An Overview 

For many years, skeptics of the Bible (especially The Pentateuch & Genesis) have pointed to an ancient Mesopotamian story called The Epic of Gilgamesh as proof that the Biblical writers either borrowed or stole ideas from their ancient Near Eastern neighbors. However, upon closer examination of this remarkable piece of ancient literature, we can see that this is not the case. In fact, historic events that “inspired the Gilgamesh Epicpredate the epic itself and perfectly line up with the Biblical account of primeval history as outlined in the book of Genesis. 

Students of the Bible should know about the Epic of Gilgamesh, not merely because of  similarities with some of the themes in Genesis, but because it is widely considered by scholars and historians as the first epic poem in the history of world literature [1]. 

19th Century map of Mesopotamia

The Discovery of the Epic of Gilgamesh Tablets in Mesopotamia

Hardly anything at all was known about The Epic of Gilgamesh over one hundred and fifty years ago, save one obscure reference in a book titled, De Natura animalium, xii. by the second century AD Roman writer, Aelian. But in 1839 an Englishman named Austen Henry Layard intending to travel to Ceylon with a friend, made a stop in Mespopotamia [Iraq] to explore the area. Layard’s “detour” in Mesopotamia turned into several years. In the process he discovered and excavated the ancient Mesopotamian cities of Nineveh and Nimrud, located near the modern city of Mosul in Northern Iraq. 

The first tablet discoveries were credited to Layard. They were found in the SW palace — in the royal palace of Sennacherib (705-681 B.C.), late in 1849. Three years later, in 1852 Hormuzd Rassam and W.K. Loftus, colleagues of Layard, found another library of an additional ten thousand tablets on the opposite side of the site, at the palace of Ashurbanipal (668-627 B.C.). 

Most of the tablets were just fragments, broken and incomplete. However, a number of them could be deciphered. Around fifteen thousand were shipped back to the British Museum in London for further analysis. Unbeknownst to Layard and his colleagues at the time, the tablets contained large portions of the Epic of Gilgamesh, in addition to the Enuma Elish and the Myth of Adapa (the Mesopotamian “Adam”). 

The Translation & Interpretation of the Tablets

Understanding how to read and decipher the massive cuneiform library recovered by Layard and his fellow excavators, did not take place until a crucial discovery was made in Persia (ancient Iran) in the Kermanshah Province, at a place called Mount Behistun. We now know it as the “Behistun Inscription.” 

The Behistun Inscription is a large multilingual inscription located approximately 330 ft. high and carved into the solid rock face during the reign of the Persian king, Darius the Great (550-486 B.C.). The inscription is in three languages: Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. 

Closeup of the reliefs on the Behistun Inscription (Persia) carved during the reign of Darius the Great (550-486 B.C.) 

The first record of the inscription by a Eurpoean was in 1598, by an Englishman, named Robert Sherley. In 1621 an Italian explorer made note of it, but it wasn’t until 1821 until an officer with the East India Company, named Sir Henry Rawlinson, began to study the inscription in earnest. Rawlinson, along with several others: Edward Hincks, Julius Oppert and William Henry Fox eventually and successfully deciphered the text and inscription. 

Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson – a key figure in deciphering the Behistun Inscription 

The Behistun Inscription is to the study of ancient Mesopotamia, what the Rosetta Stone is to the study of ancient Egypt. 

One of Rawlinson’s assistants in England was George Smith. According to Assyriologist, A.R. George of the University of London: 

“Smith was self-taught and his understanding of the newly deciphered Akkadian language of ancient Babylonia and Assyria was partly intuitive, but he had a genius for sorting fragments into genres, for identifying pieces that belonged together, for joining them and for giving a reasonably accurate account of their contents.” [2]

George Smith was the first scholar to decipher and read the Epic of Gilgamesh

George Smith was the very first scholar to recognize and read, the Epic of Gilgamesh. What made him take particular interest in it, is what he discovered in the eleventh section of Tablet XI  a Flood story with very clear parallels to the Flood story in the Bible, in Genesis 6-10. In 1870 Smith published the first modern translation of the great Epic of Gilgamesh. 


As I’ve stated above, scholars today widely recognize the Epic of Gilgamesh as one of the first great literary epics of the ancient world – certainly one of the world’s oldest ones written down! It is an adventure story which follows the adventures and mis-adventures of a tyrant-king, named Gilgamesh. The following is a bare bones outline of some of the main themes and corresponding tablets of the epic (for those who’ve never read it) [3].


