The Pan-Babylonian Approach to the Hebrew Bible by Ancient Astronaut Theorists: Still Dead After All These Years

I’ve blogged before about “Pan-Babylonianism” — the idea that the content of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is basically plagiarized from Babylonian (more widely, Sumero-Mesopotamian) material. No serious biblical studies scholar or Assyriologist believes this today, but this approach became a majority paradigm in the late 1800s and early 1900s in the wake of two events: (1) the decipherment of cuneiform and (2) Friedrich Delitzsch’s “Babel und Bible” lectures delivered in 1902 to the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft attended by Kaisar Wilhelm II and his staff. In other words, anyone (like Zecharia Sitchin) who supposed or still supposes this approach is novel or cutting edge or “research the mainstream cannot cope with” is behind the curve by 100 years.

The death pf Pan-Babylonianism actually came shortly after it’s rise to prominence due to the famous German scholar Hermann Gunkel’s classic rebuttal-essay, Babylonien und Israel (1903). Gunkel was *not* an evangelical or fundamentalist. He is well know to many people in that crowd as a “liberal” scholar. Regardless of labels, his famous work initiated the lethal injection to Pan-Babylonianism.

Gunkel’s important work is now available in a new English translation. Readers can read a review here, as well as get information for ordering this new work. Bear in mind this is a scholarly work; it is not light reading.The review alludes to an earlier translations of Gunkel’s work by published in 1904 by John Joseph McVey. That earlier translation is available online for free here.

Nimrod Mythology

Spend any time on the internet (especially Christian sites) and you’re bound to run into a pile of PaleoBabble about Nimrod, a character mentioned only in Genesis 10:8-9; 1 Chron. 1:10 (repeats Genesis 10:8); and Micah 5:6 (reference to the “land of Nimrod”). Here are Genesis 10:8-9 (Tanakh):

Cush also begot Nimrod, who was the first man of might on earth. He was a mighty hunter by the grace of the Lord; hence the saying, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter by the grace of the Lord.”

Not much information here.  And yet the internet tells us that Nimrod was one of the nephilim giants of Genesis 6, that he built Babylon with divine technology (the Tower of Babylon was really a time travel portal/stargate), and (perhaps) that he got technological knowledge from those ever-helpful extraterrestrials. All that from these verses?!

Well, not exactly.  Those who put forth this silliness invariably depend on ancient (non-biblical) tradition concerning Nimrod. Putting it generously, tradition in such cases = “sucking it out of one’s thumb.” It’s PaleoBabble.

I thought toward this end that I’d post an old 1990 Harvard Theological Review article entitled “Nimrod Before and After the Bible.” The authors are Karel van der Toorn and P. W. van der Horst, both of them expert in Mesopotamian and biblical languages. Granted, the linguistic discussions will likely be too dense fo rmost readers, but the value of this article is getting a brief glimpse of where the nonsensical material about Nimrod comes from, and the very real academic “data obstacles” to the nonsense.

Is Zecharia Sitchin Anti-Semitic?

I don’t believe so (Sitchin is Jewish).

That said, it seems Sitchin and his followers don’t realize how his ideas open themselves to that charge. How? Aside from pure imagination, a lot of Sitchin’s ideas presuppose a dependence of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) on earlier Sumerian and Babylonian literature. More acutely, Sitchin asserts over and over again in his books that the Old Testament writers borrowed their material from the Sumerian and later Mesopotamian people.

This idea was all the rage in the late 19th century and early 20th century, particularly in the wake of the famous “Babel und Bibel” (“Babel and the Bible”) lecture of Friedrich Delitzsch. It was the era of the decipherment of cuneiform and the discovery of creation and flood stories in Mesopotamian literature. It was also the era of deepening anti-Semitism, a belief cultivated nowhere more zealously than Germany, Delitzsch’s fatherland. In fact, it was in this environment that the “higher criticism” of the Bible began. The criticism of the Bible as in any way historical was led by German anti-Semites. The result was the pursuit of alternative origin stories, found ever-so-conveniently in the writings of the “Aryans” (who supposedly came from Sumeria — is this sounding familiar, ye followers of Sitchin?). The Nazis, of course, made this dogma, since the “Aryan” (Vedic) writings were written in Sanskrit, which was the ancient ancestor of Indo-European languages, of which German was prominent. Yes, they descended from the gods who first gave kingship, the right to rule, at Sumer — unlike those inferior Jews. They and their myths had to be eradicated.

As I’ve told Sitchinites at various lectures, no credible OT scholar today argues that the Genesis stories came wholesale from Mesopotamian material. That idea is passe, but Sitchin doesn’t seem to mind being 100 years behind the curve. The literary issue is far more complex than what we think of as borrowing, and people who spend time in the biblical text know it, and so have abandoned the views of Delitzsch and his followers.

For a readable (non-specialist) discussion of how Delitsch’s anti-semitism fueled his scholarship, click here [from Bible Review 18 no 1 (F 2002): 32-40, 47].  Amazing how this despicable bias influenced generations, and is still influencing amateur researchers like Sitchin, though only sub-consciously.