Category Archives: Gmirkin: Plato and Creation of Hebrew Bible


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 »

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

by Neil Godfrey

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 »


How Does One Date the Old Testament Writings?

by Neil Godfrey

I have been posting insights from Russell Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible (archived here) in which he argues that both many core and peripheral features of the text of the Hebrew Bible bear closer similarities to Classical Greek writings and practices than to what we find in ancient Mesopotamian and Levantine culture. Gmirkin’s hypothesis is that the authors of the biblical texts shared the wider intellectual ethos of the Hellenistic era with its interest in exploring ideal constitutional and legal systems. The Great Library at Alexandria, Egypt, was a repository of these ideas and resources that Judean scribes were known to access as freely as any other scholar of the day.

Another scholar who has argued for a Hellenistic provenance of the Biblical literature is Niels Peter Lemche, although his proposals have pointed Mesopotamia and Syria as possible centres where Judean scribes were exposed to Greek ideas and writings rather than Egypt. No doubt Judeans were exposed to Greek culture throughout the Middle East but Russell Gmirkin focuses on the Alexandrian library because we know that specific Greek texts (e.g. Plato’s Laws, Aristotle’s Politics) that contain some striking echoes in the Biblical literature were housed there and we further know that Judean scribes worked there.

In this post I thought it worthwhile addressing some of the context to Gmirkin’s book by reference to a chapter by Lemche from 2001, “How Does One Date an Expression of Mental History? The Old Testament and Hellenism” in Did Moses Speak Attic? Jewish Historiography and Scripture in the Hellenistic Period edited by Lester L. Grabbe, pp. 200-224.

Lemche begins by reminding readers of the traditional circularity of the way scholars have dated the texts:

I have set out in table format the fundamental circularity underlying the scholarly arguments for not only the dating but also for the historicity of the Biblical narratives as argued by P.R. Davies (1992) at

A text that seemed to include historical information might well belong to the age when this historical referent seemed likely to have existed. At least this was the general attitude. The historical referent was the decisive factor. If the information included in the historical referent was considered likely or even precise, the text that provided this information was considered more or less contemporary with the event—that is, the historical referent—although the only source of this event was often the text in question that referred to it.

In those days, everybody knew and talked about the ‘hermeneutic circle’. It was generally accepted that the study of ancient Israel was from a logical point of view based on a circellus logicus vitiosum, a false logical circle, but nobody within biblical studies believed that it was possible to avoid this logical trap. (p. 200)

But there are ways to recognize general cultural matrices of certain texts. Intellectual topics come and go like fashions, to somewhat oversimplify the point. I was reminded of this point when recently listening again to the Foucault-Chomsky debate: scientific progress, they agreed, is not linear but lurches in fits and starts as new ideas arise and old problems that once preoccupied the community are simply forgotten.

Every period in the history of humankind will give birth to a number of questions— within philosophy, religion or simple politics—that are specifically related to this period, hot subjects for a while and then forgotten. (Lemche, 2001, p. 207)

Lemche illustrates with micro-references to the scholarly dialogues of recent generations: read more »


Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Homicide Laws

by Neil Godfrey

After the introduction (covered in my previous post) Russell Gmirkin divides chapter three of Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible, “Biblical, Ancient Near Eastern and Greek Laws” into thematic sections:

  • laws relating to homicide,
  • laws relating to assault,
  • to theft,
  • to marriage and inheritance,
  • to sexual offences,
  • to slavery,
  • to social legislation (concerning resident foreigners, widows, orphans, the poor, disabled persons, etc.),
  • to livestock,
  • to property crimes and agricultural law,
  • to commerce,
  • to military law,
  • to treason,
  • to “religious” or laws concerning the sacred,
  • and finally general ethical laws.

Each section documents details the three sources of laws — biblical, ANE and Greek — and concludes with a comparative discussion.

Near Eastern law codes included Hittite laws, the law codes of Eshnunna (LE), Hammurabi (LH), Ur-Nammu, Neo-Babylonian and Middle Assyrian laws and palace decrees and the Telepinu Edict. Points of Greek law are drawn from the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Lysias, Demosthenes, Xenophon, among others including Aeschylus and Andocides.

