Category Archives: Ancient Religious Cultures

“Religious culture” is used instead of “Religion” because our concept of religion does not match what was often the thinking and practices in ancient cultures. This category includes temple and priestly practices as well as mythical ideas related to gods and the supernatural. Jewish religious culture is placed under Biblical Studies.

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

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 been 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: read more »

Why Certain Kinds of Myths Are So Easy to Believe

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

read more »

Ancient Epiphanies and a Comparison with Christian Counterparts

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.


 

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

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. read more »

Greek Gods and Heroes with Multiple Historical Eyewitnesses

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? 

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Greek Gods and Heroes Active in the Historical World

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)
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The Idea of the Resurrection: From Greek Influence?

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.


 

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

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.

To order a copy of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here or visit www.footprint.com.au

Please use discount voucher code BCLUB19 at the checkout to apply the discount.


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


From Babylonia to Moses and Enoch to Paul: Questions

I conclude the series on From Adapa to Enoch with this post.

Ancient scribes were taught to see the world through the eyes of mythical heroes like Adapa and Enoch. They were taught to write in the voices of the likes of Adapa and Enoch. Through ritual mortals could even become the presence of those mythical figures. Even the early Christian writings declare the ability of human worshipers to bear the shining glory of God and sit with him in heavenly places. “Shining glory”, in that Mesopotamian-Persian-Hellenistic thought world was a corporeal entity that could be taken off and put on like clothing. We need to set aside our idea of dualism that posits an unbridgeable divide between the natural and supernatural realms. Dualism in the time we are discussing happened entirely within the realm of the single cosmos: the physical bore signs of the spiritual; a mortal could ascend into heaven and share in the divine glory and yet remain mortal. The entire universe was a system of signs. To be able to read the stars was to learn the language of the gods and to understand the secrets of the universe. A word had power to change the events in the physical world. The world was even created by words in the Judean myth.

Categories that are problematic for us to understand, like how a scribe could experience supernatural revelation or think that his words were of similar essence to preexisting revealed text, assume a radical distinction between the natural and the supernatural. But our Judean scribes, like Babylonian scribes, had no separate category for the merely material world as opposed to their culturally determined speech or God’s purely supernatural miracles. They had a semiotic ontology in which the universe was shaped by God in language-like ways. The … “reckoning, calculation” of speech can be implanted in the mind of the speaker of the [Thanksgiving Hymns], or God can cause him to perceive the [measurements] that govern the movement of sun and year. God organized essential pieces of human language in precisely the same way as he organized other mysteries and calculations of the universe.

(Sanders, 235. Highlighting and [] substitutions of technical expressions mine.)

If this kind of knowledge had its origins in Mesopotamia, according to the thesis argued by Seth Sanders in From Adapa to Enoch, it found its way throughout the Near East, including Judea, in the “Parchment Period”, when new writing media (script, language, container) superseded clay and cuneiform. (We are talking fifth century B.C.E.)

Judean scribes made consistent changes to the Babylonian forms of knowledge that came their way:

[I]n its adaption of Babylonian knowledge, Judea shows a pattern of narrativization. All known cases of Babylonian into Jewish literature involve a genre change into narratives of the ancient past. Whether ritual (the treaty-oaths of Esarhaddon), legal collection (the laws of Hammurapi), or astronomical and mathematical tables (Mul.Apin, Enüma Arm Enlil 14, the standard cuneiform fraction sequences), all were transformed into stories about ancestors, from Moses to Enoch to Levi. This reflects a dominant and widely recognized Judean literary value by which scribes conducted other major acts of text-building such as the Pentateuch (cf. Baden 2012, Sanders 2015, Schmid 2010).

(Sanders, 232 f. My highlighting)

To sidetrack for a moment into the Sanders 2015 citation above, Sanders sees the sources of the biblical narratives as being very the classical Mesopotamian literature. For example, the Genesis story of the Noah Flood appears to be based at least in part on a source like the Epic of Gilgamesh. Where the Genesis narrative differs from any Mesopotomanian narrative model is in its doublets (everything is narrated twice) and even in the fact that many of those doublets are inconsistent or contradictory. The possibility of a Greek influence never arises. A question in my mind relates to Greek historical narratives that do contain doublets with contradictions and other inconsistencies (see, e.g. Explaining (?) the Contradictory Genesis Accounts of the Creation of Adam and Eve). Other Greek literature even sets out a narrative structure that seems to foreshadow what we read in the larger story of the Flood and return to civilization through “Babel” (see, e.g. Plato and the Bible on the Origins of Civilization). Of course the narrator keeps himself in the background in the Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) so there is no personal intrusion to alert readers before introducing a second (and contradictory) version of events as we find in Herodotus. Questions remain.

