2022-11-11

In Six Days: Genesis 1 as Science — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus – 5b]

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Thanks to Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group for the review copy.

Genesis 1 is not a science text. It is primarily a theological myth but it is theology and myth wrapped around a contemporary scientific understanding of how the earth and heavens came into existence. Russell Gmirkin in Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts sets out a case for the author(s) of Genesis 1 being well-read in the Greek literature of the third century BCE and composing an account designed to promote piety among the wider communities of Samaria and Judea.

Like Plato’s Craftsman God who shaped and ordered the primeval elements into a beautiful cosmos, the creator deity of Genesis 1 appears to stand apart from the chaos as he commences his work of “purposefully”, “intentionally”, fashioning everything to be “good”. He does this mostly by a process of dividing and separating elements, assigning each new item its appropriate name, and expressing satisfaction in the “goodness” of the completed product. In all of the above, Plato would have recognized in Genesis 1 a brief theological-scientific summary of his own understanding of how the creator god made the heavens and the earth. But there would have been a few details Plato disagreed with. The author of Genesis 1 was up to date with scientific theories that had been developed since Plato’s time.

The First Day

Science Theology
God said, “Let there be…” — Xenophanes: a supreme being set all things into motion by thoughts of his mind alone. God said, “Let there be…” — Plato: Divine purpose
God separated the light from the darkness — Empedocles; Hesiod and Plato – cosmos was formed by separating its primary elements God saw the light was good — Plato: God was good and creating the cosmos in his perfect image
Light appears before the sun is formed — Empedocles’ theory of aether; Zeno; also Hesiod and Plato God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night” — Plato: the importance of names
Evening and morning were the first dayPlato: God’s first act of creation was time (days and nights and other means for measuring time)  

 

Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. (Gen 1:3)

How could a god create by merely saying a word? We are not reading about a magic performance because the command is not directed at any particular object to become something else. Plato does not express the idea of God creating by command, as RG notes. Rather,

The best parallel is perhaps provided by the natural philosopher Xenophanes, who held that the omnipotent supreme being effortlessly set all things into motion by the thoughts of his mind alone (Simplicius, Physics 23.11, 20; Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians 9.144; cf. Jaeger 1936: 45; Flannery 2010: 84) (Gmirkin, 126)

Genesis 1:4

God saw that the light was good

Plato:

He was good, and in him that is good no envy ariseth ever concerning anything; and being devoid of envy He desired that all should be, so far as possible, like unto Himself. (29e)

He fashioned the All, that so the work He was executing might be of its nature most fair and most good. (30b)

The separation of elements was a prominent theme of Greek science:

and God separated the light from the darkness (Gen 1:4)

But first, how could there be light before the creation of the sun? Hesiod wrote in Theogony, 123-125:

From Chaos were born Erebos [Darkness] and black Nyx [Night];
from Nyx were born Aither and Hemera [Day]

Aether is the light sky, created before the sun and stars.

The four elements together constitute unqualified substance or matter. Fire is the hot element, water the moist, air the cold, earth the dry. . . . Fire has the uppermost place ; it is also called aether, and in it the sphere of the fixed stars is first created ; then comes the sphere of the planets, next to that the air, then the water, and lowest of all the earth, which is at the centre of all things. (Diogenes Laertius, explaining the theory of Empedocles.)

Day and night were the first acts of God’s creation:

God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. (Gen 1:5)

. . . and Plato agreed. After creating the various elements themselves, Plato’s god began by creating time — “days and nights” — and the various heavenly bodies by which time was to be measured. The author of Genesis delayed those measuring devices until the fourth day.

For simultaneously with the construction of the Heaven He contrived the production of days and nights and months and years, which existed not before the Heaven came into being. And these are all portions of Time; even as “Was” and “Shall be” are generated forms of Time (Timaeus 37e)

The Second Day

Science Theology
Separation of earth and sky — Plato: Thus it was that in the midst between fire and earth God set water and air (Timaeus 32b) And God made the dome in the middle of the waters — Plato: God is the Creator

And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. (Gen 1:6-8)

I have often read that passage as an account of some sort of iron dome in the sky, but though the idea of a metallic vault with holes to enable rain to fall is found elsewhere in the Bible it is not, RG points out, what is described in Genesis 1.

The air, which was lighter and warmer than the earth and seas, but not as light or hot as the tenuous realm of fiery aether, formed an intermediate zone between the earth and upper skies. It is evident that this airy region is designated in Genesis 1 as the expanse of the heavenly dome or firmament (raqia), since it is given the name Sky (Gen 1:8) and it is in this same sky that the fowl were later said to fly and in which the sun, moon, and stars were placed (Gen 1:17, 20). Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, the word raqia designates a metallic vault or dome above the earth, supported by the highest mountains, and as firm as a brazen mirror, and having doors and windows through which the rain and snow fell (Gen 7:11; 28:17; Ps 78:23), as in the Ancient Near Eastern mythical cosmogony. But no such meaning attaches to the term raqia here. Rather, raqia here appears as a simple legacy from the older, pre-scientific language usage, an old term for the sky familiar to the intended audience of Genesis 1, but used there without its mythical linguistic baggage. Rather, raqia is best understood as a simple reference to the dome of the sky. (p. 129)

The Third Day

Science Theology
Separation of earth and seas — Anaximander, Heraclitus, …. God said, . . . — as above
Spontaneous generation of plants — Empedocles, Archelaus, Democritus, … and it was so — as above
Plants are not “living souls” like animals — Zeno God called the dry land “Earth”…. — as above
Plants emerge before the sun is formed Empedocles God saw that it was good — as above
Classifications of plants (domestic and wild) — Plato, …

And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:9-10)

Recall from earlier posts the theories of Greek science that notion of like bodies being attracted to like, and the heavier sinking below while the lighter ones rose to the top, the dry elements gathering separately from the wet, the hot from the cold.

Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. (Gen 1:11-13)

Here we find a disagreement with Plato and Aristotle and a preference for the views of Zeno, the founder of Stoic philosophy. While Plato and Aristotle classified plants with animals (“living souls”) because they all possessed some ability to move, however limited, Zeno said that plants were not “ensouled creatures”.

[Gen 1:11-13] makes the claim, common in Greek science, that the first plant life sprung up from the earth by spontaneous generation. According to theories proposed by several natural philosophers, the seeds of life were present throughout the mixture of elements in the primordial chaos. (p. 131)

After initially generating spontaneously from the earth, the plants thereafter reproduced by means of seeds. Again, we have a scientific classification, this time of plants into two kinds according to their manner of propagating seeds.

Notice, also that plants are said to emerge before the sun is created. Compare the view of the Greek philosopher Empedocles who said

that trees were the first animals to grow up from the earth, before the sun was unfolded around it and before night and day were separated… They grow by being raised out by the heat in the earth, so that they are parts of the earth just as embryos in the abdomen are part of the womb. (Aetius 5.26.4)

The Fourth Day

Science Theology
Let there be lights… two great lights… — “description of heavenly bodies as lights or lamps (maor), a term also used for clay lamps and candlesticks (Ex 25:6; Num 4:9, 16; Ps 64:16). This indicates that the sun, moon and stars were viewed as vessels containing fire an idea also advocated by several noted philosophers (Anaxmines, Empedocles, Heraclitus), but contrary to the theory of Anaxagoras …” (p. 132) God said, . . . — as above
set them in the dome of the sky — that is, in the atmosphere  (as per various Greek philosophers) and God made two great lights — as above
signs, seasons, years and days — the technical terms used here overlap with those in the Astronomical Book of Enoch (“signs” = points of the equinoxes and solstices). Commentaries generally say Enoch borrowed from Genesis, but it is possible that the Genesis author borrowed from Enoch (VanderKam, p. 97). RG states that he will discuss these matters in a future work on Babylonian and Samaritan scientific and mythical traditions in Genesis 1-11. for signs and for seasons and for days and years. . . to give light upon the earth — Plato: the heavenly bodies were created and set in their motions for the benefit of humanity on earth; they were thus “proofs” of divine benevolence. (Other Greek philosophers disagreed, claiming they were thrown into their orbits and took on their characteristics by natural and unplanned processes.)

And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years. And let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day. (Gen 1:14-19)

Plato disagreed with other natural philosophers like Anaxagoras who understood the heavenly bodies to have been thrown into the upper regions because of their lighter nature and were ignited by clashing together, and such like. For Plato, there was nothing “natural” about the “design” of the orbits of these bodies: they were carefully set in their orbits by a divine intelligence for the benefit of humankind.

Along with the theology, RG points to three scientific details (concepts found among the Greek philosophers) here: these heavenly bodies were fire-containing vessels, were in the airy part of the heavens; and were useful for calendrical purposes.

The Fifth Day

Science Theology
Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures — an implicit endorsement of the Greek theory of panspermia, that the seeds of life were scattered throughout all primeval matter. So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind — Contradicts the scientific opening pointing to spontaneous generation of the sea life and water-birds from the ocean. Here God fashions the sea life and water birds.
God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply — The word for “blessed” is a command: God is commanding them to reproduce sexually after their initial emergence/fashioning.

And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures (LXX ψυχών ζωσών), and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day. (Gen 1:20-23)


If the opening statement depicts spontaneous generation the later sentence has God making the sea creatures. For RG, this contradiction arises from the author attempting to impose a theological account on top of what was understood to be the scientific process.

The Sixth Day

Science Theology
Let the earth bring forth living creatures — Spontaneous generation was a widespread Greek scientific notion for the origin of living creatures. And God said . . .  God made — as above
Classification by air, water and land animals; four-footed and many-footed; domestic and wild animals and plants — scientific classifications comparable to those found in Plato. But Plato had four classifications: another one for heavenly life forms, that is, the gods or stars — omitted in Genesis. God saw that it was good — as above

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle (LXX τετράποδα [=tetrapods]) and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:24-25)

RG posits that the author of Genesis is overlaying scientific concepts with a theological narrative. One of the scientific concepts here is said to be reference to life forms, plants and animals, according to classifications such as are found among the early Greek natural philosophers. Here we have two types of animals: the wild and the domestic; four-footed and those that “creep”, presumably those with many more legs or no legs. With that understanding in mind, it is interesting to compare Greek scientific concepts with a list of created life forms in an early Mesopotamian creation account:

Plato speaks of four classifications of living forms:

And so there are four kinds of living beings in the universe:

  1. the heavenly gods (i.e. including the stars),
  2. winged creatures that travel through the air,
  3. those that live in water,
  4. and finally those that go on foot on dry land. (Timaeus 40a)

Of the different kinds of land animals, Plato wrote:

. . . animals of this kind have four or more legs, and the more mindless they were, the more such underpinning the gods gave them, to draw them even closer to the ground. As for the most mindless of them, the ones with their whole bodies level with the ground, the gods made them without feet, since they no longer needed them at all; these are the creatures that crawl along the ground. (Timaeus 92a)

and further, land animals were classified into the wild and the tame:

. . . all animals [are] divided into tame and wild. For if their nature admits of domestication they are called tame; if it does not, they are called wild. (Statesman 263e-264a)

And there were two kinds of plants:

These living beings are now cultivated trees, plants, and seeds, which have been reclaimed by agriculture for our use from their original wild state, before they were ever cultivated. (Timaeus, 77a)

and the cultivated plants were further subdivided:

as for cultivated crops — both the dry sort (that is, our staple and all the others we use as foodstuffs, which we collectively call ‘pulses’) and the arboreal sort (not only the sources of our drink and food and oil, but also the produce of fruit-bearing trees which, though hard to store, exists for the sake of our amusement and our pleasure) (Critias, 115b)

Compare and Contrast a Babylonian Creation Myth

Continue reading “In Six Days: Genesis 1 as Science — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus – 5b]”


2022-10-03

Why Genesis 1-3 is Different from Other Myths — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus – 3b]

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by Neil Godfrey

With thanks to Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, for the review copy.

