πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν:
πολλῶν δ’ ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω,
πολλὰ δ’ ὃ γ’ ἐν πόντῳ πάθεν ἄλγεα ὃν κατὰ θυμόν,
ἀρνύμενος ἣν τε ψυχὴν καὶ νόστον ἑταίρων.
Πολυμερῶς καὶ πολυτρόπως πάλαι ὁ θεὸς λαλήσας τοῖς πατράσιν ἐν τοῖς προφήταις ἐπ’ ἐσχάτου τῶν ἡμερῶν τούτων ἐλάλησεν ἡμιν ἐν υἱῷ, ὃν ἔθηκεν κληρονόμον πάντων, δι’ οὖ καὶ ἐποίσεν τοὺς αἰῶνας: ὃς ὢν ἀπαύγασμα τῆς δόξης καὶ χαρακτὴρ τῆς ὑποστάσεως αὐτοῦ, φέρων τε τὰ πάντα τῷ ῥήματα τῆς δυνάμεως αὐτοῦ, καθαρισμὸν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ποιησάμενος «ἐκάθισεν ἐν δεξιᾷ» τῆς μεγαλωσύνης ἐν ὑψηλοῖς, τοσούτῳ κρείττων γενόμενος τῶν ἀγγέλων ὅσῳ διαφορώτερον παρ’ αὐτοὺς κεκληρονόμηκεν ὄνομα.
I thought I would write an essay—in Montaigne’ sense of a try, an experiment, an attempt that is never conclusive but always questioning—by bringing together two texts and just seeing what happens. It is really a midrashic moment, in fact, because I started thinking about these two texts due to a single word that appears in the first line of each with slight variation: πολύτροπον and πολυτρόπως. This bringing together two texts based upon the occurrence of a single word is, as noted, a midrashic technique, one known as gezera shawa, a technique employed by one of the texts under consideration—Hebrews—but, as we will see, my interpretive maneuvers of reading one text against another through the occurrence of a single word is not to channel the meaning of one text in the manner of the other, as usually happens in gezera shawa, but, in fact, my mode of interpretation is more akin to Erich Auerbach’s in Mimesis: comparison of seemingly two similar aspects of a two different texts is ultimately a differential analysis; the act of comparison helps to highlight differences in nuance, style, perspective, ideology, etc., even as they may employ similar terminology, concepts, and themes.
Beginning at the most basic level of πολύτροπος and πολυτρόπως is that one is an adjective; the other, an adverb. They mean something like “many turns” or “much turned,” although often translated as “many ways.” It has connotations of versatility, shiftiness, change. Most of these connotations result from its earliest written occurrence, referring first and foremost to the man of many turns, Odysseus. It refers to his fluidity of character, a man who can never settle down, but is always on the move. Perhaps that is why he is most at home at sea. It refers to his famed cunning, most exemplified through his speech—his speech is famously well-turned, yet duplicitous. We never know whether or not to trust what he says, particularly in his speech to the Phaiakians, in which he recounts his most fantastic and unbelievable journeys to the most naïve people. In the Odyssey, Odysseus constantly lies, telling the famous “Cretan lies,” which are far more dangerous, since they are half-truths—deceit inheres in his character. His speech and cunning are also his primary features in the Iliad—he is a powerful speaker (as recounted famously in the “Teichoskopia” scene) and in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, book 12, where he runs rhetorical circles around Ajax in order to claim the fallen Achilles’ armor. So, the man of many turns has much-turned speech, the most salient aspect of his character to survive the turbulent retellings of many authors throughout the ages.
The “many” aspect echoes throughout the passage with the anaphoric repetition of πολλά: he has many journeys, he sees many men’s cities and minds, and he suffers many pains. This results in a high degree of alliteration in these first five lines with all the “p” as well as “l” sounds. All the while, he seeks his own and his companions’ νόστος or homecoming, the culmination of the narrative—although, we know, if we are careful readers, that it is not the end: according to Teiresias, Odysseus will continue to wander until he expires. His homecoming is but a respite to a further end, but it is the telos, the goal, of the narrative itself.
