Monthly Archives: July 2017

Five Foundation Myths of Cyrene

The “historical” founder of the colony of Cyrene was a Greek named Battus (an unlikely founder since he spoke with a stutter) who is said to have ruled in the years leading up to 600 BCE.

Contemporary archaeologists agree: Cyrene, the Greek colony in Libya, had its beginnings in the second half of the seventh century B.C. The presence of some objects dated to the Late Helladic III A and B periods on the site clearly points to more ancient contacts between Greece and the Mediterranean coast of Africa; nothing, however, before the middle of the Archaic period indicates the development of a city in the Greek sense of the term. Such is the interpretation of the archaeologists . . . (Calame, Claude. Myth and History in Ancient Greece: The Symbolic Creation of a Colony, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 2003. p. 35)

The ancient myth of the founding of the Cyrenian kingdom comes to us from a number of sources, including several of Pindar‘s poems (in particular the Pythian Odes 4, 5, 9), the history by Herodotus, (book 4), the epic poet Apollonius of Rhodes who wrote about Jason and the Argonauts, and the Cyrenian poet Callimachus.

Herodotus, writing as a “historian” presents us with a rationalised version of how Cyrene was founded as a Greek colony. He eschews in this context tales of gods and demigods and myths. But the other sources mentioned above are more willing to leave us the popular legends of how this great ancient Greek colony of Libya came to be.

Pindar gives us two stories: one begins seventeen generations before our stuttering founder Battus; but another begins even earlier, back in mythic time when only gods “made history”.

Pindar’s accounts of the foundation stories

read more »

Postscript on Rome’s and Israel’s foundation stories

I should follow up my previous post with a clarification of Weinfeld’s argument as he presented it in his 1993 book, The Promise of the Land. The bolding is mine for the benefit of those who don’t want to read lots of text but just hit the highlights.

As is well known, most of the genres of biblical literature have their counterparts in the ancient Near East. Creation stories, genealogies, legal codes, cultic instructions, temple-building accounts, royal annals, prophecies, psalms, wisdom literature of various kinds—all are widely attested in the cognate literatures from Mesopotamia, the Hittites, and the Egyptians. The only genre lacking such counterparts is that of stories about the beginning of the nation and its settlement, which are so boldly represented in the Patriarchal narratives and the accounts of the Exodus and the conquest of the Land. The contrast is especially striking when we compare the first eleven chapters of Genesis with the rest of the book. In Gen. 1–11 we find stories of creation, the food story, and lists of world ancestors before and after the food—literary types all well established in Mesopotamian literature. From [Genesis] chapter 12 onward, however, no parallel with the ancient Near East can be shown—not in content, of course, which reflects the particular nature of Israel, but also not in form. This kind of storytelling might be expected in the great cultures of the ancient Near East, but we look for it in vain. The lack of this genre is quite understandable given that, unlike Israel, the large autochthonous cultures were not cognizant of a beginning of their national existence.

On the other hand, this genre would be expected in the Greek sphere, which like Israel was based on colonization and founding of new sites. (pp. 1-2)

Weinfeld appeals to the quotation from Plato which I used as a header in an earlier post as evidence of the popularity of the foundation story genre in the Greek world:

[Greeks] are very fond of hearing about the genealogies of heroes and men . . . and the foundations of cities in ancient times and, in short, about antiquity in general . . .  —  Plato, Greater Hippias, 285d

Weinfeld offers us some biographical background to his interest in the question of biblical and Greek parallels and was encouraged to find he was not alone: read more »

Comparing the Rome’s and Israel’s Foundation Stories, Aeneas and Abraham

Weinfeld compared the Abrahamic promises that prompted his emigration from Mesopotamia to Canaan with the similar destiny prophesied for the legendary Trojan hero Aeneas at the outset of his travels: much as the descendants of Aeneas would someday found Rome (Homer, Iliad 20.307; Virgil, Aeneid 3.97-98), so Abraham’s descendants would become a great nation and rule many peoples (Gen. 12.3; 17.5; 27.29).

— Russell Gmirkin, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible, p. 238

I took the bait and the following post is an outcome: Weinfeld’s points of comparison between the biblical narrative and the Aeneid. Weinfeld’s proposed explanations for the similarities follow.

