Category Archives: 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?

Midrash: A Message from God, though not historically true

Let us now turn to a famous story found in the Babylonian Talmud, b. Taanit 5b. While sitting together at a meal Rav Nahman asked Rabbi Yitzhaq to expound on some subject. After some preliminary diversions, Rabbi Yitzhaq said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan, “Our father Jacob never died.”

Rav Nahman was taken aback by this claim and said,  “But he was embalmed and buried.” How is possible to do such things to someone who has not died?

Rabbi Yitzhaq responds and says, . . . . “I am engaged in Bible elucidation,” and he then cites Jer 30:10, “Therefore fear not, my servant Jacob, says the LORD; be not dismayed, Israel, for I will save you from afar and your seed from the land of their captivity.” He continues, “Israel is compared to his seed; just as his seed is alive so too is he alive.”

At first sight, it appears that the midrashic statement denying Jacob’s death is being derived from Jer 30:10. However, if we look closer at the passage, we will find a fascinating distinction between the biblical deathbed scenes of Abraham (Gen 25:8) and Isaac (35:29), on the one hand, and that of Jacob (49:33), on the other. In the former scenes, two verbs, . . . “expired,” and . . . “died,” and one phrase, . . . “was gathered to his people,” are used to describe their deaths. Regarding Jacob, however, only two verbs appear: expiring and being gathered to his people. For the midrashist, the absence of any verb from the root . . . “to die”, in the description of Jacob’s death cannot be by chance, but must be understood as communicating to us the Bible’s message that Jacob did not die.

According to the story, Rabbi Yitzhak’s statement to Rav Nahman was made in a completely neutral context — that is, outside of any context whatsoever. Consequently, Rav Nahman understood this claim as being functionally parallel to a claim such as “Elijah did not die.” The characteristic position of rabbinic Judaism is, of course, that Elijah never died but is still alive; indeed, according to the rabbis, he is the heavenly recorder of human deeds. Rav Nahman therefore asked Rabbi Yitzhak: But Jacob was embalmed and buried, so how can you claim he did not die. Rabbi Yitzhak’s response, . . . . “I am engaged in Bible elucidation,” and the citation of Jer 30:10, is not given to tell us the source of his previous statement, for as we have just seen, its source is the absence of any mention of death in Jacob’s deathbed scene. What he is doing is saying the following:

“You have misunderstood me; my statement that Jacob did not die is not to be understood as a literal-historical depiction of historical facts, but as midrash.”

Midrash comes to tell us a story placed in the biblical text by God, having no necessary relationship to the actual historical events, but whose purpose is to give us a message from God. That message is being explained to Rav Nahman by Rabbi Yitzhaq’s citation of Jeremiah. God’s exclusion of any mention of Jacob’s death is a promise found midrashically in Genesis and explicitly in Jeremiah: for Rabbi Yitzhaq, Jacob’s nondeath is a promise that his seed shall exist forever.

This midrash and its surrounding narrative are important because they give what we desperately need in reading midrash: a cultural and theoretical context. The original misunderstanding by Rav Nahman and the final exposition by Rabbi Yitzhak show, as clearly as possible, that midrashic narrative is explicitly demarcated from the historical-literal reconstruction of past events. Midrash is the rabbis’ reconstruction of God’s word to the Jewish people and not the rabbis’ reconstruction of what happened in the biblical past.

(Milikowsky, pp. 124 f.)

The Bible’s stories are never questioned. They are always bed-rock “true history”.

But the rabbis added stories to those Bible events that are clearly not factual, but nonetheless meaningful and explantory.

Why should the rabbis develop a mode of discourse that tells the truth by means of fictional events, when the only literature they have in front of them is the Bible, which tells the truth by means of true historical events?

For the answer to that question Milikowsky finds a significant discussion on the importance of “good fiction” in Plato’s Republic. At this point, return to the previous post: Why the rabbis . . .

Now what we see in the Gospel of Mark at one level looks like midrashic narrative. For example, we have quotations from Malachi mixed with quotations from Isaiah and Exodus. In the opening scene we have re-enactments of a “man of god” spending time in the wilderness and returning to call out a certain people and performing miracles. It is all familiar to anyone familiar with the Old Testament narratives.

So what is going on here? The question inevitably arises: Does the author of the earliest gospel expect hearers to believe the story as genuine history or as a “message from God” which the Bible texts assert to be “valid” or “true” without necessarily being “historically true”? If the latter, it is surely easy to see why it would be understood and accepted as true on both levels: as a message from God and as genuine history.


Milikowsky, Chaim. 2005. “Midrash as Fiction and Midrash as History: What Did the Rabbis Mean?” In Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian And Jewish Narrative, edited by et al Jo-Ann A. Brant, Charles W. Hedrick, and Chris Shea, 117–27. Symposium Series 32. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.


Greek Myths and Genesis

Stephen Fry comments on the similarity between a couple of Greek myths and stories in Genesis in his recently published retellings: Mythos and Heroes. I am reminded of posts I completed some years back discussing Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert.

One story was about the requirement of a god for a king (so he believed) to sacrifice his son. The son willingly accepted his fate and laid himself out to be sacrificed but as the priest was about to bring the knife down a voice called out to stop the proceedings and a golden fleeced ram swept down from the heavens to carry him away. The poor ram was itself then sacrificed to Zeus. I posted the details of this story here and here back in 2011.

So I found it interesting to read Stephen Fry’s comment on his own account of the myth:

In the Book of Genesis, you may remember, the patriarch Abraham was tested by God and told to sacrifice his son Isaac. Just as Abraham’s knife was descending God showed him a ram caught in a nearby thicket and told him to kill the animal in place of his son. One version of the story of Iphigenia and Agamemnon, which helped set in motion both the Trojan War and its tragic aftermath, is another example of this mytheme – but it is not yet time to hear that particular tale.

