Luke's Eutychus and Homer's Elpenor:
Acts 20:7-12 and Odyssey 10-12

Dennis R. MacDonald
Iliff School of Theology

JHC 1 (Fall 1994), 4-24.
Copyright © Institute for Higher Critical Studies, 1996

ACCORDING to Acts 20:7-12, a young man named Eutychus, sitting on a third story windowsill, dosed off and fell to his death because of Paul's longwinded preaching. Paul then raised him back to life.

7. On the first day of the week, when we convened to break bread, Paul spoke to them, and because he wanted to leave the next day, he prolonged his speech until midnight. 8. There were plenty of lamps in the upper room where we were gathered. 9. A certain young man named Eutychus was seated at the window and was carried off by a deep sleep, because of Paul's having spoken for so long. Carried off by sleep, he fell from the third story and was lifted up dead. 10. Paul went down, laid upon him, embraced him, and said, "Don't raise a ruckus! His soul (psuchê) is in him." 11. Paul went back upstairs, broke bread, and once he had eaten and had spoken for a long time, until dawn, he left. 12. Then they fetched the lad, alive, and were not a little relieved.

On the surface, the text seems quite straightforward, but a closer reading discloses several peculiarities. Here are but a few.

1. The change of narrator. The passage begins in the first person plural, e.g. "we convened," but switches to the third person in vs. 9. The narrator retains the third person throughout the story and reverts to the first person in vs. 13: "But going ahead to the ship, we set sail for Assos." Such changes of voice from first to third and back to first person is common in ancient texts, but Luke could easily have maintained the first person plural throughout and for some reason chose not to do so.

2. The presence of the lamps. In a story otherwise spare of details, one is surprised to read "There were plenty of lamps in the upper room" (20:8). Some interpreters have suggested that the excessive smoke from the lamps made Eutychus want to sit near the window and ultimately caused him to fall sleep,1 or that the lamps explain how Paul knew the lad had dropped out of sight, or that by mentioning the abundance of lamps Luke indicated that the celebration of the Eucharist was joyous.2 According to other scholars, Luke fended off charges that Christian meetings were held in the dark for lewd purposes.3 These lamps puzzled ancient readers too. A scribe of the western textual tradition thought it more reasonable to supply the room with fenestration instead of illumination, and thus changed lampades ("lamps") to hupolampades ("little windows").

3. Eutychus's condition after the fall. Several interpreters have taken Paul's declaration in vs. 10, "His soul is in him," to imply that the fall did not actually kill Eutychus but merely stunned him. When Paul embraced him, the apostle detected a spark of life.4 Vs. 9, however, says unambiguously that the boy died (êrthê nekros).5 But if Eutychus died, what then does Luke mean that his soul was in him? At first glance, it would seem reasonable to suppose that when Paul embraced the corpse he revived it,6 but the text does not declare Eutychus alive until several hours later.

4. Eutychus's revival. Paul left the body where he had found it, went upstairs to eat and speak until daybreak, and then walked off for Assos (20:13). Only after Paul left did the believers in Troas raise the lad to life. This ending obviously bothered the scribe responsible for a variant reading that attributes the healing to Paul himself. In Codex Bezae, vs. 12 begins, "and while they were saying their farewells, he fetched (êgagen) the young man, alive."7

F. F. Bruce speaks for many interpreters: "Luke probably intends us to understand that his life returned to him when Paul embraced him. But it may have been a few hours before Eutychus recovered consciousness."8 Such an interpretation, though not impossible, stretches the apparent meaning of vs. 12, which implies that only after Paul had left for Assos was the lad actually revived. Had Luke wished merely to claim that Eutychus then regained consciousness, he surely would not have used the word zônta ("alive"). What is more, although already in vs. 10 Paul tells his audience not to lament, not until vs. 12 does Luke state that the believers took comfort in his reviving (paraklêthêsan), presumably because not until then did they observe any change in Eutychus's condition. Commentators have attempted to remove vs. 11 or to reverse the order of vss. 11-12 to avoid the awkward delay in Eutychus's revival.9

5. Theological and literary motivation. This is the only episode told of Paul's visit to Troas, nothing is said concerning the content of his preaching, Eutychus appears nowhere else in Acts, and apart from the "breaking of bread" and Paul's ability to perform miracles, no major Lukan theme occurs here. In comparison with most of Acts, this story seems to be an unintegrated, elliptical mess.

Some interpreters have tried to resolve these problems by suggesting that Luke infelicitously modeled the story after a written source or awkwardly absorbed it from oral tradition. The most commonly proposed written narrative behind Acts 20:9-12 is Elijah's raising of a widow's son in 1 Kings 17:17-24.

Elijah said to the woman, "Give me your son." He took him from her breast and brought him up to the upper room (uperôon) where he himself slept and made him recline on the bed. Elijah cried out and said: "Woe to me, Lord, the witness of the widow with whom I am staying! You have done wrong in killing her son!" He breathed on the child three times, called on the Lord, and said, "Lord, my God, may the soul (psuchê) of this child return to him." And so it did; the child cried out. Elijah brought him down from the upper room into the house, and gave him to his mother, and said, "Look, your son is alive ()!" (1 Kings 17:19-23 [LXX], see also 2 Kings 4:18-37)

Here and in Acts 20:7-12 a holy man revives a dead boy by lying upon him. In both stories one encounters an upper room (uperôon): Elijah takes the lad up to his room to revive him; Paul descends from the upper room to revive Eutychus. Both stories comment on the status of the victim's spirit or soul. Elijah prays, "May the soul (psuchê) of this child return to him"; Paul declares, "His soul (psuchê) is in him." One also might argue that Luke intended this scene to establish Paul's power to raise the dead, in the tradition of Elijah, Elisha, Jesus, and Peter. Even if 1 Kings 17 influenced Luke's telling of the Eutychus story, this hypothesis cannot account for the most vexing features of Acts 20:7-12, such as the emphasis on the many lamps, Eutychus's fall from a windowsill, and especially Paul's delay in reviving him, leaving the task for others to do after he had left.

