Reading the Gospels through a Roman Philosopher’s Eyes

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by Neil Godfrey

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In the previous post focusing on Heracles (or Zeus-Heracles) as Logos I omitted a quotation that paired Heracles with Hermes (Roman name, Mercury) for the sake of trying to keep the focus on a single point. Here I am catching up: what the Stoic author Cornutus wrote about Hermes brings to mind several core motifs in the gospels, but in particular of the Gospel of Mark. (Don’t jump to wild conclusions, though. I am only exploring the religious/ideological contexts within which the gospels emerged.)

The Jewish philosopher Philo noted that Hermes was the prophet, the divine interpreter, but in particular, the messenger who brought to humanity “good news”:

ἄρα οὐχ ὅτι προσήκει τὸν ἑρμηνέα [=interpreter] καὶ προφήτην [=prophet] τῶν θείων, ἀφ οὗ καὶ
Ἑρμῆς ὠνόμασται, τὰ ἀγαθὰ διαγγέλλοντα [=messenger of good] (Legatio Ad Gaium, 99)

— It’s worth trying to imagine living at the time the gospels were first heard. Jesus, the messenger who brought good news, surely evoked in the minds of some another deity with a comparable role.

Shortly after Philo (in the time of Nero) the Roman philosopher Cornutus wrote Epidrome (or Greek Theology) in which he described Hermes as reason (= logos) itself, “the preeminent possession of the gods” and the one they have sent to us from heaven so that we alone of earthly creatures are rational.

— As per the previous post focussing on Heracles, Jesus was not unique in being identified with the/a logos.

I copy the translation of the key section by Robert Hays from his 1983 thesis, Lucius Annaeus Cornutus’ “Epidrome”. Cornutus has just described in depth those daughters of Zeus known as the gift-giving Graces [Charites].

1. The tradition holds that Hermes is their [i.e. “the Graces”] master, thus signifying that the bestowing of kindness must be reasonable: not random, but to those who deserve it. For the person who has been ungratefully treated [hoacharistētheis] becomes more reluctant to do good. Now Hermes is Reason [ho logos]. which the gods sent to us from heaven, having made man alone of all the living creatures on earth reasonable [logikon], a gift which they themselves considered outstanding beyond all others. He has received his name from his taking counsel to speak [erein mēsasthai], i.e., to engage in rational discourse [legein]. Or, perhaps because he is our bulwark [eryma] and, as it were, our fortress.

— Logos is translated Reason but note its close association with “the word”, in particular the spoken word, a word that brings life-giving benefits as we will see.

2. But he is further called “Guide [diaktoros]” either because he is piercing [diatoros]. i.e., clear, or because he conducts [diagein] our thoughts into the souls of people nearby. Similarly, at sacrifices they devote the tongue to him <sc. hermēneuein, “to interpret”>. He has other eponyms also: “Luck-Bringer” because he is a great benefactor, and those who make use of him flourish exceedingly; and “Stalwart [sōkos]” from the conviction that he is savior [soter] of houses [oikoi]. Or, as some say, because he is strong. That he is called “guileless [akakēs]” is also an indicator of some such thing. For reason has not come into being in order to wrong [kakoun] and wound, but rather to preserve [sōzein]. That is why some say he was married to Health [Hygieia]. He is “Argeiphontes,” as if the word were “Illuminating [argēphantēs]” because he causes everything to appear clearly [leukos panta phainein], i.e., makes it clear. For the ancients called “clear [leukon]” “luminous [argon].” Or, it may be from the swiftness [tachytēs] of sound [phonē], for swiftness is also called “luminous” [argon].

— He guides, leads, through his speech, his words, guiding our thoughts (Mk. 10:19; 12:14). He is a saviour. He brings health and calls himself a physician (Mk 1:34 – And he healed many; Mk. 2:17). He explains things clearly; not to everyone (recall the limitation on those he blesses in the first sentence in paragraph 1 above. (Mk 4:11 – And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables.)

3. He is called “Bearer of the Golden Wand [Chrysorrhapis]” because even the blow [rhapismos] which comes from him is precious [polytimos; sc.chrysos: gold]. For well-timed criticism is worth a great deal, as is the repentance of those who heed it. Tradition calls him “Herald of the gods,” for they claimed that he is the messenger to men of the things which happen among the gods. “Herald,” because by means of his loud voice he presents to the hearing the things which are signified according to reason. “Messenger” because we know the will of the gods from the conceptions which are placed within us according to reason. He wears winged sandals and is carried through the air in agreement with the phrase “winged words”. For this same reason they call Iris, the Rainbow, a “windfooted” and “breezefooted” messenger, epithets which they also invent from her name.

