Review, part 6b. Litwa on “Mythistorical” Prophecies, Biblical and Greco-Roman

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing a discussion of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths . . . 

Allow me to round off with a few tidbits from Litwa’s discussion of the appearances of prophecies in history and biography type narratives. We have covered much of the main idea in the previous post on dreams. I’ll begin here with Litwa’s conclusion so we can, I hope, think the argument through with some attention to detail.

Don’t forget that prophecy-driven narratives were probably even more common in ancient fiction. See Prophecy Driven Narratives in Ancient Fiction. Litwa, however, focuses on prophecies found in historical or biographical literature and concludes the ancient reader would have associated prophecy with historical-type literature. He does not discuss (as far as I am aware at this stage) the reasons audiences would have been at least as likely to have associated prophecy with fictional narratives.

By telling the stories of great heroes as mythic historiography, ancient au­thors made their stories recognizable and rhetorically effective in the minds of their audiences. As we have seen, the evangelists were no exception. They used the same mythistorical patterns to highlight the transcendent greatness of their hero, even while he was a tiny baby. Yet their practices best resemble those of ancient historians who wrote historical accounts reporting supposedly real events. (pp. 62 f)

Here is how Litwa compares the “mythistorical patterns” in Greco-Roman historical or biographical literature and in the gospels.

We start with Pythagoras

Mnesarchus, father of Pythagoras, learned from Apollo that his wife “would bring forth a son surpassing all who previously lived in beauty and wisdom and who would be the greatest benefit to the human race.” (Iamblichus, Life) An angel tells Mary, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the son of the Most High” (Luke 1:31-32).

Now that certainly sounds like the story of a divine prophecy of the birth of Pythagoras was told in a manner very similar to that in the gospels about the birth of Jesus.

But I am never satisfied with reading second and third-hand summaries and always crave to check the original as closely as possible, either in the Greek or a reputable translation.

IT is said, therefore, that Ancaeus who dwelt in Samos in Cephallenia, was begot by Jupiter, whether he derived the fame of such an honorable descent through virtue, or through a certain greatness of soul. He surpassed, however, the rest of the Cephallenians in wisdom and renown.

[Ancaeus founds a new colony when commanded to do so by a prophet of Apollo.]

Unlike ancient fiction, historical fiction (including Luke-Acts), and certain popular historical works that were ridiculed by satirists and serious historians, notice that Iamblichus, in relating the traditions about descents of famous persons from gods, distances himself from them. He does not write of them as straightforward facts but begins, “it is said that…”. Iamblichus attempts an explanation that might have given rise to the stories.

Of course, we have no comparable distancing or critical assessment of similar narratives in the gospels.

It is said, therefore, that Mnesarchus and Pythais, who were the parents of Pythagoras, descended from the family and alliance of this Ancaeus, who founded the colony. In consequence, however, of this nobility of birth being celebrated by the citizens, a certain Samian poet says, that Pythagoras was the son of Apollo. For thus he sings,

Pythais fairest of the Samian tribe,
Bore from th’ embraces of the God of day
Renown’d Pythagoras, the friend of Jove.

Iamblchus continues to express his distancing from the information he is relaying. He makes it clear that he is writing what ‘is said’ by others.

The direct claim that Pythagoras was born from Apollo comes from a poet who is evidently looking back on the life and reputation of Pythagoras. Again, we have Iamblichus’s personal distancing from the claim itself.

It is worth while, however, to relate how this report became so prevalent. The Pythian oracle [= oracle of Apollo] then had predicted to this Mnesarchus . . . that his wife was now pregnant, and would bring forth a son surpassing in beauty and wisdom all that ever lived, and who would be of the greatest advantage to the human race in every thing pertaining to the life of man. . . . [W]e must not regard the assertions of Epimenides, Eudoxus, and Xenocrates, who suspect that Apollo at that time, becoming connected with Parthenis, and causing her to be pregnant from not being so, had in consequence of this predicted concerning Pythagoras, by the Delphic prophet: for this is by no means to be admitted.* Iamblichus wants to bring readers along with possible explanations for the reputation of Pythagoras being a son of Apollo. Here we encounter the prophecy that Litwa has compared with Luke 1:31-32 but notice the quite different contexts and functions of the two prophecies. One is told as fact; the other is told as a tradition that calls for explanation

Iamblichus rejects outright that such a story can possibly be literally true. Yes, some writers have written of it in a way that sounds like a god had sexual intercourse with a human but “this is by no means to be admitted.”

