The Books of Moses — Unknown 300 years Before Christ?

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

BerossusGenesisI have been posting on the works of several scholars who argue that the Old Testament scriptures were composed much later than traditionally thought (Thompson, Davies, Lemche, Wesselius, Wajdenbaum) but there remains much more to be written about their arguments, and more published scholars to draw into the same net (Nielsen and Gmirkin are two of these). This post introduces the work of Russell E. Gmirkin. I look forward eventually to discussing where his criticisms intertwine with those of Wajdenbaum and others, and then to return to Wajdenbaum’s thesis that the Old Testament books are heavily indebted to classical Greek literature and myths. But there is much to be covered in the meantime, including further exploration into the similarities between the Histories by Herodotus and the collection of books from Genesis to 2 Kings (referred to as The Primary History) in the Bible. Gmirkin does not support the thesis that the biblical author borrowed from Herodotus, however. It’s a fascinating time to be reading a rich range of new views about the origins of the Hebrew Bible.

Russell Gmirkin

Russell E. Gmirkin’s book, Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch, has attracted wildly different reviews. One can read some of these here, here and here. But just as interesting is to read how Gmirkin himself evaluates some of the views of (at least one of) the authors of one of the particularly “bad” reviews. But for anyone interested in exploring new scholarly understandings of the Old Testament Gmirkin’s ideas will certainly be thought-provoking. (I was made aware of Gmirkin’s book through a passing comment left on this blog by Niels Peter Lemche.)

I’ve also found a Youtube video outlining key parts of his thesis. But contrary to what this video appears to imply, Gmirkin himself does not (as far as I can tell) argue for the “primacy” of the Septuagint. He writes on page 249:

From the foregoing discussion, it appears that the activities of the Septuagint scholars of 273-272 BCE included composing the Pentateuch in Hebrew as well as translating it into Greek.

He argues for the two — the Greek and Hebrew versions — appearing around the same time.


Here is how Russell Gmirkin himself introduces his thesis (my own emphasis and formatting as for all quotations):

This book proposes a new theory regarding the date and circumstances of the composition of the Pentateuch. The central thesis of this book is that the Hebrew Pentateuch was composed in its entirety about 273-272 BCE by Jewish scholars at Alexandria that later traditions credited with the Septuagint translation of the Pentateuch into Greek.

The primary evidence is

  • literary dependence of Gen 1— 11 on Berossus’s Babyloniaca (278 BCE),
  • literary dependence of the Exodus story on Manetho’s Aegyptiaca (ca. 285-280 BCE),
  • and datable geo-political references in the Table of Nations.

A number of indications point to a provenance of Alexandria in Egypt for at least some portions of the Pentateuch. That the Pentateuch, utilizing literary sources found at the Great Library of Alexandria, was composed at almost the same date as the Alexandrian Septuagint translation provides compelling evidence for some level of communication and collaboration between the authors of the Pentateuch and the Septuagint scholars at Alexandria’s Museum.

The late date of the Pentateuch, as demonstrated by literary dependence on Berossus and Manetho, has two important consequences:

  • the definitive overthrow of the chronological framework of the Documentary Hypothesis,
  • and a third-century BCE or later date for other portions of the Hebrew Bible that show literary dependence on the Pentateuch. (p. 1)

Treating the Bible like any other ancient text

I feel like I’m about to cover old territory on this blog for the nth time. The difference this time is that I am presenting the arguments as they are explicitly found in a published scholarly work.

First, here’s a recap of the method traditionally used by biblical scholars for dating works:

Before attempting to date the texts, a variety of methods are applied to isolate hypothetical sources within the biblical texts: hence in the OT scholars have found Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomic and Priestly (J, E, D, P) sources. (In the Gospels they have found even more — Q, a Signs Source, special Matthew material (M), special Lukan material (L), at least two Passion Narratives, and two Discourse sources.) These hypothetical sources are then dated without external corroboration.

So the Pentateuchal sources according to the Documentary Hypothesis, J, E, D, P, remain without independent testimony. There is no hint of any of these even in the analysis of the written finds in archaeological sites in Judea and Elephantine prior to the third century BCE.

