Lawrence Wills: “The Life of Aesop and the Hero Cult Paradigm in the Gospel Tradition”

In an earlier blog essay I compared the genre of the New Testament Gospels with The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod as a hybrid of ancient novel and biography. As I discuss in my essay “Are the Gospels Ancient Biographies?: The Spectrum of Ancient Βίοι,” there was a great diversity of biographical literature in antiquity, with some Greco-Roman biographies being scholarly and analytical (such as those of Plutarch and Suetonius), while others were more novelistic and hagiographical accounts of popular legendary figures. This distinction is discussed by Classicist Tomas Hägg in The Art of Biography in Antiquity (pg. 99), who writes:

“Simultaneously with the emergence of a bookish form of biography in the late classical and Hellenistic periods, vital biographic traditions were in progress at an oral or subliterary level, concerning in the first place legendary figures of great popular appeal … In contrast to the Lives treated in the previous chapter, which are the works of distinctive authors and largely remain under authorial control, these are anonymous; and they are ‘open texts’, with regard to origin as well as transmission.”

In my comparison of the Gospels with The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod, I argued that, if the Gospels are to be categorized as ancient biographies (a comparison that I do not oppose), then they fit most aptly in the latter category described by Hägg above, of biographical traditions at the oral or subliterary level about figures of great popular appeal. This comparison is based, in part, on the observation that the Gospels, like these popular Lives, operated as ‘open texts,’ which redacted and compiled large amounts of earlier materials (e.g. the Q Gospel, Signs Gospel, and Gospel of Mark), and were more centered around story-telling than critical analysis, with the biographical features of the text being largely peripheral.

61kLPcnPoqL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_As it turns out, I am not the first to make this comparison between the Gospels and novelistic biographies, since a number of scholars have also noted similar parallels between the Gospels and the Life of Aesop. Most notably, this comparison has been made by Lawrence Wills in The Quest of the Historical Gospel, in a chapter titled “The Life of Aesop and the Hero Cult Paradigm in the Gospel Tradition,” as well as Whitney Shiner in a contributing article to the volume Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative, titled “Creating Plot in Episodic Narratives: The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark.” Since both of these authors make arguments highly relevant to my earlier comparsion between the Gospels and The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod, I think it will be worthwhile to discuss each of their contributions here on Κέλσος.

In this first post I will discuss the arguments of Lawrence Wills, and in a subsequent post I will discuss those of Whitney Shiner.

Wills begins his chapter by noting that the origin of the Gospels’ genre must take into account both analogical and derivational models. An analogical model looks at literary genres that have parallels with the Gospels (often independent of the Gospels themselves), whereas a derivational model looks at earlier literary, mythical, and historical antecedents to the Gospels which inspired their depiction of Jesus (upon which the Gospels are dependent). Concerning this distinction, Wills (pg. 23) writes:

“Partial analogies to the gospels can be found in many genres, from novels to parables to apocalypses, but the closest analog is the popular, novelistic biography that is related to the cult of the hero. On the derivational side, the gospel also appears to have developed from the Jewish ideal of the suffering righteous person, influenced as well by the growth of the Christian kerygma, or proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus and the conflictual nature of the controversy stories.”

After identifying novelistic biography as the best analogical model for the Gospels, Wills goes on to argue that the anonymous Life of Aesop makes for the best comparison. Wills (pg. 23) explains:

“The tradition of Aesop as a teller of barbed fables … is found as early as the fifth century B.C.E., and the account of his life, which circulated in multiple versions, may derive from narrative traditions that are as old. The extant versions, however, are dated to about the turn of the era, that is, roughly contemporary with the gospels…”

The process of composition described above is very similar to The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod, where an anonymous editor compiles multiple earlier accounts into a single episodic narrative (which then circulates with multiple textual variations). As I explain in my essay “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels,” the NT Gospels are also better described as edited volumes, rather than the unique work of a single author, based on how they borrow and redact earlier materials (often verbatim), with the editor of the text remaining anonymous.

Beyond these structural observations, however, Wills also notes a number of thematic similarities between the Gospels and the Life of Aesop. As Wills (pg. 23) explains about the subject of the biography:

“Aesop is introduced in the Life as an ugly and misshapen slave who is in the beginning unable to speak. He is devoted to Isis, however, and after he shows kindness to one of the priestesses, falls into a sleep and is granted by the goddess the power of speech. This gift he uses to the utmost–he never stops talking, but with an acid wit skewers the pretensions of his new owner, a philosopher, and also the owner’s wife and fellow philosophers.”

Aesop is prominent for teaching in fables, a form of fiction quite similar to the parables used by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. On this point, it is also worth noting John Dominic Crossan’s recent book on the subject, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus. For his teachings, Aesop, like Jesus, runs into problems with the authorities and is executed. As Wills (pp. 23-24) explains:

“Through his cleverness he manages to help both his master and the citizens of Samos, and ultimately attains his freedom. Once free, however, he soon runs foul of the citizens of Delphi, and rebukes them with his sharp-pointed fables. They condemn him to death on a trumped-up charge, and he is executed. When a plague strikes the city, they consult an oracle of Zeus and learn that they must expiate their sin through sacrifice.”

