Similarities between the Pentateuch and Greek literature have long been noted and discussed in scholarly literature, but most of those discussions have assumed that the Greeks and the authors of the biblical books were independently drawing on Asiatic stories or even that some Greeks were exposed to translations of parts of the Pentateuch. (Evangelia Dafni is one such scholar who today argues for that latter position; Franz Dornseiff once argued for the former.) Others have flatly denied any serious or significant analogies between the Pentateuch and Greek works, relegating supposed parallels to coincidence or over-active imaginations. That dreaded fourteen letter word comes to mind: “parallelomania“.
Russell Gmirkin [RG] has a new book, Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts: Cosmic Monotheism and Terrestrial Polytheism in the Primordial History. My blog posts on his two earlier books are archived at Berossus and Genesis and Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. I anticipate doing a chapter by chapter review of his new work on Genesis 1-11.
Genesis 1-11 or the Primordial History covers the span of time from Creation and the misadventures of the first humans, through the Flood and up to the Tower of Babel story. It stops prior to the introduction of Abraham and the beginning of Israel’s story. The Primordial History stages characters with enormous life-spans, a talking snake, angels with flaming swords, a god walking the earth, “sons of god” mating with women to produce “men of renown”, a world-wide flood that reminds us of the Epic of Gilgamesh and a divine intervention to confound the languages of humanity and scatter them across the earth. Before all of that we read how God created heaven and earth, beginning with the creation of light days before he made the sun! These chapters are clearly a different type of unit from the rest of the Pentateuch. Where does it all come from?
Even within chapters 1-11 exegetes have long noted a sudden break between the seven-day creation (1:1 to 2:3) on the one hand and the detailed account of the creation of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, (2:4ff) on the other. How did two accounts, one seeming to contradict the other, come to be placed side by side? And what are we to make of the different names of God: Elohim and Yahweh Elohim?
The ideas explored in RG’s new book will be a challenge-too-far for some readers who have been immersed in the Documentary Hypothesis and its assumption that the writings of the Bible evolved over centuries from the time of the biblical kingdoms of Israel-Judah (from 900 BCE) and were more or less completed by the end of the Persian era in the fifth century, that is, before the conquests of Alexander and the onset of the Hellenistic period. This traditional view holds that the first five books of the Bible grew out of the literary matrix of Mesopotamia and Syria-Canaan. Possible Greek influence is not even considered.
In his earlier books RG explored the case for a Hellenistic date for the Pentateuch and this new volume is a continuation of those earlier works. His aim is to see what happens when we compare a wider range of possible influences — adding Greek data into the mix — on the Primordial History. I hasten to point out that RG by no means denies influence from the Levantine-Mesopotamian region. But the devils are in the details when identifying the most likely sources of transmission. It is not an either-or discussion but a modified form of both-and, albeit with some adjustments concerning what the evidence indicates about who was responsible for the transmission and when.
In his opening chapter RG explains
- how he will go about identifying the sources behind the Primordial History
- an overview of the history of the scholarly views of Genesis 1-11 and where his own research fits.
To what shall we compare thee?
Scholars have long noted similarities not only between biblical and other Levantine-Mesopotamian literature but also between the Greek and that Asian literature. Some have gone further and (as I mentioned at the beginning) identified where Greek epics and stories are comparable to biblical ones. RG cites some of these and I have added links to those publications available to read online. The titles will give you some idea of the breadth of comparisons:
- Gordon, Cyrus Herzl. “Homer and Bible; the Origin and Character of East Mediterranean Literature.” Hebrew Union College Annual 26 (1955): 43–108. Online: https://archive.org/
- Bremmer, Jan N. Greek Religion and Culture, the Bible, and the Ancient Near East. Jerusalem Studies in Religion and Culture. Leiden: Brill, 2008.
- Burkert, Walter. The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992. Online: http://archive.org/
- Dafni, Evangelia G. Genesis, Plato Und Euripides : Drei Studien Zum Austausch von Griechischem Und Hebräischem Sprach- Und Gedankengut in Der Klassik Und Im Hellenismus. Neukirchen-Vluyn, 2010.