This type of source criticism is rarely encountered in classical scholarship, one notable example being the detection of a Catalog of Ships as a hypothetical source in Homer’s Iliad. Rather, most classical source criticism takes place in later periods that are well-populated with texts, so that a given text’s antecedents and successors are typically identifiable. That such source criticism has not often been applied to the Hebrew Bible — except internally, where one biblical text is identified as dependent on another — is primarily due tigayto assumptions of antiquity of the biblical texts, which has precluded the consideration of literary borrowing from Hellenistic sources.

An interesting example of classical source critical techniques fruitfully applied to cuneiform texts is J. Tigay’s The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982); the Sumerian literary antecedents of The Gilgamesh Epic are well known, as are several Akkadian versions, allowing an objective analysis of the development of the text from earlier sources. (pp. 1-2)

Russell Gmirkin applies to the first five books of the Bible the same methods scholars of classical texts use to assess the dates and sources of literary compositions.

The source-critical methods used in this book for dating texts—including biblical texts—are those familiar from classical studies, deductively establishing terminus a quo and ad quem dates between which the composition of the text under investigation must have taken place.

The latest possible date of composition (terminus ad quem) is fixed by the earliest proof of the existence of the text, such as (rarely) the earliest physical copy, or (commonly) the first quotation or other utilization of the text by some other datable work.

The earliest possible date of composition (terminus a quo) is usually fixed by the latest datable work the text in question quotes or utilizes or by the latest historical allusion within he text.

This book is essentially an extended exercise in classical source criticism applied to the Hebrew Bible. (p. 1)

Was the Pentateuch known 320-300 BCE?


As for the terminus ad quem, the first evidence of the existence of the Pentateuch has long been said to be found in first century BCE passage by Diodorus Siculus. Scholars have long thought that Diodorus was quoting from a late fourth-century work, Aegyptiaca/On the Egyptians by Hecataeus of Abdera. The following passage of Diodorus Siculus is preserved in the writings of Photius (hence towards the end we read third person references to what Diodorus wrote). I have added summary notes indicating where Gmirkin finds reasons to reject the view that the passage was taken from 4th century BCE Hecataeus of Abdera.

Diodorus Siculus, Library 40.3. 1-8

(3.1 a) Now that we intend to record the war against the Jews, we consider it appropriate to give first an outline of the foundation from its beginning, and of the customs practiced among them.

(3.1 b) When in ancient times a pestilence arose in Egypt, the ordinary people ascribed their troubles to the working of a divine power; for indeed with many strangers of all sorts dwelling in their midst and practicing different habits of rites and sacrifices, their own traditional observances in honor of the gods had fallen into disuse.

(3.2a) Hence the natives in the land surmised that unless they removed the foreigners, their troubles would never be resolved. At once, therefore, the aliens were driven from the country,

Gmirkin shows from other sources that Hecataeus was consistently favourable in the way he spoke of Jews; the exception here can be attributed to Theophanes of Mytilene, ca 62 BCE, who in turn took them from Manetho.

(3.2b) And the most outstanding and active among them banded together and, as some would say, were cast ashore in Greece and certain other regions; their leaders were notable men, chief among them being Danaus and Cadmus.

Hecataeus elsewhere appears to reject the role of Cadmus (Kadmos) as a colonizer of Thebes; “late traditions” linked Danaus and Kadmos with new mystery religious practices.

(3.2c) But the greater number were driven into what is now called Judea, which is not far distant from Egypt and was at that time utterly desolate.

Again, a negative portrayal of the Jews; and the portrayal of the land being settled was uninhabited is, of course, contrary to the Pentateuch. (It matches the typical Greek colony founding stories where colonists were sent out to find uninhabited regions in order to establish new colonies.)

(3.3a) The colony was headed by a man named Moses, outstanding both for his wisdom and courage. On taking possession of the land, he founded, besides other cities, one that is now the most renowned of all, called Jerusalem. In addition he established the temple that they hold in chief veneration, instituted their forms of worship and ritual, drew up the laws relating to their political institutions, and ordered them.

