Category Archives: Gmirkin: Plato and Creation of Hebrew Bible


Deuteronomy’s Military Law — So Very Greek

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from previous posts, the following draws upon a secondary source used by Russell Gmirkin in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible in his discussion of military law as set out in Deuteronomy. The extracts that follow are from Anselm C. Hagedorn’s Between Moses and Plato: Individual and Society in Deuteronomy and Ancient Greek Law.

I have occasionally changed the formatting of Hagedorn’s text and a few times replaced Hebrew or Greek text with English translations. Some footnotes I have converted into hyperlinks to the source text.

Russell Gmirkin’s comparative conclusion goes beyond the details in Hagedorn’s discussion so I will quote that broader perspective before embarking on my Hagedorn study:

The lack of a military role for the king in Pentateuchal law contrasts with the king as leader of the army at war in both the Ancient Near East and in the historiography of the biblical monarchy. The citizen army described in both the narratives and legal passages of Exodus-Joshua corresponds closely to the Athenian model. The notion of military practices being governed or limited by law is characteristically Greek. The involvement of the national Assembly in negotiating peace treaties in wartime in Josh. 9 suggests a commitment to democratic practices similar to that found at Athens but unheard of in the Ancient Near East. The Deuteronomistic exemption from military duties for a soldier with a new house, vineyard or wife appears to have been modeled on the statutorial exemption from military training for an Athenian soldier who newly became head of a household through marriage or inheriting an estate. (Gmirkin, p. 125)


Military Law Between Moses and Plato

Deuteronomy 20

When you go to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army greater than yours, do not be afraid of them, because the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, will be with you.

Hagedorn p. 176

“You” in Deut 20:1 is in fact the assembly of all male Israelites who will go out and fight. This phenomenon is well attested in the Greek world. In an inscription from Athens we have a decree regarding warfare, here we read:

this decided in the Lykeion (the people of) Athens (Without the assembled people) it shall neither be (possible) to start a war (nor) to end one —

The people are responsible for military action in the law and at the same time the δήμος πληθύων [=popular assembly] controls the actions of the council, a fact not represented in Deut 20:1-20. If the law is indeed directed towards the same individuals who are already responsible for the investiture of the judges and the king in the leges de officiis, we are now able to use the so called Hoplite model of the Greek city states to investigate further what implications a fighting male citizenship had on the society.

It is important to note that one was first a citizen and then a soldier and not vice versa. To maximise its numbers of Hoplites, every polis had to be very keen on the maximisation of smallholdings so that more citizens could afford Hoplite armour.

Hoplites in phalanx formation

–o0o– read more »


Plato’s Influence on the Bible’s Property and Agricultural Laws

by Neil Godfrey

As per the previous posts, the table here is a simplified summary of some of the points Russell Gmirkin discusses in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. It is far from being a complete representation of his discussion. It is best read as an easy reference guide in conjunction with the detail covered in the book. The table is only a starting guide: it will be expanded and modified as the details of laws are further explored. I expect to do a few more similar tables for other types of laws. (Still putting on hold the discussion of the final chapter of Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible as I backtrack to sections I covered too briefly earlier or inadvertently omitted altogether.)

ANE = Ancient Near Eastern laws

Greece/Plato = Laws as implemented in Athens and/or Laws presented as ideals by Plato in Laws

Property Crimes and Agricultural Law




Laws against trespass

Exodus 22:5-6 

If anyone grazes their livestock in a field or vineyard and lets them stray and they graze in someone else’s field, the offender must make restitution from the best of their own field or vineyard. 

If a fire breaks out and spreads into thornbushes so that it burns shocks of grain or standing grain or the whole field, the one who started the fire must make restitution.

Laws of Hammurabi 57-58 

57 If a shepherd does not make an agreement with the owner of the field to graze sheep and goats, and without the permission of the owner of the field grazes sheep and goats on the field, the owner of the field shall harvest his field and the shepherd who grazed sheep and goats on the field without the permission of the owner of the field shall give in addition 6,000 silas of grain per 18 ikus (of field) to the owner of the field.

58 If, after the sheep and goats come up from the common irrigated area when the pennants announcing the termination of pasturing are wound around the main city-gate, the shepherd releases the sheep and goats into a field and allows the sheep and goats to graze in the field—the shepherd shall guard the field in which he allowed them to graze and at the harvest he shall measure and deliver to the owner of the field 18,000 silas of grain per 18 ikus (of field).