(continuing the series on Russell Gmirkin’s Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts) ….

If the authors of Genesis were inspired by Plato’s discourse on the origins of the cosmos in Timaeus how can one explain the obvious contrast between Plato’s lengthy scientific and philosophical reasoning and the simple narrative in Genesis 1:1-2:3?

To answer this question Russell Gmirkin [RG] begins by explaining that there were “seven distinct modes of Greek discourse on cosmogony” and that authors adapted their rhetoric according to the particular audiences each had in view.

1. Scientific Discourse: Natural philosophers most often wrote for their elite, wealthy and educated peers. “Schools” or “universities” were established by prominent thinkers (e.g. Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum) and cosmogonies were written to expound their underlying philosophical reasoning.

2. Revealed Myth: Parmenides of Elea wrote cosmogonies addressed to two different audiences. In Way of Truth he wrote a detailed scientific discourse for his educated peers. In Way of Opinion he wrote a cosmogony in the form of a myth that was being taught by the goddess Justice or Necessity.

Bust of Parmenides discovered at Velia (Wikipedia)

In this mode of discourse, the aim was not to achieve knowledge but to induce belief in the theories being presented. Here Parmenides appears to have anticipated Plato, who advocated implanting beliefs in the citizenry as a necessary precursor to achieving true knowledge in a select few . . . . It appears that Parmenides (like Plato) saw a social utility in presenting theories of cosmogony to the general public under divine authority, since he named the appropriate goddess as Necessity or Justice, “who steers the course of all things,” suggesting that a mythical account on cosmogony that recognized a divine steering principle was needed to ensure a pious and just citizenry. It appears that the populace was induced to believe not only that this account of the origins of the universe was divine, but also had the endorsement of the scientific educated elites. The poetic form of the discourse may have been intended to enhance its appeal to the masses. (pp. 66f)

3. Myth as Discourse (Enchantment): Plato taught that in an ideal government philosophers should rule and oversee all aspects of education from infancy to adulthood. The curriculum for the young had to consist of myths that fostered “good” behaviour. These myths needed to be attractive to all ages, especially the young, and hence were to be relayed in songs, poems, theatrical performances and public readings at festivals. Existing myths that told of gods were useful but first had to be censored by the philosopher rulers to remove from them every negative and immoral act of the gods. Nothing bad about the gods was to enter the minds of the citizens. Education was to encompass the whole society, from mothers telling infants nursery rhymes to entertaining performances (singing, reading, acting) for the young and adults.

The aim and intended reception of discourse by myth was to induce belief, and thereby implement societal conformity to theological and ethical norms. Myth, whether in the form of song, story or theatrical performance, was chosen as the medium for inducing belief, due to the pleasant, entertaining, enchanting character of the myth . . . Myth was thus the chosen rhetorical tool to condition the emotions and convey theological and ethical truths on a pre-rational level to intellectually unsophisticated audiences. (p. 68)

Genesis 1 reads as an authoritative story. It was not entirely a myth like other creation myths. It presented a scientific account of the moving power over the primordial chaos bringing about a series of separations that led to day and night, earth and sea, the spontaneous generation of life forms from the ocean, and so forth.

A story format was highly suitable for instilling beliefs about God’s fashioning of the universe for audiences of all ages and was easily understood by school children and even the youngest children, important target audiences under Plato’s system of education. (p. 68)

The second creation account (Genesis 2:4ff) follows up the cosmogony with a mythical narrative about the origins of animals and humans, the reason humans dominate the animals, the introduction of sexual reproduction and clothing, etc. It is a story easily understood by all, from the very young to the old. The beginning of the account may be a subtle reminder of Greek myths:

These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created . . .  — see Gen 2:4 for the Hebrew text

Continue reading “Why Genesis 1-3 is Different from Other Myths — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus – 3b]”


2022-06-07

The Pale Horse of the Apocalypse, Its Rider and Companion

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by Neil Godfrey

This post concludes an outline of Thomas Witulski’s analysis of Revelation 6:1-8. All posts are archived under Witulski: Die Vier Apokalyptischen Reiter Apk 6

And I looked, and behold a pale green/blue horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hades followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth. — Revelation 6:8
Bodleian Library MS. Canon. Bibl. Lat. 62

Here we have two figures, one named Death and another, following, named Hades. The two of them, together, have power over the fourth part of the earth. I bypass here the bulk of Thomas Witulski’s discussion about the authenticity of the received text and other passages in which “Death and Hades” appear and jump to his conclusion:

. . . [T]he view has prevailed in ancient historical research that the uprising of the Jews in Egypt and North Africa was ultimately put down by the collaboration of two Roman commanders; on the one hand, the governor of the province of Aegyptus, Μ. Rutilius Lupus, and on the other hand, the praefectus classis Q. Marcius Turbo. (W. 192)

If we accept the view that the four horsemen represent historical persons, that the first horseman was the emperor Trajan, that the second horseman signified the Jewish messianic uprisings, and that the third represented an Asian governor attempting to regulate the consequences of that uprising, then we may think it necessarily follows that the fourth horseman named Death along with another named Hades represent the two Roman commanders appointed to suppress that Jewish rebellion.

The colour of the horse is χλωρός (chloros). The Liddell-Scott-Jones Lexicon gives its meaning as greenish-yellow, pale, green. Various commentaries denote its meaning as the colour of death, of a pale blue corpse. The word appears in Homer’s epics when persons are faced with the “pale horror” of imminent death. Another Greek author wrote of facing imminent death so that he turned “paler than grass in autumn”.

The two riders are given power over a quarter of the earth. That does not mean that they killed a quarter of the earth but that they were given that portion of the earth in which to exercise their power.

On the phrase “to kill with the sword”, David E. Aune in Revelation 6–16 notes

“To kill with the sword” sounds like a parody of the Roman ius gladii, “law of the sword,” i.e., the power to punish individual criminals (Digest 2.1.3; A. Berger, Roman Law, 529). (403)

Continue reading “The Pale Horse of the Apocalypse, Its Rider and Companion”


2022-04-17

The Deer in Acts of the Apostles and the Aeneid

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by Neil Godfrey

So I have not been the only one to pick up on the meaning of the name of a woman Peter raised from the dead and associate it with Virgil’s Aeneid. Her name is given as Dorcas, meaning a “deer”, and her healing follows immediately after Peter’s healing of Aeneas. Michael Kochenash has written a chapter on the same intertextual link in Roman Self-Representation and the Lukan Kingdom of God.

We have a different emphasis, though.

In Acts, Peter raises from the dead a well-loved disciple named Tabitha, “Greek name Dorcas”, who had won renown for her caring work of making woven clothes. This scene takes place on the cusp of expanding the Christian mission from the Jews to the gentiles. Since that miracle took place just after the healing of Aeneas, the namesake of the famed mythical founder of the Romans, I was reminded of the dramatic scene in Virgil’s Aeneid where a slain deer is the cause of war between Aeneas’s company and the Latins. It was that war that marked the beginning of a place for the ancestors of Rome in Italy. Like Dorcas, the deer was well-loved by all around her and associated with woven decoration.

Acts 9:

32 As Peter traveled about the country, he went to visit the Lord’s people who lived in Lydda. 33 There he found a man named Aeneas, who was paralyzed and had been bedridden for eight years. 34 “Aeneas,” Peter said to him, “Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and roll up your mat.” Immediately Aeneas got up. 35 All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.

36 In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor. 37 About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. 38 Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!”

39 Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.

40 Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. 41 He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers, especially the widows, and presented her to them alive. 42 This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord.

Dido with Aeneas on the hunt for deer; Dido will become the victim deer (image from myartprints.co.uk)

Virgil’s epic poem about the odyssey of Aeneas from Troy to Italy where he founded the settlement that would become Rome sustains the image of deer throughout books 1, 4, 7, 10 and 12. A crisis in the epic occurs when Aeneas is in danger of being diverted from his divine mission by falling in love with Dido, the queen of Carthage. After Aeneas finally breaks free and leaves for Italy, the distraught Dido kills herself with the sword Aeneas had gifted her. Kochenash discusses at some length the deer similes in these episodes and their resonances in the Acts passage that I had completely overlooked. The emotionally wounded Dido is compared to a wounded deer. Her death is caused by Aeneas in two senses: by his leaving her and by her taking the sword he had left her. The metaphor Virgil uses is that of arrows of the hunter slaying the deer, an ironic twist on the arrows shot by Cupid.

There are other deer comparisons in the Aeneid that Kochenash addresses in the same context. One of these is the climactic end of the epic where Aeneas, compared with a savage hunting dog, slays the king Turnus who is likened to a helpless deer.

What does all of this have to do with Acts and Peter’s healing of Dorcas, apart from the fact that Dorcas means “deer”?

First of all, the author of Acts drew special attention to the name Dorcas by presenting it as a translation of the Aramaic Tabitha. Secondly, and I think most significant, is that the healing happens at Joppa, the place known from the story of Jonah who took God’s message to the gentiles of his day. Jonah tried to flee from his task by taking a ship from Joppa but God redirected him back to Assyria. And third, the reader is primed to “think Roman” by the immediately preceding healing of Aeneas.

Or in Kochenash’s words,

The three Petrine narratives within Acts 9:32–11:18 represent a transition in the mission of the kingdom of God: the inclusion of those beyond the margins of Jewish religion and society (i.e., Gentiles). Tabitha lives in the city of Joppa, a detail emphasized by Luke to foreshadow the Gentile mission that begins in the next narrative. The tragedy of Dido reflects a Roman attitude that human life is expendable when it impedes the progress of Rome’s empire. When Luke’s Peter is thus read as contrasting with Virgil’s Aeneas in a pivotal narrative concerned with the expansion of the kingdom of God, the character of God’s kingdom becomes evident by contrast to that of Rome.

