Category Archives: OT Archaeology & Literature


How Bible Contradictions Began

by Neil Godfrey

Even ancient scribes had problems with some of the laws that were decreed from the mouth of the Almighty himself. Take the commandment against idolatry thundered from Mount Sinai:

You are not to make yourself a carved-image
or any figure
that is in the heavens above, that is on the earth beneath, that is in the waters beneath the earth; 
you are not to bow down to them,
you are not to serve them,
for I, YHWH your God,
am a zealous God,
calling-to-account the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons, to the third and fourth generation
of those that hate me….

(Exodus 20:4-5, Everett Fox trans)

Poor unlucky great-great-great grandchildren.

Fortunately for those innocents scribes or priests knew how to subvert God’s command.

But since they are playing with God’s own words they need to be clever enough to avoid detection.

The first rule they followed was to remain anonymous. Mustn’t make it easy for God to identify the culprit.

Just as there is not a single law in the Bible that Israelite authors do not attribute to God or his prophetic intermediary, Moses, so is the converse also true. In the entire Hebrew Bible, not a single text, legal or otherwise, is definitively attributed to the actual scribe responsible for its composition. Except for the prophets, biblical authors never speak explicitly in their own voice. Instead, they employ pseudonyms or write anonymously. Proverbs, for example, is attributed to Solomon by means of its editorial superscription (Prov. 1:1), while Ecclesiastes is similarly ascribed to “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Qoh. 1:1). Neither of these attributions withstands critical examination.28 Such attributions seem rather to function to lend greater authority or prestige to a literary composition by associating it with a venerable figure from the past . . . (Levinson, Bernard M. (2003). “You Must Not Add Anything to What I Command You: Paradoxes of Canon and Authorship in Ancient Israel”, Numen, 50.1, p. 15)

It was a different matter if laws were merely “man-made”. What one mortal decreed another mortal could strike out and replace. So it was, for example, with ancient Hittite laws as we see from the following case:

If anyone blinds a free person or knocks his teeth out, formerly they would pay 40 sheqels of silver, but now one pays 20 sheqels of silver. . . (Hittite Laws #7, cited in Levinson, 2003)

Inflation or the greater need to allow for knocking out the eyes and teeth of undesirables required a change in the law and it was effected as simply as the above example shows.

But one can’t be so blunt if the laws have been divinely revealed from heaven.

Before showing how the literate class managed to nullify God’s eternal words let’s see where the idea of punishing future generations originated. It did not begin with God, but God picked it up from his reading of Near Eastern treaties. read more »


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.




Archaeology as Manufacturer and Destroyer of Historical and Contemporary Identities

by Neil Godfrey

I’ve been struggling with a virus since returning from my recent o/seas trip and unable to focus on blogging after work hours these past two weeks but a Jerry Coyne blog post has roused me from my lethargy:

The anti-Semitism of UNESCO

The visceral illogic of his post leaves me somewhat dismayed. Does he really believe — is he even aware that he is saying — that present-day cultural monuments of devotion for one religious and historical identity should be replaced by monuments to ancient myths that have not existed in the land for millennia in the interests of an opposing religious and historical identity? Is he really oblivious to the politics of archaeology, to the way archaeology has long been used as an ideological and nationalistic propaganda tool?

Did he even read in full the Unesco draft decision [link is to pdf] that he curiously declares to be “anti-semitic”? (I’m reminded of yesterday’s debate. If something goes against X, X always says it is because it was “rigged”.)

I will probably delete any comment that expresses an view that clearly demonstrates a failure to have actually read the UNESCO document which I copy in full below. I’m interested in informed discussion. read more »


Plato’s Thought World and the Bible

by Neil Godfrey
Updated 5 hours after original posting. New section beginning with Monthly Religious Festivals added. 

Previous 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)
  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)

The ideal state can only begin with the second generation

First generation to receive the laws has to die off before the state can be established on a secure footing:

Plato’s Laws, Book 6:

Laws 752 b-c Deuteronomy 1:34-39
Athenian. Let us remember what a courageously mad and daring creation this our city is.

