Homepage         Articles

Correlating the Texts of Ancient Literature with the Old Testament

by Dr. David Livingston

What is the proper relationship of the literature (texts) of the Ancient Near East (hereafter, ANE) with the Old Testament? Many attempts have been made, and although much data and some admirable insights have been applied to the problem, we are not satisfied that we yet have the proper correlations.

The Usual Way

Tremendous scholarship has been invested in the study of the Old Testament text itself. But during the last few decades three presuppositions have controlled the thinking of scholars of theologically liberal leaning. These are:

tablet of Babylonian Creation Story
The Babylonian Creation Story
  1. That the Bible contains much "myth" and legend, especially the Pentateuch.
  2. That the Israelites developed their religion using the religions of their neighbors.
  3. That the Old Testament and, especially the Pentateuch, was written during the time of the kingdom and had spurious authors.

Recent near eastern research has been burdened with these presuppositions. Unfortunately, the modern approach often deprecates the historicity of the Old Testament, submerging both it and the epics and myths of the now-translated texts in a fog of unrealism, thus precluding a proper historical understanding. When attempts at correlations are made, some scholars still try to compare what they feel are "myths" of Scripture with the myths of the extra-biblical texts.

A Better Way

Proper correlations will only be found when scholars:

  1. Stop treating the Bible as "myth."
  2. Recognize extra-biblical ancient texts for what they are: written authority for divine kingship.

They should not be considered as "beautiful literature" of the ancient near east. Many of the ancient texts, especially the epics and religious texts, are full of sex, gore, competition for power, deification of man, and many other activities inherent in a divine king absolutism. Their true intent must be discerned before attempting to relate them to the Old Testament.

Furthermore, many scholars still hold to an evolutionary concept of religion, a sort of revised Wellhausenism. Their premise is that Israel's religion evolved, or is a revision (improvement) of the religious systems of their neighbors to suit the purposes of the biblical writers. This is a presupposition which has hindered Old Testament research for well over a hundred years. Just as biological evolution has not been validated with real evidence; neither has religious evolution. Because of this misconception, much talent has dribbled off into insignificant detail and a large number of works have been written demonstrating theories for which there is little or no supporting evidence. The biblical system and the ancient near eastern religious systems run parallel from the beginning, with supporting documents for both.

We will not examine the documentary hypothesis which has dominated so much of biblical studies. The theory has been shown by so many scholars to be deficient and unsupported, that it is not worth using in research.

Which Came First?
tablet of part of Babylonian Creation Story
Part of Babylonian Creation Story

In comparing the Bible with other literature of the ancient near east we are dealing with historical facts in the Bible, and a contrived religio-politico system in the extra-biblical texts WHICH ARE IN CONSTANT OPPOSITION. Neither grew out of the other. These two systems existed side by side, beginning with Genesis on one hand and documents like the Sumerian King List on the other. How can we assert this? Simply because of the indications of written records from the beginning as we find in Genesis 5:1 and 26:5, along with the phenomenal accuracy of the Table of Nations in chapter 10.

Some scholars have tried, and done well, in defending the Old Testament against critics who tried to show it unhistorical. However, the tendency has been to use archaeological data to "prove" the Bible and explain the details, rather than developing a comprehensive system which brings together the Bible with the external data to better understand both. We NEED to synthesize the Bible with the cultures in which it was written. We are not satisfied with attempts made thus far.

New Premises Needed

the Sumerian King List
The Sumerian King List

We are suggesting that a new set of premises be used to solve some major problems of correlations. Many biblical scholars believe the Bible is a human book; that it was not Spirit given. Therefore, we should not consider it as a book of Truth.

Why not, on the other hand, begin with the premise that the Bible is divine, and therefore completely true, and see what the evidence shows? One must begin with some basic presuppositions, or hypotheses, in presenting any new development of thought. George Mendenhall says what any sound researcher knows, "Hypotheses are basic to sound research and are eminently practical; they are constructed, not as a substitute for facts, but to suggest possibilities and to guide further investigation. They should not dictate conclusions" (Mendenhall 1965: 35).

One has to support these presuppositions with facts, of course. Thus, they should be held somewhat lightly. If the facts disprove the hypothesis, it should be altered to accomodate the new facts which disagree with it, and occasionally it will have to be discarded as being completely out of line. The real problem comes when a person distorts the facts to fit his hypothesis. On the other hand, if the hypothesis is true, then the more thoroughly one investigates, the more detailed becomes the support for that hypothesis until almost nothing can refute it.

