The Ambiguity of the Serpent: Greek versus Biblical

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by Neil Godfrey

Athena with owl and serpents

Recent postings on the evidence for a Hellenistic matrix for the book of Genesis and wider reading around that evidence have led me to wonder if the author who chose a serpent to tempt Eve was having a subtle dig at the wisdom of the Greeks. (If you have read this notion before do let me know — I would not be surprised if I am recollecting an idea from an otherwise forgotten source.) It’s an entirely speculative thought so don’t attribute to me anything more than that.

Classics professor Page duBois wrote an article for Arethusa titled “On Horse/Men, Amazons, and Endogamy” (1979) in which she drew upon ideas of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss to propose that in both literary and visual arts of the fifth century, the Greeks imagined Centaurs and Amazons as symbolic of barbarism – in particular, Persian “barbarism”.

Of course, I thought, and is not the serpent in biblical literature symbolic of Athenian culture? The serpent was the symbol of Zeus, after all — as noted in a little detail in one of my posts on Revelation. (Zeus, recall, was the chief god of the Greek pantheon.) The serpent was also the favourite pet and signifier, along with the owl, of Athena, the goddess of wisdom among other things. If the Greeks could depict “the other” as wild animals then why not the Hebrews? We do read in the Book of Daniel (a text of undeniable Hellenistic provenance) that other nations are ravaging beasts compared with the “humanity” of the “people of God”.

Now the serpent was more עָרוּם than any other beast of the field. (Gen 3:1)

עָרוּם (‘ā·rūm) is the word translated “crafty” and “cunning” in many Bibles, but the word is ambiguous in connotations. It can in other contexts be understood to refer to a most positive quality: prudence, sense, wisdom. The ambiguity opens up the possibility of an interesting question. And the serpent promises the wisdom of God, the knowledge of good and evil.

As I read and think about the case for Hellenistic influence on the Bible I am reminded of those studies of more modern societies subject to colonialism. The Greeks in Alexander the Great’s wake brought their culture into the areas they came to rule and I imagine people back then were not very different from people today: the conquered tend to adopt the culture of the conquerors but very often adapt it and make a mutation of it distinctly “their own”. By this process, they are able to turn the tropes of the victor back on their conquerors and assert their cultural independence, even equality of spirit.

I wonder if the author of the “fall of humanity” scene was taking the symbol of Greek culture and wisdom, the serpent, and ambiguously attributing to it a wisdom that could also be interpreted as deceit. Whoever wrote the Pentateuch was/were very likely in tune with Greek thought, surely even Hellenophiles to an extent, but the wisdom they promoted was not the enquiring wisdom of Socrates but the revealed wisdom of their god.

But I speculate. And wonder if I read the same somewhere a while ago.

duBois, Page. “On Horse/Men, Amazons, and Endogamy.” Arethusa 12, no. 1 (1979): 35–49.


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15 thoughts on “The Ambiguity of the Serpent: Greek versus Biblical”

  1. Septuagint parallel is φρονιμώτατος/φρόνιμος, and gets reasonable NT/Attic usage: wise, shrewd, prudent… if wanting to allude to specifically Greek cleverness, though, I’d expect some μῆτις/πολύμητις/δόλος to invoke Odysseus.

    When faced with a clever opponent/culture/whatnot, an effective (and standard) move is to turn their smarts into a liability. Origen favored this argument; Greek knowledge/logic/rhetoric was powerful, but dangerous and amoral, and Jesus’s message transcended and undercut such worldly trivialities.

    1. Thanks for introducing the Septuagint word — I almost embarked on that discussion and the digging into various manuscript lines but then decided I wanted to keep it short and relaxing (at least for me) this time.

      And thanks for the reference to Odyssean cleverness. I think that term would have missed what may be regarded as the bigger target of Greek philosophy in its various forms.

  2. The serpent tempting Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil in Gen. 3 resembles Hesiod’s story of Prometheus stealing fire to offer it to humans, after which Zeus and the gods created the first woman Pandora, as narrated in both Theogony and Works and Days. Prometheus is said to be wily, crooked of counsel (ἀγκυλομήτης, Theogony 546). He was punished by Zeus, although he knew many a wile (πολύιδριν, Theogony 616). After Prometheus stole the fire from Zeus, the latter called him “surpassing all in cunning” (πάντων πέρι μήδεα εἰδώς, Works and Days 54). This may be compared to the biblical serpent as עָרוּם / φρονιμώτατος in Gen. 3:1.

