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‘Aesop’, ‘Q’ and ‘Luke’

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 May 2016

Steve Reece*
Department of Classics, Saint Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota, USA55057. Email:


The last chapter of the gospel of Luke includes a story of the risen Christ meeting two of his disciples on their way from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus and chastising them with the poetic expression ὦ ἀνόητοι καὶ βραδεῖς τῇ καρδίᾳ ‘O foolish ones, and slow in heart’ (Luke 24.25). No commentator has ever observed that Jesus' expression occurs verbatim, in the same iambic trimeter metre, in two poetic versions of animal fables attributed to the famous Greek fabulist Aesop. It is plausible that Luke is here, as at least twice elsewhere in his gospel, tapping into the rich tradition of Aesopic fables and proverbs that were widely known throughout the Mediterranean world in the first century ce.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

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1 For an exhaustive collection of Aesopic fables embedded in Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic Greek literature, see G.-J. van Dijk, ΑΙΝΟΙ, ΛΟΓΟΙ, ΜYΘΟΙ: Fables in Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic Greek Literature (Leiden: Brill, 1997) and F. R. Adrados, History of the Graeco-Latin Fable, vol. i:Introduction and From the Origins to the Hellenistic Age (Leiden: Brill, 1999). For a reconstruction of the prose collection of Demetrius of Phalerum, see Perry, B. E., ‘Demetrius of Phalerum and the Aesopic Fables’, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 93 (1962) 287346CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a survey of the transmission of Aesopica, including in Babrius and Phaedrus, see B. E. Perry, Babrius and Phaedrus (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965) xi–cii. For a critical edition of Phaedrus, see A. Guaglianone, Phaedri Augusti liberti liber fabularum (Turin: Paravia, 1969). For a critical edition of Babrius, see M. J. Luzzatto and A. La Penna, Babrii mythiambi Aesopei (Leipzig: Teubner, 1986). For the state of the collection during the Byzantine and Medieval periods, see F. R. Adrados, History of the Graeco-Latin Fable, vol. ii:The Fable during the Roman Empire and in the Middle Ages (Leiden: Brill, 2000). For a survey of the use of Aesop's fables in the Roman educational system, see B. F. Fisher, ‘A History of the Use of Aesop's Fables as a School Text from the Classical Era through the Nineteenth Century’ (Indiana University Dissertation, 1987). For some well-selected and annotated bibliography on all matters of Aesopica, see N. Holzberg, The Ancient Fable (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002).

2 I refer to the following editions of Aesopica: K. Halm, Fabulae Aesopicae collectae (Leipzig: Teubner, 1852) (= Halm); E. Chambry, Aesopi fabulae, 2 vols. (Paris: Société d’Édition ‘Les Belles Lettres', 1925–6) (= Chambry); B. E. Perry, Aesopica (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1952) (= Perry); A. Hausrath, Corpus fabularum Aesopicarum, 2 fascicles (Leipzig: Teubner, 1959, 1970) (= Hausrath). For a recent English translation of 600 Aesopic fables, collected from various Greek and Latin sources and arranged topically, see L. Gibbs, Aesop's Fables (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

3 O. Crusius, Babrii fabulae Aesopeae (Leipzig: Teubner, 1897) 165 includes a version of the fable in his collection of Babrius' choliambics (as number 182), but only two, possibly three, lines in its surviving form can be manipulated to scan as choliambics.

4 Adrados, Graeco-Latin Fable, i.437, places the origin of the fable back at least into the Classical period, based on its typically Classical three-part structure. He proposes that the fable may even be pre-Classical, based on its similarities to the archaic poet Archilochus (Graeco-Latin Fable, i.495).

5 Cf. fable 134 in the fifteenth-century codex Bodleianus Auct. F. 4.7 (Ba) and fable 81 in the thirteenth-century codex Palatinus 367; printed in Halm 45b, Chambry 40 aliter, and Crusius 182 (as noted above Crusius includes this version in his collection of Babrius' choliambics).

