From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics
Classics and the Bible: Hospitality and Recognition
Having been struck by the title of the former book, I was reading it with a view to reviewing it when I came across the latter, and decided after a preliminary perusal that a review of both together would be more fruitful.
As a teacher of the Classics (mostly in translation) at a Christian College, I found both books useful, well written, and “provocative” in the best sense of the word. They deal with much of the same literary corpus – the Bible on the one hand, and the “Classics” on the other, by which both authors mean Homer ’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and some of the better-known Greek tragedies. In addition, Markos includes the poet Hesiod (appropriately, in view of his discussion of Hesiod’s work Theogony or “Genealogy of the gods”); Taylor includes Herodotus and Plato as representatives of history and philosophy respectively. But both authors refer frequently to many other texts, both ancient and modern.
The two books are written to rather different audiences, and in correspondingly different styles. Markos is writing for an educated Christian audience who is presumably unfamiliar with Homer and the other Classics, or at least wary of getting too involved in these stories. Accordingly, he adopts a persuasive tone, encouraging his perhaps reluctant readers to see in these “pagan” texts not only morally edifying lessons, but also foreshadowing of future divine revelation as found in the Bible. Thus the archaic Greek poet Hesiod creates a type of creation story which, although somewhat unusual (and in some ways even repugnant) to a Christian who is only familiar with the Genesis creation story, nevertheless in away anticipates it, exemplifying Markos’ thesis that enlightened pagans who lacked special revelation still could perceive faint glimmers of the truth, truth that would be realized fully only upon the arrival of the inspired Scriptures. He notes the important roles of Thomas Aquinas and Desiderius Erasmus in synthesizing Christianity and pagan humanism, in contrast to the much more negative views of Martin Luther.
The argument is not new. As Markos points out in his introduction, in spite of the early church Father Tertullian’s famous rhetorical question: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” and its implied answer “Nothing at all,” there were several other church Fathers with a more positive attitude towards pagan literature. Foremost among these were Justin Martyr, Basil the Great, who wrote his famous letter to young men on the benefits of reading Greek literature, and Clement of Alexandria, who had a similarly positive attitude towards “pagan” writings (with appropriate caveats). These early Christians saw a sort of continuity from Classical understanding to Christian revelation. Indeed, Markos ends his book with a brief but helpful account of the journey of C. S. Lewis from atheism to theism, describing how his friend J. R. R. Tolkien helped him by pointing out that Christianity is the “myth which is also a fact,” and that these earlier pre-Christian myths were pointers to the greater truth still to be revealed in the future. Not that all Christians see things this way: John Beversluis, for example (in C.S. Lewis and The Search For Rational Religion), stresses rather the I Corinthians 1 concept of the “foolishness” of pre-Christian (that is, Greek) thought and the subsequent complete break, as he sees it, necessitated by Christian revelation. (Interestingly, recently I found Beversluis quoted favorably on a website dedicated to debunking Christianity: http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com.)
Taylor is not bound by quite the same need either to defend the classics, or to persuade a reluctant and nervous readership to embark on reading classical texts; (however, he is by no means antagonistic towards Christianity; quite the opposite). After beginning his preface rather self-deprecatingly: “This is an amateur sketch of a big subject” (I think “amateur” is appropriate here in its original sense of “one who loves or is fond of” something), he casts his net somewhat more widely than does Markos, giving less persuasive argument and also less plot summary; he assumes that his audience is more familiar with the Classical as well as the biblical texts (Taylor ix). In the process he manages to “throw out” for consideration a large number of references to “parallel passages” – so many in fact that from time to time the reader may need to stop and go back and re-read such passages in order to recall precisely what happens (for example, in Aeneid book 2 and Exodus chapter 12), in order to make the connections Taylor is referring to. Markos too has a good number of such comparanda, generally spelling things out in greater detail: for example, his comparison of the slaughter of the Suitors in Odyssey book 22 with the Day of the Lord as preached in Joel and Amos, and also with the gospel account in Matthew 24. I found such parallel passages in both books well handled and quite enlightening.
