Greek Literature and the Primary History

In recent years, however, a number of scholars have dated the biblical books in the Primary History (Genesis through 2 Kings) very late. Thus, they have raised the possibility that the authors of these books might have been very familiar with Classical Greek texts down to 300 BCE and Hellenistic Greek texts after 300 BCE, and perhaps they even used some Greek texts to craft plot-line and imagery in the books of the Primary History.

See Also: Hellenism and the Primary History.  September, 2020 Forthcoming by Routledge.

By Robert Karl Gnuse
Chair of the Department of Religious Studies
Loyola University New Orleans
June 2020

Comentators have observed for years how biblical authors might have used Greek texts or reflected Greek thought in their writings. Generally, these observations were connected with biblical works authored after 300 BCE. One thinks especially of the Wisdom of Solomon, dated around 50 BCE, which was loosely connected to the Middle Platonic philosophical tradition and often compared to the writings of the Jewish author Philo, who wrote in Greek. The two books of Maccabees were occasionally compared with historiography generated by the Greeks. Various Jewish novels were sometimes discussed in connection with Greek novels. Koheleth was associated with Greek stoicism and epicureanism.

In recent years, however, a number of scholars have dated the biblical books in the Primary History (Genesis through 2 Kings) very late. Thus, they have raised the possibility that the authors of these books might have been very familiar with Classical Greek texts down to 300 BCE and Hellenistic Greek texts after 300 BCE, and perhaps they even used some Greek texts to craft plot-line and imagery in the books of the Primary History. They are often called “minimalists” for dating the biblical texts so late, and they usually believe that most of the biblical narrative does not reflect the actual history that happened in the pre-exilic period down to 586 BCE. These “minimalists” have been called the “Copenhagen School” because leading authors come from the University of Copenhagen, although sometimes faculty from England (including Sheffield University) are included with them. “Minimalists” also fall into two groups. Some suggest that Genesis through 2 Kings arose primarily in the Persian period (540-330 BCE), while others stress the Hellenistic era, after 300 BCE, as the time of origin for most or all of the Primary History.

The possibility for such an interface between Greek and biblical texts late in the post-exilic period was raised by several authors. Significant works have been written by authors who raise the larger questions of a later date for biblical literature: the likelihood that the texts are fictional narratives driven by theological perspectives and the influence of Greek literature upon the texts.

Very early in the discussion, Giovanni Garbini  suggested that the Primary History arose in the second century BCE slightly before the translation of the Greek Septuagint. The biblical text was fiction; the historiography was inspired by contemporary literature in the Hellenistic world (1988; 2003).

Nies Peter Lemche, the most well known advocate for the Hellenistic origins of the Primary History, maintained that only in the Hellenistic era could Jews produce such a significant historiographical work with an eye to the writings of Herodotus and other Greek historians. The literature was mostly fictional and highly ideological. The origin of this literature could have been in Seleucia of Syria during the second century BCE (1993; 1994: 174-87; 2000; 2001; 2008; 2011; 2015). His seminal article for the later discussion of Greek influence was “The Old Testament—A Hellenistic Book?” (1993).

Of equal significance in the debate was Thomas L. Thompson, who also located the Primary History in the second century BCE. He viewed some biblical narrative as reflections of Greek myths and history. Of his many examples, he suggested that Abraham’s travels are inspired by the wandering of the Greek hero Aeneas; David, Hezekiah, and Josiah are allegories of the Maccabean king John Hyrcanus; and Solomon symbolizes Alexander the Great (1999: 66, 77-78, 207-08, 273). He has written massively on the ideology of history writing and placed it in the context of Greek historiography. Lemche, Thompson, and Philip Davies of Sheffield University were the leading representatives of the Copenhagen School of minimalists.

Some scholars wrote comprehensive volumes covering a wide range of literature seeking to demonstate the dependence of bbilical literature in the Primary History upon Greek literature.

