Category Archives: Ancient Religious Cultures

“Religious culture” is used instead of “Religion” because our concept of religion does not match what was often the thinking and practices in ancient cultures. This category includes temple and priestly practices as well as mythical ideas related to gods and the supernatural. Jewish religious culture is placed under Biblical Studies.

Scholars, Divinities and How the Cosmos was Understood “Scientifically” B.C.E.

Continuing to share my reading of Seth Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch, Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon, last discussed at Ascent of the Sage: “From Adapa to Enoch”, part 2 . . . .

We come now to chapter 2, “I Am Adapa!” The Divine Personae of Mesopotamian Scribes.

If we want to understand how ancient scholars related to their universe, their revealed texts and revealers, the best collections of sources we have, spanning two to three thousand years up to the first century CE, are the cuneiform records of Mesopotamia. In the next chapter Sanders begins to compare Judean texts.

In this chapter (2) Sanders examines the nature of the cosmos among these ancient scribes and how they went about understanding, studying and acting on it.

In addition to the texts, there is the visual imagery of divine beings, divine sages or apkallu, to help us with our inquiry.

We have images of a patient (sick, hence possessed or inflicted by a demon) surrounded by superhuman fish-apkallu standing where exorcists would be positioned.

We have royal inscriptions of the enthroned king framed by bird-apkallu maintaining cosmic order from the seat of royal power.

Scholarly participation in supernatural presence was not confined to exorcism: the economists and political scientists of their day, diviners summoned the gods to meet together in divine assembly so that the diviner could be present to hear and transmit their verdict for the country’s future. (Sanders, 72)

“Medical practice” and “political advisors” were thus the more practical pursuits of scholars. But what are the boundaries between science and what we would relegate to mumbo-jumbo in their world? And did the scholars or scribes really become, in their own minds, supernatural sages (apkallu)? Did they really believe they could journey to heaven and meet with the gods?

At this point we find an interesting connection with another book I have been posting about. It is interesting to compare the concepts of early Judean scribes to their Hebrew text — see the two posts on Nanine Charbonnel’s chapter 2, The Sacred and Creative Power of the Hebrew Text and A God Bound to the Mechanics of Language. Seth Sanders writes,

If cuneiform was the secret of Mesopotamian scribes, the ultimate decipherer of this secret was the semi-human sage Adapa, at once the symbol and the patron saint of the scribe. Probably the single most popular mythic hero in Mesopotamian literature, Adapa beat out even Gilgamesh. As Michalowski notes, “no other hero of a canonical text is so often encountered in other compositions.” This is not surprising, since he would have been so sympathetic to the scribes who produced those compositions. He is supposed to have authored omen collections, fathomed the deepest secrets of words and magic, and broken the wings of the South Wind by the sheer power of his speech. He was of paramount importance to the people who created cuneiform culture.

Adapa is crucial as a phenomenological starting point in our comparison of scribal heroes. As the best-documented ancient Near Eastern figure who ascends to heaven, negotiates with gods, transmits revelation, and fights demons to heal the sick he is simultaneously the closest thing Mesopotamia has to Moses, Enoch and the shaman of North Asian societies. Seen horizontally, from a view of cultures side by side, he represents a broad comparative type: the mediator, who moves between the worlds of gods and humans. (Sanders, 73. My bolding in all quotations)

Adapa is a figure of knowledge and power (see the previous post in this series). He is also worn as a ritual mask. And as we saw in the previous post, his function changes over time as political circumstances change.

In order to grasp something of the way the natural and divine worlds were conceptualized in Mesopotamian culture we need to set aside our dualistic notions of spirit powers and entities. To us, the spirit realm stands against the natural world, yet such a division between the two needs to be set aside, Sanders emphasizes at length. We think of God and spirit beings as not found literally in physical manifestations like idols of stone, or in natural phenomena like earthquakes and storms.

Mesopotamian texts and images portray the divine beings interacting with, present with, humans, both occupying the same space, and in some cases the human speaker actually claims to be the divine Adapa himself.

I am Adapa sage of Eridu [= location of watery source of secret knowledge]
I am the man [= servant] of Asalluhi [= the god of exorcism]
Enki [= creator and master of the demons causing the illness] the great lord has sent me to cure the man in his illness!

In what sense did the speaker understand himself to be Adapa?

Francesca Rochberg

Advances in understanding the Mesopotamian view of the supernatural vis a vis the natural world have come, Sanders explains, through exploring more deeply the nature of Mesopotamian science. And here I take a detour to have a closer look at some of the sources Sanders calls upon, work by the Assyriologist Francesca Rochberg.

Before the “World of Nature”

Imagine not having a concept of “the natural world” or “nature”. We take the concept for granted and that makes it difficult for us to appreciate that it has not always existed.

A key insight has come from the history of science. Exploring Mesopotamian scholars’ criteria for meaning and truth, Francesca Rochberg has shown that cuneiform scholarship tended to see the material world as composed of signs: reality itself is semiotic. Such an ontology does not presuppose a purely non-linguistic physical nature in opposition to culture, and in fact the history of science has shown that an explicit concept of nature is not necessary to all scientific inquiry, citing ancient China and Mesopotamia as cases where forms of science thrived without it (Lloyd 2012:64).  (Sanders, 77)

What were the “subjects” of interest to Mesopotamian scholars?

Various forms of divination: astronomy and astrology, examination of sheep’s entrails, lexical texts (lists of synonyms, grammatical forms, etc.), diagnostic and therapeutic medical texts, magical texts, incantations . . . read more »

Ascent of the Sage: “From Adapa to Enoch”, part 2

Continuing our discussion of From Adapa to Enoch (Seth Sanders), begun at Heavenly Journeys, from Babylon to Judea . . . .

