We have two models for the origin of the biblical and its ancillary literature.
According to Seth Sanders in From Adapa to Enoch we have a progression from the late Iron Age to the Seleucid era.
The early period (during the time of the kingdom of Judah before its exile) we have “public genres of power” that appear to draw upon the primarily cuneiform law codes and vassal treaties of Mesopotamia. In “Judea” these genres acquired a narrative framework.
Later, in the postexilic period, we find instead secret genres of knowledge that drew upon the scribal traditions of omens, astronomy, etc. The primary facilitator for this development was the spread of the Aramaic script as a common scholarly language.
Russell Gmirkin’s view is that the above texts of Deuteronomy and Exodus are rather products of the Hellenistic era. The elements of the political and legal documents of Mesopotamia are relatively few and subsumed within the sort of literature that Plato was promoting in Laws. The narrative framing of such laws was also enjoined by Plato.
Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible does not cover the noncanonical literature so the following diagram is my own, not Gmirkin’s. Throw the stones at me for what follows. I have, however, drawn upon other scholars who also set out reasons for their suspicions that the canonical texts were the product of the Persian and/or Hellenistic eras. (Philip Davies whom I mentioned in the previous post looks largely at the Persian era.)
I imagine that with this latter scenario there are different schools, some of them possibly opposed to each other. The diagram below makes it appear that they are contemporaneous but I do not think that should not be seen as strictly the case.
The diagram also only mentions the same texts as above (law codes and public curses) but that is only for comparison purposes. In fact just about everything from Genesis to Daniel is included here. (Philippe Wajdenbaum in Argonauts of the Desert extends the Greek influence from the legal codes to details of the narrative framework of those laws.) The pseudepigraphical texts are another story.
I am only running through a mind-game here. If there were in fact opposing scribal schools, and if the Greek literature was an influential factor in the formation of what became the canonical texts, do we find a glimpse of the origin of that division in the following passage of Plato’s Laws, Book 7. We know the Pentateuch condemned the study of the stars, but why?
ATHENIAN: Next let us see whether we are or are not willing that the study of astronomy shall be proposed for our youth.
I have been posting on points of interest in Seth Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon and have reached a point where I cannot help but bring in certain contrary and additional perspectives from another work I posted on earlier, Russell Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible.
In chapter 5 Sanders sets out the view that Judean scribes in the Late Iron Age (the era of the Assyrian and Chaldean empires) took from the Mesopotamian scribal heritage “public genres of power”. Specifically:
The author(s) of Deuteronomy 13 and 28 imitated the appearance of Assyrian Treaty-Oaths such as the Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon;
The author(s) of Exodus 21-24 took the Laws of Hammurabi as their model.
In the Second Temple era the interest of Judean scribes turned to genres of secret, esoteric knowledge. Specifically:
The Enoch Book of Astronomy and Qumran literature on the calendar and the “watches” embraced Babylonian astronomical knowledge;
The Qumran Testament of Levi incorporated Babylonian metrology (sequences of fractions and proportions in the sexagesimal system), and apparently metrology was also a part of other texts, Visions of Aram, Testament of Qahat, pseudo-Daniel although these are primarily examples of the importance of secrecy and guarding the knowledge through proper lineages.
Seth Sanders is interested in explaining the transition from the Late Iron Age Judean scribal culture to that of the Second Temple period, from genres of public power to genres of secrecy and esoteric wisdom.
As we saw in the previous post one of the most significant innovations the Judean scribes brought to the Mesopotamian material was the addition of a narrative context for the revealed laws, rituals and knowledge of the cosmos.
One question that arises and that I have not found explored in Sanders’ book is why the Judean scribes applied a significant narrative frame to their Babylonian sources. (As far as I have been able to determine Sanders addresses the function of the narrative framing but not the source-inspiration or model for the narrative framing concept.)
For example, the Laws of Hammurabi are bluntly introduced as being given by the sun god to the king. Contrast the laws of Exodus 21-24. Yes, they are delivered by the chief god but what a build-up: the Red Sea crossing, the Mount Sinai quaking, the tension between rebellious and obedient chosen people, the struggles of Moses to lead them, and so on!
But there are a few other details worth keeping in mind, too.
One: the amount of material supposedly borrowed from the vassal treaties is in fact arguably quite limited. Certainly there are clear similarities between the curses in both Deuteronomy and the treaties. But not much else that points to clear indications of direct borrowing. (Sanders also addresses the vagueness of some of the associations but I’ll discuss his answer in more detail in a future post.) Ditto for the borrowing from Mesopotamian Law Codes. Yes, there are clear links to the law of the goring ox in Exodus. But again, we soon run dry of comparable examples.
What of the prophetic literature of the Second Temple era? Mesopotamian prophecies, like the book of Daniel, “foretold” the historical events of successive kings rising up and doing good or bad things, but again there are notable differences, especially once again with the colourful narrative context of the Judean work. Sanders refers to the explanation of Matthew Neujahr in Predicting the Past in the Ancient Near East to point to similar historical circumstances in very different time periods leading to a blending of mantic/omen literature with chronicles or “historical” records.
I think an excellent explanation for the application of narrative framing of laws and other revealed knowledge is offered by Russell Gmirkin in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. The same thesis further explains why so little detail from Hammurabi’s code or the vassal treaties are actually found in the Pentateuch, and further yet, points out many similarities in Exodus and Deuteronomy to Plato’s discussion in Laws. Of particular importance, Plato wrote, was that law codes be presented with divine and antique authority and not as precepts newly hatched by a recent fallible generation. Myths or stories of origins were important for their presentation.
