Category Archives: Book Reviews & Notes


2017-02-23

On Not Reading the Bible Too Seriously — As Its Authors Intended

by Neil Godfrey

My reflections on reading the story of Abraham setting out to sacrifice Isaac as a children’s story brought to mind a more mature understanding of the Bible’s narratives discussed by in The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel by Thomas L. Thompson. (The same book is published under the title The Bible in history : How Writers Create a Past, so don’t be fooled and buy both books like I did!)

Most Christians and Jews do read the story of the “Binding of Isaac” or Akedah as it’s more technically called correctly, though perhaps not always realising it. What I mean is that most readers do not really take it literally with all its psychological horror. Most readers, correctly at the story level and as the narrator evidently intended, admire Abraham for his faithfulness and obedience. The problem, the horror, descends only when we treat it as literal history and a genuine account of a real God, and give our minds over to that same God.

Here are some of Thomas L. Thompson’s more realistic explanation of the story. By realistic I mean reading it the way the narrator presented it and no more.

The first reference comes as a comparison with the story of Saul who fails God’s test by sparing the lives of the cattle after killing the enemy soldiers. read more »


2017-02-22

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

and

  • 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.

-o-

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 »


2017-02-09

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:

 

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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.

Only:
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 »


2017-02-08

Divine Revelation Not Limited to the “Bible Canon”

by Neil Godfrey

Don’t think of books. Think of open databases, literary projects, both earthly and heavenly archives. Ben Sirach, for example, becomes a generative character or figurehead from whom writings flowed like canals from a river. That’s how Eva Mroczek, Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity, says we should understand the way ancient Jewish scribes (Second Temple and gospel era) thought of their writings and their literary environment.

Revelation originated from the heavens and could never be grasped in all its fulness by any mortal; there was always room for more understanding and knowledge of the spiritual. There were writings that only the chosen few saints had ever seen, writings preserved in the heavens. Enoch was secreted away and continues to write until the time of the end.

A sacred writing could never be bound complete between two covers or within a single earthly scroll. There would always be room for more revelation. Of the making of books there will be no end.

An “author”, at least the inspired author, a heavenly figure perhaps, who sowed the poetry of praise or the sayings of wisdom in a mortal scribe, might spawn many varied works over time. Hence “David” could author countless psalms, only a small sample of which were ever captured for our canon. Other Davidic psalms were extant, some were composed relatively recently. They were all in a figurative sense authored by David since psalms were attributed to him as a way of fleshing out further the character and life of David. It was not so much that David’s name was attached to a psalm to impute authority to the psalm; no, it was rather that David was associated with the psalm to enrich the narrative about David, to transform David in a way to enable him to speak to a new audience. This world of attribution was not unique to the Judea’s:

In fact, such a sense of character-driven literary creativity is attested elsewhere in the ancient world, in some theories about Homer from the Hellenistic period, where the character becomes the affective centre of the poetic creation. Poetry . . . is generated from infatuation with one of the characters, who is prior to, and drives the creation of, the narrative. (p. 56)

So in the case of the Psalms of David. . .

Making psalms “Davidic” is not precisely attribution, as little evidence exists for a claim that David personally composed the psalms, but dramatisation and historicization. But this process of dramatising and historicising psalms is motivated not by the texts of the psalms themselves, but by an interest in the character who comes to animate the texts. It is the desire to reflect and elaborate on particularly compelling aspects of David’s character — David the sufferer, the penitent, the pursued — that is behind the creation of the expanded headings. Put simply, dramatising the psalms in his voice gives this David more things to say. (p. 63)

We are not only talking about the Psalms of David and the different canonical counts of these but of the wider literary world — of writings attributed to Enoch, to Solomon, to Moses, to Abraham, to Zephaniah . . . . .

