Was the account of creation found in Genesis comparable to (or even borrowed from?) other ancient accounts in scattered throughout the world at the time?

Last month my colleague Joseph Lam, an expert in the Hebrew Bible and the languages and literature of the Ancient Near East provided us with a guest post about some of the creation stories found outside Scripture in non-Israelite cultures — stories in circulation before the ones written in Genesis (https://ehrmanblog.org/creation-stories-of-the-ancient-world-part-1-on-enuma-elish-and-genesis-1-guest-post-by-joseph-lam/)

Here now is a second and equally interesting post dealing with stories from ancient Memphis Egypt (not Tennessee!)!

This is the topic of his lecture course for the Great Courses/Wondrium, “Creation Stories of the Ancient World” (links at bottom)


In my last blog entry, I offered a brief description of the Babylonian Creation Epic, Enuma Elish, and reflected on how one might imagine its relationship to the seven-day creation story of Genesis 1. In this post, I turn to an enigmatic but fascinating text from ancient Egypt known as the Memphite Theology that has also been compared with Genesis 1, though in this case I would argue that no direct connection exists between the two texts. Instead, what we see in the Memphite Theology is an alternative expression of the idea of a supreme and intentional creator deity that is reminiscent of (and roughly contemporaneous with) Genesis 1.

The text of the Memphite Theology

is preserved on a rectangular stone slab now known as the Shabako Stone, named for the Egyptian Pharaoh Shabako under whom the text was promulgated in approximately 710 BCE. The stone was subsequently converted for use as a lower millstone, which effaced a significant portion of the writing (see the British Museum photo here: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA498). Nonetheless, the portions that remain reveal an idiosyncratic picture of creation centering on a god named Ptah, a deity associated with the city of Memphis (hence the “Memphite Theology”), one that departs from a dominant understanding of creation in ancient Egypt associated with another ancient city, Heliopolis. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the Memphite Theology was written precisely to supplant the earlier traditional understandings. The following passage from near the beginning of the text is revealing (translation here taken from Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. I):

“This writing was copied out anew by his majesty in the House of his father Ptah-South-of-his-Wall, for his majesty found it to be a work of the ancestors which was worm-eaten, so that it could not be understood from beginning to end. His majesty copied it anew so that it became better than it had been before…”

What we have here is a trope that is found with some regularity in the ancient world—that of the “discovery” or “recovery” of an even more ancient text as a way of conferring legitimacy to what was in fact a new literary creation from the writer’s own time. (The most famous example of this is the “discovery” of the Book of the Law in the time of the biblical king Josiah in 2 Kings 22, which is widely regarded by scholars as representing the context of the promulgation of the Book of Deuteronomy.) Applying this assumption to the Memphite Theology helps to explain its contents, because the primary focus of the text is the exaltation of the god Ptah over an earlier creator deity named Atum (of the tradition of Heliopolis) by re-envisioning Atum and the other gods as proceeding from Ptah himself. This tendency can be observed in the following key passage (again, based on Lichtheim’s translation):

“There took shape in the heart, there took shape on the tongue the form of Atum. For the very great one is Ptah, who gave life to all the gods and their kas through this heart and through this tongue, in which Horus had taken shape as Ptah, in which Thoth had taken shape as Ptah…. Sight, hearing, breathing—they report to the heart, and it makes every understanding come forth. As to the tongue, it repeats what the heart has devised. Thus all the gods were born and his Ennead was completed.”


Although some of the language in this passage is obscure, it is clear that the god Ptah is at the top of the divine hierarchy that the text envisions. Ptah is “the very great one,” the one who gives life to all the other gods, and important gods such as Atum, Horus, and Thoth are all subordinated to Ptah in different ways. Since Atum is, in the Heliopolis tradition, the original creator deity and the one who gives birth to the other members of the core group of nine deities (the “Ennead”), to subordinate Atum to Ptah is to elevate Ptah to the primary role.

What is also notable about this passage, and what makes it distinctive among the conceptions of creation we encounter in ancient Egypt, is the manner in which these primordial acts of creation are described. The “heart” and the “tongue” of Ptah are both crucial in this process, with the heart being the ultimate source (“they report to the heart… as to the tongue, it repeats what the heart has devised”). While the interpretation of this language is difficult, I would take the heart to represent the seat of the will or of intention, an idea that is characteristic of many ancient forms of understanding. While today we tend to associate emotions with the heart, in ancient cultures the heart encompasses faculties that we would attribute to the brain, such as thinking, deciding, and desiring. As for the tongue, I would take that to symbolize speech as an expression of an act of thought or intention. Thus, what we have is a fascinating conception of creation as a sort of mental act of Ptah with multiple stages: the heart devises, the tongue speaks it forth, and the result is various manifestations in the form of the gods and, in fact, all things. This idea is elaborated further in the text:

“Thus all the faculties were made and all the qualities determined, they that make all foods and all provisions, through this word… Thus all labor, all crafts are made, the action of the hands, the motion of the legs, the movements of all the limbs, according to this command which is devised by the heart and comes forth on the tongue and creates the performance of every thing.”

This passage applies this heart-tongue concept to the creation of a range of other elements in the world—from food, to crafts, to bodily movement, to all things. While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why these elements are mentioned and not others, it does suggest that the heart’s devising leading to creative speech is envisioned in this text as a fundamental means by which the world comes into being.

In light of these passages in the Memphite Theology, the parallels to Genesis 1 are evident in that the biblical creation in seven days also takes place by means of a creator deity speaking the elements of the world into existence. One should note that in Genesis, explicit language about the “heart” or other descriptions of intention (before the act) are missing, though God does “see” the things that are created and subsequently declares them to be “good.” But the underlying conceptions of the creative process in the two texts, insofar as they both reside in the will of a specific creator god, are similar enough to warrant describing them as expressions of a common tendency emerging in the middle of the first millennium BCE.

In these two short blog posts, I have discussed two creation texts, one from Mesopotamia and one from Egypt, that in different ways illuminate the background to the creation narrative in Genesis 1. While these posts have been brief, I hope I have managed to illustrate the compelling nature of the numerous creation stories we possess from the ancient Near East. If you are interested in learning more, see my course for Wondrium/The Great Courses:

Wondrium link: https://www.wondrium.com/creation-stories-of-the-ancient-world

The Great Courses link: https://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/creation-stories-of-the-ancient-world

Over $2 Million Donated to Charity!

We have two goals at Ehrman Blog. One is to increase your knowledge of the New Testament and early Christianity. The other is to raise money for charity! In fact, in 2022, we raised over $360,000 for the charities below.

Become a Member Today!


2023-05-12T14:46:07-04:00May 11th, 2023|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

Share Bart’s Post on These Platforms


  1. giselebendor May 11, 2023 at 7:02 am

    Given the many things in common with the creation stories of Mesopotamia and Egypt, which go beyond Genesis 1 as in the Flood tale, what would you say are the main differences with the Genesis narrative? Is YHVH Elohim more abstract than Ptah,for example?

    Incidentally, Pta(k)h פתח in Hebrew is the root word for opening, alluding to Ptah opening his mouth to create the world. The little book of ethics, Maat, is also the word Truth , Emmet אמת in Hebrew. Part of Israel’s rich Egyptian heritage.

    • BDEhrman May 27, 2023 at 12:07 pm

      The main difference, of course, is that the other stories presuppose a polytheistic realm whereas the Hebrew Bible assumes there is just one God who is the creator and sovereign.

  2. RICHWEN90 May 11, 2023 at 11:56 am

    It looks as though all the peoples of that area, at that time, were not culturally isolated and would have had varying degrees of familiarity with each other’s myths. Borrowings and cross-pollinations must have been the norm. Another issue might be, given the materials available, in terms of daily experiences and the similarities among human brains, how many different ways would there actually be, to construct a creation myth?

  3. Nas955 September 5, 2023 at 2:07 pm

    Hey Bart, I hope you are well. I was wondering if the ages in Genesis are literal? If they are how do authors reconcile this with a young earth? Some say that the ages add up to 12,600 and this is some symbolic relationship between this and Moses coming back to return the people out of the promised land. I hope that makes sense, thanks again for everything!

    • BDEhrman September 10, 2023 at 1:35 pm

      I think the authors *meant* for them to be taken literally, but, of course, they can’t be. Many cultures portray people of earlier generations as having vastly long lives.

Leave A Comment