6 πάλιν in MS, but Chambry prints πάλαι.

7 βραδὺς in MS, but Chambry prints βραδὺ.

8 As mentioned above, a version of the fable with but a few verbal differences, and slightly shorter because it appears to be missing two verses, is recorded in Codex Parisinus graecus 2991 A, an early fifteenth-century codex that includes an appendix of several four-, five- and eight-line Aesopic fables in the tradition of Ignatius the Deacon's tetrasticha iambica – but rather more dodecasyllabic than truly iambic. These fables are edited by C. F. Müller and included at the end of a collection of iambic fables published by him in Crusius, Babrii fabulae, 249–96. Müller does not attribute the fable to anyone in particular, but he includes it in his collection of tetrasticha iambica that he considers later imitations of those of the ninth-century cleric and fabulist Ignatius the Deacon, who composed four-line (tetrasticha) Aesopic fables in iambic trimeters (iambica) – though ones influenced by the metrical conventions of the politici dodecasyllables (i.e. no resolution, accent on penultimate syllable). Müller prints two other tetrasticha iambica versions of the fable of the fox and goat (ii 15 and ii 31b) that do not include the line in question (ὦ ἀνόητε καὶ βραδὺς τῇ καρδίᾳ), and – what is pertinent for our purposes – he also prints a version (ii 31a) that does include the line. This version is neither built upon a four-line structure (tetrasticha) nor composed in a proper iambic meter (iambica) but is rather, like the version of the fable in Codex Vaticanus graecus 777, in a stichic dodecasyllabic verse form.

9 More complicated, yet still genetic, relationships can be imagined, unlikely though they may seem: e.g. ‘Luke’ quoted an earlier Aesopic, or possibly non-Aesopic, iambic verse, and the dodecasyllabic ‘Aesop’ quoted ‘Luke’ without any awareness of the earlier iambic verse.

10 One finds some discrepancies in the use of this term. The dodecasyllable was included among the στίχοι πολιτικοί ‘political verses’ by the Byzantines themselves, but today the term ‘political verse’ is used primarily of the fifteen-syllable verse form that became the most common metre of Byzantine and Modern Greek poetry: e.g. M. D. Lauxtermann, The Spring of Rhythm: An Essay on the Political Verse and Other Byzantine Metres (Vienna: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1999) 21–40.

11 A more precise date for the origin of the dodecasyllable appears elusive, since it probably arose in an oral rather than written medium: Chambry, Aesopi fabulae, 28, suggests the fourth or fifth century; U. Ursing, Studien zur griechischen Fabel (Lund: H. Ohlsson, 1930) 13 concurs; Adrados, Graeco-Latin Fable, ii.513 favours the sixth or seventh. Some fairly normal-looking dodecasyllables can be seen already in the poetry of Georgios of Pisidia (7th c.), who wrote poetry in a form evolutionarily between the ancient quantitative iambic trimeter and the Byzantine dodecasyllable. Maas, P., ‘Der byzantinische Zwölfsilber’, Byzantinische Zeitschrift 12 (1903) 278323CrossRefGoogle Scholar is still the most thorough analysis of the development of the metre, as well as the foundation of modern study of Byzantine metrics generally; he projects the origin of the Byzantine dodecasyllable back to a century before Georgios of Pisidia, i.e. the sixth century.

12 A rendition of the fable also occurs in Josephus' Antiquities 5.236–8.

13 Christian influence was much more pervasive in the medieval Latin tradition of Western Europe than in the Byzantine Greek traditions of Eastern Europe. Odo of Cheriton composed/adapted many Aesopic fables in Latin prose, setting them in a Christian context and adding Christian epimythia and even short sermons: e.g. ‘The Heretic and the Fly’ (Odo 12), ‘The Cat who Made himself a Monk’ (Odo 15), and ‘The Fox who Confessed his Sins to the Rooster’ (Odo 25). The numeration of Odo's fables here is based on the edition of L. Hervieux, Les fabulistes latins depuis le siècle d'Auguste jusqu’à la fin du moyen âge, vol. iv (Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1896). English translations of Odo's fables are available in J. C. Jacobs, The Fables of Odo of Cheriton (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1985).

14 Cf. the Aesopic fable ‘Τhe Bull, the Lioness and the Wild Boar’ (Halm 395, Perry 414, Hausrath sub ‘Syntipas’ 11), the epimythium of which includes an almost verbatim version of Mark 4.24 (cf. Matt 7.2 and Luke 6.38): ὁ μῦθος δηλοῖ ὅτι ἐν ᾧ μέτρῳ μετρεῖ τις μετρηθήσεται αὐτῷ ‘the fable shows that by whatever measure someone measures it will be measured out to him’.

15 Or, put another way, when an iambic trimeter verse ends in a word forming a cretic (‒ ⏑ ‒), it is regularly preceded either by a short syllable or, if long, by a monosyllable.

16 These are the so-called Tabulae ceratae graecae Assendelftianae, published by Hesseling, D. C., ‘On Waxen Tablets with Fables of Babrius (Tabulae Ceratae Assendelftianae)’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 13 (1893) 293314CrossRefGoogle Scholar, which were acquired at Palmyra in Syria in 1881 and are now in the library at Leiden University.

17 On the common use of Aesop's (and Babrius') fables at the primary level of the ancient educational curriculum, see H.-I. Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity (London and New York: Sheed and Ward, 1956) 160–64. R. Cribiore, Gymnastics of the Mind: Greek Education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001) 137–43, 192–201 emphasises the popularity in the primary and secondary schools of the poets Homer, Hesiod, Euripides and Menander and observes that no prose was read except for fables, such as those of Aesop and Babrius, and gnomic works of Isocrates (e.g. Ad Demonicum, Ad Nicoclem). On the more general use in the literature of the period of maxims and morals, including Aesopic fables, see T. Morgan, Literate Education in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 120–51.

18 On the similarities between the novelistic biography of the Life of Aesop and Mark's gospel, see, for example, W. Shiner, ‘Creating Plot in Episodic Narratives: The life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark’, Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative (ed. R. F. Hock et al.; Atlanta: Scholars, 1988) 155–76; for a comparison of the Life of Aesop with the gospels of Mark and John, see L. M. Wills, The Quest of the Historical Gospel: Mark, John, and the Origins of the Gospel Genre (London: Routledge, 1997) 23–50. On the generic similarities between Aesop's fables and Jesus' parables, see, for example, A. Jülicher, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu, vol. i (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 18992) 94–115; R. Dithmar, ed., Fabeln, Parabeln und Gleichnisse: Beispiele didaktischer Literatur (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, 1970); Beavis, M. A., ‘Parable and Fable’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52 (1990) 473–98Google Scholar; Vouga, F., ‘Die Parabeln Jesu und die Fabeln Äsops: Ein Beitrag zur Gleichnisforschung und zur Problematik der Literarisierung der Erzählungen der Jesus-Tradition’, Wort und Dienst 26 (2001) 149–64Google Scholar.

19 Cf. D. Flusser, ‘Aesop's Miser and the Parable of the Talents’, Parable and Story in Judaism and Christianity (ed. C. Thoma and M. Wyschogrod; Mahwah: Paulist, 1989) 9–25.

20 These three parallels, among others, are marshalled by Wojciechowski, M., ‘Aesopic Tradition in the New Testament’, Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 5 (2008) 99109Google Scholar. On the basis of such parallels Wojciechowski has proposed a genetic connection between the Aesopica and the gospels, i.e., that the gospel writers, or even that Jesus himself, actually knew the Aesopic tales and were drawing from them.

