Exploring myth

Bart Ehrman vs. Chariton & Xenophon: Crucifixion & Empty Tombs

In the previous article released on this blog, I addressed some dubious statements made by the beloved Bart Ehrman in an interview he gave while promoting a controversial book he released back in 2012, which may be listened to here-

Unbelievable Podcast 8/18/2012

Well, at around 30:10 into the interview, Prof. Ehrman had made another curious statement towards Dr. Robert Price that I can’t help but comment on.

“When Bob wants to argue that in the Greek novels we have instances, uh fictional instances, of heroes getting crucified- I have no clue what he’s talking about, and I think he doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about.”


Shortly thereafter he adds:

“There is no fictional character who gets crucified in these novels and then miraculously escapes.”


Enter Chaereas, protagonist of the ancient Greek novel Callirhoe, written by Chariton of Aphrodisias sometime around 25 BCE to 50 CE.[1]

Without even seeing them or listening to their defense he immediately ordered the sixteen cell-mates to be crucified. They were duly brought out, chained together at foot and neck, each carrying his own cross. The executioners added this grim public spectacle to the requisite penalty as a deterrent to others so minded. Now Chaereas said nothing as he was led off with the others, but on taking up his cross Polycharmus exclaimed, “It is your fault, Callirhoe, that we are in this mess.” … Mithridates sent them all to save Chaereas before he died. … So the executioner stopped his work, and Chaereas descended from the cross, regretfully, for he had been glad to be leaving his miserable life and unhappy love. … “Because of you I have ascended the cross and uttered not a word of reproach. If you should still remember me, then my sufferings are nothing.”[2]

Fairly straight forward, is it not? Given that Ehrman is no doubt aware of this novel given his field of expertise, it seems odd that he said “I have no clue” about “fictional instances of heroes getting crucified” in Greek novels. Yet here we have one. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Not only that, but here we have one who was crucified and still managed to survive the crucifixion as well, just as Dr. Price mentioned in his interview to which Ehrman was responding. Now some who read this may wish to seize upon the slick little qualifier that Bart subtly inserted in there that the hero “miraculously escapes” crucifixion. However, such an approach would require the same treatment of Dr. Price’s words which Ehrman was replying to, specifically the statement- “heroes are condemned to the cross, actually crucified, but escape it almost miraculously. … It’s like a ‘can-he-get-out-of-this?’ and he does!” So in reality, Price made no claims to an actual miracle happening in the escape of these heroes from their crucifixion, and attempting to misconstrue his words to mean as much does nothing to disqualify Chaereas from fitting the criteria here. Even still, several times throughout Chariton’s story it is revealed that the goddess Aphrodite is guiding the events of Chaereas’ & Callirhoe’s adventure, so there is indeed a supernatural element at play here and thus in some respect it can certainly be said that the events of the story are miraculous in nature. Chaereas is indeed a perfect example of what Robert Price was referring to, and Ehrman should’ve known that instead of claiming to “have no clue.”


“No, *I’m* Chaereas of Syracuse!”

With that issue having been addressed, the story of Chaereas and Callirhoe here contains a few other interesting motifs. Notice the language used there by Chariton. Not only is Chaereas said to have been crucified and survived it, much like a certain other famous protagonist from the Levant, he is also described as “carrying his own cross.”

That too sounds very familiar.

Likewise, Chaereas “said nothing as he was led off” & “ascended the cross and uttered not a word.” Thus one might say of Chaereas that “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.”

In addition to this, rumors spread that Chaereas was dead (people even claimed to be visited by his ghost), thus when he appears alive again it is believed that he has resurrected.

“Chaereas is dead.” … “What sort of Protesilaus is this who has come back from the dead to attack me?”[3]

It gets even better when we consider the other protagonist of this story, the titular character & Chaereas’ bride- Callirhoe. Earlier in the story, Chariton wrote:

Chaereas waited for dawn to visit the tomb, ostensibly to bring wreaths and libations, but really in order to kill himself. He could not bear separation from Callirhoe and considered death the only cure for his sorrow. When he arrived, he discovered that the stones had been moved and that the entrance was wide open. He was astonished at the sight and seized by a fearful bewilderment at what had happened. Rumor swiftly brought the shocking news to Syracuse, and everyone hastened to the tomb, but no one ventured to go inside until Hermocrates gave the order. The man sent in gave a full and true account. It seemed unbelievable that not even the corpse was lying there. Then Chaereas himself decided to go in, eager to see Callirhoe once more even though she was dead, but on searching the tomb he could find nothing. Many others entered incredulously after him. All were baffled, and one of those inside said, “The funeral offerings have been stolen! This is the work of tomb robbers. But where is the corpse?” Many different speculations were entertained by the crowd. But Chaereas, looking up to heaven, stretched forth his hands and said, “Which of the gods has become my rival and carried off Callirhoe and now keeps her with him, against her will but compelled by a mightier fate? Is this then why she died suddenly, that she might not succumb to disease? So did Dionysus once steal Ariadne from Theseus and Zeus Semele from Actaeon. Or can it be that I had a goddess as my wife and did not know it, and she was above our human lot?[4]

