Comparing trends in Homeric and biblical studies, a historian asserts that critics of the Bible apply artificial criteria that Homeric scholars have long since repudiated

About a century ago one could assume that the average college student was well versed in both the classics and the Scriptures. He spent his first two years concentrating on Greek and Latin and the last two years on ethics and Christian evidences. Indeed, in order to enter college he had to show that he could translate Latin passages from Virgil and Greek passages from the Gospels. Today we no longer assume this background on the part of the student. We also find that even the biblical scholar and the classical scholar are not always aware of the developments in each other’s fields. The paths of their disciplines, once very close, have diverged considerably through the years. It is instructive to compare the developments.

Homeric Criticism

It had been the unanimous belief of the Greeks that Homer had composed both the Iliad and the Odyssey, and that the Trojan War had actually taken place. In 1795 a German scholar, F. A. Wolf, wrote an epochal treatise, Prolegomena ad Homerum, in which he asserted that the poems as we have them were not composed by Homer. He argued (1) that writing was unknown in Homer’s time; (2) that the poems were too long to have been originally composed in their present length; and (3) that the poems were first written down in the sixth century under Peisistratus—with no greater explicit evidence than the theory which holds that Deuteronomy was composed in the seventh century under Josiah.

Wolf was followed by other scholars, known as analysts or separatists, who dissected the poems into various lays. Lachmann (1837) dissected the Iliad into eighteen separate lays. Eduard Meyer in his Geschichte des Altertums (1893) affirmed that it had been scientifically proved that the epics were not the work of an individual poet but the outcome of minstrel poets over the centuries. He held that the stratification of the poems could be determined with an adequate measure of confidence. In 1865 Pattison wrote, “We may safely say that no scholar will again find himself able to embrace the unitarian hypothesis.” At the turn of the century, “unitarianism”—the belief that the poems were the work of a single author—was a view held only by a heretical minority, such as Andrew Lang.

Influenced by the promulgation of the theory of evolution and also by anthropological studies, such as Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890), Gilbert Murray published The Rise of the Greek Epic in 1907. Murray felt that the epics had been evolved by an almost unconscious process through the work of generations of reciters and revisers, who softened the barbarities of the original poems. Some scholars, such as Charles Autran, analyzed the Homeric heroes as “faded gods” or “year spirits.”

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Biblical Criticism

The Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch was universally accepted by Jews and Christians until the eighteenth century. In 1753 Jean Astruc noted the use of the distinctive Hebrew names for God—Jehovah and Elohim. Eichhorn (1780–83) adduced other literary criteria to isolate two non-Mosaic sources. In 1878 the classic exposition of the “documentary” hypothesis was made by Julius Wellhausen in his Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels. The hypothesis proposes that one can distinguish the documents J, E, D, and P by the following criteria: (1) the difference in divine names, (2) differences in language and style, (3) contradictions and divergences of views, and (4) repetitions and duplications.

To analyze the Pentateuch or Homer into component sources need not impugn the historicity of those documents. But as literary analysis was practiced both in biblical and in classical circles, the results were generally nihilistic. Wellhausen held that the Pentateuch does not give us any historical information about the patriarchal period, but only data about the later monarchial and post-exilic times during which the documents were prepared. It has likewise been argued that the Greek epics tell us not about the time of the Trojan War but only about the later Ionian period of their composition.

Wellhausen was guided in his reconstruction by a concept of the evolution of Israel’s religion that has long since been abandoned. He held that true monotheism was developed only in the eighth century by the prophets. As in Homeric studies, attempts were made to explain various Old Testament personalities as “faded gods” or “astral deities.”

