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

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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?


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11 thoughts on “Responding to a Critic of the Hellenistic Era Hypothesis for the Hebrew Bible”

  1. I know of no evidence for the existence of “square or box Hebrew” as it is now [the Assyrian script] prior to the Dead Sea Scrolls. The earlier Hebrew [so-called “proto-Hebrew” which is just the old Phoenician script] is everywhere evidenced on monuments, shards, bullots, pottery, vases, engravings, etc. but not the square script. It appears to have been invented by the Qumran sectarians to produce “a holy language”. If someone has evidence for the Assyrian Script prior to the 3rd Century BCE, i’d love to see it.

  2. I had to look up the Elephantine papyri.


    Niels Peter Lemche, Philippe Wajdenbaum, Russell Gmirkin, and Thomas L. Thompson have argued that the Elephantine papyri demonstrate that monotheism and the Torah could not have been established in Jewish culture before 400 BCE, and that the Torah was therefore likely written in the Hellenistic period, in the third or fourth centuries BCE

    It does seem to offer a reasonable argument from silence for the Hellenistic hypothesis!

  3. I am nowhere near being an expert on these subjects, so any opinion I offer doesn’t have a lot of weight. Indeed this is the reason why I haven’t offered an opinion of my own before. Thanks to your discussion, however, I am now familiar with a wider range of considerations that can be brought to bear on attempting to situate the Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) in a historical context. Based on this still imperfect understanding of the subject, I would offer an opinion for the first time. I suppose that it is likely that the Primary History came together after the conquest of the region by Alexander the Great.

    1. Indeed. As I pointed out to Secret Alias upon your forum, it is an error to conflate the general claim that the Hebrew Scriptures were Hellenistic in date with Gmirkin’s more specific (and more controversial) claim that the Pentateuch was written in Alexandria circa 272 BCE.

      1. I can see a lot of explanatory power in Gmirkin’s view that the Pentateuch was written in Alexandria circa 272. I have attempted to explore other proposals as well, including those that attribute a single authorship to the Pentateuch, partly with the aim of directing the focus to the more fundamental problems that exist with the traditional view and to point out that in whatever form a Hellenistic era view does remove many of these problems without introducing any new ones.

        A single authorship sounds crazy until one recalls that even an author like Josephus had persons write passages of his works. Is not even Gmirkin’s view of a “committee” overseeing the various works of other authors contributing their own particular ideological narratives with that “committee” combining them into a comprehensive single narrative that embraced all views another form of a “single authorship” view?

    2. I have opinions, too, but they are constantly in flux and don’t have relevance to anything. What is relevant is a grasp of the evidence and related arguments, wherever it leads. To that end I find myself constantly on the side of arguments based on the methodologies of (non-biblical) historians/forensic investigators/journalistic fact-checkers/courtroom standards of evidence and arguments/common methods of everyday persons in seeking to establish “facts of a matter”. Those all have one principle in common that is simply lacking among too many scholars related to biblical historical reconstructions. The loose-opinion-based methods of so many (not all) biblical historians opens up the field to allowing any conspiracy theorist or lay quack idea or conventional theological view tossing in their “opinions” — guarded only by the gatekeepers of the in-house journal publications even if their training was in an unaccredited seminary.

      What matters, in my view in this instance, is simply a matter of knowing how historical inquiry and research works in less theologically charged topics. My own observation has led me to see that many “biblical historians” simply don’t know how historical research works in other fields or if they do, they make excuses for why “biblical” history should be treated differently.

      1. I must clarify one point. When I speak of “ignorance of how historical research works in non-biblical areas” I should not demean the integrity or intelligence of those scholars (certainly not most of them, anyway). The problem I think is the tyrannical power of the view that the Bible is grounded in some kind of “historical reports”. One sees this in so much of the scholarly work — treating biblical statements as if there is little question that they are either ultimately derived from some historical tradition, or were written in response to some historical tradition, or were a later redaction that was added to make an earlier “historical tradition/response” relevant to a new era.

        This approach assumes that we can assess the general kind of authorship and date period of the sources from the contents of the biblical texts alone when they are interpreted as based on some kind of historical basis. But once we step back and open up the possibility that there may be no historical basis to the fundamental core of the narratives — and we are entitled to do so because the provenance of those texts is otherwise entirely speculative — then we open ourselves to an entirely new reading of those texts.

        That new reading should have the ability to justify itself in the material evidence extant and not on “this must be the case given the bible says x or y”. That’s where I believe the Hellenistic interpretation has an advantage over the traditional view.

  4. Talmai is considered an Aramaic form of the Greek name Ptolemy and yet it appears in Numbers as a King of the Anakim and in the time of David as a King of Geshur. Geshur possibly correlates to the same area Ptolemy son of Menneus ruled.

    It’s also largely agreed that Iapetos and Japheth are related name.

    1. He’s also always listed with ‘Sheshai’ who except for a chronological conundrum is geographically associated with Sheshi, the Hyksos…ruler? King? Prince? I believe there are more sheshi scarabs floating around than any other person of that period. One peculiar thing I have always noticed… the Hyksos scarabs almost exclusively use a Meander or Water design around the perimeter…Just like Greek and later Roman designs..which makes me wonder if they are from a Minoan/Achaean background… that would also account for the anakim (wanax-ruler-Homer) having a Hellenistic name in southern canaan/aravah. just a thought

      1. Also what if Arod of Genesis 46:16 and his clan the Arodites of Numbers 26:17 are the Herodians?

        Our known sources disagree on their origins, Josephus drawing on hostile sources says they were Idumean but that doesn’t gel to me with their treatment of the Idumeans, Nicholas of Damascus says Herod descended from Babylonian Exiles, leaders of them in fact implying a possible connection to the House of David. Gad was among the tribes carried away by Assyria and Deuteronomy 33 in it’s Prophecy for Gad copies the same Royalty implying Lion imagery of Judah’s blessing in Genesis 49.

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