WILLIAM EDELEN: Myths of Creation



The Contrary Minister

The diffusion of mythological themes from one culture to another and one religion to another is well known to religious historians. It is obvious with origin or creation mythologies.

Actually, the oldest Biblical accounts of creation are not the myths of Genesis, but Psalm 104. This psalm was borrowed from the famous “hymn of the Sun” of Akhenation, Egypt’s great monotheistic Pharaoh (1377-1360 B.C.).

As for the creation mythology of Genesis, both accounts were borrowed from other religions and both contradict one another. In Genesis 1, man is the last of the creation myth. In Chapter 2, man is the first to be created, with all else being created later.

These creation stories are recognized as mythological themes in the religion departments of every major university in this country (as well as the world), and also in the theological seminaries of the majority of mainline Protestant denominations. Only fundamentalist schools refuse to recognize the scholarship of these and related Biblical studies.

The Interpreters Bible is a 12-volume series, with contributions from 125 of the most eminent Biblical scholars in the world

The exegetical commentary on the Genesis creation stories is filled with the relationship between these mythologies and those of Babylonian and Persian origin. For example: “The Babylonian creation myth which echoes throughout the Biblical story must earlier have become a part of Israel’s religious heritage.”

And again: “The idea of man being created in the image of God is probably dependent on Babylonian mythology,” and then following are all the reasons why.

Biblical dictionaries state without hesitation that the “‘man made in the image of God’ part of the myth is a direct copy of the Babylonian story where Aruru forms a mental image of the God Anu…” And Marduk before making man, using his own blood, took counsel with Ea, the high god of wisdom in Babylonian mythology.

As I have said, the diffusion of mythological themes from one religion to another is common knowledge to religious historians. This is as true of the New Testament as of the Old Testament.

The great Heb-Sed festival of ancient Egypt, for example, was celebrated to reaffirm the Pharaoh as divine, or ‘God’s son.’ And in the giant processional that was part of the event, 14 of his ancestors had to precede the Pharaoh in the parade. If 14 were not still living, statues were carried, for 14 had to be the number to reaffirm divinity.

Now, if you read the genealogical table of Jesus in the opening pages of Matthew, you find exactly the same mythological formula, of 14 times three. Chapter 2, verse 17 reads: “All the generations from Abraham to David were Fourteen, and from David to the deportation Fourteen and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ Fourteen.” You have 14 times three. Of course three is the well known triple formula, expressing the numinosity of the “thrice holy” or “holy, holy, holy.”

Next, three times 14 equal 42. In Egyptian mythology, you had to appear before Osiris (The god of resurrection who overcame earth) and with Osiris had to be 42 of his judges. Yu had to face them all after you died.

It is fairly obvious that the mythology surrounding Osiris became a part of the Christ mythology that was built up around the figure of the historical Jesus by the early developing church.

The study of mythological diffusion by anthropologists and religious historans is mandatory for anyone wanting to be a serious student of religion, as well as their own Christianity.

For starters, I would suggest reading the three-volume series The Masks of God by Joseph Campbell. The volumes include Oriental Mythology, Primitive Mythology and Occidental Mythology. I also recommend Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which is a fairly standard university text in religious studies.


Let me pick a nit in this otherwise excellent post: Campbell’s Masks of God series has a fourth volume, “Creative Mythology.” I enjoy Campbell’s popular books, especially Hero, but I read the Masks of God when I need to fall asleep – very academic.

Readers interested in a historical treatment of Christianity might like to read “Christ’s Ventriloquists” by Eric Zuesse. He argues convincingly that Paul created modern Christian theology, founding a sect that won out over the one led by Jesus’ original followers. Zuesse tends to make his points with a sledge hammer, but his theory makes sense of the confusing verbiage in Acts and the Letters.

William Edelen points out that modern scholarship has traced the biblical account of creation to various Babylonian and Persian sources. He doesn’t state that this is reason to dismiss it as a mishmash of primitive and unenlightened ideas, but many take an odd delight in characterizing it as such. They seem unable to grasp the concept that although a tale is a myth, it does not follow that it is “untrue”. Myths are meant to be neither history nor science.

For those who enjoy the game of bible bashing, the idea of original sin is a favourite and easy target. Original sin is the only interpretation of the Adam and Eve story accepted by Christian fundamentalists, but in the Judaic exegetical tradition it is just one of many readings of the story of the forbidden fruit. Another is that the story is an effort to explain the beginnings of human self-awareness. Adam and Eve’s eyes “were opened” when they ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. From that moment on, humans were no longer like the beasts. They were alienated forever from the metaphorical “Garden of Eden”. This was a curse, but also a blessing. Now they were awake. They could reason, develop an ethics, philosophize. They were “like the gods” in every way except immortality.

We have no better ideas today than did the ancients to explain the beginnings of human self-awareness. Those who gleefully mock the Adam and Eve story, praise the creative genius of Arthur C. Clark, who, in “2001: A Space Odyssey” simple substitutes a mysterious black monolith for the biblical fruit of a tree. The monolith appears to ape-man, and by its emanations is the source and beginnings of human kind’s “dominion over every living thing” (Genesis 1:28).

It could easily be argued that the biblical account of Adam and Eve can be read and interpreted on more and deeper levels than the Arthur C. Clark story, and is therefore the more sophisticated speculation about the special human condition of being both part of, and apart from, nature, or in the biblical sense, creation.

It is the peculiar arrogance of our age that we increasingly view the biblical stories as fables written by fools. They are “only” myths we say, and so their teachings, as poet and singer Leonard Cohen writes, “sink beneath (our) wisdom like a stone.”