The current post follows on from the previous one where we outlined the identification as “forerunners” of Israel the Banu Yamina (Benjamin) with their “davids” in the northern Syrian steppes during the second millennium BCE. One detail I did not note in that post but am adding here is that those same people had a particular group of diviners known as “nabi’um” — from which the Hebrew “navi”, meaning “prophet”, derives. So Garbini drew attention to the “Benjamin” confederacy having connections with Yahud, “davids” and “prophets”.
Giovanni Garbini traced the origins, migrations and settlements of Israel through his research as a professor of Semitic philology. In Garbini’s view, both “maximalists” (those who interpreted all archaeological evidence through the Bible) and “minimalists” (those who relied upon archaeological evidence ‘speaking for itself’) overlooked the evidence of epigraphy — the study of place and ethnic names in both the archaeological finds and the Bible. Garbini wrote that he…
found himself alone in supporting the thesis that adequate linguistic and philological preparation, with the support of extrabiblical sources, makes it possible to reconstruct the ancient history of Israel differently from the biblical account, using the Bible itself as the main source . . . (Scrivere, p. 11 – translation)
Throughout much of that second millennium in the northern Syrian steppes tribal groups were changing their seminomadic and pastoralist lifestyles when they built and settled into cities, allowing for new groups to move in to surrounding areas, with those semi-nomadic groups ever-changing their confederations, with new tribes emerging and older ones disappearing, always over the centuries in ethnic and tribal flux.
Egypt dominated the coastal and hinterland region as far as today’s Lebanon up until the 1300s BCE when we have Egyptian records informing us that new tribal groups and mercenary armies were threatening the security of cities over which Egypt had been the hegemon.
When Garbini integrates these Egyptian records with those of the Assyrian kingdom covering the ensuing century he pinpoints a critical new group of people who will become major players in the Levant: the name by which they were eventually most commonly known was the Aramaeans. They are sometimes named in association with one of the tribes of the Banu Yamini (or “Benjamin”, whom we met in the previous post.)
The Assyrians first encountered the Aramaeans in the northern region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
The region between the Tigris and Euphrates where the Assyrians first encountered these Aramaeans was known as Musri. Over the following centuries Musri was also identified on both sides of the Euphrates and in the ninth century, at the Battle of Qaqar on the Orontes River, some of the combatants were identified as Musri. Evidently they took their name from the region where they had originated. It appears that this branch of Aramaeans was gradually moving west.
1300’s BCE — Israel came out of ‘Egypt’, or Musri?
What are we to make of this name “Musri”?
Musri in the Bible
Musri is also mentioned in the Bible, or rather it was mentioned, because in the current text, both in Hebrew and Greek, this name has been systematically concealed through a series of textual interventions. (Scrivere, p. 22 – translation)
Garbini sets out the evidence that the Hebrew Bible we know today has several times replaced Musri with the name Egypt. When it was not replaced, it was spelled incorrectly to make it look like another name for Egypt (msrym instead of mwsr). At some stage scribes associated closely with Jerusalem and who were responsible for the Hebrew Bible attempted to downplay early links between Israel and the northern Aramaean people and region. They repeatedly stressed that though Abraham had come from Mesopotamia, Israel grew into a nation in Egypt and Yahweh who drew them out of Egypt. That was their identity.
But the evidence of philology, the names in the sources, indicate that Israel rather came from the north, from Musri and the Aramaic area, Garbini explains.
In Garbini’s view, some of the biblical books preserve very ancient traditions to this effect:
When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, . . . Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name 3 and say to the priest in office at the time, “I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the land the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” . . . . 5 Then you shall declare before the Lord your God: “My father was a wandering Aramaean . . . — Deut. 26:1-5
Hosea fondly looks back on the time Israel was in Egypt and called out to be with God, but any perusal of that time in the Pentateuch quickly reminds us it was not a time of fond romance but one of tension, rebellion, so much so that God cursed the entire generation and even required Moses to die before entering the promised land. Hosea and Amos warn that Israel will be punished by being made to return to Assyria — and Egypt, in a context that suggests Egypt is near or under the dominion of Assyria. That makes more sense if the original text spoke of Musri, Garbini argues. There are other detailed arguments but I am avoiding the technicalities in this post.
The testimony of Hosea and the stories about the patriarchs, which were written at a later date, reveal the existence of a remarkably ancient tradition that traced the origins of Israel and Ephraim to the environment of the Aramaic-speaking seminomads who, startingfrom the 15th century BC, moved in the land of Musri, i.e. the vast steppe area of northern Syria that extended on both sides of the Upper Euphrates. Here, through processes that we do not know, a homogeneous group of tribes was formed, which took the name of Israel and at a certain moment began to move southwards. If several centuries later a prophet, who felt himself to be the custodian of the religious tradition of the group to which he belonged, launched reproaches and threats to his contemporaries who, in his opinion, did not honor the god who had brought them to the land of Canaan enough, it is very likely that the cult of that god played an important role in the formation of Israel. (Scrivere, p. 25 – translation)
Abraham, King of Damascus – and the Damascus Document
Benjamin may have been the youngest of the twelve sons of Jacob according to the Bible but in the archaeological record his name – and tribe – is the first to appear. Or rather, the name, Banu Yamin, represents a coalition of about four or five tribes.* But Banu Yamin, sons of the right (hand), is their name in documents at Mari first appearing around the early second millennium, let’s say around 1600 BCE. That coincides with the time biblical chronology is thought by some to indicate the time of Abraham’s entry into Canaan. (One of those tribes was named Rāfē’, which may be compared with the fifth son of Benjamin, Rapha, in 1 Chronicles 8:2.)
Those who have dealt with the history of Israel so far may not have been pleased to learn that, in the 17th century BC, the youngest of Abraham’s great-grandchildren was circulating instead of Abraham himself. (p. 17 – translation)
The sons of right refers to the people of the south, or southerners, because another Semitic tribe, one to the north, were the Banu Sam’al, the name meaning “left”. (Perspective is based on facing the rising sun.)
Now it is possible that “southerners” was a common term that could apply to any group of people at any time, and if so, then the Banu Yamin may have nothing more than the coincidence of the name in common with the biblical tribe of Benjamin. But there is more. To translate the comment by Giovanni Garbini:
The possibility of a homonymy between Banu Yamina and Benjamin cannot be completely excluded, but it appears unlikely for the reasons that will now be explained.
First of all, it should be said that theonomasticcoincidence between the Mari semi-nomads and Semitic peoples documented at the beginning of the first millennium BC could also concern the “sons of the left”. In the 9th and 8th centuries BC, a city named Sam’al flourished in Cilicia, ruled by an Aramaic dynasty whose members sometimes bore Anatolian names (Kilamuwa Panamuwa, etc.). The singularity of the toponym suggests that the foundation of this Semitic city in a non-Semitic area is somehow linked to the banu sim’al. When we consider that the name of the Semitic people of Sam’al was Ya’ud . . . , a linguistic form identical to Yahud, it will be difficult to attribute to chance that a Ya’ud/Yahud ethnic group was closely related to both the “sons of the left” to the north and the “sons of the right” to the south. (Scrivere, 17)
Yahud, you will suspect, bears some relation to Judah and Jehud (the Jewish province in the Persian era), the name being formed from Yah/Yahweh.
Before continuing, let’s be clear where we are:
The vast steppe areas that close off the northern part of the Syrian desert, bordered to the east by the Euphrates and to the west by the Afrin, Orontes, and Jordan rivers, constituted the environment in which numerous tribes of semi-nomads lived, mainly devoted to animal husbandry and raids while continuously moving. The presence and the very existence of these peoples, who have never left any trace of themselves, are revealed by information transmitted by written texts within sedentary cultures possessing writing, namely Mesopotamia and Egypt. . . .
In the 3rd millennium and the first half of the 2nd millennium BC, all the semi-nomadic tribes were of Semitic language and appeared to be characterized by intense military activity.
The most significant information on Semitic semi-nomads comes from hundreds of letters written in Babylonian found in the royal archive of Mari, a Syrian city on the right bank of the middle Euphrates. Most of the letters date back to the first half of the 18th century BC. In this period, the term amurru, which designated the first semi-nomads who came into contact with Mesopotamia in the 24th century BC, had become a generic name to indicate the “West,” that is, Syria. We recall that the Hammurabi dynasty (1792-1750 BC), which ruled Babylon, was of Amorite origin. By the 18th century BC, the Amorites had already passed the semi-nomadic phase and had become largely sedentary. In their place, two large groups of tribes, the Suteans (Sutum) and the Banu Yamina, had entered the steppe of Syria.(Scrivere, 15ff)
The Banu Sam’al were spread across the north but the map below identifies the location of the city of Sam’al that we read about above:
The texts at Mari even speak of “Davids” long before the biblical David:
[C]oncerning the banu yamina, the texts often speak of a dawidüm, who was also present in other tribal groups and sometimes in cities, where he was in close contact with the king or members of the royal house. The dawidüm appears in texts as a military leader during a battle, but he is a leader with such particular prerogatives that in texts the expression “to kill the dawidüm” is almost idiomatic to mean “to win a battle”; in some cases, the word dawidùm is synonymous with “victory”. The problem of the dawidüm is certainly complex, and the information we have is not sufficient to fully clarify it; . . .
And, as we would expect, religiously interested scholars have sometimes muddied the research efforts:
. . . what can be said is that it has been made even more complicated by the attitude of those scholars who have dealt with the dawidüm with the sole purpose of demonstrating the lack of any relationship between this character and his functions and the great King David of the Bible; however, we can immediately say that before him, in the whole Near East, there was never any person named David.
