Idealized Portraits of Jesus, Alexander the Great, and Aesop

I have been busy working on my dissertation recently, which has taken away some time from blogging, but today I will (briefly) share something interesting from my research.

The topic of my dissertation is an analysis of the generic and thematic features that the NT Gospels share with the Alexander Romance and the Life of Aesop. This topic also has overlap with other books in the New Testament, particularly the Book of Revelation, which I previously compared to Alexander’s Letter to Olympias in book 2 of the Alexander Romance, in my essay “Eschatology in Alexander’s Letter to Olympias and the Book of Revelation.” An interesting theme that is shared between the ancient literature about Jesus Christ, Alexander the Great, and the fabulist Aesop is the use of idealized portraits in their physical descriptions. All of these descriptions are over the top, and are meant to convey symbolism.

Although Jesus’ physical appearance is not discussed in the canonical Gospels [1], there is a very interesting portrait of Jesus that is given at the beginning of the Book of Revelation. When John of Patmos is writing to seven churches in the province of Asia, he describes a vision in which Jesus appears to him. This Jesus is not the one who is depicted before his death in the Gospels, but is instead the resurrected Jesus who has ascended to Heaven, and who now appears with some considerable bodily enhancements. Here is the portrait of Jesus that John describes (Revelation 1:12-16):

Portrait of Jesus“And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.”

Now, clearly this portrait of Jesus is meant to be taken symbolically. In fact, just a few lines down, Revelation 1:20 explains that the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches that John is writing to. The reference to “someone like a son of man” is to Daniel 7:13-14, where a figure “like a son of man” is described, who will be a cosmic judge that will be given power over all the nations of the world. This figure is also described in Daniel 7:9 as having “clothing as white as snow” and “hair as white as wool,” and so it is clear that the author of Revelation is modeling Jesus on the figure described in this passage.

What is interesting about both the Alexander Romance and the Life of Aesop is that they similarly use embellished portraits to convey symbolic imagery. This is in large part a function of popular-novelistic biographies, which are not meant to engage in the kind psychological and critical analysis typical of historiographical Greco-Roman biographies, such as those of Plutarch and Suetonius, but instead are intended to depict symbolic histories of their subjects. And so, in the Alexander Romance, for example, we do not get a terribly accurate physical description of the historical Alexander’s appearance, but instead a romanticized portrait that conveys his greater nature. Here is how Alexander is described (Alexander Romance 1.13):

Screenshot 2016-06-26 at 9.19.44 AM“When [Alexander] became a man, his appearance was not like Philip’s and, indeed, not even like his mother Olympias’ … he was a type all of his own. Indeed, he had the shape of a man, but he had the mane of a lion and eyes of different colors–the right eye black, the left grey–and teeth as sharp as a serpent’s; he displayed the energy of a lion. And there was no doubt of how his nature would turn out” [2].

Now, as with Jesus’ description in Revelation, Alexander is also being modeled on a previous mythical archetype in this passage. The reference to the “mane of a lion” is clearly meant to allude to the demigod Hercules, who wore the pelt of a lion. The “teeth as sharp as a serpent’s” are perhaps also a reference to Hercules strangling snakes in his cradle. I have discussed in my essay “Patterns of Myth-Making Between the Lives of Alexander the Great and Jesus Christ” how, even during his lifetime and among eyewitnesses, legendary stories about Alexander emerged that compared him to figures like Hercules and Achilles. This description in the Alexander Romance is clearly based on such stories. Like Jesus, Alexander’s portrait his symbolic. As the passage explains, his appearance revealed how his true “nature” would turn out, perhaps suggesting that Alexander would travel the world as a second Hercules.

