Category Archives: Biblical Studies

The biggie. Much work needs to be done on the children of this category. These need to be greatly reduced in number.

Should this category include the ancient history of Palestine-Judea, including second temple era and Bar Kochba rebellion and rise of rabbinic culture? If so, should Biblical Studies itself be renamed in some way?

Review, parts 9 and 10a. Jesus as Lawgiver and Miracle Worker (Litwa: How the Gospels Became History)

In chapter 9 M. David Litwa sets the Jesus narrative, specifically as told in the Gospel of Matthew, in the context of literary tropes surrounding ancient lawgivers.

Solon of Athens: See his life by Plutarch and Diogenes Laërtius

Lycurgus of Sparta: See his life by Plutarch and Herodotus

Numa of Rome: See Plutarch

Zoroaster of Persia: See Internet Archive

Minos of Crete: See Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology

Charondas of Sicily: See Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities

Zaleucus of southern Italy: See Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology

Mneves (Menas) of Egypt: See Diodorus Siculus (scroll down to para 94)

Zalmoxis (Salmoxis) of Thrace: See Herodotus and Strabo (scroll down to paras 39-40)

And, of course, not forgetting . . .

Moses: See Philo, parts 1 and 2; Josephus; Hecataeus; Artapanus

It seems more likely that Jesus was thought to have a coherent “message’ only after his death and so we have several different creations of it. . . .

[E]ither Q, Thomas, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and, for that matter, John did not know clearly what Jesus’ teachings were; or they didn’t care; or that they did know but disagreed with him so that they revised what he taught into something else; or that they did know what were said to be his teachings, did not trust those reports, and revised accordingly. Something odd is going on here. . . . .

When Sanders, standing in here for nearly all Jesus research scholars, says, “I do not doubt that he was a great and challenging teacher,” I am baffled. Mark doubts it (4:10-12, 8:17-21), neither Paul nor John pay any significant attention to those teachings, Luke cares little about the matter (taking Acts as representative of Luke’s bottom-line assessment). Scholarship, theological and historical both, is in a state of near conceptual chaos regarding the message of Jesus the Teacher: countercultural wisdom sage, peasant Jewish Cynic, Pharisaic rabbi, antipatriarchal communalist, eschatological preacher? If he had a coherent message and neither we nor his known near contemporaries know for sure what it was, he ought not to be thought, first and foremost, to have been a great and challenging teacher.

(Davies, Jesus the Healer, 12 f)

A few scholars (I’m thinking of Stevan Davies) even question the extent to which Jesus should be thought of as a teacher, or at least they draw attention to the doubts they have that we can even know what he taught.

Rewriting a biblical miracle for a gentile audience

Chapter 10 on the narratives of Jesus as a miracle worker I found of more interest, perhaps because this aspect of Jesus is covered in all four gospels.

Here Litwa’s philosophical introduction on the nature of miracles is too embedded in apologetics for my taste. He prefers to think of “inexplicable” events and repeats the apologetic argument that plausibility is culturally determined, that everything follows a law of nature as determined by God but that some of these divinely created laws or events we simply don’t yet understand. He writes

In the ancient world, plausible miracles could parade as historical; implausible ones were often labeled “mythical” (mythodes).

(Litwa, 136)

The first example of a “plausible miracle” raises problematic questions when it comes to how we are meant to understand Jesus’ miracles, however. According to Litwa’s reading Josephus used the “miracle” of Alexander’s crossing of the Pamphyialn Sea as a precedent that gave credibility to the Israelites crossing the Red Sea.

The story that the Pamphylian Sea receded before Alexander’s army, however, was apparently credited. According to historical report, Alexander’s entire army in all their heavy equipment passed through a sea channel that would have normally drowned them. This account was first told by Callisthenes of Olynthus, official historian of Alexander’s campaign and an apparent eyewitness of the event. Callisthenes assimilated Alexander to Poseidon by writing that the Pamphylian Sea “did not fail to recognize its lord, so that arching itself and bowing, it seemed to do obeisance [to Alexander].”5

Josephus mentioned the Pamphylian Sea miracle to make plausible his historiographical account of Moses parting the Red Sea.6 He knew that qualified and respected historians presented Alexander’s sea miracle as historiography.7 He even remarked that “all” historians agreed that the sea made a path for Alexander’s army.8 Thus Josephus felt justified in presenting his own (Jewish) sea miracle as an actual event in the past.

(Litwa, 136)

But there’s a but. Josephus changed the story as found in the Book of Exodus so it read more like a rare and coincidental natural event like the account of Alexander’s crossing. Here is Exodus 14:21-25 read more »

Review, parts 7 and 8. Litwa on Birth and Childhood Stories of Jesus – Widespread Cultural Tropes Recycled as “History”

Continuing a discussion of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. . . .  All Litwa review posts are archived here.

This post covers chapters 7 and 8, “Magi and the Star” and “Child in Danger, Child of Wonder”. Even though I often disagree with Litwa’s interpretations and conclusions I do find the information he presents and questions raised to be very interesting and informative.

Litwa’s theme is that even though the authors of the canonical gospels composed narratives that to moderns are clearly mythical, by ancient standards of historiography such “mythical” episodes were part and parcel of “what happened”. Similar fabulous happenings are found in serious works by ancient historians, Litwa claims. Such types of events belonged to the “thought world” of that broad culture throughout the Mediterranean and Levant.

[I agree: ancient historical works do contain “mythical” elements but I have certain reservations about authorial intent and gullibility since, in my reading, they generally found ways to distance themselves from any suggestion that they were committed to the veracity of those sorts of stories.]

Ancient authors meant for readers to understand them as part of history, not myth, Litwa insists: the stories were indeed fabricated but their presentation was in the form of historical narrative. Ancient readers would have accepted them as historical — which is exactly what the authors intended.

So in the case of the virgin birth, Litwa points out that ancient Persians, in their Zoroastrian beliefs, had a similar myth about a future saviour figure. The Magi are Persian figures, so it is interesting that in Matthew we find a story of a virgin birth of a saviour with magi present. No, Litwa is not saying one story directly derived from the other and he notes significant differences between them. That is Litwa’s point, recall. These sorts of stories were part of the cultural backdrop in the world that produced our gospels.

Litwa refers to Mary Boyce’s study and for interest’s sake I will copy a relevant section from one of her books:

The original legend appears to have been that eventually, at the end of “limited time”, a son will be born of the seed of the prophet, which is preserved miraculously in a lake (named in the Avesta Lake Kąsaoya), where it is watched over by 99,999 fravašis of the just. When Frašō.kǝrǝti is near, a virgin will bathe in this lake and become with child by the prophet, giving birth to a son, Astvat.ǝrǝti, “he who embodies righteousness”. Astvat.ǝrǝti will be the Saošyant, the Saviour who will bring about Frašō.kǝrǝti, smiting “daēvas and men”; and his name derives from Zoroaster’s words in Y. 43.16: astvat ašǝm hyāt “may righteousness be embodied”. The legend of this great Messianic figure, the cosmic saviour, appears to stem from Zoroaster’s teaching about the one “greater than good” to come after him (Y. 43-3)21, upon which there worked the profound Iranian respect for lineage, so that the future Saviour had necessarily to be of the prophet’s own blood. This had the consequence that, despite the story of the Saošyant’s miraculous conception, there was no divinisation of him, and no betrayal therefore of Zoroaster’s teachings about the part which humanity has to play in the salvation of the world. The Saviour will be a man, born of human parents. “Zoroastrianism … attributes to man a distinguished part in the great cosmic struggle. It is above all a soteriological part, because it is man who has to win the battle and eliminate evil”.

