The Ancient Novels and the New Testament: Possible Contacts
Ramelli, Ilaria, Ancient Narrative
Late in the reign of Nero, in Rome, Petronius, a member of the so-called 'Neronian Circle' and Nero's arbiter in matters of taste or arbiter elegantiarum, wrote his novel, Satyricon. It was during the time of, or soon after, the first Christian persecution, (2) which was initiated by Nero himself against the members of a religion that a decision of the Senate in A.D. 35 had labelled as an 'illicit superstition.' According to Tertullian, Tiberius in the Senate proposed to recognize the Christians' religion, but the senators refused, and proclaimed Christianity a superstitio illicita, so that every Christian could be put to death. But Tiberius, thanks to his tribunicia potestas, vetoed the Christians' condemnations, and there was no Roman persecution until the time of Nero. (3) According to Tacitus (Ann. 15, 44), in A.D. 64, at the time of the infamous fire of Rome, the Christians, who were very numerous, a multitudo ingens in the city, a [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] according to Clement of Rome (Cor. 5), (4) and were hated by people because of their supposed wrong-doings (ob flagitia invisi), were accused of arson and underwent spectacular tortures, which stirred pity (miseratio) even among pagan spectators. (5)
At that time it is likely that Mark's Gospel was already circulating in some form. In fact, according to the Christian tradition of the late first-early second century, represented by Papias (ap. Eus. HE 3, 39, 15), Clement of Alexandria (Hypot. 6, ap. Eus. HE 2, 15; 6, 14, 6, and F9 Staehlin), and Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. 3, 1,1), (6) it was written in Rome, at the beginning of Claudius' reign after St. Peter's preaching: the audience, imperial officials and Roman knights (Caesariani et equites), asked Mark for a written version of the oral preaching. Evidence for this early tradition may come from the possible identification of the Qumran papyrus fragment 7Q5 with a short passage of Mark's Gospel (6, 52--63). The fact that it is a link passage in the narrative texture may lead us to believe that it was written in a late phase of the composition of the Gospel (7)--if we admit a 'stratified' writing, which some scholars do not accept. (8)
This identification, asserted by Jose O'Callaghan and then by Carsten Peter Thiede, has been accepted also, e.g., by Orsolina Montevecchi, Sergio Daris, and, most recently, Karl Jarosh. (9) The Gospel of Mark could thus have been written before A.D. 50, as suggested by the palaeographic style of the papyrus fragment, and in any case before A.D. 68, when the Qumran Caves were definitively closed. (10) The fragment itself was found in an amphora with the Aramaic word for 'Rome' on it: rwm. Anyway, contemporary scholarly research commonly acknowledges a date of composition before or around A.D. 70 for Mk; (11) thus, it is possible that this Gospel circulated in a written form in Rome in the late Neronian age, (12) and, in any case, it is probable that it circulated in an oral form in that period.
In this context it is not so strange that in the literary work of Petronius, a pagan author who was close to Nero and to his court and was proconsul of Bithynia (probably an already Christianized region at the beginning of the Sixties of the first century, as is clear from Pliny's well-known letter to Trajan on the Christian question), and on the other hand was interested in certain aspects of the Judaic culture, although from a critical point of view, (13) around the year A.D. 64, it is possible to point out probable traces of knowledge of Christianity--even if partial and expressed with irony, if not with hostility--, and perhaps, as it seems, also of the Gospel of Mark. (14) Petronius clearly alludes to the fire of Rome in his novel and writes during the persecution against the Christians, or immediately after it. (15)
I shall expand here on the passages in which the Satyricon seems to reveal some knowledge of the Christian sect and, in particular, of Mark's Gospel. First of all, Petronius in Sat. 77, 7--78, 4 seems to present a parody of the Anointing of Jesus in Bethania, narrated in Mk 14, 3--9, (16) where Trimalchio's use of the ointment nardum--the most important among ointments according to Plin. NH 12, 26, 42: principale in unguentis, commonly used in the Greek and Roman world both in convivial and in funereal contexts--is in a convivial context (17) as a prefiguration of a funeral unction: it is the only such usage in all of classical literature. After Petronius and the Gospel, Pliny will notice the adoption of perfume by the Romans in both occasions, convivial and funereal. (18) The impressive parallels between the Gospel passage and the Petronian one were already noted--although only very partially--a century ago by Erwin Preuschen, (19) but he supposed that Mark's Gospel was written after the Satyricon and stated that it was Mark who imitated the novelist and not vice-versa. I believe that we should invert the terms of the relationship.
In fact, the points of contact between the two texts are remarkable: in both passages, the scene is a banquet; (20) an ointment is brought in, and precisely a small jar of nardum, which is smeared on the protagonist, in the case of Jesus, or by him, in that of Trimalchio, in prefiguration of his funeral anointing for burial, as the protagonist himself declares:
Stichus, please bring me the ointment [...] at once he [sc. Trimalchio] opened a small jar and smeared us all, and said: 'I hope that this will be good for me after my death as much as before [...] Please consider yourselves invited to my funeral party'. The business was becoming particularly nauseating ... (21) (Sat. 77, 7--78, 4) While he was lying, a woman came bringing a small jar of valuable, expensive nardum ointment; she broke the jar and poured [the ointment] on his head [...] Jesus said: 'Leave her in peace [...] she did a good thing [...] she did what she could: she anointed my body in advance, for the burial.'22 (Mk 14, 3--8)
In addition, in Mk 14, 3 the Latin version of the Bezae Codex Cantabrigiensis, surely written before the Vulgata and even dated by Antonio Ammassari to the first century A.D., (23) presents the reading ampullam as a translation of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], a unique variant in all the Greek and Latin manuscripts, even compared with the Greek parallel of the Codex Cantabrigiensis itself (D): at this point, the Vulgata presents the reading alabastrum and the Greek text gives [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], both here in Mark and in the synoptic parallel of Mt 26, 7, whereas Jn 2, 3 has libram, Greek [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]. (24) Ampullam nardi, the variant of the Latin column of the Bezae Codex Cantabrigiensis for the scene of the Bethany Anointing in Mark, is identical with the ampullam nardi of our Petronian passage.
