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.
In 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” . 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.
Nicolaus, prince of the Acarnanians, in Alexander Romance 1.18-19
I discussed in my previous essay, “Greek Popular Biography: Romance, Contest, Gospel,” how the taming of the wild horse Bucephalus (1.15) is an important moment in the Alexander Romance, which signifies that Alexander will be future ruler of the world. This scene is then followed up by the young Alexander competing in a chariot race at Pisa. There, he meets another youth named Nicolaus, who competes with him in the chariot race. Here is how the scene is described (1.18):
“Alexander went to the harbour and gave orders that a new boat should be launched and the horses with their chariots embarked. Then he went on and with him his friend Hephaestion and they sailed to Pisa. Landing there and taking lodgings, he gave orders to his servants about the care of the horses, and then with Hephaestion started on a walk. They were met by a man named Nicolaus, a fine young fellow, a prince of the Acarnanians, proud because he was relying on wealth and fortune, two undependable gods, and confident of his body’s power. He came up and greeted Alexander and, wishing to learn why he was there, said: ‘Greetings, young gentleman.’ He replied: ‘And greetings also to you whoever you may be.’ The other said: ‘Whom, pray, do you think you are addressing? Nicolaus, king of the Acarnanians.’ And Alexander said: ‘Do not be so haughty, King Nicolaus, as though you had a sure hold on your life today.’ … Then Nicolaus, raging and despising Alexander’s youth, for he had not learned the greatness of the spirit, spat at him and said: ‘A curse on you!’ Alexander, who had learned self-control, wiping off the spittle, and smiling ominously, said: ‘Nicolaus, I swear by the holy sperm of my father and the holy womb of my mother, that even here I will conquer you in the chariot-race and in the country of the Acarnanians I will conquer you with my spear.’ After this conversation, they parted in wrath.”
This hostile exchange is then followed up by the chariot race in which Alexander not only defeats Nicolaus, but also tramples him after his chariot crashes, causing Nicolaus to die (just like in the classic film Ben-Hur!). Here is how the scene is described:
“The trumpet sounded the call to the contest. The starting-place was opened. All leaped forth on their cars. Then appeared the first contestant, the second, the third and the fourth. . . As for those coming in later, their horses were not well guided and had lost their spirit. The fourth driver was Alexander and behind him was Nicolaus, who did not wish the victory as much as the destruction of Alexander. For the father of Nicolaus had been killed by Philip in the war … Alexander knew this and wisely contrived when the first horses fell, to let Nicolaus pass him. And Nicolaus, thinking that he had conquered Alexander, went on, hoping to be crowned as victor. But after two or three stades, the right horse of Nicolaus collapsed and the whole chariot with the charioteer himself was overturned. And Alexander rushing on with his horses at full speed immediately killed Nicolaus. Alexander continued on.”
This scene is then followed by Alexander being crowned at the Temple of Olympian Zeus, where another prophecy is given that he will be ruler of the world:
“So, crowned with the olive, he went up to the temple of Olympian Zeus. And the temple servant said to him: ‘Alexander, just as you conquered Nicolaus, may you conquer also many enemies.'”
A couple things should be noted here. First, as Ken Dowden (Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature, pg. 179) points out, the region of “Acarnania was not ruled by a king,” meaning that there would be no “prince” Nicolaus. But even more importantly, Alexander’s defeat of Nicolaus is given as a sign that he would “conquer many enemies.” What does the name “Nicolaus” mean? As Dowden (pg. 181) explains,”It is probably relevant that Niko-laos means literally ‘defeat people.'”
So, Alexander defeats Nicolaus as a sign that he would defeat people. Here, we have a clear example of an allegorical character being invented. And yet, “Nicolaus” was a common name in Classical Greece, showing how allegorical characters do not need to have rare or unique names.
What is further interesting is that this episode even shares a lot of similarities with Jesus being pitted against Barabbas in the Gospels. Alexander, prince of the Macedonians, is pitted against Nicolaus, prince of Acarnania, to see who will be the future ruler of the world. In like manner, Jesus the Son of God is pitted against Jesus Barabbas (Mt. 27:17), the “son of the father,” who is described as an insurrectionist (Mk. 15:7), to see whom the Judeans will release at the Passover festival. The fact that the Judeans choose the military insurrectionist, in place of an apocalyptic prophet, most likely foreshadows their decision to wage war against the Romans, rather than await the coming of the true Kingdom of God, which resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
Both scenes are fictional. The Acarnanians did not have princes or kings, and as the Oxford Annotated Bible (pg. 1821) points out, “There is no evidence outside of the New Testament of such a custom by Roman governors” to release a chosen prisoner at the Passover festival. (I discuss how this episode is more likely based on the custom of selecting two identical goats during the Yom Kippur sacrifice, here.) Nevertheless, both scenes serve allegorical roles in pitting would-be kings and would-be messiahs against each other. The way that these popular-novelistic biographies use allegorical characters heightens the drama and symbolism in their narratives, but it is a kind of literary device that is ultimately not founded in historical fact.