Although apparently no one has suggested it, Luke might also have had in mind Mark 5:35-43, the revival of Jairus's daughter, which Luke retold in Luke 8:49-56. Both stories narrate the reviving of a young person (Mark 5:39, paidion; Luke 8:54, pais; Acts 20:12: paida). In both, once notified, the healer goes to the corpse, rebukes the crowd for lamentation, and states that the victim is not dead (in the case of Jairus's daughter) or that the victim's soul is still in him (in the case of Eutychus). In both stories the declaration that the child was not dead preceded the revivification itself, and both also contain the motif of sleep. Observe the parallels between the speeches of Jesus and Paul to the onlookers.

Mark 5:39

And when he had

he said to them (legei),
"Why do you raise a
ruckus (ti thorubeisthe)
and weep?
The child is not dead
but sleeps."
Luke 8:52

He said (eipen),
"Why do you weep?

She is not dead
but sleeps."
Acts 20:10

Paul descended,
fell on him,
embraced him,
and said (eipen),
"Don't raise a ruckus
(mh thorubeisthe).

His soul is in him."

In order to support the dependence of Acts 20:7-12 on Mark 5 one also might cite Acts 9:36-43, the healing of Dorcas, which Luke probably modeled after this same Markan pericope.10 However, as was the case with the possible influence of 1 Kings 17, the parallels between Acts 20:7-12 and Mark 5 cannot account for the most unusual and baffling aspects of the Eutychus story: the lamps, the fatal fall, and the delay in Eutychus's revival until the following morning.

SEVERAL commentators thus have argued that Luke inherited the Eutychus episode from oral tradition. According to Martin Dibelius,

we are dealing with what was originally a secular anecdote, probably containing a humorous undertone. Although the room was brightly lit, the boy fell asleep: the length of the speech was the reason! But the speaker made good the harm he had caused. How he did it, we do not know. It is improbable that Christians with a literary education would have told of one of Paul's deeds in this style. I should prefer to assume that a current anecdote had come to be applied to Paul, that Luke found it in this form and introduced it into his narrative.11

Furthermore, according to this proposal, one could explain the parallels with 1 Kings 17 and Mark 5 by claiming that these texts merely informed Luke's recording of the tale which he had heard.

Such a story might indeed have been the subject of oral narrative. Henry J. Cadbury adduced a papyrus and an inscription about boys falling from heights, one to his death, the other to blindness. The blind lad went to the famous shrine of Asclepius at Epidaurus, "supplicated the god and slept in the temple and became well."12

Other scholars have found confirmation of the oral antecedents to Acts 20:7-12 from a similar story in The Acts of Paul. Patroclus, Nero's cupbearer, sat on a windowsill of a Roman barn listening to Paul preach. Like Eutychus, he fell to his death and was revived by the apostle. Pursuing a suggestion of Wilhelm Schneemelcher,13 Willy Rordorf argued that the author of The Acts of Paul did not know of the tale from the canonical Acts but from oral tradition.14 Unfortunately, Rordorf does not make his argument from an analysis of the stories themselves but from cumulative observations concerning the relationship between Acts and The Acts of Paul.15 The two stories do bear remarkable similarities—too many and too closely verbal to have derived from oral tradition.16

Both young men, for example, come at night to a large building and both are introduced as follows:

Both Eutychus and Patroclus, though young men, are called pais ("child"); both sit on a windowsill; both listen to Paul speak, both fall and die.

In both stories, people descend before Paul does and lift up the corpse (Acts 20:9: êrthê; APl: arantes). Paul gives short speeches, the lads are healed, and others lead them away alive (Acts 20:12: êgagon de ton paida zônta; APl: kai kathisantes auton epi ktênos apepempsan zônta).

Furthermore, the story of Patroclus resolves many of the difficulties in Acts 20:7-12. The Acts of Paul narrates the entire episode in the third person, and there is no mention of the mysterious lamps. One can only guess from Acts why Eutychus was perched on a windowsill, but The Acts of Paul states explicitly that Patroclus did so because there was no room left "because of the crowd that had come to Paul." He did not fall asleep but lost his balance because of the "evil devil." Acts does not say how Paul knew the boy had fallen, but the Paul of The Acts of Paul "perceived it in the spirit." Absent from the Patroclus story is the problematic phrase "His soul is in him." In its place, Paul asks the crowd to demonstrate their faith. Then "the lad received his spirit"; that is, he was brought back to life. There is no awkward delay between the soul being in the lad and his being raised to life. Acts 20:12, stating that "they fetched the lad alive," has caused commentators to speculate concerning where they brought him. The Acts of Paul declares clearly that Patroclus's destination was the imperial palace. Moreover, the story of Patroclus is more integral to the ending of The Acts of Paul than the story of Eutychus in Acts. Patroclus goes immediately to Nero, states his intention to serve Christ instead of the emperor, and thereby inflames imperial hatred for Paul. The author of The Acts of Paul seems to have known the canonical Acts, fashioned Patroclus after Eutychus, and removed several of Luke's difficulties. The Acts of Paul, therefore, does not witness to an oral-traditional tale that Luke also might have known; the similarities of between the stories derive from literary dependence.

