Q&A: Resurrection in Ancient Near Eastern Myths

Q: I have heard some people claim that the story of Jesus’ resurrection is based on ancient Near Eastern myths about resurrection. Is there any truth to these claims?

A: Resurrection, or at least rejuvenation, is a major theme in ancient cultures. There is a reason why the remembrance of Jesus’ resurrection in spring became associated with “Easter”: Bede claimed the term derived from a Saxon goddess Eostre, likely a goddess of dawn and thus rebirth (Bede, The Reckoning of Time).

The vernal equinox was often associated with rebirth and rejuvenation since the increased sunlight would lead to increased warmth and the sprouting of plants; other areas would have similar festivals and observances when plants would sprout after the appropriate rainy or flood season. Agricultural life depended on plants “dying” and “rising again.”

And so it is that many cultures had some myth or story of death and rebirth. The famous Egyptian version is the myth of Osiris: Osiris, an Egyptian king, is married to Isis. His jealous brother Set conspires against him and kills him. By some machination Isis brings Osiris back to life just long enough to procreate with him. Isis begets a son, Horus, who bests Set and takes his rightful place on the throne. All these characters were god-men and became part of the Egyptian pantheon; the story has many variations but is generally as set above.

It is worth emphasizing that Osiris is not fully resurrected: he is brought back to life just long enough to reproduce. He then becomes god of the underworld. The Egyptians saw the contest among Osiris, Set, and Horus as playing out continually in the land: Osiris was the Pharaoh in death, and the living Pharaoh was Horus, always seeking to preserve order and stability against Set and the forces of anarchy and chaos. The Egyptian story thus seeks to explain things as they are; death is not defeated, but part of life.

Osiris-tomb-of-Nefertari

The Mesopotamian version is the story of Inanna/Ishtar and Dumuzi/Tammuz, the observance of which in Israel is condemned by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 8:13-15). Ishtar was the goddess of fertility/love, and Tammuz the god of food and vegetation. In the various stories told about them, the same motif appears: to explain the presence of crops and fertility part of the year but not all year, there is a story of someone escaping from the underworld but having to pay the price, and that price is that another spends time in the underworld. Thus Tammuz “dies” every year, and is mourned, but is expected to come back.

This same theme is present in the annual contest between Baal (storm god) and Mot (death) in Canaanite mythology; the same is true with Demeter and Persephone among the Greeks. All of these stories seek to explain either the annual agricultural cycle or the life cycle of humanity in general.

Jesus’ resurrection is an altogether different feature, and has been thus noted from the beginning. Jesus dies and is raised from the dead, but never to die again (Romans 6:1-11). The Apostles did not preach the continuation of the life-cycle as it had always existed; they proclaimed that Jesus overcame sin and death in His death and resurrection, and in so doing pave the way to overcome that cycle (1 Corinthians 15:20-58). They pointed to Jesus as one still living, fully God, fully human, reigning as Lord over all, the one like a son of man given an eternal dominion (Daniel 7:13-14, Acts 7:55-56, 1 Timothy 2:5, Revelation 1:12-20).

Jesus’ resurrection is the guarantee of an afterlife, of the coming judgment, of a hope that the creation, currently enslaved to the bondage of decay and corruption, would one day be set free as in the beginning (Acts 17:30-31, Romans 8:18-25). What was claimed of Jesus is categorically different from all the rejuvenation legends and myths that came before or which have come since, for all others died again and perpetuated the life cycle. Jesus, and only Jesus, is claimed to have overcome the life cycle, being raised bodily, transformed, and never to die again, and who extends that same hope to all who will follow Him (1 Corinthians 15:20-58). May we put our trust in Jesus and our hope in the resurrection!

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