Review of Russell E. Gmirkin, Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Russell E. Gmirkin, Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch (Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies, 433; Copenhagen International Series, 15; New York/London: T & T Clark, 2006). Pp. xii + 332. Cloth US$135.00. ISBN 0-567-02592-6.


This book has a bold thesis and detailed argumentation: The Pentateuch was written in the third century BCE (circa 273-272) by the same Jewish scholars who translated the Hebrew text into Greek (pp. 1-4). The primary literary evidence for this late dating comes from two Hellenistic historians, Berossus and Manetho, whom Gmirkin identifies as major figures of influence in the production of the Pentateuch. Accordingly, Genesis 1-11 is entirely dependent on Berossus’ Babyloniaca, thus on a single late source, and not directly on early Mesopotamian sources (pp. 89-139). The simplicity of this model is stressed (p. 136), since in lieu of multiple independent sources of different ages influencing Genesis, Berossus drew on the same Mesopotamian texts for his history and made them available in Greek to a wide readership, including Jewish scholars in Alexandria (pp. 91, 136-39). The Church fathers suggested dependence of Berossus on Genesis 1-11, but Hellenistic scholars (e.g. Schnabel, Burstein) think that a number of references are not what Berossus wrote himself but later interpolations by Jewish writers to make a reading conform to Genesis (pp. 96-97). For this reason most references are deleted from modern translations of his text (Burstein, The Babyloniaca of Berossus, 1978, p. 14, note 11). Gmirkin, however, talks about “strong parallels” between Berossus and Genesis, arguing that Genesis 1-11 borrowed from Berossus (p. 91). Berossus wrote Babyloniaca to instruct Greco-Macedonian rulers about Babylon and its cultural history (Burstein, pp. 5-6, 13). Not surprisingly, no one before Gmirkin has ever supposed that Berossus is the direct source for the authors of Genesis 1-11, especially since the hypothesis implies that learned Jews of the third century BCE chose an inferior literary work on Babylonian history, written in poor Greek (Burstein, p. 9), as the foundation for the introduction of their national history.

Gmirkin rightly stresses the indebtedness of Genesis 1-11 to Mesopotamian sources (p. 135), but he is unable to show that Berossus has “better parallels” to Genesis “than the older cuneiform sources” (p. 136). If some parallel exists between Genesis 1-2 and Enuma Elish that does not appear in Berossus, Gmirkin asserts that it was likely present in the longer original version of Babyloniaca, thus resorting to argumentum e silentio to make his case (pp. 93, 94-95). The parallels between Genesis 1-2 and Berossus that are absent in Enuma Elish (the darkness of the primeval waters; the creation of animals) can be explained without the dependency of Genesis on Berossus (pp. 93-94, 96-100). Gmirkin contends that “the description of the primordial universe as darkness and water in Genesis did not derive directly from Enuma Elish, but was strikingly similar to the expansion of Enuma Elish seen only in Berossus” (p. 100). But if Berossus was able to deduce from Enuma Elish that Tiamat the primeval sea was darkness, then the writer of Gen 1:2 would have been able to make the same inference. Gmirkin supposes that Berossus exclusively based his story of creation on Enuma Elish (pp. 92, 96), thereby excluding the option that both Berossus and Genesis knew about the creation of animals from some Babylonian text other than Enuma Elish (Heidel, Babylonian Genesis, 1963, pp. 64, 117-18). For Gmirkin “the creation sequence in Enuma Elish is “not exact enough to show direct dependency” of Genesis 1-2 on the Babylonian Creation Story (p. 92). Reversal of sequence, however, is one way ancient authors marked their reliance on literary sources (e.g., the order of stars, moon and sun in Enuma Elish is reversed in Genesis). Gmirkin makes the incredible claim that Berossus’s Oannes is “the prototype for the wise serpent of Gen 3” (p. 107). Gen 3:1 does not say that the serpent is “the wisest of all animals” (p. 106), but the serpent is “more cunning (ערום) than any other creature”. Other than human speech, there is no resemblance between the snake of Genesis and the half-fish-half-human monster of Berossus (pp. 106-107). Gmirkin mentions the snake in the Epic of Gilgamesh who stole and ate the plant of life that would keep Gilgamesh eternally youthful (p. 104; ANET, 96). Parallels with the Garden story are acknowledged (p. 105), but Gmirkin seems unaware that the snake in the Gilgamesh Epic is the obvious source for the snake of Genesis who dupes the Man and Woman into eating fruit from the prohibited tree, thus preventing them from living forever.

Gmirkin legitimately questions the scholarly hypothesis that Manetho’s History of Egypt depended on the biblical Exodus story for his account of the invasion by foreigners into Egypt and their eventual expulsion. Thus, he underlines the importance of distinguishing statements of Manetho from those of Josephus who identified the Hyksos with the Jews on the basis of the similarities between the Israelites of the Exodus story and the Hyksos of Manetho (pp. 81-82). What Gmirkin also needs to acknowledge is the great difficulty scholars have in identifying “genuine Manetho” in the excerpts cited by Josephus (F9-12 = Gmirkin, pp. 171-87, 192-214). How then can Gmirkin so confidently assert that the Exodus story is dependent on Manetho (pp. 182, 188) when his text, subject to ongoing polemic during the Hellenistic Age, was altered and embellished by pro- and anti-Jewish editors and chronographers? (Verbrugghe and Wickersham, Berossos and Manetho, pp. 115-20). How can Gmirkin be certain that Manetho mentioned Moses but also argue that Manetho knew nothing about Jewish traditions? (p. 188). Manetho “may or may not have mentioned the Jews and the exodus,” but “if he did, we cannot be certain as to his point of view” (Verbrugghe/Wickersham, p. 116). Even if it is true that Manetho did not have the Exodus story in mind (p. 182), it does not logically follow that the biblical story is modelled on Manetho’s account. At best this claim is only “possible”, as Gmirkin himself concedes (p. 188), but not probable unless it can be rigorously demonstrated. Gmirkin does not consider the possibility that Babylonian and Canaanite literary sources lie behind the Exodus story. Instead of identifying the Legend of Sargon as the literary model for the story of Moses’ birth (ANET, 119), Gmirkin interprets this subplot as a polemical response to Manetho: “It was not the Hyksos foreigners (Israelites) who tried to exterminate the Egyptians, but the Egyptians who tried to exterminate the Israelites” (p. 178).

Gmirkin identifies striking parallels between the Exodus story of the Israelites and Manetho’s story of the Hyksos. Both Hyksos and Israelites were foreigners in Egypt, described as shepherds, expelled by the Egyptians and settled in Jerusalem (pp. 173, 175, 188). There are similarities in the storyline, but Gmirkin does not show there is detailed referencing in the Exodus story to Manetho’s account. That both accounts record a “blast of God on Egypt” (p. 188) is a general observation but not a specific quotation from Manetho that attests to literary dependence on him. Gmirkin analyzes common themes (expulsion, conquest, slavery) between Manetho and Exodus, but not the biblical text itself. His claim for the late dating of the Pentateuch is based on a small amount of text. Even Gmirkin accepts something of the Documentary hypothesis in proposing that diverse Pentateuchal sources, JEDP, were written by Jewish scholars in Alexandria (p. 3). In sum, Gmirkin’s book adds to our knowledge of the third century BCE but does little to increase our understanding of the Bible. Yet this volume is an intriguing read because it challenges us at every turn to think about source-critical questions and to ask about the direction of literary dependence. 

Joyce Rilett Wood 
Toronto