Friday, August 30, 2019

M. David Litwa's "How the Gospels Became History"

M. David Litwa is a scholar of ancient Mediterranean religions and Research Fellow at the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry in Melbourne, Australia. His most recent books include Desiring Divinity: Self-deification in Ancient Jewish and Christian Mythmaking and Hermetica II: The Excerpts of Stobaeus, Papyrus Fragments, and Ancient Testimonies.

Litwa applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths, and reported the following:
Page 99 of How the Gospels Became History tells the story of the Roman astrologer and diviner Nigidius. It was he who accosted Octavian, father of Caesar Augustus, on the steps of the Senate House. There Nigidius publicly prophesied that “the ruler of the world has been born!” Octavian, fearing that his son would overthrow the Roman Republic, planned to kill the child. Yet Nigidius rebuked him, remarking that it is impossible for the child to evade his imperial destiny.

This story, told by the Roman historian Suetonius, I compare with the presentation of Jesus in the gospel of Luke (2:29-32). In this account, a hoary old man meets the parents of Jesus in the temple courts. Scooping up the infant Jesus in his arms, he bursts forth in prophecy. The child—called light and glory for Israel and the nations—is thus announced as the world ruler (Messiah) whom God had promised the old prophet he would see before closing his eyes in death.

Although this comparison cannot sum up the whole work, it well exemplifies my comparative method. I search ancient texts thought to be historical (here using a biography by Suetonius). In these works I examine fantastical stories (“myths”) made to look like past events but which better correspond to imagined literary templates. In this case, the old prophetic sage who prophesies the future world domination of an infant in a public building before many witnesses is one of these templates. Both the author of Luke and Suetonius molded this entertaining and poignant template to look like a historical account.

Nevertheless, this same template appears in so-called mythical texts. In one of these texts, the old Theban prophet Tiresias makes a prophecy before the infant Heracles about his future domination and glory. In a version of the myth told by Theocritus, Tiresias makes a private revelation to Alcmene, Heracles’s mother, which resembles the aside that Simeon makes to Mary, mother of Jesus.

This is one of the many comparative ventures readers will encounter in my book which argues that the gospels, though written in the form of history (as the ancients understood it), features many fantastical stories spun from literary templates.
Visit M. David Litwa's website.

--Marshal Zeringue