Biblical and Classical Literature

Apollo Belvedere

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

1. Rationale

The course explores the narratives of ancient civilizations through the plays and epic poetry of classical Greece as well as the writings in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. Many of these texts carry spiritual significance to their readers; it is important to note that the emphasis of our course is on the texts as literature. The goals for our course are to deepen our appreciation for these ancient stories as Western cultural touchstones, to understand the archetypes these stories created, and to explore the cultural and historical impact of those archetypes.  In exploring these stories, students may be asked to consider historical information complicated by factors like translation and cultural differences.  Such studies should provide a foundation that will prove useful in almost any intellectual context, from museums to libraries, concert halls to newsrooms and pop culture.


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 Oresteia, 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 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 Gospel According to Luke or Mark
Selections from Acts of the Apostles
Selections from the Epistles
The Revelation to John (the Apocalypse)

Supplementary material:
Enuma Elish excerpts

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 Aristotle’s theory of tragedy.

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

3. Write about the concept of hospitality as expressed in The Odyssey; compare it to our culture’s expression of hospitality; what elements have we kept and what elements have we discarded, and why?

4. Discuss the role of women in the hero stories we’ve been studying. What does each culture seem to value about women, and what modern day attitudes might have come from these stories?

5. Analyze a poem or piece of artwork with Biblical or classical allusions and discuss how and why the original themes and symbols have been represented and/or modified.

rev 12/17

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