How Myth Became History and the Origins of Exodus (Excerpt from Chapter 9: Beware of Greeks Bearing History in "Sex Rites")

In the early 5th century BCE, an Ionian Greek called Hecateaus of Miletus travelled extensively within the Persian Empire and wrote what was probably the first history book. As he travelled to places like Egypt, he realized there was a problem with his divine ancestry. Egyptian priests showed him statues of hereditary high priests, stretching back to the twelfth millennium. Hecateaus' pedigree of sixteen generations to a god seemed like recent history, compared to Egyptian genealogies. Sixteen generations was just was not long enough to account for the vast time period of Egyptian culture (West 1991, 146). Not only did Hecateaus' genealogy not make sense in this context, the whole of Greek mythology was nonsense. Much of Hecateaus' work with history was an attempt to sort myth from fact.

In the fourth century BCE, another Hecateaus (of Abdera) solved the old Hecateaus' problematic genealogy. This later Hecateaus was basically a mythographer; but, he composed the myths as a history. He claimed that Egyptians founded a great number of colonies, spread across the world. One of those groups of colonists was led by Belus (Baal) and he founded Babylon (Garstad 2004, 249). A few years later, Euhemerus used Hecateaus' story as the basis for a very elaborate utopian tale. He claimed that cults all over the world originated with Zeus (aka Baal, Belus.) Zeus travelled five times around the world setting up shrines and the religious practices of each region (De Angelis 2006, 232). He established the hereditary priesthoods of each cult site. Then, Zeus died and became a god.

Euhemerus was very idealistic. He used his fictional account of a mythical island off the Arabian coast to describe an ideal society. Of course, that society was composed of an elite class of priests and a caste system populace. In the story, the good Doians were driven out of their perfect island of Panchaea by Ammon (based on the Egyptian god, Amun) and his Ammonites (Garstad 2004). Euhemerus' tale has many similarities to Plato's idealized society on Atlantis (also a completely fictitious island). The philosophy expressed by Euhemerus was that religion could be used to unite diverse ethnic groups through a single object of worship (De Angelis 2006). According to him, everyone worshiped Zeus. There was no such thing as a false religion for Euhemerus. Zeus set up all cults, giving each ethnic group their own form of worship. This concept of one god; but, many peoples, was really central to Greco-Roman period religious beliefs. It also represents the first religiously defined concept of ethnicity.

There was some truth to everyone worshiping the Storm God. He did sort of travel all over the world, with chariot warfare during the Bronze Age. But, it was the notions of Egyptian colonization and the humanity of gods which fed other mythologies. All of the gods were imagined to have once been real-live humans, who were deified at death. So, essentially there was only one original supernatural being and all other gods were created from dead humans. From this perspective, it is easy to understand why historians felt so free to use myth formulas for describing historical people, as well as just inventing people who never really lived. Elites all over the ancient world composed genealogies back to the Storm God, who they believed set up the cult in their hometown. They wanted to define themselves as the sons of god.

Euhemerus was very much a product of his time. He wrote just a few years or decades after Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire. It seemed like the whole world was going Greek; so, ideals such as religious unity seemed possible. Even places not controlled by Greeks were heavily influenced by their art, language, religion, and philosophy. However, the skepticism about religion by Greek philosophers of the Persian Period was dissipating with this new scientific mythology. For elites, there was no need to be skeptical about something which was as useful as genealogy, which proved that they were the offspring of gods. Particularly the new Macedonian overlords of the former Persian Empire adored religion. They also loved books, particularly old books. They amassed libraries; the most famous one was in Alexandria. Ptolemy and his successors as the new pharaohs of Egypt were ambitious to have a library bigger than any of the other Macedonian kings. Books were more valuable if they were written by someone famous or very ancient. The library quickly filled up with books from famous Greek authors. Many new old books by famous or ancient authors also fetched a good price in Alexandria. Pseudography became a small industry. For example: any treatise found on medicine was ascribed to the famous Hippocrates. Hippocrates appears to be the most prolific author of the ancient world. It is hard to imagine how he had time to practice medicine, between all of his supposed scribbling. Actually, Hippocrates wrote very little if any of the works ascribed to him. But, book dealers made a nice profit off of his name.

