Ancient History: The Undead Edition

Halloween is my favorite time of year for various reasons: Scary movies, costume parties, overloading on tons of sugary goodness.  But I am also reminded about the fact that many of our spooky superstitions–vampires, ghosts, and werewolves–have come to us from thousands of years ago.  That, in and of itself, is a little freakishly cool, don’t you think?  That people, thousands of years ago, living in Athens or Rome or Alexandria, had the same basic fearful ghouls that we shiver over today.  Compiled here in this post are a few examples from Classical, Jewish, and Christian sources that involve tales of the haunted, the horror-ible (See what i did there?  Horror+horrible! I’m so clever), the frighteningly cool.  Enjoy… if you DARE!  Muahahahaha!

The Walking Dead

“If thou dost not give me the Bull of Heaven, I will smash the doors of the Nether World, I will place those above below, I will raise up the dead eating and alive, so that the dead shall outnumber the living! (Ishtar to Anu, Epic of Gilgamesh, VI.94-100)

And this shall be the plague wherewith the Lord will smite all the people that have fought against Jerusalem; Their flesh shall consume away while they stand upon their feet, and their eyes shall consume away in their holes, and their tongue shall consume away in their mouth. (Zechariah 14.12)

The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised,and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. (Matthew 27.52-3)

Ghosts and Specters

 Disembodied now, I hover as a wraith over my mother’s head, riding for three long days upon the air, three hopeless days of suffering and fear since she left Troy and came to Chersonese. Here on the shore of Thrace, in sullen idleness beside its ships, the whole Achaean army waits and cannot sail. For Achilles’ ghost appeared, stalking on his tomb, wailing, and stopped the ships as they stood out for sea on the journey home. He demanded my sister Polyxena as a prize, the blood of the living to sweeten a dead man’s grave….On this day destiny shall take my sister down to death. Ah you, poor mother, you must see your two last children dead this day, my sister slaughtered and my unburied body washed up on shore at the feet of a slave. These were the favors I asked of the gods below—to find my mother and be buried by her hands—and they have granted my request. Now I go, for there below I see my mother coming, stumbling from Agamemnon’s tent, still shaken by that dream in which she saw my ghost. (Euripides, Hecuba 30-54)

Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He said, “Bring up Samuel for me.”When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul.” The king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.”He said to her, “What is his appearance?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and paid homage. Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Saul answered, “I am in great distress, for the Philistines are warring against me, and God has turned away from me and answers me no more, either by prophets or by dreams. Therefore I have summoned you to tell me what I shall do.”And Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy? The Lord has done to you as he spoke by me, for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. Because you did not obey the voice of the Lord and did not carry out his fierce wrath against Amalek, therefore the Lord has done this thing to you this day.Moreover, the Lord will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me. (1 Samuel 28.11-19)

 Prophets and Curses

 Germanicus’s conviction that he had been put under a spell by Piso aggravated the disease. They dug up the floor and the walls and found remains of human bodies in them, spells and binding curses, and the name of Germanicus inscribed on lead tablets, ashes half-burned and smeared with gore and the other evil devices by which it is believed that souls are devoted to the infernal powers. (Tacitus, Annals 2.69)

He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!”And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys.From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria. (1 Kings 2.23-5)

 The Mummies Return

The old [Egyptian] woman, believing that she was now free of hindrance and was not being watched, first dug a pit and then kindled a fire on one side of it. She laid out the body of her son between the two and took a ceramic bowl from an adjacent tripod…. She cut her arm open, wiped up some of the blood with a laurel branch, and threw it into the fire. She did some other strange things in addition to these and then bent over the corpse of her son and sang some incantation into his ear. She roused him and compelled him to stand upright by her [witch]craft…. She was inquiring whether her remaining son, the brother of the dead man, would return home safe and sound.

The corpse made no reply, but just nodded, allowing its mother the insecure hope that the response was favorable. But then all at once he fell headlong onto his face. The woman rolled the corpse onto its back again and would not finish with the interrogation….

While the old woman was doing this Chariclea [the Greek ingenue] earnestly begged Calasiris [the Egyptian priest] that they should approach the scene of action and make an inquiry of their own…. He [Calasiris] declined; it was not holy, he said, even to watch the rite, but he suffered it under the constraint of circumstance. It did not befit a prophet either to attempt or to attend such rites. Prophets derived their divination from lawful sacrifices and pure prayers, but the impure and earthly actually derived their divination from circling around corpses, just as, by accident, they were now seeing the Egyptian woman do.