(Boyce, 282)

Magi and births of future kings

https://historyofpersiapodcast.com/2019/10/15/episode-21-the-faith-of-the-magi/

The Greek historian Herodotus tells a tale of Magi interpreting a dream to mean a future king has been born:

Astyages had a daughter called Mandane, and he dreamed one night that she made water in such enormous quantities that it filled his city and swamped the whole of Asia. He told his dream to the Magi, whose business it was to interpret such things, and was much alarmed by what they said it meant. Consequently when Mandane was old enough to marry, he did not give her to some Mede of suitable rank, but was induced by his fear of the dream’s significance to marry her to a Persian named Cambyses, a man he knew to be of good family and quiet habits – though he considered him much below a Mede even of middle rank. 

Before Mandane and Cambyses had been married a year, Astyages had another dream. This time it was that a vine grew from his daughter’s private parts and spread over Asia. As before, he told the interpreters about this dream, and then sent for his daughter, who was now pregnant. When she arrived, he kept her under strict watch, intending to make away with her child; for the fact was that the Magi had interpreted the dream to mean that his daughter’s son would usurp his throne.

(Herodotus, 1.108)

With this second dream the king is fearful enough to order the murder of the infant. The infant survives, however, and when the king learns his order has been defied he brings the magi in again for consultation. The king accordingly slew the innocent child of the servant who had disobeyed him.

Litwa identifies similar structures in the accounts of Herodotus and the Gospel of Mattew concerning

  • magi who inform a king that a child is born who will replace him,
  • the king ordering the child to be killed,
  • the child “miraculously” escaping,
  • and the king subsequently killing an innocent.

What interests Litwa, though, is that both “accounts are presented as historiography” (p. 107). Herod was known to be cruel, so even though there is no evidence that he did order the massacre of infants in Bethlehem, the tale in Matthew’s gospel “sounded enough like historiography to be accepted as true” (p. 107)

That sounds reasonable enough on its own, but what are we to make of the fact that Pilate was also known for his cruelty but all the evangelists, Matthew included, present him — most UNhistorically — as benign and soft when he meets Jesus and is cowered by the Jewish priests and mob into doing their will against his own will? Yet that story has also been accepted as true: despite what was known of Pilate’s character, it also “sounded enough like historiography”.

Litwa addresses other ancient tales involving magi (Plutarch, Quintus Curtius, in relation to Alexander the Great), informing us that those tales, too, are implausible to moderns (no persons can predict the future of an individual from dreams), so if the story of the magi in the Gospel of Matthew is likewise implausible, no matter, since that’s what the historical narratives of ancient historians looked like. There certainly are many accounts of dream interpretation in various historical works but they are “add-ons” and the overall narratives of historians are not one series of miraculous events after another, as we find in the gospels.

Magical guiding stars

Litwa finds ancient stories of guiding stars to be more useful explanations for the star of Bethlehem that led the magi to Jesus than the various extant attempts to identify astronomical observations of that period. Again, Litwa is not arguing for direct “mimesis” but a more general influence of stories and concepts that were “in the air” throughout the Mediterranean cultural world.

We read of ancient sources that speak of magi interpreting dreams of astral bodies in ways that spoke of rulership; of the historian Pompeius Trogus writing of an unusual star appearing at the birth of Mithridates, the king of Pontus who would challenge Rome, and again at his ascension to the throne. What I found of most interest in Litwa’s discussion is not his thoughts on “long-haired stars” or comets but his references to stars that were said to point to very specific places on earth — as per the star being said to stand over the house where the infant Jesus was to be found.

  • A sword-shaped star hung over Jerusalem just prior to its fall to the Romans (Josephus)
  • The Torch of Timoleon, a fiery “star” that led the fleet the Corinthian general Timoleon before falling down to mark the exact part of Italy to be beached (Plutarch)
  • The scholar Varro interpreted Virgil’s poetic account of the goddess Venus guiding Aeneas to Italy as Aeneas being led by the planet Venus (Servius)

(Source-author links are to the relevant passages describing the events.)

Many ancient people believed in omens and yes, they found their way into “history” books. Omens were even more integral to mythical stories and other forms of fiction. That point raises questions about the strength of Litwa’s attempt to explain why the gospels were believed to be historical by certain readers but not all.

Chapter 8

Jesus is part of a crowd of famous infants in danger

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Review, part 6bi: On That Exception in Litwa’s Favour. A (Qualified) Correction.

This post is a correction to the conclusion of what I wrote in Review, part 6b. Litwa on “Mythistorical” Prophecies, Biblical and Greco-Roman

I concluded my most recent review of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths with the concession that when writing of Augustus Suetonius expresses none of the distancing of his own views from his accounts of miracles that we find typical in other historians. There is no expression of doubt. It is all told as simple matter of fact. Comparable, that is, to the telling of any other poetic myth or even the gospel narratives of Jesus. I wrote:

* The Greek hero Heracles is clearly categorized as mythical—especially by modern people. Yet the mytho­logical template exemplified by Heracles played out in the lives of figures still deemed historical: Alexander the Great, Caesar Augustus, and Jesus himself. When historiography follows a mythic pattern, however, it is no longer simply a record of past events. It is what we are calling mythic historiography. (Litwa, p. 101)

An Exception in Litwa’s Favour

In the above quotation* mention is made of Caesar Augustus. Earlier Litwa had informed readers of the Roman historian Suetonius’s account of the prophecies relating to Augustus’s birth. In this case the evidence Litwa is claiming for his thesis is more secure. Suetonius did often (not always) write of many bizarre events (including human ones, not only supernatural prodigies) that read more like a scandal rag’s gossip than serious history. Here is Suetonius on the prophecy about Augustus:

On the day Augustus was born, when the conspiracy of Catiline was being discussed in the senate house and Octavius stayed away until late because his wife was in labour, Publius Nigidius, hearing why he was delayed, when informed of the hour of the birth, asserted (as is generally known) that the master of the world was born. When Octavius, who was leading an army through remote regions of Thrace, sought guidance concerning his son at some barbarian rituals in the grove of Father Liber, the same prediction was made by the priests, for so great a flame had leapt up when they poured wine on the altar, that it passed beyond the peak of the temple roof and right up to the sky, a portent which had only previously occurred when Alexander the Great offered sacrifice at that altar. And on the very next night thereafter, he dreamed he saw his son of greater than mortal size with a thunderbolt and sceptre and emblems of Jupiter Best and Greatest and a radiate crown, on a chariot decorated with laurel drawn by twelve horses of astonishing whiteness.

When Augustus was still a baby, as is recorded in the writings of Gaius Drusus, he was placed one evening by his nurse in his cot on level ground but the next morning he had disappeared. He was only found, after a long search, in a tower of great height where he lay facing the rising sun. When he first began to speak, he ordered some frogs to be silent who happened to be croaking in his grandfather’s villa and they say that from that time no frog croaked there. . . .

