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The Arrival of the Chorus

Jesus was standing in the grove at the left side of the stage, admonishing his disciples for the third time, when suddenly there appeared

a large multitude with swords and clubs, sent by the chief priests, the scribes and the elders.

      These words of Matthew closely agree with the account given by Mark. Luke records the arrival of the armed crowd in excited tones, suggesting that the entry of the chorus came as a surprise to the Christian audience:

He was still speaking, when, behold a crowd!

And Judas, one of the twelve was leading them!

      Luke precipitously names the chorus leader, though the audience was to learn his identity only later, during Jesus’ first exchange with the armed men. The startling effect of the parodos, the entry of the chorus in an ancient dramatic performace, was increased by a special stage effect, mentioned by John: the men he de­scribes as soldiers and temple guards came carrying lanterns and torches. Ancient playwrights made frequent use of scenes with torches in order to call atten­tion to a particular area of the stage, an effect that in our theater we achieve by the use of spot­lights. In the ancient theater, which was open to the sky, there was no means of creating darkness artificially on the stage. If the per­for­mance was taking place in broad daylight, the idea of darkness could be con­veyed to the audience by the use of torches. Seneca had the chorus of armed men carry lan­terns and torches to indicate that the arrest took place before dawn, under the cover of darkness.

      The first appearance of the chorus in an ancient play was a most important moment in terms of the dramatic action. All that took place prior to the arrival of the chorus on the stage was not an integral part of the tragic plot, but rather a preparation for it. The song of the chorus as it marched onto the stage marked the beginning of the first act.

      In an ancient play the arrival of the chorus served a function similar to the raising of the curtain in a modern theater. The chorus was com­posed of about twelve singers who were also dancers.[1] They usually arrived onto the stage reciting a song in which they identified themselves and their place of origin. In a tragedy the chorus was always identified by the community to which its members belonged, because origi­nally the chorus spoke for the conscience of the community. When the chorus was composed of people who came from a community different from that of the scene, they identified themselves upon entering the stage by using a formula such as We have come from... For instance, on Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis the chorus enters reciting:

I have come to the shore

And the sea sands of Aulis

Over Euripus’ waters

And the sea narrows sailing

From Chalcis, my city

      In Seneca’s Hercules on Oeta the entry song recited together by Iole and the chorus of Thessalian women, who had been brought as prize of war with her, is not so direct, but it contains the lines:

It will be asked

where was the location of my fatherland.

Happy I inhabited Thessaly

When the hearths were not barren.

It is characteristic of Seneca to be less blunt than is usual in Greek tragedy.

      In the present instance the chorus must have included the information that they were soldiers and temple guards who had come from Jeru­salem, being under the orders of the High Priest to find Jesus and arrest him. To indicate that they were coming from Jerusalem, they entered from the right, the direction of the city. Thus in order to approach Jesus and the disciples, the chorus had to walk across the stage from right to left; as they did so they became fully visible to the audience.

      In his presentation of the parodos, Seneca was still closely following the model of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. In Sophocles’ play Oedipus seeks refuge in the grove of the Eumenides at Colonus. In a dialogue with his daughter Antigone he refers to the events that brought him to his present plight. He predicts that soon his life of suffering will be over. Suddenly a chorus of armed men arrives on the stage, voicing their intention to find Oedipus and expel him from the grove:

Look for him. Where could he be?

Where is he? Where is the stranger?

      Oedipus comes forward to meet them and says:

That stranger is I.

      From the gospel narratives it can be surmised that the opening scene of Seneca’s tragedy of Jesus unfolded in much the same way.

      As the chorus of armed men approached the grove at the left side of the stage where Jesus was standing in the midst of his disciples they came to a halt and fell silent. John reports that Jesus went out to meet them. This means that he moved in the direction of the right, toward the center of the stage. Jesus challenged them by asking:

Whom do you seek?

The armed men replied:

Jesus the Nazarene.

Then Jesus revealed himself to them by saying:

It is I.

      In Greek tragedy the main character usually identifies himself immediately upon entering the stage, whereas, as we have already noted, it is distinctive of Seneca’s dramatic style that in his tragedies the character gives his name only later, in the course of some dialogue of the play. All through the preceding prologue Jesus’ identity could be a matter of surmise. But now his identity had to be made known emphatically and unequivocally.

      By openly revealing himself to his enemies Jesus assumed the part of a true tragic hero. Seneca put even more stress on Jesus’ active role by having him go out to meet the armed men of the chorus. John reports that on hearing Jesus say It is I the armed crowd moved in the opposite direction and fell to the ground (Jn. 18:6). This indicates that the chorus took a few steps backward, retreating before Jesus while still facing left.[2] Much ingenuity has been expended in the effort to estab­lish the theological significance of this gesture; but in ancient tragedy it is characteristic of the chorus to fall to the ground on being confronted by a divine figure. In the Bacchae of Euripides, as Dionysus arrives on the scene the chorus exclaims:

He comes, our god, the son of Zeus!

whereupon they collapse to the ground. This is indicated by the words of Dionysus that immediately follow:

What, women of Asia?

