Is it possible that the Bible’s account of priests and prophets contains hints of borrowing from the Greek world? Not that those Hellenistic features mean we have to jettison entirely sources and influences closer to the Levant. Let’s look at another section of Russell Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible (2016).
The narratives of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) are set in Syria, Sinai, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Jordan, Phoenicia, Canaan and that fact affects the way we imagine how the authors created those tales. We picture them drawing upon memories, traditions, stories both oral and written from the those same lands. We expect scholars to look to the law codes, the religious practices, the governing institutions and social customs of the Levant, the Hittites and Mesopotamia for the context of the biblical literature and, as expected, they do indeed find points of contact in those places.
Meanwhile we barely catch glimpses of the Mediterranean world in those scriptures: firstly, there are passing references to Noah’s descendants through Japheth being assigned to settle the Hellas (Greece); secondly, a mysterious dream of an apocalyptic future is revealed to Daniel. Yet Anselm Hagedorn suggests on the basis of Joel and Zechariah that the contact with the Greek world may have been “more intense than the Biblical sources want us to believe.” (2004. p. 60)
You sold the people of Judah and Jerusalem to the Greeks, that you might send them far from their homeland.
I will bend Judah as I bend my bow and fill it with Ephraim. I will rouse your sons, Zion, against your sons, Greece, and make you like a warrior’s sword.
They may not be well known outside academia but there are significant studies that do place the Levant (including “biblical Israel”) within the orbit of the East Mediterranean’s geographical and cultural littoral, most conspicuously from the time of Alexander’s conquests but also culturally centuries earlier. Some of these studies (ones that I have been able to access in preparation for this post) are:
- J. Davis’s People of the Mediterranean: An Essay in Comparative Social Anthropology,
- Horden and Purcell’s The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History
- and Anselm Hagedorn’s Between Moses and Plato: Individual and Society in Deuteronomy and Ancient Greek Law.
It is in this context that Gmirkin’s thesis focuses on a Hellenistic provenance of the Pentateuch. In particular he looks to the centrality of the Great Library of Alexandria established in the wake of the Greco-Macedonian conquests ca 300 BCE and assigned the responsibility of collecting copies of all the literary works of the known world. It was through this central repository that Judean scholars surely had access to the great philosophical and political works of Plato, Aristotle, and others. It is also pertinent to Gmirkin’s thesis that one widely popular topic among literate circles throughout the Greek speaking world was the question of “the best form of government”. And that’s exactly the sort of literature that the Pentateuch is — a narrative history and detailed exposition of “perfect laws”, an “ideal constitution”, the wisest of law-books among all nations, as Deuteronomy 4: 5-8 informs us:
Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments . . . for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations who shall hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them as the Lordour God is in all things that we call upon Him for? And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?
So for Gmirkin’s thesis it is not without significance that the earliest secure evidence of the Pentateuchal writings dates to that time, the third century BCE, and that the primary theme and interest of these writings is the same as we find among Greek philosophers of that time — the establishment and exposition of ideal constitutions and perfect laws intended to support the happiest and most righteous society imaginable.
Among some striking synchronicities between the worlds of Greece and the Hebrew Bible identified by Gmirkin and discussed so far have been:
- the 12 tribe organisation of the people
- the subjection of the king to moral guardians or priestly supervision
In the final post in this section of Gmirkin’s study we look at some aspects of the Pentateuch’s Aaronid priests, related Levites and roles of prophets. We will see that while the Pentateuch has significant departures from Athenian practice and Plato’s philosophical ideals there remain certain points of contact that are worthy of attention.
We know from Aristotle (Politics 1300a, 19ff; Athenian Constitution 57) that Athenian priestly offices were appointed either by popular election or by lot, but that it was necessary for a certain ratio of candidates to belong to two ancient priestly families, the Eumolpidae and Kerykes. One of course thinks of the Aaronids in the Pentateuch and the Zadokites in the Book of Ezekiel.
Plato contemplated an ideal constitution (or rather a second-best constitution, since anything human had to be inferior to divine systems) and decided it was most necessary for priestly functions to be filled by persons not only pure physically, but also morally and according to family heritage:
we shall test, first, as to whether he is sound and true-born, and secondly, as to whether he comes from houses that are as pure as possible, being himself clean from murder and all such offences against religion, and of parents that have lived by the same rule. (Laws 759c)
In following up Russell Gmirkin’s endnotes I came across a notice that the title of “high priest” was unattested for any Greek city up to the middle of the third century, or the Hellenistic era.
After this time it becomes very common. . . . Plato’s … Laws anticipates the future and may have been an important influence upon Athenian practices in Hellenistic times. (Morrow p. 418)
It is interesting that Plato’s philosophical discussion should be considered as a possible source for institutional innovations in Athens in the Hellenistic era. That classicists take this view strengthens Russell Gmirkin’s argument that the same writing influenced the authors of the Pentateuch.
What is particularly interesting, however, is that Plato further spoke of a need for the priests of Apollo and Helios to be of the most virtuous character. Physical perfection was not sufficient.
