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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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”


2020-05-05

The Dying Saviour: Greek or Hebrew Origin?

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by Neil Godfrey

Prof. Dr. Jan Willem van Henten

The Christian dying saviour who atones for his people was a development of Hebrew ideas but the Greek influence cannot be ignored either. In fact, the evidence suggests that the Greek idea was embraced by Hebrew authors. (This post is sharing a few pages from J. W. van Henten’s The Maccabean Martyrs As Saviours of the Jewish People: A Study of 2 and 4 Maccabees. I work with Henten’s date for the composition of 2 Maccabees as around 124 B.C.E.)

We read in 2 Maccabees 6:12-17 that the suffering of the Jewish people at the hands of Seleucid kings is a sign of God’s special love for his people. God seeks to discipline his people before their sins get too far out of hand. That’s not how he treats the gentiles. He lets their sins continue until the reach some ultimate height and presumably then they will really suffer.

12 Now I urge those who read this book not to be depressed by such calamities, but to recognize that these punishments were designed not to destroy but to discipline our people. 13 In fact, it is a sign of great kindness not to let the impious alone for long, but to punish them immediately. 14 For in the case of the other nations the Lord waits patiently to punish them until they have reached the full measure of their sins; but he does not deal in this way with us, 15 in order that he may not take vengeance on us afterward when our sins have reached their height. 16 Therefore he never withdraws his mercy from us. Although he disciplines us with calamities, he does not forsake his own people. 17 Let what we have said serve as a reminder; we must go on briefly with the story.

The martyrs who suffer do so not only for their own sins but primarily because of the sins of all their people. (The only sins mentioned are those of the Jewish traitors.) A mother and her seven sons are martyred one by one, and before the sixth son was taken to suffer a gruesome fate  we read in 2 Maccabees 7:18 his words spoken to Antiochus:

18 After him they brought forward the sixth. And when he was about to die, he said, “Do not deceive yourself in vain. For we are suffering these things on our own account, because of our sins against our own God. Therefore astounding things have happened.

The mother engaged in a philosophical discourse with her seventh son before he suffered his gruesome fate, the point being to rationalize the notion of the resurrection for readers. (Henten, p. 176)

“These things” that are suffered embrace both the suffering of the martyrs and the afflictions of the whole nation.

The seventh son expressed the same in 2 Maccabees 7:32

32 For we are suffering because of our own sins.

The same phrase “our own sins” is again found in 10:4 after the restoration of the Temple and prayers are made expressing hope never to suffer again the same way for their sins:

When they had done this, they fell prostrate and implored the Lord that they might never again fall into such misfortunes, but that, if they should ever sin, they might be disciplined by him with forbearance and not be handed over to blasphemous and barbarous nations.

The seventh son’s last words (7:37-38) were a declaration that his and his brothers’ martyrdom would bring an end to the sufferings of their people:

37 I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our ancestors, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by trials and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, 38 and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.

Henten interprets the above passages as meaning that the martyrs are suffering as a result of the sins of all the Jews:

The pattern of the narrative . . . as well as certain remarks in 5:17-20 and 6:12-17 support this interpretation (cf. 4 Macc. 4:21). The wicked deeds of some Jewish leaders have led the whole people including the martyrs into a state of sin. This explains why the youngest brother can say at 2 Macc. 7:38 that the wrath of the Lord “has justly fallen on our whole nation”. The godless actions of Simon, Jason, Menelaus, Lysimachus, Alcimus and the unfaithful soldiers of Judas are the only sins of Jews reported in 2 Maccabees. Nowhere are the sins of the martyrs themselves mentioned. The martyrs . . . die because of the sins of the people and in this way show their solidarity with the people

(Henten, 137)

The martyrs are acting on behalf of the entire people:

The references to “we”, “us” and “our” in 2 Macc. 7:16, 30, 32-33, 38 are intended to be inclusive; they point not only to the martyrs but also to the people. The youngest brother says in 7:30 to the Seleucid king that Moses has given the law of the Lord to “our ancestors”, thereby making the entire people responsible for keeping the Torah. In 2 Macc. 7:31, Antiochus is not called the adversary of the martyrs but of “the Hebrews”.

(Henten, 138)

The sufferings that the martyrs in chapter 7 speak of are the sufferings of “the entire Jewish people” as well as to the martyrs. Reconciliation will follow the short period of torment, as the last son makes clear:

33 And if our living Lord is angry for a little while, to rebuke and discipline us, he will again be reconciled with his own servants. . . . . 38 and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.”

Immediately after the deaths of the seven sons and their mother the reconciliation begins. From chapter 8 the tide turns and Judas Maccabeus soundly defeats the army of Nicanor.

40 So he died in his integrity, putting his whole trust in the Lord. 41 Last of all, the mother died, after her sons. . . . 

8 Meanwhile Judas, who was also called Maccabeus, and his companions secretly entered the villages and summoned their kindred and enlisted those who had continued in the Jewish faith, and so they gathered about six thousand. They implored the Lord to look upon the people who were oppressed by all; and to have pity on the temple that had been profaned by the godless; to have mercy on the city that was being destroyed and about to be leveled to the ground; to hearken to the blood that cried out to him; to remember also the lawless destruction of the innocent babies and the blasphemies committed against his name; and to show his hatred of evil.

As soon as Maccabeus got his army organized, the Gentiles could not withstand him, for the wrath of the Lord had turned to mercy. Coming without warning, he would set fire to towns and villages. He captured strategic positions and put to flight not a few of the enemy. He found the nights most advantageous for such attacks. And talk of his valor spread everywhere.

The story flow leads the reader to understand that the martyrdoms were the turning point in God’s intervention and working through Judas Maccabeus to free the people from foreign domination.

This pattern is repeated when Razis kills himself to save his people — 2 Maccabees 14:37-46. Stabbing himself didn’t work, so he threw himself off a tower into the enemy below, but that didn’t work either, so he finally ripped out his entrails and flung them at his opponents. The following chapter sees Judas Maccabeus announcing to his troops a dream-sign from God (Jeremiah giving him a golden sword) with the only possible outcome, 15:27:

So, fighting with their hands and praying to God in their hearts, they laid low at least thirty-five thousand, and were greatly gladdened by God’s manifestation.

These stories of deaths that became turning points for the liberation of the Jews are core themes in 2 Maccabees. What was their source of inspiration?

[I]n 2 Macc. 7:37-38 classical and Hellenistic Greek vocabulary concerning the death for one’s fatherland (Hellas), home town, laws, friends, relatives or beloved131 is combined for the first time with conceptions about atonement in the Hebrew Bible . . . .

(Henten, 157)

The Greco-Roman influence

The devil is in the details of the vocabulary used. Continue reading “The Dying Saviour: Greek or Hebrew Origin?”


2020-04-30

Thighs: Pythagorean, Biblical and Other

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by Neil Godfrey

This is just a curiosity post in response to someone raising a query about the golden thigh of Pythagoras and wondering if there is any connection with the use of the word thigh as a euphemism for genitalia in the Bible.

