New York Press Interview with Gary Greenberg
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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
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
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.
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
So he took some
"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
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
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.
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
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
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?
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."
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
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.
New York Press (Vol 13 No 52)
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