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Throw the Blasphemer off a Cliff: Luke 4.16–30 in Light of the Life of Aesop

  • Margaret Froelich (a1) and Thomas E. Phillips (a2)


In Jesus’ sermon at Nazareth in Luke (4.16–30), his reminder that Elijah had aided non-Jews (vv. 26–7) is met with an unusual death sentence – to throw Jesus from a cliff. This has been conceptually and geographically vexing for scholars. This paper reads the passage beside the Life of Aesop, in which the Delphians condemn the fabulist to the same fate for blasphemy (130–42). Aesop's offence, like Jesus’, is to malign the special status of the Delphians before their god. The Lukan Evangelist's use of the same manner of death for the same type of speech act indicates that the crowd at Nazareth has condemned Jesus for blasphemy.



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Versions of this paper were presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston, November 2017; and the Pacific Coast Regional Meeting of the SBL in Fullerton, CA, March 2018. We are grateful for the insightful questions and comments we received at these presentations.



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1 The lack of scholarly attention to The Life of Aesop is well illustrated in the brief reception history provided by Lefkowitz, J. B., ‘Ugliness and Value in the Life of Aesop’, Kakos: Badness and Anti-Value in Classical Antiquity (ed. Sluiter, I. and Rosen, R. M.; Mnemosyne Supplements 307; Boston: Brill, 2008) 62–7.

2 Morales, H., ‘Challenging Some Orthodoxies: The Politics of Genre and the Ancient Novel’, Fiction on the Fringe: Novelistic Writing in the Post-Classical Age (ed. Karla, G. A.; Mnemosyne Supplements 310; Boston: Brill, 2009) 5.

3 Shiner, W., ‘Creating Plot in Episodic Narratives: The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark’, Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative (ed. Hock, R. F., Chance, J. B. and Perkins, J.; SBLSS 6; Atlanta: SBL, 1998) 155–76.

4 Wills, L. M., The Quest of the Historical Gospel: Mark, John and the Origins of the Gospel Genre (New York: Routledge, 1997). Because Wills assumes that Matthew and Luke employ Mark as a literary model, he does not argue that the second and third Gospels directly employ the Life of Aesop as a literary model. Also see Elliott, S. S., ‘Witless in your Own Cause: Divine Plots and Fractured Characters in the Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark’, Religion & Theology 12 (2005) 397418; and Watson, D. F., ‘The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark: Two Ancient Approaches to Elite Values’, JBL 129 (2010) 699716.

5 Reece, S., ‘“Aesop”, “Q” and “Luke”’, NTS 62 (2016) 357–77. See also the earlier comparison to Luke's Gospel by Beavis, M. A., ‘Ancient Slavery as an Interpretive Context for the New Testament Servant Parables with Special Reference to the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1–8)’, JBL 111 (1992) 37–54.

6 Some NT scholars have found parallels between the passion materials in the Gospels and Aesop's death (e.g. Wills, Quest for the Historical Gospel, 23–50), but not between the Aesop tradition and the attempt on Jesus after his sermon (Luke 4.16–30).

7 E.g. in regard to the story of Joseph, his brothers and a stolen cup in Genesis, see Grottanelli, C., ‘The Ancient Novel and Biblical Narrative’, Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica 27.3 (1987) 734.

8 Compton, T., ‘The Trial of the Satirist: Poetic Vitae (Aesop, Archilochus, Homer) as Background for Plato's Apology’, The American Journal of Philology 111 (1990) 330–47.

9 On the widespread popularity and use of Aesopic traditions in antiquity, see Karla, G. A., ‘Life of Aesop: Fictional Biography as Popular Literature’, Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalization (ed. de Temmerman, K. and Demoen, K.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016) 45160; and Kurke, L., Aesopic Conversations: Popular Tradition, Cultural Dialogue, and the Invention of Greek Prose (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011) 1646.

