A Brief History of Ancient Greece: Politics, Society, and Culture by Sarah Pomeroy, Stanley Burstein, Walter Donlan, Jennifer Roberts, and David Tandy

Some people loathe textbooks. A textbook tends to be good for gaining a broad overview of a subject and good ones tend to be more accurate than mass market popular histories, but they usually lack depth and vitality. They are best used when one wants to get a grasp of the larger picture of a subject. This textbook delivers in that regard, but like most textbooks wasn’t the most engaging read. The post was tricky to write because I was trying to capture the most important aspects of Ancient Greece history that I learned from the book from an already “brief history” on the topic, condensing hundreds of pages into a post just short of 5000 words.

    Bronze Age Greece

Humans first arrived in Greece over 40,000 years ago. Obsidian found at Francthi Cave reveals that by 10,000 BC these early humans could cross the seas to acquire volcanic materials from the nearby island of Melos. As villages grew in size and complexity, local men obtained leadership roles as chieftains and over time these chieftains consolidated power to become hereditary kings, which led to the two major Bronze Age cultures in Greece.

By 2000 BC, the first of these major civilizations had developed on the island of Crete. Today we call this civilization Minoan after the myths about King Minos. Although we aren’t sure if the Minoans were one single unified society, we do know that they built monumental maze-like royal palaces at many different sites on Crete. The most famous and biggest of these palaces was at Knossos. These palaces all had the same basic design with a central courtyard surrounded by administrative buildings on one side and private chambers on the other. The palaces were decorated with beautiful frescos of plants, animals, and youthful human figures, which indicates a strong aesthetic appreciation of nature. Behind the administrative buildings there was vast rooms to store grains in large jars called pithoi. These palaces served as the administrative, political, economic, and religious centers of the town. They were at the heart of a redistributive economy in which farmers who lived in more modest homes in the area outside the palace and surrounding villages sent their grain and other produce to the palace to be stored and redistributed back to the population as needed. Surplus was traded with other societies across the Mediterranean, while the Minoan upper-class received rare metals and luxury items in return. Archaeological evidence suggests that Minoans worshipped on mountain tops, caves, and house sanctuaries, while the palace also seems to have played an important role in religious rituals. Some writing survives in the form of Linear A, which has remained largely untranslated, and is presumed to deal with mostly economic matters. Unfortunately, this means there is no literary evidence from this time period, making it difficult to interpret important cultural aspects.

The other major Bronze Age culture was the Mycenaens. Around 2100 – 1600 BCE, the Greek mainland may have experienced an invasion by speakers of an Indo-European language that would form the basis of early Greek. Some of the evidence for this is the sudden appearance of pottery work similar in style to the type of pottery found in Anatolia (associated with Indo-European speaker migrations), the sudden appearance of Greek on the mainland in written records with its linguistic links to other Indo-European languages, and the sudden appearance of destruction sites in Southern and Central Greece at thriving towns such as at Lerna in Argolis.

Heinrich Schliemann was the pioneering excavator at Mycenae. During his excavations he found elaborate shaft graves of Mycenaean royalty, one of which contained the so-called Mask of Agamemnon. Subsequent archeological work, however, has shown that the golden mask predates by 300 years the supposed events of the Trojan War. The Mycenaeans would bury their leaders in deep shaft graves surrounded by rich burial offerings such as ceremonial swords, fancy drinking vessels, and other elaborate gold work. Archeologist have found a lot of gold objects at Mycenae, but mainland Greece is not rich in gold, which suggests that it was brought in from elsewhere. This piece of evidence shows that Mycenae was a major power in the larger Mediterranean trading network. Unlike Crete, Mycenae had huge stone walls around their palaces, which Greeks of the classical period thought were built by the cyclops. These vast walls, chariot grave stones, and the ceremonial swords buried with the dead leaders suggest that Mycenaean society was controlled by an elite class of warrior-kings. The palaces functioned much like Minoan palaces, revealing Cretan cultural influence on Mycenae. However, this influence didn’t last forever.

Around 1700 BC, the palaces at Crete were destroyed. A second destruction followed around 1450 BC – 1375 BC. Knossos was burned and looted, which corresponded with the rise of Mycenae on the mainland and the appearance of Linear B tablets, an early form of Ancient Greek. Excavations at many archaeological sites throughout the Mediterranean reveal an abundance of pottery in the Minoan style in the early Bronze Age, but if you excavate many of those sites 200 years later the pottery is Mycenaean in style, suggesting Mycenaean got a stronger control of the Aegean trade and eclipsed Minoan culture. The destruction layers as well as the sudden appearance of Linear B on Crete after these destruction levels suggest that the Mycenaeans conquered the Minoans.

There are many theories about why the Mycenaean culture collapsed. Some believe the volcanic explosion at the island of Thera was the cause, while other theories involve Dorian invasions, speakers of a Greek dialect, and sometimes identified with the sons of the Herakles, returning to take back their land. Modern historians now believe Mycenaean culture experienced a total systems collapse. Shortage of food may have led to lower classes uprising against the warrior class or simply abandoning the town centers. Around this time Egyptians record invasions by sea peoples, which list names that may be Egyptian for the Achaeans (Homer’s name for the Greeks in the Iliad). Likewise, around this time the Philistines settled in Palestine and the earliest Philistine archaeological layers have Mycenaean pottery, and it was also at this time that the Hittite Empire disintegrated from invasions. There is some archaeological evidence that the Trojan War may have happened. However, one shouldn’t confuse The Iliad, a poetic and mythical presentation of a part of these events, which may have an historical kernel, with real history.

A “dark age” followed the fall of the Mycenaean culture. People abandoned society and ran to the hills. Many perhaps becoming itinerant herdsmen. No longer was Greek life centered on kings and palace culture, but chieftains arose again, controlling a single house with few smaller houses of retainers around him. However, historians now think the decay wasn’t uniform. Excavations at Lefkandi on the island of Euboea show evidence of a wealthy town. Archaeologists have discovered an elaborate burial shaft there where they found the body of a warrior and his wife with horses sacrificed to him, weapons, and other items revealing wealth. Towards the end of this period, a Protogeometric style of pottery appears and transforms into the Geometric style around 900 – 700 B. C. This style features new shapes with circles and semicircle patterns being replaced with angular patterns such as the “meander pattern,” zigzags, triangles, and crosshatches. Although there was no written records, this period also saw the rise of oral poets. These poets would travel around Greece, telling stories about heroes and the cycles of myths. These skilled storytellers would incorporate changes every time they told a particular story in order to appeal to the local lords and accommodate local tastes. It was in these oral stories that we have the origin of Homer’s epics that would serve as a cultural document for all the Greeks.

    Classical Greece

Classic Greece and the City-States begin in the 8th century through a process called Synoecism. Households turn into small villages, which turn into towns, and eventually into City-States. Synoecism involved various smaller communities uniting together into a single political entity usually centered on a single major city. The City-States, however, included all the surrounding territory around the city walls and sometimes smaller nearby towns and islands. Initially most City-States were controlled by an elite aristocracy who had also taken control of the best land during the Dark Ages. Unlike in the Dark Ages where the rule of individual towns or villages was usually held by a single aristocratic household, the City-States saw these aristocrats sharing power and administrative roles. Unfortunately this led to endemic class strife and aristocratic feuding between families known as stasis, which became a dominant feature of many City-States throughout the Classical Age.

