A few weeks back I touched on a subject that I want to talk about a bit more thoroughly: the similarities between the Bible and ancient pagan mythology. The modern world loves to point out these similarities to myth and combine that with the contrast between the Bible and modern history and science, all to point to scripture as being mythological and entirely untrue. This does little except point out a fundamental misunderstanding of scripture, one that I’m finally getting cleared up myself! Hallelujah!
First things first: don’t try to compare the Bible to a science textbook. The ancient writers wrote inspired and fully true things about God using the framework of the world they lived in, including its imagery and experience, and even literary allusions and comparisons. The purpose of the Bible is fully theological, and comes from an age when there was no such thing as science as we now know it, so the comparison is completely unwarranted in every way. If the Bible communicates true statements about scientific issues, it is practically accidental and only with the purpose of trying to convey a theological fact. Everything the Bible says is true – but only what it actually says.
A year or so back, a guy I worked with told me to watch Zeitgeist, a film that compares Christianity to pagan myths, particularly Egyptian mythology. A few years before that, an unbelieving friend of mine told me to read The Pagan Christ by Tom Harpur, which does exactly the same thing, but in greater detail. The comparisons portrayed in these works are used in such a way that the ancient mythology modifies the Biblical theology, in the case of Zeitgeist leading to astrology and in the case of The Pagan Christ leading to gnosticism. In a funny way, these guys are really on to something…they just got it completely backwards.
Much of the Bible uses similar terminology – and in many places, even copies the stories of – Israel’s pagan neighbours. There are many similarities between the Genesis accounts of Creation and the Flood to Babylonian, Akkadian, and Egyptian versions of the same stories. In the New Testament we see Jesus following many of the same patterns as Egyptian and Greek mythology and mystery religions. The comparisons are clear, and we can’t deny them – nor can we say that they copied us, because in every case the pagan mythologies predate the Biblical versions. I can say it flat out: the Bible copies all sorts of Ancient Near Eastern literature, very purposefully. The question is, for what purpose?
The answer can be found not in the similarities, but in the differences. The Bible may copy the forms and stories of ANE literature, but the theology presented therein is very, very different. Bruce Waltke summarizes some of the similarities in regards to the Creation account in chapter 7 of An Old Testament Theology, and the differences become quite clear. The actions of God in Genesis are, almost point for point, the same as the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish, the story of how Marduk killed Tiamat to form the earth. The order of creation is the same, but the persons involved and methods used are very different. They both present a scene of divine spirit and cosmic matter coexisting; they both show the existence of primeval chaos (personified in Tiamat, for Marduk); first there is light; then there is a firmament created between waters below and waters above; then creation of luminaries (sun, moon, and stars – note: after light comes a source of light); then creation of man; and then rest. Both of these show an ancient point of view, i.e. a flat world with a sky made of water, etc. The similarities between Genesis and the Egyptian myths are different, but also debunk different misunderstandings about the nature of God and the universe, and creation.
The point is that the writer of Genesis wrote it in response to other creation myths. Both Yahweh and Marduk are victorious over chaos, but while Marduk was fighting another goddess (including farting in her mouth to get her to open it so he can shoot arrows inside), Yahweh defeats and brings order to chaos by His word alone – Chaos is subject to Him. While Marduk rips apart the corpse of Tiamat, the separate parts being the waters above and the waters below, the Genesis account shows that water is just…well, water. Waltke says it like this: “Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the biblical authors stripped the ancient pagan literatures of their mythological elements, infused them with the sublimities of their God, and refuted the pagan myths by identifying the holy Lord as the true Creator and Ruler of the cosmos and of history. Israel’s God stands apart from his creation, transcends matter, lacks sexuality, engages in no combat with other gods, for there are none, and establishes humane laws.” Each parallel between stories contains a fundamental difference, a correction if you will: the Genesis creation account was written almost as an apologetic, or even a polemic, against other ancient mythologies. The same is true of the Flood account: the Genesis version gives a much, much different view about God than the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The same is true of the Gospels, which were written decades after Jesus died and the Church began to spread out. They were written to show how the life and death of Jesus fulfilled the scriptures (for a Jewish audience); to show how salvation comes through Jesus, who is God (to correct the pagans); and on and on. Name a heresy, and it likely is related to another pagan myth that people tried to apply to the gospels rather than applying the gospels to the pagan understandings in order to correct them. When Paul confronted heresy, he pointed to Christ to silence it. When heretics started writing their own gospels to affirm their viewpoints, the apostles provided true accounts to correct the false theologies. Any time these heresies lived on, it was because they twisted or discounted the gospels.
I’m no longer afraid of the similarities between the Bible and pagan mythos. I’m very glad of it, because it shows that God has revealed a truer account of reality. He has responded to false claims, and brought the truth to guide us, his creation. He cares enough to correct our misunderstandings about Him and his world. Hallelujah!