The Christs Before Christ: Baal & The Canaanites


Archaeologists used to conduct their work under the assumption of biblical veracity. Any new find was interpreted through the lens of scripture and its supposed infallibility. Eventually, this a priori approach lost favor, and archaeologists and historians began to view the data in its own light. As a result, the whole notion of biblical veracity began to erode, primarily because of the sheer lack of archaeological corroboration for its narratives. A mass exodus from Egypt? Not according to the data. An Israelite conquest of Canaan? No such evidence to be found.

What’s more, a survey of relevant artifacts from the period reveals no stylistic distinction between that of the Canaanites and that of the Israelites. Conclusion: The Israelites were indigenously Canaanite all along. They came to re-identify themselves after the fall of the Canaanite city-states during the Bronze Age Collapse (circa 1200 BCE). [1]

Following this socio-historical shift, they took up a more exclusively agrarian lifestyle in the surrounding foothills of Palestine. There never actually was any conquest of Canaan. The story is a fictional construct, most likely implemented under King Josiah in the 7th century BCE, serving to elevate nationalistic morale in the face of struggles against Egyptian and Assyrian forces. [2]

The vestiges of Canaanite culture and religion are easily detectable within the Old Testament. The chief god among the Canaanites, El Elyon, remains the holy name of the Hebrew god, variously El Shaddai or Elohim. In fact, Elohim is actually plural–a reference to the Canaanite pantheon of gods, over which El ruled supreme. Psalm 82 vividly depicts El presiding over the divine assembly:

El presides in the great assembly;
he renders judgment among the gods

Scholars have long recognized that the early Hebrews were by no means monotheists. While they may have reserved their loyalty for one god, they acknowledged the existence of many. This is technically referred to as monolatry. Where Exodus 20:3 declares, “You shall have no other gods before me,” the author is taking a monolatrist position, demanding that faith and obedience only be given to the god of Israel, and no other gods.

What this actually represents is an attempt by later prophets to streamline the pantheon and do away with the excesses of earlier, polytheistic practices. [3] Despite this, the Old Testament records over and over again the temptation among the Jewish people to continue to embrace, not foreign gods, but the ancestral gods of their Canaanite heritage. Among them was the mighty god of storm and fertility, Baal.

Baal was the Canaanite counterpart of the Babylonian Tammuz. Like Tammuz, he was associated with the agricultural cycle, and he too shared a divine consort, Anath. Baal succumbed to the god of death, Mot (equivalent to the Greek Hades). Anath mourned for her lover in the same fashion that Ishtar bewailed Tammuz; though, she would later avenge him, destroying Mot and raising Baal from the dead. The resurrection of the god is implicit in a poem from Ras Shamra of the Canaanite Ugarit (circa 1450-1200 BCE), wherein Baal goes by his variant name Aleyan:

How has Aleyan the lord died?
How has perished Zebul, lord
of the earth? …

Like the longing of a young cow for her calf,
like the longing for a ewe for
her lamb,
so was the longing of Anath
for the shrine of Baal …

And he, (Aleyan the Lord), lives,
and he, Zebul, lord (of earth) exists,
In a favorable dream El (heard);
“Good tidingss, O my son (whom) I have begotten,
the heavens shall rain oil,
the valleys shall flow with honey,
and I know that Aleyan, the lord, lives… [4]

Having conquered death, Baal reigns thenceforth as the victorious king of a new and peaceful era, reminiscent of Christ’s role as the Messiah. [5] New Testament scholar Robert M. Price sums up exquisitely the resemblance of the Canaanite Baal to the Christian conception of Christ, and considers Baal’s role as a likely prototype:

I wonder, in fact, if the mythology of Baal might not be more important for understanding the New Testament than the Old. Here is Sigmund Mowinckel’s summary of the Baal myth: “In the religious texts from the town of Ugarit (Ras Shamra) in Phoenicia, the feast of rains – the harvest and new year festival – signifies the revival and resurrection of the god Baal or Aleyan Baal, who having conquered death (Mot), seats himself on the throne and is proclaimed king of gods and men” (The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, vol. 2, p. 132). Especially when one recalls that in the Canaanite pantheon, Baal was the son of El (= “God,” just as in the Hebrew Bible), Baal’s resurrection victory sounds amazingly like that attributed to Jesus in the early Christian preaching. For example, the hymn quoted by Paul in Philippians 2:6-11: “he humbled himself and became obedient unto death. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Or Acts 2:32-33, “This Jesus God raised up … (he is) therefore exalted at the right hand of God.” The Christian preaching was that God’s son Jesus by his death and resurrection had defeated Death and been enthroned as Lord. I cannot help but wonder if the early Christians appropriated the old resurrection theology of Baal to explain what happened to Jesus. [6]

Zechariah 12:11 attests to the ritual mourning over the death of Baal Hadad:

On that day the weeping in Jerusalem will be as great as the weeping of Hadad Rimmon in the plain of Megiddo.

Given Jewish familiarity with the story of Baal, with his death and resurrection and subsequent enthronement in the heavenly sphere, Price’s conjecture is by no means far-fetched. Especially since such familiarity would have been bred by the direct survival of earlier, polytheistic mythemes that were already indigenous to the Jewish people.


Works Cited:

[1] Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Isreal and the Origin of Sacred Texts (Touchstone, 2002), 111–113.
[2] Ibid, p. 55.
[3] Robert M. Price, The Other Gods of the Old Testament, (2007).
[4] George Al Barton, Archaeology and the Bible (American Sunday School Union, 1946), 535-539.
[5] Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 158.
[6] Robert M. Price, Corn King Christianity, (2009).




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