Were you so overcome by fright

that you fell to the ground?

      In Seneca’s play the chorus recoiled in terror at the moment Jesus re­vealed himself to them; it was a way of indicating that Jesus was more than an ordi­nary mortalthe men of the chorus were overcome by his majesty. As they  recovered and moved to the left once more, Jesus repeated the ques­tion:

Whom do you seek?

The armed men again replied:

Jesus the Nazarene!

to which Jesus answered impatiently:

I have already told you that it is I.

      Luke has Jesus address the leader of the armed crowd as Judas. Raymond Brown explains:

In the primitive pre-gospel passion account there may well have been a need to identify Judas in the scene of the arrest of Jesus, for this would have been the first time he appeared.[3]

      In Seneca’s play, it was the chorus leader who was identified as Judas during the exchange with Jesus. The members of the chorus did not all operate con­stantly as a group;[4] often the chorus leader detached himself from the group and acted like a character of the play. [5] Perhaps Jesus expressed surprise that the leader of the armed men was a Jew and not a Roman, and addressed him as Iuda. On the basis of this encounter, the evangelists built for Judas a complete personality. Paul’s letters do not indicate that the early Christians had any inkling of any betrayal by Judas or anybody else.

      All the gospels relate that, following the initial exchange between Jesus and Judas, one of the disciples took out his sword and lunged at a mem­ber of the armed crowd,[6] an action that drew a sharp reprimand from Jesus. The audience was made to understand that Jesus, far from being a helpless victim, remained in full control of his fate. The detail, reported only by Luke, that Jesus, before leaving the city of Jerusalem, instruc­ted his disciples to provide themselves with a sword if they did not yet have one has been used as a key evidence by all those modern interpreters who main­tain that Jesus advocated armed insurrection. [7] But all arguments that Jesus advo­cated armed insurrection, or at least planned to resist arrest, are undermined by Luke’s report that when Jesus was told by his disciples that they had two swords, he commented:

That is enough!

      In keeping with the spirit of ancient tragedy, the arrest had to be por­trayed as the result of choice. According to Matthew, Jesus speci­fically denied any intention of resisting his enemies. As the armed men were about to seize him, Jesus spoke to the crowd:

Did you have to come with swords and clubs

to capture me as though I were an outlaw?

Then the soldiers with their tribune and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him. (Jn. 18:22). Luke reports the final words of Jesus to the crowd that had come to arrest him:

This hour belongs to you and to the power of darkness.

This line has a tone of finality and foreboding, such as is appropriate for the conclusion of the parodos. We may compare it with the conclusion of Act Four of Seneca’s Medea:

Let welcome darkness shroud the light

Let night’s herald Hesperus sink this terrifying day.

      The beginning of Act One was the appropriate place for noting the progression of dramatic time. The words of Jesus signify not only that he is in the power of his enemies; they could be understood also in their literal sense to indicate that there was still darkness on the stage.


[1]  The exact number of the members of the chorus is a matter of dispute, both in the case of seneca‘s tragedies and of classical Greek tragedies. I am inclined to believe that there were no hard and fast rules about the number of the members of the chorus. Gilbert Norwood is possibly right when he states (Greeek Tragedy (London, 1920), p.76): “the natural view is that Aeschylus began with fifty,that Sophocles ended with fifteen, and that between these two points the number gradually sank.Whether the choreutae after the fifth century became still fewer is not clearly known: there is some evidence that at times they were only seven.” In his Troades Seneca reduced the number of the choreutae to less than ten.

[2] Had they made an about-face, John would have indicated this by the word strepho, as he does in other instances;but from the context it is clear that they merely stepped back, without turning around, a movement that is properly described by apelthon.

[3]  Op.cit., p. 807. But it is equally possible that the chorous leader remained nameless: In addresing him as Iuda, Jesus would have meant “You, a fellow Jew” -but some in the audience understood that the chorus leader was named Judas.

[4] The chorus leader was named koryphaios, literally, “head man.” There were lines that were recited by the chorus leader and lines that were recited by the entire chorus. The editors of Greek tragedies have difficulty in deciding which lines were recited by the chorus leader alone. Cf. Paul Masqueray, Sophocle II (Paris, 1924) p. 160, n.3.

[5]  There are cases in which a second or a third member of the chorous recited seperate lines. But the alternation between lines recited by the chorus leader and by the entire chorus was normal in all tragedies. Because of the prominent role of the chorus-leader, the chorus was addresed by the characters either in the singular or in the plural.

[6]  John alone identifies this impetuous disciple as Peter. Since, as can be gathered from the gospels, the action was discribed in the dialogue of the play, John would have been in a position to know the names of the participants.

[7]  E.g., S.L.F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots (New York, 1967).


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