21 Some perceived parallels have bordered on the absurd: for example, Aesop's fable of the beaver who bites off its own testicles and casts them aside in order to avoid capture is compared to Jesus' advice on several occasions to cut off a limb if it is causing someone to stumble (Matt 5.29–30, 18.8–9, Mark 9.43–7) and to his praise of eunuchs who have castrated themselves for the kingdom of heaven (Matt 19.12) (so Wojciechowski, ‘Aesopic Tradition, 105). The Neuer Wettstein draws a few parallels between Aesopic fables and stories recorded in the gospels, but these parallels arise simply as a result of sharing a common situation or context: for example, the story in the three synoptic gospels about Jesus calming the storm (Mark 4.35–41, Matt 8.23–7, Luke 8.22–5) and two Aesopic fables about shipwrecked sailors praying to the gods for help (Chambry 53, 309) are cited as parallels in the Neuer Wettstein on Mark 4.35–41. But a shipwrecked sailor praying for help must have been one of the most commonplace occurrences in antiquity! Such ‘parallelomania’ is so prevalent in the Neuer Wettstein that it is difficult, as Vergil once remarked of Ennius' poetry, ‘to find the pearls amidst the dung’.

22 The Synoptic Problem has not been of central concern thus far, since our focus has been on a verse that is unique to the gospel of Luke (24.25), but it will pertain at some level to the following consideration of double tradition material (Luke 7.24, 32 and Matt 11.7, 17). I use the shorthand ‘Q’ in a very inclusive sense, to signify not a single recoverable Greek manuscript but rather a complex array of oral traditions and written documents, mostly in Greek, to be sure, but some, perhaps, in Aramaic. ‘Q-scepticism’, along the lines of the Farrer hypothesis, has perhaps drawn in the reins on some of the extravagances of those wishing to reconstruct the text of a specific, tangible artefact, lay it out on a page with chapter and verse numbers, and study it in isolation from the extant gospels (viz. some of the fellows of The Jesus Seminar and their epigoni), but it has not, in my view, undermined the fundamental building blocks of the almost two-centuries-old two-source theory.

23 A concise summary of the various solutions that have been offered for this notorious crux can be found in U. Luz, Matthew 8–20: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001) 145–50; these solutions are somewhat more fleshed out in Zeller, D., ‘Die Bildlogik des Gleichnisses Mt 11:16/Lk 7:31’, Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 68 (1977) 252–7Google Scholar. M. Casey, An Aramaic Approach to Q (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) 129–42 has added a new and intriguing interpretation of the two-part proverb, understanding it as an address directed at John and Jesus respectively rather than spoken (metaphorically) by them.

24 Translation of the Coptic text by S. J. Gathercole, The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary (Leiden: Brill, 2014) 496.

25 Passages in the Septuagint that contain one or two of the lexical items of the expression ‘a reed shaken by the wind’ are sometimes offered as parallels (e.g. Isa 7.2, 17.13, 42.3; Ps 83.13 (= LXX 82.14); Wisdom of Solomon 4.4), but the contexts are usually quite different, and the noun κάλαμος ‘reed’ is never paired with the verb σαλεύω ‘shake’ in the Septuagint.

26 Translation of the Coptic text by Gathercole, The Gospel of Thomas, 569.

27 The Greek proverb appears in the fourteenth-century manuscript Mosquensis 239; it is catalogued as proverb number 74 in Perry, Aesopica, 276. Priest, J. F., ‘The Dog in the Manger: In Quest of a Fable’, Classical Journal 81 (1985) 4958Google Scholar catalogues all the attestations of the proverb but comes to no definite conclusions about the directions of influence.

28 Greek Anthology 12.236 (probably Strato of Sardis); Lucian, Adversus indoctum 30, Timon 14; Diogenianus the Grammarian, Paroemiae 2.83; many of the medieval Greek lexica, beginning with Hesychius.

29 So Schwarzbaum, H., ‘Talmudic-Midrashic Affinities of Some Aesopic Fables’, Laographia 22 (1965) 466–83Google Scholar, who offers a dozen or so parallels.

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