How many of us who have read much classical literature have found occasions to pause and reflect on unexpected similarities between “pagan” works and what we recall from the Bible? Often, I suspect, we have wondered for a moment only to resume reading and let the curiosity be shelved without further attention.
It is unfortunate that some interesting scholarly works that do address such parallels are prohibitively priced so very rarely do they ever nudge the wider public consciousness. This post is offered here as encouragement for any reader who has wondered about such odd similarities that seem to have as many differences as points in common. It comes from a classicist, not a biblical scholar, of course. Unfortunately the word “parallelomania” seems to cast a cloud over such observations in Biblical studies if anyone dare suggest the Biblical writers did the borrowing, but they have less trouble if the argument goes the other way and the Greeks borrowed from the Hebrews. In that latter instance I doubt they ever raise the spectre of “parallelomania” — just as I suspect they avoid the same quibble when arguing that later mystery religions of the Roman era borrowed from Christianity!
This post looks at a small selection of similarities between Greek and Biblical heroes as discussed in The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth by classicist M. L. West. We know all the usual caveats about correlation and cause and effect. One things for sure emerges, however. The gulf between the thought-world of Greece and the Bible is not necessarily as wide as we may have imagined.
We compare Rahab of Jericho fame, Jonah and the exploits of David with their classical counterparts.
The Trojan War and Fall of Jericho
When Agamemnon with his massive Greek army reached Troy he first sent two envoys, Menelaus and Odysseus, to negotiate for the return of Helen. One of the wisest of Trojan elders, Antenor, received them with admirable hospitality.
Some more sensationalist accounts say Antenor rescued the Greek envoys from death; others say he betrayed Troy by letting the Greek warriors out of the Wooden Horse.
The significant point is that orders were given for Antenor and his family to be spared when the Greeks took over the city. In order to identify their house a leopard skin was hung in front of it. After the sack of Troy Antenor took his family to establish a new home in Thrace.
It has a remarkable parallel in the biblical account of Joshua’s capture of Jericho. (p. 489)
Joshua sent two spies into Jericho once his army was in a position to attack the city. These spies received hospitality from Rahab the prostitute. When the king of Jericho heard of this he sent Rahab a message ordering her to give them up but she protected them instead and helped them escape.
In return Rahab asked that she and her family be spared in the attack, since she knew that Israel was destined to destroy the city. Her house was identified by a crimson cord on the window. She and her family were spared and began a new life in Israel.
The analogies with the Greek myth are extensive. Menelaus and Odysseus, who come to Troy before the war has started, correspond to the two Israelite spies. The kindly Antenor, who gives them lodging, saves them from death at the Trojans’ hands, and in some accounts even assists the enemy to take his city, corresponds to Rahab. The same agreement is made, to spare not just the benefactor but the benefactor’s whole family, with a visible sign being displayed on the house to identify it. The city is taken and burned, but the family is spared and settled elsewhere. (p. 489)
Jonah and Arion
The singer Arion was returning by ship to Corinth after a concert tour when he learned that the sailors planned to rob him and throw him overboard. He agreed to jump but first stood to sing a song that began with a praise to Apollo.
After he jumped a dolphin picked him up and carried him safely to shore.
The story is at least partially parallel to that of Jonah. (p. 441)
Jonah was thrown overboard to appease the god (Yahweh) and swallowed by a “great fish”. After three days inside the fish Jonah sang a hymn and was consequently disgorged to terra firma.
It is noteworthy that both stories involve the performance of a religious song by the hero. (p. 441)
David and Nestor
In the Iliad the elderly Greek hero reminisces on a battle in his youth.
Here the parallels with David and Goliath are all the more noticeable. . . (p. 370)
Nestor was the youngest of twelve sons as David was the youngest of Jesse’s eight.
A giant warrior in full armour — Ereuthalion, Goliath — stepped forth to challenge all the opposing heroes to single combat. The entire opposing army to trembled. None dare take him on except this youngest son.
The giant wielded a distinctive weapon. Ereuthalion an iron club, Goliath a massive iron-headed spear.
The parallelism was noted by Krenkel . . . D. Mulder . . . in most detail, H. Muhlestein. . . (p. 370)
The same Nestor on another occasion was dismissed from the battle by King Neleus because of his youth and inexperience in war. Saul at first dismissed David for the same reasons. Nonetheless, Nestor went out without a chariot to challenge the enemy cavalry leader. Nestor accordingly appropriated the enemy’s own chariot, just as David faced Goliath without a sword and appropriated Goliath’s sword.
In both cases the enemy, seeing that their champion has fallen, turn and flee, pursued and slaughtered by the Pylians and the Hebrews respectively. In both narratives the pursuit continues to a certain specified place; the victors return from there with their booty, and the young hero is acclaimed by the people. . . (p. 376)
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