In the previous post we saw the earliest account of a return journey to heaven was that of Etana. Etana ascended to heaven with the aid of an eagle he mercifully restored after it had treacherously broken a divinely sanctioned oath, secured a lasting dynasty on earth, and after his death became an immortal figure in the underworld and one to whom living persons could regularly appeal.

Etana was the “first king”, but his central role as a ritually significant figure was relatively shortlived. Another figure, a wise and learned scribe, replaced him as the mythical power behind the king and the source and power of the scribal elites.

(Sanders’ focus is on return journeys to heaven, not the one-way ones where someone (e.g. Damuzi) goes up to become a star or constellation. The significance of the return journeys is that the traveller brings acquires some special gift or message that puts them in a mediating position to benefit (or curse) other mortals.)

So we come to the story of Adapa.

Adapa in the Old Babylonian Period (ca 1800-1600 BCE)

The earliest known reference to Adapa is a ritual text relating to the exorcism of demons; most interesting is that this text is similar to the latest known reference to Adapa from, probably, the first century AD, another ritual text curing disease through exorcisms. The significance of that lies in the text being part of a “canon” that was long preserved and used for study and rituals by the scribal class.

I take liberties in copying Sanders’ text without the scholarly qualifications and omissions:

The Earth Lords, the Earth Ladies, Enkum and Ninkum!…
I am Adapa sage of Eridu, I am the man of Asalluhi.
To cure the man in his illness, Enki [=Ea] the great lord sent me.

Ea/Enki was the god of magic and secret knowledge, and Adapa was given the same occult gifts.

The ritual text informs us that Adapa was not merely a distant figure but that the exorcist, the one performing the exorcism, identified with Adapa. He spoke as Adapa the words of Adapa. Mesopotamian scribes or ritual specialists could, in their confrontation with the demon causing the disease, become the supernatural being Adapa and speak as Adapa.

The Myth of Adapa and the South Wind

The narrative myth syncs with the above ritualistic text. The earliest (Sumerian) form of the myth of Adapa in outline.

  1. Primordial time: after the Flood had destroyed the land
    • inventions of canals, agriculture, kingship
    • South Wind brought blessings
    • but a time of ignorance: no-one knew how to give or follow orders
  2. Adapa, a sage, was the devotee of the god Ea [=Enki], in Eridu.
  3. Adapa went fishing to supply his master’s temple
  4. He navigates without rudder or pole, until . . .
  5. Adapa’s boat was capsized by the South Wind
  6. Adapa cursed the South Wind breaking his wings with his word
  7. The supreme god Anu, on hearing Adapa had been responsible for violating the natural order, summoned him
  8. Fearing his son and priest would be punished by Anu, Ea, god of wisdom and cunning, gave Adapa two instructions to keep him safe:
    • he was to dress in mourning clothes and tell the gods at Anu’s door, Tammuz/Dumuzi and Gizzida/Ningishzida, that he was in mourning because they had disappeared from the earth — this would ensure the good favour and help from these two gods
    • he was to refuse the bread of death and the water of death that Anu would offer him, but he should accept the clothing and oil of anointing.
  9. At first all goes well and Adapa is given a throne, but then . . .
  10. Anu offers Adapa bread and water: Anu has been so impressed by Adapa that he offers him bread and water of immortal life, not death; but Adapa, recalling his instructions from Ea, fears the banquet of death and declines the offer.
  11. Anu orders Ea (presumably through Adapa) to restore the South Wind’s wings and sends down to earth the incantation that will keep the South Wind in its ordained place.
    (We have here the origin of Adapa’s power over demons and healing; and further, the origin on earth, through Adapa, of “the cosmic principles of culture and order”.)
  12. The narrative concludes with a ritual prayer against the South Wind responsible for bringing disease to a patient.

The very words of Adapa have power. Adapa brings to the world, on his return from heaven, the secret knowledge of the words that have power over the elements, over illness, and their demonic causes. Adapa is the epitome of wisdom and secret knowledge. Ritualist, exorcists, will call upon his name, identify with Adapa himself and claim to speak his very words, to restore health, and, as we will see, to master the elements more broadly.

Adapa and the Assyrian Kings

The first king to cite Adapa in a public monument was Sargon II, conqueror of Israel. Sargon compared himself directly not with the mighty Gilgamesh but with the supremely wise Adapa:

The king: open-minded, sharp-eyed, in all matters the equal of the Sage, who became great in counsel and wisdom and grew old in understanding.

Sennacherib’s Annals boasted

Ea gave me broad understanding, endowed me with vast knowledge equivalent to that of the Sage Adapa.

Esarhaddon inscribed his claim to be

Rival of the Sage Adapa, who Prince Ea endowed (with wisdom).

Assurbanipal in particular promoted himself as an epitome of scholarly knowledge and access to “hidden cosmic secrets”. He documented his presence in the temples and “among the council of scholars”:

I grasped the work of the Sage Adapa, the hidden treasure of the whole scribal art.

Assurbanipal exalted the scholarly feats of the king to an unprecedented level:

The intellectual image of Assurbanipal depicted in his inscriptions is tied to a new state-sponsored project that modified and expanded scribal culture. As Frahm notes (1997:280), this period witnessed an explosion of commentaries and ritual texts. While accidents o f preservation may explain the number of such texts, it does not explain the appearance of whole new discursive forms such as the “cultic commentary”; a significant feature of these new forms is their sheer difficulty. The difficulty of the materials may derive from their in-group nature. (p. 45)

Sanders writes

Adapa is the mythic figure to whom the king is most often compared. The king’s deeds are like those of Adapa, his wisdom rivals that of Adapa, even his mother’s health is like that of Adapa. (p. 66)

The great building projects of the Assyrian kings, his conquests, were all evidence of the god-given qualities of the king, the qualities of Adapa himself. Adapa represented the authority, the wisdom, the intellectual prowess of the king.

