One of the most common sneers I’ve come across about the Bible is dismissive comments about its supposed origins in the Bronze Age. These are mostly offhand statements that the Bible is Christians’ and Jews ‘favourite Bronze Age text’ or that it’s just ‘Bronze Age mythology’. Such sneers are so common that they’re actually something of a cliché. Rather than being any kind of meaningful criticism of the Bible and its relevance, these dismissive references to the Bible’s ancient origins are based on nothing more than cultural chauvinism and a simplistic belief that the value of a belief system can be judged solely on the scientific knowledge of the culture that produced it. More specifically, it tries to dismiss the Bible and its witness to God’s actions in history based on the technical competence of the Israelites in one particular area: metallurgy. Because the Israelites at the time some Biblical texts were written could only smelt bronze rather than iron, this is somehow taken as a decisive indicator of their stupidity, a technological limitation that is indicative of the invalidity of their worldview as a whole. They believed in God, but could only work in bronze, while we now have science and have a metallurgical skill they could only dream about. This is somehow supposed to refute belief in God.
Now I have an interest in the literature and culture of the ancient Near East, and comments about the Bible being just a ‘Bronze Age text’ and the like aren’t rational rebuttals to the Bible’s truth, but simple statements of prejudice. There’s an underlying assumption that people that far back in time were either so stupid that their ideas aren’t worth listening to today, or else they suffered from a mythopoeic mindset which does not related to the objective reality revealed by science. In fact what is abundantly clear when you start to read texts from the ancient world is not how alien the peoples who wrote them were, but how little different they are. They knew less, and their culture was profoundly different to our own, but at the same time they were as intelligent as we are and were capable of making the most profound statements about the human condition through their mythology and secular literature. And if our science and mathematics are better than theirs, it’s because they laid their foundations. So let’s examine the intellectual and cultural world of the ancient Near East to see if the Bible’s background in the Bronze Age really does make it meaningless in today’s technological world of space travel, atomic power and cloning.
Firstly, the point needs to be made that the Bible is not just a Bronze Age text. If one takes the view that the various books of the Bible were written between c. 1000 B.C. to c.100 A.D., that’s a period of about 1,100 years of revelation and theological reflection, going from the Bronze Age into the Iron Age. It’s roughly the same period that produced the ancient Sceptical texts that produced modern atheism when they were printed and began to circulate more widely in the 17th century. Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who argued that the gods could not and did not interfere in nature, and that this cosmos was only one of a number of cosmoi that had arisen by chance through the fall of atoms in a cosmic void, lived from 341 to 270 BC. Pyrrho of Elis, the founder of methodical Scepticism who attacked all statements about the gods as nonsensical and taught a ‘suspension of disbelief’, lived from 365 to 275 BC, and his noted successor, Carneades, from c. 214 to 129 BC. If sneering at the Bible as just ‘Bronze Age’ myth constitutes an effective refutation, then it is just as valid to dismiss Scepticism and atheism as mere Iron Age thinking. Clearly dismissing the validity of either theological or philosophical perspective, based solely on when it was being formulated, doesn’t count as an effective refutation of either God and the Bible, or atheism and the arguments of the ancient Epicurean and Sceptical philosophers who produced it.
So how stupid, or technologically and culturally inferior were the peoples of the Bronze Age?
Firstly, although their technology was vastly inferior to ours, they were certainly not stupid. They knew how to build great temples and public monuments using tools very little different from those used by masons today. If you look at the hammers, mallets, saws and chisels used by the Egyptian craftsmen, what actually strikes you is how little they have changed. The metal used might be copper and bronze, rather than iron and steel, but their form and function has hardly changed in millennia. When you come to the tools in use in the Roman period, there’s very little difference between them and those of modern craftsmen.
