In a recent blog post, I cited the parallels in language and ideas between Homer’s Greek epic of The Iliad and The Odyssey and the Bible based on Michael Adler’s article” Was Homer Acquainted with the Bible”[see post]
This research stems from a course I’m teaching this summer on World Literature for a Seminary class. Part of the curriculum for this course is to relate the Biblical history to Classic World Literature. In this blog, I will examine the role of the gods and men in the Iliad and the Odyssey according to Wolfgang Kullmann’s article “Gods and Men in the Iliad and Odyssey” and how these stories influenced the world view of the audience of the Apostle Paul, found in Luke’s writings, Acts Chapter 14.
Before Paul and Barnabas arrived in Asia Minor in 46 CE, the oral of traditions of the Greek gods had been passed down for centuries by the ancient Greek tragedians Aeschylus (525-456 BCE), Sophocles (Oedipus, Antigone, 497-406 BCE), and Euripides. Of course, these tragedians were not the first to tell these stories. The poets, Homer and Hesiod, began composing epic poems about the Greek gods in the 8th century BCE. Homer is the earliest poet in Western culture whose works have survived intact.
What were the pagan traditions of the Greek gods in this world in which Paul and Barnabas traveled and preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Did they believe Sophocles that “there is nothing which is not Zeus”? What was their world view? Were these just stories which entertained, or did they believe that these gods and goddesses had the same power and influence over their lives?
As Paul preached about the LORD GOD, what were they thinking? How were the messages of Paul and Barnabas so powerful and transformative in spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
As my World Literature curriculum focuses on the works of Homer, I will refer to these stories of the gods in this blog. I am also using the scholarship of Wolfgang Kullmann to understand the principles of the gods and men in the Iliad and the Odyssey.
What were the roles of the gods in the Iliad? Walther Kraus that in the Iliad, “’human beings attain a higher moral worth than the gods’” (Kullmann, 5). What is essential to Homer is that emotional actions of the gods allow for a rational explanation of fateful events in human life. Their actions account for the whole of human suffering and weakness.
Based on the poems of Homer, the gods intervene frequently in these stories to give encouraging talks to their respective proteges while assuming the shape of a human being from their environment.
- Aphrodite- to Paris, her protégé; to Helen, she appears as an old wool-spinner in Book III.(4)
- Athena- (Book IV) joins the Trojans as an ally to shoot the disastrous shot in the direction of Menelaus in order to break the truce between both parties.2) Athena lures Hector into destruction; and, in the shape of his brother Deiphobus, she exhorts him to fight Achilles (XXII 297).
- Hera= invites Zeus to destroy Argos, Sparta, Mycenae.
- Council of gods= discuss whether to continue allowing Achilles to defile Hector’s body as they pity Hector.
- Zeus= stops Achilles from defiling Hector
This is quite different in the Odyssey. The council of gods have another way of thinking. Men themselves, not the gods, are responsible for their own sufferings beyond their destined share. The gods warn men against doing evil. Werner Jaeger asserts that “’divinity is absolved of responsibility for the evil in the world’” (Kullmann, 6). As Athena proclaims, “So, too, may any other also be destroyed who does such deeds” (I, 47).
For example, in the wanderings of Odysseus, his curiosity gets him into trouble and is therefore not totally innocent of what happens to him. All of Odysseus’ men, suffer their fate by not heading the warnings of Odysseus and angering Zeus.
In the Iliad, the heroes accept divine action as something fateful and inescapable while in the Odyssey, they give much more thought and speculation to the god’s conduct. In the Iliad, men act according to the decision of their own will and are nevertheless influenced by their actions by the gods, for better or worse (Kullman, Das Wirken der Gotter, 106). Divine intervention happens indirectly, often in the shape of a person who is to be present anyway. Men must take responsibility for their own actions even if they blame the gods for their predicaments.
Enter Paul and Barnabas. Paul spent fourteen years (46-60 CE) traveling through Asia Minor in what are called the “Missionary Journeys”. These journeys are detailed in the book of Acts which are believed to be written by Luke, a Doctor and a historian, to Theophilus in order to “show that Christianity was a universal religion for all men of every country”(Barclay, xvi). Luke wanted to tell of the extension of the church through Asia Minor and Europe “so mightily was the word of God increasing and prevailing” (Acts 16:6-19).
Paul would first seek out the Jews in the synagogues of the community to facilitate starting a church in that community. Most of the Gentile believers, however, would have been pagans and could have possibly believed in the Greek gods and goddesses of myth.
