Does The Iliad Deserve Reverence as Scripture Like The Bible?
Ten thousand years from now, when humanity has moved out among the stars, and an alien race discovers the Earth and explores it, can you imagine one of them coming across the Bible and reading it? Would he/she/it wonder, “Did these creatures believe these events really happened? Why was this so important to them?”
The same alien comes across the Iliad and reads it too. The questions are the same, although the alien may find escapades of the Olympian gods more entertaining. To an impartial judge, the Bible and the Iliad seem like the same thing, only different.
Do We Have Tunnel Vision?
Many people in the modern Western world consider scripture synonymous with the Holy Bible. The dominance of Christianity in this region ( 63% of the world’s Christian population are in Europe and the Americas, and 72.5% of the US population are Christian), and Christianity’s separatist doctrine have caused the words scripture and Holy Bible to have singular associations with each other for quite a few people. The Holy Bible is scripture, and scripture is the Holy Bible. In many denominations, the suggestion that the Bible is literature or anything other than sacred scripture is considered blasphemous.
The Holy Bible is considered a sacred scripture. Source: romaset / Adobe Stock
Some modern Christian scholars interpret the Holy Bible, in part, as a piece of literature, albeit sacred. Tolerant Christians recognize that other religions have literature they revere as scripture. The Quran is scripture for Islam. The Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita are Hindu scriptures. A few Christians would recognize Tripitaka (also called Tipitaka in Pali and the Pali Canon) as Buddhist scripture. There is quite a lot of literature that one person or another believes is scripture that other people recognize but don’t consider scripture. If anything, we say it is good literature but false scripture. What about the Iliad?
Who Determines if Literature Is Scripture?
Communication is the essence of any literature. Literature has a message. Any communicated message has three things in common – the messenger, the message, and the hearer. In terms of literature, it is a simple change to familiar terms: the author, the text, and the reader.
Here’s a curveball question: all literature has an author, a text, and a reader. How do they work into an equation to determine if any single piece of literature equals scripture?
Does the author get to declare that what he has written is scripture? That might not be the best precedent to set. Sooner or later, everyone you look at will have announced themselves as demigods. Or Pulitzer Prize winners.
Perhaps the text can declare itself scripture. No, wait. An author creates the text, so isn’t that like an author claiming his writings are scripture?
Perhaps the answer is some combination of these. God declares Himself the Author behind the author and then states in the text that what He has written is scripture, and the readers believe.
One more facet remains to be examined. Maybe it is the reader who decides if a text is a scripture. That is a step in the right direction. All power to the people! They decide whether a text is scripture.
What Is the Bible All About?
Claims about when the original Hebrew Bible (The Old Testament) was written range from 2,200 BC to 900 BC. That means it was put into writing somewhere before or right after the events in the Iliad. The Bible begins with Creation, and it ends with Armageddon. It is not a book as much as it is a collection of books that together cover everything anyone has ever wanted to know but was afraid to ask.
The Old Testament is a collection of literature describing the law, history, prophecy, wisdom, and song of the ancient people of Israel. The New Testament, written in the first century AD, is a collection of books written by the earliest followers of Jesus detailing His life and teachings. It also contains epistles or letters from some of those followers to some of the earliest churches. Some of the letters teach, and others confront and correct the behavior of churches and believers.
What’s The Story With The Iliad?
While little is known of the Greek historian Homer, he is credited with writing the Iliad, the story about the last year of the Trojan War, sometime around 750 BC , give or take a few years. Archeologists found remains of an ancient city believed to be Troy and dated its destruction, so the date for the end of the Trojan War is estimated to be around 1,180 BC.
A scene from the Iliad: Achilles fighting Hector. Source: matiasdelcarmine / Adobe Stock
The Iliad starts at the end of the ninth year of the ten-year Trojan War. What prompted the war? A woman was involved, so that means male pride had to follow. The gods played an instigating role in the war, too. Here’s a quick break-down.
Helen is the most beautiful woman in the world. She is married to a Greek king, Menelaus, but then Helen is promised to Paris, the Trojan king, by the goddess Aphrodite as a reward for him saying he favored her beauty more than Hera’s, the queen of the goddesses, and Athena’s, goddess of war. Somehow, Helen ends up with Paris (It’s debatable whether Helen eloped with or was abducted by Paris). Menelaus talks with his brother, Agamemnon, another Greek king, and they decide the Greeks can’t put up with that sort of tomfoolery, so they go to war with Troy.
As we begin the Iliad, Agamemnon is forced by the god, Apollo, to give up Chryseis, a Trojan woman taken as a war prize. Agamemnon takes Briseis, another war prize, from the great warrior Achilles. Achilles’ honor is offended by the disrespect shown to him by Agamemnon by taking away what was his right, so he refuses to fight. The Greeks perform poorly on the battlefield without their warrior hero.
Achilles permits his boyhood friend, Patroclus, to use his armor. Then Patroclus is slain by the Trojan, Hector. When Achilles finds out about Patroclus’ death, Achilles rages and vows to kill Hector. He returns to battle, destroying innumerable Trojans as he fights toward eventually killing Hector.
That is the short version. There is more to the Iliad than that. There is the part about how Achilles drags Hector’s dead body behind his chariot around games celebrating his victory for seven days before giving the body back to Hector’s father. Yeah, these guys were some characters!
The gods are also participants figured into the story. The gods openly criticize and compete with each other in the Trojan war by manipulating men and directly confronting each other. The king of the gods, Zeus, favors the Trojans, but his wife, Hera, favors the Greeks because of Paris’ judgment. She does what she can to subvert the favor Zeus shows the Trojans.