Hittite Law 105-6

105 [If] anyone sets [fire] to a field, and the fire catches a vineyard with fruit on its vines, if a vine, an apple tree, a pear(?) tree or a plum tree burns, he shall pay 6 shekels of silver for each tree. He shall replant [the planting], And he shall look to his house for it. If it is a slave, he shall pay 3 shekels of silver for each tree.

106 If anyone carries embers into his field, catches(??) it while in fruit, and ignites the field, he who sets the fire shall himself take the burnt-over field. He shall give a good field to the owner of the burnt-over field, and he will reap it.

Plato, Laws 843 c-e

[843c] Wherefore every neighbor must guard most carefully against doing any unfriendly act to his neighbor, and must above all things take special care always not to encroach in the least degree on his land; for whereas it is an easy thing and open to anyone to do an injury, to do a benefit is by no means open to everyone. Whosoever encroaches on his neighbor’s ground, overstepping the boundaries, shall pay for the damage; and, by way of cure for his shamelessness

[843d] and incivility, he shall also pay out to the injured party twice the cost of the damage. In all such matters the land-stewards shall act as inspectors, judges and valuers,—the whole staff of the district, as we have said above, in respect of the more important cases, and, in respect of the less important, those of them who are “phrourarchs.” [The “phrourarchs” were the (5) officers of the (60) country police.] If anyone encroaches on pasture-land, these officials shall inspect the damage, and decide and assess it. And if any, yielding to his taste for bees,

[843e] secures for himself another man’s swarm by attracting them with the rattling of pans, he shall pay for the damage. And if a man, in burning his own stuff, fails to have a care for that of his neighbor, he shall be fined in a fine fixed by the officials. So too if a man, when planting trees, fail to leave the due space between them and his neighbor’s plot: this has been adequately stated by many lawgivers, whose laws we should make use of, instead of requiring the Chief Organizer of the State to legislate about all the numerous small details which are within the competence of any chance lawgiver.

Allowing passers-by to eat produce from a field

Deuteronomy 23:24-25

If you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat all the grapes you want, but do not put any in your basket.

If you enter your neighbor’s grainfield, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to their standing grain.

Leviticus 19:9-10; 23:22

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.

Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Lord your God.


Plato, Laws, 844d-845d

[844d] As concerns the fruit-harvest, the rule of sharing for all shall be this—this goddess has bestowed on us two gifts, one the plaything of Dionysus which goes unstored, the other produced by nature for putting in store. So let this law be enacted concerning the fruit-harvest:. . . . .

If a foreigner sojourning in the country desires to eat of the crop as he passes along the road, he, with one attendant,

[845b] shall, if he wishes, take some of the choice fruit with-out price, as a gift of hospitality; but the law shall forbid our foreigners to share in the so-called “coarse” fruit, and the like; . . . .  

A foreigner shall be allowed to share in these fruits in the same way as in the grape crop; and if a man above thirty touch them, eating on the spot and not taking any away, he shall have a share in all such fruits, like the foreigner; . . . . 


Moving boundary stones

Deuteronomy 19:14

Do not move your neighbor’s boundary stone set up by your predecessors in the inheritance you receive in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess.

Deuteronomy 27:17

“Cursed is anyone who moves their neighbor’s boundary stone.”

Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

Plato, Laws, 842e – 843 a-b

[842e] First, then, let there be a code of laws termed “agricultural.” The first law—that of Zeus the Boundary-god—shall be stated thus: No man shall move boundary-marks of land, whether they be those of a neighbor who is a native citizen or those of a foreigner

[843a] (in case he holds adjoining land on a frontier), realizing that to do this is truly to be guilty of “moving the sacrosanct”; sooner let a man try to move the largest rock which is not a boundary-mark than a small stone which forms a boundary, sanctioned by Heaven, between friendly and hostile ground. For of the one kind Zeus the Clansmen’s god is witness, of the other Zeus the Strangers’ god; which gods, when aroused, bring wars most deadly. He that obeys the law shall not suffer the evils which it inflicts; but whoso despises it shall be liable to a double penalty, the first from the hand of Heaven, the second from the law. No one shall

[843b] voluntarily move the boundary-marks of the land of neighbors: if any man shall move them, whosoever wishes shall report him to the land-holders, and they shall bring him to the law court. And if a man be convicted,—since by such an act the convicted man is secretly and violently merging lands in one,—the court shall estimate what the loser must suffer or pay. Further, many small wrongs are done against neighbors which, owing to their frequent repetition, engender an immense amount of enmity, and make of neighborhood a grievous and bitter thing.