- Dafni, Evangelia G. “Genesis 1-11 und Platos Symposion Überlegungen zum Austausch von hebräischem und griechischem Sprach- und Gedankengut in der Klassik und im Hellenismus.” Old Testament Essays 19, no. 2 (2006): 584–632. Online: https://repository.up.ac.za/
- Hagedorn, Anselm C. Between Moses and Plato Individual and Society in Deuteronomy and Ancient Greek Law. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2004. Online: https://archive.org/
- Launderville, Dale. Piety and Politics: The Dynamics of Royal Authority in Homeric Greece, Biblical Israel, and Old Babylonian Mesopotamia. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 2003. Online: http://archive.org/.
- Louden, Bruce. Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East. Cambridge University Press, 2011.
- Malul, Meir. The Comparative Method in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical Legal Studies. Alter Orient Und Altes Testament. Kevelaer, Neukirchen-Vluyn: Butzon & Bercker ; Neukirchener, 1990.
- Morris, Sarah. “Homer and the Near East.” In A New Companion to Homer, edited by Ian Morris and Barry B. Powell, 599–623. Leiden: Brill, 1997.
- Niesiołowski-Spanò, Łukasz. “Primeval History in the Persian Period?” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 21, no. 1 (January 2007): 106–26. Online: https://www.researchgate.net/
- Penglase, Charles. Greek Myths and Mesopotamia: Parallels and Influence in the Homeric Hymns and Hesiod. London: Routledge, 1997. Online: https://archive.org/
- Walcot, Peter. Hesiod and the Near East. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1966.
- West, M. L. The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Online: https://archive.org/.
In the (translated) words of one of the above names when discussing Plato and the opening chapters of Genesis:
The text corpora in question show an astonishingly large number of common features with regard to the mode of expression and the construction of thought, so that the comparison seems not only appealing but also meaningful. (translation of E. Dafni’s Gen 1-11 und Platos Symposion, p. 587 – German original in side box)
So the idea that we might meaningfully compare Greek works with biblical ones is not something invented by RG. The questions arise over the significance of those comparisons and what comparative studies and source criticism can tell us about the origins of the Judean Pentateuch-oriented religion.
My own school-day paperback copies of Homer’s epics are still marked throughout with notes I made of episodes that pulled me up with surprise because they call biblical narratives to mind. Such observations surely cry out for scholars to look more closely to see what to make of them and those kinds of observations are the justification for RG’s undertaking of his exploratory study.
But there has to be a limit on what one compares. Some scholars think “going Greek” is going too far when studying the Bible and want to limit comparisons to what is found in the immediate neighbours of the Hebrews. RG reminds readers of James Frazer’s twelve volumes of The Golden Bough that attempted to find meaningful comparisons among myths in cultures world-wide. Therefore RG restricts his comparison to cultures that were unquestionably in direct contact with one another. Once sources for comparison are identified, the comparison itself must be made with some rigour, since we can rightly expect critics to pounce on any sign of weakness here.
Next, the data is systematically compared for both common and divergent features within the historically proximate cultures. An analysis is performed as to whether the commonalities are sufficiently unique or distinctive as to demonstrate the transmission of intellectual traditions between the cultures being compared. In some cases, where there are two-way cultural interactions, establishing the direction of cultural influence may also require supporting evidence and argumentation. (Plato’s Timaeus, p. 4)
I am used to seeing scholars who write about comparisons between “pagan” literature and the gospels set out dot-point lists of criteria for determining the validity of parallels. RG doesn’t do that. I think his point about systematically assessing “whether the commonalities are sufficiently unique or distinctive” does the job quite adequately, thank you.
The researcher also needs to be able to explain how any argued transmission of ideas occurred.
Where dost thou come from?
Identifying sources behind a narrative is important if one wants to have a clear idea of what was in an author’s mind, of what he or she was trying to say and why. Identifying sources can also help us decide where to place the literature on a historical time-line. These questions are all addressed by RG in his discussion of his methods.
Earlier today I came across a classic example of how source criticism can be both fraught with danger and still necessary for a proper understanding of the meaning of an episode. In Exodus 32:32 Moses begs God to kill him instead of the entire nation of Israel. One scholar, Holzinger, interpreted this passage, in part, as Moses expressing a desire for martyrdom to save his people. Holzinger pointed out that such an idea was a late one in the history of Israel and was sourced from later prophets – hence proving that the narrative in Exodus was itself very late. H’s critic, Dornseiff, responded by saying that H had it backwards, that the Exodus narrative was very early so the idea of matyrdom for the salvation of the nation could not be what the author meant with the words of Moses.
