Is it possible to set forth a plausible case that the Genesis author of Noah’s Flood was inspired in any way by his reading of Plato’s myth of Atlantis? There can be no doubt that the author was influenced by an ancient Mesopotamian story so let’s establish that undeniable source for Genesis with Russell Gmirkin’s own acknowledgement:
The traditional view of scholars is that the Genesis flood derived from sources extant no later than the time of the seventh to sixth-century Babylonian captivity. Gmirkin expands the field for literary comparison to include third-century BCE Hellenistic-era works and identifies Berossus as the Genesis’ author’s source for the Mesopotamian myth. In the words of another author, Philippe Wajdenbaum,
Even if the most ancient version of the deluge comes from the Sumerian tradition, and even if the biblical writer knew of this tradition, he inserted it into a platonic framework. . . . The first eleven chapters of Genesis are indeed inspired by Mesopotamian myths, but there is a more recent Greek layer that is just as obvious. The evolution of humankind in the Bible—from the ideal life in Eden to the degeneration that led up to the deluge, and from the discussion of patriarchal life to the gift of laws— is all found in Plato’s dialogues.(Wajdenbaum, 107)
What, then, is Gmirkin’s view of that “more recent Greek layer” that Wajdenbaum (see the side box) speaks about?
Here are the common elements between Plato’s story of Atlantis and the Genesis Flood:
Both stories are preceded by a “golden age” of innocence and abundance when the deity (Poseidon, Yahweh) ruled directly with his people; .
Both stories depict a descent into corruption after sons of gods marry mortal women: in the myth of Atlantis immorality increases over generations as the divine element in the demigods becomes diluted through ongoing marriages with mortals; in Genesis the corruption is said to happen following the sons of the gods taking women and producing “nephilim”. (An important note needs to be injected here for those of us conditioned to think that Genesis 6 is referring to demons (“sons of god/s”) descending to earth to take human women. That interpretation arose later in Jewish tradition with works like Enoch and Jubilees. There is no suggestion in Genesis 6 that these “sons of god/s” were demonic or evil. They are introduced, rather, as producing “men of renown”, though they later descended into violence.)
.Plato’s Critias 121
[After earlier describing the god Poseidon taking the human girl Cleito and with her producing generations of highly renowned kings, the first named Atlas … ] But when the divine portion within them began to fade, as a result of constantly being diluted by large measures of mortality, and their mortal nature began to predominate, they became incapable of bearing their prosperity and grew corrupt. Anyone with the eyes to see could mark the vileness of their behaviour as they destroyed the best of their valuable possessions; but those who were blind to the life that truly leads to happiness regarded them as having finally attained the most desirable and enviable life possible, now that they were infected with immoral greed [or “lawless ambition”] and power.
Zeus looks down, sees the degeneration, and decides to pass judgment:
Zeus, god of gods, who reigns by law, did have the eyes to see such things. He recognized the degenerate state of their fair line and wished to punish them, as a way of introducing more harmony into their lives. He summoned all the gods to a meeting in the most awesome of his dwellings, which is located in the centre of the entire universe and so sees all of creation. And when the gods had assembled, he said . . .
Now it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men, that they were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves of all whom they chose. . . . There were giants on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.
Yahweh, like Zeus, sees the corruption and announced judgement:
Then [Yahweh] saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And [Yahweh] was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. . . .
The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. So God looked upon the earth, and indeed it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth.
Continuing the series discussing Russell Gmirkin’s Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts . . . .
The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden in Eden (note, not expelled from the land of Eden but only from Eden’s Garden) generally coincides with the Greek mythological Age of Zeus that succeeded the idyllic golden age of Kronos:
The proliferation of cities, kings and technology broadly conforms to the rise of civilization and self-sufficiency in the Age of Zeus in Greek sources from Hesiod to Plato. (Gmirkin, 210)
So let’s recap with Hesiod’s poem Works and Days:
The gods desire to keep the stuff of life Hidden from us. If they did not, you could Work for a day and earn a year’s supplies; You’d pack away your rudder, and retire The oxen and the labouring mules. But Zeus Concealed the secret, angry in his heart At being hoodwinked by Prometheus, And so he thought of painful cares for men. (lines 42ff)
Hesiod wrote of the change Zeus sent through Pandora:
Before this time men lived upon the earth Apart from sorrow and from painful work, Free from disease, which brings the Death-gods in. But now the woman opened up the cask, And scattered pains and evils among men. Inside the cask’s hard walls remained one thing, Hope, only, which did not fly through the door. The lid stopped her, but all the others flew, Thousands of troubles, wandering the earth. The earth is full of evils, and the sea. Diseases come to visit men by day And, uninvited, come again at night Bringing their pains in silence, for they were Deprived of speech by Zeus the Wise. And so There is no way to flee the mind of Zeus. (lines 90ff)
Hesiod pictured successive races, each having to suffer more than the previous one:
Far-seeing Zeus then made another race, The fifth, who live now on the fertile earth. I wish I were not of this race, that I Had died before, or had not yet been born. This is the race of iron. Now, by day, Men work and grieve unceasingly; by night, They waste away and die. The gods will give Harsh burdens, but will mingle in some good. (lines 196ff)
Hesiod addresses his instruction to a nobleman, Perses, appropriately given that the nobility saw themselves as direct descendants of Zeus:
O noble Perses [literally, “Perses, of the genus of the gods], keep my words in mind, And work till Hunger is your enemy And till Demeter, awesome, garlanded, Becomes your friend and fills your granary. For Hunger always loves a lazy man. (lines 299ff)
And so Adam was charged with the toil and hardship to survive:
Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread (Gen 3:17-19)
Moving ahead to Cain’s exile from the land of Eden, we cover here chapters 4 to 6 that are each widely understood to be derived from different source material. In chapter 4 Gmirkin identifies Plato’s broad narrative framework although the detail of the text originated elsewhere.
16 Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden. 17 And Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. And he built a city . . .
The problems in the narrative that have long confused readers — where did Cain get his wife? how could he build a city without other people? — disappear if read against the background of Plato’s myth in Critias, his successor to Timaeus. With Critias in the background we can picture Cain being expelled from the land of Eden, which was Yahweh’s territory, into another region of other people ruled by another deity.
Unlike omnipresent depictions of Yahweh in Psalms, Amos, Jonah, here one could escape beyond that god’s presence.
Plato’s Critias 109 b
Once upon a time, the gods divided the whole earth among themselves, region by region. . . . So each gained by just allocation what belonged to him, established communities in his lands, and, having done so, began to look after us, his property and creatures, as a shepherd does his flocks . . .
. . . and called the name of the city after the name of his son—Enoch.
18 To Enoch was born Irad;
and Irad begot Mehujael,
and Mehujael begot Methushael,
and Methushael begot Lamech.
19 Then Lamech took for himself two wives: the name of one was Adah, and the name of the second was Zillah.
20 And Adah bore Jabal. He was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock. 21 His brother’s name was Jubal. He was the father of all those who play the harp and flute. 22 And as for Zillah, she also bore Tubal-Cain, an instructor of every craftsman in bronze and iron.
Lists of inventors were popular in both the Greek world and the Ancient Near East (Gmirkin, 210)
Yahweh Elohim was the god of the land of Eden and its people.
Cassuto in his commentary (pp. 228ff) argues that the grammatical construction of the key passage better suggests that it was Cain’s son, Enoch, who built the first city, Irad — which would coincide with the Babylonian tradition that the first city was Eridu.
The firstling of those cities, Eridu, she gave to the leader Nudimmud. (The Eridu Genesis — Jacobsen, 518)
These Apkallü . . . are the wise men known from mythology who rose from the sea in prehistoric times to reveal science, social forms and art to man. Since for the Sumerians there was something supernatural about these concepts, a primordial revelation was necessary. . . .
Ninagal . . . the blacksmith’s work; . . . Nungalpiriggal is . . . the inventor of the lyre (or the harp) . . . (Dijk, 45, 49)
The fish-figurines …. the apkallus, often occurring in groups of seven . . . represent Oannes and the other fish-like monsters who, according to Berossos’ account, taught mankind all crafts and civilization. (Riener, 6)
First therefore he who introduced to the Greeks the common letters, even the very first elements of grammar, namely Cadmus, was a Phoenician by birth . . . The healing art is said to have been invented by Apis the Egyptian . . . Atlas the Libyan was the first who built a ship, and sailed the sea. . . . (Eusebius, Prae X, v… vi)
Demeter – gave cultivation of grain; Dionysus, – viticulture; Apollo, the calendar and lyre; Prometheus, fire… (Seters, 83)
Arion … invented and named the dithyramb. . . . Glaucus … the inventor of the art of welding. . . . (Herodotus, I)
With Genesis 5 we begin a new genealogy from Adam, the ten generations up to the Flood. Gmirkin first set out his case for this section being derived from the Hellenistic era author, Berossus in Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus. While Mesopotamian years for each pre-flood generation was measured in the tens of thousands (totalling approximately two hundred thousand years) Plato spoke of a beginning closer to ten thousand years before his time, and a calculation of the Bible’s beginnings are shorter still.
The most that can be inferred from Genesis itself is that the Primordial History is set a few thousand years in the past, approximately in line with contemporary Greek theories. Although Genesis 5 also adopted a scheme of ten long-lived patriarchs before the flood, under the influence of the Babyloniaca of Berossus (Gmirkin 2006: 107-8), its chronological scheme is more in line with Greek than Mesopotamian estimates of the age of the world. (Gmirkin, 213)
Calculations for the time of creation vary, and the differences between the Hebrew and Septuagint versions are most pronounced. But those who are intrigued by the common calculation that Adam was created 1656 or 1657 years before the flood will be interested in how Cassuto relates this figure to the Mesopotamian methods of calculation:
Of the round numbers referred to, which are composed according to the sexagesimal system, one is 600,000—sixty myriads— a high figure that indicates an exceedingly large amount. Now 600,000 days make 1643 solar years of 365 days each. If we add seven plus seven, as was done in the case of Methuselah’s years, we obtain exactly 1657. We have here, then, a pattern similar to that of the Babylonian chronology: a number based on the sexagesimal principle with the addition of twice times seven. (Cassuto, 261)
This is the book of the genealogy of Adam. In the day that God created man, He made him in the likeness of God. 2 He created them male and female, and blessed them and called them Mankind in the day they were created. 3 And Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and begot a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth. 4 After he begot Seth, the days of Adam were eight hundred years; and he had sons and daughters. 5 So all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years; and he died.
6 Seth lived one hundred and five years, and begot Enosh. 7 After he begot Enosh, Seth lived eight hundred and seven years, and had sons and daughters. 8 So all the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years; and he died.
9 Enosh lived ninety years, and begot [a]Cainan. 10 After he begot Cainan, Enosh lived eight hundred and fifteen years, and had sons and daughters. 11 So all the days of Enosh were nine hundred and five years; and he died.
12 Cainan lived seventy years, and begot Mahalalel. 13 After he begot Mahalalel, Cainan lived eight hundred and forty years, and had sons and daughters. 14 So all the days of Cainan were nine hundred and ten years; and he died.
15 Mahalalel lived sixty-five years, and begot Jared. 16 After he begot Jared, Mahalalel lived eight hundred and thirty years, and had sons and daughters. 17 So all the days of Mahalalel were eight hundred and ninety-five years; and he died.
18 Jared lived one hundred and sixty-two years, and begot Enoch. 19 After he begot Enoch, Jared lived eight hundred years, and had sons and daughters. 20 So all the days of Jared were nine hundred and sixty-two years; and he died.
21 Enoch lived sixty-five years, and begot Methuselah. 22 After he begot Methuselah, Enoch walked with God three hundred years, and had sons and daughters. 23 So all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. 24 And Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.
25 Methuselah lived one hundred and eighty-seven years, and begot Lamech. 26 After he begot Lamech, Methuselah lived seven hundred and eighty-two years, and had sons and daughters. 27 So all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred and sixty-nine years; and he died.
28 Lamech lived one hundred and eighty-two years, and had a son. 29 And he called his name Noah,[b] saying, “This one will comfort us concerning our work and the toil of our hands, because of the ground which the Lord has cursed.” 30 After he begot Noah, Lamech lived five hundred and ninety-five years, and had sons and daughters. 31 So all the days of Lamech were seven hundred and seventy-seven years; and he died.
32 And Noah was five hundred years old, and Noah begot Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
Despite several of the same or similar names appearing in Genesis 4 and 5, in a different order (Westermann 1984: 348-9), it is noteworthy that no narrative connections were made with the seven generations of the line of Cain in Genesis 4, nor any attribution of important inventions to Seth’s descendants, nor any anecdotes regarding the growing violence of the pre-flood world. Genesis 4 and 5 thus appear to be independently authored narratives of the antediluvian world, linked only by the artificial coordination of these two accounts at Gen 4:25-26 (cf. Westermann 1984: 338). The names common to the two genealogies suggest they both made use of related antecedent source material whose character cannot now be recovered.
The narrative objective of Genesis 5 appears to be extremely limited: to give a detailed chronological framework for the antediluvian world. (Gmirkin, 211)
Westermann’s inability to consider the possibility that the author of Genesis was indebted to Berossus is evident when he wrote:
Before the discovery of the cuneiform texts, one had seen the prototype of Enoch in the seventh king of the list of Berossos, Evedoranchos = Enmeduranki. It was said of him that he was taken up into the company of Shamash and Ramman and was inducted into the secrets of heaven and earth. Since the new discoveries have shown that the parallel between the series of ten in Berossos and Gen 5 is no longer tenable, one can no longer maintain a dependence of what is said of Enoch in Gen 5 on the seventh king in Berossos (nevertheless U. Cassuto still does). (Westermann, 358)
The Cassuto reference to which W. refers:
In the Babylonian tradition, the seventh king in the list of ante-diluvian kings—who thus corresponds to the Biblical Enoch, the son of Jared—is likewise distinguished from the other monarchs. His name appears as Enme(n)duranna in the list of kings; as Enmeduranki in another document, belonging to the worship of the diviner-priests (K. 2486); and as (this is apparently the correct reading) in Berossus. The inscription K. 2486 records all sorts of wonderful tales about this king. Although the text has been badly damaged, the essential subject-matter, despite the obliterations, is clear, to wit, that Enmeduranki was beloved of the gods Anu, Bel, Šamaš and Adad, and that these deities, or some of them, (made him) an associate of theirs, (placed him) on a throne of gold, and transmitted to him their secrets, the secrets of heaven and earth, and gave him possession of the tablets of the gods, the cedar rod, and the secret of divination by means of pouring oil upon water (a method of divination that was also known among the Israelites . . . ). Enmeduranki was regarded as the father of the diviner-priests— their father in the sense that he was the originator of their doctrine, and also in the physical connotation of the term . . . every diviner-priest (barû) claimed descent from him. (Cassuto, 282f)
We have seen how Plato described the newly created earth being divided up among the various gods and goddesses, with each pair of deities appearing to create their own first humans from the dust of their respective allotted territory. Athena and Hephaestus gave their first humans of Attica or the city of Athens, divine forms of government, wisdom, crafts, prowess in war, and so forth. The god Poseidon was given the region beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, the land of Atlantis. Poseidon … well, read for yourself Plato’s account of what happened next…
This post continues the series discussing Russell Gmirkin’s Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts.
After the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden we enter a new series of adventures that find their counterpart in the next book by Plato, Critias. Here we are led to understand that the land of Eden was only one part of the created world and that Cain, on being exiled from Eden itself, enters another land presumably inhabited by other peoples removed from the presence of the god Yahweh Elohim. We read names renowned for inventing the various crafts and arts of civilization and the building of the first cities. We read of “sons of gods” marrying mortal women and producing heroic warriors. We read of violence spiralling out of control and of Yahweh deciding to end it all by wiping out all humanity and every living thing in a cataclysmic flood. He is persuaded, however, to spare one family to start anew. Finally, new ethnic groups are once again scattered across the world from the tower of Babel.
We know the story but as long as we are sure that it was composed long before the classical era of Greece (from the fourth century BCE) and look only to possible antecedents in the Mesopotamian region then we will miss the remarkably distinct parallels with Greek myth. Yes, there is no doubt that the Flood story in Genesis is derived from an early Babylonian story, and the tower of Babel is obviously focused on Babylon, — no question there. But keep in mind that “Hellenistic” culture was initially about blending, uniting, the cultures of the east and west, of the lands once ruled by Persia with the values and ideas of their Greek conquerors.
This is Russell Gmirkin’s contribution to the way we view the Bible — to test the possibility that Genesis and its companion literature were written as late as the Hellenistic era:
The current chapter shifts the focus to Critias, Plato’s sequel to Timaeus. The use of Critias as a model for the antediluvian world in Genesis has not previously been proposed by biblical critics. While Timaeus was concerned with the origins of the kosmos, of life and death, and of human moral sensibilities and failings, Critias presented a tale set in earliest mythical times that laid out the devolution of ideal political institutions, established by the gods, into a spiral of ambition and violence divinely punished by cataclysmic earthquake and flood that ended the Age of Heroes and overflowed the mythical continent of Atlantis. (p. 199 — my highlighting in all quotations)
Genesis is an odd mix. It begins with a stately account of creation in six days — all in coherence with the scientific thought of the Hellenistic era — but then shifts to mythical tales of talking snakes and “sons of gods” marrying mortal women. In Gmirkin’s view, it is as if we are reading a work that “consciously mimic[s] Plato’s Timaeus (the scientific and theological narrative) and Critias (mythical narrative).”
I had initially expected to post a discussion of the entire seventh chapter but instead have resolved to post a series of smaller units, each one covering one aspect of the primeval history from Cain to Babel. Instead of quoting Gmirkin and others he references, I have decided to cut to the chase and allow you to see for yourselves how episodes from Genesis compare with Greek literature. My quotations are selective. I have omitted details that do not find correspondence. For example, Plato’s account of Atlantis speaks of building a palace for Poseidon. Gmirkin remarks that in Genesis, since Yahweh Elohim converses with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, it can be assumed that he has a temple or mansion of some kind there, too. But of course if that is what the Genesis author and his audience took for granted it is not mentioned. So I have omitted from my selections Plato’s description of the god’s palace.
Russell Gmirkin additionally discusses other options that have been proposed as models of the Garden of Eden: the royal parks of the kings of Assyria, temple gardens of Mesopotamia, and other Mesopotamian mythical stories such as Gllgamesh. He finds little strong comparison in any of those alternatives. (See the post following this one for some instances of what have ben considered “Garden of Eden” parallels in ancient Sumerian literature.) Why would a supply source for pagan temples be an inspiration for the Genesis author? Or why the hunting grounds of an Assyrian king?
Homer, Hesiod, Pindar
Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground (Gen 2:7)
[Athens] was founded first, when the goddess received your rootstock from Earth and Hephaestus (Timaeus 23e)
There lived on this hill a man who was one of the original earth-born men of the land. (Critias 113c)
we’ve also heard from many about the kingship exercized by Kronos, And . . . that earlier men were born from the earth (Statesman, 269a-b)
Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.
The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. . . .
A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters.The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah,
where there is gold.(The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.)
The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. . . .
Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
Now the serpent . . . said to the woman, . . . The woman said to the serpent . . .
. . . the serpent said to the woman “. . . your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom . . . *
Yahweh Elohim . . . was walking in the garden in the cool of the day . . .