Gmirkin, pp. 119f

This parallel is reinforced by the common discovery of boundary stones in Attica and the apparent absence of archaeological parallels in ancient Mesopotamia or ancient Israel and Judah. To my knowledge, the earliest Judean boundary stones so far discovered are thirteen boundary stones found at Tel Gezer, written in Hebrew and Greek, dating to no earlier than the Hasmonean Era, suggesting that the use of boundary stones in Judah was a Hellenistic Era development taken over from the Greeks.




Slavery and Social Welfare (if any) Legislation in the Biblical and Neighbouring Worlds

by Neil Godfrey

As per the previous posts, the table here is a simplified summary of some of the points Russell Gmirkin discusses in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. It is far from being a complete representation of his discussion. It is best read as an easy reference guide in conjunction with the detail covered in the book. The table is only a starting guide: it will be expanded and modified as the details of laws are further explored. I expect to do a few more similar tables for other types of laws. (Still putting on hold the discussion of the final chapter of Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible as I backtrack to sections I covered too briefly earlier or inadvertently omitted altogether.)

ANE = Ancient Near Eastern laws

Greece/Plato = Laws as implemented in Athens and/or Laws presented as ideals by Plato in Laws

Slavery laws Bible ANE Greece/Plato
Source of slaves: war captives
Source of slaves: debt defaults X*
Source of slaves: piracy
Source of slaves: kidnapping
Source of slaves: famine
Types of slaves: public (owned by temples or the state)  
Types of slaves: chattel (owned by private individuals)  
Types of slaves: freeborn (typically debt slaves)    (only foreigners)
Debt (freeborn) slaves  Bible  ANE Greece/Plato 
Debt slaves sold to resident aliens had to be redeemed by kin X  Debt slaves of
fellow Athenians
was forbidden
from 594 BCE
Slaves of one’s own “nation” were to be treated mildly as hired servants, including by resident aliens
Release of debt slaves was required after a fixed number of years (3 or 6) **
Children of a freeborn slave and a slave wife given by the master remained the slave property of the master. When/if the freeborn slave left after six years he would leave his slave wife and children with the master. X /
Freeborn slave had option to demonstrate his love for his master by submitting to ear-piercing and becoming a permanent chattel slave. (My thought: surely a legal fiction!) X X
 Chattel slaves Bible ANE Greece/Plato
Forbidden to own a slave of one’s own “nation” (All slaves, except for debt slaves, must be foreigners) X
Slaves bound permanently to master were branded physically    
Beating of slaves, even if it led to their death, resulted in financial penalty at most     ✓
Asylum was permitted for abused runaway slaves X
Laws addressed marital rights of slaves  X

* Athens outlawed debt slavery under Solon, ca 594 BCE.

** Hammurabi’s code appears to have decreed a once-time-only release; the biblical law introduced a regular cycle.


Social welfare legislation Bible ANE Greece/Plato
“Land allotments for all citizens and land inalienability”   X */ 
Laws relating to debt slavery — see above
Debts forgiven after a cycle of years (but see ** above)      
Public festivals for the “happiness of everybody”      
No serious legislation to redress plight of the poor. (See below)

(Pronouncements by ANE rulers of good intentions towards society’s vulnerable rarely went further than political propaganda (no related legislation, apart from a one-off decree by a new ruler for debt relief) and in the bible, primarily appeals to charity.)


* As per Plato’s Laws and some Greek city-states; but not Athens.

** “Athens … had extensive legislation that protected the legal rights of widows, orphans, aged parents, the disabled and foreign residents.”

