Thursday, September 15, 2011


Ory Amitay, From Alexander to Jesus. Hellenistic culture and society, 52. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. Pp. xii, 246. ISBN 9780520266360. $49.95.

Reviewed by David W. Madsen, Seattle University (

Version at BMCR home site


Great historical figures invariably attract both mythographers and biographers—none more than the two subjects of this study. Here Ory Amitay, employing meme theory, explores the mythological links between them: "…the thesis of this book is that the Jesus memeplex replicated a great many memes adopted and developed first by Alexander the living person, and after his death by the mythical memeplex which he had created" (5) In order to validate the claim, Amitay devotes the bulk of his book to an exploration of the memes and memeplex between Alexander and Herakles, the object of Alexander's worship, emulation, and rivalry. In the process of matching and surpassing him, Alexander broke the barrier between history and myth and provided a justification for his own claim to divinity; this self- divinization then set the stage for acceptance, in a monotheistic milieu no less, of the incarnate god Jesus. Unlike Herakles, whom some have suggested as a model for Christian 'mythography,' Amitay believes that the flesh and blood Alexander is the better, indeed, "unique forerunner of Christ."

The initial chapters explore Alexander's meme-making, the first taking Alexander from the Danube to Siwah. Throughout Amitay suggests that Alexander missed no opportunity to honor or identify with Herakles. This inter alia explains Alexander's anger at Tyre when his request to sacrifice to Herakles was refused; his determination, as Curtius reports and Amitay agrees, was born of an oracle given him before Issus. (Curtius' credibility generally ranks quite high; indeed Amitay rejects few sources in constructing his memes.) The subsequent siege is likewise justified by divine intervention: Alexander dreamt that Herakles beckoned him onto the island, a dream which Amitay believes "fully historical" (19), rejecting any notion that Alexander was so cynical in his relations with the gods as to invent. Rivalry, not reverence, subsequently drew Alexander to Siwah, where both Herakles and Perseus had preceded him. There Alexander took the opportunity to ask about his divine sonship; the answer was "a source of great comfort and spiritual uplift," as he was acknowledged as son of god, the equal of Herakles (26).

In chapter two we fast forward to 330/29 in the Hindu Kush where Alexander and his men hear a story equating the Caucasus and the site of Prometheus' punishment with the crag before them. The "geographical confusion," however, is not the point; it is rather that the myth of Herakles told of his travels to the end of the earth to free Prometheus. Now Alexander is here and headed even further –in this case into Baktria, where Dionysos had preceded him and thus offered his own challenge to Alexander. The historical Macedonian has moved into the realm of myth. Other examples of meme-making include the punishment of Bessos (compared to Herakles' mutilation of the envoys of Erginos), the search for water at the Oxus (which evokes memories of Heracles' expertise in finding water), and finally the hunt in the animal sanctuary (surely reminiscent of Herakles' frequent battles with wild beasts). Amitay admits that no ancient source links Herakles with these episodes, "but we should also remember that Herakles was a constant companion on the campaign" (35). Better attested memes derive from the Kleitos and proskynesis affairs, both of which bring to mind several episodes in the life of Herakles; even the remorse that Alexander feels after slaying Kleitos has Heraklean precedents.

Chapter three takes us to India where "…the Indian tendency to recognize Alexander as a supernatural entity, whether adopted for practical purposes or generated by his terrific impact on reality, was certain to reflect back on Alexander, reinforcing his own convictions" (45) The visit to Nysa, the scaling of Aornos, the victory at the Hydaspes moved him above and even beyond the other two sons of Zeus. Among the Siboi, suggests Amitay, the Alexander history even began to add elements to the myth of Herakles. By contrast when the Athenian strongman Dioxippos attempted to 'out-Herakles' Alexander in the so-called battle of the gods, his victory brought only disgrace, perhaps because "he made a much more glamorous Herakles than Alexander" (53).

In chapter four Amitay fashions his memeplex or symbiosis out of the material of the earlier chapters, which he reviews before adding even more memes drawn from Alexander's final banquet, his birth legend, the episode with the Pythia at Delphi, three other minor anecdotes, and even artwork and coinage which encourage comparisons and links between Herakles and Alexander. Amitay here reiterates the claim that the Alexander memeplex could work backwards as well as forward. As Herakles had set the standard for Alexander in the realm of history, so Alexander's career suggested additions and revisions of the myth of Herakles. More importantly the symbiosis or memeplex looks forward to the Successors, Jewish eschatology, and ultimately Jesus.

A twist on the symbiosis is the subject of chapter five, "The Amazon Queen." As the descendent of both Herakles and Achilles, Alexander should likewise meet one, and at least some of his chroniclers report that he did. Though clearly a myth, Amitay suggests that "a meeting between Alexander and a local queen or princess, escorted by armed women on horseback" in turn inspired a poem later accepted as historical by writers who were simply acknowledging that Alexander had "shattered the distinction between the mythical and the historical" (82). The myth or history thus creates a mutant meme: though his ancestors had fought with the Amazons, Alexander replaced hostility with cooperation, violence with love.