Russel Gmirkin believed that the Hebrew Bible and the Greek Septuagint were produced by Jewish intelligentsia in the library of Alexandria in the third century BCE at the request of Ptolemy II. Genesis 1-11 was inspired by the Babyloniaca of Berosus in 278 BCE, not Mesopotamian stories like the Enuma Elish, as we often taught in the past. The account of the exodus and Moses was designed to counter the Greek writings of Manetho (History of Egypt) in the early third century BCE about the Jews (2006: 91-239; 2014). The laws in the Pentateuch were inspired by Plato’s Laws (2017: 77-139, 183- 234).

Lukasz Niesiolowski-Spano described parallels between narratives in the Primary History and stories throughout Greek Classical and Hellenistic Literature. He suggested a Maccabean monarch authorized the creation of this literature in the second century BCE. His work focused closely upon the accounts of the shrines in the Old Testament (2011). He also believed that Genesis 1-11 reflected influence from the writings of Plato (2007).

Philippe Wajdenbaum produced a massive volume tracing the connections between hundreds of biblical narratives and a host of Greek Classical and Hellenistic texts (2011). That all these Greek authors knew the Bible, written by obscure Jews, is not possible, but that Jews would be familiar with the writings of the Greeks, whose culture overshadowed the world at this time, is much more likely. He also sought to demonstrate a connection between biblical laws and Plato’s Laws (2010). If only one-tenth of Wajdenbaum’s observations are correct, he has marshalled a tremendous amount of evidence for Greek influence in the Primary History.

Some scholars have focused upon the Deuteronomistic History, a significant part of the Primary History, and they maintain that this corpus of literature shows dependence upon the writings of Herodotus (Histories) in the fifth century BCE. This would locate the biblical material at least in the late Persian period, if not the Hellenistic era after 300 BCE.

Flemming Nielsen believed that Herodotus imparted to the Deuteronomistic historian an emphasis upon the tragic dimension in history. By tragic, Nielsen meant that both authors emphasized the distance between people and the divine, the need for humans to keep their place in the order of life, and how pride and overstepping one’s boundaries brings punishment or destruction. Though his arguments might suggest a late Persian period origin, he suggested that the biblical materials were generated in the Hellenistic era after 300 BCE, for in his opinion, this was the only logical era when a biblical author had access to the writings of Herodotus.

Jan-Wim Wesselius wrote a monograph demonstrating how the books of Genesis and Exodus reflect the writings of Herodotus, especially the latter’s narration of the lives of Persian kings. He compared in great detail the similarities between Joseph and Cyrus, and especially between Moses and Xerxes. Joseph and Cyrus both have dreams, are exposed to die, go into foreign exile, are hidden for a time, and become ascendant when their identity is revealed. Moses and Xerxes go forth to conquer either Canaan or Greece and cross water with their people. Many other details are mentioned, as well as comparisons between Terah and Phraortes (a Median king), Abraham and Cyaxares (a Median king), Isaac and Astyges (a Median king), and Jacob and Mandane (mother of Cyrus) (Wesselius 1999: 24-77; 2002: 6-47). Though Wesselius theorized these books were crafted in Nehemiah’s Jerusalem in the late fifth century BCE and placed the origin of the Primary History between 425 BCE and 300 BCE, later minimalist authors have referred to his detailed research as evidence that these books more likely were written in the Hellenistic era after 300 BCE.

A number of authors have written articles that focus upon a more limited range of biblical texts. Often these segments of literature come from the Deuteronomistic History with its clear composition from the diverse corpora of literature.

Philippe Guillaume maintained that scribes during the second century BCE in Alexandria inserted Judges into the Deuteronomistic History, reflecting the ideological needs of the Hasmonean rulers in Palestine. Judges was inspired by Hesiod’s Works and Days, especially the section on the heroes, which Hesiod inserted into the four ages of metal. This parallels how Judges was inserted into the Deuteronomistic History. Stories about heroic judges before David and Solomon undermine the claims of the Davidic Dynasty, which, in turn, helped the Hasmonean dynasts who had no Davidic ancestry behind their claims of messianic rule (147-64).