Assurbanipal’s boast to have mastered all written knowledge provides a propagandistic self-conception modeled on the ideal figure of the sage. The profile includes rivalry with a supernatural intermediary figure, schooling in cosmic secrets, the decipherment of encoded messages, and presence in the counsel of the learned. It may be compared to the more limited propagandistic description of Nebuchadnezzar I as descended from Enmeduranki, a Sumerian king described as performing extispicy and lecanomancy . . . . Nebuchadnezzar does not claim any divinatory ability for himself, but retrojects this ability into an invented past. It is significant, then, that Assurbanipal’s scholars also utilize this type of ancestral ideology, claiming that the king is descended from a sage and Adapa . . . . As the Neo-Assyrian kings adopted scribal features, they also thereby further politicized the figure of the scribe. (p. 46)

The Scribal / Adapa Revolution

After the Persian empire swept away the Babylonian kings the Mesopotamian scribal class that had existed to support those kings accordingly found a new role and status for itself. read more »

Heavenly Journeys, from Babylon to Judea

I am looking forward to sharing some of the research of Seth L. Sanders published in From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon (2017). I sought out the book in expectations that it would open to my understanding the ancient thought-world that lies behind our own religious heritage. Sometimes we will hear that a biblical person or trope has a parallel of sorts in ancient Mesopotamia yet give little thought to the fact that the time gap between the two can be half a millennium or more. How can we meaningfully speak of an influence between A1 and A2 if they are separated by such a span? Besides, how credible is it to imagine different cultures, languages, races, being so frozen within a common umbrella culture that never changes so that a story of a hero’s heavenly journey in Babylonia can have the same meaning and function as another hero’s heavenly journey many centuries later and hundreds of miles distant?

Sanders hopes to find answers to those sorts of questions. How was it that a story of a heavenly journey by Enoch in Hellenistic era texts echoed similar stories in Mesopotamia 500 or even 1000 years earlier? And it didn’t just end with Enoch. Paul, we know, also spoke of experiencing a heavenly journey, and we will see in these posts that his letters spoke of other experiences for all those “in Christ” that have remarkable correspondences with the experiences of Enoch and his predecessors and with the scribal elites who read and used these texts.

I said I sought out the book. The book appeared in my mail box a few weeks after I had requested a review copy from Mohr Siebeck. I heard nothing back from them but I presume it was them who forwarded the book to me. So for that I’m thankful.

I have mentioned the literature of the heavenly journeys of sages. Hellenistic era Judea and Babylonian-Assyrian era Mesopotamia also shared literature of exegetical commentaries and astronomical science.

If these changes are part of a shared development in the intellectual life of the region, shifts in a common ancient Near Eastern scribal culture, why do they only appear in Judea so much later, under the new conditions of Hellenism? Ancient Near Eastern scribal culture spans more than 3,000 years, far-flung cities and empires, and many languages and writing systems. The risk of examining it as a whole is there may not be a whole – at least, we will be better able to tell once we have seen it intimately, at specific moments, in particular forms. (p. 1)

Before addressing some of Sanders’ criticisms of past approaches to similarities between Iron Age Mesopotamian and Hellenistic Judean literary cultures I choose to start with the earliest known story of a heavenly journey from Mesopotamia. read more »

Death and Resurrection of Baal

From Robert Price and Christopher Hansen Discussion

References to works against and for the concept of dying and rising gods in the ancient world, with special focus on Weber’s explanation of an “ideal type” (addressed by Price, as many readers will know) — that’s a concept I have had lined up for a post here so with the prod from this discussion I must make that post soon. I have also often wanted to post on Jonathan Z. Smith’s books. (I don’t recall off-hand if I have yet done so on Trygge Mettinger’s Riddle of Resurrection.)

Last month I posted on a discussion between Christopher Hansen and Robert Price and remarked on their reference to Trygge Mettinger’s challenge to Jonathan Z. Smith’s attempt to deny a dying and rising god concept in the ancient world prior to Christianity.

Well, wonderful surprises can turn up when one does a spring clean and I discovered today that I did indeed post on at least one of Mettinger’s arguments way back in June 2008: Death and Return of Baal: a reply to a near consensus. (Since my accident in Thailand I have been laid up so have had the opportunity to plod through a recategorization and tagging of all Vridar’s 3700 posts to make them more findable — it has been a good experience so far: some of those posts I had forgotten about and found to be really quite good (I found myself learning old things I’d forgotten and wondered if I really wrote them), others questionable — but after beginning a post by post review of it I think it’s not a bad blog. I’m glad you’re here to share it with.)

Anyway, back to the point: If you are interested in Trygge Mettinger’s case against Jonathan Z. Smith’s then click on Death and Return of Baal: a reply to a near consensus. It’s not his complete argument. Just one chapter, I think. But it’s a start and will give you the idea. I hope to post on his other chapters in the reasonably near future.



Carried to Heaven on Eagles’ Wings — More Tales

Just for fun, as an appendix to the previous post, here are other stories of heroes being carried up into the heavens by eagles. Some appear to inspire aspirational thoughts of heavenly things while others warn of the hubris that felled Satan.

In that previous post I linked to (and briefly outlined) a story of Etana but for the sake of completeness let’s look at that starting point once more, this time with Aro’s description.