There is another text that uses this term in the first sentence, speaks of much-turned speech, echoes the “many,” alliterates with “p” sounds, and features a homecoming: Hebrews. I am not saying that Hebrews deliberately echoes the Odyssey, but I would not exclude it either. The author’s command of Greek clearly shows a high education, one in which the author may have learned, recited, and, in fact, memorized excerpts of Homer. Considering the importance of Homer in antiquity as the poet often modeled, often imitated, often retold (in the Roman period through Virgil and Ovid among many others), as part of the curriculum, an educated audience may pick up on such subtle echoes, echoes that are, for intensive purposes, immediately suppressed as the homily turns on its own model for its much-turned speech: the biblical text of the Law, Prophets, and Psalms—all of which are ultimately prophetic. These will become the new refracted, much-turned, speech for Hebrews, a text, as we know, quite familiar with traditional forms of rhetoric. If Hebrews does, in fact, echo the Odyssey, it does so to overturn it. Yet the comparison of the similar elements makes the differences so much starker, it is the difference of heaven (the unshakable realm, especially) and earth, or, really, the sea.
The difference/similarity strikes one, in fact, with the word πολυτρόπως itself: Hebrews is the reference in Liddel and Scott for the adverbial form—a riff on the more traditional, Odyssean adjective, shifting from a characterization to a mode, from the “what” to the “how.” Looking back to the Odyssey from Hebrews, the weight of the first line in the Odyssey is “man.” “Man” (ἄνδρα) is the first word. The focus, then, is the man of many turns, Odysseus himself, rather than the turns themselves, per se. It is Odysseus’ speech which is much-turned; yet, in Hebrews the focus shifts away from the human aspect of much-turned speech and toward God, it is ὁ θεὸς who speaks πολυμερῶς καὶ πολυτρόπως. If we have Odysseus in the background, what does it mean to think that God speaks with many turns? The problem of cunning and duplicity of Odyssean speech lurks behind this terminology—it has a connotation, recall, of being shifty and versatile, unstable. Indeed, if there is any stability in Odysseus, it is that he is always a man of many ways, he never changes in this aspect of constantly changing. He cannot not lie; he cannot not be shifty or cunning. It is his character. But, in Hebrews, it is no longer a characterization, but a manner, a mode of action. God, in fact, can and does change the changeability of much-turned speech. At the same time, having hidden God after the πολυμερῶς καὶ πολυτρόπως, Hebrews, in contrast to Homer, places greater emphasis on the mode of speech itself rather than on the speaker (ultimately God)—that mode of speech becomes, by the end of the sentence, the enthroned Son.
The multiplication of “p” sounds in the Odyssey repeats in Hebrews, but the first alliterative instance of πολυ- after πολυτρόπως is πάλαι, almost as if relegating the Odyssey’s anaphoric repetition of πολλά to the remote past, as, from the situation in time of first-century CE, it was. The πολυ-/πολλά is relegated to the past by contrast to “these last days.” It, in fact, is doubly alliterative, echoing both the “p” and the “l” sounds. At the same time, the πολυτρόπως is doubled, mirrored, by its synonym, the first word of Hebrews: πολύμερως. When all taken together, there is an amazing balance of sound, not just alliteratively with πολυ-, πολυ-, πάλαι, but also with internal rhyme— Πολυμερῶς καὶ πολυτρόπως πάλαι—in which the ending of the second and the fourth words rhyme with “ai” sounds. The “p” sound then continues with the fathers and prophets, the τοῖς πατράσιν ἐν τοῖς προφήταις, the past hearers and speakers, respectively, after which these sounds appear but as faint echoes of this initial burst of labial “p” sounds.
In fact, what will pull this earlier part of the sentence (for the first four verses of Hebrews is but one long sentence) with the later part will be modes of speech and through whom: many-turns (λαλήσας) to the fathers through the plurality of prophets (ἐν τοῖς προφήταις) versus a singular, penetrating perfect, completed, speech (ἐλάλησεν) of the son. It is as if the scattering of “p” sounds represents the much-turning, overturning, returning speech of God beforehand, perhaps a reminder of rhetorical acrobatics, but the diffusion of such alliterative qualities turns into a different mode without such obvious artistic affectation: however one looks at it, as God changes different modes of speaking from prophets to the son, the language of Hebrews also shifts away from alliteration on nearly a poetic level—the crystallized form of speech that Homeric dactylic hexameters never leave—to prose; the language of Hebrews matches the shift in modes of speaking: many to one, prophets to son, and alliteration (perhaps “art”) to creative nature (since the son is the one through whom God made all, having the “word of power” (τῷ ῥήματα τῆς δυνάμεως)). This is not to discard the “prophets” who spoke to the ancestors, but to redirect their many-turned speech, to channel it into the singular Son. As such, the multiple prophetic voices of the past reverberate throughout Hebrews. Interestingly enough, these prophetic voices primarily derive from Psalms and the Pentateuchal books with references to “prophetic books” (Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.) very rare indeed. The fascinating lattice-work of quotation and allusion of many voices really form an antiphonal choral between Pentateuch and Psalms—yet it is all prophetic.
