Musings on biblical studies, politics, religion, ethics, human nature, tidbits from science
Category: Old Testament
Should there be another child category to sit alongside NT and OT and cover Intertestamental period? Should that include Philo? What effect will that have on the child category Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha?
Is it possible to set forth a plausible case that the Genesis author of Noah’s Flood was inspired in any way by his reading of Plato’s myth of Atlantis? There can be no doubt that the author was influenced by an ancient Mesopotamian story so let’s establish that undeniable source for Genesis with Russell Gmirkin’s own acknowledgement:
The traditional view of scholars is that the Genesis flood derived from sources extant no later than the time of the seventh to sixth-century Babylonian captivity. Gmirkin expands the field for literary comparison to include third-century BCE Hellenistic-era works and identifies Berossus as the Genesis’ author’s source for the Mesopotamian myth. In the words of another author, Philippe Wajdenbaum,
Even if the most ancient version of the deluge comes from the Sumerian tradition, and even if the biblical writer knew of this tradition, he inserted it into a platonic framework. . . . The first eleven chapters of Genesis are indeed inspired by Mesopotamian myths, but there is a more recent Greek layer that is just as obvious. The evolution of humankind in the Bible—from the ideal life in Eden to the degeneration that led up to the deluge, and from the discussion of patriarchal life to the gift of laws— is all found in Plato’s dialogues.(Wajdenbaum, 107)
What, then, is Gmirkin’s view of that “more recent Greek layer” that Wajdenbaum (see the side box) speaks about?
Here are the common elements between Plato’s story of Atlantis and the Genesis Flood:
Both stories are preceded by a “golden age” of innocence and abundance when the deity (Poseidon, Yahweh) ruled directly with his people; .
Both stories depict a descent into corruption after sons of gods marry mortal women: in the myth of Atlantis immorality increases over generations as the divine element in the demigods becomes diluted through ongoing marriages with mortals; in Genesis the corruption is said to happen following the sons of the gods taking women and producing “nephilim”. (An important note needs to be injected here for those of us conditioned to think that Genesis 6 is referring to demons (“sons of god/s”) descending to earth to take human women. That interpretation arose later in Jewish tradition with works like Enoch and Jubilees. There is no suggestion in Genesis 6 that these “sons of god/s” were demonic or evil. They are introduced, rather, as producing “men of renown”, though they later descended into violence.)
.Plato’s Critias 121
[After earlier describing the god Poseidon taking the human girl Cleito and with her producing generations of highly renowned kings, the first named Atlas … ] But when the divine portion within them began to fade, as a result of constantly being diluted by large measures of mortality, and their mortal nature began to predominate, they became incapable of bearing their prosperity and grew corrupt. Anyone with the eyes to see could mark the vileness of their behaviour as they destroyed the best of their valuable possessions; but those who were blind to the life that truly leads to happiness regarded them as having finally attained the most desirable and enviable life possible, now that they were infected with immoral greed [or “lawless ambition”] and power.
Zeus looks down, sees the degeneration, and decides to pass judgment:
Zeus, god of gods, who reigns by law, did have the eyes to see such things. He recognized the degenerate state of their fair line and wished to punish them, as a way of introducing more harmony into their lives. He summoned all the gods to a meeting in the most awesome of his dwellings, which is located in the centre of the entire universe and so sees all of creation. And when the gods had assembled, he said . . .
Now it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men, that they were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves of all whom they chose. . . . There were giants on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.
Yahweh, like Zeus, sees the corruption and announced judgement:
Then [Yahweh] saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And [Yahweh] was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. . . .
The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. So God looked upon the earth, and indeed it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth.
Continuing the series discussing Russell Gmirkin’s Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts . . . .
The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden in Eden (note, not expelled from the land of Eden but only from Eden’s Garden) generally coincides with the Greek mythological Age of Zeus that succeeded the idyllic golden age of Kronos:
The proliferation of cities, kings and technology broadly conforms to the rise of civilization and self-sufficiency in the Age of Zeus in Greek sources from Hesiod to Plato. (Gmirkin, 210)
So let’s recap with Hesiod’s poem Works and Days:
The gods desire to keep the stuff of life Hidden from us. If they did not, you could Work for a day and earn a year’s supplies; You’d pack away your rudder, and retire The oxen and the labouring mules. But Zeus Concealed the secret, angry in his heart At being hoodwinked by Prometheus, And so he thought of painful cares for men. (lines 42ff)
Hesiod wrote of the change Zeus sent through Pandora:
Before this time men lived upon the earth Apart from sorrow and from painful work, Free from disease, which brings the Death-gods in. But now the woman opened up the cask, And scattered pains and evils among men. Inside the cask’s hard walls remained one thing, Hope, only, which did not fly through the door. The lid stopped her, but all the others flew, Thousands of troubles, wandering the earth. The earth is full of evils, and the sea. Diseases come to visit men by day And, uninvited, come again at night Bringing their pains in silence, for they were Deprived of speech by Zeus the Wise. And so There is no way to flee the mind of Zeus. (lines 90ff)
Hesiod pictured successive races, each having to suffer more than the previous one:
Far-seeing Zeus then made another race, The fifth, who live now on the fertile earth. I wish I were not of this race, that I Had died before, or had not yet been born. This is the race of iron. Now, by day, Men work and grieve unceasingly; by night, They waste away and die. The gods will give Harsh burdens, but will mingle in some good. (lines 196ff)
Hesiod addresses his instruction to a nobleman, Perses, appropriately given that the nobility saw themselves as direct descendants of Zeus:
O noble Perses [literally, “Perses, of the genus of the gods], keep my words in mind, And work till Hunger is your enemy And till Demeter, awesome, garlanded, Becomes your friend and fills your granary. For Hunger always loves a lazy man. (lines 299ff)
And so Adam was charged with the toil and hardship to survive:
Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread (Gen 3:17-19)
Moving ahead to Cain’s exile from the land of Eden, we cover here chapters 4 to 6 that are each widely understood to be derived from different source material. In chapter 4 Gmirkin identifies Plato’s broad narrative framework although the detail of the text originated elsewhere.
16 Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden. 17 And Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. And he built a city . . .
The problems in the narrative that have long confused readers — where did Cain get his wife? how could he build a city without other people? — disappear if read against the background of Plato’s myth in Critias, his successor to Timaeus. With Critias in the background we can picture Cain being expelled from the land of Eden, which was Yahweh’s territory, into another region of other people ruled by another deity.
Unlike omnipresent depictions of Yahweh in Psalms, Amos, Jonah, here one could escape beyond that god’s presence.
Plato’s Critias 109 b
Once upon a time, the gods divided the whole earth among themselves, region by region. . . . So each gained by just allocation what belonged to him, established communities in his lands, and, having done so, began to look after us, his property and creatures, as a shepherd does his flocks . . .
. . . and called the name of the city after the name of his son—Enoch.
18 To Enoch was born Irad;
and Irad begot Mehujael,
and Mehujael begot Methushael,
and Methushael begot Lamech.
19 Then Lamech took for himself two wives: the name of one was Adah, and the name of the second was Zillah.
20 And Adah bore Jabal. He was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock. 21 His brother’s name was Jubal. He was the father of all those who play the harp and flute. 22 And as for Zillah, she also bore Tubal-Cain, an instructor of every craftsman in bronze and iron.
Lists of inventors were popular in both the Greek world and the Ancient Near East (Gmirkin, 210)
Yahweh Elohim was the god of the land of Eden and its people.
Cassuto in his commentary (pp. 228ff) argues that the grammatical construction of the key passage better suggests that it was Cain’s son, Enoch, who built the first city, Irad — which would coincide with the Babylonian tradition that the first city was Eridu.
The firstling of those cities, Eridu, she gave to the leader Nudimmud. (The Eridu Genesis — Jacobsen, 518)
These Apkallü . . . are the wise men known from mythology who rose from the sea in prehistoric times to reveal science, social forms and art to man. Since for the Sumerians there was something supernatural about these concepts, a primordial revelation was necessary. . . .
Ninagal . . . the blacksmith’s work; . . . Nungalpiriggal is . . . the inventor of the lyre (or the harp) . . . (Dijk, 45, 49)
The fish-figurines …. the apkallus, often occurring in groups of seven . . . represent Oannes and the other fish-like monsters who, according to Berossos’ account, taught mankind all crafts and civilization. (Riener, 6)
First therefore he who introduced to the Greeks the common letters, even the very first elements of grammar, namely Cadmus, was a Phoenician by birth . . . The healing art is said to have been invented by Apis the Egyptian . . . Atlas the Libyan was the first who built a ship, and sailed the sea. . . . (Eusebius, Prae X, v… vi)
Demeter – gave cultivation of grain; Dionysus, – viticulture; Apollo, the calendar and lyre; Prometheus, fire… (Seters, 83)
Arion … invented and named the dithyramb. . . . Glaucus … the inventor of the art of welding. . . . (Herodotus, I)
With Genesis 5 we begin a new genealogy from Adam, the ten generations up to the Flood. Gmirkin first set out his case for this section being derived from the Hellenistic era author, Berossus in Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus. While Mesopotamian years for each pre-flood generation was measured in the tens of thousands (totalling approximately two hundred thousand years) Plato spoke of a beginning closer to ten thousand years before his time, and a calculation of the Bible’s beginnings are shorter still.
The most that can be inferred from Genesis itself is that the Primordial History is set a few thousand years in the past, approximately in line with contemporary Greek theories. Although Genesis 5 also adopted a scheme of ten long-lived patriarchs before the flood, under the influence of the Babyloniaca of Berossus (Gmirkin 2006: 107-8), its chronological scheme is more in line with Greek than Mesopotamian estimates of the age of the world. (Gmirkin, 213)
Calculations for the time of creation vary, and the differences between the Hebrew and Septuagint versions are most pronounced. But those who are intrigued by the common calculation that Adam was created 1656 or 1657 years before the flood will be interested in how Cassuto relates this figure to the Mesopotamian methods of calculation:
Of the round numbers referred to, which are composed according to the sexagesimal system, one is 600,000—sixty myriads— a high figure that indicates an exceedingly large amount. Now 600,000 days make 1643 solar years of 365 days each. If we add seven plus seven, as was done in the case of Methuselah’s years, we obtain exactly 1657. We have here, then, a pattern similar to that of the Babylonian chronology: a number based on the sexagesimal principle with the addition of twice times seven. (Cassuto, 261)
This is the book of the genealogy of Adam. In the day that God created man, He made him in the likeness of God. 2 He created them male and female, and blessed them and called them Mankind in the day they were created. 3 And Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and begot a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth. 4 After he begot Seth, the days of Adam were eight hundred years; and he had sons and daughters. 5 So all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years; and he died.
6 Seth lived one hundred and five years, and begot Enosh. 7 After he begot Enosh, Seth lived eight hundred and seven years, and had sons and daughters. 8 So all the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years; and he died.
