Posts Tagged ‘Mesopotamia’


Was the Genesis flood narrative copied from Mesopotamian myths?

June 1, 2011

The Challenge

By the end of the 19th century archaeology had discovered many Mesopotamian texts containing creation and flood narratives remarkably similar to those in the Bible.

Critical scholars came to believe that the Biblical narratives had simply been copied from earlier Mesopotamian myths.[1] [2]The Biblical flood narrative in particular is still considered by some scholars to have been borrowed from the Mesopotamian story.[3] [4]

The Facts

Later scholarship noted significant differences between the Biblical and Mesopotamian narratives;[5] the Mesopotamian creation narratives were now viewed as parallels to the Genesis narrative.[6]  Still later it was the Genesis and Babylonian accounts shared an earlier Mesopotamian source, whether literary or oral.[7] [8] [9]

Scholarly Views

Kitchen (Assyriologist), note that Assyrologists have abandoned the idea of Genesis 1-11 being borrowed from Assyrian and Babylonian texts.[10] Millard (Professor Emeritus of Hebrew and Ancient Semitic Languages), observes there is no evidence for direct literary borrowing.[11] [12] This is the majority view of current scholarship. [13]  [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20]

At least early as 1872, it was suggested that the similarities between the Genesis and Mesopotamian flood narratives are due to the texts describing the same genuine historical event. [21]

In the early 20th century, critical scholar Hermann Gunkel observed that this was supported by the curious description (in both the Genesis account and the earlier Mesopotamian accounts), of the Ark being driven upstream, contrary to expectation.[22]  This explanation remains well represented in scholarship. [23] [24] [25] [26] [27]

[1] ‘Some argued that many Hebrew ideas actually originated in Mesopotamia and were borrowed by Israel.’, Chavalas, ‘Mesopotamia and the Bible’, p. 32 (2003).

[2] ‘The idea of Babylonian primacy was perfected by Delitzsch in 1902-1903. In his lectures, he argued that Israel could only be studied in light of Babylonia, and in fact Israelite civilization was derived from Babylonia.’, ibid., p. 32.

[3] ‘Since this portion of the biblical narrative postdates the Mesopotamian traditions (the final form of this portion of Genesis is usually dated to the fifth century B.C.E, although its oral or written sources may be dated as much as six hundred years earlier), it is conceivable, if not likely, that the biblical writer has borrowed and adapted Mesopotamian flood traditions.’, Fant & Reddish, ‘Lost Treasures of the Bible: Understanding the Bible through Archaeological Artifacts in World Museums’, p. 25 (2008).

[4] ‘It is commonly accepted that parts of Genesis 1–11 show literary dependence, either directly or indirectly, on Mesopotamian literary tradition.187 The best test case would be the flood story in Genesis 69.’, Smith, ‘God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World’, p. 182 (2010).

[5] ‘As scholars studied the significant differences and omissions between the accounts, they concluded that neither the Mesopotamian nor the biblical author borrowed from the other.’, Couch, ‘The Fundamentals for the Twenty-First Century: Examining the Crucial Issues of the Christian Faith’, p. 177 (2000).

[6] ‘Nevertheless, it adds much that is significant for the Near Eastern mythological horizon, and perhaps even provides a number of interesting parallels to the motifs of the biblical paradise story as told in the second and third chapters of Genesis.’, Kramer, ‘Sumerian Myths and Epic Tales’, in Pritchard (ed.), ‘Ancient Near Eastern texts relating to the Old Testament’, p. 37 (1950).

[7] ‘The similarities in broad outline and in certain points of detail between the Gilgamesh and the Genesis and the Gilgamesh versions are too striking to be accidental. Both probably derive from a common older Mesopotamian tradition, fragments of which are preserved in the Sumerian version.’, Davidson, ‘Genesis 1-11’, Cambridge Bible Commentaries p. 65 (1973).

[8] ‘It is undoubtedly borrowed from a common religious tradition of flood accounts.’, Brueggemnann, ‘Genesis’, p. 73 (1982).

[9] ‘Although the differences between the two stories may be too great to support a theory of direct literary dependence, most scholars are convinced that the biblical flood narrative is to some degree dependent upon ancient Mesopotamian flood narratives.’, Fant & Reddish, ‘Lost treasures of the Bible: understanding the Bible through archaeological’, p. 21 (2008).

[10]Thus most Assyriologists have long since rejected the idea of any direct link between Gen. 1-11 and Enuma Elish, and nothing else better can be found between Gen. 1-11 and any other Mesopotamian fragments.’, Kitchen, ‘On the Reliability of the Old Testament’, p. 424 (2003); his footnote reads ‘Assyriologists generally reject any genetic relationship between Gen. 1-2 and the Mesopotamian data because of the considerable differences; see (eg.) J.V. Kinnier-Wilson. In D. W. Thomas, ed., Documents from Old Testament Times (London: Nelson, 1958), 14; W. G. Lambert, JTS. n.s., 16 (1965): 287-300, esp. 289. 291, 293-99. and in ISF, 96-113, with addenda; A. R. Millard, TynB 18 (1967): 3-4.7. 16-18, and in ISIF 114-28; T. Jacobsen, in JBL 100 (198 1): 513-29, and translation, both now in ISIF 129-42, plus 160-66.’, ibid., p. 591.

