Pagan Mythology and the Bible
||Garry K. Brantley, M.A., M.Div.
“All scripture is given by inspiration of God...” (2 Timothy 3:16). What an affirmation! This verse claims that the Bible is the unique literary product of divine origin, not the results of mere human genius. As such, it rightfully would serve as humanity’s ultimate standard of moral and religious authority. But, is this claim true? Through the years, conservative scholars have marshalled evidence to support the Bible’s claim of inspiration, while liberal theologians have attempted to discredit its avowed divine authorship. The debate continues.
Archaeological discoveries have played a significant role in this ongoing controversy. Some scholars feel that the discoveries of ancient pagan literary texts provide effective ammunition with which to attack the biblical claim of inspiration. Why? Philologists have identified language and literary forms common to both extra-biblical and biblical texts, which suggests to some that the Israelite religion—rather than being the product of divine guidance—was adapted from surrounding pagan religions. In particular, the texts uncovered at Ras Shamra, which date to the fifteenth century B.C., are at the heart of this contention.
RAS SHAMRA TABLETS
Ras Shamra is the modern name of the ancient city Ugarit. Prior to 1928, archaeologists did not know the exact location of this city. In the early spring of that year, a Syrian peasant was plowing in a field just east of Ras Shamra. His plow accidentally struck a rock, which proved to be a tombstone. The presence of this ancient cemetery suggested to archaeologists that a city was nearby, probably hidden in the tell (mound). Further investigations proved this assumption true.
Claude F.A. Schaeffer of the Strasbourg Museum, and his associate George Chenet, began the systematic excavation of Ras Shamra under the auspices of the French government. In May 1929, their team uncovered the first clay tablets bearing unfamiliar cuneiform (wedge-shaped) writing. Schaeffer, who was not a linguist, entrusted the texts to Charles Virolleaud, an expert in the ancient languages of that area. Virolleaud immediately recognized the significance of these texts. The cuneiform on these newly discovered tablets was unlike any which he had seen previously. Extant cuneiform texts prior to this discovery contained several hundred different symbols. The Ugaritic tablets, however, contained fewer than 30 distinct characters, which suggested to Virolleaud that the tablets displayed a kind of cuneiform alphabet.
Virolleaud made little progress in deciphering the text in the first few weeks. However, as a service to scholars, he published the texts, providing both photographs and copies of inscriptions that his colleagues examined. Hans Bauer, Professor of Oriental Languages in the German University of Halle and skilled in the art of cryptanalysis (code-breaking), succeeded in assigning phonetic values to about eighty percent of the signs after only five days. Other scholars refined his work, and from the summer of 1930 the Ras Shamra tablets recovered by Shaeffer’s team could be translated and read (for a discussion of the archaeological finds at Ras Shamra, see Craigie, 1983; Jackson, n.d.; Kapelrud, 1962; Pfeiffer, 1975).
The archives of Ugarit have yielded literally thousands of tablets containing several diverse languages and types of literature. The texts which captured scholastic attention, however, were those containing the alphabetic cuneiform. Linguists call the language of this script Ugaritic, after the ancient city in which it was used. Ugaritic is a Northwest Semitic language, closely related linguistically to Biblical Hebrew. These Ugaritic texts have had a profound affect on religious studies. Their significance arises, not only from linguistic relations, but also from the literary forms common to both Ugaritic and Biblical Hebrew.
Scholars almost immediately began to emphasize these similarities. In 1934, only four years after Virolleaud published the texts, J.W. Jack cautiously highlighted parallels between the Ugaritic texts and the Hebrew Bible. Other scholars followed suit. Such comparative literary analyses eventually gave birth to a new discipline: Hebrew-Ugaritic Studies. This discipline has had both positive and negative effects on biblical studies.
On the positive side, Ugaritic texts have illuminated our understanding of obscure words, and pagan religious practices appearing in the Hebrew Bible. For instance, these texts have assisted our understanding of the term “shepherd” applied to Amos (Amos 1:1). The common Hebrew word for shepherd is ro’eh. However, the word describing Amos’ occupation is noqed, which appears only one other place in the Hebrew Bible (2 Kings 3:4; see Harris, 1980, 1:1410). In Ugaritic texts, the cognate word nqd appears approximately ten times, and designates one in the sheep business rather than a simple shepherd. It may be, therefore, that Amos’ occupation took him to the market places of northern Israel (to sell wool or mutton), where he became involved in his prophetic ministry (Craigie, 1983, 9:73). Such linguistic insights help answer the question of why Amos, from the southern kingdom of Judah, was intimately familiar with the social injustices of Israel (cf. Amos 2:7; 4:1; 8:5).
Additionally, the Ras Shamra tablets have increased our knowledge of Baalism, frequently mentioned in the Bible. These mythological texts associate Baal with rain, storm, and fertility, and proclaim him as “[the god] Haddu, lord of the Stormcloud” (Cross, 1973, p. 147; see Kapelrud, 1962, 4:729; Pritchard, 1958, 1:92-118). Through rain, Baal allegedly provided fertile ground which produced crops on which both animals and men depended. Thus, Baal’s worshipers sought to maintain his supremacy so that their life-sustaining crops could continue. Such insights into Baalism provided by Ugaritic texts illuminate several biblical narratives, particularly Elijah’s debate with Baal’s prophets on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18; see Long, 1990). There, Yahweh (i.e., Jehovah)—not Baal—proved to be the controller of rain and storm (in the form of lightning which “fell as fire”). These Ugaritic insights into Baalism increase our understanding of that historical debate.
Along with these valuable Ugaritic contributions to biblical studies have come some negative results. Particularly, liberal scholars have placed undue significance upon the linguistic and literary similarities between Ugaritic mythical texts and certain portions of the Hebrew Bible. This has led some scholars to object that “...in comparative studies of Ugaritic mythology and Old Testament literature in general too much emphasis has been given to similarity or ‘fact’ of sameness in form...” (Tsumura, 1988, 40:27). Such inordinate emphasis has prompted some scholars to conclude that the Israelite religion was a mere “Yahwization” of pagan religions (i.e., attributing to Yahweh what pagan religions attributed to their gods). These scholars argue that proof of such adaptation appears in the Hebrew Bible, particularly in certain poetic sections (cf. Cross, 1973, 1992; Malamat, 1988).
PSALM 29, A CLASSIC EXAMPLE
A particular biblical text—Psalm 29—has been subjected to extensive Hebrew/Ugaritic comparative analyses. As early as 1935, H.L. Ginsberg posited a Canaanite or Poenician background to this psalm (Malamat, 1988, 100[sup]:156). The present scholastic consensus is that Baal worship, as portrayed in Ugaritic texts, served as the background for Psalm 29 (Craigie, 1983, 9:73). For instance, the late Mitchell Dahood, who used Ugaritic extensively in his classic, three volume commentary on the Psalms, argued that Ginsberg’s “recognition that this psalm is a Yahwistic adaptation of an older Canaanite hymn to the storm-god Baal...” has been “...corroborated by the subsequent discovery of tablets at Ras Shamra and by progress in the interpretation of these texts” (1966, 1:175, emp. added). More recently, A. Malamat, with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, concluded that this psalm “...is derived from traditions harking back beyond Late Bronze Age Ugarit, to Old Babylonian, or rather Amorite, times...” (1988, 100[sup]:160). Also, Frank Moore Cross suggested that Psalm 29 was a “lightly revised Ba’al hymn...” and that it is representative of biblical texts in which “raw mythology” survives (1992, 8:19).
Scholars base such conclusions regarding the background of Psalm 29 on similarities between it and Ugaritic (and other) mythical texts. Archaeologists have uncovered several small fragments of tablets containing poetic mythological texts in which Baal and Anath (the war goddess) play the feature roles. In one section, the pagan lyricist mentioned that the building material for Baal’s palace came from “...Lebanon and its trees, From Sirion its precious cedars” (Pritchard, 1958, 1:104). In another section, Baal appears as the storm-god, sending lightning with thunder (i.e., “his holy voice”) to the Earth, which causes his “enemies to quake.” This text emphasizes the power of Baal’s voice, which “convulses the earth” and causes the “mountains to quake” (Pritchard, 1958, 1:106).
Similar language appears in Psalm 29. This psalm, like the Baal hymn, mentions the cedars of Lebanon and Sirion (v. 6). Further, the psalmist emphasized Yahweh’s voice, which had a similar effect on the Earth as that attributed to Baal (vv. 3-5,7-9). Psalm 29 states that Yahweh’s voice “breaks the cedars” (v. 5), “shakes the wilderness” (v. 8), and “strips the forests bare” (v. 9).
Obviously, some similarities exist between Psalm 29 and the Baal hymn. But, do such similarities imply literary and religious dependence of Israel upon contemporaneous pagan religions? The following considerations might be helpful in addressing this issue. These suggested principles also will apply to other biblical texts in which similarities to pagan myths exist.
Similarity, Not Dependence
First, the fact that some similarities exist between the Hebrew Bible and some pagan myths implies neither dependence of the former upon the latter, nor synonymous meaning. John Wheeler correctly observed:
The basic danger in comparing the Hebrew Bible...with religious texts from other cultures is that the Bible uses similar language to describe different things. The Bible has the right to be interpreted by its own context, just as any other literary work.... When one examines Psalm 29 carefully in light of the rest of Scripture, the subtle errors that arise from using an extra-Biblical framework to interpret the Bible can be seen (1992, 5:28, emp. added).
It is improper exegesis to force pagan beliefs into the biblical text simply because of linguistic similarities. Further, as Leupold accurately concluded: “One need not be alarmed by such discoveries if one bears in mind that two slightly different types of Canaanite (or Hebrew) language are involved. Least of all is the dependence of the Hebrew production in such a case established” (1959, p. 17). The Bible has the right to define its own words and concepts; pagan myths are not the controlling factor of biblical interpretation.
No Single Parallel
Second, the parallels drawn between biblical and Ugaritic texts cover a wide range of literary forms. No single Ugaritic text parallels Psalm 29 in full. Some scholars leave the impression that an extant poem to Baal parallels exactly Psalm 29, except that Baal’s and Yahweh’s names are exchanged. For instance, Theodor Gaster argued that this psalm was initially Canaanite, but the psalmist modified it by replacing the name Baal with the personal name of Israel’s God (1946-1947, 37:55-65).
However, Psalm 29 cannot be traced to one, particular Ugaritic text. Similarities of language, vocabulary, and literary forms exist between Hebrew and Ugaritic literature in general. But, the idea that Psalm 29 is a Yahwization of a hymn to Baal emerges from a comparison of texts from different cultures, each with its own variation on the same pagan theme (see Wheeler, 1992, 5:28). In fact, the late Ugaritologist P.C. Craigie observed that “...virtually all Hebrew-Ugaritic comparative studies involve comparison of different literary forms” (as quoted in Tsumura, 1988, 40:25, emp. in orig.). Thus, to suggest that Psalm 29 (or any other biblical text) is an adaptation of a pagan myth has no evidential basis.
Common Cultural Milieu
Third, we should expect some similarity of language and literary style between extra-biblical and biblical texts due to common cultural milieu (see Redford, 1987, 13:27). In fact, if biblical language and style were entirely unlike the literature of its secular contemporaries, the Bible’s authenticity would be suspect. Further, familiar figures and literary style would facilitate Gentile nations’ understanding of the truth. Consistent with this observation, Alexander Heidel argued that “since the Old Testament was intended also for the gentile world, it is but natural that the biblical authors availed themselves of figures of speech and imagery with which also Israel’s neighbors were familiar, or which were at least easily understandable to them” (1951, p. 138).
Additionally, the existence of these similarities argues eloquently for the Bible’s integrity. In this vein of thought, John Wheeler observed that such similarities “...provide one of the chief evidences that the bulk of the Psalms were not written after the Babylonian exile. Their language fits that used by Israel’s neighbors in the very time our Hebrew Bible says the Psalms were written” (1992, 5:28, emp. in orig.) Thus, rather than militating against the Bible’s credibility, these similarities buttress its integrity.