In many Second Temple texts, we see an awareness of a literary world that is ancient, varied, and not fully accessible. In texts like Enoch, Jubilees, and many traditions about the patriarchs from the Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance, we see the notion of a long history of revealed writing stretching back long before Sinai, and forming part of the stories about Israel’s ancient ancestors. We see scribes recognizing the authority and divine origin of texts like the Enoch literature, Jubilees, and these patriarchal traditions, which present themselves not as derivative of or dependent on material we now call biblical, but indeed, prior to it. And while specific texts that have come down to us, like the Enochic material, are recognizably used in other literature, early Jewish texts also mention many writings that we cannot identify with any extant texts — writings that may have been lost, like the book of Noah, or were always only imagined, like the heavenly Book of Life.11 (pp. 116f.)

The authors of the scriptures (like Jubilees and the Temple Scroll) that not part of our canonical Bible did not appear to view their work as attempts to fill in the gaps or clarify and explain the canonical texts. These non-biblical texts do not present themselves as subordinate to the Pentateuch or Prophets, buy as new revelations from a divine sourceread more »


2017-02-01

The Bifurcation of the Semitic Myth and Post-WW2 Antisemitism

by Neil Godfrey

[After the 1967 June War] [t]his was what the Arab had become. From a faintly outlined stereotype as a camel-riding nomad to an accepted caricature as the embodiment of incompetence and easy defeat: that was all the scope given the Arab. 

Returning to Egypt at end of the 1967 Six Day War

Yet after the 1973 war the Arab appeared everywhere as some-thing more menacing. Cartoons depicting an Arab sheik standing behind a gasoline pump turned up consistently. These Arabs, however, were clearly “Semitic”: their sharply hooked noses, the evil mustachioed leer on their faces, were obvious reminders (to a largely non-Semitic population) that “Semites” were at the bottom of all “our” troubles, which in this case was principally a gasoline shortage. The transference of a popular anti-Semitic animus from a Jewish to an Arab target was made smoothly, since the figure was essentially the same. 

Thus if the Arab occupies space enough for attention, it is as a negative value. He is seen as the disrupter of Israel’s and the West’s existence, or in another view of the same thing, as a surmountable obstacle to Israel’s creation in 1948. Insofar as this Arab has any history, it is part of the history given him (or taken from him: the difference is slight) by the Orientalist tradition, and later, the Zionist tradition. Palestine was seen—by Lamartine and the early Zionists —as an empty desert waiting to burst into bloom; such inhabitants as it had were supposed to be inconsequential nomads possessing no real claim on the land and therefore no cultural or national reality. Thus the Arab is conceived of now as a shadow that dogs the Jew. In that shadow—because Arabs and Jews are Oriental Semites—can be placed whatever traditional, latent mistrust a Westerner feels towards the Oriental. For the Jew of pre-Nazi Europe has bifurcated: what we have now is a Jewish       hero, constructed out of a reconstructed cult of the adventurer-pioneer-Orientalist (Burton, Lane, Renan), and his creeping, mysteriously fearsome shadow, the Arab Oriental. Isolated from everything except the past created for him by Orientalist polemic, the Arab is chained to a destiny that fixes him and dooms him to a series of reactions periodically chastised by what Barbara Tuchman gives the theological name “Israel’s terrible swift sword.” 

Aside from his anti-Zionism, the Arab is an oil supplier. This is another negative characteristic, since most accounts of Arab oil equate the oil boycott of 1973–1974 (which principally benefitted Western oil companies and a small ruling Arab elite) with the absence of any Arab moral qualifications for owning such vast oil reserves. Without the usual euphemisms, the question most often being asked is why such people as the Arabs are entitled to keep the developed (free, democratic, moral) world threatened. From such questions comes the frequent suggestion that the Arab oil fields be invaded by the marines. . . . (Said, Edward. 1977. Orientalism. Penguin, London. pp. 285f.)

Compare the quotation in my previous postread more »


2017-01-31

How sayings came to be attributed to . . . David, Ben Sirach, Jesus

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing to read Eva Mroczek’s The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity and have come across another interesting snippet with relevance to the way the gospel-Jesus tradition took shape.

An intriguing feature found in the writings of the earliest Christian “fathers” is that frequently sayings that we know from the gospel are used by these early authors without any attribution to Jesus or the gospels. Why is that?