Akkadian Etana Myth

An eagle and a snake make a holy covenant that neither of them will harm the other. In spite of this, the eagle later devours the young of the snake and is punished by the Sun-God. Some kind of atonement is provided by the hero Etana who is looking for the “plant of birth” in order to obtain offspring. The eagle is willing to carry him to heaven upon its shoulders. The plan does not seem to lead to a successful completion, because Etana is frightened by the terrible height. He seems, however, to have obtained the plant, because other fragments of the epic presuppose that he sired a son. What interests us here is the idea of “space-travel” with an eagle and the conversation between Etana and the eagle:

The eagle says to him, to Etana:
“See, my friend, how the land appears!
Peer at the sea at the sides of E[kur]!”
“The land … a mountain,
the sea has become like waters of [. . . . ]”
When he had born him aloft a second league,
the eagle says to him, to Etana:
”See, my friend, how the land appears!”
“The land has turned to a gardener’s ditch.

Etana and the eagle arrive at the heaven of Anu, and there is a break in the text; after that they presumably rise even higher. The conversation is continued on similar lines: e.g. the sea looks after one league’s flight like an enclosure, after two leagues the land is like a garden and the sea like a trough. At last Etana cannot see anything, and he is panicked: “My friend, I will not ascend to heaven.” The eagle descends with enormous speed to the ground.

(Aro, 25f)

Illustrating a version having griffins (eagle-lion hybrids) carrying Alexander aloft.

Alexander the Great’s Ascent

From the origins of Sumerian civilization to the end of the Persian period, this tale must have been read and repeated throughout Western Asia. After the death of Alexander the Great, who had conquered and ruled Babylonia, it was transferred to him. The legend of the Ascension of Alexander spread throughout the ancient world and has descended to modern times in endless versions, Greek, Latin, Armenian, Coptic, Syriac, and Old French. Representations of Alexander’s ascent on eagles yoked together are found on tapestries, on illuminated manuscripts, painted on walls of palaces, and even in sculptures of Christian cathedrals. A Jewish scribe of the fourth century A.D. refers to it in the Talmud.

“Alexander the Macedonian wished to ascend in the air. He mounted, mounted, until he saw the earth as a cup and the sea as a caldron.”

Here follows a resume of the earliest Greek versions. Arrived at the extremity of the earth, Alexander desired to discover where the vault of Heaven reposed on the earth. His soldiers selected two great birds, which he caused to be without food for three days. He then put them under a yoke, and attached the hide of a bull to the yoke. A basket was fastened to the yoke, into which he climbed, having a long spear. To the end of this spear he attached the liver of a horse. The liver he held high above the heads of the hungry birds; in their eagerness to reach it they carried him upward. He ascended until the air became icy cold. Here he was halted by a bird-man who said to him:

“Alexander, thou art ignorant of terrestrial things, why desirest thou to understand those of Heaven? Return quickly to earth, and fear lest thou be the prey of these birds. Look upon the earth below.”

Seized with fear Alexander looked downward, and the earth looked like a threshing floor, surrounded by a serpent, which was the sea. He descended successfully “by the mercy of supreme Providence,” but landed seven days’ journey from his camp. Saved from famine by a satrap he received a guard of soldiers and reached his camp.

(Langdon, 173f)

Nimrod’s Ascent

In Islamic legends told by the commentators of the Qur’an, especially at-Tabar!, the same story is told about Nimrod (ar. Namrūd), and utilized to explain the words of Surah 14,46:
read more »

A Hero’s Flight to Heaven on the Back of a Bird — Understanding the Parallels

Etana ascending on an eagle

I was completely sold on Seth Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch after reading William Brown’s review of it back in 2017.

Brown, William. 2017. “Review of ‘From Adapa to Enoch’ by Seth Sanders.” Blog. The Biblical Review: Reviewing Publications, History, and Scripture (blog). September 24, 2017.

After my first quick racing through the book I feel confident enough to say that Brown’s review is pretty much spot on. As I pore through the chapters more slowly and methodically, following up footnotes and other references, I am finding a growing number of points I would like to address in some depth here on this blog. They won’t be completed quickly, and the first post won’t even be about a central point of Sanders’ specific thesis per se; it will be a generic point of methodology — or of fundamental validity of argument in relation to parallel narratives.

The oldest known ascent to heaven in the ancient Near East is the story of Etana, a legendary early Sumerian king who rode to heaven on the back of an eagle in search of a magic herb that could help him produce an heir. (Sanders, p. 28)

The story begins with the eagle making a pact with a snake, a story that is set out in detail at The Myth of Etana (Ancient History Encyclopedia) by Joshua J. Mark. The eagle breaks his promise to the snake and is punished by having his wings damaged, disabling him from flight. Etana finds the eagle in distress and helps him back to strength while the eagle this time returns the kindness by helping Etana to find what he needs in the heavens, a plant that would guarantee his ability to produce a royal heir. So the eagle carries Etana up to the heavens on his back.

You’ve no doubt heard similar stories and here’s why:

The Etana story has strong connections with a widely diffused myth and needs to be seen in historical context if it is to reveal anything about Mesopotamian written culture. A hero’s flight to heaven on the back of a bird is a widespread motif that appears in classical, Persian, Islamic, and even twentieth-century Finnish sources.2 (Sanders, p. 29)

Finnish? Here is the reference cited by Jussi Aro of Helsinki. It is from #537 in Antti Aarne’s The Types of the Folktale:

537 The Marvelous Eagle Gives the Hero a Box which he must not open.

I. The Speaking Eagle. A man aims to shoot an eagle, when suddenly the bird begins to speak like a human being [B21I.3]. The man spares him.