The Successors themselves are the subjects of chapter six. Even as the memeplex was taking shape, Perdikkas, Ptolemy, Eumenes, Demetrios, and Seleukos employed it for their own ends. The last, Amitay argues, was the one most attuned to "the major theological shift created by the life and death of Alexander" (95). Unlike the Ptolemies, who could take advantage of a long-established religious infrastructure, the Seleukids had to invent one, and Alexander, having shown the path to divinity, was the obvious model. Later the Romans, and particularly Augustus, would follow the lead of Seleukos; by his time, long use of Alexander's legacy had established a clear and well- trodden pathway to divinity.

In chapter seven Amitay discusses the uses which Jewish writers made of the Alexander legend. In history (Josephus), apocalyptic (Daniel), a second century rabbinic text (the Seder 'Olam), and the later Midrash of Ten Kings Alexander plays roles of defender and herald. Amitay argues that Alexander's long association with the Caucasus, evidenced by Josephus, allowed him to be identified as the protector of Israel from Gog and the hordes of the North mentioned in the prophecy of Ezechiel. In the book of Daniel and the Seder 'Olam the rise and fall of Alexander's empire mark the fourth and last era before God's kingdom. In the later Midrash Alexander's role is more precisely outlined: his kingdom will disintegrate to make way for the Messiah who will in turn usher in the kingdom of God. Jewish eschatology, Amitay concludes, kept the historic/mythic Alexander alive in the minds of the people to whom Jesus and his followers would preach his message.

Finally in chapter eight and the "Conclusion" we reach Jesus, first introduced in the printed text of C.R. Weede's poem "Alexander and Jesus," inspired by the coincidence that both died at the age of thirty-three. Amitay accepts this as yet another meme but focuses on others he judges more significant: "Divine Sonship, dual paternity, virgin birth, moral choice in the face of Temptation, world rule, Mission for the benefit of humankind, death at a young age before the Mission is complete and, finally, apotheosis" (125). Soon enough Herakles reappears, as do Horus and Apollo: "…the myth of Alexander is memetically interconnected with a number of ancient Divinities, who in turn share the same memes with Jesus" (134). But the flesh and blood humanity of Alexander sets him apart and above the others; "the myth of Jesus signifies the acceptance of Alexander's precedent of Divinization by believers in a monotheistic faith" (134). There follow two further memes where history and myth may link the two: the story of Alexander's resurrection in Cassius Dio and Jesus' journey to India, a myth which Amitay traces no further than 1894 (213 n. 73). Given these "memetic meetings points…it is small wonder that the Roman Empire, which so venerated Alexander in the third century, embraced Christianity in the fourth" (140). Because Alexander broke through the barrier between history and myth, he "served as the bridge between the worlds of mono- and polytheism" to the benefit of both (149). Alexander, today deprived of his divinity, looms large in history; Jesus, whose history is largely unknown, has become the object of faith and worship.

The book concludes with three appendices, the first of which argues that similarities between Alexander and David, while only coincidental, may nonetheless have encouraged first century Jews to link Alexander with Jesus, acclaimed the son of David. Appendix two lists the "Sacrifices and Other Religious Matters in the Alexander Histories" and demonstrates in the compilation that, while Alexander may have honored Herakles above all, he did not do so exclusively. Appendix three, "Alexander Alcoholicus," compiles the references to drinking in the histories; its relevance to the text is unclear and unexplained. There follow forty-eight pages of endnotes, fourteen of references/bibliography, and an index.

What is one to make of all this? As Stanley Burstein, cited on the dust jacket, suggests, Amitay's exploration of the links between Herakles and Alexander does make a contribution to Alexander scholarship. He has left few stones left unturned in developing his memeplex, even though I would suggest that, in constructing the memes, he often overreaches and is frequently insufficiently source-critical. To its credit, the book gives substance to the pothos of Alexander; it was not just his father who drove him but also his mythic ancestor. While hardly an idea new to Alexander scholars, Amitay has both marshaled and added additional evidence for it. Finally, the repeated efforts of Alexander to match and/or surpass Herakles do, as Amitay suggests, offer insights into why Alexander might see himself as deserving of worship.

That said, the link between the Alexander memeplex and Jesus seems over-stated. The proof texts cited by Jesus' followers and early converts to Christianity come primarily from the Hebrew scriptures rather than the Alexander myth or history. (See especially the Gospel of Matthew, the Acts of the Apostles, or Paul's epistles all of which draw heavily on scriptural parallels.) Amitay likewise assumes a familiarity with Alexander that is most unlikely among the audiences to which Jesus and his followers preached. Nor do all the similarities between Alexander and Jesus withstand challenge; one might well dispute the claims that Alexander's mission was for the benefit of mankind or that Jesus aimed at world rule, and to argue that Jesus' mission was incomplete at his death is indefensible in Christian theology. Further, any claims that Alexander eased the way for acceptance of Jesus' incarnate divinity must be questioned in light of the centuries of debate about the nature of Jesus to which Amitay himself alludes. And finally, while he admits that he (and we) can know little of the historical Jesus, surely there is much good scholarship to which he could have had recourse; of the ten titles in his references dealing specifically with Jesus only one can claim the status of mainstream scholarship. Those who have studied the life and teaching of Jesus more systematically suggest that he and his appeal can best be understood in the context of Jewish experience and belief; Alexander's memeplex may have played a role in Christian 'mythography,' but it seems ancillary at best.

1 comment:

  1. The phrase "historical Jesus" is undefined and generally incoherent. The evidence for the existence of a person anything like what most people consider to be Jesus is virtually nil.


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