10 E.g. Adrados, F. R., ‘The “Life of Aesop” and the Origins of the Novel in Antiquity’, Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica 1 (1979) 93112. Classicists have debated whether or not Aesop belongs within the genre of the ancient novel or on its ‘fringe’. In any case, the Aesop tradition clearly developed in close connection with the genre of ancient novels. See Karla, G. A., ed., Fiction on the Fringe: Novelistic Writing in the Post-Classical Age (Mnemosyne Supplements; Boston: Brill, 2009).

11 For a detailed comparison of the texts, see Perry, B. E., Studies in the Text History of the Life and Fables of Aesop (Haverford, PA: American Philological Association, 1936; repr. Chico, CA: Scholars, 1981) and idem, ‘The Text Tradition of the Greek Life of Aesop’, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 64 (1933) 198–244. For a more up-to-date discussion, see Kurke, Aesopic Conversations, 16–22; and, very succinctly, R. I. Pervo, ‘A Nihilist Fabula: Introducing the Life of Aesop’, Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative, 80–1.

12 Kurke, Aesopic Conversations, 8. Also see Giannattasio, R., ‘Su due recenti papiri della Vita di Esopo’, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 76 (1989) 710.

13 Kurke, Aesopic Conversations, 25.

14 Reece, ‘“Aesop”, “Q” and “Luke”’, 369.

15 Nolland, J., Luke 1–9:20 (WBC 35A; Dallas: Word, 1989) 195.

16 Explicit use of ‘programmatic’ language is common (e.g. Bovon, F., Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1–9:50 (ed. Koester, H.; Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002) 152; and Baawobr, R. K., ‘Opening a Narrative Programme: Luke 4.16–30 and the Black Bagr Narrative’, JSNT 30 (2007) 2953, esp. 42). Synonyms for ‘programmatic’ are ubiquitous. For example, Johnson, L. T. (The Gospel of Luke (SP 3; Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991) 80) considers this passage ‘of particular importance for grasping Luke's literary and religious intention’, and Carrol, J. T. (Luke: A Commentary (NTL; Louisville, KY: Westminster, 2012) 109) finds ‘[t]his inaugural episode laced with theological concerns that bear great import in Luke's narrative’. Also see Busse, U., Das Nazareth-Manifest Jesu: Eine Einführung in das lukanische Jesusbild nach Lk 4,16–30 (SBS 91; Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1978); Prior, M., Jesus, the Liberator: Nazareth Liberation Theology (Luke 4.16–30) (BS 26; Sheffield: JSOT, 1995); Rowe, C. K., Early Narrative Christology: The Lord in the Gospel of Luke (BZNW 139; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2006) 78–80; and Spencer, P. E., Rhetorical Texture and Narrative Trajectories of the Lukan Galilean Ministry Speeches (LNTS 341; New York: T & T Clark, 2007) 6370.

17 For example, Marshall, I. H. (The Gospel of Luke (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978) 177–8) notes that this ‘narrative is placed here, then, for its programmatic significance, and it contains many of the main themes of Lk.-Acts in nuce’. Also see Tannehill, R. C., The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation, vol. i (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1986) 6073; and Green, J. B., The Gospel of Luke (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) 207.

18 Fitzmyer's comments are typical of scholarship: ‘Luke's narrative is a conflation, there is, on the one hand, the fulfillment-story ending on the note of Jesus’ success; on the other hand, there is a the rejection-story.’ Fitzmyer, J. A., The Gospel according to Luke (i–ix): Introduction, Translation, and Notes (AB; Garden City: Doubleday, 1981) 530.

19 Sanders, J. A., ‘From Isaiah 61 to Luke 4’, Luke and Scripture: The Function of Sacred Tradition in Luke-Acts (ed. Evans, C. A. and Sanders, J. A.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993) 4669.

20 Sanders, ‘From Isaiah 61’, 58.

21 Sanders, ‘From Isaiah 61’, 68

22 Sanders, ‘From Isaiah 61’, 69.

23 On the complex question of Luke's supposed anti-Judaism, see Phillips, T. E., ‘The Mission of the Church in Acts: Inclusive or Exclusive?’, Acts within Diverse Frames of Reference (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2009) 118–29.

