The last couple of days I’ve been fairly hard on Robert Temple for his undocumented claims of CIA persecution and his credential inflation. But I do have to thank him for something. One of his articles called my attention to a passage in the fourth-century bishop Epiphanius’ Panarion that I would not otherwise have seen. In it, Epiphanius describes heretics who worship Biblical figures as gods:
Temple, characteristically, takes the ancient text at face value, but there is more to the story than a bunch of crazy pagans going around worshiping Bible characters.
The second half of Epiphanius’ passage (unquoted by Temple) suggests the truth behind Epiphanius’ denunciation. In Judges 11, Jephthah makes a vow to god to sacrifice his daughter to God if God will help him defeat his enemies. He grants the girl two months to run through the meadows mourning her virginity before dealing the fatal blow. Commentators have for centuries noted that this story has clear parallels to Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia to Artemis, as well as the meadow through which the virgin Kore plays before her rape by Hades. In later myth, Iphigenia “was not killed but, by the will of Artemis, became Hecate,” the underworld goddess (Pausanias 1.43.1). In fact, Thomas Römer argued in 1998 that the redactor of Judges had in fact written the Biblical tale to conform to its Greek antecedents.
The implication is clear: The Samarians did not mistake Jepthah’s daughter for a goddess; they had a ceremony similar to the mystery rites of Persephone or adolescent coming of age rites of Iphigenia which were, either for religious or political reasons, given a Jewish gloss through identification with the story in Judges. (This was a fairly common practice; after Christianization, for example, several pagan gods were co-opted as unofficial Christian saints in rural Greece.)
At Petra, the inhabitants worshiped Arabian gods and goddesses down to the coming of Christianity in the fourth century, and they also deified their kings and worshipped them as gods. So, when the inhabitants of Petra “worshiped” an “image” of Moses long before Epiphanius wrote, they weren’t confused about the true nature of Moses as Robert Temple would have it; instead they were offering to the Jews—then the dominant power in the region—the highest honor their civilization could bestow, worshiping one of their “kings” alongside their own. This was not unprecedented; the Romans welcomed such foreign gods as Cybele and Isis into their pantheon, and the Roman emperor Severus Alexander was said to have placed a statue of Jesus among the deified emperors in his collection of household gods (Scriptores Historiae Augustae, “Severus Alexander,” 29).
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