Tag Archives: Pagan gods

Review, part 4 (Gospel & Pagan Gods in Flesh) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

We now come to the most interesting chapters of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. We are no longer distracted by protests against those who would deny the historicity of Jesus or, at least not directly, protests against scholars who posit that the evangelists directly imitated Homer. The title of chapter 3 is “Incarnation” and here Litwa enlightens readers to the first-century context of how readers might have understood the very idea of a god appearing in the world in flesh as a human being. To be fair, though, Litwa intends to demonstrate more than this ancient world-view. Litwa also attempts to demonstrate how the evangelists presented the idea of god’s incarnation as plausible history.

Litwa begins with the Gospel of John and right from the start pulls me up with notions that may be old-hat to others but that were noteworthy to me: in the Gospel of John Jesus is never shown to be eating but he does tell others to eat him (or eat his flesh) and similar ideas. So what does “incarnation” mean to the fourth evangelist? Interesting question.

Sent into the world

Moving on, Litwa informs/reminds readers that just as biblical Wisdom was driven away when she tried to dwell among men so the Greek goddess of Justice, likewise, was driven from the unjust world of humanity. But the more detailed comparisons come with Hermes (the Roman Mercury) who was also known as the Logos, the interpreter of the high god Zeus, and messenger from Zeus to mortals. Litwa points to several messenger and creative roles of Hermes but focusses on Hermes assumption of a human body in his errands. We saw one of these roles when recently discussing M. David Litwa’s criticisms of Dennis MacDonald’s thesis. The god Hermes swept down from Mount Olympus to meet and escort the Trojan Priam on his dangerous quest to enter the Greek camp and request the return of the body of his slain son Hector. There Hermes took on the form of a young warrior capable of winning the trust of Priam and safely escorting him to the Greek camp.

Augustus Caesar: Mercury in the flesh

But Litwa informs us that Hermes — as the Roman Mercury — was subsequently portrayed by a Roman poet (Horace) as appearing on earth in the body of Augustus Caesar.

Then there is the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras. Litwa carries us through the biographers who lead readers to understand that the great thinker was also a “god who had come to earth”:

Iamblichus reported a Pythagorean creedal question (akousma) with its correct answer: ‘“Who are you Pythagoras?’ For they confess that he is the Hyperborean Apollo.(Litwa, 69)

Pythagoras: Apollo in the flesh

But from here Litwa becomes more interesting still. Pythagoras revealed his true divine identity (i.e. the god Apollo in the flesh) to one selected follower, Abaris. Pythagoras took Abaris aside to show him, privately, that he had a thigh of pure gold — an unequivocal proof that he was truly a god. Later, at an Olympic Games, Pythagoras was reported by many eyewitnesses as having accidentally revealed the same golden thigh, thus proving to multitudes his divine nature.

Litwa reasonably draws a comparison with Jesus’ private revelation to Peter that he is indeed the Messiah. And this is, of course, reinforced by Jesus demonstrating the fact by the visible transformation of his body in the Transfiguration (as Pythagoras showed his golden thigh) to his select few followers. Litwa’s point, however, is more than mere revelation. Litwa argues that it is the quotidian, the prosaic, the mundane commonplace setting that goes some way to transforming the myth into “plausible history”.

The revelation and transfiguration take place at a well-known urban centre, Caesarea Philippi, and on a nearby mountain. Peter fumbles for words and says something quite silly so readers are clear that he is taken completely by surprise as any mere mortal would be. Litwa compares this circumstantial detail with the ordinariness of details surrounding Pythagoras’s revelation to Abaris. The Gospel of Luke even goes one step further by depicting the disciples as sleeping and needing to be awoken when Jesus’ body is transformed. Sleep, waking up, saying silly things, a well-known city and mountain — all of this context sets the revelation into a “plausible” or “historically sounding” context, according to Litwa.

