Patterns of Myth-Making Between the Lives of Alexander the Great and Jesus Christ

Greek Alexander RomanceRecently on Κέλσος I have been discussing the Alexander Romance and some of the similarities that this mythical biography of Alexander the Great shares with the New Testament Gospels. The earliest Greek version of the Alexander Romance that we possess dates to the 2nd-4th centuries CE, which is a number of centuries after Alexander’s death. Nevertheless, the Alexander Romance functioned as an ‘open text,’ meaning that it was added to and redacted for several centuries following its earliest composition. Due to this fact, the first version of the Romance that we possess almost certainly was not the first that was written.

The leading Classicist to study the subject, Richard Stoneman, dates the Alexander Romance to as early as the beginning of the 3rd century BCE, only a generation or two after Alexander’s death (323 BCE). Even if the Alexander Romance had been written much later, however, the text certainly makes use of eyewitness and contemporary source materials that were written during or shortly after Alexander’s lifetime. One of the sources used by the Romance is Onesicritus, who was a personal traveling companion of Alexander, who nevertheless claimed that Alexander had met with mythical Amazonian warriors on his journeys. As B.P. Reardon (Collected Ancient Greek Novels, pg. 651) points out, “It comes as a shock to realize how quickly historians fictionalized Alexander.”

The first version of the Alexander Romance that we possess contains a number of geographical and chronological errors. Since the text evolved through several centuries of composition, however, many of the greatest errors in the narrative are simply later additions. One example is Alexander’s journey to Rome (AR 1.28), which never historically took place, since the historical Alexander the Great only journeyed to the East. This error is almost certainly a later addition, however, which was added to the text during the period of the Roman Empire. As the Alexander Romance evolved over the centuries, new stories were added to the text in order to have Alexander visit new locations where the Romance was being read. The first versions, therefore, probably contained less geographical and chronological errors than the later versions.

The Alexander Romance likewise contains symbolic locations, which are not meant to be taken literally. As Alexander travels beyond Persia into lands unknown to the Greco-Roman world, he begins to encounter increasingly marvelous phenomena in the narrative. These include descriptions of lands where “the sun does not shine” (2.39) and giant humans with “forearms and hands like saws” (2.32). These descriptions, however, are not referring to literal places and people. As I explain in my previous essay, “Eschatology in Alexander’s Letter to Olympias and the Book of Revelation,” such imagery is used figuratively to illustrate Alexander’s journey to the end of the Earth. This portion of the narrative has many eschatological themes similar to the Book of Revelation, which also describes marvelous phenomena, such as creatures with “six wings covered with eyes all around” (4:6-8), which likewise are not meant to be taken literally. Furthermore, some of the recensions of the Alexander Romance even omit such details. Recension α, for example, does not include the Letter to Olympias, which contains many of the most marvelous descriptions in the Romance. Recension α, therefore, is a relatively less fabulous version of the text than recension β.

Six-Winged Creatures

For the purposes of myth-making, however, the dating and accuracy of the Alexander Romance is largely irrelevant to its value as a comparison text for the Gospels. This is because the eyewitness and contemporary sources used by the Romance date back to stories that were being told about Alexander during his lifetime and shortly after. The myths that were developing about Alexander during this period bear many similarities to the stories that were told about Jesus 40-60 years after his death. To be sure, Alexander is not a duplicate of Jesus, due to the fact that there are important differences between any two figures of history. But the patterns of myth-making that surrounded both individuals and developed rapidly after their lives share a number of similar themes.

The most common form of myth-making seen between Alexander and Jesus is the modeling of their characters upon previous heroic archetypes. Even before the Alexander Romance was written, Alexander was being compared to figures like Hercules and Achilles. Likewise, prior to the composition of the Gospels, Jesus was being compared to figures like Moses, David, Elijah, and Elisha. This modeling upon heroic archetypes resulted in a number of inventions and embellishments being told about each figure, in order to liken them to their mythical counterparts. Below I will lay out some of the common myth-making patterns shared between Alexander and Jesus.

