The Influence of The Canaanite Religion on The Theology of Jesus And The New Testament


It has long been known by ancient Near Eastern scholars who concentrate in the Hebrew Bible that early oral traditions were used as major references in shaping the Patriarchal narratives, particularly in the Jacob Cycles (such as noted by Julius Wellhausen (1844 - 1918), Herman Gunkel (1862 - 1932), Martin Noth (1902 -1968)) and thus formed the bases for Israel’s narrative traditions.

In 1928, an Arab peasant plowing the land near a mound struck a slab of stone. Upon raising the stone, he found traces of an ancient tomb with potsherds and small undamaged vessels. The antiquities service in Syria was informed who, in turn notified the French archeologist Mons. Ch. Virolleaud.

The stone that the peasant had hit turned out to be just an ancient necropolis with little promise. However, the archaeologist in the team next turned their attention to an artificial near by mound (named by locals as Ras-ashShamrah), which, when explored, proved to be the site of the ancient city know in texts from Babylonian, Hittite and Egyptian as the city of Ugarit.

Excavation carried out by the French archaeologist Mons. C.F.A. Schaeffer between 1929 and 1939 and then continued after WWII, have unearth thousands of clay tablets around the main library attached to the temple of Baal. The tablets are dated between 1400 and 1350 BCE and are extremely varied in their contents.

The script of the tablets are written in Akkadian, Hurrian and Sumerian, but the native language of the city is a script using the cuneiform symbols based on an alphabetic constant signs now classified in the group of Northwest Semitic languages which predates Hebrew. This language, now know as Ugaritic, is the parent language of the Israelites who are said to have spoken Hebrew.

Because the name of one of the gods in the text was called “Baal” and of whose temple the library it was next to, the city has now been identified with the Canaanites with whom the Israelites are said to have taken the land from to form Israel.

Modern scholars of the Hebrew Bible such as Richard Clifford, Frank M. Cross, Nicholas Wyatt, Mark Smith, John Day, William Dever, J.C. de Moor the late Marvin Pope, C.H Gordon and M. Dahood see a direct connection or continuation of Canaanite stories in the older cycles of the Israelite.

An example here is Psalm 29 which is traditionally assigned to King David, but is basically a reworked Canaanite hymn from Ugarit.

So, did this connection and continuation of Canaanite material end in with the Hebrew Bible or is this tradition (which was once held in high regards by the early Israelites) still able to shape the New Testament? I think so and I list the following:

A. Jesus never calls the deity of his Jewish nation by his personal proper name Yahweh, but simply Theos = El ("El" is Hebrew for god) . El is the same name of the supreme god of the Canaanites at Ugarit.

B. Jesus calls El “Abba” or father: (“And He was saying, "Abba! Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will." Mark 14: 36). Jesus tells his disciples to call El also “father” in the Lord’s Prayer. Baal calls his god “ab” or father too. Both divine fathers of Jesus and Baal (El, the supreme god of the Jews and the Canaanites) are fatherly figure gods who live in Heaven.

C. Jesus is called “Lord” many times by his followers in the Gospels and Jesus is identified with God in the Gospels. Likewise, God is Jesus’ heavenly father.

In the Ugaritic texts, the term b’l=baal can simply mean “Lord” or elsewhere it can be used as a proper name “Baal” where he is the title of the chief god of the Canaanites who is the son of the supreme god El.

D. Jesus descends and returns from the neither world (Hell) (For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. Matt. 12:40 and “By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; I Peter 3:19) so too does Baal descend and return from the underworld.

E. Jesus stills a storm on the Sea of Galilee, so too does Baal control the wind and weather.

F. Jesus intervenes between his followers and God his father. So too does Baal intervene between the people of Ugarit and El his father.

G. Jesus is depicted as King seated on a throne ruling his kingdom and giving righteous judgments. So too is Baal seated on his throne ruling a kingdom with righteous judgments.

H. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus fights and kills the evil serpent / dragon. So too does Baal fight and kill the twisted serpent Ugaritic “ltn btn brh” (Litanu, the serpent or Leviathan).