Both ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia were highly sophisticated civilisations with an advanced mathematics. The Babylonians used a system of base 60, before moving to base 10, the system used today, about the time of Seleucid kings. They were acutely interested in geometry because of the necessity of accurately assessing field sizes for the correct payment of tribute and taxes. One common school exercise to provide training in this was the ‘six brothers problem’. This involved dividing a trapezium in strips between three pairs of brothers. The area of the strip each pair of brothers received was to be equal, while the strips declined in length. Although an exercise in solving a practical problem, it’s been suggested that this shows that the Babylonians were also interested in knowledge for its sake. 1 Amongst the 8,000 or so square metres of streets and houses excavated in 1930-1 by Sir Leonard Woolley in Ur was a private school, whose headmaster, Igmil-Sin, taught writing, religion, history and mathematics, recording his pupil’s work, their timetable, achievements, competitiveness, and also their truancy and physical punishment. 2 Babylonian civilisation also included academies, termed bit mummi – ‘house of knowledge’, a particularly fine example being that of Nineveh. Although the ancient Greeks’ admiration for the Babylonians as magicians has coloured the modern perception of them as superstitious, modern scholars of Babylonian civilisation have been impressed by their scientific skill and cast of mind. ‘Far from being the last word in Babylonian wisdom, witchcraft and popular astrology developed as a sign of decay in a dying civilisation, and we now know for certain that Sumerians and Assyro-Babylonians alike were blessed with almost all the qualities required for a truly scientific attitude of mind.’ These scholars point to the Babylonians’ insatiable scientific curiosity, a curiosity which saw them collect ancient tablets, establish museums of antiquities and collect rare and unusual plants and animals from foreign countries. 3 They understood with astonishing precision the lunar cycle, drew up observations of Venus, detailed star catalogues and could accurately predict eclipses of the moon and sun. The astronomer Kidunu (Cidenas), active in about 375 BC, calculated the length of the solar year with an error of only 4 minutes and 32.65 seconds. His calculations were more accurate than that of Oppolzer in 1887. And this is despite the fact that these astronomers possessed as technological guides only a primitive sundial, the waterclock and the polos. This last was a device for registering the shadow projected by minute ball suspended over a hemisphere. 4
In medicine, as well as the baru-priest who divined the sin responsible for the sufferer’s sickness, and the ashipu-priest who used magico-theological rites to treat it, there was also a tradition of rational, pragmatic medicine, asutu. 5 There were manuals of symptoms and their prognosis, including treatments for depression. They also possessed a pharmacopaeia’ of medicines and their preparation. Some of these medical procedures would still be considered good medicine today after all these centuries. One scholar has said of the treatment for epistaxis recommended by king Ashurbanipal’s personal doctor, Arad-Nama, who stated that the nose should be blocked to its end to stop bleeding that ‘modern physicians would not change a word of this procedure.’ 6
The ancient Egyptians too were skilled mathematicians, scientists and doctors. They were interested in probability theory, and had a number system based on ten which advanced to a million. 7 They had an excellent grasp of the mechanics of buildings and were well able to calculate the frustrum of a pyramid.8 While the Egyptians did not recognise the year as possessing 365 days, they knew that it took the sun this long to return to its original mythological birthplace in the south-eastern horizon at the winter solstice in 4500 BC. 9 They used a precursor of the theodolite, a notched palm rib called a bay, along with an L-shaped instrument with a plumb-bob, which measured the vertical, the merkhet, for surveying. 10 The ancient Egyptians too have won the admiration of contemporary scholars for the advanced state of their medicine. They new how to set bones, perform surgical operations to remove the parasitic guinea worm, and cataracts with thorns. They also valued oratory and intelligence. The Instruction for King Merikare of c. 2020 BC includes the advice ‘Be a craftsman in speech that you may be strong … Speech is more valorous than any fighting.’ 11
So we are dealing here with sophisticated, complex civilisations, which valued science and mathematics, and considered intelligence more important than skill in war. And in their personal observations on politics some of their comments are both acute and timeless. The modern tax-payer who feels that his hard-earned money is being squandered by greedy officials on themselves, rather than providing material results, can readily appreciate this complaint from ancient Egypt:
‘Seizers! Robbers! Plunderers! Officials! – and yet appointed to punish evil! Officialdom is the refuge of the arrogant – and yet appointed to punish falsehood!’
