Intimations of Jesus Christ in the Greek Tragedies
by Louis Markos
Christians believe that the unique birth, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are not only historical events that occurred during the first century a.d. but also the miraculous fulfillment of the prophetic utterances of such Old Testament figures as Moses, David, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. Indeed, for those who have eyes to see, most of the key tenets of Christian doctrine can be found, in embryonic form, in the books of the Old Testament. As God sent John the Baptist to prepare the way for Christ, so also did he use the Law and the Prophets to prepare the hearts of his people for the coming of their long-awaited Messiah.
Is it not possible, however, that the Jews were not the only people whom God prepared? Might he not have spoken to the pagan nations as well? True, he did not give direct revelation to the Babylonians or Persians or Greeks or Romans, but might he not have whispered to their hearts in a different, less direct way? Though fallen, we were all made in God’s image. If it is true that God has set eternity in the hearts of men (Eccl. 3:11), then all men, Jew and Gentile alike, have the inborn desire and ability to yearn after the one true God. The supreme biblical example of this is the Magi, gentile pagans who followed their limited astrological wisdom and found, to their great joy, that God used that wisdom to lead them to the Christ child.
During the Golden Age of Athens (fifth century b.c.), there arose three great tragedians—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—whose dramatic masterpieces offered profound insights into the workings of fate and providence, and showed the helplessness of man to find his way in the absence of divine standards and touchstones. Though they are not Christian works, these timeless tragedies wrestle with issues of vital importance to Christians. In this essay, I will consider three such plays: Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Sophocles’ Oedipus, and Euripides’ Hippolytus.
Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound: The Scapegoat in Chains
In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a Titan who stole the gift of fire from Zeus and gave it to man. According to Aeschylus, however, Prometheus endowed mankind not only with fire but with all the gifts that have allowed us to rise above the beasts and aspire to higher things. Aeschylus’ Prometheus is no mere fly-by-night benefactor who signs a large humanitarian-aid check and then returns to his guarded mansion. He is fully invested in man’s growth and development and is willing to pay any price to protect the fledgling human race from the envy and malice of Zeus.
As part of his pledge to protect the world from Zeus, Prometheus has refused to divulge a secret that he alone knows: the identity of the goddess who will bear to Zeus a son that will overthrow him. In an attempt to force Prometheus to cease aiding mankind, to submit to his authority, and to divulge the name of the goddess, Zeus chains the Titan to a high rock in the Caucasus Mountains and sends a ferocious eagle to continually devour his liver; each night, the liver regenerates, so with each new dawn, the eagle returns to feast again.
In Prometheus Bound, we meet the Titan at the beginning of his punishment, though we are told that he will continue to suffer this agony for many generations to come. Still, Prometheus remains undaunted. He will neither divulge the name nor bend his knee to the tyrannous Zeus. He will remain a foe of tyranny and a friend of man no matter the pain.
And yet, the play makes clear, a time will come when Zeus and Prometheus will be reconciled. Prometheus Bound, like all the plays from the Golden Age, was originally presented as part of a trilogy. Plays two and three of the cycle are lost, but clues in the surviving play suggest that, by the end of the trilogy, Zeus will have released (unconditionally) the chained Titan, who will respond by acknowledging Zeus’s authority and revealing the name of the goddess. Zeus’s decision to unilaterally free Prometheus will prove to all that he has changed into a just ruler, and Prometheus, recognizing this, will extend to him the right hand of fellowship.
Though lacking the wisdom of the Scriptures, Aeschylus saw that reconciliation would not come about through the abandonment of law, order, and force, but through something in which Christians may see a glimmer of the Atonement: Zeus’s just wrath is turned aside by the sufferings of a divine—yet somehow also human—scapegoat. And Zeus’s wrath, Aeschylus makes clear, is just; Prometheus, for all his heroism, is a rebel against the divine monarch.
Prometheus can, of course, also be seen as a rebel from the Christian point of view: like the serpent in the Garden, he tempted mankind with a type of knowledge—the fire of creativity—that Zeus had withheld and declared forbidden. Still, the focus of the play is not on Prometheus’ crime—the Greeks lacked the concept of Original Sin—but on his role as a scapegoat.