Moses is modeled upon the typical Greek founder of a colony who was typically thought to have led the colonists, founded a city, built a temple, instituted laws, organized the people and land, set up militias, etc. While there is knowledge of the “laws of Moses” there is as yet no evidence of “books of Moses”.

It is remarkable how little knowledge of the figure Moses or of the Jewish version of the Exodus the above passage displays. It knew nothing of the oppression of the Jews, of Moses as Egyptian prince or as deliverer of the Jews, of Moses as a magician or of miracles associated with the Exodus. It knew nothing of the forty years wandering, of Moses’ death in the wilderness or that Joshua led the conquest. . . . In short, the above passage displays no acquaintance with the Jewish version of the Exodus story . . . . (p. 48)

(3.3b) He also divided the people into twelve tribes, since this is regarded as the most perfect number and corresponds to the number of months that make up a year.

Elsewhere Diodorus spells Moses as Μωυσεωs and only here is it Mωσηs, as in Manetho. The idea of twelve tribes does not necessarily mean knowledge of the Bible; the divisions of administrative regions into twelves was common throughout the Greek world, and Plato also wrote in Laws that twelve was the ideal number for tribal divisions. Egypt was also divided among twelve kings according to Herodotus.

(3.4a) But he had no images whatsoever of the Gods made for them, being of the opinion that God is not in human form; rather the heaven that encompasses the Earth is alone divine, and rules everything.

Typhon from Kirschner

Until Pompey conquered Judea it was widely believed that the Jewish Temple contained the image of Typhon (who was said to have fled to Judea from Egypt on an ass) or the head of an ass. This common understanding was only dispelled by Pompey. That is, the world only learned that the Jews had no image of a god in their temple after 63 BCE.

(3.4b) The sacrifices that he [Moses] established differ from those of other nations, as does their way of living, for as a result of their own expulsion from Egypt he introduced a life which is somewhat unsocial and hostile to strangers.

Charges of misanthropy against the Jews first appear in Posidonius (ca 130s BCE) and most virulently in Apollonius Molon, ca 88 BCE.

(3.4c) He picked out the men of most refinement and with the greatest ability to head the entire nation, and appointed them priests; and he ordained that they should occupy themselves with the temple and the honors and sacrifices offered to their God.

(3.5a) These same men he appointed to be judges in all major disputes, and entrusted to them the guardianship of the laws and customs.

Modeled upon the Spartan system of ephors and gerousia. (There are other similarities with the Spartans I have not included here. Wajdenbaum, we will see, believes many of these similarities that did ultimately appear in the Pentateuch derived from Plato who in many ways idealized the Spartan systems.)

(3.5b) For this reason the Jews never have a king, and the leadership of the multitude is regularly vested in whatever priest is regarded as superior to his colleagues in wisdom and virtue.

Pompey the Great in middle age, marble bust in...

Hecataeus’s patron was Ptolemy 1 Soter of Egypt, and he was not one to idealize an anti-monarchical form of government. On the other hand, Theophanes of Mytilene was writing a biography to honour the Roman conqueror Pompey, and Pompey had just abolished the kingship recently established in Judea by Alexander Jannaeus. Theophanes was idealizing the reinstituted anti-monarchical government of priests.

(3.5c) They call this man high priest and believe that he acts as a messenger to them of God’s commandments.

(3.6a) It is he, they say, who in their assemblies and gatherings announces what is ordained, and the Jews are so docile in such matters that straightway they fall to the ground and do reverence to the high priest when he expounds the commandments to them. There is even appended to the laws, at the end, the statement: “These are the words that Moses heard from God and declares to the Jews.” (An apparent paraphrase of LXX Deut 28:69 / 29:1)

Among several points made by Gmirkin here, Hecataeus is known never to have visited Judea and had no first-hand knowledge of Jews. All his information came from Diaspora priests or Egyptians. This scene derives from knowledge of Jewish practices in Jerusalem at one of their festivals. It is known that Theophanes spent much time with the Jewish high priest at Damascus and Jerusalem, and was in the latter city at festival time. Theophanes would also have found it politically expedient to emphasize the submissiveness of the Jews to justify Pompey’s new regime for Judea. The above scene would appear to derive from Theophanes’ own experiences in Jerusalem at festival time just after Pompey’s conquest.