Homeric Archaeology

For most scholars in the nineteenth century, Greek history began with the First Olympiad in 776 B.C. Homer’s tale of a war with Troy in the thirteenth century B.C. was simply fiction, or at best a legend. It was against this background of skepticism that Aegean archaeology was born with the spectacular excavation of Troy in 1870 by Heinrich Schliemann. Schliemann had a naïve faith that the Trojan War had indeed taken place. After amassing a fortune in Russia and in the United States, he fulfilled his lifelong ambition to excavate Troy. Confounding the skeptics further, he laid bare the rich remains of the civilization at Mycenae on the Greek mainland. In later classical times Mycenae was an unimportant city; Homer had claimed that it was the center of a wealthy civilization. “This too was surely a fable; few believed it.”

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Homer had described the sack of Troy. Subsequent excavations at Troy by Carl Blegen of the University of Cincinnati between 1932 and 1938 showed that Troy VIIA (1300–1250 B.C.) was indeed destroyed by fire. Schliemann had mistaken Troy II (2500–2200 B.C.) as Priam’s Troy because of the fabulous gold items found at this level. Homer had spoken of the invaders as Achaeans, i.e., mainland Greeks we now call Mycenaeans. Abundant material evidence, especially pottery, has been found that points to widespread Mycenaean trade throughout the Mediterranean, particularly between 1400 and 1200 B.C. Furthermore, contemporary Hittite documents have been discovered that describe the activities of the Achaeans, called Ahhiyawa, on the west coast of Asia Minor at the time of the Trojan War. In 1952 Michael Ventris, a young British architect, deciphered Linear B, a script used at Knossos on Crete and on mainland Greece from about 1450 to 1150 B.C., as Mycenaean Greek. Among the names found in Linear B are some fifty Homeric names, including the equivalents of Achilles, Ajax, and Hector.

Among the numerous objects in the Homeric epics which were once held to be anachronisms by critics but which have been shown to be authentic, we may simply cite the bronze “breastplate.” Homer constantly refers to the bronze greaves (shinguards) and breastplates (or corslets) of his heroes. Many writers have held that these are references to hoplite armor, which developed after 700 B.C. In 1950 Miss H. L. Lorimer wrote a comprehensive work, Homer and the Monuments, gathering all the archaeological data then available. She wished to delete the lines that mentioned bronze corslets as late interpolations, because no known corslets of that date had been found. Just a decade later in 1960 the Greco-Swedish expedition at Dendra recovered bronze greaves and a bronze corslet of the Mycenaean period.

Biblical Archaeology

Since the first excavation in the Near East in 1842 by Paul-Emile Botta at Nineveh, a great mass of texts and materials has appeared, confirming the authentic nature of the biblical traditions. To take one example, the memory of the Hittites, with the exception of biblical references, was completely lost until late in the nineteenth century, when A. H. Sayce proposed the identification of certain inscriptions in Syria as Hittite. In 1906 Hugo Winckler excavated the Hittite capital of Boghazköy and recovered several thousand Hittite texts, among which was the Hittite Code. Provisions of this code illustrate Genesis 23, which describes the purchase of the cave of Machpelah by Abraham from Ephron the Hittite. Verse 17 makes prominent mention of “all the trees which were on the field,” in accordance with Hittite business practice, which consistently listed the exact number of trees with each sale of land.

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Coming from the fifteenth century B.C., the 10,000 texts from the Hurrian (biblical Horite) city of Nuzu in northern Mesopotamia have given us much corroborative information on the patriarchal period. As in the case of Abraham and Eliezer, a childless couple at Nuzu could adopt a servant to look after them and to inherit their goods. If, however, the couple had a child later, they could set aside the adopted party. As in the case of Sarah and Hagar, a barren woman was under the obligation of providing her handmaid to produce a son. And as with Jacob and Esau, the firstborn at Nuzu was allowed to transfer his privileges.

It is an indication of the authentic character of Genesis that whereas chapters 1–36 betray their Mesopotamian background, chapters 37–50 reveal an intimate knowledge of Egypt, including Egyptian loan words, names, titles, and customs. Joseph was not the first Semite sold into slavery in Egypt. In later periods slaves were usually obtained through conquest, but in Joseph’s time slaves were obtained through purchase. The most important source on Semitic slaves in Egypt comes from a papyrus from 1740 B.C., about the time of Joseph. This had been bought by an American, Charles Wilbour, and was given to the Brooklyn Museum some time after his death in 1896. It was not published until 1953—which reminds us that there are still unread texts in museum basements as well as unknown texts in field sites. The papyrus lists the names of almost a hundred slaves from one household, about half of whom are designated “Asiatics,” i.e. Semites, from Palestine. Among the names are biblical names, including Shp-ra, which is the same as Shiphrah, one of the midwives in Exodus 1:15 (a name which Martin Noth, writing in 1928, considered fictional).

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Reappraisal In Homeric Studies

In the twentieth century we have seen a return to a more positive appreciation for the historic elements in the Greek epics, and also for the personality of Homer and for the unity of the Homeric poems. Victor Bérard wrote in 1931 (Did Homer Live?, p. 10), “In the last twenty years, we have seen Homer coming into his own again.… I have known the time when the last absurdity for the student of Homer was to believe in the existence of the author whose works he read.”

In 1921 John Scott’s publication of The Unity of Homer marked the turning of the tide in favor of the Homeric authorship. Writing in 1952 (The Poet of the Iliad, p. ix), H. T. Wade-Gery could comment, “My main assumption, that Homer wrote the Iliad substantially as we have it, is now almost fashionable.” Many Homeric scholars today believe not only that the Iliad and the Odyssey are basically unitary, but also that the same poet composed both works. They explain the differences between them by the differences in subject matter and by assuming that the poet composed the Odyssey some years later than the Iliad.

The greatest advance in Homeric studies has been the demonstration by Milman Parry (1930) that the Homeric epics were orally composed. He pointed out the economy of repeated phrases and lines in the epic: in some 28,000 lines there are some 25,000 repeated phrases. This he explained to be the result of the oral poet’s method: he composes as he recites, not from words, but from metrical phrases that he knows by heart. Parry and his disciples further proved their point by going to Yugoslavia and other areas where poets still compose in such a manner. Contrary to Wolf’s conviction, Parry found that an oral poet can compose unified songs as long as the Iliad without any difficulty. The assumption of oral composition explains the inconsistencies in the epics better than the theory of multiple authors and incompetent editors.

After the destruction of the Mycenaean civilization by the Dorians in 1200 B.C., Mycenaean writing (Linear B) apparently disappeared—as far as extant evidence shows. Thus any accurate memory of the Mycenaeans had to be transmitted orally to the time of Homer. Most scholars would place Homer in the eighth century B.C.—the period in which the Greeks borrowed the alphabet from the Phoenicians. They would maintain that the epics were composed orally but that soon afterward they must have been written down to preserve such long poems in their canonical form. Our first extant examples of alphabetic writing from Greece are already in dactylic hexameter—the verse form of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

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Reappraisal In Biblical Studies

The twentieth century has also seen a return to a positive appreciation of the historical elements in the biblical traditions. It is true that some brilliant men in other fields do not seem to be aware of these developments. As late as 1944 Bertrand Russell wrote, “The early history of the Israelites cannot be confirmed from any source outside the Old Testament, and it is impossible to know at what point it ceases to be purely legendary” (cited by Harry Orlinsky, Ancient Israel, p. 6). Most biblical archaeologists, however, are now convinced of the substantive, historical accuracy of the biblical traditions. W. F. Albright wrote in 1956 (From the Stone Age to Christianity, p. 2), “Turning to Israel, I defend the substantial historicity of patriarchal tradition.… I have not surrendered a single position with regard to early Israelite monotheism but, on the contrary, consider the Mosaic tradition as even more reliable than I did then [1940–46]” (cf. W. F. Albright, “Toward a More Conservative View,” CHRISTIANITY TODAY, January 18, 1963, pp. 3–5).

Yet with but few exceptions (e.g., Cyrus Gordon, “Higher Critics and Forbidden Fruit,” CHRISTIANITY TODAY, November 23, 1959, pp. 3–6, and Umberto Cassuto, The Documentary Hypothesis) most biblical scholars have not abandoned the documentary hypothesis. The analysis into written documents has been abandoned by a group of Scandinavian scholars (Nyberg, Nielsen, Engnall, and others) for an analysis into various literary forms. These scholars lay great stress on oral tradition in connection with cultic celebrations. Unlike the case of Homeric traditions, the evidence from contemporary Egyptian and Babylonian practices points to the priority of written traditions over oral transmissions. Even lowly workmen at tomb sites at Thebes and mines in Sinai were literate and used writing for both secular and religious purposes.


From our survey of trends in classical and biblical studies we would make three observations:

(1) Artificial criteria of consistency, logic, and style have been imposed upon the ancient documents without an empirical study of contemporary literatures. In Homeric studies this fault has been corrected by a study of Yugoslav and modern Greek poetry, which seems analogous in composition to the ancient epics. Unfortunately very little comparative work has been done in the literary criticism of Egyptian or Mesopotamian texts to guide biblical critics.

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If the criteria used to establish the documentary hypothesis were transferred to the study of other Near Eastern literatures, we would see that many of the criteria would not be valid. For example, were we to apply the criterion of different names (and words) as indications of different documents, we would have to postulate multiple authorships for works that are transparently unitary. Even the mixture of dialectal forms can give little certain evidence of authorship. Albright warns against drawing any conclusions from the dialectal mixtures in Homer—a point no less true for biblical texts—by pointing out that both the Babylonians and Egyptians deliberately employed a mixture of dialects in a given document. “Under such circumstances, it is quite impossible to infer anything about authorship from composite language” (“Some Oriental Glosses on the Homeric Problem,” American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 54, 1950, p. 163). Further empirical studies of Near Eastern literatures are thus needed to provide sound criteria to replace the arbitrary ones of the regnant documentary hypothesis.

When we turn from composition to corroboration, we find that we have more objective controls to guide us. There are, however, limitations involved in the use of such data, which are not always recognized. (2) Time and again a negative construction has been placed on an element in a tradition because there has been no external corroboration for it. This underestimates the fragmentary nature of survivals and the relative paucity of excavations undertaken to recover what has survived. Just a fraction of the works of even the major Greek dramatists has survived. Of more than eighty plays written by Aeschylus, only seven have survived. We have even less from the lyric poets. To my knowledge we have not recovered any musical instruments from Palestine: but this certainly does not prove that Israel did not have such instruments. As a leading archaeologist recently stated, only 2 per cent of the known sites in Palestine have been excavated up to now. One should be very chary about making dogmatic, negative statements from silence.

(3) Finally, there are still critics who, given corroborative archaeological evidence, say that the evidence is not completely convincing. Moses Finley, for example, has recently argued that Troy may well have been destroyed by northerners rather than by Greeks (“The Trojan War,” Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 84, 1964, pp. 1–9; cf. the rebuttal by J. L. Caskey, G. S. Kirk, and D. L. Page on pp. 9–20). Martin Noth has likewise suggested that the Palestinian cities (Bethel, Lachish, Debir) could have been destroyed by the Philistines and not by the Israelites. (cf. John Bright’s criticism of Noth’s skepticism in Early Israel in Recent History Writing, p. 54). To demand, as does Finley, confirmation in writing of the Greek presence at Troy, and to ask for similar, irrefutable proof, as does Noth, is to overestimate the demands that can properly be placed on archaeological evidence—evidence that is circumstantial in nature, often fortuitous in discovery, and always but partial in survival. Finley has argued that “all statements of the order of Professor Blegen’s ‘the traditions of the expedition against Troy must have a basis of historical fact’ are acts of faith not binding on the historian.…” To reject the testimony of the traditions and the corroborative evidences of archaeology for a purely hypothetical reconstruction is to substitute an alternative that demands not only great ingenuity on the part of its sponsor but on the part of others even greater “faith” than to trust the traditions themselves.

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