Category Archives: Ancient Literature

Original intention was to include here all non-Jewish works. Should this separation stand? What of Ezekiel the Tragedian or Artapanus of Alexandria and other similar Jewish authors in a “secular/Hellenistic” world? Is the subsequent breakdown into children categories justified?

Is Koine Greek a Pidgin?

Alexander the Great

While looking over my notes from the past few years, I came across something I wrote to Valerie Tarico. She had asked Neil and me to take a look at an extended version of her article, “Why Is the Bible So Poorly Written” (which is, unfortunately, behind a paywall).

In the draft we received, she quoted Ken Jacobsen, a graduate of Princeton Seminary, from a comment he made at Quora. Here’s what he said.

Koine Greek is pidgin Greek… developed by Alexander’s armies to communicate, not to impress.  It’s a step down from Classical Greek.

That statement is wrong in at least two respects. Below was my response to Valerie, edited slightly. read more »

Carried to Heaven on Eagles’ Wings — More Tales

Just for fun, as an appendix to the previous post, here are other stories of heroes being carried up into the heavens by eagles. Some appear to inspire aspirational thoughts of heavenly things while others warn of the hubris that felled Satan.

In that previous post I linked to (and briefly outlined) a story of Etana but for the sake of completeness let’s look at that starting point once more, this time with Aro’s description.

Akkadian Etana Myth

An eagle and a snake make a holy covenant that neither of them will harm the other. In spite of this, the eagle later devours the young of the snake and is punished by the Sun-God. Some kind of atonement is provided by the hero Etana who is looking for the “plant of birth” in order to obtain offspring. The eagle is willing to carry him to heaven upon its shoulders. The plan does not seem to lead to a successful completion, because Etana is frightened by the terrible height. He seems, however, to have obtained the plant, because other fragments of the epic presuppose that he sired a son. What interests us here is the idea of “space-travel” with an eagle and the conversation between Etana and the eagle:

The eagle says to him, to Etana:
“See, my friend, how the land appears!
Peer at the sea at the sides of E[kur]!”
“The land … a mountain,
the sea has become like waters of [. . . . ]”
When he had born him aloft a second league,
the eagle says to him, to Etana:
”See, my friend, how the land appears!”
“The land has turned to a gardener’s ditch.

Etana and the eagle arrive at the heaven of Anu, and there is a break in the text; after that they presumably rise even higher. The conversation is continued on similar lines: e.g. the sea looks after one league’s flight like an enclosure, after two leagues the land is like a garden and the sea like a trough. At last Etana cannot see anything, and he is panicked: “My friend, I will not ascend to heaven.” The eagle descends with enormous speed to the ground.

(Aro, 25f)

Illustrating a version having griffins (eagle-lion hybrids) carrying Alexander aloft.

Alexander the Great’s Ascent

From the origins of Sumerian civilization to the end of the Persian period, this tale must have been read and repeated throughout Western Asia. After the death of Alexander the Great, who had conquered and ruled Babylonia, it was transferred to him. The legend of the Ascension of Alexander spread throughout the ancient world and has descended to modern times in endless versions, Greek, Latin, Armenian, Coptic, Syriac, and Old French. Representations of Alexander’s ascent on eagles yoked together are found on tapestries, on illuminated manuscripts, painted on walls of palaces, and even in sculptures of Christian cathedrals. A Jewish scribe of the fourth century A.D. refers to it in the Talmud.

“Alexander the Macedonian wished to ascend in the air. He mounted, mounted, until he saw the earth as a cup and the sea as a caldron.”

Here follows a resume of the earliest Greek versions. Arrived at the extremity of the earth, Alexander desired to discover where the vault of Heaven reposed on the earth. His soldiers selected two great birds, which he caused to be without food for three days. He then put them under a yoke, and attached the hide of a bull to the yoke. A basket was fastened to the yoke, into which he climbed, having a long spear. To the end of this spear he attached the liver of a horse. The liver he held high above the heads of the hungry birds; in their eagerness to reach it they carried him upward. He ascended until the air became icy cold. Here he was halted by a bird-man who said to him:

“Alexander, thou art ignorant of terrestrial things, why desirest thou to understand those of Heaven? Return quickly to earth, and fear lest thou be the prey of these birds. Look upon the earth below.”

Seized with fear Alexander looked downward, and the earth looked like a threshing floor, surrounded by a serpent, which was the sea. He descended successfully “by the mercy of supreme Providence,” but landed seven days’ journey from his camp. Saved from famine by a satrap he received a guard of soldiers and reached his camp.

(Langdon, 173f)

Nimrod’s Ascent

In Islamic legends told by the commentators of the Qur’an, especially at-Tabar!, the same story is told about Nimrod (ar. Namrūd), and utilized to explain the words of Surah 14,46:
read more »

A Hero’s Flight to Heaven on the Back of a Bird — Understanding the Parallels

Etana ascending on an eagle

I was completely sold on Seth Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch after reading William Brown’s review of it back in 2017.

Brown, William. 2017. “Review of ‘From Adapa to Enoch’ by Seth Sanders.” Blog. The Biblical Review: Reviewing Publications, History, and Scripture (blog). September 24, 2017.

After my first quick racing through the book I feel confident enough to say that Brown’s review is pretty much spot on. As I pore through the chapters more slowly and methodically, following up footnotes and other references, I am finding a growing number of points I would like to address in some depth here on this blog. They won’t be completed quickly, and the first post won’t even be about a central point of Sanders’ specific thesis per se; it will be a generic point of methodology — or of fundamental validity of argument in relation to parallel narratives.

