How Does One Date the Old Testament Writings?

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by Neil Godfrey

I have been posting insights from Russell Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible (archived here) in which he argues that both many core and peripheral features of the text of the Hebrew Bible bear closer similarities to Classical Greek writings and practices than to what we find in ancient Mesopotamian and Levantine culture. Gmirkin’s hypothesis is that the authors of the biblical texts shared the wider intellectual ethos of the Hellenistic era with its interest in exploring ideal constitutional and legal systems. The Great Library at Alexandria, Egypt, was a repository of these ideas and resources that Judean scribes were known to access as freely as any other scholar of the day.

Another scholar who has argued for a Hellenistic provenance of the Biblical literature is Niels Peter Lemche, although his proposals have pointed Mesopotamia and Syria as possible centres where Judean scribes were exposed to Greek ideas and writings rather than Egypt. No doubt Judeans were exposed to Greek culture throughout the Middle East but Russell Gmirkin focuses on the Alexandrian library because we know that specific Greek texts (e.g. Plato’s Laws, Aristotle’s Politics) that contain some striking echoes in the Biblical literature were housed there and we further know that Judean scribes worked there.

In this post I thought it worthwhile addressing some of the context to Gmirkin’s book by reference to a chapter by Lemche from 2001, “How Does One Date an Expression of Mental History? The Old Testament and Hellenism” in Did Moses Speak Attic? Jewish Historiography and Scripture in the Hellenistic Period edited by Lester L. Grabbe, pp. 200-224.

Lemche begins by reminding readers of the traditional circularity of the way scholars have dated the texts:

I have set out in table format the fundamental circularity underlying the scholarly arguments for not only the dating but also for the historicity of the Biblical narratives as argued by P.R. Davies (1992) at vridar.info.

A text that seemed to include historical information might well belong to the age when this historical referent seemed likely to have existed. At least this was the general attitude. The historical referent was the decisive factor. If the information included in the historical referent was considered likely or even precise, the text that provided this information was considered more or less contemporary with the event—that is, the historical referent—although the only source of this event was often the text in question that referred to it.

In those days, everybody knew and talked about the ‘hermeneutic circle’. It was generally accepted that the study of ancient Israel was from a logical point of view based on a circellus logicus vitiosum, a false logical circle, but nobody within biblical studies believed that it was possible to avoid this logical trap. (p. 200)

But there are ways to recognize general cultural matrices of certain texts. Intellectual topics come and go like fashions, to somewhat oversimplify the point. I was reminded of this point when recently listening again to the Foucault-Chomsky debate: scientific progress, they agreed, is not linear but lurches in fits and starts as new ideas arise and old problems that once preoccupied the community are simply forgotten.

Every period in the history of humankind will give birth to a number of questions— within philosophy, religion or simple politics—that are specifically related to this period, hot subjects for a while and then forgotten. (Lemche, 2001, p. 207)

Lemche illustrates with micro-references to the scholarly dialogues of recent generations:

Every period will include specific questions and subjects of discussion. An overview of scholarship within Old Testament studies in the twentieth century will tell us that this is not only obvious, it is a truism. Thus around the turn of the nineteenth century, the Babel-Bibel controversy was at the centre of scholarly (and public) interest following the discovery of the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia. This controversy died out before the outbreak of the First World War. All studies that centre on this discussion can accordingly be dated safely to the period between the decipherment of Akkadian cuneiform in the nineteenth century and 1914. After that date it became mainly irrelevant. It was never the case that all scholars of the period agreed on a certain position in relationship to this controversy; it was rather that they all had to address it in some way or another. (p. 206, emphasis added)

Then again

In historical studies, the amphictyony became a major subject after the publication in 1930 of Martin Noth’s famous study of Israelite society in the period of the Judges. For the next 40 years this hypothesis dominated every single study about pre-monarchical Israel. Although most scholars adopted the hypothesis as their own, a few important divergent voices were heard, but even scholars who rejected the amphictyony had to address the question of such a tribal organization. If not, nobody would have paid any attention to what they wrote. For the last two decades there has been an almost total silence about the amphictyony, after a series of studies that appeared in the early 1970s removed any historical foundation for its existence. In 1984 I was able to conclude the discussion in this way: ‘The hypothesis of the amphictyony by now is irrelevant to the investigations into Israel’s past history’. (pp. 206f, emphasis added)

And once more

Between 1954 and 1970 as a consequence of the publication of George Mendenhall’s articles about the relationship between the Sinai covenant and Hittite vassal treaties from the Late Bronze Age, Old Testament scholars invested a great deal of interest in covenant theology. For the next decade and a half everything centred on the covenant that was supposed to appear here, there and everywhere in the Old Testament. After 1969, when Lothar Perlitt simply announced that covenant theology was invented by the circle of Deuteronomist theologians towards the end of independent Israelite and Judaean history, nobody continued to discuss the subject, which went into oblivion as if the discussion had never happened. (p. 207)

The point is clear:

The same was the case in ancient times . . .  Every era included a number of issues that specifically related to this period, and subjects of a lively discussion among the intellectuals of the time. (p. 207)

This is not to say that the same ideas or opinions were being expressed. Debates, disagreements, were to be expected. And even where close similarities of ideas appear, as we sometimes see between the Dead Sea Scrolls and certain early Christian texts, we can conclude no more than that different parties shared an interest in similar themes and questions. (That is, we cannot jump to the conclusion that they all belonged to the same sect.)

