Category Archives: OT Archaeology & 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.

 

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

.

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.

.

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

.

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.

.

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 »

Postscript on Rome’s and Israel’s foundation stories

I should follow up my previous post with a clarification of Weinfeld’s argument as he presented it in his 1993 book, The Promise of the Land. The bolding is mine for the benefit of those who don’t want to read lots of text but just hit the highlights.

As is well known, most of the genres of biblical literature have their counterparts in the ancient Near East. Creation stories, genealogies, legal codes, cultic instructions, temple-building accounts, royal annals, prophecies, psalms, wisdom literature of various kinds—all are widely attested in the cognate literatures from Mesopotamia, the Hittites, and the Egyptians. The only genre lacking such counterparts is that of stories about the beginning of the nation and its settlement, which are so boldly represented in the Patriarchal narratives and the accounts of the Exodus and the conquest of the Land. The contrast is especially striking when we compare the first eleven chapters of Genesis with the rest of the book. In Gen. 1–11 we find stories of creation, the food story, and lists of world ancestors before and after the food—literary types all well established in Mesopotamian literature. From [Genesis] chapter 12 onward, however, no parallel with the ancient Near East can be shown—not in content, of course, which reflects the particular nature of Israel, but also not in form. This kind of storytelling might be expected in the great cultures of the ancient Near East, but we look for it in vain. The lack of this genre is quite understandable given that, unlike Israel, the large autochthonous cultures were not cognizant of a beginning of their national existence.

On the other hand, this genre would be expected in the Greek sphere, which like Israel was based on colonization and founding of new sites. (pp. 1-2)

Weinfeld appeals to the quotation from Plato which I used as a header in an earlier post as evidence of the popularity of the foundation story genre in the Greek world:

[Greeks] are very fond of hearing about the genealogies of heroes and men . . . and the foundations of cities in ancient times and, in short, about antiquity in general . . .  —  Plato, Greater Hippias, 285d

Weinfeld offers us some biographical background to his interest in the question of biblical and Greek parallels and was encouraged to find he was not alone: read more »

Comparing the Rome’s and Israel’s Foundation Stories, Aeneas and Abraham

Weinfeld compared the Abrahamic promises that prompted his emigration from Mesopotamia to Canaan with the similar destiny prophesied for the legendary Trojan hero Aeneas at the outset of his travels: much as the descendants of Aeneas would someday found Rome (Homer, Iliad 20.307; Virgil, Aeneid 3.97-98), so Abraham’s descendants would become a great nation and rule many peoples (Gen. 12.3; 17.5; 27.29).

— Russell Gmirkin, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible, p. 238

I took the bait and the following post is an outcome: Weinfeld’s points of comparison between the biblical narrative and the Aeneid. Weinfeld’s proposed explanations for the similarities follow.

But first, a note for those who would dismiss the relevance of any such comparison on the basis that Virgil’s famous epic clearly postdates the biblical narrative and is far from likely influenced by anything in the Pentateuch:

It should be clear, first of all, that the Aeneas legend and the stories associated with it are quite ancient and may be traced back — as the various paintings on archaeological artifacts show — to the seventh century B.C.E. That these stories actually belong to the genre of “foundation stories” about foundations of cities by single heroes has been noted by F. B. Schmid, who surveyed the foundation legend of the Greeks, and observed that the Aeneid epic was patterned after them.[39(Weinfeld 1993, pp. 16f)

 

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

Aeneas leaves the famous city of Troy

Abraham leaves the great civilization of Mesopotamia, Ur of the Chaldaeans

with his wife, father and son — Creusa, Anchises and Ascanius with his wife and father — Sarah and Terah
in order to establish a new nation in order to establish a new nation
Virgil calls Aeneas “Pater” (2:2) Abraham was known as the father of the nation
Aeneas delays in Carthage Abraham delays in Aram
which later becomes Rome’s great enemy which later becomes Israel’s enemy
“An important theme in the Aeneid is the tension between Rome and Carthage. There is a danger that Aeneas will marry Dido, the queen of Carthage, and thus that the message of Latium could fail; the gods of Aeneas, therefore, work to bring the hero back on track toward Rome.

“Mercury, the messenger of the gods, is sent by Jupiter to warn Aeneas not to forget the promise that his mother, Venus, had held out for him, and to urge him to sail at once to his destined land (4:219–37).

“After Aeneas’s delay, Mercury is sent to him again, this time in a dream, and warns him once more to leave Carthage (4:554–70).”