Here, Wills draws a major parallel with the life of Jesus, namely the wrongful execution of the subject, followed by divine vindication. As Wills (pg. 28) argues:

“The relationship of blame, violent reaction, impurity, expiation, and immortality of the hero are drawn close together. Similarities to the expiatory death of Jesus can be seen here, especially if we begin to consider the latter in terms of ambivalent worship with his people, that is, to Jews, Israel, or Jerusalem.”

Wills (pg. 29) also notes that the length of the Life of Aesop is a bit longer than Mark and John, and and about the same length as Matthew and Luke. Wills points out, however, that in terms of structure the Life is more similar to Mark in John, particularly in how the text does not begin with a narrative of the subject’s birth (though Aesop is briefly said to have been born a slave in Amorium of Phrygia, without discussion of the circumstances), or his early growth and development, but is instead focused on his adult life.

The structure of the Life of Aesop is organized as follows:

  1. Introduction (1-19)
  2. Aesop and his master Xanthos, whom he eventually helps (20-91)
  3. Aesop helps the Samians (92-100)
  4. Aesop helps King Lykoros of Babylonia (101-23)
  5. Aesop in Delphi, where he cannot help himself (124-42)

Wills (pg. 24) points out how these five sections echo the five acts of Attic drama. Although he notes similarities with Greek New Comedy, he ultimately opts for the classification of tragedy on the dramatic spectrum. The five sections above also each have their own particular form of discourse:

  1. Aesop is mute, but uses gestures with positive effect
  2. Aesop uses direct, barbed instruction and wisely solves problems
  3. Aesop uses fables with positive effect
  4. Aesop uses direct, barbed instruction and wisely solves problems
  5. Aesop uses fables with negative effect

In the ‘Introduction’ section of the Life, Aesop’s muteness is cured by the goddess Isis, when he sleeps in a sacred grove, which serves as a locus amoenusWills (pg. 29) argues that this scene, which incorporates a voice from heaven that calls the subject to his mission (in Aesop’s case, teaching through fables), is very similar to Jesus’ baptism in the Gospels, which also begins his adult ministry (teaching in parables), and is signaled by a divine voice from heaven.

The scene of Aesop’s experience with the goddess Isis is described as follows in the Life (chapters 6-7):

“The brook echoed the rustling of the branches of the trees round about. As a sweet, gentle wind began to blow, the verdant limbs were gently moved and wafted over him a cool breeze, creating in the many-blossomed wood a fresh and restful spot. The hum of cicadas in the branches filled the air, and the chorus of many different kinds of birds could be heard … And Echo, the imitator of voices, uttered her responsive sounds in harmony. All of these voices conspired to lull Aesop into a deep and blissful sleep. Our lady, the goddess Isis, then made her appearance, together with the nine Muses, and said, “You see here, my daughters, the very image of true piety, a man who may be ill-proportioned on the outside, but is above all reproach in regard to his inner spirit. He once gave guidance to my servant when she had lost her way, and now in your presence I shall reward him. I myself shall restore his voice, while you bestow upon that voice the most noble ability in speaking.” When she had said this, Isis removed from Aesop’s tongue the impediment that had prevented him from speaking, and gave him back his voice. She also persuaded each of the Muses in turn to grant Aesop something of her own gifts. They bestowed upon him the power to compose and elaborate Greek tales.”

Wills argues that the scene in which Isis appears to Aesop is most similar to the role that Jesus’ baptism plays in the Gospel of Mark. In particular, the scene introduces the beginning of Mark, rather than the subject’s birth, at a crucial point in the adult life of the subject. Wills does concede that the Life of Aesop is considerably more vivid in its description, compared to the terse style of the Gospel of Mark; however, the scene of Isis’ pronouncement can be compared to the voice from heaven in Mark 1:9-11, followed by the descent of the spirit like a dove:

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Most importantly, each scene specifies the relationship of the protagonist to God. Following his baptism, Jesus begins his adult ministry traveling and teaching in parables. This content makes up the bulk of the Gospels, until the Passion narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion. The structure of the Life of Aesop is very similar. As Wills (pg. 30) notes:

“The long central section of the Life, as noted above, is a ‘teaching’ section, a ‘ministry’ section if you will. Anecdotes of Aesop’s cynical wit are recounted one after another, which despite their satirical indirection, do carry a didactic point: the social order, built upon appearances, elevates dunces and fails to recognize the true philosopher.”

