A central myth in the West is that we have “progressed” from living with Homer’s fictional gods to worshipping a real deity whose superior essence can be found in the Bible. But like so many comforting and self-congratulatory stories, it’s completely wrong.
See Also: The Bible, Homer, and the Search for Meaning in Ancient Myths: Why We Would Be Better Off with Homer’s Gods (Routledge 2019).
By John Heath
Santa Clara University
The dominant Western religious traditions emerged in part from a competition between Greek and biblical myth, a battle over culturally crafted deities that was won long ago by Yahweh. For the past 2000 or so years, Europeans and their cultural descendants, when turning to ancient mythology in their search for meaning, have looked to the stories of the Tanakh and the New Testament rather than to the Iliad and Odyssey. Theists of all varieties have dismissed the Homeric deities for the same reason Greek philosophers abandoned them: They don’t live up to the preconceptions of what a deity should be. In particular, the Greek gods are disappointingly manifold, anthropomorphic (i.e., they look and act like humans), and amoral (at best).
But the rejection of the Homeric gods in favor of the biblical deity has been a serious mistake. The polytheistic, humanized, and amoral-at-best gods of Homeric epic provide the basis for a more realistic and useful approach to life than has been offered by Yahweh and his interpreters. The Olympians—and here I specifically mean the major gods as found in Homer’s epics, not the generic Greek gods ensconced in the textbooks and popular imagination—are, I contend, a vast improvement on the God that is presented in the biblical texts. If we have to choose an ancient mythological deity to help guide us—and of course, we don’t—we would lead more honest and demanding lives with Homer’s gods. The world that results from the epic poet’s divine “apparatus” demands that the gods’ human counterparts—and that includes us—live fully, ethically, and meaningfully. The universe depicted by Homer and populated by his gods is one that creates a unique and powerful responsibility for humans to discover ethical norms, accept death as a human limit that creates meaning, develop compassion to mitigate a tragic existence, appreciate frankly both the glory and dangers of sex, and courageously respond to an indifferent universe whose nature was clearly not designed for human dominion.
To substantiate such a sweeping and unlikely claim, one would have to provide a detailed comparison of these two bodies of divine mythology. That is well beyond the scope of this brief essay, but what can first be noted here is the surprising lack of interdisciplinary scholarship in this area. Given the similarities of the biblical and Homeric texts in terms of manner of composition, time, Mediterranean and Near Eastern connections, unreliable but intriguing historicity, thematic explorations, divine biographies, and influence on Western culture, it is remarkable how little effort has been made over the past few centuries to compare and contrast honestly the gods in these two cultures. As one scholar has observed: “Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible emphasize its connections with the ancient Near East…And Greek literature is regularly compared in turn with each of the ancient Near Eastern literatures except the one that it most resembles—Hebrew” (Brown 1995:5).
One exception to the avoidance of this interdisciplinary study is classicist Bruce Louden, who has published three books examining the similarities between biblical and Hellenic myth. Noting the scarcity of previous studies, he wonders, “If I am correct that OT [Old Testament] myth offers the most relevant comparanda for the Iliad, why has previous scholarship not engaged in the two traditions more closely?” His speculation is illuminating: “Perhaps largely because of reasons of faith, a wall exists between the study of Greek and OT myth, resulting in almost complete segregation of the two disciplines” (Louden 2006:8-9; cf. Louden 2011; 2018).
I believe Louden is correct. This hesitation to draw parallels between the Tanakh and the Iliad has often derived from the discomfort that an equitable examination would evince in Western theists, both scholars and general readers alike. (It is also virtually impossible these days to have a professional competency in both Homeric Greek and biblical Hebrew while also mastering the immense secondary material in both fields, and we scholars are in general terrified of stepping off our particular lily pads of expertise.) Indeed, a close investigation of the gods of the Bible, Iliad, and Odyssey that is uncluttered by confessional bias, disciplinary sensitivities, or theological leaps of faith leads to two complementary conclusions.
First, even after a brutal makeover by exilic and post-exilic composers and redactors of the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh remains remarkably similar to the Olympians throughout the Tanakh. This deity, well-known to most biblical scholars (although the “Greekness” of Yahweh is almost never explicitly noted, e.g., Aaron 2002; Fishbane 2003; Hamori 2008; Handy 1994; Knafl 2014; Korpel 1990; Mullen 1980; Pakkala 1999; Sommer 2009; White 2014) but somehow undiscovered by many theists, feels quite familiar to a classicist who studies the gods of the Iliad and Odyssey. Yahweh is solidly Homeric. He reigns over a polytheistic world, although such terms as “monolatry” and “henotheism” serve to soften that reality. And he is frequently anthropomorphic in both body and personality, especially in personality—the various human and frequently negative sides of the biblical God have been emphasized by professional scholars like Thomas Römer (2013) and Victor Avalos (2010; 2015), ex-insiders such as John Loftus (2012; 2013) and Dan Barker (2016), as well as bestselling works by the New Atheists.
