What Hellenistic Hebrew Bible origins explains more simply than the traditional view

Creative Commons License

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

by Neil Godfrey

Alexander with the horns combining the Greek Zeus with the Egyptian Ammon (World History Encyclopedia)

The Old Testament has traditionally been thought to have evolved in fits and starts over centuries, usually said to be from around the tenth to the third century, under the influence of Canaanite, Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures.

One problem with that conventional view is that there is no material evidence for it. Prior to the third century we have no record of any of the biblical texts nor even for most of the major events that the Bible talks about. [The only exception is the biblical account of the later historical period involving the defeats of the northern and southern kingdoms at the hands of Assyria and Babylon.]

The advantage of the Hellenistic era hypothesis for the “OT” is that it explains

  • all of the cultural influences we find in the Bible — the Canaanite/Ugaritic, Egyptian, Mesopotamian…

and also explains

  • why we would not expect to find any earlier evidence for either the biblical texts themselves or for the major events they write about.

[The traditional hypothesis explains the lack of evidence for any biblical writings before 300 BCE by assuming the stories were passed on orally or in disparate texts that did not survive. In other words, the traditional hypothesis must speculate on why it does not have the evidence for its model of how the texts came to us. That’s fine, but if there is a simpler explanation that does not require trying to explain a lack of supporting evidence, then we might prefer that one.]

In this context, notice this observation from a conference paper by Jonathan Ben-Dov (not that I suspect Ben-Dov himself has anything to do with the Hellenistic era hypothesis):

As argued above, the metaphor of influence dictates that the source culture remains unaffected by the act of the contact. Like a candle, which can light other candles without diminishing its own flame, so the great source culture is not changed by the nation which received its cultural capital. . . .

This image, however, is not necessarily true. I would like to suggest an example from the field of Hellenism, which is close in its geographical scope and not too far away in time. People often talk of ʻHellenistic Influenceʼ on Judea, Syria or Egypt. However, the very essence of Hellenism is its being an amalgam of Greek culture with the rich and ancient cultures of the East. The Hellenistic kingdoms in Syria and Egypt were by no means Greek; they combined Greek cultural elements with the ancient traditions of the hosting countries. Hellenism was a cultural entity in constant progression.

Ben-Dov, Jonathan. “The Inadequacy of the Term ʻInfluenceʼ in Biblical Studies.” Tel -Aviv University,. Accessed February 21, 2024. 

Serapis — a new god created in the Hellenistic era from Greek and Egyptian characteristics: neither Greek nor Egyptian but Hellenistic.

That is also the essence of what the Hellenistic era hypothesis for the Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) in particular is all about. [It explains why our biblical literature is not exclusively and distinctively Syrian-Mesopotamian nor exclusively and distinctively Greek. It is a blend of both. That’s Hellenism.]

[The Old Testament is often said to be unique in various ways (ideologically and as literature) in pre-Hellenistic “Near Eastern” culture. But it is not so unique or  entirely revolutionary if we think of it in a Hellenistic context. In this setting a ready explanation for its “uniqueness”, its distinctive features, come to the fore. It is a blend of Judean/Samarian and Greek.]

The Pentateuch and Primary History are as unique as Hellenistic era Egypt and Hellenistic era Syria. None is “Greek”. Nor are any of them traditional “Egyptian” or traditional “Syrian”. They are each distinctive culturesk that have been created by the Egyptians and Syrians themselves. Ditto for the Judeans and Samaritans, I suggest. The Pentateuch is not Greek, but nor is it a product of the pre-Hellenistic Syrian Yahwist cult. Rather, what we find in the Pentateuch are many echoes of Greek literature and ideologies and many references to the Yahtwist ideas found throughout Syria-Canaan area.

The main body of the above post was originally posted on another forum (21st Feb). Passages in square brackets are additions I have made to that original post.

All posts in this series are archived at Dating Biblical Texts


The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

13 thoughts on “What Hellenistic Hebrew Bible origins explains more simply than the traditional view”

  1. Can you give me an over-view of how this hypothesis works with regard to those few examples where the bible does have some verified history (please note I am not trying to overplay this, certainly the bible is not historical!)

