Musings on biblical studies, politics, religion, ethics, human nature, tidbits from science
Category: Ancient Literature
Original intention was to include here all non-Jewish works. Should this separation stand? What of Ezekiel the Tragedian or Artapanus of Alexandria and other similar Jewish authors in a “secular/Hellenistic” world? Is the subsequent breakdown into children categories justified?
This is probably my favourite chapter in How the Gospels Became History by M. David Litwa. Is #15, “Eyewitnesses”.
— Who Is the Beloved Disciple? — I like Litwa’s answer to that question better than any argument that it was Paul or Mary or John or . . . .
— And does not striking life-like vividness of detail in a narrative strongly indicate an eyewitness report? It’s refreshing to see a biblical scholar answer that question in the negative.
But first, some opening quotes to give you the main drift:
Through the eyes of the literary eyewitness, a subjective and spiritual event could be represented as real and verifiable. . . . Fictive or not, eyewitnesses were greatly valued in ancient Mediterranean culture. . . .
Odysseus is weeping at the court of Alcinous as the blind minstrel Demodocus sings about Odysseus and Achilles at Troy while playing the harp. (Wikimedia)
Let Homer answer the question, so often asked rhetorically when apologists insist on the historicity of the gospels.
In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero Odysseus praises the singer Demodocus for relating the events of the Trojan War “as if you were present yourself, or heard it from one who was.” Demodocus was definitely not present, a point that Odysseus well knows. Still, by means of his vivid presentation, Demodocus could make it seem as if he were an eyewitness or had heard from one who was. Homer knew that if one was not an eyewitness, skillful literary art could produce an eyewitness effect.
(Litwa, 194 f)
Historians and eyewitness reports — comparing the gospels
Litwa points out that as a rule ancient Greco-Roman historians sought to impress audiences with the credibility and superiority of their accounts by appeals to eyewitness sources. Not that they cited an eyewitness with every event, but they would often boast of their first-hand information in a prologue or whenever a particularly unusual event was being narrated. If we accept this practice as the literary custom at the time the gospels were composed then Litwa’s argument makes sense:
The gospels were probably not written by eyewitnesses. If they were, the authors would have named themselves and explicitly claimed to have seen the events that they narrated. If they based their accounts on eyewitness reports, they would have named those eyewitnesses specifically and related their differing accounts. Real eyewitnesses would not have left firsthand experience open to doubt. They would have boasted, like Josephus, of their eyewitness status and used it to confirm their authority.<
But is not Luke an exception? Does he not claim to have interviewed eyewitnesses for his gospel?
Again, it is refreshing to read Litwa’s answer to this question:
To be sure, the author of Luke mentions receiving traditions from eyewitnesses (1:2). The fact that none of these witnesses is ever named and none of their reports is ever distinguished in the narrative, however, raises many questions. In fact, the author of Luke seems content to hide the nature of his sources. He clearly used the gospel of Mark, though he never once gives any impression that he did so. The details of his other sources, both oral and written, are never supplied.
Chapter Thirteen, “Disappearance and Recognition”, continues with an exploration of the little devices used by the author of the Gospel of Luke to build a sense of realism (or “historicity”) into the narrative of the two travellers on the Emmaus Road after the death of Jesus. These literary devices make the account seem very natural, acceptable as “reportage” of “what happened”. But then we come to the strange failure to recognize Jesus when he walks and talks alongside them and even after entering their home — until he breaks bread when he simply vanishes into thin air. Soon afterwards Jesus appears to his disciples by passing through a solid wall, after which he attempts to prove he is not a ghost but flesh just like them. M. David Litwa shows how such strange happenings were known and believed to have happened to Greek mythical characters. The point is that just as Greek myths could be told in a manner that lent them verisimilitude, placing the supernatural within a narrative of natural psychological reactions and settings, so the gospels do the same with the resurrection accounts of Jesus. One of the myths Litwa uses for comparison have also been discussed on Vridar, though not always in relation to the gospel: Baucis and Philemon. Another, one about hospitality given to an unrecognized Dionysus, you can read on archive.org’s poem by Silius Italicus. The motif of the gods preventing some people from seeing or recognizing them while allowing others to do so at certain times goes back to Homer. Walls did not prevent gods like Dionysus or Hermes from entering rooms, either.
Litwa covers other instances of humans dying only to have their bodies disappear and then reappear alive at some other time and place, as found in histories and biographies by Herodotus, Iamblichus and Philostratus. Sometimes the reappearing person even commands incredulous witnesses to touch him to see that he is real. Playwrights portrayed those returned from the dead as ghosts continued to bear the physical wounds they had suffered in the flesh so that they could be recognized by former acquaintances.
It would be a mistake to think that early Christians could see no comparison between their stories of Jesus and Greek myths. Justin Martyr, a mid-second century “Church Father”, addressed non-Christians thus:
The early Christian Justin Martyr even used these myihoi as a measuring rod of historical plausibility: “When we [Christians] say also that the Logos [i.e., Christ] … was crucified and died and rose again and ascended into heaven [aneleluthenai eis ton ouranon\, we propound nothing new [ou . . . kainon ti] beyond [what you believe] concerning those whom you call sons of Zeus.” Justin’s argument only works if the Greeks and Romans understood their ascent mythoi as records of real events.
(Litwa, 187 – Chapter 14)
In chapter fourteen (Ascent) Litwa addresses in detail the ancient belief in ascent to heaven in a cloud by one who at death is deified. Both the historian Livy and the biographer Plutarch write of what was believed to have been Romulus’s ascent and subsequent appearance on earth to a reputable eyewitness. The authors themselves may have been sceptical, as Litwa points out the Jewish philosopher was sceptical of Moses’ bodily ascent to heaven, but belief in the bodily ascent did persist among many.
And so forth. The gospel stories would not have been believed literally by sophisticated authors such as Cicero and Plutarch but it is evident that comparable stories, told with similar “naturalizing” techniques and contexts, were believed by others. The same techniques to create plausibility (see two earlier posts for the details) have led to millions ever since believing in the historicity of the gospel narratives. Litwa would be appalled, though, to take this point any further. His point is that the events in Jesus’ life were “remembered” through a cultural context that allowed the imagination to shape them in the direction of Greek myths.
Litwa, M. David. 2019. How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
To order a copy of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here or visit www.footprint.com.au
Please use discount voucher code BCLUB19 at the checkout to apply the discount.
Though I have used the term resurrection stories M. David Litwa uses the more accurate heading “Empty Tombs and Translation” for chapter 12 of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths.
This chapter and the next three (“Disappearance and Recognition”, “Ascent” and “Eyewitnesses”) are thoroughly interesting and informative. I know my discussions of the earlier chapters of Litwa’s book found points to criticize but here, by contrast, I have found little to fault and much that contributes to a reader’s understanding of the literary contexts of the New Testament gospel accounts of the burial and resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps by now I have reconciled myself with the problem that Greco-Roman historians, unlike the evangelists, more often than not expressed some distance from the miraculous events they narrated, and have come to focus on the content of the events themselves. If so, I have had one of Litwa’s cited authors to thank, Sarah Iles Johnson, who showed how the Greek myths were generally told with techniques very similar to those used in our gospels.
