The first important lesson history can teach us concerning the pagan influences on modern religion is that the Jews were not the first monotheistic group. Not only did nearby cultures adopt the idea first, the Hebrews were not always monotheistic, continuing to worship many lesser gods long after they accepted Yahweh as their primary tribal god. This was a common event in ancient societies, as one god would rise to prominence among many. In Egypt it was Re, in Babylon it was Marduk, in Assyria Ashur, among the Hebrews Yahweh. Top gods, like all others, had specific associations that helped explain how the world functioned: Re was the god of the sun, Zeus the god of the sky, and Yahweh is believed by some scholars to be associated with storms, earthquakes, and volcanoes (All About Adam and Eve, Gillooly, p. 40-41).
As time went on, Yahweh became not just a god for one people and one geographic area (ancient Hebrew travelers would sometimes bring along a cart full of dirt from their land to ensure their gods traveled with them), but a universal god meant for all people and indeed the only god to actually exist.
The religions of some other groups would evolve along a similar route. Before the Hebrews professed Yahweh as the one and only god, Pharaoh Amenhotep IV in the 1300s B.C. destroyed the temples of countless Egyptian gods and forced monotheism, the worship of Aton, on his people. A century of archaeological and ethnographic research points to the Israelis as offshoots of Canaanites and other peoples during the 12th-11th centuries B.C. (Killebrew, Biblical Peoples and Ethnicity, Society of Biblical Literature, p. 181-185). There is no evidence of Hebrew enslavement in Egypt or an Exodus (p. 151-152), nor evidence of Joshua conquering the “Promised Land” after a long wandering in the wilderness (p. 152-154). And before one conjures the poorly used “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” chant, note the same can be said of Mount Olympus forming itself after the Greek gods defeated the Titans, or of Jesus paying a visit to North America, as the Mormons believe. “Absence of evidence” may not be “evidence of absence,” but it is still the very definition of myth and superstition.
Yahweh, worshiped since the 14th century B.C. in Canaan in a pantheon alongside Baal, Asherah, El, and other gods, was not declared the top god until after the State was formed under the rule of kings in 1,000-900 B.C. (Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible, Betz, “Monotheism,” p. 917). A nation, the historical pattern suggests, desires a national god. The transformation was gradual, but by the time of the Babylonian conquest of Israel and the great Exile (an actual historical event supported by evidence) around 600 B.C., Yahweh was the Hebrew’s one and only god. Robert K. Gnuse writes in No Other Gods: Emergent Monotheism in Israel, “Until the exile the majority of Jews were polytheistic.” Indeed, most biblical scholars believe the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible) were written between 600 B.C. and 400 B.C. The earliest Hebrew writing of any kind is from about 1,000 B.C. If interested in details of the most recent studies of Jewish monotheism, browse pages 62-105 of Gnuse’s book here.
History shows as cities and civilizations interacted, they shared many myths and adopted each other’s religious customs (think of the Greek gods taken by the Romans). Archaeology has provided evidence that stories from Babylon, Egypt, and other nearby cultures are older than Hebrew society itself and by extension the Jewish history found in the Bible. Dennis Morris summarizes the findings in a passage from Religion: The Greatest Confidence Trick in History (p. 97):
The following stories are far older than the Pentateuch and contain much the same elements. In the Persian story, God created the world in six days, a man called Adama, a woman called Evah, and then rested. The Etruscan, Babylonian, Phoenician, Chaldean, and Egyptian stories are much the same. The Persians, Greeks, and Egyptians had their Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life. The Persians, Babylonians, and Nubians, all had the story of the fall of man and the subtle serpent. The Chinese account says that sin came into the world by the disobedience of a woman. Even the scriptures of the Tahitians tell us that man was created from the earth, and the first woman from one of his bones. All these stories are equally “authentic” and of equal value to the world and all the authors were equally “inspired.” We know that the story of the Flood is much older than the book of Genesis, and we know besides that it is not true and that the story was copied from the Chaldean. There we read all about the rain, the ark, the animals, the dove that supposed to have been sent out three times, and the mountain on which the ark rested. The Persians, Greeks, Mexicans and Scandinavians have substantially the same story.
Artifacts from these societies reveal versions of the stories that are older than the Hebrew people and their holy texts. The Sumerian flood story is 1,000-1,200 years older than the story of Noah (Gillooly, p. 104). The Epic of Gilgamesh, which may be as old as 2150 B.C., has a great flood story. Its flood hero is Utnapishtim. A Babylonian cuneiform tablet, found in southern Iraq and dating to the 1600s B.C., describes how the god Enki instructs Atrahasis to build a boat and save himself and all the animals before the god Enlil obliterates the human race. It is 400 years older than the Hebrew people and 1,000 years older than the book of Genesis. It can be found at the British Museum in London.