II. The Grateful Eagle. The bird has a wing broken. The man cares for it for three years and wastes all his property by feeding the bird. Finally the eagle recovers and will repay the man for his kindness [B380, Q45].

III. The Journey by Air. The bird then carries the man on his back across the sea [3552] to his kingdom [B222], and intimidates him three times by nearly dropping him into the sea (the hunter has once aimed three times with his gun at the bird). . . . .

Aro comments:

Can we be sure that the fairy-tale motifs mentioned above really go back to ancient Mesopotamian sources and that they have been transmitted either orally or in a literary form for some four thousand years? I think we can. It is true that the fairy-tale versions of the Lugalbanda-Anzu story differ from the original: the hero does not feed or decorate the young but saves them fwm a dragon or a snake; the latter versions are of course more logical and expressive. But still the modern versions preserve many charactedstic features of the original: there is the lonely place, the tree, the bird’s nest with the young, the bird’s suspicions when returning to the nest, the role of the young in appeasing the bird, the help bestowed by the bird on the hero, etc. The most characteristic feature of the Etana-motif again is the speculation on space-travel and the successively diminished appearance of the earth that is described preferably by a dialogue between the bird and the hero between two persons in the primitive spaceship. In this episode there is a bit of old Mesopotamian “science-fiction that has subsequently been turned in Hellenistic and later literature into a warning against hybris and in the folk-tales to a mere embellishment of the story. (Aro, p. 28)

That’s one perspective. But consider Sanders’ comment:

These parallels emphasize a fact crucial for the comparison of ancient scribal products: narratives may resemble each other independently of historical and cultural context. The fact that the Finnish and Islamic versions can easily be described in terms close to the Mesopotamian story reminds us that literary resemblance has limited inherent significance by itself.3 It is impossible to understand a narrative historically on its own; we must understand what it meant to its audiences over time. (p. 29)

And footnote 3:

The similarity of such stories in distinctly separate cultures requires us to abandon the question of whether one form “should be traced back” to the other or is “just coincidence;” either way, absent any historical relationship or comparison of social contexts, the similarity is “just coincidence.” That is, the retention itself is so isolated that, without a concrete social or historical explanation of the similarity, it appears unintelligible and random. (my emphasis)

Aarne, Antti. 1973. The Types of the Folktale; A Classification and Bibliography. Translated by Stith Thompson. 2nd edition. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.

Aro, Jussi. 1976. “Anzu and Simurgh.” In Kramer Anniversary Volume: Cuneiform Studies in Honor of Samuel Noah Kramer, edited by Barry L Eichler, 25–28. Kevelaer : Butzon & Bercker.

Brown, William. 2017. “Review: ‘From Adapa to Enoch’ by Seth Sanders.” Blog. The Biblical Review (blog). September 24, 2017.

Mark, Joshua J. 2011. “The Myth of Etana.” In Ancient History Encyclopedia.

Sanders, Seth L. 2017. From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck.


When a God Passes By

In olden times it was not unknown for gods to pass by their devotees, showing their awesome power in some limited way, and eliciting the awed responses one would expect from those privileged to see them.

But at that time of day when heavenly light has not yet come, nor is there utter darkness, but the faint glimmer that we call twilight spreads over the night and wakes us, they [=Jason and his Argonauts] ran into the harbour of the lonely isle of Thynias and went ashore exhausted by their labours. Here they had a vision of Apollo on his way from Lycia to visit the remote and teeming peoples of the North. The golden locks streamed down his cheeks in clusters as he moved; he had a silver bow in his left hand and a quiver slung on his back; the island quaked beneath his feet and the sea ran high on the shore. They were awe-struck at the sight and no one dared to face the god and meet his lovely eyes. They stood there with bowed heads while he, aloof, passed through the air on his way across the sea.

Apollonius of Rhodes. 1959. The Voyage of Argo: The Argonautica. Translated by E. V. Rieu. 2nd ed. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Classics. (91f)


. . .


Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. . . . But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by.  Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” . . . . .

So Moses . . . went up Mount Sinai early in the morning. . . . Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness,  . . . Moses bowed to the ground at once and worshiped.

(Exodus 33-34)


. . .


Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and [Jesus] was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.

(Mark 6)

Stories of Walking on Water — Looking for Sources

In The History of the Synoptic Tradition by Rudolf Bultmann there is the following passage beginning page 236. But there’s a catch. I have not had the opportunity to track down any of the references I have cast in bold type — removing the bold as we locate them as per the comments. If you happen to be a person with an opportunity to identify any of those bolded references and point to where I can locate/read/translate them you are more than welcome to share that information in the comments section below.

Dio Chrysostom: “Socrates,” said he, “you know perfectly well that of all men under the sun that man is most powerful and in might no whit inferior to the gods themselves who is able to accomplish the seemingly impossible — if it should be his will, to have men walk dryshod over the sea, to sail over the mountains, to drain rivers dry by drinking — or have you not heard that Xerxes, the king of the Persians, made of the dry land a sea by cutting through the loftiest of the mountains and separating Athos from the mainland, and that he led his infantry through the sea, riding upon a chariot just like Poseidon in Homer’s description? And perhaps in the same way the dolphins and the monsters of the deep swam under his raft as the king drove along.”

