Panbabylonism is a set of beliefs that views the ancient civilization of Babylon as the ultimate source of most cultures in the world. One particular strain espouses the controversial perspective that Judaism was ultimately derived from a form of ancient Babylonian polytheism that spread across the Fertile Crescent region in antiquity. It was related to (but not completely derived from) the broader Biblical criticism milieu that existed chiefly to determine the precise dating and authorship of the various books of the Bible. This provocative idea was first formulated in the late 19th century in Germany and enjoyed a moderate degree of academic popularity in the early 20th century before falling out of favor in the 1930s. The movement eventually died out because it fractured along ideological lines and because more nuanced and coherent explanations about the origins of various cultures and religions came along.


Panbabylonian theorists fell into basically two camps. One group was known as the Babel-Bibel-Streit (Babel-Bible school) and wanted to generally confine their studies to discovering the allegedly Babylonian origins of the Jewish religion. The other group was known as the astral myth school and sought to explain every religion up to that point in terms of astrological/astronomical observations made by the Babylonians. Both of these views might appear reductionist; indeed, they are joyfully reductionist. Historical and anthropological studies in central Europe at that time were concerned chiefly with cultural diffusion. Most academics in these fields (and others) took it as a matter of faith that all cultures were derived from only a small number of earlier cultures (or even a single one). Their main interest was in discerning the diffusion of cultural ideas and then tracing their spread back to a particular root; this group (obviously) latched onto the Babylonians as that root. This was no doubt due to the fact that the Akkadian language -- unintelligible for almost two millennia up to that point -- was finally deciphered in the 1850s and there was a flood of interest in finding out what those goofy-looking scratch marks on all those old stone tablets actually said.

Akkadian was written in cuneiform, which is the world's oldest known writing system. It was written using a special stylus that made imprints on wet clay and is largely devoid of curved characters. It is both syllabic and pictographic (frequently at the same time in the same document), which can sometimes make proper nouns difficult to understand. It was invented by the Sumerians, who inhabited Mesopotamia before the Babylonians and their Assyrian relatives. Cuneiform was used to write many diverse languages, including Sumerian, Akkadian (the Semitic language spoken in Babylon and Assyria), Persian, Hittite, and others. It was completely out of use by the first century AD and it would not be comprehensible again until the 1840s. Deciphering the cuneiform script was a major intellectual victory as it opened up all of these languages for translation. It was through this discovery that Hittite was found to be an Indo-European language (their word for "water" was prosaically determined to be "watar," for example) and that Akkadian was the international language of diplomacy during the late Bronze Age in the Near East.

A large proportion of the extant Akkadian inscriptions dealt with religious matters. It was during the translation of these inscriptions that similarities were found to exist between ancient Babylonian religious texts and some of the stories and concepts from the Old Testament. The first works that dealt with these similarities were Die Keilinschriften und das Alte Testament (Cuneiform Inscriptions and the Old Testament) by German linguist Eberhard Schrader and the Chaldean History of the Deluge by Englishman George Smith, both written in 1872. These works (especially the former) were the foundational documents of the Babel-Bibel-Streit and created quite a stir since even then it was acknowledged that the Babylonian texts were older than those of the Old Testament and therefore must have been the ultimate source of most of its content. It is said that Kaiser Wilhelm II became incensed after hearing a lecture on the subject due to the implication that Christianity had somehow been influenced by an ancient polytheistic religion.

Of course, the Babylonians didn't just write about religion. Like any other society, they used writing to keep track of completely banal things like laws, product inventories, lists of kings, jokes, and highly exact astronomical measurements without the benefit of modern technology or even a good system of mathematical notation. Well, ok, perhaps not every society did that last one. As early as the 19th century BC, Babylonian astronomers conceived of groups of stars that we call constellations and were able to note the consistent fashion in which they seemed to move across the sky every night. They could accurately describe their movements and with a high degree of certitude predict where they would appear at any given point in time. The Babylonians knew that the Earth was a sphere and that the Sun did not revolve around it. It is because of Babylonian astronomy that we know the exact date of Alexander the Great's death (around midnight on June 10, 323 BC); the description of the position of the stars on that day makes it the only possible candidate. The Babylonians have a reasonable claim to creating the first example of the zodiac and were the first people to promote the notion of a "scientific" form of prophecy that we generally call astrology today. The Babylonians were also the first culture to use a base-60 counting system for time; it is because of them that we consider circles to have 360 degrees, that there are 60 seconds in a minute, and 60 minutes in an hour. While they did not have a 365 day calendar (as their months were based on lunar cycles), they solved the problem by adding an extra month during their equivalent of a leap year, which would occur roughly every 19 solar years and would put their calendar right with the Earth's orbit at that time.

