Alexander, Jesus, and the Silver Screen

by Tom Tredway

By There was a time in the history of our civilization, maybe two centuries ago, when any educated person knew classical history and mythology thoroughly. A poet or essayist could refer to Clytemnestra or Priam without having to wonder whether the reader would miss the point for want of getting the reference. And there was a time, maybe only fifty years ago, when every pietist knew the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, thoroughly. A preacher could refer to Miriam or Cornelius without having to identify them before explaining their relevance. But the days when classical or biblical people and events were part of the general culture are gone. It is notable, however, that Hollywood has never given up—on either Greco-Roman or Judeo-Christian antiquity. There is enough gore, intrigue, and even romance in either place to warrant a screen epic every year or two, especially when the other choice for literary inspiration seems to be Spiderman or the Incredible Hulk.

The year 2004 A.D. was marked by two big films about antiquity. Readers of Pietisten who want to brush up on their classical or (Heaven forbid that they need it!) biblical history can do remedial work through movie viewing. The first of these epics was, of course, Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. Most readers have probably seen it. They can decide for themselves whether it was a faithful retelling of the passion stories of the gospels, a theologically responsible expression of Christian piety. The other blockbuster (less a piece of critical and/or financial dynamite than Gibson’s film) was Oliver Stone’s Alexander the Great. It was a spotty version of the conquests of the fourth century B.C. Macedonian who brought under his control the entire eastern half of the world known to the Greeks.1 Through these movies, if not by our knowledge of classical and biblical texts, we have been reminded of some surprising parallels in the lives of Alexander the Great and Jesus Christ. And in these similarities, as well as in the even more important differences between them, we might again gain insight into the Athens—Jerusalem (Tertullian, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem—ca. 200) or Christ—culture (H. R. Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, 1951) questions that should still agitate conscientious Christian citizens—even after the 2004 elections.

The similarities or parallels in the lives of Alexander and Jesus are striking, if in the end mainly superficial. Both died near the age of thirty-three, Alexander in 323 B.C. and Jesus in about 30 A.D. Both were born of strong women, Olympias and Mary, and both mothers show up frequently in their sons’ stories. Both Alexander and Jesus were believed by their followers to have had divine fathers; Alexander was the son of Zeus-Ammon and Jesus of the God of Israel. Both before their deaths experienced betrayal by their closest followers, and both were believed by their loyalists to have ascended into heaven after death. Both became very quickly the very embodiment of all the values and ideals that their traditions claimed to believe in and live by. This did not prevent their followers from falling shortly after the deaths of Jesus and Alexander into sometimes bitter quarreling about who were their true heirs or disciples. But whatever the superficial resemblances between the lives of these two, it is in the values and ideals they stand for that they differ so greatly. And in these differences lies their meaning for western and, in fact, world history. More of that shortly.

Of course, no responsible reader of this essay wants to get her or his historical information from Hollywood, so it is welcome news that good biographies of Alexander and Jesus are at hand. Oliver Stone read Robin Lane Fox’s Alexander the Great (1973) as the main guide in making his film, and Fox’s prize winning book has been supplemented by several more recent, though hardly more readable, treatments, such as A. B. Bosworth’s Conquest and Empire (1988). Whether one gets a better picture of Jesus from modern scholarship or from the New Testament is a hot issue sometimes discussed in these columns, as well as more widely, of course. That is ultimately a matter for faith to decide. I simply note here that the scholarly work of E. P. Sanders or Raymond E. Brown (or one’s own favorite exegete) might supplement the personal reading of Scripture. Thomas Cahill’s Desire of the Everlasting Hills (1999) is a well-written and responsible popular treatment of Jesus’ meaning for human history.2 It is interesting that there are better records of the life of Jesus, written by those who lived in his own time, than there are for Alexander, none of whose biographers’ works now exists save in fragmented quotes by authors writing several centuries later.

The differences between Alexander and Jesus are so programmatic for western civilization that one might argue that the core schizophrenia that marks our history and our own times is rooted in them. Alexander was for his contemporaries and for subsequent antiquity the embodiment of the qualities they most admired. Though a mere twenty-years-old when he gained control of the Kingdom of Macedon on the northern edge of the Greek city states, Alexander quickly established his domination over them. It was already clear that he was a brilliant general, the deviser of strategies of war and conquest so clever, original, and devious that Romans for centuries afterward studied his legend, patterning their own campaigns and careers after his. Alexander’s personal courage, the devotion he gave to and received from his troops, and his willingness to share their sufferings as well as their victories were admired and emulated. So were his magnanimity toward friends and allies and his brutality toward those, like Thebes or Tyre, who resisted his advance. Alexander’s thirteen-year march through Asia Minor, Egypt, the Persian Empire, and across the Himalayas into India was a conquest with-out precedent. It became the pattern for the campaigns of the Romans in creating their empire. Alexander gloried, as Homer’s characters had, in war with all its heroism and suffering. But as he moved east, Alexander increasingly affected the dress and manner of the oriental potentates he defeated. He demanded from these conquered peoples, and eventually from his own men, the divine honors which the Greeks would accord no mortal, no matter how powerful. The later claims of Roman emperors to the homage due the gods, claims that the Christians resisted in spite of perse-cution by the government, were, again, patterned after Alexander.

