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Jesus and Prometheus

By The Rev. Howard Bess
December 11, 2009

Editor’s Note: At the Christmas season, Christians celebrate the stories that glorify the birth of Jesus – a child born in a manger to a poor woman denied access to the inn, as three wise men bearing expensive gifts follow a bright star to the site.

Yet, these myths – contained in the gospels of Matthew and Luke – also conveyed a political message for the time, and indeed for all time: a message to the rich and powerful to share with those with less. In that sense, the Jesus-birth myths echo the Greek myth of Prometheus, as the Rev. Howard Bess notes in this guest essay:

There is no story that has captured the imagination of western civilization quite like the story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

Visiting angels delivering holy messages. … A virgin birth in a stable because there was no room in the inn. … Wise men from a distant country traveling under the guidance of a star that comes to rest over a barn in a town of little importance. Expensive gifts brought to the poorest of the poor by the rich and powerful. …

Scholarship in the last half of the 20th century brought an explosion of critical studies of the Bible, and the birth narratives found in the Matthew and Luke gospels have been a particular target of study.

Discovering the context of the birth narratives has been a special matter of interest. …

Palestine is a land bridge between the two most culturally influential nations of western civilization – Mesopotamia and Egypt. Inescapably the Israelites were also impacted by the two great empires to the north and west – Greece and Rome. …

Many would argue that the most important myth to come out of that region is the Greek myth of Prometheus. … Prometheus is credited with two great accomplishments. He created humankind out of clay. He stole fire from Zeus and gave it to common people.

There are dozens of ancient stories in the Middle East about the creation of humankind from clay or the dust of the earth. No one can say that the Prometheus myth was the first, but we can affirm that his story had a powerful influence throughout the area. …

Prometheus was a Titan, a powerful deity in Greek mythology. He was noted for his almost limitless knowledge. He was a master of architecture, mathematics, navigation, medicine, and metallurgy. He was the champion of humans and freely shared his knowledge with common folk. 

Zeus, the chief and most powerful of the Gods, was angered by Prometheus’s sharing of his knowledge. It gave too much power into the hands of common people. As punishment, Zeus withheld fire from Prometheus and common people.

Through trickery, Prometheus went to Mt. Olympus and stole fire from the sun. He shared fire with the people.

Again Zeus was enraged. Zeus tied Prometheus to a rock in the Caucasus Mountains. He sent a huge eagle every morning to pick at the liver of Prometheus, but during the night the liver was made whole again. The eagle returned every day. …

The core issue is the relationship between those who hold power and common people. Prometheus is the central character in ancient mythology who insisted that power must be shared with common people.

Within the context of a strict monotheism, Old Testament prophets -- such as Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah -- spoke out against the powerful on behalf of the vulnerable: the poor, the widow, and the orphan. The prophets demanded that the reign of God be accompanied by justice.

Jesus of Nazareth marked his own ministry with the two great commandments – love of God and love of neighbor. He was a faithful Jew. He took on the mantle of the great protesting prophets of Judaism. He demanded justice for the poor.

In a broader sense, he was the new Prometheus. He gave no respect to powerful people, who resisted sharing. To Jesus, the kingdom of God was not the possession of kings, priests and people of wealth and power; the kingdom of God belongs to the most common of people.

The birth narratives should be read as classic declarations of resistance to emperors, priests, kings and others who hold wealth and power and refuse to share power with ordinary folk.

The writers of the birth narratives used the literary devices of their day to make their point. Put into context, the birth narratives are some of the most powerful pieces of writing on behalf of common people in the history of western civilization. 

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His e-mail address is           

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