The Egyptian Bible
by John Strasbaugh
In his day job, Gary Greenberg is a senior trial lawyer for the Criminal Defense Division of the Legal Aid Society here in the city. He sometimes appears as a commentator on Court TV.
But it’s his avocation that brings him to our attention. Some guys race birds, some guys build model trains, some guys coach championship Little League baseball teams.
Greenberg is an avocational biblical scholar. And a controversial one.
In his 1997 The Moses Mystery: The African Origins of the Jewish People (reprinted in paperback as The Bible Myth), Greenberg argued that there was no archaeological or documentary evidence for most of the stories the Old Testament tells about the origins of the Jews–no Abraham living in "Ur of the Chaldees," no 400 years of enslavement in Egypt, no Exodus and wandering 40 years in the desert. Instead, he believes the Hebrews originally were Egyptians, devotees of Akhenaten’s monotheism–Moses was his high priest–who had to flee after Akhenaten died and Horemheb violently rejected the new religion.
These were not brand-new notions. Egyptian roots for the biblical Hebrews were theorized back in the 19th century. Afrocentric spins on the origins of Western Civ were a nickel a bushel in the 1990s. And archaeologists have long pointed out that there’s no physical record of many cities and places named in the Bible, while existing remains often conflict with biblical dating schemes. (Last year, Tel Aviv University archaeologist Ze’ev Herzog stirred up a maelstrom of denunciation in Israel arguing this last point in the tony Ha’aretz. The problem in Israel with this kind of talk is that if the Bible is bunk, then the legitimacy of the state’s claim on the lands it occupies is diminished.)
Familiarity did not stop Greenberg’s critics. A brief yet haughty pan in The New York Times effectively wrote him off as a crackpot. The reviewer "went ballistic," Greenberg grins today. Academic Egyptologists and biblical scholars, who get tetchy when outsiders blur the distinctions between their two discrete fields, weren’t pleased with him either.
Undaunted, Greenberg argues in his new book, 101 Myths of the Bible (Sourcebooks, 319 pages, $24.95), that the Hebrews’ Egyptian roots left numerous literary traces in the Old Testament, in the form of ancient Egyptian myths variously disguised, warped by 1000 years of handling, or ineptly edited by the Bible’s redactors. The result, he says, is that much of what you read in the Old Testament ("I’m not into the New Testament," he says) is bull, from the two different versions of Creation in Genesis to the fictional Patriarchs to nonexistent places like Sodom and Gomorrah.
Greenberg comes to his study of mythology and folklore the old-fashioned American way: DIY.
"I’ve always been interested in the intersections between myth and history," he says. "There’s a lot of myth that contains history. There’s a lot of history that’s mostly myth. I started as a kid–my father gave me the Greek myths, and I sorta got it, but it was just reading the stories. As I got older I started reading other stuff. I was starting to do some independent study, and it resulted in looking at some early parts of the Bible. I wanted to look at the Flood myth."
So he took some classes?
"No, I was a math major. Brooklyn College... Got interested in these subjects and started drafting manuscripts in these subjects. I did a little networking, started going to academic conferences."
Greenberg is the current president of the Biblical Archaeology Society of New York, a group that meets at the Taipei Noodle House on 2nd Ave. near 52nd St. roughly monthly to hear lectures like "Egypt in the Late Period: Gold Treasures from Tanis" and "An Amorite Caravan in Egypt: An Evaluation." Would that I had the time.
I ask Greenberg: Can we not presume that educated, sophisticated adults–most potential readers of a book like this–already know that the Bible is a lot of myth and folklore and legend? Except for fundamentalists, who won’t read a book like this anyway, doesn’t everybody take the Bible with a large grain of salt?
"I think most people, even those who are fairly religious, know that they’ve got problems even with the early parts," he concedes. "What I’m trying to do is present in a very simple, easy-to-understand format the background for the stories."
And he does a pretty good job. You probably know the basics. It’s been a couple of centuries since scholars, noting all the places in the Bible where there are two or more contradictory accounts of some event, began to theorize that the Bible as we know it is a pastiche of several documentary sources, patched together, sometimes badly, over centuries. The Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy), for example, seems to have at least four original sources. The best-known now is J, as in David Rosenberg’s The Book of J; so named because the unknown author uses the Hebrew name Jahweh for God. In J’s materials, probably dating to the 10th century BC, Jahweh is the personal, highly emotional deity who interacts directly with various biblical characters. (Rosenberg argued that J shows signs of female authorship.)
