Saturday, February 03, 2018

Review of Herren, The Anatomy of Myth

BRYN MAYR CLASSICAL REVIEW: Michael Herren, The Anatomy of Myth: The Art of Interpretation from the Presocratics to the Church Fathers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xiiii, 231. ISBN 9780190606695. $74.00. Reviewed by Matthew Kraus, University of Cincinnati (
Michael Herren contends that the greatest contribution of Greek thought to Christianity was not philosophical principles but the critical reading of Scripture “as a pagan Greek might read Homer” (p. viii). Central to his thesis is the claim that the transmission of myths included strategies of how to interpret them. Approaching his subject as a history of ideas, he divides myths and their interpretations into periods corresponding to three “shifting paradigms in ancient thought and culture” (p. vii): (1) the Poets (ca. 800-600 BCE), (2) Physis (600-350 BCE) and (3) Theos (350 BCE onward). Jews and Christians adopted Greek methods of criticizing myth which ultimately benefitted the reading of religious texts. “Classical exegesis” prevented fundamentalist reading of Scriptures and protected pagan Classics from overzealous Christians. Hoping to appeal to students, Herren includes a glossary of names and terms in the back and draws connections to contemporary culture wars, maintaining that the open-minded and skeptical interpretive methods of the ancient Greeks might restrain the irrational fundamentalism that tragically colors twenty-first century discourse and ideologically driven violence. The bulk of the book, wherein lies its primary value, is dedicated to tracing the treatment of myth in antiquity. These sections, in which Herren displays his learned expertise, are especially convincing. When he casts his net beyond the traditional Classical world to Jewish and Christian literature with occasional nods to our own context, the results are less satisfying. Nonetheless, this barely detracts from the work’s core elements.


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