Patterns of Myth-Making Between the Lives of Alexander the Great and Jesus Christ

Greek Alexander RomanceRecently on Κέλσος I have been discussing the Alexander Romance and some of the similarities that this mythical biography of Alexander the Great shares with the New Testament Gospels. The earliest Greek version of the Alexander Romance that we possess dates to the 2nd-4th centuries CE, which is a number of centuries after Alexander’s death. Nevertheless, the Alexander Romance functioned as an ‘open text,’ meaning that it was added to and redacted for several centuries following its earliest composition. Due to this fact, the first version of the Romance that we possess almost certainly was not the first that was written.

The leading Classicist to study the subject, Richard Stoneman, dates the Alexander Romance to as early as the beginning of the 3rd century BCE, only a generation or two after Alexander’s death (323 BCE). Even if the Alexander Romance had been written much later, however, the text certainly makes use of eyewitness and contemporary source materials that were written during or shortly after Alexander’s lifetime. One of the sources used by the Romance is Onesicritus, who was a personal traveling companion of Alexander, who nevertheless claimed that Alexander had met with mythical Amazonian warriors on his journeys. As B.P. Reardon (Collected Ancient Greek Novels, pg. 651) points out, “It comes as a shock to realize how quickly historians fictionalized Alexander.”

The first version of the Alexander Romance that we possess contains a number of geographical and chronological errors. Since the text evolved through several centuries of composition, however, many of the greatest errors in the narrative are simply later additions. One example is Alexander’s journey to Rome (AR 1.28), which never historically took place, since the historical Alexander the Great only journeyed to the East. This error is almost certainly a later addition, however, which was added to the text during the period of the Roman Empire. As the Alexander Romance evolved over the centuries, new stories were added to the text in order to have Alexander visit new locations where the Romance was being read. The first versions, therefore, probably contained less geographical and chronological errors than the later versions.

The Alexander Romance likewise contains symbolic locations, which are not meant to be taken literally. As Alexander travels beyond Persia into lands unknown to the Greco-Roman world, he begins to encounter increasingly marvelous phenomena in the narrative. These include descriptions of lands where “the sun does not shine” (2.39) and giant humans with “forearms and hands like saws” (2.32). These descriptions, however, are not referring to literal places and people. As I explain in my previous essay, “Eschatology in Alexander’s Letter to Olympias and the Book of Revelation,” such imagery is used figuratively to illustrate Alexander’s journey to the end of the Earth. This portion of the narrative has many eschatological themes similar to the Book of Revelation, which also describes marvelous phenomena, such as creatures with “six wings covered with eyes all around” (4:6-8), which likewise are not meant to be taken literally. Furthermore, some of the recensions of the Alexander Romance even omit such details. Recension α, for example, does not include the Letter to Olympias, which contains many of the most marvelous descriptions in the Romance. Recension α, therefore, is a relatively less fabulous version of the text than recension β.

Six-Winged Creatures

For the purposes of myth-making, however, the dating and accuracy of the Alexander Romance is largely irrelevant to its value as a comparison text for the Gospels. This is because the eyewitness and contemporary sources used by the Romance date back to stories that were being told about Alexander during his lifetime and shortly after. The myths that were developing about Alexander during this period bear many similarities to the stories that were told about Jesus 40-60 years after his death. To be sure, Alexander is not a duplicate of Jesus, due to the fact that there are important differences between any two figures of history. But the patterns of myth-making that surrounded both individuals and developed rapidly after their lives share a number of similar themes.

The most common form of myth-making seen between Alexander and Jesus is the modeling of their characters upon previous heroic archetypes. Even before the Alexander Romance was written, Alexander was being compared to figures like Hercules and Achilles. Likewise, prior to the composition of the Gospels, Jesus was being compared to figures like Moses, David, Elijah, and Elisha. This modeling upon heroic archetypes resulted in a number of inventions and embellishments being told about each figure, in order to liken them to their mythical counterparts. Below I will lay out some of the common myth-making patterns shared between Alexander and Jesus.

Alexander Modeled on Hercules 

Alexander the Great was first compared to the demigod Hercules through his genealogy. On the side of his father Philip, Alexander’s lineage was said to descend from Hercules. This is discussed in the writings of the biographer Plutarch (Life of Alexander 2.1), who states:

“As for the lineage of Alexander, on his father’s side he was a descendant of Heracles through Caranus, and on his mother’s side a descendant of Aeacus through Neoptolemus; this is accepted without any question.”

