Tag Archives: Ancient prophecy

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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Prophecy, a useful tool for legitimizing a new order

Michelangelo's rendering of the Delphic Sibyl
Image via Wikipedia

The most accurate prophecies are made after the events. What the prophecy does is bestow the event with an aura of fate, destiny, divine edict, legitimate authority.

The Gospels inform us that Jesus was the prophesied messiah. This itself is not evidence, however, that early first century Jews were generally expecting a messiah as a fulfilment of some ancient scripture.

A Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar, was lauded as a prophesied saviour. Virgil placed his own age, with the advent of Augustus, as the fulfilment of a divinely inspired prophecy, in his fourth eclogue. He again shows Augustus was prophesied from ancient times in book 8 of the Aeneid. I doubt that Romans had been generally longing for Augustus with such prophesies on their lips during the period of the civil war that preceded and led to his rise to power. But after Augustus was in power, Virgil’s poems and epic praises of him found a very receptive public audience.

I know of no evidence that Jews of the early first century were any different from Romans in their expectations and focus during punishing times — the Jews being subject to Roman rule and the Romans to civil war. When one side or group found peace (or ‘peace’ through a form of spiritual escape from reality), that peace — the new order, the new institution — was legitimized, and given comforting assurance, through timely prophecies. Christianity went overboard with this technique and hijacked a whole collection of books from the Jews, declaring their exclusive function was to prophesy of their Saviour.