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THE EMPTY TOMB

When at dusk Mary and the other women approached the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus according to Jewish custom, they found that the stone which closed the tomb had been removed and the tomb opened. In order to make the removal of the stone more impressive, the stone was not visible to the audience; it was under­stood to have rolled offstage to the left, as we gather from The Gospel of Peter. [1] This circumstance caused the women not to realize that the tomb was open until they had marched about half way across the stage from right to left. How­ever, the women must have noticed the open tomb from some distanceit can be surmised that there was a stage effect by which a bright light showed through the opening of the tomb. Mary concluded that somebody had snatched the body away (20:2):

They took the Lord from the tomb
and we do not know where they put him.

There must have been an exchange between Mary and the chorus on this subject.

      When Mary went close to the tomb she was still weeping because she had not inter­preted the opening of the tomb as a sign of resurrection. John indicates that while she was weeping she happened to peep into the tomb (20:12). [2] What she saw and heard was such that she got frightened and, followed by the chorus, she ran away from the tomb toward the center of the stage in a state of panic. The detail of the panic and running is mentioned by Mark (18:8); Luke refers to the fear. At this point the audience did not yet know what had frightened Mary so, since what Mary saw in the tomb was not seen by them; it was revealed gradually to the audi­ence by the exchange between Mary and the chorus.

      Mary found that the body was missing, and in its place only empty funeral wrappings were left. Although in our text of the gospels it is Peter who first sees the empty funeral wrappings, in the play of Seneca this sight was described by the women, who were utterly perplexed by it. Next to the place where the body used to be Mary saw a figure which she described to the chorus. Mary and the chorus had not yet understood that the figure in the tomb was Jesus and were bemoaning the fact that Jesus’ body had been taken away.

      The description of what the women had seen became more complete for the audience when the figure that had frightened them appeared again and was described a second time. Hence the gospel of John like the other gospels, tends to confuse the two apparitions. But it can be concluded that the first time the figure was sitting inside the tomb[3] and the second time was standing in front of the tomb (which for the audience would mean behind the mound). In the first scene the resurrected Jesus was merely sitting inside the tomb until he happened to be seen by Mary. In the second scene he was standing in order to reveal himself more, and in preparation for the ascension in the third scene.

      Due to the confusion between the first and the second appearances, Matthew states that the apparition was sitting on the stone; as I have explained earlier, the stone had rolled offstage and was beyond the angle of vision of the audience. Because of the same confusion, Mark states that the apparition was at the right. For Mary and the chorus, who were at the moment standing at the center-right of the stage, facing left, the second apparition was to the right of the rocky mound. But from Luke (24:4) we learn that in the second appearance, which followed the panic scene, the apparition was standing.

      Because the resurrected Jesus was never seen by the audiencealthough the playwright’s intention was to create the impression that he was on the stagewhat the women saw is described in totally discrepant terms by the four gospels. According to Mark (16:5) it was a young man; according to Matthew (28:2) it was an angel of the Lord; according to Luke (24:3) it was two men; and according to John (20:12) it was two angels. In spite of the extreme divergence, all the four gospels are speaking of the same entity. One proof is that three of the gospels speak of this entity as sitting.

      According to Mark (16:5) the young man was covered with a white stolé (a long dress that reached the feet). According to Matthew (28:3) the angel had an appearance like lightning and his garment was white as snow. According to Luke (24:4) the two angels were in a lightning dress.[4] Finally, according to John (20:22) the two angels are in white things. The four gospels substantially agree with each other, except that Mark, Matthew, and John mention a white color, whereas Matthew and Luke refer to the shine of lightning. The explanation is that Seneca had described the robe as brilliantly white using the word fulgeo. In Latin fulgeo means to shine like lightning, but is commonly used with the name of a color to indicate that the color is bright. Matthew, followed by Luke, translated literally the Latin fulgeo into Greek as astrapto, but in Greek this verb is used only in its narrow sense as referring to lightning, and is never applied to clothes or to color.