Calasiris was still speaking when the corpse muttered in a deep, ugly voice as if from a crypt or a craggy cavern. “At first I spared you, mother,” it said, “and I put up with you as you broke the laws of humanity, violated the decrees of the gods, and unfixed with your sorceries what was fixed. For, so far as possible, respect for parents is preserved even among the dead. But you abolish this of your own accord. No longer are you merely dabbling in lawlessness, as at first; now you push it beyond limit…. Hear now these prophecies which I have long been forbearing to reveal to you. Neither will your son return safely to you nor will you yourself escape death from the sword….” (Heliodorus, Aethiopica 6.12-15)

And as a man was being buried, behold, a marauding band was seen and the man was thrown into the grave of Elisha, and as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived and stood on his feet. (2 Kings 13.21)

Demons and Underworldlings

When a plague fell upon the Ephesians, and no defense against it could be found, they sent to Apollonius, and made him their doctor for the disease…. Apollonius assembled the Ephesians and said, “Do not worry, for I will put an end to the disease this day.” Saying this, he led all the people into the theatre, where the statue of the Averter is now sited. there he found what appeared to be an old beggar contriving to squint…. He was dressed in rags and had a squalid face. Apollonius grouped the Ephesians around the beggar and said, “Collect as many stones as you can and throw them at this enemy of the gods.” The Ephesians were taken aback by this instruction, and thought it terrible to kill a stranger in such an unfortunate condition. The beggar himself was beseeching Apollonius and begging for pity, but Apollonius was insistent and urged the Ephesians to get on with the job and not let the man go. When some of the people began to pelt him with stones, the man who had been pretending to be squinting suddenly looked up at them and showed that his eyes were full of fire. The Ephesians then recognized that he was a demon and so they stoned him to death so thoroughly that they built up a heap of stones over him. (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 4.10)

That same day, in the city of Ecbatana in Media, a woman named Sarah, the daughter of Raguel, was being insulted by one of her father’s servant women. Sarah had gone through seven wedding ceremonies with seven different husbands, but each time, before she and her new husband had gone to bed on their wedding night, he was killed by the demon Asmodeus. That’s why the servant had told her, “You’ve already been married seven times, and each of those times you have killed your husband before he could give you a son. So why do you strike at us because your husbands have died? Just go where they are! We hope you never have any children!” (Tobit 3.7-9)

 Large Beasts and Monsters

The moon was shining like the midday sun. We arrived among the tombs. My man went [to relieve himself - ed.] against a gravestone. I held back, singing and counting the stones. Then, when I looked back at my companion, he had taken all his clothes off and laid them beside the road. I almost died of fright, and I stood there like a dead man. He urinated a circle around his clothes and suddenly became a wolf. Don’t think I’m joking. No one’s inheritance is so valuable as to make me lie. But, as I’d begin to say, after he had become a wolf, he began to howl and ran into the woods…. But I drew my sword and hacked at shades, until I arrived at my girlfriend’s house. I was like a ghost when I got in, and almost bubbling out my final breath. Melissa expressed amazement that I’d walked there so late and said, “If you’d come earlier, at least you could have helped us. For a wolf got into the estate and among the flocks. He was draining the blood out of them like a butcher. But even if he got away, the last laugh was ours, for our slave managed to get a spear through his neck.” When I heard this, I could not even think of sleep, but when it was fully light I ran off home like the robbed innkeeper. But when I arrived home, my soldier was lying on his bed like an ox, and a doctor was attending to his neck. I realized that he was a werewolf, and I could not thereafter bring myself to break bread with him, not even if you had forced me on pain of death, Others can make up their own mind about this. But if I’m lying, may your guardian spirits exercise their wrath upon me. (Petronius, Satyricon 61-2)

Witches and Their Spell Books

Two friends from Arcadia who were taking a journey together came to Megara, and one traveller put up at an inn and the second went to the home of a friend. After they had eaten supper and retired, the second traveller, in the dead of the night, dreamed that his companion was imploring him to come to his aid, as the innkeeper was planning to kill him. Greatly frightened at first by the dream he arose, and later, regaining his composure, decided that there was nothing to worry about and went back to bed. When he had gone to sleep the same person appeared to him and said: ‘Since you would not help me when I was alive, I beg that you will not allow my dead body to remain unburied. I have been killed by the innkeeper, who has thrown my body into a cart and covered it with dung. I pray you to be at the city gate in the morning before the cart leaves the town,’ Thoroughly convinced by the second dream he met the cart-driver at the gate in the morning, and, when he asked what he had in the cart, the driver fled in terror. The Arcadian then removed his friend’s dead body from the cart, made complaint of the crime to the authorities, and the innkeeper was punished. (Cicero, Div. 1.57)

Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign, and he reigned fifty-five years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Hephzibah.And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.For he rebuilt the high places that Hezekiah his father had destroyed, and he erected altars for Baal and made an Asherah, as Ahab king of Israel had done, and worshiped all the host of heaven and served them.And he built altars in the house of the Lord, of which the Lord had said, “In Jerusalem will I put my name.”And he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the Lord.And he burned his son as an offering and used fortune-telling and omens and dealt with mediums and with necromancers. He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger. And the carved image of Asherah that he had made he set in the house of which the Lord said to David and to Solomon his son, “In this house, and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, I will put my name forever.And I will not cause the feet of Israel to wander anymore out of the land that I gave to their fathers, if only they will be careful to do according to all that I have commanded them, and according to all the Law that my servant Moses commanded them.” (2 Kings 21.1-8)

 Vampirism

 “As such,” replied Apollonius, “you must regard this adornment, for it is not reality but the semblance of reality. And that you may realize the truth of what I say, this fine bride is one of the vampires, that is to say of those beings whom the many regard as lamias and hobgoblins. These beings fall in love, and they are devoted to the delights of Aphrodite, but especially to the flesh of human beings, and they decoy with such delights those whom they mean to devour in their feasts.”