“A similar situation may be discerned in the Jacob stories. There is the danger that Jacob will stay in Aram Naharaim, where he journeyed to flee from his brother Esau and to marry Laban’s daughters. Had he stayed, he would have abandoned his mission to the promised land.

“Therefore, Jacob is called to return to his native land, and the call is made, as in the Aeneid, twice: the first time through direct revelation (v. 4)

“and the second time through revelation by dream (v. 11).”

“Although in the final stage of Genesis (ch. 31) Jacob is said to leave Aram because of his quarrel with Laban, an older stratum (Elohistic?) in the chapter (vv. 10, 12a, 13) creates the impression that the affluence of Jacob (vv. 10, 12a; cf. 30:43) might have caused him to stay in Aram, necessitating the divine call to return to Canaan.”
Finally, his son Ascanius reaches Lavinium, and later his son gets to Alba-Longa. His descendants reach Rome, which is destined to rule the world. He reaches Canaan, the Land of promise, out of which his descendants will rule other peoples.
Weinfeld points out that the traditions of Aeneas were applied during the time of Augustus to the Roman Empire so that Aeneas became not only the father of Rome itself but also a prefiguration of the ruler of the entire world. The prophecy of Poseidon in the Iliad 20:307 that Aeneas will rule over the Trojans, (cf. Homeric Hymns, AD Venerem 3:196–97), is indeed recorded (reinterpreted) in an oracle in Aen. 3:97–98 saying that the house of Aeneas shall rule “over all lands”: hic domus Aeneae cunctis dominabitur oris. Weinfeld believed the story of Abraham originated during the time of King David and served to justify Israel’s aspirations to “rule … an empire, stretching from the Euphrates to the River of Egypt (Gen. 15:18).”

(I would add that Paul interpreted the promises given to Abraham as indicating that the entire world would belong to his heirs.)

“In both cases we have examples of an ethnic tradition later developed into an imperial ideology;

“in both, we are presented with a divine promise given to the father of a nation who later becomes a messenger for a world mission.”

read more »

How Does One Date the Old Testament Writings?

I have been posting insights from Russell Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible (archived here) in which he argues that both many core and peripheral features of the text of the Hebrew Bible bear closer similarities to Classical Greek writings and practices than to what we find in ancient Mesopotamian and Levantine culture. Gmirkin’s hypothesis is that the authors of the biblical texts shared the wider intellectual ethos of the Hellenistic era with its interest in exploring ideal constitutional and legal systems. The Great Library at Alexandria, Egypt, was a repository of these ideas and resources that Judean scribes were known to access as freely as any other scholar of the day.

Another scholar who has argued for a Hellenistic provenance of the Biblical literature is Niels Peter Lemche, although his proposals have pointed Mesopotamia and Syria as possible centres where Judean scribes were exposed to Greek ideas and writings rather than Egypt. No doubt Judeans were exposed to Greek culture throughout the Middle East but Russell Gmirkin focuses on the Alexandrian library because we know that specific Greek texts (e.g. Plato’s Laws, Aristotle’s Politics) that contain some striking echoes in the Biblical literature were housed there and we further know that Judean scribes worked there.

In this post I thought it worthwhile addressing some of the context to Gmirkin’s book by reference to a chapter by Lemche from 2001, “How Does One Date an Expression of Mental History? The Old Testament and Hellenism” in Did Moses Speak Attic? Jewish Historiography and Scripture in the Hellenistic Period edited by Lester L. Grabbe, pp. 200-224.

Lemche begins by reminding readers of the traditional circularity of the way scholars have dated the texts:

I have set out in table format the fundamental circularity underlying the scholarly arguments for not only the dating but also for the historicity of the Biblical narratives as argued by P.R. Davies (1992) at vridar.info.

A text that seemed to include historical information might well belong to the age when this historical referent seemed likely to have existed. At least this was the general attitude. The historical referent was the decisive factor. If the information included in the historical referent was considered likely or even precise, the text that provided this information was considered more or less contemporary with the event—that is, the historical referent—although the only source of this event was often the text in question that referred to it.

