- Religion and Philosophy
The Bible and Greek Mythology
Most Christians or those religions that follow the basic principles of the Bible believe in the stories told in the Bible. In fact, these stories are usually regarded not only as mere stories, but also as actual historical accounts of important people, events, and concepts of the Christian faith. However, stories of Greek and Roman mythology are typically regarded as nothing more than fictional, fantasy stories. The idea that Ancient Greeks viewed these stories to be their religion seems insane to many people of Biblical Faith. This idea seems to cast a stigma of irrationality, almost ignorance, upon the Ancient Greeks. Although placing this stigma on a long-dead culture may seem to be unimportant to much of the contemporary world, it is important because this long-dead culture represents the history of a large portion of the world. The Ancient Greek empire was much more vast than modern-day Greece. Just as many Americans would find it offensive to have their history viewed as irrational and ignorant, it seems logical that Greeks might as well. Therefore, it is necessary to try and understand that both Ancient Greeks and Ancient Christians may have held similar beliefs about the world they were living in. The fact is that Greek myths contain unrealistic and unbelievable characters, events, and other elements, but upon comparison of Greek mythology with different Biblical accounts, it is apparent that some parallels between the two do exist, and that the Ancient Greeks view of the events of the early world are very similar to the views of both ancient and contemporary Christians. The following similarities are by no means a full accounting, but a mere summary of a vastly larger ideal between two religions.
The similarities begin with the creation stories, although these similarities are very minimal. In both the Christian creation story, Genesis, and in many accounts of the Ancient Greek creation story, the earth began with darkness and nothingness- a void, or Chaos, as known to the Greeks (Genesis 1:2; Tripp 159). This Chaos was the bearer meaning that he gave birth to of Ge; earth, Tartarus; underworld, Eros; love and sex, Erebus; darkness, and Nyx; night (Tripp 159). In the Christian creation story, God is the parallel to the Greek Chaos in that he invents the same things with the exception of an underworld; the creation of Adam and Eve and their later reproduction could be comparable to Eros as Chaos bore (Genesis 1:1-18). However, unlike Chaos, God is not a void of nothingness, but the beginning of all things. God also remains the ruler of the entire world in Biblical stories, while the Greek Chaos is displaced by several actual divine beings, the most important and permanent of those being Zeus (Tripp 606; Hesiod 2-3).
There is also a slight similarity in the separation or breakdown in mans relationships with God and Zeus, later chief god of the ancient Greeks. Although the offenses in each case were very different, both falls from grace were the products of trickery, deceit, and temptation. In both cases, the temptation was in the form of food (Genesis 3:1-6; Tyrell and Brown 15). Probably the most important similarity in the two falls, however, is the negative role that Woman plays in each. In the Bible, woman actually leads man to the fall from grace and as the punishment for that is exile from the Garden of Eden, while Greek mythology cites that Woman was the punishment to man from Zeus (Genesis 3:6-24, Hesiod 4). In the ancient Greek culture, Woman was designed to make man miserable (Hesiod 4). Although she plays different roles, Woman eventually bears the blame for all human suffering and sorrow in both stories (Tyrell and Brown 17).
In both the Ancient Greek and Christian accounts of the early world, there exist stories of great floods that destroyed most of humankind (Genesis 7; Tripp 608). In the Bible's version of the flood, God becomes frustrated with the wickedness of the world and decides to destroy the earth with a flood, although it saddens him to do so (Genesis 6:5-7). However, God found Noah to be a good and just man, and he asked Noah to build an ark that would float upon the waters (Genesis 6:9-14). On the ark, Noah was to take his wife, three sons, their wives, and two of every living creature (Genesis 6:18-22). In this way God could be sure that the world would be repopulated. In the Greek flood story, Zeus becomes very angry with men and decides to destroy them as revenge for their impieties (Tripp 608). His intention is to destroy all of mankind. However, Prometheus, who tells his son, Deucalion, to build an ark so Deucalion and his wife could escape Zeus' wrath, thwarts Zeus attempt. In this story, Prometheus assures that mortal life will go on. Although the stories are different in some aspects, the parallels show that both the Ancient Greeks and followers of the Christian faith seem to agree that a great flood was a significant event in the early years of the world. As well, they both believe that someone survived this flood by building an ark and living there until the flood subsided. These people survived in order to continue human life.
