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February 2016

The Son of God, the Council of Nicea, and the Da Vinci Code

Bart D. Ehrman

In my main lecture during the debate this past weekend, I decided to develop in short order the case that I make in my book How Jesus Became God for how, well, Jesus became God.  (!)   But I chose to do it differently from how I do it in the book, at least in terms of rhetorical strategy.  I chose to start at the *end* of the development (it’s actually nowhere near the end – since Christological arguments continued on for centuries – but it was one sensible ending points), with the controversies over Christ’s divinity in the early fourth century, controversies between Arius and his detractors.

I’m afraid many people today (most?) get their knowledge of Arius, the Arian Controversy, and the Council of Nicea from that inestimable authority, Dan Brown, who wrote about it at length in that great work of historical realism, The Da Vinci Code.   I tell my students at Chapel Hill that if they want to learn about the history of the Middle Ages, the way to do that is not by watching “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”  And if they want to learn about the history of early Christianity, the way to do that is not by readingThe Da Vinci Code.

The Da Vinci Code is wrong about just about everything it says about the Arian Controversy, the emperor Constantine, and the Council of Nicea.   That’s why I wrote my earlier book Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code.  There were tons of books written in response to Dan Brown’s novel, but virtually all of them were by highly religious (and angry) people – either Roman Catholic or conservative evangelicals – who had deep-seated theological reasons for really disliking the book.  I myself did not dislike it so much: I thought for a page-turner at the beach, it was rather fun.  My sense is that people who don’t like it (i.e., most of my friends) are simply expecting way too much of it as a work of fiction.  It’s *not* a great work of fiction.  But it’s a good blow-off novel if you don’t want a lot of substance.  Still, the problem I had with it was that so much information was wrong, even when getting it *right* would not have had any effect on the plot or the characters.   It was just gratuitously wrong.  This included most everything it says about the historical Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the New Testament, and yes, the Arian Controversy and the Council of Nicea.

Among other things – just to dispel one myth that so many people buy into – the Council of Nicea (which was called by the emperor Constantine in the year 325 CE) did not, decidedly did NOT decide, the Council did NOT decide which books should belong in the New Testament.  The issue of the canon of Scripture was not discussed at the Council.  (We know this because we have records of the issues that the council discussed and the decisions that it reached).  The first person to list our 27 books of the NT canon, as the only books of the canon, was the bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, in the year 367 CE, over 40 years after the council.  Now it’s true that Athanasius attended the Council of Nicea as a young man.  But neither he nor anyone else at the council was discussing which books should be accepted as the Christian canonical Scriptures.

And one other thing that Dan Brown (and so many others) gets wrong is that the Council did not vote on whether Jesus should be seen as the Son of God or not.   According to Dan Brown (crazily enough), Christians until that time did not see Jesus as a divine being, but only as a human being.   That, says Brown, was also the view of the main figure at the council, Arius.  The council, Brown claims, voted on whether Jesus was to be seen as the Son of God or not, and Jesus’ divinity won out, even though, says Brown, “it was a close vote.”

It wasn’t a close vote and the issue was not whether Jesus was the Son of God.  Everyone at the council – literally EVERYONE – agreed going into the council that Jesus was the Son of God.  The question instead was:  In what SENSE was he the Son of God?

I will talk about the specific issues in my next post.  But for here I just want to stress that the idea that Jesus was the Son of God goes back as far back as we have any Christian sources.  The apostle Paul was our first Christian author, and he is altogether emphatic that Christ was the Son of God.   The Gospels of the New Testament, written from fifteen to thirty-five years after Paul, all agree that Jesus was the Son of God.   In fact, all the authors of the New Testament proclaim that Jesus was the Son of God.

This is the most frustrating thing about the Da Vinci Code.  How can anyone have even the slightest knowledge of early Christianity and not know that every single author of the NT thinks that Jesus was, in some sense, divine, God’s own son?  The only way not to know that is never to have read the NT.  Has Dan Brown ever read the New Testament?  I’m afraid if he were brought up on charges of having read it, there would not be enough evidence to convict.

