Blessed are the meek," Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, "for they shall inherit the earth." When Chrysostom, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, and Eusebius heard Jesus speaking of meekness, they immediately thought of Moses.

Theodoret cites Numbers 12:3, a text referring to Moses "as very meek, more than all men that were on the face of the earth." Eusebius comments that "whereas Jesus promised the meek inheritance of the earth, Moses promised Israel inheritance of the land."

But no modern commentator on Matthew's Gospel links Moses with Jesus' teaching on the meek and the kingdom. Why?

The church fathers' tendency to find allusions and allegories within the broader biblical narrative can seem to many modern readers forced and fanciful. Why did they so often take a text that at first glance appears to refer to one thing —meekness, for instance—and find in it things that surprise modern interpreters?

Homer as Scripture

Think of an educational system in which the study of Homer's great works, the Iliad and the Odyssey, played a central role in forming young, impressionable Greek minds. Homer was the backbone—even the Bible—of the Greek-speaking world. Greek culture turned to Homer for guidance and insight much as Jews turned to Moses.

The church fathers were educated, for the most part, in this Greek culture. They were raised on these stories, and the way they learned to read Homer and Virgil deeply influenced the way they read Scripture.

For example, unlike modern texts, ancient texts did not have spaces between words. The result was that the text was more easily read by sounding the words than by only seeing them. So students of Homer repeatedly read him aloud, pronouncing the words carefully, thus committing the stories to memory—in ...

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