Even the Jews had an alternate flood story. In 1 Enoch, a Jewish text that was not biblical cannon yet provides a good example of how myths change, God sends the flood to wipe out not just humanity but also giants. These giants were the offspring of angels and human women, were hundreds of feet tall, and started doing disobedient things like teaching humans magic and metallurgy, and also eating them (see How Jesus Became God, Ehrman).
The story of Moses set adrift in a basket in the bulrushes originated in a 2,800 B.C. myth of King Sargon of Agade; myths far older than the Hebrews concerning man being formed from clay are found in Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, as well as more distant civilizations in Asia, Africa, the Pacific islands, and the Americas; the Chaldeans constructed a tower which was destroyed by angry gods, who cursed the people with new languages, long before the Tower of Babel story was written (Gillooly, p. 75, 101, 107). Now, no matter how consistently ethnography and archaeology build a timeline of the human race for historians and sociologists, and the common person, the religious right will always insist all these cultures got the stories from the Hebrews and actual events involving the Jews and Yahweh, not the other way around. It is easier to insist Adam came before Adama, and Noah came before Utnapishtim, than to reconstruct your entire belief system based on evidence.
A good example of this is the chapter “Archaeology and Biblical Criticism” in New Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Josh McDowell). In addressing the creation, flood, and other stories, McDowell, amazingly, attempts to convince the reader that the Judeo-Christian account is accurate and original because A) the stories of non-Jewish societies are too embellished, elaborate, and fanciful, and B) because non-Jewish societies have those stories in the first place.
So to that end, on p. 375, the author points to creation stories that have mankind, heaven, and Earth all originated by God or gods, but insists they are too imaginative to be true history. He writes of the Babylonian and Sumerian stories, in which man is formed from clay mixed with the blood of a fallen evil god: “These tales display the kind of distortion and embellishment to be expected when a historical account becomes mythologized.” He insists that while other stories are similar, their greater complexity indicates they are distorted versions of the “unadorned elegance” of Genesis. McDowell goes on to say, “The Bible contains the ancient, less embellished version of the story and transmits the facts without the corruption of the mythological renderings.”
He takes a similar tack with the flood story (p. 377), noting that cultures on multiple continents have a flood story, but that “the other versions contain elaborations, indicating corruption. Only in Genesis is the year of the flood given, as well as dates for the chronology relative to Noah’s life.” (The year is actually not given, only speculated about today based on the text’s tales of Noah’s descendants and how long they lived.) The length of rainfall in non-Jewish accounts (seven days) is “not enough time for the devastation they describe.” Further, “The Babylonian idea that all of the flood waters subsided in one day is absurd.”
This argument is hopeless. Simply terrible. Arguing that one supernatural tale is “too embellished” or “too absurd” compared to another supernatural tale is foolishness of the worst kind. With supernatural stories, one is literally dealing with magic. Whether a deity takes 40 days to flood the world or seven, it hardly seems to matter. Further, “embellishment” is a purely subjective description. McDowell may think that the mixing of an evil god’s blood with clay is infinitely more outlandish than a good god forming a woman from the rib of a man, but that is because he already believes the latter and thus must reject the former. But I may see both these supernatural stories as equally fanciful, or I might see the first story more “unadorned” or “elegant” than the second. The Babylonians and Sumerians may have agreed. All this is obvious.
As for the second part of the “argument,” which seeks to make the Jewish stories seem more likely to be factual because neighboring societies had similar, albeit corrupted, tales, the mere existence of similar stories is not evidence that one of them or any of them actually happened. We can all agree that many myths existed and were pure fiction. Does the fact that such tales spread to cultures nearby serve as evidence that someone in particular believed what was true and supernatural? The Greeks had many thousands of gods. When the Romans conquered Greece and adopted their stories, pausing only to rename the deities, did that somehow provide “evidence” that Greek myths were true? Or consider Native American nations. They all have in common powerful spiritual animals. You have an Earth born on the back of a turtle, talking ravens, humans originating from the feathers of eagles, etc. Is this evidence that a single tribe somewhere actually experienced something similar, perhaps something just slightly less “embellished”? And does the existence of myths of fire-breathing dragons in Europe and East Asia, perhaps not even shared, prove that such creatures existed? Most thinking persons, including most Christians, would say no.
Total fictions can be shared to other societies, or can originate in multiple societies independently. McDowell believes that the Hebrews wrote these tales and they spread to other cultures. It is, as we have seen, actually more likely the Hebrews stole the stories from neighbors. But to present an argument that boils down to “multiple societies have this story, so there must be truth to it somewhere” is inane.