Moreover, it is remarkable that the whole Cena Trimalchionis is presented as a 'Last Supper', because in the scene of the 'funeral anointing' Trimalchio clearly invites the guests to regard the Cena as a funeral banquet, and because the references to the death-theme are numerous and constant, disseminated all over the novel, and noted by many scholars. (25) But, thanks to a prediction which he steadfastly believes, Trimalchio knows very well that he will live for many more years: in Sat. 78, 1 he himself says that an astrologer, whom he consulted, foretold that he would enjoy more than thirty years of life. So, if in the immediate context there is nothing which suggests that we regard the Cena as a funeral banquet, it may well be that Petronius drew his inspiration for it from an outside source in which the death-theme was connected with a convivial one--maybe from the Gospel scene itself, even if Petronius seems to allude to it in a parodic manner and has Encolpius express a certain disgust. (26) The comment which concludes the episode reads: 'the business was becoming particularly nauseating.'
But there are also other traces that may lead us to suppose a certain knowledge of Christian narratives in Petronius. In the same context of the Cena Trimalchionis at Sat. 74, 1--3, a cock's crow is presented by Petronius as sign of a negative and funereal event, such as a fire or somebody's death, whereas in classical literature it foretells only happy events, such as victories. Moreover, the cock is described by Petronius as index, 'accuser, denouncer:'
While he was saying so, a cock crew. At that cry, Trimalchio got upset, and had some wine poured under the table and also on the lamp. Besides, he transferred his ring to his right hand and said: 'It is not without a reason that this trumpeter gave a sign: there will surely be a fire, or someone in the neighbourhood will kick the bucket. May this be far from us! So, whoever brings me this index will receive a reward.' And before he finished speaking, the cock was brought in from the neighbourhood, and Trimalchio ordered that he should be cooked in a bronze vessel. Thus, carved by that most skilled cook, he was put in a pot. (27)
The question arises (28) whether this characterization, which is so different from the one that was widespread in classical antiquity, can represent--although here the context is comic and the cock is immediately put in a pot!-- a reminiscence of the well-known Gospel episode of the cock's crow connected with Peter's betrayal: (29) here the cock is really a 'denouncer,' an index, and his crowing marks the beginning of a day of pain and death, the day of Jesus' crucifixion. Also in this case, it could be meaningful that the Gospel of Mark is the one which most of all stresses this detail of the cock, with a double crow (Mk 14, 30; 14, 68; 14, 72).
Another Gospel scene that may be parodied in Petronius is that of the institution of the Eucharist: in the final episode at Croton (Sat. 141, 2) Eumolpus promises with solemnity to leave his whole heritage to those who will divide his flesh in parts and eat it in front of the people: Omnes qui in testamento meo legata habent [...] hac condicione percipiant quae dedi, si corpus meum in partes conciderint et astante populo comederint. (30) In this case the possible polemical allusion on the part of Petronius would fit very well in the context of the contemporary anti-Christian accusation of anthropophagy --one of the presumed wrong-doings (flagitia) of the Christians in Tac. Ann. 15, 44 --, that originated from a misunderstanding of the Eucharist. (31)
Finally, it seems possible to point out some precise allusions to the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Christ in the brief tale of the Widow of Ephesus: (32) in this episode, as we shall see, there may be some echoes of the anti-Christian charges which form the basis of the so-called Nazareth Edict, a document--as it seems--of the Neronian age. In Sat. 111, 5 --112, 3, in fact, the story concerns three men who have been condemned by a provincial governor around A.D. 30 (33) and crucified, and who are guarded by a soldier during the night, in order that no one can steal their bodies. But on the third day one of the corpses is stolen and replaced with another. The people wonder at the reanimation of the crucified man: and Petronius seems to smile at this sarcastically.
It is important to notice that the Jews actually accused the Christians of stealing a dead body ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), according to Mt 28, 2, and that on this charge the so-called Nazareth Edict seems to be founded. It orders the death of those who have stolen a corpse from its grave: it was a very severe penalty for a crime that was usually punished only by a fine. This imperial edict ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) was probably promulgated under Nero, and it probably was aimed precisely at the Christians, (34) because it condemned not only the stealers of dead bodies, as the Christians were regarded, but also--according to E. Grzybek's interpretation--those who worshipped a human being, while only the gods should be worshipped. As for Petronius himself, he certainly seems interested in life after death: Trimalchio says to Habinnas: 'I beg you to represent a little bitch at the feet of my statue [sc. on the tomb], and garlands, and ointments, and all the fights of Petraites, in order that, thanks to you, I can live after my death.' (35) But this kind of life after the present life is very different from that of the Christian resurrection, at which Petronius seems to be poking fun.
So, all these clues taken together can lead us to suppose a certain knowledge of the Christian narratives by Petronius, and perhaps knowledge of Mark's Gospel. The novelist's attitude is certainly full of irony and his approach parodic. (36)
These suggestions have been …
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Publication information: Article title: The Ancient Novels and the New Testament: Possible Contacts. Contributors: Ramelli, Ilaria - Author. Journal title: Ancient Narrative. Volume: 5. Publication date: Annual 2007. Page number: 41+. © 2008 Barkhuis Publishing. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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