Musings on biblical studies, politics, religion, ethics, human nature, tidbits from science
Category: Ancient Literature
Original intention was to include here all non-Jewish works. Should this separation stand? What of Ezekiel the Tragedian or Artapanus of Alexandria and other similar Jewish authors in a “secular/Hellenistic” world? Is the subsequent breakdown into children categories justified?
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”:
ἄραοὐχὅτιπροσήκειτὸνἑρμηνέα [=interpreter] καὶπροφήτην [=prophet] τῶνθείων,ἀφ’οὗκαὶ Ἑρμῆςὠνόμασται,τὰἀγαθὰδιαγγέλλοντα [=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 [ho…acharistētheis] becomes more reluctant to do good. Now Hermes is Reason [hologos]. 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 [ereinmēsasthai], i.e., to engage in rational discourse [legein]. Or, perhaps because he is our bulwark [eryma] and, as it were, our fortress.
This post is based on some of the citations in the early pages of Hercules-Christus, a 1947 article by Dutch Radical Critic Gustaaf Adolf van den Bergh van Eysinga, translated into German by Frans-Joris Fabri and posted on Hermann Detering’s RadikalKritik webpage. I have supplemented some of van Eysinga’s references in places. Other posts addressing Heracles:
Heracles (Hercules in Latin) in popular imagination with his club, his lion-skin, his twelve labours, his violent, gluttonous and promiscuous character, is so far removed from any conventional idea of Jesus Christ that any suggestion of the possibility of a comparison must seem utterly perverse. But the more I pore over the ancient texts I discern ever more striking overlaps at several levels. I try to imagine myself as an ancient dilettante philosopher familiar with the role of Heracles in a range of literary and philosophical writings and place in various devout and civic observances and wondering how I would respond to my first contacts with the writings about Jesus.
Let’s start with a most outrageous comparison. Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. Mary Marshall in her thesis Jesus and the Banquets and again in a derivative article, Glutton and Drunkard?, points out that such an insult was typically levelled at uninvited guests, at those who had tagged along as friends or hangers-on of the invitee: the point, Jesus was classed with those uninvited guests who had the reputation for overindulgence.
The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard . . .
The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard . . .
Once, when Ceÿx was celebrating the marriage of one of his children by a feast (γάμος), Heracles, being in those parts, presented himself, an uninvited guest. This was told in Hesiod’s Κήϋκος γάμοs, from which only a few words remain . . . .
Euripides, Alcestis, lines 745 ff
The guests I’ve seen here in Admetus’ house have been from everywhere, and I’ve served hundreds. But never have I welcomed to this hearth a guest more rude, more utterly offensive than this one. First of all, he had the nerve to come inside, although he clearly saw my master was in mourning. Once he’s in he lacks the simple wisdom and restraint to take the hospitality that’s offered—he’s aware of this disaster, knows what’s happened! Still, whatever we don’t bring, he asks for. He takes an ivy goblet in his hands and drinks the black grape’s undiluted offspring until the fire of wine has warmed his mind. He garlands his head with pliant myrtle stems and bellows tunelessly. A double melody was heard then: he was belting out his song, with no respect for the sorrows of the household, while we, the servants, wailed for our mistress. . . . It’s only natural that I should hate this guest for showing up at a time like this.
Aristophanes Frogs F. 62–5, 549 ff.)
SLAVE. You’ve returned, o dearest Herakles! Come on inside.
As soon as the goddess learnt you’d arrived down here,
She arranged for loaves to be baked and had several pots
Of pea soup boiled for you, got a whole ox roasted,
And had various cakes and breads prepared. Come on in!
. . . .
INNKEEPER. Plathane, Plathane, over here! Here’s the scoundrel himself,
The person who came to our inn some time ago
And devoured those sixteen loaves without paying.
The gluttony of Heracles, (narrated by his host, Coronus, son of the Lapith, Caeneus):
Two warm bodies of oxen he set in a circle around the embers, bodies crackling in the fire; and then I noted a noise of flesh and a heavy groaning of bones. There was no long time fitly to distinguish it.
Yes, but. Surely Jesus was blameless while Heracles was not. Maybe. We have different narratives about Jesus, not only canonical ones, presenting quite different characters of Jesus. Ditto for Heracles. And there is always room for the learned to rationalize the myths handed down.
To one type of thinker who meditated on the character of Heracles he was in fact the epitome of self-control.
Thus Pseudo-Lucian, The Cynic 13
Take Heracles, the best man that ever lived, a divine man, and rightly reckoned a God. Was it wrong-headedness that made him go about in nothing but a lion’s skin, insensible to all the needs you feel? No, he was not wrong-headed, who righted other people’s wrongs. He was not poor, who was lord of land and sea. Wherever he went, he was master. He never met his superior or his equal as long as he lived. Do you suppose he could not get sheets and shoes, and therefore went as he did? That’s absurd! He had self-control and fortitude. He wanted power, and not luxury.