And the lady said: “Cease your ill-omened talk and begone”; and she pretended to be disgusted at what she heard, and in fact she was inclined to rail at philosophers and say that they always talked nonsense. When, however, the goblets of gold and the show of silver were proved as light as air and all fluttered away out of their sight, while the wine-bearers and the cooks and all the retinue of servants vanished before the rebukes of Apollonius, the phantom pretended to weep, and prayed him not to torture her nor to compel her to confess what she really was.

But Apollonius insisted and would not let her off, and then she admitted that she was a vampire, and was fattening up Menippus with pleasures before devouring his body, for it was her habit to feed upon young and beautiful bodies, because their blood is pure and strong. (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 4.25)

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. (John 6.53-7; I couldn’t help but to include this!)

Beware the Ides of March!

Caesar:
Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue shriller than all the music
Cry “Caesar!” Speak, Caesar is turn’d to hear.

Soothsayer:
Beware the ides of March.

Julius Caesar Act 1, scene 2, 15–19

And here we are, the Ides of March!  Made famous by the date of the assassination of Julius Caesar (15 Mar). So I have provided here a little collection of useful links and images and articles for your own use.  Enjoy.

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Area where Julius Caesar was assassinated.

  And here is a re-imagining of the event:

Though it probably didn’t happen like this. Just sayin’.

Here is Plutarch’s description of the event:

Now when the senate was gone in before to the chamber where they were to sit, the rest of the company placed themselves close about Caesars chair, as if they had some suit to make to him, and Cassius, turning his face to Pompeys statue, is said to have invoked it, as if it had been sensible of his prayers. Trebonius, in the meanwhile, engaged Antonys attention at the door, and kept him in talk outside. When Caesar entered, the whole senate rose up to him. As soon as he was sat down, the men all crowded round about him, and set Tillius Cimber, one of their own number, to intercede in behalf of his brother that was banished; they all joined their prayers with his, and took Caesar by the hand, and kissed his head and his breast. But he putting aside at first their supplications, and afterwards, when he saw they would not desist, violently rising up, Tillius with both hands caught hold of his robe and pulled it off from his shoulders, and Casca, that stood behind him, drawing his dagger, gave him the first, but a slight wound, about the shoulder. Caesar snatching hold of the handle of the dagger, and crying out aloud in Latin, “Villain Casca, what do you?” he, calling in Greek to his brother, bade him come and help. And by this time, finding himself struck by a great many hands, and looking around about him to see if he could force his way out, when he saw Brutus with his dagger drawn against him, he let go Cascas hand, that he had hold of and covering his head with his robe, gave up his body to their blows. And they so eagerly pressed towards the body, and so many daggers were hacking together, that they cut one another; Brutus, particularly, received a wound in his hand, and all of them were besmeared with the blood.

A coin commemorating the event:

One of the most famous coins of all time is the EID MAR denarius issued by Marcus Junius Brutus in 43/42 BC. When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, he threw Rome into more than three years of civil war, eliminating his opponents along the way. In 49 BC, many leading citizens, including some sixty Roman Senators, had come to see Caesar as a power-grabber who wanted to make himself king. This was an unacceptable situation for men like Brutus, who wished to retain their beloved Republic.

Spider-Man and the Gospel Genres

While checking out Bible and Interpretation’s ‘Featured News’ section as I normally do, I came across this interesting looking article on the so-called Spider-Man fallacy.  I am always interested in the question of comics and their adoption of biblical themes (at times) or their shared motifs with ancient literature (because it is fun), so I clicked on the link.  I was surprised to see that the article was written to analyze an argument from an atheist about the nature of the Gospel genre.  The atheist (who is not named and so will remain our anonymous antagonist, even though this is unfair–I much rather prefer to have a name with an argument) gives this argument:

Archaeologists 1,000 years from now unearth a collection of Spiderman comics. From the background art, they can tell it takes place in New York City. NYC is an actual place, as confirmed by archaeology. However, this does not mean that Spiderman existed.

Though one has to admit, this would make a fun comic adaptation.

So the whole case is presented as if the scenario given by the atheist is essentially the same story surrounding the Gospels: a mythical figure set into a historical backdrop like New York City, who has interactions with real historical figures (like the mayor of New York City vs. Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, or Herod the Great).

I don’t like this logic.  The whole argument is a case of special pleading.  This particular anonymous atheist detractor seems to lack some basic knowledge about textual criticism, particularly how long we’ve had copies of the manuscripts (at least 1600 years–not 1000 years).  The argument also forgets that the comic strip is illustrated and we should hope that in 1000 years from now, humans still have full-text books (one would hope that illustrations don’t become the dominant form of media and story telling!) and still have comic books (though I wonder what their Justice League of the Future will look like).  So the whole argument is a wash: it presumes too many factors and asks you to accept too many unknowns (e.g., it asks you to pretend as if scholars in 1000 years won’t be as dorky or nerdy as we are today–something I highly doubt).

But that doesn’t mean the author of the refutation–Robin Schumacher–makes a good case against it either.  In fact the author of this piece for the Christian Post makes some surprising blunders (seemingly out of bias).  The biggest one is in their use of genre criticism:

However, such thinking has been discredited due to the work of a number of scholars, most notably Richard Burridge and his work What are the Gospels – A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography. Burridge, dean of King’s College in London, is a classicist who originally set out to disprove the thesis that the Gospels fit within the genre of ancient biography, but during his research, the evidence he uncovered caused him to reverse his opinion.

