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Apostolic Legend Apostolic Scholarship Over Paganism Over other Christianities
No one alive when Jesus lived ever mentioned Him

...the religion of Israel did not invent even one myth.
[Mircea Eliade]

The evidence of the similarities between Canaanite and Israelite societies has led to a major change in the general understanding of the relationship between these two societies. Rather than viewing them as two separate cultures, some scholars define Israelite culture as a subset of Canaanite culture.
[Mark Smith. The Early History of God]




Pagan origins of the Old Testament
It wasn't just Jesus who borrowed from other ancient religions; so did Judaism. Judaism was not new and not unique. Judea was one of dozens of tiny eastern Mediterranean temple-states.  Judaism was one of dozens of temple state religions.  Nothing special, back then.  Special to us only because of our intervening history.


An example Moses got the goods straight from God, right? Sure. Back then lots of tribes got their holy laws straight from God.

Here's the ancient historian Diodorus Siculus (1st century BC) describing how it worked.


Diodorus says:
The Egyptians got their holy laws from their God Hermes;
The Minoans got their holy laws from their God Zeus.
The Spartans got their holy laws from their God Apollo.
The Arians (in Persia)got their holy laws from their God Ahura Mazda.
The Getae got their holy laws from their God Hestia.
The Jews' got their holy laws from their God Yahweh.

The Jews got their holy laws from their God, just like pretty much everyone else got their laws from their Gods.That's how the ancients saw it.

Of course nowadays we see the Jewish version of this ancient Pagan custom as special. But the truth is we care about Judaism only because of it's special relationship to Christianity. William Ewer's "How odd of God to choose the Jews" isn't right. God didn't choose the Jews, western culture chose Christianity, Judaism was just the bow on the package. We keep it around for sentimental reasons.

How do we know this? Here's one way. In ancient times there were Samaritan Jews, a big time version of the Judaism you know about. They even had their own Christ, a first century miracle worker named Simon Magnus. (You knew there was a Samaritan Jewish Christ, right?) You heard about Samaritan Judaism lately? No one cares. We care about our Judaism—because we care about our Christianity. "It's not God but youse what choose the Jews."

After the establishment of settled life in Egypt in early times. . . the first, they say, to persuade the multitudes to use written laws was Mneves, a man not only great of soul but also in his life the most public spirited of all lawgivers whose names are recorded. According to the tradition he claimed that Hermes had given the laws to him, with the assurance that they would be the cause of great blessings, just as among the Greeks, they say, Minos did in Crete and Lycurgus among the Lacedaemonians, the former saying that he received his laws from Zeus and the latter his from Apollo. Also among several other peoples tradition says that this kind of a device was used and was the cause of much good to such as believed it. Thus it is recorded that among the Arians Zathraustes claimed that the Good Spirit [Ahura Mazda] gave him his laws, among the people known as the Getae who represent themselves to be immortal Zalmoxis asserted the same of their common goddess Hestia, and among the Jews Moyses referred his laws to the god who is invoked as Iao. [translator's note: This pronunciation seems to reflect a Hebrew form Yahu ; cp. Psalms 68. 4 "His name is Jah."]
[Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History, 1.94 (1st century BC),—which you can find in: Oldfather, C. H. Diodorus of Sicily, The Library of History, Books I - ii.34 (Loeb Classical Library #279) (1933 (1998)) , pg. 319- 21]

Don't believe me, believe the ancients themselves.

Actually, the early Jews weren't even Jews—at least not in the sense that they worshiped the Jewish tribal God Yahweh. Some of them worshiped Canaanite Gods.  


You wanted to piss off an OT prophet? Just sacrifice to Baal. Drove 'em wild.


You, Judah, have as many gods as you have towns; you have set up as many altars to burn sacrifices to Baal as there are streets in Jerusalem.
[Old Testament, Jeremiah, 11.13 - 14]

Don't believe me, believe the ancients themselves.

In fact, early Judaism, way way back, developed as a sect of Canaanite religion.


