2022-07-16

The Message of the Feeding Miracles of Jesus — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 6

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by Neil Godfrey

Nathanael Vette (NV) establishes in detail how the miraculous feeding stories of Jesus borrow from the miracle of Elisha’s feeding of 100 men with twenty loaves. Many readers would no doubt assume that Mark’s source in 2 Kings 4 was obvious but NV takes the reader through each detail to leave nothing to assumption. Even though a reader of Mark’s gospel who is familiar with the Jewish Scriptures would inevitably recognize the relationship between the miracles of Elisha and Jesus, NV suggests that it was not Mark’s intention to demonstrate the superiority of Jesus over Elisha because Mark does not mention Elisha’s name. Interestingly, NV notes that,

More generally, scripturalized narratives tend to inflate the numbers of their scriptural source: whilst only a few guards are burnt in Dan. 3:22, Pseudo-Philo has 83,500 (LAB 6:17) and one thousand (LAB 38:4) burnt bystanders; whilst only Achan is uncovered in the lot of sin (Josh. 7:16-26), Kenaz uncovers 6,110 sinners (LAB 25:4). (NV, 141)

NV uses the two different occasions of Jesus’ miracle of feeding large numbers, each distinguished by differences in geographical setting, numbers of persons, loaves and baskets of leftover remains, to make a point that few readers would disagree with:

. . . the narrative setting of Mk 6:35-44 and 8:1-9 takes precedence over the scriptural model. In this way, the distinctive elements of the episodes – the circumstances leading to the miracles (6:35-37; 8:1-3), the geographical setting (6:35; 8:4). the inclusion of fish (6:38, 41; 8:7) and even the number of baskets (6:43; 8:8) – each reflect their respective Markan contexts. (NV, 142)

Marten van Valckenborch – Feeding the Five Thousand. Wikimedia Commons

NV’s main focus is on the particular ways Mark makes use of Scripture so when he refers to the common interpretation that the twin miracles events represent ministries to the Jews (5000 and twelve baskets leftover) and to the gentiles (4000 and seven baskets) he does so to make points about Mark adapting his use of Scripture to fit his narrative aims.

Secondary Scriptures are mingled with details from the primary source of 2 Kings so we find traces of Israel in the wilderness as well (e.g. “sheep without a shepherd”, “groups of hundreds and fifties”, the wilderness setting and the miracle of food being sent at evening time) and subsequent evangelists demonstrate their awareness of Mark’s primary and secondary sources.

One cannot make a consistent point-by-point comparison between Jesus and other figures from a single Scripture narrative, NV clarifies, simply because Jesus is modeled on multiple persons: not only Elisha but also Elijah, for example.

But once again NV speculates a “historical source” behind the scripturalized narrative:

The multiplication of food was a common feature of miracle-working traditions in antiquity and, at least in Jewish tradition, none was better known than the multiplication of loaves by Elisha.”’ In this sense, the author may have been led to the well-known miracle in 2 Kgs 4:42-44 by the reputation of Jesus as a miracle-worker. (NV, 146f)

I would rather think that it is more economical to speculate that the author was led to the Elisha miracle by the theological interest he had in demonstrating a particular role Jesus has in the gospel. NV includes another interesting set of citations and I’ll quote extracts from there that come to similar theological rationales for the presence of these feeding miracles. Again, as in an earlier post, I will go beyond what NV himself discusses and make a detour with a closer look at two of the works he cites and another work cited in one of those two. (And again, I am responsible for the bolded highlighting in all quotations.)

Analogous stories among other peoples

Outside Biblical and Jewish literature, too, we find many stories of food said to have been acquired or displayed in wonderful fashion. Origen quotes a pronouncement by Celsus in which this great opponent of the Christian faith ranks the miracles of Jesus with the works of the magicians: “and with those which are performed by them that have learned them from the Egyptians, who in the midst of the market places, for a few obols, disclose the venerable teachings, expel demons from men, blow away diseases, summon the souls of heroes, and display choice meals and tables and pastries and desserts which do not exist……..”  Gods and saints were credited with the power to produce or increase food. Bultmann points to Indian stories and the food miracles in the Mohammedan Hadith. A Finnish legend tells of a girl who prepared food for a whole army from three barleycorns. A German fairy-tale has for its subject a marvellous bread which filled an army. There is a wide selection of stories about goblets, bottles, baskets and tables that never empty. It is related that King Alexander had a goblet out of which his whole army could drink without the goblet having to be refilled.  A Celtic legend tells of the basket of Gwydnen Garanhir, in which nine men three times found the foods which they desired.  Ethiopia has a Sun Table which, according to the natives, is always supplied with food by the wish of the gods.  In Africa they tell of the wondrous speaking pot, which fills itself with the food desired. Many feeding miracles are attributed to saints: Francis of Assisi provided food for his fellow-passengers; André Corsini saw his bread increase in his bag; the basket full of fine cherries which the venerable Cottolengo, the “Intendant of Providence,” distributed to a large crowd of poor persons in Turin in 1883, did not become empty, and the abbess of Kildare caused cow’s milk to increase copiously. St. Nicholas fed 83 workmen who were building a new church on one loaf, and yet a large number of pieces were left, etc., etc. Saintyves, who collected a large number of stories and relates them with great verve, points to the literary dependence in the legends of the saints. He recalls the horn of plenty, the attribute of many old gods, and sees in it, as in the bottles, tables, etc., which never become empty, the idea of fertility and initiation rites. According to Saintyves we must therefore regard the loaves in the Gospels as “seasonal loaves the Biblical stories must be interpreted in the light of the pagan ones.

