Some authors look at the links between Greece and the Near East in their ancient myths and literature. Apart from mythology this mainly concerns Homer with the Iliad and the Odyssee – but we should not exclude the philosophies from Pythagoras onward. For the Near East think about e.g. Gilgamesh and the Hebrew Bible (the Tenach ~ Old Testament).
Three authors caught my attention. I am no student of this realm and hesitate to read their books. However, I can roughly understand what is reported about this area of research, and then wonder what may be relevant when we consider what mathematics education can contribute to the education on Jesus and the origin of Christianity. Mathematics deals with more than numbers and space, it also deals with patterns.
These three authors are:
- Bruce Louden, Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East, 2011, with this review by Jonathan L. Ready.
- Philippe Wajdenbaum, Argonauts of the desert, 2014, with this discussion of an earlier article by Neil Godfrey.
- Dennis Macdonald, with a string of articles and books since at least 1994, with various critiques, but let me mention Richard Carrier’s and some rejections.
A comment by Ready on Louden seems to hold for all authors:
“What is more, Louden’s book continues to refine the Homeric comparative project as a whole in three ways. First, the relationship Louden detects between the Hebrew Bible and the Odyssey is for the most part genealogical, not historical. [ftnt] He imagines some sort of common source used by, not direct, purposeful contact between, Greek and Israelite cultures (see, e.g., 11 and 121). But finding numerous and close connections between the Odyssey and Genesis, Louden hypothesizes “that the Odyssey, in some form, served as a model for individual parts of Genesis (particularly the myth of Joseph)” (324). Indeed—and this is the point I wish to stress—Louden reminds us that the transmission of motifs and tales was not solely westward: “Greek myth should be seen in a dialogic relation with Near Eastern myth, with influence running in both directions, during several different eras” (12). As another example of how Louden notes the possibility of movement eastward from Greece, I cite his speculation on a Greek origin for stories about a man wrestling a god (see 121). I hasten to add, however, that, although he ponders the matter in the book’s Conclusion, Louden is not really concerned with the actual mechanisms of transmission. His exercise is a heuristic one: “the main reason I adduce OT myths is because their parallels provide a tool for our understanding and interpretation of Homeric epic” (11). Second, Louden reaffirms the value of comparing Homeric epic with non-epic literature from the ancient Near East. After all, the Hebrew Bible may contain elements associated with epic or even epic material but is not itself epic. Nonetheless, comparatists need not fear connecting the text with Homeric epic. If we insist on comparing Homeric poetry only with that which we precariously define as epic, we shall deny ourselves access to a wealth of useful data. Third, I return to a point mentioned above. Louden consistently notes when different versions of the same episode, myth, or story pattern do different things (see, e.g., 176). This flexibility in his analytical program is most welcome, for the comparatist should delve into the discrepancies along with the convergences.” (Jonathan L. Ready in this review of Louden)
A question on the Zodiac
The Zodiac is one crowning achievement of neolithical times and early history. Because of lack of cameras and lack of writing, early observations were couched in narratives. Such narratives would discuss gods and goddesses. For some, the narratives would start lives of their own. One question that arises is how the Zodiac relates to these ancient tales, like Gilgamesh or the travels by Odysseus. In my book The simple mathematics of Jesus I pointed to the use of the Zodiac as some kind of a map for the New Testament. I also observed that the NT ~ OT. (See some reasons to summarize the OT into the NT.) Hence, if OT ~ Homer then we may surmise that the Zodiac would also be relevant for understanding the Odyssee.
This argument holds in more cases. A criticism on Macdonald is that passages in Mark refer to passages in the OT, so that Macdonald is erroneous in linking Mark to Homer. However, when the OT is also based upon Homer, then the link could still be correct. The only inference that would change is that Mark might be less Hellenizing than Macdonald suggests.
A surprise on Plato’s cave
I was much surprised by this:
“And the great Hellenistic thinker, Plato, composed a tale that has epitomized the best of Hellenistic values and Western values since. His allegory of the cave tells us how a would-be saviour of a people will do all he can out of compassion to rescue others. But at the same time those he loves and would save will not recognize him or his claims. They will even scoff at him, and even eventually seek to kill him if they ever have the chance.
This is the essence of the Gospel message about the nature, reception and fate of Jesus. Jesus is very much the classic Hellenistic (cum Roman) hero of the gentiles. He is like Achilles and like the saviour in the parable of the Cave.” (Neil Godfrey, vridar.org, 2011-03-17)
LXX and rabbits
A standard notion is that Ptolemy Soter (367-283 BC) introduced the syncretic god Serapis to unify the beliefs of his Greek soldiers and his Egyptian subjects. A hypothesis by Russell Gmirkin is that also the Septuagint was a deliberate creation and no mere translation of what already existed in completion – see this discussion at vridar.org. An argument is that Ptolemy’s actual name was Lagos – Rabbit – and that there is no explicit mention of rabbits in the Septuagint. The latter might however also be accomplished by mere editing, so we would want to consider more arguments.
A major problem is that the OT assigns full power to the priests in Jerusalem, and it is not clear why Ptolemy would create such an OT, and why he didn’t want full power to the king, who would he himself.