Those who think the Gospels don’t match the category of ancient historical biography confuse our current models of biography with those of the ancient world.

via Jesus and the Spiderman Fallacy | The Confident Christian.

The problem is that Robin Schumacher has it backwards.  Those who think the Gospels are ancient historical biography are the ones confused.  And Burridge is not the only one, along with Schumacher, who has it backwards.  We’ll look at Burridge, but I also want to focus on two other scholars who have argued similar positions: Darrell Bock and Craig Keener.

Let’s consider the basic proposition that the Gospels fit the genre of Greco-Roman biography.  Bock writes:[1]

What specific type of literature is a gospel?  How would an ancient reader have classified it?  …recent work has shown that the gospels read much like ancient Greco-Roman biographies and that the issue of bias does not preclude a discussion of historicity. A…concern for truth is present in the Gospels.  When we encounter a gospel, we are reading a literary form that the ancient world recognized as biographical…. Ancient biography gives us the portrait of a key figure by examining key events of which he or she was a major part as well as giving us glimpses of the hero’s thinking.  They tend to present a fundamental chronological outline of key periods starting with the birth or the arrival on the public scene….  Such biographies often concentrate on the controversies surrounding the key figure, especially the events that lead to a dramatic death, if that is part of the history.   It is this kind of work that we read as we turn out attention to the Gospel accounts as they present to us, as history, the life of Jesus.

Bock’s position, as is the position of many scholars of the historical Jesus, is one that visualizes the Gospels as histories—though not very good ones—of the life of the figure of Jesus.  So, the argument goes, there is something in the Gospels about a historical figure; it may not be much, which is the view of many scholars particularly those involved in the so-called ‘third quest’ and the Jesus Seminar, but there is somethingKeener agrees:

“In recent decades, as scholars have examined the best ancient analogies for the Gospels, it has become increasingly clear that the Gospels were designed as biographies—though as ancient rather than modern ones.”

This line of thinking did not come about ex nihilo.  In 1977, Charles Talbert[2], while not the first to suggest it, was the earliest contemporary historian to argue persuasively for Greco-Roman biography as the genre of the Gospels; a work more recently published, though still over fifteen years old, was published by Richard A. Burridge addressing the same issue–and the one with which Schumacher is familiar.[3]  But in the time between Burridge’s first publication and the present, several other investigations have been made into the study of genre and the Gospels. Most notably is the analysis by Michael Vines, where he takes Burridge, and David Aune as well, to task.[4] His most relevant point, in this author’s opinion, is that the Gospels do not focus on biographical aspects but on theological ones.  Burridge’s case rests on whether or not the Gospels imitate, unconsciously or purposefully, the genre of Greco-Roman biography (though he admits that the option is there that they only do so coincidentally).  However, the Gospels do not imitate Greco-Roman biography as Burridge, Aune, and Talbert believe and this is easily demonstrated.

The Greco-Roman biography of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus is not one continuous narrative but, rather, the story of his life as discussed by Philostratus.  Philostratus not only gives us his sources (personal letters and the will of Apollonius himself—whether real or not, reports about him located at shrines, Damis of Hierapolis, Maximus of Aegeae, and so forth), he analyzes his sources (why he chose not to use Moeragenes), debates points of Apollonius’ life against his sources (cf. 1.23-24), inserts anecdotes; there is no question that the story is being recounted by Philostratus.  Most important, perhaps, is that Philostratus is not telling us the story to explain a theological point (though, as any piece of ancient literature, it is designed and rhetorically structured), but he is engaging the source material for the purpose of writing about the life of Apollonius.

It helps the Classicist case that we also have contemporary attestation to Philostratus…

…and also to Apollonius.

The Gospels, however, present a continuous story line with no pause, no discussion of method, no discussion of sources, no anecdotes, and make appeals to theological nuances like Jesus’ divine mission (Mark 1:1-3, for example).  These sorts of traits go against the grain of Greco-Roman biography.  As dubious as the historicity of Apollonius may be, his biography is actually sounder and more credible than that of the Gospels precisely because (a) we know who wrote it and (b) our narrator discusses his sources, allowing us to analyze his methods.

When one looks critically at the Gospels, one can easily see what I mean.  The Gospel authors were not writing independently, but were written for what are clearly different theological, political, and exegetical reasons, one after another over a period of at least 100 years.  And as I mentioned, they don’t name their sources, ever, but it is clear that Matthew and Luke had copies of Mark; a fact to which Keener admits, but he glosses over the fact that they don’t ever cite each other.  Keener greatly overstates his position when he writes that:

“…Matthew and Luke (whom we can best test) use their sources very carefully by ancient standards.… This does not mean that these writers concerned themselves about telling every detail in exactly the way that they received it—most ancient audiences expected writers to exercise more freedom than that—but that, by the standards we apply to their contemporaries, the Gospels are remarkably useful sources.”