To begin, here are the sources for the idea that Pythagoras had a “golden thigh”. It is difficult to interpret the word as anything other than a literal thigh. But we will see there is more to Greek mythical associations with the thigh in the next section.

Pythagoras modestly covering his golden thigh

They come from “the fragments” of what ancients recorded of their knowledge of what Aristotle wrote. They are all collated in a volume available at archive.org — pages 134 and 135.

APOLLON. Mirab. 6. These were succeeded by Pythagoras son of Mnesarchus, who first worked at mathematics and arithmetic, but later even indulged in miracle-mongering like that of Pherecydes. When a ship was coming into harbour at Metapontum laden with a cargo, and the bystanders were, on account of the cargo, praying for her safe arrival, Pythagoras intervened and said: ‘Very well, you will see the ship bearing a dead body.’ Again in Caulonia, according to Aristotle, he prophesied the advent of a she-bear; and Aristotle also, in addition to much other information about him, says that in Tuscany he killed a deadly biting serpent by biting it himself. He also says that Pythagoras foretold to the Pythagoreans the coming political strife; by reason of which he departed to Metapontum unobserved by anyone, and while he was crossing the river Cosas he, with others, heard the river say, with a voice beyond human strength, ‘Pythagoras, hail!’; at which those present were greatly alarmed. He once appeared both at Croton and at Metapontum on the same day and at the same hour. Once, while sitting in the theatre, he rose (according to Aristotle) and showed to those sitting there that one of his thighs was of gold. There are other surprising things told about him, but, not wishing to play the part of mere transcribers, we will bring our account of him to an end.

Further from the same source . . . .

AELIAN, V.H. 2. 26. Aristotle says that Pythagoras was called by the people of Croton the Hyperborean Apollo. The son of Nicomachus adds that Pythagoras was once seen by many people, on the same day and at the same hour, both at Metapontum and at Croton; and at Olympia, during the games, he got up in the theatre and showed that one of his thighs was golden. The same writer says that while crossing the Cosas he was hailed by the river, and that many people heard him so hailed.

Ibid. 4. 17. Pythagoras used to tell people that he was born of more than mortal seed; for on the same day and at the same hour he was seen (they say) at Metapontum and at Croton; and at Olympia he showed that one of his thighs was golden. He informed Myllias of Croton that he was Midas the Phrygian, the son of Gordius. He fondled the white eagle, which made no resistance. While crossing the river Cosas he was addressed by the river, which said ‘Hail, Pythagoras!’

DIOG. LAERT. 8. 1. 11 (9). He is said to have been very dignified in his bearing, and his disciples held that he was Apollo, and came from the men of the north. There is a story that once, when he was stripped, his thigh was seen to be golden; and there were many who said that the river Nessus had hailed him as he was crossing it.

IAMB. V.P. 28. 140-3. The Pythagoreans derive their confidence in their views from the fact that the first to express them was no ordinary man, but God. One of their traditions relates to the question ‘Who art thou, Pythagoras?’; they say he is the Hyperborean Apollo. This is supposed to be evidenced by two facts: when he got up during the games he showed a thigh of gold, and when he entertained Abaris the Hyperborean he stole from him the arrow by which he was guided. Abaris is said to have come from the Hyperboreans collecting money for the temple and prophesying pestilence ; he lived in the sacred shrines and was never seen to drink or eat anything . . . .

But there is more. There is something suggestive about the thigh in other myths.

Birth of Dionysus from Zeus’s thigh

One that comes to mind is the birth of the god Dionysus from the thigh of Zeus. Zeus had seduced and impregnated Semele but when Semele died before her time to give birth (Zeus’s jealous wife had tricked Zeus into causing Semele’s death by appearing before her in all his divine glory) Zeus snatched up the child and sewed him into his thigh until he was ready to be born. (Dionysus thus was known as the twice-born god.)

But why the thigh? We believe that we are dealing here with a literal translation of a West Semitic idiom which euphemistically designated begetting: “sprung from one’s thigh” (yōṣe’ yerēkó, inaccurately translated in English Bibles by “loins”) merely meant “begotten by one,” his child.

(Astour, 195. Note that the Greek myth of Dionysus was borrowed and adapted from Phygia in Asia Minor.)

In the literature of ancient Greek myths thigh wounds are often euphemisms for castration. So . . .

Classical scholars are generally aware of the trope that in literature from around the world thigh wounds are often euphemistic for castration, or at least for impotence. But classicists have not noted how thigh wounds frequently symbolize not only physical impotence but political or spiritual impotence, and how such wounds also represent a temporary or permanent loss of heroic status for the wounded individual as well as a crisis for the group of people represented by that individual. This association apparently has its roots in a belief, held by many cultures, that semen was produced in several places in the body, including in the marrow of the thigh bone, and the thighs’ proximity to the testicles resulted in a close association that was nearly an interchange between the thighs and the male genitalia. Consequently, any kind of wound to the thigh, whether a wrenching, piercing, crushing, or other injury or mutilation, could represent a blow to a man’s physical and spiritual virility. . . . .

(Felton, 47f)

Some ancient physiology and learning why ankle wounds so often proved fatal: Continue reading “Thighs: Pythagorean, Biblical and Other”


2020-02-03

Review, parts 13, 14. More on Ancient “Resurrection” Stories (Litwa: How the Gospels Became History)

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by Neil Godfrey

Chapter Thirteen, “Disappearance and Recognition”, continues with an exploration of the little devices used by the author of the Gospel of Luke to build a sense of realism (or “historicity”) into the narrative of the two travellers on the Emmaus Road after the death of Jesus. These literary devices make the account seem very natural, acceptable as “reportage” of “what happened”. But then we come to the strange failure to recognize Jesus when he walks and talks alongside them and even after entering their home — until he breaks bread when he simply vanishes into thin air. Soon afterwards Jesus appears to his disciples by passing through a solid wall, after which he attempts to prove he is not a ghost but flesh just like them. M. David Litwa shows how such strange happenings were known and believed to have happened to Greek mythical characters. The point is that just as Greek myths could be told in a manner that lent them verisimilitude, placing the supernatural within a narrative of natural psychological reactions and settings, so the gospels do the same with the resurrection accounts of Jesus. One of the myths Litwa uses for comparison have also been discussed on Vridar, though not always in relation to the gospel: Baucis and Philemon. Another, one about hospitality given to an unrecognized Dionysus, you can read on archive.org’s poem by Silius Italicus. The motif of the gods preventing some people from seeing or recognizing them while allowing others to do so at certain times goes back to Homer. Walls did not prevent gods like Dionysus or Hermes from entering rooms, either.

