Sunday, March 23, 2014

An echo of Homer in Luke 11:21-22 (?)

Ambrosian Illiad
I make a point of reading through the Gospels each time I teach Briercrest's required first year course on the Gospels. This time through, I was struck by a passage in the assigned reading that we never talk about in class:

"When a fully-armed strong man guards his own estate, his belongings are in peace. But as soon as someone stronger than he attacks and conquers him, he takes away the armour in which he had trusted and distributes his plunder." (Luke 11:21-22; contrast Mark 3:27; Matt 12:29)

According to Howard Marshall, the battle imagery in Luke's version "has as its background the OT idea of God armed as a hero for battle against his enemies (Is. 59:16–18) and the Qumranic concept of the messianic war" (Luke, 478).

That may be so, but the description also reminds me of Homer--no doubt because one of the effects of crawling through the gory details of the Iliad at the rate of a few pages every week is that one thinks differently about ancient practices of warfare. Consider this passage, one of many that describe the same basic procedure:
Both fighters at one great stroke
chopped at each other--Pisander hacked the horn
of the horsehair-crested helmet right at its ridge
lunging as Menelaus hacked Pisander between the eyes,
the bridge of the nose, and bone cracked, blood sprayed
and both eyes dropped at his feet to mix in the dust--
he curled and crashed. Digging a heel in his chest
Menelaus stripped his gear and vaunted out in glory,
"So home you'll run from our racing ships, by god,
all as corpses--see, you death-defying Trojans?"
...                                                    So he cried
and staunch Atrides stripped the gear form the corpse
and heaving the bloody bronze to eager comrades
swung to attack again, frontline assault.
(Robert Fagles translation of the Illiad, book 13.705-714, 738-741)
To my mind, this passage (and others like it) illumines the armour-stripping imagery in Luke 11, but no commentary that I consulted mentions the practice. To be sure, in Homer one only strips weapons from a foe one has killed in battle, and most commentators appear to assume that the opponent in Luke 11 is not dead, but perhaps one shouldn't press the metaphor.

I don't know whether the warfare familiar to Luke's readers (or Jesus' audience) bore any resemblance to battle in Greek antiquity. One might suppose that the better-equipped Roman army would not pause to strip the armour from defeated foes after each kill. Do we then have an echo of Homer in Luke's Gospel?