      Seneca had spoken of brilliant white and had said nothing about lightning, but it is possible that Matthew and Luke were influenced by a stage effect. We know that Greek playwrights were fond of presenting lightning effects on the stage and these were obtained with the help of a device called keraunoskopeia, the device that makes one see thunderbolts. Unfortunately we can only guess how this device operated. Since the figure of which the gospels speak was just beyond the angle of vision of the audience, it is possible that with the help of mirrors flashes of light were made to shine onto the stage from behind the mound. John, who based himself on the script of the play, is the least sensational of the gospel writers, stating merely that the apparition was in white things.

      It is not difficult to explain why the apparition is described in totally divergent terms by the four gospels. It would seem impossible that the gospel writers could not even agree on the point whether the men or angels were one or two. This un­certain­ty provides the solution. The Greek text of Luke refers to andres duo, two men, of which the exact Latin equivalent is viri duo (as proved also by the Vulgate and other Latin translations). The resurrected Jesus had been described by Seneca as viridis. In Latin viridis originally was the equivalent of the English verdant and referred to the vivid green of new leaves, but it had acquired the mean­ing of youthful, healthy, vigorous, energetic. Seneca wanted to indicate that the resurrected Jesus was now full of power and no longer showed the traces of his mortal sufferings. In the last scene the resurrection turns into an apotheosis, an ascent to heaven as a divine figure, modeled closely on the ascent of Hercules in Hercules on Oeta. Hence, in preparation for the final scene, the resurrected Jesus is more than an ordinary living man. What Mary saw was the resurrected Jesus; not a Jesus in the form of a miserable body mangled by suffering, beating and cruci­fixion, but a radiant, mighty Jesus.[5]

      The resurrected Jesus was younger than he was at death; but since the gospel writers did not want to accept that the appearance in question was that of Jesus, Mark speaks of a young man. Luke misunderstood viridis as viri duo, two men and Matthew probably understood viridis as viri dei, of a man of god. It is remarkable that in the mentioned extra verse in the early Latin translations of Mark, those older than the Vulgate, the text at this point reads vivi dei, of the living god, a reading which most editors correct into viri duo two men. Since all tragedians resorted to lines with alliterations at the crucial points of the drama, there is a likelihood that Seneca ran a line like

viridis vivi viri, vere dei
of a youthful living man, truly of a god

in order to describe the appearance of the resurrected Jesus. An alliterate line, like a tongue twister, could be misunderstood by the audience and easily mangled by copiers of manuscripts. [6]

      When Mary, accompanied by the chorus, saw the figure of the viridis resurrected Jesus sitting inside the tomb, she did not recognize him and was simply struck with terror. Mary and the chorus did not recognize the figure inside the tomb as the resur­rected Jesus, because it was a standard theme of Greek and Roman literature, as old as Homer, that when a god appears to men, at first he or she is not recognized. The first use of this literary device may be found in The Odyssey in which the hero, upon finally returning to his palace in Ithaca after his long wonderings, is not recog­nized even by his wife Penelope. The distinguished New Testament scholar Dibelius has underscored the relevance of this motif of pagan mythology to the inter­pretation of the gospels.[7] But much more relevant is the frequent use in Greek and Roman drama, both tragedy and comedy, of scenes in which members of the same family do not recognize one another. This failure to recognize is followed by a stan­dard scene which is called recognition by experts of drama. The concept of recog­nition was so important that Aristotle in his Poetics lists it among the elements that define a tragedy.

      In the theater the failure to recognize had the purpose of underscoring that the meeting of the characters was unexpected and also gave the audience time to adjust emotionally to the new situation. Most important to the interpretation of the gospels is the scene of Euripides’ Alcestis in which Heracles presents the resurrected Alcestis to her husband and he does not recognize her. If Admetus had recognized his wife immediately, resur­rection would have appeared too much as a normal occurrence, and there would not have been any dramatic impact. Instead Admetus is made to move step by step to the realization that he is confronted with the miracle of resurrection.[8] The reason for the failure of Admetus to recognize the woman before him is indicated in lines 1072-1076: Heracles slyly exclaims that he wishes he had enough power to bring Admetus’ wife back to life, and Admetus rebuts:

I well know that you would like to do it.
But what is the point of talking about it?
It is not possible that the dead should come back to life.