If by using their sources “very carefully,” Keener means to admit that the authors changed, adjusted, or otherwise ignored each others’ works extensively (i.e. purposefully changed accounts from other Gospels in creating their own) then he is correct; they did utilize each other quite remarkably; so remarkably, in fact, that some scenes which occur in two Gospels appear as a parable in another.  Some vanish entirely!  Others are so chronologically garbled that Keener will be hard pressed to explain how it could have happened with such diligent and thorough authors utilizing their sources so carefully.  If the events of Jesus’ life could so easily be invented, removed, or altered so often, then clearly the authors of the Gospels were not interested in preserving the historical Jesus.  How could they have been?  They went out of their way on certain occasions to manipulate the narratives to show us a Jesus that was of the minds of their own socio-cultural settings, their own interests washing away whatever theological agenda their predecessors held.  Why would this occur if they were “very carefully” utilizing their sources?  Careful use seems not to have bothered them much at all.  When thinking of an example of such an occurrence in the texts, the fig tree is one that comes to mind almost immediately.

In Matthew, Jesus has just finished cleansing the temple after a very triumphal entry into Jerusalem and he was already running away to Bethany to escape the guards who were looking to kill him.  He sleeps the night there and awakens the next day to head back into the city; along the way back Jesus decides he is hungry.  Luckily for him, fig trees were abundant.  Unlucky for the fig tree, it was out of season.  Jesus becomes infuriated; he had called but the tree had not answered.  Throwing what, in my opinion, is not much different than a childish temper-tantrum, he curses the tree and it withers “at once.” (Matt. 21:19)   The disciples all marvel and even ask each other “How did the fig tree wither at once?” (Matt. 21:20)  With a little teaching that follows, this ends Matthew’s fig tree story.  This event might be historical.  But the Gospel authors, who Keener suggests were far more knowledgeable of the circumstances of the accounts than we are, do not seem to come to any particular consensus about it.

Mark portrays Jesus as just making it into the city before realizing he must leave again.  After what seems to have been an exhausting day of entrances, it’s off to Bethany he goes to spend the night as it was “already late” (Mark 11:11).  Awaking the next morning, Jesus and his companions make their way back to Jerusalem.  And as before, on their way, Jesus became hungry; he had to build up his strength for all the table-throwing and scolding later on, it seems.  He approaches the fig tree, out of season, and curses the fig tree.  All of his disciples heard this curse. (Mark 11:14)  After a long day of cleansing the temple, throwing over tables, they again departed from the city to escape the plotting priests and scribes.  The next morning the disciples saw the fig tree withered away and “remembered” (ἀναμνησθεὶς) in Mark 11:20.

Luke, Keener’s prized historian and biographer, seems to have completely dismissed this event as it is described in the other two accounts.  Luke visualizes this narrative completely differently, presenting it as a parable instead. (Luke 13:6-9) In fact, the parable is told far from Jerusalem to the north, in Galilee, a full six chapters before the Triumphal Entry occurs in Luke’s narrative (essentially throwing off the chronology). An interesting aside might be to note that Luke doesn’t seem to recall ever spending the night in Bethany during his stay near Jerusalem with Jesus. Some might find Luke’s ignorance of this account rather embarrassing, especially if they are trying to argue for the historical accuracy of the Gospel of Luke.

John is not only clueless of the withering of the fig tree, but he doesn’t even present it as a parable!  Instead, John “remembers” Jesus calling Nathanael from under a fig tree (John 1:43-48), but beyond that, he is completely ignorant of any cursing, withering, fig tree incident.  But Matthew clearly writes that all the disciples marveled.  Not some, not a few, not two.  This is odd–as Keener points out, Matthew and Luke both had access to Mark, yet Mark states that all the disciples saw the fig tree withered the next day.  If Matthew and Luke cared so greatly about the accurate reporting of historical events, why did they change this part of Mark’s narrative?  If they “construed Mark as biography as well,” as Keener suggests, why did they alter (or remove entirely) this scene from their narratives?

Conspiring authors? Perhaps that was the intent, but they didn’t listen to each other.

This is only one example; there are countless more.  Many scenes from Mark are re-imagined, become a parable, are marginalized, or disappear from other canonical Gospels.  When there are multiple stories of a similar account, yet are usually different, one should be suspicious.  This is an example, not of memory recall nor of concise and careful source-use, but of authorial intent; purposeful, deliberate altercations of a narrative.  According to Keener, however, the Gospel authors are more useful as sources for a historical tradition than Arrian.  That thinking just makes no sense at all.

Any familiarity with Arrian’s Anabasis Alexandri would immediately illustrate the difference in quality and demonstrate actually care for source material.  In fact, if one were looking for an example of Burridge’s ideological history written with coincidental and, perhaps, even unconscious links to Greco-Roman Biography, Arrian’s Anabasis Alexandri is the best one we will find; yet it is dramatically unlike anything we see with the Gospel accounts.  In the very opening of his first book, he explains part of his method to the reader:

Wherever Ptolemy and Aristobulus in their histories of Alexander, the son of Philip, have given the same account, I have followed it on the assumption of its accuracy; where their facts differ I have chosen what I feel to be the more probable and interesting. (Anabasis Alexandri 1.1)

