Daily Archives: 2017-07-26 07:34:09 UTC

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 »