Tag Archives: Primary History

Midrash: A Message from God, though not historically true

Let us now turn to a famous story found in the Babylonian Talmud, b. Taanit 5b. While sitting together at a meal Rav Nahman asked Rabbi Yitzhaq to expound on some subject. After some preliminary diversions, Rabbi Yitzhaq said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan, “Our father Jacob never died.”

Rav Nahman was taken aback by this claim and said,  “But he was embalmed and buried.” How is possible to do such things to someone who has not died?

Rabbi Yitzhaq responds and says, . . . . “I am engaged in Bible elucidation,” and he then cites Jer 30:10, “Therefore fear not, my servant Jacob, says the LORD; be not dismayed, Israel, for I will save you from afar and your seed from the land of their captivity.” He continues, “Israel is compared to his seed; just as his seed is alive so too is he alive.”

At first sight, it appears that the midrashic statement denying Jacob’s death is being derived from Jer 30:10. However, if we look closer at the passage, we will find a fascinating distinction between the biblical deathbed scenes of Abraham (Gen 25:8) and Isaac (35:29), on the one hand, and that of Jacob (49:33), on the other. In the former scenes, two verbs, . . . “expired,” and . . . “died,” and one phrase, . . . “was gathered to his people,” are used to describe their deaths. Regarding Jacob, however, only two verbs appear: expiring and being gathered to his people. For the midrashist, the absence of any verb from the root . . . “to die”, in the description of Jacob’s death cannot be by chance, but must be understood as communicating to us the Bible’s message that Jacob did not die.

According to the story, Rabbi Yitzhak’s statement to Rav Nahman was made in a completely neutral context — that is, outside of any context whatsoever. Consequently, Rav Nahman understood this claim as being functionally parallel to a claim such as “Elijah did not die.” The characteristic position of rabbinic Judaism is, of course, that Elijah never died but is still alive; indeed, according to the rabbis, he is the heavenly recorder of human deeds. Rav Nahman therefore asked Rabbi Yitzhak: But Jacob was embalmed and buried, so how can you claim he did not die. Rabbi Yitzhak’s response, . . . . “I am engaged in Bible elucidation,” and the citation of Jer 30:10, is not given to tell us the source of his previous statement, for as we have just seen, its source is the absence of any mention of death in Jacob’s deathbed scene. What he is doing is saying the following:

“You have misunderstood me; my statement that Jacob did not die is not to be understood as a literal-historical depiction of historical facts, but as midrash.”

Midrash comes to tell us a story placed in the biblical text by God, having no necessary relationship to the actual historical events, but whose purpose is to give us a message from God. That message is being explained to Rav Nahman by Rabbi Yitzhaq’s citation of Jeremiah. God’s exclusion of any mention of Jacob’s death is a promise found midrashically in Genesis and explicitly in Jeremiah: for Rabbi Yitzhaq, Jacob’s nondeath is a promise that his seed shall exist forever.

This midrash and its surrounding narrative are important because they give what we desperately need in reading midrash: a cultural and theoretical context. The original misunderstanding by Rav Nahman and the final exposition by Rabbi Yitzhak show, as clearly as possible, that midrashic narrative is explicitly demarcated from the historical-literal reconstruction of past events. Midrash is the rabbis’ reconstruction of God’s word to the Jewish people and not the rabbis’ reconstruction of what happened in the biblical past.

(Milikowsky, pp. 124 f.)

The Bible’s stories are never questioned. They are always bed-rock “true history”.

But the rabbis added stories to those Bible events that are clearly not factual, but nonetheless meaningful and explantory.

Why should the rabbis develop a mode of discourse that tells the truth by means of fictional events, when the only literature they have in front of them is the Bible, which tells the truth by means of true historical events?

For the answer to that question Milikowsky finds a significant discussion on the importance of “good fiction” in Plato’s Republic. At this point, return to the previous post: Why the rabbis . . .

Now what we see in the Gospel of Mark at one level looks like midrashic narrative. For example, we have quotations from Malachi mixed with quotations from Isaiah and Exodus. In the opening scene we have re-enactments of a “man of god” spending time in the wilderness and returning to call out a certain people and performing miracles. It is all familiar to anyone familiar with the Old Testament narratives.

So what is going on here? The question inevitably arises: Does the author of the earliest gospel expect hearers to believe the story as genuine history or as a “message from God” which the Bible texts assert to be “valid” or “true” without necessarily being “historically true”? If the latter, it is surely easy to see why it would be understood and accepted as true on both levels: as a message from God and as genuine history.