Litwa covers other instances of humans dying only to have their bodies disappear and then reappear alive at some other time and place, as found in histories and biographies by Herodotus, Iamblichus and Philostratus. Sometimes the reappearing person even commands incredulous witnesses to touch him to see that he is real. Playwrights portrayed those returned from the dead as ghosts continued to bear the physical wounds they had suffered in the flesh so that they could be recognized by former acquaintances.

It would be a mistake to think that early Christians could see no comparison between their stories of Jesus and Greek myths. Justin Martyr, a mid-second century “Church Father”, addressed non-Christians thus:

The early Christian Justin Martyr even used these myihoi as a measuring rod of historical plausibility: “When we [Christians] say also that the Logos [i.e., Christ] … was crucified and died and rose again and ascended into heaven [aneleluthenai eis ton ouranon\, we propound nothing new [ou . . . kainon ti] beyond [what you believe] concerning those whom you call sons of Zeus.” Justin’s argument only works if the Greeks and Romans understood their ascent mythoi as records of real events.

(Litwa, 187 – Chapter 14)

In chapter fourteen (Ascent) Litwa addresses in detail the ancient belief in ascent to heaven in a cloud by one who at death is deified. Both the historian Livy and the biographer Plutarch write of what was believed to have been Romulus’s ascent and subsequent appearance on earth to a reputable eyewitness. The authors themselves may have been sceptical, as Litwa points out the Jewish philosopher was sceptical of Moses’ bodily ascent to heaven, but belief in the bodily ascent did persist among many.

And so forth. The gospel stories would not have been believed literally by sophisticated authors such as Cicero and Plutarch but it is evident that comparable stories, told with similar “naturalizing” techniques and contexts, were believed by others. The same techniques to create plausibility (see two earlier posts for the details) have led to millions ever since believing in the historicity of the gospel narratives. Litwa would be appalled, though, to take this point any further. His point is that the events in Jesus’ life were “remembered” through a cultural context that allowed the imagination to shape them in the direction of Greek myths.


Litwa, M. David. 2019. How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.


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2020-02-02

Review, part 12. Ancient “Resurrection” Stories (Litwa: How the Gospels Became History)

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

(173)

Empty Tomb

Continue reading “Review, part 12. Ancient “Resurrection” Stories (Litwa: How the Gospels Became History)”


2020-01-21

How Mythic Story Worlds Become Believable (Johnston: The Greek Mythic Story World)

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by Neil Godfrey

Sarah Iles Johnston

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.

From Wikimedia

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.

Story Worlds

A Secondary World: https://melissamcphail.com/worldbuilding/

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.

(286)

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.)

Even when a monster does enter a Greek myth the author tends to indicate only minimal interest in its oddities. They are described as if in passing. The story is set in “a real-world” that we recognize as our own, or as the Greeks recognized as theirs: Continue reading “How Mythic Story Worlds Become Believable (Johnston: The Greek Mythic Story World)”


2020-01-20

Why Certain Kinds of Myths Are So Easy to Believe

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by Neil Godfrey

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)

Sarah Iles Johnston (Distinguished Professor of Religion, Ohio State University)

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).

(p. 177)

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.

(p. 184)

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. 

(p. 182)

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.

(p. 190)

No, the Greek myths were different. They somehow “prepared their audiences to feel as if they were living amongst the gods and heroes.”

The Metaphorical Myth

Continue reading “Why Certain Kinds of Myths Are So Easy to Believe”


2020-01-17

Ancient Epiphanies and a Comparison with Christian Counterparts

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by Neil Godfrey

Epiphanies in the Greco-Roman world came in many forms. Violent natural phenomena (hailstorms, earthquakes, St Elmo’s fire, meteors, landslides) could be interpreted as the presence and action of gods defending their sanctuaries or favoured cities and routing enemies. At some point a narrative might personify the natural event and speak of Zeus or Poseidon descending and appearing as gods in all their awe so that they terrified enemies and caused them to panic.

Others epiphanies could be in the form of birds of various kinds.(Recall the dove at Jesus’ baptism.) Asclepius could appear as a snake.

Sometimes the epiphany came in a dream. Or in an ecstatic state a devotee might see a blinding light.

Statues could also “house” the god or represent his or her very real presence, especially in religious processions where the statue/god led the devotees, or when an army went out to battle.

Other times it could take the form of sensing the close presence of the deity, especially in the course of a religious ritual.

Another form was a god or goddess dwelling in a priest or priestess dressed especially for a ritual occasion.

In the world of fiction, at least, even astonishingly beautiful or handsome youths were believed to be deities.

Guess who doubled the typical number of witnesses

Fritz Graf

I have shown in recent posts examples of those epiphanies where a god or hero appeared directly in his or her “real” human form. Sometimes large numbers of people were said or implied to have witnessed the epiphany. Yet often only one person was said to witness the deity and it was up to that solitary person to convince others — which they were often able to do.

So an observation by classicist Fritz Graf is of interest:

The Christians, however, easily outdid this. After his death, Christ appeared to two, not one, disciples on their way to Emmaus, thus providing the welcome plurality of witnesses. Again, we have moved from ritual to fiction. The Emmaus epiphany is no less or no more trustworthy than the angels who appeared to the group of shepherds of Bethlehem. Christianity, then, did not behave differently: it accepted collective epiphany in fictionalized texts (the Gospels, Acts) that would also convince the not yet convinced, and it accepted individual epiphany or vision, as in the case of Paul and his acceptance by the church of Corinth. (p. 124)

Of more general interest, Graf points to the ongoing importance of ritual:

Greek and, to a lesser degree, Roman civilization developed epiphany as a mode of imagining the intervention of the divine in the physical world. It also prepared ritual mechanisms to help underpin such epiphanic manifestations and to mediate the tension between empirical reality, where gods do not appear, and religious certainty, where they did exactly this. (p. 124)

The ritual Graf focuses on as the most common is the procession. There are others, of course.

Fear to tell anyone what you have seen and heard

In the light of the original ending of the Gospel of Mark (16:8) where we read that the women who saw and heard the “young man” in the tomb ran off “and told no-one what they had witnessed for they were afraid”, there is an account in Greek history of two witnesses resolving to tell no-one of an epiphany they had just encountered, again from fear.

There is a story which used to be told by Dicaeus, the son of Theocydes, an Athenian exile who had made a name for himself in Persia. After the evacuation of Attica, when the Persian troops were devastating the countryside, this person happened to be in the plain of Thria with Demaratus the Spartan. Noticing a cloud of dust, such as might have been raised by an army of thirty thousand men on the march, coming from the direction of Eleusis, they were wondering what troops they could be, when they suddenly heard the sound of voices. Dicaeus thought he recognized the Iacchus song, which is sung at the Dionysiac mysteries, but Demaratus, who was unfamiliar with the religious ceremonial of Eleusis, asked his companion whose voices they were. ‘Sir,’ Dicaeus answered, ‘without any doubt some dreadful disaster is about to happen to the king’s army. There is not a man left in Attica; so the voice we heard must clearly be not of this world – it is a divine voice, coming from Eleusis to bring help to die Athenians and their friends. If it descends upon the Peloponnese, there will be danger for the king and for his army; if it moves towards the ships at Salamis, Xerxes may well lose his fleet. Every year die Athenians celebrate a festival in honour of the Mother and the Maid, and anyone who wishes, from Athens or elsewhere, may be initiated in the mysteries; the sound you heard was the Iacchus song which is always sung at diat festival.’