No serious legislation to redress the plight of the poor

Social support of the financially distressed is a prominent concern of many Pentateuchal texts. The biblical text frequently called for the protection of strangers, widows and orphans, societal classes without legal protections and vulnerable to abuse by the powerful (Ex. 22.21-24; 23.9; Lev. 19.33-34; Deut. 5.14; 10.18; 14.29; 16.11, 24; 24.15, 17, 19-21; 26.11-13; 27.19; Ps. 82.2-3; Job 24.3; Jer. 7.6; 22.3; Ezek. 22.7, 9; Zech. 7.10; Mai. 3.5). However, the Pentateuch made only moral appeals and called upon Yahweh to avenge wrongdoing (Ex. 22.22-24; Deut. 10.18; 24.15; cf. Mai. 3.5), without making specific provisions for care of strangers, widows and orphans or penalties for their abuse. . . .

The distress and vulnerability of the injured and infirm, especially the deaf and the blind, was also a subject of ethical concern (Lev. 19.14; Deut. 27.18), but not legislative protection. (Gmirkin, p. 111)

Russell Gmirkin goes on to mention laws protecting parents from verbal and physical abuse, but I myself don’t see those commands as specific to vulnerable groups: parents are not restricted to the poor or aged and the command applies to all parents regardless of age or class.

The poor constituted another vulnerable class, one particularly susceptible to economic exploitation by creditors and employers (Deut. 24.14-23; 28.38-44; Prov. 14.31; 22.7; Job 24.4; Zech. 7.10; Mal. 3.5). One law containing elements of social compassion called for day laborers to receive the pay by the end of the day (Deut. 24.14-15; cf. Mal. 3.5). Although all Israelites were pictured as land owners, a slide into poverty was possible through a poor harvest, subsistence loans secured by landholdings and loan default. Although the return of land in the year of release legislatively prevented a state of permanent debt slavery (Lev. 25.10-17, 23-34; Deut. 15.1-6), in the short term poverty was a social and political reality. Under Pentateuchal law, the landless “poor” were treated as a distinct class, exempted from severe financial obligations, allowed less expensive sacrifices and supported by both the collection of an agricultural tax for their relief and by enjoined acts of private charity. The kinship group constituted the first and primary source of support for the poor. (Gmirkin, p. 111)

One point I question in Gmirkin’s discussion is what seems to be an implication that the Pentateuchal laws were real-life legislation and not theological (theoretical) literature at the time of their composition. No doubt certain laws did become national obligations, but given what scholarship has learned about the theoretical or literary nature of other ancient Near Eastern Laws, including the Code of Hammurabi, I wonder if more consistent awareness of this possibility could have been addressed in the book.

For example, Russell Gmirkin aptly points out that

One such law allowed the stranger, the fatherless and the widow to glean the corners of the field after a harvest (Deut. 24.19-22), gathering unharvested grain, olives and grapes. Another called for an agricultural tithe to be consumed at the place where God would place his name and shared with the Levites within the gates (Deut. 14.22-27). Every three years, this tithe would be stored up within the city gates and given in its entirety to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless and the widow (Deut. 14.28-29; 26.12-15; cf. Berman 2008: 95). Festival laws provided that Levites, widows, orphans and strangers should be brought to the place Yahweh placed his name to participate in yearly festivities (Deut. 16.11, 14). (Gmirkin, p. 112, my bolding)

I think that if we take the Pentateuch’s list of laws about tithing literally we will find that it appears every three years in a seven year cycle a landowner will be required to tithe on his produce to the Tabernacle/Temple every year, to set aside another tithe to enable him to take his family and whole household to the annual Feast of Tabernacles, and every third year to set aside another tithe for the Levite, stranger, fatherless and widow — that is, thirty percent of his produce every three years is swallowed up before he sells anything. I cannot help but suspect that such Pentateuchal laws, at least as written, are theological ideals and not literal legislation.

Nonetheless, in the posts on these various types of laws addressed in Russell Gmirkin’s book so far we have not distinguished between “real” and “theological/theoretical” legislation. The point has been to see what content in the biblical laws finds counterparts in either the ancient Near East and Greek worlds, and from that data to assess the possibility of influence from the Greek world.


Comparing Biblical Laws on Marriage, Inheritance and Sexual Relations with Other Ancient Codes

by Neil Godfrey

As per the previous posts, the table here is a simplified summary of some of the points Russell Gmirkin discusses in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. It is far from being a complete representation of his discussion. It is best read as an easy reference guide in conjunction with the detail covered in the book. The table is only a starting guide: it will be expanded and modified as the details of laws are further explored. I expect to do a few more similar tables for other types of laws. (Still putting on hold the discussion of the final chapter of Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible as I backtrack to sections I covered too briefly earlier or inadvertently omitted altogether.)

