BACK IN TIME—FROM ANCIENT TRADITION TO WORLD RELIGION
Christianity is the most wide-spread religion in our world with 2.2 billion followers, along with Islam (1.6 billion) and Hinduism (1.1 billion), and together with Islam and Judaism, it’s one of the three largest religions in Abrahamic tradition. What began as a small Jewish sect in the mid-1st century, persecuted by the power of that time—the Roman Empire—, ended up having a very strong influence in human civilization—for the good and the bad, like most things in human history.
And as it always happens with religions and any other matters of belief, queries and doubts arise when cultures clash and different beliefs get to meet each other. What once seemed clear and immutable will now undergo a thorough questioning. How true is what we believe to be true? How devoted are we to it? Why do we accept it as an only truth without giving it much thought? How far would we go to defend that belief? What could make us turn away from it?
Where does it even come from?
That’s the question that many antiquities scholars have asked themselves—and many believers and non-believers, of course, too, but since scholars exist for a reason, we expect them to be able to give us an answer, right? … At least those of us who are open to discussion.
Last year, Dr. Tony Nugent, scholar of world religions and mythology, attempted at such an answer in an interview with psychologist Valerie Tarico. According to him, Christian tradition can be traced back to other ancient myths and traditions, following a mythical template with themes that have been appearing throughout the history of human civilization. Even if the Bible is told as a story that literally happened, many theologians see it as a spiritual story, something that does not have to be taken word by word.
Let’s take Easter and one of the most famous stories in Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus, as an example. Nugent states they are based on and adapted from an ancient myth from Mesopotamia, specifically from Sumerian tradition. The story is called “The Descent of Inanna”, in which Inanna is the Sumerian goddess personification of Venus, the Queen of Heaven.
In this myth, she travels to the Underworld, supposedly to attend a funeral. The Sumerian Underworld was a dark, dreaded place, which could not be left once one entered it. It was ruled by Ereshkigal, Inanna’s sister, and it was no secret that she had envy for Inanna, since she was the goddess of fertility and love, and Ereshkigal was the opposite. And yet, Inanna descended. She passed through the seven gates, each time having to remove one piece of her garments, symbols of her power—until she was stripped of it. In the end, she came in front of the seven judges, who rendered a decision against her. She was killed and hung for display.
Sound familiar yet? Wait for the next part.
Three days later, Inanna’s assistant called out to the other gods for help so they could bring her back, and one of them agreed, creating two creatures that would travel to the Underworld and revive Inanna with the water of life. However, for Inanna to escape, a substitute was needed to restore the balance, and she chose her own husband, Dumuzi, for he was the only one not mourning her death. It’s almost as if he’d been betrayed by a close friend or family, right?
Nugent says those aren’t the only similarities. Outside of Mesopotamia, Inanna is known as Ishtar… a word that can have evolved to our word Easter. After all, Inanna was the goddess of fertility, and the recurring theme of the death and rise of a god is usually an explanation for the cycle of seasons, which is basically what Easter was all about in pagan times. Even if Easter has now been Christianised, the pagan symbols of fertility are still there: bright coloured eggs and the rabbit, a fertile and promiscuous animal. Mesopotamia had Inanna and Dumuzi, the Ancient Greeks had Persephone, and maybe Christianity’s symbol is Jesus.
Of course, you’re free to agree or disagree with this. It’s only one of the many explanations given, and maybe it’s correct or maybe it’s not. This is simply food for thought, if you will. But for a new, historical take on Jesus’ story, I gently nudge you to National Geographic Channel’s Killing Jesus, produced by Scott Free Productions and based on the NY Times best-seller by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. With historical intimacy and an exceptional cast, it gives a new context to the familiar story. Be excited for this spring!