The chapter extends to 109 pages and includes 369 endnotes and a bibliography of over 140 titles.

This post looks at one of the above sections and Russell Gmirkin’s observations on the extent of the biblical laws’ similarity or otherwise to counterparts in the Near Eastern and Greek worlds.

All three geographical regions unsurprisingly stress the importance of lex talionis, of vengeance and deterrence as intended purposes of their legislation with respect to murder or even accidental killing.

But there are a number of significant points Greek and biblical law share that are nowhere found among our surviving evidence for laws in Mesopotamian and Asia Minor civilizations. These Greek-biblical similarities include

  • the recognition of different psychological states in determining appropriate punishments
  • the idea of blood pollution in the land
  • the responsibility of the relatives of the victim to initiate prosecution of the murderer
  • the possibility of at least temporary sanctuary in a temple
  • and the option of exile
  • stoning by the community
  • the killing of an animal responsible for killing a person
  • killing a burglar entering a house at night was justifiable homicide (ANE law required the execution of such a burglar but it is not stated that a house-owner himself could justifiably kill the burglar in the act)

“State of mind”

On the first point, the recognition of “state of mind” factors in determining penalties, Gmirkin writes:

Plato’s Laws contained an innovation on the Athenian laws for intentional homicide by distinguishing premeditated and unpremeditated homicide. Plato held that those murders committed with cold premeditation received a greater punishment in the form of a longer term of exile than those commit ted on impulse with no forethought, despite an equal degree of malice (Plato, Laws 9.866d-869e; cf. Chase 1933: 168-9,171-2; Loomis 1972: 93—4; MacDowell 1978: 115; Gagarin 1981: 35).

Here is part of Plato’s explanation:

For murder is committed in passion by those who, on a sudden and without intent to kill, destroy a man by blows or some such means in an immediate attack, when the deed is at once followed by repentance; and it is also a case of murder done in passion whenever men who are insulted by shameful words or actions seek for vengeance, and end by killing a man with deliberate intent to kill, and feel no repentance for the deed. We must lay it down, as it seems, that these murders are of two kinds, both as a rule done in passion, and most properly described as lying midway between the voluntary and the involuntary. None the less, each of these kinds tends to resemble one or other of these contraries; for the man who retains his passion and takes vengeance, not suddenly on the spur of the moment, but after lapse of time, and with deliberate intent, resembles the voluntary murderer; whereas the man who does not nurse his rage, but gives way to it at once on the spur of the moment and without deliberate intent, has a likeness to the involuntary murderer; yet neither is he wholly involuntary, but bears a resemblance thereto. Thus murders done in passion are difficult to define,—whether one should treat them in law as voluntary or involuntary. The best and truest way is to class them both as resemblances, and to distinguish them by the mark of deliberate intent or lack of intent, and to impose more severe penalties on those who slay with intent and in anger, and milder penalties on those who do so without intent and on a sudden. For that which resembles a greater evil must be more heavily punished, that which resembles a lesser evil more lightly. So our laws also must do likewise. . . . .

Examples follow:

If a man with his own hand slay a free man, and the deed be done in rage without deliberate intent, he shall suffer such other penalties as it is proper for the man to suffer who has slain without passion, and he shall be compelled to go into exile for two years, thereby chastising his own passion.

Compare Exodus 21:13

12 “He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. 13 However, if he did not lie in wait [i.e. there was no premeditation], but God delivered him into his hand [i.e. indicating this was an instance of intentional homicide], then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee.

The explanatory phrases I have added are from Gmirkin’s endnotes.


We also have in this example a reference to exile as a form of penalty, something unknown in our records of ANE laws. read more »


Mosaic Laws: from Classical Greece or the Ancient Near East?

by Neil Godfrey

[These Laws] will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say,

“Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”

What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? 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?