ANE = Ancient Near Eastern laws

Greece/Plato = Laws as implemented in Athens and/or Laws presented as ideals by Plato in Laws

Two wives permitted X*
Bride-price custom (groom paid the father of bride) X
Dowry custom (bride had property from father, managed by her husband)
State cared for widows and orphans without near kin X
Bride could be won by heroic deeds (in myth and legend) X
Heiresses (where there are no sons to inherit) X
Levirate marriage (deceased husband’s next of kin to marry widow) X
PERMISSIBLE SEXUAL RELATIONS (Some acts tolerated though frowned upon)  Bible  ANE Greece/Plato 
With spouse
Husband with his concubine or servant/slave girl
Man with prostitutes
Man with companion (hetaira) X X
Married woman or betrothed virgin, with husband
Foreign women permitted to be prostitutes
Temple prostitution X  ?  
Consensual male homosexuality X X/
—- Penalty: death    /X
Homosexual rape and/or seduction/rape of minors     ✓
—- Penalty for bestiality: death   X/^
Cross-dressing X^^ X^^
Incest and other inter-familial relations
Prostitution of priest’s daughter, death by burning
Prostitution by native free woman and men X
—- Penalty for being prostitute, “cut off from people” / loss of civic rights    X  
Adultery, meaning sex with another man’s wife
Caught in the act, death # #
Suspicion of wife, wife to undergo Trial by Ordeal X 
Other extra-marital sex
— If consensual with another’s betrothed virgin still living with father pending marriage
—- Death penalty for both parties above  X
— If in city (or house), and girl/married woman did not cry for help    
—- Both were stoned  
— If in country, assumed girl/married woman was raped  
—- and the man was executed
— If the girl was not betrothed,    
—- man had to pay bride price and marry her and never divorce    @
— If the betrothed virgin was a slave,  
—- she was scourged and man had to offer trespass offering of a ram  X@@
Other Penalties
—- Parent could slay a pregnant daughter whose seducer was unknown X%
—- Adulteresses subject to public shaming  
— False accusation that bride was not a virgin – financial penalty to father  
— True accusation that bride was not a virgin – the bride was stoned for prostituting herself in father’s house


* 4i3 BCE Athenian assembly voted to allow men to have concubines for legitimate children (to compensate for war losses)

Hittites ruled sexual acts with some animals was capital crime; otherwise, disqualified from priesthood or palace service
^^ Transvestites had special positions in temples or religious rituals

Husband permitted but not obligated to kill the adulterer

@ Man agreed to marry the daughter or give her a dowry
@@ Man paid financial penalty

% Father or brothers could sell the girl into prostitution


Biblical assault and theft laws compared with Mesopotamian and Greek counterparts

by Neil Godfrey

As per the previous post, the table here is a simplified summary of some of the points Russell Gmirkin discusses in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. It is far from being a complete representation of his discussion. It is best read as an easy reference guide in conjunction with the detail covered in the book. The table is only a starting guide: it will be expanded and modified as the details of laws are further explored. I expect to do a few more similar tables for other types of laws. (Still putting on hold the discussion of the final chapter of Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible as I backtrack to sections I covered too briefly earlier or inadvertently omitted altogether.)

I have added more illustrative and explanatory notes at the end of the table this time.

ANE = Ancient Near Eastern laws

Greece/Plato = Laws as implemented in Athens and/or Laws presented as ideals by Plato in Laws

ASSAULT Bible ANE Greece/Plato
1. General principle: lex talionis (eye for an eye) X
2. Compensate loss of income and medical expenses *
3. Assault on parent punished by amputation of hand X X
4. Assault on parent punished by death X **
5. Maiming a slave entitles the slave to freedom X
6. Class based penalties:
–greater penalties for commoners against nobles;
–lesser penalties for nobles against commoners
X X***
7. Lesser (or no) punishments for assaults on slaves
 WHEN MEN FIGHT (with a woman nearby)….  Bible  ANE Greece/Plato 
And one injures a pregnant woman:
— Money compensation for loss of fetus
And one injures a pregnant woman so that she later dies:
— Execution of the man
And a woman grabs/crushes the testicles of one to assist the other:
— Cut off her hand or finger
THEFT Bible ANE Greece/Plato
Thieves breaking into a house at night to be slain ^  ^
Highwayman — death penalty
“Normal” daylight theft — financial penalties
Kidnapping — death penalty
Temple theft — death penalty
Public property theft — death penalty
Stealing from a house on fire — get thrown into the fire ^^
All property theft — only financial penalties, no death penalty ^^^ X X


