Review of Russell E. Gmirkin, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible

The author proposes that the Laws of Plato constitute a new hermeneutical key for the ideology not only of the Pentateuch but the whole of the Bible

 

By Stéphanie Anthonioz[1]
Professor of Literatures and Comparative Religions of the Ancient Near East
Université Catholique de Lille, France
October 2018  

The book is presented, according to the introduction (pp. 1-8), as the sequel to the book Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch (Copenhagen International Series 15), New York, 2006, in which the author sought to demonstrate that Berossus was the principal source of the authors of Genesis 1-11, and Manetho, the principal source of the authors of Exodus. The idea is that the Pentateuch was written in the Great Library of Alexandria in the neighborhood of 270 BCE. The authors were specifically the Seventy, Jewish scholars, that later tradition credits with the translation of the Pentateuch into Greek around 273-269 BCE. The thesis is therefore clear: the Pentateuch is a Greek work inspired by Greek sources. The book is structured in six chapters each followed by bibliography relating to that chapter. An index of sources and an index of authors closes the volume.

 

Why is a new volume necessary for the thesis of the author? Precisely because the historians Berossus and Manetho do not constitute sufficient sources to explain the whole of the Pentateuch, also known as the Law (Torah). Thus, the thesis that the author pursues in this sequel to the first volume is that the Pentateuch in its legal parts is inspired by Platonic sources to which the Seventy had access in the Great Library of Alexandria. The argument is simple and comparative: the greater number of Pentateuchal laws, even if they had some Semitic precursors, seem copied from Athenian law or, more precisely, the Platonic laws (chapters 2-5).

 

Beyond this argument, the author proposes that the Laws of Plato constitute a new hermeneutical key for the ideology not only of the Pentateuch but the whole of the Bible: the Bible is the official national literature mandated according to the same instructions of the Platonic laws (chapter 6).

 

The introduction also permits the author to situate his hypothesis in the context of current and past research. As for the extent of the Greek comparisons, in the section entitled “Greek comparative studies” (pp. 1-4), the author recalls that in ancient times it was considered obvious that Plato had plagiarized Moses! But in modern times, no argument has been able to demonstrate significant exchanges between Greeks and Jews, one way or the other, before the time of Alexander the Great. The hypotheses which have been proposed to explain the Greek/biblical legal parallels (Westbrook and the hypothesis of a common Mediterranean legal culture among others) are severely criticized for lack of evidence. For the author, the hypothesis which has never been advanced is that which he defends, that knowledge of the Pentateuch did not exist before the era of Hellenistic interaction and, furthermore, that it is massively based not on Semitic traditions but Greek. In the brief section, “The current volume” (pp. 4-5), the author restates the new historical framework of his hypothesis: it is in the Great Library of Alexandria that the Jewish authors, assembled under royal sponsorship, drew from their sources and drafted the Pentateuch. A historical consequence directly follows: the theocracy which is established in Judea at the beginning of the Hellenistic era is modeled on Plato’s model government.

 

I propose in the rest of this review to recount as faithfully as possible the author’s thesis, without always being able to go into every detail, then, in a second step, to enter into dialogue with the author, highlight the immense interest and also the weaknesses of the book.

 

Chapter 2, “Athenian and Pentateuchal legal institutions” (pp. 9-72), begins by recapitulating the arguments of recent comparative studies which have argued the laws came from a common Mediterranean source although no literary or historical proof could be demonstrated for such arguments. It is clear there had not been significant contact between Athens and Judea before the Hellenistic period. To demonstrate these new influences, systematic legislative comparisons must be undertaken. The author starts from the most general, in the section “Greek constitutions and the Pentateuch” (pp. 10-13). According to him, the democratic phenomenon created in Greece a genre which did not exist in the Ancient Near East where states reflected royal power. The new genre is the “constitution,” which is reflected in Deuteronomy-Judges which proposes a form of government more egalitarian, with a system of national assemblies, elders, magistrates with civil and military powers, as well as priests and prophets for religious questions. An explicitly constitutional element is identified in Deut 16:18-18:22 (cf. Ex 19-24). Even more, a set of elements absent from the laws of the Ancient Near East is present in the Pentateuch as in the Greek laws: the question of geographical boundaries, national and tribal rights, the rights and duties of citizens, the definition of the governmental bodies, the magistrates, the judicial structures and procedures, military organization, and religious questions. These comparisons invite one to think of dependency. In fact, the constitutional system seems closer to the Platonic laws (ca. 350 BCE) than the Athenian laws. The author develops a more detailed study of each of these common points. Yet, the differences cannot be overlooked. Thus, in Athens, it is an assembly formed from two councils whereas according to the Bible, it is a single assembly (of all of the citizens, called qahal or edah) and a single council, that of the seventy elders, which is found in Exodus as well as in Numbers.  In the collection Exodus-Joshua, these two bodies form the democratic institutions which are subordinate to the authority of Moses and then of Joshua. The two councils are none other than those of Hellenistic Judaism, where the council becomes the gerousia and then the Sanhedrin in Roman times. If it is true that Athens had no gerousia, it did have the closely similar Council of the Areopagus.

