Creation Stories of the Ancient World (Part 2): An Ancient Egyptian Account

Here’s the link.

May 11, 2023

Was the account of creation found in Genesis comparable to (or even borrowed from?) other ancient accounts in scattered throughout the world at the time?

Last month my colleague Joseph Lam, an expert in the Hebrew Bible and the languages and literature of the Ancient Near East provided us with a guest post about some of the creation stories found outside Scripture in non-Israelite cultures — stories in circulation before the ones written in Genesis (

Here now is a second and equally interesting post dealing with stories from ancient Memphis Egypt (not Tennessee!)!

This is the topic of his lecture course for the Great Courses/Wondrium, “Creation Stories of the Ancient World” (links at bottom)


In my last blog entry, I offered a brief description of the Babylonian Creation Epic, Enuma Elish, and reflected on how one might imagine its relationship to the seven-day creation story of Genesis 1. In this post, I turn to an enigmatic but fascinating text from ancient Egypt known as the Memphite Theology that has also been compared with Genesis 1, though in this case I would argue that no direct connection exists between the two texts. Instead, what we see in the Memphite Theology is an alternative expression of the idea of a supreme and intentional creator deity that is reminiscent of (and roughly contemporaneous with) Genesis 1.

The text of the Memphite Theology is preserved on a rectangular stone slab now known as the Shabako Stone, named for the Egyptian Pharaoh Shabako under whom the text was promulgated in approximately 710 BCE. The stone was subsequently converted for use as a lower millstone, which effaced a significant portion of the writing (see the British Museum photo here: Nonetheless, the portions that remain reveal an idiosyncratic picture of creation centering on a god named Ptah, a deity associated with the city of Memphis (hence the “Memphite Theology”), one that departs from a dominant understanding of creation in ancient Egypt associated with another ancient city, Heliopolis. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the Memphite Theology was written precisely to supplant the earlier traditional understandings. The following passage from near the beginning of the text is revealing (translation here taken from Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. I):

“This writing was copied out anew by his majesty in the House of his father Ptah-South-of-his-Wall, for his majesty found it to be a work of the ancestors which was worm-eaten, so that it could not be understood from beginning to end. His majesty copied it anew so that it became better than it had been before…”

What we have here is a trope that is found with some regularity in the ancient world—that of the “discovery” or “recovery” of an even more ancient text as a way of conferring legitimacy to what was in fact a new literary creation from the writer’s own time. (The most famous example of this is the “discovery” of the Book of the Law in the time of the biblical king Josiah in 2 Kings 22, which is widely regarded by scholars as representing the context of the promulgation of the Book of Deuteronomy.) Applying this assumption to the Memphite Theology helps to explain its contents, because the primary focus of the text is the exaltation of the god Ptah over an earlier creator deity named Atum (of the tradition of Heliopolis) by re-envisioning Atum and the other gods as proceeding from Ptah himself. This tendency can be observed in the following key passage (again, based on Lichtheim’s translation):

“There took shape in the heart, there took shape on the tongue the form of Atum. For the very great one is Ptah, who gave life to all the gods and their kas through this heart and through this tongue, in which Horus had taken shape as Ptah, in which Thoth had taken shape as Ptah…. Sight, hearing, breathing—they report to the heart, and it makes every understanding come forth. As to the tongue, it repeats what the heart has devised. Thus all the gods were born and his Ennead was completed.”

Although some of the language in this passage is obscure, it is clear that the god Ptah is at the top of the divine hierarchy that the text envisions. Ptah is “the very great one,” the one who gives life to all the other gods, and important gods such as Atum, Horus, and Thoth are all subordinated to Ptah in different ways. Since Atum is, in the Heliopolis tradition, the original creator deity and the one who gives birth to the other members of the core group of nine deities (the “Ennead”), to subordinate Atum to Ptah is to elevate Ptah to the primary role.

What is also notable about this passage, and what makes it distinctive among the conceptions of creation we encounter in ancient Egypt, is the manner in which these primordial acts of creation are described. The “heart” and the “tongue” of Ptah are both crucial in this process, with the heart being the ultimate source (“they report to the heart… as to the tongue, it repeats what the heart has devised”). While the interpretation of this language is difficult, I would take the heart to represent the seat of the will or of intention, an idea that is characteristic of many ancient forms of understanding. While today we tend to associate emotions with the heart, in ancient cultures the heart encompasses faculties that we would attribute to the brain, such as thinking, deciding, and desiring. As for the tongue, I would take that to symbolize speech as an expression of an act of thought or intention. Thus, what we have is a fascinating conception of creation as a sort of mental act of Ptah with multiple stages: the heart devises, the tongue speaks it forth, and the result is various manifestations in the form of the gods and, in fact, all things. This idea is elaborated further in the text:

“Thus all the faculties were made and all the qualities determined, they that make all foods and all provisions, through this word… Thus all labor, all crafts are made, the action of the hands, the motion of the legs, the movements of all the limbs, according to this command which is devised by the heart and comes forth on the tongue and creates the performance of every thing.”

