consuls in the Forum ; and thence, by their command, to the Curia, where he had no sooner told the same story to the Fathers, greatly to the wonder of them all, when — lo, another miracle ! For it is related that he who had been carried into the senate-house afflicted in all his members, returned home, after discharging his duty, on his own feet.
Jupiter sounds as cruel as Yahweh. Do any biblical dreams come to mind here, and tardy responses to them?
Contradictory Accounts Not Necessarily a Stumbling Block
Plutarch wrote of the birth of Alexander the Great (2.2-4), at the same time remarking on different versions among the historians. I find it interesting that contradictory accounts did not undermine the conviction that there was historical ‘truth’ behind either tale or both.
Other interesting details of note are that magi from afar appear at the site of the birth of the divine infant; divine lights and signs are seen at least in dreams; and the mortal father of the child divinely conceived if kept from having sexual relations with his wife at the time. Again, notice any similarities with biblical births divinely conceived?
II. All are agreed that Alexander was descended on his father’s side from Herakles through Karanus, and on his mother’s from Æakus through Neoptolemus.
We are told that Philip and Olympias first met during their initiation into the sacred mysteries at Samothrace, and that he, while yet a boy, fell in love with the orphan girl, and persuaded her brother Arymbas to consent to their marriage. The bride, before she consorted with her husband, dreamed that she had been struck by a thunderbolt, from which a sheet of flame sprang out in every direction, and then suddenly died away. Philip himself some time after his marriage dreamed that he set a seal upon his wife’s body, on which was engraved the figure of a lion. When he consulted the soothsayers as to what this meant, most of them declared the meaning to be, that his wife required more careful watching; but Aristander of Telmessus declared that she must be pregnant, because men do not seal up what is empty, and that she would bear a son of a spirited and lion-like disposition. Once Philip found his wife asleep, with a large tame snake stretched beside her; and this, it is said, quite put an end to his passion for her, and made him avoid her society, either because he feared the magic arts of his wife, or else from a religious scruple, because his place was more worthily filled. Another version of this story is that the women of Macedonia have been from very ancient times subject to the Orphic and Bacchic frenzy. . . and perform the same rites as do the Edonians and the Thracian women about Mount Haemus, from which the word “threskeuein” has come to mean “to be over-superstitious.” Olympias, it is said, celebrated these rites with exceeding fervour, and in imitation of the Orientals, and to introduce into the festal procession large tame serpents, which struck terror into the men as they glided through the ivy wreaths and mystic baskets which the women carried on their heads.
III. We are told that Philip after this portent sent Chairon of Megalopolis to Delphi, to consult the god there, and that he delivered an oracular response bidding him sacrifice to Zeus Ammon, and to pay especial reverence to that god: warning him, moreover, that he would some day lose the sight of that eye with which, through the chink of the half-opened door, he had seen the god consorting with his wife in the form of a serpent. The historian Eratosthenes informs us that when Alexander was about to set out on his great expedition, Olympias told him the secret of his birth, and bade him act worthily of his divine parentage. Other writers say that she scrupled to mention the subject, and was heard to say “Why does Alexander make Hera jealous of me?”
Alexander was born on the sixth day of the month Hekatombæon, which the Macedonians call Lous, the same day on which the temple of Artemis at Ephesus was burned. This coincidence inspired Hegesias of Magnesia to construct a ponderous joke, dull enough to have put out the fire, which was, that it was no wonder that the temple of Artemis was burned, since she was away from, it, attending to the birth of Alexander. All the Persian magi who were in Ephesus at the time imagined that the destruction of the temple was but the forerunner of a greater disaster, and ran through the city beating their faces and shouting that on that day was born the destroyer of Asia. . . . .
Post-Birth Confirmation Prophecy
Recall in the Gospel of Luke that after Jesus had been born and was presented at the Temple in Jerusalem that an old man, Simeon, was inspired to pronounce a majestic prophecy of the child’s identity and future role. Litwa compares this basic idea with accounts told of the birth of the first emperor-to-be of Rome (Augustus). Augustus, originally named Octavian or Octavius after his father, was believed through a dream to have been the son of Apollo. Litwa compares the pronouncement of Nigidius Figulus in the following account by the historian Cassius Dio with the prophecy on the lips of Luke’s Simeon.
