Ancient Literature was one of the hardest courses I had to take. Not because the material was necessarily hard (although in many cases it was), but because it was so hard to form a connection with the pieces. I am not suggesting that one has to be able to relate to every single piece of writing in order to coherently read and enjoy them. However, the joy I get from reading the material is a significant aspect of my personal process. Therefore I was lost trying to decipher the old English of Beowulf into meaningful sentences or to understand the intricacies of medieval French history in order to connect with Chanson de Roland.
All these aside, the most important thing Ancient Literature thought me was the Documentary Hypothesis which calls the authorship of the Old Testament into question and suggests that there may have been several editorial voices in the process. This new piece of information was so delicately explained (and to a certain extent proven) by our professor that I was in a state of shock. Why was not everybody talking about this? How was this not more well-known? Although this short piece of writing does not necessarily explain the theory (I suggest looking at the references for those curious people out there), I believe it still conveys my pleasant shock on the idea that the texts that are thought to be unquestionable can bear the most interesting, rich and rewarding complexity if we just have the courage to think about them critically.
Our lives are governed by the texts we hold dear as communities. Whether it be the local law, the philosophical discussions of our modern age, religious writings or even our favorite science fiction book; they all play essential parts in shaping the pivotal moments of our lives. That is why humankind has always been interested in creating new content and examining the old.
With the rise of the nation-state, pieces of old mythic literature were put in boxes that corresponded to one, singular national identity (e.g., the English had Beowulf and the French had Chanson de Roland). However, with the enlightenment, such absolutist conceptions were shaken; and so was the notion of religious belief. Scholars started to think critically about the question of authorship and this curiosity was perhaps never more prominent than in the 17th and 18th centuries, where several branches of knowledge (such as theology, linguistics and history) came together to create a new interdisciplinary field: philology.
The introduction of the Documentary Hypothesis (which challenged the idea of Mosaic authorship and claimed that there were four separate sources that created the Old Testament) and the Homeric Question [concerned with the interrelation of traditional forms and the idea of the single creative genius (West, 358)] can be considered as the most significant explorations of this era. Both proposals were fundamentally concerned with the same question; could there really be a unique, prodigious writer?
At this point, we might have an inclination to ask ourselves “why?” Why were these scholars trying to figure out the basis of these sacred texts? Would it be so wrong to assume that these works were created by just one person (i.e. Moses and Homer) and live our lives according to that? Well, yes and no. These theories do not, in any way, make the texts less holy or significant. If anything, realizing the deeply complex historical and anthropological roots make them even more valuable. Society can (and will) go on regarding these material as inviolable, but we would make a terrible mistake if we overlooked their intricacy.
Both the Old Testament (Genesis in particular) and Homer’s work (the Iliad and the Odyssey) resemble encyclopedias in their nature; every possible source of knowledge available at the time is somehow cultivated into one mega-text (including passages of history, geography, etymology, ethnography, theology and poetry). Furthermore, the critical readings of these materials provide us a historical picture; Lawrence Boadt’s interpretation of the Documentary Hypothesis, for example, draws a parallel between the different sources [Yahwist (J), Elohist (E), Deutoronomist (D) and Priestly (P)] and historical events [the glorification of David and Solomon, the rise of the northern kingdom of Israel, the Babylonian exile and/or the return to homeland, respectively (Boadt, 95)].
Homer’s work also provides interesting insights about the day and age it was written. When one resists the tendency to interpret Homer’s work as purely autobiographical (Latacz 26 – 28) and looks at it as a result of an oral tradition passed down from generation to generation, the traditional and social values of the time can be seen more clearly. “The self identification of the poet,” Latacz writes, “[…] with the ideals of the nobility is more indispensable to an appreciation of his poems than most autobiographical details might be.”
In conclusion, we can say that looking at these texts critically provides us with a richer experience and helps us understand the social and historical circumstances of a particular era in time.
Boadt, Lawrence. “Chapter 5, The Pentateuch.” Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction. New York, NY: Paulist, 1984. 94-95. Print.
Latacz, Joachim. “Chapter 2, The Person, Environment, Time and Work of Homer.” Homer, His Art and His World. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 1996. 26-28. Print.
West, Martin. “The Homeric Question Today.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 1 Dec. 2011: 383-93. Print.
Written for my “Ancient Literature” class in 01.12.2014.
Pictured here: The Rothko Chapel