Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, June 14, 2013

THUCYDIDES: God and History

God is one of the great themes in the Great Books. Someone once said that history is a glove moved by the hand of God. Reading Thucydides is a good time to stop and consider what the Great Books have to say about God and history. The Gospel of Mark establishes a clear dividing point in history. It distinguishes the line between the old (B.C.) and the new (A.D.). Was it a coincidence that Jesus was born during the period of Roman power instead of Greek or Persian power? Was there some sort of divine plan behind it all? The book of Exodus also shows God intervening in history. He chose a certain group of people to establish his presence among mankind. His choice was not necessarily the greatest people, such as the Egyptians, but a race of slaves. Much like a farmer, God took great care of the Hebrews and planted them at a specific time so they could grow in a specific place. Was this a coincidence? Or was there some sort of divine plan behind it all? Under this theory of history God is ultimately in control. Politics and war are just activities carried out by imperfect people pursuing imperfect plans. But these people unknowingly carry out the will of God in a larger story than any mere local context. It all fits into a larger plan. Pilate, for example, was just trying to do his best to keep the Jews in his province from rioting. So he had Jesus crucified. His main goal was merely to pacify the Jews. These were the same Hebrews that God brought out of Egypt. Pilate was totally unaware that he was at a crucial turning point in history. And once again God didn’t choose the powerful people, the Romans, for this mission. He chose someone the Romans had never heard of. Jesus. Was this coincidence or a divine plan?

Thucydides never worried about those kinds of things. He doesn’t subscribe to a theory of history that places whole civilizations and peoples in the hand of God. He just wants to describe what happened when Athens and Sparta went to war. It’s interesting to speculate if God cared as much for the Mytilenian’s plight as he did for the Hebrews. The Mytelinians were chafing under Athenian bondage. They viewed themselves as much in bondage to the Athenians as the Hebrews had been in bondage to the Egyptians. But God delivered the Hebrews out of bondage. Why didn’t he do the same for the Mytilenians? Thucydides doesn’t speculate on any of that. God is out of the picture. Thucydides just sticks to the facts before him. All he knows is that the Mytilenians lost. Thucydides believes they lost because Athens had a stronger army, not because it was God’s will. Let’s compare a little Bible history and Thucydides history.

For starters, the Mytilenians appealed to the Spartans; the Hebrews had no one to appeal to except God. Spartans challenged Athenian dominance of the Mytilenians. But no similar earthly power could challenge Egypt’s dominance of the Hebrews. Spartans sent men and ships to aid the Mytilenians. God sent plagues on the Egyptians to aid the Hebrews. Spartans were slow in sending ships to help the Mytilenians, so they surrendered to the Athenians. The Egyptians were closing in on the Hebrews and the Hebrews seemed to be on the verge of surrendering too. But God parted the sea so the Hebrews could walk safely through. The Egyptian chariots following after them were destroyed. Thucydides and Moses both asked the same question but they didn’t give the same answer. Why do some people survive and others don’t? Thucydides saw raw military power as the answer. Moses saw the hand of God. We may not be able to answer the riddle of history but we have Great Books to guide us; if we read them well.


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