Plato and the Bible on the Origins of Civilization

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by Neil Godfrey

Previous in this series:

  1. Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal Laws: Similarities 1:631-637  (2015-06-22)
  2. Plato’s and Bible’s Laws: Similarities, completing Book 1 of Laws  (2015-06-23)
  3. Plato’s Laws, Book 2, and Biblical Values (2015-07-13)


I love the way Old Testament books come alive as part and parcel of a long forgotten ancient world when I read other ancient writings expressing the same ideas and stories most of us in the “Christian world” have only ever known from the Bible. Reading Plato’s Laws brings home just how pre-modern and irrelevant the Bible is for today’s world — apart from vestigial myths and sacred beliefs a few modern institutions seek to preserve for various reasons.

Take the quaint way Genesis identifies precisely who was responsible for the invention of each of the civilized arts and crafts:

Kayin . . . became the builder of a city . . . 

Ada bore Yaval,
he was the father of those who sit amidst tent and herd.

His brother’s name was Yuval,
he was the father of all those who play the lyre and the pipe.

And Tzilla bore as well — Tuval-Kayin,
burnisher of every blade of bronze and iron. (Genesis 4:17, 20-22, Everett Fox translation — primary intent of this translation is to capture the flavour of the Hebrew language. All Genesis quotations in this post are from this translation.)

Plato informs us (book 3 of Laws) that the ancient Greeks likewise had their eponymous inventors of the arts and crafts of civilization:

Cleinias For it is evident that the arts were unknown during ten thousand times ten thousand years. And no more than a thousand or two thousand years have elapsed since the discoveries of Daedalus, Orpheus and Palamedes – since Marsyas and Olympus invented music, and Amphion the lyre – not to speak of numberless other inventions which are but of yesterday. 

Athenian Have you forgotten, Cleinias, the name of a friend who is really of yesterday? 

Cleinias I suppose that you mean Epimenides

Compare the reminder left to us by Hyginus:


The Parcae, Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos invented seven Greek letters – A B H T I Y.
Others say that Mercury invented them from the flight of cranes, which, when they fly, form letters.
Palamedes, too, son of Nauplius, invented eleven letters; Simonides, too, invented four letters – Ó E Z PH; Epicharmus of Sicily, two – P and PS.
The Greek letters Mercury is said to have brought to Egypt, and from Egypt Cadmus took them to Greece. Cadmus in exile from Arcadia, took them to Italy, and his mother Carmenta changed them to Latin to the number of 15.
Apollo on the lyre added the rest.
The same Mercury first taught wrestling to mortals.
Ceres showed how to tame oxen, and taught her foster-son Triptolemus [to sow grain]. When he had sown it, and a pig rooted up what he had planted, he seized the pig, took it to the altar of Ceres, and putting grain on its head, sacrificed it to Ceres. From this came the custom of putting salted meal on the victim.
Isis first invented sails, for while seeking her son Harpocrates, she sailed on a ship.
Minerva first built a two-prowed ship for Danaus in which he fled from Aegyptus his brother.

The post-deluge stories of the Greeks (at least those of Plato and Hyginus here) dwelt in detail upon the invention and spread of written (and poetic/musical) language unique to the Greeks. Unlike the Greek catastrophe, however, the Biblical flood was universal and was followed by the divine bestowal of the many spoken languages across the world.

Sadly all such arts are lost when one of the universe’s periodic mass destructions, such as a great flood, comes around. The above Greek traditions list the names of those who re-discovered such arts after the latest cosmic catastrophe, but we see the Greek belief that the arts and crafts are necessarily lost with each calamity so that they need to be rediscovered.

Athenian Do you believe that there is any truth in ancient traditions? 

Cleinias What traditions? 

Athenian The traditions about the many destructions of mankind which have been occasioned by deluges and pestilences, and in many other ways, and of the survival of a remnant? 

Cleinias Every one is disposed to believe them. 

Athenian Let us consider one of them, that which was caused by the famous deluge. 

Cleinias What are we to observe about it? 

Athenian I mean to say that those who then escaped would only be hill shepherds – small sparks of the human race preserved on the tops of mountains

Cleinias Clearly. 

Athenian Such survivors would necessarily be unacquainted with the arts and the various devices which are suggested to the dwellers in cities by interest or ambition, and with all the wrongs which they contrive against one another. 

Cleinias Very true. 

Athenian Let us suppose, then, that the cities in the plain and on the sea-coast were utterly destroyed at that time. 

Cleinias Very good. 

Athenian Would not all implements have then perished and every other excellent invention of political or any other sort of wisdom have utterly disappeared? 

