Rendsburg on Genesis and Gilgamesh: Misunderstanding and Misrepresenting the Documentary Hypothesis (Part 2)

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Tim Widowfield

[Author’s note: I wrote this back in 2014, but decided to put in on the back burner for a bit, setting the publication clock five years ahead. The post below, which auto-published yesterday, is not actually finished. I will soon submit a third part to this series, with a summation and conclusions. taw]

Hieronymus Bosch - Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat ...
Hieronymus Bosch – Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat (obverse) – WGA2574 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rendsburg’s thesis

As we discussed in part 1, Gary Rendsburg believes that we shouldn’t try to divide the Genesis flood story based on supposed source documents, namely the Yahwist (J) and the Priestly (P) sources. He writes:

If one reads the two stories as separate entities, one will find that elements of a whole story are missing from either the J or the P version. Only when read as a whole does Genesis 6-8 read as a complete story, and — here is the most important point I wish to make — not only as a complete story, but as a narrative paralleling perfectly the Babylonian flood story tradition recorded in Gilgameš Tablet XI, point by point, and in the same order. Perfectly, that is, after taking into account elements found in the biblical narrative but lacking in the Babylonian story, indicated by a minus sign in the right hand column of the accompanying chart — given the distinctively Israelite theological position inherent to Genesis 6-8 . . .  (Rendsburg, 2004, p. 115-116)

We’ll save Rendsburg’s chart for the end. For now, let’s examine his argument closely and see if it holds up under close scrutiny.

Essentially, Rendsburg is offering a counter-argument to the consensus view that the redactor of Genesis pulled together two sources (J and P), which most likely both came from the earlier Babylonian and Sumerian myths. Instead, he maintains that the author of Genesis appropriated the flood story directly from the Gilgamesh epic, adding only those theological elements peculiar to the Israelite religion. His argument depends on proving the coherence and unity of the Genesis story, combined with the “perfect” correspondence between the order of events in Genesis and in Tablet XI of the Gilgamesh epic.

In his audio course on the book of Genesis, Rendsburg says:

Materials, dimensions, and decks

Now note that not only are all these [story] elements present, one by one, as we work through the two stories that we are comparing here, but that they are also in the same order. Now, in certain cases, of course, there is no opportunity for a variation in the order. That is to say, you have to build the ark before the flood comes, and the flood has to come before it lands on a mountain top, and so on. But even where there is room for variation, the two stories proceed, element by element, in the same order.

Let me give you an example of that. In the Gilgamesh story the materials, the dimensions, and the decks are given in that order; in the biblical story the materials, the dimensions, and the decks are given in that order. And of course, you may say, “Well, that’s perfectly logical — how else would you else would you instruct somebody to build a vessel?” But nevertheless, it’s still noteworthy. (Rendsburg, 2006a, 7:38, emphasis mine)

I have to confess that even if Rendsburg is correct, I don’t find his argument persuasive. Consider the possibility that the J and P source material both (independently) borrowed from the story of Utnapishtim or, for that matter, from the earlier story of Atrahasis. We could reasonably assume that each story would generally follow the same sequence, and that the redactor would have little reason to deviate from that sequence.

We should note here that with his presentation of the evidence Rendsburg is in fact trying to prove two points: first, that the flood story in Genesis is secondary to the older flood myths of Mesopotamia, and second, that the order of events in Noah’s flood tale “perfectly” parallel the events as told by Untapishtim in the Gilgamesh epic. Moreover, he argues, that perfect correspondence falls by the wayside if we try to split the Genesis story into its source components.

With all of that in mind, let’s examine his first claim, viz. that the two stories relate “materials, dimensions, and decks” in that order.  Sure enough, in Genesis here’s the order:

6:14 Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with rooms, and shall cover it inside and out with pitch

6:15 This is how you shall make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its breadth fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits.

