Rome’s and Israel’s Ancestor Traditions: How Do We Explain the Similarities?

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by Neil Godfrey


Russell Gmikin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible led me to another work, one cited by Gmirkin,

Weinfeld, Moshe. 1993. The Promise of the Land: The Inheritance of the Land of Canaan by the Israelites. Berkeley: University of California Press.

The opening pages describe a typological comparison of the roles of the ancestors of Rome and Israel. I have tried to capture the main outline.


1. A Man Leaving a Great Civilization and Charged with a Universal Mission

A man escapes the land of a famous civilization and departs with his wife and his father … in order to establish a new nation and a new culture. — Weinfeld (6)
  • Aeneas leaves the famous city of Troy
    • leaves with wife Creusa
      • (who died on the way),
    • father Anchises,
    • and son Ascanius
  • Abraham leaves the famous city of Ur of the Chaldees
    • leaves with wife Sarah,
      • (cf Rachel’s death on the journey)
    • father Terah
  • and stays for a while in Carthage which later becomes Rome’s enemy;
  • and pauses for a time in Aram (Syria) which later becomes Israel’s enemy,
  • Eventually his son Ascanius reaches Lavinium (south of the future Rome), and later reaches Alba Longa, closer still. His descendants reach Rome
  • and reaches Canaan,
  • which is destined to rule the world.
  • the Land of promise and from which his descendants will rule other peoples.

In both cases:

  • an ethnic tradition later developed into an imperial ideology
  • a divine promise to a father of a nation who later becomes a messenger for a world mission


2. Gap Between Migration of the Ancestor and the Actual Foundation

The lengthy interval between the stories about the first heroes and the real foundation of the oikist existed in both cultures. — Weinfeld (6)
  • Jupiter prophesies to Aeneas that 333 years will pass before the birth of the twins and founding of Rome
  • God promised Abraham that 400 or 430 years would pass before his descendants inherited the land.

In both cases:

  • two founding legends were combined (one of the actual foundation or conquest and another of an earlier tradition)
  • the gap of centuries between the two stories was joined by a long line of descendants, a long Trojan dynasty on the one hand, ten generations between Ephraim and Joshua on the other (1 Chron 7:25-27). Inconsistencies are extant in both accounts of the number of generations.


3. Promise at Stake

The promise is seen, then, in Israel, as well as in the Roman epic, as something that could not be taken back: a divine commitment not to be violated. — Weinfeld (9)
  • When Aeneas is threatened by the storm at sea his mother goddess Venus prays to Jupiter:

“O you . . . who rule the world of men and gods, what crime  . . . could my Aeneas have done. . . . Surely it was your promise . . . that from them the Romans were to rise . . . rulers to hold the sea and all lands beneath their sway, what thought . . . has turned you?”

  • When Jacob is threatened by Esau’s approaching army, he prays:

“Save me from my brother Esau; else I fear he may come and strike me down . . . yet, you have said . . . I will make your offspring as the sand of the sea”

  • As Aeneas and his men sat at the sacrificial table in honour of Jupiter, Harpies descended and contaminated the food. Aeneas and his men drive them away with their swords. —
    • The event was interpreted by the prophet Calaens as a prediction of famine before the promise is fulfilled.
  • As Abraham is cutting the pieces of the sacrificial animals of the covenant birds of prey descend upon the carcasses. Abraham drives them away. —
    • The event is followed by God declaring that Abraham’s descendants will be enslaved in Egypt before the promise is fulfilled.

In both cases:

  • The deity cannot violate his promise
  • omens presage difficulties before the fulfillment of the promise.


4. The Pious Ancestor

Like the Abraham-David imagery in Israel, the Aeneas-Augustus imagery in Rome reflects a later stage of the crystallization of the story. — Weinfeld (11)
  • The image of Aeneas as most pious is very likely a back projection from the Roman “emperor” who made a great show of his piety, Augustus.
  • Abraham is described in the same terms as King David: “walking before” God righteously, “listening to his voice”. Both Abraham and David received special promises, a “covenant of mercy/grace”. Both men are given a special promise concerning “one of your own issue” (same phrase); Abraham acts like a conquering warrior (Gen. 14) like David.