HerculesHercules was known for being the son of Zeus (or Jupiter), and he was thus considered to be the “Son of God.” Because Hercules was born from a mortal mother, however, he had a sort of dual paternity. Zeus was said to have impregnated his mother Alcmene, but he was also raised by his adoptive father Amphitryon. Alexander also was thought to have had dual paternity, as he had inherited the throne of Macedon from Philip II, but was also thought to be the son of Zeus and the Egyptian god Ammon.

The association of Alexander with Ammon developed during Alexander’s lifetime. In 331 BCE, Alexander visited the Oracle of Ammon at the Siwa Oasis. Ammon was considered to be the Egyptian version of Zeus, and according to legend Hercules (Alexander’s putative ancestor) had also once visited the oracle. There were two temples at the oasis, one built by the Egyptian pharaoh Nectanebo II (who is even depicted as impregnating Alexander’s mother Olympias in the Alexander Romance, chapters 1.1-1.12).

In addition to his associations with Ammon, Alexander was also rumored to have been impregnated by the thunderbolt of Zeus. Plutarch (Life of Alexander 2.2-6) writes:

“And we are told that Philip, after being initiated into the mysteries of Samothrace at the same time with Olympias … fell in love with her and betrothed himself to her at once with the consent of her brother, Arymbas. Well, then, the night before that on which the marriage was consummated, the bride dreamed that there was a peal of thunder and that a thunder-bolt fell upon her womb, and that thereby much fire was kindled, which broke into flames that travelled all about, and then was extinguished. At a later time, too, after the marriage, Philip dreamed that he was putting a seal upon his wife’s womb; and the device of the seal, as he thought, was the figure of a lion. The other seers, now, were led by the vision to suspect that Philip needed to put a closer watch upon his marriage relations; but Aristander of Telmessus said that the woman was pregnant, since no seal was put upon what was empty, and pregnant of a son whose nature would be bold and lion-like. Moreover, a serpent was once seen lying stretched out by the side of Olympias as she slept, and we are told that this, more than anything else, dulled the ardour of Philip’s attentions to his wife, so that he no longer came often to sleep by her side…”

Although Plutarch’s account of Alexander’s divine birth dates to the Roman period, Hellenistic authors who are no longer extant were writing about it much earlier. As Richard Miller (Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity, pg. 125) explains:

“Various Roman authors later alluded to and epitomize now non-extant sources for the divine birth myth composed in the Hellenistic period (that is, before the Common Era), such as Satyrus’ Vita Philippi (third century BCE) and Pompeius Trogus’ Historiae Philippicae (first century BCE).”

Stories about Alexander’s divine birth were thus recorded by historians only a generation or two after his death, and the rumors of them no doubt came much earlier, during Alexander’s lifetime.

Jesus Modeled on David

DavidThe Gospel of Matthew writes about the birth of Jesus roughly 80 years after the event, in the late-1st century CE. Since Jesus was regarded by Christians as the Jewish Messiah, he was thought to be descended from King David. This rumor is recorded even prior to Matthew’s composition in the writings of the apostle Paul (Rom. 1:3), who describes Jesus as a descendant of David.

At the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew (1:1-17), the author constructs a genealogy of Jesus, which traces his ancestry back to David and Abraham. Matthew breaks down the genealogy of Jesus into three sets of fourteen generations: fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to the Babylonian exile, and fourteen generations from the exile to Jesus. This genealogy is obviously incomplete. Fourteen generations between each of these events does not cover all the years that would have spanned between them. The number, however, is probably used symbolically. As the Oxford Annotated Bible (pg. 1748) explains:

“The numerical value of David’s name in Hebrew is fourteen, which may account for this arrangement.”

Beyond the obvious symbolism in Matthew’s genealogy, it is also obvious that the author fabricated the list in order to make several allusions to the Old Testament. For an analysis of this, I highly recommend Paul Davidson’s essay, “What’s the Deal with Matthew’s Genealogy?.” Davidson points out how even the name of Jesus’ grandfather Jacob is possibly invented to draw an allusion to the Exodus in Egypt. As Davidson explains:

“The last two names leading up to Jesus are Jacob and Joseph. One is immediately reminded of the patriarch Joseph in Genesis, who also had a father named Jacob and who grew up in Egypt much like Matthew’s Jesus did.”

