Which came first, the Odyssey or the Bible?

My daughter came home from high school Friday with an interesting question. “Was the Odyssey written before the Bible?” She went on to explain that her English teacher had drawn a host of parallels between Moses and the tales of Odysseus, pointing out that the Odyssey had in fact been written before the Bible and explaining to her students that the Biblical author of the accounts of Moses must clearly have copied them from the Odyssey. My daughter’s faith is pretty strong, but I could see the worry on her face as she asked me, “Is that true?”

The problem with her teacher’s statement is of course that it’s not true. In fact, it’s so far from accurate that it took me some time to research where she may even have been coming from to make her statements. But the inaccuracy of her statements is really only a small part of the problem. The much bigger problem is the way of thinking that allowed these statements to be made and to go generally unchallenged – and the fact that they were made to an impressionable group of students just beginning their journey not only through high school but through the maze of spiritual questions and challenges that will shape their lives. Before we tackle any of that though, let’s go over the facts themselves.

I’ll confess up front that, while I’ve read the Bible a number of times, I only read the Odyssey once, and that was because it was required for my own educational journey. I was not a fan then, and no love for either the Iliad or the Odyssey will shine through in my writings now. But, for better or for worse (and to the dismay of high school and college students everywhere), the Odyssey is generally considered to have been first written down around 700 or 800 B.C.  It’s thought by some that it could have been passed down through oral tradition for some time before that, but since the story itself is set in Mycenaean Greece in about the twelfth century B.C., that’s as far back as it could possibly be considered to go.

Moses is considered to have written the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) in approximately 1400 B.C., or about 600 years before the writing of the Odyssey. So where did the idea come from that the Odyssey would have been written first? I thought it may have involved the earliest manuscripts found, but the earliest surviving manuscripts of the Odyssey date to about 250 B.C. – as do the earliest surviving manuscripts of the book of Exodus, the portion of the Pentateuch in which my daughter’s teacher sought to draw parallels between the heroism and struggles of Moses and those of Odysseus. So at best, if you’re drawing conclusions from the dates of earliest surviving manuscripts, it’s a wash.

A side note – to understand the conversations in my daughter’s classroom I spent some time this weekend studying the comparisons between Moses and Odysseus, and I think it’s a stretch to say they’re more related than any other accounts or stories of heroes who had great tasks to accomplish while dealing with their own flaws. Still, let’s accept the idea that they’re similar. We’re not talking about lines of text that read the same here, no high school plagiarism by copying another person’s work word-for-word, but the idea that the themes are similar. Would that mean that: (a) one was copied from the other, (b) they both drew from actual historic events (one choosing to write those accounts down as history and the other to create a work of fiction with the same themes), or just (c) that similar themes are likely to surface when epic accounts of heroism are being told? I’m obviously going with (c) on this one. You don’t have to agree with me, but I did pretty well on multiple choice tests in school. For any of you who have read the Odyssey with more enthusiasm than I have, and who have found more compelling similarities than I was able to find, I’m open to your comments.

Regardless, the burning question is what evidence there is that the Odyssey was written first. I’m assuming that what my daughter’s teacher may have heard or read goes back to criticisms some have leveled that Moses could not possibly have written the Pentateuch in 1400 B.C. because writing did not actually exist then. A compelling argument, until quite a number of archaeological finds proved that it did exist. In fact more than one form of writing existed in the 100 year span before Moses is thought to have written these books, and specifically within the same region where Moses would have done his writing. In a matter of minutes I found three different published archaeological discoveries showing writing dating to at least 1500 B.C., the most famous being the Code of Hammurabi.

There are of course those who simply choose not to believe that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, but not believing isn’t evidence. There are also many who believe Homer may not have existed, and certainly may not have written the Iliad and the Odyssey. That’s not evidence either. Of course, questions about Homer’s authorship were evident among the Greeks as early as were the first available manuscripts. Moses’ authorship of the Pentateuch is asserted by other Biblical writers in both the Old and New Testaments. If anything, just going off of the available contextual evidence, it could be argued that the author of the Odyssey (whoever he or she may have been) “lifted” themes from available Biblical accounts and chose to create an epic story – after all, an author or story teller has to make a living.

The bigger question is this; why does a statement that it takes very little research to refute make it into the classroom and out of the mouth of an intelligent professional instructor? Not why did it happen in this case, but why does it happen so commonly and so easily? If you have read any of my posts, you know that I do not endorse blindly or easily accepting a religious point of view without examining it to see if it’s true. But just as dangerous, perhaps more so, is to blindly or easily reject a religious point of view because a challenge has been presented without examining that challenge to see if it is true. The world makes merciless fun of people who too easily accept religious perspectives. It applauds those who rush to reject them, treating them as courageous and heroic for speaking against generally accepted truth.

My daughter will return to school tomorrow having examined the evidence, and more prepared for continued discussions. More importantly, when the next challenge presents itself (and it will), she’ll know to step back, give herself some time, and examine the evidence for herself. That’s all I want for her. Not to be sheltered from the challenges, but to face them unafraid.

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