Greece and Rome Reading Guide


When we turn to ancient Greece we are on more familiar conceptual territory; for example, the notions of body, soul and spirit are the same as ours. In fact, eschatology today owes more to Greek ideas than it does to ancient Israel. This will raise some questions about universalism, particularly with regard to revelation and salvation. By reading more than one text from the Greek tradition we can start to see a pattern of development.

Homer, The Odyssey Book 11

I think reading all of Book 11 will make the most sense. Here are some passages to focus on:

The account here is rather developed and requires a few more qualifications to the general pattern. Death is still universal and miserable for all, with little reward or punishment. Death is close to non-being, and miserable in what being there is. The dead are powerless. They are non-sensible zombies for the most part, who become capable of recognition and speech only after feeding on the blood of sacrifices. They carry their grudges with them, and have no new adventures. They hunger for news of their children. A hero like Achilles retains some status in the underworld, but there is not much to be happy about (except news of his living children). At the end we hear about a few exceptions who do receive retribution; these cases will influence later ideas but in Homer only Orion is rewarded with a pleasant afterlife, and only a few of the worst offenders against the gods are cursed with eternal torment (Tityos, Tantalos, and Sisyphos). Only later do we find the idea that all the dead are judged by the ethical achievements of their lives and accordingly sent to eternal reward or eternal punishment.

By the way, Homer does elsewhere describe Elysium, but it is a place of bliss before death, not after death.

Hesiod, Theogony

I think I can boil this down to one passage. The entire work is about the origin of the known world, literally the birth of the gods (theo-gony). The major drama is the conflict between the Titans and the Olympian gods. The Olympian gods win, and confine their enemies to Tartarus.

And amongst the foremost Cottus and Briareos and Gyes insatiate for war raised fierce fighting: three hundred rocks, one upon another, they launched from their strong hands and overshadowed the Titans with their missiles, and buried them beneath the wide-pathed earth, and bound them in bitter chains when they had conquered them by their strength for all their great spirit, as far beneath the earth to Tartarus. For a brazen anvil falling down from heaven nine nights and days would reach the earth upon the tenth: and again, a brazen anvil falling from earth nine nights and days would reach Tartarus upon the tenth. Round it runs a fence of bronze, and night spreads in triple line all about it like a neck-circlet, while above grow the roots of the earth and unfruitful sea. There by the counsel of Zeus who drives the clouds the Titan gods are hidden under misty gloom, in a dank place where are the ends of the huge earth. And they may not go out; for Poseidon fixed gates of bronze upon it, and a wall runs all round it on every side. There Gyes and Cottus and great-souled Obriareus live, trusty warders of Zeus who holds the aegis.
And there, all in their order, are the sources and ends of gloomy earth and misty Tartarus and the unfruitful sea and starry heaven, loathsome and dank, which even the gods abhor. (ll. 713-744)

Originally Tartarus is not the same as Hades. It is far lower, and not a place for dead humans but enemy gods. It is the gloomiest of prisons, but not necessarily a torture chamber. Nevertheless, Tartarus is a major step in the development of the idea of hell.

Plato, Gorgias

It would be difficult to overstate the influence of Plato on western civilization. The ideas here should be very familiar, with perhaps a few surprises. The thing to learn is that they originate here, around 380 BCE. Some of the later parts of the Hebrew Bible were aware of Platonic ideas; it would be a mistake to project body/soul dualism on earlier parts.

  1. A person consists of two parts, a body and a soul, which separate at death. The soul is the inner character, apart from the less esteemed superficial character.
  2. Each soul is judged fairly based on the character it had and developed in life.
  3. The just and pious souls are actively rewarded. The unjust and godless souls are actively punished.
  4. These two extremes are bridged by a middle category: those who are not righteous enough to go straight to reward, but are not incurably wicked. The possibility of reformation or purgation exists for these.
  5. The health and joys of the visible world do not really count, and in fact can be detrimental to the health of the soul, which is far more important.

Many Christians are at least surprised that these notions originate in Greek culture, not the Bible. Some attempt to reject notions that come from the Greek tradition and are not also found in the Bible, which also reflects Greek tradition, especially in the New Testament.

There are also problems with Plato's extremely negative view of the body that we are still dealing with today.



Vergil, Aeneid Book 6, lines 530-759

Vergil's Aeneid brings us from Greece to Rome, 18 BCE, under the reign of Augustus Caesar. Vergil was extremely influential in medieval Europe, as we shall see when we come to Dante. Here we find a graphic tour of hell and paradise. Although some face neither extreme, there are no longer just a few exceptions in each category.


Philo of Alexandria

We conclude this week with an exception to the category of "ancient neighbors" with a Jew who lived immersed in Hellenistic culture. He was an older contemporary of Jesus and Paul. Philo of Alexandria was a wealthy Jewish philosopher in Alexandria, Egypt. The Jews here were a minority, sometimes treated rather badly, among the dominant Greek colony. Philo knew Greek ideas very well and wove them in with Jewish ideas, ultimately portraying Plato as a good philosopher who learned all his good ideas from Moses, the superior philosopher and lawgiver. Of course to read the Pentateuch as a philosophical treatise is no small task. Philo does so by borrowing allegorical interpretation from the Greeks. They were using it to interpret Homer to mean something far more philosophical than the simple sense. Philo uses it to interpret the Bible, especially the least flattering parts, as philosophical allegory. It is worth remembering the Philo of Alexandria is associated with allegorical interpretation.

In these two excerpts we find Genesis interpreted using allegorical interpretation and Platonic ideas of body and soul.