These multiple voices harmonize into the new, singular mode of speech, which is, indeed, powerful speech, more powerful than the much-turned speech from the prophets of old, as it refolds the multiplicity of past speech into its self, unifying it in its unique perspective that sees, hears, and knows all:
For the word (λόγος) of the Lord is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with him we have to do. (Heb. 4:12-13)
What a wealth of imagery: the word, or, in fact, speech of the Lord is sharp, it is discriminating, distinguishing between the minutiae of such inseparable aspects as bone and marrow or soul and spirit. Yet this speech has eyes, poetically mixing oral and visual registers, eyes with singular focus that, at the same time, see all. This piercing speech turns into a piercing gaze, one that allows it, as a mode, to discriminate and ultimately to judge. If one has not grasped this “powerful word” or discriminating speech/word, then Hebrews reminds you at the end, showing that this new mode of speech can shake the foundations of reality itself:
See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less shall we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. His voice then shook the earth; but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of what is shaken, as of what has been made, in order that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.
We have moved from the Son’s “powerful word” (τῷ ῥήματα τῆς δυνάμεως αὐτοῦ) to the Son as word, as piercing, discriminating, discerning word (λόγος) to the voice (φωνή) that can shake heaven and earth, with only the unshakable realm remaining, the rest, heavenly Jerusalem, or, indeed, the heavenly homeland toward which the author exhorts us.
These registers come together with the realms of the homecoming: one speech of the word/God/unshakable realm (heavenly homeland) versus much-turned speech/man/this world of flux (Ithaka). Moving from much-turned, in the Odyssey the focus is on the return, the homecoming, while in Hebrews the homecoming is less of a return and more of an upturn—it is the journey to the heavenly homeland, itself figured in multiple ways throughout Hebrews as entering rest (3:7-4:11) and God’s sanctuary (10:19-25) and drawing near to the throne (4:14-16) and to God (7:19, 25), yet, again, as seeking the heavenly homeland, the heavenly Jerusalem (11:13-16; 11:39-40; 12:18-24). The Odyssey, in fact, depicts many different homecomings: Agamemnon’s, whose homecoming ended quickly in disaster as he died by the hands of his wife, Clytemnestra and/or her lover Aigisthos; Menelaos’, who reached home with his wife, Helen, after several years of distraction in Egypt; Nestor’s, although more vaguely; Telemachos’, who journeyed throughout the Peloponnese to find word of his father, Odysseus, too, has a journey and a return; and, finally, Odysseus’ rather tricky and complicated homecoming, delayed for so long, beset by many temptations and trials, which were overcome by his famous deceitful cunning. This multiplicity of homecomings, including many individuals going to many different places—Agamemnon to Mycenae, Menelaos to Sparta, Odysseus to Ithaka, etc.—stands against Hebrews, which depicts many people reaching their heavenly homeland, but not quite yet (or not “apart from us”) and to all one place—the heavenly Jerusalem. They too are beset by trials and temptations and their ability to reach their heavenly homeland depends upon their degree of faithfulness and obedience. The unfaithful and disobedient fail to “enter the rest” (3:7-4:11) while the faithful and obedient, while not yet receiving the promised homeland, greeted it from afar (11:13) because they could not receive the promise “apart from us” (Heb. 10:39-12:2). So, while the multiplicity of much-turned speech has shifted from the Odyssey to Hebrews to a singularity of mode exemplified by the Son, also the multiplicity of νόστοι to different destinations and at different times has collapsed into a singularity, to going to a single place and, seemingly, at a single time, since the great heroes of the past (Hebrews 11) could not reach the “promise” of the heavenly homeland “apart from us” (11:40). The only singularity that remains in the Odyssey, the text of fluidity, is Odysseus himself: while he is the man of many ways, the many ways ultimately only refer to him—the kaleidoscope of turns is entirely his own turning. The true “man of many ways who traveled far journeys” in the New Testament, however, would have to be Paul, especially in Acts, but that is another story.