Primitive Democracy in Ancient Israel

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by Neil Godfrey

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?

Austendw questioning a point made in relation to the post The Bible’s Assemblies and Offices Based on Greek Institutions?

James LaRoche has consolidated my posts on Russell Gmirkin’s book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible,  into a single document and has kindly offered his work to anyone else interested. Review of Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible.zip
https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B-K4Utar2XbFTVFoSk92Ql9zLXM [link no longer active: 24th July 2019, Neil Godfrey] Below is an excerpt of the beginning of the document:NEIL GODFREY REVIEWS
Russell Gmirkin’s
Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible
Originally posted on vridar.orgEditor’s Notes
This is a compilation of articles posted from 10/16/2016 through 2/22/207:

  • Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible
  • The Pentateuch’s Debt to Greek Laws and Constitutions — A New Look
  • David, an Ideal Greek Hero — and Other Military Matters in Ancient Israel
  • Some Preliminaries before Resuming Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible
  • The Tribes of Israel Modeled on the Athenian and Ideal Greek Tribes?
  • The Bible’s Assemblies and Offices Based on Greek Institutions?
  • Similarities between Biblical and Greek Judicial Systems
  • The Inspiration for Israel’s Law of the Ideal King
    Bible’s Priests and Prophets – with Touches of Greek

Ancillary Articles:

  • Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible – Excerpt; Chapter I
  • The First Constitution, Bernard M. Levinson
  • The Bible — History or Story
  • Berossus and Genesis
  • The Genesis Creation Story and Its Third Century Hellenistic Source?

Minor editing omits some few sentences for the purpose of focused flow of the subject, and formatting without graphics and font colors.

I reply here with my own words in favour of Russell Gmikin’s portrayal.

It is a commonplace in the historical literature to acknowledge “democratic” processes evident in the surviving records of ancient Mesopotamian and pre-classical Greek civilisations, as well as in the tribal life of early European Germanic peoples and in traditional village life today across much of the world.

The term often historically indicates nothing more than that free men had a significant collective say in major community decisions such as waging war and in holding their kings accountable. That women and slaves were omitted would disqualify such a process from being a true democracy by today’s standards but that’s not the standard applied when historians speak of democratic processes in past civilisations.

Thus Thorkild Jacobsen explained at the outset of his article “Primitive Democracy in Ancient Mesopotomia”,

We shall use “democracy” in its classical rather than in its modem sense as denoting a form of government in which internal sovereignty resides in a large proportion of the governed, namely in all free, adult, male citizens without distinction of fortune or class. That sovereignty resides in these citizens implies that major decisions—such as the decision to undertake a war—are made with their consent, that these citizens constitute the supreme judicial authority in the state, and also that rulers and magistrates obtain their positions with and ultimately derive their power from that same consent.

By “primitive democracy,” furthermore, we understand forms of government which, though they may be considered as falling within the definition of democracy just given, differ from the classical democracies by their more primitive character: the various functions of government are as yet little specialised, the power structure is loose, and the machinery for social co-ordination by means of power is as yet imperfectly developed.

Jacobsen, T. 1943. “Primitive Democracy in Ancient Mesopotomia” in Journal of Near Eastern Studies, volume 2, number 3, p. 159.

Prior to the days of absolute monarchs, even prior to the earliest historical inscriptions, we can infer from the myths of the Sumerians and Akkadians in which gods lived like humans that Sumerians and Akkadians once lived in “primitive democratic” societies.

The gods, to mention only one example, were pictured as clad in a characteristic tufted (sheepskin?) garment long after that material was no longer in use among men. In similar fashion must we explain the fact that the gods are organized politically along democratic lines, essentially different from the autocratic terrestrial states which we find in Mesopotamia in the historical periods. Thus in the domain of the gods we have a reflection of older forms, of the terrestrial Mesopotamian state as it was in pre-historic times.

The assembly which we find in the world of the gods rested on a broad democratic basis . . . . 

Jacobsen, p. 167

The “pre-historic” assembly of adult free males decided on issues such as war and peace and could grant autocratic power to one person for a limited period of time for the efficient execution of an assigned task.

