Is the Bible "Syncretistic" Literature? Understanding Historical Parallels

by Kevin Morrow*, The Restoration Herald
 5664 Cheviot Rd., Cincinnati, OH 45247, September, 2000

I have recently been engaged in dialectic with an agnostic in my community about the historical veracity of the Bible My hometown newspaper has become a forum for our public debate. In his latest article, he stated that the Hebrew authors were very good "borrowers." He went on to say that the Bible is a literary invention made up of borrowed literary materials from earlier pagan sources such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Story of Sinuhe, the Code of Hammurabi, and other various antiquated works of the Near East. He has raised an interesting issue that many Christians have a hard time explaining. Rest assured, the subject is in our favor!

 When similarities are shown between the biblical account and other ancient texts, why is it automatically assumed that the Bible is to blame for historical plagiarism? This is an age-old fallacy propounded by skeptics who approach biblical interpretation with a prejudice that the Bible is a conglomeration of ancient myths and legends, and that it is historically inaccurate and therefore historically unreliable.

 Do similarities exist between the Bible and other ancient Near Eastern texts? Yes, but rather than use the word "borrowed," the word "parallel" better complies with erudition. There are numerous examples of parallels between the Old Testament and other ancient epigraphic materials, which have been uncovered by archaeologists. Must these parallels be explained away in order to defend scriptural historical validity? Do these parallels explain away the biblical authors as unorganized or a product of their own environment? Neither position is necessary.

 We should not wonder at similarities, which do not necessarily indicate borrowing, in one direction or the other. It should be understood that there are only a limited number of options in any given historical-cultural setting. Many factors will be arrived at independently by more than one person or group of people. The urban revolution in Lower Mesopotamia (Sumeria) was arrived at independently of the urbanization that was taking place in the Nile River Valley during the Early Bronze Age (c. 3000 B.C.).

 Parallels are an impressive testimony that the Bible was not composed in a historical vacuum. The historical reliability of a document is usually verified by its relationship to or correspondence with the cultural milieu to which it belonged. For example, in the Bible (especially Joshua through Second Kings) the term "Amorite" is used to describe foreigners in general, such as the Philistines, Jebusites, Canaanites, Ammonites, Moabites, and so on. This is in historical compliance with how the term was used by Israel's neighbors. The Babylonians term "Amurru" (from which "Amorite" is derived) was used by the Mesopotamians to refer to people and lands west of the Euphrates River. This is shown in Assyrian texts. In Ashurnasirpal's account of his campaign to Lebanon, he states that he "overthrew the.of the "Upper [Sea]" of Amurru" (Ancient Near Eastern Texts and Pictures, vol. 1. James Pritchard). The "Upper Sea" is a reference to the Mediterranean Sea, as opposed to the "Lower Sea" or Persian Gulf. Adad-Nirari III referred to Palestine as "Amurru-country" (Expedition to Palestine, Pritchard). Again, this shows that the Israelites were using common terms of the day as their neighbors were using them.

What about the parallels between the Bible and Mesopotamian Flood stories, or the Sumerian King Lists, which describe extremely long life spans, corresponding with the long life spans mentioned in Genesis? We have all played the game "The Grapevine." One person starts a story and passes it on to another. The story gets passed around a circle, making its way back to the original source. Each person in the circle will have his and her own version of the same story, yet different from the original. This happens only in a few minutes. Imagine what would happen in several millennia! When oral tradition is disseminated across time, it will commonly be filtered and documented into varied versions.

 What Christians need to understand is that in most cases, the differences between parallels outweigh the similarities. The historiographical methodology of the Bible is quite unique and impressive in ancient Oriental literature, especially in its candor and brevity. No Egyptian document blatantly reveals the failures of a pharaoh, either ruling from his throne or on a campaign in a foreign country. However, the Bible is remarkably personal, revealing the sins of Saul, David, Solomon, and the rest of the monarchs. The Bible extols women such as Jael, Deborah, and Ruth, despite a culture in which women were degraded. These unique literary characteristics (and there are so many more) make the Bible a very real and believable religio-historical document. Questions of parallels are historical questions, not faith questions.

*Kevin Morrow is a graduate student at Cincinnati Bible Seminary. He is studying Ancient Near Eastern backgrounds with a concentration in Old Testament. He is a part of the staff of two archaeological excavations in Jordan (Abila of the Decapolis and Khirbet Iskander), and is a member of the Near East Archaeoloical Society (written in September, 2000).

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