A Response to Stéphanie Anthonioz, “Review of Russell E. Gmirkin, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible”


By Russell Gmirkin
Independent Researcher
Portland, Oregon
October 2018 


I wish to begin by thanking Professor Anthonioz for her thorough and thoughtful review of my book, the first to appear in English. The reader is invited to read this review first, although a brief summary appears below.

The main aim of my book was to present, for the first time ever, a systematic comparison of biblical legal traditions with those of both the Greek world and the Ancient Near East. Although the biblical laws exhibit a modest and well-known indebtedness to Near Eastern traditions, I found substantial indebtedness to Greek traditions, and especially to Plato's Laws, in Mosaic constitutional laws, individual civic, religious and ethical laws, the presentation of the law codes as a whole, and the mixture of legal materials and narratives. Plato's Laws also described an overarching literary program for the creation of a theocratic government supported by a constitution and laws portrayed as ancient and divine, and by an approved national literature for exclusive use in a system of universal citizen education. In light of these and other considerations, I argue that the legislative research for the creation of the Mosaic laws was conducted by Jewish scholars at Alexandria ca. 270 bce who both authored the Pentateuch in Hebrew, under authorization from the Jewish senate, and incidentally translated it into Greek, a thesis I first developed in my 2006 book Berossus and Genesis.

In the review authored by Stéphanie Anthonioz of the Université Catholique de Lille, France, I found the chapter-by-chapter description of my book and its argument exceedingly accurate and fair. Professor Anthonioz concludes this part by saying, “The work is magisterial in that its comparative approach of the biblical legal corpora is systematic and definitely advances understanding. It illuminates Greek influence in an erudite and precise way.” In the remainder of her review, Anthonioz questions whether I place too much faith in the “myth” of the Septuagint translation, and whether the connections with Greek legal traditions might be equally well explained in a Persian Era context in line with “consensus” views on the date of the Pentateuch, as in the Westbrook model. She notes that I take little effort to integrate my conclusions with those of past scholarship, and also inquires into my views on the development of Judaism, which I do not address in my book. Her review thus raises a number of pertinent issues, which I will attempt to address below.

I agree with Anthonioz that the tradition about the Septuagint translation, in which a team of seventy-two elders were sent by the high priest from Jerusalem to Alexandria to translate the Books of Moses into Greek, does not survive critical reading. This account that has come down to us through The Letter of Aristeas, authored by Aristobulus around 150 bce, is mostly fiction or myth.[1] A few details of this tradition, however, do appear to be grounded in history, namely those that ultimately derived from two unimpeachable historical sources: the manuscript tag on copies of the Septuagint housed in the Great Library of Alexandria, and the entry found in the library catalog (the Pinakes or “List”) created for the Great Library by Callimachus (ca. 275-240 bce), the inventor of library science at Alexandria.[2] The manuscript tag and catalog entry for each text found in the library contained the scroll’s author, approximate date, and place of composition. In the case of the Septuagint, this bibliographical data, accurately recorded contemporary with the creation of the Septuagint, and subsequently preserved down through time, would have identified the author as the Seventy (hence the title, “Septuagint”), its date (and perhaps sponsorship) under Ptolemy II Philadelphus, and its place of composition at Alexandria. Aristobulus lived at Alexandria and frequented the Great Library, as evidenced by his numerous references to Greek literature, and undoubtedly accessed the Septuagint there, which accounts for his accurate recording of the time and place it was created in the setting of his otherwise-fictional tale.

Internal linguistic evidence corroborates a date under Ptolemy II Philadelphus (more specifically, to the years 273-269 bce[3]), and its creation by the Seventy at Alexandria was universally agreed in antiquity (and indeed celebrated at a yearly festival at Alexandria according to Philo, Life of Moses 2.41-42). In addition, one can broadly credit the tradition that Ptolemy II Philadelphus (or his agents) sought the addition of these books of Mosaic law to the Great Library for purposes of royal prestige (as persuasively argued by Sylvie Honigman[4]) as well as to make the section of the library on international laws comprehensive. The Letter of Aristeas can otherwise be dismissed as historical fiction.