(Heroes, p. 189)

Another myth spoke of an elderly couple welcoming two strangers into their humble home. The strangers had met with inhospitality from others so they showed special kindness to this welcoming couple. It began to dawn on the hosts that there was something rather special about their two guests, and in fact they were gods in disguise. The climax of the story came when the divine guests ordered the couple to flee to the mountains so they could escape the destruction they were about to bring upon the rest of the village. Above all, they were ordered not to look back. The gods then proceeded to destroy the ungrateful town by a flash flood. Unfortunately the couple they enabled to escape did look back and so were turned into trees.

This theoxenia, this divine testing of human hospitality, is notably similar to that told in the nineteenth chapter of Genesis. Angels visit Sodom and Gomorrah and only Lot and his wife show them decency and kindness. The debauched citizens of Sodom of course, rather than setting the dogs on the angels wanted to ‘know them’ – in as literally biblical a sense as could be, giving us the word ‘sodomy’. Lot and his wife, like Philemon and Baucis, were told to make their getaway and not look back while divine retribution was visited on the Cities of the Plain. Lot’s wife did look back and she was turned, not into a linden, but into a pillar of salt.

(Mythos, p. 380)

What is interesting is that some sort of association between the Greek myths and Genesis stories is clear enough for anyone to see. Yet I suppose we will still find naysayers insisting that there can be no link because the “differences are greater than the similarities”.


Fry, Stephen. 2017. Mythos. London, England: Penguin.
———. 2018. Heroes. London, England: Penguin.


 

The Age of the Hebrew Bible — the other view

I have posted many times on the works of scholars who have argued that none or very little of the Hebrew Bible can be dated before the Persian or Hellenistic periods: Thompson, Lemche, Davies, Whitelam, Gmirkin, Wajdenbaum, Wisselius, Mandell & Freedman(?) and possibly others whom memory fails at this moment. So what does the “other side” have to say about it all? Two scholars, Ronald Hendel and Jan Joosten, introduce their opposing arguments on Bible and Interpretation:

Their book is How Old Is the Hebrew Bible? A Linguistic, Textual, and Historical Study. They state

Many scholars largely disregarding linguistic data insist that most or all of the Hebrew Bible was written in the second half of the first millennium BCE, during the Persian and/or Hellenistic periods, and draw the inference that there is little or no historical content that predates this era. The history of ancient Israel from roughly 1200 to 500 BCE, they say, has little or nothing to do with the biblical accounts. The conflicts among the different scholarly positions – often caricatured as minimalists, maximalists, and meliorists – have become familiar features of the scholarly landscape.

Our book brings together different bodies of evidence to show that the age of the Hebrew Bible can be ascertained to a reasonable degree by integrating the fields of historical linguistics, textual criticism, and cultural history. 

A first thought that comes to mind is the problem of circularity. But I don’t know the relevant languages and have not seen the details of their case. Perhaps others with more knowledge can weigh in with a comment or two.

(What and who are the meliorists?)

When is a parallel a real parallel and not parallelomania?

The question of parallels has been raised in different posts and comments lately on Vridar.

Firstly, I questioned Joseph Atwill’s claim that there was a parallel between Jesus calling disciples to become “fishers of men” beside the “sea of Galilee” and a scene in Josephus’ War where Romans kill drowning Judeans in a battle that had spread to a the lake of Galilee. I also took exception to his parallel between the act of cannibalism that Josephus narrates in the same work and the gospel accounts of the Passover.

Soon afterwards, I posted about parallels between the Hebrews Bible and certain Hellenistic myths and other literature in relation to the works of Russell Gmirkin and Philippe Wajdenbaum. Further, I posted something by a classicist, Bruce Louden comparing a scenario in the Odyssey with the biblical story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, to which I added further details between Greek myths and the Lot story identified by Wajdenbaum.

So am I being inconsistent in being critical of one of Atwill’s parallels but posting without critical commentary some of the work by Gmirkin, Wajdenbaum  and Louden?

One reader, Austendw, has posted a frequent criticism when this topic surfaces, and no doubt he speaks for many others. I copy just part of his comment:

And as for Saul in Mizpah, you relate Saul in hiding among the baggage, to Rachel hiding the teraphim in the saddlebag. The Hebrew says merely that Rachel “put” them in the saddle-bag; a nit-picking difference perhaps, but bearing it in mind reveals that, apart from the common place-name Mizpah, (a different Mizpah of course – it’s an extremely common place name in the OT), there isn’t a single verbal correlation between the two passages. Therefore your comment that Saul turns up like “Laban’s long-lost idol” (singular, though Laban’s teraphim were plural), strikes me as nothing other than your own imaginative eisegesis; you have imposed a meaning on the text and thereby constructed a parallel between the two stories that simply isn’t found in either of the texts themselves.

The details are indeed very different. But what is it, then, that makes it a “genuine” parallel in the minds of some others? Are we stretching different images almost to breaking point to make them seem somehow, even bizarrely, like one another? Is it reasonable to compare a person hiding in baggage and another person putting an incriminating object in a saddlebag?

Ideal Type compared with specific details

In order to try to understand what is going on here, to help us understand if we are manufacturing artificial parallels or discovering “real” ones, here is something written by Robert Price in The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems. Price is addressing a concept developed by the sociologist Max Weber, the Ideal Type. (Ideal relates to the world of ideas, not perfect ideals.) read more »

Two Mini-Apocalypses, Greek and Biblical & A Common Mythic Grammar

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before….

There was once a very pious man who lived in a city that had been taken over by very wicked people.

Messengers from the deity came to visit that pious man and were very impressed with his hospitality toward them even though he did not know they were divine persons on a divine mission. These messengers also witnessed the wickedness of those around him.

So the divine agents stepped in to help that pious man in his troubles with the wicked ones

First, they (the messengers) warned the pious man that the deity was going to destroy all those wicked folk.

Meanwhile the wicked people not only ignored the warning that they also heard but continued in their wickedness, including forbidden sexual behaviour.

The pious man was so pious that he even tried to warn the wicked doers that they were about to be destroyed but they ignored him.