Heracles was the personification of the Logos, of Reason itself. (Logos, of course, is translated most simply as the Word in reference to Jesus in the Fourth Gospel.) Mythical tales accrued to the remarkable person so that exaggerated stories transformed him into a being beyond normal human powers. Some of the mythical tales began as metaphors, symbolic of some otherwise genuinely historical aspect. Imagination had to be kept in check, though…
Cornutus, On Greek Theology 31
‘Heracles’ is universal reason thanks to which nature is strong and mighty, being indomitable as well: giver of strength and power to its various parts as well. The name comes, perhaps from the fact that it extends to heroes, and is what makes the noble famous. For the ancients called heroes those who were so strong in body and soul that they seemed to be part of a divine race. There is no need to be disturbed by the more recent story: the son of Alkmene and Amphitryon was deemed worthy of the same name as the god because of his virtue, so that it has become hard to distinguish what belongs to the god from the stories about the hero. The lion skin and the club may have originated with ancient theology and been transferred to the latter – it cannot have seemed right that a good military leader who launched powerful attacks on many parts of the earth would have gone around naked, armed only with wood: rather, then, the hero was decorated with these badges of the god when his services had earned him apotheosis. Both the lion-skin and the club can be a symbol of force and nobility: for the lion is the most powerful of the beasts, the club the mightiest of weapons. Traditionally, the god is an archer, because he extends everywhere, and because even the path of his missiles is somehow unwavering – and it is not an irrational commander who faces his enemies with his trust in weapons like this. The Koans have a tradition that, appropriately enough, he lived with Hebe, as if to make him more perfect in intelligence – as it is said: “The hands of the young are fitter for action, but the souls of the older are better by far.” I suspect that it is more plausible that the service to Omphale refers to him [sc. the god]: through it, the ancients showed again that even the strongest ought to submit themselves to reason and to do what it enjoins, even if its voice (which it would not be extraordinary to call ‘Omphale’) happens to call for the somewhat feminine activity of contemplation and rational inquiry. It is also possible to explain the Twelve Labours as referring to the god, as Cleanthes in fact did. But ingenuity should not always win the day.
The Christian dying saviour who atones for his people was a development of Hebrew ideas but the Greek influence cannot be ignored either. In fact, the evidence suggests that the Greek idea was embraced by Hebrew authors. (This post is sharing a few pages from J. W. van Henten’s The Maccabean Martyrs As Saviours of the Jewish People: A Study of 2 and 4 Maccabees. I work with Henten’s date for the composition of 2 Maccabees as around 124 B.C.E.)
We read in 2 Maccabees 6:12-17 that the suffering of the Jewish people at the hands of Seleucid kings is a sign of God’s special love for his people. God seeks to discipline his people before their sins get too far out of hand. That’s not how he treats the gentiles. He lets their sins continue until the reach some ultimate height and presumably then they will really suffer.
12 Now I urge those who read this book not to be depressed by such calamities, but to recognize that these punishments were designed not to destroy but to discipline our people. 13 In fact, it is a sign of great kindness not to let the impious alone for long, but to punish them immediately. 14 For in the case of the other nations the Lord waits patiently to punish them until they have reached the full measure of their sins; but he does not deal in this way with us, 15 in order that he may not take vengeance on us afterward when our sins have reached their height. 16 Therefore he never withdraws his mercy from us. Although he disciplines us with calamities, he does not forsake his own people. 17 Let what we have said serve as a reminder; we must go on briefly with the story.
The martyrs who suffer do so not only for their own sins but primarily because of the sins of all their people. (The only sins mentioned are those of the Jewish traitors.) A mother and her seven sons are martyred one by one, and before the sixth son was taken to suffer a gruesome fate we read in 2 Maccabees 7:18 his words spoken to Antiochus:
18 After him they brought forward the sixth. And when he was about to die, he said, “Do not deceive yourself in vain. For we are suffering these things on our own account, because of our sins against our own God. Therefore astounding things have happened.
“These things” that are suffered embrace both the suffering of the martyrs and the afflictions of the whole nation.
The seventh son expressed the same in 2 Maccabees 7:32
32 For we are suffering because of our own sins.
The same phrase “our own sins” is again found in 10:4 after the restoration of the Temple and prayers are made expressing hope never to suffer again the same way for their sins:
4 When they had done this, they fell prostrate and implored the Lord that they might never again fall into such misfortunes, but that, if they should ever sin, they might be disciplined by him with forbearance and not be handed over to blasphemous and barbarous nations.
The seventh son’s last words (7:37-38) were a declaration that his and his brothers’ martyrdom would bring an end to the sufferings of their people:
37 I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our ancestors, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by trials and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, 38 and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.
Henten interprets the above passages as meaning that the martyrs are suffering as a result of the sins of all the Jews:
The pattern of the narrative . . . as well as certain remarks in 5:17-20 and 6:12-17 support this interpretation (cf. 4 Macc. 4:21). The wicked deeds of some Jewish leaders have led the whole people including the martyrs into a state of sin. This explains why the youngest brother can say at 2 Macc. 7:38 that the wrath of the Lord “has justly fallen on our whole nation”. The godless actions of Simon, Jason, Menelaus, Lysimachus, Alcimus and the unfaithful soldiers of Judas are the only sins of Jews reported in 2 Maccabees. Nowhere are the sins of the martyrs themselves mentioned. The martyrs . . . die because of the sins of the people and in this way show their solidarity with the people.
The martyrs are acting on behalf of the entire people:
The references to “we”, “us” and “our” in 2 Macc. 7:16, 30, 32-33, 38 are intended to be inclusive; they point not only to the martyrs but also to the people. The youngest brother says in 7:30 to the Seleucid king that Moses has given the law of the Lord to “our ancestors”, thereby making the entire people responsible for keeping the Torah. In 2 Macc. 7:31, Antiochus is not called the adversary of the martyrs but of “the Hebrews”.
The sufferings that the martyrs in chapter 7 speak of are the sufferings of “the entire Jewish people” as well as to the martyrs. Reconciliation will follow the short period of torment, as the last son makes clear:
33 And if our living Lord is angry for a little while, to rebuke and discipline us, he will again be reconciled with his own servants. . . . . 38 and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.”
Immediately after the deaths of the seven sons and their mother the reconciliation begins. From chapter 8 the tide turns and Judas Maccabeus soundly defeats the army of Nicanor.
40 So he died in his integrity, putting his whole trust in the Lord. 41 Last of all, the mother died, after her sons. . . .