This passage applies this heart-tongue concept to the creation of a range of other elements in the world—from food, to crafts, to bodily movement, to all things. While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why these elements are mentioned and not others, it does suggest that the heart’s devising leading to creative speech is envisioned in this text as a fundamental means by which the world comes into being.

In light of these passages in the Memphite Theology, the parallels to Genesis 1 are evident in that the biblical creation in seven days also takes place by means of a creator deity speaking the elements of the world into existence. One should note that in Genesis, explicit language about the “heart” or other descriptions of intention (before the act) are missing, though God does “see” the things that are created and subsequently declares them to be “good.” But the underlying conceptions of the creative process in the two texts, insofar as they both reside in the will of a specific creator god, are similar enough to warrant describing them as expressions of a common tendency emerging in the middle of the first millennium BCE.

In these two short blog posts, I have discussed two creation texts, one from Mesopotamia and one from Egypt, that in different ways illuminate the background to the creation narrative in Genesis 1. While these posts have been brief, I hope I have managed to illustrate the compelling nature of the numerous creation stories we possess from the ancient Near East. If you are interested in learning more, see my course for Wondrium/The Great Courses:

Wondrium link:

The Great Courses link:

Was Matthew Attacking Paul?

Here’s the link to this article by Bart Ehrman, May 9, 2023.

On my podcast this past week (Misquoting Jesus with Bart Ehrman) someone asked me if I thought any of the Gospels of the NT were influenced by Paul.  It’s an interesting question that I should post on (my view: Mark, maybe; Luke, unexpectedly and oddly not; John, I doubt it; Matthew?)

Ah, Matthew.  As it turns out, I think Matthew shows a rather obvious and ironic connection with Paul.  Did he know Paul’s writings?  I have no idea.  Did he know about Paul?  Same, no idea.  Did he oppose a major feature of Paul’s gospel message?  Sure looks like it!!  (I’m trying to say that he could be opposed to Paul’s views without necessarily knowing Paul’s writings; the views may have been more widely spread than just by Paul.  In fact, they almost certainly were.

Here’s how I’ve discussed the matter once when I was reflecting at greater length in the issue:

Paul certainly had opponents in his lifetime:  “Judaizers,” as scholars call them — that is, Christian teachers who maintained that followers of Jesus had to follow the Jewish Law:  Men were to be circumcised to join the people of God; men and women were, evidently, to adopt a Jewish lifestyle.  Presumably that meant keeping kosher, observing the Sabbath, and so on.  Anyone who didn’t do this was not really a member of the people of God, since to be one of God’s people meant following the law that God had given.

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians in particular he shows that he was thoroughly incensed at this interpretation of the faith and insisted with extraordinary vehemence that it was completely wrong.  The gentile followers of Jesus were not, *absolutely* not, supposed to become Jewish.  Anyone who thought so rendered the death of Jesus worthless.  It was only that death, and the resurrection, that made a person right with God.  Nothing else.  Certainly not following the Torah.

I really don’t see how Paul and the author of the Gospel of Matthew could have gotten along.

Some background:  Matthew’s Gospel was  probably written about thirty years after Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians; Galatians is usually dated to the mid 50s, Matthew to around 80-85 CE.  We don’t know who the author of Matthew was, apart from the fact that he was obviously a highly educated Greek-speaking Christian living outside of Palestine.  His book is often located to Antioch Syria, but in my view that is simply a guess based on flimsy evidence.  Still, it certainly *may* have been written Antioch, a city with a large Jewish population and a burgeoning Christian church.

Matthew, like the other Gospel writers, did not produce his account simply out of antiquarian interests, to inform his readers what happened 55 years earlier in the days of Jesus.  His is not a disinterested biography or an objective history.  It is a “Gospel.”  In other words, it is intended to proclaim the “good news” about Jesus and the salvation that he brings.  When Jesus teaches something in this Gospel, Matthew expects that the teaching will be relevant to his readers, that they will want to do what Jesus says.