Deuteronomy 4:6-8 (NIV)

In the previous set of posts on Russell Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible we surveyed the broad constitutional framework of the Pentateuchal laws in comparison with Classical Greek and Ancient Near Eastern legal collections. Those posts are

  1. Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible
  2. The Pentateuch’s Debt to Greek Laws and Constitutions — A New Look
  3. David, an Ideal Greek Hero — and other Military Matters in Ancient Israel
  4. Some preliminaries before resuming Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible
  5. The Tribes of Israel modeled on the Athenian and Ideal Greek Tribes?
  6. The Bible’s Assemblies and Offices Based on Greek Institutions?
  7. Similarities between Biblical and Greek Judicial Systems
  8. The Inspiration for Israel’s Law of the Ideal King
  9. Bible’s Priests and Prophets – With Touches of Greek
  10. Primitive Democracy in Ancient Israel

In the third chapter, “Biblical, Ancient Near Eastern and Greek Laws”, Gmirkin undertakes a comparison of specific laws covering various social relations. Scholars have studied in depth the Hammurabi Law Code of Babylon in the light of the Pentateuchal laws but Gmirkin asks if it is valid to question whether ancient Greek legal codes also have relevance to the Bible.

Gmirkin draws attention to the Deuteronomy passage quoted above and asks us ot consider its international setting. Different nations are expected to observe and study Israel’s laws, comparing them with their own and with other law codes. It sounds as if the Deuteronomist had enough knowledge of other law codes to be confident that his stood head and shoulders above the rest.

Such a game-plan sounds quite odd and we know of nothing like this among the ancients of the Near East.

But we do know that elites among the Greeks did indeed write about doing just such multi-national comparisons of law codes. Is that relevant? Does that practice give meaning to Deuteronomy 4:6-8?

We have records from among the Greeks that when a new colony was to be founded or when a new government had been installed that legal experts would consult with other “nations” about their laws as preparation for drafting their own.

Gmirkin’s observation: read more »


Primitive Democracy in Ancient Israel

by Neil Godfrey

Also he says that “Exodus to Joshua: depict the Elders and Assembly as “national democratic institutions . . . subordinate to . . . Moses and Joshua.”

Democratic? Really? From what does Gmirkin extrapolate any meaningful form of democratic process?

Austendw questioning a point made in relation to the post The Bible’s Assemblies and Offices Based on Greek Institutions?

James LaRoche has consolidated my posts on Russell Gmirkin’s book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible,  into a single document and has kindly offered his work to anyone else interested.Review of Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew

Below is an excerpt of the beginning of the document:

Russell Gmirkin’s
Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible
Originally posted on

Editor’s Notes
This is a compilation of articles posted from 10/16/2016 through 2/22/207:

  • Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible
  • The Pentateuch’s Debt to Greek Laws and Constitutions — A New Look
  • David, an Ideal Greek Hero — and Other Military Matters in Ancient Israel
  • Some Preliminaries before Resuming Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible
  • The Tribes of Israel Modeled on the Athenian and Ideal Greek Tribes?
  • The Bible’s Assemblies and Offices Based on Greek Institutions?
  • Similarities between Biblical and Greek Judicial Systems
  • The Inspiration for Israel’s Law of the Ideal King
    Bible’s Priests and Prophets – with Touches of Greek

Ancillary Articles:

  • Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible – Excerpt; Chapter I
  • The First Constitution, Bernard M. Levinson
  • The Bible — History or Story
  • Berossus and Genesis
  • The Genesis Creation Story and Its Third Century Hellenistic Source?

Minor editing omits some few sentences for the purpose of focused flow of the subject, and formatting without graphics and font colors.

I reply here with my own word in favour of Russell Gmikin’s portrayal.

It is a commonplace in the historical literature to acknowledge “democratic” processes evident in the surviving records of ancient Mesopotamian and pre-classical Greek civilisations, as well as in the tribal life of early European Germanic peoples and in traditional village life today across much of the world.

The term often historically indicates nothing more than that free men had a significant collective say in major community decisions such as waging war and in holding their kings accountable. That women and slaves were omitted would disqualify such a process from being a true democracy by today’s standards but that’s not the standard applied when historians speak of democratic processes in past civilisations.

