Margaret Froelich on the Death of Aesop and Luke 4:16-30

Both teaching and dissertation work have been keeping me occupied of late. I have an exciting announcement about an important conference that I have been accepted to present at later this year, which I will discuss here at some point in the near future. But otherwise I’ve had less time for blogging than I would like. I’m still soliciting guest blogs to help keep up with posting regular content. If you are interested in contributing to the content here on Κέλσος, please contact me about any ideas you have for essays relating to secular perspectives on the Bible, ancient history, philosophy, or counter-apologetics. I especially welcome book reviews.

jesus-reads-in-synagogue1I would be amiss, however, not to briefly discuss a very interesting paper that I saw presented a little over a week ago at the 2018 Pacific Coast SBL meeting. The presentation was given by Margaret Froelich, who is a PhD candidate at Claremont School of Theology. I actually met Froelich two years ago at the 2016 Pacific Coast SBL meeting. The title of the presentation was “‘You Are to Be Thrown from the Cliff’: Insult and Disputed Identity in Luke and the Life of Aesop.” Since the paper is being submitted to be published as a article, I won’t spoil too much of the content, beyond what can be gleaned from the title.

In the Gospel of Luke (4:16-30), Jesus gives a sermon at a synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, which results in those present making an attempt to kill him. The content of Jesus’ teaching there upsets his Jewish listeners for reasons that are very similar to why, in the Life of Aesop (126), the Delphians become angry with the fabulist Aesop when he speaks at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, for reasons that Froelich discusses in her paper. Aesop’s death (which is one of the earliest strands of the Life) is noteworthy for his manner of execution. The Delphians sentence Aesop to be thrown off a cliff on charges of blasphemy (132):

“The Delphians came in to Aesop and said, ‘You are to be thrown from the cliff today, for this is the way they voted to put you to death as a temple thief and a blasphemer who does not deserve the dignity of burial … The Delphians were not deterred but took him off and stood him on the cliff … Aesop cursed them, called on the leader of the Muses to witness that the death was unjust, and threw himself over the cliff. And so he ended his life.

When the Delphians were afflicted with a famine, they received an oracle from Zeus that they should expiate the death of Aesop. Later, when word reached them, the peoples of Greece, Babylon, and Samos avenged Aesop’s death” [1].

Now, as I have discussed how, like other popular-novelistic biographies, Aesop’s death in the Life is characterized by a pattern of unjust death followed by divine vindication. Aesop is executed because he is wrongfully accused of stealing an ornament from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, but a famine is sent to the Delphians by Zeus after the incident to vindicate the death of Aesop. In similar fashion, Alexander the Great is betrayed by his lieutenant Antipater in the Alexander Romance (3.31), who kills him by sending Alexander poison contained in a lead vessel. But, Alexander’s death is vindicated by dark mist filling the air during his death in Babylon (3.33), and the shaking of the bronze statue of Zeus in Babylon. Hesiod in the Certamen of Homer and Hesiod  is betrayed by hosts he is staying with murdering him and casting his body into the sea, but Zeus sends a thunderbolt to sink their ship. On the “third day” after his death, dolphins carry Hesiod’s body to the shore.

Now, Jesus’ crucifixion and vindication by God after his death in the Gospels has parallels with all of the examples above: like Aesop, Jesus was executed at a culturally vital temple, since the Temple of Apollo at Delphi was nearly as important to the Greeks as the Jewish Temple at Jerusalem was to the Judeans; the darkness at Alexander’s death and the shaking of the statue of Zeus is very similar to the midday darkness at Jesus’ crucifixion and the ripping of the curtain in the Jewish Temple; Hesiod’s body being carried to the shore by dolphins on the “third day” after his death obviously shares the “third day” motif with Jesus’ resurrection.

What I hadn’t realized prior to Froelich’s presentation, however, was that Aesop’s death paralleled another episode in the Gospels, namely the attempt on Jesus’ life in Luke 4:16-30. When the Judeans listening to Jesus’ sermon become enraged with him, they attempt to push him off a cliff in a manner very similar to Aesop. As verses 24-30 read:

“‘Truly I tell you,’ he continued, ‘no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.’

All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliffBut he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

Froelich will discuss in the upcoming article the historical, sociological, and literary reasons why this scene in Luke is probably based on Aesop’s famous manner of death. For now, I am simply glad to say that I have another parallel to discuss in my dissertation. Furthermore, this particular parallel could suggest that the Gospel of Luke was familiar with the Life of Aesop itself (perhaps an earlier version than our surviving recensions). That’s a possibility that I’ll need to explore further, so I’m glad that Froelich brought this new research angle to my attention!

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] I have used Lloyd Daly’s translation for this passage.

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10 Responses to Margaret Froelich on the Death of Aesop and Luke 4:16-30

  1. busterggi says:

    I really wonder if there is anything in Judeo-Christian writings that isn’t stolen from earlier sources.

  2. Pingback: Margaret Froelich on the Death of Aesop and Luke 4:16-30 — Κέλσος | James' Ramblings

  3. mcduff says:

    Click to access JGRChJ5-5_Wojciechowski.pdf

    Aesopic Tradition in the New Testament

  4. focusonfocusblog says:

    Grant Willson: This would also make sense of the fact that there isn’t a cliff near Nazareth suitable for execution (although you might break some bones).

    • Celsus says:

      Indeed, that was one of the points that Froelich brought up for why this was probably not a historical episode, but rather one inspired by a literary antecedent.

  5. Thank you for the post.

    On a side note, would you say that most modern translations of the Bible get John 1:1 right? Or so they have a major theological axe to grind? In Westcott and Hort, it says

    ΕΝ ΑΡΧΗ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.

    As someone who is skilled in Koine Greek, how would you translate it?

    Thank you.
    Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek (Logos Bible Software, 2009), Jn 1:1.

    • Celsus says:

      Are you referring to the issue of whether “the Word” here is described as “the God” or just “a god”? It is interesting that the definite article is not included in the second instance θεός, but I haven’t studied how significant that is for whether it can be distinguished from or identified with the previous mention of τὸν θεόν.

  6. Greg G. says:

    I started researching Aesop in the New Testament a few days ago and had read another article by you on the subject. I was comparing Luke 4:23 with The Quack Frog for “Physician, heal thyself” when I noticed that the overall passage paralleled the end of The Life of Aesop. I was intending to point that out at the other article but I fortunately found this one.

    But I think the parallel includes Luke 4:15, too.

    Life of Aesop § 124
    But Aesop wished to go to Delphi, and so he said goodbye to the king, swearing to return and spend the rest of his life in Babylon. He went to other cities and gave demonstrations of his wisdom and learning. And when he came to Delphi, he undertook to give an exhibition there, too, and the people enjoyed hearing him at first but gave him nothing. Seeing that the men were as pale as potherbs, Aesop said to them, ‘Even as the leaves of the trees such is the race of men.’

    Luke 4:15 (NRSV)
    15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

    • Greg G. says:

      I tried to underline a couple of passages with HTML but that didn’t come through.

      LoA 124: “the people enjoyed hearing him at first”
      Luke: “was praised by everyone”

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