    On the other hand, Russell Gmirkin discusses in Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts (94, 179, 188), how, according to Plato, the god made the most foolish (ἀφρονεστάτοις, Timaeus 92a) of animals without feet and crawling on the earth, much like the biblical serpent was cursed to go on its belly and eat dust (Gen. 3:14).

    In the hypothesis that the biblical author was familiar with both Hesiod’s and Plato’s works, they seem to have adapted elements in Gen. 3 from both Prometheus’ story and Plato’s Timaeus.

  3. The problem of course is that the serpent’s advice is perfectly reasonable and indeed wise. It’s the prohibition against knowing the difference between good and evil which is strange.

    It all feels much more like a metaphor for children growing up and leaving home to find sexual partners, and the parents’ futile wish that they would stay children forever. The serpent is a phallic symbol of puberty in a patriarchal story where women are so sidelined that Adam and Eve do not even require a mother.

    There is a danger in all these analyses of assuming that story memes are like DNA genes – that finding an origin is a case of finding where the different elements appeared first and then drawing the conclusion that there must be an inheritance path that leads from one to the other.

    But human experience and nature is pretty stable across the world and metaphors for that experience are able to spontaneously appear in the imaginations of story tellers without any need to share or even for something analogous to parallel evolution in biology.

    I find a lot of the current discussion about parallels between Genesis and Plato plausible without being convincing and in this particular case I think the full ramifications of the serpent’s advise is too complicated to be a dig at Zeus. Any adult reader/listener can see that there is something off about being told that paradise is only available to those who do not know good from evil (traditionally, children), and something selfish about denying the tree of life too. These bittersweet messages seem, to me, to be more of a sigh of resignation than propaganda.

    1. Fixed — and sorry for the delay in doing so. (I like your comparison with a metaphor of children growing up — that gells with Russell Gmirkin’s idea of the story shifting from the philosophically dominant chapter 1 to a raw mythical tale in chap 2)

  4. Hi Neil

    As you may remember, I have not in the past been a fan of Russell Gmirkin’s theory that the Pentateuch is a literary project derived mostly from Greek literature, gleaned from the volumes of the Library of Alexandria. This current series of posts, which guides us through Russell (and your?) proposed demonstration that Genesis 1-2 is derived from Plato’s Timaeus and/or various other Greek authors, has in no way convinced me to change that opinion.

    Over the past weeks I have started to prepare comments to many of your posts, but have not had time to finish them to an adequate standard for uploading. That may be just as well, as they might all have easily become mini-essays as long as your posts. I was at any rate usually making two points:

    (1) Despite the many interesting parallels adduced (though some parallels are more parallel than others), none came up to the rigourous, detailed standards needed to prove direct literary borrowing: the parallels are too fuzzy, the supposed sources too multifarious, and precise literary detail simply lacking.

    (2) While sources for Pentateuchal literary motifs are sought and often found in Greek literature, the origins of those Greek literary motifs remained unexamined, even though in the case of some writers (eg Hesiod), Near Eastern origins are universally acknowledged. In other words, the borders between Greek, Syro-Levantine and Near Eastern cultures are clearly much more porous than this thesis acknowledges, seriously undermining the simple Hellenistic > Pentateuchal derivation it presents.

    However, rather than discussing individual instances, I would instead like to draw your attention to a recent essay by Guy Darshan on the Marmarini inscription and its implications for understanding the relationship between Greek and Syro-Levantine culture.


    The conclusion of his essay is germane to this topic:

    “The mixture of Near Eastern elements in this inscription may further teach that the use of casuistic laws in the Greek »sacred laws« may not necessarily be an independent development, but rather related to the exchange of traditions between cultures within the Mediterranean basin. Other examples from the Mediterranean, which reflect a similar mixture of Semitic and Greek characteristics related to cultic norms, can be seen in the Punic tariffs. […] It is therefore probable to assume that these similarities attest to the existence of shared traditions of ritual laws, which had been prevalent around the Mediterranean basin. As it contains a mixture of Near Eastern and Greek norms, written in Greek, it also provides an extraordinary example of how ritual and legal formulae could travel from one place to another across the Mediterranean. Although no direct connection exists between the Greek and Israelite literary corpora, nor should any direct influence of one upon another be assumed, their shared general environment—the eastern Mediterranean basin—enabled the transfer of literary, legal, and priestly traditions from one place to another within this geo-cultural sphere. The inscription is dated to the beginning of the Hellenistic period, but the use of casuistic »sacred laws« in the Greek evidence dates back to the early sixth century BCE and can attest to this kind of exchange and connections even during the earlier, pre-Hellenistic periods.”

    What applies to these “sacred laws” can of course apply equally to other literary genres, including origin myths, folklore and theoretical “science”.