The oldest known ascent to heaven in the ancient Near East is the story of Etana, a legendary early Sumerian king who rode to heaven on the back of an eagle in search of a magic herb that could help him produce an heir. (Sanders, p. 28)

The story begins with the eagle making a pact with a snake, a story that is set out in detail at The Myth of Etana (Ancient History Encyclopedia) by Joshua J. Mark. The eagle breaks his promise to the snake and is punished by having his wings damaged, disabling him from flight. Etana finds the eagle in distress and helps him back to strength while the eagle this time returns the kindness by helping Etana to find what he needs in the heavens, a plant that would guarantee his ability to produce a royal heir. So the eagle carries Etana up to the heavens on his back.

You’ve no doubt heard similar stories and here’s why:

The Etana story has strong connections with a widely diffused myth and needs to be seen in historical context if it is to reveal anything about Mesopotamian written culture. A hero’s flight to heaven on the back of a bird is a widespread motif that appears in classical, Persian, Islamic, and even twentieth-century Finnish sources.2 (Sanders, p. 29)

Finnish? Here is the reference cited by Jussi Aro of Helsinki. It is from #537 in Antti Aarne’s The Types of the Folktale:

537 The Marvelous Eagle Gives the Hero a Box which he must not open.

I. The Speaking Eagle. A man aims to shoot an eagle, when suddenly the bird begins to speak like a human being [B21I.3]. The man spares him.

II. The Grateful Eagle. The bird has a wing broken. The man cares for it for three years and wastes all his property by feeding the bird. Finally the eagle recovers and will repay the man for his kindness [B380, Q45].

III. The Journey by Air. The bird then carries the man on his back across the sea [3552] to his kingdom [B222], and intimidates him three times by nearly dropping him into the sea (the hunter has once aimed three times with his gun at the bird). . . . .

Aro comments:

Can we be sure that the fairy-tale motifs mentioned above really go back to ancient Mesopotamian sources and that they have been transmitted either orally or in a literary form for some four thousand years? I think we can. It is true that the fairy-tale versions of the Lugalbanda-Anzu story differ from the original: the hero does not feed or decorate the young but saves them fwm a dragon or a snake; the latter versions are of course more logical and expressive. But still the modern versions preserve many charactedstic features of the original: there is the lonely place, the tree, the bird’s nest with the young, the bird’s suspicions when returning to the nest, the role of the young in appeasing the bird, the help bestowed by the bird on the hero, etc. The most characteristic feature of the Etana-motif again is the speculation on space-travel and the successively diminished appearance of the earth that is described preferably by a dialogue between the bird and the hero between two persons in the primitive spaceship. In this episode there is a bit of old Mesopotamian “science-fiction that has subsequently been turned in Hellenistic and later literature into a warning against hybris and in the folk-tales to a mere embellishment of the story. (Aro, p. 28)

That’s one perspective. But consider Sanders’ comment:

These parallels emphasize a fact crucial for the comparison of ancient scribal products: narratives may resemble each other independently of historical and cultural context. The fact that the Finnish and Islamic versions can easily be described in terms close to the Mesopotamian story reminds us that literary resemblance has limited inherent significance by itself.3 It is impossible to understand a narrative historically on its own; we must understand what it meant to its audiences over time. (p. 29)

And footnote 3:

The similarity of such stories in distinctly separate cultures requires us to abandon the question of whether one form “should be traced back” to the other or is “just coincidence;” either way, absent any historical relationship or comparison of social contexts, the similarity is “just coincidence.” That is, the retention itself is so isolated that, without a concrete social or historical explanation of the similarity, it appears unintelligible and random. (my emphasis)

Aarne, Antti. 1973. The Types of the Folktale; A Classification and Bibliography. Translated by Stith Thompson. 2nd edition. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.

Aro, Jussi. 1976. “Anzu and Simurgh.” In Kramer Anniversary Volume: Cuneiform Studies in Honor of Samuel Noah Kramer, edited by Barry L Eichler, 25–28. Kevelaer : Butzon & Bercker.

Brown, William. 2017. “Review: ‘From Adapa to Enoch’ by Seth Sanders.” Blog. The Biblical Review (blog). September 24, 2017.

Mark, Joshua J. 2011. “The Myth of Etana.” In Ancient History Encyclopedia.

Sanders, Seth L. 2017. From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck.


And once more . . . .

Death of Aesop

With the previous post in mind . . . .

Aesop told him a fable: “A woman who had buried her husband was sitting at his tomb, weeping and overcome with grief. A plowman saw her and began to desire her, so he left his oxen standing with the plow and came over to her, pretending to weep. She paused and asked, ‘Why are you crying?’ The plowman answered, ‘I have just buried a good and wise wife, and when I cry, I find it makes my grief easier to bear.’ The woman said, ‘I have also lost a good husband, and when I do as you do, I also find it takes away some of the grief.’ So he said to her, ‘If we have suffered the same fate, why don’t we get to know each other better? I shall love you as I did her, and you will love me as you did your husband.’ He thus persuaded the woman, but while he was lying with her, someone untied his oxen and led them away. When the plowman got up and discovered that his oxen were gone, he began to wail in genuine grief. The woman asked, ‘Why are you crying again?’ And he replied, ‘Woman, now I really do have something to mourn!’ So you ask me why I am grieving when you see my great misfortune?” (p. 222)

Wills, Lawrence M., trans. 1997. “The Book of Xanthos the Philosopher and Aesop, His Slave, Concerning the Course of His Life.” In The Quest of the Historical Gospel: Mark, John, and the Origins of the Gospel Genre, 177–224. London: Routledge.

It was a common enough motif, and no-doubt a regular part of life. The Life or Romance of Aesop is dated “probably in the first or second century C.E.”

