Is the Hebrew Bible Plagiarized? by Susan Tower Hollis

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.

Susan Tower Hollis , "Is the Hebrew Bible Plagiarized?", n.p. [cited 27 Nov 2020]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/tools/bible-basics/is-the-hebrew-bible-plagiarized

Contributors

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Susan Tower Hollis
Professor Emerita , SUNY Empire State College

Susan Tower Hollis is Professor Emerita from SUNY Empire State College focusing on Cultural Studies, Historical Studies, and Independently designed Masters in Liberal Studies Programs, all focused on adult learners. She is the author of The Ancient Egyptian “Tale of Two Brothers”: A Mythological, Religious, and Historico-Political Study, 2nd ed. (Oakville, CT: Bannerstone Press, 2008), and most recently Five Egyptian Goddesses: Their Possible Beginnings, Actions, and Relationships in the Third Millennium Bce. (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

An Egyptian archaeological site built by Akhenaten and notable for its cache of ancient diplomatic letters.

A region notable for its early ancient civilizations, geographically encompassing the modern Middle East, Egypt, and modern Turkey.

The Egyptian sun god, who was particularly venerated by the monotheist Pharaoh Akhenaten.

A collection of Jewish texts (biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian) from around the time of Christ that were preserved near the Dead Sea and rediscovered in the 20th century.

A Mesopotamian epic centered around the king of Uruk, Gilgamesh, and his quest for immortality, with themes of humanity, friendship, and the duties of kings.

A Mesopotamian king from ~2500 B.C.E.; he became the hero of a major epic poem and was addressed as a deity in later religious texts.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

A song or poem that is religious in nature.

Textual documents, usually handwritten.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

Also called the Hebrew Bible, those parts of the canon that are common to both Jews and Christians. The designation "Old Testament" places this part of the canon in relation to the New Testament, the part of the Bible canonical only to Christians. Because the term "Old Testament" assumes a distinctly Christian perspective, many scholars prefer to use the more neutral "Hebrew Bible," which derives from the fact that the texts of this part of the canon are written almost entirely in Hebrew.

The first major civilization of ancient Mesopotamia, arising in the fifth millennium B.C.E. and lasting through the early second millennium B.C.E.; the Sumerians invented the first writing system, cuneiform.

Gen 6-8

The Wickedness of Humankind
1When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them,2the sons of God saw that they were fair; ... View more

Ps 104

God the Creator and Provider
1Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honor and majesty,2wrapped in light as with a g ... View more

Gen 39

Joseph and Potiphar's Wife
1Now Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the ... View more

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