Bible Review magazine tries to answer the question in its 20th anniversary issue.
By RICHARD N. OSTLING
AP RELIGION WRITER
It's among the most famous sentences ever written: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."
The Bible opens by depicting the creation from the cosmic viewpoint, after which it repeats the story from an earthbound vantage.
Some may be shocked by the idea that the first account (Genesis 1:1-2:3) might have links with ancient pagan myths. But conservative as well as liberal scholars consider this likely. However, they differ on the extent and meaning of the relationship.
Relevant pagan writings are assessed by Victor Hurowitz of Israel's Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in the cover story for the 20th-anniversary issue of the ever-interesting Bible Review magazine.
In 1876, George Smith, a British engraver who became a cataloger of ancient texts in the British Museum, published English translations of myths from ancient Mesopotamia (today's Iraq). They included a creation story titled "Enuma Elis" (from the first two words in Akkadian, translated as "when above").
Smith thought the Genesis creation "was simply an abbreviated Hebrew version of a more ancient Babylonian tale," Hurowitz writes.
A 1902 book by Germany's Friedrich Delitzsch popularized the idea that Genesis simply transferred the leading god of "Enuma" into the God of Israel. Hurowitz says Delitzsch's "anti-Semitic and anti-Christian insinuations" indicated that "Mesopotamian religion was on an equal if not higher level than that of the Hebrew Bible and that the Bible contains no religious truth of its own."
A more moderate 1951 interpretation came in Alexander Heidel's "The Babylonian Genesis." He said the similarities between Genesis and "Enuma" weren't as striking as earlier scholars claimed and "the divergences are much more far-reaching and significant than are the resemblances."
Both writings sought to explain the same phenomena but might be totally unrelated, he said, since these general ideas were abroad in ancient times.
Similarities? In both texts the earth and sky are differentiated, waters are divided and matters conclude with God or the gods resting. Also, at one point Marduk speaks a constellation out of and into existence, perhaps paralleling "and God said" in Genesis.
Differences? Ponder these "Enuma" plot twists:
UThe creation of the world involves sexual relations among various gods.
ULater on, the gods are sleep-deprived because their hard-partying divine offspring refuse to shut up.
UThe goddess Tiamat (the personification of seawater) desires the murder of her own offspring, and one baby god kills his divine great-great grandfather.
UThere are ribald references to the gods' bodily functions and drunkenness.
UThe high god Marduk is depicted in physical terms as a being with four eyes and four ears.
UIn the end, Marduk splits open the body of Tiamat to create the heavens and various aspects of the earth.
Obviously, this lusty yarn bears scant religious resemblance to the God and creation of Genesis.
Conservative scholars readily acknowledged a literary relationship. But Meredith Kline of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts wrote that in Genesis, the Mesopotamian myth's "worldview is repudiated, even ridiculed, and most effectively so" at the points where the two texts correspond.
Kenneth Mathews of Beeson Divinity School in Alabama said that "Enuma" is interested mostly in the origin of various gods and cultural institutions, including Babylon itself. Most important, perhaps, the Babylonian gods did not create the cosmos but merely organized pre-existing matter.
In today's understanding, says Hurowitz, it's no longer possible to accept earlier claims that biblical authors simply took "Enuma" and applied it to the God of Israel.
"The specific parallels are fewer than originally thought, and even the best ones are not entirely certain," he concludes. Both writings developed humanity's common beliefs "in their own unique manner."
Note: George Smith also published Mesopotamia's "Gilgamesh epic," which bore similarities with Noah's flood in Genesis. But that's another story ...
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