Hebrew Bible of Hellenistic Origin – Gmirkin responds to Anthonioz’s review

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by Neil Godfrey

A letter from the Elephantine Papyri, requesting the rebuilding of a Jewish temple at Elephantine. (Wikipedia)

A week ago we saw Stéphanie Anthonioz‘s review of Russell Gmirkin’s Plato and the Hebrew Bible on The Bible and Interpretation. See Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible – review. Today we can read Russell’s response:

I need to refresh my memory with what I read some time ago about the different arguments for the development of “biblical Judaism”, whether it is best understood as a product of the Persian or Hellenistic eras. Anthonioz referred to recent European scholarship, in particular the work of Eckart Otto, which language and costs unfortunately appear hold beyond my reach. Gmirkin does address some obvious problems with the simple trade model (the unlikelihood that ideas discussed among literate elites would necessarily follow trade contacts) but I’d still like to know more about both sides of the discussion.

Anyway, Russell Gmirkin in his response does remind us of one piece of evidence that deserves not to slip from memory or oversight, and that is certainly a strong support for his own view that the Hebrew Bible was the product of the Hellenistic era, that is after the conquests of Alexander around 300 BCE. The emphasis in the following is my own:

In my view, it is methodologically improper to attempt to gain a picture of Judaism in the monarchic (Iron II), Babylonian or Persian eras on the basis of the Pentateuch, since there is no objective external evidence for Pentateuchal writings in pre-Hellenistic times. Quite the contrary, the Elephantine papyri of ca. 450-400 bce give provide strong contemporary evidence for the character of Judaism as practiced late into the Persian Era. These archives of letters (and ostraca) from the Jewish military colony of Elephantine, an Egyptian southern border fortress located just below the First Cataract of the Nile, attest to a thriving Judaism in Egypt with their own temple but no Aaronic priesthood, a Judaism without scriptures, a Judaism which accommodated polytheism, a Judaism with no knowledge of Abraham, Moses, or any other figure known from the Pentateuch or Hebrew Bible (as shown by the absence of these famous figures from the many Jewish names found in the archives). The Jews of Elephantine celebrated a purely agricultural Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread (TAD A4.1) with no associated traditions regarding Moses or Exodus. They possessed a seven day week, but no sabbath of rest, as shown by one ostraca that enjoined an employee to offload a boat full of vegetables on the sabbath on pain of death (TAD D7.16.1-5). These Jews deferred to the authority of Jewish priests from Jerusalem, with whom they consulted on religious matters, but biblical writings never come into play: only what Wellhausen called Oral Torah, authoritative priestly rulings that did not involve written legal codes. The Samarian papyri of Wadi Daliyeh, dating from ca. 375 to 335 bce, at the dawn of the Hellenistic Era, give a similar, though more limited picture: famous names from the Pentateuch are similarly absent. Contrast with the heavy representation of Pentateuchal names in the second century inscriptions from Mount Gerizim or the book of 1 Maccabees, during later times when the biblical text was mined for children’s names. It seems apparent that Judaism prior to the Hellenistic Era, what I would describe as pre-biblical Judaism, was unacquainted with authoritative Mosaic writings or written laws.

Judaism underwent a bold transformation ca. 270 bce, when the Jewish nation reinvented itself with a new theocratic government modeled on the one described in Plato’s Laws; new divine laws ascribed to Moses; new foundation traditions; an approved national literature (Plato, Laws 7.802b-c, 811c-d); and a new cosmic monotheism patterned on that of the Greek philosophers, notably Plato. Judaism as we are accustomed to thinking of it was a product of the Hellenistic Era and Greek learning. The Books of Moses were not so much a product of Judaism as Hellenistic Judaism was a product of the Books of Moses.

That is not to say that there are no traces of pre-biblical Judaism in the biblical Judaism established by the Jewish senate of ca. 270 bce. Plato’s Laws advocated promoting local temples (Plato, Laws 5.738c-d), priesthoods (Plato, Laws 6.759a-b) and traditional religious customs (Plato, Laws 6.759c-d; 8.828a-c) in order to promote the illusion of an ancient and divine authority for their laws (Plato, Laws 7.798a-b), and it was especially in the cultic sphere that we see continuity with older traditions and institutions in the Pentateuch. Although there is no evidence for the body of cultic regulations having existed in written form prior to ca. 270 bce, it probably reflects practices at the temples at Jerusalem and Mount Gerizim in earlier times.

Personally I can’t help feeling that the terms “Judaism” and “Jews” are anachronistic when applied to this time period. I prefer Steve Mason’s preference for the term “Judeans” and wonder if it might be more appropriate to refer to the religion of the Judeans as Yahweh worship or simply the Judean religious practices.