  • Gilgamesh is introduced as a tyrannical king in the ancient city of Uruk [4]. He is out of control and the people cry out to the gods for help. Gilgamesh is two thirds god and one third man. The gods hear the pleas for help, and create an equal to Gilgamesh who can stop his oppressive ways. The gods then create Enkidu who is hairy, untamed and lives in the wild with animals. Enkidu is tamed by a prostitute [Shamhat] who sends him to a shepherd’s camp to learn how to be civilized. 


  • Enkidu is introduced to a human diet at the shepherd’s camp. He is seduced by Shamhat the prostitute. He learns of Gilgamesh’s treatment of new brides and decides to go to Uruk to directly intervene and confront Gilgamesh. Enkidu and Gilgamesh have a fierce battle and Enkidu acknowledges Gilgamesh’s strength and superiority. The two become friends and decide to travel to the cedar forest to fight the demi-god (creature) Humbaba so that they can win a great name for themselves and become reknown. 


  • Gilgamesh and Enkidu travel to the great cedar forest where they encounter Humbaba the guardian of the great cedars. Humbaba makes great threats against them, but Gilgamesh overcomes and slays him. After slaying Humbaba they cut down many cedars and take them back to Uruk to fashion the temple. 


  • The goddess Ishtar takes note of and becomes attracted to Gilgamesh because of his physical stature and exploits, but he refuses advances from her. She becomes scorned and angry and asks her father, Anu to send Gugalanna (the Bull of Heaven), to avenge her. Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay the bull after it inflicts great damage to Uruk. 


  • The gods decide that one of the heros must die because they slew both Humbaba as well as the Bull of Heaven, Gugalanna, so they select Enkidu. Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh is overcome with grief over his death and mourns greatly. Gilgamesh finally understands the finality and sadness of death. 


  • After a period of grieving for Enkidu, Gilgamesh becomes greatly concerned about his own mortality and decides to seek counsel from Utnapishtim, who survived a great flood that destroyed all the earth. The purpose of Gilgamesh’s quest to see Utnapishtim was to learn the secret to “eternal life” and immortality. 


  • Utnapishtim reprimands Gilgamesh for trying to overcome a fate that is common to all humans – death. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh to cease from worrying about it and fighting against it, because it only diminishes the enjoyment of life. 

TABLET XI [“The Flood Tablet”]

  • Upon meeting Utnapishtim and his wife, Gilgamesh notices that he does’t look much different than himself, and asks how he was able to obtain immortality. Utnapishtim explains to Gilgamesh that the gods decided to send a great flood to destroy the earth and for him to build a great boat. The gods gave specific dimensions to Utnapishtim and told him to seal the boat with pitch and bitumen. So Utnapishtim boarded the boat with his entire family as well as all of the “animals of the field.” Utnapishtim wept when he saw how devastating the flood was, having turned all human life to clay. The boat finally became lodged on a mountain peak, and Utnapishtim sent out three birds: a dove, a swallow and a raven. After the flood receeds Utnapishtim offers a sacrifice to the gods.
  • Before leaving Gilgamesh is instructed by Utnapishtim that if he wanted immortality then he could go to the bottom of the sea where there is a box-thorn like plant called Ur-shanabi (“Plant of the Heartbeat”). Gilgamesh attaches stones to his feet and goes to the bottom of the sea to retrieve the plant. After getting it, he decides to test it on an old shepherd, but when he stops to bathe, the plant is stolen by a snake. As the snake departs, it shed its skin. Gilgamesh is brokenhearted because of all of his efforts at immortality and eventually returns to Uruk where he sees the great walls of the city.

Gilgamesh & the Bible: Early Interpretations & Theories 

Most conservative Biblical scholars date the composition of the Pentateuch to sometime during the 15th Century B.C. (circa 1446-1400 B.C.), and ascribe Moses as primary author of the text. This is the viewpoint and position of Epic Archaeology [5].