So Litwa can rightly say that some historians wrote of prophetic pronouncements in the same way as did poets, novelists and the evangelists.

Augustus (the Divine)

I confess I was surprised a little when I re-read Suetonius’s “Life of Augustus” because it did indeed, on this particular point, stand as an exception to the rhetoric of quite a number of other Roman and Greek historians I have read. So I did a little digging to try to see what explanations were out there for this exception.

The Exception that Proves the Rule (contra Litwa)?

The answer I was looking for was found in a 2012 article by D. Wardle, “Suetonius on Augustus as God and Man”, in The Classical Quarterly. Wardle himself points out that Suetonius writes of Augustus in a manner quite different from how he writes of any other Roman emperor. That is, Suetonius’s account of Augustus is not only an apparent exception to the way many other surviving ancient historians wrote, but it is an exception even to how Suetonius himself normally wrote. Suetonius really did accept as “seriously true” the divinity of Augustus Caesar.

Suetonius’ Divus Augustus, by comparison with the other divi, appears to be a deity whom Suetonius is encouraging his reader to take seriously. His deliberate framing of Augustus’ life by passages that place great emphasis on the real divinity of Augustus is unique in the Lives. While this might be put down to a desire for variety, other Lives do share similar structures. And it seems likely that for Suetonius Augustus’ divinity was qualitatively different from those of the other divi. There is not the slightest hint in Suetonius of the equivocation that marks the culmination of Pliny’s discussion of the misfortunes of Augustus: in summa deus ille caelumque nescio adeptus magis an meritus. In the biographer’s presentation of Augustus the material that involves the emperor’s godhead demonstrates a vital element of what the emperor was to the world over which he ruled and had ruled.

Wardle appears to be saying that Suetonius’s presentation of Augustus is different from his biographical accounts of other emperors because he (Suetonius) believed Augustus was a literal god.

Historians of that era sometimes mocked the notion that any mortal was declared to be a god. But Wardle finds significance in the way Suetonius emphatically presents Augusts as a veritable divinity before he embarks on narrating his very mortal and fallible human career. Never does Suetonius at any moment suggest any doubt about the divinity of Augustus. In the cases of other emperors, Suetonius does write like other historians — expressing a certain personal detachment from the “facts” he is narrating. Suetonius

The expression of his face, whether he was speaking or silent, was so calm and serene that one of the leading men of Gaul confessed to his fellows that he was so impressed and won over that he abandoned his plan to throw the emperor over the cliff, when he was admitted to his presence as he was crossing the Alps. His eyes were clear and bright; he liked it to be thought that they revealed a godlike power and was pleased if someone who regarded him closely then lowered their gaze, as though from the sun’s force. . . . 

It is said that his body was mottled with birthmarks spread out over his chest and stomach which in their shape, number, and arrangement resembled the constellation of the bear. 

(Suetonius, Deified Augustus 79-80)

Wardle explains the significance of that bear constellation:

The constellation of Ursa Major was recognized by the ancients as the axis around which the universe rotated . . . . 

(Wardle, p. 318)

Signs abound, and without any intellectual distancing in the telling. Egyptians, Greeks, they all worshipped Augustus as divine while he was with them and were right to do so, just as right as to genuinely believe that he continued as a divinity post mortem.

More Names with Puns

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The Myth of Embarrassment over a Humble Hometown Like Nazareth

It has become a mantra in almost any book that raises the question: Why did the evangelists insist Jesus was from Nazareth unless it happened to be an undeniable historical fact known to all? The mantric response: Because no-one would make up such a datum; no-one would make up the notion that the great and saving Jesus came from such a tin-pot village. The criterion of embarrassment screams against the very idea.

I have never jumped on board with that response because I have never encountered any evidence that demonstrates why it would be too embarrassing for anyone to imagine that the Lord who taught the overturning of the social order so that the last would be first and the first last, who taught that God will exalt the humble and bring low the mighty, — that it would be too embarrassing for anyone to write down for posterity such a detail unless it were historically true and widely known.

I have always considered that response to be ad hoc. It is a speculative opinion but nothing more — pending evidence to buttress its presuppositions.

Then yesterday I read in the work of an ancient historian about the humble birthplace of a Roman emperor, the humble birthplace of a man who was decreed to be a god. The detail is presumably factual. The historian said it was well-known so there was no point trying to hide it. But there’s a catch, a catch that overturns the premise of the above ad hoc and almost universal explanation among scholars for the reason the evangelists might not have fabricated Nazareth as the hometown of Jesus. Here is the passage from the Roman historian Suetonius:

[The Roman emperor] Vespasian was born in a little village in the Sabine land just beyond Reate, known as Falacrina. [Deified Vespasian, 2]

Was this historical record an embarrassment to Vespasian? It seems not, since

even when he was emperor, he would frequently visit his childhood home, where the house was kept just as it had been so that he would not miss the sight of any familiar object. And he so cherished the memory of his grandmother that on religious and festival days he would insist on drinking from a small silver cup which had belonged to her. [Deified Vespasian, 2]

But wait, there is more:

In other matters he was from the very beginning of his principate [emperorship] right up until his death unassuming and tolerant, never attempting to cover up his modest background and sometimes even flaunting it. Indeed, when some people attempted to trace the origins of the Flavian family back to the founders of Reate and a companion of Hercules, whose tomb stood by the Salarian Way,* he actually laughed at them. [Deified Vespasian, 12]

Humble beginnings of a person who rose to high status could well be interpreted as evidence of special divine favour.

Even the great Augustus, the one emperor Suetonius took the most seriously as a divinity, is noted for his humble place of birth. Not the slightest hint of embarrassment is evinced in Suetonius’s reporting of it:

Augustus was born a little before sunrise eight days before the Kalends of October in the consulship of Marcus Tullius Cicero and Gaius Antonius, at the Ox Heads in the Palatine district, on the spot where he now has a shrine, established shortly after he died. For, according to senate records, one Gaius Laetorius, a young man of patrician family, in an attempt to mitigate a penalty for adultery, which he claimed was too severe for one of his age and family, also drew to the attention of the senators the fact that he was the possessor and, as it were, guardian of the spot which the Deified Augustus first touched at his birth, and sought pardon for the sake of what he termed his own particular god. It was then decreed that this part of the house should be consecrated.  To this day his nursery is displayed in what was his grandfather’s country home near Velitrae. The room is very modest, like a pantry. [Deified Augustus, 5-6]

Suetonius introduces the above passage after having portrayed other indicators of Augustus’s humble early years and even detailing accusations of Augustus’s enemies about his origins:

In the first four chapters the biographer has compiled an account of the Octavii and the Atii, the gentes of Augustus’ natural parents, which sets out the comparative humbleness of his origins: the princeps’ own claim that his paternal line was an old equestrian family is juxtaposed with the claims of M. Antonius that it was tainted with the servile and banausic – a great-grandfather who was an ex-slave and a grandfather who was a money dealer. As to the maternal line, against the claims of senatorial imagines, Antonius alleges a potentially non-white ancestor and more of the banausic – a great-grandfather of African origin who moved into the baking business after running a perfume shop. This section of the life ends with an extract from a letter written by Cassius of Parma, assassin of Caesar and notorious victim of Augustan revenge, which combines both strands of Antonius’ attack and adds a sexual dimension:

. . . . Your mother’s meal came from the roughest bakery in Aricia; a money changer from Nerulum pawed her with his hands stained from filthy pennies. [Deified Augustus, 4.2]

Although Augustus’ ancestry was not the obvious stuff of gods, the next chapter, which begins the Life of Augustus proper, marks a transfer of focus: . . . .