Like Philostratus, Arrian compares his sources, especially when they conflict (e.g., Anabasis Alexandri 3.30.4-6). His sources, therefore, are also subject to criticism and evaluation (since we actually know what they are). Here with Arrian, as before with Philostratus, there is a direct engagement with the sources; one is not reading a story.  While some events display traits of a narrative, the reader is able to interact with it, to analyze the history with the narrator.  With the Gospel accounts there is no interaction with the narrative; the reader is moved along with the story, unable to analyze and critique it and, instead, is told that how the author of the Gospels wrote it is precisely how it occurred.[5]  There is never an instance where the Gospel authors take two separate accounts of an event and openly discuss which is more likely to have occurred, even though each Gospel portrays similar events differently, in different chronologies, with different individuals, and sometimes within different contexts and even locations.  What one reads is what one gets and, in almost every instance, what one gets is a theologically-driven exegetical interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.[6]

Lycurgus

One final thought on the subject: It is also worth mentioning here that some Greco-Roman biographies are based upon completely fictional figures, like Plurtarch’s biography of Theseus.  There were no laws or edicts in antiquity about what one could or could not write or how they could write it (such laws do exist today, though mainly in confessional institutions).  Authors emulated the parts of works they liked and were not limited by genre, per se.  Such was the process of imitation, even going back to the days of Aristotle (Poetics 1447a-b).  An example one might find of a fictional hero who is historicized in a Greco-Roman biography is Lycurgus, the legendary lawgiver of Spartan lore.  Plutarch dedicates a biography to him, complete with genealogy; but his attestation goes well beyond this.  Lycurgus gets honorable mentions and is discussed by Plato (Republic 10.599d), Aristotle (Politics 2.1270a, Rhetoric 2.23.11), Xenophon (Constitution of the Lacedaimonians 1), Polybius (Histories 4.2, 6.10), Josephus (Against Apion 2.220), Isocrates (Panathenaicus 12.152), Epictetus (Discourses 2.20), Tacitus (Annals 3.26), and Livy (History of Rome 38.34) to name a few.  But it is unlikely that Lycurgus was any more real than Romulus, of whom several Greco-Roman biographies are extant (Plutarch, Romulus; also Livy dedicates his first book of From the Founding of the City to the life of Romulus; stories of his life and deeds can also be found in ancient historiographies (e.g., Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 2).  The figure of Romulus is attested in works from Ovid (Fasti), Cicero (Laws, Republic), and to Tertullian (Apology). It may also be useful to note in passing that among these selected works mentioning Romulus there exists a tale of his death, resurrection, and rebirth to the figure of Quirinus.   This is merely to point out that even if the Gospels were portrayed as Greco-Roman biographies, it would not imply eo ipso that they are historically useful.

At the end of the day, Schumacher does not take into account the differences between the genre of a real Greco-Roman biography like one written by Philostratus, Plutarch, or Arrian, and the narrative stories of the Gospels.  Like Burridge and Keener, Schumacher only focuses on the superficial similarities of the genre, rather than a real detailed analysis like I have provided here.  This seems to be the trouble with some apologist commentators who lack a strong or dedicated Classics background.

But while Schumacher, et al, may be wrong, so is the anonymous atheist.  Making anachronistic comparisons are misleading and overstate their case.  One cannot (or should not) use modern genres as a useful comparison; instead, ancient epics or ancient Jewish fiction writing would have made a more palatable choice (like Michael Vines or Thomas Thompson argue).  So no one really seems to be the winner in this debate.  But that is often the case when I come across a discussion between a Christian apologist and an atheist when it comes to the Bible–a lot of misunderstandings, a lot of miscommunication, a lot of talking past one another.  And this is rather unfortunate.

On the plus side, I got to demonstrate, once more, how completely logically flawed it is to associate the Gospels with Greco-Roman biography.


[1] Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic: 2002), 214.

[2] What is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977)

[3] What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)

[4] Vines, The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel (Academia Biblica 3; Atlanta: SBL, 2002), 7-19.

[5] While Arrian’s methods are exceptional, they fall short of modern standards. Even though he is a step above the typical ancient historian, his work is not perfect. He openly equates “interesting” stories with “probable” stories and, as one of his reasons for choosing Ptolemy as a source, states that it is because he was a King and “it is more disgraceful for a king to tell lies than anyone else.” (Anabasis Alexandri, Preface 1-3) Still, if a good historian like Arrian, whose methods are far superior to those of his contemporaries, those before him, and many after, can succumb to these sorts of biases, one should be more concerned with how much bias and error effects those writers of lesser quality. Not even the author of Luke, with his brief preface to Theophilus, can come close to this methodology.  R. Carrier argues this persuasively that Luke does not function well as a historian or biographer; see his discussion in Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn’t Need a Miracle to Succeed (Lulu Press, 2009), 173-87.

[6] This author tends to agree with the statement on the Gospels by Samuel Sandmel, “If the historical statements they make chance to be reliable, this is only coincidence,” from ‘Prolegomena to a Commentary on Mark,’ in Two Living Traditions: Essays on Religion (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1972), 149.

Did the Greeks Get a Building from an Ancient IKEA?

Pretty awesome!

Italian archeologists have unearthed the remains of a Greek temple-like structure dating back to 6th century B.C. They also found details on how to build it. Written in detailed codes, the collection of how-to instructions was found among the remains.