I PROPOSE a more economical solution to the peculiarities in Acts 20:7-12, but one apparently never before advanced, namely, that Luke attempted, somewhat infelicitously, to recast the story of Elpenor found in Books 10-12 of The Odyssey. Elpenor, the youngest of Odysseus's crew, asleep on a roof, fell to his death in the middle of the night. Odysseus was unaware of the tragedy until Elpenor's soul came to meet him from the netherworld. Later, Odysseus gave Elpenor's corpse the requisite lamentation and burial. Because of the popularity of Odysseus's visit to the netherworld in Odyssey Book 11, the famous nekyia, Luke could assume that his more educated readers would have recognized the similarities between the stories.17 Luke apparently recast Homer's story in order to contrast Elpenor's lethal fall from Circe's roof with Eutychus's good fortune at having died in the presence of a wonder-working apostle. Here at last we have a reason for the lamps, the fall, the delay of the revivification.

After having spent a year with the goddess Circe on her island home of Aeaea, Odysseus insisted on continuing his journey back to Ithaca. Circe provided a lavish dinner prior to the disembarkation, and Odysseus spent the night with her, learning the magic he would need to summon from the dead the blind seer Tiresias who could tell him how to find his way home. At break of day, Odysseus woke his crew from their deep, dinner-induced sleep in order to sail at once for their rendezvous with the dead. All sailed off but Elpenor. Odysseus speaks:

There was one, Elpenor, the youngest (neôtatos) of all, not over valiant (alkimos) in war nor sound of understanding, who had laid him down apart from his comrades in the sacred house of Circe, seeking the cool air, for he was heavy with wine. He heard the noise and the bustle of his comrades as they moved about, and suddenly sprang up, and forgot to go to the long ladder that he might come down again, but fell headlong from the roof (tegeos pesen), and his neck was broken away from the spine, and his spirit (psuchên) went down to the house of Hades. (Odyssey 10.552–60)18

Odysseus's ship took him to the edge of the world, where, in near total darkness, he performed bloody necromantic rites in order to attract the souls of the dead, especially that of Tiresias. To Odysseus's horror, the first soul (psuchê) to meet him was that of Elpenor, who told the hero how he had died and begged him to burn his corpse in full armor and to bury his ashes with due rites.

Leave me not behind thee unwept and unburied as thou goest thence, and turn not away from me, lest haply I bring the wrath of the gods upon thee. Nay, burn me with my armour, all that is mine, and heap up a mound for me on the shore of the grey sea, in memory of an unhappy man, that men yet to be may learn of me. Fulfil this my prayer, and fix upon the mound my oar wherewith I rowed in life when I was among my comrades. (11.72-78)

Odysseus promised.

Indeed, after he had won his traveling instructions from Tiresias, had seen a host of the dead—including his mother, Achilles, Agamemnon, and Heracles—and had witnessed the punishments of the wicked, Odysseus returned to Aeaea where he beached the ship at night. Odysseus tells king Alcinous of the Phaeacians what happened next.

As soon as early Dawn appeared, the rosy-fingered, then I sent forth my comrades to the house of Circe to fetch the body of the dead Elpenor. Straightway then we cut billets of wood and gave him burial where the headland runs furthest out to sea, sorrowing and shedding big tears. But when the dead man was burned, and the armour of the dead, we heaped up a mound and dragged on to it a pillar, and on the top of the mound we planted his shapely oar. (12.8-15)

Because of his strategic location immediately prior to, at the beginning of, and immediately following one of Homer's most memorable and controversial episodes, Elpenor became an ancient household word,19 even in Christian households. Clement of Alexandria, writing at the end of the second century cited the example of Elpenor's fall in order to discourage drunkenness and assumed that his readers would recognize the tale: "just as Elpenor 'broke his neck' (Odyssey 10.560) when he fell down because he was drunk."20

Before comparing Homer's Elpenor with Luke's Eutychus, I should emphasize that many ancient authors, including some of Luke's contemporaries, modeled fictional characters after the fallen youth in The Odyssey. I will begin with Homer's most famous critic, Plato's Socrates, who expressed contempt for Homer's nekuia in Books 2 and 3 of the Republic. The great poet, complained Socrates, depicted the afterlife as a state of terror and ignorance. The gods themselves recoiled at the sight of Hades, "horrible, noisome, dank" (386d). Socrates took particular exception to Achilles' statement that he would prefer the life of a slave on earth than to be king of all the dead (386c, cf. Odyssey 11.489-91). Furthermore, the nekyia provided no rewards for the righteous. Tales of life after death, thought Socrates, must praise it if they are to befit "the ears of boys and men who are destined to be free and to be more afraid of slavery than of death" (387b).

At the end of the same work, Socrates provided his own interpretation of the netherworld in order to replace Homer's version of life after death with one that not only punished the wicked but also rewarded the righteous. "It is not, let me tell you," he says, "the tale to Alcinous told [by Odysseus] that I shall unfold, but the tale of a warrior bold (alkimou), Er, the son of Armenius" (614b). The use of the common Homeric adjective alkimos here contrasts with Homer's description of Elpenor: "not over valiant (alkimos) in war" (Odyssey 10.552-53).

He once upon a time was slain in battle, and when the corpses were taken up on the tenth day already decayed, was found intact, and having been brought home, at the moment of his funeral, on the twelfth day, as he lay upon the pyre, revived, and after coming to life related what, he said, he had seen in the world beyond. He said that when his soul went forth from his body he journeyed with a great company and that they came to a mysterious region. (Republic 10.614b-c)

Er then articulates a mythical account of reincarnation suitable to Plato's Socrates. "[H]ow and in what way he returned to the body he said he did not know, but suddenly recovering his sight he saw himself at dawn lying on the funeral pyre" (621b). Plato's Socrates recast the tragic role of Elpenor into that of Er who returned from the dead at dawn to give a more satisfactory account of the afterlife than had Homer's Odysseus. Er himself was a metaphor for Plato's understanding of the afterlife: reincarnation.

