Gary Greenberg's "101 Myths" Refuted

Update 10/20: Since he published this book, Gary Greenberg has continued to write what appear to be silly books on the subject of the Bible and Egypt, and he has a blog, but as far as I can tell no one considered him worth the effort to challenge further. Nor do I.

It is difficult to take this book seriously as a resource for several reasons.

The first is that Greenberg seldom properly cites sources, which makes it nearly impossible to check back on his claims.

The second has to do with some of the credentials Greenberg claims. He tells us he is a "member" of the Society of Biblical Literature; but one may become a "member" of SBL simply by paying annual dues. Anyone can be a "member".

He tells us he is a member of the "Egypt Exploration Society"; but this likewise is an open door, as their site here says: "Membership is open to anyone with a passion for Egyptian heritage, no academic affiliation is required."

Greenberg also claims to be a member of the American Research Center in Egypt, and it too is open membership, and as stated here, this includes things like "Invitations to special lectures and the ARCE Annual Meeting" and "Substantial discounts on round-trip tickets between New York or Los Angeles and Cairo on EgyptAir, the national airline of Egypt." Cost, $55.00.

Greenberg claims to have presented papers before certain organizations; how much credit these organizations have among professional Egyptologists is hard to say. One, the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities, formerly had a site which spoke of "chapters in three Canadian cities [Toronto, Montreal and Calgary] and an American subsidiary," and its stated purpose was as "a Toronto-based non-profit organization founded to stimulate interest in Egyptology, to assist those interested, professional and non-professional alike, with research and training in the field, and to sponsor and promote archaeological expeditions to Egypt."

None of this seems on a par with the Egyptology program at, say, one of the Ivy League schools; but it is hard to tell. Greenberg is strangely mum about the depth and relevance of his knowledge and credentials, just as he is often quiet about his sources.

Admittedly none of this may mean a thing, yet it is strange and suspicious that a wall of silence appears so often in reference to Greenberg and his arguments.

But we shall check what we can, and argue what we can. Over the next few pages we'll select some of the exemplary "myths" Greenberg claims to find hidden in the Bible.

Myth 3: Let there be light? -- Greenberg compares Gen. 1:3, the creation of light, to a passage in a hymn of Amen that speaks of illumination occurring when Amen-Re opens his eyes, "when the day had not yet come into being." This example serves as a showcase of three of Greenberg's most pertinent shortcomings:

  1. He does not give a source for this hymn of Amen, nor a provenance, nor a date -- not so much as a footnote.
  2. He argues that "the Hebrew writers eliminated the direct reference to the deity and simply described the appearance of light" -- merely assuming the line of derivation without providing any linguistic, literary, or other evidence of dependency.
  3. He reduces matters to the lowest common denominator in order to achieve a "parallel". Genesis recounts the fiat creation of light when God speaks. The Amen hymn has light coming from Amen-Re's eyes. (Greenberg also alludes to a tale even more distant in substance which has the god Atum appear "in the form of a flaming serpent" which he calls the "first light")

In light of this we have a right to ask why the two items (Genesis and the Amen hymn) are not rather derived from a common source, as is said as well of the Babylonian version. Heidel, in his examination, provided detailed linguistic evidence for his case. Greenberg provides nothing but summary descriptions with the details taken out of the picture.

Myth 5: A Firmament. Greenberg compares Gen. 1:6-7, the creation of the firmament, with an Egyptian tale of a "primeval mountain" rising out of the waters.

I have already shown here that no such rocky mass is involved in Genesis, and that indeed, the description fits well a description of atmosphere. Thus the Egyptian text -- whatever it is, since Greenberg does not quote it, much less provide a source, title, or citation -- clearly is inferior and, if it has any relation to Genesis at all, comes after it and is a corruption of it rather than being a source for it.

