2018-11-18

How Plato Inspired Moses: Creation of the Hebrew Bible

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by Neil Godfrey

Plato’s Laws provides the only example in antiquity of an ethical or national literature comparable to the Hebrew Bible. . . .

. . . . One may therefore reasonably propose that the biblical authors not only found in Plato’s Laws a blueprint for the creation of a persuasive legal code, but a mandate and program for the creation of an authoritative national literature intended to supplement and bolster the laws of the Torah. (Gmirkin, 264)

After having demonstrated the many details, themes and values that the books of the Hebrew Bible share with Greek literature, practices and ideas, Russell Gmirkin concludes with a chapter examining how closely the biblical canon appears to match Plato’s recommendations for a national curriculum. There are certainly Canaanite and Mesopotamian fingerprints in the “Old Testament” but these Scriptures are unlike anything else produced in the ancient Near East. The Hellenistic heritage explains that difference.

The ancient Judean and then Christian authors used to say that Plato got his best ideas from Moses. Gmirkin’s thesis is that the evidence points to the borrowing being in the other direction, that the Judean authors of the Bible found their inspiration in Plato.

I doubt that any Westerner can read Plato’s Laws and not at some point think of a comparison with the Bible. I certainly could not avoid the comparisons: the box insert lists the posts I made prior to reading Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible [PCHB]. So you can see why I have posted so much on PCHB. I think my own interest in Plato’s Laws was sparked by Philippe Wajdenbaum and his book Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. I must add a list of posts related to Wajdenbaum’s work, too.

The Bible does not read like a dry or rigid legal code. It is too full of stories for that, and the laws are presented with dramatic flair. That’s Plato, not Hammurabi. Plato believed that laws for a new state should be written in a way that encouraged a loving willingness to obey them. Stories honouring ancient ancestors, legislation presented in persuasive language, pure songs and poetry,  all should function to inspire citizens to live with pure and righteous thoughts and behaviour.

Rule by God and God’s Laws

Russell Gmirkin cites Glenn Morrow’s discernment that Plato was in fact setting out a government ruled by “God”, a “divine government”. To quote from Morrow’s article:

Our state is to be called, not a monarchy, nor a democracy, but by some term indicative of that power which is supreme in it, viz., Nous (713a). This Nous is what is truly divine in the cosmos; it is Plato’s God. This divine Nous furnishes the standards for all legislation, and the laws are sovereign only because they have this reason in them. Plato no longer suggests—in fact he explicitly rejects—the conception of personal absolutism. All officials are themselves subject to the law . . . .

(Morrow, 244)

The Bible’s god is not quite Plato’s, though. Plato’s embodiment of Reason was fine for a philosophical discussion among society’s elites. The Bible’s supreme deity does nonetheless meet the fundamental requirements of Plato’s divinity but is more suited for all classes. More on that point later.

Laws had an ancient and divine origin

Gmirkin rightly emphasizes the importance to Plato that the new laws should not appear to be innovations. On the contrary, myths had to be composed to give the laws an air of great antiquity and divine origin. The peoples’ ancestors, it must be taught, had always kept these laws. PCHB quotes one of several key passages from Laws:

If there exist laws under which men have been reared up and which (by the blessing of Heaven) have remained unaltered for many centuries, so that there exists no recollection or report of their ever having been different from what they now are, then the whole soul is forbidden by reverence and fear to alter any of the things established of old. By hook or by crook, then, the lawgiver must devise a means whereby this shall be true of his State. (Plato, Laws 7.798a-b)

(Gmirkin, 254)

Plato was imagining a brand new colony being established with a perfect start. The citizens were to be new arrivals into the territory and to be taught that they were the descendants of the original inhabitants divinely commissioned to restore the ancient city or “nation”. The new settlement was to be divided into twelve nominal tribes.

Laws to be presented through a charter myth

A third goal was to create a charter myth for those divine laws in the dramatic narrative form of a foundation story that forged a powerful sense of national identity in those who adopted this literary narrative as their own historical past as descendants of the ancient children of Israel. The refounding of the Jewish nation in the early Hellenistic Era, with new civic and religious institutions and a new constitution and laws, was thus successfully portrayed as a new edition of the ancient writings of Moses, the divine legislator, educator and founder of the ancient Jewish nation, in line with the Platonic legislative agenda.

(Gmirkin, 262)

Respect for local traditions

One area where I once thought Plato and the Bible diverged was over the respect paid to the local deities who might still be remembered in the new land. Gmirkin, however, sees a biblical acknowledgement of this precept, too:

A prominent legislative and literary strategy found in Plato’s Laws, designed to give the new government an aura of divinity and respectable antiquity, was to link the new system of laws, wherever possible, to existing ancient and revered local religious institutions. This strategy appears to have been systematically implemented in the Pentateuch. Although the Torah legislation projected a vision of monotheism, or at least monolatry, the new supreme god of the Pentateuch, portrayed as the one and only god of the ancient Jews and Samaritans, combined a veritable pantheon of ancient Canaanite deities into a single universal god, the creator of the universe. The Pentateuch’s newfound monotheism thus sought to incorporate and assimilate the ancient traditional polytheism of the region. Plato had recommended that the organizers of the state research and recognize the sacred status of local religious sites such as ancient temples, altars and oracles. In seeming conformity with this Platonic strategy, stories in Genesis featured a multiplicity of sacred locations – including several sites revered by the Samaritans – where, the patriarchs saw visions; built altars to Yahweh, El Shaddai, El Elyon and others; performed sacrifices; and called on the deity’s name. Similarly, the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua gave special recognition to the sacred status of various prominent Samaritan locales, namely Gerizim, Ebal and Shechem (Deut. 11.27-29; 27.4, 11-13; Josh. 8.30-35; 24.1-28). . . . .

But although the Pentateuch appeared to endorse traditional gods and cultic institutions, some of which were associated with the polytheistic “Canaanite” pantheon, the Pentateuch also sought to reform them. The older gods of the land were consolidated into a single new deity who closely resembled the one eternal, supreme creator god of Plato’s writings. The reinvented god of the biblical text was not, however, the abstract philosopher’s god, Nous, a new god for worship by the ruling elite. Instead, the biblical authors directly identified this supreme deity with Yahweh, a local god traditionally worshipped in Judea and Samaria, who was newly conceived in elevated terms as (in the words of Josephus) “One, uncreated and immutable to all eternity; in beauty surpassing all mortal thought, made known to us by His power, although the nature of his real being passes knowledge.” This supreme god was portrayed, like Plato’s Nous, as the creator of the kosmos, of life, and of humankind, a supremely ethical being who was the source of all good, who both cared for and watched over humanity…

(Gmirkin, 262f)

Creation of a national literature

The Bible is a motley book. It consists of legislation, myths, poems and songs, prayers, drama, chronicles, and many authors. Reminders of God and his laws come in all forms and for all occasions. Plato imagined an educated elite purging existing literature and composing new works for a similar end.

In Plato’s Laws, the major vehicle for citizen education was immersion in a stream of festivals and public religious events to overwhelm the senses and emotions with music, songs, rhythmic chants, dance, poetry, recitation of myths, theater, panegyric speeches, pageantry and spectacle, wine, banquetry, celebrations, sacrifices, prayers and the contemplation of the divine. The elevated emotional atmosphere and the conscious cultivation of both sensual and intellectual pleasures encouraged receptivity to the ethical, legal, theological, cultural and historical educational content of these festivals as communicated through songs, myths and discourse. So, likewise, the system of universal education found in the Hebrew Bible prominently featured mandatory attendance at festivals.

(Gmirkin, 268)

Not that it was all happiness and sunshine since (as we have seen in previous posts) Plato, like the Bible, also required the execution the stubbornly wilful who violated the “divine laws”. Those guilty serious offences against “the gods, parents or state” were to be executed.

Gmirkin argues that a Judean scribal elite took up the task of fulfilling Plato’s ideal from around the year 270 BCE in the Great Library of Alexandria, Egypt. It follows that the books comprising the Jewish Scriptures were composed within a relatively short span of time and not, as has long been believed, over centuries.

Although Plato’s Laws promised eternal fame to any legislator who followed his bold legislative plans (12.969a-b), Plato also said it was essential that the legislators contrive to portray the laws as having been observed for untold centuries (7.798a-b), a goal that would seemingly require the legislators to obscure their role to future generations. The incompatible objectives of legislative fame and anonymity was historically achieved for the Seventy of ca. 270 BCE, who were credited with the Septuagint and honored at Alexandria by subsequent generations as inspired prophets and legislators on a par with the seventy elders at Mount Sinai (Philo, Life of Moses 2.41-42), but in the role of translators, not authors.

(Gmirkin, n. 113, p. 289)

And it worked

Plato imagined his ideal colony settling in a brand new (unoccupied) land, beginning with the young who had been separated from their parents, in order to work. Falling short of such an “ideal”, the Jews have nonetheless been known as the “people of the book”. Their identity, their history, their religion, their ethics and laws, are all defined by “the book”, a book which has long been known to contain echoes of Plato .

Jewish, Christian and “pagan” authors alike more-or-less independently rediscovered the extensive and striking commonalities between Plato and the Hebrew Bible. It is remarkable how often scholars in the Hellenistic and Roman eras were compelled to comment on the striking parallels between the Hebrew Bible and Greek literature, especially Plato’s dialogues. Comparisons between Platonic philosophy and biblical teachings were made by Jewish intellectuals such as Aristobulus (fl. ca. 150 BCE), Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE -50 CE), and Flavius Josephus (37-ca. 100 CE); Church Fathers such as Justin Martyr (ca. 150 CE), Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-215 CE), Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339 CE),154 and Augustine (354-130 CE); and even Gentile writers such as the Neo-Pythagorean philosopher Numenius of Apamea (second century CE).156 Virtually every scholar in antiquity who was proficient in both Platonic and Mosaic writings agreed that there was a direct relationship between the two.

(Gmirkin, 271)

In the previous posts I hope I have drawn attention to some of the strengths of Gmirkin’s arguments that the influence has, in fact, been the reverse direction of what the biblical myth itself would have us believe.

It seems certain that by the early second century BCE the Jewish nation had come to accept the biblical writings as an ancient literature authored by their ancestors. The attachment of the Jews as a religion and as a people to their literature was and is extraordinary. No other nation in antiquity was so thoroughly defined by its literature. In later times, the Jews would come to be known as “the people of the book,” an apt description, because to an extraordinary degree the Jews derived their distinctive culture, religion, ethics, laws, historical traditions and sense of ethnic identity from their treasured national literature.

(Gmirkin, 74)

Despite the number of posts I have produced on this one book I have only covered a small fraction of the detail Gmirkin amasses to support his larger thesis. Each one of the many briefly mentioned points he lists, accompanied with endnote citations, could be expanded with little effort into full-length articles or chapters. Some of my spin-off posts, such as the my various posts on the foundation stories, have been extensions of Gmirkin’s own illustrations.


Gmirkin, Russell E. 2016. Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. New York: Routledge.

Morrow, Glenn R. 1953. “Plato’s Conception of Persuasion.” The Philosophical Review 62 (2): 234–50.


 

 

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