Christianity faced troubled times at the close of the nineteenth century. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution fed scientific scepticism about the Genesis account of creation by providing what seemed to be a viable alternative. At the same time, clay tablets from the ruins of the ancient city of Nineveh provided alternative accounts of the Flood and Creation, in clearly mythical form, suggesting that the Genesis record was similarly a mere myth.
Creationist Ken Ham points out that Christianity has been distracted with taking pot shots at issues while its detractors have been aiming their weapons at Christianity’s foundations. If the Book of Genesis can be discredited then all that follows in the Bible can be brought into question.
During the nineteenth century (the 1800’s) assault on the Book of Genesis was vigorously pursued by some, based on emerging scientific hypotheses and on archaeological discoveries.
Charles Lyell, who lived from 1797 to 1875, proposed a non-catastrophic view of geography, despite the abundant evidence for upheaval in the geological record. His propositions of uniformity allowed for extended periods of time in the earth’s history. That extension of historical time was required by the proponents of gradual change over time (evolution).
The emerging notion of evolution was given seeming scientific status by Charles Darwin with his 1959 “Origin of Species” with its account of exotic creatures in the mysterious and remote Galapagos Islands. The notions of “survival of the fittest”, “natural selection” and “missing links” created a new scientific myth which had everything but substance and common sense.
Within days of the release of Darwin’s book, Thomas Henry Huxley, eventually dubbing himself “Darwin’s Bulldog“, began vigorously promoting the scientific worth of evolution over the religious notions carried in the Book of Genesis.
As the battle for Genesis gained intensity, a new dimension emerged to give impetus to detractors. A pile of rubble in ancient mounds in the Near East yielded documents which dated back almost 1,000 years before Christ. Included in that rubble were ancient mythologies of events similar to those described in Genesis.
The city of Nineveh was a sprawling metropolis at its height. Successive rulers moved their principal residence to different parts of the city and so several palace buildings were established over time. Add to that the fact that Nineveh housed the world’s greatest library collection of its time, and you have the creation of a treasure trove of antiquity.
The ancient palaces and libraries of Assyria began to be excavated in the 1840’s, leading to the discovery of a vast collection of ancient documents on clay tablets. In 1850 English archaeologist Henry Layard uncovered the palace of the Assyrian King Sennacherib at tell Kouyunjik (one of the three principal palace locations in Nineveh – Kouyunjik, Khorsabad, and Nimrud).
In 1853 Layard’s former assistant, Hormuzd Rassam, found the famous library of the Assyrian King Ashur-bani-pal, in a different part of the Nineveh ruins. 26,000 of the original 100,000 clay tablets survived with decipherable text. Many were taken to the British Museum for translation.
Among those tablets were found Assyrian myths about creation and a fiction story which featured a great flood. When they were finally translated by George Smith he published them under the title “Chaldean Account of Genesis” in 1876 under the auspices of the British Museum of Oriental Antiquities. The very title suggests a direct link between the tablets and Genesis and those discoveries fuelled the accusation that Moses’ Genesis document was a mere evolution of earlier mythological writings. Note that George Smith died that same year, on his way back from his third visit to the ruins of Nineveh.
Assyrian Flood Story
In December 1872 George Smith published his translation of the oldest known literary work in human history. Smith was the first person to read the story in 2,000 years. But the Epic of Gilgamesh was not made famous for its literary worth, but for its reference to a great flood.
George Smith is an interesting character in that he was not a great scholar and came from a working class background. But he was fascinated with antiquities and taught himself to decipher ancient cuneiform inscriptions. He soon became more knowledgeable and skilled in the task than the staff at the British Museum where he pored over antiquities. Consequently Henry Rawlinson, the great Assyriologist of the day, arranged for Smith to be employed in the Assyriology Department to work on translating the thousands of clay tablets from Nineveh.
Smith translated several tablets in the fictional story of a man named Gilgamesh, who travelled the world facing various adventures. He came to a blank in the story, where a missing tablet was needed to continue the adventure. Smith then ventured to Mesopotamia to attack the pile of rubble left by Layard and Rassam, and, against all odds, found the missing tablet.
It told of a great flood, and of a boat and animals. It even mentioned birds being released at the end of the flood. This bore striking resemblance to the Genesis record of Noah’s Flood.
Assyrian Creation Story
Following Smith’s translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh he then came across another set of clay tablets telling a story which led to the creation of man. The series of seven tablets is known as the Enuma Elish.
While some tablets were broken and accurate translation is impossible, the general text of the story has been translated several times by different scholars. It was first titled “The Chaldean Genesis” by Smith. LW King’s 1902 translation was titled “The Seven Tablets of Creation“. EA Speiser’s translation was published in a 1969 book titled “Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament“. It is obvious that scholars readily link the Enuma Elish with the book of Genesis.
When Smith followed his Assyrian Flood translation with the Assyrian Creation story in 1876 there seemed to be growing proof that the Bible was merely another expression of ancient mythological writings.
Combine that with the pseudo-scientific crusading of Huxley and other evolutionists and you can see that Genesis was under solid attack by the end of the 1800’s. That assault has played a large part in the increased secularisation of western society during the twentieth century.
Clay Tablets are No Threat
Despite the perception that the clay tablets from antiquity have demolished the Bible, the truth is quite the opposite. The abiding impact of archaeology at Nineveh is to confirm the first-hand authenticity of the Bible accounts. The clay tablets confirmed details, customs, language and similar details provided in the Bible, which had previously not been corroborated.
Further to that, the seeming case against the Bible crumbled on closer investigation. The Assyrian stories are vastly different to the Bible account and the differences set the Bible apart, rather than put it down.
Ignorance and Assumption
People who are ignorant are prone to making assumptions. This tendency can be exploited by those who wish to deceive or who make suggestions which are misleading.
When the public is told that the Assyrian stories of the flood and creation match the Bible, many people will gullibly assume that the parallels are striking and that the Bible’s authority has been damaged. Few are likely to read the source documents and remove their ignorance.
In a follow up post I will explain some of the glaring contrasts between the Assyrian and Biblical accounts which people have been led to believe are closely related.