In Acts, 14:8, Paul and Barnabas have an encounter in the Roman colony of Lystra with pagans who believe in these gods and goddesses and their great powers. Lystra had a temple of Zeus with multiple priests. When Paul and Barnabas were preaching in Lystra, Paul healed a man who was lame. The crowd became fearful and shouted in their native Lycaonian language: “ The gods have come down to us in human form (Acts 14:11). ” They thought Barnabas was Zeus and Paul was Hermes (because he was the chief speaker).
According to Luke, the priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city gates, brought bulls and wreaths as a sacrifice to the gods in order not to anger Zeus. It was very dangerous to those in Lystra to reject disguised gods or angels according to a regional story in which Zeus and Hermes had visited Phrygia but only found two people, Philemon and Baucis, hospitable. As a result, according to the legend, the deities had destroyed their land and the whole population, except the two who helped Zeus and Herms, with a flood. Those who were among the listeners of Paul feared this would happen again (Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, NIV). Paul’s response to these pagans was, “Men, what is this you are doing? We too are men of like passions with you. We are bringing you the good news with tells you to turn from these empty things to the living God, which made heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them”(Acts 14:8-18).
In addition, we find a second story in the seventeenth chapter of Acts where Paul encounters more unknown gods. There were in fact many alters to unknown gods in Athens. During a plague six hundred years earlier, Cretan Epimenides advised the Athenians to make sacrifices to an “unknown god” to end the plague. Of course, this did not yield the desired result. Paul made a plea to the Athenians, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands…Rather he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else”(Acts 17:24).
The third encounter of Paul with imaginary gods was in Corinth, the home of the Isthmian Games second only to the Olympic Games. Dominating Corinth was the Acropolis which stood on top of the highest hill. This was not only a fortress; it was a temple to Aphrodite. In the great days of Corinth, according to William Barclay, this temple had “thousands of priestesses of Aphrodite who were sacred prostitutes and came down to the city in the evenings to ply their trade” (The Acts of the Apostles, 145). Barclay states that “The very iniquity of Corinth was the opportunity of Christ” (146).
Finally, when Paul is preaching in Ephesus, he encounters the Temple of Artemis, or Diana, which today is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. This great altar, 425 feet long by 60 feet wide, was sculpted by Praxiteles, the greatest of all Greek sculptors (Barclay, 153). Even though it was not beautiful—a squatting, many-breasted figure—it was the most famous pagan temple in the world. Paul worked hard in this city and, like many cities in Asia Minor, won his triumphs for Christ.
The gods and goddesses in the Iliad and the Odyssey have been very influential on the history of the human mind since 700 BCE and continue to be read and analyzed across the world in university classrooms. I asked my Seminary students to contrast the Greek gods and goddess to the Biblical account of God. These were some of their astute observations:
The gods and goddesses of Homer’s epics are portrayed as: “petulant and at times inconsistent and flighty. They have family and quarrels. They lust after sex and relationship. They are selfish and all seeking what is best for themselves. Lastly, they are constantly changing. capricious, vengeful, petty, possessed of extreme temperaments, and, ultimately, powerless. They are not portrayed in an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent.
This differs significantly from the biblical account of God, whereas God is all three of these things. These ideas of gods differ from the true God because God is consistent, he is faithful and he does not behave like a human in the ways shown by these gods. God’s love for us is not conditional on our works for Him as with Greek gods. Romans 8:3 says, ‘For what the law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the spirit. ‘”
In closing, I asked my husband, a theologian and Biblical scholar, to summarize the revolutionary message of Paul that revealed the superiority of the Christian God.
“In stark contrast to the little gods of the Greek and Roman world, Paul proclaimed the revelation of the Creator God, who holds the worlds in his hands shaping history to accomplish his plans and purpose colored by love and mercy. He also preached Jesus, God who became a man, who lived out a perfect life showing people the narrow path to life through his words and deeds. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the God Incarnate, became the explosive defining moment in human history. Paul revealed that God died for their sins, rose from the dead to grant them the gift of eternal life received by faith. God would fill them with His Spirit so they could live out the rest of their days on this planet as the sons and daughters of God, regardless of their shameful past, the station in life, or their nationality. Unlike the fickle gods of the Greeks and Romans, Paul preached about a God who loved common ordinary people. The loving God offered them the opportunity to be all they were created to be. It is no wonder some historians suggest that the gospel of Jesus Christ and the church remain as the greatest contribution of the Roman Empire on the history of Western civilization.”
Copyright 2020 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. (2016). Grand Rapids, MI,: Zondervan. 1914-1921.
William Barclay. (1953).The Acts of the Apostles. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.