New Indian-Chennai News + more

Members Login
    Remember Me  
Post Info TOPIC: Judea, an Ideal State of the Greek Philosophers?


Status: Offline
Posts: 16807
Judea, an Ideal State of the Greek Philosophers?



Judea, an Ideal State of the Greek Philosophers?

The ancient Greek world appears to have been ignorant of the Jews (or even Israel) in Palestine until around the end of the fourth century. I still recall my high school disappointment when I read the famous work of the Greek “father of history”, Herodotus, only to find not a single mention of biblical Judea even though surrounding peoples were colourfully portrayed in detail. If Herodotus had truly traveled through these regions as we believed at the time (a view that has been questioned in more recent scholarship) what could possibly account for such a total omission of a people whose customs surely differed so starkly from those of their neighbours. Didn’t Herodotus love to seek out and dwell upon the unusual?

A History of Israel from the Ground Up (i.e. from archaeology)

Perhaps that nagging question prepared me to be more open to the arguments of scholars sometimes labeled as the “Copenhagen School” — Thompson, Lemche, Davies in particular at first — than I might otherwise have been. Their thesis is that biblical Israel, the Israel of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, the united kingdom of Saul, David and Solomon, the rival sibling kingdoms of Israel in the north and Judah in the south up to the time of the captivities, first of Assyria and then of Babylon, and finally the story of Jews undergoing a literary and religious revival by the waters of Babylon, all this was a literary fable as much as the stories of Camelot and King Arthur were. That’s oversimplifying it a little, since the stories functioned quite a bit more seriously than as mere entertainment; and there was indeed a historical kingdom of Israel based around Samaria, although the southern kingdom of Judah led from Jerusalem did not really emerge as a significant power until after Israel was deported by the Assyrians. Leading figures from the Judea really were deported to Babylon but the purpose of this deportation, as with all such deportations, was to destroy the old identities of the captives and reestablish them with new ones. So there was no opportunity for a literary or religious revival.  There was no Bible as we know it during any of this time.

The Biblical books were the product of the peoples subsequently deported by the Persians to settle the region of Palestine in order to establish it as an economic and strategic piece of real estate for the Persian empire. This was the colony of Yehud. (If I recall correctly it was for a time part of the Persian satrapy extending across the biblical land of promise from the Nile to the Euphrates.) Fictionalized narratives of this settlement have come down to us in the books of Nehemiah and Ezra. Scribal schools competed to establish a new narrative and cultural identity for this settlement. The native inhabitants (or “people of the land”) became the godless Canaanites from whom the settlers needed to withdraw in every way. Myths of returning to the land of their fathers to restore the true worship of the god of this land emerged just as they did with other deported populations of which we have some record.

The First Greek Witnesses

Let’s move ahead a little now to the time when we find our first notice of this people among the Greeks. It’s around 300 BCE. The Persian empire has crumbled before the Macedonian phalanxes of Alexander the Great. The old Persian province of Yehud is now under Hellenistic rule.

Teofrasto Ancient greek philosopher and botani...

Theophrastus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Theophrastus was the philosophical heir of Aristotle. He is also one of the first to have left us an account of the Jews. Only fragments survive and most is gleaned second hand from what other writers recorded. The following is from Porphyry.

And indeed, says Theophrastus, the Syrians, of whom the Jews constitute a part, also now sacrifice live victims according to their old mode of sacrifice; if one ordered us to sacrifice in the same way we would have recoiled from the entire business. For they are not feasted on the sacrifices, but burning them whole at night and pouring on them honey and wine, they quickly destroy the offering, in order that the all-seeing sun should not look on the terrible thing. And they do it fasting on the intervening days. 

During this whole time, being philosophers by race, they converse with each other about the deity, and at night-time they make observations of the stars, gazing at them and calling on God by prayer. They were the first to institute sacrifices both of other living beings and of themselves; yet they did it by compulsion and not from eagerness for it.

I suspect few us aware of the Bible would be very surprised to find a foreigner singling out an interest in the deity and frequent prayers as collective characteristics of the Jews. The interest in the stars might raise an eyebrow, however, given the Bible’s condemnation of astrology. But a little searching soon reveals that Greek philosophers following Plato considered the study of the heavens as the study of the source of all knowledge of the divine.

