Audiobook Review: Great Courses: Religion In The Ancient Mediterranean World: Part 3

Great Courses:  Religion In The Ancient Mediterranean World:  Part 3, taught by Professor Glenn S. Holland

Fortunately, most of this section of lectures focuses on something where the professor and I have a good deal of agreement, and that is the religion of Greece.  Although in general I am not fond of the evolutionary perspective of religion that many people have–largely because it fails in those cases (like the Bible) where it is most commonly used, I find it is easier to appreciate people who take an ancient religion as seriously as I do, as a way of gaining knowledge about history and context without any sort of belief getting in the way, and that is true for my perspective on Greek heathen religion (and generally Greek thinking as a whole [1]).  Be that as it may, this book was a relatively pleasant surprise after the general displeasure I had with the previous section of the book, although it must be admitted that the professor does begin this part of his lectures by discussing various aspects of Israel’s religious history, which makes for an odd break between parts 2 and 3, and one that does not seem natural at all.

Like the rest of this series and the majority of other lectures from the Great Courses series, this part contains twelve lectures of half an hour each on six cds.  The first three lectures deal with Israelite religion, the classical Israelite writing prophets, about which the author has some misinformation about imaginary second Isaiahs and the like (25), the great crisis of exile and how it supposedly changed Israelite religion (26), and the problem of evil as a supposed origin for apocalypticism and thoughts of the afterlife (27).  After these rubbish lectures are done, though, the professor happily moves on to Greek religion where he is less off-base.  A discussion of ancient Aegean civilizations, namely the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations (28) gives way to a discussion of religious culture in the Iliad and Odyssey (29) as well as the writings of the Archaic Greek period (30).  After this the author looks at Greek myths of creation (31) as well as his frequent obsession with the sacred feminine (32).  The rest of the lectures find the author examining the classical era (33), the troubled attempts of philosophers to rationalize religion (34), the syncretistic nature of religion in the Hellenistic period (35), and some aspects of the mystery religions during that same period (36).

In listening to these lectures, although I enjoyed them for the most part, I got the feeling the professor and I were definitely on opposite sides.  For one, it appears that the author himself was in favor of the rationalizing tendency of Greek philosophy even though it was not factually true and that it was genuinely corrosive to the cultural fabric of Greece and every other society where a rationalistic approach to religion has been undertaken by corrupt elites.  Similarly, it appears from these lectures that the author is generally in favor of syncretism and the blending of religious traditions as evidence that faith is somehow mutable and not something to be taken particularly seriously.  One wonders if the professor has reflected long and hard on the intolerant nature of Hellenistic elites when cultures wished (for good reason) to maintain their religion in the face of the universalizing tendencies of the Hellenists, as happened in Judea.  At any rate, though, it is striking that both early Christians and Greek philosophers were considered to be atheists in the ancient world because their beliefs were out of step with the heathen religious thought of the masses.  Sometimes life is full of rich irony.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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