The main “mystery” attached to the bibliographical data associated with the LXX is the historical identity of the Seventy who were listed as its authors by Callimachus, who was present at Alexandria at the time the Septuagint was created. Certainly they were not its translators, as asserted in the fictional account by Aristobulus, since modern Septuagint scholars detect only two or three hands in the LXX translation. I think the only historically tenable answer is that the Seventy here referred to the gerousia (“elders”) or senate at Jerusalem, which our sources number at 70 or 72, and which corresponded to the fictional seventy elders at Mount Sinai. This indicates that the delegation sent to Alexandria (however many members in that embassy) was dispatched by and acted under the authority of the Jewish senate, who (as “the Seventy”) were credited in the Pinakes of Callimachus as the authors of the Books of Moses.

Under the historical model I propose, the delegation of Jewish (and Samaritan) scholars dispatched to Alexandria at the invitation of Ptolemy II Philadelphus and under the authority of the Jewish senate conducted extensive legal research at the great Library in the course of crafting the Pentateuch’s laws. The Great Library included one major division entitled Nomoi or Laws to facilitate such legal research,[5] and this was indeed the very section where the books of Mosaic laws would have been assigned. Conducting such preliminary research in the laws of other nations was normal practice in the Greek world, advocated by both Plato and Aristotle. University libraries in both Athens and Alexandria had extensive collections of texts on constitutions, laws and political theory. The journey of the Septuagint scholars to research and craft laws at Alexandria was mirrored by the Romans, whose senate sent an embassy to Greece in ca. 450 bce for similar purposes when they codified their laws in the famous Twelve Tablets. This economically explains the considerable indebtedness of Mosaic laws to those of Athens, and more particularly to those found in Plato's Laws. This Platonic dialog of ca. 350 bce said such high level legal research, although absolutely necessary, must be conducted in a covert manner in order to promote the necessary illusion that a nation’s new laws were divine, ancient and unchanging (Plato, Laws 7.798a-b). I would contend that such Jewish legislative research in Greek laws (and especially constitutions) could not have been carried out prior to the Hellenistic Era, after Alexander’s conquests in the east, nor elsewhere than at the Museum and Great Library of Alexandria, where indeed the Septuagint scholars deposited their famous text, in both Hebrew original and Greek translation, once completed.

The broad indebtedness of the Laws of Moses to Greek legal traditions has been cogently argued by Raymond Westbrook, Anselm Hagedorn and others,[6] but in a different historical context, in the Persian Era, when Westbrook posited the existence of a common legal culture shared by the Greek city states, the Levantine coasts, and the interior province of Judah (Yehud), facilitated by trade networks and other forms of indirect contact during the period in question.

While it cannot be doubted, for instance, that Greek pottery and other wares found their way to Samaria and Judea, the thesis that ideas accompanied the flow of material goods doesn’t reflect the latest research on the transmission of ideas in antiquity. According to the discipline of network analysis theory, knowledge resides as the possession of certain specific groups whose contacts must be carefully traced to document the transmission of ideas. For instance, astronomy is in the possession of astronomers and scientists, and is communicated from one culture to another within these circles, not by simple trade contacts. There is abundant documentation to show that legal knowledge was held by the educated elites of the Greek world and Mediterranean and communicated among ruling elites and in universities where politics was studied as a branch of philosophy and/or rhetoric. And such communication of legal ideas among educated elites is fully accommodated by my model in which university and Great Library at Alexandria was the social setting for Jewish acquisition of Greek legal traditions. But it must be questioned whether trade networks that indirectly linked the Greeks and Jews in pre-Hellenistic antiquity constituted a viable pathway for the transmission of legal ideas, as required under the Westbrook model.

I think this notion can most easily be refuted simply by taking it seriously. Let us imagine how such a transmission might have—must have—taken place. It would require that a law passed in Athens or a provision in the philosophical tract Plato's Laws would first come to the attention of an Athenian businessmen presumed to be highly conversant in Athenian laws and philosophy, that this merchant would pass it on to the sailors shipping his wares, who would inform the buyers at some trade emporium on the Levantine coast all about the latest Athenian legal developments, who would then share their new legal expertise with a Phoenician tradesman who then brought these wares inland to Jerusalem, where the purchasers of such wares would then bring the latest Athenian or Platonic laws to the attention of the priests and scholars there, who would accordingly modify the evolving biblical laws. Every stage of such transmission is not only highly speculative but implausible, especially considering the social classes involved.[7] To me, this renders untenable the Westbrook model of shared legal ideas throughout the Greek world and Levantine sea coast via a network of informal contacts. This is simply not how legal traditions were transmitted in the ancient world.

