Jesus: a Saviour Just Like the Kings and Gods of Egypt and Babylon

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by Neil Godfrey

The Good Shepherd, mosaic in Mausoleum of Gall...
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Thomas L. Thompson wrote The Messiah Myth to demonstrate that the sayings and deeds of Jesus in the Gospels (and David in the OT) are the product of a literary tradition about Saviour figures — both kings and deities — throughout the Middle East. The subtitle of the book is “the Near Eastern roots of Jesus and David”.

A number of New Testament scholars have expressed concern that contemporary classical literature is not widely read and studied by their peers. One’s understanding of the Gospels and Acts — and even the New Testament letters — is enriched when one can recognize links between them and other literature of their day. Thompson goes a bit further than this, and appeals for a greater awareness of the longstanding tradition of literary themes and images that were the matrix of both Old and New Testament narratives.

Some scholars see in Jesus’ sayings certain gems that are unique or holy or brilliantly enlightened and worthy of the deepest respect. They see in his deeds of healing and concern for the poor and weak a noble character worthy of devotion.

Some see the themes of concern for the poor and condemnation of the rich and powerful as evidence that Jesus was tapping into popular revolutionary or resistance sentiments among peasants and displaced persons in early first-century Galilee.

Other scholars see in the saying evidence of economic exploitation such that a sense of resentment could easily morph into a Jesus movement.

All of the above interpretations are thrown into question when one notices their echoes in the OT – and especially throughout the wider world of the OT. The wordings vary, but they are all clear reiterations of the same motifs.

But after one becomes more familiar with the literary heritage of the ancient “Near East”, one must legitimately ask if all those sayings and deeds of Jesus are nothing more than stereotypical tropes that authors wanting to describe any God in the flesh or Saviour King would inevitably use. What is said of Jesus was said countless times of your average typical Saviour Pharaoh or Mesopotamian monarch or deity.

Naturally we expect the Gospel authors to be more influenced by the Jewish texts than Egyptian or Mesopotamian ones, but Thompson shows that this is all part of the same package. What we read in the Old Testament is much the same as we read among Egyptian, Syrian and Babylonian literature. It’s all part and parcel of the same thought world.

Thompson asks readers to re-read the Gospel narratives about Jesus in the context of the literary heritage of the Jewish scriptures — and to understand that heritage as itself part of a wider literary and ethical outlook throughout the Middle East. Don’t forget that Jews were not confined to Palestine but were well established in communities from Babylonia to Egypt, too.

The following extracts are from Thompson’s discussion of The Song for a Poor Man. It is only one of the several facets of this heritage that Thompson addresses. One sees that the ancient world was full of Saviours like Jesus. It must have been a happy time and place (tongue in cheek).

Celebrating the accession of Ramses IV to the throne in 1166 bce. Compare Beatitudes and in Luke Jesus announcing his mission in the synagogue . . .

Oh Happy Day! Heaven and earth are in joy. They who had fled have returned to their homes; they who were hidden live openly; they who were hungry are filled and happy; they who were thirsty are drunken; they who were naked are clothed in fine linen; they who were dirty are dressed in white; they who were in prison are set free; they who were chained rejoice; the troubled of the land have found peace. . . .

The homes of the widows are open (again), so that they may let wanderers come in. Womenfolk rejoice and repeat their songs of jubilation . . . saying, “Male children are born (again) for good times, for he brings into being generation upon generation. You ruler, life, prosperity, health! You are for eternity!

Inscription of a good sixth century Pharaoh . . .

I rescued the weak from the stronger . . . I gave bread to the hungry, clothes to the naked . . .

Lots of Christians around in those days — from an autobiography from 6th Dynasty Egypt . . .

I gave bread to the hungry, clothes to the naked . . .

Middle Kingdom stele of Intef . . .

I am a friend of the poor, one well-disposed to the have-not. I am one who feeds the hungry in need, who is open-handed to the pauper.

Middle Kingdom Coffin Text . . .

I made . . . that the poor man might have rights like the great man. . . . I made every man like his fellow

Instruction to a Middle Kingdom Pharaoh . . .

I gave to the beggar; I raised the orphan; I gave success to the poor as to the wealthy.

Middle Kingdom story of Sinuhe . . .

I let everyone stay with me. I gave water to the thirsty; I showed the way to him who strayed. I rescued him who had been robbed . . . . I gave bread to my neighbour.

Hymn to the Sun God Re . . .

Hail to you, O Re, lord of truth, whose shrine is hidden, the Lord of the Gods. . . . who hears the prayer of him who is in captivity . . . . saving the fearful from the terrible of heart, judging the weak and injured. . . . When he comes, the people live.

Middle Kingdom litany (like the Beatitudes) . . .

How happy are the gods, for . . .
How happy are your children, for. . . .
How happy are your fathers, for . . .
How happy are the Egyptians, for . . .
How happy is mankind . .  .
How happy are the two banks, . . .
How happy are your young men, for . . .
How happy are the old . . .
How happy are the two lands, …

Prophecy of Neferti . . .

I show you the lowly as superior . . . The poor man will make wealth; the great one will pray to live. The beggar will eat bread; the slaves will be exalted.

New Kingdom Egypt . . .

Do justice, then you endure on earth. Calm the weeper; do not oppress the widow . . . .

And many more with striking similarities to the ethical instructions in the Bible, including those of Jesus.

The following are from Mesopotamian and Syrian texts:

Hymn to Marduk . . .

You release the captive; you take by the hand and raise the injured from his bed. You make the captive in darkness and prison, the hostage, see light.

Hymn to the goddess Ishtar (healing the lame and blind) . . .

The sick man who sees your face revives; his bondage is released; he gets up instantly. At your command, O Ishtar, the blind man sees the light, the unhealthy one who sees your face becomes healthy.

To the god Nabu of Assyria . . .

Let the dead man revive by your breeze; let his squandered life become gain.

Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, otherwise known for relief sculptures depicting his darker side . . .

Their plundered possessions I restored. The naked I clothed . . .

Prayer to goddess Ishtar (it was a god’s job description to raise the dead and heal the sick) . . .

O deity of men . . . where you look one who is dead lives; one who is sick rises up

Kilamuwa inscription . . .

But I was to some a father, and to some a mother, and to some I was a brother.

Compare passages from the Hebrew Bible — you’re expected to know these so no quotes — just the cites:

First three books are Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy . . .

And what does any of this have to do with Jesus?

If you’re still not sure have a look at:

Matthew 5:3-12, 43-45;  11:4-6; 13:14-17; 18:1-5; 20:25-28, 33-34; 23:8-12; 25:31-46

Mark 2:10-12;  4:2-9; 7:32-37; 8:22-26; 10:21-27

Luke 1:46-55;  3:5-6; 4:18-19;  6:20-27;  7:21-23; 10:29-37; 14:7-14; 17:11-18; 18:2-8; 19:5-10

John 7:37; 8:12; 9:39


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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “Jesus: a Saviour Just Like the Kings and Gods of Egypt and Babylon”

  1. My granddaughter is a ‘pre-teen’.
    Apparently its an advertising market target niche term whatever.
    Anyway I’ve watched her playing on a computer on a specific program/site where she dresses up a figure.
    The site has a blank drawing, realistic sort of, a tabular raza of a young adult/pre-teen and she, my granddaughter, can add elements to the basic model from anm elaborate menu of possibilities.
    Shape the eyebrows, lengthen the lashes, change the eye colour, fashion the hair do, change its colour, make the model taller or shorter, broad or slim, add/decrease the bust.
    And so on.
    Got the idea [I hope I’m being clear]?
    Then she can play with the clothing, Barby doll style.

    Thats what sprang to my mind when I read Thompson’s book.

    The ‘creators’ of Jesus were selecting drom a Barby doll menu of ancient themes and motifs, you have just given one small sample in your post, to put shape and clothing on their specific Christ basic hero model.
    And just like my Granddaughter ends up with a model that reflects the stereotypes of a ‘beautiful person’ according to the culture in which she is being raised, so did the artists who designed the wardrobe of Jesus [and David] cloth him in the themes that befit the culture of their time and place.
    From TT’s chapter headings:
    The Myth of:
    The Good King
    Conquering Holy Warrior
    Dying and Rising God
    Eye make-up.

    1. Reminds me of the blues song about the “put together girl” removing all the bits that made her look good. Now that would have been a decent title — The Put Together Jesus, the Barby Doll Jesus.

      It’s the same for his followers, too. Edmund Cohen in The Mind of the Bible Believer points out how Paul instructs Christians to “put on” the “new man”, and his followers dutifully live out the “put on” game.

  2. There is a tendency among some scholars to claim that Jews were almost hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world.

    Jews thought one way, pagans thought another, and their two world views were so different that if a belief was pagan, no Jew could ever have held it.

  3. I think that one thing Crossley does get right (Jesus in an Age of Terror) is his tracing of how Jesus studies have evolved pre and post World War 2, and his explanation that the Jesus-was-very-Jewish view of many scholars is attributable to the shift in attitudes towards Jews after the war.

    April DeConick says the same of the tendency to whitewash Judas.

    It’s interesting how accusations of Holocaust denial and anti-semitism do sometimes gratuitously poke their pointy heads into discussions with or about mythicists.

  4. There are tonnes of things in the ot that draw from ancient near East beliefs, further Myth made fact a book by a PhD scholar Markos draws the Greek myths and relates that to Christianity

    It is pretty clear in ancient writings that Israel was not sealed off and drew their beliefs and explained things from other Cultural beliefs…even small particular theology or thoughts can be seen like the sun *rising or the heart being a mind of sorts, or the ‘evil eye’ all Greek and ane ideology and all found in the OT

    This is where I see YHWH trying to pass that down to us telling us this in deut 32 and gen 11 reference….that the peoples didn’t know this stuff they attributed it to their gods (the elohim) instead of the one true el… yhwh…this is where my belief stands.

    As far as ones that don’t believe in a spiritual after life …I am curious their take on NDEs and explaining this phenomenon – more so the ones that have stated experiences that have seen and known things that are naturally impossible to have know while be unconscious…1 example is knowing what was being done the next room over in detail – they state they went to the next room over while dead.

    1. As for Near Death Experiences, I ask myself what is more likely: that a person really did in some sense visit a place and later report in detail what only a visitor at the time could possibly have known, Or that a person is convinced (though sincere yet misguided) that that is what happened despite there being no proof that his memories really were accurate?

      See, for example, doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00429 — Or other scientific research into NDEs.

      We hear reports that are amazing but it is another thing to have any of those reports accompanied by neutral observers who can reliably confirm them.

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