BMCR 2008.01.07

Griechische Mythologie und frühes Christentum

, Griechische Mythologie und frühes Christentum. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2005. xiii, 401; ills. 20. € 59.90.

[List of authors and titles at the end of the review.]

This volume had its inception in a course of lectures organized by Raban von Haehling at the University of Aachen over the 2003/4 academic year on Greek mythology and early Christianity. The book’s origin as a series of invited lectures means that it circumvents many of the pitfalls endemic to Festschriften or conference proceedings. The articles are not obscure or diffuse, and often overlap; where they do, they typically complement each other and help reinforce the points at issue. In keeping with their origin, most of the essays are not intended to court controversy, but to illumine particular aspects of the ‘pagan’ and Christian interface. Accordingly, this review has adopted a similar tack and is largely expository. It should be noted at the outset, however, that the caliber of the contributions is uniformly high, and that it sets a very high standard for future volumes of this kind. Taken together, the articles convey the impression, if not of an age of anxiety, at least of an uneasy symbiosis between emergent Christianity and the dominant pagan world. Christianity and ‘paganism’ were far more similar than either was prepared to admit, and the book’s consistent focus on myth discloses some of the essential affinities between the worldviews.

Manfred Fuhrmann, who passed away in 2005 and to whom this volume is dedicated, opens the volume with a consideration of Apuleius’ myth of Cupid and Psyche. His focus is on the unique genre of the story: Why is it the sole instance of a Maerchen surviving from the ancient Mediterranean world? After surveying the genres of myths, fables, and legends in antiquity, F. concludes that the Maerchen tended to be absorbed by myths. He finds corroboration for his conclusion in the folk-tale elements present in epics, most notably in the Odyssey, whose folk-tales features have been shown to conform strikingly with Proppian categories.1

The Cupid and Psyche myth is also addressed by Klaus Rosen, who investigates whether, on the basis of Horace’s discrimen at Ars 333-34, the myth of Cupid and Psyche is meant to instruct or to entertain. R. opts for both, even though his reading would restore a strongly didactic component to the story. Following the allegorical approach of Fulgentius, R. expands on the identification of Psyche with the Soul, and then contextualizes her character in light of the philosophical (Plato, Aristotle, Soranus) and theological (Justin, Tertullian) debates about the nature of the soul that had currency in Apuleius’ day: Is the soul corporeal? Is the individual soul distinct from the world soul? Is it accountable for its own wickedness? Does the soul’s rational or illogical faculty predominate? In the end, R. has Apuleius side with Plato in regarding the soul as both semperkinetic and incorruptible, although the birth of Psyche’s child, voluptas, may well suggest a somewhat less austere soul than Plato had envisioned.

Jan Bremmer is concerned with showing how new approaches to Greek religion, notably those of Burkert and Vernant, have revolutionized our ideas of myth, ritual, and the relationship between the two. After an extensive overview of interpretations of myth and ritual over the last few centuries, he emerges with the following conclusions: Myth “has an explanatory and normative function,” serving as part of a changing cultural tradition that does not have to be old, so much as seem old. Its fluidity means that it engages a variety of audiences, readily crosses cultural borders, but, as a consequence, cannot be considered a reliable repository of ancient history. Ritual, too, proves not to be so unchanging as is often thought; it also adapts to its milieu and assimilates a society’s psychological, sociological, and forensic features. As to the interrelation between myth and ritual, B. notes that myth is no longer thought to arise from myth, nor is it the scenario of a dramatic ritual. And, despite Burkert and Versnel’s recent claims that myth and ritual arise pari passu, B. provocatively concludes that both their approaches are methodologically flawed, and that the question needs to be re-opened.

