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ASCLEPIUS OF EPIDAURUS

AND JESUS OF NAZARETH

Hansie Wolmarans
Department of Greek and Latin Studies
University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg, South Africa

Abstract
Asclepius the healer god, as he was worshipped at the temple of Epidaurus, is compared with
Jesus as healer in the New Testament. It is concluded that the myths surrounding their birth,
life, death and deification, as well as the healing stories associated with them, are slightly
different realisations of basically the same vision of the world, serving similar sociological
functions.

1. Introduction
Situated in an inland valley just outside the city of Epidaurus, the great temple of Asclepius
made the city famous. From the mid-fifth century onwards, this shrine was steadily gaining
international fame as the headquarters of the Panhellenic healing god, Asclepius. The
sanctuary was modestly laid out round about 430 BC.1 From the quarter of the fourth century
onwards, the temple was recast and extended to accommodate an ever increasing flow of
visitors.2 For nearly a thousand years, up to the end of the Roman imperial period, Epidaurus
was the main centre for the cult of Asclepius.3 Other sanctuaries traced their origins to
Epidaurus.4 Livy (A. U. C. 10.47; 11) and Ovid (Met. 15.625-744) for example recounts how
the cult of Asclepius was brought from Epidaurus to Rome in the year of 292 BC after a
severe plague struck the city of Rome.

The influence of Epidaurus is still evident in the second century AD. Pausanias for example
(Graec. Descr. II 26.1-27.6), gave a traveller’s description of the temple around the middle of
the second century AD. He remarks, inter alia, that within the enclosure of the temple stood
six marble slabs, on which are inscribed the names of people healed at the sanctuary, the
diseases from which they suffered, and the means of the cure (II 27.3). The site was
systematically excavated during the nineteenth century, described and interpreted in various
publications.5

The healing stories, inscribed on the slabs, were also collected and interpreted. 6 A systematic
comparison of Asclepius and Jesus has not been done. Ferguson7 simply states: “The cures at
the healing sanctuaries are in a totally different frame of reference from the healings by the
spoken word or touch of Jesus recorded in the Gospels.”

The aim of this study is to test Ferguson’s thesis. The world vision and sociological function
underlying the myth8 and healings of Asclepius and Jesus will be compared. 9 In the following
section we will look at the Asclepius and Jesus myths respectively. Thereafter, the healing
stories will be the focus of our attention. Finally, the conclusions reached will be
summarised.

2. Asclepius and Jesus


According to Ferguson10 the mildness and benevolence of Asclepius “made him the most
Christ like of the pagan deities.” His portraiture even influenced artists in depicting Christ.
These common features between Asclepius and Christ are also reflected in the myths
surrounding their miraculous birth, healings, death and deification.

We encounter Asclepius for the first time in the 8th century BC when Homer mentions him
(Il. 2.728-33). He is described as a renowned human healer who has transmitted his skills to
his two sons, Podaleiros and Machaon.

Pindar (Pyth. 3) writing in 474 BC11 describes Asclepius as a hero, that is, as a person with a
god as a father, and a mortal as a mother. The god Apollo had an affair with a married mortal
woman, Coronis. As punishment for her adultery, she was fatally wounded by the arrows of
Artemis. Placed on a funeral pyre, Apollo came and delivered the child from his dying
mother. He placed the child in the care of Chiron, the Magnesian Centaur, who taught it the
art of healing. Pausanias (Graec. Descr. II 26.1-27.6) records variants of Pindar’s myth of the
birth of the god current at Epidaurus. The common denominator between these myths is that
Coronis gave birth to Asclepius in the vicinity of the shrine at Epidaurus. She exposed him
there and he grew up discovering everything necessary to heal the sick.