Taylor’s book, as his subtitle suggests, approaches both Classical and biblical texts from the perspective of hospitality and recognition (the recognizing both of others and of one’s self), and these twin themes turn out to encompass the vast bulk of the literature he is exploring, with both of them being shown frequently to underlie a given episode. Examples he discusses range from the more familiar, such as Odysseus and the Suitors, and Abraham and his three guests in Genesis 18, to the less obvious, for instance Evander and Aeneas (Aeneid book 8) or Isaac and Jacob in Genesis 27 (here a case of non-recognition), and again Jacob, Joseph and his brothers in Genesis 44-45. Many of these scenes Taylor describes as a “the oxeny”– a word apparently not yet in the Oxford English Dictionary, but used by him (and others) to describe the act of showing hospitality to a divine or at least highly regarded guest, usually with the host’s initial ignorance of the guest’s identity.
Right at the end of his book, Taylor reflects that the themes of hospitality and recognition have “taken us from Eumaeus to Emmaus,” and further that the very act of reading these books may itself be considered a “the oxeny.” In this case the text is the special guest,and the recognition takes place as the reading progresses: by recognizing the identity and the significance of the guest/text, the host/reader also comes to recognize himself or herself more fully (Taylor 173-4).
Markos will be useful for the reader needing more background and introductory matter, Taylor for the more experienced reader looking to make connections between already familiar texts. Taylor has an average of more than 90 endnotes per chapter, plus a substantial bibliography, whereas Markos employs footnotes sparingly, basically as a way of giving information about the translations he is using; he does include a helpful bibliographic essay in which he mentions several of the more scholarly standard works on the Classics, some of which are chiefly for the reader who is, as he says, “up to the challenge” (Markos 254).
I did find a small number of errors in Markos’ book: ZeusXenos should be ZeusXenios, and Telemachaia should be Telemacheia. On page 39, Aristotle (the Greek) is said to have originated the Latin phrase in medias res (better translated “into the middle of things”), when it was actually the Roman poet Horace. On page 57, Hector is said to have been killed in book XII of the Iliad, when it is really book XXII. On page 70, the Greek word aidos is given for “pity” when it should actually be eleos. And on pages 238-9, Turnus wasn’t really “promised” to Lavinia, and if she were to marry Aeneas it would be in book VII not VI. (And on page 251, does one “beef up on” something? The OED quotes it as used only transitively.) But these are relatively minor and do not really detract from the overall text.
I was a little more uncomfortable with the assertion that Homer “wrote” the Iliad or Odyssey, but most bothersome was the frequent use of colloquialisms: we read of “good guys,” “war buddies,” and even a “jaded frat boy.” Maybe this type of language is designed to draw the reader in; I wonder if it is necessary in an academic and otherwise very helpful book.
Speaking again as a teacher of Classical literature, most likely I would prescribe Markos for an introductory course, perhaps having students read the book chapter by chapter at the same time they are reading Homer and Virgil et al. Taylor I would keep for more advanced students who are already fairly familiar with the classical texts. The reader who is unfamiliar with Homer ’s Odyssey doubtless will be a little perplexed by the mention of Nausicaa and the Phaeacians on page 1 of Taylor ’s book, without even a reference to the specific books of the Odyssey where these characters occur.
After reading Markos, the reader should come away both with a firmer grasp of the main events and themes of the great Classical works, and with a good sense of some of the ways in which the characters in these works can be seen as striving towards something that they could never achieve through their unaided strength.
Taylor will leave the reader wanting to go and dig up one or more of his many references to Cicero, Augustine, John Milton, William Wordsworth, Jane Austen, or John Keats, among others, for further study. He ends with a fascinating account of two nineteenth-century English scholars: John Henry Newman and Matthew Arnold – connected through the latter’s vehement criticism of a translation of Homer made by the brother of the former, himself an outstanding example of a Christian scholar drawing inspiration both from the Bible and from the Classics. Newman writes of classical literature possessing “a power over the mind, and a charm, which the current literature of [one’s] own day, with all its obvious advantages, is utterly unable to rival” (Taylor 169, quoting from J. H. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, ed. N. Lash, University of Notre Dame Press, 1979 , 78-9).
I can imagine Lewis and Tolkien endorsing such a judgment heartily, and I am grateful to both Markos and Taylor for their work in sharing some of these charms in conjunction with the power of biblical literature.