Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus by Russell E. Gmirkin

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According to the Documentary Hypothesis, the Pentateuch was composed in stages. The first source, written sometime between 850-800 BC, is called J because it refers to God by the name Jehovah/Yahweh. The second source, called E because it uses the name Elohim to refer to God, was combined with J between 850-750 BC. The third source, mostly the book of Deuteronomy, is called D and was written in 621 BC, if you take 2 Kings 22-23 at face value. The final source is the priestly source, or P, and was written in 458 BC if you take Nehemiah 8-10 at face value.

However, one of the problems with the Documentary Hypothesis is that it uses the Bible to date itself, rather than using external evidence like archaeology and other ancient texts. Also, biblical source criticism tends to assume the earliest possible date a text could have been written is when the text actually was written. In this book, Gmirkin applies classical source criticism to the Pentateuch to consider not only the earliest possible date, but also the latest possible date, using not just the Bible itself, but also external references to the Bible.

For example, the earliest external reference to Kings is by Demetrius the Chronographer about 221-204 BC, and Nehemiah is first referenced by Sirach about 180 BC. 2 Maccabees, written in the first century BC, isn’t aware of Ezra, indicating it may not have been written yet. By sticking to the earliest possible dates and ignoring later possible dates, the Documentary Hypothesis is methodologically unsound, not to mention the fact it requires the existence of hyptothetical sources (J, E, D, and P).

Archeological evidence doesn’t support the Documentary Hypothesis either. If the reforms of 2 Kings 22-23 actually happened, we’d expect to find the destruction of cult shrines around 621 BC, but we don’t find this in the archeological record. In fact, there is no archeological evidence of the Pentateuch before the third century BC.

Two silver amulets found at Ketef Hinnom in Jerusalem (dated to the 7th or 6th century BC) contain text similar to Numbers 6:24-26. However, the text appears in a different context, so it’s more likely part of an oral tradition than a quote from a written Pentateuch. The earliest surviving biblical texts we have are the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written in the late third century BC at the earliest.

The Elephantine Papyri from Egypt (494-400 BC) confirm that Jews at the time observed the Days of Unleavened Bread and probably also a form of Passover (although not the form of Passover described in the Exodus account). The papyri also confirm that the Jewish temple at Yeb was destroyed in 411 BC, that the Jews worship gods named Ya’u, ‘Anath, Bethel, Ishum, and Herem, and that the high priest at Jerusalem held religious authority over the Jews of Egypt.

However, the papyri don’t mention the existence of a written Pentateuch. 160 Jews are mentioned, but not one of their names comes from the Pentateuch. There is no mention of Aaron or Levites, no reference to Exodus or any other biblical event, and no reference to the laws of Moses. The temple at Yeb was on friendly terms with Jerusalem, and yet performed sacrifices, despite the biblical prohibition against performing sacrifices outside of Jerusalem. All this suggests the Pentateuch wasn’t written yet.

Herodotus (ca. 425 BC) knew of only Phoenicians and Syrians living in Palestine, although some practiced the Egyptian custom of circumcision, so they might have been Jews. Aristotle knew about the Dead Sea, but never mentions Jews. The earliest clear reference to Jews by a Greek author was Hecataeus of Abdera writing 320-315 BC in his Aegyptiaca. This book only survives in quotes from other authors, but in a passage quoted by Diodorus Siculus (Library, book 1), he mentions Jews came from Egypt and this is why they practice circumcision, a passage likely based on Herodotus.

Another passage from Diodorus Siculus (Library 40.3.1-8) routinely attributed to Hecataeus contains more extensive information about Jews, including a reference to Jewish writings. However, for a Greek historian to know of this, there would need to be a Greek translation of the Pentateuch before the Septuagint, since Hecataeus doesn’t mention getting this information from Jewish sources, only from Egyptian priests. Also, no one was aware of this passage before Diodorus. Theophrastus, Manetho, and Aristobulus were familiar with Hecataeus, but not with this passage. Also, this passage contradicts the passage in book 1.

In context, the passage in book 40 follows a section discussing the fall of Jerusalem in 63 BC based on the writings of Theophanes of Mytilene, and the section after is also based on Theophanes, so it’s likely this passage in Diodorus was based on Theophanes as well (although bits of it may have come from Hecataeus since Theophanes used him as a source).
Hecataeus (quoted in book 1) claimed Jews were descended from Egyptians, not foreigners living in Egypt per book 40. Book 1 viewed Jews favorably, while book 40 does not. There’s also an indication that the writer of the passage visited Jerusalem. Hecataeus didn’t, but Theophanes did.

