Ancient Writings Compared

Critics of the Bible usually object to its proclamation of a creator God to whom man is accountable. In fact, moral accountability is the over-riding message of the Bible, combined with a divine solution to man’s problem of moral failure.

Yet the Bible does exist as a surviving ancient document. It is the most remarkable document in all of human history, ancient and modern. To assess that fact let us compare the ancient text of the Bible with other ancient writings which are help up against it at times.

Before we look at specific ancient documents, consider this quote about the Bible from Professor William Foxwell Albright.

“It [the Bible] stands absolutely alone in ancient literature without a remote parallel even among the Greeks …  The Table of Nations remains an astonishingly accurate document …  (It) shows such remarkably ‘modern’ understanding of the ethnic and linguistic situation in the modern world, in spite of all its complexity, that scholars never fail to be impressed with the author’s knowledge of the subject.” (Recent Discoveries In Bible Lands, pp.70ff.)

Sumerian Mythology

Discovery of ancient texts in the ruins of Nineveh and at Ebla, among other sources as well, provide us with a range of ancient texts which echo back to the early Sumerian civilisation. Those texts give ancient accounts of events and provide a notion of their ancient view of the world.

The ancient accounts of creation and the flood, which are claimed to be the original sources from which the Bible accounts of those events were constructed, prove to be vastly inferior to the Bible. While some scholars blindly proclaim such texts as the ancient epic stories of Gilgamesh and Atrahasis as the mythological base from which the Bible’s mythological stories were developed, we have already seen in previous articles in my archaeology series, that they leave much to be desired. They are decidedly non-scientific and mythical. They describe a universe which is inconsistent with what people now revere in both science and religion. They have no prevailing presence in modern thought.

Note that the combined corpus of Assyrian mythology, celebrated as the seedbed for Moses’ writings in Genesis, has been lost to antiquity and irrelevance. It has not persisted as something of substance in today’s word, even though there are those who wish to hanker back to ancient religious thought.

Codes and Histories

We saw in an earlier post on the Code of Hammurabi, that the legal prescriptions of King Hammurabi are limited and devoid of moral principal. They are a far cry from the pronouncements of our moral creator God, given to Moses on Mount Sinai, 500 years after Hammurabi’s work.

Hammurabi’s code is not enshrined in civil codes today. It is not an undergirding aspect of today’s legal systems. While its cruel prescriptions, such as maiming a thief, are picked up in such places as the Koran, there is no abiding regard for this text and its contribution to modern civilisation.

We also have ancient historical records, such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead. This text is essentially a religious funeral liturgy devoted to making the appropriate petitions to the polytheistic deities, so that the deceased will be allowed certain privileges and protections in the afterlife.

Copies of the text were carved on the sarcophagi, or placed inside it, so the dead would have access to the various petitions to make in the afterlife, to enable them to go forth each day. They were designated the Book of the Dead in an 1842 translation, and the name has persisted since.

The deities, prayers, concepts of afterlife and concerns expressed in the Egyptian book have faded from consciousness in today’s world. They do not describe things which today’s science or religious thought holds dear.

Similarly, the ancient Sumerian Kings List, with its reference to the flood very early in human history, is not a living document. It is regarded as a mixture of fact and fiction, worth being aware of, but of limited value today. It is just another list of names, bringing with it no moral value and little scientific merit. On this point, however, I believe that the Sumerian King List proves to be a valuable corroboration of the Bible history, and I will investigate that claim in a future post.

Greek Mythology and Philosophy

Greek writings from the centuries before Christ are, arguably, the most enduring ancient writings outside the Bible. Western thought has been greatly influenced by the rediscovery and re-promotion of these Greek texts in recent centuries.

Most western universities have courses in the Greek Classics. They are held by some to be essential reading in order to come to wisdom. Yet for all that, the Greek philosophers have not been able to develop a track-record of enduring impact and value. Most who study them gain little from the process and rarely become evangelists for their promotion.

World Thought

The Hindu Vedas and the writings of Confucius are other examples of ancient documents which have survived into today’s generation. Hindus revere their Vedic writings. Chinese culture owes much to the standards encouraged by Confucius. Buddhists refer to teachings attributed to their founder, Gautama Buddha. These writings were an oral tradition for a very long time and various schools of Buddhism give different weight to various aspects of the ancient texts.

While these various influences hold sway within their cultural or religious context, they are generally locked within that context. They have not gained currency in other fields of application.

Disposable Antiquity

It is to be noted that these various documents from antiquity have two significant qualities which differentiate them from the Bible. The first is that they are disposable. Many indeed have disappeared from the culture completely.

