The Law of Moses, a Reflection of the Law that Condemned Socrates and Other Greek Philosophers

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by Neil Godfrey

Posts in this series are archived at Gmirkin: Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible


Details of Greeks condemned for impiety in this post are taken from Phillips, one of several works cited in Gmirkin’s book.

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.

Deuteronomy 13:6-13

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?

I have inserted the Greek word translated sorceress (pharmakous) and sorcery (pharmakos) for old time’s sake. It reminds me of many years ago when we interpreted that injunction as a command against modern pharmaceutical products — and pharmacy itself, of course! — But the cruel insanity continues. I see today on a Christian blog the lesson that Christians according to Paul have the right to execute certain sinners today, but (fortunately) the civil power is all that stops them from the obligation to do so. 

Exodus 22:18

You shall not allow a sorceress (φαρμακοὺς) to live.

Leviticus 20:27

Now a man or a woman who is a medium or a spiritist shall surely be put to death.

Deuteronomy 18:10ff

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.

Aeschylus was rescued from stoning by the intercession of his brother

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.

From Demosthenes,

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. . . .

From Plutarch,

[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.

From Harpocration,

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.

Phidias’s Athena

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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17 thoughts on “The Law of Moses, a Reflection of the Law that Condemned Socrates and Other Greek Philosophers”

  1. Interesting that I am unsure of your point. Not a very clear-thinker is my self-assessment. However, the fact that a case can be made that Sargon of Agade was a Semite and descended probably from Reu means that Abram – a forefather of Moses – had a pretty direct line of connection to Noah. This is so because Sargon of Agade ruled contemporaneously with Abram. If this general connection is so then what does this say about Noah? The Noachian Law starts to seem Jewish fables or a Rabbinic construction. I can’t see how Noah could have missed the essentials of ‘Mosaic’ Law. I THEREFORE WONDER HOW FAR REMOVED were the Greeks from the same source of Law?


    Ian Shears

    1. Please check our comment policy. Comments that address the post itself are welcome. Comments that use the post as a springboard to peddle one’s own religious beliefs and constructs are not. Discussions of Noah or Abraham as historical persons, or creationist types of time-lines, have no place here.

  2. The laws in any democracy will tend to gravitate toward reinforcing the attitudes of the mass of voters. It’s not surprising to me that there were laws on the books protecting the superstitions that many took very seriously. That is a serious challenge to democratic rule – the oppression of unpopular voices and ideas that challenge the majority. Athens had no protections of the rights of minorities like the US Bill of Rights is supposed to guarantee.

    I don’t know a lot about many of the people mentioned in this article, but I am rather skeptical about the claim that Socrates found himself in trouble solely for things he might have said about religious matters. His trial took place after Athens freed itself from the Thirty Tyrants who engaged in an orgy of murder of democrats and theft of their wealth, and students of Socrates were prominent in this anti-democratic purge. Socrates’s elitist teachings that some are born to rule, and others to be ruled, likely contributed to the policies of the tyrants. When order was restored there was supposed to be an amnesty protecting the supporters of the tyrants from further recrimination – victims were even prohibited from suing for the return of their properties stolen by the tyrants and their cronies.

    The chief accuser of Socrates is said to be Anytus, who was a hero of the resistance. He personally lost a great deal in the struggle, but won praise for his restraint in honoring the amnesty and not pursuing grudges against the oligarchs. That might have protected Socrates for his association with traitors like Alcibiades and Critias, but it would not protect him from anything he might later do. It’s likely Socrates continued his anti-democratic sophistry, inculcating in his aristocratic students contempt for their fellow citizens – which before might have seemed relatively harmless but after the reign of terror by the Thirty Tyrants could easily been seen as dangerous not only to the democratic institutions, but to life, limb, and livelihood.

    I know Socrates is often held up as a model of free thought, but when we observe the actions of his star pupils we can see that his philosophy was far from what any of us would want for our communities: ‘the mass of mankind born with saddles on their backs, and a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.’

    Such is Plato’s skill in spinning his tale of the trial of Socrates that he is made out to be a martyr and his accusers are the tyrants.

    1. I often wonder if Plato believed in the myths he advocated for, or if these were really just noble lies for the good of the city.

      In Book 2 of the “Republic” Socrates reviews what stories the children may hear about gods in the ideal city, and his discussion makes clear that quite a few traditional stories are worth keeping and retelling. Zeus judges the souls of the dead, punishing the wicked and rewarding the just. The great technological inventions that human beings possess were given to them by the gods. Such wholesome tales are to be repeated in earnest, so that the young may grow up with a pious sense of gratitude toward their divine benefactors.

      On the other hand, following Xenophanes, Plato in the “Euthyphro” and Book 2 of the “Republic” that I mentioned point out that any stories about the gods’ quarreling with one another, or lying to human beings, or changing shape, or being overwhelmed by lust, or sleeping with one another’s spouses, strike the Socrates we find in Plato’s dialogues as unseemly, and impossible of containing truth. (If the truth in them is something allegorical, they still need to be suppressed, because the typical young listener cannot tell the difference between a symbolic meaning and the superficial narrative.)

      For the source of some of the ideas here see http://www.askphilosophers.org/question/4976

      1. Part of the reason for my delay in posting the above on Gmirkin’s study is that I was distracted into following up several works related to your question. One view is that Plato’s works are largely attempts to justify and win public acceptance for philosophers such as Socrates and himself, and to do that he had to be careful to present his peers in a “godly” light, with no conflicts against the gods. His arguments for the immortality of the soul are also considered by some to be less than serious (being more metaphorical than literal) but sufficient to appease public perceptions.