Belief in the regularity and perfection of the heavenly order, with a philosophical and religious basis, was a common view throughout the Hellenistic world. . . . [The Greeks took up this idea with utmost enthusiasm] to make it an essential ingredient of their religion and their philosophical thought. We already find it in Pythagoras and late in Plato, his friend Eudoxus of Cnidus and Aristotle; however it was given its greatest significance in the Stoa [where Stoicism originated]. . . . The ordered movement of the stars, especially of the firmament, was regarded as an expression of divine perfection and the stars themselves were divine beings. For Philo the were [“divine souls . . . unadulterated and divine”] (Hengel,Judaism and Hellenism, p. 235)

The stars and their movements were in effect considered revelations and proofs of God.

But the question that interests me at this point is “What gave the Jews the reputation of being a race of philosophers?”

$_12Here’s another Greek author and philosopher from around the same time: Hecataeus of Abdera. The following comes to us through Diodorus Siculus:

(1) When in ancient times a pestilence arose in Egypt, the common people ascribed their troubles to the workings of a divine agency; for indeed with many strangers of all sorts dwelling in their midst and practising different rites of religion and sacrifice, their own traditional observances in honour of the gods had fallen into disuse.

(2) Hence the natives of the land surmised that unless they removed the foreigners, their troubles would never be resolved. At once, therefore, the aliens were driven from the country, . . . . But the greater number were driven into what is now called Judaea, which is not far distant from Egypt and was at that time utterly uninhabited.

(3) The colony was headed by a man called Moses, outstanding both for his wisdom and for his courage. On taking possession of the land he founded, besides other cities, one that is now the most renowned of all, called Jerusalem. In addition he established the temple that they hold in chief veneration, instituted their forms of worship and ritual, drew up their laws and ordered their political institutions. He also divided them into twelve tribes, since this is regarded as the most perfect number and corresponds to the number of months that make up a year.

(4) But he had no images whatsoever of the gods made for them, being of the opinion that God is not in human form; rather the Heaven that surrounds the earth is alone divine, and rules the universe. The sacrifices that he established differ from those of other nations, as does their way of living, for as a result of their own expulsion from Egypt he introduced an unsocial and intolerant mode of life. He picked out the men of most refinement and with the greatest ability to head the entire nation, and appointed them priests; and he ordained that they should occupy themselves with the temple and the honours and sacrifices offered to their God.

(5) These same men he appointed to be judges in all major disputes, and entrusted to them the guardianship of the laws and customs. For this reason the Jews never have a king, and authority over the people is regularly vested in whichever priest is regarded as superior to his colleagues in wisdom and virtue. They call this man the high priest, and believe that he acts as a messenger to them of God’s commandments.

(6) It is he, we are told, who in their assemblies and other gatherings announces what is ordained, and the Jews are so docile in such matters that straightway they fall to the ground and do reverence to the high priest when he expounds the commandments to them. And at the end of their laws there is even appended the statement:

“These are the words that Moses heard from God and declares unto the Jews.”

Their lawgiver was careful also to make provision for warfare, and required the young men to cultivate manliness, steadfastness, and, generally, the endurance of every hardship.

(7) He led out military expeditions against the neighbouring tribes, and after annexing much land apportioned it out, assigning equal allotments to private citizens and greater ones to the priests, in order that they, by virtue of receiving more ample revenues, might be undistracted and apply themselves continually to the worship of God. The common citizens were forbidden to sell their individual plots, lest there be some who for their own advantage should buy them up, and by oppressing the poorer classes bring on a scarcity of manpower. . . . . 

The Jews never had a king? Was this a bit of ignorance or had the biblical narrative we know so well not yet taken a general hold of the whole community? And what of the land being uninhabited at the time the Israelites entered it? Yet more ignorance or was the myth of Joshua’s conquest yet to form and spread?

A xenophobic reputation? A 2008 article by Katell Berthelot, “Hecataeus of Abdera and Jewish ‘misanthropy’” (Bulletin du CRFJ, #19), argues that although “misanthropy” referred to here by Hecataeus is a negative trait it was not nearly so censorious as it became toward the end of the second century BCE. The Spartans, another race much admired by Athenian and other philosophers, was likewise burdened with something of a xenophobic reputation.

Generally Hecataeus’s portrayal of the Jews is an idealistic one. The rulers are the wisest and godliest of men. Their division into twelve tribes is propitious. They are prepared for war (a positive trait — as it was for Sparta).

The wisdom of God — a God over all else and who is worshiped most truly without images or hint of human form — rules this people.

Josephus is another who preserves some of what Hecataeus wrote about the Jews and singles out his admiration of their willingness to suffer punishments for the sake of keeping their laws.

A nation of philosophers?

I have touched on many points that could be expanded into whole chapters, even books, in the above outline. Trying to find a way to distil so much into a single post is one of the reasons for the delay in getting this one up at last.

So let me come now to one other “little detail” in the back of my mind while reading these Greek accounts of the Jews in the pre-Maccabean period.

In earlier posts I have addressed a few arguments attempting to show that considerable portions of the Old Testament originated with authors imbued with Hellenistic philosophical ideas. Some scholars have even published arguments that the entire Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) is modelled upon the Histories by Herodotus. The Genesis narrative of the pre-flood violence and foundings of civilized arts, the flood itself, the patriarchal wanderings, and so forth, appear to be closely connected with Plato’s account of the origins of human civilization and aspects of the myth of Atlantis. (One such post was Genesis Myths Inspired by Plato?)

Another set of similarities with Greek philosophy is found throughout the Pentateuch in the laws of Moses given to Israel. I am unable to track the reference at the moment but I have read commentaries upon a historic reluctance of scholars to bring to the fore and address the discomforting questions that arise when they read Plato’s Laws and inevitably notice the many details in common in the Pentateuch. Plato wrote that the ideal division of a state should be into twelve tribes. He also urged a deep love of law should be instilled into the people; that God should be worshiped as supreme over all and without images; the wisest and godliest of men should rule — righteous and just laws all came from God through his righteous agents, the priests; a healthy distance from foreigners may have some benefits in maintaining the purity of the ideals of the state; citizens should be courageous and prepared for war; land should be equally divided in a way that maintained an inheritance for all; and so forth and much more.

Some of this idea can be found in earlier posts dealing with the early chapters of Philippe Wajdenbaum’s book, Argonauts of the Desert. (It’s late and would take too long for me to find the links. Do a word search.– Although I have not discussed this aspect of Wajdenbaum’s book in any depth yet.)

Is it possible — is it worth exploring the hypothesis — that the Jews were led by Hellenistically educated men (presumably few women would have been involved) who were still engaged in constructing (and/or debating) a new identity for their settlement, with many inspired by the ideals of Greek political philosophy to attempt to establish their idea of a utopian state and culture?

I’ll leave it there for now.



Status: Offline
Posts: 16807

Bible: composed as a reaction against Greek domination?

Why, when different religions meet, does syncretism sometimes follow? What need does it fulfil? This was the question in the minds of Claude Orrieux and Édouard Will in Ioudaïsmos — Hellenismos; essai sur le judaïsme judéen a l’époque hellénistique, 1986, when they sought to understand the religious reactions of Judeans living in Judea when faced with acculturation pressure from Greek colonization in the wake of Alexander’s conquests. I am drawing this discussion from Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible, 2011. (These posts are archived here.)

The those peoples conquered by the Greeks and who embraced Greek religion the need met may seem obvious.

For the peoples who submitted to the Greeks, adopting Greek religion was a means of joining the ranks of their masters. (p. 40)

Before continuing, it is important to address another name appearing in this discussion — that of political anthropologist Georges Balandier. Balandier, as I understand from this outline, posits 4 possible reactions of peoples faced with acculturation:

  1. Active acceptance or collaboration with the new powers; the peoples embrace the culture and lifestyles of the new masters.
  2. Passive acceptance by the masses; people allow themselves to be dominated.
  3. Passive opposition, such as fleeing, passive resistance, anxiety, expressed through utopian or messianic hopes and dreams.
  4. Active opposition, which is not simply a rejection of the dominant culture, but often consists of using some aspect of the ruling culture as a weapon against the new masters.

Wajdenbaum believes

that the writings of the Bible matches this fourth concept; Greek culture was used in order to make both a national history and a religion, as well as to resist Hellenisation and gain independence. (p. 41)

II Maccabees speaks of the early second century b.c.e. when Jewish High Priests Jason and Menalaus (Hellenistic forms of Joshua and Menahem?) attempted to impose Hellenism upon the priests and Temple functions of Jerusalem. (While we can’t assume II Maccabbes gives us an accurate historical portrayal we may be safe in at least taking it as giving us a glimpse of the sorts of events underway.) Given the economic, administrative and political centrality of the Temple system and priestly caste and their ties with Greek rulers, their Hellenisation became a necessity. The Greek language and education could scarcely be avoided. Close ties with Alexandria in Egypt would have inevitably have followed. Knowledge of the Greek classics, if only as the core texts for teaching Greek language, could scarcely be avoided. Innovations among the priestly functions ought to follow.