There must also have been stories of walking on water in Hellenism. Admittedly it is hyperbole when Dio Chrysost. speaks of the power of Xerxes, that when he so wishes he is able πεζεύεσθαι μέν την θάλατταν, πλεϊσθαι δέ τά δρη. But the capacity to do so is often attributed to demons. P. Berol., I, 120 thus describes the power of the δαίμων πάρεδρος: πήξει δέ ποταμούς καί θάλασσα[ν συντ]όμως(?) καί οπως ένδιατρέχης (Reitzenstein, Hellenist. Wundererzaehlungen, p. 125). Also A. Dieterich, Abraxas, p. 190, 13: εγώ είμι ό έν ούρανω σχολήν έχων φοιτώμενός τε έν ύδατι, and on another tablet (Rhein. Mus., 55, 261, cp. 264): qui solus per mare transis. But according to Lucian, Philops., 13 the same things are reported of human wonder workers: είδες . . . τόν Ύπερβόρεον άνδρα πετάμενον ή έπ’ι τοϋ ϋδατος βεβηκότα. Further material may be found in A. Gercke, Jahrb. f . Philol. Suppl. X X II, 1895, pp. 205ff.; A. Abt, ‘Die Apologie des Apuleius von Madaura und die antike Zauberei’, Religionsgesch. Vers, u. Vorarb., IV, 2, 1908, pp. 129, 2. We may add from the Christian tradition: Hist. Aegypti monachorum XI, 18, p. 58; cp. XX, 16, p. 75, Preuschen; Ps. Cypr., Confess., 12.1 Indian parallels also come up for consideration in this regard, and there are stories of walking or flying over the water, which could even have influenced Hellenistic literature: cp. R. Garbe, Indien und das Christentum, 1914, pp. 57f. Most notable is a Buddhist parallel to Matt. 14 28-31 (the text is in J. Aufhauser, Jesus und Buddha, Kl. Texte, no. 157, p. 12). It tells of a disciple ‘who wanted to visit Buddha one evening and on his way found that the ferry boat was missing from the bank of the river Aciravati. In faithful trust in Buddha he stepped on to the water and went as if on dry land to the very middle of the stream. Then he came out of his contented meditation on Buddha in which he had lost himself, and saw the waves and was frightened, and his feet began to sink. But he forced himself to become wrapt in his meditation again and by its power he reached the far bank safely and reached his master.’ (Garbe, pp. 56f. and Buddhist. Maerchen, pp. 46f.) Garbe thinks that the gospel story was borrowed from the Buddhist tradition.2

Jesus Walking on Water
Jesus Walking on Water (Ivan Aivazovsky)

1 In the language of Christian edification this miracle motif may have attained a symbolic significance and the walking on the water become the treading of the mythical waters of death, which Christ and his mystic followers achieve. Cp. Dibelius (Formgeschichte, p. 86) who adduces Od. Sol. 39: ‘He walked and went over them on foot, and his footprints stayed on the water and were not obliterated. . . . And a path was prepared for those who followed him.’ What the relation of Mand. Ginza R., II, 1, pp. 4ggf. Lidzb. is to this (Christ the seducer says, ‘I walk over the water, Come with me; you shall not drown’) can well be left undecided here.

2 Cp. W. Brown, The Indian and Christian Miracles of Walking on the Water, 1928. Saintyves, who again traces these stories to cultic origins (initiation rites) amasses a wealth of material, [P. Saintyves,  Essais de Folklore Biblique, 1923], pp. 307-63. Cp. also Indianermaerchen aus Nordamerika, p. 31; Turkestan. Maerchen, p. 69; Muellenhoff, Sagen, etc., p. 351.

I did locate the reference to Brown, Indian and Christian Miracles… — it is available on –

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl. 1963. The History of the Synoptic Tradition. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Dio Chrysostom. n.d. “Discourse 3.” LacusCurtius. Accessed March 13, 2019.*.html#ref11.

From Adapa to Jesus

Adapa Sumerian deity of healing, with healthy catch of fish
Creative Commons Attribution

That the gospels recycled themes, motifs, sayings, can be found across the Middle East from Mesopotamia to Egypt and stretching back millennia to before the Neo Babylonian empire and even before the time of any Jewish Scriptures will be of no surprise to anyone who has read The Messiah Myth by Thomas L. Thompson.

Of the myth of Adapa and the South Wind “the earliest known version is a Sumerian text from Old Babylonian Tell Haddad”, made available by Cavigneaux in 2014. I have part translated, part paraphrased the opening section of Cavigneaux’s French translation of the often broken Sumerian text, and added a distinctive note on one comment that I found particularly interesting.

In those distant days …

After the Flood had swept over,

and brought about the destruction of the land …

The world is reborn

A seed of humanity had been preserved …

Four legged animals once again widely dispersed …

Fish and birds repopulated the ponds and reedbeds …

Herbs and aromatic plants flowered on the high steppe …

The state is born

An and Enlil organized the world …

The city of Kish became a pillar of the country …

Etana becomes king

Then the elected shepherd …

Founded a house …

The South Wind during his reign brought blessings …

Humanity without a guide

Humanity did not have a directive …

[Nobody knew how to give or follow orders]

The Story of Adapa begins

[A loyal devotee of Enki he goes fishing in the quay to supply his master’s temple in Eridu.]

In later exorcistic texts … the quay (Akk. kārum) is a trope for the liminal space between worlds.

At the New Moon he went up to go fishing

Without rudder he let the boat go with the flow

Without pole he went up the stream

On the vast lagoon …

[He is capsized by the South Wind]

He curses the South Wind …

And broke the wings of the South Wind …

Jesus stills storm. Interestingly the South Wind was said to be beneficial; it appears to me that Adapa’s technology, apparently directed by the power of his words, was being frustrated by the South Wind.