‘Do not breathe a word of this to anybody,’ said Demaratus. ‘If it should reach the ears of the king, you would lose your head, and neither I nor anyone else in the world could save you. So hold your tongue – the gods will see to the king’s army.’

While Demaratus was speaking, the cloud of dust from which the mysterious voice had issued, rose high into the air and drifted away towards Salamis, where the Greek fleet was stationed. By tliis the two men knew that the naval power of Xerxes was destined to be destroyed. Such was Dicaeus’ story, and he used to appeal to Demaratus and others to witness the truth of it.

(Herodotus, 8.65)

Here we read that the story was eventually told, but presumably only after there was no longer any need to fear the consequences. I’ll leave it to you to wonder if there is anything of significance here for how one might interpret the gospel.

 


Graf, Fritz. 2004. “Trick or Treat? On Collective Epiphanies in Antiquity.” Illinois Classical Studies 29: 111–30. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23065343

I have not discussed anything from Versnel’s essay here but list it for the benefit of anyone interested.

Versnel, Henk. “What Did Ancient Man See When He Saw a God? Some Reflections on Greco-Roman Epiphany.” In Effigies Dei : Essays on the History of Religions, edited by Dirk van der Plas. Studies in the History of Religions 51. Leiden ; New York: Brill, 1987.  https://www.academia.edu/11350657/WHAT_DID_ANCIENT_MAN_SEE_WHEN_HE_SAW_A_GOD_SOME_REFLECTIONS_ON_GRECO-ROMAN_EPIPHANY.

Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Aubrey De Sélincourt. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1965.


 


2020-01-16

Ancient Belief that Divinities Appeared on Earth in the Present and Historical Past — (with half a glance at Christian origins)

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by Neil Godfrey

We have been looking at some accounts among ancient historians of gods and heroes appearing among eyewitnesses and acting in history. Did the ancient historians and biographers who wrote of those events believe they were true? What of other people who heard of those stories? Did they believe them?

In my review posts of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths by M. David Litwa I have pointed out a number of times that historians of ancient times generally distanced themselves from reports of the appearances of gods or miraculous events: they did so with terms such as “it is said that . . .”, “a rumour spread that . . .”, etc. This distancing technique stands in contrast with fictional stories where the authors write from the all-knowing stance and simply say that the appearances of gods and miracles did happen. Ditto for the gospels. (There are a few exceptions that I have pointed out, the most notable one being Suetonius’s account of Augustus Caesar. Omens are also often written about as if they really happened but these are usually accounts of naturally occurring events — birds fighting, an unexpected storm — that are interpreted as divine signs.)

As for the historians and biographers themselves, we can assume they had an above average education so their reservations when they came to writing about the supernatural or mythical are not surprising. We would expect the less educated on the whole to be less cautious when they were exposed to the myths that were at the heart of their piety. Classicist Jorge Bravo of the University of Maryland has published the evidence for the two different approaches to myths, or more specifically towards myths about Greek heroes, “mortal figures who were thought to possess some residual power after death.” To clarify the meaning of hero:

But what is a hero? In modern usage the word carries with it a positive valorization, describing anyone who accomplishes great feats and inspires admiration and emulation.

For the ancient Greeks, at least by the Classical period, the designation applied to a broad spectrum of figures that included not just the well-known warriors of Homeric epic and other early legends but also more shadowy figures, about whom, to judge by our ancient sources, the Greeks themselves knew only the slightest details. . . .

What does unite the heterogeneous lot of Greek heroes is first a belief that they were, in fact, mortals, not gods; they lived and died, whether in the remote past or in recent times. Moreover, although now dead, they are believed to have a power over the living, and as a consequence they are worshiped alongside the gods. 

(Bravo, Recovering the Past, 11)

Jorge Bravo, UMD, Associate Professor in Classics

Another distancing technique of the educated

As has been pointed out in previous posts . . .

The authors [ancient historians and biographers] are prone to distance themselves from pronouncing on the authenticity of the claimed epiphanies, and the accounts allow for different opinions about the events that transpired. One indicator of this authorial mediation is the frequent use of the term φάσμα [=phasma: apparition, phantom . . . ]. . . . 

. . . the use of the term φάσμα in the ancient literary accounts of heroic epiphany qualifies the experience that the author is relating to the reader, leaving open to doubt the veracity of the claim.

(Bravo, Heroic Epiphanies, 67-68)

Another distancing technique of the educated

I have pointed to other distancing phrases like “It is said that…” Here Bravo identifies the use of φάσμα (phasma) as another.

Some examples. One in Pausanias, speaking of Aristomenes, the leader of the Messenian revolt against Sparta, in the seventh century BCE.

After waiting only for the wound to heal, he was making an attack by night on Sparta itself, but was deterred by the appearance of Helen and of the Dioscuri [φασμάτων Ἑλένης καὶ Διοσκούρων] (Pausanias, 1.16.9)

The Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux

The Dioscuri, of course, are the Twins, Castor and Pollux, our better known Gemini.

Another in Herodotus of a moment in the Battle of Salamis (480 BCE):

The story is also told that the phantom of a woman [φάσμα σφι γυναικὸς] appearedto 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, 8.84)

Plutarch records that many believed Theseus appeared at the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE):

In after times, however, the Athenians were moved to honor Theseus as a demigod, especially by the fact that many of those who fought at Marathon against the Medes thought they saw an apparition of Theseus [φάσμα Θησέως] in arms rushing on in front of them against the Barbarians. (Plutarch, Theseus, 35.5)

Why might φάσμα be a distancing word?

In light of the dichotomy between image and reality entertained in Greek thought from the fifth century on, the use of the term φάσμα calls into question the veracity of the superhuman event. It opens the door to alternative explanations for the events, for instance the possibility that military leaders staged events to inspire courage and confidence. 

(Bravo, Heroic Epiphanies, 68. Bolded highlighting is my own in all quotations)

Fake epiphanies? They want to believe!

Here are some examples of people faking appearances of gods and heroes, but what is most significant for us is that did so knowing that at least a significant number of others would be fooled, would really believe. The first listed here is non-committal, saying only that “some” thought the events were tricks orchestrated by the leaders.

The Thebans accordingly decorated this monument before the battle. Furthermore, reports were brought to them from the city that all the temples were opening of themselves, and that the priestesses said that the gods revealed victory. And the messengers reported that from the Heracleium [=Temple of Heracles] the arms also had disappeared, indicating that Heracles had gone forth to the battle. Some, to be sure, say that all these things were but devices of the leaders.

