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The Jealous God of Ancient Greece: Interpreting the Classical Greek Notion of Φθόνος Θεῶν between Renaissance Humanism and Altertumswissenschaft

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The description of god as phthoneros (‘envious’, ‘jealous’, ‘grudging’) in the works of Pindar, Aeschylus, and Herodotus has played an important role in the later understanding of archaic and classical Greek religion. This paper explores the genesis and development of several interpretations of the Greek concept of φθόνος θεῶν that have arisen since the Renaissance, and how these relate to wider debates on the relationship between Christianity and ‘paganism’, including the ‘jealous God’ of Scripture. I outline three principal approaches to the topic. First, a Platonizing or Christianizing interpretation whereby divine phthonos is god’s moral disapproval of human ‘hubris’, impiety, or arrogance and thus a form of ‘divine justice’; second, a ‘Paganizing’ interpretation, whereby divine phthonos is an immoral resentment of human success or simply a hostility towards humanity, and represents an essential difference between the ‘moral’ theology of Christianity and ‘amoral’ pagan theology; third, a ‘developmental’ explanation posited in the late Enlightenment (and later popularized in a different form by anthropologists and philologists) as part of a thesis for the religious development of mankind as a whole. In this third view, divine phthonos was initially an ‘amoral’ emotion, felt by the gods of ‘primitive’ religious systems, but the concept was ‘purified’ in the course of the Greeks’ theological development, so that divine phthonos became a ‘moral’ response to hybris. By exploring the intellectual climate which gave rise to each of these interpretations, I trace the origins of the tacit but total disagreement over the meaning of ‘divine phthonos’ in classical scholarship today, and encourage a return to the long-standing debates about a theme at the heart of Herodotus’s Histories and our understanding of Greek religion more generally.

Affiliations: 1: Institut für Klassische Philologie, Bern University, Länggassstrasse 49, CH-3012 Bern, Switzerland,


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