We often read ‘In the beginning…’ but there are actually several beginnings told throughout the Bible, many of which have interesting relationships to other Mediterranean creation myths from Greece, Egypt and the Ancient Near East. So I want to explore some of those relation, the comparisons and contrasts. Frankly this could, and I’m sure does somewhere, make up an entire book series. So lets look at some of the basics.
The Old Testament contains at least a dozen creation “stories”. Two of these stories are told in Genesis 1 and 2, in addition to the creation story in Job 38 and the fragment in Job 26:7-13 among others. These stories are not always consistent with each other, so some will hold similarities to contemporary creation myths, while others contain contrasts.
One major point of comparison between Biblical creation myths and other creation myths is the idea of separation as a key component in the creation process. The idea of separation is seen several times throughout Genesis. Genesis 1:4 reads, “God saw light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness,” indicating the creation of night and day. The idea is also in Genesis 1:6, “God said, let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”
Egyptian mythology also has separation themes; telling of the separation of the god of the earth and of the sky as a major part of the creation process. Though these creation aspects are represented as deities in Egyptian mythology, the idea remains; the separation of the earth and the heavens to create a place in between, to be inhabited. The idea of separation is also seen in the Mesopotamian creation myth the Enuma Elish. The god Marduk ‘separates’ Tiamat (primeval waters), splitting her in half, placing one half above the other, forming heaven and earth.. As in the Biblical myths, the act of separation is used as a key aspect of creation. Hesiod’s Theogony illustrates this idea was also an accepted part of Greek creation mythology. Hesiod explains that Gaia (Earth) was ‘separated’ from Ouranos (sky) through a scheme resulting in Ouranos detaching from Gaia, separating earth from the heavens.
Another similarity is the idea of chaotic water being a primal substance. The first account of Genesis refers to chaotic water being present at the time of creation. Genesis 1:2 states “…the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” This idea of chaotic water is witnessed in the Enuma Elish as Tiamat and Apsu both represent forms of chaotic water, and it is out of them that creation results. In all accounts of Egyptian creation the idea of chaotic water is apparent. The Heliopolis version of Egyptian mythology tells of the primeval matter ‘Nun’, the watery chaos from which all is created. In contrast, the creation myth of Job 38 is almost methodical: “Who marked off [Earth’s] dimensions? … who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set…?”
Greek mythology doesn’t seem to directly refer to water as the primal substance, but Hesiod explains the first god was ‘Chaos’, resembling the watery chaos of the other myths, representing the same ideas of a void from which all was created. Hesiod’s understanding of Chaos contrasts however Ovid’s, who defines it as an “anarchic dark matter that preceded the formation of the universe.”
The creation myths of Genesis share another common feature of Near Eastern, Egyptian and Greek accounts: they have a cyclical theme. Boadt indicates that this cyclical theme can be seen in Genesis as each of the first three days of creation parallels the next three days. Genesis’ Priestly account shows the creation of light and darkness on the first day is parallel to that of day and night on the fourth day. Whereas, the creation of waters and sky on the second day parallels the creation of sealife and life of the air on the fifth. This pattern is continued in with the third and sixth days.
This cyclical theme is seen in the Enuma Elish and Greek creation. However, the cyclical acts of these mythologies are based more on the violent processes which do not appear in the Genesis. This is a point of uniqueness. The Enuma Elish shows a cyclical theme in the overthrowing of Apsu by Ea in parallel to the overthrowing of Tiamat by Marduk. Hesiod also expresses this theme in Greek creation with the overthrowing of Ouranos by his son Kronos and then the defeat of Kronos by Zeus. The cyclical theme is also seen in Egyptian accounts as they believed in the idea of the first occasion and that life was part of a continuous process. For example, the rising and falling of the sun was imagined as a cyclical process repeating every day, rising and returning to Nun. However, the account in Job 38 is not cyclical; instead it is more of a process.
Biblical creation can also be compared and contrasted in relation to the formation of the god/s and the elements of nature. Genesis indicates that creation resulted from the divine word of a monotheistic god. Sproul asserts that this form of creation is not completely reflected in other mythologies. Hesiod explains that Greeks believed the first acts of creation were the result of sexual procreation by the gods Chaos and Gaia. Sexual procreation as a primary means of creation is also seen in the Memphite versions of Egyptian mythology, though the gods are the product of both asexual reproduction (Shu and Tefnut) and divine word in some accounts such as the Heliopolis (Re rising out of Nun). Near Eastern mythology also includes sexual procreation in creation, “…from Apsu and Tiamat in the waters gods were created.” From these accounts we see Biblical creation as fairly unique as it never includes an act of procreation within Genesis, however, Egyptian accounts do share a relation in including creation by divine word. Job, while not including procreation, does parallel it in 38:8 where it reads: “Who shut up the sea behind doors, when it burst forth from the womb.”