(Xenophon, Hellenica, 6.4.7 — the battle described took place in 371 BCE)

I find that example of particular interest because it matches one of the signs listed by Josephus before the fall of Jerusalem. See the fourth sign in Miracles with Multiple Jewish and Roman Eyewitnesses: I had wondered why people would consider the self-opening of temple doors to be a good omen and the passage in Xenophon suggests that the people would have interpreted it as evidence that the god/s had gone forth to fight their enemies.

The next two extracts refer to the Messenian revolt against Sparta in the seventh century BCE.

The Lacedaemonians [=Spartans] were keeping a feast of the Dioscuri in camp and had turned to drinking and sports after the midday meal, when Gonippus and Panormus appeared to them, riding on the finest horses and dressed in white tunics and scarlet cloaks, with caps on their heads and spears in their hands. When the Lacedaemonians saw them they bowed down and prayed, thinking that the Dioscuri themselves had come to their sacrifice.

When once they had come among them, the youths rode right through them, striking with their spears, and when many had been killed, returned to Andania, having outraged the sacrifice to the Dioscuri.

(Pausanias, 4.27.2-3)

Another account of the same:

On the day of the festival, when the Lacedaemonians [=Spartans] make a public sacrifice to the Dioscuri, Aristomenes the Messenian and a friend mounted on two white horses, and put golden stars on their heads. As soon as night came on, they appeared at a little distance from the Lacedaemonians, who with their wives and children were celebrating the festival on the plain outside the city. The Lacedaemonians superstitiously believed that they were the Dioscuri, and indulged in drinking and revelling even more freely. Meanwhile, the two supposed deities, alighting from their horses, advanced against them with sword in hand. After leaving many of them dead on the spot, they remounted their horses, and made their escape.

(Polyaenus, Stratagems of War, 2.31.4)

https://earlyworldhistory.blogspot.com/2012/02/peisistratus-athenian-leader.html

I’ll add one more, this one from Herodotus who makes no effort to hide his embarrassment.

The Greeks have never been simpletons; for centuries past they have been distinguished from other nations by superior wits; and of all Greeks the Athenians are allowed to be the most intelligent: yet it was at the Athenians’ expense that this ridiculous trick was played. In the village of Paeania there was a handsome woman called Phye, nearly six feet tall, whom they fitted out in a suit of armour and mounted in a chariot; then, after getting her to pose in the most striking attitude, they drove into Athens, where messengers who had preceded them were already, according to their instructions, talking to the people and urging them to welcome Pisistratus back, because the goddess Athene herself had shown him extraordinary honour and was bringing him home to her own Acropolis. They spread this nonsense all over the town, and it was not long before rumour reached the outlying villages that Athene was bringing Pisistratus back, and both villagers and townsfolk, convinced that the woman Phye was indeed the goddess, offered her their prayers and received Pisistratus with open arms.

(Herodotus, Histories, 1.60)

It should be evident that a good number of ancient Greeks were willing to believe that gods and heroes continue to act in history and their own day and are not figures confined exclusively to some remote “heroic age”. More sophisticated authors might express some reservations but they did not deny that many others were “true believers”.

Jorge Bravo devotes the second part of his article to the non-literary evidence. He heads it

II. Heroic Ephiphany in Votive Iconography

and begins,

While authors may interject a note of uncertainty in their accounts of epiphany, for many ancient Greeks the experiences were undeniable. Such popular beliefs fueled religious responses, including the dedication of offerings. A passage in Plato’s Laws alludes to this dynamic. Plato has his Legislator promote a law to curb what he regards as foolish popular religious practices (909e-910a):

… It is customary for all women especially, and for sick folk everywhere, and those in peril or in distress (whatever the nature of the distress), and conversely for those who have had a slice of good fortune, to dedicate whatever happens to be at hand at the moment, and to vow sacrifices and promise the founding of shrines to gods and demi-gods and children of gods; and through terrors caused by waking visions (εν τε φάσμασιν) or by dreams, and in like manner as they recall many visions and try to provide remedies for each of them, they are wont to found altars and shrines … (Loeb).

This documents how individuals frequently responded to visions and other experiences with dedications and the foundations of shrines. Indeed the evidence is strong that the sheer number of offerings could at times present problems for sanctuaries.

In the iconography of votive dedications, accordingly, one should find direct testimony of the kinds of private beliefs that could be called into question by authors.

(Bravo, Heroic Epiphanies, 68 f)

Anyone interested in Christian origins will surely pause over the above quotation. It suggests that one might expect to find records of dedications at the tomb of Jesus or at sites in Galilee where Jesus had made a splash with a speech or miracle of some kind, or at a site near Caesarea Philippi where Peter first acknowledged Jesus to be the Christ, or at the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane, or even the Jordan where John baptized, and pilgrimages to the wilderness where he was tempted or where he persuaded by some mysterious means for crowds of thousands to be fed. (Those who respond with some quip to the effect that ancient Jews were not like that, not like the Greeks, would have to explain why it is recorded that Jesus said the Pharisees did just that sort of thing with the tombs of the prophets.) But let’s move on. Continue reading “Ancient Belief that Divinities Appeared on Earth in the Present and Historical Past — (with half a glance at Christian origins)”


2020-01-14

Greek Gods and Heroes with Multiple Historical Eyewitnesses

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by Neil Godfrey

One response (though tongue-in-cheek) to the previous post about Greek gods and heroes appearing and acting in historical times should be addressed:

Oh sure but were there 500 anonymous witnesses?

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)

Battle of Salamis by artist Wilhelm von Kaulbach – Wikipedia

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)

Battle of Marathon, Georges Rochegrosse, 1859. Wikipedia

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.

How did the stories arise? 

Continue reading “Greek Gods and Heroes with Multiple Historical Eyewitnesses”


2020-01-13

Greek Gods and Heroes Active in the Historical World

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by Neil Godfrey

Here are a few of many instances of ancient “records” of gods and heroes acting in historical times, sometimes within little more than a generation of the one documenting the event. Hopefully, these extracts will help dispel the myth that ancient Greek gods and heroes belonged exclusively to some way-off remote “heroic age” — with the inference, of course, that the gospels are not as far removed from Greco-Roman mythical stories as is sometimes claimed.

Asclepius and Amphiaraus regularly worked cures in their sanctuaries while their clients slept, and sometimes even met their patients face-to-face—on one occasion, Asclepius arrived dressed in shining golden armor. (Johnston, 308)

Asclepius

46 years at most between the god’s act of healing and the written account:

A Greek poem written in the “late fourth century BCE” (Claus, 178) / “ca. 300 B.C.” (SEG 53-365) in honour of the god Apollo and hero-god Asclepius describes an event when Asclepius in “shining golden armour” appeared and spoke to a boy before speeding off to fight to defend Sparta from King Philip of Macedon — in 346 BCE.

