What Has Homer to Do with the Bible?

An Atheist Reads the Bible, Part 1

To begin my long-promised series on the Bible, I wanted to describe the indirect route by which I came into this project.

Five years ago, I found myself with a little extra time over Christmas break and decided to read a volume I had picked up years ago at an antique shop: an old edition of John Milton’s 1674 epic poem Paradise Lost, with illustrations from the famous 19th-century artist Gustave Doré. You can buy your own copy here (for a whole lot more than I paid for it, incidentally), but since both the text and the illustrations are in the public domain, you can browse them online, thanks to Wikipedia.

To be honest, I bought the book for the pictures rather than for the text, about which I didn’t know much. I’ve had a pretty good education, by contemporary standards, yet Paradise Lost was one of the great classics I somehow managed to escape reading. So with Doré’s illustrations as inducements, I decided it was time to fill in that particular gap. But you never know with “classics.” Much as I agree with the Great Books approach to education, I’ve read enough of them to know that some of the Great Books aren’t so great.

Fortunately, I found Paradise Lost to be very interesting reading, not just on its own merits but also for how it fits in to the history of Western thought and literature. What struck me most is that Milton basically set out to tell the story of the Bible, but he did so in an unexpected way: as an epic poem in the Classical style.

It has all the earmarks of the Classical epic, beginning with the invocation of the muse at the beginning. Homer began the Iliad with, “Sing, goddess, of the wrath of Achilles,” and here is how Milton begins Paradise Lost.

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat
Sing, Heavenly Muse.

Then there is the way the story begins halfway through the action, with Satan writhing on the lake of fire after being cast out of Heaven. We then get the story of Satan’s rebellion against God as a flashback, before resuming the action with Satan’s attempt to exact revenge by tempting Adam and Eve into disobedience. This approach—begin in the middle and tell the first half of the story as flashback before proceeding to the second half—is exactly the structure of Homer’s Odyssey. Then there is the use of epic simile and blank verse, and on and on.

In short, the basic premise of Paradise Lost is that the Bible is all well and good—if only it had been written by Homer. So Milton set out to fix this defect.

We tend to think of the Renaissance as a revival of Classical languages and literature, but the real essence of the Renaissance was the attempt to do what the ancient world was never able to do: combine the Classical and Christian traditions.

That kind of integration was forbidden by early Church fathers like Tertullian, who sneeringly asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” It was under this influence that the old Classical academies were eventually stamped out as bastions of paganism.

But it turns out that Athens and Jerusalem have an awful lot to do with one another, whether they like it or not. Christianity spread through the Classical world—the New Testament was written in Greek, after all—and it was deeply intermingled from the beginning with elements of the Classical tradition and concepts from Classical philosophy. Renaissance Europe would seize upon this connection. Having rediscovered the Classical tradition, they wanted to have all of Athens without giving up Jerusalem. You can see this in a hundred different examples, but one of my favorites is a series of paintings in the Uffizi museum in Florence. It is famous because it includes the first recorded work by the great Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli, but the subject matter is also interesting. It consists of seven paintings, three of which represent the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity. The other four represent prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude—which students of antiquity will recognize as the four Classical virtues recognized by the Greeks and Romans.

So what Milton was doing—some years later, as the Renaissance came with full force to England—was not so unusual for the day. But it has an odd effect. Milton’s classicized version of the Bible turns out to have its own classicized agenda.

This is partly because Milton used his epic to promote his own distinctly Latitudinarian views on Christian theology. In Book IV, for example, he describes the idyllic life enjoyed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. I wasn’t quite prepared for what happens at the end of the day, when the happy couple goes off to bed.

[N]or turned, I ween,
Adam from his fair spouse, nor Eve the rites
Mysterious of connubial love refused:
Whatever hypocrites austerely talk
Of purity, and place, and innocence,
Defaming as impure what God declares
Pure, and commands to some, leaves free to all.

In case that’s not clear enough, try this passage.

