Two Ages and the Inventions of Four Religions

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

One of my primary interests has been to understand how the religions of the Bible (Judaism and Christianity) and the Bible itself (both the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament and the Christian New Testament) came about. There are other far more important questions pressing on us at the moment and I will address those as well — but for now, it’s time to sum up what I have learned from reading through mountains of scholarly literature.

This post will only touch on the conclusions. The various roads to those conclusions, I hope, will follow — although much of the background relevant research has been posted over the years on this site.

Russell Gmirkin has published several scholarly books and articles that present a very plausible case for the the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), as well as some of the subsequent literature, being the work of authors and editors of the Hellenistic era (that is, from around 300 BC after the conquests of Alexander the Great) who were bringing together ideas and myths from the Samaritan-Judean worship of Yahweh into a new mix with Greek tropes and ideals. Such a notion is hard to accept at first if we have known nothing but the traditional Documentary Hypothesis (DH) of Biblical origins. The DH leads us to view the Bible as having is origins in the remote Iron Age (ca 1000 BCE, the purported time of David and Solomon) and through centuries of editorializing and additions it became what today we know as the “Jewish/Hebrew Bible” or the “Old Testament”. Niels Peter Lemche, according to my understanding, was the first to propose that we should rather look to the Hellenistic era (the time after the conquests of Alexander the Great from 334 BCE to his death in 323 BCE) for the origins of the Hebrew Bible. Since then, it would appear that Yonatan Adler has set out the archaeological evidence that would support the notion that the biblical religion did not emerge until the Hellenistic era.

Is the very idea that a new religious myth and a new concept of a supreme god could be “artificially” created and embraced by a mainstream of a community at all feasible? If we are to accept the view that the Hebrew Bible was an invention of scribes seeking to create a new myth of origins for disparate Yahweh worshipers (Samaritans and Judeans in particular, but also other Yahweh adherents), do we have any analogous enterprises that could help us accept that the such a development was to be expected — that it was not a bizarre outlier?

Yes we do. And not only does it exist, but it is located in the same time period and broader geographical area where we find the proposed Hellenistic origin of the Bible.

Not too long ago I attempted to illustrate the meaning of the term “Hellenism” or “Hellenistic” by pointing out that the term indicates an amalgam of Asian and Greek concepts. The Egyptian god Serapis was an invention of the Hellenistic era. This invention was an attempt to unite Greeks and Egyptians into a common community. The god had both Egyptian and Greek aspects merged into one. But there is more….

When Ptolemy I [a successor to Alexander] assumed power in Egypt, he faced the daunting task of uniting the various elements of the population—conquerors and conquered—to at least an extent where they tolerated each other. It has often been admired and extensively described how skillfully he proceeded, particularly in the perilous realm of religion, and how he managed to spare the feelings of the Egyptians without forcing the Greek spirit into the forms of Egyptian worship. As he set out to give the new center of the land a city deity—without such, no ancient foundation is conceivable, and here in Alexandria, as in Antioch, one stood entirely outside historical context, and therefore a city deity had to be created here as well—and as he began to establish a sacred center of his land in the new capital, he had to seek a god in whose worship Greeks and Egyptians could meet. No force on earth could have compelled the Egyptians to abandon their four-thousand-year tradition and turn to a Greek cult; but the king also did not want to make the Greeks Egyptians in their beliefs. Thus, it was only possible for something higher to unite both.

(Schmidt, translation from page 78 of Kultübertragungen [=Cult Transfers])


Those who created him must have been able to conceive of a god who had a part of the essence of each god and who therefore stood above them all; they may have had a sense that the countless gods worshiped by the world were ultimately only the emanation of a divine being, and they gave shape to this intuition and created a god whom they could interpret to the Greek as Greek and to the Egyptian as Egyptian: this was only possible if they created a universal god.

