BMCR 2008.06.20

Classics and the Bible: Hospitality and Recognition

, Classics and the Bible: Hospitality and Recognition. London: Duckworth, 2007. xi, 204. $31.00.

This book’s main contribution may be in encouraging readers of the Classics to consider Judeo-Christian literature alongside Greco-Roman. Author John Taylor (henceforth T.) is right, “[i]n reading and teaching Greek and Latin literature[, to be] constantly struck by biblical parallels” (Preface, ix), and right, too, to imply that those parallels are too little studied. If my Classics students are any indication, the very possibility of such study is limited by simple lack of knowledge — appalling but perhaps not surprising — of the Bible as literature (not to mention Biblical Hebrew). Comparative studies could thus serve as challenges to all students of the Classics to broaden their horizons of reading.

After a brief Editor’s Foreword, describing the aims of the series, and Preface, the book is divided into five chapters: “Homer” ( Odyssey, Iliad, Hesiod, and the Hymn to Demeter); “History, Tragedy and Philosophy” (interleaving Herodotus, Aeschylus, the story of Saul, Sophocles, Job, and Euripides, before concluding with a comparison of Socrates and Jesus); “Virgil Between Two Worlds” (summarizing ‘Alexander’s Legacy’, Callimachean poetics, and ‘The Roman Revolution’ to contextualize reading the Aeneid in relation to Old and New Testaments, plus some discussion of the ‘Messianic Eclogue’ as well as of Baucis and Philemon in Ovid’s Metamorphoses); “Foolishness to Greeks” (primarily interested in themes in the New Testament); and “Spots of Time” (“authors of the Roman imperial period [and] aspects of the their reception in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries”, including consideration of John Henry Newman and Matthew Arnold, with briefer notice of authors like Italo Calvino and George Steiner). The book ends with Notes, Bibliography, Index of Passages Cited (unhelpfully, Biblical and Classical passages are listed separately, such that the reader is not able at a glance to tell what comparisons are made in the text), and General Index (mostly of authors and characters but also of some critical terms, e.g. anagnorisis). The book is clearly printed and seems clean; I found no typographical errors.

Less clear is this book’s success at making a case for its comparative project — in theoretical basis, theme, or organization — and thus at encouraging similar comparative study by its readers.1 As T.’s first sentence rightly has it, the book is “an amateur sketch of a big subject” (Preface, ix): too amateur not in knowledge but in approach, and perhaps too big altogether. (I hesitate to say ‘ambitious’, the usual faint praise, because T. disarmingly denies such ambition, for example describing the chapters as “a series of connected essays”, ibid.) T. notices the ‘parallels’ in general and chooses to write about those involving “the themes of hospitality and recognition” (ibid.) in particular, but for no express reason and with no argument in mind. The reader is left to wonder why this comparative study is taking place, and what its conclusion is. (Indeed, the book has no Conclusion to echo its Preface because there seems to be no conclusion: it is just as if T. has gotten started but not finished, or the work is intentionally but not explicitly prefatory.)

The closest T. comes to theorizing comparative study is when he disavows a “quest” for “‘intimations of Christianity’ in classical authors” (Preface, x, referring to Simone Weil2) but implies, I think, that those same authors might profitably be read by our “ecumenical age [which is] open to revelatory insight from other world religions” (ibid., drawing on David Brown3). If I have not misunderstood, T. thus implies that the Classics, like the Bible, may be read with an eye to just that ‘revelatory insight’, that is with the potential for spiritual insight. Such a spiritual claim would be interesting and no doubt of sympathy to a great many readers of the Classics while also a provocative point of discussion for many others.

The problem is that any such claim is, again, only implicit, and the book goes no further in seeking to define its theoretical terms. Throughout, T. writes of ‘parallels’, ‘echoes’, ‘analogies’, ‘similarities’, ‘resemblances’, ‘mirrorings’, and more, all apparently interchangeably.4 Absent both an overarching, argumentative claim and theoretical justification for comparative study, the book seems to lack organization at the chapter level, and its many sensitive comparisons of Classical and Biblical material are in the end of uncertain purpose.

All of this is a shame, for just as students of the Classics stand to learn much from close study of the Bible, so does T. clearly have much to teach them. He is obviously more expertly familiar with the Bible than, I suspect, are many of his colleagues: beyond the erudition gently at work on every page, Chapter 4, “Foolishness to Greeks”, for example is an especially illuminating overview of themes in Biblical texts. Also fascinating, and implicitly connected to the suggestions in the Preface about “reading”, are occasional forays into the history of Biblical criticism and interpretation.


1. Some of this may stem from the series’ intended audience, possibly unworkably wide, including “the classical scholar”, “students reading for a degree in classical subjects”, and “those studying European and contemporary literature, history and culture” (Editor’s Foreword, vii); the back cover, likely not T.’s responsibility, suggests that “[r]eaders should ideally be equipped with a Bible, English translations of a few major classical authors, and an open mind.” The implication that comparative study is astonishing or even shocking is odd.

2. Simone Weil. 1957. Intimations of Christianity among the Ancient Greeks. Routledge and Kegan Paul.

3. David Brown. 1999. Tradition and Imagination. Oxford University Press.

4. E.g., with reference to Biblical examples of themes just explored in Classics, T. writes only that “[r]esemblance by analogy … exists alongside resemblance suggesting direct debt or shared background” (113), without to decide among the possible explanations in general or in specific cases.