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Allusion to Heracles in 1 John 2:13, 14 Beth Snodderly An excerpt from the Cultural Inter-Texture section of my dissertation, A SocioRhetorical Analysis of the Johannine Understanding of the Works of the Devil in 1 John 3:8.

Echoes of insider cultural knowledge and allusions to familiar myths are characteristic of the cultural inter-texture method of Socio-Rhetorical Analysis. 1 With this approach the interpreter begins with verbal signs in the text that explicitly evoke verbal signs in other texts. 2 In this cultural inter-textual study, verbal signs in the bridge paragraph of 1 John 2:13, 14 3 that speak of young men having victory over the evil one (gravfw uJmi`n, neanivskoi, o{ti nenikhvkate to;n ponhrovn) will be seen to evoke the myths of Heracles that were commonly known in the ancient Mediterranean world. The focus will be on how these allusions relate to an understanding of the phrase, the works of the devil. Neanivskoi as an Allusion to Heracles The reading of 1 John 2:13, 14, with the combination of terms, young men (neanivskoi), overcome/have victory over (nenikhvkate), and strong (ijscuroi), would almost inevitably have reminded anyone living in Ephesus of the statue of the strong young Heracles that Apollonius had erected in that city during the time the Johannine writings were circulating.4 Myths of Heracles were recycled in many of the famous ancient poets and dramatists such as Homer, Aeschylus, and Euripedes. But even 400 years prior to these written tales, the life of the famous god-hero Heracles

Robbins, Texture, 58. Robbins, Tapestry, 32. 3 First John 2:12-14 was seen, in the inner texture discussion of rhetorical transitions, to be a bridge paragraph, looking both backwards at previous themes and forwards to upcoming themes, one of which is overcoming the evil one, including destroying his works. 4 Bruns, Note, 453. Also see F.C. Conybeare, trans., Apollonius of Tyana by Flavius Philostratus, n.p. [cited 25 May 2008]. Online: http://www.chrestos.com/.
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was shown in artwork such as vases and sculptured reliefs.5 That the comparison of Heracles to the strong young men and to the unique Son of God was likely to have been intentional is reinforced by the fact, as Bruns reports, that a generation after the publication of the Johannine writings, Justin Martyr explicitly contrasts Jesus, the veritable ischuros gigas with Herakles, the ischuros gigas of myth. 6 The relevant question for this study is to try to imagine what aspects of the life and labors of Heracles might have been intended by the author or assumed by the audience when they heard or read that the young men were strong and had overcome the evil one (1 John 2:14), and that the Son of God had come to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). A brief look at three general characteristics attributed to Heracles will be followed by a comparison to biblical themes, as part of the process of mining the depths of a 1st century Mediterranean understanding of the phrase, the works of the devil. 1. Heracles was considered to have great strength. 2. Heracles demonstrated victory over evil entities. 3. Heracles was viewed as a defender against disease and death.

A. Great Strength Heracles strength was legendary. In the myth of his birth, as a baby he kills two snakes, one with each hand. Among the twelve special labors set for him by his cousin, Heracles demonstrated superior strength, as well as cunning, in cleaning out the Aegean stables by re-directing the course of a river, by holding up the heavens for Atlas the Titan for a time, by capturing several wild and strange animals, by moving mountains, and by tossing boulders as if they were small stones.7
Michael Stewart, Herakles, Greek Mythology: From the Iliad to the Fall of the Last Tyrant, n.p. [cited 24 May 2008]. Online: http://messagenet.com/myths/bios/heracles.html. 6 Bruns, Note, 452. Bruns misses the closer echo from Jewish literature of Samson, a young man who is strong and, like Heracles, is reputed to have overcome a lion (Judges 14:5, 6). In both cases the lion, a wild beast (qhrivwn) can be read as representative of the evil one. For qhrivwn as a symbol of evil, see Mark 1:13 and Revelation chapters 13 and 17 in particular. 7 Michael Stewart, Herakles, Greek Mythology: From the Iliad to the Fall of the Last Tyrant, n.p. [cited 24 May 2008]. Online: http://messagenet.com/myths/bios/heracles.html.

B. Evil Entities Using his great strength, in other labors that Heracles was required to undertake (in atonement for having killed his own sons in a fit of madness), he demonstrated victory over several actively evil entities, including a lion, a hydra, and the dog of Hades. The first of his labors is depicted on a Temple of Zeus (mid-fifth century B.C.E.) showing Heracles as beardless (therefore young), standing with his foot on the dead lion of Nemea that he had killed, as instructed by his cousin.8 This lion was a menace to the people of Nemea, a half-sister of Cerberos, the watchdog of the gates of Hades. Heracles wrestled with the lion and strangled it to death, thus rescuing the population from a great evil. He wore its skin as a symbol of his strength throughout the rest of his life. (Notice the resemblance to one of the stories of the strong man Samson of the Hebrew Bible in Judges 14:5, 6.) In another of his labors, Heracles was to kill the Hydra, a deadly many-headed monster that lived in a swamp. As soon as one of its heads was cut off, two more would grow in its place. To make matters worse, the Hydra's very breath was lethal. Even smelling its footprints was enough to bring death to an ordinary mortal. Fortunately, Heracles was no ordinary mortal. 9 Heracles was able, with his nephews help, to overcome this evil one as well. Finally, after many other adventures in which he performed seemingly impossible and super-human feats, Heracles was given one last labor, to bring the dog, Cerberos, back from Hades, the Underworld. The dog is described in myths as having teeth as sharp as a razor, multiple heads, a poisonous snake for a tail, as well as snakes growing out of its back. Somehow the strong hero was able to get Cerberus by the throat and choke it into submission, again defeating an evil one, this time a guardian of the place of death. 10

C. Defender Against Disease and Death

Ibid. Heracles, n.p. [cited 24 May 2008]. Online: http://www.mythweb .com/encyc/entries/Heracles.html. 10 Ibid.

