How John “Destroyed” Luke with Lazarus!

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by Neil Godfrey

We have seen how the author of

  • the Gospel of Mark rewrote the tradition about the resurrection appearances in Paul’s letter
  • the Gospel of Matthew polemically rewrote Mark to rebrand the disciples
  • the Gospel of Luke polemically rewrote Matthew and Mark

But they can’t compete the way the author of the Gospel of John put Luke to shame …. according to Bruno Bauer.

In Luke 7:11-17 we read how Jesus just happened to be coming into the village of Nain when he encountered a funeral procession for a young man, but what moved Jesus to compassion was the (presumably supernatural) knowledge that his mother was now without a male to support her. So Jesus stops the procession and yells to the corpse to Rise up!

“Jesus raises the son of the Window of Nain” Matthias Gerung, 1500-1570

No doubt there is in the scholarly literature acknowledgement of the possibility that the author of the Gospel of John had Luke’s little story in mind when he developed his account of the resurrection of Lazarus. But I have just translated Bruno Bauer’s thoughts on how the Lazarus episode in the Gospel of John is a direct rebuff to the comparatively very poor “widow of Nain” anecdote.

Luke has Jesus raise a man who has just died and whose corpse is probably still warm as it is carried to the graveyard? Ha! John will have Jesus do a really serious miracle and raise one who has been dead four days!

The one who allowed the young man of Nain to be revived when he was just being carried to the grave [that is, a reference to Luke 7:11-17] is now ashamed, and the primary evangelist [=Luke] who, in his modesty and caution, contented himself with the revival of a dead man who had just succumbed to illness before his eyes, does not even dare to lift his eyes before the magnitude of the historical master and finisher [that is, John]. The fourth [evangelist] has destroyed him.

That’s my translation of one detail of Bruno Bauer’s much richer discussion of how the author of the Gospel of John mechanically struggled* to work with earlier gospel sources in order to create a “far superior” account of Jesus. You can see the full discussion at The Raising of Lazarus, which is part of my larger project to translate Bauer’s work on the four gospels.

Giovanni di Paolo (Italian, ca. 1420-1482). ‘The Resurrection of Lazarus,’ 1426. tempera and gold leaf on panel. Walters Art Museum (37.489A): Acquired by Henry Walters, 1911.

* One little detail Bauer identifies as a clumsy effort by “John” to out-do Luke is his adding the note that Jesus wept when he saw all the mourning over Lazarus — Bruno Bauer’s analysis has the rest of this story depicting a very angry Jesus who is frustrated over everyone’s lack of faith, so weeping at that moment was quite inappropriate. But it seemed a reasonable place to deposit that one detail the author of John really liked in Luke — Jesus weeping. So there it went — consistency of narrative characterization be damned.



A Brilliant New Book on Gospel Origins

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by Neil Godfrey

If you are looking for a serious, easy-to-read and up-to-date study of the question of how the gospels came to be written, what sources their authors used, what their authors were trying to achieve, and for the most part is delivered in conversational style, then you will have found it in Rhetoric and the Synoptic Problem by Professor Mike Duncan.

While acknowledging and questioning other views in New Testament scholarship, Duncan clearly presents a logical case for the various gospels all being polemical re-writes of the Gospel of Mark. He introduces insights that strengthen Mark Goodacre’s revamped case that the author of Luke used both Mark and Matthew and that, consequently, there is no need to postulate, as most scholars have done, a long-lost source (Q). He even demonstrates the physical process of how Luke copied Matthew and Mark without Q on the widespread understanding that authors of the time wrote with scrolls on their knees and in so doing shows that the most common argument against Goodacre’s (Farrer’s and Goulder’s) view — that Luke was unlikely to have broken up Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount if he knew it — all but vanishes.

Duncan is a scholar of rhetoric and communications but his study is very different from the pioneering “gospels through rhetoric” analysis of classicist George Kennedy that I posted about some years back. The simple justification for a rhetorical approach lies in the fact that the gospels were written to persuade and rhetoric is the study of how persuasion works.

I am not a biblical scholar, a seminarian, or even a Christian. To write to any of these audiences would be therefore disingenuous. I am an academic rhetorician who works in a university English department. I often write on early Christianity and rhetoric, and I am an agnostic who holds no text sacred. As such, I make no pretense to offer this book as a contribution to the longstanding field of biblical studies, especially as practiced by its many evangelical academics, or, on the other end, militant atheists. I have no dog in that fight; I do not care if tomorrow someone solves the [Synoptic Problem] by way of a method other than the Farrer Hypothesis that I tend to prefer, although it will be a minor annoyance in that I will have to find another example for my ideas on unsolvable problems and rhetoric. As such, this book is offered in the same spirit as Frank Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy, an analysis of the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of literary studies, save I’m using rhetoric as a focus, and I’m looking at all the canonical gospels at once. (p. 2)

One point of method that I particularly liked was Duncan’s demonstration that certain characters and events in the gospels function to make specific polemical points. If Occam’s razor be our guide, that means the events or characters originated in the authors’ imaginations rather than from oral tradition about a presumed historical event — though Duncan does accept the historicity of Jesus and John the Baptist. Here is an example. The author of Mark is apparently responding to the “tradition of resurrection appearances” that we read in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians by introducing the “empty tomb”.

The author of Mark had plenty of sources available for inspiration for an empty tomb narrative, including Psalms 22, 23, and 24, the widespread Orphic theology as well as the end of the Iliad, the story of Elpenor in the Odyssey, and Plutarch’s and Livy’s accounts of the death of Romulus. But the source of the story is not as important as the kind of rhetorical claim that it allows the author of Mark to make. If the author of Mark invented the empty tomb story, for what purpose was it done?

— It could be to show a “removal”—a Hellenistic showing of an empty grave as evidence that the gods have conferred hero status on its missing occupant.

— It could also just be a simple dramatization of what the author thinks probably happened that day, working with current Jewish custom for visiting the recently deceased.

— The empty tomb could also be a narrative “promise of a personal resurrection to later Christian martyrs”—an important point for post-70 CE Christians in the wake of Jerusalem’s devastation, suggesting a similar physical resurrection for them: you, too, will die, but you will rise again.

But these are just suppositions. I can make a more defensible observation that does not require any of them. Holding the earlier points for historical plausibility in stasis for a moment, the author of Mark’s empty tomb narrative allows Jesus’s resurrection to be implied rather than witnessed. In other words, Mark can have Jesus rise without granting either Peter or the apostles any authority that they might have gained by having witnessed it. Theodore Weeden took a similar position that the authority of the twelve disciples, derived from their witnessing a post-resurrection Jesus, is removed by this maneuver, though he did not note that the empty tomb serves a dual rhetorical function by removing the necessity of eyewitnesses. In any case, the appearances in 1 Cor 15 suggest visual appearances that were witnessed, but Mark’s version lacks appearances; this could also be a subtle way to reconcile 1 Cor 15:35-49’s spiritual resurrection with the 1 Cor 15:3-8 list of physical appearances.

The narrative skill by which Mark accomplishes this maneuver, coupled with Paul’s obliviousness to any empty tomb story, refutes the notion of a longstanding tradition of the discovery of a vacated tomb. . . . 

(pp. 48f – my formatting and highlighting; italics are original)

You might recall from the Epistle to the Galatians that Paul saw himself in some kind of rivalry with Peter and resisted tendencies to exalt Peter’s status above his. We have many hints of a leadership struggle in those earliest documents. The Gospel of Mark, many scholars believe, favours Paul over the other apostles, especially Peter. The author of that gospel speaks through his literary figure of the young man in the tomb an assurance that Jesus has been resurrected and, implicitly, that he will be seen again.

The author of Mark’s argument does not need a post-resurrection appearance by Jesus to make its ultimate point: Jesus prophesied truly and not even his disciples, many of whom started a religion after his death, really understood the true implications. For Jesus to appear like a parlor trick and say, “Told you so!” would deflate the author’s call for much hardier discipleship that the original followers of Jesus mustered. (p. 52)

So where does that leave the later gospels that do contain descriptions of resurrection appearances to leading apostles?

With this understanding of the rhetorical role of Mark’s gospel as a denunciation of apostolic authority in hand, the variances of the post-resurrection appearances in the other two synoptic gospels can be better explained. They are not simply variances in tradition as many exegetes posit, but rejoinders in a hostile rhetorical conversation with peculiar rules dictated by rapidly developing theology and power struggles. (p. 53)

Duncan, as you can see in the above example, addresses explanations about this or that biblical text that many of us may have encountered and obliges us to think more clearly and thoroughly about their ultimate worth.

The book explores the various accounts of the women at the tomb of Jesus, the comparable but different versions of a few miracles, characters and sayings to demonstrate similar points of polemical rivalry among the gospel authors but concentrates on a selection of key areas. I’ll mention the others shortly.

Technical terms are introduced gently and simply for the lay reader. The scholarly literature often refers to “redaction”. Duncan clarifies the different kinds of that process (adding, deleting, tweaking, reordering, retaining) with digestible explanations along with his preference for the simpler (and, he explains, more neutral) term, “editing”. He also offers an easy guide to the different ways we tend to make decisions about various problems, including “the synoptic problem” — deduction, induction and abduction.

The one thing I did not at all like — being a scholarly kind of reader myself — was his relegation of citations and tangential discussions to endnotes instead of being on the main text page. But others, of course, much prefer that style.

Not that the book is “for the lay reader”. It is most decidedly targeted at a scholarly readership as well. The history of the scholarship and current debates are addressed in enough detail to assure both sets of readers of currency and adequate thoroughness.

