Greek Myths and Genesis

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by Neil Godfrey

Stephen Fry comments on the similarity between a couple of Greek myths and stories in Genesis in his recently published retellings: Mythos and Heroes. I am reminded of posts I completed some years back discussing Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert.

One story was about the requirement of a god for a king (so he believed) to sacrifice his son. The son willingly accepted his fate and laid himself out to be sacrificed but as the priest was about to bring the knife down a voice called out to stop the proceedings and a golden fleeced ram swept down from the heavens to carry him away. The poor ram was itself then sacrificed to Zeus. I posted the details of this story here and here back in 2011.

So I found it interesting to read Stephen Fry’s comment on his own account of the myth:

In the Book of Genesis, you may remember, the patriarch Abraham was tested by God and told to sacrifice his son Isaac. Just as Abraham’s knife was descending God showed him a ram caught in a nearby thicket and told him to kill the animal in place of his son. One version of the story of Iphigenia and Agamemnon, which helped set in motion both the Trojan War and its tragic aftermath, is another example of this mytheme – but it is not yet time to hear that particular tale.

(Heroes, p. 189)

Another myth spoke of an elderly couple welcoming two strangers into their humble home. The strangers had met with inhospitality from others so they showed special kindness to this welcoming couple. It began to dawn on the hosts that there was something rather special about their two guests, and in fact they were gods in disguise. The climax of the story came when the divine guests ordered the couple to flee to the mountains so they could escape the destruction they were about to bring upon the rest of the village. Above all, they were ordered not to look back. The gods then proceeded to destroy the ungrateful town by a flash flood. Unfortunately the couple they enabled to escape did look back and so were turned into trees.

This theoxenia, this divine testing of human hospitality, is notably similar to that told in the nineteenth chapter of Genesis. Angels visit Sodom and Gomorrah and only Lot and his wife show them decency and kindness. The debauched citizens of Sodom of course, rather than setting the dogs on the angels wanted to ‘know them’ – in as literally biblical a sense as could be, giving us the word ‘sodomy’. Lot and his wife, like Philemon and Baucis, were told to make their getaway and not look back while divine retribution was visited on the Cities of the Plain. Lot’s wife did look back and she was turned, not into a linden, but into a pillar of salt.

(Mythos, p. 380)

What is interesting is that some sort of association between the Greek myths and Genesis stories is clear enough for anyone to see. Yet I suppose we will still find naysayers insisting that there can be no link because the “differences are greater than the similarities”.

Fry, Stephen. 2017. Mythos. London, England: Penguin.
———. 2018. Heroes. London, England: Penguin.


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Neil Godfrey

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16 thoughts on “Greek Myths and Genesis”

  1. I think that you ought to make the whole argument here explicit, you know? Here’s my attempt at guessing the argument in question:

    “This looks like that, so this similarity proves either connection or derivation: this is that, or copied from that.

    “And this proof of connection or derivation proves that this text cannot be divinely inspired because by some means (divine inspiration? 🙂 ) I know that gods only inspire works that have no similarities with any other work.”

    But perhaps you’d phrase it ever-so-slightly differently?

    1. You seem to follow a pattern of assuming that arguments that can be understood as critical of Christianity are ultimately atheistical in conclusion or origin.

    2. The logic seems to be this: the comparison gives us a reason to suppose that one story influenced the other (or that both were examples of one circulating mytheme). It does not PROVE that the biblical story was copied or consciously modelled on the Greek one, but it gives us a good reason to consider this a possibility.

      And the fact that both stories contain supernatural elements seems to add strength to this line of thinking. If my nephew, some time after reading the Narnia books, claims that he discovered a strange land full of magical creatures in an old wardrobe, I have some reason to suppose that he borrowed his story from the books he read before.

      1. This perspective is rational, non-defensive, and opens the way to further learning and knowledge creation. Isn’t that what God/Jesus would want?

    3. I have no argument beyond what I posted, Roger. I have already posted in some detail about those myths and their apparent counterparts in the Bible — I linked to those posts for anyone who wants to follow.

      My point was exactly as I expressed it and no more: that scholars of the bible/anthropology aren’t the only ones who have pointed out the similarities, and that others, well read lay people if you will, have noticed the same “parallels”. The observation is not unique to a couple of esoteric scholars.

      I make no argument at all about the best explanation of the link. I simply don’t know what the background to the obvious similarities is. But I have set out arguments by an anthropologist for the same. I attempted to present his argument fairly and objectively on its own terms.

      (If you want to know what these posts are about then you only have to read the About Vridar page. No need for trying to divine motives or agendas that are not there.)

      I also wanted to draw attention to the “obviousness” of the parallels given the regular refrain we hear from certain naysayers in similar context trying to deny the obvious by saying “but there are more differences than similarities” — just count them.

    4. “And this proof of connection or derivation proves that this text cannot be divinely inspired because by some means (divine inspiration? 🙂 ) I know that gods only inspire works that have no similarities with any other work.”

      Roger, you don’t really think this blog is about disproving the divine inspiration of the Bible, do you? Please do read the About Vridar page to see what Tim and I are about. Attacking or trying to undermine Christianity as a faith is simply not on our horizons. You can go to John Loftus’s and other blogs that do that sort of thing. Our niche is different.

  2. I have no doubt the two Genesis stories are adaptations of the Greek myths. It also shows that the book of Genesis is not as old as generally believed. Including the second creation fable (Eden), which I see as an anti-yahwist propaganda piece depicting YHWH as a malevolent being, had to be adapted from Sumero-Babylonian original.

  3. After Martin Bernal’s Black Athena I am not so sure of who inspired who in particular if the Semites/Phoenicians arrived in the Greeks islands before the Greeks.

  4. Have you heard the one about Deucalion? Zeus was angry at the Pelasgians, and sent a deluge and a great flood to destroy them. Deucalion was an old man who survived by building a large crate and stocking it with his valuables and riding out the flood on it — as the water receded, the box came to rest on a mountain. Another word for crate is “ark”, as in “ark of the covenant”. So, Deucalion’s Ark. Sounds familiar. I think I read about a tourist attraction in Kentucky that has something to do with that.

    1. How about that Epic of Gilgamesh? It’s pretty well established to be older then Genesis.
      It even has Utnapishtim, similar to Noah.
      @Roger: Maybe the devil tricked all those Sumerians to copy the “original” Genesis story?

  5. This seems to me to just be more evidence that Semitic culture doesn’t descend from Egypt. As far as I know, despite the Exodus claims of coming out of Egypt, the Torah shows no particular signs of Egyptian heritage, while showing many signs of northern and eastern Mesopotamian, as well as Greek heritage.

  6. The main problem comparing the theoxenia of Genesis with that of Greek Myth is that the latter version of the Sodom and Gomorrah story doesn’t appear until Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which even the most skeptical Biblical minimalist wouldn’t say pre-dates Genesis. Wajdenbaum’s “Argonauts of the Desert” acknowledges this but reverts to the standard Biblical apologetics trick of stating that Ovid’s piece was based on an older “tradition.”

    1. Is such a conclusion necessarily a “trick”? I think we have good reasons for concluding that Ovid’s narrative is drawn from an older one or several, yes?

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