20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures
20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures

20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures

Steve - March 20, 2019

20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures
“The Marriage at Cana”, by Maerten de Vos (c. 1596-1597). Wikimedia Commons.

11. Appropriating persistently from the cult of Dionysus, the transformation of water into wine is just one of many stories found in the Gospel of John

The first miracle attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John, the transformation of water into wine during the marriage at Cana, remains among the most popular examples of Jesus’ divinity within the Christian canon. However, as with other notable portions of the Gospel of John, this aspect of the Christian narrative leans heavily upon the traditions of the cult of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, who, as one of the best-known deities of the Greek pantheon, was worshiped throughout the Greco-Roman world including in Palestine. Containing close resemblances to the events at Cana, Dionysus was believed to sneak into temples and refill wine barrels overnight.

Bearing even closer parallels with the Christian story, the Greek novel Leucippe and Clitophon tells the story of a herdsman unsuspectingly inviting Dionysus into his home to dine. Unable to offer the deity anything to drink but water, Dionysus stuns the herdsman by transforming the water offered into wine. John’s appropriation from the cult of Dionysus is furthered still by the inclusion of a declaration by Jesus that he was the “True Vine”, a title attributed to Dionysus centuries earlier, in addition to the entire character arc of Jesus within the Gospel of John being heavily derivative of the 5th century BCE play The Bacchae which involves Dionysus as a central player.

20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures
“Harischandra in Distress, having lost his kingdom and all the wealth parting with his only son in an auction”, by Raja Ravi Varma; date unknown. Wikimedia Commons.

10. The story of Abraham and the binding of Isaac bears noteworthy story parallels to the older Hindu legend of King Harishchandra

Abraham, a common patriarch of all three Abrahamic religions, is an ancient figure within the Judeo-Christian narrative who is called upon by God to abandon his home and settle new lands. Commanded by God to offer up his son as a sacrifice, Abraham was about to murder his son, Isaac, when an angel interrupted and rewarded him for his obedience to the divine will. However, predating the earliest known references to Abraham by at least a couple of centuries, the Hindu legend of Harishchandra – a tale in which a father must prove his worth through great familial sacrifice, bears notable comparisons to the biblical counterpart.

Harishchandra, a king, through varying accounts of how or why, came to owe Vishwamitra, a sage, the rights to his kingdom. Willingly parting with his worldly possessions and title, Vishwamitra still demanded an additional fee and so Harishchandra sold his wife and son to raise more funds. Taking a job at a crematorium – a low-class position within ancient Hindu culture – at a later date Harishchandra’s son was killed by a snake bite. Brought to him by his wife for cremation, Harishchandra refused to do so until his wife paid the requisite fee. Impressed by Harishchandra’s strict adherence to the rules and his duty, Vishnu elevated Harishchandra and his wife to divinity and resurrected his son.

20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures
“Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness”, by James Tissot (c. 1886-1894). Wikimedia Commons.

9. Among the many similarities and connections between the teachings of Buddhism and Christianity, the temptation of Christ is highly comparable to the temptation of the Buddha five hundred years prior

Appearing in all of the Synoptic Gospels, after being baptized Jesus entered the Judaean Desert and fasted for forty days and nights. During this endeavor, Satan appeared before Jesus on several occasions and sought to tempt him to turn away from God. Denying Satan each time, Jesus returns triumphantly to Galilee to begin his ministry. Whilst not an original concept in any sense, with heroic struggles with evil a common motif of ancient mythology, the specifics of the biblical narrative bear striking similarities with the Buddhist tradition. Born in approximately 563 BCE, Siddhārtha Gautama eventually rejected his princely heritage and embarked into the wilderness to seek the purpose of life.

After much time and travel, Siddhārtha sat beneath a fig tree and vowed to not move until he discovered this truth. During this prolonged meditation without food or drink, alleged to have lasted for forty-nine days, the demon Mara repeatedly sought to prevent Siddhārtha from realizing his goal. Tempting the prince with beautiful women and appeals to his pride, none were successful, and Siddhārtha reached Enlightenment. Becoming the Buddha, Siddhārtha departed his refuge, and like Jesus, began imparting his doctrinal wisdom to the wider world and formed the Sangha: a company of Buddhist monks akin to the apostles.

20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures
“Noah’s Sacrifice”, by Daniel Maclise (c. 1847-1853). Wikimedia Commons.