History was another favorite subject of the library collectors. The Macedonian kings wanted to know the story of how Zeus set up cult sites in their territories. However, history writing was just not something people did in West Asia or Egypt, prior to Alexander the Great. It was a relatively new genre of writing in Greek culture too, really only starting with Herodotus. So, the Macedonian kings sponsored temple priests to write the history of their cults. The history which the Seleucid king over much of West Asia wanted most was from the temple of Bel Marduk in Babylon, the same temple Hecateaus of Abdera claimed was founded by the Egyptian Belus. The king sponsored the high priest, known by his Greek name, Berossos, to write a history. Berossos published a History of Babylonia around 290 BCE (Verbrugghe 2001, 13). Berossos' book did not survive time, his words are only known from quotations by other authors. Fortunately, there are enough quotes to get a sense of what he wrote. Berossos certainly did not endorse the notion that his very ancient temple was founded by Egyptians. He wrote a history beginning with creation, and without Egyptian colonists.

Berossos told a number of stories which are strikingly similar to those in the Bible, such as creation and the great flood. His versions are obviously derived from older Mesopotamian accounts, which he no doubt had access to in his very ancient temple. However, his account of the flood has the ark landing on mountains in Armenia, which is different from the old Sumerian accounts. His story is almost identical to the Genesis flood story. Berossos also wrote about the Babylonian destruction of cities in the Levant. Josephus quoted Berossos as an authority on the destruction of Jerusalem and other points in which Berossos book and the Bible are extremely similar. Theophilus quoted Berossos in a letter, stating that the foundations of the Temple in Jerusalem were laid in the second year of Cyrus and completed by Darius. Berossos description of the Persian sponsorship of the temple is the same as the claims in the Old Testament. Berossos also named off kings, covering from before the flood down to at least Artaxerxes, a Persian king. His pre-flood kings lived for hundreds of years. Genesis also claims that people lived a really long time before the flood. Berossos mentions all of the kings of Assyria and Babylon which are mentioned in the Bible. And, he described some of their wars, so it is likely he made some references to kings in other locales, such as the Levant.

It is rather clear that the authors of the Old Testament used Berossos' as a source. This is exciting, because it means we have another great source in which Berossos was essentially quoted. And, Berossos' book would be the most useful for modern historians and archaeologists for decoding the past. Berossos may be the reason why the Old Testament contains so much Babylonian star lore. Later Greeks believed Berossos was a great astrologer and founded a school on the Island of Cos. Their legend about the school is probably false; but, they had his book and associated him with astrology. His book must have discussed astrology to some degree. Berossos' book no doubt used mythology in much the same way as all other ancient historians; so, many of his tales were not "true" in the way we value history. But, the reason the Old Testament actually does contain some historical events is because the authors used Berossos as a source. Actually, the Old Testament has proven pretty accurate with references to some Assyrian, Babylonian, and Egyptian kings. Where it is wildly inaccurate is in describing the history of Israel and Judea. The presence of so much post 5th century CE Greek star lore explains why the local history is so inaccurate. The books were written long after the supposed events they describe.

You already know that Joshua was a mythical character, not a human. Yet, there is an elaborate description of his invasion of Canaan in the Old Testament. Archaeologists determined that Joshua's invasion never happened. The strikingly racist story of Joshua's wars smells of Hellenistic period euhemerism. The arrival of the Israelites in the land of milk and honey, led by a god, to establish a perfect government under god's law, is the same idea as the mythical island settlement of Euhemerus. And, the inspiration directly from Euhemerus is obvious in Joshua's battles against other tribes. It is the same story as the good Doians fighting with the bad Ammonites.