With such a wide variety of stories, it may be asked whether the New Testament accounts perhaps form part of this “pattern.” Did nothing happen? Or did something happen, and if so, what? (pp 625-627)

So what does the Markan scholar who wrote the above think is the motivation for the feeding miracles in the Gospel of Mark? Continue reading “The Message of the Feeding Miracles of Jesus — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 6”


2022-05-29

Hadrian — Man, Program and Impact in the Context of Revelation

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by Neil Godfrey

In the preceding post I copied extracts from Demetrios Kritsotakis’s thesis Hadrian and the Greek East that illustrated the unprecedented level to which the Roman emperor Hadrian was exalted as a divinity — all in the context of Thomas Witulski’s thesis that the Book of Revelation is best dated to the time of Hadrian (117-138 CE). Here I continue quoting Kritsotakis (and works he cites) insofar as they arguably support the interpretation that Hadrian best represents the principal “beast” figure in Revelation.

Who can make war with the beast?

Who is like unto the beast? who is able to make war with him? (Rev 13:4)

.

Hadrian followed a non-expansion policy and his reign was marked by a general lack of major military conflicts, apart from the Second Roman-Jewish War.

The peace policy was further strengthened by the erection of permanent fortifications along the empire’s borders, such as the British Wall and the fortifications along the Rhine frontier. (pp 1f)

Hadrian’s wall (history.com) — Relief from the time of Marcus Aurelius depicting the fortress lines begun by Hadrian (FollowingHadrian)

Hadrian abandoned his predecessor Trajan’s newly conquered territories of Mesopotamia, Armenia and Assyria, an unpopular decision with many Roman senators, but he “made up” for those withdrawals by establishing secure and clearly visible boundaries and introducing an era of “peace and prosperity”:

However, Hadrian insisted on holding the Empire within its limits, on the one hand by ceasing further expansion, on the other by marking the limits of the Empire. Beginning in 121, a continuous palisade was to mark the empire’s limits on the Rhine frontier. Besides its military value, to the barbarians it marked off the Empire more clearly than ever before. In Britain he began, in 122, the great Wall and in North Africa he organized the southern frontier of the Empire. (p. 32)

After he was declared emperor in 117 . . .  the strengthening of the empire’s frontiers became a priority for Hadrian. Accordingly, during his first trip from 121 to 125 Hadrian paid special attention to the borders of the empire. It was in this period that he inaugurated the construction of the British wall (122) as well as of a palisade on the Rhine frontier (121), and there is evidence that he attempted to construct a similar border in Northern Africa153. To further secure the borders of the empire, Hadrian improved military discipline by example. According to Dio, the emperor so trained and disciplined the army both by his example and his precepts that even in Dio’s own days “the methods then introduced by him (Hadrian) are the soldier’s law of campaigning.”

153 . . . A passage in [Historia Augusta] may allude to it.  The author claims that “in many regions where the barbarians are [held] back not by rivers but by artificial barriers, Hadrian shut them off by means of high stakes planted deep in the ground and fastened together in the manner of a palisade” (pp. 68f.)

Image from Deo Moneta

Another allusion to Hadrian’s domination of the world, this time emphasizing his military skills, is found on a silver denarius from Rome. The obverse depicts a laureate bust of Hadrian while another image of the emperor is seen on the reverse. Here the emperor is presented bare-headed, in military dress, holding a rudder on a globe in his right hand and a spear reversed in his left. The image of the emperor who seems to rest rather than being in preparation for a battle, and the symbol of leadership, the rudder, resting on the globe, speak of his rule over the world, achieved by military skill. (140)

Hadrian as a New Nero

Continue reading “Hadrian — Man, Program and Impact in the Context of Revelation”


2022-05-28

Hadrian the God

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by Neil Godfrey

Demetrios Kritsotakis

Even though I went through a “Hadrian focus” in my reading some years back, I remained unaware of the potential relevance of several details of that emperor’s reign to the Book of Revelation as highlighted by Thomas Witulski’s several works. So when my good friend Serendipity showed me another work independently addressing some of the same issues Witulski covered, I once again put blog posting on hold until I could finish reading that new work along with several of its citations. The “new” work is a PhD thesis by Demetrios Kritsotakis and the extracts below will tell you why I think it is an appropriate addition to the discussion of Witulski’s thesis:

Hadrian and the Divine

An important factor that determined Hadrian’s policy in the East was his personality. Among other things, the emperor was interested in divination and mystic cults, magic and superstitions, was skilled in astrology, knowledge of every science and art, and was even credited with healing powers. Although this aspect of his personality is not directly connected with his cult in the region, it pertains to the divine, the superhuman and as such I deem it worthy of being examined here. Moreover, I believe that these interests of his facilitated his reception among the. Greeks. They were part of the religion-colored language that the Greeks and the emperor used to communicate with each other.

In spite of the fact that this aspect of Hadrian’s life was the subject of great interest in our sources, modern scholarship has underestimated the significant role that it played in the creation of his image in the East.

(Kritsotakis, Demetrios. Hadrian and the Greek East: Imperial Policy and Communication. PhD, Ohio State University, 2008.  pp. 186f.)

and . . .

This chapter will discuss the role of religion in the promotion of Hadrian’s program and vision for the Greek East in the region. The center of his religious program was the imperial cult, which focused on the emperor but also on the imperial house, especially his wife Sabina, and outside of it on his young lover Antinoos. However, here I will not talk about the mechanisms of the cult and the individuals involved. This has been amply treated in modern scholarship. Instead, I will discuss aspects of his religious program that have not received the attention they deserve so far (K, p 161)

I will post in two parts a series of extracts from Kritsotakis’ thesis, grouping them under headings relevant to W’s interpretations of Hadrian in Revelation. (The one detail K does not mention is the introduction in Asia Minor of private household shrines for Hadrian.)

Emperor Cult Taken to New Levels

. . . and they worshipped the beast (Rev 13:4)
.

Hadrian received more divine honors in the Greek East than any of his predecessors. These honors, among them the unprecedented erection of statues, his worship in shrines, and close association with many Greek divinities, strengthened his relationship with the region and placed him in the heart of religion and the Greek pantheon. In honoring him the Greeks identified Hadrian with major divinities of their pantheon. Hadrian became the manifestation of Zeus, Apollo and other gods on earth, and a number of epithets were used to address him as a god. (K. 162)

.