As well as
‘The land is diminished, but its rulers are increased. The land is bare, but its taxes are heavy. The grain is little, but the grain measure is large and measured by the tax officials to overflowing.’ 12
Similar the person who today feels that the law protects only the rich and powerful, and punishes the victim while protecting the criminal can find such sentiments expressed millennia earlier in Jewish legend. For example, in the legends that grew up about Sodom, the town was reviled as the epitome of evil and criminality because of the predatory avarice of its citizens and the extreme corruption of their judges. If a stranger entered the city, he was immediately robbed of his property and clothes by the citizens, who sent him naked and poor on his way. Their judges and rulers even passed an act which outlawed charity. Anyone who gave something to another for free, even if it was giving a piece of bread to a starving beggar, was to die. Even physical assault was rewarded under their perverted laws. If a man wounded another man in a quarrel, the wounded man was obliged to pay his assailant for performing the medical operation of bleeding him. 13
Obviously the complaint of the ordinary, tax-paying citizen against civic corruption and criminality is timeless, going down the centuries. The cry of the ancient Egyptian or Israelite can be heard today in London, New York and a million other great cities.
So the people of the Bronze Age were sophisticated, with an interest in science, mathematics and wisdom, and whose attitudes in many ways were very similar, if not identical to those of today. In reply to this, it can be stated that this does not mean that their religious ideas were correct, and that science has not overturned them.
Actually, this reply makes the same mistake. It has a mistaken view of the nature of religion, and ignores the continued existence of supernatural experience amongst contemporary people. Or rather, it stigmatises it as a mental aberration, or perhaps a false evolutionary vestige in human cognition that science has shown to be false. And it still overestimates the difference between modern people and their ancient forebears.
Firstly, positivists who see science as undermining religion by correctly explaining the objects of the natural world make the mistake of seeing religion solely as providing an explanation for events. But this is not the case. Religion is not merely about providing an explanation for a particular phenomenon, but about experiencing that phenomenon as a ‘Thou’, a mind, according the view of the great German Jewish scholar, Martin Buber. This ‘Thou’ was encountered by the whole man, as life confronting life, involving every faculty of man in a reciprocal relationship. 14 The particular images of Mesopotamian myth ‘had already become traditional at the time when we meet them in art and literature, but originally they must have been seen in the revelation which the experience entailed. They are products of imagination, but they are not mere fantasy. It is essential that true myth be distinguished from legend, saga, fable and fairy tale. All these may retain elements of the myth. And it may also happen that a baroque or frivolous imagination elaborates myths until they become mere stories. But true myth presents its images and its imaginary actors, not with the playfulness of fantasy, but with a compelling authority. It perpetuates the revelation of a ‘Thou’. 15 Thus in ancient Egypt contradictory explanations for the same phenomenon could appear in myth at the same time without apparent friction. The sun was conceived as both the boat of the god Ra travelling across the sky, and as rolled across the heavens by a giant scarab beetle. Both myths explained the phenomenon, but both looked deeper to a transcendental experience, a ‘Thou’, which the myth encapsulated. It is this transcendental experience, which is the essence of myth and religion.
And such supernatural and mythopoeic experiences still occur today. Scholars of Contemporary Legends – the mythic rumours and stories which circulate today – note that humans are also Homo Religiosus – religious, as well as rational, and that the legends that circulate may also be narrated by those to whom a supernatural experience personally occurred. 16 Sceptics and secularists such as Charles Krauthammer decry the increased interest in the paranormal as ‘a flight to irrationality, a retreat to pre-scientific primitivism in an age that otherwise preens with scientific pride.’ 17 Yet this is to make the same mistake of seeing religion and science as somehow performing the same role, whereas they operate in separate, but overlapping spheres. Moreover, it underestimates just how sceptical ancient people actually were. Denyse O’Leary in her excellent ID blog, Post Darwinist, has remarked on how the great Anglo-Polish anthropologist, Boleslaw Malinowski, was surprised at how many sceptics there were about the gods in the primitive societies he studied. Even amongst believers in antiquity, not all were at all pious. Some considered themselves far more intelligent than their supernatural masters. One ancient Egyptian scribe reproached another for his impiety thus: ‘I am astonished when thou sayest: “ I am more profound as a scribe than heaven, or earth, or the underworld!’ 18 The ancient Israelites were concerned to account for the origin of the false religions around them, and sought them in what we would recognise as rational explanations. For the writer of the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon, the origin of idolatry lay in the manufacture of images by the grief-stricken parents of dead children, and subjects to impress their kings with their devotion:
‘For a father afflicted with untimely mourning, when he hath made an image of his child soon taken away, now honoured him as a god, which was then a dead man, and delivered to those that were under him ceremonies and sacrifices. Thus in process of time an ungodly custom grown strong was kept as a law, and graven images were worshipped by the commandments of kings. Whom men could not honour in presence, because they dwelt far off, they took the counterfeit of his visage from far, and made an express image of a king whom they honoured, to the end that by this their forwardness they might flatter him that was absent, as if he were present. Also the singular diligence of the artificer did help to set forward the ignorant to more superstition. For he, peradventure willing to please one in authority, forced all his skill to make the resemblance of the best fashion. And so the multitude, allured by the grace of the work, took him now for a god, which a little before was but honoured as a man. And this was an occasion to deceive the world: for men, serving either calamity or tyranny, did ascribe unto stones and stocks the incommunicable name.’ 19 Looking at the evidence of contemporary interest in the paranormal, and the rationalist scepticism of the ancient Israelites towards the false religions of the surrounding nations, there seems much less supposed difference between credulous, mythopoeic Bronze Age people and their scientific modern descendents.
