Category Archives: OT Archaeology & Literature


2015-07-13

Plato’s Laws, Book 2, and Biblical Values

by Neil Godfrey

Previous posts in this series:

  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)

Earlier posts on Plato’s Laws
Plato’s and the Bible’s Laws and Ethics Compared  (2012-09-14)
Plato’s template for the Bible  (2012-09-16)

I’m passing over this section of Laws quickly, pointing to no more than a couple of details that meet biblical values.

Safeguarding the Truth with Myths

Many works in the Bible teach that obedience to the law of God brings a blessed and happy life while the ways of sinners were plagued with misfortunes. Of course there are a few works that reassure us that not everyone was so naive (e.g. Job). Nonetheless, it’s a “good moral” that is taught to children and many churchgoers. It’s also the root of so much guilt that has inflicted many who have been taught that God heals the faithful.

Plato knew the reality of life but deemed it wise to teach a lie to keep people good. (Guilt and finger-pointing be damned.) Many know the “noble lie” principle from his Republic but he repeated it in Laws:

662b

[W]ere I a legislator, I should endeavor to compel the poets and all the citizens to speak in this sense; and I should impose all but the heaviest of penalties on anyone in the land who should declare that [662c] any wicked men lead pleasant lives, or that things profitable and lucrative are different from things just; and there are many other things contrary to what is now said . . . by the rest of mankind,—which I should persuade my citizens to proclaim.

Plato knew even the gods knew it was not really a rule that the happiest life is the just one . . .  read more »


2015-06-23

Plato’s and Bible’s Laws: Similarities, completing Book 1 of Laws

by Neil Godfrey

This is the conclusion of the previous post.

Victory over enemies

In Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy God promises to give his people victory over their enemies in battle if they keep his laws.

Plato at first expresses doubts over the belief that a state will be victorious in battle because of its superior laws and customs…..

Megillus. O best of men, we [Spartans] have only to take arms into our hands, and we send all these nations flying before us. 

Athenian stranger. Nay, my good friend, do not say that; there have been, as there always will be, flights and pursuits of which no account can be given, and therefore we cannot say that victory or defeat in battle affords more than a doubtful proof of the goodness or badness of institutions.

What counts is the character of the people. How completely do they submit their character to laws designed to make them good?

[E]ducation makes good men, and that good men act nobly, and conquer their enemies in battle, because they are good

Do not forget

The Pentateuch warns against forgetting the reasons for one’s success and the accrual of blessings and becoming proud. Plato has the same warning: read more »


2015-06-22

Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal Laws: Similarities 1:631-637

by Neil Godfrey
Cover of "Laws: Plato (Great Books in Phi...

Cover of Laws: Plato (Great Books in Philosophy)

I had long and often read and heard that the values of the Greeks and Jews were an entire world apart. The Greeks embrace the austere and the ribald gods, nudity, homosexuality, worldly wisdom, the arts, beauty and pleasure; the Jews embrace a caring yet moral god, modesty, family values, divine wisdom, spiritual pursuits.

But read one of Plato’s last written works, Laws, and those contrasting images begin to blur into monochrome.

Plato’s Laws is an exploration of what the ideal laws for a new state would look like. Plato presents his ideas through a three-way discussion involving an Athenian stranger, a Spartan named Megillos and a Cretan, Clinias, as they are traveling to the sacred site of the cave of Zeus on the island of Crete.  Anyone familiar with the Old Testament cannot help but be struck by many points of contact.

I have been wanting to write this post (or series) for a few years now and each time have been put off by the amount of work that organizing the material would take. I have decided now to take the easy way out and simply dot point similarities as one reads through the Laws even though this will involve repetition and disjointedness of themes. Take these posts, then, as a draft document for a more coherent presentation. I will often refer to biblical passages generally without quoting them since most interested readers will know of them anyway and they are details I can fill in later.

There is no reason to think that Plato, writing in the early fourth century BCE, was influenced by the Jewish writings. (Later church fathers did attempt to argue that Plato had indeed been indebted to Moses.) A number of scholars in recent decades have argued that the Pentateuch originated much later than has traditionally been thought — some arguing that the Pentateuch may date as late as Hellenistic (from late fourth century) times. I do not discuss explanations of the similarities of thought here. It is enough at this stage to set out apparent evidence for commonality.

