Did Jesus Read Homer?
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
Did Jesus read Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad? How familiar was he with Sophocles or Aeschylus? Would he have had a good laugh at Aristophanes’ Lysistrata or The Clouds (which made fun of philosophers like him), or would he have clucked his tongue at the errant ways of Agamemnon and Oedipus? More important, would the writers of the Gospels have read these Greek epics, tragedies, and comedies? If so, in what ways would their readings have influenced their own writings? How is Jesus like Odysseus; or, how are his disciples like the crew that follows Odysseus will-nilly around like a pack of dogs?
Clearly Homer, Sophocles, and Aristophanes influenced the gospel writers. The writer of the Gospel of Mark, for example, learned to write as a school boy by imitating Homer and other Greek writers. Perhaps the most eloquent spokesman for this view is Dennis R. MacDonald, whose two magisterial books, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark (Yale, 2000) and Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? (Yale, 2003) provides a rigorously close reading of New Testament texts (particularly the Gospels) to demonstrate the ways that Gospel writers imitated the Greek epic poets. MacDonald engages in line-by-line comparison to show these episodes of mimesis. In a brilliant tour-de-force, MacDonald also demonstrates the thematic similarities in these sets of texts.
MacDonald’s books have raised a few scholarly eyes. Many have simply shrugged off his attempts by showing that a one-to-one correspondence of words or phrases does not provide a foolproof case of mimesis. Others have challenged his reading of the Gospels as primarily Hellenistic documents rather than Jewish ones. His books raise other questions, of course. In our culture where plagiarism is a major writerly sin, the free use of one author’s writings by another gets called into question. In ancient times, though, such imitation really was a form of flattery.
MacDonald’s books also raise questions about how Christians should read Greek literature. Should they read Homer at all since neither the Odyssey or the Iliad are documents on which their faith stands? If they do read Homer and Sophocles, how can their reading of their own canonical texts be enriched? Can they read these Greek texts without Christianizing them to make them say just what they want?
Louis Markos attempts to answer some of these questions in an interesting new book, From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics (Intervarsity Press; $24).
In the second century, the Christian theologian Tertullian famously asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” That is, can Christians learn anything from Greek (pagan) poetry, drama, and philosophy? Although Tertullian answered his own question with a resounding “No!”, other early Christian writers, especially Clement of Alexandria and Augustine, proclaimed that Greek and Latin literature compared favorably with Christian literature and that Christians should by all means pick up and read Cicero, and Greek novels and romances, such as the Alexandriad.
Markos, who hold a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and teaches courses in the classics at Houston Baptist University, falls somewhere between Tertullian and Augustine in this noble, but flawed, attempt to demonstrate that Christians can enhance their faith by a “vigorous interaction with the central literary masterpieces of the ancient world.”
Markos engages in sometimes brilliant, occasionally pedestrian, close readings of Homer, Virgil, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides searching for themes and images in these writings that can inspire Christians to read their biblical canon with new eyes. For example, Markos reads Homer’s Odyssey, at least in part, as an epic whose dispassionate and impersonal gods prepare the conceptual way for the passionate and personal God of the Bible. In the Aeneid, according to Markos, Virgil provides a glimpse of a divine purpose for humanity, but Markos observes that such a purpose can only be revealed fully in Christianity when humankind is willing to sacrifice its own immediate desires and trust God’s promises.
While Markos’s efforts to recover the ancient classics for Christians are admirable, they are occasionally flawed. His use of the outdated phrase “pagan classics” in the subtitle, for instance, indicates right away his view that these writings are inferior to Christian writings. “Pagan” carries negative connotations and indicates that Greek and Roman literature cannot be read for its own sake but must be somehow redeemed and completed by Christian literature. Moreover, Markos fails to respect the integrity of the Greek works he reads. He does not read them on their own merits but for how they provide a foreshadowing of events and themes in the biblical texts. God “at times speaks through the mouth of the pagan: to announce the coming Messiah (the Fourth Ecologue of Virgil) or to attest to the hidden nature of sin and the need for a scapegoat (Oedipus).” Yet, sin isn’t even a concept with which Sophocles was familiar.
In spite of Markos’s clearly apologetic tone (only Christian literature contains the real truth about God and the world), he does provide a clear and helpful introduction to the Greek classics for Christians who might have always wondered what difference a reading of Homer of Virgil might make to their faith.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at