This period also featured an extensive colonization effort by these new City-States in which members would set out an expedition to found a new City-State on a different piece of land. Each of these colonies was initially sponsored by their parent city-state and received a foundation charter with divine approval from an oracle. If the colony was successful, any members who left the mother city-state for the colony would renounce their citizenship and become citizens of the new colony. One explanation of the extensive colonization that followed the formation of City-States was that founding new colonies served as an outlet for surplus population, food shortages, and aristocratic feuding. Greece is a relatively rocky infertile land and much of the good farming areas were controlled by the aristocracy. The creation of new colonies helped control overpopulation, send away troublesome members of aristocratic families prone to feuds, and giving an opportunity for younger siblings who would inherit only minor property from their parents to acquire new fertile land and potential new wealth.
This period also witnesses the reappearance of written language. It is during this time that the Homeric poems are written down. The epic poems of Homer were the closest equivalent the Greeks had to a sacred text. They formed the basis for their code of moral behavior. It was a code that encouraged excellence in character, which posited that the worst thing that could befall a person was to be seen as inferior. It was a code that celebrated valor in battle. It was the basis of what all Greek men thought they should be and how they ought to act, their ideal. In order to write these epics, the Greeks had adopted Phoenician letters for their writing system, which they likely encountered during colonization. Unlike the heroes in Homer’s epics, the military structure changed from a loose formation of single warrior aristocratic elites to hoplite warfare. These hoplite soldiers would dress in helmets, breastplates, and grieves constructed of bronze and would stand shoulder to shoulder in a formation of multiple ranks that stood one right behind the other. These soldiers were equipped with a long spear for jabbing and a short sword for close combat, while carrying a large shield called a hoplon, which was big enough to protect the man on the left of the holder. The goal was to push forward and break the enemy’s ranks.

The class tensions that pitted the oligarchic-ruled city-states against the middle-class hoplite farmers, and the poor culminated in 670 – 500 BC in the “age of tyrants.” In many city-states, individuals, usually of the aristocratic class, but often marginalized members or those not part of the elite groups within that class, seized power for themselves with the help of the other classes. The tyrants supported the poor by redistributing portions of aristocratic lands and sponsoring laws to curtail aristocratic privileges. The tyrants also spent money on civic projects such as temples, fortifications, and improved infrastructure. They decorated these projects with lavish paintings of mythological scenes, and the sculptors of this period borrowed artistic forms from the Egyptians to carve stone and bronze statues. It was during the reign of Cypselus, the tyrant of Corinth, that the city-state invented the “black figure” technique of pottery, which became one of Corinth’s major exports. As other city-states started copying this innovative style, the Athenians invented the “red figure” style of pottery around 530 BC. When Peisistratus made himself tyrant of Athens in in 560 BC he had silver coins with the image of Athena and owl minted, which later developed into one of the strongest currencies in the Aegean. He also instituted the rebuilding of the temple to Athena on the Acropolis and founded the festival of Dionysia in honor of the deity of the same name, which would be the festival in the 5th century that featured Greek tragedies as part of its celebration. The tyrants also supported the writing of lyric poetry.

The 6th century also featured the first philosophers known as the pre-socratics who speculated about the ultimate nature of the universe. Although the city-states were divided politically, there were panhellenic institutions such as certain sacred sites like the oracle of the Apollo at Delphi and the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia shared by all Greeks. Athletic competitions brought the various Greek city-states together to compete at the Olympics; its popularity spawned similar contests at Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia, along with many other less notable ones. The main events at the Olympics were foot races, pankration (a mix of boxing and wrestling), and the pentathlon (five events that included: a short foot race, javelin, discuss throws, the long jump, and wrestling).

    Sparta and Athens

The two most famous city-states were Sparta and Athens. Prior to the 6th century Sparta was a typical Greek city-state, not much different than its neighbors with sophisticated artwork in pottery and poetry and celebrated female choruses. Somewhere in the 8th to 7th century, they engaged in warfare with their neighbors in Messenia, which forever changed the social and political destiny of Sparta. Unlike most Greek warfare where the combatants fought, one side fled, and usually some sort of agreement was hashed out after the fact, around 650 – 600 B. C., the Spartans enslaved the Messenians and took their land. The Messenians were reduced to the lowly status of helots, a social class somewhere between a slave and a medieval serf, and had to work the land they once owned, but which was now owned and controlled by a Spartan overlord. They were beaten once a year and forced to wear ridiculous clothes to illustrate their inferiority to the Spartans. Unlike a traditional slave in other Greek city-states, they were communal property and couldn’t be sold by individual owners. This event led Sparta to drastically change their society into a rigidly military-oriented one, which legend says was handed down to them by the fabled Lycurgus. The impetus for this change was having a helot population of Messenians who greatly outnumbered the Spartans. In order to maintain control, they had to rearrange society along militaristic lines. Spartans were taken as children at a young age to be educated in the military arts. Up until the age of thirty they lived in mess halls with their comrades away from their wives. They had to provide a certain proportion of food and drink to their mess halls from their property; if they failed to do this, they could lose their status at the top of society. The government was controlled by two hereditary kings who each had equal authority. While one led troops out in the field, the other would stay at home and run domestic affairs. The kings had military authority, performed religious services, and judicial powers. There was also a council of elders composed on twenty-eight men over the age of sixty who served for life. Any societal change to law had to be debated first by the council of elders before it went to the assembly and the council could overrule the assembly’s decisions by dismissing it. It could also judge criminal court cases. Another important office was the five Ephors who had the power to depose the kings, monitor his activities, and two of these Ephors always accompanied a king on military campaigns. As a check to their own power, Ephors only served one year and could not be reelected to the position. They were also in charge of a secret police, which consisted of young men who went out for a year to spy on the helots and could kill any helot with impunity caught fomenting rebellion or not on their assigned land. Unlike the Athenian assembly, the Spartan Assembly didn’t get the opportunity to discuss a new law, but they did vote on them. Through much of Western culture, Sparta was seen in an idealistic light. Plato, for example, adopts many of their ideas of eugenics and communal life for his Republic. The Greeks viewed it as a society of good order and harmony. In reality, it was a coercive and rigidly conservative society. This intense military life came at a cost; the sudden disappearance of pottery and artistic achievements and other important hallmarks of culture disappears shortly after these major societal changes.

Like most city-states, early Athens was governed by aristocrats. A series of legal reformers and important political leaders instituted the democratic reforms moderns associate with the city-state. In 620 BC, Draco (from whom we get the word “Draconian”) published his laws, the most important of which transformed homicide from a personal act that had to be avenged by the victim’s family to a trail run by a state magistrate. This law transferred the authority from the family in making laws and enacting justice to the state. Solon’s laws in the 590s addressed economic equality and the growing problem of debt slavery. No longer could poor sharecroppers be enslaved or have their property confiscated for being unable to pay back a loan. He revised the political representation system so that the middle-class could now hold lower offices in the government and the poorer classes could participate in the assembly, although slaves, resident aliens, and women were still excluded from participation. His most radical reform was that any citizen who believed a crime had been committed could bring forth an indictment against an individual; originally only the victim or the victim’s family could do so. This transformed justice from a personal and private matter to a societal matter.