The details can wait for another post, but in short, the new god was Serapis. His statue looked Greek, but his name sounded Egyptian (a possible phonetic elision of Osiris and Apis). A myth of origin was created, too. It was declared that the first Greek ruler of Egypt (Ptolemy I) had a dream in which a numinous figure commanded him to send for a divine image from Sinope, a Greek area in northern Asia Minor. The newly created myth assured Greeks that Serapis was in many ways a familiar Greek god. Apart from looking Greek, his myth and name also contained hints of the Greek god Zeus of the underworld, or Pluto. The sound of the name Serapis, at the same time, strongly hinted at those thoroughly Egyptian deities of Osiris and Apis. So this new god was a creation of both Greek and Egyptian motifs. Its function was to bring Greeks and Egyptians together.


But his name would hardly have been chosen if another element had not also played a role: that it was possible, through slight phonetic changes, to create the belief that the name Sarapis was simply the Greek form of the Egyptian wsr-hp (Osiris-Apis). Thus, the possibility was given to conceive Sarapis as an Egyptian god and to implant in the Egyptians the belief that they worshipped one of their ancient gods only in a new form.

And on the other hand, it has also been understood to represent the god referred to by the name Sarapis to the Greeks as a Greek one. His image shows it, and it is often emphasized in literature how closely related he is to Pluto, and in the legend that tells of his introduction from Sinope, it is even explicitly emphasized that he is none other than Pluto. And the existence of such a detailed narrative, as found in Tacitus and Plutarch, can only be explained if it was intentionally fabricated for a specific purpose: the purpose was to derive Sarapis from Greek belief.

(Schmidt 79f – translation)

On a lesser scale the Hellenistic era also witnessed the creation of many new religious myths and family cultic associations to promote the prestige of new rulers and city-states — as I referenced in another post not too long ago.

Prior to the Hellenistic era the Yahweh religion was polytheistic. Yahweh had a wife. The Bible presents Yahweh as the sole god. Genesis narrates the erection of shrines and appeals to various gods that the casual reader can easily assume are early names of the god Yahweh in the book of Exodus: El Shaddai, El Olam, El Elyon,  Bethel ….

If it can be concluded that early in the Hellenistic era a new religious concept was built upon both the entrenched traditions of Greeks and Egyptians in such a way that neither tradition was offended, then it may not be too wide a step to imagine at the same time diverse Yahweh worshipers (viz. Samaritans and Judeans) constructing a narrative of mythical origins that both could embrace. The common god was, like Serapis, a universal deity, stripped of local particularizing appendages.

What of Christianity? We have here another potential analogue, also from the first two centuries of the Roman empire. In fact, the Schmidt work I quoted above came to my attention through a book by Troels Engberg-Pedersen discussing specific Greco-Roman influences on the shape of Christianity.

Photo by yours truly -British Museum

In the traditional (pre-Hellenistic and pre-Roman) Persian religion that we think of as Zoroastrianism, the god Mithras was not a major character. Yet in the second century CE the worship of Mithras, through a “mystery cult”, was widespread. This was the same period for which we have clear evidence of Christian growth.

The ancient [pre-Hellenistic and pre-Roman] cults in which Mithras appeared were public; in contrast, the Roman cult was secret, a mystery religion, and such religions appeared precisely during the Roman Empire

Without the Roman world, in fact, they would not have been possible. Previously, all religions were closely tied to specific states or peoples; one was born into one of them. . . . They primarily addressed the spiritual needs of individuals and were generally “more religious” than other cults of the time. Initiates of Isis and Mithra, like Christians, were missionaries. Regardless of their country of origin, those who accepted the premises of the new cult and wished to join were welcomed, as it constituted a spiritual homeland.

Common to all these religions is the fact that they emerged from a people who had lost their political identity . . . .

(Merkelbach, 82 – translation)

If the founder(s) of the Christian religion, whether that was Paul or another, put an innovative twist on some branch or branches of Judaism to create their new faith, and did so at the time of the early Roman empire, they were not alone. Some unknown “genius” appears to have done something similar in relation to the orthodox Persian religion to create a new cult focusing on the worship of Mithras.

The mysteries of Mithras constituted a new faith that no longer had much in common with that of the ancient Persians, except for the name of the god and some mythical episodes.

Once fixed, the system . . . did not undergo any substantial modification over time. Therefore, it cannot be the result of a long evolution but was necessarily conceived and structured in its entirety once and for all. In Geschichte der griechischen Religion (vol 2 p. 675), M.P. Nilsson states that the mysteries of Mithras were created as a whole by an unknown genius, and we can only confirm his opinion.

The place of origin of this cult is unknown, but its creator was well acquainted with the Persian religion. It will be seen how, probably very soon, the center of the new religion became Rome, the capital of the empire, from where that cult then spread to the provinces.

(Merkelbach 82f – translation)

The reference was to Nilsson, who wrote:

The conclusion is inevitable that the Mithraic mysteries are a unique creation of an unknown religious genius, who, based on certain myths and rituals selected by him and incorporating elements from the astrology prevalent at the time and from Greek beliefs, created a form of religion capable of conquering a place in the Roman world.

(Nilsson 675)

I do not suggest that Christianity mutated from Mithraism. Not at all — despite the embarrassment of some early Church Fathers attempting to grapple with a few overt similarities between the two religions. Rather, what is of particular interest is the emergence of two comparable religions around the same period and place as a result of deliberate invention to meet what were arguably comparable public needs.

If both Mithraism and Christianity were “invented” to meet certain needs of individuals who found themselves looking for a new community and identity, they may have been little different, in essence and function, from two earlier Hellenistic religions that were created to meet specific community needs of their day.

Engberg-Pedersen, Troels. Paul in His Hellenistic Context. T&T Clark, 2004.

Merkelbach, Reinhold. Mithras. Konigstein/Ts : Hain, 1984.

Nilsson, Martin P. (Martin Persson). Geschichte der griechischen Religion. Vol. 2. 2 vols. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1974.

Schmidt, Ernst. Kultübertragungen. Giessen: Alfred Töpelmann, 1909.


Simeon The Just: The Forgotten Author Of The Hebrew Bible

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey


Another work by a French scholar (I have posted on quite a few* on this blog), and one that I am regretting not having engaged with sooner, is Simeon The Just: The Forgotten Author Of The Hebrew Bible. Author: Bernard Barc. The Preface to the book is online so I am confident in being permitted to repost it here, in translation, with attribution. It may pique your interest in knowing more about Barc’s thesis. I expect to be posting more as I continue to read and translate it. I see Barc passed away only last year. I have had the book since 2019 and am only now catching up with it so I am sorry I left it too late to take the opportunity to correspond with him. 


Who is the author of the Torah, or at least its final editor? In 2000, Bernard Barc published Les arpenteurs du temps. Essai sur l’histoire religieuse de la Judée à l’époque hellénistique (The Surveyors of Time. Essay on the religious history of Judea in the Hellenistic period), published by the Zebre Press in Lausanne. Biblical research was then marked by the theory of Reichsautorization that had appeared in Germany in the 1980s: several historians, such as Ehrard Blum and Peter Frei, developed the idea that the letter of Artaxerxes I (465-424) quoted in Ezra-Nehemiah 7:11-28 was one of several testimonies to the policy of the Persian Empire to guarantee the recognition and obligation of local rights by the authorities of the empire; such a policy implied the writing down of local laws, which then took their place in Persian law; the final redaction of the Torah, which can be symbolized by the name of Ezra, should be understood in the light of this policy of Persian imperial authorization. Bernard Barc was against this perspective: the final redaction of the Torah is much later; it must be related to the high priest Simon, son of Onias II, whom the author of Sirach praises at length in chapter 50 of his book and whose activity is situated in the years 220-195 approximately. In the eyes of Bernard Barc, this Simon is none other than Simeon the Just … , whose extreme attention to the Torah is recalled at the beginning of the Pirkevot. Bernard Barc’s book has sometimes been criticized as being too much about numerology, whereas it simply takes seriously the rules of gematria in Jewish tradition. It has also been seen as the approach of a specialist in gnostic texts projecting an esoteric way of thinking onto the Bible. It is true that Bernard Barc is the editor of some of the Nag Hammadi treatises and that he has contributed to the training of several of the Quebec copyists. But he is also a first-rate Hebraist, recruited by the French University in 1967 to teach biblical Hebrew; he was of great help to me when I was editing the volume of Numbers for the collection “La Bible d’Alexandrie”, published in 1994.

In the book that he is giving today, Bernard Barc broadens his scope to include the whole of the Hebrew Bible, of which Simeon the Just is, in his eyes, the forgotten author. By this he means that nothing is left to chance in the writing of the Bible, neither the division into books, nor the division into sections, open or closed, nor the use of words, none of which is superfluous, nor their occurrence in the order of the text, nor the spelling itself, whose variations are significant. The letter is therefore fundamental. And literal reading is essential, according to the rules that Bernard Barc sets out, for example when he explains the algorithm of biblical letters. But this literal reading of the Bible of Simeon that Bernard Barc engages in has nothing to do with the literal reading of the Antiochian school of the fourth to fifth centuries or with the historical-literal reading of the Bible that has been imposed in the scholarly world since the Renaissance: it is not a question of reasoning in terms of history and historical context, but of unfolding the meaning of the text as one goes along in its reading. As a result, sometimes the literal meaning that emerges is joined with what we would call the hidden or allegorical meaning. In fact, Simeon has a project, which can be defined in two sentences: first, history unfolds according to a divine plan conceived by the Most High God and implemented by his two hypostases, Elohim and YHWH; second, the design of the Most High is manifested in creation by numbers and letter-numbers organised according to an algorithm, in particular the perfect solar year of 364 + 1 days. As a result, Simeon obeys writing constraints, which Bernard Barc summarises perfectly in §108, and which he clarifies as his work progresses. 65 tables help the reader to visualise Bernard Barc’s deconstruction of Simeon’s project.

To read such a book with profit, one must get rid of our usual ways of approaching the Bible. You have to accept that Simeon functions somewhat like the great rhetoricians of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries or the Oulipo, illustrated by Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Harry Mathews or Jacques Roubaud, among others. Simeon’s Bible is not an ordinary work of history, which investigates the past and recounts it in order to make it understandable. The past corresponds to God’s plan, which unfolds in history and which is accounted for by means of a limited number of rules of writing. Many biblical scholars will not agree to follow Bernard Barc, whose approach is too new to be immediately convincing. But even for these recalcitrant readers, there will be a good use of the book. Thus, for example, Table 15 in §93 on the explicit dates of the Bible will not fail to provoke reflection for a long time to come; why, indeed, these dates and not others? In § 216, Table 55 on a chronology of Universal History will impress even the most sceptical of readers.

I read these fascinating and abundant pages, but sometimes difficult to follow (especially § 134-141), with my questions as a specialist of the Greek Bible of the Septuagint and as a historian of the canon. In § 58, Bernard Barc suggests that the LXX was translated, not in Alexandria, but in Leontopolis, in the city of the Oniades refugees in Egypt. This is an idea that has never been put forward before. Some Septuagint scholars have argued that a rival version of the LXX, but not the LXX itself, originated in Leontopolis. Others have located the making of the Isaiah translation, and that book alone, in that city. But locating the LXX in Leontopolis and dating it to the middle of the second century contradicts all the ancient sources, which are unanimous about Alexandria and which place the translation in relation to Ptolemy Lagos or Ptolemy Philadelphus, at the beginning of the second century BC. Around 220, Demetrios the Chronographer seems to quote the text of the LXX. However, it is easy to understand why Bernard Barc favours a low date for the LXX: it allows us to attribute a central role to Simeon. But can we not imagine that Simeon is the heir of textual traditions prior to him, and of which the LXX is in certain cases the witness? Let us take the example of the five books of the Torah. In § 126-127 and 234, Bernard Barc draws attention to the fact that Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, but not Deuteronomy, begin with the letter waw, which means “and”; it is clear that, literally, Exodus is added to Genesis; Leviticus, to Exodus; and Numbers, to Leviticus; and that Deuteronomy is not. However, the LXX offers a notable difference from the Hebrew Massoretic text: Exodus does not begin with ‘and’, kai in Greek. Where the Hebrew text offers two sets, namely the first four books and Deuteronomy, the LXX has three: Genesis, Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers, Deuteronomy. However, the Samaritan Hebrew text and the Syriac Peshitta, normally translated from the Hebrew, offer the same text as the LXX. One must therefore ask whether the LXX, the Samaritan and the Peshitta do not attest the existence of a Hebrew text prior to that of Simeon, in which the story of the creation of the world and the patriarchs was set apart from the story of Moses and the Hebrews in the desert; by adding the waw at the beginning of Exodus, Simeon would have unified these two stories; however, in both cases, Deuteronomy would have constituted a specific whole, probably because the speaker is no longer God, but Moses.

