Did the Hebrew Writers Borrow from Ancient Near Eastern Mythology?
For centuries, the bulk of the people in the West regarded the Bible as the Word of God. They saw it as the inerrant and inspired revelation of God to His creation. Beginning in the mid-1800s, some academicians began rejecting the inspiration of the Bible. This came, in part, after the discovery of ancient mythological texts. Upon examining the textual evidence, skeptics highlighted the Bible’s similarities with other literature and claimed it to be only one sacred book among a larger body of myth. After studying the Bible’s differences from ancient mythology, other scholars viewed these discoveries as confirmations of the Bible’s uniqueness.
Perhaps the most dominant viewpoint in biblical studies concerning the biblical text is that the Bible contains significant amounts of mythology borrowed from Israel’s neighbors (although we should quickly add that truth is not determined by majority opinion). This presumption has dominated biblical studies for nearly two centuries. But as additional texts have surfaced, more cautious scholars have backed away from this viewpoint. Indeed, myth was once seen as pure fiction, but now scholars are beginning to realize that this may not necessarily be the case. The belief that myth may contain small nuggets of historical truth is gaining popularity, even if we recognize that tales of the gods were nothing more than the work of inventive scribes. So where does this leave the Bible? The question we must ask is this: is the Bible pure myth, or is it something else?
We must first determine what we mean by “myth.” It is a notoriously difficult term to define, and scholars use it with a variety of nuances (see Kreeft and Tacelli, 1994, pp. 212-213). Some define it as any story including the supernatural. Most separate myth from legend, with the former being stories about the gods, and the latter being stories—with varying degrees of historical truth—about human beings. In modern parlance, some use it to refer to fiction, especially the body of stories about a particular character (e.g., the mythology of Superman or Captain America). But if we look at the term as it bears on the sacred texts of the religions in the ancient Near East, it has a clearly defined usage.
In his book The Bible Among the Myths, Old Testament scholar John Oswalt notes the radical differences between mythological texts and the Hebrew Bible (2009). The Bible and ancient myth came from two fundamentally different worldviews. Although he identifies nearly a dozen different points, we will examine four in particular.
THE MORAL CHARACTER OF DEITY
In the Bible, God’s moral character is identified with holiness and righteousness. To be more accurate, it is His character that defines holiness. His attributes set the standards for behavior. They are ethically and morally pure and upright. Furthermore, since He is perfect and cannot fundamentally change (Malachi 3:6), He can become neither any better nor any worse. His goodness is celebrated throughout the Bible (Psalm 16:2; 31:19; 107:1). He cannot be tempted or tempt another (James 1:17), or look upon evil with any measure of approval (Habakkuk 1:13). Individuals mirror God’s holiness, in part through ethical living (Leviticus 11:44; 1 Peter 1:16).
The gods of the ancient Near East often commit evil acts and frequently give themselves over to debauchery. In Egyptian myth, the chaotic god Seth murders his brother Osiris and dismembers the body. In an Egyptian myth titled “The Contendings of Horus and Seth,” Seth attempts to rape his nephew Horus during a contest over who will take Osiris’ place (Lichtheim, 2006, 2:219). Rape is a common theme in the Greek myths, where women and even goddesses are violated with a frequency that would shock many modern readers. In the Atrahasis Epic, the gods are outraged because humanity is keeping them awake at night. They attempt to silence humanity through various means, including disease and famine, and finally send a flood to destroy humanity for the sake of a good night’s sleep (see Foster, 1997). The gods are not above getting drunk, either. In one Ugaritic text, called “The Myth of El’s Banquet,” the Canaanite god El (or Ilu) becomes inebriated, and on his way home meets an unidentified animal which causes him to soil himself and fall down into his own excrement (see Pardee, 1997). Such inglorious stories are nowhere to be found in the Bible about God. The God of the Bible can in no way be compared to deities of human invention.
THE VIEW OF MANKIND
The biblical account of mankind’s creation is the most complete and noble of any in ancient Near Eastern literature. Other accounts of man’s creation must be pieced together from various fragments (as in Egypt), or else depict man as little more than an afterthought (as in Mesopotamia). Regardless of the specific tradition, the requirements are clear: man is created to serve the gods, to perform services for them, and, should they fail, incur divine wrath. As Walton observes:
while Israelites viewed man as created to rule, Mesopotamians viewed him as created to serve…. The fact that the Israelites viewed man as the centerpiece of creation afforded him a certain dignity, undergirded by the fact that he was created in the image of God. In contrast, Mesopotamians did not see man as created with dignity. Human beings achieved their dignity by the function they served (1989, p. 29).
