Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein
Odysseus and Penelope, 1802
Oil on canvas
In a much-studied sequence of Homer’s Odyssey, the old maid Eurýkleia bathes a beggar’s feet only to discover the precise scar that she knows to be of her lord, Odysseus. She responds, in a loud whisper:
“Oh yes! You are Odysseus! Ah, dear child! I could not see you until now — not till I knew my master’s very body with my hands!” (Homer, The Odyssey; trans. Robert Fitzgerald)
Famously, this passage has been discussed by the literary scholar Erich Auerbach as an example of proto-realism in Western literature, of the relationship between historicity, psychology, and text. This, of course, is in contrast (in Auerbach’s argument) to the Old Testament narrative, which has a different sort of relationship with history, psychology, and text. For Auerbach, Homer’s narrative forms the type of literature that aims at “mimesis,” the description of life in all its varied forms, whereas the Old Testament narrative forms the type of literature that aims at transformative truth.
However one feels about Auerbach’s famous argument, what strikes me about Eurýkleia’s exclamation and the sequence of Odysseus’ scar is how the precise moment of her recognition betrays The Odyssey‘s epistemology and its complex network regarding terms of knowledge and truth. This, perhaps, marks a far more significant distinction between the Old Testament and The Odyssey than Auerbach’s narratology. The former views Truth as the kind of thing that ought not be “tested” (cf. Dt. 6:16), while the latter, ever unsure of terms like “Truth,” views it as the kind of thing that must be tested. In short, what Auerbach sensed as a distinction primarily of genre and narrative form, I, instead, will suggest is a distinction primarily of epistemology and faith.
All throughout The Odyssey, both mortals and immortals go hidden or on secret purposes, and respond to events with an eye towards the secret purposes of the gods. For instance, whenever Odysseus wanders about in the guise of an old beggar, there is a common refrain of how sometimes the gods wander about disguised as beggars, and, thus, men ought to treat them well. The suggestion is one grounded on an unknown: one does not know whether the beggar before you is or is not, in reality, a god; thus, treat him well. This claim requires no moral argument — no rationalizing to the level of “human rights” of modern secular ethics. There is a level of skeptical pragmatism to it.
The distinction between Greco-Roman (if we can take The Odyssey as broadly representative of Greco-Roman thought) and Old Testament epistemology, then, lands on whether Truth can be accessed with or without mediation. In The Odyssey, Truth must be tested, providing some level of proof. Penélopê, for instance, tests Odysseus by suggesting that she move her bed, which he states is impossible since the bed is made of a tree still rooted into the ground. Likewise, Eurýkleia discovers Odysseus’ identity through the scar on his leg, and most other characters only discover Odysseus’ identity either through his testing of their faithfulness (in particular, his servants) or through his passing a test (e.g., defeating Penélopê’s trial and then slaying Antínoös immediately thereafter). In all The Odyssey, it is only Argos who recognizes Odysseus without any mediation; and most of the interactions between various characters (mortal and immortal) requires testing / proving in order for Truth to be revealed.
By comparison, the Old Testament operates from the assumption that Truth, while requiring mediation from person to person, can be transmitted directly, unmediated, from God to the human being. This is the significance of, for instance, Moses and the burning bush, Abraham’s call into Canaan, or Ezekiel’s vision of the one “like a son of man” on high. The Old Testament’s epistemology does not suspend the need for proof in certain relationships (especially from human-to-human) or for certain kinds of knowledge (war, science, politics, etc.), but it makes clear that the nature of Truth is the kind of thing that can be directly communicated without mediation from the Lord to His people. Thus, the First Commandment is “I am the Lord your God who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Ex. 20:2); this is not a matter of proof or testing, but a declaration of a direct, revelatory Truth.