Matthew places Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, even though the historical Jesus was probably a native of Nazareth, in order to have him come from the city of David [1]. Bethlehem was also thought to be the city from which the Jewish Messiah would descend, as suggested in Micah 5:2. Matthew writes that Jesus was born from a virgin (based on a misreading of Isaiah 7:14), in order to construct a divine birth motif [2]. In this way, Jesus, like Hercules and Alexander, is depicted as the “Son of God.”

In fact, the story of Alexander’s divine birth (which preceded the birth of Jesus by a number of centuries) was so well-known in the early Roman Empire that a strong argument can be made that Matthew’s infancy narrative is even modeled on the birth of Alexander the Great. Richard Miller in Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity (pp. 124-125) notes 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.

Even if Jesus’ birth was not directly modeled on Alexander’s, however, the mythical archetype of a divine birth, which produced a “Son of God,” was very common during the Hellenistic period and the Roman Empire. It is obvious, therefore, that the author of Matthew merely drew upon such previous mythical archetypes when constructing his narrative of Jesus’ birth.

Jesus Modeled on Moses

Following the account of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Matthew, King Herod learns, after being visited by a group of traveling Magi, that the king of the Jews has been born in Bethlehem (Mt. 2:1-7). Herod then sends the Magi to Bethlehem in order to locate the child (Mt. 2:8), but when they do not return, he then orders for all of the male children in Bethlehem under two years of age to be killed (Mt. 2:16). Before Jesus can be killed with them, however, his father Joseph is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt (Mt. 2:13), and so baby Jesus escapes the slaughter.

This story is implausible for a number of reasons. To begin with, the Magi first find the place of Jesus’ birth because they are led by a star that “stopped over the place where the child was” (Mt. 2:9). For a discussion of why such a story cannot possibly be referring to a literal event, I recommend astronomer Aaron Adair’s The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View. Furthermore, Herod’s reaction is rather unrealistic. Should we really expect Herod to slaughter an entire town of infants merely because of the rumor of a few Magi? If he had done so, it is extraordinary that not a single non-Christian author knows of any such thing. The Jewish historian Josephus, for example, catalogues many of Herod’s other atrocities and crimes, and yet he makes no mention of this event. Very often, apologists will try to brush off this silence, by suggesting that Josephus’ list may be incomplete or that he may not have heard of this event. This is unlikely, however. Among the sources that Josephus drew upon for the history of Herod was Herod’s personal court historian, Nicolaus of Damascus. Bethlehem is only four miles from Jerusalem, a third of a day’s walk. If Herod had really slaughtered all of the children in Bethlehem, therefore, his crime would have been well-known, and Nicolaus would have been required to write some defense for the event. It is inconceivable that Josephus, who was relying on Nicolaus, would think that this story, one of the most appalling of Herod’s reign, did not warrant inclusion in his historical works.

MosesBut doubting Herod’s slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem does not even require an argument from silence. The reason why the story is myth is due to the fact that it was clearly invented out of imitation of Moses! In the Book of Exodus (1:22-2:1-8), the Pharaoh of Egypt gives an order for every newborn Hebrew male to be thrown into the river Nile and drowned. Baby Moses narrowly escapes this fate, when he is put in a basket, sent down the river, and later rescued. To draw an allusion to the Old Testament, the author of Matthew invented the story of Herod’s slaughters, so that baby Jesus could likewise escape a similar fate. The fact that Jesus’ father Joseph even flees into Egypt (Mt. 2:13) makes the allusion to Exodus all the more clear.

Jesus is modeled on Moses throughout many more stories in the Gospels. I will limit my further discussion to the example of Jesus’ feeding miracles. When Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt, he is able to escape from the Pharaoh when he prays to God and parts the Red Sea (Exod. 14:21). Even after the Israelites escape, however, they are left to starve in the barren desert. Here, Moses performs yet another miracle (Exod. chapter 16), when manna rains down from Heaven, which provides the Israelites with bread. This sequence of events consists of a crossing over water, followed by a feeding miracle. There is also another miracle performed by Elisha in 2 Kings 4:42-44, where he is able to feed a crowd of 100 with only twenty loaves of bread, with there still being leftovers.

