2016-10-26

The Pentateuch’s Debt to Greek Laws and Constitutions — A New Look

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by Neil Godfrey

For the previous post in this series examining Russell Gmirkin’s new book see Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible

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Ancient Greeks of the Classical and Hellenistic eras loved a good foundation story. Such a story typically began with severe troubles leading to a hopeful solution or escape by sending out a group of people under a divinely blessed leader who became their founder-figure for their new settlement. This founding figure would lead the conquest of the new land, divide up the territory for the new arrivals, set up religious altars and appropriate worship rituals, and write down the new laws to govern the new nation.

You recognize the story type from the opening books of the Bible. The Israelites were suffering in Egypt; the solution was for them to leave under their own leader, Moses; through their new leader God gave them their new religious rites and other laws by which they were to live when they entered their new land; the successor to Moses, Joshua, conquered their new territory and allocated the land according to divine plan to the various tribes. Other versions of this story were known among Jews and gentiles alike — see the box insert for links.

The story of the Exodus and Conquest under Moses and Joshua is in essence a typical Greek foundation story. Especially Greek about it is the way that the laws of the new land are embedded in this founding narrative. The narrative establishes both their divine origin and antiquity.

bermanRabbi Joshua Berman (Created Equal: How the Bible broke with ancient political thought) has argued that the Pentateuchal laws, especially those of Deuteronomy, were far ahead of their time.

Scholars have discussed some of the similarities between Pentateuchal laws [Pentateuch: first five books of the Hebrew Bible] and those found in the Greco-Roman world as well as among Near Eastern states and proposed that the explanation lies in Israel/Judea having been part of a wider world of cultural interconnections spanning the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East (e.g. Levinson, 2006. The First Constitution; Knoppers & Harvey, 2007. “The Pentateuch in Ancient Mediterranean Context” in The Pentateuch as Torah).

In the previous post we alluded to the problem that the material evidence of contacts between pre-Hellenistic Greeks (pre Alexander the Great’s conquests) and the Judeans* does not support the likelihood of meaningful philosophical and literary exchanges among those strata of society who would be responsible for the writing of legislation and literature.

[* I prefer to use the term Judeans, following Steven Mason in A History of the Jewish War, because the term correlates to the identity of the ancient inhabitants of Jerusalem centred Palestine and their associated diaspora more aptly than the term Jewish.

. . . I shall translate Greek Ioudaioi as Judeans rather than Jews. This is not because I have any quarrel with the use of Jews. That is the familiar translation . . . But our aim is to understand ancient ways of thinking, and in my view Judeans better represents what ancients heard in the ethnos-polis-cult paradigm. That is, just as Egypt (Greek Aegyptos) was understood to be the home of Egyptians (Aegyptioi), Syria of Syrians, and Idumaea of Idumaeans, so also Judaea (Ioudaia) was the home of Judeans (Ioudaioi) — the only place where their laws and customs were followed. Jerusalem was world-famous as the mother-polis of the Judeans. . . .

(Mason, 2016. Kindle version, loc 3268)]

But what if on closer inspection we see that much in the Pentateuch is closer in both broad outline and specific details to the writings about Greek constitutions and laws (especially as found in Aristotle and Plato) than anything we find on the Syrian-Mesopotamian side of Palestine? And what if the earliest external evidence for the Pentateuch places it no earlier than the third century BCE (ca 270 BCE), by which time Judeans were known to be in Alexandria’s Great Library and exposed to the best of Classical Greek writings, including Aristotle’s history and description of the Athenian Constitution and Plato’s discussion of ideal laws?

platocreationhebrewbibleIn the second chapter of Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible Russell Gmirkin undertakes a systematic comparison of Greek and Judean constitutions or legal and governing institutions primarily as documented in their respective literature. Comparisons (more often contrasts) are periodically made with Near Eastern counterparts (or their absence). Afterwards he covers the law collections themselves, then the narratives surrounding the origins of the laws, and finally surveys the broader question of the origin of the Hebrew Bible as a whole.

So let’s back up and start at the beginning.