Kai Brodersen’s contribution focuses on Palaiphatos, whom he describes as “the most notable exponent of rationalizing myth criticism in antiquity” (45). Just who Palaiphatos was, however, and when he lived are still matters of dispute. After parsing a confused entry in the Suda, B. plausibly conjectures that Palaiphatos flourished in the middle of the fourth century BCE, was a native of the Hellespont, and moved to Athens, where he was a favorite pupil of Aristotle. Palaiphatos’s work, “On Unbelievable Tales,” originally extant in five books, survives in abridged form and is intended to replace the fanciful details of myth with rationalistic explanations. For instance, Actaeon was not literally devoured by his dogs; rather, he neglected his farm in favor of hunting to such a degree that he was ‘consumed’ by the expense of his hounds. B. closes with the trenchant observation that Palaiphatos does not extend his rationalizing to the Olympians—a feature conveniently overlooked by some of the Christian apologists who used Palaiphatos to debunk ‘pagan’ religion.2

Wolfgang Speyer rightly begins his discussion with the contention that a proper appreciation of Porphyry entails a recognition of the profoundly religious sensibility that prevailed among the philosophers and thinkers of his day, and to which he was heir—a legacy that extended back through Plato to Heraclitus and Pythagoras. Though Porphyry had specific objections to Christianity, S. convincingly demonstrates that the mindsets of Porphyry and early Christian theologians are much more similar than is often assumed.

Ruprecht Ziegler examines why the myth of Perseus assumed such dominance within imperial Tarsus and Aigeai, and, in particular, why Perseus came to be regarded as the founder of Tarsus. Z. determines that it became increasingly important for cities like Tarsus, whose Greek foundation was questionable at best, to emerge with a plausible ktistes. Since elements of the Perseus myth could be associated with southeast Asia Minor, the hero was a logical choice, both for Tarsus and for Aigeai. For Tarsus, however, Perseus proved especially useful, since the myth fit well with the city’s ambitions of becoming a metropolis, ambitions that were realized when it was made capital of the province of Cilicia in 72 CE. Ziegler’s discussion is largely convincing, though one might take issue with some of his finer points, as when he follows Eduardo Levante in detecting a harpe of Perseus paired with an eagle on the reverse of a Hadrian tetradrachma (p. 104 Ill. 6).3 The harpe, however, is more plausibly identified as a thunderbolt, a symbol that naturally complements the eagle in symbolizing the authority of Zeus.

Jutta Dresken-Weiland examines the iconography of the sarcophagi from the city of Rome in the Hadrianic era. Most of these sarcophagi display idealized representations of day-to-day life, such as hunting or pastoral scenes. D.-W. regards the increasing prevalence of these non-mythic themes over the course of the third century as an indication that they ultimately gave better expression to the hopes and wishes of people confronted with death. Nevertheless, about one-third of the sarcophagi are decorated with mythic themes, the most popular characters being Meleager, Endymion, and Proserpine. Episodes are drawn from these myths or recast in such a way as to praise the deceased’s virtues or lament their passing. Although pessimism and resignation are the dominant strains, the iconography sometimes raises the possibility of hopes of an afterlife, even if in many instances the imagery is sufficiently vague to allow for a variety of interpretations. Curiously, Christians seem not to have been averse to mythological imagery on their own sarcophagi, though she notes that this same phenomenon pertains more broadly—the themes portrayed on the sarcophagi frequently had only a limited correlation with the individuals interred within them.

Folker Siegert addresses the place of myth in hellenistic Judaism, giving special attention to the ethnic balancing act that enabled the Jews to retain their own cultural touchstones—notably the law of Moses—while appropriating elements of the dominant Greek culture. This appropriation extended to the literary character of the Septuagint, both in its additions—the unicorn! (cf. Ps 29[28].6), and its omissions—the concept of Fate, and words such as daimon and mythos. Greek myths also underlie other writings of the Second Temple period even where they remain implicit. The pseudo-Philonic homilies on Samson and Jonah, for instance, both allude to the figure of Heracles to glorify their heroes (though S. makes very little of Heracles’ rescue of Hesione where, after being swallowed by a ketos, Heracles slays the sea-monster from the inside and is disgorged onto the beach at Troy).4