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Eschatology in Alexander’s Letter to Olympias and the Book of Revelation

Amitay 3I have been writing recently on Κέλσος about the topic of my dissertation, which identifies the NT Gospels as belonging to the genre of Greek popular-novelistic biography, through a comparison with the Alexander Romance and the Life of Aesop. The comparison of Alexander the Great in the Romance with Jesus Christ in the Gospels is especially enlightening, since both Alexander and Jesus were historical persons, who had fabulous accounts written about their lives within only a couple generations after their deaths [1]. Both were likewise called the “Son of God” (discussed by Ory Amitay in From Alexander to Jesus) [2], and both were attributed dual paternity, with Alexander being the son of Philip of Macedon and the Egyptian god Ammon, and with Jesus being the son of Joseph of Nazareth and the Jewish god Yahweh [3]. Both Alexander and Jesus were also considered to be “king of kings.” 

What is especially interesting about the Alexander Romance, however, is that it also has similarities with more books in the New Testament than just the Gospels. In this post, I will discuss a similarity that the Alexander Romance shares with the Book of Revelation, in a lengthy letter that Alexander sends to his mother Olympias at the end of book two. Alexander’s letter is to a certain extent apocalyptic, in that it makes multiple predictions of Alexander’s death. But the greatest similarity that the Letter to Olympias shares with the Book of Revelation is that both texts are heavily eschatological, in that they each discuss the end of the Earth. In Revelation, the Earth is destroyed by the second coming of Jesus, whereas in the Letter to Olympias, Alexander travels to the end of the Earth. Both texts are filled with surreal imagery and read almost like a dream. Below is my analysis:

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Homeric Mimesis in the Alexander Romance

Recently I posted a guest blog by NT scholar Dennis MacDonald, which discusses the possible use of Homeric mimesis in the canonical Gospels, particularly the Gospel of Mark. Mimesis of earlier literature is a common literary technique found in the genre of Greek popular-novelistic biography, which I argue is the genre that the Gospels most resemble in Hellenistic literature. Even if one does not grant that the Gospels imitate Homer, however, it is still widely accepted among NT scholars that the Gospels imitate the language, tropes, and characters of the Greek Septuagint, and thus model Jesus off of OT figures such as Moses, David, Elijah, and Elisha.

The same is true for the Life of Aesop, which is a philosophical biography blended with heavy novelistic elements. In the biography Aesop is modeled off of famous Greek philosophers, such as Diogenes and Socrates. In the latter case, a clear echo of Socrates is heard in the Life of Aesop (25) when the philosopher Xanthos asks him, “What do you know how to do?,” to which Aesop replies, “Nothing at all.” When Xanthos asks, “Why do you say nothing,” one of his students responds, “No man alive knows everything. That’s why he said he knew nothing.” This imitates Socrates’ declaration in Plato’s Apology (29b), where he states that he knows only one thing: that he knows nothing.

Socrates Quote

I likewise discuss in this earlier post how Alexander is modeled off of Odysseus in the Alexander Romance (1.21), when he drives out Philip’s wedding banquet (as Philip was in the process of marrying another woman than his mother), which mimics Odysseus driving out the suitors from his house in the Odyssey. Below I will discuss another instance of Homeric mimesis in the Alexander Romance, which this time imitates the cycle of the Trojan War.

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Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot Never Existed: The Author of the Gospel of Mark Created Them (Guest Blog by New Testament Scholar Dennis MacDonald)

MacDonaldBelow is a guest blog that NT scholar Dennis MacDonald asked me to post here on Κέλσος. MacDonald argues that both Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot are fictional characters that never historically existed, but were created by the author of Mark. This post is heavily related to my previous essay, which discusses the creation of fictional characters in the Alexander Romance, namely prince Nicolaus of the Arcarnanians and Lysias the divider.

I should note that my posting of MacDonald’s essay here does not constitute endorsement, since I also think that Mary and Judas could have existed as historical persons (or been invented for reasons other than Homeric mimesis). Nevertheless, I likewise think that MacDonald’s hypothesis is interesting and certainly plausible. Below is MacDonald’s essay:


I’ve had enough! I’m writing this paper at 4:00 a.m. March 28, 2016, the day after Easter. Throughout Holy Week New Testament scholars, many of whom are not only my colleagues but my friends, have naively proposed in various popular media some variation on the historical Judas and Magdalene and how later tradition reshaped and contested their legacies. I heard no one challenging the presumption that such characters actually existed, even though the earliest Christian records don’t mention them, namely the authentic epistles of Paul and the lost Gospel Q, which I prefer to call the Logoi of Jesus. They both first appear in Christian texts in the Gospel of Mark, and every single reference to them later issues—whether directly or indirectly—from that single work. The existence of both characters thus depends on one’s assessment of what Mark says about them. This not to say that later both characters became exceedingly and controversial dramatis personae in Jesus narratives and their interpretations, but both first appear in Mark, who frequently created character with significant names.

