Is it possible to set forth a plausible case that the Genesis author of Noah’s Flood was inspired in any way by his reading of Plato’s myth of Atlantis? There can be no doubt that the author was influenced by an ancient Mesopotamian story so let’s establish that undeniable source for Genesis with Russell Gmirkin’s own acknowledgement:
Even if the most ancient version of the deluge comes from the Sumerian tradition, and even if the biblical writer knew of this tradition, he inserted it into a platonic framework. . . . The first eleven chapters of Genesis are indeed inspired by Mesopotamian myths, but there is a more recent Greek layer that is just as obvious. The evolution of humankind in the Bible—from the ideal life in Eden to the degeneration that led up to the deluge, and from the discussion of patriarchal life to the gift of laws— is all found in Plato’s dialogues. (Wajdenbaum, 107)
In the Primordial History, the Mesopotamian flood story, with its survival of Utnapishtim and his family and servants in a boat, had undeniable literary parallels to both the J and P versions of the Noachian flood. (Gmirkin, 10 — J and P are scholarly abbreviations pointing to different sources thought to lie behind the biblical literature: for a critical discussion on J and P in the Genesis Flood see Rendsburg on Genesis and Gilgamesh: Misunderstanding and Misrepresenting the Documentary Hypothesis (Part 2))
What, then, is Gmirkin’s view of that “more recent Greek layer” that Wajdenbaum (see the side box) speaks about?
Here are the common elements between Plato’s story of Atlantis and the Genesis Flood:
- Both stories are preceded by a “golden age” of innocence and abundance when the deity (Poseidon, Yahweh) ruled directly with his people;
- Both stories depict a descent into corruption after sons of gods marry mortal women: in the myth of Atlantis immorality increases over generations as the divine element in the demigods becomes diluted through ongoing marriages with mortals; in Genesis the corruption is said to happen following the sons of the gods taking women and producing “nephilim”. (An important note needs to be injected here for those of us conditioned to think that Genesis 6 is referring to demons (“sons of god/s”) descending to earth to take human women. That interpretation arose later in Jewish tradition with works like Enoch and Jubilees. There is no suggestion in Genesis 6 that these “sons of god/s” were demonic or evil. They are introduced, rather, as producing “men of renown”, though they later descended into violence.)
- Both stories are preceded by a “golden age” of innocence and abundance when the deity (Poseidon, Yahweh) ruled directly with his people;
.Plato’s Critias 121
[After earlier describing the god Poseidon taking the human girl Cleito and with her producing generations of highly renowned kings, the first named Atlas … ] But when the divine portion within them began to fade, as a result of constantly being diluted by large measures of mortality, and their mortal nature began to predominate, they became incapable of bearing their prosperity and grew corrupt. Anyone with the eyes to see could mark the vileness of their behaviour as they destroyed the best of their valuable possessions; but those who were blind to the life that truly leads to happiness regarded them as having finally attained the most desirable and enviable life possible, now that they were infected with immoral greed [or “lawless ambition”] and power.
Zeus looks down, sees the degeneration, and decides to pass judgment:
Zeus, god of gods, who reigns by law, did have the eyes to see such things. He recognized the degenerate state of their fair line and wished to punish them, as a way of introducing more harmony into their lives. He summoned all the gods to a meeting in the most awesome of his dwellings, which is located in the centre of the entire universe and so sees all of creation. And when the gods had assembled, he said . . .
Now it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men, that they were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves of all whom they chose. . . . There were giants on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.
Yahweh, like Zeus, sees the corruption and announced judgement:
Then [Yahweh] saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And [Yahweh] was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. . . .
The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. So God looked upon the earth, and indeed it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth.
Russell Gmirkin sees in Plato’s account the suggestion that the wickedness of the Atlantean kingdom was their war of aggression against Greece and Egypt.