      Admetus does not believe that resurrection is possible and does not dare hope for it. Admetus does not recognize the woman before him as his wife because it is impossible that it should be his wife. The slow recognition had the purpose of preparing the audience to accept the miracle of resurrection, given that the preceding one thousand lines of the play had dealt with the horror of death. Admetus was so afraid of death that he allowed his wife to die in his place; conversely, the play put emphasis on the enormity of the sacrifice made by Alcestis in volunteering to die. The audience was made to witness the death of Alcestis, which came slowly (line 141):

You could say both that she is living and that she is dead.

There is a heart­breaking farewell of Alcestis to her infant children. After the announcement of Alcestis’ death, the audience witnesses the preparation for her funeral, the formation of the funeral procession, and finally the return of Admetus with the funeral procession to the empty palace. The mourning is still going on when Heracles appears on the stage with a woman. It would have been ludicrous if the woman had been im­mediately recognized as Alcestis. It would have been as if in The Odyssey the hero upon landing in Ithaca had presented himself to Penelope and they had embraced each other and proceeded to arrange for a celebration banquet.

      It was necessary that the realization of the fact that Alcestis had been resurrected proceed gradually. In order that the failure to recognize the resurrected Alcestis be more realistic, Euripides let her be much younger than she was at her death: she wears the clothes and the ornaments characteristic of a young unmarried woman (line 1050). The word nea young is repeated. In Seneca’s Nazarenus as in Euripides’ Alcestis, the failure to recognize is explained in part by the circumstance that the one who resur­rected was younger. In the case of Jesus Seneca could go much further than Euripides: The resurrected Jesus was not only young but radiant and mighty, being a total contrast to the mangled wretch that had been taken down from the cross by the undertaker Joseph. Seneca had constructed his drama around the crucifixion, leading slowly to his conclusion from the betrayal by Judas and through the unfolding of political and legal intricacies before the Jewish authorities and Pilate. It would have been anticlimactic if after having built up the sense of horror for the death of Jesus, he had suddenly confronted the audience with a resurrected Jesus.

      Mary and the chorus took the apparition for some divine power, which the Christian audience would call an angel according to Jewish concepts. The women were terrified and also dismayed at the thought that some power had taken away the body of Jesus. Mary ran across the stage, followed by the chorus. The women continued their expressions of fear and despair. Mary was about to leavethe reason for leaving is not only her fear, but also that they have taken the body away. She was repeating the statement for the second time; altogether she will repeat it three times. At this point it became necessary for Jesus to reveal himself more openly. Jesus had to manifest himself again in order to make clear to his mother that the destruction of his body had made him divine.[9]

      Mary and the women were facing right, indicating their intention to leave, when a voice addressed Mary in a gentle tone (Jn. 20:13):

Woman, why do you weep?

      The voice and then continued with equal concern (Mk. 16:6; Mt. 28:5):

Do not be afraid.

      The audience could not observe Mary’s facial expression, because actors in the ancient theater wore masks. Information about facial expressions had to be conveyed in words. For example, in Euripides’ Ion  the audience learns that Creusa is crying from the words of her son:

You’ve frightened me, since, closing your eyes,
you moistened your beautiful cheeks with tears.

      In Seneca’s Hercules Oetaeus the audience learns of Alcmene’s facial expression from the words of Hercules, quoted earlier:

Dry now your tears, my mother;
proud you shall be among Greek women.

      Jesus does not address Mary Magdalene as mother in order not to preempt the recognition scene that is to follow, instead, he drops a hint by addressing her as Woman which is what he had called his mother when she came to witness his crucifixion.

      John tells us that while Mary was responding to the voice addressing her in gentle terms she turned in the opposite direction (20:14). This statement does not present any diffi­cul­ty of interpretation. Earlier Mary, frightened by the vision inside the tomb, had run from left to right; now she moves back toward the tomb. The words turned around in the opposite direction again include the technical term strephô to indicate that the chorus made an about face and began to move from right to left.

      When Mary again approached the area of the tomb, says John, antici­pating somewhat the development of this scene, she saw Jesus standing there; but she did not know that it was Jesus. The audience would not have known it either at this point; the identity of the figure was revealed only in the third scene, which was the final one. The figure that Mary saw standing in front of her was evi­dently the same that she had seen earlier sitting inside the tomb, which Matthew de­scribes as that of an angel. Now the voice was heard again, asking (Jn. 20:15):

Woman, why do you weep?
Whom do you seek?