But first, a note for those who would dismiss the relevance of any such comparison on the basis that Virgil’s famous epic clearly postdates the biblical narrative and is far from likely influenced by anything in the Pentateuch:

It should be clear, first of all, that the Aeneas legend and the stories associated with it are quite ancient and may be traced back — as the various paintings on archaeological artifacts show — to the seventh century B.C.E. That these stories actually belong to the genre of “foundation stories” about foundations of cities by single heroes has been noted by F. B. Schmid, who surveyed the foundation legend of the Greeks, and observed that the Aeneid epic was patterned after them.[39(Weinfeld 1993, pp. 16f)


A Man Leaving a Great Civilization and Charged with a Universal Mission

Aeneas leaves the famous city of Troy

Abraham leaves the great civilization of Mesopotamia, Ur of the Chaldaeans

with his wife, father and son — Creusa, Anchises and Ascanius with his wife and father — Sarah and Terah
in order to establish a new nation in order to establish a new nation
Virgil calls Aeneas “Pater” (2:2) Abraham was known as the father of the nation
Aeneas delays in Carthage Abraham delays in Aram
which later becomes Rome’s great enemy which later becomes Israel’s enemy
“An important theme in the Aeneid is the tension between Rome and Carthage. There is a danger that Aeneas will marry Dido, the queen of Carthage, and thus that the message of Latium could fail; the gods of Aeneas, therefore, work to bring the hero back on track toward Rome.

“Mercury, the messenger of the gods, is sent by Jupiter to warn Aeneas not to forget the promise that his mother, Venus, had held out for him, and to urge him to sail at once to his destined land (4:219–37).

“After Aeneas’s delay, Mercury is sent to him again, this time in a dream, and warns him once more to leave Carthage (4:554–70).”

“A similar situation may be discerned in the Jacob stories. There is the danger that Jacob will stay in Aram Naharaim, where he journeyed to flee from his brother Esau and to marry Laban’s daughters. Had he stayed, he would have abandoned his mission to the promised land.

“Therefore, Jacob is called to return to his native land, and the call is made, as in the Aeneid, twice: the first time through direct revelation (v. 4)

“and the second time through revelation by dream (v. 11).”

“Although in the final stage of Genesis (ch. 31) Jacob is said to leave Aram because of his quarrel with Laban, an older stratum (Elohistic?) in the chapter (vv. 10, 12a, 13) creates the impression that the affluence of Jacob (vv. 10, 12a; cf. 30:43) might have caused him to stay in Aram, necessitating the divine call to return to Canaan.”
Finally, his son Ascanius reaches Lavinium, and later his son gets to Alba-Longa. His descendants reach Rome, which is destined to rule the world. He reaches Canaan, the Land of promise, out of which his descendants will rule other peoples.
Weinfeld points out that the traditions of Aeneas were applied during the time of Augustus to the Roman Empire so that Aeneas became not only the father of Rome itself but also a prefiguration of the ruler of the entire world. The prophecy of Poseidon in the Iliad 20:307 that Aeneas will rule over the Trojans, (cf. Homeric Hymns, AD Venerem 3:196–97), is indeed recorded (reinterpreted) in an oracle in Aen. 3:97–98 saying that the house of Aeneas shall rule “over all lands”: hic domus Aeneae cunctis dominabitur oris. Weinfeld believed the story of Abraham originated during the time of King David and served to justify Israel’s aspirations to “rule … an empire, stretching from the Euphrates to the River of Egypt (Gen. 15:18).”

(I would add that Paul interpreted the promises given to Abraham as indicating that the entire world would belong to his heirs.)

“In both cases we have examples of an ethnic tradition later developed into an imperial ideology;

“in both, we are presented with a divine promise given to the father of a nation who later becomes a messenger for a world mission.”

read more »

The End of “The Islamic State” . . . and information links for informed discussion

And so it ends in Mosul, Iraq . . . .

Mosul’s bloodbath: ‘We killed everyone – IS, men, women, children’

Meanwhile — as if one can slip from the contents of the above article with a helpless sigh — Tom Holland, a historian whose books I’ve much enjoyed — “Unlike most historians, Tom Holland writes books which bring the past to life” — has gone a bit funny with his gushiness over Christianity . . . .

It came from

Michael Bird:  Tom Holland: Why I Was Wrong about Christianity (2016-09-16)

Darrell Pursiful:  Tom Holland Was Wrong about Christianity (2016-09-16)

Larry Hurtado: Tom Holland and Hurtado on Early Christianity (2016-10-10)

and no doubt others I missed.

The reason I mention him in this context is that he has most recently he has produced a Channel 4 doco for the BBC that I have not seen, but I have read first, a rebuttal of a rebuttal of the doco, and then I read the rebuttal of the doco. I found both worth thinking about.

