Is it possible that the Abrahamic god, identified here as El, has survived endlessly changing fashion and is still with us in the guise of Allah; that the ancient head of an equally ancient pantheon continues to inform religious thinking? This paper holds the view that the Western Semitic El and the Canaanite pantheon were/are different to other ancient gods, representing early tendencies towards monotheism, unchallenged primacy, to constructing a relationship with their creations and presenting conflict as a moral and motivating force.
In order to discover the veracity of such longevity the history of Syro-Palestine will be considered first, with reference to both the Canaanites and the Israelites. This paper holds that, although the term Israelite was known in the late bronze age, the name may have referred to worshippers of El in a time of religious and political change and that YHWH was a later introduction constructed at a time of intense state and clan competition (L’Heureux: 1979: 55). Although YHWH shows similarities to Ba’l, this paper holds that the character of the former god was equally influenced by Mesopotamian creator gods, such as Marduk and Mesopotamian society.
In the second part of this paper the Jesus-figure will be considered as representative of Near Eastern religious expression, combining Egyptian secular and religious ideas, and concepts of care for the weak and vulnerable found in ideal Mesopotamian kingship. Although it seems that Greek ideas may have helped form Jesus’s notion of ideal love-for god, oneself and others providing wholeness and spiritual health-this paper will suggest a move back to the benevolent charms of El and also to dynastic concepts of religion found in the Canaanite theogony. Islam involves by contrast a return to the wrathful, if compassionate, identity of YHWH, the god of Moses, of territorial possession and conflict, expressing both Christian and Judaic ideas.
The Middle Bronze Age (2000-1550) according to Golden was the ‘golden age’ of Canaanite culture, when urbanism expanded. City states emerged based upon a hierarchical system. During this period migrants probably from Palestine (Golden, page 6) penetrated Egypt, ruling as the Hyksos. Although long considered Canaanites, a recent article in Science, basing its evidence on extensive DNA testing, has concluded that the migrants were Eurasian coming from as far away as Sardinia, who continued into East Africa. Nevertheless the Hyksos event may have involved Abraham and his clan. Alternatively, Abraham could have been associated, if he did exist, with the Amorites who came into Canaan in the Early Bronze Age. The Hyksos were expelled by the Egyptians under Ahmose who reigned from 1550-1525 BCE. During the following century, the Egyptians invaded and subdued the Canaanite territory. It has proved difficult to find evidence of a distinct Israelite group in the archaeology of Syro-Palestine during the Bronze Age, but rather regional variation in the area. Items once considered taxonomically Israelite have (Sanders: page 78) also been discovered outside of the supposed Israelite heartland. As such, with no clear cultural separation between Canaanites and Israelites until well into the Iron Age, the Israelites are considered a sub-set of Canaanite culture.
The palace in the Eastern Mediterranean served as both an administrative centre and the residence of local rulers. This political system reflected that of the large states, such as the Hittites and Assyrian Empires. Economic activity appears to have been closely controlled with mass produced standardised pottery and textile manufacture, usually done by women. At around 1400 BCE (Gadot: 2008) during Amenhotep 11’s reign Egypt imposed control over Palestine. Canaan became the area that connected Egypt with Syria and Mesopotamia. Its importance was negligible. During this time there were few settlements, and those that did exist were considerably smaller than before, especially in the central hill country. The area under the aegis of Egypt was ruled by kings and an elite group of functionaries who exploited the villages. Farmers made up the lowest demographic. Outside of this tightly controlled populace were the apiru, independent renegades inhabiting the rural areas of Canaan. Throughout this period a huge wealth gap separated the elite and poorer classes. It is unclear that Egypt ruled Canaan directly, but it seems to have had some garrisons in the region. Certainly, Egypt engaged in numerous military campaigns in Canaan and Syria (Killebrew: 2005: page 55). Egyptian power suffered what appears to be complete collapse during the reign of Ramesses 11 or his successor, Merneptah. Nomads moved into Palestine as the environment deteriorated. Throughout this time, an indigenous population remains culturally evident. Into this power-vacuum came the Philistines who were either invaders from Greece or just as likely from Cyprus and North Lebanon. Wherever they were from, they were organised, swiftly creating strong urban centres.
Keel and Uehlinger note that the religious iconography of the Late Bronze Age appears also in the Iron Age, not only in Canaan but also in Israel. The authors believe that some may simply have been handed down through the centuries. When the Egyptians left Palestine their gods/goddesses disappeared too. By Iron Age 1 there are no longer any goddess depictions. According to the authors (1998:126), the representation of female aspects of fertility, found later in Jesus iconography, remained as symbols, substitute entities, and representations from nature such as suckling mother animals, popular in the Bronze Age as signifying goddesses, trees, and scorpions, imported from Syria. Deities in the Iron Age appear to have become exclusively masculine, that is masculine, domineering and triumphant. Although there appears to have been a melding together of Egyptian, Canaanite and Syrian gods, it seems constructed upon aggression, oriented toward superiority and domination (Keel/Uehlinger: 1998:130). For later instruction, the authors suggest that YHWH became mixed up with weather gods, for example Hadad-Baal).
