Monthly Archives: February 2017

The Inspiration for Israel’s Law of the Ideal King

Continuing my series on Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible by Russell Gmirkin in which it is argued that the Pentateuch owes a heavy debt to the Greek philosophical and political writings of the Greeks located in the Great Library of Alexandria.

Previous posts:



The Law of Moses placed limitations on the king that are “without parallel in the ancient Near East. Nowhere do we find legal curbs on the size of the military, the treasury, and the harem.” (Berman, 53) From the law in Deuteronomy 17:14-20 we learn that:

Deuteronomy 17:14-20

When you enter the land
that Yhwh your God is giving you, and you possess it and settle in it, should you say:
I will set over me a king
like all the nations that are around me—

you may set, yes, set over you a king that Yhwh your God chooses;
from among your brothers you may set over you a king, you may not place over you a foreign man who is not a brother-person to you.

he is not to multiply horses for himself,
and he is not to return the people to Egypt in order to multiply horses, since Yhwh has said to you: You will never return that way again!

And he is not to multiply wives for himself, that his heart not be turned-aside,
and silver or gold he is not to multiply for himself to excess.

But it shall be:
when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he is to write himself a copy of this Instruction in a document, before the presence of [or, that is in the charge of] Levitical priests.

It is to remain beside him, he is to read out of it all the days of his life, in order that he may learn to have-awe-for Yhwh his God, to be-careful concerning all the words of this Instruction and these laws, to observe them,

that his heart not be raised above his brothers, that he not turn-aside from what-is-commanded, to the right or to the left;
in order that he may prolong (his) days over his kingdom, he and his sons, in the midst of Israel.

Everett Fox translation

  • The King was to be elected by an assembly of the citizens
  • The King was subject to written laws that had been prepared by the priests

That is remarkable enough. But elsewhere in Deuteronomy we find other powers that your typical ancient Near Eastern king assigned to others so that according to the same book of law the king had

  • no judicial powers; he was not even the judge of final appeals
  • no religious function; he was not the guardian of the cult or temple
  • no military role, not even in wartime
  • no responsibility for economic relief of his subjects (e.g. debt remission, manumission)

(Levinson, 529)

All of this is quite unlike the kings we later read about in the history of Israel. Kings like David, Solomon, and their dynastic successors lived and ruled very much like the potentates of kingdoms and empires around them. But our interest here is the ideal king according to the Law of Moses.

The Greek world did know of such restrictions on kings, however.

Aristotle described various types of kingship including the elected and largely ceremonial office of the Athenian king, the Archon Basileus. Aristotle in fact counselled that the most stable monarchies were those with the least powers:

On the other hand it is clear that monarchies, speaking generally, are preserved in safety as a result of the opposite causes to those by which they are destroyed. But taking the different sorts of monarchy separately—royalties are preserved by bringing them into a more moderate form; for the fewer powers the kings have, the longer time the office in its entirety must last, for they themselves become less despotic and more equal to their subjects in temper, and their subjects envy them less. For this was the cause of the long persistence of the Molossian royalty, and that of Sparta has continued because the office was from the beginning divided into two halves, and because it was again limited in various ways by Theopompus, in particular by his instituting the office of the ephors to keep a check upon it; for by taking away some of the kings’ power he increased the permanence of the royal office, so that in a manner he did not make it less but greater. This indeed as the story goes is what he said in reply to his wife, when she asked if he felt no shame in bequeathing the royal power to his sons smaller than he had inherited it from his father: “Indeed I do not,” he is said to have answered, “for I hand it on more lasting.” 

Politics, 1313a 

From the “classical era” on the Athenian Basileus assigned major cases to the appropriate courts; military leadership was a right assigned to another office, the Polemarch. He did maintain some religious duties and essentially his office was ceremonial.

Other Greek city states had variations of the kingship office: some were elected, others dynastic; some had two kings, others just the one and still others had a panel of kings; some had military and religious duties. In Cyrene the kings were at one point stripped of their military role.

Ancient Near Eastern kings were as far from any thought of being subject to written laws or the supervision of the priests as one can imagine. It was different among the Greeks, however.