* financial compensation for damages if unintentional or double the amount if willful
** Death was a maximum penalty but judges were to decide if it was warranted in each case
*** Greek laws in fact reversed the principle; hubris, the crime of humiliating another person to aggrandize oneself was worthy of death

the house owner himself was free to kill the thief
^^ this appears to me to be an obvious example of a theoretical or literary law; one presumes the fire would have burnt itself out by the time the trial was held.
^^^ See below

Illustrative and explanatory notes follow….. read more »


Table Comparing Homicide Laws: Biblical, Mesopotamian and Greek

by Neil Godfrey

The table here is a simplified summary of some of the points Russell Gmirkin discusses in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. It is far from being a complete representation of his discussion. It is best read as an easy reference guide in conjunction with the detail covered in the book. The table is only a starting guide: it will be expanded and modified as the details of laws are further explored. I expect to do a few more similar tables for other types of laws. (Still putting on hold the discussion of the final chapter of Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible as I backtrack to sections I covered too briefly earlier or inadvertently omitted altogether.)

ANE = Ancient Near Eastern laws

Greece/Plato = Laws as implemented in Athens and/or Laws presented as ideals by Plato in Laws

GORING OX Bible ANE Greece/Plato
Ox stoned X
Carcass not to be eaten X
Money compensation for loss
If ox kills a man after owner was warned and failed to act,
— money compensation
If ox kills a man after owner was warned and failed to act,
— owner executed
HOMICIDE Bible ANE Greece/Plato
A homeowner justified in killing a night burglar X  
Blood pollution of the land to be cleansed X
Kin to the victim required to prosecute the murderer  X
Kin to the victim required to carry out the punishment   X **
Asylum cities / temples for refuge X
Exile for unintentional homicide X
Execution by Burning X X
Execution by Drowning X X
Execution by Impalement X X
Execution by Beheading X X
Execution by Stoning X
State officials carry out the penalty X
Community carries out the penalty X

* owner tried for murder
** if the accused prematurely returned from exile

See also Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Homicide Laws




Ten Commandments: Where Did they Really Come From?

by Neil Godfrey

The Ten Commandments are a strange mix. They proscribe not only stealing and even the craving to have any property belonging to your neighbour. (And neighbour’s property includes his wife.) The command not to kill is certainly not meant to be interpreted literally as a general law since God elsewhere commanded lots of killing of people and animals. Actual laws relating to killing need to cover situations of accidental, impulsive and premeditated killing and the Pentateuch does set out laws covering those variables as we saw in Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Homicide Laws.

I had expected to be posting one of my final posts on Gmirkin’s book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible by now but my study of the final chapter has directed me to a section I covered all too sketchily earlier. So here we are. Back at chapter 4, “Greek and Ancient Near Eastern law collections”.

The Ten Commandments certainly have a distinctive reputation unequalled by any of the other laws in the Hebrew Scriptures. God even commanded for them to be kept in the ark of the covenant, translated as “coffer” in the Everett Fox translation of Deuteronomy 10:1-5, but I have changed “coffer” for the more familiar “ark”:

10:1 At that time YHWH said to me:
Carve yourself two tablets of stone, like the first-ones, and come up to me, on the mountain, and make yourself an ark of wood.

2 I will write on the tablets the words that were on the tablets, the
first-ones, that you smashed, and you are to put them in the ark.

3 So I made a ark of acacia wood,
I carved out two tablets of stone, like the first-ones,
and I went up, on the mountain, the two tablets in my arms.

4 And he wrote on the tablets according to the first writing, the Ten Words
that YHWH spoke to you on the mountain, from the midst of the fire,
on the day of the Assembly, and YHWH gave them to me.

5 And when I faced about and came down the mountain,
I put the tablets in the ark that I had made,
and they have remained there, as YHWH had commanded me.