Cleinias (of Crete). What had you in your mind when you said that?

Athenian. I had in my mind the free and easy manner in which we are ordaining that the inexperienced colonists shall receive our laws. Now a man need not be very wise, Cleinias, in order to see that no one can easily receive laws at their first imposition. But if we could anyhow wait until those who have been imbued with them from childhood, and have been nurtured in them, and become habituated to them, . . .  if this could be accomplished . . . -then, I think that there would be very little danger, at the end of the time, of a state thus trained not being permanent.

34 “And the Lord heard your words and was angered, and he swore, 35 ‘Not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers, 36 except Caleb the son of Jephunneh. He shall see it, and to him and to his children I will give the land on which he has trodden, because he has wholly followed the Lord!’37 Even with me the Lord was angry on your account and said, ‘You also shall not go in there. 38 Joshua the son of Nun, who stands before you, he shall enter. Encourage him, for he shall cause Israel to inherit it. 39 And as for your little ones, who you said would become a prey, and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil, they shall go in there. And to them I will give it, and they shall possess it.


Twelve commanders, governors. . .

read more »


Exodus as a Fairy Tale

by Neil Godfrey

David Roberts-IsraelitesLeavingEgypt 1828.jpg

Dr. Hector Avalos has posted at Debunking Christianity his thoughts on the documentary film, Patterns of Evidence: Exodus produced by Timothy Mahoney, and reasons to discount the historicity of the Exodus. Film trailer.

I posted various views of the origins of the Exodus story in a number of posts now.

So speaking of Exodus, hHere I want to continue on from a 2014 post, Transvalued Folktales & Classifying the Bible’s Narratives, and see how a contemporary specialist in Exodus identifies the signs of folklore or fairy tale in this biblical narrative.

William H.C. Propp sees in the Exodus tale the same nuggets that go into the making of folktales or fairy tales and that were set out by another Propp (no relation), Vladimir Propp in 1968, The Morphology of the Folk Tale. For an outline of these structural elements see the Wikipedia article on Vladimir Propp. William Propp’s argument is found in his commentary, Exodus 1-18: a new translation with introduction and commentary, pp. 32 to 34

William Propp begins by acknowledging that Exodus is far more complex than the ordinary folktale. For a start Exodus has not one but three heroes: God, Moses and Israel. Other tale types intrude as well. Nonetheless, “the overall sequence of events follows [Vladimir] Propp closely.”  read more »


Crucifixion Portrayed Before the Very Eyes of Galatians

by Neil Godfrey

Surely you have taken leave of your senses, you men of Galatia! Who has cast this spell over you, before whose very eyes Jesus Christ has been exposed to view as nailed on a cross? — Galatians 3:1, Cassirer’s translation.

Recent comments on Vridar prompted me to recheck what we know about this odd-sounding verse. Here I’ll quote the ancient sources that provide an explanatory context but I’ll also go one step further and (in debt to Thomas Brodie) look at a plausible inspiration for this expression and how it relates to the Gospel of Mark’s Passion Narrative. When we put this together and embrace the possibility of the Gospel’s debt to Paul’s letters then an interesting relationship between the two emerges over this very verse — of the Galatians apparently seeing Jesus Christ crucified before their very eyes.

But let’s begin with how Jesus was crucified “before their eyes”.

Hans Dieter Betz explains:

One of the goals of the ancient orator was to deliver his speech so vividly and impressively that his listeners imagined the matter to have happened right before their eyes. (Galatians, p. 131)

The evidence for this claim?


aristotle-rhetoricAristotle for one, Rhetoric, 3.11. I quote the passage at some length because Aristotle includes in his discussion a particular feature that we find in abundance throughout the Gospel of Mark — puns and other forms of wordplay .

