Category Archives: Gmirkin: Plato and Creation of Hebrew Bible


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)

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Similarities between Biblical and Greek Judicial Systems

by Neil Godfrey

This post covers just one small set of details addressed by Russell Gmirkin in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible, legal proceedings. I am keen to get to the next chapter where laws themselves are compared, but to take the question of “Biblical” links with the Greek world as distinct from the Near Eastern culture in its entirety I need to pause and grasp the particulars of each argument. I try to present as much information as necessary for each of us to come to our own conclusions — or questions.

This second chapter of Gmirkin’s book, “Athenian and Pentateuchal Legal Institutions”, is not for light recreational reading. It is a serious text packed with detail. Gmirkin’s approach is to set out paragraphs detailing various Greek practices and institutions, each within its historical context, followed by packed paragraphs of comparable data found the Bible. Without some graphic aids like multiple numbered subheadings or tables it is not always easy to connect the details of Greek practices (sometimes Athenian, sometimes non-Athenian) with those in different parts of the Bible (sometimes, but not always, the Pentateuch, and if the Pentateuch then sometimes with differences found in Deuteronomy.) And then there are the copious end-notes that frequently clarify and support the main text.

As a result I find myself having to take out pen and paper and set out the details in a table form to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of the case being made. And having gone to that trouble it seems only natural that I should tidy up those tables and share them here.

We are talking here about “the judiciary”. Judges, juries, court hearings.

Relatively little direct comparison and contrast is made with Near Eastern legal processes and institutions. My conclusion is that while some aspects in the biblical judicial systems no doubt overlap with Near Eastern ways, Gmirkin’s point is to show that the biblical processes strongly match Greek ones as well, or perhaps even more completely.

Here is the table setting out some (not all) of Gmirkin’s comparisons, stripped of many details for sake of simplicity:

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The Bible’s Assemblies and Offices Based on Greek Institutions?

by Neil Godfrey

Russell Gmirkin continues to argue for much of the Old Testament having been written as late as around 270 BCE in his new book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. (He first made the argument in Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus, – link is to archived posts addressing various points in that work.) The book is priced for academic institutions so thankfully the publisher (Routledge) sent me a review copy that I am still reading. I have been relocating, renovating and slowly building up a new home office so progress has not been lightning fast, but small steps as opportunity arises are better than no steps so here’s the next instalment.

Biblical laws have been compared often enough with those from the ancient Levant and Mesopotamia and Gmirkin continues to make the same sorts of comparisons. But he also compares the biblical laws with ancient Greek laws and law collections and finds the similarities on the whole to be more striking than with those of the Near East. Not only laws themselves but also the narratives in which they are embedded resonate strongly with Greek literature. Gmirkin’s explanation is that the authors of the biblical texts were informed of legal ideals through Greek writings stored in the Great Library of Alexandria in the Hellenistic era.

Before addressing specific laws Gmirkin sets out comparisons of biblical (especially Pentateuchal) legal institutions with those of Greece. The chapter is thick with endnotes and citations and many of these have kept my reading at a snail’s pace, but such slow reading is an enriching journey. I do find detailed discussions of legal, civil and religious institutions and offices becoming something of a blur, however, unless I take pen and paper and set out what I am reading in diagram form, and that’s what I have been doing especially in the second half of the second chapter. So for my own benefit and the interest of anyone else I set out here tables of data collated by Gmirkin in his comparisons. (Diagrams would be far too time-consuming.) Not all details or explanations are set out here by any means, but I hope I include enough to grasp the main ideas that are argued for the primacy of Greek influence on what we read in biblical narratives. I attempt to give enough detail for readers to form their own questions and assessments.