There is no doubt that Matthew would agree with Paul that it was the death and resurrection of Jesus that brought salvation to the world.  The Gospel is not *entirely* about Jesus’ death and resurrection.  But it is largely about that.  It is 28 chapters long, and the last 8 chapters are focused exclusively on what happened during the last week of Jesus’ life in Jerusalem, including the crucifixion and resurrection.  This is clearly the climax of the story.  And for Matthew, as for his predecessor Mark, the death of Jesus is seen as “a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28).  It is through his death that he “will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

So Matthew would agree with Paul there.  But so would Paul’s Judaizing opponents in Galatia.  The controversy with the Galatian opposition was not over whether Jesus’ death brings salvation.  It was over whether the followers of Jesus, who accept that death, need to keep the Jewish law.  And it does seem to me that this is where Paul and Matthew split company.  Again, remember that when Matthew decides what to present about Jesus’ life in the Gospel it is not simply so that people can know “what really happened” in the past.  It is so that the life and teachings of Jesus can direct the lives of his followers in the present.

And what does Jesus say about the Jewish law in Matthew?   He says that his followers have to keep it.  One of the key passages is something that you will NEVER find in the writings of Paul.

Do not suppose that I came to destroy the law or the prophets.  I came not to destroy but to fulfil.  For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away not one iota or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all is fulfilled.  And so, whoever looses one of the least of these commandments and teaches others in this way will be called least in the kingdom of God, but whoever does and teaches the law will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I say to you that if your righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:17-20).

This is a really interesting passage.  Does it contradict Paul that the followers of Jesus were *not* to keep the law?  It certainly seems to.

Now someone *could* say that here Jesus is saying simply that the entire law has to be in effect until he dies (“until all is fulfilled”).  But Jesus is saying more than that.  His followers must do and teach the law.   None of it will pass away until the world is destroyed (“till heaven and earth pass away”).  Again, Matthew is not saying this so his readers will have a good history lesson about the Savior of the world and what he taught his disciples.  He is including this passage for the same reason he includes all his passages, to teach his readers how they are to believe and live.  Jesus in this passage does *not* say, “Keep the law until I die.”  He says he did not come to destroy the law.  It is still in effect.  And will be as long as the earth lasts.  His followers have to keep it.

After this Jesus launches into his “antitheses,” where he indicates what the law says and explains its fuller, deeper meaning.  The law says don’t kill; to fulfill it you should not engage someone with wrath.  The law says not to take someone’s spouse; to fulfill it you should not want to do so.  The law says to make punishments fit the crimes (an eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth; not a head for an eye or a body for a tooth); to fulfill it you should show extreme mercy and not punish another for harm done to you.  And so on.

I think that Matthew’s Jesus really meant what he says (NOTE: I’m talking about Jesus as he is portrayed in Matthew, NOT about Jesus’ own historical views).  He gives no hint that following the law this closely is impossible to do.  He seems to think it is possible.   God gave a law.  You should follow it. Scrupulously.  Even more scrupulously than the righteous scribes and Pharisees.  If you don’t, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

That’s a tall order.  And in my judgment it seems very much opposed to Paul’s views, who insists that *his* readers not think that they must follow the law.   Pretty big difference.  In fact, Paul says anyone is cursed who disagrees with his view of the matter (Gal. 1: 6-9).  Surely Matthew disagreed.

“Death is nothing to us.” What Do YOU Think?

Here’s the link to this article by Bart Ehrman.

April 27, 2023

I quote:

“You need to realize that death is nothing to us.   Everything that is good and bad in our lives comes from the experiences of our senses.  But death brings an end to our senses/experiences.  And so having the right understanding – that death is nothing to us – makes our mortality enjoyable, not because we will live forever but because we don’t pointlessly long to live forever.  For there are no terrors in life for the one who fully understands that there are no terrors in not living.

It is absurd for people who fear death — not because it is afflicting them now but because they expect it will be horrible when it comes.  For this allegedly most awful thing – death  — is actually nothing to us:   when we exist, we are not dead, but when we are dead, we no longer exist.  And so death is completely irrelevant – both to those who are living and to those who are dead.  Those who are living are not experiencing it and those who are dead no longer exist.”

These are not my words – just my idiomatic translation of the words of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, in his letter to an unknown person named Menoecus (taken from Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers).  Epicurus has had a millenia-long bad reputation as a complete “hedonist.”  But almost all his bad reputation is ill-deserved.  He was a great philosopher with a view of life and how to live it that has a LOT to commend it.  In fact, it is a view that many of us have today, based on scientific views that are analogous to those most of us share (VERY different as well, since he was living, well, 2300 years ago!).

Short story: Epicurus believed that people’s false religious views cause completely unnecessary psychological trauma and pain, and that life could be very much enjoyed apart from superstition and fear of death.

