Monday, July 21, 2008

Off the Shelf: Herodotus' Histories

So, for the past year or so I've been slowly working my way through Herodotus' massive Histories. It's a great snapshot of the ancient world leading up to and culminating in the Greek/Persian wars (5th c bc).

But why....why, in this pragmatic age, is this of any use? Especially when Herodotus is wildly inaccurate in some places? I suggest a few reasons why.

1) the world of the Bible is the ancient world. While we know that the main things of scripture are plain and clear, a fuller appreciation of scripture can only come through a fuller appreciation of the ancient world. We can particularly get a greater understanding of Esther, Ezra/Nehemiah, the prophets, and certain parts of the OT history books from Herodotus.

2) The challenges of the past help us grapple with the challenges of today: Herodotus shows us that globalization is not really anything new. Local cultures existed, but there was plenty of back and forth/ give and take. In some ways the struggle of militant Islam vs western liberalism is prefigured in the struggle of Persian expansionism vs Greek independence.

3) Ancient histories are not just descriptive, but didactic. The ancients were not simply concerned with relating what happened. They were concerned with fostering virtue. Herodotus tells us stories from history in order that we might learn and grow in virtue. Simply put, there are some really great stories in there (that can be looted for sermon illustrations, for instance).

4) I have a bias for primary sources. Many times I'll come across a commentary that will cite Herodotus.... When one sees a text cited enough times, it is well worth reading it to make decisions for oneself.

Case in point..... I'm preaching through Isaiah. I have to explain the role of the biblical prophet (whether the writing prophet, the court prophets, or the wandering band of prophets)... and how it differs from the oracles of the pagan nations. So I use Herodotus' stories about the most famous of them all -- the oracle at Delphi. He tells of how king Croseus of Lydia sent a message asking if he should attack the Persian army. The oracle replied "If you cross the Halys river, a mighty empire will fall"....Croseus assumed that the mighty empire was Persia....he invaded and was defeated, only to realize that the "mighty empire" was his own.

Simply put, the oracles of the ancient world dealt in ambiguity. You had to go to them to pay them for their utterings, and then you had to take what you got. In contrast, the biblical prophets sought you out...they went to the kings. They spoke painfully clearly (though they also used riddles, and jokes, and prophetic action -- but they always explained those things).

Just a tiny example. There's much more gold to be found in Herodotus for those who venture there.