Pindar (Pyth. 3) as well as Euripides (Alc. 3-4) tells us that Zeus became annoyed when
Asclepius raised someone12 from the dead. He therefore struck both Asclepius and his patient
down with a lightning bolt. Afterwards, Asclepius is elevated to full divinity and associated
with the celestial gods.13 Sometimes, however, he is associated with the chthonic deities, as
he appears in the form of a snake in some of the healing stories of Epidaurus (for example
SIG, IV2, 1168.XVII.64).14 Sociologically speaking, the deification of Asclepius clearly had a
propagandistic function: to enhance his fame as a healer god and to associate him
geographically with the temple of Epidaurus.

The world vision underlying the various versions of this myth, divides the world into three
“storeys”: a physical reality in the middle, with a supernatural heavenly realm above, as well
as the realm of the chthonic deities below the earth, connecting to nature. The celestial gods
are found in heaven. When a male god consorts with a female mortal, a hero (half man, half
god) is produced. It is possible for a hero to be deified. A god may appear in the form of an
animal, especially if he is a chthonic god. Gods interfere in the affairs of humans.
Mythological figures, like the centaurs, is the meeting place of the middle storey with the
lowest story, as they are half human, half animal.

The earliest accounts of Jesus make no mention of a divine birth. The Gospel of Mark,
regarded as the oldest Gospel,15 as well as the writings of Paul, do not imply that Jesus had
any other origin than human. The stories of his miraculous birth are recounted in the gospels
of Matthew and Luke. According to Matthew 1:20 and Luke 1:35 Mary, the mother of Jesus,
becomes pregnant because of the miraculous working of the Holy Spirit. Concerning his
education, little is known. Mark 1:13 simply states that he was in the desert for forty days
with the wild animals and that the angels served him. During this time he was tempted by the
devil. Because of Israel’s wandering through the desert, the desert was regarded as the place
of God’s revelation. The story of the child Jesus between the teachers (Luke 2:41-52) also
implies a divine or supernatural education. He heals many people, even resurrecting the dead
(for example Matthew 4:23; Luke 7:11-17). He eventually dies, is resurrected (Matthew 28:6)
and taken into heaven (Acts 1:9-11). The sociological function of the Jesus myth, is to
enhance his reputation as head of the Christian movement which is not localised but
universal.
The similarities between the myths surrounding Asclepius and Jesus are obvious. Both
figures start off as human beings, both heal people, and both are killed. Myths regarding a
supernatural father and a human mother, are attached to both personalities. It would seem
that both received a supernatural education and both were deified.

Naturally, there are also many important differences between the stories of Asclepius and
Jesus. Jesus is not born as the result of an affair between a god and a mortal. He is not killed
by a god because of the fact that he resurrected the dead. He is killed by humans as the result
of earthly power struggles. Jesus does not appear after his resurrection in the form of an
animal, but with his glorified body. It is remarkable, however, that in Matthew 3:16, the Holy
Spirit descends on Him, “like a dove”. The healings of Jesus are also associated with
teaching and morality, whilst this is not the case with Asclepius.

The view of reality presupposed by the Jesus myth, is very similar to the one presupposed by
the Asclepius myth. We have again a three storey view of reality with a heaven above, the
realm of God and his angels,16 the earth down below, and a realm under the earth, where the
devil and his troupe dwell.17 An important difference is that the realm above is associated
with good things, while the realm from below is associated with bad things. This distinction
does not occur in the Asclepius myth: the gods above take sides in the affairs of humans.
They bless and destroy alike. The snake, a symbol of nature, fed by the gods from below,
becomes a symbol of healing. The world view underpinning the Jesus myth is clearly a
refinement or further development of the one presupposed by the Asclepius myth.

Who produced these myths? Why were they produced? Again, the similarities are striking.
These myths were produced by people who had a stake in the one or other form of social
organisation. In the case of Asclepius, they were produced by the priests at his various
temples. The sociological function of these myths were to entice sick people to come to these
temples for healing. The priests and the cities associated with these temples, received
monetary compensation. In the case of Jesus, the stories were produced by the Christian
communities. It provided incentives for people to join the movement.