Thus Thorkild Jacobsen explained at the outset of his article “Primitive Democracy in Ancient Mesopotomia”,

We shall use “democracy” in its classical rather than in its modem sense as denoting a form of government in which internal sovereignty resides in a large proportion of the governed, namely in all free, adult, male citizens without distinction of fortune or class. That sovereignty resides in these citizens implies that major decisions—such as the decision to undertake a war—are made with their consent, that these citizens constitute the supreme judicial authority in the state, and also that rulers and magistrates obtain their positions with and ultimately derive their power from that same consent.

By “primitive democracy,” furthermore, we understand forms of government which, though they may be considered as falling within the definition of democracy just given, differ from the classical democracies by their more primitive character: the various functions of government are as yet little specialised, the power structure is loose, and the machinery for social co-ordination by means of power is as yet imperfectly developed.

Jacobsen, T. 1943. “Primitive Democracy in Ancient Mesopotomia” in Journal of Near Eastern Studies, volume 2, number 3, p. 159.

Prior to the days of absolute monarchs, even prior to the earliest historical inscriptions, we can infer from the myths of the Sumerians and Akkadians in which gods lived like humans that Sumerians and Akkadians once lived in “primitive democratic” societies.

The gods, to mention only one example, were pictured as clad in a characteristic tufted (sheepskin?) garment long after that material was no longer in use among men. In similar fashion must we explain the fact that the gods are organized politically along democratic lines, essentially different from the autocratic terrestrial states which we find in Mesopotamia in the historical periods. Thus in the domain of the gods we have a reflection of older forms, of the terrestrial Mesopotamian state as it was in pre-historic times.

The assembly which we find in the world of the gods rested on a broad democratic basis . . . . 

Jacobsen, p. 167

The “pre-historic” assembly of adult free males decided on issues such as war and peace and could grant autocratic power to one person for a limited period of time for the efficient execution of an assigned task.

In 1963 Abraham Malamat noticed striking similarities between a Sumerian Gilgamesh poem (though not the famous “epic of Gilgamesh”) and the account of the breaking away of the northern ten tribes of Israel from the Kingdom of Rehoboam (formerly the united Kingdom of Israel) in the Bible. This was published as “Kingship and Council in Israel and Sumer: a Parallel” also in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies (22, 4, 247-253).

Gilgamesh laid
the matter before
his city’s elders,

was seeking, seeking
for words:

“Let us not submit
to the house of Kishi …”

Met in assembly,
his city’s elders

answer gave
to Gilgamesh:

“Let us submit
to the house of Kishi …”

Trusting Inanna,

lord of Kullab,

took not to heart
the words of his city’s elders. 

The second time Gilgamesh,
lord of Kullab,

laid the matter before
the lads of his city, …

Met in assembly
the lads of his city
answer gave
to Gilgamesh: ..

“Let us not submit
to the house of Kishi
let us smite it with weapons.”

Gilgamesh and Aka, trans. Jacobsen (1987)

read more »


Bible’s Priests and Prophets – With Touches of Greek

by Neil Godfrey

Is it possible that the Bible’s account of priests and prophets contains hints of borrowing from the Greek world? Not that those Hellenistic features mean we have to jettison entirely sources and influences closer to the Levant. Let’s look at another section of Russell Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible (2016).


Previous posts:

The narratives of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) are set in Syria, Sinai, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Jordan, Phoenicia, Canaan and that fact affects the way we imagine how the authors created those tales. We picture them drawing upon memories, traditions, stories both oral and written from the those same lands. We expect scholars to look to the law codes, the religious practices, the governing institutions and social customs of the Levant, the Hittites and Mesopotamia for the context of the biblical literature and, as expected, they do indeed find points of contact in those places.

Meanwhile we barely catch glimpses of the Mediterranean world in those scriptures: firstly, there are passing references to Noah’s descendants through Japheth being assigned to settle the Hellas (Greece); secondly, a mysterious dream of an apocalyptic future is revealed to Daniel. Yet Anselm Hagedorn suggests on the basis of Joel and Zechariah that the contact with the Greek world may have been “more intense than the Biblical sources want us to believe.” (2004. p. 60)

Joel 3:6

You sold the people of Judah and Jerusalem to the Greeks, that you might send them far from their homeland.

