2020-08-05

Reading the Gospels through a Roman Philosopher’s Eyes

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by Neil Godfrey

From LivingStyles (labelled for reuse on Google Images)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Logos is translated Reason but note its close association with “the word”, in particular the spoken word, a word that brings life-giving benefits as we will see. Continue reading “Reading the Gospels through a Roman Philosopher’s Eyes”


2020-07-07

Hercules, a Fitting Substitute for Jesus Christ

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

by Neil Godfrey

This post is based on some of the citations in the early pages of Hercules-Christus, a 1947 article by Dutch  Radical Critic Gustaaf Adolf van den Bergh van Eysinga, translated into German by Frans-Joris Fabri and posted on Hermann Detering’s RadikalKritik webpage. I have supplemented some of van Eysinga’s references in places. Other posts addressing Heracles:

Heracles (Hercules in Latin) in popular imagination with his club, his lion-skin, his twelve labours, his violent, gluttonous and promiscuous character, is so far removed from any conventional idea of Jesus Christ that any suggestion of the possibility of a comparison must seem utterly perverse. But the more I pore over the ancient texts I discern ever more striking overlaps at several levels. I try to imagine myself as an ancient dilettante philosopher familiar with the role of Heracles in a range of literary and philosophical writings and place in various devout and civic observances and wondering how I would respond to my first contacts with the writings about Jesus.

Let’s start with a most outrageous comparison. Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkardMary Marshall in her thesis Jesus and the Banquets and again in a derivative article, Glutton and Drunkard?, points out that such an insult was typically levelled at uninvited guests, at those who had tagged along as friends or hangers-on of the invitee: the point, Jesus was classed with those uninvited guests who had the reputation for overindulgence.

Matthew 11:19

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard . . .

Luke 7:34

The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard . . .

Bacchylides, Fragment 18 note by Richard Jebb:

Once, when Ceÿx was celebrating the marriage of one of his children by a feast (γάμος), Heracles, being in those parts, presented himself, an uninvited guest. This was told in Hesiod’s Κήϋκος γάμοs, from which only a few words remain . . . .

Euripides, Alcestis, lines 745 ff

The guests I’ve seen here in Admetus’ house have been from everywhere, and I’ve served hundreds. But never have I welcomed to this hearth a guest more rude, more utterly offensive than this one. First of all, he had the nerve to come inside, although he clearly saw my master was in mourning. Once he’s in he lacks the simple wisdom and restraint to take the hospitality that’s offered—he’s aware of this disaster, knows what’s happened! Still, whatever we don’t bring, he asks for. He takes an ivy goblet in his hands and drinks the black grape’s undiluted offspring until the fire of wine has warmed his mind. He garlands his head with pliant myrtle stems and bellows tunelessly. A double melody was heard then: he was belting out his song, with no respect for the sorrows of the household, while we, the servants, wailed for our mistress. . . . It’s only natural that I should hate this guest for showing up at a time like this.

Aristophanes Frogs F. 62–5, 549 ff.)

van Eysinga

SLAVE. You’ve returned, o dearest Herakles! Come on inside.
As soon as the goddess learnt you’d arrived down here,
She arranged for loaves to be baked and had several pots
Of pea soup boiled for you, got a whole ox roasted,
And had various cakes and breads prepared. Come on in!

. . . .

INNKEEPER. Plathane, Plathane, over here! Here’s the scoundrel himself,
The person who came to our inn some time ago
And devoured those sixteen loaves without paying.

Pindar, Fragment 168

The gluttony of Heracles, (narrated by his host, Coronus, son of the Lapith, Caeneus):

Two warm bodies of oxen he set in a circle around the embers, bodies crackling in the fire; and then I noted a noise of flesh and a heavy groaning of bones. There was no long time fitly to distinguish it.

Yes, but. Surely Jesus was blameless while Heracles was not. Maybe. We have different narratives about Jesus, not only canonical ones, presenting quite different characters of Jesus. Ditto for Heracles. And there is always room for the learned to rationalize the myths handed down.

To one type of thinker who meditated on the character of Heracles he was in fact the epitome of self-control.

Thus Pseudo-Lucian, The Cynic 13

Take Heracles, the best man that ever lived, a divine man, and rightly reckoned a God. Was it wrong-headedness that made him go about in nothing but a lion’s skin, insensible to all the needs you feel? No, he was not wrong-headed, who righted other people’s wrongs. He was not poor, who was lord of land and sea. Wherever he went, he was master. He never met his superior or his equal as long as he lived. Do you suppose he could not get sheets and shoes, and therefore went as he did? That’s absurd! He had self-control and fortitude. He wanted power, and not luxury.