6:16 You shall make a window for the ark, and finish it to a cubit from the top; and set the door of the ark in the side of it; you shall make it with lower, second, and third decks. (NASB)

Now let’s take a look at the story as told by Utnapishtim. Ea does not directly tell our hero that a flood is coming. Rather, he talks to a reed hut, which just happens to be Utnapishtim’s dwelling. That is to say, he whispers through the wall of the hut in order to pass on his instructions. Ea says:

24. Tear down (thy) house, build a ship!
25. Abandon (thy) possessions, seek (to save) life!
26. Disregard (thy) goods, and save (thy) life!
27. [Cause to] go up into the ship the seed of all living creatures.

(Heidel, 1949, p. 81)

We already see significant differences between the two stories. God tells Noah to collect materials to build an ark, literally a box (similar to the “chest” built by Deucalion). On the other hand, Ea indirectly tells Utnapishtim to dismantle his house and build a ship.

In what order does Ea provide his ship-building instructions?

28. The ship which thou shalt build,
29. Its measurements shall be (accurately) measured;
30. Its width and its length shall be equal.
31. Cover it [li]ke the subterranean waters.’

(Heidel, 1949, p. 81, emphasis mine)

Ea is already discussing the dimensions and characteristics of the boat, but he hasn’t yet mentioned anything about materials. (We would remind Dr. Rendsburg that width and length are what we call “dimensions.”) In line 31 we have a clue that the boat will differ from ordinary in that it needs to be covered, presumably to keep out the coming torrential rains. Of course, since his job will be to save all life, Untapishtim’s boat will naturally need to be rather large.

We might theorize that if Utnapishtim will be using materials from his torn-down dwelling, reeds will be involved. Far from forests, the people of ancient Mesopotamia built their houses and boats out of reeds. In cases where they did use wood (e.g., for seagoing vessels), it was probably only for the keel, spars, oars, and punting poles. (See Mäkelä, 2002, for details on ancient shipbuilding in Mesopotamia.) That said, some scholars have suggested that the “water-stoppers” mentioned in line 63 refer to wedge-shaped chunks of wood driven into the seams to prevent leaking.

In fact, we have no explicit evidence of wood as a building material in the Gilgamesh epic, but we do have clues in the earlier Babylonian flood story from which it is derived. On tablet III, lines 48-51 we find:

The carpenter [carried his axe],
The reed-worker [carried his stone],
[The rich man? carried] the pitch,
The poor man [brought the materials needed].

(Foster, 1995, p. 72)
[Note: Some reconstructed texts of the Gilgamesh epic insert the lines concerning the carpenter and reed-worker above line 54. However, it is not actually part of the received text.]

Ea provides no more specifics on building the ship, although lines 50 through 53 are usually considered too fragmentary to translate. We do find out that pitch plays a role from line 54:

54. The child [brou]ght pitch,
55. (While) the strong brought [whatever else] was needful.

(Heidel, 1949, p. 82)

Utnapishtim then describes the measurements in greater detail:

56. On the fifth day [I] laid its framework.
57. One ikû [about an acre] was its floor space, one hundred and twenty cubits each was the height of its walls;
58. One hundred and twenty cubits measured each side of its decks.

(Heidel, 1949, p. 82)

So, what of Rendsburg’s claim that the two stories match perfectly when compare side by side? His first test case fails on the evidence. Ea does not follow the same pattern as God in Genesis. Indeed, we do not see references to “materials, dimensions, and decks . . . in that order.” Ea starts with a command to build a ship, and immediately starts talking about its dimensions (again, see lines 29 and 30).

As far as we can tell from the text, the god never talks about materials, presumably because Utnapishtim is building a known structure: a boat (albeit of unusual size). We do finally get references to “decks,” but not until line 58.

