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Epics vs. the Bible

I’ve been listening to the Open Yale lectures on Ancient Greece, presented by Prof. Donald Kagan. In a session I heard today, Kagan brought up a point that should have occurred to me. I had all the raw materials at hand, and having taught Homer and Virgil over the past three weeks, I had the matters near at hand. Let me see if I can do justice to Dr. Kagan’s point.

The first word in the Iliad (at least in the Fagles translation) is “rage.” (Kagan, by the way, cited everything in the original languages, something that I probably won’t be able to do even in another twenty-five years.) The Odyssey begins with a Greek word for man, while the Aeneid starts off “Arms and the man, I sing.”

The Bible, on the other hand, begins, famously, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

Kagan’s point? In the epic tradition, man stands at the very center of things. In the Bible, God stands at the very center. Allow me to develop his idea in ways that he opted not to for his Yale classroom. The Bible begins and ends focused on God. Humans are simply along for the ride, endured by a long-suffering Creator, when their every action marks them for destruction.

In Homer and Virgil, the man stands at the center. Of course, the stories would move very differently were the gods not involved. The entire Trojan War debacle that provides the occasion for these three epics came about because of the actions of the gods, as Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena vied, in a most human fashion, for the golden apple.

The line between god and man is not nearly so distinct in Homer or Virgil as it is the Bible. Where the God of Israel is wholly other, utterly distinct from man, the gods of the pagan world mix and mate with the humans. Virtually anyone of any renown in Homer, and at least Aeneas in Virgil, is descended more or less directly from one or another of the gods.

In the epics, the gods are brought down to man in a variety of ways. Aeneas is the son of Venus. Athena appears to guide Telemachus. Various gods show up to join in the battle. In the Bible, at least in the Old Testament, humans can only look up to God. Even the advent of Jesus in the New Testament is a unique event, wholly unlike anything to be found in the epics.

Posted in Classical Literature.

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