Question 1: How does the above Mesopotamian/Near Eastern view of the conceptual unity of the material-cultural-supernatural worlds compare with Classical Greek and Hellenistic concepts? (Do we encounter evolution of ideas?)

Question 2: If the answer to Q1 points to differences then do we see these differences surface in the canonical and extra-canonical literature up through the Hellenistic and early Roman eras?

Question 3: Can we look more closely at the claimed extension of the above ideas to their early Christian analogs (e.g. Christians now sitting on thrones in heaven and reflecting more and more of the glory of God)?

 

“Revealed Science” : Emergence of Jewish Science and Apocalyptic Genres

Continuing to share my reading of Seth Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch, Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. All posts are archived here.
“Science” will be used here as a system of exact knowledge of the physical world.
Sanders, From Adapa to Enoch

Recall from the previous post (How Science Began) that we are talking about a world that conceptualized no clear distinction between the natural and the supernatural, or between nature and culture.

Seth Sanders identifies three core areas of exact description of the physical world documented by the Priestly scholars as the earliest form of Judean “scientific knowledge” known to us:

  • Time and the Universe (Genesis 1:1 to 2:4a)
  • The Temple (Exodus 25-31)
  • The Human Body (Leviticus 12-15)

The Origins of the Universe

Genesis opens with a taxonomy of each major entity in the world and concludes with God’s word creating the sabbath day as part of the cosmos. Later in ritual texts we find that this creation has included the categories of clean and unclean animals (Leviticus 11, Deuteronomy 14), their different physical attributes being recognized since antediluvian times. (Notice that the sabbath and forbidden foods are not deemed to originate in culture but as an integral part or category of the created world itself. Creation was activated by God’s word.

The Temple

Here we are in the realm of ritual requirements. We therefore find a quite different account of the temple and its system. Here we read not the words of an anonymous narrator but the words of God himself. God is quoted as setting out the details of the materials, measurements, layout and rituals of the tabernacle. Moses is a passive visionary because God points out that He, God, caused Moses to see it all. God has to show or reveal the heavenly model that the earthly structure and rituals are to copy. But it needs to be set out in the words of God for the reader who is not privileged to see the heavenly structure.

The Human Body

Similarly we are in the realm of ritual. The rules for bodily discharges and blemishes are likewise made known by divine commands, revelation.

Astronomical data and new information about the body introduced into Judea (using Judea throughout though in pre-Roman times Jehud may be more strictly correct) survive in such intertestamental literature as the Astronomical Book of Enoch and certain of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

It is interesting to see how this new scientific information made its entrance into the Judean world, building on the genres of existing “scientific” knowledge that we have seen in the three priestly statements above. We start with the introduction of astronomical knowledge that originated in Babylonia.

Revelation and Science are the One Genre

The Astronomical Book of Enoch begins:

The book of the courses of the luminaries of the heaven, the relations of each, according to their classes, their dominion and their seasons, according to their names and places of origin, and according to their months, which Uriel, the holy angel, who was with me, who is their guide, showed me; and he showed me all their laws exactly as they are . . . .

read more »

How Science Began

I initially titled this post “Revealed Science”. In our world “revealed science” is an oxymoron. Science is a matter of active investigation, not passively receiving a revelation.

The Book of Enoch is an apocalypse (the word means “a revelation”) which contains a section describing the hero being taken up into the heavens by an angel to be shown the secrets of the universe. Bizarre as it first sounds, it is arguable that here we have a fascinating development in the history of science. But before we explain, let’s address what we mean by science. This post continues discussing From Adapa to Enoch by Seth Sanders, and on pages 136-37 he writes:

The new types of knowledge that emerged in Hellenistic Jewish culture . . . included

astronomical calculations of the movements of the heavenly bodies and length of the days,

sexagesimal (base-60) mathematics,

and physiognomic interpretation of the body.

https://www.slideserve.com/cassandra/religious-life-at-qumran

On the one hand, all of these modes of knowledge have at some point in modern European history been understood as natural science: astronomy and mathematics are of course still understood this way. But as late as the mid-nineteenth-century a form of physiognomy known as “phrenology” was still taken seriously by scholars across Europe. It seems intuitively correct to us to define mathematics and astronomy as exact science, but is it science to observe someone’s hair to predict their character and destiny, as the Qumran physiognomic text 4Q186 does? What is surprising is how clear the verdict of the history and philosophy of science is on this point: there is no objective, ahistorical way to define something as science or not.

