Defending the Theistic View

The Myth of Jesus: A Refutation of the Zeitgeist — Part 8

After Zeitgeist finishes its claims that Jesus and the Bible are based on astrology, it then makes the favorite argument that many skeptics and Jesus-Mythers make frequently: It accuses the Bible of plagiarizing from the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The story of Noah and Noah’s Ark is taken directly from tradition. The concept of a Great Flood is ubiquitous throughout the ancient world, with over 200 different cited claims in different periods and times. However, one need look no further for a pre-Christian source than the Epic of Gilgamesh, written in 2600 b.c. This story talks of a Great Flood commanded by God, an Ark with saved animals upon it, and even the release and return of a dove, all held in common with the biblical story, among many other similarities.

It is not my purpose to claim that the flood accounts in both the Book of Genesis and tablet eleven of the Epic of Gilgamesh aren’t  similar because they are. With the undeniable similarities betwen Noah and Gilgamesh, there are at least three possibilities to draw up on: 1) The writter of Genesis copied Gilgamesh. 2) Gilgamesh copies Genesis. And 3) The two flood accounts describe the same event from different viewpoints and share a common source.

Needless to say, most Christ-Mythers will accept the first option without the slightest doubt. The second option is pretty unlikely because the Sumarian sources of the Gilgamesh account were written at about 1647 to 1626 BC while Genesis was written between 1437 to 1397 BC. — Personally I subscribe to the third option.

The similarities should not really come as a shock. Biblically, the area where the Gilgamesh tablets of the flood were found is where the first decendents of Noah came to live. It is not unlogical for the early Sumarians to have a very vivid memory of the flood. — But there are also some important differences that the film predictable does not mention while only emphasizing the similarities.

A major difference between the Genesis story and the Gilgamesh epic is that God decided to send a flood to destroy most of humanity because of continual evil. The Gilgamesh epic actually does not specify why the flood was sent other than to say that “the hearts of the Great Gods moved then to inflict the flood.”

A reason for the flood of Gilgamesh, however, can be found by looking at the older source for the Gilgamesh Epic. The tablets of the Gilgamesh epic are actually from the seventh century BC, but the story is older and most likely is taken from the older text from the mid-to-late 17th century BC called “The Epic of Atrahasis.” — Even though the section of the  older tablet has been lost, it is known that the it said that humanity was too noisy so the gods decided to destroy all humanity in order to have some peace. — It can be established that the Gilgamesh Epic did source that of Atrahasis because in one line the hero of the Gilgamesh flood is called by Atrahasis’ name (apparently by an accidental slip).

The gods took an oath of secrecy uttered by Annu obviously to keep their plans a secret from everyone else. — Ea, the one god that didn’t wish for humanity to be destroyed, found a loophole from the oath by not warning the hero of the flood story directly, but by making it appear to him in a dream.

Another difference between the two accounts is that Noah is warned by God because he alone was righteous (Genesis 6: 7, 9). — As for Utanapishtim, the hero of the Gilgamesh flood, there is no indication that he was particularly righteous. As a matter of fact, it appears the god Ea encouraged him to lie to anyone asking him about his boat, though for understandable reasons,

I [Utanapishtim] understood and spoke to my lord, Ea:
  ‘My lord, thus is the command which you have uttered
  I will heed and will do it.
  But what shall I answer the city, the populace, and the
Ea spoke, commanding me, his servant:
  ‘You, well then, this is what you must say to them:
   “It appears that Enlil is rejecting me
   so I cannot reside in your city (?),
   nor set foot on Enlil’s earth.
   I will go down to the Apsu to live with my lord, Ea,
   and upon you he will rain down abundance,
   a profusion of fowl, myriad(!) fishes.
   He will bring to you a harvest of wealth,
   in the morning he will let loaves of bread shower down,
   and in the evening a rain of wheat!”‘

Basically, Ea is telling Utanapishishtim to tell the elders (if they ask him what he’s up to) that the god Enlil will not bless them until he leaves the city of Shuruppak. He is told to lie, seemingly, because the flood is still a “secret of the gods,” besides it being a give-away to the other gods bent on the destruction of mankind that somebody was warned of what they planned on doing.

Even though Zeitgeist points out gleefully that both stories have the hero sending out a dove to support the idea that Genesis copied even the most minute detail, a carefull readingof bothflood accounts shows that Genesis actually comes out with the upper hand. — In Genesis 8: 8, 11, Noah sent the dove twice to see if it could find land because the earth was still covered, except for a couple of mountain peaks. The first time it could find none, but did on the second try.

However, the Gilgamesh Epic does not give a reason for Utanapishishtim to send out any birds. — It cannot be to find land like Noah because before he sent out the dove he himself already caught a good view of land himself,

I looked around for coastlines in the expanse of the sea,
and at twelve leagues there emerged a region (of land).

It should be emphasized that this was before the Gilgamesh epic says he sent the dove. So basically, there is really no point to Utanapishishtim sending out the dove, or any of the others (a swollow and a raven.) The truth is it just doesn’t fit in the story.

What happens to both heroes at the end of their stories is also very different despite the similarities in the sacrifices offered after the food. — According to Genesis, God blessed Noah and promised never again to wipe out mankind with a flood. According to the Gilgamesh epic, the god Enlil is angered when he finds out that there were human survivors of the flood. Ea finally admits to him that he warned the hero in advanced without breaking the oath of silence.

As for Utanapishishtim like Noah, it is actually a pretty mixed bag,

He [Enlil] touched our forehead and, standing between us, he
                            blessed us:
 ‘Previously Utanapishtimwas a human being.
 But now let Utanapishtim and his wife become like us,
                               the gods!
 Let Utanapishtim reside far away, at the Mouth of the Rivers.’
They took us far away and settled us at the Mouth of the Rivers.”
“Now then, who will convene the gods on your behalf,
  that you may find the life that you are seeking!
  Wait! You must not lie down for six days and seven nights.”
soon as he sat down (with his head) between his legs
sleep, like a fog, blew upon him.

