In a recent article, “Европейские элементы в Книге Бытия (6: 1-16)” [“European Elements in the Book of Genesis (6.1-16)”], Dmitri Panchenko argues that the Nephilim of Genesis 6.1-4 have European origins.
The argument for Greek origins to biblical giant stories is not new: it was argued in various ways, for example, by Robert H. Pfeiffer (“A Non-Israelite Source of the Book of Genesis”, Introduction to the Old Testament), E.C.B. MacLaurin (“Anak/ ’Αναξ”), and Othniel Margalit (The Sea Peoples in the Bible). But Panchenko adds to these arguments, in particular by offering some possible philological grounds.
Panchenko begins with the general observation that, while Gen. 6.1-4 is anomalous in the Hebrew Bible, stories of gods mating with mortals and genealogies going back to gods are common in Greek and northern European sources. Like MacLaurin, whom he does not cite, Panchenko posits the dissemination of such traditions from the “Sea Peoples”, some of whose descendents, the Philistines, were the neighbours of the ancient Judeans. Panchenko refers to another one of his articles, ”Mice Destroying an Army (Hdt. 2. 141) and a Solution of the Tocharian Problem” (Hyperboreus 16/17 [2010/2011]: 32-45), in which he hypothesises a northwestern European, probably Scandanavian origin for the Sea Peoples.
Thus, Panchenko makes a claim that I haven’t seen before: that the Bible is dependent, in Genesis 6, on Scandanavian myth.
Panchenko then argues that, while Nephilim has no convincing Semitic etymology, it has a European cognate which suggests inhabitants of heaven, or those who come from the heavens/sky. Panchenko suggests that the term “Nephilim” belongs with Indo-European terms such as the Russian небо (“sky”), Latin nebula (“cloud”), Greek nepheli (“cloud”), Old Icelandic Niflheim (“kingdom of darkness”).
The suggestion is intriguing. If Gen. 6.1-4 refers to heavenly beings, the proposed etymological link has some foundation. It would be sounder if there were heavenly beings of some significance with this name, but this does not seem to be the case. For example, Nephele is a cloud nymph in Greek myth, but without any major role to play, and is rather more specific a figure than the very general “sons of god(s)” of Gen. 6.1-4. Panchenko posits an ancient predecessor to the Nibelung/Niflungr of medieval German and Norse mythology, which may have given rise to the Gen. 6.1-4 Nefilim. But this is a conjecture that requires further support. In any case, Gen. 6.1-4 does not refer to the heavens. While Gen. 6.1-4 does refer to the “sons of god(s)”, it is difficult to determine whether the short passage conceives them as heavenly or earthly beings, and the interpretation has been widely debated without any definitive resolution to the matter.
Panchenko adduces 1 Enoch 6.2, and its parallel description of the “sons of god(s)” as “sons of heaven”, as a further basis for his argument. However, it is highly problematic for Panchenko to use 1 Enoch in order to support his case. For 1 Enoch 6.2 may well be dependent on the tradition in Genesis 6. Whatever the relationship between the two texts, which is a complex issue in itself, the phrase “the angels, sons of heaven” in 1 Enoch 6.2 appears to exegete the vague “sons of god(s)” in Gen. 6.2. “Heaven” is most probably a theological circumlocution for god/elohim. Contrary to Panchenko’s contention, 1 Enoch cannot provide good evidence to interpret the meaning of a text on which it is itself dependent.
Panchenko makes a related argument concerning the derivation of “Anak” from the Mycenaean wa-na-ka or Homeric wanax. A similar argument was made most fully in recent years by MacLaurin, whose work Panchenko unfortunately does not engage. The common element of kingship/lordship between Anax and Anak is again intriguing. But in the absence of further parallel elements between the Greek and Hebrew sources, the case is less than compelling.
The remainder of Panchenko’s article looks at an alleged parallel between Snorri and Genesis concerning the Giant-Flood narrative.
Panchenko’s suggestion of the dependence of Gen. 6.1-4 on Greek (or even Scandanvian) sources is worthwhile, but given the brevity of the biblical material, it proves difficult to convert the suggestion into a convincing one. But Panchenko has made a case for an interpretive option that should be considered by biblical gigantologists.
See: Dmitri Panchenko, “Европейские элементы в Книге Бытия (6: 1-16)”, pages 438-446 in РОССИЙСКАЯ АКАДЕМИЯ НАУК ИНСТИТУТ ЛИНГВИСТИЧЕСКИХ ИССЛЕДОВАНИЙ НАУЧНЫЙ СОВЕТ РАН ПО КЛАССИЧЕСКОЙ ФИЛОЛОГИИ, СРАВНИТЕЛЬНОМУ ИЗУЧЕНИЮ ЯЗЫКОВ И ЛИТЕРАТУР ИНДОЕВРОПЕЙСКОЕ ЯЗЫКОЗНАНИЕ И КЛАССИЧЕСКАЯ ФИЛОЛОГИЯ – XV. Материалы чтений, посвященных памяти профессора Иосифа Моисеевича Тронского 20-22 июня 2011 г. Отв. редактор Н. Н. Казанский. СПб.: Наука, 2011.