The dating of the Epic of Gilgamesh is somewhat difficult to ascertain, partly because it is a work composed from multiple sources and tablets across centuries [6]. Old Testament scholar, John Walton states  that the, “Gilgamesh tales may well have been circulating in writing as early as the twenty-fifth century B.C.. The earliest copies known are Sumerian; they date to the Old Babylonian period, 2000-1600 [B.C.], though it is reported that the Ebla tablets attest some Gilgamesh material. If so, then that would move the date back to within a couple of centuries of the historical Gilgamesh (ca. 2600) [7].

Even positing a conservative dating of the Pentateuch, the Epic of Gilgamesh pre-dates it by perhaps, many centuries. Because of this, it has been the view of many Ancient Near Eastern scholars to posit that the Old Testament has been directly influenced by the stories contained in the Gilgamesh Epic. Andrew George, for example, states that the Genesis account of the Flood matches the account in the Epic of Gilgamesh so closely, that “few doubt” that it derives from a Mesopotamian account [8].

Without a doubt, there are some common themes, but there are also some great differences as well. The scope of this article does not allow a full analysis, but below we will briefly review some of the similarities and differences. 


Perhaps, Alexander Heidel summarizes the two main views of the relationship between these two great texts better than anyone, in his book, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (1943). He states: 

Scholars on both sides of the Atlantic have long recognized that the stories translated in the previous chapters containing numerous parallels to the Old Testament. Ever since the recognition of this undeniable fact there have been those who have sought to prove that the Old Testament is indebted to Mesopotamian sources, while others have denied such indebtedness. Although this point is no longer debated with the fervor of a few decades ago, it is by no means a dead issue [9].

Indeed. It is certainly not a dead issue – even now. 

THEME 1 – The Garden of Eden. The Plant of Rejuvination & the Tree of Life (GE, Tablets II & XI & Genesis 3)

While most people commonly think that the main point of similarity between the Epic of Gilgamesh and Genesis is the Flood Story, there are actually a couple of more interesting parallels: one is the idea of a primordial couple, a tricky serpent and the tree of life in the Garden of Eden and the magical plant [Ur-Shanabi – “Plant of the Heartbeat”]. Both have the ability to prolong life and possibly immortality.  Since the first translation of the GE, scholars have also recognized parallels between Enkidu and Shamhat to that of Adam & Eve. Both are created from the soil. The man’s nakedness is covered and Enkidu and Adam both accept food from a woman. Enkidu, like Adam is driven from his abode never to return. 

THEME 2 – Everlasting Life & The Problem of Death (GE, Tablets IX, X, XI & Genesis 1-5)

Surprisingly, another major theme in the Epic of Gilgamesh is problem of death and immortality. In the GE, Gilgamesh becomes greatly concerned about his own mortality and becomes consumed with seeking everlasting life how to be immortal. Gilgamesh is advised by Utnapishtim (the Mesopotamian Noah) not to be overly concerned with it, or fight against the “fate that is common to all” humans – death. In the Old TestamentGenesis 1-3 presents the story of how death entered into the world and upon all mankind as well as the earth itself. Genesis 5 then presents a tol-e-dot [Hebrew] (“this is the account of….”) or “What became of” Adam’s descendants. Throughout chapter 5, Moses presents the generations that came after Adam. He simply states their names; how many sons and daughters they had; how many years they lived, but the fate common to ALL of them (save one! Enoch, Gen. 5:24) was death – “….and they died.” Even Adam died. Death was and is a problem in both ancient texts.

THEME 3 – The Great Worldwide Flood (GE, Tablet XI & Genesis 6-10)

The theme most people are familiar with connecting the Bible and the Epic of Gilgamesh is the Flood story found in Tablet XI (11). The two are nearly identical, save some of the names. Each element in both stories are the same point by point and they are also in the same order. This is one of the primary reasons why scholars today believe that the writer of Genesis merely copied the Flood story found in the Gilgamesh Epic.


While there are some remarkable similarities in the themes mentioned in both the Bible and the Epic of Gilgamesh there are also some very big differences as well.  Before we consider some of these differences I would first like to make a few observations that I believe are relevant to this discussion. 


