The Gospel According to Saint John

Note:  This letter and the commentary that follows were found in the lava-covered ruins of Herculaneum.  It is apparently a copy of a letter sent by a learned Greek to a young Roman friend of Greek ancestry, the poet Statius.  The commentary is the response of an educated pagan upon first reading a Christian text, The Gospel According to Saint John.  In my translation, I have tried as best I could to reproduce the tone of the Greek mixture—a mixture of sincere curiosity and dry irony.  

The writer is not a professional philosopher, but he is widely read.  While he has maintained a loyal reverence toward his great Epicurean namesake, he  is himself quite eclectic and more likely to draw from Plato and the Stoics as from Epicurus.  His commentary is not the work of a believing Christian or a God-Fearing gentile; neither is it an exercise in skepticism.  What it shows is how a sincere Greek, knowing only a little of the Jewish tradition, might react to a great Christian text.  He treats the Gospel seriously and does his best to make sense of the plain meaning.  Whether the sense he makes is in accord with the Christian tradition, I shall mostly leave to the readers to decide, though from time to time I shall point out certain blaring inconcinnities.

My Dear Publius Papinius:

The past few days I have been recalling the happy times I spent in Neapolis, where I became an intimate friend of your father and the opportunity of discovering the rare talents you were already exhibiting as a young poet.  In Neapolis, which has given refuge to so many of our people—among whom are your own ancestors—as well as to the greatest of poets in the Roman tongue, it was altogether fitting to speak of Publius Vergilius and of his fascinating excursion into the world of the dead.  Lately, I have had occasion to think about our fanciful discussions of the afterlife, and a book that has recently come into my hands has made me eager to pick up the thread of our discussion.

In case you may have forgotten me or, which is more likely, you wish to share this work with others, I should introduce myself.  My name is Philodemus. To be precise, I am called Philodemus Atticus, partly because I have lived so much of my life in Athens and partly to distinguish me from my more famous forebear.  Surely, Publius Papinius, and whatever Latin friend of yours might be reading this reader, you are familiar with the philosopher and poet, who spent his later years on the Bay of Neapolis.  Even an unlettered Latin must recall the high praise Marcus Tullius Cicero had for the witty and cultivated Epicurean philosopher.  He wrote dozens of books, and there is a complete collection of them in the sea-side town in which he lived. Even now, in the reign of our beloved emperor who is fit to be a Hellene, people go the Herculaneum to make copies of his books.  As the years roll on, his villa will be a permanent shrine to his great accomplishments.

I’ll have occasion, as we go on, to refer from time to time to my great forebear and to some of the circumstances of my own life.  As you will recall, the other Philodemus came from Gadara and was of mixed Greek and Phoenician stock, so far as I have been able to determine.  It hardly matters, since true Hellenism is not a matter of blood but of language and paideia (upbringing, education, culture.)  Our family still has a good deal of property in and about Gadara, including some extensive pig farms managed by hundreds of slaves.  Although we have never much cared for most of the Jews who live in the neighborhood, some of them are quite cultivated.  Indeed, since none of them actually knows much of their ancient language, they can only read their sacred Scriptures in Greek translation.  That is a good thing, because from what they tell me, the Greek is far more lucid than the Hebrew version which verges, even for people who claim to know the language, on the unintelligible.

The Jews, as we Gadarenes know, are not a united people, but they are divided into sects, principally Pharisees and Sadducees, though there used to be a bizarre sect whose fanatical members withdrew into the desert.  They are all misanthropes, and most of what they say they believe will strike a Greek (as you are worthy to be called) as nonsensical, but every once in a while I have run into Jews who love justice, almost as much as a Greek or a Roman, and the tenacity with which they maintain their faith in One God is worthy of Plato.  

In my father’s time, a new sect of Jews arose.  They did not have a name, though they worshipped their leader, whose name was Chrestos, which (as you know) is a synonym for good or noble or useful.  It’s a fine name, though some Jews have tried to claim the name is really Christos, the anointed one—what the Jews call the Messiah.  Superstitious rubbish! My own family has a funny story to tell about this Chrestos, whose followers drove some of our pigs off a cliff and fed thousands of their starving followers.

As I was saying, this latest Jewish sect does not have a name.  Among themselves they call each other “brother” and “friend,” and, so I have heard, the Greeks who have joined them are often called simply Chrestiani.  They are an interesting bunch.  While they still revere the old Jewish Scriptures, they are producing books of their own, in which they tell the story of the founder’s life or interpret his teachings.  His principal followers are called “Learners,” and a handful of their leaders are also called “Messengers.”  There are rumors, which I do not believe, that their rites include sex orgies, human sacrifice, and even cannibalism, but I have met more than a few of these people, and most of them—most but certainly not all—seem quite mild and well-behaved.  There are ranting fanatics, of course, as there are in any sect, but the Messengers are making a serious effort to keep them in line.

My story so far is prefatory to this little work of mine.  I have inherited some of my great forebear’s philosophical curiosity, and a few weeks ago I asked a neighbor mine, one of these Chrestians—though he is one of those who claim the true spelling is Christians—if he could procure me a copy of one of their new Scriptures.  At first he was a bit reluctant to share what he and his people regard as sacred with an educated Greek.  I don’t blame them.  These Chrestians are mostly illiterate, and even those who can actually write Greek cannot help mutilating our beautiful language.  Nonetheless, as I told him, I was quite sincere in my desire to find out what their teachings are.  We Hellenes understand that Egyptians have an ancient wisdom and that even Scythians may have preserved things worth knowing.  If Anacharis could be wise, why not Moses or Christus?

Persuaded by my sincerity, my neighbor promised he would fine me a text.  Today he brought to me a manuscript entitled, The Good News, written by someone called Ioannes the Learner, who, he assured me, was one of the original Learners and had known this Chrestus intimately.  

I have not so much as opened the manuscript, which I am having copied, but I propose to give an account of its contents and make what sense I can out of the story.  I do not intend to consider every sentence or even every episode, but only to comment on things that strike me as either original or bizarre.  My plan is first to spend a few days reading it through and conferring with my neighbor, who says there are other accounts and stories not included by this Ioannes the Learner.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

3 Responses

  1. Jacob Johnson says:

    Quite interesting. I’d normally assume “threat of our discussion” should be “thread..”? One observes people using a (usually implicit) threat of an extended discussion about something (usually irrelevant and time-consuming) for various forms of leverage, but it does not seem to me to be the case in this letter. However, I should not assume here because I do not know.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Only a heartless person would mock the handicapped!

  3. Jacob Johnson says:

    Well the joke is on me for meaning that in complete seriousness. I think it is best to flip the extreme skepticism switch when confronting the meaning of words, which, I suppose, is a gentle way of describing paranoia, a state of mind ultimately much more stimulating than mirth, as much fun as that may be. However, this can be a bit like a dog staring at the corner of the room where it once saw a mouse for two hours.