    I am assuming a lot of the stories could have been invented within the Hellenistic era, but the stories are placed into some history which does have some factual elements, perhaps in the same way that the Gospel of Mark has real historical elements of Romans, and Pontious Pilate etc? (but is obviously still fiction)

    The bible stories refer to Philistines who did indeed exist, and we have evidence for the House of David existing. So can we assume that some sort of history did survive through some sort of means to give us these few historical references?
    What would have been the likely method of transfer, and what would such material or tradition have been like?

    (Perhaps they used Greek records? Philistines were Greeks!)

    Should we place any/much significance to the few instances of historic elements?

    You may have answered this already, so I will pre-emptively apologise for failing to grasp this.

    1. The Judeans and Samarians lived alongside other ethnic groups such as the Edomites and Philistines so historical references to those people would not be surprising. How accurate the details of those references are is another question, of course. If the evidence for the Davidic monarchy is correctly understood then David himself can have been little more than a local warlord. There is some evidence, I believe, for the existence of an Arthur who became the subject of historical mythical tales that bore very little resemblance to his real historical situation.

      The created history would necessarily have had to tie up with more widely known “recent” past events such as the conquests of the Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian empires, though again the details in those narratives are questionable: e.g. we only have material evidence for one Babylonian deportation from the kingdom of Judah, not the two in the biblical account. Maybe there were two but we don’t know. The stories told of Josiah’s reforms and discovery of “Deuteronomy” are for various reasons surely not historical, though Josiah was himself historical.

      Sometimes historical persons are in later myth-making turned into quite different persons from their real histories. Did I say sometimes? — Maybe “often” would be more accurate. Other instances are starting to flood into my head. Even contemporaries are “sometimes” falsified to meet the needs of a national myth. I’m thinking of a feted Australian war hero awarded the Victory Cross and with a special display for him at the national war memorial for his time in Afghanistan, meeting the queen and all that, has been exposed as a murdering war criminal who should be in jail for life.

      It’s a question I would like to explore further and when I do I may post more about what others more knowledgeable than I am have to say.

      Herodotus also mixed myth-fiction with genuine history.

    1. You are right. Mea culpa! I must have been in sleep-mode when I wrote that. As far as I am aware no archaeological confirmation of a King Josiah has been uncovered. As I recall, there is a bulla or seal stamp with the name of one of Josiah’s officials as per the biblical account. I suppose that means we have circumstantial evidence.

  2. You wrote:
    “Prior to the third century we have no record (…) even for most of the major events that the Bible talks about. [The only exception is the biblical account of the later historical period involving the defeats of the northern and southern kingdoms at the hands of Assyria and Babylon.]”

    I think the invasion of the southern Levant by Pharaoh Shoshenq (Pharaoh Shishak in the bible) in the 9th century BC has a sufficiently reliable record in the reliefs in the temple at Karnak and archeological finds at Meggido.

    . . . What we don’t know are the exact years of the invasion, both in our absolute counting and relative to events in Israel. The book of Kings dates it in the time of the grandson of David, Reoboam, and claims Shishak robbed the temple in Jerusalem; Israel Finkelstein has speculated it coincided with the death of King Saul caused by Egyptian forces.

    . . . Another confirmed event is the siege and destruction of Gath around 830BC, probably by King Hazael of Damascus, today an archeological dig by Aren Maeir. Gath, the most important of the Philistine cities until then was completely destroyed and never won back its importance later. The book of Kings gives the taking of Gath by Hazael half a sentence.

    1. It is very likely, in my view, that the Biblical author took the Shishak/Sheshonq invasion of Jerusalem from Herodotus or some other aspect of the mythmaking that was under way about that figure (Sesostris in Herodotus) at that time: https://research-bulletin.chs.harvard.edu/2020/09/25/portraits-of-a-pharaoh/ Herodotus’s vagueness opened to door to allowing for an entry into Jerusalem, which, as you know, not even the Karnak inscription hints at.

