Tag Archives: John Moles

Professor John Moles — In Memoriam

I was very shocked and saddened to belatedly learn of the death of Professor John Moles:

Professor John Moles: In Memoriam by Jane Heath

john-moles
John Moles

Professor Moles was a Classicist (not a New Testament scholar) but some of his research did overlap with the earliest literature of Christianity. From time to time John Moles and I engaged in email discussion and it was while searching to renew contact just now that I learned that he had passed away last year.

Vridar addressed two of John’s articles:

Here is an extract from Jane Heath’s tribute:

Two themes that he never tired of were puns and Dionysus.  No one who had been to a few seminars with him could forget that “Jesus” in Greek is punned with the verb of healing (Iesous/iaomai), and “Christ” with “grace” as well as “anointing” (Christos/charis/chrisma).  Dionysus and his cult were often spotted by John in the motifs and language of the New Testament.  He would draw attention to Richard Seaford’s article from 1984 on Dionysiac echoes in Paul’s imagery of seeing Christ “through a glass darkly”, and might add, modestly, that he too had written a piece on Dionysus in Acts.  While it is not uncommon for scholars to try to cross the lines between Classics and New Testament Studies, it is a rare pearl to find one who combines the depth and breadth of Classical learning that John had, with such professional commitment to New Testament study.  Perhaps there were times when some of us thought he pushed the Classical connections too far, but we could only be grateful for being made think in ways we couldn’t or didn’t without our “pagan” friend.  And indeed, the prominence in the church fathers of both punning on Iesous and Christos, and of connections between Dionysiac and Christian imagery, lend strong support to some of John’s instincts in reading the New Testament texts.

In email exchanges John expressed several of his views on the Bible, New Testament scholarship, mythicism (he was not a mythicist) and religion (he described himself as a liberal Anglican) — and generally tied back to relationships with the Classical world. At a time I was going through a pretty rough patch with certain biblical scholars posting some rather vile comments about Vridar and me personally John Moles gave me encouragement by sharing some of his personal knowledge of the backgrounds and biases of those involved.

He also emailed me a compliment on a post of mine about one of his own articles — I had attempted to be as honest, writing with as much neutrality and distance as I could, and in return John wrote me in September 2011:

You’ve done a clean job in your posting on ‘Jesus the Healer’. It reflects well on you.

As an amateur that meant a lot to me coming from a Classicist of John Moles’ standing.

I had looked forward to following up with further exchanges and am very sad he is no longer with us.

 

The Point of the Dionysiac Myth in Acts of the Apostles, #1

English: Pentheus (Jonathan Klein) and Agave (...
English: Pentheus (Jonathan Klein) and Agave (Lynn Odell) from The Baccahe, directed by Brad Mays, 2000. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The previous post in this series set out the evidence that there are correspondences between the canonical Acts of the Apostles and Euripides’ famous play Bacchae. This post continues presenting a lay version of classicist John Moles’ article, “Jesus and Dionysus”, published in 2006 in Hermathena.Do the allusions to the Bacchae and the Dionysiac myths and rituals in Acts actually “do” anything? Are they meaningless trappings, perhaps mere coincidences of imagery, or do they open the door to a new dimension of understanding of the work of Acts. If they “do” something meaningful that enhances our appreciation of what we read in a coherent and consistent manner then we have additional evidence that we are seeing something more than accidental correlations with the imagery and themes of the Dionysiac cult.

Anyone who does not know the play Bacchae can read an outline of its narrative in my earlier post linking it to the Gospel of John, based on a book by theologian Mark Stibbe.

We begin with some general points about the practice of imitative writing before addressing the significance of the use of Bacchae in Acts. Where I have added something of my own (not found in John Moles’ discussion, or at least not in the immediate context of the point being made) I have used {curly brackets}.

Why should we expect Luke to have written like this?

This conclusion should not surprise: similar intertextuality marks [Luke’s] engagement with the Septuagint, or, among Classical authors, with Homer. Hence, just as Classical texts are intensely ‘imitative’ in the sense of ‘imitating’ other Classical texts, so too is Acts. (p. 82)

At the end of this post we look at Luke’s literary predecessors who likewise drew upon Bacchae through which to frame their narratives of imperial efforts to impose paganism upon the Jews.

What are the chances of the author of Acts using this Greek play?

* 2 and 3 Maccabees

** Horace, Epictetus, Lucian

Bacchae remained for centuries a popular tragedy: it had been exploited by Jewish writers as a tool through which to explore the relationships between religion and politics, between Judaism and pagan (Dionysus) religion;* and by Stoic and Cynic philosophers** in philosophical and political contexts. The author of Acts (let’s call him Luke) knew of both these groups.

Are we really to expect Luke’s audience would have recognized all of the allusions?

* Origen (ca 249 CE), in Contra Celsum 2:34, noted thematic parallels with Bacchae.

Don’t think, however, that Luke’s knowledge of the way other authors used Bacchae and his own similar use of it in Acts means his audience must have been restricted to a sophisticated elite. Surely he would have expected some of his audience to recognize the allusions — and we know that some of them did* — but that does not mean he must have expected all of them to have done so. We will see that in Acts itself may contain the message that “while Christianity does not need great learning, it can hold its own in that world”: compare the charge against Peter and the original apostles that they were “unlearned” even though they were “turning the world upside down” with the charge leveled at Paul that when he clearly presented much learning to his accusers, that “much learning had made him mad”.

Why would Luke make use of a Greek play in a work of history?

Acts consists of a “highly varied literary texture”. {Pervo’s work demonstrating the characteristics of the Hellenistic novel that are found throughout much of Acts has been discussed on this blog.} Ostensibly the work is a form of historiography, but if so, we can note that in some types of historiography “tragedy” finds a very natural place. Herodotus’s Histories, for example, is one ancient instance of historical writing in which myth is part and parcel of the narrative. {Some scholars have also described it as a prose work of Greek tragedy.} Dennis MacDonald has identified certain Homeric influences in Acts and these Homeric episodes are themselves bound up in motifs and themes of classical tragedy.

How do the Dionysiac parallels highlight key elements in the Acts (and Gospel) narrative(s)?

First, note the key elements that are highlighted by the Dionysiac parallels: read more »