The Connection with Io
Aeschylus increases the force of his scapegoat theme by weaving into his play an unexpected subplot that threatens to overly complicate what is perhaps the simplest and most austere of all Greek tragedies. Near the middle of the play, Prometheus is visited by Io, a mortal woman first beloved and then victimized by Zeus and his jealous wife. Io’s sudden appearance on stage at first seems an intrusion on the main action and even temporarily shifts our sympathy and attention away from Prometheus. Yet, as she shares her tale of woe and Prometheus prophesies to her what more she will have to suffer, we slowly come to realize that here on display are two lonely figures (one male, one female) who are both victims of Zeus, and who, through their sufferings, bear in their flesh (whether immortal or mortal) marks of Zeus’s transition from usurping tyrant to just king.
Furthermore, whereas Prometheus is chained and motionless, part of Io’s suffering is that she must be ever on the move, unable to find rest or refuge. In this respect, the two of them resemble the two goats sacrificed for Yom Kippur (see Lev. 16:20–22), one of whom is sacrificed on the altar, while the other (the “escape-goat” or scapegoat), is cast out to wander in the wilderness.
And they are further linked together, for, as Prometheus prophesies, in the thirteenth generation to come, one of Io’s descendants will kill the eagle and break Prometheus’ chains. That descendant will be none other than Heracles (Hercules), a mortal son of Zeus, who will, in the end, be lifted up to Olympus, even as Prometheus has been cast down to the realm of human pain and suffering.
A Prophecy of Hope
However, it is not Prometheus’ prophesy to Io that remains in the mind after the play ends, but a later prophecy spoken by the god Hermes to Prometheus. After detailing the pain the eagle will bring him as it daily devours his liver, Hermes offers a faint ray of hope for the suffering scapegoat:
Hermes’ riddling prophecy seems to be referring to Heracles—who, as one of his twelve labors, will go down to Hades and kidnap Cerberus, the three-headed dog of hell—but the Christian reader may also see in it intimations of Christ. According to Christian tradition—and a few riddling passages of Scripture—between his death and Resurrection, Christ descended into hell and released from bondage the righteous souls of the Old Testament (the Harrowing of Hell). Among those rescued were David (who sang the song of the coming scapegoat-Messiah in Psalm 22) and Isaiah (who sang his own version of this song in Isaiah 53). In the sufferings of Prometheus, as dramatized in Aeschylus’ play, a Christian can hear echoes of these two prophetic songs of the Old Testament.
When I meditate on these shadowy parallels, what remains in my mind is an image that is fictional yet that seems to embody a mythical and mystical truth: an image of the Risen Christ freeing the suffering Titan from bondage. Or to put it in allegorical terms, I see a greater Christian truth fulfilling—and thus setting free—a pagan glimpse of that greater truth in the story of Prometheus.
Do Christians need to read Prometheus Bound to understand the full meaning of and need for the scapegoat? Of course not. The Bible supplies us with all we need to know. Yet, how wonderful to find in the work of a pagan playwright a confirmation that our God is the God of all nations and that the ancient Greeks, too, were “hardwired” with a yearning for a scapegoat who would reconcile the human and the divine.
Sophocles’ Oedipus: Predestination & Free Will
Of all the tragedies to come out of the Golden Age, perhaps the greatest and best known is that of Oedipus. And that is a strange thing indeed, given the fact that the play concerns a man who commits two of the worst crimes imaginable: killing his father and marrying his mother.
Or does it?
As far back as Homer, the Greek mind struggled to reconcile the twin claims of fate and freedom. The Greeks understood that there existed a greater and an older force of destiny that operated through the Olympian will of Zeus but was not identical with it. This higher destiny was embodied in the Moirai, or Fates: three goddesses who assigned to each mortal his lot at birth, who spun the thread of that lot as it unfolded, and who cut the thread when the appointed hour of death arrived. Generally speaking, the Greek view of the Fates was both pessimistic and fatalistic.
