BMCR 2023.06.27

Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical creation accounts

, Plato's Timaeus and the Biblical creation accounts: cosmic monotheism and terrestrial polytheism in the primordial history. Copenhagen international seminar. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2022. Pp. xv, 344. ISBN 9781032020822.



With this new volume, Russell Gmirkin continues the intriguing line of research and argumentation expounded in his earlier works (especially his book-length studies of 2006 and 2017).[1] At the risk of considerable oversimplification, his project can be situated as follows: it begins from a position of Biblical ‘minimalism’, a school of criticism which takes the (fairly conspicuous, though debated) lack of hard evidence for the existence of the Pentateuch before the third century BCE as a jumping-off point for thoroughly disassembling the widely-accepted ‘maximalist’ framework, which dates the composition/redaction of the Mosaic books to some time in the Achaemenid period of the sixth or fifth centuries. Gmirkin’s particular stance, developed here and in his previous works, is that the usual story of the Septuagint as a Hellenistic-era Greek translation of a pre-existing Hebrew canon masks the true state of affairs: the Hebrew canon’s primary composition took place in the Hellenistic Egyptian milieu of the 270’s, and the Septuagint was almost immediately produced as a Greek version of this newly minted canon, possibly by the same group of polylingual scholars who had produced the original Hebrew. The Pentateuch’s primary literary debt is to various Greek sources, and particularly to Plato; the law-code of Deuteronomy is substantially derived from Greek law-codes and Plato’s Laws, and the Pentateuch as a whole is an attempt by Hellenistic Jews, probably in Alexandria, to invent a ‘national myth’ for the Jews based on Plato’s call in the Laws for the crafting of such myths in the interests of constructing a well-functioning state (Gmirkin 2017). The cosmological story at the heart of this project—and here we have caught up with the volume under review at present—namely the first creation-account in Genesis, is primarily based on Timaeus’ ‘likely story’ in the eponymous dialogue. The two works share a particular character—that of ‘scientific-mythological narrative’—which Genesis does not share with, for example, the mythical narrations of Enuma elish or Hesiod. The goals of Genesis 1 are ‘scientific’, and so its closest contemporary parallels are Greek texts. This claim is backed up by a lot of detailed comparative work, whereby concepts, structures, and ideas are compared between Genesis and the Timaeus, bringing in the Critias and, occasionally, other Greek sources.

The book is divided into eight chapters, each with notes and bibliography, and with ancient and modern author-indices. Chapter One primarily surveys previous scholarship, with trenchant critique of ‘maximalist’ positions. Gmirkin’s own summary of the contents of chapters two through seven (250) encapsulates the main lines of argument well:

the cosmogony of Genesis 1 did not belong to the category of creation myths found in Ancient Near Eastern literature (Chapter 2), but rather has key characteristics of Greek scientific cosmogonies (Chapter 3) and can be more specifically identified as belonging to the hybrid genre of scientific theological-mythical cosmogonies of which the Timaeus was the first and foremost example in Greek literature (Chapter 3) …. the two creation accounts of Genesis 1-3 display systematic dependence on the theology and sequence of creative acts in Plato’s Timaeus (Chapter 4); that the First Creation Account of Genesis 1 was based on the creation of the perfect kosmos from the primordial chaos of Timaeus 48a-49a by Demiurge in Timaeus 29d-40d (Chapter 5); that the Second Creation Account in Genesis 2-3 was based on the creation of mortal life by the lesser terrestrial gods in Timaeus 40d-47e (Chapter 6); that the Garden of Eden and the account of the primordial world and flood were based on Plato’s Critias (Chapter 7).

The final Chapter 8 sums up the findings of the book and seeks to explain how the contents of the Hexateuch as a whole differ profoundly from what one might expect of the foundational document of a ‘utopian nation enlightened and governed by philosophy’ (294) as outlined in the Laws: essentially, the Jewish ‘cosmic-philosophical’ Platonist elite behind the Genesis accounts lost out to a hereditary, less-philosophical Jewish priestly elite who were more concerned with promoting the exclusive worship of their newly monotheistic god Yahweh than with conducting philosophy.

It is worth emphasising both the welcome audacity of Gmirkin’s proposals and the inevitable limitations of any such work. Biblical textual criticism is an endlessly nuanced project, perforce based on numerous arguments from likelihood or probability, sometimes piled one on top of the other. We want to know how these texts came to be as they are, but our evidence refuses to let us know with anything like absolute certainty; that maximalist reconstructions are often put forward as established fact is indeed problematic. Gmirkin’s arguments are welcome in that they remind the reader of this, and remind us of the shakiness of the edifice upon which the accepted scholarly certainties of the field are sometimes established. However, to this reviewer’s mind, Gmirkin’s take on his own Hellenistic composition hypothesis is itself rather too ‘maximalist’: much that is found in this book would be welcome as intriguing parallels suggesting the need for more research, but fails to convince as an open-and-shut case for widespread Platonic and other Greek borrowing in Genesis. While this is to some degree a question of unquantifiable scholarly judgement, this reviewer does not find the parallels cited by Gmirkin between Genesis and the Timaeus et al. compelling enough to warrant positing a dependency, even assuming a Hellenistic dating for the composition of Genesis. A few more detailed critiques follow as space allows.