Well, Eva Mroczek’s discussion of the Ben Sirach sayings offers a very similar scenario along with a very plausible explanation. Ben Sirach, we have learned, is more than a flesh and blood author sitting in a room writing wise sayings. He is in fact “a representative of a tradition of wise sayings.” So a teacher who somehow developed or learned of a fresh saying that was particularly apt for the needs of his pupils might feel it notable enough to be added to an anthology of Ben Sirach sayings. There was no such thing as a single edition of a closed book of sayings by Ben Sirach. Ben Sirach served as a representative figure of a source of wisdom that flowed like channels and rivers, that grew like fruit on a tree, and so forth. Ben Sirach’s wisdom was not static but always open to new insights and understanding through the wisdom that no one person would ever be able to grasp in all its fullness.

One of many interesting passages explaining one effect of this king of fluid literary culture:

Just as David was considered not so much as the author of a book of Psalms but as an exemplary liturgist, linked to a more amorphous tradition of liturgical material, Ben Sira was considered not only as the author of a concrete and particular book but more generally as a representative of a tradition of wise sayings.

Because of this character’s reputation, new sayings “accumulated around and circulated in his name,” some of which made it into the “popular anthologies.”94

Other sayings found in Ben Sira circulated without attribution to this figure, as part of a large “amorphous body of sayings” that circulated “atomistically and anonymously.”95

Labendz summarizes this complexity: “The contents of Ben Sira were spread within the rabbinic community. They were preserved and remembered with varying degrees of accuracy, and sometimes they were conflated with other wisdom sources. The title of the work was attached to a variety of wisdom traditions, only some of which were actually in Ben Sira.”96

(p. 112, my formatting)

Gospel revisions — as we see from Mark to Matthew and Luke, and Mark to John — with variants in sayings attributed to Jesus, sayings in Fathers that appear to come from non-gospel sources yet are found in the gospels, and the anonymity of the gospels in their original form . . . . So many simplistic explanations have been popularized through “faith-based scholarship” or apologetic writings, but more enlightening explanations come from a growing understanding of the literary culture of the Second Temple era and century following.

 


2017-01-30

The Teacher of Righteousness and Understanding the Authority of Fiction

by Neil Godfrey

One of the books I am currently reading is The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity by Eva Mroczek and I was intrigued by her discussion of how the scholarly community have debated the historicity of the “Teacher” who speaks powerfully of his experiences in the Thanksgiving Hymns of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Many scholars have identified the Teacher of Righteousness (otherwise known from the Damascus Document) as the author of these hymns. Notice, for instance, the introduction to the Thanksgiving Hymns by Wise, Abegg and Cook:

The intensely personal tone of the songs known commonly as Thanksgiving Hymns stands in sharp contrast with the rest of the scrolls. The author speaks of himself in the first person and recounts an agonizing history of persecution at the hands of those opposed to his ministry. In addition, the writer describes having received an empowering spirit granting him special insight into God’s will (1QH3 4:38), opening his ears to wonderful divine mysteries (9:23), using him as a channel of God’s works (12:9), and fashioning him as a mouthpiece for God’s words (16:17). Indeed, in col. 26, he claims that no one compares with him, because his office is among the heavenly beings. These are bold affirmations for any leader, reminiscent of various messianic claimants of both ancient and more recent history.

The unique personal presentation of the work and the self-conscious divine mission of the author have led many researchers to conclude that the psalms were written by the Teacher of Righteousness himself. Some students have attempted a more refined analysis in order to isolate “true” Teacher psalms at the center of the collection (cols. 10—16 according to one, 13—16 in the eyes of another; see Hymns 10—13,15—20,23), noting that the themes of personal distress and affliction as well as the claim of being the recipient or mediator of revelation are especially strong here. Only one thing is sure: the debate will continue.

Michael Wise, Martin Abegg Jr, and Edward Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation, 2005. pp. 170-71.

