Biblical Characters between Drama and Tragedy

Vincenzo Anselmo, SJ

 Vincenzo Anselmo, SJ / Church Thought / Published Date:19 August 2019/Last Updated Date:5 August 2021

In 1946 Erich Auerbach published his famous work Mimesis. In a chapter headed “The Scar of Ulysses” he juxtaposes biblical characters with those of the Homeric world.[1] Comparative studies of the Scriptures with Greek literature, epic and tragic, have multiplied on the basis of this intuition.[2]

The hero as presented to us by Greek tragedy is the victim of forces that are beyond human control and understanding. This tragic vision leaves the hero isolated in an arbitrary and capricious world.

Are the figures in the biblical account also determined by forces greater than themselves, or are they really free and able to change in the narrative plot? According to some scholars, the biblical narrative presents tragic traits, because its characters can be burdened by a non-benevolent, if not hostile and adverse transcendent agent, like King Saul, who was oppressed by an evil spirit coming from God (cf. 1 Sam 16:14,15,16,23; 18:10; 19:9), or they find themselves victims of an arbitrary and unjust destiny, like Jephthah, who was seemingly force to sacrifice his only daughter to God (cf. Judg 11:29-40).[3]

Are chaos, randomness and misfortune therefore also present in Scripture? Does the struggle of the biblical characters against an adverse destiny that is disproportionate to their own strengths and faults make them tragic characters? Is it really possible to project the tragic dimension illustrated in the Greek plays onto the biblical narrative? How can human freedom and divine omnipotence be articulated in Scripture?

We will see how human freedom and divine intervention find in the Bible a delicate narrative balance. We will read, in particular, the controversial account of the vow of Jephthah, where human freedom is represented in its most dramatic aspects.

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