    The Persian Wars

In the East, the Persian Empire arose in the 7th century and became a major world power. When Cyrus II conquered Lydia and defeated King Croesus he also captured the Greek city-states of Ionia that had begun as colonies. He placed puppet tyrants in charge of these city-states, which the Greeks resented. Eventually one of these tyrants, Aristagoras resigned his tyranny and led a rebellion that freed the city-states. However, six years into the rebellion the Ionian revolt was put down in a naval battle. The city of Miletus (a major cultural center where pre-socratic philosophers like Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes had all lived and thrived) was destroyed, while the Persian King, Darius, desire for revenge for the destruction of Sardis led him to invade the Greek mainland. Many city-states such as Argos and Thebes submitted to Persian rule, believing they stood no chance against such a mighty empire, but the Athenians and Spartans held strong. The Persians had success at Eretria, burning the temples and exiling its people, but at the Battle of Marathon, the Athenians won a major victory against the Persians. Although they were outnumbered, they were more heavily armored than the Persians and they surprised them. The Persian king Xerxes continued his father’s war. In 481, thirty-one Greek states met and formed the Hellenic League. The Athenians abandoned Attica and waited out the war on the island of Salamis. King Leonidas of Sparta brought seven thousand men to Thermopylae, but eventually dismissed the bulk of his forces, keeping only three hundred Spartans and a contingent of Thebans and Thespians to defend the pass. Although the Greeks were eventually defeated at the Battle of Thermopylae, they took an enormous amount of Persian troops with them, including many of the elite “Immortals,” the personal guard of the Persian king. The Battle of Salamis was a major naval victory against the Persians in which the Persians lost over two hundred ships. In 479, the Greeks assembled a massive army that defeated the Persian ground forces at Plataea and the naval ships liberated the Ionian city-states during the Battle of Mycale.

    The Athenian Empire and the Peloponnesian War

The aftermath of the Persian Wars led to the founding of the Delian League. In 477 BC Athens and other Greek city-states met at Delos to unite in their fight against the Persians. Originally Sparta led the league, but dissatisfaction with Pausanias who served as commander of the league opened the door for Athenian leadership. The members of the league contributed either ships or monetary payments in which Athens held military command. However, when the island of Naxos attempted to leave the league, the Athenians and allies invaded and confiscated their ships, forcing the Naxians to continue making payments to the league. A similar fate happened to the Thracians when the island of Thasos rebelled against the league in 465 BC. The Athenians refusal to let any members leave and transformation of ships to money as payment for membership signaled the change from a temporarily alliance to the roots of an Athenian Empire based in the city-state’s superior naval power. At home, Athenains disagreed whether they should ally themselves with the Spartans. Cimon wanted to honor the alliance between Athens and Sparta. Cimon led a force of Athenians to Sparta to assist them against some rebelling helots who had taken advantage of the chaos brought on by a massive earthquake that occurred in 460 BC in the region. However, the conservative Spartans dismissed the Athenians, perhaps disturbed by their democratic notion so at odds with the Spartan mentality, which caused a breakdown of this alliance. Athens allied themselves with Argos, and Cimon was ostracized from the city. Cimon’s political rival, Ephialtes instituted democratic politic reforms, especially weakening the traditional Council of the Areopagus.

The early 5th century was a fecund period in art and literature. Simonides and Pindar developed epinician odes (poems about athletic victory). There was a transformation in the visual arts from stylistic archaic art inspired by Egypt to one that featured more action and naturalistic forms. It was this period that saw the birth of tragedy. The three great tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides wrote their plays during this time. Aeschylus created an innovation by adding a second actor with a speaking role that enhanced the dramatic quality of Ancient Greek plays. Greek drama came in sets of four plays per day during the festival of Dionysus in March. Over the course of the festival, the audience would watch a new set of four plays each day and eventually vote on one playwright to win a prize for the best set of work. From Aeschylus we have the only surviving Greek trilogy intact, The Oresteia, which has three plays that are thematically linked.

The Peloponnesian War was a series of three separate wars stretching from 460 to 404. The famous leader, Pericles convinced the countryside farmers to take refuge in the city with the hopes that the enemy’s ground forces would tire of attacking unoccupied villages and ask for peace, which is a good strategy for a short-term war. Unfortunately a devastating plague broke out in the city in 430 BC, which took Pericles’ life. This left a political hole that allowed the rise of demagogues like Cleon, a tanner, whose success in business and anti-aristocratic attitudes brought him to power. As the fighting ensued, Sparta sent soldiers to the Island of Sphacteria in response to a fortress the Athenians were building at Pylos. An Athenian naval victory left these Spartan soldiers stranded and captive to Athens. Not wishing to lose any men, the Spartans sought an armistice that would have ended the war, but Athenian overconfidence and advantage prevented them from accepting. In 424, the Spartans had renewed success in the war with the rise of Brasidas, charismatic military leader. He persuaded Acanthus, Stagirus, and Argilus to revolt, but his most important achievement was bringing over Amphipolis, which was an important Athenian territory that protected their grain shipments. Cleon and Brasidas died in the Battle of Amphipolis. Shortly after, the Spartans and Athenians signed the Peace of Nicias (named after the Athenian negotiator of same name) and Aristophanes, a major comic playwright, wrote his play Peace. The terms of the treaty not only brought a temporary end to the fighting, but mostly maintained the status quo. Although Sparta wanted to sign it, most of its major allies—Corinth, Megara, and Boeotia—refused to sign.

The Athenians had their own members of society who wanted a return to war. Alcibiades, a student of Socrates and a flamboyant handsome aristocrat, wanted to rekindle the war in order to make a name for himself. He convinced the Athenians to invade Sicily in 415. The Athenians sent a huge navy and military force. On the way there, Alcibiades changed sides to Sparta in order to avoid trial at Athens for a sacrilegious prank that many Athenians blamed on him, although he may not have been responsible, involving the dismembering of herms outside Athenian homes (statues in front that bore Hermes face and phallus). Alcibiades convinced the Spartans that Athens was planning to conquer Sicily and Italy. Sparta reentered the war, and after underestimating Sicilian forces, Athens lost a bulk of their military forces, while gaining nothing for their troubles. Sparta defeated Athens eight years later. Although a huge loss, the war oscillated over the next few years with Athens looking like it would achieve victory only for Sparta to come back, then Athens, then Sparta. Finally the war ended at the Battle at Aegospotami, which was won by Lysander of Sparta who cut off Athens from their major source of grain and captured many ships. Thebans, Corinthians, and Spartan allies wanted to punish Athens by destroying the city, killing all the males, and selling the women and children into slavery (like the Athenians did the Melos earlier in the war), but Sparta spared Athens out of respect for their service to Greece’s earlier wars with Persia.
The Peloponnesian war drained city-states of resources and dwindled trade. This deadly war caused Greeks to rethink some of their treasured values and unsurprisingly this was the time of Socrates and the sophists who questioned traditional values, including at times, the system of democracy itself. Statis (class warfare) continued to plague most of the city-states and oligarchic forces vied with democratic forces for control, while Sparta often interfered in many city-states affairs and propped up pro-Spartan aristocrats.


    The Macedonians: Philip II and Alexander the Great

Persistent warfare and the city-states inability to unite left an opening for Philip II and the Macedonians. Although the Macedonians spoke a dialect of Greek, the Greeks considered them barbarians. Macedonian kings practiced polygamy, drank unmixed wine, and had tumulus burial rather than cremation and internment. Macedonian culture was not focused on city-states, but rural lands beholden to nobility. Born in 382 BC, Philip II stabilized Macedon by defeating neighboring enemies and dynastic rivals by introducing new military tactics. These tactics followed the principles of hoplite phalanx formation, but armed troops with long pikes that they could use to strike down enemies from a distance. When opposing armies would try to adjust to these tactics, Philip employed a reserve cavalry force to attack the confused forces. Philip not only united Macedon and his neighbors, but extended his influence over Greece. It was the Battle of Chaeronea in Boetia that established his dominance over Greece. Despite his military success, Philip was assassinated at Aegae in 336 by a member of his bodyguard who had grievances over his treatment at the hands of Philip’s 7th wife Cleopatra and her family. The marriage to Cleopatra also threatened Alexander’s position as heir.