In 1963 Abraham Malamat noticed striking similarities between a Sumerian Gilgamesh poem (though not the famous “epic of Gilgamesh”) and the account of the breaking away of the northern ten tribes of Israel from the Kingdom of Rehoboam (formerly the united Kingdom of Israel) in the Bible. This was published as “Kingship and Council in Israel and Sumer: a Parallel” also in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies (22, 4, 247-253).

Gilgamesh laid
the matter before
his city’s elders,

was seeking, seeking
for words:

“Let us not submit
to the house of Kishi …”

Met in assembly,
his city’s elders

answer gave
to Gilgamesh:

“Let us submit
to the house of Kishi …”

Trusting Inanna,

lord of Kullab,

took not to heart
the words of his city’s elders. 

The second time Gilgamesh,
lord of Kullab,

laid the matter before
the lads of his city, …

Met in assembly
the lads of his city
answer gave
to Gilgamesh: ..

“Let us not submit
to the house of Kishi
let us smite it with weapons.”

Gilgamesh and Aka, trans. Jacobsen (1987)

We are familiar with the biblical account of king Rehoboam (1 Kings 12) who was met with the demands of the people of the northern tribes of Israel to ease the tyrannous yoke Solomon had imposed upon them. As in the story of Gilgamesh, Malamat observed, Rehoboam sought the council of the elders (“elders” being more likely a rank or office like “senators” today than a person with nothing more distinctive than years of age) but they did not tell him what he wanted to hear. So he turned to another body (“the assembly”) who gave him permission to overrule the advice of the former council. (The full arguments of Malamat are beyond the scope of this article.)

Thus in 1 Kings 12 we find that a popular assembly from the northern tribes of Israel exercised the authority to secede from a larger kingdom; in an older Mesopotamian poem we learn of an assembly pronouncing the decision to fight off the yoke of a foreign king and appoint a local king (Gilgamesh) to carry out the necessary war.

We read of the same type of “democratic” assemblies functioning in the world of Homer’s Trojan War. The chief king, Agamemnon, was obliged to listen to the deliberations of the collective of warriors and take on board their judgments if he wanted to maintain their allegiance. In the second book of the Iliad the poet even shows us that the meanest of the low had the right to speak his mind, even severely criticising the king, in the assembly. Thersites is bullied and humiliated in the same assembly by aristocrats — and faulted for his physical appearance and squeaky voice by the poet — but only after he is allowed his say.

Even later in “classical” Greek times (especially fifth century BCE Athens) when more formal institutions were regulated to create a democratic state, we find significant differences from modern ideas of democracy: women and slaves had no political voice; certain offices were restricted to aristocrats or to property-holders. But we characterise classical Athens with the label “democracy”.

As we read in the abstract to “Democracy before Democracy?” by Yves Schlemiel,

Was democracy invented by the Greeks to replace the anarchy and imperial rule characteristic of earlier Near Eastern societies? Although what was explicitly borrowed from antiquity by modern political thinkers looks Athenian, there was democracy before the [Greek] polis. Egyptian and Mesopotamian politics relied on public debate and detailed voting procedure, countless assemblies convened at the thresholds of public buildings or city gates, disputed trials were submitted to superior courts, countervailing powers reminded leaders that justice was their responsibility. This was not full democracy but the Greek version was not perfect either….

International Political Science Review, 2000, v21, n2, pp. 99-120

Austendw goes on to argue that in the Bible the people of Israel “enter into a contract with Yahweh”. Correct. The people are given the choice and willingly, collectively, agree to do so. Of course the scenario at Sinai is not historical — unless we accept that God literally appeared on the mountain to speak to Moses and terrify the Israelites with meteorological and geological displays of his awesomeness. And even though the form and wording of some of the biblical laws appears to be in the form of Near Eastern contracts or treaties, it is nonetheless clear that in the story the people of Israel themselves, as a collective assembly, agree to the terms.

Later, Israelite assemblies will make similar decisions and reject or annul former obligations to submit to a particular king. In the period of the judges the people regularly decided to appoint an autocratic leader to lead them in war against their rulers from another ethnic group.

Russell Gmirkin’s argument is that the authors of the biblical narratives borrowed heavily from the motifs and ideals of Greek philosophical and political writings archived at the Great Library of Alexandria. Their narratives very often reflect the world of their Greek neighbours, especially as it was set out in Alexandria’s famous collections, and owe relatively little to the starkly different Near Eastern world of authoritarian kings. My discussion above has included reference to Gilgamesh stories so I will conclude by noting that M. L. West in The East Face of Helicon argues that influences of Gilgamesh stories are found in Greek epics, especially the works of Homer.