Wood, reeds, and pitch

Rendsburg desperately wants to find perfect correspondence — so much so that he insists on a rather unusual translation of Genesis 6:14. He writes in the course guide:

Note that all translations agree on two of the building materials for the ark: wood and pitch. The third item is the subject of some discussion, however. The consonants in the biblical text, namely, QNYM, can be read as either qinnim, “rooms, compartments” (thus the traditional rendering), or qanim, “reeds” (thus some recent translations). We favor the latter understanding, especially because reeds constitute the third building material in the Gilgamesh Epic flood narrative. (Rendsburg, 2006b, p. 16)

I won’t try to argue Hebrew with Rendsburg. I will only mention the following two points:

  1. The translation of the word in the text as “reeds” rather than “rooms” is exceedingly rare. No major translation in English uses it. In fact, other than the Everett Fox translation and commentary that Rendsburg cites, I know of no other translation that uses it.
  2. If we go with “compartments” (as the vast majority of translators do), we still have a viable parallel in the Gilgamesh epic, namely:

59. I ‘laid the shape’ of the outside (and) fashioned it [the ship]. 
60. Six (lower) decks I built into it,
61. (Thus) dividing (it) into seven (stories).
62. Its ground plan I divided into nine (sections).

(Heidel, 1949, p. 82, emphasis mine)

Hence, we have good reason to believe that the author of the P source inherited the tradition that the ship (or in his case, the ark) that saved all animal life had various sections or compartments.

Mountain landing, then birds

Where else might we find the perfect correspondence that Rendsburg craves? He continues (in his lecture):

Perhaps at the end is where we can see the room for some variation. That is to say, it might have been to send out the birds first, and then have the ark to land on a mountaintop. But no, in both stories the mountaintop landing occurs first, and then the birds are sent forth. (Rendsburg, 2006, 8:27)

In print, Rendsburg concedes the alternative order is improbable.

I agree that such an order of events is far less likely than the order which appears in the biblical narrative. but it is possible nonetheless. It is therefore pertinent to point out that Genesis 8 parallels the Babylonian flood story, with the mountain top landing preceding the sending forth of the birds. (Rendsburg, 2007, p. 117)

I would argue that it simply makes more narrative sense for the flood hero to realize they’ve come to a stop, wonder about where they might be and whether it’s safe to leave, and only then hit upon the idea of using the birds. In other words, the mountain landing causes Noah and Utnapishtim to send out the birds. Hermann Gunkel comments:

The following, lovingly presented scene (6b- 12, 13b) has the goal of portraying the exceedingly great wisdom of Noah. No one in the Ark knows where they are and how things look outside. No one dares open the door—great streams of water could surge in—or take off the roof—the rain could begin again. One can look out the window, but through it one sees only the heavens above. What shall one do? How shall one learn whether the earth is dry? In this difficult situation the clever Noah knows a means. If one cannot exit oneself, one can send the birds to reconnoiter. “It was an old nautical practice, indispensable in a time which did not know the compass, to bring birds along to be released on the high seas so that the direction to land could be determined by their flight” [quoting Hermann Usener in Die Sintfluthsagen] . . . (Gunkel, 1997, p. 64, emphasis mine)

Liberation, then sacrifice

We have saved for last what Rendsburg considers his strongest argument. Again, from his audio course:

And most importantly, I think the place for . . . the best possibility of variation is the very, very end of the story where it’s very possible that the flood hero — Noah or Utnapishtim — could have done the sacrifices before letting everybody go free. But no, in both stories all are set free, and then the sacrifices occur. So I repeat the statement here: Element by element the two stories — the Gilgamesh Epic, Tablet XI (the Babylonian flood tradition), and the biblical story with Noah as its hero in Genesis 6 through 8 — tell the tale one by one, element by element in the same order. (Rendsburg, 2006a, 8:45)

He really does think it’s his strongest argument. In his 2004 article he wrote:

