I have been writing recently on Κέλσος about the topic of my dissertation, which identifies the NT Gospels as belonging to the genre of Greek popular-novelistic biography, through a comparison with the Alexander Romance and the Life of Aesop. The comparison of Alexander the Great in the Romance with Jesus Christ in the Gospels is especially enlightening, since both Alexander and Jesus were historical persons, who had fabulous accounts written about their lives within only a couple generations after their deaths . Both were likewise called the “Son of God” (discussed by Ory Amitay in From Alexander to Jesus) , and both were attributed dual paternity, with Alexander being the son of Philip of Macedon and the Egyptian god Ammon, and with Jesus being the son of Joseph of Nazareth and the Jewish god Yahweh . Both Alexander and Jesus were also considered to be “King of kings” .
What is especially interesting about the Alexander Romance, however, is that it also has similarities with more books in the New Testament than just the Gospels. In this post, I will discuss a similarity that the Alexander Romance shares with the Book of Revelation, in a lengthy letter that Alexander sends to his mother Olympias at the end of book two. Alexander’s letter is to a certain extent apocalyptic, in that it makes multiple predictions of Alexander’s death. But the greatest similarity that the Letter to Olympias shares with the Book of Revelation is that both texts are heavily eschatological, in that they each discuss the end of the Earth. In Revelation, the Earth is destroyed by the second coming of Jesus, whereas in the Letter to Olympias, Alexander travels to the end of the Earth. Both texts are filled with surreal imagery and read almost like a dream. Below is my analysis:
Symbolic History in the Alexander Romance and the Gospels
While the Alexander Romance is a biographical account of the historical Alexander the Great, it is full of fabulous and legendary material. This includes embellishments of Alexander’s deeds, fictional dialogues between him and other historical persons, and likewise chronological inaccuracies about his life. One such inaccuracy is when the Alexander Romance (1.35) places the Seige of Tyre (332 BCE) prior to the narrative’s account (1.40) of the Battle of Issus (333 BCE). The Gospels likewise show similar disregard for chronological order. As NT scholar L. Michael White (Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite, pp. ix-x) explains about the different accounts of Jesus cleansing the Jewish Temple between the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John:
“[E]ach of the Gospel authors has woven such episodes into the story in distinctive ways, changing not only the running order of the narrative, but also certain cause-and-effect relationships within each story. For example, in the Synoptics–especially the Gospel of Mark–it is the cleansing of the Temple that serves as the immediate cause of Jesus’ arrest and execution. In the Gospel of John there is no connection between these events, as the cleansing is two full years earlier. In contrast, for the Gospel of John the immediate cause of Jesus’ execution is the raising of Lazarus (11:38-44), an event never discussed in the Synoptics.”
Part of why these discrepancies and embellishments occur is because ancient audiences did not take these texts literally. Both the Alexander Romance and the Gospels are accounts of historical figures, to be sure, but these accounts functioned more as symbolic histories rather than the critical histories of Greco-Roman historians and biographers (I contrast the genre of the Gospels with ancient historiography and historical biography in this previous essay). As Classicist Richard Stoneman (Greek Fiction: The Greek Novel in Context, pg. 118) explains:
“The Alexander Romance is a text which uses the freedom of fiction to employ more fully, through philosophical and psychological means, the quality of a particular historical epoch.”
This kind of symbolic history is very similar to the genre of the Gospels. As NT scholar Richard Miller has recently argued in Resurrection and Reception In Early Christianity:
“[T]he earliest Christians would not have considered the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ resurrection to be literal or historical, but instead would have recognized this narrative as an instance of the trope of divine translation, common within the Hellenistic and Roman mythic traditions.”
A major difference between these two figures, however, is that we have the ability to fact-check the Alexander Romance by comparing the text with the historical accounts of Alexander’s life. As I explain in my essay “When Do Contemporary or Early Sources Matter in Ancient History?,” although our earliest extant biographies of Alexander the Great date to centuries after his life, we have numerous eyewitness and contemporary historical accounts that are preserved in literary fragments. Felix Jacoby’s Fragments of the Greek Historians, for example, contains fragments from no less than thirty-seven of Alexander’s historians. These sources allow us to know considerably more about the historical Alexander’s life than what we can know about the historical Jesus. As Richard Stoneman (Greek Fiction: The Greek Novel in Context, pg. 120) points out:
“[W]ith Jesus … we have no independent historical source by which we can evaluate the ways in which the legend varies from what really happened. In the Alexander Romance we see see history becoming saga before our very eyes.”