Katherine Stott observed that the rise of David, as depicted in 1 Samuel 16-31 and 2 Samuel 1-8, might be inspired by the narrative that describes the ascendancy of Cyrus to the throne of Persia and Media in the text of Herodotus’ Histories. She saw the following parallels: 1) Cyrus and David have humble beginnings, 2) they enter the court of the previous king, 3) that king is jealous of both young men, 4) they are threatened with death by that king, 5) they flee the court, 6) they become leaders, 7) there is a defection of an ally, 8) they usurp rule of the kingdom, 9) they succeed due their military prowess, 10) the old king’s life is spared for a time, 11) there is a tragic element in the fall of the previous king, and 12) the result is the formation of a new political entity. Stott noted that only in the Hellenistic era would this Greek text have been available for the biblical author (62-71, 77-78).

Daniel Hawk noted that the Orestia of Aeschylus and 1 Samuel 8 through 2 Kings 8 share similar structure and characters. Both have a tripartite scheme and use metaphors to reflect the transition from a kinship society to a civic society. Agamemnon and Saul reflect the old order, Orestes and David show the transition, and Athena and Solomon inaugurate the new order. The Deuteronomistic Historian used the Orestia as a model for his “received traditions concerning the Israelite monarchy.” Hawk believed the Hellenistic era would have been the time when the biblical author had access to the writings of Aeschylus.

            Articles have been written by some scholars which speak in general terms of how Hellenistic literature shaped the Primary History after 300 BCE or even after 200 BCE in the Maccabean era.

Gerhard Larsson observes that there are great similarities between Berossus (Babyloniaca) and the biblical narratives about the creation of humanity, the flood, and ancient rulers with great longevity. Manetho (History of Egypt) divides history into significant eras, as does the biblical history. Larsson concluded that the biblical accounts were created in Ptolemaic Egypt during the second century BCE and influenced by significant third century BCE Greek historians such as Berossus, Manetho, and Eratosthenes.

            Emanuel Pfoh believed that though the Primary History was created in the Hellenistic era, some traditions did come from the Assyrian and Persian eras and were developed by scribes over the years. But essentially the text was shaped under Hellenistic influence (23, 33-35).

Etienne Nodet affirmed that the Pentateuch arose in the early third century BCE, but the Prophets and some of the Writings were created in the second century BCE. These texts were generated in Alexandria under Hellenistic influence.

Finally, there are articles which focus on individual texts, or shorter segments of  biblical literature. These studies are able to compare more closely biblical texts with classical texts in greater detail, and provide some concrete examples for the more general theories of authors just mentioned.

Hesiod’s Theogony and Catalogue of Women, in part, were influential sources respectively for the creation account in Genesis 1 and the geneaologies found throughout Genesis 1-11 (Gnuse 2017c).

Narratives in Genesis 1-11 can also be shown to have significant parallels with acounts recorded in Greek Historians, such as Hecateus of Miletus (Periegesis and Genealogies) and Herodotus of Halicarnassus (Histories), including references to human accomplishments (Gen 4: 20-22), the three sons of a flood hero who are ancestors of humanity (Gen 9:18-19; 10:1-32), and the planting of a vineyard (Gen 9:20-27) (Gnuse 2019a).

Older Latin traditions which lie behind the accounts in Ovid’s Fasti 5, 493-544 and Metamorphoses 8, 625-725 may have inspired the narratives of the messengers who tell Abraham of his coming son and the messengers who warn Lot to leave Sodom in Genesis 18:1-15; 19:12-26 (Gnuse 2017b).

A narrative about Democedes of Croton in Histories 3,125-132 of Herodotus may have given rise to the narrative about Joseph interpreting the dreams of the pharaoh in Gen 41:1-36, which in turn inspired the dream reports in the book of Daniel (Gnuse 2010a).

The short narrative about the noble talking horses of the great warrior Achilles in the Iliad 19, 395-424 may be loosely spoofed by the account of Balaam’s donkey in Num 22: 22-35, wherein a simple donkey shames a foolish prophet. Talking animals are far more common in Greek literature than the Bible (Gnuse 2017d).

