Biblical Studies Mesopotamian Mythology and Genesis 1–11
Kacie Klamm, Abraham Winitzer
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 August 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0321


The imprint of Mesopotamia’s mythic thought and literature on Genesis’ Primeval History (Genesis 1–11) is hard to overstate, even if the biblical unit also contains much that is non-Mesopotamian in origins, and even if it must ultimately be considered on its own terms and, more broadly, those of the Bible as a whole. But these factors cannot take away from the place of Mesopotamia’s stories of origins in the Bible’s opening chapters; and the latter, remarkably, do not fully conceal these antecedents. To the contrary, in its layout the biblical text appears frank about the locale of what preceded its eventual epic-making call to Abraham to “go forth” (Gen. 12:1) from his homeland and begin anew in a faraway place. The reason for this admission of Mesopotamian priority is easy enough to appreciate. When it came to world origins, the traditions of this “nation from old” (Jer. 5:15)—traditions that, as the story of Gilgamesh makes explicit, brim with their own antiquity—could not simply be brushed aside. If, then, the Bible was to offer something meaningful about such topics, Mesopotamia’s version of events would necessarily have to be addressed. The challenge presented by Mesopotamia, therefore, would amount to a delicate balancing act: How was the Bible to incorporate this ancient tradition while at the same time not losing its own claim for a theological revolution? The question is no less challenging for modern interpretation, which must struggle with the evaluation of specific parallels, contact points, or alleged borrowings, and, more generally, articulate a broader vision of the nature of this interaction. The bibliography appearing below strives to shed light on specific topics in the broader subject, with an emphasis on recent Assyriological research bearing on the overall topic. This research has advanced considerably in the last generation in ways not fully appreciated or even known in biblical studies; the latter discipline appears to have departed in considerable ways from the sort of comparatism promoted in former days, partly, it seems, in reaction to overly confident speculation of earlier studies. But this shift also suggests a decreased interest in such matters in favor of other topics and interests. In order to enable renewed research on the matter—appropriately cautious but better informed by the latest in Assyriology—the following includes translations of texts, broad overviews, and more focused studies pertaining to the Mesopotamian mythic background of the Primeval History.


Among the many commentaries on Genesis (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article “The Book of Genesis”), the fine commentaries on Genesis 1–11 in Speiser 1964 and Gertz 2018 demonstrate the shift in biblical studies with regard to Mesopotamian comparanda: the self-assurance of the former frequently overreached the available evidence for its claims; the agnosticism and (relative to the concern with the hypothetical assumptions of source criticism) disinterest of the latter sidesteps admittedly thorny problems that have become removed from current concerns in biblical studies. But, as Hendel 2005 demonstrates, there is a real relationship between the Primeval History and established Mesopotamian traditions that cannot be ignored. Hess 1994 offers an overview of scholarly approaches to this relationship in the twentieth century. A comparison of the relevant corpora, such as that in Kvanvig 2011, reveals similarities that extend through the entirety of the antediluvian period.

  • Gertz, Jan Christian. Das erste Buch Mose (Genesis): die Urgeschichte Gen 1-11. Neues Göttinger Bibelwerk 1. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2018.

    DOI: 10.13109/9783666570551

    Gertz offers interesting and astute observations concerning questions of Biblical contact with Mesopotamia’s mythology, though his position on such contact remains typically agnostic. In any case, engagement with Mesopotamian materials is of secondary interest to Gertz, who is more concerned with hypothetical matters of source criticism.

  • Hendel, Ronald. “Genesis 1–11 and Its Mesopotamian Problem.” In Cultural Borrowings and Ethnic Appropriations in Antiquity. Edited by E. Gruen, 23–36. Oriens et Occidens 8. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2005.

    An important, short work on the subject’s central challenge: the necessity of the Primeval History to come to terms with the prior, established Mesopotamian traditions on the topics of concern for itself. For Hendel, Genesis 1–11’s solution is one that appropriates, mimics, and inverts the Mesopotamian antecedents. Whether such self-consciousness was always operative in the formation of these chapters may be debated—though hardly the described “problem” itself.

  • Hess, R. S. “One Hundred Fifty Years of Comparative Studies on Genesis 1–11: An Overview.” In I Studied Inscriptions from before the Flood: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1–11. Edited by R. S. Hess and D. Toshio, 3–26. Sources for Biblical and Theological Study 4. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1994.

    A thorough overview of the scholarship on the topic up to the final decade of the twentieth century.

  • Kvanvig, Helge S. Primeval History: Babylonian, Biblical, and Enochic: An Intertextual Reading. Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 149. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004163805.i-610

    Through a broad discussion of three corpora addressing primordial and antediluvian times, Kvanvig situates the biblical Primeval History (particularly creation and the flood) in conversation with Mesopotamian traditions, including Atraḫasīs and lists of antediluvian kings and sages. In his examination of Genesis, Kvanvig argues that the texts traditionally associated with the “Priestly” source form the original core of Genesis 1–11, later elaborated by the “non-Priestly” material.

  • Speiser, E. A. Genesis: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible 1. Garden City: Doubleday, 1964.

    The first volume of the venerable Anchor Bible series, this commentary is now dated and, as noted, at times too confident in its assertions; though even today it offers some of the most penetrating insights into the relationship between the Primeval History and its Mesopotamian antecedents.

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