The Manly Man and the Son of Man

Alexander the Great, son of Philip of Macedon and heir of the great Macedonian empire, proved himself in battle and militarism, expanding the Macedonian empire through strategic military victories across Turkey (334, 333), the Holy Land (Coele-Syria, 332), Egypt (332), Babylon (331) and on into India (324). In 323 BCE he becomes ill in Babylon and dies — his successors split his empire into three domains.

Warren Carter, in his useful new book, Seven Events that Shaped the New Testament World, sketches the impact of Alexander the Great on earliest Christianity, and his impact is not negligible. Carter will explore Alexander’s image of the manly man and contend that the manly man of the Greek and Roman worlds were deconstructed by the vision of manliness found in Jesus. But before we get to that, the impact of Alexander first.

How is manliness understood today? Why is there so much appeal in the men’s sector for resonance with the manliness vision of Alexander the Great?

Alexander spread Hellenistic culture, though his reason for conquering cannot be reduced to spreading that culture. Alexander was a man of immense ego and power. How did he spread this culture?

1. Physical presence of people of Hellenistic culture were established in each new city.
2. Local alliances were formed.
3. Urban development was central to the spread of Hellenism.
4. Two-way traffic: the spread of culture involved absorption into other cultures and dialectical changes.
5. Alexander’s influence, then, on Jesus and the church: the language of early Christians was Greek; cities were central in the Christian mission; philosophical traditions appear in Pauline writings; diverse ethnicities were central to the Pauline mission; and diverse religious experiences enabled Christianity to take root in the Roman empire.

For Carter, though, Alexander’s impact was also at the level of a hero, “a macho man, an action figure” (17). “In a male-dominated society, he defines male greatness by his manly actions of rule and courage” (17). One leader after another payed homage to Alexander, including Pompey, Julius Caesar, Octavian, Caligula and Trajan.

The New Testament presents the Son of Man as the true man. But Jesus’ manhood subverts the manly man of the Greco-Roman world because Jesus’ manhood is one of humiliation, service and crucifixion. Jesus takes on the form of a slave (Philippians 2:5-11). True manhood is not measured by courage or strength but by self-sacrificial love for the  other.

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  • Val

    Wasn’t he also gay? Would that have reduced his manliness in Greek culture? At least Hollywood thinks he was, not sure if it was true.

  • Scot McKnight

    Val, he was bisexual. A man of sexual conquests.

  • phil_style

    Interesting stuff Scot.

    How do we view Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, in this context of macho victor, versus servant victor?
    Are the gospel writers
    1; trying to predict a Jesus that is establishing himself as some kind of legitimate authority with the backing of the people – against Rome – that is, do we see this as a seditious act; OR
    2; Trying to show that Jesus’ efforts were not a seditious threat to Rome, but a comment generally about the kind of power that god endorses?

    Aside form the obvious comparisons to David Royal procedures and Zachariah 9;
    I’m thinking about the Donkey V Horse comparisons that are evoked cf Alexander/ Jesus.
    I’m also thinking about the significance of the inclusion of the tree branches described in the “Triumphal” entry.
    Also (my lat, I promise) how did the people know to line the street leading into Jerusalem? Were they tipped off? Was it an “organised” event? Depending on how we read the Gospel account, we can imagine it was spontaneous… but it can’t have been if so many people knew what was about to happen and had enough time to prepare for it (gather branches etc).

  • Scot McKnight

    Phil, I’m on a plane waiting to depart. So brief. Triumphal entry mocks military might and the way of the manly man. It evokes humility and recognition from nobodies.

  • to add to Scot’s comment…

    “being gay” was actually considered more manly in the greek world because then it meant you didn’t have to associated with those weak, irrational, incomplete women. a man was the ideal sexual companion for another man because he could be an equal.

    Aristotle, who was Alexander’s tutor, believed that all humans were really male and women were just fetuses that had been born too early and not allowed to develop all the way (De Phusis).

    also, please keep in mind that our idea of having a of sexual orientation was pretty much manufactured in the 19th century and presents a view alien to antiquity. this is not to say that the ancient world did not have an idea that people could be more attracted to one gender or another, to certain kinds of people over others – but the way we conceive of it is very unlike their mindset. they would not have understood the question, “are you gay/straight/bi?”