Lawrence Wills further identifies many similarities between the Life of Aesop and the gospels of John and Mark. The low-class style, the initially despised man whose inner wisdom and divinely bestowed gifts astonish many others, the hero’s ability to teach great (and unconventional) wisdom to others, his ability to outsmart even the best teachers of his day, his prophecy of war and doom for a city he visits, his tendency to deliver lessons in parables or fables, his rebuke of the citizens of a holy city and their determination to execute him by a dishonourable death in return, and the city is punished by the gods for its crime


Is the Satirical Widow of Ephesus Story an Attack on Christianity?

The Relationship Between the Satyricon’s “Tale of the Ephesian Widow” and Texts Associated with Early Christianity.

Cabaniss, Allan; ”A Footnote to the Petronian Question”, CPh 49, 1954; pp. 98-102.

”The Satyricon and the Christian Oral Tradition,” Greek, Roman & Byzantine Studies, Vol. 3, 1960, pp. 36-9.

“The Matron of Ephesus Again: An Analysis,” Univ. of Mississippi Studies in English 3; (1962) 75-77. [Also in Liturgy and Literature: Selected Essays (Alabama, 1970).]

The Satyricon and the NT, A Satire. Liturgy and Literature, Selected Essays, University of Alabama Press, 1970, p. 72-96.

Harris, William (January 20, 1926 – February 22, 2009), Professor of Classics at Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT.

”There is no space to go into this here, but it seems clear that someone who misunderstood Christianity totally, heard of Christ’s entombment and crucifixion, and turned it into an odd form of comedy. This needs further study and discussion….”

Posted at

”We should look at this from the perspective of historical evidence. If the Petronius storyline may be considered even as indirect evidence that there was an awareness, howsoever vague and transposed, of Christ’s final state, it does establish the fact that the crucifixion of Christ was becoming known in secular circles throughout the West. And it further helps document a date for Petronius (who has never been properly dated) as near the end of the first century A.D. I find this matter so strange and unparalleled by anything else we have from the early years of the first millennium, that I hesitate to propose the matter in documentable academic terms, and offer this view primarily as a suggestion for consideration. On the other hand the segments of the argument as I have outlined them seem to fit together ineluctably. It is essentially the interpretation of their meaning in a social and historical sense which gives me pause.”

Posted at Retrieved 2016/4/21.

Ramelli, Ilaria; The Ancient Novels and the New Testament: Possible Contacts; Ancient Narrative, Volume 5, Groningen; 2007; pp 41-68.

Someone may be able to persuade me otherwise, but I cannot see how Petronius’s tale of the widow of Ephesus has anything to do with Christianity. Roger Viklund has posted a bibliography of citations (see the insert box) that present the case that Petronius was somehow indebted to Christianity — presumably through garbled oral reports — or even that he constructed his account as a vicious attack on Christianity.

I cannot see it.

For those who do not know the story, here is how it begins:

‘There was once a lady of Ephesus so famous for her fidelity to her husband that she even attracted women from neighbouring countries to come just to see her. So when she buried her husband, she was not satisfied with following him to his grave with the usual uncombed hair or beating her breast in front of the crowd, but she even accompanied the dead man into the tomb, and when the corpse was placed in the underground vault, she began watching over it from then on, weeping day and night. Neither her parents nor her relations could induce her to stop torturing herself and seeking death by starvation. Finally the magistrates were repulsed and left her, and this extraordinary example to womankind, mourned by everyone, was now spending her fifth day without food. A devoted servant sat with the ailing woman, added her tears to the lady’s grief, and refilled the lamp in the tomb whenever it began to go out. Naturally there was only one subject of conversation in the whole town: every class of people admitted there had never been such a shining example of true fidelity and love.

What we are reading here is not a reaction to (or spin-off from) Christianity but a Roman author undertaking to lampoon a very common motif in the Greco-Roman literature with which he had been familiar all his life: the ever faithful woman who would die with her deceased or departed partner rather than go on living without him. The author spells out his theme most explicitly. He is about to satirize the notion of the woman who shines as the ultimate in “true fidelity and love.”

In the words of Gian Biagio Conte in The Hidden Author: An Interpretation of Petronius’s Satyricon,

There is a story that when a certain lady of Ephesus, a woman of exemplary chastity, was widowed, she was not content with weeping for her husband in the usual manner, beating her breast at the funeral or further shutting herself away in inconsolable mourning; she went so far as to bury herself with her husband in an underground tomb. Here the model approaches myth, as the faithful wife treads the ground of the great heroines devoted to their husbands and condemned to grief beyond all consolation. This is the world of Evadne, Laodamia, Alcestis, Andromache, Dido. The grief of the widow of Ephesus, like that of certain heroines of the romantic novel, found satisfaction only in the longing for death, in the love-suicide that would unite the two partners. (p. 104, my emphasis)

Now we see how every part of the story fits. The spotlight is on the widow, not her deceased husband. It is her behaviour that the story is about. To all the world, or at least her neighbours, she appears to be the most devoted wife, another Dido who kills herself when her lover leaves, another Evadne who also commits suicide at the news of her husband’s death, another Laodamia who dies along with her husband when he is called back to Hades, and so on.

Petronius continues his story. The soldier brings food to the weeping widow who steadfastly refuses it. However, the servant of the woman yields and eventually persuades her mistress to eat. One thing led to another, and before long . . . .

‘Need I say more? The woman couldn’t refuse even this gratification of the flesh and the triumphant soldier talked her into both. They then slept together, not just the night they first performed the ceremony but the next night too, and then a third. The doors of the vault were of course closed, so if a friend or a stranger came to the tomb, he thought that the blameless widow had expired over her husband’s body.

The reader now laughs at the hypocrisy, the falseness, of the woman found only in myth.