I realize that such a conclusion casually tramples on 2000 years of Judaic commentary and Christian theology, which insist that the many references to Yahweh’s corporality and nasty temper (but apparently not his love and mercy!) are metaphorical and that all those divine entities floating throughout the Tanakh are not real deities. I don’t think it unfair to characterize much of this traditional exegesis as a frantic effort to obviate the obvious Homeric (scholars would call it “Near Eastern”) nature of their God. The various hermeneutical principals in Christian and rabbinic interpretation (allegorical, homiletical, mystical, moral, anagogic, etc.) have often been employed (one is tempted to say “designed specifically”) to transform the textual Yahweh, Yahweh the Olympian, into a transcendent, non-anthropomorphic monotheistic deity possessing divine perfections that the Bible itself rarely reveals. (Such antics make one appreciate Marcion of Sinope’s more honest approach simply to remove Yahweh from his version of the Bible.)
Still, let’s not quarrel (right now) about the similarities. Even I concede that there are some serious differences between the Hebrew and Homeric deities. Here’s the rub: In those areas where the Hebrew and Greek deities differ, the Olympians emerge as the superior mythical concept. There, I said it.
We could discuss how Homer’s amoral gods compel us to discover ethical norms and to live examined lives, rather than to obey patriarchal codes (or to follow the model of an irrational and punitive deity) invented over two millennia ago. Or we might explore the fiasco of theodicy, contrasting the inability of the Judeo-Christian enterprise to account for natural evil with the clear-headed vision of a world where divine caprice, competition, and inefficacy perfectly accord with human experience. Or we could contrast the hopelessly idealistic creation myth of Genesis 1—one whose optimism in God’s “very good” work runs completely counter to mortal reality—with the palpable randomness of a universe inherited but not created and never fully controlled by any one of Homer’s gods. For that matter, we could beneficially absorb Homer’s disinterest in human origins when set against the arrogant and historically devastating (not to mention anti-scientific) insistence that we are acme of a Creator’s week of work.
The list can go on, especially if one contrasts the New Testament’s meretricious promise of an eternal afterlife with the “demands of finitude” made of us in Homer’s world to discover and try to live a good life now because that’s all we have that matters. But we will be better served in this short essay by glancing at just one example, one area consistently held up as a prime example of the decadence and inferiority of Homer’s gods: sex. If there’s anything the Abrahamic religions are sure of, it’s that the celibacy of their God is superior to the sexual shenanigans of the Greek deities. But as in so many other areas, history has shown them to be seriously mistaken.
A little over halfway through the Iliad, things are looking bleak for the Greeks. Having forbidden any of the gods to take part in the fighting, Zeus monitors the battle from atop Mt. Ida, the loftiest mountain in Troy. Hera, his wife (and sister!), desperate to aid her floundering Greeks, realizes she needs to distract “the mind of Zeus” so her ally Poseidon can take a more active role in their support:
And this plan seemed best in her heart, to get herself nicely adorned and go to Ida, to see if perhaps Zeus might desire to lie by her body in love-making, and she might pour a harmless and gentle sleep on his eyelids and his sharp mind. (Iliad 14.161-5)
Hera heads to her boudoir, where she carefully bathes and then puts on an ambrosial perfume whose fragrance “reached to earth and heaven,” even borrowing a magical sash from Aphrodite that contains love-making, desire, and “fond beguilement” that “steals the wits even of the prudent” (14.170-223).
“Armed” for erotic “battle,” Hera heads to Mt. Ida. Zeus takes one look at her, “then desire encompassed his prudent mind, just as when they first mingled in love-making, hurrying off to bed behind the backs of their dear parents” (14.294-6). Zeus now delivers one of the greatest (if least likely to be successful) “seduction” speeches in Western history:
But come, let us go to bed and take delight in making love. For never before has desire for a goddess or a mortal woman so flooded the heart in my chest and overwhelmed me: not when I desired Ixion’s wife, who bore Perithoüs, a counselor equal to the gods; nor when I desired fair-ankled Danaë, Acrisius’ daughter, who bore Perseus, illustrious among all men; nor when…(14.314-28)
The list goes on—Zeus names five more former lovers! Hera, unfazed by her husband’s catalog of liaisons and their resulting progeny, pretends to be shocked at his suggestion—do it right here, right now? “Let’s go to your bedroom,” she suggests, trying to maneuver him out of sight of the earthly battles. But Zeus can’t wait. He grabs his wife in his arms, produces a soft meadow for a bed, and “they lay on this, and were enveloped in a beautiful golden cloud from which glistening dewdrops trickled down” (14.346-51).
