I wish to do a short case study here of the Noahic narrative in the Epic of Gilgamesh as a preliminary reflection on the relationship between history and the Bible
The Great Flood and the Epic of Gilgamesh
There is an ancient Babylonian Epic known as to the Epic of Gilgamesh which contains a story which sounds very much like the global flood narrative in Genesis.
Assuming that the Epic of Gilgamesh does predate the writings of Genesis, there is a rather common theory that the Jews simply copied and adapted the flood narrative from this epic to write it in their own Genesis account.
Whatever the merits of this theory, what is odd is how this theory is treated as a refutation of the inspired nature of the Genesis account.
Let us look at this in another way. If indeed the Noahic narrative concerning the Great Flood is true and did happen, is it surprising that this event would be remembered and passed on, not only by the Hebrews but by other people as well? If indeed there is such a flood of such epic and global proportions, what would in fact be surprising is if no one else remembered or noted the flood save for one little Hebrew tribe. (In fact, this is precisely the argument which is often employed against the “historicity” of the Exodus events, that it is not recorded by the Egyptians, although lately they have discovered something which looks like a record of the Hebrews in Egypt.)
Thus under this reading, the existence of the flood narrative in the Epic of Gilgamesh, far from being a refutation of the Genesis narrative, would be evidence of its truth, that is, it is not merely a concoction of one little Hebrew tribe but a publicly accessible event.
How History is Made
Here is an interesting question though, why would such an obvious explanation not have occurred to some of these Bible scholars? Here’s a hypothesis. What do historical scholars do? They collect texts and documents and attempt to make sense of them via the construction of theories. Thus, they look at the documents and texts of Gilgamesh and Genesis, they compare them in their study rooms, and imagine that, parallel to their own experience, there must have been some Israelite scholar long long ago likewise sitting in their study, looking at the epic of Gilgamesh and then composing their own Genesis account. Thus, this is simply nothing more than scholars projecting their own situation backwards to the past.
The thing is that most people do not generate history just to make sense of texts or formulate a clever theory to account for them. They were more concerned with the external realities to which the texts referred to in their sourcing for historical information.
Thus, the author (or authors) of Genesis didn’t have as their sole source written documents, they also have oral traditions and even the accounts from other neighbouring tribes, which ever was “better”, which they wrote into a narrative. (This is the oddity of the “Four Document Hypothesis” which postulates that the Old Testament is derived from four main “documents”. Where do these “four documents” miraculously come from? Of course the “four documents hypothesis” has today morphed into “traditions” or “communities” which are much more plausible but still a little artificial.) And even if the author (or authors) of Genesis did derive their narrative mostly from Gilgamesh, what of it? What this at most refutes is the “dictation theory of inspiration” where an angel or the Holy Spirit literally dictated word for word every word of Genesis directly into the author (or authors’) ears. But not even the most conservative of Biblical scholars today believes in the dictation theory of inspiration so the point is moot anyway.
The doctrine of inspiration merely says that the documents which we call “the Bible” today is a product of divine guidance, no matter what shape or historical processes it took for the Bible to be formed. The final product of the Scriptures is infallibly reliable because it is the divinely guided product, not because God whispered secrets into someone’s ear not accessible to anyone else.
What is often forgotten about the point of the “Bible as history” is the fact that historical documents are not an enclosed circle of self-referring texts but are fundamentally and ultimately witnesses which points to events or truths or principles outside of themselves. This is what the Neo-orthodox got correct when they emphasized the concept of the Bible as a witness to objective salvation history and events. Thus, most people didn’t write history to systematise various texts and documents for the pure theoretical concern of creating a coherent reading of the texts, they wrote ultimately to point us to those external realities beyond the text. No doubt in the process of so “pointing” they added their commentary and interpretation of those events, but these “subjective overlays” doesn’t change the fundamental orientation that historical writings was not a narcissistic contemplation of itself but a drawing of the reader towards realities beyond the text.
The great oddity is the way many Christians have more or less bought into the Kantian idealist severance of subjective human records from objective external events. Either the Bible fell down upon our laps directly from heaven pure from any human taint (the way the Qu’ran was given!), or it is a purely human and secular enterprise which the biblical authors copied from other pagan writers and accounts.
But the God of whom the Bible speaks is not only the God of the Jews but also of the Gentiles. His actions are not merely confined to the pages of a singular text held by the Hebrew people and has no reality outside of the text but are, literally, on public record. It can be seen by everyone else. The events of Salvation History occurred outside of the Biblical texts. The authors of the Bible recorded the events after the fact. In the process of this recording they are free to use any other sources for information whether Babylonian, pagan or Assyrian, etc. The question is not whether the records came “purely” from the Hebrew’s pen but whether the record is reliable or not, reliable in its witness to those external events, regardless of the source of those texts. The doctrine of divine inspiration says that the process of the writing of the Scriptures have been divinely preserved to be an infallible reliable witness of those events.
Yet we do not believe that the biblical authors recorded these events just to tell us a nice story. They did so as witnesses to God’s plan of salvation for mankind and ultimately for us. Thus their narratives are fundamentally, and unapologetically, saturated with this goal or “ideology”. We believe that ultimately the Old Testament Scriptures as we possess now is a “divinely inspired” account, not because God whispered it in someone’s ear but because the entire process as been guided and preserved by Him. And this account has ultimately been confirmed by Jesus Christ, who used these Scriptures and affirmed their authority.