Biblical and Classical Literature

Apollo Belvedere

One semester
Open to 10, 11, 12
Range of difficulty 1-3

1. Rationale

Some knowledge of both Biblical and Classical literature is essential for understanding the literary and cultural foundations of Europe and the Americas; a foundation in these literary traditions is useful for understanding much of the ethical and intellectual basis of the West; and acquaintance with these traditions is valuable in and of itself, as many of the greatest stories, characters and imagery of Western literature come from these traditions.

While it is impossible to divorce the stories of the Bible from their religious context, the purpose of the course is to study both Biblical and Classical literature as literature, not as religious text or received truth. Thus both traditions are treated as much as possible in their original context and without religious bias.

2. Topics and Themes Emphasized

Students read biblical and classical literature with an emphasis on their literary context and historical influence. Some of the themes are the tragic view of life, the heroic view of life, humanity’s view of the gods, the differences between biblical and classical cultures–especially in religious beliefs and ethical doctrine, sexism and racism in both cultures, and the general influence of both traditions on our culture.

Other themes and topics arise, but they are mostly subsumed by one of these broader themes. The course is divided into one quarter of classical literature and one quarter of biblical literature, not necessarily in that order.

3. Methods and Sample Assignments

The primary method in this course is reading and discussion; the importance of reading is emphasized through the semester, as many students have formed very definite impressions about both Biblical and Classical ideas without much real knowledge of those ideas. As we use primary sources, we attempt to get students to examine their prejudices about both cultures from an objective, rational, and skeptical point of view, while always being careful not to suggest that any one way of looking at these ideas is the only “truth.” Class discussions focus on reading; however, these discussions tend to get into contemporary ethical and religious subjects, especially given the variety of religious and non-religious personal beliefs in the class.

Discussion questions are often broad; classes begin with specific textual questions, but we generally end up dealing with much more abstract issues such as faith, fate, the nature of human beings’ relationships with the powers that rule the world, the validity or non-validity or certain Biblical ideas. Students are urged to express their ideas clearly and forcefully, and with due concern and respect for what may be deeply held beliefs on the part of other students in the class.

4. Expectations for Students

The course requires nightly, often lengthy, reading assignments. There may be in-class essays, quizzes, tests, short (3-5 page) creative and expository writing assignments, online journaling, and/or art projects. The course also requires a good deal of verbal and listening acuity in class discussions, as described above.

5. Reading List and Other Materials

Readings are selected from the following. (It is important that care be taken to have minimal repetition of readings used in other courses; therefore, these selections have been carefully compiled.)

The Iliad or The Odyssey, Homer
The Orestia, Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus
Oedipus, Oedipus at Colonus, Philoctetes, Sophocles
Medea, Herakles, The Bacchae, Alcestis, Euripides
Lysistrata, Aristophanes
Metamorphoses, Ovid
Aeneid (selections), Virgil
Library of Apollodorus (selections)
various Greek and Roman poetry

Selections from Genesis 1-3; Genesis 23-50
Selections from Exodus 3; Exodus 20 ff.
Selections from the books of Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (primarily Moses story)
Judges (Samson)
The Book of Ruth
The story of David from Samuel and Kings
Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes
The Book of Daniel
The Book of Jonah
The Gospel According to Luke or Mark
The Revelation to John (the Apocalypse)

The Odyssey (TV Version with Armand Assante, excerpts)
Mighty Aphrodite, by Woody Allen
The Life of Brian, Monty Python
Oedipus Rex, opera by Stravinsky
Excerpts from The Ten Commandments
From Jesus to Christ, Frontline Series
Magnolia ( excerpts)
Simpson versions
Kung Fu Panda

6. Bibliography

The following is a partial bibliography. See also the bibliography for Introduction to Western Civilization and the L-S library bibliographies for Ancient Greece and the Bible.

The Greeks, H.D.F. Kitto
The Greeks and the Irrational, E.R. Dodds
Moira: Fate, Good and Evil in Greek Thought, William Chase Green
Ancient Greek Literature and Society, C.R. Beye
The Greeks Myths, Robert Graves
The Masks of God, Joseph Campbell
Greek Tragedy in Action, Oliver Taplin
The World of Odysseus, M.I. Finley
The Eating of the Gods, Jan Kott
Dictionary of Classical Antiquity, Nettleship and Sandys
The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations, Cyrus Gordon
Judaism, Isadore Epstein
Life and Language in the Old Testament, Mary Ellen Chase
The Reign of the Phallus, Eva Keuls
Understanding Genesis, Nahum M. Sarna
The Wycliffe Biblical Commentary
Harper’s Bible Dictionary
Key to the Bible, Wildrid J. Harrington, O.P.
A History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell
Out of the Garden: Women Writers on the Bible, Buchmann and Spiegel, ed.
The History of God, Karen Armstrong
Who Wrote the Bible, and The Bible Sources Revealed, Richard E. Friedman
The Origin of Satan and The Gnostic Gospels– both by Elaine Pagels
PBS Video of Frontline “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians” (Parts 1-4)

Sample Assignments

1. Write a paper discussing whether Euripides’ Medea is a tragic hero according to the Aristotelian model.

2. Write your own short “gospel,” your own eyewitness account of the life of Christ from the point of view of a non-believer living in Palestine at the time of the events chronicled by Luke. What might you have thought of Jesus’ ideas? his actions? his politics? Include all of this in your “gospel,” at the end of which you can either accept or reject his teaching.

3. Based on the account of creation in Genesis 1, draw the cosmos.

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