Myth 9: Body Blow. On the subject of the creation of the sun and moon, as noted in the link above, the Babylonian story of Enuma Elish is regarded as independent of Genesis, neither relying on the other. Nevertheless, there being no correspondent story in Egypt of the moon being created, and the Egyptian conception of the stars as inhabitants of the underworld, Greenberg proposes instead a borrowing from "Babylonian ideas" of the sort found in Enuma Elish. He does not suggest borrowing directly from the EE, no doubt knowing that the consensus will work against him, but appeals instead to the vague idea of "Babylonian ideas" with no named source, date, or provenance.

As noted, Greenberg proposes a Hebrew cleanup of pagan ideas, though this runs entirely counter to the human pattern of religious and social beliefs. Such patterns almost universally involve a decay of concepts and ideas. The idea that the Hebrews got rid of the pagan deities and made them into discrete entities (sun, moon, etc.) only is utterly counter-intuitive and Greenberg never deals with the social and literary implications of his thesis or explains why such a reversal is believable.

Myths 14 and 15: Days of Our Lives. Greenberg accuses the redactors of Genesis of outright clumsiness, supposing that they erred in placing the creation of dry ground on the third day. It was, he says, originally made on the second day.

His proof amounts to a supposition that because the formula declaration of various creations as "good" is "missing" after the second day of creation, but there is such a declaration twice on the third day, and thus argues that the gathering of the waters in Gen. 1:10 was actually part of day 2, not day 3 as it now stands.

Greenberg posits scribal carelessness and wastes a paragraph addressing a supposed solution by interpreters that maybe God did not finish His project on Day 2. No such explanation is required. If Greenberg wants to posit scribal error, fine -- there is a much simpler one. The text now says:

8 And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day. 9 And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. 10 And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good. 11 And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so. 12 And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good. 13 And the evening and the morning were the third day.

The bold part is that which Greenberg supposes to have been moved out of place; rather, he would read it:

8 And God called the firmament Heaven. And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. 10 And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good. And the evening and the morning were the second day. 11 And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so. 12 And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good. 13 And the evening and the morning were the third day.

Perhaps he misses the even simpler answer:

8 And God called the firmament Heaven: and God saw that it was good. And the evening and the morning were the second day. 9 And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. 10 And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: 11 And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so. 12 And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good. 13 And the evening and the morning were the third day.

In terms of textual criticism, it is far more believable to suppose that a scribe misplaced a formulaic repetition he would be copying again and again, rather than that the enormous phrase in the first example above was misplaced.

As it happens, however, scribal error is unnecessary to posit in any case. Wenham's Genesis commentary [6ff] notes that there are indeed no less than seven different formulaic phrases in Gen. 1:1-2:3, and they are all in a pattern of "dissymetric symmetry" which suggests no intent to slavishly follow the sort of pattern Greenberg insists must be there and must be consistent by his perceptions. (A similar literary process may be found in the stories analyzed here.) The same error of presumption leads to Greenberg's treatment in #15, in which he uses similar literary illogic to argue that man was actually created on the seventh day rather than the sixth.

Myth 17: Children of Earth. Greenberg argues that because the formula phrase "These are the generations of..." is used in Gen. 2:4 of the heavens and earth, and because the same phrase is used 9 times elsewhere to refer to people with biological descendants, Gen. 2:4 must be a leftover from a time when "Heaven" and "Earth" were deities who had children.

Greenberg substantiates this idea by arguing that Gen. 2:4 and following takes place on the second day of creation, based on the same incorrect understanding of the phrase "plant of the field" we discuss here. Beyond that, and the problem still not addressed of the peculiarity of "cleaning up" such accounts in a history-of-religions paradigm, we might ask why man, created by God in and from heaven, from the dust of the earth, cannot be thereby understood as of the "generations" of heaven and earth without making them into deities.