Litwa begins with the “minimalist” burial and resurrection story of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark and finds overlaps with several Greek myths. In this earliest of our canonical gospels Jesus simply disappears at the end. (The original ending was at 16:8.) There is no resurrection appearance narrated though one was promised at a future time in Galilee. Similar “translations” of bodies to live elsewhere away from the human world are found in Homer’s Odyssey (Menelaus taken to the Elysian Fields) and in the biography of Apollonius of Tyana (see 8.30.3), though both of those heroes appear to have been snatched to immortality before physically dying. Not so Achilles. Achilles body on the pyre was attended and mourned by his mother who was promised by a divinity, at that tearful moment, that her son would be taken and restored alive and immortal in a far off island in the Black Sea (Quintus Smyrnaeus, Fall of Troy, Book 3, lines 770-780). Better than the story of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, we have accounts of eyewitnesses of the immortal and divine Achilles appearing “in the flesh” on that island:
Achilles himself is said to have appeared to a merchant who once visited the island often, related what took place in Troy, entertained him with drink as well, and ordered him after sailing to Ilion to bring him a Trojan maiden, saying that this particular woman was a slave to a certain man in Ilion. When the guest was astonished at the command and because of his new-found boldness asked Achilles why he needed a Trojan slave, Achilles said, “Because, my guest, she was born of the lineage from which Hektor and those living before him came and is what remains of the blood of the descendants of Priam and Dardanos.” Of course, the merchant thought that Achilles was in love, and after he bought the maiden, he sailed back to the island. When he came, Achilles praised the merchant and ordered him to guard the maiden for him on the ship, because, I suppose, the island was inaccessible for women. He ordered the merchant to come to the sanctuary at evening and to be entertained sumptuously with him and Helen. When he arrived Achilles gave him many things that merchants are unable to resist; he said that he considered him a guest-friend and granted him lucrative trade and safe passage for his ship. When day came, he said, “Sail away with these things, but leave the girl on the shore for me.” They had not yet gone a stade away from the land when the girl’s wailing struck them, because Achilles was pulling her apart and tearing her limb from limb.
MacLean, Jennifer K. Berenson, and Ellen Bradshaw Aitken, trans. 2002. Flavius Philostratus: On Heroes. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature. (p. 85, [section 56])
“Oral traditions” and personal accounts confirmed the “truth” about Achilles post-mortem existence:
“[3.19.11] A story too I will tell which I know the people of Crotona tell about Helen. The people of Himera too agree with this account. In the Euxine at the mouths of the Ister is an island sacred to Achilles. It is called White Island, and its circumference is twenty stades. It is wooded throughout and abounds in animals, wild and tame, while on it is a temple of Achilles with an image of him.
[3.19.12] The first to sail thither legend says was Leonymus of Crotona. For when war had arisen between the people of Crotona and the Locri in Italy, the Locri, in virtue of the relationship between them and the Opuntians, called upon Ajax son of Oileus to help them in battle. So Leonymus the general of the people of Crotona attacked his enemy at that point where he heard that Ajax was posted in the front line. Now he was wounded in the breast, and weak with his hurt came to Delphi. When he arrived the Pythian priestess sent Leonynius to White Island, telling him that there Ajax would appear to him and cure his wound.
[3.19.13] In time he was healed and returned from White Island, where, he used to declare, he saw Achilles, as well as Ajax the son of Oileus and Ajax the son of Telamon. With them, he said, were Patroclus and Antilochus; Helen was wedded to Achilles, and had bidden him sail to Stesichorus at Himera, and announce that the loss of his sight was caused by her wrath.”
Excerpt From: Pausanias. “Complete Works of Pausanias.” Apple Books.
Achilles was worshipped as a god into the fourth century CE. Poets and even ancient biographers or historians wrote of “eyewitness testimony” to the reality of his immortal existence.
Such stories were narrated as “historical” or at least as believed by many people. Litwa’s comment is apt:
If in a general way the gospel writers were influenced by Greek mythography, then they were specifically imitating those who put it into historical form.
While Aesop is defined βιωφελέστατος in the incipit of the Vita, meaning ‘very useful for life’, ‘great benefactor of mankind’, he is, in effect, an ugly and misshapenslave of Phrygian origin who, throughout most of the biography, is at the service of his master, Xanthus. In his case too, it is the modest, or better, lowly, origins which make the hero’s life so remarkable.
Andreassi, Mario. 2015. “The Life of Aesop and the Gospels: Literary Motifs and Narrative Mechanisms.” In Holy Men and Charlatans in the Ancient Novel, edited by Stelios Panayotakis, Gareth Schmeling, and Michael Paschalis, 151–66. Ancient Narrative Supplementum 19. Barkhuis. p. 154
It’s almost as if Jesus had grown up in Bethlehem the evangelists, who wanted to give him the most remarkable career imaginable, would have invented his move to a one donkey hick town like Nazareth just to make his splash on the world even more astonishing.
Chapter 11 of How the Gospels Became History again makes for fascinating reading as M. David Litwa explores in some depth the idea of the scapegoat in Greek myth as one part of the cultural and mythical context in which the gospels were written. The technical (Greek) term is pharmakos [link is to a brief Wikipedia definition and discussion of the term]. I first came across the idea in ancient Greek myth way back in high school when I read Mary Renault’s The King Must Die. My recollection of the impact that novel had on me was a kind of awe or horror. The idea is that to save a people from some sort of divine vengeance their king must be sacrificed to make way for a life-promising replacement. But the king is too noble to die so he must in some way be made worthy of death and that led to his being defiled and humiliated through some sort of maltreatment.
Litwa discusses the Greek myths of the Athenian king Codrus and the Theban Menoeceus who were two such scapegoats. A person of royal blood had to be sacrificed to save the city. In the case of Codrus,
To do so, he must change his form; he must go from the one highest in honor to the lowest. So the king dresses himself in the rags of slaves.
and in that of Menoeceus,
Twice the poet Statius (a contemporary of the evangelists) called Menoeceus a “sacrificial animal,” led “like a silent sheep from the flock.” Yet the hero’s heart is possessed by heavenly power. Before he sacrifices himself, he prays, “O gods above . . . and you who grant me to die by so great a death, Apollo, give constant joy to Thebes. This joy I have covenanted to give and lavishly bought with the price of all my blood.” When Menoeceus plummets to his death, his spirit rises before the high deity. In the city, the hero is worshiped with altars and temples.
(Litwa, p. 137)
We can see overlaps with the way the evangelists have structured the story of Jesus. The theme of such a death was part of the cultural heritage of the authors of the life of Jesus.