Detlev Dormeyer reconsiders the question of the influence of Euripides’ Bacchae on the book of Acts. Where earlier studies by A. Voegeli (1953) and J. Hintermaier (2003) determined that Luke’s allusions to the text and motifs of the Bacchae were sparing at best, D. sets out to demonstrate otherwise. He contends that the very pervasiveness of the Dionysiac cult in the first century CE would have necessarily involved Luke in dialogue with it, as when Peter protests in his speech at Pentecost that those filled with the Spirit were “not drunk” (Acts 2.15). D. maintains that this religious infighting continues over the course of the book of Acts, where, apart from the (proverbial?) citation of “kicking against the pricks” ( Bacchae 794f. // Acts 26.14), there are no fewer than nine parallels to Dionysiac cult. Nevertheless, he suggests that Luke is wary of making them too explicit—they are there for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Those who do see and hear, however, are invited to reject the vain blandishments of Dionysus in favor of the truth of Christ. Those with less-than-acute senses may miss one or two of the parallels D. adduces, but his argument as a whole is compelling.

Walter Burkert addresses the paradoxical ‘rescue’ of myth in antiquity, in the face of criticism that it was lacking in both veracity and morality. Historicizing and allegorical interpretation were both ways of saving the text, and Plato introduced a third, namely, that of presenting myth in a new format. B. then addresses the variegated response to myth that occurred with the advent of Christianity. While the New Testament and many of the early church fathers are sharply dismissive of myth, the Gnostic response is strikingly different. B. offers a stimulating consideration of Simon Magus, the Apocryphon of John, and the Song of the Pearl, and shows that they all demonstrate close associations with Greek myth and, more interestingly, deploy it in startling and fresh ways.

Christian Gnilka examines the proofs of Christianity’s antiquity adduced by the church fathers—specifically that Moses and the Hebrew prophets were precursors to the Greeks and their literature, Homer included, and that Plato and other Greek philosophers were beholden to the Hebrew Scriptures for their wisdom. The necessity for these proofs emerges from charges leveled against Christianity by Celsus and others, who contended that it lacked an authentic tradition. This observation leads G. to expatiate on the phenomenon of similarity in antiquity: if Numa’s thought resembled that of Pythagoras, it followed for the ancients that there must be a direct and personal link between them. Yet, since similarity also implies difference, the Christian apologists were able to seize on those discrepancies between Athens and Jerusalem to accuse the ‘pagans’ of distortion and demonic falsification of the truth.

The Christian “correcting” ( Mythenkorrektur) of the Odysseus and Orpheus myths is the topic of Christoph Markschies’s article, which engages with the earlier study of Hugo Rahner.5 M. examines two episodes from the Odyssey, Hermes’ gift of moly and the binding of Odysseus to the mast so that he can listen to the sirens with impunity. M. then discusses the myths relating to Orpheus. M. concludes that, on the whole, the Christian correction of classical myths did not play a significant role in either the Odyssey or Orpheus episodes.

Wilhelm Geerlings’ article complements Markschies’s discussion of Orpheus by focusing on those elements of the Orpheus myth that were appropriated by Christians. G. observes that the rich characteristics of the Orpheus tradition furnished Christian expositors with a wealth of agreements and points of contact. This overlap resulted in a twofold reaction. On the one hand, the figure of Orpheus was regarded as a forerunner of Christ, and in his guise as singer he becomes prominent in Christian iconography. On the other hand, the theological appropriation of Orpheus was considerably less enthusiastic.

Helga Scholten undertakes a similar task with the figures of Demeter and Persephone. She is not concerned with Christian attempts to expose the mysteries, but with the strategies adopted by the early Christian fathers for explaining the “Demeters,” and particularly whether there was a distinction between the responses of the eastern and western fathers. Her survey includes Aristides, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Justin, Tatian, Hippolytus, and Tertullian. She determines that there are some marked regional differences in the focus of their apologies; for the eastern fathers, as represented by the first four authors, the dominant issue was the afterlife, perhaps in response to the continued influence of the mysteries in the east. For the remaining four western fathers, however, the Demeters were treated more as ‘culture-bringers’ and deities of fruitfulness. Her conclusion is suggestive, though, given the limited nature of S.’s sources, it remains very much in the realm of conjecture.