First, the one I also read first, the rebuttal of the rebuttal of Tom Holland’s doco:

An inconvenient truth: IS draws on Islamic sources for its inspiration by Philip Wood

Yes, there is no basis for critics of Atran and co to say that there is no religious role in terrorism. Of course religion plays a part. read more »

Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Greek Foundation Stories and the Bible

[Greeks] are very fond of hearing about the genealogies of heroes and men, Socrates, and the foundations of cities in ancient times and, in short, about antiquity in general . . .  — Hippias speaking to Socrates in Plato, Greater Hippias, 285d


Greek foundation stories provide the closest correspondence with the Pentateuchal narratives that introduce the Mosaic laws and merit a detailed comparative analysis.  — Gmirkin, Plato and the Hebrew Bible, p. 225
I am sure most students familiar with the Bible who take up reading the literature of Classical and Hellenistic Greece at various points pause and wonder at some striking similarity between the two literatures. Are those similarities merely coincidental or the inevitable product of a common cultural milieu or is there some other explanation? In delving into the details of some of those points in common Russell Gmirkin concludes that the authors of the biblical narratives, including the law codes, had access to the wealth of Greek literature at the Great Library of Alexandria in the Hellenistic Age, that is, from some time after death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE.
Russell Gmirkin (Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible) compresses so much information into his chapters that I need to regularly pause from reading and start the work of unpacking his citations and endnotes in order to fully appreciate just how interesting his case is. After surveying the range of literary genres in which Greeks expressed their partiality towards narratives providing backgrounds to the origins of their constitutions and laws he decides to focus on the Greek foundation narrative as being the closest in form to what we find in the Pentateuch.

Venus guides Aeneas on his journey for a new home

The foundation story most of us are probably aware of is the Roman epic, the Aeneid, the story of the wanderings of Aeneas from the fallen Troy to seek a new land in Italy. Don’t let the “post-biblical” date of Virgil’s composition mislead you, though, since

It should be clear, first of all, that the Aeneas legend and the stories associated with it are quite ancient and may be traced back — as the various paintings on archaeological artifacts show — to the seventh century B.C.E. That these stories actually belong to the genre of “foundation stories” about foundations of cities by single heroes has been noted by F. B. Schmid, who surveyed the foundation legend of the Greeks, and observed that the Aeneid epic was patterned after them.[39] (Weinfeld 1993, pp. 16f)

Most of us have heard of the voyages of the Argonauts and this story also contains within it the beginnings of another foundation story, that of Cyrene. After trekking through an African desert in a quest sometimes eerily echoing the story of Israel’s wandering in Sinai, a son of the god Poseidon gives Euphemus, one of the Argonauts, a clod of earth as a sign that his descendants will return and possess the land of Cyrene.

Dorian invasion was believed to be the return of the descendants of Heracles

The Spartans believed themselves descendants of the sons of Heracles who, long after Heracles himself had left the earth and not unlike the Israelites under Joshua, invaded the Peloponnesian peninsula to claim it as their own land as promised by Zeus to their illustrious forefather.

Motifs commonly found among the foundation myths as taken primarily from Gmirkin’s discussion but with a few touches added from some of the sources he cites:

  • A hero leaves a settled home to wander through new lands

  • A god promises the hero that his descendants will one day possess the land where he is now a stranger

  • After some generations the hero’s descendants face pressures of some kind (plague, oppression, overpopulation, threats of war…) so return to claim (conquer) the land promised to their forefather(s)

  • Sometimes an unforseen delay or setback appears to sidetrack or threaten the expedition on its way to reclaiming their promised land 

  • The new conquerors are led by a wise hero who often has had special preparatory experiences (living with the wise, contacts with a god) to qualify him to be their military leader who would lead the expedition as an armed force

  • Often the military leader would be accompanied by a priest or prophet

  • The new conquerors bring their “rightful” god(s) of the land with them; the god would sometimes be consulted throughout the period of migration

  • The leader of the expedition would also give them the laws and political constitution by which their new society was to be governed

  • After conquest land was fairly divided by lot

  • The founder was revered, often with his own cult, and an agricultural festival was turned into a festival commemorating the events of a people’s ancestors migration to and conquest of their land

I will post some of the myths illustrating the above in future posts. (In some myths, such as Aeneas’s mission being realized through Romulus and Numa, a single hero would be replaced by a succession of heroic figures.)

The legends of the founding of Rome, of Cyrene, and of the return of the Heraclidae are three foundation myths but there were many more. A “Judean” foundation myth closest in form to such Greek stories, yet by all appearances is evidently independent of any of our biblical versions of the narratives, is the founding of Israel as told by Hecataeus of Abdera. I posted his narrative a couple of years ago so you can click on Moses and the Exodus According to the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians: Hecataeus or continue reading a fresh copy of his account here. Hecataeus himself wrote in the fourth and third centuries B.C.E. Gbut we owe our thanks to Diodorus Siculus [= of Sicily] of the first century B.C.E. for preserving (via paraphrase) what he had to say: read more »

Ancient Canaanites Survive Today in Modern Lebanon’s Population

Skeleton of an adult whose DNA was sampled for the study (Supplied: Dr. Claude Doumet-Serhal) — the ABC site

Through the ABC news article, Canaanites survived Biblical ‘slaughter’, ancient DNA shows I was led to The American Journal of Human Genetics open access article, Continuity and Admixture in the Last Five Millennia of Levantine History from Ancient Canaanite and Present-Day Lebanese Genome Sequences, to read that the modern population of Lebanon contains the DNA of the ancient Canaanites.

