Homer’s Odyssey and the Old Testament: Bruce Louden

Bruce Louden - Homer's Odyssey and the Near East
Bruce Louden - Homer's Odyssey and the Near East

Bruce Louden asks a good question (and gives one very good answer to it) in the ‘Introduction’ to his recent book, Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East (Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 5:

Why do commentators usually omit consideration of the substantial parallels between Homeric and OT myth? Modern audiences may, even without realizing, project their beliefs onto how they read ancient texts. Given the long dominance of Christianity and Judaism in the West, a majority of modern Western audiences, whether consciously or unconsciously, may, on the basis of their faith, regard biblical and Homeric narratives as opposites, seeing the former as “true” or “real”, but the latter as “false”, “unreal”, or “fictional”. Intentionally or unintentionally, faith has erected a wall between the study of the two narrative traditions.

Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East provides a number of examples illustrating the benefit in looking at Greek parallels, in particular the Odyssey (perhaps the Greater Code of Western literature), in order to understand the Old Testment. For example, he compares the argonautic myth against Genesis 28-33, Odyssey 12 against Exodus 32, and Helen against Rahab (Joshua 2). 

One example that interests me is from Genesis 6.4 (pp. 191-192). At the end of Gen. 6.4, the heroes of old, the offspring of Nephilim, are described as “men of renown”, or literally “men with a name”. Louden first compares this with the end of tablet 4 of the Gilgamesh Epic, where Gilgamesh talks about defeating the monstrous Humbaba with his close friend Enkidu. Gilgamesh extols the benefit of achieving fame: “It is they who have achieved a name [for] future [time]!” In addition, Louden finds a parallel in Hektor (Iliad 7.82-91), where the hero erects a memorial for his accomplishments (p. 192). Further, Louden notes the example of “[t]he first lines of the Odyssey”, which “show that Odysseus already has epic fame from his role in bringing about the sack of Troy”, thereby establishing him as a heroic mighty man of old.

“The earlier [largely pre-twentieth century] commentaries, especially, cite numerous Greek and Roman parallels, reflecting the happier days of Biblical scholarship, before the specialization of ‘ancient near eastern’ studies had entailed ignorance of half the Old Testament’s Umwelt.”

– Morton Smith, Studies in the Cult of Yahweh (Brill, 1996), vol. 1, p. 235, no. 37.

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7 thoughts on “Homer’s Odyssey and the Old Testament: Bruce Louden

  1. you bin bitten by the parallellomoron bug – or plagiarised from a myther’s blog …. most decent scholars know the parallels but the similarities don’t warrent direct dependence on one or another, but more likely dependence on a common near eastern source :p

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    • It’s not, for me, a question of dependence at all, at least in the vast majority of cases. Rather, many of the Judean stories employ motifs which are used in the same or similar way in Greek stories. E.g. a giant in the Jewish story tends to have characteristics or functions informed by giants in the Greek story, even though there are no compelling examples of direct influence (such as Ogyges/Og, which is possible). At this level of intertextuality, which is not influence, the Greek stories inform the meaning of the Judean stories.

      The Jewish scribes who were completing these books after centuries of exposure to Greek literature. They may not have directly borrowed much (Gen.6.1-4 is an obvious yet relatively rare example), but they were thinking in terms of it, to some extent, when they invented their own stories.

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      • yea but for donkeys years we’ve known that Jews and Greeks and everyone drew masses from Mesopotamia. But the Hellenisation of Judaism is too late for scribes (or authors of Penteteuch) to use Greek things. This is no knee jerk. It’s just that it isn’t warrented whereas the Mesopotamia thing we already know.

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      • Hellenization may be late for much of the composition of the Hebrew Bible. There are obvious exceptions – the end of the Balaam cycle is Hellenistic, as has been recognised for a couple of centuries or so.

        But the main influence I’m thinking about is Hellenic, that is, during the Persian period. From about 500 B.C. onwards, Greek influence was significant in the Levant and Mesopotamia. This is precisely the period when most of the books in the Bible were composed, whether they incorporated older Hebrew traditions or not. I can’t see how all of the contemporary and earlier Greek literature would have escaped notice of the scribes, who were multilingual and ‘international’ in training and outlook.

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  2. oh there is a knee jerk to Smith though, suggesting that scholars didn’t know, and that is exactly the sort of thing Murdoch and Doherty and bloggers do as if scholars didn’t know anything about neo Platonism and things. Just because we don’t draw direct parallels on the basis of a whole lot of dumb wrong assumptions, like they do, they think we don’t know about anything except apologetics and the church. And Morton Smith, well that’s a looooong story. Interesting though – ask Maurice. I was here when he did all the research.

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    • I’m not claiming that the Jewish first fruits is derived from a Dionysian ritual, just yet! As I said, I’m not maintaining specific influence of whole traditions – but knowledge of and influence of various motifs.

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      • yup, from a common source. we all know that. But Bruce Louden isn’t a scholar of religions or more specifically even, the Hebrew Bible, but one of languages and classical things. His reading appears to limited in the field if he’s accusing scholarship of avoiding references.

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