Herodotus’ Histories and the Primary History of Israel

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by Neil Godfrey

Something I’ve been wanting to start for ages is a compilation of notes from Wesselius’ book as much for my own interest as others. I know it’s not the most popular hypothesis in biblical studies, but gosh it is interesting and at least thought provoking, i think. By the time I finish I may well decide it has not a leg to stand on. That’s no worries. Either way, I am sure I will have learned much more about the relevant literary and archaeological and other worlds by the time I reach that point. But an opportunity came up in iidb for me to find an excuse to make a start, and this is it– just a start only! Let’s go…. with a view to refinement, elaboration, embarrassing deletions, up ahead…..

My IIDB post:

why not use this thread as an excuse to get started on preparing a few notes on a book i read ages ago, The Origin of the History of Israel: Herodotus’s Histories as Blueprint for the First Books of the Bible by Jan-Wim Wesselius (2002). I still have questions about the thesis, so am not presenting this as “how it IS”, but just for interest’s sake, my own as much as anyone else’s.

One interesting comparison made is an examination of how Virgil has based his Aeneid not on a one-to-one correspondence of Homer but on a deep study of the structure of Homer’s Odyssey. He plays with and rearranges Homer as he emulates the Homeric hero, with his Aeneas surpassing Odysseus at key points (e.g. in the place where Odysseus is shipwrecked Aeneas, at the same place, manages to keep his ship afloat, etc.) Many of us are familiar with this discussion from MacDonald’s studies on Mark et al. (I understand his studies have gained little traction in circles here but I’m not getting into that one here.) Similarly, while the following notes may be a mistake in some way (they do not present the evidence or arguments for the comparisons) — they are based on an apparent understanding and playing with the [B]structure[/B] of the Histories — there is not a simpe a-b-c//a1-b1=c1 correspondence.

Book 1 of Herodotus opens with mythical and legendary origins of the history that is to follow (Paris, Priam, stories of Croesus and miracles surrounding Cyrus…); Genesis opens with the more mythical and legendary stories of Israel (giants, Adam, god and angels popping down to earth to interact with humans…). There do appear to be interesting syzygies and mirrorings in some of the genealogies and their key markers (Cyarxares/Abraham; Astyages/Isaac; Cyrus/Joseph, Xerxes/Moses among others).

Books 2-6 of Histories discuss the “History”; while Books 7-9 (Judges-Samuel-Kings) of cover the “history” of Israel.

Books 7-9 of Histories cover the “Great Campaign” of Xerxes across the sea and on to conquer Greece; Books 2-6 of Primary History (Exodus-Joshua) cover a “Great Campaign” of Israel from exodus to the promised land.

Book 2 of Histories seems an odd digression from the historical narrative as the author embarks on a detailed ethnographic discussion of Egypt; compare the legal and ritual digressions from the narrative in the Primary History.

And just as Herodotus will offer 2 contradictory versions of events side by side without expressing preference for either, so the Primary History also is known to present contradictory versions side by side (albeit without any narrative voice comment at all).

And there’s also the overall theme, that of the power of the divinities to direct the affairs of mankind, and the tragedy of the human players who so often fall into hubris or rebellion; and the uncertain conclusions leaving it up the readers to wonder “which way will we choose to go from here?”

There’s also lots of other little (and some bigger) interesting correspondences (e.g. the miracles at Parnassus and Sinai, and a link to several of these in the OT category on my blog — linked below) but I have also compiled a vast correspondence of literary tropes between the Hellenistic Argonautica and both the OT and NT gospels that I hope to show one day soonish too.

Biblical studies are much more interesting in my view when studied within the broader context of their contemporaneous literary world.

But as I said at the beginning, I have not presented any argument here: doing nothing more than tossing out some of the areas I found of interest. That 4 letter word “minimalist” has already appeared — most “mnml”-ists that I have read, admittedly some years ago now, would, I think, dispute Wesselius’s conclusions. The discussion and debate are still in very early days only.


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Neil Godfrey

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