Cleinias Why, yes, my friend . . .

And so it was according to Genesis. After the flood the human race was obliged to begin anew “from the mountains of Ararat” (Gen. 8:4). . .

And Noah was the first man of the soil; he planted a vineyard. . . (Gen. 9:20)

Noah’s descendants had to gradually spread out once again to repopulate the seacoast nations (Gen. 10:5). Then the first State Leviathan power emerged:

Cush begat Nimrod; he was the first mighty man on earth.
He was a mighty hunter before YHWH . . . 

His kingdom, at the beginning, was Bavel, and Erekh, Accad and Calne, in the land of Shinar;
from this land Ashur went forth and built Nineveh. . . (Gen. 10:8-11)

So all the earth was repopulated by the various “clan-groupings of the Sons of Noah”. Notice the first city was built from clay. Recall that the implements of bronze and iron had been lost in the Great Flood.

From these the nations were divided on earth after the Deluge.

Now all the earth was of one language and one set-of-words.
And it was when they migrated to the east that they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there’
They said, each man to his neighbour:
Come-now! Let us bake bricks and let us burn them well-burnt!
So for them brick-stone was like building-stone, and raw-bitumen was for them like red-mortar. 

And they said:
Come-now! Let us build ourselves a city and a tower, its top in the heavens . . .

Therefore its name was called Bavel/Babble . . .
and from there, YHWH scattered them over the face of all the earth. (Gen. 10:32-11:9)

The human race at first sought to find a way to protect themselves by sticking together and creating a new “mountain” higher than any other, one that reached to the safety of the heavens themselves. Compare Plato’s surmise that the mountain-top survivors would have feared the plains below:

Ath. But, as time advanced and the race multiplied, the world came to be what the world is. 

Cle. Very true. 

Ath. Doubtless the change was not made all in a moment, but little by little, during a very long period of time. 

Cle. A highly probable supposition. 

Ath. At first, they would have a natural fear ringing in their ears which would prevent their descending from the heights into the plain. 

And metallurgy would have been quite lost of course:

Cle. Of course. 

Ath. The fewness of the survivors at that time would have made them all the more desirous of seeing one another; but then the means of travelling either by land or sea had been almost entirely lost, as I may say, with the loss of the arts, and there was great difficulty in getting at one another; for iron and brass and all metals were jumbled together and had disappeared in the chaos; nor was there any possibility of extracting ore from them; and they had scarcely any means of felling timber. Even if you suppose that some implements might have been preserved in the mountains, they must quickly have worn out and vanished, and there would be no more of them until the art of metallurgy had again revived. . . .

Ath. During this period, and for some time afterwards, all the arts which require iron and brass and the like would disappear. 

Notice that this first generation of survivor were well-disposed to cooperate with one another. This, too, agrees with Plato above where he suggests that in such primitive circumstances their natural inclination would have been to work and live together. Soon afterwards he returns to this theme:

Ath. Faction and war would also have died out in those days, and for many reasons. 

Cle. How would that be? 

Ath. In the first place, the desolation of these primitive men would create in them a feeling of affection and good-will towards one another; and, secondly, they would have no occasion to quarrel about their subsistence, for they would have pasture in abundance, except just at first, and in some particular cases; and from their pasture-land they would obtain the greater part of their food in a primitive age, having plenty of milk and flesh; moreover they would procure other food by the chase, not to be despised either in quantity or quality.

They would also have abundance of clothing, and bedding, and dwellings, and utensils either capable of standing on the fire or not; for the plastic and weaving arts do not require any use of iron: and God has given these two arts to man in order to provide him with all such things, that, when reduced to the last extremity, the human race may still grow and increase. Hence in those days mankind were not very poor; nor was poverty a cause of difference among them; and rich they could not have been, having neither gold nor silver: – such at that time was their condition.

And the community which has neither poverty nor riches will always have the noblest principles; in it there is no insolence or injustice, nor, again, are there any contentions or envyings. And therefore they were good, and also because they were what is called simple-minded; and when they were told about good and evil, they in their simplicity believed what they heard to be very truth and practised it. No one had the wit to suspect another of a falsehood, as men do now; but what they heard about Gods and men they believed to be true, and lived accordingly; and therefore they were in all respects such as we have described them. 

The author of Acts was later to return to this same motif of an idyllic communal beginning when composing a new myth for the origins of the Christians.

The biblical author appears to have been working with the same model of civilization’s origins as found in the writings of Plato but has adapted it to support a narrative to set up Bablyon as the foil of the future “nation” and kingdom of Israel.