If we accept Gmirkin’s view then what we find is not a progression from “public genres of power” in the Late Iron Age to “secret and esoteric wisdom” in the Second Temple period, but rather we have different scribal schools — compare Philip R. Davies’ thesis in Scribes and Schools. To what extent these schools were contemporary I would not like to speculate, though it seems we would have to confine ourselves to the Hellenistic period unless there was more cultural overlap between Greeks and Persian dominated lands prior to Alexander’s conquests than I am aware of. At this point we are on the edge of too many questions and pathways to explore to be covered in a few short posts.
But with this interlude now done I feel I can resume posts on Sanders’ book.
I have made a correction to a serious error in my recent post How Plato Inspired Moses: Creation of the Hebrew Bible. In that post I took credit for identifying many parallels between the Hebrew Bible and Plato’s Laws prior to reading Russell Gmirkin’s book. I should have acknowledged — and I have now made the correction — that my interest in Plato’s Laws was sparked by Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analsysis of the Hebrew Bible.
There are overlaps between Gmirkin’s and Wajdenbaum’s theses, but there are also a number of incompatibilities. I think Wajdenbaum’s view that a single author was responsible for the Primary History of Israel (Genesis to 2 Kings) faces a number of daunting hurdles. But both authors do raise serious questions and give us much to think about.
Plato’s Laws provides the only example in antiquity of an ethical or national literature comparable to the Hebrew Bible. . . .
. . . . One may therefore reasonably propose that the biblical authors not only found in Plato’s Laws a blueprint for the creation of a persuasive legal code, but a mandate and program for the creation of an authoritative national literature intended to supplement and bolster the laws of the Torah. (Gmirkin, 264)
Vridar posts on Plato’s Laws prior to reading PCHB:
After having demonstrated the many details, themes and values that the books of the Hebrew Bible share with Greek literature, practices and ideas, Russell Gmirkin concludes with a chapter examining how closely the biblical canon appears to match Plato’s recommendations for a national curriculum. There are certainly Canaanite and Mesopotamian fingerprints in the “Old Testament” but these Scriptures are unlike anything else produced in the ancient Near East. The Hellenistic heritage explains that difference.
The ancient Judean and then Christian authors used to say that Plato got his best ideas from Moses. Gmirkin’s thesis is that the evidence points to the borrowing being in the other direction, that the Judean authors of the Bible found their inspiration in Plato.
I doubt that any Westerner can read Plato’sLaws and not at some point think of a comparison with the Bible. I certainly could not avoid the comparisons: the box insert lists the posts I made prior to reading Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible [PCHB]. So you can see why I have posted so much on PCHB. I think my own interest in Plato’s Laws was sparked by Philippe Wajdenbaum and his book Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. I must add a list of posts related to Wajdenbaum’s work, too.
The Bible does not read like a dry or rigid legal code. It is too full of stories for that, and the laws are presented with dramatic flair. That’s Plato, not Hammurabi. Plato believed that laws for a new state should be written in a way that encouraged a loving willingness to obey them. Stories honouring ancient ancestors, legislation presented in persuasive language, pure songs and poetry, all should function to inspire citizens to live with pure and righteous thoughts and behaviour.
Rule by God and God’s Laws
Russell Gmirkin cites Glenn Morrow’s discernment that Plato was in fact setting out a government ruled by “God”, a “divine government”. To quote from Morrow’s article:
Our state is to be called, not a monarchy, nor a democracy, but by some term indicative of that power which is supreme in it, viz., Nous (713a). This Nous is what is truly divine in the cosmos; it is Plato’s God. This divine Nous furnishes the standards for all legislation, and the laws are sovereign only because they have this reason in them. Plato no longer suggests—in fact he explicitly rejects—the conception of personal absolutism. All officials are themselves subject to the law . . . .
The Bible’s god is not quite Plato’s, though. Plato’s embodiment of Reason was fine for a philosophical discussion among society’s elites. The Bible’s supreme deity does nonetheless meet the fundamental requirements of Plato’s divinity but is more suited for all classes. More on that point later.
Laws had an ancient and divine origin
Gmirkin rightly emphasizes the importance to Plato that the new laws should not appear to be innovations. On the contrary, myths had to be composed to give the laws an air of great antiquity and divine origin. The peoples’ ancestors, it must be taught, had always kept these laws. PCHB quotes one of several key passages from Laws:
If there exist laws under which men have been reared up and which (by the blessing of Heaven) have remained unaltered for many centuries, so that there exists no recollection or report of their ever having been different from what they now are, then the whole soul is forbidden by reverence and fear to alter any of the things established of old. By hook or by crook, then, the lawgiver must devise a means whereby this shall be true of his State.(Plato, Laws 7.798a-b)
Plato was imagining a brand new colony being established with a perfect start. The citizens were to be new arrivals into the territory and to be taught that they were the descendants of the original inhabitants divinely commissioned to restore the ancient city or “nation”. The new settlement was to be divided into twelve nominal tribes.