Indeed, no one can doubt that the soul of Pythagoras was sent to mankind from the empire of Apollo, either being an attendant on the God, or co-arranged with him in some other more familiar way: for this may be inferred both from his birth, and the all-various wisdom of his soul. And thus much concerning the nativity of Pythagoras. * The translator (Thomas Taylor) adds a lengthy explanation of the understanding behind Iamblichus’s words. In brief, the gods themselves were pure (impassive and pure) and as such could have no direct dealings with humans who were the opposite: “passive and impure” (the terms reflect their meanings in the year 1818). But there can be no vacuum so other beings must populate the distance between gods and humans. These other beings also come from the gods: they are “daemons”, “heroes”, “nymphs”, “and the like”. The lowest powers of these beings have compassion for the corporeal world: daemons for humans, nymphs for trees and other forms of nature, and so forth. Through such beings a spirit of the divinity can be imparted to a human, as at birth. In the same way Plutarch and Apuleius explained the “divine origin of Plato”.

After reading the prophecy that Pythagoras would be born a son of Apollo in Iamblichus I find less reason to maintain interest in Litwa’s comparison of it with the angel’s prophecy about Jesus to Mary.

I am not saying that Litwa’s discussion is not worth reading. I think it is given the numbers of detailed citations, sources, comparisons of Greco-Roman literature with the gospels. So many more such comparisons than I was aware of keep emerging page after page. Some of them are closer to the gospels than others, but all are worth following up. Our best education can be in reading carefully and following up the sources for oneself and making one’s own assessments — always being ready to revise them in the light of more reading and more counter-arguments.

My view is that Litwa has failed to qualify his case adequately, overlooking the same tropes in nonhistorical works and also in failing to give enough attention to the different qualities or characteristics of different historians.

Other stories of prophecies (Nigidius Figulus, the father of the one to become Augustus Caesar, Simeon in the temple) we have covered in the previous post. But one we have not examined yet is the prophecy concerning Heracles.

Here’s another: Heracles

Litwa cites two sources for the prophecy associated with the birth of Heracles and the promise of great honour to crown his mother, comparing the prophecy of Jesus’ greatness and the great honour to be bestowed on Mary. Those two sources are the poets Pindar and Theocritus.

They each recreate the story of how the newborn Heracles seized and killed two snakes that had been sent by a jealous goddess, Hera, into his crib to kill him. (Hera was wife of Zeus who had fathered Heracles to a mortal.) When the mother and father of Heracles see what he is done they are, as one would expect, utterly astonished. In Pindar’s version Heracle’s father asks the famous aged prophet Teiresias what this event means for the future of his son. Tieresas answers:

But [Amphitryon] called on his neighbor, the great prophet of Zeus on high,
Teiresias, the strict seer; who told before him and all the company his son’s encounters to be,

all the beasts he must slay by land,
all the beasts of the sea, brutes without right or wrong;
likewise the man walking, crossed
with conceit in hatefulness,
he must give over to death;
and how, when the gods in the plain of Phlegra met the Giants in battle,
under the storm of his shafts these also must drag their bright hair in the dust.

(Pindar, Nemean Ode 1)

Theocritus, however, reshapes the scene in a way that bears more similar parallels with what we read in the Gospel of Luke. I quote from Gow’s 1950 prose translation of the poem. Here the mother, Alcmene, seeks out the prophet.

The cocks were just heralding for the third time the break of dawn when Alcmena summoned Teiresias, the seer that spoke ever truth, and told him this strange thing, and bade him say what the outcome should be.

‘Nor, if the gods purpose some mischief, hide it from regard for me. Even so no mortal can escape what Fate speeds from her distaff. Son of Eueres, thou art a seer and well thou knowest what I teach thee.’

So spake the queen, and thus he answered her:

Be of good cheer, thou mother of noble children, seed of Perseus, be of good cheer; and lay up in thy heart the better part of things to come. For by the sweet light that long since left these eyes of mine, many a woman in Greece, as with her hand she rubs the soft yarn over her knee, shall sing in the late evening of Alcmena by her name, and thou shalt be honoured among the Argive women, so great a man shall rise to the star-laden heaven, even this son of thine, a hero broad of chest, mightier than all beasts and than all men beside. Twelve toils shall he accomplish, and then, so it is fated, dwell in the house of Zeus, but all of him that is mortal a pyre at Trachis shall receive. And by his marriage he shall be called son of the immortals, even of those who sped these monsters from their lair to destroy the babe.

(Theocritus, Idyll 24)

Like Mary, the mother of Heracles is pronounced by the prophet as especially blessed for all future generations. Like Mary, the mother of Heracles also learns that she will live to see her son die a cruel death.