I am not so sure, however. To return to the scene of Hermes being sent by Zeus to escort Priam, we read in Homer the following. Hermes descends as commanded by Zeus but the details of his meeting with Priam are also very prosaic, as the highlighted words surely indicate:

With this wand in his hand the mighty [Hermes] made his flight and soon reached Troyland and the Hellespont. There he proceeded on foot, looking like a young prince at that most charming age when the beard first starts to grow.

Meanwhile the [Priam and his herald] had driven past the great barrow of Ilus and stopped their mules and horses for a drink at the river. Everything as dark by now, and it was not till Hermes was quite close to them that the herald looked up and saw him. He at once turned round to Priam and said: ‘Look, your majesty; we must beware. I see a man, and I am afraid we may be butchered. Let us make our escape in the chariot, or if not that, fall at his knees and implore his mercy.’ –

The old man [Priam] was dumbfounded and filled with terror; the hairs stood up on his supple limbs; he was rooted to the spot and could not say a word. But the [Hermes] did not wait to be accosted. He went straight up to Priam, took him by the hand . . . . [Iliad 24]

Yet no critic of Homer in later centuries (including the time the gospels were written) thought of Homer as writing more than poetry. Even if the Trojan War were thought to be history and Homer its historian, the universal opinion was that Homer wrote the story in terms of poetic myth. Mundane details may have contextualized the mythical encounters of humans and gods, but they did not demonstrate the “historical truth” of such encounters.

But questioning Litwa’s thesis is a secondary focus of mine. What fascinates me most is the broader cultural context of the ideas or motifs we find in the gospels in the first or second centuries CE. Upcoming — Litwa’s discussions of genealogies and divine conceptions.

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

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


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


Casting legions of demons into the sea — an original version?

This is one of a number of surviving Ugaritic incantations for exorcisms:

I will recite an incantation against the suspect ones;
alone I will overpower . . . .
And may the Sons of Disease turn around,
may the Sons of Disease fly away . . . .
may they beat themselves like the ill of mind!
Go back . . .
The Legion to the Legions,
The Flies to the Flies,
those of the Flood to the Flood

From Incantations I lines 20-30 (p. 179 of An Anthology of Religious Texts from Ugarit by Johannes de Moor, 1987)

Now I don’t know the original word translated as Legions, and I do not have access to my copy of the companion cuneiform and dictionary volume of this anthology. But though I have not included the scholarly marks indicating gaps and guesses in the above, it is a scholarly translation and the Legion translation is cross referenced to Mark 5:9

And He was asking him, “What is your name?” And he said to Him, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”

It seems superfluous to compare the incantation’s order that the demons beat themselves like the ill of mind with Mark 5:5

Constantly, night and day, he was screaming among the tombs and in the mountains, and gashing himself with stones.

And to compare the demons of the flood turning back to the flood with Mark 5:13

And coming out, the unclean spirits entered the swine; and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, about two thousand of them; and they were drowned in the sea.

The same text notes that Baal was the preferred god for exorcism because of his mastery over the sea and the monsters therein:

Baal is the champion of exorcists because he had defeated Sea and Death with their monsters. (p.183)

Other gods who healed the blind and raised the dead

Marduk

You take by the hand and raise the injured from his bed

Ishtar

The sick man who sees your face revives; his bondage is released; he gets up instantly.

At your command, O Ishtar, the blind man sees the light,

the unhealthy one who sees your face, becomes healthy.

O deity of men, goddess of women, whose delights no one can conceive, where you look one who is dead lives; one who is sick rises up.

Nabu

Let the dead man revive by your breeze; let his squandered life become gain.

It’s reassuring to know Jesus has company. Like Ishtar, he did not need to rely on hocus pocus rituals to heal. A mere word or command, or simply taking one’s hand, is clearly enough to heal when a deity is directly involved. Maybe the last line relating to Nabu speaks of a metaphoric raising from the dead. Maybe that was the original meaning of the miracles of Jesus in the first gospel, too.

