Sumerian King List

The Bible account of history should be confirmed by ancient historical documents. Corroboration of Bible history is found to some degree in the ancient Assyrian texts excavated from Nineveh, which hark back to ancient Sumerian myths and historical records.

Mythical Documents

Those ancient Assyrian texts, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enuma Elish and Epic of Atrahasis do relate aspects of human history reflective of Biblical history. Those reflections are tainted, however, by the polytheistic mythology interpolated into the historical record, such that the documents are considered mythical, rather than historical. Nonetheless, spontaneous creation and a global flood are significant aspects of Biblical history which are clearly celebrated in the ancient Sumerian legends.

It is worth noting that the ancient Assyrian writings do not involve myths about evolution, millions of years, ice-ages, missing links, spontaneous generation, punctuated equilibrium, a big bang or life from outer space. Yet those myths do speak of divine creation, mankind under divine accountability and a global flood. It is logical that these myths involved such events because they were part of the true history within human consciousness.

Non-Mythical History

What we should expect to find and what would be valuable in support of the Bible is a non-mythical historical document which attests to creation and the flood, and therefore supports the Bible narrative. We should expect to find a document which is not tainted with mythology, but which reflects from ancient times an independent affirmation of what the Bible declares is to be our human history.

The Sumerian King List is such a text.

The King List

An historical record of kings has survived from the Sumerian age, speaking from antiquity and tracing human history from the very beginning though to the time of Hammurabi of Babylon. This record offers a window into the ancient past which lends historical support to the Bible record.

The list appears to have developed through history, with successive kingdoms taking charge of continuing the record from earliest times. Sixteen copies of the list have been identified, but not all are in good condition. Some later versions display the process of later kingdoms adding themselves and their kings to the continuing genealogy.

As one kingdom conquered the dominant kingdom of the day it then added its lineage of kings as an extension of the historical record. Then when that kingdom was overthrown the conquerors maintained the record and added their own names in succession, until they, in turn, were overthrown.

There is no reason to doubt the validity of the list, except for some omissions and disparity among the records. Many of the names and places have been confirmed by archaeology. The list attests to its own accuracy by giving specific detail, such as one king whose reign was detailed down to include the three months and three and a half days, as well as the total of years. Another person is detailed as having ruled for forty days. Yet another person is identified as the older brother of his predecessor and also son of the predecessor’s father, Sargon.

Corroboration

The Sumerian King List is an independent corroboration of the Biblical record of divine creation followed by a global flood just a handful of generations after the original creation.

Yet it stands independent from the Biblical record. Where the Bible record follows one of the family lineages from Noah’s three sons, the King List follows a different line. Where the Bible record focuses on a family lineage the King List records successive kings, who are from various families.

The King List, then, cannot be argued as some kind of religious source for the Bible record. The two stand independent from each other, yet they support each other in several significant facts.

The King List is a secular document. It is not maintained as part of religious worship, nor does it set out to deify the Kings or invoke particular religious sentiment, as the Epic of Gilgamesh was made to do. This is significant, because it stands as a secular, non-mythical, historical account of ancient times, yet with remarkable corroboration of the Biblical historical record included in its content.

Creation

The Sumerian King List totally ignores any notion of evolution through vast ages, and speaks from a divinely initiated beginning, as does the Bible. Its opening words are, “After kingship had descended from heaven, Eridu became the seat of kingship.”

Just as the Sumerian and Assyrian mythologies and epics speak of a divinely motivated creation, albeit with grotesque, polytheistic artefacts included, this ancient Sumerian historical record attests to the same reality. Spontaneous creation was not only a fact in the distorted mythical legends, but also in the historical records, just as it is a fact of the Bible record.

The Flood

This King List also attests to a unique flood event very early in the earth’s history. The Bible describes a flood which occurred in Noah’s day. Noah was the tenth person in the historical lineage from the creation of Adam.

The King List speaks of a unique flood event after the eighth generation from the beginning.

“Total: Five Cities, eight kings, reigned 241,200 years. The FLOOD then swept over.”

No other natural or astrological event is referred to in the entire list. The only such event is this reference to “the flood”. All other floods were ignored. No other natural or astrological event was worth reference, but this one flood event was enshrined in the record. Such significance given to the flood attests to it fitting the Bible account of Noah’s global flood.

In the light of this historical record, the mythological references to a global flood which destroyed almost all of mankind, as in the Epic of Gilgamesh, give even more resoundingly credibility to the Bible account.

Kings in Mind

The King List is exactly that: a list of kings. The King List identifies eight kings before the global flood. The Bible records ten generations before the global flood. It is logical that both the King List and the Bible account came from the same information carried on Noah’s Ark. So, why the discrepancy?

The Bible record identifies ten family generations, but only eight patriarchs. Neither Enoch nor Lamech outlived their father, so there were only eight “kings”, or heads of the family line, before the Flood. Thus, even in this detail, the King List corroborates the Bible account.