Heracles was the personification of the Logos, of Reason itself. (Logos, of course, is translated most simply as the Word in reference to Jesus in the Fourth Gospel.) Mythical tales accrued to the remarkable person so that exaggerated stories transformed him into a being beyond normal human powers. Some of the mythical tales began as metaphors, symbolic of some otherwise genuinely historical aspect. Imagination had to be kept in check, though…

Cornutus, On Greek Theology 31

‘Heracles’ is universal reason thanks to which nature is strong and mighty, being indomitable as well: giver of strength and power to its various parts as well. The name comes, perhaps from the fact that it extends to heroes, and is what makes the noble famous. For the ancients called heroes those who were so strong in body and soul that they seemed to be part of a divine race. There is no need to be disturbed by the more recent story: the son of Alkmene and Amphitryon was deemed worthy of the same name as the god because of his virtue, so that it has become hard to distinguish what belongs to the god from the stories about the hero. The lion skin and the club may have originated with ancient theology and been transferred to the latter – it cannot have seemed right that a good military leader who launched powerful attacks on many parts of the earth would have gone around naked, armed only with wood: rather, then, the hero was decorated with these badges of the god when his services had earned him apotheosis. Both the lion-skin and the club can be a symbol of force and nobility: for the lion is the most powerful of the beasts, the club the mightiest of weapons. Traditionally, the god is an archer, because he extends everywhere, and because even the path of his missiles is somehow unwavering – and it is not an irrational commander who faces his enemies with his trust in weapons like this. The Koans have a tradition that, appropriately enough, he lived with Hebe, as if to make him more perfect in intelligence – as it is said: “The hands of the young are fitter for action, but the souls of the older are better by far.” I suspect that it is more plausible that the service to Omphale refers to him [sc. the god]: through it, the ancients showed again that even the strongest ought to submit themselves to reason and to do what it enjoins, even if its voice (which it would not be extraordinary to call ‘Omphale’) happens to call for the somewhat feminine activity of contemplation and rational inquiry. It is also possible to explain the Twelve Labours as referring to the god, as Cleanthes in fact did. But ingenuity should not always win the day.

One can imagine Cornutus having presented a thesis in his earlier years proposing a study of the sources in order to discern behind them what can be known of “the historical Heracles”. Cornutus was not alone here, though Cornutus did have a reverential view of Heracles closer to the one the fourth evangelist had of Jesus. Other writers clearly distinguished between mythical traditions and historical reality: see the post The Relationship between Myth and History among Ancient Authors for other instances with specific reference to Heracles. Continue reading “Hercules, a Fitting Substitute for Jesus Christ”


2019-12-28

Review, part 5 (Litwa on) Jesus’ Genealogy and Divine Conception

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by Neil Godfrey

My earlier posts on M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History were not my favourites. Negatives about assumptions and methods tended to predominate. But I would not want that tone to deflect readers from the many positives and points of interest in the book. Chapter four discusses Jesus’ genealogies in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in the context of genealogies in ancient literature and culture more generally; chapter five looks at Jesus’ divine parentage in the same contexts. Litwa offers a treasure chest of citations for further informed reading to flesh out many of his points. In this post I only follow up a tiny handful.

Litwa refers to a work of Plato that mocked as sheer vanity and ignorance the claims of those who prided themselves in being able to trace their family tree back many generations to someone great like Heracles. But Litwa follows this up by evidence that many of the hoi polloi failed to heed Plato’s admonition. The historian Polybius, for example, made it clear that many readers indeed did love to read about lineages that demonstrated a prominent origin of a heroic protagonist. I have followed up the citations Litwa offers quote both views here:

Plato in Theatetus:

And when people sing the praises of lineage and say someone is of noble birth, because he can show seven wealthy ancestors, he thinks that such praises betray an altogether dull and narrow vision on the part of those who utter them; because of lack of education they cannot keep their eyes fixed upon the whole and are unable to calculate that every man has had countless thousands of ancestors and progenitors, among whom have been in any instance rich and poor, kings and slaves, barbarians and Greeks. And when people pride themselves on a list of twenty-five ancestors and trace their pedigree back to Heracles, the son of Amphitryon, the pettiness of their ideas seems absurd to him; he laughs at them because they cannot free their silly minds of vanity by calculating that Amphitryon’s twenty-fifth ancestor was such as fortune happened to make him, and the fiftieth for that matter. In all these cases the philosopher is derided by the common herd, partly because he seems to be contemptuous, partly because he is ignorant of common things and is always in perplexity.