Finally, all the wicked perish.

Further destruction awaits those who ignore a specific divine interdiction.

I dare say most readers would have recognized the story of Lot, his daughters and wife, and the people of Sodom.

Ancient persons more familiar with Homeric epics would have recognized the story of Odysseus’s homecoming.

I should emphasize that I am not arguing for influence between the Odyssey and the biblical account, nor a common source. Rather, I suggest that as both accounts share a considerable number of motifs, a similar “grammar” underlies each myth.

(Louden, 96)

In Genesis 19 we read how Lot welcomed two strangers not realizing they were in fact angels. As we know, like Abraham before him he passed the hospitality test. Odysseus was similarly tested by a divinity in disguise:

Athene now appeared upon the scene. She had disguised herself as a young shepherd, with all the delicate beauty that marks the sons of kings. A handsome cloak was folded back across her shoulders, her feet shone white between the sandal-straps, and she carried a javelin in her hand. She was a welcome sight to Odysseus, who came forward at once and accosted her eagerly. ‘Good-day to you, sir,’ he said. ‘Since you are the first person I have met in this place, I hope to find no enemy in you, but the saviour of my treasures here and of my very life; and so I pray to you as I should to a god and kneel at your feet. (Odyssey, Book 13 Rieu translation)

The goddess Athene repeatedly helps and advises Odysseus in order for him to be able to reclaim his household from the evil suitors who have taken over everything of his. The suitors were all earnestly hoping to have Odysseus wife Penelope, but in the meantime they slept with Odysseus’s maidservants, wasting his resources, and acting violently towards strangers and guests, so that their “insolence and violent acts cry out to heaven.”

The evil suitors merely laughed at the warnings of their imminent doom. read more »

Another look at the Documentary Hypothesis. An alternative proposal.

Were the first books of the “Old Testament” composed by “redactors” piecing together stories from different sources (that has long been the predominant view) or is it possible that they were composed by a single author or “school of authors”? The former is the documentary hypothesis. For a background on the documentary hypothesis refer to the post Who wrote the Bible? Rise of the Documentary Hypothesis. The topic has resurfaced with some recent posts (Plato and the Bible; Genesis to Kings, Authorship) that question the validity of the DH, proposing a “unitary authorship” of the Pentateuch and more. I am intrigued by the new alternative but have not yet sold my soul to it. I am not always overly enthusiastic about some of the arguments for a single authorship. So consider these posts as exploratory and informative. (But that’s what most of my posts are here, anyway.

Here I cite but one scholar’s criticism of the DH and proposal for the Flood Story in Genesis being composed from scratch as a single narrative. That is, the narrative is not a patched quilt of priestly and Yahwist sources after all. Here is Thomas Brodie’s take on the story (quoted words are in dark azure; the rest is my summary and comment.)

The deluge account contains much repetition and variation, and so some researchers have suggested that it is composed from two sources — J and P . . . .

(Brodie, 181)

Some of the examples of the repetition and variation:

  • Sometimes Yhwh, other times Elohim, are used for God. The sections with Yhwh have been attributed to the J source, Elohim sections to the P source.
  • At one time we read that two of each kind of animal was brought into the ark; later we read there were seven pairs of clean animals but only two of each unclean. The former has been attributed to the P source; the latter to J.
  • We first learn of forty days and nights of rain; later of the flood cresting after 150 days. J, then P.
  • The command for Noah to enter the ark is duplicated: 6:18–20 (P) and 7:1–3 (J).
  • Twice we read of Noah and his family entering the ark: 7:7 (J) and 7:13 (P).
  • Twice we read of God’s promise to never again destroy the earth: 8:21 (J) and 9:11 (P)

Brodie’s faults the documentary hypothesis as being based on contradictory arguments:

The final product is not an unimaginative collection of material drawn from distinct sources, but an artful unified composition arranged chiastically around the central affirmation in 8:1 that “God remembered Noah.”

This explanation, however, contains radical problems, problems that are both general and specific.

In general: the explanation is not coherent. It implies two opposite procedures — mechanical juxtapositioning (regardless of overlap or divergence) and artistic unifying. One procedure is slavish, the other imaginative. Behind these procedures are two opposite attitudes — scrupulosity and freedom. The contradiction in the explanation is far deeper than the contradictions in the text.

More specifically, the theory is not supported by the details. There are several problems (see esp. Ska, 1994; 1996, 259–260):

1. The purported J story is seriously incomplete. It contains no account of making the ark or leaving it. Such lack of completeness is not explained by a desire to avoid repetition. The author had no problem with repetition as such; some minor details occur twice.

2. The so-called “double” entry to the ark (7:7–9, 13–16) does not require two sources. The doubled text is part of a single coherent repetitive style — similar to the repetitiveness of Genesis 17 (17:23–27). Essentially the same is true of other so-called doublets: they are part of a coherent repetitive style. Repetition is a basic feature of narrative, especially of biblical narrative (Alter, 1981, 88–113). Repetition results from various techniques (Niccacci, 1994). The issue then is not whether there is repetition but whether it is possible to discern the repetition’s variation or purpose. The two commands about entering the ark (6:18–20; 7:1–3), for instance, have several variations of context and content, but they are sufficiently similar to build something important: the sense — amid a collapsing world — of momentum and continuity. Nor do the two diverse types of bird (the raven and the dove, 8:6–12) mean two sources. In Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Noah-like Utnapishtim sends out three diverse birds—a dove, a swallow, and a raven (Brichto, 1998, 114) — but that does not mean three sources.

3. The language of some purported J material, especially as regards order and sacrifice, would normally be reckoned as late or priestly.

For these and other reasons, scholars such as Blenkinsopp (1992, 77–78) and Ska (1996, 259) have moved to the idea of a single (priestly) account, which was later retouched. In other words, rather than dividing the text fairly evenly in two, they attribute most of it to a single author and reserve just a small percentage to an editor.