Wherefore it is most necessary that the examiners [priests of Apollo and Helios] should be men of admirably complete virtue. (Laws 945e)
Calling for morally pure priests sounds very biblical but I don’t think Gmirkin draws attention to a specific link in this respect. (Correct me if I err.) There is certainly a condemnation of priests who act immorally in the Prophets, however.
Another unique innovation from Plato was his assignment of civic duties to these priests. That is, their functions extended beyond sacrifices and other “religious” duties. We have previously seen that the Pentateuch likewise assigned civic responsible to priests in that they were to supervise the conduct of the king and we will see further instances of civic responsibilities for priests in the section Experts in Sacred Law below.
The high priest and college of priests [as per Plato/Athens] associated with him correspond strikingly to the Jewish high priest and chief priests who presided over the gerousia (Great Sanhedrin) and the nation. (Gmirkin p. 36)
Itinerants and Levites
Gmirkin notes the similarities between the intolerant beggar priests. Interesting though that is, Plato does in fact speak sneeringly of these people and playwrights mock them. Gmirkin comments on this fact but does not take the discussion any further. If the biblical authors were borrowing from the Greek literature and precedents they were by and large cleaning up their models or referencing sources now lost. Yet when it comes to narrative history such as in the Book of Judges, chapter 18, we read of a fickle levite willing to hire himself out to the highest bidder; and then in chapters 19 to 21 one such itinerant ultimately brings bloody ruin upon the tribes of Israel.
Experts in Sacred Law
While temple priests performed sacrifices and other rituals they were not experts in sacred law. That skill was reserved for another class of officials, the Exegetes. Exegetes would be consulted to interpret omens, to give advice on the number and types of sacrifices (and to which gods) were required for certain festivals and ceremonies, advice concerning sacred areas and what was required to cleanse an area of blood pollution (Morrow pp. 423-427).
The problem of blood pollution was no small matter. It is the stuff of Greek tragedies and legislation in the Book of Deuteronomy. In the following notes I expand slightly on Gmirkin and draw directly from an article he cites: Anselm Hagedorn, “Deut 17,8-13, Procedure for Cases of Pollution?” ZAW 115 (2003) 538-56. Gmirkin discusses the details of the laws themselves and their comparisons with Greek and Near Eastern legislation in the next chapter but in this post we are interested in the way the biblical priests appear to fill the role of Athenian “exegetes” of interpreters of the sacred law, with a focus on their role in cleansing a territory of blood guilt or pollution.
8 “If there arise a matter too hard for thee in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between stroke and stroke, being matters of controversy within thy gates, then shalt thou arise and get thee up into the place which the Lord thy God shall choose,
9 and thou shalt come unto the priests, the Levites, and unto the judge who shall be in those days, and inquire; and they shall show thee the sentence of judgment.
Crimes of bloodshed were to be heard and resolved at the deity’s central shrine and alongside civil judge (as in Athens, apparently chosen annually) were priestly experts in sacred law.
19 “When the Lord thy God hath cut off the nations whose land the Lord thy God giveth thee, and thou succeedest them and dwellest in their cities and in their houses,
2 thou shalt separate three cities for thee in the midst of thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee to possess it.
3 Thou shalt prepare thee a way, and divide the borders of thy land, which the Lord thy God giveth thee to inherit, into three parts, that every slayer may flee thither.
4 “And this is the case of the slayer who shall flee thither, that he may live: Whoso killeth his neighbor ignorantly, whom he hated not in time past—
5 as when a man goeth into the wood with his neighbor to hew wood, and his hand fetcheth a stroke with the ax to cut down the tree, and the head slippeth from the helve and lighteth upon his neighbor, so that he die — he shall flee unto one of those cities and live,
6 lest the avenger of the blood pursue the slayer while his heart is hot and overtake him, because the way is long, and slay him, whereas he was not worthy of death, inasmuch as he hated him not in time past.
7 Therefore I command thee, saying, ‘Thou shalt separate three cities for thee.’
8 And if the Lord thy God enlarge thy border, as He hath sworn unto thy fathers, and give thee all the land which He promised to give unto thy fathers,
9 if thou shalt keep all these commandments to do them, which I command thee this day — to love the Lord thy God and to walk ever in His ways — then shalt thou add three cities more for thee besides these three,
10 that innocent blood be not shed in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, and so blood be upon thee.
11 “But if any man hate his neighbor, and lie in wait for him, and rise up against him and smite him mortally, so that he die, and he fleeth into one of these cities,
12 then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him thence, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die.
13 Thine eye shall not pity him, but thou shalt put away the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, that it may go well with thee.
Note Hagedorn’s observation:
It is . . . quite striking that Deuteronomy never states a punishment for a murder. Texts such as Deut 19,1-13 state what can happen to a person that killed, but even the stipulation in Deut 19,11-13 and the short statement in Deut 19,21b . . . never describe a concrete procedure how to deal with murders within the community. (Hagedorn 2003 p.542)
The inference is that the priests, like the Exegetes in Greece who also decided on steps to be taken to cleanse the land of blood guilt after certain types of killings, would make the judgement on God’s behalf.