Hadrian was hailed by the Greeks in an unprecedented association with Zeus and was viewed by them as the new Olympian who would preside over their councils and lead them. (163)

.

To start at the beginning, Hadrian promoted his appointment as emperor as the direct result of divine appointment. Among the senatorial ranks in Rome questions had been raised about the legitimacy of his succession to Trajan.

From Coins of the Roman Empire in the British Museum Vol. 3

Thus, early in his reign, Hadrian wanted to state his divine election publicly. . . . [T]he message carried here [the eagle coming to Hadrian in the coin image above] was that it was not by the foresight of mortal men or even a mortal now deified, but by the foresight and the care which the gods exercised for the Roman commonwealth that Jupiter sent his messenger, the eagle, to grant Hadrian the ruling of the world. . . .

. . .  if it were ever doubted whether Rome’s rulers were appointed by chance or by the gods, it is now clear that the present princeps owes his position to the will of the gods; not by dark processes of fate, but clearly and openly by Jupiter himself. (167-168)

But back to the worship of Hadrian . . .

Continue reading “Hadrian the God”


2022-05-08

Revelation’s Second Beast, the False Prophet

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by Neil Godfrey

Polemon (Polemo)

Revelation 13:11 And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb, and he spake as a dragon.

Thomas Witulski identifies this other beast that arises from the earth with the sophist Antonius Polemon. We introduced him in the post on emperor worship and Revelation. We know about him today from his own writings, from his ancient biographer Philostratus and from various inscriptions in Smyrna and Pergamon. Polemon was the descendant of the last king of Pontus, Polemon II. He trained as a sophist and rhetorician in Smyrna, became a diplomatic envoy on behalf of Smyrna in Rome, taught rhetoric himself and sometimes acted as a court orator. His school for rhetoric attracted some fame for his city and youth from Asia, Europe and the islands crowded Smyrna to learn from him. He was made a guardian of temples and a priest of Bacchus (Dionysus) and made head of the running of the games in honour of “Hadrian Olympus”. He accompanied Hadrian on his journeys through Asia and appears to have acted as a highly valued and influential advisor to the emperor.

Revelation 13:12 It exercised all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed.

The author of the apocalypse introduces him as a speaker in the service of the first beast. The classicist G. W. Bowersock wrote of Polemon’s renown:

Hadrian, another admirer of Polemo, extended that privilege [of free travel wherever he wished] to the sophist’s posterity and added others; his great-grandson, Hermocrates, is found fully equipped with privileges of all sorts. Hadrian’s relations with Polemo are well illustrated by the emperor’s own admission that his final statement on the affairs of the whole empire (a breviarium totius imperii, one supposes) was prepared with Polemo’s advice. Nor is this the only indication of Hadrian’s regard: his invitation to that sophist to deliver the oration at the consecration of the Olympieum at Athens was perhaps an embarrassing repudiation of the obvious person for the occasion, Herodes Atticus. Polemo’s enemies at Smyrna had once tried to compromise him by allegations that he was spending on himself funds transmitted by the emperor for the good of the city, but Hadrian replied firmly with a letter declaring that Polemo had rendered him an account of the moneys which he had given the city. Not that the great sophist did not spend extravagantly for his own ostentation. He could be seen travelling along the roads of Asia in a chariot with silver bridles and an elaborate entourage of pack-animals, horses, slaves, and dogs. But Philostratus rightly observed that such a display gave lustre to a city no less than a fine agora or a splendid array of buildings, ‘for not only does a city give a man renown, but a city itself acquires it from a man’. (Bowersock, 48)

Witulski writes in Die Johannesoffenbarung Und Kaiser Hadrian, p. 228,

Moreover, it is quite likely that Polemon, in his festive speech on the occasion of the consecration of the sanctuary of the Zeus Olympus in Athens, to some extent as a replica of Hadrian’s favour, possibly also previously coordinated with the latter, called for altars dedicated to Hadrian Olympus to be erected in private homes in the cities and areas around the Aegean. Numerous evidences can be cited for these altars in the provinces of Achaea, Macedonia, Thracia, and especially Asia. (my own machine assisted translations of all Witulski quotes)

In Kaiserkult in Kleinasien, Witulski explained in a little more detail the reason for concluding that household altars were ordered in association with the occasion of the inauguration of the Athenian temple to Zeus Olympus: pp. 130ff

With reason, it is to be noted that the consecration of the Athenian sanctuary of Zeus Olympus and the associated foundation of the institution of the Panhellenion also led to altars524 being erected in private houses525 to the reigning emperor Hadrian in the Greek-influenced east of the imperium Romanum. The geographical focus of the erection of these altars was obviously in the Greek motherland and in the western Asia Minor, i.e. in the Roman province of Asia.526 It is remarkable that the inscriptions carved on each of these altars have essentially the same wording: The reigning emperor Hadrian is given the title ‘Ολύμπιος [=Olympos] and worshipped as σωτήρ καί κτίστης [=Saviour Founder]. The regularity of the form of the altar inscriptions, expressed in the parallelism of wording and phrasing, and the large number of altars erected “imply the official nature of the occasion on which the altars were dedicated to Hadrian Olympios, Savior, and Founder“. In view of the Ολύμπιος title attached to Hadrian in these inscriptions, it is difficult to deny a connection between the content of the corresponding altars and the statues of the emperor erected in the temenos of the Athenian sanctuary of the Ζευς ‘Ολύμπιος, on the bases of which the Όλύμπιος title is also found within the imperial titulature. Therefore, the occasion that led to the erection of the house altars dedicated to Hadrian can be assumed to be the consecration of the Ζεύς Όλύμπιος sanctuary in Athens or an event closely related to this consecration, such as the founding of the institution of the Πανελλήνιον [=Panhellenion].