Nevertheless, Alexander did ascend to the throne and became a great military leader who defeated the Persian Empire in a series of campaigns. The Battle of Granicus (334 BC) won him Anatolia from Persia, while the Battle of Issus (333 BC) destroyed the main forces of Persia and forced Darius III to flee. Alexander’s success and pursuit of Darius III led Darius’ own generals to assassinate him. Alexander in his victory over Persia also destroyed Persepolis, the spiritual heart of the Persian Empire. Alexander’s legendary military prowess could easily be described as recklessness and in many battles he was only seconds away from being killed. At various points of his campaign his own soldiers mutinied, resenting their extensive time away from Macedon and the growing importance of former Persian citizens in Alexander’s army. Alexander died 323 BC likely from a disease contracted from wounds gained on the battlefield.

Short Stories by Jesus by Amy Jill-Levine

Amy-Jill Levine is a New Testament and Jewish Studies Professor. However, she is not your typical New Testament Professor; she is an Orthodox feminist Jew who studies and writes scholarly articles on the New Testament. In this book, she attempts to place the parables of Jesus in their original 1st century Jewish context and offer new interpretations of some of the most important parables with this context in mind. She tries to explain what these stories would have meant to a 1st century Jewish audience hearing them for the first time.

In order to do this, she posits that Jesus was a real historical figure and that many of the parables in the Bible represent mostly accurate versions of the stories he told to the crowds. While the parables found in the New Testament may be the original stories of a teacher named Jesus, the authors of each Gospel frame the parables in terms of Christianity and its developing theology. The narrative frame added by the anonymous authors of the Gospels changes the meaning and purpose of the parable from what it may have originally meant. For example, the Parable of the Lost Sheep is framed by Luke as a response to a hostile group of Pharisees complaining about Jesus welcoming sinners among them.

“But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2)

Jesus answers the criticism with a series of parables in which the Parable of the Lost Sheep is one of them. Luke then ends this particular parable:

“I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7)

Luke transforms the parable into an allegory in which the sheep are Christians returning to the church and God’s grace. For him and many Christians, the parable is about God’s stewardship over his church and his desire to recover sinners and bring them back into the fold. Jesus is pointing out to the Pharisees that his main audience should be sinners because they are who need him the most. By framing the story in this way, the author of Luke is interpreting the story for us and doing so with a Christian lens.

Matthew also offers a version of this parable (Matthew 18), but with a different narrative frame. In Matthew’s version, Jesus is speaking directly to his disciples, not Pharisees. His ending frame is also a little different.

“In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.” (Matthew 18:14).

There is some overlap in the messages: God wants to redeem the lost. However, there are also differences between the two versions. Luke’s Jesus is responding to the criticisms of the Pharisees about consorting with sinners, while Matthew’s Jesus is answering his disciples’ question about who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Although these parables do retain similar messages the general point still stands; by framing parables differently, the same parables potentially take on different meanings. The fact that we have so many of the same parables across different Gospel narratives suggests to Amy Jill-Levine that many of these parables originated with an historical Jesus, but were reinterpreted by later Christian writers in specific ways once Christianity’s belief systems began to develop in ways distinct from Judaism. This is why she believes we should try to understand the parables in the context of 1st century Judaism, separate from the narrative frames that later Christian writers added to them. How would the original non-Christian Jewish audience have understood these stories?

Although Levine cannot cover every single parable, she does cover the most important ones: The Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son, The Good Samaritan, The Kingdom of Heaven is Like Yeast, The Pearl of Great Price, The Mustard Seed, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Laborers in the Vineyard, The Widow and the Judge, and the Rich Man and Lazarus.

Parables are supposed to be provocative, they’re supposed to challenge our views of the world, and call us to action, but often traditional interpretations by the church, church fathers, and even modern scholarly commentators transforms these parables into allegories and domesticates them into palatable forms. It softens the message into some symbolic gesture that is easily digestible. Worse, many of the traditional readings are fundamentally anti-Jewish. For example, many traditional readings of the Parable of Prodigal Son see the elder son who complains to the father about the prodigal son returning as a symbol of Judaism complaining about the inclusion of gentiles in a New Covenant. In this reading, the father symbolizes God the father or Jesus, the elder son represents Judaism, and the younger son represents the originally wayward gentile who is being brought back into the fold by divine grace. Notice the allegorical nature of such a reading. Levine shows with evidence from Josephus, the Talmud, the Mishnah, and the Old Testament that these interpretations are misguided and are misrepresentations of Jewish ideas and beliefs. Likewise, using these sources she shows they do not make much sense in the context of 1st century Judaism.

Levine views the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and Lost son as representing a pair of three parables with similar messages. She has this to say about the Parable of the Lost Son. “Without Luke’s allegory of a repentance and forgiveness and without the easy equating of the elder son with those grumbling Jews, the parable has no easy or comfortable interpretation (68).” She argues that the message of the three parables is not about the recovery of lost sinners, but rather the joy we feel at recovering a precious object lost to us and an exhortation that we shouldn’t stand on ceremony waiting for them to apologize or for them to come back to us. We should go out and find them! The Parable of the Good Samaritan is not a tale about how Jews are bad and gentiles good, but rather it is a parable that emphasizes the importance of taking action when someone is in need of our help. It’s not an argument for mercy, but an argument for compassion. It addresses the question: who is my neighbor? The answer to this question is that everyone is our neighbor, even our enemies, and the parable challenges us to help anyone in need. The Pearl of Great Price is not an allegorical tale about selling all one has (or devaluing one’s material possessions and the material world) in order to achieve the kingdom of heaven in the afterlife, but rather it is a tale about self-discovery and the importance of identifying what truly matters to us. Once we realize what truly matters to us, we should get rid of everything superfluous and meaningless in our lives. This parable is presented as an analogy to the kingdom of heaven. What is the kingdom like? Figure out what is truly important in your life, find your “pearl,” and you will discover what the kingdom of heaven is like. All her interpretations have this in common: the parables are a call to action, if we want the kingdom of heaven on earth, we have to work towards it here and now.

The Histories by Herodotus (trans. Aubrey De Selincourt)

“Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds – some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians – may not be without their glory.”

“No one is fool enough to choose war instead of peace—in peace sons bury fathers, but in war fathers bury sons.”

Herodotus combined history, folktales, geography, zoology, astronomy, ethnography, and travel writing into a remarkable work of literature yet to be matched in its uniqueness. There really is nothing else quite like it. Readers expecting a traditional work of history in the modern sense of the word will be sorely disappointed. Herodotus loves digressions. All of this makes for a read that is both extremely entertaining at times, when focusing on the main historical narrative, the literary folktales, and the strange practices of other cultures, and which can be painfully dull at other times, when focusing on zoology and long-winded geography lessons.

Herodotus main narrative takes us through the Persian War, the epic battle between Greece and Persia where the two sides fought in the name of freedom and slavery. However, the Battle at Thermopylae where three hundred Spartans successfully guarded the pass against thousands of Persians, the naval Battle at Salamis that established Athens as a naval power, the burning of Athens and subjugation of Attica, and the Battle at Plataea to end the war, only occupy the last three books of Herodotus. The first six books record the conquests of Asia and history of Persia from Cyrus the Great to Darius. In between we get all sorts of odd stories as well as deeper looks at the cultures that the Persians conquer.