(3.6b) Their lawgiver was careful also to make provision for warfare, and required the young men to cultivate manliness, steadfastness, and, generally, the endurance of every hardship.

(3.7) He led out military expeditions against the neighboring tribes, and after annexing much land apportioned it out, assigning equal allotments to private citizens and greater ones to the priests in order that they, by virtue of receiving more ample revenues, might be undistracted and apply themselves continually to the worship of God. The common people were forbidden to sell their individual plots, lest there be some who for their own advantage should buy them up, and by oppressing the poorer classes bring on a scarcity of manpower.

This follows the stereotypical Greek colony foundation stories. The claim that the priests were allotted a double portion of land was not based on the Pentateuch but derived from Egyptian practice. Others have seen here the influence of Plato’s Republic and Spartan ideals.

(3.8a) He required those that dwelt in the land to rear their children, and since their offspring could be cared for at little cost, the Jews were from the start a populous nation. As to marriage and the burial of the dead, he saw to it that their customs should differ widely from those of other men.

(3.8b) But later, when they became subject to foreign rule, as a result of their mingling with men of other nations (both under Persian rule and under that of the Macedonians who overthrew the Persians), many of their traditional practices were disturbed.

This implies a time when Greek rule had come to an end.

(3.8c) So he [Diodorus] says also here about customs and laws common among Jews, and about the departure of those same people from Egypt and about the holy Moses, telling lies about most things, and going through the [possible] counter-arguments, he again distorted the truth and using cunning devices as a refuge for himself, he attributes things which are contrary to history. For he [Diodorus] adds:

(3.8c) Such is the account of Hecataeus of Miletus in regard to the Jews..

Miletus is thought to be an error by either Diodorus or Photius and that Abdera was meant. But Diodorus elsewhere only speaks of “Hecataeus”. It is not unlikely that Theophanes thought that the account he read by Hecataeus was by the more famous Hecataeus of Miletus, a city near to Theophanes’ home.

So Gmirkin argues that Diodorus Siculus has not taken his information from the fourth century Hecataeus of Abdera, but instead from the first century Theophanes of Mytilene writing in 62 BCE.

That is, Gmirkin is saying that there is no evidence of any knowledge of the Pentateuch as early as the time of Hecataeus of Adbera, around 320 to 300 BCE.

In the next post in this series will survey Gmirkin’s evidence that these first five books of the Bible were known around 270 BCE.

This is a conclusion of major importance, for it opens up the possibility that the Pentateuch borrows from or shows awareness of other literary texts written as late as ca 270 BCE. Specifically, this indicates the necessity for reappraising the relationship between the Pentateuch and works by historians Berossus (278 BCE) and Manetho (ca. 285 BCE). (p. 2)

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

16 thoughts on “The Books of Moses — Unknown 300 years Before Christ?”

  1. Giovanni Garbini has also argued independently that Genesis is no older than the third century BCE, and I don’t think his arguments are built upon the evidence from Berrosus as Gmirkin’s are.

    1. I think it was in something by Thompson that I read the suggestion that the Tower of Babel story (Genesis 11) makes good sense as an etiological tale explaining the desolation that the city became after the death of Alexander.

  2. As far as Photius denouncing Diodorus Siculus for telling lies, I think Photius, being as Christian monk and chronicler, was merely comparing what DS wrote to what was written in the Pentateuch.

  3. Excellent! I assume this is about the origin of the Pentateuch and not the whole Septuagint. It is fascinating to see the close relationship of the so-called books of Moses to Greek foundation myths and late Babylonian cosmology.
    Of course much of the Septuagint was written later- most obviously Esdras and Daniel- and perhaps some somewhat earlier. We may suspect a pre-existing Joseph novella. Also was there a pre-existing Deuteronomistic history (Deuteronomy to Kings) before Deuteronomy was detached from this to be added to the Pentateuch?

