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.

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:

Chariot Race

“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.

PilateWhat 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.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] 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.

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8 Responses to Allegorical Characters with Common Names in the Alexander Romance and the Gospels

  1. ncovington89 says:

    Fascinating! I remember reading a book by Robert M Price where he discusses “narrative men” who are named after their function in the story, and he reckons Judas Iscariot (whose name may mean “Traitor Jew”) is exactly this. Cool stuff.

    • Hey ncovington89,

      Interesting enough, I was talking to Classicist Trevor Luke last night on Facebook, and he argues that allegorical characters like this appear at even more places in Greek literature, even in historical authors like Plutarch:

      There are also several fictional characters in Plato’s dialogues, who are depicted in real places at Athens talking to real people, like Socrates. And Plato was even an eyewitness writing within a generation of Socrates! I think it is perfectly reasonable, therefore, when context suggests it, to argue that there are fictional and allegorical characters like this in the Gospels.

      Evangelicals and apologists don’t like this, of course, but it is simply a matter of reading the Gospels as literature in context, and tons of other texts during the same time period do the same thing. Funny enough, I had a J.P. Holding fan comment on this blog a few years ago with a parody of how scholars identify these allegorical characters:

      “My name is James Patrick Holding. James comes from Jacob, and means one who grasps the heel. As an apologist, I “grasp the heel” of Skeptics and trip them up. Patrick is the name of the patron saint of Ireland, who was a great teacher. As an apologist I teach a lot of people. Holding comes from a Danish word, holden, which means a fort, or “place of defense”. Apologetics is defense of the faith. Whoa. I must be an allegorical invention!”

      What’s funny about this is that you can use a similar caricature to argue that Nicolas Cage is an allegorical character. The name Nicolas means “defeater of people” and he “caged” criminals in Con Air after he defeated them!

      The weak nature of this response is revealed, however, by the fact that we have clear examples of the name “Nicolaus” being used for allegorical characters, such as in the Alexander Romance. This is why Classicists and NT scholars aren’t generally persuaded by arguments like this.

      Another objection that they make is that scholars allegedly strain to find these parallels and base them on loose comparisons. What is interesting, though, is I think that the example above with Lysias is a pretty weak example of an allegorical character, and yet we *know* he is being used in that way.

      Lysias insults Alexander at Philip’s marriage banquet, and so he “parts” or “divides” the banquet, right? Seems like a stretch, but we *know* that the author has changed the name from Attalus, who was the real person to do this. So, even if it is a weak use of allegory, we have clear smoking gun that this is an allegorical character.

      Now, imagine if we didn’t know that the name was changed from Attalus. What if our only sources said that “Lysias” did this? How would we know that Lysias was being used as an allegorical character, when this was a common name? Imagine if I were to argue, just from the name Lysias alone, that this is an allegorical character. People would respond that “Lysias” was a common name in 4th century BCE Greece. And yet, this is *still* an allegorical character.

      Just imagine, then, how many other of these allegorical characters might be scattered across ancient literature, who aren’t as obvious of examples as Lysias, one that we can only identify as such because his name was changed from Attalus.

      • ncovington89 says:

        “People would respond that ‘Lysias’ was a common name in 4th century BCE Greece. And yet, this is *still* an allegorical character.”

        I’m learning new things! To me a lot of the things of you’ve said add to the plausibility of Carrier’s Christ myth theory (like the fictional Plato dialogues) but on the other hand the Alexander examples add to the plausibility that a symbolic myth was written about a real figure of history. I think it just goes to show how hard it really is to distinguish those two hypotheses.

        I think the apologists have raised a legit question about symbolic names and such. I’ll admit my knee-jerk reaction is “C’mon!” But on the other hand people with different biases are already expected to have different knee-jerk reactions to things, so I reckon the apologist’s doubts about finding symbolism ought to be given a serious answer, even if we’re going to treat the apologist’s question along the same lines we treat questions like “How do we know we are not living in The Matrix?”