The source called E for using the name Elohim for God probably is later than J; it repeats some of J’s stories, but often gives conflicting versions. In P’s materials, God is a more remote deity, and P obsesses a lot about rituals and rules. Finally, a source called D is much younger than the other three.
Eventually, the theory goes, these and other sources got edited and pasted together into the official, "canonized" version of the Old Testament we’ve known for two millennia. That process, Greenberg argues, left us with a Bible that’s shot through with errors, discrepancies, inconsistencies and outright fantasy. A few examples:
It says in Genesis that Abraham came from "Ur of the Chaldees." This is a bald anachronism. The Chaldees didn’t exist until about 1000 years after Abraham is supposed to have lived.
There is no archaeological record that Sodom and Gomorrah ever existed. In fact, where Genesis seems to locate them is in the southern end of the Dead Sea. The bit about Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt may be a kind of fairytale of local origin–there was a lot of salt-mining in the area.
The story of the Flood similarly involves some really sketchy geography, and bears a lot of suspicious resemblances to other, older flood myths told by the Assyrians and the Egyptians.
What we call the Ten Commandments are actually described in several different ways, depending on what part of the Bible you’re reading. Greenberg says the whole confusing story of how God gave Moses those commandments–all the up the hill, down the hill, written in stone but, um, the stones got broken busyness of it–is a good indication of how patched-together it is. The traditional Commandments, Greenberg points out, hardly required divine revelation: all ancient civilizations had common-sense prohibitions against murder, adultery, thievery, etc. There are actually two somewhat conflicting versions of those Ten Commandments, one in Exodus, a rather different list in Deuteronomy. And there’s a whole other set of 40 laws that are arguably "Command-ments" in their own right, mostly concerning details of ritual observance, that seem to have been thrown in there by priestly bureaucrats at some stage in the Bible’s development.
For Greenberg, these discrepancies are like windows unintentionally left open to reveal those Egyptian (and other) roots he thinks he sees in the Bible’s stories. One of his many examples is right at the start. The way the Bible describes Creation is, he says, very like older Egyptian creation myths. In one variant, Creation begins with a word from the deity Amen, just as in the Bible. Amen is wind. Where the King James Bible has "the Spirit of God" moving upon the waters, in the original Hebrew it’s really the wind of God. Continuing this elemental theme, Greenberg believes Adam and Eve are based on the Egyptian deities Geb (earth) and Nut (heaven), who were said to have three sons, very like Cain, Abel and Seth.
From this kind of analysis, Greenberg builds his case: that the Hebrews were originally Egyptian monotheists who brought a lot of background stories and myths with them when they fled to Canaan. Over the centuries, these mutated, were variously influenced by neighboring cultures (Babylon, Greece), were messed with to suit changing political realities like the propaganda war between the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, and at long last were canonized into the Bible as we know it.
What is the grand lesson to be taken from this? Whether I’m Jewish, Christian, Muslim, whatever I am, what lesson do I take from knowing that almost the entire Old Testament is mythology and fairytale?
"The lesson, basically, is to understand the book as a product of its times, attempting to explain what everybody understood to be history from a particular point of view," Greenberg says. "It’s not a divinely inspired book. There are too many contradictions. But it’s a book that contains a lot of information about where we come from, when you read it properly. For many people, knowing how we came to be, what our cultural roots really are, what our origins are, becomes an important concern. If the goal is to really know what our history is, then we should know accurately what it is. I think what I do is to try to liberate the Bible from theologians."
And fundamentalists? What’s your message to them?
"Well, there are things in there that just can’t be true, because it says elsewhere [in the Bible] it isn’t." The anomalies range from simple mathematical errors to what Greenberg says amounts to "typos." If God wrote the Bible and everything in it is literally true, why did he leave the typos and the bad math?
When we spoke two
weeks ago Greenberg was in the midst of doing lots of talk radio interviews,
but it remained to be seen if reviewers and academics would treat his
speculations with any more respect this time out.
All writings by Gary Greenberg on this site are copyrighted by Gary Greenberg and may not be reprinted without his specific permission.