Myth 20: Trees. In an attempt to parallel the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge to the Egyptian deities She and Tefnut, Greenberg offers the same tactical methods: He alludes to a text that he claims supports his case ("Egyptian Coffin Text 80") but provides only one line of text from it (line 63) for critical comparison; he collapses down meanings so that Shu is referred to as the principle of "life" and Tefnut as the principle of "moral order" (the latter being paralleled, without justification, to "knowledge of good and evil"); and by reading intent unwarranted to make a case (i.e., asking why God "feared" Adam and Eve eating from the tree of life, when no indication of "fear" is given at all).

Greenberg does not quote the texts identifying Shu and Tefnut in this way; descriptions of these two here are far from offering verification, and Greenberg is far from providing any linguistic or other data showing that Genesis here is dependent on Coffin Text 80 or any other related idea.

Myth 33: Canaan. Greenberg declares that Gen. 9:18 "implies that Canaan came off the ark also but doesn't quite say so", then proceeds to make a case out of Canaan having been the Egyptian god Re, never giving this "implication" any teeth other than trying to make a claim of "confusion" by alleged editors who "repeatedly stress" that Ham was Canaan's father ("repeatedly" here means, twice, 9:18, 22). All of this, we are told, is done to "diminish the influence of the Egyptian [god] Re on the beliefs of the early Hebrew refugees from Egypt," though why a simple condemnation of Re worship is not offered (as it is for Molech, Baal, etc) is not explained.

Such subtleties as Greenberg imagines in his leisure time, we think would be lost on a largely illiterate population which was far more concerned with where its next meal was coming from.

Myth 34: Birds. Trying to explain the release of a raven and a dove by Noah, Greenberg hypothesizes yet another combination derivation, from the Babylonian flood story (3 different birds released) and from an Egyptian story of a heron being released, not at the Flood, but at the birth of Re.

Greenberg does not quote nor cite this story of Re, much less give data on its provenance or date. Greenberg ties the knot with alleged problems in the story:

  1. Why, he wonders, couldn't Noah "simply look around the mountaintop to see if they could get off the boat"? Greenberg may as well ask ancient sailors who also released birds to see if land was nearby (but beyond their immediate vision -- Wenham, 180).
  2. Why, he asks, did Noah release two birds on the same day? The answer missed: There were only two ravens (they were unclean); the raven didn't want to do it's task and remained flying around near the ark. There were seven doves (clean) and the dove was far more cooperative, perhaps even as the "odd one out."

This relates to another "overread" error in Myth 41 in which Greenberg somehow gets from, "[Noah] took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl" the idea that Noah sacrificed all the clean animals he had on the altar -- every last one of them. By this token, when Jacob "took of" the stones of what would be Bethel (Gen. 28:11) to make a pillow, Greenberg would say he took every stone on the ground.

Myth 44: East Meets West. Greenberg notes the landing of the Ark in the Ararat region (Turkey), and combines it with Gen. 11:2, "And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there," to suggest a problem: since Shinar is to the southeast, these people could not have come "from the East" from Ararat.

From there Greenberg offers an otherwise unjustified parallel to a story of the Egyptian Re traveling west on a lotus leaf (!) but he ought to have checked with scholars who knew Hebrew, and note (Wenham, 233) that the phrase is as well translated "in the East" (cf. Gen. 2:8, 12:8) and is therefore perfectly in line with being a geographic reference from the perspective of the later Israelite readers.

Myth 48: Ur. Noting Gen. 13:1, which mentions Abraham's origins in "Ur of the Chaldees", Greenberg notes that while Ur existed back to the time of Abraham, it was not called "Ur of the Chaldees" until the 8th century BC.

Greenberg should have recognized this as non-problematic and an example of an updated, intentional anachronism by a later scribe, as is normal in the transmission of ancient documents.

Beyond that this entry contains a begged question: He takes mention of a person named Aram as anachronistic, since Arameans, he argues, have no evidence of existing before the 10th century BC; he is missing the point that the person who founded the Aramean society would of course exist much earlier, and the Arameans would obviously not just appear from nowhere.