And of your power, Asclepius, you gave this example in the days when Philip, wishing to destroy the royal authority, led his army against Sparta. To them from Epidaurus Asclepius came as a helper, honouring the race of Heracles, which consequently Zeus spared. He came at the time when the sick boy came from Bosporus. Shining in your golden armour, you met him as he approached Asclepius; and when the boy beheld you, he drew near to you, stretching forth his hand and entreated you in suppliant words :

“I have no share in your gifts, Asclepius Paean ; have pity on me.”

Then you addressed these words to me clearly : “Take heart, for I shall come to you in due time – just wait here – after I have rescued the Lacedaemonians from grievous doom because they justly guard the precepts of Apollo which Lycurgus ordained for the city, after he had consulted the oracle.”

And so he went to Sparta. But my thoughts stirred me to announce the divinity’s advent to the Lacedaemonians, everything in exact order. They listened to me as I spoke the message of safety, Asclepius, and you saved them. And they called upon all to welcome you with honours due a guest, proclaiming you the Saviour of spacious Lacedaemon. These words, O far the best of all the gods, Isyllus set up for you, honouring your power, O Lord, as is seemly.

(Isyllus: Paean to Asclepius)

50 years from a god meeting a famous Greek until its recording:

Pan

The Battle of Marathon was in 490 and Herodotus wrote Histories around 440 BCE.

Before they left the city, the Athenian generals sent off a message to Sparta. The messenger was an Athenian named Pheidippides, a trained runner still in the practice of his profession. According to the account he gave the Athenians on his return, Pheidippides met the god Pan on Mount Parthenium, above Tegea. Pan, he said, called him by name and told him to ask the Athenians why they paid him no attention, in spite of his friendliness towards them and the fact that he had often been useful to them in the past, and would be so again in the future. The Athenians believed Pheidippides’ story, and when their affairs were once more in a prosperous state, they built a shrine to Pan under the Acropolis, and from the time his message was received they have held an annual ceremony, with a torch-race and sacrifices, to court his protection. 

(Herodotus: 6.105 – Perseus site)

40 or 50 years from Vespasian’s miracles to their documentation:

Suetonius wrote during the reign of Hadrian (117-138) and Vespasian ruled from 69 to 79 CE:

A common man who had lost his sight and another who was lame approached him together as he sat before the tribunal, begging for the remedy for their ailments which Serapis had revealed in a dream; for he could heal eyes by spitting upon them and make whole a leg if he deigned to touch it with his heel. Although he had little faith that this could possibly succeed and indeed did not dare to put it to the test, finally, at the insistence of his friends, he undertook both actions in public before an assembly and met with success. At the same time, with the guidance of seers, some vessels of ancient workmanship were dug up in a sacred spot at Tegea in Arcadia, bearing an image very like that of Vespasian.

(Suetonius: Vespasian, 7 – Perseus site)

Apollo et al fought alongside armies in historical times:

Apollo and Artemis

Apollo’s worshipers were threatened by an invasion of Gauls in 279 BCE. Supernatural women — perhaps his sisters Artemis and Athena — appeared alongside him in the battle. Multiple traditions survive, and I list three here from the first century BCE.

Such an apparition is said to have occurred to Brennus, and to his Gallic troops, when he was waging an impious war upon the temple of Apollo at Delphi. For on that occasion it is reported that the Pythian priestess pronounced these words:

“I and the white virgins will provide for the future.”

In accordance with which, it happened that the Gauls fancied that they saw white virgins bearing arms against them, and that their entire army was overwhelmed in the snow.

(Cicero, On Divination, 1.37)

Brennus, the king of the Gauls, accompanied by one hundred and fifty thousand infantry, armed with long shields, and ten thousand cavalry, together with a horde of camp followers, large numbers of traders, and two thousand waggons, invaded Macedonia and engaged in battle. Having in this conflict lost many men . . . as lacking sufficient strength . . . when later he advanced into Greece and to the oracle at Delphi, which he wished to plunder. In the mighty battle fought there he lost tens of thousands of his comrades-in‑arms, and Brennus himself was three times wounded. Weighed down and near to death, he assembled his host there and spoke to the Gauls. He advised them to kill him and all the wounded, to burn their waggons, and to return home unburdened; he advised them also to make Cichorius king. Then, after drinking deeply of undiluted wine, Brennus slew himself. After Cichorius had given him burial, he killed the wounded and those who were victims of cold and starvation some twenty thousand in all; and so he began the journey homeward with the rest by the same route. In difficult terrain the Greeks would attack and cut off those in the rear, and carried off all their baggage. On the way to Thermopylae, food being scarce there, they abandoned twenty thousand more men. All the rest perished as they were going through the country of the Dardani, and not a single man was left to return home.

Brennus, the king of the Gauls, on entering a temple found no dedications of gold or silver, and when he came only upon images of stone and wood he laughed at them, to think that men, believing that gods have human form, should set up their images in wood and stone.

At the time of the Gallic invasion the inhabitants of Delphi, seeing that danger was at hand, asked the god if they should remove the treasures, the children, and the women from the shrine to the most strongly fortified of the neighbouring cities. The Pythia replied to the Delphians that the god commanded them to leave in place in the shrine the dedications and whatever else pertained to the adornment of the gods; for the god, and with him the White Maidens, would protect all. As there were in the sacred precinct two temples of extreme antiquity, one of Athena Pronaia and one of Artemis, they assumed that these goddesses were the “White Maidens” named in the oracle.

(Diodorus Siculus, 22.9)
Continue reading “Greek Gods and Heroes Active in the Historical World”


2019-11-29

The Idea of the Resurrection: From Greek Influence?

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by Neil Godfrey

An interesting chapter from Greek Influence in Jewish Eschatology by T. Francis Glasson (1961). Make of it what you will . . . .

. . . . The system of belief which gathered around his name [Orpheus] included transmigration, regarded the body as the prison or tomb of the soul, and attempted to show how men could find deliverance from bodily life and the circle of re-birth, and so return to their original divinity.

A myth described how Dionysus, the child of Zeus, was slain and devoured by the Titans. In his anger Zeus destroyed them with a thunderbolt; from their ashes sprang the race of men. Mankind thus consists partly of an evil element (Titanic) and partly of a good element (Dionysiac). The problem was how to get rid of the former so that the latter could be restored to its true home in the divine sphere. Man was, in Empedocles’ words, a wanderer and a fugitive from the gods. Orphism by its purificatory rites and its way of life offered the true mode of salvation.

. . . . while the final goal was a purely spiritual life freed from all bodily complications, much was said of the long process, consisting of alternating experiences on earth and in the underworld, which for most people would intervene before they were ready for final emancipation. It is a great mistake to associate Greek eschatology only with the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. The Greeks had a lot to say about punishment in the underworld, and it was the Orphics who were their teachers.

Enoch 21: 4 Then I said: “For what sin have they been bound, and why have they been thrown here?” 5 And Uriel, one of the Holy Angels, who was with me and led me, spoke to me and said: “Enoch, about whom do you ask? About whom do you inquire, ask, and care? 6 These are some of the stars which transgressed the command of the Lord Most High, and they have been bound here until ten thousand ages are completed; the number of days of their sin.”