EL: Israel’s god.
Il was employed as both a proper name, although not necessarily identifying one specific god, and an appellation. Here, this paper has made the reasonable step of assuming that El represented aspects of a creator god but with local alterations to character and behaviour. According to Frank Moore Cross , El was the creator god of the Canaanites and nomadic groups in Syria and Northern Iraq. He can be found within the Ugaritic texts first discovered in 1929, the investigation of which has continued into the present. In the Canaanite pantheon ‘Il is the head. In East Semitic ‘ll is normally a proper name and appears in earliest Old Akkadian sources as distinctively a divine name and not an appellative. It may be that ‘ll, in later Semitic ‘El, was the chief divinity of the Mesopotamian Semites in the Pre-Sargonic era. Cross further demonstrates ‘ll’s appearance in the Amorite onomasticon in the 18th century BCE. Cross concludes that ‘ll appears as a proper name in Old South Arabic, East Semitic, Northwest Semitic, and South Semitic leading justifiably to the conclusion that ‘ll belongs to Proto-Semitic. In the Ugaritic pantheon, all the major gods begin with ‘ll.
The gods mentioned in Ugaritic ‘literature’ consist of 8 principal gods and a further 6 gods who are less visible occurring in minor epic narratives and myths. There are another group of approximately 24, merely mentioned or very occasionally active operating as supernumeraries or helpers. According to del Olmos Lete (2014) they are not related to one another in a generational model. The gods arise from the first generation of gods and no other god-creation occurs. Ilu or ll is consequently a primordial deity who has many offspring. There are three principal offspring: Ba’lu/Ba’l-corresponding to the Sky : Yammu-corresponding to the sea: Motu-corresponding to the underworld. The most important deity after Ilu, Ba’l’s connection to rain may account for his pre-dominance. The three deities engage in constant battle for supremacy, joisting through time for the right to be called ‘King of the gods and of men/the earth’, or deputy of the ‘supreme god.’
Canaanite-Ugaritic mythology is different from the rest of the Near East, having conflict at its core. Although Canaanite-Ugarit religion concerns an ancient primordial deity and his consort with a gradually more active dominating offspring perhaps reflected the Later Bronze Age political situation where smaller cities were dominated by larger cities, which were themselves dominated by even larger states. The greatest kings would always be specifically remote and battles for supremacy over Canaan were conducted by up to three powerful states. While the worship of El appears to reflect nomadic groups centred around a productive father, Sanders asserts that the West Semitic theology, first evidenced in 18th century texts from Mari, reflects the politics of the time and area. There, a ruler’s power is provisional, earned through repeated acts of loyalty to more powerful kings or Divine Protectors. He examples the 13th century epic of Ba’l who struggles to defeat any of his enemies, doing so only with the help of others. Sanders notes Ba’l’s inadequacy compared to the Mesopotamian god Marduk. He notes also (page 53) how differently the gods speak to Mesopotamian kings, talking with deference, whereas in West Semitic culture the gods order the rulers, telling them what to do.
This theogony resembles Mesopotamian religion in being based upon the family, at least in the Ugarit texts. It reflects a patrimonial household and in the Epics of Keret and Aqhat concern for the preservation of the patrilineage. Although this shows evidence of the Near Eastern joint family (Ba’l’s father is said to be Dagan) with the eldest sons squabbling for the main inheritance, it can be seen also in the families of the patriarchs, for example Jacob and Esau. In the Ba’l Cycle a major theme is Ba’l’s desire for his own house, gaining thereby some autonomy from El.
A number of epithets portray ‘El as father and creator. At times, he is recognised as Ba’l’s father rather than Dagan. Invariably, ‘El is described as ancient and bearded. He is also referenced to kingship, ‘olam-eternal king, and El the warrior, eternal father, as well as the Ancient of Days. Such identification is also found in the Bible. His designations and descriptions are specific. He is described as hale, lusty and ancient able to satisfy two women simultaneously. His most significant characteristics, evident from earlier periods, is his benevolence and magnanimity. He is described as kind, merciful and wise. While other gods used human beings as servants or playthings, El developed a relationship with his creations, feeling empathy towards them and expressing both care and concern. By contrast, An was a remote god who rarely interfered with human kind, Marduk was interested only in his rule over the supernatural, Ptah was interested only in the act of creation. El has been linked to Kronos, but although the latter might have been derived from El, they have few, if any, shared characteristics. Kronos after all devours his offspring. Although one characteristic they do share is the association with time, in El’s case his extreme age.
