Gods of Healing: Jesus and Ascelpius Similarities

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“The correspondence between Christianity and the other mystery religions of antiquity are perhaps more startling than the differences. Orpheus and Christ share attributes in the early centuries of our era; and of all the major ancient deities, Dionysus has most in common with the figure of Christ. It was the son of Apollo, however, Asclepius, the kindly healer and miracle worker, who posed the greatest threat to early Christianity.” (Classical Mythology, 8th Edition, 385)

“All the Greeks agreed that Asklepios was a mortal healer who had perished, struck by Zeus’ lightning bolt, for presuming to raise the dead. Yet by the Classical period, he was just as unequivocally consisdered a god, though subordinate to his father Apollo, from whom his healing power was derived.” (Ancient Greek Cults, Larson, 192)

“Who was this diety who, when the god of a new Gospel appeared, became perhaps his most significant and most powerful antagonist in the spiritual struggle that ensued between paganism and Christianity?” (Edelstein, 65)

It is perhaps telling that Ascelpius is so little known in modern society. While other most people are familiar with other Greek and Roman gods – Athena, Zeus, Aphrodite – and conspiricists and Christ- mythers talk passionately about the similarities between Mithras, Attis, Osiris and other dying and resurrecting gods, the name ‘Ascelpius’ has completely disappeared outside of academic references. Who was he and why was he such a threat to Christianity?

As we have seen, the historicity of Jesus, above all else, was crucial for distinguishing him from the beliefs of the pagans. All apparent similarities between Jesus and Pagan gods could be explained away with ‘diabolical mimicry’ and the assertion that, while other gods were mythological symbols, Jesus was a real, physical human being. However, apart from the tenacity of his followers, the PROOF that Jesus Christ was historical were his miracles – notably, his miraculous healings. Jesus restored sight to the blind, he raised the dead, he cured the sick, he cleansed lepers, and he healed paralytics. These healings are reported in the gospels as signs of his divinity; they are the proof that Jesus was the son of God.

However, long before the Christian movement, Asclepius was universally known as the God of medicine and healing. And he wasn’t just a myth: Asclepius was believed to have been a real man, who died a real death, but then came back. (Whether ‘resurrected’ or ‘ascended into heaven’ – the fact remains that after death he was physically present in his temples to effect miraculous healings.) Asclepius was widely believed to provide actual, physical healings, of which many people had direct experience.  It is not a case that  he was some folk hero of ancient times that no one knew about – he was a living god, prayed to and worshiped, intimately familiar to every greek and roman citizen of the pagan world. His healings, including the miraculous power over death, would have been the first thing people thought of when they heard of Jesus.

The temples of Asclepius served as hospitals in ancient times. Priests went through rigorous medical training. People would come for incubation or a ‘sleeping-cure’;  while they slept they would receive the god’s instructions in dream – or sometimes even experience some kind of psychic surgery, where they experienced the god cutting them open. When they woke up, if they were not already cured, the priests would interpret the dream and prescribe a remedy. The effects of these cures are collaborated by the hundreds of ex-voto offerings that were left at the site by the healed: “they were of terracotta, marble, bronze, silver or even gold, depending on the means of the faithful whose prayers had been granted, but chiefly of clay, the majority of the clientele of the island in the Tiber being of humble estate. There were feet, hands, breasts, intestines, viscera in an open torso, genital organs, eyes, ears, mouths… Above all, it was necessary to demonstrate gratitude by way of an inscribed tablet bearing the account of the miraculous treatment” (Turcan, 108). These very detailed descriptions of prescriptions and healings were further affirmed by being placed ‘in the presence of a crowd’ or having the healed ‘publicly gave thanks before the crowd.’

Moreover, he was not easily denounced or ridiculed: there was nothing in the Asclepius myth that was in the least reminiscent of other divine legends which ascribed to the deities

“all of the acts which are counted by men disgraceful and shameful, thieving, and wenching and dealing deceitfully one with another. Granted that the tradition is fragmentary, that stories may have been current which are not preserved, there can have been no stories of love affairs or of dissension, tales amoral in tone or character. Otherwise it would be incomprehensible that the Christian polemic, eager as it was to find fault with the outrageous behavior of the pagan gods, does not refer to any deragotary incident in the life of Asclepius, the most dangerous enemy of Christ”. (Edelstein, 74)

