New Book on Graeco-Roman Reception: The Classical Tradition

The Classical Tradition
The Classical Tradition

A very good, quite sumptuous yet affordable new guide to the field of classical reception is The Classical Tradition (Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most and Salvatore Settis, eds; Harvard UP, 2010). The subjects which are included in the volume are judiciously selected, without aiming to be encyclopedic – and that results in a very useful single-volume size. This certainly covers most of what people want, or rather need, to know. The Classical Tradition is the sort of book that you can pick up and browse through happily for hours – something I can’t say for many of the various encyclopedias, dictionaries, and alphabetic subject guides that are out there. Another excellent editing decision is that the volume examines the field of reception history with classifications derived both from within the classical tradition itself (e.g. Dionysus, Helen of Troy, Sisyphus) and also from the subsequent history of reception (e.g. Comic Books, Martin Heidegger, Jesuits, Monsters, Poetics, Sculpture, and Just War) – rightly reflecting the dialectic between these two axes of reception history. The editors sagely comment:

… it has often been creative misunderstandings that have preserved the ancient heritage and made it useful for later needs. All too often a pedantically restrictive determination of the truth of the matter concerning some nebulous ancient mystery has emptied it not only of its mistakes and distortions, but also of every trace of its once fascinating aura.

The paths of biblical and classical reception are, of course, greatly intertwined – a fact which makes the volume indispensable also as a point of reference for scholars of biblical reception. It is an excellent complement to the specialised encyclopedias, dictionaries, and guides which are becoming available in biblical studies, such as the Encyclopedia of the Bible and Reception (2009-), the imminent Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible (2011), and John Sawyer’s A Concise Dictionary of the Bible and Its Reception (2009).

A good example of the benefits of The Classical Tradition for biblical studies is the entry for ‘Giants’. The entry first offers a useful and succinct definition from modern gigantologist Walter Stephens: 

Giants. Mythical ancient races of savage hominids.

The entry then goes on to note that early Christian interpretation of Graeco-Roman myths were made in light of Genesis 6.4, discusses Augustine’s tendentious interpretation of the phrase ‘sons of God’ from that same verse, and points to the various explanations offered for the survival of giants such as King Og after the Flood (which had appeared to destroy them in Gen. 6.4-7).

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