The Tower of Babel—Legend or History?

By Wayne Jackson

The book of Genesis is a narrative dealing with “beginnings,” as the title of the document indicates. One of the beginnings in Genesis is the record of how human beings came to speak different languages.

According to the Bible, originally “the whole earth was of one language” (Genesis 11:1). An ambitious humanity congregated in Shinar (Babylon), and set about to build a great tower, the height thereof reaching unto heaven. Intent on making a “name” for themselves, and remaining relatively localized—in direct disobedience to Jehovah’s command to fill the earth (Genesis 1:28; 9:1)—the project was begun. The divine Godhead was displeased with the unholy enterprise, hence declared: “Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” (11:7). The sacred decree was implemented, human languages were born, and men were scattered abroad upon the face of the earth (v. 8).

Did this incident have its basis in actual history? Skeptics answer negatively and openly scoff at the account. One infidel has classified this narrative as a “nonsensical” legend. He further declares: “It is highly unlikely that the human inhabitants of the whole earth have ever spoken only one language” (Allen 1990, 43, 44).

The approach of religious modernism is scarcely better. Bowie sees the account as a “child-like” “story-answer” characterized by “symbolism,” which was simply primitive man’s way of explaining the origin of different human tongues (1952, 562-565).

The fact is, however, there is absolutely no valid reason for questioning the reliability of the biblical narrative—and for the following reasons:

Philology

First, language studies have led many scholars to the conclusion that the varied human tongues ultimately can be traced to a common source. Max F. Muller (1823-1900) was one of the world’s foremost comparative philologists, i.e., one who studies ancient languages and observes their similarities and differences. He taught at Oxford University. In his book, Science of Language, the celebrated professor wrote: “We have examined all possible forms which language can assume, and we now ask, can we reconcile with these three distinct forms, the radical, the terminational, the inflectional, the admission of one common origin of human speech? I answer decidedly, Yes” (Muller 46-47).

Sanskrit was the ancient and classical language of India. Sir William Jones (1746-1794), was an accomplished scholar in this language, and in 1786 he wrote:

The Sanskrit language, whatever may be its antiquity, is of wonderful structure; more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could have been produced by accident; so strong that no philologer could examine all three without believing them to have sprung from some common source which no longer exists (10).

Jones also suggested that Gothic, Celtic, and Persian belonged to the same linguistic family, now known as Endo-European.

In his respected two-volume work on Genesis, Dutch scholar G. Ch. Aalders has this comment:

A famous Assyriologist made the amazing discovery that there is a clear relationship between the languages of some of the native people in Central and South America and some of the Islands, on the one hand, and the ancient Sumerian [the oldest known language] and Egyptian languages, on the other. This scholar, who formerly had considered the account in Genesis 11:1-9 to be no more than a myth, came to the conclusion that the biblical narrative is more credible than had been supposed (1981, 254).

Dr. Harold Stigers has an interesting summary of this matter:

Though there are countless languages and dialects [approximately three thousand currently known], yet ultimate derivation from a parent language is revealed through the continuing studies being made across the boundaries of the major language families. Common features of syntax and vocabulary, which are similar enough, yet different enough not to be labeled borrowings, indicate that one must posit a common ancestor (1976, 130).

Interestingly, secular journalists recently discussed the work of certain linguistic scientists who, using computers to compare languages, are speculating that there may indeed be a mother tongue, which they are calling “proto-World.” One writer went so far as to say: “Maybe the Bible is right, and there really was a Tower of Babel. Or at least, maybe there really was once a single human language, before we were all cursed with a confusion of tongues” (Dyer 1990).

Yes, just maybe modern Bible critics aren’t as informed as they pretend.

History

There are historical evidences that lend support to the Genesis record regarding the origin of languages. There are several ancient traditions concerning this incident.

Abydenus (a Greek historian of the mid-fourth century B.C.), as quoted by Eusebius, spoke of a great tower at Babylon which was destroyed. The record notes: “[U]ntil this time all men had used the same speech, but now there was sent upon them a confusion of many and divers tongues” (quoted in Rawlinson 1873, 28).

In a grossly garbled account, but one which obviously has roots in some ancient event, Plato in one of his works, tells of a golden age when men spoke the same language, but an act of the gods caused them to be confounded in their speech (see M’Clintock and Strong 1968, 590).

Josephus, the Jewish historian, quoting from an ancient source, records these words:

When all men were of one language, some of them built a tower, as if they would thereby ascend up to heaven, but the gods sent storms of wind and overthrew the tower, and gave every one his peculiar language; and for this reason it was that the city was called Babylon (Antiquities of the Jews, 1.4.3).

Aside from such references, the details of Genesis 11 are strikingly precise from a historical perspective. Consider the following:

(1) The identification of Babylon with Shinar was apparently known in the earliest of times (cf. Genesis 10:10; Daniel 1:2).

(2) The allusion to a “tower” in Babylon is certainly consistent with the fact that such towers, called ziggurats, were common in that ancient locale. These towers consisted of several platforms, constructed one on top of the other, progressively smaller in size till a pinnacle was reached which accommodated a small temple dedicated to some particular deity.

(3) The reference to “brick” and “bitumen” (“slime” KJV) has a genuine touch of authenticity. The region of Babylon did not contain the common building stone that was characteristic of Palestine. Some of the fired bricks from that area were usable for centuries. There is no reason whatsoever, aside from anti-religious bigotry, to question the historicity of the Genesis account of the Tower of Babel.

Donald J. Wiseman, professor of Assyriology at the University of London, has confidently stated that the record in Genesis 11 “bears all the marks of a reliable historical account” (1980, 157). Even a liberal writer concedes that “the background that is here sketched proves to be authentic beyond all expectations” (Speiser 1964, 75).

Archaeology

The precise site of the ancient tower of Babel is a matter of uncertainty, for there are possibilities among the remnants of several ruins in the region. Many writers, following Jewish and Arab traditions, locate the tower ruins at Borsippa (the “Tongue Tower”), about eleven miles southwest of the northern portion of Babylon (formerly a suburb of the city). Others identify the site with Etemen-an-ki (“the temple of the foundation of heaven and earth”), which is located in the southern sector of the city near the right bank of the Euphrates river. One or the other of these ruins may represent the archaeological “descendant” of the original tower of Babel.

In his book, Chaldean Account of Genesis (1880), George Smith of the British Museum—the scholar who translated the Babylonian flood account—published a fragment which is certainly reminiscent of the Mosaic record. The inscription tells of an ancient ziggurat. “The building of this temple offended the gods. In a night they threw down what had been built. They scattered them abroad, and made strange their speech. The progress they impeded” (1880, 29).

Conclusion

The story is told of an Irishman who once built a fence three feet high and four feet wide. When asked the reason for such a strange design, he replied that when someone turned it over it would be higher than before. So it is with the Bible. When faithless critics have fired their best shots, the Holy Book remains unscathed. The Bible is a trustworthy book.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Aalders, G. Ch. 1981. Genesis. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Allen, Steve. 1990. Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion, and Morality. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus.
  • Bowie, Walter Russell. 1952. The Book of Genesis. The Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. 1. New York, NY: Abingdon.
  • Dyer, Gwynne. 1990. Seeking the Mother Tongue. New Zealand Herald, September 17.
  • Jones, William. Quoted in A. T. Roberston, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (London, England: Hodder & Stoughton, 1919).
  • M’Clintock, John and James Strong. 1968. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
  • Muller, Max F. Science of Language. Quoted in Joseph P. Free, Archaeology and Bible History (Wheaten, IL: Van Kampen Press, 1950).
  • Rawlinson, George. 1873. Historical Illustrations of the Old Testament. Boston, MA: Henry A. Young & Co.
  • Smith, George. 1880. Chaldean Account of Genesis. Quoted in Stephen L. Caiger, Bible and Spade—An Introduction to Biblical Archaeology (London, England: Oxford University, 1946).
  • Speiser, E. A. 1964. The Anchor Bible—Genesis. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co.
  • Stigers, Harold G. 1976. A Commentary on Genesis. Grand Rapids, MI: Zoadervan.
  • Wiseman, Donald J. 1980. Babel. The Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Vol. 1. J. D. Douglas, ed. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.