Eva Mroczek is writing about literary/philosophical character of Ben Sirach and finds a parallel with the Teacher of Righteousness who is sometimes said to be the author of the Thanksgiving Hymns among the Dead Sea Scrolls. From pages 98 and 99:

Another example of such a rhetorical strategy is the so-called Teacher Hymns in cols. 10-17 of the Hodayot or Thanksgiving Hymns from Qumran. These first-person compositions have been read by some Qumran scholars32 as the ipsissima verba of the Teacher of Righteousness, an enigmatic figure who appears as a founder and leader of the sectarian community in some Qumran texts. The hymns, then, were imagined to be the creative autobiographical work of this putative individual, and were mined for information about this mysterious figure’s life. For example, Michael Wise has extracted from these hymns not only data about the Teacher’s life, persecution, and exile but also insights into his spiritual life—and even his name.33

But over time, as Max Grossman has shown, scholars began to question the idea that the Teacher of Righteousness is the “author” of these texts—that this figure is a historically locatable individual who can be imagined as an individual creator of the textual products of the Qumran community.34 With regard to the poetic Thanksgiving Hymns, it is doubtful that they can be used to reconstruct the historical and interior life of a specific individual. An excellent critique of the tendency to read the Hodayot as autobiography comes from Angela Harkins,35 who argues that such a reading is rooted in Romantic ideas of individual authorship that are foreign to Jewish antiquity. . . . 

But no specific historical figure can be reconstructed from poetic hymns: they use familiar images and literary tropes, including first-person references to suffering and persecution that are not to be understood as biographical accounts of specific historical experiences. The “I” of the hymns can, instead, be understood in other ways . . . . The first-person voice is perhaps representative of the “office” of an inspired community leader and the ideal, exemplary teacher, rather than reflective of a specific historical personality.37 Or, as Harkins suggests, it is a “rhetorical persona” to be actualized by the reader in ritual performance: the reader embodies the “I,” and the text becomes an “affective script for the reader to reenact.”38

Okay, time to check out some of those end-notes. read more »


2017-01-28

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:

read more »


2017-01-22

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 »


2017-01-13

The Gospels as Creative Rewriting (like rewritten biblical books)

by Neil Godfrey

Back in 2010 the University of Copenhagen published news of a project to “map the development of the four gospels in order to establish that the Gospel of Luke is not, as believed so far, a contemporary of the Gospel of Matthew, and that the shared content of the two is not to be explained by the existence of a lost scripture [i.e. Q], but by the fact that the author of St. Luke’s Gospel used St. Matthew’s Gospel as well as that of St. Mark as basis for his own scripture.” See Scholars will explode the myth of the New Testament.

(For yet another work by Morgens Müller discussed on this blog, see Paul: The Oldest Witness to the Historical Jesus.)

A Facebook reader reminded me of this post a few days ago and asked me what the outcome of this project had been. One outcome appears to be Luke’s Literary Creativity – a work edited by Mogens Müller and Jesper Tang Nielsen that I look forward to reading in the coming months. Meanwhile I can discuss another essay by Mogens Müller that appears to be related to the same project,

The New Testament gospels as Biblical rewritings : On the question of referentiality

By “the question of referentiality” Müller means the question of “whether the story told refers to real incidents.” To what, exactly, do the narrative’s episodes refer? How much is historical? How much fiction? Are our attempts to make such black and white distinctions anachronistic? Müller draws upon Ulrich Luz’s Studies in Matthew in which the gospel is compared with Greek literature that intends to reference and describe “historical” or “factual” events. Luz believes that the author of the Gospel of Matthew

must have known that in his writing, to some extent, he reshaped the Jesus-tradition or even invented it. (p.22)

Müller’s article led me to Luz’s study but it soon became obvious I would not be able to merge the two discussions into a single post. Luz’s book requires separate treatment so I will restrict this post to Müller’s article and a few of his references to Luz. The argument that arises is that the Gospel of Matthew is a re-writing of the Gospel of Mark much as

  • 1 and 2 Chronicles are re-writings of the books of Samuel and Kings,
  • or as Deuteronomy is a rewriting (possibly in King Josiah’s time?) of the Covenant narrative found in Exodus-Numbers,
  • or as Jubilees is a rewriting of Genesis-Exodus,
  • or as the Genesis Apocryphon is a rewriting of the patriarchal narratives in Genesis,
  • or as Pseudo-Philo’s Book of Biblical Antiquities and
  • Josephus’s first eleven books of Antiquities are rewritings of biblical narratives.

