A Greek Tragedy

Εὐαγγέλιον: The Good News

The four Gospels in the New Testament have long been argued to be a form of literature.  For one thing, they can’t be classified as true historical records since they were anonymous, written at an unknown time by unknown authors, and have, therefore, very little historical reliability.  But they are also written in a sort of poetic literary form called chiasmus from Greek χίασμα, “crossing”. It is a fairly complex literary form which isn’t normally used every day speech or in writing histories.  There is also the “omnipresent narrator” criticism which implies a literary nature by those scenes, for example, where Jesus is alone talking to God or the devil and none of the disciples or followers could have seen it and yet the events are described as if the narrator had been spying on Jesus.  Since the Gospels were written in Greek probably around the end of the first century and beginning of the second, and the Greeks had the most advanced literary tradition of the time (being the inventors of such words as “satire”, “irony” and “tragedy”), and since the Gospels have every sign of being a form of literature instead of historical documents, it is entirely reasonable to investigate this aspect of the Gospels further.  In the previous post “The Seven Seals of the Apocalypse” I demonstrated that the book of Revelation is not only referencing “The Wars of the Jews” by Josephus, but imitating or dramatising his history in an exaggerated or satirical way.  In later posts I will show much more of this satirical/ironic nature of the Gospels and the book of Revelation.  In this post, we take a closer look at Greek literary style.  For a refresher:

A “tragedy” is defined by Wikipedia as

“A form of drama based on human suffering that invokes an accompanying catharsis or pleasure in audiences” with “its origins in the theatre of ancient Greece 2500 years ago… It derives from Classical Greek τραγῳδία, contracted from trag(o)-aoidiā = “goat song”… Scholars suspect this may be traced to a time when a goat was either the prize in a competition… Athenian tragedy—the oldest surviving form of tragedy—is a type of dance-drama that formed an important part of the theatrical culture… The presentations took the form of a contest between three playwrights, who presented their works… Each playwright offered a tetralogy consisting of three tragedies and a concluding comic piece called a satyr play… Many ancient Greek tragedians employed… a theatrical device, which was a platform hidden behind the scene that could be rolled out to display the aftermath of some event which had happened out of sight of the audience. This event was frequently a brutal murder of some sort… which the other characters must see the effects in order for it to have meaning and emotional resonance… for showing the consequences of extreme human actions. Another such device was a crane, the mechane, which served to hoist a god or goddess on stage… This device gave origin to the phrase “deus ex machina” (“god out of a machine”), that is, the surprise intervention of an unforeseen external factor… According to Aristotle, “…the best tragedy should not be simple but complex and one that represents incidents arousing fear and pity—for that is peculiar to this form of art.”

All four Gospels do end in the “brutal murder” of Jesus and had a significant amount of “drama based on human suffering”, “arousing fear and pity”, just like the Greek tragedies invented 600 years before the writing of the Greek Gospels.

The related style of irony (from Ancient Greek εἰρωνεία (eirōneía), meaning “dissimulation, feigned ignorance”) can be defined in several ways:

  • A literary technique, originally used in Greek tragedy, by which the full significance of a character’s words or actions is clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character.
  • The expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.
  • A state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often wryly amusing as a result.

It is objectively ironic that Jesus said he came to save the Jews from their sins and then 40 years (one generation) after his ministry in his second coming the entire nation was levelled by the Romans to put down the Jewish rebellion.  It is ironic, because that is not what happened, no one saved the Jews, they all died in the worst genocide in recorded history until that time for the sin of rebelling against the Romans.  Another example of plain and clear irony is “Jesus and the Samaritan Woman” where Jesus warns the thirsty Samaritan woman that the day will come when she won’t want to worship on mount Gerizzim or in Jerusalem and then forty years later, 11,000 thirsty Samaritans are slaughtered on that same mountain and one million in Jerusalem.  It is objectively ironic because the character of the Samaritan woman seems totally oblivious to the impending apocalypse and Jesus sort of softly implies it, but doesn’t state it out-right.  The reader, though, is expected to understand the full significance of those words, if they are familiar with the story of The Wars of the Jews.

This is probably not the first time that satire has become reality and it probably isn’t the last.  So it shouldn’t come as any shocker to anyone who knows about the many modern examples of satire being believed.  And of course, the consequences can be devastating.  Write a joke making fun of someone and the satirical nature may be completely lost on many and the wrong person might end up as president, you never know.