The big interpretive issue when dealing with the New Testament is the one I mentioned earlier: in what sense is Jesus the Son of God?  Is he the Son of God the way the nation of Israel is said to be the son of God, for example, in Hosea 11:1, as the one(s) chosen by God to fulfill his work here on earth?  Israel obviously is not personally divine; yet it is described as God’s son.  Or is he the Son of God the way the king of Israel was thought to be (e.g., 2 Sam 7:11-14; Psalm 2:1-2), as the individual on earth whom God has chosen to do his will?  Was the king actually understood to be God?  Or is Christ the Son of God in the way that angels are, as described, for example in Genesis 6?  Or is he the Son of God in the sense that he is somehow equal with God in power and authority?  Or something else?

These were issues debated from early times.   And the debates came to a head at the Council of Nicea.  There, everyone agreed that Christ was personally a divine being.  That he was the Creator of the universe.  That he was infinitely above every other being in the cosmos in terms of grandeur and power, apart from God the Father.  But what exactly was his relationship to God the Father, as God the Son?  It was that which was debated at Nicea, and I began my talk in New Orleans by laying out the terms of the debate.

How December 25 Became Christmas

 

On December 25, Christians around the world will gather to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Joyful carols, special liturgies, brightly wrapped gifts, festive foods—these all characterize the feast today, at least in the northern hemisphere. But just how did the Christmas festival originate? How did December 25 come to be associated withJesus’ birthday?The Bible offers few clues: Celebrations of Jesus’ Nativity are not mentioned in the Gospels or Acts; the date is not given, not even the time of year. The biblical reference to shepherds tending their flocks at night when they hear the news of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:8) might suggest the spring lambing season; in the cold month of December, on the other hand, sheep might well have been corralled. Yet most scholars would urge caution about extracting such a precise but incidental detail from a narrative whose focus is theological rather than calendrical.

The extrabiblical evidence from the first and second century is equally spare: There is no mention of birth celebrations in the writings of early Christian writers such as Irenaeus (c. 130–200) or Tertullian (c. 160–225). Origen of Alexandria (c. 165–264) goes so far as to mock Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries, dismissing them as “pagan” practices—a strong indication that Jesus’ birth was not marked with similar festivities at that place and time.1 As far as we can tell, Christmas was not celebrated at all at this point.

This stands in sharp contrast to the very early traditions surrounding Jesus’ last days. Each of the Four Gospels provides detailed information about the time of Jesus’ death. According to John, Jesus is crucified just as the Passover lambs are being sacrificed. This would have occurred on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Nisan, just before the Jewish holiday began at sundown (considered the beginning of the 15th day because in the Hebrew calendar, days begin at sundown). In Matthew, Mark and Luke, however, the Last Supper is held after sundown, on the beginning of the 15th. Jesus is crucified the next morning—still, the 15th.a

Easter, a much earlier development than Christmas, was simply the gradual Christian reinterpretation of Passover in terms of Jesus’ Passion. Its observance could even be implied in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 5:7–8: “Our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the festival…”); it was certainly a distinctively Christian feast by the mid-second century C.E., when the apocryphal text known as the Epistle to the Apostles has Jesus instruct his disciples to “make commemoration of [his] death, that is, the Passover.”Jesus’ ministry, miracles, Passion and Resurrection were often of most interest to first- and early-second-century C.E. Christian writers. But over time, Jesus’ origins would become of increasing concern. We can begin to see this shift already in the New Testament. The earliest writings—Paul and Mark—make no mention of Jesus’ birth. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke provide well-known but quite different accounts of the event—although neither specifies a date. In the second century C.E., further details of Jesus’ birth and childhood are related in apocryphal writings such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Proto-Gospel of James.b These texts provide everything from the names of Jesus’ grandparents to the details of his education—but not the date of his birth.