How important among the Greeks was their literature about how a state should be governed?

The genre of constitutional law, which described the various offices of government, their qualifications, responsibilities and means of selection, was well represented in literature and inscriptions throughout the Greek world, but was entirely unknown in the Ancient Near East. (p. 42)

For Isocrates the constitution was the soul of the state; for Aristotle it was the state. Writings and speeches about the various forms of government were major topics: Aristotle and Plato produced two works each on constitutional questions; works on the same by Xenophon and a “pseudo-Xenophon” also survive; we have many references in the literature and inscriptions to the writings and speeches of other significant ancient persons addressing questions of how governments should be designed and function.

Gmirkin compares the interests of this distinctive Greek form of literature with the topics of interest in the Pentateuchal law codes and related narratives and I set out his points in table format for easy reference:

Greek constitutions and the Pentateuch
Greek philosophers and politicians often raised the question of the best form of government.

Asian barbarians, being of a slavish mind, were fit only for monarchical rule, forever destined to pay heavy tribute to their kings, according to Aristotle.

Greeks, on the other hand, sought freedom in the rule of the wise and good, with checks on the powers of both the elites and the potentially unruly “demos” — as we see in such writings as:

  • Aristotle’s Politics and Athenian Constitution,
  • Plato’s Republic and Laws (Nomoi),
  • Xenophon’s Lacedemo­nian Constitution
  • Pseudo-Xenophon’s Athenian Constitution
  • fragments of other ancient books on constitutions that have survived in later quotations
  • excerpts from various Greek constitutions quoted by Athenian orators or pre­served on surviving inscriptions

Popular assemblies in Athens selected magistrates and judges; all citizens were expected to participate.

Topics addressed in their constitutional literature and speeches embraced the following (in addition to discussions of the best form of government itself):

  • The geographical boundaries of the nation.
  • Requirements for citizenship, procedures for the enrollment of citizens and the legal status of foreigners, slaves and other non-citizens.
  • Citizen rights and responsibilities, including military service and participation in judicial and democratic assem­blies.
  • Definition of special deliberative bodies entrusted with legislative, judicial and executive functions.
  • Magistrates: their qualifications, procedures for appointment, administra­tive duties and mechanisms for their oversight and review.
  • Judicial structures and procedures.
  • Military organization, education and military training
  • Religious matters, including the appointment of religious personnel, the supervision of temple precincts, and oversight of religious festivals
Unlike the literature found among other Near Eastern peoples biblical writings demonstrate a keen interest in the question of the best form of government for Israel.

Other nations around them were said to be ruled by kings but Israel/Judea was warned not to be like them or they would likewise experience heavy servitude.

Deuteronomy 17 advised that if a king were to be chosen he ought to selected by the people from among the people, and his powers ought to be strictly regulated. Other offices of administration, including judges, were to be selected by popular assemblies.

  • Deuteronomy 16:18-18-22; Exodus 19-24 (constitutional content)
  • 1 Samuel 8, 10 (warning that desiring a king like the nations around them would be a revolt against their freedom under God and a submission to harsh servitude)
  • 1 Kings 12 (the warning fulfilled under Solomon)

Deuteronomy and Judges depicts a people ruling themselves through national assemblies and councils of elders; magistrates were appointed to civil and military powers as required.

Topics addressed in their constitutional literature and speeches embraced the following:

  • National and tribal geographical boundaries.
  • Requirements for citizenship, procedures for the enrollment of citizens and the legal status of foreigners, slaves and other non-citizens.
  • Citizen rights and responsibilities, including military service and participa­tion in judicial and democratic assemblies.
  • Definition of special deliberative bodies entrusted with legislative, judicial and executive functions.
  • Magistrates: their qualifications, procedures for appointment, administrative duties and mechanisms for their oversight and review.
  • Judicial structures and procedures.
  • Military organization, including conscription and command structure.
  • Religious matters, including the appointment of religious personnel, the supervision of temple precincts and oversight of religious festivals.

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In future posts I will look at some of Russell Gmirkin’s detailed comparisons of those eight or so topics.

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