A common tactic among Jesus Mythers, and not a few liberal New Testament scholars, is to approach with suspicion any part of Jesus’ life or teaching that recalls Old Testament stories or prophecies. The theory is that the early Christian communities invented actions and teachings of Jesus to match Old Testament expectations.
New Testament Similarities to the Old Testament
There are many problems this approach, and especially with those who take it to the extreme to argue that Jesus himself was a mythical figure. I have pointed out these problems here and here. In the most recent post, I explained three reasons that early Christian authors would refer to historical events in ways that recalled the Old Testament.
1. Christians were given to recounting actual events in ways that reminded them of the Old Testament. Which events in an episode to highlight, what terms to use to describe those events, and how to summarize events or speeches could be used to emphasize the continuity of actual historical events with the Old Testament.
2. Sometimes a coincidence is a coincidence. The Old Testament covers a lot of ground and has many diverse stories. Though there had been improvements in technology and society by then, the worlds were still quite similar in many ways. The cultures were largely agrarian, the governments authoritarian, and the cities laid out similarly (including having walls to prevent raids or attacks). Not only is it unsurprising to find similarities in the narratives of the New Testament, it should be expected.
3. Most Christian narratives involved Jewish or Christian actors who were just as aware of the Old Testament as we are. They also believed that God worked through human history. Knowledge of Old Testament prophecies or stories lead many to cast their own actions or teachings in the terms or narratives of the Old Testament.
In the prior posts, I provided many Christian and Jewish examples of verified historical events being cast in Old Testament terms. My conclusion is that the similarities to Old Testament narratives, teachings, and prophecies provide no basis for discounting the historicity of the implicated New Testament passage.
Alexander the Great Similarities to Homeric Narratives
As I was reading Will Durant’s Life of Greece, a non-Jewish, non-Christian example occurred to me: Alexander the Great. Alexander, though not attested by any extant contemporaneous writer, is one of the most influential and surest figures of the ancient world. So it is very interesting how much Alexander had in common with the largely legendary Achilles, central character of Homer’s Iliad. Both were famous warriors of royal blood renowned for their personal bravery and ability in combat. Both were said to be descended of gods. Both were products of Greek culture. Achilles and Alexander could be moody, allowing their emotions to affect their decisions. The mother of each prince played notable roles in their lives, even as adults.
Other similarities reveal an even greater level of detail. When launching his invasion into the Persian Empire, Alexander followed the accepted route of the Greek army as it attacked Troy. Alexander called his tutor by the name "Phoenix," who was Achilles’ tutor. When Achilles defeated the Trojan Prince Hector in combat, he dragged his dead body behind his chariot before the walls of Troy. When Alexander defeated Batis of Gaza in combat, he dragged his lifeless body before that city’s walls.
Alexander had a very close warrior companion Hephaestion, who some believe was also his lover. Achilles also had a very close warrior companion, Patrokolos, who was said by some to be Achilles’ lover. When Patrokolos died, Achilles suffered from a sever depression and had an elaborate funeral. When Alexander’s friend Hephaestion died, he too suffered from a severe depression and had an elaborate funeral.
Finally, both Achilles and Alexander died in their youth, accomplishing great deeds but with obvious unfilled potential.
Explanation of These Similarities
Given these similarities, and the legendary accomplishments of Alexander the Great, should we assume that he was a fictitious literary figure? Or at least do we conclude that all the parts of Alexander’s life similar to that of the mythical warrior Achilles? That would be difficult, given the broad scope of the similarities.
Some of the similarities can surely be chalked up to coincidence or historical context. Most ancient warriors whose stories have come down to us were noted for their skill, courage, and victories. And if they were leaders, they were usually royalty, as were Achilles and Alexander.
Many of the similarities are most likely explained by the pervasive influence of Homer, ancient epic poet behind the Iliad and Odyssey. These stories held a place in Greek culture roughly comparable to that of the Old Testament in Jewish and early Christian culture. Just as the Old Testament infused all of Jewish and Christian culture as religion, literature, and history, so too did Homer’s writings have an expansive effect on Greek culture in the areas of history, literature, and religion. As explained by Ennis Rees, “The two Homeric poems became the primary and most important educational influence on Greek culture.” Introduction his translation of The Illiad of Homer, page vii.
Homer’s subject matter, the Trojan War and the return of Odysseus to Ithaca, was almost universally believed to concern beliefs that really happened and persons who really existed. Homer, in short, was history. It did not need to be invented. What he said about events, men, the gods and most other matters was for a long time accepted as part of the traditional beliefs of the early Greeks.
T.J. Luce, The Greek Historians, page 1.
But rather than assume this only resulted in prompting creativity, we must recognize that it first fostered emulation. It is unsurprising, therefore, that growing up Alexander was fascinated by Homer's Iliad. It was the character of Achilles -- the hero of the story and the exemplar of all manly virtues -- that especially attracted him. Sometime in Alexander’s formative years he decided to model himself after Achilles. His teacher Aristotle encouraged him to do just that. According to Plutarch, Aristotle personally annotated a copy of the Iliad for Alexander, who kept it with him throughout his later travels, even keeping it under his pillow as he slept.
An ambitious young man determined to conquer all, Alexander worked to evoke in others, and perhaps himself, the belief that Alexander was the present day fulfillment of the great heroes of old. Achilles being the greatest of these heroes, he was Alexander’s prime historical example and model.
Thus, for example, it was Achilles’ dragging of Hector’s body behind his chariot before the walls of Troy that inspired Alexander to treat his enemy in a similar fashion. As explained by classical historian Jon Prevas,
This was done in emulation of the Greek hero, Achilles, who nine hundred years before had dragged he lifeless body of the fallen Trojan Prince, Hector, around the walls of Troy in a similar manner. What occurred at Gaza had been a sadistic and barbaric episode, yet it was an incident that was consistent with Alexander’s romantic notions and neurotic misconceptions of himself as a Homeric episode like Achilles.
Envy of the Gods: Alexander the Great's Ill-fated Journey Across Asia, page 23.
The same is probably true for Alexander's choice of invasion routes in to the Persian Empire, the name he used to refer to his tutor, and the extended period of mourning he undertook upon the death of his companion, Hephaestion. Historians believe that Alexander was consciously imitating Achilles’ grief over the death of his companion, Patrokolos.
We should also not overlook the direct impact of Homer and his Iliad on the historians and biographers who wrote about Alexander. If anything, they were more influenced by Homer than the rest of Greek culture. “The debt of the ancient historians to Homer is enormous…Everyone accepted the epic tradition as grounded on hard fact, and the Homeric heroes were believed in some sense to be the forebears of the Greeks of later times.” Michael Grant, Greek & Roman Historians, page 25. This influence cannot be limited to hypothetical fictitious invention, but clearly affected the selection and presentation of material. Accordingly, when it comes to the selection and editing of material, ancient Greek historians and biographers selected and editing their material to emphasize the similarities between Alexander and Achilles.
All told, the study of Alexander and Achilles adds further support to the conclusion that similarities with Old Testament passages or prophecies are, at best, a precarious basis for doubting authenticity. Sometimes coincidences are just coincidences. And when they are not, it cannot be claimed that ancient writers were inspired by their culture to invent material based on significant culture antecedents without also admitting that those antecedents would also have inspired the actions or teachings of the writers’ subjects. Nor can we ignore the fact that ancient writers may have selected and edited existing historical material with an eye towards evoking memories of significant culture characters. Indeed, it may be because of such similarities that the author chose his subject.