Here are some hypotheses which we feel the facts will support:
  1. The source material for the Bible is NOT the ancient near eastern texts we know today.
  2. The Bible is historical fact, not a collection of myths and epics.
  3. The myths and epics of the ancient near east are fabricated religio-politico documents with a calculated purpose. They did not "evolve"as bards sang them around campfires.
  4. The Bible is antithetic to ancient near eastern religions.
  5. The purpose of the author of Genesis was to show the rise of the worship of YHVH
  6. Finally, the basic issue of both the Bible and the ancient near eastern texts is the question, "Who will control men and the world?"

1. Looking at these in more detail, probably the most serious misjudgment (in our opinion) made by many biblical scholars is that the Bible is derived from other ancient near eastern sources. Well-known W.F. Albright says, "Enough, however, has been said to accentuate the significance of Israel's borrowings from Canaanite religion"(Albright 1946: 94). Mesopotamian scholar, Samuel Noah Kramer, who mastered Sumerian, says. ". . . its (the Old Testament) roots reach deep into the distant past and spread wide across the surrounding lands" (Kramer 1959: 143-44). Some scholars suggest they may be cognates. That is, that they both come from a common source. This is possible. But it is only to say that there was, then, really just one source - that one originally composed and preserved by the worshippers of YHVH. For our purposes, however, we assume that the Old Testament is an ANTITHESIS to the religions of the ancient near east. If we consider that the Scripture accounts derived from other literature, this throws the understanding of both the sources and the Bible into hopeless confusion.

According to Genesis 5: 1, the texts utilized to compose Genesis preceded Moses. The Hebrew word "sefer," or "book," is a written record, along with the rest of the "toledots" or "generations." (See "From What Did Moses Compose Genesis" for more information on "toledots," early manuscripts, early written records, and possible sources for Genesis.) Since the worshippers of YHVH existed independently of other religions, they must have had their own documents to follow (for instance, Genesis 26:5 speaks of four kinds of written records). The fact that we cannot find copies is not unusual. We do not even have very ancient Old Testament manuscripts. Furthermore, since no temples were built until the time of the kingdom (temples are the place where religious literature is found), this is another reason the earliest literature of YHVH followers has perished.

2. To say that the early chapters of Genesis are shadowy myths, containing only germs of historical truth, is becoming increasingly untenable. The old custom of mythologizing the early chapters of Genesis created a fog about it making it impossible to discover its true purpose. Certainly, there may be aetiological (explaining the origin of things) accounts. But they are not fictional. They are factual. Much valuable work has been produced by scholars which, when only slightly differently interpreted, can shine a floodlight on God's Word. What is needed are simple rules of interpretation different from those used previously.

clay cylander proclaiming kingship of Cyrus "I am Cyrus, king of the world, . . .All the kings of the entire world from the Upper to Lower Sea, . . . all the kings of the West . . . brought their heavy tributes and kissed my feet in Babylon. So says Cyrus the Great on . . . ."

British Museum

3. Documents, or texts, found on clay tablets of the ancient near east reveal an effort by power-hungry men to control as many people and as much property as possible. The myths and epics contained in them are mythical in that they are deliberately untrue. Historical elements there may be. But these are only pegs on which to hang the fables. They are fabricated religio-politico documents, almost always discovered in the palace-temple of ancient cities (Roux 1964: 87-101). The underlying purpose of these fabrications was to give the commoner the illusion that the king-high priest consorted with the gods and that he was a "son of the god " (op. cit.: 96).

The ruins of Khattushash, the ancient Hittite capital, guarded by two stone lions on either side of the city's western gate. Located near the center of the Hittite empire (present-day Baghazk in Turkey). Khattushash flourished from 1600 BC to 1200 BC through its military might and control over the richest silver and iron mines in all of Asia Minor.

Being the "son of the god" (a different god in each city), he owned everything, along with the priesthood. Thus he could take anything he wished from the people.

Just as Ezra and Nehemiah read aloud and explained the Torah to a huge crowd (Neh 8:1 - 9:3), likewise the pagans did the same with their literature. Documents contrived by scribes and priests were intended to be read aloud to all the people at various festivals (op. cit.: 96, 100-01, 191-92). After the religious brainwashing, they may have given anything the king wished. When men have forsaken Absolute Truth (or never have known Him), all that is left is fantasy -- a dream world. Rousas Rushdonny makes the point,

The myth reveals a hatred of history . . . The purpose man then sets for himself in his myths is to end history, to make man the absolute governor by decreeing an end to the movement that is history. Where his myths acknowledge man's lot in history, man ascribes his sorry role, not to his depravity, but to the jealousy of the gods. The goal of the myth, progressively more clearly enunciated in time, has become the destruction of history and the enthronement of man as the new governor of the universe (1967: 1).