Compare the following:

A young soldier.
Not valiant (oute ...alkimos).
Died in an accident.
Not buried.
Soul went to netherworld.
Asked to be burned and buried.
Odysseus burned and buried
    the body at dawn,
    and Elpenor's soul found rest.
Odysseus returned from the
netherworld to tell what he had seen.
A young soldier.
Valiant (alkimos).
Died in battle.
Not buried for twelve days.
Soul went to netherworld.
Almost was burned and buried.
As the body was about to be
burned and buried at dawn,

Er revived
and told what he had seen.

L. Mestrius Plutarchus (c. 50-120 CE), Luke's contemporary, wrote two stories about young men who visited the netherworld; the one most relevant to Eutychus is that of Thespesius. This young man had squandered his youth as a knave until he saw the punishments of the wicked in Hades for himself. Like Homer's Elpenor,

He had fallen from a height and struck his neck, and although there had been no wound, but only a concussion, he died away. On the third day, at the very time of his funeral, he revived. Soon recovering his strength and senses, he instituted a change in his way of life that could hardly be believed; for the Cilicians know of no one in those times more honest in his engagements, more pious toward heaven, or more grievous to his enemies and faithful to his friends; so that all who met him longed to hear the reason for the difference, supposing nothing ordinary could have caused so great a reformation in character. Such indeed was the case, as appears from the story as told by himself to Protogenes and other worthy friends.

He said that when his intelligence was driven from his body, the change made him feel as a pilot might at first on being flung into the depths of the sea. (Divine Vengeance 563d-e)

With respect to his fatal fall, the youth imitates Elpenor, but in his visit to the netherworld, he is more like Plato's Er. Plutarch narrates at some length what the youth had seen in Hades, the fates of righteous and wicked souls (565a-b). Thespesius, too, learned that he had not died; rather, "through a divine dispensation [you] are present here in your intelligence, having left the rest of your soul (psuchên), like an anchor, behind in your body" (564c). He also learned, as Odysseus had from Tiresias, the circumstances of his own death. Odysseus saw his mother emerge from Hades to drink the blood from the trench; Thespesius "caught sight of his own father emerging from a pit, covered with brands and scars, stretching out his arms to him" (566f). After receiving their appropriate punishments, many souls then reincarnate (567f.).

In this tale, Plutarch obviously has combined elements from Homer's nekyia with Plato's myth of Er. The protagonist, Thespesius, plays the role of Elpenor insofar as he fell from a height and died and was not buried for three days. Because he came back to like just before he was buried, he also can play the role of Er: he visited a netherworld similar to that envisioned by Plato's Socrates and returned to life to tell his tale of reincarnation. Thereafter he lived a virtuous life, the very goal Socrates desired when he told the myth of Er. Compare the following:


Young man,
not valiant or wise
Fatal fall
Corpse unburied
Soul went to netherworld

Corpse buried

Young man,
a rogue
Fatal fall
Corpse unburied
Soul went to netherworld,
but returned to the corpse,
as he was about to be buried

Virgil was particularly fond of Homer's Elpenor and modeled two characters after him in the nekuia of the Aeneid (Book 6). These two young warriors, veterans of the Trojan War, sailed with Aeneas for Italy, and on the journey they both perished prematurely and remained unburied because Aeneas was not aware of their catastrophes. Virgil enveloped the tale of Misenus inside that of Palinurus, siphoning off to one character some of Elpenor's traits, leaving some for the other.

The pilot Palinurus led Aeneas' armada toward Italy, when, at midnight, the god Somnus, or Sleep, overpowered him such that he fell overboard into the sea, undetected by anyone. "Hardly had a sudden slumber begun to unbend his limbs when, leaning above, Sleep flung him headlong into the clear waters, tearing away, as he fell, the helm and part of the stern, and calling oft times vainly on his friends" (5.857-60). Aeneas proceeded to Cumae, the home of the Sibyl and the entrance to Hades. The goddess told him how to enter the nether gloom so that he could consult his father Anchises concerning his route to Rome. First, however, Aeneas must remove the ritual pollution caused by an unburied corpse. The corpse was not that of Palinurus but of the young soldier Misenus who likewise had perished at sea. On his voyage for Italy, Misenus—no Elpenor-like wimp but a fortissimus heros (6.169)—had recklessly blown into a conch shell as though summoning troops to battle: "jealous Triton caught and plunged him in the foaming waves amid the rocks" (173-74). Like Odysseus who knew nothing of Elpenor's fall until he saw him in the netherworld, Aeneas was ignorant of Misenus's drowning until he saw his corpse on the beach. Aeneas and company set out to bury the corpse at once. They cut down an immense quantity of wood, washed, anointed, and burned the body. Over his ashes they piled "a massive tomb, with the soldier's own arms, his oar and trumpet" (see Aeneid 6.175-234).

Aeneas never met the soul of Misenus in the netherworld, as was the case with Odysseus and Elpenor, but he did meet the soul of Palinurus, his drenched pilot. When he first entered the netherworld, he saw along one bank of the river Styx throngs of souls (animae) whom Charon the ferryman refused to transport to the other side until their bodies had been buried or until they had waited for one hundred years.

Lo! there passed the helmsman, Palinurus, who of late, on the Libyan voyage, while he marked the stars, had fallen from the stern, flung forth in the midst of the waves. Him, when at last amid the deep gloom he knew the sorrowful form, he first accosts thus: "What god, Palinurus, tore thee from us, and plunged beneath the open ocean?" (6.337-43)

Like Elpenor to Odysseus, Palinurus told Aeneas how he had died, and begged him to bury his body. After speaking with Palinurus, Aeneas saw other fallen Trojan heroes, including his own father Anchises, who, like a Tiresias, told his son what would happen to him on is journey toward Rome and thereafter. The following columns display the commonalties.


Soldier at night
Fell from roof
Not valiant
and not foolish

Soul meets hero in Hades
and asks to be buried
Corpse burned and
oar on mound.