For most people there would be . . . at least ten earthly lives; each one would begin a thousand years later than the preceding, and the intervals would all be taken up by retribution in the beyond. The whole process would thus take 10,000 years. Those who chose the life of a philosopher three times in succession would escape further re-incarnations and would be ready for complete deliverance from earthly life, final release for the soul from its prison. Plato’s Phaedrus puts it in this way:

But among all these, whosoever passes his life justly afterwards obtains a better lot, but who unjustly, a worse one. For to the same place, whence each soul comes, it does not return till the expiration of 10,000 years; for it does not recover its wings for so long a period, except it is the soul of a sincere lover of wisdom, or of one who has made philosophy his favourite. But these in the third period of a thousand years, if they have chosen this life thrice in succession, thereupon depart, with their wings restored in the three thousandth year. Others are tried, sentenced some to places of punishment beneath the earth . . . others to some region in heaven . . . in the thousandth year they choose their next life.

Empedocles in one of his fragments says that the fallen daemon must wander thrice ten thousand seasons from the abodes of the blessed. According to Dieterich three seasons per year were recognized at that time, so that the same period of 10,000 years is meant.

Pindar, Olympian Ode 2: . . . those who gladly kept their oaths enjoy a life without tears, while the others undergo a toil that is unbearable to look at. Those who have persevered three times, on either side, to keep their souls free from all wrongdoing, [70] follow Zeus’ road to the end, to the tower of Cronus, where ocean breezes blow around the island of the blessed, and flowers of gold are blazing, some from splendid trees on land, while water nurtures others.

There are traces of Orphism in Pindar and he too says that those who have thrice led a blameless life will be sent to the islands of the blessed in the kingdom of Cronus (Olympian Odes ii. 68). There are of course numerous other references to the main outline of this scheme in ancient literature. Two of the fullest and best known are the myth of Er in Plato’s Republic (book 10) and Virgil’s Aeneid (book 6). The famous gold plates will be referred to later . . . .

When we consider the possible bearing of all this upon Jewish teaching, we notice that too often recent writers have been inclined to restrict the Greek influence on Jewish eschatology to the immortality of the soul. For other aspects of the future life they have looked elsewhere, especially to Persia. May not the case have been rather as follows? The Jews did not accept the doctrine of repeated re-incarnations and a succession of earthly lives, nor did they regard the body as a prison-house. But some of them accepted the doctrine of punishments and rewards under the ground; while others held to the immortality of the soul. One is as Greek as the other.

The Orphic scheme should be looked at in its entirety. It included:

A. Recompense in the underworld, with different treatment for good and evil, and

B. The final return of the soul to the divine realm.

Now, some Jewish developments reflect more particularly the influence of A—as in Enoch 22 with its conception of different lots for good and evil in the future. We might add for consideration the idea of a return to earthly life, which the Jews called resurrection, though Josephus expresses it as a kind of reincarnation.

Other Jewish developments, particularly in the Diaspora, reflect the influence of B — Philo, Wisdom of Solomon, 4 Maccabees.

We make a mistake in recognizing Greek influence only in the latter case. What happened was virtually a separation of the two parts of Orphic teaching. The Jews already had a doctrine of the Day of the Lord, and this and other beliefs made it impossible for them to accept anything like the entire Greek scheme.

As mentioned in an earlier chapter, life in the Messianic kingdom is not described in Enoch 1-36 as going on for ever. It is patriarchal in its duration, but the clear implication is that it will close with old age.

But for the elect there shall be light and grace and peace, And they shall inherit the earth.
And then there shall be bestowed upon the elect wisdom.
And they shall all live and never again sin . . .
And they shall not again transgress.
Nor shall they sin all the days of their life.
Nor shall they die of (the divine) anger or wrath,
But they shall complete the number of the days of their life.
And their lives shall be increased in peace.
And the years of their joy shall be multiplied,
In eternal gladness and peace,
All the days of their life (5. 7-9).

So also in 25. 6:

And they shall live a long life on earth,
Such as thy fathers lived:
And in their days shall no sorrow or plague
Or torment or calamity touch them.

If this is the life to which the righteous are raised, it is clear that it is not strictly everlasting life; it is more like a reincarnation.

It is sometimes affirmed that nothing could be further from Greek thought than Jewish teaching on resurrection, that the Greeks thought of deliverance from the body as the desirable goal. Yet it should be pointed out that the Platonic-Orphic eschatology, while certainly envisaging deliverance from bodily life as the final goal, nevertheless taught quite definitely that for most people there would be a return to bodily life on the earth. Whether we call this “resurrection” or not is mainly a matter of terms.

5 R. H. Charles, writing on the eschatology of Enoch 1-36, says: “There is no hint as to what becomes of the righteous after the second death” (Hastings’ Dictionary ot the Bible, i. p. 742)

There are admittedly great differences between Jewish eschatology and Greek. It is perfectly true that the Jews did not accept such a doctrine as transmigration (except in later periods, when it was taught in the Kabbala), nor was the resurrection-life presented as a further probation or disciplinary experience. But the question at the moment is: Is there a possibility that Greek teaching suggested to the Jews, or to some of them, that the dead would be raised from Sheol to live again on the earth, which is what resurrection implied at that time ? It is curious that they seem to have left quite open the further and ultimate fate of those who, as in the Greek scheme, lived again on earth for a limited period.5 They did not follow the Greeks in envisaging successive lives on earth alternating with periods in Hades, but they appear to have had nothing at first to substitute.

It is usual to point to Iranian parallels in connection with the resurrection and this may after all prove to be correct. But it is worthy of consideration that the view of a return to bodily life was taught by the Greeks and may possibly have played a part (even if a subsidiary one) in the early stages of the Jewish doctrine of resurrection. In limiting the term of this further earthly experience, as seems to be the case in Enoch 1-36, the Jew appears to stand with the Greek rather than the Persian.

Josephus explains the Pharisaic belief in resurrection in terms of re-incarnation: “the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies”. There is also the phrase in Antiquities xviii. 1. 3; “revive and live again”. I do not press this as Josephus may have been expressing himself in ways intelligible to his Roman readers who of course were familiar with ideas of re-incarnation.

The possibility of a connection between the Jewish doctrine of resurrection and the Greek view of re-incarnation occurred to me independently some time ago, but I have subsequently noticed that I. Levy claims quite confidently that the former found its origin in the latter:

The first of the two stages distinguished by the Pharisaic doctrine, that of punishments and rewards in Hades, is indisputably a borrowing from Hellenism on the part of the Diaspora. The second stage, re-entry of the soul in a body, is also exactly parallel to the re-incarnation which brings the soul of the dead into the world of the living. Thus we meet again . . . the whole round of the doctrine of metempsychosis, the sequence of (1) sojourn in Hades and (2) palingenesis. We thus see the true origin of the idea of resurrection. [p. 255]

For my own part I do not wish to speak with the same degree of definiteness as this but the possibility can certainly not be denied and should be taken into consideration in accounting for the emergence of the resurrection doctrine.