    1. Dear Austendw,

      Darshan’s essay is fascinating, and shows in my opinion how much Leviticus’ sacrificial and purity laws are at home in a Greek context. I notice however that there are no references in Darshan’s essay to Russell Gmirkin’s thorough comparisons between Greek and specifically Platonic laws on the one hand and laws of the Hebrew Bible on the other hand (Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible). Darshan writes that no direct connections exist between Greek and biblical literary corpora and that no direct influence should be assumed (498), but he does so by apparently completely ignoring the works of scholars who have argued for such potential connections and direct influence.

      The fact that Greece undoubtedly inherited ideas and religious practices from the Near East should not necessarily exclude that at later periods, Greek culture may have in turn influenced the Near East. Believing that such common background is always the better explanation for the countless similarities between Ancient Greek literature and the Hebrew Bible in my opinion tends to dilute the often specific biblical / Greek parallels into a wider context with sometimes more superficial similarities.

      The former romantic idea of the “Greek miracle” argued that Greek culture had sprouted without any foreign influence, and scholars such as Walter Burkert (The Orientalizing Revolution) and Martin L. West The East Face of Helicon) have brought important contributions by showing how much Greek literature owed Near Eastern culture. West noted in his conclusions that there was a remarkable high number of Greek-biblical similarities, but believed that this was only a distortion due to the fact these literatures had been better preserved than others; and that a possible lost Phoenician literature was the common denominator to Homer and the Bible.

      In my opinion, besides resting on an argument from silence, such reasoning omits that Greek and ANE literatures have polytheistic pantheons and myths in common, and as such differ theologically from the Hebrew Bible, which shares its innovative monotheism specifically with Plato’s notion of the single demiurge, creator of the cosmos, helped by the traditional gods of the Greek pantheon (Argonauts of the Desert, 85-7, 92-5).

      I have argued that the author of Genesis-Kings adapted Greek myths found in such authors as Homer, Pindar, Herodotus, Euripides and perhaps Apollonius of Rhodes, and transformed these myths according to Plato’s advice on a proper literature in the Republic. Whereas gods could be unjust and deceitful towards humans in Homer and Hesiod, Plato advocated for the representation of a god that never lies and punishes mortal only for their sins. I labelled such rewriting technique of Greek myths through Plato’s intended censorship the “Platonic filter” (Argonauts of the Desert, 89-91). Here is one example of it :

      Homer narrated how Zeus sent a lying dream to Agamemnon, promising him that he would be victorious over the Trojans, whereas in reality, Zeus meant Agamemnon’s defeat (Iliad, 2.1ff.). Earlier in book 1, Agamemnon rebuked the seer Calchas, who prophesied only evil to him and never good (Iliad 1.105ff.). Plato disavowed the specific narrative of the lying dream in Homer, and wrote that it would not be allowed in the literature of his Republic, because in his view, gods do not lie to humans (382e-83b).

      In 1 Kings 22, God sent a deceitful spirit to entice the prophets to promise Ahab victory over Aram, although he meant his demise. Ahab reluctantly consulted Micaiah, because the latter would only prophesy evil to him, and never anything good (1 Kings 22:8) – almost word for word what Agamemnon said of Calchas. But Micaiah revealed his vision of God’s celestial court. Unlike Zeus who lied to Agamemnon, the biblical god did reveal the truth of his intentions to Ahab through the mouth of his true prophet Micaiah. Ahab only chose to listen to the false prophets, neglected Micaiah’s true prophecy, and died on his charriot (Argonauts of the Desert, 278-80).

      In the hypothesis of a diffuse common background, it would not be impossible that Homer on the one hand, and the author of Kings on the other hand, both inherited a similar story where a king is told a lie by a deity who want his death but wrongly predicts him victory. That same text would also have that king hating a prophet or seer who only prophesies evil to him and never anything good. Perhaps, as assumed by West, a Phoenician (or other) text could have been the common source for the Iliad and Kings. Not only there isn’t any evidence for such a hypothetical common source, but it is much less plausible, in my opinion, that the biblical version – where ultimately the god does not lie and the truth is revealed – would correspond to Plato’s very criticism of Homer for his intended literature, all of this by mere chance. Rather, I believe that we have here a case of what classical scholars call a “two-tier allusion” : the author of Kings was correcting Homer through Plato’s criticism of the latter.

      Genesis-Kings is the prose tale of a twelve-tribe State that could have been ideal, had its inhabitants and their kings respected the divine laws inherited by their founding ancestors. Because the people of this State failed to respect those divine laws, the god decided its destruction. I have argued that this framework is based on Plato’s Laws on the one hand (twelve tribes, around thirty common laws) and Critias (Atlantis’ fall due to its successive kings; Argonauts of the Desert, 55, 112, 164-5, 274-5).

      If we turn to Hesiod, he certainly did inherit elements from the Near East, such as the succession myth from the Hurrian story of Kumarbi, as his framework for the Theogony. Some of his wisdom teachings in Works and Days seem also to derive from an ANE background. Yet, some scholars, following P. Walcot, have argued that the Egyptian Instruction of Onchshechonqy may have been in turn influenced by Hesiod’s Works and Days.

      We do not have to assume that in every case, Greek literature is the late end receiver of ANE traditions, and that biblical texts necessarily reflect the same allegedly earlier ANE traditions, independently of any influence of Greece, because of Judea’s geographical location in the ANE. Diffusion of themes and literature certainly did not go only in one direction. Each case should be judged through its specificities, and as such the assumption of the common background as the only valid explanation for Greek and biblical parallels, no matter how numerous and specific the similarities are, should not be a petitio principii that dismisses any claim of direct influence.

      Hesiod has a character named Iapetus, known in later texts as the ancestor of the Greeks through his sons Prometheus and Epimetheus, who were themselves the respective fathers of Deucalion and Pyrrha, survivors of the Flood in the Greek tradition. The name of Iapetus strikingly corresponds to biblical Japheth, himself a survivor of the biblical Flood and ancestor of the Greeks through his son Iavan / Ion in Gen. 10:2-5.

      Noah prophesied that Japheth would dwell in the tents of his brother Shem (Gen. 9:27). Here, the biblical author uses the name of the ancestor of the Greeks from their very own traditions, and explains that the Greeks will someday dwell in the Near East (“the tents of Shem”). To this prophecy by Noah, one can add Balaam’s about fleet from Kittim (Cyprus) subjugating Asshur (Assyria) and Eber (the Hebrew world; Numbers 24:24).

      We have thus in the Pentateuch two clear markers of the author’s time of writing through retrospective prophecies, that are of the very same nature and content that allows most scholars to date the Book of Daniel to the second century B.C.E. This provides a consistent set of arguments for a Hellenistic date and openness by the biblical author(s) to Greek influence.

      Best regards,

      Philippe Wajdenbaum

    2. Hi again Austendw. I am responding to you earlier comment out of order, I see — I am going through the comments “backwards” as I try to catch up after some months of being more distracted than usual from the blog.

      To respond to this point of yours:

      (1) Despite the many interesting parallels adduced (though some parallels are more parallel than others), none came up to the rigourous, detailed standards needed to prove direct literary borrowing: the parallels are too fuzzy, the supposed sources too multifarious, and precise literary detail simply lacking.

      I have not understood the biblical authors to be directly borrowing from Hesiod. Far from it. What I imagine is that the author of this part of Genesis is allowing himself to be influenced to his knowledge of Hesiod and other sources from which he has learned the Greek ideas. I don’t see any direct borrowing as in lines of a poet being re-written for a Genesis passage.

      One of the reasons I imagine behind this less direct borrowing is the author’s apparent focus on combining Judean/Samaritan stories with those of the Greeks. The intent is a new text with a new story for a new tradition rather than a mere variant or adaptation of an old one.

      As for Darshan’s conclusion, I think PW may have made the same point that comes to my mind. All the independent evidence that we have — the archaeological evidence — strongly indicates that there was no knowledge of the biblical narratives as we recognize them prior to the Hellenistic era.

      It is the archaeological evidence that is our control here and I believe that should make the idea of Hellenistic influence an a priori assumption in our approach to a literary analysis of the Pentateuch — or at least the possibility of Hellenistic influence should be given far more weight than it has been till now.

      If the Marmarini inscription could incorporate sixth century traditions into a Hellenistic era inscription then it follows that it is equally reasonable to think that a sixth century Semitic tradition could be part of a Hellenistic book of laws.

  5. Hi Philippe

    I had really hoped to just alert Neil to a different modern approach to the issue of the relation between Greek and Biblical literature that he may or may not be aware of, but I am obliged to give a more extensive reply regarding your and Russell’s Hellenistic-Pentateuch theories. I do not of course expect to change your, his, or anyone else’s mind on this subject. I just want to present what I hope is a cogent, plausible alternative.