9 Enosh lived ninety years, and begot [a]Cainan. 10 After he begot Cainan, Enosh lived eight hundred and fifteen years, and had sons and daughters. 11 So all the days of Enosh were nine hundred and five years; and he died.
12 Cainan lived seventy years, and begot Mahalalel. 13 After he begot Mahalalel, Cainan lived eight hundred and forty years, and had sons and daughters. 14 So all the days of Cainan were nine hundred and ten years; and he died.
15 Mahalalel lived sixty-five years, and begot Jared. 16 After he begot Jared, Mahalalel lived eight hundred and thirty years, and had sons and daughters. 17 So all the days of Mahalalel were eight hundred and ninety-five years; and he died.
18 Jared lived one hundred and sixty-two years, and begot Enoch. 19 After he begot Enoch, Jared lived eight hundred years, and had sons and daughters. 20 So all the days of Jared were nine hundred and sixty-two years; and he died.
21 Enoch lived sixty-five years, and begot Methuselah. 22 After he begot Methuselah, Enoch walked with God three hundred years, and had sons and daughters. 23 So all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. 24 And Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.
25 Methuselah lived one hundred and eighty-seven years, and begot Lamech. 26 After he begot Lamech, Methuselah lived seven hundred and eighty-two years, and had sons and daughters. 27 So all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred and sixty-nine years; and he died.
28 Lamech lived one hundred and eighty-two years, and had a son. 29 And he called his name Noah,[b] saying, “This one will comfort us concerning our work and the toil of our hands, because of the ground which the Lord has cursed.” 30 After he begot Noah, Lamech lived five hundred and ninety-five years, and had sons and daughters. 31 So all the days of Lamech were seven hundred and seventy-seven years; and he died.
32 And Noah was five hundred years old, and Noah begot Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
Despite several of the same or similar names appearing in Genesis 4 and 5, in a different order (Westermann 1984: 348-9), it is noteworthy that no narrative connections were made with the seven generations of the line of Cain in Genesis 4, nor any attribution of important inventions to Seth’s descendants, nor any anecdotes regarding the growing violence of the pre-flood world. Genesis 4 and 5 thus appear to be independently authored narratives of the antediluvian world, linked only by the artificial coordination of these two accounts at Gen 4:25-26 (cf. Westermann 1984: 338). The names common to the two genealogies suggest they both made use of related antecedent source material whose character cannot now be recovered.
The narrative objective of Genesis 5 appears to be extremely limited: to give a detailed chronological framework for the antediluvian world. (Gmirkin, 211)
Westermann’s inability to consider the possibility that the author of Genesis was indebted to Berossus is evident when he wrote:
Before the discovery of the cuneiform texts, one had seen the prototype of Enoch in the seventh king of the list of Berossos, Evedoranchos = Enmeduranki. It was said of him that he was taken up into the company of Shamash and Ramman and was inducted into the secrets of heaven and earth. Since the new discoveries have shown that the parallel between the series of ten in Berossos and Gen 5 is no longer tenable, one can no longer maintain a dependence of what is said of Enoch in Gen 5 on the seventh king in Berossos (nevertheless U. Cassuto still does). (Westermann, 358)
The Cassuto reference to which W. refers:
In the Babylonian tradition, the seventh king in the list of ante-diluvian kings—who thus corresponds to the Biblical Enoch, the son of Jared—is likewise distinguished from the other monarchs. His name appears as Enme(n)duranna in the list of kings; as Enmeduranki in another document, belonging to the worship of the diviner-priests (K. 2486); and as (this is apparently the correct reading) in Berossus. The inscription K. 2486 records all sorts of wonderful tales about this king. Although the text has been badly damaged, the essential subject-matter, despite the obliterations, is clear, to wit, that Enmeduranki was beloved of the gods Anu, Bel, Šamaš and Adad, and that these deities, or some of them, (made him) an associate of theirs, (placed him) on a throne of gold, and transmitted to him their secrets, the secrets of heaven and earth, and gave him possession of the tablets of the gods, the cedar rod, and the secret of divination by means of pouring oil upon water (a method of divination that was also known among the Israelites . . . ). Enmeduranki was regarded as the father of the diviner-priests— their father in the sense that he was the originator of their doctrine, and also in the physical connotation of the term . . . every diviner-priest (barû) claimed descent from him. (Cassuto, 282f)
We have seen how Plato described the newly created earth being divided up among the various gods and goddesses, with each pair of deities appearing to create their own first humans from the dust of their respective allotted territory. Athena and Hephaestus gave their first humans of Attica or the city of Athens, divine forms of government, wisdom, crafts, prowess in war, and so forth. The god Poseidon was given the region beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, the land of Atlantis. Poseidon … well, read for yourself Plato’s account of what happened next…
Recent postings on the evidence for a Hellenistic matrix for the book of Genesis and wider reading around that evidence have led me to wonder if the author who chose a serpent to tempt Eve was having a subtle dig at the wisdom of the Greeks. (If you have read this notion before do let me know — I would not be surprised if I am recollecting an idea from an otherwise forgotten source.) It’s an entirely speculative thought so don’t attribute to me anything more than that.
Classics professor Page duBois wrote an article for Arethusa titled “On Horse/Men, Amazons, and Endogamy” (1979) in which she drew upon ideas of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss to propose that in both literary and visual arts of the fifth century, the Greeks imagined Centaurs and Amazons as symbolic of barbarism – in particular, Persian “barbarism”.
Of course, I thought, and is not the serpent in biblical literature symbolic of Athenian culture? The serpent was the symbol of Zeus, after all — as noted in a little detail in one of my posts on Revelation. (Zeus, recall, was the chief god of the Greek pantheon.) The serpent was also the favourite pet and signifier, along with the owl, of Athena, the goddess of wisdom among other things. If the Greeks could depict “the other” as wild animals then why not the Hebrews? We do read in the Book of Daniel (a text of undeniable Hellenistic provenance) that other nations are ravaging beasts compared with the “humanity” of the “people of God”.
Now the serpent was more עָרוּם than any other beast of the field. (Gen 3:1)
עָרוּם (‘ā·rūm) is the word translated “crafty” and “cunning” in many Bibles, but the word is ambiguous in connotations. It can in other contexts be understood to refer to a most positive quality: prudence, sense, wisdom. The ambiguity opens up the possibility of an interesting question. And the serpent promises the wisdom of God, the knowledge of good and evil.
As I read and think about the case for Hellenistic influence on the Bible I am reminded of those studies of more modern societies subject to colonialism. The Greeks in Alexander the Great’s wake brought their culture into the areas they came to rule and I imagine people back then were not very different from people today: the conquered tend to adopt the culture of the conquerors but very often adapt it and make a mutation of it distinctly “their own”. By this process, they are able to turn the tropes of the victor back on their conquerors and assert their cultural independence, even equality of spirit.
I wonder if the author of the “fall of humanity” scene was taking the symbol of Greek culture and wisdom, the serpent, and ambiguously attributing to it a wisdom that could also be interpreted as deceit. Whoever wrote the Pentateuch was/were very likely in tune with Greek thought, surely even Hellenophiles to an extent, but the wisdom they promoted was not the enquiring wisdom of Socrates but the revealed wisdom of their god.
But I speculate. And wonder if I read the same somewhere a while ago.
The Greek poet Pindar informs us that Ixion was the first murderer, and a murderer of his kin:
He was the hero who, not without guile, was the first to stain mortal men with kindred blood (Pythian Ode 2:20)
Ixion did not kill his brother but in better-known versions of the myth he slew his father-in-law. (He had refused to pay him the dowry for marrying his daughter Dia.)
Destined to wander
In Genesis Cain relates the punishment that is in store for him:
Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me. (Gen 4:14)
One may compare what Plato wrote in Laws:
But if he fly and will not stand his trial, let him fly for ever; or, if he set foot anywhere on any part of the murdered man’s country, let any relation of the deceased, or any other citizen who may first happen to meet with him, kill him with impunity . . . (Laws 871 d)
One detail not mentioned by Wajdenbaum (not that I recall) I found of interest is a reason Plato give for the need for the murderer to go into exile. Recall that in Genesis we read that Abel’s blood cries out from below the ground:
The Lord said, “. . . Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.” (Gen 4:10-12)
The idea of the murdered victim’s blood crying out is not far from the tale that Plato tells:
But let him not forget also a tale of olden time, which is to this effect: – He who has suffered a violent end, when newly dead, if he has had the soul of a freeman in life, is angry with the author of his death; and being himself full of fear and panic by reason of his violent end, when he sees his murderer walking about in his own accustomed haunts, he is stricken with terror and becomes disordered, and this disorder of his, aided by the guilty recollection of the other, is communicated by him with overwhelming force to the murderer and his deeds. Wherefore also the murderer must go out of the way of his victim . . . (Laws 864-865)
The time of exile in Plato’s Laws varies according to the circumstances of the crime.
None will harm him
My resources are limited and I have not been able to find confirmation of Wajdenbaum’s suggestion that one of Ixion’s descendants was a hero named Caineus (Kaineus, Caeneus). Caineus, a name reminding us of Cain in this context, of course, though the descendant of the first murderer was not an unlawful killer himself. But he did experience the hatred of his enemies, the Centaurs, who tried repeatedly to kill him with weapons but through some form of divine grace those weapons proved ineffective. (This particular observation is my own quirky contribution, not Wajdenbaum’s.) The scene, told in Roman times by the poet Ovid, is of Caeneus in battle with the centaurs.
‘Meanwhile Caeneus had consigned five men to death . . . Then Latreus, huge of limb and body . . . came flying forward. He was in the prime of life, midway between youth and old age, with the strength of a young man . . . and arrogantly poured out strings of taunts into the empty air. . . . . As he was hurling such abuse, Caeneus flung his spear and, striking the centaur just where horse and man were joined . . . Latreus, mad with pain, struck the unprotected face of [Caeneus] with his lance, but the weapon bounded back, just like hail from a roof top, or pebbles from a hollow drum. Then he came up close, and strove to thrust his sword into Caeneus’ side, but the other’s body was so hard that there was no place where the sword could enter. “All the same, you will not escape!” cried Latreus. “The edge of my sword will slay you, since the point is blunt! ” and, turning his blade sideways, he reached round Caeneus’ thighs, with his long right arm. The blow resounded as if marble had been struck and the sword blade shivered into pieces on that hardened skin. (Ovid, Metamorphosis XII, 472ff — The Centaurs did eventually put an end to Caeneus by burying him beneath piles of uprooted trees.)
Finds a place to rest and rule
But there is another Greek myth that appears as a digression in the work of the historian Thucydides. We read here of one who murdered his mother and was divinely ordered to wander a fugitive, with land being polluted in a way that prevented him from settling until he he reached a time and place where he could finally put down roots and rule his own place.