I submitted to Bernard Barc the thoughts I have just outlined. He expressed his disagreement with me, with strong arguments that I summarize in a few sentences. According to him, it is not possible for Simeon to have introduced the complex arithmological architecture of which he is the inventor into a pre-existing Hebrew text. Indeed, if Simeon’s work had consisted in refining a Hebrew text at his disposal, it would have to have already presented, with a few details, the genealogical organisation of the biblical story and the names of the characters. There would thus have existed before Simeon a text that strangely resembled that of Simeon! One can only be sensitive to this argument, while recalling that the question of the historical character of Simeon the Just is delicate, since Flavius Josephus makes him the son of Onias I and thus places him at the beginning of the third century (Jewish Antiquities XII 43). It is true that the consensus of contemporary historians rejects this testimony and that they are practically unanimous in seeing in Simeon the Just the son of Onias II, as does Bernard Barc. But what can be suggested is this: Simeon could be the last link in a line of high priests who would have worked in the same direction for a century.

My remarks on the history of the canon have less impact on the theses put forward by Bernard Barc. He takes the perspective of the tripartite canon, Law, Prophets and Writings, which he nowhere discusses. Yet the oldest canonical reality we reach when reading the Bible itself is either the Law or the Law and Prophets. The latter designation does not refer to two sub-corpuses, on the one hand the Law, on the other the Prophets: in 4 Maccabees 18:10-19, the Law and the Prophets include not only Genesis, Numbers and Deuteronomy, but also Isaiah, Ezekiel, Psalms, Proverbs and Daniel; in the Gospel of John 12:34 and 15:25, under the mention of the Law is actually introduced a quotation from the Psalms. We are therefore dealing, not with a bipartite Bible, but with a bi-defined or bi-referenced Bible. This bi-defined Bible is that of the tannaim, who use the expression “the Law and the Prophets”. The tripartite Bible appears only in the 200s with the amoraim, who speak of the Law and the Prophets and the Writings. The texts that canon historians cite in support of the existence of the tripartite canon from the Maccabean period only prove that the expression “the Law and the Prophets” was felt to be inappropriate to account for books that are neither of the legal nor of the prophetic kind. So what is Simeon’s canon? Is it not the one designated by the Law and the Prophets? One may wonder whether the expression “the height of the double” in Sirach 50:2, which Bernard Barc comments on in § 64-68 and in which he sees the two tablets of the Law, could not designate the bi-referential canon, the Law and the Prophets.

Bernard Barc’s book is sure to raise further questions and discussions. We have not finished remembering this great forgotten man: Simeon the Just. 

Gilles Dorival
Professor Emeritus at the University of Aix-Marseille
Honorary member of the University Institute of France
(chair “Hellenistic Judaism and Ancient Christianity”)

The translation is by DeepL.

The introductory chapter offers a quite new viewpoint on why Genesis, for example, contains side by side, sometimes interwoven, stories that singly appear to be in opposition to each other. The particular focus is on the story of the Flood and Noah: two gods appear, one Yahweh, the other Elohim; different commands are given, two of each kind and seven of each kind, and so forth. I have a few other works to post about first but will return to Bernard Barc before too long.

Here is a snippet from the introductory chapter to prepare you for the sort of fresh thinking that is to come: Continue reading “Simeon The Just: The Forgotten Author Of The Hebrew Bible”


part 3 … Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson

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by Neil Godfrey

Earlier posts in this series: 25th August 2020 and 27th August 2020.