Of greater consequence perhaps in El’s apparently conflicted relationship with Ba’l concerns the association of El with villages, the countryside and nomadism, and, as already said, Ba’l the monarchical institutions of the cities. El has tribal-patriarchal features (L’Heureux: 1979:105) such as living in a tent, his authority and leadership is based upon age and wisdom, accepted by the younger gods even though he has no executive power. In this, he resembled Abraham and Jacob. Ba’l lives in a palace, is warlike and imposes his will by force of arms, resembling in all aspects a king. In the Old Testament, this can be viewed, for example, as the ongoing conflict between kings and prophets or as that in reality of El and YHWH-with monarchical gods winning up to the present day. The Jesus figure, as will be seen, represents El as Jesus’s career was spent avoiding cities until the end, and Mohammad’s career shifts the emphasis back to cities and to a kingly, authoritarian god. Although L’Heureux suggests that El could have been of more recent development than Ba’l, something denied by Cross, the sociological background El represents, and his ubiquity from the distant past until the present, suggests differently. Although Ba’l may have also been a very old god, he represented a more recent sociological phenomenon. Certainly, stories in the Old Testament that reflect the city/nomad dichotomy, such as for example Sodom and Gomorrah, may indeed reflect the conflicts between Ba’l and El, indicating perhaps El’s more ancient origins. Although it is possible that Ba’l as a storm god may be older, it does not alter the claims of this paper on the enduring nature of El but indicates that Ba’l was completely subsumed in YHWH and Satan, while El vigorously continues as the god of the New Testament and within elements of Allah.
YHWH and EL.
Throughout the Bible El and YHWH become mingled and confused, YHWH often assuming El’s characteristics. In fact they appear to have become amalgamated. So confused did this become that Israel, the name of both a land and people, means ‘El will rule’. Day (2002) attests that the name appears on a 13th century stele of the Egyptian Pharaoh Merneptah, but as the historical group recorded in the Bible or as a significant band of El worshippers? Mark S. Smith (2003: page 272) asserts that indeed El was the original god of early Israel, although here this paper feels he is wrongly conflating these early believers with the later ethnic group who may simply have occupied the same or a similar territory. Statues of a sitting god from the Late Bronze Age, if these are proven to be representations of El, suggest that the cult remained vigorous and effective amongst the Canaanites. The first Israelites were worshippers of El who probably had no shared political allegiance , the later occupied the same or similar territory within a loose or organised political entity, with religious worship amongst the elite concentrated on one god, YHWH. During this period also have been found many statuettes of naked goddesses, indicating perhaps that the masculine cult of YHWH had yet to develop. El was, according to Smith (page 272), the head of an early Israelite pantheon that included YHWH as its warrior god. Deuteronomy 32: 8-9, in Septuagint and Dead Sea Scrolls, casts YHWH as one of El’s sons (Smith: 1990: 7/2001:143). In this, YHWH receives kingship of Israel from El. YHWH is presented as the warrior god of the EL headed pantheon. It is possible that El and YHWH merged as the YHWH cult infiltrated the highlands and consumed the El cult sites long established there.
As seen above, El appears substantially different from YHWH, as he is both benevolent and sexual, as to be expected of a creator god. L’Heureux (1979:49) shows that YHWH and El shared numerous characteristics, such as creator and father, old age and wisdom, patience and mercy and eternal kingship. According to J.J.M Roberts , looking at nominal-sentence and genitive-construction names, Il-dur suggests willingness to protect his ward while Il-ipqi confirms the gracious, friendly character of El, who, as Il-beli and Il-ili could be a personal god. Roberts (1972) confirms that El, referencing genitive-construction names was a high, gracious god, interested in human welfare, active in child-birth. Many Old Testament characters, including many prophets, such as Samuel, have such names. There are minor examples of El invoking war. Although Cross holds that YHWH is a version of El and Ba’l, John Day believes that YHWH originated outside of Canaan. Day points out that YHWH may have originated in the area of Midian (Judg. 5.4-5; Deut.33.2; Hab. 3.3,7) or in the Hejaz area of North West Arabia. Mark S. Smith (2003: page 273) suggests that YHWH originated in Edom and bears more likeness to Athtar, one of El’s sons, although, except for their prominence in arid areas, on the surface this is hard to see. Day assumes, see also above, that El is very old, going far back into the religion of the region. This paper assumes the same.
Day points out that there are three places where YHWH is referred to as old, and in two of those it is with the name El. In Job 36.26 Elihu exclaims: ‘Behold, God (El) is great, and we know him not; the number of his years is unsearchable.’ Also, in Daniel’s apocalyptic vision God is entitled the ‘Ancient of Days.’ Psalm XXIX, according to Cunchillos , is an attempt to morph YHWH and El, although clearly they are very different gods. The coupling of YHWH and Asherah, originally El’s consort, reinforces the melding of the two creator gods.
YHWH was perhaps formed from El, gentle, old and wise, and Ba’l, the ferocious storm god, or the Israelites picked YHWH from sources in Sinai or Arabia. Both YHWH and Allah, as will be seen, express a dual nature. The early patriarchs appear to have known their deity as El. Smith (2001: 147) asserts that the god who accompanied the Israelites out of Egypt was El, or El Shadday, and the Levitical priesthood were originally Egyptian. As the cult of Ba’l became more popular (Cross, 1997: page 48) based on the institution of kingship, the worshippers of El may have employed the name Israelite to designate those who wished to be free from central control and did not embrace kingship. In addition, the Bible expresses a concern and rejection of kingship, asserting through the prophets that kingship was against the covenant with god. The god referenced is often El, not YHWH. Is this perhaps the ideological glue that helped form a separate ethnic group called the Israelites?
