Monthly Archives: June 2015

Book Review: The New Perspective on Paul, Kent Yinger.

I read Yinger’s 103-page book on the “new perspective on Paul” (NPP) in 2 hours.  It was worth my time.  In this book, Yinger details both the main arguments and the history of the NPP, and directs his readers to further reading should they wish to study the issue themselves.  He is himself pro-NPP, but tries to give an impartial survey of the debate for laypeople and pastors.  But this book was helpful for this graduate student too!

YingerAfter introducing the topic and approach of the book, Yinger examines the 1977 publication of E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism, which laid the groundwork for the NPP.  Sanders was dissatisfied with stereotypical views of first-century Judaism commonly held in the scholarly community: that Jews believed practice of the law and good works could lead to salvation, that this law was a heavy burden which nobody could uphold.  Sanders instead set forth his view of “covenantal nomism,” a common system of practice and theology in first-century Judaism.  Covenantal nomism holds that God and humans are in a covenantal relationship, a relationship in which humans are obligated to God but God also leaves room for God’s grace anbd forgiveness.  Sanders cited texts from the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls showing the individual Jews’ relationship with God as dependent, vulnerable, and loving, rather than merely fearful of a wrathful and unforgiving God.  Sanders laid the foundation for biblical scholars to question the traditional Reformation reading of Paul as an author speaking of salvation through grace apart from works.  He questioned the reading of Judaism as a religion of oppressive legalism.

Chapter three describes James D. G. Dunn’s work in building on Sanders to truly initiate the NPP.  Dunn sought to read Paul in continuity with first-century Judaism and covenantal nomism, rather than opposed to it.  Dunn read Paul’s writings about “works of the law” as not referring to doing good deeds (“works righteousness”) but as referring to specific practices expressing Jewish identity, such as circumcision and keeping kosher.  Hence, Paul was not saying one didn’t have to do good works to be saved, only that specific Jewish cultic practices were not necessary.  The question becomes not “How may I be saved?” but “Who belongs to the company of the righteous?”

Chapter four details other NPP advocates who set forth their own perspectives.  N.T. Wright asks what the problem was that Paul saw Jesus as saving Jews from.  (You know those bumper stickers that say “Jesus is the answer”?  Well, Wright is asking: “What is the question?”)  For Wright, this problem was Jews’ disinheritance of the land, their exile and colonization under the Romans.  Jesus as Messiah reconciled God to Israel for Israel’s sins leading to their political plight.  Other NPP advocates, such as Francis Watson, argue that Paul was more interested in theological legitimation for his Christ-following communities than in working out a systematic soteriology.  Heikki Raisanen argues that we should not try to impose theological coherence on Paul’s occasional letters in the first place.  Paul was interested more in social location and identity than coherent theology.  Other scholars argue that in Paul’s view, the new Christian mode of relating to God did not rule out the Jews’ special place in their covenant, but opened a different covenant to the Gentiles.  Yinger stresses in this chapter that NPP advocates differ greatly amongst themselves.

Chapters five, six, and seven detail the historical, exegetical, and theological-ministerial critiques of NPP.  Historians and biblical scholars take issue with covenantal nomism, saying we should not rule out the possibility that some Jewish groups had fallen into crass legalism.  Exegetes point to passages in Paul that seem to refute the NPP, such as his insistence that he had been a sinner burdened under the law (1 Tim 1:15, Romans 7:15, 18-19).  NPP readings of these texts can seem to flaunt common sense, but at the same time, Paul’s writing can be so rhetorical and opaque that it’s hard to figure out what he is doing.  The chapter on theology and ministry was the most tedious for me.  Yinger details Reformed thinkers who eschew the NPP because it runs counter to Luther’s reading of Paul.  However, most NPP scholars are not concerned with contemporary sectual debates, but with Paul’s thought.  As Yinger says, “trying to get Paul to answer a question he wasn’t asking always produces discomfort for biblical scholars, and usually unsatisfying results for theologians” (86).

Chapter eight, “Let’s Hear it for the NPP,” details several positive effects this new scholarship has led to: a better grasp on Paul’s letters, avoiding modern Western individualist readings of Paul, moving away from stereotyped and insulting depictions of Judaism, drawing more continuity between the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, bringing Paul and Jesus together, and bringing Protestants and Catholics together.  Even the critics of NPP scholarship can reap some of these benefits!

Yinger’s book ends with two afterwards, by Donald A. Hagner and Don Garlington.  Hagner critiques the NPP for passing over the uniqueness of early Christianity.  Garlington suggests three areas of future research on the NPP.  Yinger ends with an annotated bibliography of pro- and anti-NPP works for the reader to evaluate the debate for themselves.