Thomas Thompson . . . is a pioneer in questioning more or less weak historical reconstructions done by Old Testament scholars, reconstructions that were mainly based on biblical texts and only sometimes supported by a few arbitrarily selected extra-biblical data. I still remember how his Tübinger Dissertation on the historicity of the patriarchal narratives struck like a bomb in Heidelberg during the preparation stage of the second volume of Westermann’s commentary on Genesis. 


Later on Thompson extended and radicalized his historical scepticism concerning the Hebrew Bible. According to him, all the texts from Genesis to 2 Kings constitute a ‘mythic past’ composed by redactors of the Persian and Hellenistic periods from many traditions. They show no historiographical interest but are intended to construct a Judean or Samarian identity and to enfold a theological and philosophical worldview. — Rainer Albertz

. . .

We come now to the third section of Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity and the one that is of special interest to me . . . .

Part 3. Biblical Narratives

With thanks to those contributors who encouraged and assisted me to obtain a review copy of this volume, and thanks, of course, to the publisher T&T Clark/Bloomsbury for sending it to me.

The opening essay is by another scholar also of the University of Copenhagen whose work has been discussed before on Vridar, Ingrid Hjelm: “The Food of Life and the Food of Death in Texts from the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East“. Hjelm interprets Genesis 1-3 intertextually with the Mesopotamian myth of Adapa, the book of Proverb’s discourse on Wisdom and Folly, and 1 Samuel’s narrative of Nabal and Abigail, finally extending even to thoughts on the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament.

I have a special interest in the Adapa myth as is surely evident from having posted fifteen times on it so far. It is about a pre-Flood mortal, Adapa, who is given perfect wisdom by the god Ea but not eternal life. Adapa offends the gods and is called to give account. The god Ea, who gave him wisdom, deceives him so that he unwittingly rejects the gift of eternal life offered by a higher deity, Anu. The details are quite different but the motifs are the same as we read in Genesis: a mortal being deceived by a divine agent, becoming wise but losing eternal life, the “sin” and a curse. There is surely some connection but exactly what that is is not immediately clear. Hjelm explores the questions common to both myths. The temple of the gods in the Adapa myth is replaced by the divinity’s garden in Genesis. Hjelm points out that Thompson himself has noted that the woman already “knows the good” before she eats of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and that insight changes the way we read the story. Yet God has already planted the tree of life in the same garden, so why is it that God appeared from the outset (before “the fall”) to turn the attention of Adam and Eve from that tree? Asking such questions brings us even closer to the character of the interplay between the gods and Adapa in the Mesopotamian myth.

The second part of the essay is another fascinating examination of Wisdom and Folly in Proverbs vis à vis Abigail and Nabal (meaning “Folly”) in 1 Samuel 25, with once more the motif of eating specially prepared food. A snippet of the discussion:

In a comparative analysis of the goddesses Athirat, Qudshu, Tannit, Anat and Astarte in texts from the ancient Near East, inscriptions mentioning Asherah (and Yahweh) from Khirbet el-Qom and Kuntillet Ajrud and Old Testament texts, Broberg finds so much similarity in the symbol of Ashera’s linking of trees, snakes, fertility and woman that it is plausible that McKinlay’s ‘agents of God’ hide an Ashera goddess (Broberg 2014: 50-64).19 The use of the plural forms in Gen. l:26’s and 3:22’s ‘let us’ and ‘like us’ functions as an inclusio around this hidden goddess (Broberg 2014: 64), who is present at the creation as god’s wife, but in the course of the narrative is transformed to become Adam’s wife as the ‘mother of all living’ (Gen. 3:20; Broberg 2014: 59; cf. also Wallace 1985: 158). A similar transformation takes place when Abigail as David’s wife ‘is moved into the ranks of the many wives’ (McKinlay 2014 [sic – 1999?]: 82).

If, as argued by Broberg (2014: 61), Genesis 2-4’s woman/Eve narratives contain a conscious dethronement of Asherah similar to the anti-Asherah bashing the in the books of Kings (e.g. 1 Kgs 18:19; 2 Kgs 21:7; 23:4-7), it is likely that Proverbs 1-9 and 1 Samuel 25 are written as contrasting narratives, aiming at transferring Asherah’s positive traits as mother of all living onto the female figure. As heir of the life-sustaining qualifications of the fertility goddess, the wise woman secures the good life and holds death in check. (pp. 171f. Broberg 2014 = a Masters thesis at University of Copenhagen. My highlighting in all quotations.)