Here I’ll give his views in a nutshell:

  • The world was not created by divine beings but is made up of atoms that are tiny, indivisible particles that combine in various ways, and we are all – rocks, plants, animals, humans, gods – made up of them. The atoms come together for a time and will disperse and recombine again later in various ways.
  • As indicated, the gods too made up of particles and are the height of perfection, completely undisturbed and at rest – and have Zero involvement with us. They are what they are, existing in perfection and peace. (Epicurus lived in a polytheistic world; almost no one was an “atheist” in our sense.  So naturally he assumed there were gods.  But he was accused of being an atheist because he maintained the gods had nothing to do with us and we have absolutely nothing to fear from the gods.)
  • Life is a gift and life is short. It’s not a gift *from* someone/something.  It’s just something we’re incredibly lucky to have.  And we won’t have it for long.  So we should enjoy it.
  • The goal of life is therefore enjoyment, for as long as we can.
  • That means we should strive for “pleasure.” This is especially where Epicurus got into hot water with other philosophers.
  • The Greek word for pleasure is hēdon, from which we get our world “hedonism.”  Our modern use of the term, though, conjures up the wrong idea, at least with respect to Epricurus.  Our view of a “hedonist” is someone who strives for all the physical pleasure that can be found – drinking bouts, endless orgies, drugs, careless and carefree riotous living that is completely self-centered, uncaring, reckless, anti-social, and harmful to self and others.
  • That’s the opposite of what Epicurus meant. He explicitly and vehemently argues *against* that kind of lifestyle — precisely because it is indeed harmful to self and others.  How can a lifestyle that leads to serious additions, depression, and isolation be “good”?   That kind of life strives to resist a meaningful existence.   It is strictly to be avoided.
  • What then is “pleasure”? For one thing, it is the fulfilling richness that can come from knowing what is good for you and meaningful.  That involves simple pleasures of friends, interesting and meaningful discussions, reading, thinking, trying to understand the world and life and our place in it, enjoying meals together, and relishing the time we have for as long as we have it and realizing we won’t have it forever and don’t need to have it forever.
  • Above all, a life of pleasure is a life without pain. We should take good care of ourselves, treat ourselves well, and not put ourselves in positions of threat and danger.  We should do our best to avoid bodily pain.  And – in Epicurus’s view – when we do experience pain we should realize that most pains are endurable and do not need to affect our mental states if we have the right attitudes toward them; moreover, pains that seem unendurable do not last long (again, that’s just his view).
  • The same applies to mental anguish and pains, which are often worse than physical.
  • Because we are made up of atoms that will return whence they came, there is no life after death. Our souls disperse with our bodies.  It is absurd to feel anguish about death.  It will come whatever our fears are, and when it comes, we will have no fear.  We won’t suffer.  We won’t regret dying, we won’t be upset, we won’t be terrified, we certainly won’t feel any pain.  We won’t have any bodies.  We won’t have any minds.  Our atoms have dispersed.  We won’t exist any more.
  • So there is nothing to fear or even regrate. That’s how it should be.  It’s how nature works.  Fearing that it will happen makes no sense.  We won’t mind when it does happen, so why should we mind before it does?  There won’t be any pain or anguish then, so why should we feel pain and anguish about a future of no pain and anguish?
  • Death is nothing to us.

So, those are the views of Epicurus in a nutshell.  I’ve long been attracted to them.   I’m interested in your thoughts.  What do you think?

Biblical Prophecy and the Coming Destruction of the Dome of the Rock

Here’s the link to this article. Here’s the link to the first article concerning this subject.

March 30, 2023

I continue here my post from yesterday, explaining the Christian background to U.S. Support of Israel, taken from my recently-published book Armageddon: What the Bible Really Says About the End


It is important to stress that evangelicals think God is faithful to Israel even if Jews are not faithful to God.  He has fulfilled and will continue to fulfill his promises that Israel will have the Promised Land.  But Jews who reject his messiah cannot possibly be saved.  That is not God’s fault.  He is not the one who broke the eternal covenant.  Jews did when they rejected their own messiah.  Therefore, they will be punished.

To evangelical readers that is clear from the book of Revelation, which describes “the End” as standing in straight continuity with and in fulfillment of “the Beginning.” As we have seen, according to Revelation, the only inhabitants of the earth who will be saved are those who refuse the mark of the beast and instead receive the seal of God.  In Revelation 7 the two groups of these divinely sealed saints are discussed.  The larger group is “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9).  These are explicitly not the people of one nation (such as Israel); they are from around the world, everyone made pure because “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14).  The other group is smaller, but still sizeable: 144,000 Jews who receive the “seal of God” on their head and so become “slaves of God” – twelve thousand “people of Israel” from each of the twelve tribes (7:4-8).

