Thursday, December 16, 2010

Herodotus Saves Sunday School

My husband and I have set about to read the classics this year.  He started with those written first, the Iliad and the Odyssey.  I started with the histories so I could place the other classical figures and stories in time and space as I read (and my own proclivities tend towards history, anyway).

An unintended benefit is that my current reading of Herodotus' Histories has coincided nicely with the final few weeks of Old Testament Sunday School reading for this year.  In addition to being able to place Aristotle, Solon, and Caesar Augustus, I have been able to place the temple building of Ezra, Daniel in the lion's den, and Queen Esther.

Perhaps I should back up a bit.  Mormons do everything full-boar.  This includes church.  Instead of the usual hour to an hour and a half of church, we go for three hours.  I vaguely remember the days when we would go to church mid-week and then twice times on Sunday so we could cover Sacrament Meeting (where we take the Lord's supper), Sunday School, and then attend a third meeting determined by your age, gender, or priesthood office. Sometime in the 1980s, all this was changed and simplified into a consecutive three-hour block of church on Sunday.

Sunday School now usually comes between Sacrament Meeting and the specialised third meeting (for me, the women's organisation for those 18+ Relief Society - for my husband, Elders' Quorum).  And there is a standardized curriculum all are taught the world over in consecutive weeks.  As we have four volumes of "standard work" scriptures (again, we do everything full-boar),  we rotate each standard work through four-year periods.  This year's Sunday School curriculum focused on the Old Testament.  In 2011, we will study the New Testament, in 2012 the Book of Mormon, and in 2013 the Doctrine and Covenants (a series of modern-day revelations beginning in 1830 - technically an open book of scripture, but the last revelation was canonized in 1918).

I have noticed in my simultaneous reading of Herodotus and the Old Testament that a couple names frequent both: Cyrus and Darius.  It all seemed a bit of a jumble until my husband's unfortunate quick-trip to Frankfurt this last Sunday required me to pick up his Sunday School lesson.  To help me understand the chapters and stories in Daniel and Esther better, I drew out a simple chart with a timeline down one side and the regions of the Fertile Crescent along the top, pictured above.  I then, with the timeline in the preliminary pages of Herodotus and my memory of his original stories, drew in blocks which rulers conquered when.  I then compared the names of the kings in the Bible stories with Herodotus.

It occurred to me that the Darius Daniel talks of couldn't possibly be the Darius of my timeline, as Daniel spans both the Babylonian captivity, and the conquering of Babylon by the Persians.  More digging revealed that my timeline did not fail me: in Daniel 6:28, it reads that "Daniel prospered in the reign of Darius, and in the reign of Cyrus the Persian."  Either Darius was a leader under Cyrus, or Darius, as was common custom in antiquity, was the Babylonian name for Cyrus, and the poetic parallelism common to Isaiah, where phrases are repeated in confirming fashion, was used here.

I shared all (or a Cliff notes version) of this in class, and was surprised when a student in the class - another historian - raised his hand to say that in antiquity, it was common for conquerors to receive new names once they had conquered a new region.

I realized again the benefits of participating in a lay clergy system in substituting for my husband on Sunday.  In preparing for the lesson, I was blessed.  It required me to square my secular with my spiritual knowledge - bringing it all together as a whole.  I will never read Daniel, Esther, and now Ezra quite in the same way again, and I will be able to associate a spiritual softness to the otherwise brutal rulers described by Herodotus (the Lord uses everyone He can).  Additionally, because my faith recognizes all truth regardless of its source and all people as equal in the gospel, I, who was suppose to be teacher, was taught on multiple levels by those I was attempting to serve.


  1. I've been reading ancient history and teaching gospel doctrine simultaneously. It lends great insight into the flavor of the time period. I'll have to pick up Herodotus.

  2. I am LDS, grew up in Utah, graduated from BYU, and am now living about two hours north of you in East Anglia. I would love to know where I could find a good list of the classics that you are reading. I just discovered your blog. Very interesting.

  3. @ Chari-o - and you me!

    @ Melissa - what have you been reading?

    @ Dana - what a small world! My husband put together a good spreadsheet - if you provide your email, I'll send it along.