Finally, in about 200 C.E., a Christian teacher in Egypt makes reference to the date Jesus was born. According to Clement of Alexandria, several different days had been proposed by various Christian groups. Surprising as it may seem, Clement doesn’t mention December 25 at all. Clement writes: “There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in our calendar] … And treating of His Passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the 16th year of Tiberius, on the 25th of Phamenoth [March 21]; and others on the 25th of Pharmuthi [April 21] and others say that on the 19th of Pharmuthi [April 15] the Savior suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].”2

Clearly there was great uncertainty, but also a considerable amount of interest, in dating Jesus’ birth in the late second century. By the fourth century, however, we find references to two dates that were widely recognized—and now also celebrated—as Jesus’ birthday: December 25 in the western Roman Empire and January 6 in the East (especially in Egypt and Asia Minor). The modern Armenian church continues to celebrate Christmas on January 6; for most Christians, however, December 25 would prevail, while January 6 eventually came to be known as the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem. The period between became the holiday season later known as the 12 days of Christmas.

The earliest mention of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday comes from a mid-fourth-century Roman almanac that lists the death dates of various Christian bishops and martyrs. The first date listed, December 25, is marked: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae: “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.”3 In about 400 C.E., Augustine of Hippo mentions a local dissident Christian group, the Donatists, who apparently kept Christmas festivals on December 25, but refused to celebrate the Epiphany on January 6, regarding it as an innovation. Since the Donatist group only emerged during the persecution under Diocletian in 312 C.E. and then remained stubbornly attached to the practices of that moment in time, they seem to represent an older North African Christian tradition.

In the East, January 6 was at first not associated with the magi alone, but with the Christmas story as a whole.

So, almost 300 years after Jesus was born, we finally find people observing his birth in mid-winter. But how had they settled on the dates December 25 and January 6?

There are two theories today: one extremely popular, the other less often heard outside scholarly circles (though far more ancient).4

The most loudly touted theory about the origins of the Christmas date(s) is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals. According to this theory, early Christians deliberately chose these dates to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world: If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated.
Despite its popularity today, this theory of Christmas’s origins has its problems. It is not found in any ancient Christian writings, for one thing. Christian authors of the time do note a connection between the solstice and Jesus’ birth: The church father Ambrose (c. 339–397), for example, described Christ as the true sun, who outshone the fallen gods of the old order. But early Christian writers never hint at any recent calendrical engineering; they clearly don’t think the date was chosen by the church. Rather they see the coincidence as a providential sign, as natural proof that God had selected Jesus over the false pagan gods.It’s not until the 12th century that we find the first suggestion that Jesus’ birth celebration was deliberately set at the time of pagan feasts. A marginal note on a manuscript of the writings of the Syriac biblical commentator Dionysius bar-Salibi states that in ancient times the Christmas holiday was actually shifted from January 6 to December 25 so that it fell on the same date as the pagan Sol Invictus holiday.5 In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bible scholars spurred on by the new study of comparative religions latched on to this idea.6 They claimed that because the early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born, they simply assimilated the pagan solstice festival for their own purposes, claiming it as the time of the Messiah’s birth and celebrating it accordingly.

More recent studies have shown that many of the holiday’s modern trappings do reflect pagan customs borrowed much later, as Christianity expanded into northern and western Europe. The Christmas tree, for example, has been linked with late medieval druidic practices. This has only encouraged modern audiences to assume that the date, too, must be pagan.

There are problems with this popular theory, however, as many scholars recognize. Most significantly, the first mention of a date for Christmas (c. 200) and the earliest celebrations that we know about (c. 250–300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character.

Granted, Christian belief and practice were not formed in isolation. Many early elements of Christian worship—including eucharistic meals, meals honoring martyrs and much early Christian funerary art—would have been quite comprehensible to pagan observers. Yet, in the first few centuries C.E., the persecuted Christian minority was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays. This was still true as late as the violent persecutions of the Christians conducted by the Roman emperor Diocletian between 303 and 312 C.E.