We do one thing differently here
The present volume applies the disciplines of comparative studies and source criticism to the study of the Primordial History in a standard manner, as described previously. A departure from virtually all other scholarly studies of Genesis 1-11 down to the end of the twentieth century is made in one respect only, by taking into account Greek and Hellenistic literature and culture as well as that of the Ancient Near East. The novel conclusions drawn in the present study are primarily due to this broader comparative base. (p. 5)
That one difference is going to be difficult for some readers to accept simply because the hypothesis that the Pentateuch was composed gradually over centuries before the Hellenistic era has become so entrenched that it is widely treated as a “reified fact”.
“When everyone is agreed on something, it is probably wrong” (TLT)
If one is going to buck the “conventional wisdom” one had better demonstrate that one does indeed understand the grounds for that “conventional wisdom”. So RG sets out the history of how the prevailing view came about and at the same time exposes its flawed assumptions. I wrote a less detailed outline of some of the major points a few years back:
- Who wrote the Bible? Rise of the Documentary Hypothesis
- Did a Single Author Write Genesis – II Kings? (Demise of the Documentary Hypothesis?)
As RG explains, the two “solid” beams underpinning the Documentary Hypothesis and the pre-Hellenistic date for the Pentateuch have been the belief that
- King Josiah’s discovery of the “book of the law” (or Deuteronomy) per 2 Κings 22-23 (621 BCE)
- Ezra’s reading of the Law to the returnees from Babylon per Nehemiah 8-10 (ca 450 BCE)
have a historical basis.
Remarkably, all these schools of biblical criticism adopted the same chronological horizons for the development of the Pentateuch, a centuries-long process understood as having begun in Iron II Judah and Samaria and ending in the Persian Era. The origins and lasting popularity of the pre-Hellenistic paradigm can be traced to the extraordinary success of the Documentary Hypothesis at the end of the nineteenth century as well as the continued acceptance of the methods of historical criticism that sought to date Pentateuchal sources by means of chronological inferences drawn from later historiographical and prophetic texts. (that is, the texts of 2 Kings 22 and Nehemiah – quote from p.9)
Anyone who has studied the covenants between Israel and God in Exodus and Deuteronomy with the aid of commentaries will be aware of the purported parallels with Hittite and Assyrian vassal treaties. I suspect that most of us who have noted those similarities were also struck by some very stark differences but, being led by the commentaries, we quickly let those differences slide from view. Meanwhile, as RG has elaborated in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible, more obvious parallels with fewer differences are to be found in later Greek writings.
The main point to note is that the pre-Hellenistic dating of the Pentateuch ultimately rests on circular reasoning. There is no external, independent evidence to corroborate the claim that the stories of Josiah and Ezra are historical events.
By arbitrarily excluding consideration of Hellenistic Era comparative data that might demonstrate cultural and literary influences at a time later than hypothesized, these historical assumptions were reinforced in what amounted to an implicit circularity of reasoning on a fundamental level. (p. 13)
“The elephant in the room” (MPM)
What was the Judean religion like before Alexander’s conquests? How can we know?
Is there evidence for or against the existence of the “books of Moses” that early?
We do have archaeological evidence that casts serious doubt on the existence of the religion of the Pentateuch before the Hellenistic era. It’s the cache of documents found at a Jewish garrison in Elephantine, Egypt, from the fifth century BCE. These documents demonstrate close ties with their fellow Judeans in Jerusalem. They called themselves Judeans and worshiped Yahweh. But they also had their own local temple and their correspondence with the Jerusalem authorities makes it clear that the there was no problem having a temple in addition to the one on Mount Zion. The seventh day was recognized but it was a day of work and marketing. Passover was observed but only as an agricultural festival and apparently nothing more. And other gods were worshiped alongside Yahweh!
This trove of documents contains no direct or indirect indication of the existence of any biblical writings that discouraged any of the historical practices at Elephantine that scholars once discounted as heterodox. Rather, there is every indication that the practices of the military colony at Elephantine was representative of prosaic Yahwist religion throughout the Persian Era that knew nothing of the biblical writings hypothesized under the pre-Hellenistic research paradigm (Granerød 2016: 17, 204-6, 340; 2019). (pp. 13f)
That sort of evidence has to be a worry if we insist that the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are indicators of serious history.
It also opens up the question of when monotheism became the main feature of Judean religion. RG will present an interesting possibility to that question, too.
