The Bible’s Assemblies and Offices Based on Greek Institutions?

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by Neil Godfrey

Russell Gmirkin continues to argue for much of the Old Testament having been written as late as around 270 BCE in his new book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. (He first made the argument in Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus, – link is to archived posts addressing various points in that work.) The book is priced for academic institutions so thankfully the publisher (Routledge) sent me a review copy that I am still reading. I have been relocating, renovating and slowly building up a new home office so progress has not been lightning fast, but small steps as opportunity arises are better than no steps so here’s the next instalment.

Biblical laws have been compared often enough with those from the ancient Levant and Mesopotamia and Gmirkin continues to make the same sorts of comparisons. But he also compares the biblical laws with ancient Greek laws and law collections and finds the similarities on the whole to be more striking than with those of the Near East. Not only laws themselves but also the narratives in which they are embedded resonate strongly with Greek literature. Gmirkin’s explanation is that the authors of the biblical texts were informed of legal ideals through Greek writings stored in the Great Library of Alexandria in the Hellenistic era.

Before addressing specific laws Gmirkin sets out comparisons of biblical (especially Pentateuchal) legal institutions with those of Greece. The chapter is thick with endnotes and citations and many of these have kept my reading at a snail’s pace, but such slow reading is an enriching journey. I do find detailed discussions of legal, civil and religious institutions and offices becoming something of a blur, however, unless I take pen and paper and set out what I am reading in diagram form, and that’s what I have been doing especially in the second half of the second chapter. So for my own benefit and the interest of anyone else I set out here tables of data collated by Gmirkin in his comparisons. (Diagrams would be far too time-consuming.) Not all details or explanations are set out here by any means, but I hope I include enough to grasp the main ideas that are argued for the primacy of Greek influence on what we read in biblical narratives. I attempt to give enough detail for readers to form their own questions and assessments.

I am sure I am not the only one who has become so familiar with terms like “elders” and “all the people of Israel” and imagined them in their “exclusively  biblical” context that it will come as something of a shock to make unfamiliar comparisons with Greek institutions and processes. Yet that’s what Gmirkin does and the results are by and large interesting. Here’s the first table; more to follow:

Table 1. Deliberative Bodies

Athens Other Greek states
Moses / Joshua King or Panel of Kings (2 kings in Sparta, religious and military duties)
Council – Elders, all being ex-magistrates — 70 or 71 or 72 — proportionately selected from the tribes.

Num 11:16 – must be elders and ex-magistrates

Known as the Seventy

Legislative, judicial and executive responsibilities.

Exodus and Numbers: called it the “seventy elders”

Exodus to Joshua: depict the Elders and Assembly as “national democratic institutions . . . subordinate to . . . Moses and Joshua”

Deuteronomy to Samuel: Assembly and Elders also appear at the local level administering town affairs (e.g. “elders at the gate”).

Judges: Assembly and Elders were convened in times of crisis and for anointing of kings

In Hellenistic Judea: Assembly and Elders function; Council was known as gerousia in Greek Jewish sources

In Roman era: Council known as Sanhedrin

Two Councils:

1. Council (Boule) – numbers varied at different times (400, 500, 30) – proportionately selected from the tribes

Known as the Four Hundred, or the Five Hundred or the Thirty.

Drafted legislation for Assembly to approve.

This Athenian Council was chosen by lot; that is, did not consist of “elders”.

2. Council of Areopagus – all members were elders (ex-magistrates)

Heard cases against magistrates


Sparta: Council of Elders (Gerousia) – 30 (The Thirty)

Cyrenaica: A Gerousia of 101


Assembly (qahal or edah) – all male citizens. All had the right

  • to speak (Judges 20:7)
  • and vote (see below)
  • and approve laws (See Deuteronomy where legislator Moses read laws to the Assembly that gave them formal, binding assent.) — This is comparable to Greek legislative procedures but with no known Near Eastern parallel (pp. 55f)

Nominated and appointed magistrates:

Ex. 18.13-26; Deut. 1.16-18: the magistrates over 1000s, 100s, 50s, 10s were nominated from the tribes but selected by Moses — similarly for the Seventy Elders (Num. 11.14-17).

1 Sam. 8.4-5: Elders requested a king but the Assembly was included in acclaiming the kingship of Saul. (Also Rehoboam and Jeroboam.)

1 Sam. 10.17-25: Election by lot from the Assembly.

Biblical elections appear to have been recorded either by clapping (perhaps), as at 2 Kgs 11.12, or by audible assent (“amen”) as at Neh. 5.13.” (p. 55)

Deut. 16.18-18.22 (a constitutional sub-document) — the Assembly was to select both judges and king from among their peers.