Soldier at midnight
fell from stern of ship

Soul meets hero in Hades
and asks to be buried
Corpse burned

Was plunged into sea
"Valiant hero"
but foolish

Must be buried
Corpse burned and
oar on mound

Writing about 170–180 CE, Luke's contemporary, Apuleius of Madauros, wrote a large Latin novel about the peregrinations of a certain Lucius who, by accidental magic, had turned himself into an ass. One of Apuleius's stories, told by a thief, narrates the death of a lad named Alcimus ("valiant"), the very property—the very Greek word—that Homer denied to Elpenor. Alcimus, too, was foolish, died from a fall from a tall house at night, and was not properly buried. Thus Apuleius calls him unlucky, like "unfortunate" Elpenor. The thief speaks:

Alcimus, despite his cautious plans, could not attract the approving nod of Fortune. He had broken into the cottage of an old woman who was asleep, and had gone to the bedroom upstairs. Although he should have squeezed her throat and strangled her to death at once, he chose first to toss her possessions out through a fairly wide window, item by item — for us to pick up, of course. He had already diligently heaved out everything else, but he was unwilling to pass up even the bed on which the poor old lady was sleeping; so he rolled her off the cot and pulled out the bedclothes, evidently planning to throw them out the window too. But the wicked woman groveled at his knees and pleaded with him. "Please, my son," she said, "why are you giving a miserable old lady's poor shabby junk to her rich neighbours, whose house is outside that window?"

That clever speech cunningly deceived Alcimus, who believed that she was telling the truth. He was doubtless afraid that what he had already thrown out and what he was going to throw out later would be gift to someone else's household and not his comrades, since he was now convinced of his mistake. Therefore he leaned out of the window in order to take a careful survey of the situation, and especially to estimate the fortunes of that house next door which she had mentioned. As he was making this energetic and not very prudent attempt, that old sinner gave him a shove; although it was weak, it caught him suddenly and unexpectedly, while he hung balanced there and was preoccupied with his spying. She sent him head over heels. Not to mention the considerable altitude, he fell on a huge rock lying beside the house, shattering and scattering his ribcage. Vomiting streams of blood from deep within, he told us what had happened and then departed from life without much suffering. We buried him as we had our other comrade, and so gave Lamachus a worthy squire. (Metamorphoses 4.12)

The burial of Alcimus was no burial at all, but the wrapping of his corpse in a linen cloth and a watery grave at sea (4.11). Observe the following similarities:


Soldier at night
Not valiant (alkimos)
and not foolish
At home of Circe the witch
Falls from roof and dies

Body not buried, but later
buried near the sea

Thief at night
Alcimus ("Valiant") but foolish

At home of an old woman
Falls out of window and dies
"Could not attract the approving
nod of Fortune"
Body not buried, wrapped and
thrown in the sea

I HAVE FOUND several other examples of the rewriting of the Elpenor story,21 but the ones presented thus far should suffice to demonstrate his popularity in ancient literature. Apuleius's Alcimus is the most useful for our purposes, for it suggests that the author expected his readers who were familiar with Homer to derive additional pleasure from the story by comparing it with the Elpenor incident in The Odyssey. I suggest that Luke had the same expectation.

As we have seen, Luke's tale is a third-person narration nested in a first-person-plural narration of Paul's voyage from Achaea to Troas. He stayed there seven days, and just prior to leaving he and his companions convened to "break bread." Odysseus, too, told in the first person how his crew had sailed to Circe's island, stayed there for a year, and enjoyed a lavish banquet just before departing (Odyssey 10.476–79). According to Homer, Elpenor fell asleep when "darkness came on," when his comrades bedded in Circe's "darkened halls" (megara skioenta, 10.479). Paul's upper room, however, was full of lamps. Luke's care to mention these lamps probably derives from a desire not only to contrast the upper room with Circe's dark, mysterious home, but also to exculpate Paul for Eutychus's death. The lad did not die for want of light but for want of attentiveness.22

Acts 20:9 contains several verbal resonances with Homer.

Both phrases name the lad, call him a young man (neanias/neôtatos), and contain the words de tis. Furthermore, neither Elpenor nor Eutychus had been mentioned before in their host narratives.

Homer states that Odysseus's crew gave way to "sweet sleep" (glukon upnon, 10.549); Luke's Eutychus was overcome by "deep sleep" (upnô bathei and apo tou upnou, 20:9). Homer supplies a reasonable motivation for Elpenor's location on top of the roof. After a long day of eating and drinking, his head abuzz with wine, he needed fresh air. Luke, on the other hand, does not disclose why Eutychus perched on the windowsill, but a reader familiar with The Odyssey might well have assumed that he, too, wanted ventilation in a room full of lamps. Elpenor died when he woke up from his sleep; Eutychus when he dozed off.

Luke's description of Eutychus's fall likewise echoes The Odyssey.

Both lines contain pesen or epesen (third-person-singular aorist of piptô, "fall"), a form of kata (katantikru and katô, "down"), and some variation of the word tegos ("roof"); in the genitive case (tegeos and tristegou).

Luke's choice of tristegon, "third story," here is particularly suggestive. It is a hapax not only in Luke-Acts, but also in the New Testament and in contemporary Christian literature. The related words stegos, stegê, tegos ("roof,"); from which tristegon derives, appear in Luke's writings only in Luke 7:6, where stegê derives from Q (cf. Matt 8:8). Insofar as Luke prefers dôma when referring to a roof,23 Luke's tristegon may have derived from the tegos in Homer.

Because Elpenor's fall escaped Odysseus's attention, his body remained unburied until the crew returned from the netherworld. This delay of burial might account for the peculiar delay between Paul's stating that Eutychus's soul was in him and the lad's actual revival. Twice Homer says that the soul (psuchê) of Elpenor immediately rushed off to Hades (10.560 and 11.65). When Odysseus conjured up souls from the netherworld, it was Elpenor's that first greeted him (Prôtê de psuchê Elpênoros). On seeing him, Odysseus sobbed: "I wept, and my heart had compassion on him" (11.55). Believers in Troas, on the other hand, had no reason to lament, for unlike Elpenor's soul, immediately and forever banished to Hades, Eutychus's soul returned to him thanks to Paul's extraordinary powers. Even so, they boy did not yet return to life. This would happen the next morning when those left in Troas lift him up.

