by Peter Kirby (August 30, 2003)
The observation that Luke draws on the play Bacchae by Euripides, posthumously published in 405 BCE, is spotted on the internet here by Steven Carr, as well as here and here. The most commonly cited source is Randel Helms, but the idea was discussed among scholars in the 1950s and before. This essay is written to give a fair shake of the evidence pointing particularly to Euripides as Luke's source for two items in Acts: (1) the prison escape scenes found in Acts 5:17-20, 12:6-11, and 16:23-30 and (2) the statement of the risen Christ in Paul's speech found in Acts 26:14.
(1) Prison Escape
First, the texts of Euripides and Acts themselves.
For background, the Columbia Encyclopedia says, "Pentheus: in Greek mythology, king of Thebes, son of Cadmus' daughter Agave. When Dionysus came to Thebes, Pentheus denied his divinity and tried to prevent his ecstatic rites. The women of Thebes, led by Agave, were driven mad by the offended god and tore Pentheus to pieces. The story is the subject of Euripides' Bacchae."
Bacchae 434-451 Buckley. [Servant speaks:] Pentheus, we are here, having caught this prey for which you sent us, nor have we set out in vain. This beast was docile in our hands and did not withdraw in flight, but yielded not unwillingly. He did not turn pale or change the wine-dark complexion of his cheek, but laughed and allowed us to bind him and lead him away. He remained still, making my work easy, and I in shame said: "Stranger, I do not lead you away willingly, but by order of Pentheus, who sent me." And the Bacchae whom you shut up, whom you carried off and bound in the chains of the public prison, are set loose and gone, and are gamboling in the meadows, invoking Bromius as their god. Of their own accord, the chains were loosed from their feet and keys opened the doors without human hand. (αὐτόματα δ' αὐταῖς δεσμὰ διελύθη ποδῶν κλῇδές τ' ἀνῆκαν θύρετρ' ἄνευ θνητῆς χερός.) This man [Dionysus] has come to Thebes full of many wonders. You must take care of the rest.
Acts 5:17-20 Darby. And the high priest rising up, and all they that were with him, which is the sect of the Sadducees, were filled with wrath, and laid hands on the apostles and put them in the public prison. But an angel of [the] Lord during the night opened the doors of the prison, and leading them out, said, (ἄγγελος δὲ κυρίου διὰ νυκτὸς ἤνοιξε τὰς θύρας τῆς φυλακῆς ἐξαγαγών τε αὐτοὺς εἶπεν) Go ye and stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life.
Acts 12:6-11 Darby. And when Herod was going to bring him forth, that night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and guards before the door kept the prison. And lo, an angel of [the] Lord came there, and a light shone in the prison: and having smitten the side of Peter, he roused him up, saying, Rise up quickly. And his chains fell off his hands. (καὶ ἐξέπεσαν αὐτοῦ αἱ ἁλύσεις ἐκ τῶν χειρῶν) And the angel said to him, Gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals. And he did so. And he says to him, Cast thine upper garment about thee and follow me. And going forth he followed [him] and did not know that what was happening by means of the angel was real, but supposed he saw a vision. And having passed through a first and second guard, they came to the iron gate which leads into the city, which opened to them of itself; (ἦλθαν ἐπὶ τὴν πύλην τὴν σιδηρᾶν τὴν φέρουσαν εἰς τὴν πόλιν, ἥτις αὐτομάτη ἠνοίγη αὐτοῖς) and going forth they went down one street, and immediately the angel left him. And Peter, being come to himself, said, Now I know certainly that [the] Lord has sent forth his angel and has taken me out of the hand of Herod and all the expectation of the people of the Jews.
Acts 16:23-26 Darby. And having laid many stripes upon them they cast [them] into prison, charging the jailor to keep them safely; who, having received such a charge, cast them into the inner prison, and secured their feet to the stocks. And at midnight Paul and Silas, in praying, were praising God with singing, and the prisoners listened to them. And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison shook, and all the doors were immediately opened, and the bonds of all loosed. (ἠνεώχθησαν δὲ παραχρῆμα αἱ θύραι πᾶσαι, καὶ πάντων τὰ δεσμὰ ἀνέθη.)
Several scholars have noted the parallels of prison escape, as narrated in Acts, in other Greek literature, including but not limited to Bacchae.