There is a story about them and Alcmaeon, the son of Amphiaraus. During his wanderings after the murder of his mother the oracle of Apollo is said to have told him to live in this place. The words of the oracle were that he could find no release from the tenors that haunted him until he could discover a place to settle in which, at the time when he killed his mother, the sun had never seen and was not in existence as land, all the rest of the earth was polluted for him Alcmaeon, as the story goes, was at a loss what to do, but in the end he observed this alluvial deposit of the river Achelous, and came to the conclusion that sufficient land might have formed there to support life since the time that he killed his mother (he had already been a wanderer for some time.) So he settled in the district near Oeniadae, became the ruler of those parts, and from the name of his son, Acarnan, gave the name to the whole country. This is the story told to us of Alcmaeon. (Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, II, 102)
Cain, too, finally found a place to rest and rule:
Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and named it Enoch after his son Enoch. (Gen 4:17)
As told by Steven Fry
IXION . . .
His first crime was one of simple greed. We are familiar with the idea of dowries, the practice of families of prospective brides paying to have their daughters taken off their hands. In the very earliest days things were done the other way around: prospective husbands paid the bride’s family for the right to marry their daughter. Ixion wed the beautiful DIA but refused to pay her father, King DEIONEUS of Phocis, the agreed bride-price. In retaliation the affronted Deioneus sent a raiding party to take a herd of Ixion’s best horses. Hiding his vexation beneath a wide smile Ixion invited Deioneus to dinner at his palace in Larissa. When he arrived Ixion pushed him into a fiery pit. This flagrant breach of the rules of hospitality was trumped by the even grosser sin of blood killing. The slaying of a family member was considered a taboo of the most heinous kind. With this action Ixion had committed one of the first blood murders; unless he was cleansed of his transgression, the Furies would pursue him until he went mad. (Mythos, p. 256f)
CAENEUS . . .
. . . . the sad end of a Lapith called Caeneus. He had been born a woman, Caenis. She was spotted one day by Poseidon who liked what he saw and took it. Entirely delighted by the experience, the grateful god offered Caenis any wish. She had taken no pleasure at all in the violation and asked that she might be turned into a man and thus avoid any indignity of that kind in the future. Poseidon, perhaps abashed, not only granted this wish but also bestowed invulnerable skin upon her – now him. Caeneus was present at the wedding of Pirithous and Hippodamia and fought the centaurs alongside Pirithous and Theseus. One of the centaurs, Latreus, mocked him for having once been a woman. Caeneus struck Latreus but was himself, due to his invulnerability, unharmed by a furious volley of counterstrikes. The other centaurs, discovering that their arrows and spears were bouncing off Caeneus’s impenetrable hide, resorted to heaping stones over him and hammering him into the ground with pine trees until he died by suffocation in the earth. (Heroes p. 396f)
Fry, Stephen. Heroes. Michael Joseph, 2018.
Fry, Stephen. Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold. London: Penguin, 2017.
Wajdenbaum, Philippe. Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. London ; Oakville: Equinox, 2011.
I couldn’t resist. I had to add the evidence for the competition to the previous post. There with reference to Russell Gmirkin I set out the evidence for the biblical Garden of Eden being inspired by Greek literature. I know many would prefer I find something that adheres to a more conventional perspective, an account owes more to Mesopotamian traditions. So here are the closest scenarios from that part of the ancient world that I can find that might remind us of Genesis’s Garden of Eden. I will leave it to you to compare them with the Greek writings.
There was the garden of the gods; all round him stood bushes bearing gems. Seeing it he went down at once, for there was fruit of carnelian with the vine hanging from it, beautiful to look at; lapis lazuli leaves hung thick with fruit, sweet to see. For thorns and thistles there were haematite and rare stones, agate, and pearls from out of the sea. (Epic of Gilgamesh)
So Gilgamesh passes through a garden not for humans but for the gods on his way to see Utnapishtim, the Sumerian version of Noah.
There is a Sumerian description of “a land of immortality”, Dilmun:
In Dilmun the raven utters no cry, The ittidu-bird utters not the cry of the ittidu-bird, The lion kills not, The wolf snatches not the lamb, Unknown is the kiddevouring wild dog, Unknown is the graindevouring . . , Unknown is the widow, The bird on high . .s not his . . , The dove droops not the head, The sickeyed says not “I am sickeyed,” The sickheaded says not “I am sickheaded,” Its (Dilmun’s) old woman says not “I am an old woman,” Its old man says not ”I am an old man,” Unbathed is the maid, no sparkling water is poured in the city, Who crosses the river (of death?) utters no . . , The wailing priests walk not round about him, The singer utters no wail, By the side of the city he utters no lament.
(Myth of Enki and Ninhursag, in Kramer, 144f)
In the Babylonian myth of Marduk humans are made to serve the gods:
In “A Bilingual Version of the Creation of the World by Marduk,” man is likewise made for the sake of the gods. There the gods solemnly proclaim Babylon as the dwelling of their hearts’ delight; but, in order to induce them to stay there, Marduk and Aruru create the race of men so that these might attend to the needs of the gods by building their sanctuaries and maintaining their sacrifices. According to a third version . . . humankind was brought into being because the gods desired to have someone to establish the boundary ditch and to keep the canals in their right courses; to irrigate the land to make it produce; to raise grain; to increase ox, sheep, cattle, fish, and fowl; to build sanctuaries for the gods; and to celebrate their festivals. All this man was to do for the benefit of his divine overlords, because “‘the service of the gods” was his ‘‘portion.”’ A similarity to this last tradition is found in the second chapter of Genesis, which mentions as man’s destiny the cultivation of the soil (vs. 5) and the development and preservation of the Garden of Eden (vs. 15). But this work obviously was in his own interest; the Lord God did not ask for any returns. (Heidel, p. 121)
Another story from the same region introduces humanity as wandering nomads apparently leading a brutish life until a god has pity on them and decides to “bring them home” to profitable employment serving the gods.
Nintur was paying attention: Let me bethink myself of my humankind, (all) forgotten as they are; and mindful of mine, Nintur’s, creatures let me bring them back, let me lead the people back from their trails.
May they come and build cities and cult-places, that I may cool myself in their shade; may they lay the bricks for the cult-cities in pure spots, and may they found places for divination in pure spots!
(The Eridu Genesis)
From Optimism to Pessimism
Thorkild Jacobsen discusses this text and notes the sharp contrast with the Genesis account of humankind’s beginnings:
In the “Eridu Genesis” moreover the progression is clearly a logical one of cause and effect: the wretched state of natural man touches the motherly heart of Nintur, who has him improve his lot by settling down in cities and building temples; and she gives him a king to lead and organize. As this chain of cause and effect leads from nature to civilization, so a following such chain carries from the early cities and kings over into the story of the flood. The well organized irrigation works carried out by the cities under the leadership of their kings lead to a greatly increased food supply and that in turn makes man multiply on the earth. The volume of noise these people make keeps Enlil from sleeping and makes him decide to get peace and quiet by sending the flood. (p. 140)
The “Eridu Genesis” takes throughout, as will have been noticed, an affirmative and optimistic view of existence: it believes in progress. Things were not nearly as good to begin with as they have become since and though man unwittingly, by sheer multiplying, once caused the gods to turn against him; that will not happen again. The gods had a change of heart, realizing apparently that they needed man.
In the biblical account it is the other way around. Things began as perfect from God’s hand and grew then steadily worse through man’s sinfulness until God finally had to do away with all mankind except for the pious Noah who would beget a new and better stock.
The moral judgment here introduced, and the ensuing pessimistic viewpoint, could not be more different from the tenor of the Sumerian tale; only the assurance that such a flood will not recur is common to both. (p. 142)
Heidel, Alexander. The Babylonian Genesis: The Story of Creation. Second edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963.
Jacobsen, Thorkild. “The Eridu Genesis.” In “I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood”: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1-11, edited by Richard S. Hess and David Toshio Tsumura, 129–42. Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 2018.
Kramer, Samuel Noah. History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine Firsts in Man’s Recorded History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.
Sandars, N. K., trans. The Epic of Gilgamesh; Reprinted with revisions. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.
This post continues the series discussing Russell Gmirkin’s Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts.
After the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden we enter a new series of adventures that find their counterpart in the next book by Plato, Critias. Here we are led to understand that the land of Eden was only one part of the created world and that Cain, on being exiled from Eden itself, enters another land presumably inhabited by other peoples removed from the presence of the god Yahweh Elohim. We read names renowned for inventing the various crafts and arts of civilization and the building of the first cities. We read of “sons of gods” marrying mortal women and producing heroic warriors. We read of violence spiralling out of control and of Yahweh deciding to end it all by wiping out all humanity and every living thing in a cataclysmic flood. He is persuaded, however, to spare one family to start anew. Finally, new ethnic groups are once again scattered across the world from the tower of Babel.
We know the story but as long as we are sure that it was composed long before the classical era of Greece (from the fourth century BCE) and look only to possible antecedents in the Mesopotamian region then we will miss the remarkably distinct parallels with Greek myth. Yes, there is no doubt that the Flood story in Genesis is derived from an early Babylonian story, and the tower of Babel is obviously focused on Babylon, — no question there. But keep in mind that “Hellenistic” culture was initially about blending, uniting, the cultures of the east and west, of the lands once ruled by Persia with the values and ideas of their Greek conquerors.
This is Russell Gmirkin’s contribution to the way we view the Bible — to test the possibility that Genesis and its companion literature were written as late as the Hellenistic era:
The current chapter shifts the focus to Critias, Plato’s sequel to Timaeus. The use of Critias as a model for the antediluvian world in Genesis has not previously been proposed by biblical critics. While Timaeus was concerned with the origins of the kosmos, of life and death, and of human moral sensibilities and failings, Critias presented a tale set in earliest mythical times that laid out the devolution of ideal political institutions, established by the gods, into a spiral of ambition and violence divinely punished by cataclysmic earthquake and flood that ended the Age of Heroes and overflowed the mythical continent of Atlantis. (p. 199 — my highlighting in all quotations)
Genesis is an odd mix. It begins with a stately account of creation in six days — all in coherence with the scientific thought of the Hellenistic era — but then shifts to mythical tales of talking snakes and “sons of gods” marrying mortal women. In Gmirkin’s view, it is as if we are reading a work that “consciously mimic[s] Plato’s Timaeus (the scientific and theological narrative) and Critias (mythical narrative).”
I had initially expected to post a discussion of the entire seventh chapter but instead have resolved to post a series of smaller units, each one covering one aspect of the primeval history from Cain to Babel. Instead of quoting Gmirkin and others he references, I have decided to cut to the chase and allow you to see for yourselves how episodes from Genesis compare with Greek literature. My quotations are selective. I have omitted details that do not find correspondence. For example, Plato’s account of Atlantis speaks of building a palace for Poseidon. Gmirkin remarks that in Genesis, since Yahweh Elohim converses with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, it can be assumed that he has a temple or mansion of some kind there, too. But of course if that is what the Genesis author and his audience took for granted it is not mentioned. So I have omitted from my selections Plato’s description of the god’s palace.