I referred to the detailed discussion of the resurrection appearances above. The other key topics addressed are the John the Baptist material across the four gospels (this includes observations on “the invention of the gospel genre”), the contrasting treatments of the Twelve Apostles, and the Sermon on the Mount. An appendix exploring the question of the dates of the gospels is included at the end. Duncan does not confine his Baptist discussion to the moment of Jesus’s baptism but shows how the differences in the opening chapters of all the gospels are best understood when one considers the way the Baptist is handled in all references throughout the gospels.

The Sermon on the Mount

Continue reading “A Brilliant New Book on Gospel Origins”


Bruno Bauer Translation Update

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by Neil Godfrey

Bruno Bauer

I have resumed translating Bruno Bauer’s work on the gospels — Criticism of the Gospels and History of their Origin (Kritik der Evangelien und Geschichte ihres Ursprungs) — the link to all the completed chapters under Bruno Bauer in the right margin, beneath About Vridar.

The work is mostly machine translation (a mix of GoogleTranslate, DeepL and ChatGPT and direct human meddling). I have had to process Old German fonts to modern fonts in order to copy text for the translation and there are niggling errors here and there. I try to fix them but I am sure there are many I have overlooked. In case anyone does find anything particularly awkward I have included the German text with my processed modern fonts beside the translation so one can see where the errors might arise and offer a correction.

I asked ChatGPT what I could add about Bruno Bauer here that might be of interest to a general audience and here is its response:

Bruno Bauer was a prominent 19th century German philosopher and theologian, whose ideas were controversial and influential in shaping the cultural and intellectual landscape of his time. Here are some potential topics that could be of interest to a general audience:

      1. Bauer’s Critique of Religion: One of Bauer’s most famous works is his critique of religion, particularly Christianity. Bauer argued that religion was a product of human imagination and projection, rather than a divine revelation. He saw religion as a way of perpetuating social and political oppression and called for the abolition of religion as a means of promoting human freedom.
      2. Bauer’s Political Views: Bauer was also a political thinker, and was involved in various revolutionary and socialist movements throughout his life. He advocated for the overthrow of traditional monarchies and the establishment of a democratic republic and was a strong critic of the Prussian state.
      3. Bauer’s Influence on Marxism: Bauer’s ideas had a significant impact on the development of Marxism, particularly in the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Bauer was an early critic of Hegelianism, which provided the philosophical foundation for many of Marx’s ideas, and his critique of religion helped shape Marx’s concept of ideology.
      4. Bauer’s Contributions to Biblical Criticism: Bauer was also a scholar of the Bible, and his work on the New Testament was influential in the development of biblical criticism. He argued that many of the texts traditionally attributed to the apostles were actually written much later and that the historical accuracy of the New Testament was suspect.
      5. Bauer’s Controversial Reputation: Despite his significant contributions to philosophy and theology, Bauer was a controversial figure in his own time. He was often criticized for his radical views and for his harsh criticism of the established order and was frequently denied academic positions or censored by authorities.

I asked a follow-up question for the next points:

While Bruno Bauer was never formally excommunicated from the Christian church, many religious authorities of his time saw his views on religion and Christianity as highly controversial and heretical.

Bauer was a theologian and biblical scholar who came to reject the notion of divine revelation and the supernatural elements of Christianity. In his view, Christianity was a human invention that perpetuated social and political oppression. These views brought him into conflict with both the established Christian churches and the secular authorities that supported them.

As a result of his controversial views, Bauer was denied academic positions and faced censorship and persecution from the authorities. He was also widely criticized by his contemporaries, including other intellectuals and theologians.

So while Bauer was not formally excommunicated from any particular Christian denomination, his rejection of Christian dogma and his embrace of radical and heretical ideas made him an outcast from the mainstream religious and intellectual establishments of his time.

I consider his analyses essential reading for anyone seriously interested in a critical exploration of the gospels. Of course much work has been done since that cannot be ignored, but Bauer’s insights are still provocative and often still deserve a place in any discussion today.





Could Plato Really have Influenced Judaism and the Bible?

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by Neil Godfrey

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it. — Karl Marx
We call that a ridiculous state of intellect in a man, Socrates, which is concerned only with divine knowledge. — Plato
Stranger Every architect, too, is a ruler of workmen, not a workman himself.
Younger Socrates Yes.
Stranger As supplying knowledge, not manual labor.
Younger Socrates True.
Stranger So he may fairly be said to participate in intellectual science.
Younger Socrates Certainly.
Stranger But it is his business, I suppose, not to pass judgement and be done with it and go away, as the calculator did, but to give each of the workmen the proper orders, until they have finished their appointed task.
Younger Socrates You are right.

Statesman 259e-260a

Who would ever have thought Plato and Karl Marx might have agreed on anything? Well, up to a point.

I have posted on Russell Gmirkin’s view that the Hebrew Bible, in particular its first five books (the Pentateuch), were influenced by Plato’s writings, especially his Laws, but the question that must be asked and answered is, Were Plato’s works ever used to attempt to change the real world?

This post is a collation of passages I’ve taken from Plato’s Cretan City by the classicist Glenn Morrow demonstrating how Plato’s Laws were more than a mere theoretical exercise. I include references to what Morrow has to say about Plato’s influence beyond his writings.

From the Preface

No work of Plato’s is more intimately connected with its time and with the world in which it was written than the Laws. The other dialogues deal with themes magnificently independent of time and place, and Plato’s treatment of them has been recognized as important wherever human beings have thought about the problems of knowl­edge, or conduct, or human destiny. But the Laws is concerned with the portrayal of a fourth-century Greek city — a city that existed, it is true, only in Plato’s imagination, but one whose establishment he could well imagine as taking place in his day. (xxix)

Compared with the Re­public, the Laws has the special value of presenting its principles not in the abstract, but in their concrete reality, as Plato imagined they might be embodied in an actual Greek city. (xxix)


There are references to Chaeronea in the quotes. Chaeronea is the site of the battle where Philip of Macedon ended Greek independence. It is usually taken as the event that divided Greek history from that of the Hellenistic Age.

Relevance in the territories conquered by Alexander the Great

If Plato was writing about a new colony, and the Greek age of colonization was long past, what relevance could there be for Samaria and Judea?

The establishment of colonies was a habit of long standing among the Greeks, less evident in Plato’s century than it had been in earlier days, but still regarded as the best way to deal with a surplus of popu­lation (707e) or with a discordant faction in a city (708bc). The great age of colonization during which the Greeks had spread them­selves and their culture all over the Mediterranean area, from the northern shore of the Black Sea to the western coast of Spain, was a thing of the past; but the tradition was kept alive by the Athenian cleruchies and other more pretentious establishments in the fifth and fourth centuries, and another era of colonization was to begin soon after Plato’s time with the conquests of Alexander. Such new cities always started their political life with a set of laws especially designed for them, and a competent legislator was often called upon to ad­vise the founder, or the sponsoring city, in the task of legislation. The great Protagoras was asked to draw up the laws for Pericles’ ambitious colony of Thurii in southern Italy; and Plato himself, according to one tradition, was invited to legislate for the new city of Megalopolis in Arcadia set up after the defeat of Sparta at Leuctra. We see, therefore, that the Athenian Stranger [a key participant in the conversation in the Laws] is in a historically familiar situation, and the conversation he carries on with his companions is but an idealized version of the discussions that must have taken place on countless occasions among persons responsible for establishing a new colony.

Furthermore, it was a situation that might confront Plato or a member of the Academy at any time. Plato’s deep and lifelong in­terest in politics, in the broadest sense of the term, is evident from the large place that the problems of political and social philosophy occupy in his writings. His theories of education, of law, and of social justice are inquiries carried on not merely for their speculative in­terest, but for the purpose of finding solutions to the problems of the statesman and the educator. It may well be affirmed, when we view Plato’s work as a whole, that he was more concerned with practice than with theory. (3f – for the additional detail and sources found in the original footnotes check out full text online at archive.org)

One might even imagine that Alexander and Aristotle would send re-educators to Samaria after its rebellion to advise more loyal persons on the best way to constitute an ideal state.

One footnote that I must add here:

= Plato is indeed, contrary to what is often believed, much more concerned with practice than with theory.
= Plato only came to philosophy through politics … Philosophy was originally, for Plato, nothing but hindered action.

“Platon est en effet, contrairement à ce qu’on croit souvent, beaucoup plus préoccupé de pratique que de théorie.” Robin, Platon, Paris, 1935, 254. Similarly Dies, in the Introduction to the Bude edn. of the Republic, v: “Platon n’est venu en fait à la philosophie que par la politique . . . La philosophie ne fut originellement, chez Platon, que de l’action entravée.” But we must not suppose that for Plato theory was a substitute for action. Indeed the scientific statesman, he says in Polit. 260ab, cannot be content with theoretical principles alone, but must supplement them with directions for action . . .  Cf. also Phil. 62ab.

Plato’s Academy mosaic — Pompeii (Wikimedia)

Plato Meddling in Politics

Did Plato do anything personally to try to make a difference?