Milikowsky, Chaim. 2005. “Midrash as Fiction and Midrash as History: What Did the Rabbis Mean?” In Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian And Jewish Narrative, edited by et al Jo-Ann A. Brant, Charles W. Hedrick, and Chris Shea, 117–27. Symposium Series 32. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.


Why the Rabbis (and Gospel Authors, too) Wrote Fiction as “True History” — Duplicate Post

Looks like I cleverly managed to publish the same post twice instead of deleting one of the copies. I have deleted the contents of this post and add this redirection:

Why the Rabbis (and Gospel Authors, too) Wrote Fiction as “True History”

Why the Rabbis (and Gospel Authors, too) Wrote Fiction as “True History”

Chaim Milikowsky

Chaim Milikowsky gives his answer to the question in the title, or at least he answers the question with respect to rabbinical literature. I have added the connection to our canonical four gospels, and I could with equal justice add Acts of the Apostles.

I read CM’s answer in Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian And Jewish Narrative, but I see that the author has made the same work freely available online. (Oh, and I posted on CM’s chapter five years ago this month: Why Gospel Fiction was Written as Gospel Truth — a plausible explanation. I think that first post was less technical than what I intend this time round.)

Let me begin with the conclusion this time. The answer to the question in the title is found in a work once again by one of the most influential Greek thinkers in history: Plato. We have been looking at the influence of Plato on the Old Testament writings through the works of Russell Gmirkin and Philippe Wajdenbaum, but CM sees his influence on rabbinic midrashic story telling. I suggest that the evangelists have carried through the same fundamental type of story telling.

Here are the key passages in Plato’s Republic. After deploring mythical tales of gods that depict them lying, cheating, harming others, Socrates sets out what is a far more noble curriculum for those who would become good citizens. Myths of conniving and adulterous gods had no place. God must always be shown to be pure and good. Stories depicting the gods as immoral were to be removed from society; stories that had an edifying message for their readers were to be shared widely.

For a young person cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal; anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts. 

There you are right, he replied; but if any one asks where are such models to be found and of what tales are you speaking –how shall we answer him? 

I said to him, You and I, Adeimantus, at this moment are not poets, but founders of a State: now the founders of a State ought to know the general forms in which poets should cast their tales, and the limits which must be observed by them, but to make the tales is not their business. 

Very true, he said; but what are these forms of theology which you mean? 

Something of this kind, I replied: — God is always to be represented as he truly is, whatever be the sort of poetry, epic, lyric or tragic, in which the representation is given. 

Right. 

(Republic, 378e-379a Benjamin Jowett trans.)

God himself will be portrayed as incapable of lying, but there will be a place for story tellers to fabricate stories that teach goodness and lead people to righteous character: read more »

Genesis to Kings, the work of a single authorship?

I am copying here a comment that Philippe Wajdenbaum made in relation to another post. (I have reformatted the original.)

Many thanks for this post, and for the quality of your blog. Russell Gmirkin’s “Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible” is a most important book that will elicit a paradigm shift in biblical studies, as seen in its current positive reception.

Here are some of my arguments for Genesis-Kings’ unity:

In “Argonauts of the Desert”, as well as in several articles, I have proposed that Genesis-Kings (also called the Primary History) is the work of a single author, or at least the same team of scholars, who took inspiration from Greek classical texts such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. See also:

The demonstration of Genesis-Kings’ literary unity relies first on its consistency as a continuous narrative, as shown by Spinoza (“Theological and Political Treatise”, chapter 8), and second on the distribution of its Greek-borrowed material, shown by Wesselius regarding the use of Herodotus. Whereas both placed this redaction during the Persian period, Russell Gmirkin has convincingly shown in “Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus” (2006), that the Hellenistic era offers the most plausible period for Judean and Samaritan scholars to have had access to and emulated Greek sources, most probably in the Library of Alexandria.

In my article “From Plato to Moses: Genesis-Kings as a Platonic Epic” (in “Biblical Interpretation Beyond Historicity: Changing Perspectives 7”, edited by I. Hjelm and Thomas L. Thompson, 2016, also available on the Bible and Interpretation website), I have pointed out that

  • the Pentateuch seems to borrow significantly from the Odyssey (the wanderings of the Patriarchs and Israel, Joseph’s story as a rewrite of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca),
  • whereas Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings seem to borrow predominantly from the Iliad (the many battle scenes, especially in 1-2 Samuel).