I am sure I am not the only one who has become so familiar with terms like “elders” and “all the people of Israel” and imagined them in their “exclusively  biblical” context that it will come as something of a shock to make unfamiliar comparisons with Greek institutions and processes. Yet that’s what Gmirkin does and the results are by and large interesting. Here’s the first table; more to follow: read more »


The Tribes of Israel modeled on the Athenian and Ideal Greek Tribes?

by Neil Godfrey

The Bible’s narratives evidently share much of the cultural heritage of ancient Syria and Mesopotamia but zoom in for a more detailed study and one arguably sees many signs of a distinctively Greek influence. That’s the argument of Russell Gmirkin in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. Previous posts in this series that include explanations of how Greek sources could have influenced the biblical authors 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

Nothing is more essentially “Biblical Israel” than its Twelve Tribes. Genesis is for most part the story of the origins of these twelve tribes. The history of Israel is a history primarily of the tribes of Israel, mostly twelve at first, but then divided into two kingdoms of ten and two. One of the tribes was assigned for the priesthood and therefore not given a territorial allotment, but two of Joseph’s sons were each given land areas to maintain the all-important twelve inheritors of the land while the sons of Levi became a thirteenth tribe. Always twelve, though sometimes ten and sometimes thirteen.

So very “biblical”, yet so very Greek as known about Athens and various Greek colonies from the writings of Plato and Aristotle housed in the Great Library of Alexandria.

It’s a fascinating observation. Gmirkin’s argument is as follows.

Tribal groupings in the Ancient Near East generally consisted of literal kinship groupings. When we read about the tribal organization of Israel in the Hexateuch (the Pentateuch plus Joshua), however, we find something different. Most distinctive are the clear geographic boundaries that marked the set locations of each tribe. Furthermore, each tribe’s geographic area was determined by lot. Take the case of the tribe of Zebulun in Joshua 19:

10 The third lot came up for Zebulun according to its clans:

The boundary of their inheritance went as far as Sarid. 11 Going west it ran to Maralah, touched Dabbesheth, and extended to the ravine near Jokneam. 12 It turned east from Sarid toward the sunrise to the territory of Kisloth Tabor and went on to Daberath and up to Japhia. 13 Then it continued eastward to Gath Hepher and Eth Kazin; it came out at Rimmon and turned toward Neah. 14 There the boundary went around on the north to Hannathon and ended at the Valley of Iphtah El. 15 Included were Kattath, Nahalal, Shimron, Idalah and Bethlehem. There were twelve towns and their villages.

16 These towns and their villages were the inheritance of Zebulun, according to its clans.

See also Deuteronomy 4.5, 14; 5.31; 6.1; 12.1; cf. 11.2 and Joshua 13, 15-19, 21.

Such a system is unknown in the Ancient Near East

But people move. Families need to find better opportunities elsewhere when conflicts increase and resources decrease. A tribe defined by a geographical region is likely to be a fictive kinship group.

What we see here are two concepts of tribes. In one instance a tribe is identified by a geographical area; other times a tribe is understood to be kinship group descended from a common ancestor.

Gmirkin’s study is a more methodical and in-depth exploration of some of the close similarities between Plato’s Laws and the Pentateuch that I happened to post about earlier, a study initially inspired by Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert.

  1. Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal Laws: Similarities 1:631-637  (2015-06-22)
  2. Plato’s and Bible’s Laws: Similarities, completing Book 1 of Laws  (2015-06-23)
  3. Plato’s Laws, Book 2, and Biblical Values (2015-07-13)
  4. Plato and the Bible on the Origins of Civilization (2015-08-13)
  5. Bible’s Presentation of Law as a Model of Plato’s Ideal (2015-08-24)
  6. Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal States (2015-09-21)
  7. Plato’s Thought World and the Bible (2016-01-30)

Both concepts sit side-by-side in the Biblical account.

Such a system is unknown in the Ancient Near East, where tribal designations reflected either real kinship groups or in some cases perhaps social classes, but did not typically correspond to bounded geographical areas or form the formal basis for provincial organization. (Gmirkin 2016, p.21f)

Unknown in the Near East, perhaps, but well known in the Greek world.