I refer especially to the end of the story, where both Noah and Utnapishtim could have performed the sacrifices first. While all were still on the ark, and only later everyone free. But in both cases the order is first to set everyone free and then to perform the sacrifices. In Noah’s case, in fact, the order is counterintuitive. If he first set all the animals free and then performed the sacrifices, as the story now reads, one might ask. What happened? Did he call the pure animals back in order to sacrifice them? (Rendsburg, 2004, p. 117)

Obviously, the implication is clear: Noah set all the animals free, except for the handful which he intended to sacrifice. But my point is this: if the redactor had before him two stories, the supposed J account and the supposed P account, the former including the sacrifices and the latter including the hero’s setting everyone free, I would imagine that the redactor would have woven his story with these two elements in that order the sacrifices first, while the animals were still present, and then the setting of everyone free. But such is not the case. At the end of Genesis 8. Noah first sets the animals free and then performs the sacrifices.



Foster, Benjamin R.

From Distant Days: Myths, Tales, and Poetry of Ancient Mesopotamia, CDL Press, 1995

Gunkel, Hermann

Genesis [Translated and Interpreted by Hermann Gunkel], trans. Biddle, Mercer University Press, 1997 (English translation of 1910 edition)

Heidel, Alexander

The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels, The University of Chicago Press, 1949

Mäkelä, Tommi Tapani

Ships and Shipbuilding in Mesopotamia (PDF),” Texas A&M University Graduate Thesis, 2002

Rendsburg, Gary

“The Biblical Flood Story in Light of the Gilgameš Flood Account,” pp. 115-127, Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria, ed. Azize J., Weeks N., Peeters, 2007

“Genesis 6-8, The Flood Story (Lecture 7),” The Book of Genesis, The Great Courses, 2006a

“Lecture 7: Genesis 6-8, The Flood Story,” The Book of Genesis (Course Guide), The Great Courses, 2006b

Wellhausen, Julius

Prolegomena to the History of Israel, trans. Black and Menzies, Adam and Charles Black, 1885


Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 4: Genre

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by Tim Widowfield

In the last installment, we covered oral tradition. As I look over the post now, I see that I missed several opportunities to add the adjective, “rich.” Biblical scholars love to write the words “rich oral tradition.” How, you may ask, do they know such details about something based mostly on conjecture? Watch out! If you keep asking questions like that, you’ll earn yourself demerits for skepticism.

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew
The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bart Ehrman naturally considers it important to expound upon the rich oral tradition™ behind the gospels, because it connects the historical Jesus to the written New Testament. Serious scholars would probably also care about how the evangelists assembled that material. They would ask themselves what the authors intended. Did they think they were writing biographies, histories, hagiographies, novels, or what? Were authors of the gospels even conscious of what they were doing; did they have a plan?

What is a gospel?

An actual historian would most likely start with the written work first, and work back from there. He or she would want to determine the type of document we’re dealing with — i.e., the genre of the gospels. We’ve covered this topic many times on Vridar, including my series about how the consensus changed dramatically over the past century.

As we learned previously, the form critics cared about genre, too. Rudolf Bultmann called it the first task of form criticism. Until we confirm that the gospel of Mark is not a story about Jesus, but a collection of stories about Jesus, we have no solid grounds for dividing the book into individual pericopae (that supposedly came from distinct oral streams).

Oddly enough, the scholar credited as the father of Formgeschichte, Hermann Gunkel, never used the word. Rather, he focused on the Gattung or genre of the literature in the Old Testament. He well understood the need to identify the book of Genesis as a large collection of individual traditions assembled under the guiding hand of gifted redactors. He accepted the prevailing Graf-Wellhausen theory that the Pentateuch is composed of four main separate, written sources: J, E, D, and P. But he also argued that the individual source documents reflect much older oral tradition.

Are the gospels written “memories”?

However, in Jesus Before the Gospels, Bart Ehrman sidesteps the entire issue, preferring instead to treat the gospels as memories. At least in the case of their readers, the gospels certainly became memories. But he does not provide any sustained credible argument that the gospel stories had been actual memories of their communities, let alone give us any reason to believe that such memories go back to real events that occurred in the life of Jesus.