        I think it might be a good idea to develop some criteria to help weed out the false positives. I haven’t thought about how to do this with name symbolism, but I know that good answers can be given with some of the symbolic events: for example, Matthew calls Barabbas “Jesus Barabbas” as if he understood the hypothesized symbolic meaning of Mark’s story, so I think if ancient author understood the symbolism and clearly interprets it symbolically it is no longer possible to claim that Richard Carrier or Thom Brodie are doing the scholarly equivalent of reading tea leaves.

        We often don’t have any good way to tell the difference between weak symbolism and coincidental history, except when we get lucky, as we did in the Lysias case. The Lazarus character, I think, falls into the category of being clearly fictional, but only because we have an odd situation where an earlier gospel (Luke) clearly made Lazarus a fictional character inside a parable. Outside of quirky situations like that, though, we often just don’t have a way to settle the issue to anybody’s satisfaction, so I think the apologist’s have to admit to a non-negligible probability of symbolism even in the “weak” examples of name symbolism, and by the same token I’d admit that the writings of Dennis McDonald and others have many examples of symbolism and suggested allusions that we cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt, or even objectively show are “more likely true than false.”

        • Well, one thing I will say is that I don’t think we need a smoking gun for allegorical characters to be likely, or at least plausible. Things to consider are the literary genre of the text itself, as well as the surrounding narrative context. I argue that the Gospels are akin to popular-novelistic Hellenistic biographies, which, as the Alexander Romance shows, possess allegorical characters. When there are situations that involve symbolically significant names (as well as historical implausibilities), such as with Jesus Barabbas, I think we can make a substantial case for allegory. We certainly can’t rule it out with the oversimplified caricature of J.P. Holding above.

          Some situations are less obvious, like with Joseph of Arimathea. But, since allegorical characters are attested in this kind of literature, with common names like Nicolaus, we need to treat the possibility of allegory seriously. What I would argue in the case of Joseph is that we cannot assume that he is a historical figure. We only know of him through the Gospels (which are interdependent upon each other), and there are reasons why their authors would want to create such a character to give Jesus a decent burial. Since his name also bears possible allegorical significance, it’s a plausible enough case for an invented character. I’m not saying we can prove that he was, but the case is strong enough to undermine the assumption that he is historical. As such, I don’t think that arguments claiming that Joseph wouldn’t likely be an invented character (such as those William Craig has used) can be used to defend the historicity of Jesus’ rock-hewn tomb burial or an empty tomb. Joseph is too ambivalent of a character to tilt things either way.

          As for the Christ myth theory, I don’t really think my arguments here support it. The Christ myth theory argues that, taking all of the sources for Jesus’ life as a whole, including non-Gospel materials, Jesus did not exist. My arguments here only apply to the Gospels, and not to other sources like Paul’s letters. Even if there is myth-making in the Gospels, therefore, I do not think it undermines other sources, like Paul, who most scholars agree writes about a historical Jesus.

      • Equis says:

        re “There are also several fictional characters in Plato’s dialogues, who are depicted in real places at Athens talking to real people, like Socrates ” —

        Isn’t there an argument that Socrates is a fictional character created by Plato?

        • I’ve heard that somewhere, but it is a very implausible hypothesis. Socrates also appears in the writings of Aristophanes (a contemporary source) and Xenophon. There are also several fragmentary sources written about Socrates by eyewitnesses. Plato certainly couldn’t have created Socrates, because Aristophanes wrote before him. It’s difficult to believe that all of the sources we have for Socrates’ life came from a fictional invention.

          • Equis says:

            Yes, Socrates also appears in the writings of Aristophanes and Xenophon, whose lives overlapped with Plato’s. My point is a philosophical one; not a desire to go off on a tangent from the thread about the veracity of Socrates (I am ambivalent; agnostic, if you like). My point was based on the ‘Socrates problem’ (somewhat analogous to the synoptic problem). Regards.

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