Responding to a Critic of the Hellenistic Era Hypothesis for the Hebrew Bible

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

by Neil Godfrey

On the “Academic Discussion” section of the earlywritings forum where I first typed my recent posts I was pleased to hear from a regular critic of mine there, Andrew Criddle. You can find his complete response to my arguments here. For now I will only repost the responses I made to specific points:

Andrew noted, I replied:

My question: Do we have any evidence at all, even ambiguous evidence, for a pre-Hellenistic existence of the Pentateuch? I am, of course, referring to independent material evidence (not the Pentateuch itself). More to the point, what circumstances — political/structural, economic and cultural — do we find in any era prior to the Hellenistic one that would explain the narrative content and genres of the literature we see in the OT? (I am aware of Silberman and Finkelstein’s view about Josiah’s time — they describe a great literary flourishing but fail to explain its antecedents or origins, iirc. — though I’m open to further discussion.)

Andrew wrote:
I should have been more direct in my original reply. I should have asked, “WHY should we take seriously the idea that the Pentateuch was … redacted in the Persian or later period but effectively created then”? If we have no evidence in the Elephantine papyri for the Pentateuch, why treat that papyri as evidence for an otherwise unknown setting for anything about the Pentateuch?

Here is the next part of our exchange:
My reply:

Yes, understood entirely. That has long been the one major sticking point. It was even addressed back in the early 1900s by a few brave souls [e.g. Friedländer] who even then were suggesting a Hellenistic provenance for major sections of the biblical literature (not just Ecclesiastes or Daniel).

We have become so habituated to conceptualizing the OT as having “all the signs of a long process of development and a combination of different sources”. The Hellenistic hypothesis does not dispute the “combination of different sources” but, as you know, proposes a different explanation for the data that has long been assumed to have had a gradual accretion over centuries.

In another thread I attempted to address, as one example, lengthy arguments relating to the evolution of the story of Noah’s flood. As I saw it, our differences came down to our inability to move beyond the idea that differences implied long time of adaptation. My impression was that my interlocutor could not imagine any explanation other then long-term development. The notion of a collaborative effort of different schools appeared to be incomprehensible (that was my interpretation — he may differ.) In a recent conference I was interested to hear one specialist repeat his observation that there was a time when Samaritans and Judeans did [look to] a common text cooperatively, [a common text that enabled them to maintain] their differences within the one narrative.

Even the nature of Old Hebrew has been called into question. Yes, there was an Old Hebrew, but we also know that Hebrews were not the only ancient peoples who chose to write in archaic styles for certain literature to give an aura of antiquity. That’s not a conspiracy theory — it’s how ancient peoples sometimes worked (scholars notice major periods of widespread love of antiquity in antiquity!). Old languages have been preserved for various types of texts even into relatively modern times, e.g. Latin.

[I could have pointed out that there were dialects of Hebrew in Canaan, and that authors drew on both diverse dialects and anachronistic Hebrew to shape their epic narratives, so we need to keep that in mind before jumping to the idea that differences mean evolution over a long period of time. I hope soon to post about some of the published information on the crafting of certain narratives from anachronistic language and multiple dialects.]

One other point I have not addressed in any serious way so far is thinking through historical changes. The conquests of Alexander the Great dramatically changed the peoples he conquered -economically, socially, politically, culturally, in the world of literature and ideas and ideologies.

We have seen even in “modern” times how histories and traditions are invented wholesale when major changes take place to the status of a people. And these false histories are embraced and win out despite the contemporary critics who try to alert their peers and others to the fact that they are forgeries. Where manuscripts are controlled under archival authorities it is hard for those naysayers to win the day. If recent history did not look promising for providing material that could be glorified to magnify one’s identity or authorize a new power elite, then distant past events and characters are invented, and enthusiastically embraced. I’m thinking in particular of references in Hobsbawm’s Invention of Tradition. In that light, here is an interesting remark found in an introduction to Geoffrey of Monmoth’s History of King Arthur and co:

In some ways the History of the Kings of Britain, this strange, uneven and yet extraordinarily influential book written in Latin by Geoffrey of Monmouth and finished c.1136, may be said to bear the same relationship to the story of the early British inhabitants of our own island as do the seventeen historical books in the Old Testament, from Genesis to Esther, to the early history of the Israelites in Palestine.

Preface to: Geoffrey, of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. Translated by Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966. p. 9

We should not be surprised to see some unprecedented flourishing of a new historical consciousness among certain priests or elites in particular in Egypt, Syria (as we do), nor elsewhere.

The creation story in Genesis, even the prose history of Genesis to Judges, is an anomaly when set against other “Near Eastern” literature of 1000-500 BCE. The circumstances that arose in the wake of the 330 BCE conquests do open up plausible explanations that place the Pentateuch and following books in a more explicable matrix.

One can understand being overwhelmed with incredulity at the suggestion of such a late provenance of the OT, but if we consider the extant evidence (and absence of it), even if we don’t like the idea, can we not say that “logically” it is plausible, even a “technically reasonable” hypothesis on the basis of the material evidence alone — but not if we give more weight to traditions of scholarship that have given us an entirely different concept of the Bible?



I suggest that the strongest argument against the view that the OT literature was composed over a long period of time is that this view hinges upon some core historicity to the larger historical narrative within the OT itself. If there had been no migration of “Hebrews” into Canaan, if there is no united kingdom of Israel, if we only catch glimpses of Jerusalem emerging as a significant power after around 700 BCE when the Kingdom of Israel has been taken out of the picture by the Assyrians, and no independent verification exists for a distinctive biblical-theological-historical motive before the Hellenistic period, then how can we justify the development of a demonstrably unique literary tradition across those centuries?