Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Political Evolution in Literature

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by Neil Godfrey

This post continues the discussion of Russell Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. All posts in the series can be accessed in the archive.


After discussing the popularity of Greek foundation stories and the appearance of the same genre in the Pentateuch, Gmirkin looks at one more type of narrative that is found in common between Greek literature and Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings). The point is that the same type of story is said to be alien to Near Eastern literature so apparently the only known model for the biblical narratives is found in the Greek writings of Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle.

Gmirkin’s double point is that (a) Near Eastern political systems reportedly were restricted to absolutist monarchies and that (b) it is not until the literature of the Greeks from the fifth century on that we read “historical” accounts of evolution from patriarchal and “democratic” types of governments to monarchies along with expressions of views about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the different systems.

Gmirkin appeals to the Babyloniaca of Berossus to argue that Mesopotamian traditions knew only of the institution of kingship:

In Mesopotamian traditions, there was no question of an evolution of governmental institutions: kingship was present from the beginning, part of the gifts of civilization revealed by the gods to the first generation of humankind. This is fully illustrated by the Babyloniaca of Berossus, in which unenlightened humanity as originally created was no better than the animals. Then the gods sent Oannes, an apkallu, to teach humankind the arts of civilization, including the establishment of kings and cities (Berossus FGrH 680 Fib). In Berossus and the late Babylonian sources he used, the ten generations before the flood were each ruled by a famous king from a prominent Mesopotamian city (Berossus FGrH 680 F3b, discussed at Gmirkin 2006: 107-8). After the flood destroyed almost all of humankind, the institution of kingship was immediately restored among the survivors (Berossus FGrH 680 FF 3b, 4b, 5a). (Gmirkin, p. 231, my bolding in all quotations)

I think Gmirkin could have been more nuanced here, however, by acknowledging other ancient Near Eastern evidence prior to Berossus. Some studies of ancient Sumerians and early Mesopotamian political systems have indeed at times suggested that nascent forms of democracy were to be found in these settings. I can understand disputes arising over the meaning of the word “democracy” but there are a number of studies that at least point to various regions in the ancient Near East (Mesopotamia, Anatolia including an Assyrian colony, the Levantine people including the Phoenicians, and even Egypt) in which prominence is given to popular or oligarchic assemblies, council elders, as well as kings. See, for example,

Isakhan writes of ancient Mesopotamia (with my bolding):

Overwhelmingly, history tells us of the megalomaniacal kings and their grand menacing empires that rose out of these early developments to conquer and dominate the region by fear and bloodshed.72 However, there is also a growing understanding that the history of modern thought, usually understood to have begun around 400 B.C. in Greece, can be traced further back to early Mesopotamia.73

Evidence for such advanced thinking is found in the early myths and legends of ancient Mesopotamia, where we find the inner functioning of the Ordained Assembly of the Great Gods. . . . Generally, it was called together when the gods needed to make a decision; they would listen and debate until the pros and cons of each issue were clarified and a virtual consensus emerged.75 When the council reached full agreement, the seven senior gods would announce the final verdict, and each of the members would voice approval with a “let it be.”76

You can check the footnotes from that article itself on the linked article page above.

As the city states grew in size and warfare among them became all the more common despotic kings did indeed emerge and were naturally reluctant to give up their powers. Yet,

Once again, however, democracy — in one guise or another — seems to have survived this early political shift towards autocracy. Although there was no doubt that the king held the supreme authority of the state, there are a number of examples where the long tradition of assemblies continued throughout Mesopotamia and further abroad. One such example is the extended kingdom of Ebla, the remains of which can be found today in northwestern Syria. According to Raul S. Manglapus,103 excavations in 1976 revealed astonishing details about this kingdom of some 250,000 people, which had flourished around 2500 B.C. The “15,000 clay tablets or fragments written in Sumerian cuneiform” that were unearthed by archaeologists exposed a sophisticated political culture involving some 11,000 public servants.104 According to their law, the king of Ebla was “elected for a seven-year term and shared power with a council of elders.”105 Then, after serving his first term, the incumbent was entitled to run for a second; in the event that he was not re-elected, the former king was able to retire on a state pension!

Geographically closer to the early developments of Mesopotamia already discussed, the people of Kish (very near to ancient Babylon) held a general election to nominate their king around 2300 B.C. This particular king even took the “throne-name Iphur-Kish (Kish assembled) to emphasize the popular basis of his rule.”106 At around the same time, the people of Lagash (which is further south, closer to the coastline of lower Mesopotamia) were embroiled in an early struggle against the upsurge of autocratic tendencies. . . . .