The ABC article sums up for the TL;DR folk:

  • DNA reveals that modern Lebanese are direct descendants of ancient Canaanites
  • Despite tumultuous history, there has been substantial genetic continuity in the Near East across the past 3,000 to 4,000 years
  • European additions to Lebanese ancestry occurred around 3,750-2,170 years ago
  • Study also provides clues about ancient Phoenicians

Immediately I recalled Keith Whitelam’s book, Rhythms of Time, and I would suggest that the above DNA research does add support to his thesis that I discussed in 2015 at The Rhythms of Palestine’s History. (See also The Dark Resurgence of Biblical History.)

Here’s the abstract from the open access article:

The Canaanites inhabited the Levant region during the Bronze Age and established a culture that became influential in the Near East and beyond. However, the Canaanites, unlike most other ancient Near Easterners of this period, left few surviving textual records and thus their origin and relationship to ancient and present-day populations remain unclear. In this study, we sequenced five whole genomes from ∼3,700-year-old individuals from the city of Sidon, a major Canaanite city-state on the Eastern Mediterranean coast. We also sequenced the genomes of 99 individuals from present-day Lebanon to catalog modern Levantine genetic diversity. We find that a Bronze Age Canaanite-related ancestry was widespread in the region, shared among urban populations inhabiting the coast (Sidon) and inland populations (Jordan) who likely lived in farming societies or were pastoral nomads. This Canaanite-related ancestry derived from mixture between local Neolithic populations and eastern migrants genetically related to Chalcolithic Iranians. We estimate, using linkage-disequilibrium decay patterns, that admixture occurred 6,600–3,550 years ago, coinciding with recorded massive population movements in Mesopotamia during the mid-Holocene. We show that present-day Lebanese derive most of their ancestry from a Canaanite-related population, which therefore implies substantial genetic continuity in the Levant since at least the Bronze Age. In addition, we find Eurasian ancestry in the Lebanese not present in Bronze Age or earlier Levantines. We estimate that this Eurasian ancestry arrived in the Levant around 3,750–2,170 years ago during a period of successive conquests by distant populations. (The bolding is mine.)

Oh the implications, the questions……



Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Legal Narratives continued . . . Solon and Atlantis

Continuing from Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Legal Narratives (esp. Panegyrics), continued . . . .

There is one more Greek comparative illustration I wanted to look at before picking up with Gmirkin’s main example as I promised at the end of the previous post. I had meant to look at a section in Plato’s Timaeus before moving on so will do that here. Gmirkin had addressed the discussion related to Plato’s myth of Atlantis in his previous chapter when comparing the biblical and Greek laws and promises associated with sacred oaths. In this post I bring in the Atlantis myth in the context of Plato’s discussion of the importance of the lawgiver Solon, since Plato’s account of Solon forms part of Gmirkin’s chapter 5 on legal narratives.

Recall that two posts earlier I mentioned that Gmirkin points to the wide range of literary genres in the classical Greek writings through which interest and appreciation of law codes, constitutions and the narratives relating to their introduction and the lives of the lawgivers themselves is expressed. One more that we examine in this post is the philosophical discourse. Plato’s Laws also contains “historical” types of narratives that lead to the institution of political and legislative institutions but since (if I recall correctly) we have discussed some of those in other posts (including posts prior to the publication of Gmirkin’s book) we will focus here on fleshing out an endnote to Gmirkin’s chapter 5.

It is from Plato’s Timaeus, and the wise lawgiver Solon is said to have acquired much of his great wisdom from Egypt. So essentially it is a tale of law origins within the tale of another famous lawgiver. Wheels within wheels. read more »

Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Legal Narratives (esp. Panegyrics), continued

Continuing from Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Law-Giving Narratives as Greek-Inspired Literature . . . .

The historical narratives of both Herodotus and Thucydides contain narratives explaining the origins of Athenian laws of three notable lawgivers in both myth and history: Theseus, Solon and Cleisthenes. (Russell Gmirkin appears to say that both historians address the latter two lawgivers but I wonder if what was meant was that all three are covered in both works combined.)