The important point here is not the marvelous imagery but the obvious one—all of the major Homeric gods (except Athena) and most of the minor ones have sex. Zeus and Hera even had a clandestine teenage hookup! So central is sex to the Homeric concept of human nature that there is a goddess (Aphrodite) who represents desire and sexual passion (eros).
The Homeric gods (as their critics note) are fully anthropomorphic; their sex lives are not substantially different in kind from those of mortals. Zeus’ liaisons spawn gods, heroes, nymphs, and the mortal representative of passion herself, Helen. Poseidon tends to produce monstrous offspring; Hermes and Ares have children. Helius is the father of a king, several nymphs, and the goddess Circe, an enchantress who has sex with Odysseus in his year-long stay on her island. Yes, the goddesses are busy, too. The most important mother goddess in Homer is Thetis, mother of Achilles, although Hera’s offspring are full-fledged divinities. Aphrodite is still watching over her son Aeneas. One of the few references to Demeter focuses on her ill-fated fling with a mortal named Iasion. Calypso apparently has sex with Odysseus most nights for seven years.
This sexual rowdiness is of course exactly the kind of behavior that the Greek philosophers, Jewish commentators, and Christian theologians have found so objectionable. Here, they insist, is one obvious place that Yahweh (and Jesus) have it over Homer’s deities and other Near Eastern pantheons. Yahweh of the Tanakh has become thoroughly disassociated from death and sex. Just why this happened remains a matter of speculation, but it’s likely to have derived from the priestly ideal of purity: “Given the priestly insistence on the impurity of death and sexual relations, it is difficult to resist the suggestion that the presentation of Yahweh generally as sexless and unrelated to the realm of death was produced precisely by a priesthood whose central notions of holiness involved separation from the realms of impurity, specifically sexual relations and death” (Smith 2002:205; cf. Frymer-Kensky 1992:190).
Regardless of how he got that way, Yahweh as ultimately presented in the Tanakh has no direct sexual interests. His “sons,” to be sure, act more like Homeric reprobates than biblical paragons by having sex with mortal women and thereby producing “warriors of renown” (Gen 6; cf. Doedens 2019). And the mortal heroes (as opposed to the deities) in the Hebrew Bible are not that different from those in Homer’s epics when it comes to their sexual activities (although the Greeks are officially monogamous). Abraham fathered children with three different women—he was over 137 years old when he married a teenager! Jacob wed two sisters and had a couple slave concubines to boot. David had at least seven different wives, one of them a half sister. And he infamously lusted after and committed adultery with Bathsheba, ordering her husband killed so he could marry her. Solomon, the son of David and Bathsheba, had 700 wives and 300 concubines. There is plenty of sex and sexual conflict—adulteries, false accusations, foreign liaisons, and jealousies abound. Rape texts are “common, if not ubiquitous” throughout both the prose and poetry of the Tanakh (Scholz 2010). And sex for itself is even celebrated on occasion in Near Eastern fashion. “Enjoy life with the woman you love,” says Qohelet, “all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun” (Eccl. 9:9; cf. Prov 5:18-19; Deut. 24:5). Thetis says something just like this to Achilles (Iliad 24.128-31), and Gilgamesh receives similar advice (X.3). And then there is the Song of Songs, the most detailed exploration of human love and sexuality in the Tanakh. (Most scholars no longer accept the “allegorical charade” that this wonderful poem was intended merely as a metaphor for the love between God and his people; cf. Pope’s magisterial survey 1977:89-229; Carr 2005:119-151.) Here we find the passionate feelings of both a man and a woman, but—revealingly—there is not a single mention of God in the entire book! Sexuality in the Judeo-Christian tradition is entirely limited to the mortal world. Eros is something that separates us from the divine. Neither Yahweh nor Jesus has anything directly to do with sex.