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27 thoughts on “Hebrew Bible of Hellenistic Origin – Gmirkin responds to Anthonioz’s review”

  1. While the hypothesis sounds interesting, there is one major issue I’d like explained: if the Pentateuch and so forth was originally written in the early Hellenistic period in Greek and then translated back to Hebrew, why do we have split books: 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles as well as Ezra-Neamiah? In Hebrew, each of these is one scroll; the same material takes two standard-sized scrolls in Greek.

    Being written originally in Hebrew isn’t a strong indicator of Persian period authorship, but it doesn’t suggest working in a Greek environment either.

    1. I fail to see how the way in which a work was published has much bearing upon its dating (at least when it comes to issues of one scroll/book/tablet/DVD, etc.). The purpose of publishing a work is to convey the information. If the information, when written in one form, takes one scroll, but in another form takes up two scrolls, that to me says more about the spacing efficiency of the way the information was recorded than anything about when one form was written relative to the other. Hypothetically, the Greek could have been written first as a narrative that happened to take up two scrolls only for the translation into Hebrew to be able to fit the same narrative into only one scroll (I assume because Hebrew is written in less space than Greek due to having no written vowels).

      1. One can hypothesize anything one likes, but in the period being discussed works did not, as a usual practice, exceed one scroll by a small amount. While the scribal work involved in copying was expensive, the scrolls themselves were not cheap. Had, for example, Samuel and Kings been written in Greek, the material would have been distributed among three scrolls, not four.

        In any case, Russell Gmirkin says that his thesis is that they were written in Hebrew, which answers my concern.

        1. Ah, fair enough. your original comment’s reference to “takes two standard-sized scrolls in Greek” made not mention of how the second scroll’s being only barely used.

          1. Actually, the content of each Hebrew scroll is split roughly in half at what’s presumably a logical break, but if it was written as one piece, it wouldn’t occupy much of the second scroll.

            1. The original version of a work written as one piece could only barely use the second scroll, but surely copies of the original work could better distribute the text across two scrolls to be about equal in scroll use.

    2. My thesis is that the Pentateuch drew on Greek writings but was written in Hebrew. It’s worth noting that the Dead Sea Scrolls, written in Hebrew and Aramaic, have no Greek loan words, despite having been written in the Greek and Roman periods (2nd-1st centuries BCE).

      Readers might also find the following article of interest: Russell Gmirkin, “Greek Genres in the Hebrew Bible,” in Ingrid Hjelm and Thomas L. Thompson (eds.), Biblical Interpretation Beyond Historicity (Changing Perspectives in Old Testament Studies 7; London: Routledge, 2016).

      1. Here is a serious question: did Biblical Hebrew exist before the Pentateuch was written?

        Ancient Hebrew (that is, the language and script found in the geographic region the OT tells us Hebrews lived) became a dead language around sixth century BCE during the Persian period.

        Biblical Hebrew, like Ancient Hebrew, uses the Phoenician script but contains a lot of oddities. Ullendorff has argued that it may not have been a spoken language at all, i.e., BH was only used for writing and was not spoken.

        Modern Hebrew is based on the Aramaic script and dates back to about 200 BCE, i.e., they Jewish people abandoned BH outside of the Hebrew Bible precisely because it did not work as a spoken language.

      2. I presume you have seen Jim Davila’s comment relating to this point …… ?

        But the Hebrew language of the Pentateuch doesn’t look like it was written in a Greek-speaking environment (Alexandria). I would expect noticeable Greek influence on the Hebrew. There isn’t any.

        1. Unfortunately, Davila’s blog Paleojudaica does not allow for comments. I do not contend that the Pentateuch was written in a Greek-speaking environment. From the numerous Hebraisms in the LXX and the absence of Greek linguistic features in the Hebrew Bible it appears certain that the Pentateuch was written in Hebrew and then translated in a literal fashion into Greek. But (1) the Hebrew Bible, although lacking Greek linguistic features, is filled with Greek ideas, which is a different matter. (2) I view the biblical authors as having GSL, Greek as a Second Language, being more comfortable thinking and writing in Hebrew but having a limited competence in Greek. I read French, Italian, German, whatever my work requires, but I would not dream of writing in any of those languages. (3) The entire Qumran corpus of the 2nd-1st BCE is entirely lacking in Greek loan-words (except the Copper Scroll), but the Jews had numerous interactions and communications with Greeks throughout that period. So I just don’t see the lack of Greek loan words in the Pentateuch as problematic.