War was also a common characteristic of both the Ancient Greek world and of the Biblical world. For example, the Trojan War is a major event in Greek history, and is recorded most famously in Homer's Iliad. The gods always seemed to play important roles in this war, especially Zeus, Ares the god of war, and the other Olympians the gods and goddesses living on Mount Olympus (Homer 404-405). Wars between Greek city-states were also common occurrences, with gods and goddesses almost always involved in them in some way. Similarly, the Bible accounts many stories of wars between different countries and religious groups. One of the most famous examples is the war between the Philistines and the Israelites (Samuel, 1:17). In this war, God interfered and sent the small shepherd boy David to save the Israelites (Samuel, 1:17). David does so by defeating the giant Goliath, a feat he would not have been able to accomplish without God's help (Samuel 17:46-52). These examples show the cross-cultural belief that war was an important event in the ancient world, and the gods God played significant roles in these wars.
Prophecies of the overthrowing of rulers were frequent events in both Greek mythology and in Biblical stories. In both cultures these prophecies usually lead to the attempted suppression, usually murder in Bible stories, of the group that the over thrower will supposedly come from. This suppression rarely worked. For instance, the Greek god Cronus was told that one of his children would conquer and overthrow him (Tripp, 177). In a desperate attempt to prevent this, Cronus swallowed each of his children as they were born (Tripp, 177). However, through deceit and trickery, Cronus' wife Rhea manages to bear and hide the youngest child, who grows and conquers his father (Tripp, 177). This child is Zeus. He frees his brothers and sisters and then seizes his father's power, becoming chief of gods (Tripp 177, 705). The most important example in the Bible of this same type of prophecy is directed at Herod, who was King at the time that Jesus was born (Matthew 2). When three wise men tell Herod that the King of Jews was to be born that night, Herod demands that the three find where the baby was to be born and report back to him (Matthew 2:1-9). When the wise men fail to do so, he orders that all newborn boys in Bethlehem be killed (Matthew 2:16). However, Jesus escaped this fate because God tells Joseph, Jesus' earthly father, to take the baby and its mother to Egypt until the time that Herod dies (Matthew 2:13). Both the Christians and Ancient Greeks found these prophecies to be important parts of their histories.
These are only the big similarities. There are many smaller ones. The previous examples show that Christian and Ancient Greek histories of the origins and events of the ancient world are not as different as many people may think. Both have floods, wars, and prophecies. Both cultures believe in the nothingness that existed before everything else. Most importantly, both cultures have their own beliefs, the most significant of these being their gods or God.
The similarities are so parallel one must wonder as to the actual origin of these stories. They had to come from somewhere. If the Bible holds so many similarities to Greek and Roman mythology, it causes one to question the actual relevance of the Bible. Christians believed and still believe to this day that those who worship other gods are heretical and pagan. Although Christians refuse to accept that these stories are not historical accounts written by God through man, one cannot discount the likeness of both the stories of the Greek Gods and that of the Bible. Christians may have to see that their beliefs may be more similar to Ancient Greek beliefs than what was previously thought. A historian cannot look past the facts, all of which are written in a book cherished by so many. The historian can prove that the fall of Rome was credited partly to the rise of Christianity, and the Christianity that we know today had to start from somewhere. One may even go so far as to say the stories in the bible are stories of Greek mythology changed to suit the belief system of new religion; Christianity.
Authors Note: This by no means defends or discredits any belief. It is merely an observation of history, be it myth or truth. All beliefs are sacred and are to be respected. Please be respectful of each other when discussing topics such as these. Your words are your power. We all have a right to what we believe.
Hesiod. Selections from Hesiod's Theogony. Trans. John Svarlien. 17 Dec. 1999. 11 Nov. 2005. <http:/classics.mit.edu/Browse/browse-Hesiod.html>.
Holy Bible: The Old and New Testaments. King James Version. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1973.
Homer. Iliad: Book Twenty. Classics 135-001: Greek and Roman Mythology, Fall
1998. Ed. James A. Francis. Incentives Creativity, 1998. 62-68.
Tripp, Edward. The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology. New York: Penguin
Tyrell, William Blake and Frieda S. Brown. Hesiod's Myth of the Birth of the
Cosmos. Foundations of the Liberal Arts: Science, Nature, Culture, Spring
1999. Acton: Tapestry Press LTD., 1999. 8-20.