This would change only after Constantine converted to Christianity. From the mid-fourth century on, we do find Christians deliberately adapting and Christianizing pagan festivals. A famous proponent of this practice was Pope Gregory the Great, who, in a letter written in 601 C.E. to a Christian missionary in Britain, recommended that local pagan temples not be destroyed but be converted into churches, and that pagan festivals be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs. At this late point, Christmas may well have acquired some pagan trappings. But we don’t have evidence of Christians adopting pagan festivals in the third century, at which point dates for Christmas were established. Thus, it seems unlikely that the date was simply selected to correspond with pagan solar festivals.

The December 25 feast seems to have existed before 312—before Constantine and his conversion, at least. As we have seen, the Donatist Christians in North Africa seem to have known it from before that time. Furthermore, in the mid- to late fourth century, church leaders in the eastern Empire concerned themselves not with introducing a celebration of Jesus’ birthday, but with the addition of the December date to their traditional celebration on January 6.7
There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. This view was first suggested to the modern world by French scholar Louis Duchesne in the early 20th century and fully developed by American Thomas Talley in more recent years.8But they were certainly not the first to note a connection between the traditional date of Jesus’ death and his birth.

Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus diedc was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar.9 March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception.10 Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.d

This idea appears in an anonymous Christian treatise titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, which appears to come from fourth-century North Africa. The treatise states: “Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.”11 Based on this, the treatise dates Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.

Augustine, too, was familiar with this association. In On the Trinity (c. 399–419) he writes: “For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”12
In the East, too, the dates of Jesus’ conception and death were linked. But instead of working from the 14th of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, the easterners used the 14th of the first spring month (Artemisios) in their local Greek calendar—April 6 to us. April 6 is, of course, exactly nine months before January 6—the eastern date for Christmas. In the East, too, we have evidence that April was associated with Jesus’ conception and crucifixion. Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis writes that on April 6, “The lamb was shut up in the spotless womb of the holy virgin, he who took away and takes away in perpetual sacrifice the sins of the world.”13 Even today, the Armenian Church celebrates the Annunciation in early April (on the 7th, not the 6th) and Christmas on January 6.eThus, we have Christians in two parts of the world calculating Jesus’ birth on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day (March 25 or April 6) and coming up with two close but different results (December 25 and January 6).

Connecting Jesus’ conception and death in this way will certainly seem odd to modern readers, but it reflects ancient and medieval understandings of the whole of salvation being bound up together. One of the most poignant expressions of this belief is found in Christian art. In numerous paintings of the angel’s Annunciation to Mary—the moment of Jesus’ conception—the baby Jesus is shown gliding down from heaven on or with a small cross (see photo above of detail from Master Bertram’s Annunciation scene); a visual reminder that the conception brings the promise of salvation through Jesus’ death.

The notion that creation and redemption should occur at the same time of year is also reflected in ancient Jewish tradition, recorded in the Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud preserves a dispute between two early-second-century C.E. rabbis who share this view, but disagree on the date: Rabbi Eliezer states: “In Nisan the world was created; in Nisan the Patriarchs were born; on Passover Isaac was born … and in Nisan they [our ancestors] will be redeemed in time to come.” (The other rabbi, Joshua, dates these same events to the following month, Tishri.)14 Thus, the dates of Christmas and Epiphany may well have resulted from Christian theological reflection on such chronologies: Jesus would have been conceived on the same date he died, and born nine months later.15

In the end we are left with a question: How did December 25 become Christmas? We cannot be entirely sure. Elements of the festival that developed from the fourth century until modern times may well derive from pagan traditions. Yet the actual date might really derive more from Judaism—from Jesus’ death at Passover, and from the rabbinic notion that great things might be expected, again and again, at the same time of the year—than from paganism. Then again, in this notion of cycles and the return of God’s redemption, we may perhaps also be touching upon something that the pagan Romans who celebrated Sol Invictus, and many other peoples since, would have understood and claimed for their own, too.16

Notes

a. See Jonathan Klawans, “Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder?” Bible Review, October 2001.