But here is the problem for Orrieux and Will. A people’s “cultural focal zone” — in this case the priests — as a rule is the segment of a society that is most open to adopting innovations from the dominant group. But in the case of the people in Judea a sharp rebellion against the attempt at Hellenisation quickly put a stop to all further cultural inroads by the Greeks and left Jewish religion untouched. This is not how things are supposed to happen.

Either the focal zone of a society is not always open to innovations or Judean society was an exception, but these poor conclusions left Orrieux and Will disappointed and frustrated. Was the anthropological theory wrong, or was Judea an exception? It is from their very lack of conclusions that we can understand that their analysis was fine, albeit based on too much trust in the biblical and para-biblical sources of Maccabees and Josephus. (p. 43)

So what went wrong?

Wajbenbaum argues that what went wrong was that Orrieux and Will began with the assumption that the Bible was already centuries old and as “Jewish” as a matzah ball. But what if the Bible did not exist before the Hellenistic era? There is no concrete evidence linking it to any earlier period. That is not to say there was not in prior existence an array of religious laws. There was certainly a Temple and sacrificial system, probably food laws and assigned days rest and holy festivals. (Though it is not addressed by Wajdenbaum in this particular context we also know that popular religious practices were little different externally from those of their neighbours, with many statuettes of gods and goddesses associated with household hearths being unearthed by archaeologists. The god Yah or Yahweh, known across the Levant, also appears to have been linked with a consort.)

But what if the books of the Bible were the creative product of that fourth reaction to acculturation above? What if the priests took the concepts they learned in Plato, Homer, the tragedians, the historians, refashioned them and threw them back against their ruling culture in the form of a new religious-“national” identity expressed in the narrative we find in the biblical books?

Earlier posts have expressed some of Wajdenbaum’s more specific ideas in this direction. I have also posted similar thoughts by others that I link below. We also know how later Jews such as Philo (and Josephus) sought to adapt Greek (and Roman) ideals in order to forge a new proud identity and sets of beliefs.

Herodotus’ Histories and the Primary History of Israel

Who the ‘El was God? (Margaret Barker’s views, including another critique of the Documentary Hypothesis)

The Bible’s 4000 years from Creation to the New Israel

Genesis Myths Inspired by Plato?

The Old Testament – A Hellenistic Book? (Notes from a chapter by Lemche in Did Moses Speak Attic?)

And the other posts in this series linked above.



Status: Offline
Posts: 16807

The Bible’s roots in Greek mythology and classical authors: Isaac and Phrixus

When I wrote a series of posts on resonances between the Argonautica byApollonius of Rhodes and several features of Old Testament narratives, I confessed I did not know how to understand or interpret the data. But someone else does. Philippe Wajdenbaum in 2008 defended his anthropology doctoral thesis, “Argonauts of the Desert — Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible.” He applies the structural analysis of myths as developed by Claude Lévi-Strauss to the Bible, something Lévi-Strauss himself never got around to doing, although he did eventually encourage biblical scholars to do so. This post looks at one detail of a detail-rich article in the 2010 Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament (Vol. 24, No. 1, 129-142), “Is the Bible a Platonic Book?” (After a few more posts on this my next project will be to see if the same type of analysis can be used to suggest origins of the Gospel myths.)

Lévi-Strauss and structural analysis of myths

In Wajdenbaum’s words,

For Lévi-Strauss, a version of a myth is always derived from an existing adaptation, originating most of the time from a different culture and language. A myth must always be analysed in comparison to its variants within the same cultural area where contacts between populations are proven. (p. 131)

Wajdenbaum is analysing the Bible narratives as myths (though he concedes they may contain some historical elements), and comparing the accounts with narratives and laws from Greek literature. While Ancient Near Eastern literature offers many laws similar to those in the Bible, he thinks the Greek literature has not been explored in this context to its full potential. (I am already wondering about the Gospel narratives, and the relationship between Jewish and Greek mythical and literary culture in this context.)