Laws to be presented through a charter myth
A third goal was to create a charter myth for those divine laws in the dramatic narrative form of a foundation story that forged a powerful sense of national identity in those who adopted this literary narrative as their own historical past as descendants of the ancient children of Israel. The refounding of the Jewish nation in the early Hellenistic Era, with new civic and religious institutions and a new constitution and laws, was thus successfully portrayed as a new edition of the ancient writings of Moses, the divine legislator, educator and founder of the ancient Jewish nation, in line with the Platonic legislative agenda.
As you can see I have not yet begun to post anything on the final chapter of the book. And what’s worse, I can see from post #18 that I am still stuck at the same place I was over a year ago! Blame my long time love of ancient history for this situation. So when I came to the chapter covering foundation stories I found myself revisiting a raft of Greek foundation myths, their sources, and literary and thematic structures, and doing too many posts on that one point. I’ve often found myself also chasing up new data relating to historical methods that I have been discussing on Vridar quite often, and also learning about historical controversies and how the debates are conducted among classicists and ancient historians (with half a mind comparing the way such disagreements are handled in certain quarters of biblical studies). Further, I’ve spent some time following up studies not just on concrete points of similarity (e.g. a hero leaves a high culture; hero experiences a divine command; etc.), but on literary structures of the narratives themselves. I’d like to write more about those.
But no, Russell’s book also shares some of the blame. Many pages are crammed with the bare equivalent of “dot points” with referrals to end-notes (several pages away) to find follow up examples and further elaboration. For example, look at this last paragraph on page 226 (with my bolding, of course):
The foundation story proper typically included an explanation of the circumstances leading up to the launching of an expedition of colonization to a new land. According to the typical sequence of events, negative circumstances at home, such as overpopulation,37 famine,38 plague,39 natural disaster,40 economic subjection,41 stasis,42 exile,43 defeat at war,44 or escape from impending conquest45 and enslavement46 prompted a decision to found a new colony. In the Jewish foundation story by Hecataeus of Abdera in ca. 315 b c e , overpopulation was the reason why the Egyptians sent colonists to settle Babylon, Argos, Colchis and Judea (Diodorus Siculus, Library 1.28.1-3 [colonization accounts]; 29.5 [reason for colonies]). In Manetho’s story of ca. 285 b c e , Jerusalem and Judea were first settled by the Hyksos, foreign kings who had enslaved Egypt, who were eventually expelled by the Egyptians because of a plague caused by their impious foreign practices (Josephus, Apion 1.75-91, 228-51; cf. Gmirkin 2006: 170-213). In the biblical Exodus story of ca. 270 b c e , Manetho’s story was turned on its head: plagues fell on the impious Egyptians for enslaving the children of Israel and to convince Pharaoh to release them so they could worship Yahweh in the wilderness (cf. Gmirkin 2006: 187-91, 212-13). The Exodus as an escape from slavery was in keeping with Hellenistic foundation story motifs and was a central recurring theme in biblical accounts. Egyptian enslavement of its populace and the use of slave labor for the creation of Egyptian monuments such as the pyramids were also proverbial (Herodotus, Histories 2.124; Aristotle, Politics 5.1313b). The miraculous deliverance of the children of Israel was a narrative element unique to the biblical . . . .
That is not a quick read for anyone who wants to know the detail, the examples, in order to know how well the argument really works when examined more closely. I would much rather the end-notes had been printed on the same page as the main text. Yes, that would sometimes mean only a few lines of main text on a page where many follow up references and discussions had to be added, but for me that would have made a much easier read. I’m also greedy enough to want more than line references in the sources that I have to go away to look up. Adding quotations would add to the length of the book, of course, but it would have made it much easier to feel one has the complete picture, not just direction signage to lead one to locate the pieces of the picture for oneself.
But I can’t complain about the book lacking detail or the means to follow up the many topics addressed.
I have these past few weeks been following up additional reading (from the end-notes — and then more readings as I follow up the second and third order citations), piecing together the various sources for other foundation myths I have not covered on Vridar yet. But enough is enough. I will post more on those myths and their structural similarities to many of the Biblical stories at another time. Next post must begin with a look at the final chapter.
Did I say enough is enough on the foundation stories?
But what about the differences, the unique features in the Bible stories?
Allow me one more particularly interesting point Gmirkin offers with respect to the unique features of the Bible’s foundation stories (pp. 230-31). Fortunately for you readers this passage only has one end-note to follow up and I have copied it right next to the main paragraph so you don’t have to turn pages or click links to find it! 🙂
91 The tradition history approach of Rolf Rendtorff and the European school hypothesized the independent formation of the various units composing the narratives of Genesis- Joshua, which were thought to have been unified only at the last stage of redaction; cf. Rendtorff 1990. But these narrative units (aside from the primordial history in Genesis 1-11) may now be seen as essential story elements within a typical foundation story: the ancestral land promises, the departure or exodus, the wanderings, the receiving of the law, the conquest and settlement of the land. The individual units are best understood as having been composed with overall narrative scheme in mind. The explanation of these units as expected components of a foundation story appears to weigh decisively against the redaction critical model.
