Tag Archives: Litwa: How the Gospels Became History

Damnation Upon That Christ Myth Theory!

Richard Carrier has posted his response to David Litwa’s chapter that professes to be addressing the Christ Myth theory:

I also posted on the same chapter by Litwa:

Carrier’s post comes with a much more lively and colourful style than mine.

 

Review, conclusion #2: Myth and History in the Gospels (How the Gospels Became History / Litwa)

If the gospels are mythical stories that have been presented as history then what value can they have for anyone today and how can we treat the gospels as a source for studying the historical Jesus? Those are the questions M. David Litwa addresses in the last pages of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths.

In answer to the first question Litwa writes:

Both the scholar and the believer can recognize that gospel stories are transformative, if for different reasons. For the believer, the power often derives from divine inspiration and the salvific function of the myths. For the scholar, the power of gospel myths frequently lies in their versatility and world-making potential. The scholar and the believer can also, of course, be the same person.

(Litwa, p. 212)

I think of Thomas Brodie who does not find any historical core behind the gospel myths, not even a historical Jesus, who nonetheless finds meaning in the myths and has remained a Christian. But Litwa does believe a historical core does lie behind the myths. On what basis does he believe that?

“So let’s assume there actually was a corpse. What happened to it? There are only two possibilities. Either it was revivified, the way the Gospels tell it, or it wasn’t. If it wasn’t, it stayed on earth. There isn’t any third possibility. What happened to the body? Did it come alive or didn’t it?” [from The Flight of Peter Fromm]

The horns of this dilemma have gored the faith of some people. The meaning of Jesus’s resurrection—and of Christianity itself—is widely assumed to hang on its historicity. The value of any sort of “spiritual meaning” is discounted if there is no historical and physical basis for it. . . .

. . . [Peter Fromm] identifies the real with the historical (in the sense of “what happened”). Yet in the game of historical writing we never actually know exactly what happened. Historicity is not a cross from which the truth hangs in all its glory. It is at best a social agreement that someehing happened in the past. This assertion is not merely an outgrowth of postmodern philosophy; the ancients suggested something similar. The sophist Nicolaus (late fifth century CE) wrote that historical narratives are about past events acknowledged by consensus (homologoumenos’) to have happened. I emphasize “by consensus.” Historians do not have direct access to a past occurrence, though they might agree that it happened.

(Litwa, p. 213)

Litwa would say I am being too specific and should say that it is the consense of “historians” more generally. My response to the idea that most people take for granted the historicity of Jesus is found in an earlier post: Is it a “fact of history” that Jesus existed? Or is it only “public knowledge”? I prefer to narrow the point to “biblical scholars” because they are the ones who have set about to study Jesus.

Compare Johnston’s point: [A hero’s multiple versions/’plurimdiality’], and the intimate connection to [the hero] that this fostered in individuals, helped to create and sustain for some (perhaps all) the very assumption that he existed, which, in turn, sustained the practice of his cults.

It follows that Litwa knows that Jesus was crucified because that is the consensus of biblical scholars —

The current consensus regarding the “historical Jesus” is that he lived in Palestine, that he was a Jew crucified around 30 CE by Roman authorities.

(Litwa, p. 213)

and a few pages on  —

I do not deny the historical basis for some gospel stories (notably the crucifixion)32

32. Here one might talk of “aspects of historicity,” as in Paul N. Anderson, Felix Just, and Tom Thatcher, eds., John, Jesus, and History, vol. 2, Aspects of Historicity in the Fourth Gospel (Atlanta: SBL, 2009).

(Litwa, pp. 218, 266)

The irony! The attempts to make a case for “aspects of historicity” in the Gospel of John in the cited volume are often the same tropes that in the earlier discussion were said to make myths believable! All page references in the following section are to the Anderson, Just and Thatcher volume Litwa cited above. (The following section is my response to Litwa’s insistence that there is a historical basis to some of the gospel stories.)

— role of eyewitness testimony

e.g. Culpepper engages the recent work of two scholars (Howard M. Jackson and Richard Bauckham) who argue that John 21:24 is an autobiographical note indicating that the author of the Gospel is the Beloved Disciple. In this view, the Gospel of John is based on the eyewitness testimony of a follower of Jesus and makes that claim explicitly in the narrative. (p. 372)

— context of mundane history and life

e.g. [W]hile the Johannine Prologue opens the Fourth Gospel as a confessional piece used in worship, it also bears witness to first-hand encounter with the object of its confession: the fleshly Jesus grounded in mundane history. (p. 380)

e.g. Miller and others, however, find it historically plausible that Jesus himself had an encounter with a Samaritan woman. Evidence for this includes . . . the Gospel’s familiarity with Samaritan beliefs about the location of worship and the coming of an eschatological prophet, and the fact that some Galileans did travel through Samaria on their way to and from Jerusalem. (p. 100)

e.g. There are several factors of historical realism in this narrative. . . . [T]he narrator’s featuring factors of personal hygiene and comfort contribute to the mundane realism of the presentation. … In conclusion, given the cultural context, it is highly plausible that a Jewish person in first-century Galilee would perform a footwashing. Therefore, it is plausible that Jesus performed a footwashmg as he gathered for a final meal with his disciples in Jerusalem. On the bases of Jewish and Hellenistic literature, religious and societal customs, other presentations of fopMashing in the New Testament literature, and various aspects of historical realism, this scenario in John demands renewed consideration as a historical event . . . (pp. 259, 260)

— detailed knowledge of topography read more »

Review, conclusion #1: How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

M. David Litwa’s concluding chapter is “The Myth of Historicity” and with this post I address the first half of that chapter. I have found the book, How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myth, most interesting, even though it has been a mixed journey, one that started more critical of the earlier chapters than of the later ones. Something of the same mix will be found in this final post as I sum up my responses to Litway’s thesis.

Litwa has identified in the previous chapters ten main tropes that serve as signals that the gospels were written to be read as historical narratives. He has noted that each of these ten is found in other Greco-Roman historical writings so it is reasonable to conclude the gospel authors, in deploying these tropes, likewise intended the gospels to be read as history. I list the ten here (from p. 210) with excerpts from the main text as illustrations. I follow with my review and thoughts on the points raised.

1. objectification (describing individually experienced phenomena as if they were fully knowable and observable by others)

A good example of objectification is the description of Jesus’s resurrection appearances. In origin, these appearances were perhaps visions experienced by early Christians either individually or in a group setting. Yet these visions came to be described as palpable events that occurred in space and time. Eventually, Jesus’s luminous body seen in visions became more solid in the act of historiographical retellings. Despite its ability to walk through walls, the body began to be depicted as “flesh and bone” (Luke 24:39), able to be poked and prodded by eyewitnesses—including the famous “doubting Thomas” (John 20:24—28). (p. 10)

2. synchrony (noting well-known persons or occurrences);

There are other historicizing tropes that increase the “reality effect” of the gospels.57 Synchrony, for instance, is the mention of famous persons who lived at the same time as the depicted hero. The third evangelist, for instance, mentioned the governor of Syria, Quirinius, as a contemporary of Jesus (Luke 2:2). This author wrongly dated the rule of Quirinius by about a decade, but the very mention of him as a well-known ruler (along with the then universally known “Caesar Augustus”) increased the realism of his tale. (p. 10)

3. syntopy (mentioning known places on the map);

A similar trope might be called syntopy, the mention of real and familiar places. The evangelists placed Jesus in Galilee under the administration of a historical Jewish king (Herod Antipas). The third evangelist intentionally clarified elements in an earlier evangelist’s topography (Luke 8:26 and Mark 5:1; Luke 4:31 and Mark 1:21) and added a travel narrative showing a discrete move from Galilee to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-19:28). (p. 11)

4. straightforward, matter-of-fact presentation (which often frames the description of fantastical or anomalous events);

Likewise, Jesus’s sea-stilling miracle is stated in the matter-of-fact tone of historiography: “Jesus got up, rebuked the wind and said to the sea: ‘Shut up, be muzzled!’ Then the wind died down and there was a great calm” (Mark 4:39).11 In fact, Jesus seems rather grumpy after being awoken— another peculiarly human trait. His sea-stilling is fabulous, to be sure, but within the range of possibility for the “son of God” (Mark 3:11). Wind and sea are rebuked, but they are not personified. The timing is precise: Jesus calms the storm in the evening after a long day of weaving parables. The route can be traced on a map: Jesus sails across the Sea of Galilee to the region of the Gerasenes (Mark 5:1). It does not matter that Gerasa (modern Jerash) is thirty-seven miles southeast of the Sea of Galilee (no one but scholars seem to notice); what is important is that the geographical marker is there. The temporal and chronological markers generate a historical frame, a frame that soothes the turbulence of the miracle and fosters the calm of astounded belief. (p. 144)

5. vivid presentation (which includes the addition of random and circumstantial details) and the rhetoric of accuracy akribeia, which includes . . .

There are other vivid details in John that could easily be thought to go back to historical reminiscence: John the Baptist was baptized at Aenon near Salim (John 3:23); the lame man lay for thirty-eight years at the pool of Beth-zatha (5:3 —5); the slave whose ear was cut off was named Malchus (18:10); Peter stood at a charcoal fire outside Annas’s house during Jesus’s trial (18:18). The biblical scholar Paul N. Anderson claims, ‘John has more archaeological, topographical, sensory-empirical, personal knowledge and first-hand information than all of the other gospels combined.” Such vivid presentation (what the Greeks called enargeia) was a known technique of historiographical discourse. (p. 203)

6. . . . the introduction of literary eyewitnesses (such as the Beloved Disciple);

Despite the unlikelihood of the evangelists being eyewitnesses, at least one of them indicates that he based his material directly on an identifiable eyewitness who appears as a character in his story. Late in the fourth evangelist’s account, he introduces an unnamed figure whom he refers to as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” This disciple, who appears nowhere else in gospel literature, is portrayed as one of Jesus’s most intimate companions. At the Last Supper, the Beloved Disciple rests his head on Jesus’s breast (John 13:21-25). This posture represents a privileged, intimate relationship mirroring Jesus’s own relationship with his Father, in whose bosom he abides (John 1:18). (p. 196)

7. staged skepticism among the eyewitnesses (as in Matt. 28:17; John 20:25);

The author of Matthew noted that some of Jesus’s eleven disciples doubted the resurrection even when they saw him physically present (Matt. 28:17). (p. 191)

Thomas had declared, “Unless I see the nail wound in his hands, thrust my finger into the nail wound, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” A week later, Thomas was staying in a locked room when Jesus walked through the walls. Admittedly, this was not a good way to prove Jesus’s materiality. Still, the hero approached Thomas and said, “Thomas, place your finger here; observe my hands, then bring your hand and thrust it into my side” (John 20:25-27). Thomas instantly realizes that Jesus is not a ghost but a god (John 20:28). (p. 184)

8. alternative reports (as in Matt. 28:13);

Despite the added story of Jesus’s appearance, reports of fraud arose. The disciples were rumored to have stolen the body (Matt. 28:13). In Matthew, this report is implicitly belittled since the disciples would have needed to subdue the well-trained and heavily armed Roman guard. (p. 174)

9. stated links of causation (as in Matt. 28:15); 

In providing this alternative tradition, the Matthean evangelist used the language of historical causation. The conniving Jewish leaders created the theft story; hence it continues to persist. Although this evangelist preferred to explain the missing body by narrating resurrection appearances, the fact that he offered an alternative report is significant. Providing such a report was a common historiographical technique. Offering the reader a choice between the reports gave the (albeit fleeting) impression of objectivity. (p. 175)

and . . .

10. . . . literary traces of a past event (such as tomb tokens).