The historian Polybius confesses he writes for a limited audience in Fragment 9:

For nearly all other writers, or at least most of them, by dealing with every branch of history, attract many kinds of people to the perusal of their works. The genealogical side appeals to those who are fond of a story, and the account of colonies, the foundation of cities, and their ties of kindred, such as we find, for instance, in Ephorus, attracts the curious and lovers of recondite longer, while the student of politics is interested in the doings of nations, cities, and monarchs. As I have confined my attention strictly to these last matters and as my whole work treats of nothing else, it is, as I say, adapted only to one sort of reader, and its perusal will have no attractions for the larger number. I have stated elsewhere at some length my reason for choosing to exclude other branches of history and chronicle actions alone, but there is no harm in briefly reminding my readers of it here in order to impress it on them.

Since genealogies, myths, the planting of colonies, the foundations of cities and their ties of kinship have been recounted by many writers and in many different styles, an author who undertakes at the present day to deal with these matters must either represent the work of others as being his own, a most disgraceful proceeding, or if he refuses to do this, must manifestly toil to no purpose, being constrained to avow that the matters on which he writes and to which he devotes his attention have been adequately narrated and handed down to posterity by previous authors.

You can get a taste of Roman mythical genealogical work from around the era of the gospels at a Classical Texts Library: Hyginus, Fabulae: and another by (Pseudo-)Apollodous on the same site.

But then Litwa reminds us that a post-Pauline letter condemned particular interest in genealogical lines:

Pay no attention to mythoi and endless genealogies (1 Tim. 1:4)

Elite males spent a great deal of time and money “discovering” and advertising their noble ancestors.15

15. The ability of a genealogy to express male (productive) power is highlighted by the presence of a penis with testicles etched onto a genealogical inscription found at Dodona (in western Greece). In this inscription, a certain Agathon of Zacynthus recorded the link of proxeny between himself and the community of Molossians on Epirus through the mythic ancestress Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess. See further P. M. Fraser, “Agathon and Kassandra (IG IX.12 4.1750),” Journal of Hellenic Studies 123 (2003): 26-40

(pp. 79, 241)

Litwa does not draw attention to the point, but this passage, although post-Pauline, must surely have been penned before our canonical forms of the gospels of Matthew and Luke found wide acceptance. He does, however, point out the close association of myths and genealogies in both this pastoral epistle and in the words of Polybius (quoted above). Good reason underlay the association. Genealogies were very often social constructs (with various tweaks and outright fabrications) to make political points. Litwa explains:

Genealogies show that the line between mythos and historiography is often quite thin. About 100 BCE, the grammarian Asclepiades of Myrlea divided the historical part of grammar into three categories: the true, the seemingly true, and the false. There is only one kind of false history, said Asclepiades, and that is genealogy. It is genealogy that he expressly called “mythic history” (muthike historia). In his system, genealogies were even less true than the stories presented in comedy and mime. (p. 79)

Litwa discusses other historians (Herodotus, Livy, Josephus) and literati (Aristophanes, Hyginus, Cicero) who mocked lofty genealogical claims. Nonetheless, they carried serious import, too, as when the kings of Sparta established their right to rule by tracing their families back to Heracles himself. The Spartans were not alone in such “legitimizing” genealogical claims. Alexander claimed descent from the last native Pharaoh of Egypt, the family of Julius Caesar claimed descent from Aeneas of Troy, and therefore also from the goddess Venus, and so forth. The Roman emperor Galba claimed descent from Jupiter. Another emperor better known to many of us, Vespasian, was well known to have had relatively humble origins and accordingly mocked certain flatterers who attempted to assign a lineage back to Heracles.

What of that “little problem” in the gospels that trace Jesus’ genealogy through to Joseph who was not, according to the story, the literal father of Jesus? No problem, Litwa points out:

Yet when we compare other mythic genealogies, these kinds of hitches did not seem bothersome to the ancients. The Greek biographer Plutarch, for instance, fleshed out the genealogy of Alexander the Great. Plutarch recorded the common tradition that Alexander, through his father, Philip, was a descendant of the god Heracles. One would think that this impressive genealogy would be ruined by the fact that, according to widespread perception—and Plutarch’s own report—Philip was not Alexander’s biological father. Plutarch himself narrated that Zeus impregnated Alexander’s mother, Olympias; and Olympias supposedly acknowledged this point directly to the adult Alexander.

Yet these conflicting reports did not seem to impose cognitive dissonance. A concept of dual paternity was possible. As most people in the ancient world knew (and perhaps believed on some level), Alexander’s real father was the high God Zeus, though he was also the “son of Philip.” (p. 84)

Litwa suggests that the evangelists responsible for the genealogies of Jesus in our Gospels of Matthew and Luke were creating a “mythic historiography” that had a strong appeal to certain readers and served to exalt the status of Jesus in a way comparable to the myths or legends associated with other potentates.

And yet the point of a genealogy is to show that an author was at least trying– despite innacuracies — to use the tropes of historiography. (p. 79)

Divine Conception

Continue reading “Review, part 5 (Litwa on) Jesus’ Genealogy and Divine Conception”