As can be seen from the earlier comparisons, the biblical narratives about the patriarchal promises and the later Exodus, Sojourn and Conquest form a connected unity that closely conforms to the Greek literary genre of ktisis or foundation story.91 As with many foundation stories, the biblical account has its own distinctive features. Although some Greek colonizing expeditions began as an escape from slavery, and although some Greek lawgivers claimed divine inspiration, both the biblical Exodus and the giving of the law at Sinai were accompanied by divine signs and wonders not typical of Greek accounts. The authors of Deuteronomy appear to have been keenly aware of these innovations in Israel’s foundation story. Deut. 4.32-34 claimed that one could make inquiries and not find another nation to the ends of the earth and the dawn of time that had heard the voice of God speaking directly out of the fire (an allusion to the Sinai theophany of Ex. 19-20, 24) or was taken by signs, wonders and a mighty hand from out of the midst of another nation (cf. Ex. 34.10). This statement displays consciousness of a literary genre dealing with the origins of nations – namely the foundation story, which was known only in the Greek world – and that the Israelite foundation story was unique in Yahweh’s direct role as deliverer and lawgiver.
The opening pages describe a typological comparison of the roles of the ancestors of Rome and Israel. I have tried to capture the main outline.
1. A Man Leaving a Great Civilization and Charged with a Universal Mission
A man escapes the land of a famous civilization and departs with his wife and his father … in order to establish a new nation and a new culture. — Weinfeld (6)
Aeneas leaves the famous city of Troy
leaves with wife Creusa
(who died on the way),
and son Ascanius
Abraham leaves the famous city of Ur of the Chaldees
leaves with wife Sarah,
(cf Rachel’s death on the journey)
and stays for a while in Carthage which later becomes Rome’s enemy;
and pauses for a time in Aram (Syria) which later becomes Israel’s enemy,
Eventually his son Ascanius reaches Lavinium (south of the future Rome), and later reaches Alba Longa, closer still. His descendants reach Rome
and reaches Canaan,
which is destined to rule the world.
the Land of promise and from which his descendants will rule other peoples.
In both cases:
an ethnic tradition later developed into an imperial ideology
a divine promise to a father of a nation who later becomes a messenger for a world mission
2. Gap Between Migration of the Ancestor and the Actual Foundation
The lengthy interval between the stories about the first heroes and the real foundation of the oikist existed in both cultures. — Weinfeld (6)
Jupiter prophesies to Aeneas that 333 years will pass before the birth of the twins and founding of Rome
God promised Abraham that 400 or 430 years would pass before his descendants inherited the land.
In both cases:
two founding legends were combined (one of the actual foundation or conquest and another of an earlier tradition)
the gap of centuries between the two stories was joined by a long line of descendants, a long Trojan dynasty on the one hand, ten generations between Ephraim and Joshua on the other (1 Chron 7:25-27). Inconsistencies are extant in both accounts of the number of generations.
3. Promise at Stake
The promise is seen, then, in Israel, as well as in the Roman epic, as something that could not be taken back: a divine commitment not to be violated. — Weinfeld (9)
When Aeneas is threatened by the storm at sea his mother goddess Venus prays to Jupiter:
“O you . . . who rule the world of men and gods, what crime . . . could my Aeneas have done. . . . Surely it was your promise . . . that from them the Romans were to rise . . . rulers to hold the sea and all lands beneath their sway, what thought . . . has turned you?”
When Jacob is threatened by Esau’s approaching army, he prays:
“Save me from my brother Esau; else I fear he may come and strike me down . . . yet, you have said . . . I will make your offspring as the sand of the sea”
As Aeneas and his men sat at the sacrificial table in honour of Jupiter, Harpies descended and contaminated the food. Aeneas and his men drive them away with their swords. —
The event was interpreted by the prophet Calaens as a prediction of famine before the promise is fulfilled.
As Abraham is cutting the pieces of the sacrificial animals of the covenant birds of prey descend upon the carcasses. Abraham drives them away. —
The event is followed by God declaring that Abraham’s descendants will be enslaved in Egypt before the promise is fulfilled.
In both cases:
The deity cannot violate his promise
omens presage difficulties before the fulfillment of the promise.
I need to refresh my memory with what I read some time ago about the different arguments for the development of “biblical Judaism”, whether it is best understood as a product of the Persian or Hellenistic eras. Anthonioz referred to recent European scholarship, in particular the work of Eckart Otto, which language and costs unfortunately appear hold beyond my reach. Gmirkin does address some obvious problems with the simple trade model (the unlikelihood that ideas discussed among literate elites would necessarily follow trade contacts) but I’d still like to know more about both sides of the discussion.
Anyway, Russell Gmirkin in his response does remind us of one piece of evidence that deserves not to slip from memory or oversight, and that is certainly a strong support for his own view that the Hebrew Bible was the product of the Hellenistic era, that is after the conquests of Alexander around 300 BCE. The emphasis in the following is my own:
In my view, it is methodologically improper to attempt to gain a picture of Judaism in the monarchic (Iron II), Babylonian or Persian eras on the basis of the Pentateuch, since there is no objective external evidence for Pentateuchal writings in pre-Hellenistic times. Quite the contrary, the Elephantine papyri of ca. 450-400 bce give provide strong contemporary evidence for the character of Judaism as practiced late into the Persian Era. These archives of letters (and ostraca) from the Jewish military colony of Elephantine, an Egyptian southern border fortress located just below the First Cataract of the Nile, attest to a thriving Judaism in Egypt with their own temple but no Aaronic priesthood, a Judaism without scriptures, a Judaism which accommodated polytheism, a Judaism with no knowledge of Abraham, Moses, or any other figure known from the Pentateuch or Hebrew Bible (as shown by the absence of these famous figures from the many Jewish names found in the archives). The Jews of Elephantine celebrated a purely agricultural Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread (TAD A4.1) with no associated traditions regarding Moses or Exodus. They possessed a seven day week, but no sabbath of rest, as shown by one ostraca that enjoined an employee to offload a boat full of vegetables on the sabbath on pain of death (TAD D7.16.1-5). These Jews deferred to the authority of Jewish priests from Jerusalem, with whom they consulted on religious matters, but biblical writings never come into play: only what Wellhausen called Oral Torah, authoritative priestly rulings that did not involve written legal codes. The Samarian papyri of Wadi Daliyeh, dating from ca. 375 to 335 bce, at the dawn of the Hellenistic Era, give a similar, though more limited picture: famous names from the Pentateuch are similarly absent. Contrast with the heavy representation of Pentateuchal names in the second century inscriptions from Mount Gerizim or the book of 1 Maccabees, during later times when the biblical text was mined for children’s names. It seems apparent that Judaism prior to the Hellenistic Era, what I would describe as pre-biblical Judaism, was unacquainted with authoritative Mosaic writings or written laws.