This interpretation coheres with a Greco-Roman literary ethos, wherein Greek writers relished the opportunity to encrypt arcane messages within their narratives. While a general readership would be able to read the narrative with sufficient comprehension, those with the appropriate cultural competence would enjoy noticing the subtle references that augment such a reading. According to Dennis R. MacDonald, “In most cases, imitations disguise a rewarding sensus plenior—a fuller meaning below the surface, somewhat like allegory—that is intended for the more sophisticated. Discovering a clever, obscure twist on a popular tale often produces a smile, as though in the cryptic allusion the author has winked.” Luke’s use of the names Tabitha and Dorcas—in proximity to the name Aeneas—can, I suggest, be read as a wink to his readers. (p. 116 – author link is to the cited work in archive.org)

Here is Kochenash’s summary of his longer discussion:

The Romans could not completely obscure the fact that its touted Pax came at the expense of (human) collateral damage. Even Rome’s foundation epic, Virgil’s Aeneid—written under the patronage of Augustus himself—includes two such fatalities: Dido and Turnus. According to Mary Thornton, by comparing these two to deer, “Vergil is guaranteeing that although we see the faults and the responsibilities of Dido and Turnus for their misfortunes, we will not fail to give them our sympathy just as we would do for any wounded deer.” Luke’s narrative constructs a matrix consisting of a man named Aeneas, a dead woman whose name means “deer,” and the theme of the expansion of the kingdom of God, all of which can be read as an allusion to the tragedy of Aeneas and Dido. This allusion prompts readers to understand the kingdom of God through the framework of Roman self-representation. By raising Tabitha from the dead, Peter enacts the expansion of the kingdom of God, performing an action that has the opposite effect of Roman expansion. Whereas the expansion of the Roman Empire brings death, that of the kingdom of God brings life. (p. 118 – author link is to the cited work in Jstor)

Even if many of the early readers of Acts had not read Virgil’s Aeneid the stories of Aeneas and Dido were well known throughout the empire as artworks and papyri remains testify.

There is one detail, however, that I do find myself wondering if Kochenash has overlooked. Why does Acts point out all of the garments that Dorcas had made? Continue reading “The Deer in Acts of the Apostles and the Aeneid”


2022-01-15

Nero – Followup #2

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by Neil Godfrey

I think a wider discussion of Nero is necessary in order to help us understand the context of matters arising in any discussion about Nero’s purported persecution of Christians. Here are a few details that I think are relevant, all from Anthony Barrett’s book, but from chapters either side of the fifth that is the treatment of the persecution we read in the Annals of Tacitus.

This post has three parts:

1. When did the rumours that Nero was to blame for the Great Fire start?

2. Did Nero fear the populace was blaming him for the fire? Who hated Nero the most?

3. Three Nero pretenders.

 

Reconstruction of the Golden House being built after the fire. From http://ipat2015brognolioliviero.blogspot.com/2015/03/the-reconstruction-of-virtual-neronis.html

The Rumours

A central point in the text of Tacitus is that Nero targeted the Christians in order to deflect suspicions that he himself was responsible for starting the fire of Rome in 64 CE.

During Domitian’s reign, some time in the 90s, a poet Statius wrote in praise of another poet, Lucan, who had had a strained relationship with Nero (Nero forced him to commit suicide) by saying that he, Lucan,

. . . will speak of the horrendous flames of the guilty tyrant . . . ranging over the heights of Remus.

Had Lucan accused Nero of starting the fire in one of his poems?

Another literary work from the Flavian era (late first century) is the Octavia, a tragedy about Nero’s first wife. In the play,

Nero invokes a fiery destruction on the city (line 831): “soon let the city’s dwellings collapse in my flames” (flammis . . . meis). The simple addition of the adjective “my” (meis) to the flames (flammis) leaves no doubt about the emperor’s supposed role. (Barrett, p. 122)

Josephus was a contemporary of Nero and in his Jewish War (written about ten years after the fire of Rome) he listed Nero’s sins:

Through excess of prosperity and wealth Nero lost his balance and abused his good Fortune outrageously. He put to death in succession his brother, wife, and mother, turning his savage attention next to his most eminent subjects. The final degree of his madness landed him on the stage of a theatre. But so many writers have recorded these things that I will pass over them and turn to what happened to the Jews in his time. (G. A. Williamson’s translation, p. 134)

No mention of burning much of Rome to ashes.

Then there’s Pliny the Elder. I quote Barrett:

On the other hand, Nero does seem at first glance to be blamed by an older contemporary of the emperor, the Elder Pliny. In his account of the particularly fine lotos trees found on the Palatine, published in AD 77 in The Natural History . . .,  Pliny says that the trees lasted until Nero’s fires (ad Neronis principis incendia), in the years when he burned down the city. Pliny adds that the trees would have remained green and youthful had the princeps not speeded up the death of trees as well (ni princeps ille adcelerasset etiam arborum mortem). The “as well” (etiam) presumably implies that Nero killed trees as well as people as a result of the fire. This does seem pretty damning. But all is not as it appears. The words “in the years when he burned down the city” (quibus cremavit urbem annis postea) do not appear in one of Pliny’s manuscripts (MS D) and as far back as 1868 were dismissed from the other manuscripts as a later gloss (a comment added by a scribe). Also, in the final part of the sentence there is a very awkward repetition of the word princeps. There is also the equally awkward unspecific etiam (“also”), which seems to suggest that Nero killed people also, but those unspecified people have not been previously mentioned. Hence it is very possible that the phrase blaming Nero is a later addition to Pliny’s manuscript, supplied by a scribe trying to be helpful and informative, or perhaps just mischievous. Pliny does refer to the “fires of the emperor Nero” (Neronis principis incendia) in the uncontested part of the manuscript, which might be intended to convey the notion of Neronian guilt. But the phrase could be simply a chronological marker. Clearly it would be dangerous to use Pliny as evidence of a general belief in his time that Nero had set fire to Rome. (Barrett, pp. 122f)

So far the evidence for Nero starting the fire is pretty thin. Indeed, as Barrett points out,

the first explicit and documented claim that Nero was responsible for the fire is made no earlier than the final years of Domitian’s reign (he died in AD 96), in the line of the Silvae of Statius, quoted above, about the flames of the guilty tyrant ranging over Rome’s heights. (p. 123 — bolded highlighting in all quotations is mine)

So the record shows us that

there was a common belief by the end of the first century that Nero had been responsible for the fire.

And it was after that time that the historians we rely upon for the fire — Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio — wrote their works.

–o0o–

Loved and Hated

But what was Nero’s standing like before and in the immediate aftermath of the fire among the different sectors of Roman society?

Here is Barrett’s summary of the “before”:

Before AD 64, Nero’s position seems to have been virtually unassailable. He had committed some unquestionably outrageous acts, like the murder of his mother, but the outrageous murder of a mother can be weathered when the son is immensely popular and the mother deeply unpopular, and when there are public relations experts like Seneca on hand to manage any potentially hostile reaction. (p. 223)

The majority of ordinary Roman citizens were “notorious” in the eyes of the “upper classes” for being easily won over by “bread and circuses”. Nero did not hold back on pagaentry-frilled spectacles and games. The “free grain” was halted for a time after the fire but apparently soon resumed. Evidence of Nero’s popularity, especially in the eastern part of the empire, is seen with the rise of several imposters claiming to be Nero and gathering followings after Nero had actually committed suicide.

The historian Suetonius speaks of a mixed reaction to news of Nero’s death:

He met his end in his thirty-second year on the anniversary of Octavia’s death, thereby provoking such great public joy that the common people ran throughout the city dressed in liberty caps. Yet there were also some who for a long time would decorate his tomb with spring and summer flowers, and would sometimes display on the rostra statues of him dressed in a toga or post his edicts as if he were still alive and would soon return to avenge himself on his enemies.

One of Nero’s successors, Otho, appealed to popular sentiment in favour of Nero:

But when Otho . . . was greeted by the soldiers and ordinary citizens as “Nero Otho,” he welcomed the form of address, and, according to Suetonius, he may have used it in his earliest letters to the provincial governors. Otho also restored some of Nero’s statues, or at the very least turned a blind eye when others chose to set them up . . . and reappointed some of Nero’s old officials to their former posts. He also raised the question of special honors to Nero’s memory. One of Otho’s first acts as emperor was to allocate 50 million sestertii for further work on the Golden House [Nero’s famous post-fire architectural project]. Vitellius, who supplanted Otho, was perhaps not so overt in publicly respecting Nero’s memory, but even he carried out formal funerary rites to the late emperor in the Campus Martius, and during the banquet that followed he ordered musicians to perform Nero’s songs, and greeted them with enthusiastic applause. What Otho and Vitellius might have thought of Nero deep in their hearts is irrelevant. Their conduct shows that they had clearly decided it would be politically advantageous to present themselves as admirers of their supposedly infamous predecessor. All of this goes strongly against the idea that the great mass of the people resented Nero for the fire and for the building program that he initiated in its wake. It is surely significant that although Dio claims that some cursed Nero for starting the fire, he does admit that this is just an inference—Nero’s name did not in fact appear in the graffiti that began to materialize soon afterward. (pp. 224f)

Notice Tacitus’s description of how various social classes responded to the news of Nero’s death:

Although Nero’s death had at first been welcomed with outbursts of joy, it roused varying emotions. . . . The senators rejoiced and immediately made full use of their liberty, as was natural, for they had to do with a new emperor who was still absent. The leading members of the equestrian class were nearly as elated as the senators. The respectable part of the common people and those attached to the great houses, the clients and freedmen of those who had been condemned and driven into exile, were all roused to hope. The lowest classes, addicted to the circus and theatre, and with them the basest slaves, as well as those men who had wasted their property and, to their shame, were wont to depend on Nero’s bounty, were cast down and grasped at every rumour. (Tacitus, Histories 1.4)

Immediately after the passage setting out the horrors of Nero’s treatment of the Christians we read,

Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. (Tacitus, Annals, 15.44.4)

It would appear, then, that Nero was not fearful that the public was turning against him in suspicion that he had started the fire, given such a display of mixing with them. Later in the Annals Tacitus informs us that conspirators were attempting to decide the most opportune time to slay Nero and one of the options considered was when he was making one of his public appearances.

Those who hated Nero the most in the wake of the fire were the wealthy, especially those who were being required to contribute “generously” to support Rome’s rebuilding. These well-to-do appear to have been most incensed over what they considered to be Nero’s “vanity projects” such as the Golden House as the purpose of the financial demands being imposed upon them.

Vespasian, Nero’s eventual successor, did replace some of Nero’s works in favour of building the Colosseum, a stadium for popular entertainment. Yet he also continued other projects of Nero, such as, it appears, the giant statue, the colossus.