8 Meanwhile Judas, who was also called Maccabeus, and his companions secretly entered the villages and summoned their kindred and enlisted those who had continued in the Jewish faith, and so they gathered about six thousand. 2 They implored the Lord to look upon the people who were oppressed by all; and to have pity on the temple that had been profaned by the godless; 3 to have mercy on the city that was being destroyed and about to be leveled to the ground; to hearken to the blood that cried out to him; 4 to remember also the lawless destruction of the innocent babies and the blasphemies committed against his name; and to show his hatred of evil.
5 As soon as Maccabeus got his army organized, the Gentiles could not withstand him, for the wrath of the Lord had turned to mercy. 6 Coming without warning, he would set fire to towns and villages. He captured strategic positions and put to flight not a few of the enemy. 7 He found the nights most advantageous for such attacks. And talk of his valor spread everywhere.
The story flow leads the reader to understand that the martyrdoms were the turning point in God’s intervention and working through Judas Maccabeus to free the people from foreign domination.
This pattern is repeated when Razis kills himself to save his people — 2 Maccabees 14:37-46. Stabbing himself didn’t work, so he threw himself off a tower into the enemy below, but that didn’t work either, so he finally ripped out his entrails and flung them at his opponents. The following chapter sees Judas Maccabeus announcing to his troops a dream-sign from God (Jeremiah giving him a golden sword) with the only possible outcome, 15:27:
So, fighting with their hands and praying to God in their hearts, they laid low at least thirty-five thousand, and were greatly gladdened by God’s manifestation.
These stories of deaths that became turning points for the liberation of the Jews are core themes in 2 Maccabees. What was their source of inspiration?
[I]n 2 Macc. 7:37-38 classical and Hellenistic Greek vocabulary concerning the death for one’s fatherland (Hellas), home town, laws, friends, relatives or beloved131 is combined for the first time with conceptions about atonement in the Hebrew Bible . . . .
In the winter of 1779 large numbers of these brigands gathered together in the hill country near Philadelphia, at a spot named Valley Forge. They were led by an ex-officer named Washington, who had been impelled by ambition to repudiate his oath of allegiance and place himself at the head of the rebels. From this favorable position they carried out raids on those peaceful farmers in the vicinity who remained loyal to the government. The brigands received much encouragement from the scribblings of a dissolute mechanic named Benjamin Franklin, now almost senile, who in consequence of having printed a number of almanacs for the lower classes considered himself a man of letters.
Imagined by: Roth, Cecil. 1959. “The Jewish Revolt Against Rome:The War of 66-70 C.E.” Commentary, no. 27 (June): 513–22.
Josephus was a traitor. He went over to Roman side so we can imagine that he needed to justify himself in his account of events. If we read a historical narrative of the American War of Independence by Benedict Arnold we might expect a work written in the vein of the above imaginary quotation.
The point: We can’t read Josephus’s account of the war naively. It is a problem for historians to tease out “the true motives and attitudes behind the actions and personalities which we know only from Josephus’s jaundiced pages.” (Roth)
This is probably my favourite chapter in How the Gospels Became History by M. David Litwa. Is #15, “Eyewitnesses”.
— Who Is the Beloved Disciple? — I like Litwa’s answer to that question better than any argument that it was Paul or Mary or John or . . . .
— And does not striking life-like vividness of detail in a narrative strongly indicate an eyewitness report? It’s refreshing to see a biblical scholar answer that question in the negative.
But first, some opening quotes to give you the main drift:
Through the eyes of the literary eyewitness, a subjective and spiritual event could be represented as real and verifiable. . . . Fictive or not, eyewitnesses were greatly valued in ancient Mediterranean culture. . . .
Odysseus is weeping at the court of Alcinous as the blind minstrel Demodocus sings about Odysseus and Achilles at Troy while playing the harp. (Wikimedia)
Let Homer answer the question, so often asked rhetorically when apologists insist on the historicity of the gospels.
In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero Odysseus praises the singer Demodocus for relating the events of the Trojan War “as if you were present yourself, or heard it from one who was.” Demodocus was definitely not present, a point that Odysseus well knows. Still, by means of his vivid presentation, Demodocus could make it seem as if he were an eyewitness or had heard from one who was. Homer knew that if one was not an eyewitness, skillful literary art could produce an eyewitness effect.
(Litwa, 194 f)
Historians and eyewitness reports — comparing the gospels
Litwa points out that as a rule ancient Greco-Roman historians sought to impress audiences with the credibility and superiority of their accounts by appeals to eyewitness sources. Not that they cited an eyewitness with every event, but they would often boast of their first-hand information in a prologue or whenever a particularly unusual event was being narrated. If we accept this practice as the literary custom at the time the gospels were composed then Litwa’s argument makes sense:
The gospels were probably not written by eyewitnesses. If they were, the authors would have named themselves and explicitly claimed to have seen the events that they narrated. If they based their accounts on eyewitness reports, they would have named those eyewitnesses specifically and related their differing accounts. Real eyewitnesses would not have left firsthand experience open to doubt. They would have boasted, like Josephus, of their eyewitness status and used it to confirm their authority.<
But is not Luke an exception? Does he not claim to have interviewed eyewitnesses for his gospel?
Again, it is refreshing to read Litwa’s answer to this question:
To be sure, the author of Luke mentions receiving traditions from eyewitnesses (1:2). The fact that none of these witnesses is ever named and none of their reports is ever distinguished in the narrative, however, raises many questions. In fact, the author of Luke seems content to hide the nature of his sources. He clearly used the gospel of Mark, though he never once gives any impression that he did so. The details of his other sources, both oral and written, are never supplied.
