The similarity of parts of the Hebrew Bible to various texts from ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, and the rest of the ancient Near Eastern world raises questions that have led some to ask if the Hebrew Bible is plagiarized. To address this question, we need to both understand the concept of plagiarism, especially in the ancient world, as well as the context of the world in which the biblical materials developed.
What is plagiarism?
The question of plagiarism would not have arisen when the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament first was written down well over two millennia ago. The word plagiarism derives from the Latin plagium (“kidnapping”), a word that in turn is likely related to the older Greek plagios (“side” or “flank”) and its relative plagion (“slanting”). In common use, the Latin plagium essentially referred to the kidnapping or stealing of a slave, that is, taking another’s possession. In the first century CE, the Roman poet Martial (40–104 CE) used the term to accuse another of reciting his words without attribution or paying for their use (which he would have allowed!). The concept of stealing another person’s creations had occurred earlier in Classical Greece when Isocrates (436–338 BCE) claimed others were using his words and claiming them for themselves; however, he used the word klepto (“to steal”), emphasizing that what he wrote he considered to be his property; he owned it. Clearly in both the Greek and the Latin, there is a sense of identifiable individual ownership of creations such as poems, plays, or other types of creations. Thus the basic understanding of plagiarism lies in the sense that what an individual creates belongs to that person as the creator and should not be used in any way without permission or attribution, a concept that mirrors that of the modern world.
In what context did the Hebrew Bible develop?
The context in which the Hebrew Bible developed was a little different. The Hebrew Bible in the form known today developed by means of both oral and written transmission. Literacy was extremely limited, which meant that the spoken word predominated. Narratives, hymns, and similar materials persisted in oral tradition for lengthy periods prior to being written, and there was no single, fixed form of any tradition. This means that no single individual was—or even could be—identified as the author who would be considered the owner of a created property, even when the name of a known person might be attached to a particular text.
When writing did occur, we have clear evidence of written variants for the Hebrew Bible materials (e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls), and until the development of the modern printing press in the fifteenth century CE, manuscripts were copied and recopied by many different hands with revisions and mistakes occurring along the way. A single written text was, as it were, a group effort. If a specific name was attached to a work, it was often done so to lend it prestige many years after the person lived. Even when a name is attached or linked to a particular narrative, the writers were drawing on many sources for what we have now. For example, the story of the flood in Gen 6-8 shows very close parallels to the late second millennium BCE variant of the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet 11, a work attributed to Sîn-liqe-unninni, a scholar who likely lived during that time. However, not only do many parts of the epic come from many centuries earlier, but early variants of the flood narrative derive from Sumerian materials as well as from early second millennium BCE Babylon. Thus while Sîn-liqe-unninni likely had a hand in the presentation of one variant of the narrative we know today, many other hands played in its past with its numerous variations.
In a second example, the late second millennium BCE, mid-level Egyptian official Amenemope wrote down an instructional text for his son, several sections of which closely resemble parts of the biblical book of Proverbs. In his guide for well-being and living a good and moral life, Amenemope drew on over a millennium of similar materials well-known in Egypt, some of which also demonstrate enough similarities to materials from other cultures in the ancient Near East to be considered as part of an ancient Near Eastern wisdom tradition. Thus while the various writers of Proverbs certainly knew the Egyptian document, the content also reflects the wider wisdom tradition of the world in which they lived.
A third example is Ps 104, which includes some phrasing very similar to phrases appearing in the fourteenth century BCE Egyptian Amarna period “Great Hymn to the Aten/Sun God.” Cultures throughout the ancient Near Eastern world including Egypt venerated the sun through hymns and, in some cases, rituals as well. The similarities may be understood as reflecting a common understanding of the importance of the sun for continued life across the entire ancient Near East. Thus the similarities again reflect the international world of the Hebrew Bible.
A final example comes from Gen 39, the attempted seduction of Joseph by Potiphar’s wife, for which an extremely close parallel occurs in late thirteenth century BCE Egyptian “Tale of Two Brothers.” Interestingly, the names of three scribes as well as that of Prince Seti-Merneptah are attached to this document. However, narratives about failed seduction also appear in Tablet 6 of the Epic of Gilgamesh and in an older variant from ancient Sumer. Furthermore, such narrative descriptions of powerful women attempting to seduce younger, virile males appear in cultures from around the world, even gaining status as a tale type and a motif in the world of modern scholarly folklore study. Notably, they virtually always form part of a larger narrative, as in the biblical and Egyptian examples.
In sum, these examples from the Hebrew Bible, ones often noted in various biblical commentaries, demonstrate that the biblical writers drew on sources that reflect worldviews and concerns shared by many peoples in the ancient Near Eastern cultures in the third, second, and first millennia BCE. Hence, while the question of plagiarism in the Bible is an excellent one, it helps to remember that the Bible developed in a world in which an understanding of individual ownership of created materials did not exist; rather these materials reflect shared values, ideas, and traditions from other cultures, tailoring what it used to its audience’s own needs.