Gilgamesh (Epic): Which Came First–Noah’s Flood or the Gilgamesh Epic?
Let’s compare the Biblical Flood to the leading flood myth, the Epic of Gilgamesh. In 1853, archaeologists found a series of 12 tablets dated to around 650 BC, although parts of the story existed in earlier, fragmentary versions.[i] Because the story had many of the same elements as the Genesis account, skeptics believed that Gilgamesh preceded the Biblical account, negating the Genesis account as just a spin-off. Fortunately for Christians, however, there are major clues that point to the Biblical account as the accurate one, and Gilgamesh as a later work of fiction that incorporated legendary elements of a flood within a cultural fantasy. Here are the reasons why.
First, we have the feasibility of the Gilgamesh version of the Ark, described as a massive, unstable cube that was about 200 feet on each side with six decks that divided it into seven parts. Along with help from the community and craftsmen, he supposedly built this vessel—which was over three times the size of the Biblical Ark, in just a week.
Noah’s Ark vs. Gilgamesh Ark.[ii]
How would something like this fare during a catastrophic, worldwide Flood? It would obviously tumble, killing or maiming its passengers. That’s obviously quite different than the biblical Ark which had a 7-to-1 length-to-width ratio which is very similar to many of today’s ocean barges, making it a feasible design for staying afloat during the Flood. Scripture provides clues that Noah and helpers likely had between 55 and 75 years to build the Ark.[iii]
The second key for determining which of these Flood accounts is the original is the duration of the Flood provided by each. The Gilgamesh flood lasted a mere six days, whereas the Genesis Flood lasted 371 days. Both accounts claim the Flood was worldwide, but how could water cover earth in just six days? A floating, 200 X 200 X 200-foot cube and six days for worldwide inundation certainly stretch credulity.
The next consideration is the reasons for the Flood given by each of the two accounts. In the Genesis account, God’s judgment is just—he was patient with utterly wicked mankind for 120 years before sending the Flood and showed mercy to the last righteous family. In the Gilgamesh account, the Flood was ordered by multiple, self-centered squabbling ‘gods’ that were ‘starving’ without humans to feed them sacrifices. These two are quite different!
Finally, there are several other parts of the Gilgamesh account that are obviously mythical, such as Gilgamesh being 2/3rds divine and 1/3rd mortal. After oppressing his people, Gilgamesh and others call upon the ‘gods’ and the sky-god Anu creates a wild man named Enkidu to fight Gilgamesh. The battle is a draw, and they become friends. Gilgamesh apparently also encounters talking monsters and a “Scorpion man” in his journeys.
Scholars rely on their anti-Bible bias, not science, to assert that the Gilgamesh story came first. These stark differences between Genesis and Gilgamesh accounts highlight the feasibility and priority of the biblical one. The Gilgamesh account was written 800 years[iv] after Genesis and describes a cube-shaped Ark 200 feet on each side tumbling around in the ocean in a 6-day flood put on by the “angry, fighting gods” that sent it. The Bible’s Flood was recorded earlier, has an Ark sealed on the inside and out with dimensions that are on par with today’s ocean liners, lasted a full year, and was sent to judge an Earth that deserved it.
In fact, it’s the similarities between these two accounts that shows the Bible’s account to be the historical one. Many myths are based on historical accounts, but they get embellished over time, becoming more and more mythical as the story is repeated over generations. This is exactly what we see with flood myths like Gilgamesh—they take the original, historical account (the Biblical Flood) and grow it into a mythical, interesting story over time.
For example, the earlier version of the Gilgamesh Flood account[v] clearly identifies the flood as a local river flood, with the dead bodies of humans filling the river “like dragonflies” and moving to the edge of the boat “like a raft” and moving to the riverbank “like a raft.” Centuries later, this gets exaggerated into a global, worldwide flood where humans killed in the flood “fill the sea” like a “spawn of fish.”
Both accounts have a God or “gods” that are sending judgment, describe a worldwide inundation, have an Ark built to specific dimensions that are loaded with surviving humans and animals, and land just a few hundred miles apart from each other after using birds as a test to find dry land. Myths often grow from historical to being more mythical, but they almost never develop in the reverse, becoming more truthful and accurate over time. While these accounts mirror each other in so many ways, which account is the original, historical one? The feasible one of course. While both accounts describe plenty of divine intervention, only the Biblical ark size, shape, function, build time, and flood duration makes sense.
Jesus taught about a real flood and compared it to what the end times will be like. Jesus warned: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only. But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.”
Because Jesus stood firmly on the historicity of the Flood and likened it to end times (Matthew 24:36–44), the two go hand-in-hand. If the Genesis Flood never happened, we have no foundation for believing in the rest of what Jesus said, including His second coming. At least for Christians, Matthew 24 alone should destroy the “Flood as myth” idea. When looking back through history, we observe that some mythical accounts begin with a true event, but then get embellished over time, becoming more and more mythical.
[i] Frank Lorey, The Flood of Noah and the Flood of Gilgamesh
(March 1, 1997): https://www.icr.org/article/noah-flood-gilgamesh/
[ii] Tim Lovett, “Comparing Gilgamesh,” (October, 2004) (http://worldwideflood.com/ark/gilgamesh/gilgamesh.htm#gilgamesh).
[iii] Gotquestions.org: https://www.gotquestions.org/Noahs-ark-questions.html; Ark Encounter, “How Long for Noah to Build the Ark?” (November 18, 2011): https://arkencounter.com/blog/2011/11/18/how-long-for-noah-to-build-the-ark/;
Verse by Verse Ministry:
https://www.versebyverseministry.org/bible-answers/how-long-did-noah-take-to-build-the-ark; Bodie Hodge, “How Long Did It Take for Noah to Build the Ark?” (June 1, 2010; last featured May 23, 2018):
[iv] Previous similar versions (in fragmentary form) exist that have been dated earlier.
[v] Jeffrey H. Tigay, “The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic,” University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1982, 220, 225.