2020-01-27

Review, part 10b. Why Jesus’ Miracles Appear Historically Natural (Litwa: How the Gospels Became History)

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by Neil Godfrey

I am continuing my discussion of M. David Litwa’s book, How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths, in the light of my two recent posts* that theorize why Greco-Roman myths were so believable and why it was widely accepted that divine heroes and gods had even acted on earth in historical, even contemporary, times**.

Litwa makes an interesting claim:

It was a historical judgment that in the so-called heroic age, men were bigger, faster, and stronger than people are today. They were also more pious, which earned them the right of dining with deities and even (as in the case of Heracles) being changed into them. Today one can label the heroic age a “mythic” one, but for the Greeks it was a real time in the past that gradually melted into our own time with its known dates and calendars.10

(Litwa, p. 137)

Endnote 10 is to Pausanias, 8.2.4, which I quote:

I for my part believe this story; it has been a legend among the Arcadians from of old, and it has the additional merit of probability. For the men of those days, because of their righteousness and piety, were guests of the gods, eating at the same board; the good were openly honored by the gods, and sinners were openly visited with their wrath. Nay, in those days men were changed to gods, who down to the present day have honors paid to them – Aristaeus, Britomartis of Crete, Heracles the son of Alcmena, Amphiaraus the son of Oicles, and besides these Polydeuces and Castor.

Pausanias. 2014. Complete Works of Pausanias. Delphi Classics. 8.2.4
What story is it that Pausanias claimed to believe?

For Cecrops was the first to name Zeus the Supreme god, and refused to sacrifice anything that had life in it, but burnt instead on the altar the national cakes which the Athenians still call pelanoi. But Lycaon brought a human baby to the altar of Lycaean Zeus, and sacrificed it, pouring out its blood upon the altar, and according to the legend immediately after the sacrifice he was changed from a man to a wolf (Lycos).

Pausanias, 8.2.3

Despite Litwa’s wording (“it was a real time in the past that gradually melted into our time”) it is evident that he is relegating the age of mythical heroes and gods on earth to the remote past. But we have seen that though some things changed (the monsters were cleansed from the earth, for instance) those figures were widely believed by the “common people” (as distinct from the highly educated and literate elite) to have had recent, and even contemporary, appearances on earth among mortals.

What is interesting is Litwa’s next two paragraphs because they fit so neatly into Sarah Iles Johnston’s explanation for why Greek myths were so “real” and easy to believe:

Christians too advertised their own mythic age. This age was not one in the distant past but one recently dawned. Christians called it the “Kingdom of God”; and modern scholars typically refer to it as “the eschatological age” or simply “the eschaton.” The eschaton is no less a mythic age than the age of heroes. The difference is that Christians thought that they lived in the eschaton and invited other people to imagine — and live — the same reality. In this final age, miracles gained a kind of acceptability since they were signs that the new time of the Kingdom had arrived. This notion modified what early Christians were willing to believe about reported wonders.

(137)

I can accept Litwa’s thesis here. It is not so very far removed from Johnston’s. Greeks were well able to believe that divine heroes could and did appear and work miracles in their present-day and recent history. So it is no great surprise that Christians would embrace similar views about their own mythical figures and beliefs. Yet Litwa does not make this connection even though he knows Johnston’s articles.

At the same time, the gospel narration of miracles did not veer into utter fancy. Jesus walks over the sea; he does not fly over it with a cape. He heals people by word, not by magic formulas and mind melds. The daimons that fly into pigs remain invisible, without horns, pointy beards, or pitchforks. The characters in the miracle story remain lifelike, and miracles are represented as responses to real human needs. By depicting the lamentable infirmities that demand the miracle, the stories remained anchored in a reality that corresponds to the unpredictability of “normal” human experience. The point of the miracle story, one might say, is to bring readers out of the gritty normality of their own space and time into the new “reality” of mythic time. Yet to accomplish this transition, the gospel writers still had to represent “real life,” in which tragedies and disappointments were expected and nature ran its course. The evangelists, in short, still sought to authenticate their miracle stories by narrating them in the larger context of “real” (quotidian) human events.11

(137)

Endnote 11 is to the Johnston article I discussed in some detail at How Mythic Story Worlds Become Believable (Johnston: The Greek Mythic Story World) In that post I drew several side-references to gospel comparisons.

The remainder of Litwa’s discussion of miracles bears out Johnston’s explanation for Greek myths being so credible. In effect, Litwa applies Johnston’s thesis to the gospels. If the Greeks could believe in the recent historicity of appearances of their gods and heroes, then we cannot be surprised that early Christians believed the gospel narratives as equally “historical” — given that Litwa finds the same techniques of storytelling in the gospels as Johnston finds among the Greek myths.

Litwa puts his finger on what it is about Jesus’ miracle of walking on water that allows one to read it with some credulity:

Compare the way Apollo passes by Jason’s crew with God passing by Moses and Jesus appearing to be about to pass by the disciples in the short post When a God Passes By

The feat is impressive; yet amid the whipping wind and mist-like shadows, a sense of realism remains. Jesus is not a giant whose legs stretch to the bottom of the sea. He has no super-sandals or chariot. He does not run like the wind. In fact, he seems to walk over the water rather slowly, with an air of divine authority; His feet appear to float on the water. Or perhaps the reader is meant to assume that Jesus hovered slightly over the surf. This might explain, at any rate, why the disciples thought that he was a ghost. . . . .