    3. FYI in Jewish tradition those books aren’t considered to be split (also all 12 minor book prophets are considered to be a single book, תרי עשר , meaning ‘the 12’), making the entire Jewish canon 24 books.

      1. “…also all 12 minor book prophets are considered to be a single book, תרי עשר , meaning ‘the 12’…”

        “…he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve…”

        So would that suggest that when Paul said Jesus appeared to “the twelve” he meant that Jesus had appeared to those 12 prophets, as opposed to the disciples of the Gospel?

    4. You are assuming that if the Pentateuch was written during the Hellenistic era that it was also originally written in Greek. I don’t think that is a good assumption, nor do I believe that is what Gmirkin argued in his first book (I believe he argued it was written in Biblical Hebrew then simultaneously translated to Greek).

    5. None of the books you named are in the Pentateuch. The Pentateuch is only the first five books Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), aka, the Torah.

  2. • Perhaps Neil may write an expanded post (or index) on the following note:

    Gmirkin, Russell (2016). “Greek Genres in the Hebrew Bible”. In Hjelm, Ingrid; Thompson, Thomas L. Biblical Interpretation Beyond Historicity. Changing Perspectives in Old Testament Studies 7. p. 99, n. 4. ISBN 9781138889521.

    History, properly speaking, is an inquiry (‘istoria) about the past. Historical inquiries into events of the past might be conducted using a variety of sources of varying credibility: eyewitness reports (autopsy), contemporary inscriptional or written records, literary traditions, oral traditions (mneme, “memory”), legends and myths. Herodotus, the “father of history”, wrote his great work, Histories, based on inquiries into all these forms of information. The literary product of such research is called “historiography” or history-writing, that is, prose narrative about the past that contains purported factual or “historical” content. Aims of historiography in antiquity included providing an objective investigation into the events of the past (Herodotus, Thucydides, Aristotle); entertaining the reader (Herodotus, Ephoros, Theopompus); providing practical examples of statesmanship or military strategy for the education of future leaders (Thucydides, Aristotle, Polybius); to moralize, motivate, or draw ethical lessons from the past by inspirational or cautionary examples (lsocrates, Ephoros, Theopompus) and to promote the national greatness of an ancient civilization (Hecataeus of Abdera, Manetho, Berossus, Megasthenes).

    • See also “SRN – Interview with Russell Gmirkin: What Does Plato Have To Do With the Bible?“. YouTube. Sott Media. 11 December 2016.

  3. Russell Gmirkin’s account of the creation of the Pentateuch/Septuagint contains inconsistencies and speculation. Inconsistently he asserts that “one can broadly credit the tradition that Ptolemy II Philadelphus (or his agents) sought the addition of these books of Mosaic law to the Great Library for purposes of royal prestige as well as to make the section of the library on international laws comprehensive” whereas he at the same time asserts that those books of Mosaic Law didn’t actually exist yet, and that a scholarly delegation “was dispatched by and acted under the authority of the Jewish senate,” and “conducted extensive legal research at the great Library in the course of crafting the Pentateuch’s laws”. These are rather contradictory trajectories. And surely the whole point of the library was to acquire existing “ancient wisdom” from a variety of Greek and non-Greek sources. Is it really plausible that Ptolemy sponsored a NEW book for the library, derived from existing Greek literature in the library that was to house it?

    Gmirkin speculatively derives the name of the LXX from the Jewish “senate”, writing that “the Seventy here referred to the gerousia (“elders”) or senate at Jerusalem, which our sources number at 70 or 72…” This is a rather misleading sentence: sources number the translators as 70 or 72, but no such number is associated with the gerousia itself by any source. The Books of Maccabees and Josephus mention a gerousia for this period but never indicate that it was made up of 70 elders or, more importantly, suggest that it was ever conventionally known as “The Seventy”. So when Gmirkin suggests that “the Jewish senate … (as “the Seventy”) were credited in the Pinakes of Callimachus as the authors of the Books of Moses” he is offering an entirely speculative reconstruction. Indeed, the fact that neither Maccabees or Jospehus styles the gerousia as “The Seventy” argues against it being known as such in the library catalogue of Alexandria. So for me there is no strong argument for rejecting the more common explanation that the name of the Septuagint (actually known in Greek as he tōn hebdomēkonta metaphrasis “The Translation of the Seventy”) derives from the myth narrated in Pseudo-Aristeas, rather than from a dubious allusion to its supposed authors, the Jewish gerousia.