More generally, the grand empires of the time — the Babylonian, the Assyrian and the Egyptian — also appear to have had democratic tendencies despite the common misconception that they were both centralized and totalitarian in nature. The Babylonian kings, for example, would often delegate the judicial duty of settling minor disputes to the “town mayor and town elders.”108 However, the more important and complex cases were brought before the whole town in the form of an assembly . . . .

The population of the Assyrian capital, Ashur, was able to congregate in an assembly that reached agreement under the guidance of the more senior, wealthy and influential members of the community. . . . When differences of opinion between the king and the elders did occur, they “…were quite ready to revolt against the king if they did not approve of his policies,”112 taking their case to the people. . . . Finally, the power of the Assyrian elders can be seen in the fact that the king was not able to directly appoint his own successor, but instead nominated a potential heir who was then subject to the consent of the council.114

Speaking generally about democratic developments across Mesopotamia during the time of the Babylonian and Assyrian empires, Yves Schemeil notes that “historical documents describe assemblies of citizens deliberating for days, each session including new members.”115 It appears that, due to the size of the community, it was often hard to reach consensus, therefore the circle of delegates became wider as deliberations continued, often involving commoners, teenagers and women. . . . 116

See the article for further examples.

Samuel Noah Kramer in History begins at Sumer: thirty-nine firsts in man’s recorded history (3rd ed 1981) has a chapter titled The First Bicameral Congress which shows that even Gilgamesh was frustrated by the demands of town assemblies.

So in this particular instance the argument does not default as cleanly or necessarily to Greek influence as Gmirkin appears to assume.

In favour of Gmirkin’s argument for Greek influence, however, we return once more to Plato’s Laws, starting at Book 3, again with my bolded highlighting (Ath = Athenian; Cle = Cleinias):

Ath. Do you believe that there is any truth in ancient traditions?
Cle. What traditions?
Ath. The traditions about the many destructions of mankind which have been occasioned by deluges and pestilences, and in many other ways, and of the survival of a remnant?

Cle. Every one is disposed to believe them.
Ath. Let us consider one of them, that which was caused by the famous deluge.

Cle. What are we to observe about it?
Ath. I mean to say that those who then escaped would only be hill shepherds-small sparks of the human race preserved on the tops of mountains.

Cle. Clearly.

. . . . . 

Ath. After the great destruction, may we not suppose that the state of man was something of this sort:- In the beginning of things there was a fearful illimitable desert and a vast expanse of land; a herd or two of oxen would be the only survivors of the animal world; and there might be a few goats, these too hardly enough to maintain the shepherds who tended them?

Cle. True.
Ath. And of cities or governments or legislation, about which we are now talking, do you suppose that they could have any recollection at all?

Cle. None whatever.

. . . . .

Ath. But, as time advanced and the race multiplied, the world came to be what the world is.

Cle. Very true.
Ath. Doubtless the change was not made all in a moment, but little by little, during a very long period of time.

Cle. A highly probable supposition.
Ath. At first, they would have a natural fear ringing in their ears which would prevent their descending from the heights into the plain.

Cle. Of course.
Ath. The fewness of the survivors at that time would have made them all the more desirous of seeing one another . . .

. . . . .

Ath. They could hardly have wanted lawgivers as yet; nothing of that sort was likely to have existed in their days, for they had no letters at this early period; they lived by habit and the customs of their ancestors, as they are called.

Cle. Probably.
Ath. But there was already existing a form of government which, if I am not mistaken, is generally termed a lordship, and this still remains in many places, both among Hellenes and barbarians, and is the government . . . .

. . . . 

Ath. And were not such states composed of men who had been dispersed in single habitations and families by the poverty which attended the devastations; and did not the eldest then rule among them, because with them government originated in the authority of a father and a mother, whom, like a flock of birds, they followed, forming one troop under the patriarchal rule and sovereignty of their parents, which of all sovereignties is the most just?

Cle. Very true.
Ath. After this they came together in greater numbers, and increased the size of their cities, and betook themselves to husbandry, first of all at the foot of the mountains, and made enclosures of loose walls and works of defence, in order to keep off wild beasts; thus creating a single large and common habitation.