24 Stoning remained, at least rhetorically, the form of capital punishment required in the Mishnah. See Blinzler, J., ‘The Jewish Punishment of Stoning in the New Testament Period’, The Trial of Jesus (ed. Bammel, E.; Naperville, IL: Alec R. Allenson, 1970) 147–61; and ‘Das Synhedrium von Jerusalem und die Strafprozessordnung der Mischna’, ZNW 52 (1961) 54–65.

25 On the identity and rhetorical function of this obscure group in Josephus’ writings, see Vandenberghe, M. J., ‘Villains Called Sicarii: A Commonplace for Rhetorical Vituperation in the Texts of Flavius Josephus’, JSJ 47 (2016) 475507.

26 Xen. Hell. 1.7.20–2; Pl. Rep. 4.439e.

27 Xen. Hell. 1.7.22. The Tarpeian Rock was used for similar purposes. Tac. Ann. 6.19; Plut. Mar. 45; Josephus, B.J. 1.2.4. The rock was named, at least according to legend, after the Vestal Virgin who opened the gates to the Sabine army. Livy 1.11; Ps.-Plut. Parallela 15. On being cast off the Tarpeian Rock as punishment for political crimes against the people, see Rüpke, J., ‘You Shall Not Kill: Hierarchies of Norms in Ancient Rome’, Numen 39 (1992) 5889, esp. 64–5.

28 Ps.-Plut. Fluv. 2.

29 Dem. 19.327. In a recent commentary on the speech, D. M. McDowell conjectures: ‘He must really be referring to one individual who said that the money taken from the temple at Delphi ought to be repaid by the Thebans or by Philip, and was subsequently (no doubt on some other pretext) executed on Philip's orders; but the case is not otherwise known.’ See McDowell, D. M., trans. and ed., Demosthenes: On the False Embassy (oration 19) (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) 348 n. 327.

30 On drowning people in a sack in the Roman Empire and beyond, see Egmond, F., ‘The Cock, the Dog, the Serpent, and the Monkey: Reception and Transmission of a Roman Punishment, or Historiography as History’, International Journal of the Classical Tradition 2 (1995) 159–92.

31 Marshall, Gospel of Luke, 190. Marshall is following Blinzler, ‘Jewish Punishment’, 153–6. Cf. Hyldahl, N., ‘Die Versuchung auf der Zinne des Tempels’, StTh 15 (1961) 133–27.

32 Although the textual history is complex (as already noted), scholars are generally agreed both that Aesop's conflict with Delphi and this false charge of blasphemy make up some of the oldest and best-known Aesop traditions, attested as far back as Aristophanes (Wasps 1446). See Kurke, Aesopic Conversations, 68–73. The charge of blasphemy appears in the W text; the G text includes only the charge of temple-robbing. There is no way to determine which text is older or was better known in antiquity. For a detailed analysis of the textual status of the ‘blasphemy’ in W and its absence in G, see Kurche, Aesopic Conversations, 86–8.

The translation here is by Hansen, L. W. Daly in W., ed., Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998) 160. The Greek text with critical apparatus is available in Karla, G. A., Vita Aesopi: Überlieferung, Sprache und Edition einer frühbyzantinischen Fassung des Äsopromans (Serta Graeca: Beiträge zur Erforschung griechischer Texte 13; Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert, 2001).

33 Compton, ‘Trial of the Satirist’, 333.

34 Kurke, L., ‘Aesop and the Contestation of Delphic Authority’, The Cultures within Ancient Greek Culture (ed. Kurke, L. and Dougherty, C.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 77100.

