Classical Guidance for Bible Readers Recommended: David, Jonah and Rahab

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by Neil Godfrey

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

rahabWhen 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

arionThe 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.

046In each case the young man slew the giant with divine help, leaving him sprawled out on the ground.

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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Neil Godfrey

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21 thoughts on “Classical Guidance for Bible Readers Recommended: David, Jonah and Rahab”

  1. “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.”

    I have found a couple of ways to get free access to otherwise cost-prohibitive scholarly works, including (1) using Google’s advanced search to look for the exact title of the book/document (place it in quotes) while limiting the format of the result to .pdf (I have probably saved US$3000 through this technique, and (2) using scribd.com, where I have saved even more just in the last few weeks. In fact, there is a copy of The East Face of Helicon is available at scribd.com, and I’ve added it to my library to review. To be fair, sometimes all you get through using these techniques (and what I got with The East Face of Helicon) is a non-professional scan of the document, but more often than not you can find the ebook version of these documents.

    From the preface of The East Face of Helicon, the author seems to assume that the Biblical stories came first, which I think is a grave error. Nevertheless, it is good to have another source seeing the extensive parallels between Biblical stories and Greek myths. I greatly appreciate you pointing us to this resource and giving the page citations. Thanks again for this site and what you are doing.

    Best regards,


    1. Yes, unfortunately the scribd copy of East Face is not good quality, nor can it be word-searched. And yes, the Google and Amazon text previews are often very useful. I have often used them for checking references I read elsewhere and more often than not the relevant page is available for preview. Unfortunately I’m still very much a hands-on reader: I nearly always read with a pencil in hand and mark this and that or write comments as I go. I know I should use highlighter and text edits directly on the computer monitor in place of my paleolithic ways, and I do from time to time. But nothing yet beats being able to grab a book and pencil in hand — in my opinion.

      Thanks for alerting readers to these pointers.

      1. In many ways, I prefer hard copy, too, but when the books can be so expensive (several of the books I purchased recently cost me US$250 or more each), getting an electronic for free (or often for less money) is an attractive option. As you say, there are highlighting and note-taking tools on the various e-readers and paper management software (e.g., Papers 2), and that can be surprisingly helpful (even more so than tabbing and writing in the margins because all your notes and markes are compiled on a single page). One thing I particularly like about the Kindle is that you can keyword search everything in your library at the same time, so for certain topics I buy both the Kindle and hard copy versions.

  2. Thanks for sharing – makes me want to read more, but as you say — expensive. $98 on Amazon for that text!

    I did a post showing similar Jewish and Indian tale semblances. A Christian visited telling how he views these semblances. I drew a diagram for him to simplify our conversation, where I made three simple cases.

    3 Views of Shared Myths:
    (1) Independent
    (2) Borrowed/Shared
    (3) Natural Theology

    How do you view these sharings of the Greek stories? (not #3, I am sure!)

    Let’s see if your new site accepts the img html:

    1. I have added an underline to your link to draw attention to it. Highlighting links in comments is something we have just started looking at, thanks.

      It’s an interesting page and lovely diagram you have. One detail sometimes not fully appreciated by many of us “westerners” is the extent of ties between the Mediterranean world (via the “Mid East”) and India in ancient times.

      As for your earlier point, I doubt there is one rule for all such similarities. I agree that there are occasions when the best explanation is “intertextuality” — where an author has re-written and “transvaluated” earlier texts.

      Other times there are common folk-motifs or literary tropes that are draws upon through a shared culture. And some neighbouring cultures can be shared despite certain linguistic differences of native populations.

      Related to that point we have Claude-Levi Strauss’s explanation: “mythemes” — how myths mutate and develop in ways similar to language, or even music. This explains the “same but different” quality of myths in neighbouring cultures. But Strauss’s thesis surely needs refinement with a growing understanding of how the brain works, evolutionary psychology, etc. — but I really don’t know that field and would love to learn what is going on among “mythologists” today.

      Other times similar motifs can appear independently as a result of common experiences. I think this accounts for the many world-wide variants of universal or near-universal flood stories.

  3. Theodor Gaster cited these and many, many more mythic formulas in his book “Myth, Legend, and Custom in the Old Testament” (1969), an updating of Frazer’s “Folk-lore in the Old Testament.” He goes through the Bible book by book and shows where the same motifs appear in world folklore from ancient times to modern.

    It is beginning to seem like the thesis that the Greek version is the original of the Bible is correct. The supposed chain of transmission — Biblical writers first translating Greek literature into Hebrew, then writing their books in Hebrew under that influence, then having them translated into Greek long afterward — is too complex to be plausible. Occam’s Razor: they simply wrote them in Greek. Later, they were translated into Hebrew.