All four cultures’ accounts can be viewed as nature myths as they share a reaction to the power of nature and the creation of human life, even though humans have a limited role in Egyptian mythology. The Biblical accounts and the Enuma Elish both have cultic functions. The Enuma Elish displays cultic functions of kingship, and the Biblical Priestly cults feature the day of rest, both corresponding with ritual theories. Harris and Platzner explain Etiological theories of myths are attempts to explain origins. This theory, seen in all of these mythologies, shows Biblical creation is not unique as a prescientific attempt to justify the creation process.
Biblical and other creation myths show contrasts in relation to the role and creation of humans. The creation of humans in Biblical myth is more important in the J account than the Priestly account. In both, humans are created in the image of god, whereas in Near Eastern myth they are created to serve the gods, but are divinely related as they are moulded from divine blood, “blood to bone I form, an original thing, its name is Man.” Hesiod’s accounts don’t include human creation, but Aristophanes relates that males were created from the sun and females from the earth. Some versions of Egyptian myth recount human creation by Khumn from clay, as do Near Eastern myth with the creation of man by Nintu from clay and blood. Greek, Egyptian and Near Eastern accounts are similar to the J version of Genesis as all refer to creation of man from the earth/clay.
Genesis is in part different because it saw creation not as the act of divine slaughter and violence, but as the divine word of god. Harris and Platzner assess that this is unlike Mesopotamian and Greek creation mythology which “features violent conflict between different generations of gods.” Hesiod describes the conflicts between the generations of gods creating order from chaos. The same idea appears in the Enuma Elish as the violence between generations creates ultimate order to chaos. Genesis, however, refers to a creation of divine word alone, reshaping older myths of “a primordial watery chaos to fit a monotheistic concept.” It would be wrong to say that Biblical accounts are purely non-violent. In Job 26:12-13, ‘By his power he churned up the sea, by his wisdom he cut Rahab to pieces, by his breath the skies became fair; his hand pierced the gliding serpent.’
We also see that the Biblical myth is different because it contains the only creation myths encompassing monotheism. All other creation accounts are based on polytheism. The Egyptian creation myths start with one god of many, such as Nun (the primeval waters),  Ptah in the Memphite versions and Atum in the Heliopolis versions. Greek and Mesopotamian creation myths recount creation in polytheistic terms as the result of several generations of gods, each representing a creation component. Biblical myths do, however, include the trinity within creation. In John1:1-4, ‘In the beginning was the Word [Jesus], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made.’
The Biblical creation myths then do not stand out generally as unique. They contain themes that run through numerous creation myths from civilisations in direct contact and under similar influences to the Biblical cultures. And that my friends is ancient history for you! It is very difficult to be unique when it has all been done before. Any PhD student knows…
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 Holy Bible: New International Version, Hodder and Stroughton (London, 1996), Genesis 1.3, p.3
 Ibid., Genesis 1.6, p.3
 Pinch, G., Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Goddesses and Traditions of Ancient Egypt (Oxford, 2004), p.65
 Allen, J. P., Genesis in Egypt (Connecticut, 1988), p.9
 The Enuma Elish in Sproul, B. C., Primal Myths (New York, 1979), p.92
 Hesiod, Theogony in Harris, S.L., and Plarzner, G., Classical Mythology: Images and InsightFourth Edition (New York, 2004), p.89, lines 160-190
 Harris, S.L., and Plarzner, G., Classical Mythology: Images and InsightFourth Edition (New York, 2004), p.66
 Holy Bible, op.cit., Genesis 1.2, p.3
 Sproul, B. C., Primal Myths (New York, 1979), p.80
 Harris and Platzner, op.cit., p.68
 Boadt, L., Reading the Old Testament (New York, 1984), p.111
 Holy Bible, op.cit., Genesis 1
 Ibid., Genesis 1
 Ibid., Genesis 1
 Sproul, B. C., Primal Myths (New York, 1979), p.123
 Hesiod, op.cit., lines 160-190
 Pinch, G., op.cit., p.68
 Sproul, B. C., op.cit., p.123
 Hesiod, op.cit., lines 110-120
 Shaw, I., and Nicholson, P., The British Museum: Dictionary of Ancient Egypt (London, 2003), p.284
 Enuma Elish, op.cit., p.92, lines 1-10
 Sproul, op.cit., p.91 – The Enuma Elish’s main purpose was to praise Marduk’s divine supremacy and to honourBabylon.