I further comment from time to time on points of contact between Laws and the biblical literature that do not relate to legal content. I am not arguing that Plato’s work itself was a direct influence (nor do I deny the possibility) but do want to highlight the literary tropes, the wider literary culture, in which the biblical writings were produced.

I once posted on Hock’s admonition that New Testament scholars should read ancient novels; they should also read ancient philosophical works and acknowledge more fully than many of them currently do the extent to which the Bible is a product of its wider contemporary literary and ethical cultures.

We start with Book 1.

Benjamin Jowett translation at Internet Classics Archive is in dark azure.

R. G. Bury translation at Perseus Digital Library is in indigo.

The Purpose of the Law

Deut 28, Exod 19, Lev 26, Psalm 1 . . . . the law bestows blessings, both spiritual and material. Among these are good health and physical strength; also great wealth. Godly wisdom is the chief blessing.

Deut 4:6-8 – Law brings reputation for being a wise and understanding people, a light to the world.

Plato, Laws 1.631b:  read more »


2015-05-31

Tales of Jesus and Moses: Two Ways to Apply Social Memory in Historical Studies

by Neil Godfrey
Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family adoring the A...

Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family adoring the Aten (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Akhenaten refresher

  • Egyptian Pharaoh who ruled for 17 years in middle of fourteenth century, up till around 1336 or 1334 BCE
  • originally known as Amenthotep IV (or in Greek, Amenophis IV); changed his name to Akhenaten
  • opposed the orthodox priests of Ammon-Re; redirected their income to his new god Aton
  • abolished traditional cults and idols of Egyptian polytheism
  • established the sole worship of a new god of light, Aton, (variously described as monotheismmonolatrism and  henotheism)
  • depicted Aton as sun disc with rays ending in hands, understood to be a universal god incapable of true representation
  • established new centre of worship at Akhetaten (today known as Amarna)
  • temples to Aten stressed worship in open sunlight (contrary to earlier custom of darkened indoor temples)
  • Akhenaten was the sole mediator between Aton and earth
  • affinities between Hymn to Aton and Psalm 104
  • son was the famous Tutankhamen

Unlike Moses, Akhenaten, Pharaoh Amenophis IV, was a figure exclusively of history and not of memory. Shortly after his death, his name was erased from the king-lists, his monuments were dismantled, his inscriptions and representations were destroyed, and almost every trace of his existence was obliterated. For centuries no one knew of his extraordinary revolution. Until his rediscovery in the nineteenth century, there was virtually no memory of Akhenaten.

Moses represents the reverse case. No traces have ever been found of his historical existence. He grew and developed only as a figure of memory, absorbing and embodying all traditions that pertained to legislation, liberation, and monotheism. (Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, p. 23)

This current series of posts has arisen out of Professor Chris Keith’s references to Egyptologist Jan Assmann’s comments about social memory theory in history. Keith uses memory theory to “answer questions about the historical Jesus”. By starting with the gospel narratives as memories of Jesus that have been necessarily reinterpreted he attempts to uncover those narrative details that most likely point to a past reality about Jesus. In Jesus’ Literacy, for example, he judges the Gospel of Mark’s implication that Jesus was was not scribally literate to be more likely a memory reflection of the real historical Jesus than the Gospel of Luke’s suggestion that Jesus was able to competently read the Jewish Scriptures.

However, when I read the first two chapters of Assmann’s Moses the Egyptian I read an approach to social memory that is the opposite of the one used by Chris Keith. Keith begins with the Gospels that are assumed to record certain memory-impressions and attempts to work backwards to what those original events more or less looked like to observers. But as I wrote in my earlier post that’s not how the Egyptologist works:

The Egyptologist begins with “hard evidence” and originally genuine historical memories and works his way forward into the later literature to find out what must have become of these memories. The historical Jesus scholar, it appears to me, begins with the later literature and tries to guess what memories came before it.

The two methods look to me to be like polar opposites rather than “similar”.