[See the Suetonius passage above: Augustus was born a little before sunrise . . . .]

It begins by recording that Augustus (Suetonius deliberately uses the anachronistic name) was bom in a modest part of Rome, but then qualifies that by ubi nunc habet sacrarium, which begins a series of references to his divinity. (Wardle, 323-24)

Now we may accept the above accounts as likely historically true, but the point is our historian betrays not a hint of embarrassment. The tone suggests that there is nothing inappropriate about one destined to become a god should be born in humble or obscure circumstances.

I know, I know, there are a dozen spin-off questions relating to the above post. But I have chosen to focus on just one point.


Suetonius. 2008. Lives of the Caesars. Translated by Catharine Edwards. Reissue edition. Oxford etc.: OUP Oxford.

Wardle, D. 2012. “Suetonius on Augustus as God and Man.” The Classical Quarterly 62 (1): 307–26.


Review, part 6b. Litwa on “Mythistorical” Prophecies, Biblical and Greco-Roman

Continuing a discussion of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths . . . 

Allow me to round off with a few tidbits from Litwa’s discussion of the appearances of prophecies in history and biography type narratives. We have covered much of the main idea in the previous post on dreams. I’ll begin here with Litwa’s conclusion so we can, I hope, think the argument through with some attention to detail.

Don’t forget that prophecy-driven narratives were probably even more common in ancient fiction. See Prophecy Driven Narratives in Ancient Fiction. Litwa, however, focuses on prophecies found in historical or biographical literature and concludes the ancient reader would have associated prophecy with historical-type literature. He does not discuss (as far as I am aware at this stage) the reasons audiences would have been at least as likely to have associated prophecy with fictional narratives.

By telling the stories of great heroes as mythic historiography, ancient au­thors made their stories recognizable and rhetorically effective in the minds of their audiences. As we have seen, the evangelists were no exception. They used the same mythistorical patterns to highlight the transcendent greatness of their hero, even while he was a tiny baby. Yet their practices best resemble those of ancient historians who wrote historical accounts reporting supposedly real events. (pp. 62 f)

Here is how Litwa compares the “mythistorical patterns” in Greco-Roman historical or biographical literature and in the gospels.

We start with Pythagoras

Mnesarchus, father of Pythagoras, learned from Apollo that his wife “would bring forth a son surpassing all who previously lived in beauty and wisdom and who would be the greatest benefit to the human race.” (Iamblichus, Life) An angel tells Mary, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the son of the Most High” (Luke 1:31-32).

Now that certainly sounds like the story of a divine prophecy of the birth of Pythagoras was told in a manner very similar to that in the gospels about the birth of Jesus.

But I am never satisfied with reading second and third-hand summaries and always crave to check the original as closely as possible, either in the Greek or a reputable translation.

 
IT is said, therefore, that Ancaeus who dwelt in Samos in Cephallenia, was begot by Jupiter, whether he derived the fame of such an honorable descent through virtue, or through a certain greatness of soul. He surpassed, however, the rest of the Cephallenians in wisdom and renown.

[Ancaeus founds a new colony when commanded to do so by a prophet of Apollo.]

Unlike ancient fiction, historical fiction (including Luke-Acts), and certain popular historical works that were ridiculed by satirists and serious historians, notice that Iamblichus, in relating the traditions about descents of famous persons from gods, distances himself from them. He does not write of them as straightforward facts but begins, “it is said that…”. Iamblichus attempts an explanation that might have given rise to the stories.

Of course, we have no comparable distancing or critical assessment of similar narratives in the gospels.

It is said, therefore, that Mnesarchus and Pythais, who were the parents of Pythagoras, descended from the family and alliance of this Ancaeus, who founded the colony. In consequence, however, of this nobility of birth being celebrated by the citizens, a certain Samian poet says, that Pythagoras was the son of Apollo. For thus he sings,

Pythais fairest of the Samian tribe,
Bore from th’ embraces of the God of day
Renown’d Pythagoras, the friend of Jove.

Iamblchus continues to express his distancing from the information he is relaying. He makes it clear that he is writing what ‘is said’ by others.

The direct claim that Pythagoras was born from Apollo comes from a poet who is evidently looking back on the life and reputation of Pythagoras. Again, we have Iamblichus’s personal distancing from the claim itself.

It is worth while, however, to relate how this report became so prevalent. The Pythian oracle [= oracle of Apollo] then had predicted to this Mnesarchus . . . that his wife was now pregnant, and would bring forth a son surpassing in beauty and wisdom all that ever lived, and who would be of the greatest advantage to the human race in every thing pertaining to the life of man. . . . [W]e must not regard the assertions of Epimenides, Eudoxus, and Xenocrates, who suspect that Apollo at that time, becoming connected with Parthenis, and causing her to be pregnant from not being so, had in consequence of this predicted concerning Pythagoras, by the Delphic prophet: for this is by no means to be admitted.* Iamblichus wants to bring readers along with possible explanations for the reputation of Pythagoras being a son of Apollo. Here we encounter the prophecy that Litwa has compared with Luke 1:31-32 but notice the quite different contexts and functions of the two prophecies. One is told as fact; the other is told as a tradition that calls for explanation

Iamblichus rejects outright that such a story can possibly be literally true. Yes, some writers have written of it in a way that sounds like a god had sexual intercourse with a human but “this is by no means to be admitted.”

Indeed, no one can doubt that the soul of Pythagoras was sent to mankind from the empire of Apollo, either being an attendant on the God, or co-arranged with him in some other more familiar way: for this may be inferred both from his birth, and the all-various wisdom of his soul. And thus much concerning the nativity of Pythagoras. * The translator (Thomas Taylor) adds a lengthy explanation of the understanding behind Iamblichus’s words. In brief, the gods themselves were pure (impassive and pure) and as such could have no direct dealings with humans who were the opposite: “passive and impure” (the terms reflect their meanings in the year 1818). But there can be no vacuum so other beings must populate the distance between gods and humans. These other beings also come from the gods: they are “daemons”, “heroes”, “nymphs”, “and the like”. The lowest powers of these beings have compassion for the corporeal world: daemons for humans, nymphs for trees and other forms of nature, and so forth. Through such beings a spirit of the divinity can be imparted to a human, as at birth. In the same way Plutarch and Apuleius explained the “divine origin of Plato”.

After reading the prophecy that Pythagoras would be born a son of Apollo in Iamblichus I find less reason to maintain interest in Litwa’s comparison of it with the angel’s prophecy about Jesus to Mary.

I am not saying that Litwa’s discussion is not worth reading. I think it is given the numbers of detailed citations, sources, comparisons of Greco-Roman literature with the gospels. So many more such comparisons than I was aware of keep emerging page after page. Some of them are closer to the gospels than others, but all are worth following up. Our best education can be in reading carefully and following up the sources for oneself and making one’s own assessments — always being ready to revise them in the light of more reading and more counter-arguments.