It also has to be considered that the Bible isn’t a typical Bronze Age text, and its view of God and the process of creation is radically different from the mythologies of the contemporary peoples of the ancient Near East. While scholars have pointed to the similarities between the Biblical account of creation in Genesis and that of the Babylonians, there are several crucial differences.
Firstly, in the mythologies of ancient Greece, Egypt and Mesopotamia, the gods are created from a long chain of personified natural forces. In Genesis, this process is reversed. God comes before nature, and all nature is the result of God’s creative action. 20
Secondly, there is a plurality of gods in the other, pagan myths. In Genesis, there is only the One God, who acts alone. And Genesis is structured to deny any kind of divinity to the objects of His creation. The sun and moon, for example, which were worshipped as gods in Babylonia, are merely described as the greater and lesser lights. It’s a rationalist restructuring of pagan myth to bring out the point that the various objects of the created universe are only that – created objects. The true power lies behind it.
Thirdly, the actual process of creation in Genesis is rather different from the very anthropomorphic account in contemporary paganism. While the Enuma Elish gives a very graphically anthropomorphic account of the gods knotting veins when they create the first man, for example, Genesis is much less anthropomorphic. It doesn’t describe how God creates the objects of the universe, only that He does. ‘The language of Genesis 1 tells us nothing about the mechanism or mode of ‘creation’.’ 21 Clearly the description of Adam being formed from the ‘dust of the earth’ and having life blown into him by God is anthropomorphic, but less compared to the surrounding myths.
Apart from the physical act of creation, God acts in history in a way that transcends the mythological time of contemporary paganism. The Babylonian myth of Adapa has been compared to the Genesis account of the creation of Adam. In the Babylonian myth, Adapa is created by the gods to serve them. Travelling to heaven to clear himself after he angers them by breaking the wing of the south wind with a curse, he loses the opportunity of immortality by refusing the bread and water of life offered him by the gods, mistaking them for the bread and water of death. It is similar to the Biblical story of the creation of Adam by narrating how the gods create a man, and how this man then loses the opportunity for immortality. However, the Adapa myth is set in an ahistorical mythological time. It does not have the genealogies present in Genesis, which link the events in Eden to the figures of Israelite history.22 In Genesis the story moves from myth into history, pointing to the effects of the primal theological events in the contemporary world of historical experience.
This experience of God as apart from nature, and acting in history, set ancient Israel profoundly apart from the neighbouring peoples, their mythologies and ideologies.
‘Not cosmic phenomena, but history itself, had here become pregnant with meaning; history had become a revelation of the dynamic will of God. The human being was not merely the servant of the god as he was in Mesopotamia; nor was he placed, as in Egypt, at a pre-ordained station in a static universe which did not need to be – and, in fact, could not be questioned. Man, according to Hebrew thought, was the interpreter and the servant of God; he was even honoured with the task of bringing about the realization of God’s will.’ This task saw humanity ‘possessed of a new freedom, and of a new responsibility’. 23
Whatever one believes about the literal truth of the account of Creation in Genesis, the movement away from God as the personification of natural forces, as a transcendent being active in time and yet apart from it, paved the way for modern science and was far superior to the pagan cults of nature. Franz Cumont, the great pioneering scholar of the Roman cult of Mithras, observed that if the cult of Mithras had survived.
