Get access

From Babylon to Christianity: William Foxwell Albright on Myth, Folklore, and Christian Origins


Stephen Alter teaches history at Gordon College in Massachusetts, USA. He is the author of William Dwight Whitney and the Science of Language (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).


The American Orientalist William F. Albright (1891–1971) is remembered as a leading voice of twentieth-century “biblical archaeology,” a field that aimed to demonstrate empirically the Hebrew Bible's substantial historicity. Less well known is Albright's research on Christian backgrounds, which by contrast reflected modernist theology's scepticism about the gospel narratives' literal truth. Drawing ideas from the “Pan-Babylonian” school of biblical criticism, Albright invoked the influence of ancient Near Eastern myth and folklore on the Christ story, this being the culminating theme of his magnum opus From the Stone Age to Christianity (1940). Originally Albright believed that this mythological interpretation would reestablish Christianity's intellectual credibility in the twentieth century and thus help revive New Testament theology. Yet in the latter part of his career he omitted the mythological thesis from his writings, apparently having concluded that it was harmful to orthodox Christian faith.