      The first part of Jesus’ question was the same as that which, two verses earlier, John had ascribed to the angels. The second part con­tained another hint: Jesus had put the same question to the chorus at the time of his arrest. (Jn. 18:4). Just as Jesus had iden­ti­fied himself to Judas and the armed crowd during the parodos, the first entry of the chorus on the stage, so in this final scene of Act Five he was revealing himself to the chorus of women as they returned on the stage after their exit at the end of Act Four. This was made even more ob­vious by having him speak from the same area of the stage as at the time of his arrest.

      According to John (20:15) Mary thought the voice to be that of the grove-keeper (kepouros). This is a word composed of kepos, grove, and ouros, guardian, watcher. Since we find the word kepouros used in the sense of gardener, interpreters of the gospel understand that Mary thought she was talking to a farmer. This would be a rather tawdry detail in the story. But the Greek poet Euphorion speaks of a snake as kepouros, grove-keeper.[10] Often the guardian spirit of a grove was conceived by the Greeks as a snake.

      In order to explain what happened at this turn of the story, I may refer to three observations made by James G. Frazer about Roman grove cult. First of all, the Romans attached great significance to the voices that they heard in groves (rustling of wind in the leaves, says Frazer). The second, they believed the groves to be inhabited by a spirit of the place. The third, the Romans were most concerned about unwittingly desecrating sacred groves; they engaged in all sorts of expiation ceremonies. Farmers atoned for the damage that might have been caused without their knowing by their animals.[11] Frazer con­cludes by quoting Seneca (Letter IV, 12):

If you come upon a grove of old trees that have shot up above the common height and shut out the sight of the sky by the gloom of their matted boughs, you feel that there is a spirit in the place, so lofty is the wood, so lone is the spot, so thick the dense unbroken shade.

      This is the background of the incident of the grove-keeper. Mary wondered whether she was talking to the spirit of the grove, since what was before her was a divine-looking figure. She stated for the third time that she was crying because the body had been taken away. It may have offended the spirit of the grove and he may have cast the body out of the grove. According to the usual wording of the Roman atonement formulas, Mary expresses the idea: If you have been offended, I shall make amends. According to John (20:15) she says:

Lord, if you have picked him up,
tell me where you have placed him,
and I will take it away.

Though it is possible that John wanted the appeal to the divinity of the grove to be understood as an appeal to the gardener, yet he preserved part of the original version by letting Mary use the address kyrie, Lord. This term refers in its basic meaning to a person who has absolute or final power over another. The term was used by members of a household to refer to their master; outside the household kyrios was used by free men only in addressing gods or divinized rulers. [12] The modern interpreters who have accepted the view that Mary believed she was talking to a gardener have completely over­looked the fact that she addressed the supposed rustic as kyrie, Lord.

      It is clear that Mary could not have mistaken the figure near the tomb for a farmer: She was addressing what she thought was the divine spirit of the grove. However, once Christians began to conceive of this Mary as one of the early disciples of Jesus, this fact became unacceptable. Hence, Christians understood that kepouros did not mean guardian spirit of the grove but gardener. This interpretation reduced the entire incident to a piece of comedy. The church Father Tertullian, in a work which deals with the problem that the opponents of Christianity had learned to turn passion plays into irreverent farces, mentions a version according to which Jesus’ body had been snatched from the tomb because an orchard man was afraid that the crowd coming to see the tomb would trample on his vegetables.[13] This satirical version of the events confirms our interpretation that Mary thought that the kepouros, guardian spirit of the grove, had taken the body out of the tomb in order to prevent a desecration.

      Once Seneca had broached the theme of a woman offending the spirit of the grove, he could hardly have avoided at least a passing reference to the case of Virbius, the resurrected Hippolytus, whose death had been the theme of one of his earlier tragedies, Phaedra. Ovid relates that Hippolytus was brought back from the dead by Aesculapius, and installed under the name of Virbius in a sacred grove in the valley of Aricia near Rome. There the widow of Numa Pompilius used to give vent to her grief, perturbing the resurrected youth by her unceasing lamentations.[14] If Mary and the chorus compared the apparition they saw to Virbius, this learned association was lost on the Christian audience. The mention of Virbius only confirmed them in the belief that the women saw two men (viri duo) or an angel (vir dei).