While the Greeks were very developed in their literary traditions of satire and tragedy and influenced a great many Roman writers who followed in that tradition, the Jews in that day were extremely pious and very serious in their religion and certainly had far less of a developed tradition in this kind of literature.  Josephus, himself a Jew, seems to have considered irony “evil”:

“…nor by way of irony, as thou wilt say, (for he was entirely a stranger to such an evil disposition of mind,) but he wrote this by way of attestation to what was true…”

– The Life Of Flavius Josephus, 1:65

He considered the satire and irony of Greek scholars to be lies:

“However, I may justly blame the learned men among the Greeks… which moderns, although they may be superior to the old writers in eloquence, yet are they inferior to them in the execution of what they intended to do… where it must be reproachful to write lies, when they must be known by the readers to be such…”

– Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Preface, 5

Lies which must be known by the readers to be such?  That is the very definition of satire and irony, if you don’t understand the lie, you will never understand the joke and your interpretation will be exactly opposite of what was intended.  Josephus seems to have no sense of humor, but it is no wonder that he was so upset by Greek irony and didn’t seem to get the joke, since the joke was actually on him:

“…There have been indeed some bad men, who have attempted to calumniate my history, and took it to be a kind of scholastic performance for the exercise of young men. A strange sort of accusation and calumny this!…”

– Flavius Josephus Against Apion, Book I, 1:10

Even during his own lifetime Josephus himself reports that making fun of his history of the Jewish-Roman war had become a school exercise for students!  Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have any remnants of those showing how and in what ways they made fun of Josephus’ history.  But he certainly wasn’t the only one being the but of Greek scholastic jokes back then.  Josephus informs us that Apion had been writing “Grecian fables” to mock the Jews in general long before Josephus’ time:

“…He adds another Grecian fable, in order to reproach us…”

– Flavius Josephus Against Apion, Book II :8

In fact, there were apparently many “Grecian fables”, satires or humorous stories about the war itself even before Josephus published the wars of the Jews:

“WHEREAS the war which the Jews made with the Romans hath been the greatest… of those that ever were heard of… while some men who were not concerned in the affairs themselves have gotten together vain and contradictory stories by hearsay, and have written them down after a sophistical manner; and while those that were there present have given false accounts of things, and this either out of a humor of flattery to the Romans, or of hatred towards the Jews…”

– Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Preface, 1

As everyone knows, if you start making fun of someone and they get very angry about that, we tend to see the tender spot and start making fun of it all the more, attacking that sensitive topic of yours, even turning it into a kind of scholastic performance for the exercise of young students.  There are many hints that the Gospels are a form of literature and it will be the point of this blog to demonstrate that they are in fact Greek tragedies or satires of the historical works of Josephus, incorporating significant amounts irony which can be demonstrated objectively in over 400 examples of New Testament passages.  All of these examples are available in the eBook and I will post a large number of them here as well.  While reading these “parallels”, where the New Testament is imitating some passage of Josephus, try to keep these definitions of satire and irony in mind; when God appears on the scene, imagine it in a deus ex machina kind of way as describe above; when the characters play out their scenes, imagine it on in a Greek amphitheater acted out with ironic eye-winks/rolls.  I think you will see that the Gospels are just a lot more fun that way.

When reading the examples, first read both passages, from the New Testament and from Josephus, carefully and thoroughly.  First I establish the parallel by having two passages with essentially the same story, frequently using the same words and even the same names of the characters: Jesus represents Jesus or any of the sons of God doing God’s will on earth, Joseph represents Josephus (as does Joseph of Arimathea), Mary represents the only Mary in the works of Josephus, John represents the rebel leader John, Simon is Simon, Philip represents Philip and Herod is Herod, Bartimaeus represents the writers that followed Timeus. and Zacharias represents Zacharias. Sometimes the names get slightly modified, for example Nicodemus represents Nicanor and the island Patmos represents the island Pharus. and “Elisabeth” means “the house of Elisha” which represents the water fountain that was made fruitful by the prophet Elisha according to Josephus (this is also an excellent example of a “Grecian fable” with a water fountain represented by a fertility goddess).

Then remember that you don’t personally have to find it funny for it to be ironic.  The humor can sometimes be in bad taste and rather offensive by today’s standards.  But irony can be objectively determined according to the definitions above: “using language that normally means the opposite”,  “an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects”, “the full significance of a character’s words or actions is clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character”.  And remember that satire normally involves imitating and exaggerating the original in order to make some statement about the ridiculousness of it.  If you do have difficulty seeing the humor, keep this in mind {because, as Jesus says, “unto some it is given to understand the mysteries of the kingdom of God and to others it is not”;}.  Yet another indicator that the ancient Greeks were far more intelligent then we will ever be; an under appreciated medical condition that frequently leads to cynicism, nihilism and sarcasm.

To see some simple, easy to understand examples of this irony and satire in action, try reading the examples “Jesus Walks on Water” and “Jesus Finds Philip“.  For those with a strong stomach that can handle some really dark, gory humor, try “The Wedding at Cana” to learn how Jesus turns the water into wine, or “The Last Supper” to find the location of those upper rooms, or “Jesus Anointed by Mary” to find out why she needed a whole pound of cooking oil and spices for him.

NEXT: Learn the Greek Lexicon to aid in understanding this Greek Tragedy.

Leave a Comment