Meditations from the Classics

Apuleius (124-170 AD)
Golden Ass 11

The custom of going into a temple or house of worship, standing at the pulpit and speaking sacred words, was an established practice in Biblical times.  Paul often took the podium in synagogues where he traveled.


Ancient Jewish synagogue

Jesus stood in the bema (a raised platform with a lectern), at the synagogue of Nazareth.  He read from the Scriptures and then delivered his message.  The people listened attentively but grew restless and eventually angry at His words.  Then,

“… they rose up and cast Him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, in order to throw Him down the cliff” (Luke 4:29).

A similar custom was practiced in temples of the ancient world.  Apuleius gave us this description of a day at a temple in Corinth:

“On arrival at the temple, the high priest, those who bore the divine figures, and those who had been admitted into the inner light of the cult, collected in the sanctuary of the goddess.  First, they put back the breathing images into their right places: then a man (whom all entitled the scribe) took his stand in a high pulpit before the doors, and the Society of the Pastophori (such is the name of the sacred college) was convoked.  The scribe thereupon read out of a book a set of patriotic prayers for the great Prince, the Senate, the Equestrian Order, the Roman people, and all sailors and ships which come under the jurisdiction of Rome.  After that, he pronounced in the Greek tongue and manner the ‘Laois aphesis’.  The people were then dismissed” (Golden Ass, 11).


Temple of Apollo in ancient Corinth


I can’t help but notice the way the people left their service in contrast to the Lukan dismissal.  When Jesus finished, the people escorted Him out to a cliff to dispose of Him.  In other words, angry to excess.

But in the pagan temple service it was quite different:

   “The shout that followed showed the popular approval of the day’s proceedings a; and the congregation began to file out, beaming with joy, carrying boughs of olives and other votive wreaths, and garlanded with flowers.  As they left the precincts, they one and all stopped to kiss the feet of a silver image of the goddess that stood on the steps.”

Two speakers.
Two readings from different pulpits.
Two reactions.

Jesus preached the truth, and the congregation lynched Him.  The other priest preached patriotism and the listeners responded with frenzied applause.

 David R. Denny  Ph.D.
1.  Ancient synagogue:  http://dsbiblecentre.org/index.py?lang=en&page=Showbible&index=00176
2.  Temple in ancient Corinth:  http://www.pics-about-space.com/temple-of-apollo?p=3#

Triumphal Entry

Meditations from the Classics

De Rerum Natura: 2  (Written 50 B.C.)
(Nature of Things: Book Two)

Do you hear the drums and the clash of cymbals?  It’s getting closer.  What is it?  Oh, yes, there it is.  It’s the procession for Mother Earth, (Cybele) the goddess of the ancient world as she enters another town surrounded in a glorious frenzy by her followers.  It’s like a triumphal entry.

A thunder of drums attends her, tight-stretched and pounded by palms, and a clash of hollow cymbals; hoarse-throated horns bray their deep warning, and the pierced flute thrills every heart with Phrygian strains.  Weapons are carried before her, symbolic of rabid frenzy, to chasten the thankless and profane hearts of the rabble with dread of her divinity.  So, when first she is escorted into some great city and mutely enriches mortals with wordless benediction, they strew her path all along the route with a lavish largesse of copper and silver and shadow the Mother and her retinue with a  snow of roses (Lucretius, De Rerum Natura: 2).



Earth: triumph of Cybele, sitting between Bacchus and Ceres in a chariot drawn by two lions and surrounded by satyrs, putti and women carrying baskets of fruits and flowers (1721 etching–British Museum).

Quite a show, isn’t it?
But wait.  Another parade is approaching.  Who is it?  A great crowd is gathering.  The sounds of Hosanna echo up and down the country road.  It is Jesus, the creator of Earth.  See how humbly He comes?  Riding a donkey!  There are no weapons before Him to frighten the masses into submission.  He is not some stiff and frozen statue nailed to a mobile platform.  He is alive.  He beckons the people to come to Him.

And most of the multitude spread their garments in the road, and others were cutting branches from the trees, and spreading them on the road.  And the multitudes  going before Him, and those who followed after were crying out, saying, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David; Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest!’
(Matthew 21:8-9).

Two spectacular triumphal entries:

The first was led by Cybele whose wooden face and painted smile betrayed her wooden heart.  The second was led by Jesus who blessed the masses and healed the lame and gave His life a ransom for many.

Go ahead.  Gather your things and join the throngs.  But choose carefully which triumphal procession you will join.

David R. Denny  Ph.D.

Image from the British Museum


The Boat

Meditations from the Classics

Carmina  (Poem 4)
The Boat


The Phaselus or boat described by Catullus.

Once there was a boat, said Catullus.

And what a boat it was! It knew, even while it stood among its fellow trees on a high mountain summit, long before it was ever cut and shaped into the form of a sleek ocean traveler, that it would be great.

Those ‘summit’ days were dreamy ones for the boat to be. Gazing out over the cliffs to the distant sea, it tasted the salt and felt the breezes sifting through its sails.