Meanwhile, the parents of one of the crucified victims saw that the guard was absent and took down their son to give him a proper burial. When the soldier returned from his liaison with the once-mourning widow and saw the body missing he feared he would be executed as punishment for deriliction of his duty. His new-found lover, however, came to his rescue by agreeing to allow him to replace the missing body with that of the husband she had not long before been wishing to die with. So with the widow’s urging he takes the husband’s corpse and places it up on the cross. And the widow and soldier, we presume, lived happily ever after.

The man for whom the world believed the woman was aching to die for is coldly dimissed and strung up in public disgrace so the woman could protect her new life of fickle indulgence.

If anyone can see an attack on Christianity in that little episode . . . . well, I do not see it. (And that’s before we even recall that the author of the Widow of Ephesus narrative (a part of the larger work Satyricon) is almost certain to have died before any of the Christian gospels were written.)

But if anyone wants to see a mockery of the mythical/legendary woman who resolves to die with her lost love one, then, just like Dido when she lost Aeneas and so forth, . . . yes, I can see that. Petronius even makes his theme unmistakably explicit.

Once again, we return to my post, Do Parallels Only Work in One Direction? Or bettter still,

Why New Testament Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels


Conte, Gian Biagio. 1997. The Hidden Author: An Interpretation of Petronius’s Satyricon. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Petronius. 2011. Petronius. the Satyricon. Revised Edition. Edited by Helen Morales. Translated by J. P. Sullivan. London: Penguin Classics.

Prophecy Driven Narratives in Ancient Fiction

We are looking at the gospel narratives in their literary-narrative context. First, we saw a tale of an empty tomb; then several instances of innocent heroes surviving crucifixion, followed by the entertaining notion of a bodily resurrection from the dead, and we’ll conclude with another favourite of mine, the prophecy-driven plot. The story in the Book of Acts is driven by prophetic announcements. Jesus instructs his followers to wait in Jerusalem for the moment they will be infused with the holy spirit. Paul is likewise told that he is chosen to gentiles and kings and that he will suffer persecution, and lo and behold, that’s just what happens. The gospels similarly contain the pronouncement that Jesus will have to suffer, die and rise again, and that, too, happens in the ensuing story.

That technique of a prophecy-led series of events is very common in ancient Greco-Roman fiction, too. (It is found more widely than that, extending back to epic poetry, beyond the Greek world, too, and of course in Old Testament narratives, but let’s continue with our theme of what we find in ancient Greek novels from the early Christian era.)

An Ephesian Tale of Anthia and Habrocomes, by an otherwise unknown Xenophon, is introduced by its translator Graham Anderson . . .

The main interest of Xenophon’s Ephesian Tale of Anthia and Habrocomes, to give it its full title, is as a specimen of penny dreadful literature in antiquity; it exhibits in vintage form the characteristics of the melodrama and the popular novel as it portrays the tribulations of a pair of lovers harassed by misfortune. The narrative exemplifies the basic pattern of late Greek romance: initial felicity rudely broken by journey and separation; danger to life, limb, and chastity; rescue by divine agency; and eventual reunion through similar means. . . . . Of the work’s date we know even less; suggested termini are inconclusive, and the most likely guess is the second century A.D. (p. 125)

Near the beginning of the story we read an oracle from Apollo that we will see sets out the outline of the rest of the plot:

The temple of Apollo in Colophon is not far away; it is ten miles’ sail from Ephesus. There the messengers from both parties asked the god for a true oracle. They had come with the same question, and the god gave the same oracle in verse to both. It went like this.

Why do you long to learn the end of a malady, and its beginning?
One disease has both in its grasp, and from that the remedy must be accomplished.
But for them I see terrible sufferings and toils that are endless;
Both will flee over the sea pursued by madness;
They will suffer chains at the hands of men who mingle with the waters;
And a tomb shall be the burial chamber for both, and fire the destroyer;
And beside the waters of the river Nile, to Holy Isis
The savior you will afterwards offer rich gifts;
But still after their sufferings a better fate is in store. (1.6)

And just as we read in the gospels how the disciples could not understand a prophecy that sounds clear enough to the reader, so we read the response of those for whom the oracle was meant: read more »

Bodily Resurrection in Ancient Fiction

We are looking at the gospel narratives in their literary-narrative context. First we saw a tale of an empty tomb; then we noticed several instances of innocent heroes surviving crucifixion, and now we see how viable the notion of a bodily resurrection from the dead was.

Maybe you have sometimes heard a scholar declare that the very idea of a physical resurrection was unthinkable, certainly abhorrent, to people in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Well, that’s simply not so, as the following details from a late second century novel testify. The novel is Leucippe and Clitophon, by Achilles Tatius.

The reader shares the view of the narrator witnessing the sacrificial death from afar off. (Heard that one before?) The body even becomes a sacrificial meal.

We could in fact see brigands aplenty and fully armed standing on the opposite side of the trench. They had improvised an altar of earth and near it a coffin. Two of them were leading a girl to the altar with her hands tied behind her back. I couldn’t see who they were in their armor, but I did recognize that the maiden was Leukippe. They poured a libation over her head and led her around the altar to the accompaniment of a flute and a priest intoning what I guessed was an Egyptian hymn — at least, the movements of his mouth and the distention of his facial muscles suggested that he was chanting.

Then at a signal they all moved far away from the altar. One of the attendants laid her on her back and tied her to stakes fixed in the ground, as sculptors picture Marsyas bound to the tree. He next raised a sword and plunged it into her heart and then sawed all the way down to her abdomen. Her viscera leaped out. The attendants pulled out her entrails and carried them in their hands over to the altar. When it was well done they carved the whole lot up, and all the bandits shared the meal.

As each of these acts was performed, the soldiers and the general groaned aloud and averted their eyes from the sight. But I, contrary to all reason, just sat there staring. It was sheer shock: I was simply thunderstruck by the enormity of the calamity. Perhaps the myth of Niobe was no fiction after all: faced with the carnage of her children, she felt just as I did, and her emotional paralysis had given the appearance of petrifaction.