Russell Gmirkin additionally discusses other options that have been proposed as models of the Garden of Eden: the royal parks of the kings of Assyria, temple gardens of Mesopotamia, and other Mesopotamian mythical stories such as Gllgamesh. He finds little strong comparison in any of those alternatives. (See the post following this one for some instances of what have ben considered “Garden of Eden” parallels in ancient Sumerian literature.) Why would a supply source for pagan temples be an inspiration for the Genesis author? Or why the hunting grounds of an Assyrian king?
Homer, Hesiod, Pindar
Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground (Gen 2:7)
[Athens] was founded first, when the goddess received your rootstock from Earth and Hephaestus (Timaeus 23e)
There lived on this hill a man who was one of the original earth-born men of the land. (Critias 113c)
we’ve also heard from many about the kingship exercized by Kronos, And . . . that earlier men were born from the earth (Statesman, 269a-b)
Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.
The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. . . .
A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters.The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah,
where there is gold.(The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.)
The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. . . .
Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
Now the serpent . . . said to the woman, . . . The woman said to the serpent . . .
. . . the serpent said to the woman “. . . your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom . . . *
Yahweh Elohim . . . was walking in the garden in the cool of the day . . .
(Gen 2:8-14, 25; 3:1-8)
Poseidon, as a god, easily organized the central island [of Atlantis]. Once he had fetched up two underground springs — one warm, the other flowing cold from its source — and caused all kinds of food to grow in sufficient quantities from the soil . . . . the island by itself provided them with most of the necessities of life. . . They had everything, [precious stones and metals] that could be mined from the ground, and in fact in many parts of the island there was dug up from the ground something which is now no more than a name, although in those days it was an actual fact and was second in value only to gold — orichalc [which gleamed like fire]. . . . Everything aromatic the earth produces today in the way of roots or shoots or shrubs or gums exuded by flowers or fruits was produced and supported by the island then. . . . Any water which overflowed was channelled to the grove of Poseidon, where all the various species of trees grew to be beautiful and extraordinarily tall thanks to the fertility of the soil, . . . Streams descending from the mountains drained into it, and it made a complete circuit of the plain, . . . and then the water was allowed to discharge into the sea. (Critias 113e – 114e. 115a, 117b, 118d)
Trees and flowers and fruit, grow in proportion; and again, the mountains contain stones likewise, whose smoothness, transparency, and beauty of colour are in the same proportion; it is from these that the little stones we value, sardian stones, jaspers, emeralds, and all such, are pieces; but there, every single one is like that, or even more beautiful still. . . . But the true earth is adorned with all these things, and with gold and silver also, and with the other things of that kind as well. For they are plainly visible, being many in number, large, and everywhere upon the earth. (Phaedo 110d-111c)
. . . the parts of the world-order having everywhere been divided up by gods ruling over them; moreover divine spirits had divided living things between them, like herdsmen, by kind and by herd, each by himself providing independently for all the needs of those he tended, so that none of them was savage, nor did they eat each other, and there was no war or internal dissent at all. . . . But to return to what has been reported about a life for human beings without toil, the origin of the report is something like this. A god tended them, taking charge of them himself, . . . they had an abundance of fruits from trees and many other plants, not growing through cultivation but because the earth sent them up of its own accord. For the most part they would feed outdoors, naked and without bedding; for the blend of the seasons was without painful extremes, and they had soft beds from abundant grass that sprang from the earth. What I describe, then, Socrates, is the life of those who lived in the time Kronos . . . Well then, if, with so much leisure available to them, and so much possibility of their being able to get together in conversation not only with human beings but also with animals – . . . to do philosophy, talking both with animals and with each other, and inquiring from all kinds of creatures whether any one of them had some capacity of its own that enabled it to see better in some way than the rest with respect to the gathering together of wisdom, the judgement is easy, that those who lived then were far, far more fortunate than those who live now. (Statesman, 271c-272c)
. . . the Elysian plain at the world’s end, . . . where living is made easiest for mankind, where no snow falls, no strong winds blow and there is never any rain, but day after day the West Wind’s tuneful breeze comes in from Ocean to refresh its folk. (Homer, Odyssey IV, 563-569)
The gods, who live on Mount Olympus, first Fashioned a golden race of mortal men; These lived in the reign of Kronos, king of heaven. And like the gods they lived with happy hearts untouched by work or sorrow. Vile old age never appeared, but always lively-limbed, far from all ills, they feasted happily. Death came to them as sleep, and all good things were theirs; ungrudgingly, the fertile land gave up her fruits unasked. Happy to be at peace, they lived with every want supplied, (Hesiod, Works and Days, 110-120)
But with nights equal forever, with sun equal in their days, the good men have life without labor . . . . Beside the high gods they who had joy in keeping faith lead a life without tears. . . . . But they who endure thrice over in the world beyond to keep their souls from all sin have gone God’s way to the tower of Kronos; there winds sweep from the Ocean across the Island of the Blessed. Gold flowers to flame on land in the glory of trees; it is fed in the water, whence they bind bracelets to their arms and go chapleted . . . (Pindar, Olympian Ode 2)
* I have added, rightly or wrongly, to Russell Gmirkin’s notes of comparisons Plato’s suggestion that the impulse for conversation between humans and animals was “the getting of wisdom.” For another interpretation of Plato’s influence on the Genesis temptation narrative see The Temptation in the previous post.
(There is one other detail that I might develop later: Gmirkin explains certain contradictions in Genesis 1-2 as the consequence of different authors being responsible for different sections, so that the scientific portion of Genesis 1 had one author while the myth of Adam and Eve another. That may be so, but I also note that Plato himself is not consistent and while at one place he speaks of an idyllic age without need for technology and other time he describes technologies in that ideal world of the past. He didn’t seem to worry if he told a different version when a different purpose for the story was called for. Plato could also write both highly technical “scientific” discourses as well as dramatic and colourful myths within the one work.)
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.
Plato. Timaeus and Critias. Translated by Robin Waterfield. OUP Oxford, 2008.
Plato. Phaedo. Translated by David Gallop. Clarendon Press, 1977.
Plato: Statesman. Translated by C. J. Rowe. First published 1995, Reprinted with corrections 2005. Warminster, England: Liverpool University Press, 1995.
Hesiod. Theogony ; Works and Days. Translated by Dorothea Wender. Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1973.
Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by E.V Rieu. Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin Books, 1946.
Pindar. The Odes Of Pindar. Translated by Richmond Lattimore. The University of Chicago Press, 1947.
The stately narrative of the creation of the cosmos in six days crowned by a sabbath rest comes to an abrupt end as the reader is swept into a totally different dimension: an announcement of the “generations of heaven and earth”, a world of animals being created after the man, a garden with mythical geography and two forbidden trees, a talking serpent, and a god walking in the cool breeze wondering where his newly created man and woman are. If the first creation account draws on Plato and other Greek scientific thought, what are we to make of these following chapters?
For Russell Gmirkin, this Genesis second creation account is also inspired by Plato’s “second creation account” in Timaeus:
It is striking that both Plato’s Timaeus and the book of Genesis divide their account of the creation of the world into two parts, the first narrating the creation of the present universe as a whole . . .
. . . and with the second part introducing the popular anthropomorphic gods of the Greeks, offering an explanation for mortality and how human wickedness came about without being the responsibility of the supreme creator god.
Thank God for Plato – or rather, Plato for God
It was Plato alone who postulated a truly eternal god that dwelled beyond the plane of sensible existence, beyond time, in the world of Being. This essentially monotheistic conception of a supreme transcendent god existing beyond the sensible universe was a major Platonic innovation, found neither in popular Greek myth nor in the writings of the pre-Socratics, though a commonplace belief today in the religions that are Plato’s intellectual heirs. Earlier natural philosophers who postulated a monotheistic deity, such as Xenophanes of Colophon, Heraclitus of Ephesus and Anaxagoras of Clazomene, did not localize the supreme god outside the realm of sensible existence, but rather as an intelligence pervading the physical universe. Plato’s view of this god as one, eternal and without bodily form, appears to most closely echo the views of Xenophanes. But Plato, by postulating a separate eternal realm of Being distinct from the temporal realm of Becoming, gave a novel ontological basis for the existence of a divine realm where both Forms and the Demiurge could have an abiding existence separated from the sensible physical kosmos. (Gmirkin, 159)
Plato wrote of the supreme deity commissioning his lesser gods to create mortals and Genesis 2 is consistent with this pattern:
in the first chapter Elohim creates the cosmos;
Elohim then appears to address a divine assembly, “Let us create humans…”;
in the second chapter a deity called Yahweh Elohim is depicted creating man and woman, walking in the cool of the day in the garden and engaging in conversation with earthly mortals.
The traditional view among scholars is that Genesis contains two quite different accounts, each composed many years apart, each depicting a different god, and being clumsily combined (certain contradictions between the two were allowed to stand) into a single narrative. Gmirkin argues that both of these different accounts were composed under the influence of Plato’s two-stage creation narrative.
The serious reader will want to investigate the details: what textual variants do we find in the various Hebrew and Greek manuscripts? Gmirkin discusses these questions, engaging with various inconsistencies, and concludes:
it seems reasonable to posit that the original text of Genesis 1-3 was consistent in its use of Elohim and Yahweh Elohim in the First and Second Creation Accounts respectively. (p. 163)
I have to admit that I have some slight reservation over the similarity of the names of the deities: Elohim and Yahweh Elohim. Is it possible that in the original text Yahweh Elohim was stressing a particular attribute of Elohim rather than being meant to be a second god? (Compare the many epithets associated with Zeus and Dionysus.) Another option proposed has been that the original text was referencing two different “hypostases” of the supreme god but I’ll save that discussion for another time when I post on some of Bernard Barc’s ideas. My question at this point does not at all overturn the basic principle of Gmirkin’s thesis, but I wonder if it does open up doors to further explorations of the details of how Hellenistic influence was embedded in Judean/Samaritan thought before the split between the two peoples and reactions against Hellenism.
Here are the generations of heaven and earth
Another curiosity in Genesis that has surely caused many readers at some stage to wonder is “here are the generations of the heaven and earth”:
These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth — Genesis 2:4
That’s one of the many curiosities that I asked about as a child. At the time I was assured that since this was holy writ the meaning had to be whatever followed, however unsatisfying the proposed answers were. One had to wait to reach adulthood to find the same questions are permitted and freely discussed by the scholars. The most likely explanation (uncomfortable for the innocent believer) is that we are reading a passage that had its origins in a view that Heaven and Earth were themselves gods. That’s exactly what we find in Greek mythology. Plato’s highest craftsman god was the father of numerous other deities, beginning with Ge, earth, and Ouranos, heaven.
Plato claimed that the traditional visible Greek gods, starting with Ouranos and Ge, were the offspring of the invisible Demiurge or Creator, and that these semi-mortal, corporeal gods in turn created mortal life, which exonerated the eternal Demiurge from having created mortals with their potential for evil. Likewise, in Gen 2:4 Ouranos and Ge appear as the first two offspring of the Creator of Genesis 1, and an account of their descendants is projected. In Genesis 2-3 the narration shifts from the Creator to the creation of mortal Efe by Yahweh Elohim, a visible god who is one of the descendants of the Creator of Genesis 1, alongside the other terrestrial gods alluded to in Genesis. Yahweh Elohim in turn created mortal life, like the lesser gods in Timaeus. (p. 165)
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image [LXX εικόνα], according to our likeness [LXX όμοίωσιν]; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image [LXX εικόνα], in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen 1:26-27)
RG focuses on two interesting details here.