Chapter Thirteen, “Disappearance and Recognition”, continues with an exploration of the little devices used by the author of the Gospel of Luke to build a sense of realism (or “historicity”) into the narrative of the two travellers on the Emmaus Road after the death of Jesus. These literary devices make the account seem very natural, acceptable as “reportage” of “what happened”. But then we come to the strange failure to recognize Jesus when he walks and talks alongside them and even after entering their home — until he breaks bread when he simply vanishes into thin air. Soon afterwards Jesus appears to his disciples by passing through a solid wall, after which he attempts to prove he is not a ghost but flesh just like them. M. David Litwa shows how such strange happenings were known and believed to have happened to Greek mythical characters. The point is that just as Greek myths could be told in a manner that lent them verisimilitude, placing the supernatural within a narrative of natural psychological reactions and settings, so the gospels do the same with the resurrection accounts of Jesus. One of the myths Litwa uses for comparison have also been discussed on Vridar, though not always in relation to the gospel: Baucis and Philemon. Another, one about hospitality given to an unrecognized Dionysus, you can read on archive.org’s poem by Silius Italicus. The motif of the gods preventing some people from seeing or recognizing them while allowing others to do so at certain times goes back to Homer. Walls did not prevent gods like Dionysus or Hermes from entering rooms, either.
Litwa covers other instances of humans dying only to have their bodies disappear and then reappear alive at some other time and place, as found in histories and biographies by Herodotus, Iamblichus and Philostratus. Sometimes the reappearing person even commands incredulous witnesses to touch him to see that he is real. Playwrights portrayed those returned from the dead as ghosts continued to bear the physical wounds they had suffered in the flesh so that they could be recognized by former acquaintances.
It would be a mistake to think that early Christians could see no comparison between their stories of Jesus and Greek myths. Justin Martyr, a mid-second century “Church Father”, addressed non-Christians thus:
The early Christian Justin Martyr even used these myihoi as a measuring rod of historical plausibility: “When we [Christians] say also that the Logos [i.e., Christ] … was crucified and died and rose again and ascended into heaven [aneleluthenai eis ton ouranon\, we propound nothing new [ou . . . kainon ti] beyond [what you believe] concerning those whom you call sons of Zeus.” Justin’s argument only works if the Greeks and Romans understood their ascent mythoi as records of real events.
(Litwa, 187 – Chapter 14)
In chapter fourteen (Ascent) Litwa addresses in detail the ancient belief in ascent to heaven in a cloud by one who at death is deified. Both the historian Livy and the biographer Plutarch write of what was believed to have been Romulus’s ascent and subsequent appearance on earth to a reputable eyewitness. The authors themselves may have been sceptical, as Litwa points out the Jewish philosopher was sceptical of Moses’ bodily ascent to heaven, but belief in the bodily ascent did persist among many.
And so forth. The gospel stories would not have been believed literally by sophisticated authors such as Cicero and Plutarch but it is evident that comparable stories, told with similar “naturalizing” techniques and contexts, were believed by others. The same techniques to create plausibility (see two earlier posts for the details) have led to millions ever since believing in the historicity of the gospel narratives. Litwa would be appalled, though, to take this point any further. His point is that the events in Jesus’ life were “remembered” through a cultural context that allowed the imagination to shape them in the direction of Greek myths.
Litwa, M. David. 2019. How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
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Though I have used the term resurrection stories M. David Litwa uses the more accurate heading “Empty Tombs and Translation” for chapter 12 of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths.
This chapter and the next three (“Disappearance and Recognition”, “Ascent” and “Eyewitnesses”) are thoroughly interesting and informative. I know my discussions of the earlier chapters of Litwa’s book found points to criticize but here, by contrast, I have found little to fault and much that contributes to a reader’s understanding of the literary contexts of the New Testament gospel accounts of the burial and resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps by now I have reconciled myself with the problem that Greco-Roman historians, unlike the evangelists, more often than not expressed some distance from the miraculous events they narrated, and have come to focus on the content of the events themselves. If so, I have had one of Litwa’s cited authors to thank, Sarah Iles Johnson, who showed how the Greek myths were generally told with techniques very similar to those used in our gospels.
Litwa begins with the “minimalist” burial and resurrection story of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark and finds overlaps with several Greek myths. In this earliest of our canonical gospels Jesus simply disappears at the end. (The original ending was at 16:8.) There is no resurrection appearance narrated though one was promised at a future time in Galilee. Similar “translations” of bodies to live elsewhere away from the human world are found in Homer’s Odyssey (Menelaus taken to the Elysian Fields) and in the biography of Apollonius of Tyana (see 8.30.3), though both of those heroes appear to have been snatched to immortality before physically dying. Not so Achilles. Achilles body on the pyre was attended and mourned by his mother who was promised by a divinity, at that tearful moment, that her son would be taken and restored alive and immortal in a far off island in the Black Sea (Quintus Smyrnaeus, Fall of Troy, Book 3, lines 770-780). Better than the story of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, we have accounts of eyewitnesses of the immortal and divine Achilles appearing “in the flesh” on that island:
Achilles himself is said to have appeared to a merchant who once visited the island often, related what took place in Troy, entertained him with drink as well, and ordered him after sailing to Ilion to bring him a Trojan maiden, saying that this particular woman was a slave to a certain man in Ilion. When the guest was astonished at the command and because of his new-found boldness asked Achilles why he needed a Trojan slave, Achilles said, “Because, my guest, she was born of the lineage from which Hektor and those living before him came and is what remains of the blood of the descendants of Priam and Dardanos.” Of course, the merchant thought that Achilles was in love, and after he bought the maiden, he sailed back to the island. When he came, Achilles praised the merchant and ordered him to guard the maiden for him on the ship, because, I suppose, the island was inaccessible for women. He ordered the merchant to come to the sanctuary at evening and to be entertained sumptuously with him and Helen. When he arrived Achilles gave him many things that merchants are unable to resist; he said that he considered him a guest-friend and granted him lucrative trade and safe passage for his ship. When day came, he said, “Sail away with these things, but leave the girl on the shore for me.” They had not yet gone a stade away from the land when the girl’s wailing struck them, because Achilles was pulling her apart and tearing her limb from limb.
