Greek Mythology and the Old Testament

I have lately been reading Homer’s epic poems: first The Iliad, and now I am nearly done with The Odyssey.

I figure there isn’t anyone alive today that believes that Zeus literally caused thunder in answer to a prayer, or that Athene really transformed Ulysses between having a youthful and an aged physical appearance at a whim.

Despite our understanding that these poems don’t reflect a literal truth, we still find meaning and truth in them. It is for this reason that they are read by high school and college students all over the world. This same reason drives our reading of more modern plays and novels — everything from King Lear to Catcher in the Rye. We learn something of the author’s world, something about our world, and if we are truly lucky, a deeper understanding of the universal truths of human life.

And it is with that preface that I suggest that the Old Testament — or parts of it, at least — ought to be read in the same manner.

Modern Christianity speaks of a loving, caring God, one who is deeply concerned for the wellbeing of all. Under this understanding, forgiveness is more desired than retribution, and helping the week is better than enslaving them. How then can one square that with a literal reading of the Old Testament?

This was a key question I asked over a span of perhaps 15 years. I was perplexed that the God of Love ought to turn someone into a pillar of salt for turning her head the right way, that almost all life on earth might be extinguished by a flood, that slavery is condoned and regulated, and all sorts of people being stoned to death, animals killed for no reason. In short, the God of the Torah, at least, didn’t seem to me to be even the same person as the God the Church talks about.

I raised this question with many people, and there was even a seminar on it at a convention I went to in 2001. The answers I got usually were of one of two types: 1) God is beyond our comprehension, and this is one of the mysteries we will never understand because that’s just the way it is; or 2) the arrival of Jesus changed things, and it’s impossible for a modern person to fully appreciate the laws as they existed prior to that. These are really two sides of the same stick: they’re both saying, “Yep, that’s odd. But we have to believe that the Bible is inerrant and literally true, so we just have to accept the mystery and move on.”

Except I’m not so good at accepting mysteries and moving on.

It strikes me as odd that nobody even mentioned the third option: that some of the stuff in the Old Testament is, to be blunt, made up. This even though I have come to learn later that some of those people probably believed this to be the most correct explanation.

Now, that doesn’t mean it has no value or that is doesn’t show us truth. Romeo & Juliet was made up, but we learn from it.

A typical example of this is the creation myth. There are some that are very defensive about it, perhaps thinking that it weakens their religion to admit it might not be literally true. To me, I find that insisting upon its literal truth weakens the religion; can we not see how a piece of literature speaks to us today and leave it at that? Need we say that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is an inferior play because it is a work of historical fiction?

The position I suggest here is not some crazy nutjob position. Wikipedia has a concise overview of some of the scholarship surrounding these ideas.

I now count myself as somewhat inspired by Homer to read the Old Testament in the same way that I read Homer: as a story that can speak to us today, one that inspired a nation in captivity and after, and launched perhaps the most amazing religious movement in history.

I only wish that more people would admit the possibility of a non-literal reading of the Bible. This return to an earlier era of Christianity is, in my mind, the only way that Christianity can maintain its relevance in this age.

Update: A note I received suggests I ought to make a bit of a clarification. I am not bothered by the fact that people have differing opinions about the historicity of Genesis. I’m all for putting all the opinions out there for sure. I think that really the concern over whether Genesis is literally true or not is mostly irrelevant. I have no problem with Christians that find Genesis to be literally true. What I’m lamenting is the attitude that “you’re not Christian if you’re not sure that Genesis is literally true” or “saying anything else about Genesis undermines Christianity.” I believe neither of those statements, and would really rather that we collectively got past the creationism vs. evolution debate already.

Update 2: It appears that my use of a bit of technical language has caused some confusion. A creation myth can be defined as “a supernatural story or explanation that describes the beginnings of humanity, earth, life, and the universe (cosmogony), often as a deliberate act by one or more deities.” It is a category of explanations. Simply calling the Genesis story a “creation myth” is an act of categorization only, and doesn’t imply anything about its accuracy or value.

105 thoughts on “Greek Mythology and the Old Testament

  1. Did you receive (sent yesterday) as copy-pasted from Word — text might have exceeded limits or maybe I got the two-word code wrong. If need be, I will resend. It would be best to send Word doc file via regular email, but do not believe possible with blog. Please stick with me — I sincerely believe my paper will be of interest and value and I look forward to a dialogue with you about a potential very important worldview.Thanks

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    No, didn’t see anything yet.