1. Whereas plants, sea creatures, land animals are made “after their own kind”, mankind is made in the likeness of the gods — made in the genus of God.
In Gen 1:26 the Septuagint renders … “in our image according to our likeness” with …. “according to our image and according to [our] likeness”,. . . using the double κατά (“according to”) . . . . The κατά phrases . . . echo the phrase κατά γένος (“according to [its] kind”) of the preceding verses, suggesting more strongly than in the Hebrew that humankind belongs to the γένος [=race, genus] of God, or, at least, highlighting the contrast with the animals more strongly than in the Hebrew. (Loader, 27f)
2. In creating mankind we read God for the first time saying “Let us…”, that is, “Let us make man in our image.”
The language employed here, which points to some form of gathering of the gods, who state their intention to create humans in their image, implicitly recognizes older, polytheistic traditions. The announcement of their collective decision to make humankind suggests the divine council as narrative context (Westermann 1984: 144). Creation in the divine image is distantly reminiscent of Mesopotamian regnal imagery, where the king was created in a god’s image . . . , but here it was all of humanity that was created in the image of the gods. It is likely that both male and female gods were here envisioned, since humans were created “in the image of the Elohim… male and female” (Gen 1:27). (Gmirkin, 136)
“Let US . . .“
Various attempts have been made to explain God saying: “Let us….”. Westermann (cited by RG) believes the most economical explanation is that “Let us” implies a council of gods involved in the decision to create humans. Compelled to find out what was behind that interpretation I turned to Westermann who cited Schmidt and Schmidt, it turned out, said everything Westermann said except in German. (The price one sometimes pays just to be sure!) — Here is a synopsis of Schmidt’s (Westermann’s) argument:
Is it the Trinity speaking?
An early church view was that God was speaking as the Trinity. There is nothing else in Genesis to suggest the Trinity so we can put that view aside.
RG in another forum discounted the “plural of majesty” explanation:
I did a pretty thorough independent research on that whole “plural of majesty” thing. This theory was first put forward, as near as I can discover, after the time of Elizabeth I, who famously started the English custom of monarchs referring to themselves as “we”. I can find no evidence that this was earlier put forward as an explanation of Elohim, and no evidence of any ancient god in the Mediterranean or Ancient Near Eastern world in any language referring to themselves in the plural. I haven’t found other academics who have undertaken a similar study on the history of scholarship on this topic, so don’t cite me as a source, since there’s always the chance that I missed something. . . . .
Esther 8.8 allegedly has Ahasuareus refer to himself in the third person, but I don’t read it that way. In any case that is different from referring to himself in the plural (which I can’t find anywhere in Esther or elsewhere of a king or god in the biblical text). . . .
Is it a plural of majesty?
Another is that we have a “plural of majesty” … as in the monarch saying “we” where lesser mortals would simply say “I”. Exegetes who have worked on the view that Genesis was written very early have discounted that possibility because a clear instance of a “plural of majesty” only appears elsewhere for the first time in the mouth of the Persian king in the Book of Esther. (RG, though, does argue for a post-Persian era composition of Genesis.)
Is it a council of gods?
Note that God is found speaking of “us” in other books of the Old Testament whenever he is in a council with other divine beings. [See the insert below for references.] But again, many scholars have been reluctant to accept the view that God is addressing a council of gods in Genesis because they are convinced that the (“priestly”) author would never have thought to imagine God as a “first among equals”.
Is God talking to himself?
Another view: are we reading here God turning over an idea in his mind, speaking to himself? The problem with that view is that there is nothing in the declaration to suggest a pondering: the words are a proclamation, an announcement, of what “they” are about to do.
After weighing up the above options, Schmidt concludes that the sentence here is a relic from a polytheistic era. Both Schmidt and Westermann conclude that the saying originated in the context of a heavenly court of divine beings but continued as a form of speech even after the idea of a heavenly court was no longer part of their belief system. No doubt many later readers and copyists did treat it as a form of speech and ignored its original and literal meaning. But that leaves open the question of why the first author chose to use the expression. For RG, we have here one more instance of a borrowing from Plato:
In light of Plato’s Timaeus, the appearance of a multiplicity of gods becomes entirely comprehensible. (Gmirkin, 136)
In Timaeus the Demiurge or Craftsman God first created the universe and then in a subsequent stage delegated the creation of humanity to the other gods he had also created. That Creator God addressed these lesser deities to explain why he wanted them to be the ones to create humankind:
Once all the gods had been created — both those that traverse the heavens for all to see and those that make themselves visible when they choose — the creator of this universe of ours addressed them as follows: ‘Gods, divine works of which I am the craftsman and father, anything created by me is imperishable unless I will it. Any bond can be unbound, but to want to destroy a structure of beauty and goodness is a mark of evil. Hence, although as created beings you are not altogether immortal and indestructible, still you shall not perish nor shall death ever be your lot, since you have been granted the protection of my will, as a stronger and mightier bond than those with which you were bound at your creation. ‘Now mark my words and apprehend what I disclose to you. Three kinds of mortal creature remain yet uncreated, and while they remain so the universe will be incomplete, for it will not contain within itself all kinds of living creatures, as it must if it is to be perfect and complete. If I were to be directly responsible for their creation and their life, they would have the rank of gods. To ensure that they are mortal, and that this universe is truly whole, it is you who must, in fulfilment of your natures, imitate the power that I used in creating you and turn, as craftsmen, to the creation of living creatures. . . . .
After this, he handed over to the younger gods the task of forming their mortal bodies. When they had also created any further attributes a human soul might require, and whatever went along with such attributes, he left it up to them to govern and steer every mortal creature as best they could, so that each one would be as noble and good as it might be, apart from any self-caused evils. (41a – 42e; Waterfield translation)
20 For the celestial court, cf. 1 Kings 22:19—22; Isa. 6:8; Ps. 29:1-2; 82; 8926—7; Job 1:6; 2:1. In Job 38:7, divine beings are present at creation. The present interpretation is found in Gen. R. 8:3; Rashi. (p. 353)
Sarna in his commentary on Genesis supports the interpretation that “Let us” is a pointer to a heavenly court:
Let us make The extraordinary use of the first person plural evokes the image of a heavenly court in which God is surrounded by His angelic host.20 Such a celestial scene is depicted in several biblical passages. This is the Israelite version of the polytheistic assemblies of the pantheon — monotheized and depaganized. It is noteworthy that this plural form of divine address is employed in Genesis on two other occasions, both involving the fate of humanity: in 3:22, in connection with the expulsion from Eden; and 11:17, in reference to the dispersal of the human race after the building of the Tower of Babel. (Sarna, 12)
The image of God
What does the expression — “image of God, after our likeness” — mean? The fact that these words are not explained in Genesis indicates that it was well enough understood not to need further explanation at the time it was written (Schmidt, 136). So we must look for parallel usages. If we turn to Mesopotamian creation stories, however, we search in vain:
Can a precursor of the tradition be found in the ancient Orient? Although the similarity between God and man is repeatedly stated there in that man is said to be created from clay and the blood of the gods or even in the divine image, the expression “image of God” hardly has its home in the (Babylonian) creation myths. (Schmidt, 136f – translation. Cited by Clines who is cited by Gmirkin, 136)
Archaeologist Yonatan Adler of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has authored a new book, The Origins of Judaism: An Archaeological-Historical Reappraisal. The findings of Adler are consistent with other books I have blogged about over the years setting out a case for the history of “biblical Israel” being a late theological construct, composed no earlier than the Persian era (ca 500 to ca 300 BCE) and even arguably as late as the Hellenistic era (especially after 280 BCE). The works I have posted about have taken one of two approaches to the question of the Bible’s origins: archaeological studies and textual analysis.
No archaeological evidence has been found to support the stories of the patriarchs, the exodus, and the united kingdom of Israel: rather, the archaeological evidence indicates that those scenarios never happened. The biblical narrative is, in Adler’s words, “a living declaration in the present, a call to action in the here and now” (p. x). The other approach has been to analyse the biblical texts and to re-examine what has long been a mainstay of biblical studies, the Documentary Hypothesis (DH). These studies have often questioned the very early dating of any of the Bible, many positing a date as late as the Persian era for most of the writings and some even arguing for the Hellenistic era. (Currently, I have been blogging about Russell Gmirkin’s new book, Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts.)
I look forward to posting more from Yonatan Adler’s book after I have completed other commitments. Until I do, here are a few excerpts of particular interest in the context of Russell Gmirkin’s thesis that the Pentateuch was composed as late as around 280 BCE.
First, it is best to be clear about what Adler is addressing (my bolding throughout):
. . . this book takes as its starting point the lived experiences of the Jewish people as they have actually practiced their Judaism over the centuries through the observance of the laws of the Torah in their everyday lives. It is this practical Judaism, rather than the biblical tradition about it, that stands at the center of the present book. The aim of this study is to apply systematic historical and archaeological methods to seek the earliest evidence for the emergence of precisely this practical Judaism within the routine lives of ordinary people in antiquity. (pp. x.f)
It should be stressed that our focus here is on the Jewish way of life centered on practices rather than beliefs. (p. 5)
Adler’s study is not exclusively on the archaeological finds. He also refers to textual evidence: Philo, Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. As we have seen in various other posts (especially those relating to Philip Davies, Thomas L. Thompson, Niels Peter Lemche, Keith Whitelam) new questions arise when we begin with the archaeological evidence and seek to explain the texts in that “real life” context:
One of the major advantages of archaeological evidence over texts lies in the fact that the material remains tend to reflect the “real” rather than the “ideal.” (p. 22)
On the evidence for observance of dietary laws:
Prior to the second century BCE, there exists no surviving evidence, whether textual or archaeological, which suggests that Judeans adhered to a set of food prohibitions or to a body of dietary restrictions of any kind. (p. 49)
On ritual purity practices:
Lacking earlier evidence, the second century BCE remains our terminus ante quem for the beginning of widespread Judean observance of the ritual purity practices enshrined in the Torah. (p. 86)
On the law against carved images:
[T]he year 131 BCE would be our terminus ante quem for when a prohibition against figural images was first put into practice. (p. 112)
On the instruction in Deuteronomy to bind sacred words between one’s eyes and engrave them on doorposts:
No evidence for the observance of any practice resembling either tefillin or mezuzah is available from any time before the middle of the second century BCE. (p. 131)
Circumcision, the Sabbath, the annual feasts (Passover, Atonement, Sukkoth), the seven-branched candlestick (menorah):
[C]ircumcision was widely practiced among first-century Judeans, for whom the rite not only served as an identity marker that distinguished Judean from Gentile but also—and perhaps even more importantly—was regarded as a central commandment of the Torah. Laws surrounding the Sabbath prohibitions were also widely observed at this time by Judeans both in Judea and throughout the Mediterranean world, and the precise parameters of these regulations were concurrently being discussed and debated by exegetes of the Torah. A plethora of literary evidence attests that both the Passover sacrifice and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were practiced by first-century-CE Judeans on an impressively wide scale. The main ritual associated with the Day of Atonement was observed at this time through fasting, a practice described by first-century authors as universal among contemporary Judeans. There is good reason to believe that both of the two central rituals associated with the Festival of Sukkot, residing in booths and taking the four species, were observed by Judeans in the first century CE on a very broad scale. And finally, a seven-branched menorah as prescribed by Torah law undoubtedly stood in the temple in the first century CE, and both texts and archaeological finds suggest that Judeans living at the time were well aware of both its existence and its general appearance.