Thus, God is faithful to the end.  A large,  symbolic number of Jews will be saved by converting to become slaves of God through their faith in Jesus.  But the number is not only significantly large; it is also significantly small.  Think about the global population of Jews.  Even at the time John was writing, there were nearly four million Jews in the world.  He would certainly not have known this exact number, but even so: if 144,000 are saved, that would be only 4% of just the Roman world. Evangelical Christians, as one would expect, take this too to be a fulfillment of Scripture, where God repeatedly says that salvation will come to only a remnant of Israel (Romans 9:27-28).

Why Israel Must Rebuild the Temple

Thus, for evangelical thinkers the entire arc of the biblical narrative from beginning to end shows that prophecies are being fulfilled in our own day.  But there’s more to it than that.  Ezekiel indicated that the Temple in Jerusalem had to be rebuilt.  That hasn’t happened yet. It has to happen before Jesus can return.  The clearest indication comes not in Ezekiel but in a seemingly obscure passage in the New Testament book of 2 Thessalonians, which I’ll discuss in greater detail shortly: Israel not only has to exist as a sovereign state in the Promised Land, it also has to have full control of Jerusalem and, in particular, the Temple Mount.  The problem, of course, is that that the Temple Mount is a sacred site for Islam as well, home to the Dome of the Rock for the past thirteen centuries.  The Dome is located over the site of the original Jerusalem Temple.  For the prediction of 2 Thessalonians to be fulfilled, the Temple needs to be rebuilt there, which means the Dome has to go.

It has long been debated whether Paul was the author of 2 Thessalonians; many historical scholars think the book was written by a later Christian in Paul’s name.[1]  Whoever wrote it, the book tries to explain to readers that the end of the age will not come right away, nor will it happen without warning (contrary to what Paul himself says in First Thessalonians, 4:13-5:11).  A fore-ordained sequence of events must happen first.  The events involve a mysterious figure, “the lawless one,” who will rise to a position of power. This figure is often identified by readers as the “Antichrist” and the “beast” of Revelation (666), even though he is not called either in the passage:

Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day [the “coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”] will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction.  He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.  (2 Thess. 2:3-4)

The author then indicates that this figure cannot appear yet because a restraining force is keeping him at bay (2:6).   When that is removed, “the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming” (2:8).  That sounds very much like the Final Battle between Christ and the Beast as described in Revelation 19:17-20.

What matters most, though, is that before this destruction takes place, the Antichrist figure will take “his seat in the temple of God,” declaring himself to be God.  That obviously cannot happen until the temple is rebuilt.  Jesus therefore cannot return until Israel assume full control of the Temple Mount.  There can be no question, then, about whether or not to support Israel to expand its reach into the Palestinian territories; that was what was promised Abraham “in the beginning.” And there can be no question about whether or not to support Israel in the heart of Jerusalem itself. It must destroy the Dome of the Rock and rebuilt the temple for foreordained “the end” to come.

Since American Christians who support Israeli control of Jerusalem far outnumber American Jews, it is no wonder that Israeli politicians have long pushed for evangelical support, starting in the 70’s at just the time the evangelical prophecy movement reached a fevered pitch – when Hal Lindsey, Jack van Impe, and Timothy LaHaye were all preaching that the end was almost here.  For these modern-day prophets, one piece left in the puzzle remains: the temple has to be rebuilt and Israel cannot face the opposition alone.

This is not a marginal religious belief held by a tiny slice of American Christendom.  It is held by millions, all of them able and encouraged to vote.  And this is far from the only way that a belief in an imminent apocalypse influences our government.

[1] See Bart Ehrman, Forged: Writing in the Name of God – Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011) pp. 19-21, 105-08.

Making Sense Podcast Episode 313: Apocalypse, A Conversation with Bart D. Ehrman

Here’s the link to this episode on Sam Harris’ website.

Here’s the link on Spotify.

MARCH 25, 2023

Sam Harris speaks with Bart D. Ehrman about the prophecies contained in the book of Revelation. They discuss his latest book, Armageddon, and widespread Christian beliefs about the coming end of the world.

Bart D. Ehrman is a leading authority on the New Testament and the history of early Christianity and a Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The author of six New York Times bestsellers, he has written or edited more than thirty books, including Misquoting JesusHow Jesus Became GodThe Triumph of Christianity, and Heaven and Hell. Ehrman has also created nine popular audio and video courses for The Great Courses. His books have been translated into twenty-seven languages, with over two million copies and courses sold. Website: @BartEhrman