Posts in this series are archived at Gmirkin: Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible
Popular culture presents us with an image of ancient classical Athens, the days of Pericles, of Socrates, the mocking playwrights and the democratic assemblies, as a time of free-thinking, exploratory enlightenment. It is difficult to imagine some of its laws being as benighted as those of the Taliban or Moses with summary executions for anyone deemed an apostate.
Imagine the following law of Deuteronomy being applied in fifth and fourth century BCE Athens. Or rather, try to imagine the following law of Deuteronomy being inspired by the Greek law. That means shifting time-line gears to imagine the biblical law being composed not in the archaic Bronze Age but in Hellenistic times, say around the third century BCE, and drawing upon Greek literature for its ideals and narrative contexts.
If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone them to death . . . .
If you hear it said about one of the towns the Lord your God is giving you to live in that troublemakers have arisen among you and have led the people of their town astray, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods you have not known) . . . .
Could such a law that can be seen as an epitome of all that is barbaric about the Mosaic covenant have anything in common with democratic Athens?
The above law addresses not only the introduction of new gods but places some stress on this being done “secretly”. Compare Deuteronomy 12 where private worship and sacrifice is forbidden. All worship and sacrifice must be public, centred around the public shrine or temple.
Notice also that the law relies upon people listening to rumours and reporting these to an assembly who would arrange for an inquiry.
What about these laws?
You shall not allow a sorceress (φαρμακοὺς) to live.
Now a man or a woman who is a medium or a spiritist shall surely be put to death.
Let no one be found among you who … practices divination or sorcery (φαρμακός), interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. . . .
I presume there is no need for me to remind us all of laws against blasphemy and insulting the deity.
Has there ever been a society where these laws were applied in reality? Or were they a literary fiction? A philosophical or theological ideal of certain factions of priests? (One of the details I find myself mildly critical of Gmirkin’s thesis is that he discusses both literary or theoretical legislation along with known official law-codes. Perhaps he is meaning to suggest that those responsible for the Pentateuchal laws drew upon both forms of law as recorded in the Alexandrian library without distinction. See previous posts in the archive for background discussion.)
Let’s see how it was in democratic Athens. We have already noted several of the “democratic” features of the Biblical code with its emphasis on investigations and decisions being made by local assemblies.
Stoned for impiety
Aeschylus, the tragedian, around early/mid fifth century BCE, was according to a late historical record tried by the Athenian assembly for impiety. He was apparently accused of revealing certain secret religious rites in one of his plays. The assembly was about to stone him for his crime, we are informed. He was only saved by the intercession of his brother who showed that he had been the first to win an award for valour for an action in which he lost his and in the recent war against Persia.
Death for denying, mocking or contradicting the gods
The philosopher Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, around 437/6 BCE, denied that the sun was a god and said it was, instead, merely a red-hot mass of stone. The Athenian assembly came within a few votes of sentencing him to death for this blasphemy after a prolonged trial. His student, Pericles, pleaded for his life. One account indicates that the stress took its toll on Anaxoragas to the extent that he committed suicide.
Speaking against or failing to respect the worship of the gods
Diagoras of Melos around 410 BCE was living in Athens where he was accused of disparaging the Mysteries and causing many to turn away from following the rituals, or according to another version, “he described the Mysteries in detail to everyone, making them common and insignificant, and dissuading those who wished to be initiated”. The Athenian assembly imposed the penalty of death upon him. He was not present at his trial but the assembly offered a reward of a talent of silver to anyone who killed him and two talents of silver to anyone who brought him back alive to face the Athenian assembly.
Death to Agnostics
According to an account by Sextus Empiricus of the later second century CE Protagoras of Abdera, like Diagoras of Melos also around the 410s BCE, wrote
Concerning gods, I am able to say neither whether they exist nor of what sort they are, since the obstacles hindering me are many.
Another, Diogenes Laertius a little later, concurred. Protagoras, he said, wrote
Concerning gods, I cannot know either that they exist or that they do not exist, since the obstacles to knowing are many: the uncertainty, and the fact that a man’s life is short.
The Athenian assembly accordingly voted to condemn him to death. One account informs us that luckily he escaped by ship, but unluckily his ship was wrecked and he drowned. Don’t mess with the gods.
Death for privately introducing new gods, and “sorcery (pharmacy?)”