The sacrifice of Iphigenia in two plays by Euripides around 400 BCE, Iphigenia among the Taurians and Iphigenia in Aulis, might have inspired the account of Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter in Judges 11:30, 34-40, which appears to be inserted into the account of Jephthah’s battles (Gnuse 2019b).

A great number of diverse Greek legends about Heracles appear to have influenced the Samson narratives in Judges 13-16, at a late date, most likely the Hellenistic era. There are far too many Greek parallels within these four chapters than can be dismissed as mere folkloristic coincidences (Gnuse 2018).

“The Rape of the Sabine Women” as an old tale recalled by Livy (History I, 9,1-16) and Plutarch (Lives: Romulus XIV, 2-8) may be the template for the abducted girls in Judg 21:1-24 (Gnuse 2007).

Arrian’s account of Alexander the Great and the spilt water in the Anabasis of Alexander 6.26.1-3 may have inspired a similar story of David in 2 Sam 23:15-17. David’s action of pouring out the water that his brave soldiers retrieved from behind enemy lines does not make a sensible story as does Alexander’s action in the Gedrosian desert where thirst is truly an issue (Gnuse 1998).

The narratives about Joseph, Balaam, and Jephthah may have been placed in the biblical text during the Persian period shortly after 400 BCE, as well as biblical texts in Genesis 1-11 with Hesiod, Hecateus, and Herodotus as sources of inspiration. but the other four narratives more likely seem to have a Hellenistic era origin. Ultimately, one might argue that all these texts arose in the Hellenistic era. Wajdenbaum discussed all of these same accounts, making many of the same observations and suggesting Hellenistic origins, but Gnuse provided greater detail in the analysis of the passages. These essays by Gnuse have collected together in a single volume (Gnuse 2020).

            As we reflect on the evaluation of individual accounts that have received special attention by critical scholars, especially by Wajdenbaum and Gnuse, certain patterns seem to emerge as to which particular accounts might have been late and heavily influenced by Greek classical and Hellenistic narratives. There are those accounts found at the end of biblical books that appear to have been attached to the book with only a loose connection to the rest of the book. This is especially true in the book of Judges, where the Samson narratives of Judges 13-16 appear to have a completely different style than the rest of the book of Judges. Then the chapters that follow in Judges 17-21 have the appearance of an appendix to the rest of the book, and there we find the account of the women kidnapped from Shiloh. 2 Samuel 21-23 also appears to be an appendix, and herein we find David pouring out the water received from his warriors. Judges 13-21 and 2 Samuel 21-23 could have been added to the Deuteronomistic History at a very late date. The Joseph Novella in Genesis 39-50 is often seen as a late addition to the book of Genesis around 400 BCE or thereafter (consider, for example, the reference to coinage), so that the influence of Herodotus upon Joseph’s dream interpretation is likely. Other accounts also have the appearance of having been inserted somewhat unevenly into their narrative context. This is most evident with the account of Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter, which appears inserted into the middle of Jephthah’s battles in the Transjordan, and the narrative about Balaam and his donkey, which totally portrays Balaam with a different persona than is found in the rest of Numbers 22-24. The story of the three angels who visit Abraham and suddenly become only two in number when they visit Lot begs us to look at parallel Roman accounts in which there are three and two angels respectively in the narratives from Ovid. Furthermore, the nuanced details of the dialogue in Genesis 18-19 also betoken the writing style of a later age. Thus, the influence of Classical and Greek accounts seems most plausible in stories that appear to be later additions and insertions into the narrative sequence in the Primary History.

            Where this scholarly research will go in the future is difficult to say. Will these minimalist conclusions become the future consensus of the scholarly guild or will these observations be forever connected to a few members of the Copenhagen School and be ultimately relegated to obscurity? Only time will tell.



Garbini, Giovanni. 1988. History and Ideology in Ancient Israel. Translated by John Bowden. New York: Crossroads.