    1. Yes. It is about the Pentateuch. Not the entire Septuagint.

      Deuteronomy fascinates me with its riddles as much as the Gospel of Mark. I have read persuasive arguments that it is a revision (even contradiction at times) of the laws of Exodus. At the same time I am open to the possibility that it is composed by the same pen that wrote the rest of the Pentateuch and even Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings). A little while ago I read Plato’s Laws with the Pentateuch in mind and I should post on some of the very interesting overlaps between those two — especially Deuteronomy and Laws.

  4. The deuteromistic history (Deuteronomy to Kings) interprets the laws of deuteronomy as a treaty with yahweh which includes a ban on all cult centres but Jerusalem. But the prequel to Deuteronomy in the Pentateuch is innocent of such intentions. And the Samaritans accepted the Pentateuch as the holy book since it, with no good explanation, never names Jerusalem as the sole sanctuary.And letters from Egypt show that any ideas of one God, one sactuary were very late in being accepted.

  5. For what it’s worth, I just received my new book, Did Moses Exist?, and it discusses a lot of work by Russell Gmirkin. I’ve just started reading it but, it’s an oustanding book so, I thought you’d want to give it a read.

    Did Moses Exist? The Myth of the Israelite Lawgiver

    Did Moses Exist? The Myth of the Israelite Lawgiver

    1. There may well be some interesting gems in the book but unfortunately I have been engaged in discussions with one of Murdock’s more prolific online supporters on another site and have had to conclude that Murdock’s books are promoting a “scientific religion” of astrotheology. Like other missionaries who have a belief-system to sell they have learned to produce two types of publications to accord with the principle of “being all things to all men”. One set of literature avoids all explicit mention of the belief system they are promoting but that is nonetheless the angle they are coming from, as insiders well know.

      Such people are not beyond pulling the wool over the eyes of target names they hope they can persuade to add praises to their books to promote them. And I know that even this comment of mine will not be rebutted with evidence and argument but with the most savage character attacks among themselves.

      I will however be addressing what I am sure are some of the sources used in this book, Gmirkin included, as I have time.

  6. The late dating is probably broadly correct, but Gmirkin, following conventional scholarship, places too much emphasis on the information in “The Letter to Aristeas.” This letter is a very late forgery/pseudeipgrahon that is no better a source for dating the Pentateuch than the Jewish and Christian apologists like Josephus, whose opinions Gmirkin dismisses.

  7. Could you clarify on this section, please?

    (3.8b) But later, when they became subject to foreign rule, as a result of their mingling with men of other nations (both under Persian rule and under that of the Macedonians who overthrew the Persians), many of their traditional practices were disturbed.

    This implies a time when Greek rule had come to an end.

    If the Moses/Judea formation is a type of analog to Greek colonization, how do Persia and Macedonia appear to follow, when Hellenism actually followed those periods? In other words, the “disturbing” would seem to initiate with Greek rule, rather than be concurrent with its end.

    Perhaps I’ve totally missed something here, or just need some coffee. But, help.


    1. I should probably have said, the “disturbing” would seem to already have been present at the initiation of Greek rule…

      …if that makes my question any more sensible, which may not be so.

    2. My recollection of what was on my mind at the time I wrote this is a bit hazy but I think the point I was trying to make was that the story of the founding of the Jewish “state” was framed in the same way as the idealized founding stories (myths) of other Greek states and colonies. That is, the heroic leader sets up the lot from the beginning — arrangement of peoples, temple, laws, customs, relations with neighbours…..

      Such Greek colonization dates to pre-Hellenistic (distinct from Hellenic) times. (I’m using “Hellenistic” in the sense of the period of the blending of Greeks and non-Greeks from the period after Alexander the Great and the Macedonian overthrow of the Persians.) The Jewish state was founded according to the legend along the lines of earlier Greek colonies – but pre Macedonian/Hellenistic times.

      Does that make sense/address your query? Let me know.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading