Book Review—Anthology of Classical Myth: Primary Sources in Translation

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Anthology of Classical Myth: Primary Sources in Translation
Edited by Stephen M. Trzaskoma, R. Scott Smith, and Stephen Brunet

Hackett | Amazon

Many thanks to the kind folks at Hackett for this review copy!

Classical mythology—is there a more fascinating and entertaining body of literature? That was a rhetorical question, but there is an enduring fascination with the stories and myths of antiquity, both from academic and popular-level perspectives. From childhood, I can remember watching really bad adaptions of classical accounts of Hercules, Medusa, Jason and the Argonauts, and simply being enthralled by what I saw (though it was pretty terrible production wise!). That fascination has followed me well into adulthood as I am continually intrigued by the tales of old, particularly those of ancient Greece and Rome. This is partly due to my research interests and my years of doctoral work have allowed me opportunities to delve into the myths of old and see what insights they might yield for understanding biblical texts and concepts. When I saw that Hackett was releasing a second edition of their Anthology of Classical Myth, I was delighted. I had consulted this volume before for research purposes, but I really wanted to get a copy just to enjoy reading. Naturally, reading of this sort, for me, is done (at present anyway) with an eye toward information relevant to my dissertation, so my desire for the volume was greater than usual.

All that to say, this is indeed a splendid volume! Last year I read Carolina López-Ruiz’s (ed.) Gods, Heroes, and Monsters: A Sourcebook of Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern Myths in Translation and thoroughly enjoyed it. This volume, edited by Stephen M. Trzaskoma, R. Scott Smith, and Stephen Brunet, functions in much the same way—it’s a collection of popular myths primarily from Greek and Roman sources, though there are selections from other Mesopotamian cultures, classic creation accounts such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, Atrahasis, Enuma Elish, the Hittite Song of Emergence, and the biblical book of Genesis (most of the primeval history, chapters 1–9). Also included are appendixes that are chock full of fascinating texts gleaned from Linear B sources, papyri, and inscriptions (appendix four is where the ANE myths listed above are included).

When putting a volume like this together, one has to wonder what principles guide the process by which the included accounts are selected. The editors state from the outset that many of the entries were chosen because “they provide an overview of important details about major myths or mythical figures” (xxv). Readers will indeed encounter some of these important writers/thinkers from antiquity—Aeschylus, Apollodorus, Homer, Plato, Euripides, Hesiod, Ovid, Lucian—and a host of others whose stories have not only kindled the fires of imagination of their own times, but whose legacies have left an indelible impression on the landscape of Western civilization. Additionally, the editors have chosen material that would “complement or fill gaps in the standard textbooks” that are frequently used in introductory courses on classical mythology (xxiv).

The editors have also provided useful preliminary discussions in the front matter—brief essays on ancient approaches to myth, e.g., philosophical, rationalizing, and allegory, as well as myth and religion, and gender (xxvii–xxx). There are several maps of the ancient Mediterranean, illustrations of the Greeks’ conception of the world (including a sketch of the underworld based on Vergil’s account in Aeneid 6), a genealogical tree of the Greek gods, and a timeline depicting when the included authors penned their works (those whose dates of origin are uncertain are noted as such). From this point, the remainder of the book is dedicated to the titular material—the myths of ancient Greece and Rome.

Entries are arranged alphabetically by author, not chronologically as I expected. While I would prefer a chronological arrangement, I certainly understand the reasoning in arranging alphabetically—it’s simply easier to navigate. Each entry provides the name of the author, the date range during which that author wrote, the language in which he wrote, and a brief overview of the author himself and of the work that follows. Naturally, some entries are much longer than others, e.g., the first entry is an excerpt from Aelian’s Historical Miscellany, which is only three pages, whereas the entry for Apollodorus spans sixty. This is primarily due to the extent to which each author’s works have bearing on myth/mythology, so someone like Apollodorus would naturally take up more space (the same is true for Hesiod and the Homeric hymns). I would also say that while I am certainly no classicist and do not have (at present) facility in non-Hellenistic Greek, I can say that these translations are wonderfully readable maintain the air of classical writing—it feels ancient and modern simultaneously.

As noted earlier, this volume boasts a substantial series of indexes—150 pages of additional information. The first four indexes cover sources that have been discovered in more recent memory—Linear B sources, inscriptions, papyri, and near Eastern myth.[1] There are also indexes that cover names and transliterations (since Latin names often differ from their Greek counterparts, e.g., Heracles/Hercules, Odysses/Ulysses, Zeus/Jupiter, etc.), and index/glossary that lists the major authors, characters, and works found in the volume.

As one whose interest in classical mythology is both academic/research related and purely for the enjoyment of reading ancient stories, this book really satisfies both perspectives. I can imagine if I were a professor teaching classical mythology to uninitiated students, this would be required reading. Not only does it cover a broad spectrum of classical works, but it does so in a manner that is accessible for readers of varying levels of interest and knowledge—I highly recommend it!

Αυτω η δοξα

[1] While myths of the near Eastern world have long been known through discovery, the editors here refer to the dramatic change in the way these myths were understood based on the work of deciphering discoveries from “cities, monuments, and texts from…Egypt, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Anatolia (Turkey), Persia (Iran), and the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan)” from the mid-nineteenth century and on (437).

Book Review: Hellenistic and Biblical Greek

Review---Hellenistic-and-Biblical-GreekHellenistic and Biblical Greek: A Graduated Reader

by B. H. McLean

Cambridge University Press | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

McLean adopts a “historical” Greek pronunciation scheme, which is quite similar to the modern way of pronunciation, but varies on several letters. This is hardly a criticism as it does not ultimately affect how one reads and retains the texts, but I thought it important to note.

This book includes a number of elements that are helpful for reading the texts therein. In the front matter, in addition to the groups of abbreviations, McLean includes a section on frequently occurring grammatical constructions, a nice touch considering the volume is designed for those who have had one of more years of Greek. Unless you read a lot of Greek on a regular basis, there are constructions that you just don’t see a lot and the inclusion of such an element will prove helpful for many. Each section also includes its own vocabulary list. McLean has in bold print those words he thinks necessary to memorize, a call which is obviously subjective, but could be helpful nonetheless. The vocabulary lists included in Part 1 (pp. 13–67, “basic level” texts) is built on the assumption that the reader has learned all the words in the Greek NT that occur fifty times or more—these words are not included in the glossary after each text. Each subsequent section then builds on the assumption that the reader has committed to memory the bold type vocab from the previous section. My assumption then is that these words are not repeated section to section, though I did not look into it. For those who may forget words as they work from section to section, there is a glossary in the back that includes all words that occur fifty times or more in the GNT as well as all vocabulary found in the texts. Additionally, McLean has included in the back additional helps, such as a summary of verbal paradigms, cardinal and ordinal numbers, alphabetic numerals, names of the months, Greek currency names and their monetary equivalents, and terms used to narrate the approval of decrees, all of which are immensely helpful, especially for those who don’t encounter these elements enough to immediately recognize them or simply have never memorized them.

This book reinforces an old dictum I heard when first learning Greek—mastery of vocabulary will make all the difference. As I worked through early sections of the book, I found that it wasn’t the syntax that was tricky, but simply vocabulary I either didn’t know or had forgotten along the way. Naturally, the biblical texts I knew better than non-biblical ones, but the vocabulary was definitely the sticking point for some sections. Overall, the graduation of difficulty will vary for each reader depending on their familiarity with the text at hand. As I mentioned, the biblical texts were a little easier for me because I was familiar with them and the particular author’s style, even though they were later in the book and thus were deemed more difficult than previous chapters. For example, in the intermediate-level section, Gal 1:1–2:20 is coupled along with a letter of introduction to Zenon, a family letter of an army recruit to his mother, and some other biblical and non-biblical texts. Again, familiarity can be a welcome help when dealing with syntax and vocabulary and these non-biblical texts were about the same level (inasmuch as I’m able to make such evaluations), but knowing the biblical passages enabled me to work much more quickly through them. At the same time, given that texts are grouped according to their grammatical and vocabulary similarities, being familiar with the biblical text did help work through the others.

