Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.01.51 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.01.51

Michael Herren, The Anatomy of Myth: The Art of Interpretation from the Presocratics to the Church Fathers.   New York:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. xiiii, 231.  ISBN 9780190606695.  $74.00.  

Reviewed by Matthew Kraus, University of Cincinnati (


Michael Herren contends that the greatest contribution of Greek thought to Christianity was not philosophical principles but the critical reading of Scripture “as a pagan Greek might read Homer” (p. viii). Central to his thesis is the claim that the transmission of myths included strategies of how to interpret them. Approaching his subject as a history of ideas, he divides myths and their interpretations into periods corresponding to three “shifting paradigms in ancient thought and culture” (p. vii): (1) the Poets (ca. 800-600 BCE), (2) Physis (600-350 BCE) and (3) Theos (350 BCE onward). Jews and Christians adopted Greek methods of criticizing myth which ultimately benefitted the reading of religious texts. “Classical exegesis” prevented fundamentalist reading of Scriptures and protected pagan Classics from overzealous Christians. Hoping to appeal to students, Herren includes a glossary of names and terms in the back and draws connections to contemporary culture wars, maintaining that the open-minded and skeptical interpretive methods of the ancient Greeks might restrain the irrational fundamentalism that tragically colors twenty-first century discourse and ideologically driven violence. The bulk of the book, wherein lies its primary value, is dedicated to tracing the treatment of myth in antiquity. These sections, in which Herren displays his learned expertise, are especially convincing. When he casts his net beyond the traditional Classical world to Jewish and Christian literature with occasional nods to our own context, the results are less satisfying. Nonetheless, this barely detracts from the work’s core elements.

The heart of the book divides along the lines of the three paradigms. In Chapter One, “The Paradigm of the Poets”, and Chapter Two, “What Makes a Work Authoritative”, Herren explains how Homer and Hesiod gave the Greeks “their paradigms of history and theology . . . and geography and cosmography” (p. 18) and the bases of their authority. Using the Bible for comparanda, Herren argues that, while the Bible, Homer, and Hesiod address similar topics, such as cosmogony, human origins, miracles, the afterlife, theology, and nationhood, they depend upon and produce different paradigms. The assessment of the early Greek poets is sound, but the distinction between the Bible and Homer / Hesiod is overdrawn. While the paradigm of the lawgiver applies to a Hellenistic-Jewish understanding of the Bible, the Bible itself refers to Moses as a prophet not lawgiver and includes many ancient and authoritative poetic passages (e.g. the Song of the Sea, Moses’ poem, Deborah’s song). He contrasts biblical religion with Greek religions that simply required proper service with no required belief or system of ethics other than a general rejection of hubris. Again, one can find counter- examples, such as the book of Leviticus, with little attention to belief and ethics. Moreover, religion is a much later category that cannot easily be disembedded from ancient political / social / cultural systems.

The next five chapters discuss the replacement of the paradigm of the poets by privileging a natural, scientific worldview over a theological heuristic model. In a particularly fine Chapter 3, “Physis—Redefining the Gods”, Herren masterfully traces the profound impact of medical writers and pre-Socratic philosophers who took issue with the supernatural actions and unethical behavior of the gods and imagined non-anthropomorphic divinities subject to nature. After an excellent survey of how the pre-Socratics marginalized and redefined the gods, Herren highlights the significance of Xenophanes whose rational rejection of divine anthropomorphism separated gods from myth, replaced mythological language with philosophical language, and thereby generated a new view of gods that avoided the charges of immorality and philosophical inconsistency. A possible extension of this new paradigm approaches atheism (Chapter Four: “Flirting With Atheism”), a skeptical irreverence toward the gods, as in the case of the sophists, to be distinguished from modern atheism. Another corollary of this paradigm-shift is an attack on poetry itself in addition to criticism of the poets (Chapter 5, “Attacking Poetry”). Here the combatants are Aristotle and Plato. Both agree that the untruths of poetry may be harmful, and prose might be the preferred medium of facts. Aristotle’s concept of mimesis, however, addresses Plato’s critique of the inferiority of copied reality. It is no surprise, therefore, that the continued presence of poets in the curriculum, despite a recognition of their potentially harmful myths, stimulated allegory. The poets needed to be defended (Chapter 6, “The Beginning of Allegory”). There is nothing particularly new in this chapter, and Herren covers the major points such as distinguishing between composing allegorically (allegory) and interpreting allegorically (allegorēsis). Not only can the critic extract philosophical truths through allegory, it is also possible to glean history from myth (Chapter 7, “Finding History in Myth”). The examples here are well-chosen: Plutarch and Hecataeus using rational probability to explain the improbable joined with a discussion of Euhemerus and Pausanias’ and Strabo’s standard of plausibility. What is unique is Herren’s claim that this approach to myth had the socially beneficial effect of liberating “humanity from the tyranny of the letter” (p. 96).

That the divine remained subsumed in physis stimulated another “seismic shift” from the notion that nature governs all to the theism of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics. Chapters 8-11 explain the development of this new paradigm and the subsequent implications for the interpretations of myths. In Chapter 8, “Theos—Rediscovering God”, Herren describes the dissolution of the physis paradigm in the 4th century BCE. He makes an interesting point at the chapter’s end by attributing the continuity of Greek polytheism to the natural human tendency to imagine beings in social units. This is by way of explaining why the monotheistic possibilities of the Timaeus’ demiurge and Aristotle’s Prime Mover remain unexplored in favor of the division between Platonic / Aristotelian dualism (the universe contains nonmaterial and material things) and Stoic monism (only matter exists). In subsequent allegorical readings of myths, the Platonists focus on the noetic world (God, Soul, and objects of knowledge) while Stoics focus on allegorical representations of the physical world looking “for god in nature, or nature in god” (p. 107). This explains why Stoics applied physical allegory to Hesiod unlike the Platonist psychological allegory of Homer (Chapter 9, “The Growth of Allegory”). Although we return to the idea that the poets encode ancient wisdom, the key to unlocking the “corrupted” myths or authentic philosophical ideas, at least according to Cornutus, is etymology. Allegory can recover ancient wisdom, but in Chapter 10, “Saving Poets Without Allegory”, Herren wisely observes that writers like Plutarch treat myth as a pedagogical issue. Poetry may contain edifying truths about human character which could potentially be distorted by allegory. Combining the emergence of allegorical interpretation with the renewed valorization of myth logically leads to the subject of Chapter 11, “From Allegory to Symbolism”, primarily dedicated to the analysis of Apuleius’ “Cupid and Psyche” and Martianus Capella’s Marriage of Philology and Mercury. The discussion is interspersed with readings of Porphyry’s interpretation of the “Cave of the Nymphs,” the Tableau of Cebes, and Proclus’ Commentary on Plato’s Republic. Here Herren astutely connects the Platonic, Middle-Platonic, and Neoplatonic history of interpretation of myth to the production of myth. In this chapter, the author distinguishes between allegory in the strict sense, that requires substitution of the signifier with the signified, and symbolism where the signifier can simultaneously or interchangeably point to the sensible and noetic worlds.

In the penultimate chapter, ”Greek Exegesis and Judaeo-Christian Books,” Herren extends the story of myth-interpretation to the Christian world. According to Herren, “by favoring the symbolic mode over substitutionist allegory, the Christian exegete could maintain the authority of the letter of the text” (p. 161). Augustine shines here, for whom the task of the Christian teacher is to show that “pagans had myths, but Christians had truths”(p. 162). But Christians faced the same problems as the early Greeks because the divine myths of the Old and New Testament did not correlate with the ethical, impassive, and incorporeal god of the philosophers.

Alas, however, the Christian appropriation of Greek interpretive strategies does not have a happy ending (Chapter 13, “Reflection: How Lasting Was the Greek Achievement?”). Herren attributes the end of free expression to the transformation of the Roman Empire into a Christian theocracy in the fourth century. The only checks on rampant fundamentalist exegesis lay in the residuals of the pagan Greek heritage—the continuation of “imperial secular educational system” (p. 166) and restricting the authority of the Bible. The Christians ended open debate on religious issues and asserted the “right of the state to control religion and enforce the laws”(p. 165).