Theophanes omits mention of circumcision, which Hecataeus would have mentioned. 40.3.8 would have been anachronistic for Hecataeus, as it looks back on Persian and Greek rule. Also, this passage is attributed to a different Hecataeus, one who came from Miletus. Most likely, Theophanes used Hecataeus of Abdera as a source, mistook him for the other Hecataeus, and Diodorus used Theophanes as a source. This passage, therefore, does not go back to the 300s BC. It was more likely written in the first century BC. Hecataeus does speak of the laws of Moses, but not the books of Moses, so these could be oral laws such as the Spartans had.

Theophrastus wrote in 315/314 BC that Syrians (of whom Jews were a part) practiced both animal and human sacrifice at night, including pouring wine and honey on the burnt offerings, while observing the stars. That this used to be Jewish religious practice is confirmed by condemnations of astrology, night offerings (Isa. 65:4, Ezek. 8:12), using honey (Ezek. 16:19), and human sacrifice in Jeremiah, Ezekial, and Isaiah who wish these practices to stop.

Hieronymus of Cardia spent time at the Dead Sea in 312 BC, but never mentions Jews, saying it’s the country of the Nabateans. Manetho wrote around 285 BC and said Jerusalem and Judea were founded by the Hyksos who were expelled from Egypt under the leadership of Osarseph, an apostate Egyptian priest equated with Moses. Manetho got this story from Egyptian records, and was unaware of the Exodus story or any Jewish writing.

Berossus, writing in 278 BC, was a Babylonian priest who recounted the conquest of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, but was also unaware of the existence of any Jewish writings. Megasthenes, writing after the time of Berossus, viewed the Jews as Syrian philosophers comparable to the Brahmans of India.

There is no evidence of the existence of the Pentateuch before the Septuagint translation (273-269 BC). This is the latest possible date for the books of Moses. They could have been written earlier, of course, but there’s no external evidence for them before this time. There was an explosion of Jewish writings after the Septuagint was written. The earliest of the Dead Sea Scrolls and sections of Enoch, and Pseudo-Eupolemus have been dated not much later (250 BC).

There is material in Josephus’ Apion that claims to be written by Hecataeus, that makes the claim that Greeks were familiar with Jewish writing at an early date, but most scholars now agree this was written later and refer to the author as Pseudo-Hecataeus. Aristobulus (circa 150 BC) also claims Jewish scripture was translated into Greek prior to the Septuagint, claiming Plato, Homer, and others were familiar with Jewish writing, but these claims are unsupported. Aristobulus also likely wrote The Letter of Aristeas (c. 150 BC) which also mentions the existence of Jewish writings predating the Septuagint.

As an interesting aside, the Septuagint avoids using the word “rabbit”  instead using the word “shaggy-foot” for fear of offending Ptolemy II whose wife’s name is similar to rabbit, an animal associated with sexual promiscuity in the ancient world. (The Septuagint authors were right to be afraid. Sotades of Maroneia, who composed a lewd epigram regarding the marriage of Ptolemy II, was imprisoned, then, after escaping from prison, was put into a lead coffin and dropped into the sea.)

Scholars have long known that Genesis 1 resembles the Babylonian creation story found in the Enuma Elish, that the ten long-lived patriarchs before the flood resemble similar Sumerian lists, and the flood of Genesis 6-8 resembles The Gilgamesh Epic tablet 11. The current explanation for this is Sumerian/Akkadian/Babylonian myths found their way into Canaanite oral tradition around 1400 BC and were later incorporated into the Bible by J in the 9th century BC, and again four centuries later by P. For oral tradition to remain the same for centuries is quite unlikely and also unsupported by evidence. Also, if this is the case, why does Genesis draw directly from Mesopotamian material without also including Canaanite material?

Gmirkin thinks it’s more likely Mesopotamian traditions came to Genesis 1-11 from Berossus’s Babyloniaca (278 BC), which has previously been overlooked due to its late date, but since we have no evidence the Pentateuch was written until after the Babyloniaca, it becomes a real possibility. In fact, early church fathers noticed the similarity to Berossus, but thought Berossus was the one copying from the Bible rather than the other way around.