      As for Gath, yes, various wars and city destructions did happen (especially noteworthy being Jericho) and they contribute to a plausible setting for the biblical historical narrative.

      1. How would a later author deduce from Sesostris in Herodot the invasion of the southern Levant by Shoshenq? The Harvard link describes: “the Sesostris character was a creation of legend, he was based on three pharaohs of the Egyptian 12th Dynasty (Middle Kingdom c. 2030-1650 BCE)”. Shoshenq was a real Pharaoh in the 10th century BC, and the biblical name Shishak of the invading pharaoh is much closer to Shoeshenq than Sosestris. It seems more likely to me that the bible conserved memory of Shoshenq’s invasion independent of later Greek sources.
        . . . The book of Kings describes the fall of Gath as due to King Hazael, whose time fits the archeological data. Chance alone?
        . . . The complete destruction of Gath around 830BC and its change from the largest city in the southern Levant to sparsely or not inhabitated afterwards is an interesting time marker for biblical stories. Finkelstein says that Assyrian sources and prophets like Jeremia don’t mention Gath while Gath plays a major role in the story of David. Therefore, Finkelstein dates the origins of that story to before 830BC, even if it was written down only later when writing became widespread.

        1. My point was that there is nothing historical about the Pharaoh’s entry of Jerusalem in the tenth or ninth centuries as far as any of our historical sources allow us to conclude. My point was further that where historical events or backgrounds were known they were incorporated into the Biblical history. They knew of the fall of Samaria to the Assyrians, for example, but the whole idea of two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, of relatively equal size existing in parallel back to the time of Rehoboam/Jeroboam is fiction.

          I was only expressing my suspicion/ephemeral opinion — not a firm argument — about the link between Herodotus and the Shishak of the Bible. Sesostris was the Greek form of the name for a real Egyptian Pharaoh and the Biblical author, as is I think to be very likely from other arguments that have been set out here in past posts, was very aware of Egypt’s records as quite likely having been a visitor or resident of Alexandria. That there was an interest in that Pharaoh in the time of Herodotus increases the likelihood that the author was drawing upon some knowledge of what had become the mythical version of Sheshonq/Shishak. It’s just my opinion.

          Ditto with Gath. Yes, it was a historical city that was destroyed in the ninth century, but the biblical story where it is made to serve as historical background is not supported by any independent evidence.

          Genesis describes the abandonment of Babylon after God confused the languages, which Thomas Thompson suggests was an etiology by the Genesis author to explain the condition of Babylon at the time of writing.

          There are real events and names used in the biblical narrative, but as historical novels do, these historical realities all function to add the flavour of reality to the story.

          There are no doubt other bits and pieces of this or that historical name or event in the larger narrative, but the major events — the conquest of Canaan, the exodus from Egypt, the kingdom of David and Solomon, these are the backbone of the biblical story and they are all fiction. That was the point I was trying to make.

          (Do you sometimes get the impression that Finkelstein goes beyond the archaeological evidence at times in order to express somewhat unwarranted support for the biblical narrative? Example, if I remember correctly again — and I will retract this if I find I am wrong — but I was surprised to hear Finkelstein in a 2022 conference speak of Judeans pining for their lost glory days and longing for their return and the rebuilding of the temple — a view that is straight from the biblical stories and not at all supported in the material evidence. — I thought his account of the great renaissance under King Josiah a particularly unsupported reconstruction.)

