There was an interesting article in the Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament in 2007 by Lukas Niesiolowski-Spano (LN-S) of Warsaw University titled “Primeval History in the Persian Period?” (SJOT, Vol.21, no. 12, 106-126, 2007). The paper was first presented at the Seminar of Historical Methodology in Groningen, The Netherlands, 2004.
The Genesis creation stories are unlike other ancient Middle Eastern myths. LN-S refers to the “unparalleled character of the Primeval History in its Near Eastern environment”, and attributes this to the influence of Platonic philosophy in their making.
The assumption throughout the discussion is that no text can be dated earlier than external testimony permits. Genesis, in particular, its first two chapters, cannot be dated any earlier than when we find other texts making reference to them. In other words, normal practical historical methodology that applies to any nonbiblical study is followed. Dr LN-S is a lecturer in the Department of Ancient History at the University of Warsaw.
I begin here with some evidence for the earliest knowledge of Genesis, though LN-S really adds this at the end of his article. (I have colour coded some of the following sections to make for easier browsing of the main thought sections I have taken from LN-S’s article.)
What is the earliest evidence for Genesis?
A different Pentateuch that excluded Genesis?
A second-century bce Jewish writer, Aristobulos, makes many references to Pentateuchal traditions, says LN-S, but specifically refers only to Exodus, Joshua, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. It may be that the Aristobulos’s Pentateuch began with Exodus (likely Exodus 2) and extended to Joshua. No Genesis.
Some statistics — the frequency of names where and when
It is not till very late, the time of the New Testament and the Pseudepigrapha from the Hellenistic period, that we have evidence for the knowledge of major figures from Genesis 2 to 4. The Hebrew Bible does not know about key Genesis characters at all.
Adam, outside Genesis, is referred to only in 1 Chronicles 1, Tobit, Ben Sira and 4 Esdras. Also 9 New Testament references.
Eve, outside Genesis, only in Tobit, 2 Corinthians and 1 Timothy.
Cain, in 4 Maccabees, Hebrews, 1 John and Jude
Abel, in 4 Maccabees, Matthew, Luke, Hebrews
Noah, in 1 Chronicles 1, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Tobit, Ben Sira, 4 Esdras and 8 times in the New Testament
Enoch, 1 Chronicles 1, Ben Sira, Hebrews and Jude (and of course the Book of Enoch)
1 Chronicles 1-9 is suspected by many scholars as not being original to the book (Sara Japhet, 1989).
(The Eden in Ezekiel is older than the Eden in Genesis, and the Jacob in Hosea is also a pre-Genesis Jacob.)
The Snake in the Garden of Eden story
Even the story of the snake in the Garden of Eden does not appear outside Genesis until we read about it in 2 Corinthians and Revelation. Allusions in Psalm 91 and Isaiah 65 have some similarities to the Eden image, but the direction of influence is not clear.
Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil
Tree of Life
This was a widely known myth among other peoples in the Middle East. It has mentions in biblical texts (Proverbs 3, 11, 13, 15, as well as 4 Esdras, 4 Maccabees, Revelation), but they are indirect and not necessarily related to the Genesis 2 story.
The Garden of Eden
Ezekiel 31 and 28 and 36, Isaiah 51, and Joel 2 know of a primeval garden of joy, but it is not clear that they knew of it from Genesis 2-3 or from some other myth.
The Tower of Babel
This is not addressed by LN-S, but I am tossing it in here since Thomas L. Thompson registered an observation about it in one of his publications. The story ends with the Tower and city being abandoned. Genesis 11:8-9
The history of Babylon comes to an end from the third and second centuries. The last inhabitants were reportedly deported in 275 bce and the city left to ruin. The author of the Tower of Babel appears to be writing from a perspective of a time when he knew of Babylon as a deserted ruin. His tale is as much an aetiology of the diversity of languages as it is of the destruction of the once-great city. I realize this opens up other questions, but it is an interesting thought to keep in mind nonetheless.
Worth asking the question
So from the above there appears to be little evidence that anyone heard of Genesis until very late, not until the third or second-century bce.