The passages I have quoted here speak of putting away the guilt of innocent blood from Israel and other passages throughout the biblical writings speak of shed blood polluting or staining the hands, clothes and head of the guilty. Numbers 35,33 explicitly states that (as in the Greek world) shed human blood pollutes the land:
So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are; for blood defileth the land, and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.
The defilement of the land has to be avoided at all costs since a defiled land reflects upon the condition of the people living in it. However, there are cases in the Old Testament where it is explicitly stated that a killing is justified and thus no blood guilt will occur . . . . In Ex 22,1 we read that it is acceptable to kill a burglar as long as it happens at night. As we will see below, in the Greek world too certain killings do not trigger pollution. And of course the killing in self-defence or war does not lead to pollution either. . . .
The referral to the central sanctuary transfers certain cases from the civil to the sacred sphere – it is no longer possible in Deuteronomy to establish justice without the priesthood, a feature we will encounter again when looking at Deut 21,1-9 (Hagedorn 2003 pp. 543-44)
21 If one be found slain in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee to possess it, lying in the field, and it be not known who hath slain him,
2 then thy elders and thy judges shall come forth, and they shall measure the distance unto the cities which are round about him that is slain.
3 And it shall be that the city which is next unto the slain man, even the elders of that city shall take a heifer which hath not been worked and which hath not drawn in the yoke;
4 and the elders of that city shall bring down the heifer unto a rough valley, which is neither eared nor sown, and shall strike off the heifer’s neck there in the valley.
5 And the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come near, for them the Lord thy God hath chosen to minister unto Him and to bless in the name of the Lord; and by their word shall every controversy and every stroke be tried.
6 And all the elders of that city who are next unto the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer that is beheaded in the valley.
7 And they shall answer and say, ‘Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it.
8 Be merciful, O Lord, unto Thy people Israel, whom Thou hast redeemed, and lay not innocent blood unto Thy people of Israel’s charge.’ And the blood shall be forgiven them.
9 So shalt thou put away the guilt of innocent blood from among you when thou shalt do that which is right in the sight of the Lord.
Another form of pollution — in both the Greek and Hebrew worlds — arose from illness. Exegetes and priests were called upon to divine the will of the appropriate deities for the correct measures to be taken to cleanse persons and property.
In the Bible we are used to reading about prophets, but the Greek term, mantis, can as well be translated oracle, seer or soothsayer. Plato allowed for women to become both priestesses and prophetesses but as we know the Bible permits gender equality only for the prophets and even that seems to be quite rare — notably Miriam, Deborah and Huldah. The most famous Greek prophetic institution was the prophetess at Delphi who spoke as the conduit for Apollo. Some prophets were attached to the temples, others were “free-floaters”. As we know, prophets would be consulted before making a decision on military expeditions and any other important course of action.
In the Greek world prophets would be consulted for interpreting omens but this means of discerning the divine will was forbidden in the Pentateuch. Perhaps not completely coincidentally the status of the prophet in Athens entered its nadir after a disastrous military defeat resulting from the general heeding his accompanying manteis (prophets):
All was at last ready, and they were on the point of sailing away, when an eclipse of the moon (413 BCE), which was then at the full, took place. Most of the Athenians, deeply impressed by this occurrence, now urged the generals to wait; and Nicias, who was somewhat over-addicted to divination and practices of that kind, refused from that moment even to take the question of departure into consideration, until they had waited the thrice nine days prescribed by the soothsayers. (Thucydides 7.50.4)
Thus was sealed the catastrophic doom of the Athenian expedition. Deuteronomy likewise expresses suspicion and imposes “extreme vetting” upon prophets. If they are proven to be false on any number of criteria — they must be a “national”, come in the tradition of Moses, conform to the religious law, be accurate in their predictions — they are to be executed (Deut 13:1-11; 18:15-22). This was even more severe than Plato’s punishment:
But as to all those who have become like ravening beasts, and, who besides holding that the gods are negligent or open to bribes, despise men, charming the souls of many of the living, and claiming that they charm the souls of the dead, and promise to persuade the gods by bewitching them, as it were, with sacrifices, prayers and incantations, and who try thus to wreck utterly not only individuals, but whole families and States for the sake of money, – if any of these men be pronounced guilty, the court shall order him to be imprisoned according to law in the mid-county gaol, and shall order that no free man shall approach such criminals at any time, and that they shall receive from the servants a ration of food as fixed by the Law-wardens. (Laws 909b-c)
Until now I have been interested in Russell Gmirkin’s coverage of legal and constitutional institutions. His next chapter gets into the nitty gritty of specific laws. I have no intention of addressing all of these but will single out a handful for discussion.
Gmirkin, Russell. 2016. Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. Routledge, New York.
Hagedorn, Anselm C. 2003. “Deut 17,8-13, Procedure for Cases of Pollution?” ZAW 115 (2003) 538-56
Hagedorn, Anselm C. 2004. Between Moses and Plato: Individual and Society in Deuteronomy and Ancient Greek Law. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Gottingen.
Morrow, Glenn R. 1993. Plato’s Cretan City: A Historical Interpretation of the Laws. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. (Originally published 1960)