It was, of course, not only in regard to the claimed divinity of mortal emperors that the beliefs of the early Christians differed so widely from those attributed to Alexander the Great. Jesus taught and lived humility, self-sacrifice, and compassion. His suffering, not his glory, was the foundation of his followers’ redemption. Jesus’ concern was especially for the poor and the dispossessed of the world. The virtues taught in the Sermon on the Mount were the opposite of those embodied in the life of Alexander. Jesus enjoined poverty of spirit, meekness, long-suffering, mercifulness, and peace-making. These were not, as Christianity’s early Roman critics pointed out, the building blocks for creating and maintaining an empire. That is why eighteen centuries after Christ, Edward Gibbon wrote of the fall of the Roman Empire as “the triumph of barbarism and Christianity.” And it is the tension between the opposing world views embodied in Alexander and Jesus that still animates and troubles our civiliz-ation today, in spite of the efforts of some to hybridize Christianity with political power and to color it red, white, and blue.

But it is not simply in modern America that the values represented in the Gospels are grafted on to a political system that recalls Alexander the Great rather than Jesus. There are already signs in the New Testament, as in St. Paul or in St. John the Divine, that when Christians wanted to describe the final victory of Christ they had to use the Alexandrine language and imagery of imperial splendor. By the fourth century Constantine had combined the Kingdom of God with the Empire of Rome, an achievement that became the model for a millennium of European history. Thus the triumphant Christ of medieval art is usually robed in garments more suggestive of Alexander’s Persian years than of the peasant life of first century Judea.3

It was this melding of New Testament Christianity with the trappings and concepts of worldly power that so troubled the pietists of Germany and Sweden in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They were certain that the pomp and ceremony that even the relatively modest (when compared to Rome or Paris or London) courts of Stockholm or the Rhineland affected did not represent the way of life that Jesus lived Well, there is ultimately no substitute for reading. But perhaps to supplement that reading, a pietist could “go to the show,” a freedom not accorded us fifty years ago, (or head over to Blockbuster to rent Oliver Stone’s and Mel Gibson’s movies). These two films do not represent the same ways of thinking and living, no matter how passionately many of the televangelists and some of the politicians of our time seem to suggest that a culture can harmoniously embody both the self-giving redemptive suffering of Jesus and the imperial power of Alexander.

1. Readers who can bear one more 2004 movie might consider Troy, Wolfgang Petersen’s version of Homer’s Iliad, (minus the gods’ intervention in mortal affairs). Achilles, Homer’s central figure, was Alexander’s personal model.

2. Apropos biographies of Jesus, long-time readers of Pietisten may recall the unpleasantness some years ago between this writer and the Journal’s Poetry and Navigation Editor over the latter’s favorable printed remarks about Angus Wilson’s Jesus: a Life (1992) [Spring, 1995, p. 1 ff.]. That was a contretemps settled decisively, I thought, in favor of the P&N Editor by a letter to this periodical purporting to be from his wife [the exchange is in Summer, 1995 pp. 19-20]. It eloquently and elegantly defended her husband’s reading of Angus Wilson’s book and his character as well.

3. Is this the same triumphalism referred to in an advert in the last issue of Pietisten? [Fall, 2004, p. 14]. The ad has a photo of this writer’s feet blocking our view of his wife while she and her husband were cruising Bay Lake, Minnesota, in a Covenant Chris Craft. These Readers sat quietly in their conventicles, with the Scriptures, waiting for the wind of the Spirit to blow though their midst. They waited as well for the state church pastor or the county sheriff to arrive to break up their gatherings, perhaps even to arrest them for undermining the social and religious and political and cultural order. That order was a centuries old hybrid of Christ and culture. The pietists believed it to be a betrayal of the New Testament in the interests of values and ideals that came from the pagan ancients, whose hero was Alexander the Great, though the unlettered brethren probably did not know much about him.

Tom Tredway is a teacher of history and president emeritus of Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. He is the author of “Conrad Bergendoff’s Faith and Work: A Swedish-American Lutheran, 1895-1997.”

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