Berossus is closer to Genesis than the Enuma Elish, also his first book was titled Genesis. No fragments of the Enuma Elish have been found in Syria or Palestine, and in fact, it was unknown outside Babylon, and wasn’t translated into Greek before Berossus, so it’s unlikely the Jews would have been aware of it before then.

Genesis reverses much of the Mesopotamian myth, however. Humanity starts out in paradise, obtaining knowledge is a bad thing, agriculture was a curse, not a blessing, an expanding population was a blessing, not a curse, kings were a bad thing, and advances in civilization are attributed to the wicked line of Cain.

The Tower of Babel is commonly thought to refer to the Esagila since it matches the older dating. However, if Genesis was written closer to the time of the Septuagint, the much more famous Entemenanki (the ziggurat temple of Bel-Marduk in Babylon) is more likely. The fact Babylon was considered the greatest city of its day by many, and that it fell into ruin, was commonly commented upon. Since Berossus was a priest of Bel and wanted Babylon to be considered more important to his Greek audience, he emphasized Babylon’s greatness in a way other writers of the time didn’t. That the Bible focuses on Babylon is another indication it was based on the writings of Berossus.

In Genesis 11, Babylon is the first city to be built after the flood, implying influence from Berossus, who unlike other ancient authors said Babylon was the first city and was rebuilt after the flood (all other ancient writers said Babylon wasn’t founded until the time of Semiramis.) The Tower of Babel story comes from The Poem of Erra.

Berossus’ writing only survives in quotes from later authors, so Gmirkin speculates about what else was contained in the parts that were left out, but from the parts that do survive, I think the case is compelling. Berossus matches Genesis better than any other surviving manuscript. The Documentary Hypothesis relies on hypothetical oral sources, while it’s a fact Jews read and engaged with the work of Berossus, so it’s a more solid explanation.

The Table of Nations found in Genesis 10 that divides the world up between descendents of Noah’s three sons, is problematic since it doesn’t divide people up as you’d expect along racial, ethnic, geographic, or language lines.

The sons of Japhet are Gomer (Cimmerians), Magog (?), Madai (Medes), Javan (Ionians), Tubal (Tibareni), Meshech (Moschi), and Tiras (?). The sons of Ham are Cush (Ethiopia), Mizraim (Egypt), Phut (Libya), and Canaan (Palestine). The sons of Shem are Elam (Elamites), Asshur (Assyria), Arphaxad (Chaldea), Lud (Lydia), and Aram (Mesopotamia and Syria). The Eleamites and  Lydians don’t seem to fit as they spoke a different language and were not Semitic peoples. Lydia is also located in Asia Minor surrounded by descendents of Japhet.

However, this mystery is solved by using a later date. The Table of Nations best fits the political boundaries after 278 BC, after the Wars of the Successors of Alexander the Great came to an end with the sons of Shem ruled by the Seleucids, sons of Ham ruled by the Ptolemies, and sons of Japhet ruled by the Antigonids. (Noah would represent Alexander the Great whose empire was divided after his death.) Before this time, the political boundaries implied by the descendants of Shem, Ham, and Japhet do not line up.

The curse of Canaan story isn’t derived from Mesopotamian literature, so it likely belongs with the Table of Nations, indicating the hope that the Seleucids would conquer Palestine and take over rule from the Ptolemies at the time of the First Syrian War (276-272 BC).

It’s long been thought that Manetho’s Aegyptiaca (285-280 BC, preserved in quotes found in Josephus) was a response to the Exodus story, however since it’s now likely that Exodus was written later, the reverse seems to be true. Manetho writes of foreign invaders called the Hyksos who invaded Egypt with the help of a plague. Manetho’s account is not historical (likely the Hyksos conquest was patterned after the more recent conquest by Artaxerxes III), but Exodus counters this by saying a plague helps the Jews escape slavery in Egypt.

Manetho says the Hyksos razed the shrines of the Egyptian gods and exterminated the natives. Exodus changes this to a peaceful entry into Egypt followed by an invasion of Syria. Manetho says the Hyksos enslaved the Egyptians, Exodus says the Egyptians enslaved the Jews. Manetho says the first Hyksos king was named Salitis, while Pharaoh gives Joseph the title of “shalit” in Genesis 42:6.

