Adam in Ancient Mesopotamian Traditions -- By: William H. Shea

Journal: Bible and Spade (First Run)
Volume: BSP 06:3 (Summer 1977)
Article: Adam in Ancient Mesopotamian Traditions
Author: William H. Shea


Adam in Ancient Mesopotamian Traditions

William H. Shea

[William Shea is professor of Old Testament at Andrews University.]

Since the recovery and publication of texts from the Ancient Near East is a continuing endeavor, the materials already published need to be reexamined from time to time in the light of more recent information. The case in point for reexamination here is the Mesopotamian story of Adapa, which is noted for its parallel with the early chapters in Genesis as a reference to man’s squandered opportunity for gaining immortality. Two new minor—but interesting—pieces of information relating to this parallel have come to light recently, one from linguistics and the other from further references to Adapa. Before turning to these additional details, however, I shall turn to the principal previously known sources utilized in the discussion that follows.

Four fragmentary cuneiform texts published between 1894 and 1930 provided the pieces of the puzzle necessary to put Adapa’s story together. The longest of the four (B) was recovered from the only deposit of cuneiform tablets ever found in Egypt, the land of hieroglyphic writing. The unique archaeological context in which this tablet was found dates the form in which this portion of the story appears to the 14th century B.C. Three other fragments of the story (A, C, and D) were discovered during the excavations of Ashurbanipal’s famous library at Nineveh, these copies thus dating to the 7th century B.C. or slightly earlier.

The first of these three is the only fragment of the story preserved in poetry, and the last two were copied by the same scribe, according to the writing on the tablets. The most recent and readily available translation of the narrative reconstructed from these texts is found in J.B. Pritchard’s standard reference work, Ancient Near Eastern Texts. An excellent summary of the story by an Assyriologist appears in A. Heidel’s paperback, The Babylonian Genesis.

As the outline and details of this ancient hero’s story have been clarified, comparisons with the Biblical story of Adam—both similarities and contrasts—have become evident. The literary category to which these two works belong is a general and convenient point of comparison from which to start. Not infrequently the story of Adapa is referred to as a myth. Like the epic of Gilgamesh, however, this narrative centers upon a human hero and his actions; hence it comes closer in character to epic than it does to myth, even though it contains mythological elements. The narratives in Genesis that deal with Adam have also been referred to as myths—sometimes in the pejorative sense, sometimes not. They too c...

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