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.



  • John Roth
    2018-10-12 02:11:10 UTC - 02:11 | Permalink

    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.

    • A Buddhist
      2018-10-12 02:27:19 UTC - 02:27 | Permalink

      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).

      • John Roth
        2018-10-12 17:21:23 UTC - 17:21 | Permalink

        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.

        • A Buddhist
          2018-10-12 21:23:25 UTC - 21:23 | Permalink

          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.

          • John Roth
            2018-10-12 21:30:44 UTC - 21:30 | Permalink

            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.

            • A Buddhist
              2018-10-13 00:34:59 UTC - 00:34 | Permalink

              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.

    • 2018-10-12 03:31:14 UTC - 03:31 | Permalink

      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).

      • Grabrich
        2018-10-12 06:40:29 UTC - 06:40 | Permalink

        Hi Russell,

        I see that Philippe Wajdenbaum has posted a positive comment under Stéphanie Anthonioz’s review.

        Richard G.

      • Scot A. Griffin
        2018-10-12 23:10:15 UTC - 23:10 | Permalink

        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.

      • Neil Godfrey
        2018-10-17 10:16:21 UTC - 10:16 | Permalink

        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.

    • Anat
      2018-10-12 18:19:45 UTC - 18:19 | Permalink

      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.

      • Booker
        2018-10-12 18:29:21 UTC - 18:29 | Permalink

        “…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?

    • Scot Griffin
      2018-10-12 19:37:44 UTC - 19:37 | Permalink

      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).

  • db
    2018-10-12 16:07:39 UTC - 16:07 | Permalink

    • 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.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2018-10-12 23:23:54 UTC - 23:23 | Permalink

      Hoo boy, oh my buddha. More added to my already ceiling-high in tray!

  • Bob Moore
    2018-10-12 16:32:23 UTC - 16:32 | Permalink

    I feel like I’m being shown the fossils of a last common ancestor.

  • Pingback: Hebrew Bible of Hellenistic Origin – Gmirkin responds to Anthonioz’s review — Vridar | James' Ramblings

  • David Wilson
    2018-10-14 10:07:02 UTC - 10:07 | Permalink

    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…

  • 2018-10-15 20:06:43 UTC - 20:06 | Permalink

    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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