(Extracts from B. R. Foster, Before the Muses, vol.2, cited in Thomas L. Thompson’s The Messiah Myth, p. 329)

The Wisdom and Ethics of Israel’s Pagan Neighbours

For many believers the Bible’s Book of Proverbs, widely thought to be the Wisdom of Solomon, enshrined in holy black covers and gold embossed lettering, has the status of a unique, even god-breathed, collection of sayings. It is a pity that not many readers have easy access to collections of writings from non-Israelite cultures that would enable them to better understand the context and comparative nature of the Bible’s books, including the Book of Proverbs. Noble ethics can be misunderstood as somehow unique to one race or religion if they are thought to exist exclusively in the Bible. It is much healthier for self-understanding and appreciation of humanity generally if we can compare the wisdom and ethics in the Bible with similar writings from the regions of ancient Babylonia.

Here’s another extract from Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 1969:

Akkadian Proverbs and Counsels

On modesty and watching your tongue and temper:

As a wise man, let your understanding shine modestly,

Let your mouth be restrained, guarded your speech.

Like a man’s wealth, let your lips be precious.

Let affront, hostility, be an abomination unto you.

Speak nothing impertinent, (give no) unreliable advice.

Whoever does something ugly — his head is despised.

Hasten not to stand in a public assembly,

Seek not the place of quarrel;

On the golden rule:

Unto your opponent do no evil;

Your evildoer recompense with good;

Unto your enemy let justice [be done],

On shunning the immoral woman:

Do not marry a harlot whose husbands are six thousand.

An Ishtar-woman vowed to a god,

A sacred prostitute whose favours are unlimited,

Will not lift you out of trouble:

In your quarrel she will slander you.

Reverence and submissiveness are not with her.

Truly, if she takes possession of the house, lead her out.

On basic goodnes and kindness:

Give food to eat, give date wine to drink;

The one begging for alms honor, clothe:

Over this his god rejoices,

This is pleasing unto the god Shamash, he rewards it with good.

Be helpful, do good.

Speak no evil:

Do not slander, speak what is fine.

Speak no evil, tell what is good.

Whoever slanders (or) speaks evil,

As a retribution the god Shamash will pursue after his head.

From Akkadian Proverbs and Counsels (Translator: Robert Pfeiffer), p.426, ANET

The above was from Mesopotamia. Here’s one from Egypt (the New Kingdom period):

Instruction of Amenemopet

Do not laugh at a blind man,

nor tease a dwarf,

nor cause hardship for the lame.

Don’t tease a man who is in the hand of the god, nor be angry with him for his failings. Man is clay and straw. The god is his builder. He tears down; he builds up daily; He makes a thousand poor by his will; he makes a thousand men into chiefs . . . .

Do not pounce on a widow when you find her in the fields, and then fail to be patient with her reply.

Do not refuse your jar to a stranger; double it before your brothers.

God prefers him who honors the poor to him who worships the wealthy.

From W. W. Hallo, The Context of Scripture. Cited by Thomas L. Thompson in The Messiah Myth, p.327

A Pagan endorsement for the devout Jew, Christian, Moslem

An ancient Akkadian wisdom text goes to the heart of the ideal relationship between a mortal and a deity. It makes no difference who one’s deity is. It is all the same. The text is clear evidence to me that there is no difference between pagan polytheistic religions and modern monotheistic ones in respect to a sense of pious devotion towards a deity.

Pay homage daily to your god

With sacrifice, prayer, and appropriate incense-offering.

Towards your god you should feel solicitude of heart:

That is what is appropriate to the deity.

Prayer, supplication, and prostration to the ground

Shall you offer in the morning: then your might will be great,

And in abundance, through god’s help, you will prosper.

In your learning examine the tablet.

Reverence (for the deity) produces well-being,

Sacrifice prolongs life,

And prayer atones for sin.

A god-fearing man is not despised by [his god];

Akkadian Proverbs and Counsels, p.427, ANET.

Does anyone else feel some loss that so few devotees of today’s one-and-only-gods evidence the same “live and let live” approach to religious diversity?