The requirement that the duties of the king should be performed in strict conformity to written law is a characteristically Greek notion. The creation of a copy of the law for royal reference is strikingly reminiscent of the publication of Athenian laws at the Royal Stoa. (Gmirkin, 35)

read more »

Divine Revelation Not Limited to the “Bible Canon”

Don’t think of books. Think of open databases, literary projects, both earthly and heavenly archives. Ben Sirach, for example, becomes a generative character or figurehead from whom writings flowed like canals from a river. That’s how Eva Mroczek, Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity, says we should understand the way ancient Jewish scribes (Second Temple and gospel era) thought of their writings and their literary environment.

Revelation originated from the heavens and could never be grasped in all its fulness by any mortal; there was always room for more understanding and knowledge of the spiritual. There were writings that only the chosen few saints had ever seen, writings preserved in the heavens. Enoch was secreted away and continues to write until the time of the end.

A sacred writing could never be bound complete between two covers or within a single earthly scroll. There would always be room for more revelation. Of the making of books there will be no end.

An “author”, at least the inspired author, a heavenly figure perhaps, who sowed the poetry of praise or the sayings of wisdom in a mortal scribe, might spawn many varied works over time. Hence “David” could author countless psalms, only a small sample of which were ever captured for our canon. Other Davidic psalms were extant, some were composed relatively recently. They were all in a figurative sense authored by David since psalms were attributed to him as a way of fleshing out further the character and life of David. It was not so much that David’s name was attached to a psalm to impute authority to the psalm; no, it was rather that David was associated with the psalm to enrich the narrative about David, to transform David in a way to enable him to speak to a new audience. This world of attribution was not unique to the Judea’s:

In fact, such a sense of character-driven literary creativity is attested elsewhere in the ancient world, in some theories about Homer from the Hellenistic period, where the character becomes the affective centre of the poetic creation. Poetry . . . is generated from infatuation with one of the characters, who is prior to, and drives the creation of, the narrative. (p. 56)

So in the case of the Psalms of David. . .

Making psalms “Davidic” is not precisely attribution, as little evidence exists for a claim that David personally composed the psalms, but dramatisation and historicization. But this process of dramatising and historicising psalms is motivated not by the texts of the psalms themselves, but by an interest in the character who comes to animate the texts. It is the desire to reflect and elaborate on particularly compelling aspects of David’s character — David the sufferer, the penitent, the pursued — that is behind the creation of the expanded headings. Put simply, dramatising the psalms in his voice gives this David more things to say. (p. 63)

We are not only talking about the Psalms of David and the different canonical counts of these but of the wider literary world — of writings attributed to Enoch, to Solomon, to Moses, to Abraham, to Zephaniah . . . . .

In many Second Temple texts, we see an awareness of a literary world that is ancient, varied, and not fully accessible. In texts like Enoch, Jubilees, and many traditions about the patriarchs from the Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance, we see the notion of a long history of revealed writing stretching back long before Sinai, and forming part of the stories about Israel’s ancient ancestors. We see scribes recognizing the authority and divine origin of texts like the Enoch literature, Jubilees, and these patriarchal traditions, which present themselves not as derivative of or dependent on material we now call biblical, but indeed, prior to it. And while specific texts that have come down to us, like the Enochic material, are recognizably used in other literature, early Jewish texts also mention many writings that we cannot identify with any extant texts — writings that may have been lost, like the book of Noah, or were always only imagined, like the heavenly Book of Life.11 (pp. 116f.)

The authors of the scriptures (like Jubilees and the Temple Scroll) that not part of our canonical Bible did not appear to view their work as attempts to fill in the gaps or clarify and explain the canonical texts. These non-biblical texts do not present themselves as subordinate to the Pentateuch or Prophets, buy as new revelations from a divine sourceread more »

How Bible Contradictions Began

Even ancient scribes had problems with some of the laws that were decreed from the mouth of the Almighty himself. Take the commandment against idolatry thundered from Mount Sinai:

You are not to make yourself a carved-image
or any figure
that is in the heavens above, that is on the earth beneath, that is in the waters beneath the earth; 
you are not to bow down to them,
you are not to serve them,
for I, YHWH your God,
am a zealous God,
calling-to-account the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons, to the third and fourth generation
of those that hate me….

