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The Most Precious Possession

The Ring of Polycrates in Ancient Religious Narratives


Eliezer Segal

Finding a precious object – a gem, a ring or a coin – inside the belly of a fish is a favorite motif in western literatures that can be traced back to the Greek historian Herodotus. In Herodotus’ account of the rise and fall of the tyrant Polycrates of Samos, the hero cast his beloved ring, his «most precious possession», into the sea in order to appease or fend off the gods’ envy of his unstoppable successes, but was ultimately disappointed to discover that same ring inside a serving of fish that was placed before him to eat, thereby signaling the beginning of his tragic downfall. The Most Precious Possession: The Ring of Polycrates in Ancient Religious Narratives examines variations on this motif as they appear in ancient religious texts, including the Gospel of Matthew, Jewish Midrash and Talmud, and Augustine’s City of God. It explores how the theme functions in relation to the authors’ respective religious outlooks and literary objectives and what we can learn from these examples about the processes of transmission, interaction and cultural adaptation that occurred among the diverse religious communities of the ancient Mediterranean basin.
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The Gospel of Matthew: St. Peter’s Fish

← 32 | 33 → CHAPTER THREE


According to the most widely supported scholarly theories, the work known as the “Gospel according to Matthew” (Kατά Mατθαίov Eυαγγέλιov, Tὸ Eυαγγέλιov Kατά Mατθαίov) was composed by an unidentified Jewish follower of Jesus. The book is often dated towards the end of the first century C.E., some time after the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in the year 70.1 As one of the “synoptic gospels,” its narration of Jesus’ life, death, mission and teachings is based mostly on an earlier narrative account, identified as the extant Gospel according to Mark, as well as on the collection of Jesus’ teachings known to scholars as “Q.”2 The most conspicuously distinctive pattern in Matthew’s Gospel is the author’s constant reiteration of how every occurrence in Jesus’ story constitutes the fulfillment of a messianic prophesy from ← 33 | 34 → the Hebrew scriptures.3 Another characteristic theme that has been discerned in Matthew is the important role that is assigned to Peter as the founder of what will soon become the Christian church.4

← 34 | 35 → Like so many of the pre-Passion narratives in the synoptic gospels, this episode tells of some verbal exchanges and an incident that took place among the community of Jesus’ earliest followers as they went about their lives in the Jewish environment of the Galilee. The laconic tale gives us the impression that its narrator expected several features of its background and assumptions to be easily understood by its...

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