All these elements of first-century-CE Judaism are attested in the first century BCE, and some also in the second century BCE, but none are clearly attested to prior to this.
. . . .
[A]ll the practices examined here characterize Judaism in the first century CE and are attested to one degree or another in the first century BCE and in some cases also in the second century BCE. As with all the practices analyzed until now, the trail of evidence ends once we reach beyond the second century BCE. Prior to this time, we have good reason to think that certain practices (most saliently, the practice of fasting on the Day of Atonement) were completely unknown.(pp. 167, 169)
In summary, evidence for the existence of the synagogue prior to the first century CE is spotty at best. (p. 188)
Throughout this book, in chapter after chapter, it has been shown that the earliest surviving evidence for a widely practiced Judean way of life governed by the Torah never predates the second century BCE. . . .
Our analysis in the present chapter has led us to conclude that the Judean way of life during the Persian period was more likely governed by cultural norms and traditions inherited from the Iron Age than by anything resembling some kind of Torah law. A central element of what it meant to be a Judean at this time was veneration of YHWH and participation in the cultic worship of this deity, although it remains unclear to what degree this might have excluded the possibility of veneration and worship of other deities. . . . The origins of practices such as [a taboo against eating the “hip sinew” and perhaps also circumcision] may reach back to extraordinarily early epochs, possibly to before the emergence of any kind of distinct “Israelite” identity.
In all these cases [i.e. some form of “Passover” ritual, as well as of a seven-day period probably coinciding in time with what we know of as the Festival of Unleavened Bread], however, there is little reason to interpret the evidence as reflecting practices that were somehow legally mandated by anything akin to a Mosaic law. A conjectural Persian- period Judean way of life thus reconstructed, bereft of any sort of Torah as its regulating principle, can hardly be said to resemble Judaism in any meaningful way.
The roughly two centuries between the conquests of Alexander the Great circa 332 BCE and the founding of an independent Hasmonean polity in the middle of the second century BCE remain a far more conducive epoch in which to seek the origins of Judaism. . . . Here I have explored the possibilities that the Pentateuch came to be adopted as authoritative Torah by Judeans either during the Early Hellenistic period, when Judea found itself under foreign domination by the two great Hellenistic kingdoms, or during the Late Hellenistic period, after the Judeans had gained autonomy under the leadership of the priestly Hasmonean family. . . . [I]t would not be wrong to view Judaism as having emerged out of the crucible of Hellenism, which dominated the cultural landscape of the time. In a poetic way, it seems only fitting that our English word “Judaism” itself is the result of a Hebrew/Greek hybrid, rooted etymologically in the Greek rendering of the Hebrew “yahudah” merged with the Greek suffix “-ismos.” (pp. 235f)
Adler, Yonatan. The Origins of Judaism: An Archaeological-Historical Reappraisal. The Origins of Judaism. Yale University Press, 2022.
Genesis 1 is not a science text. It is primarily a theological myth but it is theology and myth wrapped around a contemporary scientific understanding of how the earth and heavens came into existence. Russell Gmirkin in Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts sets out a case for the author(s) of Genesis 1 being well-read in the Greek literature of the third century BCE and composing an account designed to promote piety among the wider communities of Samaria and Judea.
Like Plato’s Craftsman God who shaped and ordered the primeval elements into a beautiful cosmos, the creator deity of Genesis 1 appears to stand apart from the chaos as he commences his work of “purposefully”, “intentionally”, fashioning everything to be “good”. He does this mostly by a process of dividing and separating elements, assigning each new item its appropriate name, and expressing satisfaction in the “goodness” of the completed product. In all of the above, Plato would have recognized in Genesis 1 a brief theological-scientific summary of his own understanding of how the creator god made the heavens and the earth. But there would have been a few details Plato disagreed with. The author of Genesis 1 was up to date with scientific theories that had been developed since Plato’s time.
The First Day
God said, “Let there be…” — Xenophanes: a supreme being set all things into motion by thoughts of his mind alone.
God said, “Let there be…” — Plato: Divine purpose
God separated the light from the darkness — Empedocles; Hesiod and Plato – cosmos was formed by separating its primary elements
God saw the light was good — Plato: God was good and creating the cosmos in his perfect image
Light appears before the sun is formed — Empedocles’ theory of aether; Zeno; also Hesiod and Plato
God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night” — Plato: the importance of names
Evening and morning were the first day — Plato: God’s first act of creation was time (days and nights and other means for measuring time)
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. (Gen 1:3)
How could a god create by merely saying a word? We are not reading about a magic performance because the command is not directed at any particular object to become something else. Plato does not express the idea of God creating by command, as RG notes. Rather,
The best parallel is perhaps provided by the natural philosopher Xenophanes, who held that the omnipotent supreme being effortlessly set all things into motion by the thoughts of his mind alone (Simplicius, Physics 23.11, 20; Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians 9.144; cf. Jaeger 1936: 45; Flannery 2010: 84) (Gmirkin, 126)
God saw that the light was good
He was good, and in him that is good no envy ariseth ever concerning anything; and being devoid of envy He desired that all should be, so far as possible, like unto Himself. (29e)
He fashioned the All, that so the work He was executing might be of its nature most fair and most good. (30b)
The separation of elements was a prominent theme of Greek science:
and God separated the light from the darkness (Gen 1:4)
But first, how could there be light before the creation of the sun? Hesiod wrote in Theogony, 123-125:
From Chaos were born Erebos [Darkness] and black Nyx [Night];
from Nyx were born Aither and Hemera [Day]
Aether is the light sky, created before the sun and stars.
The four elements together constitute unqualified substance or matter. Fire is the hot element, water the moist, air the cold, earth the dry. . . . Fire has the uppermost place ; it is also called aether, and in it the sphere of the fixed stars is first created ; then comes the sphere of the planets, next to that the air, then the water, and lowest of all the earth, which is at the centre of all things. (Diogenes Laertius, explaining the theory of Empedocles.)
Day and night were the first acts of God’s creation:
God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. (Gen 1:5)
. . . and Plato agreed. After creating the various elements themselves, Plato’s god began by creating time — “days and nights” — and the various heavenly bodies by which time was to be measured. The author of Genesis delayed those measuring devices until the fourth day.
For simultaneously with the construction of the Heaven He contrived the production of days and nights and months and years, which existed not before the Heaven came into being. And these are all portions of Time; even as “Was” and “Shall be” are generated forms of Time (Timaeus 37e)
The Second Day
Separation of earth and sky — Plato: Thus it was that in the midst between fire and earth God set water and air (Timaeus 32b)
And God made the dome in the middle of the waters — Plato: God is the Creator
And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. (Gen 1:6-8)
I have often read that passage as an account of some sort of iron dome in the sky, but though the idea of a metallic vault with holes to enable rain to fall is found elsewhere in the Bible it is not, RG points out, what is described in Genesis 1.
The air, which was lighter and warmer than the earth and seas, but not as light or hot as the tenuous realm of fiery aether, formed an intermediate zone between the earth and upper skies. It is evident that this airy region is designated in Genesis 1 as the expanse of the heavenly dome or firmament (raqia), since it is given the name Sky (Gen 1:8) and it is in this same sky that the fowl were later said to fly and in which the sun, moon, and stars were placed (Gen 1:17, 20). Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, the word raqia designates a metallic vault or dome above the earth, supported by the highest mountains, and as firm as a brazen mirror, and having doors and windows through which the rain and snow fell (Gen 7:11; 28:17; Ps 78:23), as in the Ancient Near Eastern mythical cosmogony. But no such meaning attaches to the term raqia here. Rather, raqia here appears as a simple legacy from the older, pre-scientific language usage, an old term for the sky familiar to the intended audience of Genesis 1, but used there without its mythical linguistic baggage. Rather, raqia is best understood as a simple reference to the dome of the sky. (p. 129)
The Third Day
Separation of earth and seas — Anaximander, Heraclitus, ….
God said, . . . — as above
Spontaneous generation of plants — Empedocles, Archelaus, Democritus, …
and it was so — as above
Plants are not “living souls” like animals — Zeno
God called the dry land “Earth”…. — as above
Plants emerge before the sun is formed –– Empedocles
God saw that it was good — as above
Classifications of plants (domestic and wild) — Plato, …
And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:9-10)
Recall from earlier posts the theories of Greek science that notion of like bodies being attracted to like, and the heavier sinking below while the lighter ones rose to the top, the dry elements gathering separately from the wet, the hot from the cold.
Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. (Gen 1:11-13)
Here we find a disagreement with Plato and Aristotle and a preference for the views of Zeno, the founder of Stoic philosophy. While Plato and Aristotle classified plants with animals (“living souls”) because they all possessed some ability to move, however limited, Zeno said that plants were not “ensouled creatures”.
[Gen 1:11-13] makes the claim, common in Greek science, that the first plant life sprung up from the earth by spontaneous generation. According to theories proposed by several natural philosophers, the seeds of life were present throughout the mixture of elements in the primordial chaos. (p. 131)
After initially generating spontaneously from the earth, the plants thereafter reproduced by means of seeds. Again, we have a scientific classification, this time of plants into two kinds according to their manner of propagating seeds.
Notice, also that plants are said to emerge before the sun is created. Compare the view of the Greek philosopher Empedocles who said
that trees were the first animals to grow up from the earth, before the sun was unfolded around it and before night and day were separated… They grow by being raised out by the heat in the earth, so that they are parts of the earth just as embryos in the abdomen are part of the womb. (Aetius 5.26.4)
The Fourth Day
Let there be lights… two great lights… — “description of heavenly bodies as lights or lamps (maor), a term also used for clay lamps and candlesticks (Ex 25:6; Num 4:9, 16; Ps 64:16). This indicates that the sun, moon and stars were viewed as vessels containing fire an idea also advocated by several noted philosophers (Anaxmines, Empedocles, Heraclitus), but contrary to the theory of Anaxagoras …” (p. 132)
God said, . . . — as above
set them in the dome of the sky — that is, in the atmosphere (as per various Greek philosophers)
and God made two great lights — as above
signs, seasons, years and days — the technical terms used here overlap with those in the Astronomical Book of Enoch (“signs” = points of the equinoxes and solstices). Commentaries generally say Enoch borrowed from Genesis, but it is possible that the Genesis author borrowed from Enoch (VanderKam, p. 97). RG states that he will discuss these matters in a future work on Babylonian and Samaritan scientific and mythical traditions in Genesis 1-11.
for signs and for seasons and for days and years. . . to give light upon the earth — Plato: the heavenly bodies were created and set in their motions for the benefit of humanity on earth; they were thus “proofs” of divine benevolence. (Other Greek philosophers disagreed, claiming they were thrown into their orbits and took on their characteristics by natural and unplanned processes.)