The ancient Assyrian clay tablets, referring back to even more ancient Sumerian myths, were buried for several millennia. Their message was not missed. Their contribution was not sought. They did not leave a void. They were easily disposed of. Even today, subsequent to their rediscovery and publication, they have little impact. Their greatest contribution seems to be in encouraging criticism of the Bible by those who wish to see them as a mythical source for what they call Biblical mythology.

Harmurabi’s Code and the Egyptian Book of the Dead are novel relics, but of no present impact. The religious texts of Buddhism and Hinduism have been abandoned by converts from those religions, without loss to those converts. Those individuals have been able to dispose of their ancient religious texts without thought. Similarly, students of Greek philosophy have disposed of their textbooks and essays, without any further regard for the supposed value of those studies.

Compare those examples with the Bible, which has been the most attacked book in history, yet has had by far the most outstanding impact of any book in all of human history. Rather than passing into oblivion, as several people have prophesied it would, it remains as loved and valued today as ever. The Bible is not a disposable book, despite its antiquity. It has an enduring relevance, which gives it as much value in each new generation as it held in olden-days times.

Impotent Impact

The second significant quality of these ancient texts is that they display limited impact. They have not endured, because they have not delivered value. In many cases they do not offer truth, but a cultural delusion which passed away with the culture of the era, such as the Greek mythology and Egyptian funerary rites of ancient Egyptian polytheism.

The religious writings also prove to be impotent. When devotees of Hinduism and Buddhism convert to Christianity, for example, they discover potency in their new faith which they did not find in their past beliefs.

Greek mythology and philosophy has now been studied by millions of western minds, yet it has not brought the impact to them that is so readily testified to by those who have believed in the Bible.

The Supreme Text

The Bible is the vastly superior ancient text, on all counts. It has endured while others have faded away and not been missed. It has impact, not only to the religious devotees, but in such fields as law, sciences, government, society, family life, health, education and personal transformation.

Jesus Christ prescribed the perfect test for people and related things, by telling us to check out the fruit which is produced.

“Wherefore by their fruits you will know them.” Mathew 7:20

The fruit of all these ancient documents amounts to so little, if anything, especially when compared with the fruit which the Holy Bible continues to prompt and generate in the lives of young and old, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, on every continent and in every country and culture, not only now, but continually through human history.

When ancient writings are compared, the Bible stands supreme. And this is not simply a religious claim by a Christian. This is the clear evidence for all who will dare to look.

Myths and Gods

Suggestion that the Bible book of Genesis is simply a reworking of pre-existing Assyrian myths is latched onto by those who wish to reject the claims of the true and living God. Babylonian mythology creates an effective smoke-screen for those who wish to hide from reality.

So it is valuable to review the ideas presented in the ancient Assyrian stories which supposedly led to the Bible history.

Rejecting God and Embracing Myths

It should be noted at the outset that once a person has rejected the revelation of our creator God they have no alternative but to discredit all historical evidence for His existence. The physical creation has to be explained in naturalistic terms, as science asserts it has done through evolution. And the historical accounts of God’s actions in the earth, such as creation and judgement (including the global flood), must be explained away as mere man-made stories.

When people reject God they must retreat into the woodlands of mythology. They have to create a mythology about how the world came to be. And they must turn historical evidence into mythological writings. When people reject God they become enmeshed in mythology.

A popular academic and philosophical myth is that religion has evolved, in the same way people believe biology and society have evolved. Thus we can find such statements as the following assertion. “Man’s earliest prereligious fear of the forces of nature gradually became religious as nature became personalized, spiritized, and eventually deified in human consciousness. Religion of a primitive type was therefore a natural biologic consequence of the psychologic inertia of evolving animal minds after such minds had once entertained concepts of the supernatural.”

Where such ideas fall apart is that the religious evolutionary path is nowhere to be found. Polytheistic ideas have existed alongside monotheism from earliest records. Rather than religion evolving it is divided. The true revelation of the Living God on one hand, and deception on the other, lead to different streams of religious thought.

Polytheism

Polytheism is evident in the ancient Assyrian culture. The myths which are supposed to have informed the Bible writers are riddled with inglorious deities fighting, taking revenge, competing and killing each other.

The Gilgamesh Epic, Epic of Atrahasis and Enuma Elish are stories about capricious and evil gods who kill their own family members, indulge in gratuitous violence, display intolerance, know nothing of forgiveness, gain prominence by domination and despise humanity.

Yet, for all the Assyrians apparent reverence for the gods, they treated those gods with contempt. Different cities repackaged their versions of these stories, identifying their own favourite deity as the hero. For example, Babylon changed the hero to Marduk, since he was the deity who supposedly established their city. By so doing, the Babylonians reveal that the previously honoured deity had no real worth, since he or she could be so easily displaced.