True, as Lemche reminds us, it is easy to find abundant similarities of themes and story types among primitive agrarian cultures around the globe. The same routines of life generate similar types of stories and images even where it is inconceivable that all these peoples were in contact with one another (e.g. flood legends). But the more complex societies become, the more sophisticated their literary outputs, the more we need to hypothesize direct cultural interchanges.

The Old Testament is not primitive folk literature:

The moment we approach the problem of dating an Old Testament text — not to say the Old Testament itself — we are confronted with the literary remains of a culturally very rich civilization. No primitive literature is found in the Old Testament. Every part of the collection of Scripture included in the Old Testament displays a sophistication that brings us far beyond the cultural borders of an undeveloped basic agrarian society.

The Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) is a fine example of this and need not be discussed in this context. Of more interest in this connection are the patriarchal narratives. Although these stories include many motifs from folk-literature or simply reflect popular stories, they are much too complicated to have originated within a milieu that was almost exclusively oral — Gunkel’s notorious campfire society — or which had just changed from oral to a written stage of literary transmission. (p. 208, my formatting)

Mesopotamian law codes as a philosophical interest

There can be no question that the Pentateuch in places is indebted to Mesopotamian literature. Gmirkin certainly does not deny this long recognized fact when he raises even more clear-cut similarities with classical Greek writings at the same time. Interestingly, contrary to what we (or I) was taught in school, Lemche explains that surviving Mesopotamian law codes were primarily philosophical literature or a form of wisdom writings; they were not real-life case-law to guide judges in everyday court hearings:

[I]n Mesopotamia the tradition of the law codes lasted for millennia, from Sumerian times until at least the coming of the Greeks and probably even longer (the cuneiform literary tradition did not die totally out before the first or second centuries CE). This law tradition was rather stable and not easily exported. More importantly, it was not a law tradition in the usual sense of the word, but rather an academic tradition only remotely related to the life in court. It was nourished in the universities of the time (the misnamed ‘scribal schools’) and belonged exclusively to this milieu. In short: the Mesopotamian law codices are not primarily expressions of forensic experience but belong among wisdom literature and represent an academic pastime. 

Lemche directs readers to Martha T. Roth who writes (Law Collections from Mesopolamia and Asia Minor, 1995):

In recent decades, the weight of scholarly opinion has come down strongly in recognition of the collections as products of the scribal schools, and as manifestations of the intellectual processes that developed other scientific treatises, including su ch topically diverse treatises as the god lists, tree lists, professions lists, mathematical lists, star lists, omen lists, pharmacopoeia, etc. (Kraus 1960; Bottéro 1992; Westbrook 1985). Others maintain that the connection of the law collections with their royal sponsors is paramount, and that the laws must be read with other products of the royal administration of justice (such as the edicts and debt remissions) as royal apologia with political and historical implications (Finkelstein 1961). (Roth, p. 4)

For Lemche it follows that the Judean scribes were exposed to these sorts of “academic” law-codes when they were exiled to Mesopotamia.

If the Pentateuchal writers shared the same interest in written law codes, themselves often impractical, incomplete, more embedded in an idealistic or religious world than a truly everyday legislative one, then for Lemche the question that opens up to us is how long after the Babylonian exile did the biblical writers compose their texts. Do we look to the Persian or the Hellenistic period?

Persian or Hellenistic provenance?

The main attraction the Persian period holds for many scholars as the time of the formation of the biblical literature is that we know so little about it. It’s a “black box”, says Lemche.

At the end of the day we simply have to admit that we know too little about the Persian period to make it a viable option and thus not only wishful thinking that the Old Testament was largely written during the centuries of Persian occupation of Palestine. If there are reflections in Old Testament literature of ideas current within the Persian Empire in, say the fifth or early fourth centuries BCE we cannot identify such ideas with any certainty. We cannot place biblical texts within an intellectual development that is otherwise unknown to us. (p. 217, emphasis added)

We do know much more about the Greek and Hellenistic world and its influences throughout Egypt, West Asia and Mesopotamia.

Now the question is: is it possible to find traces of the general intellectual climate of Hellenism within biblical literature?

Traces of Mesopatamian literature are obviously evident in the Bible; so are elements of Egyptian wisdom literature.

We need more than isolated examples, items found ‘out of context’. (Lemche, p. 220)

But mere traces of influence from here or there are not sufficient to date a text. Details can always be added or modified by scribes copying texts that may have originated centuries earlier. Take Genesis 11:31 and the beginning of the story of Abraham:

And Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot, the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out with them from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan . . . . 

If Abraham left a city of the Chaldeans then the story must be dated no earlier than 800 BCE. — which in the overall scheme of the biblical narrative would place Abraham’s departure after the time of David and Solomon. Does the reference to the Chaldeans really date the story to post 800 BCE? Not really. One lost swallow never shifted spring into summer. “Of the Chaldeans” is the sort of label that one can well imagine a later scribe deciding to add to the story he was copying for any number of reasons.

Later in Genesis 24 we read about camels and we know from archaeological evidence that camels were domesticated in this region from around 1000 BCE. — still centuries after the time the patriarchs are supposed to have lived.

As it now appears in Genesis 24 the camel may not be absolutely essential to the plot (the bringing of Rebecca to Isaac), but it would demand a number of changes to the narrative to substitute with, for example, a donkey.

Such examples say that a single piece of information might not be sufficient evidence to date a text. Even if undisputed ‘Hellenistic’ material was present in the Bible it will not automatically make the Old Testament a Hellenistic book. We need more than isolated examples, items found ‘out of context’. (pp. 219f)

Here is the vital point:

We need to find parts of what might belong to the ‘mainstream intellectual tradition’ of the period in question, not primarily single texts but larger pieces of literature, even genres.

A few isolated points of contact between Old Testament literature and the Hellenistic world will not satisfy us. (p. 220)

The relevance of Herodotus and Livy

Lemche addresses some scholarly work that has examined parallels between the writings of Herodotus and the Bible’s “Primary History” (Genesis to 2 Kings). (I have touched on some of those works — Mandell & Freedman, Wesselius, Nielsen — in earlier posts.) There are definitely ideological similarities. Both are prose epics that trace the way the deity works out his will through human agents, beginning with mythical time and moving to more recent historical events. But Lemche advises us not to become too focused on Herodotus alone since he finds even closer similarities between Primary History and the much later (Roman era) historical works of Livy. His point is that the similarities we find in Genesis to 2 Kings with histories like those of Herodotus and Livy suggest that all three works derived from a common intellectual tradition and era. Both the Biblical and Hellenistic literature share an interest in prose history as a means for exploring divine purposes in the affairs of one’s “nation”. Another common element is their interest in principles — and laws — necessary for the making of “the good person”, a moral character, an ideal society.

And this brings us back to the work of Russell Gmirkin, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible.

Greek law codes and constitutions as a philosophical interest

I dedicated several detailed posts to Gmirkin’s earlier chapter in which he addressed Greek constitutional questions as addressed by philosophers in their quest to come up with an ideal society and sets of laws that would produce virtuous, moral citizens. Those grand themes go to the heart of what the Pentateuch is all about.

More recently I have begun to address some of the specific laws and where they find common ground or divergences with those of the Greek and Mesopotamian worlds. Such content is important, and of course the more similarities there are with the Greek world the stronger Gmirkin’s case for Greek influence on the Pentateuch. But the stronger case lies in the sections already covered: the shared ideas of the functions of laws and certain constitutional arrangements, presented in very similar ways (thematic prologues, etiological myths stressing the divine origin of the laws).

These are the sorts of deep structural similarities that Lemche was speaking of as the tell-tale indicators of the general era from which the Biblical writings emerge.



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10 thoughts on “How Does One Date the Old Testament Writings?”

  1. Let me point out some more points here.

    Keith Whitelam in The invention of ancient Israel p. 27 writes :
    “Thucydides and Herodotus are often held aloft as the founders of modem historiography: their basic methodology has only had to be refined and honed by modem historians. Yet Momigliano (1990: 41-4) points out that the past for Thucydides was: of little interest in itself, its significance lay in the fact that it was the prelude to the present.”

    This “prelude to the present” is so obvious in the Hebrew Bible. It starts with the “exile” of the first born from Eden and ends with the Exile of the Israelites (the children of God) from the Promised Land. And all this cause both disobeyed His commandments.

    Wesselius in the The origin of the history of Israel, presented that the writers used the same technique Herodotus used to tell their stories and now we consider them as separated authors who were combined by a redactor.