Another important aspect of the question should be mentioned before we pass on. The inquiry into the origin of the Jewish doctrine of resurrection is interlocked with the date of Isaiah 24-7, since these chapters contain the first mention of the subject in Jewish writings:

Thy dead shall live; my dead bodies shall arise (26. 19).

Some authorities date the whole section in the Maccabean period (Duhm, Marti). Bousset-Gressmann say that these four chapters possibly arose at the end of the third century or later. W. Rudolph also places this whole section in the Greek period, and while he thinks that the bulk of it comes from the period 330-300 b.c. soon after the conquests of Alexander, he excepts three small sections including the verses which deal with the resurrection. He inclines to the view that the doctrine did not emerge as early as the fourth century and that the verses which deal with it may be a later insertion. It is therefore most likely that the doctrine of resurrection emerged at a time when Greek thoughts were circulating in Palestine, so that the possibility mentioned above is not to be ruled out on the score of dates.

(Glasson, 26-32)


Glasson, T. Francis. 1961. Greek Influence in Jewish Eschatology: With Special Reference to the Apocalypses and Pseudepigraphs. S. P. C. K.


 


2019-11-27

Review, part 4 (Gospel & Pagan Gods in Flesh) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

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by Neil Godfrey

We now come to the most interesting chapters of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. We are no longer distracted by protests against those who would deny the historicity of Jesus or, at least not directly, protests against scholars who posit that the evangelists directly imitated Homer. The title of chapter 3 is “Incarnation” and here Litwa enlightens readers to the first-century context of how readers might have understood the very idea of a god appearing in the world in flesh as a human being. To be fair, though, Litwa intends to demonstrate more than this ancient world-view. Litwa also attempts to demonstrate how the evangelists presented the idea of god’s incarnation as plausible history.

Litwa begins with the Gospel of John and right from the start pulls me up with notions that may be old-hat to others but that were noteworthy to me: in the Gospel of John Jesus is never shown to be eating but he does tell others to eat him (or eat his flesh) and similar ideas. So what does “incarnation” mean to the fourth evangelist? Interesting question.

Sent into the world

Moving on, Litwa informs/reminds readers that just as biblical Wisdom was driven away when she tried to dwell among men so the Greek goddess of Justice, likewise, was driven from the unjust world of humanity. But the more detailed comparisons come with Hermes (the Roman Mercury) who was also known as the Logos, the interpreter of the high god Zeus, and messenger from Zeus to mortals. Litwa points to several messenger and creative roles of Hermes but focusses on Hermes assumption of a human body in his errands. We saw one of these roles when recently discussing M. David Litwa’s criticisms of Dennis MacDonald’s thesis. The god Hermes swept down from Mount Olympus to meet and escort the Trojan Priam on his dangerous quest to enter the Greek camp and request the return of the body of his slain son Hector. There Hermes took on the form of a young warrior capable of winning the trust of Priam and safely escorting him to the Greek camp.

Augustus Caesar: Mercury in the flesh

But Litwa informs us that Hermes — as the Roman Mercury — was subsequently portrayed by a Roman poet (Horace) as appearing on earth in the body of Augustus Caesar.

Then there is the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras. Litwa carries us through the biographers who lead readers to understand that the great thinker was also a “god who had come to earth”:

Iamblichus reported a Pythagorean creedal question (akousma) with its correct answer: ‘“Who are you Pythagoras?’ For they confess that he is the Hyperborean Apollo.(Litwa, 69)

Pythagoras: Apollo in the flesh

But from here Litwa becomes more interesting still. Pythagoras revealed his true divine identity (i.e. the god Apollo in the flesh) to one selected follower, Abaris. Pythagoras took Abaris aside to show him, privately, that he had a thigh of pure gold — an unequivocal proof that he was truly a god. Later, at an Olympic Games, Pythagoras was reported by many eyewitnesses as having accidentally revealed the same golden thigh, thus proving to multitudes his divine nature.

Litwa reasonably draws a comparison with Jesus’ private revelation to Peter that he is indeed the Messiah. And this is, of course, reinforced by Jesus demonstrating the fact by the visible transformation of his body in the Transfiguration (as Pythagoras showed his golden thigh) to his select few followers. Litwa’s point, however, is more than mere revelation. Litwa argues that it is the quotidian, the prosaic, the mundane commonplace setting that goes some way to transforming the myth into “plausible history”.

The revelation and transfiguration take place at a well-known urban centre, Caesarea Philippi, and on a nearby mountain. Peter fumbles for words and says something quite silly so readers are clear that he is taken completely by surprise as any mere mortal would be. Litwa compares this circumstantial detail with the ordinariness of details surrounding Pythagoras’s revelation to Abaris. The Gospel of Luke even goes one step further by depicting the disciples as sleeping and needing to be awoken when Jesus’ body is transformed. Sleep, waking up, saying silly things, a well-known city and mountain — all of this context sets the revelation into a “plausible” or “historically sounding” context, according to Litwa.

I am not so sure, however. To return to the scene of Hermes being sent by Zeus to escort Priam, we read in Homer the following. Hermes descends as commanded by Zeus but the details of his meeting with Priam are also very prosaic, as the highlighted words surely indicate:

With this wand in his hand the mighty [Hermes] made his flight and soon reached Troyland and the Hellespont. There he proceeded on foot, looking like a young prince at that most charming age when the beard first starts to grow.

Meanwhile the [Priam and his herald] had driven past the great barrow of Ilus and stopped their mules and horses for a drink at the river. Everything as dark by now, and it was not till Hermes was quite close to them that the herald looked up and saw him. He at once turned round to Priam and said: ‘Look, your majesty; we must beware. I see a man, and I am afraid we may be butchered. Let us make our escape in the chariot, or if not that, fall at his knees and implore his mercy.’ –

The old man [Priam] was dumbfounded and filled with terror; the hairs stood up on his supple limbs; he was rooted to the spot and could not say a word. But the [Hermes] did not wait to be accosted. He went straight up to Priam, took him by the hand . . . . [Iliad 24]

Yet no critic of Homer in later centuries (including the time the gospels were written) thought of Homer as writing more than poetry. Even if the Trojan War were thought to be history and Homer its historian, the universal opinion was that Homer wrote the story in terms of poetic myth. Mundane details may have contextualized the mythical encounters of humans and gods, but they did not demonstrate the “historical truth” of such encounters.

But questioning Litwa’s thesis is a secondary focus of mine. What fascinates me most is the broader cultural context of the ideas or motifs we find in the gospels in the first or second centuries CE. Upcoming — Litwa’s discussions of genealogies and divine conceptions.

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Litwa, M. David. 2019. How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.