While Aesop is defined βιωφελέστατος in the incipit of the Vita, meaning ‘very useful for life’, ‘great benefactor of mankind’, he is, in effect, an ugly and misshapenslave of Phrygian origin who, throughout most of the biography, is at the service of his master, Xanthus. In his case too, it is the modest, or better, lowly, origins which make the hero’s life so remarkable.
Andreassi, Mario. 2015. “The Life of Aesop and the Gospels: Literary Motifs and Narrative Mechanisms.” In Holy Men and Charlatans in the Ancient Novel, edited by Stelios Panayotakis, Gareth Schmeling, and Michael Paschalis, 151–66. Ancient Narrative Supplementum 19. Barkhuis. p. 154
It’s almost as if Jesus had grown up in Bethlehem the evangelists, who wanted to give him the most remarkable career imaginable, would have invented his move to a one donkey hick town like Nazareth just to make his splash on the world even more astonishing.
Chapter 11 of How the Gospels Became History again makes for fascinating reading as M. David Litwa explores in some depth the idea of the scapegoat in Greek myth as one part of the cultural and mythical context in which the gospels were written. The technical (Greek) term is pharmakos [link is to a brief Wikipedia definition and discussion of the term]. I first came across the idea in ancient Greek myth way back in high school when I read Mary Renault’s The King Must Die. My recollection of the impact that novel had on me was a kind of awe or horror. The idea is that to save a people from some sort of divine vengeance their king must be sacrificed to make way for a life-promising replacement. But the king is too noble to die so he must in some way be made worthy of death and that led to his being defiled and humiliated through some sort of maltreatment.
Litwa discusses the Greek myths of the Athenian king Codrus and the Theban Menoeceus who were two such scapegoats. A person of royal blood had to be sacrificed to save the city. In the case of Codrus,
To do so, he must change his form; he must go from the one highest in honor to the lowest. So the king dresses himself in the rags of slaves.
and in that of Menoeceus,
Twice the poet Statius (a contemporary of the evangelists) called Menoeceus a “sacrificial animal,” led “like a silent sheep from the flock.” Yet the hero’s heart is possessed by heavenly power. Before he sacrifices himself, he prays, “O gods above . . . and you who grant me to die by so great a death, Apollo, give constant joy to Thebes. This joy I have covenanted to give and lavishly bought with the price of all my blood.” When Menoeceus plummets to his death, his spirit rises before the high deity. In the city, the hero is worshiped with altars and temples.
(Litwa, p. 137)
We can see overlaps with the way the evangelists have structured the story of Jesus. The theme of such a death was part of the cultural heritage of the authors of the life of Jesus.
Another similarity Litwa addresses in some depth is that often the scapegoat is convicted of a religious crime of some sort:
The pharmakos is often convicted of what moderns would call a religious crime. He or she is accused of robbing a temple or somehow damaging it. Alternatively, the pharmakos may criticize how temple rituals are carried out and so incur the charge of blasphemy (hostile speech against a god). The perceived crime leads to a violent response on the part of the temple staff and city officials. They attempt to capture the pharmakos by deceit. When they capture him, they often beat him, parade him around the city, try him in a kangaroo court, and murder him. The willing pharmakos dies sac- rificially to safeguard the community. Yet the unjust death of the pharmakos incites divine punishment against the civic leaders — a plague, famine, or invasion.
At this point Litwa draws readers into a detailed comparison of the lives and deaths of Aesop and Jesus. For other comparisons online see first of all a post by Matthew Ferguson on his blog,
Litwa shows how, like Jesus, Aesop had the humblest of beginnings, yet was able to utter sorts of “parables” to confound and outsmart those who believed they were his betters, and in the end goes to Delphi, the sacred city of Apollo, is welcomed at first but soon his hosts turn against him, exacerbates the situation by speaking “parables” against the sins of the people and the priests in particular, is dragged out to his death outside the city, is subsequently worshipped as a god. Furthermore, the city of Delphi is sacked by enemies as punishment for their crime.
Litwa draws attention to the fact that Aesop was generally assumed to have been a historical figure. I find it difficult to think of the surviving versions of the Life of Aesop as “historical” narratives, however. Yet I have to grant that genres in ancient Greco-Roman literature were not so neatly defined as they are today, and “historical” accounts were not histories in the same sense moderns think of historical works. Ancient historical narratives were generally aimed to teach moral lessons and perhaps just as importantly, were aimed at entertaining their audiences. (Even Thucydides, usually upheld as the exemplar of dry detailed fact reporting, used devices from the poets and dramatists to add colour to his work.) The same techniques that Litwa identifies as adding an air of plausibility to ancient historical accounts (the death of Aesop was accompanied by earthquakes and other signs of divine displeasure) were also used by Greek novelists, dramatists and poets in their accounts of past heroes and the activities of gods in their lives and deaths.