From these statements we must infer that one purpose of the Acad­emy which Plato founded and directed during these years, perhaps at times its chief purpose in his eyes, was the training of statesmen, or legislative advisers, imbued with the insights of philosophy. How did the Academy prepare its members for the practical work of legislation and constitution making? By the study of mathematics and dialectic, of course, for the statesman must first of all be a philosopher; but also, it seems clear, by the study of Greek law and politics. It must not be forgotten that in the Republic the education of the philosopher guardians includes more than the abstract sciences. The fifteen years of mathematics and dialectic are to be followed by fifteen years of service in subordinate administrative posts before the candidate for guardianship is completely trained. The Academy was not a polis and it could not offer its students the advantages of actual experience in office; but it could encourage them to gain a wide knowledge of the history and characters of actual states. This it certainly did, attracting students from all parts of the Greek world, and therefore possessing within its own membership considerable resources for a comparative study of laws and customs. Plato himself had traveled . . .  (p. 5)

and further,

On one occasion that we know of Plato had himself taken a hand in politics, when the death of the elder Dionysius of Syracuse in 367 had brought his young and promising son to the throne. Dion, the uncle of the young tyrant, had become Plato’s devoted follower during the latter’s earlier visit to Syracuse, and he now saw an opportunity of bringing about a political reform. He persuaded the young tyrant to invite Plato to Syracuse, and himself sent an urgent request that Plato should come and take the young man’s educa­tion in hand. Plato acceded, but with some reluctance, he tells us, because he feared the young Dionysius was not sufficiently stable in character to make promising material for a philosophical ruler; but his doubts were outweighed by his friendship for Dion, and by his feeling that he should make an effort, at least, when there was an opportunity of putting into effect his ideas of law and government. This mission at first seemed likely to succeed, and Plato may have collaborated with Dionysius on legislation for the resettlement of the Sicilian cities of Phoebia and Tauromenium. But the court at Syracuse was filled with supporters of the tyranny, opposed to re­forms of the sort Plato and Dion had in mind. . . . This history, unhappy though its outcome, shows that Plato’s principles were meant to be applied to the actualities of fourth-century politics. Some prominent members of the Academy later took part (though Plato refrained) in Dion’s later expedition against Syracuse and were associated with him in his brief period of power after the overthrow of Dionysius. These later events would only confirm the reputation that the Academy had as a center of political influence. (7)

The rumours and traditions…

There are other evidences of the influence of Plato and his Aca­demic colleagues on fourth-century states and statesmen. There is a tradition that Plato was invited by the Cyrenians to legislate for them; and another . . . that he was asked to draw up the laws for the Arcadian city of Megalopolis. Both these invitations Plato declined; but in the second case he seems to have sent Aristonymus to act in his stead. Plutarch names several members of the Academy who were influential as legislators or ad­visers to statesmen and rulers. Aristonymus was sent to the Arcadi­ans, Menedemus to the Pyrrhaeans; Phormio gave laws to Elis, Eu­doxus to the Cnidians, and Aristotle to the Stagirites. Xenocrates was a counsellor to Alexander; and Delius of Ephesus, another Academic, was chosen by the Greeks in Asia to urge upon Alexander the project of an expedition against the Persians. Thrace, he says, was liberated by Pytho and Heraclides, two Academics; they killed the tyrant Cotys, and on their return to Athens were feted as “benefactors” and made citizens. Athenaeus tells us, on the authority of Carystius of Pergamum, that Plato sent Euphraeus of Oreus as adviser to King Perdiccas of Macedon; later Euphraeus seems to have become the champion of the independence of his native city, and was slain when the city was reduced by Philip. Hermeias, the tyrant of Atarneus and friend of Aristotle, may have studied in the Academy; and the Sixth Epistle is a letter supposedly written by Plato commending to him two students of the Academy who are coming to live near Atarneus. Finally, at Athens there must have been many persons prominent in public life, like the generals Chabrias and Phocion, who were former students of Plato. We know that the orator and states­man Lycurgus, who came into power after Chaeronea, was such a former student; and the legislation of Demetrius of Phalerum, at the end of the century, shows clear traces of Plato’s influence, through Aristotle and Theophrastus. 

Some of this evidence is of questionable value, but its cumulative effect is to show that the Academy was widely recognized as a place where men were trained in legislation, and from which advisers could be called upon when desired. It is easy therefore to under­stand why Plato should have devoted the closing years of his life to the composition of such a painstaking piece of hypothetical legisla­tion as the Laws. It expresses one of the main interests of his philo­sophical mind; and it may also have been intended as a kind of model for use by other members of the Academy. Plato had indeed set forth in the Republic the principles that should guide a legislator, but they are expounded in very general terms, with little specific legislation. In the Laws, however, the author descends into the arena of practical difficulties, and we can see why he thought it necessary to do so. For if the ideal, or any worthy imitation of it, is to be realized, it has to be exemplified concretely—among a people living in a specific setting in time and place, possessing such-and-such qualities and traditions. This translation of his political ideal into the terms of fourth-century Greek politics was, as he says, “an old man’s sober pastime” (685a, 712b), but it was a form of amusement that he must have thought would give guidance to actual statesmen. (8ff)

Plato, like a Political Demiurge

Plato’s conception of the legislator’s task in bringing his ideal into existence becomes clearer if we consider the analogous work of the demiurge in ordering the cosmos as described in the Timaeus. In both cases the craftsman must be attentive not only to the design he wishes to realize, but also to the materials in which it is brought about. It may seem to some persons unworthy of the divine Plato to occupy himself with such things as the laws of inheritance, the reg­isters of property, the procedures of election, the regulation of funeral expenses; or with the organization of songs, dances and athletic contests ; or with questions of drainage and water supply. A large part of the Laws consists of just such materials—materials on a par, cer­tainly, with the discussion of respiration, the mechanism of vision, or the functioning of the liver and spleen that we find in the Timaeus. For the cosmic demiurge such attention to his materials was necessary, if he was to operate on the world of Becoming and remold it in the likeness of the Ideas. Similarly the political demiurge cannot neglect the understanding of his social and human materials if he is going to construct a state that resembles the ideal. Just as the world crafts­man in the Timaeus has to use the stuff that is available, with its determinate but unorganized and irregularly co-operating powers, so Plato has to use the Greeks of his day, with their traditions of free­dom and respect for law, and their fallible human temperaments. They are not always the best adapted to his purpose, but as a good craftsman he selects them carefully and handles them with skill, so as to create a likeness as close as possible to the ideal. (10)

When Rome faced Carthage

Plato informed details of Rome’s demands on Carthage?

Was Plato’s condemnation of sea power later used by the Romans to justify the destruction of Carthage? “… [T]he Roman offer that the Car­thaginians should settle at least eighty stades from the sea corresponds exactly to the suggestion of the Laws.” Momigliano…  (100)

Compromise and Distortions

Athenian institutions were a distortion of Plato’s recommendations?

There is a closer parallel between Plato’s program for the agronomoi and the two-year term of ephebic training introduced at Athens, or drastically reformed after the battle of Chaeronea, and it is not unlikely that his proposals had some influence upon at least the later form of this institution.87

87 . . . It is generally agreed that there was a reorganization about 335, and it is possible that the Laws left its mark upon it. The account Aristotle gives of ephebic training in his day (Const. Ath. xlii, 3-4) contains some features that resemble Plato’s program for the agronomoi, but it also exhibits some striking differences, and these have usually not been noted. The Athenian program was for youths just turned eighteen; Plato’s is to take place somewhere between the ages of twenty-five and thirty. The former was obviously a preparation for citizenship and the military obligations that citizenship involved at Athens; whereas Plato’s seems rather a preparation for office, of men whose full citizenship had been attained some years before. Of course ancient readers, like some modern ones, may have overlooked these differences in purpose and in details; but if the Athenian program reflects Plato’s ideas, it does so dimly and with distortion. (190)

Guardians of the Law in the Real World

Continue reading “Could Plato Really have Influenced Judaism and the Bible?”


Where Did the God of the Bible Come From? – [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus-Critias – 8]

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by Neil Godfrey

Most of us have been conditioned by the conventional wisdom that the Old Testament books were written between the eighth and fifth centuries. But there is no independent evidence for the existence of any of the Bible’s books or any knowledge of biblical traditions (Davies, 1992 and Vridar.info notes), nor any evidence for the practice of Judaism itself (sabbath observance, dietary practices, etc) until the Hellenistic era — the third century (Lemche, 1993 and the post Old Testament – A Hellenistic Book?Adler, 2022 and the post The Late Origins of Judaism). It is against this background of the hard archaeological evidence that we must approach Gmirkin’s thesis of Hellenistic influence on the Bible.

With thanks to Taylor & Francis (Routledge) for the review copy

We come to the final, and longest, chapter of Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts: Cosmic Monotheism and Terrestrial Polytheism in the Primordial History by Russell Gmirkin. If the author of Genesis did use Plato’s Timaeus-Critias, what does that tell us about Jewish monotheism in the third century BCE?

In the discussion of Genesis 1 we saw Gmirkin’s case for the Genesis authors drawing upon Plato’s notion of “cosmic monotheism” — the idea of a sole creator god beyond space and time who brings about the universe, including time itself, and then retires from the scene. This god was of a higher order of divinity from other gods and it is in that sense that we speak of “monotheism” here.

In covering Genesis 2 we observed the narrative moving into a storybook world featuring a god who walked amidst his garden and spoke with his created humans and their offspring.

We read of God appearing to address a council of fellow divinities when he (or one of him/them) says, “Let us make humankind in our image….”, “Let us make him a helper….” and then at Babel, “Let us go down and confuse their language….”  The supreme deity creates the perfect world but it appears that lesser deities create potentially sinful mortals and interact with them. Sons of god are even said to bear children with human women. And then we encounter the patriarchs sacrificing at altars to gods recognized by their Canaanite neighbours.

Gmirkin compares this outline with Plato’s narrative in Timaeus and Critias. As in Genesis, Plato begins with a supreme craftsman (demiurge) god who is without human form or body and beyond space and time yet who is responsible for creating the perfect universe. After that, lesser gods take over and create corruptible humans and interact with them.

