Here’s an essay I wrote as part of my literature module in BA ANE Studies. I thought I’d share it, since I enjoyed writing it so much:
The world of the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean was highly interconnected, and as a result, many common story motifs became diffused throughout the region, including the story of an Archetypal wise man who went by many names. The Biblical characters of Joseph and Daniel are incarnations of this archetypal hero, but other examples are Ahiqar, Aesop and Luqman. As a result of the cultural matrix in which they developed, these three characters each share similarities with each other, these similarities are the result of ‘intertextuality’, where elements of a story are taken from one work of literature and applied to a different work of literature. This happened due to equations made between the three characters made by ancient authors, conscious of the similarities between the heroes, whom were believed to be essentially the same,
The great fabulist Aesop is most certainly the most well-known of these extra-biblical figures today, but we shall start by speaking of Ahiqar. A classic hero of Middle Eastern and Eastern European folklore, the story of Ahiqar possibly originates with a real figure in the Assyrian court, whose life was highly mythicised, with him adopting the motifs of a ‘Type 922’ hero, a man who is lowly, often due to being falsely accused by an enemy, but wise, and is able to solve a conundrum no one else could answer, being rewarded for his troubles. By the 7th century, literature concerning him had been written in Aramaic. Though the early fragments of his tale are fragmentary, later tales tell his story more completely, such as in the thousand and one nights. In this version of the story, Ahiqar is a high ranking official in the court of Sarhadum (Esarhaddon in the original Aramaic), whose nephew and adopted son, Nadan becomes jealous of his position. Falsely accused by him of treason, Ahiqar is sentenced to death, but the executioner is reminded of a favour Ahiqar granted him, so spares him. A prisoner is executed in his stead. In Ahiqar’s absence, Pharaoh of Egypt issues a challenge to king Sarhadum, a challenge to build a castle floating in mid-air. No one is able to solve the conundrum, so the captain of the guard confides to Sarhadum that Ahiqar is still alive. Ahiqar is sent for, he lectures Nadan (preceding to his gruesome death), and instructs that several eagles be captured and taught to carry boys, after which they are sent to Egypt, where they are instructed to fly into the air and ask Pharaoh for building materials, Pharaoh is dumbstruck by this request and realises that he has been outwitted. After which, he challenges Ahiqar to a series of more conundrums, which Ahiqar is able to solve with ease.
A nearly identical story is attributed to Aesop in the popular Aesop romance. The differences however, though few, are still interesting in that they betray differences in ideology with the Ahiqar legend. The Aesop legend is considerably more humanistic, the violence found in the Ahiqar legend is turned down, to avoid offending sensibilities. After being lectured by his uncle, Nadan, or rather ‘Helios’ commits suicide, rather than inflating like a bag and exploding, as is found in our versions of the Ahikar story. It is likely that this story in the Aesop Romance was directly adapted from a version of the Ahiqar tale, adapted in order that it should better fit with Greek morals. Aesop, of course, is better known for his fables, the most famous being ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’, and ‘The Tortoise and The Hare’, and here is found another example of literary diffusion, and Intertextuality in the Ancient, and Medieval World. Luqman is an obscure character in Surah 31 of the Koran, a Surah bearing his name, who’s mention spawned a variety of legends. Like Aesop, he was a noted fabulist, to whom 49 animal related fables are attributed, all but two of them identical to those of Aesop, a clear case of intertextuality. There is a possible link with the Ahiqar story too, with Luqman’s rebellious son, Nathan, possibly a variant of Nadan. In Surah 31 of the Qur’an a series of parables are given by Luqman, which lecture his son on wisdom. Many of these parables resemble parables from the Ahiqar story, and Islamic scholar Gabriel Said Reynolds goes as far as to suggest that the figure of Luqman may be entirely modelled on the sage Ahiqar (with the differences in later traditions being a later development, by Muslim commentators who had become acquainted with Aesop’s Fables). This is possible, but Reynolds also mentions the possibility that Luqman may be a dimintutive form of ‘Sulayman’, Solomon in Arabic. Reynolds’ cities the similarity of Surah 31:13 with Proverbs 1:8, attributed to Solomon. Perhaps the best explanation for the similarities between Luqman, Ahiqar and Solomon is that the three figures were equated with each other on account of their wisdom, with this being grounds for ‘typology’, equation of separate figures based on similarities, a term often used in academic biblical studies.
Indeed, Perhaps the equation of Ahiqar, Aesop and Luqman with each other goes down to the fact that all three figures were associated with giving proverbs, and parables of wisdom. The notion of a wise man, who gives parables, later being betrayed by his confidant, who later dies a horrible death as retribution was a common motif in the ancient world, the most famous example being the relationship between Jesus and Judas Iscariot, who suffers a death similar to that of Nadan, namely ‘bursting asunder’ in the midst of a field after falling headlong, similar, but also different to the death of Nadan by bursting. It is no wonder why many scholars see reflections of the Ahiqar myth in the story of Jesus’ betrayal. None of this means that we should see the story of Jesus as being ‘purely’ based on a legendary archetype, as the overwhelming majority of New Testament scholars, even atheists and agnostics like Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey accept a historical Jesus, but scholars make a point of separating the historical Jesus from the figure of Christ, and the presence of a wise figure giving parables in both stories means that Midrashic equations between the two figures could have been made after the fact. The story of Ahiqar was known to 2nd Temple Jews, as shown by his presence in the book of Tobit, and the Jesus stories are filled with references to older characters from Jewish lore via typology. Likewise, Aesop almost certainly developed as a semi-legendary wise sage independently from the Ahiqar legend, his equation with the latter being a result of the fact that both characters embody similar virtues of wisdom. The same can be said with the character of Luqman, who absorbed elements of both Ahiqar and Aesop.
However, it is likely that at least in origin, the stories go back to a common source, albeit with many of the similarities being the result of intertextuality. Even independently of Aesop’s travels in Babylon, he is still portrayed as paralleling the story of Ahiqar. Just as Ahiqar figuratively died (being hidden in a crypt) and was resurrected, likewise, Aesop literally was put to death and rose again in spirit. Just as Ahiqar was chief counsellor of the Assyrian absolute monarch, likewise (but with clear differences), Aesop advised the democratic polis of Samos. These correspondences point to a common origin, but do not negate the clear intertextuality with the narratives of Aesop in Babylon, which were probably the result of equations. Ahiqar is hardly the only influence on the character of Aesop in the Aesop Romance, influence from the characters of Diogenes, Socrates and the Seven Sages of Greece also show up, thus showing that the writer of the romance was fond of intertextuality.
In conclusion, the characters of Ahiqar, Aesop and Luqman probably developed independently from each other, even if they did share a common source (but branched out from it) but the later tales regarding the three figures intertextually referenced each other, based on the fact that the three heroes both embody similar virtues. The figure of Christ may be another such sage. It is possible that the character of Luqman is merely an Arabic adaptation of the Ahiqar story however, given the nature of his brief mention in the Qur’an, his oldest mention. This is speculative however, given our lack of early information, and it is also possible that not Ahiqar, but the Biblical king Solomon was the prototype for Luqman’s story. In short, all we can say for sure is that the stories regarding the three figures are intertextually linked, yet likely developed independently, albeit possibly from a common source. As a result of this common source, their stories contained enough similarities for Greek and Arabic writers to make equations between the three figures.
rkb ‘rpt, out!
- Niditch, Susan, and Robert Doran. “The Success Story of the Wise Courtier: A Formal Approach.” Journal of Biblical Literature 96, no. 2 (1977): 179-93. doi:10.2307/3265877.
- Akicharos, vol. 3: The Tale of Ahiqar and the Aesop Romance. Athens: Stigmi Publications, 2013
- Lunde, Paul: Aesop of the Arabs. Aramco World 1974/2
- Reynolds, G. S: The Qur’an and The Bible – Text and Commentary (Yale: 2018)
- Conybeare, F. C., J. Rendel Harris and Agnes Smith Lewis: The Story of Ahikar: from the Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Old Turkish, Greek and Slavonic (Cambridge, 1913)
- Levine, Amy-Jill: The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford: 2011)
 Niditch, Susan, and Robert Doran. “The Success Story of the Wise Courtier: A Formal Approach.” Journal of Biblical Literature 96, no. 2 (1977): 179-93. doi:10.2307/3265877.
 Akicharos, vol. 3: The Tale of Ahiqar and the Aesop Romance. Athens: Stigmi Publications, 2013, 616 pp.
 Lunde, Paul: Aesop of the Arabs. Aramco World 1974/2
 Reynolds, G. S: The Qur’an and The Bible – Text and Commentary (Yale: 2018)
 Acts 1:18
 Conybeare, F. C., J. Rendel Harris and Agnes Smith Lewis: The Story of Ahikar: from the Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Old Turkish, Greek and Slavonic (Cambridge, 1913)
 Konstantakos: Akicharos, p3-4