Anna Benjamin in 1963 documented as many as 269 altars to Hadrian in Greece-Asia so no doubt that number has increased since. The maps below identifying the sites where these altars have been found are copied from Benjamin’s article:

It is worth going beyond Witulski’s own words and reading what Benjamin herself had to say about the worship of Hadrian in this region (pp 58-60): Continue reading “Revelation’s Second Beast, the False Prophet”


2022-02-28

Hadrian as Nero Redivivus

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by Neil Godfrey

Key points in this post:

  • Both Nero and Hadrian waged war with the Jews.
  • Both Nero and Hadrian had a special devotion to enriching and reviving the culture of the Greek world
  • Nero pursued the cultic-religious worship of his own person, Hadrian that of Antinous (and more to be covered in upcoming posts)
  • The travel coins minted by Hadrian mirror the Corinthian local coinage reflecting Nero’s visit there.
  • The rule of Hadrian witnessed a flourishing of Jewish apocalyptic writings, including the identification of Hadrian with Nero redivivus.
Hadrian brought the Temple of Olympian Zeus to completion after it had languished for 600 years. He had four more-than-life-size statues of himself at its entrance and was worshipped along with Zeus. Hadrian also displayed here a giant serpent from India.

–o–

The Nero redivivus myth is a standard interpretative feature in most commentaries on Revelation. Virtually every major commentary on Revelation mentions the myth . . .  Kreitzer (1988)

But there is little agreement on exactly how Revelation fits with the history of the Roman empire. Kreitzer lists four scenarios to demonstrate those difficulties:

Rev 11:8 The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and yet will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because it once was, now is not, and yet will come.

9 “This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. 10 They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while. 11 The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction.

Scenario one:

  • The five fallen emperors are Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian
  • The “one who is” (at time of writing), Titus
  • Domitian is the one “to appear” (foreseen by the author) as Nero redivivus.

Scenario two (omitting those who reigned for very short times):

  • The five fallen emperors are Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian, Titus.
  • The “one who is”, Domitian
  • The seventh and eighth are yet to come

Scenario three:

  • The five fallen emperors are the Julio-Claudians (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero)
  • The “one who is” is then Galba
  • The one to come and to reign but a short time is then Otho — to be followed by Nero’s return

Scenario four is proposed by the same person who actually proposed scenario three above:

(The author) was writing in the early second century, a refugee, from a later wave of persecutions, and using the events of 64 to 69 in Rome as a cloak for his views of his own times. … To the author of Revelation the cheap and nasty legend of the risen Nero would seem the perfect legend for the anti-Christ, ever opposed to the truly and gloriously Risen Lord of his own faith. (John Bishop, Nero: The Man and Legend, p. 174)

The Nero myth was itself a variable quantity. It is as Kreitzer observes

The fact that ancient Jewish and Christian authors were able to find new and creative means of applying the Nero redivivus mythology to their own situations is particularly interesting. (1988, 95)

Indeed. And as we shall see, the emperor Hadrian who crushed the second Jewish rebellion led by Bar Kochba was also identified as the “Nero returned”.

Before we take on the details, let’s get some context.

Origin and Development of the Nero Redivivus Myth

We might say that there are three conditions necessary for a belief in someone’s return:

1.) A widespread popular affection for the figure by people who regarded the deceased as their benefactor or defender

2.) A general feeling that the figure concerned died leaving his work incomplete

3.) Mysterious or suspicious circumstances surrounding the figure’s death. 

(And we might thank M. P. Charlesworth for helping us out with that list.)

All three conditions apply to Nero. But as time went on and Nero didn’t return the hopes took a new twist: Nero was going to come back from the dead and return! As history and reality faded, myth took their place.

Non-Jews had hoped for Nero’s return. Jews, on the other hand, not so much. The idea of his return was good fodder for end-time prophecies such as those in the Sibylline Oracles, however. The Jewish oracles accordingly turned Nero into an end-time enemy of God.

How are these oracles dated? They refer to the destruction of the Jewish temple (70CE); they also refer to Hadrian in favourable terms so we presume that they were written before his war against Judea.

One set of these oracles (book 5) has been dated between 70 and 132 CE.

The oracles identify Nero by the following descriptions:

  • He initiated the war that led to the destruction of Jerusalem
  • He murdered his mother Agrippina
  • He claimed to be God
  • He loved the Greeks and those in the “east” (including Parthia) and they all loved him.
  • He cut through the isthmus of Corinth to create a canal joining two seas

Sibylline oracles identified Nero by means of known historical facts about him. And he was depicted there as an evil ruler. So where does Hadrian enter the story?

Hadrian as Nero redivivus

Curiously, Hadrian, though presented in a favourable light, is surrounded by descriptions of the unpleasant Nero. Not only is Hadrian nested within portrayals of Nero, but he also shares some of Nero’s historical identifiers. Given that the author here believes Hadrian is on the side of good and Nero on that of evil, we cannot imagine that Hadrian was understood to be Nero redivivus.

But the oracle was fearful. What of the future?

After all, Nero had brought savage punishment upon the Jews; so had the Flavians (Vespasian and Titus) who succeeded him. The oracle laments the existence of all these rulers. Then came the aged Nerva followed by Trajan. The oracle does not totally condemn those rulers: they had not caused trouble. And Hadrian, at least for now, seemed benign enough, but the past record of emperors still cast its shadow of traumatic memories. So the oracle wrote of Hadrian (5:46-50),

After him another will reign,
a silver-headed man. He will have the name of a sea.
He will also be a most excellent man and he will consider everything.
And in your time, most excellent, outstanding, dark-haired one,
and in the days of your descendants, all these days will come to pass.

Hadrian might be a fine man, but when he dies the end-of-time calamity will come — that was the message.

Still, why was Hadrian associated with Nero at all in these oracles?