It has already been mentioned that liveliness is got by using the proportional type of metaphor and being making (ie. making your hearers see things). We have still to explain what we mean by their ‘seeing things’, and what must be done to effect this. By ‘making them see things’ I mean using expressions that represent things as in a state of activity. Thus, to say that a good man is ‘four-square’ is certainly a metaphor; both the good man and the square are perfect; but the metaphor does not suggest activity. On the other hand, in the expression ‘with his vigour in full bloom’ there is a notion of activity; and so in ‘But you must roam as free as a sacred victim’; and in

“Thereas up sprang the Hellenes to their feet, “

where ‘up sprang’ gives us activity as well as metaphor, for it at once suggests swiftness. So with Homer’s common practice of giving metaphorical life to lifeless things: all such passages are distinguished by the effect of activity they convey. Thus,

“Downward anon to the valley rebounded the boulder remorseless; and “

“The (bitter) arrow flew; “


“Flying on eagerly; and “

Stuck in the earth, still panting to feed on the flesh of the heroes; and

“And the point of the spear in its fury drove

“full through his breastbone. “

In all these examples the things have the effect of being active because they are made into living beings; shameless behaviour and fury and so on are all forms of activity. And the poet has attached these ideas to the things by means of proportional metaphors: as the stone is to Sisyphus, so is the shameless man to his victim. In his famous similes, too, he treats inanimate things in the same way:

“Curving and crested with white, host following

“host without ceasing. “

Here he represents everything as moving and living; and activity is movement.

Metaphors must be drawn, as has been said already, from things that are related to the original thing, and yet not obviously so related-just as in philosophy also an acute mind will perceive resemblances even in things far apart. Thus Archytas said that an arbitrator and an altar were the same, since the injured fly to both for refuge. Or you might say that an anchor and an overhead hook were the same, since both are in a way the same, only the one secures things from below and the other from above. And to speak of states as ‘levelled’ is to identify two widely different things, the equality of a physical surface and the equality of political powers.

Liveliness is specially conveyed by metaphor, and by the further power of surprising the hearer; because the hearer expected something different, his acquisition of the new idea impresses him all the more. His mind seems to say, ‘Yes, to be sure; I never thought of that’. The liveliness of epigrammatic remarks is due to the meaning not being just what the words say: as in the saying of Stesichorus that ‘the cicalas will chirp to themselves on the ground’. Well-constructed riddles are attractive for the same reason; a new idea is conveyed, and there is metaphorical expression. So with the ‘novelties’ of Theodorus. In these the thought is startling, and, as Theodorus puts it, does not fit in with the ideas you already have. They are like the burlesque words that one finds in the comic writers. The effect is produced even by jokes depending upon changes of the letters of a word; this too is a surprise. You find this in verse as well as in prose. The word which comes is not what the hearer imagined: thus

“Onward he came, and his feet were shod with his-chilblains, “

where one imagined the word would be ‘sandals’. But the point should be clear the moment the words are uttered. . . .  This is also true of such lively remarks as the one to the effect that to the Athenians their empire (arche) of the sea was not the beginning (arche) of their troubles, since they gained by it. Or the opposite one of Isocrates, that their empire (arche) was the beginning (arche) of their troubles. Either way, the speaker says something unexpected, the soundness of which is thereupon recognized. There would be nothing clever in saying ’empire is empire’. Isocrates means more than that, and uses the word with a new meaning. So too with the former saying, which denies that arche in one sense was arche in another sense. . . .

. . . . The more a saying has these qualities, the livelier it appears: if, for instance, its wording is metaphorical, metaphorical in the right way, antithetical, and balanced, and at the same time it gives an idea of activity.

Successful similes also, as has been said above, are in a sense metaphors, since they always involve two relations like the proportional metaphor. . . .