The description of Aesop in the Life of Aesop is certainly less flattering, and may appear as less than ideal. But this first appearance is deceiving (and meant to be). Aesop is depicted as misshapen and remarkably ugly, to the point of being symbolically so. Here is how Aesop is described (Life of Aesop 1):

Portrait of Aesop“The fabulist Aesop, the great benefactor of mankind, was … of loathsome aspect, worthless as a servant, potbellied, misshapen of head, snub-nosed, swarthy, dwarfish, bandy-legged, short-armed, squint-eyed, liver-lipped–a portentous monstrosity. In addition to this he had a defect more serious than his unsightliness in being speechless, for he was dumb and could not talk” [3].

Now, why is this appearance so deceiving? Because Aesop’s outer ugliness both disguises and contrasts with his true inner beauty. Although Aesop may appear hideous, he is filled with wisdom and the power to speak in fables. At first, he is mute and cannot speak. But later in the biography, Isis (or Fortune) grants Aesop the power of speech, and soon he begins to outwit both his masters and great kings alike with his cleverness and fables.

Once more, like Jesus and Alexander, Aesop is being modeled on a previous archetype. In this case, Aesop’s ugliness is probably an allusion to the philosopher Socrates. Like Aesop, Socrates was thought to be a very ugly man, but this appearance was misleading, and contrasted with his true inner nature. In Plato’s Theaetetus (143e), Socrates is described as being far from handsome, with a “snub nose” and “protruding eyes.” What’s interesting is that Aesop’s comparison with Socrates was probably a later tradition about his life. As Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity, pg. 133) explains, “Aesop’s excessive ugliness is likely … a Hellenistic addition to the characterization; there is no certain traces of it in the older tradition.” And so, as the stories about Aesop evolved over time, his appearance was eventually idealized into symbolic ugliness, very likely in imitation of Socrates.

What I find interesting about all of these idealized portraits is that they emerge from the subject being modeled on previous archetypes. Jesus is modeled on the figure “like a son of man” described in the Book of Daniel, Alexander is modeled on Hercules, and Aesop on Socrates. This pattern is very similar to the one that I discussed in my previous essay about how legendary development often occurs when an individual is modeled in imitation of previous mythical archetypes. Such imitation apparently has the ability not only to fashion legendary stories and anecdotes about a person, but also embellishments of their physical appearance, as well.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] Although Jesus’ physical appearance is not explicitly discussed in the Gospels, it is alluded to in the scene of the transfiguration, which is included in each of the Synoptic Gospels. In the Gospel of Mark (9:2-4), the scene is described as follows:

TransfigurationAfter six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.”

Like the idealized portraits discussed above, this depiction of Jesus is also based on previous mythical archetypes, in that both Moses and the prophet Elijah appear alongside Jesus. In this way, the physical appearance of Jesus is likewise embellished in the Synoptic Gospels.

[2] For this passage, I have used Ken Dowden’s translation.

[3] For this passage, I have used Lloyd Daly’s translation.

This entry was posted in Ancient Biography, Ancient Novel, Classics, Dissertation, Weird Stuff from Antiquity and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Idealized Portraits of Jesus, Alexander the Great, and Aesop

  1. A good comment was made about this post in a discussion on Facebook, in which one of Dennis MacDonald’s grad students noted that the apostle Paul’s physical description in the Acts of Paul and Thecla emphasizes his ugliness, similar to Aesop and Socrates!

    You can click on the article that is linked here:

    http://www.christiantimelines.com/Paul's%20physical%20description.htm

    And here is an excerpt from the text itself (1:7):

    “At length they saw a man coming (namely Paul), of a low stature, bald (or shaved) on the head, crooked thighs, handsome legs, hollow-eyed; had a crooked nose; full of grace; for sometimes he appeared as a man, sometimes he had the countenance of an angel. And Paul saw Onesiphorus, and was glad.”

    https://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/thecla.asp

  2. Wade says:

    Hi Matthew, I like what you’re doing. You’re placing the “holy” scriptures where they belong, to a literally genre. What sets biblical literature so sadly apart is the fact that it was imposed as “truth” (“unlike” other literary genres), and started religions that became totalitarian state religion.

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