When we read Genesis against the background of Plato’s myths we begin to understand solutions to hitherto perplexing puzzles about Genesis, Gmirkin notes:

Various otherwise perplexing narrative details, small and large, attain a new clarity when interpreted in light of Platonic parallels. Most significant are those relating to a directly polytheistic mythical narrative context that complements (and in small details contradicts) the cosmic monotheism of Genesis 1: the appearance of a multiplicity of gods in both the First Creation Account (Gen 1:26) and the tale of the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:18 [LXX], 3:22); the contrast between the portraits of Elohim as supreme Creator in Genesis 1 and Yahweh as a storybook terrestrial god introduced in Genesis 2-3, and the marriages between gods and mortal women (Gen 6:1-4). The book of Genesis, like Plato’s Timaeus, promoted two complementary visions of the divine realm of the gods: a transcendent philosophical monotheism manifested in the creation of the perfect kosmos at the dawn of time, and a conventional terrestrial polytheism that accommodated the popular beliefs and cults of tradition. Both of these carefully balanced Platonic theological elements were highly innovative: that a single supremely good eternally existent god created the heavens and earth, and that the pantheon of well-known terrestrial gods, his sons and daughters, were also universally good and worthy of honor. (Gmirkin, 247)

There are also compound forms of these names for god, such as Yahweh-Elohim and El-Shaddai. There are various explanations for these in the literature — a) that the one god took on various “guises” (or hypostases), b) that they were different gods, c) that later editors were attempting to change the text (for which there is manuscript evidence) for theological reasons. Gmirkin understands that some of these later changes to the text were introduced by editors seeking to bring Genesis more closely in line with the theological perspective of Exodus-Deuteronomy.

The Genesis god of creation was called Elohim. The storybook god who appears after creation was given the name Yahweh. Yahweh, as you no doubt recognize, is also a transliteration of that famous tetragram YHWH, the god uniquely associated with the Old Testament. In Genesis 1 YHWH is not the creator.

So much for Genesis, but what about the world outside the literature?

Archaeological evidence informs us that before we have any signs of knowledge of biblical accounts Yahweh was a local deity of Jews, Samaritans and others along with other divinities, such as the mother-god Asherah. All the evidence we have for religious practices in the times of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah points to polytheism. Yahweh is simply one among a pantheon of deities.

When the Judahites were defeated by Nebuchadnezzar and many of them transported to Babylonia, we know that there they continued to worship Yahweh along with other gods — in this case the Babylonian gods. Even into the Persian era, wherever archaeologists have uncovered Jewish settlements, they find the worship of other gods alongside Yahweh. Some readers may find this surprising or think the interpretation of the evidence is perverse, but until I post more about the evidence of what has been dug up from the ground here is a smattering of many publications that interested readers can turn to for further detail:

It is not only a question of whether or not the people of Judah worshipped Yahweh alone, but as indicated in the side-box above, in particular with the Adler reference (see also his academia.edu outline of the book), archaeological evidence points to practices contrary to biblical laws and religious customs until the second century BCE.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the Pentateuch was a Hellenistic era work so it follows that Hellenistic ideas should be seriously considered among its sources.

Since Gmirkin’s analysis places the origin of the first five books of the Bible in Hellenistic times (the third century BCE) it would follow from the state of the evidence as alluded to above that Genesis 1

arguably represents the earliest expression of monotheism among the Jews and Samaritans, alongside the equally novel benevolent terrestrial polytheism of the rest of Genesis. (249)

So in Genesis we have an expression of the Plato-like supreme and sole deity, existing outside space and time, creating the cosmos and then retiring, followed by references to what looks like another deity (Yahweh) living and interacting with mortals (e.g. in Garden of Eden, with Cain and Abel, visiting and eating a meal with Abraham, wrestling with Jacob), along with patriarchs honouring the gods of the Canaanites (e.g. with Melchizedek at Salem, Bethel, El Shaddai, El Olam . . .). At the same time we find the patriarchs enjoying positive relations with their “pagan” neighbours. Abraham bonds with Amorites, engages in peaceful negotiations with Hittites and Philistines, is honoured by Egyptians, while breakdowns only happen as a result of personal wrongs and not because of any “evil” inherent in the different races themselves.

After Genesis, Yahweh changed

In both the stories and legal content of Exodus-Joshua one sees the rejection of benevolent terrestrial polytheism in favor of a Yahwistic monolatry that equated the local patron god of the Jews and the Samaritans with the creator of the universe and which opposed the gods of the nations and their cultic practices. Given that Exodus-Joshua was arguably written contemporaneously with Genesis . . . , yet from a radically different perspective, this suggests a fundamental clash in philosophy and agenda between authorial groups involved in the creation of the Hexateuch ca. 270 BCE. (Gmirkin, 249)

There are other authors who argue that a single author was responsible for the Pentateuch: Bernard Barc, Thomas Brodie, Jan-Wim Wesselius and Philippe Wajdenbaum. (See the post, Did A Single Author Write Genesis – II Kings?) Barc, who also argues for a Hellenistic origin of the Pentateuch, views the respective appearances of the god El and the god Yahweh as two different “forms” (hypostases) of the Most High and each performs an allotted function in a single plan of history. Gmirkin argues for a deeper influence of Plato and other Greek ideas on the text. A difficulty for the average reader when pondering this question is the fact that most Bibles are translations of a Hebrew text that was finalized in the Christian era. To discover earlier versions requires a comparison with ancient Greek translations and the Dead Sea Scrolls (first addressed here). We also have the question of how the final editor made changes to Genesis when he incorporated the work into a set with the following books.

Are the views of Barc, Brodie, Wesselius and Wajdenbaum able to respond adequately to the challenges Gmirkin raises? My next task is to step back and refresh my memory of the details of all of Gmirkin’s works and try to see how all of the evidence coheres.

Gmirkin does, however, offer a plausible response to those who find themselves troubled over what seems to be a fuzzy line between the gods and cults in Genesis but it casts an eye beyond Plato. Elohim is the creator but Yahweh-Elohim engages with humans; El Elyon and El Shaddai are both “Els”. In the views of the Stoic philosophers the many Greek gods were different aspects of “one god”:

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 7.147.

The deity, say they, is a living being, immortal, rational, perfect or intelligent in happiness, admitting nothing evil, taking providential care of the world and all that therein is, but he is not of human shape. He is, however … called many names according to his various powers. They give the name Dia (Δία) because all things arc due to (διά) him; Zeus (Ζήνα) in so far as he is the cause of life (ζην) or pervades all life; the name Athena is given, because the ruling part of the divinity extends to the aether; the name Hera marks its extension to the air; he is called Hephaestus since it spreads to the creative fire; Poseidon, since it stretches to the sea; Demeter, since it reaches to the earth. Similarly, men have given the deity his other titles, fastening, as best they can, on some one or other of his peculiar attributes.

It is possible that the well-known Stoic assimilation of the Greek gods to their monotheistic god, the creative fire, influenced the biblical conflation of deities associated with various titles of the ancient god El with the local patron god Yahweh. (Gmirkin, 300, my formatting)

Let’s continue Gmirkin’s discussion.

Something Completely Different: Here is a light-hearted digression on God’s treatment of the Egyptians at the Red Sea that comes from a study on the history of swimming through the ages:

The Hebrews left Egypt ‘with boldness’, but when they reach the Red Sea they accuse Moses, ‘Have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you so dealt with us, to bring us up out of Egypt?’ Moses (brought up by Egyptians, and perhaps therefore knowing how to swim himself ) soothes the Hebrews, and tells them not to be afraid. He stretches out his hand over the sea. God parts the Red Sea for the Hebrews, and then drowns the Egyptians. . . . .

This was the reverse of what readers might have expected, knowing that the Egyptians had always been strong swimmers and the Hebrews had never known how to swim. The parting of the Red Sea takes on new meaning when we realize that the Hebrews are non-swimmers, afraid of the water, being pursued by confident, experienced Egyptian swimmers.

from pages 55-56 (heard on Late Night Live)

It is only after Genesis, in the book of Exodus, that Yahweh claims to have been the God of the Patriarchs in Genesis and that he will tolerate no rivals. The covenant he makes with his people is to wipe out the Canaanites after having reigned death and destruction on the Egyptians.

God — Yahweh — has changed.

What of the god of the Flood, though? Did not Gmirkin say the biblical author had a more vicious view of god than Plato. At least Plato’s deity sought to discipline humans through calamity for their own good while the biblical god simply wanted to destroy humanity outright. Perhaps some of the Genesis authors also slightly wavered in their view of Yahweh’s character.

Plato’s Program and the Birth of Montheism

Gmirkin concludes from his comparative analysis that the Pentateuch was the work of authors united in seeking to introduce Plato’s program for an ideal society.

Plato taught that there was a supreme deity, formless and beyond space and time, yet who was perfectly good. Such an idea arose from the attempts of Greek philosophers to understand the origins of the universe. This concept of god (Gmirkin traces in some depth the history of the idea and the different functions of the gods of the Greek civic cults, the gods of the literary mythical world and god(s) of the natural philosophers) was the beginning of monotheism as we understand the term.

For Plato (and much of the western world has followed his idea) belief in the concept of a supreme, perfectly good deity is the first requirement of a virtuous society.

Civic authorities periodically accused and punished philosophers who openly taught “atheism” — which was how they understood the new monotheism with its implication of the rejection of other gods. Plato, however, found a role for these lesser gods in the wider society despite his philosophical preference for monotheism. But those lesser deities needed to be refashioned through literature and other arts and regular festivals as perfectly good. Old myths of gods misbehaving had to be banned. People could continue to cement their social bonds by gathering for the worship of these earthly, yet now “purified”, deities.

These ideas of Plato are what Gmirkin finds in Genesis.

Plato further envisioned a Nocturnal Council of the piously qualified as a vital institution to rule his ideal society. Members would be responsible for maintaining the morality of the public and public administration.

