Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.08.03 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.08.03

Bruce Louden, Greek Myth and the Bible. Routledge monographs in classical studies.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2018.  Pp. viii, 241.  ISBN 9781138328587.  $140.00.  


Reviewed by James J. Clauss, University of Washington (jjc@uw.edu)

Bruce Louden makes his position on the relationship between Greek Myth and the Bible loud and clear, and it will doubtless take many by surprise: “Israel’s oral traditions and scribal culture were not only acquainted with but also influenced and shaped by ancient Greek culture” (p. 2). I will state up front that I am not ready to go as far as Louden wants to take us, but readers will see first-hand that behind the Biblical passages discussed lurk traditional tales from polytheistic cultures. And the connections he points out are many and truly astonishing.

In support of his hypothesis, Louden calls attention to the presence of the name of the Achaeans in both Hittite and Hebrew, pointing to other linguistic, cultural and historical points of contact as well, that establish for him a prima facie case for literary contact. That the Hebrews were aware of the Greeks, equated with the Philistines, can also be deduced from the family line of Japheth, one of whom is Javan (= Ionian), two of whose children, Kition and Rodanim, can be associated with Cyprus and Rhodes respectively. As for the time of composition, Louden follows those who argue that the Pentateuch took shape under the editing of Ezra, ca. 450 BCE, a time of greater awareness of, and acquaintance with, Greek culture, when the scribes, no longer accepting the reality of other people’s gods, edited out earlier divine characters by describing them as glorified mortals (euhemerism).

Because of the importance and broad popularity of the Iliad, Louden furthermore argues that Hebrew scribes, showing their awareness of Greek culture, patterned Saul after Agamemnon, David after Achilles, and Samuel after Calchas. Some of the argument’s particulars include the following: David and Goliath = Achilles and Hector; David’s desertion to the Philistines under King Achish (= Achaean) = Achilles’ withdrawal from the Greek side; David and Achilles both play lyres and fight with their king; Agamemnon and Saul are both plagued by an evil spirit. As for the New Testament, it was compiled and edited during a period when Hellenic education was dominant in the Near East, one that featured Homer, Hesiod and Euripides in particular; but, as the reader will see, Louden also includes Vergil and Ovid as possible models.

Following the introduction summarized above, the book divides itself into two parts: the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. I do not have the space to discuss all of the individual chapters, so I will list the topics of each part summarily, discuss two chapters, and then offer my reading of the entire project along the way. Part I (The Hebrew Bible): Iapetos and Japheth; Euripides’ Ion and the Genesis patriarchs; the Argonautic myth and Jacob’s encounter with Laban; Euripides’ Hecuba and Jael. Part II (The New Testament): Phaethon and the death of John the Baptist; Postponed recognition scenes in Luke 24 (Jesus) paralleling scenes in Odyssey 3 (Athena) and Iliad 24 (Hermes); Euripides’ Alcestis and John’s Lazarus; Theomachia in Hesiod’s Theogony and Revelation (4, 12, 19-20); Ovid’s Palace of the Sun (Meta. 2.1-30) and Revelation 4; Retrospective prophecy and vision in Aeneid 6, Ovid and Revelation.

In the first chapter (“Iapetos and Japheth: Hesiod’s Theogony, Iliad 15.187-93, and Genesis 9-10”), beginning from the theory that the earliest portions of the Old Testament consisted of 1 Samuel through 2 Kings, with Genesis-Numbers added as a preface and composed after Hesiod’s Theogony, Louden offers a remarkable reading of the story of Noah’s curse of Ham and his descendants, the Canaanites in particular. Ham, who prior to this episode was the middle son, suddenly and inexplicably became the youngest of Noah’s three sons near the conclusion of the narrative. After his father fell asleep naked in his tent, thanks to his invention and partaking of wine, Ham revealed Noah’s nakedness to his brothers, Shem and Japheth, the deed which prompted the curse. As Louden notes, being seen naked does not per se seem like an action that would justify such anger and so he follows commentators, as early as the Midrash, who see behind Ham’s action either castration or sexual penetration, which leads Louden to Cronus. Moreover, Noah’s invention of wine is a phenomenon more often ascribed to a god, which can cause disastrous results (as described, for instance, by Callimachus in the Icus episode told in the Aetia [178-185b Harder]). Louden adds to his discussion parallels between Yahweh and Noah: both of them engage in agriculture [planting of a garden and a vineyard], both curse and expel descendants [Cain and Ham], and products of both planted areas lead to nakedness seen. Louden concludes that Noah, who lived a supernatural life span, was in earlier versions an immortal whose status was reduced to a superannuated human “according to the demands of monotheism” and thus “euhemerized” (p. 43). This is brilliant and persuasive.