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26 thoughts on “Primitive Democracy in Ancient Israel”

  1. For a recent scholarly discussion of this vital term ‘democracy’ as an ancient political system, see Paul Cartledge, Democracy: A Life (Oxford UP, 2016). He demonstrates that there was no single form of democracy but surprisingly over 1,000 political entities existed in Greece. He discusses the important term ‘demes’ where local adult males were required to register as citizens. There is much more to his work than what I can briefly relate here. It is intended as a reading recommendation for this topic.

  2. Very nice discussion of democracy in the ancient world, Neil.

    Allow me to supplement your comments with some additional observations on democratic practices implied by the biblical text, which has a number of prescriptions and (obviously fictional) anecdotes that describe the workings of the ancient Mosaic and post-Mosaic national and local assemblies.

    The collective ratification and adoption of the laws by the nation in public rituals associated with covenant sacrifices (Ex. 24.1-8) and a formal oath of obedience by the assembled people (Deut. 27, 29; Josh. 8.3-35) were central to the presentation of the biblical law collections but has no parallel in connection with the laws of the Ancient Near East. The reading of the biblical law collections before the full assembly for ratification (Ex. 24.3; Deut. 27.26; The Letter of Aristeas 308-11) has no parallel in Ancient Near Eastern legal tradition but is also consistent with prosaic Greek legislative practices. The involvement of the national Assembly in declaring war (Judg. 20.1-8), listening to foreign ambassadors (Josh. 9.5-14) and negotiating peace treaties (Josh. 9.15-19) suggests a commitment to democratic practices similar to that found at Athens but unheard of in the Ancient Near East. The national assembly also played a role in appointing magistrates, including the king (Deut. 17). Serious cases, such as homicide, impiety or treason, might be tried by the full town assembly (Num. 35.24-25; Deut. 17.5-7) or national assembly (Deut. 13.9, 11, 14-16, implied). The Assembly at Athens also acted in a judicial capacity on cases dealing with treason or impiety. These tasks assigned to the biblical Assembly—the ratification of laws, election of national offices, judicial investigations and trials, and votes on international relations and matters of war—are all aspects of ancient democracy in action.

    Note too the correspondence between the functionality of Greek and (fictional) Mosaic assemblies and the Jewish national assembly in the Second Temple period (cf. 1 Macc. 14.25-28; The Letter of Aristeas 308-11). The institution of the Assembly as described in the archaized legislation and fictional accounts of Exodus-Judges is best understood as having been modeled on Greek and Hellenistic Era Jewish institutions IMO, as argued in my book, as you note.

    Thanks again for the high quality of the material presented in your blog.

    1. Well both you and Neil have me at a disadvantage since you wrote the book and Neil has read it whereas I haven’t read it at all. I was commenting solely on how Neil has presented aspects of it on these pages. It would be unfair on me, and unfair to you for me to discuss the particular points you raise here without first reading the entirety of your argument, which I imagine presents more substantial evidence for the sort of literary dependence on Greek notions of law and politics that you are proposing. So I must resist the temptation to respond in any detail … for the time being.

  3. For a fascinating discussion of Russell’s new book, see: On 12/11/2016 a two hour internet radio inteview aired and has now been permanently archived on SOTT Radio Network and on YouTube: “Interview with Russell Gmirkin: What Does Plato Have To Do With the Bible?”



    The interview is excellent!

  4. Neil, were I addicted to source criticism, I’d have great difficulty in resisting the notion that the opening and closing paragraphs of the above essay were penned by someone quite different from the person who wrote the bulk of the essay. Because although the opening and closing passages explicitly support Russell Gmirkin’s proposal that “biblical narratives borrowed heavily from the motifs and ideals of Greek philosophical and political writings archived at the Great Library of Alexandria,” the argument of the intervening paragraphs is utterly different. In these, we hear that Biblical narratives have strong connections with the “primitive democracy” of ancient Mesopotamia that is set out by Thorkild Jacobsen in his 1943 essay. And this argument not only contradicts but implicitly undercuts Gmirkin’s; it suggests that the writers of those biblical narratives had no need for Greek borrowings at all; the “democratic” characteristics could have developed or been derived from the primitive democratic institutions native to the Ancient Near East tradition. Is that really what you meant to say?