Similar to Moses, Jesus crosses water before performing feeding miracles. For example, in Mark 6:32, Jesus crosses with his disciples in a boat over the Sea of Galilee and comes to a “solitary place.” There, a crowd gathers but there is not enough food to feed them. Similar to Elisha, however, Jesus takes five loaves of bread and two fish, and yet is able to feed the entire crowd of 5,000 (Mk. 6:38-44). This miracle already imitates the feeding miracle of Moses, but the reference is made even more clear a few verses later. In Mark 6:47-52, Jesus appears to his disciples while they are at sea, walking on water. The disciples are amazed, just as they had been at the feeding of the 5,000. By walking on water, however, Jesus reveals that he is even greater than Moses. Moses had merely prayed to God to part the Red Sea. Jesus’ powers are much more remarkable, however, in that he can even walk over a body of water. Likewise, Jesus is able to feed a larger crowd than Elisha with a smaller amount of bread. Both the feeding miracle and the epiphany of walking on water, therefore, model Jesus on the myths of Moses and Elisha, and even depict Jesus as greater than Moses and Elisha.

These miracles belong to larger group of miracle collections in Mark, which model Jesus on Moses, and which probably derived from pre-Markan sources. Below, R.C. Symes (“Jesus’ Miracles and Religious Myth”) describes two sets of miracle collections used by the author of Mark:

“Gospel stories about Jesus’ miracles are a type of Midrash (i.e., contemporizing and reinterpreting) of Old Testament events in order to illustrate theological themes. Among the many miracles in Mark’s original narrative, there are two sets of five miracles each. Each set begins with a sea-crossing miracle and ends with a miraculous feeding. He uses this literary construct so his readers will recall the role of Moses leading his people through water towards the promised land, and feeding them with manna from heaven. Jesus does something similar. And with each water and feeding miracle, there is one exorcism and two healing miracles that are to remind readers of the works of the prophets Elijah and Elisha and how Jesus surpasses them. The parallels between events in Jesus’ life to those in the lives of Moses, Elijah and Elisha and others are too close for a coincidence. This points more to constructing religious myths in the gospel for theological reasons, than to reporting historical facts.”

Scholar William Telford discusses these miracle collections further in Interpretation of Mark (pg. 18), as does Richard Horsley in Hearing the Whole Story (pg. 106).

What is interesting is that, since these miracles probably came from pre-Markan sources, it shows how Jesus was being modeled on the mythical archetype of Moses even before the Gospels were written. This points toward a large amount of myth-making surrounding Jesus even in the first couple decades after his death, with the cause of the myth-making deriving from emulation of Old Testament figures like Moses. Legendary development can occur, therefore, in a very short time after an individual’s life, especially when there are mythical models that shape the course of the legendary development.

Alexander Modeled on Achilles

Achilles and the Amazonian QueenHere, we can return to the myth-making surrounding Alexander the Great. As noted above, there were stories about Alexander, which emerged even during his lifetime and among eyewitnesses, about him encountering legendary Amazonian warriors. Alexander is not the only figure in the Greek world, however, who is said to have done so. Prior to Alexander, myths about the Greek hero Achilles, in events set after the Iliad, depict him battling Amazonian warriors, and slaying the Amazonian queen Penthesilea.

Alexander was a great admirer of Achilles, and is even said to have carried a copy of the Iliad with him on his military campaigns. In the year 334 BCE, after Alexander had invaded Asia Minor, he also visited the traditional site of Achilles’ tomb at Troy, and is said to have engaged in a ritual that involved taking part in a naked race with his companions and then depositing crowns at the tomb. Since Alexander sought to emulate Achilles so much, it is not surprising that stories emerged about him encountering Amazonian warriors on his journeys, just like Achilles. In the Alexander Romance (3.26), there is a letter correspondence between Alexander and the Amazons:

“The letter of Alexander to the Amazons. ‘King Alexander sends greetings to the Amazons. We have conquered three quarters of the inhabited world and we have set up trophies, placing them among all peoples. It will be a disgrace to us if we do not make an expedition against you. So if you wish to perish and to have your country become uninhabited, wait at your borders. And if you wish to dwell in your own city and not to make trial of war, let us see you cross the river. So too let the men be drawn up in the plain. And if you do these things, I swear by our father Zeus and Hera and Ares and Athena, bringer of victory, that I will not harm you. Whatever tribute you wish, I will receive from you and we will not enter your land. And whatever you decide, send to us cavalry. We will pay each month to each mounted woman five minae of gold. And after a year, they will go back to their own homes and you will send us others. When you have considered these matters, reply. Farewell.'”

