“Ancient Flood Mythology Pre-dates the Bible!” These were the kind of headlines that dominated the press in 2014 after the publication of Dr Irving Finkel’s book, “The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood”. Dr Finkel, a historian at the British Museum, London, wrote of a global flood story that was discovered inscribed on cuneiform clay tablets from ancient Mesopotamia. The “sensational” element of the story is that the Mesopotamian tablets which contain this flood story, apparently pre-date the book of Genesis in the Bible, thereby supposedly ‘proving’ that the Bible’s story of the global flood was copied from an older, pre-existing myth. For many people with a pre-existing bias to disbelieve the Bible, this simply provided further evidence of the fanciful nature of the Bible.
As with many stories that are circulated in popular media, however, the devil is in the details.
It is certainly possible that the Mesopotamian tablets pre-date the flood account recorded in the biblical book of Genesis. Although the clay tablets have been dated at only 700 BC, they are believed to be a re-telling of the Epic of Gilgamesh, copied from the Akkadian Atra-Hasis which is dated mid-1700s BC. The biblical book of Genesis, if Mosaic authorship is accepted, is dated at around 1440 BC. Thus, the global flood story in the Mesopotamian writings predates the writing of Genesis by about 300 years.
But here is where the facts end and illogical assertions begin.
Firstly, the fact that one writing predates another doesn’t mean that the latter was copied from the former. When any significant event occurs in history, there are often multiple documented reports of that event, written at different times and in various places. In the ancient world, this was particularly true, because significant events were often passed on from generation to generation via oral tradition, before being eventually codified in writing. To use a simple illustration, if I decide to one day write an account of my favourite football grand final from the past (choose your favourite code!) it may be that others have also previously written accounts of that match. The fact that my account is written after theirs does not prove that I have copied from them, but merely that I decided to write about it after they did.
Secondly, the atheist world was quick to pounce on the pre-existing Mesopotamian flood story as proof that the biblical flood story is a myth, but this is also completely illogical. The fact that multiple accounts of an event were written at different times in various places has absolutely no bearing on whether the event being described is factual or mythological. In fact, multiple accounts of an event, written at different times and in various unconnected places is actually evidence SUPPORTING the historical nature of an event, rather than undermining it.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the ancient Mesopotamian flood story is by no means the only extra-biblical account of a global flood in the ancient world. In fact there are nearly 200 global flood stories recorded in the writings of diverse ancient cultures around the world. Wikipedia lists 50 of the major ones (look up “List of Flood Myths”), but some historians cite nearly four times that many, embedded in the ancient writings of cultures all around the world. These ancient written accounts of a global flood and a god or gods who save a remnant of humanity via some kind of boat abound throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, the Americas and Oceania.
How can this extraordinary array of ancient global flood stories be explained? If we are to maintain that they are all mythological (in the sense of being made up), how do we account for the remarkable similarity in their details? The standard explanation that these cultures all copied from each other doesn’t stand up to rigorous scrutiny, as many of these stories arise in cultures that are separated from each other by both time and vast distances with no chance of cross-pollenisation of their mythology.
I must point out that these flood stories are not identical. There are variances. For instance, in the aforementioned Mesopotamian account, God is given a different name, and the ark is described as either circular or cubic in shape (the language is unclear). But many of the details are similar. The Mesopotamian story tells of a god warning an individual that he is going to send a flood in judgment for mankind’s sin. The individual is told to build an ark and then instructed to take two of every animal on board, along with his family.
While the existence of hundreds of ancient flood stories, found in ancient writings all over the world, does not prove the factual nature of the biblical flood, neither does it disprove it. In fact, the proliferation of these stories in different places and at various times is exactly what we would expect to find if the biblical flood really did take place. The Bible says that the survivors of the great flood, Noah and his extended family, repopulated the Earth and spread out around the globe. As they did so, they would have carried with them their memory of the terrible flood and would have passed that story on to subsequent generations. Over time, the oral transmission of the flood story would have inevitably led to distortions and embellishments (just like the game of Chinese whispers), which is why we find variations among the hundreds of ancient flood stories.
So, could the global flood have really happened, just as it is recorded in the Bible? Some would say, “Surely not!” Sceptics (and even puzzled Christians) point out a number of problems with the story, including the ‘impossibility’ of water covering the whole Earth and the ‘impossibility’ of all the animal species fitting on the ark. How can these puzzles be explained?
Stay tuned: I will tackle those issues in a subsequent post.