And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years. And let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day. (Gen 1:14-19)
Plato disagreed with other natural philosophers like Anaxagoras who understood the heavenly bodies to have been thrown into the upper regions because of their lighter nature and were ignited by clashing together, and such like. For Plato, there was nothing “natural” about the “design” of the orbits of these bodies: they were carefully set in their orbits by a divine intelligence for the benefit of humankind.
Along with the theology, RG points to three scientific details (concepts found among the Greek philosophers) here: these heavenly bodies were fire-containing vessels, were in the airy part of the heavens; and were useful for calendrical purposes.
The Fifth Day
Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures — an implicit endorsement of the Greek theory of panspermia, that the seeds of life were scattered throughout all primeval matter.
So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind — Contradicts the scientific opening pointing to spontaneous generation of the sea life and water-birds from the ocean. Here God fashions the sea life and water birds.
God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply — The word for “blessed” is a command: God is commanding them to reproduce sexually after their initial emergence/fashioning.
And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures (LXX ψυχών ζωσών), and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day. (Gen 1:20-23)
If the opening statement depicts spontaneous generation the later sentence has God making the sea creatures. For RG, this contradiction arises from the author attempting to impose a theological account on top of what was understood to be the scientific process.
The Sixth Day
Let the earth bring forth living creatures — Spontaneous generation was a widespread Greek scientific notion for the origin of living creatures.
And God said . . . God made — as above
Classification by air, water and land animals; four-footed and many-footed; domestic and wild animals and plants — scientific classifications comparable to those found in Plato. But Plato had four classifications: another one for heavenly life forms, that is, the gods or stars — omitted in Genesis.
God saw that it was good — as above
And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle (LXX τετράποδα [=tetrapods]) and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:24-25)
RG posits that the author of Genesis is overlaying scientific concepts with a theological narrative. One of the scientific concepts here is said to be reference to life forms, plants and animals, according to classifications such as are found among the early Greek natural philosophers. Here we have two types of animals: the wild and the domestic; four-footed and those that “creep”, presumably those with many more legs or no legs. With that understanding in mind, it is interesting to compare Greek scientific concepts with a list of created life forms in an early Mesopotamian creation account:
Plato speaks of four classifications of living forms:
And so there are four kinds of living beings in the universe:
the heavenly gods (i.e. including the stars),
winged creatures that travel through the air,
those that live in water,
and finally those that go on foot on dry land. (Timaeus 40a)
Of the different kinds of land animals, Plato wrote:
. . . animals of this kind have four or more legs, and the more mindless they were, the more such underpinning the gods gave them, to draw them even closer to the ground. As for the most mindless of them, the ones with their whole bodies level with the ground, the gods made them without feet, since they no longer needed them at all; these are the creatures that crawl along the ground. (Timaeus 92a)
and further, land animals were classified into the wild and the tame:
. . . all animals [are] divided into tame and wild. For if their nature admits of domestication they are called tame; if it does not, they are called wild. (Statesman 263e-264a)
And there were two kinds of plants:
These living beings are now cultivated trees, plants, and seeds, which have been reclaimed by agriculture for our use from their original wild state, before they were ever cultivated. (Timaeus, 77a)
and the cultivated plants were further subdivided:
as for cultivated crops — both the dry sort (that is, our staple and all the others we use as foodstuffs, which we collectively call ‘pulses’) and the arboreal sort (not only the sources of our drink and food and oil, but also the produce of fruit-bearing trees which, though hard to store, exists for the sake of our amusement and our pleasure) (Critias, 115b)
The ideas set out in the preceding chapters of Russell Gmirkin’s Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts begin to find their “real-life” application in chapter 5. This chapter, “Genesis 1 as Science”, is a verse-by-verse commentary drawing on the preceding discussions.
MT = Masoretic text = Hebrew Bible
LXX = Septuagint = Greek translation of a Hebrew version that preceded the MT
Genesis 1:1 comes with three and a half pages of analysis.
When God began to create the heavens and the earth (1:1 MT; New Revised Standard Version)
Not Creation Ex Nihilo
This opening verse is sometimes thought to describe God creating the universe from nothing, ex nihilo. But the idea that God created everything from nothing is not found in the Bible. Gmirkin cites Gerhard May as pointing out that the explicit notion of an ex nihilo creation first appeared as late as the Christian Church Fathers in the late second century.
RG justifies his claim that Gen 1:1 does not speak of God actually creating “the heavens and the earth” on the grounds that:
it is only in later verses in Genesis 1 that we read of the actual creation of heavens and then the earth
Genesis 1 uses formulas (eg “And God said, ‘Let there be…'”) to describe God’s creative acts and no such formula is found in 1:1
and in the conclusion of this section we read “and thus the heavens and earth were finished”, indicating that the creation took place over six days out of pre-existing primordial chaotic matter.
In other words, Genesis 1:1 is a heading and the actual creative acts follow.
The idea that the universe emerged out of chaotic matter conforms to Greek scientific views that held that the universe in some form (even as chaotic matter) had to have always existed.
Is 1:1 a title of what follows, then? Every other block of narrative in Genesis has a title or “superscript”. But no, it is not a title, RG concludes. Rather, RG goes one step further and argues that the opening verse is a very condensed counterpart to Plato’s prologue to his account of creation in Timaeus. The prologue of the creation account in Plato’s Timaeus contains the following details:
that the ordered visible world had a clear beginning point (it existed in a realm of “becoming”)
that the cause of this beginning of an ordered cosmos was God (the word translated “began” or “beginning” in the LXX, ἀρχῇ [arche], means both “beginning” and “cause” and is used frequently in Timaeus)
that God was a being who existed apart from or outside the universe
God is presented as an artisan, a craftsman (or Demiurge), a personality with a purpose.
All those details are elaborated upon in a scientific discussion in Timaeus 27d to 29d.
Excerpts from Plato’s prologue:
. . . . . Now everything that becomes or is created must of necessity be created by some cause, for without a cause nothing can be created.
. . . . was the world, I say, always in existence and without beginning? or created, and had it a beginning? Created, I reply, being visible and tangible and having a body, and therefore sensible; and all sensible things are apprehended by opinion and sense and are in a process of creation and created. Now that which is created must, as we affirm, of necessity be created by a cause. But the father and maker of all this universe is past finding out; and even if we found him, to tell of him to all men would be impossible. . . . .
. . . . If then, Socrates, amid the many opinions about the gods and the generation of the universe, we are not able to give notions which are altogether and in every respect exact and consistent with one another, do not be surprised. Enough, if we adduce probabilities as likely as any others; for we must remember that I who am the speaker, and you who are the judges, are only mortal men, and we ought to accept the tale which is probable and enquire no further. (Benjamin Jowett translation)
From Chaos to Cosmos: Plato and Zeno
1:2 MT – The earth was waste and empty (tohu wabohu) and darkness covered the face of the deep (tehom) and a divine wind (ruach) swept over the face of the waters (mayim).
1:2 LXX – But the earth (γῆ) was invisible and unformed (ἀόρατος καὶ ἀκατασκεύαστος); and darkness was upon the abyss (ἀβύσσου). And God’s spirit (πνεῦμα Θεοῦ) bore upon the waters (ὕδατος).
What we read here is not total and utter chaos, but a beginning with raw material differentiated into earth, deep waters, and air. That’s not from Plato but it is from another early philosopher, one who founded the Stoic school, Zeno. (Zeno was a contemporary of those whom RG is submitting as the authors of Genesis.) Darkness implies that there is light somewhere but not directed towards the materials from which the cosmos was to be created. Interestingly, Plato understood darkness to be a material element — a form of dense air that lacked minute sparks of fire.
For Plato, the chaos at the beginning did not differentiate the elements of fire, earth, air and water. Zeno, on the other hand, proposed that fire was the basic element and from fire arose air, and from air was formed watery stuff, and from water a sediment of earth fell and coalesced into earth. From that condensed gooey muddy mass air arose, and from the air emerged aether, and when air moved as wind it threw clouds together so causing lightning — and hence light itself — to emerge.
Plato did attribute the start of creation to a good and intelligent creator god. He also said that (as per the LXX above) the primordial chaos was invisible. He had some concept of darkness as a substance that could rest on matter.
For Zeno, the four elements could be discerned in some sort of stratification in the chaos at the start. And since movement was a divine attribute, air in motion, or wind, was a divine element from which eventually came light.
Where does God enter Zeno’s picture? For Zeno, there were two types of active (divine) elements: fire and air. Fire, in turn, was subdivided into physical fire — a fire that consumed its fuel — and a spirit or god-fire that did not consume matter. (Compare Moses seeing the burning bush where God is said to be a fire that does not consume the bush.) For Zeno, only corporeal elements could move corporeal elements. The spirit fire, god, was thus the prime mover that initiated the orderly arrangement of the universe out of the chaos and even inhabited everything. Plato, on the other hand, thought of God as a transcendent, non-corporeal but anthropomorphic figure who spoke to bring about the cosmos — although other biblical authors did give God a fiery body.
So at the expense of some contradiction with what follows (e.g. the earth and water being separated on a subsequent day of creation) the author of Genesis 1:2 appears to have followed ideas from both Plato and Zeno.
RG breaks up his discussion into a series of categories (viz. an overview of Plato’s ideas; the cosmogony in Genesis compared with that of Greek philosophers; the stratification of the elements; the divine wind; ontology and a discussion of Greek and Hebrew terms) which, though thorough, means certain ideas are discussed repeatedly under each heading. The point of such detail and repetition is to prepare the reader for the final overview comparison of Genesis 1:2 and Greek cosmogonies.
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.
(Unfortunately for the progress of this series on RG’s new book, I was lately sidetracked into reading related to further exploration of the evidence we have for events affecting Jews and Christians between the events of 70 and 135 BCE. This was in part inspired by follow-up reading to Witulski’s view of Revelation being a product of the Hadrianic era, and led to further investigations into the background conditions that appeared to form the matrix from which both Christianity and rabbinic Judaism emerged. I look forward to posting more about thoughts arising in the future.)
Creation of man in God’s image is probably one of the most striking analogy to Plato’s work. . . . It is the most openly expressed in Timaeus. (Niesiołowski-Spanò 2007:118)
In Timaeus Plato gives his vision of the creation of the world, one that seems close to that of Genesis yet at the same time far more sophisticated. (Wajdenbaum 2011:92)
If you are wondering how well-known Timaeus was throughout the ancient Greek-speaking world . . . .
