The Book of Giants: Ancient Jewish Literary Creativity beyond the Bible

Slaying Humbaba - by Leonard Greco
Slaying Humbaba – by Leonard Greco

Philip Jenkins has written two useful posts on the Book of Giants, the ancient Jewish work which is found in different versions at Qumran and in Manichaeism.

In his first post, Philip provides a brief introduction to the Book of Giants. In his second post, Philip offers his comments on the significance of the Book of Giants for understanding ancient Judaism, Christianity, Gnosticism, and Manichaeism. In particular, I was interested in Philip’s comments on how the Book of Giants sheds light on the development of ancient Jewish literature. Philip refers to works like the Book of Giants as “fan fiction”:

Religious debate and speculation increasingly took the form of writing new texts and pseudo-scriptures, which took the familiar canonized stories and developed them according to contemporary needs and interests. It is scarcely too much to describe some of these pseudepigraphic and apocryphal works as fan fiction.

He then considers the level of invention involved in composing this “fan fiction”:

Not only are writers developing stories, but they are doing so in amazingly florid form, creating whole new mythologies packed with abundant names and titles. Presumably, some authors are sitting down and inventing these names of demons and giants afresh, while others are taking those and adding their own contributions to the expanding mythos. As we know from modern-day fantasy writers, once that process begins, it rapidly spreads and expands.

This is a good point about the Book of Giants, which bears little resemblance to any biblical passage. In fact, while much of the content shares common material with the Jewish work, the Book of Watchers (1 Enoch 1-36), other parts, such as the names of the giants “Gilgamesh” and “Hunbabis” draw from Babylonian myth. Moreover, the story-line in the Book of Giants, so far as it can be reconstructed from the fragments, introduces some highly original and inventive traditions about the giants. So we can’t accurately categorize Book of Giants as “rewritten Bible”: it neither derives straightforwardly or substantially from biblical traditions nor involves mere “rewriting”, but creatively uses older traditions within a new and original narrative.

Philip’s brief comments complement Eva Mroczek’s view in a recent article published in the Journal of Ancient Judaism, “The Hegemony of the Biblical in the Study of Second Temple Literature”.

Mroczek urges that we seek to appreciate early Jewish literature on its own terms, without assuming that its authors were primarily interested in the texts which later became parts of the Bible. She writes:

The absolute centrality of the biblical is a theological, not a historical axiom: a concern with the biblical in the texts that we study must be shown with evidence, not assumed by default. While the history of the field is a history of people seeking the origins, development, and meaning of these iconic texts, the subjects of our study were not necessarily preoccupied with the same things; they were not marching to the biblical finishing line, but living in a culture whose intellectual, religious, and literary creativity cannot be assimilated into one dominant icon. Recognizing this will help us see Second Temple literature more clearly on its own terms.

Mroczek applies these principles to ancient Jewish David traditions. But they apply well to the Book of Giants, too.

Have a read further:

Homer’s Odyssey and the Old Testament: Bruce Louden

Bruce Louden - Homer's Odyssey and the Near East
Bruce Louden - Homer's Odyssey and the Near East

Bruce Louden asks a good question (and gives one very good answer to it) in the ‘Introduction’ to his recent book, Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East (Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 5:

Why do commentators usually omit consideration of the substantial parallels between Homeric and OT myth? Modern audiences may, even without realizing, project their beliefs onto how they read ancient texts. Given the long dominance of Christianity and Judaism in the West, a majority of modern Western audiences, whether consciously or unconsciously, may, on the basis of their faith, regard biblical and Homeric narratives as opposites, seeing the former as “true” or “real”, but the latter as “false”, “unreal”, or “fictional”. Intentionally or unintentionally, faith has erected a wall between the study of the two narrative traditions.

Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East provides a number of examples illustrating the benefit in looking at Greek parallels, in particular the Odyssey (perhaps the Greater Code of Western literature), in order to understand the Old Testment. For example, he compares the argonautic myth against Genesis 28-33, Odyssey 12 against Exodus 32, and Helen against Rahab (Joshua 2). 

One example that interests me is from Genesis 6.4 (pp. 191-192). At the end of Gen. 6.4, the heroes of old, the offspring of Nephilim, are described as “men of renown”, or literally “men with a name”. Louden first compares this with the end of tablet 4 of the Gilgamesh Epic, where Gilgamesh talks about defeating the monstrous Humbaba with his close friend Enkidu. Gilgamesh extols the benefit of achieving fame: “It is they who have achieved a name [for] future [time]!” In addition, Louden finds a parallel in Hektor (Iliad 7.82-91), where the hero erects a memorial for his accomplishments (p. 192). Further, Louden notes the example of “[t]he first lines of the Odyssey”, which “show that Odysseus already has epic fame from his role in bringing about the sack of Troy”, thereby establishing him as a heroic mighty man of old.

“The earlier [largely pre-twentieth century] commentaries, especially, cite numerous Greek and Roman parallels, reflecting the happier days of Biblical scholarship, before the specialization of ‘ancient near eastern’ studies had entailed ignorance of half the Old Testament’s Umwelt.”

– Morton Smith, Studies in the Cult of Yahweh (Brill, 1996), vol. 1, p. 235, no. 37.