Every “david” of the Benjamin tribes who led his army to battle would either be victorious or be sacrificed:
The word dawid . . . is the passive participle (as in Aramaic) of the verb dwd “to love”; literally, it means “the loved one“. Actually, it is a technical term that indicates a particular relationship between a member of the royal family, usually the king, and a noble. The Amorite dawid finds an exact semantic parallel in the mawd (passive participle of wdd “to love”), which is found in the oldest Sabaean inscriptions (7th century BC) and is usually translated as “friend”; many prominent figures declare themselves mwd of their sovereigns. The Mari texts, which highlight the military function of the dawid that invariably ends with his death, only illustrate one aspect of this figure, which must have carried a complex ideology. If every battle lost by the Banu Yamina inevitably resulted in the death of the dawid, this means that this person did not fall in battle but was put to death, probably in a ritual manner, after the victory achieved by the opponents on the field; reading the Mari texts, one gets the impression that a victory would not have been complete without the killing of the dawid. In confirmation of this, we can cite the inscription of Mesha, the Moabite king of the 9th century BC, in which a dwd is mentioned, which we will return to in due course.
What does all of the above mean, then, in relation to the Bible’s narrative?
In conclusion, the texts from Mari reveal much more than a mere coincidence of names with the world described in the Bible. That being said, it is not being claimed that the banu yamina of Mari were the direct ancestors of the Benjaminites, nor that the history of the Jewish people was already underway in the 18th century BC; this research has merely revealed that one of the components of future Israel had its remote origins in the varied and fluctuating environment of Semitic Amorite semi-nomadism, which was a protagonist in the historical events of the centuries around 2000 BC.(Scrivere, 17ff)
With thanks to a commenter’s recommendation to read Giovanni Garbini’s Scrivere La Storia D’israele.
Garbini, Giovanni. Scrivere La Storia D’israele. Vicende E Memorie Ebraiche. Brescia: Paideia, 2008.
Greg Doudna once again challenges us to think outside the box (recall his thoughts on the John the Baptist passage in Josephus and relateddiscussion): this time, regarding Paul. See his conference presentation online at:
Note his second part of the title. His thoughts, as I understand that title, are an invitation to dig further into the possibility.
The proposal here is that the Christian Paul and Apollonius reflect independent tradition trajectories from a single original figure, i.e. that Paul was Apollonius.
GD takes up the suggestion that Saul the Herodian in Josephus is our Paul: see Robert Eisenman’s Paul as Herodian. (GD earlier opened up the questioning of the conventional date for Paul on the basis of his letters — though other evidence allows for a far wider set of options for the time of Paul’s activity) He notes the presence of three famous anti-Roman namesakes in Jerusalem: Simon bar Giora, John bar Sosa and James bar Sosa. Were the different visits of Paul to Jerusalem that we read about in Galatians and Acts actually different versions of the one visit? Is it possible that Joses (=Joseph) Barnabas in Acts is Josephus, the Jew who remained observant to Judaism while his companion Saul the Herodian rejected Jewish observance?
The original gospel of Paul was analogous to the views set forth by Josephus in his post-70 writings concerning the positive role of Rome in the divine economy in dealing with the Jewish rebels’ bloody defilement of the temple in Jerusalem. As Josephus told it, the Roman destruction was a purification of the Jewish temple cult, a temple which Josephus portrayed as defiled by the revolutionaries who brought divine wrath upon the Jewish nation as a result of their misdeeds, wrath carried out through the divine agency of the Romans, the severity and scale of the disaster and atrocities squarely the fault of the rebels who could have avoided it by surrendering earlier.
This was the ideology of Josephus in interpretation of the disasters which befell the Jews in 70 even as Josephus in Rome continued to be observant and sought in his writings to represent the Jewish people favorably to the educated world through his writing of Jewish history. Josephus’s ideology or “gospel” is startlingly similar to the ideology or gospel of Paul in the epistle to the Romans and in the other epistles as well. The writings of Josephus and Paul reflect the same basic ideology or lines of interpretation in response to 70, though Paul went beyond Josephus in arguing creatively—on the basis of Jewish scripture and in the name of a Jewish messiah—that Jewish religion and practice were superceded and now obsolete.
And to come back to the title of the article…..
This teaching of Paul with respect to Jewish religion and ideology in a post-70 context may be understood as in keeping with, a special case of, Apollonius’s rejection of sacrifices and cult practices in Apollonius’s view of true religion.
I simply have no idea where to place the canonical letters attributed to Paul in the history of the early church. I have no idea who the person behind the name of “Paul” was — and that name pops up in all sorts of places with all sorts of (contradictory) beliefs and practices. But I am increasingly partial to the idea that Christianity as we might recognize it as something with a distinct identity as a “movement” did not begin until after the Jewish War of 66-70/73 CE. This possibility makes me open to exploring ideas such as those raised by Greg Doudna.
Some regular readers will know that I am in the process of translating Bruno Bauer’s criticism of the gospels (scandalous in his time!) into English. I recently completed his discussion of Jesus “soul struggle” in Gethsemane and thought one of his observations worth bringing to more general notice here.
In sum, Bauer notes that heroic figures face their decisive challenges with resolve. They do not collapse into a struggle over whether they have what it takes to endure the fate that awaits them.
Here is his gist:
Bruno Bauer begins by noting that the author of the Gospel of Luke made a few clumsy adjustments as he attempted to introduce an angel to stand beside Jesus to the scene he was borrowing from Mark and Matthew. In the earlier gospels Jesus prayed three times but how could that happen if an angel — taken, Bauer suggests, from the original temptation scenes where angels in Mark and Matthew came to assist Jesus (but not in Luke’s temptation scene) — came to give him the power and assurance to go through with the coming torment? If the angel appeared at the time of Jesus’ first prayer, then there would be no need for any more prayers, or else the angel’s presence had not been effective.
or should the angel come only at the third attempt, it would be too late, namely, arriving at the moment when the struggle, according to the original account [in Mark and Matthew], was already decided without the intervention of heavenly miraculous power. (Bauer, 214/215)
No, so Luke had Jesus pray just the once. And that once was with the angel so once was enough.
But then Luke ran into other difficulties. He had to find a way, following his earlier gospel narratives, to have Jesus reprimand the disciples for sleeping while he prayed. The trouble Luke failed to notice — at least till after the ink was dried — was that in the earlier gospels Jesus had instructed the disciples to watch with him but they fell asleep on that watch, and hence deserved a rebuke, while Luke had left out that command of Jesus and so there was no justification for his rebuke to the disciples for sleeping. Indeed, Luke even says the disciples fell asleep “because of their sorrow”, but as Bruno Bauer rightly remarks, sorrow keeps one awake; it does not induce sleep. (In the other gospels I notice that it is Jesus who is said to be full of sorrow.)
Further, one little detail I had failed to notice after all these years: BB points out that in Luke Jesus “is taken” to a remote place to pray. In Mark and Matthew he walks off to a secluded spot but in Luke, no, rather…
And he came out, and went, as he was wont, to the mount of Olives; and his disciples also followed him. And when he was at the place, he said unto them [not only to three of them as in Mark and Matthew], Pray that ye enter not into temptation. And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast, and kneeled down, and prayed (Luke 22:39-41)
I am reminded of Mark’s introduction where after the baptism of Jesus he writes,
And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness . . . (Mark 1:12)
But let’s cut to the chase, to the point that pulled me up enough to make me rethink everything. BB notices Mark harking back to the prayer of the righteous one in the Psalms:
I am overcome by the blow of your hand. (Ps. 39:10)
Like all great and sublime moments, it is made up of three parts:
like everything great and sublime, was divided in its course and development by the number three (Bauer, 216/217)
But heroes, as we know from all our other stories, are not like that . . .
on the contrary, we only consider historical fighters great and worthy of respect when they endure their sufferings with calmness due to the self-assurance of their new content and legitimacy, thereby proving that they stand over the external power and authority of the worldly state they fight against, just as they know they have overcome it in the content of their self-consciousness. (Bauer, 216/217)
Why yes, I thought. I have had my moments of despair, my gethsemanes, as have we all. But gasping and crying for help to do what we want is not like simply standing up, taking courage, and going out and facing what we have to face.
I thought of other heroes surely known to any ancient writer of Greek. Hector in the Iliad. He knew he was doomed to die, and others pleaded with him not to go out and face Achilles. They were like Peter imploring Jesus at Mount Hermon not to go to Jerusalem. Jesus then was like the heroic Hector and said, Stand aside, Satan! I must go!
‘Hector!’ the old man called, stretching out his arms to him in piteous appeal. I beg you, my dear son, not to stand up to that man alone and unsupported. You are courting defeat and death at his hands. He is far stronger than you, and he is savage. . . . So come inside the walls, my child, to be the saviour of Troy and the Trojans; and do not throw away your own dear life to give a triumph to the son of Peleus. Have pity too on me, your poor father, who is still able to feel. . . .
As he came to an end, Priam plucked at his grey locks and tore the hair from his head; but he failed to shake Hector’s resolution. And now his mother in her turn began to wail and weep. Thrusting her dress aside, she exposed one of her breasts in her other hand and implored him, with the tears running down her cheeks. ‘Hector, my child,’ she cried, ‘have some regard for this, and pity me. How often have I given you this breast and soothed you with its milk! Bear in mind those days, dear child. Deal with your enemy from within the walls, and do not go out to meet that man in single combat. He is a savage; and you need not think that, if he kills you, I shall lay you on a bier and weep for you, my own, my darling boy; nor will your richly dowered wife . . . .
