This is a rather famous joke/morality tale, with multiple version. The following one was taken from here:

A storm descends on a small town, and the downpour soon turns into a flood. As the waters rise, the local preacher kneels in prayer on the church porch, surrounded by water. By and by, one of the townsfolk comes up the street in a canoe.

"Better get in, Preacher. The waters are rising fast."

"No," says the preacher. "I have faith in the Lord. He will save me."

Still the waters rise. Now the preacher is up on the balcony, wringing his hands in supplication, when another guy zips up in a motorboat.

"Come on, Preacher. We need to get you out of here. The levee's gonna break any minute."

Once again, the preacher is unmoved. "I shall remain. The Lord will see me through."

After a while the levee breaks, and the flood rushes over the church until only the steeple remains above water. The preacher is up there, clinging to the cross, when a helicopter descends out of the clouds, and a state trooper calls down to him through a megaphone.

"Grab the ladder, Preacher. This is your last chance."

Once again, the preacher insists the Lord will deliver him.

And, predictably, he drowns.

A pious man, the preacher goes to heaven. After a while he gets an interview with God, and he asks the Almighty, "Lord, I had unwavering faith in you. Why didn't you deliver me from that flood?"

God shakes his head. "What did you want from me? I sent you two boats and a helicopter."

This question is based on this comment by @Flater on a question on Movies.SE, which states that "this joke at least dates back to classical Roman times, though I can't currently recall which work [they] encountered it in".

Is this true? I'd love to know how the story was told back then, and whether it was even told as a Christian tale (no reason why it couldn't be modified for the Roman pantheon, I suppose).

  • 5
    Would doubt it would be classical Roman, since AFAIK the Roman gods didn't really go around saving people - and the Romans didn't expect them to, They were much more likely to visit misfortune on those guilty of hubris.
    – jamesqf
    Commented May 16, 2020 at 3:40
  • 4
    I have both heard and told a variant of this story many times myself, so I'd like to know this as well.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 16, 2020 at 4:17
  • 3
    This is a good illustration of the very important moral principle and I am interested, too. +1. As for classic Romans, they surely did not wait for gods to do the job. That story could appear in Christian times only. The question is - when? It COULD appear in the late Roman = early Christian times. But IMHO, the need in that story appeared after the Justinian plague (6-8cent), when Christians en mass accepted the senselessness of the personal struggle and waiting for God's deeds. But, I have no data for that.
    – Gangnus
    Commented May 16, 2020 at 9:33
  • 2
    If it's Roman, it might be in Philogelos. Also, Mary Beard has a book Laughter in Ancient Rome but I can't search the whole book. Commented May 16, 2020 at 10:13
  • 1
    The Romans did not have helicopters. of course.
    – fdb
    Commented May 18, 2020 at 10:50

1 Answer 1


I asked my son-in-law who teaches Greek, Latin and Classics. His response:

I haven’t encountered anything similar from Antiquity. The closest thing I can think of is the Stoic philosopher Zeno of Citium, who apprehended his slave pilfering money from him. The slave was saucy enough to plead Zeno’s own doctrine of fate back at him: “Don’t beat me! I was fated to steal it.” Zeno, raising his cudgel for another blow, retorted instantly, “And to be beaten.”

I suspect that "dates back to Classical Roman times" was just hyperbole indicating "has been around for a long long time".

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.