He introduces his discussion of the canonical gospels not by telling us they are biographies, histories, or whatever. Skipping over the unpleasant task of trying to place the gospels in their literary setting, he simply asserts they are writings that contain memories. Ehrman explains: Continue reading “Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 4: Genre”


Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 2: Form Criticism

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by Tim Widowfield

In my previous post, I discussed the basic element of Bart Ehrman’s understanding of Maurice Halbwachs, the founder of the study of collective memory. This time, I’d like to focus on his remarks concerning Formgeschichte (form criticism) as it applies to the New Testament in general and memory theory in particular.

Basic Element 2: Form Criticism

“Forget it — he’s rolling.”

♦ Dibelius said what?

This is more like a scholar of American history saying that George Washington wrote the Declaration of Independence.

jesusbeforeBart gets on a roll in Jesus Before the Gospels, as he describes the early form critics. He writes:

The authors of the Gospels—all of them, not just Mark—wrote down stories that had been passed along by word of mouth for years and decades before they wrote. For that reason, when the Gospel writers produced their accounts, they were not simply inventing the stories themselves; but they were also not recording what actually happened based on direct testimony. They were stringing together stories that had long been circulating among the Christian communities. For [Martin] Dibelius, “stringing together” is precisely what the Gospel writers did. The Gospel stories are “pearls on a string.” The authors provided the string, but they inherited the pearls. (Ehrman, 2016, p. 46, emphasis mine)

It would appear that Ehrman wishes to attribute the well-known metaphor, pearls on a string, to Martin Dibelius. When I first saw it, I thought, “I must not be reading that right.” But then I noticed a post on his blog, entitled “The Next Step: Redaction Criticism,” in which he wrote: Continue reading “Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 2: Form Criticism”


The Memory Mavens, Part 1: A Brief Introduction to Memory Theory

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by Tim Widowfield

Maurice Halbwachs
Maurice Halbwachs, French Philosopher and Sociologist, 1877-1945

A muddle of mavens

For several months now, I’ve been poring over works written by a contingent of New Testament scholars who I like to call the Memory Mavens. This group claims that “memory theory” offers new perspectives on Jesus traditions and provides new insights on how those traditions eventually found their way into the written gospels. Some of the best-known authors in this subfield include Alan Kirk, Tom Thatcher, Anthony Le Donne, and Chris Keith. In this introduction we’ll examine some of the basic ideas in memory theory, while attempting to nail down some definitions and core concepts.

Unfortunately, the often imprecise and confusing language in use under the umbrella of “memory,” tends to impede our understanding. Much of the ambiguity in terminology stems from the broad range of meanings that encompass the English word “memory,” which can refer to a personal recollection, the human faculty or ability to remember, a commemorated event, or a given period of time in which things are remembered. But the addition of psychological and sociological layers aggravates the problem, especially when people simply use the word “memory” without clear context or antecedent.

If you search for works on memory, you will find countless examples of self-help books whose authors promise to improve your recollection of names, numbers, events, and anything else you want to remember. On a somber note, you will also find many books discussing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Generally speaking, when most people hear the term “memory theory,” they think of the faculty of (individual) human memory or the physiological and psychological aspects of personal recollection.

The constructed past

“A specialised area of research is ‘collective memory’, which is the notion that people remember together with other people and that memory is constructed in, by and for a social group. Collective memory in relation to smaller groups is sometimes called ‘social memory’, whereas, in relation to whole cultures, it tends to be called ‘cultural memory’. Both types of collective memory include ‘memory sites’ such as works of art, ritual acts, symbols, celebrations, memorials, libraries, writings and much more, all of which reinforce the collective identity of a people.” (Duling, 2011, p.1)

However, when the Memory Mavens talk about “memory,” they usually mean collective memory. In the 1920s, sociologist Maurice Halbwachs observed that we do not remember the past independently, but within groups, and that we understand and interpret all memories, even those we experience directly, within social frameworks. Hence, we have no access to the direct past; we see only the interpretation of the past as it is shaped by present circumstances.