In Plato’s Laws, the divine philosophical ruling class elite exercised its power through an institution called the Nocturnal Council to accord with its meetings in the pre-dawn hours (Laws 12.95Id, 961b). Although Laws never explicitly mentions philosophers, “the members of the Nocturnal Council are philosophers in all but name” (Hull 2019: 217). The major function of the Nocturnal Council was to control the internal affairs of the nation. The ruling class elites of this “divine council” (Laws 12.969b; cf. the “divine polity” of 12.965c) would administer the nation’s new laws (Laws 7.809b; 12.951d, 952a-b) and education (Laws 7.811c-812a; 12.951d, 952a-b, 964b-c) from the earliest age on (Laws 12.952b), approve and strictly control its literature (Laws 7.802b-c, 811c-e) and enforce its religious beliefs (Laws 10.908e-909d), controlling the beliefs, and even the collective national memory of the populace, who would come to regard their constitution and way of life as established since time immemorial by their patron gods (Laws 7.798a-b). Through this new theocratic form of government in which the people believed they were under divine rule, the whole of national life would come under the perpetual control and guidance of philosophers, with the willing cooperation of the people who believed their leaders to be the divine agents of the supreme god. (Gmirkin, 268)


While the exoteric function of the Nocturnal Council was the administration of the state and its beliefs through control of its legislation, literature, education and religion, its even more important esoteric function was the continued pursuit of philosophical and scientific studies, thought to be essential to the proper administration of the polis. The Nocturnal Council thus functioned both as the ruling body of government and as a university for the continued study of theology, astronomy, ethics and international law, like Plato’s Academy (Morrow 1993: 509; Hull 2019: 228). Investing the nation’s highest educational institution with the full power of government not only ensured wise philosophical rule in the present but allowed the perpetuation of training in the arts of enlightened government from one generation to the next (Laws 12.960d-961b, 965a-b). (Gmirkin, 269)

Here we begin to overlap with what we have covered in other posts about Gmirkin’s earlier work. See the archived posts on Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible.

Authors Divided

Continue reading “Where Did the God of the Bible Come From? – [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus-Critias – 8]”


Two Covenants: Israel and Atlantis — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus-Critias – 7f]

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Russell Gmirkin concludes his second last chapter with a look beyond Genesis to highlight the plausibility of Plato’s Timaeus and Critias influencing some of Exodus, Deuteronomy and Joshua.

In Critias Plato was composing an account of Athenian origins and its political organization, a politogony. Gmirkin cites Naddaf’s The Greek Concept of Nature which I turned to and read how various Greek poets and philosophers were interested in writing accounts that began with a cosmogony, then moved on to an anthropogony or zoogony, and finally came to a politogony — all of which seems to me to encapsulate the structure of Genesis and the Pentateuch: creation of the cosmos is the opening chapter, then the creation of humans and how humans came to be organized as they are across the inhabited world, and finally how thbe nation of Israel came about with its laws, priesthood, tribal organization as well as how its relations with other peoples originated. After writing the above I quickly checked the early chapters of Gmirkin’s book and found he had made just that point from the outset.

Plato’s account of Atlantis is set in mythical time: the god Poseidon married the mortal, Cleito, and fathered five pairs of twins who became princes ruling the ten tribes of the land. These ten leaders ruled independently as kings but swore allegiance to be one with each other in loyalty and policies and keep forever the laws of Poseidon. Those laws were inscribed on a pillar and kept in the temple. Gmirkin is, of course, prompting us to compare this scenario with the organization of Israel and its covenant with Yahweh.

One can point to the many obvious differences between Plato’s Critias and the biblical book of Exodus. My own approach to such comparative studies is to examine how unique the comparisons are and whether we can find in those similarities explanations for the differences that go beyond the ad hoc. The most significant place where a comparison must begin is the fact that in the following scene we look in vain, as far as I am aware, for parallels in the literature of the Levant or Mesopotamia.

National Covenant with Yahweh || National Covenant with Poseidon

Some similarities between Plato’s Critias and the scene of Israel swearing obedience to their god at Mount Sinai in the Book of Exodus:

Exodus 24:3-8 Critias 119e-120b
Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (4) And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. And whatsoever bull they captured they led up to the pillar and cut its throat over the top of the pillar, raining down blood on the inscription.
He rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and set up twelve pillars, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. And inscribed upon the pillar, besides the laws, was an oath which invoked mighty curses upon them that disobeyed.
(5) He sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed oxen as offerings of well-being to the Lord. When, then, they had done sacrifice according to their laws and were consecrating (120a) all the limbs of the bull,
(6) Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he dashed against the altar. they mixed a bowl of wine and poured in on behalf of each one a gout of blood, and the rest they carried to the fire, when they had first purged the pillars round about.
(7) Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.”


And after this they drew out from the bowl with golden ladles, and making libation over the fire swore to give judgment according to the laws upon the pillar and to punish whosoever had committed any previous transgression; and, moreover, that henceforth they would not transgress any of the writings willingly, nor govern nor submit to any governor’s edict (120b) save in accordance with their father’s laws.
(8) Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people, and said, “See the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” And when each of them had made this invocation both for himself and for his seed after him, he drank of the cup and offered it up as a gift in the temple of the God

The similarities between the passages were pointed out by Philippe Wajdenbaum in Argonauts of the Desert and Gmirkin has gone another step in spelling out specific points for comparison:

  • the moment of the creation of a new nation is identified in a single episodic event;
  • all the tribes of the nation are assembled and participate;
  • a sacrifice seals the event, with bulls representing the tribes;
  • there is an altar with an associated pillar or pillars;
  • blood is (a) splashed about to consecrate the place of sacrifice and (b) poured into ceremonial vessels;
  • laws are inscribed on the pillar or altar [in Exodus the laws were written in a book, but later in Deuteronomy and Joshua they were inscribed in stone: see below];
  • a solemn oath or covenant to obey all the words of the law;
  • strong curses invoked for disobedience to the laws [see below – Deut 27, 28, 29];
  • the oath is binding on those present as well as their descendants [Deut 28].

Such strong and systematic literary parallels exist between Exodus 24 and no other passage in Greek literature.29 Conversely, no literary parallels exist between Exodus 24 and Ancient Near Eastern literature or inscriptions, where there is no example of citizens entering into a covenant to obey a law collection, and where indeed the laws carried no prescriptive force.

29 A minor difference is that in Exodus 24 and Deuteronomy, it was the entire assembled children of Israel who were enjoined to obedience to the laws and who were entered [into] the covenant, whereas in Critias it was the ten princes who ruled in the kingdom of Atlantis.

(Gmirkin, 237, 241 — bolding is my own in all quotations)

Here is a little more detail on the inscribing of laws on pillars in the Greek world. It comes from another work cited by Gmirkin. (I have replaced Greek quotes with translations taken from the same work by Hagedorn or added my own translations alongside Greek text.) Continue reading “Two Covenants: Israel and Atlantis — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus-Critias – 7f]”


When Yahweh was at Peace with Other Gods — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus-Critias – 7e]

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

With thanks to Taylor & Francis (Routledge) for the review copy

When we read the Bible we assume that its references to God or Lord all mean the same idea: the deity of Judeo-Christian belief. So when we (non-scholars) read that the Bible’s references to the God of the Patriarchs were originally names of various local deities it can be a difficult pill to swallow. But a principal reason I began this blog was to share with the general reader what scholarly research has to inform us about the Bible, so let’s look more closely at the Genesis references to El Shaddai, El Elhon, and the various altars Genesis says the Patriarchs established in Canaan.

Here is Russell Gmirkin’s paragraph in Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts that pulls up the reader who is not familiar with the scholarly background references:

Genesis 11-50 mention a number of local gods, such as El Shaddai, with an altar at Bethel or Luz (Gen 17:1; 28:3, 19; 43:14; 48:3; 49:25); El Olam, with a grove at Beersheba (Gen 21:33); El Elyon, with a temple at Salem (Gen 14:18-20, 22); and Yahweh, with altars at Bethel (Gen 12:8; 35:1, 3, 7) and Hebron (Gen 13:18); the god Bethel (Gen 28:17; cf. Cross 1973: 47 n. 14); cf. Baal Berit (Judg 8:33; 9:4) or El Berit (Judg 9:46), the god of Shechem (cf. Smith 1990: 6; Cross 1973: 39, discussing the Hurrian El Berit). Most of these are thought to be local titles or manifestations of the Canaanite deity El (Cross 1962, 1973: 6-69; Day 2000: 13-43). Yahweh was another local god, worshipped in Iron II Hamath (Dalley 1990), Samaria and Judah, alongside Baal, El, Bethel and other Canaanite gods. Far from being inimical towards their polytheistic religious heritage, the pantheon of Canaanite gods was carried over into the present text of Genesis as local divinities associated with numerous ancient altars and holy sites. In Ex 6:3, El Shaddai was explicitly assimilated with Yahweh, but the identity of the two deities is not evident in the text of Genesis itself. (Gmirkin, 233f — bolding is mine in all quotations)

Let’s take a closer look at each of the above. I have for the most part (not entirely) followed up on Gmirkin’s bibliographical references.

El Shaddai

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Walk before me, and be blameless. (Gen 17:1)

May El Shaddai bless you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you . . . .  He called the name of that place Bethel, though previously the city was named Luz. (Gen 28:3, 19)

And may El Shaddai grant you mercy (Gen 43:14)

And Jacob said to Joseph, “El Shaddai appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me (Gen 48:3)

by the God of your father, who will help you, and El Shaddai, who will bless you with blessings of the sky above, blessings of the deep that lies below, and blessings of the breasts and of the womb. (Gen 49:25)

Here is what John Day in Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan has to say about El Shaddai. Italics are original.

El-Shaddai. The most likely interpretation of the divine name El-Shaddai is ‘El, the mountain one‘, with reference to El’s dwelling place on a mountain. . . . (Day, 32)

And Frank Moore Cross in Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic:

A group of names from Ugarit gave additional confirmation of the etymology . . . 

The epithet šadday thus proves to mean “the mountain one.” (Cross, 54f)

Many Bibles translate the term as God Almighty, but that translation should be discarded:

Traditionally, El Shaddai has been rendered ‘God Almighty’, following the LXX’s παντοκράτωρ and the Vulgate’s omnipotens, but it is widely accepted that this is a later misunderstanding, possibly arising through association with Hebrew šdd ‘to destroy’ (cf. Isa. 13.6; Joel 1.15,  kešōd miššadday ‘as destruction from Shaddai’).