      To establish exactly what Jesus said at this point is rather difficult because here the gospel writers had the greatest reasons for introducing their own interpretations. One point is clear: The supposed spirit of the grove, which the gospel of Luke Christianized into an angel, indicated to the women that Jesus’ body was not in the tomb because he had been resurrected. But he did not say this outright. According to the pattern of Euripides’ Alcestis, he kept giving gradually more specific hints. Possibly he began by pointing out that the tomb was empty, as the women could verify, but not because somebody had taken the body away. They should ask themselves why it is not there. According to Mark (16:6), Jesus said:

He is not here: See where they have placed him.

      This is an answer to the words of Mary quoted by John (20:15). In the corresponding text of Luke (24:5-6) the figure asks:

Why do you search for a living one among the dead?

This poetic line must come directly from the play: perhaps Seneca had in mind the encounter between Electra and Orestes in the play by Sophocles. Electra, having been told that her brother Orestes is dead, encounters a stranger who presents her with an urn containing what she believes are her brother’s ashes. Electra is in the depths of her despair when the stranger begins to reveal himself to her by saying:

It is not right that you should mourn.

We are reminded of the words of the young man at Jesus’ tomb:

Woman, do not weep.

In order to reveal himself even more the stranger next informs Electra that the urn she is holding is empty. Like Mary at the empty tomb, Electra fails to grasp the significance of this fact. She demands to know:

Where then is the grave of that unhappy man?

      Mary’s request is almost identical:

Tell me where you have placed him.

Like Mary at the empty tomb, Electra does not yet understand the meaning of the empty urn. Orestes therefore drops a stronger hint by answering suggestively:

He has none. The living have no tomb.

      Like Jesus, Orestes is speaking about himself in the third person. In Seneca’s play Jesus said:

He is not here. Why do you search for a living one among the dead?[15]

The question was a rhetorical one, for the figure continued, according to Luke:

He is not here but he is risen.

      These words are a later interpolation; they were not in the original text of Luke. Seneca did not use the expression he is risen or he was risen, which is based on a Jewish expression. Most likely he said: He is living. In Latin it is possible for a speaker to refer to himself even though speaking in the third person. Thus if the figure said Vivit, he is alive, this did not rule out the possibility that he meant I am alive. The ambiguity of the expression was deliberate.

      Mary still did not understand that Jesus had resurrected and turned to move away for the third time, when Jesus revealed himself completely by calling out to her (Jn 20:16):

Mary!

      Only now does Mary understand that he is her son. Since we are trained not to see Mary as Jesus’ mother, we miss the sublime emotional intensity of this call. The simple call Mary! the call of a son to his mother, was enough to open the eyes of Mary to all that had happened.

      John relates that when Mary heard Jesus call out her name, she turned toward him. This means that the chorus, which had been moving toward the right, turned around and rushed toward the area at the left where Jesus was standing, hidden behind the mound. Matthew (28: 9) relates that the women

came up to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.

      In the discussion of the scene of Jesus’ arrest, we compared a scene in The Bacchae of Euripides where the women fall to the ground in fright when confronted by the splendid figure of the divine Dionysus. In scene of the arrest of Jesus it was the chorus of armed men that fell dumb­founded to the ground upon recognizing Jesus. Here the chorus of women fell at his feet in adoration. This extends the parallel that Seneca tried to establish between the first and the last scenes of the play. The action is brought full circlea dramatic device not infrequently used even in our modern theater.

      According to the theology developed by the time the gospels began to be written down, Mary Magdalene who came to the tomb could not be Jesus’ mother. Hence, John makes this point clear by letting Mary address Jesus as Rabbouni which is the Greek rendering of a supposed Hebrew word meaning My master.[16] John, in order to explain the position of Mary Magdalene in the story, had to make her into a disciple of Jesus. The Gospel of Peter specifically describes her as a disciple. Perhaps there was something in the text of Seneca that provided an argument or understanding that Mary addressed Jesus as Rabbouni. Mary at first won­dered whether her son was coming back to her, but then she saw him ready to take off. At this point Mary may have asked anxiously

Raptasne?
Are you hurrying away?