And they do appear to be as much wisdom saying as law, or even more wisdom saying than law. Not only in content, but even in style since, like proverbs they are addressed to the second person “you”. They even address attitudes or feelings that are not even acted upon, which of course is not the sort of thing a “law” typically addresses. Further, their structure facilitates learning and recitation:

The Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5:6–21 are an excellent example of teaching structured for memorization. The rules focus on central values of ancient Israel. As Erhard Gerstenberger observed decades ago, their “apodictic” form most closely resembles that of gnomic instructions inside and outside Israel. In addition, the ordering of the list into ten items—however this is done in various streams of tradition—allows the beginning student to use his or her fingers to count off and see whether he or she has included all of the key elements of this fundamental instruction. This combination of elements—focus on central values, simplicity of form, and memorizability—has contributed to the ongoing use of the Ten Commandments in religious education up to the present, along with the focus on them as an icon of central values in contemporary cultural battles over the biblical tradition. (Carr, David M., Writing on the Tablets of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 137 — referenced by Gmirkin, page 204)

Again with the Everett Fox translation, Deuteronomy 5:6-18:

6 I am YHWH your God
who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of a house of serfs.
7 You are not to have other gods beside my presence.

8 You are not to make yourself a carved-image of any form
that is in the heavens above, that is on the earth beneath, that is in the waters beneath the earth.
9 You are not to prostrate yourselves to them, you are not to serve
for I, YHWH your God, am a jealous God, calling-to-account the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and to the fourth (generation) of those that hate me,
10 but showing loyalty to thousands
of those that love me, of those that keep my commandments.

11 You are not to take up the name of YHWH your God for
for YHWH will not clear him that takes up his name for emptiness!

12 Keep the day of Sabbath, by hallowing it, as YHWH your God has commanded you.
13 For six days you are to serve and to do all your work;
14 but the seventh day
(is) Sabbath for YHWH your God— you are not to do any work:
(not) you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your servant, nor your maid, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your animals, nor your sojourner that is in your gates— in order that your servant and your maid may rest as one-like- yourself.
15 You are to bear-in-mind that serf were you in the land of Egypt, but YHWH your God took you out from there with a strong hand
and with an outstretched arm; therefore YHWH your God commands you to observe the day of Sabbath.

16 Honor your father and your mother,
as YHWH your God has commanded you, in order that your days may be prolonged, and in order that it may go-well with you on the soil that YHWH your God is giving you.

17 You are not to murder!

And you are not to adulter!

And you are not to steal!

And you are not to testify against your neighbor as a lying witness!

18 And you are not to desire the wife of your neighbor; you are not to crave the house of your neighbor,
his field, or his servant, or his maid, his ox or his donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor!

Of particular significance for Russell Gmirkin’s thesis is that these Ten Commandments have no known parallel in ancient Near Eastern law codes.

So were the authors of the Decalogue bestowed with a superior gift of spiritual insight?

Or were they influenced by “best ideas” of sacred law and wisdom found in a culture to their west? Should we consider a set of “laws” or “sacred sayings” inscribed in stone at Greece’s principal temple at Delphi? The Delphic sanctuary was the centre for Apollo and city-states would send ambassadors to the site to seek guidance from Apollo’s prophetess there.At that holy site was a world-renowned inscription of wisdom sayings that took on the status of sacred laws. read more »


The argument so far: Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible

by Neil Godfrey

We have covered five of the six chapters in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. The final chapter covers a topic that for me is the most interesting of all, but before going there Gmirkin outlines what he has covered so far. He has presented “substantial new arguments for viewing the Primary History of Genesis-Kings as a Hellenistic Era composition that displays considerable influences from the Greek world” (p. 250).

He summarizes those “considerable influences” of Greek legal and historical literature:

  • its structural form as a nationalistic history, patterned on such works as the Aegyptiaca of Manetho (ca. 285 BCE) and the Babyloniaca of Berossus (278 BCE);
  • its integration of elements from discussions of constitutional history taken from Plato and perhaps Aristotle;
  • its incorporation of the Greek genre of the foundation story in its narratives about the patriarchal promises, the Exodus, wilderness wanderings and conquest of the Promised Land;
  • its characteristically Greek integration of narrative and legal content;
  • its Greek constitutional and legal content;
  • and its Greek conception of law as prescriptive, educational and useful for instilling citizen virtues.