Stephanie Vanderheijden investigates Clement’s response to ‘pagan’ myth, notably, how he managed to reconcile his Christian point of view with the myths present in contemporary philosophical discourse. She considers, first of all, Clement’s rejection of myth in the face of the verities of Christianity. Here Clement readily dispenses with the ‘juvenile’ myths of the Greeks by contrasting them with the acknowledged antiquity of the law of Moses. Yet, Clement is far from prepared to dispense with myth in its entirety. In the end, V. concludes that Clement’s response is, characteristically, a nuanced one. Where myth acts as a rival to Christianity by imparting superstition under the guise of truth, it is to be rejected. On the other hand, when it functions as an ancilla to philosophy and Christian doctrine, it is to be welcomed as a guide, pointing enquirers in the right direction.

Benedict Oehl examines how Christian apologists made polemical use of Greco-Roman myths in order to excoriate heretics. Notwithstanding myth’s pagan origins, the apologists evidently had no qualms about fighting one error with another that was more familiar. Thus, they accused heretics of being baleful giants or sirens, or characterized heresy as a many-headed hydra. In like fashion, they attempted to discredit heretics on the grounds that many of them were barbarians. That Marcion, for instance, should be a native of Sinope in Pontus was hardly unexpected, since it marked him as an inhabitant of a region long associated with the torture of Prometheus and the ordeals of the Argonauts. These associations allow Tertullian to revile Marcion for having mangled God Almighty— “the true Prometheus”—and for having constructed his own theological Symplegades.

A related discussion by Raban von Haehling considers how early Christian authors responded to Greek tragedy. Typically, the church fathers were not discriminating and would draw exempla—both positive and negative—from tragedy and use them to buttress their argument of the moment. Thus, Antigone becomes a paradigm of Christian martyrdom, while episodes such as Oedipus’ incestuous marriage or Thyestes’ feast serve as indictments of ‘pagan’ mores and those of their gods. While some Christian authors were reduced to using plays as mere compendia of maxims, others such as Origen and Eusebius drew on plays such as Oedipus Rex to address more perplexing issues such as the debate between free will and determinism. Thus Origen argues that, in the same way that the oracle predicted dire consequences for Laius if he were to have a child, but did not compel him to do so, Judas’ betrayal of Jesus was not occasioned by Jesus’ foreknowledge but by Judas’ own free choice. Here, Greek tragedy furnished Christians with the discourse that allowed them to follow pagan exponents of free will and adapt ‘pagan’ philosophy to illuminate Christian theology.

The volume concludes with Jörg Rüpke’s examination of the emergent Christian Weltanschauung. R. suggests that two developmental models help to account for the numerous overlaps between ‘paganism’ and Christianity. The first is the very slow emergence of a distinctively Christian artistic idiom; for a great many years Christians were very much reliant on ‘pagan’ artists and craftsmen to construct their artistic and symbolic world. The second is a gradual process of inculturation whereby Christianity slowly appropriated for itself the models and ideals of the ruling class. As examples of these two processes, he considers a Codex-Calendar dating from 354 CE and catacomb paintings from the Via Latina.6 He concludes that both productions are innovative precisely in their ability to fuse Christian and ‘pagan’ elements successfully. Religious orientation has ceased to be a defining ideal and has been replaced by an increasingly unified artistic and syncretic culture.