Alongside this view, however, there grew a countering vision that was more optimistic and humanistic. This view can also be seen to have its roots in Homer, whose heroes struggle valiantly to assert their glory and honor over against what appears to be an uncaring, deterministic universe. As we approach the Golden Age of Athens, this struggle between the inexorable and inescapable Moirai on the one hand, and the force of human freedom and dignity on the other, intensifies and heightens.
The struggle between fate and freedom is of particular importance to Christian readers of Greek tragedy. Among all the theological paradoxes that preoccupy the minds of Christians, surely the most puzzling—and distressing—is that which concerns the opposing forces of predestination and free will. If we fully accept the former, we end up trapped in an absurd universe in which each human being is no more than a puppet on a string; if we choose instead to celebrate only the second, we end up in a world over which God has lost control. Oedipus, I would argue, allows for a reconciliation between fate and freedom, in which both divine sovereignty and human volition are equally affirmed. And it does so precisely because it both is and is not about a man who kills his father and marries his mother.
Pathos & Nobility
The story of Oedipus is about a man who is categorically fated to commit the double taboo of patricide and incest—and who cannot escape that fate, even though first his parents and later he himself take extreme measures to avoid this terrible fate. Why, we wonder, would anyone be interested in viewing a play about such a character? The answer is that the plot of Oedipus is not about a man who killed his father and married his mother.
A masterpiece of dramatic construction, Sophocles shapes his play in such a way that the action on stage covers a period of less than half a day, roughly equal to the actual playing time of the tragedy. When the play begins, we learn that Thebes, the city over which Oedipus is king, has been hit by a plague and that Oedipus has called to the palace a number of people who will help him discover the cause of the pestilence. We also discover that the plague will not end until the murderer of the previous king (Oedipus’ father, Laius, whom Oedipus had killed in ignorance many years before) is found.
Though he is warned by a prophet to cease his search for the killer, Oedipus bravely swears that he will seek him out with the same diligence as if Laius were his own father. After this declaration, the play moves at lightning speed through a number of scenes in which Oedipus pieces together, bit by tragic bit, the truth about the death of King Laius and his own incestuous marriage to the king’s wife. The truth out, Oedipus blinds himself and then arranges for his own banishment from Thebes.
So while the story of Oedipus is a horrific one about a man fated to do terrible things, the plot of Oedipus is about a man who discovers late in life that he has killed his father and married his mother. The distinction is vital. Whereas the story of Oedipus is about the committing of a taboo sin, the plot of Oedipus is about the triumph of self-discovery. In terms of his overall story, Oedipus is one of the most pathetic men imaginable, a man trapped by a cruel and evil fate that he cannot escape. In the confines of the plot, however, he is a noble, courageous man who chooses to seek out the truth about himself no matter the consequences.
Though generations of readers have tried to pin on Oedipus a “tragic flaw” that brings about his downfall, it is clear when one reads the play carefully that Oedipus’ downfall is not brought about by his negative qualities (his pride, his rashness, or his paranoia). Rather, it is his good qualities (his love for his people and his devotion to the truth) that propel him to uncover secrets about himself that a less brave or dedicated man would have left alone. Oedipus is, supremely, a riddle solver, and he will not let fear or danger hold him back from pursuing the truth. He loves Thebes, and he will not allow the city to suffer from a plague even if, in healing that plague, he brings destruction upon himself.
The Oedipus of the story is an unwilling victim, thwarted on every side by fate. The Oedipus of the play is a willing scapegoat who chooses to bear upon himself the weight of a sin for which he is not morally (consciously) responsible. In the opening scene of the play, he tells the Thebans who crowd around him: “Your several sorrows each have single scope / and touch but one of you. My spirit groans / for city and myself and you at once” (62–64). Like the scapegoat of Yom Kippur, Oedipus feels as though the sorrows of every citizen have been transferred onto his head. In the concluding scene, he takes those sorrows (and sins) and carries them with him out of the polis.
Both Sides of the Paradox
In the face of the cruel and crushing fate of its hero, Oedipus champions free will and integrity. That does not mean, however, that the play simply dismisses divine necessity and the overarching rule of destiny. Like the Bible itself, the play affirms both sides of the paradox. Near the middle of the play, there is a moment when Oedipus and his wife/mother (Jocasta) think that they have escaped their twin fates. In this moment of false security and triumph, Jocasta assures Oedipus of the impotence of prophets and prophecies, and the two shake their fists at destiny and the gods. It is an exhilarating moment, and yet a terrifying one as well: for if prophecy and the gods are truly impotent, then all is arbitrary and we are but sports of chance.