    But if that still begs the question of why the number seventy was attached to the Greek text at all, then one could speculate that it may derives from a myth (nowhere actually attested, for the avoidance of doubt) that the Pentateuch was compiled by the 70 prophetic delegates of Moses, mentioned in Numbers 11, acting perhaps as his amanuenses and posthumous editors. I throw that out without huge conviction, but simply to point out that there is a tad more independent evidence for that speculative reconstruction than Russell’s.

    While Gmirkin acknowledges Anthonioz’s criticism that he does not define what he means “by Jews and Judaism,” he fails to pick up on her subtle comment that “the Hellenistic era is precisely the crucible of the emergence of an identity not just of one but certainly of several identities” and for this reason can blithely assert that “the Elephantine papyri of ca. 450-400 bce give provide strong contemporary evidence for the character of Judaism as practiced late into the Persian Era”. He is not the only scholar to over-interpret a few letters from a marginal settlement to offer a speculative reconstruction of the totality of Jewish scriptural literature, and legislative governance of the period. He comments that “These Jews deferred to the authority of Jewish priests from Jerusalem, with whom they consulted on religious matters, but biblical writings never come into play” and therefore “Judaism prior to the Hellenistic Era..was unacquainted with authoritative Mosaic writings or written laws.” But this is a non-sequitur: there is every possibility that these writings existed, written, edited and collated by and for an authoritative priestly/scribal elite (though not at all necessarily in a finalised, authoritative form), but not widely disseminated, and not considered in themselves literary authorities apart from the elite that administered and interpreted the law. We have plenty of analogous scenarios – e.g. Babylonian texts held in temple libraries, unavailable to “people generally” till Berosus translated them and thereby made them available to Greek “literature”.

    That’s enough to be going on with for now…

    1. David, let me respond to your points (which I just read) on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis. Some of your arguments are obviously caused by your having only read the review and response. My books “Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible’ (Gmirkin 2017) and “Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus” (Gmirkin 2006) already contain lengthy discussions that answer most of your questions.

      First, yes, I argue that there exists no evidence that Mosaic laws existed in written form at the time the Pentateuch was written, but that Ptolemy II Philadelphus was under the impression that such laws did exist, and he was anxious to acquire them for his library. Around 315 BCE a figure called Hecataeus of Abdera, a Greek writer living in Alexandria in Ptolemy I Soter’s court, authored a book called the Aegyptica, “On Egypt,” that contained a section with foundation stories about how the Egyptians colonized Babylon, in an expedition led by Belus, and Colchis, under Sesostris, and various ancient cities in Greece, etc. It included a completely fictitious foundation story about an Egyptian named Moses who led a colonizing expedition to Judea and founded Jerusalem, its temple, and its laws and constitution. Such legislation by an expedition leader was a standard feature of foundation stories, both fictitious and historical (since laws for Greek colonies were in fact established by their oikist or expedition leader). Ptolemy II Philadelphus or his agents, having undoubtedly read the Aegyptiaca, would have been under the (mis)impression that the Jews were anciently founded by a figure called Moses who gave the nation their laws. Hence their request to the Jews, who took this occasion to create an actual law code, which they too attributed to this same (fictitious) Moses to give their newly minted laws an aura of plausibility and antiquity. On Hecataeus of Abdera see Gmirkin 2006: 34-71 [esp. 63]; 2017: 222; on the biblical tale (from divine land promises to Abraham to Joshua’s conquest) as a Greek foundation story see Gmirkin 2017: 220-231, and also Gmirkin 2016 (“Greek Genres in the Hebrew Bible”).

    2. Second, there are three lines of evidence that point to the Seventy as a reference to the Jewish gerousia.

      (1) There are a number of references to the Sanhedrin in rabbinic writings as composed of seventy or seventy-two members. These are handily found in Louis Ginzberg’s 1937 The Legends of the Jews (7 vols.; Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America). Specifically, one sees 70 members at Ginzberg 1937: 3.123, 250-51; 6.27 n. 163; 71 members at 6.344 n. 6; and 72 members at 6.87 n. 477; 4.158. The picture is that of a Sanhedrin with seventy members plus its leaders the high priest and deputy high priest or sagen, totaling 72 (See Gmirkin 2006: 250). Discussions of the Sanhedrin posit that these numbers were modeled on Moses, Aaron and the seventy elders at Mount Sinai. I would say the reverse is true.

      (2) There is the obvious point that the Greek word gerousia or senate means elders (many Greek nation states had a council of elders). The seventy(-two) translators are always called elders, consistent with their constituting such a ruling body.