Just as Joshua is said to have done, Greeks who set out to colonize new regions were depicted as first conquering a new territory and then dividing it up equally (compensating for areas of different quality). Scribes were appointed to mark out the different allotments that became the basis of tribal units. As in Israel, a primary concern of many comparable Greek colonies was to guarantee the inalienable right of land ownership and avoid an impoverished landless class or debt slavery. So much for the ideal, and it was an ideal that was espoused both by Plato in his Laws (3.684e and 5.736c) and Aristotle in his Politics (2.1266b and 6.1319a). The reality was that attempts to so redistribute land led to conflict. New colonizing expeditions sometimes set out with the same ideal in mind to be the foundation of their new society.

As in the Greek world we see in the Bible the same ideals, methods and functions of the tribal systems (a combination of fictive tribes based on geographical area that in fact cut across kinship groups and real tribes): land was to be divided equally according to different needs and quality; scribes were appointed to mark out the land allotments and divide them among the people; the allotted land was to be inalienable; the tribes became the basis of various administrative functions including military enrollment. As in both Athens (after late sixth century reforms) and biblical Israel citizens were identified by both their tribe and home district (village in Israel; the district or deme in Athens).

Each tribe in the Greek world was assigned its eponymous god while in Israel, as we know, we have the twelve eponymous patriarchs.

Interestingly Greek tribal divisions, both in Athens and various colonies, were by tens or twelve. Variations of both were found in Athens.

Did the Greek ideals then become the basis of the biblical political-economy? Gmirkin thinks so and I suspect he’s right.

The arguments goes beyond the kinds of points in common that I have mentioned above. What I find especially significant is Gmirkin’s point that quite unlike anything found in the literature of the Near East is the common interest in the Bible and Greek philosophical literature (Plato’s Republic, Laws and Aristotle’s Politics) with the establishment of an ideal state. When this common interest that extends to discussions of ideal geographical boundaries and specific administrative divisions and then when we go on to find the particular ideal solutions to these questions overlapping, I believe Gmirkin presents a strong case.

Continuing. . . .





Some preliminaries before resuming Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible

by Neil Godfrey

I originally wrote the following as an introduction to my next post on Russell E. Gmirkin’s new book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. On reflection, it was too long to be part of a post addressing the book so here it is a separate introductory post instead.

Our historically conditioned deafness to oblique [and not so oblique] allusions in the Bible can sometimes lead us to doubt their very existence. — The New Moses (1993) p. 18

That was written by Dale C. Allison when he was arguing that the evangelist who composed what we know as the Gospel of Matthew was inspired by the story of Moses when he composed his particular Jesus figure. If it is difficult for many readers to accept that the figure of Moses was woven into the lineaments of Matthew’s Jesus, how much more difficult might it be to accept that much of the Pentateuch and other works in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament were modeled on the literary, philosophical, political and cultural worlds of the Greeks?

If that sounds like too much to take in at first consider the following:

The Religious Tolerance website lists the following evidence for Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch:

There are about two dozen verses in the Hebrew Scriptures and one dozen in the Christian Scriptures which state or strongly imply that Moses was the author. Consider the following passages from the New Living Translation (NLT):

  • Passages in the Pentateuch itself:
    • Exodus 17:14Then the Lord instructed Moses, ‘Write this down as a permanent record…‘”
    • Exodus 24:4Then Moses carefully wrote down all the Lord’s instructions.”
    • Exodus 34:27And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write down all these instructions, for they represents the terms of my covenant with you and with Israel.‘”
    • Leviticus 1:1The Lord called to Moses from the Tabernacle and said to him, ‘Give the following instructions to the Israelites…‘”
    • Leviticus 6:8Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Give Aaron and his sons the following instructions…‘”
    • Deuteronomy 31:9So Moses wrote down this law and gave it to the priests.”
    • Deuteronomy 31:24-26When Moses had finished writing down this entire body of law in a book…
  • Passages elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures:
    • Joshua 1:7-8…Obey all the laws Moses gave you.
    • Joshua 8:31-34He followed the instructions that Moses the Lord’s servant had written in the Book of the Law…
    • Joshua 22:5…obey all the commands and the laws that Moses gave to you.
    • 2 Chronicles 34:14…Hilkiah the high priest…found the book of the Law of the Lord as it had been given through Moses.
  • Passages in the Gospels which show that Jesus and John the Baptizer believed Moses to be the author:
    • Matthew 19:7-8…why did Moses say a man could merely write an official letter of divorce and send her away?”, they asked. Jesus replied, Moses permitted divorce…‘”
    • Matthew 22:24Moses said, ‘If a man dies without children…‘”
    • Mark 7:10For instance, Moses gave you this law from God…
    • Mark 12:24…haven’t you ever read about this in the writings of Moses, in the story of the burning bush…
    • Luke 24:44…I told you that everything written about me by Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must all come true.
    • John 1:17For the law was given through Moses…
    • John 5:46But if you had believed Moses, you would have believed me because he wrote about me. And since you don’t believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?
    • John 7:23…do it, so as not to break the law of Moses…
  • Passages elsewhere in the Christian Scriptures:
    • Acts 26:22…I teach nothing except what the prophets and Moses said would happen…
    • Romans 10:5For Moses wrote…