Another similarity Litwa addresses in some depth is that often the scapegoat is convicted of a religious crime of some sort:
The pharmakos is often convicted of what moderns would call a religious crime. He or she is accused of robbing a temple or somehow damaging it. Alternatively, the pharmakos may criticize how temple rituals are carried out and so incur the charge of blasphemy (hostile speech against a god). The perceived crime leads to a violent response on the part of the temple staff and city officials. They attempt to capture the pharmakos by deceit. When they capture him, they often beat him, parade him around the city, try him in a kangaroo court, and murder him. The willing pharmakos dies sac- rificially to safeguard the community. Yet the unjust death of the pharmakos incites divine punishment against the civic leaders — a plague, famine, or invasion.
At this point Litwa draws readers into a detailed comparison of the lives and deaths of Aesop and Jesus. For other comparisons online see first of all a post by Matthew Ferguson on his blog,
Litwa shows how, like Jesus, Aesop had the humblest of beginnings, yet was able to utter sorts of “parables” to confound and outsmart those who believed they were his betters, and in the end goes to Delphi, the sacred city of Apollo, is welcomed at first but soon his hosts turn against him, exacerbates the situation by speaking “parables” against the sins of the people and the priests in particular, is dragged out to his death outside the city, is subsequently worshipped as a god. Furthermore, the city of Delphi is sacked by enemies as punishment for their crime.
Litwa draws attention to the fact that Aesop was generally assumed to have been a historical figure. I find it difficult to think of the surviving versions of the Life of Aesop as “historical” narratives, however. Yet I have to grant that genres in ancient Greco-Roman literature were not so neatly defined as they are today, and “historical” accounts were not histories in the same sense moderns think of historical works. Ancient historical narratives were generally aimed to teach moral lessons and perhaps just as importantly, were aimed at entertaining their audiences. (Even Thucydides, usually upheld as the exemplar of dry detailed fact reporting, used devices from the poets and dramatists to add colour to his work.) The same techniques that Litwa identifies as adding an air of plausibility to ancient historical accounts (the death of Aesop was accompanied by earthquakes and other signs of divine displeasure) were also used by Greek novelists, dramatists and poets in their accounts of past heroes and the activities of gods in their lives and deaths.
It’s a fascinating chapter. It shows how the story of Jesus fit cultural paradigms of the first and second centuries CE Mediterranean world. We may look on the pharmakos theme as myth but it could be real enough in the minds of ancient audiences, as it is for many today.
To order a copy of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here or visit www.footprint.com.au
Please use discount voucher code BCLUB19 at the checkout to apply the discount.
Litwa, M. David. 2019. How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
I am continuing my discussion of M. David Litwa’s book, How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths, in the light of my two recent posts* that theorize why Greco-Roman myths were so believable and why it was widely accepted that divine heroes and gods had even acted on earth in historical, even contemporary, times**.
Litwa makes an interesting claim:
It was a historical judgment that in the so-called heroic age, men were bigger, faster, and stronger than people are today. They were also more pious, which earned them the right of dining with deities and even (as in the case of Heracles) being changed into them. Today one can label the heroic age a “mythic” one, but for the Greeks it was a real time in the past that gradually melted into our own time with its known dates and calendars.10
(Litwa, p. 137)
Endnote 10 is to Pausanias, 8.2.4, which I quote:
I for my part believe this story; it has been a legend among the Arcadians from of old, and it has the additional merit of probability. For the men of those days, because of their righteousness and piety, were guests of the gods, eating at the same board; the good were openly honored by the gods, and sinners were openly visited with their wrath. Nay, in those days men were changed to gods, who down to the present day have honors paid to them – Aristaeus, Britomartis of Crete, Heracles the son of Alcmena, Amphiaraus the son of Oicles, and besides these Polydeuces and Castor.
Pausanias. 2014. Complete Works of Pausanias. Delphi Classics. 8.2.4
What story is it that Pausanias claimed to believe?
For Cecrops was the first to name Zeus the Supreme god, and refused to sacrifice anything that had life in it, but burnt instead on the altar the national cakes which the Athenians still call pelanoi. But Lycaon brought a human baby to the altar of Lycaean Zeus, and sacrificed it, pouring out its blood upon the altar, and according to the legend immediately after the sacrifice he was changed from a man to a wolf (Lycos).
Despite Litwa’s wording (“it was a real time in the past that gradually melted into our time”) it is evident that he is relegating the age of mythical heroes and gods on earth to the remote past. But we have seen that though some things changed (the monsters were cleansed from the earth, for instance) those figures were widely believed by the “common people” (as distinct from the highly educated and literate elite) to have had recent, and even contemporary, appearances on earth among mortals.
This is the second of two articles by Professor of Religion Sarah Iles Johnston. (The first article was addressed in Why Certain Kinds of Myths Are So Easy to Believe) I have been led to Johnston’s articles and books (along with other works addressing related themes by classicists) as I was led down various detours while reviewing M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. I expect interested readers will see the relevance of Johnston’s thesis to Christian myths in the gospels and understand more deeply the mechanics at work that make them so believable for so many people.
Many Greek mythical narratives (whether poetry, drama or prose) appear to have no necessary relationship with a particular festival or other special occasion. They appear to have a life of their own and can be recited in quite different contexts and often with variations of details and even basic storylines. Variations, hearing only parts of a story that must be somehow fitted with a larger narrative, but with some difficulty because of certain differences of character or details, such presentations of the myths had the potential to arouse intense curiosity and discussion, with individuals surely acquiring their own understanding, view and relationship with a god or hero.
Who would ever imagine any similarity between Socrates and the Homeric hero Achilles? Johnston does not raise this illustration but it is one that illustrates her point well. Plato informs us that Socrates compared himself with Achilles. The philosopher with the warrior? Yes, because Socrates could explain to his audience that like Achilles, he likewise heroically followed what he believed to be the right or pious course of life even knowing it would result in his premature death. Variations in narratives encouraged deeper reflection and personal relationships with what the gods and heroes represented.
As Johnston points out, Greek myths generally were not point by point analogies to the real world but were metaphorical tales that were subject to reinterpretation and different functions or applications. The myth of Persephone, as we saw in the previous post, served equally well for a celebration of the hope for a good harvest and hope for a happier afterlife for initiates into the mysteries.
There is a poem by a fifth-century BCE poet, Bacchylides, that offers us another instance such devices that encouraged curiosity and engagement with the myths. In the centre I outline the thought-flow of the poem (in paraphrase) and beside it I have circled all the points that the poem in references in the wider world of Greek myth. Notice how much detail is left to the audience’s imagination, how many questions are potentially raised among those who are perhaps not fully acquainted with all of the associations or who are aware of differences with other accounts, or what questions of character arise when set in the wider mythical world. And why is Heracles being honoured at a festival in honour of Dionysus anyway? The Greeks evidently did not find any strong need to bind each story to a specific or analogous occasion (Johnston). The conclusion is surely designed to provoke much thought and discussion about the death of Heracles and his relations with his first wife, and the role of the Centaur.
One detail not brought out in the following diagram is that several of the related myths are linked to familiar places in the Greek peninsula: the city Heracles razed was in Eritrea, the place where he offered to Zeus was Cape Lithada, for example.
Click on the diagram if it does not appear in full in normal Vridar page setting.