Thus, one should see the myths and epics for what they are -- a deliberate attempt by ambitious and evil men (under the leadership of evil spiritual influences) to subjugate the populace and extort from them, along with the supporting priest-nobles, all that is needed for the most voluptuous lifestyle. When man becomes completely degenerate, he will develop a system to support his degeneracy. Occasionally a ruler might be more lenient with the people. But, none ever relinquishes divine kingship.

These religio-politico texts can only be recognized for what they are by comparing them with the Bible. Not to do so, makes them basically incomprehensible in their "sitz im leben" (historical context).

4. The Bible is an absolutely unique book. It actually establishes a positive system of YHVH worship, not simply an antithesis. Other religious literature can be compared and similarities found. But, the Bible can only be understood apart from them, yet reflecting them in its opposition. If we grant that the Bible is an antithesis to ancient near eastern religion, this will explain the apparent, but strained, similarities.

Even though they are separate systems of thought, there will be similarities when they oppose over basic issues. Being opposites, they may react against each other. The clash between them may mount to the point where they go beyond polemics, and attempts are made at the destruction of the other's system and adherents. Yeheskel Kauffman said, "Against this religion (Canaanite) the Israelites reacted with such vigor that we find only the scantest traces of it in Yahwehism . . . " (Albright 1946: 94). The strange actions, for instance, of the Israelites before the fall of Jericho may well have been a travesty of the pageantry of the Canaanite Keret Epic which had very similar pageantry. But one is a reaction against the other, not a copy of it!

To say that the Bible was derived from those religions and literature, distorts the Bible and does no credit to those religions, either (i.e., we misunderstand them, too). Whereas there is sometimes almost a complete syncretism in pagan religions (e.g., the pantheons of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome), it is forbidden among the followers of YHVH.

The Bible is the revelation of God in history. Since the culture was similar to that of the other lands of the ancient near east, there will be similarities for that reason. Similarities will be seen when:

  1. One mocks or derides the other.
  2. One counterfeits the true.
  3. There are common cultural traits.

Used in both are pageantry and drama. Documents of both systems were written to be read aloud. So there will be similarities in the manner of presentation also.

There must be a very close correlation between the Bible and extra-biblical texts. If we grant the Bible is completely reliable historically, we should eventually be able to make complete correlations.

5. The purpose of Moses in compiling Genesis was to show the beginning of YHVH worship with its ultimate blessing to all mankind. Over against it is also laid out the rise and growth of anti-YHVH systems which cause the continual ruination of mankind.

Yahwehism did not originate with Moses; it began with Adam and Eve and the first reflexes of it in worship were shown by Abel. Note the word "Elohim" in Genesis, chapter one, is used of the Creator. In chapters two and three, Elohim is Equated with "YHVH."  Double names for God thus do not support the Wellhausen theory, but are traditional in most of the ancient near eastern religions. Then, in chapter four, the designation is simply YHVH alone, with Cain worshipping YHVH wrongly, and Abel doing it rightly. Here too, we have the first example of defiant anti-Yahwehism.

Yahwehism was carried on in the open air by Cain and Abel. Noah built an altar. So did Abraham. No early worshipper of YHVH built a temple. This explains why no trace of YHVH worship has ever been uncovered by archaeologists during this early period. No temples were needed, because the followers of YHVH were not grasping for power and control over people.

6. One must not impose his preconceptions on Scripture. We should seek to determine what it actually says. It claims to be the Word of the Living God. If this is so, then it is not a disjointed set of humanly fabricated volumes. It should have a continuous theme running all through it, from Genesis to Revelation. The theme is something like: "YHVH is the Creator, King and Redeemer of all creation." The uniting factor of both testaments is the basic question, "Who will control men and the world now and forever?" There is a continual contest throughout Scripture between Satan and God to control men. On the world scene, the contest is often seen between the emissaries of Satan and those of YHVH God.


Albright, W. F.,
1946 Archaeology and the Religion of Israel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Jacobsen, T.,
1939 The Sumerian Kinglist. Chicago: University Press.

Kramer, S. N.,
1959 History Begins at Sumer. Garden City NY: Doubleday & Co.

Mendenhall, G.,
1965 "Biblical History in Transition," The Bible and the Ancient Near East.
New York: Doubleday & Co.

Pritchard, J.,
1955 Ancient Near Eastern Texts and the Old Testament. Princeton: University Press.

Roux, G.,
1966 Ancient Iraq. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books.

Rushdoony, R.,
1967 The Mythology of Science. Nutley, NJ: Craig Press.

Homepage         Articles

© 2003 David Livingston