Greek Myth and the Bible

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Bruce Louden
Routledge Monographs in Classical Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    , November
     242 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


When scholars compare biblical literature with narratives originating in other ancient cultures, the nature of the comparisons can often be plotted onto a spectrum ranging from generic relationships (characteristic of history of religions approaches) to genetic relationships (characteristic of, for example, mimesis criticism, as exemplified in Dennis MacDonald’s scholarship). The comparative studies compiled in Bruce Louden’s Greek Myth and the Bible veer decidedly toward the genetic end of the spectrum, with one exception (chapter 10). In these studies, Louden examines the relationship of Jewish and Christian scriptures to Greek mythology—an underexplored topic particularly for the Hebrew Bible (chapters 1–4), though many of his analyses of the New Testament are similarly unconventional (chapters 5–10). In this review, my reproductions of Louden’s arguments are necessarily oversimplified and selective, omitting many details that other reviewers might have included.

Among its most influential legacies, Hesiod’s Theogony narrates the generational succession of gods—from Ouranos to Kronos to Zeus. In order to remove his father from power, Kronos ambushes Ouranos at night and castrates him. (Kronos is the youngest brother of Iapetos—they are “the only Titans that are also named in Homer” [39].) Later, after hearing a prophecy that he himself will be overthrown by one of his sons, Kronos resolves to swallow his children immediately after birth. Nevertheless, Rhea—aided by Gaia and Ouranos—safely gives birth to Zeus in secret. After ascending to power, Zeus defeats and imprisons Typhon, a multiheaded dragon-like creature. Louden interprets passages in Genesis and Revelation as modeled on these events. Building on the observation that Noah’s son Japheth’s name can recall Iapetos, Louden adduces parallels between Gen 11 and Hesiod’s Theogony, the rhetorical force of which encourages readers to infer that Ham, the youngest brother of Japheth, castrated Noah in his sleep (chapter 1). Louden similarly reads Revelation’s dragon as building on Hesiodic mythology (chapter 8): a multiheaded dragon seeks to devour the offspring of a woman in heaven (Rev 12), but, with divine assistance, the woman instead delivers the child safely; that child later defeats the dragon, who had been imprisoned (Rev 19–20). This analysis requires readers to compare the dragon to two Hesiodic figures—to Kronos who sought to swallow Zeus and to the dragon defeated by Zeus—but this is not an unusual practice in the imitation of literary models.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, being composed in the first century CE, could only possibly influence New Testament narratives. Within this text, a young Phaethon approaches his father, the Sun, in his palace and acquires an open-ended request, offered in the presence of other celestial beings. To the Sun’s dismay, Phaethon requests to drive the chariot of the Sun, resulting in Phaethon’s tragic death. Louden first compares this scene with Mark’s and Matthew’s depictions of the death of John the Baptist, where Herod’s daughter ultimately—to Herod’s dismay—requests John’s head on a platter (chapter 5). Louden later compares Ovid’s depiction of the palace of the Sun to the throne-room scene in Rev 4, with corresponding groupings of twenty-four, seven, and four (chapter 9). In both chapters, though in different ways, Louden argues that Ovid’s narratives offered a rubric for the composition of New Testament texts.

Louden also argues that several plays by Euripides influenced biblical narratives—even without reproducing the many arguments for Luke’s use of the Bacchae in Acts. First, Louden compares several narratives from Genesis and Exodus to Euripides’s Ion (chapter 2). Particularly suggestive are the numerous, dense, and sequential parallels between Moses’s and Ion’s infancy narratives and Genesis’s curious depiction of Ishmael as an archer—a characteristic attribute of Ion. Turning to Euripides’s Hecuba, Louden argues that the story of Jael killing Barak (Judg 4–5) is modeled on Hecuba’s (more explicitly motivated) murder of Polymestor (chapter 4). Finally, Louden compares Jesus’s raising of Lazarus to the presentations of Heracles and Asclepius in Euripides’s Alcestis (chapter 7). All but one of the parallels pertain to Jesus and Heracles; the other, however, pertains to Jesus and Asclepius—both are put to death in response to their actions of raising someone from the dead.

Here, it’s important to note that the Hebrew Bible passages that Louden compares with Greek mythology are often dated as late as the Hellenistic period—an important consideration when weighing the credibility of his arguments for dependence.

One way that Louden might have improved this impressive collection of studies is if he had engaged more robustly with scholars making similar arguments—even if only to the extent that he engages with Adela Collins’s proposal that Revelation responds to mythology about Apollo and Python (chapter 8). For example, there is much to appreciate about Louden’s argument that several episodes in Luke 24 are modeled on Homeric texts (chapter 6). Louden argues that the visitation of women to Jesus’s tomb is modeled on Priam’s retrieval of Hector’s corpse (Il. 24); the road to Emmaus scene on the disguised Athena traveling with—and correcting—Telemachus (Od. 2–3); and the scene where Jesus breaks bread with his disciples, revealing his identity, on Homeric postponed recognition scenes, especially that of Athena with Odysseus (Od. 13). MacDonald, for example, has likewise argued for interpreting these scenes through a Homeric framework, privileging instead the delayed recognition of Odysseus by Laertes and his slaves. Although MacDonald’s work is included in the bibliography, it is nowhere cited, much less engaged.

Overall, Greek Myth and the Bible is a fascinating study on the influence of Greek mythology on Hebrew Bible and New Testament narratives. Readers can find plenty of value in Louden’s studies regardless of whether they are convinced about the genetic nature of the narratives’ relationships. As Louden suggests, even if the relationships are judged to be generic in nature, a close comparison can bring clarity to the generic conventions being employed in both texts—helping readers fill any apparent logical gaps. Nevertheless, Louden insists, “comparison also raises the possibility of diffusion or influence” (164), and so he argues in this book which will be of interest to classicists and biblical scholars alike.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Kochenash is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Christian Studies at Hunan University's Yuelu Academy.

Date of Review: 
June 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bruce Louden is Professor in the Department of Language and Linguistics, the Humanities Program, and Philosophy, at the University of Texas at El Paso.


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