Thus, although we are crushed at the end of the play by Oedipus’ suffering, we also come to realize that Oedipus must suffer—if he does not, the prophecy will have proved untrue, and fate will have been exposed as arbitrary and chaotic. This sudden illumination (or epiphany) assures us that order and purpose do exist in the universe, even if we cannot fathom the exact nature of that order and purpose.
Of course, such a cosmological scheme places limits on mankind; in fact, the plot of Oedipus reminds us that the divine will is ultimately impenetrable and irresistible and that any attempt either to understand it or to resist it is futile. However, we are still able, within this limited, restricted world-order, to act freely and boldly. As human beings we may be limited, but we are not powerless; like Oedipus, we are capable of greatness. A verse from Proverbs comes to mind: “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honor of kings is to search out a matter” (25:2). The playgoer who experiences Oedipus’ tragedy leaves the theater not only with respect and even awe for its central scapegoat, but also with a renewed sense that a higher design and purpose are at work in the universe.
A Greater Illumination
In reading the Gospels—or viewing a Passion Play—we experience a similar illumination, but on a much greater scale. In the Gospels (especially John), Christ is portrayed as the Lamb of God, the sinless scapegoat who takes upon himself the sins of the world, and, by so doing, cleanses away Original Sin and restores balance to the divine scales of justice. Whereas, in Oedipus, the only people directly purged are the Thebans, in that tragedy in which Christ is the hero, the entire world is purged. And we discover, to our great joy, that though the created order is limited and restricted, and though the divine will is ultimately inscrutable, behind that will is a personal, merciful God whose great love drove him to be both Prometheus and Oedipus: both the divine scapegoat who ends the cycle of vengeance and the human scapegoat who rescues us from the plague.
Although biblically literate Christians do not need Sophocles to help them understand the role of the scapegoat or to parse the mystery of predestination and free will, they can be edified and encouraged by his plays, which show that our struggles with the paradox of fate and freedom is a human struggle that has puzzled the minds of men even from antiquity.
Euripides’ Hippolytus: The Need for a Divine Measure
Like Sophocles’ Oedipus, Euripides’ Hippolytus tells a disturbing and tragic story that may at first seem to have nothing of relevance to say to Christians. The play tells the story of Hippolytus, an illegitimate son of Theseus, legendary king of Athens, and an Amazon warrior whom he took as a mistress. Theseus later married Phaedra, daughter of King Minos of Crete, with whom he hoped to have legitimate children to succeed him. Meanwhile, Hippolytus, perhaps blaming Aphrodite (the goddess of love) for his illegitimate status, takes a vow of chastity and becomes a devotee of Artemis, the virginal goddess of the hunt (and sister of Apollo).
Enraged by Hippolytus’ obvious contempt for her and her powers, Aphrodite causes Phaedra to conceive an unholy lust for her stepson. Phaedra reveals this passion to her nurse, who, thinking it will help her tormented mistress, tells Hippolytus about it. But the chaste lad reacts by heaping down scorn and contempt not only on Phaedra but on all womankind. In a fit of anger and shame, Phaedra hangs herself, leaving behind a suicide note in which she accuses Hippolytus of raping her.
Like Potiphar in the Joseph story (Genesis 39), Theseus believes the false testimony of his wife. He calls down a curse upon Hippolytus, who is then mortally wounded by a monstrous bull that rises up from the sea. But in the final scene, just before Hippolytus breathes his last, Artemis appears and assures Theseus of the innocence of his son. The two are reconciled, and Artemis leaves them with the (dubious) consolation that she will see to the destruction of one of Aphrodite’s devotees—a fitting end, since the play begins with a monologue by Aphrodite, in which she lays out and justifies her plans to destroy Hippolytus.