It’s a fascinating chapter. It shows how the story of Jesus fit cultural paradigms of the first and second centuries CE Mediterranean world. We may look on the pharmakos theme as myth but it could be real enough in the minds of ancient audiences, as it is for many today.
To order a copy of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here or visit www.footprint.com.au
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Litwa, M. David. 2019. How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Aesop told him a fable: “A woman who had buried her husband was sitting at his tomb, weeping and overcome with grief.A plowman saw her and began to desire her, so he left his oxen standing with the plow and came over to her, pretending to weep. She paused and asked, ‘Why are you crying?’ The plowman answered, ‘I have just buried a good and wise wife, and when I cry, I find it makes my grief easier to bear.’ The woman said, ‘I have also lost a good husband, and when I do as you do, I also find it takes away some of the grief.’ So he said to her, ‘If we have suffered the same fate, why don’t we get to know each other better? I shall love you as I did her, and you will love me as you did your husband.’ He thus persuaded the woman, but while he was lying with her, someone untied his oxen and led them away. When the plowman got up and discovered that his oxen were gone, he began to wail in genuine grief. The woman asked, ‘Why are you crying again?’ And he replied, ‘Woman, now I really do have something to mourn!’ So you ask me why I am grieving when you see my great misfortune?” (p. 222)
Wills, Lawrence M., trans. 1997. “The Book of Xanthos the Philosopher and Aesop, His Slave, Concerning the Course of His Life.” In The Quest of the Historical Gospel: Mark, John, and the Origins of the Gospel Genre, 177–224. London: Routledge.
It was a common enough motif, and no-doubt a regular part of life. The Life or Romance of Aesop is dated “probably in the first or second century C.E.”
Lawrence Wills further identifies many similarities between the Life of Aesop and the gospels of John and Mark. The low-class style, the initially despised man whose inner wisdom and divinely bestowed gifts astonish many others, the hero’s ability to teach great (and unconventional) wisdom to others, his ability to outsmart even the best teachers of his day, his prophecy of war and doom for a city he visits, his tendency to deliver lessons in parables or fables, his rebuke of the citizens of a holy city and their determination to execute him by a dishonourable death in return, and the city is punished by the gods for its crime
Short answer, the one I would give if I had to bet my house on being right: I don’t know.
Short answer, but one I would offer at no risk of damages to myself if I am wrong: Probably.
In two recent posts I was commenting on thoughts arising as I was reading about the Life of Aesop in Tomas Hägg’s The Art of Biography in Antiquity (2012). I first learned about the Life of Aesop in another work, one exploring the origins of gospel genre, The quest of the historical gospel: Mark, John, and the origins of the gospel genre by Lawrence M. Wills (1997): Wills does not suggest that the Gospels of Mark and John (the two canonical gospels most similar to Life) borrowed from or were influenced by the Life of Aesop, but that the gospel genre was derived from a type of narrative about hero-cults of which Life and the gospels are examples. Both kinds of literature told the tale of a hero founder of a cult who
is introduced to the narrative as an adult (no birth or childhood details)
undergoes a dramatic change in personal identity or abilities and role (baptism and the Holy Spirit; being miraculously given the gift of speech)
tells a long tale of short episodes in which the hero challenges those about him and “turns the world upside down” with his superior wisdom and parables or fables
is often described through the literary technique of inclusio or sandwiching one story between two parts of another
travels to the site of a major national temple (Jerusalem, Delphi)
offends hearers by his “truth telling”
utters parables or fables to convey lessons for his audiences, some of them condemning his hearers
is condemned for blasphemy and arrogant claims
was such a help to others with his wisdom but cannot save himself
is condemned to execution, and so dies
After the deaths of both Jesus and Aesop many people are remorseful and a cult was established in honour of the wronged hero. Both Life and the gospels are believed to have been written around the same time — the first century CE or possibly second century CE.
It is little wonder, then, that Wills begins his discussion with
The most important novelistic biography for the comparison with the gospel genre is the anonymous Life of Aesop. (Wills, 1997. p. 23)
If we are doing comparisons one question that will interest many of us will be just how historical the respective narratives are. I won’t attempt to discuss that question in relation to the gospels and Jesus in this post for obvious reasons, so let’s look at Aesop. Wills is looking at origins of gospel genre but Tomas Hägg gives us a more comprehensive survey of Life as an ancient biography so from this point on I rely upon Hägg. Continue reading “Did Aesop Exist?”
Sleepy me forgot to include the main thought that led to the argument of the previous post. Reflecting on Hägg’s point about the Life of Aesop being produced at a time when interest in Aesop was the fashion of the day, the question I was asking myself was:
When do we see an interest in the pre-crucifixion earthly life-events of Jesus emerge in the record? When does that particular literary vogue begin?