          1. Yes, an entry of Jerusalem by Pharaoh Sheshonq/Shishak in the 10th century BC is unlikely to be historical, though the relief in Karnak lacks parts today and could have included an entry. But the invasion itself of the southern Levant by Sheshonq is historical, and it seems to me that it would have interfered with the later development of the two Hebrew kingdoms in the same area.
            . . . That there were two Hebrew kingdoms Israel and Judah is archeologically confirmed for Israel around 850BC and Judah shortly thereafter, and a strong connection of Jeroboam I with Egypt seems likely from its traces in the Book of Kings – the fiction in the bible is the equal size of the two kingdoms (Israel was much bigger) and probably also who was king in Judah when Sheshonq invaded. I would agree that Sheshonq’s historical invasion was incorporated into a fictional history of the fictional United Monarchy.
            . . . The bias that I’ve seen in Finkelstein’s work is not support for the biblical narrative but a response to its perceived injustice: the bible often praises southern Judah and always condemns northern Israel. Finkelstein sees much of the bible as northern texts from before 722BC that were rewritten by southern authors after 722BC, and he tries to lay free the large northern parts in the bible. A pet project of his, I would say.
            . . . Another constant in Finkelstein’s work is assuming the biblical texts were composed in wealthy areas and wealthy times (maybe because he can identify wealthy areas and times through his archeology). Jeroboam II in Israel, Manasse and Josiah in Judah, the Hasmoneans in Judah: they all ruled rich places in rich times, while Jerusalem in the Persian era was poor and small, which is why he doubts the Pentateuch was written there.
            . . . If you would ask Finkelstein directly if all descendents of exiled Judahites in Babylon wanted to return to Jerusalem, he probably would reply correctly that not all wanted to return, because many didn’t, even when they could have. But he would also say that there was a religious fraction among the descendants (how large?) who wanted to return and did.
            . . . My point about Gath was that its destruction around 830BC was so thorough and so far back in time that later authors wouldn’t have known the importance of Gath and wouldn’t have located the part of David’s story there. Therefore, it seems to me the story was first told when Gath wasn’t yet destroyed.

            1. I have been reminded by reading a chapter by Rainer Albertz in Good Kings and Bad Kings that Finkelstein and Silberman’s “need” for endorsing the historicity of Josiah’s reforms in spite of the lack of clear archaeological evidence for them was the result of them having to find a way to explain the biblical narrative about the great united kingdom of David and Solomon. If that kingdom did not exist, as the archaeological record indicates, then how to explain its appearance in the biblical literature? F&S find the only explanation in the time of Josiah, attributing to him a certain freedom to try to expand his kingdom’s borders and a desire to unite his people, and those of the north, into a greater kingdom that he would lead.

              This explains F&S’s “need” to argue for the period of Josiah being the time of great reformation. Josiah’s priests and scribes invented the history of David etc to justify Josiah’s own ambitions.

              Albertz says it would make no sense to invent the story as late as the Persian era because at that time the political/social institutions were not of the sort that could explain such an invention.

              Albertz could not raise his eyes to look one step beyond the Persian era into the Hellenistic era.

        2. I think of the stories of Robin Hood where King Richard met him etc. Right setting, historical king, right account of the king’s reputation and crusades, etc, but the story is fiction.

          1. The Shishak/Sheshonq connection makes no sense based on the bibles details…the Bubastite portal has his list of ‘conquests’ and except for Aijalon he avoided Judah completely. Sheshonq’s conquests line up very well with having chased the Arameans out of their in the 9th century and even Finkelstein is on board with that. I am tired right now, but it is in Kings…it talks about God deciding to ‘save’ the people of ISRAEL…and Sheshonqs itinerary has him all up the Jordan Valley, thought Jezreel and home again…right where the Arameans were giving the Northern kingdom (and Egyptian ally/underling) a Hard time.
            That was a mistake Champollion made on his first and only trip to Egypt and it was corrected only a few years later, but it got the Fundy’s so excited they have never let go of that ‘match’..the same one’s who think Noahs Ark is on Mt Ararat instead of ‘the Mountains of urartu’

            1. Sheshonq’s invasion of the southern Levant is dated around 925BC. King Hazael of the Aramean kingdom of Damascus besieged and destroyed Gath around 830BC and, according to Kings, shortly thereafter marched to Jerusalem. But where do you see indications of an expansive Aramean kingdom around 925BC or even 900BC?
              . . . Yes, Sheshonq seems to have avoided Judah, maybe it was too poor to rob or already a vassal of Egypt. Finkelstein agrees with Judah being spared but where did he state Egypt was pushing the Arameans back?
              . . . Yes, I see it as likely that the Northern kingdom of Israel under Jeroboam I was for a time a vassal of Egypt.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading