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.)
In the Greek world, the custom of inscribing pillars or poles is well attested. The Greek word used for such monuments is generally στήλη [=stele], which can also denote a gravestone or simply a monument inscribed with records of victories. Especially interesting for our purposes here is the fact that we also find laws inscribed on such stelae.
“The stipulations of the boule of the people shall be written on a pillar of stone and placed on the acropolis”
From Greek literature we will briefly look at the following quotations. In Plato’s Critias we read:
“But their authority over one another and their mutual relations were governed by the precepts of Poseidon, as handed down to them by the law and by the records inscribed by the first princes on the pillar of orichalcum which was placed within the temple of Poseidon in the centre of the island” (Critias 119c)
The divine laws (κοινωνία κατά επιστολάς ήν τάς του Ποσειδώνος, ώς ό νoμoς = The society according to the letters of Poseidon was the law.) are inscribed on a pillar (εν στήλη γεγραμμενα = Written on a column), which is then placed in the temple in the middle of the island (ή κατά μεσην την νήσον έκειτο έν ίερω Ποσειδώνος = Or in the middle of the island was a sanctuary of Poseidon). We will have to return to the temple as the place for laws in due course. Especially close to Deut 27 is the following passage from the same dialogue:
“And inscribed upon the pillar, besides the laws was an oath which invoked mighty curses upon them that disobeyed” (Critias 119e)
Again an inscribed pillar is mentioned, but this time with added curses and shortly before it is said that the pillar serves as an altar.
“… 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” (Critias 119e)
The resemblance to Deut 27 are [sic] apparent. Also, Demosthenes refers to pillars inscribed with laws, which are standing in a public place:
“Copies of all these decrees on stone were set up by you … For you must not imagine that the pillars standing there are anything else than the covenants of all that you have received or granted, and it will be made clear that Leucon observes them and is always eager to benefit you …” (Demosthenes 20:36-37)
. . . .
We see from the above evidence that the phenomenon of legal inscriptions on pillars or stelae is widespread in the Levant. 237
237 The evidence from Cyrene … suggests that laws written in stone were furthermore part of a foundation ceremony (Weinfeld 1988 281) Weinfeld’s article is a splendid example of how material from the Greek world can be used to explain the patterns of settlement of Israel in Canaan without postulating any direct influence “The stories of the migration of the Hebrew ancestors to the land of Canaan and the settlement of their descendants are without parallel in the great cultures of the ancient Near East: [Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Hittites.] In contrast, surprising parallels can be found in the accounts of the founding of settlements in the Greek Aegean world…” (Weinfeld 1988 270)
The Weinfeld quote leads me to look further in that direction. Clearly he is postulating coincidence or common historical causations to explain the “surprising parallels” between Greek and biblical founding myths.
Further, in Israel as well as in the Aegean world, we can distinguish two stages in the crystallization of traditions related to the beginning of settlement in a new land. The first contains legendary stories of the first ancestor-hero who, with his family, arrives at the new settlement, while the second recounts the history of his descendants, who settle under the direction of a founder (κτίστος). In both the Hebrew and Greek cultures, we find that a gap of several centuries separates the first and second stages. (Weinfeld, 270)
Here is W’s conclusion, noting again his attempt to explain the similarities in literature as a consequence of comparable historical experiences:
The Israelite traditions, which belong to a much earlier period than those of the Greeks, may help us to arrive at a better understanding of the development of the Greek traditions of the foundation of settlements which are known to us only from the beginning of the 7th century onwards. It seems that, after the destruction of Troy and the collapse of the kingdoms on the Eastern Mediterranean, the various ethnic groups followed a fixed procedure in their settlement, which included the following elements:
1. The obtaining of oracular confirmation for the settlement.
2. The erecting of monuments and altars and the offering of sacrifices on arrival at the new place of settlement.
3. The allocating of the land by means of divine lot.
4. The obligating of the settlers to observe the divine laws gIven to them.
5. The according of a prominent position to the leader-founder.47
6. The co-operation of the leader-founder and the priest of the central shrine, whose graves are to be especially revered by the settlers.
It is not so much a question of the influence of one culture upon another as of regulations for settlement in a new place which were generally accepted throughout the Mediterranean area. This practice of settlement, which was based on empirical reality, was transmitted through folk legends and tales which were reworked in a literary form and gradually developed into a national epic creation. Such stories of the formation of settlements found acceptance among the people, a fact which is attested in Plato. When asked by Socrates what people love to hear more than anything else, Hippias replies, “They are very fond of hearing about the genealogies of heroes and men and the foundation of cities in ancient times” (Greater Hippias IV 285).
47 Like Joshua, the founder in Greek colonization was divinely inspired and thus with both we find a combination of functions in their role as founder:
(a) leadership of the people in war and settlement,
(b) the building and establishment of the settlement,
(c) responsibility for the legislation and administration.
See Leschhorn (n. 14), p. 90. In the Greek tradition as in the Bible, these different stages are a result of the historical development of the figure of the leader.
(Weinfeld, 283 – my formatting)
The most obvious difference between the Greek and Biblical accounts is the setting: one is in mythical time, the other in historical time. And so it has come to pass that generations of readers, believers and scholars have been persuaded to imagine some historical background to the Biblical story.
Yet the mythical elements of the Greek world are transferred to a historical setting, to a time of Egyptian pharaohs. Yahweh is a god who appears on earth, talks face to face with Moses, speaks from a mountain to the people of Israel, allows certain elders to feast with him, works miracles to help his people win victory in war and survive in the wilderness.
Another scholar whose work I have touched on in this blog, Philippe Wajdenbaum, pointed out, as does Gmirkin also, that the fundamental theme of Plato’s myth is carried through the following books of the Bible: after a promising start, the nation suffers as successive generations slip further away from the laws they had vowed to keep, until Yahweh, like Plato’s Zeus, found it necessary to punish them with national destruction.
The parallels between Biblical and Greek myths have long been noticed and invited attempts at explanation. Overall they are not in dispute. What is up for debate is the plausibility of the respective explanations for those “surprising parallels”.
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.
Hagedorn, Anselm C. Between Moses and Plato Individual and Society in Deuteronomy and Ancient Greek Law. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2004.
Weinfeld, Moshe. “The Pattern of the Israelite Settlement in Canaan.” In Congress Volume : Jerusalem, 1986, edited by John Adney Emerton, 270–83. Leiden ; New York: E.J. Brill, 1988.
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