The Hyksos stronghold was said to be Avaris dedicated to the god Seth-Typhon. Under Ramesses I, Avaris was re-founded as Pi-Ramesses. Exodus 1:11 says one of the cities built by the Israelites was Raamses (anachronistic since this wouldn’t have been the name of the area at this time).

Manetho says the Hyksos were “ever more eager to extirpate the Egyptian stock.” Exodus, of course turns this around and says the Egyptians ordered all Hebrew babies to be slain (Exodus 1:15-16). Manetho incorrectly translates Hyksos as “shepherd-kings” when it really means “kings of foreign lands”. Genesis, however, follows Manetho’s account, rather than history, and characterizes the Israelites as shepherds sojourning in Egypt. Genesis 46:34 claims Egyptians considered shepherds an abomination, which is not true. This probably refers to Egyptian hatred of the Hyksos.

The name Jacob appears as a name of a Hyksos ruler. Manetho never said the Hyksos were Jews (rather equating them with Arabs), Josephus makes this connection, likely because the city of Jerusalem is mentioned, but Manetho is writing about Jerusalem before the time of the Jews. Manetho said the Hyksos looted Egypt, while Exodus 12:35-36 says the Egyptians willingly gave gold and silver to the Israelites. Exodus keeps the elements from Manetho which are neutral, but changes the elements which put the Israelites in a bad light.

Manetho was unaware of the Jewish account, but Genesis and Exodus were aware of Manetho, thus the biblical books were most likely written after Manetho wrote. Since the Pentateuch responds to Manetho’s historical inaccuracies as if they were fact, the Bible isn’t independently drawing from history either.

A passage in Manetho says an Egyptian named Osarseph was called Moses by some. Manetho himself didn’t think this, he was just reporting on a current rumor. Interestingly, Osarseph seems to be the basis of Joseph rather than Moses in the Bible. Their names are similar (the Osiris based theophoric element Osar- is replaced by the Yahweh-based Jo-), Osarseph was an Egyptian priest from Heliopolis, Joseph married the daughter of an Egyptian priest from On (another name for Heliopolis), Osarseph summoned Hyksos from Judea and Joseph likewise summoned his relatives from Judea.

Moses is not patterned on Osarseph, but rather on Nectanebos II (359-343 BC), the last pharaoh of Egypt, who was also forced into exile, but expected to return someday to deliver his people. They are also both described as magicians (Nectanebos was able to sink real ships by sinking miniature wax ships). Artaxerxes III Ochus from Persia led troops to Egypt, but lost a significant number in the bogs of Lake Sirbonis which appear as dry land but are actually quicksand (some see a parallel with Pharaoh’s troops trying to cross the Red Sea in the Bible, although the flooding of the Nile is also possible). Artaxerxes ended up driving Nectanebos out of Egypt to Ethiopia (Moses had an Ethiopian wife per Numbers 12:1), but he later returned and ruled over part of upper Egypt, fueling hope that he would someday liberate the rest of Egypt. In the Alexander Romance, Nectanebos is secretly the father of Alexander the Great, making Alexander driving the Persians out of Egypt be his return to liberate his people in the form of his son.

When the Israelites came to Egypt in the time of Joseph, they first lived in Goshen (Gesham of Arabia), but it wasn’t named this until the fifth century BC, making this an anachronism. The land is also described as among the most fertile, choice land in Egypt, but this wasn’t true until after the construction of the canal around 610-595 BC. Other place names such as Pithom are anachronistic as well.

The Hebrews crossed the Red Sea (per the Septuagint) or Reed Sea (per the Hebrew Bible). The Reed Sea is also known as Lake Timsah. Due to a canal, the Reed Sea was actually considered part of the Red Sea during the Classical Era, and the crossing could have taken place at the Ptolemaic canal between the two bodies of water.

Place names mentioned in the Bible indicate this canal crossing was what the Biblical authors had in mind. (Migdol Baalzephon was a fortress in the area near the harbor city of Arsinoe. Pihahiroth means “mouth of the canal”.) This canal was constructed about 274/273 BC, (so the Biblical account couldn’t have been earlier) and included the newly-invented water lock, perhaps an inspiration for the story. In the water lock, between two walls of water, the water level could be raised or lowered to allow for the passage of ships. It was possible to walk on dry land between two walls of water!

After crossing the Red/Reed Sea, the Israelites arrive at the waters of Marah, which are too bitter to drink. Moses magically makes the water sweet. In history, the water lock sweetened the waters of Lake Timsah. Again, we see Moses accomplish through magic what the Egyptians accomplished through engineering.

Taking all the previous data into account, the Pentateuch was likely written 273-272 BC by Jewish scholars at the Library of Alexandria where they had access to Berossus, Manetho, The Alexander Romance, and other sources. They first wrote it in Hebrew, then translated it into Greek, producing the Septuagint at most only a couple years after the Hebrew Pentateuch.

The primary account of the Septuagint from which all other accounts are drawn, is The Letter of Aristeas written by Aristobulus circa 150 BC. He claims 72 scholars translated the Pentateuch, but due to consistent style and vocabulary, the Septuagint Pentateuch appears to have been translated by a single individual. However, it would make sense for 72 scholars to write the Hebrew Pentateuch. The Letter also tells us the scholars were well versed in both Jewish and Greek literature.

What of the Samaritan version of the Pentateuch? The Elephantine Papyri show the Jews of Egypt appealing to both Jerusalem and Samaria, indicating the Samaritan schism hadn’t yet happened in 400 BC. Samaritan texts from Wadi ed-Daliyeh dating to 320 BC don’t contain any Biblical materials. Josephus claims the Samaritan schism occured 332 BC, but this is clearly a legendary account. 2 Kings 17 mentions foreign cults in Samaria circa 273-272 BC, but it’s not clear if this refers to Samaritan Jews or non-Jewish residents of Samaria.

In the end, there’s no reliable evidence of antipathy between Samaritan and Judean Jews before 200 BC when Josephus writes that Simon the Just had difficulties with Samaritans. Sirach 50:26 (c. 180 BC) referred to Shechem as a city of fools. The Samaritans converted Mount Gerizim into a Greek temple of Zeus in 166 BC per 2 Macc. 6:2. John Hyrkanus destroyed Mount Gerizim’s temple in 128 BC, definitively severing Samaritans from the rest of the Jews, but the Pentateuch was written by then, so the Samaritan Pentateuch doesn’t get us to an earlier date.

In an Appendix, Gmirkin discusses the source of the claim that Jews worshiped an ass or a god with the head of an ass. This appears to have originated in Egypt where the god Seth was associated with the ass. Over the years, Seth came to be viewed as the god of foreigners. During the Persian conquest, Egypt came to hate foreigners, especially Persians. Since Jews were Persian mercenaries and some even called themselves Persians, the Egyptians associated Jews with the Persians. The fact Jews sacrificed animals that were sacred to the Egyptians (rams, bulls, sheep) increased the antipathy. Especially in light of the fact Persian conqueror Artaxerxes III Ochus slew the sacred Apis bull of Osiris in Memphis. It was alleged that Egyptians called Artaxerxes “the Ass” and in response, he sacrificed the sacred bull to the ass god. During a brief period when the Persians were out of power, Egyptians destroyed the Jewish temple at Elephantine. The Jews promised to stop the offensive animal sacrifices if they could rebuild the temple. The fact Jews didn’t eat pigs, one of Seth’s animals, strengthened the comparison.

It is interesting to note that Yahweh bears a resemblance to Seth. He is a god of foreigners and a god of the desert (Ex. 5:3, 7:16, 19:1-2). He was responsible for drought, plagues, and disasters befalling Egypt. Seth was associated with some of the ten plagues: darkness, eclipses, storms, pestilence, and turning the Nile to blood. Red was Seth’s color. Blood on the doorposts is related to the use of red in Egypt to ward off evil. Yahweh’s mountain, Mount Sinai, was described as enveloped in thunder and lightning, fire and earthquake (Exodus 19:16-18), all associated with Seth.

There are other interesting asides like the mention of Typhonia, an annual celebration in which redheads were insulted or abused or even allegedly sacrificed as stand-ins for Seth-Typhon. The Ritual for the Expulsion of Seth and his Confederates was performed daily in the temple of Abydos, in which Seth is symbolically killed either in the form of a wooden dummy, wax figure, or drawing on a papyrus being stabbed, mutilated, or burned. Also, division into twelve tribes was common throughout the ancient Mediterrean, so communal duties could be rotated throughout the twelve-month year.

When dealing with ancient history, much is necessarily going to be speculative, but Gmirkin definitely makes a better case for when and where the Pentateuch was composed than the Documentary Hypothesis does.

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