b. See the following Bible Review articles: David R. Cartlidge, “The Christian Apocrypha: Preserved in Art,” Bible Review, June 1997; Ronald F. Hock, “The Favored One,” Bible Review, June 2001; and Charles W. Hedrick, “The 34 Gospels,” Bible Review, June 2002.

c. For more on dating the year of Jesus’ birth, see Leonara Neville, “Fixing the Millennium,”Archaeology Odyssey, January/February 2002.

d. The ancients were familiar with the 9-month gestation period based on the observance of women’s menstrual cycles, pregnancies and miscarriages.

e. In the West (and eventually everywhere), the Easter celebration was later shifted from the actual day to the following Sunday. The insistence of the eastern Christians in keeping Easter on the actual 14th day caused a major debate within the church, with the easterners sometimes referred to as the Quartodecimans, or “Fourteenthers.”

1. Origen, Homily on Leviticus 8.

2. Clement, Stromateis 1.21.145. In addition, Christians in Clement’s native Egypt seem to have known a commemoration of Jesus’ baptism—sometimes understood as the moment of his divine choice, and hence as an alternate “incarnation” story—on the same date (Stromateis 1.21.146). See further on this point Thomas J. Talley, Origins of the Liturgical Year, 2nd ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991), pp. 118–120, drawing on Roland H. Bainton, “Basilidian Chronology and New Testament Interpretation,” Journal of Biblical Literature 42 (1923), pp. 81–134; and now especially Gabriele Winkler, “The Appearance of the Light at the Baptism of Jesus and the Origins of the Feast of the Epiphany,” in Maxwell Johnson, ed., Between Memory and Hope: Readings on the Liturgical Year (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), pp. 291–347.

3. The Philocalian Calendar.

4. Scholars of liturgical history in the English-speaking world are particularly skeptical of the “solstice” connection; see Susan K. Roll, “The Origins of Christmas: The State of the Question,” in Between Memory and Hope: Readings on the Liturgical Year (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), pp. 273–290, especially pp. 289–290.

5. A gloss on a manuscript of Dionysius Bar Salibi, d. 1171; see Talley, Origins, pp. 101–102.

6. Prominent among these was Paul Ernst Jablonski; on the history of scholarship, see especially Roll, “The Origins of Christmas,” pp. 277–283.

7. For example, Gregory of Nazianzen, Oratio 38; John Chrysostom, In Diem Natalem.

8. Louis Duchesne, Origines du culte Chrétien, 5th ed. (Paris: Thorin et Fontemoing, 1925), pp. 275–279; and Talley, Origins.

9. Tertullian, Adversus Iudaeos 8.

10. There are other relevant texts for this element of argument, including Hippolytus and the (pseudo-Cyprianic) De pascha computus; see Talley, Origins, pp. 86, 90–91.

11. De solstitia et aequinoctia conceptionis et nativitatis domini nostri iesu christi et iohannis baptistae.

12. Augustine, Sermon 202.

13. Epiphanius is quoted in Talley, Origins, p. 98.

14. b. Rosh Hashanah 10b–11a.

15. Talley, Origins, pp. 81–82.

16. On the two theories as false alternatives, see Roll, “Origins of Christmas.”

The Solomonic Gate at Gezer

Questions arise regarding Gezer’s so-called Solomonic gate

gezer-solomonic-gate

A Solomonic gate stands at Gezer—or does it? Legendary archaeologist and former Gezer dig director William Dever thought so. That Gezer was home to a Solomonic gate was not questioned in the 1970s by the Hebrew Union College excavation team. So why have Steve Ortiz and Sam Wolff returned to Gezer, and why are they questioning whether its famous gate should be considered a Solomonic gate?The answer is simple: The renewed excavation—now in its seventh season—does not want to make any assumptions from the past or bring in any preconceived ideas as the directors undertake their exploration. This includes the terminology Ortiz and Wolff use to refer to the six-chambered, Iron Age city gate at Gezer. In their Archaeological Views column “In the Shadow of Solomon (and Everyone Else)” in the July/August 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, excavation codirectors Steve Ortiz and Sam Wolff describe the fresh questions they are bringing to the famous site of Gezer.

