Ellen Bradshaw Aitken
An Early Christian Homerizon? Decoy, Direction, and Doxology
In the first centuries of the development of Christianity, the Homeric poems and Homeric traditions continued to occupy a central place in Hellenistic and Roman cultural arenas. This paper explores some of the “Homeric horizons” evident in texts from the formative period of ancient Christianity (first through third centuries C.E.). It focuses in particular on the ways in which thinking in terms of Homer helps us to understand some of the principal aspects of the New Testament text known as the “Letter to the Hebrews” (written ca. 70–90 C.E.). Before undertaking this detailed investigation, however, he paper examines the history of thinking about Homer and the Bible together; this helps us to understand what is at stake in asking how a particular early Christian text is “doing Homer” on its own terms. Such questions expose many of the basic scholarly assumptions about the relationship between ancient Christian groups and their Hellenistic and Roman contexts.
Within approaches to the New Testament and early Christianity that regard them as part of their cultural and historical worlds, the statement “Homer was the Bible of the ancients” has functioned as a commonplace to establish a context of sacred narrative and textual interpretation in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. It has also acted to explain the cultural status of Homer. I examine the effect of this comparison in terms of canon, religious authority, and religious experience. This commonplace is problematic in terms of what it evokes for both Homeric scholarship and early Christian history. A more promising approach is offered by the comparison between the methods of interpreting Homer and ancient techniques of biblical interpretation. This comparison says less about Homer and more about what contributes to how early Christians read their authoritative religious texts, chiefly the Hebrew Bible.
How, though, is “Homer” to be regarded as available to early Christian groups and authors? Some attempts to understand early Christian writings as imitating Homer, notably the work of Dennis R. MacDonald, rely on an idea of Homer as a fixed text, mediated to Christian texts in the form of one text being reworked in the production of another—a model of literary emulation or imitation. If, however, we think of the “horizon of Homer” in terms of the practices of performing a scripture (an authoritative text), it becomes possible to consider both Homer and the Bible not as “texts” per se but as ancient fields of narrative and interpretive practices. In other words, we may ask whether a specific early Christian text “performs” scripture (in this case portions of the Septuagint) through acts of interpretation and through the composition of new narrative. Does the early Christian text indeed do so in similar ways to those found, for example, in the techniques of “reading” or “doing” Homer among the Alexandrian Homerists of the same time?
As I search for just such a Homeric horizon within the Letter to the Hebrews, I examine matters such as the deployment of methods of reading and interpretation, the configuration of heroic character in the portrayal of Jesus, and the cultivation of a distinctive lifestyle or ethos with religious-political dimensions. Here I use decoy, direction, and doxology as three key words to capture aspects of what Hebrews is doing in this regard. Decoy and versatility are important features of the portrayal of Jesus in that Hebrews makes use of traditions of the shape-shifting hero (e.g., Odysseus) to present Jesus as a leader for the people of God. These virtues also characterize the ethos in which the addressees are being formed through the rhetorical and interpretive techniques of the text. “Direction” is important with reference to interpretive methods, since they direct an audience’s appropriate response and engagement with a divine figure, in this case with Jesus. “Doxology” indicates the concern for proper cultic practice found both within the text and as an aspect of the behavior cultivated by it. In each case, I examine Hebrews in relation to the poetics of hero cult, as those manifest ways of “doing Homer” in the world of the first century C.E.
If we locate Hebrews in Flavian Rome, composed in the midst of the public monumentalization of Roman victory in the First Jewish War, then it becomes possible to understand the Homeric horizon of this text as providing means for the audience to respond to their religious-political context. I suggest that the Homeric horizon in Hebrews shares much in common with forms of decoyed political resistance found elsewhere in the Roman world, including those of Hellenistic Judaism (for example in Philo). It enables Hebrews to train its audience in arts of resistance, in particular, the arts of reading scripture, the art of reading the signs (and monuments) of the city of Rome and of imperial power, the art of developing double readings and political versatility. The key element and interpretive principle in these arts is what Hebrews designates as “looking to Jesus.” In doing so, it directs the audience both toward a hidden singularity within a multiplicity of decoyed messages. It also directs them toward an immediacy of relationship with a heroic figure who embodies the arts of interpreting scripture, a relationship that shapes a pattern of religious-political behavior. The consequence for the audience is, in the terms of the text, nothing short of survival, namely, survival as a community that participates in earthly and heavenly cultic worship. Thus “doing Homer,” in the case of Hebrews, results not only in the production of a literary text, but also in cultivating behaviors for successfully navigating through the complexities of the world.