We also have a record of the priestess named Ninus (around 350 BCE) who was accused of violating Athenian law by initiating converts into the mysteries of foreign gods. She was executed. Attempts were then made to condemn some of her followers in the same way, since we read Demosthenes arguing (ca 343 BCE)
. . . but having gotten hold of the son of Atrometus the schoolteacher and Glaucothea, who assembles the religious groups for which another priestess has been put to death, . . . are you going to acquit him?
Two accounts of Ninus’s crime have come down to us. One is that she really was involved with manufacture of illegal drugs, specifically “love-potions for the young”. Another is more “religious” as we understand the term:
They put the priestess to death because they believed that these initiation rites were from the beginning a mockery and an act of hubris against the real Mysteries; after that, since the god declared by an oracle that they should allow them to take place, they permitted Aeschines’ mother to conduct initiations.
(The twists and turns of religious authority! Again I am reminded of a cult to which I belonged when after a change of leadership practices that had once been said to have been of the Devil were now said to be from God!)
Ditto, without the sorcery
We have several accounts of the courtesan Phryne (340s-330s BCE). One of these from the third century CE:
For example, Phryne is on trial for impiety …, since she has held a revel in the Lyceum, introduced a novel god, and assembled religious groups of men and women. So, then, “I have demonstrated to you that Phryne is impious …, that she shamelessly held a revel, that she is the introducer of a novel god, and that she assembled illegal religious groups of men and women.”
Other accounts, surely apocryphal, relate how her defender stripped her to her waist in order to show her beauty to the Assembly, in order to help persuade them to acquit her. Death was the alternative.
Death for practicing magic, sorcery, “healing”, and prophecy
A list like that amounts to throwing the whole Pentateuch at the accused victim and the penalty was indeed death. The person was another woman, Theoris, around 325 . Someone passed on their suspicions, the assembly was called, and death followed.
This man here— I will say nothing of the rest, but the things for which you put to death that foul woman Theoris, the Lemnian, the sorceress [pharmakida], her and her entire family … — these things, the drugs and the incantations, he got from Theoris’ slave woman, the one who informed against Theoris at that time; and by the very same woman this sorcerer has procreated, and he is playing superstitious tricks and deceiving people and claiming that he heals epileptics. . . .
[Demosthenes] also prosecuted the priestess Theoris for committing numerous misdeeds, including, in particular, teaching her slaves to deceive; he proposed a penalty … of death and got her executed.
Theoris was a seer, and she was tried for impiety … and put to death, as Philochorus also says in his sixth book.
Impiety and Treason hand in hand
Not even the great Aristotle (ca 323 BCE) was immune from charges of impiety. He had to escape from Athens when a priest brought charges against him for criticizing the Persian king for unjustly killing Hermias, the ruler of Atarneus, a city in Asia Minor, and regularly lamenting of how ungodly the crime was.
Even flippancy towards the gods could result in exile
An excerpt from Diogenes Laertius on the banishment of Stilpon who lived around late fourth-early third century BCE:
They say that Stilpon propounded an argument of this sort concerning the Athena of Pheidias: “Is Athena daughter of Zeus a god?” And when someone said “Yes,” Stilpon said, “But this Athena is not Zeus’ but Pheidias’.” And when that was agreed to, he said, “Well, then, she is not a god.” Even when he was summoned to the Areopagus for this, he did not deny it but asserted that his examination had reached the correct conclusion, since she was not a god but a goddess; gods were the male ones. All the same, the Areopagites ordered him to leave the city immediately.
I have chosen to do no more than list the known cases of such trials and penalties for “impiety” and related offences (with two exceptions) that are addressed in the above sections of the Pentateuch. The laws of Moses were not, we can see, anomalous in the ancient world. They reflect the reality of “religious” law in Athens that would have been known to readers in the Hellenistic Library of Alexandria in the third century BCE.
Yes, some of the charges were surely politically motivated attempts to get rid of political rivals, but the fact remains that “religious” laws were available for this purpose.
There are two trials that I have not covered here and they are surely the most well-known ones. The details we have of these trials are rich enough to fill out a future post.
Details and quotations relating to the ancient trials for impiety all come from
Phillips, D. (2013). The Law of Ancient Athens. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Phillips is one of several sources cited in
Gmirkin, R. E. (2016). Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. New York: Routledge.
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