So to continue from the previous post with Theseus, the historian Thucydides includes a discussion of the same figure in his ongoing portrayal of the vicissitudes of Athenian constitutional history:

Under Cecrops and the first kings, down to the reign of Theseus, Attica had always consisted of a number of independent townships, each with its own town-hall and magistrates. Except in times of danger the king at Athens was not consulted; in ordinary seasons they carried on their government and settled their affairs without his interference; sometimes even they waged war against him, as in the case of the Eleusinians with Eumolpus against Erechtheus. [2] In Theseus, however, they had a king of equal intelligence and power; and one of the chief features in his organization of the country was to abolish the council chambers and magistrates of the petty cities, and to merge them in the single council-chamber and town-hall of the present capital. Individuals might still enjoy their private property just as before, but they were henceforth compelled to have only one political center, viz. Athens; which thus counted all the inhabitants of Attica among her citizens, so that when Theseus died he left a great state behind him.

Indeed, from him dates the Synoecia, or Feast of Union; which is paid for by the state, and which the Athenians still keep in honor of the goddess. [3] Before this the city consisted of the present citadel and the district beneath it looking rather towards the south. . . . .

The Athenians thus long lived scattered over Attica in independent townships. Even after the centralization of Theseus, old habit still prevailed; and from the early times down to the present war most Athenians still lived in the country with their families and households, and were consequently not at all inclined to move now, especially as they had only just restored their establishments after the Median invasion. . . . (Thucydides, Book 2, 15-16)

We see further summary accounts of the accomplishments of the lawgivers Solon and Cleisthenes in Herodotus:


and after these were subdued and subject to Croesus in addition to the Lydians, all the sages from Hellas who were living at that time, coming in different ways, came to Sardis, which was at the height of its property; and among them came Solon the Athenian, who, after making laws for the Athenians at their request, went abroad for ten years, sailing forth to see the world, he said. This he did so as not to be compelled to repeal any of the laws he had made, [2] since the Athenians themselves could not do that, for they were bound by solemn oaths to abide for ten years by whatever laws Solon should make.


Athens, which had been great before, now grew even greater when her tyrants had been removed. The two principal holders of power were Cleisthenes an Alcmaeonid, who was reputed to have bribed the Pythian priestess, and Isagoras son of Tisandrus, a man of a notable house but his lineage I cannot say. His kinsfolk, at any rate, sacrifice to Zeus of Caria. [2] These men with their factions fell to contending for power, Cleisthenes was getting the worst of it in this dispute and took the commons into his party. Presently he divided the Athenians into ten tribes instead of four as formerly. He called none after the names of the sons of Ion—Geleon, Aegicores, Argades, and Hoples—but invented for them names taken from other heroes, all native to the country except Aias. Him he added despite the fact that he was a stranger because he was a neighbor and an ally.

These historical narratives do little more than point to a general historical interest in lawgivers and their innovations, but what I find of more interest is the function of the panegyric as an expression of interest in legal and constitutional questions and origins, and the genre through which most illiterate Athenians would have heard of narratives of their origins and praises for their way of life. Notice especially Thucydides’ reconstruction of Pericles’ speech:


Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favors the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if to social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition.

[2] The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty.

[3] But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.

The laws are a source of pride, a national boast. One is, of course, reminded of the similar boast of the biblical laws:

Deuteronomy 4:8

And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?

On the panegyric Gmirkin explains: read more »

Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Law-Giving Narratives as Greek-Inspired Literature

The previous post, How Does One Date the Old Testament Writings?, was a step back for a broader look through a discussion by Niels Peter Lemche at the kind of literature we find in the Pentateuch, how it compares with literature expressing similar interests and ideas found in other ancient literature, and the relevance of this for assessing the general period when the biblical literature was produced.

This post addresses chapter 5 of Plato and the Hebrew Bible, “Greek and Biblical Hebrew Narratives”. It follows from the comparisons of specific Pentateuchal laws with Mesopotamian and Greek codes and I addressed a few of these in my previous posts. (All posts in this series discussing Russell Gmirkin’s book, Plato and the Hebrew Bible are archived here.)

Gmirkin informs us that we have no knowledge of ancient Near Eastern law collections being accompanied by historical narratives to explain their origins or ongoing developmental changes as we find in the Pentateuch. The most we find in the codes of the eastern neighbours of the biblical laws are declarations of how laws were bestowed by a god. Greek literature, on the other hand, contains many such narratives.

As with the previous chapters I continue to find myself flipping back and forth between the main text and the detailed and extensive endnotes, and from those endnotes I often find myself consulting other works before resuming with the main text. Perhaps that’s just me. I am looking for demonstrations of the many points Gmirkin is making and what the primary sources cited do indeed say within their wider contexts. (I also find myself following up some of the citations to the secondary literature before resuming Gmirkin’s discussion.) After all, the thesis proposed is indeed a radical one and I wonder if full justice for some of the argument requires a much more extensive discussion, but that would mean multiple volumes instead of just one. In other words, I find myself reading Gmirkin’s book very often as a springboard for my own investigations into the quotations and many references he cites. (Here is the main reason these reviews have extended over such a long period.)