A Futile Call
Like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the tragedy of Hippolytus and his family is fueled, in great part, by miscommunication and misunderstanding. But in Euripides’ play, there is also a vital spiritual dimension, though it is felt as a void: Euripides’ pre-Christian society lacked a divine touchstone against which truth and error could be measured. Thus, Theseus notes the lack of such a touchstone when his son pleads innocent to the charge leveled against him in Phaedra’s suicide note. “If [only] there were,” cries Theseus,
Without such a mark to allow us to distinguish true from false, friend from foe, and right from wrong, we are left “all at sea,” a metaphor that recurs often in the play. The Greek gods, flawed and petty as they are, cannot provide the needed standard, and the type of higher fate and necessity that Aeschylus and Sophocles celebrate in their plays is finally too shadowy and removed to provide a clear yardstick.
Interestingly, this futile call for a fixed, divine measuring rod is one that surfaces often in the plays of Euripides. In Electra, one of the characters asks, “How then can man distinguish man, what test can he use?” He then answers his own question by conceding that we “can only toss our judgments random on the wind” (373, 379). More despairingly, the title character of Medea voices her complaint to the gods this way:
It is, more than anything, the absence of such a distinguishing mark that leads to the tragedy we encounter not only in the plays of Euripides, but of Aeschylus and Sophocles as well.
Truth Visible & Tangible
In the dialogues of Plato—whose teacher, Socrates, was only ten years Euripides’ junior—our broken world of change, decay, and death (what Plato terms the World of Becoming) is set over against an ideal, transcendent, unchanging world (the World of Being) where dwell the eternal, invisible Forms. In the World of Becoming, there exists a variety of different trees, chairs, and truths; in the World of Being, there dwell the perfect and original Forms of Tree, Chair, and Truth. Everything in our world is, ultimately, a shadow or imitation of those Forms.
The Platonic philosopher seeks to lift his vision above the changing forms of our world to perceive the eternal Forms that dwell above in unsullied purity. And yet, even when this is achieved, the division between Becoming and Being tends to remain. The physical world is surpassed rather than being inhabited and transformed by the invisible Forms.
As a poet rather than a philosopher, Euripides cries out for something more concrete; namely, for a gleam from the World of Being to manifest itself within and through the World of Becoming. The touchstone he seeks in so many of his plays must embody a universal, unchanging Truth, but that Truth, if it is to save his tragic heroes and heroines from destruction, must make itself visible and tangible. The mark his characters yearn for can only help them if it can be seen or heard or touched.
God, of course, provided the Jews with just such a measuring rod in the Law of Moses and in the proclamations of the prophets: the former a divine standard imprinted in stone and lived out within the community; the latter a divine word mediated through a human voice that all could hear. Had Euripides been granted access to the Law and the Prophets (that is, the Old Testament), he would have been provided with the necessary touchstone.
The Radical Mercy of Christ
Well, not quite. Beneath Euripides’ cry for “some token . . . some mark,” there lies, I would argue, a yearning for a kind of intimacy and interaction with the Divine that the Law and Prophets alone cannot satisfy. Only in the Incarnation of God in Christ does there come into the world the pattern for a full and intimate divine-human touchstone; only when the Divine Word takes on Flesh (John 1:14), does it become possible to truly know God and what he desires of us. It would take the once-and-for-all sacrifice of the eternal divine/human scapegoat slaughtered on the stage of the world and then raised again in a perfected dramatic climax before the mark for which Theseus called could be engraved indelibly, not only in the Word (the Bible) and the sacred community (the Church), but in the human heart.
In the closing scene of Hippolytus, Artemis, noticing that her faithful devotee is about to breath his last, tells Hippolytus that she must now leave him, for she “must not look upon the dead. / [Her] eyes must not be polluted by the last / gaspings for breath” (1437–1439). How great the difference between her refusal to be sullied by the sight of death and the mercy of Christ, who himself suffered the throes of death on our behalf! Apart from such a radical divine mercy, unafraid and unashamed to sully its purity of Being with the dirt and pain of our broken World of Becoming, the remedies that Euripides and his fellow Greek tragedians seek can remain but stabs in the dark: yearnings and gropings for that “true Light, which lighteth every man” (John 1:9). •
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“Ancient Crossroads” first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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