When the highly sophisticated scientific capabilities of this group of people became known, some people speculated that it would have been impossible for their superior ideas not to have overwhelmed other surrounding cultures. These people took Panbabylonism to an entirely new level by finding Babylonian influences in every aspect of every ancient civilization. This was the origin of the astral myth school. To them, the question of whether or not Noah and Utnapishtim were the same person was at best an interesting piece of trivia you might bring up at a cocktail party.

It was discovered that the Babylonians equated the constellations and the visible bodies in our solar system with certain of their deities. From there, the astral myth proponents developed the theory that most of these religious texts were really just astronomical records encoded into narrative forms to make complex, esoteric ideas more digestible. The intellectuals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw progressively less of a need for God and were happy to see kindred spirits in the learned astronomers of Babylon. That other cultures made similar astronomical identifications with their own gods only served to prove their point: Babylonian astronomy was the ultimate progenitor of these ancient religions that over time became debased by those unable to find the true meaning behind them. They believed, for example, that the Iliad was nothing more than a poetic description of various astronomical phenomena. The astral myth group saw the Babel-Bibel school as too narrow-minded, but willingly used their conclusions to lend credence to their own theory. That the ancient Hebrews adopted some Babylonian fables as religious texts showed the primacy and spread of the latter's ideas; the fact that Akkadian, rather than Egyptian or some other language, was the lingua franca of the Bronze Age demonstrated Babylon's towering intellectual position. Two astral myth theorists, Hans Zimmern and Otto Winckler, would later edit Die Keilinschriften to reflect their views and re-release it after the author's death. It had started out as a straightforward comparison of old Testament texts with Akkadian religious inscriptions, but by the third edition had become an all-encompassing astral myth interpretation of the history of the ancient world from 2000 BC to the second century AD.


The single biggest piece of evidence that the Babel-Bibel people put forward was the idea of the parallels between the respective flood myths of the Babylonians and the Hebrews. In both the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Book of Genesis, a deity decides to flood the planet because he finds the behavior of humanity personally offensive. A single man is subsequently warned that this is about to happen and he is told that he needs to build a large boat full of his family and various forms of animals (Utnapishtim in the epic and Noah in Genesis). After the flood, both men release a bird to find out if there is any solid land and both boats wind up on top of a mountain. How could they be separate myths with such specific parallels?

Other similarities are found in the creation stories of both peoples. In Genesis, God hovers above the water, which is the only thing that exists in the universe other than himself. He creates the totality of time and space over the course of six days (creating the first man, Adam, on the sixth) and rests on the seventh. He conceives of the idea of day and night to demarcate time and makes sure the stars are in place to help people keep track of time. In the Babylonian creation myth, the personifications of freshwater and saltwater -- Abzu and Tiamat -- have sex and produce the first group of creatures and gods. The god Marduk and his companions create time and space over the course of six generations before creating humanity to do their work for them so they can rest during the seventh generation. The gods later create the stars and assign them to constellations so humanity can look at them and remember holy days.

There are a few other specific connections between the Babylonians and the Hebrews. For example, the names of the months in the Babylonian and Hebrew calendars are remarkably similar (Nisannu vs. Nisan, Ululu vs. Elul, Tebetu vs. Tebeth, etc.). The term for the divinely-mandated day of rest in Akkadian was Shappatu, similar to the Hebrew concept of the Sabbath (the Shappatu was only observed once a month as opposed to the Sabbath being observed once a week, however). Other etymological evidence offered in support of Babylonian influences on the first Jews are proper names like Mordechai and Esther, which are related to the names of the gods Marduk and Ishtar. Other examples of connections include a primordial earthly paradise where a man tends over wild animals in harmony before a woman tempts him and a motif of a serpent and a tree.