And here’s the thing: While that divine continence has been overwhelmingly considered to be an “advance” on “pagan” morality, no mythological construct has been more harmful for human flourishing than this abstinent Judeo-Christian deity. History shows how calamitous this sexless world of the divine has been for the human psyche. I don’t have to document here Christianity’s history of sexual repression and gender discrimination and the many crimes (both literal and psychological) committed in their pursuit—that’s been done eloquently and thoroughly numerous times. [My favorite example in this genre is Uta Ranke-Heinemann’s Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality, and the Catholic Church (1990)]. The starter myth for Christianity is that a neutered Father begat in some sexless fashion an abstinent Son through a virginal Mother (The Da Vinci Code not withstanding), a divine offspring who himself left almost no helpful remarks of advice for humanity on the topic. You can’t remove eros much more thoroughly than that. To be sexless, the Bible tells us, is to be more like God. And the problems start with the de-sexed Yahweh.
Well, so what? Why should we care? What problems? What are the ramifications of a sexless deity? There are at least four consequences that in total have had an immensely negative influence on Western culture.
1) With no divine sexuality, there is a complete divide between the world of the deity and ours. God’s words and actions can make little direct comment on the nature of human sexuality. Seen in this light, the Yahweh of the Tanakh is simply unhelpful in this challenging and central area of human experience.
2) Worse than being useless, if the divine is considered to be a perfect Other as well as sexless, the natural conclusion is that sex is ungodlike. Eros becomes a marker of human weakness and defect (at least post-Eden). While this antipathy is not spelled out explicitly in the Tanakh—God at least wants us to multiply—it is implied by the many taboos and impurities associated with it throughout the text. “Sexual activity brings people into a realm of experience which is unlike God; conversely, in order to approach God one has to leave the sexual realm” (Frymer-Kensky 1992:189, emphasis in text). Sex and God don’t mix, and thus the Tanakh presents scores of purity injunctions—explicit periods of abstinence, bathing, delays, and behavior to be avoided before one can come near any arena of the sacred. (Some post-Homeric Greeks will have similar if less extensive taboos.)
In Homer’s world, there is no denying the existence, the naturalness, the inherent delight, the potential danger, the power of sex. To repudiate the existence of passion would in most cases mean spurning the divine. More than just being unhelpful, sexless deities have led to an overwhelmingly pessimistic and damaging assessment of sex, one from which Western culture is still trying to emerge.
3) Bridling Yahweh’s sexual nature only forced him to become the worst metaphorical partner ever, and when it comes to religion, metaphors matter. God’s suppressed sexuality oozes out figuratively—and catastrophically—in the Tanakh. Marriage becomes the rhetorical vehicle, especially in the prophets, for exploring the nature of the shattered covenant (Hos 1-3; 4:12-15; 5:3; 6:10; 9:1; Isaiah 1:21; 3:17; 54:1-10; 57:6-13; 62:3-5; Micah 1:7; Malachi 2:10-16; Jeremiah 2:1-3, 16-25, 30, 33; 3:1, 6-10; 4:30; 13:22, 27; 22:20-22 and most infamously Ezekiel 16 and 23). Israel, or more often Jerusalem, becomes the unfaithful “whoring wife” who is physically and emotionally punished by Yahweh, the dishonored husband, for her dalliances with “foreign powers.” The biblical authors use the imagery of spousal violence to describe the cycle of God’s wrath, threats, punishment, and promises. For the past 40 years, some (mostly female) scholars have been trying to reveal the reality of this portrait of a horrifically abusive God (e.g., Baumann 2003; Bowen 2010; Darr 1992:115; Fuchs 2016; Galambush 1992; Graetz 1995; Kamionkowski 2003; Scholz 2010; Weems 1995). In the hands of the prophets, this metaphor combines sexual prudery, misogynistic cruelty, physical and psychological abuse, religious authoritarianism, and xenophobia in a toxic elixir brewed up to scare and shame Israelites into a pristine monolatry that had as yet not emerged as the dominant ideology.
By limiting Yahweh’s erotic energy to the ugly picture of a cuckolded and violent husband, the authors of the Tanakh not only seem to legitimize spousal violence but demonize women in general and female sexuality in particular: the metaphor “simultaneously shapes and distorts women’s (sexual) experience” (Dijk-Hemmes 1993:176). The only thing God’s “wife” does in the Tanakh is cheat on her “loving” and “merciful” husband shortly before he strips her and orders her to be gang-raped and maimed by her former “lovers”—and then welcomes her back in the classic cycle of domestic abuse (Walker 1979:31,75; 2009:46; Day 2000:216). A female acting independently can only be a slut like Jerusalem, a perverse opinion still all too commonly found in theistic circles.
