Why the Bible is subtler than Homer or Plato

Why the Bible is subtler than Homer or Plato.  I taught ancient political theory for 38 years.  More than any single thing I learned, what remains  is the insight (hardly mine alone) that Western civilization is the conjunction of Athens and Jerusalem.  The way we think even today is a combination of the rationality of the Greeks with the transcendent vision of The Bible. 

Now this isn’t quite right, for Plato certainly had a transcendent vision of what he called the forms (eidos).  The forms exist in a world beyond time and space; they represent standards of perfection in almost everything and every virtue.  Plato has been called a pagan saint, and it’s easy to see why.  It was not difficult to Christianize Plato.

On the other hand, there are fundamental differences between the Platonic and Judaeo-Christian worlds.  The most important difference is their table of the virtues.  For Plato, and the ancient Greeks in general, wisdom, courage, self-discipline, and justice are the highest virtues.  Lacking are the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity (caritas).  Charity is the unselfish love of others, especially those in need.  Plato wrote for fellow aristocrats.  The Judeao-Christian tradition speaks for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.  Today the stranger is likely to be an immigrant, refugee, or displaced person.

Paul captured the Biblical vision in his famous passage on love, a passage that would have made little sense to the ancient Greeks.

If I speak in the languages of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. . . .

 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13)

For the ancient Greeks, virtue (arete), the all-around excellence of the gentleman, replaces love.  

The vision of humanity is richer in Genesis than Homer’s Odyssey, and even Plato

Genesis was written about 700 years before Homer’s Odyssey (Genesis around 1400 BC, Odyssey about 750 BC).  In the world of Odysseus, men and events all take place in a realm in which everything is clear and visible.  Genesis, by contrast, has an inner and outer world.  What is unsaid is as important as what is said.  The Old Testament is recognizable as literature, Homer only as epic and legend.  As in The Odyssey, people speak in the Bible, but their speech does not serve, as it does in Homer, to manifest and externalize thoughts.  On the contrary, speech serves to indicate thoughts which remain unexpressed (Auerbach, pp 6-7).  Genesis is closer to how moderns think than is Homer. 

Consider, for example, Abraham’s silent obedience to God’s order that he sacrifice his only son.  We are invited by his silence to imagine the emotions he is feeling. 

In Homer, the complexity of the psychological life is shown only in the succession and alternation of emotions; whereas the Jewish writers are able to express the simultaneous existence of various layers of consciousness and the conflict between them. (Auerbach, p 12)

For Homeric heroes, “delight in physical existence is everything to them, and their highest aim is to make that delight perceptible to us.” (p 13)

In contrast, Biblical stories contain a deeper religious truth.  Homer’s Odyssey is a better, more integrated story than the Biblical stories, which are often fragmented and broken.  What holds the Bible together is that the stories exist not for their own sake, but as an illustration of a universal history.  In the Old Testament that history is about what it means to be God’s chosen people—what it means to God, and what it means to the chosen. 

The same goes for Biblical heroes.  They are chosen, but their story is that of their development so as to be worthy of the choice.  Biblical heroes like Abraham, Jacob, and David are transformed through the experience of being chosen, becoming richer, deeper personalities in the course of their lives. 

Homeric heroes change on the outside, but we have no sense that they are changed on the inside.  Achilles rage is not muted by his encounter with Priam, Hector’s father, in whom he can see likeness to his own feelings of loss (Iliad, bk 24).  In their shared loss, we see another facet of Achilles, but he is not transformed by the experience, going on to sack Troy.  Not so with Old Testament heroes. 

The stern hand of God is ever upon the Old Testament figures; he has not only made them once and for all and chosen them, but he continues to work upon them, bends them and kneads them, and, without destroying them in essence, produces from them forms which their youth gave no grounds for anticipating.  (Auerbach, p 18)

Plato’s psychology

Plato, who wrote over a thousand years after Genesis, has a developed psychology.  The mind is divided into three parts, reason, spirit, and desire.  Good teachers develop the reason and spirit of their students, so that together these two mental forces can control desire, which longs to run free (Republic, 441b-444e).  A striking similarity to Freud’s three-part mind, ego, superego, and id, is apparent.  Perhaps the mind really can be usefully divided up in this way.

Plato’s is an improvement on Homer’s psychology, for Plato creates an inner-world.  Plato is the world’s first self-conscious psyche-ologist.  Psyche is the Greek term for the place from which your thoughts come.  It is often translated as soul.  Trouble is, the Platonic soul is remarkably abstract and static.  It has nothing of the richness of people in conflict with themselves that is the stuff of literature.  Psyche is a theoretical construct.

My conclusion, which came only after I retired, is that the Old Testament is a richer account of being human than is Greek literature (Homer) or Greek philosophy.  Of course, it’s not this simple, but if one considers that what is implied but unsaid is of equal or greater importance than what is said, then the Bible is a deeper account of humanity. 

The same goes for the Old Testament’s view of God compared to Plato’s world of the forms, for which he is probably most well-known.  The forms are remarkably abstract, but not mysterious (Republic 474c-487a). The Old Testament God is mysterious, likely to change his mind (nacham), and ultimately inscrutable.  One sees this most clearly in the Book of Job, but it is thematic in the Old Testament (Judges 2:18; II Samuel 24:16; Psalm 106:45; Psalm 135:14; Jeremiah 26:19).   

Finally, one might ask about the richness of the portrayal of humanity in Greek tragedy.  But that’s the subject of another post, and perhaps even another blog.  I’ve written about it elsewhere.


C. Fred Alford, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Greek Tragedy. Yale University Press, 1992.

Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, translated by Willard Trask.  Princeton University Press, 2003, originally published in 1946.  [I have drawn heavily on Auerbach’s first chapter in my comparison of Genesis and Homer.]

One thought on “Why the Bible is subtler than Homer or Plato”

  1. The stories and poems of the Hebrew Bible evoke deep feelings.
    Whereas the Greeks try to explain concepts rationally.Reason can’t deal with all of life.Though we do need it.I enjoyed this discussion and I seem to feel the way you do.The Hebrews have never got enough gratitude and respect in our culture despite being so important to it.Jesus was not a a scholar.Scholarship is over-valued compared to the Arts.Although now our society is collapsing nothing is valued, not even wearing decent clothes to visit the doctor or going to church.That might sound odd but I think it’s a sign of respect to others.

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