        1. I’ve often wondered how we went from the perfectly reasonable and Philosophical view on death from Socrates as not knowing whether death was a simple nothingness, or rather something more desirable, to the elaborate structure of death we find in later Platonic “Republic (“Myth of Er”)” where in death there is:

          -the presence of a conception of “punishment” and “reward” (in other words, punishment for an evil life, and, conversely, reward for living a meritorious life, meted out by a panel of judges in the underworld);
          -the possibility of rebirth or reincarnation; and
          -an underworld with clearly marked out “good places” and “bad places.”

          This vision of Plato would certainly be more socially effective than that of Socrates. It reminds me of this quote from Heraclitus:

          The best of men choose to know the One above all else;
          It is the famous “Eternal” within mortal men.
          But the majority of men are complacent, like well-fed cattle. They revel in mud; like donkeys, they prefer chaff to gold.

          (Heraclitus, Fragment 29, 13, 9)

          1. It’s interesting how optimistic Plato’s view of the afterlife is given the pessimistic account given of the afterlife given in Homer in Book 11 of the Odyssey (circa 750 B.C.E.)

            One source I found online relates:

            – The Odyssey conveys quite a pessimistic view of the afterlife. Status, distinction, and honor disappear after death, and all individuals are reduced to lifeless forms inhabiting Erebus, the personification of darkness. In Erebus, it matters not whether one has achieved glory in war or simply lived a quiet, unremarkable life. Death is the great equalizer. Small wonder, therefore, that the Homeric heroes place great stock in achieving a great name for themselves, for only in this figurative sense can they hope for any sort of “life after death.”

            I certainly would have been a happier Greek believing Plato’s account rater than Homer’s. I’m reminded of classicist Jacob Burckhardt saying, following an insight he learned from his teacher, the classical philologist at Berlin, Bockh, that “the Hellenes were more unhappy than most people realized.” A young Nietzsche acquired an auditor’s transcript of this lecture by Burckhardt and cherished it as his most prized possession (this is all cited by Philosopher Martin Heidegger in his lecture course on Parmenides).

          2. Interesting about the distinction between a Homeric and Platonic view of life after death, particularly as applied to the Gmirkin thesis, insofar as OT literature overwhelmingly reflects the earlier Homeric view, not the more developed Platonic. Notions of judgement, punishment, reward in the afterlife are alien to most (or all?) OT literature.

            Which is a little surprising, if, as Gmirkin asserts, the Pentateuchal literature has been derived from Greek texts (including Plato himself) held in the Alexandrian library, during the 3rd Century.

            1. David,
              I quote you ” Notions of judgement, punishment, reward in the afterlife are alien to most (or all?) OT literature. “. In this matter I quote Isaiah with a promise, presumably to those from the Valley of Dry Bones, that the ‘lamb will feed with the wolf’ in a world they will inhabit. This suggests an eternal reward somewhere down the track as lambs and wolves are normally a bit cagey.

              With regard to the derivation of the Pentateuchal literature, it is a bit uncouth to view the Egyptian people of Moses “time” in the context of your comment as donkeys. Essentially a people without an educated priesthood aware of their origins. That Moses was a compiler of at least nine sources in the early part of Genesis (see Barry Setterfield and many others) suggests the post-Alexandrian ‘authors’ were smart enough to concoct a nine-source origin for the above from Alexandria’s Library. If so the Greek text-writers had great source material and the Library at Alexandria was one of the wonders of the World!!

              I think not. I grant you a penchant on Alexander’s part for learning and literature but studying the works of Adam, Seth Enosh, Enoch, etc and collecting them even is a bit over the top.

              Anything Plato came up with would ultimately be sourced from Eber as Japheth (father of Greeks) and Eber were long-time in association.

              You can deal any way with this commentary as I probably will follow up with an ‘unsubscribe’ this thread. I am not impressed with the lack of historical context at Vridar.


              1. You can deal any way with this commentary as I probably will follow up with an ‘unsubscribe’ this thread. I am not impressed with the lack of historical context at Vridar.

                Ian, I do not understand why you bother with Vridar. There is clearly nothing here of interest or use to you. I sense you are still trapped in some sort of time-warp with the fairy tales of Herman L. Hoeh’s 1962/63 Compendium of World History as your frame of reference.

                Your arguments appear to be very muddled and so laden with logical fallacies and patently invalid methods that one scarcely knows where to begin to address them. But you make it clear you are not interested in discussing your views when you say you would rather be left to “wallow in [your] ignorance” (your words).

                We really won’t be offended if you unsubscribe and find web reading more compatible with your interests.

            2. @David Wilson:

              Homer and Plato seemed to have different purposes for transmitting their views on death.

              Homer (as far as I know) was simply presenting the traditional Greek view on death and the afterlife he inherited.

              Plato believed (correctly) that myth inculcates beliefs. It is efficient in making the less philosophically inclined, as well as children (cf. Republic 377a ff.), believe noble things. In the Republic, myth and Noble Lies are supposed to make the citizens of Callipolis care more for their city. I don’t think Plato would be as concerned with whether his interpretations of Death and the Afterlife are “true,” but rather whether his view of death would be most conducive to creating a happy and just society.

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