The Historical Jesus in Context

By Amy-Jill Levine; Dale Allison Jr. et al. | Go to book overview

11
Apuleius of Madauros

Ian H. Henderson

Apuleius of Madauros was born in North Africa around 125 CE. His importance for understanding Jesus and his world is twofold. Generally, the writings of Apuleius are among the most powerful tools available to help modern readers to imagine historically what Greco-Roman polytheist religion might have been like, from the viewpoint of a deeply engaged and articulate participant. Writing to his converts in Corinth, Paul of Tarsus took for granted that while they were “still Gentiles,” they experienced powerful attraction “toward mute idols” (1 Corinthians 12:2). Apuleius's most important books are invaluable to understanding how such an attraction might work at several levels of seriousness and sophistication.

Apuleius's most famous and influential work is a sprawling fictional narrative of magical and religious transformation, the Metamorphoses (the Book of Transformations) or the Golden Ass. No narrative summary could possibly do justice to this extraordinarily complex composition, but the central plot concerns the young Lucius, whose interest in magic leads him, like many a sorcerer's apprentice, into adventures beyond his control. Turned by hasty incantation into a donkey, Lucius witnesses an entertaining sample of the absurdities of human life. Over and over again, the progress of donkey-Lucius's adventure is interrupted or diverted by side narratives, magical, amusing, erotic, and mythical (the famous myth of Cupid “Desire” and Psyche “Soul” [4.28–6.24]). Eventually, Lucius is saved from his bewitchment and restored to humanity by the intervention of the Egyptian goddess Isis—like the God of Jerusalem, a successful religious export from the magical, prophetic East throughout the Greco-Roman world.

The last book of the Metamorphoses, in which Lucius is saved by Isis and sings her praises, adopts a tone of religious seriousness which it is hard for modern Western readers to reconcile with the witty, sexy, magical low-life atmosphere of the bulk of the work. The passage convincingly imagines a fanciful experience of personal deliverance through prayer, visionary dreams, miracles, personal dedication, and public, congregational, and personal rituals. Lucius's encounter with Isis provides the reader with a rich vocabulary for comparative imagination of religious experiences and movements in antiquity. Moreover, the Lucius of the last,

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