It would be a serious mistake … to conclude that the Timaeus was only read and studied by professional philosophers or students of philosophy. The very fact that it was regarded as the ‘Platonists’ Bible’ meant that its influence inevitably filtered down to men of letters and even those who had received only a smattering of learning. Indeed the Timaeus was the only Greek prose work that up to the third century A.D. every educated man could be assumed to have read. (Runia 1986:57)
We have seen the evidence Russell Gmirkin [RG] set out for the authors of the Pentateuch drawing upon Plato’s works so it is against that background that this focus on Genesis and Timaeus proceeds. Chapter 4 of Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts “examines various lines of evidence that indicated Genesis 1 did in fact draw on the Timaeus“.
RG’s discussion engages with several related scholarly views and the current mainstream understanding that he is challenging. It is a somewhat technical presentation, examining the textual structures and how related Platonic themes (science, philosophy, myth) are expressed through each. For better or worse, I have decided to touch on the more obvious overlaps between Genesis 1-2 and Timaeus with little comment. I imagine you, dear reader, are sitting with fellow critical jurors.
First to the witness stand is Martin Rösel [MR]. MR listed clear indications that the Greek version of Genesis made liberal use of terms from Timaeus. MR’s explanation for these references was that the translators felt free to modify, even change, the original Hebrew text.
e.g. Thus Genesis 1:2, in Hebrew, speaks of the earth being “empty and void” but the early Greek version of Genesis is unusual in that it speaks of the earth being “invisible and unformed”, an expression reflecting Plato’s cosmology in Timaeus.
But under cross-examination of further studies, MR’s explanation that the Septuagint (LXX) was a very free translation of a Hebrew text could not stand up. The DNA evidence demonstrated that the LXX was an attempt to hew closely to the literal Hebrew original and not a free translation. The LXX can make for awkward reading in ways that indicate that the translators struggled to maintain faithfulness to a Hebrew source.
But what was the Hebrew source of the Septuagint? It was not our current “Masoretic text” (MT). Interestingly, in some places where the LXX disagrees with the MT, other earlier Hebrew versions do match the LXX translation (e.g. the Samaritan Torah, a Dead Sea Scroll fragment).
the LXX was not a free translation of the underlying Hebrew text . . . but rather a literal translation of a non-MT text [an earlier Hebrew text] of Genesis (RG, 86)
What does the mainstream scholarship say about all of this? The dominant view is that there were Hebrew and Greek versions of the Pentateuch long before our current MT and LXX. Neither of these earlier, now lost, texts could have reflected Plato’s Timaeus. It is acknowledged that Timaeus did influence some parts of the LXX of the third-century BCE. The question remains, though, Why is the LXX so different from the MT?
Next witness: Emmanuel Tov.
What version of Genesis 1 came first? The MT or LXX?
Definitely the MT. A copy was kept in the temple and was used as the standard by which all copies were measured.
Where did the LXX come from?
I can’t help but think that it came from a tradition that stood opposed to the temple authorities.
Why, then, does the Letter of Aristeas say that the temple authorities sent a Hebrew text to Alexandria for translation into Greek?
I don’t believe that that story has any truth to it. It is total fiction. The LXX had to come from a group opposed to the Temple authorities. The temple authorities would have sent a copy of the MT and the LXX would be far closer to the MT than it currently is.
But then where did the LXX come from?
I can’t say anything other than what I have said already.
Next witness: Four figures enter the dock — the Book of Watchers, Demetrius the Chronographer and the Book of Jubilees and Qumran (Dead Sea Scroll) fragments. All of these testify to being the first to quote or allude to biblical writings. Not one is any older than the third century BCE.
It . . . goes beyond the evidence to assume that the Hebrew Bible in any form, whether MT or proto-LXX, significantly predates the Septuagint translation. (RB, 88)
Next witness: Timaeus, the astronomer created by Plato. Timaeus is asked about the three different creation narratives or myths he described to his companions: the creation of the cosmos; how the elements that enabled and brought about order emerged from primordial chaos; the creation of mortal plant and animal life, including humans. The court asks Timaeus to outline his presentation. He does so:
I began by telling my audience, Socrates among them, that I was going to describe how “in the beginning” the universe was “generated” (Greek “genesis”), that “in the beginning”, a good God “made” the “heaven and earth”.
The Greek words in quotation marks match those in the LXX of Genesis 1. The judge instructs Timaeus to stop “finger-quoting” and get to the point and list only the details of the visible creative process.
If I restrict myself to the order of the creation of the visible universe….
Here is the thesis that Russell Gmirkin [RG] is buttressing in Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts:
Plato’s writings, including Plato’s Laws, envisioned theologically trained educated elites ruling the nation and creating a national literature to shape the beliefs and character of the ordinary citizenry, both youths and adults (Gmirkin 2017: 255-61). The creation of the cosmogony of Genesis 1 should be understood as part of just such a national literary enterprise under the direction of the ruling class elites. (p. 75)
The thesis has been the subject of earlierbooks that have been discussed in detail on this blog. In support of that interpretation RG analyses the Genesis creation chapter to demonstrate its relationship to Greek “philosophical” ideas and in particular, Plato’s Timaeus.
Anyone familiar with Timaeus will be immediately thinking, But Timaeus contains a very lengthy explanation of the origins of our cosmos and Genesis 1 is, well, extremely short. Yes, but Plato also said something else that is most pertinent to this discussion that is alluded to in the above quotation. Hear out RG. I will do my best to present his analysis and comparisons fairly and accurately.
The ancient Greek science context of Genesis
Ancient Greek science was a process of inferring how and why the observable world came about and worked the way it did but the idea of carrying out experiments to test ideas had to wait for a future time.
We have clear demarcations between the study of the origins of the universe and the study of the origins of societies. Not so ancient Greek thinkers. For them, the “history of nature” bracketed all in one course the question of the origins of the universe, of life, of humankind, of social institutions, of technologies, of political systems.
The questions they asked were:
What was the nature and origin of the “stuff” from which the cosmos came about?
What were the forces (e.g. floating and sinking, separation of matter by winnowing), and the origins of those forces, that acted on that “stuff” to cause it to behave the way it did?
How did those forces cause the cosmos to come into existence?
The thinkers were not called “scientists”. Aristotle called them “students of nature” or “writers on nature” (see the Loeb edition of Aristotle’s Physics). Later authors called them “philosophers” and that’s the common label attached to them today. RG addresses the problematic state of the evidence for our knowledge of what these natural philosophers theorized but we do have some general ideas, however provisional, and he provides an interesting set of entries for them to enable us to get some idea of the intellectual context RG is arguing for Genesis 1. (The links are my own, of course, and not RG’s) Continue reading “Genesis = Science + Myth + Theology — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus – 3a]”
The creation account in Genesis 1 is unlike other creation myths from the ancient world.
There are little hints in the chapter that the author was aware of more dramatic myths of gods fighting monsters and in the process creating the cosmos, but unlike those myths Genesis 1:1-2:3 appears to be . . .
. . . a radical purification and distillation of all mythical and speculative elements, an amazing theological accomplishment!
This account of creation is unique in this respect among the cosmogonies of other religions. . . . But the atmosphere of Gen., ch. 1, is not primarily one of reverence, awe, or gratitude, but one of theological reflection. . . . But just this renunciation also mediates aesthetically the impression of restrained power and lapidary greatness. (Rad 1972, 64)
In an earlier edition of his commentary Gerhard von Rad skirted along the sides of Russell Gmirkin’s thesis:
Some terms: Ionic refers to one of the four Greek tribes: Ionians, Dorians, Achaeans, Aeolians Natural philosophy: theories about the natural world, nature Cosmogony: theories on the origin of the universe Theogony: Account of the origin of the gods Theomachy: Account of war among gods
One can speak . . . only in a very limited sense of a dependence of this account of creation on extra-Israelite myths. Doubtless there are some terms which obviously were common to ancient Oriental, cosmological thought; but even they are so theologically filtered . . . that scarcely more than the word itself is left in common. Considering [the author’s] superior spiritual maturity, we may be certain that terms which did not correspond to his ideas of faith could be effortlessly avoided or recoined. What does the term “tehōm” (the “deep”) in v. 2, the word for the unformed abysmal element of creation, still have in common with the mythically objective world dragon, Tiamat, in the Babylonian creation epic? Genesis, ch. 1, does not know the struggle of two personified cosmic primordial principles; not even a trace of one hostile to God can be detected! The tehōm has no power of its own; one cannot speak of it at all as though it existed for itself alone, but it exists for faith only with reference to God’s creative will, which is superior to it. In our chapter this careful distillation of everything mythological (but only this) reminds one of the sober reflections of the Ionic natural philosophers. (Rad 1961, 63)
But Rad was writing from the conventional perspective that what we read in Genesis was the product of centuries of thought, writing and re-writing. Rad seemed to think that his 1961 reference to the Ionic natural philosophers was even a potential distraction so he dropped it in the revised edition. For Gmirkin [RG] the Ionic philosophers were indeed the key to understanding why the creation account of Genesis is, as Rad observed, “unique”. But that possibility, as we noted in the previous post, has not entered into the discussion as a possibility until now.
Before addressing those “sober reflections of the Ionic natural philosophers” RG explores the different types of cosmogonies that the people of Israel surely knew about from their neighbours. His text is packed with details and references. It is not a quick, light, read. Ideas set out in one place reappear in support of a more comprehensive view later in the chapter. Fortunately, I am the kind of reader who appreciates more detail rather than less and recontextualized repetitions rather than dangerous shortcuts. To address the key ideas here, though, I need to stand back and rethink and distil all that I have read. (That’s part of my excuse for not posting sooner. Another reason is that I have been sidetracked with other books that have newly arrived on loan and in the post.)
RG begins his survey of ancient creation myths with theogonies. The famous Greek one is Hesiod’s Theogony. The first god was Chaos and from Chaos was “born” Gaia or Earth, and so forth. You can see how it goes from a diagram I have borrowed from Karen Sonik‘s publication:
RG discusses the comparable anthropomorphisms of Babylonian and Canaanite gods. Those cultures have left us no comparable theogonies, however. Of particular interest, of course, is that for the Greeks it all began with Chaos: we are aware of a similar origin in the opening words of Genesis.
A better-known class of myths are the theomachies. The Titan Kronos (the Roman Saturn) castrates Ouranos and inaugurates a new (golden) age in which humankind was created; later Zeus led his supporters in a war against Kronos and the other Titans; each successive event introducing a new era. But these Greek “wars of the gods” were not related to the creation of the cosmos. For that we turn to the Babylonian story of Marduk killing the sea monster Tiamat, cutting her body apart and using it to form the sky and earth – and from her blood creating the first humans who also incorporated some divine element from the slain god. Tiamat reminds us of the Hebrew word for deep as we saw in Rad’s quotation above. RG also draws our attention to further instances of overlaps with Genesis – Marduk being interpreted as light and wind which he used as weapons against Tiamat.
All of the above is far from the kind of creation narrative we read in Genesis 1.