Myth 50: Sodom. Greenberg argues that Sodom and Gomorrah never existed. He quotes Gen. 13:10-12 and the description of the land as lush and fertile, then contrasts it to the area around Sodom, which is described as full of slime pits (Gen. 14:10) But "was full of" is a KJV addition to the text, and Gen. 13:10-12 describes a much broader expanse of land (the plain of Jordan) than just the area around Sodom.

Greenberg also commits the same error as in Myth 48 above, this time with reference to the city of Dan and again with names associated with territories. After an extended commentary about the error of the Sodomites being due to lack of hospitality (!) Greenberg closes with the claim that Sodom and Gomorrah did not exist: They are named in no historical records; he says there is no archaeological evidence for them; and last, notes that "Sodom" comes from a root meaning "scorched," "a name that would have arisen only after its alleged destruction", (he does not, but may have said the same for Gomorrah, which means "a heap") and concludes that it is a copy of the story in Judges 19-21.

Greenberg is apparently unaware of the ancient process of mimesis; the Judges 19-21 story would, in line with ancient practice, use the same terms and concepts as it possibly could in order to imitate the S/G story in its retelling.

As for the other issues:

  1. On alleged lack of evidence for Sodom and Gomorrah, see here.
  2. If Greenberg knew of the Hebrew penchant for puns, he would recognize the "after the fact" naming as a normal practice; see Is Nebuchadnezzar's name spelled incorrectly by Daniel? The original names of the cities would be slightly different but would be "punned" into something describing their later state.

Myth 54: Too Little. On this one Greenberg "mythizes" Jacob and Esau fighting in the womb. He says this is a copy of Horus and Set, the Egyptian gods, doing the same thing, but his source for this is Plutarch, who wrote after NT times around the end of the first century AD. He doesn't mention the date of Plutarch, which is rank dishonesty -- this is over 800 years later than even the latest date assigned to Genesis.

Otherwise Greenberg again defines to the lowest common denominator (i.e., Esau and Set are both "mighty hunters" and "loners who did not mix well with other members of the family" -- the former is an exaggeration; Esau was a "cunning" hunter but not a "mighty" one; the latter is a guess at a psychological profile; in truth there were no "loners" in a collectivist society) and undocumented assertion ("Egyptians frequently portrayed Set in the form of a red-haired donkey" -- where, at what date? We aren't told.)

Perhaps the most ironic claim is a note that Set had a female ally whose name was "philologically identical" to Esau's -- though Greenberg notes that neither Egyptian nor Hebrew used vowels, which means that the names were both "SV" -- which could range from Esau to Sovi to Asvi to whatever. Greenberg of course has to explain the different assignment as a case of the story evolving in transmission. The thesis thus manages the data rather than being controlled by it.

Myth 57: Jacob wrestling. Greenberg turns the story of Jacob wrestling God into a copy of Horus and Set, personified day and night, fighting each other. By this analogy, Kung Fu Theater was also a copy of Horus and Set. Greenberg can offer no more specific correspondence than that after he gets done wrestling, the first person Jacob sees is Esau (the alleged "Set figure" -- not the person he defeats), but Greenberg only quotes as far into Gen. 33 as needed, leaving out the 400 men that come with Esau [to destroy Jacob] that erase any Set parallel beyond lowest common denominators.

There are also many undocumented claims which we are not given leave to check for dating or authenticity or context (i.e., Horus was born lame after his older counterpart and Set made peace).

Myth 64: Reuben. Gen. 46:8 says Reuben was Jacob's firstborn; Greenberg sees it as a case of an explanation that Reuben's territory was the first settled. Once again he does not suppose that the settling took place according to a historical birth order and right; these are dismissed as "mythological ancestries" based on presumption.

The only real justification offered is that Reuben was the firstborn and should have been heir to the covenant rather than Judah. This Greenberg mirror-reads as a case of later political maneuvering in which the story of Reuben sleeping with Bilhah was invented (as was, he says in Myth 65, the demotion of Simeon and Levi). Yet again the theory manages the data.