MacLean, Jennifer K. Berenson, and Ellen Bradshaw Aitken, trans. 2002. Flavius Philostratus: On Heroes. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature. (p. 85, [section 56])
“Oral traditions” and personal accounts confirmed the “truth” about Achilles post-mortem existence:
“[3.19.11] A story too I will tell which I know the people of Crotona tell about Helen. The people of Himera too agree with this account. In the Euxine at the mouths of the Ister is an island sacred to Achilles. It is called White Island, and its circumference is twenty stades. It is wooded throughout and abounds in animals, wild and tame, while on it is a temple of Achilles with an image of him.
[3.19.12] The first to sail thither legend says was Leonymus of Crotona. For when war had arisen between the people of Crotona and the Locri in Italy, the Locri, in virtue of the relationship between them and the Opuntians, called upon Ajax son of Oileus to help them in battle. So Leonymus the general of the people of Crotona attacked his enemy at that point where he heard that Ajax was posted in the front line. Now he was wounded in the breast, and weak with his hurt came to Delphi. When he arrived the Pythian priestess sent Leonynius to White Island, telling him that there Ajax would appear to him and cure his wound.
[3.19.13] In time he was healed and returned from White Island, where, he used to declare, he saw Achilles, as well as Ajax the son of Oileus and Ajax the son of Telamon. With them, he said, were Patroclus and Antilochus; Helen was wedded to Achilles, and had bidden him sail to Stesichorus at Himera, and announce that the loss of his sight was caused by her wrath.”
Excerpt From: Pausanias. “Complete Works of Pausanias.” Apple Books.
Achilles was worshipped as a god into the fourth century CE. Poets and even ancient biographers or historians wrote of “eyewitness testimony” to the reality of his immortal existence.
Such stories were narrated as “historical” or at least as believed by many people. Litwa’s comment is apt:
If in a general way the gospel writers were influenced by Greek mythography, then they were specifically imitating those who put it into historical form.
While Aesop is defined βιωφελέστατος in the incipit of the Vita, meaning ‘very useful for life’, ‘great benefactor of mankind’, he is, in effect, an ugly and misshapenslave of Phrygian origin who, throughout most of the biography, is at the service of his master, Xanthus. In his case too, it is the modest, or better, lowly, origins which make the hero’s life so remarkable.
Andreassi, Mario. 2015. “The Life of Aesop and the Gospels: Literary Motifs and Narrative Mechanisms.” In Holy Men and Charlatans in the Ancient Novel, edited by Stelios Panayotakis, Gareth Schmeling, and Michael Paschalis, 151–66. Ancient Narrative Supplementum 19. Barkhuis. p. 154
It’s almost as if Jesus had grown up in Bethlehem the evangelists, who wanted to give him the most remarkable career imaginable, would have invented his move to a one donkey hick town like Nazareth just to make his splash on the world even more astonishing.
Chapter 11 of How the Gospels Became History again makes for fascinating reading as M. David Litwa explores in some depth the idea of the scapegoat in Greek myth as one part of the cultural and mythical context in which the gospels were written. The technical (Greek) term is pharmakos [link is to a brief Wikipedia definition and discussion of the term]. I first came across the idea in ancient Greek myth way back in high school when I read Mary Renault’s The King Must Die. My recollection of the impact that novel had on me was a kind of awe or horror. The idea is that to save a people from some sort of divine vengeance their king must be sacrificed to make way for a life-promising replacement. But the king is too noble to die so he must in some way be made worthy of death and that led to his being defiled and humiliated through some sort of maltreatment.
Litwa discusses the Greek myths of the Athenian king Codrus and the Theban Menoeceus who were two such scapegoats. A person of royal blood had to be sacrificed to save the city. In the case of Codrus,
To do so, he must change his form; he must go from the one highest in honor to the lowest. So the king dresses himself in the rags of slaves.
and in that of Menoeceus,
Twice the poet Statius (a contemporary of the evangelists) called Menoeceus a “sacrificial animal,” led “like a silent sheep from the flock.” Yet the hero’s heart is possessed by heavenly power. Before he sacrifices himself, he prays, “O gods above . . . and you who grant me to die by so great a death, Apollo, give constant joy to Thebes. This joy I have covenanted to give and lavishly bought with the price of all my blood.” When Menoeceus plummets to his death, his spirit rises before the high deity. In the city, the hero is worshiped with altars and temples.
(Litwa, p. 137)
We can see overlaps with the way the evangelists have structured the story of Jesus. The theme of such a death was part of the cultural heritage of the authors of the life of Jesus.
Another similarity Litwa addresses in some depth is that often the scapegoat is convicted of a religious crime of some sort:
The pharmakos is often convicted of what moderns would call a religious crime. He or she is accused of robbing a temple or somehow damaging it. Alternatively, the pharmakos may criticize how temple rituals are carried out and so incur the charge of blasphemy (hostile speech against a god). The perceived crime leads to a violent response on the part of the temple staff and city officials. They attempt to capture the pharmakos by deceit. When they capture him, they often beat him, parade him around the city, try him in a kangaroo court, and murder him. The willing pharmakos dies sac- rificially to safeguard the community. Yet the unjust death of the pharmakos incites divine punishment against the civic leaders — a plague, famine, or invasion.
