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Robert Oerter Rising Gods

Review of The Riddle of Resurrection (2009)

Robert Oerter


 Review: Tryggve N. D. Mettinger. 2001. The Riddle of Resurrection: “Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East. Stockholm, Sweden: Almqvist and Wiksell International. 275 pp.

The idea that Jesus’ death and resurrection connects to a wider pattern of “dying and rising gods” originated with James Frazer in the early 20th century. Recent scholarship has been skeptical of the very category of dying and rising gods, and more still of any connection between it and Christian mythology. In The Riddle of Resurrection, Tryggve Mettinger attempts to revive Frazer’s category.

After summarizing previous scholarship, Mettinger lays out his criteria for a dying and rising god:

  • “that … the figure in question is a real god,” i.e., not a divinized human.
  • “that he is conceived of as dying (his death represented as a descensus to the Netherworld or in some other way) and reappearing as alive after the experience of death” (p. 42).

He adds two further points of interest, though they are not criteria for his category:

  • “whether the fate of the deity is somehow related to the seasonal cycle.”
  • “whether there is a ritual celebration of the fate of the deity in question” (p. 42).

Right from the start, Mettinger sets the bar rather low. The connection with the seasonal cycle, which is an important component of Frazer’s description, is demoted from a criterion to an “additional point,” as is the existence of a ritual connected with the god’s death and/or resurrection.

Mettinger also weakens the definition of “resurrection” considerably. We might expect a requirement that the god’s dead body return to life on earth; Mettinger only requires some sort of continued existence after death. For example, Osiris dies only to become ruler of the Netherworld. For Mettinger this counts as a resurrection. Even Mettinger’s definition of death is weak: a descent to the Netherworld, or even sleep, may be taken as evidence of a god’s death. Note that tales of Odysseus’ journeys to the Netherworld contain no suggestion that Odysseus and his companions have died.

Mettinger emphasizes the important distinction between myth and ritual. Myths are narrations of a story (sometimes through literary texts), whereas rituals are rule-governed activities. There may or may not be a direct connection between myth and ritual.

Mettinger then turns to consideration of individual cases.

Baal: As described in some fragmentary cuneiform texts from Ugarit, Baal is a rain and storm god who descends to the Netherworld at the invitation of Mot (Death). After a gap in the text, Baal’s death is announced and he is mourned. Anat and the Sun search for and find his body, which is buried. Mot confesses that he has swallowed Baal. There follows a drought. Anat confronts Mot and kills him. The chief god, El, then has a vision in which he sees that Baal has returned to life, and that the rains have returned with him. Finally, Baal returns to his throne.

The ritual situation is unclear. Mettinger finds two texts that seem to indicate a ritual connected with the return of Baal, but he admits that his interpretation is merely hypothetical.

Melqart-Heracles: According to Eudoxus, “The Phonecians sacrifice quails to Heracles, because [he] went into Libya and was killed by Typhon; but Iolaus brought a quail to him, and, having put it close to him, he smelt it and came to life again” (p. 86). Mettinger notes Greek and Semitic inscriptions that refer to an individual with the title “resuscitator/raiser of the god.”

Adonis: The name derives from the Semitic word for Lord (‘adôn). Classical Greek sources only discuss the ritual associated with Adonis’ death. Mettinger stresses the need to distinguish between Adonis the classical Greek hero, and Adonis the Semitic god. For the latter, he cites the 2nd-century-AD text De Dea Syria: “They first sacrifice to Adonis as if to a dead person, but then, on the next day, they proclaim that he lives and send him into the air” (p. 132). Mettinger attempts to connect the Semitic Adonis to Damu and Baal of Byblos, but in doing so he must leap over a millennium of silence. Since ‘adôn (Lord) was used of many Semitic gods—Baal, Melqart, and El, for instance—this leap seems a dangerous one to make.