It is a pity Chris Keith is too busy to engage with Vridar (no reason given in his personal email, just a copy of a cordial invitation to respond to a Nigerian banker-benefactor asking me for my account details) at the cost of public religious literacy. I would love to discuss these questions with him seriously but he’s clearly not interested. (Slightly revised)

The difference is potentially very significant. Take the different versions of the Moses-Exodus narratives that we have seen in the recent posts — each one a differently interpreted memory — and apply Keith’s method to those in order to arrive at information about “the historical Moses” and the “historical Exodus” and see what happens. As we saw in that first post Assmann has doubts that there even was a historical Moses in the first place and he does not believe there ever was a biblical-like Exodus led by such a figure. Applying Keith’s method to “answer questions about the historical Jesus” to these memory-narratives would produce a very false notion of Egyptian and Jewish history.

Assmann starts with something we lack in the case of the historical Jesus. The known events of Egyptian history according to the contemporary inscriptions. These are used to interpret the later “memory literature”. The “memory literature” is not used in an attempt to uncover past historical events. The past historical events are used to interpret the subsequent stories.

Keith may object that he does use what is known of the historical past in order to assess what is closest to historical reality in the Gospels. He does, for example, in Jesus’ Literacy delve into what we can know about the nature and extent of literacy in ancient Palestine. But this tells us nothing new or relevant to the actual historical Jesus. It is comparable to uncovering details about the historical Pilate, or the architecture of the Jerusalem Temple, or the geography of Galilee. No-one would believe we are coming any closer to “the historical Moses” by learning all we can about the Egyptian religious customs and beliefs, the social structures, ethnic groups or literacy in ancient Egypt and Palestine and applying this knowledge to any of the stories we have about Moses.

So here’s how Assmann uses social memory. read more »


2015-05-27

Moses and the Exodus: again, Moses as an Egyptian Priest

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing . . . . 

The final account to be considered is that of the Greek geographer and historian Strabo who was probably writing early first century CE. The passage is found in Book 16, chapter 2 of his Geography.

According to Strabo Moses was an Egyptian priest who established a religion that stood against the traditional focus on idols and sacrifices. “Superstitious” and “legalistic” regulations such as food laws, circumcision, etc. were only introduced after the death of Moses.

35 Moses, namely, was one of the Egyptian priests, and held a part of Lower Egypt, as it is called,

but he went away from there to Judaea, since he was displeased with the state of affairs there, and was accompanied by many people who worshipped the Divine Being.

For he says, and taught, that the Egyptians were mistaken in representing the Divine Being by the images of beasts and cattle, as were also the Libyans; and that the Greeks were also wrong in modelling gods in human form; for, according to him, God is this one thing alone that encompasses us all and encompasses land and sea — the thing which we call heaven, or universe, or the nature of all that exists. What man, then, if he has sense, could be bold enough to fabricate an image of God resembling any creature amongst us? Nay, people should leave off all image-carving, and, setting apart a sacred precinct and a worthy sanctuary, should worship God without an image; and people who have good dreams should sleep in the sanctuary, not only themselves on their own behalf, but also others for the rest of the people; and those who live self-restrained and righteous lives should always expect some blessing or gift or sign from God, but no other should expect them. read more »


Moses and the Exodus: Moses as founder of an alternative Egyptian religion

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing . . . . 

The following account of “the Exodus” and Moses’ place in history comes from Apion, another Greek who lived much of his time in Egypt. Again Josephus is our source, and a hostile one at that. Apion portrays Moses as an Egyptian priest who preserved a true form of Egyptian religion. The whole “Exodus/Moses” episode belongs to Egyptian (not Jewish) history in his writings.

I briefly take notice of what Apion adds upon that subject; for in his third book, which relates to the affairs of Egypt, he speaks thus:

“I have heard of the ancient men of Egypt, that Moses was of Heliopolis, and that he thought himself obliged to follow the customs of his forefathers, and offered his prayers in the open air, towards the city walls; but that he reduced them all to be directed towards sun-rising, which was agreeable to the situation of Heliopolis; that he also set up pillars instead of gnomons, under which was represented a cavity like that of a boat, and the shadow that fell from their tops fell down upon that cavity, that it might go round about the like course as the sun itself goes round in the other.” read more »


Moses and Exodus according to the Roman historian Tacitus

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing. . . . 