The point of the above? Johnston explains:
. . . . the Greeks cared less about always making tightly logical connections between festivals and myths than we have imagined—or to put it otherwise, that the contributions that mythic narratives made to creating and sustaining belief in the gods and heroes could be more broadly based than we have previously acknowledged. More specifically, I suggest that an essential element that enabled this breadth of applicability was the tightly woven story world that was cumulatively being created on a continuous basis by the myths that were narrated. The closely intertwined nature of this story world validated not only each individual myth that comprised it but all the stories about what had happened in the mythic past, the characters who inhabited them, and the entire worldview upon which they rested. Because it was embedded in this story world, a skillfully narrated myth about Heracles, for example, had the power to sustain and enhance belief not only in Heracles himself but in the entire cadre of the divine world of which he was a member, including those divinities to whom the festival at which the myth was performed was dedicated.
(Johnston, Greek Mythic Story World, 284)
It should be kept in mind that these myths were often performed publicly, at temples and festivals in honour of certain gods.
The audiences were primed by these conditions to open their minds to the ideas that the myths conveyed, and thus the two, festival and myth, mutually supported one another.
So what is it that “makes story worlds in general coherent and credible”, Johnston asks.
According to J.R.R. Tolkien there is the Primary World, the world in which we live, and then there is a Secondary World, one that an author creates and into which a reader enters — through “willing suspension of disbelief” (Coleridge?)? through “willing activation of pretense” (Saler)?, or, as Johnston prefers,
truly well-constructed story world requires no conscious decision at all on the part of audience members who participate in it — neither the suspension of disbelief nor the activation of pretense. It immerses readers or viewers so completely, yet so subtly, that they pass into it without even noticing that they are doing so.
A Secondary World needs to have a fence, a partition of some sort to separate it from our quotidian Primary World (Wolf). Dividing walls include wardrobe doors, rabbit holes, deserts traversed by houses carried in cyclones, interdimensional travel technology. Secondary Worlds are very different from Primary Worlds by virtue of strange inhabitants, strange landscapes, strange technology, and so forth. Greek myths are not exactly like that, nor are the gospels or other biblical stories. Yes, they do contain monsters, talking snakes and donkeys, but these oddities are placed in “our world”, a “real world”, the Primary World in which we all exist. They are the oddities in our “real” world; in Greek myths and biblical stories we have not, as a rule, entered worlds that are entirely strange in every way. (There are a few exceptions such as when Odysseus is on an island with a witch who changes his crew into wild beasts but such stories are set in a larger more recognizable world — with normal geographical, botanical and zoological features.)
But what if you can’t turn off the TV because you don’t even think it’s there?
What if the materials that train the mind to think in certain ways and to accept alternative realities are not understood by the audience — and perhaps not by the authors, either — to be fictions, at least in the usual sense of that word? (Johnston)
This post is based primarily on the first of two essays by classicist Sarah Iles Johnston exploring why Greek myths captured imaginations so strongly and what made them “real”, even “historical”. We will see that Johnston’s thesis overlaps with M. David Litwa’s in How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths but I will save a more detailed comparison with Litwa’s views when I return to reviewing that book.
Most of us know at least a few of the ancient myths and that’s part of the problem when it comes to understanding how the ancient peoples who believed them heard them. We have books with collections of myths and we read each myth ripped from the context in which it was originally understood.
I do want to suggest that, having fallen into the habit of excising Greek myths from their narratives, scholars have long overlooked one of the most salient and significant features of mythic narratives: their ability to engage their audiences emotionally and cognitively. . . . [T]his habit prevented us from understanding some of the most important reasons that myths were able to help create and sustain ancient Greek beliefs in the gods, heroes, and the divine world more generally . . . .
(Johnston, Narrating Myths, 174)
We will see that Johnston analyses the way Greek myths were able to allow listeners to feel that they were not merely hearing a story that happened long ago but that they themselves “were living amongst the gods and heroes, even if as lesser partners” (p. 190).
The Magical Myth
To make her case Johnston begins by explaining a very common type of ancient myth that was quite different from Greek myths. Johnston uses a term that is closely related to magic: “historiola”, meaning “a short mention of an analogous mythical story” (Maas, 37). Example, an Egyptian “historiola” myth:
… Isis came out of the spinning house [at the hour] when she loosened her thread. “Come, my sister Nephthys! See, my deafness has overtaken me! My thread has entangled me! Show me my way that I may do what I know [how to do], so that I may extinguish him with my milk, with the salutary liquids from within my breasts. It will be applied to your body, Horus, so that your vessels become sound. I will make the fire recede that has attacked you!”
While the mother recites these words, she applies her own milk to her child, just as Isis applied hers to Horus. The child’s fever is expected to break, just as Horus’s fever broke.
And one more:
To take another example: if a baby has a headache, then its mother might invoke the paradigm of “banished headache” by telling of how Christ pushed the Evil Eye off a rock to stop it from giving headaches to another baby, thus “persuading” her own child’s headache to go away as well (Pócs 2009.29, from a Romanian example that is still in use today).
That’s magic, in my view. Repeat a story that happened long ago and in a far-off or far-away “world” and apply it to cause the same thing to happen in the present moment. They are like curse pronouncements. Repeat a formula that draws down the power of the spirits and have them act in this world accordingly.
But that’s not the way it worked with Greek myths.
Take the myth of Persephone. In place of a direct cause-effect action between the mythic story and the real world we enter the realm of metaphor:
The story of Persephone’s annual return from the world of the dead, for example, when narrated in connection with the Eleusinian mysteries, was not meant to suggest that initiates into the mysteries would similarly return from the Underworld for a portion of each year after they had died, but rather reminded them that initiation ensured them happier existences down below once they had gotten there. Persephone’s experiences were a metaphor for those of the initiates; the two shared the salient characteristic of being partial triumphs over death but differed insofar as, among other things, although Persephone annually returned to the world of the living, the dead initiates did not. When narrated in connection with the Thesmophoria, the same story metaphorically expressed the celebrants’ hopes that crops would once again rise from the dark earth into which seeds were cast; the two shared the salient characteristic of anticipating the annual return of something desirable but differed insofar as, for example, although Persephone returned each year in her own right, the crops “returned” only in the sense that their seeds generated new plants to replace them (an idea that, in turn, served as a metaphor for the Thesmophoria’s other focus: the successful conception and birth of new human children). The fact that some stories, like this one, could serve as meaningful accompaniments for two different festivals with different primary goals underscores their metaphorical nature: had the relationship between the myths and the rituals I just described been one of straightforward analogy, such double service would not have worked very well.
To understand the point further:
. . . the aim of a traditional historiola, after all, is to cause something in the quotidian realm to pattern itself after something in the mythic realm not in only one or two salient ways but rather as closely as possible.
But Greek myths were not like that. They did not have that sort of magic power; they were not told to produce magical effects in this world.
. . . the deeds described by the myths existed on a continuum that flowed uninterruptedly into the time of the listeners. A well-narrated Greek myth would leave those listeners feeling not that they were repeating paradigmatic actions of the gods and heroes that had been performed eons ago (as is the case with historiolae), but rather that they were living amongst the gods and heroes, even if as lesser partners.