Judaism underwent a bold transformation ca. 270 bce, when the Jewish nation reinvented itself with a new theocratic government modeled on the one described in Plato’s Laws; new divine laws ascribed to Moses; new foundation traditions; an approved national literature (Plato, Laws 7.802b-c, 811c-d); and a new cosmic monotheism patterned on that of the Greek philosophers, notably Plato. Judaism as we are accustomed to thinking of it was a product of the Hellenistic Era and Greek learning. The Books of Moses were not so much a product of Judaism as Hellenistic Judaism was a product of the Books of Moses.
That is not to say that there are no traces of pre-biblical Judaism in the biblical Judaism established by the Jewish senate of ca. 270 bce. Plato’s Laws advocated promoting local temples (Plato, Laws 5.738c-d), priesthoods (Plato, Laws 6.759a-b) and traditional religious customs (Plato, Laws 6.759c-d; 8.828a-c) in order to promote the illusion of an ancient and divine authority for their laws (Plato, Laws 7.798a-b), and it was especially in the cultic sphere that we see continuity with older traditions and institutions in the Pentateuch. Although there is no evidence for the body of cultic regulations having existed in written form prior to ca. 270 bce, it probably reflects practices at the temples at Jerusalem and Mount Gerizim in earlier times.
Personally I can’t help feeling that the terms “Judaism” and “Jews” are anachronistic when applied to this time period. I prefer Steve Mason’s preference for the term “Judeans” and wonder if it might be more appropriate to refer to the religion of the Judeans as Yahweh worship or simply the Judean religious practices.
The argument is simple and comparative: the greater number of Pentateuchal laws, even if they had some Semitic precursors, seem copied from Athenian law or, more precisely, the Platonic laws (chapters 2-5).
Beyond this argument, the author proposes that the Laws of Plato constitute a new hermeneutical key for the ideology not only of the Pentateuch but the whole of the Bible: the Bible is the official national literature mandated according to the same instructions of the Platonic laws (chapter 6).
For the author, the hypothesis which has never been advanced is that which he defends, that knowledge of the Pentateuch did not exist before the era of Hellenistic interaction and, furthermore, that it is massively based not on Semitic traditions but Greek. In the brief section, “The current volume” (pp. 4-5), the author restates the new historical framework of his hypothesis: it is in the Great Library of Alexandria that the Jewish authors, assembled under royal sponsorship, drew from their sources and drafted the Pentateuch. A historical consequence directly follows: the theocracy which is established in Judea at the beginning of the Hellenistic era is modeled on Plato’s model government.
The creation of the biblical collection:
The biblical collection was ultimately composed in two phases: the first, the work of the Seventy under royal sponsorship in Alexandria; the second in later stages in Palestine in order to constitute not only a national literature, but also to be an educational program to train obedient citizens. In this discourse, for example, Job becomes the paragon of Greek tragedy! Thus, “The Hebrew Bible as a whole can best be understood as a literature intended for the education of the soul, utilizing all the tools in the Platonic psychogogic arsenal: poetry, myth and song, theology and prayers, pageant and spectacle, theater, drink and dance and persuasive rhetoric that appealed to the patriotic, praised the noble and exalted and condemned the wicked and disobedient, who were threatened with punishments in this life and terrors in the next” (p. 267). Knowledge of this intention and invention would have been erased from the literature such that no link with Alexandria could be denounced.
Continuing directly on from my previous post I address here the two most well-known Athenian trials that mirror the Pentateuchal laws against private and innovative religious practices and deities.
We saw that biblical law condemned all worship that was not centred on the official public shrine or temple. Any form of insult towards the gods or violation of formally ordained rituals regarding offerings, sacrifices, etc was also condemned, often with the death penalty.
Interestingly we find records of the actual carrying out of these kinds of laws in fifth and fourth century BCE Athens.
415 BCE, mutilation of herms and the profaning of the Mysteries
In a single night all the stone herms standing in Athenian doorways and temples were mutilated. The perpetrators were unknown.
Tension was doubly high because Athens was about to send a naval expedition to Sicily in an attempt to turn the tide of their war with Sparta and the desecration was, so the historian Thucydides tells us, both an ill-omen and part of a political conspiracy against the state.
Pleas went out for anyone with any information at all to come forward. The only respondents were resident aliens and slaves who testified about some earlier desecrations
and also about the performance of the Mysteries in private houses . . . .