The earliest books of the Bible themselves tell us that they were written by Moses. See the side box for details. But we are not children so we do not blindly believe everything we read, although even children sometimes want to know how we know certain claims are true. The Book of Enoch testifies that it was written by the “seventh from Adam”/the great-grandfather of Noah and it was quoted faithfully in the New Testament (Jude 1:14 and elsewhere) as the true words of Enoch by the same kinds of people who believed Moses wrote the Pentateuch. The self-witness alone of any document or literature requires some form of independent testimony before we know how to interpret its historical value:

. . . . only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration.

Those words are from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: cited in a 1991 chapter by Luise Abramowski titled “The ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ in Justin” pp.331-332 published in “The Gospel and the Gospels” ed. Peter Stuhlmacher. If you want something more recent, try Philip R. Davies in his ground-breaking 1992 work, In Search of Ancient Israel. I have outlined his essence of his argument at The Bible – History or Story? Or if you don’t want to skip to another page then read on. Davies, himself a biblical historical critic, goes for the jugular of traditional biblical historical criticism when he writes of the circularity of its methods:

This circular process [that is, assuming a self witness of a document is true and then arguing the document is true on the basis of its self-witness] places the composition of the literature within the period of which the literature itself speaks. This is precisely how the period to which the biblical literature refers becomes also the time of composition, the ‘biblical period’, and the biblical literature, taken as a whole, becomes a contemporary witness to its own construct, reinforcing the initial assumption of a real historical matrix and giving impetus to an entire pseudo-scholarly exercise in fining the literature into a sequence of contexts which it has itself furnished! If either the historicity of the biblical construct or the actual date of composition of its literature were verified independently of each other, the circle could be broken. But since the methodological need for this procedure is overlooked, the circularity has continued to characterize an entire discipline—and render it invalid.

The panoply of historical-critical tools and methods used by biblical scholars relies for the most part on this basic circularity. (Davies, 1992, p. 37)

Anyone can write a story pretending its narrator really lived in a time long ago. This can be done for any number of reasons . . . Testing the claims of our sources is not hyper-scepticism: it is the most fundamental rule of historical inquiry.

In other words, anyone can write a story pretending its author really lived in a time long, long ago. This can be done for any number of reasons ranging from entertainment to philosophical or religious instruction. Every witness in a court of law is required to establish its credibility, first at the outset by pointing to verifiable independent external witness and/or then under cross-examination. That’s not “hyper-scepticism”. Testing our source documents is common sense and the most fundamental rule both of any form of detective work and historical inquiry. It is also fundamental to basic literary analysis and criticism.

Or even more recently, move forward to 2001 and Niels Peter Lemche’s chapter, “The Bible – A Hellenistic Book”, in Did Moses Speak Attic: Jewish Historiography and Scripture in the Hellenistic Era:

It seems obvious to most scholars that our estimate of the age of a certain book of the Old Testament must be founded on information contained in the book itself and not on other information, and the estimate should certainly not be based on the existence of a historical background that may never have existed. Although seemingly self-evident, this method is not without fault, and it may easily become an invitation to ‘tail-chasing’, to quote Philip R. Davies. By this we intend to say that the scholar may soon become entangled in a web of logically circular argumentation which is conveniently called the ‘hermeneutical circle’ . . . .  Another point is that it is also supposed that the reading of a certain piece of literature will automatically persuade it to disclose its secrets — as if no other qualifications are needed.