My view is that Litwa has failed to qualify his case adequately, overlooking the same tropes in nonhistorical works and also in failing to give enough attention to the different qualities or characteristics of different historians.

Other stories of prophecies (Nigidius Figulus, the father of the one to become Augustus Caesar, Simeon in the temple) we have covered in the previous post. But one we have not examined yet is the prophecy concerning Heracles.

Here’s another: Heracles

Litwa cites two sources for the prophecy associated with the birth of Heracles and the promise of great honour to crown his mother, comparing the prophecy of Jesus’ greatness and the great honour to be bestowed on Mary. Those two sources are the poets Pindar and Theocritus.

They each recreate the story of how the newborn Heracles seized and killed two snakes that had been sent by a jealous goddess, Hera, into his crib to kill him. (Hera was wife of Zeus who had fathered Heracles to a mortal.) When the mother and father of Heracles see what he is done they are, as one would expect, utterly astonished. In Pindar’s version Heracle’s father asks the famous aged prophet Teiresias what this event means for the future of his son. Tieresas answers:

But [Amphitryon] called on his neighbor, the great prophet of Zeus on high,
Teiresias, the strict seer; who told before him and all the company his son’s encounters to be,

all the beasts he must slay by land,
all the beasts of the sea, brutes without right or wrong;
likewise the man walking, crossed
with conceit in hatefulness,
he must give over to death;
and how, when the gods in the plain of Phlegra met the Giants in battle,
under the storm of his shafts these also must drag their bright hair in the dust.

(Pindar, Nemean Ode 1)

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Review, part 6a. Litwa on Dream Prophecies, both Biblical and Greco-Roman

Chapter six of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History : Jesus and Mediterranean Myths is an engaging discussion comparing dreams and prophecies in the gospel stories surrounding the birth of Jesus with similar happenings relating to the births of pagan heroes. Of course, Litwa is not suggesting that the gospel accounts borrowed directly from the pagan myths. Rather, his thesis is that such stories were acceptable among ancient audiences as compatible with historical narratives.

Part of Historical Narrative

Litwa sketches the bare outlines of these comparable pagan dreams and prophecies but the interest his discussion inspires me to quote more extensively from the ancient sources themselves. Notice in the first passage Cicero’s strong linking of what we would call a fanciful tale with “history” and “historians”.

Cicero, On Divination, 1.55

“But why am I dwelling on illustrations from Greek sources when—though I can’t explain it —those from our own history please me more? Now here is a dream which is mentioned by all our historians, by the Fabii and the Gellii and, most recently, by Coelius:

During the Latin War when the Great Votive Games were being celebrated for the first time the city was suddenly called to arms and the games were interrupted. Later it was determined to repeat them, but before they began, and while the people were taking their seats, a slave bearing a yoke was led about the circus and beaten with rods. After that a Roman rustic had a dream in which someone appeared to him and said that he disapproved of the leader [viz, the slave just beaten] of the games and ordered this statement to be reported to the Senate. But the rustic dared not do as he was bid. The order was repeated by the spectre with a warning not to put his power to the test. Not even then did the rustic dare obey. After that his son died and the same vision was repeated the third time. Thereupon he became ill and told his friends of his dream. On their advice he was carried to the Senate-house on a litter and, having related his dream to the Senate, his health was restored and he walked home unaided. And so, the tradition is, the Senate gave credence to the dream and had the games repeated.

And the Roman historian Livy gives us more details of the same, in his History of Rome, 2.36

It so happened that at Rome preparations were making to repeat the Great Games. The reason of the repetition was as follows:

at an early hour of the day appointed for the games, before the show had begun, a certain householder had driven his slave, bearing a yoke, through the midst of the circus, scourging the culprit as he went. The games had then been begun, as though this circumstance had in no way affected their sanctity. Not long after, Titus Latinius, a plebeian, had a dream. He dreamt that Jupiter said that the leading dancer at the games had not been to his liking ; that unless there were a sumptuous repetition of the festival the City would be in danger; that Latinius was to go and announce this to the consuls. Though the man’s conscience was by no means at ease, nevertheless the awe he felt at the majesty of the magistrates was too great ; he was afraid of becoming a laughing-stock. Heavy was the price he paid for his hesitation, for a few days later he lost his son. Lest this sudden calamity should leave any uncertainty as to its cause in the mind of the wretched man, the same phantom appeared again before him in his dreams, and asked him, as he thought, whether he had been sufficiently repaid for spurning the gods ; for a greater recompense was at hand unless he went quickly and informed the consuls. This brought the matter nearer home. Yet he still delayed and put off going, till a violent attack of illness suddenly laid him low. Then at last the anger of the gods taught him wisdom. And so, worn out with his sufferings, past and present, he called a council of his kinsmen and explained to them what he had seen and heard, how Jupiter had so often confronted him in his sleep, and how the threats and anger of the god had been instantly fulfilled in his own misfortunes. Then, with the unhesitating approval of all who were present, he was carried on a litter to the consuls in the Forum ; and thence, by their command, to the Curia, where he had no sooner told the same story to the Fathers, greatly to the wonder of them all, when — lo, another miracle ! For it is related that he who had been carried into the senate-house afflicted in all his members, returned home, after discharging his duty, on his own feet.

Jupiter sounds as cruel as Yahweh. Do any biblical dreams come to mind here, and tardy responses to them?

Contradictory Accounts Not Necessarily a Stumbling Block


Plutarch wrote of the birth of Alexander the Great (2.2-4), at the same time remarking on different versions among the historians. I find it interesting that contradictory accounts did not undermine the conviction that there was historical ‘truth’ behind either tale or both.

Other interesting details of note are that magi from afar appear at the site of the birth of the divine infant; divine lights and signs are seen at least in dreams; and the mortal father of the child divinely conceived if kept from having sexual relations with his wife at the time. Again, notice any similarities with biblical births divinely conceived?

II. All are agreed that Alexander was descended on his father’s side from Herakles through Karanus, and on his mother’s from Æakus through Neoptolemus.

We are told that Philip and Olympias first met during their initiation into the sacred mysteries at Samothrace, and that he, while yet a boy, fell in love with the orphan girl, and persuaded her brother Arymbas to consent to their marriage. The bride, before she consorted with her husband, dreamed that she had been struck by a thunderbolt, from which a sheet of flame sprang out in every direction, and then suddenly died away. Philip himself some time after his marriage dreamed that he set a seal upon his wife’s body, on which was engraved the figure of a lion. When he consulted the soothsayers as to what this meant, most of them declared the meaning to be, that his wife required more careful watching; but Aristander of Telmessus declared that she must be pregnant, because men do not seal up what is empty, and that she would bear a son of a spirited and lion-like disposition. Once Philip found his wife asleep, with a large tame snake stretched beside her; and this, it is said, quite put an end to his passion for her, and made him avoid her society, either because he feared the magic arts of his wife, or else from a religious scruple, because his place was more worthily filled. Another version of this story is that the women of Macedonia have been from very ancient times subject to the Orphic and Bacchic frenzy. . . and perform the same rites as do the Edonians and the Thracian women about Mount Haemus, from which the word “threskeuein” has come to mean “to be over-superstitious.” Olympias, it is said, celebrated these rites with exceeding fervour, and in imitation of the Orientals, and to introduce into the festal procession large tame serpents, which struck terror into the men as they glided through the ivy wreaths and mystic baskets which the women carried on their heads.