Contrary to the suspicion of modern skeptics, they do not go to the wrong tomb. They recognize the right tomb by the presence of Jesus’s personal items, namely, the linen wrappings that formerly covered his body and a neatly folded cloth that covered his face (John 20:5-7). These details undercut the supposition that the body was stolen, since robbers would presumably not have taken the time to carefully fold Jesus’s face cloth. (p. 176)

Not unique to history

As discussed in the earlier posts these techniques are not exclusive to works of ancient history and biography but are also found in mythical-poetic works and even in fictional novellas, both “historical” and “erotic (=love stories)”.

One more — the everyday human setting

An elaboration can be made to some of Litwa’s above ten: e.g. the “objectification”, the “straightforward, matter-of-fact presentation”, as well as the references to “well-known persons” and “places on the map”, are brought to bear in very ordinary, everyday human life contexts, such as inviting guests in for a meal. The “vivid presentation” is not always there (not even the crucifixion of Jesus is described as graphically as it could be) but the “random and circumstantial details” are part and parcel of the miraculous or mythical events taking place as “by the way” events in mundane human settings.

One difference — no room for doubt

So yes, the way the miraculous events of the gospels were told does coincide in many, but not all, respects with the way they were told in ancient histories and biographies. The exception: ancient historians and biographers generally related the miraculous events with some authorial distance, expressing in various ways a concession that readers were free to doubt the truth of miraculous events. Not so the gospels.

“Alternative reports” compared with different biblical narratives read more »

Review, part 15. Eyewitnesses and the Beloved Disciple (Litwa: How the Gospels Became History)

This is probably my favourite chapter in How the Gospels Became History by M. David Litwa. Is #15, “Eyewitnesses”.

— Who Is the Beloved Disciple? — I like Litwa’s answer to that question better than any argument that it was Paul or Mary or John or . . . .

— And does not striking life-like vividness of detail in a narrative strongly indicate an eyewitness report? It’s refreshing to see a biblical scholar answer that question in the negative.

But first, some opening quotes to give you the main drift:

Through the eyes of the literary eyewitness, a subjective and spiritual event could be represented as real and verifiable. . . . 
Fictive or not, eyewitnesses were greatly valued in ancient Mediterranean culture. . . . 
(Litwa, 194)

Odysseus is weeping at the court of Alcinous as the blind minstrel Demodocus sings about Odysseus and Achilles at Troy while playing the harp. (Wikimedia)

Odysseus is weeping at the court of Alcinous as the blind minstrel Demodocus sings about Odysseus and Achilles at Troy while playing the harp. (Wikimedia)

Vivid detail?

Let Homer answer the question, so often asked rhetorically when apologists insist on the historicity of the gospels.

In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero Odysseus praises the singer Demodocus for relating the events of the Trojan War “as if you were present yourself, or heard it from one who was.” Demodocus was definitely not present, a point that Odysseus well knows. Still, by means of his vivid presentation, Demodocus could make it seem as if he were an eyewitness or had heard from one who was. Homer knew that if one was not an eyewitness, skillful literary art could produce an eyewitness effect.

(Litwa, 194 f)

Historians and eyewitness reports — comparing the gospels

Litwa points out that as a rule ancient Greco-Roman historians sought to impress audiences with the credibility and superiority of their accounts by appeals to eyewitness sources. Not that they cited an eyewitness with every event, but they would often boast of their first-hand information in a prologue or whenever a particularly unusual event was being narrated. If we accept this practice as the literary custom at the time the gospels were composed then Litwa’s argument makes sense:

The gospels were probably not written by eyewitnesses. If they were, the authors would have named themselves and explicitly claimed to have seen the events that they narrated. If they based their accounts on eyewitness reports, they would have named those eyewitnesses specifically and related their differing accounts. Real eyewitnesses would not have left firsthand experience open to doubt. They would have boasted, like Josephus, of their eyewitness status and used it to confirm their authority.<
(Litwa, 196)

But is not Luke an exception? Does he not claim to have interviewed eyewitnesses for his gospel?