Of all the areas of the Bible, I’ve probably had the least exposure to Paul, so this book was very helpful for me to get a handle on some of the current debates.  I’ll most likely be taking a class on Pauline literature this fall, so it’s good to have a head start!  I especially appreciated how charitably Yinger summarized the perspectives of the scholars he disagreed with.  Apparently I’m not the only one who likes it: blogger Chris McElmurray writes, “this slim volume is now THE entry point into the discussion and is one-stop shopping for those who want to apprise themselves of the pro and the con in a quick read.”

Onward and upward!

Reading Challenge #9: Jews and Christians: Graeco-Roman Views.

Continuing my summer reading challenge, I’ve just finished (most of) Molly Whittaker’s sourcebook, Jews and Christians: Graeco-Roman Views.  This anthology, part of the 1980s Cambridge Commentaries on Writings of the Jewish and Christian World: 200 BC to AD 200, is designed to give readers a foundation in Greco-Roman religious culture and Greco-Roman views of Jews and Christians.  Accordingly, the book is divided into three parts: “Judaism,” “Christianity,” and “The Pagan Background.”  Whittaker excerpts many different authors and provides running commentary, so this book can be read as more of a continuous narrative than just a collection of unrelated fragments.

whittakerSince I’ve already gotten enough of the “pagan background” sources from The Ancient Mysteries and Arcana MundiI skipped that section and only read the sections on Judaism and Christianity.  There was a lot of interesting stuff!  Whittaker mines Roman poets, satirists, and historians, as well as Jewish apologists responding to anti-Jewish sentiment, to unveil what the pagan Romans thought of the Jews.  Some particularly strange, insulting, and/or just plain ignorant views:

  1. Jews don’t eat pigs because they consider them sacred. (Petronius’ Satyricon)
  2. The Jews were expelled from Egypt because of their impurity.
  3. Moses was an Egyptian priest and magician. (Strabo, Apuleius, Juvenal)
  4. The “holy of holies” in the most sacred part of the Jewish temple was actually an ass’ head. (Apion, whose writings are only known via Josephus’ treatise against him)
  5. Jews practice human sacrifice and cannibalism.  (This one sadly persisted in Christianity; we see it in Chaucer.) (Apion again!)
  6. Jews were actually a Dionysiac cult. (Plutarch)
  7. The Sabbath was just an excuse for idle laziness.

In some of these we see some inkling of truth: yes, Moses was a religious figure, and yes, the Jews do trace their origins to Egypt.  Jews do refrain from eating pigs, though not because they worship them.  They do keep a Sabbath.  But these truths are filtered through a strong filter of prejudice, ignorance, and xenophobia.  Jews in Roman times did have special license to practice their religion and not worship the emperor, but at times this privilege was taken away at the whim of an emperor or a governor.  Many Romans classified Judaism as “superstition” rather than true religion.

At the same time, some pagans of a more philosophical bent admired the Jews’ iconoclasm.  Whittaker includes several excerpts describing the Jewish practice of proselytization.  Pagans did convert to Judaism, or at least adopt its tenets without undergoing circumcision.  (Understandable!)  As with colonizers today, the Romans did not uniformly hate the Jews and their religion, but neither did they admire them.  But even their admirers, I suspect, always saw them as a foreign and somewhat suspect, just like many of the other “Oriental” or “Eastern” religions adopted by Greeks and Romans such as Mithraism and the cult of Isis and Osiris.

In the section on Christians, Whittaker provides examples of many similarly strange views about Christians.  She includes excerpts from the New Testament, pagan writings, and non-biblical early Christian literature to demonstrate the range of pagan attitudes towards Christians.  We see the same Roman suspicion of any group that fails to conform, and their belief in the danger of any group that does not worship the emperor as divine.  

Yet persecution of Christians was not systematic, but occasional, as we see in Pliny’s letters to Trajan toward the end of the first century AD.  Pliny, a regional governor in Bithynia, wrote to the emperor Trajan asking for advice on what to do with Christians.  He had so little idea of the content of the religion that he had to torture some Christians to find out their beliefs.  Not until later centuries do we see an intentional, systematic effort to wipe out Christians.

The most interesting texts to me in this section were the martyr acts which purported to provide transcriptions of interrogations of Christians by Roman officials, such as the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs and the Acts of Justin and The Companions.  We see officials seeming to be merciful, giving Christians the opportunity to recant their alleged impiety, or asking them to return in a week to give them time to change their minds.  Whittaker believes that these are accurate depictions of interrogations (178).  I’m less sure, but if they are even close, that is really cool.