 

The next chapter, 3, “Biblical, Ancient Near Eastern and Greek law” (pp. 73-182), compares not the institutions in general but the laws in particular. To do this, the laws are compared first with Ancient Near East sources before turning to Greek sources in order to assess the parallels and determine the most apparent influences. The following elements demonstrate the closer biblical proximity with Greek Athenian law but especially Plato’s Laws: the mythology of shed blood calling for vengeance; the need for ritual purification for all blood shed; the key role of the next-of-kin for vengeance in the judicial process; the categories of homicide and its penalties including penalties against animals. Finally, the notions of premeditation, unknown in Athenian law, are common to the Platonic laws implying greater biblical dependence upon the latter. In addition to the laws concerning homicide (pp. 77-86), there is analysis of laws relating to assault (pp. 86-88), theft (pp. 88-90), marriage and inheritance (pp. 90-98), sexual crimes (pp. 98-103), slavery (pp. 103-111), social legislation (pp. 111-115), laws on livestock (pp. 115-117), property crimes and agricultural laws (pp. 118-120), commerce law (pp. 120-123), military law (pp. 123-125), treason (pp. 125-136), and religious law (pp. 136-139). The peculiarly Greek form of the last is to have put religious laws in writing, mixed with civil laws of the polis, subject to the same process of proposition, ratification, and application. Obviously, the writing of religious law is no Near Eastern tradition where the ritual is secret, intended only for learned priests.  In the Greek world, secrecy certainly exists, but it exists in the mystery religions and private cults. On the contrary the citizenry is invited to participate in the public cult and its festivals. Some laws are even inscribed and publicly displayed. So, around 594 BCE, the lawmaker Solon published a set of laws consisting of laws concerning festivals and the sacrificial calendar.

 

The last section of chapter 3 considers the moral laws (pp. 139-142). In the conclusion (pp. 142-146) the author summarizes the overall results and underlines how far biblical law is removed from the Near Eastern system in which law is the expression of a virtual and idealized but also a terrifying royalty. The king is not the origin of the biblical laws. Besides, the king is absent from the Pentateuch except in Deut 17 where he has no more than an administrative role and is deprived of the emblems and glory of ancient royalty. The Israelites of Pentateuchal law are free and equal, landowners and responsible. The brutality of Near Eastern law is also absent, the tortures, the amputations, the capital punishments, such that even the lex talionis appears as a literary artifice out of a distant past. But it cannot be denied that a certain number of biblical laws do precede the Hellenistic era, such as those concerning marriage, polygamy or dowry, or in the areas of calendar, agricultural festivals, or basic sacrificial practices (Ex-Lev). Other civil laws common to the traditions of the Ancient Near East are simply relics of the time when Assyrians and Babylonians lived in the province of Samerina after 720 BCE. The corpus of Pentateuchal laws evokes another world than that of the Ancient Near East. It is a world in which the earth is divided between citizens, a world of brothers where the law applies to all, in short a world strange to the Near East as it was until the arrival of Greek democratic and egalitarian values (p. 144). If certain biblical laws are specifically of Athens, the greatest part appear common to Plato’s Laws (such as the question of premeditation; stoning as a method of execution; the laws concerning treason, corruption, magic and false prophets), which in fact is the only ancient text which details in a programmatic manner how to develop a constitution with a legal code. The theory of the Great Library of Alexandria is confirmed.

