Session 1 of the Stroum Center’s Community Learning Fellowship (CLF) ~ Jan. 14, 2015
ἀλλ’ εἰ χεῖρας ἔχον βόες ⟨ἵπποι τ’⟩ ἠὲ λέοντες,
ἢ γράψαι χείρεσσι καὶ ἔργα τέλειν ἅπερ ἄνδρες,
ἵπποι μὲν θ’ ἵπποισι βοὲς δέ τε βουσὶν ὁμοίας,
καί ⟨κε⟩ θεῶν ἰδέας ἔγραφον καί σώματ’ ἐποίουν
τοιαῦθ’ οἷόν περ καὐτοὶ δέμας εἶχον ⟨ἕκαστοι⟩.
Xenophanes of Colophon, Fr. 15
But if oxen and <horses> and lions had hands,
And could draw with their hands, and do the works of men,
Horses would draw the forms of their gods like horses,
And oxen like oxen, and they would make their bodies
Such as they each had themselves.
In the weeks since the Community Learning Fellowship class I led in mid-January, I have found myself twice in nearly identical, and nearly identically frustrating, conversations—with nearly identical strangers. The conversations were incidental, but each concerned how to read the ‘Bible’ (though in each case my interlocutors actually meant “the Torah,” and most specifically “a few passages of Bereshit”) and, more broadly, how to contextualize ancient Judaism and Christianity within the highly complex world of ancient Mediterranean myth, religion, philosophy, and literature. I spend a great deal of time in this world, and being a teacher by trade, and a fool by practice, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try to help.
The conversations, as I note above, took a nearly identical course (and it was not a good one). My interlocutors, as I note above, were also nearly identical, in that they both proved to be Biblical literalists. But they differed in the detail that the first was a Strong Atheist (for whom the strong belief in the inexistence of gods is based on a literal reading of the Biblical texts), and the second an Evangelical Christian (for whom the strong belief in the existence of the Christian god is based on a literal reading of the Biblical texts). What I found both astonishing and frustrating was that these two argued—one for the “absurdity” of religion, the other for biblical infallibility—under precisely the same set of assumptions: that Biblical texts are intended to be—and so should be viewed as—historical documents. And, as historical documents, they may be proven, or disproven, solving all the world’s problems, once and for all. Selah.
But I am not a Biblical literalist: I am a Classicist, a social historian, a philologist, and a literary scholar. And so in the course of each of these conversations, I tried to explain what I know about the use of metaphor and analogy in ancient texts; I explained that myths may posses a ‘vital human truth’ without having a drop of ‘historical accuracy’ (a point we began with at my January CLF class—it’s an important point, and one too little recognized, I think); I spoke of the deep humanity of religion—religious ritual appears pretty much everywhere people do, from as early as we can trace them; I pointed out that the notion of ‘belief’ in a god is not one we see expressed in the Torah or indeed any pre-Christian Greek or Roman texts. And in each conversation, at one point, and deeply exasperated, I quoted the Xenophanes, above—
“But if oxen and <horses> and lions had hands,
And could draw with their hands, and do the works of men…”
To be fair, this happens to be one of all-time favorite quotes, and as a result I try to slip it into nearly every conversation I have. The point of the quote—that we all create our gods in our own images—is an important one. It’s a point I tend to agree with—and one we discussed early in our CLF seminar, to great effect—and one that, I think, is valuable in its ability to recast inquiry into Biblical (and indeed classical) texts. For when we consider these to be texts that may contain humans truths that exist independently of historical fact, we can move from “Did this happen, or didn’t it? Let’s settle this once and for all” to “What can I learn about the people who wrote this? Why write a god (or gods) this way? What questions are they asking of themselves and the world they live in? Who were they? (And so, by extension, who are we?)”