According to the Wikipedia article The Epic of Gilgamesh,

Several scholars suggest direct borrowing of Siduri's advice by the author of Ecclesiastes.[41]

A rare proverb about the strength of a triple-stranded rope, "a triple-stranded rope is not easily broken", is common to both books.[citation needed]

Since the Standard Babylonian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh dates back to the eleventh century B.C., while Sumerian Gilgamesh stories probably date back to the 18th century B.C., I assume they predate (most of) the Bible. (This appears to be the case for the flood myth that can be found both in the Epic of Gilgamesh and in the Bible.)

The Wikipedia article does not explicitly say that the Bible borrowed the proverb from the Epic of Gilgamesh although the preceding statement about Siduri's advice might lead readers to think that this is actually the case. For example, NoSweatShakespeare claims,

An unusual saying about the strength of a triple-stranded rope (a triple-stranded rope is not easily broken) in Ecclesiastes comes from the Epic.

Many other websites repeat Wikipedia's claim (though usually without claiming that the proverb was borrowed) without providing evidence to support it.

The Wikipedia article does not state where the proverb can be found in Ecclesiastes and the Epic of Gilgamesh. Is the claim even correct?

  • 2
    Why do people assume that a later book "borrows" from an earlier book? Suppose you and I write novels that involve people during the JFK assassination, and that you write yours decades after I write mine. It's inevitable that both books will have many details in common, but it's not reasonable to assume that you borrowed your ideas from mine. Similarly, Gilgamesh and Genesis can be descriptions of the same ancient flood without the older writing being the source of the newer. – Ray Butterworth Dec 25 '20 at 15:04
  • @RayButterworth Who is saying here that the Biblical flood story was borrowed? – Tsundoku Dec 25 '20 at 15:06
  • Wouldn't existing in both sources make the proverb not rare, but common? – aroth Dec 26 '20 at 14:57
  • @aroth Well, "rare" is what Wikipedia claims. If the proverb is only recorded in two sources, I wouldn't call it common, though. – Tsundoku Dec 26 '20 at 15:23

The relevant passsage in the Bible is easy enough to find: it is Ecclesiates 4:12 (see Bible Hub):

And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken. (King James Bible)

Findng the (possibly) corresponding passage in the Epic of Gilgamesh took a bit more effort. Apparently, there is a close verbal parallel in Maureen Gallery Kovacs's translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh (Stanford University Press, 1989), which can be found on Dust off the Bible and Academy of Ancient Texts. (Since Kovacs's translation was published just over 30 years ago, I assume it is still copyrighted and that the owners of those websites cannnot legally reproduce the text without the translator's permission or a licence from Stanford University Press, but I am unable to check whether these conditions were met.)

Kovacs's translation of Tablet IV contains the following passage:

'Strangers ...
'A slippery path is not feared by two people who help each
'Twice three times...
'A three-ply rope cannot be cut.'
'The mighty lioness cubs can roll him over."'

Kovacs's translation of Tablet V contains the following passage:

'Strangers ...
'A slippery path is not feared by two people who help each other.
'Twice three times...
'A three-ply rope cannot be cut.
'The mighty lion--two cubs can roll him over."'

This seems to confirm Wikipedia's claim, but the repetition of the same text on two different tablets looks odd; moreover, the ellisions suggest that the tablets are very damaged here, so the translator may have made extrapolations to fill in gaps in the original text. For this reason, I also checked three other, more recent, translations.

Andrew George's translation (The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian. Translated with an introduction by Andrew George. London: Penguin, 1999. Reprinted with minor revisions in 2003) does not contain a corresponding passage in Tablet IV and presents the following passage from Tablet V:

[Two] garments, however, ......,
even a glacis-slope two [climbing can conquer.]
Two .......... a three-ply rope [is not easily broken]

[Even] a mighty lion two cubs [can overcome.]

(The italics inside the square brackets are from George's translation; they indicate "restorations" that are not certain or simply conjectural. Regular text between square brackets is less conjectural because based on parallel passages that can be found elsewhere.)

Benjamn R. Foster's translation (The Epic of Gilgamesh. Translated and edited by Benjamin R. Foster. Second Edition. Norton, 2019) similarly does not contain a corresponding passage in Tablet IV and presents the following passage from Tablet V:

Though one be weak, two [together are strong].
If one cannot scale a slippery slope, two [can do it together]. A three-strand rope [is stronger when doubled], Two cubs are [stronger] than a mighty lion.

(Foster does not use italics between square brackets to indicate a higher level of uncertainty about the content of the source text.)

Stefan Maul's translation (Das Gilgamesch-Epos. Neu Übersetzt und kommentiert von Stefan M. Maul. München: C. H. Beck, 2005. Sixth edition, 2014) does not contain anything that corresponds with the above passages. Presumably, the German assyriologist found the Akkadian text too fragmentary to translate.

What can be seen from George's and Foster's translations is that

  1. the statement about the "three-strand rope" is based on a conjectural restoration,
  2. both restorations differ from Kovacs's translation, and
  3. Kovacs reused a passage from Tablet V to fill a gap in Tablet IV.

My conclusion: to the extent that the Epic of Gilgamesh and Ecclesiastes 4:12 have a proverb in common, this appears to be based on a conjectural translation of a damaged passage the Epic that translators formulated (whether consciously or not) to echo a passage from the Old Testament.

  • 4
    So it's actually the older book that borrowed from the newer. Interesting. – Ray Butterworth Dec 26 '20 at 1:29
  • 6
    Well, the newer translation of the older book seems to have borrowed from older translations of the newer book ... :-) – Tsundoku Dec 26 '20 at 1:31
  • Also, even if that were not the case, it is not at all implausible for two separate people to come up with the same general idea about a common piece of technology. – Obie 2.0 Dec 27 '20 at 2:32
  • @Obie2.0 Yes, it is plausible, but scholars have been looking for parallels between the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Bible ever since the discovery of the Babylonian flood story. In that context, a similar proverb would be added to that list of parallels, regardless whether the similarity is the result of textual borrowing or technological commonalities. – Tsundoku Dec 27 '20 at 2:38

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