(Gen 2:8-14, 25; 3:1-8)
Poseidon, as a god, easily organized the central island [of Atlantis]. Once he had fetched up two underground springs — one warm, the other flowing cold from its source — and caused all kinds of food to grow in sufficient quantities from the soil . . . . the island by itself provided them with most of the necessities of life. . . They had everything, [precious stones and metals] that could be mined from the ground, and in fact in many parts of the island there was dug up from the ground something which is now no more than a name, although in those days it was an actual fact and was second in value only to gold — orichalc [which gleamed like fire]. . . . Everything aromatic the earth produces today in the way of roots or shoots or shrubs or gums exuded by flowers or fruits was produced and supported by the island then. . . . Any water which overflowed was channelled to the grove of Poseidon, where all the various species of trees grew to be beautiful and extraordinarily tall thanks to the fertility of the soil, . . . Streams descending from the mountains drained into it, and it made a complete circuit of the plain, . . . and then the water was allowed to discharge into the sea. (Critias 113e – 114e. 115a, 117b, 118d)
Trees and flowers and fruit, grow in proportion; and again, the mountains contain stones likewise, whose smoothness, transparency, and beauty of colour are in the same proportion; it is from these that the little stones we value, sardian stones, jaspers, emeralds, and all such, are pieces; but there, every single one is like that, or even more beautiful still. . . . But the true earth is adorned with all these things, and with gold and silver also, and with the other things of that kind as well. For they are plainly visible, being many in number, large, and everywhere upon the earth. (Phaedo 110d-111c)
. . . the parts of the world-order having everywhere been divided up by gods ruling over them; moreover divine spirits had divided living things between them, like herdsmen, by kind and by herd, each by himself providing independently for all the needs of those he tended, so that none of them was savage, nor did they eat each other, and there was no war or internal dissent at all. . . . But to return to what has been reported about a life for human beings without toil, the origin of the report is something like this. A god tended them, taking charge of them himself, . . . they had an abundance of fruits from trees and many other plants, not growing through cultivation but because the earth sent them up of its own accord. For the most part they would feed outdoors, naked and without bedding; for the blend of the seasons was without painful extremes, and they had soft beds from abundant grass that sprang from the earth. What I describe, then, Socrates, is the life of those who lived in the time Kronos . . . Well then, if, with so much leisure available to them, and so much possibility of their being able to get together in conversation not only with human beings but also with animals – . . . to do philosophy, talking both with animals and with each other, and inquiring from all kinds of creatures whether any one of them had some capacity of its own that enabled it to see better in some way than the rest with respect to the gathering together of wisdom, the judgement is easy, that those who lived then were far, far more fortunate than those who live now. (Statesman, 271c-272c)
. . . the Elysian plain at the world’s end, . . . where living is made easiest for mankind, where no snow falls, no strong winds blow and there is never any rain, but day after day the West Wind’s tuneful breeze comes in from Ocean to refresh its folk. (Homer, Odyssey IV, 563-569)
The gods, who live on Mount Olympus, first Fashioned a golden race of mortal men; These lived in the reign of Kronos, king of heaven. And like the gods they lived with happy hearts untouched by work or sorrow. Vile old age never appeared, but always lively-limbed, far from all ills, they feasted happily. Death came to them as sleep, and all good things were theirs; ungrudgingly, the fertile land gave up her fruits unasked. Happy to be at peace, they lived with every want supplied, (Hesiod, Works and Days, 110-120)
But with nights equal forever, with sun equal in their days, the good men have life without labor . . . . Beside the high gods they who had joy in keeping faith lead a life without tears. . . . . But they who endure thrice over in the world beyond to keep their souls from all sin have gone God’s way to the tower of Kronos; there winds sweep from the Ocean across the Island of the Blessed. Gold flowers to flame on land in the glory of trees; it is fed in the water, whence they bind bracelets to their arms and go chapleted . . . (Pindar, Olympian Ode 2)
* I have added, rightly or wrongly, to Russell Gmirkin’s notes of comparisons Plato’s suggestion that the impulse for conversation between humans and animals was “the getting of wisdom.” For another interpretation of Plato’s influence on the Genesis temptation narrative see The Temptation in the previous post.
(There is one other detail that I might develop later: Gmirkin explains certain contradictions in Genesis 1-2 as the consequence of different authors being responsible for different sections, so that the scientific portion of Genesis 1 had one author while the myth of Adam and Eve another. That may be so, but I also note that Plato himself is not consistent and while at one place he speaks of an idyllic age without need for technology and other time he describes technologies in that ideal world of the past. He didn’t seem to worry if he told a different version when a different purpose for the story was called for. Plato could also write both highly technical “scientific” discourses as well as dramatic and colourful myths within the one work.)
Gmirkin, Russell E. Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts: Cosmic Monotheism and Terrestrial Polytheism in the Primordial History. Abingdon, Oxon New York, NY: Routledge, 2022.
Plato. Timaeus and Critias. Translated by Robin Waterfield. OUP Oxford, 2008.
Plato. Phaedo. Translated by David Gallop. Clarendon Press, 1977.
Plato: Statesman. Translated by C. J. Rowe. First published 1995, Reprinted with corrections 2005. Warminster, England: Liverpool University Press, 1995.
Hesiod. Theogony ; Works and Days. Translated by Dorothea Wender. Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1973.
Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by E.V Rieu. Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin Books, 1946.
Pindar. The Odes Of Pindar. Translated by Richmond Lattimore. The University of Chicago Press, 1947.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image [LXX εικόνα], according to our likeness [LXX όμοίωσιν]; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image [LXX εικόνα], in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen 1:26-27)
RG focuses on two interesting details here.
1. Whereas plants, sea creatures, land animals are made “after their own kind”, mankind is made in the likeness of the gods — made in the genus of God.
In Gen 1:26 the Septuagint renders … “in our image according to our likeness” with …. “according to our image and according to [our] likeness”,. . . using the double κατά (“according to”) . . . . The κατά phrases . . . echo the phrase κατά γένος (“according to [its] kind”) of the preceding verses, suggesting more strongly than in the Hebrew that humankind belongs to the γένος [=race, genus] of God, or, at least, highlighting the contrast with the animals more strongly than in the Hebrew. (Loader, 27f)
2. In creating mankind we read God for the first time saying “Let us…”, that is, “Let us make man in our image.”
The language employed here, which points to some form of gathering of the gods, who state their intention to create humans in their image, implicitly recognizes older, polytheistic traditions. The announcement of their collective decision to make humankind suggests the divine council as narrative context (Westermann 1984: 144). Creation in the divine image is distantly reminiscent of Mesopotamian regnal imagery, where the king was created in a god’s image . . . , but here it was all of humanity that was created in the image of the gods. It is likely that both male and female gods were here envisioned, since humans were created “in the image of the Elohim… male and female” (Gen 1:27). (Gmirkin, 136)
“Let US . . .“
Various attempts have been made to explain God saying: “Let us….”. Westermann (cited by RG) believes the most economical explanation is that “Let us” implies a council of gods involved in the decision to create humans. Compelled to find out what was behind that interpretation I turned to Westermann who cited Schmidt and Schmidt, it turned out, said everything Westermann said except in German. (The price one sometimes pays just to be sure!) — Here is a synopsis of Schmidt’s (Westermann’s) argument:
Is it the Trinity speaking?
An early church view was that God was speaking as the Trinity. There is nothing else in Genesis to suggest the Trinity so we can put that view aside.
RG in another forum discounted the “plural of majesty” explanation:
I did a pretty thorough independent research on that whole “plural of majesty” thing. This theory was first put forward, as near as I can discover, after the time of Elizabeth I, who famously started the English custom of monarchs referring to themselves as “we”. I can find no evidence that this was earlier put forward as an explanation of Elohim, and no evidence of any ancient god in the Mediterranean or Ancient Near Eastern world in any language referring to themselves in the plural. I haven’t found other academics who have undertaken a similar study on the history of scholarship on this topic, so don’t cite me as a source, since there’s always the chance that I missed something. . . . .
Esther 8.8 allegedly has Ahasuareus refer to himself in the third person, but I don’t read it that way. In any case that is different from referring to himself in the plural (which I can’t find anywhere in Esther or elsewhere of a king or god in the biblical text). . . .
Is it a plural of majesty?
Another is that we have a “plural of majesty” … as in the monarch saying “we” where lesser mortals would simply say “I”. Exegetes who have worked on the view that Genesis was written very early have discounted that possibility because a clear instance of a “plural of majesty” only appears elsewhere for the first time in the mouth of the Persian king in the Book of Esther. (RG, though, does argue for a post-Persian era composition of Genesis.)
Is it a council of gods?
Note that God is found speaking of “us” in other books of the Old Testament whenever he is in a council with other divine beings. [See the insert below for references.] But again, many scholars have been reluctant to accept the view that God is addressing a council of gods in Genesis because they are convinced that the (“priestly”) author would never have thought to imagine God as a “first among equals”.
Is God talking to himself?
Another view: are we reading here God turning over an idea in his mind, speaking to himself? The problem with that view is that there is nothing in the declaration to suggest a pondering: the words are a proclamation, an announcement, of what “they” are about to do.
After weighing up the above options, Schmidt concludes that the sentence here is a relic from a polytheistic era. Both Schmidt and Westermann conclude that the saying originated in the context of a heavenly court of divine beings but continued as a form of speech even after the idea of a heavenly court was no longer part of their belief system. No doubt many later readers and copyists did treat it as a form of speech and ignored its original and literal meaning. But that leaves open the question of why the first author chose to use the expression. For RG, we have here one more instance of a borrowing from Plato:
In light of Plato’s Timaeus, the appearance of a multiplicity of gods becomes entirely comprehensible. (Gmirkin, 136)
In Timaeus the Demiurge or Craftsman God first created the universe and then in a subsequent stage delegated the creation of humanity to the other gods he had also created. That Creator God addressed these lesser deities to explain why he wanted them to be the ones to create humankind:
Once all the gods had been created — both those that traverse the heavens for all to see and those that make themselves visible when they choose — the creator of this universe of ours addressed them as follows: ‘Gods, divine works of which I am the craftsman and father, anything created by me is imperishable unless I will it. Any bond can be unbound, but to want to destroy a structure of beauty and goodness is a mark of evil. Hence, although as created beings you are not altogether immortal and indestructible, still you shall not perish nor shall death ever be your lot, since you have been granted the protection of my will, as a stronger and mightier bond than those with which you were bound at your creation. ‘Now mark my words and apprehend what I disclose to you. Three kinds of mortal creature remain yet uncreated, and while they remain so the universe will be incomplete, for it will not contain within itself all kinds of living creatures, as it must if it is to be perfect and complete. If I were to be directly responsible for their creation and their life, they would have the rank of gods. To ensure that they are mortal, and that this universe is truly whole, it is you who must, in fulfilment of your natures, imitate the power that I used in creating you and turn, as craftsmen, to the creation of living creatures. . . . .