Luke Timothy Johnson writes: "Accounts of prison-escapes are found everywhere in Hellenistic fiction, whether their wonderful character is owed to some human virtue or relationship (see Lucian of Samosata, Toxaris 28-33; Achilles Tatius, Clitophon and Leucippe 3:9-11), or due to some divine intervention (Ovid, Metamorphoses 3:690-700; Artapanus, On the Jews, frag. three; The Acts of Paul 7; The Acts of Thomas 162-163). One of the most interesting examples of the type-scene is also one of the earliest, the escape of the devotees of Bacchus from prison by divine intervention after a tyrant had jailed them in an attempt to halt the growth of the cult (see Euripides, Bacchae 346-357; 434-450; 510-643)." (The Acts of the Apostles, p. 217)
Ovid's account says (Metamorphoses 699-700):
"Of their own accord the doors fly open wide; of their own accord, with no one loosing them, the chains fell from the prisoner's arms."
sponte sua patuisse fores lapsasque lacertis
sponte sua fama est nullo solvente catenas.
Here is what we find in Artapanus, On the Jews, fragment three (as translated by J. J. Collins in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 2, p. 901):
"The king of the Egyptians learned of Moses' presence, summoned him and asked for what purpose he had come. He responded that the master of the universe had orderd him to release the Jews. When the king learned of this, he confined him in prison. But when night came, all the doors of the prison opened of themselves (αὐτομάτως), and some of the guards died, while others were relaxed by sleep and their weapons were broken."
Indeed, the opening of a door by itself was a way of expressing the guiding hand of a god, for weal or woe (often for one side over another in a conflict), a kind of portent as seen from several Greco-Roman writers.
Xenophon, Hellenica 6.4.7. Besides this, they were also somewhat encouraged by the oracle which was reported -- that the Lacedaemonians were destined to be defeated at the spot where stood the monument of the virgins, who are said to have killed themselves because they had been violated by certain Lacedaemonians. The Thebans accordingly decorated this monument before the battle. Furthermore, reports were brought to them from the city that all the temples were opening of themselves, (αὐτόματοι ἀνεώγοντο) and that the priestesses said that the gods revealed victory. And the messengers reported that from the Heracleium the arms also had disappeared, indicating that Heracles had gone forth to the battle. Some, to be sure, say that all these things were but devices of the leaders.
Suetonius is speaking of the portents that foretold the murder of Caesar on the Ides of March (De Vita Caesarum, Divus Iulius 81.3): "In fact the very night before his murder he dreamt now that he was flying above the clouds, and now that he was clasping the hand of Jupiter; and his wife Calpurnia thought that the pediment of their house fell, and that her husband was stabbed in her arms; and on a sudden the door of the room flew open of its own accord." (ac subito cubiculi fores sponte patuerunt)
Josephus, Wars 6.293. Moreover, the eastern gate of the inner 6 [court of the] temple, which was of brass, and vastly heavy, and had been with difficulty shut by twenty men, and rested upon a basis armed with iron, and had bolts fastened very deep into the firm floor, which was there made of one entire stone, was seen to be opened of its own accord (αὐτομάτως ἠνοιγμένη) about the sixth hour of the night. Now those that kept watch in the temple came hereupon running to the captain of the temple, and told him of it; who then came up thither, and not without great difficulty was able to shut the gate again. This also appeared to the vulgar to be a very happy prodigy, as if God did thereby open them the gate of happiness. But the men of learning understood it, that the security of their holy house was dissolved of its own accord, and that the gate was opened for the advantage of their enemies. So these publicly declared that the signal foreshowed the desolation that was coming upon them.
Dio Cassius, Roman History 42.26.3-4. The following year a violent earthquake occurred, an owl was seen, thunderbolts descended upon the Capitol and upon the temple of the Public Fortune, as it was called, and into the gardens of Caesar, where a horse of no small value was destroyed by them, and the temple of Fortune opened of its own accord. (αὐτόματον ἀνεώχθη) In addition to this, blood issued from a bake-shop and flowed to another temple of Fortune ...
Dio Cassius, Roman History 66.17.2. Portents had occurred indicating his approaching end, such as the comet which was visible for a long time and the opening of the mausoleum of Augustus of its own accord. (καὶ τὸ μνημεῖον τὸ τοῦ Αὐγούστου αὐτόματον ἀνοιχθέν)
While the parallels are closer in Ovid and Artapanus and Euripides, these additional references illuminate the background of such a statement as we find in Acts 12:10.