Then there is Cicero’s On the Orator (De Oratore), 3.40

Here almost every thing is expressed in words metaphorically adapted from something similar, that the description may be heightened. . . .

but, even in the greatest abundance of proper words, men are much more charmed with such as are uncommon, if they are used metaphorically with judgment. This happens, I imagine, either because it is some manifestation of wit to jump over such expressions as lie before you, and catch at others from a greater distance ; or be cause he who listens is led another way in thought, and yet does not wander from the subject, which is a very great pleasure ; or because a subject, and entire comparison, is dispatched in a single word ; or because every metaphor that is adopted with judgment, is directed immediately to our senses, and principally to the sense of sight, which is the keenest of them all. For such expressions as the odor of urbanity, the softness of humanity, the murmur of the sea, and sweetness of
language, are derived from the other senses ; but those which relate to the sight are much more striking, for they place almost in the eye of the mind such objects as we can not see and discern by the natural eyes.

read more »


How Did Daniel Understand Isaiah’s Suffering Servant?

by Neil Godfrey
Martin Hengel

Martin Hengel (1926-2009)

Isaiah’s Suffering Servant has been co-opted by Christians as a prophecy of Jesus Christ but how did pre-Christian Jews understand this figure? My last post in a series examining Martin Hengel’s scholarly work on this question was From Israel’s Suffering (Isaiah’s Servant) to Atoning Human/Messianic Sacrifice (Daniel). Here is the long overdue follow up post. So far we have

  • surveyed the evidence Hengel finds for how the authors of the books of Zechariah and Ben Sirach/Sira interpreted the Suffering Servant we read about in Isaiah 53;
  • noted related developments in the period of the Maccabean martyrs (around 165/164 BCE) when the book of Daniel appears to have been written.

Though we sometimes read dogmatic assertions by scholars who don’t keep themselves up to date across their field of research to the effect that no pre-Christian era Jew could ever have thought that the Messiah was destined to suffer and be killed, Martin Hengel has no qualms arguing on the basis of early Jewish writings that pre-Christian Jews really do appear to have done just that. And why not? How better to make sense of a persecuted and often martyred community? We must keep in mind that there was no fixed idea of any other kind of Messiah (“anointed one”, “Christ”) in this period.

Yet we must remember that in the second century B.C.E., we do not yet possess any fixed Jewish doctrine of the Messiah – there basically never was one – but must rather deal with various ideas of anointing and the Anointed One. In Qumran, not only the Davidic Messiah but also the eschatological high priest and the prophets are considered “anointed ones.”

— Hengel, Martin, ‘The Effective History of lsaiah 53 in the Pre-Christian Period’, in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources (ed. Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), p103. (Bailey is responsible for translating Hengel’s essay into English and updating it in consultation with the author.)

Hengel warns us not to expect an author to introduce the new ideas or interpretations emerging in the Maccabean period with an unambiguous supporting citation to an earlier text.

Because the ideas introduced are new, they are at first only cautiously hinted at. Isaiah 53, as a unique text in the Old Testament, may have helped this development along, though at first the collective understanding [i.e. that the Suffering Servant represented Israel] stood in the foreground, and only certain aspects of the whole text exerted an influence. It also needs to be remembered, as already said, that the pre-Christian Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha contain almost no literal scriptural citations. We can therefore conduct only a very cautious search for traces. (p. 96)

So the argument is suggestive rather than conclusive. We might further consider the interpretative power of the argument: Does it explain the emergence of earliest Christian interpretations more directly than a radical revision of Jewish thought being sparked by a belief in a crucified leader’s resurrection from the dead?

Let’s get started. read more »


Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Before Christianity

by Neil Godfrey

A bibliography of a few Vridar posts taking an in-depth look at the Suffering Servant figure in Isaiah and how it was understood before Christianity. . . .

The Influence of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Before Christianity

Isaiah 53 and the Suffering Servant is a major text for Christianity (in the New Testament it is used to interpret Christ’s death) but what did it mean to adherents of Judaism before Christianity?

Did any Jewish interpretations anticipate the meaning it held for later Christians?

To what extent were the authors of the gospels innovative in their use of Isaiah 53 (and Isaiah as a whole)? To what extent were they simply employing ideas they absorbed from their surroundings?

Is it possible that Christianity itself evolved in part from earlier sectarian understandings of Isaiah 53?

This post looks at some work by Martin Hengel and demonstrates the way other pre-Christian texts — Sirach and Zechariah  — interpreted Isaiah’s Suffering Servant figure.