Larry Kreitzer has an explanation:

It seems clear that Hadrian consciously adopted many of Nero’s benevolent policies toward the Eastern half of the Empire, deliberately modelling himself on his predecessor in this regard.

One of the important secondary sources of evidence for Hadrian’s preoccupation with the Emperor Nero is the numismatic evidence of the Imperial Roman mints. The fact that Hadrian borrowed some of Nero’s coin types for his official imperial mint issues, and used them as a means of popular propaganda, is indisputable. (1989, 69)

I’ll return to the numismatic evidence soon. For now, though, let’s look into K’s first point about Hadrian consciously adopting Nero’s policies: Continue reading “Hadrian as Nero Redivivus”


2021-06-03

Jesus (and Paul) in the Ancient Philosopher Tradition

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by Neil Godfrey

Think of the world from which Christianity emerged and mystery religions easily come to mind. That may be a mistake. A more relevant context, influencers and rivals were the popular philosophers and their schools in the first and second centuries.

The Jew and the Christian offered religions as we understand religion; the others offered cults; but their contemporaries did not expect anything more than cults from them and looked to philosophy for guidance in conduct and for a scheme of the universe. (Nock, Conversion, 16)

Any philosophy of the time set up a standard of values different from those of the world outside and could serve as a stimulus to a stern life, and therefore to something like conversion when it came to a man living carelessly. (Nock, 173)

Further, this idea was not thought of as a matter of purely intellectual conviction. The philosopher commonly said not ‘Follow my arguments one by one: . . . but . . . Believe me, those who express the other view deceive you and argue you out of what is right.’ (Nock, 181)

A mystery evoked a strong emotional response and touched the soul deeply for a time, but [conversion to] philosophy was able both to turn men from evil and to hold before them a good, perhaps never to be attained, but presenting a permanent object of desire to which one seemed to draw gradually nearer. (Nock, 185)

As an introduction to the view that popular philosophers had a more profound role than mystery cults in shaping Christianity, I’ve distilled biographical details from one ancient biographer of those philosophers. Spot the similarities to what we read about Jesus and Paul.

Follow Me

Socrates

Socrates met Xenophon in a narrow passage way and accosted him with questions. Xenophon was confused, so Socrates told him, “Follow me and learn”, and from that moment on Xenophon became his disciple.

Diogenes

Someone came to Diogenes and asked him to tell him how to live, what do do …. Diogenes told him to “follow him”. Unfortunately Diogenes also imposed a humbling condition on the would-be follower who was too embarrassed to comply.

Zeno

Now the way he came across Crates was this. He was shipwrecked on a voyage from Phoenicia to Peiraeus with a cargo of purple. He went up into Athens and sat down in a bookseller’s shop, being then a man of thirty. As he went on reading the second book of Xenophon’s Memorabilia, he was so pleased that he inquired where men like Socrates were to be found. Crates passed by in the nick of time, so the bookseller pointed to him and said, “Follow yonder man.” From that day he became Crates’s pupil.

Ethical Teachings and Example, a Physician of Souls

Chilon

“I know how to submit to injustice and you do not.”

The tale is also told that he inquired of Aesop what Zeus was doing and received the answer: “He is humbling the proud and exalting the humble.”

Not to abuse our neighbours

Do not use threats to any one.

When strong, be merciful.

Let not your tongue outrun your thought. Control anger.

Pittacus

Mercy is better than vengeance

Speak no ill of a friend, nor even of an enemy

Cleobulus

we should render a service to a friend to bind him closer to us, and to an enemy in order to make a friend of him.

Aristippus

He bore with Dionysius when he spat on him,

The sick need the physician, not the well

Aristippus

When Dionysius inquired what was the reason that philosophers go to rich men’s houses, while rich men no longer visit philosophers, his reply was that “the one know what they need while the other do not.”

In answer to one who remarked that he always saw philosophers at rich men’s doors, he said, “So, too, physicians are in attendance on those who are sick, but no one for that reason would prefer being sick to being a physician.”

Dionysius was offended and made him recline at the end of the table. And Aristippus said, “You must have wished to confer distinction on the last place.”

Stilpo

And conversing upon the duty of doing good to men he made such an impression on the king that he became eager to hear him.

Plato

If Phoebus did not cause Plato to be born in Greece, how came it that he healed the minds of men by letters? As the god’s son Asclepius is a healer of the body, so is Plato of the immortal soul.

Bion

He used repeatedly to say that to grant favours to another was preferable to enjoying the favours of others.

The road to Hades, he used to say, was easy to travel.

Aristotle

To the question how we should behave to friends, he answered, “As we should wish them to behave to us.”

Antisthenes

“It is a royal privilege to do good and be ill spoken of.”

When a friend complained to him that he had lost his notes, “You should have inscribed them,” said he, “on your mind instead of on paper.” As iron is eaten away by rust, so, said he, the envious are consumed by their own passion. Those who would fain be immortal must, he declared, live piously and justly.

“Many men praise you,” said one. “Why, what wrong have I done?” was his rejoinder

Diogenes

The love of money he declared to be mother-city of all evils.

Good men he called images of the gods

all things are the property of the wise

Zeno

A Rhodian, who was handsome and rich, but nothing more, insisted on joining his class. but so unwelcome was this pupil, that first of all Zeno made him sit on the benches that were dusty, that he might soil his cloak, and then he consigned him to the place where the beggars sat, that he might rub shoulders with their rags. So at last the young man went away.

This man adopts a new philosophy. He teaches to go hungry: yet he gets Disciples.

Cleanthes

Afterwards when the poet apologized for the insult, he accepted the apology, saying that, when Dionysus and Heracles were ridiculed by the poets without getting angry, it would be absurd for him to be annoyed at casual abuse.

Pythagoras

Pythagoras made many into good men and true

Epicurus

He carried deference to others to such excess that he did not even enter public life.

