Monday, August 29, 2005


Euripides and Luke

With admirable thoroughness Peter Kirby examined supposed parallels (miraculous prison escapes, spur kicking proverb) between the Acts of the Apostles and Euripides' Bacchae. I will glean the stubble, with the help of commentaries on the Bacchae.

E.R. Dodds (on Bacchae 45) thought that the author of Acts "had probably read the play." In addition to the prison escapes and the "kick against the pricks" proverb, Dodds noted the presence in both texts of the comparatively rare words θεομαχέω (theomachéo, verb, fight against god) and θεομάχος (theomáchos, adjective, fighting against god).

In Acts, the adjective occurs in Gamaliel's advice (5.38-39):
And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God [θεομάχοι].
In Bacchae, the verb occurs three times, first in the prologue spoken by Dionysus (lines 43-46, tr. E.P. Coleridge):
Now Cadmus gave his sceptre and its privileges to Pentheus, his daughter's child, who wages war 'gainst my divinity [θεομαχεῖ], thrusting me away from his drink-offerings, and making no mention of me in his prayers.
Teiresias also uses the verb when arguing with Pentheus, at lines 322-325 (tr. Coleridge):
Wherefore I and Cadmus, whom thou jeerest so, will wreath our brows with ivy and join the dance; pair of grey beards though we be, still must we take part therein; never will I for any words of thine fight against heaven [θεομαχήσω].
Finally Agave says about her son Pentheus (lines 1255-1256, tr. Coleridge):
But he can do naught but wage war with gods [θεομαχεῖν].
At first I thought this argument had some merit, because my old (1872) Liddell-Scott gives no more examples of these words. But the 1940 edition of Liddell-Scott-Jones gives other examples, from Hippocrates, Menander, the Septuagint, Plutarch, Arrian, Lucian, etc. Peter Kirby has access to a copy of the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae CD-ROM. Perhaps it would reveal yet more examples.

Kirby also missed a few parallels to the spur kicking proverb, included in the commentaries of Dodds (1960) and Sandys (1880) on Bacchae 795:I would add Ammianus Marcellinus 18.5.1: ne contra acumina calcitraret (lest he kick against the pricks). It is noteworthy that Ammianus, although he wrote in Latin, was a native Greek speaker. This seems to be primarily a Greek proverb.

These additional parallels only strengthen Kirby's sensible conclusion that the proverb is widespread and that its presence in Acts 26.14 does not prove dependence on Bacchae.

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