The Influence of Plato’s Laws on Deuteronomy

Greek influences on the biblical text discussed in earlier chapters include the substantial use of Plato’s Laws. It is apparent that this particular philosophical text exerted a profound influence on the political thinking, educational philosophy and literary activities of the biblical authors. This is illustrated most decisively in the book of Deuteronomy, which was written according to directions laid out in Plato’s Laws as a speech to the gathered colonists of the nation about to be founded, recounting their laws suitably framed by hortatory introductions and other educational and rhetorical content.

(Gmirkin, 2017. p. 250)

So Gmirkin challenges the conventional view that Near Eastern literature, political systems and laws were the principal influence in the making of the Primary History, Genesis to Kings. These books were not produced by ancient Jewish scribes living in the centuries of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, nor were they even produced in the Babylonian captivity or in the ensuing Persian era when the colony of Jehud was first established. They were the product of a deliberate study of Greek writings, specifically those relating to laws, constitutions and foundation myths. Local Jewish traditions and laws were also woven into the new literature in the early third century BCE.

From my own readings of the debates between the “minimalists” and “maximalists”, especially the debates between Thompson and Dever, and each side’s analysis of archaeological reports, I am convinced that Gmirkin’s analysis is quite plausible. (See notes on Davies’ book at In Search of Ancient Israel.) Insofar as the conventional explanations of the origins of the Pentateuch have been necessarily embedded in assumptions that the books evolved over many centuries through the periods of the monarchy and Babylonian captivity, those models ought to be reassessed. Similarly for the writings of the historical books from Judges to 2 Kings and the books claiming to be by various prophets.

Gmirkin’s book is, I think, a significant contribution towards opening up new explanations given the material evidence both against such a literature appearing before the Persian era and for its appearance after the establishment of the Jewish colony. His thesis certainly makes sense of the character of the Primary History as literature: as literature, in its structure, genre, style, it is in very large measure unlike the writings of the Near East prior to the Hellenistic era; yet as literature it is very often comparable in themes, genres, styles to much of the Greek Classical and Hellenistic literary outputs.

Other authors have noticed and discussed similarities between Primary History, the Pentateuch in particular, on the one hand, and Herodotus, Greek foundation stories, other myths and Plato’s Laws, on the other. These earlier publications have generally sought to explain the similarities from an assumption that the Hebrew works were much earlier than the Hellenistic era. But if we have good reasons to date the Hebrew literary production no earlier than the Persian era then the observations of those earlier scholars suddenly take on a new life. We have a “simple explanation” for the common points they observed. Along with his own observations, Gmirkin appears to have brought some of those earlier observations into the light of the new context.

Before moving on to the remainder of chapter six, which as I said is for me the most interesting one of all, this may be a good place to collate the various posts relating to Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible.

You can also read an extended abstract or chapter by chapter outline by Gmirkin himself on his page.

  1. Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible (2016-10-16)
  2. The Pentateuch’s Debt to Greek Laws and Constitutions — A New Look (2016-10-26)
  3. David, an Ideal Greek Hero — and other Military Matters in Ancient Israel (2016-11-12)
  4. Some preliminaries before resuming Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible  (2016-12-15)
  5. The Tribes of Israel modeled on the Athenian and Ideal Greek Tribes? (2016-12-16)
  6. The Bible’s Assemblies and Offices Based on Greek Institutions? (2017-01-22)
  7. Similarities between Biblical and Greek Judicial Systems (2017-01-28)
  8. The Inspiration for Israel’s Law of the Ideal King (2017-02-09)
  9. Bible’s Priests and Prophets – With Touches of Greek (2017-02-22)
  10. Primitive Democracy in Ancient Israel (2017-04-04)
  11. Mosaic Laws: from Classical Greece or the Ancient Near East? (2017-06-02)
  12. Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Homicide Laws (2017-06-05)
  13. Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Law-Giving Narratives as Greek-Inspired Literature (2017-07-26)
  14. Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Legal Narratives (esp. Panegyrics), continued (2017-07-26)
  15. Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Legal Narratives continued . . . Solon and Atlantis (2017-07-27)
  16. Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Greek Foundation Stories and the Bible (2017-07-28)
  17. Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Political Evolution in Literature (2017-08-05)


Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Political Evolution in Literature

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, read more »


Postscript on Rome’s and Israel’s foundation stories

by Neil Godfrey

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

by Neil Godfrey
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 »


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

by Neil Godfrey
[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 »


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

by Neil Godfrey

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

by Neil Godfrey

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 »