Because of our inability to corroborate the Gospels with historical sources (except for a few short biographical statements about Jesus in the apostle Paul’s letters), we know considerably less about the historical Jesus than Alexander, making most of his life lost to modern historians. As Classicist Ory Amitay (From Alexander to Jesus pg. 149) explains:
“Alexander … has a clear advantage in the field of history. A sea of ink has dried up in the attempt to paint a picture of Jesus historicus, yet we nevertheless know precious little about him. Not so Alexander.”
As I discuss above, there is a great deal of fabulous and legendary material in both the Alexander Romance and the Gospels, but what is interesting about the Letter to Olympias and the Book of Revelation is that both contain even greater symbolic embellishment. These accounts are filled with surreal imagery that is certainly metaphorical and not meant to be taken literally. In Revelation, John of Patmos is taken to Heaven, where he sees many marvelous things. In the Letter to Olympias, Alexander travels to the end of the Earth, and sees many wonderful things similar to John.
The Letter to Olympias and the Book of Revelation
The Letter to Olympias takes place at the end of book two of the Alexander Romance, following his defeat of the Persian king Darius. After this event, Alexander writes a letter to his mother about his journeys beyond the land of Persia, where he travels further East, searching for the end of the Earth. The further Alexander travels, the more marvelous things he sees and the more fabulous the account becomes.
This letter is told in the first-person and it is of a different genre than the rest of the Alexander Romance. In fact, some of the recensions of the Alexander Romance do not even include the letter! Recension α only includes a short letter to his mother at 2.22, and does not include the longer letter with the travel account that follows it. The letter is instead found in recension β, and a similar narrative, which is changed from the first- to the third-person, is also found in recension γ. There are likewise additional episodes that are inserted into the letter in later manuscripts (such as recension L). Part of why some recensions omit the letter is that it’s very different from the rest of the narrative, in that it contains almost no historical material. But, that doesn’t matter much, since its genre is clearly different and is meant to be taken even less literally.
I also discussed homeric mimesis in the Alexander Romance in this previous essay. What is interesting is that Richard Stoneman (Greek Fiction: The Greek Novel in Context, pg. 120) argues that an echo of Odysseus’ travels in the Odyssey is meant to be understood in the Letter to Olympias, since Odysseus likewise tells of his marvelous journeys in the first-person. Alexander is likewise compared to Odysseus in other parts of the Alexander Romance, which I discuss here.
The first point of comparison between the Letter to Olympias and the Book of Revelation is that Revelation is also written as a letter in the first-person . Revelation (1:4) starts with John of Patmos addressing his account to seven church in the province of Asia, and he discusses issues facing each church in chapter 2 and chapter 3. Like Alexander, John is taken on a marvelous journey, but rather than going to the spatial ends of the Earth, he is instead taken up into Heaven, where he witnesses a prophecy about the temporal end of the Earth.
As I discuss above, both the Letter to Olympias and the Book of Revelation contain marvelous and symbolic imagery. Some of this includes fantastical descriptions of human-like creatures and animals . For example, the Alexander Romance (2.32) describes the following location that Alexander arrived at during his journey :
“[W]e came to an even more desolate place. Here, we found a great forest of trees called anaphanda, with a strange and unfamiliar fruit: they were like apples, but of the size of melons. There were also people in the wood, called Phytoi, who were 36 feet tall, their necks alone being 2 feet in length, and their feet of equally enormous size. Their forearms and hands were like saws.”
When John is taken up to Heaven in Revelation, he sees similar bizarre creatures. As Revelation (4:6-8) describes in one scene:
“In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings.”
Those are both some spectacular marvels to behold!
The Light of the World
Another point of similarity between the Letter to Olympias and the Book of Revelation is the theme of light and darkness. The hero depicted in each account is described as a figure who will bring light to the world, and the people and places that are not under him will be left in darkness. As Alexander travels further to the East, he reaches lands that are so far that they will never fall under his empire. As the Alexander Romance (2.38) describes his journey:
“We set off again and made for the sea through the desert. On the way we saw nothing – no bird or beast, nothing but sky and earth. We could not even see the sun, and the sky remained black for a period of ten days. Then we came to a place by the sea and pitched our tents; we stayed in camp here for several days.”