Magi in the place where Alexander was born predicted the new child would be a great king who would destroy the Persian Empire. Has the author of the Gospel of Matthew been inspired to emulate or transvalue or simply reapply the function of the magi from the Alexander tradition?

III. We are told that Philip after this portent sent Chairon of Megalopolis to Delphi, to consult the god there, and that he delivered an oracular response bidding him sacrifice to Zeus Ammon, and to pay especial reverence to that god: warning him, moreover, that he would some day lose the sight of that eye with which, through the chink of the half-opened door, he had seen the god consorting with his wife in the form of a serpent. The historian Eratosthenes informs us that when Alexander was about to set out on his great expedition, Olympias told him the secret of his birth, and bade him act worthily of his divine parentage. Other writers say that she scrupled to mention the subject, and was heard to say “Why does Alexander make Hera jealous of me?”

Alexander was born on the sixth day of the month Hekatombæon, which the Macedonians call Lous, the same day on which the temple of Artemis at Ephesus was burned. This coincidence inspired Hegesias of Magnesia to construct a ponderous joke, dull enough to have put out the fire, which was, that it was no wonder that the temple of Artemis was burned, since she was away from, it, attending to the birth of Alexander. All the Persian magi who were in Ephesus at the time imagined that the destruction of the temple was but the forerunner of a greater disaster, and ran through the city beating their faces and shouting that on that day was born the destroyer of Asia. . . . .

Post-Birth Confirmation Prophecy

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Questions for James McGrath: Seeking Understanding

Professor James McGrath of Butler University recently posted on his blog a tantalising article, The Gospel of the Gaps (and the Gaps of the Gospels). I describe it as tantalising because it seemed to promise so much but left readers without answers to the questions it raised.

The post began:

One of the things that mythicists regularly mention is the (in their view) long period between when the events that gave rise to Christianity transpired, and our earliest copies of texts that mention them.

Yes, that is true. But it is also true that the very same question is raised by many more mainstream biblical scholars. And they suggest different hypotheses to explain that “(in their view) long period between when the events that gave rise to Christianity transpired, and our earliest . . . texts that mention them.” (I don’t know of any mythicist — and I am sure McGrath knows of none — who argues a case that Jesus did not exist because we have a large gap between purported events and the earliest manuscript copies describing those events. It’s a big world and there are probably some who do argue that but I don’t think they are any more widely accepted than someone who argues for the non-existence of Priam, Agamemnon, Achilles etc on the bases that our earliest manuscripts of Homer are many centuries subsequent to their time.)

But back to the point. Mythicists like Earl Doherty and Thomas Brodie and others do indeed “regularly mention” the gap between events described in the gospels and the apparent fact that the gospels were not written until a generation or two after those events — but they do so by addressing the problem as raised by mainstream biblical scholars. McGrath has read Doherty’s book so only needs to consult its index and bibliography to refresh his memory.

But McGrath’s point is bigger. All of the above is only pointing out the tendentious nature of McGrath’s approach to the question.

The next question is most interesting and one I hoped to see answered:

They clearly have no sense of what is typical when it comes to ancient history more generally.

Now that reminds me of a time some years back when I grappled with “How do we know certain persons/events existed/happened” in ancient times? I had studied ancient history for three years as an undergraduate and knew how we knew what we did about Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, for example. Books and lectures would usually begin by setting out and explaining the sources our studies were to rely upon. With the presentation of those sources there was no question, “Did Julius Caesar exist?” We could all see the evidence and the question never arose.

So what is different about the gospels as sources for Jesus?

When McGrath raised the question of “what is typical when it comes to ancient history more generally” I was looking forward to at least a summary to explain what that typical thing is. But it never appeared. I suspect the reader is meant to assume that all ancient sources are written long after the events they describe and, well, if we believe them, then we should believe the gospels, too.

But if that was what the reader was meant to assume then the message is a misinformed one.

So here are questions I would like someone to present to Professor McGrath to offer him a chance to encourage serious dialogue. Perhaps his responses could be copied here in the comments.

  • Question 1: What ancient event (or person) do historians generally, without controversy, accept as having happened (or existed) for which our known sources are entirely very late (by a full generation of forty years or more)? By sources, I include here the sources mentioned by the later authors: thus, for example, we have, say, a very late history of Alexander the Great but the author of that source explains how he acquired his information and that it comes from such and such a biographer who lived at the time of Alexander. (The gospels have nothing comparable: Luke’s prologue is as vague and ambiguous as ancient historian prologues are specific and clear.)
  • Question 2: And this is a slightly extended form of the above question. What ancient event (or person) do historians generally, without controversy, accept as having happened (or existed) for which we have no independent evidence to help verify our written sources? By independent supporting evidence, I include here not only archaeological evidence but also other writings that are independent yet testifying to the same event/person.

There are many other questions I could ask but those are the key ones. I have discussed the above points — and many other related questions — about historical methods, in particular the methods of ancient historians and about the writings of ancient historians themselves in many posts. I have also raised the above questions before, but years ago, directly with McGrath. (Just click on the tags related to this post for scores of such posts.)

Maybe add one more question here:

  • Question 3: What are the different explanations biblical scholars have advanced in scholarly works for the gap of 40 to 80 years between the canonical gospels and the time setting of the events they narrate — and in what area of ancient history are there comparable gaps (bearing in mind the relevance of Q’s 1 and 2 above) for which classicists and historians of ancient times propose similar explanatory hypotheses? Or are the canonical gospels in some ways unique and not comparable to the methods normally accepted in the field of ancient history?

Now I certainly admit that some answers may be new to me and I may be forced to revise or at least modify my past conclusions. But I need clear examples to demonstrate the comparability between the generally accepted methods of historians of ancient times and those of biblical scholars. Looking forward to new knowledge and understanding.

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

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

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

Plato in Theatetus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(pp. 79, 241)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Divine Conception

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Rereading Literature and History — Some Thoughts on Philip R. Davies

The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.

–Harry S. Truman

You have to start somewhere. That’s a distinct problem. How do we go about learning a subject as vast as biblical studies or biblical history? We could dive right in with some of the classics of text and form criticism, but we probably won’t fully understand them, because we don’t have the proper foundations.

Some of you may have taken survey courses at university in world history or American (or whatever your native country might happen to be) history. These courses tend to serve two purposes. First, they provide a means for students majoring in other studies to have some sort of foundation in “how we got here.” Second, they serve as a jumping-off point for those of us who continue on to our degrees in history.

Learning and unlearning

Every historian (amateur and professional) in America knows or at least should know our dirty little secret: that freshman history students face a serious disadvantage, because they must unlearn most of what they learned in high school. They must clear away the happy, feel-good history in which we are always the good guys and everything turns out well in the end. Imagine, for a moment, that you had learned medieval alchemy in high school only to discover in Chemistry 101 at your university that you don’t have the slightest idea what they’re talking about.

Survey courses in biblical studies or NT studies in some universities purport to do the same sort of thing. That is, they expose students to another way of thinking about the Bible other than what they learned in Sunday School. I took such a class in 1978 at Ohio University, and in many ways, I would consider it a positive experience. However, I would later discover that much of what I had accepted as bedrock could not stand up to stronger scrutiny.

