Fraudulant Attribution: Gilgamesh, Moses, the Apostle Matthew—and Ancient Authorship

The Epic of Gilgamesh began perhaps around 2500 BCE as stories told orally, and were not written down until perhaps 1200 BCE.

The version we have (discovered by archeologists in Ashurbanipal’s Nineveh library) dates to 700 BCE.

Nevertheless, it claims Gilgamesh himself as the epic’s author—as the one who wrote it onto stone and left it within the city walls of Uruk “for all to read” (even though almost nobody in these societies could read).

This ancient authorial move of attributing texts to heroes seems rather dishonest of the actual authors, and it raises the question, Why did they do it? 

One reason, no doubt, is that kingly, or legendary, authorship would have improved the chances of the tablets being copied.

The authors of the Bible did the same thing—as for example, attributing to Moses the authorship of Genesis to Deuteronomy, even though Deuteronomy contains an account of Moses’ death.

Write a book in the name of a hero, god, king, prophet, or apostle and you have a greater chance of having your ideas read and copied and circulated.

We might call this “the memetic temptation.”

These were, if you will, the ancient tags that attracted a greater number of “hits” or copies. And like with species, reproduction of texts means survival.

Perhaps the notion of individual, guy on the street, authorship as we understand it, unassisted by gods and coming out of your own genius, did not even exist in ancient societies.

Of course a god spoke through you if you are a lowly prophet.

Of course a king first recited the stories you are copying down. You’re just redacting a bit for narrative smoothness, for you are (to paraphrase the poet James Fenton, from his poem, “Jerusalem”):

A worm, a thing of scorn–

I cry impure from street to street,

And see my degredation

In the eyes I meet.  

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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