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  2. Hi, I realize this article is quite old, but I am researching for a paper on Greece and the Old Testament and I came across your article.
    I cannot help but clarify a little of what I, as a Christian, believe.
    The entire Bible is true.
    Every word, from Genesis to Revelation is true. Yes, there are literary devices used just like any other work made at that time, but it is all true.
    I as a Christian believe in a holy God. You pointed out that you did not understand why a loving God would turn someone into a pillar of salt. It was because of her disobedience. He told her not to look back at the burning city, but she did. So many times, people take just bits and pieces of the Bible without taking it in the entire context. Yes, God is a majestic, wonderful, loving God, but He is also a perfectly holy God. He cannot tolerate sin because sin is not of Him.
    No, we cannot expect to understand every bit of Who God is because He created us; He is perfect and we live in a fallen, sinful world.
    If we understood and could comprehend every bit of who God is, than we would share equivalence with God (which we do not).
    Everything good comes from God; every single good and perfect and pleasurable thing comes from Him. (That is not to say that everything that makes you feel good is morally acceptable. What I mean is that the origin of everything good and pleasurable comes from something that God made for our enjoyment. Man, who is sinful, has taken many of the things that God created for His glory and our pleasure and turned it into something perverted and wrong.)
    Every single thing that I believe is based upon the Bible.
    “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,” 2 Timothy 3:16
    Whenever anyone starts discounting even a single word in scripture, or claims it as a fable, the whole foundation will crumble.
    If you discount the book of Genesis, or take out any portion of the Bible and claim it as a myth, than there is no reason for not taking out more and more of it.
    The Bible cannot be pieced together to make a religion that is comfortable for us.
    Think of the laws of gravity, if we decide that we think that we should be able to fly so we jump out a tree, the laws of gravity are not going to change just because we believe they should.
    It is the same way with God. God is the objective standard by which we measure morality and truth. If we look to anything other than that (i.e. human standards), morality and truth is no longer objective. It is now susceptible to change; and whenever morality is susceptible to change, there is nothing stopping anyone from making their own laws.
    Think of slavery: it was once highly accepted by the worlds majority, but it is now viewed as wrong (and it is wrong).
    My point it, man cannot piece together or decide for himself what he deems true, because man has the possibility of error, whereas a holy God does not.

    Please do not think I am being rude; I wanted to tell you because I care.
    I just have a passion for people to know the truth.
    There is so much peace and true joy found in Jesus. It is not a religion; it is a relationship.
    I hope this made a little sense, and I was not just rambling on. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to talk some more.

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    It makes one wonder a bit when you say nobody can discount even a “single word” in scripture. We don’t have the original words for some of it. And most of us work with translations.

    I do not think that I discount something by claiming it is a myth. I elevate it. In what sense are things true? Do we understand the parables to be literally true, or a metaphorical device? If the latter, why is it positive to ascribe such a belief to that portion of the New Testament but not to portions of the Old?

    Morality has been subject to change even in the Bible. Did not the Ten Commandments mean change? How about the early Christians accepting gentiles into their churches, even if they didn’t follow Jewish cleanliness rules?

    I do not think my God is a murderer. I know my God to be a loving God, and turning someone into a pillar of salt cannot be justified as a loving or merciful act. Therefore, there must be something in how we read or understand those words that needs to adjust.

    Frankly it seems to me that clinging to a literal interpretation of Genesis robs it of its truth.

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    Lauren Reply:

    Claiming something as a myth does discount it. You say that you elevate the Bible as a myth, but would not it be worthy of even more awe-inspiring and worthy of praise if those amazing accounts recorded in the Bible were true?
    The Old Testament laws and regulations have because they were not meant to be permanent, they were the placeholder for Jesus. If you remember, when Jesus died on the cross, the Curtain in the temple separating the people from the Holy of Holies was torn in two. He was the fulfillment of over 300 prophecies that Jesus fulfilled in His coming. He expanded the family of God to more than just the Jews. The Jews accepting Gentiles into the Church is not an issue of morality. It was an issue of custom and culture.
    And that was prophesied about as well. “I will plant her for myself in the land; I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’ I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God.’” Hosea 2:23

    The parables in the New Testament are exactly that: earthly stories that Jesus used to communicate a heavenly meaning. He did it so that we could understand what He was talking about.
    God is a loving God and He is not a murderer
    If accusing the God of the Bible as murder, first you must define murder: the unlawful premeditated killing of a human being.
    There are consequences of our actions. Do you discipline your children when they do wrong? Do you expect people to go to jail when they break the law?
    Lot’s wife violated God’s law that He had set. Do you think that God took pleasure in punishing her? Do you enjoy punishing your children; do you still love them? Punishing you does NOT make you a bad father. It trains your children in the way they should go, which is exactly what God does to us. Like I mentioned earlier; God is a holy God; He is completely pure and perfect.
    The Ten Commandments have not changed; which ones are you referring to?

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