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 Iliad – one 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?
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