These striking similarities bring us to the conclusion that the myths surrounding Asclepius
and Jesus were produced by a similar vision of the world, a similar frame of reference. The
differences are of a more specific nature and are explained by the specific influence of
Judaism upon the Jesus stories, and a development and refinement of the classical world
vision.

3. The Healings at Epidaurus and the Healings of Jesus


The myth regarding Asclepius’ birth near the temple, served to localise the Asclepeion as the
god’s headquarters. A very interesting healing story18 of Epidaurus tells of Aristagora of
Troezen who had a tapeworm in her belly. She slept in the temple of Asclepius at Troezen
where, in a dream, the sons of the god19 cut off her head, but was unable to put it back again.
When day broke, the priest at Troezen clearly saw her head cut off from her body. The
following night, Aristagora dreamed that the sons fetched Asclepius from Epidaurus who put
her head back on, opened her belly and removed the tapeworm. Afterwards she became well.
The import of the story (inscribed by the priests) is propagandistic: to establish Epidaurus as
the real home of Asclepius. The sons of Asclepius are really no match for the master healer
himself. The propagandistic slant is clear: Do not go to Troezen for healing; Epidaurus is
better!

It is important to note that the healing stories inscribed on the marble columns were not the
stories told by the original healed patients. The patient had a wooden tablet (pinax) inscribed
with her story, and offered this as a thanksgiving present to the god.20 At some stage
thereafter, as the wooden tablets were not permanent, the stories were re-recorded on the
marble slabs. This can be deduced from the story about the healing of Cleo. 21 This inscription
is remarkable, as it records the exact words of the original wooden tablet, though giving an
expanded and interpreted version of the events. According to the inscription, Cleo was
pregnant for five years. Having slept in the abaton, she bore a son outside the temple
precincts. He immediately walked about and was able to wash himself. In return for this
favour, she inscribed on her offering (my own translation):

“One should not marvel at the greatness of the tablet, but at the god [Asclepius],
because Cleo carried a burden in her womb for five years, until she slept in the temple
and he restored her to health.”

The wooden tablet itself therefore only stated that Cleo carried a burden in her womb for five
years and was restored to health. Nothing is said about a miraculous birth at all. What
probably happened is that she had a pseudo pregnancy (pseudocyesis) of which she was
cured. The priests embroidered on the original story for the purposes of propaganda.

For a general description of the procedure according to which healings took place, we can
look to Aristophanes. Although the description is comic, the procedure described is
representative. In his Plutus (653-748), Aristophanes relates how the slave, Cario,
accompanied the god of wealth, Plutus, as well as the infamous politician, Neocleides, to the
Asclepeion of Epidaurus. Both Plutus and Neocleides had problems with their eyes. Plutus
was of course supposed to be blind, because he was in the habit of distributing his wealth to
the wrong persons!

According to Aristophanes, the procedure was as follows:


1. The visitors took a purification bath in the sea.
2. They enter the precincts and put loaves, cakes and other oblations on the altar.
3. They went to sleep in the abaton22, the place where visitors seeking a cure bedded down
for the night.
4. The priest orders everybody to keep quiet no matter what noises they heard.
5. They see the priest carrying off all the edibles from the altar. 23
6. Cario tries to steal some food from an elderly female pilgrim. When she pulls the porridge
under her bedclothes, he hisses like a snake and takes it. This incident confirms the view
that Asclepius was thought to appear in the form of a snake.
7. At the climax of the incubation vigil, Asclepius is seen 24 together with his daughters.
8. He makes a plaster of hot spices and vinegar, places it on the eyes of Neocleides, and
thereby makes him more blind than he was. Cario interprets this as a manifestation of the
power of Asclepius, as from now on Neocleides will be less able to do damage to the
Athenian people!
9. Plutus is healed when the daughter of Asclepius, Panacea, places a cloth over his eyes.
Two serpents promptly appears,25 licks his eyelids and he is healed.
According to the healing stories, immediately on the following day, an offering to Asclepius
was to be made. When the suppliant returned home, and became fully cured, he was
supposed to send money to the temple. This is illustrated in the healing story of Pandarus 26
who had some marks on his forehead. In the dream, the god instructed him to remove his
headband and dedicate it as an offering. The following morning he found the marks
transferred to the headband and did as he was told. Back at home, he gave Echedorus 27
money to offer to Asclepius in his name. Echedorus had a similar medical problem. He,
however, put the money into his own pocket. In his dream, the god asked him whether he
received any money from Pandarus. When he denied this, the god fastened the headband of
Pandarus around his head, and as punishment, he received the marks of Pandarus in addition
to his own. When day came, the signs were not visible on the headband anymore.