LN-S, while acknowledging the weakness of statistics as an historical argument, writes
But even so, it is worth asking the question why in the biblical texts which existed in the Persian period there is not a single reference to the accounts from the beginning of Genesis? There is no single reference to cosmogonical story, origins of sin, first man and woman, first crime, and the knowledge (=wisdom) lying at the beginning of the Universe. Why — on the other hand — did these motifs appear so often in the late Hellenistic period and in the early Christian era?
Three kinds of myths
Genesis contains myth, but there are different types of myths with different functions. LN-S refers to three kinds of possible relevance.
1. Homeric myths
There are the traditional religious stories that set the context for the imaginative world of a community. Homer and Hesiod, for example, are said by Herodotus to have taught the Greeks this kind: the origins and descents and names of the gods, their roles and appearances. Such myths are the reference points of the beliefs and thoughts of the community across their generations. The stories are well-known and referenced constantly.
The Genesis myths do not appear in Jewish literature till very late. (The Eden in Ezekiel is older than the Eden in Genesis, and the Jacob in Hosea is also a pre-Genesis Jacob.) They are not like the Homeric myths in that they did not become the central focal point of all other beliefs about the community’s origins and the origins of their institutions and customs or otherwise impact on their religious beliefs and values.
2. Ethnographical myths
These are stories that are there for their curiosity value. They do not have any popular religious significance.
3. Symbolic or Platonic myths
This is the “symbolic intellectual expression”.
Such usage of a myth can be seen from the oldest times . . . . Under the form of a popular story, a profound (or, anyway, deeper) truth and teaching were transmitted. It was much closer to symbols and parables, known from the history of literature, than the curious tales, sung by storytellers, and collected by anthropologists . . . .
Plato wrote of the need for philosophers to create myths to teach abstract truths to the less enlightened populace. He himself created several myths, including the “myth” of the Cave, the myth of Er and the still extant myth of Atlantis as symbolic tales each with a moral.
LN-S concludes that the Genesis myths are Platonic myths either selected or created by a scribal elite:
I would like to recall . . . the statement of John Van Seters: “The sociological study of tradition has argued, in recent publications, that the formation of traditions is the activity of an intellectual elite, not the work of the community as a whole.” [quoting ‘Prologue to History, p.34]. This being so, [then] folkloristic popular mythologies could hardly have their place in such a piece of work as the Primeval History [of Genesis]. . . . Myths in such a work as the Primeval History were neither the traditional stories, which created the religious imaginativeness, nor folkloristic stories . . . What remains from the list is the kind of mythology favoured by the literati, used to cover, under the guise of traditional, religious language, precious truths and hidden wisdom. In short, these are the Platonic myths.
Seven Creation myths traceable to Plato
Plato did not create the Genesis Creation myths. But LN-S sees several Genesis Creation features that are analogous to Greek thought as initiated by Plato.
The above is the list from the LN-S article. The following elaborations are also from the same article, but only approximately correspond with these 7 above.
1. And the spirit of God was moving upon the face of the waters (Gen. 1:2)
LN-S sees the possibility of Platonic thought behind the image of the Spirit of God “moving” upon the chaotic and formless stuff from which it was about to create order.
For Plato all creation is by definition moving, and so it has to have its origin (or creation) from something that is by nature self-moving, the spirit of God. For Plato the ultimate origin of all that exists is a self-moving, self-contained and forever moving entity that can be called “god”.
Plato’s explanation of this is found in Phaedro 245c-246a.
2. Creation of man in the image of God
The whole Platonic philosophy is based on the notion of likeness of a being of a lower level to a being of the higher level (LN-S). The general principle is expressed here:
The above is the supporting quotation offered by LN-S. Many more could be added. Of the goddess Athena (=Egyptian Neith) Plato wrote in the same Dialogue:
In Plato’s next Dialogue, Crito, we read in more graphic detail of the creation of humans by the gods, including those who were their “seed” through mortal women.