Mythical Life-spans

Scholars refer to the Sumerian King List as a “mixture of fact and fantasy“. One of the principal reasons for the ‘fantasy’ charge is the unbelievable life spans attributed to the earlier members of the list. The earliest kings were recorded as living for tens of thousands of years.

This problem has been successfully tackled, at least in part, by John Walton, writing in the Fall 1991 issue of Biblical Archaeologist. Walton attributes the problem to an error made along the way, probably when one kingdom took new possession of the list by overthrowing the previously dominant kingdom. The error would have related to the Sumerian numerical use of base 60 in its calculations. In simplified terms this would mean that the numbers were blown out by a factor of 60 times.

Walton was able to rework the ages of the eight persons listed prior to the flood and found that they came very close to the ages ascribed to the eight people between Adam and Noah in the Bible.

Walton’s work brings the King List into greater correlation with the Bible record, but also reveals that the Sumerian document supports the Biblical history of people who lived for close to 1,000 years. He also removes the mythical quality from the list and brings it back into the realm of factual history.

Observations

The Sumerian King List brings the following relevant observations to our understanding of ancient times.

Genealogical records were kept from the earliest of time. Moses was able to provide acurate and detailed information about events which occurred thousands of years before he was born, in the same way successive generations of kings were able to refer back to the Sumerian list.

Genealogical records summarised history around significant personalities, in the same way the Bible accounts for history along one principal family lineage. The Sumerian King List records those who were “king” or head of the family or clan at the relevant time. On that basis we discover that Noah was the eighth in lineage from Adam, even though he was the tenth generation by birth order. Thus Peter records Noah as the “eighth person” in 2Peter 2:5

“And spared not the old world, but saved Noah the eighth person, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood upon the world of the ungodly” 2Peter 2:5

Expanding Record

These Sumerian records were passed down from generation to generation. Conquering kings took over the records in their own court, adding themselves to the grand list. The record grew in stages over time.

The King List record is therefore a true account of people that did live and victories that did occur. The record traces the kings of each dominant kingdom in a succession of kingdoms. We see that several kingdoms enjoy repeated dynasties as the dominant kingdom.

Those who perpetuated the ongoing genealogy understood the record to be fact and worthy of adding their inclusion.

Mathematics Mixed

As discussed earlier, the earliest age accounts were misunderstood at some point in the passing of the records, causing a blow-out of the figures, as per John Walton’s 1991 calculations.

John Walton’s assumptions result in the record of the ante-diluvium kings matching the Genesis record. The error most likely occurred when a new conquering kingdom updated the records, but without understanding the original Sumerian mathematical base.

Genesis Supported

The Sumerian King List is a sound attestation to several elements of the Genesis record.

It accounts for a divine element in the creation.

It accounts for a time of creation, with a beginning that did not need a preceding extended evolutionary history.

It accounts for the limited number of generations before the global flood.

It concurs with the long lives of the ante-diluvium generations.

It confirms the unique global flood incident, worthy of being recorded apart from all other flood or natural events, and thus matching the flood of Noah’s day.

It attests to the process of passing down historical records and “generations” as was done from Adam to Moses, in the compilation of the Genesis historical record.

It allows for misunderstanding in the passing down of the record, as conquering kings took possession of the record but may not have fully understood the basis on which it was maintained. This is different to the lineage record passed down to Moses, as that record was kept in the family, along with a supporting oral tradition. The Biblical detail is therefore factual and reliable.

It allows for the interpolation of spurious divinity into the record, as a conquering king made his self-appointed assertions of the basis of his authority, without denigrating the actual record itself. When King Meskiaggasher of Eanna conquered Kish he had his scribes add him to the list, but as a “son of Utu” (the sun god). This deistic insertion would have been an attempt to aggrandize and elevate himself, as was done in the deification of Egyptian Pharaohs and others.

The list confirms the real existence of Gilgamesh, and thus reveals the encroaching religious mythology which developed in some kingdoms over time. The Epic of Gilgamesh, a real person, presents a perverted mythological tale involving polytheistic deities who were imagined and interposed into human consciousness somewhere during the time of the Sumerian kings.

The emergence of polytheistic concepts represents a degeneration of human consciousness, rather than the forward movement of the evolution of religious thought.

The King List starts with reference to heaven, as per the Bible account, but degenerates into mythology as the centuries pass. The Bible account has maintained its integrity, being preserved by God from the deception and delusion which shrouded the minds of those influenced by the serpent ‘Satan’ character described in Genesis 2.

A Valuable Find

In light of the points mentioned above, the Sumerian King List proves to be a valuable document in support of several aspects of the Biblical record. I commend it for inclusion in discussions on the historicity of the Book of Genesis.

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.