Biblical history,  history,  religion

Comparing the Bible with Mythology

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I’m reading Charles Penglase’s book Greek Mythology and Mesopotamia: Parallels and Influence in the Homeric Hymns and Hesiod. The heart of Penglase’ book is the idea that myth writers took motifs from other stories. He identifies rough motifs such as the goddess-and-her-consort stories where there is a journey to the underworld and a return and then he argues that those motifs show up even in unusual places. For example, pointing out how Apollo’s birth could be seen as fitting the goddess-and-consort-and-underworld myth. It has a wandering mother searching for (a place to bear) her child. It has the personified Island being scared it will be pushed down into the (underworld?) ocean. Could Apollo’s birth into the sunshine with the Earth smiling be a sort of rise out of the underworld? The idea is not that the two stories are the same, but that they share similar motifs. Apollo’s story is described in terms that the early listeners may have recognized from other stories of gods aquiring power.

One section in the book compares the story of Pandora with the myths of Enki, particularly noting the following features (from the list on page 219):

  • rebellion against the supreme god;
  • resultant creation of mankind;
  • resultant imposition of hard toil and sacrifice;
  • repetition of the same roles: the supreme god commands creation, but does not play a part in the actual creation; the roles of craft, clever god, and benefactor of mankind are repeated;
  • the same methods of creation used by Enki and Hephaistos: craftsman methods, modelling figurines from clay; and the goddess in each having the same role;
  • the rebel deity punished as a result of his activities against the supreme god;
  • ideas of the soul with the rebel deity’s punishment;
  • the clever god tricking the supreme god to benefit mankind;
  • the supreme god acting as the enemy of man and seeking to destroy him;
  • the supreme god strongly criticized: the story showing an antagonistic attitude to him; he is harsh, his actions are irresponsible and unjustified;
  • the Flood motif;
  • ideas of history of mankind and the origins of races.


Reading that list I am struck by the similarities to the first few chapters of Genesis. Think of the story of Adam and Eve. The snake in the garden could be seen as a variation of Prometheus, trying to help the humans against the limits put before them by the supreme god. In both cases the woman disregards instructions and does something she’s not supposed to do. The supreme god is harsh and punishes all. In both the story of Eve and Pandora, humans move into a new way of life involving much more toil than before.

Both stories include scenes of getting dressed. Pandora is dressed by the gods. God makes skin coats for Adam and Eve. In Penglase’ book he talks about how getting dressed was in Mesopotamian mythology a sign of putting on power. Is Adam’s concern for nakedness in Genesis not about embaressment but about weakness? Is God’s concern about disobedience or about the growing power of the humans?

So I’m left wondering, did the ancient Hebrews who wrote the story of Adam and Eve have in mind any of the other myths? Perhaps there was a general understanding that humans were created out of clay. That makes sense. All ancient people would know they returned to soil. Why wouldn’t they come from there? Does the story of Adam and Eve bring into the Hebrew context of a people chosen by God the memory of older myths about defying God?

Not long ago I read a different book that spoke directly about the story of Eve. The book was Discovering Eve by Carol Meyers. The book argues that the early Biblical writers didn’t associate Adam and Eve eating the fruit being distinctly about sin or humans becoming sinful. Lots of Biblical writers rant about sin, but they don’t bring it all back to that story. So she argues originally it wasn’t. Originally, she suggests, it was a folktale about the transition to an agrarian society. How different is that from the Greek story?

It is easy to say “oh, of course the stories are related – they both blame women for the world’s problems.” I’m not 100% sure they both do. Pandora is sent as a punishment, meaning someone already did wrong. Carol Meyers suggests the Biblical omen to Eve isn’t perscribing an extra burden for women as punishment, but simply describing a basic reality. She translates the little omen about Eve a little differently than most Bibles, suggesting it isn’t a matter of childbirth pains but rather just acknowledging that women have a dual role in an agrarian society – working and bearing children.

I will greatly increase your toil and your pregnancies;
Along with travail shall you beget children.

The author argues that we shouldn’t read it as tremendously patriarchal either. She argues in most subsistence farming communities that women worked lots and were respected and had levels of control over the household economy. She paints an interesting picture of the difficult life of highland Palestine at the beginning of the iron age.

If the story of Adam and Eve is about the switch to an agrarian society, then would the story of Cain and Abel be about the competition between the needs of the grain growers and those of the shepherds? I wonder to what extent those were in competition.

The Mesopotamian myth of Enki and Enlil tells of humans being created to serve the gods. (They are created out of clay but brought to life by the blood of the executed leader of a rebellion against Enlil.) Later Enlil, the head god, grows tired of the noise of the humans and decides to kill them off. A number of plots to do so end up foiled by Enki. Penglase’ book mentions that the story might have grown out of competition between the cults of Enlil in Nippur and Enki in Eridu. I wonder if the story of Adam and Eve could be a response to similar geographical/political/religious issues. If Carol Meyers is right that is in response to a move into the hillside of Palestine, could it be describing that move as one their god sends them on so they will not be further enticed by whatever cultic-background the snake represents?

Thinking of the Bible as mythology brings up a lot of possibilities. At first glance it seems different. There’s few gods or monsters! Yet, there’s similarities.  Could the story of the wandering Aramean and the more developed Moses story be seen as a journey to the underworld story? Could the motif be spread over multiple generations? While my son was talking to me about the stories of Hera, I started to wonder if the story of Abraham and Sarah could be seen as a sort of Zeus-Hera story. What about Jacob as a sort of trickster-Hermes character? There are similarities between the stories of the patriarchs and both Greek or Mesopotamian mythology, if one considers the possibility of the patriarchs as equivalent to gods or heroes. Or perhaps it is easier to consider the gods and heroes as equivalent to the patriarchs?


(Note: This blog post includes material I had previously written as Facebook updates.)


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