In those days, everybody knew and talked about the ‘hermeneutic circle’. It was generally accepted that the study of ancient Israel was from a logical point of view based on a circellus logicus vitiosum, a false logical circle, but nobody within biblical studies believed that it was possible to avoid this logical trap. (p. 200)

But there are ways to recognize general cultural matrices of certain texts. Intellectual topics come and go like fashions, to somewhat oversimplify the point. I was reminded of this point when recently listening again to the Foucault-Chomsky debate: scientific progress, they agreed, is not linear but lurches in fits and starts as new ideas arise and old problems that once preoccupied the community are simply forgotten.

Every period in the history of humankind will give birth to a number of questions— within philosophy, religion or simple politics—that are specifically related to this period, hot subjects for a while and then forgotten. (Lemche, 2001, p. 207)

Lemche illustrates with micro-references to the scholarly dialogues of recent generations: read more »

Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Homicide Laws

After the introduction (covered in my previous post) Russell Gmirkin divides chapter three of Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible, “Biblical, Ancient Near Eastern and Greek Laws” into thematic sections:

  • laws relating to homicide,
  • laws relating to assault,
  • to theft,
  • to marriage and inheritance,
  • to sexual offences,
  • to slavery,
  • to social legislation (concerning resident foreigners, widows, orphans, the poor, disabled persons, etc.),
  • to livestock,
  • to property crimes and agricultural law,
  • to commerce,
  • to military law,
  • to treason,
  • to “religious” or laws concerning the sacred,
  • and finally general ethical laws.

Each section documents details the three sources of laws — biblical, ANE and Greek — and concludes with a comparative discussion.

Near Eastern law codes included Hittite laws, the law codes of Eshnunna (LE), Hammurabi (LH), Ur-Nammu, Neo-Babylonian and Middle Assyrian laws and palace decrees and the Telepinu Edict. Points of Greek law are drawn from the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Lysias, Demosthenes, Xenophon, among others including Aeschylus and Andocides.

The chapter extends to 109 pages and includes 369 endnotes and a bibliography of over 140 titles.

This post looks at one of the above sections and Russell Gmirkin’s observations on the extent of the biblical laws’ similarity or otherwise to counterparts in the Near Eastern and Greek worlds.

All three geographical regions unsurprisingly stress the importance of lex talionis, of vengeance and deterrence as intended purposes of their legislation with respect to murder or even accidental killing.

But there are a number of significant points Greek and biblical law share that are nowhere found among our surviving evidence for laws in Mesopotamian and Asia Minor civilizations. These Greek-biblical similarities include

  • the recognition of different psychological states in determining appropriate punishments
  • the idea of blood pollution in the land
  • the responsibility of the relatives of the victim to initiate prosecution of the murderer
  • the possibility of at least temporary sanctuary in a temple
  • and the option of exile
  • stoning by the community
  • the killing of an animal responsible for killing a person
  • killing a burglar entering a house at night was justifiable homicide (ANE law required the execution of such a burglar but it is not stated that a house-owner himself could justifiably kill the burglar in the act)

“State of mind”

On the first point, the recognition of “state of mind” factors in determining penalties, Gmirkin writes:

Plato’s Laws contained an innovation on the Athenian laws for intentional homicide by distinguishing premeditated and unpremeditated homicide. Plato held that those murders committed with cold premeditation received a greater punishment in the form of a longer term of exile than those commit ted on impulse with no forethought, despite an equal degree of malice (Plato, Laws 9.866d-869e; cf. Chase 1933: 168-9,171-2; Loomis 1972: 93—4; MacDowell 1978: 115; Gagarin 1981: 35).

Here is part of Plato’s explanation:

For murder is committed in passion by those who, on a sudden and without intent to kill, destroy a man by blows or some such means in an immediate attack, when the deed is at once followed by repentance; and it is also a case of murder done in passion whenever men who are insulted by shameful words or actions seek for vengeance, and end by killing a man with deliberate intent to kill, and feel no repentance for the deed. We must lay it down, as it seems, that these murders are of two kinds, both as a rule done in passion, and most properly described as lying midway between the voluntary and the involuntary. None the less, each of these kinds tends to resemble one or other of these contraries; for the man who retains his passion and takes vengeance, not suddenly on the spur of the moment, but after lapse of time, and with deliberate intent, resembles the voluntary murderer; whereas the man who does not nurse his rage, but gives way to it at once on the spur of the moment and without deliberate intent, has a likeness to the involuntary murderer; yet neither is he wholly involuntary, but bears a resemblance thereto. Thus murders done in passion are difficult to define,—whether one should treat them in law as voluntary or involuntary. The best and truest way is to class them both as resemblances, and to distinguish them by the mark of deliberate intent or lack of intent, and to impose more severe penalties on those who slay with intent and in anger, and milder penalties on those who do so without intent and on a sudden. For that which resembles a greater evil must be more heavily punished, that which resembles a lesser evil more lightly. So our laws also must do likewise. . . . .

