BMCR 2020.03.27

The Bible, Homer, and the search for meaning in ancient myths: why we would be better off with Homer’s gods

John Heath, The Bible, Homer, and the search for meaning in ancient myths: why we would be better off with Homer's gods. Routledge monographs in classical studies . London; New York: Routledge, 2019. 418 p.. ISBN 9780367077204 $140.00.

John Heath’s The Bible, Homer, and the Search for Meaning in Ancient Myths comes as the latest in a growing list of studies comparing the Bible and Homeric epic.[1] This book differs from recent predecessors in its focus on theology rather than literary history, literary criticism, or historicist accounts of canon-formation. Heath’s book can be described as a project of comparative practical theology, in that it explores how differences in the narrative depictions of the divine between biblical and Greek foundational texts help shape the cultural worlds that develop around them.

This focus also places Heath’s book in an older tradition of essayistic scholarship that explored the continuing cultural and spiritual relevance of Greek epic by its contrast with, and connection to, the biblical tradition. A seed of this approach lies in Goethe’s supposed comment that European history might have gone better had Homer been the foundational metaphysical text rather than the Bible; much of Nietzsche’s thought was oriented around perceived differences between Greek and biblical outlooks; the powerful essay of Simone Weil, The Iliad and the Poem of Force, culminated in a turn toward the biblical; Erich Auerbach’s famous first chapter of Mimesis (“Odysseus’ Scar”) treated the difference and interaction between Homeric and biblical style as fundamental to The Representation of Reality in Western Literature; and Rachel Bespaloff’s On the Iliad brought Homer into dialogue with the Book of Job and the Hebrew prophets.

But unlike these older predecessors (except, with some caveats, Nietzsche), Heath uses his comparison to polemicize at length against the enduring value of one tradition, a motivation signaled by his subtitle, Why We Would Be Better Off With Homer’s Gods. A large part of the book is his critique of biblical narrative and exegesis as basis for personal and cultural life, a critique which occasionally broadens into a critique of religion more generally. His book thus ends up reading very much like New Atheist diatribes against biblical religion (a resemblance he acknowledges on p. 21, and p. 25, and tries to moderate on p. 5). Yet his avenue for making many of the same attacks against Abrahamic religion as Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins takes the form of a highly unusual experiment in weaponizing Homer against the Bible. The logic of Heath’s attempt is worth exploring, even if it ultimately fails.

Heath’s overarching argument hinges on what he perceives as the subversive way in which Homeric narrative treats its own gods. Because Homer clearly depicts the pettiness of the Olympians, the general ineffectualness of mortal prayers to them, and the dynamic of divine actions doing little more than reinforcing human activity (the notion of “over-determination” and “double causation”), the epics become for Heath ancient texts exemplary for undermining the importance of the divine. As he summarizes in the conclusion:

“Ultimately, this book on ancient gods argues for the superiority of a non-theistic view of the world. Living in a world of Homer’s Olympians, for all practical purposes, would be the same as living in a world with no gods at all.” (p. 337)

One might say that Heath implicitly agrees with what Wolfgang Petersen, the director of Troy (2004), said in an interview about the decision to remove the gods from his film: “I think that if Homer was looking down on us, I think that he would smile and say: ‘Take the gods out.’”[2]

This overarching argument is made by contrasting how the biblical tradition depicts its divine. First, Heath argues that a straightforward reading of the Torah reveals a world of more than one god and a chief deity much more like the Homeric Olympians than usually acknowledged:

He’s fallibly anthropomorphic (and generally disagreeable) in temperament and can be conceived of as having a physical nature. And like Zeus, he’s CEO of a heavenly empire (that on occasion even includes his “sons” if no longer his wife). (p. 335)

Heath catalogues copious textual evidence for this Homeric reading of the biblical God. Moreover, he takes pains to show that the biblical God possesses a greater harshness than the Olympians, citing the many urbicides attributed to God’s wrath (in contrast to Hera’s hatred for the single city of Troy, and Zeus’s compassion for it). Heath then proceeds to blame later biblical compilers and especially theologians for the consistent misunderstanding of the biblical God as a “transcendent, nonanthropomorphic, monotheistic deity possessing divine perfections.” (p. 3)

Establishing the similarities between the Bible’s God and Homer’s gods is important for Heath because their likeness serves as the ground on which he makes his claim about the superiority of the Homeric vision of the divine. If both texts have similarly flawed deities, it is the different stance each tradition takes toward its divine that distinguishes its value as a cultural foundation. By undermining its own flawed gods, Homeric epic, according to Heath, fosters human responsibility and “tragic vision” (p. 338), which the author endorses as the better model for today’s world.

Before commenting on the conceptual problems I see in Heath’s argument, a brief overview of the various sub-arguments that he fits into his frame is useful:

In Part 1, Heath underscores similarities between the Homeric poems and the Torah. These include the analogous longstanding debates in scholarship over their date and authorship known as the Homeric Question and the Documentary Hypothesis; shared mythological subgenres like “the plague bringer” or the divine council; the open polytheism in the Homeric poems and the signs of polytheism in the Torah; and especially the vivid anthropomorphism in Homer as well as the anthropomorphic language surrounding the biblical God. This collection of alleged similarities is valuable, and Heath gives ample reference to scholarship that discusses each element further.