 Harris and Platzner, op.cit., p.40
 Greek, Egyptian, Near Eastern and Biblical myths are all an attempt to explain creation in a non-scientific way (Eg. The sky, sea, earth and life itself) which reflects the primitive understanding of the world and its creation.
 Sproul, op.cit., p.104
 Arisphanes in Plato’s Symposium
 Sproul, op.cit., p.114
 Platzner and Harris, op.cit., p.70
 Ibid., p.70
 Pinch, op.cit., p.58 – explanation of the first god rising out of Nun, the primeval waters, due to differing accounts this god is ascribed as being Amun, Ra or Ptah depending on the version understudy
 Shabako Stone, king sha-bak, 700BC, 25Dyn
It is a common idea in modern authored histories of the Olympic Games that Theodosius I literally abolished the Olympic Games through specific edicts. Was this the product of historians projecting the laws of Theodosius on such a prestigious event and hence claiming direct prohibition, or did Theodosius really literally ban the Olympic Games in his edicts?
The idea that Theodosius I literally banned the Olympic Games is firstly discredited by there being no direct references to the Ancient Olympic Games in the Theodosian Code. The Theodosian code was based on the enforcement of the Christian faith and on the ideologies of Christian dogma. Spivey explains that “There was nothing in the Christian faith that actively underminded the practice of athletics.” An assessment of this suggests that Theodosius I would not have paid particular attention to athletic events, such as the Olympic Games, when authoring his edicts but rather to the ideas and activities that surrounded the ‘pagan’ faiths which governed such events.
Theodosius I was the first emperor to “prohibit the whole established pagan religion of the Roman state.” Hillgarth comments that by the time of Theodosius the church was a part of the “political and social structure of the oppressive empire.” It was necessary for Theodosius to prohibit the traditional pagan practices in order to fully establish his dominance over the empire. Young explains that around 391AD Theodosius issued an edict “that all pagan temples be closed.” These edicts against the worship of the pagan/Ancient Greek faith led to the decline in many areas of traditional Greek life such as the Olympic Games.
Despite the debate, the title of the ‘Olympic Games’ continued to be used elsewhere after the decline of Olympia. Downey asserts that the “Olympic Games at Antioch must have ranked among the most important of the local festivals of the Roman East.” The idea that the title was adopted by games at Antioch and continued throughout the time of Theodosius’ edicts suggests that the Games at Olympia as an event were not prohibited; otherwise events that carried the name elsewhere would have been inclined to dismiss the title and the associations surrounding it as a heresy. However, the Games at Antioch were not prohibited until the early sixth century AD long after the Theodosian code had been established. The Olympiakon stadium itself was still in use till the sixth century.
Theodosius I banned the pagan practices associated with the Olympic Games and made Christianity the primary religion of the Empire for a number of reasons. Greenslade comments that “Theodosius…crowned the work of Constantine,” attempting to create a unified Empire “with a unified faith.” Theodosius attempted this partly in the hope that his laws would decrease the pagan religions and standardise Christianity. Theodosius was also subject to the Judaic and monotheistic ideas of Christianity. Williams and Friell explain that the new Christian regime inherited the “jealous, militant monotheism of Exodus, as well as pre-eminent Judaic concern with the law.” The pagan religion was hence a heresy.
Though Theodosius does not target the Games specifically, his laws contributed to the eventual downfall of the Games at Olympia due to the prohibition of pagan practices. It appears that this point can be held as a source for histories blaming Theodosius for the prohibition of the Olympic Games. Downey assesses that the laws affected the character of the Games but, though many pagans such as in the letters of Libanius saw the Games as unaltered, the festival could no longer be seen as in honour of Olympian Zeus and lost some of their traditional Greek identity. Fowden specifies that the “externals of the pagan cults were dismantled.”
Hillgarth explains that Theodosius I banned the use of areas of pagan worship such as temples and sanctuaries in XVI, 1, 2 (380). Theodosian code cites that “their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches,” and that all pagan sites of worship should be abandoned in sight of the law and the new Christian dogma. Young explains that the focal point of Olympia was the sanctuary of Zeus and the “renowned temple of Olympian Zeus.” The Olympic Games focused significantly on becoming closer to the gods, to be the very best, and the sanctuary was an important and essential part of this ancient Greek ideal.