While there are obvious connections between biblical and Greek laws, one must now question whether the required communication of legal ideas must have taken place—as Westbrook and others supposed—in pre-Hellenistic times, when Jews and Greeks had no direct contacts. In the last twenty-five years or so has it begun to be appreciated that there is no actual evidence for a biblical text in pre-Hellenistic times,[8] and that the first external documentation for written Mosaic texts in any language is none other than the Septuagint translation itself. The transmission of Greek ideas and texts to the Jews is not problematic in the Hellenistic Era and I believe provides a more compelling historical context than earlier periods.

A valid criticism Anthonioz levels against my book is that I never adequately define what I mean by Jews and Judaism, nor give an account of historical developments of Judaism in antiquity. Broadly speaking, I used the terms Jews to broadly refer to autochthonous residents of Judea or their descendants living outside Judea, and Judaism to represent their Yahwistic religion. I did not find occasion to separately discuss Samarians and Samaritans in connection with the Books of Moses, which they held in common with the Jews, except to note that the few ancient Babylonian and Assyrian laws preserved in the Mosaic legal corpus were the intellectual legacy of Mesopotamian residents who colonized Neo-Assyrian Samerina in the 700s bce. I hope to discuss the special literary contribution of the Samaritans to the Pentateuch, especially early Genesis, in a later book.

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.

It will be apparent to most readers that the creation of the Laws of Moses as argued in my book represents a new historical paradigm, one that breaks with the older consensus position that Judaism and its literature gradually evolved over centuries, with predominantly Ancient Near Eastern influences. The acknowledgment in recent decades of Greek legal influences on biblical laws represents progress, but has largely been framed as an indirect process that took place in pre-Hellenistic times. I have found it a useful exercise to set aside previous scholarship and its assumptions and start over fresh.[9] This has led me to consider the possibility of direct Greek influence on the Hebrew Bible via Greek literature, including Greek legal writings, an avenue of research closed off to earlier scholarship, including the Westbrook school, by the assumed pre-Hellenistic date of the Mosaic laws.

I hope my efforts give the field of biblical studies something new to consider, and that an open discussion of the evidence and its implications, not colored by prior assumptions, will lead to a better understanding of the circumstances and influences that stimulated the creation of the Hebrew Bible.

In conclusion, I wish to thank Professor Anthonioz again for her lively and thoughtful review of my book, and The Bible and Interpretation for publishing it.




[1] See my discussion of the date, authorship, and fictional content of The Letter of Aristeas in Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch (Library of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 433. Copenhagen International Series 15; New York–London: T & T Clark, 2006) 75-86, 249-56.

[2] See generally R. Blum, Kallimachos: The Alexandrian Library and the Origins of Bibliography (trans. H. Wellisch; Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991).

[3] I discussed the dating evidence for the LXX at Berossus and Genesis, 81-85.

[4] Sylvie Honigman, The Septuagint and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria: A Study in the Narrative of the Letter of Aristeas. London: Routledge, 2003.

[5] Blum, Kallimachos, 154.

[6] See conveniently F. Rachel Magdalene and Bruce Wells (eds.), Law From the Tigris to the Tiber: The Writings of Raymond Westbrook (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009); Anselm C. Hagedorn, Between Moses and Plato: Individual and Society in Deuteronomy and Ancient Greek Law. (Göttingen:Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2004).

[7] Similar speculation is involved in positing Greek mercenaries or other hypothetical intermediaries for the communication of Greek legal ideas to the Jewish world.

[8] This is the key insight to emerge out of the so-called Minimalist-Maximalist debate. The once-controversial views of the Copenhagen School, as primarily represented by Niels Peter Lemche, Thomas L. Thompson, and the late Philip Davies, will be well familiar to readers of The Bible and Interpretation. I would identify my own position as post-Maximalist.

[9] The deconstruction of Maximalism by the Copenhagen school was an important influence in setting aside traditional assumptions about the antiquity of the biblical text.

Article Comments

Submitted by Kenneth Greifer on Sun, 10/14/2018 - 05:38


I know nothing about the Greek laws compared to ancient Israel's laws, but I am just wondering, how do you know if the Greeks heard about the laws of Israel and got ideas from them or if the leaders of Israel got their laws from the Greeks? How can you tell who copied who?

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