Weinfeld adds that the Jacob stories contain motifs even closer to the foundation stories of the Greek-Roman world.


5. The Ancestral Gods

Let us … consider the motif of the ancestral gods transferred to the newly founded site, a motif of extremely ancient origin both in Israel and in the Greek-Roman world. — Weinfeld (11)
The story about the settlement of the Danites reflects, then the pattern of the foundation of a new city, a pattern shared by Israel and Greek world. (13)
  • Amphora art depicts the wife of Aeneas, Creusa, carrying cushion shaped object apparently containing the family guardian gods.
  • The image evokes the story of Rachel taking the teraphim (household gods) of her family on her journey to the new land (Gen. 31:19, 34). Rachel hid them in the riding cushion of a camel. David’s wife Michal also hid the teraphim in a cushion and placed them in David’s bed.
  • Multiple traditions speak of how Aeneas stole the sacred images from Troy when he was leaving to settle a new territory.
    • 600 men guarded the images in Lavinium in Italy.
  • Compare Rachel stealing the teraphim from her father’s house.
  • Danites steal the teraphim from Micah’s house on their journey to found a new territory.
    • 600 Danites guarded the men who stole the teraphim.
  • The household guardian gods are prominent in the many stories of the journey of Aeneas from Troy to Italy. Troy’s gods are committed to Aeneas for safekeeping, and they accompany him and comfort him throughout his journey.
  • Josephus informs us that it was the custom to take along ancestral images of the gods when traveling abroad (Ant. 18:344).
  • Theological developments saw the removal of this motif from the later Abraham narratives. “The older Jacobic cycle” preserved the accounts of the ancestral gods.  See Genesis 31:53 “The god of Abraham, and the god of Nahor, the god of their father, judge between us.”
Detail taken from Galinsky, Karl. 1969. Aeneas, Sicily, and Rome. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.


6. Burial Place of the Founder

This emphasis on the place of burial (of Aeneas) explains the importance attached to the tombs of the Patriarchs in Shechem and in Hebron. — Weinfeld (15)
The transfer of the bones of the hero from a foreign country, which is attested in connection with Jacob and Joseph… was also an important matter with Greek founders. (15)
  • Rival traditions assigned different burial places to the founder Aeneas.
  • The Jacobic cycle:
    • Shechem was the foundation city; the place where the ancestral gods were hidden; location of Jacob’s and Joseph’s tombs
  • Abrahamic cycle:
    • Hebron was the original capital of Judah; the place where Abraham was buried.
  • A later priestly editor moved the burial places of Jacob and Joseph from Shechem to Hebron to be buried in same place as Abraham.
  • Bones of Theseus, national hero of Athens, were brought from island of Skyros to Athens (Plutarch)
  • The Spartans sought for and returned the bones of Orestes, son of Agamemnon, to Sparta.
  • Bones of Joseph, ancestor of Joshua, were carried from Egypt to Shechem.


7. Canaan versus Aram, Rome versus Carthage

An important theme in the Aeneid is the tension between Rome and Carthage. . . . A similar situation may be discerned in the Jacob stories. — Weinfeld (16)
  • Aeneas is in danger of marrying Dido, queen of Carthage, threatening the survival of the entire future mission and destiny.
  • Jupiter sends Mercury to warn Aeneas to leave Carthage quickly and not forget the promise
  • Aeneas delays and Mercury is sent a second time to warn him in a dream to leave Carthage.
  • Jacob is in danger of staying in Aram (where he journeyed to flee his brother Esau and to marry Laban’s daughters)
  • God appeared to tell him to return to the land of promise (Gen. 31:3)
  • An angel came to Jacob a second time in a dream to warn him to leave (31:11)
  • In our canonical version of Genesis we read that Jacob left Aram because of a quarrel with Laban. But “an older stratum (Elohistic?) in the chapter (vv. 10, 12a, 13) creates the impression that the affluence of Jacob (vv. 10, 12a; cf. 30:43) might have caused him to stay in Aram, necessitating the divine call to return to Canaan.” (Weinfeld, 16)
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo – Mercury exhorting Aeneas to leave Carthage.