    It’s so similar to the Aramaic Gospel arguments, or the completely convoluted chain of transmission from Aramaic oral history to a Greek “translation” of Jesus’s words and deeds. The simplest and most logical explanation is that nothing was translated. Jesus’s “words and deeds” were composed in Greek.

      1. I don’t know if you are aware that I have posted on Wajdenbaum’s work in part — see the archives in the right margin — and will probably do so again.

        The reason I limited my post to West’s book is because, unlike Wajdenbaum, he is a classicist and uncontroversial in biblical studies.

    1. One scholar who probably did most damage to the Frazer type of thesis was Jonathan Z. Smith. Robert M. Price has taken exception to Smith’s argument on the grounds that it does not allow for an “ideal type” but breaks apart “obvious” parallels with variable details. I have always wanted to post on Smith’s books. Maybe if these conversations keep coming to the fore I will eventually get back to them.

      In the meantime, as I mentioned in the post, I don’t think biblical scholars are too fussed about such details and four letter words like ‘parallelomania’ when the question is about the influence of Bible authors on the pagan world!

    1. Wajdenbaum sees the Jephthah story of sacrificing his daughter as influenced by both Homer and Herodotus:

      Homer informs us that Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter to assuage the winds preventing his army from sailing to war (in one version it had to be his daughter who was sacrificed because of a vow to sacrifice the year’s most beautiful produce, “and she was it (in Calchas‘ opinion).”;

      Herodotus writes of King Idomeneus who had fled his kingdom of Crete, and on his return his life was threatened by a storm. He vowed to sacrifice the first living being if he survived — and that happened to be his son.

      I am more inclined to go with M.L. West on this one who sees the sacrifice by Jephthah as picking up on a pervasive folk-tale motif. In addition to the tales in Homer and Herodotus we also have, as per West:

      “Kerkaphos, who made the vow to the Mother of the Gods for the sake of victory over the Pessinuntians, and was greeted on his return by his son . . . .

      “An anonymous magnate of Haliartus, who consulted Delphi about the cure for a drought, and was told to slaughter the first person who met him on his return — it was his son . . . . .” (pp. 441-42)

  4. One idea I heard was that the Philistines were originally Greeks, and brought their Greek influence to the ANE well before the penning of the Hebrew Bible. Apparently, Goliath’s armor is described like hoplite armor. I lost my notes for where I got this reference so I can’t actually verify if this is correct or just me remembering incompletely.

  5. J., the Philistines have been pretty conclusively shown to have ties with the Aegean/Mycenaean world (though whether they were Greek-speaking is unknown, AFAIK).

    The East Face of Helicon is certainly a must-read but reading it *does* make me think ‘parallelomania’ now and then; same with many Biblical examples. I guess I’m sometimes a bit hyperskeptical when it comes to claiming borrowing rather than independent usage when it comes to some literary examples – it does seem easier to show obvious influence in other fields. At any rate, all the work done in the myths (not to mention all other areas) of Greece and the Near East shows how interconnected the two areas were, with cultural influence traveling both ways, sometimes more from the former area, sometimes more from the latter. At the very least, the idea that the ‘pagans’ had absolutely no influence on ‘pure Judaic’ Christianity can’t be seriously held these days.

    1. “Parallels” seems to have become a four-letter word for many theologians and Bible scholars. But not so in other studies where literature and classics dominate. Do read what “parallelomania” really originally meant in the Samuel Sandmel article I have linked to in the side-bar among “Other Authors” under Pages. One rarely hears the word used in its original critical sense; rather, one often hears it used in a way literary critics and classicists would never recognize and that in fact is nothing more than a bigoted closed-mindedness.

      Parallels are a form of analogy, and all learning and understanding comes through analogy of some kind. The point is to understand the best explanation for what are clearly analogous images and expressions. The similar tropes or mythemes in “East Face of Helicon” can be explained a number of ways. But to close one’s eyes to obviously analogous phenomena is closing one’s mind to possibilities of understanding new things.

      When we focus the debate on the most satisfactory explanation then we soon understand why Sandmel’s original concept of “parallelomania” puts us on alert to the logical and methodological fallacies that lead to beliefs in astrology, astrotheology, conspiracy theories, etc. I think many theologians/bible scholars have forgotten what Sandmel meant.

      Fortunately it appears that an increasing number of scholars are learning from literary and classical studies opening up a new world of understanding of the biblical literature.

        1. The whole historical Jesus enterprise is about trying to find parallels of selected Gospel data with persons and roles of interest in the wider contemporary world. They attempt to do this through various methods that they hope will provide persuasive argument that their “parallels” are real and justifiable.

          The stupidity of some is to deny correlations exist at all; the real question is always how to explain correlations. Elementary here is that everyone knows correlation does not in itself necessarily mean causation, least of all causation in any particular direction.

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