Recently 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.
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.