———. 2003. Myth and History in the Bible. Translated by Chiara Paul. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 362. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Gmirken, Russell. 2006. Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch. Library of the Hebrew Bible 433. Copenhagen International Seminar 15. London: T & T Clark.

———. 2014. “Greek Evidence for the Hebrew Bible.” Pages 56-88 in The Bible and Hellenism: Greek Influence on Jewish and Early Christian Literature. Edited by Thomas Thompson and Philippe Wajdenbaum. Copenhagen International Seminar. New York: Routledge.

———. 2017. Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. New York: Routledge.

Gnuse, Robert. 1998. “Spilt Water: Tales of David (II Sam 23:13-17) and Alexander the Great (Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander 6.26.1-3).” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 12: 233-48.

———. 2007. “Abducted Wives: A Hellenistic Narrative in the Book of Judges?” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 22: 272-85.

———. 2010a. “From Prison to Prestige: The Hero who helps a King in Jewish and Greek Literature.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 72: 31-45.

———. 2017b. “Divine Messengers in Genesis 18-19 and Ovid.” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 31: 66-79.

———. 2017c. “Greek Connections: Genesis 1-11 and the Poetry of Hesiod.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 47: 131-43.

———. 2017d. “Heed Your Steeds: Achilles’ Horses and Balaam’s Donkey.” International Journal of Research in Humanities and Social Sciences 4 (6): 1-5.

———. 2018. “Samson and Heracles Revisited.” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 32: 1-19.

———. 2019a. “Greek Historians and the Primeval History.” International Journal of Research in Humanities and Social Sciences 6 (1): 20-25.

———. 2019b. “Jephthah’s Daughter and Iphigenia in the Plays of Euripides.” International Journal of the Arts and Humanities 5 (1): 16-23.

———. 2020. Hellenism and the Primary History: The Imprint of Greek Sources in Genesis-2 Kings. Copenhagen International Seminar. London: Routledge.

Guillaume, Philippe. 2014. “Hesiod’s heroic age and the biblical period of the Judges.” Pages 146-64 in The Bible and Hellenism: Greek Influence on Jewish and Early Christian Literature. Edited by Thomas Thompson and Philippe Wajdenbaum. Copenhagen International Seminar. New York: Routledge.

Hawk, Daniel. 2003. “Violent Grace: Tragedy and Transformation in the Orestia and the Deuteronomistic History.” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 18: 73-88.

Larsson, Gerhard. 2004. “Possible Hellenistic Influence in the Historical Parts of the Old Testament.” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 18: 296-311.

Lemche, Niels Peter. 1993. “The Old Testament—A Hellenistic Book.” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 7: 163-93.

———. 1994. “Is It Still Possible to Write a History of Ancient Israel?” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 8: 163-88.

———. 2000. “Good and Bad in History: The Greek Connection.” Pages 127-40 in Rethinking the Foundations: Historiography in the Ancient World and in the Bible. Essays in Honour of John Van Seters. Edited by Steven McKenzie and Thomas Römer. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die altestamentliche Wissenschaft 294. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

———. 2001. “How Does One Date an Expression of Mental History?” Pages 200-224 in Did Moses Speak Attic? Jewish Historiography and Scripture in the Hellenistic Period. Edited by Lester Grabbe. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 317/European Seminar on Historical Methodology 3. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

———. 2008. The Old Testament between Theology and History. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox.

———2011. “Does the Idea of the Old Testament as a Hellenistic Book Prevent Source Criticism of the Pentateuch?” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 25: 75-92.

———. 2015. “When the End is the Beginning: Creating a National History?” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 29: 22-32.

Nielsen, Flemming. 1997. The Tragedy in History: Herodotus and the Deuteronomistic History. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 251. Copenhagen International Seminar 4. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Niesiolowski-Spano, Lukasz. 2007. “Primeval History in the Persian Period?” Scandinavian Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 21: 106-26.

———. 2011. Origin Myths and Holy Places in the Old Testament. Translated by Jacek Laskowski. London: Equinox.