    1. Hi Austendw, I understood I was replying to your point expressing scepticism about democratic notions in a particular biblical narrative; hence my discussion of what are taken as democratic motifs of a kind from both Greek and West Asiatic literature. Glynn appears to suggest that my argument was as outdated as the sources from the 1940s I quoted, anyway. And Russell has focused the point back on to his particular argument away from my more general meandering.

      1. Well, Neil, my comment was somewhat tongue in cheek… I hope you realised that.

        I agree that Jacobsen’s essay is outdated in terms of its definition of those Mesopotamian institutions as “primitive democracy”. It was written in 1943 after all, in the middle of WWII, so Jacobsen was somewhat overeager to find democratic political practices in the earliest ancient civilizations, prior to the rise of Mesopotamian despotism; an argument that had resonance for his time. Malamat’s essay is somewhat outdated too, in that he seems to talk of institutions and events described in the Primary History as more historical than we are likely to now. But even so, his argument that the Gilgamesh and Rehoboam stories are related can hardly be denied (whether the two kings are viewed as tyrants or constitutionally limited in power), and this is highly suggestive of some sort of literary dependence, if nothing else.

        So, for me there is a strong familial relationship between the Mesopotamian and Biblical views of the world and political institutions from the local level to the throne. Both belong to the same tradition; breathe the same ideological air. Greek democracy, on the other hand – with its sense that the people (demos) really do have meaningful power (kratia) – seems alien to the narrators of Exodus to Judges. For the biblical narrators power resides absolutely in YHWH and his appointed representatives – priestly, prophetic and political, so that a decision of “the people” that in any way diverges from his ruling is viewed as not just disobedience but rebellion – the arrogation of power.

        1. Have you read the post on Deuteronomy’s laws for the Israelite king? There is no precedent in the political life of the ancient Near Eastern kingdoms of the time of the “history of biblical Israel” to what we read in the Pentateuch about the powers and role of the monarchy — nor how a person attained that office.

          Of course in the subsequent stages of the narrative when we have dynasties ruling the two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, we do find certain similarities with the Near Eastern political world. Aspects of the career of David, for example, have been modelled on the dynastic politics of the Persian kings according to Van Seters.

          But I know of no Near Eastern monarchy of “biblical times” where the people themselves decided to anoint a king. Kings functioned by dynastic succession. Commoners had no say.

          I think some of our disagreement over “primitive democracy” arises from different concepts of democracy. The word is used with many different connotations. I’m reminded or work meetings of senior executives where a chairperson might speak of having a democratic vote — meaning only those executives have the say-so as distinct from the director alone. For what it’s worth, I don’t even see the American or Australian systems as particularly “democratic” in any pure ideological sense of the word. But the idea that a popular assembly can caution a king (as per examples given), or judging an office-holder, king included, or appointing a king, are democratic notions (some would say “primitive”) finding expression, I believe, today as much as a few generations ago. And that’s where the Greek comparison enters the picture more than anything we find in the Near East, I believe.

          Or am I mistaken or overlooking something?

          1. The Deuteronomic view of the monarchy is indeed pretty startling from an ANE point of view – and startling even from a Biblical point of view. No other Biblical narratives follow the extreme constitutional principle that Deuteronomy expresses. So we have to be careful that we don’t turn the Deuteronomic corpus from a uniquely ideal abstraction into anything more practical and realistic than it really was, or normalise it by artificially integrating it with other biblical narratives.

            We also have to be careful that we don’t read into it things it doesn’t say. In an earlier post you write “The King was to be elected by an assembly of the citizens”. But where did you see that? Deuteronomy 17:15 says “You shall set over you as king the one whom YHWH your god shall choose.” There is absolutely no suggestion of a popular election, and Deuteronomy makes no mention of a national assembly doing the electing. I think that you may have introduced this notion from other biblical texts, and have thereby created a “synthetic” proposition that no biblical text either described or envisaged. More to the point, that notion of a king elected by an assembly of citizens seems already to have been vaguely derived from some sort of possibly Greek democratic model… so there’s no surprise when you compare it with actual Greek texts, and find parallels.

            Or, to put it like an episode of CSI, we have to ensuire that the biblical evidence has not been cross-contaminated with Greek ideas, so that the apparent match with Greek textual evidence turns out to be untrustworthy or erroneous.