In response to Alexander’s letter, the Amazons send the following letter in reply:

“The letter of the Amazons to Alexander. ‘The most powerful rulers of the Amazons send greetings to King Alexander. We give you permission to come to us and to see our country. We have ordered given to you yearly one hundred talents of gold and we have sent five hundred of our best Amazons to you for a meeting, bearing to you gifts and one hundred thoroughbred horses. These Amazons will remain with you a year. But if any one shall consort with a stranger, she will be considered to have left her native land. Write to us how many will remain with you and, sending the rest back, receive others in exchange. We acknowledge your authority whether you are present, or absent. For we hear of your valour and your nobility. And we are naught in comparison to the whole world which you have traversed, naught to oppose your forces. So we have decided to dwell in our own country under your sway.'”

Even before the Alexander Romance was written, however, Alexander was said to have encountered the Amazonian queen Thalestris. This story was related in the writings of the eyewitness Onesicritus, as well as the early historian Cleitarchus. Such legendary stories, therefore, can emerge very quickly, and once more the source of the myth-making follows a pattern of modeling the subject on a previous heroic archetype.

Alexander Modeled on Odysseus

OdysseusAlexander is likewise modeled on the Greek hero Odysseus in the Alexander Romance. I have already discussed in my essay, “Homeric Mimesis in the Alexander Romance,” how Alexander is compared to Odysseus both when he cleanses King Philip’s wedding banquet (1.21), as Philip was preparing to marry another woman than his mother Olympias (in imitation of Odysseus driving out the suitors from his home), and when Alexander fights a sort of miniature Trojan war against the Babrykians (3.21), during which he is disguised as his lieutenant Antigonos.

I am not aware of whether there were many myths comparing Alexander to Odysseus that emerged during his lifetime, but I do want to discuss his modeling on Odysseus in the Alexander Romance, since there is a story in the text that bears some resemblance to Jesus in the Gospels. In the Alexander Romance, Alexander has a habit of dressing up in disguises (similar to how Odysseus disguises himself as a beggar in the Odyssey), in order to confront his enemies face to face, before he battles them. On one occasion, Alexander even disguises himself to confront his greatest enemy, King Darius of Persia. His decision to do so is prompted by a message from Ammon (in the guise Hermes) that he receives in a dream (AR 2.13):

“Now when he was only five days away from Persia, he was planning to send a messenger to Darius about when they should have a conference. But in his sleep Alexander beheld Ammon in the guise of Hermes with wand and cloak and Macedonian cap, and he spoke to him: ‘My son Alexander, when you need help, then I come to advise you. If you send a messenger to Darius, he will betray you. Take my counsel and go as your own messenger, assuming my form. For it is dangerous for a king to be his own messenger, but when a god brings aid, no one will menace you.’ After hearing this pronouncement, Alexander arose, and happily shared it with his friends. They agreed in advising this course.”

When Alexander arrives at Darius’ palace, he sits at a banquet with him, similar to how Odysseus once sat at banquet with the suitors. While dining with Darius, however, his true identity is discovered (AR 2.14-15):

“He came to the gates of Persia. The guards there, on seeing the stranger, supposed from his appearance that he was a god, but learned that he was the messenger of Alexander … [T]ens of thousands of captains, heralds, and companies, myriads on both sides of him in a circle, protected the person of Darius. The guards now brought Alexander to him … Now the page-boys were serving more and more liquor in the cups, and when the drink was half through … [A] man named Parasanges, who had been a general of Persis, looked searchingly at him. For he knew him by sight when he first went to Pella in Macedonia, sent by Darius to demand tribute money. And he said to himself: ‘Is not this the one whom they call Alexander? It certainly is. For his voice and his very aspect prove it.’ So this Parasanges, making sure it was he, leaning over Darius said: ‘Darius, most great king, this ambassador is Alexander, son of Philip, himself.'”

After being discovered, Alexander makes a daring and miraculous escape in the very midst of his enemies (AR 2.15):

When Alexander perceived that he was recognized and a great uproar arose at the royal banquet, he leaped up with the gold in his robe and dashed out. Outside the palace he saw a fellow on guard with torches in his hands. Seizing these, he brained the man, then leaping upon the horse he rode off. The Persians, wishing to seize the fugitive, were hard in pursuit. But Alexander aided by the god, spurred on the horse as if giving him wings, and he cast the light of the torch ahead and guided the beast. For the night was dark and the pursuers followed in every direction. But Alexander, holding the torch, shone like a star upon his way, and they were thrown down into the ravines.”