(Exodus 20:4-5, Everett Fox trans)

Poor unlucky great-great-great grandchildren.

Fortunately for those innocents scribes or priests knew how to subvert God’s command.

But since they are playing with God’s own words they need to be clever enough to avoid detection.

The first rule they followed was to remain anonymous. Mustn’t make it easy for God to identify the culprit.

Just as there is not a single law in the Bible that Israelite authors do not attribute to God or his prophetic intermediary, Moses, so is the converse also true. In the entire Hebrew Bible, not a single text, legal or otherwise, is definitively attributed to the actual scribe responsible for its composition. Except for the prophets, biblical authors never speak explicitly in their own voice. Instead, they employ pseudonyms or write anonymously. Proverbs, for example, is attributed to Solomon by means of its editorial superscription (Prov. 1:1), while Ecclesiastes is similarly ascribed to “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Qoh. 1:1). Neither of these attributions withstands critical examination.28 Such attributions seem rather to function to lend greater authority or prestige to a literary composition by associating it with a venerable figure from the past . . . (Levinson, Bernard M. (2003). “You Must Not Add Anything to What I Command You: Paradoxes of Canon and Authorship in Ancient Israel”, Numen, 50.1, p. 15)

It was a different matter if laws were merely “man-made”. What one mortal decreed another mortal could strike out and replace. So it was, for example, with ancient Hittite laws as we see from the following case:

If anyone blinds a free person or knocks his teeth out, formerly they would pay 40 sheqels of silver, but now one pays 20 sheqels of silver. . . (Hittite Laws #7, cited in Levinson, 2003)

Inflation or the greater need to allow for knocking out the eyes and teeth of undesirables required a change in the law and it was effected as simply as the above example shows.

But one can’t be so blunt if the laws have been divinely revealed from heaven.

Before showing how the literate class managed to nullify God’s eternal words let’s see where the idea of punishing future generations originated. It did not begin with God, but God picked it up from his reading of Near Eastern treaties. read more »

Myth of popular messianic expectations at the time of Jesus


I am copying here a post I just submitted on another forum, so with apologies to readers who have already seen this . . . .

This topic is not about “Jewish prophecies of the messiah’s arrival”. It is not about the second century Bar Kochba rebellion. Nor is it even about popular beliefs and attitudes at the time of the 66-73 CE Jewish war.

It is about the historical evidence we have or don’t have (that is the question) for:

  • widespread/popular expectations
  • of the appearance of a messiah figure to liberate Judea from Rome
  • in the early years of the first century, let’s say up to around year 30 CE

I often read and hear scholars and lay people alike saying that Palestine or the Jews generally were strongly anticipating a messianic figure to appear around the time when, lo and behold, Jesus happened to appear. This is so often said in a way that assumes it is a well-known and indisputable fact of history. But some years ago when I started looking for the evidence supporting this claim (I fully expected to find plenty) I found the task was not so easy. What was cited as evidence so often appeared to me to be vague, imprecise, ambiguous at best and very often simply not relevant — not the sort of data that historians usually like to use as foundations for hypotheses.

I have since been reassured that I was not crazy or blind by discovering several reputable scholars who do say as much: that there is scant to no evidence for

  • widespread/popular expectations
  • of the appearance of a messiah figure to liberate Judea from Rome
  • in the early years of the first century, let’s say up to around year 30 CE

I recently set out details of this [absence of] evidence in a series of blog posts responding to Richard Carrier’s arguments and supporting citations attempting to establish a popular messianic “movement” in early first century Palestine.

The details are covered in that series of posts but I will outline them here:

The Dead Sea Scrolls

Yes, there are messianic references found in some of these. But they are in fact very few compared with the total number of scrolls and surviving manuscript fragments. This relative “fewness” does not lead us to think that messianism was a particularly major preoccupation of the sectarians producing or using those scrolls (assuming “sectarians” of some sort were responsible for them).

