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By Adam Z. Margulies

Introduction to the Gospel of Pythagoras According to Adam Edit

The Gospel of Pythagoras According to Adam sets out to apply the core substantive elements from the Gospel of John to the life of Pythagoras as told by Diogenes Laertius. The first question we must ask when constructing our biography is what makes John’s account of the life of Jesus a gospel in the first place? That is, before we can consider the differences between John and the Synoptics, or what about John makes his gospel best suited for Pythagoras’s life, we must first consider a gospel’s purpose. John and the Synoptics share this motivation: “to proclaim that Jesus is Messiah and Son of God, and [the Gospels’] teaching, based on ‘signs’ that Jesus gave, is to bring the reader to believe in the Messiah and so attain life” (Introduction to the Gospel and Letters of John, 157).

How, then, do we take the purpose of a gospel and create added meaning for Pythagoras? What will our gospel proclaim Pythagoras as? For Pythagoras the answer is simple: he is, above all else, a philosopher (see note a). Additionally, our gospel must bring the reader to believe in Pythagoras as a philosopher through the teachings he gives, just as the Christian gospels must bring the reader to believe in Jesus as the Messiah through the signs he gives. Already we begin to see our first added meaning: for the most part, Diogenes Laertius just provides the reader with Pythagorean doctrine; but in writing a gospel, we bring the doctrine to life by creating real teaching moments. We make the reader believe in Pythagoras as a philosopher, rather than simply learn his teachings.

Next we might consider elements that set the Gospel of John apart from the other three. For one, John’s Gospel places added significance in the events of Jesus’s life and his teachings. (Intro., 157). Thus not only do we create teaching moments for Pythagoras, but we also need to choose these moments wisely so as to best characterize his nature as a philosopher. The scope of Pythagoras’s teachings is vast and it is impractical to try and make a summary in so short a space.

This leads us right into the final and perhaps most prevalent element from the Gospel of John. This element is not drawn from the editor’s introduction, but is as original as anything that one could add to a work that has been pored over for the past two millennia. That is, the Gospel of John places an added focus on the relationship between the subject, Jesus, and his enemies. (This is not to say that this is the primary focus of John’s Gospel by any stretch! Only that this feature is more noticeable than in the other three gospels). Were this not that case, the Gospel of John would not be the source of anti-Semitism that it unfortunately became. This element is also most interesting when applied to the life of Pythagoras, for while he undoubtedly had enemies, Laertius largely ignores this until discussing his death.

Pythagoras and Jesus, while different in many ways, are both teachers of uncompromising principles who lead a community. In light of this, the fact that they have enemies is unsurprising. The nature of their relationship with their enemies is not isolated from other factors, but depends on their relationship with their followers. For instance, the relationship between Jesus and his enemies would be different were he not to have healed and preached to his followers on the Sabbath (John 5:10-18; 13:18). Moreover, Jesus’s enemies would not oppose him so vehemently, feeling that their lifestyle and their religion were threatened, if he had not claimed that he was the divine Coming. Likewise, if Pythagoras did not establish his God-like stature to his followers, those that distrusted his teachings would have no grounds to fear him as a tyrant.

By incorporating a focus on Pythagoras’s relationship with his enemies, and therefore with his followers as well, we impart the greatest amount of new meaning on the life of Pythagoras. The meaning of this philosopher’s life is no longer devoted primarily to what he taught, but rather how he taught, and how those inside and outside his community of followers were affected.

The Gospel of Pythagoras According to Adam Edit

A: Prologue


In the beginning was the Truth:
the Truth was with the Universe
and the Truth was the Universe. [1]
B: Pythagoras and the People


God-like Stature

The students of Pythagoras were his witnesses.[2] One evening not less than six-hundred persons attended his lecture,[3] after which one remarked, ‘Pythagoras, truly you are Apollo come down from the far north.’[4] But Pythagoras told this disciple, ‘Wait and you will see more things that will affirm your belief in my teachings.’[5]

One week remained until the great athletic games. Pythagoras approached one of his students, a wrestler in the games, and spoke to him, ‘Refrain from the dried figs, soft cheeses, and wheat meal, which the other athletes diet on for strength, and instead eat meat.’ Although this was previously an untested diet, his student listened, and thereafter took first place.[6]

The next day he removed his plain white robes as he crossed the river Nessus to meet a group of his disciples on the other side.[7] As he stepped into the water, the rippling tides themselves began to sing his welcome.[8] Even before his disciples on the far shore could grasp the sounds they heard from the river, sunlight caught their teacher’s naked hip, and his thigh was seen to be made of gold.[9] ‘Now would you believe,’ he spoke unto them, ‘that my philosophy is the truth? After two hundred and seven years in Hades I have returned to the land of the living.’[10] And they looked upon him and replied, ‘Ye, truly is your house the Temple of Demeter and your porch the Museum.’[11] Henceforth his disciples were called by many ‘prophets to declare the voice of God.’[12]

Community, Opposition, and Identity

By this time now, a devout following formed around Pythagoras. At an early age he had already traveled extensively in foreign lands.[13] He learned Egyptian and uncovered the secrets of their Gods, as well as the mysteries and rites of Greece. When Polycrates the tyrant came to power in Samos, he and his followers sailed to Croton in Italy. There he established a constitution whereby his followers, numbering about three-hundred, were ruled by a true aristocracy.