There a couple of typos that stood out in the front matter, both involving font changes that escaped the typesetter’s eye. On p. xxx, the text reads “The days from 2 to 10 were counted as the ‘rising’ (iJstamevnou)”. Similarly, on p. xxxi, the text at the end of an example with a clause from Matt 5:20, after the last word Φαρισσαíων, reads “Farisaivwn (Matt 5:20)”.

Perhaps the most salient takeaway from this book is it enables the reader to experience the importance of reading outside of one particular corpus. For the majority of seminary students who take/took Greek, their exposure to the language is almost exclusively the Greek of the New Testament. Granted, the GNT exposes readers to a variety of literary styles and their inherent differences, but many students who take NT Greek do so with varying degrees of familiarity with the Bible. This can be an aid when translating, but it can also become a crutch. Thus, books like this fine work of McClean’s are essential, I think, to strengthening one’s grasp of the NT text in general, but also helps one gain a much better knowledge of how Greek of the period works. My only complaint about this book is not related to content, but a layout issue. There were a number of times when I would look at the sectional glossary for a term only to find that it was on the next page. I don’t know if this could have been avoided—perhaps there were spacing issues that prevented it—but I found this to be an annoyance. However, let me say that this minor issue in now way detracts from the overall quality and usefulness of the book. If I were teaching any class that required reading of Greek texts, this would be atop the list.

Take a look inside here or download a sample chapter here.

Book Review: The Romans and Their World

The Romans and Their World: A Short Introduction

by Brian Campbell

Yale University Press | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

So much can be and has been said about one of history’s most formidable entities. Thankfully, Brian Campbell has distilled some of the critical times and personas that comprise historical Rome into a relatively brief (248 pages) introductory text that not only provides a chronological accounting of the beginnings of Rome, nor merely a discussion of the powers that built, sustained, and ultimately destroyed her, but provides a glimpse into the lives of its people. This was perhaps my favorite element of the book. I enjoy reading purely historical texts for the sake of learning about people, places, and events of the past, but it’s the stories and accounts of the people that make it most interesting—after all, what is history without people? Campbell provides ample references to the primary sources, though some sections are more amply noted than others. There are also a number of diagrams (mostly related to military issues; some are geographical) interspersed and a handful of photographs that illustrate some aspect of Roman life and culture (these are black and white).

This has served as an immensely helpful text, not only for getting a bird’s-eye view of the Romans, but also as a quick reference guide. Many times I would reach for this volume while reading something else that made a reference to some aspect of ancient Rome so that I could read a little more about it. Campbell’s book is great for such use—it’s not a cumbersome encyclopedia, but neither is it a miniscule handbook. It finds a middle ground between these two and is a perfect reference for those who need a slightly more detailed account or description than provided in a few general sentences. Also, as a student of the NT and its contexts, I found this book to be quite informative about the various exploits of Rome that had immediate impact upon the world of the NT.

In sum, Campbell’s volume will be a great introductory text for readers who want a foray into the illustrious history of Rome—deep enough to inform yet succinct enough to be accessible.

Αυτω η δοξα

Interesting Similarities

I’m always intrigued when I encounter similarities between the texts of the Bible and other ancient literature. One such example I happened upon while reading about Heracles’ twelve labors. For his eleventh labor (Apollodorus Library 2.5.11), Heracles was commissioned by Eurystheus to bring him the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, which were a gift from Gaia to Zeus and Hera at their wedding. These apples were the source of immortality for the gods and, interestingly, were guarded by a dragon, itself the offspring of Typhon and Echidna.

So, a tree of apples (fruit) that gave immortality which was guarded by a serpent–where have I read of such things before? Yes, this is obviously quite different from the Genesis account, but it is quite interesting that these elements–fruit, unnaturally long life, and a serpent–are all together in the same story.

Αυτω η δοξα

Classical Literature in the Movies

Over the last couple of years, I’ve developed an interest in classical literature. Many of the stories I’ve known about for much of my life (Homer’s epics Iliad and Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, et al), but I never really cared about nor appreciated them until more recently. I’m fascinated by the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome and I happen to love epic movies, so I wonder–what are the best ancient stories/classics that have been made into film?