 

In chapter 4, “Greek and Ancient Near Eastern law collections” (pp. 189-219), the author is now interested in collections of laws as a whole, their function and their points of significance. To begin with, collections of the Ancient Near East are brought to light, with their emphasis on a judicial model that relies on the royal person, officials and judges, but at the local level simply on the elders. Judicial decisions are not so much about laws as about custom. The collections of laws, in this sense, appear less as prescriptive legislation applying to everyone by force of the judicial system than as a retrospective description of the justice and glory of a king’s reign, as shown by the ample hymnic prologues and epilogues of the royal codes. The comparison which follows with the biblical collections shows that the biblical laws do not fit with the key points of the ancient royal collections of the Ancient Near East. In the same way, the laws of the Ancient Near East do not agree with the divine authority of the biblical corpus, its prescriptive force, its programmatic key points, public recitation, and role in education as a definition of an historical, cultural, and moral identity. A dependence of the biblical corpus on the Ancient Near East law collections can no longer be maintained. The author advances his argument with a strong criticism of the theory of dependence of Deuteronomy on neo-Assyrian vassal treaties, on structural grounds. That is, Deuteronomy contrasts and binds the deity and not the royal person to his people in a marked oratorical style. The similarity of the curses is not enough to prove dependency of the laws. Finally, the collections of Greek laws but also Roman laws are discussed with particular attention to public collections and exhibitions, including the Law of the Twelve Tables in Rome. And the author insists that the preeminence of the law of Athens toward 400 BCE represents nothing less than a revolution, since all institutions and government are placed under its jurisdiction. Such authority of the law is unknown elsewhere in the Near East. Moses thus becomes the Greek figure par excellence of the colonizer, founder of a new community and legislator, such that the author relies on this comparison to say that the Seventy convened in Alexandria are precisely the Seventy that surround Sinai at the time of the giving of the Law.

 

Finally, the author returns to the different biblical codes, but always in their relationship to Greek law. No state of the historical question is proposed concerning them. These collections (especially Deuteronomy) would demonstrate the pedagogical efficacy of the law according to Plato. As for the Ten Commandments, they are compared to the Maxims of the Seven Sages of the Greek world, a collection of aphorisms that tradition attributed to seven ancient sages before the classical period. This text, commonly used in school instruction, had a wide distribution in the Greek world but also in the Hellenized East. The conclusion can thus be again iterated: “All available evidence appears to point to the biblical laws as a product of Jewish reading of Greek legal and political writing in the Hellenistic Era, supplemented by the incorporation of literary artifacts of Ancient Near Eastern law and curse language from the distant past” (p. 206).

 

The next to last chapter, 5, “Greek and Biblical legal narratives” (pp. 220-249), much shorter, demonstrates the links between the laws and narrative in the Bible just as in Greek literature, particularly the foundation stories or ktisis which portray a founder hero and civilizer. But the foundation stories are not the only ones of the genre. The author offers a catalogue of Greek sources which juxtapose law and narrative: the historical narratives of Herodotus and Thucydides, the panegyrics, origin myths, ethnographies, biographies, the history of constitutions, philosophical dialogues. In conclusion, it is evident that the mixture of genres, unknown in the Ancient Near East, is familiar from Greek sources in diverse forms.

 

The final chapter, 6, “The creation of the Hebrew Bible” (pp. 250-300), closes the book by elaborating on the comparison. Not only the origin stories, the epic of Moses and the legal collections are in direct dependence from Greece but the whole collection of biblical literature itself becomes literature authorized under the laws of Plato: “Plato called the novel form of ‘divine government’ (Plato, Laws 12.965c) he had invented Nous, after ‘the god who is the true ruler of rational men.’ Plato’s Laws presented arguments that political stability and internal harmony could be achieved only by systematically programming the beliefs and emotions of the citizenry through a strict control of literature and education designed to promote piety and obedience to the colony’s divine laws” (p. 254).

 

So the Hebrew Bible becomes the unique—the only—historical example of a national literature authorized according to the thought of Plato.

