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Post Info TOPIC: Bible Origins — continuing Wajdenbaum’s thesis in Argonauts of the Desert


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Bible Origins — continuing Wajdenbaum’s thesis in Argonauts of the Desert


Bible Origins — continuing Wajdenbaum’s thesis in Argonauts of the Desert

This post continues with further introductory themes in Dr Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert. The posts are archived here.

How late was the Bible? And who really wrote it?

It has become a truism that the Bible, or let’s be specific and acknowledge we are discussing the Old Testament or Jewish/Hebrew Bible, is a collection of various books composed by multiple authors over many years. All of these authors are said to have “coincidentally” testified to the one and only true God of the Jewish people. The mere fact that multiple authors spanning generations wrote complementary works all directed at the reality of this God working in human affairs is considered proof that we are dealing with a cultural and religious heritage, a common tradition belonging to a single people over time.

A few scholars have challenged that thesis and the most recently published of these is Philippe Wajdenbaum. He writes:

To have a single writer for Genesis-Kings, and possibly for other biblical books, contradicts the idea of the transmission of the divine word, and of a tradition proper to a people. (p. 11)

The idea of a single author does not conflict with the understanding that the sources of the Bible were drawn from archives of Israelite and Judahite kings as well as Mesopotamian and “Canaanite” and other sources. WP claims that the traditional scholarly hypotheses of authorship and origins of the Bible are in fact secular rationalizations of cultural myths about the Bible. But I will discuss this in a future post.

I read relatively widely from the works of the “minimalists” some years ago — Whitelam, Thompson, Lemche, Davies, and quite a few others — as well as from a number of scholars (Mandell and FreedmanWesselius) who had offered arguments for the Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) being influenced by the Histories of Herodotus. I suppose I have since taken it as a given that the Old Testament was principally a product of the Persian and/or Hellenistic eras. That is, long after the fall of Israel and Judah and the Babylonian captivity. I have since been pulled up a number of times when I meet others who have never heard of such a hypothesis. To me, however, the hypothesis is sound. I have posted a sketch outline of the fundamental perspectives and evidence that underlies such an argument at

I will avoid repeating what I have posted on this work previously skip ahead to the final image and point to which those arguments are heading:

Let us imagine that Judea has now been conquered for a century and its sacerdotal class is now fully Hellenised. A man, educated in the Greek fashion, perhaps in Alexandria, has grown up learning all the Greek ‘classics’ — Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus, the great Tragic playwrights, Plato — and that which he may have read in the Alexandrian canon, established by Aristophanes of Byzantium and Aristrachus of Samothrace. He wants to create a literary work that can compete with those he has read, one that will give birth to his political and religious utopia, Israel. On the one hand, theories about the origins of the Bible tend to admit that the same writer wrote some books; on the other hand, several books and articles compare Greek myths with the Bible. It is the absence of a synthesis of all these data that is questioned here. (pp. 13-14)

Could it be the other way around?

Philippe Wajdenbaum rejects the alternative suggestion that it may have been the Greeks who were influenced by the Bible or related stories from cultures neighbouring the Jews. Essentially the reasons for resisting this idea are

  1. Greek authors were generally identifiable personally and they quite openly refer to their predecessors and contemporaries whom they emulated and imitated. They had no need to copy the Bible and leave no evidence that they had any awareness of it.
  2. The Greeks portrayed their myths through painting and sculpture and here there is no suggestion of borrowing from Jewish myths. The only contemporary images from Palestine are Canaanite relics.
  3. WP argues that “almost every chapter of the Bible corresponds to a Greek myth, whereas the opposite is not true”.
  4. Greek myths are linked together in a logical narrative progression from the birth of the Gods themselves down to the Trojan war and the beginnings of the historical era. “This rich and complex intertextuality has allowed the ‘biblical writer’ to create an original epic on a fantastic level of sophistication. We will see how the Greek mythical genealogies have been dismantled and reconstructed through a specific filter.” (p. 16)

Structural Anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss

I have discussed some aspects of Levi-Strausses understanding of myths in earlier posts:

The Bible’s roots in Greek mythology and classical authors (followed with an illustrating application in Greek Myths related to tales of Abraham . . .

& in more detail at:

Explaining (Gospel) Myths

The summaries are by no means complete, obviously, but open up a view of the core idea.

In accord with the principles outlined in those posts and in a few others not addressed there Wajdenbaum justifies his approach to the study of the Bible which will take the following course:

  1. The Bible will not be interpreted by itself, but will be analysed with regard to its variants, most of which are found in Greek literature;
  2. the different variants of the Greek myths will be studied;
  3. the data from the Hellenistic era will be taken into account in order to help us understand why and how the borrowing happened. (p. 17, my formatting)

(I am interested in tackling the Gospels this way, too.)

Myths are said to be composed of small units or mythemes that Levi-Strauss compared with phonemes in language. Phonemes have no meaning on their own but only in relation to other phonemes. Likewise mythemes (small narrative units within any one myth) have “no universal or archetypal meaning” but only take their meaning in the context of each larger narrative. (I did not like that idea all those years ago — I wanted them to contain hidden archetypal or Jungian messages to unlock the meanings of life. Bad.)

According to Levi-Strauss, a myth tries to answer questions from day-to-day life yet never reaches an answer. Therefore, any new narrator of a myth will change small or large details, so much that all logical possibilities will be explored until the myth reaches exhaustion. (p. 17)

To illustrated this WP discusses the Phrixus myth beside the tale of Abraham offering Isaac as a sacrifice — an example I have discussed in some detail in two of the posts linked above.

The Questions of Diffusion and Borrowing

Are we looking at coincidence?

In an earlier post I addressed what Levi-Strauss through WP has to say about those well-known instances of quite similar myths being found among widely separated peoples. Greece and Judea, however, are very close, and since Greece colonized Judea for two centuries it is only sensible to accept that any similarities between Greek myths and the Bible are more than just coincidence.

Oral traditions or textual borrowing?

Is it possible, however, that there was a common background of mythical ideas throughout the region and Greece? In answer to this Occam’s razor makes the cut: We are dealing with texts, written texts, not oral traditions so it is simplest to presume a direct literary borrowing than to try to throw in a “missing link” of orality for which we have no evidence.

Did the Bible author merely adorn Jewish myths with a few Hellenistic details?

Philippe Wajdenbaum promises to show that there was little room for such traditions to have developed.

How can the structural method apply to a single author?

Levi-Strauss’s method applies to collective traditions as well as works of a single author. At the point an individual author’s myth stands on its own without any trace of a personal association with its author it is able to be adopted more widely as a collectively owned myth.

Any individual work is a potential myth, yet only its adoption into the collective mode actualises its ‘mythicism‘. Even if the Bible (from Genesis to Kings) were indeed written by a single author, it only later became the tradition of a people — not the other way around. (p. 21)

Discovering how the author thought and from where he borrowed

It is necessary to resist any habits to interpret myths to find their hidden meanings. Structural analysis limits itself to comparing and analysing the “language” or “music” of the myths’ forms and contents. This is the key to understanding how the author thought and from where he borrowed his ideas.

If one interprets a myth then according to Levi-Strauss’s method one is actually creating a new form of the myth. One is no longer dealing with the myth as written. (“Even structural analysis is considered to be a new version of a given myth — this having an advantage over the other versions in that it makes explicit what they only implied, and integrates them on a new level where substance and form are definitively fused. Once revealed to itself, the structure
of a myth is not capable of any new incarnation; the myth will cease to reproduce itself through infinite new versions.”)

The Documentary Hypothesis

The power of this hypothesis — that the Bible has had various editorial sources (Yahwists, Deuteronomists, Elohists and Priestly) — is overwhelming for many of us, I know. In my next post on this series I will look at how Philippe Wajdenbaum critiques this hypothesis.

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