After this, he handed over to the younger gods the task of forming their mortal bodies. When they had also created any further attributes a human soul might require, and whatever went along with such attributes, he left it up to them to govern and steer every mortal creature as best they could, so that each one would be as noble and good as it might be, apart from any self-caused evils. (41a – 42e; Waterfield translation)
20 For the celestial court, cf. 1 Kings 22:19—22; Isa. 6:8; Ps. 29:1-2; 82; 8926—7; Job 1:6; 2:1. In Job 38:7, divine beings are present at creation. The present interpretation is found in Gen. R. 8:3; Rashi. (p. 353)
Sarna in his commentary on Genesis supports the interpretation that “Let us” is a pointer to a heavenly court:
Let us make The extraordinary use of the first person plural evokes the image of a heavenly court in which God is surrounded by His angelic host.20 Such a celestial scene is depicted in several biblical passages. This is the Israelite version of the polytheistic assemblies of the pantheon — monotheized and depaganized. It is noteworthy that this plural form of divine address is employed in Genesis on two other occasions, both involving the fate of humanity: in 3:22, in connection with the expulsion from Eden; and 11:17, in reference to the dispersal of the human race after the building of the Tower of Babel. (Sarna, 12)
The image of God
What does the expression — “image of God, after our likeness” — mean? The fact that these words are not explained in Genesis indicates that it was well enough understood not to need further explanation at the time it was written (Schmidt, 136). So we must look for parallel usages. If we turn to Mesopotamian creation stories, however, we search in vain:
Can a precursor of the tradition be found in the ancient Orient? Although the similarity between God and man is repeatedly stated there in that man is said to be created from clay and the blood of the gods or even in the divine image, the expression “image of God” hardly has its home in the (Babylonian) creation myths. (Schmidt, 136f – translation. Cited by Clines who is cited by Gmirkin, 136)
Genesis 1 is not a science text. It is primarily a theological myth but it is theology and myth wrapped around a contemporary scientific understanding of how the earth and heavens came into existence. Russell Gmirkin in Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts sets out a case for the author(s) of Genesis 1 being well-read in the Greek literature of the third century BCE and composing an account designed to promote piety among the wider communities of Samaria and Judea.
Like Plato’s Craftsman God who shaped and ordered the primeval elements into a beautiful cosmos, the creator deity of Genesis 1 appears to stand apart from the chaos as he commences his work of “purposefully”, “intentionally”, fashioning everything to be “good”. He does this mostly by a process of dividing and separating elements, assigning each new item its appropriate name, and expressing satisfaction in the “goodness” of the completed product. In all of the above, Plato would have recognized in Genesis 1 a brief theological-scientific summary of his own understanding of how the creator god made the heavens and the earth. But there would have been a few details Plato disagreed with. The author of Genesis 1 was up to date with scientific theories that had been developed since Plato’s time.
The First Day
God said, “Let there be…” — Xenophanes: a supreme being set all things into motion by thoughts of his mind alone.
God said, “Let there be…” — Plato: Divine purpose
God separated the light from the darkness — Empedocles; Hesiod and Plato – cosmos was formed by separating its primary elements
God saw the light was good — Plato: God was good and creating the cosmos in his perfect image
Light appears before the sun is formed — Empedocles’ theory of aether; Zeno; also Hesiod and Plato
God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night” — Plato: the importance of names
Evening and morning were the first day — Plato: God’s first act of creation was time (days and nights and other means for measuring time)
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. (Gen 1:3)
How could a god create by merely saying a word? We are not reading about a magic performance because the command is not directed at any particular object to become something else. Plato does not express the idea of God creating by command, as RG notes. Rather,
The best parallel is perhaps provided by the natural philosopher Xenophanes, who held that the omnipotent supreme being effortlessly set all things into motion by the thoughts of his mind alone (Simplicius, Physics 23.11, 20; Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians 9.144; cf. Jaeger 1936: 45; Flannery 2010: 84) (Gmirkin, 126)
God saw that the light was good
He was good, and in him that is good no envy ariseth ever concerning anything; and being devoid of envy He desired that all should be, so far as possible, like unto Himself. (29e)
He fashioned the All, that so the work He was executing might be of its nature most fair and most good. (30b)
The separation of elements was a prominent theme of Greek science:
and God separated the light from the darkness (Gen 1:4)
But first, how could there be light before the creation of the sun? Hesiod wrote in Theogony, 123-125:
From Chaos were born Erebos [Darkness] and black Nyx [Night];
from Nyx were born Aither and Hemera [Day]
Aether is the light sky, created before the sun and stars.
The four elements together constitute unqualified substance or matter. Fire is the hot element, water the moist, air the cold, earth the dry. . . . Fire has the uppermost place ; it is also called aether, and in it the sphere of the fixed stars is first created ; then comes the sphere of the planets, next to that the air, then the water, and lowest of all the earth, which is at the centre of all things. (Diogenes Laertius, explaining the theory of Empedocles.)
Day and night were the first acts of God’s creation:
God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. (Gen 1:5)
. . . and Plato agreed. After creating the various elements themselves, Plato’s god began by creating time — “days and nights” — and the various heavenly bodies by which time was to be measured. The author of Genesis delayed those measuring devices until the fourth day.
For simultaneously with the construction of the Heaven He contrived the production of days and nights and months and years, which existed not before the Heaven came into being. And these are all portions of Time; even as “Was” and “Shall be” are generated forms of Time (Timaeus 37e)
The Second Day
Separation of earth and sky — Plato: Thus it was that in the midst between fire and earth God set water and air (Timaeus 32b)
And God made the dome in the middle of the waters — Plato: God is the Creator
And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. (Gen 1:6-8)
I have often read that passage as an account of some sort of iron dome in the sky, but though the idea of a metallic vault with holes to enable rain to fall is found elsewhere in the Bible it is not, RG points out, what is described in Genesis 1.
The air, which was lighter and warmer than the earth and seas, but not as light or hot as the tenuous realm of fiery aether, formed an intermediate zone between the earth and upper skies. It is evident that this airy region is designated in Genesis 1 as the expanse of the heavenly dome or firmament (raqia), since it is given the name Sky (Gen 1:8) and it is in this same sky that the fowl were later said to fly and in which the sun, moon, and stars were placed (Gen 1:17, 20). Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, the word raqia designates a metallic vault or dome above the earth, supported by the highest mountains, and as firm as a brazen mirror, and having doors and windows through which the rain and snow fell (Gen 7:11; 28:17; Ps 78:23), as in the Ancient Near Eastern mythical cosmogony. But no such meaning attaches to the term raqia here. Rather, raqia here appears as a simple legacy from the older, pre-scientific language usage, an old term for the sky familiar to the intended audience of Genesis 1, but used there without its mythical linguistic baggage. Rather, raqia is best understood as a simple reference to the dome of the sky. (p. 129)
The Third Day
Separation of earth and seas — Anaximander, Heraclitus, ….
God said, . . . — as above
Spontaneous generation of plants — Empedocles, Archelaus, Democritus, …
and it was so — as above
Plants are not “living souls” like animals — Zeno
God called the dry land “Earth”…. — as above
Plants emerge before the sun is formed –– Empedocles
God saw that it was good — as above
Classifications of plants (domestic and wild) — Plato, …
And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:9-10)
Recall from earlier posts the theories of Greek science that notion of like bodies being attracted to like, and the heavier sinking below while the lighter ones rose to the top, the dry elements gathering separately from the wet, the hot from the cold.
Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. (Gen 1:11-13)
Here we find a disagreement with Plato and Aristotle and a preference for the views of Zeno, the founder of Stoic philosophy. While Plato and Aristotle classified plants with animals (“living souls”) because they all possessed some ability to move, however limited, Zeno said that plants were not “ensouled creatures”.
[Gen 1:11-13] makes the claim, common in Greek science, that the first plant life sprung up from the earth by spontaneous generation. According to theories proposed by several natural philosophers, the seeds of life were present throughout the mixture of elements in the primordial chaos. (p. 131)
After initially generating spontaneously from the earth, the plants thereafter reproduced by means of seeds. Again, we have a scientific classification, this time of plants into two kinds according to their manner of propagating seeds.
Notice, also that plants are said to emerge before the sun is created. Compare the view of the Greek philosopher Empedocles who said
that trees were the first animals to grow up from the earth, before the sun was unfolded around it and before night and day were separated… They grow by being raised out by the heat in the earth, so that they are parts of the earth just as embryos in the abdomen are part of the womb. (Aetius 5.26.4)
The Fourth Day
Let there be lights… two great lights… — “description of heavenly bodies as lights or lamps (maor), a term also used for clay lamps and candlesticks (Ex 25:6; Num 4:9, 16; Ps 64:16). This indicates that the sun, moon and stars were viewed as vessels containing fire an idea also advocated by several noted philosophers (Anaxmines, Empedocles, Heraclitus), but contrary to the theory of Anaxagoras …” (p. 132)
God said, . . . — as above
set them in the dome of the sky — that is, in the atmosphere (as per various Greek philosophers)
and God made two great lights — as above
signs, seasons, years and days — the technical terms used here overlap with those in the Astronomical Book of Enoch (“signs” = points of the equinoxes and solstices). Commentaries generally say Enoch borrowed from Genesis, but it is possible that the Genesis author borrowed from Enoch (VanderKam, p. 97). RG states that he will discuss these matters in a future work on Babylonian and Samaritan scientific and mythical traditions in Genesis 1-11.
for signs and for seasons and for days and years. . . to give light upon the earth — Plato: the heavenly bodies were created and set in their motions for the benefit of humanity on earth; they were thus “proofs” of divine benevolence. (Other Greek philosophers disagreed, claiming they were thrown into their orbits and took on their characteristics by natural and unplanned processes.)
And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years. And let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day. (Gen 1:14-19)
Plato disagreed with other natural philosophers like Anaxagoras who understood the heavenly bodies to have been thrown into the upper regions because of their lighter nature and were ignited by clashing together, and such like. For Plato, there was nothing “natural” about the “design” of the orbits of these bodies: they were carefully set in their orbits by a divine intelligence for the benefit of humankind.
Along with the theology, RG points to three scientific details (concepts found among the Greek philosophers) here: these heavenly bodies were fire-containing vessels, were in the airy part of the heavens; and were useful for calendrical purposes.
The Fifth Day
Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures — an implicit endorsement of the Greek theory of panspermia, that the seeds of life were scattered throughout all primeval matter.
So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind — Contradicts the scientific opening pointing to spontaneous generation of the sea life and water-birds from the ocean. Here God fashions the sea life and water birds.
God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply — The word for “blessed” is a command: God is commanding them to reproduce sexually after their initial emergence/fashioning.
And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures (LXX ψυχών ζωσών), and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day. (Gen 1:20-23)
If the opening statement depicts spontaneous generation the later sentence has God making the sea creatures. For RG, this contradiction arises from the author attempting to impose a theological account on top of what was understood to be the scientific process.
The Sixth Day
Let the earth bring forth living creatures — Spontaneous generation was a widespread Greek scientific notion for the origin of living creatures.
And God said . . . God made — as above
Classification by air, water and land animals; four-footed and many-footed; domestic and wild animals and plants — scientific classifications comparable to those found in Plato. But Plato had four classifications: another one for heavenly life forms, that is, the gods or stars — omitted in Genesis.
God saw that it was good — as above
And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle (LXX τετράποδα [=tetrapods]) and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:24-25)
RG posits that the author of Genesis is overlaying scientific concepts with a theological narrative. One of the scientific concepts here is said to be reference to life forms, plants and animals, according to classifications such as are found among the early Greek natural philosophers. Here we have two types of animals: the wild and the domestic; four-footed and those that “creep”, presumably those with many more legs or no legs. With that understanding in mind, it is interesting to compare Greek scientific concepts with a list of created life forms in an early Mesopotamian creation account:
Plato speaks of four classifications of living forms:
And so there are four kinds of living beings in the universe:
the heavenly gods (i.e. including the stars),
winged creatures that travel through the air,
those that live in water,
and finally those that go on foot on dry land. (Timaeus 40a)
Of the different kinds of land animals, Plato wrote:
. . . animals of this kind have four or more legs, and the more mindless they were, the more such underpinning the gods gave them, to draw them even closer to the ground. As for the most mindless of them, the ones with their whole bodies level with the ground, the gods made them without feet, since they no longer needed them at all; these are the creatures that crawl along the ground. (Timaeus 92a)
and further, land animals were classified into the wild and the tame:
. . . all animals [are] divided into tame and wild. For if their nature admits of domestication they are called tame; if it does not, they are called wild. (Statesman 263e-264a)
And there were two kinds of plants:
These living beings are now cultivated trees, plants, and seeds, which have been reclaimed by agriculture for our use from their original wild state, before they were ever cultivated. (Timaeus, 77a)
and the cultivated plants were further subdivided:
as for cultivated crops — both the dry sort (that is, our staple and all the others we use as foodstuffs, which we collectively call ‘pulses’) and the arboreal sort (not only the sources of our drink and food and oil, but also the produce of fruit-bearing trees which, though hard to store, exists for the sake of our amusement and our pleasure) (Critias, 115b)
The ideas set out in the preceding chapters of Russell Gmirkin’s Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts begin to find their “real-life” application in chapter 5. This chapter, “Genesis 1 as Science”, is a verse-by-verse commentary drawing on the preceding discussions.
MT = Masoretic text = Hebrew Bible
LXX = Septuagint = Greek translation of a Hebrew version that preceded the MT
Genesis 1:1 comes with three and a half pages of analysis.
When God began to create the heavens and the earth (1:1 MT; New Revised Standard Version)
Not Creation Ex Nihilo
This opening verse is sometimes thought to describe God creating the universe from nothing, ex nihilo. But the idea that God created everything from nothing is not found in the Bible. Gmirkin cites Gerhard May as pointing out that the explicit notion of an ex nihilo creation first appeared as late as the Christian Church Fathers in the late second century.
RG justifies his claim that Gen 1:1 does not speak of God actually creating “the heavens and the earth” on the grounds that:
it is only in later verses in Genesis 1 that we read of the actual creation of heavens and then the earth
Genesis 1 uses formulas (eg “And God said, ‘Let there be…'”) to describe God’s creative acts and no such formula is found in 1:1
and in the conclusion of this section we read “and thus the heavens and earth were finished”, indicating that the creation took place over six days out of pre-existing primordial chaotic matter.
In other words, Genesis 1:1 is a heading and the actual creative acts follow.
The idea that the universe emerged out of chaotic matter conforms to Greek scientific views that held that the universe in some form (even as chaotic matter) had to have always existed.
Is 1:1 a title of what follows, then? Every other block of narrative in Genesis has a title or “superscript”. But no, it is not a title, RG concludes. Rather, RG goes one step further and argues that the opening verse is a very condensed counterpart to Plato’s prologue to his account of creation in Timaeus. The prologue of the creation account in Plato’s Timaeus contains the following details:
that the ordered visible world had a clear beginning point (it existed in a realm of “becoming”)
that the cause of this beginning of an ordered cosmos was God (the word translated “began” or “beginning” in the LXX, ἀρχῇ [arche], means both “beginning” and “cause” and is used frequently in Timaeus)
that God was a being who existed apart from or outside the universe
God is presented as an artisan, a craftsman (or Demiurge), a personality with a purpose.
All those details are elaborated upon in a scientific discussion in Timaeus 27d to 29d.
Excerpts from Plato’s prologue:
. . . . . Now everything that becomes or is created must of necessity be created by some cause, for without a cause nothing can be created.
. . . . was the world, I say, always in existence and without beginning? or created, and had it a beginning? Created, I reply, being visible and tangible and having a body, and therefore sensible; and all sensible things are apprehended by opinion and sense and are in a process of creation and created. Now that which is created must, as we affirm, of necessity be created by a cause. But the father and maker of all this universe is past finding out; and even if we found him, to tell of him to all men would be impossible. . . . .
. . . . If then, Socrates, amid the many opinions about the gods and the generation of the universe, we are not able to give notions which are altogether and in every respect exact and consistent with one another, do not be surprised. Enough, if we adduce probabilities as likely as any others; for we must remember that I who am the speaker, and you who are the judges, are only mortal men, and we ought to accept the tale which is probable and enquire no further. (Benjamin Jowett translation)
From Chaos to Cosmos: Plato and Zeno
1:2 MT – The earth was waste and empty (tohu wabohu) and darkness covered the face of the deep (tehom) and a divine wind (ruach) swept over the face of the waters (mayim).
1:2 LXX – But the earth (γῆ) was invisible and unformed (ἀόρατος καὶ ἀκατασκεύαστος); and darkness was upon the abyss (ἀβύσσου). And God’s spirit (πνεῦμα Θεοῦ) bore upon the waters (ὕδατος).
What we read here is not total and utter chaos, but a beginning with raw material differentiated into earth, deep waters, and air. That’s not from Plato but it is from another early philosopher, one who founded the Stoic school, Zeno. (Zeno was a contemporary of those whom RG is submitting as the authors of Genesis.) Darkness implies that there is light somewhere but not directed towards the materials from which the cosmos was to be created. Interestingly, Plato understood darkness to be a material element — a form of dense air that lacked minute sparks of fire.
For Plato, the chaos at the beginning did not differentiate the elements of fire, earth, air and water. Zeno, on the other hand, proposed that fire was the basic element and from fire arose air, and from air was formed watery stuff, and from water a sediment of earth fell and coalesced into earth. From that condensed gooey muddy mass air arose, and from the air emerged aether, and when air moved as wind it threw clouds together so causing lightning — and hence light itself — to emerge.
Plato did attribute the start of creation to a good and intelligent creator god. He also said that (as per the LXX above) the primordial chaos was invisible. He had some concept of darkness as a substance that could rest on matter.
For Zeno, the four elements could be discerned in some sort of stratification in the chaos at the start. And since movement was a divine attribute, air in motion, or wind, was a divine element from which eventually came light.
Where does God enter Zeno’s picture? For Zeno, there were two types of active (divine) elements: fire and air. Fire, in turn, was subdivided into physical fire — a fire that consumed its fuel — and a spirit or god-fire that did not consume matter. (Compare Moses seeing the burning bush where God is said to be a fire that does not consume the bush.) For Zeno, only corporeal elements could move corporeal elements. The spirit fire, god, was thus the prime mover that initiated the orderly arrangement of the universe out of the chaos and even inhabited everything. Plato, on the other hand, thought of God as a transcendent, non-corporeal but anthropomorphic figure who spoke to bring about the cosmos — although other biblical authors did give God a fiery body.
So at the expense of some contradiction with what follows (e.g. the earth and water being separated on a subsequent day of creation) the author of Genesis 1:2 appears to have followed ideas from both Plato and Zeno.
RG breaks up his discussion into a series of categories (viz. an overview of Plato’s ideas; the cosmogony in Genesis compared with that of Greek philosophers; the stratification of the elements; the divine wind; ontology and a discussion of Greek and Hebrew terms) which, though thorough, means certain ideas are discussed repeatedly under each heading. The point of such detail and repetition is to prepare the reader for the final overview comparison of Genesis 1:2 and Greek cosmogonies.
Gmirkin, Russell E. Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts: Cosmic Monotheism and Terrestrial Polytheism in the Primordial History. Abingdon, Oxon New York, NY: Routledge, 2022.
(Unfortunately for the progress of this series on RG’s new book, I was lately sidetracked into reading related to further exploration of the evidence we have for events affecting Jews and Christians between the events of 70 and 135 BCE. This was in part inspired by follow-up reading to Witulski’s view of Revelation being a product of the Hadrianic era, and led to further investigations into the background conditions that appeared to form the matrix from which both Christianity and rabbinic Judaism emerged. I look forward to posting more about thoughts arising in the future.)
(continuing the series on Russell Gmirkin’s Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts) ….
If the authors of Genesis were inspired by Plato’s discourse on the origins of the cosmos in Timaeus how can one explain the obvious contrast between Plato’s lengthy scientific and philosophical reasoning and the simple narrative in Genesis 1:1-2:3?
To answer this question Russell Gmirkin [RG] begins by explaining that there were “seven distinct modes of Greek discourse on cosmogony” and that authors adapted their rhetoric according to the particular audiences each had in view.
1. Scientific Discourse: Natural philosophers most often wrote for their elite, wealthy and educated peers. “Schools” or “universities” were established by prominent thinkers (e.g. Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum) and cosmogonies were written to expound their underlying philosophical reasoning.
2. Revealed Myth:Parmenides of Elea wrote cosmogonies addressed to two different audiences. In Way of Truth he wrote a detailed scientific discourse for his educated peers. In Way of Opinion he wrote a cosmogony in the form of a myth that was being taught by the goddess Justice or Necessity.
In this mode of discourse, the aim was not to achieve knowledge but to induce belief in the theories being presented. Here Parmenides appears to have anticipated Plato, who advocated implanting beliefs in the citizenry as a necessary precursor to achieving true knowledge in a select few . . . . It appears that Parmenides (like Plato) saw a social utility in presenting theories of cosmogony to the general public under divine authority, since he named the appropriate goddess as Necessity or Justice, “who steers the course of all things,” suggesting that a mythical account on cosmogony that recognized a divine steering principle was needed to ensure a pious and just citizenry. It appears that the populace was induced to believe not only that this account of the origins of the universe was divine, but also had the endorsement of the scientific educated elites. The poetic form of the discourse may have been intended to enhance its appeal to the masses. (pp. 66f)
3. Myth as Discourse (Enchantment): Plato taught that in an ideal government philosophers should rule and oversee all aspects of education from infancy to adulthood. The curriculum for the young had to consist of myths that fostered “good” behaviour. These myths needed to be attractive to all ages, especially the young, and hence were to be relayed in songs, poems, theatrical performances and public readings at festivals. Existing myths that told of gods were useful but first had to be censored by the philosopher rulers to remove from them every negative and immoral act of the gods. Nothing bad about the gods was to enter the minds of the citizens. Education was to encompass the whole society, from mothers telling infants nursery rhymes to entertaining performances (singing, reading, acting) for the young and adults.