Commenting on Acts 12:7, Conzelmann writes, "There is, however, no literary dependence of Luke upon Euripides here, but rather the appropriation of a widespread motif," (Acts, p. 94), referencing Alfred Vogeli's article "Lukas and Euripides" in ThZ 9 (1953) 415-38. (No, I haven't read it.)
Comparison between the New Testament and Euripides goes back to the second century. Origen writes in Contra Celsum 2.34:
This Jew of Celsus, ridiculing Jesus, as he imagines, is described as being acquainted with the Bacchae of Euripides, in which Dionysus says:- "The divinity himself will liberate me whenever I wish." Now the Jews are not much acquainted with Greek literature; but suppose that there was a Jew so well versed in it (as to make such a quotation on his part appropriate), how (does it follow) that Jesus could not liberate Himself, because He did not do so? For let him believe from our own Scriptures that Peter obtained his freedom after having been bound in prison, an angel having loosed his chains; and that Paul, having been bound in the stocks along with Silas in Philippi of Macedonia, was liberated by divine power, when the gates of the prison were opened. But it is probable that Celsus treats these accounts with ridicule, or that he never read them; for he would probably say in reply, that there are certain sorcerers who are able by incantations to unloose chains and to open doors, so that he would liken the events related in our histories to the doings of sorcerers. "But," he continues, "no calamity happened even to him who condemned him, as there did to Pentheus, viz., madness or discerption." And yet he does not know that it was not so much Pilate that condemned Him (who knew that "for envy the Jews had delivered Him"), as the Jewish nation, which has been condemned by God, and rent in pieces, and dispersed over the whole earth, in a degree far beyond what happened to Pentheus. Moreover, why did he intentionally omit what is related of Pilate's wife, who beheld a vision, and who was so moved by it as to send a message to her husband, saying: "Have thou nothing to do with that just man; for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of Him? " And again, passing by in silence the proofs of the divinity of Jesus, Celsus endeavours to cast reproach upon Him from the narratives in the Gospel, referring to those who mocked Jesus, ...
It seems that Celsus is not comparing the stories in Acts (Origen says he may never have read them) but saying that Jesus should have been able to let himself down off the cross. Origen replies that the disciples of Jesus could escape their bonds, so how much more could the master? Origen antipates the objection of a neo-Celsus, that a magician could release himself from imprisonment. This once again shows the proliferation of stories about prison escape in the Greco-Roman world. In the Life of Apollonius by Philostratus, the divine man can easily loosen his chains (7.34, 8.30), while Luke would consider the "magic" in his story to be the miracle of God's doing (but, nevertheless, is probably influenced by these magical ideas).
My bet is that this kind of prison escape scene was stock in trade for fiction in the first century. Which definitely casts doubt on historicity, but doesn't necessarily indicate Euripides as the sole source (or in the mind of Luke while writing at all).
(2) Spur Kicking
Now, concerning the other case of Lukan dependence on Euripides:
Bacchae 792-796 Buckley. Pentheus: Do not instruct me, but be content in your escape from prison. Or shall I bring punishment upon you again? Dionysus: I would sacrifice to the god rather than kick against his spurs in anger, a mortal against a god.
Acts 26:14 Darby. And, when we were all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? [it is] hard for thee to kick against goads.
Acts 26:14 Greek. πάντων τέ καταπεσόντων ἡμῶν εἰς τὴν γῆν ἔκουσα φωνὴν λέγουσαν πρὸς μέ τῇ ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ, Σαοὺλ Σαούλ, τί με διώκεις; σκληρόν σοι πρὸς κέντρα λακτίζειν.
Here are some parallels that turned up with a search of my TLG CD-ROM.
The phrase is found in the fourth century longer recension of the epistles of Ignatius (CCEL translation).
"For I have heard some saying, If I do not find the Gospel in the archives, I will not believe it. To such persons I say that my archives are Jesus Christ, to disobey whom is manifest destruction. My authentic archives are His cross, and death, and resurrection, and the faith which bears on these things, by which I desire, through your prayers, to be justified. He who disbelieves the Gospel disbelieves everything along with it. For the archives ought not to be preferred to the Spirit. 'It is hard to kick against the pricks;' (σκληρὸν τὸ πρὸς κέντρα λακτιζειν) it is hard to disbelieve Christ; it is hard to reject the preaching of the apostles."