            1. The popular election of a king comes from Deut 17:14-15

              14 When thou art come unto the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, and shalt possess it, and shalt dwell therein, and shalt say, I will set a king over me, like as all the nations that are about me;

              15 Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee: thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother.

              God chooses by the lot. It is the popular assembly who are demanding the king. That’s king by popular demand.

              Saul was elected via lot after the people demanded a king to be set over them.

              That’s more Greek than Near Eastern. The election of rulers in Deut 17, Judges and 1 Samuel is certainly not influenced by a knowledge of the dynastic families dominating Near Eastern kingdoms.

              1. Well, I think a popular decision TO HAVE A KING is not quite the same as ELECTION OF A KING as you word it. For me there’s a difference: not “king by popular demand” but “kingship by popular demand”. This scenario appears in Judges & I Samuel, is alluded to in Deuteronomy, and IMO is the way ancient historiographers explained the supposed transition from rule by heroes/ judges to a monarchy. “How kingship BEGAN in Israel” rather than a blueprint for an ongoing constitution whereby individual kings are thereafter to be elected by the democratic National Assembly.

                The subsequent narratives of the varaious monarchies are clearly in line with the idea of dynastic succession, with the dynastic marriages, violent coups and usurpations typical of the ANE.

              2. I think we are tripping up over each other because of semantics. Sometimes “democracies” as we know them hold assemblies in which each person registered a tick or cross to express a desire to change a constitution, an entire form of government. Sometimes the will of the people is made well enough known without such formal plebiscites or shows of hands and governments have changed as a result. These are among the sorts of processes that I think come under the rubric of “democratic” powers and expressions of popular will — where people “elect” or “demand” to have a new type of government and the leadership listens and responds. Forget the word “election” if you like; it is the process of popular will (variously expressed) determining a form of government that is being discussed.

                You are quite right about the subsequent narratives of the various monarchies, but we have discussed these in relation to Gmirkin’s point already. The dynastic narratives are indeed akin to other Near Eastern absolutist monarchies.

              3. Well perhaps we are indeed differing over semantics.

                But in truth I don’t think it matters much. I am suggesting that the appearance of democracy in Deuteromony is accidental. The primary aim is to establish a Covenantal Nomocracy – the people and institutions are repeatedly enjoined to read the law, listen to it, inscribe it, follow it, observe it. I suspect that if democratic possiblities do arise from that programme, they are unintentional consequences, which is why Deuteronomy doesn’t make them explicit or build them into the substance of the law.

                Just to make it clear, I am not ruling out Greek influence on these texts, but IF there is such influence, it will surely be found in the realm of the law’s supremacy, not democratic principles.

              4. I am not trying to suggest (nor is Russell Gmirkin, I am sure) that the Pentateuch is a tract advocating political democratic principles. Of course it is about an ideal law and society. The ideals are sourced from God. The point is that that is all very Greek, too. It’s what Plato taught in his Laws. The “democratic principles” (assemblies voicing their commitments, wishes, etc) are the mechanisms by which or through with the people embrace (or reject) the ideal government.

            2. Recent sources have also argued that the group addressed as “you” by Moses throughout Deuteronomy, and in the constitutional sub-document at Deut. 16.18–18.22 in particular, should be identified as the assembly of Israel. When Moses instructed this group to select both judges and king from among their own number, this has thus been interpreted to mean election by the national assembly. See Joshua Berman, “Constitution, Class, and the Book of Deuteronomy,” Hebraic Political Studies 1 (2006): 530 [523-548]; idem, Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 60-61; Anselm Hagedorn, Between Moses and Plato: Individual and Society in Deuteronomy and Ancient Greek Law (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2004), 113-116.

              1. Well, I can find nothing in the Berman essay that suggests that selection of judges and kings involved “election by the national assembly”.