We should not forget that these unfaithful cities in the Tanakh were divine consorts in other Near Eastern mythologies, and that for some ancient Israelites Yahweh himself once had a divine partner. The goddesses have been removed from the Bible (although a few traces remain, most notably of Yahweh’s consort Asherah; Hadley 2000; Wiggins 2007:105-50), leaving no positive image of a female on the divine level, much less of an independently minded female, even much less of an independently minded female enjoying sex or playing an equal role in a sexual encounter. There are no Heras holding their own with Yahweh, no Circes or Calypsos exercising their autonomous sexuality, no Aphrodites representing the reality of human passion.
Critics have rightly criticized the gendered violence found in the tales of rape, adultery, and seduction so prevalent in Greek myth and entwined in Homer’s epics. Both Yahweh and Zeus can be extremely unpleasant characters, insecure and angry despots in the sky who mistreat their wives. Yahweh doesn’t literally hang a goddess in chains as does Zeus (Iliad 1.565-89; 15.16-24), but his metaphorical abuse is intended to represent the hundreds of thousands of his own people—real men, women, and children—he sentences in fits of jealous rage to rape, slavery, or death.
But crucially different from the Tanakh’s celebration of God’s weird celibacy and figurative erotic violence, Homer does not vouch for the gods’ behavior. The Olympians are up for examination as much as Achilles or Odysseus or Helen. The poet often seems to portray the gods in a light designed to call their actions into question. Zeus looks like a bully when threatening Hera and comes off as a dolt in his “comically self-aggrandizing attempt at seduction” (Lyons 1997:78) in the Deception Scene examined above. Aphrodite and Ares are humiliated when caught having sex, naked and trapped for all the other Olympians to see. Calypso whines like a child whose toy has been taken away when she is forced to let Odysseus leave. Circe’s impressively wicked magical powers crumble, and she quickly tumbles into bed with Odysseus when she is confronted by his sword. These fallible deities are not models or guarantors of anything. (The Greeks did not marry their sisters, for that matter!) The poet’s audience is free to laugh at Zeus’s lasciviousness or endorse (at their own risk) Helen’s attempted dismissal of Aphrodite. They are real gods, to be sure, but any single author’s account of them provides thematic fodder and potential insights into the divine and what it represents, not inviolable truths. Homer’s divine tales, while extremely influential, could be tweaked, altered, or ignored by subsequent Greek authors. Ultimately, without an authorized divine “guidebook” or priestly caste controlling interpretation, the burden is put upon humans to explore how to live good lives rather than modeling our behavior on the acts or rules laid down by an abusive fiction and its interpretative tradition.
4) It could be that a sexless deity would just leave us mortals alone to figure it out. A useless deity is better than an obstructionist one. But Yahweh has rules for us. Lots of rules. God without sex means that guidance on this sticky element of human nature is limited to the multitude of archaic “divine” laws and regulations in the Torah promulgated by old men in a desert over 2500 years ago.
All archaic societies are going to have some strange ideas about sex. But the Tanakh’s clueless deity is imagined to be an expert on sexual behavior. Homer’s gods know better. With gods like Zeus, who would turn to the Olympians for sexual guidance of any kind? You will search the 48 books of the epics in vain to find a divinely sanctioned code of sexual behavior for mortals. But in the Judeo-Christian tradition, sexual behavior is monitored by what believers take to be a sexually inexperienced God’s laws in the Tanakh and his subsequent manifestation as The (sexually inexperienced) Word in the New Testament. Consequently—and here’s the real damage—the ability for society to grow, for attitudes to change, for sexuality itself to be examined and not just for sexual behavior (and women) to be severely regulated, for our sexual lives to improve over the centuries, is terribly diminished. Cultural critique, much less change itself, becomes blasphemous, ungodly, and sinful. The concepts of sexual choice, gender equality, and constructive erotic pleasure have not, and could not have, evolved from the biblical depiction of the divine or the various traditions that derive from it without flagrant misreading of the texts.
With Homer’s fully sexual gods, sexuality itself is up for discussion. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t archaic gender roles and double standards in Homer’s text (although they do not appear to be nearly as severe as they were in the Tanakh or will become in classical Athens). These epics also come from a patriarchal culture three thousand years ago. But the “norms” are understood to be cultural rather than divine statutes. The nature of passion and its manifestations remains open to examination and critique as it will be in the rest of Greek and Roman literature, art, and philosophy until Christianity takes over. In the Homeric world, there were no infallible divine codes in the epics making homosexuality a capital offense, no god-given laws that women everywhere must be subordinate. The gods are not superior to or completely disconnected from eros—they are as involved in and as overwhelmed by and messed up about it as we are. Even Aphrodite is engulfed by lust. For Homer and most of the later Greeks, eros is a natural force represented by a deity who is just as unreliably answerable to prayers and sacrifices as any of the other gods. Try to ignore or reject her, though, and you’ll regret it. (Just ask the Catholic Church.)