In the apocryphal work The Acts of Pilate, possibly written in the 4th century AD, Jesus is accused of being “a sorcerer and he casts out devils in the name of the Devil who rules the devils, and everything is obedient to him.” Pilate says, “it is not possible to cast out devils in the name of an impure spirit but rather in the name of the god Asclepius.” (Acta –Pilati, A, I, p216 T)

Homer sang of Asclepius as one of the fighters before Troy (T135).  According to Plato, Socrates’ last words were “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Pay it and do not neglect it.” (Plato, Phaedo, 118)

Born as a man, died a mortal death and was resurrected (Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies, Edelstein, 75)

And when we say also that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, Jesus Christ, our teacher, was produced without sexual union, and that He was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing ne

w and different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter… Asclepius, who, though he was a great healer, was struck by a thunderbolt, and ascended to heaven (177 Justinus, Apologia 21, 1-2)

History of Asclepius, Son of Apollo

His mother was Coronis, daughter of Phelgyas in Thessaly, (or Arsinoe, daughter of Leucipuus) and Apollo. Appollo loved her, but her father made her marry Ischys instead. Apollo cursed the raven who brought the tidings – made it black instead of white but killed Coronis. As she was burning, he took the baby from the pyre and brought it to Chiron, the Centaur,

“by whom he was brought up and taught the arts of healing and hunting. And having become a surgeon, and carried the art to a great pitch, he not only prevented some from dying, but even raised up the dead; for he received from Athena the blood that flowed from the veins of the Gorgon, and while he used the blood that flowed from her left side for the bane of mankind, he used the blood that flowed from her right side for salvation, and by that means he raised the dead. But Zeus, fearing the men might acquire the healing art from him and so come to the rescue of each other, smote him with a thunderbolt. Angry on that account, Apollo slew the Cyclops who had fashioned the thunderbolt for Zeus.  (Edelstein, 9)

In another version of the story, Asclepius was the son of Phlegys (who came to Peloponnesus) and Apollo; she bore the child, but exposed him on a mountain. A goat gave him milk, a watchdog of the herd guarded him, and a a goatherd found him.

Still later, Priscus, contemporary of Cicero, says he was born of uncertain parents, exposed, nourished by a dog, found by some hunters, and turned over to Chiron for medical training. He lived at Epidaurus, but from was Messenian. Cicero says he was buried at Cynosura (Edelstein, 1617). These increasingly detailed reports are the result of an attempt to ‘classify’ or catalog mythology into a more sober historical account. Whether or not Asclepius actually lived as a historical person remains unclear.

Pindar, makes Apollo say,

If, then, the son of Coronis accomplished anything meet for a god; if he restored to the blind the sight which had slipped away from their eyes; if he bade the dead return to life; if, making the lame swift of food, he commanded them to go home rejoicing, then let him be enriched with our due admiration, too; if he was in high repute among some of the most feeble, let him, too, be praised as most nobly going about the task of his medical skill. Yes let him not dishonor the “understand thyself.” (Edelstein, 16)

In Aeshylus’ play, Agammenon (458 B.C.E), it is clear that Asclepius was chiefly known for his ability to raise the dead, and his subsequent punishement: “But man’s dark blood, once it hath flowed to the earth in death, who by chanting spells shall call it back? Even him who possessed the skill to raise from the dead – did not Zeus put a stop to him as a precaution?” (Agammenon 1019-24)

Justiny Martyr, who chose to draw attention to the similarities between Jesus and pagan saviors in order to give credibility to a struggling Christian movement, says:

When we say that He (Jesus) made well the lame and the paralytic and those who were feeble from birth and that he resurrected the dead, we shall seem to be mentioning deeds similar to and even identical with those which were said to have been performed by Asclepius. (Justin, Apology, 22,6)

And when he (the devil) brings forward Asclepius as the raiser of the dead and healer of the other diseases, may I not say that in this matter likewise he has imitated the prophecies about Christ? (Justin, Diologues, 69, 3)

Ascelpius was also, like Jesus, given the power to cast out demons: “Behold, some one excited by the impulse of the demon is out of his senses, raves, is mad: let us lead him into the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus; or since Jupiter knows not how to cure men, into the fane of Asclepius or Apollo. Let the priest of either, in the name of his god, command the wicked spirit to come out of the man: that can in no way come to pass.” ( Lactantius, Divinae Institutiones, IV, 27, 12, (Edelstein 176))

He was also given power over the elements, as testified by a passage from Aristides, “Now I have heard some people saying that, when they were at sea and in the midst of a storm, the god appeared to them and stretched forth his hand” (Aristides, Oratio XLII 1-15) (Edelstein, 162)

