Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Were Bible Stories Copied from Ancient Myths? (Part 1 of 2)

Sam Woolfe, a freelance writer and blogger based in London, claims the Bible’s “myths, stories and parables” are not original but “have been borrowed or copied from other myths from other religions …. if some of the central stories of the Bible have been plagiarised, then how can the Bible be the inerrant word of God? Is it the word of some other god before Christianity? Or does plagiarism in the Bible show that the book is not holy, but merely an invention of the imagination?”1

In an attempt to establish his case, Woolfe points to similarities between biblical narratives and various ancient legends and myths, including Pandora’s Box and the Epic of Gilgamesh. Before we examine these allegations more carefully, suffice it to say that the way in which Woolfe has presented his arguments gives the appearance of a credible indictment against the Bible that some might find convincing. However, he, like other antibiblicists, ignores major differences among the various accounts, while cherry-picking, generalizing, and reconfiguring elements to create so-called “parallels” that make the case seem more plausible than it really is. Woolfe’s “well-researched content,” as he describes it, proves to be presumptive and deceptive.

Pandora’s Box?

According to Greek mythology dating back to at least the 8th century BC, Pandora was the first woman to be created, who opened a large storage jar (referred to as a “box” in modern descriptions) that unleashed all the evils of mankind. While there are similarities here with the Genesis 3 record of sin’s advent into the world, the details of both stories are so markedly different, one would be hard pressed to see much of a parallel unless the differences are overlooked. Nevertheless, the Genesis account was written about seven centuries before the earliest recorded appearance of the Pandora’s Box myth—hardly a case of plagiarism!

The Epic of Gilgamesh and Genesis 1–3?

The Epic of Gilgamesh is an ancient Mesopotamian saga about the exploits of King Gilgamesh. The oldest version of this epic poem has been dated as early as about three centuries prior to the earliest biblical text. According to the Gilgamesh narrative, a man is created from clay who lives among the animals until he is tempted by a woman offering him food. He leaves his paradise home, puts on clothes, and a snake later steals the plant of immortality. With this selective summary, it is easy to see parallels to the biblical account of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. The problem is, these comparisons hinge on overgeneralization and distortion of certain details,while numerous others are ignored.

Following the story’s standard Akkadian version, Enkidu, who is neither the first nor the only man, is created by the goddess Anu, throwing a pinch of clay into the wilderness, at the instigation of the gods to counter King Gilgamesh’s aggression. Enkidu is a wild-man covered in hair (later described as the son of a gazelle and wild donkey), eats grass and wears “a garment like Sumukan,” living among the animals and preventing a trapper from catching them. The trapper brings Shamhat, a temple prostitute, to seduce Enkidu and introduce him to the ways of civilization. After six days and seven nights of carnal relations, Enkidu is lured out of the wild and taken to the shepherds’ hut where they give him food and seven jugs of beer. He turns into a human, bathes and clothes himself, and guards the sheep. After Enkidu fights with Gilgamesh, they become friends and go on adventures battling mythological forces. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh travels to “the Garden of the gods, a paradise full of jewel-laden trees.” In yet another episode Gilgamesh is told about a plant at the bottom of the sea that restores youth; he procures the plant only to have it stolen by a snake. More adventures follow.3

When the story of Enkidu and Gilgamesh is read alongside the biblical account of Adam and Eve, clear parallels are hard to find and nearly every comparison seems forced. It does demonstrate, however, that if something is removed from its context, it can mean just about anything one wants it to mean. 

The Epic of Gilgamesh and Genesis 6–9?

The Epic of Gilgamesh also contains the account of a great flood, comparable in many ways to what is recorded in Genesis 6–9. Grieving the loss of his friend Enkidu, Gilgamesh roams the wild searching for the secret of immortality. He meets Utnapishtim, who tells of the gods having sent a great flood on the city of Shuruppak to destroy mankind. But one of the gods (Ea) instructed Utnapishtim to build a boat according to precise measurements (10 x 12 cubits in height and width, with six decks), sealed with pitch and bitumen, to keep alive “all living beings.” Aboard the boat were all of Utnapishtim’s kinsmen, all of his possessions, and “all the beasts and animals of the field and the craftsmen.” The god Shamash caused it to rain bread and wheat; then the mountain was submerged in water, and the gods were frightened by the flood and fled to the heavens. After six days and seven nights, the boat landed on Mt. Nimush. On the seventh day Utnapishtim sent out a dove followed by a swallow, both of which returned, but the raven he sent out did not return. Utnapishtim released everything and offered a sacrifice and incense, then he and his wife became like the gods. 

Critics argue that the two versions match so closely that the Bible’s flood narrative must have been derived from the Gilgamesh flood narrative. But is this the only or even the best possible explanation? The fact of the matter is, there are literally hundreds of curiously analogous flood stories among a wide variety of ancient cultures throughout Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, the Middle East, the Pacific Islands, and North, Central, and South America.Would anyone argue that all these traditions are based on the same fictitious tale, or could there have been a real catastrophic deluge that gave rise to such widespread and consistent testimony?

What if all these stories share a common historical core? Significant variation is not surprising, given the human tendency to modify and embellish, particularly over an extended period of time across vast geographical regions and copious linguistic and cultural groups. In fact, too much overlapping of details would warrant suspicion of collusion or copying. Yet striking commonalities among so many retellings of the event are more readily explicable if every culture descended from the survivors of a catastrophic flood.5

Concluding Thoughts

If one begins with certain preconceptions and relies too heavily on secondary sources, knowledge of the true state of affairs will almost surely be eluded. Any assertions based on contextual disregard, unprovable presuppositions, overstatements, and failure to consider other viable options, are deeply suspect. When misinformation and deception are involved, all credibility is lost. In our next post, we will address related challenges to the biblical story of Jesus.

--Kevin L. Moore

     Sam Woolfe, “How the Bible Borrowed from Other Stories,” Sam Woolfe (25 April 2013) <Link>.
     Jamie Frater’s Listverse.com's Bathroom Reader: Loads of Top Ten Lists (Berkley, CA: Ulysses Press, 2014) includes “10 Influences on the Bible” by Melloson Allen, in which the assertion is made that the Epic of Gilgamesh tells of a snake that steals the plant of immortality from Enkidu, the alleged archetypal Adam. But this is not true. The plant was stolen from King Gilgamesh, for whom there is no biblical parallel. 
     The entire extant narrative, translated by Maureen Gallery Kovacs, can be accessed here <Link>.
     For a detailed listing with summaries, see Mark Isaak, “Flood Stories from Around the World,” The TalkOrigens Archive (2 Sept. 2002) <Link>.
     Biblical catastrophism challenges the popular theories of uniformitarianism and macro-evolution, and is consistent with geological phenomena such as sedimentary layers across and between continents, marine fossils on mountains, lack of erosion between rock layers, catastrophic fossilization, abnormal seismites in rock layers, wide-ranging sedimentary deposits, explosion of fully formed fossils above the Cambrian strata, and rapid rather than gradual deposition of sedimentary rock layers. See Jeff Miller, “Was the Flood Global? Testimony from Scripture and Science,” Apologetics Press (2019), <Link>.

Image credit: https://theconversation.com/guide-to-the-classics-the-epic-of-gilgamesh-73444

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