In the netherworld, Elpenor's soul asked Odysseus to return to Circe's island to mourn and to bury his corpse (11.59-78), and the king of Ithaca did so the following day, at dawn:

As soon as early Dawn appeared, the rosy-fingered, then I sent forth my comrades to the house of Circe to fetch the body of the dead Elpenor. Straightway then we cut billets of wood and gave him burial where the headland runs furthest out to sea, sorrowing and shedding big tears. But when the dead man was burned, and the armour of the dead, we heaped up a mound and dragged on to it a pillar, and on the top of the mound we planted his shapely oar. (Odyssey 12.8–15)

Both here and in Acts 20:11-12 the resolution of the victim's plight does not occur until dawn. Odysseus can only mourn and bury his dead comrade; Paul's God raises Elpenor's counterpart back to life. Furthermore, Odysseus himself did not fetch Elpenor's corpse, his comrades did, "sorrowing and shedding big tears" (12.12). Similarly, Paul did not revive Eutychus's corpse, his converts did, "and were not a little relieved." Compare the following lines.

The following columns summarize the arguments made above.

    Odyssey 10-12

1. Odysseus and crew leave Troy
and sail back to Achaea

2. First person plural
(most of book 10)

3. After a sojourn, a meal

4. Circe's "dark halls" (10.479)

5. "sweet sleep" (glukon upnon,

6. Switch to third person (10.552)

7.  There was one, Elpenor, the
youngest of all  lying on the roof
(Elpênôr de tis eske neôtatos, 10.552)

8. Elpenor fell from a roof
(katantikru tegeos pesen, 10.559=11.64)

9. Elpenor's soul (psuchê) goes
to Hades (10.560=11.65)

10. Delay in burying Elpenor until
dawn of the next day (12.1-15)

11. Associates fetch the body
(oisemenai nekron, Elpênora tethnêôta, 12.10)
    Acts 20:7-12

Paul and crew stop at Troy,
having left Achaea to sail back
to Jerusalem

First person plural (20:1-8)

After a sojourn, a meal (20:6,7,11)

 There were plenty of lamps
in the upper room. (20:8)

 deep sleep  (upnô bathei, 20:9)

Switch to third person (20:9)

 A certain young man named
Eutychus was seated at a window 
(kathezomenos de tis neanias onomati Eutuchos
epi ths thuridos
, 20:9)

Eutychus fell from the third story
(epesen apo tou tristegou katô, 20:9))

Eutychus's soul (psuchê) stays
in him (20:10)

Delay in raising Eutychus until dawn
of the next day (20:11)

Associates revive the body (êgagon de ton paida zônta, 20:12)

The parallels between these stories are more lexical, more detailed, and more sequential than the rewritings of the Elpenor story by Plato, Plutarch, Virgil, and Apuleius discussed earlier.

THE literary critic Gérard Genette would call Luke's manipulation of the Elpenor story a "hypertextual transvaluation,24 a common literary strategy for replacing the values or perspectives of an earlier, targeted text (the "hypotext") with alternative values or perspectives. For such a strategy to succeed, the hypertext must display, even if obscurely, its relationship to the hypotext. Obviously, the strategy has not succeeded with modern readers of Acts; no previous study of the text has suggested this relationship. Furthermore, evidence of ancient readings provide little encouragement that they understood the Homeric background either.25

On the other hand, two additional aspects of the story in Acts indicate that Luke advertised its Homeric hypertextuality, even though his readers failed to perceive it: the location of the story in Troas and the name Eutychus.

Troas, of course, is ancient Troy. To be sure, the city of Troy during Luke's day was not precisely on the location of the ancient city, but it was nearby, and the two were repeatedly identified with each other. No educated ancient would have been numb to the Troy's rich mythological and Homeric associations, including the nostos of Odysseus and Elpenor back to Achaea from the Troad. By placing the story of Eutychus in Troy, Luke seems to be hinting that one should read it in light of Troy's legacy.26

The most important hypertextual clue, however, is the name Eutychus. Homer repeatedly emphasizes Elpenor's bad fortune. He simply forgot that he was sleeping on a roof, died, and was not missed by the crew: "we had left his corpse behind us in the hall of Circe, unwept and unburied" (11.53-54). The young soldier survived the Trojan war, Laestrygonian cannibals, and Polyphemus, only to step off Circe's roof to his doom. Elpenor himself states that he was the victim of "an evil fate" (aisa kakê, 11.61) and calls himself "an unhappy man" (andros dustênoio, 10.76). Odysseus too addresses him as "unfortunate" (ô dustêne, 11.80) When Ovid referred to this story, his single adjective for the lad was miser, "wretched," "unhappy."27 Eutychus, on the other hand, means "lucky." Although usually one must avoid putting too much stock in the meanings of personal names used in Acts, such onomastics were commonplace in Greek literature, as early as Homer himself. When Apuleius wished to call attention to his rewriting of the Elpenor story he did so by naming his character Alcimus ("Valiant") and declaring from the outset his bad luck: he "could not attract the approving nod of Fortune." In light of the other similarities between the two stories, the selection of the name Eutychus hardly seems accidental. Eutychus had the "good fortune" (eutuchia) to have died when Paul was nearby to revive him.

If the hypothesis advanced here is correct—namely, that the story in Acts 20:7-12 is a hypertextual transvaluation of Homer's Elpenor—it bears weighty implications for our understanding of Acts as a whole. First, Luke apparently expected his primary audience (Theophilus, say) to have been sufficiently aware of The Odyssey in order to decode the Eutychus story as a clever transformation of a classical tale. Luke was writing for a sophisticated reader.

