The Recent Tower of Babel ‘Discovery’ Is Madness
No, sorry, new evidence for its existence has not been discovered and it’s not clear why anybody would publish something saying so.
Last weekend British tabloid The Daily Express ran a story announcing the sensational discovery that the Tower of Babel actually existed. According to statements made by Tom Meyer, a professor of Bible Studies at Shasta Bible College, there is archeological evidence to suggest that it actually existed and became a tourist destination in the ancient world.
According to Genesis 11, the postdiluvian inhabitants of the world decided to try and climb up to heaven by building an ancient tower or, you might say, skyscraper. They started with a city built in Shinar (or Babylon) and constructed the city using baked bricks and tar for mortar. Their goal was to make a name for themselves. God, however, who observed this architecturally audacious endeavor, was unimpressed. Rather than destroying the construction like a game of celestial Jenga, God identified human collaboration and unity as the real problem. As a result, he “confuse[d] their language” so that they didn’t understand each other and scattered them over the Earth.
Almost every scholar of the Hebrew Bible sees the story as a myth that answers a question about the human condition. If you were wondering why it is that people aren’t united and don’t speak the same language then here is your answer: When people were united they ruined the skyline, tried to trespass on divine property, and became obsessed with fame. God was simply putting them in their place. As a bonus we also learn the origins of the name of the city of Babylon as the name Babel, or Babylon, sounds a great deal like the Hebrew word for “confused.” Despite what you may have seen in artistic depictions of the story, the Book of Genesis never mentions the destruction of the Tower of Babel, only the dispersion of the people. It’s only in later sources like the second century B.C. Book of Jubilees or the writings of the enslaved Greek historian Alexander Polyhistor that the temple is actually destroyed.
It’s clear from the story that the original Tower was supposed to be in Babylon and this is where Meyer claims people attempted to rebuild the Tower of Babel. Speaking to Express, Meyer—who is best known for his ability to memorize Bible verses—said that work on the Tower of Babel was restarted on two occasions. The first attempt was initiated by the famous law-giver Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.) and the second by Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 B.C.). Efforts to rebuild the Tower apparently attracted attention. Meyer said, “When the crème de la crème of the international community was wearing fine linen, purple and scarlet and smelling like cinnamon and frankincense, the new vacation hotspot was the rebuilt Tower of Babel in Babylon.” Meyer cited Henry Hampton Halley’s Bible Handbook (first published in 1926) as evidence for the idea that the “original Tower of Babel” incident occurred “around 2000 BCE” roughly “100 years after the Flood of Noah.” Halley is not a resource for scholars today and, like Meyer, was well-known for his ability to memorize the Bible.
There are, as you might imagine, some problems with this theory. Even putting aside the fact that this theory about the Tower of Babel and its building phases is grounded in the assumption that the Earth was created in 4004 B.C., there’s considerable evidence for the use of a variety of different languages prior to 2242 B.C. (when the initial phase of construction allegedly took place). Tamil and hieroglyphics both pre-date the building of the first Tower of Babel. So even if we ignore all of the archeological evidence for prehistoric hominins, the broad dispersion of human beings, and cultural differences that predate 2242 B.C. there is evidence for a variety of different languages being used before this time. To make matters worse, the book of Genesis itself tells a different story about the diversity of languages that takes place immediately before the Tower of Babel story. Something is amiss here.
An important element in the development of this mythology is the architecture of Babylon itself. The Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar II did rebuild a ziggurat (a rectangular steeped tower) temple dedicated to Marduk Bagdad in the sixth century B.C. The temple was called Etemenanki, the temple of the foundation of heaven and earth, and stood about 90 kilometers to the south of Bagdad. Though there are debates about the temple’s age, height, and construction, numerous scholars have speculated that the enormous temple was the inspiration for the Bible story. There’s even an inscribed stone slab that describes Nebuchadnezzar’s ambitious building project and relates how he used workers captured during his military campaigns to accomplish the task. Thousands of enslaved workers speaking different languages working on a complicated building project? You hardly need the God of Israel to explain why no one could understand each other.
In addition to the practicalities of building the tower, there is a similar version of the Tower of Babel story in a much older Sumerian myth called Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta. In this story a huge ziggurat is built by the Sumerians in the hopes that the god Enki will restore linguistic unity to the world so that they can worship the god in the same language. Quite clearly the story in the Bible is a variant on this theme. It’s likely that ancient Israelites first heard this myth of confused languages at the same time as they encountered Etemenanki when they were taken as captives to Babylon in the sixth century B.C. The influence of the massive temple is felt in other religious texts as well: the Qu’ran relates a story in which the Pharaoh commissions a tower that will allow him to climb up to heaven and confront the God of Moses.
The bigger question is why the Daily Express is running a story on this at all. There’s absolutely no new information in the article: quite on the contrary it’s a Young Earth timeline coupled with an established academic understanding of the origins of the Tower of Babel story. But these aren’t theories that can just be happily slotted together; no reputable academic scholar thinks that Entemenanki is evidence that the Tower of Babel story is true or that the world is six thousand years old. There was an impressive ziggurat and the memory of that tower likely inspired the Tower of Babel story, but this does not mean that the story itself is historically accurate.
This isn’t the first time that the Daily Express has run a piece in which a well-established academic archaeological theory is taken out of context and repackaged as evidence for the Bible’s accuracy. Archeology sells, it seems. The problem is that there’s no way for the casual reader to discern that there’s nothing novel or even illuminating about the news report. Instead we have been given half the story and could easily come away with the mistaken impression that new evidence for the historicity of the Bible has been, quite literally, unearthed. The effect of such news reports is to dilute archeological reporting in general and lead to broader misconceptions about what archeological research tells us about the Bible and ancient world.