Gmirkin sets a high standard for himself as to what constitutes a valid comparative argument, using the classic case of the strong parallels between the Atrahasis story preserved in the Gilgamesh epic and Noah’s flood-story as an example of how it is to be done (2); once scholars read about Atrahasis, there could be no doubt the this was the same basic story as the one about Noah and the flood in Genesis. He does not, however, meet this high standard on a number of counts; indeed, having explicitly noted the fairly undeniable dependence of the Genesis flood-story on a near-eastern common source, he goes on to argue at length that the flood in Genesis is part of a Jewish rewriting of the Atlantis-myth in the Timaeus and Critias (Chapter 7)! Gmirkin describes his project as one of demonstrating such a cumulative weight of parallels between Genesis 1-3 and materials found in Plato as to demonstrate influence of Plato on Genesis, but any such project must also be able to account for the dissimilarities between the texts; these Gmirkin tends to elide or, when he acknowledges them, to explain away in unconvincing ways. Sometimes Plato is pushed into line with the Biblical account in Procrustean ways: on pp. 92 and 97 Plato’s Demiurge makes the kosmos ‘in his own image’ in what seems a striking parallel to the Biblical account of the creation of human beings. But while Plato’s Demiurge does make the kosmos to resemble himself (30a), or as an image of the immortal gods (37c), earlier in the myth he bases it on a noetic ‘paradigm’, seemingly co-existent with and separate from the Demiurge himself (29a). Many later Platonists would iron out this difficulty by placing the paradigm, identified with the Forms, within the Demiurgic nous; Gmirkin ignores the paradigm and the Forms. A table on p. 93 is meant to show the ‘striking parallels of the sequence of creative acts’ in the creation-myths of Genesis and the Timaeus, but, while the Genesis instances are indeed given in sequence, the instances from Timaeus are taken radically out of sequence so as to fit the Genesis evidence. Other parallels seem inadequately determinant: the fact that both Genesis in the Septuagint and the Timaeus feature the word archē (p. 91) surely counts for little, seeing as the genre in question deals precisely with beginnings.

Major silences are not addressed—we might, for example, expect a ‘scientific-mythic’ cosmological account based closely on the Timaeus to show some hint of the geocentric, spherical cosmology at the heart of the ‘likely story’, which Genesis never does, a fact which Gmirkin ignores. While this is a criticism from silence, it is a valid one when dealing with the kind of interpretive, cumulative-weight-of-similarity argument Gmirkin is attempting to make: if Genesis 1 is indeed an attempt at a scientific-mythological account of reality based on the Timaeus, where is Plato’s cosmology? Sometimes absences are addressed in unconvincing ways, e.g. at 112 ff: Plato’s Timaeus discusses the four elements which make up the kosmos, and Genesis simply does not, but Gmirkin seeks to iron out this difficulty by finding references to water, earth, and air in Genesis and explaining the awkward absence of fire through a convoluted take on Zeno of Citium, whom our Jewish authors have inexplicably decided to use as a model for this particular bit of their cosmogony, which is otherwise adapted from the Timaeus. But we can take a step back and ask whether the references to the waters, the wind, and the earth in Genesis 1 really remind us more of Plato’s elemental physics or the Greek physiologoi than of, say, Hesiod, or of the many extant Near-Eastern creation stories. I do not find the characterisation of Genesis 1-3 as fundamentally ‘scientific’ particularly compelling; if a god making the world by commanding things to exist is scientific, how is it more so than, say, the accounts in Hesiod or the Orphic cosmogonies, to say nothing of near-eastern cosmogonical texts like Enuma elish? This question is never addressed head on by Gmirkin, who takes the meaning of ‘scientific’ as read. When we take into account the selective nature of the parallels pointed-to by Gmirkin—aspects of both texts without obvious or less obvious parallelisms, or with flat-out contradictions, being systematically ignored—we are left with a comparative project which arguably does not meet the ironclad standard the author sets for himself.

In short, readers who go back to Genesis and the Timaeus with an eye to what is different about these texts may well come away feeling that Gmirkin’s comparative enterprise is indeed interesting and suggestive, but falls far short of demonstrating a clear filiation. Those who do find his comparative work convincing prima facie may still baulk at some of the methodological problems alluded to above. Gmirkin at times conducts his arguments with an unwarranted amount of confidence in his own conclusions: what would indeed work as suggestions for possibilities inviting further research are taken as evident, proven truths where they are simply not proven (e.g. 31). Gmirkin regards the findings of his previous works as demonstrated matters of fact, and feels that he can dispense with the need to address the many counter-arguments which they have generated among scholars (see programmatic statement on p. 23).

The result of these choices is an overall formulation—‘the systematic use of Plato’s Timaeus and Critias in the [Biblical] Primordial History as a whole’ (1)—that is, in the present reviewer’s opinion, expressed with an inappropriate certainty and finality. This may be a counsel of cowardice—if we are too timid in our informed speculation, we shall never have anything like a concrete theory as to how the Bible came to be the Bible. This being said, I find the author too certain in the many intriguing lines of argument he puts forward in this work. Let us by all means question and even demolish maximalist positions of the composition of the Pentateuch, but let us avoid building new maximalist positions in their stead, at least until we find enough new evidence to support such certainties.



[1] Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch (T & T Clark: New York / London, 2006); Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible (Routledge: London / New York, 2017).