No, the Greek myths were different. They somehow “prepared their audiences to feel as if they were living amongst the gods and heroes.”
It seems more likely that Jesus was thought to have a coherent “message’ only after his death and so we have several different creations of it. . . .
[E]ither Q, Thomas, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and, for that matter, John did not know clearly what Jesus’ teachings were; or they didn’t care; or that they did know but disagreed with him so that they revised what he taught into something else; or that they did know what were said to be his teachings, did not trust those reports, and revised accordingly. Something odd is going on here. . . . .
When Sanders, standing in here for nearly all Jesus research scholars, says, “I do not doubt that he was a great and challenging teacher,” I am baffled. Mark doubts it (4:10-12, 8:17-21), neither Paul nor John pay any significant attention to those teachings, Luke cares little about the matter (taking Acts as representative of Luke’s bottom-line assessment). Scholarship, theological and historical both, is in a state of near conceptual chaos regarding the message of Jesus the Teacher: countercultural wisdom sage, peasant Jewish Cynic, Pharisaic rabbi, antipatriarchal communalist, eschatological preacher? If he had a coherent message and neither we nor his known near contemporaries know for sure what it was, he ought not to be thought, first and foremost, to have been a great and challenging teacher.
(Davies, Jesus the Healer, 12 f)
A few scholars (I’m thinking of Stevan Davies) even question the extent to which Jesus should be thought of as a teacher, or at least they draw attention to the doubts they have that we can even know what he taught.
Rewriting a biblical miracle for a gentile audience
Chapter 10 on the narratives of Jesus as a miracle worker I found of more interest, perhaps because this aspect of Jesus is covered in all four gospels.
Here Litwa’s philosophical introduction on the nature of miracles is too embedded in apologetics for my taste. He prefers to think of “inexplicable” events and repeats the apologetic argument that plausibility is culturally determined, that everything follows a law of nature as determined by God but that some of these divinely created laws or events we simply don’t yet understand. He writes
In the ancient world, plausible miracles could parade as historical; implausible ones were often labeled “mythical” (mythodes).
The first example of a “plausible miracle” raises problematic questions when it comes to how we are meant to understand Jesus’ miracles, however. According to Litwa’s reading Josephus used the “miracle” of Alexander’s crossing of the Pamphyialn Sea as a precedent that gave credibility to the Israelites crossing the Red Sea.
The story that the Pamphylian Sea receded before Alexander’s army, however, was apparently credited. According to historical report, Alexander’s entire army in all their heavy equipment passed through a sea channel that would have normally drowned them. This account was first told by Callisthenes of Olynthus, official historian of Alexander’s campaign and an apparent eyewitness of the event. Callisthenes assimilated Alexander to Poseidon by writing that the Pamphylian Sea “did not fail to recognize its lord, so that arching itself and bowing, it seemed to do obeisance [to Alexander].”5
Josephus mentioned the Pamphylian Sea miracle to make plausible his historiographical account of Moses parting the Red Sea.6 He knew that qualified and respected historians presented Alexander’s sea miracle as historiography.7 He even remarked that “all” historians agreed that the sea made a path for Alexander’s army.8 Thus Josephus felt justified in presenting his own (Jewish) sea miracle as an actual event in the past.
If we accept the common dating of Josephus’s account of the Jewish War, around 75 CE, then consider what this means for the historicity of the following events. Apply the reasoning of those who argue for the historicity of New Testament miracles. Josephus declares he is recording events no more than ten years earlier and he speaks of eyewitnesses.
First a star stood over the City, very like a broadsword, and a comet that remained a whole year.
Then before the revolt and the movement to war, while the people were assembling for the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the 8th of Xanthicos at three in the morning so bright a light shone round the Altar and the Sanctuary that it might have been midday. This lasted half an hour. The inexperienced took it for a good omen, but the sacred scribes at once gave an interpretation which the event proved right.
During the same feast a cow brought by someone to be sacrificed gave birth to a lamb in the middle of the Temple courts,
while at midnight it was observed that the East Gate of the Inner Sanctuary had opened of its own accord – a gate made of bronze and so solid that every evening twenty strong men were required to shut it, fastened with iron-bound bars and secured by bolts which were lowered a long way into a threshold fashioned from a single slab of stone. The temple-guards ran with the news to the Captain, who came up and by a great effort managed to shut it. This like the other seemed to the laity to be the best of omens . . . .
A few days after the Feast, on the 21st of Artemisios, a supernatural apparition was seen, too amazing to be believed. What I have to relate would, I suppose, have been dismissed as an invention had it not been vouched for by eyewitnesses and followed by disasters that bore out the signs. Before sunset there were seen in the sky over the whole country, chariots and regiments in arms speeding through the clouds and encircling the towns.
Again, at the Feast of Pentecost, when the priests had gone into the Inner Temple at night to perform the usual ceremonies, they declared that they were aware, first of a violent movement and a loud crash, then of a concerted cry: ‘Let us go hence.’
(Josephus, Jewish War, 6)
A star “over a city” is as nonsensical to us as a star positioned over the house where Jesus was found. And comets do not stay around for a full year. But how could Josephus get away with writing such things within ten years of them supposedly happening unless they were true and could not be contradicted by eyewitnesses, both Roman and Jewish?
Josephus further tells us that priests saw and interpreted the signs and priests would hardly lie. They were, after all, attempting to tell the masses that what they had seen should be interpreted as a sign from God carrying a different message.
If the cow giving birth to a lamb had been said to have happened in a cowshed or behind an outhouse then we could dismiss it easily enough. But how could Josephus expect to get away with saying it happened right in the middle of the Temple courts? Surely there were scores of eyewitnesses.
As for the appearance of angelic armies in the sky being confirmed by eyewitnesses, we can well believe it. We know the same type of event was recorded but a mere month after the battle at Mons in 1914: see the Angels of Mons.
At least one of the epiphanies in that post had (presumably) hundreds of eyewitnesses — the appearance of Apollo and his sisters Artemis and Athena routing the Gauls. Surely scores witnessed Vespasian’s miracles, too. But let’s look at some more.
First, however, here is an account that in some ways reminds me of the Book of Acts version of Paul being the sole witness to a god who blinded him. This is written “only” about 45 years after the event.
In the battle at Marathon about six thousand four hundred men of the foreigners were killed, and one hundred and ninety-two Athenians; that many fell on each side. The following marvel happened there: an Athenian, Epizelus son of Couphagoras, was fighting as a brave man in the battle when he was deprived of his sight, though struck or hit nowhere on his body, and from that time on he spent the rest of his life in blindness. I have heard that he tells this story about his misfortune: he saw opposing him a tall armed man, whose beard overshadowed his shield, but the phantom passed him by and killed the man next to him. I learned by inquiry that this is the story Epizelus tells. (Herodotus, Histories 6:117)
The next one had a whole army of witnesses and belongs to a battle (Salamis) only 35 years before Herodotus wrote about it.
