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How Reading Homer Makes Us Better Readers of Scripture

We classical Christian educators have little trouble giving reasons for reading the Iliad. Despite its pervasive violence and darkness, it gave birth to much of the Greco-Roman and English literary traditions. Homer established the Western canons of storytelling, and his epic poems make us grapple with ideas and problems central to the human condition. As C. S. Lewis would say, reading Homer “enlarges our being,” and “old books” like the Iliad “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”

I want to suggest another reason less likely to make the list: reading Homer’s Iliad makes us better readers of Scripture. More precisely, reading the Iliad invites us to inhabit the Biblical cosmos more thoroughly because it offers us another, vivid but non-Biblical picture of the Biblical cosmos, a cosmos quite foreign to our own.

I begin with the more obvious connections.

The Iliad and the Old Testament are books of stories and heroes. They are “founding myths” because they show “what it means to be” a Greek or Jew or Christian. Compare, for instance, the genealogies and “numberings” of the Torah with the Catalogue of Ships and Heroes in Iliad Book II and with the pervasive references to ancestors. The characters must live up to their pasts and leave stories—whether of their own glory or Yahweh’s—for future generations. For these reasons physical monuments of human and divine deeds are important: burial mounds, city walls, mounds of stones marking miracles, landmarks of divine-human interaction. Even objects are storied: a helmet or scepter or sword is inherited and passed on with its origin tale. All these symbols—objects, places, monuments, stories—recall the deeds of heroes and exemplify the greatness of a people.

In the Old Testament objects such as stony mounds and altars mark the establishment of covenants—the most important dealings among humans and between humans and God. These relationships are traditional, or “passed down,” and ritually enacted. In Homer the central traditional covenant is xenia or “guest friendship.” It is best exemplified by Glaukos and Diomendes (cf. Il. 6.215), who resemble David and Jonathan/Mephibosheth (2 Sam. 9:1-7). But there are also in Homer corporate covenants of peace or favor, and their liturgies echo the Old Testament.

When reading the Iliad we are drawn through a gripping mythos and tableau of unforgettable characters, to an ancient near-eastern cosmos that in its familiar Bible stories sometimes lulls us to sleep. Who better than Homer to wake us with the splash of the “wine-dark sea”?

For example, compare the Abrahamic or Jacob-Laban covenant rituals with the truce enacted between the Achaians and Trojans in Iliad Book III. The truce requires an oath and a ritual enactment: “cutting oaths of faith and friendship” (3.73; 256). This metaphor for covenant making, which exactly matches the OT Hebrew, refers to the cutting of the sacrificial victim that replaces the division between the two parties. The victim receives the violence that the two sides meant for each other. Insofar as the best parts of the animal are burnt and ascend to the gods in a single fire, and insofar as the divided animal is shared by the newly reconciled community, the division of the victim (“cut off” from its life) forms the basis of a new unity and peace. Important biblical echoes are the human participation in the animal’s death, the promise that “the same be done” to whomever breaks the oath, and, most importantly, the invocations of the gods to stand over and between the parties as witnesses to their covenant (3.271-301).

Having noticed the covenant-as-“cutting” metaphor, let’s look at another.

At one point the advancing hordes of Achaians are said to “look terribly like leaves, or the sands of the seashore” (2.800). This numerical simile, used at least twice in the Iliad, has clear Biblical counterparts (Gen. 22:17, 32:12; Jer. 15:8; etc). A small connection, perhaps, but it points to a broader one. Homer’s metaphoric terrain as seen in his stock epithets and similes spans the cosmos, much like Biblical imagery does: farm and wild animals, the sea, wind, weather, the heavens, the mental realm—all this yields images capable of reflecting and helping us understand human attributes, actions, and relationships. Not to mention the divine realm. While reading Homer we inhabit a version of the Biblical tri-fold cosmos arranged into heaven, earth, and sea/underworld. It is personal and analogically interrelated, not to say shockingly un-Newtonian.

There is one more connection—more subtle but also more significant. It is Homer’s “embodied psychology.” By this I mean a psychology that views the mental faculties (intellect, will, memory, imagination) as intertwined with, and somehow even extensions of, the body. We find this “organic” picture of mentality throughout Scripture (Prov. 4:23; Lk. 10:27); but translations often hide it. For instance, a key verb in Philippians is often translated into mental terms like the KJV’s “like-minded” (2:2) or the NASB’s “attitude” (2:5). Such translations, however, mask the concreteness of the original Greek. The verb, phronein, stems from the noun phren, one of two ways the Septuagint translates the Hebrew lev, or “heart” (the other being kardia). A better translation would be “be single-hearted” and “have the same heart as Christ Jesus.”

Similarly but more strikingly in Jeremiah, “I the Lord search the heart, I try the reins [i.e., kidneys]. . .” (17:10 KJV). Although embodied psychology survives in metaphors like “half-hearted attempt” and “gut instinct,” our serious thinking about thinking often slips into dualism; but Homer orients us to a more Biblical psychology with a myriad of colorful expressions, such as, “For I know this thing well in my heart (phren), and in my gut” (6.163-4).

What is behind these resemblances? Christians might refer to the “good dreams” of the pagans (Lewis), whereas scholars emphasize Homer’s ancient near-eastern prototypes, sources that share a Biblical cosmos and poetics. But we need not explain these likenesses to see their usefulness. When reading the Iliad we are drawn, somewhat unconsciously in the case of students, through a gripping mythos and tableau of unforgettable characters, to an ancient near-eastern cosmos that in its familiar Bible stories sometimes lulls us to sleep. Who better than Homer to wake us with the splash of the “wine-dark sea”?

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