Having accomplished all of these feats at a young age, there were some inhabitants of Croton who feared the setting-up of a tyranny.[14] One day at lecture they called out to him, ‘We know you, son of the Mnesarchus the gem-engraver.[15] Who are you to form governments and deliver the truth?’[16]

To this Pythagoras replied:

In all truth I tell you,[17]
I am Aethalides son of Hermes,
who asked to retain my memory through death;
and my soul entered Euphorbus
from which it passed on to Hermotimus.
He surely was believed,
when taking the shield of Menelaus,
he so identified it though
only the ivory facing remained.
From him my soul passed to Pyrrhus;
that fisherman of Delos,
and he too recounted the same story.
And now from Pyrrhus my soul is here;
it resides in the body of Pythagoras,
who stands before you now.[18]


C: Teachings and Death of Pythagoras


Pythagoras to his Followers

Despite the mistrust of the Crotoniates, his disciples accepted his identity and sought after the truths he espoused. The following day he went to the lecture hall and his students asked, ‘Teacher, if you are indeed the son of Hermes, and with such vast memory, could you not reveal to us the truth of the universe?’

Pythagoras answered them:

The principle of all things is the monad;
arising from this monad the undefined dyad
or two serves as material substratum to the monad, which is cause;
from the monad and the undefined dyad spring numbers;
from numbers, points; from points, lines;
from lines, plane figures; from plane figures, solid figures;
from solid figures, sensible bodies, the elements of which
are fire, water, earth, and air.
These elements interchange and turn into one another completely,
and combine to produce a universe animate, intelligent, spherical,
with the earth at its center,
the earth itself too being spherical and inhabited round about.[19]

Flight to the Bean Field[20]

The next night Pythagoras called his disciples to meet at the house of Milo. Word had reached Pythagoras that the Crotoniates were enraged from the previous day’s lecture. But Pythagoras, ever devoted to truth, was deep in philosophical dialogue when the house was set ablaze. Pythagoras and his disciples fled the burning house. The Crotoniates chased him[21] to the edge of a field of beans, where he stopped, since he always taught his followers to avoid beans in all of their manifestations.[22] Refusing to cross the field, he faced his assassins and said, ‘I’d rather be killed than renounce the truth of my teachings.’[23] With that his pursuers cut his throat and he died.

D: Epilogue


The school of Pythagoras lasted at least nine generations after his death. The last of the Pythagoreans were Xenophilus from the Thracian Chalcidice, Phanton of Phlius, and Echecrates, Diocles and Polymnastus, also of Phlius.[24] The teachings of Pythagoras are too numerous to be set forth here in their entirety.[25]

