How can one explain that laws attributed to biblical revelation are found in the legislation of other ancient peoples? How can the similarities between biblical thought and ancient culture be explained? How is the biblical God compared to the gods of other peoples?
The philosophical and religious trends of the 19th century, supported by the discoveries of ancient vestiges, contributed to the strengthening of the idea that there is nothing special in the biblical culture and that it can fit perfectly into the space and time in which it was produced.
The revealed character of the Bible was contested, and biblical culture was ranked as a peculiarity of Mesopotamian culture. In 1902, the German Assyriologist Friedrich Delitzsch claimed that “the literature of the Bible was dependent on, and even borrowed from, the literature of Mesopotamia”. There was then talk of “Pan-Babylonianism”, a current that promoted the idea that all the myths of the world and the Christian Scriptures were simply versions of Babylonian mythology.
Only a year before Delitzsch’s statements, archaeologists had discovered the stela containing the Code of Hammurabi, a discovery that fueled scepticism about the Bible’s revelation quality. The Code of Hammurabi is a collection of 282 laws, many of which bear a striking resemblance to the Mosaic laws. The most famous similarity between the two codes is the Lex talionis—that is, the law of retribution. Here is what the Babylonian version looks like:
If a man destroys the eye of an amelu (nobleman), his eye shall be destroyed [an eye for an eye]. If he breaks a nobleman’s bone, his bone shall be broken. If he destroys the eye of a mushkenu (freed man), or breaks the bone of a freed man, he shall pay one gold mina. If he destroys the eye of an ardu (man’s slave), or breaks the bone of a man’s slave, he shall pay one-half of his value. If a man knocks out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out [a tooth for a tooth]. If he knocks out the teeth of a freed man, he shall pay one-third of a gold mina.
Over time, the impetus of biblical reductionism faded, thanks both to discoveries that confirmed the solidity of the biblical heritage and to the reconsideration of the methods of establishing similarities and differences between biblical texts and other ancient texts.
Even the Lex talionis contains a significant difference, since, in the Babylonian version, it is fair only for people of the upper class. If a person of lower rank was involved in the event, an amount was established that the perpetrator had to pay. Instead, biblical legislation stated: “You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 24:22).
Analysing ancient thought, the orientalist Henri Frankfort said of the Jews that they had infinite moral courage. Along with the Greeks, who had intellectual courage, the Jews were the artisans of human emancipation from under the tutelage of myth. “They propounded, not speculative theory, but revolutionary and dynamic teaching. The doctrine of a single, unconditioned, transcendent God rejected time-honoured values, proclaimed new ones, and postulated a metaphysical significance for history and for man’s actions”.
Frankfort invites us not only to a formal comparison of the biblical and ancient works, but also to the reconstruction of the worldview that they entailed and promoted. In this way, it can be seen that the biblical humans had a certain security and predictability regarding the development of life, because they could count on the just and constant character of God because He was not subject to whims, as were the gods of other peoples.
The ancient pagan humans had a small margin of error because their fate was determined by the gods. They did nothing but live out what was prescribed for them. They could not go astray because they were always retrieved and brought back to their condition of marginal beings of the universe by the great cosmic rhythms directed by the gods and reiterated by annual festivals and rituals. The human condition was inexorably tied to resignation.
In contrast, for the Jews, the Bible proposes a freedom and responsibility unique in the ancient cultural landscape. “The Bible’s concept of the divine image in man thus constitutes another revolutionary break with its contemporary world. No longer is man a creature of blind forces, helplessly at the mercy of the inexorable rhythms and cycles of nature. On the contrary, he is now a being possessed of dignity, purpose, freedom and tremendous power”.
Consequently, biblical freedom and responsibility place humans in a permanent state of alertness, of vigilance, because their destiny is not given but must be constructed. Every decision involves limitations, conditions and, above all, consequences.
Confronted with the harsh realities of life, the ancients had to resign themselves to their prescribed destiny. In this context, the Babylonians developed an extensive system of predicting the will of the gods and used magic to try to influence those higher wills on which the human fate depended.
However, if for the ancient human the solution to the vicissitudes was of a magical nature, for the biblical human the solution was of a moral nature. “Not magic, it [the Bible] proclaims, but human action is the key to a meaningful life”. The biblical human never had to turn to anything other than their own will to determine their future. The moral solution of the Jews consisted in choosing good over evil, and thus their destiny took the desired turn.
In conclusion, a close look at the similarities and differences between the Bible and ancient literature shows us that while there are formal similarities to the Mesopotamian texts, they convey a different worldview from what we find in the peoples around Israel. The Bible proposes a just and loving God and a free and worthy man.
These characteristics can be observed not only in the general picture of the biblical conception, but also in the social and civil provisions by which any person, regardless of social status, is treated with dignity. The fact that biblical thought has no counterpart in the culture of other ancient peoples leads us to the conclusion that only through God’s revelatory action could such a religious, cultural, and social phenomenon manifest itself in history.
Iosif Diaconu believes that the study of the Bible is fascinating, firstly, for what it teaches us and, secondly, because it helps us give up what we erroneously believe about the Bible, its authors, and topics.