Zechariah 9:13

I will bend Judah as I bend my bow and fill it with Ephraim. I will rouse your sons, Zion, against your sons, Greece, and make you like a warrior’s sword.

They may not be well known outside academia but there are significant studies that do place the Levant (including “biblical Israel”) within the orbit of the East Mediterranean’s geographical and cultural littoral, most conspicuously from the time of Alexander’s conquests but also culturally centuries earlier. Some of these studies (ones that I have been able to access in preparation for this post) are:

It is in this context that Gmirkin’s thesis focuses on a Hellenistic provenance of the Pentateuch. In particular he looks to the centrality of the Great Library of Alexandria established in the wake of the Greco-Macedonian conquests ca 300 BCE and assigned the responsibility of collecting copies of all the literary works of the known world. It was through this central repository that Judean scholars surely had access to the great philosophical and political works of Plato, Aristotle, and others. It is also pertinent to Gmirkin’s thesis that one widely popular topic among literate circles throughout the Greek speaking world was the question of “the best form of government”. And that’s exactly the sort of literature that the Pentateuch is — a narrative history and detailed exposition of “perfect laws”, an “ideal constitution”, the wisest of law-books among all nations, as Deuteronomy 4: 5-8 informs us:

Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments . . . for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations who shall hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them as the Lordour God is in all things that we call upon Him for? And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?

So for Gmirkin’s thesis it is not without significance that the earliest secure evidence of the Pentateuchal writings dates to that time, the third century BCE, and that the primary theme and interest of these writings is the same as we find among Greek philosophers of that time — the establishment and exposition of ideal constitutions and perfect laws intended to support the happiest and most righteous society imaginable.

Among some striking synchronicities between the worlds of Greece and the Hebrew Bible identified by Gmirkin and discussed so far have been:

  • the 12 tribe organisation of the people


  • the subjection of the king to moral guardians or priestly supervision

In the final post in this section of Gmirkin’s study we look at some aspects of the Pentateuch’s Aaronid priests, related Levites and roles of prophets. We will see that while the Pentateuch has significant departures from Athenian practice and Plato’s philosophical ideals there remain certain points of contact that are worthy of attention.


Temple Priests

We know from Aristotle (Politics 1300a, 19ff; Athenian Constitution 57) that Athenian priestly offices were appointed either by popular election or by lot, but that it was necessary for a certain ratio of candidates to belong to two ancient priestly families, the Eumolpidae and Kerykes. One of course thinks of the Aaronids in the Pentateuch and the Zadokites in the Book of Ezekiel.

Plato contemplated an ideal constitution (or rather a second-best constitution, since anything human had to be inferior to divine systems) and decided it was most necessary for priestly functions to be filled by persons not only pure physically, but also morally and according to family heritage:

we shall test, first, as to whether he is sound and true-born, and secondly, as to whether he comes from houses that are as pure as possible, being himself clean from murder and all such offences against religion, and of parents that have lived by the same rule. (Laws 759c)

In following up Russell Gmirkin’s endnotes I came across a notice that the title of “high priest” was unattested for any Greek city up to the middle of the third century, or the Hellenistic era.

After this time it becomes very common. . . . Plato’s … Laws anticipates the future and may have been an important influence upon Athenian practices in Hellenistic times. (Morrow p. 418)

It is interesting that Plato’s philosophical discussion should be considered as a possible source for institutional innovations in Athens in the Hellenistic era. That classicists take this view strengthens Russell Gmirkin’s argument that the same writing influenced the authors of the Pentateuch.

What is particularly interesting, however, is that Plato further spoke of a need for the priests of Apollo and Helios to be of the most virtuous character. Physical perfection was not sufficient. read more »


The Inspiration for Israel’s Law of the Ideal King

by Neil Godfrey
Continuing my series on Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible by Russell Gmirkin in which it is argued that the Pentateuch owes a heavy debt to the Greek philosophical and political writings of the Greeks located in the Great Library of Alexandria.