. . . . The author granted Jesus the water-surmounting powers of Yahweh. Yet the openly mythological images are played down. Sea is not personified. Jesus does not split the sea or trample it like a dragon or dash over it with a chariot. He walks on it like a human would walk on dry land. Despite the wonder of water travel itself, the realism is consistent. Jesus has a motive for crossing the sea, and he does so nonchalantly, without pageantry. The author of Mark evidently wanted the sea miracle to be read as a historical event, on par with Jesus talking and climbing into the boat.

(139)

The evangelists have outdone Homer:

Sometimes ancient authors seem relatively uninterested in a monster’s remarkable features, mentioning them only briefly. Consider this passage from the Iliad in which the story of Bellerophon and the Chimaera is told (Il. 6.171–83):

So off went Bellerophon to Lycia, under the excellent escort of the gods. And when he reached the river Xanthus, the king welcomed him and honored him with entertainment for nine solid days, killing an ox each day. But when the tenth dawn spread her rosy light, the king questioned him and asked to see the tokens that his son-in-law Proetus had sent. And when he saw the evil tokens, he ordered Bellerophon to kill the furious Chimaera, a creature that was not human but divine; a lion in front, a serpent in the rear, and a goat in the middle, and breathing fi re. Bellerophon killed her, trusting in signs from the gods.
(trans. Lombardo, slightly modified).

Homer does not fail to mention the Chimaera’s triple physiognomy and fi ery breath, but he does not take full advantage of their narrative possibilities (nor does Pindar, for instance, who allots to her a single adjectival phrase, “fire-breathing,” at Ο. 13.90). In this and many other cases, moreover, that which is marvelous is situated squarely within familiar activities or against a familiar backdrop: Bellerophon departs to fight the Chimaera after a series of feasts such as Homeric kings typically serve to important visitors; in Pindar’s narration of Jason’s exploits on Colchis, the sheer physical strength that the hero displays while yoking Aeetes’ oxen and guiding their plow merits more attention than the oxen’s fiery breath and brazen hooves (P. 4.232–38). Similarly, Theseus’s visit to the marvelous undersea palace of Poseidon and Amphitrite, as narrated by Bacchylides in his seventeenth dithyramb, is well integrated into an eventful but otherwise realistic voyage across the Aegean.

(Johnston, The Greek Mythic Story World, 288 f)

The evangelists had a model, though. Seneca in a play about Heracles described the same miracle in equally, if not more, prosaic simplicity and “realism”. Litwa refers to this passage by Seneca:

The same [Heracles] had when across the parched desert and the sands, billowing like the stormy sea, he made his way, and across the strait with twice-receding, twice-returning waves ; and when, his barque abandoned, he was stranded, a prisoner on Syrtes’ shoals, and, though his vessel was held fast, he crossed o’er seas on foot.

(Seneca, Hercules Furens, 319-324)

Litwa compares the same techniques used by both evangelists and Greco-Roman authors in the miracles of stilling a storm, unnatural catches of fish, casting out demons, healings, and apparent resurrections from the dead.

Litwa concludes this chapter with

The miracle is a counterintuitive element, to be sure, but the counterintuitiveness is kept to a minimum. The miracle might have been considered mythic; but fixed in a textual world of other normal human events, it gained the hook of credibility. Sometimes the characters in the story, who putatively share the ontological expectations of the reader, are depicted as surprised by the miracle but in the end compelled to believe it. For willing but cautious readers, this literary technique also encourages belief

I find these words of Litwa particularly interesting: Sometimes the miracles are rationalized, as if Jesus were an expert in healing psychosomatic disorders. Yes, even sophisticated moderns, even learned scholars, are persuaded by the technique to believe that “the miracle” did happen at least in some manner.

The believability of a miracle story depends on both the way it is told and the investment of the person who hears it. In the case of Jesus, many Christian believers today still affirm that Jesus’s miracles happened. Sometimes the miracles are rationalized, as if Jesus were an expert in healing psychosomatic disorders. The modern need to believe reflects the ancient cultural expectations as well. To be sure, if we were to resurrect Philostratus or Tacitus or Suetonius and ask him if Jesus’s miracles occurred, he might discount them as drivel fit for superstitious and gullible people. Yet those historians themselves, if somewhat guardedly, reported wonders of a similar stripe, all the while expecting to be believed — at least on some level. So the wheel of mythic historiography grinds on; and the miracle stories themselves — though increasingly hard to credit—have lost none of their wonder.

(154)

It was not only historians who incorporated this technique of describing the intervention of divine heroes and gods; Greek myths were generally told that way whether by poets or authors of epic narratives. The myths were told with the same techniques any other contemporary or historical event was reported. Litwa is correct in his explanation for why the miracles of the gospels were so easily believed to have been historical.


Johnston, Sarah. 2015. “The Greek Mythic Story World.” Arethusa 48 (3): 283–311. https://doi.org/10.1353/are.2015.0008.

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

Pausanias. 2014. Complete Works of Pausanias. Delphi Classics.

Seneca the Younger. n.d. “Hercules Furens.” Theoi Classical Texts Library. Accessed January 27, 2020. https://www.theoi.com/Text/SenecaHerculesFurens.html.


 

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