A photo capturing ancient clay tablets, inscribed with cuneiform script, lying amidst the ruins of Mesopotamia, serving as a precursor to the written word and the foundation of religious texts.

What Was Before The Bible?

The Bible is one of the most influential books in human history, but have you ever wondered what texts and beliefs came before it? This comprehensive guide will walk you through the religious texts, myths, and oral traditions that predate the Old and New Testaments to give you a full picture of the ancient world that birthed Judeo-Christian scripture.

If you’re short on time, here’s the quick answer: Before the Bible, Ancient Near Eastern cultures like the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Egyptians had rich mythological and religious texts that shared similarities with later biblical stories.

Oral traditions and early Jewish scriptures like the Torah also predated the Christian Bible.

Ancient Near Eastern Myths and Religious Texts

Sumerian and Akkadian Literature

The Sumerians and Akkadians of ancient Mesopotamia left behind a wealth of mythological and religious literature starting around 3500 BCE. These myths include stories like the creation myth Enuma Elish, the flood story of Utnapishtim, and the exploits of gods like Ishtar and Enki.

The stories were originally written in cuneiform on clay tablets and reveal a complex cosmology centered around the interactions of anthropomorphic gods and goddesses. Through these myths, we can get a glimpse into how the ancient Mesopotamians made sense of the natural world and human existence.

Some common themes include order vs. chaos, the relationship between humanity and divinity, and the changing of the seasons. The myths were closely tied to religious practices and informed rituals meant to curry the favor of the gods.

Ancient copies of these mythological texts help us understand an important forerunner to later religions including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Egyptian Religious Texts

The ancient Egyptians produced an array of religious writings starting in the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150 – 2613 BCE) and lasting for millennia. These texts include hymns, rituals, funerary spells, creation myths, and legendary histories of the gods.

Some key examples are the Pyramid Texts carved into pyramid walls, the Coffin Texts painted on coffins, and the Book of the Dead written on papyrus scrolls placed in tombs. These writings shed light on the Egyptian conceptions of the afterlife, the underworld, and the gods like Osiris, Isis, Horus, Ra, and Anubis.

Myths such as the story of Osiris, Isis, and Set tell us about how the Egyptians viewed issues like kingship, morality, and the cyclical nature of life and rebirth. Egyptians believed these texts held actual power – by reciting the spells, the dead could be protected and find everlasting life in the hereafter.

The myths and religious literature of the ancient Egyptians provide a window into their rich spiritual beliefs that influenced later cultures and religions.

Canaanite and Ugaritic Myths

The Canaanites and Ugarit peoples of the Levant (modern day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine) developed a mythology that influenced later Mediterranean cultures. The most complete source comes from tablets inscribed in Ugaritic cuneiform, a language closely related to Biblical Hebrew, discovered in 1928 at Ras Shamra.

They contain mythological stories about the Canaanite pantheon – the chief god El, the sea god Yam, the storm god Baal, and the goddess Anat. The most famous story is the Baal Cycle which tells of the struggles between Baal and Yam and Baal’s kingship.

Other myths include the story of Aqhat, the tale of the Rephaim, and Shahar and Shalim. The Ugaritic texts give unique insight into the Bronze Age culture and religious beliefs of the Canaanite peoples, who inhabited areas later associated with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

They share similarities with the Mesopotamian tales and later Greek myths. Their rediscovery in the 20th century shed new light on the mythology that would have been familiar to the ancient Israelites.

Early Oral Traditions and Scriptures

Early Israelite Oral Lore

The biblical texts grew out of a long oral tradition stretching back to the 2nd millennium BCE. Before anything was written down, stories, songs, proverbs, and laws were passed down orally from generation to generation.

Early Israelites recited epic poems and told fascinating stories around campfires and family gatherings, keeping their history and faith alive through the spoken word. These oral traditions provided the raw material for the later written scriptures.

For instance, scholars suggest that early epic poems about the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob circulated orally before being woven together and incorporated into the book of Genesis. Intriguing stories about the prophet Elisha and the origins of Passover emerged from oral lore before being recorded in the books of Kings and Exodus.

Oral transmission allowed flexibility for adapting and updating the stories to new contexts and audiences. But orality also had disadvantages, as words and phrases could easily be forgotten, distorted, or embellished over time.

This raised concerns about preserving authentic accounts of Israel’s early history and God’s dealings with their ancestors. So around 1000 BCE, the oral tales began to be written down.

The Torah and Talmud

The first major stage of writing came with the Torah, or Pentateuch, traditionally said to be authored by Moses. The Five Books of Moses (Genesis to Deuteronomy) established Israel’s fundamental history, laws, and covenant with Yahweh in written form around 500 BCE.

This provided a bedrock Scripture and shifted transmission from oral to written. However, the oral discussions about Scripture continued.

In following centuries, Prophets and Writings were added to the Torah to form the Hebrew Bible. Oral commentary on these texts also continued through the rabbinic sages. Around 200 CE, their discussions were compiled into the Mishnah – the foundation of Talmudic literature guiding Jewish law and theology.

The Mishnah was later supplemented by the Gemara commentary completed around 500 CE.

So although the biblical texts were established in writing, they continued to be surrounded by a dynamic oral tradition. Through ongoing spoken commentary, interpretation, and debate, the meaning and application of the written words were unpacked.

This interplay between oral and written shaped the Bible as sacred Scripture.

Zoroastrianism and Other Dualistic Religions

Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions. Founded by the prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) in ancient Iran around 3500 years ago, it centers on a dualistic cosmology of good and evil and an eschatology predicting the ultimate conquest of evil by good.

Zoroastrian theology revolves around a single universal and transcendent god called Ahura Mazda or Ohrmazd. He represents truth, light, goodness and order. Ahura Mazda is opposed by Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), the hostile spirit of darkness, falsehood and disorder.

This cosmic dualism between good and evil is matched by an ethical dualism within the human person. Humans possess a good mind or spirit but are also prone to evil thoughts, words and deeds under the influence of Angra Mainyu.

Zoroastrian eschatology prophesies that good will ultimately triumph over evil. At the end of time, a messianic figure called the Saoshyant will lead the forces of righteousness in a final battle against falsehood. The dead will then be resurrected to face judgment.

The world will be purified by a great conflagration, after which the righteous will enjoy everlasting light and joy.

Zoroastrianism greatly influenced the major Western faiths. Its dualism profoundly shaped Christian demonology and concepts like Satan. Zoroastrian messianism and eschatology left lasting impacts on Jewish, Christian and Islamic prophecy.

Even the monotheistic conception of God has been linked by scholars to Zoroastrian teachings.


Founded in the 3rd century AD by the Iranian prophet Mani, Manichaeism displayed strong Zoroastrian and Gnostic Christian influences. Like its parent religion, it was deeply dualistic, pitting the spiritual world of light against the material world of darkness.

It also shared the Zoroastrian belief in an apocalyptic end of history.

Widely spreading from North Africa through Central Asia and China, Manichaeism endured as a major world religion for a thousand years despite vigorous persecution by Christian, Zoroastrian and Islamic authorities who saw it as a dangerous heresy.

Most of Mani’s writings were ultimately destroyed, but archaeologists have uncovered many Manichaean works preserved by the desert sands.


Gnosticism refers to various mystical religious movements which thrived alongside orthodox Christianity in the early centuries AD. Gnostics believed that humans contained a divine spark trapped in the material world.

They placed a strong emphasis on esoteric knowledge or gnosis which could awaken one’s spiritual essence.

Like Manichaeism, Gnosticism was greatly influenced by Zoroastrian and Hellenistic ideas about dualism. The material realm was created by a Demiurge and governed by demonic archons. But humans carried remnants of Sophia, the divine wisdom, enabling gnosis of transcendence.

While lacking centralized structure, Gnostic groups posed the most serious early challenge to emerging Christian orthodoxy. They were decried as heretics in the writings of several early Church Fathers.

After centuries of controversy, Gnostic teachings were gradually suppressed or absorbed into alternative Christian traditions.

Greek, Roman, and Norse Mythology

Poems of Hesiod and Homer

The ancient Greek poets Hesiod and Homer were the first to write down many of the ancient Greek myths in the 8th century BCE. Hesiod’s Theogony contains stories about the origins and genealogies of the Greek gods and goddesses.

Homer’s epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey focus on the Trojan War and its heroes, drawing on ancient myths and legends to flesh out the tales.

Roman Religion and Myth

The ancient Romans adopted much of Greek mythology into their own religious and mythological traditions. For instance, they equated the Greek goddess Aphrodite with their own fertility goddess Venus. However, the Romans also had their own founding myths and legends, such as the story of Romulus and Remus being raised by a she-wolf.

Roman myths and religion focused less on explanations for natural phenomena and more on legends and traditions tied to the city of Rome itself.

Norse Eddas

Norse mythology originated from the pre-Christian religion practiced by Germanic tribes in Scandinavia. The Eddas are two medieval Icelandic manuscripts that preserved many Norse myths and legends that had previously been passed down orally.

The Poetic Edda contains 29 long poems about Norse gods like Odin, Thor, and Loki, as well as heroes like Sigurd. The Prose Edda includes sagas about the creation and end of the world according to Norse myth. These myths had a profound influence on later Germanic tribes and medieval literature.


As we’ve seen, a rich world of myth, scripture, and religious tradition predated the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. From the legendary epics of Greece and Rome to the creation stories of Ancient Mesopotamia, many texts and belief systems influenced the development of Judeo-Christian thought over thousands of years.

By understanding this cultural inheritance, we can better appreciate both the originality and the continuity of the Bible within the grand sweep of human intellectual history.

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