I admit that my work in history in the mid-1980s at the University of Maryland should have alerted me to the obvious problems with biblical studies. However, it took the work of the so-called minimalists to push me in the right direction. I stumbled onto Thomas Thompson’s The Mythic Past completely by accident while wandering around a Barnes and Noble somewhere in Atlanta. (My job took me on frequent road trips back in the ’90s and the aughts.) The book (in hardback) apparently had not sold well, and they marked it down significantly. Lucky me.

Reading and rereading

Philip Davies (1945-2018)

Thompson asked questions I had never considered. It soon became clear that I had never asked these sorts of questions, because I had been properly trained not to. Beyond that, American education generally favors the notion of “moderation” as a virtue in and of itself. Surely only an extremist would question the historicity of Moses or Solomon. And extremism in the pursuit of anything is a vice. Surely.

Despite my proper training, one simple question — “How do we know?” — began to gnaw at me, the way a steady drip wears away stone. For me, Thompson more than anyone else gave me permission (so to speak) to ask even more dangerous questions. However, it took me longer to get up to speed with Philip R. Davies. (See Neil’s tribute to the late, great scholar here.)

For example, I had started In Search of Ancient Israel but never finished it until this past summer. Longtime Vridar readers will recall that Davies, and especially this book had a huge impact on Neil. You can find much more detail about this work over at the vridar.info site. For more related posts here on vridar.org, follow the tags above. (Below, I’ll be referring to the second edition of this work.) read more »

Trumpian Style Response to Mythicism

I am catching up on too my long-neglected RSS feeds and came across this post from James McGrath: Jesus, James and Peter Mythicism.

It is worth noting precisely what it is that mythicists do with Paul’s references to Jesus in his letters, and just how easily the same could be done with James, the brother of Jesus, whom most mythicists accept was an actual person, while denying that he was actually Jesus’ brother.

Now there is a sweeping confidence about what “mythicists” — a whole block of persons — believe and “precisely” do, or at least “most of them”. Maybe most do. I don’t know. But there are a lot of crackpot mythicists just as there are even more crackpot “Jesus historicists” (usually called fundamentalists, creationists, biblical literalists). Lumping them all together with blanket assertions about what “they” do does not seem like a useful way to open up a discussion.

They emphasize that he is not called “the brother of Jesus” but “the brother of the Lord” as though the Lord, for Paul, were not clearly Jesus. Some have even tried to claim that he was the brother of Yahweh, showing that mythicists are clutching at straws and have no real understanding of what ancient Jews and early Christians believed. (My emphasis)

Again, notice how we begin with the universal “they” and how that elides to “some” but then returns to that same starting point, “the whole bang lot of them”. No need for citations, of course, because the message is that “they all” think and argue the same way. Would McGrath be content if a “mythicist” lumped together all authors of books about the life of Jesus by believers, apologists and others?

“Some have even tried to claim that he was the brother of Yahweh”, writes McGrath. Regretfully he provides no citation. The ones I can recollect who do argue for this do not merely “claim” it; they present a reasoned argument referencing the sources. But let’s move on. The message is that because “some claim” this point it follows that we can see that “mythicists clutch at straws with no real understanding of what ancient Jews and early Christians believed.” “Some” is evidence of what the entire collective is like. (Two points: is McGrath seriously suggesting that “ancient Jews” did not equate Lord with Yahweh, but with Jesus, and that “mythicists” are showing their ignorance on this point? Second point: never mind that the evidence used by that “some” sometimes includes a comparable letter by Paul, the one to the Romans, in which very often, not always, uses “Lord” alone to refer to God, Yahweh, and as a rule makes it explicitly clear whenever he wants us to think that “Lord” applies to Jesus instead. One might be tempted to turn the tables and ask who is showing their lack of “real understanding” of the evidence of what Jews and early Christians believed”.)

And so why don’t they go further still? Paul went up to Jerusalem. Surely this could refer to a heavenly journey to the heavenly Jerusalem, during which he met Jacob, Yahweh’s brother. Simple! After all, Paul himself says that he was taken up to the third heaven.

Perhaps the answer is that mythicists, like McGrath, take the context as a primary pointer to meanings of particular words. Perhaps also because the word for “went up” ἀνῆλθον (anēlthon) is the normal word used for someone traveling up to a town, or a mountain (as in John 6:3) while a “real understanding of what ancient Jews and Christians believed” would inform us that when visionaries “went up” to the heavens they never “walked up” or “went up” as if on a journey of their own: they were seized, grabbed, swept up by an outside force — a different concept and a different word (ἁρπάζω (harpazó) ) is used by Paul to describe his being taken up to the third heaven.

I like reading the works of biblical scholars because I generally have lots to learn from them. I get disillusioned when I find some of them write as if they can get away with spouting misinformation to the generally less informed public.

My objection to this (in case you are starting to think maybe I’m onto something) is that it is the same approach religious fundamentalists take to the text, deciding what it is allowed to mean in advance, and then accepting any interpretation that provides that desired meaning, without discussion or consideration of whether the text more likely means what they think it should. Mythicists prooftext rather than exegete.

Again, where is a citation to support this statement? My own experience has been that I always began with the assumption that James was a real person and that he was believed to have been the brother of Jesus. It never occurred to me — even as an atheist — that Jesus never existed or that there was any reason to question the face-value of this passage in Galatians. It is only on closer examination that some — not all — some mythicists have raised the alternative question. McGrath claims to have read (presumably completely read) Richard Carrier’s book on mythicism, so he knows that Carrier even concludes that this passage in Galatians does indeed add significant weight to the argument for the historicity of Jesus. (The difference between Carrier and McGrath, though, is that Carrier does not turn to this or any other passage as a proof-text and use that one text, like a fundamentalist, to prove a much larger point. Context, and understanding the totality of the writings and manuscript histories are important in any scholarly — genuinely scholarly — analysis.)

I happen to think that the passage does mean exactly what McGrath says it means. I also happen to agree with another author who, in the process of arguing against — against — Jesus mythicism, had the honesty to admit that the patristic history of that passage really does raise serious questions about its authenticity. But that’s a discussion for serious scholarship. I trust McGrath won’t just pooh-pooh those arguments but seriously engage with the evidence as honestly as possible.

No, I am not saying that Howell Smith’s arguments are a slam dunk. There is room for honest doubt and question. What I am saying is that arguments from “proof-texting” — as it seems McGrath is accusing mythicists and of which I believe he himself is guilty — is not the way to go in any serious and informed exploration of the question.

I titled this post “Trumpian response”. I define a “Trumpian” as an attempt to persuade followers through disinformation not to read critical views of his position on things; to persuade followers that all “other views” are by definition “fake news”, and to be ridiculed and rejected out of hand. Certainly, one should never waste time actually reading both sides of a question for oneself and seriously raising the sorts of questions I have raised here among die-hard supporters.

 

 

The First Edition of John as the Dionysian Gospel

Highlighted citations are my additions to footnotes.

4 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 28-29, 30-32.  — John 1:1-5, 14, 16, 18 Bacchae 1-4 ….

5 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 29.  — John 1:6-8 Bacchae 10-12

6 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 29-30.  — John 1:9-12 Bacchae 26-30

7 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 38-40.  — John 1:19-51 …..