The Sanctuary of Zeus played a significant part in the Olympic festival as seen through the excavation of hundreds of votive offerings in and around it. However, with the introduction of Theodosius’ code in the late fourth century, important sanctuaries and temples were forced into closure, including that at Olympia. Finley explains that the edict “was followed at Olympia almost immediately by the conversion of one of the more suitable buildings into a Christian church, and it is unthinkable that the games were permitted to coexist with a Christian community and Christian worship.”
Theodosian code states that “no person at all, of any class or order whatsoever of men or of dignities,…shall sacrifice an innocent victim to senseless images in any place at all or in any city.” As much of traditional Greek festivities and Games included sacrifice to the gods as a key aspect, the prohibition of such acts would have had a direct effect on events such as the Olympic Games.
The extent of sacrificial activity at Olympiacan be seen through excavations of the altar in the sanctuary of Zeus. Over the many centuries of use the Altar became a mound containing large deposits of bone and ash left by offerings to the gods. Sacrifices were especially important to the worship of Olympian Zeus as he was “hekatombaios – deserving of a hundred oxen.”
Archaeological evidence suggests that not only did Theodosius I not literally ban the Olympics, but that his edicts weren’t completely complied with at Olympia. Young explains that though Theodosian law prohibited the use of places of worship such as the sanctuary of Zeus, Zeus’ temple and his Olympic Games may well have lasted beyond the 391 edict and into the fifth century. Archaeological evidence in some cases wouldn’t date the end of the Ancient Olympics at Olympia to Theodosius I at all but rather a significant decline, the termination of the Games being attributed to the time of his successor Theodosius II. Hillgarth also assesses that the edicts of Theodosius I were not complied with, and uses as his evidence the stricter later laws being set out by succeeding Emperors, “culminating to the threat of the death penalty in 435” years after Theodosius I’s reign.
The idea that Theodosius did not literally ban the Olympic Games is also supported by the circumstances under which the 293rd Olympiad of 392 did not take place. Koromilas assesses that the decline of Olympia’s Games was not due to Theodosian law but rather to the sanctuary no longer existing, and that there were several factors apart from the expansion of Christianity over a long period of time which led to its downfall. Young agrees with this assessment, stating that Olympia had become inhospitable and was subject to earthquakes, floods and the flight of barbarians.
In most modern histories the prohibition of the Olympic Games is attributed to the Emperor Theodosius in the fourth century. However, this theory is largely discredited through the study of Theodosian law. Theodosius I did not ban the Olympic Games specifically but rather the pagan practices that were associated with them. Theodosius evidently did ban the pagan practices that were associated with the Games in response to Christian dogma and the desire to create and control a unified empire under one religion.
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 Young, D.C., A Brief History of the Olympic Games (Cornwell, 2004), p.136
 Spivey, N., The Ancient Olympics (New York, 2005), p.204
 Ibid., p.204
 Hillgarth, J.N., Christianity and Paganism, 350-750: The Conversion of Western Europe (Pennsylvania, 1969), p.45
 Ibid., p.46
 Young, op.cit., p.136
 Downey, G., The Olympic Games at Antioch in the Fourth Century AD, in Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol.70 (1939, p.428
 Greenslade, S., Church and State fromConstantine to Theodosius (London, 1976), p.30
 Williams, S. and Friell, G., Theodosius: The Empire at Bay (London, 1994), p.47
 Ibid., p.47
Downey, op.cit., p.434
 Fowden, G., Bishops and Temples in the Eastern Roman Empire A.D. 320-435 (1978)
 Hillgarth, op.cit., p.46
 Theodosian Code, XVI, 1, 2, (380) in Hillgarth, J.N., Christianity and Paganism, 350-750: The Conversion of Western Europe (Pennsylvania, 1969),, p.46
 Young, op.cit., p.60
 Tyrrell, B., The Smell of Sweat: Greek Athletics, Olympics, and Culture (Illinois, 2004), p.4
 Raschke, W.J., The Archaeology of the Olympics (Wisconsin), p.21
 Finley, M.I., and Pleket, H.W., The Olympic Games (London, 1976), p.13
 Hillgarth, op.cit., p.46
 Spivey, op.cit., p.131 – the deposits are an important indication of the sheer number of sacrifices that were conducted over a long period of time
 Ibid., p.131
 Young, op.cit., p.136
 Hillgarth, op.cit., p.45
 Koromilas, M., On the Stadium (2004)
 Young, op.cit., p.137