Patients looking for a cure were supposed not to doubt. An unknown person28 whose fingers
were paralysed, looked at the wooden tablets in the temple and expressed his incredulity
regarding the cures. He also scoffed at the inscriptions. While sleeping in the abaton, he
dreamt that the god sprang upon his hand and cured him. The god asked him whether he
would be in future incredulous of the inscriptions. He answered that he would not. Thereupon
the god changed his name to Apistos (“Incredulous”). In the story of the curing of
Cleimenes,29 he is in his dream required by the god to take a cold bath. When he hesitated to
go into the water, the god said that he would not cure the cowardly, but only those full of
hope (euelpides).

The story of Aratas30 illustrates that the sick person could send a representative. Aratas
suffered from dropsy and her mother slept on her behalf in the abaton. She dreamt that the
god performed an operation on her daughter. He cut off her head, turned her upside down,
and in this way drained some fluid matter from her body. Thereafter he fitted the head back
on to the neck. When the mother returned home, she found her daughter in good health. She
had the exact same dream.

The world vision presupposed by these miracle stories, again divides the world into three
stories. The god Asclepius dwells in heaven, the top storey. Sometimes he is also connected
to the chthonic deities who dwell in the basement. Humans can connect to the world of the
gods (above or below), by dreaming. Euripides (Alc. 348-356) voices the intentions of king
Admetus to have a statue made of his deceased wife. He would then put the statue in his bed,
embrace it and imagine that he is really holding his wife in his arms. This would cause her to
appear in his dreams again and again. This story again illustrates the view that the world of
dreams connect people to the realm of the heaven or netherworld. It may also explain how
dreams were induced at the temple of Asclepius: the visitors saw his statue upon entering.
Cures were then effected by the god appearing in a dream. Payment is required to allow the
priests to continue with their work. Representatives could be sent. Some sort of faith or
expectation is required. The work of the god is localised at Epidaurus. Sometimes the god
uses medications or surgery to effect a cure. At the temple of Epidaurus, many medical
instruments were excavated.31 It would seem that the priests did not rely solely on the
intervention of the god, but made good use of general medical treatment, baths and a
gymnasium.

Looking at the miracle stories of the New Testament, we see some remarkable similarities
and differences. In a dream, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and announced the
miraculous pregnancy of Mary (Matthew 1:20). The angel Gabriel also announces the birth of
Jesus to Mary (Luke 1:26-38). The same angel appears to Zechariah in the temple to
announce the birth of his son, John the Baptist (Luke 1:11-20). Jesus heals the son of the
centurion (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10; see also John 4:46-54), after hearing the pleas of the
centurion and without seeing the sick slave. In Mark 2:1-12 a lame man is healed on the basis
of the faith of his friends, who lowered him through the roof. Matthew 10:1 describes how
Jesus gives power to his disciples to heal people and to exorcise demons. He specifically
forbids his disciples to accept money for their services (Matthew 10:7) and connects the
preaching of the gospel to these healings. The story of Ananias and Sapphira, which is not a
healing story, is however important. Acts 4:32-5:10 recounts how the first Christians
practised a form of socialism. They sold everything they had and brought it to the feet of the
apostles. Ananias and his wife Sapphira, having sold off a property, retained some of the
money for themselves and were struck dead.