Criticism and Alternative Theories

By the 1920s, serious doubts existed about the concept of Panbabylonism. The arguments between the Babel-Bibel school and the astral myth proponents descended into minutiae reminiscent of medieval questions about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Somewhat ironically, one reason why Panbabylonism fell out of favor in Germany at this time was the anti-Semitic nature of some of the movement's bigger personalities. Other academics were tired of seeing a rich civilization being used almost exclusively to discredit Judaism. A parallel movement developed to investigate and describe ancient Babylon (and Mesopotamia in general) for its own sake as opposed to looking for its supposed value in undermining the beliefs of Jewish people. Even those Panbabylonians who did not harbor anti-Semitic feelings were viewed as falling prey to a type of confirmation bias in which ideas that supported their own notions were accepted but those that did not were discarded. They found little contradictory evidence in Akkadian texts simply because they were not looking for it. One prominent Panbabylonian, Friedrich Delitzsch, would later go on to be one of the creators of the nonsensical "Aryan Jesus" myth that laughably sought to divorce Christianity from its Jewish roots.

The astral myth proponents were not immune to this wave of reaction either. While the Babylonians were certainly advanced astronomers, they didn't get everything right. They could not determine, for example, that the Earth rotated around the Sun; they believed that everything in the cosmos rotated around everything else. Likewise, while it is true that the Babylonian view of heavenly bodies being related to specific deities did disseminate (e.g., they identified the planet Venus with Ishtar, while the Greeks identified it with Aphrodite, their closest equivalent goddess) it became clear that other cultures likely developed similar ideas independently. While the Babylonian zodiac had 17 constellations, the Greek zodiac had 12, and almost none of the figures were similar to one another. It seems that the two zodiacs were integrated later on, putting down the idea that the Bronze Age Greeks (or anyone else, for that matter) were silly barbarians whose religion was nothing more than a misinterpretation of Babylonian science.

Alternative theories about the relationship between the ancient Hebrews and other cultures did a lot to explain some of the gaps left by Panbabylonism. The influence of Egypt, the Phoenicians, Ugarit, and others painted a much more complex picture than what had previously been thought. It could be fairly said that the ancient Hebrews were influenced by the Babylonians in religious matters, but it would be a gross oversimplification to say that their religion was derived from Babylon. Hebrew, Akkadian, Ugaritic, and Phoenician were all derived from a proto-Semitic language spoken around the year 3500 BC. Proto-Semitic probably originated in Arabia since the non-Semitic language of the Sumerians was dominant in the Fertile Crescent before the appearance of Semitic languages in the area. If we take it further back, the ancient Egyptian language was part of the same Afro-Asiatic language group that includes the Semitic languages, meaning that they all ultimately derive from the same source. The use of comparative linguistics to parse out religious beliefs is nothing new and has done much to reveal the nature of the original proto-Indo-European religion as well; applying the same formula to the Semitic religions and languages of the ancient world is similarly enlightening.

Babylonian religion was a combination of the original proto-Semitic religion as well as the Sumerian religion that existed in the area that Babylon would eventually dominate. Judaism also has its roots in the proto-Semitic religion, but is more related to the polytheistic faiths of the Levant than to those of Sumeria. While it is the earliest form of monotheism that has survived into the modern world, even textual evidence from the Bible reveals its pagan origins. The original name for the Judeo-Christian God is El, and El is also the name of the chief deity of the Canaanite pantheon. Both the Hebrews and the Canaanites used the idea of a "divine council" in their religions, although the Hebrews asserted that their divine council was filled with lesser beings like angels while the Canaanites filled it with gods. There are occasional non-critical references to the existence of other gods in the earliest books of the Old Testament (e.g. "God of gods" and God's statement that he intends to make man "in our image," implying a peer group). The new name that God gives himself in the Old Testament is YHWH, which is probably related to an older Semitic deity called Yaw who was an opponent of the storm god Baal; there are many instances of YHWH's followers railing against Baal in the Old Testament.