  1. Mythological flood tales are found in many cultures of the ancient Near East, the Levant, and around the world in very different cultures. This argues that there is much more to the “flood story” than mere fable or myth. If there was such a catastrophic event, then it would have been etched into the psyche and memories of the earliest human civilizations. Perhaps two, or even more separate traditions stemmed from an actual historical flood.
  2. There is historical and archaeological evidence that the story and/or event itself did not originate with the Gilgamesh tablets, but was based on even earlier sources. For example the oldest reference to a great flood is actually on an artifact called the Weld-Blundell Prism. The inscribed prism is a list of ancient Sumerian kings who reigned before “the great flood.” It was written as early as the twenty second century B.C.. The first line from the Weld-Blundell Prism states: “[nam]-lugal an-ta èd-dè-a-ba [eri]duki nam-lugal-la” When kingship from heaven was lowered, the kingship was in Eridu. Eridu is also known as Kish. It is the recognized as the very first city in the world and is located in SE Iraq. It was said to have been built by those who “survived the flood.” The city is built on virgin sand with no previous occupational levels.
  3. The Scriptures are unique (2 Tim. 3:16). Those who claim that the Flood story in the Bible is merely a copy from the Epic of Gilgamesh place Scripture on the same level as pagan mythology.


Everlasting life & the Problem of Death 

When taken as a whole, the differences between the Hebrew and the Mesopotamian beliefs about death and immortality far outweigh their similarities. Heidel lists three that are significant:

  1. In Mesopotamia man was thought to have been created mortal, so that death was the natural result of his constitution; in Israel he was believed to have been created for never ending life, wherefore death was something unnatural.
  2. In Mesopotamia the underworld had its own pantheon; in the Old Testament the realm of the dead is controlled by the same God who controls heaven and earth (as well as sheol – the grave).
  3. The destructive power of death, according to Babylonian and Assyrian speculations, extended not only over mankind and over plant and animal life, but also over the gods as well. While the proverbially immortal gods could not die a natural death, they could perish through violence. The Hebrew God of the Old Testament, however, is eternal and immortal (Gen. 3:15) [10].

The Biblical Flood Story: Its Coherence & Literary Structure 

With regards to the supposed dependence of the Genesis record to the Epic of Gilgamesh there are three possibilities.

  • (A) The Babylonians borrowed from the Hebrew account
  • (B) The Hebrew account is dependent on the Mesopotamian account
  • (C) Both accounts are drawing from a common source or tradition

The first option is generally off the table to most scholars today, simply because the dating of the tablets of the Mesopotamian account predates the Hebrew account by centuries, even given a conservative (i.e. early) date of the composition of the Pentateuch.

The second option is the view most scholars hold today. However, as I have pointed out above, there are historical and archaeological discoveries (The Weld-Blundell Prism & Eridu) which pre-date the Gilgamesh epic, indicating that the event was highly likely  based on an earlier source or historical event, so dependence is not a foregone conclusion. Gilgamesh & Genesis 6-10 are two independent accounts of the same event.

Moreover, contrary to the documentary hypothesis, [which assumes multiple independent authors or sources of the Pentateuch], there is remarkable literary unity in the Pentateuch – especially in Genesis and the flood narrative. For instance, Hebrew scholar Gordon J. Wenham states:

“One mark of the coherence of the flood narrative is to be found in its literary structure. The tale is cast in the form of a palistrophe, that is a structure that turns back on itself. In a palistrophe the first item matches the final item, the second item matches the penultimate item, and so on. The second half of the story is thus a mirror image of the first. This kind of literary structure has been discovered in other parts of Genesis, but nowhere is it developed on such a large scale” [11]

The turning point in the flood narrative pivots and focuses the readers attention to 8:1 – “God remembered Noah” (Gen. 8:1)

The literary structure [palistrophe] of the Genesis flood story as outlined by Hebrew scholar, Gordon J. Wenham (in his article, “The Coherence of the Flood Narrative,” 1975).

Wenham further elaborates:

“As is well known, some of the closest parallels to the biblical flood story are to be found in Mesopotamian literature. Exactly how this relationship between the two accounts is to be explained is difficult to determine…”

“…It is strange that the two accounts of the flood so different as J and P, circulating in ancient Israel, should have been combined to give our present story which has so many resemblances to the Gilgamesh version than the postulated sources. Perhaps it could be explained by assuming that the J and P versions of the flood story were in their original form much closer to each other than the relics of these sources now suggest. Alternatively, one might suppose that only one source was used by the writers of Genesis, a source presumably similar to the Mesopotamian flood story. Whichever solution is preferred, it underlines our previous argument that the Genesis flood story is a coherent narrative within the conventions of Hebrew story-telling [12].”