So some scholars are finding the different pieces fit better as if the story was composed as a single unit from the start. Brodie lists other indicators of what he believes is a unitary narrative: read more »

Genesis to Kings, the work of a single authorship?

I am copying here a comment that Philippe Wajdenbaum made in relation to another post. (I have reformatted the original.)

Many thanks for this post, and for the quality of your blog. Russell Gmirkin’s “Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible” is a most important book that will elicit a paradigm shift in biblical studies, as seen in its current positive reception.

Here are some of my arguments for Genesis-Kings’ unity:

In “Argonauts of the Desert”, as well as in several articles, I have proposed that Genesis-Kings (also called the Primary History) is the work of a single author, or at least the same team of scholars, who took inspiration from Greek classical texts such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. See also:

The demonstration of Genesis-Kings’ literary unity relies first on its consistency as a continuous narrative, as shown by Spinoza (“Theological and Political Treatise”, chapter 8), and second on the distribution of its Greek-borrowed material, shown by Wesselius regarding the use of Herodotus. Whereas both placed this redaction during the Persian period, Russell Gmirkin has convincingly shown in “Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus” (2006), that the Hellenistic era offers the most plausible period for Judean and Samaritan scholars to have had access to and emulated Greek sources, most probably in the Library of Alexandria.

In my article “From Plato to Moses: Genesis-Kings as a Platonic Epic” (in “Biblical Interpretation Beyond Historicity: Changing Perspectives 7”, edited by I. Hjelm and Thomas L. Thompson, 2016, also available on the Bible and Interpretation website), I have pointed out that

  • the Pentateuch seems to borrow significantly from the Odyssey (the wanderings of the Patriarchs and Israel, Joseph’s story as a rewrite of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca),
  • whereas Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings seem to borrow predominantly from the Iliad (the many battle scenes, especially in 1-2 Samuel).

Yet, there are motifs from the Iliad in the Pentateuch and from the Odyssey in Joshua-Kings. This distribution of Homeric motifs interestingly corresponds to how Virgil modelled the first six books of the Aeneid on the Odyssey, and the six next books on the Iliad. In my opinion, this logic in the distribution of themes can be observed regarding most of the Greek sources used by the author of Genesis-Kings (such as the Greek mythical cycles of the Argonauts, Heracles, Thebes and the Trojan War), and tends to show its literary unity.

Regarding the use of Plato, I have tried to show that a “Platonic framework” encompasses Genesis-Kings. Genesis uses several myths from Plato about

  • the creation of the world (Timaeus / Gen. 1),
  • the split of a primordial androgynous human (Symposium / Gen. 2)
  • and the Golden Age (Statesman / Gen. 3; combined with Hesiod’s story of Prometheus and Pandora).

The Exodus narrative,

the liberation of slaves by a reluctant leader who had been freed beforehand, seems an adaptation of Plato’s famous Cave Allegory in Republic 7 (combined with the story of Battus, the founder of Cyrene).

After receiving some of their divine laws, some of which are borrowed from Plato’s Laws, Moses and the Israelites perform a ritual for accepting these laws (Exod. 24) that seems borrowed from a similar ceremony in Plato’s Critias.

The confection of the Tabernacle’s furniture by a craftsman based on a divine model echoes Plato’s theory of imitation of divine types in Republic 10.

The book of Joshua narrates the foundation of the Ideal twelve-tribe state, with the division of the land by lot into twelve tribes and its subdivision into paternal plots of land, according to the model found in Numbers, which is itself based on Plato’s Laws.

Judges, Samuel and Kings depict the gradual downfall of this state, due to the increasing faults of Israel and Judah’s kings. This demise of a state that should have been ideal and eternal seems borrowed from Plato’s tale of Atlantis in Critias. Solomon’s riches and grandiose temple in Kings resemble that of Atlantis, and God’s decision to destroy Israel and Judah at the hands of its enemies echoes the fate of Atlantis, punished by Zeus because its kings neglected the divine laws with the passing of generations.

The final catastrophe of Jerusalem’s destruction by the Babylonians and the beginning of the Exile is reflected in Genesis’ narrative of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden for disobeying the divine commandment, which seems the trace of a ring composition.

Best regards,
Philippe Wajdenbaum

Correction to my latest post on Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible

I have made a correction to a serious error in my recent post How Plato Inspired Moses: Creation of the Hebrew Bible. In that post I took credit for identifying many parallels between the Hebrew Bible and Plato’s Laws prior to reading Russell Gmirkin’s book. I should have acknowledged — and I have now made the correction — that my interest in Plato’s Laws was sparked by Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analsysis of the Hebrew Bible.

The Bible’s roots in Greek mythology and classical authors: Isaac and Phrixus (2011-03-11)

Greek Myths Related to Tales of Abraham, Isaac, Moses and the Promised Land (2011-03-16)

Anthropologist spotlights the Bible and Biblical Studies (2011-12-19)

Anthropologist’s analysis of the Bible and of Biblical Studies as a variant of the Bible’s myth (2011-12-20)

Argonauts of the Desert: a defence of an anthropologist’s interpretation of the Bible (2011-12-23)

Bible Origins — continuing Wajdenbaum’s thesis in Argonauts of the Desert (2011-12-24)

Who wrote the Bible? Rise of the Documentary Hypothesis (2011-12-25)

Who wrote the Bible? (2) Challenging the Documentary Hypothesis (2012-01-08)

Bible: composed as a reaction against Greek domination? (2012-01-09)

Did a Single Author Write Genesis – II Kings? (Demise of the Documentary Hypothesis?) (2012-10-18)

Collapse of the Documentary Hypothesis (1) & Comparing the Bible with Classical Greek Literature (2012-11-06)

Biblical Scholars, Symbolic Violence, and the Modern Version of an Ancient Myth (2012-11-26)

New Understandings of the Old Testament: Jacques Cazeaux (2012-12-02)

Castration of Ouranos and the Drunkenness of Noah (2014-04-29)

There are overlaps between Gmirkin’s and Wajdenbaum’s theses, but there are also a number of incompatibilities. I think Wajdenbaum’s view that a single author was responsible for the Primary History of Israel (Genesis to 2 Kings) faces a number of daunting hurdles. But both authors do raise serious questions and give us much to think about.