The focus so far has been on the reaction of the people at large to the fire, and it is suggested here that the masses may not have turned against Nero at the time. This might explain the curious scheme described by Suetonius, in which shortly before his death Nero planned to bypass the senate and go directly to the popular assembly to plead his case. The speech that he prepared for the occasion reputedly was later found in his desk. It was believed that he abandoned the plan from fear of assassination. The Greek philosopher Dio Chrysostom writing almost certainly during the reign of Domitian recounts the view that Nero’s subjects would have been happy to see him rule forever, and everybody wished that he was still alive.(Barrett, p. 231)

Barrett’s view is that the wealthy classes were the ones who actively turned against Nero after the fire.

Nero’s egregious behavior in past years might not have impressed them [i.e. the ruling elite], they might at some level even have despised him. But provided his conduct did not affect their own careers or their own wealth, they seem to have been perfectly willing to tolerate it and to take the view that his antics had little impact on their own personal comfort and well-being. As a result of the fire, however, the upper classes, and in that number we have to include the wealthier members of the equestrian class, were affected personally and directly, since they were asked to dig deep into their pockets to subsidize the economic reconstruction. The rebuilding involved Nero in major expenditures and he was obliged to collect large sums from private individuals as well as from whole communities. Sometimes he was able to raise funds by voluntary contributions, but on occasion he had to use compulsion. Property owners who rented out their buildings found themselves seriously out of pocket, since for one year the rents for private houses and apartments were diverted to the emperor’s account. (p. 233)

Despite some difficulties, by and large, before 64 CE, Nero had little to seriously worry about from the senatorial classes.

This all changed in AD 64. And when it did, the resentful senators, and some equestrians, found common cause with the officers of the Praetorian guard. . . .

Whatever the reason, after the fire of AD 64, elements of the nobility, rich equestrians, and the Praetorian guard found common cause, and decided that Nero had to be removed. . . .

The relationship between Nero and the governing classes definitely changed from AD 64 on, and it is reasonable to interpret the growing tensions and hostility as one of the consequences of the Great Fire. (pp. 239, 245)

–o0o–

Nero redivivus

Continue reading “Nero – Followup #2”


Nero – the Followup: Reviews of Barrett’s Discussion of the Neronian Persecution

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by Neil Godfrey

So what do reviewers have to say about Anthony Barrett’s chapter-length discussion of the Neronian persecution of the Christians that we find in the Annals of Tacitus?

Here’s one take. It’s by Simon Malloch of the University of Nottingham. The full review is published in Literary Review: Did He Really Fiddle? (link is to academia.edu site).

Barrett subjects Tacitus’s claims about Nero’s scapegoating of Christians to hyper-suspicious analysis. Tacitus, he notes, was the only writer to link Christian persecution with the fire until the early fifth century, when the Christian Sulpicius Severus drew on his account to make a similar connection. It seems incredible, Barrett claims, that Christian authors would have ignored this persecution if they had read Tacitus or, at least, if the episode had been in the version of the Annals that they read. Barrett comes perilously close to endorsing the extreme idea that all mention of the Christians was somehow interpolated into the ‘original’ text of the Annals by a third party before the time of Sulpicius. It would be unfortunate if the attention he lavishes on this theory were to encourage readers to take it seriously: it is simply not possible to make a convincing case for the interpolation into the Annals of a passage so thoroughly Tacitean in language and content and to explain (which Barrett does not) how the interpolation was achieved. Tacitus’s narrative remains the most reliable account of a fire the course, impact and notoriety of which Barrett elucidates so well.

(All bolded highlighting is my own.)

Ouch.

Here’s another. This one by John Drinkwater also from the Unversity of Nottingham. The full review is published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History and available at Project Muse.

His lengthy treatment of Tacitus’ description of Nero’s savage punishment of Christian scapegoats may, indeed, smack of self-indulgence; it certainly comes close to academic heresy in its revival of the view that it may be a late Roman interpolation. Yet his frankness is forgiveable: Lay readers should be aware of the range of problems that have to be explained away by special pleading if the passage is to be accepted as authentic.

Shorter is sweeter.

Take your pick: Hyper-suspicious or Special pleading?

 


2022-01-13

Rome Burning – the Christian Problem in the Annals of Tacitus

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by Neil Godfrey

This post concludes Anthony Barrett’s discussion of the account of the persecution of the Christians in the Annals by Tacitus.

But there are oddities in this part of the Annals that are so serious that in the late nineteenth century the Christian episode was denounced in its entirety as an interpolation, a forgery in the style of Tacitus that had been inserted at some later date into the manuscript almost certainly not by accident, but in order deliberately to deceive.

61. Hochart (1885); Dando-Collins (2010), 9–16, 106–10, offers a variant, with Egyptians substituted for Christians in the putative interpolation

But Anthony Barrett follows that statement up with:

The sweeping claim that the Tacitean passage was a forgery has won over very few adherents.61 

And then:

The vocabulary and syntax and general Latin style, it must be acknowledged, perfectly align with the accepted corpus of Tacitus’s writings, and the text lacks the exaggerated mannerisms that might be expected in a forged piece. If the whole chapter is indeed an interpolation, it must have been inserted into the manuscript by at least the end of the fourth century AD, since parts of it are cited by a Christian writer active in the very early fifth century, Sulpicius Severus, most familiar as the author of the celebrated Life of Saint Martin.

Another context, another author:
One of those arguments is the claim that such an “original passage” contains phrases and vocabulary characteristic of Josephus. But if a Christian copyist were seeking to create a convincing interpolation, he would likely try to employ Josephan fingerprints to make it appear authentic; and if he were introducing terms or ideas similar to those expressed elsewhere in Josephus he would have precedents to draw on. If he were someone who worked with the manuscripts of Josephus on a regular basis, such imitation might well become second nature to him. Guignebert opined (
Jesus, p. 17): “It may be admitted that the style of Josephus has been cleverly imitated, a not very difficult matter…”  Earl Doherty, Jesus Neither God Nor Man, p. 535

The putative forger, who will have succeeded in a deceptive coup of dazzling brilliance, would have been one of two things. He might have been a Christian, but one smart and sophisticated enough to know that by castigating his own faith and generating a partially negative image of Christianity he could throw sand in the eyes of a normally skeptical reader and thus create an irresistible believability. Hence, while the chapter is manifestly anti-Neronian, the Christians are deliberately not shown in a particularly favorable light. Or he might have been a pagan, both anti-Christian and anti-Neronian, who took the opportunity to kill two birds with one interpolatory stone.

Scholars whose knowledge of Tacitus is unsurpassed have accepted the Latin of the text as genuinely Tacitean, but it needs to be acknowledged that there is a long history of literary texts that, like works of art, have been recognized by gifted and honest experts as genuine but have proved ultimately to be phony. Moreover, those scholars who accept that the Tacitean passage is genuine—and they are in the overwhelming majority—do acknowledge that it exhibits some troubling features. One section of the narrative is particularly awkward: the brief summary that the writer provides of the background of the Christians. (Barrett, p. 158 — bolded highlighting is mine in all quotations)

So what are the “troubling features”?

Pontius Pilate and the manner of his introduction

Pontius Pilate is introduced as “procurator” without any mention of whereabouts in the empire he was located.

The man who gave them their name, Christus, had been executed during the rule of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilatus. The pernicious superstition had been temporarily suppressed, but it was starting to break out again, not just in Judea, the starting point of that curse, but in Rome as well . . .  Annals 15.44.3

A Christian reader would, of course, immediately think of Judea. But anyone else?

On the other hand, the earlier books of Annals are missing. Perhaps Pilate’s career was covered in those. That’s possible, yet we cannot overlook that Tacitus did say in another work, Histories, that “all was quiet” in Judea during the reign of Tiberius. We would not, from that line, expect much of troublesome note to have been written about Pilate in any other lost work.

Even the mere fact that Pilate’s term of office is mentioned as the context for the death of Christ comes as something of a surprise; it is a detail about Christ that would be of very little interest to a Roman but would have had considerable significance for a Christian reader. (Barrett, p. 159)

Another “troubling feature” is the office of “procurator” here. Literary and archaeological evidence assures us that Pilate was not a “procurator” [=governor of a small province] but a “prefect” [=commander of troops established within some provinces].

Tacitus is elsewhere quite punctilious in his use of such terminology and makes a careful distinction between procurators and prefects. . . . [T]he error over Pontius Pilate’s office . . . is a basic historical blunder and, as such, very surprising indeed if made by Tacitus. (Barrett, pp. 159f)

But if Pilate was not a procurator then why would a forger claim that he was? Barrett suggests an answer:

The gospels were written in Greek and before Jerome composed his Vulgate version in the fifth century the gospels were translated into at least two Latin versions. These Latin versions translate the loosely described position of Pontius Pilate in Luke 3:1 (hegemoneuo = “to be leader”) with the general Latin procurante Pontio Pilato — the verb “procurare” meaning “to administer”. Whoever was describing Pilate as “procurator” in Annals 15.44.3 may have been influenced by the Latin wording of Luke 3:1.

Christianity Suppressed?

The man who gave them their name, Christus, had been executed during the rule of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilatus. The pernicious superstition had been temporarily suppressed, but it was starting to break out again, not just in Judea, the starting point of that curse, but in Rome as well . . .  Annals 15.44.3

We have no evidence that Rome ever attempted to “suppress” the new religion (or Jewish faction, as it originally was) in Judea soon after its birth. The only opposition we are aware of comes from Jewish powers.

The notion that the early believers were officially oppressed seems more distinctly Christian rather than Roman. (Barrett, p. 161)

Called Christians/Chrestians?

 These were people hated for their shameful offenses whom the common people called Chrestians [or Christians]. — Annals 15.44.2

How likely is it that as early as the year 64 in Rome a certain Jewish sect was identified as a distinct separate body with the label “Christians” (or “Chrestians”)? The author of Acts informs us that members of the sect were first called Christians in Antioch some time before the mid-50s. But nothing in Paul’s letters suggests his congregations were known by that name. Again in Acts, Paul is identified as a Nazorean when on trial shortly before he was sent to Rome. Even if we were to think that Tacitus used the descriptor known in his own time, we must note that the passage of interest in Annals explicitly notes that the name was used by the common people in the time of Nero. (The manuscript shows that “e” has been erased and replaced with “i” — hence the uncertainty about the original text. Chrestian was a common pronunciation for Christian.)

A Principle of Historiography

Barrett next comes to a theme close to my own heart when engaging with any historical inquiry but especially with discussions relating to Christian origins. If we are to make valid use of a source we need to establish its provenance and the context of its narrative.