Thus they appealed in tears to their dear son. But all their entreaties were wasted on Hector, who stuck to his post and let the monstrous Achilles approach him. As a mountain snake, who is maddened by the poisonous herbs he has swallowed, allows a man to come up to the lair where he lies coiled, and watches him with a baleful glitter in his eye, Hector stood firm and unflinching, with his glittering shield supported by an outwork of the wall. But he was none the less appalled, and groaning at his plight he took counsel with his indomitable soul. He thought: ‘If I retire behind the gate and wall, Polydamas will be the first to cast it in my teeth that, in this last night of disaster when the great Achilles came to life, I did not take his advice and order a withdrawal into the city, as I certainly ought to have done. . . . But it will be said, and then I shall know that it would have been a far better thing for me to stand up to Achilles, and either kill him and come home alive or myself die gloriously in front of Troy. (Iliad, XXII)
Hector actually did run from Achilles at first, but finally found his resolve and when he saw he was about to die, said:
Alas! So the gods did beckon me to my death! . . . Death is no longer far away; he is staring me in the face and there is no escaping him. Zeus and his Archer Son must long have been resolved on this, for-all their goodwill and the help they gave me. So now I meet my doom. Let me at least sell my life dearly and have a not inglorious end, after some feat of arms that shall come to the ears of generations still unborn.’ (Iliad, XXII)
We have other instances of steel resolve: Socrates does not weep and plead for strength to drink the hemlock. Rather, he consoles his weeping friends. Antigone stood hard as iron against Creon and it is impossible to imagine her weeping for strength and courage to endure her fate.
When I think back on the references to Jesus outside the gospels I don’t recall any notion of “soul struggle”. Paul simply says that Jesus took on a lowly position to die. That was his purpose for taking on flesh. Soul-struggle is completely alien to this biblical concept.
The gospels changed all that.
Jesus had long since predicted his end, and now it was necessary for him, once and for all and perfectly beyond doubt, to express his submission. He could no longer just speak, prophesy, he had to feel, mourn, be anxious, become powerless, in order to reconcile himself with his task through his inner struggle. Precisely the religious interest that determined the initial structure and the enduring foundation of the gospel story, and which made a great and dignified struggle, that is, a struggle in which the opposing forces also appear great and significant, impossible, had to result in the end in the fact that Jesus’ struggle against the opposing powers coincides with his inner soul-suffering. Other historical or epic heroes do not need such a struggle with their weakness, nor can they even collapse in themselves when the tragic conclusion arrives, because they have proven themselves in the struggle with great and significant historical powers and have worked through the shortcomings of their personal one-sidedness even in this struggle. (Bauer, 217)
Jesus’ struggle in Gethsemane is not heroic. It is a struggle to obliterate his own self before an idea of a god who demands his non-existence.
As Eric Fromm wrote long back:
[Man] projects the best he has_onto God and impoverishes himself. . . . The more he praises God the emptier he becomes. The emptier he becomes the more sinful he feels. The more sinful he feels the more he praises God — and the less he is able to regain himself. (quoted by Fisher, Orphans of Gethsemane II, 432)
Vardis Fisher spoke of a “lunacy of prayer and tears and pleading” which makes one feel emptier and more sinful, and the more sinful and empty one feels, the harder one prays!
Jesus had knelt alone to pray: . . . in all the gethsemanes in myth and legend, where all the father-fearing and father-hating Jewish.and Christian sons had knelt in supplication, and were still kneeling, and would kneel, as long as the Desert-Yahweh was driven into their child-souls. (Fisher, Orphans of Gethsemane II, 479)
Think of this:
The pathetic wretched lonely orphan, going off alone into his gethsemane (gath shēmāni, the oil press) to pray, knowing it to be the will of his father that he should die! In his death he would appease the father’s wrath, who was on the point of killing all his children!(Fisher, Orphans of Gethsemane II, 480)
Vridar spent hours talking aloud to himself about “Jesus,” . . . saying, “He was the immolated son — this is the myth of the complete submission of the son to the father with the son-symbol standing for all Christians who submit. He was the orphan: this is the myth of the one who had no love, and went alone into his gethsemane to pray, and prepare to die, because his father willed it. This is the myth of the lonely lost man naked before the universe, and before death and time and all his enemies. (Fisher, Orphans of Gethsemane II, 482)
Have you heard it declared that no-one would make up a story about Jesus coming from such a nothing-back-of-the-woods place as Nazareth? No, no, the argument goes — if anyone were to make up a story about Jesus they would have impressed their readers by having him hail from some place of renown.
I don’t recall off-hand what led me into reading an obscure French work from 1927 about Pythagoras, but that work in turn led me to once again pick up the Homeric Hymns of all things. This time a light flashed above my head: I found myself confusing the goddess Leto with Mary urgently looking for a place to give birth to her child and finding nowhere … except a humble stable! And Nazareth — how could a messiah possibly come from Nazareth?
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. — John 1:46
Now before you roll your eyes a second time let me explain. I am NOT saying that the story of Jesus’s humble origins are a direct, intertextual creation inspired or shaped by the Homeric Hymn to Apollo. What I am saying is that the idea of a great divinity having a very humble earthly beginning was a motif, a trope, a concept, an idea that was part of the cache of ancient Greco-Roman culture. (A quick persusal of some chapters in The Reception of the Homeric Hymns did persuade me, though, that the hymns were certainly part of the collective knowledge of literate persons in the first and second centuries of this era.)
Let’s have a look at the passage of interest in Hymn 3, to Apollo, as translated by Michael Crudden.
The hymns begins with a picture of all gods on Olympus rising up in awe when the great Apollo enters, all except for his father and mother, Zeus and Leto.
Next, Leto is called the blessed one for having given birth to such a mighty son. Apollo is called a “joy for mortals”. The poet ponders where to begin his tale and decides to sing of the time of Apollo’s birth on the island of Delos.
The time came for Leto to give birth and we read of her traveling a great distance to find the appropriate place, at least a welcoming one. She traversed populous Crete, and the countryside of Athens, and Aigina’s isle . . . .
And, famed for its ships, Euboia; Aigai, Eiresiai too, And, near to the sea, Peparethos; Athos the Thracian height, And the topmost peaks of Pelion; Samos the Thracian isle, And the shadowy mountains of Ida; Skyros, Phokaia too, The precipitous mount of Autokane; Imbros the firm-founded isle, And mist-enshrouded Lemnos; holy Lesbos—the seat Of Makar, Aiolos’ son—and Khios that lies in the sea, Sleekest of isles; rugged Mimas, and Korykos’ topmost peaks; Dazzling Klaros too, and sheer Aisagea mount; Samos with plentiful waters, precipitous Mykale’s peaks; Miletos, Kos—the city where dwell the Meropes folk — Precipitous Knidos too, and Karpathos swept by the wind; Naxos, and also Paros, and rocky Rhenaia too
Over so great a distance in labour with him who shoots From afar [Apollo was an archer] went Leto, seeking whether amongst these lands There was any that would be willing to furnish her son with a home.
But there was no room at the inn….
But they trembled much in fear, and not one dared, despite Her rich soil, to welcome Phoibos [a name for Apollo], until queenly Leto set foot Upon Delos
The rich and famous chose not to welcome Leto and her son-to-be.
Leto plaintively asked Delos….
and, questioning her, gave voice to winged words: ‘Delos, would you be willing to be the seat of my son, Of Phoibos Apollo, and furnish him with a rich shrine on your ground?’
But how did Delos compare with all the above that Leto had just passed through? Leto said to Delos,
you’ll not, I think, abound in cattle or flocks, nor will you bear corn or grow an abundance of trees.
And Delos knew it well enough and said in reply:
‘Most glorious Leto, daughter of mighty Koios, I would With pleasure welcome the birth of the lord who shoots from afar, For in truth in men’s ears I am of dreadfully grim repute, But in this way might gain great honour.
Delos’s inferiority complex over her stony, barren appearance got the upper hand, though, so she poured out her fear:
. . . . this dreadful fear Pervades my mind and heart, that, when [Apollo] first sees the Sun’s light, Holding the isle in dishonour—since stony indeed is my ground— He may with his feet overturn me and thrust me under the sea. There always great waves without ceasing over my head will break, While he will reach some land that is pleasing to him . . . . . . But the many-footed beasts And black seals will make their lairs upon me, homes that will be Secure for lack of people.
Fear not, Leto reassured Delos. First, with the promise that Delos would become the most famed central sanctuary in all of the Greek world and beyond:
. . . But if you possess a shrine
Of Apollo who works from afar, all humans, assembling here,
Will bring you their hecatombs: vast beyond telling the steam of fat Will always be shooting upward, and those who possess you you’ll feed From a foreigner’s hand, since there is no richness beneath your soil.’
And finally with an oath declared that Delos would have honour above all other isles.
‘Now let the Earth know this, and also broad Heaven above,
And the down-dripping water of Styx, which is the blessed gods’
Greatest and most dread oath: here Phoibos will always have His fragrant altar and precinct, and will honour you above all.’
Isodore Levy, author of that book on the influence of the legend of Pythagoras in the Greek and Jewish worlds, was drawing quite different links with the gospels, between Apollo and Jesus. But they can wait for another post. I found the above of most interest for now. Never again will I allow anyone to get away with trying to say that Jesus really did have to come from Nazareth because no-one would make up a story about a god-man (or a figure near enough) coming from some place of no reputation.
Crudden, Michael. The Homeric Hymns. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
A few months back Neil asked me if I had any further thoughts regarding my hypothesis about a Simonian origin for Christianity. In March of 2019 I had revised it. I am happy to report that four years later I am still quite comfortable with the revision. To me it seems to best account for the many peculiarities of the New Testament and plausibly explains much that can be gleaned from the writings of the earliest heresy hunters. This post is just a summary with a few additional thoughts on the subject.