    I can’t speculate on why Darshan doesn’t discuss your work. What’s crucial is that his essay proves there was a shared Greek/Syro-Palestinian/Eastern Mediterranean culture, and not just on a purely literary level; the Marmarini inscription was set up in a temple, reflecting cultic practice in some form. Darshan’s attention was on a very narrow, specific area, but it hints at a much wider cultural involvement, that I think undermines the force of your argument that discussions of “lost Phoenician literature” are “arguments from silence.” True, we don’t have anything like a crystal-clear understanding of that shared culture, but we know that it existed on very real level. As these cultures were porous, I think it’s quite reasonable to understand parallels (but not super-close correspondences) between literatures as partaking of that shared cultural milieu. (At risk of sounding like a Darshan fan-boy, Darshan has also written another paper – “The Origins of the Foundation Stories Genre in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Eastern Mediterranean” – that examines how political parallels and shared cultural concerns of Greece and the Levant might explain the broadly (ie imprecisely) similar foundation stories in Greek myth and the Pentateuch. (It can be sourced here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/308038853_The_Origins_of_the_Foundation_Stories_Genre_in_the_Hebrew_Bible_and_Ancient_Eastern_Mediterranean )

    So I agree entirely that the Marmarini article’s conclusion doesn’t “exclude that at later periods, Greek culture may have in turn influenced the Near East.” There is a vast amount of scholarship, with ample evidence to back it up, addressing how Greek culture certainly influenced, even totally transformed the Near East in later periods. The issue here is in the specifics: the specific narratives, the specific writers, the specific books, the specific dates.

    And just as extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof, so specific claims demand specific proof. You say that the “Hebrew Bible… shares its innovative monotheism specifically with Plato’s notion of the single demiurge”. Yes it does, but sharing isn’t borrowing, and I believe one needs far, far more rigorous identification of literary markers of borrowing for the proposal that an author of the Hebrew Bible actually read and borrowed from Plato to be plausible. You mention that Japheth is related to Iapetos, which is absolutely right (and the connected outrage of one sort or another against the father is significant too). But the fact that Shem and Ham aren’t from Hesiod, that their genealogical relation to the flood differs to that of the Titans etc, all suggests to me that the parallels are at some distance from each other… be that chronological, geographical, or a mixture of both. I see nothing in Genesis that supports the notion of direct borrowing from Hesiod. To be honest (and I hope this isn’t taken as a personal insult) I don’t think you or Russell have a rigorous way of distinguishing direct borrowings from distant, fuzzy parallels, and that enables you to pick any passage you like from Greek literature and deploy it as evidence for your theses without any “control”. This, for me, is really not a strong enough methodology to support the specificity of the claims you and Russell make. Neil Godfrey is quite hot on this when he is discussing mythicist arguments in the context of the New Testament, but I don’t think he has addressed (or noticed?) the same subject in respect of the theories proposed by you or Russell Gmirkin.

    In Vridar section “In Six Days; Genesis 1 as Science” ( https://vridar.org/2022/11/11/in-six-days-genesis-1-as-science-biblical-creation-accounts-platos-timaeus-5b/ ), Neil, presumably paraphrasing Russell, writes: “God separated the light from the darkness — Empedocles; Hesiod and Plato – cosmos was formed by separating its primary elements”. This summary sounds persuasive enough at first read, until you wonder precisely what those “primary elements” were in all these texts. And then it becomes apparent that nowhere in Genesis 1 (or in the entire Pentateuch, nor I think the entire canonical OT) do the four elements. The parallel between Genesis and Plato is actually a pretty poor one. To employ a clunky analogy, this would be like wanting to demonstrate that an undated and anonymous scientific manuscript was written after Einstein, despite the fact that the text never mentions e=mc2 and only discusses Newtonian physics. It wouldn’t be particularly convincing. The long and short of it is that the writer of Genesis seems totally unaware of the fundamental building blocks of the Hellenistic cosmos – the four elements, and I think that seriously undermines Russell’s thesis.

    Your own unique theory – ie positing a single author of the entire primary history, if I understand it correctly – demands that this author was a super-scholar of Hellenistic literature, who “adapted Greek myths found in such authors as Homer, Pindar, Herodotus, Euripides and perhaps Apollonius of Rhodes, and transformed these myths according to Plato’s advice”. Russell Gmirkin, more conscious perhaps of the clefts and contradictions in the Pentateuch, posits a sort of office of Greek-reading scholars in the library of Alexandria, who collaborated on the Pentateuch narrative… but made no attempt to resolve their differences, giving us an unresolved, sometimes contradictory, collage (which one might characterise as a chronologically flattened Documentary Hypothesis). I’m afraid I find both these hypotheses simplistic with regard to the stratification of the biblical text, highly speculative, and rather implausible.

    I still adhere to a diachronic approach (of which there are now many different versions, not just the old Wellhausen model), which proposes that the biblical texts have developed over a period of time, having been revised, edited and supplemented by a succession of writers/scribes/supplementers/editors. There is evidence for this. The DSS have shown that scribes supplemented and rearranged biblical texts, often to remove inconsistencies between different passages. Within the Pentateuch itself there is evidence of related/reworked law codes: e.g. two versions of the 10 commandments. The plusses and minuses shown in Greek, Hebrew and Samaritan versions of the Pentateuch; the relationship between 1&2 Kings & 2 Chronicles; the differences between Greek and Hebrew versions of Jeremiah, Esther, Ezra and Esdras etc are further examples. This all shows that the biblical texts have evolved over a period of time. Text-evolution was, I believe, one of the key characteristics of the literary culture that led to and also post-dated canonical bible.

    This process was very much alive in the Hellenistic period, and this means that an allusion to the Greek presence in the Levant in Genesis 9:27 does not prove that the whole pericope, let alone the whole Pentateuch, let alone the entire Primary History, was written at the same time. I’m not just playing a convenient, get-out-of-jail-free, “late gloss” card; there is literary-critical evidence for such a proposal. Parallelism was one of the strongest stylistic features of biblical poetry, but it is noticeable that Gen 9:27 has an extra clause when compared with 9:26. Omit the phrase “וְיִשְׁכֹּן בְּאָהֳלֵי-שֵׁם” and v. 27 is a close parallel to v. 26, strongly suggesting that the clause in question was added later, an addition that brought the earlier prophecy up-to-date. After all it’s not difficult to understand why, as a genre, prophetic poems would almost demand updating, to retain cogency and relevance. So similarly, although in Num 24:14a Balaam says he’s going home, he only actually leaves in v. 25 and it is therefore plausible that the “end of days” prophecies regarding the surrounding nations of vv.14b-24 are a later interpolation. The choppiness of the poetic form might even suggest successive supplementations within that passage.

    So yes, there is clear evidence of editorial activity in the Hellenistic period. But I don’t believe there is evidence to support the notion that the Pentateuch (etc) was the product of a single writer (or contemporary scholarly body), who created it from extensive borrowings from/adaptations of a vast library of Greek authors, all within a very short period. I think rather there is strong evidence that undermines such a hypothesis.

    1. Dear Austendw,

      Many thanks for your detailed reply. We will probably not convince each other, but it is a worthy debate.
      It seems that the Marmarini inscription is one of many Greek inscriptions from various periods and locations regarding sacrificial rituals and purity regulations that all have many common details with Leviticus. Darshan notices that there are specific similarities not only in content but in the order of the laws between the Marmarini inscription and Leviticus, which, he conjectures, would indicate perhaps that the Priestly authors had a similar text at their disposal for creating P / Leviticus.

      These comparisons would indeed tend to argue in favor of common practices in the Eastern Mediterranean; although it does not exclude in my opinion that the biblical author(s) may have used a Greek set of such instructions, but that remains of course speculative. Yet, the Hebrew Bible is, until proven otherwise, not attested before the Hellenistic era; and Yonathan Adler’s recent archaeological study concludes that most religious laws of the Torah were not practiced before the mid-second century B.C.E., which in my opinion is additional evidence allowing for Hellenistic date of redaction for the Hebrew Bible.

      In your response, you claim that the parallels I or R. Gmirkin bring forward are not specific enough to suggest direct borrowings. Yet I believe that I gave a very specific example in my previous response about the Iliad and Kings having a king saying almost word for word the same thing about a seer / prophet who always prophesies evil and never anything good. I have argued that the biblical narrative of the deceitful spirit ultimately contradicted by God’s true prophet seems in line with Plato’s criticism in the Republic of Homer’s Zeus-sent lying dream, in that the god(s) should not be portrayed as lying to humans. I have explained that this specific parallel with two related Greek authors at the same time (what classical scholars call “two-tier allusion”) is itself consistent with the idea that Genesis-Kings tells the story of an ideal state made of twelve tribes than ran to its demise because its successive generations of kings abandoned the divine laws received by their ancestors, a canvas that corresponds to Plato’s Laws and Critias.

      Believing that this all would be the result of a mere common background of shared cultural motifs in the Mediterranean basin could also be thought as a simplistic approach, in that it implicitly assumes that there were no developments within Greek literature over the course of centuries. It treats Greek literature as somehow monolithic, disregarding the specificities of each author. About four centuries separate Homer from Plato. As explained, the latter was very critical of the former, meaning to censor several of his passages. Before Plato, in the fifth century B.C.E., Herodotus wrote the Histories in prose, quite like Genesis-Kings is prose.

      Plato imagined the ideal State of the Laws as a mixture of Athenian laws of his time on the one hand, and older Spartan and Cretan institutions on the other hand (as per G. R. Morrow, Plato’s Cretan City). As shown by R. Gmirkin, the division into tribes was not simply “a common motif” but a specific Greek organization (Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible, 19-22). Plato chose to have twelve tribes in Laws, as it matched the number of the gods; whereas in Critias, he chose to depict not twelve but ten tribes, reflecting Athens of his time. As per Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Luc Brisson and Jean-François Pradeau, Plato’s Atlantis was a satirical poem criticizing Athens’ ambition during the Peloponnesian War that had caused its economic ruin. If the number of tribes varied from one Platonic dialogue to the other, the twelve-tribe motif cannot be simply thought as a shared trait of the Eastern Mediterranean basin. I we can trace rather precisely how, for instance, Plato composed his own texts, based on previous Greek texts and institutions on the one hand, and political events within Greek history on the other hand, then it cannot be argued that he merely inherited random motifs shared with the Near East that would have also randomly landed in Genesis-Kings.

      If Genesis-Kings contains stories and laws similar to those found in at least three Greek authors from different periods, Homer, Herodotus and Plato – each having specific contents and literary traits -, it would seem in my opinion very implausible that it would do so by the mere random diffusion of themes. We would have to assume that Genesis-Kings contains Homeric-like motifs because of a third, common source, as per West’s alleged “Phoenician Bible” / “Phoenician Homer” ; that it uses prose like Herodotus does, in addition to sharing many motifs with him, also because of an alleged other common source ; and it would match Plato’s theology, laws and political criticism – which scholars studying Plato attribute to specific developments within Greek society – all of this by the alleged random diffusion of shared motifs.

      Although I do consider that Genesis-Kings is the work of a single author (as per Spinoza, T. L. Brodie and Jan-Wim Wesselius, who all place that author in the Persian era), this approach is still a diachronic one, in that it considers the observable evolution of Greek literature itself, with Genesis-Kings being a sort of synthesis of the said Greek authors (and others). Indeed, its author would have been a “super-scholar of Hellenistic literature”, as you write. It so happens that Alexandrian scholars were precisely that: Apollonius of Rhodes, the 3rd century B.C.E. author of the Argonautica and head of Alexandria’s Great Library, was well versed in all these previous authors. Scholars analyzing his work show how Apollonius placed myriads of allusions to his models of inspiration, specifically Homer, but also Pindar, Herodotus, Euripides and Callimachus, in his own retelling of the story of the Argonauts (cf. Virginia Knight, The Renewal of Epic: Responses to Homer in the Argonautica of Apollonius; R. Clare, The Path of the Argo: Language, Imagery and Narrative in the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius; and others). I have argued that the author of Genesis-Kings may have been familiar with Apollonius’ sophisticated literary technique of allusion to previous authors (Argonauts of the Desert, 50-51).

      Regarding Gen. 9:27, arguing that “may he dwell in the tents of Shem” is a late addition, is an ad hoc reasoning based on a conjecture about what the verse should read. If it were correct, one would have to assume that the original text of Genesis did contain the name of Japheth as the ancestor of the Greeks, corresponding to Iapetus as the ancestor of the Greeks in their very own tradition, and that a late redactor thought that since the Greeks happened to have then conquered the Near East, he might just add that Noah had envisioned it. To me, this seems quite far-fetched, compared the idea that the biblical author wrote the text as we read it, and had read Hesiod’s and other works, used a name that he deliberately kept from these sources to identify the ancestor of the Greeks, and placed a retrospective prophecy to indicate his time of writing to his readers.

      Historical-critical scholars tend to use the ad hoc argument of the late redactor all too often, whenever a biblical verse contradicts their premise. Methodological parsimony requires that we base such arguments only on an empirical basis, namely the textual variants at our disposal (cf. Empirical Models Challenging Biblical Criticism, edited by R. F. Person and R. Rezetko). In agreement with T. L. Brodie (Genesis as Dialogue, 495-501), who suggested the Odyssey as a direct source for Genesis, I think that suggesting verifiable, existing (and as it happens, Greek) texts as possible sources of inspiration for Genesis-Kings is methodologically sounder and in line with Occam’s Razor than the somehow endless speculations and adjustments to the hypothetical sources of historical criticism, be it the traditional J, E, D and P, or the more recent non-P and P distinction.

      As noted by the late Bruce Louden in his 2013 article “Iapetus and Japheth: Hesiod’s Theogony, Iliad 15.187-93, and Genesis 9-10”, page 18, both Genesis 9:27 and Hesiod, Theogony 207-9 have comparable alliterative puns. When Noah woke up from his drunkenness, after having known what Ham had done to him, he cursed Canaan, Ham’s son, and blessed Japheth, wishing that God may expand him: יַפְתְּ אֱלֹהִים לְיֶפֶת. The verb יַפְתְּ (yafet), “may he expand”, sounds like the name יֶפֶת (yefet). Likewise, after Cronus castrated his father Uranus, the latter called his children the Titans (Τιτῆνας, titenas) because they had strained (τιταίνοντας, titainontas) and did presumptuously a fearful deed. Louden considered that the wordplays being found in both texts respectively after the father has been either seen naked or castrated by one of his sons could not be coincidental.

      In agreement with Louden, I believe that the biblical author alluded to Hesiod’s Theogony and invented a pun that mimicked Hesiod’s own pun, all the more based on the name of Iapet, which is itself found in Hesiod, in order to create a retrospective prophecy about the Greek expansion in the Levant. I believe these are much more than just “distant, fuzzy parallels”, as you write. Finally, let us note that Louden originally assumed the common background hypothesis in his 2006 “The Iliad: Structure, Myth and Meaning”, before coming to the conclusion that Greek myths had in some way influenced the Hebrew Bible (Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East, 2011; Greek Myth and the Bible, 2019). As a scholar steeped into these comparisons, he was able to change his mind from the commonly held view of the shared background to that of a direct influence because of the number and accuracy of the parallels between the Hebrew Bible and Homer.

      Best regards,

      Philippe Wajdenbaum

    2. Hi Austendw,

      You wrote:

      but I don’t think he has addressed (or noticed?) the same subject in respect of the theories proposed by you or Russell Gmirkin.

      I do have questions about Russell Gmirkin’s thesis but I am attempting to give some idea as accurately and comprehensively as blog posts allow of his thesis and the rationale he sets out for it. (One of the reasons for some long delays between posts has been my efforts to access and read more widely around points he makes; sometimes snippets from that additional reading surface in the posts.)

      And yes, one point in the back of my mind through this process has been what you point out about my treatment of parallels between the Gospels and other literature. I have several times posted various lists of criteria by which the likelihood of borrowings can be assessed. Russell Gmirkin does not do this. Whether that’s a weakness or not is something I still have to determine after I give his thesis — and the value of criteriology lists — more thought. But I accept your point: how does one determine the likelihood of borrowing?

      Philippe W. has responded to some specifics. I am currently reading other works (French) that also point to a Hellenistic era and a single-author case for the Pentateuch. I can only say at this point I need to learn a lot more before I feel I can even know the appropriate questions to ask.

      I would like to return to your comment and Philippe’s reply: I may use them in future posts for further discussion.

      Just one more point: my post on the parallels between the Exodus and Atlantic covenants was one I had been mulling over in my mind for quite some time before putting fingers to keyboard. I was not particularly impressed by the supposed parallels — but when crunch time came for me to write something I was forced to go back and read more carefully, point by point, and to follow up citations etc — all very time-consuming but forcing me to be thorough. As I progressed I found myself being persuaded in a way I had not been before when I had “simply read” about the parallels — both in W’s and G’s books.

      Was my shift to being “somewhat persuaded” a result of slower, more thorough observation and analysis of details I was reading or was it the result of feeling somehow obligated to be “somewhat persuaded” to justify the effort I was investing?

      Maybe a pointer to the first option being the correct answer can be witnessed in another’s comment here. Thomas W. complained about “tenuous and vague” similarities — but I don’t think they are tenuous and vague at all and it must be significant that Thomas failed to accurately repeat what the parallels actually were — replacing them with what really were “tenuouos and vague” alternatives.

      But I say “somewhat persuaded”. That’s because the contexts are so different that on first reading(s!) the parallels are barely visible or recognizable. I would like to see more of the same, at least, in the rest of the Pentateuch to be “most certainly persuaded”.

      Still early days. Thanks again for your detailed critique and to Philippe for his reply. As mentioned, I would like to return to them.

  6. I might be totally reaching too far here, but I just want to put it out there and see what you think.

    Atia (1st c. BCE) gets pregnant by Apollo in snake form and gives birth to Caesar Augustus. Do you think there could be anything linking this to the idea of, “the snake shows the woman sex and the woman shows the man”? I know it’s a quote from Suetonius in the 2nd c. CE, but he says he got it from an earlier source.

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