Tuesday 15 March 2016

Ex 20:3 Ancient Jews and Greeks compared

Let's compare Hebrew and Greek ideas of God. Please note that I am looking at what the thinkers wrote. I have no doubt that the ordinary person in the street thought all gods were supernatural. I am only interested in the theologians.

Moses' view

The first of the ten commandments is to have no other gods before God. And as we saw, God is logic. So the first law is to put logic first. And lest we think that God is some bearded man in the sky, the second commandment is to not make any graven images. Moses was very clear about this. He summed it up in his final lecture:
"Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the LORD spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire: Lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female, The likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged fowl that flieth in the air, The likeness of any thing that creepeth on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the waters beneath the earth: And lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even all the host of heaven, shouldest be driven to worship them, and serve them, which the LORD thy God hath divided unto all nations under the whole heaven." (Deuteronomy 4:15-19)
No beliefs

So God is logic. An abstract principle, not a thing you can see, Read the ten commandments. Read the whole law of Moses. Apart from loving logic, there is no requirement to believe anything. The law of Moses was not supernatural, but was a set of laws for running a state, like the laws of Hammurabi, or Solon of Athens, or any other thoughtful leader.

I blogged earlier about how this was the pivotal moment for new ideas about utopian communities, and how Moses' economic views were the most advanced of all (yes, I will get to the case against oses later. In great detail.). So let us compare the early Hebrews and the early Greeks.

Greek and Hebrew religion compared

The religion of the books of Moses is very similar to the Greek religion: it was polytheistic, the gods were fallible, and gradually the philosophers saw that logic must be the final and only God. I will blog about these separately in the future. But is this just a coincidence?

Phoenicia: the Hebrew link with Greece

The earliest Hebrews and Greeks were almost neighbours and shared ideas. Most people do not make the connection because the Hebrews who dealt with the Greeks were known by a different name: Phoenicians.

"Phoenician" is not a term the Phoenicians used: it is simply a name for people from the cities of Tyre and Sidon on the coasts of Canaan (and later their colonies in Carthage and elsewhere). Historians are unable to find much of a distinctive culture: there are no Phoenician legends or books for example (see the BBC radio four "in Our Time" episode for a good overview). The early Phoenicians were simply the seafaring Canaanites.

And who were the Canaanites? Later Hebrews tried to emphasise a big difference between themselves and the Canaanites, but the earliest texts (e.g. the book of Judges) and archaeology agree that they were culturally mixed, with shrines to Baal and YHWH side by side. While some Israelites may have spent time in Egypt (the story of Moses), they were originally from Canaan, and when they returned they rejoined their former people.

How the Hebrews influenced the Greeks

Most scholars are familiar with how later Greeks influenced Jewish thought. But less well known is how the earliest Hebrews influenced Greece.

It is well known that the Greeks got their alphabet from the Phoenicians. Some argue that Thales, the first Greek philosopher, was Phoenician. Certainly the Phoenicians, the great seafarers and traders, would be best placed to share ideas. Think about that. The Greeks got their alphabet from the Canaanites, not the other way round.

Josephus claimed that the Greeks were greatly influenced by the ancient Jews:
"Pythagoras, therefore, of Samos, lived in very ancient times, and was esteemed a person superior to all philosophers in wisdom and piety towards God. Now it is plain that he did not only know our doctrines, but was in very great measure a follower and admirer of them. There is not indeed extant any writing that is owned for his (15) but many there are who have written his history, of whom Hermippus is the most celebrated, who was a person very inquisitive into all sorts of history. Now this Hermippus, in his first book concerning Pythagoras, speaks thus: 'That Pythagoras, upon the death of one of his associates, whose name was Calliphon, a Crotonlate by birth, affirmed that this man's soul conversed with him both night and day, and enjoined him not to pass over a place where an ass had fallen down; as also not to drink of such waters as caused thirst again; and to abstain from all sorts of reproaches.' After which he adds thus: 'This he did and said in imitation of the doctrines of the Jews and Thracians, which he transferred into his own philosophy.' For it is very truly affirmed of this Pythagoras, that he took a great many of the laws of the Jews into his own philosophy. Nor was our nation unknown of old to several of the Grecian cities, and indeed was thought worthy of imitation by some of them. [Josephus then gives examples.]" (Flavius Josephus Against Apion, book 1)
As a great fan of both Pythagoras and Moses this does not surprise me in the least.

For a brief overview of Jewish influence on the early Greeks, see Yehuda Shurpin's article at Chabad. For a more detailed scholarly view of similarities, see "Ancient Israel and Ancient Greece: Religion, Politics, and Culture", by John Pairman Brown.

Plato and the demiurge

To explain the difference between the lower gods (god-kings and fictional personifications of forces of nature) and the higher God (logic or "logos"), Plato wrote his dialogue "Timaeus." It is a dialogue about the nature of the gods. It reconciles the different gods of (e.g.) Hesiod's Theogony with the abstract arguments of Plato.

Timaeus explains that a god is like a skilled worker (a "demiurge"): very capable, very powerful and clever, and usually (but not always) benevolent. But the demiurge is not the logos. The demiurge is important for understanding Genesis. For details, see the post on the documentary hypothesis fiasco.

So the early Hebrews and the early Greeks shared a similar religion. Then what went wrong? How doi things get so bad that, by the time of Paul, people would accept an inferior supernatural God?

The next post will cover the rise of the supernatural.

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