Gmirkin stresses the strong interest among Greeks in historical narrative backgrounds to the institution of law codes and political constitutional arrangements. Such narratives are found in wide variety of types of literary materials:

  • foundation stories (e.g. Hecataeus of Abdera, Aegyptiaca, ca 315 BCE)
  • ethnographies (e.g. Herodotus, Histories Book 2 on Egypt; Hecataeus of Abdera, Aegyptiaca)
  • biographies (e.g. Plutarch: Theseus, Lycurgus, Solon, Romulus, Numa)
  • constitutional histories (e.g. Aristotle: The Athenian Constitution)
  • philosophical dialogues (e.g. Plato: The Republic, The Stateman, Laws).

As one can see from the above there is some duplication in discussion, especially of Hecataeus, that results from the way each genre is treated separately. Gmirkin mentions biographical parallels with Moses and Joshua:

Although Plutarch’s interests were pri­marily biographical, both legal and constitutional content appeared in his essays on the lives of Theseus, Lycurgus, Solon, Romulus and Numa, to mention only a few. Plutarch’s discussion of legal topics within a biographical narrative is com­parable to the mixture of biographical and legal elements in the biblical accounts of Moses and Joshua.24 (p. 224)

Endnote 24 explains:

Exodus-Deuteronomy incorporated a biography of the lawgiver Moses that included accounts of his birth (Ex. 2.1—4), upbringing (Ex. 2.5-10), marriage (Ex. 2.15-22; Num. 12.1), his adult life and notable accomplishments (Exodus-Numbers), orations (Deuteronomy) and death (Deut. 34). Joshua mainly appeared as assistant and succes­ sor to the expedition leader and lawgiver Moses. Incidental legal elements include his publication of Mosaic law and administration of the oaths of the polity at Shechem (Josh. 8.30-35) and the legal oration at Josh. 24.1-28. (p. 237)

Gmirkin understandably gives the most attention in his comparative discussion to Hecataeus but I am just as keen to see how well the other material also relates to his central thesis, so will pause here a moment to look further at the above comparison with Plutarch’s figures. Plutarch is, of course, writing subsequent to the Hellenistic period but his biographies do point to a particular interest that we can trace back to the Classical era.

So the question I had as I read Gmirkin’s point was how the legislation themes were incorporated in the lives of Plutarch’s figures. After all, it’s been many years since I read Plutarch’s Lives as an undergraduate.

I quote key sections from the John Dryden translation of the life of Theseus. The narrative weaves Theseus’s activities with the foundation of a number of religious and other cultural customs but we pick up at the point where Theseus establishes an autumn festival “of boughs”, followed by his constitutional reforms: read more »

Oh Steven Pinker, please, you are better than this…..

Steven, I really do love your books, at least I loved all of the ones I had read (Stuff of Thought; Language Instinct; Blank Slate; How the Mind Works) up to Better Angels — though I cannot deny you did give a slight warning of what was to come in Blank Slate, iirc. (Better Angels came across to me as one extended apology for neoliberalism.)

So what’s with these words that The Guardian has attributed to you”

Harvard professor and author Steven Pinker came out in support of Dawkins, writing to KPFA that their decision was “intolerant, ill-reasoned, and ignorant”.

“Dawkins is one of the great thinkers of the 20th and 21st century. He has criticised doctrines of Islam, together with doctrines of other religions, but criticism is not ‘abuse’,” said Pinker. “People may get offended and hurt by honest criticism, but that cannot possibly be a justification for censoring the critic, or KPFA would be shut down because of all the people it has hurt and offended over the decades.”

Yes, I can agree that Richard Dawkins is a great communicator of science. Whether he is a “great thinker” I do not know. Was “the selfish gene” his own discovery or was he communicating to a popular audience the way others in his field had come to understand a process of evolution?

But even if “Dawkins is one of the great thinkers of the 20th and 21st century” in the field of biological evolution, he is no better qualified to speak about Islam or any other religion than any other articulate “village atheist”. Dawkins is definitely not one of the great thinkers on Islam, not even Christianity.

I have no interest in covering some of the other indignant ravings about this event, least of all the incoherent ignorance spilt by Coyne et al, so will conclude with some links to views of those I consider among the more sane, though I am sure most of you already have your own lists:

Dawkins being “deplatformed” — Siggy:

There are many things I find objectionable about Dawkins, but I am personally able to separate that from his science writing, which seems fine.  So I don’t really agree with KPFA.

But geez, by turning this into a free speech issue, you’re making me take the opposite side!  

Organizations have the right to not invite Richard Dawkins — or me — to speak (PZ Myers)





Peer Review may be problematic, but it’s not this bad….