Day (2002: page 30-31) further demonstrates the connection between YHWH, the Bible and El through associating the Garden of Eden with Canaan and El, and placing it in Armenia, at the headwaters of a river and in mountainous country as it states in Ezek.28.14, 16 (cf.v.13). This corresponds with the location of the original flood story. In seeking Utnapishtum, the Mesopotamian Noah, Gilgamesh, in the Gilgamesh epic, crosses Mt Mashu, or Mt Masios in Armenia. Day points out that El’s dwelling place was located at the source of the River Euphrates. In Ugarit texts he dwells on a mountain.
After Israel and Judah became separate states (Iron Age 11B, from ca.925 to 8th century), Israel established a state-cult based upon one or more bull calf images-egel, galim. This may have provided the traumatic narrative of bull/calf worship in the wilderness. Keel/Uehlinger (1998: 191) view the use of bull/calf iconography as serving to free Israel from subjection to both Egypt and Jerusalem. Although the employment of the bull/calf did not create a new cult based upon YHWH, the above authors believe they presented the residues of El worship, particularly at Bethel-house or temple of El. It may also indicate that El’s influence continued in Israel, or parts of Israel. To complicate matters of identification and worship, personal names in the Bible before David indicates the use of El, or ‘l, showing perhaps that YHWH and El were identified as one god (Keel/Uehlinger: 1998: 207), and that YHWH was also worshiped as Ba’l in Iron Age 11B. Early prophetic messages (Keel/Uehlinger: 1998: 208) by Balaam, the son of Beor (Numbers 22-14) indicate a polytheistic environment with El at its head, but may also indicate a clan form of worship on the periphery of Israel.
Keel and Uehlinger (1998: 261) assert that by the 8th century the Ba’l demonstrated against in the Bible had changed into Baalshamem, the Lord of Heaven himself. He was an elevated form of Hadad, who assuming El’s remoteness, became a Zeus-like entity connected to rain, with celestial, solar attributes. YHWH after all is light. YHWH, already dominant in Israel, assumed celestial and solar traits as well. In Ps 104: 1-4 YHWH exhibits characteristics associated with the sun and is surrounded by winged servants. In this context, he represents Baalshamem. The Ba’l that Hosea rails against fulfilled the same functions and roles as YHWH, the two too similar for Ba’l worship not to be attacked by the prophets. Both represented aspects of El (Keel/Uehlinger: 1998: 261). In Judah (Keel/Uehlinger: 1998: 269-271) there appears to have been the association of YHWH with royalty and loyalty, due perhaps to their closeness to Egypt.
This paper has so far barely touched on the number of connections between YHWH, the Israelites and El. The divine name, employed by the Israelites between Abraham and Moses, El-Shaddai means ‘El, the mountain one’ or ‘El of the field’ and that according to Day its earlier translation as God Almighty is wrong,
In this part the ideas of Jesus will be considered to the extent that they demonstrate a connection with the past Near Eastern and Egyptian cultures, and further demonstrate a continuation of past religious ideas, symbols and archetypes. This paper argues that Christianity responded to the dominating military might and ruthlessness of Rome and that its early concepts have to be viewed within the relationship between Roman rule and Hebrew culture.
Before developing this theme, this paper will consider Judaism’s legacy to Christianity as later its effects on Islam will also be explored. Along with Roman political activity and Greek thought, Judaism provided day to day assumptions about reality that require exploration, although a reminder needs to be continuously made concerning the presence of El in the background, like a riff in a popular tune.
Judaism provided a view of history/time acutely summed up by Rudolf Bultmann (1956). He writes (page 70) reflecting on Yahweh and Israel, that ‘by binding herself to her past history, Israel loosened her ties with the present, and her responsibility to it. Loyalty to the past became loyalty to a book which was all about the past. God was no longer really the God of history, and therefore always the God who was about to come. He was no longer a vital factor in the present: his revelations lay in the past. The nation lived outside history.’ As YHWH lived in the sense of constant futurity and no longer revealed himself to Israel, he became a universal god, the god of all men. While there is considerable logic behind this approach, this paper considers other reasons for YHWH’s universality such as the continued resonances of El, perhaps the first god to claim or be able to claim universality. Bultmann also (page 72) demonstrates that Judaic worship treated the book (Torah, etc) no longer as an historical narrative of god’s interaction with Israel, but as a law book that regulated day to day existence. As a consequence daily life became dominated by religion. Religion and morality were enjoined within law. During Persian rule, a focus developed on the Prophets and during the same period many new and innovative ideas entered Judaism, including angelology. Although angels appear in the Old Testament, the Jews took greater interest in them when under Persian rule. Angelology more closely resembles the old religion of Mesopotamia with its gods representing specific human attributes. Tomasino (2003) identifies an increased concern with demons, although once again this may reflect old Mesopotamian religions.