Acts 5:12-16 states that when the shadow of Peter fell on sick people, they were healed. Acts
19:11-20 recounts that people were healed when parts of Paul’s clothes were laid onto them.
The disciples do not work for free, however. In Matthew 10:9 it is prescribed that they should
receive free lodging. Acts 19:13-17 narrates how some Jews attempted to heal people in the
name of Jesus. These attempts were unsuccessful. The sociological function of these stories
are to localise the healing socially, not geographically. Healings occur only with Jesus’
official representatives within the Jesus movement.

The purifying power of water is implied in Matthew 12:43, where it is stated that a demon
avoids water. Jesus mostly healed people by his spoken word, or by touching. However, in
Mark 7:31-37 it is recounted that he stuck his fingers into a deaf and dumb man’s ears and
put spittle onto his tongue. John 9:1-12 states that Jesus mixed his spittle with some earth and
put this clay onto the eyes of a blind man. John 5:1-16 recounts specifically how Jesus healed
a man who unsuccessfully frequented the bath of Bethesda at the temple for healing. This
story undermines the notion that healing is associated with a specific place; it is localised
with the person of Jesus.

The world is again seen as a three storey building, with God and his angels in heaven, people
on earth and demons below. It is especially demons (for example Matthew 12:22) and sin (for
example Matthew 9:1-7) that cause sickness. A touch or a command is enough to heal this
kind of sickness. Now and then Jesus uses some form of medication. Although dreams do not
function in the cures, it is accepted that people do connect with the heavenly realm through
dreams. Water is seen as a purifying agent. The presence of God is connected to the temple,
but a development seems to take place. Not the temple itself is the guarantee for the cure, but
either Jesus himself or his delegates. By not requiring payment but faith, cures become the
means through which people join the Jesus movement. In general, the members of this
movement are required to look after and to care for Jesus and his official representatives.
Myths to encourage them to pay, were incorporated. We know that the early Christians were
kicked out of the Jewish temples and synagogues (for example Acts 21:27-30). The
Christians were forced to couple the healing presence of God not to a specific place, but to
the person of Jesus and to his official representatives. The movement became the new
household of God, so that where two or three are together in his Name, he himself would be
present.

The healing stories at Epidaurus and those of the New Testament served the same
sociological function. They enhanced the prestige of Jesus or Asclepius. In the case of
Asclepius, it was necessary to associate the healings with a geographical location, the temple.
In the case of Jesus, the healings were localised socially, as resting with Jesus and his official
representatives. This explains why, in the case of Asclepius, only credulity was required, but
in the case of Jesus, faith: the healed were supposed to join a movement and not simply to
pay for services rendered.

4. Conclusion
The evidence suggests that the world view underlying the healings of Epidaurus and those of
Jesus and his followers is basically the same. The differences are not major. They can be
explained as a result of the fact that the early Christians did not have access to sanctuaries.
The world vision of the early Christians developed the pagan one in the sense that good is
associated with above, and evil with below. The pagan vision did not have this distinction.
On the other hand, the medical instruments excavated at Epidaurus 32 gave impetus to the
development of the modern vision that the body is capable of healing itself, sometimes with
the aid of medication, surgery, or other forms of treatment. The specifically Christian vision,
gave birth to the view that man, with his body, soul and spirit, forms a whole. Disturbances in
one of man’s “parts”, causes disturbances in other parts.

Concerning the monetary rewards coupled to healing, we do find remarkable similarities and
differences. Christianity healed for free, but expected the healed to join the Jesus movement,
to conduct themselves morally and to attribute to the financial upkeep of this social
movement. Epidaurus healed for money and was not interested in morality.

The myths and healing stories connected with Jesus and Asclepius are therefore different
realisations of a very similar vision of the world, serving similar sociological functions.