The aim and intended reception of discourse by myth was to induce belief, and thereby implement societal conformity to theological and ethical norms. Myth, whether in the form of song, story or theatrical performance, was chosen as the medium for inducing belief, due to the pleasant, entertaining, enchanting character of the myth . . . Myth was thus the chosen rhetorical tool to condition the emotions and convey theological and ethical truths on a pre-rational level to intellectually unsophisticated audiences. (p. 68)
Genesis 1 reads as an authoritative story. It was not entirely a myth like other creation myths. It presented a scientific account of the moving power over the primordial chaos bringing about a series of separations that led to day and night, earth and sea, the spontaneous generation of life forms from the ocean, and so forth.
A story format was highly suitable for instilling beliefs about God’s fashioning of the universe for audiences of all ages and was easily understood by school children and even the youngest children, important target audiences under Plato’s system of education. (p. 68)
The second creation account (Genesis 2:4ff) follows up the cosmogony with a mythical narrative about the origins of animals and humans, the reason humans dominate the animals, the introduction of sexual reproduction and clothing, etc. It is a story easily understood by all, from the very young to the old. The beginning of the account may be a subtle reminder of Greek myths:
These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created . . . — see Gen 2:4 for the Hebrew text
Here is the thesis that Russell Gmirkin [RG] is buttressing in Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts:
Plato’s writings, including Plato’s Laws, envisioned theologically trained educated elites ruling the nation and creating a national literature to shape the beliefs and character of the ordinary citizenry, both youths and adults (Gmirkin 2017: 255-61). The creation of the cosmogony of Genesis 1 should be understood as part of just such a national literary enterprise under the direction of the ruling class elites. (p. 75)
The thesis has been the subject of earlierbooks that have been discussed in detail on this blog. In support of that interpretation RG analyses the Genesis creation chapter to demonstrate its relationship to Greek “philosophical” ideas and in particular, Plato’s Timaeus.
Anyone familiar with Timaeus will be immediately thinking, But Timaeus contains a very lengthy explanation of the origins of our cosmos and Genesis 1 is, well, extremely short. Yes, but Plato also said something else that is most pertinent to this discussion that is alluded to in the above quotation. Hear out RG. I will do my best to present his analysis and comparisons fairly and accurately.
The ancient Greek science context of Genesis
Ancient Greek science was a process of inferring how and why the observable world came about and worked the way it did but the idea of carrying out experiments to test ideas had to wait for a future time.
We have clear demarcations between the study of the origins of the universe and the study of the origins of societies. Not so ancient Greek thinkers. For them, the “history of nature” bracketed all in one course the question of the origins of the universe, of life, of humankind, of social institutions, of technologies, of political systems.
The questions they asked were:
What was the nature and origin of the “stuff” from which the cosmos came about?
What were the forces (e.g. floating and sinking, separation of matter by winnowing), and the origins of those forces, that acted on that “stuff” to cause it to behave the way it did?
How did those forces cause the cosmos to come into existence?
The thinkers were not called “scientists”. Aristotle called them “students of nature” or “writers on nature” (see the Loeb edition of Aristotle’s Physics). Later authors called them “philosophers” and that’s the common label attached to them today. RG addresses the problematic state of the evidence for our knowledge of what these natural philosophers theorized but we do have some general ideas, however provisional, and he provides an interesting set of entries for them to enable us to get some idea of the intellectual context RG is arguing for Genesis 1. (The links are my own, of course, and not RG’s) Continue reading “Genesis = Science + Myth + Theology — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus – 3a]”
The creation account in Genesis 1 is unlike other creation myths from the ancient world.
There are little hints in the chapter that the author was aware of more dramatic myths of gods fighting monsters and in the process creating the cosmos, but unlike those myths Genesis 1:1-2:3 appears to be . . .
. . . a radical purification and distillation of all mythical and speculative elements, an amazing theological accomplishment!
This account of creation is unique in this respect among the cosmogonies of other religions. . . . But the atmosphere of Gen., ch. 1, is not primarily one of reverence, awe, or gratitude, but one of theological reflection. . . . But just this renunciation also mediates aesthetically the impression of restrained power and lapidary greatness. (Rad 1972, 64)
In an earlier edition of his commentary Gerhard von Rad skirted along the sides of Russell Gmirkin’s thesis:
Some terms: Ionic refers to one of the four Greek tribes: Ionians, Dorians, Achaeans, Aeolians Natural philosophy: theories about the natural world, nature Cosmogony: theories on the origin of the universe Theogony: Account of the origin of the gods Theomachy: Account of war among gods
One can speak . . . only in a very limited sense of a dependence of this account of creation on extra-Israelite myths. Doubtless there are some terms which obviously were common to ancient Oriental, cosmological thought; but even they are so theologically filtered . . . that scarcely more than the word itself is left in common. Considering [the author’s] superior spiritual maturity, we may be certain that terms which did not correspond to his ideas of faith could be effortlessly avoided or recoined. What does the term “tehōm” (the “deep”) in v. 2, the word for the unformed abysmal element of creation, still have in common with the mythically objective world dragon, Tiamat, in the Babylonian creation epic? Genesis, ch. 1, does not know the struggle of two personified cosmic primordial principles; not even a trace of one hostile to God can be detected! The tehōm has no power of its own; one cannot speak of it at all as though it existed for itself alone, but it exists for faith only with reference to God’s creative will, which is superior to it. In our chapter this careful distillation of everything mythological (but only this) reminds one of the sober reflections of the Ionic natural philosophers. (Rad 1961, 63)
But Rad was writing from the conventional perspective that what we read in Genesis was the product of centuries of thought, writing and re-writing. Rad seemed to think that his 1961 reference to the Ionic natural philosophers was even a potential distraction so he dropped it in the revised edition. For Gmirkin [RG] the Ionic philosophers were indeed the key to understanding why the creation account of Genesis is, as Rad observed, “unique”. But that possibility, as we noted in the previous post, has not entered into the discussion as a possibility until now.
Before addressing those “sober reflections of the Ionic natural philosophers” RG explores the different types of cosmogonies that the people of Israel surely knew about from their neighbours. His text is packed with details and references. It is not a quick, light, read. Ideas set out in one place reappear in support of a more comprehensive view later in the chapter. Fortunately, I am the kind of reader who appreciates more detail rather than less and recontextualized repetitions rather than dangerous shortcuts. To address the key ideas here, though, I need to stand back and rethink and distil all that I have read. (That’s part of my excuse for not posting sooner. Another reason is that I have been sidetracked with other books that have newly arrived on loan and in the post.)
RG begins his survey of ancient creation myths with theogonies. The famous Greek one is Hesiod’s Theogony. The first god was Chaos and from Chaos was “born” Gaia or Earth, and so forth. You can see how it goes from a diagram I have borrowed from Karen Sonik‘s publication:
RG discusses the comparable anthropomorphisms of Babylonian and Canaanite gods. Those cultures have left us no comparable theogonies, however. Of particular interest, of course, is that for the Greeks it all began with Chaos: we are aware of a similar origin in the opening words of Genesis.
A better-known class of myths are the theomachies. The Titan Kronos (the Roman Saturn) castrates Ouranos and inaugurates a new (golden) age in which humankind was created; later Zeus led his supporters in a war against Kronos and the other Titans; each successive event introducing a new era. But these Greek “wars of the gods” were not related to the creation of the cosmos. For that we turn to the Babylonian story of Marduk killing the sea monster Tiamat, cutting her body apart and using it to form the sky and earth – and from her blood creating the first humans who also incorporated some divine element from the slain god. Tiamat reminds us of the Hebrew word for deep as we saw in Rad’s quotation above. RG also draws our attention to further instances of overlaps with Genesis – Marduk being interpreted as light and wind which he used as weapons against Tiamat.
All of the above is far from the kind of creation narrative we read in Genesis 1.
Part 2 on Łukasz Niesiolowski-Spanò‘s chapter, “The Abraham and Esau-Jacob Stories in the Context of the Maccabean Period”, in Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays In Honour of Thomas L. Thompson.
The title of this and the previous post may read as declarative but my intent is to share thought-provoking explorations rather than state dogmatic conclusions.
. . .
The Genesis portrayal of Jacob is unlike other biblical narratives in which a heroic figure chosen by God momentarily falls from favour among his peers only to rise again to a more highly exalted status (e.g. Joseph, Gideon, David). In Genesis, Jacob is the second born and cheats his way to take the position of the older sibling.The second part of Łukasz Niesiolowski-Spanò’s [NS] chapter focuses on the Jacob-Esau narrative in Genesis. It does so by comparison with the parallel account in the Book of Jubilees, a book generally dated to the late second century BCE. The Genesis story of the two brothers, we well know, ends with their unexpected reconciliation. In Jubilees (chapters 37–38), though, Jacob kills Esau. Jacob’s sons then attack and subdue Esau’s people making the Edomites tribute-paying subjects of Israel “until this day”. How could such opposite narratives come about?
Jacob depicted in Genesis is not the hero who falls, and loses, to rise to a triumphal victory. He is rather described as the lucky dodger. The stories about Jacob struggling with an angel, staying at Laban’s house and especially competing with his brother do not represent the typical plot of the falling-and-rising hero. (p. 55)
NS suggests that the author of this Genesis tale was inviting his audience to appreciate Esau and not to think poorly of him even though they identify with Jacob.
Readers obviously sympathise with Jacob, yet it might have been Esau who was intended to be the central figure of this part of the story. Therefore, the story allows the interplay of the protagonists’ successes and failures. In this way, the narrative’s attractiveness and the intellectual value of the story are proportionally higher since the story is less straightforward. The demanding reader needed more sophisticated accounts. (p. 55)
But what are we to make of the Jubilees’ version with its conclusion so opposing the drama in Genesis? In Genesis we are reading an adventure that presumably explains a friendly relationship between peoples, the Jews and the Edomites, while in Jubilees we find an etiological explanation for Jewish conquest of Edom. Genesis dialogue leaves no question that the story is etiological: God explains to Rebekah at the moment she was giving birth to the twins,
The LORD said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb . . . one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.’ – Genesis 25:23
In NS’s view, the Jubilees story with its violent conclusion has a simpler and “more natural” coherence. In Genesis, Jacob’s fear for the safety of his family and his placing his most loved ones in the farthermost positions for their comparative safety,
The version in Jubilees seems to be better-constructed in regard to the narrative’s dynamics: Jacob’s fears, leading him to protect the most beloved ones by placing them at the end of the caravan (Gen. 33:1-3), does not find a logical culmination in Genesis. The canonical version, in which two brothers hug one another (Gen. 33:4), is dramaturgically less natural than the version in Jubilees, where the tension ends with war as the narrative climax . . . (p. 56)
Perhaps. I do like the sophistication of the literary structure here and see in it a masterful buildup of suspense and fear that makes the reconciliation all the more dramatically overwhelming. NS had already spoken of the sophistication of the Genesis narrative in the context of the complex position and character of Jacob and his fall from grace.
