When George Smith uncovered the remains of the Epic of Gilgamesh in Babylon in the nineteenth century, it caused a sensation because the ancient tablets revealed a pagan account of Noah's Ark, complete in all its details. Some wondered whether this was independent confirmation of the truth of the Bible, while the more perceptive among the Victorians feared that the ancient cuneiform tablets contained an account that predated the Bible and undermined Scripture's claim to primacy.
The funny thing is, this never should have happened.
The Near Eastern flood myth was never completely lost, and it should not have surprised anyone when ancient versions of it showed up in the ruins of Babylon. The Babylonian priest Berossus, writing around 290 BCE, drew upon ancient Babylonian records to report the great flood, the hero Xisuthrus who built an ark on the orders of a god, and the result, which paralleled the Noah story to a remarkable extent:
Preserved in the unquestionably Christian writings of Eusebius of Caesaria, this text remained in circulation from Antiquity to the present day. But if this weren't enough, another version occurs in the writings of Flavius Josephus, in the nineteenth chapter of Against Apion, commenting on Berossus:
Josephus' text indicates what went wrong. The ancients saw the similarities in the Biblical and Babylonian accounts as resulting from a historical event, an actual flood. Later, with Christianity supreme in the West, the order of events was reversed, and scholars, assuming the Bible to be the origin of all pagan legends and myths, believed that the Babylonians had merely copied Genesis. This was made possible by the fact that Berossus wrote in 290 BCE, much later than the (presumed) date when Moses allegedly wrote Genesis with his own hand (c. 1200 BCE), and therefore derivative of the "earlier" Biblical account. Only much later was the proper sequence of composition recognized. The understanding that the Gilgamesh epic was the oldest written story known to man, older by far than the earliest conjectured composition date for Genesis, proved conclusively that the Near Eastern flood myth, dating back to the Sumerians, was the original of the one later copied and adapted into the story of Noah.
Although academic publications routinely make reference to this, out of deference to religious sensibilities, to this day the Near Easter flood myth is called "Noah's flood" in most popular media, and even when acknowledged, ample caveats are inserted to preserve the illusion that the Bible's flood myth is somehow older, unique, or--God forbid--true.
[Click here for a correction of errors in this post.]
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.