Cle. Yes; at least we may suppose so.
Ath. There is another thing which would probably happen.
Cle. What?
Ath. When these larger habitations grew up out of the lesser original ones, each of the lesser ones would survive in the larger; every family would be under the rule of the eldest, and, owing to their separation from one another, would have peculiar customs in things divine and human, which they would have received from their several parents who had educated them; and these customs would incline them to order, when the parents had the element of order in their nature, and to courage, when they had the element of courage. And they would naturally stamp upon their children, and upon their children’s children, their own likings; and, as we are saying, they would find their way into the larger society, having already their own peculiar laws.

Cle. Certainly.
Ath. And every man surely likes his own laws best, and the laws of others not so well.

Cle. True.
Ath. Then now we seem to have stumbled upon the beginnings of legislation.

Cle. Exactly.
Ath. The next step will be that these persons who have met together, will select some arbiters, who will review the laws of all of them, and will publicly present such as they approve to the chiefs who lead the tribes, and who are in a manner their kings, allowing them to choose those which they think best. These persons will themselves be called legislators, and will appoint the magistrates, framing some sort of aristocracy, or perhaps monarchy, out of the dynasties or lordships, and in this altered state of the government they will live.

Cle. Yes, that would be the natural order of things.

That sounds to me (and Russell Gmirkin) very much like the process we read about in Genesis between the Flood and Nimrod and the rise of great cities and despotic kings, with patriarchal overlords like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob forming an in-between state of governance. Similar developmental stages are addressed by Thucydides and Aristotle in relation to the rise of the Athens to dominate Attica.

Similar developmental stages are addressed by Thucydides and Aristotle in relation to the rise of the Athens to dominate Attica.

For other similarities that extend beyond Gmirkin’s study see my 2015 post, Plato and the Bible on the Origins of Civilization.

Here I think Gmirkin is right to point to the biblical narrative following the spirit of the Greek concepts:

The biblical narratives of Genesis-Kings also contained elements of a constitutional history that traced the changes in the form of government from the patriarchal period through the fall of the monarchies of Israel and Judah. The biblical discussion of changes in constitution and the relative merits of forms of government, unprecedented in Ancient Near Eastern literature, appear close in spirit and substance to Greek texts on these same topics. (Gmirkin, p. 231)

Kerstiaen De Keuninck The Elder: Theseus On The Road To Athens – reproduction oil painting

In earlier posts we looked at Gmirkin’s discussion of the introduction of kingship in Israel and of the differences between ideal kingship as set out in Deuteronomy, the warnings of the evils to come expressed again by Samuel, and so forth. Other interesting details emerge in this fifth chapter with the emphasis more on the literary genre or forms and themes of narrative. For example, in comparing the period of Judges and time of the earliest monarchy in Israel with the pre-unification state of Attica, and their respective full unifications under David and Theseus,

In the interim period between the times of Moses and Saul, the tribes of Israel were ruled by a series of judges (shotrim), tribal magistrates whose powers appear to have been local, but who assumed wider powers of military command over troops from multiple tribes when required by extraordinary circumstances. The autonomous tribes sometimes came into conflict with each other, as in the case of the prosecution of a war against Ephraim at Judg. 12.1-6 or against Benjamin at Judg. 19-21. A full centralization of political power took place only under David with the establish ment of the monarchy and the creation of its capital city, Jerusalem. This interim phase was comparable to the early history of Attica, when the countryside consisted of a multiplicity of walled villages, each operating with its own autonomy except when facing a common threat.96 The four Ionian tribes, each divided into three trittyes, occupied twelve principal cities.97 These were said to have been first joined together under a single constitution and government by Theseus, who established a single central democratic assembly and council hall in a new city he called Athens (Thucydides, Peloponnesian War 2.15.2; Plutarch, Theseus 24.1-4). The unification of Attica in a single pan-Athenian state was celebrated in a yearly festival, the Panathenaea. However, the reform under Theseus formed a contrast to the change of constitution in the time of Samuel: Theseus offered, and the people accepted, a reduction in powers for the basileus or king and an increase in democratic citizen participation.98 (p. 233)

That little endnote #98 reads:

Plutarch, Theseus 24.1-4; Isocrates, Panathenaicus 129; Aristotle, Athenian Constitution 41.2. The mythical figure of Theseus is thought to have been recast as the champion of Athenian democracy in the sixth or fifth century BCE by Kleisthenes or Pisistratos. See generally Walker 1995. Wajdenbaum (2011: 241-2) compared Samuel’s speech at 1 Sam. 8.11-18 with Theseus’ speech against tyranny at Euripides, The Suppliants 430-60. (p. 247)