Then the Hellenes set sail with all their ships, and as they were putting out to sea the barbarians immediately attacked them. The rest of the Hellenes began to back water and tried to beach their ships, but Ameinias of Pallene, an Athenian, charged and rammed a ship. When his ship became entangled and the crew could not free it, the others came to help Ameinias and joined battle. The Athenians say that the fighting at sea began this way, but the Aeginetans say that the ship which had been sent to Aegina after the sons of Aeacus was the one that started it. The story is also told that the phantom of a woman appeared to them, who cried commands loud enough for all the Hellenic fleet to hear, reproaching them first with, “Men possessed, how long will you still be backing water?” (Herodotus, Histories 8:84)
Or per Aubrey De Sélincourt’s translation:
There is also a popular belief that the phantom shape of a woman appeared and, in a voice which could be heard by every man in the fleet, contemptuously asked if they proposed to go astern all day, and then cheered them on to the fight.
Plutarch records the tradition that the hero Theseus personally turned up at the Battle of Marathon, a fact testified by many witnesses:
But in succeeding ages, beside several other circumstances that moved the Athenians to honor Theseus as a demigod, in the battle which was fought at Marathon against the Medes, many of the soldiers believed they saw an apparition of Theseus in arms, rushing on at the head of them against the barbarians. (Life of Theseus, 35:5)
Pausanias documents more miraculous events at Marathon — and with masses of eyewitnesses!
They say too that there chanced to be present in the battle a man of rustic appearance and dress. Having slaughtered many of the foreigners with a plough he was seen no more after the engagement. When the Athenians made enquiries at the oracle the god merely ordered them to honor Echetlaeus (He of the Plough-tail) as a hero. (Pausanias, 1.32.5)
Pausanias adds another hero’s appearance at the naval battle of Salamis:
In Salamis is a sanctuary of Artemis, and also a trophy erected in honor of the victory which Themistocles the son of Neocles won for the Greeks. There is also a sanctuary of Cychreus. When the Athenians were fighting the Persians at sea, a serpent is said to have appeared in the fleet, and the god in an oracle told the Athenians that it was Cychreus the hero. (Pausanias, 1.36.1)
Around 365 BCE during the Peloponnesian War when Arcadians invaded Elis, Pausanias informs us of another divine miracle before two entire armies:
The story is that when the Arcadians had invaded the land of Elis, and the Eleans were set in array against them, a woman came to the Elean generals, holding a baby to her breast, who said that she was the mother of the child but that she gave him, because of dreams, to fight for the Eleans. The Elean officers believed that the woman was to be trusted, and placed the child before the army naked.
When the Arcadians came on, the child turned at once into a snake. Thrown into disorder at the sight, the Arcadians turned and fled, and were attacked by the Eleans, who won a very famous victory, and so call the god Sosipolis. On the spot where after the battle the snake seemed to them to go into the ground they made the sanctuary. With him the Eleans resolved to worship Eileithyia also, because this goddess to help them brought her son forth unto men.
The tomb of the Arcadians who were killed in the battle is on the hill across the Cladeus to the west. Near to the sanctuary of Eileithyia are the remains of the sanctuary of Heavenly Aphrodite, and there too they sacrifice upon the altars.” (Pausanias, 6.20.4-6)
Keep in mind . . . .
None of the above is a story relating far-off events in some remote “heroic age” when gods and heroes walked the earth fighting giants and monsters. They are all said to have happened in historical time and often to be supported by multiple eyewitnesses.
In the case of god Asclepius (see the previous post) we even have a personal eyewitness account by Isyllus. He writes of a personal encounter with the god when he was a boy. It was not a dream. It was an event that took place in the daytime. Asclepius was not some ethereal ghost, either, but in full battle armour and engaging in conversation.
This post covers chapters 7 and 8, “Magi and the Star” and “Child in Danger, Child of Wonder”. Even though I often disagree with Litwa’s interpretations and conclusions I do find the information he presents and questions raised to be very interesting and informative.
Litwa’s theme is that even though the authors of the canonical gospels composed narratives that to moderns are clearly mythical, by ancient standards of historiography such “mythical” episodes were part and parcel of “what happened”. Similar fabulous happenings are found in serious works by ancient historians, Litwa claims. Such types of events belonged to the “thought world” of that broad culture throughout the Mediterranean and Levant.
[I agree: ancient historical works do contain “mythical” elements but I have certain reservations about authorial intent and gullibility since, in my reading, they generally found ways to distance themselves from any suggestion that they were committed to the veracity of those sorts of stories.]
Ancient authors meant for readers to understand them as part of history, not myth, Litwa insists: the stories were indeed fabricated but their presentation was in the form of historical narrative. Ancient readers would have accepted them as historical — which is exactly what the authors intended.
So in the case of the virgin birth, Litwa points out that ancient Persians, in their Zoroastrian beliefs, had a similar myth about a future saviour figure. The Magi are Persian figures, so it is interesting that in Matthew we find a story of a virgin birth of a saviour with magi present. No, Litwa is not saying one story directly derived from the other and he notes significant differences between them. That is Litwa’s point, recall. These sorts of stories were part of the cultural backdrop in the world that produced our gospels.
Litwa refers to Mary Boyce’s study and for interest’s sake I will copy a relevant section from one of her books:
The original legend appears to have been that eventually, at the end of “limited time”, a son will be born of the seed of the prophet, which is preserved miraculously in a lake (named in the Avesta Lake Kąsaoya), where it is watched over by 99,999 fravašis of the just. When Frašō.kǝrǝti is near, a virgin will bathe in this lake and become with child by the prophet, giving birth to a son, Astvat.ǝrǝti, “he who embodies righteousness”. Astvat.ǝrǝti will be the Saošyant, the Saviour who will bring about Frašō.kǝrǝti, smiting “daēvas and men”; and his name derives from Zoroaster’s words in Y. 43.16: astvat ašǝm hyāt “may righteousness be embodied”. The legend of this great Messianic figure, the cosmic saviour, appears to stem from Zoroaster’s teaching about the one “greater than good” to come after him (Y. 43-3)21, upon which there worked the profound Iranian respect for lineage, so that the future Saviour had necessarily to be of the prophet’s own blood. This had the consequence that, despite the story of the Saošyant’s miraculous conception, there was no divinisation of him, and no betrayal therefore of Zoroaster’s teachings about the part which humanity has to play in the salvation of the world. The Saviour will be a man, born of human parents. “Zoroastrianism … attributes to man a distinguished part in the great cosmic struggle. It is above all a soteriological part, because it is man who has to win the battle and eliminate evil”.
Magi and births of future kings
The Greek historian Herodotus tells a tale of Magi interpreting a dream to mean a future king has been born:
Astyages had a daughter called Mandane, and he dreamed one night that she made water in such enormous quantities that it filled his city and swamped the whole of Asia. He told his dream to the Magi, whose business it was to interpret such things, and was much alarmed by what they said it meant. Consequently when Mandane was old enough to marry, he did not give her to some Mede of suitable rank, but was induced by his fear of the dream’s significance to marry her to a Persian named Cambyses, a man he knew to be of good family and quiet habits – though he considered him much below a Mede even of middle rank.