Jim West, a biblical studies pastor whose name sometimes appears in publications alongside the likes of Thomas L. Thompson and Niels Peter Lemche, and who also runs a blog that I follow for its occasional titbits of news on recent publications, did not earn his academic qualifications at an accredited university, if I understand correctly, and periodically rails against accreditation itself. In a recent post he also attacks “scientific journals” for accepting a bogus paper for publication and uses this as an opportunity to rail against the value of peer review.

Don’t be misled, however. The article to which he refers is discussing makes clear are “predatory publishers” — that is, scam publishers who are not serious academic publishers at all but the same sort of scams as you get in your email from Nigerian bankers offering you millions from lost accounts, etc.

A list of these predatory journal titles is kept at Beall’s List of Predatory Journals and Publishers. They prey on the new academics, still wet behind their ears and eager to get published. — Or they prey on old academics like Jim West who isolates himself from standards of accreditation etc and is so keeps himself out of the loop, it seems.

The point is, don’t let anyone think that a bogus paper being published by a “scientific journal” that is actually a “predatory” title is kind of evidence, for or against, peer review. These publishers in all likelihood don’t have peer review at all — or lie if they say they do — and probably don’t even bother to have anyone read papers that they publish.

Deconstructing What We’ve Always Been Told About Qumran

never underestimate the power of scholarly conservatism
Earlier this year I posted on work by Gregory Doudna arguing that the Dead Sea Scrolls were not a repository of a sect (Essene or otherwise) dwelling at Qumran in the first century CE. I still have more work to do on his article but till then anyone interested can catch up on Doudna’s own exchanges with some of his critics and others at The Bible and Interpretation‘s Deconstructing What We’ve Always Been Told About Qumran.
The intro to the discussion:

It is misleading to speak of a single “main period of habitation” of a single group or community at Qumran which ended at the time of the First Revolt. Analyses of pottery, language, women, dining, animal bone deposits, and scroll deposits surprisingly converge in suggesting a different picture: the true “main period” of activity at Qumran was mid- and late-first century BCE.

It is interesting to read the way a few established figures can guard the conservative range of permissible scholarly views in this area of study, too — just as we have seen in the field of the history of “biblical Israel”, not to mention any particular areas of NT studies.


Catchup — for you latecomers the history-basics lecture

Just for the record and for easy future reference I want to post here two more points Leopold von Ranke is famous or infamous for as the “father of modern history”. Not that this is some mere antiquarian interest on my part; my real interest is in the way historical studies are practised in biblical studies, especially in relation to the historical Jesus and Christian origins but also with respect to history behind the Old Testament — and very often in these discussions quite misinformed references are made by postmodernists to the legacy of Ranke and the way history was supposedly done before Hayden White.

The formatting, insert and emphasis is my own:

Ranke’s contribution to historical scholarship was threefold.

Finally, in tracing the beginnings of the opposition of a political party in Germany against the Emperor and of an ecclesiastical party in Europe against the Pope, this chronicle seeks to pave the way for a more complete insight into the history of the great schism brought about by the Reformation. . . . This book tries to comprehend in their unity all these and the other related histories of the Latin and Germanic Peoples. To history has been given the function of judging the past, of instructing men for the profit of future years. The present attempt does not aspire to such a lofty undertaking. It merely wants to show how it essentially was (wie es eigentlich gewesen).

But from what sources could this be newly investigated? The foundations of the present writing, the origins of the subject matter, are memoirs, diaries, letters, reports from embassies, and original narratives of eyewitnesses. Other writings were considered only when they seemed either to have been immediately deduced from the former or to equal them through some kind of original information . . . .

— From Ranke’s Preface to the First Edition of Histories of the Latin and Germanic Peoples, October 1824. (Translator, Georg G. Iggers.)

First, he helped establish history as a separate discipline, independent from philosophy or literature. ‘To history,’ he wrote in the preface to one of his works, ‘has been assigned the office of judging the past, of instructing the present for the benefit of future ages. To such high offices this work does not aspire: it wants only to show what actually happened.’ This last phrase is perhaps Ranke’s most famous, and it has been widely misunderstood. The German phrase which Ranke used –Wie es eigentlich gewesen’ – is better translated as ‘how it essentially was’, for Ranke meant not that he just wanted to collect facts, but that he sought to understand the inner being of the past.