— His words of criticism lead to repentance (Mk. 2:17) as did those of his forerunner (Mk. 1:4). Jesus is the herald of God (Mk. 1:14) and he himself has a herald who cries aloud, as does Jesus (Mk. 15:34; Jn. 11:43). Being carried through the air is a devil’s trick in other gospels. Simon Magus’s ability to levitate was not from God. The Devil took Jesus up onto a high pinnacle and a high mountain. But Jesus did ascend to heaven and walk across water on his own power.

4. The myths said that Hermes is “Conductor of Souls [psychopompos],” making a compound word of his unique function, the guiding of souls [psychagōgein]. That is why they also put a staff in his hand “with which he charms the eyes of whatever men he chooses“, clearly meaning the eyes of the mind. “But others, even if they are asleep, he rouses.”  For he is able with ease both to goad on the lax and to restrain those who have been aroused. Consequently, he naturally seemed to be the sender of dreams and thus to be an oracle [mantis],  who twists dream impressions to suit his own wishes. “Dreams also are messengers of the gods.”  The serpents which surround the previously mentioned staff and complete the proper arrangement of the caduceus, are a symbol of the fact that even beastly men are bewitched and charmed by him, who looses the conflicts among them and binds them in harmony with a knot difficult to untie. For this reason the caduceus is also seen as a symbol of peace-making. Moreover, those who pursue peace bear branches [thalloi] with their hand [cheir] as a reminder of the earth’s [chora] desire [thelein] to be cultivated and that there be some sparing of cultivated lands and of fruit-bearing plants.

— I’m thinking of the power Jesus had over the disciples he called. He merely called them and they dropped everything and followed (Mk. 1:16-18). That suggests some mysterious power. He opened their eyes to understand the parables hidden from others. Later we see him raising up one whom he says is merely asleep, the daughter of one whose name means “awaken” (Mk. 5:39-42). He taught peace (Mk. 9:50), even over nature (Mk. 4:39).

5. They claimed that Hermes was born to Zeus from Maia, thus hinting again in this way that reason is the offspring of investigation and inquiry. For even those who serve as midwives [hai maioumenai] to women are called for that reason “Mama [Maiai]”: because they are thought to bring the infants into the light by searching [ex ereunēs; sc. maiomai].

— Again, we meet that mother’s name sounding like Mary. Was the name Mary borrowed from Moses’ sister Miriam? Would a pagan associate the name with “midwife” or go-between? It is the name of the mother of a logos, a herald of the gods and bringer of good news, after all. In Galatians and Ascension of Isaiah Jesus passes (is not really “born”) through a woman in order to translate into a flesh being in the world.

6. Hermes is sculpted without hands and feet and square in shape: square, because he has a certain fixedness and stability so that even his falls are bases; without hands and feet because neither hands nor feet are needed to accomplish what is set before him. Also, the ancients properly made the older and bearded Herms with erect genitals, but the younger and beardless, with their genitals flaccid. Thus, they showed that in those advanced in age reason is mature and capable of reproduction. For in reality it probably does attain to the goals it sets.  But among the unripe, reason is sterile and immature.

— No room for any of these associations in the gospels. The closest would be Jesus’ teaching about the glory of being a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 19:12).

7. He is set up on the roads and is called “Wayside [enodios]” and “Guiding [hēgemonios]” because it is necessary to employ him as a guide for all tasks, and because he is the very one who leads us up by his counsels into the way [hodos] which we should follow [sc. en ōi dei, in which it is necessary], or perhaps because time to oneself [erēmia] is needed for his restoration and service.

— Here is where I was most struck by the association with the Gospel of Mark. This gospel’s primary theme, or certainly a major one, is the message of “the Way”. Books have been written about that topos in the gospel. See Mk. 1:2-3; 2:23; 4:15; 6:8; 8:3, 27; 9:33-34; 10:17, 32, 46, 52; 11:8. The Exodus theme is all about a journey on “the way” and the Gospel of Mark draws heavily on Second Exodus vocabulary and themes in (Second) Isaiah. Jesus called his disciples to follow him as he journeyed ultimately to the cross.

8. And because reason is common, existing in all men and in the gods, whenever someone finds something as he walks in the way, it is customary to say “Hermes belongs to everyone.” For he is fellow-witness with them of the discovery since he is beside the road.  They mean by this that they consider what has been found [to heurēmenon] to be common also. And that is why things one finds [heurēmata] are called “god-sends [hermaia].” They also heap up stones for the Herms. Each person who passes adds one stone to the rest. They do that either so that each may do something within his ability which is both useful and for the common good by cleaning up the road; or calling upon Hermes as witness, or as signifying the honor due him if a person has nothing else to offer him; or, to make the statue more notable to passersby; or, as a symbol of the fact that the spoken word [ho nrophorikos logos] is composed of small parts.

— Is there anything here that might come to the mind of a gentile who hears about “preparing the way” for the coming of the Lord (Mk. 1:2-3)?