Before Mandane and Cambyses had been married a year, Astyages had another dream. This time it was that a vine grew from his daughter’s private parts and spread over Asia. As before, he told the interpreters about this dream, and then sent for his daughter, who was now pregnant. When she arrived, he kept her under strict watch, intending to make away with her child; for the fact was that the Magi had interpreted the dream to mean that his daughter’s son would usurp his throne.
With this second dream the king is fearful enough to order the murder of the infant. The infant survives, however, and when the king learns his order has been defied he brings the magi in again for consultation. The king accordingly slew the innocent child of the servant who had disobeyed him.
Litwa identifies similar structures in the accounts of Herodotus and the Gospel of Mattew concerning
magi who inform a king that a child is born who will replace him,
the king ordering the child to be killed,
the child “miraculously” escaping,
and the king subsequently killing an innocent.
What interests Litwa, though, is that both “accounts are presented as historiography” (p. 107). Herod was known to be cruel, so even though there is no evidence that he did order the massacre of infants in Bethlehem, the tale in Matthew’s gospel “sounded enough like historiography to be accepted as true” (p. 107)
That sounds reasonable enough on its own, but what are we to make of the fact that Pilate was also known for his cruelty but all the evangelists, Matthew included, present him — most UNhistorically — as benign and soft when he meets Jesus and is cowered by the Jewish priests and mob into doing their will against his own will? Yet that story has also been accepted as true: despite what was known of Pilate’s character, it also “sounded enough like historiography”.
Litwa addresses other ancient tales involving magi (Plutarch, Quintus Curtius, in relation to Alexander the Great), informing us that those tales, too, are implausible to moderns (no persons can predict the future of an individual from dreams), so if the story of the magi in the Gospel of Matthew is likewise implausible, no matter, since that’s what the historical narratives of ancient historians looked like. There certainly are many accounts of dream interpretation in various historical works but they are “add-ons” and the overall narratives of historians are not one series of miraculous events after another, as we find in the gospels.
Magical guiding stars
Litwa finds ancient stories of guiding stars to be more useful explanations for the star of Bethlehem that led the magi to Jesus than the various extant attempts to identify astronomical observations of that period. Again, Litwa is not arguing for direct “mimesis” but a more general influence of stories and concepts that were “in the air” throughout the Mediterranean cultural world.
We read of ancient sources that speak of magi interpreting dreams of astral bodies in ways that spoke of rulership; of the historian Pompeius Trogus writing of an unusual star appearing at the birth of Mithridates, the king of Pontus who would challenge Rome, and again at his ascension to the throne. What I found of most interest in Litwa’s discussion is not his thoughts on “long-haired stars” or comets but his references to stars that were said to point to very specific places on earth — as per the star being said to stand over the house where the infant Jesus was to be found.
A sword-shaped star hung over Jerusalem just prior to its fall to the Romans (Josephus)
The Torch of Timoleon, a fiery “star” that led the fleet the Corinthian general Timoleon before falling down to mark the exact part of Italy to be beached (Plutarch)
The scholar Varro interpreted Virgil’s poetic account of the goddess Venus guiding Aeneas to Italy as Aeneas being led by the planet Venus (Servius)
(Source-author links are to the relevant passages describing the events.)
Many ancient people believed in omens and yes, they found their way into “history” books. Omens were even more integral to mythical stories and other forms of fiction. That point raises questions about the strength of Litwa’s attempt to explain why the gospels were believed to be historical by certain readers but not all.
Jesus is part of a crowd of famous infants in danger
I concluded my most recent review of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths with the concession that when writing of Augustus Suetonius expresses none of the distancing of his own views from his accounts of miracles that we find typical in other historians. There is no expression of doubt. It is all told as simple matter of fact. Comparable, that is, to the telling of any other poetic myth or even the gospel narratives of Jesus. I wrote:
* The Greek hero Heracles is clearly categorized as mythical—especially by modern people. Yet the mythological template exemplified by Heracles played out in the lives of figures still deemed historical: Alexander the Great, Caesar Augustus, and Jesus himself. When historiography follows a mythic pattern, however, it is no longer simply a record of past events. It is what we are calling mythic historiography. (Litwa, p. 101)
An Exception in Litwa’s Favour
In the above quotation* mention is made of Caesar Augustus. Earlier Litwa had informed readers of the Roman historian Suetonius’s account of the prophecies relating to Augustus’s birth. In this case the evidence Litwa is claiming for his thesis is more secure. Suetonius did often (not always) write of many bizarre events (including human ones, not only supernatural prodigies) that read more like a scandal rag’s gossip than serious history. Here is Suetonius on the prophecy about Augustus:
On the day Augustus was born, when the conspiracy of Catiline was being discussed in the senate house and Octavius stayed away until late because his wife was in labour, Publius Nigidius, hearing why he was delayed, when informed of the hour of the birth, asserted (as is generally known) that the master of the world was born. When Octavius, who was leading an army through remote regions of Thrace, sought guidance concerning his son at some barbarian rituals in the grove of Father Liber, the same prediction was made by the priests, for so great a flame had leapt up when they poured wine on the altar, that it passed beyond the peak of the temple roof and right up to the sky, a portent which had only previously occurred when Alexander the Great offered sacrifice at that altar. And on the very next night thereafter, he dreamed he saw his son of greater than mortal size with a thunderbolt and sceptre and emblems of Jupiter Best and Greatest and a radiate crown, on a chariot decorated with laurel drawn by twelve horses of astonishing whiteness.
When Augustus was still a baby, as is recorded in the writings of Gaius Drusus, he was placed one evening by his nurse in his cot on level ground but the next morning he had disappeared. He was only found, after a long search, in a tower of great height where he lay facing the rising sun. When he first began to speak, he ordered some frogs to be silent who happened to be croaking in his grandfather’s villa and they say that from that time no frog croaked there. . . .
So Litwa can rightly say that some historians wrote of prophetic pronouncements in the same way as did poets, novelists and the evangelists.
I confess I was surprised a little when I re-read Suetonius’s “Life of Augustus” because it did indeed, on this particular point, stand as an exception to the rhetoric of quite a number of other Roman and Greek historians I have read. So I did a little digging to try to see what explanations were out there for this exception.
The Exception that Proves the Rule (contra Litwa)?
The answer I was looking for was found in a 2012 article by D. Wardle, “Suetonius on Augustus as God and Man”, in The Classical Quarterly. Wardle himself points out that Suetonius writes of Augustus in a manner quite different from how he writes of any other Roman emperor. That is, Suetonius’s account of Augustus is not only an apparent exception to the way many other surviving ancient historians wrote, but it is an exception even to how Suetonius himself normally wrote. Suetonius really did accept as “seriously true” the divinity of Augustus Caesar.
Suetonius’ Divus Augustus, by comparison with the other divi, appears to be a deity whom Suetonius is encouraging his reader to take seriously. His deliberate framing of Augustus’ life by passages that place great emphasis on the real divinity of Augustus is unique in the Lives. While this might be put down to a desire for variety, other Lives do share similar structures. And it seems likely that for Suetonius Augustus’ divinity was qualitatively different from those of the other divi. There is not the slightest hint in Suetonius of the equivocation that marks the culmination of Pliny’s discussion of the misfortunes of Augustus: in summa deus ille caelumque nescio adeptus magis an meritus. In the biographer’s presentation of Augustus the material that involves the emperor’s godhead demonstrates a vital element of what the emperor was to the world over which he ruled and had ruled.