So spake our general mother, and with eyes
Of conjugal attraction unreproved,
And meek surrender, half-embracing leaned
On our first father; half her swelling breast
Naked met his, under the flowing gold
Of her loose tresses hid: he in delight
Both of her beauty, and submissive charms,
Smiled with superior love, as Jupiter
On Juno smiles, when he impregns the clouds
That shed Mayflowers; and pressed her matron lip
With kisses pure.

Um, this is a Bible story, right? You’ll have to pardon me because I got a little distracted there.

This Classical influence also explains Milton’s seeming sympathy for the devil. He writes Satan as an antagonist in the Classical mold, as a fellow hero who happens to be arrayed on the opposite side—Hector to God’s Achilles, if you will. So in Book I we find Satan showing a kind of admirable defiance in the face of defeat, expressing his resolve never to submit to “the tyranny of Heaven.”

[P]rofoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor—one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure; and, in my choice,
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.

Here is the hero shot, as rendered by Doré.


And then there is the scene where Jesus, that great hippie pacifist, is sent into battle in a chariot armed with thunderbolts. Yes, really. This happens in Book VI, at the end of the long flashback describing the war in Heaven. The war between the angels has ended in a stalemate, so God the Father sends in Jesus to sort it all out once and for all.

He, in celestial panoply all armed
Of radiant Urim, work divinely wrought,
Ascended; at his right hand Victory
Sat eagle-winged; beside him hung his bow
And quiver with three-bolted thunder stored….

He on his impious foes right onward drove,
Gloomy as night; under his burning wheels
The steadfast empyrean shook throughout,
All but the throne itself of God. Full soon
Among them he arrived; in his right hand
Grasping ten thousand thunders, which he sent
Before him.

You can see the same kind of literary and theological confusion at work here. Note to Milton: that bearded guy with the chariot and the lightning bolts? That’s the wrong god.

Strange things happen when you try to write a Classical epic about the Bible. Some of the characters tend to get away from you, and meek Christian martyrs turn into Homeric warriors.

To sum it all up, on completing Milton’s re-telling of the Bible, I realized that what I was getting wasn’t exactly the genuine article. So I thought I should check out the real thing. I’ve been doing this slowly, mostly to satisfying my own curiosity. But I found that I discovered enough interesting new observations to reward the effort, and I thought they would be worth sharing with my readers. Hence this new series of articles.

I am keeping one aspect that retains something of the spirit of Milton: I am reading the King James version of the Bible. This is partly because it is the best-known and most influential version and the one you are most likely to hear when someone quotes a Bible verse. And there is a reason why it is the most quotable: it is written with the sense of poetry you would expect from the era of Shakespeare (it was written from 1604 to 1611). This makes it much more pleasant to read, particularly compared to the flat, literal language of many modern translations.

Finally, I chose the King James version for the reformist tradition from which it sprang. John Milton was very much a precursor to the Enlightenment and an early defender of freedom of speech and of religion. But he was part of a tradition with earlier roots, and the King James Bible was part of that tradition.

It started with an earlier English translation of the Bible.

The Great Bible was prepared by Myles Coverdale, working under commission of Sir Thomas Cromwell, Secretary to Henry VIII and Vicar General. In 1538, Cromwell directed the clergy to provide “one book of the bible of the largest volume in English, and the same set up in some convenient place within the said church that ye have care of, whereas your parishioners may most commodiously resort to the same and read it.”

You can see how radical this was. So long as the Bible was only available in Latin (the standard Medieval edition), its meaning was controlled by the clergy. But if any person can walk off the street and read it in his own language, this gives control of religion to the individual, who can decide to take a different interpretation of scripture than the one mandated by the authorities. The King James Bible extended this reformist approach by drawing on the latest scholarship of the day to provide new and improved translations from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. That produced a version of the Bible that was even more authentic than the Medieval Latin translation used by the Church. It was a big step toward breaking the Church’s monopoly on ideas.