Assembly (Ekklesia) – all male citizens, though limited at one time to 5000. All had right to speak and to vote and approve laws or edicts proposed by the Council.

Appointment to many Athenian offices was made by lot, a procedure that was anciently thought to both be democratic and to contain an element of divine providence (Plato, Laws 6.759b-c . . .). . .

“Alternately, Athenian offices with special qualifications took place by citizen vote, either by show of hands or by secret ballot.” (p. 55)

Sparta: Assembly of all citizens (Apella)

Cyrenaica: Boule of 500

Num. 11:14-17 — implies the Seventy had a judicial role sharing government with Moses.

If preliminary investigation by the judges (the Seventy or city elders) determined the case was a capital matter, the case came before the entire assembly (Deut. 22.20-21). The full assembly was involved in executing the verdict in homicide cases (Num. 14.10; 15.35-36…). It appears possible that the elders held a preliminary hearing while the entire assembly rendered the verdict. . .  Deut. 22.13-21 . . .” (pp. 54f.)

“Council often conducted preliminary investigations for cases to be later decided either by jury trial or, in the most serious cases, by the entire assembly.” (p. 55)
Entire Assembly was convened to approve decrees of national policy such as

  • declaration of war (Judges 20.1-8)
  • establishment of treaties (Josh. 9.3-19)
  • Athens enabled the Assembly to vote on sending expeditions and accepting terms of surrender.
  • Just as the Gibeonites were permitted to address the Assembly of Israel so in Athens foreign delegations were able to address the assembly on national matters.

Israel’s king is conspicuously absent from the above. That office deserves separate treatment. We will also look at the structure of the priesthood.


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17 thoughts on “The Bible’s Assemblies and Offices Based on Greek Institutions?”

  1. Certain letters of questionable authenticity have the Hasmonean king Jonathan exchanging friendly correspondence with the Spartans, paralleled by apparently pseudographical letters cited by 1 Maccabees and Josephus that purport a blood kinship between Onias III and the Spartans, although the Spartan king mentioned by Josephus lived during the time of Onias I. The Jerusalem court of law, the Sanhedrin, which was said to have been formed under king Alexander Janneus, later reformed into a council of sages headed by a Nasi, was referred to in some ancient sources as the Gerousia, the Spartan Council of Elders, and some scholars have suggested that the Judeans had established the council due to the influence of Plato and the Spartans.

    I think I sort-of qualify as a New Testament minimalist since I think not just the gospel Jesus but even Paul was an invention (based largely on Peregrinus), but I have not yet seen any strikingly good arguments in the favor of Old Testament minimalism so far. I think there is pretty strong evidence that the story of Solomon comes from the time of King Jehoram. Richard Friedman makes some very good arguments for dating the J source, which ends with Solomon while using the language from the Eden narrative in Genesis to bring the story full circle, to the same time period. Boastful claims that there would always be sitting king of David in some parts of Deuteronomy seem out of place following the Babylonian Exile, and the story of Ezra “rediscovering” the Torah does make for a convenient era to place the Torah’s compilation.


      1. I have read some of Davies and several reviews of “In Search of”. His hypothesis connecting Benjamin to Bethel is interesting, but I am not so skeptical of the Tel Dan inscription as most minimalists seem to be.

        I do happen to think that John Hyrcanus was probably been responsible for separating the Torah from the rest of the JEPD corpus. The Samaritan Pentateuch has been dated to the Hasmonean period around the time of John Hyrcnus, and since he is the one who destroyed the original Samaritan Temple, it would make sense that he probably instituted the cult dedicated to the Judean Torah in its place. It also matches with the fact that the Sadducees were also said by Origen to have only canonized the Law. The fact that Deuteronomy does not really provide a conclusion but anticipates Joshua indicates that the division of the “Books of Moses” into a separate entity called the Torah is secondary. Since the Hasmoneans were primarily priests and, being heavily criticized for not coming from the line of David, tried very hard until the cusp of the Herodian period to escape the title of king despite the fact that they were obviously fulfilling that function, it makes sense that they would want to produce a “rulebook for priests” that happens to leave David and Solomon out.

        1. I much prefer “In Search of” to the later works by Davies. It goes to the fundamentals, imo, at least the first four chapters. I understand that’s what opened the “minimalist” floodgates. Another ground-breaker imo is Lemche’s “The Israelites in History and Tradition”. Those two works probably are the foundations of my own approach to the OT — I haven’t seen anything to cast doubt on their methods.

          As for the Tel Dan inscription, is not the central question about the translation and meaning of the “house of Beloved/David” detail more than the authenticity of the inscription itself?