It says “Product is not covered under warranty.” Damn you, IKEA!

Much like the instruction booklets of the Swedish home furnishings company, IKEA, various sections of the elaborate structure were inscribed with coded symbols showing how the pieces slotted together. Shown here is one of the coded slabs. “So far we have uncovered 100 inscribed fragments, all related to the roof assembly system. The inscriptions also reveal that the palace was built by Greek artisans coming from the Spartan colony of Taranto in Puglia,” Massimo Osanna, director of the archaeology school at Basilicata University, told Discovery News.

Check out more photos and information here: Ancient Building Comes with Assembly Instructions : Discovery News.

Returning to (the Question of the Historicity of) Troy

With thanks to David Meadows for directing me to this:

The new expedition will be led by University of Wisconsin-Madison classics Professor William Aylward, an archaeologist with long experience of excavating the ruins of classical antiquity, including what is currently accepted as the site of Troy itself.

In ancient Greek it was called Ἴλιον, Ilion, or Ἴλιος, Ilios; and Τροία, Troia; Latin: Trōia and Īlium; Hittite: Wilusa or Truwisa and still grips the imagination over 3200 years after the events described in Homer’s epic poem the Iliad. Troy VII has been identified as the Hittite Wilusa, which gives the probable origin of the Greek version Ilion and is generally (but not conclusively) accepted to be the Homeric Troy.

via Archaeologists return to Troy : Past Horizons Archaeology.

I’ve written on the question of the historicity of Troy recently, and what I said then remains just as relevant:

That the narrative of the Odyssey fits more in line with the current events of the Archaic-early Persian periods, with the joining of previously warring poleis into alliances and leagues, with the idealization of the Hellenics vs. the Persians, where the narrative takes root and makes a stand.  And even then, these narratives function only within a set of functional guidelines (that is to say, within the setting by which our most current version of the Odyssey comes to us)–as history they fail to meet any guidelines since the narrative no doubt would have changed depending on the patron deities of the individual cities and the role of the heroes (again lending to the fact that what we have isn’t ‘what happened’ but ‘what the Greeks at that time and that place wanted to believe happened).  We’re not dealing with history, but cultural memory.  These tales are the products of the ancient mythic mind, not our modern rationalistic mind.

My understanding is that there are simply too many challenges that the purveyors of a historical Troy must overcome: too many inconsistencies, too much wishful thinking, too great a chance of forcing the data to fit into preconceived notions.  The links between the modern excavations at Wilusa and the Homeric Troy are weak at best.  The dating of the settlements to various periods (i.e., is it Troy VIIa or Troy VI that is supposedly the historical Troy?) and the discussion of a conquest of the region (that the walls show signs of a fire, sure, but also earthquake damage from the same time!) are tentative and perhaps are based on questionable methods (i.e., the pottery dating used by some of the earlier excavators in the beginning of the twentieth century).

The geographical links are drawn from ancient sources, though all of them late and written after the group of texts were collected into what is now known as the Illiad (like Strabo, who lived around the turn of the first century CE–hundreds of years after the composition of the Homeric epics).   And how many ‘Troy’s’ were there in antiquity?  Livy recounts several ‘Troy’s’ popping up after the fall of the ‘original’ (which is not placed geographically) and notes that the settlers (those who escaped the destruction) were called ‘Trojans’ to his day.  So it is highly specious, in my opinion, to trust the accounts of any ancient author on the whereabouts of Troy, since it is clear that it was fashionable at various times and locales to link ones history with that of the Homeric epics.  And why not those who live off the Aegean Sea?  Of course those settlements would be counted amongst the Trojans!  It is all circular.  A settlement along the Aegean Sea region is associated with Homer and considered Trojan because the Trojans were from a settlement along the Aegean Sea region according to Homer.

There are serious implications to doing history in this fashion.  I again direct the readers to read my earlier post on this subject (linked above).

You Say the Odyssey is Based in History? Not So Fast!

In a discussion today about the ‘social network of the ancient past‘ article that circulated a few months back (and was, in my opinion, thoroughly decimated by Carrier though I offered my own thoughts here), someone commented that ‘the era of joking around about the Odyssey being just a mythological tale is ending.’  Really?  Is that where we are headed now?  The last thing we need is a maximalist revolution in Classics!

Coincidentally, this discussion on the historicity of Odysseus plays into what we’re talking about in my Greek/Roman Mythology class–but it is also something I have argued for many years.  That is, when we are examining ancient texts, we’re not simply looking at a ‘canonical account of what happened’; we’re looking at a text which has changed perhaps hundreds of times before ever being written down and collected–and even then the tale was altered in its performance and in its telling for hundreds of years following its composition and editing.

When people suggest that the Odyssey intimates real historical people and events, I cannot feel as though they are missing several pieces of the puzzle.  Are they forgetting that the Homeric tales contain bits of Bronze and Iron Age socio-constructs, cultural contracts, and information throughout the narratives?  Are they aware that the epic story cannot be removed from its mythological framing (that is to say, the narrative is not (1) of history and (2) of fiction just waiting for someone to come along and pull them apart like one might divide a piece of paper)?  You cannot have an odyssey without an Odysseus who is fawned over by Calypso, who journeyed to the underworld, who is aided by Athena, who returns to Ithaca and slays the suitors.  There is no story without the myth–and there is no history within the myth.  And then there is that pesky other story within the Odyssey–the Telemachia–which seems to have been included into the narrative of the odyssey, at a different time, for purposes unknown; as unknown as its author(s).