Joshua was ordered by his god to drive out the Amalekites, Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, and Jebusites from the Promised Land. Several of these tribal names have never been found in any texts discovered archaeologically. But, those particular names mean things in Hebrew like "villager." They were not tribal names of real people; they were just made up for the story. Variations on the names Amorite, Canaanite, and Hittite were found in Mesopotamian records. "Hittite" refers to the city of Hatti. But, as explained in the last chapter, Hatti was a term known during the Hellenistic period. And, the Hittites didn't call themselves Hittites. Neither did the Canaanites call themselves Canaanite. The term "Canaanite" was based on an Akkadian word for purple. The same region was called Phoenicia, which also means purple, by the Greeks for the same reason: purple dye was produced in Phoenicia, aka Canaan. The Phoenicians didn't call themselves Purple People. They always referred to themselves as citizens of a city, not an ethnic group.

The funniest name from the Bible is supposed tribe of Amorites. It was long considered that the Amorites were the same as the Amurru mentioned in Mesopotamian documents. Berossos probably used the term. But Amurru just meant "westerner." Mesopotamians called them westerners because they were people to the west of them, in Eastern Syria. These Syrians did not call themselves Amorites, or Westerners. This part of Syria was to the northeast of Jerusalem. According to the Bible, Joshua was from Egypt. Why did he use a Mesopotamian term for westerner to refer to people who were easterners from his perspective?

It was with the Persian division of provinces that some of the names used for tribes and regions began to appear in inscriptions. At Tall al Umayri in Jordan is the earliest reference to Ammon (the origin of the name of the capital city of Jordan, Amman) was found as a Persian Period seal impression (Herr and Clark 2009). The seal is strong evidence that this region of Transjordan was a province called Ammon during the Persian Empire, just like the Yehud seals from Judea referred to the Persian province of Yehud. It is not surprising that the Jordanian province of the Persian Period adopted a name based on an Egyptian God, Amun. A major trade route went through Jordan and archaeologists regularly turn up artifacts of Egyptian origin or Egyptian style in Jordan. But, it is notable that these provincial identities did not appear until the Persian Period, long after the supposed tribes described as occupying Bronze Age and Iron Age territories. Both the Bible and Euhemerus' fictional account of a mythical island contain stories about Ammonites. The Ammonites were bad guys in Euhemerus' story and they were bad guys in the Old Testament.

So, now you know why the Old Testament is loaded with genealogy and so many of those ancestors were gods. The Hellenistic priesthood in Jerusalem just wanted a genealogy as cool as every other elite group in their Greek world. The "histories" composed during the Hellenistic period served exactly the opposite purpose of the earlier history by Hecateaus of Miletus. He attempted to separate fact from fiction. The Hellenistic genealogists purposely included as many gods as possible in their stories. The gods were human in the stories, because they only became gods after death. The Father Thunder of the Yahweh worshippers became Abraham. He was their Zeus foundation myth for Hebron. The Biblical genealogy back to Abraham made the Jerusalem priesthood divine offspring of the Storm God, just like all other ancient elites. The Zeus of Jerusalem was Solomon, as you will see in the Part III.

But, Berossos' history provided a basis to claim a greater antiquity for the Jewish priesthood than Hecateaus of Abdera's Egyptian colonists. The priests gave Abraham Chaldean ancestry from Ur. They worked him into a genealogy that corresponded to a time when Berossos said that Chaldean kings reigned, when Ur was a prosperous city. Their Abraham was almost 1,000 years older than Hecateaus of Abdera's Egyptian colonists. But, there was no need to discard Hecateaus' story. Moses fit the bill for the Egyptian colonists. Actually, Hellenistic Jews in Egypt idolized Hecateaus of Abdera. They even made little statuettes of him, obviously ignoring the rule against idol worship. Hecateaus of Abdera made the earliest known reference to Jews in his history. He claimed that Jews were Egyptians led to Palestine by Moses and that Moses established the temple in Jerusalem. He also said that the Jews had never had a king. It could very well be that Jews of Hecateaus' time had no memory of their Iron Age kings. It is also likely that Hecateaus' story inspired the Exodus story of Moses. Jews probably did know the name Moses and had stories about him before Hecateaus; but, those stories were not necessarily the same as in Exodus. The pre-Hellenistic Moses was a god, not a human.

Sex Rites: The Origins of Christianity is now available on Amazon

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