I remember seeing some movies of this sort when I was a kid, but film production has come a long way since then. Surely some of those stories have been made more recently?! I saw that The Odyssey was made back in the 90s, so that might be ok, but who wouldn’t love to see both of Homer’s epics done by Peter Jackson Lord-of-the-Rings style?!? Now that would be, to put it in the well-worn youngster vernacular, epic! (see what I did there?)

Let me know what I’m missing!

Αυτω η δοξα

The Beginning of the End…

Well, sort of. Today marks the beginning of my last seminar of coursework in route to a PhD (only exams and dissertation will remain–piece of cake, right?).

This semester we will be studying the general epistles and Revelation, so there is plenty of fodder for lively discussions! I am a tad disappointed that my research for the semester will not have much relevance for my dissertation. The last few seminars have allowed me to research and write on topics that would in some way aid my later research, a bonus for sure, but since I’m writing on Paul it would be a stretch to tie the two areas together. Despite this, however, I am excited about my topic for the next few months. Basically I’ll be examining literary monsters/creatures from Greek and Roman literature and their relevance (if any!) to John’s Apocalypse. I’ve got a good start on it, but I always have an open ear to suggestions for resources. If you know of solid works that would relevant for this topic, please feel free to send me the info.


Book Review: Roman Imperial Texts: A Sourcebook

Roman Imperial Texts: A Sourcebook by Mark Reasoner

Fortress | Amazon | CBD

Thanks to the kind folks at Fortress Press for this review copy! I received this copy free of charge in exchange for an unbiased review.

In the field of biblical studies, recent years have seen a resurgence of titles concerning one element or another of the Greco-Roman world, many focusing on the Roman empire and reading the New Testament in light of the hulking shadow it cast over the world of Jesus, Paul, and many others. Works that examine particular facets of Roman culture in the first century are certainly helpful, but Reasoner’s volume proves its usefulness not because of extended examination of Roman culture (though there is an ample of amount of such), but by providing relevant texts that depict and describe the Roman emperors and the kingdom they built and expanded. To study and attempt to understand a culture, more often than not the best place to begin is with its literature. Thankfully, ancient Romans produced a treasure trove of material to be mined.

Reasoner’s work is comprised of three parts: 1) Emperors, 2) Community and its various components, and 3) the city of Rome. The discussion of the emperors focuses primarily on texts and numismatic evidence that speak of them in terms of divinity, beneficence, and their status as sons of the gods. This, naturally, is important for studying the NT concept of Jesus as the Son of God, though Reasoner does not push terribly hard to convince the reader that Son of God language in the NT is directly related to empirical sonship, though Reasoner does believe it important. For example, Reasoner suggests that the use of the term euangelia in the Priene inscription is the use alongside which one should read the canonical Gospels’ association of Jesus’ birth, life, and teachings (30). Part two concerns community in ancient Rome and how participation in various societal events and customs helped establish and define Roman identity. For early Christians, according to Reasoner, this provided a starting point of sorts for understanding their place in the body of Christ, particularly in light of Paul’s multiple references to such through his writings. The creation of an alternative society, i.e., the church, is illuminated when reading against the various texts here provided by Reasoner. Likewise with the collegium and domus, both of which are important for understanding many things Paul (and others) teach. In part three, Reasoner discusses a few aspects of Rome as a city, particularly as it concerned its far-reaching influence in the Mediterranean and beyond. War, commerce, and games were some of the means by which Rome wielded its influence. Early Christians, of course, lived in this immense shadow and Reasoner briefly discusses how these texts might illuminate references in the NT.

One of the strengths of this work is that there is a steady eye on various concepts prevalent in the NT (e.g., Son of God) while discussing the Roman texts. This does not mean that Reasoner deviates from the path by engaging in efforts to demonstrate that certain NT ideas and/or texts are anti-imperial or otherwise; rather, he simply notes these potential connections and provides brief commentary. The reader, then, is given ample food for thought and hopefully ignites a spark to investigate any such connections further, however tentative or substantial they might be. While Reasoner occasionally tips his hand, for the most part he writes with the objective of providing a springboard for further investigation.

Selectivity is an unavoidable constraint on works such as this and will perhaps deter some in favor of other more extensive (and expensive) volumes, but for most this volume will serve as a highly accessible and immensely helpful resource for better understanding the imperial context of the NT world.

Αυτω η δοξα