Weinfeld, Moshe. 1993. The Promise of the Land: The Inheritance of the Land of Canaan by the Israelites. Berkeley: University of California Press.


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Neil Godfrey

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17 thoughts on “Rome’s and Israel’s Ancestor Traditions: How Do We Explain the Similarities?”

  1. An article by Guy Darshan has recently come to my attention which points out additional interesting Greek parallels to the patriarchal founding tradition not found in Weinfeld’s important book (or mine for that matter). “The Origins of the Foundation Stories Genre in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Eastern Mediterranean,” in JBL 133, 4 (2014), 689–709, outlines this literary trope as follows:

    “(1) The founding-father leaves an early cradle of civilization; (2) He arrives at a new location where he lives as a foreigner amongst the local populace; (3) During his wanderings or in his new place of residence he acquires legal status by erecting an altar or buying land or a burial plot (either with money or in exchange for military assistance, etc.); (4) He eventually becomes the progenitor of a nation or a local ruler, and the group to whom the narrator belongs regards him as their original ancestor and are frequently called after his name.”

    He points to Xuthus the grandson of Deucalion, ancestor of the Ionians, settling in Athens, and Danaus the Egyptian settling in Argos. In both migration myths there was a gap of several generations between the eponymous ancestor settling in the land and the emergence of his descendants as a dominant people living in that land, which he aptly compares to the patriarchal migration stories in Genesis.

    1. For many years now I have been struck by the many, many details, motifs, themes, structures, . . . in classical Greek and Roman literature that have reminded me of the biblical stories, especially those of the Pentateuch. At times I have wondered if I am reading a translator’s bias, but more often than not I have had to discount that possibility. Of course for most of those years I simply did not know “what to do” with those correlations (sorry, Rod), “how to explain them”, because every idea about the origins of the biblical literature I knew of at the time closed off any possibility of any sort of (even distant) relationship.

  2. Does Joe Atwill have brothers? Seriously, these”list” of comparatives are simple to find elasticity enough to present as correlation without an causation. It requires a rigorous methodology to maintain the correlation toward the back of the theater, while true causation sits on the first row dozens have been tried all to become embarassments side by side lists should be abandonment.

    1. Hi Rod, I did my best to preempt such a predictable comment. Not one hint of the sin of assumption that correlation means causation until you just dropped it in here. I think we are all aware that the Aeneid was written at least a little later than the Pentateuch and that no-one since the Church Fathers has come close to suggesting the “pagans” copied Moses.

      If you know anything about such studies on this blog you know I very well recognize the importance of “rigorous methodology” or criteria. I would welcome you positing any standard or accepted methodology or criteria that you think might shed light on whether or not “the correlations” are real. And do forget the “causation” furphy. If there is a correlation then an explanation is invited, as it is for ALL correlations in any field anywhere.

      1. Neil, you write: “I think we are all aware that the Aeneid was written at least a little later than the Pentateuch and that no-one since the Church Fathers has come close to suggesting the “pagans” copied Moses.”

        That’s true, but let’s play devil’s advocate: Virgil wrote the Aeneid about 240 years after the Pentateuch became available to Greek speakers (“a little later”) so perhaps influence from East to West would need to be ruled out for good solid literary and historical reasons, rather than simply assumed to be absurd, just because the Church Fathers (along with their modern fundamentalist minions, presumably) believed it so.

        1. Weinfeld was aware of the late date of the Aeneid, but thought it was still relevant because it would have been a poetic version of an earlier prose story of the foundation of Rome. And indeed it drew on the long tradition of Greek foundation stories, a genre that went back to ca. 700 BCE and the beginning of the era of Greek colonization. The Aeneid is simply a remarkably intact foundation story (ktisis) that illustrates the features of this literary genre.