The problem is not that no useful criteria for science are possible, but that historically, there have been so many of them. These criteria concern something immensely important to the people who proposed them — the nature of reliable knowledge of the world. . . . Rather than trying to place our texts into an anachronistic modem category, we must first find out how biblical and early Jewish writers themselves depicted systematic knowledge of this world. “Science,” then, will be used here as a system of exact knowledge of the physical world. This will let us investigate what counted as reliable knowledge of the physical world for the ancient Jewish writers of Enoch.

In Genesis it is written that God made the continents and the oceans, plant and animal life, and the sabbath day. He made them all the exact same way: by the power of his speech.

For the Jewish people immersed in such literature the weekly sabbath day was therefore as much a fact of the created universe as the sun and moon above and the grass and soil below. There was no fundamental distinction between the world of nature and the world of ritual. Similarly, there were two types of animals, clean and unclean, from creation, as was clear from the story of Noah. The distinction was not cultural; animals were created according to two kinds by “nature”; they were as innately, by creation, clean and unclean as plants were either healthy or poisonous, edible or inedible.

What caused it all to come into existence was the voice of God.

In such a world there could be no distinction between the natural and the supernatural.

The Rochberg reference is online but the Lloyd one is not; however, an earlier article by Lloyd on the same topic is available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/41649942

As in Mesopotamia, [in China] cosmos and state were intimately, even indissolubly, linked. Indeed in China, as Sivin has shown, state, cosmos and body all exhibit the same interacting processes. What we might take to be microcosm-macrocosm analogies were no mere analogies: heaven and earth, the state and the human body all exhibit the same reciprocal processes and form part of a single whole, where the ruler has a crucial role as responsible for mediating between heaven and earth and ensuring the harmony between them.

(Lloyd, 2008, p.84)

And if it is divine command that set an undivided ritual-material world in order, then “supernatural” may not be a coherent category for describing God in Priestly literature either. The notion of the physical world implied here is orderly yet without a discrete realm of nature separate from either culture or from the supernatural. This concept has been shown to exist in several ancient scientific cultures, from Mesopotamia (Rochberg 2014) to China (Lloyd 2012).

 When I originally titled this post “Revealed Science” I also subtitled it “When Enoch Introduced Babylonian Astronomy to Moses)”. That post will be next.

Scholars, Divinities and How the Cosmos was Understood “Scientifically” B.C.E.

Continuing to share my reading of Seth Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch, Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon, last discussed at Ascent of the Sage: “From Adapa to Enoch”, part 2 . . . .

We come now to chapter 2, “I Am Adapa!” The Divine Personae of Mesopotamian Scribes.

If we want to understand how ancient scholars related to their universe, their revealed texts and revealers, the best collections of sources we have, spanning two to three thousand years up to the first century CE, are the cuneiform records of Mesopotamia. In the next chapter Sanders begins to compare Judean texts.

In this chapter (2) Sanders examines the nature of the cosmos among these ancient scribes and how they went about understanding, studying and acting on it.

In addition to the texts, there is the visual imagery of divine beings, divine sages or apkallu, to help us with our inquiry.

We have images of a patient (sick, hence possessed or inflicted by a demon) surrounded by superhuman fish-apkallu standing where exorcists would be positioned.

We have royal inscriptions of the enthroned king framed by bird-apkallu maintaining cosmic order from the seat of royal power.

Scholarly participation in supernatural presence was not confined to exorcism: the economists and political scientists of their day, diviners summoned the gods to meet together in divine assembly so that the diviner could be present to hear and transmit their verdict for the country’s future. (Sanders, 72)

“Medical practice” and “political advisors” were thus the more practical pursuits of scholars. But what are the boundaries between science and what we would relegate to mumbo-jumbo in their world? And did the scholars or scribes really become, in their own minds, supernatural sages (apkallu)? Did they really believe they could journey to heaven and meet with the gods?