While I am not sure that this is a direct parallel with anything in the Gospels, Alexander’s disguise and the scene of his miraculous escape reminds me a lot of how Jesus escapes from his enemies in the Gospels. Compare the following passages. When Jesus is rejected in his hometown of Nazareth in Luke 4:24-30, he makes the following miraculous escape:

“’Truly I tell you,’ he continued, ‘no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.’ All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.”

Jesus likewise makes a similar miraculous escape in the Gospel of John (8:12-59):

“When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’ The Pharisees challenged him, ‘Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.’ … ‘Very truly I tell you,’ Jesus answered, ‘before Abraham was born, I am!’ At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.”

While I am not sure that there are any direct parallels here between Alexander and Jesus, I find the theme of miraculous escapes in the midst of one’s enemies to be an interesting component of both of their mythical biographies.

Jesus Modeled on Elijah and Elisha 

Beyond Moses and David, Jesus is also modeled heavily on the myths of Elijah and Elisha in the Gospels. In fact, Thomas Brodie in The Crucial Bridge argues that the Elijah-Elisha cycle (1 Kings 16:23 – 2 Kings 13:25) even served as a direct literary model for the Gospels. As I have discussed in this previous essay, the Elijah-Elisha cycle contains a similar frequency of miracles in the Old Testament to what is seen of Jesus in the New Testament. It is very likely, therefore, that many of Jesus’ miracles–such as helping parents by raising their deceased children from the dead, healing lepers, and ascending to Heaven–were formed out of imitation of the miracles of Elijah and Elisha. (Jesus even discusses these miracles in the passage that I quoted above from Luke 4:24-30, and as with the miracles of Moses, he is depicted to surpass them.)

Jesus is quite exclipity compared to Elijah (as well as Moses again) during the scene of the transfiguration in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 17:1–9; Mark 9:2–8; Luke 9:28–36). This moment occurs when Jesus leads Peter, James, and John onto a mountain, after which both Moses and Elijah appear speaking with Jesus. Elijah was famous in the Old Testament for a miracle in which he called down fire from Heaven, in order to burn a sacrifice, to prove that the God of Israel had greater power than Baal (1 Kings 18:16-46). Jesus echoes this miracle in the Gospel of Luke (12:49), when he states, “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”

Out of all of Jesus’ miracles imitating Elijah, his ascension to Heaven at the end of Luke (24:50-53) and the beginning of Acts (1:1-10) is the most noteworthy. In the latter account, Jesus rises to Heaven and then his hidden from his disciples by a cloud. This scene was formed out of imitation of 2 Kings (2:11-12):

Elijah“As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha saw this and cried out, ‘My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!’ And Elisha saw him no more.”

And so, even the stories of Jesus flying to Heaven have literary antecedents, which reflect a myth-making pattern of modeling him on heroic archetypes in the Old Testament, such as Elijah.

Even the stories of Jesus performing healing miracles, such as raising the dead, can be shown to derive from imitation of Old Testament miracles. In the Gospel of Luke (7:11-15), for example, Jesus raises the dead son of a widow in the village of Nain:

“Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, ‘Don’t cry.’ Then he went up and touched the bier they were carrying him on, and the bearers stood still. He said, ‘Young man, I say to you, get up!’ The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.”

This miracle imitates a miracle that is performed by Elisha, where he also raises a woman’s dead son back to life. The story begins when Elisha first predicts that the woman will become pregnant with her son, after making a visit to her home (2 Kings 4:8-17):

One day Elisha went to Shunem. And a well-to-do woman was there, who urged him to stay for a meal. So whenever he came by, he stopped there to eat …  One day when Elisha came, he went up to his room and lay down there … Then Elisha said, ‘Call her.’ So he called her, and she stood in the doorway. ‘About this time next year,’ Elisha said, ‘you will hold a son in your arms.’ ‘No, my lord!’ she objected. ‘Please, man of God, don’t mislead your servant!’ But the woman became pregnant, and the next year about that same time she gave birth to a son, just as Elisha had told her.”