Now that’s less subtle than an argument based on Paul’s influence on the Gospel of Mark.
The second century Pastoral epistle 1 Timothy speaks of Jesus testifying before Pilate.
Ignatius is among the earliest witnesses to an interest in biographical details of Jesus with his specifications of Mary’s pregnancy and Pilate’s role in the crucifixion. Though Ignatius’s martyrdom (and letter writing date) is said by Eusebius to be in the tenth year of Trajan (108 CE), we have reasons to think that the letters may really have been composed considerably later. As Roger Parvus writes:
Eusebius, in the fourth century, was the first to claim that the letters were written in the reign of Trajan (98 – 117 CE). A number of scholars have recognized that his dating is untrustworthy, and that the letters should be dated later. To give some recent examples:
Allen Brent says “we can…, if we like, place Ignatius’ work towards the end of Hadrian’s reign (AD 135)” (p. 318 of his 2006 book Ignatius of Antioch and the Second Sophistic.
And Paul Foster, in his chapter on Ignatians in The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers (2007), placed their composition “sometime during the second quarter of the second century, i.e. 125 – 50 CE, roughly corresponding to Hadrian’s reign or the earlier part of Antoninus Pius’ period in office” (p. 89).
Timothy Barnes, in a 2008 article in The Expository Times (“The Date of Ignatius”), concluded that the letters were written “probably in the 140s” (p. 128).
And Richard Pervo, in his The Making of Paul published in 2010 says “A date of c. 130 – 140 is the preferable date for Ignatius” (p. 135).
Earl Doherty too, in his Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, does not have a problem with dating the letters to the third decade of the second century. (p. 296).
Justin Martyr of the mid-second century, discussed in the previous post, is also the earliest of the Church Fathers to show a detailed interest in writing about events in the earthly life of Jesus. Most of his discussion is an attempt to prove that the Old Testament writings were prophesying cryptically about Jesus. Again, see the table I have posted on vridar.info.
Interestingly the literary focus on the life of Jesus first appears to gain wider traction around the same time as the interest in and heated controversy over Paul.
Sure we can date the gospels to the last decades of the first century, but by doing so we have to wait some decades (and Justin does not even appear to know any of the gospels in their final canonical form) before we find anyone appearing to take any notice of their contents or sharing their interest in Jesus’ life.
Justin is said to be the first witness to the existence of the gospels but we need to keep in mind that Justin also said that fire (presumably a spiritual fire) engulfed the Jordan when Jesus was baptized, that the infant Jesus was found in a cave, that Pilate conspired with the Jews to crucify Jesus, and indicates that he had no concept of any Judas character or betrayal of Jesus by a disciple.
Is it not interesting that “the church”, or at least the “proto-orthodox” side of Christianity, first appears to take an interest in writings about the earthly life of Jesus at the same time as heated arguments over the teachings of Paul?
The two interests, the teachings of Paul and the earthly life of Jesus, first appear in the wider record around the same time.
Justin, as we saw in the previous post, is certainly one of the more hostile of the “fathers” towards Paul and he it is who is the first to show a strong interest, most unlike Paul, in interpreting the Old Testament as a string of prophecies about the earthly Jesus.
I don’t think the Gospel of Mark was originally written as a literal testimony to the pre-crucifixion life of Jesus, though. The narrative is far too patently (in my view) symbolic to think that it was written with a mind to be read literally. The author does not attempt to proof-text his narrative in the same way the author of the Gospel of Matthew did by saying “Jesus did or said such and such so that the scripture might be fulfilled.” (The only exception in English translations of Mark is in fact a gloss.) The Gospel of Mark was actually first associated with heretics (as was Paul) — with the followers of Basilides — though I suspect that Basilides’ followers knew of a kind of ur-Mark, not the form of the gospel we have today in our orthodox canons.
It is the Gospel of Matthew who is closest to the sort of narrative of Jesus that so engrossed Justin. Another point I find interesting is that the Gospel of Matthew, with its anti-Paul message and its focus on Jesus fulfilling passages in the OT, that was the most influential gospel in the second century while the Gospel of Mark was scarcely noticed among the proto-orthodox.
The point is that the mainstream view holds that the gospels were written between 70 and 90 and then forgotten or largely ignored until the mid second century.
Why not prefer to date them to a time when we find there was a more general interest in the sorts of things they write about?
Well for all you readers who really did want to read those books or who were waiting in vain for me to get around posting on them in depth, this is your lucky day. Matthew Ferguson of the Κέλσος blog has given up waiting for both of us and posted the nitty gritty details on these authors and their studies of Aesop vis à vis the gospels: