Euripides was one of the great Athenian tragic playwrights. Writing in the fifth century BC, his plays have resonated with audiences throughout history as stories of human tragedy, relationship and interaction. His plays are literary masterpieces because he so wonderfully presents the depravity, pain, longing and love of the human condition. In short, his often fantastical characters feel very real.
Successful as he was in fifth century Athens, Euripides continued to be read and performed throughout the history of the ancient world, and his plays remained well known as Greece gave way to Rome, and as Rome conquered much of the Mediterranean world.
In one of his most famous plays, Orestes, the eponymous protagonist wrestles with the guilt of having committed matricide – slaying his own mother for the brutal murder of his father. Orestes is set in a world where gods and spirits have great control over the lives of men, and Orestes himself makes it clear that he killed his mother under the conviction that Phoebus (Apollo) commanded him to do it. This in itself is an important part of the plot, as the god himself appears onstage at the end of the play to right wrongs and conclude the action. But partway through, Menelaus, Orestes’ uncle and brother of his murdered father, appears onstage and the two men speak. Their conversation is bitter and raw, as Orestes owns up to what he has done. It is a short part of this dialogue on which this blog will reflect.
Menelaus “Do not speak of death; that is not wise.”
Orestes “It is Phoebus, who commanded me to kill my mother.”
Menelaus “Showing a strange ignorance of what is fair and right”
Orestes “We are slaves to the gods, whatever those gods are.”
Euripides, Orestes, ll.415-418.
As the two men speak, Orestes reveals that it was the god Apollo who ordered this matricide. Upon hearing this, Menelaus makes a moral judgement that reveals the truth of these Olympian gods who supposedly ruled over the ancient world. This god Apollo, in commanding the death of Orestes’ mother Clytemnestra, showed “ignorance of what is fair and right.” In other words – he acted with evil intent.
The god was evil. He was wrong. He was cruel and violent with his command. Yet Orestes’ response? We are slaves to the gods, whatever they may be. Whether rightly or wrongly, we are slaves to the gods.
The Ancient World – Slaves to the Gods
Though these words were written in the fifth century BC, over 400 years before the birth of Christ, they expose a worldview that dominated the ancient world just as much in 0 AD as it did in 500 BC. To the ancient Greeks and Romans, the gods were real and present. They were not sovereign or total, but they were big and powerful. What and who the gods exactly were changed throughout ancient history. As Rome rose to dominance in the ancient world the gods went from being Olympian Greeks to Roman deities. Zeus became Jupiter, Hermes became Mercury, and so on. As Rome conquered more of the ancient world, new gods joined the pantheon. Mithras, Osiris, Isis and many more became objects of divine regard. As the Empire expanded, even the Emperor himself became a god, ruling over mankind, deciding their fate.
But none of these gods were thought to be good. Many had benevolent moments, some were considered particular allies of humanity as a whole, or of nations, professions or people groups. But none were fundamentally good. When Jesus Christ came into the world, there was a prevailing opinion of the divine that mirrored that of Euripides and his day. The gods were gods because they were bigger and better than us, so they were in charge. Even if they weren’t good. “We are slaves to the gods, whatever those gods are.” That hadn’t changed.
But when the one true God became man, the idea of humanity and its relationship with the divine was totally and radically challenged.
The Radical Christus – the Son of God
The first Christian communities began to preach good news to a lost world. In a world consigned to the might and power of unloving gods, the first Christians spoke hope. They taught of one God, triune in nature, supreme in authority. And they taught how this God, wholly good and all-loving, sent His own Son into the earth to rescue lost men and women. This was a truly good God, this was the only God, and He was seen in Jesus Christ.
The Romans understood conversations about gods and spirits and the like. But a God who loved humanity so much He gave up His one and only Son to bring them into relationship with Himself? This was a radical concept. It simply wasn’t how gods behaved! But it was wonderfully good news for a world enslaved by gods that their own sinful hearts had created.
One of the first Christian missionaries, the Apostle Paul, wrote this in the mid-first century AD:
The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.
Paul, Romans 8.15.
The ancients was resigned to a certain worldview. The gods ruled, whatever they may be and however they might act, and humanity picked up the pieces. Whoever the gods were, the place of humanity didn’t change. We are slaves to the gods, whatever those gods are.
Paul’s teaching here isn’t just new, it is utterly radical. The real, true God came not to enslave humanity, but to free us! And more than that, to adopt us as His own children! This was the one true God, and He doesn’t fit with the misunderstandings of the divine that the ancient world had accepted.
Earlier in the book Paul had been using the language of slavery and had subverted the very ideas that underpin Euripides’ words in Orestes.
What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death!
Paul, Romans 6.21.
In their fictional dialogue Menelaus and Orestes recognised that they were slaves to the gods, even when those gods were evil and cruel. Their slavery really did end in death! This was the understanding of the divine that pervaded the ancient world. Yet along came these Christus-followers, and they turned that on its head.
Christ doesn’t promise further slavery. He promises sonship. He promises that we will become heirs and coheirs to glory. And He promises a good Father who will love and care for His people forever.
We read these truths so often that we can forget just how incredible they are. But our own world and our own hearts worship gods that are very similar to those of the ancient world. We take our own sinful desires and project them into our own gods. We might not call the goddess of sex Aphrodite, yet our culture is obsessed with her. We don’t call the god of wealth Plutus, but we spend our lives chasing him.
The first Christians spoke a radical Gospel into a needy ancient world. A world enslaved by sin, hopeless in the face of the superior might of the divine. A wrong understanding of the divine led to a societal hopelessness in the face of the gods. Yet the Gospel offered (and offers still!) something radically different. We are not slaves to cruel masters, we are offered sonship by a good Father. This is a radical message, and it’s a totally undeserved offer. It is a truth that sent shockwaves across the ancient world, and it has the power to do just that today. This Gospel has the power to transform the lives of those enslaved by sin into beloved sons and daughters of the Most High. Incredible.