Lysias, the divider, and the wedding of Philip in Alexander Romance 1.21
Another important scene with an allegorical character follows the defeat of Nicolaus in the Alexander Romance. Following his victory in the chariot race, Alexander returns to Macedon, only to find that king Philip is marrying another woman than his mother Olympias, namely Cleopatra Eurydice. During the marriage banquet a man named Lysias insults Alexander by insinuating that he is a bastard:
“There was a wit present called Lysias. He said: ‘Philip, do not be excited or troubled, but take courage because of the youth of your new bride. She will bear you legitimate sons who will resemble their father.'”
Alexander is not only enraged by this, but even drives out Philip’s marriage banquet. (This scene is based on mimesis of Odysseus driving out the suitors in Homer’s Odyssey, and another major feature of popular-novelistic biographies that I will discuss in a subsequent post is how they tend to engage in mimesis of earlier literature; see here an essay about mimesis in the Gospels.) Here is how the scene is described:
“Alexander was very angry at these words, and, as he held a drinking-cup, he hurled it at Lysias and killed him instantly. Then Philip, sword in hand, rushed against his own son Alexander, wishing to slay him, but he slipped and fell near the couch. Then Alexander said: ‘Philip, who hastened to take Asia and vanquish Europe, could not cross his own floor!’ With these words, he took the sword from him and wounded those on the couches. And before you, were to be seen the battles of the Lapiths and the Centaurs, and the things that happened because of the wedding of Peirithous. For some of them crawled under the throne; and some danced with tables as though they were weapons; and others headed into dark places and fell. And there was a new Odysseus to be seen there as he went forth slaying Penelope’s lovers. He then left Philip and went to his mother to do justice about this marriage which was an insult to her.”
This second story has kernels of historical truth, but is ultimately fictional. As Dowden (pg. 182) explains about how this story mixes fact with fiction:
“This overcolored episode of the marriage banquet rather inverts historical truth. In 337 BCE Philip married Kleopatra, his sixth wife, who, as a native Macedonian, posed a special threat to Olympias (who came from Epirus), though there was no question of divorce. At the banquet, Attalos, a Macedonian general and uncle of Kleopatra, played the role assigned here to Lysias. But Alexander did not proceed to slaughter the wedding guests: rather, he fled with Olympias to Epirus, and was only able to return after a negotiated reconciliation.”
As can be seen, Lysias is clearly a fictional character in this scene, who is replacing the role of the Macedonian general Attalus. Why change the name? Well, because it serves a clear allegorical purpose. As Dowden (pg. 182) explains, the name “Lysias means ‘he who parts.'” And so this Lysias divides and “parts” the wedding of Philip by enraging Alexander. However, Alexander, who will not only conquer but also unite the world, responds by slaying Lysias the divider.
Once more, although it is here used allegorically, the name “Lysias” was common in Classical Greece. In fact, one of the most important Attic orators of the 5th-4th centuries BCE was named Lysias. And yet, the Alexander Romance still uses this name in an allegorical way. The main point to take away is that common names can still be used allegorically, so simply having characters named Joseph and Stephen in the Gospels does not imply that they were real people, especially when their names correspond to allegorical situations in the narrative.
 An important problem with Bauckham’s appeal to name frequencies is that there should be more men named Jesus (or Yeshua) in the Gospels in Acts, if they matched real world frequencies, and yet this name is conspicuously absent for other characters besides Jesus of Nazareth, with a few exceptions, such as the Jewish sorcerer Bar-Jesus in Acts 13:6 and Jesus Barabbas in Matthew 27:17. (In the latter case, the name “Jesus” was probably even added to Barabbas to heighten his contrast with Jesus the true Messiah, as discussed above.) Likewise, most of the names that appear frequently in the Gospels are Old Testament names, which could explain how even names added to traditions outside of Jewish Palestine were still literary inventions. Provided that those inventing names in the Diaspora were basing them on the Greek Septuagint, they could have still arrived at a similar name frequency.