All Things to All
As I laid out in the series, the Simonians appear to have regularly co-opted the religious beliefs of others and twisted them to serve their own purposes. This involved injecting the object of their belief—Simon Megas—into the storylines of other religions and giving him the prominent role therein. Thus they, for example, made Zeus into Simon under another name, and Athena into Helen, Simon’s consort. Similarly, they apparently claimed that their Simon was the mysterious figure whose hidden descent was described in the Vision of Isaiah (chapters 6-11 of the Ascension of Isaiah).The main storyline of that writing is an ancient one, going back, as Richard Carrier points out in his book On the Historicity of Jesus (pp. 45-47), to the Descent of Inanna. But it too was modified along Simonian lines and dragged into their orbit. Most famously, the Simonians claimed that a Jesus who had suffered in Judaea was actually their unrecognized Simon. In short, the Simonians seem to have wanted their Simon to be all things to all men, and so gave free rein to their proclivity for appropriating and modifying the beliefs of everyone else.
The Gospel of Proto-Mark
I think that our Gospel according to Mark is a proto-orthodox reworking of an earlier Simonian version in which the Simonians were again doing their thing. I will refer to the earlier text as Proto-Mark, although it may well be the same as the mysterious Secret Mark. In it the beliefs of a group of Jews about a crucified and supposedly resurrected Jew named Jesus underwent Simonization. If I had to name its author, I would choose Basilides of Alexandria, whom even the heresy hunters acknowledge as the author of an early albeit heretical gospel. He is at the right time, the right place, had the right skills, and–most importantly—had the right mindset: delight in secrecy and enigma. This was the man who, according to Irenaeus, said “Not many can know these [teachings], but one in a thousand, and two in ten thousand,” and “Know everyone, but let none know you.”
Mark owes its enigmatic nature to Proto-Mark. That is, its Simonian author intended it to be understood only by his fellow Simonians. Its “mysteries” (Mk 4:11) were deliberately hidden from those “outside” (Mk 3:32 & 4:11). The key needed for understanding the text was Simonian belief, and that was disclosed only to the initiated. There was indeed an identification secret in Proto-Mark, but I doubt it was the so-called messianic secret. The correct answer to “Who then is this whom even the wind and seas obey?” (Mk 4:41) is Simon Megas. Only later, after the Bar Kochba revolt, or whenever the proto-orthodox became aware of the text and decided to adopt and sanitize it, was the necessary changeover to a messianic secret made.
The Pauline Letters
In regard to the Pauline letters: I still see Paul as the author of some original bare-bones letters. The bulk of the letters as we now have them, however, was likely composed by a circle of Saturnilians, a community founded by the Simonian Saturnilus of Antioch. It may even be that much of the material originally had Simon in view, and that Jesus Christ, Christ Jesus, Lord Jesus, and so on were substituted when it was decided to pass the whole off as Pauline. Who was it who combined Paul’s letters with the Simonian material and formed them into a collection? My guess would be Cerdo of Syria “originating from the Simonians” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1,27,1) He is from the neighborhood of Saturnilus and is the earliest figure named in connection with the letter collection. And he it would be who likely brought them to Rome shortly after the end of the Bar Kochba revolt. “Cerdo, who preceded Marcion, also joined the Roman church and declared his faith publicly, in the time of Hyginus… then he went on in this way: at one time teaching in secret, at another declaring his faith publicly, at another he was convicted of mischievous teaching and expelled from the Christian community” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 4,11).
Later this year will see the third and final stage of an archaeological excavation on the site of an Iron Age temple only 7 kilometres outside Jerusalem. The site is Tel Moza, and the Temple was functional from the tenth to the sixth centuries BCE (that is, the 900s to the 500s). (After this coming session it is expected to extend digs in areas surrounding the temple.)
The finds indicate that Moẓa was settled continuously during the Iron Age II (10th to 6th centuries BCE) and the site was labaled [sic] “a royal granary specializing in grain storage, which supplied its products first and foremost to Jerusalem” (Greenhut and De Groot 2009: 223) due to the dozens of silos and two storage buildings found in it.
Here is a slide adapted from one shown by the archaeologist Oded Lipschits at this morning’s presentation at Southampton. It illustrates the silos in the region at the time the first small temple was constructed there. Silos were all capped by clay cones.
But in the early ninth century a large temple was built:
If that design looks familiar it is because it is the same structure as other temples of the time in Syria and Phoenicia and matches closely the biblical description of Solomon’s temple:
It was not a temple to Yahweh. Again from the telmoza.org site, some of the cult objects:
Lion statues were common in temples. The outline of a lion carving can be seen in the Moza artefact in the top right where it has been highlighted with a sketch outline (slides from Oded Lipschits’ presentation):
The evidence turned up so far on the temple site indicates that every thirty or so years there was a new extension or adjustment to the temple structure leading archaeologists to conclude that it was a well-established cult centre throughout those centuries. We don’t know if this temple should be seen as representative of other villages at the time. Did each community have its temple? The region around Tel Moza is thought to have supported about 250 families — the same size region as was around Jerusalem. Was the temple a site for daily visits or was it a site for annual pilgrimages? The answers to such questions are unknown.
All of the posts on Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts are now listed in the Archives By Topic (Annotated) section in the right-hand column of this blog. I have added brief notes against the respective titles to guide readers on the contents of each post.
the Gospel of Mark rewrote the tradition about the resurrection appearances in Paul’s letter
the Gospel of Matthew polemically rewrote Mark to rebrand the disciples
the Gospel of Luke polemically rewrote Matthew and Mark
But they can’t compete the way the author of the Gospel of John put Luke to shame …. according to Bruno Bauer.
In Luke 7:11-17 we read how Jesus just happened to be coming into the village of Nain when he encountered a funeral procession for a young man, but what moved Jesus to compassion was the (presumably supernatural) knowledge that his mother was now without a male to support her. So Jesus stops the procession and yells to the corpse to Rise up!
No doubt there is in the scholarly literature acknowledgement of the possibility that the author of the Gospel of John had Luke’s little story in mind when he developed his account of the resurrection of Lazarus. But I have just translated Bruno Bauer’s thoughts on how the Lazarus episode in the Gospel of John is a direct rebuff to the comparatively very poor “widow of Nain” anecdote.
Luke has Jesus raise a man who has just died and whose corpse is probably still warm as it is carried to the graveyard? Ha! John will have Jesus do a really serious miracle and raise one who has been dead four days!
The one who allowed the young man of Nain to be revived when he was just being carried to the grave [that is, a reference to Luke 7:11-17] is now ashamed, and the primary evangelist [=Luke] who, in his modesty and caution, contented himself with the revival of a dead man who had just succumbed to illness before his eyes, does not even dare to lift his eyes before the magnitude of the historical master and finisher [that is, John]. The fourth [evangelist] has destroyed him.
That’s my translation of one detail of Bruno Bauer’s much richer discussion of how the author of the Gospel of John mechanically struggled* to work with earlier gospel sources in order to create a “far superior” account of Jesus. You can see the full discussion at The Raising of Lazarus, which is part of my larger project to translate Bauer’s work on the four gospels.
* One little detail Bauer identifies as a clumsy effort by “John” to out-do Luke is his adding the note that Jesus wept when he saw all the mourning over Lazarus — Bruno Bauer’s analysis has the rest of this story depicting a very angry Jesus who is frustrated over everyone’s lack of faith, so weeping at that moment was quite inappropriate. But it seemed a reasonable place to deposit that one detail the author of John really liked in Luke — Jesus weeping. So there it went — consistency of narrative characterization be damned.
If you are looking for a serious, easy-to-read and up-to-date study of the question of how the gospels came to be written, what sources their authors used, what their authors were trying to achieve, and for the most part is delivered in conversational style, then you will have found it in Rhetoric and the Synoptic Problem by Professor Mike Duncan.
While acknowledging and questioning other views in New Testament scholarship, Duncan clearly presents a logical case for the various gospels all being polemical re-writes of the Gospel of Mark. He introduces insights that strengthen Mark Goodacre’s revamped case that the author of Luke used both Mark and Matthew and that, consequently, there is no need to postulate, as most scholars have done, a long-lost source (Q). He even demonstrates the physical process of how Luke copied Matthew and Mark without Q on the widespread understanding that authors of the time wrote with scrolls on their knees and in so doing shows that the most common argument against Goodacre’s (Farrer’s and Goulder’s) view — that Luke was unlikely to have broken up Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount if he knew it — all but vanishes.
Duncan is a scholar of rhetoric and communications but his study is very different from the pioneering “gospels through rhetoric” analysis of classicist George Kennedy that I posted about some years back. The simple justification for a rhetorical approach lies in the fact that the gospels were written to persuade and rhetoric is the study of how persuasion works.
I am not a biblical scholar, a seminarian, or even a Christian. To write to any of these audiences would be therefore disingenuous. I am an academic rhetorician who works in a university English department. I often write on early Christianity and rhetoric, and I am an agnostic who holds no text sacred. As such, I make no pretense to offer this book as a contribution to the longstanding field of biblical studies, especially as practiced by its many evangelical academics, or, on the other end, militant atheists. I have no dog in that fight; I do not care if tomorrow someone solves the [Synoptic Problem] by way of a method other than the Farrer Hypothesis that I tend to prefer, although it will be a minor annoyance in that I will have to find another example for my ideas on unsolvable problems and rhetoric. As such, this book is offered in the same spirit as Frank Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy, an analysis of the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of literary studies, save I’m using rhetoric as a focus, and I’m looking at all the canonical gospels at once. (p. 2)
One point of method that I particularly liked was Duncan’s demonstration that certain characters and events in the gospels function to make specific polemical points. If Occam’s razor be our guide, that means the events or characters originated in the authors’ imaginations rather than from oral tradition about a presumed historical event — though Duncan does accept the historicity of Jesus and John the Baptist. Here is an example. The author of Mark is apparently responding to the “tradition of resurrection appearances” that we read in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians by introducing the “empty tomb”.
