Meanwhile — as if one can slip from the contents of the above article with a helpless sigh — Tom Holland, a historian whose books I’ve much enjoyed — “Unlike most historians, Tom Holland writes books which bring the past to life” — has gone a bit funny with his gushiness over Christianity . . . .
The reason I mention him in this context is that he has most recently he has produced a Channel 4 doco for the BBC that I have not seen, but I have read first, a rebuttal of a rebuttal of the doco, and then I read the rebuttal of the doco. I found both worth thinking about.
First, the one I also read first, the rebuttal of the rebuttal of Tom Holland’s doco:
[Greeks] are very fond of hearing about the genealogies of heroes and men, Socrates, and the foundations of cities in ancient times and, in short, about antiquity in general . . . — Hippias speaking to Socrates in Plato, Greater Hippias, 285d
Greek foundation stories provide the closest correspondence with the Pentateuchal narratives that introduce the Mosaic laws and merit a detailed comparative analysis. — Gmirkin, Plato and the Hebrew Bible, p. 225
I am sure most students familiar with the Bible who take up reading the literature of Classical and Hellenistic Greece at various points pause and wonder at some striking similarity between the two literatures. Are those similarities merely coincidental or the inevitable product of a common cultural milieu or is there some other explanation? In delving into the details of some of those points in common Russell Gmirkin concludes that the authors of the biblical narratives, including the law codes, had access to the wealth of Greek literature at the Great Library of Alexandria in the Hellenistic Age, that is, from some time after death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE.
Russell Gmirkin (Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible) compresses so much information into his chapters that I need to regularly pause from reading and start the work of unpacking his citations and endnotes in order to fully appreciate just how interesting his case is. After surveying the range of literary genres in which Greeks expressed their partiality towards narratives providing backgrounds to the origins of their constitutions and laws he decides to focus on the Greek foundation narrative as being the closest in form to what we find in the Pentateuch.
The foundation story most of us are probably aware of is the Roman epic, the Aeneid, the story of the wanderings of Aeneas from the fallen Troy to seek a new land in Italy. Don’t let the “post-biblical” date of Virgil’s composition mislead you, though, since
It should be clear, first of all, that the Aeneas legend and the stories associated with it are quite ancient and may be traced back — as the various paintings on archaeological artifacts show — to the seventh century B.C.E. That these stories actually belong to the genre of “foundation stories” about foundations of cities by single heroes has been noted by F. B. Schmid, who surveyed the foundation legend of the Greeks, and observed that the Aeneid epic was patterned after them. (Weinfeld 1993, pp. 16f)
Most of us have heard of the voyages of the Argonauts and this story also contains within it the beginnings of another foundation story, that of Cyrene. After trekking through an African desert in a quest sometimes eerily echoing the story of Israel’s wandering in Sinai, a son of the god Poseidon gives Euphemus, one of the Argonauts, a clod of earth as a sign that his descendants will return and possess the land of Cyrene.
The Spartans believed themselves descendants of the sons of Heracles who, long after Heracles himself had left the earth and not unlike the Israelites under Joshua, invaded the Peloponnesian peninsula to claim it as their own land as promised by Zeus to their illustrious forefather.
Motifs commonly found among the foundation myths as taken primarily from Gmirkin’s discussion but with a few touches added from some of the sources he cites:
A hero leaves a settled home to wander through new lands
A god promises the hero that his descendants will one day possess the land where he is now a stranger
After some generations the hero’s descendants face pressures of some kind (plague, oppression, overpopulation, threats of war…) so return to claim (conquer) the land promised to their forefather(s)
Sometimes an unforseen delay or setback appears to sidetrack or threaten the expedition on its way to reclaiming their promised land
The new conquerors are led by a wise hero who often has had special preparatory experiences (living with the wise, contacts with a god) to qualify him to be their military leader who would lead the expedition as an armed force
Often the military leader would be accompanied by a priest or prophet
The new conquerors bring their “rightful” god(s) of the land with them; the god would sometimes be consulted throughout the period of migration
The leader of the expedition would also give them the laws and political constitution by which their new society was to be governed
After conquest land was fairly divided by lot
The founder was revered, often with his own cult, and an agricultural festival was turned into a festival commemorating the events of a people’s ancestors migration to and conquest of their land
I will post some of the myths illustrating the above in future posts. (In some myths, such as Aeneas’s mission being realized through Romulus and Numa, a single hero would be replaced by a succession of heroic figures.)
The Canaanites inhabited the Levant region during the Bronze Age and established a culture that became influential in the Near East and beyond. However, the Canaanites, unlike most other ancient Near Easterners of this period, left few surviving textual records and thus their origin and relationship to ancient and present-day populations remain unclear. In this study, we sequenced five whole genomes from ∼3,700-year-old individuals from the city of Sidon, a major Canaanite city-state on the Eastern Mediterranean coast. We also sequenced the genomes of 99 individuals from present-day Lebanon to catalog modern Levantine genetic diversity. We find that a Bronze Age Canaanite-related ancestry was widespread in the region, shared among urban populations inhabiting the coast (Sidon) and inland populations (Jordan) who likely lived in farming societies or were pastoral nomads. This Canaanite-related ancestry derived from mixture between local Neolithic populations and eastern migrants genetically related to Chalcolithic Iranians. We estimate, using linkage-disequilibrium decay patterns, that admixture occurred 6,600–3,550 years ago, coinciding with recorded massive population movements in Mesopotamia during the mid-Holocene. We show that present-day Lebanese derive most of their ancestry from a Canaanite-related population, which therefore implies substantial genetic continuity in the Levant since at least the Bronze Age. In addition, we find Eurasian ancestry in the Lebanese not present in Bronze Age or earlier Levantines. We estimate that this Eurasian ancestry arrived in the Levant around 3,750–2,170 years ago during a period of successive conquests by distant populations. (The bolding is mine.)