by Neil Godfrey
The influences of Mesopotamian creation stories in Genesis are clear. But how those stories came to be re-written for the Bible is less clear. Russell E. Gmirkin sets out two possibilities in Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch:
The traditional Documentary Hypothesis view:
Around 1400 BCE the well-known Babylonian Epic of Creation, Enûm Elish, the Epic of Gilgamesh and other stories found their way through Syria and into the Levant where the Canaanites preserved them as oral traditions for centuries until the Israelites learned of them. Then around the tenth or ninth centuries these Israelites incorporated some of those myths into an early version of Genesis (known as J in the Documentary Hypothesis).
About four centuries later, around the fifth century, the authors of that layer of the Bible known as P took quite independently orally preserved overlapping Mesopotamian legends and used them to add additional details from those myths that had been preserved by the Jews orally throughout to the J stories.
Now one remarkable aspect of this scenario (accounting for the Mesopotamian legends underlying Genesis 1-11) that has been pointed out by Russell Gmirkin is that though they had been preserved orally for centuries by the Canaanites, in Genesis they are completely free from any evidence of Canaanite accretions. This should be a worry, says Gmirkin, because Canaanite influences are found throughout the rest of the Bible.
Gmirkin suggests that this traditional model of how the Babylonian legends came to be adapted in the Genesis narrative is strained, so he proposes an alternative.
The author/s of Genesis 1-11 borrowed directly from the early third century (278 BCE) Babyloniaca of the Babylonian priest Berossus. The sources for this work show that Berossus himself drew upon the Babylonian epics of Creation and Gilgamesh, and Gmirkin argues that some of his additions and interpretations found their way into Genesis. Moroever, the Epic of Creation that resonates in Genesis, the Enûm Elish, was quite unlike other Babylonian creation myths:
- the standard Babylonian myth of creation (e.g. Atrahasis Epic, Enki and Ninmeh) began with earth, not with waters;
- Enûm Elish was specifically associated with the cult of Marduk, localized in Babylon — its purpose was to explain why the Babylonian patron god, Marduk, had been promoted over the other gods.
- during the late Babylonian period and Seleucid times, the Enûm Elish likely increased in significance, but was still only recited in Babylon’s New Year Festival;
- Berossus was himself a priest of Bel-Marduk in Babylon at this period. For Berossus, the Enûm Elish would have been the definitive creation epic.
The Enûm Elish was very likely unknown beyond the region of Babylonia until Berossus himself drew attention to its narrative for his wider Greek audience. Gmirkin believes the simplest explanation for the Enûm Elish’s traces in Genesis is that they were relayed through Berossus’s Babyloniaca.
Here is a table comparing the details of the Genesis Creation with those found in the Babylonian Creation Epic and in Berossus’s third century work:
|Opening words: In the beginning God created the heavens (sky) and the earth||Preface to Babyloniaca informed readers it contained the histories of the sky, the earth and the sea, of creation, and of kings and their deeds|
|Heavens and earth “were begotten”||The word in Berossus for creation is literally “first birth”. Berosses also called his first book “Genesis” or “Creation” (Procreatio)|
|Creation is a series of separations||Creation is a series of separations|
|Primal watery chaos||Primary watery chaos – Apsu, fresh waters; Tiamat, the salt water ocean; Mummu, mist or clouds.||Primary watery chaos – Apsu, fresh waters; Tiamat, the salt water ocean, explicitly equating Tiamat (Thalatth) with the sea (Thalassa); Mummu, mist or clouds.|
|Darkness was upon the face of the deep||Primordial universe consisted of nothing but waters (no darkness is mentioned)||Primordial universe consisted of nothing but “darkness and water” – Berossus equated Tiamat with the Moon (Selene), known as “the ruler of the night”, and whom he also equated with a flood goddess, Omorka.|
|God divided the light from the darkness||Bel (i.e. Marduk, the sun god) “cut through the darkness and separated the sky and the earth”|
|Light existed prior to the creation of the heavenly luminaries. God created light||Light existed prior to the creation of the heavenly luminaries. Light emanated from Marduk||Light existed prior to the creation of the heavenly luminaries. Light emanated from Bel (=Marduk)|
|First act of creation was division of waters above from waters below to create a firmament/sky||First act of creation was division of waters above from waters below to create a firmament/sky||First act of creation was division of waters above from waters below to create a firmament/sky|
|Dry land was then created||Dry land was then created||Dry land was then created|
|Then the luminaries were created||Then the luminaries were created||Then the humans were created|
|Then the humans were created||Then the humans were created||Then the luminaries were created. (The order is reversed here, but Gmirkin points out that we rely on the abridged excerpts of Berossus by Alexander Polyhistor here and the order may have been reversed.)|
|Animals were created||Animals were created|
|All created animals reproduced “after its own kind” – this is repeated, thus a polemic against the Mesopotamian tradition?||Earliest animals included monsters of a composite nature: man-birds; man-goats; man-fish; man-horses; dog-horses; and many others||Earliest animals included monsters of a composite nature: man-birds; man-goats; man-fish; man-horses; dog-horses; and many others|
|God rested from his labours on the seventh day.||Marduk created humans to do the hard work so as to give the gods a life of leisure.||In the Atrahasis Epic (likely known to Berossus), after the universe was created, the gods had to do all the manual labour, digging canals, raising crops, so that they were ready to rebel. Enki therefore created humans to do the work.|
I know, I need to quote passages attributed to Berossus to flesh the above out somewhat. But I’m taking short-cuts for now since I’m traveling. Maybe next time.
I am interested in comparing the arguments of Russell Gmirkin with those of Philippe Wajdenbaum who argues for the influence of Plato on Genesis. That will be for future posts. (Compare also Lukas Niesiolowski-Spano.)
Another detail I’ll post on soon is Gmirkin’s suggestion that the Serpent in the Garden of Eden was drawn from the half-fish and half-man Oannes of Babylonian myth.