It is evident that Mary made a gesture to get a hold of Jesus, since he warns her (John 20:17). [17]

Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father!

      Do not hold me! are the last words which Oedipus says to his daughters before going off to his mysterious end.[18] He is asking them not to detain him from leaving the world of mortal men. Similarly, in Seneca’s play Jesus asks his mother not to try to physically prevent him from ascending to heaven. In the Hercules on Oeta the final words of Hercules are:

It is time for me to ascend to the celestial region.

      In Seneca’s Nazarenus the final sentence of Jesus was similar, but John did not render it with accuracy.[19] Jesus meant to say that he was about to ascend to his Father, but the gospel writer either missed the exact sense of the Latin idiomatic expression or preferred to miss it because according to the Christian conceptions the time had not yet come for the ascension to heaven.

      Seneca intended that his tragedy on Jesus should end like his Hercules on Oeta: Hercules at last ascends to heaven and assumes his rightful place as a god, the son of Zeus.[20] In the final scene Alcmene, Hercules’ human mother, enters the stage from the left, the supposed location of the funeral pyre, holding an urn. When she reaches the center of the stage with the ashes of her son, Hercules, her delivery and her steps acquire a more rapid rhythm, and she intones a formal song of mourning. Her litany is addressed at first to the chorus and then to the urn itself, on which she concentrates her gaze. This increases the element of her amazement at what happens next.

      In her litany Alcmene complains that Zeus has reneged on his promise to elevate Hercules to his lofty abode. She exclaims bitterly (lines 1910-1912):

Where is the promised seat of the king of the new world?
The fact is that Hercules has died as a mortal, indeed he is buried.

      In the final lines she draws the sad conclusion:

My son, defenseless you walk among the shades [of Hades],
with whom you shall remain forever.

      At this point there is heard a voice reproaching:

Why, when I hold the lofty realms of heaven
and at last have returned to the sky,
do you force me with your wailing to feel the taste of death?
Give up lamentation!
By now my virtue has made for me a way to the stars,
up to the gods themselves.

      In order to indicate to the audience where he is, Hercules recites:

I speak to you, mother, as a living presence from above.

      The contents of these lines indicate that the voice of Hercules must have been coming from above.

      Alcmene reacts with bewilderment, asking as a first thing (line 1194):

Where is this voice coming from?

      Then she begins to understand, but not completely. She wonders whether her son is coming back to her alive from Hades, as he did once before according to established mythology. Then, moving toward the right, she asks how it could be possible for him to have resurrected, since she has seen the body burned by the flame, and speaks of Heracles as only a shade. She does not yet under­stand that he is not coming back to the living, but has ascended to heaven as a god.

      In order to prove to his mother that he is not a shade Hercules manifests himself again visibly to his mother. His voice is now heard from the left, at stage level. It is under­stood that his mother can see him offstage at the left, although he cannot be seen by the audience. The deified Hercules explains to his mother that he did not descend to the realm of the shades (lines 1966-1968):

Whoever in me was mortal, coming from you,
the defeated flame has taken away:
My father’s part to heaven,
your part to the flame has been consigned.

      The flame is called defeated because it could not destroy the spirit. According to the understanding of Seneca he was a spirit; but Stoic philosophy was what today we call a materialistic philo­sophy, so that a spirit, too, was something corporeal. Then comes the parting line is already cited:

It is time for me to ascend to the celestial region.

It was understood that at this point Heracles returns to heaven for good. The play is over, except for a few exiting lines sung by the chorus.

      In an ancient play all characters had to leave the stage before the final exit of the chorus that marked the very end of the play, corresponding to the coming down of the curtain in our theater. Hercules did not need to exit since he was not present on the stage in the final scenehe was merely a voice coming from offstage. In Seneca’s Nazarenus, however,  the resurrected hero was understood to be physically on the stageeven though unseen by the audience. Seneca was faced with the problem of allowing Jesus to make a proper exit without actually making him appear. The solution he adopted is suggested by Luke’s account of Jesus’ ascension in The Acts of the Apostles. Even though Luke places the ascension in Galilee some forty days after the resurrection, the unity of the scene is evident if we read Luke’s account immediately following Jesus’ final words to Mary, as rendered by John (20:17):

Do not hold me, for [I have not yet ascended to the Father;
but go to my brethren and say to them,]
I am ascending to my Father,
to my God and to your God!

