Comparative Mythology of Flood Stories
In the 19th century, one of the most popular fields of study was comparative mythology, and one of the greatest impulses behind this field was the discovery of the Flood story in the epic of Gilgamish (if you did not read the Gilgamish unit last week, you might want to take a quick look at the flood part of the story). Scholars were fascinated by the points of comparison between the story of the Biblical story of Noah and this newly-discovered Sumerian legend.
There have been many different motivations that have prompted people to study mythology in a comparative perspective. For example, some scholars are trying to find evidence for historical events that took place in the distant past. For these scholars, the parallel myths of a cataclysmic flood that destroyed the entire world could provide evidence for some actual historical event, a major flood which was remembered in the mythology of all the people who had been living in that part of the world when the terrible natural disaster occurred. Some scholars attempted to use this comparative evidence in order to bolster the historical authenticity of the Bible, which was increasingly being called into question during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Other scholars were not interested so much in historical events outside the stories, but the historical circumstances that could have led one group of people to borrow and adapt the stories that were told by another group of people. That is, comparative techniques can be used to try to determine the historical origins of the stories themselves. The parallels between Uta-Napishtim and Noah do not just involve the fact of the flood. There are many other details that are shared between the two stories, especially the use of the birds as a way to determine whether or not the flood waters had receded. Some scholars would argue that these close parallels between the two stories must mean that the two stories either share a similar origin, or that one story borrowed from the other. The historical question for these scholars is not when and where the flood took place, but when and where the story of Gilgamesh came into contact with the story of Noah.
Other scholars reject the application of comparisons between the mythologies of different cultures. They argue that in order to understand a given story, you need to see it in its cultural context. If you want to understand a story, you should study that story from within the culture of the storyteller and the storyteller's audience. The same story is often told in many different ways within the same culture, and you can use comparative techniques to study the different versions of the same story within the same culture. For example, to understand the meaning of Uta-Napishtim's story, we should look at other Sumerian legends, and compare different versions of the epic of Gilgamesh to one another. To understand the meaning of Noah's story, we should look at the Biblical context, looking at how the story of Noah and the flood fits into other stories about Noah, or how it fits into other stories about God punishing people on the earth, such as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Comparative Mythology and Source Studies
There is also a school of study which tries to compare the different versions of Noah and the flood which may be contained within the Biblical text itself. Although Biblical "source studies" is still a theory rather than an established fact, there are many scholars who now believe that the Biblical text is derived from a number of earlier sources. They then use comparative techniques to attempt to identify the different sources that were used to create the Biblical text that has come down to us. Depending on the way that these different sources were combined, it might be possible to see different versions of a single story within the Biblical text. The story of Noah and the Flood is one story that has been interpreted in this way; I have provided a page that shows how this "source studies" theory has been applied to the story of Noah and the Flood, dividing it up into a version from the so-called "P source" or "Priestly source" of the Bible and the so-called "J" source, or "Jahvist source" (Jahvist refers to the use of JHVH, the sacred "4 letter" name of God, also referred to as the tetragrammaton).
Noah and Other Stories from Jewish Culture
Finally, there are also many Jewish legends outside of the Biblical text that narrate the adventures of Noah and of his descendants, including Nimrod, who was associated with the building of the Tower of Babel. These "extra-Biblical" narratives were carried by the Jews as they traveled throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Louis Ginzberg has collected these stories about famous Bible characters and events into a monumental book called The Legends of the Jews. The book is arranged in the same basic order of the books of the Hebrew Bible, and Ginzberg weaves the different legends he collected from all over the Jewish world into a continuous narrative. You will probably find it fairly easy to read the story of Noah and the ark from Genesis; in fact, this is a story that you may already know very well. But the legends reported by Ginzberg in his book often include some obscure Biblical characters and make references to specific Jewish terms and traditions. So that you will find it easier to read the selections from Ginzberg, take a look at some of these names and terms to make sure you are familiar with them:
You will read the story of Noah and of Babel in three different translations: a modern 20th-century translation (World English Bible), the famous "King James' Version" which dates to the early 17th century, and the Tyndale translation from the 16th-century. Most people are familiar with the King James' Version; often they are not familiar with the English translations that preceded the KJV, of which Tyndale's translation is the most notable. Tyndale was a martyr to the Protestant cause, and was executed for heresy by being burned at the stake in 1536. And even Tyndale's was not the very first English translation: before Tyndale there was the 14th-century reformer John Wycliffe (see a sample of Wycliffe's translation).
Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology.
Laura Gibbs, Ph.D.
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