And so he had, a detail that had lapsed from my memory. And further on,

But both Plato and Aristotle, like the biblical Samuel, described a devolution of kingship from a rulership of excellence to a tyranny of oppressive rule intended to benefit only the ruler and his associates, who lived lives of luxury at the expense of the people.100 (p. 234)

With #100 reading:

Aristotle, Politics 5.1310b-1311a, 1313a-1315b; Plato, Republic 9.576d-580a; cf. Balot 2001: 53-4. The description of the luxurious state at Plato, Republic 2.372e-373c has points of contact with 1 Sam. 8.10-18; note especially the need for “confectioners and cooks” in both. (p. 247)

1 Samuel 8:11-18 (KJV)

11 And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots.

12 And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots.

13 And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers.

14 And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants.

15 And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants.

16 And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work.

17 He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants.

18 And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day.

The Suppliants, 430-459:

To begin with, a city like that has no laws that are equal to all of its citizens. It can’t. It is a place where one man holds all the laws of the city in his own hands and dictates them as he wants. What then of equality?

Written laws, however, give this equal treatment to all, rich and poor. If a poor man is insulted by a rich one, then that poor man has every right to use the same words against that rich man.

The poor can win against the rich if justice is on his side.

The essence of freedom is in these words: “He who has a good idea for the city let him bring it before its citizens.”

You see? This way, he who has a good idea for the city will gain praise. The others are free to stay silent.

Is there a greater exhibition of fairness than this?

No, where the people hold the power, they can watch with great enjoyment the youth of their city thrive.

Not so when there is a single ruler. He hates that. The moment he sees someone who stands out in some way, he becomes afraid of losing his crown and so he kill him.

So how could a city possibly flourish like that? How could it grow in strength when someone goes about culling its bright youth like a farmer goes about cutting off the highest tips of his wheat during Spring?

Who would anyone want to bother with wealth and livelihood for his boys if it will all end up in the ruler’s hands? Or his girls. Why bother raising sweet daughters in your house if they, too, will end up with the ruler, whenever he wants them, leaving you with tears of sorrow? I’d rather die than have my daughters dragged against their will into a wedding bed!
. . . .

And Plato, Republic, book 2, with Socrates addressing Glaucon:

Yes, I said, now I understand: the question which you would have me consider is . . . how a luxurious State is created. . . . [I]f you wish . . . to see a State at fever heat, I have no objection. For I suspect that many will not be satisfied with the simpler way of life. They will be for adding sofas, and tables, and other furniture; also dainties, and perfumes, and incense, and courtesans, and cakes, all these not of one sort only, but in every variety . . . . the arts of the painter and the embroiderer will have to be set in motion, and gold and ivory and all sorts of materials must be procured.

True, he said.

Then we must enlarge our borders; for the original healthy State is no longer sufficient. Now will the city have to fill and swell with a multitude of callings which are not required by any natural want; such as the whole tribe of hunters and actors, of whom one large class have to do with forms and colours; another will be the votaries of music — poets and their attendant train of rhapsodists, players, dancers, contractors; also makers of divers kinds of articles, including women’s dresses. And we shall want more servants. Will not tutors be also in request, and nurses wet and dry, tirewomen and barbers, as well as confectioners and cooks; and swineherds, too, who were not needed and therefore had no place in the former edition of our State, but are needed now? They must not be forgotten: and there will be animals of many other kinds, if people eat them.


And living in this way we shall have much greater need of physicians than before?

Much greater.

And the country which was enough to support the original inhabitants will be too small now, and not enough?

Quite true.

Then a slice of our neighbours’ land will be wanted by us for pasture and tillage, and they will want a slice of ours, if, like ourselves, they exceed the limit of necessity, and give themselves up to the unlimited accumulation of wealth?

That, Socrates, will be inevitable.

And so we shall go to war, Glaucon. Shall we not?

Most certainly, he replied.

I trust I have given some idea of the sort of discussion to be found in Gmirkin’s fifth chapter and some of the supporting evidence he points to in his copious endnotes and bibliography, and where I personally see some of its strengths and weaknesses.

There remains one more chapter to cover and we will then have completed our discussions of Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible.





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