Taken as a whole, the book is very well produced, including the illustrations. The only noteworthy deficiency is the absence of author and subject indexes. Apart from that, for such a detailed and lengthy work, there are relatively few mistakes. There are spelling errors on pp. 34 (“goddes”), 38 no. 73 (“unctions”), 117 (‘Auseiadersetzung’), 141 (‘Heronen’), 189 no. 54 (“Apocyphon”), no. 57 (“hakmah”), 218 (“ahmten”), 231 (“Apolinarius”); on page 121, the repeated references to note 31 should be to note 32.

As noted above, the chief impression that emerges from this volume is of the essential continuity that existed between the ‘classical’ and Christian worlds. Even though Christian apologetic and pagan disdain would lead one to suppose that there was a great gulf fixed between the two worlds, such a surmise would be largely mistaken. Just as the image of a stick changes when dipped in the ocean, its refracted appearance does not so much signal a sea change as a change in seeing. The same holds true here. The ease with which the early Christians were able to adapt and adopt the ‘pagan’ legacy, particularly as it related to myth, helps demonstrate that a great many of the differences between the two world views were more perceived than actual.

Table of Contents

Manfred Fuhrmann, “Mythen, Fabeln, Legenden und Märchen in der Antiken Tradition”

Jan Bremmer, “Myth and Ritual in Ancient Greece: Observations on a Difficult Relationship” Kai Brodersen, “‘Das aber ist eine Lüge!’ Zur rationalistischen Mythenkritik des Palaiphatos”

Klaus Rosen, “Der Mythos von Amor und Psyche in Apuleius’ Metamorphosen”

Wolfgang Speyer, “Porphyrios als religiöse Persönlichkeit und als religiöser Denker”

Ruprecht Ziegler, “Der Perseus-Mythos im Prestigedenken kaiserzeitlicher staedtischer Eliten Kilikiens”

Jutta Dresken-Weiland, “Pagane Mythen auf Sarkophagen des dritten nachchristlichen Jahrhunderts”

Folker Siegert, “Griechische Mythen im hellenistischen Judentum”

Detlev Dormeyer, “Bakchos in der Apostelgeschichte”

Walter Burkert, “Kritiken, Rettungen und unterschwellige Lebendigkeit griechischer Mythen zur Zeit des frühen Christentums”

Christian Gnilka, “Wahrheit und Aehnlichkeit”

Christoph Markschies, “Odysseus und Orpheus—christlich gelesen”

Wilhelm Geerlings, “Das Bild des Sängers Orpheus bei den griechischen Kirchenvaetern”

Helga Scholten, “Der Demeter- und Persephonemythos in der Auseinandersetzung christlicher Autoren”

Stephanie Vanderheijden, “Mythos zwischen Aberglaube und Philosophie in den Stromateis des Clemens von Alexandrien”

Benedict Oehl, “Mythos und Haeresie”

Jörg Rüpke, “Bilderwelten und Religionswechsel”.


1. Here Fuhrmann relies especially on U. Hölscher, Die Odyssee: Epos zwischen Märchen und Roman (Munich, 1988).

2. See further: Kai Brodersen, Die Wahrheit über die griechischen Mythen: Palaiphatos’ Unglaubliche Geschichten (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2002).

3. Eduardo Levante, Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum. Switzerland I. Levante-Cilicia (Berne: Credit Suisse Berne, Numismatic Department, 1986) no. 998 with Plate 62. Comparison with coins from Anemurion featuring Perseus with a harpe (nos. 498-9; Plate 30) would strongly suggest that there is no harpe on the tetradrachma. The harpe has much greater affinities with thunderbolts (cf. nos. 635-9; Plate 40).

4. For Siegert’s German translation of the Armenian texts, cf. Folker Siegert, Drei hellenistisch-juedische Predigten (WUNT 20; Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1980) pp. 19-26.

5.Hugo Rahner, Greek Myths and Christian Mystery (London: Burns and Oates, [1957] 1963).

6. See: M.R. Salzman, On Roman Time. The Codex-Calendar of 354 and the Rhythms of Urban Life in Late Antiquity (The Transformation of the Classical Heritage 17. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).