The author of Mark had plenty of sources available for inspiration for an empty tomb narrative, including Psalms 22, 23, and 24, the widespread Orphic theology as well as the end of the Iliad, the story of Elpenor in the Odyssey, and Plutarch’s and Livy’s accounts of the death of Romulus. But the source of the story is not as important as the kind of rhetorical claim that it allows the author of Mark to make. If the author of Mark invented the empty tomb story, for what purpose was it done?
— It could be to show a “removal”—a Hellenistic showing of an empty grave as evidence that the gods have conferred hero status on its missing occupant.
— It could also just be a simple dramatization of what the author thinks probably happened that day, working with current Jewish custom for visiting the recently deceased.
— The empty tomb could also be a narrative “promise of a personal resurrection to later Christian martyrs”—an important point for post-70 CE Christians in the wake of Jerusalem’s devastation, suggesting a similar physical resurrection for them: you, too, will die, but you will rise again.
But these are just suppositions. I can make a more defensible observation that does not require any of them. Holding the earlier points for historical plausibility in stasis for a moment, the author of Mark’s empty tomb narrative allows Jesus’s resurrection to be implied rather than witnessed. In other words, Mark can have Jesus rise without granting either Peter or the apostles any authority that they might have gained by having witnessed it. Theodore Weeden took a similar position that the authority of the twelve disciples, derived from their witnessing a post-resurrection Jesus, is removed by this maneuver, though he did not note that the empty tomb serves a dual rhetorical function by removing the necessity of eyewitnesses. In any case, the appearances in 1 Cor 15 suggest visual appearances that were witnessed, but Mark’s version lacks appearances; this could also be a subtle way to reconcile 1 Cor 15:35-49’s spiritual resurrection with the 1 Cor 15:3-8 list of physical appearances.
The narrative skill by which Mark accomplishes this maneuver, coupled with Paul’s obliviousness to any empty tomb story, refutes the notion of a longstanding tradition of the discovery of a vacated tomb. . . .
(pp. 48f – my formatting and highlighting; italics are original)
You might recall from the Epistle to the Galatians that Paul saw himself in some kind of rivalry with Peter and resisted tendencies to exalt Peter’s status above his. We have many hints of a leadership struggle in those earliest documents. The Gospel of Mark, many scholars believe, favours Paul over the other apostles, especially Peter. The author of that gospel speaks through his literary figure of the young man in the tomb an assurance that Jesus has been resurrected and, implicitly, that he will be seen again.
The author of Mark’s argument does not need a post-resurrection appearance by Jesus to make its ultimate point: Jesus prophesied truly and not even his disciples, many of whom started a religion after his death, really understood the true implications. For Jesus to appear like a parlor trick and say, “Told you so!” would deflate the author’s call for much hardier discipleship that the original followers of Jesus mustered. (p. 52)
So where does that leave the later gospels that do contain descriptions of resurrection appearances to leading apostles?
With this understanding of the rhetorical role of Mark’s gospel as a denunciation of apostolic authority in hand, the variances of the post-resurrection appearances in the other two synoptic gospels can be better explained. They are not simply variances in tradition as many exegetes posit, but rejoinders in a hostile rhetorical conversation with peculiar rules dictated by rapidly developing theology and power struggles. (p. 53)
Duncan, as you can see in the above example, addresses explanations about this or that biblical text that many of us may have encountered and obliges us to think more clearly and thoroughly about their ultimate worth.
The book explores the various accounts of the women at the tomb of Jesus, the comparable but different versions of a few miracles, characters and sayings to demonstrate similar points of polemical rivalry among the gospel authors but concentrates on a selection of key areas. I’ll mention the others shortly.
Technical terms are introduced gently and simply for the lay reader. The scholarly literature often refers to “redaction”. Duncan clarifies the different kinds of that process (adding, deleting, tweaking, reordering, retaining) with digestible explanations along with his preference for the simpler (and, he explains, more neutral) term, “editing”. He also offers an easy guide to the different ways we tend to make decisions about various problems, including “the synoptic problem” — deduction, induction and abduction.
The one thing I did not at all like — being a scholarly kind of reader myself — was his relegation of citations and tangential discussions to endnotes instead of being on the main text page. But others, of course, much prefer that style.
Not that the book is “for the lay reader”. It is most decidedly targeted at a scholarly readership as well. The history of the scholarship and current debates are addressed in enough detail to assure both sets of readers of currency and adequate thoroughness.
I referred to the detailed discussion of the resurrection appearances above. The other key topics addressed are the John the Baptist material across the four gospels (this includes observations on “the invention of the gospel genre”), the contrasting treatments of the Twelve Apostles, and the Sermon on the Mount. An appendix exploring the question of the dates of the gospels is included at the end. Duncan does not confine his Baptist discussion to the moment of Jesus’s baptism but shows how the differences in the opening chapters of all the gospels are best understood when one considers the way the Baptist is handled in all references throughout the gospels.
I have resumed translating Bruno Bauer’s work on the gospels — Criticism of the Gospels and History of their Origin (Kritik der Evangelien und Geschichte ihres Ursprungs) — the link to all the completed chapters under Bruno Bauer in the right margin, beneath About Vridar.
The work is mostly machine translation (a mix of GoogleTranslate, DeepL and ChatGPT and direct human meddling). I have had to process Old German fonts to modern fonts in order to copy text for the translation and there are niggling errors here and there. I try to fix them but I am sure there are many I have overlooked. In case anyone does find anything particularly awkward I have included the German text with my processed modern fonts beside the translation so one can see where the errors might arise and offer a correction.
I asked ChatGPT what I could add about Bruno Bauer here that might be of interest to a general audience and here is its response:
Bruno Bauer was a prominent 19th century German philosopher and theologian, whose ideas were controversial and influential in shaping the cultural and intellectual landscape of his time. Here are some potential topics that could be of interest to a general audience:
Bauer’s Critique of Religion: One of Bauer’s most famous works is his critique of religion, particularly Christianity. Bauer argued that religion was a product of human imagination and projection, rather than a divine revelation. He saw religion as a way of perpetuating social and political oppression and called for the abolition of religion as a means of promoting human freedom.
Bauer’s Political Views: Bauer was also a political thinker, and was involved in various revolutionary and socialist movements throughout his life. He advocated for the overthrow of traditional monarchies and the establishment of a democratic republic and was a strong critic of the Prussian state.
Bauer’s Influence on Marxism: Bauer’s ideas had a significant impact on the development of Marxism, particularly in the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Bauer was an early critic of Hegelianism, which provided the philosophical foundation for many of Marx’s ideas, and his critique of religion helped shape Marx’s concept of ideology.
Bauer’s Contributions to Biblical Criticism: Bauer was also a scholar of the Bible, and his work on the New Testament was influential in the development of biblical criticism. He argued that many of the texts traditionally attributed to the apostles were actually written much later and that the historical accuracy of the New Testament was suspect.
Bauer’s Controversial Reputation: Despite his significant contributions to philosophy and theology, Bauer was a controversial figure in his own time. He was often criticized for his radical views and for his harsh criticism of the established order and was frequently denied academic positions or censored by authorities.
I asked a follow-up question for the next points:
While Bruno Bauer was never formally excommunicated from the Christian church, many religious authorities of his time saw his views on religion and Christianity as highly controversial and heretical.
Bauer was a theologian and biblical scholar who came to reject the notion of divine revelation and the supernatural elements of Christianity. In his view, Christianity was a human invention that perpetuated social and political oppression. These views brought him into conflict with both the established Christian churches and the secular authorities that supported them.
As a result of his controversial views, Bauer was denied academic positions and faced censorship and persecution from the authorities. He was also widely criticized by his contemporaries, including other intellectuals and theologians.
So while Bauer was not formally excommunicated from any particular Christian denomination, his rejection of Christian dogma and his embrace of radical and heretical ideas made him an outcast from the mainstream religious and intellectual establishments of his time.
I consider his analyses essential reading for anyone seriously interested in a critical exploration of the gospels. Of course much work has been done since that cannot be ignored, but Bauer’s insights are still provocative and often still deserve a place in any discussion today.
The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it. — Karl Marx
We call that a ridiculous state of intellect in a man, Socrates, which is concerned only with divine knowledge. — Plato
Stranger Every architect, too, is a ruler of workmen, not a workman himself. Younger Socrates Yes. Stranger As supplying knowledge, not manual labor. Younger Socrates True. Stranger So he may fairly be said to participate in intellectual science. Younger Socrates Certainly. Stranger But it is his business, I suppose, not to pass judgement and be done with it and go away, as the calculator did, but to give each of the workmen the proper orders, until they have finished their appointed task. Younger Socrates You are right.
Who would ever have thought Plato and Karl Marx might have agreed on anything? Well, up to a point.
I have posted on Russell Gmirkin’s view that the Hebrew Bible, in particular its first five books (the Pentateuch), were influenced by Plato’s writings, especially his Laws, but the question that must be asked and answered is, Were Plato’s works ever used to attempt to change the real world?
This post is a collation of passages I’ve taken from Plato’s Cretan City by the classicist Glenn Morrow demonstrating how Plato’s Laws were more than a mere theoretical exercise. I include references to what Morrow has to say about Plato’s influence beyond his writings.
From the Preface
No work of Plato’s is more intimately connected with its time and with the world in which it was written than the Laws. The other dialogues deal with themes magnificently independent of time and place, and Plato’s treatment of them has been recognized as important wherever human beings have thought about the problems of knowledge, or conduct, or human destiny. But the Laws is concerned with the portrayal of a fourth-century Greek city — a city that existed, it is true, only in Plato’s imagination, but one whose establishment he could well imagine as taking place in his day. (xxix)
Compared with the Republic, the Laws has the special value of presenting its principles not in the abstract, but in their concrete reality, as Plato imagined they might be embodied in an actual Greek city. (xxix)
There are references to Chaeronea in the quotes. Chaeronea is the site of the battle where Philip of Macedon ended Greek independence. It is usually taken as the event that divided Greek history from that of the Hellenistic Age.
Relevance in the territories conquered by Alexander the Great
If Plato was writing about a new colony, and the Greek age of colonization was long past, what relevance could there be for Samaria and Judea?
The establishment of colonies was a habit of long standing among the Greeks, less evident in Plato’s century than it had been in earlier days, but still regarded as the best way to deal with a surplus of population (707e) or with a discordant faction in a city (708bc). The great age of colonization during which the Greeks had spread themselves and their culture all over the Mediterranean area, from the northern shore of the Black Sea to the western coast of Spain, was a thing of the past; but the tradition was kept alive by the Athenian cleruchies and other more pretentious establishments in the fifth and fourth centuries, and another era of colonization was to begin soon after Plato’s time with the conquests of Alexander. Such new cities always started their political life with a set of laws especially designed for them, and a competent legislator was often called upon to advise the founder, or the sponsoring city, in the task of legislation. The great Protagoras was asked to draw up the laws for Pericles’ ambitious colony of Thurii in southern Italy; and Plato himself, according to one tradition, was invited to legislate for the new city of Megalopolis in Arcadia set up after the defeat of Sparta at Leuctra. We see, therefore, that the Athenian Stranger [a key participant in the conversation in the Laws] is in a historically familiar situation, and the conversation he carries on with his companions is but an idealized version of the discussions that must have taken place on countless occasions among persons responsible for establishing a new colony.
Furthermore, it was a situation that might confront Plato or a member of the Academy at any time. Plato’s deep and lifelong interest in politics, in the broadest sense of the term, is evident from the large place that the problems of political and social philosophy occupy in his writings. His theories of education, of law, and of social justice are inquiries carried on not merely for their speculative interest, but for the purpose of finding solutions to the problems of the statesman and the educator. It may well be affirmed, when we view Plato’s work as a whole, that he was more concerned with practice than with theory. (3f – for the additional detail and sources found in the original footnotes check out full text online at archive.org)
One might even imagine that Alexander and Aristotle would send re-educators to Samaria after its rebellion to advise more loyal persons on the best way to constitute an ideal state.
One footnote that I must add here:
= Plato is indeed, contrary to what is often believed, much more concerned with practice than with theory.
= Plato only came to philosophy through politics … Philosophy was originally, for Plato, nothing but hindered action.
“Platon est en effet, contrairement à ce qu’on croit souvent, beaucoup plus préoccupé de pratique que de théorie.” Robin, Platon, Paris, 1935, 254. Similarly Dies, in the Introduction to the Bude edn. of the Republic, v: “Platon n’est venu en fait à la philosophie que par la politique . . . La philosophie ne fut originellement, chez Platon, que de l’action entravée.” But we must not suppose that for Plato theory was a substitute for action. Indeed the scientific statesman, he says in Polit. 260ab, cannot be content with theoretical principles alone, but must supplement them with directions for action . . . Cf. also Phil. 62ab.
Plato Meddling in Politics
Did Plato do anything personally to try to make a difference?
From these statements we must infer that one purpose of the Academy which Plato founded and directed during these years, perhaps at times its chief purpose in his eyes, was the training of statesmen, or legislative advisers, imbued with the insights of philosophy. How did the Academy prepare its members for the practical work of legislation and constitution making? By the study of mathematics and dialectic, of course, for the statesman must first of all be a philosopher; but also, it seems clear, by the study of Greek law and politics. It must not be forgotten that in the Republic the education of the philosopher guardians includes more than the abstract sciences. The fifteen years of mathematics and dialectic are to be followed by fifteen years of service in subordinate administrative posts before the candidate for guardianship is completely trained. The Academy was not a polis and it could not offer its students the advantages of actual experience in office; but it could encourage them to gain a wide knowledge of the history and characters of actual states. This it certainly did, attracting students from all parts of the Greek world, and therefore possessing within its own membership considerable resources for a comparative study of laws and customs. Plato himself had traveled . . . (p. 5)
On one occasion that we know of Plato had himself taken a hand in politics, when the death of the elder Dionysius of Syracuse in 367 had brought his young and promising son to the throne. Dion, the uncle of the young tyrant, had become Plato’s devoted follower during the latter’s earlier visit to Syracuse, and he now saw an opportunity of bringing about a political reform. He persuaded the young tyrant to invite Plato to Syracuse, and himself sent an urgent request that Plato should come and take the young man’s education in hand. Plato acceded, but with some reluctance, he tells us, because he feared the young Dionysius was not sufficiently stable in character to make promising material for a philosophical ruler; but his doubts were outweighed by his friendship for Dion, and by his feeling that he should make an effort, at least, when there was an opportunity of putting into effect his ideas of law and government. This mission at first seemed likely to succeed, and Plato may have collaborated with Dionysius on legislation for the resettlement of the Sicilian cities of Phoebia and Tauromenium. But the court at Syracuse was filled with supporters of the tyranny, opposed to reforms of the sort Plato and Dion had in mind. . . . This history, unhappy though its outcome, shows that Plato’s principles were meant to be applied to the actualities of fourth-century politics. Some prominent members of the Academy later took part (though Plato refrained) in Dion’s later expedition against Syracuse and were associated with him in his brief period of power after the overthrow of Dionysius. These later events would only confirm the reputation that the Academy had as a center of political influence. (7)
The rumours and traditions…
There are other evidences of the influence of Plato and his Academic colleagues on fourth-century states and statesmen. There is a tradition that Plato was invited by the Cyrenians to legislate for them; and another . . . that he was asked to draw up the laws for the Arcadian city of Megalopolis. Both these invitations Plato declined; but in the second case he seems to have sent Aristonymus to act in his stead. Plutarch names several members of the Academy who were influential as legislators or advisers to statesmen and rulers. Aristonymus was sent to the Arcadians, Menedemus to the Pyrrhaeans; Phormio gave laws to Elis, Eudoxus to the Cnidians, and Aristotle to the Stagirites. Xenocrates was a counsellor to Alexander; and Delius of Ephesus, another Academic, was chosen by the Greeks in Asia to urge upon Alexander the project of an expedition against the Persians. Thrace, he says, was liberated by Pytho and Heraclides, two Academics; they killed the tyrant Cotys, and on their return to Athens were feted as “benefactors” and made citizens. Athenaeus tells us, on the authority of Carystius of Pergamum, that Plato sent Euphraeus of Oreus as adviser to King Perdiccas of Macedon; later Euphraeus seems to have become the champion of the independence of his native city, and was slain when the city was reduced by Philip. Hermeias, the tyrant of Atarneus and friend of Aristotle, may have studied in the Academy; and the Sixth Epistle is a letter supposedly written by Plato commending to him two students of the Academy who are coming to live near Atarneus. Finally, at Athens there must have been many persons prominent in public life, like the generals Chabrias and Phocion, who were former students of Plato. We know that the orator and statesman Lycurgus, who came into power after Chaeronea, was such a former student; and the legislation of Demetrius of Phalerum, at the end of the century, shows clear traces of Plato’s influence, through Aristotle and Theophrastus.
Some of this evidence is of questionable value, but its cumulative effect is to show that the Academy was widely recognized as a place where men were trained in legislation, and from which advisers could be called upon when desired. It is easy therefore to understand why Plato should have devoted the closing years of his life to the composition of such a painstaking piece of hypothetical legislation as the Laws. It expresses one of the main interests of his philosophical mind; and it may also have been intended as a kind of model for use by other members of the Academy. Plato had indeed set forth in the Republic the principles that should guide a legislator, but they are expounded in very general terms, with little specific legislation. In the Laws, however, the author descends into the arena of practical difficulties, and we can see why he thought it necessary to do so. For if the ideal, or any worthy imitation of it, is to be realized, it has to be exemplified concretely—among a people living in a specific setting in time and place, possessing such-and-such qualities and traditions. This translation of his political ideal into the terms of fourth-century Greek politics was, as he says, “an old man’s sober pastime” (685a, 712b), but it was a form of amusement that he must have thought would give guidance to actual statesmen. (8ff)
Plato, like a Political Demiurge
Plato’s conception of the legislator’s task in bringing his ideal into existence becomes clearer if we consider the analogous work of the demiurge in ordering the cosmos as described in the Timaeus. In both cases the craftsman must be attentive not only to the design he wishes to realize, but also to the materials in which it is brought about. It may seem to some persons unworthy of the divine Plato to occupy himself with such things as the laws of inheritance, the registers of property, the procedures of election, the regulation of funeral expenses; or with the organization of songs, dances and athletic contests ; or with questions of drainage and water supply. A large part of the Laws consists of just such materials—materials on a par, certainly, with the discussion of respiration, the mechanism of vision, or the functioning of the liver and spleen that we find in the Timaeus. For the cosmic demiurge such attention to his materials was necessary, if he was to operate on the world of Becoming and remold it in the likeness of the Ideas. Similarly the political demiurge cannot neglect the understanding of his social and human materials if he is going to construct a state that resembles the ideal. Just as the world craftsman in the Timaeus has to use the stuff that is available, with its determinate but unorganized and irregularly co-operating powers, so Plato has to use the Greeks of his day, with their traditions of freedom and respect for law, and their fallible human temperaments. They are not always the best adapted to his purpose, but as a good craftsman he selects them carefully and handles them with skill, so as to create a likeness as close as possible to the ideal. (10)
When Rome faced Carthage
Plato informed details of Rome’s demands on Carthage?