When the boy grows older, however, he eventually becomes ill and dies. When this happens, Elisha returns to the woman’s home and raises her son back from the dead (2 Kings 4:32-35):

Elisha“The child grew, and one day he went out to his father, who was with the reapers. He said to his father, ‘My head! My head!’ His father told a servant, ‘Carry him to his mother.” After the servant had lifted him up and carried him to his mother, the boy sat on her lap until noon, and then he died … When Elisha reached the house, there was the boy lying dead on his couch. He went in, shut the door on the two of them and prayed to the Lord. Then he got on the bed and lay on the boy, mouth to mouth, eyes to eyes, hands to hands. As he stretched himself out on him, the boy’s body grew warm. Elisha turned away and walked back and forth in the room and then got on the bed and stretched out on him once more. The boy sneezed seven times and opened his eyes.”

Nain and ShunemWhat is fascinating about these two miracles is that they each take place in regions that are very close to each other. The village of Nain, where Jesus performs his miracle, is located very close to the village of Shunem, where Elisha performs his miracle. The close proximity of these two miracles and the similar structure of the story point toward the imitation of Jesus’ miracle in Luke based on the model of Elisha’s miracle in 2 Kings. There are likewise similarities between Jesus’ healing of the widow’s son in Nain and Elijah’s healing of a widow’s son in Zarephath, which takes place in 1 Kings 17:7-24. In all likelihood, the author of Luke has taken both of these miracles of Elijah and Elisha and combined them into the story of Jesus’ miracle at Nain. Many of Jesus’ healing miracles, therefore, have direct parallels with Elijah and Elisha, reflecting how Jesus was modeled on the myths of Elijah and Elisha in the Old Testament. 

Conclusion

What I find interesting about the many examples above is that they show how it does not take hundreds of years for myth-making and legendary development to occur. Many of the fabulous stories told about Alexander and Jesus emerged only shortly after their deaths, or even during their lifetimes. Sometimes legendary development is compared to the children’s game telephone, where a group of players form a line and each pass on a message from one person to the next. By the time the message goes from one end of the line to the other, the story has completely changed.

WordofMouth

I’ve used this analogy before, but upon reflecting on it, I don’t think that it matches how many myths are made. Myths about historical persons are not always made out of confusion or the story becoming garbled. Rather, many myths are formed by modeling the person in question upon mythical and heroic archetypes. The myths about Alexander the Great were not being made out of thin air. Instead, Alexander was being modeled on mythical figures, such as Hercules and Achilles, which caused similar myths to be told about his own life. The same pattern occurred with Jesus. His depiction in the Gospels is based on the stories of Moses, David, Elijah, and Elisha, which caused similar stories to be told about Jesus, especially since he was considered to be a Messianic figure who would surpass previous Old Testament heroes. We don’t need to assume, however, that these stories go back to actual historical events. We have ample evidence of literary antecedents that can explain how these stories were fashioned in later literature. But the power of such literature, and the mythical archetypes upon which it is modeled, can still shape the memory of individuals in remarkable ways, nonetheless.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] For a discussion of why Jesus was probably born in Nazareth and not Bethlehem, see Bart Ehrman’s essays, “Was Jesus from Nazareth?” and “Bethlehem and Nazareth in Matthew.”

[2] For a discussion of why Isaiah 7:14 is neither a prophecy of the Messiah nor depicts a virgin birth, see Bart Ehrman’s essay, “A Virgin Birth? The Importance of Context.”

This entry was posted in Ancient Biography, Ancient Novel, Classics, Dissertation, Historical Jesus, History, Miracles and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Patterns of Myth-Making Between the Lives of Alexander the Great and Jesus Christ

  1. tony says:

    “According to Matthew, Joseph and his family avoided Jerusalem when Archelaus was ruling. However, in Luke they visit Jerusalem every year after Jesus’ birth.”

    here are possible objections to this :

    The Greek text seems to leave open the question as to when we start the count (e.g. do we start it from Christ’s birth? from well before Christ’s birth? from when the child grew?). While the conjunction at the start of Luke 2:41 does not necessitate consecutive chronology, it can be read that way, i.e. the child grew strong, and then every year his parents went to Jerusalem. Of course Luke 2:41 can also be read as a sort of parenthetical thought, but the text does not require such a reading.

    /////////

    jesus is 2 years old when he is found by the magi in bethlehem
    luke says that he is taken to nazareth when he is under 1 years of age

    if one smashes these accounts together, then theoretically, between the age of 40 day old jesus and 2 year old jesus, joseph did not go to the passover which was 7 km away from bethlehem?

    if he did, then doesn’t the count for “every year” start of before jesus became 2 ?

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