One thing is surely evident, as NS points out: At the time of the writing of Jubilees, apparently in the late second century BCE, the status of the Genesis stories had not had time to become canonical. There was still room for debate. Continue reading “Origins of the Jacob-Esau Narrative”
Let’s return to having a closer look at some of the chapters in the book I described back in August this year. (Actually my recent post History. It’s Long Lost Dead and Gone began as a closer look at Niels Peter Lemche’s chapter titled “What People Want to Believe: Or Fighting Against ‘Cultural Memory'”, but since I’ve discussed the samethoughts of Lemche in many earlier posts I somehow ended up with my own little bottom-line spiel instead.)
In the chapter “The Abraham and Esau-Jacob Stories in the Context of the Maccabean Period”, author Łukasz Niesiolowski-Spanò [NS] seeks to understand the most plausible context from which those stories originated. I know some readers will be as interested as I am in his approach. I address a few — not all — of the arguments in the chapter. I will cover the stories of Jacob and Esau in the next post.
NS points out that in the book of Genesis Abraham is “depicted as a figure disconnected from any historical realities, by being alien and of a nomadic way of life.”
The stories connected with Abraham are set within the mythical illo tempore, in the same way as Greek heroes are described in un-historical realities of the tragedies or Homeric epic for which a coherent historical background does not exist. (NS, p.50)
NS zeroes in on two moments in the Abraham story that he considers the most important:
the covenant between God and Abraham promising Abraham multitudes of descendants who become God’s chosen
the sacrifice of Isaac (the Akedah)
Begin with that second episode. NS views it as dramatizing the kinds of complex theological questions we elsewhere encounter in books like Job and Ecclesiastes. To what extent is the pious person expected to obey and trust God? Is the reward expected to be in this or the next life? The problems facing Abraham point to sophisticated philosophical (or theological) quandaries of the sort that preoccupy intellectual elites. The story does not come from popular folklore, surely. Rather,
it is a reflection of the Jewish elites of the late Hellenistic period (second-first century BCE), an expression of their intellectual, highly sophisticated interest. (p. 51)
* de Pury, A. 2000. “Abraham: The Priestly Writer’s ‘Ecumenical’ Ancestor.” In Rethinking the Foundations: Historiography in the Ancient World and in the Bible : Essays in Honour of John Van Seters, edited by Steven L. McKenzie, Thomas R. Mer, and Thomas Romer, 163–81. Berlin ; New York: De Gruyter.
On the first of those two key moments, NS observes that Abraham is a rather “pure in nature” figure unlike his progeny — Ishmael, Isaac and the sons of Keturah — who are all coloured with distinctive features that clearly associate them with certain historically known peoples: the Ishmaelites, the Jews, the inhabitants of Arabia. NS points readers to an article elsewhere by de Pury showing us that Abraham serves as an “ecumenical figure” serving as a unifying focus for both Jews and certain of their neighbours. Though descendants of Isaac will the “the chosen”, the narrative demonstrates God’s love for all of Abraham’s descendants. (de Pury remarks on the way Abraham must give up both sons — Ishmael exiled into the wilderness and Isaac sacrificed on the altar — only for God to miraculously intervene to save each of them.)
But if the narrator merely wanted to demonstrate that the sons of Isaac were to be the most favoured ones, why did he make the plot so complicated by having Isaac born after Ishmael? If the message for Jews was that they should embrace the descendants of Ishmael, Hagar and Keturah, why the “twisted narrative device”? NS sees two possible reasons:
Firstly, it might have served as inter-propaganda directed to members of the Jewish community, with the statement about Arabs, who shall not be treated as aliens. This may have served certain political needs.
Secondly, the Abraham-Isaac-Ishmael tradition might have been addressed to the Arab population with the same friendly information. In this case, we would be dealing with the declaration of friendship, which in the reality of politics might have been understood as an invitation toward the Arab population to join the political unity of the Jews. (53)
[Author’s note: I wrote this back in 2014, but decided to put in on the back burner for a bit, setting the publication clock five years ahead. The post below, which auto-published yesterday, is not actually finished. I will soon submit a third part to this series, with a summation and conclusions. taw]
As we discussed in part 1, Gary Rendsburg believes that we shouldn’t try to divide the Genesis flood story based on supposed source documents, namely the Yahwist (J) and the Priestly (P) sources. He writes:
If one reads the two stories as separate entities, one will find that elements of a whole story are missing from either the J or the P version. Only when read as a whole does Genesis 6-8 read as a complete story, and — here is the most important point I wish to make — not only as a complete story, but as a narrative paralleling perfectly the Babylonian flood story tradition recorded in Gilgameš Tablet XI, point by point, and in the same order.Perfectly, that is, after taking into account elements found in the biblical narrative but lacking in the Babylonian story, indicated by a minus sign in the right hand column of the accompanying chart — given the distinctively Israelite theological position inherent to Genesis 6-8 . . . (Rendsburg, 2004, p. 115-116)
We’ll save Rendsburg’s chart for the end. For now, let’s examine his argument closely and see if it holds up under close scrutiny.
Essentially, Rendsburg is offering a counter-argument to the consensus view that the redactor of Genesis pulled together two sources (J and P), which most likely both came from the earlier Babylonian and Sumerian myths. Instead, he maintains that the author of Genesis appropriated the flood story directly from the Gilgamesh epic, adding only those theological elements peculiar to the Israelite religion. His argument depends on proving the coherence and unity of the Genesis story, combined with the “perfect” correspondence between the order of events in Genesis and in Tablet XI of the Gilgamesh epic.
In his audio course on the book of Genesis, Rendsburg says:
Materials, dimensions, and decks
Now note that not only are all these [story] elements present, one by one, as we work through the two stories that we are comparing here, but that they are also in the same order. Now, in certain cases, of course, there is no opportunity for a variation in the order. That is to say, you have to build the ark before the flood comes, and the flood has to come before it lands on a mountain top, and so on. But even where there is room for variation, the two stories proceed, element by element, in the same order.
Let me give you an example of that. In the Gilgamesh story the materials, the dimensions, and the decks are given in that order; in the biblical story the materials, the dimensions, and the decks are given in that order. And of course, you may say, “Well, that’s perfectly logical — how else would you else would you instruct somebody to build a vessel?” But nevertheless, it’s still noteworthy. (Rendsburg, 2006a, 7:38, emphasis mine)
I have to confess that even if Rendsburg is correct, I don’t find his argument persuasive. Consider the possibility that the J and P source material both (independently) borrowed from the story of Utnapishtim or, for that matter, from the earlier story of Atrahasis. We could reasonably assume that each story would generally follow the same sequence, and that the redactor would have little reason to deviate from that sequence.
We should note here that with his presentation of the evidence Rendsburg is in fact trying to prove two points: first, that the flood story in Genesis is secondary to the older flood myths of Mesopotamia, and second, that the order of events in Noah’s flood tale “perfectly” parallel the events as told by Untapishtim in the Gilgamesh epic. Moreover, he argues, that perfect correspondence falls by the wayside if we try to split the Genesis story into its source components.
With all of that in mind, let’s examine his first claim, viz. that the two stories relate “materials, dimensions, and decks” in that order. Sure enough, in Genesis here’s the order:
Materials 6:14 Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with rooms, and shall cover it inside and out with pitch.
Dimensions 6:15 This is how you shall make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its breadth fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits.
Decks 6:16 You shall make a window for the ark, and finish it to a cubit from the top; and set the door of the ark in the side of it; you shall make it with lower, second, and third decks. (NASB)
Now let’s take a look at the story as told by Utnapishtim. Ea does not directly tell our hero that a flood is coming. Rather, he talks to a reed hut, which just happens to be Utnapishtim’s dwelling. That is to say, he whispers through the wall of the hut in order to pass on his instructions. Ea says:
24. Tear down (thy) house, build a ship! 25. Abandon (thy) possessions, seek (to save) life! 26. Disregard (thy) goods, and save (thy) life!
27. [Cause to] go up into the ship the seed of all living creatures.
(Heidel, 1949, p. 81)
We already see significant differences between the two stories. God tells Noah to collect materials to build an ark, literally a box (similar to the “chest” built by Deucalion). On the other hand, Ea indirectly tells Utnapishtim to dismantle his house and build a ship.
In what order does Ea provide his ship-building instructions?
28. The ship which thou shalt build, 29. Its measurements shall be (accurately) measured; 30. Its width and its length shall be equal. 31. Cover it [li]ke the subterranean waters.’
(Heidel, 1949, p. 81, emphasis mine)
Ea is already discussing the dimensions and characteristics of the boat, but he hasn’t yet mentioned anything about materials. (We would remind Dr. Rendsburg that width and length are what we call “dimensions.”) In line 31 we have a clue that the boat will differ from ordinary in that it needs to be covered, presumably to keep out the coming torrential rains. Of course, since his job will be to save all life, Untapishtim’s boat will naturally need to be rather large.
We might theorize that if Utnapishtim will be using materials from his torn-down dwelling, reeds will be involved. Far from forests, the people of ancient Mesopotamia built their houses and boats out of reeds. In cases where they did use wood (e.g., for seagoing vessels), it was probably only for the keel, spars, oars, and punting poles. (See Mäkelä, 2002, for details on ancient shipbuilding in Mesopotamia.) That said, some scholars have suggested that the “water-stoppers” mentioned in line 63 refer to wedge-shaped chunks of wood driven into the seams to prevent leaking.
In fact, we have no explicit evidence of wood as a building material in the Gilgamesh epic, but we do have clues in the earlier Babylonian flood story from which it is derived. On tablet III, lines 48-51 we find:
The carpenter [carried his axe], The reed-worker [carried his stone], [The rich man? carried] the pitch, The poor man [brought the materials needed].
