There haven’t been any posts here in a while because I’ve been very busy with classwork–teaching as much as I do tends to be a good excuse not to write. We’ll see how much that changes, but one thing I came to realize is that I do write all the time–in LMS’s, to students. If I’m so starved for time to write, what if I just republished something I liked from an LMS course here? Voila–here is my first reproduced submission.
Context: We are discussing texts from Egyptian religion, Babylonian religion, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism, and how Judaism may have either influence or been influenced by these texts. My student, here pseudonymed Sally, has just written a piece about how the different religions did influence Judaism’s writings and ideas–quite a good post, actually, replete with examples.
Hi Sally, these are some great comments. Thank you for sharing! In response, I’d like to talk about the difference between similarity and influence and legitimacy.
A common assumption when a person hears that these stories are similar is to say, “Well, none of them are true in the accurate sense; on top of that, Judaism is just a copycat, which makes Christianity and Islam copycats, which means 3 billion Jews, Christians, and Muslims on this earth are fools.” (Okay, so no one says that last part, but I bet some of us think it!) I’d like to suggest that this may be an inaccurate way to view these similarities.
To say two things are similar is not to say that they influenced each other. Both the ancient Olmecs in Mexico and the ancient Babylonians in Iraq used canals, but they didn’t teach the skill to each other! But what about similarities between groups that had contact? Did they influence each other?
It depends on what one means by the verb “influence.” There’s influencing in the sense of borrowing common motifs and images and symbols to give a similar message, and borrowing those things to give a different message. Ma’at might have been an inspiration for the Wisdom figure in Proverbs, but the Wisdom figure in Proverbs makes clear she is not a goddess, only one of the more valued servants of the one God. In the Babylonian flood story, a man is saved thanks to a warning from a god who liked him, but he wasn’t supposed to survive. In Noah’s flood, God explicitly chooses Noah to be saved, including giving him clear instructions on how to build the ark as well as save animals. Noah is to be part of God’s plan to start over; in the Babylonian version, the survivor and his wife are whisked away to another land where they will never see another human again. In the Mesopotamian creation story, the god Marduk creates the world only after a titanic struggle with the goddess Tiamat (salt water), whose carcass he uses to build the earth. In Genesis 1, there is only God, and while he uses water as well to create, to do it he simply has to speak, this deity is so powerful.
So these are definitely borrowed motifs, but are the messages the same or unique? What level of influence do we mean here?
Finally, the idea of legitimacy. Let’s say I borrowed the content of this post from others–in fact, a great deal of what I just wrote you I got from a handful of scholarly books I’ve read as well as some of my old grad school professors. I didn’t make it up; it’s not original. But does this mean that what I said is illegitimate, or that it somehow doesn’t count because I didn’t say it first? No one would say this.
Thanks for reading this book-length post. I kind of hope it gets read by at least several people–and not just because it took me some time to write. I’d love to know what you or anyone else thinks about these ideas and how they shape the way we look at the similarities and influences between Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Egyptian religion, and Babylonian religion.