Of more consequences to later Christian belief, was the growing individualism in the post-exilic period. Tomasino (page 85) points to The Book of Job, indicating an individual rather than group response to suffering. Under Persian rule, they obtained from the Zoroastrian faith of Persia the idea of cosmic dualism, good and evil in perpetual conflict personified by god and the devil. Satan emerges as the ethical opposite of god.
Most scholars agree that the synagogue, the main method through which scripture was maintained, emerged during the Babylonian exile, although the first evidence for a Jewish house of prayer comes from Egypt in the third century BCE. The earliest references to synagogues in Palestine appear during the First Century BCE, their development influenced by the Greeks (Tomasino: 2003: page 233). Philo, a Jewish thinker conversant with Greek thought, may have influenced Christian ideas, certainly in John where Jesus is represented as the pre-existent Word of God (Tomasino: 2003: page 241).
Policing Israel were the Sadducees and Pharisees. The former represented the conservative element in Judaic life believing in laws codified in the Pentateuch, and rejecting new notions such as the resurrection of the dead, the latter opposed the Sadducees on these and other issues. Up to and during the time of Jesus they were, according to Bultmann (page 74) the ‘liberals’ intent on modifying the harsh punishments of the Law, accepting books outside of the Pentateuch. Conversely, they were stricter where it came to the observance of the Law, extending it to even the minutest action. The Pharisees tended to be followed by the poorer classes, the Sadducees by the wealthier classes.
Christianity, which perhaps should be seen as a separate entity from the Jesus figure who professed animosity towards gentiles, seems to have swiftly developed into a cult that included all people, not just Jews. In many ways, this can be seen as a resolution of the inherent tension within Jewish monotheism: the prescriptions of the Hebrew scriptures enforced a separateness upon the Jews, a tribalism that kept others out, while the idea of a supreme god implied universalism. The scattering of Jews following the Babylonian exile affected the Jewish sense of geographic singularity, involving as it did changes in state-hood for many adherents. Also, the tensions of roman rule for the Jewish peoples involved this very particularism as compromising with Roman religious demands encouraged the idea of YHWH as a universal god.
The Jesus figure, according to the Christian scripture, established a new covenant with god, sacrificing himself in order to secure it. Now, this paper will pause here for as with most historical/religious constructs an alternative rationale is found. As The Abrahamic books (Torah, Talmud, New Testament, Koran) reflect and echo each other, presenting a closely contained view of time, a different argument for Jesus’s humiliating demise can be found. According to David M. Carr, Jesus died emulating Moses’s death before entering Canaan and the new life promised by YHWH, before god’s promise was to start its long and winding course. Like Moses, Jesus’s death absorbed his follower’s sins so that they could live, renewed and refreshed. In the same way, Muhammad dies before his mission can reach the wider world. Each merely prepares the ground. Another link with Moses appears in Mark, whereby an empty tomb is discovered after Jesus’s burial, but there is nothing concerning his resurrection. Like Moses, Jesus’s final resting place is unknown.
This New Covenant was not one based upon behaviour like the older version, with written laws provided by the tyrannical YHWH, but each individual and group was seen as responsible for their actions, based upon a benevolence ideal. On the surface, this new covenant, or contract, with god appears very simple. The cult’s core belief was simply expressed: Love god with all your heart and also love your neighbour as an expression of that love for god and a symbol of religious devotion. There appears a rejection of talion law, implicit within the Covenant Code of Moses, and an embrace of tolerance. While many of the cult’s sentiments appear refreshingly new, it still adhered to the notion of contracts developed by the Sumerians several thousand years before. Although Jesus expressed himself in wisdom sayings, probably all his proverbs and aphorisms can be found elsewhere, invariably in the many collected anthologies from the 3rd millennium onwards. A conclusive Jesus instruction: ‘Love others as you would yourself,’ can be found in much earlier Egyptian scribal advice-texts (Weeks: 2010: 13) or sbayt. Literary wisdom expressions appear to have had a secular source. All, to one degree or another, were expected to be delivered with polish and clarity, as are Jesus’s many sayings. The later Hebrew advice literature, found in Proverbs for example, were clearer influenced by both Egyptian and Mesopotamian literature (Weeks: 2010: 17). Wisdom literary expressions tend to often be psychologically acute and pragmatic, as can be seen in the above quote. Jesus’s observations tended to be both, rarely preceded by acknowledgements to god, and exhibit the qualities of secular pronouncements, even though they often reflected previous holy texts.
The above are only parts of the Jesus’ cult message. As an apocalyptic cult, one that expected the world’s imminent demise and the beginning of a different, new reality based upon a kingdom of god, it dismissed family ties and day to day responsibilities and used the persuasive argument of miracles. With the death of its leader at Roman hands, sacrifice also played an important part.