The phrase is also found Constitutions of the fourth century Holy Apostles 7.46:
Οὐ γάρ ἐστιν ὁ Θεὸς ἀκαταστασίας, ἵνα οἱ ὑποβεβηκότες τὰ τῶν κρειττόνων τυραννικῶς σφετερίζωνται, νομοθεσίαν καινὴν ἀναπλάττοντες ἐπὶ κακῷ τῷ ἑαυτῶν, ἀγνοοῦντες ὅτι σκληρὸν αὐτοῖς πρὸς κέντρα λακτίζειν.
For "God is not the God of confusion," that the subordinate persons should tyrannically assume to themselves the functions belonging to their superiors, forming a new scheme of laws to their own mischief, not knowing that "it is hard for them to kick against the pricks; "212 for such as these do not fight against us, or against the bishops, but against the universal Bishop and the High Priest of the Father, Jesus Christ our Lord. (CCEL translation)
Gregorius Nyssenus Theol., Adversus eos qui castigationes aegre ferunt; MPG 46. Volume 46, page 312, line 26 (late fourth century)
Λεκτέον δὲ τῷ τοιούτῳ τὸ πρὸς Παῦλον λεχθὲν, ἡνίκα ἔτι Σαῦλος ἐτύγχανε· Σκληρόν σοι, ἄνθρωπε, πρὸς κέντρα λακτίζειν.
"It is said of such as this that which was said to Paul, when he still happened to be Saul: It is hard for you, man, to kick against pricks." (my translation)
Epiphanius Scr. Eccl., Ancoratus. "Epiphanius, Band 1: Ancoratus und Panarion", Ed. Holl, K. Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1915; Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller 25. Chapter 14, section 6, line 4 (late fourth century)
τί μάχῃ τῷ ἀκαταμαχήτῳ; σκληρόν σοι πρὸς κέντρα λακτίζειν.
"How would you fight the unconquerable? It is hard for you to kick against pricks." (my translation)
Athanasius Theol., Historia Arianorum. "Athanasius Werke, vol. 2.1", Ed. Opitz, H.G. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1940. Chapter 39, section 3, line 3 (mid fourth century)
τοῦτο καὶ σοὶ συμβουλεύομεν· μὴ μάχου πρὸς τὸν δεδωκότα σοι τὴν ἀρχὴν ταύτην· μὴ ἀντ' εὐχαριστίας ἀσεβήσῃς εἰς αὐτόν· μὴ δίωκε τοὺς πιστεύοντας εἰς αὐτόν· μὴ ἀκούσῃς καὶ σύ· σκληρόν σοι πρὸς κέντρα λακτίζειν.
For after the Emperor had frequently written to Rome, had threatened, sent commissioners, devised schemes, on the persecution subsequently breaking out at Alexandria, Liberius is dragged before him, and uses great boldness of speech towards him. 'Cease,' he said, 'to persecute the Christians; attempt not by my means to introduce impiety into the Church. We are ready to suffer anything rather than to be called Arian madmen. We are Christians; compel us not to become enemies of Christ.' We also give you this counsel: fight not against Him who gave you this empire, nor show impiety towards Him instead of thankfulness; persecute not them that believe in Him, lest you also hear the words, 'It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.' Nay, I would that you might hear them, that you might obey, as the holy Paul did. (Atkinson translation)
The verse is also quoted in Asterius ("it is hard, after all, for you to kick against pricks"), John Chrysostom ("for it is hard for you to kick against sharp pricks"), Cyrillus ("Paul declares, I know that it is hard for me to kick against pricks"), Theodorus Studites ("It is hard for you, he declares, to kick against pricks"), Theodoret, John Damascene, Nicolaus I, Ephraem Syrus, and Severianus, among other Christian writers.
My search above included texts that have the adjective "hard" and the noun "prick(s)" in the same sentence. I did not turn up any non-Christian authors with the idiom. However, when I looked for the verb "kick" and the noun "prick(s)," I found the quote from Euripides in Bacchae. Yet Euripides is not the first to use the phrase. Look at what we find in Pindar's Odes, Pythia 2.94 and surrounding lines.
φέρειν δ' ἐλαφρῶς ἐπαυχένιον λαβόντα ζυγόν ἀρήγει· ποτὶ κέντρον δέ τοι λακτιζέμεν τελέθει ὀλισθηρὸς οἶμος· ἁδόν- τα δ' εἴη με τοῖς ἀγαθοῖς ὁμιλεῖν.