From Israel’s Suffering (Isaiah’s Servant) to Atoning Human/Messianic Sacrifice (Daniel)

The previous post showed the apparent influence of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 upon the books of Zechariah and Ben Sirach/Sira. This post pauses to look at some background before resuming with the way the Book of Daniel adapted Isaiah’s Suffering Servant idea in the light of contemporary events — around 165/164 BCE.

A chapter by Martin Hengel is the basis for the posts.

It appears that at the end of this post I anticipated writing one more to conclude the series. I must complete that as soon.

Other posts: read more »


Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal States

by Neil Godfrey


The first Christians shared all things in common; the first people of God began as a nation of twelve tribes. Plato would have been impressed with both beginnings.


Previous 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)
  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)


Book 5 of Plato’s Laws

Laws 739b-c Acts 2:42-47
The first and highest form of the state and of the government and of the law is that in which there prevails most widely the ancient saying, that “Friends have all things in common.Whether there is anywhere now, or will ever be, this communion of women and children and of property, in which the private and individual is altogether banished from life, and things which are by nature private, such as eyes and ears and hands, have become common, and in some way see and hear and act in common, and all men express praise and blame and feel joy and sorrow on the same occasions, and whatever laws there are unite the city to the utmost-whether all this is possible or not, I say that no man, acting upon any other principle, will ever constitute a state which will be truer or better or more exalted in virtue.

And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers.
And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles.
And all that believed were together, and had all things common;
and they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, according as any man had need.
And day by day, continuing stedfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they took their food with gladness and singleness of heart, 
praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to them day by day those that were saved.

So began the Christian church, one body, having all things common, like-minded, expressing praise and feeling joy together daily.

If we wink at the fact that Luke probably didn’t mean to indicate that the women and children were included in the common property Plato would have said

no one will ever lay down another definition [of a State] that is truer or better than these conditions in point of super-excellence. (739c Bury’s translation)

People in such an ideal state would inevitably be “happy”:

Whether such a state is governed by Gods or sons of Gods, one, or more than one, happy are the men who, living after this manner, dwell there. . . 


Laws 745d Ezekiel 47:13, Numbers 1:44 & Matthew 19:28
And the legislator shall divide the citizens into twelve parts,

and arrange the rest of their property, as far as possible, so as to form twelve equal parts;

and there shall be a registration of all. 

Ye shall divide the land for inheritance according to the twelve tribes of Israel . . . .

These were the men registered by Moses and Aaron and the twelve leaders of Israel.

The Son of man shall sit on the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Plato was imagining an ideal state. Having all things in common he considered to be too idealistic to be practical so he considered next-best options. Twelve tribes was the more realistic option, each tribe named after one of the twelve gods of Olympus. The land was to be divided “equally” but that meant larger allotments would be created to compensate for poorer quality soil in some areas. There was to be a methodical census of all citizens.

We know the story of the twelve tribes of Israel, both the original one from Genesis and the renewed one with the twelve apostles.


Let’s backtrack and start at the beginning. Book 5 begins with the most important things, the gods, followed by those next in rank, the “demons”, then the human soul (our divine part), and finally the human body, and speaks of the respective honours each is owed.  read more »


Bible’s Presentation of Law as a Model of Plato’s Ideal

by Neil Godfrey

Previous 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)
  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)

Book 4 of Plato’s Laws

For Plato the ideal state must begin with the new citizens arriving to settle in a land that has long been uninhabited and that is well distant from potentially corrupting influences of any neighbouring state. They mustn’t have it too easy or materially abundant, though, or self-indulgence and the usual corruptions of wealth are sure to overtake them, so the land must be rugged enough to keep them working hard for their well-being.

israel-wildernessThe biblical authors likewise narrated a story of new laws being given to a people leaving one “home” and moving to settle in another but of course there was a significant difference.

