Euripides' Beatific Vision
An Ancient Greek Drama Awakened a Powerful New Longing in Its Audiences
by James Ware
In the early spring of 438 b.c., a large crowd gathered at Athens in an open-air theater on the southern slope of the acropolis to view a series of twelve dramatic performances staged in conjunction with the yearly festival of Dionysus. Exhibited before the very image of the god, which had been transported in sacred procession from the adjacent temple, the twelve plays included four each by the famed tragic poets Sophocles and Euripides. The playwrights vied with each other, and Sophocles, we know, won the coveted first prize that year. But the only drama from the festival to survive is the last of Euripides' four plays—the Alcestis.
The Alcestis was thereafter widely performed in antiquity, and it remains to this day much studied—and controversial. For it involves a series of mysteries. The plot conforms to no genre that would have been familiar to Euripides' audience. Its core celebrates a virtue that was central neither in the philosophy of the playwright's own time nor in philosophy as it would develop after Plato. And the climactic scene depicts an event that, to the best of our knowledge, both Euripides and his audience believed to be impossible and contrary to the divine order. Compounding the riddle, each of these features of the play offers a striking parallel to the story of Jesus told in the Gospels. What are we to make of such things?
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James Ware is Professor of Religion at the University of Evansville in Evansville, Indiana. His newest book is a guide to Paul's letters for clergy, students, and laypeople, Paul's Theology in Context: Creation, Incarnation, Covenant, and Kingdom (Eerdmans, 2019). He and his wife Jan attend Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Evansville, Indiana.
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