Second, other passages of Acts, especially other we-passages, may also play off against the Homeric epics or other Greek mythology. For example, the story of Paul and Silas dragged off to prison for exorcising a slave girl and their subsequent prison break has parallels in The Bacchae of Euripides. Tiresias' prophecy to Odysseus concerning his death might compare with Agabus's prophecy to Paul about his death.28 One also must not overlook the famous shipwreck scene in Acts 27-28 and the story of the serpent at Malta. Odysseus too faces dreadful monsters on islands and outlives them.29

Third, if the story of Elpenor lies behind that of Eutychus, it would add support to those who suggest that Acts ought not be read as an historical record but as an historical novel.30 One misses the point in the Eutychus tale if one insists that Luke intended the reader to view it as an historical event. Rather, Luke's "Lucky" in Troas is an alternative to Homer's unlucky Elpenor on his way home from Troy.

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Basic Works Referred to in Discussion

Bovon, François
"La vie des apôtres: traditions bibliques et narrations apocryphes," in Les Actes des apôtres: christianisme et monde païen, ed. François Bovon, Publication de la faculté de théologie de l'université de Genève 4 (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1981)
Bruce, F. F.
Commentary on the Book of the Acts, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954).
Cadbury, Henry J.
The Book of Acts in History (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1955)
Conzelmann, Hans
The Acts of the Apostles, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987)
Dibelius, Martin
Studies in the Acts of the Apostles (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1956)
Foakes Jackson, F. J., and Kirsopp Lake
The Beginnings of Christianity. Part I: The Acts of the Apostles, 5 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1920-1933; reprint = Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979)
Haenchen, Ernst
The Acts of the Apostles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971)
Pesch, Rudolf
Die Apostelgeschichte, EKKNT 5.1 (Zurich: Benziger, and Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1986)
Roberts, J. E.
"The Story of Eutychus," Expositor, series 8. 26 (1923): 376-82.
Rordorf, Willy
"In welchem Verhältnis stehen die apokryphen Paulusakten zur kanonischen Apostelgeschichte und zu den Pastoralbriefen?" in Text and Testimony. Essays on New Testament and Apocryphal Literature in Honor of A. F. J. Klijn, eds. T. A. Baarda, et al. (Kampen: Kok, 1988), 225-41.
Schneemelcher, Wilhelm
"Die Apostelgeschichte des Lukas und die Acta Pauli," in Apophoreta. FS for Ernst Haenchen (Berlin: Alfren Töpelmann, 1964), p. 249.
Schneider, G.
Die Apostelgeschichte, 2 vols. HTK (Freiburg: Herder & Herder, 1980-1982)

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1F. J. Foakes Jackson and Kirsopp Lake, The Beginnings of Christianity. Part I: The Acts of the Apostles, 5 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1920-1933; reprint = Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 4. 256, F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of the Acts, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), 408, and Rudolf Pesch, Die Apostelgeschichte, EKKNT 5.1 (Zurich: Benziger, and Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1986), 2.191.

2Philippe H. Menoud, "The Acts of the Apostles and the Eucharist," 93 in Jesus Christ and the Faith (Pittsburgh: Pickwick, 1978).

3Cautiously, Ernst Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971), 585. See Justin Martyr, First Apology 26.7, Minucius Felix, Octavius 9, and Tertullian Apology 8-9.

4Already Origen, Commentary on John 5.4. Jackson and Lake, Beginnings, 4.256-57. J. E. Roberts, "The Story of Eutychus," Expositor, series 8. 26 (1923): 376-82.

5So Haenchen, Acts, 585 (citing The Testament of Judah 9:3: êrthê nekros), and Hans Conzelmann, The Acts of the Apostles, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 169.

6So Pesch, Apostelgeschichte, 2.192, G. Schneider, Die Apostelgeschichte, 2 vols. HTK (Freiburg: Herder & Herder, 1980-1982), 2.287, and F. F. Bruce, Commentary, 408.

7J. E. Roberts rightly was bothered by this delay ("Story of Eutychus," 377).

8Commentary, 408.

9Hans Conzelmann attributed vs. 11 to Luke's redaction of the story (Acts, 169-70). Albert C. Clark preferred the reading in D and relocated the ending of vs. 12 (êgagen ton neaniskon zônta kai pareklêthêsan ou metriôs), so that it follows Paul's statement that Eutychus's soul was in him (The Acts of the Apostles [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933, reprint = 1970], 130 and 377).
     A parallel to this story in Luke 8:49-56, which the author borrowed from Mark 5:35-43, suggests that Luke may well have intended the delay to be taken seriously. In the story of Jairus's daughter, Jesus declared that "she is not dead but sleeping." Those who heard this laughed at him, "because they knew that she had died." Only later, when Jesus took her hand and spoke to her, did she actually revive. Here, as in Acts 20:10-12, the declaration that the child was not truly dead had nothing to do with the child's actual physical condition. Both Jairus's daughter and Eutychus had died (Mark 5:35, apethanen; Luke 8:49, tethnêken; 8:53, apethanen; Acts 20:89, nekros) and remained dead until raised up. Jesus raised Jairus's daughter almost at once, but believers in Troas did not raise Eutychus for several hours.

10Dennis R. MacDonald, "From Audita to Legenda: Oral and Written Miracle Stories," Forum 2.4 (1986): 15-26, esp. 25.

11Martin Dibelius, Studies in the Acts of the Apostles (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1956), 18-19. Hans Conzelmann sharpened Dibelius's position by claiming that Luke himself was responsible for vss. 7 and 11. Without vs. 11, for example, there is no delay in the raising of Eutychus (Acts, 169-70.).