Was Plato’s condemnation of sea power later used by the Romans to justify the destruction of Carthage? “… [T]he Roman offer that the Carthaginians should settle at least eighty stades from the sea corresponds exactly to the suggestion of the Laws.”Momigliano… (100)
Compromise and Distortions
Athenian institutions were a distortion of Plato’s recommendations?
There is a closer parallel between Plato’s program for theagronomoiand the two-year term ofephebictraining introduced at Athens, or drastically reformed after the battle of Chaeronea, and it is not unlikely that his proposals had some influence upon at least the later form of this institution.87
87 . . . It is generally agreed that there was a reorganization about 335, and it is possible that the Laws left its mark upon it. The account Aristotle gives of ephebic training in his day (Const. Ath. xlii, 3-4) contains some features that resemble Plato’s program for the agronomoi, but it also exhibits some striking differences, and these have usually not been noted. The Athenian program was for youths just turned eighteen; Plato’s is to take place somewhere between the ages of twenty-five and thirty. The former was obviously a preparation for citizenship and the military obligations that citizenship involved at Athens; whereas Plato’s seems rather a preparation for office, of men whose full citizenship had been attained some years before. Of course ancient readers, like some modern ones, may have overlooked these differences in purpose and in details; but if the Athenian program reflects Plato’s ideas, it does so dimly and with distortion. (190)
Most of us have been conditioned by the conventional wisdom that the Old Testament books were written between the eighth and fifth centuries. But there is no independent evidence for the existence of any of the Bible’s books or any knowledge of biblical traditions (Davies, 1992 and Vridar.info notes), nor any evidence for the practice of Judaism itself (sabbath observance, dietary practices, etc) until the Hellenistic era — the third century (Lemche, 1993 and the post Old Testament – A Hellenistic Book?; Adler, 2022 and the post The Late Origins of Judaism). It is against this background of the hard archaeological evidence that we must approach Gmirkin’s thesis of Hellenistic influence on the Bible.
We come to the final, and longest, chapter of Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts: Cosmic Monotheism and Terrestrial Polytheism in the Primordial History by Russell Gmirkin. If the author of Genesis did use Plato’s Timaeus-Critias, what does that tell us about Jewish monotheism in the third century BCE?
In the discussion of Genesis 1 we saw Gmirkin’s case for the Genesis authors drawing upon Plato’s notion of “cosmic monotheism” — the idea of a sole creator god beyond space and time who brings about the universe, including time itself, and then retires from the scene. This god was of a higher order of divinity from other gods and it is in that sense that we speak of “monotheism” here.
In covering Genesis 2 we observed the narrative moving into a storybook world featuring a god who walked amidst his garden and spoke with his created humans and their offspring.
We read of God appearing to address a council of fellow divinities when he (or one of him/them) says, “Let us make humankind in our image….”, “Let us make him a helper….” and then at Babel, “Let us go down and confuse their language….” The supreme deity creates the perfect world but it appears that lesser deities create potentially sinful mortals and interact with them. Sons of god are even said to bear children with human women. And then we encounter the patriarchs sacrificing at altars to gods recognized by their Canaanite neighbours.
Gmirkin compares this outline with Plato’s narrative in Timaeus and Critias. As in Genesis, Plato begins with a supreme craftsman (demiurge) god who is without human form or body and beyond space and time yet who is responsible for creating the perfect universe. After that, lesser gods take over and create corruptible humans and interact with them.
When we read Genesis against the background of Plato’s myths we begin to understand solutions to hitherto perplexing puzzles about Genesis, Gmirkin notes:
Various otherwise perplexing narrative details, small and large, attain a new clarity when interpreted in light of Platonic parallels. Most significant are those relating to a directly polytheistic mythical narrative context that complements (and in small details contradicts) the cosmic monotheism of Genesis 1: the appearance of a multiplicity of gods in both the First Creation Account (Gen 1:26) and the tale of the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:18 [LXX], 3:22); the contrast between the portraits of Elohim as supreme Creator in Genesis 1 and Yahweh as a storybook terrestrial god introduced in Genesis 2-3, and the marriages between gods and mortal women (Gen 6:1-4). The book of Genesis, like Plato’s Timaeus, promoted two complementary visions of the divine realm of the gods: a transcendent philosophical monotheism manifested in the creation of the perfect kosmos at the dawn of time, and a conventional terrestrial polytheism that accommodated the popular beliefs and cults of tradition. Both of these carefully balanced Platonic theological elements were highly innovative: that a single supremely good eternally existent god created the heavens and earth, and that the pantheon of well-known terrestrial gods, his sons and daughters, were also universally good and worthy of honor. (Gmirkin, 247)
There are also compound forms of these names for god, such as Yahweh-Elohim and El-Shaddai. There are various explanations for these in the literature — a) that the one god took on various “guises” (or hypostases), b) that they were different gods, c) that later editors were attempting to change the text (for which there is manuscript evidence) for theological reasons. Gmirkin understands that some of these later changes to the text were introduced by editors seeking to bring Genesis more closely in line with the theological perspective of Exodus-Deuteronomy.
The Genesis god of creation was called Elohim. The storybook god who appears after creation was given the name Yahweh. Yahweh, as you no doubt recognize, is also a transliteration of that famous tetragram YHWH, the god uniquely associated with the Old Testament. In Genesis 1 YHWH is not the creator.
So much for Genesis, but what about the world outside the literature?
Archaeological evidence informs us that before we have any signs of knowledge of biblical accounts Yahweh was a local deity of Jews, Samaritans and others along with other divinities, such as the mother-god Asherah. All the evidence we have for religious practices in the times of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah points to polytheism. Yahweh is simply one among a pantheon of deities.
When the Judahites were defeated by Nebuchadnezzar and many of them transported to Babylonia, we know that there they continued to worship Yahweh along with other gods — in this case the Babylonian gods. Even into the Persian era, wherever archaeologists have uncovered Jewish settlements, they find the worship of other gods alongside Yahweh. Some readers may find this surprising or think the interpretation of the evidence is perverse, but until I post more about the evidence of what has been dug up from the ground here is a smattering of many publications that interested readers can turn to for further detail:
It is not only a question of whether or not the people of Judah worshipped Yahweh alone, but as indicated in the side-box above, in particular with the Adler reference (see also his academia.edu outline of the book), archaeological evidence points to practices contrary to biblical laws and religious customs until the second century BCE.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the Pentateuch was a Hellenistic era work so it follows that Hellenistic ideas should be seriously considered among its sources.
Since Gmirkin’s analysis places the origin of the first five books of the Bible in Hellenistic times (the third century BCE) it would follow from the state of the evidence as alluded to above that Genesis 1
arguably represents the earliest expression of monotheism among the Jews and Samaritans, alongside the equally novel benevolent terrestrial polytheism of the rest of Genesis. (249)
So in Genesis we have an expression of the Plato-like supreme and sole deity, existing outside space and time, creating the cosmos and then retiring, followed by references to what looks like another deity (Yahweh) living and interacting with mortals (e.g. in Garden of Eden, with Cain and Abel, visiting and eating a meal with Abraham, wrestling with Jacob), along with patriarchs honouring the gods of the Canaanites (e.g. with Melchizedek at Salem, Bethel, El Shaddai, El Olam . . .). At the same time we find the patriarchs enjoying positive relations with their “pagan” neighbours. Abraham bonds with Amorites, engages in peaceful negotiations with Hittites and Philistines, is honoured by Egyptians, while breakdowns only happen as a result of personal wrongs and not because of any “evil” inherent in the different races themselves.
After Genesis, Yahweh changed
In both the stories and legal content of Exodus-Joshua one sees the rejection of benevolent terrestrial polytheism in favor of a Yahwistic monolatry that equated the local patron god of the Jews and the Samaritans with the creator of the universe and which opposed the gods of the nations and their cultic practices. Given that Exodus-Joshua was arguably written contemporaneously with Genesis . . . , yet from a radically different perspective, this suggests a fundamental clash in philosophy and agenda between authorial groups involved in the creation of the Hexateuch ca. 270 BCE. (Gmirkin, 249)
There are other authors who argue that a single author was responsible for the Pentateuch: Bernard Barc, Thomas Brodie, Jan-Wim Wesselius and Philippe Wajdenbaum. (See the post, Did A Single Author Write Genesis – II Kings?) Barc, who also argues for a Hellenistic origin of the Pentateuch, views the respective appearances of the god El and the god Yahweh as two different “forms” (hypostases) of the Most High and each performs an allotted function in a single plan of history. Gmirkin argues for a deeper influence of Plato and other Greek ideas on the text. A difficulty for the average reader when pondering this question is the fact that most Bibles are translations of a Hebrew text that was finalized in the Christian era. To discover earlier versions requires a comparison with ancient Greek translations and the Dead Sea Scrolls (first addressed here). We also have the question of how the final editor made changes to Genesis when he incorporated the work into a set with the following books.
Are the views of Barc, Brodie, Wesselius and Wajdenbaum able to respond adequately to the challenges Gmirkin raises? My next task is to step back and refresh my memory of the details of all of Gmirkin’s works and try to see how all of the evidence coheres.
Gmirkin does, however, offer a plausible response to those who find themselves troubled over what seems to be a fuzzy line between the gods and cults in Genesis but it casts an eye beyond Plato. Elohim is the creator but Yahweh-Elohim engages with humans; El Elyon and El Shaddai are both “Els”. In the views of the Stoic philosophers the many Greek gods were different aspects of “one god”:
Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 7.147.