But compare the foundation of Babel with Plato’s account of Ilium, or Troy. Plato is attempting to understand the origins of the laws and governments of various kinds. Just as Babel was built by people who had come down from the mountains to a plain, so Ilium . . . But notice the difference.

Ath. The next step will be that these persons who have met together, will select some arbiters, who will review the laws of all of them, and will publicly present such as they approve to the chiefs who lead the tribes, and who are in a manner their kings, allowing them to choose those which they think best. These persons will themselves be called legislators, and will appoint the magistrates, framing some sort of aristocracy, or perhaps monarchy, out of the dynasties or lordships, and in this altered state of the government they will live. 

Cle. Yes, that would be the natural order of things. 

Ath. Then, now let us speak of a third form of government, in which all other forms and conditions of polities and cities concur. 

Cle. What is that? 

Ath. The form which in fact Homer indicates as following the second. This third form arose when, as he says, Dardanus founded Dardania: 

For not as yet had the holy Ilium been built on the plain to be a city of speaking men; but they were still dwelling at the foot of many-fountained Ida. . . .

. . .

Ath. Ilium was built, when they descended from the mountain, in a large and fair plain, on a sort of low hill, watered by many rivers descending from Ida. 

Cle. Such is the tradition. 

Ath. And we must suppose this event to have taken place many ages after the deluge? 

Ath. A marvellous forgetfulness of the former destruction would appear to have come over them, when they placed their town right under numerous streams flowing from the heights, trusting for their security to not very high hills, either. 

Cle. There must have been a long interval, clearly. 

Ath. And, as population increased, many other cities would begin to be inhabited. 

Cle. Doubtless. 

Ath. Those cities made war against Troy – by sea as well as land-for at that time men were ceasing to be afraid of the sea. 

The author of the Babel story in Genesis has opined that the great city was built in the plain, unlike Troy, very soon after the “former destruction”. The plan to build the great tower as high as the heavens, however, rescues them from the “marvellous forgetfulness” that would have afflicted Plato’s post-destruction generation had they built so soon. The biblical author needs to establish Babylon as the beginning of the worldly kingdoms for his contemporary theological reasons.

Troy held a comparable position in the canonical tale of Greek values, Homer’s Iliad. Babylon and Troy are each a foil, the epitome of “the other”, and primary war-rival to the Hebrews and Greeks respectively. Clearly Babylon’s origins required a different chronological setting from Troy’s.

Many cities and wars entered history as the population increased, and that’s what the Genesis author himself portrayed with his beginnings of the kingdoms of Nimrod and Ashur.

Plato proceeds to discuss various types of kingdoms and alliances from the perspective of how fallible rulers are.

Ath. But can a kingship be destroyed, or was any other form of government ever destroyed, by any but the rulers themselves? No indeed, by Zeus. . . 

Such sums up the theme of the Primary History, Genesis to 2 Kings. We are further reminded of the message of King Rehoboam’s folly in failing to listen to his elderly advisors and the will of the people when they begged for relief from harsh rule.

3 . . . Jeroboam and all the congregation of Israel came and spoke unto Rehoboam, saying,

4 “Thy father made our yoke grievous. Now therefore make thou the grievous service of thy father and his heavy yoke which he put upon us lighter, and we will serve thee.”

5 And he said unto them, “Depart yet for three days, then come again to me.” And the people departed.

6 And King Rehoboam consulted with the old men who stood before Solomon his father while he yet lived, and said, “How do ye advise that I may answer this people?”

7 And they spoke unto him, saying, “If thou wilt be a servant unto this people this day, and wilt serve them and answer them and speak good words to them, then they will be thy servants for ever.”

8 But he forsook the counsel of the old men which they had given him. (KJ21 of 1 Kings 12)

Ath. . . . The case was as follows:-Three royal heroes made oath to three cities which were under a kingly government, and the cities to the kings, that both rulers and subjects should govern and be governed according to the laws which were common to all of them: the rulers promised that as time and the race went forward they would not make their rule more arbitrary; and the subjects said that, if the rulers observed these conditions, they would never subvert or permit others to subvert those kingdoms; the kings were to assist kings and peoples when injured, and the peoples were to assist peoples and kings in like manner. Is not this the fact? 

Wisdom and Lottery

To Plato “wisdom” is the most important asset for a king or any ruler and he discusses this point at some length in his third book of Laws. Biblical authors prized the same virtue as supreme. By wisdom, or lack of it, kingdoms rise and fall, reputations are gained and lost. Favour ought not be shown to a person on the grounds of his wealth, but a ruler should be chosen on the basis of character:

Ath. . . . For no man ought to have pre-eminent honour in a state because he surpasses others in wealth, any more than because he is swift of foot or fair or strong, unless he have some virtue in him; nor even if he have virtue, unless he have this particular virtue of temperance. 