Moreover, the messianic references that do exist do not, if I recall correctly, give any indication that a messiah was to appear “within a few years/generation” around the early first century (or any specific period). One could write of a doctrinal belief in a messianic future without being hung up about it and getting everyone around enthused to expect it to happen “any day now”.

Besides, one has to ask the extent to which the contents of the DSS throw a light on the beliefs and attitudes of the more general illiterate population.

Other Second Temple writings

The main criticisms — especially relative fewness of the references, and their generalised (nonspecific) character — raised re the DSS also apply here.

Often these writings speak of God himself directly acting in some future day of judgment. We are so accustomed to think of God doing this through a messiah that we sometimes read a messianic figure into these passages. But like the OT books, most prophecies about the “last days” do speak of God directly acting in the world and make no mention of a messianic intermediary.

Besides, is it not a giant leap to impute to the illiterate population at large certain emotional or psychological attitudes towards passages in these texts that attract our attention?

Were not those who read, studied and discussed such texts just a tiny fraction of a percent of a tiny fraction of a percent of the entire population?

The OT books

Much the same criticisms as above apply here, too. read more »

The Bifurcation of the Semitic Myth and Post-WW2 Antisemitism

[After the 1967 June War] [t]his was what the Arab had become. From a faintly outlined stereotype as a camel-riding nomad to an accepted caricature as the embodiment of incompetence and easy defeat: that was all the scope given the Arab. 

Returning to Egypt at end of the 1967 Six Day War

Yet after the 1973 war the Arab appeared everywhere as some-thing more menacing. Cartoons depicting an Arab sheik standing behind a gasoline pump turned up consistently. These Arabs, however, were clearly “Semitic”: their sharply hooked noses, the evil mustachioed leer on their faces, were obvious reminders (to a largely non-Semitic population) that “Semites” were at the bottom of all “our” troubles, which in this case was principally a gasoline shortage. The transference of a popular anti-Semitic animus from a Jewish to an Arab target was made smoothly, since the figure was essentially the same. 

Thus if the Arab occupies space enough for attention, it is as a negative value. He is seen as the disrupter of Israel’s and the West’s existence, or in another view of the same thing, as a surmountable obstacle to Israel’s creation in 1948. Insofar as this Arab has any history, it is part of the history given him (or taken from him: the difference is slight) by the Orientalist tradition, and later, the Zionist tradition. Palestine was seen—by Lamartine and the early Zionists —as an empty desert waiting to burst into bloom; such inhabitants as it had were supposed to be inconsequential nomads possessing no real claim on the land and therefore no cultural or national reality. Thus the Arab is conceived of now as a shadow that dogs the Jew. In that shadow—because Arabs and Jews are Oriental Semites—can be placed whatever traditional, latent mistrust a Westerner feels towards the Oriental. For the Jew of pre-Nazi Europe has bifurcated: what we have now is a Jewish       hero, constructed out of a reconstructed cult of the adventurer-pioneer-Orientalist (Burton, Lane, Renan), and his creeping, mysteriously fearsome shadow, the Arab Oriental. Isolated from everything except the past created for him by Orientalist polemic, the Arab is chained to a destiny that fixes him and dooms him to a series of reactions periodically chastised by what Barbara Tuchman gives the theological name “Israel’s terrible swift sword.” 

Aside from his anti-Zionism, the Arab is an oil supplier. This is another negative characteristic, since most accounts of Arab oil equate the oil boycott of 1973–1974 (which principally benefitted Western oil companies and a small ruling Arab elite) with the absence of any Arab moral qualifications for owning such vast oil reserves. Without the usual euphemisms, the question most often being asked is why such people as the Arabs are entitled to keep the developed (free, democratic, moral) world threatened. From such questions comes the frequent suggestion that the Arab oil fields be invaded by the marines. . . . (Said, Edward. 1977. Orientalism. Penguin, London. pp. 285f.)

Compare the quotation in my previous postread more »