8 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 40-44, 67. — John 2:1-11, 20:30-31  Bacchae 142, 704-7, 712-13

9 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 46-49. — John 5:2-9  Bacchae 180-98, 204-09

10 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 48-49. — John 3.1-24  Bacchae 187-89, 193

11 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 51-55. — John 4:1-42  Bacchae 704-5; 216-223

12 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 64-67. — John 6:53-66  Bacchae 139, 735, 739, 1133-36

13 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 68-71, 89-95. — John 8:12-19; 18:28-19:16 Bacchae 460-506

14 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 71-73. — John 8:32-37, 58-59  Bacchae 498, 641, 432-518

15 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 73-75.  — John 9:1-41  Bacchae 319…

16 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 75-76. — John 10:39-42 Bacchae 636-37

17 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 79-81. — John 11:6-44 Bacchae 498, contra 1374-76

18 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 81-82. — John 11:45-50, 53-57  Bacchae 677-774, 778-80, 784-85, 352-56

19 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 82-83.  — John 12:12-15, 17-19  Bacchae 216-20

20 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 83-85.  — John 13:1, 31-35; 14:4, 6, 31; 15:1-2, 4  ….

21 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 85-87.  — John 18:1-13  Bacchae 434-46

22 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 96-100. — John 19:17-30  Bacchae 1115-21

23 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 102-08. — John 20:1, 11-18  Bacchae 1212, 1298…

24 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 108-09. — John 20:19, 21-23 Bacchae 1340-41, 1354-56; John 20:30-31 Bacchae 1388-92

25 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 79.
26 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 102-08

Numerous and dense parallels rise to the level of highly probable to certain indications of dependence on the Bacchae of Euripides. Such dependence can be seen in a wide range of ways, from identical and unique word choice, to themes and dramatic settings, to character developments and plot twists.

• Like Dionysus, Jesus is a god who comes to earth in mortal disguise.4

• He has a champion heralding him.5

• The people’s leaders reject him.6

• His symbolic names abound.7

• Jesus’s first, stage-setting miracle is clearly a Dionysian one; both bring forth wine miraculously.8

• Yet that is only one of numerous, identity-establishing miracles that the two share in common. Jesus and Dionysus both make old men move as if they are young again.9

• Both prompt devotion from old men in spite of competing family loyalties.10

• The Johannine Jesus provides his own miraculous supply of water and attracts women followers known for their promiscuity, just as Dionysus was famed to do.11

• Both vex their initiates/disciples with the requirement of eating the god’s raw flesh and drinking his blood.12

• Iesus Dionysos is harshly interrogated as to his provenance and paternity.13

• He is the liberator of slaves.14

• He is the one whom his opponents cannot see but the formerly blind clearly can.15

• He is the one who can miraculously escape arrest.16

• He is the one whose initiates travel safely into the underworld and are brought back to life.17

• Jesus and Dionysus are similarly opposed by god-fighters.18

• Yet both are equally acclaimed by many groups of people.19

• Jesus imitates Dionysus even as he rivals him as the true grapevine.20

• Both willingly meet their own arrest.21

• Though the ignominy of the crucifixion and lack of vengeance are uncharacteristic of Dionysus, the Johannine Jesus still plays a Bacchae-inspired role in his imitation of Pentheus, the murdered king.22

• The Johannine resurrection interweaves characteristics of Dionysus and Pentheus in its depiction of the defiled, royal corpse being raised within a garden and women followers who surround him but also do not initially recognize his body.23

• The disembodied apotheosis of the first edition of John is hallmark Dionysus.24

Other adduced parallels run the gamut from uncertain to puzzling. In these occasions, it may simply be that MacDonald knows these texts far better than readers like I do and that he sees connections that have to be explained point by point to the uninitiated. For example, Mary’s anointing of the feet of Jesus is adduced as John’s depiction of Jesus as “a different kind of lover from Dionysus.”25 Yes, Jesus is a murdered king like Pentheus, but why is it that Mary Magdalene rather than Mary the Mother plays the part of the mother of Pentheus, who cannot recognize her son’s body?26 Caveats notwithstanding, these minor quibbles and questions do not impair MacDonald’s Dionysian argument in the least.

(Bilby, 49-51. Formatting is mine)


Bilby, Mark G. 2018. “The First Dionysian Gospel: Imitational and Redactional Layers in Luke and John.” In Classical Greek Models of the Gospels and Acts: Studies in Mimesis Criticism, edited by Mark G. Bilby, Michael Kochenash, and Margaret Froelich, 49–68. Claremont, Calif: Claremont Press.


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.


Review, part 3b (The Thesis) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

We arrive now at a point where I am beginning to find more agreement with, and renewed interest in, M. David Litwa’s thesis in How the Gospels Became History.

Having dismissed Dennis MacDonald’s proposal that the gospels (in particular Gospel of Mark) were created intertextually with not only various Jewish books but also Greco-Roman ones (in particular Homer’s epics) Litwa sets forth his view of how non-Jewish ideas found their way into the gospels. The gospel authors (“evangelists”) were necessarily part of a late first-century CE Mediterranean culture that was infused with mythoi (myths). (See the first post of this series for Litwa’s discussion of how these were defined in ancient times.) (Again, all bolded highlighting is mine.)

Greek mythoi were the mass media when the gospels were written in the late first century CE. Mythoi were reflected in virtually all the cultural venues available: sculpture, painting, pantomime, hymn, novels, coins, gems, mosaics, plays, athletic events — even executions. (p. 50)

Litwa expands on this idea,

Even the rigorist Jewish Essenes, who sequestered themselves in the Judean desert, employed astrological, calendrical, organizational, and scribal practices common to the Hellenistic world. (p. 52)

. . . . What united learned peoples in the provinces was a shared educational system and repertoire of stories, poems, and speeches that virtually every person of culture knew. . . . 

Since gospel stories arose when Greek mythoi were the dominant cultural lore, it is not strange to think that this lore shaped the formation of Jesus narratives. . . .

Greek mythology was part of the “pre-understanding” of all those who lived in Hellenistic culture — including Jews and Christians. . . . 

. . . As a result of socialization, human beings come to share assumptions that allow’ them to communicate and experience phenomena in a basically similar way.

In this sense, early Jews and Christians were inevitably influenced by the dominant cultural lore. Greek mythic discourses were part of the mainstream, urban culture to which most early Christians belonged. If Christians were socialized in predominantly Greek cultural environments, it is no surprise that they were shaped by the dominant stories. Some of the influence would have been consciously experienced through the educational system. Other influences would have been absorbed by attending plays, viewing works of art, hearing poetry, and simply conversing on a daily basis with Hellenized peoples in the many marketplaces of ideas. (pp. 51-52)

Litwa from there proceeds to a discussion of “gospel genre”.

. . . there is a rough consensus that the gospels best approximate ancient biographical (or bios) literature. We can define biography as a form of historiography focusing on the life and character of a single person. (p. 53)

That sounds simple enough — until we do a little bit of reading of the literature on ancient historiography. I have posted on this topic often enough and part of the reason is that I keep learning new things as I read more. At this point I have to say that some classicists flatly deny that ancient historiography conforms to any clear rules of a single genre. A fuller discussion (again) will have to wait. Till then I will allow Litwa to speak, read more »