It depends however upon the period. The Ptolemies and Seleucids would battle about Palestine. In the period from Alexander till the arrival of the Romans, Palestine changed hands five times. Perhaps some Ptolemaic ruler wished for an independent Palestine like a buffer state ?
It is not clear whether Godfrey develops this argument himself or copies it from Gmirkin, but check the text at vridar.org for the clou:
“Rather, one only has evidence as late as ca. 400 BCE or what Wellhausen called “Oral Torah,” that is, an authority vested in the Jerusalem priesthood rather than in a written code of laws.”
“But there is one detail Aristobulus gives us that may be a more certain clue to the date the Septuagint was composed. In the fictional Letter to Aristeas (recall that Gmirkin believes this to have been written by Aristobulus) he tells us that the Septuagint was written at the time Arsinoe II was the wife of Ptolemy II. Though this datum is in a fictional letter, it is nonetheless true that this Arsinoe, who was the full sister of Ptolemy II, did marry her brother (according to Egyptian royal custom) some time between 279 and 273 BCE. She died in July 269 BCE.” (Neil Godfrey, vridar.org, 2012-12-30)
Elsewhere we read:
“These documents tell us of Palestine under the rule of Ptolemy 11 [sic] Philadelphus (283‑246 B.C.E.). The country was often beset by Seleucid attacks and Bedouin incursions. Ptolemaic military units were stationed throughout Palestine, and many Greek cities were established.” (MyJewishLearning.com, Palestine in the Hellinistic Age)
Thus, if we concur with the notion that the Torah (Pentateuch) was written around 270 BC then Ptolemy II had control over Palestine, and:
- either wanted to turn Palestine into a buffer state under control of Jerusalem
- or overlooked the possibility of taking control (by creating a suitable syncretic text)
- or did create a syncretic text – so that the original oral tradition “was much worse”.
With all this Hellenizing, Socrates (ca. 469-499 BC) can be Jesus too
All this connects with an insight that I easily recalled from a course in philosophy in 1973:
“If one only regards the little that we know about Socrates really for certain, one would be inclined to ask: How is it possible that such a man, although he was a personality with a deep moral nature, and who died for his convictions, whose proper philosophy however is hardly seizable, has had such an immeasurable influence? One would point out that the comparison of the death of a martyr by Socrates with that of Christ and those of the earliest christian martyrs – which the texts of earliest Christianity indeed point out – have sustained a passionate memory of Socrates. But the real answer rather must be, that the impact of Socrates resides in his entirely exceptional personality, which can be humanly very close to us even after more than twenty centuries, rather than on what he taught. With him, namely, something entered into the history of mankind, what hence has become an ever deeper working inner force: the unwavering, self-sustaining, autonomous moral personality. This is the ‘Socratic Gospel’ of the internally free human, who does good only for the good.” (Hans Joachim Störig, “Geschiedenis van de filosofie”, part 1, p143, Prisma 409)
Thus, when we consider the creation of a syncretic gospel that had to combine both Judaism and Greek thought, then the authors may well have been tempted to take Socrates as the most powerful story available, and put a personage like him in the lands of Palestine.
Both Socrates and Jesus were convicted by a trial. The idea of a court trial that judges on the hero is ancient enough: compare the Osiris myth.
The best book on the trial is likely by I.F. Stone (1907-1989). Beware of hero worship however, not only w.r.t. Jesus but also w.r.t. Störig on Socrates:
“Actually, in spite of the journalistic pose, [Stone] is in Greece on a mission, having had a clear view of what he wants to do before he went. He wants to cleanse Athens of the Socratic blood guilt. Athens is a tragic protagonist, having itself violated what it holds most dear, its sacred principle of free speech. Socrates and his propagandists, Plato and Xenophon, succeeded in making Athens look bad to all later times. Socrates poses as the disinterested seeker for the truth, the man trying to turn from the darkness of the cave to the light of the sun, brought down by the prejudice of the city. Stone turns this around: Athens sought the truth and was tricked by the duplicitous Socrates. He really did engage in a conspiracy to discredit democratic openness and succeeded in getting Athens to betray itself. Lesson: philosophic detachment is inauthentic, a snare and a delusion. The thinker must be a participant in the progressive struggle of the people against the dark forces of reaction. History is the triumph of reason; distancing oneself from it in order to be reasonable is unreasonable and merely disguises old class interests. The true philosopher is éngage or committed. Thus Stone is Socrates’ accuser, the voice of Athens now become fully self-conscious and philosophic.” (Allan Bloom, review of I.F. Stone on Socrates, 1988)
Addendum April 8:
(1) While the Church destroyed documents with alternative views, or stopped others from copying them, the same has been done in philosophy by followers of Plato, see Michel Onfray, Les sagesses antiques
(2) In religion, there is the distinction between the theology and the daily practice (mass, births, weddings, funerals). My essay SMOJ suggests that Plato’s philosophy didn’t develop into a religion since he forgot to develop a liturgy and to train priests who would do the rituals. It may however well be that Plato did develop such a religion, namely what became known as Christianity.