The most amazing instance of ancient Hebrew polytheism is the relationship between YHWH and a goddess called Asherah, sometimes called Elat. In the Ugaritic pantheon, Asherah/Elat was the wife and consort of El. She was a fertility goddess and her primary symbol was the tree. In the Bible, there are repeated references to poles called Asherim and YHWH's hatred of them. A pottery jar dating to the 700s BC anthropomorphically depicts YHWH and Asherah (with those names, demonstrating their Hebrew provenance) standing next to one another. Anyone who has read the Old Testament knows that there are many instances of God commanding people to stop worshiping other deities. Would there be any reason for such invective and such harsh prohibitions against polytheistic practice if it weren't taking place on a massive level? Kings such as Ahab and Manasseh are described as wicked for their support of polytheistic worship; it seems that monotheism did not truly take hold throughout the territories of Israel and Judah until the 6th century BC. Abraham is regarded as the first Jew as a result of the covenant he made with YHWH and yet he was able to receive the blessing of a king named Melchizedek who was the high priest of El during a time when El was only one of many gods; none of these gods, however, were Babylonian.

Of course, there is another train of thought that says Judaism was a minority religion at the time and its holy books were written as a reaction to the Ugaritic/Canaanite polytheism that was dominant in Hebrew lands. The works are therefore not so much a reshaping of neighboring religions as they are a refutation of those same beliefs. The words and actions that might be ascribed to figures like El, Dagon, Baal, Marduk and others are all brought under the rubric of one god, YHWH, to demonstrate his power and eminence and to put across another point entirely. For example, the Babylonian figure of Enkidu was a nude man who lived with animals in an idyllic paradise but who wanted nothing to do with civilization; Gilgamesh sent the beautiful priestess Shamhat to show him the physical and emotional love of a woman and bring him into the fold of a civilized life. The story ends with the couple moving to the city of Uruk so Enkidu can start a real life among other people. The Biblical story is significantly different, with Eve tempting Adam in the Garden of Eden and bringing about man's fall from grace; they are exiled from paradise and forced into a harsh life of subsistence. The lesson of the Enkidu narrative is that man should not exist alone; the lesson of the Biblical narrative is that man is a depraved creature unworthy of divine gifts. The Babylonian story of the great flood is more about a power struggle between two gods while the Biblical story is about one man's faith and the promise that his god will not destroy the world again. That some Old Testament stories and figures find cognates in other Semitic traditions is similar to the way certain pagan ideas were incorporated into later Christian traditions in order to smooth local transitions from the old faith to the new one.


Bizarrely, the main legacy of the astral myth school that survives today is the unfortunate ancient astronaut belief that is apparently the bread and butter of the History Channel now (along with reality shows about alligator hunters, loggers, and pawn shops). People like Erich von Däniken and Zecharia Sitchin looked at the evidence accumulated by the astral myth school and took it a step further by saying that the Babylonian (and later every) religion was not just based on astronomical observations, but that they actually had encounters with beings from these heavenly bodies who taught humanity everything it knows about science and higher culture. Ishtar wasn't a planet or a goddess, she was an alien who had a planet and a goddess named after her in her honor. In a way, the astral myth strain of Panbabylonism became a lot like the people who believed in the concept of the lost continent Lemuria (hypothesized as a way to explain the existence of lemurs on both Madagascar and the Indian Subcontinent before the idea of continental drift came along). What started out as a perfectly reasonable (if far-fetched) hypothesis about the nature of a historical phenomenon eventually turned into a trope of occult and New Age spirituality unrelated to its previous form. It has sadly passed into the realm of pseudoscience and is not given serious consideration by most people today.

Whether you find any of this convincing or not, the works of the Panbabylonians were influential for a time and did much to spark debate about the origins of the Jewish faith and what impact ancient science had on religion. While the conclusions of the Babel-Bibel school were somewhat incomplete and not always coherent, they did demonstrate that there was at least a connection between the various peoples of the ancient Middle East that had not previously been understood very well. The astral myth proponents for their part were instrumental in describing the nature of Babylonian science even if their way of going about it was not particularly sound (it is unclear what astronomical occurrence is explained by the story of Enkidu's sex life, for example). Personally, I think the truth is a combination of the idea that the proto-Semitic religion led up to these various traditions and the idea that Judaism was a reaction against those same religions. Jews by definition have never been polytheists but I think the majority of the ancient Hebrews were up until the time of the Babylonian captivity. That the form of Judaism that existed from that point forward retained some of the vestiges of the old faith is completely natural and expected. Regardless, the history of Panbabylonism is a perfect example of the dangers of putting on intellectual blinders. If you do this, your careful and studied research might one day become the basis for an irrationally popular television series completely divorced from reality.


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