The birth of Jesus, a figure understood largely in isolation from events of his time, traditionally occurred in 4 AD. Prior to his birth, which as with many Greek mythical figures had been the consequence of his mother’s relationship with a god, Palestine had experienced considerable unrest.
Although Jesus appears to have rejected the legalistic approach to day to day religious observance, he nevertheless insisted on the regulation of the inner man/woman. Thoughts were not exempt from religious control (Bultmann: page 87). For Bultmann, Jesus brought god back into the present, involving god was again with day to day interactions with neighbours. What Jesus also did was to provide a psychology based upon causation. If you love, for example, you will be loved; if you forgive others, you can forgive yourself. A great deal of modern psychology relies on these insights, no matter how true they actually are.
The gospels, Mark, Luke, John and Matthew, are versions of Jesus’s mission, but are not stenographic accounts, that is reportage, but were written to provide a summary of instruction and theological tools to use in conveying the Christian message. Contrary to many writers on the subject, the gospels were meant also as historiography, connecting Jesus’ life and the Jesus narrative with the historical claims of the Torah and Talmud, thereby connecting early Christian claims that Jesus was the long awaited messiah, related to the old Jewish kings. The tales associated with Jesus are not necessarily true, that is the virgin birth, his birth in a stable, his resurrection, but are meant to serve an ideological purpose. In fact, the Jesus story is bound up with middle-eastern religious narrative of the preceding two millennium, embracing also the religious thinking of ancient Egypt.
Many have noted the resemblance of the pieta, a potent Christian symbol joining female and masculine qualities, to family representations in ancient Egypt. The pieta excludes Joseph, Jesus’s biological father, because they claim that god was his true father. Like Sargon the Great and Moses, Jesus did not appear to have a father in his life. Jesus is represented as the shepherd, in line with explications of ancient Mesopotamian kingship, leading his flock to spiritual safety. The resurrection, as well as perhaps contending with the horrible truth that their leader has died, has close affinities with Horus/Osiris myths of Egypt, implying similar concepts of change and renewal. The appellation of messiah, refuted by the Jesus-figure, indicates kingship and was claimed by or for other preachers in the hundred years before Jesus emerged. It was, see above, clearly associated with the Davidic kings, probably the most successful period of Hebrew political life. This connection between a messiah and the emergence of a Davidic kingly figure was a late development in Judaism, occurring only a century before Jesus’s birth (Herndon: 2007). This was expressed both in terms of the future Kingdom of God, and in a sense of future political autonomy and dominance. Jesus therefore had a political as well as a religious agenda.
At a time when the Roman Empire ruled Palestine, revolt was impractical. As the Jews found after Jesus’s death, revolt almost lead to their annihilation. Jesus appears to have taught how to deal with a problematic world, injustice, inequality, aggression, by internal processes, ignoring what could not be changed. As can be seen below, this involved a religious ownership of secular wisdom. In this analysis, Christian non-violence was a legitimate response to Roman military might. Legend has it that St. Paul was casually beheaded, a common punishment for criminals, upon setting foot again in Italy. The contract between the Jews and YHWH was altered from an expression of military conquest of the external world to individual internal conquest. The YHWH of Moses would be no help against the might of Rome. Combined with this was the profound confusion of eschatological sentiment identified by Voegelin (Herndon: 2007) regarding kingship-its rejection in the Bible and the assertion that god regarded the institution as against the covenant. Where Voegelin puts the Suffering Servant in place of political development (Herndon: 2007: 40-41), expressing concern at the numerous political disasters of Israel and Judah, this paper places the development of internal dimensions where more controllable and winnable wars could be fought. As referenced above, Christianity also engaged with secular wisdom, exampled by the beatitudes and expressions such as ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ The latter taken from Egyptian Wisdom Literature of several millennia before. In doing so, it claimed the common sense, pragmatic and practical wisdom of the ancient world as its own. In addition, the Christian concern with the poor and vulnerable can be traced back to Mesopotamian kingship, particularly the law-codes of Hammurabi and En-namma.k.
In all, the Jesus community exampled a turning away from the YHWH of Moses, the creator god with the ferocity of Ba’l and Marduk, towards more feminine and benevolent characteristics. The Jesus cult emphasised care, tolerance and love. The creator god resembled again El, portrayed as old and bearded. Jesus resembled the sole generative heir of El, as in Canaanite literature, and below him the lesser deities, his disciples. Mary occupied the position of Isis in the supernatural family, or represented Astarte. As a consequence, YHWH, reformed as El, became a more distant figure, experienced through the figure of Jesus.