Judaism, our Judaism, a sect of Canaanit-ism?! This is just Greg bloviating, right? Nope. Here's a synopsis of the current state of the scholarship, from Mark Smith, a hot shot in the field and Skirball Professor of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at New York University (although I doubt it makes getting dinner reservations any easier) >>

The evidence of the similarities between Canaanite and Israelite societies has led to a major change in the general understanding of the relationship between these two societies. Rather than viewing them as two separate cultures, some scholars define Israelite culture as a subset of Canaanite culture.
[Smith, Mark S. The Early History of God; Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel (2d edition) (2002), pg. 25]

POCM quotes modern scholars

And in case you think Dr. Smith is bloviating, here's a smattering of the facts he cites. >>

Here's the set up:


We read about ancient Canaanite religion in Canaanite clay tablets dug up at Ras Shamara in Syria. (In ancient times the sign said Ugarit.)


We read about ancient Jewish religion from the Old Testament.


Ugarit fell centuries before Israel existed; so if there was borrowing, it had to be from Canaanite to Israelite.

What Dr. Smith points out is that a number of technical religious words are the same in Ugaritic as they are in Biblical Hebrew. He gives a list, and he gives citations so you can go look them up if that will make you happy..

His point is: "This incidence of highly specialized sacrificial terms suggests a common West Semitic heritage."


[KAI and KTU are the standard li-bary books for Ugaritic texts.
KAI = Kanaanaische und aramaische Inschriften
KTU = Die Keilalpabetischen Texte aus Ugarit ]

The Canaanite (or, West Semitic) background of Israel's culture extended to the realm of religion. This is evident from the terminology for cultic sacrifices and personnel. BH [Biblical Hebrew] sacrificial language with corresponding terms in Ugaritic and/or Phoenician includes
zebah, "slaughtered offering," a biblical term applied to sacrifices in the cults of both Yahweh (Gen. 46:l; Exod. 10:25; 18:12; Hos. 3:4; 6:6; 9:4; Amos 5:25) and Baal (2 Kings 10:19,24; cf. KTU 1.116.1; 1.127; 1.148; KAI 69:12, 14; 74:10);
zebah hayyamim, "the annual slaughtered offering" (1 Sam. 1:21; 2: 19; 20:6; cf. KAI 26 A II:19-III:2; C IV2-5);
selamim, "offering of well-being/greeting" (Leviticus 3; cf. KTU 1.105.9; 109; KAI 69:3; 51 obv.:5-6; 120:2);
, offering of a vow (Numbers 30; Deuteronomy 12; cf. Ugaritic ndr, KTU 1.127.2; cf. mdr, 1.119.30; KAI 155:l; 156; cf. 18:l; 45:1);
, "tribute offering" (Lev. 2:1-16; cf. CIS 14:5; KAI 69:14; 145:12-13);
kaltl, "holocaust" (Deut. 33:10; Lev. 6:15-16; 1 Sam. 7:9; Ps. 51:21; cf. Deut. 13:17; cf. KTU 1.115.10; KAI 69:3,5,7; 74:5).

Other terms have been viewed as semantic equivalents in Hebrew and Ugaritic. It is assumed, for example, that BH
'olah (Leviticus 1; cf. Judg. 11:30, 39) is semantically equivalent with Ugaritic srp (KTU 1.105.9, 15; 1.106.2; 1.109); both denote an offering entirely consumed by fire. The 'olah sacrifice belonged not only to the cult of Yahweh in Jerusalem and elsewhere but also to the cult of Baal in Samaria (2 Kings 10:24; cf. 'It in KAI 159:8). A ritual of general expiation was not only an Israelite feature (e.g., Leviticus 16; 17:11; cf. Gen. 32:21 for a noncultic example); it was also a Ugaritic phenomenon (KTU 1.40). Both Ugaritic texts (1.46.1; 1.168.9) and biblical rituals (Leviticus 4-5) provide for divine forgiveness (*slh/*slh). This incidence of highly specialized sacrificial terms suggests a common West Semitic heritage.
[Mark Smith. The Early History of God; Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel (2d edition) (2002), pg. 22- 3]

POCM quotes modern scholars

Judean Paganism
How was Judaism different from other religions of the time? Except for it's tribal monotheism, it wasn't. Like everyone else back then, Jews believed in God in heaven, hell, souls, sin, purity, purification, prophecy. Like everyone else Jews worshiped their God in his house—a temple, with priests, altars, sacrificed animals, etc., etc., etc. Judaism was the version of ancient Paganism that developed in ancient Judea.

Think of it this way: In 167 BC Judea's foreign ruler, a guy named Antiochus IV, forced the Jews to give up their temple sacrifice and switch to his Pagan temple sacrifice (to Zeus, probably; some scholars think Dionysus).

Of course some of the Jews were highly upset, but that's not the point. The point is this: all that changed was the animal killed and the name of the God. The fact that an animal was killed—at an altar, in a God's temple, with incense, that part was burned for the god and the rest was eaten—and that everyone, Pagan and Jew, knew exactly how that worked and what it meant, that didn't change. Judaism was continuous with Paganism. Wow. Bet you didn't pick that up in church.


Is this just Greg talking? Nope. The ancient Jews understood that their sacrifices worked just like pagan sacrifices. How do we know this? Simple: they said so. Here's Philo (a famous first century AD Jew from Alexandria in Egypt) saying just that.

First, a little background. Alexandria was a big city in Egypt. LIke everything else in the first century, it was run by the Romans. Lots of Jews lived in Alexandria. Lots of Greeks lived there too.

Pretty easy so far, huh?

The two groups, the Jews and the Greeks, didn't get along—in fact in 38 AD they rioted. News of the riots got to the Roman emperor, a fellow named Gaius (you know him by his nickname, Caligula). Now, Caligula was a guy who never stayed mad long—generally he had the people he was mad at (people like, say, rioters) killed, after which he felt all better. Being Emperor was very stressful and he felt he deserved to relax sometime. I'm sure that deep down Caligula was a nice fellow.

So anyway, after the riots the Jews and the Greeks of Alexandria each sent people to Rome, to 'splain their side of the mess, and to get Caligula to maybe take their side before any impereal head-banging action got going.


Philo, who was in the Jewish group, wrote down what happened. Today, you can still read what he wrote. .


Isidorus [the Greek envoy], that bitter sycophant, realizing that Gaius enjoyed being offered titles beyond human nature, said: 'You are going to hate these Jews here, my lord, and their fellow- countrymen more than ever when you hear about their ill-will and impiety towards you. For when all humanity was offering sacrifices of gratitude for your recovery, these were the only ones who could not bear to perform sacrifice. By "these" I mean to include all the other Jews as well.'

The Greek envoy, Isidorus, right off tried to pin the mess on the Jews. How could Gaius (Caligula) trust the Jews, Isidorus said, when the Jews refused to sacrifice to him?

of Alexandria


Not so fast, shouted the Jews, "We are being slandered; we did sacrifice."

And they went on to describe the Jewish temple sacrifice, done in the standard Jewish way, which was also the standard Pagan way, and everybody knew it, and no one bothered to say they were different—'cause they weren't different. They were the same. Philo said so. Isidorus agreed. Gaius agreed. They were the same.

Got that?


At that we all shouted out together, 'Lord Gaius, we are being slandered; we did sacrifice -we sacrificed whole hecatombs. And we did not just sprinkle blood on the altars (as some people do) and then take the meat home for feasting and celebrations, but put the whole offering into the sacred flame to be burned up. We have already done this not just once but three times: the first time was on your accession as emperor; the second was on your recovery from that dreadful illness that the whole world suffered with you; the third was in expectation of your triumph in Germany.' 'It may be true,' Gaius replied, 'that you did sacrifice but you sacrificed to somebody else, even if it was on my behalf. So where's the merit in that? You did not sacrifice to me.' Immediately we heard that, following on his previous remark, we were seized by a violent trembling, such that it was beyond all concealment.
[Philo, Embassy to Gaius, 355 - 7 (1st century AD),—which you can find in: Beard, Mary. Religions of Rome, Volume 2, A Sourcebook (2001), pg. 259]

Don't believe me, believe the ancients themselves.

Jewish sacrifice was Pagan sacrifice. Jewish worship was Pagan worship directed at the Jewish tribal God. Judaism was Paganism. Judaism was the version of Paganism that developed in Judea. Cool, huh?


Here's an example of some Pagan hocus pocus—just the sort of purity rules and ritual taboos that defined Paganism >>


[The Pythagoreans say] A state of purity is brought about by purifications, washings and lust rations, by a man's purifying himself from all deaths and births, or any kind of pollution, and by abstaining from all animals that have died, from mullets, from gurnards, from eggs, from such animals as lay eggs, from beans, and from other things that are prohibited by those who have charge of the mysteries in the temples.
[Diogenes Laertius, The Life of Pythagoras, 19 (Guthrie's divisions) (3d century AD),—which you can find in: Gutherie, Kenneth. The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library (1988), pg. 149]

Don't believe me, believe the ancients themselves.

Sound familiar? It should. Modern Judaism keeps alive a lot of the ideas and rituals of pre-Christian ancient religions. Modern Jewish practices like food and other ritual taboos, head covering, the tribal "monotheism” of a God interested in a single people (always “us,” whoever us was), are vestiges of practices and beliefs shared by pre-Christian religions around the Mediterranean. Wow.


Is that just Greg's opinion? Naah. Other than their tribal monotheism, the ancient pagans saw the Jews as pretty much like everybody else.

Here's how the Roman emperor Julian put it >>

The Jews behave like the Gentiles [Pagans] except that they acknowledge only one god. This is something distinctive to them, but alien to us. As for everything else, though, we share common ground—temples, sanctuaries, altars, rituals of purification, certain injunctions where we do not diverge from one another at all, or only in insignificant ways. [Julian, emperor, Against the Galileans, fr 72 (306 B) ]

Don't believe me, believe the ancients themselves.

The early Christians agreed >>

Now the Jews became an individual nation, and make laws according to the custom of their country, and they maintain laws among themselves as the present day, and observe worship which may be very peculiar, but is at least traditional. In this respect they behave like the rest of mankind, because each nation follows its traditional customs…. Origen, Against Celsus, 5.25—which you can find in: Lee, A.D., Pagans & Christians in Late Antiquity (2000), pg. 46

Don't believe me, believe the ancients themselves.

Modern scholars like to trace the Pagan origins of Jewish ritual and myth, and because Pagan-Jewish syncretism isn't as threatening to most folks as Pagan-Christian syncretism, there's a wide scholarly agreement about Jewish borrowing.

Hot shot religion historian Mircea Eliade lists Jewish myths copied from earlier ancient cultures >>


"...Genesis preserved a whole mythology of the traditional type. It begins with the cosmogony and the creation of man, paints the "paradisal" existence of the ancestors, related the drama of the fall...,which justifies the flood, and concludes with..the loss of linguistic unity....As in the archaic and traditional cultures, this mythology... explains the origin of the world and... the actual human condition....

...the religion of Israel did not invent even one myth. 

[Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, volume 1 §55]

Professor Mark Smith's highly techncal (but readable) book traces Israeilite myths, rituals and theolgies back to earlier Caananite culture > >

Biblical texts do attest to Yahweh and El as different gods sanctioned by early Israel. For example, Genesis 49:24-25 presents a series of El epithets separate from the mention of Yahweh in verse 18. This passage does not show the relative status of the two gods in early Israel, only that they could be named separately in the same poem. More helpful is the text of the Septuagint and one of the Dead Sea Scrolls (4QDeut) [both written BC] for Deuteronomy 32:8-9, which cast Yahweh in the role of one of the divine sons, understood as fathered by El, called Elyon if the first line:

When the Most High (Elyon) allotted peoples for inheritance,
When He divided up humanity,
He fixed the boundaries for peoples,
According to the number of the divine sons;
For Yahweh's portion is his people,

Jacob His own inheritance.
[Deuteronomy 32:8-9]

The traditional Hebrew text (MT) [the version created AD] perhaps reflects a discomfort with this polytheistic theology of Israel, for it shows in the fourth line not "sons of El" but "sons of Israel." This passage, with the Septuagint and Dead Sea Scroll reading, presents a cosmic order in which each deity received its own nation. Israel was the nation which Yahweh received, yet El was the head of the Pantheon and Yahweh only one of its members. This reading points to an old phase of Israel's religion when El held a pre-eminent position apart form the status of Yahweh. Apparently, originally El was Israel's chief god, as suggested by the personal name, Israel. Then when the cult of Yahweh became more important in the land of early Israel, the view reflected in Deuteronomy 32:8-9 served as a mode to accommodate this religious development.
[Smith, Mark S. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism; Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (2001), pg. 143]

POCM quotes modern scholars

All very interesting, if you like that sort of thing. As I say, not my shtick. But if it's your's, I've listed a few books here to get you started. Go nuts.

Good Books for this section

Old Testament Parallels
Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East
by Victor Matthews & Don Benjamin

What you'll find:

350 pages of ancient Near Eastern texts whose myths parallel and precede our bible's Old Testament stories.

There are lots of books like this to choose from. This is one of the clearest, most readable, and most comprehensive.

Highly recommended.


Ugarit and the Old Testament (1983)
by Peter Craigie
Professor of Religious Studies and Dean of Humanities at the University of Calgary, Alberta

A nice little (110 page) general-audience introduction to Ugarit (modern Ras Shamara in Syrian), where clay tablets discovered in 1929 revealed a pre-Israelite Semitic civilization with gods and myths similar to, but earlier than, Old Testament gods and myths.

If you can find it cheap, read this before you read Smith's Origins of Biblical Monotheism.

Like most books about Ugarit, this one is out of print but often available used at It's not worth the ridiculously high price ($70 last I looked) they usually ask there. I got mine for $7 at ebay.


The Early History of God
Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel
by Mark S. Smith

Like Christianity, Judaism had Pagan origins. Sound kooky? It's mainstream scholarship, though you don't come across it often. This well written, easy to read book is by one of the preeminent experts in the field.

Jewish ritual and mythology developed directly from Canaanite ritual and mythology. Yahweh was originally the son of the Canaanite God El and brother of the Canaanite God Baal.

How do we know this? Ugarit. In 1927 they dug up a Canaanite clay tablet library buried at Ugarit, an ancient city along the northern coast of Syria. Hundreds of ancient texts. Same myths. Same rituals. Same Gods. Only centuries earlier than Judaism.

Who knew?


The Origins of Biblical Monotheism
Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts

by Mark S. Smith,
Skirball Professor of Bible and Near Eastern Studies, New York University

What you'll find:

A well written and readable book—a real page turner

A highly technical book aimed at Old Testament scholars, tracing the origins of Israelite myth and theology to earlier Canaanite and West Semitic cultures.

Focuses on the texts unearthed at Ugarit.

For example: "[T]he priestly theological treatment of Israel's early religious history in Exodus 6:2-3 identifies the old god El Shadday with Yahweh:

And God said to Moses, "I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as El Shadday, but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them."

This passage shows that Yahweh was unknown to the patriarchs. Rather, they are depicted as worshipers of El. In Israel El's characteristics and epithets became part of the repertoire of descriptions of Yahweh. Like El in the Ugaritic texts, Yahweh is described as an aged, patriarchal god ..., enthroned amidst the assembly of divine beings" [pg 141]

It helps to know a bit about Ugarit before you start. Exhaustive, exhausting. Expensive—but worth every penny. HIghly re commented.


The Jews Among the Greeks and Romans, A Diasporan Sourcebook
Margaret Williams, Editor

What you'll find:

A systematic look, though ancient sources, at ancient Judaism outside Palestine



Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora
From Alexander to Trajan (323 BCE - 117 CE)

by John M. G. Barclay

What you'll find:

A scholarly but readable look at ancient Judaism around the Mediterranean. Palestinian Judaism was one small part of a much bigger picture.