At this point we find an interesting connection with another book I have been posting about. It is interesting to compare the concepts of early Judean scribes to their Hebrew text — see the two posts on Nanine Charbonnel’s chapter 2, The Sacred and Creative Power of the Hebrew Text and A God Bound to the Mechanics of Language. Seth Sanders writes,

If cuneiform was the secret of Mesopotamian scribes, the ultimate decipherer of this secret was the semi-human sage Adapa, at once the symbol and the patron saint of the scribe. Probably the single most popular mythic hero in Mesopotamian literature, Adapa beat out even Gilgamesh. As Michalowski notes, “no other hero of a canonical text is so often encountered in other compositions.” This is not surprising, since he would have been so sympathetic to the scribes who produced those compositions. He is supposed to have authored omen collections, fathomed the deepest secrets of words and magic, and broken the wings of the South Wind by the sheer power of his speech. He was of paramount importance to the people who created cuneiform culture.

Adapa is crucial as a phenomenological starting point in our comparison of scribal heroes. As the best-documented ancient Near Eastern figure who ascends to heaven, negotiates with gods, transmits revelation, and fights demons to heal the sick he is simultaneously the closest thing Mesopotamia has to Moses, Enoch and the shaman of North Asian societies. Seen horizontally, from a view of cultures side by side, he represents a broad comparative type: the mediator, who moves between the worlds of gods and humans. (Sanders, 73. My bolding in all quotations)

Adapa is a figure of knowledge and power (see the previous post in this series). He is also worn as a ritual mask. And as we saw in the previous post, his function changes over time as political circumstances change.

In order to grasp something of the way the natural and divine worlds were conceptualized in Mesopotamian culture we need to set aside our dualistic notions of spirit powers and entities. To us, the spirit realm stands against the natural world, yet such a division between the two needs to be set aside, Sanders emphasizes at length. We think of God and spirit beings as not found literally in physical manifestations like idols of stone, or in natural phenomena like earthquakes and storms.

Mesopotamian texts and images portray the divine beings interacting with, present with, humans, both occupying the same space, and in some cases the human speaker actually claims to be the divine Adapa himself.

I am Adapa sage of Eridu [= location of watery source of secret knowledge]
I am the man [= servant] of Asalluhi [= the god of exorcism]
Enki [= creator and master of the demons causing the illness] the great lord has sent me to cure the man in his illness!

In what sense did the speaker understand himself to be Adapa?

Francesca Rochberg

Advances in understanding the Mesopotamian view of the supernatural vis a vis the natural world have come, Sanders explains, through exploring more deeply the nature of Mesopotamian science. And here I take a detour to have a closer look at some of the sources Sanders calls upon, work by the Assyriologist Francesca Rochberg.

Before the “World of Nature”

Imagine not having a concept of “the natural world” or “nature”. We take the concept for granted and that makes it difficult for us to appreciate that it has not always existed.

A key insight has come from the history of science. Exploring Mesopotamian scholars’ criteria for meaning and truth, Francesca Rochberg has shown that cuneiform scholarship tended to see the material world as composed of signs: reality itself is semiotic. Such an ontology does not presuppose a purely non-linguistic physical nature in opposition to culture, and in fact the history of science has shown that an explicit concept of nature is not necessary to all scientific inquiry, citing ancient China and Mesopotamia as cases where forms of science thrived without it (Lloyd 2012:64).  (Sanders, 77)

What were the “subjects” of interest to Mesopotamian scholars?

Various forms of divination: astronomy and astrology, examination of sheep’s entrails, lexical texts (lists of synonyms, grammatical forms, etc.), diagnostic and therapeutic medical texts, magical texts, incantations . . . read more »

Ascent of the Sage: “From Adapa to Enoch”, part 2

Continuing our discussion of From Adapa to Enoch (Seth Sanders), begun at Heavenly Journeys, from Babylon to Judea . . . .

In the previous post we saw the earliest account of a return journey to heaven was that of Etana. Etana ascended to heaven with the aid of an eagle he mercifully restored after it had treacherously broken a divinely sanctioned oath, secured a lasting dynasty on earth, and after his death became an immortal figure in the underworld and one to whom living persons could regularly appeal.

Etana was the “first king”, but his central role as a ritually significant figure was relatively shortlived. Another figure, a wise and learned scribe, replaced him as the mythical power behind the king and the source and power of the scribal elites.