Finally, we may explain some of these similarities as inspired polemics against pagan beliefs. In other words, rather than adapting pagan myths to Israel’s own flavor of religious bias, inspired writers consciously rejected pagan ideas, and argued Yahweh’s case (see Frymer-Kensky, 1978, 4:37). Scriptural evidence indicates that the Israelites were familiar with pagan religions. For instance, the Pentateuch contains prohibitions from such specific idolatrous practices as human sacrifices (Deuteronomy 12:31), and boiling a kid in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19; 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21; see Ackerman, 1993). In fact, Ugaritic texts mention that the rite of boiling a kid in its mother’s milk was an acceptable means of approaching a god (Archer, 1974, p. 179). The mention of such specific religious rites indicates the Israelites’ familiarity with pagan practices, from which they were to abstain.
However, almost immediately upon occupying Canaan, the Israelites became infatuated with Baal and worshipped him (see Judges 3:7). Such apostasy occurred repeatedly in Israel’s history. Amos, for instance, reminded Israel of her long history of flirtations with pagan deities, which led to her foreign captivity (5:25-27). With Israel’s perennial proclivity to abandon Yahweh, we would expect to find polemics against these false deities in Israel’s religious literature. Such a polemical statement directed against false gods appears in Psalm 96:5: “For all the gods of the peoples are idols (’elilim); but Jehovah made the heavens.” The Hebrew word ’elilim (idols) describes that which is worthless and deficient—in contradistinction to the creative power of Yahweh, the true God (see Harris, 1980, 1:95). Further, Yahweh’s demonstrated supremacy over Baal on Mt. Carmel is a vivid example of such polemics in Israel’s sacred literature (1 Kings 17-18). Thus, the inspired psalmist may have fashioned Psalm 29 as a polemic against Baalism. This, however, does not imply that the psalmist Yahwized a hymn of Baal. He simply may have been reacting to commonly known concepts associated with that pagan deity.
We need not deny that some similarities exist between pagan and Hebrew literature. But, these similarities do not imply that pagan mythical texts directly influenced biblical writers. The literary quality of biblical poetry argues against such dependence. To illustrate, scholars have identified at least one pagan modification of a Hebrew Psalm (an Egyptian adaptation of Psalm 20, dating to ca. 125 B.C.), whose literary quality is far inferior to the original. This Egyptian document (written on papyri) was discovered sometime before the turn of the century. Egyptian philologists soon identified the script as demotic—a cursive kind of hieroglyphic writing which came into use around 650 B.C. For years, however, its contents remained an enigma to experts.
Progress in deciphering the text occurred in 1940 when Professor Raymond Bowman and Egyptologist George R. Hughes discovered that, though the text was written in demotic script, the actual language was Aramaic. The Egyptian document contains Jewish words such as YHWH (i.e., Yahweh) and ‘adonay, but it also mentions an assortment of pagan gods (e.g., Horus, Sahar, Mar, and Baal). These features, and its familiarity of language and composition to Psalm 20, indicate that it was adapted from the Hebrew Psalm. The text, however, is riddled with scribal errors of such nature that indicate the scribe did not understand what he transcribed (see Shanks, 1985). Such is not characteristic of biblical poetry. Its literary quality, according to some scholars, is far superior to that of pagan stock (see Wheeler, 1992). This certainly would be one indication of its originality.
Further, along with its distinguished literary quality, the Bible’s ethical and spiritual concepts are unparalleled by pagan sacred literature. For instance, the gods of pagan myths are guilty of degenerate behavior of all sorts; the true God is infinite in purity. Practitioners of pagan religions constantly worked to pacify their angry gods; worshipers of Yahweh, Who was quick to forgive, received undeserved blessings from His gracious hands (Psalm 32:1-5). Thus, the similarities between biblical and pagan literature are eclipsed by the enormous differences. Actually, there is no better indicator of the Bible’s inspiration than to put it side by side with its pagan counterparts. Such comparative literary analyses bolster our conviction that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God...” (2 Timothy 3:16).
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