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Virgil and the Gospels

GUEST POST BY ANDREW JOHNSTON

Everyone loves to hear the story of Odysseus’ misadventures on the Isle of the Cyclops. The Odyssey established itself in my canon of personal favorites after the first read. Until recently, however, Virgil’s Aeneid was a harder sell both for me and my students. Who, after all, remembers what Aeneas did on the Isle of the Cyclops? The fall of Troy and the fall of Dido are easily defensible as great stories, but it is rare to find a reader who has returned time and again to the Aeneid as a whole, while life-long fans of the Iliad and the Odyssey are easy to find.

Nevertheless, my blasé reaction to the Aeneid is strange when considered in light of the history of its reception. According to the Cambridge Companion to Virgil, what Shakespeare has become to the English speaking world, Virgil was to the entire west for longer than any other writer. In other words, for a significant portion of the last 2 millennia, Homer (and everybody else) played 2nd fiddle to Virgil, and it is only recently that the tables of have been turned. This should be a clue that there is more than meets the post-modern eye about this old book.

Fortunately, students of Scripture with a taste for Homer have a set of tools ready at hand with which to make Virgil accessible. The gospels, in particular, share several important literary dimensions with the Aeneid. These can be explored in classroom discussion as a means of introducing a set of tools that will both make a monstrously important book accessible and also enhance the student’s ability to interact with scripture. Because of these shared dimensions, the Aeneid can, in turn, serve as a training ground for the development of careful and insightful exegetes of scriptural narrative.

By the middle of Book 1 of the Aeneid, thematic connections with the gospels have already begun to surface. After Juno has bribed Aeolus, the keeper of the winds, to unleash his charges on Aeneas and his men, Neptune comes to the rescue in a scene that is strikingly reminiscent of the accounts given of Jesus and his disciples when they were caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee. Just as a “great calm” ensued immediately upon Jesus’ rebuke of the winds and sea, “…just so, the whole uproar of the great sea fell silent,…” at the command of father Neptune. The process of drawing out the significance of Virgil’s storm can be greatly facilitated by comparing and contrasting parallel episodes in the Odyssey. A good way to introduce this idea is to examine a similar relationship between the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, using their accounts of the storm as an example.

While Mark’s storm sequence is similar to Matthew’s, at key points they stand in sharp contrast to one another. While in Mark’s account the disciples take Jesus with them into the boat “just as he was,” Matthew’s account reports that “…when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him.” These two narratives suggest very different images. One has the disciples supporting an exhausted Jesus, pressed by the crowds, into the boat, while the other pictures Jesus striding into the boat with his disciples in tow.

The gospels are well established as eye-witness accounts, but the similarities between the synoptic accounts of Jesus’ ministry go beyond what would be expected if these accounts were given in complete isolation from one another. Independent accounts would describe the same events in largely non-intersecting language; such is the relationship between the synoptics and John. The “syn-optics,” however, are so-called because they are interconnected to the point of being intermittently word for word identical in their description of parallel episodes. The standard explanation for most of church history was that Mark wrote his Gospel with a copy of Matthew’s Gospel in front of him. During the 19th century scholars established a consensus that it was the other way around. In recent years the debate has been renewed and things are up for grabs. In Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher, R. T. France provides a synopsis of this debate and observes that there is no need to settle the question in order to make profitable use of the interdependence of the synoptic gospels. Observation of the contrasts between the accounts can help the reader focus in on what is unique about each writer’s project.

While reading the gospels in parallel alerts the reader of contrasts, the significance of these contrasts must be established from within the individual gospels. Prior to his account of the storm, Mark has been exploring the role of parables in Jesus’ ministry, something that Matthew does not do until later on. Mark focuses on the distinction between the crowds seeking to benefit from Jesus’ miraculous powers and the few who have “been given the secret of God’s kingdom.” Referred to prior to the parable of the sower as Jesus’ family, these few gather around him with the twelve when he is alone to inquire into the meaning of the parables. In this context, the image of the disciples supporting Jesus into the boat emphasizes the unique devotion that these disciples have shown in staying after to pursue a deeper understanding of Jesus’ teaching; they are the “good soil” of the parable that began the section. The disciples deliver their beloved teacher, in his frail humanity, from the pressing masses; he, in his divinity, delivers them from the crushing power of the sea. Their appeal in the midst of the storm reflects this relational aspect; “Lord, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Matthew’s focus is related but different. After the Sermon on the Mount, he jumps into a sequence of 10 miracles grouped into sections of 3, 3, and 4. In between the 1st and 2nd groups, Matthew features two vignettes on the radical nature of discipleship that are missing from Mark’s account. Even animals have homes, but following Jesus “wherever he goes” means forgoing the most cherished comforts of life. Another disciple asks if he can fulfill a levitical obligation to his parents before following Jesus. Jesus’ response is shocking; following Jesus means placing him above one’s family. In this context, Matthew’s image of Jesus striding into the boat with his disciples in tow, along with his use the key words “follow” and “disciple,” raises our expectation that Matthew will carry his exploration of the nature of discipleship into the storm.