The two most widely accepted views today render the name El-Shaddai either as ‘El, the mountain one’, relating it to Akkadian šadû ‘mountain’ (and šaddā’u, šaddû’a, ‘mountain inhabitant’), or as ‘El of the field’, connecting it with Hebrew śādeh ‘field’. It is a disadvantage to the latter understanding that the Hebrew word for ‘field’ has ś, whereas Shaddai has š. (Day, 32f)

This same god appears among the Hurrians and Amorites:

Amorite states = Yamhad, Qatna, Mari, Andarig, Babylon and Eshnunna c. 1764 BC (Wikipedia)

Cross observes that in a Hurrian hymn El is described as ‘El, the one of the mountain‘ . . . . He also notes that an epithet resembling ‘ēl-šadday, namely, bêl šadêlord of the mountain‘ is employed of the Amorite deity called Amurru; judging from such facts as that this deity is also called Ilu-Amurru and has a liaison with Ašratum, the counterpart of Athirat (Asherah), El’s consort, Cross suggests that Amurru is to be regarded as the Amorite El. (Day, 33)

There is a “Balaam text”, the Deir Alla inscription, from Jordan:

This is a detail of the so-called “Bal’am Text” (also Balaam Inscription) which was discovered in 1967 CE at Tell Deir Alla, in modern-day Balqa Governorate, Jordan. It was written in around 800 BCE. It was written in black and red ink on wall plaster. (World History Encyclopedia)

Interestingly, in the Deir ‘Allā inscription, 1.5-6 we read,

I will tell you what the Shadda[yyin have done]. Now come, see the works of the gods! The gods gathered together;
the Shaddayyin took their places as the assembly.

In both sentences it is most natural to take the Shaddayyin (šdyn) and the gods (‘lhn) as parallel terms referring to the same deities, who constituted the divine assembly. Logically, El, the supreme deity, who also features in the text (1.2; II.6) would therefore be Shaddai par excellence. Since, moreover, this epithet is here applied to the gods in their role as members of the divine assembly, which characteristically met on a mountain, the meaning ‘mountain ones’ seems very appropriate, much more so than ‘those of the field’. (Day, 33 – my formatting)

El Olam

Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called on the name of the LORD, El Olam (Gen 21:33)

It seems inherently plausible that we have an Old Testament allusion related to El’s being an aged deity in Gen. 21.33, where the patriarchal deity at Beer-sheba is called El-Olam, ‘El, the Eternal One’, which may possibly have meant originally ‘El, the Ancient One’ . . . . Probably El-Olam was the local Canaanite god of Beer-sheba . . . . (Day, 19)

A Canaanite tablet proclaims ‘El is “eternal”, translating “olam”:

Indeed our creator is eternal [= ‘ôlam]
Indeed ageless he who formed us.

El (mythology.net)

Another series of epithets describe ‘El as the “ancient one” or the “eternal one” with grey beard and concomitant wisdom. One is cited above. In another Asherah speaks of a decree of ‘El as follows:

Thy decree O ‘El is wise,
Wise unto eternity [= ‘ôlami],
A life of fortune thy decree.

In the same context Lady Asherah addresses ‘El:

Thou art great O ‘El, verily Thou art wise
Thy hoary beard indeed instructs Thee.

(Cross, 16)

We are reminded of the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7 who sits on his throne in judgement when another god “like a man” comes riding on clouds  (Baal was the rider of storm clouds who defeated the beasts of the sea) to be given the rule over the earth.

Olam can be used alone to refer to El. Cross cites and comments on a Phoenician incantation:

The Eternal One has made a covenant oath with us,
Asherah has made (a pact) with us.

The formulaic juxtaposition of ‘Ēl’s consort Asherah with ‘Ôlām . . . argues strongly for the identification of ‘Ôlām as an appellation or cult name of ‘Ēl. The two supreme gods are named and then follows:

And all the sons of El,
And the great of the council of all the Holy Ones.
With oaths of Heaven and Ancient Earth,
With oaths of Ba’l, lord of earth,
With oaths of Ḥawrān whose word is true,
And his seven concubines,
And Ba’l Qudš’ eight wives. (Cross, 17f)

Olam appears in a later (early fifth century BCE) Phoenician account of the origins of the gods as the first god perceptible to human intellect — as we learn from the Christian-era Damascius:

Phoenician mythology according to Mochos. Aither was the first, and Aer; these are the two same principles from which was begotten Oulomos [= Olam] the (first) deity that intellect can perceive, and he, I think, is unmixed mind. . . . This Oulomos himself is the mind that may be intelligible. (from Azize, 219)

Azize also turns back to Cross where he writes:

The name ‘Ôlām also appears in the Phoenician theogony of Moschos reported by Damascius, in the late Phoenician form transliterated into Greek: oulōm(os). Its context strongly suggests, however, that it applies not to a god of the cult such as ‘Ēl, but to one of the old gods belonging to the abstract theogonic pairs. This would equate Moschos’ oulōmos with Philo Byblius’ Aiōn of the pair Aiōn and Protogonos, and, of course, the Aiōn(s) of later Gnosticism.

We also find the epithet ‘ôlām applied to the “old god” Earth in the theogonic pair: “Heaven and Eternal Earth.” (Cross, 18)

Going back to the fifteenth century BCE we have Proto-Canaanite inscriptions in Sinai that point to an El cult in south-west Palestine and identify El Olam with the Egyptian god Ptah, the Egyptian “lord of eternity” (Cross, 18f).

The consort of ‘Ēl, Canaanite and Egyptian Qudšu, whose other names included ‘Aṭirāt yammi, “she who treads on Sea,” and ‘Ēlat, also is well documented in the south. (Cross, 20)


In the case of ‘Ēl ‘ôlām, “the god of eternity” or “the ancient god,” the evidence, in our view, is overwhelming to identify the epithet as an epithet of ‘Ēl. This is the source of Yahweh’s epithets “the ancient one” or “the ancient of days,” as well as the biblical and Ugaritic epithet malk ‘ôlām [eternal king] . . . At Ugarit and in the Punic world, ‘Ēl is the “old one” or “ancient one” par excellence: ‘ôlām, gerōn, senex, saeculum, he of the grey beard, he of eternal wisdom.

. . . . ‘Ēl ‘ôlām is an “executive deity,” a deity of the cult, namely the cultus of the (‘Ēl) shrine at Beersheba. (Cross, 50)

El Elyon

Elyon means “Most High”, hence El-Elyon is God Most High according to Day (1985, 129) though in the view of Cross,

The title theoretically could mean “the god ‘Ēlyōn, creator of (heaven and) earth,” or “‘Ēl, Most High, creator …,” or ‘Ēl ‘Ēlyōn, creator …” (that is, a double divine name). (Cross, 50)

Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, 19and he blessed Abram, saying,

“Blessed be Abram by El Elyon,
Creator of heaven and earth.
20And praise be to El Elyon,
who delivered your enemies into your hand.”

. . . 22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “With raised hand I have sworn an oath to the Lord, El Elyon, Creator of heaven and earth (Gen 14:18-20,22 — “to the Lord” translates “to Yahweh” but Cross notes that these words were not part of the original text according to comparisons of various manuscripts.)

[In] Gen. 14.19, 22, ‘El-Elyon, creator of heaven and earth’, . . . is depicted as the pre-Israelite, Jebusite god of Jerusalem. Elyon also occurs elsewhere as a divine name or epithet a number of other times in the Old Testament (e.g. Num. 24.16; Deut. 32.8; Ps. 18.14 [ET 13], 46.5 [ET4], 78.17, 35, 56, 82.6, 87.5; Isa. 14.14; Dan. 7.22, 25, 27). There is dispute as to whether Elyon was originally the same deity as El or not. Philo of Byblos (c. 100 CE) depicts Elioun, as he calls him, as a separate god from El. Interestingly, he refers to Elioun (Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica 1.10.15) as the father of Heaven (Ouranos) and Earth (Ge), which is reminiscent of the creator god El, and also strongly supports the idea that the reference to El-Elyon as ‘Creator of heaven and earth’ in Gen. 14.19. 22 is an authentic reminiscence of the Canaanite deity, and not simply invention. Prima facie the eighth-century BCE Aramaic Sefire treaty also represents Elyon as a distinct deity from El, since ‘El and Elyon’ occur together . . . (Day, 20f)

Day concludes that El Elyon is a separate god from El, but El-like. Cross, however, leans towards Elyon being an epithet of El, the creator god of the Canaanites, and thus identical with El.

Sefire inscription – images from http://archive.org/details/aramaicinscripti0000fitz


Continue reading “When Yahweh was at Peace with Other Gods — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus-Critias – 7e]”


Table of Nations and other Post Flood events — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus-Critias – 7d]

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

With thanks to Taylor & Francis (Routledge) for the review copy

The survival of humans and animals in an ark owes more to Mesopotamian than Greek antecedents, but the division of the known world into 70 nations in Genesis 10 follows Greek patterns of the genealogical organization of nations descending from eponymous founders . . . (Gmirkin, 230)

The Table of Nations

Once again Gmirkin detects a Greek-like interest in scientific thought of the day. (Compare earlier posts focused on the scientific interests underlying the creation chapter.)

The writings of the philosopher Anaximander of Miletus included the book Genealogies, which cataloged nations and migrations of peoples, supplementary to his creation of the first map of the world. (Gmirkin, 232)

Anaximander’s map of the inhabited world (Naddaf, 111)
Genesis 10, the “Table of Nations”, describes the post-flood division of the earth among (as traditionally acknowledged) 70 nations.