Wardle appears to be saying that Suetonius’s presentation of Augustus is different from his biographical accounts of other emperors because he (Suetonius) believed Augustus was a literal god.
Historians of that era sometimes mocked the notion that any mortal was declared to be a god. But Wardle finds significance in the way Suetonius emphatically presents Augusts as a veritable divinity before he embarks on narrating his very mortal and fallible human career. Never does Suetonius at any moment suggest any doubt about the divinity of Augustus. In the cases of other emperors, Suetonius does write like other historians — expressing a certain personal detachment from the “facts” he is narrating. Suetonius
The expression of his face, whether he was speaking or silent, was so calm and serene that one of the leading men of Gaul confessed to his fellows that he was so impressed and won over that he abandoned his plan to throw the emperor over the cliff, when he was admitted to his presence as he was crossing the Alps. His eyes were clear and bright; he liked it to be thought that they revealed a godlike power and was pleased if someone who regarded him closely then lowered their gaze, as though from the sun’s force. . . .
It is said that his body was mottled with birthmarks spread out over his chest and stomach which in their shape, number, and arrangement resembled the constellation of the bear.
(Suetonius, Deified Augustus 79-80)
Wardle explains the significance of that bear constellation:
The constellation of Ursa Major was recognized by the ancients as the axis around which the universe rotated . . . .
(Wardle, p. 318)
Signs abound, and without any intellectual distancing in the telling. Egyptians, Greeks, they all worshipped Augustus as divine while he was with them and were right to do so, just as right as to genuinely believe that he continued as a divinity post mortem.
It has become a mantra in almost any book that raises the question: Why did the evangelists insist Jesus was from Nazareth unless it happened to be an undeniable historical fact known to all? The mantric response: Because no-one would make up such a datum; no-one would make up the notion that the great and saving Jesus came from such a tin-pot village. The criterion of embarrassment screams against the very idea.
I have never jumped on board with that response because I have never encountered any evidence that demonstrates why it would be too embarrassing for anyone to imagine that the Lord who taught the overturning of the social order so that the last would be first and the first last, who taught that God will exalt the humble and bring low the mighty, — that it would be too embarrassing for anyone to write down for posterity such a detail unless it were historically true and widely known.
I have always considered that response to be ad hoc. It is a speculative opinion but nothing more — pending evidence to buttress its presuppositions.
Then yesterday I read in the work of an ancient historian about the humble birthplace of a Roman emperor, the humble birthplace of a man who was decreed to be a god. The detail is presumably factual. The historian said it was well-known so there was no point trying to hide it. But there’s a catch, a catch that overturns the premise of the above ad hoc and almost universal explanation among scholars for the reason the evangelists might not have fabricated Nazareth as the hometown of Jesus. Here is the passage from the Roman historian Suetonius:
[The Roman emperor] Vespasian was born in a little village in the Sabine land just beyond Reate, known as Falacrina. [Deified Vespasian, 2]
Was this historical record an embarrassment to Vespasian? It seems not, since
even when he was emperor, he would frequently visit his childhood home, where the house was kept just as it had been so that he would not miss the sight of any familiar object. And he so cherished the memory of his grandmother that on religious and festival days he would insist on drinking from a small silver cup which had belonged to her. [Deified Vespasian, 2]
But wait, there is more:
In other matters he was from the very beginning of his principate [emperorship] right up until his death unassuming and tolerant, never attempting to cover up his modest background and sometimes even flaunting it. Indeed, when some people attempted to trace the origins of the Flavian family back to the founders of Reate and a companion of Hercules, whose tomb stood by the Salarian Way,* he actually laughed at them. [Deified Vespasian, 12]
Humble beginnings of a person who rose to high status could well be interpreted as evidence of special divine favour.
Even the great Augustus, the one emperor Suetonius took the most seriously as a divinity, is noted for his humble place of birth. Not the slightest hint of embarrassment is evinced in Suetonius’s reporting of it:
Augustus was born a little before sunrise eight days before the Kalends of October in the consulship of Marcus Tullius Cicero and Gaius Antonius, at the Ox Heads in the Palatine district, on the spot where he now has a shrine, established shortly after he died. For, according to senate records, one Gaius Laetorius, a young man of patrician family, in an attempt to mitigate a penalty for adultery, which he claimed was too severe for one of his age and family, also drew to the attention of the senators the fact that he was the possessor and, as it were, guardian of the spot which the Deified Augustus first touched at his birth, and sought pardon for the sake of what he termed his own particular god. It was then decreed that this part of the house should be consecrated. To this day his nursery is displayed in what was his grandfather’s country home near Velitrae. The room is very modest, like a pantry. [Deified Augustus, 5-6]
Suetonius introduces the above passage after having portrayed other indicators of Augustus’s humble early years and even detailing accusations of Augustus’s enemies about his origins:
In the first four chapters the biographer has compiled an account of the Octavii and the Atii, the gentes of Augustus’ natural parents, which sets out the comparative humbleness of his origins: the princeps’ own claim that his paternal line was an old equestrian family is juxtaposed with the claims of M. Antonius that it was tainted with the servile and banausic – a great-grandfather who was an ex-slave and a grandfather who was a money dealer. As to the maternal line, against the claims of senatorial imagines, Antonius alleges a potentially non-white ancestor and more of the banausic – a great-grandfather of African origin who moved into the baking business after running a perfume shop. This section of the life ends with an extract from a letter written by Cassius of Parma, assassin of Caesar and notorious victim of Augustan revenge, which combines both strands of Antonius’ attack and adds a sexual dimension:
. . . . Your mother’s meal came from the roughest bakery in Aricia; a money changer from Nerulum pawed her with his hands stained from filthy pennies.[Deified Augustus, 4.2]
Although Augustus’ ancestry was not the obvious stuff of gods, the next chapter, which begins the Life of Augustus proper, marks a transfer of focus: . . . .
[See the Suetonius passage above: Augustus was born a little before sunrise . . . .]
It begins by recording that Augustus (Suetonius deliberately uses the anachronistic name) was bom in a modest part of Rome, but then qualifies that by ubi nunc habet sacrarium, which begins a series of references to his divinity. (Wardle, 323-24)
Now we may accept the above accounts as likely historically true, but the point is our historian betrays not a hint of embarrassment. The tone suggests that there is nothing inappropriate about one destined to become a god should be born in humble or obscure circumstances.
I know, I know, there are a dozen spin-off questions relating to the above post. But I have chosen to focus on just one point.
Suetonius. 2008. Lives of the Caesars. Translated by Catharine Edwards. Reissue edition. Oxford etc.: OUP Oxford.
Wardle, D. 2012. “Suetonius on Augustus as God and Man.” The Classical Quarterly 62 (1): 307–26.