Nodet, Etienee. 2014. “Editing the Bible: Alexandria or Babylon?” Pages 36-55 in The Bible and Hellenism: Greek Influence on Jewish and Early Christian Literature. Edited by Thomas Thompson and Philippe Wajdenbaum. Copenhagen International Seminar. New York: Routledge.

Pfoh, Emanuel. 2014. “Ancient historiography, biblical stories and Hellenism.” Pages 19-35 in The Bible and Hellenism: Greek Influence on Jewish and Early Christian Literature. Edited by Thomas Thompson and Philippe Wajdenbaum. Copenhagen International Seminar. New York: Routledge.

Stott, Katherine. 2002. “Herodotus and the Old Testament: A Comparative Reading of the Ascendancy Stories of King Cyrus and David.” Scandinavian Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 16: 52-78.

Thompson, Thomas. 1999. The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past. London: Jonathan Cape.

———. 1999. The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel. New York: Basic Books.

Wajdenbaum, Philippe. 2010. “Is the Bible a Platonic Book?” Scandinavian Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 24: 129-42.

 ———. 2011. Argonauts of the Desert. Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. Copenhagen International Seminar. Sheffield: Equinox.

Wesselius, Jan-Wim. 1999. “Discontinuity, Congruence and the Making of the Hebrew Bible.” Scandinavian Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 13: 24-77.

———. 2002. The Origin of the History of Israel: Herodotus’ Histories as Blueprint for the First Books of the Bible. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 345. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.





Article Comments

Submitted by Thomas L. Thompson on Fri, 06/26/2020 - 05:25


Dear Professor Gnuse,
This is a very fine introductory summary to your new book. I look forward to reading and I will comment on it. In thiss summarizing essay I miss a discussion of authors who would date the narratives in earler periods and even as early as the Iron Age.

Submitted by Matthew Hamilton on Sat, 06/27/2020 - 02:53


"Will these minimalist conclusions become the future consensus ..." First problem is that there is no consensus within this broad listing of views - for one view to be correct it requires that multiple other views to be incorrect. Second problem is that this is a list of views - perhaps a tease of what is in the forthcoming book which hopefully will also include a response looking at such things as flaws in seeking some sort of a parallel, any sort of a parallel, between an account in the OT and events in wider history, and then assuming that there is a relationship between the account and the event in wider history

Submitted by Richard Faussette on Sat, 06/27/2020 - 22:45


The Torah is a loop:
"Nonsedentary diaspora life is established by entering Egypt from Canaan.
Sedentary national life is established by entering Canaan from Egypt“
The most beautiful literary ring structure you will ever see. Enclosed within the loop are the establishment templates stolen from the Rig Veda's Hymn of Man verses 10-12 in which pastoral Man (known as Melchizedek in Genesis, the warrior priest) is dismembered into functional classes of priests (Aaron) and warriors (Joshua) to create national Man exactly as he is dismembered in the Rig Veda whose Vedic Aryans are Aryana or Iranians / Persians who use the word Arya to define a superior population characterized by opposition to non-Iranians (Briant, Cyrus to Alexander 180-181) just as the chosen people are superior to the peoples of Canaan in the Torah. Who is there left to say that the earth's primal parents can be known? Will it be you? If there are relics of the Iron Age in the Torah and the Deuteronomic history, they are bits and pieces whose historical import is at best secondary to their primary theological import.
A literary structure that consists of the establishment template for a successful diaspora and the establishment template for a nation with a separate theology for each: Melchizedek's law written on the heart for the patriarchs in Genesis, and Moses' law written on stone tablets for the nation in Exodus-Deuteronomy. These are still the establishment structures of Judaism, alive in the 21st century.
The Torah "loop" approximates the province of Beyond-Euprates where Ezra is empowered to appoint judges who will enforce the law of his God and the law of the king.
The Torah loop and the Rig Vedic template assure us that what redaction has occurred cannot have changed the face or the primary import of the Pentateuch since it was enclosed within that loop and that Vedic template.
Could these literary structures have been possible in the Iron Age?

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