But there is also a principle of historiography that takes account not only of what a given source might say, but, paradoxically perhaps, of what it does not say. Such argumenta ex silentio tend not to be given great weight, since there may be a perfectly good reason why a source chooses not to allude to any given event. In the case of the fate of the Christians as described in the Annals, however, the negative evidence seems overwhelming. (Barrett, p. 163)

Other Roman historians who wrote of the fire and who likewise loathed Nero (Suetonius, Cassius Dio) do not make any mention of Nero’s scapegoating the Christians to deflect suspicions directed against him. If the treatment of Christians was so horrendous as to turn public sympathies favourably towards them this does seem at least a little surprising. The naturalist and contemporary of Nero, Pliny the Elder, made many passing remarks about Nero in his works but none reference his treatment of Christians and his son and friend of Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, breathes not a hint of this persecution, not even when apparently discussing his own quandary of how to treat Christians.

But surely most surprising of all is that not a single surviving Christian author before the fifth century appears to know anything about such a persecution. Tertullian, Clement, Eusebius and others were keen to demonstrate the courage with which Christians had faced numerous persecutions and to highlight the providence by which the “church” had endured and survived and even grown despite such treatment from authorities. But none knows anything about the event we read of in Annals 15.

Perhaps Tacitus’s works were not widely read. Tacitus does not appear to have made a strong mark on his immediate posterity but if a persecution of such notoriety had been a matter of wider historical knowledge then it is most remarkable that no mention is made of it in any other source, especially Christian ones, until the fifth century.

The Debate

Polydore Hochart made the case for interpolation in 1885 with Études au sujet de la persécution des Chrétiens sous Néron. Barrett sums up the main themes of academic debates but I’ll post some of it in full here. First, a translation of pages 219-21 of Hochart: Continue reading “Rome Burning – the Christian Problem in the Annals of Tacitus”


2022-01-11

Rome Burning – Difficulties with the Tacitus Passage

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by Neil Godfrey

And their author seems to have gone out of his way to try to pull the wool over our eyes. 

In the previous post we saw that Tacitus’s account of Nero’s persecution of the Christians is, given the ratio of number of words analyzed to the number of words published about them,

this handful of sentences is beyond doubt the most researched, scrutinized, and debated of any in Classical antiquity.

What sorts of questions bedevil the scholars? And what are we to make of a passage that throws up such a cluster of confusions?

Here is a list of the problems as pointed out by Anthony Barrett in his chapter five, “The Christians and the Great Fire”:

Annals 15.44.2. But neither human resourcefulness nor the emperor’s largesse nor appeasement of the gods could stop belief in the nasty rumor that an order had been given for the fire. To dispel the gossip Nero therefore contrived culprits on whom he inflicted the most exotic punishments. These were people hated for their shameful offenses whom the common people called Chrestians [or Christians].

44.3. The man who gave them their name, Christus, had been executed during the rule of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilatus. The pernicious superstition had been temporarily suppressed, but it was starting to break out again, not just in Judea, the starting point of that curse, but in Rome as well, where all that is abominable and shameful in the world flows together and gains popularity.

44.4. And so, at first, those who confessed were apprehended and, subsequently, on the disclosures they made, a huge number were found guilty [or “were linked”]—more because of their hatred of mankind than because they were arsonists. As they died, they were further subjected to insult. Covered with hides of wild beasts, they perished by being torn to pieces by dogs; or they would be fastened to crosses and, when daylight had gone, set on fire to provide lighting at night.

44.5. Nero had offered his gardens as a venue for the show, and he would also put on circus entertainments, mixing with the plebs in his charioteer’s outfit or standing up in his chariot. As a result, guilty though these people were and deserving exemplary punishment, pity for them began to well up because it was felt that they were being exterminated not for the public good, but to gratify one man’s cruelty.

Translation by Anthony Barrett (pp. 263f)

1. Linked with them?

In 44.4 of the fifteenth book of Annals the text appears to say that many persons were “linked” with those who confessed. What does “those who were linked” to the confessors mean? It is possible that we are reading a copyist’s error here. It is easy to imagine that the original sentence read “were convicted”.

  • coniuncti sunt = were linked
  • convicti sunt = were convicted

It is easy to assume that a copyist has erred but Barrett does remind us in an endnote that the verb “to link” is found in similar legal contexts in Cicero’s works.

. . . we cannot know if this obscurity is because of a manuscript error or simply because of the opacity of the narrative. The emendation convicti may well be correct, but clearly we should always be hesitant about basing any interpretation of a key controversial passage on a word that does not actually appear in the manuscript(s). (Barrett, p. 146)

2. Crucified and burned as human torches?

English translations hide the difficulty in the fifteenth-century manuscript. To turn to another work cited by Barrett, Roman Attitudes Toward the Christians by John Cook (2010), we read the “original”:

et pereuntibus addita ludibria, ut ferarum tergis contecti laniatu canum interirent, aut crucibus adfixi aut flammandi, atque ubi defecisset dies in usum nocturni luminis urerentur.

Outrages were perpetrated on the dying: covered with the skins of animals they died mutilated by dogs, or they were fixed to crosses, or [burning], and when daylight faded they were burned for nocturnal illumination. (Cook, p. 69 – my highlighting in all quotations)

Cook lists the various proposed emendations to make sense of the passage. Some scholars have deleted the phrase [“or fixed to crosses of burned”] entirely as a gloss. Others have read it as “or fixed to crosses and burned”. Another has deleted “so that burning” and adds, “they dressed in fuel for fire”. Another, “or fixed to crosses and burning, when…”; and others have reordered the words to place “so that” before “burning”. And so forth.

In other words,

we can not be totally sure of the exact wording of the original manuscript. (Barrett, p. 147)

3. Chronology is vague

Tacitus is very clear that the fire itself started July 19, AD 64, but he is unclear how long after that until Christians were said to be rounded up. Barrett’s conclusion:

. . . we can assume one of two things— either that [Tacitus] had found in the record that the punishments had occurred before the end of the year, AD 64, or that the source he was using was vague about when they happened and on his own initiative he determined that the second half of AD 64 best suited the material. (p. 148)

Suetonius also informs us that Nero inflicted punishments on Christians but he sets this occasion long after the time of the fire and one has a hard time thinking the passage refers to the horrendous tortures we read about in Tacitus:

Under [Nero’s] rule, many practices were reproved and subject to controls and many new laws were passed. A limit was imposed on expenditure. Public feasts were reduced to food handouts. With the exception of beans and vegetables, the sale of hot food in taverns was prohibited—previously all kinds of delicacies had been available. Punishments were imposed on the Christians—adherents of a new and dangerous superstition. A ban was placed on the diversions of the charioteers, who for a long time had taken advantage of the freedom they enjoyed to wander about the city playing tricks on people and robbing them. At the same time, the pantomime actors and their associates were outlawed from the city. (Suetonius, Life of Nero, 16)

4. The Sect was temporarily suppressed?

This is a curious claim since we have no record anywhere else that the following of Jesus “was suppressed” soon after his crucifixion. The sources we do have suggest that Rome would have had no interest in the earliest manifestations of the new movement. Christianity was from its earliest days viewed as a Jewish sect and Jews were free to practice their religion at this time.

Another Roman historian, Suetonius, wrote that twenty years before the Great Fire Jews were expelled from Rome because they had been “creating disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus”. Was this a reference to Christ? Were the disturbances of the kind we read about in Acts when Jews sometimes became riotous over the preaching of Jesus Christ? We know that Chrestus was a common mispronunciation of Chrestus. On the other hand, Chrestus was a common name among freed slaves. It certainly does not look like a good fit for the claim we read in Tacitus’s Annals that the Christian sect was suppressed soon after it emerged in Palestine.

4. A Huge number?

Christians seeking like-minded neighbours may have settled in the Trastevere district (circled) of Rome. Some evidence suggests that poorer Jews occupied this area which was protected by the Tiber from the main fire. One can imagine them coming under suspicion if their area was not affected. (see Barrett, pp. 150f)

A “huge number were found guilty”, we read in Annals. How many is that? How large should we expect to find the Christian community in Rome at that time? Were they distinctive enough to stand out as separate from the other Jews? Besides…

The “huge number” of the Annals may, of course, be an exaggeration, and in any case the figure is essentially relative, meant to draw a contrast between the initial group who confessed and the later group who were rounded up. If no more than two or three people were involved initially, and we have absolutely no way of knowing, then a subsequent arrest of, say, thirty people, could, relatively speaking, constitute a “huge” number. (Barrett, p. 150)

5. How much hatred?

In Tacitus and Suetonius we are faced with the language of extreme loathing towards Christians. They are justly “hated for their shameful offenses” and for the “abominable and shameful things” that they bring to Rome. But such language informs us more about the elitist attitudes in these second-century authors and not necessarily the general attitude in mid-first-century Rome. Barrett suggests “it seems highly unlikely that the deep and pervasive antipathy” of later Romas was extant as early as the 60s. Civil disturbances as we find in Acts is one thing; suspicions of human-hating behaviour so soon is another.

6. Confessed and apprehended

Once we read that Nero decided to scapegoat the Christians we immediately come upon a baffling reverse of a normal process: “And so, at first, those who confessed were apprehended” [=igitur primum correpti qui fatebantur]. One expects confession to follow the arrest. A couple of scholars (Getty, Ash) have suggested an amendment (qui to quidam) to the text so that it reads “Certain individuals confessed after being arrested.”

Barrett highlights the problem:

Also, to what are these people confessing? Given that upon conviction those arrested were subjected to the most horrific punishments, and that on the basis of the testimony of those who confessed, others became implicated “more because of their hatred of mankind (odio humani generis) than because they were arsonists,” it does follow that the group initially arrested must have confessed to arson.

But if this is the case, the narrative is cryptic and contradictory. When Tacitus introduces his account of the fire, he indicates that there were two possible causes. Either (a) it was an accident, or (b) Nero was responsible. We might argue that he had tunnel vision on this issue, albeit less narrow than that of Suetonius and Dio, and that the situation was far more nuanced than Tacitus imagines. The fire could have been started deliberately, but by someone other than Nero, or it could have started by accident, then once it had taken hold it could have been helped along. The issue here is not what actually happened, but what Tacitus says happened: Nero, to deflect criticism, “contrived culprits” (subdidit reos). There is no ambiguity—the word “contrived” (subdidit) leaves no doubt whatsoever that the charges were bogus. And yet those culprits seem to have been taking responsibility for the deed. Of course there may have been special circumstances that led to this outcome, but if so, Tacitus does not explain them, and perhaps that was deliberate. It would appear that the Christians, as often happens in cases of wrongful conviction, were already unpopular for anti-social behavior that had nothing to with the Great Fire. They may not have committed the crime, but criminal by nature they were. If, however, they were being scapegoated for the arson, it seems to mean they can have confessed to only one thing, and that is, of being Christian. Does this mean, then, that Christianity was in itself a crime in AD 64? (Barrett, pp. 152f)

If there had been an edict declaring Christianity illegal we would expect it to apply throughout the empire. Yet there is no evidence of anything like this. Pliny the Younger’s testimony of fifty years after the Great Fire clearly implies that there had never been a universal ban, although I think the evidence that that letter of Pliny’s is not authentic is strong.