                Berman comments that “there is no precise mechanism prescribed for the appointment of judges. That is, Deuteronomy does not say anything about which representative bodies should make this decision…”(p. 539)
                Of kingship: “The king is to be he ‘whom God will choose’ (17:15). Deuteronomy, however, is not explicit regarding how God makes his will known on this matter. Nonetheless … the elections of Saul and David, respectively, by the prophet Samuel are narrated utilizing precisely this terminology of divine chosenness (I Samuel 10:24, 16:8–10). By doing so, the author of Samuel implicitly suggests that God chooses candidates for kingship through the agency of the prophet.” (p. 541) But then, not quite consistently: “The king is appointed by the collective ‘you.’ How that selection occurs, apparently, is an issue that Deuteronomy deliberately left open, so as to imply that no body a priori has a greater divine imprimatur than any other.” (p. 547)

                Now Hagedorn does indeed propose that it was the “assembly” (all free adult males) who selected judges (p117-118) and proposes the Athenian procedure as a plausible model… in the absence of anything explicitly stated in Deuteronomy itself. Perhaps he’s right, perhaps he isn’t; how can we tell? However, when summing up his discusses the law of the king he says: “Democracy in Ancient Israel is – as in the Greek world – the right of free adult males to elect their ruler from their assembly” (p. 141) his account simply ignores the phrase “whom YHWH your god shall choose” (Deut 17:15a) and is therefore surely an inadequate portrayal of what Deuteronomy was trying to convey.

              2. Good comments, Austendw. You are quite right that Deuteronomy 17 is not procedurally explicit on the appointment of a king, but it is apparent that there was a role envisioned for both the national assembly and for divine selection. This is probably clarified in 1 Samuel, when a national assembly was called and then Saul was selected as king by lot, first by tribe, then clan, then family, etc. Offices were filled in Athens either by democratic election (for positions with qualifications) or by lot. Election by lot (for instance, to the Boule or Senate) was also considered an expression of democracy in Greece, since any citizen could attain office by this means; and yet there was also the sanction of the divine, based on whom the lot fell. For appointment by lot as both combining democracy with an element of divine providence, see Plato, Laws 6.759b-c; cf. Glenn Raymond Morrow, Plato’s Cretan City: A Historical Interpretation of the Laws (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 162-63.

                You are likewise correct that the Pentateuch laid down a system of rule by law, something invented by the Greeks, which I discuss extensively in my book (especially in Chapter 4 on law collections). Likewise Greek covenantal commitment to law codes, something not found in the Ancient Near East.

                The uniquely Platonic element in the system of government in the Pentateuch and historically in Hellenistic Era Judea was the notion of rule by God (mediated by priests), a novel system of government that Josephus called theocracy for which he claimed originality by the Jews, but which was historically invented by Plato in Plato’s Laws. This points to direct Platonic influence on the Mosaic laws more so than the broadly Greek democratic features (which, however, was also a feature in the constitution described in Plato’s Laws).

              3. Russell, I don’t think it’s sensible for me to respond in any detail until I have read your Plato book. There are also areas that I seriously need to read up about. For example, I don’t know what a “Greek covenantal commitment to law codes” even looks like, let alone how it compares with the notion of the “covenant with YHWH” expressed in the Pentateuch (and 2 Kings etc).

                I should also put my cards on the table. With the greatest respect I was not convinced by the central argument of your Berossus/Manetho book, however appealing its elegant simplicity. I simply can’t square the very, very narrow chronological window you propose for (a) the publishing of the Greek source books, (b) the writing of the Pentateuch (in Hebrew) and (c) translation (back into Greek) with the complex stratification of the biblical text, which for me bespeaks a longer time frame for the process of writing, editing, composing, rewriting, reediting etc.

                It will be interesting to see if I will have similar concerns in respect of the Plato book. I suspect I will: noting that whereas I talked of “Deuteronomy”, your response referred to the “Pentateuch” as if there were no significant differentiation. I see Deuteronomy as a distinct “stratum” (not just a “source”) bearing a particular revisionist relationship to earlier strata (as discussed by Levinson) and this, while not requiring acceptance of either the absolute or even relative chronology proposed by the traditional DH, does require a more extended chronology than your theory would allow.

  5. Neil, I have been reading your excellent blog for some time but have not commented before.

    I believe that you well know that the Epic of Gilgamesh is a myth, and while we may extrapolate general cultural features from myth, it is dangerous to make specific claims such as Jacobsen makes about “primitive democracy” whatever that is.

    I can quote scripture as well as any man. In this case to depict Gilgamesh as a tyrant (modern usage) of Trumpesque proportions.