Yet, there are motifs from the Iliad in the Pentateuch and from the Odyssey in Joshua-Kings. This distribution of Homeric motifs interestingly corresponds to how Virgil modelled the first six books of the Aeneid on the Odyssey, and the six next books on the Iliad. In my opinion, this logic in the distribution of themes can be observed regarding most of the Greek sources used by the author of Genesis-Kings (such as the Greek mythical cycles of the Argonauts, Heracles, Thebes and the Trojan War), and tends to show its literary unity.

Regarding the use of Plato, I have tried to show that a “Platonic framework” encompasses Genesis-Kings. Genesis uses several myths from Plato about

  • the creation of the world (Timaeus / Gen. 1),
  • the split of a primordial androgynous human (Symposium / Gen. 2)
  • and the Golden Age (Statesman / Gen. 3; combined with Hesiod’s story of Prometheus and Pandora).

The Exodus narrative,

the liberation of slaves by a reluctant leader who had been freed beforehand, seems an adaptation of Plato’s famous Cave Allegory in Republic 7 (combined with the story of Battus, the founder of Cyrene).

After receiving some of their divine laws, some of which are borrowed from Plato’s Laws, Moses and the Israelites perform a ritual for accepting these laws (Exod. 24) that seems borrowed from a similar ceremony in Plato’s Critias.

The confection of the Tabernacle’s furniture by a craftsman based on a divine model echoes Plato’s theory of imitation of divine types in Republic 10.

The book of Joshua narrates the foundation of the Ideal twelve-tribe state, with the division of the land by lot into twelve tribes and its subdivision into paternal plots of land, according to the model found in Numbers, which is itself based on Plato’s Laws.

Judges, Samuel and Kings depict the gradual downfall of this state, due to the increasing faults of Israel and Judah’s kings. This demise of a state that should have been ideal and eternal seems borrowed from Plato’s tale of Atlantis in Critias. Solomon’s riches and grandiose temple in Kings resemble that of Atlantis, and God’s decision to destroy Israel and Judah at the hands of its enemies echoes the fate of Atlantis, punished by Zeus because its kings neglected the divine laws with the passing of generations.

The final catastrophe of Jerusalem’s destruction by the Babylonians and the beginning of the Exile is reflected in Genesis’ narrative of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden for disobeying the divine commandment, which seems the trace of a ring composition.

Best regards,
Philippe Wajdenbaum

Old Testament based on Herodotus? Acts on the myth we read in Virgil?

Before continuing with the scholarship that questions the traditional view that many of the Old Testament books were stitched together from much older texts, let’s lay out on the table a very broad overview of the thesis of a Dutch scholar, Jan-Wim Wesselius (I love his homepage photo and caption), as published in The Origin of the History of Israel: Herodotus’ Histories as Blueprint for the First Books of the Bible. (This was the most expensive book I had ever purchased in my entire life, so I continue to guard it well.)

In this post I select just one detail that is not meant to persuade the sceptical (and scepticism is a virtue) but only to stimulate thoughts anew among anyone who has not traveled this road before. There is much more to be said along with the snippet of data I present here, and I have posted one of those snippets on vridar.info comparing Moses with Herodotus’ portrayal of the Persian king Xerxes (and the Plagues of Egypt with the catastrophes inflicting the army of Xerxes). A serious treatment comparing Herodotus’ Histories would need to start with a 1993 publication, The Relationship Between Herodotus’ History and Primary History by Mandell and Freedman. One of the more fascinating insights is that the Greek history is in many ways a “theological” history like the Bible’s historical books. The same lessons of the the role of the divine in and over human affairs are found like a unifying thread in both works. But such details are for another time.

To appreciate what is to follow it would help to have some knowledge of both Homer’s epics, the Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s epic poem of the founding of the Roman race, the Aeneid. G. N. Knauer sums up the way Virgil did not merely serendipitously draw upon recollections of what he had read in Homer’s epics, but he clearly studied the structures of Homer’s epics and built his own epic upon a reassembling of that structure, perhaps in an effort to surpass the artistry of the original.

. . . Vergil clearly realized how Homer conceived the structure of the Odyssey and . . . therefore did not simply imitate sporadic Homeric verses or scenes. On the contrary he first analysed the plan of the Odyssey, then transformed it and made it the base of his own poem.

What is especially significant is that this is one case-study of how ancient literature very often worked. Reworkings of earlier masters was a highly respected skill.