Perhaps it was this last of the twelve labors, proving himself capable of defeating even death, in a sense, that gave Heracles the reputation of being one who averted evil, a defender against disease and death. This reputation is seen in the story found in The Life of Apollonius, in which Apollonius puts a stop to a plague raging in Ephesus by inciting the population of the city to stone to death an old beggar who turns out to actually be a dog as large as a lion, who had been the cause of the plague. After this incident, according to the story, the statue of the Averting god, Heracles, was set up over the place where the plague demon had been killed.11 Harrison cites an Orphic Hymn to Heracles that confirms his reputation for defending against disease and death: Come Blessed One, bring spells for all diseases, Drive out ill fates, wave in thy hand thy branch With magic shafts banish the noisome Keres.12 Harrison also describes a scene engraved on a shrine dedicated to Heracles. Holding his branch from the tree of life, he represents youth pitted against a pygmy ker, with shrunken body and distorted face, depicting disease and death. 13 An inscription on this shrine reads, Of Herakles Alexikakos, or Heracles, Defender from Evil. 14 Summary/Implications of Cultural Inter-texture The fact that a statue of Heracles was put up in Ephesus over the spot where a plague demon, in the form of a vicious wild animal, part lion and part dog, was supposed to have been killed, indicates that the people apparently saw in the myth of Apollonius an echo of
F.C. Conybeare, trans., Apollonius of Tyana by Flavius Philostratus, n.p. [cited 25 May 2008]. Online: http://www.chrestos.com/. 12 Jane Ellen Harrison, Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1912), 366. The keres were the female spirits of violent or cruel death, including death in battle, by accident, murder or ravaging disease (Theoi Greek Mythology: Exploring Mythology in Classical Literature & Art, n.p. [cited 30 May 2008]. Online: http://www.theoi .com/Daimon/Keres.html). 13 Harrison, Themis, 379. 14 Harrison, Themis, 378.

Heracles first and last labors of killing the vicious lion and capturing the dog of Hades. Further it is clear that they connected the killing of mythical wild beasts with defeating disease. Perhaps one interpretation of Pauls statement that he fought wild beasts in Ephesus is that he was present during a plague and did not succumb to it. For Jewish Christian believers in Ephesus, the verbal connection between strong young men overcoming the evil one (1 John 2:13, 14) with the famous strong young hero fighting wild beasts, thereby overcoming evil, would likely have been reminiscent of the passage mentioned earlier in this chapter from the Testament of Naphtali 8:2-4: If ye work that which is good, my children, The devil shall flee from you, And the wild beasts shall fear you, And the Lord shall love you, And the angels shall cleave to you. This can be compared with the wild animals Jesus was among, without harm, in the desert, while the angels attended to his needs (Mark 1:13). Shortly after this experience among wild animals, according to Marks account, Jesus began demonstrating his authority over demons (1:23ff) and healing many who were sick with various diseases caused by demons (1:34). In this context Mark introduces the account of Jesus and Beelzebul, and the necessity to bind the strong man (Mark 3:20-27). Lukes version adds that a stronger one, meaning Jesus, overcomes the strong man, referring to Satan. This is a scribal inter-textual echo that would likely have been heard by the Johannine community when they heard that the young men have overcome the evil one. They would have recognized the role of Jesus, the unique Son of God, as the one who overcomes Satan, the evil one, and defeats him (1 John 3:8). But they would also realize that the strong young men have a role in working with the unique and strong Son of God to overcome and destroy the works of the devil. This short study of one aspect of cultural inter-texture in the Greco-Roman world has shown that the myths of Heracles, in which he conquers enemies of humans, can serve as metaphors for the work of the young men and unique Son of God in overcoming, as Bruns says, the personified representative of evil, whether he be called Satan ((John

13:27), the devil (John 8:44, 13:2; 1 John 3:8, 10) the evil one (John 17:15; 1 John 2:13, 14; 3:12; 5:18) or the prince of this world (John 12:31; 16:33). 15 From this study we can add another personification of evil to Bruns list: wild beasts. All of these personifications are depicted in both biblical and extra-biblical literature as murderers and agents of death. This is the enemy whose works Jesus destroys. This is the enemy the strong young men are able to overcome, indicating that they are stronger, or have access to a stronger power, than the evil one they overcome. Now is the prince of this world cast out; you have overcome the evil one; the Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil, one of which this study shows is disease and death.


Bruns, Note, 252.