But what of that additional detail: That the narrative of the Odyssey fits more in line with the current events of the Archaic-early Persian periods, with the joining of previously warring poleis into alliances and leagues, with the idealization of the Hellenics vs. the Persians, where the narrative takes root and makes a stand.  And even then, these narratives function only within a set of functional guidelines (that is to say, within the setting by which our most current version of the Odyssey comes to us)–as history they fail to meet any guidelines since the narrative no doubt would have changed depending on the patron deities of the individual cities and the role of the heroes (again lending to the fact that what we have isn’t ‘what happened’ but ‘what the Greeks at that time and that place wanted to believe happened).  We’re not dealing with history, but cultural memory.  These tales are the products of the ancient mythic mind, not our modern rationalistic mind.

Some scholars perhaps fail to recognize any of this and, upon stumbling onto a site traditionally associated with Troy they assume they have found the historical Troy (The ancients certainly didn’t know where the hell the place was at because they give conflicting accounts–and they should know if we’re to assume they were aware of it!  Some even doubt the events completely!).  Likewise, Ithaca as described in the Odyssey is completely different geographically; so how would one even ‘discover’ sites associated with the narrative when no prominent land features are accurate enough to ‘locate’ anything?  It’s just like attempts to locate the real Atlantis or the so-called ‘Palace of Odysseus‘ (which is just bunk).  It is just more wishful thinking; another example of someone taking the narrative at face value.  Or it is an attempt to get more government funding for a dig or to sell non-credible books or to attract tourists.  Or it is some political or national move to claim ‘ownership’ of the past.  It is not, however, solid methodology or respectable archaeology.

So is the day coming when the Odyssey is shown to be founded in history?  Definitely not in the archaeological record we currently have.  What’s there to joke about?  I’ll tell you: it’s the methods of those who will stretch any conclusion or any discovery in a manner to arbitrarily place it into the narrative and context of the Odyssey.

Life and Death of an Etruscan Settlement : Past Horizons Archaeology

Chris Rollston passed along this great article.  Really fascinating stuff (if you’re into this sort of thing like ). It follows right along with my current book review (writing up my review of Chapter 2) of Ostler’s Ad Infinitum.  Take a look:

Long pre-dating the Roman Empire, Italy was once inhabited by an advanced civilisation which greatly influenced the culture of Rome, the power that would eventually conquer them in the 3rd century and lead to the civilisation’s decline. With their origins shrouded in mystery, little evidence remains to tell the Etruscan story.

However, the area of Banditella near modern-day Marsiliana offers some hope for Etruscan scholars, and has been associated politically and economically with the influential Etruscan city of Vulci. Excavations were first carried out in the area in 1908 by Prince Tommaso Corsini who successfully excavated over one hundred graves, and the discovery of the Marsiliana d’ Albegna tablet has been confirmed as the earliest abecedarian helping shed light on the language of these ancient people.

Focussing on the land surrounding the resort of Maremma, the Marsiliana d’Albegna project – one of the largest archaeological excavations and research activities in Italy – is now entering its ninth season and aims to contribute to the knowledge and understanding of this important historic site and the people who inhabited it. Located near Grosseto in Tuscany, fieldwork is being undertaken under the direction of the Superintendent of Cultural Heritage of Tuscany, the Department of Archaeology and History of Arts at the University of Siena, and non-profit organisation Etruria Nova. This successful collaboration has led to the establishment of an international field school (see below), and has already produced extensive scientific data confirming the importance of the settlement.

via Life and Death of an Etruscan Settlement : Past Horizons Archaeology.

Also:

Having risen to prosperity and power, the disappearance of the Etruscan civilisation has left many questions within archaeology and academia regarding its origins and culture. The few examples of Etruscan writing left behind consist primarily of short tomb epigrams and genealogical information, and no works of Etruscan literature survived, if they even existed.

Give it a read.

Classics Quote of the Day: Cicero, Academica 1.3.11

Nunc vero et fortunae gravissimo percussus vulnere et administratione rei publicae liberatus doloris medicinam a philosophia peta et oti oblectationem hanc honestissimam iudico. – M. Tullius Cicero, Academica 1.3.11

Great Photos of Vinkovci’s Roman Vessels

From Current World Archaeology:

More pictures of the Roman silver vessels recently discovered in Vinkovci, Croatia, have been sent to CWA by Geoarheo, the commercial unit that excavated the hoard.

‘The location of the silver hoard itself was fortunate as it was found in the few square meters of the entire site that remained untouched by recent construction and infrastructure work,’ Project Manager Goran Skelac said. ‘Although investigations revealed only minor remains of Roman architecture nearby, the most likely probability is that the owner of the vessels buried them near his home, perhaps in the garden or yard.’

via New photos of Vinkovci’s Roman vessels — World Archaeology.

Classics Blog List

Some may see this new icon on my blog:

This is a side project I am working on and it may be of interest to some of my colleagues out there (and if so, please contact me).  More details will be forthcoming soon.

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