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Allegorical Characters with Common Names in the Alexander Romance and the Gospels

In my previous post I discussed the genre of Greek popular-novelistic biography, and why I think that the NT Gospels, out of the broad spectrum of ancient biographical literature, most resemble this biographical subtype, on the basis of a number of structural and thematic parallels. Laying the groundwork for this comparison required a rather lengthy essay in my previous post. However, I plan to flesh out this comparison further in some subsequent posts, which will generally be shorter and focused on more specific issues.

Alexander RomanceIn this post I will discuss the role of allegorical characters in popular-novelistic biographies, by discussing two important examples in the Alexander Romance, namely the role of Nicolaus in 1.18 and that of Lysias in 1.21, and how I think they can shed light on the possibility of allegorical characters appearing in the Gospels. I have discussed previously on this blog how certain characters in the Gospels, who play specific narrative roles and whose names match those narrative roles, could be allegorical inventions of the author.

In particular, I have discussed here how Joseph of Arimathea, whose city epithet transliterates to “Best Disciple Town” (formed by the Greek prefix ἀρι- [“best”] and μάθησις/μαθητής [“teaching/disciple”] with the addition of the suffix -αία as a standard indicator of place), could be an allegorical character who gives Jesus a proper burial as the “best disciple,” after the others had fled. I have also discussed here how Barabbas, whose name means “son of the father,” and who is pitted by Pontius Pilate against Jesus (the true Son of God) for the Jewish crowd’s release, could be an allegorical character to show how the Judeans rejected their true Messiah in place of a military insurgent. I have also discussed here how Stephen, whose name means “crown,” and who is martyred in Acts 7:54-60, could be a character invented to allude to the “crown of martyrdom” or “crown of immortality”–a phrase found in chs. 17 and 19 of the Martyrdom of Polycarp (a text that likely dates to the 3rd century CE)–but also a concept which may have dated back much earlier into the 1st-2nd centuries CE.

A common objection to identifying allegorical characters in this way is that names like “Joseph” and “Stephen” were common names, which could have just been the names of ordinary people that coincidentally aligned with their narrative roles. Richard Bauckham, for example, in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (pp. 84) argues that the names that appear in the Gospels match real world frequencies, which “indicates the general authenticity of personal names in the Gospels” [1]. As I will discuss below, however, there are clear examples in the Alexander Romance of allegorical characters whose names likewise match common Greek names in the 5th-4th century BCE. As such, I do not think that it should be an expectation when studying the Gospels that allegorical characters will only have rare or unique names, nor that matching real world name frequencies implies that characters are not fictional.

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Greek Popular Biography: Romance, Contest, Gospel

Alright, I have finished grading exams, advanced to Ph.D. candidacy, and wrapped up the Winter 2016 academic quarter. I have also been catching up on rest and exercise this past week, while recovering from a very busy and stressful last couple of months. Today is the first day that I have felt like writing again, and I have decided to resume my blogging here on Κέλσος by discussing my presentation at the Pacific Coast SBL meeting at Claremont earlier this month, along with some of the work that I have been doing on my dissertation.

The conference paper that I presented at Claremont makes a comparison of genre between the New Testament Gospels and the Certamen of Homer and Hesiod (I have discussed this comparison previously in this earlier essay). The Certamen is a popular and performative account of the lives and deaths of the Greek poets Homer and Hesiod, as well as their famous contest at Chalcis in Euboea. Drawing from elements of epic, novel, and biography, the Certamen makes up a sort of hybrid genre in the spectrum of Greco-Roman biography, which I categorize under the term “popular-novelistic biography.” The Gospels can likewise be said to be biographical, in that they narrate the life, ministry, and death of Jesus. Nevertheless, the goal of my presentation at Claremont was to provide more insight into exactly what kind of biographies the Gospels are, and which other texts they most resemble from antiquity.

Alexander

There was a vast amount of biographical literature in antiquity, about a wide range of different subjects, some being kings, generals, and politicians, and others being poets and philosophers. Beyond just the biographical subject, however, different biographical texts could also be written in different ways, varying in their length, style, and historical reliability. Some ancient biographies were very scholarly and historically rigorous, such as those of Plutarch and Suetonius, while others were more novelistic and directed toward a wider audience, such as the Certamen of Homer and Hesiod.

