The Old Testament – A Hellenistic Book? (and other digressions)

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by Neil Godfrey

Niels Peter Lemche has a chapter in Lester Grabbe’s Did Moses Speak Attic titled, “The Old Testament – A Hellenistic Book?” Here are a few highlights from it. The first point here should stand out as equally relevant for New Testament studies.

NT studies digression

Historical Jesus/Christian origin scholars should have this framed and displayed on their work desks — or used as their computer wallpaper:

It is an established fact that a literary product must be considered a reflection of its age of origin, as nobody can escape being a child of his or her own time. This is absolutely commonplace but, on the other hand not to be forgotten by, say, narrative analysts who may claim that it is possible to understand an argument by a person in the past without knowing in advance the specific values attached to his age to certain beliefs and concepts. The same applies to the study of the biblical literature, although written by anonymous authors. It is surely extremely naive to believe that the meaning of biblical books can be properly exposed without knowledge of their date of composition, about the ideas current in that age or the beliefs common to their audience; and it is of no consequence whether the subject is a narrative as a whole or parts of it or just single concepts and phrases. (p. 295)

This statement here — surely a simple truism — goes to the heart of many historicists’ errors. Acknowledgment of Lemche’s point here is what gives Earl Doherty’s interpretations of Paul’s writings the lay down misère advantage over orthodox mainstream interpretations. I would go further than Doherty, however, and suggest the significance of the common themes in both Paul’s and second-century writings. But the most significant error that comes from New Testament scholars overlooking this basic fact is their interpretation of the Gospels themselves.

What Lemche’s paragraph builds on is an equally pertinent observation on historical method that is generally overlooked by mainstream New Testament scholars. Lemche complained that among OT scholars

Although it has become a standing procedure in the study of the Old Testament 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 point should we try to penetrate into the unknown past. (p. 294)

But though it is in the second century that we are best informed about the appearance of both the Pauline epistles and Gospels, to follow Lemche’s truism here and apply what would be considered standard scientific procedure by “almost everybody else” is generally dismissed as an extremist or fringe position!

So much for the digression. Now for some highlights of Lemche’s discussion arguing for a very late date for the Old Testament.

More Greek philosophical inspiration for Genesis

I recently posted on the possibility that Genesis myths were inspired by Plato‘s philosophical myths.

Lemche discusses another Greek philosophical concept found in Genesis 1. In Genesis 1 God does not so much “create” as “command” the division between light and darkness, the waters and earth. These four basic elements correspond to the four natural elements of the Greek philosophers from the 6th century: hot and cold, wet and dry.

Certainly old Thales from Miletus would not have been disappointed by these acts of God!

I might add to Lemche’s point here that Thales also viewed water as the base element from which the others emerged, and that we may even see this same idea in Genesis where creation begins with a formless “deep”.

Creatio Ex Nihilo not found in Genesis (digression #2)

This is Lemche’s digression here, not mine. That creatio ex nihilo has been read into the text he attributes to a consequence of reading Genesis “without further knowledge of the background of the author”. He is illustrating his claim in the above quote from p. 295.

The creative act of God in Gen. 1 is usually described by the verbs ברא and עשׂה . However, the light (v. 3) and the darkness (v. 9) appear, not because they are his creation, but on his direct order, (neither  ברא nor עשׂה is used in this connection). After the appearance of the light, God makes a division (Hebrew בדל in the hiphil) between the light and the darkness (v. 4). After this God personally makes the firmament (v. 7: עשׂה), but this firmament is to be considered another division, only now between different kinds of water. The waters below the firmament are collected in one place, on God’s order and the dry land appears as a consequence of this. Again it should be realized that the dry land is not a creation of God; it just appears as a consequence of division between the water and land.

Points in favour of a Hellenistic date (after 300 BCE) for the OT

  1. It is a fact that the history of Israel as told by the Old Testament has little if anything to do with the real historical developments in Palestine until at least the later part of the Hebrew monarchy.
  2. An extensive part of this literature should be considered the creation of the Jewish Diaspora, first and foremost the patriarchal narratives, the story of the Exodus about the Israelites in Egypt and their escape  from Egypt, but also the conquest narratives in Joshua. All of these aim at one and the same issue, at the more or less utopian idea that a major Jewish kingdom — even empire — should be (re-)established in Palestine, an idea that emerged in spite of the fact that it had no background in an ancient Israelite empire.
  3. The writers who invented the ‘history of Israel’ seem to have modeled their history on a Greek pattern. . . . Herodotus [being] the earliest point of comparison . . . there are a number of similarities between the histories of Herodotus and the Old Testament. Both histories have as their beginning a perspective that encompasses the world as such, and this perspective narrows down to single nations only at a later point, respectively the Greek and the Hebrew. . . . the biblical historians display a knowledge of Greek tradition, and . . . this could hardly have been the case before Greek historians were to become known and read in the Near East.
  4. The Persian period does not seem to meet the requirements of being the time when the historical books of the Old Testament were written down. First of all it would have to be proved that Greek authors were known and extensively read in the Persian empire, and I very much doubt that this was the case.

I will pass over the evidence here for #1 and #2. Lemche discusses some of it, and I have outlined much of it from Philip Davies’ perspective on vridar.info.