As Ory Amitay (From Alexander to Jesus, pg. 132) explains about the meaning of this imagery:
“The miserable inhabitants of that part of the world which Alexander never reached were left in darkness, as if the Sun had never shown on them. The same imagery is immanent in the portrayal of Jesus by the Evangelist John, as the primordial Light, enlightening all of humanity.”
Amitay notes that the theme of light and darkness is also used in the Gospel of John. For example, John (1:4-5) describes Jesus in the following manner:
“In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Similar imagery of light and darkness is likewise used in the Book of Revelation. When seven angels pour out the “seven bowls of God’s wrath” in chapter 16, the following description is given of the fifth angel (16:10-11):
“The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done.”
One kingdom that is frequently depicted as antithetical to the Judeo-Christian God in the Bible is Babylon. The destruction of Babylon is likewise used metaphorically in Revelation to foreshadow the destruction of wicked cities during the end times (and is likely even used as a subtle allusion to Rome). Here is how the passage is described (18:1-2; 18:23):
“After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven. He had great authority, and the earth was illuminated by his splendor. With a mighty voice he shouted: ‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!’ … The light of a lamp will never shine in you again. The voice of bridegroom and bride will never be heard in you again.'”
The Ends of the Earth and the End of Time
On his journey to the furthest boundaries of the world, Alexander seeks not only the end of land, but even the ends of the sea and sky. As such, at one point of the journey, Alexander invents a contraption in order to descend into the depths of the ocean. Here is how the Alexander Romance (2.38) describes his descent:
“So I then made a large iron cage, and inside the cage I placed a large glass jar, 2 feet wide, and I ordered a hole to be made in the bottom of the jar, big enough for a man’s hand to go through. My idea was to descend and find out what was on the floor of this sea.”
To fly into the air, Alexander needs the aid of giant birds. Once again, Alexander invents a contraption that allows him to ascend into the sky (2.41):
“Then I began to ask myself again if this place was really the end of the world, where the sky touched the earth. I wanted to discover the truth, and so I gave orders to capture two of the birds that lived there … On the third day I had something like a yoke constructed from wood, and had this tied to their throats. Then I had an ox-skin made into a large bag … and climbed in, holding two spears, each about 10 feet long and with a horse’s liver fixed to the point. At once the birds soared up to seize the livers, and I rose up with them into the air, until I thought I must be close to the sky. I shivered all over because of the extreme coldness of the air, caused by the beating of the birds’ wings.”
What is signified in these passages is that Alexander the Great, who conquered the known world, also had to traverse every part of the Earth. In this way he is very much like the mythical figure Hercules, who is also the “Son of God,” namely the Roman god Jupiter. On his journey, Alexander has to go where no human has gone before, so that he even descends into the ocean and ascends into the sky. Once more, Alexander is similar to Jesus’ depiction in Revelation. As is declared at the end of Revelation (22:13) :
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”
And so, both Alexander and Jesus are depicted as encompassing both anything and everything.
The Islands of the Blessed and the Kingdom of Heaven
One important difference, however, between the Alexander Romance and the Book of Revelation is that Alexander is not able to enter the divine realm. He makes an effort to enter the “Islands of the Blessed,” but when he draws near, two messengers tell him to retreat (2.40):
“I saw two birds in the air: they had human faces and spoke in Greek. ‘Why, Alexander, do you approach a land which is god’s alone? Turn back, wretch, turn back; it is not for you to tread the Islands of the Blessed. Turn back, O man, tread the land that has been given to you and do not lay up trouble for yourself.'”
Alexander is likewise given warnings in the narrative that he will soon die. One of them occurs a few chapters earlier at Alexander Romance 2.38:
“O son of Philip, seed of Egypt, the name you received is a sign of the success of your future achievements. You were named by your mother, Alexander. You have hunted men down and defeated them; you have swept kings from their seats. But soon you will find yourself without men…”
This is all quite different from the Book of Revelation. Not only is John of Patmos taken to Heaven itself, but he also sees there the promises of eternal life for the faithful. In Heaven, John sees the tree of life and it is revealed that God will wipe away darkness forever. Revelation (22:1-2; 22:5) describes this scene as follows:
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations … There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.”