 

For the author, there is no doubt that the different additional biblical books depend on the traditions of the Torah. The biblical collection was ultimately composed in two phases: the first, the work of the Seventy under royal sponsorship in Alexandria; the second in later stages in Palestine in order to constitute not only a national literature, but also to be an educational program to train obedient citizens. In this discourse, for example, Job becomes the paragon of Greek tragedy! Thus, “The Hebrew Bible as a whole can best be understood as a literature intended for the education of the soul, utilizing all the tools in the Platonic psychogogic arsenal: poetry, myth and song, theology and prayers, pageant and spectacle, theater, drink and dance and persuasive rhetoric that appealed to the patriotic, praised the noble and exalted and condemned the wicked and disobedient, who were threatened with punishments in this life and terrors in the next” (p. 267). Knowledge of this intention and invention would have been erased from the literature such that no link with Alexandria could be denounced.

 

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. However, the author’s energy is somewhat attenuated by historical and methodological issues. Because, in criticizing the historical framework of a cultural fount and common law in the Mediterranean basin, the author sets up a framework no less hypothetical and lacking historical proof: namely, the writing of the Pentateuch by the Seventy in the Great Library of Alexandria of ca. 270 BCE. Moreover, while studies especially archaeological continue to document influences across the Mediterranean basin and the Near East, the author prefers a mythical framework: what historicity can we today grant the Seventy credited with translating the Septuagint? For more information one has to go back -it is true- to the author’s first volume Berossus and Genesis, where the date under Ptolemy II Philadelphus and authorship of The Letter of Aristeas are discussed. However, this question remains difficult and its answer no less hypothetical.

 

In addition, the author presents the Greek sources most often in their historical context: the laws of Solon, of Clisthenes, the codes, the Twelve Tables. So why deny this historical depth to the biblical text and legal corpora? From this historical framework flows a number of inconsistencies. Thus, to give one example, p. 5, the author asserts that the direct consequence of dependence on Plato’s Laws is the theocracy established early in the Hellenistic era in Judea. But later, in the comparison he offers of institutions, he never fails to emphasize the democratic, egalitarian dimension of the political and social system: but then what is to be made of the biblical priestly caste and its power?

 

In refusing any depth to the biblical text, because of its new “historical” framework, no status of exegetical issues is ever presented, as if the studies that have been done for centuries no longer deserve the least attention relative to the present argument. Of course it is impossible to discuss everything, but a state of the issues regarding the corpora of biblical laws, their mutual influences, their distinctions and historical dating proposals, would have been welcome. It is thus surprising to find so little references to an author like Eckart Otto (pp. 185, 207 with his name reversed as Otto Eckart = Eckart 1994), whose bibliography on the subject of biblical laws in their Eastern and Western context is so consistent. The historical framework of the argued thesis therefore proves to be problematic.

 

Methodologically, one would also have expected that the author defines what he means by “borrowing.” For it is systematically the proposed new “historical” framework that justifies the parallelism between Greek and Biblical laws and, consequently, the dependence of the biblical text on Greek sources. It is clear, however, that parallelism is not a sufficient evidence of borrowing. Two parallel discourses, as we know, do not in themselves prove dependency. It would have been appreciated if the Greek passages were quoted and analyzed in their context before being simply judged as the source of biblical laws. This might then make it possible to avoid having to make laws which are without Greek connotation into avatars or vestiges of an old and revived period (see page 97 on polygamy as a survival of an ancient practice).

 

This methodological question invites us to note an aberration that the author does not mention, that of language. If the Septuagint really copies the Greek laws in the Greek scholarly milieu of the Great Library of Alexandria, how can one explain why no Greek lexical or stylistic borrowing is in Hebrew? It is indeed in general the Greek translation known as the Septuagint that one credits with “hebraisms," not the opposite. The whole of these points attenuates, it seems to me, the strength of the theory of the author.

 

One last difficulty is that the author never ceases to refer to Jews and Judaism as if it is obvious how these entities are defined. But the Hellenistic era is precisely the crucible of the emergence of an identity not just of one but certainly of several identities relative to the name “Israel.” The historical background and reference to established Judaism in the author’s work give the impression that the Pentateuch is the fruit of such a reality. It is clear that such a shortcut is problematic to say the least. It would have been better for the author to have explained his conception of Judaism in antiquity.