 

How Plato Inspired Moses: Creation of the Hebrew Bible

Plato’s Laws provides the only example in antiquity of an ethical or national literature comparable to the Hebrew Bible. . . .

. . . . One may therefore reasonably propose that the biblical authors not only found in Plato’s Laws a blueprint for the creation of a persuasive legal code, but a mandate and program for the creation of an authoritative national literature intended to supplement and bolster the laws of the Torah. (Gmirkin, 264)

After having demonstrated the many details, themes and values that the books of the Hebrew Bible share with Greek literature, practices and ideas, Russell Gmirkin concludes with a chapter examining how closely the biblical canon appears to match Plato’s recommendations for a national curriculum. There are certainly Canaanite and Mesopotamian fingerprints in the “Old Testament” but these Scriptures are unlike anything else produced in the ancient Near East. The Hellenistic heritage explains that difference.

The ancient Judean and then Christian authors used to say that Plato got his best ideas from Moses. Gmirkin’s thesis is that the evidence points to the borrowing being in the other direction, that the Judean authors of the Bible found their inspiration in Plato.

I doubt that any Westerner can read Plato’s Laws and not at some point think of a comparison with the Bible. I certainly could not avoid the comparisons: the box insert lists the posts I made prior to reading Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible [PCHB]. So you can see why I have posted so much on PCHB. I think my own interest in Plato’s Laws was sparked by Philippe Wajdenbaum and his book Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. I must add a list of posts related to Wajdenbaum’s work, too.

The Bible does not read like a dry or rigid legal code. It is too full of stories for that, and the laws are presented with dramatic flair. That’s Plato, not Hammurabi. Plato believed that laws for a new state should be written in a way that encouraged a loving willingness to obey them. Stories honouring ancient ancestors, legislation presented in persuasive language, pure songs and poetry,  all should function to inspire citizens to live with pure and righteous thoughts and behaviour.

Rule by God and God’s Laws

Russell Gmirkin cites Glenn Morrow’s discernment that Plato was in fact setting out a government ruled by “God”, a “divine government”. To quote from Morrow’s article:

Our state is to be called, not a monarchy, nor a democracy, but by some term indicative of that power which is supreme in it, viz., Nous (713a). This Nous is what is truly divine in the cosmos; it is Plato’s God. This divine Nous furnishes the standards for all legislation, and the laws are sovereign only because they have this reason in them. Plato no longer suggests—in fact he explicitly rejects—the conception of personal absolutism. All officials are themselves subject to the law . . . .

(Morrow, 244)

The Bible’s god is not quite Plato’s, though. Plato’s embodiment of Reason was fine for a philosophical discussion among society’s elites. The Bible’s supreme deity does nonetheless meet the fundamental requirements of Plato’s divinity but is more suited for all classes. More on that point later.

Laws had an ancient and divine origin

Gmirkin rightly emphasizes the importance to Plato that the new laws should not appear to be innovations. On the contrary, myths had to be composed to give the laws an air of great antiquity and divine origin. The peoples’ ancestors, it must be taught, had always kept these laws. PCHB quotes one of several key passages from Laws:

If there exist laws under which men have been reared up and which (by the blessing of Heaven) have remained unaltered for many centuries, so that there exists no recollection or report of their ever having been different from what they now are, then the whole soul is forbidden by reverence and fear to alter any of the things established of old. By hook or by crook, then, the lawgiver must devise a means whereby this shall be true of his State. (Plato, Laws 7.798a-b)

(Gmirkin, 254)

Plato was imagining a brand new colony being established with a perfect start. The citizens were to be new arrivals into the territory and to be taught that they were the descendants of the original inhabitants divinely commissioned to restore the ancient city or “nation”. The new settlement was to be divided into twelve nominal tribes.

Laws to be presented through a charter myth

A third goal was to create a charter myth for those divine laws in the dramatic narrative form of a foundation story that forged a powerful sense of national identity in those who adopted this literary narrative as their own historical past as descendants of the ancient children of Israel. The refounding of the Jewish nation in the early Hellenistic Era, with new civic and religious institutions and a new constitution and laws, was thus successfully portrayed as a new edition of the ancient writings of Moses, the divine legislator, educator and founder of the ancient Jewish nation, in line with the Platonic legislative agenda.

(Gmirkin, 262)

read more »

Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible – Post #32

Here are all the posts I have completed so far on Russell Gmirkin’s book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. You can also read an extended abstract or chapter by chapter outline by Gmirkin himself on his academia.edu page.

As you can see I have not yet begun to post anything on the final chapter of the book. And what’s worse, I can see from post #18 that I am still stuck at the same place I was over a year ago! Blame my long time love of ancient history for this situation. So when I came to the chapter covering foundation stories I found myself revisiting a raft of Greek foundation myths, their sources, and literary and thematic structures, and doing too many posts on that one point. I’ve often found myself also chasing up new data relating to historical methods that I have been discussing on Vridar quite often, and also learning about historical controversies and how the debates are conducted among classicists and ancient historians (with half a mind comparing the way such disagreements are handled in certain quarters of biblical studies). Further, I’ve spent some time following up studies not just on concrete points of similarity (e.g. a hero leaves a high culture; hero experiences a divine command; etc.), but on literary structures of the narratives themselves. I’d like to write more about those.