The major conflict of the novel is one that still plagues us in modern times, the battle between the so-called East and so-called West. Herodotus works in the tradition of Homer—as does all Ancient Greek literature—who is the first writer to develop the West versus East conflict. Herodotus opens his work by exploring the origins of this conflict; he blames it on an incident where Phoenician merchants stole Greek women when they put to port. This begins an unjust cycle of vengeance as the Greeks soon return the favor by stealing Europa from the Phoenicians. Of course, not long after the Trojan Paris comes along and steals Helen from Spartan Menelaus, igniting the Trojan War. Persia in the work stands as the embodiment of Asia: decadent, rich, lavish, soft, imperialistic, and ruled by a King. These values stand in stark contrast to the impoverished disunited Greeks made hard by their rugged and infertile environment, but enjoying liberty as free citizens. These are stereotypes that persist today when we think of Iran or another Muslim country or even China in contrast to The United States of America and other “Western” nations. This book reminds us that the conflict between East and West has ancient origins, and much to the chagrin of many Western-naysayers that other nations besides Europe have engaged in vicious imperialism.

However, the portrait is far more complicated. Herodotus isn’t content with mere binary divisions of us versus them, although he paints the various cultures of the Asian world as strange and abnormal in their practices compared to Greece; still, he complicates matters by discussing the Greek states ruled by tyranny, each a kind of Persian Empire writ small. These states tended to be nonfunctional and weak militarily, which is why they were unable to resist Persian occupation while the Greeks from the mainland easily defeat the Persian army. The tyrannies of the Greek world are another reminder that history repeats itself; the tyrants usually come to power because the disgruntled and disenfranchised commoners of the various city-states resented the monopoly of power the aristocracy held. With this in mind, it is worth noting that many dictators in the modern world came to power on the backs of the poor who often saw either Marxism or Fascism as the only options in protecting their interests.

This theme of freedom versus slavery is Herodotus’ most important and most pronounced themes. When Xerxes invades Greece he cannot image freedom inspiring men to fight harder than a tyrant’s whip:

“But let me put my point as reasonably as I can – how is it possible that a thousand men, or ten thousand, or fifty thousand, should stand up to an army as big as mine, especially if they were not under a single master, but all perfectly free to do as they pleased?”

Two Spartans who visit Persia have a discussion with a Persian named Hydarnes who tells them of all the riches and luxuries they would receive if only they submitted to the King. He cannot understand why the Spartans continue to resist Persian rule when it would mean gold, riches and luxury beyond their wildest dreams. The Spartans have a powerful response:

“You understand well enough what slavery is, but freedom you have never experienced, so you do not know if it tastes sweet or bitter. If you ever did come to experience it, you would advise us to fight for it not with spears only, but with axes too.”

Here we see two different viewpoints of the world. Is it better to be rich and a slave or poor and free? Herodotus continually emphasizes the differences in cultures. At times, he admires elements of others cultures, but more often he contrasts them to Greek standards as being abnormal and unnatural, the most obvious case being the different gender roles of other societies. His ethnography covers a wide variety of ancient societies, such as India, Arabia, Egypt, Scythia, Lydia, Syria, Palestine, and even a few mentions of the Celts. It is surprising to learn that the Ancient Greeks knew about cultures as far flung as India, and it is also surprising that China is absent from the work, not even as a rumor. Among these major cultural regions existed hundreds of little tribes and societies; the first element that stands out in this work is the wide dispersion of tribes and factions, a hodgepodge of unfamiliar names, which have long since died and disappeared from this earth. In our modern world where too often people get criticized for the faintest hint of nationalism or cultural pride, Herodotus is an important reminder of how fragile cultures, societies, and unique ways of life can be and why we need to fight for them; all too easily your society, your beliefs, your dreams can be erased from history as nothing more than a footnote.

One needs to be careful in accepting all of Herodotus’ historical claims and facts about these cultures. At times his history matches up well with records from these societies. For example, after the Persian King Cambyses falls to the Massagetae (see, ever hear of them?), the Magi, a priest-class in Persia, revolt against Persian rule. Seven Persian conspirators ally to form a counter-rebellion that brings Darius to the throne. According the Persian sources in the form of the Behistun Inscription, this rebellion actually took place and Herodotus gets 6 of the 7 conspirators’ names correct. Most of our knowledge about Scythia relies heavily on Herodotus since they left no written records. He tells us the Scythians buried their kings with their servants and horses, drank the blood of their enemies, included women as warriors, and were a nomadic culture. For awhile scholars assumed Herodotus was embellishing for effect and didn’t take these statements to be historically accurate. However, later archaeological evidence confirms that kings were buried with their servants in Scythia and women did serve as warriors. When discussing the origins of the Scythians Herodotus recounts a story about Heracles mating with a snake-woman in the region. Archaeology has uncovered pictures of a snake-woman as serving a prominent function in Scythian society; historians assume it was some sort of goddess, but without written records it is hard to tell.

Still, Herodotus also gets plenty wrong. Much of his commentary on Ancient Egyptian religion does not match up with what hieroglyphic records tell us about their practices and beliefs. His history of Egypt is practically useless for Egyptologists when compared to other sources at their disposal. The general consensus among scholars is that he viewed and interpreted the Egyptians through a Greek lens, admiring their Ancientness and wanting to appropriate their culture to give Greeks a more ancient origin. This was a common practice in the ancient world; for example, Virgil appropriates the Ancient Trojans to give the newer Roman Empire that had conquered the older Greece, a more ancient origin. There is even debate whether Herodotus ever visited Egypt or not, with scholars falling on both sides of the equation.

As I already mentioned, history is not the only type of narrative that fills these pages. More interesting than the historical parts of the narrative is the plethora of folktales spread across the books. Herodotus tells us about Candaules, the king of Lydia, who invites his servant Gyges to spy on his wife while she is changing because he fears his servant doesn’t believe him about his wife’s immense beauty. The wife discovers Gyges spying on her and realizes her husband’s betrayal. She offers Gyges an ultimatum to kill the king and become her husband or he must die for his impropriety. Gyges chooses the latter and becomes the new king. However, an oracle warns that five generations later the king’s descendants will have their revenge. Five generations later King Croesus of Lydia, an actual historical figure, starts a war with Persia and is deposed. The folktales tie into the larger historical narratives. Similarly many of these folktales involve taboo subjects like cannibalism, incest, and even necrophilia.

Names from famous myths appear in Herodotus, but he transforms them into historical figures. Despite stripping the supernatural away from history, the work makes clear that he still believes in oracles, the gods, and fate. In fact, a major theme of the work is you cannot avoid fate. Constantly Kings and leaders attempt to change fate or misread oracles, omens, and dreams in their own favor. The most famous example is when Croesus wanting to know if he should attack the Persian Empire receives the response that if he attacks he would destroy a great empire. Of course he fails to note the ambiguity of the prophecy, and the empire turns out to be his own.

Kings fall because of their hubris, their false belief that they can transgress nature and possess invincibility. They believe they can change fate and their good fortunes will never alter. Herodotus tells of Solon meeting with Croesus, an encounter which probably never happened historically. Solon warns him against the mutability of human fortune, a theme that plays throughout Greek literature. The gods grow jealous of too much human success. Croesus soon learns this the hard way when his son is killed by a freak accident, and Persia conquers his lands and subjects him to slavery. King after king succumbs to their own hubris, even Xerxes the Persian king who loses to Greece.