They were placing an ideal set of laws upon a land that contained a mixed population and was surrounded by potentially corrupting kingdoms. The same author(s) knew well the problem, though, and stressed the absolute necessity to drive out all the inhabitants of the land (Deut 7) and avoid any marriages with their neighbours (Deut. 17:14-20) lest they be led astray from keeping their perfect laws. The whole meaning of “holiness” and being a “holy nation” is separation from others.

Ath. And is there any neighbouring State?

Cle. None whatever, and that is the reason for selecting the place; in days of old, there was a migration of the inhabitants, and the region has been deserted from time immemorial.

Ath. And has the place a fair proportion of hill, and plain, and wood?

Cle. Like the rest of Crete in that.

Ath. You mean to say that there is more rock than plain?

Cle. Exactly.

Ath. Then there is some hope that your citizens may be virtuous . . . . There is a consolation, therefore. .  . owing to the ruggedness of the soil, not providing anything in great abundance. Had there been abundance, there might have been a great export trade, and a great return of gold and silver; which, as we may safely affirm, has the most fatal results on a State whose aim is the attainment of just and noble sentiments

In the story of Israel great wealth did flood the land in the time of Solomon so that “silver was as common as stones” (1 Kings 10:27) and that was the turning point in the kingdom’s history, as we know.

Purpose of the Laws

The ideal laws of both Plato and the Bible are said to be instituted to make people virtuous. They are not simply about maintenance of justice, keeping the peace and protecting sacred values but are intended to produce personal excellence of character or righteousness. This surely alerts us to a very strong probability that the Bible’s laws which had the same purpose were of philosophical/theological origin rather than being historically instituted as day-to-day law.

Ath. Remember, my good friend, what I said at first about the Cretan laws, that they look to one thing only, and this, as you both agreed, was war; and I replied that such laws, in so far as they tended to promote virtue, were good; but in that they regarded a part only, and not the whole of virtue, I disapproved of them. And now I hope that you in your turn will follow and watch me if I legislate with a view to anything but virtue, or with a view to a part of virtue only. For I consider that the true lawgiver, like an archer, aims only at that on which some eternal beauty is always attending, and dismisses everything else, whether wealth or any other benefit, when separated from virtue.

Compare Deuteronomy 6:25 and 4:6 read more »


Plato and the Bible on the Origins of Civilization

by Neil Godfrey

[Updated UTC 7 am, 3rd Aug, with The post-deluge stories of the Greeks … . . .]

Previous 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)
  3. Plato’s Laws, Book 2, and Biblical Values (2015-07-13)


I love the way Old Testament books come alive as part and parcel of a long forgotten ancient world when I read other ancient writings expressing the same ideas and stories most of us in the “Christian world” have only ever known from the Bible. Reading Plato’s Laws brings home just how pre-modern and irrelevant the Bible is for today’s world — apart from vestigial myths and sacred beliefs a few modern institutions seek to preserve for various reasons.

Take the quaint way Genesis identifies precisely who was responsible for the invention of each of the civilized arts and crafts:

Kayin . . . became the builder of a city . . . 

Ada bore Yaval,
he was the father of those who sit amidst tent and herd.

His brother’s name was Yuval,
he was the father of all those who play the lyre and the pipe.

And Tzilla bore as well — Tuval-Kayin,
burnisher of every blade of bronze and iron. (Genesis 4:17, 20-22, Everett Fox translation — primary intent of this translation is to capture the flavour of the Hebrew language. All Genesis quotations in this post are from this translation.)

Plato informs us (book 3 of Laws) that the ancient Greeks likewise had their eponymous inventors of the arts and crafts of civilization:

Cleinias For it is evident that the arts were unknown during ten thousand times ten thousand years. And no more than a thousand or two thousand years have elapsed since the discoveries of Daedalus, Orpheus and Palamedes – since Marsyas and Olympus invented music, and Amphion the lyre – not to speak of numberless other inventions which are but of yesterday. 

Athenian Have you forgotten, Cleinias, the name of a friend who is really of yesterday? 

Cleinias I suppose that you mean Epimenides

Compare the reminder left to us by Hyginus: read more »


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:


[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 »


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 »


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 »