8. The biblical story of Noah’s ark is copied almost exactly from a far older Mesopotamian legend found in the Epic of Gilgamesh

The story of Noah forms a central component of the early Christian tradition. In perhaps the most blatant act of religious plagiarism, the biblical narrative, however, is almost identical to the flood story found in the Epic of Gilgamesh written almost 1500 years earlier. In the ancient Mesopotamian text, Utnapishtim is tasked by Enki to create a giant ship, named Preserver of Life, onto which he would bring his relatives and baby animals to survive an impending flood that would wipe out all life not on the vessel. Made from timber and two hundred feet in length, Utnapishtim’s ark had seven floors and was, in true Christian fashion, completed on the seventh day.

After many days aboard the ark, Utnapishtim sends out a dove to check whether the waters had receded. Discovering they had, Utnapishtim released the animals and Enki rewards his devotion, making a covenant with his future generations. Scholarly opinion has concluded that since the biblical story follows the older Gilgamesh version “point by point and in the same order”, “few doubt that it derives from a Mesopotamian account”. This copying does not, however, undermine either tales’ potential veracity, with the story of Utnapishtim believed to have been influenced by a real-life flood in Mesopotamia approximately 7000 years ago.

20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures
King Solomon, writing the Book of Proverbs. By Gustave Dore (c. 1866). Wikimedia Commons.

7. The Book of Proverbs, allegedly written by King Solomon, replicates the earlier Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope virtually word for word

The Book of Proverbs, a collection of biblical wisdom regarding moral behavior and the meaning of life, was allegedly written by Solomon and later compiled during the reign of Hezekiah in the late-9th century BCE. Despite claiming to be unique insights offered to the Israelites of God’s will, this entire chapter of the Bible borrows heavily from already existing non-Judeo-Christian religious sources, most notably the Instruction of Amenemope. Written in the 13th century BCE, the Instruction was a literary work of Ancient Egypt, composed during the Ramesside Period, and contains thirty chapters of advice for proper living.

Exemplifying these derivations, whilst Proverbs encourages one to “rob not the poor, for he is poor, neither oppress the lowly in the gate”, Amenemope stipulates to “beware of robbing the poor, and oppressing the afflicted. Equally, Proverbs incites one to “remove not the widow’s landmark; And enter not into the field of the fatherless”, whilst Amenemope commands “remove not the landmark from the bounds of the field…and violate not the widow’s boundary”. Although these incredible similarities, among dozens of others, were initially contested, by the 1960s biblical scholars reached a near-unanimous consensus regarding the primacy of the Instruction over Proverbs and declared a “direct connection” between the two historical treatises.

20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures
“The Hay Wagon”, by Hieronymus Bosch, depicting heaven and hell (c. 1510). Wikimedia Commons.

6. Akin to the supposed existence of angels, the concept of Heaven and Hell in Christian mythology borrows heavily from Zoroastrian and wider Persian religious traditions

A central component of Christian religious beliefs, the concept of an afterlife divided into heaven and hell forms an important dynamic within the Christian narrative. Appearing in Zoroastrianism, the sayings of Zoroaster provided commentary on the notion of personal judgment in the afterlife. Prescribing a “Path to Judgement”, all souls had to travel across a bridge, with those deemed unworthy falling into the depths beneath. However, in a comparable notion to Christianity, during the end times, with evil finally defeated, all souls would rise equally to be reunited for an indefinite future.

Borrowing heavily from preexisting religious systems, the terminology used to describe these entities within both the Old and New Testaments is broadly appropriated. The first biblical figure to reference notions of resurrection and judgment in the Bible, the prophet Daniel uses the term “paradise”: a conception dating from the Persian religion of Mithraism; concurrently, the earliest surviving examples from the New Testament makes persistent reference to “hades” as the afterlife, in clear reference to the Greek mythological underworld. It has been suggested that these conceptions of were passed into the Judaic tradition during the Babylonian Exile and residence in Zoroastrian Persia.

20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures
The Tower of Babel, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (c. 1563). Wikimedia Commons.

5. The story of the Tower of Babel, an important historical construction in the Old Testament, contains noteworthy similarities to an ancient Sumerian legend

The Tower of Babel, appearing in the Book of Genesis, serves as an origin myth to explain the different languages of the world. In the aftermath of the Great Flood, a united mankind embarks on a project to construct a great tower to reach heaven. Thwarting this effort, God confuses their speech and scatters humanity throughout the world to preclude future attempts. Believed to have been inspired, at least in part, by the Etemenanki – an ancient ziggurat dedicated to the Mesopotamian god Marduk – in Babylon, which would have been observed by the Israelites during the Babylonian Exile, the biblical narrative also draws considerably from a Sumerian legend.

Composed in the 21st century BCE, more than a millennium before the Bible, Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta is was an ancient Sumerian account of a series of conflicts between Enmerkar, King of Uruk, and an unnamed ruler of Aratta. The motivation behind the conflict, according to the story, was the demand by Enmerkar of tribute from Aratta to aid with the construction of a gigantic ziggurat in Eridu designed to reach the divine Enlil. Imploring the god Enki to restore the linguistic unity of mankind so that they might once again cooperate in peace, the Uruks are refused and a great war ensues among the nations of man.

20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures
“Christ and Buddha”, by Paul Ranson (c. 1880). Wikimedia Commons.

4. As with the story of the temptation of Christ by evil, many of the teachings of Jesus are close reproductions of older Buddhist mantras and principles

Predating the birth of Jesus by more than five hundred years, significant parallels between the teachings of the Buddha and of Jesus might be recognized. Identified more broadly by biblical scholars since the 19th century, with Ernest De Bunsen concluding that, with the exception of death by crucifixion, the Christian narrative of the life of Jesus was highly similar to that of Siddhārtha Gautama. These suggested influences by the Eastern religion upon early Christianity are not without historical corroboration, with Buddhism prevalent throughout the Near East at the start of the Common Era and indirect assimilation of teachings common practice throughout antiquity.

Among the “many parallels concerning the births, lives, doctrines, and deaths of the Buddha and Jesus”, a close examination of the holy teachings reveals substantial borrowing by the Christian gospels from the older religion. Whilst Luke 6:31 proclaims “and as you would that men should do to you, do you also to them in like manner”, the Dhammapada 10:1 encourages followers to “consider others as yourself”. Meanwhile, as the Buddha implored that “if anyone should give you a blow with his hand…you should abandon any desires and utter no evil words”, Jesus reciprocally taught “to him that striketh thee on the one cheek, offer also the other”.

20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures
“The Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Kinnaird Resurrection)”, by Rafael (c. 1499-1502). Wikimedia Commons.

3. The most important component of the narrative of Jesus, the resurrection of a murdered divine is a common theme in preceding religious traditions

The resurrection of Christ, a central doctrine of Christianity, contends that, after execution by the Romans via crucifixion, Jesus rose from the dead before subsequently ascending to heaven. Celebrated as evidence of his divinity, this aspect of the Christian narrative is highly unoriginal and derivative, with the “dying-and-rising god” motif a recurrent feature throughout ancient religious traditions. Coined by the anthropologist James George Frazer, comparative inquiries of several Near East religions from this time observe the inclusion of this theme, appearing also in Mesopotamia, Greece, Phrygia, Egypt, and Sumeria.

Bearing a close resemblance to the subsequent Greek narrative of Persephone, the Sumerian god Tammuz, killed in place of his wife, Inanna, who had escaped the underworld, would be resurrected each year to walk the Earth again for a brief time in honor of his sacrifice. Equally, the Egyptian deity Osiris was murdered by his brother, Set, and chopped into many parts scattered across the world. Pieced together by his wife, Isis, Osiris was resurrected and became the king of the dead within the Egyptian pantheon. With similar appearance by Adonis in Ancient Greece and Attis in Phrygia, the Christian narrative regarding Jesus is simply another in an extensive history of resurrection stories.

20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures
“Seated Dionysus holding out a kantharos”, by Psiax (c. 520-500 BCE). Wikimedia Commons.

2. Looking beyond simply the Marriage at Cana, the Jesus narrative in general follows a closely similar story arc to that of the Greek legends surrounding Dionysus

Distilling the story elements of the gospel narrative of Jesus, several key themes emerge as central to his character arc. Most importantly: an individual possessing divine authority and power but who is disguised as a mortal to walk among humanity, that said individual suffers persecution at the hands of mankind whilst seeking to impart wisdom, that he garners followers, including a retinue of female companions, as part of his ministry, and that his story ends in death at the hands of mankind. Whilst the Gospel of John, the most unique of the four canonical gospels, bears the closest resemblance, Jesus’ story in general carries significant similarities to that of Dionysus.

As previously noted, the Greek figure of Dionysus retains specific traits familiar with the Christian savior which were likely produced due to the not insubstantial influence of the cult of Dionysus in the Near East at the time of the New Testament’s writing. However, comparing the legendary Greek god of wine’s story to that of the Christian narrative – an elusive, hunted, persecuted prophetic teacher, whose life ends in violent death – one cannot ignore the highly derivative nature of the younger Christian tradition. Being fair, however, to the gospel authors, it is not as identical as other biblical appropriations, with the two characters offering differing moral advice and acting in opposition concerning violence.

20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures
A heroic representation believed to depict Enkidu, at the Palace of Sargon II at Khorsabad (c. 713-706 BCE). Wikimedia Commons.

1. Possessing enormous similarities with the Christian creation story in the Book of Genesis, both Adam and the Garden of Eden are drawn from alternative and older religious traditions

Created by God from “the dust of the ground”, with life subsequently breathed into him, according to the Bible Adam was the first man. Provided with the Garden of Eden, a “paradise of pleasure”, in which to live, the consumption of the forbidden fruit results in Adam, along with his wife Eve, being expelled from the Garden. Once more, the Judeo-Christian tradition is not original, but instead appropriates significantly from the Epic of Gilgamesh which includes the tale of Enkidu. Formed from clay and water by Aruru, the goddess of creation, Enkidu lives among the animals in a natural paradise until he is tempted by a woman, Shamhat, who tricks him into leaving his sanctuary naked.

Unable to return, Enkidu is condemned to walk the Earth among other humans until his eventual death by illness – a condition non-existent in his previous paradise. Demonstrating how interconnected the ancient Near East religions truly are, the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism equally contains a similar creation story to the younger Christian narrative. The Avesta – the primary collection of religious scriptures in Zoroastrianism – depicts a story of creation by Ormuzd. Taking six days, and resting upon the seventh, the 10th century BCE text also includes reference to the creation of the first two humans, named Adama and Evah.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead: Journey Through the Afterlife”, John H. Taylor, British Museum Press (2010)

“The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic”, William Warde Fowler, Nabu Press (2010, reprint)

“The Book of Christmas: Everything We Once Knew and Loved About Christmastime”, Jane Struthers, Ebury Press (2012)

“A History of Zoroastrianism, Vol. 1”, Mary Boyce, Leiden Brill (1996)

“Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices”, Mary Boyce, Routledge & Kegan Paul (1979)

“The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History, and Modernity”, Stephen R. Holmes, IVP Academic (2012)

“Asclepius: The God of Medicine”, Gerald D. Hart, Royal Society of Medicine Press (2000)

“Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies”, Ludwig Edelstein and Emma Edelstein, Johns Hopkins University Press (1998)

“Samson and the Liminal Hero in the Ancient Near East”, Gregory Mobley, T & T Clark (2006)

“The Great Fish in Ancient and Medieval Story”, Cornelia Catlin Coulter, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association (1926)

“Fishing for Jonah (anew)”, Louis Jonker and Douglas Lawrie, Stellenbosch University (2005)

“Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopaedia”, Richard Cavendish and Trevor Oswald Ling, Rizzoli Publishing (1980)

“God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything”, Christopher Hitchens, Twelve Books Publishing (2007)

“Athena”, Susan Deacy, Routledge (2008)

“John as Storyteller: Narrative Criticism and the Fourth Gospel”, Mark W.G. Stibbe, Cambridge University Press (1994)

“The Myth of Paganism: Nonnus, Dionysus, and the World of Late Antiquity”, Robert Shorrock, Bloomsbury Academic (2011)

“Asian Mythologies”, Yves Bonnefoy and Wendy Doniger, University of Chicago Press (1993)

“The Buddha and Christ: Explorations in Buddhist and Christian Dialogue”, Leo D. Lefebure, Orbis Books (1993)

“Essential Buddhism”, Jack Maguire, Atria Books (2001)

“World Mythology: An Anthology of the Great Myths and Epics”, Donna Rosenberg, National Textbook Company (1994)

“The Alleged Semitic Origin of the Wisdom of Amenemope”, Ronald J. Williams, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology (1961)

“The Teachings of Amenemope and Proverbs XXII 17-XXIV 22: Further Reflections on a Long-standing Problem”, J.A. Emerton, Vetus Testamentum (2001)

“Introducing Christian Doctrine”, Millard Erickson, Baker Academic (2001)

“The ‘Babel of Tongues’: A Sumerian Version”, Samuel Noah Kramer, Journal of the American Oriental Society (1968)

“The Angel-Messiah of Buddhists, Essenes, and Christians”, Ernest De Bunsen, Longmans, Green & Company (2016)

“Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times”, Jerry H. Bentley, Oxford University Press (1992)

“The ‘Dying and Rising God’: A Survey of Research from Frazer to the Present Day”, Tryggve N.D. Mettinger, in “David and Zion: Biblical Studies in Honor of J.J.M. Roberts”, Bernard F. Batto and Kathryn L. Roberts, Eisenbrauns Publishing (2004)

“The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition”, Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd, Baker Academic (2007)

“The Elusive Christ: A New Reading of the Fourth Gospel”, Mark W.G. Stibbe, Routledge (1993)

“The Epic of Gilgamesh”, Benjamin R. Foster, W.W. Norton & Company (2001)