It strikes me that in our age, the Bible has retreated again. It has become obscure because it is an object of indifference to the modern, secular intellectual. I should know, because I’m one of those intellectuals. Yet it is a document with enormous cultural influence, and while I’ve picked up bits and pieces of it over the years, I found myself with no first-hand grasp of what it really says. But there is no one stopping us from doing what Henry VIII’s reformers wanted: read it and understand it for ourselves—if not for the purpose they intended.

As an atheist reading the Bible, I looked for guidance to another atheist. I have been reading the Bible in parallel with Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible. I like this because Asimov focuses on the secular aspects of the Bible: “the historical, geographical, and biographical aspects of the events described in the Old and New Testaments.” Basically, Asimov provides what can be known about the Bible based on evidence, as opposed to what is claimed based on faith.

He also approaches the Bible in the same spirit I wanted to approach it. He was an atheist, but not a militant, polemical atheist in the style of Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins. His goal was not to attack religion but to understand it, which is my goal, too.

As I got into it, I found some very interesting things, some aspects of the Bible that were better than I expected, some that are worse, and some that are very, very different from the modernized and often Bowdlerized version you usually hear about. Since this book is so important, since we are the inheritors of the Judeo-Christian-Greco-Roman tradition, it is worth knowing what the Bible is really about.


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18 Responses to What Has Homer to Do with the Bible?

  1. Mike D'Virgilio January 7, 2013 at 3:03 PM #

    Bravo to Mr. Tracinski. I can’t fathom being an atheist, seeing everything in the universe as an amazing coincidence, but his realization that the Bible and the Judeo-Christian tradition have been and are hugely influential to Western culture is fantastic. We are paying a big price today for biblical illiteracy, regardless of our personal beliefs.

  2. Falcon78 January 7, 2013 at 3:47 PM #

    As Saint Augustine taught, let Mr Tracinski “not understand so that he may believe. Let him believe so that he may understand.”

    • Robert Tracinski January 7, 2013 at 4:54 PM #

      Hello, RealClearReligion readers. My goal is not to understand so that I may believe. I definitely think that’s the right order in which to do things. But in this case, I’ll just settle for understanding.–RWT

  3. Nancy Staab January 7, 2013 at 4:15 PM #

    Without Faith, the Bible is just another book and you will never understand what it means to believers. You may be stiff necked or hard hearted and therefore pretty much hopeless or you may be part of the chosen and will eventually become part of God’s family. I hope for your sake it is the latter.

    • Robert Tracinski January 7, 2013 at 4:56 PM #

      I’m amused by the use of the phrase “stiff necked,” because this is exactly the term God uses to reproach the Hebrews in the King James version of the Old Testament. Since I have some Israeli friends, I find the term brilliantly appropriate.

  4. DougH January 7, 2013 at 4:17 PM #

    As a lifelong Mormon and solid believer, this sounds like it ought to be interesting. I’ll definitely be following along.

  5. Bob in Maryland January 7, 2013 at 5:12 PM #

    Mr. Tracinski,

    You were doing fine, until you got to “So long as the Bible was only available in Latin (the standard Medieval edition), its meaning was controlled by the clergy. … The King James Bible … produced a version of the Bible that was even more authentic than the Medieval Latin translation used by the Church. It was a big step toward breaking the Church’s monopoly on ideas.”

    The Vulgate was NOT intended as a means of “controlling” the Bible or of keeping it out of the hands of the people. Precisely the opposite! When Saint Jerome made his great translation of the original Hebrew and Greek texts in the Fourth Century, very few people indeed in Christendom could read and understand either of those languages. Latin was then the Universal Tongue, and by producing the Vulgate, the scriptures were being made widely available to the ordinary person for the first time ever.

    True, Latin eventually died out as a living language in Europe, but it remained very much the common means of communication for educated persons for centuries afterwards. There’s a reason most documents from the Middle Ages are in Latin – because anyone who could read could also be reasonably assumed to understand Latin.