Louden further hypothesizes that Noah’s 500 years of life prior to the birth of his sons and 100 years of serving as their father before the flood parallel Ouranus’ repression of his children by preventing their birth, and that this caused the resentment that led to Ham’s provocative action. Furthermore, since this action might have involved castration in origin and since from Ham’s line comes Heth, the eponym for the Hittites, it is proposed that a connection might be made between Ham and Kum-bari, who plays the same role in Hittite myth. Louden even sees in the wordplay on Japheth’s name—"May God extend Japheth’s boundaries” (yapt being the Hebrew word for “extend”)—a nod to Hesiod’s etymological play on the name of the Titans (Τιτῆνας επίκλησιν καλέεσκεφάσκε δὲ τιταινοντας, Th. 207-09), which comes right after Cronus’ castration of Ouranus, just as the Japheth aetiology comes after Ham’s “castration” of Noah. One last point: Louden finds the tripartite division of the biblical postdiluvian world into three familial branches paralleled in the division of the universe into three components managed by Zeus, Poseidon and Hades, as recorded at Iliad 15.187-93. Louden concludes that the Noah story reveals “a combination of two common types of myth set in primeval times: one in which intergenerational conflict among gods resulted in a son taking power by castrating his father, the former king of the gods; and another in which three brother gods draw lots to determine their own portions of rule and to establish hierarchical relations between themselves” (p. 53).

The argument is stunning. I find it perfectly plausible that Noah was a demoted god, much like Helen, and the various points of contact between the Greek and Hebrew stories are remarkable. On the other hand, it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine that a Hebrew-speaking, largely pastoral, community would be hearing or reading Hesiod in the 5th century BCE. While details of the argument lead me to see in the Noah story a mythic backdrop of accounts dealing with cosmic regime change and Oedipal assault, and while I find particularly impressive the argument that story tellers in a monotheistic culture would need to euhemerize borrowed narratives from polytheistic cultures, in this case it seems more likely to me that the sources would be Near Eastern rather than Greek, especially as we can find the sources of the Greek myths in the Near East, in particular the Hittite story to which Louden calls our attention.

The notion that the Hebrew narratives in Genesis are euhemerized renditions of earlier polytheistic myths seems hard to deny, following Louden’s guidance. Before moving to the New Testament, let me state that his treatment of connections between Euripides’ Ion and the patriarchs, the Argonautic myth and Jacob’s encounter with Laban, and the parallels between Euripides’ Hecuba and the story of Jael in Judges 4-5 in the next three chapters prompt a similar amazement and hesitancy. Louden has uncovered narrative associations that are both fascinating and important.

The second section of the book, dedicated to the New Testament, continues in the same manner as the first: striking parallels between New Testament texts and Homer, Hesiod, Euripides, Vergil and Ovid (not in this order). We are now dealing with authors whose dating is more secure: the gospel writers and the author of the Book of Revelation definitely wrote after the death of Jesus and thus after Vergil and Ovid, to state the obvious. Inclusion of Vergil and Ovid as possible sources should at the very least have prompted an expanded title for the book: Greek and Roman Myth and the Bible. Word limitation allows discussion of only one chapter.

In chapter 5 (“The oath that cannot be taken back: Ovid’s Metamorphoses 1.751-2.400, Mark 6, and Matthew 14 (cf. Iliad 1; Gen. 27”),” Louden compares the story of the death of John the Baptist in Mark and Matthew with that of Phaethon in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Why would Mark look to this text, Louden asks? “In Ovid’s tale of Phaethon, he would have ready to hand a gripping vehicle for depicting a tragic, unnecessary death—exactly what would serve his larger narrative purpose for John the Baptist. Ovid’s rash Sun, purple-robed, gleaming with emeralds, similarly provides him with an iconic rubric for his own depiction of Herod” (p. 135). The following are the most impressive elements that both episodes share (pp. 135-140): the child of a regal father brings about a confrontational meeting with him; the child is closer to its mother, who encourages the child to make a demand of its father; the father is surrounded by a throng of important individuals in front of whom he proclaims an open-ended oath that he regrets; a death ensues; the corpse of the deceased is given burial by nonfamily members. Louden notes that “Phaethon and Herod’s ‘daughter’ both act as spoiled, mother’s favorites, who in their impetuous natures, see nothing wrong in making outrageous demands that violate mortal relations” (p. 141). “Daughter” is in quotations marks because there is disagreement among ancient sources about her exact relationship with Herod; the number of points of agreement make this point less critical.

Early on in the chapter, Louden notes that the story of John’s death is introduced retrospectively: when Herod hears of Jesus’ miracles, he wonders if John has returned from the dead (p. 134). It is at this point that the Baptist’s death narrative appears. It is also the only story that does not feature Jesus in Mark. This leads Louden to conclude that this was an originally independent story introduced into the gospel narrative. I find this interpretation persuasive, perhaps even evidence of a John “gospel” that was later overshadowed by the Jesus Gospels. That said, Mark’s use of a Latin loan word, σπεκουλάτορα (6:27), does not convince me that the gospel writer read Latin (the use of “barista” by English speakers does not guarantee knowledge of Italian) or, more importantly, that he would have read Ovid. That said, Louden has given the celebrated account of John’s death a completely new twist by demonstrating convincingly that whoever composed the original version was engaging a traditional tale in most of its details. The following chapters offer equally fascinating examples of how New Testament passages reflect mythic patterns that are well worth the time to explore.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Greek Myth and the Bible and am impressed by its detailed and highly original arguments. It never occurred to me that stories in the Old and especially New Testaments bore so many similarities to Greek and Roman myths. While skeptics like me might be unwilling to see direct influence of Greek and Roman texts on the scriptural writers, Old and New, Louden has demonstrated, and remarkably so, that stories in both traditions have been shaped by earlier strata of traditional tales and in ways that allow for a monotheistic faith.

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