The narrative is thus a reference to the destruction of the old world and the restoration of the new, through a Flood or through water bringing about the end of one world and nourishing the emergence of the new. As Thompson observes in The Mythic Past new worlds emerge through parting waters (Creation, Noah, Exodus, Elijah-Elisha, Jesus’ Baptism/heavens divided).

Adapa has a special gift. Though mortal, he has power over words, or rather his words have power over the world. Adapa will become the great mythical sage of scribes, of all who can with the magic of words change the face of the earth and the organization of society: engineers, architects, legislators, ….

We are familiar with astronomy and astrology being all one branch of knowledge in these times; similarly magic and medicine were indistinguishable at this stage. The skills of the scribes, the amazing feats they accomplished with words, appear to have been supernatural gifts.

After Adapa by merely speaking causes the wind to cease the supreme god is astonished and invites him up to heaven. Adapa’s personal god, however, warns Adapa not to accept certain gifts [bread, drink, a coat] that will be offered to him there but to only accept an anointing. The chief god laughingly tells Adapa that he has just refused the gifts that would have given him eternal life.

And so forth.

We see here a story opening with the water, a flood, separating the old and the new. We see the wise hero wielding power over the elements, even stilling a “storm”, by his mere commands. Others are amazed at his ability. In this case, it is the gods who are amazed.

The plot of the story begins with the sage “going fishing”, a scene that is found to have mythical or metaphorical significance of life and death, entering a space between two worlds.

I find such literary comparisons interesting. I’m not saying the evangelists were adapting the myth of Adapa, of course. I am thinking about the way certain mythical tropes have been recycled and refashioned through changing human circumstances and experiences.

Cavigneaux, Antoine. 2014. “Une Version Sumérienne de La Légende d’Adapa (Textes de Tell Haddad X).” Zeitschrift Für Assyriologie Und Vorderasiatische Archäologie 104 (1): 1–41.

Sanders, Seth L. 2017. From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck. 42


The Sons of Jacob and the Sons of Heracles

We used to be taught that the first invasion of a Greek people into the Greek peninsula was the Dorian invasion. (Today that event appears to be generally regarded as mythical.) The Dorians of Greek myth were the Heracleidae, the descendants of Heracles, who undertook an “exodus” from the Peloponnesus and some generations later returned to reclaim and conquer their “promised land”. (Image from Wikimedia)

How reliable as historical records are the genealogies of patriarchs and the different tribes of Israel?

1977 saw the publication of Robert Wilson’s thesis, Genealogy and History in the Biblical World, a work that set the main framework for further studies of biblical genealogies. Wilson used two different studies of genealogies as a basis for comparing and understanding what the biblical ones were all about:

  1. Anthropological studies of oral tribal cultures, African and pre-Islamic Arabian;
  2. Amorite dynastic lists of Babylon and Assyria.

The genealogies found among African and Arab oral cultures were considered relevant because the biblical genealogies were believed to have derived from oral traditions. Wilson concluded that such genealogies preserved historical memories:

Although we have seen no anthropological evidence indicating that genealogies are created for the purpose of making a historical record, genealogies may nevertheless be considered historically accurate in the sense that they frequently express actual domestic, political relationships.7

7 Genealogy, p. 189

The use of oral traditions among current and recent tribal societies as a doorway into the biblical genealogies was rejected by John Van Seters who set out his reasons in several works. In In Search of History, for example, he wrote in response to Wilson’s Genealogy

It is, to my mind, highly questionable whether functional explanations of variations in genealogies based on anthropological analysis of oral societies can also apply to literary variations. Wilson does not examine the many contemporary literary genealogies in the Greek world.

(p. 48n)

If you took no notice of the title of this post then the predicate in the last sentence just alerted you to where this post is headed, at least if you are already aware of this blog’s interest in the relationship between the “Old Testament” and Greek literary culture (e.g. posts on books by Gmirkin, Wajdenbaum, Wesselius…). Expect in coming months another author to be added to those, Andrew Tobolowsky, author of The Sons of Jacob and the Sons of Herakles.

Andrew Tobolowsky

Tobolowsky points out that there is a significant structural difference between Babylonian and Assyrian royal genealogies on the one hand and those genealogies found in Genesis and the books of Chronicles on the other, is that the former are “linear”, that is, lists from father to son, while the latter are “segmented”, that is, following “multiple lines of descent, forming a kind of family tree.”

As Van Seters points out specifically about Wilson’s treatment:

On the one hand his Near Eastern linear genealogies, which derive from highly structured literate societies, bear very little resemblance to the segmented genealogies found in the book of Genesis. On the other hand, his discussion of the segmented genealogies and their comparison with Genesis is based upon anthropological studies of oral traditions in illiterate societies and this has created an artificial social and form-critical dichotomy.

Abraham Malamat, who generally embraces Wilson’s formulation, nevertheless adds:

Biblical genealogies represent a unique historical genre within the literature of the ancient Near East. I have here in mind not the so-called vertical lines of individuals such as the royal or priestly pedigree, which are common anywhere, but rather the ethnographical tables contained in the Book of Genesis… even more so… the ramified and wide-spread genealogies of the various Israelite tribes, assembled in the first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles. All these have no equal anywhere else in the ancient Near East.

As a result, as Van Seters pointed out and others have since confirmed, the better comparison with biblical genealogical discourse, especially as it is found in the book of Genesis, is neither the traditions of preliterate cultures nor linear king lists but the complex, literary genealogies that were particularly popular in the world of Greek myth.

(p. 4 — my highlighting)

Tobolowsky dates the creation of these biblical genealogies to the late Persian period. I suspect Russell Gmirkin whose books we have discussed here would suggest a later time, that of the Hellenistic era.