Halbwachs’ theory of collective memory may at first seem paradoxical. It changes our focus from the past to the present, while it diminishes the role of the individual in favor of the group. The past, then, is not so much retrieved from our personal recollections, but rather constructed in the present by means of our current social frameworks.

[T]he collective frameworks of memory are not constructed after the fact by the combination of individual recollections; nor are they empty forms where recollections coming from elsewhere would insert themselves. Collective frameworks are, to the contrary, precisely the instruments used by the collective memory to reconstruct an image of the past which is in accord, in each epoch, with the predominant thoughts of the society. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 40)

Taken to the extreme, collective memory theory erases the past, replacing it with the present, and equates tradition history with fiction, leaving us nothing but mere constructed stories. As a result we see scholars periodically chastising “presentist,” “constructivist” sociologists for being too skeptical. For example, Jan Vansina wrote:

Continue reading “The Memory Mavens, Part 1: A Brief Introduction to Memory Theory”


Rendsburg on Genesis and Gilgamesh: Misunderstanding and Misrepresenting the Documentary Hypothesis (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

Landscape with Noah's Thank Offering (painting...
Landscape with Noah’s Thank Offering (painting circa 1803 by Joseph Anton Koch) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Doubting the Documentary Hypothesis

Back in October of last year I mentioned that I wanted at some point in the future to take a more detailed look at Gary Rendsburg’s audio course on Genesis, with special emphasis on the Documentary Hypothesis (DH). As you recall, Rendsburg doubts many of the claims advanced by DH scholars, especially Julius Wellhausen.

While he would grant the existence of another tradition behind the book of Leviticus (i.e., the Priestly or P source), as well as behind the book of Deuteronomy (i.e., the Deuteronomist, D), Rendsburg rejects the idea of trying to separate sources in the book of Genesis. He prefers to understand the text as a unified whole.

As with many DH-doubters, Rendsburg reserves a special level of skepticism (if not outright disdain) for the notion that two separate sources comprise the story of the Great Flood (Gen. 6-9). In his 2004 article, “The Biblical Flood Story in the Light of the Gilgameš Flood Account” (in the pricey Gilgameš and the World of Assyria), Rendsburg insists that we cannot split the story into the supposed P and J (i.e., Jahwist or Yahwist) sources, because:

If one reads the two stories as separate entities, one will find that elements of a whole story are missing from either the J or the P version. Only when read as a whole does Genesis 6-8 read as a complete story, and — here is the most important point I wish to make — not only as a complete story, but as a narrative paralleling perfectly the Babylonian flood story tradition recorded in Gilgameš Tablet XI, point by point, and in the same order. (Rendsburg, 2004, p. 115)

He finds the very idea worthy of derision.

That is to say, according to the dominant view of biblical scholars, we are supposed to believe that two separate authors wrote two separate accounts of Noah and the flood, and that neither of them included all the elements found in the Gilgameš Epic, but that when the two were interwoven by the redactor, voilà, the story paralleled the Gilgameš flood story point-by-point, feature-by-feature, element-by-element. (Rendsburg, 2004, p. 116, emphasis mine)

Rendsburg unwittingly provides an object lesson in how conservative scholars habitually misunderstand and misrepresent the DH. In this and subsequent posts we’ll look at his thesis, as he put it, point by point.

Two sources: separate and complete?

Prof. Rendsburg makes the common mistake of assuming Wellhausen believed that the flood story in Genesis could be separated into two complete sources. But, in fact, he said no such thing.

Continue reading “Rendsburg on Genesis and Gilgamesh: Misunderstanding and Misrepresenting the Documentary Hypothesis (Part 1)”