(Sanders’ focus is on return journeys to heaven, not the one-way ones where someone (e.g. Damuzi) goes up to become a star or constellation. The significance of the return journeys is that the traveller brings acquires some special gift or message that puts them in a mediating position to benefit (or curse) other mortals.)

So we come to the story of Adapa.

Adapa in the Old Babylonian Period (ca 1800-1600 BCE)

The earliest known reference to Adapa is a ritual text relating to the exorcism of demons; most interesting is that this text is similar to the latest known reference to Adapa from, probably, the first century AD, another ritual text curing disease through exorcisms. The significance of that lies in the text being part of a “canon” that was long preserved and used for study and rituals by the scribal class.

I take liberties in copying Sanders’ text without the scholarly qualifications and omissions:

The Earth Lords, the Earth Ladies, Enkum and Ninkum!…
I am Adapa sage of Eridu, I am the man of Asalluhi.
To cure the man in his illness, Enki [=Ea] the great lord sent me.

Ea/Enki was the god of magic and secret knowledge, and Adapa was given the same occult gifts.

The ritual text informs us that Adapa was not merely a distant figure but that the exorcist, the one performing the exorcism, identified with Adapa. He spoke as Adapa the words of Adapa. Mesopotamian scribes or ritual specialists could, in their confrontation with the demon causing the disease, become the supernatural being Adapa and speak as Adapa.

The Myth of Adapa and the South Wind

The narrative myth syncs with the above ritualistic text. The earliest (Sumerian) form of the myth of Adapa in outline.

  1. Primordial time: after the Flood had destroyed the land
    • inventions of canals, agriculture, kingship
    • South Wind brought blessings
    • but a time of ignorance: no-one knew how to give or follow orders
  2. Adapa, a sage, was the devotee of the god Ea [=Enki], in Eridu.
  3. Adapa went fishing to supply his master’s temple
  4. He navigates without rudder or pole, until . . .
  5. Adapa’s boat was capsized by the South Wind
  6. Adapa cursed the South Wind breaking his wings with his word
  7. The supreme god Anu, on hearing Adapa had been responsible for violating the natural order, summoned him
  8. Fearing his son and priest would be punished by Anu, Ea, god of wisdom and cunning, gave Adapa two instructions to keep him safe:
    • he was to dress in mourning clothes and tell the gods at Anu’s door, Tammuz/Dumuzi and Gizzida/Ningishzida, that he was in mourning because they had disappeared from the earth — this would ensure the good favour and help from these two gods
    • he was to refuse the bread of death and the water of death that Anu would offer him, but he should accept the clothing and oil of anointing.
  9. At first all goes well and Adapa is given a throne, but then . . .
  10. Anu offers Adapa bread and water: Anu has been so impressed by Adapa that he offers him bread and water of immortal life, not death; but Adapa, recalling his instructions from Ea, fears the banquet of death and declines the offer.
  11. Anu orders Ea (presumably through Adapa) to restore the South Wind’s wings and sends down to earth the incantation that will keep the South Wind in its ordained place.
    (We have here the origin of Adapa’s power over demons and healing; and further, the origin on earth, through Adapa, of “the cosmic principles of culture and order”.)
  12. The narrative concludes with a ritual prayer against the South Wind responsible for bringing disease to a patient.

The very words of Adapa have power. Adapa brings to the world, on his return from heaven, the secret knowledge of the words that have power over the elements, over illness, and their demonic causes. Adapa is the epitome of wisdom and secret knowledge. Ritualist, exorcists, will call upon his name, identify with Adapa himself and claim to speak his very words, to restore health, and, as we will see, to master the elements more broadly.

Adapa and the Assyrian Kings

The first king to cite Adapa in a public monument was Sargon II, conqueror of Israel. Sargon compared himself directly not with the mighty Gilgamesh but with the supremely wise Adapa:

The king: open-minded, sharp-eyed, in all matters the equal of the Sage, who became great in counsel and wisdom and grew old in understanding.

Sennacherib’s Annals boasted

Ea gave me broad understanding, endowed me with vast knowledge equivalent to that of the Sage Adapa.

Esarhaddon inscribed his claim to be

Rival of the Sage Adapa, who Prince Ea endowed (with wisdom).