Although Muhammad established Islam in Arabia during the early 7th century, it became subsequently through war the present-day religion in Syria and Palestine. While the conquest of parts of the Byzantine Empire and Zoroastrian Persia is seen by Moslems as evidence of the truth of Allah’s divine actuality, connected thereby to YHWH’s fierce assertions of godly supremacy, elsewhere it is understood in social and historical terms. The exhaustion of the Byzantine and Persian states after years of conflict, plagues that decimated Byzantine city populations, incessant attacks by Northern tribes, loss of large areas of North Africa and social disaffection in Egypt. Of perhaps equal consequence was the growth of the Nestorianism and Mononphysitism, directly opposed to the former, movements, the iconoclasm that had rent Byzantine, and perhaps also the puritanical version of Christianity imagined by the Donatists of North Africa. Although Muhammed produced the revelations before his death it appears to have been the Caliphs, who immediately followed him, who created the Koran. The credit has been given to Caliph ‘Uthman (ruled 644-56) around 650. No matter the influences outlined above, the spread of the religion was primarily down to the success of the four Caliphs (632-661) in war immediately after Muhammed’s death. It must not nevertheless be thought that conversion was the main motive, but probably the usual ones of lust for power, riches, tribute, taxes, slaves and women (Drummond, 2005, page 12). As often in such circumstances (consider the Mongols a few centuries later), the known world became ripe for takeover by militarised tribes.
Allah’s characteristics, as described in the Koran, are twofold: both merciful and compassionate, the traits of El, and proficient in war and given to anger, the traits of YHWH. The El/Allah fusion can be seen in K 53: 19, where El’s/Allah’s daughters are said to be al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat. Connections can also be found in a Nabataean inscription: ‘Allat, the mother of the gods, belonging to our Lord Rab’el (El is great)’ (Hvidberg-Hansen, 2007: 60).
The connections between Muhammad, the writing of the Koran and the two Judaic religions, Christianity and Judaism, are numerous. By the time of Muhammad’s birth, Jews had settled in Yemen, Medina (Yathrib), and other settlements along the trade routes to Syria. Jews could also be discovered near the Gulf of Aqaba and of Bahrain. They appear to have vigorously engaged in proselytising, although their religious books had not yet been translated into Arabic. In fact a Jewish leader, Dhu Nuwas, gained power in Yemen, for a time taking control of Najran. As a permanent example to later religious terrorism, he initiated religious warfare, burning down churches, with Christians inside, and executing others. In addition to the Jews, Arabia contained, usually as refugees, Ebionites, Elkasaites, Gnostics, Mancichaeans and possiubly Arians, each, it is claimed, influencing the emergence of Islam. It is known that there were large numbers of Christians in central Arabia and the Hijaz, and it was the established religion amongst the Ghassanids and the Lakhmids, many of whom had settled just outside of Arabia. The religion had become established in Yemen by the 5th or 6th century. Many Arabian Christians were, see above, Monophysites and Nestorians.
Although the Abrahamic religions were expanding within the Arabic peninsula, its population remained largely pagan. Nevertheless, paganism, which in Arabia consisted of the worship of trees and the veneration of sites, appears to have been in decline. According to Drummond (2005: page 25) there within Arabic polytheism was the sense of a high god called Allah (the god in Arabic). Once more, here we have possible echoes of El. Allah appears to have been, before Mohammad’s birth, worshiped in Mecca as the supreme Creator. Drummond (2005: page 26), points out that Mohammad’s father was called Abdullah-the slave of Allah. Knowledge of Abraham appears to have been widespread within Arabia. Drummond (pages 27-28) links Mohammad to the Hanifs in Mecca, individuals who had turned away from polytheism.
From the beginning of his religious career, Mohammad saw himself as of the line of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Moses and Jesus (Koran 4:162). His earliest religious experience, the appearance of Gabriel, was identified by his wife’s cousin as the same angel that appeared to Moses thus establishing Mohammad’s spiritual lineage and relationship to Hebrew historical processes. As has been noted, the same process was foisted upon Jesus. Mohammad expanded his association with mighty Hebrew leaders by taking on the personality and authority of Moses, declaring that, like Moses, he should not be questioned. Mohammad resembled Moses in his assumed role as both political and military leader, imitating the ancient leader also in his declaration of a war (jihad) against idolatry-the Meccans who had rejected and harassed him and his followers. Mohammad also identified with Noah, a man given a message by god who was not listened to. Although Mohammad revered Jesus (K4: 168-169) and Mary, much of his knowledge of the previous messenger probably came from the apocryphal New Testament gospels. He vigorously supported the story of the Virgin birth (K 4: 155; 19:29). Mohammad also demonstrated knowledge of Jesus’s desire for tenderness and mercy, but the Koran contains words and incidents not observed in any Christian texts, and it appears unaware of Jesus’s ethical propositions. Mohammad’s god is not that of Jesus, forgiving, ever-tolerant, but of Moses; a god that permits and encourages violence. For example, after the battle of Badr in 624: ‘’You did not slay them, but God slew them’ (K 8: 17).
As with the Hebrews conquering Canaan, Mohammad and the Moslems he ruled proved excellent warriors. We should of course bear in mind that the Moses stories are difficult to confirm, but clearly for Mohammad they represented genuine history. In line with his revered archetype amongst the Midianites, Mohammad engaged in mass slaughter, killing the men of the Bani Qurayah, a Jewish tribe, after a siege of Medina and selling their wives and children as slaves. Although many Western commentators challenge Mohammad’s authenticity regarding these actions, he was surely merely imitating Moses, his glorious predecessor?
What of the Koran? The Koran shows considerable signs of editing of an original text. It is regarded as the most reliable sacred text in history, and lauded by many Moslems thereby as evidence of religious authenticity. Its composition, although not accomplished within a restricted time and place, is clearly within a narrower corridor of time than the Christian assemblage of books. But the Koran does not nevertheless appear to enjoy the authenticity claimed for it by its adherents as a number of Koranic texts originated in other literary works, and were directly, if orally, transposed. Similarly, there is considerable evidence that many of the Koran’s themes predated the book’s composition. Parallel passages exist in the Koran suggesting independent, regional traditions, but these could also be a direct consequence of oral composition. A problem thereby of memory. As the Koran is meant to be the word of god, then surely such difficulties should not occur? Although the words of Mohammad (god?) were collected shortly after his death this was as a consequence of several existent traditions and the desire to create one authorised one. Nevertheless, some parts relied on the suspect memories of those who had known Mohammad. An early theological epistle written around 700 by Hasan al-Basri recites a Koranic verse that is not in the present Koran, and the Medinese jurist Malik, who died in 795, warned against Ibn Mas’ud’s version of the Koran. Variations to the Koran can be found on coins and official inscriptions (Cook: 2000: page 110). Like the Talmud and the Christian texts, the Koran appears to have been subject to revision.
Before the Islamic conquests of the Near East, the area was already preoccupied by religion. In the Byzantine Near East, religion touched every aspect of life. According to Hoyland (1997), it was Islam that completed Late Antiquity’s twin concerns, religion and politics. Accordingly, the Sassanian ‘solution to religious difference, the formation of independent religious communities, was institutionalised in Islam, such communities being designated ‘people of the Book’ (ahl al-kitab) and being expected to live by laws deriving from their own scriptures (Hoyland: 1997: page 15).’ In addition, the zealously assertive, all-pervasive nature of Islam, Hoyland also attributes to Byzantine influence. Apart from such similarities, the strident monotheism and areas of cultural uniformity early set Islam apart. Archaeological evidence shows that Arab presence in many conquered areas of the Near East was not pronounced until after 700 AD, during the Umayyad period. Before then life often appears to have continued as before. In Jordan, even during this period, there is little evidence of Muslims amongst the population.
Like the Talmud, which it closely references and imitates, there are numerous evocations and descriptions of violence within the Koran. It also clearly preferences men over women (K4:34). Unfortunately, because of the belief that the Koran is the work of god not of man/woman as inventor or messenger of god, it has ensured a fossalisation of religious experience and perceptual understanding. In fundamentalist Islam, the world remains the early medieval one where intolerance and destruction of others is a required response to individuality. The book is now both an icon, representing the authenticity of the religion, and also an object of inclusivity.
According to this paper, the Abrahamic religion is rooted in El, the primordial Semitic god of the Near East but has over time acquired a dual nature. While El, as a creator god, was joyfully lustful, he was also, in comparison with ancient Near Eastern and North African gods, benevolent and cared for his creation. El forged a relationship with humankind not yet based upon power and authority. The number of genitive-constructive names associated with El indicates a caring, benevolent personal god. El does not appear to have concerned himself too much with human behaviour beyond exampling his own benevolent disposition, which while remiss of him was instead the province of monarchical gods such as Ba’l and YHWH at a time of belief in and obsession with the authenticity of the written word. It is under these perhaps lesser gods that El’s nature became dualistic, combining compassion and ferocity, love and intolerance. This is clearly seen in the god of Moses and later in Islam, although Islamic proscriptions are programmatic, not an end in themselves.
Although YHWH displays compassion it is that of a powerful monarch. If he is obeyed he behaves towards his creation with largesse, but should he be disobeyed then he will destroy his creation if need be. Allah, although encouraging compassion and being described as compassionate, too encourages and permits violence. The simple benevolence of El appears only in the Jesus figure. The duality of YHWH and Allah is perhaps a consequence of earlier melding of El with martial gods, and the imposition of monarchical values from the Bronze Age onwards.
Although Mohammad used Judaic sources to construct god, Allah appears to have existed before Mohammad’s birth as the creator god. Certainly, Christian and Judaic influences were prevalent in the peninsula. Although Mohammad emphasised god’s compassion, the need for compassion in social interaction, he also insisted on the prohibition-based religious focus found in many parts of the Torah-to which the Jesus-figure seems to have been opposed. This was accompanied by an emphasis on authority foreign to El, but found in Mesopotamian religion and the early YHWH cult.
Unfortunately, a deity with two opposed traits is subject to error. The exclusion of feminine traits, strongly evident in polytheism, permits only a few behavioural and perceptual responses. While there are feminine signifiers in Judaism and Christianity, there are few in Islam, which appears most visibly connected to the Iron Age god (s) of Palestine. Although each, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, has engaged in long term, sustained violence towards others as a result of the warlike tendencies of YHWH (the storm/sun god of history), the El echoes preserve the need for charity, empathy and mercy.