The stories, then, become nothing more than PR material, with nothing more than human value, to validate one people over another. This is a very shallow form of pantheism, where gods are multiplied and their reality is demeaned by the whim of man.

Note that Greek mythology displays this same callow polytheism, where temples are multiplied to multiple deities, but no-one expects the gods to have any real part in the affairs of men. Those gods are blighted with human foibles and demeaned as having no moral superiority to man.

Hindu polytheism similarly allows devotees to accommodate a multiplicity of values, since there is a deity for just about all the good and evil of the human heart.

There is no moral substance to the gods in such cases. There is no divine imperative. There is no fear of God.

Morality

The Assyrian gods of their creation and flood myths have no moral standard. Hatred, murder, violence, revenge, despisement, dominance and the like are their displayed characteristics.

A striking contrast between the ancient Assyrian concept of deity and the Bible’s revelation of the one true God is the issue of morality. Almighty God is an exquisitely moral being. He is described as being “holy”, which carries with it the idea of being so perfect that He will never veer off course by the slightest degree. Thus, in four thousand years of Biblical history and two thousand subsequent years of the Church Age our Creator God has not changed, nor violated His character. He is supremely and uniquely consistent.

God not only displays personal morality, but He holds all of humanity accountable against His own moral being.

The Assyrians were led to see themselves as a despised and menial creation, subject to the vagaries of unstable heavens, where deities may make war on one another and have modelled the most shameless evils. There is no moral accountability in such a world. There is no reason for any human to act above the basest instincts which were demonstrated by the gods.

The Place of Man

Another striking contrast between the Assyrian polytheistic myths and the revelation of creation given to us in the Bible is the place of mankind. According to the ancient creation myths mankind was made to serve the gods. The gods wanted worship and food. Mankind was to have the menial task of placating the appetite of the gods.

Various notions of how man was created are seen, involving the blood of a murdered god, or, alternatively, the spittle of many gods, mixed with clay.

We also find that the gods objected to the noise made by the human population, and so it was decided to wipe them all out. This capricious act was foiled when one of the gods warned someone to make a boat and escape destruction.

The Bible account not only gives noble place to God, but grants high and holy place to mankind as well. Man is made in God’s image, to receive blessings from God. God makes multiple gifts to mankind, to give him every advantage.

The decline of humankind is not in any way brought upon them by God, but by their own failure to be moral beings. The global flood of judgement is precipitated by the fact that mankind had become excessively evil in deed and in their imaginations.

Here again the distinctions between the Book of Genesis and the Assyrian myths is startling.

Expert Opinions

Dr Clifford Wilson quotes from experts who have reviewed the ideas of links between Genesis and the Assyrian myths. I take the following from Dr Wilson’s notes.

English Professor Alan Millard was one of two scholars who re-discovered the Babylonian Epic of Atrahasis.  He stated in his survey in The Tyndale Biblical Archaeology Lecture for 1966: “All who suspect or suggest borrowing by the Hebrews are compelled to admit large-scale revision, alteration, and re-interpretation in a fashion which cannot be substantiated for any other composition from the ancient Near East or in any other Hebrew writing … Careful comparison of ancient texts and literary methods is the only way to the understanding of the early chapters of Genesis ….. so the Epic of Atrahasis adds to knowledge of parallel Babylonian traditions, and of their literary form.  All speculation apart, it underlines the uniqueness of the Hebrew primeval history in the form in which it now exists.”

Professor Kenneth Kitchen is also quoted by Dr Wilson: “The common assumption that the Hebrew account is simply a purged and simplified version of the Babylonian legend (applied also to the Flood stories) is fallacious on methodological grounds.  In the Ancient Near East, the rule is that simple accounts or traditions may give rise (by accretion and embellishment) to elaborate legends, but not vice versa.”

No Need For Myths

Those who reject the Almighty Creator God of the Bible must engage in mythology, by making up their own ideas and by turning truth into myth in their own opinion. Those who believe in the one true God do not need myths or multiple gods.

In these modern times we have some of the world’s finest minds making up stories about punctuated equilibrium, life from outer space, naturalistic miracles and many other mythological notions. So mythology is not an ancient process which we have evolved past, but a necessary mindset when one has rejected the one true God.

I am thankful to Dr Clifford Wilson and his wife Dr Barbara Wilson for their inspiration and guidance in my own exploration of Biblical archaeology. As friend, academic supervisor and mentor, Dr Clifford has keenly encouraged my interest in archaeology, as he has for many others in decades past.
In honour of his on-going work and his world-wide impact I am compiling various posts on archaeology, based on the excellent work of Drs Clifford and Barbara, while adding my own personal style and insights. Drs Clifford and Barbara Wilson are building a website to present their work. You can visit the website at http://www.drcliffordwilson.com