AesopThe Certamen is not the only popular biography from the ancient world, however. During the course of my dissertation research, I have also been studying two other popular biographical traditions from antiquity–the Aesop Romance and the Alexander Romance. These texts are also relevant to my SBL paper, since, for my dissertation topic, I will be doing an extended comparison of the Romances with the NT Gospels. (My original dissertation topic had been about the authorship of the Gospels, but during the course of my research I was drawn toward this comparison of genre.)

As such, I will discuss in greater detail below the genre of Greek popular biography, through the examples of the Certamen of Homer and Hesiod, the Aesop Romance, and the Alexander Romance, and why I think that the Gospels of Jesus in the New Testament belong most to this genre (at least in terms of Hellenistic literature, while acknowledging that the Gospels also have important Jewish influences). I’ll also include some of the PPT slides from my presentation at Claremont in the discussion. I have been writing about the issue of the Gospels’ literary genre for some time on this blog, but through the comparison with Greek popular biography, I feel that these sacred texts are starting to make more sense to me than ever before!

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Excellent News!

Earlier this week I passed my dissertation prospectus and advanced to Ph.D. candidacy in my graduate program! This was the final step of the qualifying portion of my graduate studies, which has brought to conclusion a large number of hurdles that I have had to jump through over the last several years (2010-2016). Now all I have to do is write my dissertation, which will be a lot of work, but will also free up a lot more time for research.

A Classics Ph.D. is one of the most difficult degrees that you can get in the Humanities. The reason why is that you have to have very strong language skills and are required to pass a large number of qualifying exams. To get to this point I have taken no less than 11 qualifying exams, as part of both my M.A. and Ph.D. programs, in addition to 2 major oral defenses:

  • Language-wise, I have had to take qualifying exams in Italian, German, Latin, and Greek (as I discussed earlier on this blog, the Greek exam was by far the most difficult of these).
  • History-wise, I took 4 qualifying exams as part of my M.A. program (general Mediterranean history, Roman history, Greek history, and history of the Latin language), in addition to 3 further qualifying exams that I have taken as part of my Ph.D. program (Roman history, Greek history, and history of literature).
  • Oral defense-wise, I had to defend my M.A. thesis when I completed my master’s degree back in 2012. This week I likewise passed my prospectus defense, which means that I won’t have any more major Ph.D. milestones, until the anticipated date of my dissertation defense in 2-3 years.

I am very relieved to be done with this process, and I have been catching up on a lot of rest this week. The prospectus defense was particularly stressful, since, for scheduling reasons, I had to hold the defense on the exact same day as my presentation at the regional SBL at Claremont this year. I got up at 2am that day and did not finish until around 8pm. It was a very busy day, but overall both events went well!

I still have a stack of exams to grade for a course that I TA, but after that I should have a lot more time to catch up on blogging. There are a number of comments that I have approved, but haven’t had the chance to answer yet, which I will be getting to over the upcoming weeks. Likewise, I will be writing more here at length about the topic of my dissertation and the current research that I am working on.

What is especially good about advancing to candidacy is that, upon doing so, I recieved a year-long dissertation fellowship. This means that I don’t have to TA or take seminars over the next three quarters, and can dedicate all of my time to research and writing. (Though, for the heck of it, I will be taking a graduate seminar on the historical Jesus at UC Santa Barbara next quarter with NT scholar Christine Thomas.) I also plan to use the time to catch up on exercise and to get into better health. I have been attending college non-stop since Fall 2005, and over a decade of college living can really take a toll on you.

The year spanning from March 2015 to March 2016 has, in particular, been the most difficult. I have had to focus heavily on passing the final stages of my qualifying exams, and have had less time to work on other projects that I am interested in. This all added up to Winter 2016 being perhaps the most stressful quarter of my graduate studies. As I posted earlier on this blog, I have had almost no time to engage in online activity this quarter (with the exception of my debate with evangelical scholar Craig Evans), since all of my energy has been going toward grad school. I have been working over-time and even my weekends have been spent on school this quarter.

Now that I have advanced to the research portion of my graduate studies, I plan to resume my blogging here on Κέλσος. So, stay tuned over the next weeks and months for some exciting new material!

-Matthew Ferguson

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