Lastly, on this point, Old Testament scholar, John D. Currid remarks that,

The uniqueness of the biblical account is a good argument for its independence from rather than its dependence on the pagan mythic texts. They are perhaps two separate traditions that stem from a historical flood. I have written elsewhere, ‘If the biblical stories are true, one would not be surprised to see those truths in extra-biblical literature. And indeed in ancient Near Eastern myth we do see some kernels of historical truth. However, pagan authors vulgarized and bastardized those truths-they distorted fact by dressing it up with polytheism, magic, violence, and paganism. Fact became myth. From this angle the common references would appear to support rather than deny the historicity of the biblical story [13].

Christ Affirmed the Historicity of Noah 

Finally, Christ Himself affirmed the historicity of  of Noah and the great flood. He said, “But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matthew 24:37).

Having been raised from the dead, Christ proved His full Divinity and One who has all authority and Truth (Matthew 28:18).

After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many infallible proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God – Acts 1:3

Since the advent of modern archaeology and more rigorous scientific excavation techniques, the Bible has had an amazing track-record of historical reliability and dependability – even when there seemed to be no evidence except in the Biblical text itself.

There is still much left to be discovered! And perhaps some of the greatest discoveries will be from tablets or manuscripts that we already have in the libraries and archives around the world. There are good reasons to trust the Biblical record. Now is not the time to doubt – but to believe, for our faith is based on evidence, and there is more to come!


[1] See, A.R. George, “Shattered tablets and tangled threads: Editing Gilgamesh, then and now,” Paper given at the 37th Annual Conference on Editorial Problems: Reconstructing Ancient Texts, at the Department of Classics, University of Tornonto, November 2001. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Of course there are multiple variations of the story because of textual variations in the tablets. The basic outline and standard form of the Epic is drawn from 12 tablets. As newly translated tablets and inscriptions are found, the story is further clarified as the work of translation is an ongoing process. This brief outline is taken from Andrew R. George’s, The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian Epic Poem and other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian, Third Ed. (London: Penguin Classics, 2003). George is considered to be one of the top authorities in the world on the Gilgamesh Epic as he is one of only a handful of scholars who is able to translate it from the original text. 

[4] Noted Mesopotamian scholar, Thorkild Jacobsen gives us a more detailed picture of Gilgamesh: “From our first meeting with the young Gilgamesh he is characterized by tremendous vigor and energy. As a ruler of Uruk he throws himself into his task with zeal. He maintains constant military alert, calls his companions away from their games, and harasses the young men of the town the point where it gets black before their eyes and they faint with weariness, and he leaves them no time for their families and sweethearts. The people of Uruk are understandably not very happy at this, and they begin to pester the gods with complaints and entreaties to do something about it.” in his excellent book, The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1976), 196.

[5] While it is beyond the scope of this article to defend or elaborate on the conservative dating of the Pentateuch, my position is based on my view of the nature of BiblicalInspiration,” “Inerrancy,” as well as textual, literary, philosophical, historical and archaeological considerations. For a fuller treatment and defense of my view, and a conservative defense of Mosaic authorship and dating of the Pentatech, see Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction: Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), and Eugene H. Merrill, Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1987), for a broad outworking of conservative OT historical chronology.

[6] For instance, according to J.M. Sasson, “We do not know when and how the independent narratives about Gilgamesh were first woven into a whole; a very late tradition which is beyond present confirmation, has assigned the composition of the epic to a Gilgamesh contemporary, a diviner named, Sin-leqi-unninni. By the LB Age, Gilgamesh’s adventures had come into full vogue in the Near East so that major Mesopotamian sites continue to yield GE copies and fragments (some as yet unpublished).” In David Noel Freedman, Editor, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 2, D-G (New York: Doubleday, 1025.

[7] John Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context: A Survey of the Parallels Between Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 22-23.

[8] Andrew George, The Epic of Gilgamesh (London: 2003), 70.

[9] Alexander Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1946), 137

[10] Ibid., 137-147.

[11] Gordon J. Wenham, “The Coherence of the Flood Narrative,” in Vetus Testamentum, Vol. XXVIII, Fasc. 3, p.337 [emphasis mine].

[12] Ibid., pp. 345-46 [emphasis mine].

[13] John D. Currid, Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 61 [emphasis mine].