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.