Previous posts:



The Law of Moses placed limitations on the king that are “without parallel in the ancient Near East. Nowhere do we find legal curbs on the size of the military, the treasury, and the harem.” (Berman, 53) From the law in Deuteronomy 17:14-20 we learn that:

Deuteronomy 17:14-20

When you enter the land
that Yhwh your God is giving you, and you possess it and settle in it, should you say:
I will set over me a king
like all the nations that are around me—

you may set, yes, set over you a king that Yhwh your God chooses;
from among your brothers you may set over you a king, you may not place over you a foreign man who is not a brother-person to you.

he is not to multiply horses for himself,
and he is not to return the people to Egypt in order to multiply horses, since Yhwh has said to you: You will never return that way again!

And he is not to multiply wives for himself, that his heart not be turned-aside,
and silver or gold he is not to multiply for himself to excess.

But it shall be:
when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he is to write himself a copy of this Instruction in a document, before the presence of [or, that is in the charge of] Levitical priests.

It is to remain beside him, he is to read out of it all the days of his life, in order that he may learn to have-awe-for Yhwh his God, to be-careful concerning all the words of this Instruction and these laws, to observe them,

that his heart not be raised above his brothers, that he not turn-aside from what-is-commanded, to the right or to the left;
in order that he may prolong (his) days over his kingdom, he and his sons, in the midst of Israel.

Everett Fox translation

  • The King was to be elected by an assembly of the citizens
  • The King was subject to written laws that had been prepared by the priests

That is remarkable enough. But elsewhere in Deuteronomy we find other powers that your typical ancient Near Eastern king assigned to others so that according to the same book of law the king had

  • no judicial powers; he was not even the judge of final appeals
  • no religious function; he was not the guardian of the cult or temple
  • no military role, not even in wartime
  • no responsibility for economic relief of his subjects (e.g. debt remission, manumission)

(Levinson, 529)

All of this is quite unlike the kings we later read about in the history of Israel. Kings like David, Solomon, and their dynastic successors lived and ruled very much like the potentates of kingdoms and empires around them. But our interest here is the ideal king according to the Law of Moses.

The Greek world did know of such restrictions on kings, however.

Aristotle described various types of kingship including the elected and largely ceremonial office of the Athenian king, the Archon Basileus. Aristotle in fact counselled that the most stable monarchies were those with the least powers:

On the other hand it is clear that monarchies, speaking generally, are preserved in safety as a result of the opposite causes to those by which they are destroyed. But taking the different sorts of monarchy separately—royalties are preserved by bringing them into a more moderate form; for the fewer powers the kings have, the longer time the office in its entirety must last, for they themselves become less despotic and more equal to their subjects in temper, and their subjects envy them less. For this was the cause of the long persistence of the Molossian royalty, and that of Sparta has continued because the office was from the beginning divided into two halves, and because it was again limited in various ways by Theopompus, in particular by his instituting the office of the ephors to keep a check upon it; for by taking away some of the kings’ power he increased the permanence of the royal office, so that in a manner he did not make it less but greater. This indeed as the story goes is what he said in reply to his wife, when she asked if he felt no shame in bequeathing the royal power to his sons smaller than he had inherited it from his father: “Indeed I do not,” he is said to have answered, “for I hand it on more lasting.” 

Politics, 1313a 

From the “classical era” on the Athenian Basileus assigned major cases to the appropriate courts; military leadership was a right assigned to another office, the Polemarch. He did maintain some religious duties and essentially his office was ceremonial.

Other Greek city states had variations of the kingship office: some were elected, others dynastic; some had two kings, others just the one and still others had a panel of kings; some had military and religious duties. In Cyrene the kings were at one point stripped of their military role.

Ancient Near Eastern kings were as far from any thought of being subject to written laws or the supervision of the priests as one can imagine. It was different among the Greeks, however.

The requirement that the duties of the king should be performed in strict conformity to written law is a characteristically Greek notion. The creation of a copy of the law for royal reference is strikingly reminiscent of the publication of Athenian laws at the Royal Stoa. (Gmirkin, 35)

read more »