[11]However, it has yet to be shown that there was borrowing, even indirectly. Differences between the Babylonian and the Hebrew traditions can be found in factual details of the Flood narrative (form of the Ark; duration of the Flood, the identity of the birds and their dispatch) and are most obvious in the ethical and religious concepts of the whole of each composition. All who suspect or suggest borrowing by the Hebrews are compelled to admit large-scale revision, alteration, and reinterpretation in a fashion that cannot be substantiated for any other composition from the ancient Near East or in any other Hebrew writing. If there was borrowing then it can have extended only as far as the “historical” framework, and not included intention or interpretation.’, Millard, ‘A New Babylonian “Genesis” Story’, in  Hess & Tsumura (eds.), ‘I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary Approaches to Genesis 1-11’, Sources for Biblical and Theological Study, volume 4, p. 127 (1994).

[12] ‘The two accounts undoubtedly describe the same Flood, the two schemes relate the same sequence of events. If judgment is to be passed as to the priority of one tradition over the other, Genesis inevitably wins for its probability in terms of meteorology, geophysics, and timing alone.’, ibid., pp. 127-128.

[13] ‘The similarities between the Genesis account and the ‘Atra-Hasis Epic’ do not support the idea that Genesis is a direct borrowing from the Mesopotamian but do indicate that Mesopotamian materials could have served as models for Genesis 1-11, as Jacobsen holds. P.D. Miller also admits that ‘there were Mesopotamian models that anticipate the structure of Genesis 1-11 as a whole.’, Tsumura, ‘Genesis and Ancient Near Eastern Stories of Creation and Flood’, in ibid., p. 47.

[14] ‘With Genesis 1-11 we seem to be working more with shared motifs and basic plotlines that originated in Mesopotamia rather than with actually known texts directed [sic] borrowed into Israel.’, Smith, ‘God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World’, p. 182 (2010).

[15] ‘The Bible’s accounts of the creation of the world, the creation of humankind, and the flood were not borrowed from these, but neither are they unique in every respect.’, Arnold & Beyer (eds.), ‘Readings from the ancient Near East: primary sources for Old Testament study’, p. 13 (2002).

[16] ‘The details are not exact and most scholars deny any direct literary dependence but it would seem that both stories emerge from a common tradition or milieu.’, Moyise, ‘Introduction to Biblical Studies’, p. 33 (2004).

[17] ‘The Biblical flood of Noah in the book of Genesis 6-9 shares continuity with the other Ancient Near Eastern flood stories, but is probably not directly dependent on any of them.’, Snell, ‘A Companion to the Ancient Near East’, p. 256 (2005).

[18] ‘But after a careful study of the two, Alexander Heidel has concluded that “no incontrovertible evidence can for the present be produced” in favor of biblical dependence on the Babylonian materials. His conclusion regarding the flood accounts is similar.’, Niehaus, ‘Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology’, p. 22 (2008).

[19] Text

[20] ‘Many who have done thorough linguistic and literary analysis (e.g., A. Heidel, A.R. Millard, D. Damrosch) conclude that literary dependence cannot be demonstrated. Here, as in most of the parallels in the primeval history, it is considered more likely that Mesopotamian and biblical traditions are based on a common source. Some understand this common source to be a piece of more ancient literature, while others consider it the actual event.’, Hill & Walton, ‘A Survey of the Old Testament’, p. (2010).

[21] ‘Among many theorists, George Smith in 1872 [33] famously linked the great Biblical Flood of the book Genesis to an historical event, probably of the 3rd millennium BC, which deposited a 50-cm- sediment-layer in the Mesopotamian lowland.’, Haigh & Křeček, ‘Environmental Reconstruction in Headwater Areas’, p. 14 (2000).

[22] ‘The most characteristic element of the Babylonian account seems to be that the Ark, driven from the South inland against the current of the rivers, was stranded in the northern mountains. This element is so remarkable that it could only have been stimulated by a corresponding natural phenomenon. E. Suss (25ff.) suspects that a violent earthquake in the Persian Gulf may have been the cause. A powerful cyclone from the South, associated with voluminous rain and horrible darkness, drove the destructive waters far into the inhabited land. This event must have taken place in a very ancient time. The news of the terrible catastrophe was preserved through all times. This theory is certainly very plausible.’, Gunkel ‘Genesis’ (1910), Biddle (trans.), p. 77 (1997 English ed.).

[23] ‘This suggests that we are not dealing with a literary dependence or even a tradition dependence as much as we are dealing with two literary perspectives on a single actual event.‘, Walton, ‘Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context: A Survey of Parallels’, p. 40 (1994).

[24] ‘The story may have arisen from a specific historical flood that took place in parts of southern Mesopotamia around 2900.’, Tigay, ‘The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic’, p. 214 (2002).

[25] ‘Could not stories be shared by the Bible and surrounding cultures because they are both based on a historical event? Both Scripture and Mesopotamian literature mention a flood because there indeed was a flood.’, Hamilton, ‘Handbook on the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy’, p. 66(2005).

[26] ‘However, there are more options than simply concluding that the Bible borrowed from Babylon. An equally plausible explanation is that both traditions go back to a real event.’, Longman, ‘How to read Genesis’, pp. 86-87 (2005).

[27] ‘On the basis of substantial historical evidence, coupled with many parallel words and phrases, what reasonable conclusions could we make? Here are just three: 1. There is a likelihood that a flood event actually happened. Why would the Akkadians, Sumerians, and Hebrews invent such a story unless there was some historical basis? 2. considering the parallel accounts are describing a historical event in the region of southern Mesopotamia about 2900 B.C., then Genesis also is describing the same historical, regional flood, and not a global deluge. 3. A regional flood would have brought judgment to those in the region. Judgment would have been specific to the sinful Adamite population, those answerable to God, rather than a universal pronouncement upon all mankind everywhere.’, Fischer, ‘Historical Genesis: from Adam to Abraham’, p. 140 (2008).