A few months ago, I wrote about some interesting allusions to the priest-poet Epimenides in the New Testament. I’d like to continue exploring non-scriptural literary influences and connections in the Bible with a look at a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Publius Ovidius Naso was a Roman poet who lived from 43 BCE to about 17 of the Christian era. He wrote epic poetry in Latin, and his works have become a major source of information on Greco-Roman mythology. His magnum opus was Metamorphoses, a work spanning 15 books and containing some 250 mythic stories that encompass all of history, from creation to the death of Julius Caesar, within a frame narrative.
Hither Came Jupiter in the Guise of a Mortal…
What I am interested here is the story of Philemon and Baucis in Book VIII. A brief summary is as follows:
The gods Jupiter and Mercury visit Phrygia disguised as human travellers. They go from house to house in search of food and lodging, but are refused a thousand times. At last they come to the cottage of old Baucis and Philemon, who show the two visitors their finest hospitality despite their poverty. They prepare the finest meal they can muster, and are astonished at one point to see the wine replenishing itself. Realizing that their guests are divine, they attempt to offer their only goose as a sacrifice, but Jupiter and Mercury stop them. The two gods then pronounce judgment on the region for its wickedness, but make an exception for Baucis and Philemon. They lead the couple over to a nearby mountain and then watch while the entire countryside is flooded and their own house is transformed into a magnificent temple. The two gods then offer to grant Philemon and Baucis whatever they want, and the couple asks to serve as priests of the temple and to have their lives end at the same time. Years later, when the two die, they are immediately transformed into two sacred trees: an oak and a linden tree.
This tale, well-known in the ancient world, forms the basis for an episode in Acts. In chapter 14, Paul and Barnabas visit Lystra, a Roman colony not far from Phrygia. Paul heals a cripple, and when the crowds see it, they cry out that the gods have visited them, calling Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes. They attempt to offer sacrifices in honour of the visitors, but Barnabas and Paul angrily put a stop to it, insisting that they are mortals.
Zeus, of course, is the Greek name for Jupiter, and Hermes for Mercury. The basic idea, then, seems to be that the townsfolk of Lystra know the famous story about Jupiter and Mercury (Zeus and Hermes) travelling in the guise of mortals, and they jump to conclusions when they see Paul’s miracle. After all, they certainly don’t want to meet with the fate that the inhospitable villagers did in the story of Philemon and Baucis! But while Ovid’s visitors reveal their divine nature and accept hospitality, our two apostles reveal their mortal nature and refuse hospitality.
All commentaries agree on that much, more or less. There’s a bit more to it, however. Luther H. Martin in a paper published in New Testament Studies (see bibliography below) makes some important observations that most people miss. He notes that many commentators, “focusing on facticity rather than narrativicity,” fret over the difficulties of verse 11, which explicitly has the crowds speaking in Lycaonian. How did uneducated Lycaonian-speaking peasants communicate with the foreign apostles, and how likely is it they would have used the names Zeus or Hermes if they weren’t speaking Greek? (p. 153 n. 8)
Wrangling over such difficulties misses the point, however. Martin sees the author of Acts as a sophisticated writer with a “classical” perspective — and we have already seen his adroit use of the Epimenides legend. Acts was written to address a Greek audience, and their familiarity with traditions about Zeus and Hermes is all that really matters here. The parallels between Acts 14 and Philemon and Baucis go beyond a simple case of mistaken identity by the superstitious locals.
For starters, it is important to understand that Zeus and Hermes were “guarantors of emissaries and missions” in Greek tradition. (Cf. Plato, Leg. 941A.) It was considered a sin against Hermes and Zeus to deliver a false message. As Martin puts it, “Hermes guarantees that what is to be spoken is not ‘false messages’ but ‘good news’.” One of Zeus’s epitaphs was “giver of glad tidings”, while that of Hermes his messenger was “bringer of glad tidings”. (p. 155) It is no surprise then, that it is Paul who is made out to be Hermes because he is the main speaker and message bearer, delivering the Good News.
(Side note: There is also a problem if we ascribe the identification of Paul with Hermes to the Lystrans rather than to the author of Acts. Though inscriptions attest to the veneration of Zeus and Hermes in that area, these were apparently secondary names applied to a pair of local Luwian deities — Tarhunt, a weather god, and Runt, protector of wild animals — who did not possess the functions of king and messenger that are relevant to the author’s point. The actual residents of Lystra are unlikely to have made such a connection. See Versnel p. 42 for more on the subject.)
Another important parallel is the theme of hospitality. Just as Jupiter and Mercury visit a thousand homes before they find one that welcomes them, the hospitality offered by the Lystrans comes after Barnabas and Paul have been rejected at Antioch and Iconium. Zeus and Hermes are particularly relevant, as they were seen as patrons and protectors of travellers in foreign lands. (See Martin, p. 155 for numerous classical references.)
Thus, although the passage is ostensibly an entertaining account of mistaken identity, the author of Acts is actually placing his story “in the context of classical Greek tradition”, reinforcing the legitimacy and truth of the Christian mission to the Gentiles and reminding readers of their obligations regarding hospitality when receiving Christian missionaries. At the same time, the story reinforces a sharp contrast between the pagan and Christian views of deities. (p. 156)