A crafty citizen is unable to speak a compelling word among noble men; and yet he fawns on everyone, weaving complete destruction. I do not share his boldness. Let me be a friend to my friend; but I will be an enemy to my enemy, and pounce on him like a wolf,  treading every crooked path. Under every type of law the man who speaks straightforwardly prospers: in a tyranny, and where the raucous masses oversee the state, and where men of skill do. One must not fight against a god, who raises up some men's fortunes at one time, and at another gives great glory to others. But even this  does not comfort the minds of the envious; they pull the line too tight and plant a painful wound in their own heart before they get what they are scheming for. It is best to take the yoke on one's neck and bear it lightly; kicking against the goad  makes the path treacherous. I hope that I may associate with noble men and please them.
Here we find the expression "to kick against the goad" used of resisting the will of a god already in the early fifth century before Christ. (Bacchae was published later, in 405 BCE.) Aelius Aristides specifically refers to Pindar as advising not to kick against goads in From Plato Concerning Rhetoric (Jebb edition, page 53, line 15).
The phrase is also found in Aeschylus, Agamemnon, Line 1624. With the death of Aeschylus set around 456 BCE, this work was also published before Euripides' Bacchae.
You speak like that, you who sit at the lower oar when those upon the higher bench control the ship? Old as you are, you shall learn how bitter it is at your age to be schooled when prudence is the lesson set before you. Bonds and the pangs of hunger are far the best doctors of the spirit when it comes to instructing the old. Do you have eyes and lack understanding? Do not kick against the goads lest you strike to your own hurt. (πρὸς κέντρα μὴ λάκτιζε, μὴ παίσας μογῇς.)
The following is found in the epitome of Aristophanes (late third century BCE to early second century BCE) of Aristotle's History of Animals.
ὁ μὲν γὰρ ταῖς ἀκμαῖς τῶν τριχῶν ἐμβεβηκὼς αὑτοῦ τοὺς ὀδόντας ξυνῆκε, τοῦτο δὴ τὸ λεγόμενον, εἰς κέντρα λακτίζων, εἶτα καὶ νῶτα δοὺς ὀξὺς οἴχεται.
Julian the Emperor (mid fourth century) writes the following in Orations 246B:
Χρὴ δὲ καὶ οὗ γεγόναμεν τιμᾶν, ἐπειδὴ τοῦτο θεῖός ἐστι νόμος, καὶ πείθεσθαί γε οἷς ἂν ἐπιτάττῃ καὶ μὴ βιάζεσθαι μηδέ, ὅ φησιν ἡ παροιμία, πρὸς κέντρα λακτίζειν· ἀπαραίτητον γάρ ἐστι τὸ λεγόμενον ζυγὸν τῆς ἀνάγκης· οὐ μὴν ὀδυρτέον οὐδὲ θρηνητέον ἐφ' οἷς ἐπιτάττει τραχύτερον, ἀλλὰ τὸ πρᾶγμα λογιστέον αὐτό.
"The whole world is my city and fatherland, and my friends are the gods and lesser divinities and all good men whoever and wherever they may be. Yet it is right to respect also the country where I was born, since this is the divine law, and to obey all her commands and not oppose them, or as the proverb says kick against the pricks. For inexorable, as the saying goes, is the yoke of necessity." (Loeb translation)
There is one final proof of the ubiquity of the phrase. Diogenianus of Heraclea flourished during the reign of Hadrian (117-138 CE). He wrote an alphabetical lexicon, mostly of poetical idioms. Here is one entry (Centuria 7, section 84, line 1).
πρὸς κέντρα λακτίζεις· δήλη ἡ παροιμία.
"You are kicking against pricks: the saying is clear." (my translation)
Thus, the use of an expression "to kick against pricks" in reference to resisting a god is widespread in the ancient Greek-speaking world and cannot in itself show dependence of one author upon another.
Although I doubt that Luke had Euripides in particular in mind when composing any certain passage of Acts, my study has made clear the substance of the argument made by critics, which is, that the stories were inspired and shaped within the context of Greco-Roman civilization, where the expression of an animal kicking at its spurs would signify resistance to the will of a god, and where a story about an escape through a door that opens by itself was a portent of divine approval, and when historiography did not have the same meaning that it has today. Such is all the weight that the argument based on Euripides was meant to bear, and the argument is made stronger from the parallels not only to Bacchae but also to the wider literary tradition.
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