3. The divine origin of the human soul (breath of life)
In Genesis 2:7
This does not sound far from Plato’s idea of the human soul being immortal on account of its divine origin:
An interesting echo (not directly referenced by LN-S) is also found a few sentences on in Phaedrus:
4. Knowledge promises to bring us closer to the Supreme Being
Compare Plato in The Republic VI, 500b-c
5. Paired good and evil connected with the original fall
The motif of Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is without any known parallel or possible direct source. LN-S notes that only one passage in Plato could make the similar connection of Good and Evil as a pair with the original fall.
6. Mixing and separating the cosmic elements
LN-S sees in the Genesis scenes of God separating the cosmic elements and ordering them to create the universe as finding a parallel in Plato’s teaching that God had the sole power to mix opposite elements in the right measure to make his various creations.
This section is not from the LN-S article, but my own remarks. It’s a long time since I read Plato and I can’t say I’ve read all his Dialogues. So I don’t know what passages LN-S had in mind when in his original list he included the fall of man being the fault of the woman. Plato does teach that women’s nature is inferior to a man’s. If a man leads a less than fully virtuous life he is destined to be reincarnated as a woman.
In The Republic, and also in Crito, Plato does teach the equality of men and women in other respects. Both are equally capable of virtue and deserving of the same education and responsibilities.
LN-S does note J. Van Seters pointing to obvious similarities between Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women and Genesis 6:1-4
This scenario is also found in Plato’s Critias:
Plato’s mythical story (the myth of Atlantis) continues to describe the accomplishments of these sons of gods, mighty men of renown, who in this case were the inhabitants of Atlantis. They eventually corrupted their ways, losing their original virtue, so that God chose to punish them with destruction. The story is incomplete, but other references indicate that they were inspired to declare war on half the world (conquering from the Atlantic coast as far as Egypt and Greece), being overcome in war by the Athenians, with eventually all being destroyed by the destruction that submerged them beneath the sea. It is not hard to recognize the similar tale of Genesis beginning with the sons of the gods and mortal women, leading to violence, and God’s decision to destroy them all by a Flood.
There are differences, however. Plato taught that there had been many destructions in the past, many (not quite universal) floods and “fire” endings and beginnings. The Greek Noah, Deucalion, was the hero of one of these lesser (not completely universal) floods. Such snippets in Genesis are found paralleled elsewhere, too. But it is in the Timaeus-Crito dialogues that we find them bound within the same narrative plot structure as we read in Genesis.
I should not forget to link to my earlier post of what looks to me like a very similar sin and conquering image in both the Cain story of Genesis and an explanation by Plato in Timaeus.
New wine in old bottles
Similarities, common elements, analogies are often found among different cultures and are not in themselves proofs of borrowing or interrelationships. However, LN-S adds:
But in our case we do have something more. Elements present in Genesis are the new wine in old bottles: Hellenistic literary motifs disguised in Ancient Near-Eastern clothes. This essence is unique in the surrounding Near-Eastern ancient world, but can be seen as a result of a foreign—that is, Greek—influence. The Greek elements can better explain the particularity of the few theological pictures in the Primeval History. Having established restraints on comparative study, one can in any case declare that Plato’s possible influence over Genesis provides an important—though not decisive per se—hint for the history of Israel’s religion. The issue of Greek influence over Hebrew culture was raised many times in the past. But analogies between Python in the Delphic oracle and the serpent in Eden, or Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women and Genesis 6:1-4,45 do not provide any solid information about the time in which such a relationship would occur. In the case of Plato and the Primeval History the supposed influence of the Greek philosopher over the Jewish theologians is better explained, and well rooted in time. For the study of the Hebrew Bible’s development, it provides a good terminus post quem for the important parts of the text.
If the Primeval History would be seen as the local response, and in a large extent are a reinterpretation of Plato’s thoughts, many crucial biblical theological elements could be understood in a new way.
LN-S looks at two particular teachings of Genesis through this new perspective: (1) the value and inaccessibility of knowledge, and (2) the creation of woman with the same status as man, and man being created in God’s image.
(1) Human nature and the desire for inaccessible knowledge
Genesis teaches that humans always seek knowledge even though the punishment is cruel. Knowledge, also as it was transformed into Wisdom, is what mankind always seeks. This idea is very typical of Greek philosophy and in late Hellenistic literature. It was not at all popular in the Persian period of the Middle East as far as we know from extant sources.