Compare Deuteronomy 32:8-9 that in its original wording (as established in part by reference to the Dead Sea Scrolls) says Yahweh (YHWH) was one of a host of lesser gods who was assigned a particular nation to possess:

When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God; The Lord’s (Yahweh’s) own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.

The number of 70 nations may have derived from a Canaanite tradition that said the consort of the “most high god” (El) had 70 children.

At Ugarit we read in the Baal myth of ‘the seventy sons of Asherah (Athirat)’ (šb’m. bn. ‘atrt, KTU2 1.4.VI.46). Since Asherah was El’s consort, this therefore implies that El’s sons were seventy in number. (Day, 23)

Each nation acknowledged its own god(s):

Babylon (Bel-Marduk, Nebo, Tammuz), Mizraim or Egypt (the Queen of Heaven), the Canaanites (Baal and Asherah), the Arameans (Hadad) and Sidon (Ashtoreth). Later in Genesis we encounter other nations whose gods appear in later biblical books: the Philistines (Dagon), Moab (Chemosh) and Ammon (Molech or Milcom). (Gmirkin, 231)

Recall that Plato portrayed the primeval world as various localities divided up among the gods, the gods ruling the people assigned to them (or those they created) in their respective regions.

Also — though Gmirkin does not refer to the event in this chapter (he had raised it in another context earlier)  — compare the division of the cosmos among three divine brothers.

There are three of us Brothers, all Sons of Cronos and Rhea: Zeus, myself [Poseidon], and Hades the King of the Dead. Each of us was given his own domain when the world was divided into three parts. We cast lots, . . . (Homer, Iliad, 15. …) see below for a discussion of the relevance to Genesis.

I add these other possible links to Greek myth here to reinforce the case for the Hellenistic sources for the Bible. Gmirkin’s work, as the title itself makes clear, is primarily addressing the case for Plato’s Timaeus and its companion composition Critias lying behind Genesis 2-11.


Given the monotheism of the Bible, we expect to read that all founders are human.

Gmirkin does not discuss in this volume other studies that suggest the mythical origins behind the biblical account of Noah cursing Canaan, son of his youngest son, for “seeing” him naked when he was drunk:

Noah’s interactions with his sons, and how their offspring are thought to become progenitors for all humankind, may be based upon myths in which the main characters were originally gods, an instance of Euhemerism. Like Euhemerus, Israelite authors could interpret the gods acting in the primeval myths of other cultures as really having been “illustrious humans, later idealized and worshiped as gods.” (Louden, 87f)

The Bible itself takes the same road [as the Greek philosopher Euhemerus], as humans replaced the gods of Greek mythology. (Wajdenbaum, 108)


While these two mythic types [see adjacent column] are extant in several different traditions, the versions in Genesis 9, though highly truncated, not only seem closest to the forms the same two mythic types assume in Greek myth but also correspond in four particulars absent from the other known versions:

      • the corresponding names, Iapetos/Japheth;
      • the altered sequence given of the punished sons;
      • the connection with the eponymic Ion/Javan;
      • and the closely corresponding wordplays (yapt/Yepet, Τιτήνας/τιταίvoντας). (Louden, 87f – my formatting)

Great Ouranos [=Heaven] came, bringing on night, and upon Gaia =Earth] he lay, wanting love and fully extended; his son, [=Cronos] from ambush, reached out with his left hand and with his right hand took the huge sickle, long with jagged teeth, and quickly severed his own father’s genitals (Hesiod, Theogony, 176ff]

Plato thought that such a scandalous story should be censored. . . (Plato, Rep. 377 b). It seems likely that the biblical writer recycled that story but modified the detail of Cronos castrating his father into Ham seeing his father naked; it is most noteworthy that some Jewish midrashim interpret Ham’s deed as an actual castration. . . . (Wajdenbaum, 108)

Now behind Genesis there seems to lie a story in which Noah’s sons did more than see him naked: Gen 9:24 “When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his young son had done to him …” What can this have been but castrating him? The association of Iapetus with Kronos, and hence with the castration of Ouranos, suggests that he is the same figure as Japheth youngest son of Noah. (Brown, cited by Louden, 87)


I suggest, then, that to connect the Flood myth with stories set in subsequent eras, Israelite tradition utilized a combination of two common types of myth set in primeval times: one in which intergenerational conflict among gods resulted in a son taking power by castrating his father, the former king of the gods; and another in which three brother gods draw lots to determine their own portions of rule and to establish hierarchical relations between themselves.  (Louden, 87)

See also What Did Ham Do to Noah?

See the previous post for the flood event being the beginning of historical time. Once, he [= Solon] said, he wanted to draw them into a discussion of ancient history, so he launched into an account of the earliest events known here: he began to talk about Phoroneus, who is said to have been the first man, and Niobe; he told the story of the survival of Deucalion and Pyrrha after the flood, and the tales of their descendants; and he tried, by mentioning the years generation by generation, to arrive at a figure for how long ago the events he was talking about had taken place. (Timaeus 22a-b)

Genesis 10:1-32

Now these are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth: and unto them were sons born after the flood.

The sons of Japheth; Gomer, and Magog, and Madai, and Javan, and Tubal, and Meshech, and Tiras. And the sons of Gomer; Ashkenaz, and Riphath, and Togarmah. And the sons of Javan; Elishah, and Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim. By these were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations.

And the sons of Ham; Cush, and Mizraim, and Phut, and Canaan. And the sons of Cush; Seba, and Havilah, and Sabtah, and Raamah, and Sabtechah: and the sons of Raamah; Sheba, and Dedan. . . . And Mizraim begat Ludim, and Anamim, and Lehabim, and Naphtuhim, And Pathrusim, and Casluhim, (out of whom came Philistim,) and Caphtorim. And Canaan begat Sidon his first born, and Heth, And the Jebusite, and the Amorite, and the Girgasite, And the Hivite, and the Arkite, and the Sinite, And the Arvadite, and the Zemarite, and the Hamathite: and afterward were the families of the Canaanites spread abroad.

19 And the border of the Canaanites was from Sidon, as thou comest to Gerar, unto Gaza; as thou goest, unto Sodom, and Gomorrah, and Admah, and Zeboim, even unto Lasha.

20 These are the sons of Ham, after their families, after their tongues, in their countries, and in their nations.

21 Unto Shem also, the father of all the children of Eber, the brother of Japheth the elder, even to him were children born. The children of Shem; Elam, and Asshur, and Arphaxad, and Lud, and Aram. And the children of Aram; Uz, and Hul, and Gether, and Mash. And Arphaxad begat Salah; and Salah begat Eber. And unto Eber were born two sons: the name of one was Peleg; for in his days was the earth divided; and his brother’s name was Joktan. And Joktan begat Almodad, and Sheleph, and Hazarmaveth, and Jerah, And Hadoram, and Uzal, and Diklah, And Obal, and Abimael, and Sheba, And Ophir, and Havilah, and Jobab: all these were the sons of Joktan.

30 And their dwelling was from Mesha, as thou goest unto Sephar a mount of the east.

31 These are the sons of Shem, after their families, after their tongues, in their lands, after their nations.

32 These are the families of the sons of Noah, after their generations, in their nations: and by these were the nations divided in the earth after the flood.

While it is now widely acknowledged that the genealogical structure of Genesis, and especially the division of nations in Genesis 10, is broadly indebted to Greek antecedents . . . a specific indebtedness to Critias and Timaeus has generally escaped consideration. (Gmirkin, p. 232)

Critias 113e-114c

By copying this section of Critias below I do not intend it to be read as a direct hypotext for Genesis 10. Rather, what one finds in common with Genesis 10 is the cogently brief account covering the description of how an entire land was divided up, with geographic markers for verisimilitude, with geographic names taken from founding figures, and other details you may discern for yourself:

[Poseidon] fathered and reared five pairs of twin sons. Then he divided the island of Atlantis into ten parts.

He gave the firstborn of the eldest twins his mother’s home and the plot of land around it, which was larger and more fertile than anywhere else, and made him king of all his brothers, while giving each of the others many subjects and plenty of land to rule over.

He named all his sons. To the eldest, the king, he gave the name from which the names of the whole island and of the ocean are derived — that is, the ocean was called the Atlantic because the name of the first king was Atlas.

To his twin, the one who was born next, who was assigned the edge of the island which is closest to the Pillars of Heracles and faces the land which is now called the territory of Gadeira after him, he gave a name which in Greek would be Eumelus, though in the local language it was Gadeirus, and so this must be the origin of the name of Gadeira.

He called the next pair of twins Ampheres and Evaemon;

he named the elder of the third pair Mneseus and the younger one Autochthon;

of the fourth pair, the eldest was called Elasippus and the younger one Mestor;

in the case of the fifth pair, he called the firstborn Azaes and the second-born Diaprepes.

So all his sons and their descendants lived there for many generations, and in addition to ruling over numerous other islands in the ocean, they also, as I said before, governed all the land this side of the Pillars of Heracles up to Egypt and Etruria.


I omitted a section in the above chapter. The reason, again, is to cast an eye beyond what Gmirkin discusses and to note other Greek influence. Here we have a vignette breaking into a genealogy that reminds us of a famous Greek poetic genealogy of heroes who were born from gods.

The genealogies of the Old Testament, especially the Book of Genesis, are much more closely comparable to the Hesiodic ones [than to Mesopotamian lists], both in their multilinearity and in their national and international scope. (West, 13)

And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the Lord. And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. Out of that land went forth Asshur, and builded Nineveh, and the city Rehoboth, and Calah, And Resen between Nineveh and Calah: the same is a great city.