          1. Fair enough.

            To move on, the Guy Darshan essay that you cited above was very interesting, so thank you. As perhaps will come as no surprise to you, I am probably more sympathetic towards his explanation of the literary parallels between Greek and Biblical motifs and genres than I imagine you are. It seems to me that he offers a model of shared cultural & literary history that explains the Greek/Biblical parallels, but gives a chronological latitude that also accounts for the evolution of the fractured, stratified, overlapping & sometimes repetitive text of the Pentateuch. This is not meant in anything other than a friendly manner, but I don’t see how your extremely tight chronology (with the Pentateuch written more or less from scratch between 273-272 BCE) gives enough room for these characteristics of the biblical text to have arisen (notwithstanding the explanation you offer in “Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus”).

            Thanks for your detailed responses to my comments on the earlier Vridar post (https://vridar.org/2018/10/12/hebrew-bible-of-hellenistic-origin-gmirkin-responds-to-anthoniozs-review/). I have had a horrible head-cold this last week and I haven’t yet been able to organize a coherent or readable response, but I hope to do so in the near future.

            1. In the last twenty years or so it has now become non-controversial to assert substantial Greek influences on the Hebrew Bible. It’s healthy to consider all the options, whether these influences came indirectly during the Persian Era or directly and through written sources in the Hellenistic Era.

              1. … though the conclusion of Darshan’s essay might militate against describing the process in such Hellenocentric terms.

                Several factors indicate that these traditions depicting a nation’s history in terms of migration and settlement were not the possession of the Greeks and Israelites alone in the Mediterranean but were characteristic of many of the small kingdoms in the region at the beginning of the first millennium b.c.e. The genre appears to have been encouraged by the desire of the new states to separate themselves from the old regimes in the region, and the stories perhaps also owed something to the creation of new colonies in the Mediterranean in the first third of the first millennium b.c.e. onward, a phenomenon that increased awareness of the emergence of new societies and states.
                At the same time, in the first third of the first millennium b.c.e. a series of national narratives arose and developed within the new states and the Greek and Phoenician colonies founded during this period. The abundance of traditions promoted the reinforcement and preservation of wandering and migration traditions already prevalent among the seminomadic societies in the region and led to their establishment as foundational narratives. The contact between neighboring states familiarized the peoples of the region with various foundation and settlement stories and led to a cultural exchange.”

                (JBL 133, no. 4 p.709)

  3. Fascinating, thank you Neil. Modern day Israel asserts that it had a divine mandate to resettle Palestine. They have a whole government department established to “spread the truth”. But just like the myth and propaganda elements of the Gospel, it seems to me that Israel has no credible historical basis for the adoption and misappropriation of the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Here’s what Israel is saying, summarised at the following link, and coined as “hasbara”, being a war of ideas. Neil I think your contribution is great in exposing the mythic elements of the Old Testament by which Israel claims its authority, relegating the Palestinians as a nuisance.

    In order to win the Hasbara battle there are four principles to follow :

    1) Focus on the main message – the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people, as the Jewish people belong to the land. The Jewish people have the right to self-determination as a Jewish state in their own historic homeland. This is irrefutable by historic facts and by archaeological discoveries. Israel is willing, like no other nation in the world, to give up some of its homeland in order to create a Palestinian state, a state which has never existed in history. Israel will continue its search for peace, as long as its security and future are assured

    2) Dispel the lies by telling and repeating the truth. Respond quickly and in real-time to any of the lies and accusations of the Palestinians.

    3) Be proactive and not only reactive. Discuss proactive issues of Jewish rights and justice for Jews. Expose Israeli society to show its democracy, pluralism, human rights, innovation and creativity, contribution to the world and quick mobilization to help other people and nations in need, like Haiti following the earthquake and the tsunami in Japan.