He showed dauntless courage in meeting troubles and death

He would punish neither slave nor free man in anger. Admonition he used to call “setting right.”

Not to call the gods to witness, man’s duty being rather to strive to make his own word carry conviction

God takes thought for man

In storm at sea

Bias

He was once on a voyage with some impious men; and, when a storm was encountered, even they began to call upon the gods for help. “Peace!” said he, “lest they hear and become aware that you are here in the ship.”

Aristippus

It happened once that he set sail for Corinth and, being overtaken by a storm, he was in great consternation. Some one said, “We plain men are not alarmed, and are you philosophers turned cowards?” To this he replied, “The lives at stake in the two cases are not comparable.”

Pyrrho

When his fellow passengers on board a ship were all unnerved by a storm, he kept calm and confident, pointing to a little pig in the ship that went on eating, and telling them that such was the unperturbed state in which the wise man should keep himself.

Divinely called, taught God’s truths, believed to be Divine

Continue reading “Jesus (and Paul) in the Ancient Philosopher Tradition”


2020-08-05

Reading the Gospels through a Roman Philosopher’s Eyes

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by Neil Godfrey

From LivingStyles (labelled for reuse on Google Images)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


2020-07-07

Hercules, a Fitting Substitute for Jesus Christ

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by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

Matthew 11:19

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

Luke 7:34

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

Bacchylides, Fragment 18 note by Richard Jebb:

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

Euripides, Alcestis, lines 745 ff

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

Aristophanes Frogs F. 62–5, 549 ff.)

van Eysinga

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

. . . .

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

Pindar, Fragment 168

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

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

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

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

Thus Pseudo-Lucian, The Cynic 13

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

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

Cornutus, On Greek Theology 31

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

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


2020-05-05

The Dying Saviour: Greek or Hebrew Origin?

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by Neil Godfrey

Prof. Dr. Jan Willem van Henten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

32 For we are suffering because of our own sins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Henten, 137)

The martyrs are acting on behalf of the entire people:

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

(Henten, 138)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Henten, 157)

The Greco-Roman influence

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


2020-04-30

Thighs: Pythagorean, Biblical and Other

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by Neil Godfrey

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

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

Pythagoras modestly covering his golden thigh

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

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

Further from the same source . . . .

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

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

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

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

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

Birth of Dionysus from Zeus’s thigh

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

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

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

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

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

(Felton, 47f)

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


2020-02-03

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

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by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

(Litwa, 187 – Chapter 14)

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

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


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


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

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2020-02-02

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

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

by Neil Godfrey

Though I have used the term resurrection stories M. David Litwa uses the more accurate heading “Empty Tombs and Translation” for chapter 12 of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths.

This chapter and the next three (“Disappearance and Recognition”, “Ascent” and “Eyewitnesses”) are thoroughly interesting and informative. I know my discussions of the earlier chapters of Litwa’s book found points to criticize but here, by contrast, I have found little to fault and much that contributes to a reader’s understanding of the literary contexts of the New Testament gospel accounts of the burial and resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps by now I have reconciled myself with the problem that Greco-Roman historians, unlike the evangelists, more often than not expressed some distance from the miraculous events they narrated, and have come to focus on the content of the events themselves. If so, I have had one of Litwa’s cited authors to thank, Sarah Iles Johnson, who showed how the Greek myths were generally told with techniques very similar to those used in our gospels.

Litwa begins with the “minimalist” burial and resurrection story of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark and finds overlaps with several Greek myths. In this earliest of our canonical gospels Jesus simply disappears at the end. (The original ending was at 16:8.) There is no resurrection appearance narrated though one was promised at a future time in Galilee. Similar “translations” of bodies to live elsewhere away from the human world are found in Homer’s Odyssey (Menelaus taken to the Elysian Fields) and in the biography of Apollonius of Tyana (see 8.30.3), though both of those heroes appear to have been snatched to immortality before physically dying. Not so Achilles. Achilles body on the pyre was attended and mourned by his mother who was promised by a divinity, at that tearful moment, that her son would be taken and restored alive and immortal in a far off island in the Black Sea (Quintus Smyrnaeus, Fall of Troy, Book 3, lines 770-780). Better than the story of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, we have accounts of eyewitnesses of the immortal and divine Achilles appearing “in the flesh” on that island:

Achilles himself is said to have appeared to a merchant who once visited the island often, related what took place in Troy, entertained him with drink as well, and ordered him after sailing to Ilion to bring him a Trojan maiden, saying that this particular woman was a slave to a certain man in Ilion. When the guest was astonished at the command and because of his new-found boldness asked Achilles why he needed a Trojan slave, Achilles said, “Because, my guest, she was born of the lineage from which Hektor and those living before him came and is what remains of the blood of the descendants of Priam and Dardanos.” Of course, the merchant thought that Achilles was in love, and after he bought the maiden, he sailed back to the island. When he came, Achilles praised the merchant and ordered him to guard the maiden for him on the ship, because, I suppose, the island was inaccessible for women. He ordered the merchant to come to the sanctuary at evening and to be entertained sumptuously with him and Helen. When he arrived Achilles gave him many things that merchants are unable to resist; he said that he considered him a guest-friend and granted him lucrative trade and safe passage for his ship. When day came, he said, “Sail away with these things, but leave the girl on the shore for me.” They had not yet gone a stade away from the land when the girl’s wailing struck them, because Achilles was pulling her apart and tearing her limb from limb.

MacLean, Jennifer K. Berenson, and Ellen Bradshaw Aitken, trans. 2002. Flavius Philostratus: On Heroes. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature. (p. 85, [section 56])

“Oral traditions” and personal accounts confirmed the “truth” about Achilles post-mortem existence:

“[3.19.11] A story too I will tell which I know the people of Crotona tell about Helen. The people of Himera too agree with this account. In the Euxine at the mouths of the Ister is an island sacred to Achilles. It is called White Island, and its circumference is twenty stades. It is wooded throughout and abounds in animals, wild and tame, while on it is a temple of Achilles with an image of him.