The Roman historian Tacitus (ca 56-117 C.E.) appears to combine several versions of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. Most significantly,

In Tacitus, the characterization of Jewish monotheism as a counter-religion which is the inversion of Egyptian tradition and therefore totally derivative of, and dependent on, Egypt reaches its climax. (Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, p. 37)

From book 5 of Tacitus’s Histories:

3 1 Most authors agree that once during a plague in Egypt which caused bodily disfigurement, King Bocchoris approached the oracle of Ammon and asked for a remedy, whereupon he was told to purge his kingdom and to transport this race into other lands, since it was hateful to the gods.

So the Hebrews were searched out and gathered together; then, being abandoned in the desert, while all others lay idle and weeping, one only of the exiles, Moses by name, warned them not to hope for help from gods or men, for they were deserted by both, but to trust to themselves, regarding as a guide sent from heaven the one whose assistance should first give them escape from their present distress.

They agreed, and then set out on their journey in utter ignorance, but trusting to chance. Nothing caused them so much distress as scarcity of water, and in fact they had already fallen exhausted over the plain nigh unto death, when a herd of wild asses moved from their pasturage to a rock that was shaded by a grove of trees. Moses followed them, and, conjecturing the truth from the grassy ground, discovered abundant streams of water.

This relieved them, and they then marched six days continuously, and on the seventh seized a country, expelling the former inhabitants; there they founded a city and dedicated a temple.

4 1 To establish his influence over this people for all time, Moses introduced new religious practices, quite opposed to those of all other religions. The Jews regard as profane all that we hold sacred; on the other hand, they permit all that we abhor. read more »


2015-05-26

Moses and Exodus: an Ancient Jewish Counter-History

by Neil Godfrey

Artapanus of Alexandria was a Jewish historian living in Egypt in the late third or second century B.C.E. We read the relevant excerpts of his work On/Concerning the Jews in another work by Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica (= Preparation of the Gospel). Artapanus gives a new twist to the narratives we have read so far by making Moses a Jew but also the founder of the Egyptian religion and civilization. (He is even identified with Hermes, the inventor of the sacred hieroglyphic script.) As Jans Assmann comments,

[Artapanus’s] picture of Moses is pure counterhistory . . . : it is the exact inversion of Hecataeus’ and Manetho’s Moses, written in contradiction to their texts and with very little reference to the Bible or other Jewish traditions. (Moses the Egyptian, p. 36)

Enjoy the Jewish counter-history! From Book 9, chapter 27 of Praeparatio:

AND Artapanus says, in his book Concerning the Jews, that after the death of Abraham, and of his son Mempsasthenoth, and likewise of the king of Egypt, his son Palmanothes succeeded to the sovereignty.

‘This king behaved badly to the Jews; and first he built Kessa, and founded the temple therein, and then built the temple in Heliopolis.

‘He begat a daughter Merris, whom he betrothed to a certain Chenephres, king of the regions above Memphis (for there were at that time many kings in Egypt); and she being barren took a supposititious child from one of the Jews, and called him Mouses (Moses): but by the Greeks he was called, when grown to manhood, Musaeus.

And this Moses, they said, was the teacher of Orpheus; and when grown up he taught mankind many useful things. For

  • he was the inventor of ships,
  • and machines for laying stones,
  • and Egyptian arms,
  • and engines for drawing water and for war,
  • and invented philosophy.
  • Further he divided the State into thirty-six Nomes,
  • and appointed the god to be worshipped by each Nome,
  • and the sacred writing for the priests,
  • and their gods were cats, and dogs, and ibises:
  • he also apportioned an especial district for the priests.

‘All these things he did for the sake of keeping the sovereignty firm and safe for Chenepbres. For previously the multitudes, being under no order, now expelled and now set up kings, often the same persons, but sometimes others.

‘For these reasons then Moses was beloved by the multitudes, and being deemed by the priests worthy to be honoured like a god, was named Hermes, because of his interpretation of the Hieroglyphics.