 

I wish now to dialogue further with the author. It seems to me that the contribution that can now be made to the debate is immense if one brings back into the comparison the historical depth of the biblical texts. The European scholarship on the Pentateuch has tended these last decades to reach some consensus regarding its final redaction. The Pentateuch appears itself as an authoritative text, both ideologically and theologically. The many trends within the textual strata make it clear that it was not an easy task to reach a consensus regarding identity. But it was brought to completion through the closure of these five books as a whole during the Persian period and their subsequent translation into Greek in the following Hellenistic period. Two main trends within the Pentateuchal “collection” have been identified with the myth of Abraham, on the one hand, which is clearly genealogical, and the myth of Moses called “exodic,” on the other, which is more prophetic and legal. In the first case, one may be identified by birth, and in the second, by obedience to the law. In both cases, the question of living in the land -or more precisely possessing the land- seems secondary. However, the links between these concepts of genealogy, the law and the land have not received much attention. Yet in a comparative approach in light of contemporaneous Athens these concepts no longer stand as opposed as they seem to be in their biblical setting. Indeed, the intuition that the Pentateuch makes better sense in light of Athenian sources is quite convincing in my eyes, but these influences may have begun earlier and the Persian Achaemenid period seems a perfect historical context as the empire was confronted repeatedly and the Levant stood at the cross roads of Greece to many routes from the eastern to the western frontiers and the southern to the northern ones.[2]

 

One point I wish the author had discussed is that of transgenerational and collective fault (Ex 20:5-6; 34:6-7), a concept apparently itself debated in biblical texts (cf Dt 7:9-10; 24:16), but comparatively little developed in biblical studies.[3] However, is not the notion of “original sin” a direct consequence of such ideology? What light would Greek sources or Plato’s Laws bring on this particular question?

 

As a final word, it is clear that the detailed comparisons between the Greek and Biblical systems of legislation are of immense value and definitely advance comparative studies on this subject. It is now up to those who will look into these questions to draw all the historical fruit of this work, and show what influences belong to which corpus and how Greek history and sources can illuminate the history of the biblical text in its depth without giving up its Near Eastern influences.

 

 

[1] This review would not exist without the thorough help of Gregory Doudna whom I wish to thank in a grateful way.

[2] I wish to refer to a contribution of mine to be published, « Jerusalem in the Light of Athens or the Missing Link to the Formation of the Pentateuch », Evidence Combined – Western and Eastern Sources in Dialogue, Melammu Symposia 11.

[3] Though in-depth studies exist. See B. M. Levinson, “‘You must not add anything to what I command you:’ Paradoxes of Canon and Authorship in Ancient Israel,” Numen, 50, 2003, p. 1-51; K. Schmid, “Kollektivschuld?: Der Gedanke übergreifender Schuldzusammenhänge im Alten Testament und im Alten Orient,” Zeitschrift für Altorientalische und Biblische Rechtsgeschichte, 5, 1999, p. 193-222.

Article Comments

Submitted by Philippe Wajdenbaum on Mon, 10/08/2018 - 04:01

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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. The detailed comparison of biblical laws with Greek and ANE parallels convincingly demonstrates that the biblical legislation, although having a background in oriental law-codes, was also fashioned on Athenian law and specifically on Plato’s Laws, which contained not only legal prescriptions but the very impetus for creating a national literature, of which Russell Gmirkin brilliantly shows that the Hebrew Bible was the achievement.
In addition, readers interested in the subject of the use of Plato’s Laws by the biblical authors of Genesis-Kings may also consult my book "Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible" (Equinox 2011 / Routledge 2014); as well as some of my articles, such as "Is the Bible as Platonic Book?" Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 24, 2010; and "From Plato to Moses: Genesis-Kings as a Platonic Epic" in "Biblical Interpretation Beyond Historicity: Changing Perspectives 7", edited by I. Hjelm and T. L. Thompson, 2016; also available on-line on the Bible and Interpretation.

Best regards,

Philippe Wajdenbaum
PhD
Brussels

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