For Lévi-Strauss, similarities between myths that may appear as coincidental at first look must be investigated more deeply. This investigation may ultimately reveal that the analysed narratives are actually variants of the same myth. InLes Mythologiques, Lévi-Strauss builds a very strong case for this argument in his analysis of Native American myths. The story of “The bird nester” can be found in hundreds of different variants in every part of both South and North America — proving that the same initial story spread itself through millennia of oral diffusion. . . .

Lévi-Strauss describes how that the order of the episodes of a myth can be reversed from one variant to other and that many motifs can be inverted. . . .

Lévi-Strauss sought to discover universal rules of transformation in all myths, similar to the discovery of universal principles in structural linguistics and phonology. The aim of Lévi-Strauss was to show

that mankind thinks everywhere the same; that there is no objective distinction between so-called “primitive” and “civilised” thoughts.

Parallelism is not a dirty word. Like the proverbial hammer that cares not whether it is used to build a house or bash the skull of a prisoner, analysing parallels can serve valid and good and invalid and bad functions.

Parallelisms must not be analysed in an isolated way, but one must try to find out the possible narrative structure that links the similarities together. In other words, the similarity . . . is not sufficient by itself to speculate about any possible borrowing. . . . we must examine the place and role of these in their own contexts. . . .

Sketch of Claude Lévi-Strauss

Image via Wikipedia

Phrixus and Isaac

So with the context of the methods of Lévi-Strauss in mind, no-one will jump to the conclusion that the well-known parallelism between the Greek myth of Phrixus and the binding of Isaac indicates a source-derivative relationship. What will be needed, after examining the parallels, is an examination “of the place and role of these stories in their own contexts”. That step will probably have to wait for the next post.

Here is the Phrixus myth in, hopefully, a quick easy to read ladder, with a crucial key noted in step ten.

  1. Athamas, king of Boeotia, married Nephele, a cloud goddess created in the image of Hera by Zeus.
  2. Athamas and Nephele had twin children: a son, Phrixus, and a daughter, Helle.
  3. Athamas afterwards rejected Nephele and married Ino.
  4. Ino hated her stepchildren, Phrixus and Helle, so plotted to have them killed by their own father.
  5. Ino bribed messengers who told king Athamas that the oracle of Delphi (speaking for the god Apollo) required the sacrifice of Phrixus on Mount Laphystion in order to end a famine in Boeotia.
  6. Just as Phrixus was about to sacrifice his son Prixus, Zeus (or Nephele in other versions) sent a golden winged ram to rescue Phrixus and Helle by flying away with them.
  7. Helle fell off, hence the Hellespont (Helle’s sea).
  8. The ram brought Prixus safely to Colchis (Georgia).
  9. In gratitude Prixus sacrificed to Zeus the golden ram that saved him, and hung its golden fleece on an oak tree.
  10. Now, while it may seem quite inconsequential, probably the most important ingredient of this myth is that it is “the prologue of the epic of the Argonauts, who will come to Colchis years later to bring the famous Golden Fleece back to Greece.” The significance of this will become apparent in my next post where I begin to compare the structural contexts of this myth and the binding of Isaac.

We can recognize the resemblance to the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22.

  • To test the faith of Abraham God orders him to sacrifice his only beloved son on Mount Moriah.
  • Abraham submits to the command and binds his son.
  • At the last moment God sends an angel and interrupts the sacrifice.
  • Abraham sees a ram stuck in a bush, and sacrifices that ram instead of his son.

But note the inversion “of one small detail”:

In the Greek version, the ram is killed first; then its fleece is hung in a tree. Whereas in the biblical version, the ram is first stuck in a bush and sacrificed afterwards. This inversion of detail can lead us to wonder whether these stories could both derive from a common source; one could derive from the other; or that the resemblance is only due to a coincidence. Therefore we must examine the place and role of these stories in their own contexts, respectively the epic of the Argonauts and the biblical narrative. (p. 132)

That will be the subject of the next post on Wajdenbaum’s SJOT article.

Photograph taken by me January 5 2008

Image via Wikipedia

Page 1 of 1  sorted by
Quick Reply

Please log in to post quick replies.

Tweet this page Post to Digg Post to

Create your own FREE Forum
Report Abuse
Powered by ActiveBoard