    I applaud your effort to read the King James Bible. Even as a Catholic, I find it to be the most glorious English translation around. But please, please don’t fall into the lazy Protestant trap of alleging some mythical Popish conspiracy to keep the Bible out of the hands of the people. It’s simply not true!

  6. Katarina January 7, 2013 at 5:49 PM #

    Interesting coincidence. I’ve been a fan of Asimov’s fiction, and a good amount of his non-fiction, for many years. My father gave me a copy of “Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible” back in my late teens, so that I might grow interested in the Bible. It stands alone in my library as the sole Asimov book I own but have not read.

    Will you be publishing all your Bible reading at Real Clear Religion, or will some go into your subscription-based newsletter? If the lattter, I might resubscribe for the year.

    PS Asimov also did an annotation of “Paradise Lost.” Very likely it’s long out of print.

    • Robert Tracinski January 7, 2013 at 6:34 PM #

      Everything I write will be in the paid newsletter, and pieces will be picked up by RealClearReligion as the editors there so choose. I work on RealClearPolitics, RealClearMarkets, and RealClearWorld, so religion is (literally) not my department.

  7. JackN January 7, 2013 at 5:56 PM #

    I wish you all the best. As a Christian, one of my New Year’s resolutions was to read the Bible. My mother grew up reading the Bible – and, as she’s in her 70s now, she’s also spent a great deal of time “reading up” on various other monotheistic religions. So I guess I’m lucky that I can at least consult her when I hit stumbling blocks.
    Anyway, my first stumbling block was – WHY would God choose the Jews? I found it odd that He would just go about killing other humans in favor of them. That didn’t sit well with me – God picking sides? That rattled me much more than Creation.
    At any rate – she may have her facts wrong – but apparently the Muslims (yes, they bomb Jews) provide an answer. Apparently, the story goes that Abraham first thought he’d worship the Sun, then the Moon, then various aspects of Nature, etc. So finally he decided that he would instead worship the God that made ALL of these things.
    And that’s how Abraham found God – and God chose Abraham.
    So given you’re an atheist – wow. Good luck with keeping an open mind – it’s difficult for me.
    But then there’s Jesus Christ – the reason I believe. Best of luck on your journey!

  8. Mitch Robinson January 7, 2013 at 6:23 PM #

    I commend you for your efforts and desire to understand the teachings of the Bible. If only our nation were filled with people like yourself, Robert Tracinski, that don’t seek to attack other religions and beliefs. I hope when you are finished, you can at the minimum see the moral virtues of the Bible, and how it can benefit society. Much wisdom to be gained my friend!

  9. John Pryce January 7, 2013 at 7:52 PM #

    Speaking as an atheist, I find it interesting how so many believers don’t have any problems putting words into our mouths and making claims about what it is we believe.

    I’ve never read the Bible itself, exactly, but I am familiar with it and much of what is written in it. I also do acknowledge the effect it has had upon our culture, and while I have little love for religion I will also acknowledge that it has not all been bad. I need only look at Islam to see that.

    But it is statements like that of Falcon78 that trouble me, and form the foundation of why I dislike religion in general. The notion that one ought to believe what one does not understand, which is exactly what St Augustine’s advice seems to say (obviously, if belief must come first….), is a ludicrous notion. Its sole purpose is, as I see it, to throttle the rational faculty.

    • Brianna January 8, 2013 at 8:52 AM #

      He (or maybe she, I don’t know) didn’t say we need to believe what we don’t understand. He said that we need to believe in order to understand. The concept does not refer to believing in spite of the evidence. It is like saying a climbing move is a “committed move,” a committed move being one that will work, but only if the climber is fully committed to it and does not allow doubt to make him hesitate.

      • John Pryce February 17, 2013 at 12:35 PM #

        No it isn’t. It’s nothing like that. Read the line again.

        “…not understand so that he may believe. Let him believe so that he may understand.” There is a backhanded acknowledgement in the second sentence that the person in question is not expected to understand what he is expected to believe BEFORE he is expected to believe it.