For a quite different interpretation of Luke’s reference to eyewitnesses, see any of the posts addressing an article by John N. Collins

Again, it is refreshing to read Litwa’s answer to this question:

To be sure, the author of Luke mentions receiving traditions from eyewitnesses (1:2). The fact that none of these witnesses is ever named and none of their reports is ever distinguished in the narrative, however, raises many questions. In fact, the author of Luke seems content to hide the nature of his sources. He clearly used the gospel of Mark, though he never once gives any impression that he did so. The details of his other sources, both oral and written, are never supplied.

(Litwa, 196)

The Beloved Disciple? 

read more »

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

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

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

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

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

(Litwa, 187 – Chapter 14)

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

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


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


To order a copy of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here or visit www.footprint.com.au

Please use discount voucher code BCLUB19 at the checkout to apply the discount.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(173)

Empty Tomb

read more »

Review, part 11. Comparing the Lives and Deaths of Aesop and Jesus (Litwa: How the Gospels Became History)

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.

(138)

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,

Others on Vridar,

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

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 10b. Why Jesus’ Miracles Appear Historically Natural (Litwa: How the Gospels Became History)

I am continuing my discussion of M. David Litwa’s book, How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths, in the light of my two recent posts* that theorize why Greco-Roman myths were so believable and why it was widely accepted that divine heroes and gods had even acted on earth in historical, even contemporary, times**.

Litwa makes an interesting claim:

It was a historical judgment that in the so-called heroic age, men were bigger, faster, and stronger than people are today. They were also more pious, which earned them the right of dining with deities and even (as in the case of Heracles) being changed into them. Today one can label the heroic age a “mythic” one, but for the Greeks it was a real time in the past that gradually melted into our own time with its known dates and calendars.10

(Litwa, p. 137)

Endnote 10 is to Pausanias, 8.2.4, which I quote:

I for my part believe this story; it has been a legend among the Arcadians from of old, and it has the additional merit of probability. For the men of those days, because of their righteousness and piety, were guests of the gods, eating at the same board; the good were openly honored by the gods, and sinners were openly visited with their wrath. Nay, in those days men were changed to gods, who down to the present day have honors paid to them – Aristaeus, Britomartis of Crete, Heracles the son of Alcmena, Amphiaraus the son of Oicles, and besides these Polydeuces and Castor.

Pausanias. 2014. Complete Works of Pausanias. Delphi Classics. 8.2.4
What story is it that Pausanias claimed to believe?

For Cecrops was the first to name Zeus the Supreme god, and refused to sacrifice anything that had life in it, but burnt instead on the altar the national cakes which the Athenians still call pelanoi. But Lycaon brought a human baby to the altar of Lycaean Zeus, and sacrificed it, pouring out its blood upon the altar, and according to the legend immediately after the sacrifice he was changed from a man to a wolf (Lycos).

Pausanias, 8.2.3

Despite Litwa’s wording (“it was a real time in the past that gradually melted into our time”) it is evident that he is relegating the age of mythical heroes and gods on earth to the remote past. But we have seen that though some things changed (the monsters were cleansed from the earth, for instance) those figures were widely believed by the “common people” (as distinct from the highly educated and literate elite) to have had recent, and even contemporary, appearances on earth among mortals.

What is interesting is Litwa’s next two paragraphs because they fit so neatly into Sarah Iles Johnston’s explanation for why Greek myths were so “real” and easy to believe: read more »

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 »

update

I posted my Review parts 7 & 8 too soon. I have since added to the post a detailed discussion of what Xenophon was doing with his Cyrus figure: — specifically, I have added Tomas Hägg’s analysis that I think is correct: the work is not history even by ancient standards. I also think what Xenophon was doing with Cyrus the evangelists were doing with the Jesus figure, only in a different medium or genre.

. . .

One more thing, on another matter:

If anyone has been getting spam emails that appear in some way to be related to having made a comment on Vridar please do let Tim or me know.

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

read more »

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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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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