At this point Litwa draws readers into a detailed comparison of the lives and deaths of Aesop and Jesus. For other comparisons online see first of all a post by Matthew Ferguson on his blog,
Litwa shows how, like Jesus, Aesop had the humblest of beginnings, yet was able to utter sorts of “parables” to confound and outsmart those who believed they were his betters, and in the end goes to Delphi, the sacred city of Apollo, is welcomed at first but soon his hosts turn against him, exacerbates the situation by speaking “parables” against the sins of the people and the priests in particular, is dragged out to his death outside the city, is subsequently worshipped as a god. Furthermore, the city of Delphi is sacked by enemies as punishment for their crime.
Litwa draws attention to the fact that Aesop was generally assumed to have been a historical figure. I find it difficult to think of the surviving versions of the Life of Aesop as “historical” narratives, however. Yet I have to grant that genres in ancient Greco-Roman literature were not so neatly defined as they are today, and “historical” accounts were not histories in the same sense moderns think of historical works. Ancient historical narratives were generally aimed to teach moral lessons and perhaps just as importantly, were aimed at entertaining their audiences. (Even Thucydides, usually upheld as the exemplar of dry detailed fact reporting, used devices from the poets and dramatists to add colour to his work.) The same techniques that Litwa identifies as adding an air of plausibility to ancient historical accounts (the death of Aesop was accompanied by earthquakes and other signs of divine displeasure) were also used by Greek novelists, dramatists and poets in their accounts of past heroes and the activities of gods in their lives and deaths.
It’s a fascinating chapter. It shows how the story of Jesus fit cultural paradigms of the first and second centuries CE Mediterranean world. We may look on the pharmakos theme as myth but it could be real enough in the minds of ancient audiences, as it is for many today.
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
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Litwa, M. David. 2019. How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
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).
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.
This is the second of two articles by Professor of Religion Sarah Iles Johnston. (The first article was addressed in Why Certain Kinds of Myths Are So Easy to Believe) I have been led to Johnston’s articles and books (along with other works addressing related themes by classicists) as I was led down various detours while reviewing M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. I expect interested readers will see the relevance of Johnston’s thesis to Christian myths in the gospels and understand more deeply the mechanics at work that make them so believable for so many people.
Many Greek mythical narratives (whether poetry, drama or prose) appear to have no necessary relationship with a particular festival or other special occasion. They appear to have a life of their own and can be recited in quite different contexts and often with variations of details and even basic storylines. Variations, hearing only parts of a story that must be somehow fitted with a larger narrative, but with some difficulty because of certain differences of character or details, such presentations of the myths had the potential to arouse intense curiosity and discussion, with individuals surely acquiring their own understanding, view and relationship with a god or hero.
Who would ever imagine any similarity between Socrates and the Homeric hero Achilles? Johnston does not raise this illustration but it is one that illustrates her point well. Plato informs us that Socrates compared himself with Achilles. The philosopher with the warrior? Yes, because Socrates could explain to his audience that like Achilles, he likewise heroically followed what he believed to be the right or pious course of life even knowing it would result in his premature death. Variations in narratives encouraged deeper reflection and personal relationships with what the gods and heroes represented.
As Johnston points out, Greek myths generally were not point by point analogies to the real world but were metaphorical tales that were subject to reinterpretation and different functions or applications. The myth of Persephone, as we saw in the previous post, served equally well for a celebration of the hope for a good harvest and hope for a happier afterlife for initiates into the mysteries.
There is a poem by a fifth-century BCE poet, Bacchylides, that offers us another instance such devices that encouraged curiosity and engagement with the myths. In the centre I outline the thought-flow of the poem (in paraphrase) and beside it I have circled all the points that the poem in references in the wider world of Greek myth. Notice how much detail is left to the audience’s imagination, how many questions are potentially raised among those who are perhaps not fully acquainted with all of the associations or who are aware of differences with other accounts, or what questions of character arise when set in the wider mythical world. And why is Heracles being honoured at a festival in honour of Dionysus anyway? The Greeks evidently did not find any strong need to bind each story to a specific or analogous occasion (Johnston). The conclusion is surely designed to provoke much thought and discussion about the death of Heracles and his relations with his first wife, and the role of the Centaur.
One detail not brought out in the following diagram is that several of the related myths are linked to familiar places in the Greek peninsula: the city Heracles razed was in Eritrea, the place where he offered to Zeus was Cape Lithada, for example.
Click on the diagram if it does not appear in full in normal Vridar page setting.
The point of the above? Johnston explains:
. . . . the Greeks cared less about always making tightly logical connections between festivals and myths than we have imagined—or to put it otherwise, that the contributions that mythic narratives made to creating and sustaining belief in the gods and heroes could be more broadly based than we have previously acknowledged. More specifically, I suggest that an essential element that enabled this breadth of applicability was the tightly woven story world that was cumulatively being created on a continuous basis by the myths that were narrated. The closely intertwined nature of this story world validated not only each individual myth that comprised it but all the stories about what had happened in the mythic past, the characters who inhabited them, and the entire worldview upon which they rested. Because it was embedded in this story world, a skillfully narrated myth about Heracles, for example, had the power to sustain and enhance belief not only in Heracles himself but in the entire cadre of the divine world of which he was a member, including those divinities to whom the festival at which the myth was performed was dedicated.
(Johnston, Greek Mythic Story World, 284)
It should be kept in mind that these myths were often performed publicly, at temples and festivals in honour of certain gods.
The audiences were primed by these conditions to open their minds to the ideas that the myths conveyed, and thus the two, festival and myth, mutually supported one another.
So what is it that “makes story worlds in general coherent and credible”, Johnston asks.
According to J.R.R. Tolkien there is the Primary World, the world in which we live, and then there is a Secondary World, one that an author creates and into which a reader enters — through “willing suspension of disbelief” (Coleridge?)? through “willing activation of pretense” (Saler)?, or, as Johnston prefers,
truly well-constructed story world requires no conscious decision at all on the part of audience members who participate in it — neither the suspension of disbelief nor the activation of pretense. It immerses readers or viewers so completely, yet so subtly, that they pass into it without even noticing that they are doing so.