Like the Gospels, the Life of Aesop ends with the wrongful execution of the subject. The events that prompt Aesop’s execution are also very similar to those leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. Wills (pg. 31) notes a number of parallels in the following summary:

“The fables at the end of Aesop find striking parallels in Mark and John. When Aesop arrives at his final destination in the narrative, Delphi, he utters fables that are even more caustic than before, and that condemn the citizens of Delphi and accuse them of being descended from slaves (chs 125-26). We are reminded, first, of Mark’s use of the parable of the wicked tenants near the end of the gospel, in ch. 12. Unlike most of the other parables, it is full-blown allegory that specifically condemns the Jerusalem authorities. Its length and tone are almost identical to that of Aesop’s allegorical fables at the end of the Life. We are also reminded of John 8, where Jesus accuses the Judeans of being offspring of Satan. Richard Pervo rightly compares theories of Mark as a ‘gospel in parable’ to Aesop as a ‘gospel in fable.’ Further, the city officials in the Life, we are told, ‘decided to kill Aesop by treachery (dolo)’ (127). This reaction of the city officials is very similar to Mark 14:1, where the chief priests and scribes were ‘seeking how to arrest him by treachery (dolo) and kill him.’”

Beyond the structural similarities noted above in the beginning sections of each text (where God calls the subject to his mission), the middle of each text (where the travels or ministry of the adult subject is depicted), and the end of each text (where both subjects are wrongfully executed by the authorities through treachery), Wills also notes a number of other important parallels between the NT Gospels and the Life of Aesop:

First, Wills (pg. 24) notes that the language and style of the Life of Aesop is more simple than the elevated and analytical style of elite Greco-Roman biographies.

“The Life of Aesop, on the surface, reflects less the viewpoint of the ruling class than do the other Greek and Roman novels, and is written in a correspondingly lower style, much closer to that of the gospels. It does not partake of many of the intellectual pretensions of ancient biography, or of the mock-biography which Lucian cultivates, but like the biographies, focuses from beginning to end on the important life-events of a single character. It overlaps with the same genres as do the gospels–novel, biography, aretalogy–and we can consider it along with the gospels as a ‘biographical novel.’ Aesop is very primitive in some of the main areas of accomplishment of novelistic art; it is episodic, with little clear plot development over the middle sections of the novel, and the characters are little more than one-dimensional.”

Likewise, Wills (pg. 31) notes that a large percentage of the Life of Aesop consists of dialogue and interior monologue. This is similar to the Gospels, in that both sets of texts utilize a high amount of direct speech, as opposed to indirect speech. This is very different from scholarly and historical biographies in antiquity, such as those of Plutarch and Suetonius, which far less frequently incorporate direct speech. This is likewise another important issue for genre, since ancient historians and historical biographies often refrained from direct speech, since they didn’t know the exact words of their subjects. Since the Gospels and the Life of Aesop are popular-novelistic biographies, however, they incorporate many more dramatic and fictional elements, including scripted dialogues.

Finally, Wills (pg. 31) notes that both sets of texts feature a central travel narrative, where the subject moves from the periphery of the Greek or Judaic world, to the center:

“Further, the movement in Aesop from Samos to Delphi–that is, from the periphery to the center, especially the center as far as the god Apollo is concerned–is similar to the movement in Mark and John from Galilee to Judea (compare especially Aesop 124 with Mark 10:32-34 and Luke 9:51), and in both cases the narrative action of the conflict will come to revolve around a temple, where the god’s deliverance will become problematic.”

Overall, I found Wills comparison between the NT Gospels and the Life of Aesop to be highly illuminating, and I think that his chapter has definitely strengthened my earlier comparison with The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod. Just as I noted that the Certamen comparison has limitations (particularly in being restricted to Greek culture, whereas the Gospels are hybrids of Judaic and Greek cultures), however, Wills also notes limitations in the Life of Aesop comparison. In particular, Wills (pg. 50) notes that the Life of Aesop is more satirical than the Gospels, and may have been intended to be read more fictionally (though, Wills does not think that this is likely). Wills (pg. 50) also argues, however:

“Whether Aesop is satirical or fictitious seems shockingly irrelevant for determining its genre, or for determining whether it is of the same genre as the two gospels: they accomplish the same ends by using the same sort of narrative.”

Another interesting comparison that Wills notes with the Life of Aesop are the traditions of the Athenian philosopher Socrates. Like Aesop, Socrates was executed for his controversial teachings. In particular Wills (pg. 30) notes that Aesop’s prison scene (chs 129-33) is similar to Socrates’ imprisonment (cf. Crito), as well as Aesop’s claim that he knows nothing (ch. 25), which parallels Socrates declaration that he is only wise, because he knows nothing (cf. Apology).

I had already appreciated Wills many good parallels between the Life of Aesop and the NT Gospels, but I must say that these additional parallels with other Classical figures, such as Socrates, was also a great part of his book chapter.

-Matthew Ferguson

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4 Responses to Lawrence Wills: “The Life of Aesop and the Hero Cult Paradigm in the Gospel Tradition”

  1. Pingback: Vridar » Lawrence Wills: “The Life of Aesop and the Hero Cult Paradigm in the Gospel Tradition”

  2. David Ashton says:

    The mytheme of the Divine Hero in Combat with the Evil Reptile is rooted deep in both Indo-European and Hebrew traditions. The Fourth Gospel is a theological drama that could be adapted for a Greek theater production or even a movie in the Joseph Campbell style.

  3. Pingback: Aesop and Jesus | Marmalade

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

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