When he had said this he was lifted up,
and a cloud took him out of their sight.
They watched him ascend... Acts 1:9  

The words I have bracketed were not part of Seneca’s dialogue. They are an interpolation, perhaps by the evangelist himself, as is evident from the redundant mention of the ascension, as well as from the reference to the brethren. The purpose of the interpolation was to delay the ascension in conformity with Christian beliefsto link the testimony of the women, culled from Seneca’s play, with the appearances to the apostles, which were the very core of the Christian faith.  Jesus’ final words were meant to prepare the audience for the dramatic stage effect with which the play ended. Roman plays often ended with some impressive display of stagecraft. Seneca’s Medea concludes with the murderess being snatched away skyward in a dragon chariot, operated by a stage device known as the machina, while Jason voices the words of despair and resignation with which the play closes:

Go, fly away into the ethereal heights
And wherever you go, testify that there are no gods!

In presenting Jesus’s exit from the stage Seneca chose a method that was perhaps less striking visually, but had the advantage of keeping the resurrected Jesus out of the audience’s view. Luke’s account suggests that a puff of thick white smoke was released from behind the heap of rocks at the left side of the stage where the resurrected Jesus was understood to be standing. The light which had been shining from inside the tomb continued to focus on the cloud as it rose; the effect was heightened by having the women follow it with their gaze, slowly tilting their heads backwards.  Jesus’ parting words, I am ascending to my Father, could not be clearer in explaining to the audience the significance of what was taking place. As far as the Christian audience was concerned, however, Jesus could not ascend as yet, because he had not yet appeared to Peter and the rest of the eleven. Hence someone interpolated the words:  I have not yet ascended to the Father, but go to my brethren and say to them... Although the interpolation practically contradicts the original meaning of Seneca’s dialogue it was necessary from the Christian point of view, because the post-resurrection appearances were the very core of Christian dogma.


[1]  But that stone which had been cast at the door rolled away of itself and withdrew to one side, and the tomb was opened..." The Gospel of Peter tr. by J. R. Harris (New York, 1893), p. 37.

[2]  The verb used by John, parakupto in Greek, has a specific meaning: it refers to the action of peeking into a house through a door or a window. The verb employed by Seneca was almost certaintly perspici.

[3]  The references to sitting are in Jn. 20:12, Mk. 16:5, Mt. 28:2.

[4]  It has to be noted that in best manuscripts of Luke "dress" is in the singular, although there are manuscripts in which, in order to agree with "two angels," these words have been changed to the plural, "in lightning dresses."

[5]  Michelangelo understood the artistic logic of crucifixion and resurrection when he portrayed Jesus as a pitiable wreck of humanity in the statue of the Pieta, and as a handsome and athletic youth, modeled on the statues of Greek gods, in the painting of the giudizio universale in the Sistine Chapel.

[6]  There is direct evidence that viridis is the adjective that Seneca would have used. Seneca's Letter LXVI, referred to earlier, opens by mentioning a specific experience: There was a certain Claranus, misshapen and old in body; but when Seneca met with him he saw a man mehercules viridem animo ac vigentem et cum corpusculo suo conlucantem "by Hercules verdant and vigorous and struggling with his miserable body." To be noted is the alliteration of viridis and vigens.

[7]  Beihefte zur Zeitschrift fur die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 33 (1918), 137.