1
A. Burford, The Greek Temple Builders at Epidauros, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1969, 15.
2
T.J. Dunbabin and R.J. Hopper, ‘Epidaurus’. In: N.G.L. Hammond and H.H. Scullard (eds.), The Oxford
Classical Dictionary, Oxford: Clarendon, 1970, 392.
3
G. Tarsouli, Argolis, Athens: M. Pechlivanides & Co., (no year), 86.
4
H.C. Kee, Miracle in the Early Christian World. A Study in Sociohistorical Method, New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1983, 84.
5
See, for example, A. Burford, Op. cit.; C. Voutsas, Epidauros and Museum, Athens: Voutsas Brothers, 1976.
6
See E.J. Edelstein and L. Edelstein, Asclepius: A Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies, 2 vols.,
Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press; Herzog, R. Die Wunderheilungen von Epidauros: Ein Beitrag zur
Geschichte der Medizin und der Religion, (published as a supplement to Philologus, suppl. Bd. 22, Heft 3),
Leipzig, 1931. W. Dittenberger, Sylloge Inscriptionum Graecarum, 19603, Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1960,
numbers 1168-1173 (hereafter referred to as SIG3).
7
E. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 19932, 212.
8
The term myth in this article is used in the sense of a story referring to supernatural persons and events.
9
For the purposes of this article, the healing stories of Epidaurus as recorded in SIG3 (1168-1173) are used, as
well as Aristophanes’ comic description of a visit to the temple of Epidaurus by the god of wealth, Plutus (Plutus,
653-748). The Gospels and Acts will be used as sources for the matters surrounding Jesus.
10
Ferguson, op. cit. 210.
11
C.M. Bowra, ‘Pindar’. In: N.G.L. Hammond and H.H. Scullard (eds.), op. cit., 833.
12
According to the Naupactica (Appolodorus 3.121), as well as Pausanias (Graec. Descr. II.27.3) Asclepius
restored Hippolytus, the son of Theseus, to life.
13
F.R. Walton, ‘Asclepius’. In: N.G.L. Hammond and H.H. Scullard (eds.), op. cit., 129.
14
The statues of Asclepius depict him with a walking stick with a serpent curled around it. This evolved into the
modern symbol of the medical profession.
15
W.G. Kümmel, Introduction to the New Testament, London: SCM Press, 1972, 46.
16
See for example Matthew 3:16 where it is described how the heavens open up to allow the Spirit of God to
descend on Jesus.
17
See also James 3:15 where the concern is about the wisdom “from below” which is demonic.
18
SIG3 1169.XXIII.
19
Asclepius had, according to the Iliad (2.728-33), two sons, namely Podalirius and Machaon.
20
Ferguson op cit. 211.
21
SIG3 1168.I.
22
The abaton was a stoa immediately to the north of the temple of Asclepius, It had a well on the east end. See
A. Burford, op. cit., 50.
23
The priests, it would seem, had the right to take part of the offerings; though not all of it! They were appointed
by the state and received a salary from the state. In Hellenistic times, priestly offices were sometimes auctioned
off and they presumably made a living from the temple revenues (H.J. Rose, ‘Priests’. In: N.G.L. Hammond and
H.H. Scullard (eds.), op. cit., 876.) The temple of Asclepius at Epidaurus had a hostel where visitors could stay
(G. Tarsouli, op. cit., 134). Presumably this hostel was a source of revenue which the priests had access to.
24
In the healing stories of the inscriptions, Asclepius appears and heals in a dream.
25
The tholos, a circular structure near the abaton might have been the place where these non-poisonous snakes
were kept (E. Ferguson, op. cit., 210). H.C. Kee, op. cit., 85, interprets the tholos as a water distribution system.
26
SIG3 1168.VI.
27
SIG3 1168.VII.
28
SIG3 1168.III.
29
SIG3 1169.XXVII.
30
SIG3 1169.XXI.
31
These instruments were found in the temple itself (see C. Voutsas, op. cit., 28-9). According to H.C. Kee, op.
cit., 86, the healings at Epidaurus were wholly matters of divine operation. The excavation of these instruments
points to the contrary.
32
See Voutsas, op. cit. 28-29 for a photograph of some of the medical instruments and votive offerings found at
Epidaurus. The votive offerings include eyes, ears, sexual organs, together with prayers for healing. These objects
show that healing did not necessarily take place immediately.