The deity, say they, is a living being, immortal, rational, perfect or intelligent in happiness, admitting nothing evil, taking providential care of the world and all that therein is, but he is not of human shape. He is, however … called many names according to his various powers. They give the name Dia (Δία) because all things arc due to (διά) him; Zeus (Ζήνα) in so far as he is the cause of life (ζην) or pervades all life; the name Athena is given, because the ruling part of the divinity extends to the aether; the name Hera marks its extension to the air; he is called Hephaestus since it spreads to the creative fire; Poseidon, since it stretches to the sea; Demeter, since it reaches to the earth. Similarly, men have given the deity his other titles, fastening, as best they can, on some one or other of his peculiar attributes.
It is possible that the well-known Stoic assimilation of the Greek gods to their monotheistic god, the creative fire, influenced the biblical conflation of deities associated with various titles of the ancient god El with the local patron god Yahweh. (Gmirkin, 300, my formatting)
Let’s continue Gmirkin’s discussion.
Something Completely Different: Here is a light-hearted digression on God’s treatment of the Egyptians at the Red Sea that comes from a study on the history of swimming through the ages:
The Hebrews left Egypt ‘with boldness’, but when they reach the Red Sea they accuse Moses, ‘Have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you so dealt with us, to bring us up out of Egypt?’ Moses (brought up by Egyptians, and perhaps therefore knowing how to swim himself ) soothes the Hebrews, and tells them not to be afraid. He stretches out his hand over the sea. God parts the Red Sea for the Hebrews, and then drowns the Egyptians. . . . .
This was the reverse of what readers might have expected, knowing that the Egyptians had always been strong swimmers and the Hebrews had never known how to swim. The parting of the Red Sea takes on new meaning when we realize that the Hebrews are non-swimmers, afraid of the water, being pursued by confident, experienced Egyptian swimmers.
It is only after Genesis, in the book of Exodus, that Yahweh claims to have been the God of the Patriarchs in Genesis and that he will tolerate no rivals. The covenant he makes with his people is to wipe out the Canaanites after having reigned death and destruction on the Egyptians.
God — Yahweh — has changed.
What of the god of the Flood, though? Did not Gmirkin say the biblical author had a more vicious view of god than Plato. At least Plato’s deity sought to discipline humans through calamity for their own good while the biblical god simply wanted to destroy humanity outright. Perhaps some of the Genesis authors also slightly wavered in their view of Yahweh’s character.
Plato’s Program and the Birth of Montheism
Gmirkin concludes from his comparative analysis that the Pentateuch was the work of authors united in seeking to introduce Plato’s program for an ideal society.
Plato taught that there was a supreme deity, formless and beyond space and time, yet who was perfectly good. Such an idea arose from the attempts of Greek philosophers to understand the origins of the universe. This concept of god (Gmirkin traces in some depth the history of the idea and the different functions of the gods of the Greek civic cults, the gods of the literary mythical world and god(s) of the natural philosophers) was the beginning of monotheism as we understand the term.
For Plato (and much of the western world has followed his idea) belief in the concept of a supreme, perfectly good deity is the first requirement of a virtuous society.
Civic authorities periodically accused and punished philosophers who openly taught “atheism” — which was how they understood the new monotheism with its implication of the rejection of other gods. Plato, however, found a role for these lesser gods in the wider society despite his philosophical preference for monotheism. But those lesser deities needed to be refashioned through literature and other arts and regular festivals as perfectly good. Old myths of gods misbehaving had to be banned. People could continue to cement their social bonds by gathering for the worship of these earthly, yet now “purified”, deities.
These ideas of Plato are what Gmirkin finds in Genesis.
Plato further envisioned a Nocturnal Council of the piously qualified as a vital institution to rule his ideal society. Members would be responsible for maintaining the morality of the public and public administration.
In Plato’s Laws, the divine philosophical ruling class elite exercised its power through an institution called the Nocturnal Council to accord with its meetings in the pre-dawn hours (Laws 12.95Id, 961b). Although Laws never explicitly mentions philosophers, “the members of the Nocturnal Council are philosophers in all but name” (Hull 2019: 217). The major function of the Nocturnal Council was to control the internal affairs of the nation. The ruling class elites of this “divine council” (Laws 12.969b; cf. the “divine polity” of 12.965c) would administer the nation’s new laws (Laws 7.809b; 12.951d, 952a-b) and education (Laws 7.811c-812a; 12.951d, 952a-b, 964b-c) from the earliest age on (Laws 12.952b), approve and strictly control its literature (Laws 7.802b-c, 811c-e) and enforce its religious beliefs (Laws 10.908e-909d), controlling the beliefs, and even the collective national memory of the populace, who would come to regard their constitution and way of life as established since time immemorial by their patron gods (Laws 7.798a-b). Through this new theocratic form of government in which the people believed they were under divine rule, the whole of national life would come under the perpetual control and guidance of philosophers, with the willing cooperation of the people who believed their leaders to be the divine agents of the supreme god. (Gmirkin, 268)
While the exoteric function of the Nocturnal Council was the administration of the state and its beliefs through control of its legislation, literature, education and religion, its even more important esoteric function was the continued pursuit of philosophical and scientific studies, thought to be essential to the proper administration of the polis. The Nocturnal Council thus functioned both as the ruling body of government and as a university for the continued study of theology, astronomy, ethics and international law, like Plato’s Academy (Morrow 1993: 509;Hull 2019: 228). Investing the nation’s highest educational institution with the full power of government not only ensured wise philosophical rule in the present but allowed the perpetuation of training in the arts of enlightened government from one generation to the next (Laws 12.960d-961b, 965a-b). (Gmirkin, 269)
Russell Gmirkin concludes his second last chapter with a look beyond Genesis to highlight the plausibility of Plato’s Timaeus and Critias influencing some of Exodus, Deuteronomy and Joshua.
In Critias Plato was composing an account of Athenian origins and its political organization, a politogony. Gmirkin cites Naddaf’s The Greek Concept of Nature which I turned to and read how various Greek poets and philosophers were interested in writing accounts that began with a cosmogony, then moved on to an anthropogony or zoogony, and finally came to a politogony — all of which seems to me to encapsulate the structure of Genesis and the Pentateuch: creation of the cosmos is the opening chapter, then the creation of humans and how humans came to be organized as they are across the inhabited world, and finally how thbe nation of Israel came about with its laws, priesthood, tribal organization as well as how its relations with other peoples originated. After writing the above I quickly checked the early chapters of Gmirkin’s book and found he had made just that point from the outset.
Plato’s account of Atlantis is set in mythical time: the god Poseidon married the mortal, Cleito, and fathered five pairs of twins who became princes ruling the ten tribes of the land. These ten leaders ruled independently as kings but swore allegiance to be one with each other in loyalty and policies and keep forever the laws of Poseidon. Those laws were inscribed on a pillar and kept in the temple. Gmirkin is, of course, prompting us to compare this scenario with the organization of Israel and its covenant with Yahweh.
One can point to the many obvious differences between Plato’s Critias and the biblical book of Exodus. My own approach to such comparative studies is to examine how unique the comparisons are and whether we can find in those similarities explanations for the differences that go beyond the ad hoc. The most significant place where a comparison must begin is the fact that in the following scene we look in vain, as far as I am aware, for parallels in the literature of the Levant or Mesopotamia.
National Covenant with Yahweh || National Covenant with Poseidon
Some similarities between Plato’s Critias and the scene of Israel swearing obedience to their god at Mount Sinai in the Book of Exodus:
Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (4) And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord.
And whatsoever bull they captured they led up to the pillar and cut its throat over the top of the pillar, raining down blood on the inscription.
He rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and set up twelve pillars, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel.
And inscribed upon the pillar, besides the laws, was an oath which invoked mighty curses upon them that disobeyed.
(5) He sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed oxen as offerings of well-being to the Lord.
When, then, they had done sacrifice according to their laws and were consecrating (120a) all the limbs of the bull,
(6) Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he dashed against the altar.
they mixed a bowl of wine and poured in on behalf of each one a gout of blood, and the rest they carried to the fire, when they had first purged the pillars round about.
(7) Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.”
And after this they drew out from the bowl with golden ladles, and making libation over the fire swore to give judgment according to the laws upon the pillar and to punish whosoever had committed any previous transgression; and, moreover, that henceforth they would not transgress any of the writings willingly, nor govern nor submit to any governor’s edict (120b) save in accordance with their father’s laws.
(8) Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people, and said, “See the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
And when each of them had made this invocation both for himself and for his seed after him, he drank of the cup and offered it up as a gift in the temple of the God
The similarities between the passages were pointed out by Philippe Wajdenbaum in Argonauts of the Desert and Gmirkin has gone another step in spelling out specific points for comparison:
the moment of the creation of a new nation is identified in a single episodic event;
all the tribes of the nation are assembled and participate;
a sacrifice seals the event, with bulls representing the tribes;
there is an altar with an associated pillar or pillars;
blood is (a) splashed about to consecrate the place of sacrifice and (b) poured into ceremonial vessels;
laws are inscribed on the pillar or altar [in Exodus the laws were written in a book, but later in Deuteronomy and Joshua they were inscribed in stone: see below];
a solemn oath or covenant to obey all the words of the law;
strong curses invoked for disobedience to the laws [see below – Deut 27, 28, 29];
the oath is binding on those present as well as their descendants [Deut 28].
Such strong and systematic literary parallels exist between Exodus 24 and no other passage in Greek literature.29 Conversely, no literary parallels exist between Exodus 24 and Ancient Near Eastern literature or inscriptions, where there is no example of citizens entering into a covenant to obey a law collection, and where indeed the laws carried no prescriptive force.
29 A minor difference is that in Exodus 24 and Deuteronomy, it was the entire assembled children of Israel who were enjoined to obedience to the laws and who were entered [into] the covenant, whereas in Critias it was the ten princes who ruled in the kingdom of Atlantis.
(Gmirkin, 237, 241 — bolding is my own in all quotations)