35 Some classicists have suggested that Aesop took on the role of a heroic φαρμακός (scapegoat) who gave his life in a fight against the corrupt religious authorities at Delpi. From a Classics perspective, see Adrados, ‘The “Life of Aesop”’, 93–112; I.-T. Papadēmētriou, A., Aesop as an Archetypal Hero (Athens: Hellenic Society for Humanistic Studies, 1997); and Nagy, G., Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry (rev. edn; Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998) 118–41. Adrados argues that the use of the φαρμακός theme in the Life of Aesop demonstrates how elements of Greek mythical and ritual elements were merged in the Life of Aesop to create ‘a new and original genere [sic] … which was biographical and novelistic’ (112). Wills compares the sacrificial death of the heroic φαρμακός in Aesop to the passion narratives, but he does not address the assault on Jesus in Nazareth (Quest for the Historical Gospel, 23–50). Classicists are increasingly questioning the characterisation of Aesop as a φαρμακός (e.g. the devastating criticisms in Kurke, Aesopic Conversations, 29–31, 75–94). At the very least, one is forced to acknowledge with Kurke that even if the Delphians wish to impose the role of scapegoat upon Aesop, he refuses to accept it. Aesop dies at his own hands, not at the hands of the Delphians (Aesopic Conversations, 86).

36 On the critique of Delphi in the Life of Aesop and the history of war offerings, see Kurke, ‘Aesop and the Contestation’, 77–100.

37 See Grottanelli, ‘The Ancient Novel and Biblical Narrative’, 7–34.

38 Kurke (Aesopic Conversations, 88 n. 103) argues that ‘we cannot translate βλάσφημον as “blasphemer,” since Aesop has said nothing irreverent or hostile to Apollo himself: instead, βλάσφημον seems to refer to his invective against the Delphians, which threatens to transform them into scapegoats’. However, the translation ‘blasphemy’ is quite justified. Aristotle records that Alcidamas was, like Aesop, condemned for blasphemy after challenging the city council; see Compton, ‘Trial of the Satirist’, 334–5. According to the evidence in Josephus and Qumran, first-century Jews likewise assumed that one could also be guilty of blasphemy without uttering the divine name. See Collins, A. Y., ‘The Charge of Basphemy in Mark 14.64’, JSNT 26 (2004) 379401. The comprehensive study of blasphemy and its punishment within ancient Judaism remains Bock, D. L., Blasphemy and Exaltation in Judaism and the Final Examination of Jesus (WUNT 106; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1998) 30112.

39 In both textual traditions (W and G), one charge is a property crime and the other charge inappropriate speech. On the terminology, see Montanari, F., The Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek (trans. Goh, M. and Shroeder, C.; Boston: Brill, 2015) s.vv. ἱερσύλημα, βλασφημία and ἀλαζονία. On the textual traditions, see Karla, Vita Aesopi, 232 nn. 1–2.

40 If the alternative textual tradition of ἀλαζονία is adopted, all pretence of linking the accusations to the crime of the supposed temple thief disappears – and the Delphians’ true motive, anger over Aesop's words, becomes even more transparent.

41 Although one could say that Aesop had not insulted all Delphians, but only those in his audience, Aesop's accusers include the city's highest officials (127). Therefore, from a narrative perspective, it seems that Aesop has offended all Delphians. The narrative certainly portrays no one – not even Aesop's friends – who endorse or are otherwise sympathetic to his words against the Delphians.

42 For possible NT parallels to this tradition, see Elliott, ‘“Witless in your Own Cause”’, 397–418.

43 The conceptual background for killing a blasphemer comes from Greco-Roman tradition, primarily Aesop, and not from Judaism. Except when Jewish authorities worked in conjunction with the Romans to perform an execution, Jewish executions were accomplished via strangulation, burning, stoning and swords (see Bock, Blasphemy and Exaltation in Judaism and the Final Examination of Jesus, 30–112, esp. 100 (m Sanh 7.1)). Bock does not consider Luke 4.16–30 or Aesop in his investigation, so he never mentions killing a blasphemer by fatal plunge.

Versions of this paper were presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston, November 2017; and the Pacific Coast Regional Meeting of the SBL in Fullerton, CA, March 2018. We are grateful for the insightful questions and comments we received at these presentations.


Throw the Blasphemer off a Cliff: Luke 4.16–30 in Light of the Life of Aesop

  • Margaret Froelich (a1) and Thomas E. Phillips (a2)


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