The strength of Herodotus’ work is that even with its focus on ancient conflicts so many of the issues it raises feels extremely modern. We find ancient propaganda, imperialism, ethnic cleansing, tyranny, democracy, and the usual foibles of human behavior, Even as many of the elements that Herodotus records might revolt the moral sensibilities of some people, it is worth admitting the cold hard truth that we are still dealing with almost all of these problems in our modern world. So although the narrative might be about the Ancient world, cannot be entirely trusted as accurate history, in so many ways this work still speaks to our modern world and the difficulties we face today, which is why I think more people ought to spend the time reading it.

Chaereas and Callirhoe by Chariton (trans. B. P. Reardon)

Chaereas and Callirhoe is the first European novel. Well, if we wish to be technical it is really a romance. It is our oldest example of a Greek romance novel. Another accurate description would be to call it a melodrama with comical overtones that reads like the Ancient equivalent of a Soap Opera.

The handsome Chaereas and beautiful Callirhoe, noble citizens from Syracuse, fall passionately in love with each and get married. Former suitors of Callirhoe conspire against Chaereas; they plan to trick him into believing that Callirhoe is cheating on him. Their schemes convince him that she is unfaithful and in a fit of rage he kicks her in the stomach, which knocks the wind out of her. He believes he has killed his wife. The town buries beloved Callirhoe with the family treasure. A pirate named Theron spies all this free money and plots to steal it with a crew.

The pirates rob the grave, and discover a living, breathing Callirhoe inside the tomb. The pirates take her along and sell her overseas in Miletus. Her new master, Dionysius, grieving over the death of his wife, forgets his sorrow as the beautiful Callirhoe reawakens his passion. She is so beautiful that the citizens mistake her for Aphrodite walking around in the flesh. Callirhoe finds out that she is pregnant wit Chaereas’ kid; she would rather die than betray the marriage bed of Chaereas, but eventually decides the extremely rich and powerful Dionysius would make a good step-father for her son. She marries him and pretends the child was actually his own.

Back at home, Chaereas and the citizens of Syracuse discover the empty tomb. They sail out in search of the missing Callirhoe. They discover Theron the pirate and torture a confession out of him. Chaereas ends up in Miletus where one of Dionysius’ servants discovers him, learning his true identity as Callirhoe’s first husband. The servant fears Chaereas will upset his  master’s happiness so the servant burns Chaereas’ ship, and sells Chaereas into slavery.

In slavery, Chaereas ends up in the service of Mithridates who has also fallen in love with Callirhoe during a party that Dionysius hosted. Mithridates discovers his slave’s real identity and schemes for a ways to use this to his own advantage in winning Callirhoe for himself. He writes a letter informing Callirhoe that Chaereas is alive, which Dionysius intercepts. Dionysius believes Mithridates is trying to seduce his wife. He asks the King of Persia to judge the case. All the parties head to Babylon. Mithridates successfully defends himself from the spurious charges by producing Chaereas. The two lovers reunite, but now the King of Persia must stand in judgement of a new case: who is Callirhoe actually married to, Chaereas or Dionysius?

The King of Persia delays sitting in judgement because it turns out he too has fallen in love with Callirhoe. However, an Egyptian rebellion interrupts his pining; he drags his whole court, along with Dionysius and Callirhoe, to respond to this uprising. Chaereas thinking that the King of Persia has betrayed him decides to join up with the king’s enemies, the Egyptian. Chaereas becomes a prominent military commander for the rebellion, and eventually rescues Callirhoe. The two sail off home and they live happily ever after.

If you’ve made it through the long plot outline let me inform you that my description is an extremely boiled down version of the plot, missing plenty of the details. I think one immediately understands what I mean when I say it reads like a Soap Opera: (Jim loved Maria, but his jealous passion caused him to kill her her, but wait . . . it turns out she wasn’t really dead, and pirates came to rescue her). The narrative is clearly plot-oriented, lacking rich characters, and instead populated by overacting stick figures. Melodrama is the order of the day. The introduction of my edition notes it has “a certain affinity with opera.” One of the motifs in the novel is that Chaereas continually tries to kill himself when he believes Callirhoe is lost to him forever, only to be saved by his good friend, Polycharmus. This may seem morbid, but it is done in such an over-the-top fashion and repeatedly that it comes off as hilarious instead.

This a novel that I suspect would make many a modern feminist cringe. Callirhoe bemoans her fate because of her beauty. In the melodramatic fashion I described she curses her beauty and prostrates herself in tears before Aphrodite wishing she had never been born beautiful. Likewise, her beauty itself becomes a magnet for men throughout the text, each plotting and scheming against each other so they can be with Callirhoe. The story also places value on her chastity and loyalty to Chaereas; at least, we find out from her perspective that she values them. She claims that she would rather die than remarry and betray Chaereas, but only chooses to shack up with Dionysius for the sake of her unborn child.

We learn towards the conclusion of the novel that the tragic events of the two lovers occurred because Aphrodite wanted to punish Chaereas for his unwarranted jealousy. The irony is that at the beginning Chaereas is jealous even though Callirhoe remains loyal to him and chaste, however, later she clearly sleeps with Dionysius in order to legitimize her child and now Chaereas has a real reason to be jealous.  Aphrodite’s punishment fits the crime; she decides to teach him a lesson about being frivilous about nonexistence paramours by sending her off to commit real adultery. If he had not been jealous in the first place none of this would have happened. Dionysius, too, is bested by jealousy. He covets her beauty so much that he slowly grows paranoid that everyone around him is trying to sleep with Callirhoe; jealousy is what leads him to take legal action about the letters from Mithridates and accuse him of jealousy, which leads to the two lovers, Chaereas and Callirhoe being united. Dionysius later curses himself for his jealousy, realizing if he had just kept quiet about the letters he could have prevented Callirhoe from ever discovering that Chaereas was alive and would still be with her. The novel not only scrutinizes the lives of women, but also the conduct of men; jealousy unravels lives.

The novel also offers some interesting insights into history. Often we think of crucifixion as a Roman invention, but if this Hellenistic novel is to be believed it was a common method of punishment long before the Romans. I was also surprised to learn that contact with China in the Hellenistic world is attested during the 1st century B.C. as one of the footnotes mention when talking about a silk outfit the Persian king wears.

Moral themes and historical curiosities aside, the true strength of the story is as a story. It is not as complex or interesting as a modern novel. It lacks anything resembling deep characters with realistic and complicated motivations. However, Chariton knows how to tell a fun over-the-top adventure story. It was nice to just sit back for a change, not wrack my brain with deep symbolism, and have some fun with my Ancient Soaps.

Is the Bible a Literary Masterpiece?

Is the Bible a literary masterpiece? For many it is impossible to disentangle their religious beliefs or their antagonism towards religion to judge the question fairly. Among literary critics this is a rather uncontroversial question. As Harold Bloom states in his book, The Shadow of a Great Rock, the KJV is “the sublime summit of literature in English.” While on an aggregate site that consulted 25 different recommended reading lists put out by literary critics and major colleges, the bible appeared on 7 out of 9 relevant lists (excluding lists that only included novels or were solely 20th century works). It made 77% of the relevant lists.

The influence of the Bible on Western culture is inestimable. Often this influence includes everyday expressions, modes of thought, references, etc. Sometimes it is argued that you don’t need to read the Bible to understand these references, but it is precisely this fact that proves the Bible’s influence on culture. To put it more simply, the bible has been so influential on our culture that we often don’t need to read it in order to understand the expressions and ideas that originated within it; we can take them for granted since they are that integrated into the fabric of the culture itself.

