20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures

20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures

Steve - March 20, 2019

The Bible is an excellent example of ancient literature, dating from the mid-1st millennium BCE through the first century of the Common Era, even with its historical inaccuracies and theological biases. The importance of the Bible in these terms cannot be overstated. However, as with many ancient legends, one should not allow the religious connotations of the Bible as the holy text of Christianity to blind oneself from the highly derivative nature of many of its stories. Rather than a product of original teachings and divine inspiration, significant portions and many vital moments of the biblical narrative, in both the Old and New Testaments, are, in fact, drawn from far older religious traditions including Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and the beliefs of Mesopotamia.

20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures
The Gutenberg Bible, on display at the Lenox Library (c. 1455). Wikimedia Commons.

Here are 20 biblical traditions that are heavily influenced (and potentially borrowed in full) from other ancient belief systems:


20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures
“Moses Smashing the Tablets of the Law”, by Rembrandt (c. 1659). Wikimedia Commons.

20. The Ten Commandments – the foundational moral principles of the Old Testament – were largely borrowed from Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian religious traditions

The Ten Commandments, brought down by Moses from Mount Sinai, are a composite set of religious principles which form the ethical fundamentals of the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, despite this centrality to both Christianity and Judaism, the Ten Commandments are not unique to these world religions, nor, in fact, do they originate with them. Predating the incident with Moses, which supposedly occurred in 1490 BCE, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, dating from approximately 2600 BCE, bears noteworthy similarities. Whereas Exodus 20:7 proclaims: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain”, the Book of the Dead stipulates: “I have not blasphemed”.

Other transparent parallels with the Egyptian religious text include “I have not committed adultery” and “I have not stolen”, mirroring Exodus 20:14 – “Thou shalt not commit adultery” – and Exodus 20:15: “Thou shalt not steal”. Not merely borrowed from the Egyptians, the Ten Commandments also draw inspiration from the Code of Hammurabi dating from 1772 BCE. Inscribed on a stone stele in a manner similar to that of the Commandments, these rigidly enforced laws from ancient Mesopotamia have been suggested as likewise transitioning beliefs from abstract concepts into solid laws mandating obedience.

20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures
“Saturnalia”, by Antoine Callet (c. 1783). Wikimedia Commons.

19. Borrowing heavily from concurrent pagan beliefs, the Christian tradition of Christmas drew significant inspiration from already existing practices

Despite never specifically stating the actual date of the birth of Jesus in the Bible, Christian traditions have become immeasurably connected to the idea the historical figure was born on December 25. Considerable discussion around the turn of the third century of the Common Era centered on the precise date, with Augustine of Hippo, among others arguing strenuously that Christ had been born on the shortest day of the year in the Roman calendar. However, early Christian sources predating formal institution of a December birth in the 4th century equally record recognition that, as is the consensus today, this was not the true date but was instead influenced by longstanding pagan traditions.

Coinciding with several pagan festivals pertaining to the winter solstice, including also the birth of Sol Invictus, the choice of Jesus’ birth date draws significant inspiration from the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. Celebrating the divine Saturn, held between December 17 and December 23, the festival included noteworthy parallels to the Christian convention; among these include a familial feast and the private and personal exchanges of gifts. Even Saturnalia, as with much of the Roman pantheon, borrows from earlier traditions, most notably from the Greek holiday of Kronia: a celebration of the Greek Titan, Cronus, and father of Zeus.

20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures
“The Last Judgment”, by Michelangelo (c. 1536-1541). Wikimedia Commons.

18. Copied from earlier religious traditions, the Christian narrative of the Apocalypse bears persistent and substantial correlations to the older Zoroastrian narrative of the “Frashokereti”

Appearing in the Book of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament, the Second Coming of the Messiah was propagandized to symbolize the end of the world. Predicting the destruction of the Earth and divine judgment of mankind, this conception of an eventual apocalypse is not original to the Christian biblical narrative. Instead, most world religions, including those predating the Judeo-Christian tradition, possess detailed accounts of this process from which the Bible heavily drew inspiration. Of particular note, Zoroastrianism, among the oldest recorded religions, contains significant parallels.

Dating from the second millennium before the Common Era, Zoroastrian eschatology becomes a fully formed component of the religion at least five hundred years before the birth of Jesus and the subsequent Gospel of John. Predicting that the sun will decay, with the days shortening and the land growing barren, a great battle between the righteous and the wicked would be followed by the “Frashokereti”. Marked by the arrival of the “Saoshyant”, the final savior of mankind, the dead would be resurrected and those worthy of the divine gift would be granted immortality and the chance to live without want or fear in paradise.

20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures
“Holy Trinity”, by Švenčiausioji Trejybė (c. 1756-1758). Wikimedia Commons.

17. A vital aspect of Christian religious doctrine, the Holy Trinity predates Christianity by thousands of years

A central component of the Christian doctrine, the Trinity – comprised of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – asserts that God exists as three distinct, yet also consubstantial divine persons. Emphasized in particular by the Gospel of John, which states “there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one”. Belief in the precise form of the Trinity, as resolved at the First Council of Nicaea, remains a matter of disconnect between various Christian denominations. However, despite internal schisms, the concept of a divine trinity is not original to Christianity, but rather borrowed from earlier and older religious traditions.

Known broadly as “Tritheism” – the belief that divinity is composed of three entities – this religious convention is recurrent among the world’s religions. The Hindu Trinity, for example, contains Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the preserver, and Shiva, the destroyer, who act harmoniously to maintain balance. Observing even more ancient religious beliefs, many of humanity’s oldest theological conceptions contain a trinity, including Amun, Re, and Ptah in Egypt, Ishtar, Baal, and Tammuz in Mesopotamia, and Anu, Enil, and Ea, in Sumerian mythology, whilst pagan pantheons typically reserved positions for three great divinities above other lesser gods.

20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures
Statue of Asclepius, exhibited in the Museum of Epidaurus Theatre. Wikimedia Commons.

16. A figure of Greek mythology, the healing miracles of Asclepius form the basis for the supposed “Miracles of Jesus” found in the New Testament of the Bible

A key characterization of the Christian narrative, the miracles of Jesus, were alleged supernatural actions that proved not only his divinity, but also provided examples of the compassion and forgiveness that formed the core of his ministry’s teachings. The miracles span curing blindness, leprosy, and paralysis, three of the canonical gospels also state that, on at least one occasion, Jesus was responsible for resurrecting the deceased. Viewed from a cultural perspective, miracles were widely believed phenomena two thousand years ago, appearing persistently in both Hellenistic and Jewish mythologies against which the gospels were written.

Possessing significant similarities to the healing miracles supposedly performed by Jesus, the Greek hero Asclepius was believed to have been a legendary healer who ascended to divinity through his good deeds. Capable of curing any ailment, according to Greek mythology, Asclepius was even capable of restoring life to the dead. This act provoked Zeus to eventually martyr Asclepius to prevent mankind from escaping death forever and, thus, deny Hades of their spirits. Knowledge of Asclepius was immensely widespread in the ancient world, with temples dedicated to him spanning the Mediterranean by the 5th century BCE, offering ample opportunity for the younger Christian narrative to become infused with his older legend.

20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures
“Samson’s fight with the Lion”, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (c. 1520-1525). Wikimedia Commons.

15. The story of Samson, one of the most popular legends from the Old Testament, is a near-exact replication of the Greek legend of Heracles

Samson, the last of the judges of the ancient Israelites, was a Nazirite granted immense strength on the provision that his long hair was not cut. Among the superhuman deeds performed by Samson in the Bible are the slaying of a lion with his bare hands, the defeat of a Philistine army using only the jawbone of a donkey, and the collapsing of the Temple of Dagon upon himself. Possessing noteworthy similarities to already existing figures of religious folklore, including the Sumerian Enkidu and the Greek Heracles, contemporary interpretation views Samson as a Jewish interpretation of an already existing legendary narrative.

Dated to the 13th century BCE, thus preceding the Book of Judges by 500 years, in spite of assertions by biblical traditionalists that Samson was a genuine individual, the stories of Heracles and Samson are so similar they warrant accusations of plagiarism. Heracles, like Samson, slew a lion bare-handed, both men tore down the gates of a city, both were betrayed by untrustworthy women who were ultimately responsible for their downfall, and both died at their own hands in an act of martyrdom. Likewise, Enkidu, along with Gilgamesh, were men of great strength who joined forces to defeat the Bull of Heaven in defiance of Ishtar and who died as a result of his own hubris.

20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures
“Jonah and the Whale”, by Pieter Lastman (c. 1621). Wikimedia Commons.

14. Appearing in cultures and civilizations around the world, the biblical story of Jonah is merely a regurgitation of an existing and common story trope

The eponymous lead character of the Book of Jonah (Hebrew Bible), in punishment for defying God, Jonah is swallowed by a giant fish until he consents to perform the task assigned. Appearing in the mythologies of countless preexisting civilizations, the story of Jonah is widely accepted as being unoriginal and derivative. Commonalities can be found, in particular, with the Hindu legend of Saktideva. Saktideva, wishing to marry the Princess of Vardhamanapura, embarks upon a journey to discover the Golden City to win her hand in marriage. During this adventure, Saktideva is devoured by a giant fish before being eventually freed unharmed.

Examining the biblical story more broadly, narrative parallels containing a hero being swallowed by a giant fish appear in almost all known civilizations as a metaphorical representation of rebirth. In ancient Babylon, the Whale of Der swallows and subsequently gives birth to Oannes; the Finnish hero Ilmarinen is swallowed in order to, likewise, be reborn; and Heracles, copied once again, is swallowed in the course of fighting a sea monster before defeating the beast from the inside. Significantly, and suggesting heavy influence, Heracles is swallowed near the port of Jaffa – the place of nautical departure in the biblical story of Jonah.

20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures
The Archangel Michael fighting devilry, by Guido Reni (c. 1636). Wikimedia Commons.

13. Once again, reflecting the underlying influence of Zoroastrianism in the Judeo-Christian canon, the biblical narrative existence of angels, demons, and a struggle between good and evil can be read as highly derivative of existing belief systems

Although angels, demons, and the eternal struggle between good and evil form a central component of the Christian religious canon, one should not automatically assume that these doctrinal concepts originated with the religion itself. Instead, these supernatural elements, once again, were borrowed from an already existing philosophy – in this instance Zoroastrianism – and transposed into the Christian narrative. Predating Judeo-Christianity by many hundreds of years, Zoroastrianism is widely believed to have been the first organized religion to construct a detailed account of these religious concepts and coalesce them into a single history.

According to the Zoroastrian creation myth, Ahura Mazda resided in light above whilst Angra Mainyu dwelled in darkness below. Creating seven heavenly beings to support him in his good works, Ahura Mazda brought into creation the “Amesha Spentas” along with countless “yazads” to serve as lesser angels. Filling the space between light and darkness with perfection, Angra Mainyu responded by creating an equal number of negative opposites. Trapping humanity in a world of two halves – of day and night – this assault upon creation rendered the world an imperfect place where good must always struggle against evil. Overall, a similar story to the biblical creation narrative albeit one which separates good and evil into two personages rather than a single monotheistic omnipotent entity.

20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures
“Annunciation”, by Guido Reni (c. 1621). Wikimedia Commons.

12. Rather than a unique inclusion in the Christian narrative, the virginal birth of Jesus actually borders on cliché among ancient religious traditions

Enshrined in the Nicaean Creed, the virgin birth of Jesus forms an important narrative turn of the Christian biblical story. Overlooking the patent implausibility of the claim, this element of Christianity is completely unoriginal and panders to the liturgical conventions of the time, with so-called “miraculous births” common features of the stories of mythological heroes dating from pre-antiquity. Whilst many of these stories involve literal sexual intercourse between divine beings and mortals, with biblical scholar M. David Litwa contending the Gospels of Matthew and Luke consciously sought to avoid comparison to pagan tales, virgin birth myths remain endemic within the genre.

Borrowing heavily from the birth of Zoroaster, who according to the eponymous religion’s tradition was born to Dughdova: a virgin impregnated by a shaft of light sent by Ahura Mazda. Spanning multiple other world religions, even the Greek tradition, which more commonly included literal physical acts of intercourse between deities and mortals, contains legendary stories of virginal births. Bearing similarities to the Bible, the birth of Erichthonius by Athena within the Greek tradition fits this narrative, whereby the semen of Hephaestus impregnates the Earth (Gaia) to permit Athena to adopt the resultant offspring as her own in a role similar to Joseph.

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)