A Secondary World needs to have a fence, a partition of some sort to separate it from our quotidian Primary World (Wolf). Dividing walls include wardrobe doors, rabbit holes, deserts traversed by houses carried in cyclones, interdimensional travel technology. Secondary Worlds are very different from Primary Worlds by virtue of strange inhabitants, strange landscapes, strange technology, and so forth. Greek myths are not exactly like that, nor are the gospels or other biblical stories. Yes, they do contain monsters, talking snakes and donkeys, but these oddities are placed in “our world”, a “real world”, the Primary World in which we all exist. They are the oddities in our “real” world; in Greek myths and biblical stories we have not, as a rule, entered worlds that are entirely strange in every way. (There are a few exceptions such as when Odysseus is on an island with a witch who changes his crew into wild beasts but such stories are set in a larger more recognizable world — with normal geographical, botanical and zoological features.)
But what if you can’t turn off the TV because you don’t even think it’s there?
What if the materials that train the mind to think in certain ways and to accept alternative realities are not understood by the audience — and perhaps not by the authors, either — to be fictions, at least in the usual sense of that word? (Johnston)
This post is based primarily on the first of two essays by classicist Sarah Iles Johnston exploring why Greek myths captured imaginations so strongly and what made them “real”, even “historical”. We will see that Johnston’s thesis overlaps with M. David Litwa’s in How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths but I will save a more detailed comparison with Litwa’s views when I return to reviewing that book.
Most of us know at least a few of the ancient myths and that’s part of the problem when it comes to understanding how the ancient peoples who believed them heard them. We have books with collections of myths and we read each myth ripped from the context in which it was originally understood.
I do want to suggest that, having fallen into the habit of excising Greek myths from their narratives, scholars have long overlooked one of the most salient and significant features of mythic narratives: their ability to engage their audiences emotionally and cognitively. . . . [T]his habit prevented us from understanding some of the most important reasons that myths were able to help create and sustain ancient Greek beliefs in the gods, heroes, and the divine world more generally . . . .
(Johnston, Narrating Myths, 174)
We will see that Johnston analyses the way Greek myths were able to allow listeners to feel that they were not merely hearing a story that happened long ago but that they themselves “were living amongst the gods and heroes, even if as lesser partners” (p. 190).
The Magical Myth
To make her case Johnston begins by explaining a very common type of ancient myth that was quite different from Greek myths. Johnston uses a term that is closely related to magic: “historiola”, meaning “a short mention of an analogous mythical story” (Maas, 37). Example, an Egyptian “historiola” myth:
… Isis came out of the spinning house [at the hour] when she loosened her thread. “Come, my sister Nephthys! See, my deafness has overtaken me! My thread has entangled me! Show me my way that I may do what I know [how to do], so that I may extinguish him with my milk, with the salutary liquids from within my breasts. It will be applied to your body, Horus, so that your vessels become sound. I will make the fire recede that has attacked you!”
While the mother recites these words, she applies her own milk to her child, just as Isis applied hers to Horus. The child’s fever is expected to break, just as Horus’s fever broke.
And one more:
To take another example: if a baby has a headache, then its mother might invoke the paradigm of “banished headache” by telling of how Christ pushed the Evil Eye off a rock to stop it from giving headaches to another baby, thus “persuading” her own child’s headache to go away as well (Pócs 2009.29, from a Romanian example that is still in use today).
That’s magic, in my view. Repeat a story that happened long ago and in a far-off or far-away “world” and apply it to cause the same thing to happen in the present moment. They are like curse pronouncements. Repeat a formula that draws down the power of the spirits and have them act in this world accordingly.
But that’s not the way it worked with Greek myths.
Take the myth of Persephone. In place of a direct cause-effect action between the mythic story and the real world we enter the realm of metaphor:
The story of Persephone’s annual return from the world of the dead, for example, when narrated in connection with the Eleusinian mysteries, was not meant to suggest that initiates into the mysteries would similarly return from the Underworld for a portion of each year after they had died, but rather reminded them that initiation ensured them happier existences down below once they had gotten there. Persephone’s experiences were a metaphor for those of the initiates; the two shared the salient characteristic of being partial triumphs over death but differed insofar as, among other things, although Persephone annually returned to the world of the living, the dead initiates did not. When narrated in connection with the Thesmophoria, the same story metaphorically expressed the celebrants’ hopes that crops would once again rise from the dark earth into which seeds were cast; the two shared the salient characteristic of anticipating the annual return of something desirable but differed insofar as, for example, although Persephone returned each year in her own right, the crops “returned” only in the sense that their seeds generated new plants to replace them (an idea that, in turn, served as a metaphor for the Thesmophoria’s other focus: the successful conception and birth of new human children). The fact that some stories, like this one, could serve as meaningful accompaniments for two different festivals with different primary goals underscores their metaphorical nature: had the relationship between the myths and the rituals I just described been one of straightforward analogy, such double service would not have worked very well.
To understand the point further:
. . . the aim of a traditional historiola, after all, is to cause something in the quotidian realm to pattern itself after something in the mythic realm not in only one or two salient ways but rather as closely as possible.
But Greek myths were not like that. They did not have that sort of magic power; they were not told to produce magical effects in this world.
. . . the deeds described by the myths existed on a continuum that flowed uninterruptedly into the time of the listeners. A well-narrated Greek myth would leave those listeners feeling not that they were repeating paradigmatic actions of the gods and heroes that had been performed eons ago (as is the case with historiolae), but rather that they were living amongst the gods and heroes, even if as lesser partners.
No, the Greek myths were different. They somehow “prepared their audiences to feel as if they were living amongst the gods and heroes.”