    Thompson in “Making Room for Japheth” from Bible and Hellenism provides a good overview of the matter. You can find this article online : https://www.bibleinterp.com/PDFs/Thompson2.pdf

    In the same book Kupitz in his article “Stranger and city girl: an isomorphism between Genesis 24 and Homer’s Odyssey 6-13” among the extensive parallels (isomorphisms) between the two stories he provides and a Greek word in note 10 of page 121 he writes:
    “Hebrew ne’ara (girl) (Gen. 24:16) is loaned from Greek nearos (young, boy), fem. neara, pl. nearoi. (cf. Hom. Il. 2.289). Assurance that the loan is from Greek to Hebrew (and not vice bersa) is the fact that the Greek has an Indo-European root (nea, new), while there is no Hebrew root. In fact, ne’ara (masc. na’ar) is unattested in any other Semitic language.”

    Here we have a Greek word in the so-called J source by the way. All Gen. 24 is considered to be J.
    Plus we have and the letter of Aristeas which states ” The books of the law of the Jews” 30 and we know from Plato’s Republic and Laws, the law is what defines good and bad and the nation.

    As we know from the Peripatetics of Aristotle those philosophers back then were collecting laws from several nations, we have only the Athenian Constitution from this collection and we have from the successor of Aristotle, Theophrastus this :
    “ And indeed, says Theophrastus, the Syrians, of whom the Jews constitute a part, also now sacrifice live victims according to their old mode of sacrifice; if one ordered as to sacrifice in the same way we would have recoiled from the entire business. For they are not feasted on the sacrifices, but burning them whole at night and pouring on them honey and wine, they quickly destroy the offering, in order that the all-seeing sun should not look on the terrible thing. And they do it fasting on the intervening days.
    During this whole time, being philosophers by race, they converse with each other about the deity, and at night-time they make observations of the stars, gazing at them and calling on God by prayer. They were the first to institute sacrifices both of other living beings and of themselves; yet they did it by compulsion and not from eagerness of it.”
    Translation from M. Stern’s book “Greek and Latin authors on Jews and Judaism, Volume 1” p. 10

    And as Gmirkin pointed in Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus p.36-7 writes (Brackets mine to include the notes) :
    ” In the past, it was widely assumed that Theophrastus’s information about the Jews was highly inaccurate, [Stern, GLAJJ, 1:11-12.] but recent scholarship has pointed out that his description of Jewish religious practices corresponds to certain customs condemned in the Prophets, [Diamond, Hecataeus ofAbdera,+381 n. 118.] such as astrology, [Jer 7:17-18; 8:2; 19:13; 44:15-19; Ezek 8:16.] night offerings [Isa 65:4;cf. Ezek 8:12.] (mentioned in conjunction with honey [Ezek 16:19] ) and human sacrifice. [Isa 57:5; Jer 7:31; 19:5; 32:35; Ezek 16:20-21; 23:37-39.] “

    What we have here among other things is that one of the top philosophers Theophrastus misunderstood the Jews. A motif repeated countless times.

    Last we cannot over look the fact that the only possible time for the Jews to be asked to write down about their nation was the time the letter of Aristeas points out. And sadly we must investigate further the possibility I mentioned in a previous comment here on Vridar : http://vridar.org/2017/07/08/postmodernist-values-questions-of-power-from-reality-to-biblical-studies/#comment-82385

  2. RC, I deleted your comment. I’m sure you understand why. No reason to offer certain slanderers flippant or sarcastic remarks that they can too easily twist to justify their accusations.

  3. Another interesting point which I want to point out is that if censorship was part of ‘mainstream intellectual tradition’ (which I believe it was cause it was part of Plato’s works), then we must consider that the criticism of painters and poets in the Republic and especially the passage 10.598b, Plato considers the paintings as phantoms. The Greek word which is used is εἴδωλον , you can see it here :
    http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D10%3Asection%3D598b note 4.

    Also in passage 10.599a :

    “Do you suppose, then, that if a man were able to produce both the exemplar and the semblance, he would be eager to abandon himself to the fashioning of phantoms”

    phantoms here is again εἴδωλον.

    But εἴδωλον does not means statues, but phantom. The translation is correct, but if you see, for example the use of the word, this word started to mean Idols by the Septuagint.

    For example see this: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=ei%29%2Fdwlon&la=greek&can=ei%29%2Fdwlon0&prior=tou=to#Perseus:text:1999.04.0057:entry=ei)/dwlon-contents

    See also Ex. 20:4, the “graven image” of KJV is εἴδωλον in Septuagint.

    As it looks like εἴδωλον was used from the writers of the HB with the meaning of Idols, but they used Plato’s logic to reach the prohibition.

    Plus afterwards they called the polytheists Idolaters, by using the new meaning of the word which was for statues and they created a paradox. What I mean is that, the ancients were looking to the statues as a phantom or a symbolic representation of the gods, an εἴδωλον of the gods and the HB turned to be like they were really believed in the marbles.

    1. Yam, I have allowed you free rein with your comments till now but please read our comment policy before continuing. We look forward to comments that engage directly with the posts but less so towards those that use posts as launch pads for indirectly related comments that are better advanced on your own blog or other venue.

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