9. He is also called “God of the Public Assembly [agoraios],” and appropriately so. For he is the guardian of those who speak in public [hoi agoreuontes]. And, from “public market [agora]” it extends quite readily also to buyers and sellers, for everything must be done with reason.  Therefore, he also seemed to be the overseer of merchants and was called “God of Profit [kerdōios]” and “God of Barter [empolaios],” for he is the only source of true profits [kerdai] for mankind.

— Jesus did not cast out idolaters from the temple, or others violating some ritual requirements. He was focused on the buying and selling and the merchants there.

10. He is the inventer of the lyre, i.e., of that harmony and agreement to which when the living conform, they are happy, i.e., when it happens that they have a well-tuned [hērmosmenē] disposition. Some, desiring to suggest his function by employing incongruities, passed on the story of him as a thief and set up an altar of “Guileful Hermes [Polios Hermēs].” For unnoticed, he slips men’s previous assumptions away from them. There are even times when he steals away the truth by persuasiveness. That is why they say of certain people that they use “a con-man’s words.” In fact, sophistry is the unique privilege of those who know how to use rational speech.

— In other gospels Jesus is called “the deceiver” (Mt. 27:63; Jn. 7:12, 47). Other times Jesus compares himself with a thief (Mt. 24:43; Mk. 14:48). Interesting to see how the philosophers interpret Hermes’ reputation for cheating and stealing away from association with crooked trading and towards “robbing” people of their false ideas. The power of an intelligent mind!

11. He is also called “God of Law [nomios]” because Reason has a function of setting things right, demanding those things which must be done communally, and forbidding those things which ought not to be done. Only because of the similarity of the word was he transferred to having care over pastures [nomos]. People also give him homage at the wrestling grounds along with Herakles because it is necessary to employ strength with reasoning. For to the person who places his trust only in the power of the body, but disregards Reason, which introduced skills into life, a person might properly respond, “Dearest, your own great strength will be your death.”

— Jesus teaches righteousness throughout, of course.

I highlighted the passage about “similarity of words” for another reason, though. Homonyms caught the eyes of Jewish searchers of scriptures and new midrashic texts creatively bringing out a new message by combining the words were the result. Or in the case above, the words (for “law” and “pasture”) might look the same but they would be pronounced differently. No matter. Midrashic readings of the Jewish texts included following the same methods. It is worth keeping this interpretative approach in mind when addressing arguments for midrash in the gospels.

Hays, Robert Stephen. 1983. “Lucius Annaeus Cornutus’ ‘Epidrome’ (Introduction to the Traditions of Greek Theology): Introduction, Translation, and Notes.” Ph.D., Austin: University of Texas. http://search.proquest.com/docview/303279489/?pq-origsite=primo.

Philo Judaeus. n.d. “Legatio Ad Gaium; 99.” Perseus Digital Library Scaife Viewer. Accessed August 5, 2020. https://scaife.perseus.org/.

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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “Reading the Gospels through a Roman Philosopher’s Eyes”

  1. I’ve long been interested in the Logos, or the “Word,” and Mercury. I’ve concluded that in deep structure, he is the god of Conveyance. Moving things from in place to another. Like, among others, messangers and … thieves.

    Words, messages, especially, move ideas easily from one place to another.

    Hopefully they are good ideas, the Logos. As Philo piously avers.

  2. Prior to Mark, the heavenly Jesus/divine intermediary/Logos was characterized only by his function. This post explains the particular characteristics that Mark gave to his heavenly-Jesus-who-came-to-earth. As a writer who had decided to create a story, Mark characterized Jesus using characteristics of Hermes and gave Jesus speeches and activities that bore out those characteristics. This post is an important contribution to the understanding of Mark’s mind as a writer.

    Also, Jesus-as-Hermes implies that Mark wrote for an at least partly Gentile-born audience/congregation, with the rest being Hellenized Judeans. I don’t think Mark would have modeled Jesus on Hermes if his audience/congregation had been entirely Judean.

    1. If there was a cosmic reason, law, defining “word” out there, it seems like a small move to suggest that this or that person may have served as a particular voice, conveyor, of that word, to mere mortals. Rather like angels, messengers (who are probably mostly Egyptian in origin; winged figures?).

      But the attempted fit between the Logos and the Greco Roman Hermes/Mercury, does seem a bit forced (by Mark?). And in fact rather deconstructs itself. Since Mercury was not necessarily entirely honest always; as the god of thieves too.

      And if anything, it – inadvertently or deliberately – suggests that our biblical “historical” accounts, were unreliable. Or stolen from other – probably non Jewish – sources.

      1. Early and later Christians often pretended they were entirely loyal to 1) the Jewish god of the Old Testament/Tanak, and 2) to historical facts. 3) But a closer look suggests they took – stole – lots of Greco Roman material, myths.

        As early as Mark?

        1. Other than being sometime post second temple destruction, the composition of the Markan text is hardly set in stone. If it was post 99 CE, Then there was plenty-O-time to trans-value “Greco Roman material” into the Markan text.

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