I am very excited about a recently launched 4 part post series concerning Mesopotamian Creation stories and Genesis 1 & 2 at the Codex blog. It sounds like Tyler has charted a great path and the first post is very good.

I just wanted to give some of my reflections to Tyler’s opening remarks. In most treatments of Mesopotamian creation stories (and most things ANE in general) I think modern scholars try to fit ancient accounts into modern paradigms. While this is a natural inclination that all of us have to do to one degree or another, I think that it often causes us to misapprehend ancient thought patterns and attitudes. For example, as Tyler alluded to, there are several “recensions” of the “same” creation stories. While an account such as the Gilgamesh Epic has a similar story-line through the various “versions,” these versions can be quite different from one another. It apparently didn’t bother the ancients to have different versions–sometimes very different–floating around at the same time.

Furthermore, scribes continued to copy versions of standardized texts even when the scribes themselves knew some of the material was not as “accurate” because of newer understandings (as seen, for instance, in Enuma Anu Enlil about which Francesca Rochberg states, “Once the Mesopotamian intellectual tradition was stabilized in the form of multi-tablet series, the unchanging consistency of this traditional body of knowledge (sometime[s] maintained in the face of contradictory new knowledge, as is apparent in Enuma Anu Enlil where omens for non-occurring phenomena are retained) runs counter to what Goody and Watt predict of written tradition in literate societies…”1 ). Various “versions” of stories and scientific texts were copied side-by-side without a hint of consternation but when a certain story reaches a level of standardization or “canonicity” then it is copied very consistently (but the various other versions are not purged from existence). We see this perspective continue even into Massoretic times. I think one of the purposes of the ketiv/qere was to preserve alternate interpretations of verses–even when the writing in the standardized text is clearly wrong, the scribes continued to copy it as they saw it while providing their correction as the qere (we see a similar instance with Akkadian scribes when they wrote “hipu” when they encountered a break in the text they were copying2 ).

The ancients seem to have a more flexible attitude toward standard texts than we do today. Therefore, I am not convinced that the ancients would have said that there were two creation accounts in Genesis 1 & 2. I think they would notice the differences but still see them as essentially one account.

Finally, I don’t agree with Ringgern that Sumerian myths were orally transmitted until the Old Babylonian period. Just because the current extant texts of Sumerian mythology date to the OB period does not mean that they were not written until this time. It merely means that we haven’t found the tablets yet. Lest someone presume too much from this lack of evidence, we still haven’t even found the capitol CITY–Akkad–of the Akkadian civilization, but everyone agrees that Akkad existed. If we haven’t found an entire capitol city, it is no surprise that we haven’t found some older exemplars of Sumerian mythological texts.


  1. When she wrote the article she was married to a Halton of no known relation to me, so her name was then Francesca Rochberg-Halton, “Canonicity in Cuneiform Texts,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 36:2 (1984), 134 [back]
  2. David Weisberg, “‘Break in the Middle of a Verse’: Some Observations on a Massoretic Feature,” in Pursuing the Text: Studies in Honor of Ben Zion Wacholder on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday, pages 34-45 [back]

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Charles Halton

7 Comments. Leave your Comment right now:

  1. by James Pate

    This is interesting. I was discussing this with some people the other day, only I was referring to the different Egyptian creation accounts. It is hard for me as a modern person to conceive of people at one point being able to live with contradictions in their creation stories and histories, especially since we moderns value consistency so much. Did they believe that the differences were all pieces of a big picture, or that there were simply different possibilities of what could have happened?

  2. by jake mccarty

    Within Egyptian accounts you have to remember that ancient Egyptian history encompasses several millenia and that it was not one homogenous culture. They (meaning several disparate communities) believed in many different things; sometimes in isolation, sometimes in contradiction, and sometimes in tension. There is no single answer to this question just as there is no “Egyptian Creation Account.”

    We should only hope that later scholars do not make this same attribution to American culture in 5000 years lest we be impugned for believing the earth in 6000 years old and believing something different at the same time.

  3. Hey Jake,
    I 100% agree with you. I would echo your comments for Mesopotamia as well.

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  7. by Daryl Hubber

    A good example of the phenomenon you refer to (different versions of myths existing simultaneously) is the fact that the name of the flood hero in Berossus seems to be based on that of the Sumerian flood hero – Ziusudra – while the story itself conforms generally to the accounts in Atrahasis/Gilgamesh. Localisation and customisation of myth also seems to have been fairly common e.g. Marduk’s displacement of older gods or Brossus turning Gilgamesh into the king of Babylon.

    Gilgamesh (not strictly “myth” I realise) also provides an example of Sumerian poetry that was transmitted in literary form prior to the Old Babylonian period, since we know of at least one fragment that dates to the late third millennium.

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