A more explicit influence can be seen in the arts. Walk into any museum and you’ll see endless walls of artwork based on Biblical stories. Biblical allusions abound in literature, performing many different functions. Indeed, authors such as the anonymous writer of Beowulf, the Arthurian romances of Chrétien de Troyes, John Milton, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Charlotte Bronte, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Lord Byron, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, William Faulkner have all written works with Biblical allusion. This is not even close to being an exhaustive list. A major writer like Shakespeare, often considered the Greatest English Writer, uses a staggering 1,300 biblical allusions throughout his plays, according to a study by Naseeb Shaheen.

Many of the artists turn to these stories for inspiration because the stories found in the Bible are memorable: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Cain’s slaying of his brother, The Great Flood, the binding of Isaac, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Joseph and his brothers, Moses and the Burning Bush, King David’s seduction of Bathsheba, Jonah and the Whale, the story of Job, Esther and Haman, The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus walking on water, the turning of water into wine, etc. This also is hardly an exhaustive list. I bet I don’t need to describe any of these stories in detail to you and you can probably retell large chunks of those episodes from memory.

As the late literary critic D. G. Myers wrote in response to someone complaining about the horribleness of the Lot story:

“Whether or not your interpretation of it is correct, you remember Lot’s story “to this day.” Quite a testament to its power as literary art!”

You might find this story nasty and immoral, but nobody ever said literature is required to be uplifting and inspiring. This story is powerful and memorable. Even people who dislike the Bible can still remember the story after encountering it. Like Myers, I agree that its ability to shock and stick in one’s memory is a testament to its power as literature.

The Bible, however, is more than a bunch of memorable stories. The language of the Bible is at times quite beautiful and there are some powerfully constructed metaphors. Some of my favorite are:

“Spare Me the sound of your hymns, and let Me not hear the music of your lutes. But let justice well up like water, Righteousness like an unfailing stream.” – Amos 6:24 – 25. 

“Raise your eyes and look out from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west, for I give all the land that you see to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring too can be counted. Up, walk about the land, through its length and its breadth, for I give it to you.” Genesis 13:14 – 13:17

 “For wisdom is better than rubies; no goods can equal her.” – Proverbs 8:16. 

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” – Matthew 7:12

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9

 “We must all die; we are like water that is poured out on the ground and cannot be gathered up.” – II Samuel 14:14

How deserted lies the city,
once so full of people!
How like a widow is she,
who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces
has now become a slave.

 

Bitterly she weeps at night,
tears are on her cheeks.
Among all her lovers
there is no one to comfort her.
All her friends have betrayed her;
they have become her enemies.” – Lamentations 1

Another quality that bolsters its status as a literary masterpiece is its ability to be interpreted in many ways. Often this is seen as a demerit against the bible, despite the fact that many literary works have multiple ways they can be interpreted. The tens of thousands of articles on Shakespeare’s works suggests there are many different ways people understand Shakespeare. To pick another example, there are many different ways people have interpreted Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a candidate for the Great American Novel. Is it an allegorical story in which the ship’s precarious journey is a symbol of the United States as a nation on the eve of the Civil War where the democracy of sailors is threatened by Ahab’s tyranny and the ship itself (the nation) is threatened by the whale (a symbol for obsession, representing the U.S.’s debate over slavery)? Is this a story about the evils of capitalism represented by the whaling industry and how sometimes nature fights back against the system’s attempts to exploit it? Is this a story about alienation and the quest to find a connection with human beings? Is it about the search for transcendence and meaning itself and the way absolute meaning often alludes us? Is it about the dangers of getting caught up in others’ irrational obsessions? All of these rhetorical questions are based on actual interpretations by literary critics.

If there was a single objective meaning to a literary work there would never be any reason for discussion about that work afterwards. Instead all we would need to do is read the work and we would all come to the same conclusion, but rarely does literary interpretation work out so neatly. I see no reason we should praise some writers for their ability to be interpreted in many different ways, calling it depth and complexity, but change this standard for the Bible.

As I pointed out in my post on the Cain and Abel story, the bible packs a lot of meaning and depth in a story that is only around 350 words (the equivalent of modern day flash fiction). Like any other work of Great Literature, the Bible offers insight into the historical practices and ideas of the ancient culture that produced it and explores problems and concerns that are part of the human condition in a way that even a modern audience can appreciate.

Gorgias by Plato (trans. Donald J. Zeyl)

“I’m referring to the ability to persuade by speeches judges in a law court, councillors in a council meeting, and assemblymen in an assembly or in any other political gathering that might take place. In point of fact, with this ability you’ll have the doctor for your slave, and the physical trainer, too. As for this financial expert of yours, he’ll turn out to be making more money for somebody else instead of himself; for you, in fact, if you’ve got the ability to speak and to persuade the crowds.”

In this famous dialogue that served as a test run for The Republic, the reader witnesses Socrates shift from the defensive posture of earlier dialogues to an aggressive attack on Sophistry. Like the Protagoras, Socrates attempts to prove the superiority of philosophy in comparison to the cheap tricks of rhetoric.

The dialogue opens with Socrates arriving late for a banquet where the sophist Gorgias was giving a speech. A politician named Callicles greets Socrates. With him is Polus, a dim-witted student of Gorgias, and Chaerophon, a student of Socrates.

Socrates is interested in questioning Gorgias about the nature of oratory because he has seen how influential this new method of teaching is among the youths and politicians. During his speeches, Gorgias promises to answer any questions his audience asks about any topic in the world.

As a preliminary to the great debate that will follow, the two students of the great masters go at each other. Chaerephon attempts to ask questions of Polus about the nature of rhetoric; he wants to know what craft Gorgias is knowledgeable in, and what would be the correct title to call someone who teaches this craft. Polus gives an ornate response about how their craft is the most admirable of all the crafts, but never answers the actual question. In this introductory debate, Plato sets the tone of the conflict by pitting the two methods of dialectic and rhetoric against each other. Any time someone turns to long speeches in the dialogue, it usually is a way of avoiding the answers to tough questions.

Socrates and Gorgias take over at this point. Gorgias defines himself as an orator and calls his craft oratory. Gorgias claims that oratory is knowledge about how to make speeches. Socrates questions whether the orator is concerned with all forms of speeches like explaining how sick people should be treated in order to get well, which are clearly the domain of doctors and the craft of medicine. He extends this line of reasoning by pointing out that all crafts are concerned with speech-making in their own specialized areas.  Gorgias tries to slip out of this by claiming that the reason these other crafts are not oratory is because they still consist of mostly working with your hands rather than speech-making. Socrates scrutinizes this claim by breaking down certain concrete disciplines like math and sculpting, showing that certain disciplines require more hands-on work than speeches, while other disciplines approach their craft with words. By establishing this, Plato shows that many disciplines share the methods of oratory in how they deliver knowledge to pupils, and that Gorgias still has not explained with what area of knowledge oratory concerns itself.

Gorgias continues to avoid defining it, until finally he claims that oratory allows you to manipulate others for your own personal gain. Ironically, Gorgias paints oratory in a particularly bad light in this instance; oratory is the knowledge of how to manipulate others through words. It is the craft of persuasion.

Gorgias notes that oratory can convince a person with no knowledge to appoint himself over a person with real knowledge of a subject. The specific example he uses is a doctor. This claim demonstrates the full corrupting power of sophistry: when you go into surgery you probably do not want a fake doctor performing the procedure, but rhetoric’s primary purpose is allow the charlatans who have no knowledge to put themselves in positions of power.