      (3) In the Letter of Aristeas, the seventy-two elders who created the Septuagint translation were said to belong to the twelve tribes of Israel, six from each tribe. The selection of six elders from each of the twelve tribes in The Letter of Aristeas closely reflects Greek customs, where nations were often composed of twelve tribes, with an equal number of representatives elected to the ruling council from each tribe. See for instance the discussion in Sylvie Honigman, The Septuagint and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria: A Study in the Narrative of the Letter of Aristeas (London: Routledge, 2003).

      The creation of the Pentateuch in both Hebrew and Greek versions under the sponsorship of the Jewish senate provides a compelling explanation for its immediate prestige and authority.

    3. I will tactfully pass over your third paragraph. Turning to your fourth paragraph, I took Anthonioz’s comment that “the Hellenistic era is precisely the crucible of the emergence of an identity not just of one but certainly of several identities” to allude primarily to the emergence of Jews and Samaritans as groups with distinct national and ethnic identities, which I believe I sufficiently addressed in my response.

      It has taken from the nineteenth century to the present for scholars to start to appreciate the significance of the Elephantine Papyri as a contemporary witness to Jewish practices in the 400s BCE. The lack of correlation of Yahwism as practices at Elephantine with the written biblical text is stunning (e.g. the passage I quote from Cowley at Gmirkin 2006: 30). One finds all sorts of ad hoc explanations to try to reconcile the direct contemporary witness of these texts with prevailing hypotheses that the Jews already possessed Mosaic laws and Pentateuchal writings. I would respond to the idea you propose that the Pentateuchal laws (and I would assume stories) existed as an esoteric set of texts by and for exclusively for a priestly scribal elite by noting

      (1) While Mesopotamian religious texts were esoteric priestly documents found in temples and with curses attached to those who would disclose them to outsiders, Mesopotamian laws were quite the opposite, put on public display on stelae as royal propaganda.

      (2) The Pentateuch does not come across as an esoteric priestly literature. In the old JEDP Documentary Hypothesis, only one strand was ever attributed to a priestly source. Are you proposing that the Pentateuch was entirely written by P? Certainly the various literary figures, including Abraham, Israel, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, etc., were not part of esoteric priestly lore, but heroes of very public tales. How then to explain that none of these appeared at Elephantine, even as Jewish names? Likewise the Exodus tradition, which was part of national festivities. How does one have instructions for every family to recite the Exodus tradition, and every family to wear and publicly post passages of legal scriptures (e.g. the Decalog), when these were closely guarded priestly possessions?

      (3) Since the (non-Aaronic!) priests at Elephantine were in contact with “Jonathan the (high) priest and his brothers at Jerusalem” over the issue of rebuilding the temple of Yahweh at Elephantine, does not your hypothesis require that the two bodies of priests never shared this alleged priestly lore (in which the priests at Elephantine would have discovered there was only to be only one temple of Yahweh).

      (4) Where is there any objective evidence at all of such earlier Mosaic writings? Rather than hypothesizing that they were invisible, esoteric, and secret—and thereby, one might add, pointless—is it not better to give priority to the actual demonstrably contemporary Persian era evidence?

      Still, thanks for your comments. I hope you take my comments in a friendly manner, as I have yours.

      1. RE: It has taken from the nineteenth century to the present for scholars to start to appreciate the significance of the Elephantine Papyri as a contemporary witness to Jewish practices in the 400s BCE.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anat_Athena_bilingual And comparing the entries for Anat, Neith (from Sais), and Athena in van der Toorns Dictionary of Deities one can see that the three were interchangeable Neith = Athena = Anat. Androgynous Neith gives birth to the sun through parthenogenesis… maybe by parallel an androgynous Anat gives birth to Yahu the golden bull in an earlier version of their myths. Wasn’t Solon hanging out in Sais digging through the temple archives there?

        1. The Greeks saw correspondences between these deities, and perhaps these links were made in pre-Hellenistic times by Egyptian priests catering to Greek tourists, but there is no evidence of any such links at Persian-Era Elephantine (or, to my knowledge, any interactions with Greeks). The Neith-Athena identification is found at Plato, Timaeus 21e.

          Solon’s alleged researches in Egypt are late and fanciful. Plato in particular claimed that Solon learned about the ancient Greek battle with the fleets of Atlantis from Egyptian priests who still possessed records of these brave deeds (Timaeus).

  4. Great article. This supports my own findings. We have a very Greek bible, complete with Greek gods like Eos and Helios converted to Hebrew patriarchs like Esau and Elias (Elijah). I have tracked leviathan down from Euphrates to Jordan also, from Lot’s (Lotan’s) journey with Abraham to the Jordan, Ancestral Law was established through Leviticus and the Levite priesthood. Price agrees that the serpent in Eden is Leviathan. I write that Yahweh turned the serpent into a river.

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