    Translation Alexander Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels

    Tablet I, column ii,

    line 11. The men of Uruk fu(me) in (their) cha(mbers(?):
    line 12. “Gilgamesh lea(ves) no son to (his) fath(er);
    line 13. (Day) and (night his) outra(geousness) continues unrestrained

    line 16. Gilgamesh leaves no (virgin to her lover),
    line 17. The daughter of a warrior, the chosen of a noble!

    Well you get the idea. Gilgamesh is set up as the shepherd who is acting like a wolf, when the gods create Enkidu, as a foil to Gilgamesh, he is a hunter who takes the side of the animals. Thus both act in manners contradictory to the “natures”. The mythical elements are part of a story that presents, and to some extent overcomes, the contradictions of the Babylonian/Assyrian culture.

    It is not valid to assume from this extract that real kings habitually behaved in this fashion, even though they possibly all did at times. In the same way it is not valid to assume, from the probability that kings consulted with their most important subjects, that these cultures represented some kind of “proto-democracy”.

    As part of my honours degree in Anthropology, I wrote a structural analysis of the Gilgamesh Epic. If you are interested I could probably dig it out of the archives.

    1. Hi Glynn. Thanks for the comment. The mythical tale I was referring to was not the epic but one of five Gilgamesh poems not found as part of that famous epic. The principle inferred is that the framers of such mythical tales depicted life as they knew it — geographical, anthropomorphic, social and political structures — and projected that life into their myth-making. Such mythical tales attained a stability that survived more or less long after social and political conditions of societies changed. That’s the theory, as you probably know, but it’s been a long time since I have delved into related anthropological studies. So if that idea has gone the way of the Ark then I will happily attempt to remove it from my memory banks. Can you give me more critiques of that idea?

      Certainly I would never consider the Gilgamesh of the renowned epic a “democrat”. As you rightly point out, he was the polar opposite.

      My little background refresher and update reading tells me that the epic is primarily (but not exclusively) derived from Semitic origins; on the other hand the poem to which I was referring is grounded in a Sumerian past. The poem I was addressing is said to have no trace of Semitic background. Samuel Noah Kramer wrote in the American Journal of Archaeology (1949)

      Available at present, wholly or in part, are the texts of five Sumerian epic talcs concerned with the deeds and adventures of the hero Gilgamesh; an analysis of their contents reveals that, while there was no Sumerian original for the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh as a whole, several of the individual episodes and motifs can be traced back to Sumerian prototypes. However, by no means all of the Sumerian tales concerned with Gilgamesh were utilized by the Semitic authors and redactors of the Epic of Gilgamesh; it is one of these tales, an epic poem of which there is not a trace in the Semitic work, that forms the basis of the present study.

      This Sumerian poem, which for reasons that will soon become obvious may be entitled “Gilgamesh and Agga,” is one of the shortest of all Sumerian epic tales; it consists of no more than 115 lines of text. In spite of its brevity, however, it is of unusual significance from several points of view. In the first place, its plot deals with humans only; unlike the rest of the Sumerian epic tales, it introduces no mythological motifs involving any of the Sumerian deities. Secondly, it is of considerable historical importance since it provides a number of hitherto unknown facts concerning the early struggle between the cities of Kish and Erech. . . .

      Interestingly (perhaps of some significance for the point I made?) the poem is said to contain “no mythological motifs”.

      I’m interested in any and all updates. Of course I was digging back into the dim past in a search for something close to roots of the current allusions to “primitive democracy” in past societies. And I’m always interested in anything related to ancient literature and expect to be returning to the Epic of Gilgamesh as I do further reading on possible West Asiatic-Greek literary links, so if you feel inclined I won’t knock back reading a structural analysis of the epic.

  6. Neil, thank you for your kind reply. In fact I wasn’t aware of the Sumerian fragment of Gilgamesh and Aka (or Agga), so I though it was from Gilgamesh epic itself. This was all many years ago. Having ‘caught up’ as it were, I note that when Gilgamesh doesn’t get the answer he likes from the elders, he goes the ‘populist’ route of stirring up the young men.

    I’ll definitely see if I can dig out my old paper. I’ll have to covert it to digital form if I can, that’s how old it is.

    Of course the authors of myths would incorporate cultural elements into their narratives, but as with biblical stories, there may exaggerations and inversions, or straight out inventions, in service of the ‘mythos’, that make any information dubious on face value, without corroboration from other sources.

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