One sees this misunderstanding painfully repeated over and over among biblical scholars who think they are denigrating an approach to history they believe to be old-fashioned yet which they really seem to scarcely understand at all first hand. They scoff at the notion that the old “positivists” thought they could just find and record “the facts” while they, the more sophisticated moderns, on the other hand, more modestly admitted they could only deal in “probabilities”, what “probably happened”, not “facts” or “what actually happened”. There is a deep misunderstanding here that I will cover in future posts. Suffice to say for now that I don’t think very many biblical scholars will be content to yield genuine room for doubt by declaring “Rome probably ruled the Mediterranean world” at the time of Jesus; or that Rome “probably destroyed Jerusalem in the war of 66-70 and Josephus probably wrote an account of that war”; or that “Jesus probably existed and was was probably crucified”…..

Next, we come to Ranke’s second “contribution” that does indeed enter the nebulosity of divine territory, but we have an interesting teacher in Richard Evans and he turns the lemon into lemonade for our benefit:

In pursuit of this task, said Ranke, the historian had to recognize that ‘every epoch is immediate to God.’4 That is, God in His eternity made no distinction between periods of history; all were the same in His eyes. In other words, the past could not be judged by the standards of the present. It had to be seen in its own terms. This was the second major contribution which Ranke made to historical scholarship: the determination to strip away the veneer of posthumous condescension applied to the past by philosophizing historians such as Voltaire and to reveal it in its original colours; to try to understand the past as the people who lived in it understood it, even while deciphering hieroglyphs of interconnectedness of which they had been largely unaware.

One conclusion that followed from this doctrine was that at any given time, including the present, whatever existed had to be accepted as divinely ordained. Ranke was a profoundly conservative figure, who equated the actual and the ideal and regarded the European states of his day as ‘spiritual substances … thoughts of God’.5 This distanced him from the Prussian school of German historians, from nationalists such as Treitschke, who condemned his impartiality and regretted his universalism. The fact that he regarded all states, not just Prussia, as supreme examples of God’s purposes working themselves out on earth, gave him on the other hand a reputation for impartiality that greatly helped the spread of his influence abroad.6

Evans, Richard J. In Defence Of History (Kindle Locations 416-436). Granta Books. Kindle Edition.

Hence our need to guard against the all-too-easy tendency to interpret the past through the way we perceive our own world today. read more »

The Basics of History — They’re Still the Basics

Richard J. Evans (Wikipedia)

Postmodernism has been making its inroads into historical Jesus studies with what I think are most convenient results. This post is a plug for the old-fashioned rules for the proper way to do history. We can’t get any more old-fashioned than the nineteenth century founder of modern history, Leopold von Ranke, who has become a byword in many circles for doing history badly. It’s been a long time since I’ve discussed his contribution to historical studies and their relevance to biblical studies in particular so let’s do another post now. Previously I deferred to the Old Testament biblical scholar Niels Peter Lemche’s for the positives that Ranke still necessarily offers the modern historian. This time I’m inviting the modern historian (a specialist on Hitler’s Germany), Richard J. Evans, to take the floor.

We’re a bit late for the start of his talk because he’s already into the third significant contribution Ranke made for the modern study of history.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Ranke introduced into the study of modern history the methods that had recently been developed by philologists in the study of ancient and medieval literature to determine whether a text, say of a Shakespeare play or of a medieval legend like the Nibelungenlied, was true or corrupted by later interpolations, whether it was written by the author it was supposed to be written by, and which of the available versions was the most reliable. Historians, argued Ranke, had to root out forgeries and falsifications from the record. They had to test documents on the basis of their internal consistency, and their consistency with other documents originating at the same period. They had to stick to ‘primary sources’, eyewitness reports and what Ranke called the ‘purest, most immediate documents’ which could be shown to have originated at the time under investigation, and avoid reliance on ‘secondary sources’ such as memoirs or histories generated after the event. Moreover, they had to investigate and subject to the critical method all the sources relating to the events in which they were interested. They should not be content, as for example Gibbon had been, to rely on printed documents and chronicles generally available in libraries. They had instead to sally forth, as Ranke did, into the archives, to work their way through the vast unpublished hoards of original manuscripts stored up by the state chancelleries of Europe. Only then, by gathering, criticizing and verifying all the available sources, could they put themselves in a position to reconstruct the past accurately.

The application of philological techniques to historical sources was a major breakthrough. Ranke’s principles still form the basis for much historical research and teaching today. History Special Subjects in many British universities, for example, offer a basic training in source-criticism; students are examined on extracts or ‘gobbets’ from set documents and are expected to comment on them in terms of their internal consistency, their relationship to other documents on the same subject, their reliability and their usefulness as a source. Questions of authenticity and attribution continue to be vitally important in historical research. Forgeries, as the lamentable case of the ‘Hitler Diaries’ showed over a decade ago, are still regrettably common; outright falsification and doctoring of the evidence abound in printed collections of documents and other publications relating to subjects such as the origins of the First World War and the Third Reich. They are even more common in medieval history.

And we know, don’t we, just how prevalent forgeries were in the ancient world, too, right? read more »