Eshmun and Attis: The evidence for Eshmun as a dying and rising god comes only from the 5th century AD, and shows the influence of the Attis cult. It is unclear whether the resurrection of the god derives from the earlier Eshmun cult, or by borrowing from the Attis cult.

On Attis himself, Mettinger says: “It seems increasingly clear that Attis was not originally a god of this [dying and rising] type” (p. 157). Neither Pausanius nor Catullus make any mention of a resurrection of the god. However, he was certainly seen as a dying and rising god by the 5th century AD.

Osiris: When Osiris is killed, the scattered pieces of his body are collected by Isis and reassembled. However, the reassembled body does not rise. Rather, the reassembly makes possible Osiris’ continued existence in the Netherworld, where he takes his place as ruler. In Mettinger’s terms, this counts as a resurrection.

Mettinger notes two important Osiris festivals: the “Great Procession” at Abydos, which took place at the time of the annual flooding of the Nile, and the Khoiak festival that occurred at the end of the flood. Both apparently involve a symbolic resurrection of the god. He also cites “raise-yourself litanies” that call on Osiris to rise.

Dumuzi: Inanna’s Descent, a Sumerian myth from the 21st century BC, tells how Inanna tried to take over in the Netherworld, but failed and was killed. Enki sends messengers carrying the “herb of life” and the “water of life,” which revive Inanna. However, in order to leave the Netherworld, she must provide a substitute. She chooses Dumuzi, who has failed to mourn her properly. After a broken passage we learn the final judgment: “You [Dumuzi] half the year, your sister [Geshtinana] half the year” (p. 188). Mettinger interprets this passage as proclaiming that Dumuzi will spend half the year in the Netherworld and the other half on earth. Thus, this is a myth that explains the seasonal cycle, much like the Baal myth.

Rituals associated with Dumuzi’s death are well attested, according to Mettinger, but “possible evidence for a cultic celebration of Dumuzi’s return from the Netherworld is far from overwhelming” (p. 200)

Mettinger presents all of this is in a clear and readable manner, with the (unavoidable) exception of some technical sections dealing with linguistic issues. Although most of the material presented has been known for some time, Mettinger also brings in some new material relevant to the debate. For example, he supplies two texts that he calls on to argue for a possible ritual associated with Baal’s return. He is judicious in his arguments, and takes proper caution when advancing tentative arguments (such as one for a Damu-Adonis connection). Oddly, his end-of-chapter summaries occasionally seem more optimistic than is warranted by the evidence presented—at least in the opinion of this (nonexpert) reviewer.

According to Mettinger’s definitions, these are all dying and rising gods, at least during the later period. But with a stricter definition of resurrection—such as requiring that a dead body revives—it is clear that there is only one god (Heracles) who definitely qualifies in pre-Christian times. One can’t help but wonder, then, if Mettinger’s category has any real significance. Does it accurately reflect the textual evidence, or is it a scholarly construct that has outlived its usefulness?

At various points throughout the book, Mettinger addresses those scholars who have denied or downplayed the category of “dying and rising gods.” Not all of their rebuttals succeed. Here are three examples:

  • Dumuzi was not truly a god, but a semidivine being.
  • References to Adonis’ resurrection come almost entirely from Christian writers, who imposed the resurrection interpretation on rituals that actually had a different meaning.
  • Baal is more properly classified as a “disappearing deity” like Telepinu.

Mettinger disposes of the first two rebuttals in a convincing manner, but his response to the third one is rather weak. Hittite religion has a dozen divinities that disappear and then return. Telepinu is one of these, a storm god who disappears after the harvest and then returns in spring. In the myth, Telepinu gets angry and goes off into the wilderness, where he falls asleep. As a result of his absence, the crops stop producing and animals are no longer fertile. Telepinu’s father sends various gods in search of his son, without success, until a bee finds him and stings him, awakening him. A ritual prayer soothes his anger, and he returns home, restoring the fertility of the country.