In connection with #3, Lemche also remarks on the similarities between the Old Testament history and the writings of Livy. Livy, of course, was a Roman historian. The parallels and structural similarities between Livy’s history and the OT’s history. “This may not be a coincidence but may be a testimony of a common ‘spiritual’ (i.e. Hellenistic) background.

As for #4, here are some of Lemche’s elaboration on reasons for the Persian period being unlikely —

Problems with dating the OT to the Persian era

We have very little information about the Jewish population in the Persian era. We have almost nothing apart from the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. And the historicity of these books has also come under scrutiny: some doubt there ever was a mission by Ezra; the autobiography of Nehemiah may be no more historical than many similar examples of the autobiographical genre in the Greek word.

Biblical historians have traditionally written of the period of Persian rule as time of peace and prosperity; Judah was allowed administrative independence; Jerusalem was organized as a prosperous Tempel-Burger society. But the evidence we have could just as easily be interpreted otherwise: that Judah’s “independence” may be more comparable to modern “crumbling societies left on their own and with ‘a great deal of administrative independence’ [to] provide a sad picture of local incompetence. . . . Maybe they did not interfere in local affairs because they did not care!”;  the Tempel-Burger society has nothing more than hypothesis to support it; and the account of a band of Greek mercenaries being able to waltz through the empire, kill a Persian governor, and walk out again, in Xenophon’s Anabasis, is evidence of Persian administrative incompetence.

The archaeological evidence we need for the Persian period is not likely to come to light. Israeli archaeologists have demonstrated a contempt for the Persian period and removed its remains to rubbish dumps in order to “get down to the real” Israelite layers. (Lemche cites A. Mazar’s Archaeology of the Land of the Bible 586 B.C.E. as illustrative of this attitude.)

As for the Hellenistic period,

It should never be forgotten that the revitalization of the ancient Near East only became a fact after the Greek takeover. It is an established fact that city life vastly expanded after the conquest of Alexander.  Here we must realize what happened in Jerusalem and in Palestine, innovations that were comparable — although on a smaller scale — to the cultural developments in Syria, Mesopotamia and Egypt. . . . Scholars may nurse very romantic ideas about what may have happened in the nooks and crannies of pre-Hellenistic Palestine, in a society considerably poorer than the one found there, for example, during the Late Bronze Age . . . . A more worldly and realistic assessment of facts suggests that the Persian period was not the time when the Old Testament could have been written down. Hardly any parallel exists to such a development, but a lot of evidence that says the Hellenistic Age was the formative period of early Jewish thought and literature as witnessed by the Old Testament itself.

Answering objections

How could the one period that produced the dry catalogue of Chronicles also produce the rich stories of Samuel? How could books such as Ecclesiastes that are known to include Hellenistic influences be said to come from the same era as the linguistically contrasting Deuteronomistic literature? Lemche responds with ethno-linguistic and socio-economic arguments. The literature was created in very different environments: Jews were spread across Mesopotamia, Egypt, Palestine. Geographic and cultural differences are just as appropriate explanations as chronological differences.

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “The Old Testament – A Hellenistic Book? (and other digressions)”

  1. “An extensive part of this literature should be considered the creation of the Jewish Diaspora…”

    Possibly, but possibly another assumption. Creating histories that justify the monarchy and centralized cult could also have been the purpose of the Hasmoneans, incorporating ancient traditions and Hellenistic elements. Where is the evidence for an exile origin, as opposed to a Hellenistic or Hasmonean origin? Another romantic notion?

  2. Yes the final form of the Torah is similar in Philosophy and as an extended genealogical world history to Hellenistic literature. But many of the stories collected come from the Babylonian tales (the arc, Eden, Babel, etc) and Abram is said to come from Ur of the Chaldees.
    Babylon was at least as important as Judah to Judaism.
    (Of course the Greek stories themselves, of Japetus, Pandora(Eve), the Titans derive from the East and Greece could be seen as a part of a continuumstretching across the Middle east to Iran and Syria, swapping ideas and stories from early times).

  3. I don’t think there is anything there on Greek histories being the basis for the Jewish one. I’ve read them both and they don’t have a lot in common beyond what you would expect for two works on the same type of subject. What is the evidence that Palestine in the Persian period could not produce written works? I don’t think the theory of different Diaspora communities writing different works could count for the very broad range of ideas and language in the the whole of the Old Testament. When you look at works we know were from the Hellenistic period and compare them to works we know are Persian they are great differences in theology, themes, and language. Where are all the Greek and Persian loan words that would creep into the Old Testament if it were a Hellenistic work? Why don’t prophets know more about the Persian or Greek periods? I mean Isiah to be a guy from the first temple period knows a lot about Cyrus and Daniel knows a lot about the Seleucid’s but Ezekiel doesn’t know any thing about either. Nor does Jeremiah. The idea of the Old Testament being a work of the Hellenistic age might be an attention getter or conversation starter, but I wouldn’t take it seriously.

    1. mikelioso: I’ve read them both and they don’t have a lot in common beyond what you would expect for two works on the same type of subject.

      Perhaps you ought to read the arguments of those who make this claim in detail, rather than going by your own subjective experience of these works (in, I imagine, translated form) and Neil’s necessarily brief outline(s)?

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