Where does the Lord’s Supper enter this picture?

The study of ancient myths may also add to our understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a radical transformation of drinking from the ṣarṣaru cup of Isthar in Near Eastern covenant ideologies’ confirmation and remembrance of the covenant. (p. 173)

The artist’s imagination has reduced the gates to a far more manageable size than in the original narrative unless we are to imagine Samson here, as later rabbis did, as a monstrously large giant. Wikimedia Commons

But let’s move on. The next chapter pulls out for attention one of those very odd passages in Biblical narratives that seem to have no real connection with the surrounding text and seem to add nothing at all to the plot and appears to be nothing more than an outlandishly tall tale. It’s one of those “why did the author write that?” scenarios: “A Gate in Gaza: An Essay on the Reception of Tall Tales” by Jack M. Sasson.

Judges 16: 1 One day Samson went to Gaza, where he saw a prostitute. He went in to spend the night with her. 2 The people of Gaza were told, “Samson is here!” So they surrounded the place and lay in wait for him all night at the city gate. They made no move during the night, saying, “At dawn we’ll kill him.” 3 But Samson lay there only until the middle of the night. Then he got up and took hold of the doors of the city gate, together with the two posts, and tore them loose, bar and all. He lifted them to his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill that faces Hebron.

Sasson asks how such a story was understood by its ancient audience. We have no motif for Samson’s visit to Gaza; the feat defies credibility even for a strong-man (given the size of city gates later rabbis deduced Samson’s shoulders spanned dozens of cubits; add to the weight and size we have a steep climb and journey of tens of kilometres). Why do Bible authors sometimes resort to what surely must have been acknowledged to be obvious fictions?

. . . the exaggerations are themselves the focus of the story, giving them a ‘fictionality’ that encourages transposal into other forms of comprehension, such as a parable or a paradigm. In such accounts, narrators tend to sharpen implausibility by multiplying clues, their main intent being to promote the didactic via the entertaining. In antiquity, any Samson reader acquainted with fortified cities would know that city gates, not least because of their size, bulk and weight, were not transportable on the back of any one individual, however mighty. . . .

Elsewhere in Scripture, narrators also use diverse tactics to alert perceptive readers or audiences on the fictionality of what lies before them by assigning moralistic or whimsical names to characters that no parents would wish on their children. Such a tactic is obvious in Genesis 14 with its series of the named kings of Sodom (Bera, ‘In Evil’), Gomorrah (Birsha,‘In Wickedness’) and one of their allies (Bela, ‘Swallower’, likely king of Zoar). (pp. 184f)

Continue reading “part 3 … Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson”


Shalom As Hegemony

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

fightingwordsI am currently absorbed in reading Hector Avalos’s book Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence. It’s giving me a lot to think about. Avalos challenges perspectives relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Islamic religion that I have often posted on this blog. It is too soon to post anything revisionist but I have just finished a snippet I can share in the meantime.

Self-serving translations are mostly responsible for representing the Hebrew shalom as “peace” in many instances in the Hebrew Bible.(Kindle, location 2178)

Hector Avalos shows us that both the etymology and use of the word in the Hebrew Bible relates to imperial dominance rather than benign relationships. He cites Gillis Gerleman:

Gerleman notes that the piel intensive, with some 90 occurrences in the Hebrew Bible, is the most frequent of all the verb forms of the root. Te normal Qal (ground) form occurs 8 times, the Hiphil (causative) form about 13 times. The noun form occurs some 240 times. The overwhelming meaning, whether as a verb or as a noun, is usually “repayment,” “reward,” or “retaliation.” (citation: page 4 of Gerleman, Gillis. “Die Wurzel [šlm].” Zeitschrift für die Altestamentliche Wissenschaft 85 (1973): 1-14.)

Take Job 22:21

Agree with God, and be at peace.

Continue reading “Shalom As Hegemony”