Notes Edit

  1. Truth and Universe take the place of Word and God respectively. While we will not continue to follow the Johannine Gospel verbatim, the first verse carries such authority and meaning that we would be well advised to consider the implications of a direct analog for Pythagoras. John 1:1 is a meaningful introduction because the purpose of Jesus’s life, and in essence the Gospel itself, is to deliver the Word of God. (Of course, Jesus is more than a mere prophet delivering God’s message; he is delivering God himself, which is accounted for in John’s equivalence relation, “the Word was God”). So too, the meaning of Pythagoras’s life as he saw it was to discover, and then presumably teach, the truth of the universe. See, e.g., D.L., VIII. 8: “[W]hen Leon the tyrant asked him who he was, he said, ‘A Philosopher’… [because] the philosopher seeks for truth”; ibid, 21: “Aristippus of Cyrene affirms in his work On the Physicists that he was named Pythagoras because he uttered the truth as infallibly as did the Pythian oracle”. We choose the word “Universe” over “God” because, although Pythagoras believed in the Gods, the Pythagorean truth was more closely related to the universe. Whether or not the two are actually equivalent for Pythagoras is less certain, though we take them to be in this creative rendering. For Pythagoras, man needed to fully participate in his worldly life, that is, his life in the universe, rather than look to the spiritual life for guidance or reassurance. See D.L. VII. 9: “He forbids us to pray for ourselves, because we do not know what will help us”; ibid, 22: “He is said to have advised his disciples as follows…. Not to call the gods to witness, man’s duty being rather to strive to make his own word carry conviction.”
  2. The life of Pythagoras is without a particular John the Baptist character to herald his coming. Instead, his “coming” is heralded by all of his students.
  3. D.L., VIII. 15.
  4. Comparison made by his students. See D.L., VIII. 11.
  5. See John 1:50. “Jesus replied, ‘You believe that just because I said: I saw you under the fig tree. You are going to see greater things than that.’” Pythagoras was revered for the truth of his teachings; but just as with Jesus, it is not the happenings of the everyday that inspire the true devotion of his followers. It is the supernatural signs, which existed, at least through anecdote, for Pythagoras as well (read on).
  6. This specific event is fictitious. However, the fact that Pythagoras may have been the first to diet athletes on meat as opposed to figs, cheese, and wheat meal, is told in D.L., VIII. 12. The creation of this event is inspired by the way John used events in the life of Jesus to demonstrate his divinity.
  7. This paragraph means to combine several stories (see notes h-l) in Pythagoras’s life for the purpose of emphasizing his God-like stature and relationship (already introduced in the foregoing tale of the athlete) with his disciples.
  8. See D.L., VIII. 11.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid, 14.
  11. Ibid, 15.
  12. Ibid, 14.
  13. For this fact and all ensuing facts set forth in this paragraph, see D.L., VIII. 2-3.
  14. Here we must use our imagination somewhat. An account of Pythagoras’s death at D.L., VIII. 39 suggests that some in Croton mistrusted Pythagoras and feared he would set up a tyranny. However, Diogenes Laertius fails to mention this until he gives it as an explanation for Pythagoras’s death. We are thus left to infer that this opposition did not just arise suddenly to end his life, but was present in some manner throughout his life and teachings. This relationship with opposition, neglected by Laertius, is paramount to John and in fact serves as an impetus for many of Jesus’s miracles and sermons. Although we cannot say whether Pythagoras was similarly motivated to win over his nonbelievers with lectures, we take the creative (and quite possibly accurate) leap and give this Crotoniate opposition significance as a contrasting force to Pythagoras’s philosophies and claims of the supernatural.
  15. D.L., VIII. 1.
  16. A comparison can be made to the first opposition of Jesus at John 6:42-43, where Jesus’s identity is trivialized as Jesus son of Joseph and his claims questioned.
  17. This is the exact opening of many of Jesus’s addresses to the people. See, e.g, John 3:3, 5, 10, etc. We keep the same opening language because we find the emphasis on truth equally appropriate for Pythagoras as discussed previously. See infra note a.
  18. Creative take on Pythagoras’s claims of reincarnation from D.L., VIII. 4-5. Although Laertius credits these claims to Heraclides of Pontus, by putting them in the mouth of Pythagoras we more closely follow the form of John’s Gospel, which puts a priority on the words of Jesus. For both Jesus and Pythagoras, this approach gives such audacious claims a more genuine feel.
  19. An introduction to Pythagorean physics. The teachings go on at length. See D.L., VIII. 25-26.
  20. Laertius gives different accounts for Pythagoras’s death. His death by the bean field (D.L., VIII. 39) at the hands of Crotoniates who feared his tyranny suits our purposes best, since John’s version of Jesus’s death at the hands of those who mistrusted his teachings is a crucial part of his Gospel.
  21. Just as there were surely inhabitants of Croton who harbored no ill will toward Pythagoras, there were surely Jews who did not wish to see Jesus crucified. Still, we follow the convention of John, who freely characterizes the crucifiers as the Jews in his Gospel (see e.g., John 19:12-16, etc.).
  22. The reasons behind Pythagoras’s aversion to beans may be found in Laertius’s account, but they are not important here. What is important comes from Pythagoras’s unwillingness to sacrifice his principles in the face of death, as John emphasizes that Jesus does not forsake his principles although he knows he is doomed.
  23. According to this account, Pythagoras “said he would be captured rather than cross [the bean field], and be killed rather than prate about his doctrines.” D.L., VIII. 39. We once again transform this into a direct quotation for Johannine emphasis.
  24. D.L., VIII. 45-46.
  25. We conclude our gospel by returning to the actual teachings of Pythagoras and their endurance. This approach is modeled on John’s Gospel, which concludes “There was much else that Jesus did; if it were written down in detail, I do not suppose the world itself would hold all the books that would be written.” John 21:25. John’s ending reaffirms the ubiquitous and eternal nature the Word. Translated into Pythagorean terms, our epilogue shows the wide ranging and lasting effect of the truths Pythagoras taught.

Works Cited Edit

Diogenes, Laertius, and Robert Drew Hicks. Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005. Print.

Wansbrough, Henry. The New Testament of the New Jerusalem Bible: with Complete Introduction and Notes. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1986. Print.

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