But when Chenephres perceived the excellence of Moses he envied him, and sought to slay him on some plausible pretext. read more »


Moses and Exodus according to an early Roman Historian

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing . . .

The first century B.C.E. (Celtic) Roman historian Pompeius Trogus wrote Historicae Philippicae (Philippic History), of which an epitome survives. The relevant section:

But a prosperous family of ten sons made Israhel more famous than any of his ancestors. Having divided, his kingdom, in consequence, into ten governments, he committed them to his sons, and called the whole people Jews from Judas, who died soon after the division, and ordered his memory to be held in veneration by them all, as his portion was shared among them. The youngest of the brothers was Joseph, whom the others, fearing his extraordinary abilities, secretly made prisoner, and sold to some foreign merchants. Being carried by them into Egypt, and having there, by his great powers of mind, made himself master of the arts of magic, he found in a short time great favour with the king; for he was eminently skilled in prodigies, and was the first to establish the science of interpreting dreams; and nothing, indeed, of divine or human law seems to have been unknown to him; so that he foretold a dearth in the land some years before it happened, and all Egypt would have perished by famine, had not the king, by his advice, ordered the corn to be laid up for several years; such being the proofs of his knowledge, that his admonitions seemed to proceed, not from a mortal, but a god.

His son was Moses, whom, besides the inheritance of his father’s knowledge, the comeliness of his person also recommended.

But the Egyptians, being troubled with scabies and leprosy, and moved by some oracular prediction, expelled him, with those who had the disease, out of Egypt, that the distemper might not spread among a greater number. read more »


Moses and Exodus According to the Egyptian Priest Manetho

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing to set out some of the many variants of the Exodus story as told in non-biblical sources . . .

At the conclusion of these I will tie them together with Jan Assmann’s argument that they reflect memories of traumatic events in Egypt’s past.

The Egyptian priest Manetho in the early third century B.C.E. wrote a history of Egypt in which he gives us two versions of an Exodus-like historical event. The following extracts are from the Jewish historian Josephus.

Here is the first one:

14. I shall begin with the writings of the Egyptians . . . . Now this Manetho, in the second book of his Egyptian History, writes concerning us in the following manner. I will set down his very words, as if I were to bring the very man himself into a court for a witness:

“There was a king of ours whose name was Timaus. Under him it came to pass, I know not how, that God was averse to us,

and there came, after a surprising manner, men of ignoble birth out of the eastern parts, and had boldness enough to make an expedition into our country, and with ease subdued it by force, yet without our hazarding a battle with them.

So when they had gotten those that governed us under their power, they afterwards burnt down our cities, and demolished the temples of the gods, and used all the inhabitants after a most barbarous manner; nay, some they slew, and led their children and their wives into slavery. read more »


2015-05-25

Moses and the Exodus according to . . . . the Egyptian Chaeremon

by Neil Godfrey

Chaeremon was an Egyptian priest who lived in Alexandria in the first half of the first century and who subsequently moved to Rome where he became the tutor to Nero. Josephus tells us of his version of the Exodus.

Chaeremon is the first to introduce distinctly biblical motifs into the story. The names of the 250,000 lepers being expelled are Moses and Joseph. In Pelusium they encounter 380,000 would-be emigrants who had been refused permission to emigrate with them. These two groups in fact combined forces and conquered Egypt. Later Ramses was able to drive them out of Egypt, pushing them back to Syria.

I omit Josephus’s criticisms of his account.

32. And now . . . I will inquire into what Cheremon says. For he also, when he pretended to write the Egyptian history, sets down the same name for this king that Manetho did, Amenophis, as also of his son Ramesses, and then goes on thus:

“The goddess Isis appeared to Amenophis in his sleep, and blamed him that her temple had been demolished in the war.

