Monthly Archives: June 2012

Baucis, the Bible, and the Bab

There’s a story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses that should be familiar to readers of the Bible:

The gods Zeus and Hermes come to a town disguised as ordinary peasants, looking for a place to stay.  Everybody in the town rejects them except for an elderly couple, Baucis and Philemon, who let them stay in their modest house for the night.  While dining there, the gods miraculously replenish the food supply, which reveals their divine identity to their mortal hosts.  Zeus determines to destroy the inhospitable town and warns the couple to follow the gods into the mountains without looking back.

You probably thought I was going to compare this to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, but actually there’s a much closer, more direct Biblical reference in the Book of Acts:

In Lystra there sat a man who was lame. He had been that way from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.

When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.

But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothesand rushed out into the crowd, shouting:  “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them.  In the past, he let all nations go their own way.  Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.”  Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.

Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead.  But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe.

Acts 14:8-20

While the account in Acts can be easily understood without any knowledge of Greek mythology, knowing the story of Baucis and Philemon illuminates the passage beyond just explaining why the crowd assumed Paul and Barnabas were those two specific gods.  Both are hospitality narratives (as is the story of Lot in Sodom, see also Ezekiel 16:49), but the New Testament narrative is the complete opposite of the Greek myth.  Paul and Barnabas, unlike the gods for which they are mistaken, receive a celebratory welcome in Lystra so long as they are believed to be divine.  Once the crowd concludes they’re not really gods, however, the hospitality ends.  The Greek story’s moral is to show hospitality to all, similar to the author of Hebrews saying, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it (13:2).”  From Acts, however, we learn this practice is morally useless unless we show kindness regardless of who the other person is, or even who we think they are.  This demonstrates a common writing technique of the period, framing a new narrative around an old one to show the new one’s superiority.

Critics like to point out the story of Baucis and Philemon to discredit hospitality stories in the Bible like Sodom and Gomorrah as fiction.  This episode in Acts, however, brings up several points that the critics often overlook.  First, the narrative is deliberately framed around the known myth, yet is entirely plausible as an actual event, showing the latitude that a writer could take in balancing allusion with historical accuracy.  Furthermore, it demonstrates that Biblical authors were well aware of Greek mythology.

A barrier to most readers today is that we’re more familiar with Sodom and Gomorrah than with Baucis and Philemon.  People today tend to erroneously see this as newly discovered information which disrupts the traditionally held view of Christianity.  The author of Luke-Acts, however, refers to both Sodom and Zeus with no crisis of faith, because to his audience this was common knowledge.  People 2,000 years ago were generally more familiar with Greek mythology than people are today, so literary similarities in themselves were not seen as a barrier.  When presented with Greco-Roman or Near Eastern parallels as an attempt to disprove the Bible, Christians should keep in mind that all of this information has been in circiulation for thousands of years and was not unknown to the original Biblical audience.  Literary similarities in and of themselves do not detract from the historicity of a narrative.

Despite centuries of critical methods addressing such similarities, the modern skeptic tends to resort to a lazy dismissal of the Bible.  Ignoring analytical schools like mimesis, genre or form criticism, and other literary approaches, these skeptics instead tend to reach an intellectual stopping point as if it were the end of the discussion.  If Samson resembles Hercules or Moses is similar to Marduk in any way, then even the possibility  that this might have been intentional yet could still be true doesn’t seem remote to them.  Ironically, although they may claim the Bible is a work of fiction, they don’t really criticize it like a literary work.  This closed-minded approach is even sillier when we consider that people today still relate history to previous history and even legend.  Reporters who connect Kate Middleton with Cinderella are considered creative, not ahistorical.  Every dictator or political opponent will always be compared to Hitler.  When history repeats, as it often does, parallels are an inevitability.

The Baha’i Faith has a fascinating example of this in their definitive-but-not-authoritative account of the life of the Báb, the Dawn-Breakers.  The author, Nabíl, clearly tries to highlight parallels to the crucifixion in his account of the martyrdom of the founder of their religion in 1850.  Events from praying with his disciples and announcing his death the night before, appearing before multiple tribunals, even being bound with nails and ropes for the firing squad, is deliberately reminiscent of the passion of Christ.  He even imitates the darkness covering the land, claiming that “the smoke of the firing of the seven hundred and fifty rifles was such as to turn the light of the noonday sun into darkness.”  While he does take some liberties in telling this story, as it’s not a “pure” history, all of these events are nevertheless verified historical fact.  Nabíl’s agenda is obviously to highlight apparent parallels in the life of Christ, but no sane critic would conclude that the death of the Báb was a myth simply because its story was too similar to Christianity.

Philemon and Baucis by Rembrandt van Rijn

Philemon and Baucis by Rembrandt van Rijn

1 Comment

June 12, 2012 · 6:38 am