One lecture I listened to compares Gorgias to Darth Vader. When Gorgias says,

“Oh yes, Socrates, if only you knew all of it, that it encompasses and subordinates to itself just about everything that can be accomplished.”

I can not help when reading this but hear Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker, “if only you knew the power of the Darkside.” In fact that might be a good way to frame this entire debate, Socrates’ philosophy is the light-side of the force, espousing truth and justice, while Gorgias’ sophistry is the darkside. One teaches a true understanding of justice, the other gives the illusion of it and perverts it.

At this point, Polus, the student reenters the fray, thinking he can best Socrates, even though his master pretty much just got schooled by him. In reverse of a typical Socratic dialogue, we now have the sophist asking questions and Socrates answering them. Socrates claims that he does not think oratory is a craft at all, but rather a knack. He compares it to pastry-baking whose counterpart would be medicine. Pastry-bakers will try to convince you that the sweets they produce is good for you, that they know better than doctors, even as the sugary foods slowly fatten you up and rot your body. Oratory has the same effect on the soul.

Socrates  noted earlier in the dialogue that learning and convincing are not the same thing. Convictions, by which I think he means beliefs or opinions, can be true or false. Real knowledge for Socrates can never be true or false; it is knowledge by the very fact that it is the truth. Oratory produces the persuasion that comes from being convinced, not the persuasion that comes from genuine learning, of what is just and unjust.

The student of Gorgias goes on to claim that the life of a tyrant is enviable because they can do whatever they want without repercussion and, therefore, must be happy. Rhetoric gives one the power to do what one pleases — even to engage in injustice. Socrates disproves this notion by showing that tyrants do not do what they truly want or what is best for themselves. In relation to this argument, Polus also suggests that it is worse to suffer injustice than to commit injustice, thus implying that you might as well be on the living at the top of the power food chain than living at the bottom. Socrates responds to this argument by showing the opposite is true; it is in fact better to suffer violence than to commit it. He points out that it is more shameful to commit a violent act against another human being than to be the one who suffered from it.

Polus’ defense of tyranny and unlimited power to do evil reaches its peak in the dialogue quoted below. I have never seen Socrates take to task anyone like he does Polus.

Polus: As if you wouldn’t be envious whenever you’d see anyone putting to death some person he saw fit, or confiscating his property or tying him up!
Socrates: Justly, you mean, or unjustly?
Polus: Whichever way he does it, isn’t he to be envied either way?
Socrates: Hush, Polus.
Polus: What for?
Socrates: Because you’re not supposed to envy the unenviable or the miserable. You’re supposed to pity them.

Socrates says you are supposed to pity the unenviable or the miserable, yet he is not just claiming it, but showing us this idea in action. Socrates’ response to Polus’ belief that tyrants should be envied is to pity him for believing such a terrible thing. Polus only proves Socrates’ point about the corrupting nature of rhetoric.

Earlier in the dialogue, Gorgias goes on an impassioned defense of his art, noting that if a boxer abuses his training and starts beating up people in the streets, you do not exile or blame their trainer for the bad apples. Socrates turns this argument around on Gorgias; if oratory trains young men in the way of justice as Gorgias claims, and many of them are still engaging in unjust acts nonetheless, then surely oratory is not very good at what it claims to teach. The irony, which Plato excels at, is that Polus himself is a shining example of how oratory degrades the soul; he is made worse by Gorgias’ teaching.

Last up is Callicles the politician; we had the teacher, pupil, and now the practical application of oratory. Callicles thinks Socrates a child for still engaging in philosophy. Much of this part of the dialogue is spent recapitulating the earlier points made in the dialogue. In particular, Socrates shows that the most celebrated Athenian politicians of the past and present are prime examples of what he has been criticizing thus far. Callicles responses are hilarious; he gets frustrated with Socrates, and seems to constantly be rolling his eyes as he grudgingly goes along with the dialectic. Many parts of this section foreshadow the events of the Apology.

Like The Republic, this dialogue closes with a myth about the survival of the soul after death in which Socrates claims that at death the soul appears in the underworld naked, stripped of body and identity before mythological judges who will then proceed to assess its quality based its virtue and wickedness. Plato reminds us once again that philosophy’s main purpose is to prepare us for death

Bible as Literature: Abram’s Emigration and A Comedy of Errors (Genesis 12)

“I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” – Genesis 12:3

The Lord tells Abram to leave his native land to emigrate to Canaan (modern day Israel and Palestine, for the most part). There he promises to bless his descendants and make them into a great nation.   Abram takes his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, Lot, with him on his journey. He builds a couple of altars to God at different spots. Then he detours to Egypt because of a famine. He tells his wife, Sarai, to pretend she is his sister because Sarai is so beautiful and he fears the Egyptians will kill him if they know she is his wife. The Pharaoh learns about her, sends for her, and gives Abram sheep, oxen, assess, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels as presumably a price to have Sarai for his bride. Then God punishes pharaoh and his household with plagues because Sarai is a married woman. Pharaoh sends for Abram where the truth is revealed that Sarai is his wife, not his sister, prompting the pharaoh to express his frustration that Abram didn’t tell him the truth in the first place and spare him the trouble. Abram leaves Egypt with Sarai and all the new possessions Pharaoh gave him as a price for the bride.

Many scholars view the origins of this story not in the earliest history of Canaan, but a later date when the Israelites lived in exile from the land under the Babylonians and early Persian Empire. Often discussion about the Pentateuch focuses on the writers of the text (the Documentary Hypothesis), but in such discussion it is easy to forget about the primary audience of the text. Abram (later to be renamed Abraham) would have served as a model for those exiles, supporting the hope that one day they will return to their home land, and fostering a sense of hope that there will be a future for Israel. Imagine the effect of such narrative on a despondent, defeated nation living in exile. The opening lines where God tells Abram that He will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you add to the sense of hope that the defeated will soon be on top again. Even lines such as, “And the Canaanites were then in the land” suggest this later dating, implying the Canaanites were no longer in the land by the time the story was written.

The second half of the story in which Abram heads down to Egypt to wait out the famine has the elements of a trickster tale. He tells Sarai to lie and tell the Egyptians she is his sister. The events of the story suggest Abram’s caution is warranted. Pharaoh’s servants inform him about the beautiful Sarai and he does attempt to take her for his wife. Now if she wasn’t available because of an inconvenient fact like she is already married it is likely he would have had Abram killed in order to widow her and make her available for marriage. Since he is supposed to be her brother it is easier to just pay him a price to acquire the new bride. However, God sends a plague on Pharaoh and his household. After learning the truth, Pharaoh no longer wants Sarai or anything to do with Abram; he just wants them to get out of there as fast as possible. Abram gets to keep the animals (new found wealth) and his wife, leaving Pharaoh with nothing thanks to his lie/trick, which is what makes it a trickster tale.

The bible is often depicted as this serious solemn book with little humor, but this episode with Pharaoh is meant to be comical. There is a sense of challenging authority figures and poking fun at pharaoh who unwittingly marries this woman. This episode has a few laughs at the silliness of kings and rulers who far from being great leaders making good decisions are shown to be corrupt individuals driven by their unabashed greed and desires. It has a lot of tropes that we find in later comedies, such as those written by the Ancient Greeks and Shakespeare, with mistaken identity and withholding of crucial information leading to mishaps. In the story, Abram also seems to be testing his new relationship with God to see if He will actually protect him and his interests when trouble arises. This is important to note because a major theme of the Abraham cycle of tales and Genesis in general will be testing the boundaries of that relationship between man and God.