Call it a case of motivated reasoning, if you will. Or maybe call it a case of opportunism married to capitalism. But whatever you think of Christian apologist and former chairman of the Texas Board of Education Robert Bowie Johnson’s merchandising motives, there is little to commend his half-assed, misunderstood idea that the ancient Greeks depicted Jewish mythological characters in their art. While it would be easy to simply dismiss Johnson’s entire thesis as the mad ramblings of Bible-drunk fundamentalist, his argument fails on a subtler level, by neglecting to include the actual research to help understand the real and complex relationship between Greek mythology and Near Eastern myths.
Johnson began his self-publishing career a decade ago with a book claiming that the Greek mythic figure Nereus was actually the Biblical Noah and therefore the fish-tailed old man of the sea was really the patriarch of the Ark. He continued on to a self-published screed attacking “Darwinism” for destroying children’s faith in God, and he now offers a broader view of Greek art in his most recent book, Genesis Characters and Events in Ancient Greek Art, which he promoted in a new article published this week on the Ancient Origins website. “Astounding is not a strong enough word for what is presented here: Painted and sculpted images of Noah and Nimrod from two and a half millennia ago!” he wrote this week. His evidence for Nimrod was laughably sad: Herakles was mighty, and so was Nimrod, and they both killed animals, so they must be the same man.
Remember: Johnson is the former chairman of the Texas Board of Education.
Anyway, lest you credit him with originality, I will first pause to inform you that the argument that pagan artists depicted Noah, and did so as a fish-man, is of nineteenth century extraction. A number of authors made reference to it in that century, deriving from a Genesis-first ideology promoted by luminaries like John Bathurst Deane, which argued that all of ancient mythology was merely a distorted recollection of the people and events perfectly recorded in Genesis. Arkism, a specialized form of Genesis-first which argued that all world mythology derived from the story of Noah and the Ark, the last point of common reference among the world’s peoples, was especially popular in the early 1800s among followers of Jacob Bryant, the most famous Arkist writer on world mythology. Creationists still push this line today
In the same manner, in the 1883 volume Sea Fables Explained, Henry Lee of the Brighton Aquarium made exactly this same claim in attempting to argue that the mermaid myth derives from Noah and the Ark. “He was an object of worship in many countries and under many names; and his wife and sons, as his assistants in the diffusion of knowledge, were sometimes associated with him.” Among the figures that Lee associated with Noah were Oannes, Dagon, Osiris/Serapis, Vishnu, and Triton. He concludes, based on no evidence, that the fish-man form originally symbolized Noah’s trip across the sea. “By the lapse of time its original import was lost and debased; and, from being an emblem and symbol, it came to be accepted as the corporeal shape and structure of actually-existent sea-deities, who might present themselves to the view of the mariner, in visible and tangible form, at any moment.” Thus, he said, were mermaids born form the myth of Noah’s Ark.
A bit later, in 1904, we find John Garnier making Johnson’s exact case, with the same “evidence”:
As Pontus is the same as Oceanus, who was a son of Caelus and Terra, this would make Nereus to be Noah, and the name “Nereus,” which means “watery,” is probably a name given to him in connection with the Deluge. If then Typhon is Shem, Pontus, or Oceanus, would be Japheth. By the Greeks, Japetus, their ancestor, was regarded as the father of mankind, and similarly Oceanus was called by them “the father of the gods,” which is, of course, the same thing. Japetus also became a term for extreme old age, and Oceanus is also represented as an extremely old man. The countries first inhabited by the descendants of Japheth were the shores of the Pontus Euxinus and Mediterranean, which constituted “the isles, or shores of the Gentiles.” Hence the titles Oceanus and Pontus given to Japheth.
The identification of Herakles with Nimrod is also of Victorian origin. When the Epic of Gilgamesh was first uncovered, it was termed the Nimrod-Epos because Sir George Smith, the first to publish the text, believed that Babylonian mythology was, as he titled his book, The Chaldean Account of Genesis (1876). Gilgamesh, he wrote “agrees exactly in character with Nimrod.” Herakles was seen as similar to Gilgamesh, or, as Smith put it, Herakles was the “Greek double” of Gilgamesh. Because their travels roughly parallel, and because Gilgamesh was believed to be Nimrod, Herakles became Nimrod, too.
Similarly, Johnson apes the 1833 argument of Deane in Worship of the Serpent, who had claimed in his book on serpent worship that pagan religions exalt the serpent because they are in thrall to Satan and misunderstand Biblical events through a Satanic haze. Johnson writes:
It’s time to stop trivializing ancient Greek religious art as myth. It depicts the history of our race from the mankind-exalting side, and at the same time, validates the truth of the early chapters of Genesis.
Now here is where the subtlety comes in to play. Johnson is obviously following the Victorian and Regency clerics who obsessed over Genesis-first and Arkite ideologies, but all of those early writers recognized a structural similarity between Greek mythology and Hebrew mythology that was quite real. It took at least three different forms and resulted in a complex web of connections that is difficult to disentangle.
The first form of connection, and the least prevalent, is direct copying. Here, though, it is the Biblical writers who were more likely to copy the Greeks. Scholars have made plausible, if not always proven, cases that episodes in the Bible had Greek antecedents. Thus, for example, the story of Jephthah’s sacrifice of a daughter in Judges 11 can be read as a response to the myths of Iphigenia and Persephone. Another argument, put forward by Gildas Hamel, is that the story of Jonah in the belly of the fish is a reworking of material from the Jason myth. I needn’t mention that the New Testament story in Acts 14 when Paul and Barnabas are mistaken for disguised gods Zeus and Hermes is a clear and direct reference to and inversion of the Roman myth of Baucis and Philemon, recorded in Ovid, wherein Jupiter (Zeus) and Mercury (Hermes) disguise themselves as mortals before revealing their divinity.
But direct copying from the Greeks was relatively rare. A second source of similarity is through both myth cycles inheriting elements from Near Eastern myths. It has long been established, for example, that the Hebrew story of the Great Flood and its Greek counterpart are more recent recensions of an older Near Eastern Flood myth found across the region dating back thousands of years before either the Greek or Hebrew versions were committed to paper. Similarly, both sets of myths involve a similar stock of images and characters who reflect Near Eastern antecedents. The difference is that the Hebrew versions are much more closely aligned to the Near Eastern source material because the Greek myth influenced by the Near East sit atop a more influential Indo-European layer that connects them with myth cycles from Scandinavia to India.
The third source of similarity, as obvious as it might seem, is that the Greeks and the Hebrews lived in the same eastern Mediterranean world and therefore shared elements of culture and even interacted with one another in prehistoric and historic times. Archaeologists have found evidence of Mycenaean trade with Canaan. This created some similarities due to common cultural and historical experiences. In the late period, Greek myths were consciously revised to be more like Hebrew ones. For example, the pseudo-Sybelline Oracles combined a euhemerized Greco-Roman mythology with an oddball Judeo-Christian mythology to produce such weird juxtapositions as the Titans and the Nephilim teaming up to build the Tower of Babel.
In short, this is one of those cases where the fringe historian has intuited something real but has filtered it through a lens of ideology to the point that the kernel of truth becomes lost amidst the falsehoods.
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