The first point to discuss will be the circular argumentation that is based on a too close ‘reading’ of the biblical text. Here the first example will be the books of Samuel [containing the stories of Kings Saul and David]. Some assume that these books must be old simply because they say that they are old. The exegete who claims that the books of Samuel must perforce be old will . . . have to accept the claim of the books themselves by either rather naively assuming that Samuel could be the author (as the later Jewish tradition did proclaim) or by more sophisticated argumentation, for example, of the kind formerly often used to prove narratives like the ‘Succession Story’ to be old because only an eye-witness would have been acquainted with the particulars of the family of David.

How to escape this circularity?

In order to escape from the trap created by this circular method of argumentation and the rather naive understanding of the biblical text that lies at the bottom of such claims, it will be necessary to go further and find arguments not necessarily part of the biblical text itself but coming from other sources. Such information alone will be able to disclose to the reader that the books of Samuel were composed, not at the moment when Israel got its first king, but at a much later date. (pp. 292-94, my emphasis)

Scientific procedure or its reverse?

Although it has become a standing procedure in the study of the Old Testament [Gospels] to begin where we know the least and to end at the point where we have safe information in order to explain what is certain by reasons uncertain and from an unknown past, it is obvious to almost everybody else that this procedure has no claim to be called scientific. We should rather and as a matter of course start where we are best informed. Only from this vantage should we try to penetrate into the unknown past. (p. 294, my emphasis)

The Book of Daniel likewise claims to set in the time of the Babylonian empire but few critical scholars, I believe, would accept this narrative claim at face value. No doubt that’s mostly because this book gives the game away too easily by making prophecies that can be followed in our history books right up to the third century BCE. (There are historical anomalies that also betray the fiction, but alone I suspect that those anomalies would be “less persuasive” for many.)

So after the above preliminaries hopefully those for whom the idea that even the Pentateuch and other books in the Old Testament could possibly be late Hellenistic works appears to be outlandishly novel are a little more amenable at least to its possibility. I have presented aspects of the opening chapters of Russell Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible in previous posts; one more will follow soon.




David, an Ideal Greek Hero — and other Military Matters in Ancient Israel

by Neil Godfrey

After too long a hiatus I am excited to at last return to writing about Russell Gmirkin’s new book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible.

The previous two posts:

  1. Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible
  2. The Pentateuch’s Debt to Greek Laws and Constitutions — A New Look

The following post is far from what I originally intended, but I am posting it very much in the rough for the sake of getting the ball rolling again.

Comparing the stories of David
David the famous warrior was also renowned as a musician and loved by many (though not by his wife, Saul’s daughter) as a dancer.  In other words, David’s had the attributes of a well-rounded educated Athenian.

At age 18 Athenian males (we’re talking about the elite families) undertook an educational program that prepared them for formal citizenship by the age of 20. The three areas of the curriculum were:

  1. Letters — acquiring skills from the alphabet right through to reading Homer and the classics;
  2. Music — learning to play the lyre and training in voice and song;
  3. Gymnastics — a program of fitness training as well as in the use of weapons; dance was also included as a means of instilling a nimbleness necessary in battle.

Athenian festivals featured athletic and combat contests, military parades and mock battles, and dance.


S0038429 David, frontal view. Pre-restoration. Image licenced to Stephen Forsling FORSLING, STEPHEN by Stephen Forsling Usage : - 3000 X 3000 pixels (Letter Size, A4) © Scala / Art ResourceThe David and Goliath conflict parallels the duels between Homeric heroes in the Iliad. Goliath is dressed as a Greek hoplite

  • helmet,
  • greaves,
  • broad sword,
  • long spear (sarissa)
  • and shield carried by shield-bearer.

