Did the Epic of Gilgamesh trump the Genesis flood?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: Referring to Got Questions Ministries answer on the question "Did the Bible copy the Flood account from other myths and legends?", perhaps a more thorough investigation into the hypothesis that the OT stories were just pagan myths recapitulated by OT writers with an ethical theme would be to examine the date of authorship of the other myths and legends that share similarities with the biblical Flood account, and that of the biblical account itself. Eric C Cline's book "From Eden to Exile" states that there are Mesopotamian accounts which date to early third millennium BC, and the Epic of Gilgamesh existed 900 years before the biblical account was written, does this not exclude the possibility that the biblical account was indeed adapted from existing Flood legends?

(The article in reference: http://www.gotquestions.org/Flood-accounts.html )

Answer: Thank you for submitting this thoughtful question. The Epic of Gilgamesh comes up quite frequently in our circles since its documentary origins antedate the biblical account of the Flood. The assumption among biblical skeptics is that Moses (or whomever) plagiarized this Mesopotamian myth and that this ostensive act proves that the Bible is not the inspired word of God. A lot is a stake here. Both testaments reference the Flood (1 Peter 3:20), and if God’s enemies managed to impugn Noah’s story, then that could be the one-two punch that knocks out the veracity of Christian Scripture.

Before we begin, let me clarify my stand and amplify the issue. I agree that the Epic of Gilgamesh has a flood story that simply must be related to the Bible’s account of Noah. Furthermore, I agree that those extant documents predate the Bible’s oldest document. I will add that there are hundreds of extra-biblical Great Flood stories, representing differing geographies and differing peoples. My stand is that none of that matters. The Epic of Gilgamesh and other similar stories cannot, by their relative antiquity, lay legitimate claim to having birthed the Genesis account. In fact, the effect is just the opposite. We will see how they corroborate the Scripture.

Christians do not fear the spade. First, we need no extra-biblical corroboration, since the Holy Spirit, who indwells all believers, testifies internally and with others that the Scripture is true. Second, the sufficiency of Scripture is not a mere doctrine with us — it is an engine. Therefore, we need no artifacts… but the archaeologists just keep sending them! Please note that no archaeological find has ever impugned Scripture, and biblical archaeology continually raises its secular veracity. Also, and although I need no outside corroboration, I do appreciate good science, good scholarship and clear thinking. That is why I cannot let this conclusion stand.

There are indeed significant similarities between Genesis and Gilgamesh — and there should be — because both writings look back to the same event. They reflect a common inheritance. Professor of archaeology Alfred J. Hoerth sums this up well.

"Both accounts derive from the same source—the actual event. There was a flood, and both the Bible and the Epic record it. As the descendants of Noah drifted apart and away from God, there must have been a long parade of human corruptions and polytheistic encrustations on the original and actual event" (Archaeology and the Old Testament).

This interpretation fits how the world actually works. Sin corrupts culture over time. The Epic of Gilgamesh reflects many centuries of the true story being corrupted through paganism, whereas the Genesis account holds the uncorrupted version. You see, the fact that our current extant documents have Gilgamesh predating Genesis means nothing. What we cannot do is to miss what is screaming at us. These are two differing accounts of the same historical event. Their differences and their relative age is a red herring. The Great Flood really happened. That is the issue!

“Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.” (Proverbs 30:5–6, ESV)

A core concept of Christianity is that God’s word is true. If other words disagree with it, then they are false — this, by definition. So, no matter how old those other words are in relation to the Bible, or no matter how distinguished their spokesman, the infallible Scripture trumps all. I do realize that, in general principle, the oldest records reflect the best truth, but this is not necessarily so, and Gilgamesh is a prime example. I do not know anyone who purports Gilgamesh to be true, yet this myth has more power over some people than does God’s word… and I’d think about that a bit before going to bed tonight.

You also mentioned the possibility that Christianity might have added a moral component to existing tales. Sorry, wrong direction. Life is corrosive. Good things always corrupt with time. False things never become true by adding time. But truth itself is like gold. It does not corrode. And Scripture has passed the most severe longitudinal testings. It has been assaulted for millennia by great minds and by great powers. Yet it stands unbowed as pure and true.

The Bible is Everest. All other documents are molehills, and what we should never do is to lecture about Everest after studying molehills. We should all summit Everest, then descend to the valleys to share our findings. When comparing the Bible to the Epic of Gilgamesh, it is critical not to ignore their basic difference, and I feel that this is frequently overlooked. The Bible is a historical narrative, whereas the Epic Gilgamesh is a myth. They are different in literary type. And why is this so important? A myth does not purport to give a true history, but the Bible does. Therefore, not only are they different in type, but they are also different in purpose and execution.

In my opinion, people fail to evaluate these documents in light of their basic differences. They assume that both documents have certain qualities, and this assumption emboldens them to raise up the epic and demote the Bible. But what bothers me most about all this is that even a very young reader can differentiate between historical narrative and myth, and that same reader understands that fiction and non-fiction are different types of writing that do different jobs. Since I consider these entry-level analysis skills, I wonder at the public’s willingness to believe that the Almighty God has been beaten by a Mesopotamian myth.

Finally, one of the “ethics” in communications is that any outputted piece, be it oral, written or electronic, should stay within its advertised form. For example, it would be unethical to enclose a photo of a naked person in an envelope that said, “Tax Documents Enclosed.” In like manner, it would be unethical for Got Questions Ministries (who hosts the article in reference) to create articles that would be outside of its advertised form. I have reviewed their article "Did the Bible copy the Flood account from other myths and legends?" and I see it as nearly a perfect piece within its advertised form, and here’s why.

When I sample the articles at Got Questions Ministries, I see that they have designed them to be more introductory than comprehensive. So, they keep their answers short, provide an overview, give relevant citations and make suggestions for deeper study. As such, it would be “unethical” to provide material outside of that form. I am sure that their contributors read broadly, and I am sure that several have considered Eric Cline’s work (which I understand is very even-handed), but unless they took his book as a topic in itself for review, including Cline's insights would be out of bounds — especially considering my assertion the document dates in question are a non-issue. Additionally, they are a Bible-based ministry, so they answer questions from a biblical worldview. On quick inspection, that seems to consume all their column inches.

Apologetics ministries appreciate honest questions and analysis. If you feel that more of Cline should be covered, make a suggestion to the ministry. Again, thank you for your question and your interest in the truth.

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