A potentially confusing situation

Hence we find ourselves in a potentially confusing situation. We have no precise information about the grounds on which the Christians were condemned—the charges are vague and undefined. And the presiding magistrate would have had the authority to make up his own mind about the allegations, whatever they might be, provided the accused were not Roman citizens, which was probably the case for the overwhelming majority of early Christians in the city. There may have been a belief, well grounded or not, that the Christians had been responsible either for starting the fire or at the very least for feeding the flames once it had taken hold. The Annals claim that the initial suspicions were deliberately sown by Nero, but we must be open to the possibility that if there was in fact action against the Christians after the fire, it might have had little or nothing to do with Nero and that the claim in the Annals that he falsely targeted them as suspects is totally speculative. (Barrett, p. 155)

Imagine a situation of public hysteria. Christians were blamed and were equated with arson in a manner similar to the way we have seen Muslims guilty of terrorism by association. Perhaps the situation was confusing and the account of Tacitus is confusing for this reason. Yet, recall the opening quotation of the previous post. Tacitus knew how to create suspicions in a reader’s mind behind his protestations of scepticism towards “baseless rumours”.

As Yavetz put it, “Tacitus did not want to clarify but to confuse the reader even more—slightly incriminate both Nero and Christians, both of whom he hated.” . . .

. . . But, as stated earlier, at issue here is not what happened, but what the Annals say happened. And their author seems to have gone out of his way to try to pull the wool over our eyes. (Barrett, p. 157)

At this point Anthony Barrett bravely wades out into deeper waters where few of his peers have been prepared to go. To be continued in the next post.


Barrett, Anthony A. Rome Is Burning: Nero and the Fire That Ended a Dynasty. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2021.

Cook, John Granger. Roman Attitudes Toward the Christians: From Claudius to Hadrian. Tübingen: Coronet Books, 2010.



2022-01-10

Rome Burning — and the Christians: A New Study

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by Neil Godfrey

Anthony Barrett – UBC profile

Historian of ancient Rome Anthony Barrett draws upon updated archaeological studies to supplement his analysis of the literary sources in order to especially analyze how the fire contributed to the downfall of Nero. Included in his study is a chapter on the evidence that Christians were singled out as scapegoats by Nero and suffered barbaric deaths as a result.

Not one of our literary sources for the fire – Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio — was contemporary with the fire itself, but they did draw upon other sources that were. Tacitus, in whose work we read the account of persecutions of the Christians, made use of works by Pliny the Elder who lived at the time of Nero and often mentioned his name. Tacitus further refers to elderly citizens of his day who were alive at the time of the fire but “frustratingly, he seems to have chosen to make relatively little, if any, use of” their recollections. At least as important to keep in mind when thinking through the account of Tacitus is Barrett’s assessment of him as a historian:

Tacitus’s account of the fire is an excellent example of his great narrative skills. Serious historian that he is, he expresses appropriate skepticism about Nero’s culpability, the only one of the three main authorities to do so, and records that the sources are divided on the issue. But his hostility to the emperor is such that by the end of his narrative the reader is left with a vaguely defined but strangely compelling impression that somehow Nero’s behavior was so abominable that he must be held accountable for what had happened. That is a remarkable feat of writing. (p. 13 – my highlighting in all quotations)

One may wonder how archaeological evidence could be relevant to the question of Christian persecutions in the wake of the fire but it is important to know what areas suffered in relation to the Jewish area since Christians were considered members of a Jewish sect. More generally, Barrett, a historian and not an archaeologist, makes an interesting comment on the evidence from archaeology that is worth keeping in mind next time one is addressing René Salm’s analysis of the archaeological reports on Nazareth:

There seems to be a rather dangerous article of faith that what is preserved in the archaeological record is ipso facto more reliable than information derived from literature, on the grounds that archaeology is uncontaminated by authorial bias.We must avoid falling prey to this widely held misconception—the situation is by no means so clear-cut. While the physical material itself may be untainted, it is almost never as explicit as its literary counterpart, and our understanding of that material is very dependent on how it is interpreted and presented to us by the archaeologist. And since archaeology very often involves the ordered destruction of the site being examined, and the archive of the site will as often as not be held in storage, for practical purposes the information to which we have access will ultimately come filtered through the investigator’s interpretations. In the case of the Great Fire we are fortunate that the main body of archaeological evidence for the event has been brought to light by a highly professional team led by Clementina Panella for the Sapienza University of Rome, and it has been published to high scholarly standards. But these standards are not necessarily maintained by other excavators, and elsewhere we must be on guard against conclusions that can be highly speculative and at times fueled by an almost poetic imagination. The archaeologist’s idiosyncrasies and preconceptions can occasionally shape what is supposedly objective evidence. (p. 16)

Amen to that manifold more times for “the place where Jesus grew up”.

Enough of the preliminaries. Let’s get to Barrett’s chapter five titled “The Christians and the Great Fire”.

We rely entirely upon just one source for the view that Nero attempted to deflect public suspicion that he had been responsible for the fire by singling out the Christians.

Despite Nero’s best efforts, Tacitus tells us that nothing that the emperor did, whether in the civil or the religious sphere, could lay to rest the persistent nasty rumor that had taken hold, that he had personally ordered the fire. Nero was astute enough to realize that once a negative idea has been implanted in the popular mind, it is almost impossible to dislodge it. He needed a dramatic solution, and dramatic gestures were his forte. The account in the Annals of what came next— it is our one and only source of information—is arguably the most disputed text in the whole of Classical literature. Complicating the debate is the question of whether this section of the Annals is an authentic piece of Tacitus, an important issue addressed later in this chapter. (p. 145)

And a few lines later the historical significance of this event strikes the reader:

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this episode in the history of the Christian church. . . .  It is, as Brent Shaw puts it, a “foundational event” in the annals of Christianity. In a way it can be viewed as symbolically setting the scene for the repeated martyrdoms that Christians will endure at the hands of Roman authorities in subsequent centuries. It is also a major factor in the persistence of Nero’s image as the epitome of villainy during the nearly two thousand years since then.

Here is a key part of the passage as translated by Barrett:

Annals 15.44.2. But neither human resourcefulness nor the emperor’s largesse nor appeasement of the gods could stop belief in the nasty rumor that an order had been given for the fire. To dispel the gossip Nero therefore contrived culprits on whom he inflicted the most exotic punishments. These were people hated for their shameful offenses whom the common people called Chrestians [or Christians].

44.3. The man who gave them their name, Christus, had been executed during the rule of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilatus. The pernicious superstition had been temporarily suppressed, but it was starting to break out again, not just in Judea, the starting point of that curse, but in Rome as well, where all that is abominable and shameful in the world flows together and gains popularity.

44.4. And so, at first, those who confessed were apprehended and, subsequently, on the disclosures they made, a huge number were found guilty [or “were linked”]—more because of their hatred of mankind than because they were arsonists. As they died, they were further subjected to insult. Covered with hides of wild beasts, they perished by being torn to pieces by dogs; or they would be fastened to crosses and, when daylight had gone, set on fire to provide lighting at night.

44.5. Nero had offered his gardens as a venue for the show, and he would also put on circus entertainments, mixing with the plebs in his charioteer’s outfit or standing up in his chariot. As a result, guilty though these people were and deserving exemplary punishment, pity for them began to well up because it was felt that they were being exterminated not for the public good, but to gratify one man’s cruelty.

On the two sections, 44.2 and 44.3, Barrett remarks,

This whole section constitutes in all only some 154 words in the original Latin text (“some” is added here as a caution because we can not be totally sure of the exact wording of the original manuscript). We can go a little further. Scholarly interest has focused almost exclusively on the first two sections (15.44.2–3), and together these produce a total of some ninety-three words. But this relatively brief passage, fewer than one hundred words in length, has prompted several books and perhaps as many as a hundred scholarly articles dedicated totally, or at least substantially, to the topic. Moreover, this vast and flourishing scholarship industry has so far exhibited no signs of recession. As measured by the number of words produced in research publications relative to the number of words in the text being analyzed, this handful of sentences is beyond doubt the most researched, scrutinized, and debated of any in Classical antiquity. What follows in this chapter can convey only a brief summary of these prodigious scholarly endeavors.13

In the next post I will attempt a “brief summary” of Barrett’s “brief summary” and address his own conclusions.

Till then, endnote 13 directs readers to details of that discussion that I reformat with added links:

13. The early sources are summarized in

Canfield (1913), 45–56, 141–60,

and a useful, if selective, bibliography up to 1934 is found in Cambridge Ancient History X (1934), 982–83.

From 1948 on, we have the benefit of the valuable surveys conducted periodically by Classical World:

48 (1955), 121–25;

58 (1964), 69–83;

63 (1970), 253–67;

71 (1977), 1–32;

80 (1986), 73–147;

Shaw (2015), 98–100 provides a useful bibliography of more recent contributions.

Other sources cited by Anthony Barrett and of interest to some Vridar readers include Richard Carrier’s 2014 article and even Earl Doherty’s 2009 book Jesus Neither God Nor Man – the Case for a Mythical Jesus.


Barrett, Anthony A. Rome Is Burning: Nero and the Fire That Ended a Dynasty. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2021.


 


2022-01-01

A Common Origin – One Wonders

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by Neil Godfrey

An interesting observation in an ancient history publication:

In Babylonia demons hostile to the cult became subject to exorcism, a rite which from the earliest times was regarded as something communal. Some exorcisms were directed against storm demons, and one wonders whether behind the ‘Odyssey’ incident of the bag of winds given by Aiolos and Jesus’ command on the sea of Galilee ordering the winds to cease, there is not a common origin, the belief that winds were demons, capable of obeying human commands or being bound by magic. (The sea also as associated with evil is a characteristic Old Testament and even New Testament theme.) The Mycenaean Linear B tablets give evidence that the Mycenaeans worshipped the winds. A cult to Boreas existed in classical times at Athens. But winds would be gods in much the sense that streams, mountains, woods, etc. had gods, with less of a link between demons and winds than existed in the Orient. Another remnant among the Greeks might be the Siren passage of the ‘Odyssey’, where a daimon quells the winds just as Odysseus and his men are to pass the Sirens (12.169).

That’s from

  • Brenk, Frederick C. “In the Light of the Moon: Demonology in the Early Imperial Period.” Aufstieg Und Niedergang Der Römischen Welt 16, no. 3 (1986): 2068–2145.
Aeolus Giving the Winds to Odysseus by Isaac Moillon

2021-11-26

Mark: The First Biography of Jesus? (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

Reviewing The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel by Helen K. Bond.

The First Biography of Jesus

(In which I finally get around to reading Bond’s The First Biography of Jesus.)