In Part 2, which forms the bulk of the book, Heath argues for the superiority of Homer over the biblical tradition across five themes: (1) Homer’s direct presentation of flawed gods vs. biblical (and later exegetical) attempts to “clean up” the divine; (2) the Homeric (and Hesiodic) creation myth in which the god in power at present is not the same god who created the universe vs. the same God being responsible for creating the entire world, for good and ill, and maintaining it in the present, which means we are “plung[ed] back into the familiar theological challenge [of the problem of evil]” (p. 210); (3) Homer’s depictions of death without meaningful afterlife, a vision Heath sees as a spur towards living a full life; (4) the poems’ deconstruction of any kind of oppressive divine justice active in the universe; and (5) Homer’s unabashed depiction of sexuality among the divine vs. “biblical celibacy.”

For (3), (4), and (5) Heath appeals to the Gospels to give himself more biblical material to contrast with the Homeric poems as well as more fodder for his polemics. But even in these chapters, it is worth noting that Heath does not consider differences between Jewish and Christian traditions of understanding God as significant for his overarching argument. He treats the biblical God of the Torah as “the Ur-Deity of the Western Big Three contemporary religious traditions, all of which must in some form embrace his textual persona. His presence towers over the three Western religions. Take him on and you take them all on.” (p. 58) Heath’s conflation of three vast traditions remains undertheorized in the book.

Though some of Heath’s particular discussions are interesting, such as his chapter on Homeric fate, many of his comparisons in Part II fail to convince, relying too often on tendentious interpretations of what biblical narrative should mean in practice, despite the immense variety of communities and ways of life that root themselves in it. While his reading of Homer is mostly mainstream, some elements are out of synch with the scholarly tradition; as he acknowledges, most classicists will take issue with his interpretation of divine justice being absent in the Odyssey (though the appendix listing his arguments for this position is thought-provoking).

It is the overarching argument that is the book’s weakest aspect. This weakness is due to a puzzling hostility toward theology that runs throughout. Heath seems to believe that if a sacred text is not read in the most literal-minded way, then there is dishonesty at work, or at best the “theologians’ error of finding only what [one] would like to find in a text.” (p. 374) But for any foundational text to stay relevant and offer a spiritual basis, one would expect a constant need for interpretation that establishes connections between the preserved words or structures of the story and the multiplicity of historical periods and cultural contexts through which it passes. It is unclear, therefore, on what grounds theology should be summarily dismissed as “legerdemain” (p. 17) or “clean up” (p. 141), rather than seen as the adaptive interface of a foundational text that has continued to underpin different cultures through historical change.

As an aside, one of the curious outcomes of Heath’s anti-theological stance is that it leads him to reject two groups for whom the Homeric poems bore or still bear direct value as foundational texts: ancient allegorists from Theagenes to Porphyry who related the qualities and activities of Homer’s gods to their experience of the physical world; and the current members of reconstructed pagan and Hellenic religions (e.g. “Hellenismos”). Because these groups theologize and treat the Homeric divine as ontologically real, Heath rejects their understanding of Homer.

In the end, the book’s antipathy toward theology seems tantamount to antipathy to anything that keeps the biblical tradition spiritually relevant in today’s world. It represents the hope that if the Bible were only read straightforwardly, it would finally be discarded as an outdated and (now) harmful foundational story. Like the writings of the New Atheists, this antipathy makes Heath’s book, despite its scholarly research, more a personal and (polemically) expressive statement than a work responsive to the complexity of its subject matter.

The book’s personal tone and its emphasis on Homer’s existential meaning actually places it in a third tradition, one exemplified by the recent Homer-centered memoirs of Daniel Mendelsohn and Adam Nicolson. Heath’s book may be best seen as a contribution to this personal tradition, though even from this perspective its extended polemics against the Bible, delivered scornfully, dilute rather than enhance the presence of Homer. As a work of scholarship, The Bible, Homer, and the Search for Meaning in Ancient Myths has thoughtful moments and valuable sections, but is hindered by a combative, often disdainful style.

Nevertheless, Heath deserves credit for provoking thought about the role foundational narratives continue to play in shaping our worldviews and for bringing Homer so directly into this question. As Classics continues to re-imagine itself in the globalized twenty-first century, the way we understand the relevance of the particular foundational text(s) our discipline shepherds alongside the foundational narratives of other communities (scholarly and religious) will surely be a critical task. If I disagree with how Heath made his provocation, I do think his work approaches an area that is consequential and merits deeper exploration.

Notes

[1] These include Homer, the Bible, and Beyond: Literary and Religious Canons in the Ancient World (2003) by Margalit Finkelberg and Guy Stroumsa, Ancient Israel and Ancient Greece (2003) by John Pairman Brown, Homer und die Bibel: Studien zur Interpretation der Ilias und ausgewählter alttestamentlicher Texte (2015) by Meik Gerhards, and, also from Routledge, Bruce Louden’s Greek Myth and the Bible (2018).

[2] “Take the gods out”, The Telegraph.