When the ceremony was concluded, so far as I could tell, they placed her body in the coffin, covered it with a lid, razed the altar, and ran away without looking behind them. All this was done according to the rubrics sanctioned by the priest. (Book 3, Section 15)

Clitophon is so distraught over what he has just witnessed that he prepares to kill himself:

At some point during the first night watch, having waited until every- one was asleep, I went out with my sword, intending to kill myself by the coffin. When I reached it, I drew my sword and said: “O poor Leukippe, least happy of all human beings! I do not mourn merely the fact of your death, nor its alien milieu, nor its violence, but rather the farce your murderers made of your misfortune, that you were an expiation for those execrable bodies, that they slit you (alas!) alive, witnessing your own incision. They took communion of the secrets of your stomach and left what was left of you on an abject altar and bier. Your body is laid out here, but where will I find your vitals? Oh, far less devastating had the fire devoured them, but no — your insides are inside the outlaws, victuals in the vitals of bandits. (3.16)

But wait! Good news is promised. . . . read more »

Ancient Heroes Surviving Crucifixions

Another element that the gospels and ancient fiction have in common is the trope of the innocent hero who is ordered to be crucified by an innocent/ignorant/unjust ruler but who nonetheless survives.

The silent victim

The first instance comes from the same novel that contained the empty tomb adventure, Chaereas and Callirhoe. The chief victim is silent.

They were brought out chained together at foot and neck, each carrying his cross — the men executing the sentence added this grim public spectacle to the inevitable punishment as an example to frighten the other prisoners. Now Chaereas said nothing when he was led off with the others, but Polycharmus, as he carried his cross, said: “Callirhoe, it is because of you that we are suffering like this! You are the cause of all our troubles!” (4.2)

The king changes his mind and orders Chaereas to be taken down from the cross.

This story was greeted with tears and groans, and Mithridates sent everybody off to reach Chaereas before he died. They found the rest nailed up on their crosses; Chaereas was just ascending his. So they shouted to them from far off. “Spare him!” cried some; others, “Come down!” or “Don’t hurt him!” or “Let him go!” So the executioner checked his gesture, and Chaereas climbed down from his cross — with sorrow in his heart, for he was glad to be leaving a life of misery and ill-starred love. As he was being brought, Mithridates met him and embraced him. “My brother, my friend!” he said. “Your silence almost misled me into committing a crime! Your self-control was quite out of place!” Straightaway he told his servants to take them to the baths and see to their physical well-being, and when they had bathed, to give them luxurious Greek clothes to wear. He himself invited men of rank to a banquet and offered sacrifice for Chaereas’s rescue. They drank deep, and there was generous hospitality and cheerful rejoicing. (4.3)

Prayer for salvation from the cross

In another novella, An Ephesian Tale by Xenophon of Ephesus, another injustice is done by the ruler and an innocent man is ordered crucified. The hero prays from the cross and the god miraculously rescues him — twice, actually.

Meanwhile Habrocomes came before the prefect of Egypt. The Pelusians had made him a report of what had happened, mentioning Araxus’s death and stating that Habrocomes, a household slave, had been the perpetrator of so foul a crime. When the prefect heard the particulars, he made no further effort to find out the facts but gave orders to have Habrocomes taken away and crucified. Habrocomes himself was dumbfounded at his miseries and consoled himself at his impending death with the thought that Anthia, so it seemed, was dead as well. The prefect’s agents brought him to the banks of the Nile, where there was a sheer drop overlooking the torrent. They set up the cross and attached him to it, tying his hands and feet tight with ropes; that is the way the Egyptians crucify. They then went away and left him hanging there, thinking that their victim was securely in place. But Habrocomes looked straight at the sun, then at the Nile channel, and prayed: “Kindest of the gods, ruler of Egypt, revealer of land and sea to all men: if I, Habrocomes, have done anything wrong, may I perish miserably and incur an even greater penalty if there is one; but if I have been betrayed by a wicked woman, I pray that the waters of the Nile should never be polluted by the body of a man unjustly killed; nor should you look on such a sight, a man who has done no wrong being murdered on your territory.” The god took pity on his prayer. A sudden gust of wind arose and struck the cross, sweeping away the subsoil on the cliff where it had been fixed. Habro- comes fell into the torrent and was swept away; the water did him no harm; his fetters did not get in his way; nor did the river creatures do him any harm as he passed, but the current guided him along. He was arrested him and took him before the prefect as a fugitive from justice. He was still angrier than before, took Habrocomes for an out-and-out villain, and gave firm orders to build a pyre, put Habrocomes on it, and bum him. And so everything was made ready, the pyre was set up at the delta, Habrocomes was put on it, and the fire had been lit underneath. But just as the flames were about to engulf him, he again prayed the few words he could to be saved from the perils that threatened. Then the Nile rose in spate, and the surge of water struck the pyre and put out the flames. To those who witnessed it the event seemed like a miracle: they took Habrocomes and brought him before the prefect, told him what had happened, and explained how the Nile had come to his rescue. He was amazed when he heard what had happened and ordered Habrocomes to be kept in custody, but to be well looked after till they could find out who he was and why the gods were looking after him like this. (4.2)

Mocking procession

We only have an ancient summary of A Babylonian Story (by Iamblichus). It reads like a set of notes for a story to be fleshed out at a later time. It begins with a summary of the plot:

The characters in the story are the attractive Sinonis and Rhodanes, who are joined by the mutual ties of love and marriage, and the Babylonian king Garmus. After the death of his wife, he falls in love with Sinonis and is eager to marry her. Sinonis refuses and is bound in gold chains. The king’s eunuchs Damas and Sacas are given the task of putting Rhodanes onto a cross for this reason. But through Sinonis’s efforts he is taken down, and they each avoid their fate, he of crucifixion, she of marriage.