The large spear indicates knowledge of the transition from the shorter to the longer spear in the Macedonian army from around 350 BCE. David opts to fight as a more agile Greek light infantry soldier (slinger).

David – 1 Sam 16.12; 17.42 – is portrayed in terms of the Greek physical ideal: “lean, athletic male warrior, tanned from exercise in the gymnasium”. “The description of the physique of the warrior hero is mostly absent from Ancient Near Eastern literature. . .” (n. 81 p. 47)

As a figure accomplished by Greek military training, David was also a skillful

  • lyre player (compare the “music therapy” David was able to provide Saul; a trope familiar in Homer and among Pythagoreans as well as in Plato’s Laws.)
  • dancer
  • and songwriter.

These qualities anomalous for a soldier in the Near East but consistent with a youth undergoing Greek instruction in the gymnasium.

Military tales involving David feature

  • familiar aspects of Greek military training:
    • target practice
    • races
    • mock armed contests
  • a familiar Homeric literary motif:
    • gift of armour as sign of friendship

read more »


The Pentateuch’s Debt to Greek Laws and Constitutions — A New Look

by Neil Godfrey
For the previous post in this series examining Russell Gmirkin’s new book see Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible


Ancient Greeks of the Classical and Hellenistic eras loved a good foundation story. Such a story typically began with severe troubles leading to a hopeful solution or escape by sending out a group of people under a divinely blessed leader who became their founder-figure for their new settlement. This founding figure would lead the conquest of the new land, divide up the territory for the new arrivals, set up religious altars and appropriate worship rituals, and write down the new laws to govern the new nation.

You recognize the story type from the opening books of the Bible. The Israelites were suffering in Egypt; the solution was for them to leave under their own leader, Moses; through their new leader God gave them their new religious rites and other laws by which they were to live when they entered their new land; the successor to Moses, Joshua, conquered their new territory and allocated the land according to divine plan to the various tribes. Other versions of this story were known among Jews and gentiles alike — see the box insert for links.

The story of the Exodus and Conquest under Moses and Joshua is in essence a typical Greek foundation story. Especially Greek about it is the way that the laws of the new land are embedded in this founding narrative. The narrative establishes both their divine origin and antiquity.

bermanRabbi Joshua Berman (Created Equal: How the Bible broke with ancient political thought) has argued that the Pentateuchal laws, especially those of Deuteronomy, were far ahead of their time.

Scholars have discussed some of the similarities between Pentateuchal laws [Pentateuch: first five books of the Hebrew Bible] and those found in the Greco-Roman world as well as among Near Eastern states and proposed that the explanation lies in Israel/Judea having been part of a wider world of cultural interconnections spanning the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East (e.g. Levinson, 2006. The First Constitution; Knoppers & Harvey, 2007. “The Pentateuch in Ancient Mediterranean Context” in The Pentateuch as Torah).

In the previous post we alluded to the problem that the material evidence of contacts between pre-Hellenistic Greeks (pre Alexander the Great’s conquests) and the Judeans* does not support the likelihood of meaningful philosophical and literary exchanges among those strata of society who would be responsible for the writing of legislation and literature.

[* I prefer to use the term Judeans, following Steven Mason in A History of the Jewish War, because the term correlates to the identity of the ancient inhabitants of Jerusalem centred Palestine and their associated diaspora more aptly than the term Jewish.

. . . I shall translate Greek Ioudaioi as Judeans rather than Jews. This is not because I have any quarrel with the use of Jews. That is the familiar translation . . . But our aim is to understand ancient ways of thinking, and in my view Judeans better represents what ancients heard in the ethnos-polis-cult paradigm. That is, just as Egypt (Greek Aegyptos) was understood to be the home of Egyptians (Aegyptioi), Syria of Syrians, and Idumaea of Idumaeans, so also Judaea (Ioudaia) was the home of Judeans (Ioudaioi) — the only place where their laws and customs were followed. Jerusalem was world-famous as the mother-polis of the Judeans. . . .