Myth 70: The Eleven Scoundrels. This isn't quite as bad as using Plutarch against Genesis, but it's bad enough: Greenberg metamorphoses Joseph's being sold into slavery from a tale of Egypt told by Herodotus -- who wrote rather after even the latest time assigned to Genesis -- of twelve kings who governed Egypt, and of one in particular who, at a festival, drank wine out of his helmet and was banished to a remote part of Egypt when that was taken as a sign that he would be king over all the others. Later the banished king took warriors and defeated the other 11 kings.

Greenberg says there are "numerous parallels" to Joseph -- no, there are not, beyond the number 12 and deriving from lowest common denominators; i.e., Greenberg calls the men in both stories "related by intermarriage", though in the case of the kings, this was done after the fact, not because they were brothers; and a cup "plays a role" in both stories (though it was a case of the king NOT drinking from a cup as he should have versus Joseph hiding 12 cups in his brothers' grain bags).

Greenberg then offers a tenuous argument dating the Egyptian story to the 16th century BC, based only on a described (but not documented) chronological error in Herodotus.

Myth 75: Plagues. In this one Greenberg actually does more to support the authenticity of Exodus than to unravel it. He notes that the battle of Moses and the Egyptian magicians is like a magic battle engaged by Horus and Set.

Well, then, it makes sense historically that Moses would challenge Egypt's best magicians, because the Horus-Set story set the pattern (as well as being something that set the gods of Egypt against Yahweh, in line with the ancient view of the gods as a people's defenders).

Greenberg says that the author of Exodus drew upon "common scribal practices in Egypt" -- as we would expect if Moses, who was trained in Egyptian schools, was the author. He refers to the Ipuwer Papurus -- which is actually a substantive proof for the historicity of the Plagues, though Greenberg arbitrarily declaring that the story described dates to 2200-2040 BC even as he admits that the writing style dates it much later.

He also implies that there should be some record of the firstborn dying; the Ipuwer does report a prominence of death which would correlate, and beyond that, Greenberg has conception that the ancients weren't up on reporting their failures very well -- see here, as well as on Myth 76.

Myth 78: Two Tablets. Greenberg commits the error we look at here. Greenberg also wonders about how Deuteronomy could have been lost, missing the point that in a primarily oral society, there was less reason to keep track of such things. He also thinks it is some sort of problem that it was on a scroll rather than a stone tablet, but does not explain why.

Myth 83: Jericho. See here.

Myth 84: Rahab. Based on his view of Jericho (see above), Greenberg proceeds to mythologize Rahab's story by comparing it to a story in Judges. As before he is missing the ancient practice of mimesis (see Myth 50) which would prompt ancient writers to retell later stories after a model of an earlier story with similar circumstances.

It is an aunreasonable excess to posit that "Rahab" was formerly a city that betrayed an ally -- a case of inventing a complex history to explain away a much simpler history. (Note as well that "Rahab" in the Hebrew is apparent , whereas the "Rahab" in Psalms lacks the C.)

Myth 86: Sun Dial. See link above on the Red Sea.

Myth 87: Jerusalem. Greenberg commits the same reading error as a previous Skeptic, failing to note that the capture of the king of Jerusalem (Josh. 10:5, 42) does not mean that his city was also captured. For more on the conquest see here.

Myth 91: Anath. Greenberg picks out Judges 3:31, referring to Shamgar son of Anath, and puts Shamgar into the realm of myth by noting that Anath was the name of a Canaanite goddess -- failing to note that an incredible number of names from this era were in some sense derived from one god/goddess or another.

Myth 96: Goliath Killer. See Who killed Goliath?

Myth 97: Who Killed Saul? See here.

Myth 100: Daniel Doings. See here.

That's our selection, and it should be enough to show that Greenberg is not reliable as a source. If you want any more done, drop us a line with a specific myth number.