Assurbanipal in particular promoted himself as an epitome of scholarly knowledge and access to “hidden cosmic secrets”. He documented his presence in the temples and “among the council of scholars”:

I grasped the work of the Sage Adapa, the hidden treasure of the whole scribal art.

Assurbanipal exalted the scholarly feats of the king to an unprecedented level:

The intellectual image of Assurbanipal depicted in his inscriptions is tied to a new state-sponsored project that modified and expanded scribal culture. As Frahm notes (1997:280), this period witnessed an explosion of commentaries and ritual texts. While accidents o f preservation may explain the number of such texts, it does not explain the appearance of whole new discursive forms such as the “cultic commentary”; a significant feature of these new forms is their sheer difficulty. The difficulty of the materials may derive from their in-group nature. (p. 45)

Sanders writes

Adapa is the mythic figure to whom the king is most often compared. The king’s deeds are like those of Adapa, his wisdom rivals that of Adapa, even his mother’s health is like that of Adapa. (p. 66)

The great building projects of the Assyrian kings, his conquests, were all evidence of the god-given qualities of the king, the qualities of Adapa himself. Adapa represented the authority, the wisdom, the intellectual prowess of the king.

Assurbanipal’s boast to have mastered all written knowledge provides a propagandistic self-conception modeled on the ideal figure of the sage. The profile includes rivalry with a supernatural intermediary figure, schooling in cosmic secrets, the decipherment of encoded messages, and presence in the counsel of the learned. It may be compared to the more limited propagandistic description of Nebuchadnezzar I as descended from Enmeduranki, a Sumerian king described as performing extispicy and lecanomancy . . . . Nebuchadnezzar does not claim any divinatory ability for himself, but retrojects this ability into an invented past. It is significant, then, that Assurbanipal’s scholars also utilize this type of ancestral ideology, claiming that the king is descended from a sage and Adapa . . . . As the Neo-Assyrian kings adopted scribal features, they also thereby further politicized the figure of the scribe. (p. 46)

The Scribal / Adapa Revolution

After the Persian empire swept away the Babylonian kings the Mesopotamian scribal class that had existed to support those kings accordingly found a new role and status for itself. read more »

Heavenly Journeys, from Babylon to Judea

I am looking forward to sharing some of the research of Seth L. Sanders published in From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon (2017). I sought out the book in expectations that it would open to my understanding the ancient thought-world that lies behind our own religious heritage. Sometimes we will hear that a biblical person or trope has a parallel of sorts in ancient Mesopotamia yet give little thought to the fact that the time gap between the two can be half a millennium or more. How can we meaningfully speak of an influence between A1 and A2 if they are separated by such a span? Besides, how credible is it to imagine different cultures, languages, races, being so frozen within a common umbrella culture that never changes so that a story of a hero’s heavenly journey in Babylonia can have the same meaning and function as another hero’s heavenly journey many centuries later and hundreds of miles distant?

Sanders hopes to find answers to those sorts of questions. How was it that a story of a heavenly journey by Enoch in Hellenistic era texts echoed similar stories in Mesopotamia 500 or even 1000 years earlier? And it didn’t just end with Enoch. Paul, we know, also spoke of experiencing a heavenly journey, and we will see in these posts that his letters spoke of other experiences for all those “in Christ” that have remarkable correspondences with the experiences of Enoch and his predecessors and with the scribal elites who read and used these texts.

I said I sought out the book. The book appeared in my mail box a few weeks after I had requested a review copy from Mohr Siebeck. I heard nothing back from them but I presume it was them who forwarded the book to me. So for that I’m thankful.

I have mentioned the literature of the heavenly journeys of sages. Hellenistic era Judea and Babylonian-Assyrian era Mesopotamia also shared literature of exegetical commentaries and astronomical science.

If these changes are part of a shared development in the intellectual life of the region, shifts in a common ancient Near Eastern scribal culture, why do they only appear in Judea so much later, under the new conditions of Hellenism? Ancient Near Eastern scribal culture spans more than 3,000 years, far-flung cities and empires, and many languages and writing systems. The risk of examining it as a whole is there may not be a whole – at least, we will be better able to tell once we have seen it intimately, at specific moments, in particular forms. (p. 1)

Before addressing some of Sanders’ criticisms of past approaches to similarities between Iron Age Mesopotamian and Hellenistic Judean literary cultures I choose to start with the earliest known story of a heavenly journey from Mesopotamia. read more »