Gilgamesh, Richard Dawkins, & the Problem of Facts

Earlier this year I added a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics. Recently I’ve received some questions both on that page and on Calvary Live regarding the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Near East text which contains a flood narrative.

Some people claim that this text proves that the biblical story of Noah and the flood is just borrowed, or stolen, from other ancient Near Eastern mythology, and is not to be taken literally. This is part of a larger conspiracy theory which claims that much of Christianity is actually borrowed, or stolen, from other ancient Near Eastern mythologies, e.g. that Jesus was just borrowed from the Egyptian story of Horus and Isis.

Over the course of the next several posts, I will address various aspects of this conspiracy, and show why no real scholars believe this is true. The reason? Because it is simply not factual. It requires building a narrative which only sounds plausible until its claims are checked, at which time it becomes clear that they are not based on actual facts, research, or history.

Richard Dawkins & the Folk Religion of the New Atheism

Richard Dawkins is what you might call an “evangelical atheist”, which means that he isn’t content with just being an atheist himself, he is on a mission to convert the world to his views.

In his recent book, which is aimed specifically at converting children and young people to his brand of atheism, he claims that the Old Testament story of Noah comes from a Babylonian myth, the legend of Utnapishtim, which in turn was taken from the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh.

This claim caught the attention of George Heath-Whyte, a researcher at Cambridge who specializes in Assyriology and Near East history. Heath-Whyte then took to Twitter and wrote a scathing thread of tweets exposing the slew of factual errors in Dawkins’ book.

This was recently covered in an article on The Spectator titled, “If Richard Dawkins loves facts so much, why can’t he get them right?” The article summarizes the inaccuracies identified by Heath-Whyte in his chain of tweets.

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Here are a few highlights:

‘Well let’s start with “The Utnapishtim story … comes from the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh.” WHAT. The version of the Gilgamesh story that contains the flood narrative of Utnapishtim is NOT written in Sumerian, but Babylonian (Akkadian).

‘There are older Sumerian stories about the character Gilgamesh, none of which contain a flood story. There is even a Sumerian flood story too, but it’s not the flood story he’s talking about.

‘It seems he’s talking about a weird mix of one Babylonian flood story about a guy called Atrahasis and another Babylonian flood story about Utnapishtim (the latter being a part of the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh)…

‘… but come on Dawkins, even Wikipedia could have told you that neither of these were written in Sumerian.’

That’s pretty embarrassing for a man who had just told Krishnan Guru-Murthy that he wants ‘to rid the world of all claims that are not evidence-based’. But Heath-Whyte was just getting into his stride.

‘Problem no. 2: “Arguably the world’s oldest work of literature, [Gilgamesh] was written two thousand years earlier than the Noah story.”

‘So he’s just stated that Genesis was written “during the Babylonian captivity” (sixth century BC), and now he’s stated that (what we assume he means to be) the epic of Atrahasis, or the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, was written 2,000 years earlier – so roughly 2600-2500 BC.

‘Most likely Atrahasis was written less than 1,300 years before the Babylonian captivity, and the version of Gilgamesh that included a flood story was probably finished less than 1,000 years before the Babylonian captivity, and likely quite a few centuries less than a thousand.

From the above-linked article:

Other mistakes identified by Heath-Whyte: Dawkins mixes up the animals in the Gilgamash and Genesis flood stories, and claims that the Sumerian flood legend, like the story of Noah’s Ark, ends with a rainbow. 

‘There’s no rainbow mentioned in any Mesopotamian flood story. Anywhere. There just isn’t,’ says Heath-Whyte, adding that in any case the former Oxford professor for the Public Understanding of Science has misidentified a Sumerian god. 

I think we can take Heath-Whyte’s word for it. Not only can he read the cuneiform in which Gilgamesh is written, but he can also write it.

If These Claims Are Not Historically Accurate, Where Do They Come From?

Continuing from the above-mentioned article:

Just when Dawkins must be wishing that a non-existent God would send a flood to cover his embarrassment, he delivers the killer blow. As he says, even Wikipedia would have put the professor right on these matters. So what was his source? ‘A quick Google search suggests that Dawkins’ source for a lot of this stuff may be a cute little website called HistoryWiz.’

I checked, and he’s right: this is the version of the Gilgamesh as mangled by HistoryWiz, which invites you to ‘step into the past… Let the wizard take you to a different time’. 

Alas, it looks as if you really do have to step into the past in order to consult the wizard. The site is ‘copyright 1998-2008’, there are loads of broken links and the design, c. 2000, is quaintly rudimentary. 

It seems clear that Richard Dawkins and others who make these claims about Gilgamesh are so committed to the conclusion they already religiously believe, that they are not concerned with real scholarship when it comes to creating their narrative.

The “New Atheism,” we might say, is a kind of folk religion which has its own shared beliefs, stories, and mythos, which are not actually based on fact or history.

In my next article I will explain what the Epic of Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim character are, and how we should understand them in relation to the Bible.

Following that, I will discuss the “Jesus Myth” and the theory that what the New Testament says about Jesus is borrowed from ancient Egyptian and Near East mythology. What I hope to show in the end, is that these theories do not hold up to even the most basic fact-checking scrutiny, and are part of a mythos created by New Atheists and other who would try to discredit the Bible and erode faith in it.

A further question which follows from this is: Why are some people opposed to Christianity and the Bible? – a question which I plan to address as well.

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