Some scholars have even seen parts of Genesis 1-11 as a rewriting of the Epic of Gilgamesh. A re-writing can be found in the same book with a single narrative repeated in different ways: the Abraham and Isaac / Sarah and Rebecca narratives contain three narratives that are all duplicates – Gen. 12:10-20; 20; 26:1-11 – changing to gradually conform more and more closely to Mosaic law.

What is going on here? Why do authors feel at liberty to take existing texts and change them here and there, keeping the original outline more or less in tact but feeling free to add details and to omit others, and changing the way some stories are told so that they present readers with a new lesson that contradicts the original one?

What is going through the authors’ minds as they are reading Genesis or the Gospel of Mark and deciding what elements to change or omit and where to inject new material? Can they really be thinking that Genesis or the Gospel is a true account of historical events that must be preserved for posterity in the way a Greek or Roman historian felt a desire to preserve for posterity the best and most authoritative account of a people’s past?

To try to answer these questions it is useful to identify the characteristics of a “rewritten bible” and here Müller uses the nine characteristics singled out by Philip S. Alexander on the basis of Jubilees, Genesis Apocryphon, Pseudo-Philo’s Book of Biblical Antiquities and Josephus’s Antiquities.

  1. “Rewritten Bible” texts are narratives following a sequential chronological order;
  2. On their face, they are free-standing compositions replicating the form of the biblical books on which they are based;
  3. Despite superficial independence of form, these texts are not intended to replace, or to supersede the Bible;
  4. “Rewritten Bible” texts cover a substantial portion of the Bible;
  5. They retain the biblical order of events but can be very selective in what they represent;
  6. The intention is to produce an interpretative reading of Scripture;
  7. The narrative form means, in effect, that they can impose only a single interpretation on the original;
  8. The narrative form also precludes making clear their exegetical reasoning;
  9. “Rewritten Bible” texts draw on non-biblical sources, whether oral or written.

Müller’s conclusion:

This means that rewritten Bible texts, by their very existence, document that the texts they are rewriting have not exclusively been understood as being referential with regard to the events which have really taken place. This would have precluded the freedom of their “rewriters.”

Apparently, they are foremost perceived as theological texts, not so much aiming at information as at preaching.

Put another way: In their rewriting they intend to mirror the heavenly forces that, according to these authors, are active in their readers’ lives. Thus it is this “truth” and not some “historical” fact, they are aiming at describing. (p. 23, my bold and formatting in all quotations)

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2016-12-17

Lena Einhorn discusses her Shift in Time hypothesis

by Neil Godfrey

For earlier discussions on this blog of Lena’s argument see:

 


2016-12-16

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. . . .

 

 

 


2016-12-15

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.

 

 


2016-12-06

What’s the Difference Between Frequentism and Bayesianism? (Part 2)

by Tim Widowfield
Witch of Endor by Nikolay Ge

Witch of Endor by Nikolay Ge

In the previous post we began to discuss the fundamental difference between the Bayesian and frequentist approaches to probability. A Bayesian defines probability as a subjective belief about the world, often expressed as a wagering proposition. “How much am I willing to bet that the next card will give me a flush?”

To a frequentist, however, probability exists in the physical world. It doesn’t change, and it isn’t subjective. Probability is the hard reality that over the long haul, if you flip a fair coin it will land heads up half the time and tails up the other half. We call them “frequentists,” because they maintain they can prove that the unchanging parameter is fixed and objectively true by measuring the frequency of repeated runs of the same event over and over.

Fairies and witches

But does objective probability really exist? After reading several books focused on subjective probability published in the past few decades, I couldn’t help noticing that Bruno de Finetti‘s Theory of Probability stands as a kind of watershed. In the preface he says that objective probability, the very foundation of frequentism, is a superstition. If he’s correct, that means it isn’t just bad science; it’s anti-science. He writes: read more »