But no, Russell’s book also shares some of the blame. Many pages are crammed with the bare equivalent of “dot points” with referrals to end-notes (several pages away) to find follow up examples and further elaboration. For example, look at this last paragraph on page 226 (with my bolding, of course):

The foundation story proper typically included an explanation of the circumstances
leading up to the launching of an expedition of colonization to a new land.
According to the typical sequence of events, negative circumstances at home, such
as overpopulation,37 famine,38 plague,39 natural disaster,40 economic subjection,41
stasis,42 exile,43 defeat at war,44 or escape from impending conquest45 and enslavement46
prompted a decision to found a new colony. In the Jewish foundation story
by Hecataeus of Abdera in ca. 315 b c e , overpopulation was the reason why the
Egyptians sent colonists to settle Babylon, Argos, Colchis and Judea (Diodorus
Siculus, Library 1.28.1-3 [colonization accounts]; 29.5 [reason for colonies]).
In Manetho’s story of ca. 285 b c e , Jerusalem and Judea were first settled by the
Hyksos, foreign kings who had enslaved Egypt, who were eventually expelled
by the Egyptians because of a plague caused by their impious foreign practices
(Josephus, Apion 1.75-91, 228-51; cf. Gmirkin 2006: 170-213). In the biblical
Exodus story of ca. 270 b c e , Manetho’s story was turned on its head: plagues fell
on the impious Egyptians for enslaving the children of Israel and to convince Pharaoh
to release them so they could worship Yahweh in the wilderness (cf. Gmirkin
2006: 187-91, 212-13). The Exodus as an escape from slavery was in keeping
with Hellenistic foundation story motifs and was a central recurring theme in
biblical accounts. Egyptian enslavement of its populace and the use of slave labor
for the creation of Egyptian monuments such as the pyramids were also proverbial
(Herodotus, Histories 2.124; Aristotle, Politics 5.1313b). The miraculous deliverance
of the children of Israel was a narrative element unique to the biblical . . . .

That is not a quick read for anyone who wants to know the detail, the examples, in order to know how well the argument really works when examined more closely. I would much rather the end-notes had been printed on the same page as the main text. Yes, that would sometimes mean only a few lines of main text on a page where many follow up references and discussions had to be added, but for me that would have made a much easier read. I’m also greedy enough to want more than line references in the sources that I have to go away to look up. Adding quotations would add to the length of the book, of course, but it would have made it much easier to feel one has the complete picture, not just direction signage to lead one to locate the pieces of the picture for oneself.

But I can’t complain about the book lacking detail or the means to follow up the many topics addressed.

I have these past few weeks been following up additional reading (from the end-notes — and then more readings as I follow up the second and third order citations), piecing together the various sources for other foundation myths I have not covered on Vridar yet. But enough is enough. I will post more on those myths and their structural similarities to many of the Biblical stories at another time. Next post must begin with a look at the final chapter.

Did I say enough is enough on the foundation stories?

But what about the differences, the unique features in the Bible stories?

Allow me one more particularly interesting point Gmirkin offers with respect to the unique features of the Bible’s foundation stories (pp. 230-31). Fortunately for you readers this passage only has one end-note to follow up and I have copied it right next to the main paragraph so you don’t have to turn pages or click links to find it! 🙂

91 The tradition history approach of Rolf Rendtorff and the European school hypothesized the independent formation of the various units composing the narratives of Genesis- Joshua, which were thought to have been unified only at the last stage of redaction; cf. Rendtorff 1990. But these narrative units (aside from the primordial history in Genesis 1-11) may now be seen as essential story elements within a typical foundation story: the ancestral land promises, the departure or exodus, the wanderings, the receiving of the law, the conquest and settlement of the land. The individual units are best understood as having been composed with overall narrative scheme in mind. The explanation of these units as expected components of a foundation story appears to weigh decisively against the redaction critical model.

As can be seen from the earlier comparisons, the biblical narratives about the patriarchal promises and the later Exodus, Sojourn and Conquest form a connected unity that closely conforms to the Greek literary genre of ktisis or foundation story.91 As with many foundation stories, the biblical account has its own distinctive features. Although some Greek colonizing expeditions began as an escape from slavery, and although some Greek lawgivers claimed divine inspiration, both the biblical Exodus and the giving of the law at Sinai were accompanied by divine signs and wonders not typical of Greek accounts. The authors of Deuteronomy appear to have been keenly aware of these innovations in Israel’s foundation story. Deut. 4.32-34 claimed that one could make inquiries and not find another nation to the ends of the earth and the dawn of time that had heard the voice of God speaking directly out of the fire (an allusion to the Sinai theophany of Ex. 19-20, 24) or was taken by signs, wonders and a mighty hand from out of the midst of another nation (cf. Ex. 34.10). This statement displays consciousness of a literary genre dealing with the origins of nations – namely the foundation story, which was known only in the Greek world – and that the Israelite foundation story was unique in Yahweh’s direct role as deliverer and lawgiver.

So here’s a list of posts directly discussing Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible and others (mostly indented) related to the theme of the book. read more »

Two Foundation Stories: Dan by the Danites, Massilia by the Greeks

Fort, Marie-Antide. 2009. “De Foça à Marseille en galère, comme il y a 2 600 ans.” L’Obs avec Rue89, May 22, 2009. https://www.nouvelobs.com/rue89/rue89-paristanbul/20090522.RUE7848/de-foca-a-marseille-en-galere-comme-il-y-a-2-600-ans.html.

A first century Greek named Strabo documented an account he heard or read on the founding of a colony at present day Marseilles, southern France. The founders were from the Greek city-state of Phocaea, present day Foça on the Turkish coast. The date of the founding was around 600 BCE.

Nadav Na’aman

In 2005 Vetus Testamentum published an article by Professor Nadav Na’aman of Tel Aviv University that drew attention to a unique combination of details in both the Greek foundation story of Marseilles and the story in the Book of Judges about the foundation of the city Dan.

You know the story in Judges 17-18 but here are the main points to refresh your memory.

Many of the tribe of Dan were looking for a new place to settle. They selected five men to go out and spy in other places and report back on the best place to migrate to.

Meanwhile in the region of Ephraim a certain Micah established himself with images of gods and made one of his sons a priest. But soon afterwards a Levite looking for a new home came by and Micah promptly offered him remuneration too good to refuse to be his priest. Much better to have a bone fide priest — that is, a Levite.

http://www.israel-a-history-of.com/tribe-of-dan.html

Back to the story of the Danites. The five spies came upon Micah’s house and asked the Levite priest for a sign or message from God about the chances their efforts in finding a new land would be successful. The Levite was able to inform them that God would certainly favour their mission. And he did.