The scandal of sacrilege was avalanching on the eve of a vital military campaign and fears of anti-democratic traitors seeking to subvert the government.
Accusations flew and informers (true or false) came forward when promised immunity. Many were denounced for the mutilation of the herms and imprisoned. Thucydides again,
as for the accused, they held trials, and they executed all those who had been arrested and sentenced to death those who had fled, publicly offering money to anyone who killed them.
Enemies of a key political and military figure leading the Sicilian expedition, Alcibiades, sought to bring his career to an end by putting him on trial for performing private ceremonies of the Mysteries. Recall the requirement that honest worship be held in public according to set rituals at designated temples. Alcibiades was convicted though absent from the court and sentenced to death.
The term for his being charged for such a crime was eisangelia that is translated as “impeached”. Gmirkin discusses such “religious crimes” as tied up with legislation relating to treason against the state. And that’s how such deviations from socially sanctioned worship were treated in Athens — as threats to the welfare and survival of the political order of the state.
Specifically, Alcibiades was guilty of
imitating the Mysteries and showing them to his companions in his own house,
wearing a robe of the sort that the hierophant wears when he shows the sacred things,
and by naming himself hierophant
and by calling his other companions initiates
in violation of the lawful practices and rules established by . . . the priests of Eleusis. (Plutarch, Alcibiades, 22.4-5)
For those not aware of the story Alcibiades escaped from the Athenians to avoid execution.
One person who was arrested for both the mutilation of the herms and violation of the Mysteries but avoiding the death penalty when he turned informer was Andocides. He spent twelve years in exile but on his return was again accused and facing the death penalty because he “had illegally placed a suppliant-branch in the … temple of Demeter and Persephone in Athens.” In one account,
he has come into our city, sacrificed at the altars where he was not permitted, attended the sacred rites concerning which he had committed impiety [êsebêsen], entered the Eleusinion, and washed his hands with the holy water.
Andocides conducted his own defence and was acquitted.
When we read in the Bible of priests being struck dead for presuming to offer the wrong sort of fire in the temple, or of kings being condemned and cursed for offering sacrifices only certain priests were entitled to make, we can imagine the ancient Athenians thinking such legislation as quite appropriate for another god.
A better way?
Does anyone else see shades of political show trials in modern times? We can well imagine the atmosphere of fear, of informers, — and perhaps we need to pinch ourselves to realize that this was a demonstration of what the reality of the laws of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy would have meant.
Plato, however, after witnessing the execution of his teacher Socrates in this religious-political atmosphere, wrote what he considered would be a fairer refinement (or more just application) of such laws. We will look at his description of more “ideal legislation” and its similarities with the Pentateuch in another post.
Popular culture presents us with an image of ancient classical Athens, the days of Pericles, of Socrates, the mocking playwrights and the democratic assemblies, as a time of free-thinking, exploratory enlightenment. It is difficult to imagine some of its laws being as benighted as those of the Taliban or Moses with summary executions for anyone deemed an apostate.
Imagine the following law of Deuteronomy being applied in fifth and fourth century BCE Athens. Or rather, try to imagine the following law of Deuteronomy being inspired by the Greek law. That means shifting time-line gears to imagine the biblical law being composed not in the archaic Bronze Age but in Hellenistic times, say around the third century BCE, and drawing upon Greek literature for its ideals and narrative contexts.
If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone them to death . . . .
If you hear it said about one of the towns the Lord your God is giving you to live in that troublemakers have arisen among you and have led the people of their town astray, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods you have not known) . . . .
Could such a law that can be seen as an epitome of all that is barbaric about the Mosaic covenant have anything in common with democratic Athens?
The above law addresses not only the introduction of new gods but places some stress on this being done “secretly”. Compare Deuteronomy 12 where private worship and sacrifice is forbidden. All worship and sacrifice must be public, centred around the public shrine or temple.
Notice also that the law relies upon people listening to rumours and reporting these to an assembly who would arrange for an inquiry.
What about these laws?
I have inserted the Greek word translated sorceress (pharmakous) and sorcery (pharmakos) for old time’s sake. It reminds me of many years ago when we interpreted that injunction as a command against modern pharmaceutical products — and pharmacy itself, of course! — But the cruel insanity continues. I see today on a Christian blog the lesson that Christians according to Paul have the right to execute certain sinners today, but (fortunately) the civil power is all that stops them from the obligation to do so.
You shall not allow a sorceress (φαρμακοὺς) to live.
Now a man or a woman who is a medium or a spiritist shall surely be put to death.
Let no one be found among you who … practices divination or sorcery (φαρμακός), interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. . . .
I presume there is no need for me to remind us all of laws against blasphemy and insulting the deity.
Has there ever been a society where these laws were applied in reality? Or were they a literary fiction? A philosophical or theological ideal of certain factions of priests? (One of the details I find myself mildly critical of Gmirkin’s thesis is that he discusses both literary or theoretical legislation along with known official law-codes. Perhaps he is meaning to suggest that those responsible for the Pentateuchal laws drew upon both forms of law as recorded in the Alexandrian library without distinction. See previous posts in the archive for background discussion.)
Let’s see how it was in democratic Athens. We have already noted several of the “democratic” features of the Biblical code with its emphasis on investigations and decisions being made by local assemblies.