But that Phritiphantes [or Phritibantes, = “the scribe of the temple”], the sacred scribe, said to him, that in case he would purge Egypt of the men that had pollutions upon them, he should be no longer troubled with such frightful apparitions. read more »


Moses and the Exodus According to the Ancient Greeks. . . : Lysimachus

by Neil Godfrey

The next account is by another Greek, Lysimachus, possibly from the second century B.C.E. His account is preserved by Josephus in Against Apion

34. I shall now add to these accounts . . . somewhat about Lysimachus . . . [See Josephus’s account for his criticism of what he takes to be a most unfair and false account by Lysimachus]. . .  His words are these:

“The people of the Jews being leprous and scabby, and subject to certain other kinds of distempers, in the days of Bocchoris, king of Egypt, they fled to the temples, and got their food there by begging: and as the numbers were very great that were fallen under these diseases, there arose a scarcity in Egypt. read more »


Moses and the Exodus According to the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians: Hecataeus

by Neil Godfrey

After reading Jan Assmann’s Moses the Egyptian I’d like to set out here the various alternative versions of the story of Moses and the Exodus as written by ancient Greek and Egyptian historians. (These will be known to many readers but I want to have them all set out together and perhaps discuss their significance in relation to “what really happened” afterwards.)

Here is the apparently earliest non-Jewish record, written by the Greek Hecataeus of Abdera in the fourth and third centuries B.C.E. after he settled in Egypt. It comes to us via another Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus [= of Sicily] of the first century B.C.E. I will highlight significant sections that overlap (however obliquely) with the biblical narrative.

[3]  Since we are about to give an account of the war against the Jews, we consider it appropriate, before we proceed further, in the first place to relate the origin of this nation, and their customs.

In ancient times a great plague occurred in Egypt, and many ascribed the cause of it to the gods, who were offended with them.

For since the multitudes of strangers of different nationalities, who lived there, made use of their foreign rites in religious ceremonies and sacrifices, the ancient manner of worshipping the gods, practised by the ancestors of the Egyptians, had been quite lost and forgotten.

Therefore the native inhabitants concluded that, unless all the foreigners were driven out, they would never be free from their miseries. read more »


2015-03-21

The Dark Resurgence of Biblical History

by Neil Godfrey

emergence_Biblical history and biblical archaeology have fought back to a new ascendancy after surviving the double-edged scrutiny of opponents they disparaged as “minimalists”.

For a moment it looked like genuine historical inquiry into ancient Palestine had the potential to displace the paraphrasing the Bible and the tendency to interpret nearly every archaeological artefact through the Bible. “Biblical History” and “Biblical Archaeology” blanket the archaeological remains of Palestine with the tapestry of the Bible’s story of Israel. Naturally this means that the tapestry’s tale appears distorted in places but the primary structure remains clear:

  • Israel emerged in Canaan as a distinctly religious and ethnic identity in the early part of the first millennium
  • After a period of some kind of unity culminating in David’s rule, Israel split into two political entities, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, and continued to dominate the region up until the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities
  • The Jews returned after the Persians “liberated” them from their Babylonian exile and continued as a distinctly “Jewish” civilization up until the time the Romans dispersed them; the religions of Judaism and Christianity emerged from the religious thought and writings of this Second Temple era.

Other groups who make an appearance in this biblical history for most part do so as external conquerors to be overcome or as indigenous corrupters to be left behind.

This kind of history begins with the Bible and archaeological discoveries are significant insofar as they can add some colour or modification to that biblical narrative.

Is this comparable to beginning with the tales of King Arthur’s Camelot and using those to recreate the history of early Britain?

Doubling the excitement

Valid historical investigation should always ensure the horse is positioned in front of the cart.

Start with the “hard” evidence like the carved stones, baked clay and forged metal found in the ground. What can be reconstructed from these? After having done that we can compare the results with literature that first appeared in considerably later strata.

If we find that the literature describes just what we have found and calls it Camelot then that’s exciting. On the other hand, if the literature’s narrative of Camelot is significantly at odds with what we have found then we have double excitement: before us lie two quests — the quest to learn more about the real world history found through the hard evidence in the ground; another quest to understand the origin of the Camelot narrative.

A Fight for history

Twenty to thirty years ago a few scholars opened up the first challenges to the dominance of “Biblical history” in Biblical studies. Here is how one of those scholars, Keith Whitelam, looking back described what happened in the wake of the publication in 1987 of The Emergence of Early Israel in Historical Perspective by Robert Coote and himself: read more »