[8]  The logic of the dramatic development is made clear from the first moment, when Herakles appears on the stage with the resurrected Alcestis: He does not say to Admetus, "Here is your wife Alcestis," but instead asks Admetus to take charge of an unidentified woman. Admetus reacts by asking Herakles to take the woman away, because he might be tempted to marry her, which would prove lack of respect for his late wife (line 1060). Next, Admetus observes that the possibility of marrying the woman tempts him because she has the same stature and body build as Alcestis; he goes so far as to declare, "when I look at her it seems to me that I am looking at my wife; she confuses my heart" (lines 1066-1067). Herakles insists that it is right for Admetus to take this woman as his wife; when Admetus replies that he cannot, Herakles puts pressure on Admetus to look closely at her (line 1106). Finally, Herakles almost forces the reluctant Admetus to come so close to the woman as to touch her (line 1117): "Look at her if in any way she seem to you to look like your wife" (lines 1121-1122).

[9]  Cf. Seneca's Hercules on Oeta, lines 1966f. Seneca's Hercules was resurrected with a constitution different from that of an ordinary mortal and Seneca must have conceived the resurrection of Jesus in a similar way.

[10]  B. A. v. Groningen, Euphorion, (Amsterdam, 1977), fg. 153: kai ton ta khrusa mela ton Esperidon phrourounta ophin kepouron omase.

[11]  Even in as practical and utilitarian a work on farm economics as Cato's De agricoltura there is described the ritual to be performed before thinning the timber in a forest (139).

[12]  In the Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament, and hence in the New Testament, Kyrios renders the Hebrew terms for God; the Roman Church translated it into Latin as Dominus, and hence the English Bible as "Lord." Those who have investigated the development of credal formulas among Christians have concluded that the very first step in the formation of a creed was the basic declaration from a Christian that "Jesus is Kyrios." Only in the second century A.D. do we find examples of the use of kyrios as the polite form for addressing important personages. It is usually stated by lexicologists that the New Testament provides us with the very first instances of this usage of kyrie (Acts 16:9; Jn. 12:21). But it must be noted that in John (4:11) the Samaritan woman addresses Jesus as Kyrie when she begins to suspect that he is more than an ordinary human being. In Acts (16:30) the jailer who has witnessed a powerful supernatural occurrence falls trembling at the feet of Paul and Silas, calling them kyrioi, and they instruct him, "Believe in the kyrios Jesus."

[13]  De Spectaculis, (ca. A.D. 200); the crowd coming to see the tomb on the morning after the burial is mentioned in the Gospel of Peter.

[14]  Metamorphoses, XV.4, Fasti, June 20th.

[15]  Sophocles, Electra, 11 1218ff. Cf. also a sentence in the story of the Widow of Ephesos in the Satyricon: "I prefer to hang one who is dead than kill one who is living."Malo mortuum impendere quam vivum occidere. Cf. the Latin Vulgate version of Luke 24:5: Quid quaeritis viventem cum mortuis?

[16]  Actually in contemporary Aramaic literature the word occurs in the form ribboni. John intended to indicate that Mary did not address Jesus as a mother addresses her son, but as a pupil addresses her rabbi teacher. But if this had been her meaning, she should have said Rabbi, which is the word Mark puts into Judas' mouth in the scene of the arrest. (Mk. 14:45; cf. Jn. 1:38) W. F. Albright tried to explain the use of the peculiar "Rabbouni' as a caritative. Mary would have meant "My dear Rabbi [teacher]." The Background of the New Testament and Its Eschatology, eds. W. D. Davies and D. Taube, in honor of C. H. Dodd (Cambridge, 1956), p. 158.

[17]  The original model of the words put in the mouth of Jesus may be found in Euripides' Elektra where, when Orestes tries to hold Elektra who is running away, she warns her brother (line 223): "Go away, do not touch those you must not touch." The negative command is in the present imperative, although it is clear from the context that Orestes has not yet touched her.

[18]  Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus.

[19]  In Seneca's play there must have been a phrase containing iam subisse. In Latin iam , which to the letter means "yet," is used to indicate that events were mounting fast; specifically, iam is used to portray as present an impending action. Further, in Latin (but not in Greek) the past infinitive is employed to indicate that the action must be conceived as already accomplished, although it is not.

[20]  Cf. Leon Herrmann's comparison of this tragedy of Seneca with the gospels in Chrestos. Many years ago Anatole France remarked on the similarities in Sur pierre blanche (Paris, 1905), pp. 134-135. Cf. also A. Toynbee's tabulation in A Study of History VI (Oxford, 1939), pp. 465-476.


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