1st Edition

The Bible, Homer, and the Search for Meaning in Ancient Myths
Why We Would Be Better Off With Homer’s Gods

ISBN 9780367077204
Published May 16, 2019 by Routledge
418 Pages

USD $155.00

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Book Description

The Bible, Homer, and the Search for Meaning in Ancient Myths explores and compares the most influential sets of divine myths in Western culture: the Homeric pantheon and Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament. Heath argues that not only does the God of the Old Testament bear a striking resemblance to the Olympians, but also that the Homeric system rejected by the Judeo-Christian tradition offers a better model for the human condition. The universe depicted by Homer and populated by his gods is one that creates a unique and powerful responsibility – almost directly counter to that evoked by the Bible—for humans to discover ethical norms, accept death as a necessary human limit, develop compassion to mitigate a tragic existence, appreciate frankly both the glory and dangers of sex, and embrace and respond courageously to an indifferent universe that was clearly not designed for human dominion.

Heath builds on recent work in biblical and classical studies to examine the contemporary value of mythical deities. Judeo-Christian theologians over the millennia have tried to explain away Yahweh’s Olympian nature while dismissing the Homeric deities for the same reason Greek philosophers abandoned them: they don’t live up to preconceptions of what a deity should be. In particular, the Homeric gods are disappointingly plural, anthropomorphic, and amoral (at best). But Heath argues that Homer’s polytheistic apparatus challenges us to live meaningfully without any help from the divine. In other words, to live well in Homer’s tragic world – an insight gleaned by Achilles, the hero of the Iliadone must live as if there were no gods at all.

The Bible, Homer, and the Search for Meaning in Ancient Myths should change the conversation academics in classics, biblical studies, theology and philosophy have – especially between disciplines – about the gods of early Greek epic, while reframing on a more popular level the discussion of the role of ancient myth in shaping a thoughtful life.

Table of Contents



Chapter 1: Introduction

Part One Brothers (and Sisters) from a Different Mother

Section I Texts with a History

Chapter 2: Assembling Resemblances

Section II Yahweh and Other Olympians

Chapter 3: Homer’s Gods

Chapter 4: Biblical Polytheism I: Yahweh’s Divine Competition

Chapter 5: Biblical Polytheism II: Yahweh’s Little Helpers

Chapter 6: Biblical Anthropomorphism: Yahweh’s Da Man

Part Two Diverging Deities: Where Homer Got It Right

Section I Theological (Dis)Honesty

Chapter 7: Cleaning up Yahweh

Chapter 8: Homer’s Perfectly Fallible Gods

Section II Creating Meaning

Chapter 9: Homeric Creation

Chapter 10: The Failure of Genesis, the Genesis of Failure

Section III The Demands of Finitude

Chapter 11: Cheating Death, Squandering Life

Chapter 12: We All Have it Coming

Section IV Finding Justice

Chapter 13: Waiting for God. Oh. The Myth of Iliadic Justice

Chapter 14: Living Without the Gods: The Myth of Theistic Justice

Section V Heavenly Sex

Chapter 15: Divine Eros, Biblical Celibacy, and God’s Little Punching Bag

Chapter 16: Conclusion


Appendix 1: Short summaries of the Iliad and Odyssey

Appendix 2: Who Are the Homeric Gods?

Appendix 3: Iliadic Justice: Making Sense of the Trojan War

Appendix 4: Divine Justice in the Odyssey?



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John Heath is Professor of Classics at Santa Clara University, USA. His previous books include a study of the literary adaptations of classical myth (Actaeon, the Unmannerly Intruder, 1992), a popular defense of the study of classics (Who Killed Homer? co-authored with Victor Davis Hanson, 1998), an examination of the links between speech, animalization, and status in Greek literature and society (The Talking Greeks, 2005), and an exploration of the common themes underlying American bestselling books (Why We Read What We Read, co-authored with Lisa Adams, 2007).


"important and fascinating ... [Heath] has offered a brilliantly researched, original, engaging, witty and frequently humorous engagement with the abuses of the Bible by contemporary believers. I strongly applaud his humanistic integrity, erudition and righteous indignation with ignorance and intolerance ... I know of no text that better introduces these two monumental repositories of ancient myths, one Jewish and one Greek, to the cultural capital evoked by the Gospel authors or that would more profoundly shake students into critical engagement and disturbing discovery."

- Dennis R. MacDonald, Claremont School of Theology at Willamette University, USA, The Classical Review 2020