And so, while Alexander had conquered the Earth, his kingdom was not eternal. In contrast, the Kingdom of God is depicted to last for ever and ever.
Two Competing Eschatologies
Last year for a graduate seminar that I was taking on the New Testament, I read The Historical Jesus: Five Views (edited by James Beilby and Paul Rhodes), which contained chapters written by different NT scholars about their view of the historical Jesus. The chapter that I enjoyed and agreed with most was the one written by John Dominic Crossan, titled “Jesus and the Challenge of Collaborative Eschatology.” In the chapter, Crossan contrasts the apocalyptic eschatology of Jesus’ Kingdom of God with the earthly and imperial eschatology of the Roman Empire.
The eschatology of the Roman Empire during Jesus’ time was rooted in the emperor Augustus, who fashioned his own image greatly in the legacy of Alexander the Great. This imperial eschatology emphasized Rome’s conquest of the world and the order that it had imposed upon it. It is a very earthly and material eschatology, rooted in the present world. Jesus’ eschatology, in contrast, superseded that of Rome’s, in being a heavenly eschatology that would eventually wipe out the present world.
In the Letter to Olympias, I think we see a very similar eschatology to what Crossan describes for the Roman Empire. Alexander the Great conquered the Earth and he journeyed to the very ends of the Earth. Jesus’ kingdom, however, is not of this world, but will come from above. The Book of Revelation depicts this eschatology in a way very different from Alexander’s eschatology, but nevertheless both accounts contains similar themes, symbols, and imagery. It is very interesting to see how ideology was shaped in the ancient world and fashioned into narrative. It certainly reveals that fabulous stories, such as the Alexander Romance, were not just mere tales for entertainment, but conveyed important messages about the nature of the world and the ultimate ends to which humans could reach.
 As Richard Stoneman (The Landmark Arrian, pp. 388-389) explains about the dating of the Alexander Romance:
“Soon after his death, Alexander’s life story was written up by an anonymous author … This work, known as the Alexander Romance, emphasized the fabulous elements of Alexander’s story and added many new fables … This work seems, however, not to have been known to the Romans until it was translated by Julius Valerius in the fourth century C.E.; this has led to the mistaken view, still shared by many, that the Greek original was not written until shortly before that date. Probably it arose much earlier, perhaps in the early third century B.C.E. The Alexander Romance is a fictional biography that … is of interest as indicating the way that the memory of Alexander was shaped a generation or two after his death.”
This is roughly the same distance from Jesus to the Gospels, which were written 40-60 years after his death. There was also several other legendary stories that emerged about Alexander the Great outside the Alexander Romance, some even written by eyewitnesses. As B.P. Reardon (Collected Ancient Greek Novels, pg. 651) explains:
“It comes as a shock to realize how quickly historians fictionalized Alexander: Onesikritos, who had actually accompanied Alexander, told how Alexander had met the queen of the (mythical) Amazons.”
See Kris Komarnitsky’s “Myth Growth Rates and the Gospels: A Close Look at A.N. Sherwin-White’s Two-Generation Rule” for a similar analysis of the rapid legendary development about the life of Jesus in the Gospels.
 It should be noted that Alexander the Great and Jesus were not the only historical figures in antiquity to be called “Son of God.” Most notably, the emperor Augustus, who was a contemporary of Jesus, also used this title. Augustus likewise modeled his imperial propaganda heavily off of Alexander and the Hellenistic kings of the East. As explained by Richard Stoneman (“The Latin Alexander,” pg. 170):
“To establish his authority in the east, it suited Augustus to present himself as a new Alexander, visiting the latter’s tomb in Alexandria and honouring the city. He also used an image of Alexander as his personal seal. His plan for a Parthian War is part of this Alexander imitation.”
Augustus very likely adopted the title “Son of God” out of imitation of Alexander. This can be demonstrated by the fact that the stories of his divine birth imitate Alexander’ divine birth. As Richard Miller (Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity, pg. 127) explains:
“Suetonius applied Alexander’s birth myth as a pattern for his Divus Augustus. According to Suetonius, the story circulated that Atia had been impregnated by Apollo in the form of a serpent, after having fallen asleep in Apollo’s sacred temple in Rome.”
For a discussion of how Jesus’ birth in the Gospels of Matthew likewise imitates Alexander, see footnote 3 below.