I. Biblical numbers such as 3, 6, 7 and 40 are used many times in the New Testament are used equally in the Ugaritic text to give divine meaning to these Canaanite texts.

10 comments:

Jeff said...

Hi Harry,

This is an interesting theory that I'd like to know more about. I am not sure it's entirely clear to me - the writers of the New Testament were separated by the writers of the Old Testament by hundreds of years; how would the Ugaritic traditions be influencing the NT writers? I can certainly understand it in an indirect way: the Ugaritic tradition led to the OT tradition, out of which the NT came. But were there any people around in the first century that still worshipped Baal? I mean, from the texts that the NT writers would be reading, Baal was a pretty negative figure. I can't see that they would be comparing Jesus to him.

Sorry, perhaps I'm just not clear on what you're saying, but perhaps a bit more explanation on it would be helpful. Thanks!

Rob R said...

It's a regurgitation of the copycat myth. Some of the details may or may not be correct, but so many claims have been made about verious Gods and deities being equivalent to Jesus have been debunked by J P Holding at his tektonics site that it's hard to take a new one seriously. (I say new one though Baal has been covered but there are some new claims here). He's traced the sources of many of these claims and sometimes, the sources don't go far beyond some skeptics in Europe in the 1800's.

While I don't agree with Holding's style, some of his theology and some of his Christian apologetics, on these sorts of topics (tracing the sources of claims), he is speaking properly from his expertise with a masters in library science. That's doesn't explain all of the copycat claims as some of it is also chalked up to stretched interpretation.

Harry McCall said...

Jeff,

About 15 centuries separate the Hellenistic Greek Gospels from Northwest Semitic Ugarit and its religious text and in particular the Baal Cycles.

The fact that Jesus grew up in the Jewish homeland once ruled by the Canaanites where Baal played an important religious roll both in Ugarit and the Old Testament, Jesus is only depicted as referring to his homeland diety as only theos / El.

I find this especially odd in light of the fact the pagan Seleucid kings who ruled there(especially Antiochus IV who killed a pig in the Temple) and called all their gods “theos“.

Moreover, the Romans use of Deus for god would have caused a major question in a polytheistic world to question just which or what god Jesus related to.

Why doesn’t Jesus EVER compare the Greek and Romans to the Canaanites and their Gods to Baal?

My point is that even after 15 centuries, I find a Jesus who has more in common and, indeed, may even be modeled after the god Baal from Ugarit than the contemporary Greco-Roman religions (Except the virgin birth additions).

Since Baal is associated with the yearly harvest, his descending and rising from the underworld gives life much like Jesus’ resurrection.

Even if we discount all the similarities between Baal and Jesus, the numbers 3 (three favorite disciples, three days and three nights in the center of the earth, three day dead in the tomb, and so on or 28 times in the Gospels; 6 used 8 times in the Gospels and only two time in the rest of the N.T.; 7 used 24 times in the Gospels; 12 = 45 times in the Gospels; 40 = 4 times in the Gospels, one is faced with the simple fact that both the text of ancient Ugarit and the Gospels seem transfixed on just certain numbers. Now compare this to the use of the other numbers.

Why?

Can I explain it? Maybe it’s a providence of the ancient El.

Harry McCall said...

Rob R,

My debates with Holding and his wild claims go back 5 years. If you do a search at his Tekton Website under my name, you can pull up two or three debates we have had.

Holding is banned here at DC by John because of his sarcastic personal attacks and lack of objective scholarship (Christianity must be defended at all cost). Holding review of Hector Avalos book The End of Biblical Studies is a case in point.

If your are a conservative Christian wanting a subjective apologetic defense of the Protestant faith, then Holding is your man.

The day he reads a paper at an SBL meeting will be the day scholars will start listening to him. Until then, he is just an apologetic teacher for the conservative Southern Baptist Convention.

In other words, Holding is great at “Preaching to the choir”!

Jeff said...

Harry,

I understand the parallels. But it seems a little bit of a stretch to say that Jesus is a parallel to Baal, a god who hadn't been worshipped for, as you say, 15 centuries. It makes much more logical sense to say that the Ugaritic traditions influenced early Judaism, and then later Judaism influenced the NT stories. I mean, even with what you're saying about the numbers (3,7,12,40), Judaism itself is filled with those as well. They had symbolic meaning that may have come from earlier oral traditions, but I would say that by the first century, those meanings had become fully Jewish.

To show my point, let's use a small analogy. Let's say I steal a car from a guy named Bob. I drive it around and use it for ten years. And then after ten years' time, you steal it from me. What makes more sense, to say that you stole the car from me, or to say that you stole it from Bob? I understand it's not a perfect analogy, but it's the kind of reasoning that I'm trying to get at.

Harry McCall said...

Jeff,

The total exclusivity to the truth the god of the Bible gives is only relative to what information one has of the Bible's ancient background.

In your analogy, and as for as the legal system is concerned, you, as the final one caught holding the car, are held totally responsible for the theft since you where caught with a vehicle never registered in your name and reported a stolen even though you swear to God on a stack of Bibles that the car is yours.

My point being that no matter just how much was stolen / plagiarized from the Canaanites, Jesus, as the Christian messiah (final criminal) ends up with most of these stolen traditions in his possession. And, as you maybe aware of, ignorance is not excuse from the law.

When we compare the short narratives in the Gospels and the Book of Revelation with the vastness of the literary traditions Hebrew Bible, then the Jesus traditions are seen as the major couplet of this crime.

So, my point being, while the Hebrew Bible does have these common Canaanite traditions in their text over many centuries, it’s the short time span of less than 100 years that (Mark about 60 CE to Revelation 90CE) we find a literary garage filled with stolen concepts; property of the first owners at Ugarit!

No matter how the Gospels got them, they have lied about stolen literary property they now have in their possession.

Rob R said...

I'm aware of Holding's limits and flaws and I said as much. I've had unpleasant discussions with him myself. But for so much of the copycat thesis, for the kind of work he did on it that I've read, I stand by what I've said. He is within his field of expertise of tracing sources and gathering the scholarship on it.

But again, that mainly has to do with copycat theories as a whole many of which are dubious. Whether or not your scholarship fit the same mold was not a commitment of mine, only that it has a bad association such that a reaction of "oh, another one?" is understandable.


Looking more closely at what you wrote though, some of the claims are just really general like Baal has a thrown (a symbol of authority, fitting for a God), Baal is called Lord (fitting title for one of divine authority), he controls weather (really, a divine authority having control over nature? something that unique must've been ripped off)

Jeff's point though is very reasonable. As a historian, I can't imagine how one could shrugg off the question of how someone came to a set of beliefs if they claim to know where those beliefs came from.

As for the claim about Baal calling el his father and Jesus calling God his father, I can't help but wonder if there is an equivocation here since father and son as applied to the God of the Christians is metaphorical for a complicated relationship that preceded the creation of the family which does not have a one to one correspondence with the relations we have in human faimilies (after all, I and my father are not one) where with the pagan gods, their families literally were families.



If your are a conservative Christian wanting a subjective apologetic defense of the Protestant faith, then Holding is your man.


Well, ever since Thomas Kuhn, we can note that subjectivity wouldn't make him any more different than any other research field even in the most rigorous sciences. I'm not defending Holding here though. I'm just pointing out that to note his subjectivity doesn't make him special. There is no doubt subjectivity even in the way you present your evidence here. The whole issue of Jesus never referring to God as Yahweh (of course which would be written as "Lord") you present as a problem, but it's really an interesting quirk that could just as easily have a sensible theological explanation.


The day he reads a paper at an SBL meeting will be the day scholars will start listening to him.

What would Loftus think about this statement? I think he posted on it June 14th. Not that I would put Holding on the same level as Loftus. But for that matter, I wouldn't put Loftus on the same level as Holding.



The total exclusivity to the truth the god of the Bible gives is only relative to what information one has of the Bible's ancient background.


Interesting. I've never known the bible to claim such a thing. Seems to be that there is some of the opposite such as with Paul speaking to the athenians.

Rob R said...

.


CORRECTION

I said above:

As a historian, I can't imagine how one could shrugg off the question of how someone came to a set of beliefs if they claim to know where those beliefs came from.

This is confusing on two levels. For one, I am not a historian, my sentence is about the historical task in general.

Also, what I meant to say was that I can't imagine that its enough to argue that one group got their ideas from another group on the basis of similarities without dealing with the feasibility of transmission as well. Even if your picture is strong on the first set of considerations, it doesn't mean we can ignore the problem of the second set and especially to brush it off as reason to doubt the whole claim.

Jeff said...

Harry, I think you completely missed my analogy. I suppose I wasn't clear enough. I wasn't trying to ask, "Who's to blame?" So let's change it up a bit. Bob has a car. Then he gives it to me. I drive it around for ten years, and then I give it to you. Which makes more sense for you to say, that you got the car from me, or that you got the car from Bob? I'm asking about origins, not about possession.

I agree with you that there are certainly some parallels there. But as far as I'm aware, Baal worship was long gone by the time Jesus, his fisherman buddies, and the gospel writers ever came around. And in the Scriptures that they would have learned and been taught from, Baal worship is demonized as an abomination against Yahweh. So my one question for you to answer is why on earth the gospel writers would try to parallel Jesus to Baal? That's what I can't figure out.

To me, it seems much more reasonable to say that the influences from the Ugaritic texts were assimilated into Jewish culture, but that by the time Jesus rolled onto the scene, these influences had become fully Jewish. And I have no problem with believing that Christianity had Jewish influences. I don't think anyone doubts that. I just have a problem with saying that Christianity had Ugaritic influences, at least in a direct way. Judaism just seems the much more likely culprit, to me.

Now, of course, I do find it interesting that there are these parallels. It's certainly something I enjoy reading about :) So thanks!

Rob R said...

but that by the time Jesus rolled onto the scene, these influences had become fully Jewish.


Some of them have no Jewish parallel. For Baal to descend into hell and return, there is no Jewish parallel. To use the Jonah story to connect them is quite a stretch. Jesus' death for 3 days was linked to the Jonah story, but to insist that someone went from Baal descending to hell and coming back is equivalent to Jonah and the wale, I don't know how that isn't strained.

As this is related to the resurrection, the Jewish ideas on resurrection did not come around till some of the later prophets and more intensely, the intertestimental period.

But aside from that, just how impressive is this parallel. Seems to me that if you got mythical places in your mythology, then it's very likely that you are going to have your heroes, gods, and daemons travel to and from those places. For our narrative to parallel some other religious narrative on this point need not be any more than coincidence since someone else had to say it. If it's a coincidence, there is noting to raise an eyebrow about it.


For some of the actual influences between Judaism and the Canaanites, they just aren't that scandalous. For example, if psalm 29 actually came from the Canaanites (instead of the other way around which could be possible unless there's reason to rule it out), how is that different from the beer drinking tunes given Christian lyrics of our classic hymns or Ode to Joy which was adapted from Beethoven's humanistic 9th symphony?


Now, of course, I do find it interesting that there are these parallels.


besides the other unimpressive similarities I commented on here and in posts above, I don't find it significant that symbols (like numbers and serpents) were used to communicate similar ideas when they are from a similar region. Or even if they don't communicate the same idea (I don't know what the significance of all the numbers are) a tradition of significance is there nonetheless. Common communication techniques does not equate to dishonest stealing of ideas.

With that, the only thing I haven't commented on is Baal as the intercessor to El. This is the only similarity I find interesting. But one semi-impressive parallel does not a sound copy-cat thesis make.

Course if you are interested in copy-cat theses, I've counted about 28 of them, and some are pretty desperate (the argument's been advanced with Buddha, a Norse God and a native american diety).

If you fancy yourself a balanced thinker though, I'd recomend looking at what the other side has said here.