        Yes it implies that understanding ought to come, but how exactly is one supposed to believe first? If you don’t understand it, what exactly is it that you are supposed to be believing in?

  10. Greg H January 7, 2013 at 8:13 PM #

    I encourage you to read the Bible not as a self help guide, but as a story of fallen people in need of a savior. The OT tells how the law, for man, is unfulfillable. Only Jesus was able to fulfill the law and the OT sets the stage. Mostpeople only see Jesus in the NTand don’t know the entire book is about Him.

  11. Mike D January 8, 2013 at 5:48 PM #

    The Christians who have replied to this have expressed what I see as the main desire of Christianity: belief without the effort that goes into understanding or, in other words, gaining valuable things without effort. This theme runs throughout the life of Jesus: from his teaching the scholars in the temple as a child, to making wine from water, to raising the dead, to creating fishes and loaves. The most significant feature of the achievements of Jesus is that they were made without effort on his part. This to me is the basis of religious faith: the desire to have things for oneself or for others without effort. I commend Mr. Tracinski for making the effor to understand a point of view with which he does not agree.

  12. Gary Deering January 16, 2013 at 7:56 AM #

    Dear Mr. Tracinski,
    You are old enough to take care of yourself but I advise you to be careful in your “slumming it with religion“.
    As a Missouri Synod Lutheran I read the King James Version of the bible from cover to cover twice by the time I was nine years old.
    I also got confirmed and spent time inside the religion into my early twenties–where (thanks to my first wife) I started the process of un-believing in god.
    It took me 10 to 15 years to successfully complete it.
    It took me another 10 years to completely undo the (psychoepistemological) damage that I had done to myself as one who “freely“–albeit, erroneously–chose religion as the path to happiness.
    But there are some benefits to thinking deeply about religion IF IT WAS YOUR DOMINANT PHILOSOPHY growing up.
    If you don`t already know them first hand here is two that I got from reading people who wrote about religion:
    1) I finally could see how they reversed the existence-consciousness relationship because I had not only done it myself but I could see that that is what had to be done to succumb to the bible`s teachings. (This particular one dawned on me after reading a religious writer named Robert somebody but it goes back more than a quarter of a century now so that I can`t exactly recall his name).
    2) Faith and Force go so hand in hand compared to reason and freedom that … that … I don`t know what to say … how can anybody look at a Muslim Suicide Bomber—an individual soul that kills itself as the means to killing infidels—and think otherwise, that is, only religion can fuse the soul of Attila and the witch doctor into the same human body.
    3) If you can survive religion and look back on it and say thank god I lived long enough to survive it and still have a human life well … count yourself fortunate as most people don`t escape it because they are not tough enough or courageous enough to challenge its premises.
    Long story short: I of course did so and since I am far from genius (see above and the length of time it took me to succeed for proof) it is actually possible for those who were indoctrinated from birth into religion`s wily ways to escape (reasonably unscathed) if they want to.
    That is, I am LIVING proof that throwing off the bondage of religion (or at least the Missouri Synod Lutheran version) is possible.
    Because Catholics believe in hierarchy but Lutherans don`t–i.e., white sins/black sins or whatever subdivision of sins that they have that I am only peripherally aware of vs. the Lutheran, steal a penny steal a million, it`s all the same thing–it is very very difficult for them (the Catholics) to undo religion`s indoctrinations because hierarchical integrates is what we humans are. That is, Catholic epistemology is closer to the true human than is Lutheran. To which maybe I should also say, thank god for that!

  13. Matt B. May 4, 2013 at 1:28 PM #

    I wonder how many Christians/theologists/bible-thumpers ever read any of the early Christian “fathers” writings?

    It’s been said the vast majority of Keynesians never read a word of Keynes, or Marxists who’ve read much, if any of Marx & Engels. I suspect the same goes for Christians. I further suspect they picked it up from parents and don’t have the cajonies to strike out on their own.