He and his wife are granted godhood. However they are also banished far awar so nobody can convene to the gods for their sakes and they are also sleep deprived for a week. The “blessing” is different from that of Noah, and I would actually call it a curse as well.

A very important difference are the structures of the two arks. The description of the ark as described in Genesis 6: 16, 17  was for it to be 300 cubits long (450 feet), 50 cubits wide (75 feet), 30 cubits high (45 feet) and a window a cubit high (of 18 inches).

When Ea tells  Utanapishishtim about the dimensions of the boat that he must build, Ea says,

  The boat which you are to build,
  its dimensions must measure equal to each other:
  its length must correspond to its width.
  Roof it over like the Apsu.

So basically he is told to construct a cube shape whose walls were all 10 times 12 cubits high and wide with the top and bottom being of equal size, making it about fifteen times larger than Noah’s Ark. — Also Utanapishishtim’s ark is described as having six levels while Noah’s ark has three.

The shapes of the two arks may seem like only a minor difference among many similarities. But the fact is that this difference is very important because it comes down to how would these two different arks would fair under a cataclysmic flood.

In an analysis (Text Link) it turns out that Utanapishishtim’s ark would not be in so much danger in capsizing. This seems okay until one looks at what else would happen with it,

Looking more like on oversize buoy than any ship known to man, the Gilgamesh ark has the potential to survive waves from any direction. The big loser is seakeeping. Passengers will get no relief from the vigorous accelerations – roll, pitch, yaw, heave, surge and sway. In a gentle sea, these motions would be uncomfortable but when it gets rough these  accelerations could be lethal [. . . ] Accelerations are high in hull #5 which means the passengers get knocked over or seasick. On the Gilgamesh ark they will be lucky to stay in one piece. A few waves would make the upper decks un-inhabitable. No solutions are apparent for ventilation and lighting.

Basically, the ark, as described in the Gilgamesh Epic would have been uninhabitable and the passengers would have gotten knocked all over the place and probably killed.

In contrast, according to a study done by Dr. Seon Won Hong (who holds a BS in Naval Architecture), Noah’s Ark would be capable of a lot more punishment and able to navigate with sea conditions with waves higher than 30 meters (or 98.43 feet) high. (Text Link)

Now what does this difference prove? — I say this actually refutes the popular idea that the writer of Genesis copied off the Gilgamesh epic. Had it been plagiarized, it is more than likely that the plagiarist would have also copied the poor dimensions of the ark of Utanapishishtim, or even would have given it even worse structure. It should be pointed out that the Hebrews were not known as skillful ship builders, or even as sailors for that matter.

Since Noah’s Ark is by far superior in structure and stability to the other this shows that, even though Genesis was written later, it has an important mark of authenticity that the Gilgamesh epic does not have. — This is why I subscribe to the idea that both flood accounts share a common source, instead of one copying the other.

On top of that fact, as I read the flood according to the Gilgamesh epic and the Genesis flood account were quite different in the literary sense — That is one does not show literary dependence on the other. This is not not consistent with the idea that Jewish scribes copied the Babylonian tablets. Glenn Miller of Christian Thinktank did a very detailed study on the literary differences between the Babylonian and Sumarian tablets of the flood accounts and the comparison with the Biblical account as well as other differences there are between then. If you are interested in reading it then click here to see it. — Also, the Associates for Biblical Research did a survey on the similarities and differences of the two flood accounts that can be found here and here.

Even though it is perfectly understandable for Zeitgeist, the Movie to make the over simplified claim that since the Gilgamesh epic was written down first that Noah must be a copy, this assumption does not take into account the superiority of the Genesis version found in certain detailes such as the sending of the dove and especially the superior stucture to Noah’s Ark itself to the Gilgamesh ark. Also, the fact that the two stories do not show literary dependence to eachother also helps to refute the charge of plagiarism.

3 responses

  1. Pingback: The Myth of Jesus: A Refutation of the Zeitgeist — Part 9 « Explanation

  2. beebok

    That’s supposed to be a refutation? Because there are some differences? That’s real desperation.
    The two stories are just too similar for the Genesis story to not have been influenced by the Gilgamesh story. Just because it isn’t an exact copy doesn’t negate the obvious parallels which show that the latter borrowed from the former. It only shows that such stories were common, and an altered version of the flood story came to the Genesis writer through several generations and who probably added his own flourishes on top of the many changes made by many people since then.

    November 5, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    • krissmith777

      True, it doesn’t negate that at all. But it would be an oversimplification to just jump to the conclusion that one was the origin of the other. The view I currently have (and bare in mind that this post was written two years ago) is that it doesn’t really matter if one influenced the other…. But it wasn’t necessarily that way, and the literary divergence itself is what would be expected if they didn’t. The common details are at the least evidence of a common source of a real event., not necesarily that one was borrowed from the other. As an example as to how this could be: The Hittites and Egyptians give accounts about the battle of Qadesh in the 12th century BC and give common details. One didn’t influence the other, but have a common source. Could Gilgamesh have influenced Noah? Yes. Did it necessarily influence it? No. Does it matter? Not really. But are the two based on a real event? Well, considering the archeological evidence of a flood in Mesopotamia in 2900 BC, it seems to be.

      [I am accepting your comment despite the fact that I have decided several months ago that NO more comments would be approved on this blog since it is really no longer active. (See the last post given on this blog)]

      November 8, 2010 at 12:16 am

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