Stoned for impiety
Aeschylus, the tragedian, around early/mid fifth century BCE, was according to a late historical record tried by the Athenian assembly for impiety. He was apparently accused of revealing certain secret religious rites in one of his plays. The assembly was about to stone him for his crime, we are informed. He was only saved by the intercession of his brother who showed that he had been the first to win an award for valour for an action in which he lost his and in the recent war against Persia.
Death for denying, mocking or contradicting the gods
The philosopher Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, around 437/6 BCE, denied that the sun was a god and said it was, instead, merely a red-hot mass of stone. The Athenian assembly came within a few votes of sentencing him to death for this blasphemy after a prolonged trial. His student, Pericles, pleaded for his life. One account indicates that the stress took its toll on Anaxoragas to the extent that he committed suicide.
Speaking against or failing to respect the worship of the gods
Diagoras of Melos around 410 BCE was living in Athens where he was accused of disparaging the Mysteries and causing many to turn away from following the rituals, or according to another version, “he described the Mysteries in detail to everyone, making them common and insignificant, and dissuading those who wished to be initiated”. The Athenian assembly imposed the penalty of death upon him. He was not present at his trial but the assembly offered a reward of a talent of silver to anyone who killed him and two talents of silver to anyone who brought him back alive to face the Athenian assembly.
Death to Agnostics
According to an account by Sextus Empiricus of the later second century CE Protagoras of Abdera, like Diagoras of Melos also around the 410s BCE, wrote
Concerning gods, I am able to say neither whether they exist nor of what sort they are, since the obstacles hindering me are many.
Another, Diogenes Laertius a little later, concurred. Protagoras, he said, wrote
Concerning gods, I cannot know either that they exist or that they do not exist, since the obstacles to knowing are many: the uncertainty, and the fact that a man’s life is short.
The Athenian assembly accordingly voted to condemn him to death. One account informs us that luckily he escaped by ship, but unluckily his ship was wrecked and he drowned. Don’t mess with the gods.
Death for privately introducing new gods, and “sorcery (pharmacy?)”
I have occasionally changed the formatting of Hagedorn’s text and a few times replaced Hebrew or Greek text with English translations. Some footnotes I have converted into hyperlinks to the source text.
Russell Gmirkin’s comparative conclusion goes beyond the details in Hagedorn’s discussion so I will quote that broader perspective before embarking on my Hagedorn study:
The lack of a military role for the king in Pentateuchal law contrasts with the king as leader of the army at war in both the Ancient Near East and in the historiography of the biblical monarchy. The citizen army described in both the narratives and legal passages of Exodus-Joshua corresponds closely to the Athenian model. The notion of military practices being governed or limited by law is characteristically Greek. The involvement of the national Assembly in negotiating peace treaties in wartime in Josh. 9 suggests a commitment to democratic practices similar to that found at Athens but unheard of in the Ancient Near East. The Deuteronomistic exemption from military duties for a soldier with a new house, vineyard or wife appears to have been modeled on the statutorial exemption from military training for an Athenian soldier who newly became head of a household through marriage or inheriting an estate. (Gmirkin, p. 125)
Military Law Between Moses and Plato
1 When you go to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army greater than yours, do not be afraid of them, because the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, will be with you.
Hagedorn p. 176
“You” in Deut 20:1 is in fact the assembly of all male Israelites who will go out and fight. This phenomenon is well attested in the Greek world. In an inscription from Athens we have a decree regarding warfare, here we read:
“this decided in the Lykeion (the people of) Athens (Without the assembled people) it shall neither be (possible) to start a war (nor) to end one —“
The people are responsible for military action in the law and at the same time the δήμος πληθύων [=popular assembly] controls the actions of the council, a fact not represented in Deut 20:1-20. If the law is indeed directed towards the same individuals who are already responsible for the investiture of the judges and the king in the leges de officiis, we are now able to use the so called Hoplite model of the Greek city states to investigate further what implications a fighting male citizenship had on the society.
It is important to note that one was first a citizen and then a soldier and not vice versa. To maximise its numbers of Hoplites, every polis had to be very keen on the maximisation of smallholdings so that more citizens could afford Hoplite armour.
As per the previous posts, the table here is a simplified summary of some of the points Russell Gmirkin discusses in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. It is far from being a complete representation of his discussion. It is best read as an easy reference guide in conjunction with the detail covered in the book. The table is only a starting guide: it will be expanded and modified as the details of laws are further explored. I expect to do a few more similar tables for other types of laws. (Still putting on hold the discussion of the final chapter of Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible as I backtrack to sections I covered too briefly earlier or inadvertently omitted altogether.)
ANE = Ancient Near Eastern laws
Greece/Plato = Laws as implemented in Athens and/or Laws presented as ideals by Plato in Laws
Property Crimes and Agricultural Law
Laws against trespass
If anyone grazes their livestock in a field or vineyard and lets them stray and they graze in someone else’s field, the offender must make restitution from the best of their own field or vineyard.
If a fire breaks out and spreads into thornbushes so that it burns shocks of grain or standing grain or the whole field, the one who started the fire must make restitution.
Laws of Hammurabi 57-58
57 If a shepherd does not make an agreement with the owner of the field to graze sheep and goats, and without the permission of the owner of the field grazes sheep and goats on the field, the owner of the field shall harvest his field and the shepherd who grazed sheep and goats on the field without the permission of the owner of the field shall give in addition 6,000 silas of grain per 18 ikus (of field) to the owner of the field.