Herren is at his best when describing the nexus of exegesis and philosophical trends. The division into poetry, nature, and the divine is convincing, at least as a heuristic model for assessing philosophical readers of poetic texts. The argument becomes shakier when he departs from the Classical world in the Introduction and early chapters as well as the final two chapters. He incorrectly claims that scholars date the Pentateuch to the reign of King David (ca. 1000-962),1 refers to the pre-exilic community associated with the Pentateuch as Jews, not Israelites, and states the Pentateuch establishes “Yahweh as the one and only God of the Jews”(p. 13).2 The assertion that “vast bulk of the Torah is devoted to codifying legal and ethical matters” (p. 24) does not reflect the content of the Pentateuch as well as the remaining biblical books. Even the very title of Chapter 12 uses the problematic term “Judaeo-Christian”, which effaces such a variety of positions that scholars today refer to “Judaisms” and “Christianities.” One senses this issue even vexed the author since the usage varies from “Judaeo-Christian” to “(Judaeo-)Christian” (p. 148), to dropping the term altogether and using “Jewish” and “Christian” independently. This is unfortunate since the author does such a fine job with his nuanced presentation of the Greek world.

This lumping of Judaisms and Christianities together may have contributed to a number of disputable statements as well as the absence of key moments in the history of biblical interpretation. For example, the claim that the source of a Christian critical reading of Scriptures is pagan Greek thought does not acknowledge the catena traditions nor the polyvalent exegesis embraced in rabbinic traditions. Moreover, what Herren describes as “pagan” methods—a critical reading of ancient myths that prevented a fundamentalist reading of Scriptures—also have biblical, Hellenistic-Jewish, and rabbinic provenances, points established by Michael Fishbane and James Kugel, among others.3 Likewise, the effort to contrast Greek and Jewish contributes to a misreading of Plutarch and Philo. Plutarch is not completely dismissive of allegory because it distorts myth (p. 128), as he endorses the technique in On Isis and Osiris.4 Nor does Philo contradict himself by rejecting the literal meaning and then accepting both the literal and figurative meaning of the Garden of Eden story. Rather, in On the Creation of the World 54, Philo rejects the literal existences of the trees of life and knowledge, not the entire garden defining paradise as “a dense place full of all kinds of trees” (p. 152) that symbolize knowledge. As space prevents addressing all such problematic observations, let it suffice to note that they are limited to the book’s biblical, Jewish and Christian threads and do not represent the heart of the work, the intimate relationship between poetry and criticism within the Greek philosophical tradition.

The significance of these issues must be measured against the intended purpose of the book. In the Preface, Herren states that “[t]his book is for students” but “it is not a textbook . . . it is a fresh attempt to look at the methods of interpreting myths . . . in the context of the history of ideas . . . and shifting paradigms in ancient thought and culture” (p. viii), and that it is relevant to challenges facing the pluralistic society of our day. These two overarching goals reflect the strength and weakness of this book. As a work tracing the impact of philosophical paradigms on the interpretation of myths, I found Herren’s approach original and his analysis convincing. His second goal requires tracing the ancient Greek story to Jewish and Christian biblical exegesis so that the contemporary relevance becomes more pronounced. The effort to connect antiquity to modern issues is to be applauded, especially in a climate where humanism is being marginalized by accusations of socio-economic irrelevance coupled with narrow esotericism. Herren is right that tolerance for multiple interpretations and the questioning of sacred myths protects a pluralistic society threatened by dogmatic fundamentalism. Nevertheless, the overdrawn distinction between Greek / pagan and Jewish / Christian understates the dogmatic elements within the Greek world and the traditions of polyvalent exegesis among Jews and Christians. Perhaps it is not so much that the Greek interpretive models saved the Bible from itself, but that the encounter between Greek and biblical literature together offer salvation to each other precisely because their similarities and differences stimulate a healthy and critical open-mindedness.


1.   The Oxford History of the Biblical World, edited by Michael Coogan (Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 61-2, 276.
2.   The exclusive monotheism is post-exilic (e.g. Isaiah 45:5), while the Pentateuch reflects a henotheistic worldview. See, for example, the still excellent discussion in Robert Seltzer, Jewish People, Jewish Thought: The Jewish Experience in History (New York: MacMillan, 1980), pp. 34-9. Even if the author has henotheism in mind, the Pentateuch refers to God by other names such as Elohim and the predominance of Yahwism is post-exilic.
3.   Michael Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford University Press, 1985); James Kugel and Rowan Greer, Early Biblical Interpretation (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986).
4.   He rejects the Stoic application of allegory. See Daniel S. Richter, “Plutarch on Isis and Osiris: Text Cult, and Cultural Appropriation, TAPA, 131 (2001), 191-216.

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