Notice that here, with the poets, we have none of the rationalizing scepticism of the biographer Iamblichus. The poets write as all-knowing authors who merely document “the facts” — just the same as we read in the gospels.

Neither poet is a historian or biographer. A scholarly study of Theocritus by Professor Payne introduces its theme to readers:

The bucolic Idylls of Theocritus are the first literature to invent a fully fictional world that is not an image of reality but an alternative to it.

Nonetheless, Litwa sees overlaps between the trope in historical narratives and the gospels. He explains:

For the same rationalizing, indecisive or sceptical approaches to the mythical tales of Alexander the Great (Plutarch) as set out for Iamblichus in this post, see  Review, part 6a. Litwa on Dream Prophecies, both Biblical and Greco-Roman

The peculiar prophecy of Tiresias to Alcmene is formally similar to Simeon’s private revelation to Mary. Yet a tragic aspect is added. Simeon addresses her: This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul too. (Luke 2:34-35).

Mary, like Alcmene, is blessed with a private revelation beyond that given to her husband. As it turns out, both mothers will outlive their sons, watching them die horrifying deaths. Even as a child, Jesus would cause “great anxiety” in the heart of Mary (Luke 2:48). Yet her special knowl­edge about the nature of her son causes her to “treasure all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51). 

The Greek hero Heracles is clearly categorized as mythical—especially by modern people. Yet the mytho­logical template exemplified by Heracles played out in the lives of figures still deemed historical: Alexander the Great, Caesar Augustus, and Jesus himself. When historiography follows a mythic pattern, however, it is no longer simply a record of past events. It is what we are calling mythic historiography.

. . . .

By telling the stories of great heroes as mythic historiography, ancient au­thors made their stories recognizable and rhetorically effective in the minds of their audiences. As we have seen, the evangelists were no exception. They used the same mythistorical patterns to highlight the transcendent greatness of their hero, even while he was a tiny baby. Yet their practices best resemble those of ancient historians who wrote historical accounts reporting supposedly real events.

(Litwa, 100 f)

I have since added a qualified correction to the conclusion I have expressed here. See Review, part 6bi: On That Exception in Litwa’s Favour. A (Qualified) Correction.

An Exception in Litwa’s Favour

In the above quotation mention is made of Caesar Augustus. Earlier Litwa had informed readers of the Roman historian Suetonius’s account of the prophecies relating to Augustus’s birth. In this case the evidence Litwa is claiming for his thesis is more secure. Suetonius did often (not always) write of many bizarre events (including human ones, not only supernatural prodigies) that read more like a scandal rag’s gossip than serious history. Here is Suetonius on the prophecy about Augustus:

On the day Augustus was born, when the conspiracy of Catiline was being discussed in the senate house and Octavius stayed away until late because his wife was in labour, Publius Nigidius, hearing why he was delayed, when informed of the hour of the birth, asserted (as is generally known) that the master of the world was born. When Octavius, who was leading an army through remote regions of Thrace, sought guidance concerning his son at some barbarian rituals in the grove of Father Liber, the same prediction was made by the priests, for so great a flame had leapt up when they poured wine on the altar, that it passed beyond the peak of the temple roof and right up to the sky, a portent which had only previously occurred when Alexander the Great offered sacrifice at that altar. And on the very next night thereafter, he dreamed he saw his son of greater than mortal size with a thunderbolt and sceptre and emblems of Jupiter Best and Greatest and a radiate crown, on a chariot decorated with laurel drawn by twelve horses of astonishing whiteness.

When Augustus was still a baby, as is recorded in the writings of Gaius Drusus, he was placed one evening by his nurse in his cot on level ground but the next morning he had disappeared. He was only found, after a long search, in a tower of great height where he lay facing the rising sun. When he first began to speak, he ordered some frogs to be silent who happened to be croaking in his grandfather’s villa and they say that from that time no frog croaked there. . . .

So Litwa can rightly say that some historians wrote of prophetic pronouncements in the same way as did poets, novelists and the evangelists.

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

Payne, Mark. Theocritus and the Invention of Fiction. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.


Iamblichus, ca 250-ca 330. The Life of Pythagoras. Translated by Thomas Taylor. Krotona ; Hollywood, Calif. : Theosophical Pub. House, 1918. http://archive.org/details/lifeofpythagoras00iamb.

Pindar. The Odes Of Pindar. Translated by Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: The University Of Chicago, 1947. http://archive.org/details/odesofpindar035276mbp.

Suetonius. Lives of the Caesars. Translated by Catharine Edwards. Reissue edition. Oxford etc.: OUP Oxford, 2008.

Theocritus. Theocritus. Translated by Andrew Sydenham Farrar Gow. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950.

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