It seems more likely that Jesus was thought to have a coherent “message’ only after his death and so we have several different creations of it. . . .
[E]ither Q, Thomas, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and, for that matter, John did not know clearly what Jesus’ teachings were; or they didn’t care; or that they did know but disagreed with him so that they revised what he taught into something else; or that they did know what were said to be his teachings, did not trust those reports, and revised accordingly. Something odd is going on here. . . . .
When Sanders, standing in here for nearly all Jesus research scholars, says, “I do not doubt that he was a great and challenging teacher,” I am baffled. Mark doubts it (4:10-12, 8:17-21), neither Paul nor John pay any significant attention to those teachings, Luke cares little about the matter (taking Acts as representative of Luke’s bottom-line assessment). Scholarship, theological and historical both, is in a state of near conceptual chaos regarding the message of Jesus the Teacher: countercultural wisdom sage, peasant Jewish Cynic, Pharisaic rabbi, antipatriarchal communalist, eschatological preacher? If he had a coherent message and neither we nor his known near contemporaries know for sure what it was, he ought not to be thought, first and foremost, to have been a great and challenging teacher.
(Davies, Jesus the Healer, 12 f)
A few scholars (I’m thinking of Stevan Davies) even question the extent to which Jesus should be thought of as a teacher, or at least they draw attention to the doubts they have that we can even know what he taught.
Rewriting a biblical miracle for a gentile audience
Chapter 10 on the narratives of Jesus as a miracle worker I found of more interest, perhaps because this aspect of Jesus is covered in all four gospels.
Here Litwa’s philosophical introduction on the nature of miracles is too embedded in apologetics for my taste. He prefers to think of “inexplicable” events and repeats the apologetic argument that plausibility is culturally determined, that everything follows a law of nature as determined by God but that some of these divinely created laws or events we simply don’t yet understand. He writes
In the ancient world, plausible miracles could parade as historical; implausible ones were often labeled “mythical” (mythodes).
The first example of a “plausible miracle” raises problematic questions when it comes to how we are meant to understand Jesus’ miracles, however. According to Litwa’s reading Josephus used the “miracle” of Alexander’s crossing of the Pamphyialn Sea as a precedent that gave credibility to the Israelites crossing the Red Sea.
The story that the Pamphylian Sea receded before Alexander’s army, however, was apparently credited. According to historical report, Alexander’s entire army in all their heavy equipment passed through a sea channel that would have normally drowned them. This account was first told by Callisthenes of Olynthus, official historian of Alexander’s campaign and an apparent eyewitness of the event. Callisthenes assimilated Alexander to Poseidon by writing that the Pamphylian Sea “did not fail to recognize its lord, so that arching itself and bowing, it seemed to do obeisance [to Alexander].”5
Josephus mentioned the Pamphylian Sea miracle to make plausible his historiographical account of Moses parting the Red Sea.6 He knew that qualified and respected historians presented Alexander’s sea miracle as historiography.7 He even remarked that “all” historians agreed that the sea made a path for Alexander’s army.8 Thus Josephus felt justified in presenting his own (Jewish) sea miracle as an actual event in the past.
If we accept the common dating of Josephus’s account of the Jewish War, around 75 CE, then consider what this means for the historicity of the following events. Apply the reasoning of those who argue for the historicity of New Testament miracles. Josephus declares he is recording events no more than ten years earlier and he speaks of eyewitnesses.
First a star stood over the City, very like a broadsword, and a comet that remained a whole year.
Then before the revolt and the movement to war, while the people were assembling for the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the 8th of Xanthicos at three in the morning so bright a light shone round the Altar and the Sanctuary that it might have been midday. This lasted half an hour. The inexperienced took it for a good omen, but the sacred scribes at once gave an interpretation which the event proved right.
During the same feast a cow brought by someone to be sacrificed gave birth to a lamb in the middle of the Temple courts,
while at midnight it was observed that the East Gate of the Inner Sanctuary had opened of its own accord – a gate made of bronze and so solid that every evening twenty strong men were required to shut it, fastened with iron-bound bars and secured by bolts which were lowered a long way into a threshold fashioned from a single slab of stone. The temple-guards ran with the news to the Captain, who came up and by a great effort managed to shut it. This like the other seemed to the laity to be the best of omens . . . .
A few days after the Feast, on the 21st of Artemisios, a supernatural apparition was seen, too amazing to be believed. What I have to relate would, I suppose, have been dismissed as an invention had it not been vouched for by eyewitnesses and followed by disasters that bore out the signs. Before sunset there were seen in the sky over the whole country, chariots and regiments in arms speeding through the clouds and encircling the towns.
Again, at the Feast of Pentecost, when the priests had gone into the Inner Temple at night to perform the usual ceremonies, they declared that they were aware, first of a violent movement and a loud crash, then of a concerted cry: ‘Let us go hence.’
(Josephus, Jewish War, 6)
A star “over a city” is as nonsensical to us as a star positioned over the house where Jesus was found. And comets do not stay around for a full year. But how could Josephus get away with writing such things within ten years of them supposedly happening unless they were true and could not be contradicted by eyewitnesses, both Roman and Jewish?
Josephus further tells us that priests saw and interpreted the signs and priests would hardly lie. They were, after all, attempting to tell the masses that what they had seen should be interpreted as a sign from God carrying a different message.
If the cow giving birth to a lamb had been said to have happened in a cowshed or behind an outhouse then we could dismiss it easily enough. But how could Josephus expect to get away with saying it happened right in the middle of the Temple courts? Surely there were scores of eyewitnesses.
As for the appearance of angelic armies in the sky being confirmed by eyewitnesses, we can well believe it. We know the same type of event was recorded but a mere month after the battle at Mons in 1914: see the Angels of Mons.