Comparison Of The Iliad And The Holy Bible In Terms Of Scripture
Consider this definition of scripture from the Encyclopaedia Britannica:
The types of sacred and semisacred texts are, in fact, many and varied. Besides magical runes (ancient Germanic alphabet characters) and spells from primitive and ancient sources, they include hymns, prayers, myths, stories about gods and heroes, epics, fables, sacred laws, directions for the conduct of rituals, the original teachings of major religious figures, expositions of these teachings, moral anecdotes, dialogues of seers and sages, and philosophical discussions.
The Bible talks about God – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three Gods in One. The Iliad talks about the Olympian gods, twelve in number.
There is an interaction between humans and God in the Bible. God speaks to Moses, Jesus has his twelve disciples, and the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove at Jesus’ baptism and then as tongues of fire on the heads of the apostles at Pentecost. Likewise, Zeus favors the Achaeans while Hera favors the Trojans. Apollo and Aphrodite are involved, as well.
There are heroes. The Bible has Noah, Moses, Solomon, and David. The Iliad has Achilles, Hector, Diomedes, Ajax, and Aeneas.
The Bible promotes values of faith, purity, and obedience. It contains laws regarding sinfulness, diet, and gender roles. The Iliad promotes honor, loyalty, and perseverance. The laws it presents are given subtly by teaching moral lessons regarding hubris, deceit, and the importance of family.
A bust of Homer, author of the Iliad. Source: John / Adobe Stock
The Bible And The Iliad As Scripture
The Bible is the central unifying force of Christianity. Theologians assembled it in places of high power and influence, sanctified it by ritual and ceremony, and it was popularized by teaching stories handed down from generation to generation.
The Iliad was one of the unifying forces in Greek civilization. As a history, it gave the Greeks their sense of place in the world. As a myth, it taught stories about important and meaningful issues. It was a focal point in the initial development of Western culture and philosophy.
The Iliad did not stand alone. Homer also wrote the Odyssey, the story of Oddyseus’ return to his home in Ithaca. The Aeneid by Virgil alludes to both of Homer’s works. The Epic Circle , specifically the Cypria, the Aethiopis, the Little Iliad, the Iliupersis, the Nostoi, and the Telegony, are a group of epic poems recounting the portions of the Trojan War.
Why Isn’t The Iliad Considered Scripture Today?
The Olympian gods were one reason the Iliad fell from prominence in Greek society. The gods were not immortal. So, as mortals, they were destined to die. And so they did. Also, as much as the Greek culture seemed to be religious, the Greeks didn’t form the concept of religion. The closest they came to an idea of religion was in terms of piety and cult .
As Christianity began to proselytize the world, the Olympian gods were replaced by the Christian God. In effect, the Olympian gods of ancient Greece died and were replaced by an immortal God. Today, 92% of Greece is Christian.
The Iliad no longer operates as scripture for any significant group or culture in today’s world. So, in today’s world, it is not recognized as scripture, and most historians, philosophers, literature scholars, and high school students speak of it as writings, myth, epic poetry, and a book in Dad’s library.
That does not mean the Greeks didn’t treat their literature about the Trojan War like the Bible. It is a grey area issue that is complicated and clouded by time and a lack of information. However, there is one persuasive bit of evidence that the Iliad and other writings were scripture.
We Talk About And Remember Important Things
Was the Trojan War a historical event? There is legitimate doubt about it. It’s a bit like asking a Christian if a snake really tempted Eve to eat a forbidden apple, if a massive ark that Noah made was floated away by the Flood, and if Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego were actually saved from the fire of a red hot furnace by an angel.
Many Christians and Greeks would shrug their shoulder and say, “Why not?” about the incidents in their books. In other words, whether the events are historical and factual doesn’t matter as much as the principles, values, and spiritual lessons conveyed by the stories. And most Christians and ancient Greeks would agree that there is likely to be some historical accuracy to the wildest events. Did the Greeks sack Troy? Maybe they did. Did a figure name Jesus walk about teaching and preaching? Many believe so.
The real question should be: how Important were those stories? Given the destruction of a city likely to be Troy in 1,180 BC and the writing of the Iliad in 750 BC, those stories were important enough to endure in the memories and conversations around the fires for 400 years before Homer wrote them down. Then, Zeus and the Iliad lasted until the 9 th century AD, when the last Olympian believers were converted. Yet, even today, we celebrate the Olympics, and people visit the ancient temples to pay homage to the gods and even ask for their blessing on marriages.
The gods may not be immortal, but their spirits are immortalized in the Iliad and other writings.
The Bible and the Iliad satisfy the definition of scripture. They perform the same functions, only for different people. They do the same things with their teaching stories. They both have an equal record of longevity. Time and place are the only things that are different. Oh, and the names are changed to protect the innocent.
In the final analysis, can anyone say any writing is or isn’t important enough to be scripture as far as someone else is concerned? That determination is not in the hands of any individual. It has to be supported amongst a nation or culture for any mass of people to say, “This is scripture.”
Top image: Reading religious book. Source: 4Max / Adobe Stock
By Forest Bauer
Global Christianity – A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population by the Pew Research Center found at: https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2011/12/19/global-christianity-exec/
The 2020 Census of American Religion by The Public Religious Research Institute found at: https://www.prri.org/research/2020-census-of-american-religion/#page-section-0
The Encyclopaedia Britannica found at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/scripture
Trojan War by editors of History.com found at: https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/trojan-war
The Epic Cycle, Fragments, in The Theoi Classical Texts Library found at: https://www.theoi.com/Text/EpicCycle.html
The Encyclopaedia Britannica found at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Greek-religion
Religious Beliefs In Greece By Joyce Chepkemoi, August 14, 2019, found at: https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/religious-beliefs-in-greece.html