Two more contrasts support this conclusion. In Mark’s account, Jesus deals with the storm immediately, and then addresses the question of faith once the calm has ensued. In Matthew’s account, Jesus (presumably at the top of his lungs) addresses the question of faith before calming the storm. As in the vignettes, Jesus wants his disciples to understand that their commitment is up front. The tone of the disciples’ appeal is different as well. “Lord, save us, we are perishing,” draws attention to Jesus’ unique role as the savior. Only Jesus can save, and only Jesus worthy of the great cost of discipleship.

The precise relationship between Matthew and Mark may be up for debate, but the relationship between the Aeneid and the works of Homer is quite clear. The 1st 6 books of the Aeneid are a reworking of Homer’s Odyssey, while the 2nd 6 books follow closely the events of the Iliad. The “arms” of Virgil’s first line are those of the Iliad and “the man” is Virgil’s version of Homer’s Odysseus. As with the gospels, close examination of what is the same and what is different can point the reader toward Virgil’s unique project.

On the Isle of the Cyclops, for instance, Odysseus falls afoul of Poseidon by gouging out the eye of his son, Polyphemus. As Odysseus nears Phaeacia, after a 7 year compulsory stint on the Isle of Calypso, Poseidon comes back from a vacation in Libya and sees his little nemesis on the home stretch. After some grumbling, Poseidon hits Odysseus with a storm intended to give him his “swamping fill of troubles.” Odysseus responds with a speech which begins “three, four times blessed, my friends in arms who died on the plains of Troy those years ago, serving the sons of Atreus to the end…” He goes on to say that he not looking forward to washing up drowned on a beach somewhere specifically because his powerful and wealthy friends (i.e., the sons of Atreus) will not be there to throw him a party that will establish his reputation with some permanence. Aeneas, on the other hand, when Juno’s colossal storm descends on his head, makes a speech that begins “three and four times lucky, all you men to whom death came before your father’s eyes beneath the walls of Troy…” Aeneas makes no mention of personal glory. His concern is with his (at least momentary) conviction that dying at sea is incompatible with dying in the service of one’s city-state. There is no question about where Virgil got the line “…three and four times lucky…,” not to mention the storm and the sentiments about the best way to die, but the contrast between the two speeches is marked. Virgil is taking this opportunity to do a little values clarification.

Aeneas’ rather banal trip to the Isle of the Cyclops mentioned above furnishes another example. If Odysseus, desirous of personal glory, had not told his name to Polyphemus, his newly blinded friend would not have been able to throw boulders in his general direction, nor could he have called down a curse on Odysseus that resulted in a long series of altercations with a major deity. Aeneas, on the other hand, did up front what Odysseus only learned to do in the school of “hard rocks.” He left. It may be the case that doing the right thing does not make for such a cool story, but Virgil has other priorities.

The interaction between Virgil’s narrative and Homer’s is so intense that comparison yields food for thought on a virtually line by line basis. The intensity of this interaction may account for the perceived lag in his story line; he simply has a different set of goals than Homer. The stories of the Gospels, on the other hand, certainly never lag, but a cognizance of the interdependence of the various accounts can be similarly fruitful. With Virgil, as with the Gospels, this is only one of several important means of accessing the author’s subtext.

I encounter a substantial dose of cynicism among my students when it comes to finding “deeper meanings” in any story, the gospels included. In an age in which meaning is generally supposed to be something that the reader brings to the text, this cynicism is not wholly unwarranted. The ancient epics are a good context in which to develop and practice an epistemology of narrative exegesis which is then applicable to the gospels. This is because Homer and Virgil, like the gospels, are monolithic in focus. They employ many means to a single end which is both multifaceted and unified. If you think an author is getting at something, wait and see if it comes up again… and again… and again. As the reader cycles through the text, he begins to assemble a general consciousness of the flow of events. On the 3rd or 4th read (earlier if he has someone draw his attention to the author’s literary devices) he begins to get an inkling that the author “is saying something” in addition to telling a story. As he continues to cycle through the text, bearing the observations of his latest read in mind, he will begin to pick up on other appearances of the motif in question. These will be joined by other motifs and on subsequent reads incorporated into a larger monolithic project, in which every part is seen to be a microcosm of the whole.

Reading for a good story is a good thing. As with all narrative, it is really the first thing. But with the epics and Scripture, at least, it is not the last thing. Having thoroughly enjoyed Genesis and Exodus as great stories, if I then proceed to Leviticus and Numbers looking for a good yarn, I will be thoroughly disappointed. And if I never look at Genesis and Exodus as anything but great stories I will have missed out on the full scope of their significance. A good reader will add to his indispensible relish for a good story a set of exegetical tools that take into account the goals and conventions of the text in front of him.

A successful great books education may be one which, when all is said and done, is seen by the student to have been largely directed at learning to read the Bible. In the end, “there is only one thing needful,” but if following Virgil can help us follow Jesus, then we should follow him as far as he can take us.

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Andrew Johnston teaches Humanities and Latin at Providence Classical School in Spring, TX. He holds a B.S. in Mathematics from Biola University and is an alumnus of the Torrey Honors Institute. Andrew lives in Houston with his wife, the evening star of the west (otherwise known as Elena) and their five children.

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