‘it would not only have preserved from oblivion all the aberrations of pagan mysticism, but would also have perpetuated the erroneous doctrine of physics on which its dogmatism reposed. The Christian doctrine, which broke with the cults of nature, remained exempt from these impure associations, and its liberation from every compromising attachment assured it an immense superiority. Its negative value, its struggle against deeply-rooted prejudices, gained for it as many souls as did the positive hopes which it promised.’ 24
Thus attempts to discredit the truth of the Bible by pointing to its origins in the Bronze Age are profoundly wrong and inadequate. The peoples of the Bronze Age weren’t stupid or uninterested in science and mathematics, even if their knowledge in these areas was much less than ours. They were capable of profound philosophical insights and expressing timeless truths of human existence in their myth and wisdom literature. The same period that saw the formation of the Bible also saw the formulation of the classic atheist arguments. Furthermore, the Bible and ancient Israel in their view of God and His relationship with the world transcended the mindset of the other ancient Near Eastern peoples to create a view of the world that was both deeply religious and rational and sceptical. Rather than sneer at the Bible for being just a ‘Bronze Age text’ or ‘Bronze Age mythology’, the arguments and experiences recorded in the Bible need to be judged according to their own merits as the result of timeless human experience.
And despite the claims that modern science has somehow disproved them, the arguments against the Bible’s truth are all deeply flawed. The testimony of the Bible still stands, and the glory of the Lord does indeed proceed from age to age, from the Bonze Age into our own.
- Ivor Grattan-Guinness, The Fontana History of the Mathematical Sciences (London, Fontana Press 1997), p. 30.
- Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq (London, Penguin 1992), pp. 220, 223.
- Roux, Ancient Iraq, p. 358.
- Roux, Ancient Iraq, pp. 365-6.
- Roux, Ancient Iraq, p. 367.
- Roux, Ancient Iraq, p. 370.
- Grattan-Guinness, Mathematical Sciences, p. 32.
- Grattan-Guinness, Mathematical Sciences, pp. 34-6.
- Ronald A. Wills, ‘Astronomy in Egypt’ in Christopher Walker, ed., Astronomy before the Telescope (London, British Museum Press 1996), p. 34.
- Wills, ‘Astronomy in Egypt’ in Walker, Astronomy, pp. 36-7.
- Esmond Wright, ed., History of the World: Prehistory to the Renaissance (Feltham, W.H. Smith 1985), p. 57.
- John A. Wilson, ‘The Function of the State’ in Henri Frankfort, Mrs. H.A. Frankfort, John A. Wilson and Thorkild Jacobsen, Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1949), p. 97.
- Angelo S. Rappaport, Ancient Israel: Myths and Legends (London, the Mystic Press 1987), pp. 264-5.
- H. and H.A. Frankfort ‘Introduction: Myth and Reality’ in Frankfort, Frankfort, Wilson and Jacobsen, Before Philosophy, p. 14.
- H. and H.A. Frankfort ‘Introduction: Myth and Reality’ in Frankfort, Frankfort, Wilson and Jacobsen, Before Philosophy, p. 14.
- Linda Degh, Legend and Belief: Dialectics of a Folklore Genre (Bloomington, Indiana University Press 2001), p. 68.
- Degh, Legend and Belief, p. 267.
- John A. Wilson, ‘The Nature of the Universe’ in Frankfort, Frankfort, Wilson and Jacobsen, Before Philosophy, p. 69.
- Wisdom of Solomon 14: 15-21, The Apocrypha, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), p. 68.
- Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Chicago, University of Chicago Press 2003), pp. 40-45.
- Roger Forster and Paul Marston, Reason, Science and Faith (Crowborough, Monarch 1999), p. 276.
- Roux, Ancient Iraq, p. 107.
- H. and H.A. Frankfort, ‘The Emancipation of Thought from Myth’ in Frankfort, Frankfort, Wilson and Jacobsen, Before Philosophy, p. 245.
- Franz Cumont, The Mysteries of Mithras, Thomas J. McCormack, trans., (Chicago, The Open Court Publishing Company 1910), p. 198.