After the initial trickle of “Gospels Are Biographies!” books, we might have expected a flood of works exploring the implications of such a designation. After all, when we approach a text, we usually try to identify (at least provisionally) its genre in order to understand it. If scholars in the past had failed to recognize the true genre of the canonical gospels, then we must have myriad assumptions to sweep away, interpretations to reassess, conclusions to re-evaluate, and new questions to ask.

Missing Books?

Yet here we sit, still waiting for that big splash. In the first chapter, Bond herself recognizes the dog that didn’t bark. As an aside, I would note that the usual suspects, naturally, have added the biographical credo as an ancillary argument — Bauckham for touting eyewitness testimony and Keener for promoting historical reliability. But where are the massive monographs written by grad students, the insightful papers on the cutting edge of gospel research? Where are the 400-page books laden with turgid prose that recycle the same ideas ad nauseam?

All in all, the list of scholarship is not particularly long for an issue that seemed so pressing only a few decades ago, and it is still possible (not to mention largely unremarkable as far as reviewers were concerned) to write a long book on gospel origins without devoting any attention to their genre at all. (Bond 2020, p. 52-53)

You might wonder whether modern scholars had actually been more interested in changing the consensus than building upon it. Maybe. But you should understand that redefining the genre of the gospels represents a small part of a much larger overall project, namely the rewriting of New Testament scholarship’s own history and a redrawing of its self-conception. This process of reconstruction has gradually remapped the terrain and redrawn the borders, so that scholars who once dwelt securely in a fairly broad mainstream now sit in no man’s land, out in the mud which lies beyond the barbed wire. NT scholarship’s Overton Window has slid far to the right, and erstwhile respected scholars are now rebuked for sounding too radical, for going too far, for being too skeptical, for engaging in oldthink.

Nothing demonstrates this recent change better than the now fashionable stance against form criticism. Bond has little good to say about it, and what she does say often misses the mark. For example: Continue reading “Mark: The First Biography of Jesus? (Part 1)”


2021-06-06

Ancient Philosopher Traditions Pave the Way for Jesus and Paul

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by Neil Godfrey

Let this post complement the last.

Private teachings and efforts to avoid crowds

Stilpo

When Crates asked him whether the gods take delight in prayers and adorations, he is said to have replied, “Don’t put such a question in the street, simpleton, but when we are alone!” It is said that Bion, when he was asked the same question whether there are gods, replied: Will you not scatter the crowd from me, O much-enduring elder?

Plato

Plato has employed a variety of terms in order to make his system less intelligible to the ignorant

Chrysippus

Again, when somebody who had a question to ask was steadily conversing with him in private, and then upon seeing a crowd approaching began to be more contentious

Pyrrho

He would withdraw from the world and live in solitude,

he would leave his home and, telling no one, would go roaming about with whomsoever he chanced to meet.

Staff, cloak and wallet

Bion

Then he adopted the Cynic discipline, donning cloak and wallet

Antisthenes

And he was the first, Diocles tells us, to double his cloak and be content with that one garment and to take up a staff and a wallet. Neanthes too asserts that he was the first to double his mantle. Sosicrates, however, in the third book of his Successions of Philosophers says this was first done by Diodorus of Aspendus, who also let his beard grow and used a staff and a wallet.

Diogenes (also one of several who “had nowhere to lay his head”)

He was the first, say some, to fold his cloak because he was obliged to sleep in it as well, and he carried a wallet to hold his victuals, and he used any place for any purpose, for breakfasting, sleeping, or conversing. And then he would say, pointing to the portico of Zeus and the Hall of Processions, that the Athenians had provided him with places to live in. He did not lean upon a staff until he grew infirm; but afterwards he would carry it everywhere, not indeed in the city, but when walking along the road with it and with his wallet; so say Olympiodorus,13 once a magistrate at Athens, Polyeuctus the orator, and Lysanias the son of Aeschrio. He

That famous one who carried a staff, doubled his cloak, and lived in the open air.

Menedemus

and he wore a very long beard and carried an ashen staff in his hand.

The Magi

Their dress is white, they make their bed on the ground, and their food is vegetables, cheese, and coarse bread; their staff is a reed

Many called but few chosen

Bion

And hence it came about that he is not credited with a single disciple, out of all the crowds who attended his lectures.

Diogenes

He was returning from Olympia, and when somebody inquired whether there was a great crowd, “Yes,” he said, “a great crowd, but few who could be called men.”

Despised

Zeno

And he had about him certain ragged dirty fellows, as Timon says in these lines: The while he got together a crowd of ignorant serfs, who surpassed all men in beggary and were the emptiest of townsfolk.

Crates

Zeno of Citium in his Anecdotes relates that in a fit of heedlessness he sewed a sheepskin to his cloak. He was ugly to look at, and when performing his gymnastic exercises used to be laughed at. He was accustomed to say, raising his hands, “Take heart, Crates, for it is for the good of your eyes and of the rest of your body. You will see these men, who are laughing at you, tortured before long by disease, counting you happy, and reproaching themselves for their sluggishness.”

All things in common

Bion

He was extremely selfish and insisted strongly on the maxim that “friends share in common.”

Diogenes

The wise are friends of the gods, and friends hold things in common. Therefore all things belong to the wise.”

He maintained that all things are the property of the wise, and employed such arguments as those cited above. All things belong to the gods. The gods are friends to the wise, and friends share all property in common; therefore all things are the property of the wise

Zeno

Friendship, they declare, exists only between the wise and good, by reason of their likeness to one another. And by friendship they mean a common use of all that has to do with life, wherein we treat our friends as we should ourselves.

Pythagoras

According to Timaeus, he was the first to say, “Friends have all things in common” and “Friendship is equality”; indeed, his disciples did put all their possessions into one common stock.

Epicurus

He further says that Epicurus did not think it right that their property should be held in common, as required by the maxim of Pythagoras about the goods of friends; such a practice in his opinion implied mistrust, and without confidence there is no friendship.

Some went further and taught that wives and children should also be “in common”.

Criticizes a host at dinner

Menedemus

Not being able to curb the extravagance of someone who had invited him to dinner, he said nothing when he was invited, but rebuked his host tacitly by confining himself to olives.

Empedocles

With this Timaeus agrees, at the same time giving the reason why Empedocles favoured democracy, namely, that, having been invited to dine with one of the magistrates, when the dinner had gone on some time and no wine was put on the table, though the other guests kept quiet, he, becoming indignant, ordered wine to be brought.

Wrote Letters that were preserved by disciples 

Not all, but some “wrote a few letters”. Example: Continue reading “Ancient Philosopher Traditions Pave the Way for Jesus and Paul”


2021-06-03

Jesus (and Paul) in the Ancient Philosopher Tradition

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by Neil Godfrey

Think of the world from which Christianity emerged and mystery religions easily come to mind. That may be a mistake. A more relevant context, influencers and rivals were the popular philosophers and their schools in the first and second centuries.

The Jew and the Christian offered religions as we understand religion; the others offered cults; but their contemporaries did not expect anything more than cults from them and looked to philosophy for guidance in conduct and for a scheme of the universe. (Nock, Conversion, 16)

Any philosophy of the time set up a standard of values different from those of the world outside and could serve as a stimulus to a stern life, and therefore to something like conversion when it came to a man living carelessly. (Nock, 173)

Further, this idea was not thought of as a matter of purely intellectual conviction. The philosopher commonly said not ‘Follow my arguments one by one: . . . but . . . Believe me, those who express the other view deceive you and argue you out of what is right.’ (Nock, 181)

A mystery evoked a strong emotional response and touched the soul deeply for a time, but [conversion to] philosophy was able both to turn men from evil and to hold before them a good, perhaps never to be attained, but presenting a permanent object of desire to which one seemed to draw gradually nearer. (Nock, 185)

As an introduction to the view that popular philosophers had a more profound role than mystery cults in shaping Christianity, I’ve distilled biographical details from one ancient biographer of those philosophers. Spot the similarities to what we read about Jesus and Paul.

Follow Me

Socrates

Socrates met Xenophon in a narrow passage way and accosted him with questions. Xenophon was confused, so Socrates told him, “Follow me and learn”, and from that moment on Xenophon became his disciple.

Diogenes

Someone came to Diogenes and asked him to tell him how to live, what do do …. Diogenes told him to “follow him”. Unfortunately Diogenes also imposed a humbling condition on the would-be follower who was too embarrassed to comply.

Zeno

Now the way he came across Crates was this. He was shipwrecked on a voyage from Phoenicia to Peiraeus with a cargo of purple. He went up into Athens and sat down in a bookseller’s shop, being then a man of thirty. As he went on reading the second book of Xenophon’s Memorabilia, he was so pleased that he inquired where men like Socrates were to be found. Crates passed by in the nick of time, so the bookseller pointed to him and said, “Follow yonder man.” From that day he became Crates’s pupil.

Ethical Teachings and Example, a Physician of Souls

Chilon

“I know how to submit to injustice and you do not.”

The tale is also told that he inquired of Aesop what Zeus was doing and received the answer: “He is humbling the proud and exalting the humble.”

Not to abuse our neighbours

Do not use threats to any one.

When strong, be merciful.

Let not your tongue outrun your thought. Control anger.

Pittacus

Mercy is better than vengeance

Speak no ill of a friend, nor even of an enemy

Cleobulus

we should render a service to a friend to bind him closer to us, and to an enemy in order to make a friend of him.

Aristippus

He bore with Dionysius when he spat on him,

The sick need the physician, not the well

Aristippus

When Dionysius inquired what was the reason that philosophers go to rich men’s houses, while rich men no longer visit philosophers, his reply was that “the one know what they need while the other do not.”

In answer to one who remarked that he always saw philosophers at rich men’s doors, he said, “So, too, physicians are in attendance on those who are sick, but no one for that reason would prefer being sick to being a physician.”

Dionysius was offended and made him recline at the end of the table. And Aristippus said, “You must have wished to confer distinction on the last place.”

Stilpo

And conversing upon the duty of doing good to men he made such an impression on the king that he became eager to hear him.

Plato

If Phoebus did not cause Plato to be born in Greece, how came it that he healed the minds of men by letters? As the god’s son Asclepius is a healer of the body, so is Plato of the immortal soul.

Bion

He used repeatedly to say that to grant favours to another was preferable to enjoying the favours of others.

The road to Hades, he used to say, was easy to travel.

Aristotle

To the question how we should behave to friends, he answered, “As we should wish them to behave to us.”

Antisthenes

“It is a royal privilege to do good and be ill spoken of.”

When a friend complained to him that he had lost his notes, “You should have inscribed them,” said he, “on your mind instead of on paper.” As iron is eaten away by rust, so, said he, the envious are consumed by their own passion. Those who would fain be immortal must, he declared, live piously and justly.