How fascinating. So here we have a story from around the mid 1st century BCE to CE in which-

  • a protagonist is buried in a tomb and is visited at dawn by family who come to anoint the deceased with libations,
  • the family finds the stone rolled away and the tomb to be empty,
  • it is believed that this protagonist is divine and had a bodily ascension into heaven,
  • it is speculated that the empty tomb was the work of tomb robbery,
  • a protagonist is condemned to death, he carries his cross and is crucified,
  • but like a sheep before his shearers he opened not his mouth,
  • he nonetheless survives his crucifixion, is believed to have resurrected from the dead, and is ultimately united with his bride, all through divine providence.

I feel like I’ve heard all of this somewhere else. thinking

lamb marriage.jpg

“His wife hath made herself ready.”

Out of this same era[5] as Chariton’s novel Callirhoe comes Xenophon of Ephesus’ novel known as The Ephesian Tale. In this story, the protagonist Habrocomes likewise is crucified and in this case unambiguously survives the crucifixion through miraculous means,[6] just as Robert Price stated and Bart Ehrman denied.

He ordered Habrocomes to be taken away and crucified. He was dumbfounded by his misfortunes, but the idea that Anthia too was dead consoled him about his own end. His assigned escort took him to the banks of the Nile, where there was a sheer cliff overlooking the stream of the river. They raised the cross and bound him to it, tying his hands and feet tight with ropes, for this is the local custom in crucifixion. They left him hanging there and went away, thinking that he was secured. But he gazed at the Sun and looked at the Nile stream, and said, “Kindliest of gods, who hold sway over Egypt, through whom both earth and sky are revealed to all mankind, if Habrocomes has done any wrong, let me perish miserably and receive a worse punishment than this, if any there be, but if I have been betrayed by an evil woman, may the Nile stream never be polluted by the body of one unjustly destroyed, and may you never see such a sight, a person who has done no wrong being destroyed on this your very own land.” This was his prayer and the god took pity on him: a sudden gust of wind arose, struck the cross, and blew away the soil on the cliff where the cross had been planted. Habrocomes pitched into the stream and was borne away; neither did the water harm him nor his fetters impede him nor the river beasts injure him, but the stream was his escort. He was carried to the mouth of the Nile where it flows into the sea.[7]

Like Chaereas, Habrocomes too is presumed dead but returns alive & well, and he has a bride who is believed to be dead then buried in a tomb yet she vanishes, but is ultimately reunited with her bridegroom- all in fulfillment of a divine prophecy. What I personally find intriguing about Xenophon’s novel here is that the crucixifion and miraculous salvation scene takes place in Egypt, by the Nile. This protagonist is hung on a tree in Egypt, as well as baptized in the waters of the Nile, but is reunited with his lost love in the end, eh? I feel like I’ve heard all of this somewhere else. thinking  Oh yeah, that’s right- it is “an allusion to the myth of Osiris,”[8] our favorite archetypal hero here at Mythicism.

Anyway, sorry Bart, but Bob was right. Maybe someday you’ll finally “have a clue.”

[1] George P. Goold, Chariton: Callirhoe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 2, 4-5.
Jeffrey Henderson, Longus: Daphnis and Chloe – Xenophon of Ephesus: Anthia and Habrocomes (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 209.

[2] Goold (1995), 199, 205, 207, 215. (Emph. added.)

[3] Ibid. 183, 275. (Emph. added.)

[4] Ibid. 145-47. (Emph. added.)

[5] Ibid. 15.
Henderson (2009), 208-10.

[6] Henderson (2009), 204.

[7] Ibid. 311-13.

[8] Eric Thurman, “Novel Men,” in Mapping Gender in Ancient Religious Discourses, ed. T.C. Penner, C.V. Stichele (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 222.

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2 comments on “Bart Ehrman vs. Chariton & Xenophon: Crucifixion & Empty Tombs

  1. Pingback: Bart Ehrman vs. virgin births | Mythicism

  2. Pingback: GREEK CULTURE AND THE GOSPELS – Dave Allens blog

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