58 If, after the sheep and goats come up from the common irrigated area when the pennants announcing the termination of pasturing are wound around the main city-gate, the shepherd releases the sheep and goats into a field and allows the sheep and goats to graze in the field—the shepherd shall guard the field in which he allowed them to graze and at the harvest he shall measure and deliver to the owner of the field 18,000 silas of grain per 18 ikus (of field).
Hittite Law 105-6
105 [If] anyone sets [fire] to a field, and the fire catches a vineyard with fruit on its vines, if a vine, an apple tree, a pear(?) tree or a plum tree burns, he shall pay 6 shekels of silver for each tree. He shall replant [the planting], And he shall look to his house for it. If it is a slave, he shall pay 3 shekels of silver for each tree.
106 If anyone carries embers into his field, catches(??) it while in fruit, and ignites the field, he who sets the fire shall himself take the burnt-over field. He shall give a good field to the owner of the burnt-over field, and he will reap it.
Plato, Laws 843 c-e
[843c] Wherefore every neighbor must guard most carefully against doing any unfriendly act to his neighbor, and must above all things take special care always not to encroach in the least degree on his land; for whereas it is an easy thing and open to anyone to do an injury, to do a benefit is by no means open to everyone. Whosoever encroaches on his neighbor’s ground, overstepping the boundaries, shall pay for the damage; and, by way of cure for his shamelessness
[843d] and incivility, he shall also pay out to the injured party twice the cost of the damage. In all such matters the land-stewards shall act as inspectors, judges and valuers,—the whole staff of the district, as we have said above, in respect of the more important cases, and, in respect of the less important, those of them who are “phrourarchs.” [The “phrourarchs” were the (5) officers of the (60) country police.] If anyone encroaches on pasture-land, these officials shall inspect the damage, and decide and assess it. And if any, yielding to his taste for bees,
[843e] secures for himself another man’s swarm by attracting them with the rattling of pans, he shall pay for the damage. And if a man, in burning his own stuff, fails to have a care for that of his neighbor, he shall be fined in a fine fixed by the officials. So too if a man, when planting trees, fail to leave the due space between them and his neighbor’s plot: this has been adequately stated by many lawgivers, whose laws we should make use of, instead of requiring the Chief Organizer of the State to legislate about all the numerous small details which are within the competence of any chance lawgiver.
Allowing passers-by to eat produce from a field
If you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat all the grapes you want, but do not put any in your basket.
If you enter your neighbor’s grainfield, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to their standing grain.
Leviticus 19:9-10; 23:22
When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.
Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.
When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Lord your God.
Plato, Laws, 844d-845d
[844d] As concerns the fruit-harvest, the rule of sharing for all shall be this—this goddess has bestowed on us two gifts, one the plaything of Dionysus which goes unstored, the other produced by nature for putting in store. So let this law be enacted concerning the fruit-harvest:. . . . .
If a foreigner sojourning in the country desires to eat of the crop as he passes along the road, he, with one attendant,
[845b] shall, if he wishes, take some of the choice fruit with-out price, as a gift of hospitality; but the law shall forbid our foreigners to share in the so-called “coarse” fruit, and the like; . . . .
A foreigner shall be allowed to share in these fruits in the same way as in the grape crop; and if a man above thirty touch them, eating on the spot and not taking any away, he shall have a share in all such fruits, like the foreigner; . . . .
Moving boundary stones
Do not move your neighbor’s boundary stone set up by your predecessors in the inheritance you receive in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess.
“Cursed is anyone who moves their neighbor’s boundary stone.”
Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”
Plato, Laws, 842e – 843 a-b
[842e] First, then, let there be a code of laws termed “agricultural.” The first law—that of Zeus the Boundary-god—shall be stated thus: No man shall move boundary-marks of land, whether they be those of a neighbor who is a native citizen or those of a foreigner
[843a] (in case he holds adjoining land on a frontier), realizing that to do this is truly to be guilty of “moving the sacrosanct”; sooner let a man try to move the largest rock which is not a boundary-mark than a small stone which forms a boundary, sanctioned by Heaven, between friendly and hostile ground. For of the one kind Zeus the Clansmen’s god is witness, of the other Zeus the Strangers’ god; which gods, when aroused, bring wars most deadly. He that obeys the law shall not suffer the evils which it inflicts; but whoso despises it shall be liable to a double penalty, the first from the hand of Heaven, the second from the law. No one shall
[843b] voluntarily move the boundary-marks of the land of neighbors: if any man shall move them, whosoever wishes shall report him to the land-holders, and they shall bring him to the law court. And if a man be convicted,—since by such an act the convicted man is secretly and violently merging lands in one,—the court shall estimate what the loser must suffer or pay. Further, many small wrongs are done against neighbors which, owing to their frequent repetition, engender an immense amount of enmity, and make of neighborhood a grievous and bitter thing.
Gmirkin, pp. 119f
This parallel is reinforced by the common discovery of boundary stones in Attica and the apparent absence of archaeological parallels in ancient Mesopotamia or ancient Israel and Judah. To my knowledge, the earliest Judean boundary stones so far discovered are thirteen boundary stones found at Tel Gezer, written in Hebrew and Greek, dating to no earlier than the Hasmonean Era, suggesting that the use of boundary stones in Judah was a Hellenistic Era development taken over from the Greeks.