Yes, eros has the potential to be extremely destructive—Homer and the authors of the Tanakh agree on this. But the Tanakh and the New Testament offer nothing in their depiction of the divine that is beneficial to our continuing struggle to enjoy the benefits of desire while avoiding its pitfalls. Even as I write this paragraph, the dominantly Judeo-Christian United States is swimming in a cesspool of sexual misconduct (harassment and assault) primarily against women by men in power.
The biblical legacy of a neutered deity continues to stunt efforts to reach an enlightened attitude about eros. It is not and never has been helpful to pretend that sex is not an integral part of the cosmos or to claim that it is merely the problem of a “fallen” humanity (as mainstream Christian interpretation of Genesis 2-3 has it). It is not and has never been useful to create a sexless deity who cares fanatically about sexual fidelity and smacks his “wife” around. It is not and never has been constructive to view sexuality through the cloudy lens of a “purity culture.” But here we are, well into the 21st century in the United States, still witnessing an “evangelical Christianity’s sexual purity movement [that] is traumatizing many girls and maturing women haunted by sexual and gender-based anxiety, fear, and physical experiences that sometimes mimic the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)” (Klein 2018:8).
Whatever improvement we in the West have made in gender equality and sexual honesty have come from protocols first found in Homer, embedded in the Greco-Roman openness to self-critique, and reborn in the Enlightenment (Shermer 2015). We would have made progress a lot faster, and we would be a lot further down the road to a sensible understanding of gender and eros if we had been living all these years with Zeus & Company rather than Yahweh & Son. Homer’s rowdy, sexual gods and goddesses encourage us to acknowledge the reality of desire and to try to learn to deal honestly with human nature, something we paradoxically share with the Olympians. Flawed and hopelessly anthropomorphic, they provide a background, foil, and structure—and the space—for a frank discussion about the essential place of eros in a flourishing human community. We certainly could have (and in sad truth have) done much worse.
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Wiggins, Steve A. 2007. A Reassessment of Asherah: With Further Considerations of the Goddess. Piscataway, NJ.
We should, however, also realize that the Homeric gods are 'literary' gods, and not just those worshiped around in the classical world.
Jan Assmann has written about the violence linked up with monotheism. And that is the real tragic difference. Monotheism, for what it is worth, is the origin of a lot of religious bias, not to say insanity. The reason, with only one god, you may be sure that your idea of this god is the correct one, and if other people disagree: Burn them at the stake. (this is, of course, only a relative truth, as we have seen not least Hindu fundamentalism leading to dreadful acts).
Heath has written an entertaining and provocative article and book, cited above, which I have just started to read. As a professional Bible scholar and former Evangelical insider, I have thought for long time that the Tanakh should be treated as a cultural artifact just like the Iliad and Odyssey. I hope Heath’s book garners the broad readership it deserves and contributes to adding another nail to the coffin of contemporary Evangelical, especially Fundamentalist, religious, cultural, and political beliefs and practices in the United States.
John Heath may not have noticed but the ethics of Homer have made quite a comeback during the last 60 years. Has he not heard of the sexual revolution? So we are in quite a good position to judge the “benefits” of the philosophy he advocates. Are people now happier and more fulfilled with their sexual freedom? The freedom to have sex with whomever one pleases is rather like the freedom to take hard drugs. It may provide a transitory thrill, but those who so indulge are likely to find the long-term effects less appealing. In addition to the cost borne by those who indulge in sexual promiscuity, there is the damage suffered by the children who may result from these fleeting sexual liaisons.
So it is debatable to say the least whether the Christian revolution has really deprived humankind of anything genuinely worth having. In fact, a strong case can be made for the benefits of Christianity in this area. As Larry Hurtado has shown in Destroyer of the Gods, one notable achievement of Christianity was to strongly discourage the sexual abuse of children, something that was considered normal at the time when Christianity began.
Perhaps John Heath should read the above-mentioned book. I notice that in his references he cites a number of writers who are best known as internet atheists. Larry Hurtado would certainly make a refreshing change from them.