The [Greek] genealogies are not homogeneous. They contain folktale, fiction, and saga in very varying proportions. These variations reflect the different sorts of material that were available in different regions for the construction of genealogies. (West, 137)

Fragments from Hesiod’s genealogy of founding Greek heroes:

Of mortals who would have dared to fight him with the spear and charge against him, save only Heracles, the great-hearted offspring of Alcaeus? Such an one was strong Meleager loved of Ares [= the god of war], the golden-haired, dear son of Oeneus and Althaea. From his fierce eyes there shone forth portentous fire: and once in high Calydon he slew the destroying beast, the fierce wild boar with gleaming tusks. In war and in dread strife no man of the heroes dared to face him and to approach and fight with him when he appeared in the forefront. But he was slain by the hands and arrows of Apollo, while he was fighting with the Curetes for pleasant Calydon. (fr 98 )

Aloiadae. Hesiod said that they were sons of Aloeus, — called so after him, — and of Iphimedea, but in reality sons of Poseidon and Iphimedea, and that Alus a city of Aetolia was founded by their father. (fr6 )

Abraham at War

The story of Abram’s military defeat of the coalition of Mesopotamian kings in Genesis 14 has motif and themes that are highly reminiscent of the conflict between Athens and Atlantis in Critias. The kings of Atlantis were portrayed as ruling righteously within their borders many years, until they engaged in a war of territorial aggression to enslave the peoples within the Mediterranean (Timaeus 24e, 25b; Critias 120d, 121b; cf. Gen 14:1-3). All would have been lost (Timaeus 25b-c; cf. Gen 14:4—12) had not the Athenians valiantly engaged the Atlantians in war and defeated them (Timaeus 25c; Critias 112e; cf. Gen 14:13-15). Abram similarly rose to the occasion, leading a small band that included Amorite allies (Gen 14:13-14) to rescue his nephew Lot from slavery, defeat the unjust invaders and liberate the local kings, much as the Athenians took the leadership of the Hellenes and defeated the invading forces of the Atlantians against overwhelming odds, liberating Egypt and the Greek world (Timaeus 25b-c). (Gmirkin, 232)

Abraham is presented as a national exemplar of righteousness and courage in war just as the Athenians were models worthy of their patron goddess of wisdom and courage in war, Athena.

A few pages later Gmirkin proposes that Joshua’s conquests of the Promised Land had a similar literary purpose.

Sodom and Gomorrah

There are many echoes of Plato’s Critias:

    • Yahweh’s portrayal as a terrestrial deity who dined and counseled with Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18);
    • the ethical decline of the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:20; 19:4-13), precipitating judgment from God (cf. Critias 121 b-c);
    • a cataclysm of fire from heaven (Gen 19:24-29; cf. Timaeus 22c-d);
    • the saving of a righteous few (Gen 18:17-33; 19:14-23);
    • and the re-founding of civilization (Gen 19:30-38, locally, in Moab and Ammon).

One also sees echoes of the catastrophe that ended the pre-flood world:

    • the evocative comparison of the Jordan plain with the Garden of Eden (Gen 13:10);
    • the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:20; 19:4-13; cf. Gen 6:6-7);
    • the survival of a righteous few (Gen 19:14-23; cf. 6:14-18; 7:1; 9:1);
    • new tribes descending from the survivors of the cataclysm, (Gen 19:31-38; cf. Genesis 10).

These echoes point to the re-use of story motifs from Timaeus-Critias in both the biblical flood story and the story of Lot’s rescue from Sodom. (Gmirkin, 233, my formatting)

Day, John. Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan. London ; New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2002.

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.

Naddaf, Gerard. The Greek Concept of Nature. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2006.

Wajdenbaum, Philippe. Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. London ; Oakville: Equinox, 2011.

Louden, Bruce. Greek Myth and the Bible. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY: Routledge, 2018.

West, M. L. The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women: Its Nature, Structure, and Origins. Oxford Oxfordshire : New York: OUP Oxford, 1985.

Hesiod. Theogony. Translated by Richard S. Caldwell. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 2015.

Hesiod. “Hesiod, Catalogues of Women Fragments.” Theoi Classical Texts Library. Accessed January 19, 2023. https://www.theoi.com/Text/HesiodCatalogues.html.

Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Émile Victor Rieu. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1950.



Sons of God, Daughters of Men … and “Giants” — Why are they in the Bible?

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

In Genesis 6 we read a most cryptic detail that leaves us wondering what it is all about:

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. . . . There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.

And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth . . . 

On “giants” — a whole post or two could be written on this word. Suffice it for our purposes to note that the Hebrew word is “nephilim”. Nephilim, from the root nāpal, literally means “fallen ones” (cf Ezekiel 32:27 “They lie with the warriors, the Nephilim of old, who descended to Sheol with their weapons of war.”) We may think of them as mighty warriors now departed from the earth, heroes of old, and not necessarily as gigantic in stature — although many of them were depicted as larger than average. (cf Hendel, 21f)

We have been covering Russell Gmirkin’s book, Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts, but as I was poring through the background reading I found myself drawn back to the question of why the story of the flood in Genesis begins with an account of “sons of god”, or as the Hebrew also allows, “sons of gods”. Why did the Genesis author open his flood story with such a curious episode?

Let’s begin at the beginning — with the noncontroversial fact that Mesopotamian myth lies behind the biblical story of Noah’s flood. But let’s also examine how Mesopotamian and Biblical narratives are so very different from each other.

In Mesopotamian flood myths the gods did not use the flood to punish humankind because of its immorality or violence. No, it was not a moral judgement sent by any of the gods. It was a decision of convenience and comfort: a god was complaining of overpopulation and the resultant noise of so many people on earth keeping him awake.

Cuneiform tablet with the Atra-Hasis epic in the British Museum. Wikimedia

The land grew extensive, the people multiplied,
The land was bellowing like a bull.
At their uproar the god became angry;
Enlil heard their noise.
He addressed the great gods,
“The noise of mankind has become oppressive to me.
Because of their uproar I am deprived of sleep. (Atrahasis myth as quoted in Hendel, 17)

Significant here is what happens after the flood. The flood marks a dividing line between two different ages:

To prevent future overpopulation, the gods take several measures: they create several categories of women who do not bear children; they create demons who snatch away babies; and . . . they institute a fixed mortality for mankind. The restored text reads: “Enki opened his mouth / and addressed Nintu, the birth-goddess, / ‘[You,] birth-goddess, creatress of destinies, / [Create death] for the peoples.'” Death, barren women, celibate women, and infant mortality are the solutions for the problem of imbalance that precipitated the flood. (Hendel 17f)

Here we find that although there were myths of great floods, the primary myth about the dividing of mythical from “historical” time was the Trojan War. And this mythical saga opened, like the Genesis flood story, with gods and mortals marrying and producing heroic figures.

In previous posts we have seen Gmirkin’s argument that the Genesis author began his flood narrative with gods marrying women under the influence of Plato’s Timaeus and Critias. What I am interested in doing here is examining the wider tradition of that same Greek myth of gods and mortals and how other accounts more directly linked this myth with the end of the primeval world. There are additional influences from this wider world of Greek myth on the Genesis author, I believe.

The Trojan War as the Divider between Mythical Time and Historical Time

Surviving Greek tales of gods living on earth with humans are compiled in a work called the Catalogue of Women. This poem begins with gods (or sons of older gods) marrying mortal women and producing heroic figures.

The Catalogue . . . does not begin with an account of the flood but with a remark about the union of the gods with mortal women to produce the heroes who are the subject of the Catalogue. This strongly suggests that the [biblical author] has combined this western genealogical tradition and the tradition of the heroes with the eastern tradition of the flood story. (Van Seters, 177)

In this myth the chief god, Zeus, decided to put an end to the mixing of divine and mortal races by means of war: he manoeuvred events to bring about the Trojan War that was meant to kill off the semi-divine heroes. Many of these heroes were taken to the Fields of the Blessed but the point of their demise was to re-establish a clear division between gods and humans. (There is no general moral condemnation of these heroes in Greek myth, nor, as Gmirkin stresses in his own work, is there moral condemnation against these figures in the biblical narrative.) From the time of the Trojan War the “age of myths” basically comes to an end and “real history” begins.

Returning to the question of why Genesis 6:1-4 is such a brief account (so brief the author must have assumed his readers knew the larger story), it is interesting to learn that brief synopses of longer tales are also found in Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women. This work, too, often reads much like a compendium of mere outlines of myths.

As in the Theogony, the genealogies were interspersed with many narrative episodes and annotations of greater or less extent. We can see that these narratives were often very summary; but they are there, and are an essential ingredient in the poem. A large number of the traditional myths, perhaps the greater part of those familiar to the Greeks of the classical age, were at least touched on and set in their place in the genealogical framework. Thus the poem became something approaching a compendious account of the whole story of the nation from the earliest times to the time of the Trojan War or the generation after it. We shall see when we come to study its contents more closely that its poet had a clearly defined and individual view of the heroic period as a kind of Golden Age in which the human race lived in different conditions from the present and which Zeus terminated as a matter of policy. We shall also see that he organized his material with some skill so as to convey his sense of the unity of the period in spite of the multiplicity of genealogical ramifications. (West, 3)

The first readers or audiences were expected to know the details of what could be abridged so they could maintain their focus on the larger plot.

In Greek myth, the intermarriage of gods and mortals was the opening scene of the tale that led Zeus to destroy the race of heroic demi-gods and so restore a new world with a clear division between the divine and human. These myths were anything but consistent, however, and other accounts offered a different reason for Zeus deciding to depopulate the earth through the Trojan War. One other reason was that the earth was simply becoming overpopulated. It is possible that the Greeks borrowed this idea from the Mesopotamian myth (see above where a god complains about the noise so many people were making) but it is also possible — since there is a comparable Indian myth — that the concept had a more general Indo-European origin (Hendel, 20).

So we have different motives for Zeus’s decision to destroy the old world and bring about a new one: Continue reading “Sons of God, Daughters of Men … and “Giants” — Why are they in the Bible?”

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