Examples follow:

If a man with his own hand slay a free man, and the deed be done in rage without deliberate intent, he shall suffer such other penalties as it is proper for the man to suffer who has slain without passion, and he shall be compelled to go into exile for two years, thereby chastising his own passion.

Compare Exodus 21:13

12 “He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. 13 However, if he did not lie in wait [i.e. there was no premeditation], but God delivered him into his hand [i.e. indicating this was an instance of intentional homicide], then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee.

The explanatory phrases I have added are from Gmirkin’s endnotes.

Exile

We also have in this example a reference to exile as a form of penalty, something unknown in our records of ANE laws. read more »

Well I never knew that was in the Bible

Circle of Juan de la Corte (1580 – 1663)
Title: The Burning of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar’s Army

Despite having been familiar with the Bible for many years I have had to confess that much of my understanding has been at a layman’s level and only sporadically informed by more thorough scholarly insights. One assumption that most lay readers are likely to bring to the Bible is that it speaks with a uniform voice about a future time when a Messiah figure descended from King David will once again restore Israel to a power exceeding the comparable status she held in the days of King Solomon.

So I was taken aback when I read that one of the contributors to the book of Isaiah had no such vision about a future Davidic messiah, but on the contrary accepted that David’s dynasty had finished, been terminated. But don’t we read in 2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 89 that God promised an everlasting dynasty for David? Did our Isaiah writer not know of this prophecy? How could that passage be included in the canon if it contradicted other “sacred scriptures”?

Part of the answer emerged when I recollected my earlier post, How Bible Contradictions Began. Notice what our author does to God’s eternal promises.

That second Isaiah was keen to reinterpret what he could of Isaiah’s oracles can be seen in his handling of the Davidic convenantal tradition. Though political realities would not allow him to simply repeat Isaiah’s promises to the Davidic monarchy, he skillfully actualizes this tradition by “democratizing” it, and applying the Davidic promises to the entire nation (55:1—5). (David Meade, Pseudonymity and Canon, 1986. p. 34)

Again 5 pages later,

We already saw how the Davidic promises were applied by second Isaiah to all Israel (55:1— 5).

If you’re confused by the above reference to “second Isaiah” then understand that scholars have long believed that the 66 chapters of our book of Isaiah are a composite of different writings: “first Isaiah” wrote chapters 1-39 during the time of the Assyrian empire; “second Isaiah” wrote the rest at the time of the Babylonian empire. Some even add a “third Isaiah” responsible for chapters 55-66.

The New Living Translation of the key passage: Isaiah 55:1-5 read more »

How God “Spoke” to the Prophets

I post here an interesting snippet from my recent reading where I learn at least one way God spoke and revealed messages to the prophets of old, or at least those who wrote in the names of prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. When they wrote they could declare that their revelation was the word of God as God himself spoke to them, or even as God himself speaking. Yet scratch the surface and we find that what the author has done has in fact studied Scripture, thought about it, and reapplied it to his own or a future day, and then presented it as a new direct revelation from God.

In fact, not all of the prophetic revelation was derived from an oracular source. Not only did the prophets interpret their own encounter with the divine, they also demonstrate a mark of “inspired” reflection on the traditions they had received. C. Buchanan has demonstrated that even some oracles described as “visions” or the “coming of the word” are in fact the result of an “inspired” midrashic examination of earlier traditions. (Meade, David G. 1986. Pseudonymity and Canon: An Investigation into the Relationship of Authorship and Authority in Jewish and Earliest Christian Tradition. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.)

Sadly I don’t have access to Buchanan’s article but fortunately David Meade tells us what passages Buchanan cites as evidence:

He cites 2 Isaiah’s midrash on Exodus 15:1-16 (cf. Isa 42:10-13; 43:14-17; 51:9-10) and Jeremiah’s midrash on Deut 28:26 (cf. Jer 7:32-33), Deut 28:64 (cf. Jer 9: 16), Deut 27:26; 4:20; 7:12 (cf. Jer 11.3-5), Deut 30:15 (cf. Jer 21:8), and Deut 4:9 (cf. Jer 29:13-14).

I set out those passages below to make it easier to see how this process of revelation works:

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