When faced with the question as to whether the Bible accurately records ancient history in Genesis 1–11 or was derived from some other "ancient" document, we first need to apply a solemn reminder. God's Word has made the ultimate and justifiable claim for itself that none of these other ancient texts has made. The Bible repeatedly asserts to be the perfect Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21; Psalm 19:7; 119:160). If the Bible borrowed from ancient mythologies, this claim would be called into question.
All over the world we find cultural legends and myths that closely resemble certain accounts in Scripture, such as the Creation, the Fall, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel accounts.1 Oftentimes, these accounts are used as an external confirmation of the credibility of Scripture.
If one accepts the account of Scripture that we are all of "one blood" (Acts 17:26), he should also accept the biblical account that all human heritage goes back to the city of Babel where all human population once lived after the global Flood of Noah's day. We would expect to find common accounts of history (such as Creation and the Flood) within the stories and traditions of today's people groups that once lived together in one place after the great Flood. Given years of cultural diversity as mankind spread throughout the world, it is also not surprising that these stories have taken on their own cultural influences in the retelling.
In the mid-1800s within the buried cities of the Ancient Near East (including Nineveh and Nippur in present day Iraq), several excavations uncovered a whole library of tablets from earlier Mesopotamian times. Within these finds and upon the tablets were lists of kings, business archives, administrative documents, and a number of versions of the flood epic. Each version varied in language form and completion (most were only partially intact) with the most complete being the Babylonian collation of The Gilgamesh Epic.2 On its eleventh tablet was a narrative about the great Flood, and much of its detail shows similarities with the biblical account of the Flood. Rather than being used as a confirmation of biblical credibility, however, many have attempted to use these tablets as a reason to doubt the authority of God's Word because some of them supposedly predate the earliest times of biblical authorship (predating Moses). Some have concluded that with this supposed predating, along with storyline and some language similarity, the biblical accounts are a derivation from earlier Sumerian legends. Some have suggested the history in Genesis is also a form of earlier Jewish mythology in the same manner as the Middle Eastern texts.
Many have used these documents as reason to doubt the authority and inspiration of the Word of God. Some have used these documents to reject Moses as the writer of Genesis, and some have used these documents to suggest that Genesis itself is either myth, poetry, or even simply an argument (a theological polemic) used as a rebuttal of these supposedly older myths.
The Fallible Versus the Infallible
Only two conclusions can come from a study evaluating if the Bible is a derivation from ancient mythology. 1) If this is true, biblical claims of God's inspiration and His perfect Word are untrue, and the Bible cannot be trusted. 2) The Bible truly is the Word of God, and any other claim of authorship or external influence is false.
How we view Scripture has great bearing on how we view the reliability of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
How we view Scripture has great bearing on how we view the reliability of the gospel of Jesus Christ on which the whole of Christendom is centered. When we read the claims of Scripture, we are left with no room for compromise. The Bible claims all of Scripture comes from God and not of human will. The Bible also claims a perfection in God and of His Word, and any inconsistency or blemish is intolerable to biblical inerrancy and God's infallibility. At the end of the day, this comes down to the claims of fallible men versus the claims of the infallible God.
Today, some scholars seek to understand the Scripture through a "comparative" study approach, looking for parallels in texts and culture as a way of interpreting Scripture. This means the scholars use external documents to interpret Scripture in their light rather than starting with Scripture to shed light on the external documents. Like every other issue of biblical compromise, it comes down to starting points.
If the significance of finding these documents in Nineveh and Nippur has caused some to doubt the authority of Scripture, the issue can only be an interpretation problem. We should always remember the Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God, and it should be allowed to interpret itself and the evidence rather than permitting the evidence to interpret Scripture.
The Significance of the Find
The library of tablets from Nineveh and Nippur was an amazing find, and at the time the significance was not even known. In fact, not until decades later did the deciphered tablets show a version of the Flood account similar to what we find in Genesis. The two most significant items sharing any commonality to biblical history (even if loosely) were the versions of the flood epic and the list of Sumerian kings, of which in particular interest are a list of pre-flood kings.
While these documents have many similarities with biblical history, there are also many differences. In these contradictions biblical history sheds light on its own authentic history and authority. Only the Bible has a consistent logic to its account.
The Dating and Source Dependence of the Documents
The supposed dating of the tablets found range from 2200 to 620 BC. God gave the Law to Moses during the wilderness wandering in the fifteenth century BC. Dating these Sumerian documents as being written even up to 800 years before Moses wrote the account of Genesis does not automatically mean that Genesis was derived from these Sumerian records.3
Three possible reasons exist for the consistencies between these documents and the Bible:
- These Sumerian documents were derived from the original Hebrew text (but are skewed and inaccurate).
- The Hebrew text was derived from these documents (but was corrected in the process).
- Both are separate accounts of commonly known history.