Tobolowsky, Andrew. 2017. The Sons of Jacob and the Sons of Herakles: The History of the Tribal System and the Organization of Biblical Identity. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Van Seters, John. 1983. In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History. New Haven: Yale University Press.


An interesting website for Greek Myth lovers

From Stephen Fry’s Mythos (which I have just finished reading)

The one website I would most heartily recommend is – a simply magnificent resource entirely dedicated to Greek myth. It is a Dutch and New Zealand project that contains over 1,500 pages of text and a gallery of 1,200 pictures comprising vase paintings, sculpture, mosaics and frescoes on Greek mythological themes. It offers thorough indexing, genealogies and subject headings. The bibliography is superb, and can lead one on a labyrinthine chase, hopping from source to source like an excited butterfly-collector.


“Demons Crucified Jesus ON EARTH” – according to ancient sources and modern analysis

If you still think that to say that “rulers of this age” (demons) crucified Jesus means that they crucified him in one of the heavens you have missed my recent post,  What they used to say about Paul’s “rulers of this age” who crucified the “lord of glory”. More easily forgivable, you have also missed or forgotten a series by Roger Parvus back in 2013, in particular A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 7: The Source of Simon/Paul’s Gospel.

In the first of those posts I quote from the Gospel of Nicodemus (also known as the Acts of Pilate) the crystal clear belief that the head demon was responsible for crucifying Jesus on earth.

Roger Parvus presents the argument that Paul believed Jesus descended to earth where he was crucified by the demonic forces. Parvus’s argument draws upon an analysis of the Ascension of Isaiah to support his case.

While it is certainly not impossible that demons who are busy fighting each other in the lower heavens could also crucify a Jesus who had descended from upper heavens for that purpose, I personally favour Roger Parvus’s view. Jesus descended to earth for a short time for the sole purpose of being crucified, descending into hell, being resurrected and returning to his original place in heaven.


What they used to say about Paul’s “rulers of this age” who crucified the “lord of glory”

In the previous post we looked at the arguments that “the rulers of this age” were human authorities or a combination of spiritual and human authorities as set out by Robert Ewusie Moses (REM) from his Duke University Doctor of Theology thesis of 2012, Powerful Practices: Paul’s Principalities and Powers Revisited. We now begin the case for the earliest known interpretation (Ignatius, Marcion, Justin) that the rulers of this age were spiritual or angelic beings.

Where to begin? REM notes that the literature on this view is “immense” so I start by putting REM’s thesis aside and consulting some of that literature. We have spoken of the older scholarship overwhelmingly viewing the “rulers of this age” as spirit powers so let’s look at some of that seriously older scholarship.


Otto Everling, 1888

Everling, Otto. 1888. Die paulinische Angelologie und Dämonologie: Ein biblisch-theologischer Versuch. Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht. pp. 11-25

The rulers of this age

  • have wisdom but not the wisdom of God
  • are currently (present tense) in the process of losing their power
  • crucified the Lord of Glory

No class of humans meet all three characteristics. Furthermore, it stretches credulity to think that Paul or anyone would have extrapolated from the actions of Caiaphas, Annas and Pilate that all the rulers of the earth, this cosmos or age, were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, let alone that anyone would have understood Pilate to have been a representative of “the wisdom of this age”.

That Paul had angelic powers in mind is supported by contemporary literature that do speak of angels has having a certain wisdom but a wisdom that is limited as well as power over this world

Paul wrote elsewhere of angels being currently in the process of losing their power and that that loss of power will be complete after Christ has finished his reign: 1 Cor. 15:24.

Satan himself is said to be a ruler of this world: John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11, Eph 2:2, cf 2 Cor 4:4, and the ruler of this time of iniquity: Barnabas 18:2. Satan’s knowledge was known to be incomplete as we read in Ignatius’s letter to the Ephesians 19:1.

In Paul’s mind this world is populated not only with humans but with angelic powers. He speaks of himself as one of those doomed to die in the arena of the “cosmos” or world as a spectacle to both people and angels in 1 Cor 4:9. In Paul’s world, angels were active and were destined to be judged by human followers of Christ, 1 Cor 6:3. Satan himself worked on God’s behalf to destroy the flesh of sinners: 1 Cor 5:5. This last passage reminds us of the Destroying Angel working on God’s behalf in the Old Testament. Another reminder of that Destroying Angel is the fate of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:5-10.

Paul also spoke of a servant of Satan attacking his flesh: 2 Cor 12:7.

Paul and his contemporaries understood that their struggles were against heavenly powers, wicked spirits and that these beings had power over flesh and blood. But good spirits were also there to serve the righteous: e.g. Heb 1:14.

Otto Everling’s discussion of this hidden world of angels is far more extensive than I can outline here. Hopefully I have at least hit on some of his main points. read more »

Stonehenge — Coincidences, Assumptions and Theories

Fascinating. Stonehenge’s location may be related to a certain natural landscape feature that quite by chance coincided with the sun’s coordinates for the midsummer solstice.

So I learned last night from a doco that featured the theory of Mike Parker Pearson. Gullies running from the stonehenge in a line pointing to the position of the midsummer solstice sun on the horizon were long assumed to be manmade simply because of that alignment. Elementary, My Dear Watson.

Archaeological excavations on those pathways, however, apparently led to the realization that they were not manmade at all but were a geological structure, presumably gouged out by a retreating glacier long before Stonehenge itself.

(Okay, don’t tell me everyone else knew that and I am the last to catch up!)

If so, then we evidently have an explanation for the location of Stonehenge, way out there in the otherwise middle of nowhere.