(2) Anthropological teachings
Genesis teaches that men and women have the same status. They are similar in bodily and spiritual form to God. This is a very Greek idea. Men and gods share a similar nature. This was not the thought of the ancient Middle East. Even though gods might have the physical appearance of men and women, they were in very unlike categories. LN-S comments that Genesis 1:27 “looks rather like a quotation from Plato than as an effect of Eastern reasoning.” I highlight the comment by LN-S I think is most significant.
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
If this text had really been composed in the Persian period, without any Greek influence, one should agree—and it is done very often—that this particular author possessed unique theological and philosophical insights, which reached far beyond his time. Alone, in isolation, he would have arrived at the same conclusion that was only reached by long philosophical reasoning in Greece. (LN-S)
A simpler interpretation would be to suggest that the Primeval History of Genesis was written in the context of the Hellenistic period. The Jewish elites responsible for this literature were influenced by Greek philosophy.
Plato’s impact was felt for centuries throughout the ancient Middle Eastern world after the conquests of Alexander. As late as the first-century ce we have the Jewish author Philo of Alexandria interpreting biblical texts through neo-Platonism. Even derivative philosophies from Plato (Stoicism, Cynicism) have left clear marks on biblical thought. (I have been outlining, for example, the influence of Aristotle (indirect) and Stoicism (more directly) on Paul’s thought in other posts.) So it is not at all inconceivable that Platonic philosophy would impact Jewish theology.
I’ll leave it to readers to make up their own minds from the evidence that I have cited here from Lukas Niesiolowski-Spano’s article, with just a few additions of my own. I am interested in the uniqueness of the tree of knowledge of good and evil tale. As LN-S notes, it is a unique myth. And myth creation was a value Plato taught his philosopher pupils. Many of the quotations come from Plato’s Timaeus. I have added a few from Plato’s subsequent work, Critias. Together these Dialogues are a connected series of myths (created or modified by Plato to teach his more abstract ideas), beginning with the creation of the universe, of mankind, and the early days of mankind’s history — how it began with perfection, with God and the gods rejoicing, and how it fell into decay and evil, and how God chose to destroy it all. I never cared much for the technicalities of Timaeus or the Atlantis myth in Critias before, but since LN-S have opened up a possibility of a relationship between them and the Jewish author/s of the Primeval History of Genesis, I’ll be giving them a closer read and some more thought.
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17 thoughts on “Genesis myths inspired by Plato?”
Interesting piece! Is there a reason why references to Adam in the NT (“What is the earliest evidence for Genesis” section) aren’t mentioned?
I had another look at the LN-S article and he does add after some discussion about the generic meaning of the word in Hosea (=mankind) that there are 9 NT references to Adam. Mea culpa. (Have added this to the post, now, thanks.)
I agree Genesis was written after Exodus. It rewrites one of the wife-sister stories, Abraham in Egypt, as a pre-enactment of the exodus, including details.
However Hosea does seem to know the outline of Jacob’s career, including grasping his brother’s heel before birth, wrestling with God, and going to Syria to earn a wife by keeping sheep. (But we don’t know how late the prophets were written – I have always though that Amos for example has themes that would suit a much later time than its given setting).
I would have thought that much of the content of the Genesis stories was from Babylonian myths rather than their Greek versions, though their ethnological form and ideological subversion shows Greek influence.
Much of Genesis seems on the surface to favour Joseph and especially Benjamin rather than Judah and, if it is later than Deuteronomy it would be a critique too of the restriction of sacrifice to the Jerusalem temple. Philip Davies has suggested there was a period after the Babylonian exile that Judah was ruled from Benjamin, and then became part of the Children of Israel. Perhaps it was in this period that many of the Genesis stories were first told, as well as the stories pro and anti Benjamin, about the Gibeonites, pro and anti Saul and David etc.
But perhaps you are right that these stories were then used and rewritten to express a philosophical line influenced by Greek philosophy.
You’ve got me thinking anyway.