(Mason, 2016. Kindle version, loc 3268)]

But what if on closer inspection we see that much in the Pentateuch is closer in both broad outline and specific details to the writings about Greek constitutions and laws (especially as found in Aristotle and Plato) than anything we find on the Syrian-Mesopotamian side of Palestine? And what if the earliest external evidence for the Pentateuch places it no earlier than the third century BCE (ca 270 BCE), by which time Judeans were known to be in Alexandria’s Great Library and exposed to the best of Classical Greek writings, including Aristotle’s history and description of the Athenian Constitution and Plato’s discussion of ideal laws?

platocreationhebrewbibleIn the second chapter of Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible Russell Gmirkin undertakes a systematic comparison of Greek and Judean constitutions or legal and governing institutions primarily as documented in their respective literature. Comparisons (more often contrasts) are periodically made with Near Eastern counterparts (or their absence). Afterwards he covers the law collections themselves, then the narratives surrounding the origins of the laws, and finally surveys the broader question of the origin of the Hebrew Bible as a whole.

So let’s back up and start at the beginning.

How important among the Greeks was their literature about how a state should be governed?

The genre of constitutional law, which described the various offices of government, their qualifications, responsibilities and means of selection, was well represented in literature and inscriptions throughout the Greek world, but was entirely unknown in the Ancient Near East. (p. 42)

For Isocrates the constitution was the soul of the state; for Aristotle it was the state. Writings and speeches about the various forms of government were major topics: Aristotle and Plato produced two works each on constitutional questions; works on the same by Xenophon and a “pseudo-Xenophon” also survive; we have many references in the literature and inscriptions to the writings and speeches of other significant ancient persons addressing questions of how governments should be designed and function.

Gmirkin compares the interests of this distinctive Greek form of literature with the topics of interest in the Pentateuchal law codes and related narratives and I set out his points in table format for easy reference: read more »


Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible

by Neil Godfrey

platocreationhebrewbibleRussell Gmirkin in his new book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible draws attention to striking similarities between the Pentateuch (the first five books of the “Old Testament”) on the one hand and Plato’s last work, Laws, and features of the Athenian constitution on the other. Further, even the broader collection of writings that make up the Hebrew Bible — myth and history, psalms, wisdom sayings, moral and religious precepts, all presented with the aura of great antiquity — happen to conform to Plato’s recommendations for the sorts of literature that should form the national curriculum of an ideal state.

The idea that the Jewish scriptures owe their character and existence to the Hellenistic era, a time subsequent to Alexander’s conquests of the Near East, jars hard against traditional views of the origins of the Bible. Yet Gmirkin shows that many significant laws in the Pentateuch as well as the narrative style of their presentation are indeed closer to later Greek ideas than those found among Israel’s/Judea’s Syrian or Babylonian neighbours.

The key to this close linkage is the Great Library of Alexandria. Past studies exploring possible cultural contacts between the Greeks and Judeans prior to the Hellenistic era (that is, the period following Alexander the Great, from around 320 BCE) have generally shown that exchanges were primarily limited to trade and had minimal impact in the literary and philosophical sphere. On the other hand, we do know that Jews and Greek culture met in Alexandria. The history of the Athenian Constitution was available in the works of Aristotle there; Plato’s reflections on the ideal state and laws were also stored there. And the Hebrew Bible was said to have been translated into Greek there. Moreover, there is no external evidence for the existence of the Pentateuch prior to the Hellenistic era. In an earlier book, Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch, — see earlier Vridar posts — Gmirkin likewise argued that the Pentateuch was composed around 270 BCE and he introduces his new book as a sequel to Berossus and Genesis.

The main stimulus for Gmirkin’s new study is a desire to examine more closely some of the parallels presented by Philippe Wajdenbaum in Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. (Again, see earlier Vridar posts on Argonauts.) According to the Acknowledgements in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible it was Thomas L. Thompson who suggested this study to Russell Gmirkin, and Gmirkin explains that his focus was on Wajdenbaum’s discussion of the parallels between Plato’s Laws and the Pentateuchal laws as the most persuasive section of his book.

While on the Acknowledgements, I have to refer to one other detail that struck me: read more »