Mosaic Laws: from Classical Greece or the Ancient Near East?

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by Neil Godfrey

[These Laws] will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say,

“Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”

What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?

Deuteronomy 4:6-8 (NIV)

In the previous set of posts on Russell Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible we surveyed the broad constitutional framework of the Pentateuchal laws in comparison with Classical Greek and Ancient Near Eastern legal collections. Those posts are

  1. Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible
  2. The Pentateuch’s Debt to Greek Laws and Constitutions — A New Look
  3. David, an Ideal Greek Hero — and other Military Matters in Ancient Israel
  4. Some preliminaries before resuming Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible
  5. The Tribes of Israel modeled on the Athenian and Ideal Greek Tribes?
  6. The Bible’s Assemblies and Offices Based on Greek Institutions?
  7. Similarities between Biblical and Greek Judicial Systems
  8. The Inspiration for Israel’s Law of the Ideal King
  9. Bible’s Priests and Prophets – With Touches of Greek
  10. Primitive Democracy in Ancient Israel

In the third chapter, “Biblical, Ancient Near Eastern and Greek Laws”, Gmirkin undertakes a comparison of specific laws covering various social relations. Scholars have studied in depth the Hammurabi Law Code of Babylon in the light of the Pentateuchal laws but Gmirkin asks if it is valid to question whether ancient Greek legal codes also have relevance to the Bible.

Gmirkin draws attention to the Deuteronomy passage quoted above and asks us ot consider its international setting. Different nations are expected to observe and study Israel’s laws, comparing them with their own and with other law codes. It sounds as if the Deuteronomist had enough knowledge of other law codes to be confident that his stood head and shoulders above the rest.

Such a game-plan sounds quite odd and we know of nothing like this among the ancients of the Near East.

But we do know that elites among the Greeks did indeed write about doing just such multi-national comparisons of law codes. Is that relevant? Does that practice give meaning to Deuteronomy 4:6-8?

We have records from among the Greeks that when a new colony was to be founded or when a new government had been installed that legal experts would consult with other “nations” about their laws as preparation for drafting their own.

Gmirkin’s observation:

Thus, for instance, Roman tradi­tion claimed that the authors of their ancestral legal and political system of ca. 450 BCE first sent out a delegation to study Greek constitutions and laws; the Twelve Tablets display definite influences from the laws of Solon in Athens, supporting the notion of Greek influences on early Roman law.

International law was an important topic of study at Plato’s Academy. Plato recommended that legislators charged with creating a new law code should first thoroughly acquaint themselves with constitutions and laws from other lands. Plato’s Laws of ca. 350 BCE contained provisions allowing senior officials to travel to foreign lands for up to ten years for the purpose of observing the laws and practices of other nations, and on their return to report back their findings to a panel of legal experts that Plato envisioned as providing continuing advice to the Cretan colony.

Aristotle recommended that political science be grounded in a thorough study of constitutions and laws of other nations (Aristotle, Nicomachian Eth­ics 10.1181a-b; Aristotle, Politics 2.1260b-1274b; Aristotle, Rhetoric 1.1360a), and by ca. 325 BCE had assembled for that purpose, with the assistance of his students at the Lyceum, the constitutions of 158 states from around the Mediterranean.

His distinguished student and successor Theophrastus later completed a similar international study of laws. Comparative legal studies thus flourished in the late Classical and early Hellenistic eras, especially in the study of political science at Athens, where a broad knowledge of legal systems and their historical effectiveness was considered essential to good governance.

It appears likely that the request for a copy of the Jewish laws for the Great Library of Alexandria was made to further such international study of legal systems (see van der Kooij 2007: 289-300, especially 298-9). 

(Gmirkin, p. 74, my formatting and bolding)

If the Pentateuch was authored at the Great Library of Alexandria, then we would have a ready explanation for the international setting of Deuteronomy 4:6-8. All the law codes and discussions of constitutions and principles of the framing of ideal laws were housed there. It is not unreasonable to argue that the Mosaic laws were composed in dialogue with this literature. Greek influence was conceivably mediated most easily through Egypt’s centres of learning and Great Library.

Gmirkin acknowledges that most Greek texts that survive do not easily indicate that the biblical authors borrowed directly from them, but there is one surviving text that is a clear exception: Plato’s Laws. (Of course we have no way of knowing what other works, now lost, may have been used as sources.)

For what it is worth, I began to post on some of the striking similarities between Laws and the Pentateuch about two years ago, a project still to be completed. See

  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)
  4. Plato and the Bible on the Origins of Civilization (2015-08-13)
  5. Bible’s Presentation of Law as a Model of Plato’s Ideal (2015-08-24)
  6. Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal States (2015-09-21)
  7. Plato’s Thought World and the Bible (2016-01-30)

At that point Russell Gmirkin’s book appeared and I have chosen to interrupt my own posts to discuss his research.

In upcoming posts in this series I will look at some of Gmirkin’s comparisons of biblical laws with law found in both the Near East and Greece. Where it is arguable that influences from both regions register in the Pentateuch we will look at Gmirkin’s analysis of the relative strengths of each.



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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “Mosaic Laws: from Classical Greece or the Ancient Near East?”

  1. The whole subject is fascinating. I hope you continue to post on this, not just Gmirkin’s book, but compare-and-contrast of Hellenism and the Bible in general.

    Plato’s Laws and the Bible’s “Laws” (i.e., the Pentateuch) can both be seen as early political theory in literature. The main difference between the two are that Plato explicitly presents his book as theoretical, practical (i.e. not inspired by a deity) and futuristic (an “ideal” state that may one day exist), while the innovation of the biblical authors was to remove any notion that their writing is theory, projecting their “ideal” state into the distant *past*. This same dichotomy of political outlook more or less exists today. The political liberal (Plato’s children*) idealizes future possibilities in hoping to make the future world better than it is now; the political conservative (the Biblical authors’ children) idealizes an innocent, Edenic past which we must return to in order to improve present conditions.

    * I realize that Plato’s “Laws” are largely anti-liberal and totalitarian by our lights. I’m just speaking broadly.

    1. Andrew said: “The whole subject is fascinating. I hope you continue to post on this, not just Gmirkin’s book, but compare-and-contrast of Hellenism and the Bible in general.”

      I’d like to see a post comparing the “Noble Lie” in Plato’s Republic and Euripides’ “Bacchae,” with “Noble Lies” in the bible such as:

      (1) God lies by putting lying spirits in the mouths of his prophets:
      And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the Lord, and said, I will persuade him … I will go forth and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, Thou shalt persuade him and prevail also; go forth and do so. 1 Kings 22:21-22

      (2) Jesus lied when he told his family that he wasn’t going to the feast, but went “in secret:”
      [Jesus said] Go ye up unto this feast: I go not up yet unto this feast. … But when his brethren were gone up, then went he also up unto the feast, not openly, but as it were in secret. John 7:8-10

      Carrier says the Noble Lie in Plato’s Republic is the entire basis of the argument in Plato’s Republic, one of his most popular and well-known dialogues all throughout antiquity. This opens up many avenues of thought on the bible. For instance, Carrier says “It’s hard to say if Paul really believed the end was coming, or only used that as a device to motivate moral and social action. Either is possible.” After all, threatening people that the world is ending so they better get right with God and start loving one another could have been good incentive to get them to join the winning team!

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