He adds that humanity was originally created “in a barbarous state,” with humanity being “an unplanned afterthought, created for the sake of convenience” (p. 30).
The biblical account of Creation is vastly different from its Near Eastern counterparts. Man is the apex of creation. He has dignity because of who he is, not what he does. He is created as a kind of governor or viceroy charged with stewarding God’s creation (Genesis 1:28). Furthermore, this creation was prepared with man in mind (cf. Genesis 1:29-30), for his use and enjoyment. Although he is also created to worship his Creator, it is not a wearisome task. The New Testament further reveals that worship is also meant for the benefit of fellow believers (Acts 2:46-47; Ephesians 5:19), in addition to giving honor to God.
THE REQUIREMENTS OF DEITY
What the gods required of humanity in other cultures could not be known with any accuracy. The most a person could do was to infer the will of the gods based on their circumstances. If all was well and life was going smoothly, then it was apparent that the person was indeed doing the gods’ will. Should they suffer misfortune or tragedy, it must have meant that the person had offended the gods. It became their task to determine which god they might have offended through omens and offer the appropriate sacrifices. This was no easy task, and could be viewed as something of a guessing game. In contrast, God clearly outlined what He expected of mankind with precision through His spokesmen. His will is revealed clearly as a matter of public record, made known through readings to the people (Deuteronomy 31:9-13). The people were warned before punishment, rebuked afterwards, and told specifically what needed to be done to please God.
The biblical authors had a worldview by which history was viewed as linear. The past, present, and future all had great importance. Specifically, the past served as a reminder, which God makes clear is important enough to signify with memorials, such as piles of stones (e.g., Joshua 4:19-24), or the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-26; Luke 22:7-39). The future is also important in the biblical worldview, as we see in the prophet Joel’s concern about the coming Day of the Lord (Joel 2:1-11), or Christ’s teaching about His impending return (Matthew 24:30; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). The biblical writers considered all phases of time to be important.
There was virtually no understanding of history in the modern sense among the cultures of the ancient Near East. The Near Eastern view of history was cyclical and assigned little importance to the past or to the future. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus (circa 484-425 B.C.) is called the “father of history” for good reason—prior to his time there was little or no recording or analysis of the past for its own sake. Historiography, as we know it, did not exist (an exception may be seen in the Babylonian chronicles, which record the history of Babylon from the eighth century through the third century B.C.). The past had very little importance outside its use as propaganda by monarchs interested in glorifying themselves (see Oswalt, 2009, pp. 111-137).
Mythology is much more than exciting stories filled with fantastic monsters, magic, and imaginative details. It is a way of thinking—a worldview. Careful comparison of the biblical text with myth makes it clear that the Bible and ancient Near Eastern mythology are not merely different from one another—they are radically so. Even a cursory reading is enough to give most people a feeling that the Bible and myth are quite different, even if they immediately may not be able to put their finger on why. Thanks to the discovery and study of ancient texts, the differences are easy to detect. The Bible, unlike Near Eastern mythology, has an air of dispassionate objectivity that puts it in a category by itself. The Bible and ancient mythology are so different from one another that any allegations of wholesale borrowing on the part of the biblical authors must be rejected by those who handle the ancient evidence with care.
Foster, Benjamin R., trans. (1997), “Atra-Hasis” in The Context of Scripture, Vol. 1: Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World, ed. William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger (Leiden: Brill).
Kreeft, Peter and Ronald Tacelli (1994), The Handbook of Catholic Apologetics: Reasoned Answers to Questions of Faith (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press).
Lichtheim, Miriam (2006), Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume 2: The New Kingdom (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press).
Oswalt, John N. (2009), The Bible Among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
Pardee, Dennis, trans. (1997), “Ilu on a Toot” in The Context of Scripture, Vol. 1: Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World, ed. William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger (Leiden: Brill).
Walton, John H. (1989), Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).