Part 1: Do ancient Near-Eastern studies cause a crisis for biblical faith?

The flurry of reviews about this weekend’s opening of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, have also meant that media outlets and commentators have highlighted the many extra-biblical versions of the deluge narrative in hopes of accounting for and commenting on Aronofsky’s unique reimagining of the well-worn tale.  With the veritable flood of extra-biblical texts being presented to readers of these reviews, I thought it a good time to discuss whether or not scripture’s similarity to the surrounding ancient near-eastern culture presents a problem for our faith in the God that inspired it.

For many, the similarity of the biblical text to the cultures that produced and surround it has been a particular stumbling block of faith.  For them, the new data that we are learning everyday about scripture’s earthly authors obscures the God behind their writing to the point of non-existence. How is this religious text different from the Canaanite, Mesopotamian, Egyptian or Greek Mythology? Over the course of the next week, in three parts, I will begin to gesture towards a solution.

Do ancient Near-Eastern studies cause a crisis of faith? Part 1


In the months leading up to Noah’s release a number of media outlets also highlighted the similarities and notable divergences between a newly translated Mesopotamian flood text (translated by Irving Finkel of the British Museum) and the biblical account of the flood. In assigning significance to this find, Joel Baden on the CNN Belief Blog has argued that the new Mesopotamian translation reminds us that, “Everyone,” meaning the individual cultures of the ancient Near East, “reshapes the Flood story, and the ark itself, according to the norms of their own time and place.”

In this particular instance, the ark itself seems to have been reshaped. The “new” tablet describes a circular ark, similar to river-going vessels, while the biblical text describes an oblong vessel, similar to the types sailing the ancient seas. In other words, the biblical writers and the Mesopotamian writers fashioned arks after forms familiar to them.

This type of enculturation of the biblical text has frequently led to a crisis of faith among scholars, pastors, and lay persons alike.  The reasoning goes that, for a part of the bible to be the authoritative, inspired word of God then it has to be unique, or it has to transcend the culture it was first communicated to and for.

For example, if the flood narrative is just one, among many different variations on the same theme, then the biblical account is neither unique nor transcendent. The Israelite narratives about Yahweh are simply an Israelite attempt to reason out the cosmos, no different from the Mesopotamians or Egyptians. This whole “inspired word of God” thing becomes a shell game to impute divine authority to the biblical text where none is deserved.

Alternatively, if the story is similar enough to extra-biblical texts, but slightly different in the details, aren’t the biblical writers just adapting someone else’s mythology to suit their own needs. Again, we have a shell game to the benefit of the biblical writers and the ancient powers-that-be that may or may not have sponsored them.

I have watched as these lines of reasoning have played out to a near complete loss of faith in colleagues. But is this how we should respond to the enculturation of God’s self-revelation?

The biblical text and cultural interaction

This latest extra-biblical flood text is not the first to have been discovered, nor will it likely be the last. This type of cultural interaction on the part of the biblical text with extra-biblical sources has been well known for some time. It is not exclusive to the flood narrative either. In a thousand different places and in a thousand different ways the biblical text interacts with, adopts, rejects, augments, and ignores the cognitive environment  of the ancient Near East.

John Walton, in his work on Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament has outlined seven general ways in which the biblical text interacts with its greater cultural context.

  1. It may “totally ignore” extra-biblical cultural elements and “present a different view”
  2. It may display a “hazy familiarity” of extra-biblical cultural elements “leading to caricature and ridicule”
  3. It may possess “accurate knowledge” of extra-biblical cultural elements leading to “rejection.”
  4. It may disagree with the greater near eastern cognitive environment “resulting in polemics, debate, or contention”
  5. It may also display “awareness” of extra-biblical cultural elements “leading to adaption or transformation”
  6. It may “consciously imitate or borrow” extra –biblical cultural elements
  7. Finally, there may be a subconscious shared heritage.

It has been the job of scholars working in background studies to identify which cultural interaction may be taking place in any given biblical text.  While these particular interactions lay in various places on a spectrum from similarity to contrast, what is clear is that the biblical text, God’s self-revelation, no matter how it is related to the surrounding culture is, in fact, an expression of culture in one way or another.

The biblical writers were not unfamiliar with this concept. They also knew that the enculturation of God’s self-revelation had the potential to lead to a crisis of faith. In the next installment, we will see how a well-known story about a previously unknown prophet illustrates both Walton’s spectrum of interactions and the crisis of faith that can come from them. Indeed, when Elijah bursts onto the pages of the book of Kings, God’s self-revelation begins to engage culture a little too much for comfort.

Continue the discussion with Part 2: Elijah’s Crisis of faith

In the meantime, join the discussion below: What doubts/questions have been raised in your own faith journey when you have encountered new information about the ancient world of the biblical writers?

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  • Darek Barefoot

    Larry, I chanced upon your site and appreciate your perspective. I view OT history as idealized (under inspiration) in ways that reflect contemporaneous ANE cultures, but not without important factual cores or kernels. Or to put it another way, just as human language becomes an instrument of divine revelation in Scripture, so do cultural idioms as a kind of meta-language. The connection with history surely cannot be treated as irrelevant, however, when we are contrasting the Bible to, for example, the Book of Mormon.

    • Darek – Thanks so much for joining the conversation and contributing. Meta-Language is a very good way of describing it and I think it goes beyond just cultural idioms to worldview and thought processes themselves. Many of the same principles that we apply to cross cultural missions are also necessary when we approach the biblical text. We have to always ask ourselves 1) which underlying patterns of thought do we and do we not share with the biblical authors and 2) how does that affect our reception of their message.

      • Darek Barefoot

        I should add that what is true of the OT holds for the NT as well.

        Most believers have no idea that the recommendation against ‘returning evil for evil’ was present in the Crito dialogue long before it appeared in the Pauline and Petrine writings of the NT. Or that what Paul says in 1 Cor 8:2 is a version of the Socratic knowledge paradox. Or that the notion of rejection, suffering, humiliation, and public execution being entailed by perfect goodness of character was put on the lips of Glaucon in the Republic. Or that Paul borrows atomos from Democritus and
        company in speaking about the resurrection in 1 Cor 15:52. Or that the NT dichotomies of flesh-vs-spirit and shadow-vs-substance are consonant with, though not direct equivalents of, the dualistic concepts of Plato’s Chariot and Cave allegories. Or that Luke’s portrait of Jesus the good shepherd with the sheep over his shoulders (Luke 15:5) can be seen as the realization of the Greek ideal symbolized by Hermes Kriophoros (in OT imagery, by contrast, the compassionate shepherd cradles the animal in front the body; Isa
        40:11). Et al.

        I should stress that language and concepts become vehicles of divine truth under inspiration, and so these idioms, etc., should not be seen reductively as limiters. When God speaks with the lips of foreigners (1 Cor 14:21), he is conveying his own thoughts, not merely the thoughts of the foreigners.

        • I whole heartedly agree that we “should stress that language and concepts become vehicles of divine truth.” I think a problem exists though when we too quickly assume that those idioms, thought processes and concepts are familiar to us. When we do that, we wind up labelling understandings and statements as “divine truth” when in fact they remain foreign to the original intent of the text. As Paul Wright puts it, all too often we either a) think we know what the text is saying and miss what it is actually communicating because we fail to understand its original context or b) we gloss over areas of the text not realizing that they were imbued with meaning in their original context.

          • Darek Barefoot

            Sure, readers can’t be too lazy to read notes on historical settings, ms variants, literary parallels, etc.

            Yet I sympathize with ordinary believers who resent being told that only erudite scholars can understand what the Scriptures are saying. It comes down to humility. Readers must be humble enough to realize that understanding of some aspects of Scripture must be tentative and capable of refinement and correction.

            The point of many verses is plain enough, of course. As Luke Timothy Johnson said, “Blessed are the peace makers” is not going to turn out to be, “Blessed are the war makers.”

            Also, I think Scriptures can have latent depths of meaning. For example, when Col 1:23 says that the gospel was proclaimed in all creation, it is referring to the Roman Empire. But from our vantage point, we see God’s intention to bring the gospel to every corner of a must larger geographical world than was contemplated in the first century.

            When the Psalmist looked up at the vastness of the night sky and felt a pang of insignificance, he did not have knowledge of tens of millions of light years and billions upon billions of galaxies (8:3-4). But surely his sentiment is right at home with our modern cosmological knowledge.

            Likewise, the Psalmist lacked any specific knowledge of deep geological time. But contemplation of such eons only enriches such expressions as Psalm 90:2 and 102:25-27.

            We know from many citations in the NT that the OT writers did not understand all the implications of what they wrote under inspiration.

          • Darek, you are absolutely right in providing the corrective that we do not want to discourage “ordinary believers” by indicating that it takes some sort of special knowledge in order to understand the text. We must affirm that at the very least we share our humanity and fallibility with those who communicated and received God’s self revelation. At the same time, we should not encourage believers, especially those in the modern western world, to feel overly comfortable or familiar with the text.

            You are right that “blessed are the peacemakers” will not become blessed are the war mongers but cultural ideals of shalom should cause us think hard about the task of peace making. Is it simply not offending or going off to war, or does it require something more? Does it also require just and responsible distribution of goods in order for each individual to live free from famine and war under his/her own vine and fig tree?

            Ultimately our reading of the text is enriched by both cultural contexts. We are enriched by our modern understanding of the world which complements the thought world of the text. And we are enriched by a greater understanding of that thought world in navigating faith’s place and application in our modern context.

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