The mocking procession to the crucifixion:

When Soraechus was being taken to be crucified, Rhodanes was being led to and hoisted onto the cross that had been designated for him earlier by a garlanded and dancing Garmus, who was drunk and dancing round the cross with the flute players and reveling with abandon.

The king orders the hero to be taken down from the coss and appoints him general of his army:

While this is happening, Sacas informs Garmus by letter that Sinonis is marrying the youthful king of Syria. Rhodanes rejoices up high on the cross, but Garmus makes to kill himself. He checks himself, however, and brings down Rhodanes from the cross against his will (for he prefers to die); he appoints him general and sends him to command his army . . . .

Reardon, Bryan P., ed. 1989. Collected Ancient Greek Novels. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Another Empty Tomb Story

Someone asked for examples of the ancient literature that contain motifs echoed in the biblical narratives. I’ll post a few, beginning Chariton’s novella Chaereas and Callirhoe. I do not believe that we have any reason to think that there is any genetic relationship between the following extract and the gospels. The similarities arise entirely from a shared cultural and thought world. It appears to me that the evangelists were drawing upon stock literary tropes when they related their respective empty tomb scenarios.

A mourner comes very early in the morning to the tomb where his beloved was placed the evening before. He finds it open. He is fearful and confused. Others come to see but none dare go inside. When the body is found to be missing the first thought of the mourner is that she has been taken up to heaven as a living goddess — as per otherwise unknown variants of the myths of Ariadne and Semele who were made divine after apparently dying. I have highlighted the passages that remind us of the gospel empty tomb narratives. (One of the more interesting details — I think — is that the first to arrive at the tomb do not enter until someone else arrives later and does so. Compare the Gospel of John’s sequence of Peter and the beloved disciple.)

As for the date of Chariton’s work, B. P. Reardon (whose translation I am copying) thinks it belongs to the mid first century CE.

Chariton’s employer may possibly have been a known figure of the early second century A.D., but Chariton’s style suggests a rather earlier date for his work: he does not “atticize,” that is write in the archaizing Greek fashionable from the late first century A.D. onward, and was an ambitious enough writer to have done so had he lived in that period. But style is an unreliable criterion, and Chariton has been placed as early as the first century B.C. My own guess at his date is about the middle of the first century A.D. The geographical and social background of one of the story’s main locations, the region of Miletus, certainly seems to fit that area of Asia Minor in the early Roman Empire. (pp. 17f)

Here is the passage. It is from Book 3, Section 3 of the work:

The tomb robbers had been careless in closing the tomb — it was at night, and they were in a hurry. At the crack of dawn Chaereas turned up at the tomb, ostensibly to offer wreaths and libations, but in fact with the intention of doing away with himself; he could not bear being separated from Callirhoe and thought that death was the only thing that would cure his grief. When he reached the tomb, he found that the stones had been moved and the entrance was open. He was astonished at the sight and overcome by fearful perplexity at what had happened. Rumor—a swift messenger—told the Syracusans this amazing news. They all quickly crowded round the tomb, but no one dared go inside until Hermocrates gave an order to do so. The man who was sent in reported the whole situation accurately. It seemed incredible that even the corpse was not lying there. Then Chaereas himself determined to go in, in his desire to see Callirhoe again even dead; but though he hunted through the tomb, he could find nothing. Many people could not believe it and went in after him. They were all seized by helplessness. One of those standing there said, “The funeral offerings have been carried off — it is tomb robbers who have done that; but what about the corpse — where is it?” Many different suggestions circulated in the crowd. Chaereas looked towards the heavens, stretched up his arms, and cried: “Which of the gods is it, then, who has become my rival in love and carried off Callirhoe and is now keeping her with him — against her will, constrained by a more powerful destiny? That is why she died suddenly — so that she would not realize what was happening. That is how Dionysus took Ariadne from Theseus, how Zeus took Semele. It looks as if I had a goddess for a wife without knowing it, someone above my station. But she should not have left the world so quickly, even for such a reason. Thetis was a goddess, but she stayed with Peleus, and he had a son by her; I have been abandoned at the very height of my love. What is to happen to me? What is to become of me, poor wretch? Should I do away with myself? And who would share my grave? I did have this much to look forward to, in my misfortune — that if I could not continue to share Callirhoe’s bed, I should come to share her grave. My lady! I offer my justification for living — you force me to live, because I shall look for you on land and sea, and in the very sky if I can reach there! This I beg of you, my dear — do not flee from me!” At this the crowd broke out in lamentation; everyone began to lament for Callirhoe as though she had just died. (pp. 53f)

Chariton. 1989. “Chaereas and Callirhoe.” In Collected Ancient Greek Novels, translated by Bryan P. Reardon, 17–124. Berkeley: University of California Press.

For those curious about the story, Chaereas had kicked his betrothed, the goddess-like Callirhoe to death (or so he and everyone else thought), but the author clearly expects readers to sympathize with him because he did so sincerely believing (although falsely) that he had a good reason to be angry with her. How times and values change! However, Callirhoe had only been winded and recovered in the cool of the tomb. When tomb robbing pirates found her alive when they broke into the tomb they took her to sell her as a slave.