 Richard Miller in Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity (pp. 124-125) argues that Jesus’ divine birth in the Gospel of Matthew even imitates the divine birth of Alexander the Great. Below are the following similarities shared between the two accounts:
- A parental genealogical description placed at the beginning, aimed at signifying the respective hero via an established pedigree.
- A betrothed, juvenile couple who are in love.
- The interruption by the deity of the wedding / betrothal process, impregnating the bride through his signature, principal element, namely, Zeus’s thunderbolt of fire (κεραυνός) or Yahweh’s sacred wind (πνεῦμα).
- The virginal conception and birth of the hero child; the surrogate father abstains from sexual relations until the womb is opened through the birth of the child, namely, the breaking of the “seal.”
- Drama over the sexual fidelity of the bride and the legitimacy of the conception.
- A distrust of the woman’s account of the child’s conception, precipitating the need for the groom’s divine dream, thus restoring confidence in the bride’s story.
- A prophetic description of the child given in the groom’s dream, establishing supreme expectation regarding the destiny of the child.
 In fact, Jesus is even called “King of kings” in Revelation 17:14 and 19:16. The title had also been used for Cyrus the Great, and it is clear that, in applying it to Jesus, Christians were modeling their Messiah on Persian and Hellenistic notions of lordship.
 While letters written in the first-person were a common literary form in antiquity, there are some important considerations which suggest that the use of the first-person in the Letter to Olympias and the Book of Revelation is significant for generic reasons, and not merely accidental. First, as noted above, the extended first-person narrative in the Letter to Olympias is different from the third-person narrative of the rest of the Alexander Romance. This change in narration signifies a change in genre, which also explains why the Letter to Olympias contains more fabulous elements that the rest of the Romance. But furthermore, the use of a first-person narrator relating a personal journey is common in several ancient accounts about celestial journeys and visions. As Catherine Hezser in “Ancient ‘Science Fiction’: Journeys into Space and Visions of the World in Jewish, Christian, and Greco-Roman Literature of Antiquity” explains, both the Letter to Olympias and the Book of Revelation belong to a broader genre in ancient literature about celestial journeys and visions. Other examples of texts that belong to this genre include Lucian’s A True Story, the Book of Enoch, and the Apocalypse of Abraham. What is noteworthy is that all of these accounts contain fabulous celestial journeys which are narrated in the first person, and are connected with the testimony of a specific individual.
 What is particularly interesting is that both the Letter to Olympias and the Book of Revelation refer to winged creatures with human-like faces. Revelation 4:7 refers to a winged creature that “had a face like a man.” Likewise, the Alexander Romance (2.40) states, “I saw two birds in the air: they had human faces and spoke in Greek.”
 For passages from the Alexander Romance I have used Richard Stoneman’s translation.
“I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I had heard and seen them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who had been showing them to me. But he said to me, ‘Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and with your fellow prophets and with all who keep the words of this scroll. Worship God!’ Then he told me, ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this scroll, because the time is near. Let the one who does wrong continue to do wrong; let the vile person continue to be vile; let the one who does right continue to do right; and let the holy person continue to be holy.’ ‘Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.'”
As can be seen, the previous person to speak to John in the passage is an angel, and Jesus is not identified explicitly to be speaking in 22:13. Nevertheless, there is good reason to think that the implied speaker is Jesus. First, the angel refers to “the words of prophecy of this scroll” (22:10), which probably signifies a change in speaker. But furthermore, the statement, “Look, I am coming soon!” (22:12), does not make sense as being spoken by the angel. Rather, this verse probably refers to the second coming of Jesus and thus implies Jesus as the speaker, especially since it is remarked only a few sentences later: “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches” (22:16).
Regardless, Jesus does not need to be the direct speaker for Revelation 22:13 to still have important eschatological significance. Clearly the passage refers to “end things,” which is the meaning of the word “eschatology,” derived from the Greek words for “last” (ἔσχατος) and “study” (-λογία). The metaphor of the first and last letter of the alphabet clearly emphasizes this point, which signifies that the vision in the text is meant to be taken in an eschatological sense. As noted above, the eschatology in the Letter to Olympias is different, in that Alexander travels to the spatial ends of the world, whereas the eschatology in the Book of Revelation refers to the temporal end of the world. However, that is the very point of this essay: to contrast these two competing eschatologies, which have similarities in their concern for “end things,” but also have very different emphases in the “end things” depicted.