    Scot is entirely correct that it’s about sexual conquest. The gender of the partner hardly matters, but having a male companion was part of Alexander’s perfect manliness.

    yes, i was a classicist before i went to seminary 🙂

  • Tim Atwater

    On the triumphal entry — Jesus follows the script of Zechariah closely enough that Matthew and John connect it… Z 9:9 Lo your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he hmbe and riding on a donkey…
    continuing —
    He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the war horse from Jerusalem,
    and he shall command peace to the nations
    his dominion shall be from sea to sea…

    (and v 11 perhaps also in view –…. because of the blood of my covenant with you…
    Jesus remixing remidrashing Zech…

  • Tim Atwater

    Giving an altogether different kingdom/empire image

  • phil_style

    @Tim, #6

    Yes. I’m aware of the connection. However, why use it?
    Is the use of the conquering terminology supposed to insinuate a military or political threat to Rome? That is, are we talking about the event being described as seditious?

    I’m with Scot, I think the use or comparison to Zech.9 is specifically anti-violent. I think the author(s) is trying to present a Jesus that is of no military or political threat. And the point is that’s precisely how God operates – outside of the military/political system.

  • Tim Atwater

    sorry i read your post too quickly, missing or glossing over the Zech ref

    We are in agreement on Jesus’ nonviolence and being not a military threat — nor a short-term political threat. In the longer run, I think Jesus subverts the politics of empire rather thoroughly. (which i know is much disputed… and subject to much more unpacking…)

    I do think that Jesus is deeply subversive of Empire. Nonviolence is part of that subversion, along with the very distinctly alternative economics and overall lifestyle of Jesus and the gospel. And I am convinced Jesus is fully aware of all this.

    The military and mercenary and macho sides of Empire always seem to go together.

    Jesus always embodies the other way.

    grace and peace in the ongoing discussion

  • Tim Atwater

    thanks Leah for your post

    Didn’t know Aristotle was tutor of Alexander, nor remember the extent of his views of women.

    I wonder if W Carter digs in on this aspect of empire?

  • Jon Rogers

    Re the triumphal entry:I recall reading a suggestion (but not where or from whom) Give that it was most likely other Gallilean pilgrims heading to worship who were not so much lining the streets to welcome him as entering in his triumph – the thin triumph of rapidly evaporating celebrity.

  • Phil Miller

    “being gay” was actually considered more manly in the greek world because then it meant you didn’t have to associated with those weak, irrational, incomplete women. a man was the ideal sexual companion for another man because he could be an equal.

    Without getting graphic, I’ve read from multiples sources that the acceptability of homosexual sex in Greek culture depended on whether one was giving or receiving. Essentially, to be the dominant one in the physical act was seen as OK or even virtuous. To be the submissive one would be seen as a shameful. It doesn’t take a lot of insight to see the inherent exploitative nature in such a mindset.

  • @Phil Miller #12

    ha. it’s hard to talk about this without getting graphic.

    basically, the situation, as most of them are, is kind of nuanced. you are largely correct about the receptive role. on the other hand, we have graphic visual representation of face-to-face, non-penetrative, male same-sex encounters. it depended on the reason for the relationship and the rank of the people involved. also it was less about being in the receptive role (again, depending on social factors) and more about preferring the receptive role. that was seen as taking on the woman’s part and being shameful. it is likely that Alexander and his famous lover (whose name is escaping me at the moment) engaged in the more “equal” activities.

  • Marshall

    If sexual orientation only arose in the 19c., then it must be entirely cultural, not biological, and I don’t think so.

  • @Marshall

    i don’t think Scot’s blog is either the time or the place to go into the history of sexuality… so i will requote myself, as gauche as that is:

    this is not to say that the ancient world did not have an idea that people could be more attracted to one gender or another, to certain kinds of people over others – but the way we conceive of it is very unlike their mindset.

    the concept of a sexual orientation, especially as an identity marker, arose in the 19th c. variations and preferences in “sexual object choice” have certainly existed throughout (recorded) human history. i believe sexuality is both cultural and biological, and i do not believe anything i said would lead to the conclusion that it is “entirely cultural.” i do not belive that myself.

  • I think the most notable difference between Alexander and Christ is the fact that the former was power-hungry and concerned about earning and keeping what he believed was his proper place as king of a world empire. The latter submitted to others.