So the five returned to their fellow Danites and began to lead them to their new homeland. On their journey they once again passed Micah’s house. This time they invited themselves in and took the images of his gods. When the Levitical priest challenged them he was intimidated and bribed into joining them and becoming the priest of whole tribe. The Danites travelled the rest of the journey with the gods and the priest.

When Micah also tried to challenge them he was bluntly cowered into accepting the situation and loss of his images and priest.

The story ends happily for the Danites who build their new city, Dan. And the first thing we learn that they did was to set up the images in a proper place and institute a new priesthood.

That’s the story you will recall.

Now the many details are quite different from the old story that Strabo documents. But the similarity in structure and the unique combination of details are noteworthy. You can read Strabo’s narrative in the fourth paragraph here.

Here is the outline.

The Phocaeans made a decision to leave their city in Asia Minor (Turkey). On their journey they received an oracle in a dream advising them to take on their journey a guide from the goddess Artemis of Ephesus.

They weren’t quite sure of the details of how they were to find that guide but they did berth at Ephesus and made inquiries at Artemis’s temple. Among the prominent women devotees at the temple was Aristarcha. The goddess appeared to her in a dream, commanding her to go with the colonists and to take with her a sacred image of the goddess.

The Phocaeans finally settled at Massilia (now known as Marseilles) and built a temple to Artemis there, installed the image they had brought with them from Ephesus, and made Aristarcha their high priestess.

“Unmistakable Similarities”

Nadav Na’aman itemizes four “unmistakable similarities between the two stories”: read more »

Rome’s and Israel’s Ancestor Traditions: How Do We Explain the Similarities?

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Russell Gmikin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible led me to another work, one cited by Gmirkin,

Weinfeld, Moshe. 1993. The Promise of the Land: The Inheritance of the Land of Canaan by the Israelites. Berkeley: University of California Press.

The opening pages describe a typological comparison of the roles of the ancestors of Rome and Israel. I have tried to capture the main outline.

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1. A Man Leaving a Great Civilization and Charged with a Universal Mission

A man escapes the land of a famous civilization and departs with his wife and his father … in order to establish a new nation and a new culture. — Weinfeld (6)
  • Aeneas leaves the famous city of Troy
    • leaves with wife Creusa
      • (who died on the way),
    • father Anchises,
    • and son Ascanius
  • Abraham leaves the famous city of Ur of the Chaldees
    • leaves with wife Sarah,
      • (cf Rachel’s death on the journey)
    • father Terah
  • and stays for a while in Carthage which later becomes Rome’s enemy;
  • and pauses for a time in Aram (Syria) which later becomes Israel’s enemy,
  • Eventually his son Ascanius reaches Lavinium (south of the future Rome), and later reaches Alba Longa, closer still. His descendants reach Rome
  • and reaches Canaan,
  • which is destined to rule the world.
  • the Land of promise and from which his descendants will rule other peoples.

In both cases:

  • an ethnic tradition later developed into an imperial ideology
  • a divine promise to a father of a nation who later becomes a messenger for a world mission

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2. Gap Between Migration of the Ancestor and the Actual Foundation

The lengthy interval between the stories about the first heroes and the real foundation of the oikist existed in both cultures. — Weinfeld (6)
  • Jupiter prophesies to Aeneas that 333 years will pass before the birth of the twins and founding of Rome
  • God promised Abraham that 400 or 430 years would pass before his descendants inherited the land.

In both cases:

  • two founding legends were combined (one of the actual foundation or conquest and another of an earlier tradition)
  • the gap of centuries between the two stories was joined by a long line of descendants, a long Trojan dynasty on the one hand, ten generations between Ephraim and Joshua on the other (1 Chron 7:25-27). Inconsistencies are extant in both accounts of the number of generations.

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3. Promise at Stake

The promise is seen, then, in Israel, as well as in the Roman epic, as something that could not be taken back: a divine commitment not to be violated. — Weinfeld (9)
  • When Aeneas is threatened by the storm at sea his mother goddess Venus prays to Jupiter:

“O you . . . who rule the world of men and gods, what crime  . . . could my Aeneas have done. . . . Surely it was your promise . . . that from them the Romans were to rise . . . rulers to hold the sea and all lands beneath their sway, what thought . . . has turned you?”

  • When Jacob is threatened by Esau’s approaching army, he prays:

“Save me from my brother Esau; else I fear he may come and strike me down . . . yet, you have said . . . I will make your offspring as the sand of the sea”

  • As Aeneas and his men sat at the sacrificial table in honour of Jupiter, Harpies descended and contaminated the food. Aeneas and his men drive them away with their swords. —
    • The event was interpreted by the prophet Calaens as a prediction of famine before the promise is fulfilled.
  • As Abraham is cutting the pieces of the sacrificial animals of the covenant birds of prey descend upon the carcasses. Abraham drives them away. —
    • The event is followed by God declaring that Abraham’s descendants will be enslaved in Egypt before the promise is fulfilled.

In both cases:

  • The deity cannot violate his promise
  • omens presage difficulties before the fulfillment of the promise.

. read more »

The Detering Commentaries: Christian Origins, Joshua, Gnosticism and Buddhism

René Salm has concluded his series of Hermann Detering Commentaries:

Dr. Hermann Detering

“The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus and the Beginning of the Joshua/Jesus Cult” (2018)

Commentary by René Salm

This extensive series of posts explores literary, religious, and historical links between Buddhism and Christian origins.

It argues that Christianity emerged from a gnostic substratum,
and that the figure Jesus of Nazareth and the New Testament gospels
are second century CE developments.