The Question of Historicity Need Not Be Raised

The question whether Orpheus himself existed or not need not be raised. There was, in general, no doubt of it in the ancient world. Indeed, it makes very little difference in the history of human thought whether the great and influential personalities ever actually lived in human bodies. Personalities like Zeus, Odysseus, and Zoroaster, and even Hamlet and Don Quixote, have been more important in the world than millions of men who have lived and died. Their reality is the reality of an idea, and the best that we can know about them is what men have thought about them. The reality of Orpheus is to be sought in what men thought and said about him. 
Linforth, Ivan M. 1973 (c 1941). The Arts of Orpheus. New York: Arno Press. xiif
Death of Orpheus (1494) by Dürer

Another request

I seem to be asking for a lot of help, lately. This time, it’s for those with access to the Greek text of Polybius’s book 12 of his History and with the means of locating without much trouble the word συμπλοκή

The occasion is the following passage about ancient historians:

The existence of different voices or interpretations of a past which have the “right” to exist side-by-side shows that the accurate reporting of past events was not necessarily on the agenda of societies and their authors in Antiquity. Leaving to readers the decision of what really happened tells us much about the nature of the societies we are dealing with (Polybius, who expresses a rationalistic approach to the past, knew how to tackle this by suggesting that history should be viewed as a symploke, [intertwining]; see his Book 12).

Mendels, Doron. 2008. “How Was Antiquity Treated in Societies with a Hellenistic Heritage? (And Why Did the Rabbis Avoid Writing History?).” In Antiquity in Antiquity: Jewish and Christian Pasts in the Greco-Roman World, edited by Gregg Gardner and Kevin Osterloh, 132–51. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. (p. 142)

I read Book 12 in an English translation and failed to notice any discussion of the sort of idea I think Doron Mendels is addressing. What would help if I knew what passage(s) in Book 12 Polybius uses συμπλοκή or some form of it.

The idea that I thought Mendels is addressing is the recording of inconsistent versions of events in historical narratives. I know that some ancient historians do this, but it appears from the reference to Polybius that I should find a discussion by an ancient historian on the fact that historians do set side by side contradictory (or at least inconsistent) narratives.

Anyone able to help with this one?



When a God Passes By

In olden times it was not unknown for gods to pass by their devotees, showing their awesome power in some limited way, and eliciting the awed responses one would expect from those privileged to see them.

But at that time of day when heavenly light has not yet come, nor is there utter darkness, but the faint glimmer that we call twilight spreads over the night and wakes us, they [=Jason and his Argonauts] ran into the harbour of the lonely isle of Thynias and went ashore exhausted by their labours. Here they had a vision of Apollo on his way from Lycia to visit the remote and teeming peoples of the North. The golden locks streamed down his cheeks in clusters as he moved; he had a silver bow in his left hand and a quiver slung on his back; the island quaked beneath his feet and the sea ran high on the shore. They were awe-struck at the sight and no one dared to face the god and meet his lovely eyes. They stood there with bowed heads while he, aloof, passed through the air on his way across the sea.

Apollonius of Rhodes. 1959. The Voyage of Argo: The Argonautica. Translated by E. V. Rieu. 2nd ed. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Classics. (91f)


. . .


Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. . . . But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by.  Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” . . . . .

So Moses . . . went up Mount Sinai early in the morning. . . . Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness,  . . . Moses bowed to the ground at once and worshiped.

(Exodus 33-34)


. . .


Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and [Jesus] was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.

(Mark 6)

Can We Find History Beneath the Literary Trappings?

We have seen that the hypothesis that the Jesus of the gospels was in some way modeled on the story of another Jesus, Jesus son of Ananias, does have scholarly cachet and is by no means considered a fatuous instance of “parallelomania”. Jesus son of Ananias is a figure we find in Josephus’s account of the Jewish War of 66-70 CE. One scholar, Ted Weeden, advanced the thesis in considerable depth and even went further than exploring the “striking similarities” between Jesus ben Ananias and aspects of the Jesus narratives in all four of our canonical gospels: he even concluded that the Jesus prophet in Josephus’s Jewish War had no historical basis but was entirely a literary construct based on Jeremiah.

Now that conclusion was a step too far for some scholars, one of whom was Bob Schacht of the University of Hawaii who in 2005 on a scholarly forum raised the following objection:

As much as I admire my friend Ted Weeden’s scholarship, which is considerable, the whole of these arguments here posted seems to be a literary paradigm that rests on the assumption that all history takes place within literature, without any necessary or inconvenient ties to what people did outside of that literary frame in their lives. Ted does a masterful job of tracing literary connections, and he uses such phrases as “creator(s) of the story” to suggest that the people and events described therein are not historical. Ted’s arguments work very well within his literary paradigm, but do they really help us that much with history? The implications seem to be to subtract from historical knowledge, moving mountains of literary data from the domain of history into the domain of fiction.

The reductio ad absurdam here is that history didn’t really happen. Only literature happened, somehow existing outside of time and space except insofar as literary source A is considered prior to literary source B. I know this is a parody of Ted’s argument, but sometimes parodies can make a useful point.

. . . . . I don’t think that the authors of the gospels were trying to write a best-selling novel; I think they were trying to understand and explain things that happened a generation or two earlier, using the best tools they had to tell the tale.

Schacht, Bob, 2005. “Re: [XTalk] Essay, Part II: Jesus-Ananias=Latter-Day Jeremiah & Markan Jesus” XTalk: Historical Jesus & Christian Origins – Yahoo Groups.

I know Schacht’s concerns are not his alone; I find them expressed in different ways in many quarters whenever the question of literary contexts and paradigms are raised in discussions of works by ancient historians.

Moses I. Finley

The difficulty is not unique to biblical scholars. The prominent historian of ancient history, Moses I. Finley, sympathized with those who were left perturbed by the conclusions that must necessarily follow from an informed awareness of how ancient historians worked:

Modern writers find themselves in difficulties. Not only does the position of a Dionysius of Halicarnassus seem immoral – it has been said that one would have to regard Thucydides as ‘blind or dishonest’ – but, worse still, one must consider seriously abandoning some of the most interesting and seductive sections of Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Caesar, Sallust, Livy, Tacitus, Dio Cassius and the rest as primary or secondary sources.There is no choice: if the substance of the speeches or even the wording is not authentic, then one may not legitimately recount that Pericles told the assembled Athenians in 430 BC that their empire ‘is like a tyranny, seemingly unjust to have taken but dangerous to let go’ (Thucydides 2.63.2). I have no idea what Pericles said on that occasion but neither have the innumerable historians who repeat from a speech what I have just quoted. Except for Thucydides and perhaps Polybius, there is no longer any serious argument, though the reluctance to accept the consequences is evident on all sides . . . . 

pages 12-13 of M. I. Finley’s Ancient History: Evidence and Models.

I copy a section from an earlier post of mine: read more »

Stories of Walking on Water — Looking for Sources

In The History of the Synoptic Tradition by Rudolf Bultmann there is the following passage beginning page 236. But there’s a catch. I have not had the opportunity to track down any of the references I have cast in bold type — removing the bold as we locate them as per the comments. If you happen to be a person with an opportunity to identify any of those bolded references and point to where I can locate/read/translate them you are more than welcome to share that information in the comments section below.

Dio Chrysostom: “Socrates,” said he, “you know perfectly well that of all men under the sun that man is most powerful and in might no whit inferior to the gods themselves who is able to accomplish the seemingly impossible — if it should be his will, to have men walk dryshod over the sea, to sail over the mountains, to drain rivers dry by drinking — or have you not heard that Xerxes, the king of the Persians, made of the dry land a sea by cutting through the loftiest of the mountains and separating Athos from the mainland, and that he led his infantry through the sea, riding upon a chariot just like Poseidon in Homer’s description? And perhaps in the same way the dolphins and the monsters of the deep swam under his raft as the king drove along.”

There must also have been stories of walking on water in Hellenism. Admittedly it is hyperbole when Dio Chrysost. speaks of the power of Xerxes, that when he so wishes he is able πεζεύεσθαι μέν την θάλατταν, πλεϊσθαι δέ τά δρη. But the capacity to do so is often attributed to demons. P. Berol., I, 120 thus describes the power of the δαίμων πάρεδρος: πήξει δέ ποταμούς καί θάλασσα[ν συντ]όμως(?) καί οπως ένδιατρέχης (Reitzenstein, Hellenist. Wundererzaehlungen, p. 125). Also A. Dieterich, Abraxas, p. 190, 13: εγώ είμι ό έν ούρανω σχολήν έχων φοιτώμενός τε έν ύδατι, and on another tablet (Rhein. Mus., 55, 261, cp. 264): qui solus per mare transis. But according to Lucian, Philops., 13 the same things are reported of human wonder workers: είδες . . . τόν Ύπερβόρεον άνδρα πετάμενον ή έπ’ι τοϋ ϋδατος βεβηκότα. Further material may be found in A. Gercke, Jahrb. f . Philol. Suppl. X X II, 1895, pp. 205ff.; A. Abt, ‘Die Apologie des Apuleius von Madaura und die antike Zauberei’, Religionsgesch. Vers, u. Vorarb., IV, 2, 1908, pp. 129, 2. We may add from the Christian tradition: Hist. Aegypti monachorum XI, 18, p. 58; cp. XX, 16, p. 75, Preuschen; Ps. Cypr., Confess., 12.1 Indian parallels also come up for consideration in this regard, and there are stories of walking or flying over the water, which could even have influenced Hellenistic literature: cp. R. Garbe, Indien und das Christentum, 1914, pp. 57f. Most notable is a Buddhist parallel to Matt. 14 28-31 (the text is in J. Aufhauser, Jesus und Buddha, Kl. Texte, no. 157, p. 12). It tells of a disciple ‘who wanted to visit Buddha one evening and on his way found that the ferry boat was missing from the bank of the river Aciravati. In faithful trust in Buddha he stepped on to the water and went as if on dry land to the very middle of the stream. Then he came out of his contented meditation on Buddha in which he had lost himself, and saw the waves and was frightened, and his feet began to sink. But he forced himself to become wrapt in his meditation again and by its power he reached the far bank safely and reached his master.’ (Garbe, pp. 56f. and Buddhist. Maerchen, pp. 46f.) Garbe thinks that the gospel story was borrowed from the Buddhist tradition.2

Jesus Walking on Water
Jesus Walking on Water (Ivan Aivazovsky)

1 In the language of Christian edification this miracle motif may have attained a symbolic significance and the walking on the water become the treading of the mythical waters of death, which Christ and his mystic followers achieve. Cp. Dibelius (Formgeschichte, p. 86) who adduces Od. Sol. 39: ‘He walked and went over them on foot, and his footprints stayed on the water and were not obliterated. . . . And a path was prepared for those who followed him.’ What the relation of Mand. Ginza R., II, 1, pp. 4ggf. Lidzb. is to this (Christ the seducer says, ‘I walk over the water, Come with me; you shall not drown’) can well be left undecided here.

2 Cp. W. Brown, The Indian and Christian Miracles of Walking on the Water, 1928. Saintyves, who again traces these stories to cultic origins (initiation rites) amasses a wealth of material, [P. Saintyves,  Essais de Folklore Biblique, 1923], pp. 307-63. Cp. also Indianermaerchen aus Nordamerika, p. 31; Turkestan. Maerchen, p. 69; Muellenhoff, Sagen, etc., p. 351.

I did locate the reference to Brown, Indian and Christian Miracles… — it is available on –

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl. 1963. The History of the Synoptic Tradition. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Dio Chrysostom. n.d. “Discourse 3.” LacusCurtius. Accessed March 13, 2019.*.html#ref11.