I don’t know much about recent scholarship on Hosea, so I don’t know why LN-S says that Hosea contains a pre-Genesis Jacob. Will have to see what I can find out about that. The LN-S paper opens up a lot of questions. And as you point out, the whole question of the differences among these OT writings is a fascinating one. The exploration of these texts is only just beginning. It’s a pity the same sorts of critical inquiries are not being plied to the NT writings. Study of those is still ossified in a kind of “Albrightianism”. (How else to describe ‘Jesus historicists’?)
ETA: To quote LN-S:
In relation to Eden in Ezekiel he cites Van Seters, but no citation is attached to the Jacob note.
Philo compares Genesis and Plato, doesn’t he?
Ah, you did mention him. Nevermind.
Only in passing. But yes, it’s interesting to think that of Philo possibly being closer to the thought of the original author of Genesis than we have assumed.
On another topic, though — Your reminder prompted me to check my Philo and it fell open at one of his references to Plato in On the Creation that has more to do with my Dating Mark Early post —
I wonder why the Jesus Seminar and Casey and Crossan alike think Jesus very likely said something very similar? Do Philo, Plato and Jesus prove great minds just happen to think alike?
Do you think Hesiod influenced the writing of Genesis – both have a resentment at having to work hard and a tendency to blame this on Women. Was Eve written up under the influence of the story of Pandora?
Re-reading Timaeus and noted this passage, the first part of which is also reflected in Genesis:
Creators? Why did not God himself create man? He did, after all, create the lesser gods. So even slightly more interesting is this:
The author of Genesis appears to concede this, putting only the eating of the fruit of a tree between Adam and full equality with God.
God, therefore, in the Timaeus myth, ordained the lesser gods to create the mortals on earth. First was the man. It appears there must have been many such men created, for the way women came into being was through the reincarnation of men who had been cowardly or weak. Then the sexual generation of the race begins. Those men who had been even baser were reincarnated as various kinds of animals: the lowest types on earth the legless ones; but even lower than those were the sea creatures. Birds were the reincarnation of shallow men who confused the visible with the hidden realities.
Interesting that in the Greek myth Man is created first of all the animals; Philo, on the other hand, writes at length to justify Man being created last of the animals.
Also everything God created was good, etc, and he rejoiced etc. in the Greek myth, too.
But most telling of course is that the Greek story really is myth. And if Genesis appears to be something of a response to this Greek myth . . . .?
I am very late into the game on this and may well be writing into the void. However, I did want to drop in another idea that has intrigued me. Perhaps it is the other way around. As far as we know from sources, Plato was traveling between 399 BCE and 387 BCE. This coincided with the Babylonian exile. Whether Genesis was written in the 6th century BCE and perhaps only added to the cannon later (which seems to be the current favored iteration) or actually written much later, it is probable that its mythological symbolism was current at that time. It is possible that it was Plato who was influenced by a particularly compelling mix of Jewish and Babylonian thought. This certainly seems to be born out, at some latter point, in the major arcana of the Tarot which blatantly marries Platonic, Kabbalistic, and Catholic symbology, much of it drawn from Genesis and “The Republic.” Intriguing.
Also, I think Augustine’s Neo-Platonic interpretation of Genesis is worth mentioning. And don’t forget Lilith….
That theory is similar to the one proposed in the book “The Relationship between Herodotus’ History and Primary History” by Sara Mandell and David Noel Freedman, that Herodotus is so similar to the Bible that he must have read some form of it during his travels. The opposite idea — that the Biblical writers were actually influenced by Herodotus — cannot be expressed, since we “know” the Bible pre-dates Herodotus.
Given the similarities, it is most likely the Bible authors simply read Herodotus (and Plato). Apologetics took care of the rest.
Martin Rösel’s book “Übersetzung als Vollendung der Auslegung. Studien zur Genesis- Septuaginta” (1994) argues for Platonic influence on the LXX translations of Genesis 1-2. He points out that Genesis and Plato’s “Timaeus” not only share a common order of creation (heavenly bodies/stars and time/sea creatures, birds and animals/humankind [last in both orders]), but in both accounts the Creator judges his work very good and rests. Both “Timaeus’s” creation account and LXX Genesis 1-2 share distinct terminology.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for an English translation.