One cannot make a definitive choice between the first and third options, but the second option requires an irrational leap. When historical accounts are passed down, unless great care is taken to avoid it (such as has been taken with the biblical record), the records are usually embellished as time goes on, so the history becomes more and more distorted. The second option would require the writer to weed through numerous embellished and legendary accounts to produce the inspired record. Some might claim that God directed Moses throughout the process, but the author would need to sift through scores of texts in multiple languages just to find the scraps of inspired material in each. If one needs to invoke such divine intervention, it makes far more sense to accept the traditional view and obvious solidarity of God's whole inspired text.
Even as we look at the Babylonian flood epic, we find differences within the various Middle Eastern versions that have been uncovered. H. V. Hilprecht from the University of Pennsylvania in 1909 (Hilprecht was part of the University's Babylonian expeditions and excavations) uncovered the earliest fragment of the flood epic. After carefully uncovering and translating each cuneiform character, Hilprecht made the following statement: "In its preserved portion, it showed a much greater resemblance to the Biblical Deluge Story than any other fragment yet published."4
Hilprecht's statement helps us understand the ongoing corruption of the Babylonian story compared to the authentic preservation of the biblical account and does not support the conclusion that the Near Eastern mythology should be attributed as the primary source of the biblical account. The inconsistencies within the texts themselves point to an unsurprising lack of reliability in using them as a gauge on the authenticity of the biblical account.
The Pre-Flood Kings
A brief look at just a few particulars of both the Sumerian kings list and the flood epics will show the many inconsistencies that forfeit any consideration of Babylonian myth as a source for Scripture.
The list of pre-flood Sumerian kings has some curious similarities to the list of patriarchs in Genesis. For example, Genesis and the Sumerian list both refer to the Flood. Both refer to men of great ages, and when the differing numeric systems are considered, they provide similar totals. The lists, however, have three significant differences:
- The ages and lengths of reigns of the Sumerian kings are much longer than that of the biblical patriarchs, as some of the Sumerian kings supposedly reigned for more than 30,000 years. After discovering the Sumerians used a sexagesimal system5 rather than a decimal system of counting, the longer life spans in the Sumerian list are converted to a very similar number with the life spans of eight correlating patriarchs in the biblical account.
- The Sumerian kings list has only eight in the list while the Bible gives 10 patriarchs before the Flood (including Noah). Although a close correlation exists between these lists, it seems the Sumerian list has omitted the first man and the man who survived the Flood (Adam and Noah). The similarities between the other eight men make this a reasonable consideration.
- The Bible has a clear difference in the quality of information, the spiritual and moral superiority of the patriarchs, and the completeness of the list. The Genesis account explains in great detail the struggle of mankind with sin and the effects of the Curse. It highlights those who walked with God and also provides details about humanity apart from the patriarchs. Such detail is not found in the Sumerian kings list.
While a study of the Sumerian list is a fascinating journey in discovering the way Sumerians looked upon their ancestry and how their numeric and commercial systems worked, the quality of the biblical text is distinctly superior in both completeness, information, and spiritual and moral quality. The biblical text does not reflect a borrowing from an inferior text. If anything, the very mention of this kings list that matches so closely to the biblical account is a confirmation of biblical authenticity.
The Flood Epics
The Near Middle Eastern Flood epics have three main versions: the Sumerian Epic of Ziusudra, the Akkadian Atrahasis Epic, and the Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic. The Gilgamesh Epic is the most complete with 12 tablets decipherable and the eleventh tablet with the most complete flood account of the three versions.
These flood epics reveal many internal inconsistencies, which rule them out from being the source of the Genesis text.
After great bitterness over losing his friend Enkidu, Gilgamesh seeks Utnapishtim (the Babylonian equivalent of Noah) to give him the secret of immortality. Utnapishtim tells him of the gods' desire to flood the world because they could not sleep for the uproar of mankind. Ea, the god of wisdom, warned Utnapishtim in a dream to convert his house to a boat, take in the seed of all living creatures, and tell the people he was building a boat to escape the wrath of the god Enlil. Utnapishtim built the boat in seven days and took in family, kin, creatures both wild and tame, and all the craftsmen. The great flood came, and even the gods were terrified of it and fled. For six days and nights, the flood overwhelmed the world and on the seventh day grew calm. The boat rested on Mt. Nisir, and Utnapishtim sent out a dove, then a swallow, and then a raven. When the raven didn't return, he made a sacrifice, and the gods gathered like flies over it.
These flood epics reveal many internal inconsistencies, which rule them out from being the source of the Genesis text.
