Guest Post by Mike Caba
At the beginning of Western literature stands Homer and the influential texts, The Iliad and The Odyssey, that are attributed to this author. These works portray aspects of the Trojan War and the journey home of one of its participants and in so doing reveal much about the ancient Mediterranean world. They were widely read and recited in antiquity and, as such, they are excellent primary sources for those interested in studying the Biblical world, particularly the competing worldviews that Christianity encountered when it spread from its Jewish roots. In effect, by comparing and contrasting the teachings of Jesus and his followers with other beliefs, we can discover the unique features of the Faith–and Homer provides a treasure trove of opportunities in this regard.
To begin with, one of the primary purposes that the Homeric epics were composed, and thereafter frequently recited, was to facilitate the continuance of the values of a patriarchal society in which the leading male participants sought glory and riches for themselves, often through warfare–though not exclusively so. To support this value system, the most potent gods were often seen as furthering the cause of the leading men. For example, Zeus actually loses sleep “pondering in his heart how he might bring honor to Achilleus,” which he eventually does through the means of vicious battles in which Achilleus slaughters foes uncounted. And so it goes throughout these stories as the leading combatants, with the support of the gods, are ever concerned about their glory and property, with women being one type of property, often willingly and in abundance.
Then, into this whirlpool of violence and acquisition comes Jesus, a rustic manual laborer from the edge of the Roman Empire who, though not being characterized by personal frailty, rejected the testosterone-controlled world of his day. Indeed, it would seem that Christ’s teachings were not only different, they were often nearly the opposite of Homeric values. For example, the possibility that a Homeric hero would “turn the other cheek” or follow the admonition to “love your enemies” is almost zero; actually, language of this type would likely have been unintelligible to these macho fighters. Instead, they would much rather “go on and win glory for ourselves” as one friend said to another while urging him to continue in deadly warfare.
Regarding material wealth, certain conflict and even a monumental bloodbath that would last for years, could be expected from Homeric heroes if someone laid hands on their property; thus, the necessity of launching a war to secure the return of Helen, the wife of a chieftain, when she was stolen by an opponent. To the modern Western reader it may seem quite odd that many people lost their lives for the return of the wife (i.e., property) of one man; yet, the value system was so stacked in favor of the patriarchal rights to glory and property that severe battle was necessitated by such an offense. Jesus, on the other hand, while in no way turning a blind eye to thievery of any kind, focused the thoughts of his followers on other types of riches. Indeed, Jesus instructed his people to “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (NIV).
And so it goes, in point after point, Jesus was, well, different, but not just for the sake of difference; he was actually fundamentally rooted in a reality distinct from the broken world around him. In truth, he understood the temporary and lifeless nature of the bloodstained, sensual, and mammon-hungry world in which he walked, and he knew of its coming demise. So he led the way elsewhere and, as odd as it might seem at first glance, he did urge his people to seek glory, but of a different kind by a different path, for he said through one of his spokesmen that to “those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (NIV). In effect, real glory comes to those who become good through the goodness he gives, not to those who are strong in the flesh or are of a certain gender or race.