Critias 121a indicates that the evil that Zeus sought to purge was the territorial aggressions during the final days of the Atlantian kingdom was a manifestation of “lawless ambition and power.” The main theme in the story of Timaeus-Critias was the unlawful invasion of the Mediterranean world by fleets of barbaric invaders from Atlantis, who spilled out across the divinely allotted boundaries of their ancestral land to subjugate the entire civilized world. It thus seems likely that this aggression against the Greeks and Egyptians and other peoples of the Mediterranean was what Plato referred to as the expression of “lawless ambition and power” that brought about Zeus’s divine judgment. The fact that the deluge occurred just after the climax of this war, when the brave Athenians defeated the Atlantian warrior fleet (Timaeus 20d, 2Id), points to this violent military aggression as the wickedness that brought on Zeus’s wrath. It is perhaps noteworthy that in Hesiod’s Five Ages of Humanity, the Bronze Race was a warrior race that destroyed itself through its own violence (Works and Days 144-56). (Gmirkin, 227)
I find some difficulty with this interpretation, however. What disturbs Plato is primarily the descent into materialism, greed, and injustice: those evil desires eventually found expression in a war of aggression but it was the wicked character at war’s root that was the target of Plato’s condemnation. When Plato spoke of the founding of Athens, beginning in Timaeus (the work preceding Critias and where the story of Atlantis is first introduced), he extolled the virtues of the Athenians as reflections of the character of the goddess Athena who “loves both war and wisdom” (Timaeus, 24d). It was not violence or the act of war per se that Plato seems to have condemned but the “insolence” or “arrogance” that motivated unjust aggression. The goddess Athena epitomized “courage” and “love of war” as much as “wisdom”. (In a much later poem about a comparable scene of widespread wickedness leading the god (Jupiter=Zeus) to destroy the earth with a flood, Ovid also made a similar distinction between the ideas of cruel warfare and moral wickedness. See below.)
There is no doubt, however, that war itself was described as evil in other Greek myths such as Hesiod’s Works and Days — as Gmirkin also points out in the passage quoted above. (We recall that Plato considered many traditional myths to be immoral and that his own compositions were morally superior to anything found in Homer and Hesiod – Timaeus 21d). Hesiod and Homer both wrote of a time of demigods, heroes who were the sons of divinities and mortals, when warfare and violence brought about their removal from earth, and surely there can be no doubt that the biblical authors were equally aware of those stories:
The son of Kronos [i.e. Zeus] made another [race], fourth,
Upon the fruitful land, more just and good,
A godlike race of heroes, who are called
The demi-gods – the race before our own.
Foul wars and dreadful battles ruined some;
Some sought the flocks of Oedipus, and died
In Cadmus’ land, at seven-gated Thebes;
And some, who crossed the open sea in ships,
For fair-haired Helen’s sake, were killed at Troy.
These men were covered up in death . . . . (Works and Days, 157ff)
Another early source:
There was a time when the countless tribes of men, though wide-dispersed, oppressed the surface of the deep-bosomed earth, and Zeus saw it and had pity and in his wise heart resolved to relieve the all-nurturing earth of men by causing the great struggle of the Ilian [i.e. Trojan] war, that the load of death might empty the world. And so the heroes were slain in Troy, and the plan of Zeus came to pass. (Cypria, fr 3, Scholiast on Homer, Il. i. 5) – I don’t know if there is any link between this Greek idea of violence causing oppression of the earth and Genesis 6:13 speaking of earth itself being corrupt because of violence. The Hebrew text of 6:13 stresses the corruption by means of a pun on the words “corrupt” and “destroy”.)
In another work traditionally attributed to Hesiod Zeus is regretting having allowed gods to mix with mortals and decides to destroy humanity:
Now all the gods were divided through strife; for at that very time Zeus who thunders on high was meditating marvellous deeds, even to mingle storm and tempest over the boundless earth, and already he was hastening to make an utter end of the race of mortal men, declaring that he would destroy the lives of the demi-gods, that the children of the gods should not mate with wretched mortals, seeing their fate with their own eyes; but that the blessed gods henceforth even as aforetime should have their living and their habitations apart from men. But on those who were born of immortals and of mankind verily Zeus laid toil and sorrow upon sorrow. . . . .
. . . . From stately trees the fair leaves fell in abundance fluttering down to the ground, and the fruit fell to the ground because Boreas blew very fiercely at the behest of Zeus; the deep seethed and all things trembled at his blast . . . (Catalogue of Women, Fr 68)
The myth of Zeus deciding upon mass destruction through the violence of war, specifically the Trojan War, was of course set in later times than the flood myths we find in Plato and Genesis. One can imagine Plato rewriting ideas from traditional myths to create his idea of a superior narrative.
Some of us are more familiar with the Greek myth of Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha who survived a flood by building a boat. Plato wrote that Deucalion’s flood was but one of many destructions that have befallen the world. We first see the Deucalion myth being developed into a worldwide flood that was sent as a judgement by God upon an evil, violent humanity, in the first century CE Roman poet Ovid. (I have copied excerpts from Ovid’s account below.)
Plato did not finish Critias. It ends when Zeus calls a council of gods to discuss the appropriate punishment for humans and demigods. We know how the story concluded, however, because Plato had summarized it in his earlier writing, Timaeus.
Once upon a time, then, [the kingdoms of Atlantis] combined their forces and set out en masse to try to enslave in one swoop your part of the world [Greece], and ours [Egypt], and all the territory this side of the strait. This was the occasion, Solon, when the resources of your city, its courage and strength, were revealed for all to see; it stood head and shoulders above all other states for its bravery and military expertise. At first it was the leader of the Greek cause, and then later, abandoned by everyone else and compelled to stand alone, it came to the very brink of disaster, but it overcame the invaders and erected a trophy, thereby preventing the enslavement of those who remained unenslaved this side of the boundaries of Heracles and unhesitatingly liberating all the rest.
Some time later appalling earthquakes and floods occurred, and in the course of a single, terrible day and night the whole fighting-force of your city sank all at once beneath the earth, and the island of Atlantis likewise sank beneath the sea and vanished. (Timaeus, 25b-d)
There is a philosophical gulf between Plato’s god and the god of the Genesis flood chapters. Plato explained in Timaeus that the god who decided to punish humanity for their evil ways did so as a parent attempting to correct children in order to encourage better behaviour. By contrast, the god who sent the flood in Genesis had determined to destroy all life. It was only because of Noah’s righteousness that he decided to spare him. The same pattern appears again with God deciding to destroy everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah, and then again when he pronounced the death of the entire generation that had escaped Egypt (except only for Joshua and Caleb). In Gmirkin’s view, this discrepancy may have resulted from the author of Noah being more familiar with Plato’s Critias than his Timaeus: it was in Timaeus that Plato expounded the goodness of God even when he punishes but that ethical trait was not repeated in Critias.
Ovid, Metamorphosis I
Note that this account comes to us from the first century of our era.
When Saturn was consigned to the darkness of Tartarus, and the world passed under the rule of Jove [=Zeus] . . .
After that came the third age, the age of bronze, when men were of a fiercer character, more ready to turn to cruel warfare, but still free from any taint of wickedness.
Last of all arose the age of hard iron: immediately, in this period which took its name from a baser ore, all manner of crime broke out; modesty, truth, and loyalty fled. Treachery and trickery took their place, deceit and violence and criminal greed. . . . War made its appearance, using both those metals in its conflict, and shaking clashing weapons in bloodstained hands. Men lived on what they could plunder: friend was not safe from friend, nor father-in-law from son-in-law, and even between brothers affection was rare. Husbands waited eagerly for the death of their wives, and wives for that of their husbands. Ruthless stepmothers mixed brews of deadly aconite, and sons pried into their fathers’ horoscopes, impatient for them to die. All proper affection lay vanquished and, last of the immortals, the maiden Justice left the blood-soaked earth.
The heights of heaven were no safer than the earth; for the giants, so runs the story, assailed the kingdom of the gods and, piling mountains together, built them up to the stars above. Then the almighty father hurled his thunderbolt . . . The terrible bodies of the giants lay crushed beneath their own massive structures, and the earth was drenched and soaked with torrents of blood from her sons. Then, they say, she breathed life into this warm blood and, so that her offspring might not be completely forgotten, changed it into the shape of men. But the men thus born, no less than the giants, were contemptuous of the gods, violent and cruel, with a lust to kill: it was obvious that they were the children of blood.
When the father of the gods, the son of Saturn, looked down from his high citadel, and saw what was going on, he groaned aloud. . . . He called together his council, and they did not delay when they heard his summons. . . .
Then he opened his lips, and spoke these indignant words: ‘ . . . Now the entire human race must be destroyed . . . “
. . . [So he resolved] to send rain pouring down from every quarter of the sky, and so destroy mankind beneath the waters. . . .
There is a land, Phocis, which separates the fields of Boeotia from those of Oeta. It was a fertile spot while it was land, but now it had become part of the sea, a broad stretch of waters, suddenly formed. In that region a high mountain, called Parnassus, raises twin summits to the stars, and its ridges pierce the clouds. When the waters had covered all the rest of the earth, the little boat which carried Deucalion and his wife ran aground here. Of all the men who ever lived, Deucalion was the best and most upright, no woman ever showed more reverence for the gods than Pyrrha, his wife. Their first action was to offer prayers . . . . Now Jupiter saw the earth all covered with standing waters. He perceived that one alone survived of so many thousand men, one only of so many thousand women, and he knew that both were guiltless, both true worshippers of god. So, with the help of the North wind he drove away the storm clouds . . . .
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.
Wajdenbaum, Philippe. Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. London ; Oakville: Equinox, 2011.
Hesiod. “Hesiod, Catalogues of Women Fragments.” Theoi Classical Texts Library. Accessed January 19, 2023. https://www.theoi.com/Text/HesiodCatalogues.html.
Hesiod. Theogony ; Works and Days. Translated by Dorothea Wender. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.
“Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica: The Cypria (Fragments).” Accessed January 24, 2023. http://mcllibrary.org/Hesiod/cypria.html.
Ovid. The Metamorphoses. Translated by Mary M Innes. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.
Plato. Timaeus and Critias. Translated by Robin Waterfield. OUP Oxford, 2008.
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