In my previous post presenting a few comments by social anthropologist Philippe Wajdenbaum from his thesis Argonauts of the Desert I quoted his summary conclusion of a Claude Lévi-Straussian structural analysis of the Bible:
The Bible is a Hebrew narrative tainted with theological and political philosophy and inspired by the writings of Plato, one that is embellished with Greek myths and adapted to the characters and locations of the Near East. (p. 4)
To expand on that a little (with my own paragraph formatting and emphasis):
According to the results of my analysis, the Bible’s author(s) wanted to transpose — in the form of their own national epic — the Ideal State of Plato’s Laws, a political and theological project initiated in the Republic.
The biblical story, recalling the foundation of a twelve-tribe State that is endowed with divine laws which enable it to live ideally , seems to be inspired by Plato’s Laws, probably the least known to moderns of the philosopher’s dialogues. I will analyse all the similar laws between the two texts as well as their respective theologies, and will try to show that even biblical monotheism owes a debt to Plato.
To enhance this platonic utopia with narrative, the biblical author(s) used Greek sources — Herodotus serves as a source for myths and stories in ‘historical prose’. Then come the great Greek mythological cycles: the Argonauts, the Heraclean cycle, the Theban cycle and the Trojan cycle by such authors as Homer, Pindar and the Tragedians, whom I believe were sources of inspiration for the Bible. Its author(s) borrowed myths, split them up and transformed them according to need, yet traces were left, perhaps intentionally, of these borrowings.
In Genesis–Kings there exists an opposition between the twelve-tribe ideal State — a State governed only by laws, for which the plan is given by God to Moses and which is founded by Joshua — and the monarchy. The monarchy of the nations in Genesis and Exodus, and that of Israel in the books of Samuel and Kings, is one whose excesses will first bring Israel to division, and then to its eventual downfall.
The biblical story from Genesis to Kings is a coherent and unified literary work that can be analysed by itself — as Jacques Cazeaux does — without referring to the alleged sources of the texts, regardless of whether they be ‘Yahwist’ or ‘Elohist’, as the documentary hypothesis posits, or even Greek, as in my view. Whatever its sources and dating may be, the Bible is first and foremost a collection of books — extremely well written, and too rarely read! (p. 4)
I look forward to sharing a few of the details underpinning the above outline in future posts.
Anyone who has read ancient Greek literature and has been struck by the frequency with which they hear echoes of a line or episode in the Bible will, I believe, begin to find their curiosity whetted and satiated as they begin to read Wajdenbaum’s anthropological insights into the structural analysis of myths. (I also believe it is only a matter of writing another chapter to apply the same to the Gospels, but that’s just my view.)
But back to the expected response to such a thesis and Wajdenbaum’s approach and justifications:
The thesis of a Bible born of the Hellenistic era, one that was inspired freely but mainly by Greek literature, gives rise to doubtful reactions because it seems innovative and goes against dominant theories on the origins of the Bible. (p. 5)
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Thomas L. Thompson, Neils Peter Lemche and Philip R. Davies have raised the possibility of a Hellenistic dating of the Bible:
They start from the fact that the Bible only appears in history in the Hellenistic era with certainty, both in terms of manuscripts and of knowledge of the Jews and their religion by Greek and Roman authors. Nothing seems to indicate that the Bible may have existed prior to that period. (pp. 5-6)
Now that’s doing evidence-based history — the sort of approach I have been arguing should be applied to the New Testament literature. We can propose oral traditions but cannot test that proposal. According to external evidence the a priori position would be a second-century provenance for many of the New Testament writings. That does not mean it needs to remain the final position, but it is a valid starting one.
Philippe Wajdenbaum discusses the history of the approaches of ethnographers and anthropologists from the colonial era of the nineteenth century to modern times as background to his own approach to the western iconic text. He holds up a mirror for western audiences to contemplate:
When the ethnologist compares narratives of different tribes of the Americas and concludes that the same myth spread from tribe to tribe with each new speaker transforming it in his own way, it is unlikely that he/she will offend the descendants of the American Natives, who often discover their ancestor’s cultures through the works of ethnologists, as colonisation destroyed these cultures over five centuries. It is even more unlikely that he will offend his Western readers. No one will take offence to the ‘bird nester’ story of the Mythologiques [Lévi-Strauss’s 4 volume work] being called a myth, variants of which Lévi-Strauss found from one distant end of the American continent to another. In the same way, no one will be shocked to learn that the Germanic myth of Siegfried’s death is a variant of the Greek myth of Achilles’ death . . . . The difficulty of this work is in its confrontation with religious ideology, both Jewish and Christian, which still holds that the Bible is at least very ancient, if not altogether of divine origin. (pp. 6-7, my emphasis here and in all other quotes)
How is an anthropologist to respond to the cultural resistance to his inquiry?