Then, as dreams are wont to do, the boat was born. Skilled artisans formed its hull, planted a tall mast on the firm deck, and raised its sails to the heavens.

Once the vessel hit the water

“…it flew upon the sea
and, birdlike, fled more rapidly
than all the rest. Swift ships have failed
to catch it when they raced with oar and sheet.
All met with quick defeat.”

     What a ship! said Catullus. It weathered all the storms with ease. Never beaten or conquered, it sailed with high spirits until, in time, it retired in a peaceful harbor at rest.

“She made her final odyssey
to this calm lake where she will stay
and age in peace and where she may
repose protected from the sea.
Sacred to Castor and his twin, this ship
has made her final trip.”

     In a way, the noble ship symbolizes the active Christian life. You sail through all life’s storms with eyes locked on the prize, depending on God to steer you safely to that place of rest. At times you might be unable to see the shoreline but remember that Jesus slept with repose in a boat on the stormy Galilean Sea, and you too can experience peace as the journey unfolds.

     “There remains, therefore, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God.  For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His” (Heb. 4:9-10).

David R. Denny  Ph.D

Photo credit:  https://latunicadeneso.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/la-reconstruccion-del-phaselus-un-barco-de-la-antigua-roma/

Life in the Ghetto

Meditations from the Classics

Life in the Ghetto
Ancient Rome
Juvenal, Roman, AD 55-138
Satires III


Subura–A neighborhood in first century Rome.

 Juvenal, a first-century Roman poet who relished satire and found delight in mocking the Roman customs, described one of the blue collar neighborhoods just outside of downtown ancient Rome. Called Subura, he lived there for a while and hated it. Julius Caesar had a little house in Subura before becoming famous. Nobody lingered here longer than he had too. But alas many of the working poor had no escape.

Juvenal described it as a busy, crowded, noisy, dirty area brimming with crime, prostitution and endless trades such as shoemakers, iron-mongers, wool merchants, cobblers, etc.

One thing he particularly despised were the wave, of Greek immigrants that flooded this neighborhood seeking a new life.

“What I cannot endure, my countrymen, is Rome turned Greek!”

Juvenal looked down on these aliens. He said they couldn’t be trusted. They would do anything to please their masters in hopes of gaining power and possibly inherited wealth. They’re sneaky, and they like to become all things to all people just to reach their goals, he said.

            “He is anything and everything you please, all in one. Grammar, rhetoric, geometry, painting, or wrestling, prophesying, rope-dancing, medicine, and magic—he is master of them all. Give the word, and your hungry Greekling will climb the clouds.”[1]

As I read these lines over a few times, I thought I could hear a faint Pauline sentiment in the back of my mind. I thought a little more and then I pegged it: Paul said:

“For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more…I have become all things to all men,[2] that I may by all means save some” (1 cor. 9:19, 22).

Say what you will but it sounds like the Greeks of ancient Rome were pretty versatile and ingenious. Paul seems to have done something pretty similar–blending into his surroundings to be more effective as a messenger of the Gospel.

Maybe we should all break out of our limitations and find more common ground with the world about us.

David R. Denny Ph.D.
[2] τοῖς  πᾶσιν  γέγονα  πάντα…

Singing the Blues

Meditations from the Classics

Singing the Blues
Aristophanes, Knights



(Greek comedy, 424 BC)
Acts 16:22-30

Demos, an elderly Athenian master, enraged by the gossip of a new slave he had recently purchased, turned his wrath on two veteran slaves, Nicias and Demosthenes. He beat them furiously. The new slave in the house, Cleon, had gained favor with the boss and told him a bunch of lies about the old-timers. Listen to them gripe and whine as they run from their most recent beating by the master:


“Ouch! How I hurt! …Oh, Lord! Goodness me!
That Cleon our master lately bought…
Confound him anyway, and all his tricks!
For, since the day he got into this house,
There’s been a perfect itch of beatings here…
How do you feel, my boy?”


“No worse than you, I’m sure.”


Let’s sing a sob duet to Olympus’s tune.”


“Boohoo, boohoo, boohoo.”
(μυμῦ μυμῦ μυμῦ μυμῦ μυμῦ μυμῦ.)

 Poor fellows. Two Athenian slaves who had it bad. The best they could summon within them was to break down and sob in perfect harmony with their pain. They remind me of two other men, slaves to a higher master as well, who likewise were rudely and improperly beaten. They too sang their pain away. But when Paul and Silas sang, it was a joyful duet about the majesty of God. Listen in—

     “And the multitude rose up together against them: and the magistrates rent off their clothes, and commanded to beat them. 23And when they had laid many stripes upon them, they cast them into prison, charging the jailor to keep them safely: 24Who, having received such a charge, thrust them into the inner prison, and made their feet fast in the stocks. But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God…”(Acts 16:25).

What’s the name of your tune? “Sobbing the Blues” or “Praising the Lord.”

David R. Denny  Ph.D