I don’t think I’m alone in also thinking Virgil reworked a single epic out of Homer’s dual effort. The Aeneid is an epic poem of the travels of Aeneas, founder of the Roman race, from the time he fled the conquered and burning Troy until the time he found a secure place in Italy after many battles with the local Latin tribes. The Roman epic begins with the adventures of a long voyage of Aeneas to his destined homeland — just as the second Homeric epic, the Odyssey, narrates the adventurous travels of the Greek hero. The second half of the Roman epic recounts many battles reminiscent of Homer’s first epic, the Iliad. Both conclude with the climactic death in battle of a warrior protagonist — Hector and Turnus. (Of course, the Odyssey likewise ends in much bloodshed, but this action is actually a small part in a larger narrative of deception, plotting and homecoming.) So a very broad comparison of the larger structures of these epics looks like this:

But there’s more. Much more. Knauf also writes (my formatting and emphasis): read more »

Did a Single Author Write Genesis – II Kings? (Demise of the Documentary Hypothesis?)

This post will open by taking us back thirty or forty years to a scenario in Old Testament scholarship that is remarkably similar to a debate taking place right now among New Testament scholars. I am currently reviewing a book, Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, that spotlights the flaws of the traditional approaches of form criticism and authenticity criteria to the studies of early Jesus traditions and the historical Jesus respectively. The editors of that book, Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne, argue that attempts to pull apart the Gospels into various strata, pre-gospel Palestinian traditions and stories added by the early Hellenistic Church compiler-author, don’t really work. What is needed is an understanding and study of the Gospels in their final form, they conclude.

Compare the outcome of criticisms of the Documentary Hypothesis — the thesis that the Old Testament books can be pulled apart into different sources or strata — Priestly, Jahwist, Elohist and Deuteronomist (and a later Redactor).

This post continues from an article I posted on Christmas Day last year, Who Wrote the Bible? Rise of the Documentary Hypothesis. It continues with notes on Philippe Wajdenbaum’s case that the “Primary History” of the Bible (Genesis to 2 Kings) was inspired by the writings of classical Greek writings (especially Plato) and mythologies. It is, furthermore, best seen as the product of a single author writing in Hellenistic times. In my previous post on this book I included a quotation from chapter eight of Theological and Political Treatise by seventeenth-century Spinoza, to whom Wajdenbaum refers:

And when we regard the argument and connection of these books [Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings] severally, we readily gather that they were all written by one and the same person, who had the purpose of compiling a system of Jewish antiquities, from the origin of the nation to the first destruction of the city of Jerusalem. The several books are so connected one with another, that from this alone we discover that they comprise the continuous narrative of a single historian. . . . .

I have in the past posted in passing on another book with a similar theme, Jan-Wim Wesselius’ The Origin of the History of Israel: Herodotus’s Histories as Blueprint for the First Books of the Bible, and I have posted an overview of a section of that book on vridar.info. It is a pity that these sorts of books are priced out of the hands of most potentially interested readers. I have always wanted to post more on the Old Testament books, especially in comparison with other Greek works, in particular works of Herodotus and Plato, and hopefully will do so soon. Too many topics. Not enough time.

Here we continue with Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert, picking up where we left off in December last year. Here he discusses the “collapse of the consensus” on the Documentary Hypothesis and introduces his rationale for proposing a single author for Genesis to 2 Kings.

It is necessary first to overlap with a point made in that earlier post. I elaborate upon it beyond Wajdenbaum’s own brief presentation that was intended for a readership familiar with the scholarly literature.

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Biblical scholars borrowed the idea that the final text was the creation of a final redactor who “cut and paste” from earlier variant texts.

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read more »

Correlations between the “Histories” of Herodotus and the Bible’s History of Israel

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Both HerodotusHistory and Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings)

  1. are national epics
  2. had been divided into nine books at some time in their history
  3. are both about the same length
  4. begin with a prehistory that includes myths, fables, folk-tales, and legends that are treated as factual
  5. and continue in this vein until well into historical time
  6. consist of a basic format that changes concomitantly and abruptly under similar circumstances:
    • in Herodotus’ History this happens when Persians are about to fight on the Greek mainland
    • in Primary History this happens when the Sons of Israel are about to enter the Promised Land
  7. take on a semblance of historical narrative once the “homeland” becomes the locus of action
  8. — albeit one that includes miracles, marvels, and divinities who act in or at least guide history
  9. think of historic causation as being intimately tied to the will of the divinity

This is from the preface (p. x) to The Relationship Between Herodotus’ History and Primary History by Sara Mandell and David Noel Freedman, 1993.

There’s much more. But this is just for starters to justify my previous post’s speaking of Herodotus and the Bible’s core historical narrative in the same breath.

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