I’m so-so on the book itself.  On the plus side, Whittaker has collected a lot of different sources, and I learned a lot even from tiny little fragments of many different thinkers.  This book makes a good complement to Robert Louis Wilken’s The Christians as the Romans Saw Them.   She also has some nice maps and a chronology of writers in the back.  She introduces each author, so one does not need to know much about classical literature to use this volume.

However, her organization was confusing.  The Christianity section was organized by the type of source and by author.  That made sense.  But she organized the Jewish section thematically: Sabbath, Moses, Food Laws, Circumcision, etc.  The writings themselves were not so easily organized.  She often had to repeat the same excerpt in multiple sections, which got confusing.  It would have made more sense to organize the excerpts by author.

Also, the third section just seemed superfluous.  There are many other books that introduce Greco-Roman religions and provide source texts on them.  A brief glance at this section looked promising though.  I just would have preferred she stick to the first two sections — that is the title of the book, after all.

Still, this anthology is useful for its conciseness and commentary.  Biblioblogger Michael F. Bird mentions pagan attitudes towards Jews as one of the essential areas a New Testament graduate student should read up on.  Unlike Menaham Stern’s Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, Whittaker’s anthology is not three volumes, but only about 200 pages on the Jewish and Christian material.  I would recommend this book to students of the New Testament.

Later this week I hope to finish Homer’s Odyssey and begin Apuleius’ The Golden Ass.  Onward and upward!

Bad Translation, or how Heraclitus got misrendered.

HeraclitusA few months ago I found a translation of Heraclitus’ fragments from Penguin Classics.  This would not have excited me so much had this translation not included the Greek.  A chance to read Heraclitus’ famous aphorisms in Greek!

However, my alarm bells started ringing when I found this translation was done by Brooks Haxton, a contemporary poet.  For reasons I’ll explain better below, I am very leery of “poetic renderings” of classical texts by modern  wordsmiths who may or may not have any clue about the ancient language they translate from.  (Haxton may have formal training in classical Greek, but I could find no evidence of it.)  This is as much a problem for Sufi poets as it is for Greek and Latin.  Sadly, in trying to convey the spirit of Heraclitus, Haxton often remakes Heraclitus into his own image: a contemporary free verse poet.

Awful Translations

Here I’ll look at two of Haxton’s strangest translations — and the much better Greek originals.  First we start with Heraclitus’ most famous fragment:

Ποταμοῖσι δἰς τοῖσι αὐτοῖσι οὐκ ἄν ἐμβαἰης· ἕτερα γαρ <καἰ ἕτερα> ἐπιρρεῖ ὕδατα. (fragment 41)

Haxton translates this as

The river
where you set
your foot just now
is gone —
those waters
giving way to this,
now this.

First of all, where does Haxton get this incessant line breaking?  This is not in the aphoristic Greek text.  He is making some poetry, and his own style of poetry no less, when that is simply not in the original.

What’s more, this translation is not even accurate.  It should be rendered something like

You cannot step into the same rivers twice; for different (and different) waters flow.

Haxton is not even close.  Of course all translation involves interpretation, but Haxton isn’t even translating.

Another aphorism runs thus:

Φύσις κρύπτεσθαι φιλεί. (fragment 10)

This aphorism is harder to puzzle out.  It literally translates to something like:

Nature likes to hide itself.

Indeed, this is how scholar of Greek philosophy Jonathan Barnes translates it in his Early Greek Philosophy, also in Penguin Classics (page 112).  But Haxton renders it:

Things keep their secrets.

This sounds deep and profound, if obscure and enigmatic.  But it is not Heraclitus.  Φύσις, or “nature,” (cognate with “physics”) is not the same as “things.”

Haxton should know better.  He is a poet, so he should know that precision in language is important, and that one should remain humble before other authors rather than taking such creative license with their work.  Instead, Haxton defends his idiosyncratic method:

My translation uses free verse to suggest the poetic ring of the original prose, which deserves to be called poetry as much as the metrical writings of thinkers like Empedocles and Parmenides. (xxviii)

This just doesn’t cut it for me.  I’m keeping this edition, but only because it has the Greek on one side of the page, not because of Haxton’s creative paraphrases.  Many reviewers on Amazon agree.

Haxton is not a lone phenomenon.  There are many modern translations of ancient literature purporting to be “more poetic” than more “academic” translations.  Aiming to replace the standard Lattimore/Green translations of the 1940s and ’50s, Oxford University Press debuted their Greek Tragedy in New Translations series, which aims to “go beyond the literal meaning of the Greek in order to evoke the poetry of the originals.”  The translations are not bad, but nor are they particularly accurate, turning the metric verse of classical tragedy into free verse.  While this series pairs a classicist with a poet, others eschew the classicist altogether, relying on a contemporary poet to translate a two-millennia old text from a different culture, in an archaic language, and which references the long-forgotten present of the text’s author.

But as I argued when I analyzed several contemporary translations of Euripides’ Medea, much of this is more publishing hype than a real advance in the art of translation.  Many of the great translators of Greek literature of the last century were also poets themselves!  Richmond Lattimore, whose Iliad and Odyssey were the accepted standard before Robert Fagles’ translations (and are still more accurate), published poetry for decades.  Fagles too was a poet. So is Barry Powell, a recent major translator of Homer.  Clearly it is not impossible to find scholars who also make good translators.

So Haxton represents what is, to me, an example of a lamentable trend in translation.  The intention is good: make ancient texts more relevant and interesting so the average person will read them.  But if one has to do seriously distort the text to do so, that is going too far.  And the best way to ensure that a translation is accurate is by hiring a scholar to do the translation rather than a contemporary poet. Not that scholars always do everything correctly.  And of course, no translation can get everything right.  But I err on the side of the historian and the philologist, not the poet.

Reading Challenge #8: Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds

When I first started this collection of ancient sources on various occult and supernatural practices in Greco-Roman antiquity, I had high hopes.  After a classics education focusing more on literary-mythological texts than lived religious experience, I was hoping to get a taste of how ordinary people practiced Greco-Roman polytheism.  Luck’s book collects various literary sources describing religious practices, classifying them by chapters on magic, miracles, daemonology, divination, astrology, and alchemy.  Chronologically, he has everything from Hesiod to early Christian authors.  In terms of genre, he has epic, tragedy, satire, epistles, and philosophers.

779822What did I get out of this collection?

  1. Religion and science were not really separate institutions in antiquity.  It’s not hard to see why: in part they come from the same root, a desire to understand and control the workings of the universe.  Even today, astrology is a complex body of knowledge, with many rules governing how to formulate and interpret readings.  The best example of this in Luck’s collection are the various readings on Apollonius of Tyana, a first-century philosopher and miracle worker who was accused of dangerous practices.  In his defense speech, Apollonius claims that he is merely the practitioner of a more complex and subtle science than his accusers can understand.  This encapsulates how intertwined magic and science were among the Greeks and Romans (and, I would argue, in our culture too).  And given the Stoic and Neo-Platonic interest in astrology, philosophy too was intertwined with magic and religion!
  2. Genre is key in interpreting texts on religion.  Each source has a bias that leaves certain data out.  When Homer describes a religious practice, there is a certain wide-eyed acceptance of it.  Lucian describing the same practice is just blatantly making fun of it.  One philosopher might be arguing for the truthfulness of divination (e.g. Iamblichus) while another might be critiquing it (e.g. Cicero).  Most Greeks were somewhere in between; like us, they were skeptics, and did not trust every rumored divination or supposed miracle.  Just as there is no “correct” or “best” source on Greco-Roman mythology, there is no “correct” or “best” source on ancient religious practices.
  3. Early Christians had many similar varieties of religious experience.  When discussing divination, Luck includes 1 Corinthians 14:1-33, in which Paul discusses speaking in tongues.  Luck comments:

    The Jews had inherited the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, who spoke in a highly poetic but quite understandable idiom.  The Greeks were accustomed to highly ecstatic outpourings that had to be translated into intelligible Greek by trained interpreters.  Paul seems to try to reconcile both traditions. (284)

    I don’t know enough about this section of Paul or about glossolalia in the early church to comment on Luck’s argument.  But it is damned thought-provoking.  Luck helps the reader see that the religious experiences reported in early Christianity sometimes had Greco-Roman precedents.

Overall, however, this book has one major flaw.  I was hoping to find some of the more lived, everyday practice of Greco-Roman religion: curse tablets, magical papyri, amulets, etc.  Luck barely includes any of these sources; one review points out that he only includes 23 nonliterary sources in his 122 anthologized writings.

In sum, I wouldn’t say that Luck’s book is bad.  For what it is, it is very good.  But it should be supplemented by something like The Greek Magical Papyri as well, which is recommended by Michael F. Bird in his list of sources New Testament graduate students should master.

Onward and upward!

Reading Challenge #7: The Ancient Mysteries, ed. Marvin Meyer

Now that finals are over and I’ve graduated with my BA (yay!), I’ve been reading two sourcebooks on lived religion in the Greco-Roman world: Marvin Meyer’s The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts, and George Luck’s Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds.  I’ve just finished Meyer’s collection and it is great.  He has assembled 39 texts, ranging in time from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter to Clement of Alexandria.  He organizes the sources into chapters by cult.  Obviously, he includes sources on major mystery cults such as Demeter at Eleusis, the cult of Dionysus, the Anatolian Cybele, the Persian-turned-Roman Mithras, and the Greek-Egyptian syncretism of Isis and Osiris.  But he also includes chapters on the Andanian mysteries of Messenia and the mysteries within Judaism and Christianity.

meyerMeyer defines a mystery religion as

a secret religious group composed of individuals who decided, through personal choice, to be initiated into the profound realities of one deity or another. (4)

Studying mystery religions is a useful window into peoples’ religious needs in the Greco-Roman world, the world from which Christianity emerged.  What did I learn about that world from this book?

  1. People joined new religious movements for a variety of reasons.  Too often we assume people were seized with deep spiritual longings, because this is often how we conceptualize religious conversion.  But Meyer makes it clear that people have many human reasons as well.  Mystery religions offered a close-knit community for people who wanted social bonds.  For socially marginalized people — foreigners, slaves, women — the mysteries were sometimes an egalitarian space, as Livy says about women in the Bacchic cults.  For some, their elaborate rituals may have aesthetically pleasing, even theatrical.
  2. The rise of mystery cults did not mean that traditional polytheism had failed.  Mystery religions were not replacements for the traditional civic cults of Greece and Rome.  They supplemented those cults, likely because they satisfied human needs that the traditional cults did not.  For example, many of them focused strongly on a good afterlife, which was not as much of a major focus in traditional Greek religion.  But because of their secretive and voluntary nature, these cults could not unify a city or an empire.  So the civic cults and the mystery cults worked in tandem.  This is important to remember for scholars of early Christianity.  It is too easy to assume that Christianity’s success was due to polytheism’s failure to satisfy peoples’ needs and questions.  But this is simply not the case.
  3. Mystery cults borrowed from many other religions.  The readings in Meyer’s book show Isis conflated with Demeter and Osiris with Dionysus; an ancient Mithraic liturgy in which participants chant the name YHWH; and Orphic Dionysiac hymns drawing on gods from all over the Eastern Mediterranean.  Many ancient religions were syncretistic.  After all, if one god is good, why not get multiple gods to help you?  Mystery cults focused on one god (or sometimes, a pair of gods), but their devotees did not ignore the other gods.  That’s just dangerous.  Monotheism is dangerous.
  4. Mystery cults were at times persecuted and viewed with suspicion.  Meyer includes here writings critical of the mysteries, such as Livy’s report of the Roman suppression of Bacchic worship and Josephus’ report of Tiberius’ persecution of the Isis-Osiris cult.  Any group that was secretive could be seen as disrupting public order.  It isn’t hard to imagine vicious rumors beginning about such cults.  It isn’t hard to imagine early Christians getting the same suspicion.
  5. Mystery cults were very diverse!  In the mysteries we see worship of feminine images of the divine (Demeter, Isis, Cybele) alongside the hyper-masculine cults of Mithras, which women were not allowed into.  We see gods whose presence in Greece dates back to the archaic age (Demeter) alongside gods who are freshly imported from the east (Mithras, Isis, Cybele).  We see cults focused in one particular place (Demeter at Eleusis) and cults that spread all over the Mediterranean (Dionysus, Mithras, Cybele).  So most importantly, when we speak of mystery religions, we cannot generalize too much.  It’s a construct that we scholars make, and as such it is limited.

I would highly recommend Meyer’s book.  I like that he has a balance of different types of sources: magical spells and liturgies, historians, philosophers, fiction, satire, and of course, early Christian polemics against the mysteries.  My next source, George’s Luck’s Arcana Mundi, is not as balanced in this regard as Meyer is.  Anyway, my review of Luck is coming soon!

Reading Challenge #6: Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars.

You might call Suetonius the Perez Hilton of ancient Rome.  His Twelve Caesars has dirt on every Caesar from Julius Caesar to Domitian: Tiberius’ pedophilia, Nero’s sexual perversion, Caligula’s incest … the list goes on!

This makes Suetonius really fun to read, which probably explains why we read so much of it in my Roman Empire class.  I decided to read the rest of it to get an insider’s elite view of the politics of Rome.

29022We know little about Suetonius himself.  He was born in 70 CE, and Pliny the Younger served as his patron.  He wrote many works of historical and literary scholarship, but The Twelve Caesars is his only complete extant work.

What did I get out of Suetonius?

  1. The Twelve Caesars is not a work of history the way we think of it.  In his introduction to this edition, J. B. Rives writes:

    If The Twelve Caesars is biography, then, it is biography of a very distinctive sort.  Whereas Plutarch came close to writing history, Suetonius … was aiming at providing something very different: a sort of balance sheet, an analytical framework that would allow for a clear assessment of each emperor’s relative success or failure. (xxxi)

    Each chapter centers on one caesar, and each chapter is itself organized thematically rather than chronologically.  Suetonius follows a pattern: description of the family of the caesar, his birth and childhood, his accession to the throne, how he dealt with the military, the Senate, and the people, various omens leading up to his death, and then his actual death.  Suetonius spends more time on some emperors than others: Augustus and Tiberius merit long chapters, but Otho and Vitellius do not.  He does not pretend to objectivity, but has some nuance: while he portrays Augustus as uniformly good and Nero as 300% bad, emperors like Tiberius seem to fall into more of a gray area.  Overall, it seems he wanted to understand the genius of each emperor through analyzing their life and character closely.

  2. Suetonius lets us see just how much stock Roman emperors put into divination, magic, oracles, and omens.  Frequently he mentions emperors changing their minds because of an omen, or ignoring the omen and falling into trouble.  It’s easy for us moderns to see these methods of discerning the gods’ will cynically.  We forget that the Romans did take them seriously, even if they had some discernment in which oracles and divinations were accurate predictions and which weren’t.  Suetonius criticizes Nero for not doing so.
  3. Suetonius has some useful references on Jews and Christians in Rome.  He mentions, for example, that Augustus scorned the Jewish religion (2.93), and that Tiberius banned the Jews from Rome along with other foreign cults (3.36).  From Suetonius we also hear of Nero’s persecution of the Christians, “a sect professing a new and mischievous superstition” (6.16).  And of course, Suetonius tells us of Vespasian and Titus’ roles in the Jewish Revolt (10.4-5, 10.8, 11.4-5).  Vespasian’s military leadership in crushing the revolt was part of his claim to legitimation of his throne, since he did not come from a ruling dynasty.  We hear about Josephus (10.8).  And he mentions Domitian’s cruelty and diligence in collecting the temple tax imposed on the Jews, which post-temple went to the Roman state instead (12.12).

Suetonius was a fun read, and a welcome procrastination from finals.  Next up I will be finishing Arcana Mundi!

Reading Challenge #5: Homer’s Iliad.

As I explained in my last post, Homer, the misnamed Homeric hymns, and Hesiod are the oldest major works of Greek literature we have.  Homer’s Iliad, a poem of war and warriors, was most likely codified by 750 BCE.  The epic tells the story of the Trojan War, which happened in the twelfth or eleventh century BCE; so if the Iliad is based on any real facts about the war, it comes from a long oral tradition.

How was Homer composed?  Scholars spent much of the nineteenth and early twentieth century arguing over whether Homeric epics are unitary compositions or cobbled-together collections of folk tales.  Essentially, does the Iliad fit together well, or are there the kind of contradictions, clumsy transitions, and awkwardness characteristic of an edited-together collection?  Scholars mostly follow the “Lord Parry” synthesis in which Homer is neither a unitarily composed work nor a mere collection of folktales.  Millman Perry and Albert Lord argued that Homer composed the work as a unity, but drew from oral traditions of stock scenes, lines, and epithets as he composed on the fly. So when the Iliad was an oral tradition, each telling could be different.  Only in written form is it trapped in the same form.  We see this in the written version, in which some books are superfluous and could be taken out without disrupting the main story.

iliad-faglesAnd of course, the term “Homer” here is just a shorthand.  We don’t know if there was one man who composed the Iliad and/or the Odyssey.  It could have been a school of poetic composition.  One fringe theory claims that Homer was a woman.  There’s no evidence for it, but we can’t disprove it either, only note its improbability.

I read the Iliad in Fagles’ translation, which is very readable though often inaccurate.  There’s no way to sum up this amazing epic in one blog post, but a few themes stand out:

  1. Before I read the Iliad, I thought it uniformly celebrated the glories of war.  I was wrong.  While the Iliad does relish in descriptions of the heroism and might of heroes such as Diomedes, Achilles, and Hector, it also frequently depicts warfare as a pointless game for status and the spoils of war.  My grandpa lived from 1913 to 2012, and after living through World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the Iraq-Afghanistan War, he told me that “nobody really wins a war.”  Homer injects some of that mentality into the Iliad.  Achilles fights to win timē (honor, status) and kleos (fame), but you can’t bring any of this into the afterlife, and even the victors in war return home having lost great men.  The Iliad depicts both the glorious and the tragic, chaotic, unfair aspects of war, which is part of what makes it great literature!
  2. The Iliad underscores just how different humans and gods are.  But this is not because the gods are more noble or moral, only more powerful.  Fagles writes that

    To be a god is to be totally absorbed in the exercise of one’s own power, the fulfillment of one’s own nature, unchecked by any thought of others except as obstacles to be overcome; it is to be incapable of self-questioning or self-criticism. (45)

    In other words, honeybadger don’t give a f***, but honeybadger is Zeus.  While humans in the Iliad think they can influence the gods by sacrifices and prayers, Homer’s omniscient narration of both humans and gods reveals that the gods typically do things for their own reasons entirely.  For example, the Achaeans think that Zeus is making the Trojans win because he wants them to win.  But in fact, Zeus is making the Trojans win so the Achaeans will honor Achilles and bring him back into war.  Like humans, the gods are petty and fight with one another for stupid reasons; but the gods are immortal, so the results of their petty conflicts are never as drastic as they are for humans.

  3. The Iliad presents many of the conflicts of running an army that ancient Greeks must have faced.  One major question: who do we value more?  The greatest warrior (Achilles) or the one who controls the largest faction of the army (Agamemnon)?  The Iliad presents many conflicts within armies that illustrate the difficulty of running an army.  Frequently in the epic we see warriors looking out for their own geras (spoils of war) more than the war itself.  So they stay back on the battlefield collecting armor off dead enemies rather than fighting at the frontlines.  Sometimes a warrior’s drive for personal gain (status and spoils) conflicts with the good of their army.

I’m really, really glad I got the chance to study the Iliad in Greek this quarter.  Once summer starts and I have some leisure I’ll get to the Odyssey as well, personally my favorite of the two.

Onward and upward!

Graduate Study!

Just a quick note that I’ve accepted an offer to begin an MA in Biblical Languages at the Jesuit School of Theology/Graduate Theological Union this fall!  I hope to focus on Hebrew Bible/Near Eastern Studies, as JST students in biblical studies can cross-register with UC Berkeley’s Classics and Near Eastern studies departments.

This means this blog will probably become more bible-oriented in the future… but that’s exactly a huge departure from my current directions anyway.

Biblio-bloggers, any advice is welcome!

Reading Challenge #4: The Homeric Hymns.

When I took the survey course in classical mythology (mandatory for classics majors, of course!) I read parts of the Homeric Hymns.  But I never set down and read them all.

Just some background.  Greek literature pre-Common Era is divided roughly into three periods: Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic.  Hellenistic literature comes from the Greek world after Alexander the Great’s conquests around the eastern Mediterranean and Persia (336-323 BCE); this period includes the comedian Menander, the pastoral poet Theocritus, and the epic Argonautika.  Classical period literature hails from the heyday of the Athenian empire in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, and includes the dialogues of Plato, the comedies of Aristophanes, and the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.  The Homeric Hymns were mainly composed in the Archaic period (ninth-sixth centuries BCE), along with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days.

We have lost a lot of archaic literature.  Hesiod refers to other writings of his, now lost.  We have found fragments of epics from this time which we have lost.  (An example: we know of a lost epic of Herakles’ great deeds written by Herodotus’ uncle.)  If someone finds one of these epics in some undiscovered papyrus heap in Egypt, scholars could unlock entirely new understandings of Homer.

61ish6ItLxL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This is all to say that frankly, it’s amazing that anything survives in Greek that is so old.  It’s really frickin’ cool that it has.  Just a little perspective.

First things first, the “Homeric hymns” are actually seriously misnamed.  Although they are written in dactylic hexameter like Homer, Hesiod was too, so this seems like a standard meter in archaic poetry, rather than something associated specifically with the Iliad and the Odyssey.  The Homeric hymns also use many of the oral formulae that Homer does, and shows evidence of oral composition as well.  But this just proves there was a shared oral poetic culture.  And not all of these sing the praise of a god in the way we think of a “hymn” as doing.  The Homeric hymns provide creation stories, etymologies, geographies, and other facets of Greek culture, and they were possibly used as preludes to worship of the gods.

Anyway, I really enjoyed Diane Rayor’s translations of these bad boys.  Here’s a few things I learned.

  1. The hymns are not a uniform collection.  We have 34 hymns.  Most of them are short, taking up less than a page.  Four of them are really long: hymns to Demeter, Apollo, Hermes, and Aphrodite.  Some of them are directed at abstractions or personified forces of nature we seldom think of the Greeks as worshipping; we have hymns, for example, to Gaia (earth), Selene (moon), and Xenoi (guests and hospitality).
  2. The hymns demonstrate that Archaic Greek literature does not provide a unified portrait of the gods.  Diane Rayor writes:

    The long narratives … show the cosmos itself in the process of being ordered in its details, though its broad patterns are already in place.  Zeus’ rule, too, is new and perhaps not yet firmly established.  The story of the divine realm as told in the Hymns provides the missing link between Hesiod’s Theogony and Homer’s epics.  Zeus first takes power in the Theogony; in Homer, this power is firmly set and unchallenged, and the hierarchy of the gods fixed. (8)

    Rayor is suggesting that Hesiod depicts a period when Zeus has first taken power but not solidified it yet.  It’s an interesting hypothesis, but perhaps overstated.  I can point to incidents in Homer where Zeus does not seem to be fully in control either, like when he has to let Sarpedon die in Iliad Book 16.  But does the difference between the Homeric Hymns and the Theogony stem from a real theological difference, or from the genre difference between poetic songs and theogonies?  I honestly don’t know.

  3. These myths provide many origin stories for Greek cultic and cultural practices.  This is most obvious in the long hymn to Apollo, which explains the origins of names such as “Python” and “Delphi,” and explains how Apollo’s main temple came to be located at Delos.  The long hymn to Demeter explains how the seasons originated, and provides the origins of the Eleusinian Mysteries, an important Greek cult.
  4. As a human, interacting with the gods is always dangerous.  When I took Greek mythology, our professor gave us two major principles for humans and gods interacting.  First, the gods punish humans for things the humans can hardly be held responsible for.  In the hymn to Demeter, Demeter punishes Metaneira for snooping on her putting her son Demophon into the fire by stopping the process of turning Demophon into a god.  But Metaneira was not aware that the disguised Demeter was actually a goddess.  Is it fair to punish her? Second, romance and sex between the gods and humans almost always ends badly for humans.  When Aphrodite falls in love with the human Anchises in her hymn, he is honored and beloved, though warned not to boast of his sexual relation with the goddess or else.  The hymn ends there, so we do not know from this text whether or not he kept his mouth shut.  But Anchises is lucky, the exception to the rule.  Most importantly: Greek gods, unlike the Christian god, are not primarily worshipped for their compassion and love.

Anyway, one more down from the summer reading list.  Right now I am reading through Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars, a bit of a chronological leap forward.  Soon I’ll post my notes on Homer’s Iliad, which I have been reading in Greek for the past quarter.

Review: Iliad, Book I, by P. A. Draper.

Yesterday I went to my Greek professor’s office, frustrated at how slow and tedious translation homework can be.  (I admit, senioritis might play a role in my lack of motivation!)  He told me that doing Greek and Latin translation is like going to the gym.  Yes, it is tedious to look up every unfamiliar word and parse verbs and nouns.  But the more we do it, the better we get, even if the results are slow.  I left feeling reassured, ready to tackle more Greek.

51KHKSIg9UL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_But sometimes we do not feeling like going to the gym.  Sometimes we need to build up to a full workout.  Sometimes it’s okay to use readers with running glossaries. I’ve been practicing my Greek the past two summers using Nimis and Hayes’ Lucian’s The Ass: An Intermediate Greek Reader and Steadman’s Odyssey editions.  These readers go beyond most student commentaries’ grammar helps and give line-by-line vocabulary at the bottom of each page.  While they don’t facilitate much understanding of the nuances of each word, they do enable the reader to read fast and fluidly.

Earlier this quarter, I used Draper’s text to read parts of Book I of the Iliad.  Her book begins with an introduction on the current state of Homeric scholarship: who was Homer?  Was there a Homer?  When did he live?  How historically accurate is the Iliad?  She also spells out the intricacies of Homeric meter.  She has a huge bibliography of books on the Iliad, the Trojan War, and even modern fiction set in Troy.  And she has a lot of commentary.  A lot.  An example:

CCI02062015The art is a nice touch.

Although these glossed readers get a bad rap from Greek purists, I enjoy using them to read fluidly.  When I was straight out of first-year Greek, it gave me great confidence to be able to actually read something.  I would recommend Draper’s commentary on Homer to the student who wants to build that confidence.