While doing research on the Iliad and Odyssey for a World Lit course I’m teaching this summer, I found an intriguing Journal article written in 1892 by Michael Adler citing striking parallels in language and ideas between Homer’s Greek epic of The Iliad and Odyssey and the Bible.
This theory first came about in the beginning of the eighteenth century when it was discovered (or supposed) that “the mythologies, the sacred writings, and the monuments of ancient nations of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, and Chinese were a reference to the Bible”(“Was Homer Acquainted with the Bible?”, 171).
Adler based his article from a Latin work by a Dutch Quaker, Gerard Croese, written in 1704 stating that “’…the works of Homer were nothing more than an adaptation into Greek verse of the narratives of the Bible, with sundry additions by the poet’s own hand’”(171). Croese asserts that Homer was fully acquainted with the Bible and with the Hebrew languages.
How can Croese prove this? First, Croese states that Homer lived around the year 927 B.C. and was a contemporary with King Omri of Israel. We do know that during this time, the Israelites had taken possession of the Holy Land and had expelled the Canaanites who had already become acquainted with the Bible from their Jewish conquerors. The Canaanites wandered to Thrace and Asia Minor and, in Smyrna, Croese asserts that Homer must have learned to know some of these descendants and therefore learned of Bible from them. The family of Esau settled in Thrace and thus the Greeks there had learned Hebrew, according to Croese. This hypothetical claim also included that “Lycurgus, Pythagoras, Solon and Plato learned of the Jewish wisdom” in the same way (172).
I am neither a Jewish scholar nor a Biblical scholar but have spent many years as a laic believer in Christ studying the Bible and this seems perfectly plausible to me. I have also supposed, myself, that the Apostle Paul saw the statue of the “Winged Victory of Samothrace”, which today is proudly displayed in the Musee du Louvre, while on a Missionary Journey! (I offered this supposition a few years ago to a Docent who was giving me a tour at the Louvre, but she didn’t buy it!)
But to return to Homer: Croese’s second assertion is that the Trojan war with the Greek army is only a replica of the contest between the Israelites under Joshua (the Achaians) and the Canaanites (Trojans). Yes, there are some similarities in these epic battles; however, one cannot overlook the obvious difference in the leadership of the pagan gods of Troy and Joshua’s YAHWEH!
Next is Croese’s observation of the Hebrew names for Homer’s characters in the Iliad and the Odyssey. The name Homer is derived from the Hebrew word meaning “the speaker, the teller of narratives” and that the original name for his works Iliad and Odyssey, “the narration” in Hebrew, were later added by Pisistratus. In addition, the gods derive their names from the Hebrew:
Apollo= “tower”; Zeus=”the existing one”; Juno= “a dove”; Iris= “the light”; Pallas=”wondrous”; Athene=strong; Olympus= “to be numerous in tents”; Laertes= “weary and cast away”; Telemachus=”holding the quiver”; Ithaca= “strong”.
Adler concludes his article with the last of Croese’s theories that Homer’s works were an adaptation into Greek verse of the narratives of the Bible by comparing several passages from the Iliad and the Old Testament. This is the most intriguing assertion of proof for me!
- The first is when Achilles (from the Hebrew “to eat”) exclamation to Chalcas (Iliad I. 87) “No man while I live and behold light on earth shall lay violent hands upon thee among the hollow ships” to the passage in Exodus 24.11 “and upon the nobles of the children of Israel he laid not his hand.”
- Next, Croese compares in Iliad I.459, the priest of far-sighted Apollo, Chryses, prays “Thou has honored me…and now fulfil this my petition:” to Saul’s speech (I Sam. 15.30): “Yet honour me, I pray thee…”.
- In addition, Achilles is compared to David: Achilles is described to the Muse as , “one who gave their bodies to be a prey to the dogs and birds.” In David’s defiant speech to Goliath (think of Achilles to Ajax) “…and I will give the carcasses of the host of the Philistines this day unto the fowls of the air and the wild beasts of the earth.”
- And, finally, Odysseus and Penelope to Jacob and Laban. Odysseus had been away twenty years from the time he set off to the siege of Troy until he returned home to Ithaca. The stay of Jacob with Laban was about twenty years.
There are at least a dozen more comparisons between the stories in the Iliad and Odyssey and the Bible in this intriguing discovery by Adler published in 1892. I tried to find more recent articles on this topic through several Databases and only found one in Cambridge University Press by Filippomaria Pontani “Homer, the Bible and Beyond” (JSTOR, 2006).
Adler concludes, “By finding phrases in the Greek that are to be met with in the Bible, by deriving Greek names from the Hebrew, by comparing the theology of the two sources, Gerard Croese fully convinces himself that not only did Homer know the Bible, but even interwove certain of its narratives with his poems”(174).
I do not know if I am fully convinced of Croese’s theory. However, I do know that the Bible continues to inspire my life daily and guide me to know the Almighty God. I can see how Homer could have been greatly inspired by the Bible, as Croese asserts, and had used the models of these great heroes of the faith in his characters. While I have been entertained and amused by Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, I am thankful my trust is not in the fickled, war-hungry “gods” of this world!
Michael Adler. “Was Homer Acquainted with the Bible?”The Jewish Quarterly Review. Vol. 5, 1. (Oct., 1892). pp. 170-174
Copyright 2020 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)