(Foster, 1995, p. 72) [Note: Some reconstructed texts of the Gilgamesh epic insert the lines concerning the carpenter and reed-worker above line 54. However, it is not actually part of the received text.]
Ea provides no more specifics on building the ship, although lines 50 through 53 are usually considered too fragmentary to translate. We do find out that pitch plays a role from line 54:
54. The child [brou]ght pitch, 55. (While) the strong brought [whatever else] was needful.
(Heidel, 1949, p. 82)
Utnapishtim then describes the measurements in greater detail:
56. On the fifth day [I] laid its framework. 57. One ikû [about an acre] was its floor space, one hundred and twenty cubits each was the height of its walls; 58. One hundred and twenty cubits measured each side of its decks.
(Heidel, 1949, p. 82)
So, what of Rendsburg’s claim that the two stories match perfectly when compare side by side? His first test case fails on the evidence. Ea does not follow the same pattern as God in Genesis. Indeed, we do not see references to “materials, dimensions, and decks . . . in that order.” Ea starts with a command to build a ship, and immediately starts talking about its dimensions (again, see lines 29 and 30).
As far as we can tell from the text, the god never talks about materials, presumably because Utnapishtim is building a known structure: a boat (albeit of unusual size). We do finally get references to “decks,” but not until line 58.
Wood, reeds, and pitch
Rendsburg desperately wants to find perfect correspondence — so much so that he insists on a rather unusual translation of Genesis 6:14. He writes in the course guide:
Note that all translations agree on two of the building materials for the ark: wood and pitch. The third item is the subject of some discussion, however. The consonants in the biblical text, namely, QNYM, can be read as either qinnim, “rooms, compartments” (thus the traditional rendering), or qanim, “reeds” (thus some recent translations). We favor the latter understanding, especially because reeds constitute the third building material in the Gilgamesh Epic flood narrative. (Rendsburg, 2006b, p. 16)
I won’t try to argue Hebrew with Rendsburg. I will only mention the following two points:
The translation of the word in the text as “reeds” rather than “rooms” is exceedingly rare. No major translation in English uses it. In fact, other than the Everett Fox translation and commentary that Rendsburg cites, I know of no other translation that uses it.
If we go with “compartments” (as the vast majority of translators do), we still have a viable parallel in the Gilgamesh epic, namely:
59. I ‘laid the shape’ of the outside (and) fashioned it [the ship]. 60. Six (lower) decks I built into it, 61. (Thus) dividing (it) into seven (stories). 62. Its ground plan I divided into nine (sections).
(Heidel, 1949, p. 82, emphasis mine)
Hence, we have good reason to believe that the author of the P source inherited the tradition that the ship (or in his case, the ark) that saved all animal life had various sections or compartments.
Mountain landing, then birds
Where else might we find the perfect correspondence that Rendsburg craves? He continues (in his lecture):
Perhaps at the end is where we can see the room for some variation. That is to say, it might have been to send out the birds first, and then have the ark to land on a mountaintop. But no, in both stories the mountaintop landing occurs first, and then the birds are sent forth. (Rendsburg, 2006, 8:27)
In print, Rendsburg concedes the alternative order is improbable.
I agree that such an order of events is far less likely than the order which appears in the biblical narrative. but it is possible nonetheless. It is therefore pertinent to point out that Genesis 8 parallels the Babylonian flood story, with the mountain top landing preceding the sending forth of the birds. (Rendsburg, 2007, p. 117)
I would argue that it simply makes more narrative sense for the flood hero to realize they’ve come to a stop, wonder about where they might be and whether it’s safe to leave, and only then hit upon the idea of using the birds. In other words, the mountain landing causes Noah and Utnapishtim to send out the birds. Hermann Gunkel comments:
The following, lovingly presented scene (6b- 12, 13b) has the goal of portraying the exceedingly great wisdom of Noah. No one in the Ark knows where they are and how things look outside. No one dares open the door—great streams of water could surge in—or take off the roof—the rain could begin again. One can look out the window, but through it one sees only the heavens above. What shall one do? How shall one learn whether the earth is dry? In this difficult situation the clever Noah knows a means. If one cannot exit oneself, one can send the birds to reconnoiter. “It was an old nautical practice, indispensable in a time which did not know the compass, to bring birds along to be released on the high seas so that the direction to land could be determined by their flight” [quoting Hermann Usener in Die Sintfluthsagen] . . . (Gunkel, 1997, p. 64, emphasis mine)
Liberation, then sacrifice
We have saved for last what Rendsburg considers his strongest argument. Again, from his audio course:
And most importantly, I think the place for . . . the best possibility of variation is the very, very end of the story where it’s very possible that the flood hero — Noah or Utnapishtim — could have done the sacrifices before letting everybody go free. But no, in both stories all are set free, and then the sacrifices occur. So I repeat the statement here: Element by element the two stories — the Gilgamesh Epic, Tablet XI (the Babylonian flood tradition), and the biblical story with Noah as its hero in Genesis 6 through 8 — tell the tale one by one, element by element in the same order. (Rendsburg, 2006a, 8:45)
He really does think it’s his strongest argument. In his 2004 article he wrote:
I refer especially to the end of the story, where both Noah and Utnapishtim could have performed the sacrifices first. While all were still on the ark, and only later everyone free. But in both cases the order is first to set everyone free and then to perform the sacrifices. In Noah’s case, in fact, the order is counterintuitive. If he first set all the animals free and then performed the sacrifices, as the story now reads, one might ask. What happened? Did he call the pure animals back in order to sacrifice them? (Rendsburg, 2004, p. 117)
Obviously, the implication is clear: Noah set all the animals free, except for the handful which he intended to sacrifice. But my point is this: if the redactor had before him two stories, the supposed J account and the supposed P account, the former including the sacrifices and the latter including the hero’s setting everyone free, I would imagine that the redactor would have woven his story with these two elements in that order the sacrifices first, while the animals were still present, and then the setting of everyone free. But such is not the case. At the end of Genesis 8. Noah first sets the animals free and then performs the sacrifices.
How reliable as historical records are the genealogies of patriarchs and the different tribes of Israel?
1977 saw the publication of Robert Wilson’s thesis, Genealogy and History in the Biblical World, a work that set the main framework for further studies of biblical genealogies. Wilson used two different studies of genealogies as a basis for comparing and understanding what the biblical ones were all about:
Anthropological studies of oral tribal cultures, African and pre-Islamic Arabian;
Amorite dynastic lists of Babylon and Assyria.
The genealogies found among African and Arab oral cultures were considered relevant because the biblical genealogies were believed to have derived from oral traditions. Wilson concluded that such genealogies preserved historical memories:
Although we have seen no anthropological evidence indicating that genealogies are created for the purpose of making a historical record, genealogies may nevertheless be considered historically accurate in the sense that they frequently express actual domestic, political relationships.7
7 Genealogy, p. 189
The use of oral traditions among current and recent tribal societies as a doorway into the biblical genealogies was rejected by John Van Seters who set out his reasons in several works. In In Search of History, for example, he wrote in response to Wilson’s Genealogy
It is, to my mind, highly questionable whether functional explanations of variations in genealogies based on anthropological analysis of oral societies can also apply to literary variations. Wilson does not examine the many contemporary literary genealogies in the Greek world.
If you took no notice of the title of this post then the predicate in the last sentence just alerted you to where this post is headed, at least if you are already aware of this blog’s interest in the relationship between the “Old Testament” and Greek literary culture (e.g. posts on books by Gmirkin, Wajdenbaum, Wesselius…). Expect in coming months another author to be added to those, Andrew Tobolowsky, author of The Sons of Jacob and the Sons of Herakles.
Tobolowsky points out that there is a significant structural difference between Babylonian and Assyrian royal genealogies on the one hand and those genealogies found in Genesis and the books of Chronicles on the other, is that the former are “linear”, that is, lists from father to son, while the latter are “segmented”, that is, following “multiple lines of descent, forming a kind of family tree.”
As Van Seters points out specifically about Wilson’s treatment:
On the one hand his Near Eastern linear genealogies, which derive from highly structured literate societies, bear very little resemblance to the segmented genealogies found in the book of Genesis. On the other hand, his discussion of the segmented genealogies and their comparison with Genesis is based upon anthropological studies of oral traditions in illiterate societies and this has created an artificial social and form-critical dichotomy.
Abraham Malamat, who generally embraces Wilson’s formulation, nevertheless adds:
Biblical genealogies represent a unique historical genre within the literature of the ancient Near East. I have here in mind not the so-called vertical lines of individuals such as the royal or priestly pedigree, which are common anywhere, but rather the ethnographical tables contained in the Book of Genesis… even more so… the ramified and wide-spread genealogies of the various Israelite tribes, assembled in the first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles. All these have no equal anywhere else in the ancient Near East.
As a result, as Van Seters pointed out and others have since confirmed, the better comparison with biblical genealogical discourse, especially as it is found in the book of Genesis, is neither the traditions of preliterate cultures nor linear king lists but the complex, literary genealogies that were particularly popular in the world of Greek myth.
(p. 4 — my highlighting)
Tobolowsky dates the creation of these biblical genealogies to the late Persian period. I suspect Russell Gmirkin whose books we have discussed here would suggest a later time, that of the Hellenistic era.
Tobolowsky, Andrew. 2017. The Sons of Jacob and the Sons of Herakles: The History of the Tribal System and the Organization of Biblical Identity. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.
Van Seters, John. 1983. In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Neil recently posted about the Documentary Hypothesis, citing Thomas Brodie’s Genesis as Dialogue (2001), a book I enjoyed but in the end did not convince me to abandon the DH. While reading the post, one quotation caught my eye.
Nor do the two diverse types of bird (the raven and the dove, 8:6–12) mean two sources. In Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Noah-like Utnapishtim sends out three diverse birds—a dove, a swallow, and a raven (Brichto, 1998, 114) — but that does not mean three sources. (Brodie 2001, p. 182)
This sort of overstatement, which comes with implicit eye-rolling and foot-tapping, plays well to the converted, but falls flat among the rest of us. Do DH adherents think there are two sources merely because there are two species of bird? Surprisingly, no.
Here are the arguments, briefly:
Gen. 8:7 is self-contained.
Noah releases the raven.
The bird goes out and returns, back and forth, until —
“the water dried up from the earth.” The flood is over; the narrative restarts at 8:8, wherein water still covers the earth.
The language in 8:7 is different from the language in 8:8.
Noah releases the dove from him.
The words translated as “earth” in this passage and in 8:7 are different.