The most vital gifts, or at least the first acquisitions of the ruler, Plato adds, are wisdom and understanding.

Lottery is another common detail. We know the Bible has God ordering lots to be cast with the assurance that he will use the outcome to reveal his will about whom to select to be their king or priest (e.g. 1 Samuel 10:20-21). Plato himself confirms that this was the one sure method for knowing the will of the divine:

Ath. There is a seventh kind of rule which is awarded by lot, and is dear to the Gods and a token of good fortune: he on whom the lot falls is a ruler, and he who fails in obtaining the lot goes away and is the subject; and this we affirm to be quite just. 


Next, book 4. . .




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Neil Godfrey

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16 thoughts on “Plato and the Bible on the Origins of Civilization”

    1. Interesting — I should check to see how many other blogs are not entered by their name. I’ve been noticing that there seems to be quite a mushrooming of published (commercial and other) material “proving” the historicity of Jesus. Of course most seem to only indirectly reference selections of the less scholarly (e.g. Murdock) arguments of mythicism and fail — even seem to consciously avoid — engaging with the serious arguments. Once one shows one’s sympathy for those arguments it appears that that question dominates their mind and that’s how one is identified. In fact I believe many of my posts are written from the perspective of the irrelevance of the historicity of Jesus question. It very often doesn’t matter either way when examining the literary context of the gospels. “Pithom” has been a long time reader of Vridar but I thought his only interest was in OT topics and related archaeology.

      1. Fascinating. I am wholly in sympathy with position that the historicity of Jesus is an irrelevance–not only to literary contexts but also to religion, faith, and so forth. Myth and history stand in an uneasy relation to one another, but myth is always closer to the human heart, which of course wants what it wants. But contrary to that spirit you seem here to accept the notion that there was a Great Flood, and that it occurred at the end of the Bronze Age. It seems evident to me, based on my own reading, that the worldwide appearance of flood myths is the result of ancient humans observing the rapid melt off at the end of the last Ice Age, 10,000 or 12,000 years ago. Perhaps I am misunderstanding the ground rules of discussion here. I will come back when I have the time to read more closely

        1. Thanks for the comment. Yes, origins of myths and their place in human society are fascinating topics.

          I don’t believe there was ever “a worldwide flood” in reality. I was referring only to mythical beliefs. Yes, I agree — there does seem to be evidence of rapidly rising sea levels and that memories of some of these have been preserved in oral story-telling. I’m thinking in particular of Australian aboriginal stories. https://theconversation.com/ancient-aboriginal-stories-preserve-history-of-a-rise-in-sea-level-36010

          No doubt there are others around the world, too.

          1. Whew, glad to hear that you’re not a Young Earth man. Not to insult anyone’s faith, but there are enough of those already, and only a little bit of fun can be had in talking to them. I agree there was no worldwide flood, but it does appear there were floods all over the world, and in the fairly short memory of modern human beings. I was thinking of the Laurentide Ice Sheet, which covered all of Canada, and the United States down to the level of New York and Chicago. When the ice dam holding the meltwater broke, some 8,000-10,000 years ago, an unimaginable amount of water rushed to the sea. Of course, tsunamis and other events in the late Stone Age could also supply memories of a world wide flood. Okay, enough from me on this subject. Thanks for the reply.

            1. What astonishes me somewhat is the social conditions that presumably must have prevailed for millennia for certain oral traditions to have survived all that time.

            2. In the UK the area now known as the Dogger Bank in the North Sea was inhabited until about 5000BC and the flooding (caused by the end of the Ice Age) was probably rapid – fast enough to be easily perceived by people living there year-by-year.

              If by “worldwide” we mean “changed every coastline in the world”, then there literally was a Flood and it happened within a few thousand years of the start of the civilizations we think of as early. There’s no difficulty in imagining that myths arising from that huge event lasted until writing was available to record them, really. Such a thing makes an impact but, more importantly, makes a great story worth re-telling even for those that did not witness it.

  1. By the way, do you know why Homer has the Greeks referring, almost without fail, to “holy Ilium,” or “holy Troy?” I have searched the Internet off and on for days without luck

    1. My understanding is that it the epithet “holy Ilium” would most likely derive from the belief that Apollo built the walls of Troy, or at least supervised the task. Lots of things are called “holy” or “sacred” — trees, rivers, caves, groves, islands, and several cities and towns who had some connection with a temple of a particular deity. I’m not saying that’s “THE” reason — just a starting idea.

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