12Henry J. Cadbury, The Book of Acts in History (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1955), 9, citing P.Oxy. 3.475 and Epidaurus inscription 11 (Herzog).

13Wilhelm Schneemelcher, "Die Apostelgeschichte des Lukas und die Acta Pauli," in Apophoreta. FS for Ernst Haenchen (Berlin: Alfren Töpelmann, 1964), p. 249.

14Willy Rordorf, "In welchem Verhältnis stehen die apokryphen Paulusakten zur kanonischen Apostelgeschichte und zu den Pastoralbriefen?" in Text and Testimony. Essays on New Testament and Apocryphal Literature in Honor of A. F. J. Klijn, eds. T. A. Baarda, et al. (Kampen: Kok, 1988), 225-41.

15I am astonished that I have found no commentary on Acts referring to this story in The Acts of Paul.

16So François Bovon, "La vie des apôtres: traditions bibliques et narrations apocryphes," in Les Actes des apôtres: christianisme et monde païen, ed. François Bovon, Publication de la faculté de théologie de l'université de Genève 4 (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1981), 150.

17Several ancient authors refer to Elpenor as though his story were common knowledge: Apollodorus, Epitome 7.17; Pliny, Natural History 15.119; Theophrastus, Enquiry into Plants 5.8.3; Pausanius 10.29.8; Hyginus, Fabulae 125; Martial 11.82; Juvenal 15.22; and Ovid, Ibis 485-86, and Tristia 3.4.19.

18Cf. Iliad 23.69-92. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations of classical Greek and Latin literature are those found in the Loeb Classical Library.

19A tragedian named Timotheus (4th c. BCE) wrote a play entitled Elpenor. By the third century residents of an Italian coastal village proudly took visitors to Elpenor's tomb (Theophrastus Enquiry into Plants 5.8.3; cf. Pliny Natural History 15.119). Ovid three times referred to Elpenor as though the reader would know his tale. In the Metamorphoses one reads that Elpenor was given to the bottle and was turned into pork by Circe (14.252; cf. Juvenal 15.22); in the Ibis Ovid mentions the lad's fatal, drunken fall (485-86); in the Tristia: "poor (miser) Elpenor who fell from the high roof met his king a crippled shade" (3.4.19-20). Plutarch records a scholarly discussion in which a teacher of literature says, "of all the souls (psuchôn) that Homer named in the episode of the Dead (Nekuia)... that of Elpenor had not yet joined those in Hades, his corpse (nekron) not yet having had its burial, but wandered about in a kind of no man's land" (Quaestiones convivales 740e). Elpenor seems also to have been commonly known to the readers addressed by Athenaeus, Apollodorus, and Martial. Athenaeus: "But he [Homer] makes Elpenor, who indulges too freely in wine, and is given to luxury, break his neck by a fall" (Deipnosophistae 1.18.13). Apollodorus: Odysseus "also looked on his mother Anticlia and Elpenor, who had died of a fall (pesôn eteleutêse) in the house of Circe" (Epitome 7.17). Martial: "Philostratus, returning from a party at the baths of Sinuessa to his hired house at the bidding of night, nearly copied Elpenor, and died by a cruel death while he was hurrying headlong down a long flight of steps. He would not have incurred such great danger, ye Nymphs, if he had drunk your waters instead" (11.82). Plutarch cites a line from Elpenor's speech in order to show how Homer's nekyia encouraged cowardice (How the Young Man Should Study Poetry 17c, quoting Odyssey 11.72). A papyrus fragment of the third or fourth century CE speaks of "unhappy Elpenor, whom Circe's palace stole away" (dusmor[o]s ...Elpênôr, t[o]n afêrpase dômata Kirkês: Select Papyri III, Loeb Classical Library, 550-51). The Latin mythologist Hyginus paraphrased the story of Elpenor like this:

20Paedagogos Lucian quoted part of Odysseus's question to Elpenor in Odyssey 11.93, and called the line "the well-known words" (Wisdom of Nigrinus 17).

21For example, Lucan, Pharsalia 6.413-830; Silius Italicus, Punica 13.400–68; and Heliodorus, Aethiopica 6.14.

22Dibelius, Studies, 18 n. 38.

23Luke 5:19 (where he substitutes dôma for Mark's stegê), 12:3 (Q), 17:31 (from Mark), and Acts 10:9.

24Palimpsestes: la littérature au second degré (Paris: Editions de Seuil, 1982).

25Codex Bezae in 20:4 replaces the name Tychicus (Tuchikos) with Eutychus (Eutuchos), thereby making the lad one of Paul's sailing companions from Achaea. This correlates with Elpenor's sailing with Odysseus from Troy to Achaea. It is more likely, however, that the variant Eutychus in 20:4 was due to scribal error. The Acts of Paul makes Eutychus into Nero's cupbearer, Patroclus, the name of another famous Homeric hero, the associate and perhaps lover of Achilles. Nothing else in The Acts of Paul, however, demonstrates awareness of the Homeric backdrop to the story.

26The very fact that Luke records this story in Troas is surprising insofar as Luke had said nothing earlier about such converts, not even during Paul's earlier visit there (16:8-11, cf. 2 Cor 2:12).

27Tristia 3.4.19.

28Vernon K. Robbins "By Land and By Sea: The We-Passages and Ancient Sea Voyages," in Perspectives on Luke-Acts, ed. Charles H. Talbert (Danville, VA: Association of Baptist Professors of Religion, 1978), 232.

29A closer parallel, however, might be the story of Mopsus and the serpent in Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 4.1502-36. See also Palatine Anthology 7.290.

30E.g., Richard I. Pervo, Profit with Delight: The Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987).

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Copyright © Institute for Higher Critical Studies, 1996

Darrell J. Doughty
Institute for Higher Critical Studies
Drew University, Madison, NJ, 07940