In 1871 Gezer was first identified by Charles Clermont-Ganneau, but the first excavation did not take place until 1902 when Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister began a seven-year large-scale project under the sponsorship of the Palestine Exploration Fund. From 1964–1974 G. Ernest Wright, William Dever and Joe Seger staged another excavation using more modern archaeological methods on behalf of Hebrew Union College and the Harvard Semitic Museum. William Dever returned to the site, this time sponsored by the University of Arizona, in 1984 and 1990. Both Ortiz and Wolff were part of one of these earlier excavation teams and are familiar with the conclusions drawn by them.

Before commencing this renewed expedition to Gezer, Wolff and Ortiz invited William Dever to the site to talk about its history and ruminate about its future. However, this conversation was not intended to dictate the upcoming investigation. “Bill is a legendary archaeologist—we respect him and his thoughts,” state Ortiz and Wolff, “but this was our project, and we had our own research agenda; different questions are being asked today than in the 1960s and 1970s.” These new questions provide the focus for the renewed excavations.

While maintaining a strong connection to the past, and a respect for those who have come to Gezer before them—both ancient and modern—Wolff and Ortiz will not be taking anything for granted. They intend to be fresh eyes for a fresh approach to an old site.

For more on Steve Ortiz and Sam Wolff’s process for excavating at Gezer, read the full Archaeological Views column “In the Shadow of Solomon (and Everyone Else)” in the July/August 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

 

Should We Take Creation Stories in Genesis Literally?

Robin Ngo   •  01/31/2016

garden-of-eden-fall-of-man

What purpose did creation stories in Genesis serve? Were they Biblical myths? Pictured here isThe Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man (c. 1617) by Flemish painters Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder.

Were the creation stories in Genesis meant to be taken literally?

Maybe not, says Biblical scholar Shawna Dolansky in her Biblical Views column “The Multiple Truths of Myths” in the January/February 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Our world is very different from the world in which the Biblical authors lived over 2,000 years ago. The ancient world did not have Google, Wikipedia and smartphones—access to information on human history and scientific achievements developed over millennia at the touch of their fingertips.

Many scholars believe that the ancient Israelites had creation stories that were told and retold; these stories eventually reached the Biblical authors, who wrote them down in Genesis and other books of the Bible. Creation stories in Genesis were etiological, Shawna Dolansky and other Biblical scholars argue.1 That is, the creation stories in Genesis served to provide answers to why the world was the way it was, such as why people wear clothes and why women experience pain during childbirth.

Creation stories in Genesis were among the many myths that were told in the ancient Near East. Today we may think of myths as beliefs that are not true, but as a literary genre, myths “are stories that convey and reinforce aspects of a culture’s worldview: many truths,” writes Dolansky. So to call something a myth—in this sense—does not necessarily imply that it is not true.

Scholars argue that Biblical myths arose within the context of other ancient Near Eastern myths that sought to explain the creation of the world. Alongside Biblical myths were Mesopotamian myths in which, depending on the account, the creator was Enlil, Mami or Marduk. In ancient Egyptian mythology, the creator of the world was Atum in one creation story and Ptah in another.

“Like other ancient peoples, the Israelites told multiple creation stories,” writes Shawna Dolansky in her Biblical Views column. “The Bible gives us three (and who knows how many others were recounted but not preserved?). Genesis 1 differs from Genesis 2–3, and both diverge from a third version alluded to elsewhere in the Bible, a myth of the primordial battle between God and the forces of chaos known as Leviathan (e.g., Psalm 74), Rahab (Psalm 89) or the dragon (Isaiah 27; 51). This battle that preceded creation has the Mesopotamian Enuma Elish as its closest analogue. In Enuma Elish, the god Marduk defeats the chaotic waters in the form of the dragon Tiamat and recycles her corpse to create the earth.”

 

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