As a social anthropologist it is my role to take into account the extremely strong resistance a comparative analysis of the Bible with Greek literature will provoke in some quarters; which may explain why a deep comparative analysis of the Bible with Plato’s Laws has not been done before. (p. 7)
Wajdenbaum in the body of his thesis offers a critical analysis of the theories of the emergence of the Bible. But in his introduction he underlines
the religious bias that has kept biblical studies in a closed circle; most scholars working in this field are believers, and the most important paradigms still given credit today have been fabricated by theologians, mostly Protestant . . . .
The core belief generating this resistance:
Even though there has been an evolution in recognition of the mythical character of some biblical narratives . . . they are still thought of as coming from authentic traditions proper to Israel. The idea of a Bible having borrowed its main themes from the Greeks goes against the belief of a divinely revealed text, or of its authentic and original character; the belief that there is something unique in the Bible, something unprecedented, precisely unprecedented by the Greeks. It must be immediately qualified that the biblical text is original and unique, yet its originality and uniqueness derive from how the narratives, most of them coming from the Greek tradition, have been assembled to form a unified and coherent fiction. (p. 7)
Biblical Criticism is a variant of the Biblical Myth
Biblical criticism is a new version of the biblical myth:
. . . I will show how biblical criticism has become a new version of the biblical myth — its continuation, that has allowed it to remain almost untouchable until the present, even though biblical criticism took the form of scientific speech that shattered religious dogmas. ‘Any myth consists of all of its variants’ is a fundamental rule that I apply. (p. 7)
That fundamental rule derives from Lévi-Strauss. Lévi-Strauss argued that interpretations of myths are neither true nor false but rather are new versions of the myth. Thus Freud’s interpretation of the ‘Oedipus complex’ is not an interpretation that explains the hidden meaning of the myth found in Sophocles’ play but a new version of the myth itself.
Thus as an anthropologist Wajdenbaum
will consider biblical criticism’s hypotheses in the same way: the Yahwist and the Deuteronomist, objects of numerous publications, are mythical characters in the same sense as Moses and Josiah. Indeed, the former, although he existed, came to replace the latter in the modern version of the myth of the Bible’s origins. (p. 8)
From the perspective of a social anthropologist Wajdenbaum approaches the Bible as a ‘total social fact’ — that is, a fact that cannot be reduced to one of its aspects, whether religious, economic or social. As a social fact the Bible is more than its contents. It is the foundation of both Judaism and Christianity.
Historical studies have given us an evolutionary understanding of the relations between Christianity and Judaism. But Wajdenbaum’s anthropological study opens up another basis for seeing the Bible as a Hellenistic book. If this is so,
then Judaism and Christianity both developed in the Grec0-Roman and Mediterranean worlds, and both share Hellenic and platonic roots. Neither of them recognises this common background, hidden by their shared belief in the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. (p. 8)
Or, as PW clarifies elsewhere, even those who reject the belief in divine inspiration nonetheless share the belief in the Bible as a very ancient text of “authentic traditions proper to Israel”.
Symbolic violence at its paroxysm
The Bible is at the core of two religions, yet it appears that religion may not be a ‘response to a need of spirituality’ but a very efficient instrument of control of one social class over another. As per Pierre Bourdieu, the use of sacred texts and rituals confers legitimacy upon a dominant class over lower classes. This legitimacy hides a symbolic violence, meaning that it reproduces the vision of the dominant class from generation to generation by using ‘pious lies’, transmitted by a pedagogic authority. This never-manifested symbolic violence is at its paroxysm in the absolute denial of the Greek cultural origins of the Judea-Christian religion. The demonstration of that origin is quite easy, whereas the most difficult part was the conception of the very idea of a Bible inspired by the Greeks, since scholarship on every level — from school to universities, both secular and religious — had excluded this possibility. (pp. 8-9)
How aptly the same can surely be said, I think, of the New Testament’s Christ myth.
- The Bible’s roots in Greek mythology and classical authors: Isaac and Phrixus (vridar.org)
- Greek Myths Related to Tales of Abraham, Isaac, Moses and the Promised Land (vridar.org)
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