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René Salm quotes Hermann Detering’s overall conclusion:

Beginning with the gnostic interpretation of the Exodus motif and the question of its origin, we have arrived at an element of critical importance: the metaphor of transcendence, expressed figuratively as [reaching] the “other shore”—which plays a central role in Indian/Buddhist spirituality. The question of where the two trajectories intersect—Jewish tradition/Hebrew Bible on the one hand, and Buddhist/Indian spirituality on the other—led us to the Therapeutae, about whom Philo of Alexandria reports in his De Vita Contemplativa.

Once the Buddhist origin of the Therapeutae is seen as plausible, it can be shown that their central mystery consisted of an interpretation of the Exodus, an interpretation based upon Buddhist sources. This interpretation, in turn, was the seed of the Christian sacrament of baptism. Early Christian gnostics, such as the Peratae and the Naassenes, transferred to Moses’ successor Joshua what the Therapeutae (more strongly rooted in Jewish tradition) maintained for Moses. The old cult of Moses would be surpassed by the new, Gnostic-Christian cult of Joshua. The counterpart of Moses became Jesus/Joshua.

Seen in this light, the “historical” Jesus, that is, Jesus of Nazareth, was hypostatized in the second century of our era out of the Old Testament Joshua. The Christian savior Joshua/Jesus is nothing other than the result of Jewish-Buddhist exegesis of the Old Testament.

I have read in translation much of Hermann Detering’s article. I look forward to being able to devote the time and energy that a proper assessment of his argument requires.

Hebrew Bible of Hellenistic Origin – Gmirkin responds to Anthonioz’s review

A letter from the Elephantine Papyri, requesting the rebuilding of a Jewish temple at Elephantine. (Wikipedia)

A week ago we saw Stéphanie Anthonioz‘s review of Russell Gmirkin’s Plato and the Hebrew Bible on The Bible and Interpretation. See Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible – review. Today we can read Russell’s response:

I need to refresh my memory with what I read some time ago about the different arguments for the development of “biblical Judaism”, whether it is best understood as a product of the Persian or Hellenistic eras. Anthonioz referred to recent European scholarship, in particular the work of Eckart Otto, which language and costs unfortunately appear hold beyond my reach. Gmirkin does address some obvious problems with the simple trade model (the unlikelihood that ideas discussed among literate elites would necessarily follow trade contacts) but I’d still like to know more about both sides of the discussion.

Anyway, Russell Gmirkin in his response does remind us of one piece of evidence that deserves not to slip from memory or oversight, and that is certainly a strong support for his own view that the Hebrew Bible was the product of the Hellenistic era, that is after the conquests of Alexander around 300 BCE. The emphasis in the following is my own:

In my view, it is methodologically improper to attempt to gain a picture of Judaism in the monarchic (Iron II), Babylonian or Persian eras on the basis of the Pentateuch, since there is no objective external evidence for Pentateuchal writings in pre-Hellenistic times. Quite the contrary, the Elephantine papyri of ca. 450-400 bce give provide strong contemporary evidence for the character of Judaism as practiced late into the Persian Era. These archives of letters (and ostraca) from the Jewish military colony of Elephantine, an Egyptian southern border fortress located just below the First Cataract of the Nile, attest to a thriving Judaism in Egypt with their own temple but no Aaronic priesthood, a Judaism without scriptures, a Judaism which accommodated polytheism, a Judaism with no knowledge of Abraham, Moses, or any other figure known from the Pentateuch or Hebrew Bible (as shown by the absence of these famous figures from the many Jewish names found in the archives). The Jews of Elephantine celebrated a purely agricultural Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread (TAD A4.1) with no associated traditions regarding Moses or Exodus. They possessed a seven day week, but no sabbath of rest, as shown by one ostraca that enjoined an employee to offload a boat full of vegetables on the sabbath on pain of death (TAD D7.16.1-5). These Jews deferred to the authority of Jewish priests from Jerusalem, with whom they consulted on religious matters, but biblical writings never come into play: only what Wellhausen called Oral Torah, authoritative priestly rulings that did not involve written legal codes. The Samarian papyri of Wadi Daliyeh, dating from ca. 375 to 335 bce, at the dawn of the Hellenistic Era, give a similar, though more limited picture: famous names from the Pentateuch are similarly absent. Contrast with the heavy representation of Pentateuchal names in the second century inscriptions from Mount Gerizim or the book of 1 Maccabees, during later times when the biblical text was mined for children’s names. It seems apparent that Judaism prior to the Hellenistic Era, what I would describe as pre-biblical Judaism, was unacquainted with authoritative Mosaic writings or written laws.

Judaism underwent a bold transformation ca. 270 bce, when the Jewish nation reinvented itself with a new theocratic government modeled on the one described in Plato’s Laws; new divine laws ascribed to Moses; new foundation traditions; an approved national literature (Plato, Laws 7.802b-c, 811c-d); and a new cosmic monotheism patterned on that of the Greek philosophers, notably Plato. Judaism as we are accustomed to thinking of it was a product of the Hellenistic Era and Greek learning. The Books of Moses were not so much a product of Judaism as Hellenistic Judaism was a product of the Books of Moses.

That is not to say that there are no traces of pre-biblical Judaism in the biblical Judaism established by the Jewish senate of ca. 270 bce. Plato’s Laws advocated promoting local temples (Plato, Laws 5.738c-d), priesthoods (Plato, Laws 6.759a-b) and traditional religious customs (Plato, Laws 6.759c-d; 8.828a-c) in order to promote the illusion of an ancient and divine authority for their laws (Plato, Laws 7.798a-b), and it was especially in the cultic sphere that we see continuity with older traditions and institutions in the Pentateuch. Although there is no evidence for the body of cultic regulations having existed in written form prior to ca. 270 bce, it probably reflects practices at the temples at Jerusalem and Mount Gerizim in earlier times.

Personally I can’t help feeling that the terms “Judaism” and “Jews” are anachronistic when applied to this time period. I prefer Steve Mason’s preference for the term “Judeans” and wonder if it might be more appropriate to refer to the religion of the Judeans as Yahweh worship or simply the Judean religious practices.