The Difference Is in the Detail
The Bible specifically states that Noah took two of every kind of land-dwelling animal and seven of some animals onto the Ark. The Genesis account is clear and realistic when comparing the animals and the size of the Ark. The Gilgamesh Epic is an unreliable account because it states Utnapishtim was to take the seed of all living creatures, both wild and tame, that he had available. This leaves us with no information about how many animals were likely on board the boat or whether all of the necessary kinds would have been represented for repopulation. The Bible is specific concerning the Ark's animal cargo:
You shall take with you of every clean animal by sevens, a male and his female; and of animals that are not clean two, a male and his female; also of the birds of the sky, by sevens, male and female, to keep offspring alive on the face of all the earth. (Genesis 7:2–3, NASB)
The detailed biblical account explains that the Flood began as all the fountains of the great deep broke open, that it covered the whole earth to the extent of the highest mountains, and that it killed every man and land dwelling, air breathing animal of the earth (Genesis 7:21–22). The biblical detail shows that the whole earth was covered by water coming from both above and below and that it rained continuously for 40 days and nights and the waters continued to rise until the 150th day. The Gilgamesh Epic, while stating the devastation of the flood on humanity, does not specifically detail the full geographical extent and depth of the Flood. Also, it is unreasonable to expect so much water coverage in just six days of rain.
The biblical dimensions of the Ark are detailed and consistent with a vessel that could float in rough waters and could house the animals described. The dimensions of the boat in The Gilgamesh Epic amount to more of a cube shaped vessel with the beam equaling the length. Although we know it had seven stories (decks), it is impossible to determine the full size of the vessel. Logistically, this boat could not float in a stable manner in rough seas and would not be structurally reliable.
The Bible is consistently reliable on the account of the birds that were released. It is logical to send out a raven before a dove, given that ravens are scavengers while doves feed only on plants. The intervals of release of the dove are consistent with the expectation of having a drained land for vegetation and occupants, and this correlates with the dove returning with a freshly picked olive leaf and then the dove not returning at all. By contrast, The Gilgamesh Epic mentions a dove, then a swallow, and finally a raven. There are no intervals mentioned to assess the appropriate time length for flights, and sending a raven last is questionable in that ravens may have been able to survive as scavengers.
The Character of the "Gods"
In The Gilgamesh Epic, the gods are impatient and impulsive. They do not like the uproar and babel of mankind and decide to destroy humanity. The gods have no justifiable moral reason to destroy humanity. In contrast, the God of the Bible sent the Flood on an already cursed world because of man's wicked heart that only desired evil. God's judgment in the light of sin is righteous and just.
The Babylonian gods lie and tell Utnapishtim to lie to other humans about the coming wrath. The Gilgamesh Epic promotes polytheistic mythology, whereas the Bible presents monotheistic theology. The many gods in The Gilgamesh Epic differ in ideas and motivations, and they seek to thwart each other. The God of the Bible is holy, pure, unchanging, and cannot lie. These are just a few of the character differences between the biblical God and the description of the gods in the Babylonian myth.6
Lastly, it is important to note that in The Gilgamesh Epic the god Ea tells Utnapishtim to save himself through the ark by means of deceiving the other gods. In the Bible God Himself provides the plans for the Ark as the means to save Noah and his family. Furthermore, Noah was a preacher of righteousness rather than deceit (2 Peter 2:5).
Even based solely on comparison between the perfect Word of God and the imperfect pagan myths, it is absurd to think the descriptions in the Babylonian texts could be the source of the Genesis account in the inspired Word of God.
It is not difficult to rule out the Ancient Near Eastern mythological texts from being the source of influence for the account of Genesis. While Genesis is reliable, they are not. While Genesis shows consistency of our God's righteous and sovereign character, the mythological texts show the gods as little more than squabbling people, deceiving each other and humanity and lacking sovereign control. While the Genesis Flood account gives enough credible information to allow for historical and geological confirmation, the mythological texts provide little that can be confirmed, and what is provided does not make sense logically or scientifically.
The similarities among Ancient Near Eastern mythologies and between The Gilgamesh Epic and the Bible make sense from a biblical worldview. Christians should not be surprised to see people groups all over the world with their own accounts of the Creation, the Fall, the Flood, men of great ages, and even the Tower of Babel. The accounts can tell us people once had the same record or eyewitness of a common event handed down from a generation that was once congregated in the same place at the same time.
The Gilgamesh Epic tells a sad tale of a man (who was supposedly part god) looking desperately for everlasting life. This was a man who knew of great men of old who lived long lives and supposedly became gods, and he wanted to attain this status himself. He had a desperate desire to avoid death. A Christian can hear tales such as this and consider them in light of biblical truth. The Bible shows us that men did indeed live for longer periods of time, but as mankind became further distanced from a perfect original creation, life expectancies shortened. The Bible reveals the devastation of sin in the judgment of death and mankind's continual need for a Savior. The Bible gives us the account of the worldwide Flood that covered the entire earth and shows both God's faithfulness in judgment and in salvation by protecting a line of humanity for the promised Messiah.
In the light of Scripture, we see confirmation in mythology around the world that the Bible is indeed God's Word and the only reliable truth. In the message of God's Word, we see Him stepping into this world and taking upon Himself the wrath we deserve. Only through the consistent Word of the Bible can we know salvation is only received through faith in Jesus Christ alone.