“Many men praise you,” said one. “Why, what wrong have I done?” was his rejoinder

Diogenes

The love of money he declared to be mother-city of all evils.

Good men he called images of the gods

all things are the property of the wise

Zeno

A Rhodian, who was handsome and rich, but nothing more, insisted on joining his class. but so unwelcome was this pupil, that first of all Zeno made him sit on the benches that were dusty, that he might soil his cloak, and then he consigned him to the place where the beggars sat, that he might rub shoulders with their rags. So at last the young man went away.

This man adopts a new philosophy. He teaches to go hungry: yet he gets Disciples.

Cleanthes

Afterwards when the poet apologized for the insult, he accepted the apology, saying that, when Dionysus and Heracles were ridiculed by the poets without getting angry, it would be absurd for him to be annoyed at casual abuse.

Pythagoras

Pythagoras made many into good men and true

Epicurus

He carried deference to others to such excess that he did not even enter public life.

He showed dauntless courage in meeting troubles and death

He would punish neither slave nor free man in anger. Admonition he used to call “setting right.”

Not to call the gods to witness, man’s duty being rather to strive to make his own word carry conviction

God takes thought for man

In storm at sea

Bias

He was once on a voyage with some impious men; and, when a storm was encountered, even they began to call upon the gods for help. “Peace!” said he, “lest they hear and become aware that you are here in the ship.”

Aristippus

It happened once that he set sail for Corinth and, being overtaken by a storm, he was in great consternation. Some one said, “We plain men are not alarmed, and are you philosophers turned cowards?” To this he replied, “The lives at stake in the two cases are not comparable.”

Pyrrho

When his fellow passengers on board a ship were all unnerved by a storm, he kept calm and confident, pointing to a little pig in the ship that went on eating, and telling them that such was the unperturbed state in which the wise man should keep himself.

Divinely called, taught God’s truths, believed to be Divine

Continue reading “Jesus (and Paul) in the Ancient Philosopher Tradition”


2020-11-03

How the Story of Solomon Emerged from Assyrian and Babylonian Elites — part 4

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by Neil Godfrey

My original plan for a single post has now stretched out into four. Time to wrap up with Russell Gmirkin’s explanation for the relationship between the Solomon narrative and Assyrian records of Shalmaneser’s ninth century conquests and subsequent (eighth century) Assyrian building accounts.

The close correspondence between Sennacherib’s building account of Solomon’s temple and palace suggests that the biblical authors were not only broadly familiar with the literary conventions of Mesopotamian building accounts but had actually read the cuneiform inscriptions at Sennacherib’s Palace Without Rival. One may posit Assyrian authorship of the building account in Kings by educated Assyrian or Babylonian scribes from Samerina who travelled back to Nineveh for the international celebrations associated with the Palace Without Rival (LAR, II, §§367, 394, 413, 424; cf. Russell 1991: 260-2).

(Gmirkin, 86)

The Method Behind the “Narcissistic Madness” of Kings

Through citations of primary and secondary sources Gmirkin directs readers to an explanation of the political propaganda functions of the Assyrian monuments with their boasting inscriptions, unparalleled architecture and grandiose sculptures. Sennacherib made it clear that the “glory” he displayed in his monumental works were meant to be seen by people coming from all parts of his empire:

367: Great slabs of limestone, the enemy tribes, whom my hands had conquered, dragged through them (the doors), and I had them set up around their walls,— I made them objects of astonishment.

394: Those palaces, all around the (large) palace, I beautified; to the astonishment of all nations I raised aloft its head. The “Palace without a Rival,” I called its name.

413: I placed pillars of maple, cypress, cedar, dupranu-wood, pine and sindu-wood, with inlay of pasalli and silver, and set them up as columns in the rooms of my royal abode. Slabs of breccia and alabaster, and great slabs of limestone, I placed around their walls; I made them wonderful to behold. That daily there might be an abundant flow of water of the buckets, I had copper cables(?) and pails made and in place of the (mud-brick) pedestals (pillars) I set up great posts and crossbeams over the wells. Those palaces, all around the (large) palace, I beautified; to the astonishment of all nations, I raised aloft its head. The “Palace without a Rival” I called its name.

424: 1. At that time, after I had completed the palace in the midst of the city of Nineveh for my royal residence, had filled it with gorgeous furnishings, to the astonishment of all the people . . . .

John Russell in Sennacherib’s Palace Without Rival explains:

A magnificent capital closely identified with the ruling monarch can, however, be a very useful tool for maintaining an empire. Subject peoples visiting the capital would have been greatly awed by the power implied by the sheer bulk and splendor of the monuments of Nineveh, thus reinforcing their inclination to submit rather than to rebeL The construction of the new capital, then, was not a simple matter of royal vanity, but was instead an integral part of Sennacherib’s imperial policy. In the course of his reign, Sennacherib made Nineveh the center of the world . . . . 

The key to understanding these images [the palace sculptures] would seem to be not in their subject matter, but rather in their audience and function. The reliefs in the more public areas of Sennacherib’s palace, such as the outer court and throne room, seem to be directed more to outsiders than insiders, and their predominant message is one of warning rather than affirmation. One of their principal functions is apparently to insure the stability of the borders of the empire through the threat of violence expressed in graphic and easily perceptible terms. The ideal of maintaining the flow of tribute from the edges of the empire to its center has not changed, but the reliefs now take a more active part in this process. Rather than presenting visitors to the more public spaces with passive images showing universal submission as a fait accompli, Sennacherib’s reliefs sharply confront them with the consequences of rebellion.

In the more private inner parts of the palace, by contrast, Sennacherib’s reliefs balance these images of conquest at the periphery with images of construction in the center, emphasizing for insiders not only the risks involved in rebellion but the benefits of good government as well. Thus, for audiences both outside and inside the palace circle Sennacherib transformed the role of palace reliefs from affirmations of universal rule into tools to help maintain that rule.

(Russell, 261 f)

Ahab’s Eclipse

I highlighted the words “The ideal of maintaining the flow of tribute from the edges of the empire to its center” because that ideal, Russell explains, had been the theme of Sennacherib’s father who depicted scenes of long lines of tribute bearers in preference to cruel images of the fate of rebels. We are reminded of the ideal utopian scenes of “happy subjects” submitting to Solomon. So much for fleshing out Russell Gmirkin’s citations. Back to his main argument (and one may want to recall the first post in this series for the Ahab context):

Megiddo under King Ahab, 9th century BC from Archaeology Illustrated

Although the Acts of Solomon credited Shalmaneser III with a building program of ancient monumental architecture that included chariot cities at Gezer, Megiddo and Hazor, and Jerusalem’s temple and palace, these fortresses and impressive buildings of an earlier era are best understood as historically having been constructed by Ahab of Israel. Archaeological evidence pointing to correlations between the temple building account and temple architecture of the tenth to eighth centuries BCE in the southern Levant fully supports the construction of Jerusalem’s temple by Ahab rather than a construction by a local king of Judah (much less Solomon). The attribution of Jerusalem’s temple and other ancient monumental constructions in the southern Levant to the legendary ruler Shalmaneser III (Solomon) was an expression of local patriotic pride among the Mesopotamian (Assyrian and Babylonian) ruling class of Neo-Assyrian Samerina [the Assyrian name for the province dominated by Samaria].

(Gmirkin, 86)

Here Come the Mesopotamians – and They Don’t Mix

According to Gmirkin, then,

— the Assyrian conquerors deported the local elites from the northern kingdom of Israel

— and replaced them with Assyrian and Babylonian officials and colonists who became the “new educated ruling class elites”.

Did not those Mesopotamians eventually lose their identity by merging with the local population? That’s a common view but Gmirkin refers to Mladen Popović’s chapter, “Networks of Scholars: The Transmission of Astronomical and Astrological Learning between Babylonians, Greeks and Jews” who appeals to network theory to dispute the popular notion. When we follow up that chapter we find that Popović presents evidence that the Babylonian elites maintained a strong identity that stood opposed to “popular” culture:

Babylonians and non-Assyrians engaged in royal scholarly networks. The late Assyrian empire had become bilingual and bicultural, with Aramaic becoming the international vernacular. At the same time, there is evidence for adversarial reactions among the Assyrian ruling classes to the rising importance of Aramaic. For example, to a request by the scribe Sin-iddina of Ur to reply in Aramaic, the king answers that the scribe should rather write to him in Akkadian. This example works both ways. On the one hand, it shows that ethno-linguistic boundaries were not strict: letters to the Assyrian king could be written in Aramaic. On the other hand, it demonstrates that such boundaries were not completely ephemeral. The sender of the letter may have asked for too much by requesting the king’s answer also be in Aramaic. The king retorts by raising the boundary and emphasizing its importance: he creates an ethno-linguistic sense of difference between the scribe and himself. While ethno-linguistic and cultural boundaries can be crossed, they are also maintained. However, in the Neo-Assyrian period such boundaries do not seem to have prohibited the accessibility and dissemination of Babylonian science.

If we look at evidence from the Neo- and Late-Babylonian periods, it seems that the Babylonian urban elite had stricter limitations for entry into the scholarly elite than the Assyrians.  . . . .

Through cuneiform culture the Babylonian urban elite is said to have expressed a high degree of self-consciousness. For example, a cuneiform text from Hellenistic Uruk shows that the Aramaeans were still considered a separate ethno-linguistic group by some Babylonians; the reference in the late Seleucid list from Uruk of kings and scholars to Esarhaddon’s counsellor Aba-Enlil-dari as the one “whom the Aramaeans call Aḫuqar” shows that the story of Aḫiqar was known but seen as part of “popular” Aramaic culture rather than cuneiform elite culture. The impression gained from cuneiform sources is of Late Babylonia as an imagined community of urban elites who retreated into the imaginary space provided by the temples and the schools, with cuneiform itself being the main distinguishing characteristic of this community. The Babylonian urban elites constructed a cultural identity for themselves, one that became more and more detached from the ethno-linguistic, cultural and political realities of Babylonia in the Hellenistic and Parthian periods. At the same time, evidence from Hellenistic Uruk seems to indicate that they cultivated strong ties with the Greek elite and the Seleucid rulers that ensured their small community thrived. This shows that despite a cultivated identity that seems detached from real life, Babylonian urban elites were also able to relate to changing ethno-linguistic, cultural and political realities and to do so to their own advantage.

(Popović, 170 f)

In the context of Gmirkin’s views, that statement about the Babylonian elites finding common ground with the other elitist Greek arrivals is of interest.

Popović regularly cites “Network Theory and Religious Innovation” by Anna Collar who emphasizes that

most social ties are ‘strong’, reflective of fundamental facets of identity. Social identity can be defined (somewhat simplistically) by group membership.

(Collar, 151)

Hence Gmirkin has justification for his view: Continue reading “How the Story of Solomon Emerged from Assyrian and Babylonian Elites — part 4”

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