[3.19.12] The first to sail thither legend says was Leonymus of Crotona. For when war had arisen between the people of Crotona and the Locri in Italy, the Locri, in virtue of the relationship between them and the Opuntians, called upon Ajax son of Oileus to help them in battle. So Leonymus the general of the people of Crotona attacked his enemy at that point where he heard that Ajax was posted in the front line. Now he was wounded in the breast, and weak with his hurt came to Delphi. When he arrived the Pythian priestess sent Leonynius to White Island, telling him that there Ajax would appear to him and cure his wound.

[3.19.13] In time he was healed and returned from White Island, where, he used to declare, he saw Achilles, as well as Ajax the son of Oileus and Ajax the son of Telamon. With them, he said, were Patroclus and Antilochus; Helen was wedded to Achilles, and had bidden him sail to Stesichorus at Himera, and announce that the loss of his sight was caused by her wrath.”

Excerpt From: Pausanias. “Complete Works of Pausanias.” Apple Books.

Achilles was worshipped as a god into the fourth century CE. Poets and even ancient biographers or historians wrote of “eyewitness testimony” to the reality of his immortal existence.

Such stories were narrated as “historical” or at least as believed by many people. Litwa’s comment is apt:

If in a general way the gospel writers were influenced by Greek mythography, then they were specifically imitating those who put it into historical form.

(173)

Empty Tomb

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


2020-01-21

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

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

by Neil Godfrey

Sarah Iles Johnston

This is the second of two articles by Professor of Religion Sarah Iles Johnston. (The first article was addressed in Why Certain Kinds of Myths Are So Easy to Believe) I have been led to Johnston’s articles and books (along with other works addressing related themes by classicists) as I was led down various detours while reviewing M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. I expect interested readers will see the relevance of Johnston’s thesis to Christian myths in the gospels and understand more deeply the mechanics at work that make them so believable for so many people.

Many Greek mythical narratives (whether poetry, drama or prose) appear to have no necessary relationship with a particular festival or other special occasion. They appear to have a life of their own and can be recited in quite different contexts and often with variations of details and even basic storylines. Variations, hearing only parts of a story that must be somehow fitted with a larger narrative, but with some difficulty because of certain differences of character or details, such presentations of the myths had the potential to arouse intense curiosity and discussion, with individuals surely acquiring their own understanding, view and relationship with a god or hero.

Who would ever imagine any similarity between Socrates and the Homeric hero Achilles? Johnston does not raise this illustration but it is one that illustrates her point well. Plato informs us that Socrates compared himself with Achilles. The philosopher with the warrior? Yes, because Socrates could explain to his audience that like Achilles, he likewise heroically followed what he believed to be the right or pious course of life even knowing it would result in his premature death. Variations in narratives encouraged deeper reflection and personal relationships with what the gods and heroes represented.

As Johnston points out, Greek myths generally were not point by point analogies to the real world but were metaphorical tales that were subject to reinterpretation and different functions or applications. The myth of Persephone, as we saw in the previous post, served equally well for a celebration of the hope for a good harvest and hope for a happier afterlife for initiates into the mysteries.

From Wikimedia

There is a poem by a fifth-century BCE poet, Bacchylides, that offers us another instance such devices that encouraged curiosity and engagement with the myths. In the centre I outline the thought-flow of the poem (in paraphrase) and beside it I have circled all the points that the poem in references in the wider world of Greek myth. Notice how much detail is left to the audience’s imagination, how many questions are potentially raised among those who are perhaps not fully acquainted with all of the associations or who are aware of differences with other accounts, or what questions of character arise when set in the wider mythical world. And why is Heracles being honoured at a festival in honour of Dionysus anyway? The Greeks evidently did not find any strong need to bind each story to a specific or analogous occasion (Johnston). The conclusion is surely designed to provoke much thought and discussion about the death of Heracles and his relations with his first wife, and the role of the Centaur.

One detail not brought out in the following diagram is that several of the related myths are linked to familiar places in the Greek peninsula: the city Heracles razed was in Eritrea, the place where he offered to Zeus was Cape Lithada, for example.

Click on the diagram if it does not appear in full in normal Vridar page setting.

The point of the above? Johnston explains:

. . . . the Greeks cared less about always making tightly logical connections between festivals and myths than we have imagined—or to put it otherwise, that the contributions that mythic narratives made to creating and sustaining belief in the gods and heroes could be more broadly based than we have previously acknowledged. More specifically, I suggest that an essential element that enabled this breadth of applicability was the tightly woven story world that was cumulatively being created on a continuous basis by the myths that were narrated. The closely intertwined nature of this story world validated not only each individual myth that comprised it but all the stories about what had happened in the mythic past, the characters who inhabited them, and the entire worldview upon which they rested. Because it was embedded in this story world, a skillfully narrated myth about Heracles, for example, had the power to sustain and enhance belief not only in Heracles himself but in the entire cadre of the divine world of which he was a member, including those divinities to whom the festival at which the myth was performed was dedicated.

(Johnston, Greek Mythic Story World, 284)

It should be kept in mind that these myths were often performed publicly, at temples and festivals in honour of certain gods.

The audiences were primed by these conditions to open their minds to the ideas that the myths conveyed, and thus the two, festival and myth, mutually supported one another.

So what is it that “makes story worlds in general coherent and credible”, Johnston asks.

Story Worlds

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

According to J.R.R. Tolkien there is the Primary World, the world in which we live, and then there is a Secondary World, one that an author creates and into which a reader enters — through “willing suspension of disbelief” (Coleridge?)? through “willing activation of pretense” (Saler)?, or, as Johnston prefers,

truly well-constructed story world requires no conscious decision at all on the part of audience members who participate in it — neither the suspension of disbelief nor the activation of pretense. It immerses readers or viewers so completely, yet so subtly, that they pass into it without even noticing that they are doing so.