Cassius Dio, Roman History, 45.1.3
Now Gaius Octavius Caepias, as the son of Caesar’s niece, Attia, was named, came from Velitrae in the Volscian country; after being bereft of his father Octavius he was brought up in the house of his mother and her husband, Lucius Philippus, but on attaining maturity lived with Caesar. For Caesar, being childless and basing great hopes upon him, loved and cherished him, intending to leave him as successor to his name, authority, and sovereignty. He was influenced largely by Attia’s emphatic declaration that the youth had been engendered by Apollo ; for while sleeping once in his temple, she said, she thought she had intercourse with a serpent, and it was this that caused her at the end of the allotted time to bear a son. Before he came to the light of day she saw in a dream her entrails lifted to the heavens and spreading out over all the earth ; and the same night Octavius thought that the sun rose from her womb. Hardly had the child been born when Nigidius Figulus, a senator, straightway prophesied for him absolute power. This man could distinguish most accurately of his contemporaries the order of the firmament and the differences between the stars, what they accomplish when by themselves and when together, by their conjunctions and by their intervals, and for this reason had incurred the charge of practising some forbidden art. He, then, on this occasion met Octavius, who, on account of the birth of the child, was somewhat late in reaching the senate-house (for there happened to be a meeting of the senate that day), and upon asking him why he was late and learning the cause, he cried out, “ You have begotten a master over us.” At this Octavius [his human father] was alarmed and wished to destroy the infant, but Nigidius restrained him, saying that it was impossible for it to suffer any such fate. These things were reported at that time ; and while the child was being brought up in the country, an eagle snatched from his hands a loaf of bread and after soaring aloft flew down and gave it back to him. When he was now a lad and was staying in Rome, Cicero dreamed that the boy had been let down from the sky by golden chains to the Capitol and had received a whip from Jupiter. He did not know who the boy was, but meeting him the next day on the Capitol itself, he recognized him and told the vision to the bystanders. Catulus, who had likewise never seen Octavius, thought in his sleep that all the noble boys had marched in a solemn procession to Jupiter on the Capitol, and in the course of the ceremony the god had cast what looked like an image of Rome into that boy’s lap. Startled at this, he went up to the Capitol to offer prayers to the god, and finding there Octavius, who had gone up for some reason or other, he compared his appearance with the dream and convinced himself of the truth of the vision.
Litwa cites additional ancient versions of the same events. Notice that the dreams prophesying of future greatness of the infant are accompanied by an initial desire for someone to kill him.
The divine birth of Plato was another that was predicted in a dream:
Plutarch, Table Talk, VIII.1.717
Florus said [of] Plato’s birthday [that he was] born during a festival of Apollo, . . . Therefore I do not think anyone would say that those who attribute Plato’s parentage to Apollo are bringing disgrace on the god, who made him, through the agency of Socrates (as if he had been a second Cheiron), a physician to heal greater ailments and sicknesses than those healed by Asclepius.” He also mentioned the vision which is said to have appeared to Ariston, Plato’s father, in his sleep, which spoke and forbade him to have intercourse with his wife, or to touch her, for ten months.
Tyndares the Lacedaemonian replied, “It is fitting to celebrate Plato with the line,
He seemed the scion not of mortal man, but of a god.
Anyone reminded of God’s command to Joseph, husband of Mary?
Josephus Follows the Greco-Roman Literary Tropes
Of Moses, Josephus felt at liberty to add to the biblical narrative by writing in Jewish Antiquities, 2.3
A man whose name was Amram, one of the nobler sort of the Hebrews, was afraid for his whole nation, lest it should fail, by the want of young men to be brought up hereafter, and was very uneasy at it, his wife being then with child, and he knew not what to do. Hereupon he betook himself to prayer to God; and entreated him to have compassion on those men who had nowise transgressed the laws of his worship, and to afford them deliverance from the miseries they at that time endured, and to render abortive their enemies’ hopes of the destruction of their nation. Accordingly God had mercy on him, and was moved by his supplication. He stood by him in his sleep, and exhorted him not to despair of his future favors. He said further, that he did not forget their piety towards him, and would always reward them for it, as he had formerly granted his favor to their forefathers, and made them increase from a few to so great a multitude. He put him in mind, that when Abraham was come alone out of Mesopotamia into Canaan, he had been made happy, not only in other respects, but that when his wife was at first barren, she was afterwards by him enabled to conceive seed, and bare him sons. That he left to Ismael and to his posterity the country of Arabia; as also to his sons by Ketura, Troglodytis; and to Isaac, Canaan. That by my assistance, said he, he did great exploits in war, which, unless you be yourselves impious, you must still remember. As for Jacob, he became well known to strangers also, by the greatness of that prosperity in which he lived, and left to his sons, who came into Egypt with no more than seventy souls, while you are now become above six hundred thousand. Know therefore that I shall provide for you all in common what is for your good, and particularly for thyself what shall make thee famous; for that child, out of dread of whose nativity the Egyptians have doomed the Israelite children to destruction, shall be this child of thine, and shall be concealed from those who watch to destroy him: and when he is brought up in a surprising way, he shall deliver the Hebrew nation from the distress they are under from the Egyptians. His memory shall be famous while the world lasts; and this not only among the Hebrews, but foreigners also: – all which shall be the effect of my favor to thee, and to thy posterity. He shall also have such a brother, that he shall himself obtain my priesthood, and his posterity shall have it after him to the end of the world.
Some of the above anecdotes appear in more than one ancient source with slight variations of detail. Litwa’s point is to inform readers that the motif of dream prophecies from divinities, or at least inspired by divinities, were relatively common fare in the literature of the day, and were even associated with historical persons thought by some to have been fathered by a god. We have seen across the board doubts expressed by the recipients of such dreams, the intent to kill the child prophesied for greatness, and other details, including none other than those ubiquitous magi!
Litwa, M. David. 2019. How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
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