He was even cited as a muse for inspired writings: “And he not without the aid of the gods” says Homer, nor do you (acacias) write these words without the influence of Asclepius, for manifestly he joined with you in the writing. It is, of course, fitting for him, as the son of Apollo, to have some of the cultural talent of his father and to apportion it to whomever he desires. How then would it be possible for him not to assist you in these discourses concerning himself? (Libanius, Epistulae 695, 1-2., (Edelstein 338))

According to Chronicon Paschale (79), in the year 1405 BC Ilium was founded by Ilius, and Asclepius entered the profession of medicine – making him about 1000 years earlier than Jesus (64)

Ascelpius as Healer, Savior and Soul of World

As Asclepius grew in power and popularity, he began to be viewed as a much more powerful force – equal to the philosophy of Christ as the Divine Logos:

He (Asclepius) is the one who guides and rules the universe, the savior of the whole and the guardian of the immortals, or if you wish to put it in the words of a tragic poet, “the steerer of government,” he who saves that which always exists and that which is in the state of becoming. But if we believe him to be the son of Apollo, and the third from Zeus, and if again we link him to these names…; since sometimes they maintain that even Zeus is born, and then again they show that he is the father and maker of everything. Aristides, Oratio XLII4 (150)

In the opinion of the Neo-platonists, Asclepius was in fact the soul of the world by which the creation is held together and filled with symmetry and balanced union (T.304). Through Asclepius, the savior of the whole world, the health and safety of all is guaranteed (T. 306). Through him, the elements do not relax their indestructible bonds; through him, the universe remains young and healthy (T.309)…In their opinion, therefore, Asclepius was a god even before the beginning of existence, a transcendental deity (T. 305; cf. also T.259), although he was ruling over the phenomenal world, although he was within it. Zeus had engendered Asclepius from himself; but through the sun, through Apollo, he had revealed him to the mundane regions (T.307) In his earthly appearance Asclepius was the third from Zeus (T.303). Thus the god of medicine took his place in the pagan trinity. He had risen high indeed. (Edelstein, 108)

At the same time, “despite all changes in his influence and in his position, he did not change his nature: he remained the healer of diseases and the giver of health.”

Since the 5th century b.c., a desire for a more person religion (as well as the  idea that gods aren’t bad, should be free from envy and malice – plato, stoics, epicureans…) individual relationship rather than collective worship “There was a craving for a personal relationship to the deity, and the belief in divine providence progressed steadily. In such a world it was natural that Asclepius found favor, for if any god was interested in the private needs ofmen, in their most personal affairs, if any god showed providence, it was Asclepius.(Edelstein113)

Asclepius only heals the pure of heart and mind… he heals the poor and he does it for free “Asclepius, again, does not heal mankind in the hope of repayment, but everywhere fulfills his own function of beneficence to mankind. Julianus, epistulae 419 b (164)

Images of Asclepius show him as youthful and bearded. He ‘radiates dignity mixed with compassion; eyes turned upward looking saintly and benign. Curly locks falling over the back and down to the eyebrows.” He liked children was fond of them (Edelstein, 224)

Diogenes Laertius, Vitae Philosophorum III, 45 Phoebus gave to mortals Asclepius and Plato, the one to save their souls, the other to save their bodies. (Jesus becomes both.) 164 (3rd century AD).

On the contrary, in addition to the similarity of the deeds of the two saviors, which even the later Christians seem to have found disconcerting, there was a disturbing resemblance in their way of life and in their characters. Christ did not perform heroic or worldly exploits; he fought no battles; he concerned himself solely with assisting those who were in need of succor. So did Asclepius. Christ, like Asclepius, was sent into the world as a helper of men. Christ’s life on earth was blameless, as was that of Asclepius. Christ in his love of men invited his patients to come to him, or else he wandered about to meet them. This, too, could be said of Asclepius. All in all, it is not astonishing that Apologists and Church Fathers had a hard stand in their fight against Asclepius, in proving the superiority of Jesus, if moral reasoning alone was to be relied upon. The nature of the godhead of the two saviors was indisputably identical: both were man-gods. Son of God and mortal woman, the story of Christ’s birth in many ways resembled the birth saga of divine Asclepius.  God died…through god had risen to heaven, immortal on account of virtue. Human and divine, Asclepius was called a ‘terrestrial and intelligible’ god (Edelstein, 136)