(286)

A Secondary World needs to have a fence, a partition of some sort to separate it from our quotidian Primary World (Wolf). Dividing walls include wardrobe doors, rabbit holes, deserts traversed by houses carried in cyclones, interdimensional travel technology. Secondary Worlds are very different from Primary Worlds by virtue of strange inhabitants, strange landscapes, strange technology, and so forth. Greek myths are not exactly like that, nor are the gospels or other biblical stories. Yes, they do contain monsters, talking snakes and donkeys, but these oddities are placed in “our world”, a “real world”, the Primary World in which we all exist. They are the oddities in our “real” world; in Greek myths and biblical stories we have not, as a rule, entered worlds that are entirely strange in every way. (There are a few exceptions such as when Odysseus is on an island with a witch who changes his crew into wild beasts but such stories are set in a larger more recognizable world — with normal geographical, botanical and zoological features.)

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


2020-01-20

Why Certain Kinds of Myths Are So Easy to Believe

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

by Neil Godfrey

But what if you can’t turn off the TV because you don’t even think it’s there?

What if the materials that train the mind to think in certain ways and to accept alternative realities are not understood by the audience — and perhaps not by the authors, either — to be fictions, at least in the usual sense of that word? (Johnston)

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

This post is based primarily on the first of two essays by classicist Sarah Iles Johnston exploring why Greek myths captured imaginations so strongly and what made them “real”, even “historical”. We will see that Johnston’s thesis overlaps with M. David Litwa’s in How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths but I will save a more detailed comparison with Litwa’s views when I return to reviewing that book.

Most of us know at least a few of the ancient myths and that’s part of the problem when it comes to understanding how the ancient peoples who believed them heard them. We have books with collections of myths and we read each myth ripped from the context in which it was originally understood.

I do want to suggest that, having fallen into the habit of excising Greek myths from their narratives, scholars have long overlooked one of the most salient and significant features of mythic narratives: their ability to engage their audiences emotionally and cognitively. . . . [T]his habit prevented us from understanding some of the most important reasons that myths were able to help create and sustain ancient Greek beliefs in the gods, heroes, and the divine world more generally . . . .

(Johnston, Narrating Myths, 174)

We will see that Johnston analyses the way Greek myths were able to allow listeners to feel that they were not merely hearing a story that happened long ago but that they themselves “were living amongst the gods and heroes, even if as lesser partners” (p. 190).

The Magical Myth

To make her case Johnston begins by explaining a very common type of ancient myth that was quite different from Greek myths.  Johnston uses a term that is closely related to magic: “historiola”, meaning “a short mention of an analogous mythical story” (Maas, 37). Example, an Egyptian “historiola” myth:

… Isis came out of the spinning house [at the hour] when she loosened her thread. “Come, my sister Nephthys! See, my deafness has overtaken me! My thread has entangled me! Show me my way that I may do what I know [how to do], so that I may extinguish him with my milk, with the salutary liquids from within my breasts. It will be applied to your body, Horus, so that your vessels become sound. I will make the fire recede that has attacked you!”

While the mother recites these words, she applies her own milk to her child, just as Isis applied hers to Horus. The child’s fever is expected to break, just as Horus’s fever broke.

And one more:

To take another example: if a baby has a headache, then its mother might invoke the paradigm of “banished headache” by telling of how Christ pushed the Evil Eye off a rock to stop it from giving headaches to another baby, thus “persuading” her own child’s headache to go away as well (Pócs 2009.29, from a Romanian example that is still in use today).

(p. 177)

That’s magic, in my view. Repeat a story that happened long ago and in a far-off or far-away “world” and apply it to cause the same thing to happen in the present moment. They are like curse pronouncements. Repeat a formula that draws down the power of the spirits and have them act in this world accordingly.

But that’s not the way it worked with Greek myths.

Take the myth of Persephone. In place of a direct cause-effect action between the mythic story and the real world we enter the realm of metaphor:

The story of Persephone’s annual return from the world of the dead, for example, when narrated in connection with the Eleusinian mysteries, was not meant to suggest that initiates into the mysteries would similarly return from the Underworld for a portion of each year after they had died, but rather reminded them that initiation ensured them happier existences down below once they had gotten there. Persephone’s experiences were a metaphor for those of the initiates; the two shared the salient characteristic of being partial triumphs over death but differed insofar as, among other things, although Persephone annually returned to the world of the living, the dead initiates did not. When narrated in connection with the Thesmophoria, the same story metaphorically expressed the celebrants’ hopes that crops would once again rise from the dark earth into which seeds were cast; the two shared the salient characteristic of anticipating the annual return of something desirable but differed insofar as, for example, although Persephone returned each year in her own right, the crops “returned” only in the sense that their seeds generated new plants to replace them (an idea that, in turn, served as a metaphor for the Thesmophoria’s other focus: the successful conception and birth of new human children). The fact that some stories, like this one, could serve as meaningful accompaniments for two different festivals with different primary goals underscores their metaphorical nature: had the relationship between the myths and the rituals I just described been one of straightforward analogy, such double service would not have worked very well.

(p. 184)

To understand the point further:

. . . the aim of a traditional historiola, after all, is to cause something in the quotidian realm to pattern itself after something in the mythic realm not in only one or two salient ways but rather as closely as possible. 

(p. 182)

But Greek myths were not like that. They did not have that sort of magic power; they were not told to produce magical effects in this world.

. . . the deeds described by the myths existed on a continuum that flowed uninterruptedly into the time of the listeners. A well-narrated Greek myth would leave those listeners feeling not that they were repeating paradigmatic actions of the gods and heroes that had been performed eons ago (as is the case with historiolae), but rather that they were living amongst the gods and heroes, even if as lesser partners.

(p. 190)

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

The Metaphorical Myth

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