Garden of Eden ‘Evidence’ Is Just Ancient Political Spin
A story raced around the internet recently arguing for evidence of the Garden of Eden. But was it as groundbreaking as promised?
This week, new claims about the accuracy of the Garden of Eden story emerged online and in tabloid magazines. Professor Tom Meyer, a scripture expert known as the Bible Memory Man, argues that there are two artifacts—a 4,000-year-old seal and roughly 3,600-year-old stone—that provide evidence both for the location of the Garden of Eden and the Adam and Eve story. But do his claims add up? (Spoiler alert: No)
In a story, reported this week in the Daily Express, Meyer, who teaches at his alma mater Shasta Bible College and University, refers first to a Sumerian king list, an inscribed Middle Bronze aged stone prism currently housed at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The prism dates to between 2100 B.C. and 1650 B.C. and was discovered in 1922 by Herbert Weld-Blundell during his excavations in Kish, the ancient capital of Sumer, in Mesopotamia. It was purchased by the Ashmolean shortly thereafter.
Meyer said, “In addition to enumerating the long reigns of pre-flood rulers, this prism lists Eridu—an ancient site in southern Iraq—as the first city ever built.” This is significant, he says, because “The ancient site of the Garden of Eden… is thought by some to be located at Eridu under a cluster of tels” (Tels are artificial hills).
The Weld-Blundell Prism contains a dynastic list of rulers, the list of their reigns and the locations of their monarchies. But, as the Ashmolean website confirms in the material that accompanies the prism online, they are a form of “ancient political spin.” The point made by such monuments was that kingship and monarchic status was something handed down by God to kings in a chain of succession. Such monuments supported the idea that royalty is a God-given institution and by divine appointment only. Many of the rulers listed on the prism are historic figures but many are mythical figures who are at best akin to “King Arthur.”
Scholars who have worked on the Weld-Blundell Prism (and other lists like it) have observed that for the historic kings the reigns are a little off, some of the historical figures actually ruled alongside one another. For the rulers who reigned before the flood (there’s an ancient Mesopotamian flood story that actually forms the basis for the biblical story involving Noah), there’s no archaeological or epigraphic evidence that any of these people actually ever existed. Yes, there’s a site in Eridu that has a good claim to being one of the world’s oldest cities, but the Garden of Eden wasn’t a city. According to the Bible, Adam and Eve were the only inhabitants and were summarily thrown out after they ate the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. In sum, the Weld-Blundell Prism is evidence of ancient propaganda about monarchy and the origins of Sumerian culture, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the Bible.
The second object Meyer discusses is a small seal, known as the “Adam and Eve Seal” or the “Temptation seal” that is on display at the British Museum in London. It shows two seated figures separated by a tree. The figure on the right appears to have horns (more like an ox than a devil, before you get carried away) while there is a serpent to the left of the other figure. Some scholars, Meyer says have identified this as an image of the Fall of Man.
It is significant, Meyer says, that the seal “dates to the time of the birth of Abraham—about 2000 BC—which was 2000 years after the account of the Garden of Eden according to the Irish theologian James Usher.” He concludes that, “This ancient record, discovered in the cradle of civilization and brought to light by the spade of English archaeologists, is evidence enough for some that the Biblical narrative of the Garden of Eden became deeply fixed in the thought of man from the beginning of time.”
Meyer is correct that scholars have thought that the “Temptation Seal” was evidence of the accuracy and historicity of the Garden of Eden. George Smith, the British assyriologist who worked on this chlorite cylinder at the British Museum in the mid-19th century, thought just that—although he argued that it was based on “a form of the story of the Fall, similar to that of Genesis.” It’s for that reason that it got its name. As the museum’s website states, this isn’t where scholarship comes down on this question today.
The noted archaeologist and seal-expert Dominique Collon argued that it’s a kind of banquet scene and others, such as Candler School of Theology professor Joel M. LeMon, have agreed. The figure with the horns on his cap is a deity and the female on the left-hand side is a worshipper. The date palm tree likely signifies fertility and the snake god to her left may well be connected with fertility as well. The dual presence of a worshipper and deity on a cylinder is a fairly common motif on these seals.
In addition, and at risk of being a pedant, it’s inaccurate to describe the seal as being “brought to light by the spade of English archaeologists.” As Allison Mickel has recently written, “even well into the 20th century” the heavy lifting of archaeological labor was performed by locally hired excavation workers who were “paid extremely low wages” and were rarely credited in reports unless it somehow benefitted the British or American researchers overseeing their work.
If the citation of 19th century archaeological theories about these artifacts seems outdated then bear in mind that James Usher the “Irish theologian” referred to by Meyer was an early 17th century bishop and scholar who, among other things, attempted to calculate the time and date of creation itself. He concluded that the world was made around 6pm on 22 October 4004 B.C. His chronology is popular among Young Earth Creationists, Christians who believe that the account of Creation in the Bible is literally true and the world was created less than 10,000 years ago. In 2014, a Gallup poll revealed that roughly four in 10 Americans hold this view.
Outside of his theorizing about archaeology, Mr. Meyer is best known for his remarkable ability to commit entire books of the Bible to memory. He regularly performs this feat at churches and offers instruction to others about how to achieve this goal.
Every once in a while the internet is abuzz with a new evidence that “proves” that the Bible is true. Often these claims are linked to archaeological discoveries. Sometimes, they offer a new theory about the location of the Ark of the Covenant, Noah’s Ark, or Joseph’s carpentry shop. There’s something especially persuasive about things you dig out of the ground, it seems. Call it the Indiana Jones phenomenon, if you will. The problem is that often these outdated archaeological interpretations are utterly baseless and lead to broader misconceptions about religious history and the accuracy of the biblical record.