Greeks Bearing Gifts
From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics
reviewed by Ethan Cordray
Achilles—petulant sulker, keeper of sex slaves, merciless rampaging killer, defiler of corpses—may not immediately seem like a good Christian role model. When Homer calls him “godlike Achilles,” we may be tempted to question the poet’s judgment, or else remark upon the qualities of the gods Homer had in mind.
But as Louis Markos presents him, Achilles exemplifies the ancient Greek cultural ideal in all its glory and complexity. As the greatest of the Greeks, he represents the height of pagan humanity, striving for perfection yet troubled by the impossibility of achieving it. Christians can look to Achilles as a model of someone who is conscious of how his culture can encourage both his best virtues and his worst vices, and who seeks to escape its flaws while retaining its strengths.
In From Achilles to Christ, Markos, a professor of English at Houston Baptist University, invites us to examine the classic works of Greco-Roman literature and see in their heroes, gods, and mythic narratives a host of signs pointing to the fullness of Christian truth.
The three great classical epics—the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid—are given the most space, but the book also covers Hesiod’s Theogony and the great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Markos works through systematic close readings, teaching about the stories themselves and at the same time revealing the ways they prefigure Christian faith.
Achilles’ struggles in the Iliad with suffering, vengeance, and eventual reconciliation , for example, are an attempt to replace the Greek ethos of heroic individual excellence—which Achilles perfectly embodies—with an alternative of fellowship in life and suffering. Odysseus’ return to Ithaca in the Odyssey offers fascinating parallels to Jesus’ parables about the day of judgment: the bridegroom king returns to his bride, sorts out his faithful from his traitorous servants, pours out implacable wrath upon the wicked, and restores the righteous to a paradise of harmony and peace.
Virgil’s Aeneid also receives an extensive treatment, appropriate for the work that has long been considered the strongest pagan harbinger of the gospel story. Markos details how its purpose as sacred history and its eschatological focus mirrors the story of Israel and of the Church. Aeneas, like Abraham in Genesis or Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, must leave his city and undertake a sacred quest to find a more perfect home. He encounters all manner of temptations to turn aside from his purpose, but with divine aid he overcomes them all and finds his promised land.
Yet, as Markos shows, the ways in which the pagan classics fall short of the fullness of the gospel are just as important as the ways they prefigure it, indicating as they do how much the pre-Christian world needed the complete message of redemption. Achilles and the other epic heroes may perfectly fulfill the Greek ideal, yet they remain broken, anguished, and prone to grievous sins.
This element of self-conscious insufficiency appears most clearly in the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Characters like Oedipus and Electra find themselves caught in a universe of known moral absolutes that they are incapable of following. Cultural norms become pitted against cosmic law, and heroes become trapped in mazes of competing virtues.
One of Markos’s most interesting insights is how the common dramatic device of the deus ex machina exposes the longing within Greek culture for a direct moment of divine intervention. For Sophocles, the plot of human frailties could become so tangled that only a personal theophany could set things straight, as it does in Philoctetes. Salvation cannot come through human effort but only through divine grace.
In Euripides’ The Bacchae and Hippolytus, the deus ex machina reveals both the misery of human affairs and the insufficiency of the capricious Olympian pantheon’s attempts at justice. Euripides’ plays confront Greek religion with cynicism, but it is a cynicism born from the intuition that there must be some better alternative. A mere pagan theophany isn’t enough, it seems; only a perfect revelation of a perfect God can restore order.
From Achilles to Christ can be fruitfully approached with as much or as little familiarity with the texts as one happens to possess, and could be particularly helpful for high-school or college-age readers, who could use it as a companion while studying the primary sources. Any reader will find it an accessible and interesting treatment of the great classical works. It achieves a useful synthesis of Christian and classical education.
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“Greeks Bearing Gifts” first appeared in the March 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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