          1. Have you read much of Frank Moore Cross, Richard Friedman or Israel Finkelstein? I think Friedman’s dating of JEPD is by far the strongest based on positive evidence. Finkelstein associated the construction of the First Temple with Jehoash, and through my own research I have built on this by providing a lot of other connections between Jehoash and Solomon, as detailed in that link I provided.

            I have read that both Lemche and Thompson have suggested that the Tel Dan inscription was a planted forgery while other minimalists have given the alternative translation of “Beloved”. Davies has suggested that the Hezekiah tunnel inscription is a Hasmonean/Hellenic fraud from the second century B.C. I’m not sure if there is good reason for such skepticism in any of these cases. Probably my biggest complaint with OT minimalists is that, as far as I have discerned, they seem to be mainly use negative arguments rather than positive ones. This is the same reason I much prefer G.R.S. Mead’s “Did Jesus Live 100 B.C.” to Alvar Ellegård’s “Jesus: One Hundred Years Before Christ”.

            1. Of Cross I’ve read “Canaanite Myth . . .”; of Friedman, “Bible with sources revealed”, “Hidden book of the Bible” and “Who wrote the Bible”; of Finkelstein, “Bible Unearthed”, “David and Solomon”, “Quest for the historical Israel” plus various articles. Loved Cross. Like Friedman a lot but the Davies/Lemche methods leave me uncertain what to think — at least the methods set out by Davies in those first 4 chapters of “In Search…”. As for Finkelstein I thought he failed to address the problems facing his thesis that Davies exposed way back in 1992. That is, there are no secure grounds for a “renaissance” in the time of Josiah. The archaeological evidence he used in support seemed to me to fall short of what he was trying to argue from it.

              Yes, Davies does see a value in a “negative” approach and describes it as such but I think it is a mistake to think of his method as “negative”. (Coincidentally I’m preparing a post right now that includes a quotation by him about being “negative”, and disagreeing with his “negative” view of his method.) Alternatives to relying upon positive independent supports for hypotheses are essentially ad hoc and/or subject to confirmation bias or even circular.

              The “minimalist” method seems to me the only really sound method of doing history at the best of times, of any place and era.

  2. My concern about the table you have prepared is that wildly different passages from Deuteronomy, Numbers, Exodus are brought together – synthesised – to apprently construct a system that none of the passages taken on their own propose.

    The first thing you say / Gmirkin says is: “Council for formulating laws – Elders, all being ex-magistrates — 70 or 71 or 72 — proportionately selected from the tribes.”

    Is there really single passage in the Pentateuch which says that their job is to “formulate laws”? In Exodus, they are explicitly convened to render judgement in particular less taxing cases – not to formulate laws. In Numbers 11, God “and took some of the spirit that was upon him (Moses) and put it upon the seventy elders, and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. Hardly the appointment of men with “legislative, judicial and executive responsibilities”? And in Deuteronomy the “commanders of thousands” that seem to appear in Exodus don’t appear to be judges at all.

    Also he says that “Exodus to Joshua: depict the Elders and Assembly as “national democratic institutions . . . subordinate to . . . Moses and Joshua.”

    Democratic? Really? From what does Gmirkin extrapolate any meaningful form of democratic process?

    The notion that the assembly was meant to “approve laws (See Deuteronomy where legislator Moses read laws to the Assembly that gave them formal, binding assent)” strikes me as an utterly bizarre reading of Deuteronomy, where the people don’t “approve laws” any more than they reject laws or suggest amendments. They enter into a contract with Yahweh – as they would with a terrestrial overlord. That has nothing to do with “ratifying laws” on a continual basis, it is a once-and-for-all-contractual commitment (including the small print: “blessings” for sticking to the contract and “curses” for breaking it) and is entirely different to the domesticated democratic process Gmirkin seems to propose.

    1. Thanks for the criticism. I have been having something of a holiday from Vridar lately and following up the questions you raise will be one of my first tasks.

      Till then I can make just one point . . . . the divine origin of the laws is itself a very “Platonic” idea. Plato wrote that it was necessary for such a myth or belief to be conveyed to the citizens of the ideal society.

    2. Thanks again for drawing attention to the wording in my table concerning the function of the Council. On rechecking I think I “overstated” Gmirkin’s point should not have said that the Council “formulated laws”. On page 28 Gmirkin does explicitly state:

      Neither the [biblical] council nor the assembly had the responsibility or authority to draft legislation, which was — as at Athens — the special prerogative of the legislator(s).

      Gmirkin’s discussion is very condensed and I find myself often turning to his endnotes and bibliographical references for elaboration of his points. I will follow up the particular question you have raised but it will take at least a couple of weeks to access all of the sources I want.

      Meanwhile, I might do a post on the point about primitive democracy in the biblical narratives — another point you question.

      (I have also changed my wording for the Council in the table.)

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