Mark S. Smith (following J. Z. Smith) identified six similarities between the Baal and Telepinu myths.[1] He quotes J. Z. Smith: “The putative category of dying and rising deities thus takes its place within the larger category of dying gods and the even larger category of disappearing deities.” Mettinger, in opposition, notes two important differences that he claims prevent Baal from being seen as the same type of deity as the Hittite disappearing gods:

  • Difference in the reason for the god’s absence: for Baal, it is Mot’s invitation; for Telepinu, it is his own anger.
  • Difference in the location: Baal goes to the Netherworld, while Telepinu to the wilderness.

The first point doesn’t seem a big enough difference, compared to all of the similarities, to place the Baal myth in a different category. The second point is really just another way of saying that dying is a subcategory of disappearing. In my opinion, the Smiths have the stronger argument here.

In the last two chapters, those on Osiris and Dumuzi, Mettinger looks for connections with the West Semitic gods. He finds that an influence on the myths of Adonis and Melqart is likely in the case of Osiris, and possible in the case of Dumuzi, though the date and manner of influence cannot be ascertained in the case of Dumuzi.

The final chapter also addresses whether a period of three days and three nights was the standard time between death and resurrection in the ancient Near East. This period is mentioned in Inanna’s Descent. Mettinger points out, however, that it is not the time between Inanna’s death and revivification; rather, it is the time between her death and the beginning of mourning rites for her. Does this have any bearing on the use of similar expressions in the Old Testament (Hosea 6:2, Jonah 1:17), or in the New Testament (Matthew 12:40)? Mettinger is skeptical of any fixed notion of a three-day period between death and resurrection, but concludes that it is still an open question.

In an epilogue, Mettinger considers the implications of his study for the understanding of Jesus’ death and resurrection. After straining to reclaim Frazer’s category of “dying and rising gods,” I fully expected him to reassert Frazer’s link between these gods and the New Testament Jesus. I was thus relieved when he did not. While insisting that a complete study of the matter is needed, he makes the following points:

  • The beings considered here are gods. Jesus was a human who claimed deity (or for whom it was claimed by others).
  • Jesus is not connected with the cycle of the seasons, as are most of the dying and rising gods.
  • There is no evidence of the Christian concept of death as a vicarious suffering (atonement) in these myths.

Whether the Christian Church later adopted mythemes and rites from these ancient religions “is a different matter” (p. 221). Mettinger notes the idea of a descent into the Netherworld, and the Christianizing of the Adonis gardens, as examples of probable influence on Christianity from ancient Near Eastern myths and rituals.

Mettinger’s evaluation of the connections between Jesus and these ancient myths is quite reasonable. Because some popular writers (e.g., Lee Strobel) have cited Mettinger’s book to argue against claims of pagan influence on Christian beliefs about Jesus, it might be worthwhile to emphasize what Mettinger actually says. First, Mettinger argues in favor of a widespread dying-and-rising god motif that predates Christianity. Second, his verdict on the connection with Christian myth is “not proven,” rather than “no connection.” His epilogue sounds a note of caution, but Mettinger insists that a complete study is needed: he doesn’t claim to be providing such a study. So citing Mettinger as support for some supposed uniqueness of the Christian myth is really a misrepresentation of what he says.

Mettinger’s book is of tremendous value for anyone interested in understanding the state of the debate over Frazer’s category of dying and rising gods. There is a wealth of detail here, and good (if not always compelling) arguments. I would strongly recommend that the reader also read chapter 6 of Mark S. Smith’s The Origins of Biblical Monotheism to provide a different point of view. There are places in Mettinger’s book where I would have liked a more nuanced presentation, such as when Mettinger refers to “the Netherworld” as if all of these diverse cultures viewed the location of the dead in the same way. On the whole, though, I found the book to be fascinating, clear, and intelligent.


[1] Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2001), Ch. 6.

Copyright ©2009 Robert Oerter. The electronic version is copyright ©2009 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Robert Oerter. All rights reserved.

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