The Copenhagen school of biblical criticism started it all
Author: Niels Peter Lemche
Title: The Old Testament – A Hellenistic Book? (the link is to the article online) [I posted about this article in The Old Testament – A Hellenistic Book? (and other digressions)]
That above article, RG explains, “inaugurated the modern study of the Pentateuch as a Hellenistic Era composition . . . noting that external evidence for the biblical text in the form of preserved manuscript fragments or references in extra-biblical texts of known date appear only in the third century BCE and later.”
The major substantial contribution of the Copenhagen school of biblical criticism has been the deconstruction of historical criticism’s methodologically unsound approach to dating biblical texts, with its over reliance on an uncritical reading of the biblical historiographical narratives (Davies 1992; Thompson 1994, 1999; Lemche 1998, 2008). A major theme of the Copenhagen school is that historical facts regarding ancient Israel should be secured by demonstrably contemporary archaeological, inscriptional and epigraphical evidence rather than externally uncorroborated biblical accounts. (pp. 14f – the first four links are to the contents of the books online)
We have no biblical texts older than the Dead Sea Scrolls that are mostly dated to the second century BCE, Lemche stressed. Further, there is no reason to assume that the Hebrew originals were much older than their Greek translations.
Author: Russell Gmirkin
Title: Berossus and Genesis
Lemche’s deconstruction of the pre-Hellenistic paradigm for the Pentateuch opened the way for Russell Gmirkin’s book Berossus and Genesis in 2006 in which he sought to demonstrate a case for the biblical books being entirely composed in the Hellenistic era, around 270 BCE. See the Gmirkin: Berossus and Genesis archive for discussions about that book.
Philippe Wajdenbaum in Argonauts of the Desert produced a long series of entries that suggested the narratives in the Bible’s “Primary History” (Genesis to 2 Kings) were adaptations of Greek stories from Plato, Homer, Hesiod and others. Wajdenbaum led me to read afresh Plato’s Laws and I was taken aback at how many “echoes” there were of the Bible. Or rather I should say that the Bible echoes Plato. Again, Vridar discussions of W’s book are at the Wajdenbaum: Argonauts of the Desert archive.
Author: Russell Gmirkin
Title: Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible
RG, impressed by much of W’s evidence for a relationship between Plato’s Laws and the Bible, undertook to write . . .
. . . a broader, more systematic comparative approach was called for with respect to the Mosaic law collections, one that took into account the full range of Ancient Near Eastern and Greek legal traditions. . . .
Gmirkin 2017 . . . prominently utilized both broad comparative techniques, extensively analyzing both Greek and Ancient Near Eastern legal and literary traditions, and source criticism. The latter showed reliance on Plato’s Laws, both for legal content in the Pentateuch and for the impetus to create an authoritative national literature, the Hebrew Bible. (p. 19)
My posts on that book are all listed and linked at Plato and the Hebrew Bible (Gmirkin)
Author: Russell Gmirkin
Title: Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts
On the dedication page of that book we read:
To Thomas L. Thompson, a true original
Without whom this book would not have been possible
So we come to the new book by RG. Others (Niesiołowski-Spanò, Wajdenbaum: see links above) have shown the similarities between aspects of Plato’s Timaeus and the Hebrew Bible but RG’s work takes us deeper into systematic comparisons. Both Ancient Levantine-Mesopotamian creation myths and the Greek cosmogonies are taken into account. The questions I asked in my opening paragraphs (Where does it all come from? What are we to make of apparent double accounts of creation and variant names of God?) may be answered afresh if we are open to the possibility that the authors of Genesis 1-11 were familiar with Plato.
TLT = for the source of Thomas Thompson’s words, see the post Thompson’s Rule.
MPM = Matthew P. Monger. From the Preface to Dimensions of Yahwism in the Persian Period by Gard Granerød:
This book [is about] the Judaean community at Elephantine in the Achaemenid period. . . . I found myself emphasising the religio-historical aspects at the cost of the original biblical-theological interest. Therefore, the alternative title jokingly suggested by the PhD student Matthew P. Monger — The Elephant in the Room: Persian Period Yahwism and the Judaean Community at Elephantine — does indeed capture some important aspects of the present book.
Gmirkin, Russell E. Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts: Cosmic Monotheism and Terrestrial Polytheism in the Primordial History. Abingdon, Oxon New York, NY: Routledge, 2022.
Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)
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