    4) Use social media to create volume, reaching a critical mass so people will get to know Israel first hand, and not through the biased eyes of its enemies.

    That is the modern Israeli position. In response I put the following to the above points

    1. So the main message is based on a Biblical, religious mandate said to be “irrefutable” ? Let’s get objective, academic, professional opinion

    – what if there is no God ?

    – what if there was no Moses, David or Abraham but that they were myths and legends like Adam and Eve ?

    – bragging about Israel’s compromise is not biblical anyway, as God never saw it that way, only to destroy the nations ruthlessley

    – the 1917 Balfour Declaration is key; in it Palestinian rights were upheld but Israel has clearly breached the spirit of the Declaration, as the UN keeps saying

    2. Agreed. Lies and false accusations need to be exposed on both sides. This goes without saying.

    3. Bragging about the kind nature of the government of Israel is irrelevant to the issue. Is the implication that Arabs are not kind ? Israel gets $US 10 million per day in US aid. How much do the Palestinians get ?

    4. Admitting the need for positive propaganda is no help to the truth. Isn’t this just saying Israel should “shout them down”, “shake them up” and “shut them out ” ?

    In conclusion what we need to address the Israeli-Palestine conflict is debate – public and impartially moderated. I think Neil’s material will count strongly to set aside the so called divine mandate Israel claims, just like material on Jesus mythicism can set aside the so called divine mandate the Vatican claims.

    1. Honest scholarship that seeks to understand the nature and origins of the biblical narratives (both Jewish and Christian) is up against it. “Minimalists” have been accused of anti-semitism; “mythicists” have been accused of you-know-what. In both cases the response of the guardians of the established wisdom has been to isolate and demonise the would-be “myth busters”.

  4. The stories of abraham and Jacob to noah to Adam to David well David in alot of parts like Solomon in alot of parts. Are Jewish Hebrew fiction mythos based in post antiquity times like late iron age era. Purely fictional I reading all the mythos of the Jewish patriarchs and god Yahweh the Hebraic god it it’s clear they aae fictional for the Jews to make a name for themselves that they never had in antiquity.

    The church fathers were wrong or liars Moses or the Jews Hebrews who created Moses copied the pagans and gentiles who told true stories.

    The tales and stories of Aeneas is True and Real and found in many many remains across the Mediterranean. The Romans were good and clear like the Greeks on who they were and we’re not.

    So, in closing there’s no comparison really. Commonalities are something any culture in isolation and alien worlds from each share.

    Its all about compare and contrast.

    1. Well I am pleased some new ideas and their sources have been made available to non-scholars. But my own ideas are also changing the more I read, think and learn.

  5. Somehow I had missed this, but its another interesting point. I hadn’t been aware of this particular reading, but I’m addressing the issue more broadly in my new book. As you noted in your reply to Rod, the issue isn’t about trying to prove dependencies. The way I address the relevance of these types of similarities between Jewish and Greco-Roman-Babylonian mythology is simply in showing how these similarities paved the way for the acceptance of the Christianity because Roman scholars were comfortable with the Jewish background of the religion because there was so much synchronicity between Jewish mythology and other Mediterranean mythologies. I think that’s the real issue here.

    The influences back and found among the cultures led to a lot of familiarity between the works of different cultures that wasn’t well understood by later scholars, because in many cases the influences weren’t acknowledged by the original writers. A good example is the influence of the Jewish Sibylline Oracles on Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, which was likely not even understood by Virgil, who was almost certainly unaware that Jews were forging Sibylline oracles.

    But these influences paved the way for making all of these ideas familiar to one another across cultures, which made cultural integration and absorption more amenable. I think that’s the real lesson here. These types of influences are what made it relatively easy for Greeks to adopt Babylonian systems, and Romans to adopt Greek and Jews to adopt Egyptian, and Romans to adopt Jewish, etc., etc. Often what happened was the influences first infiltrated unknowingly and became adopted without the understanding that the concepts were foreign, and then later when the foreign predecessors were discovered they seemed to confirm a “common truth”.

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