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A shepherd (Jesus? Tammuz? Other?) with his flock.

Tammuz and Jesus: More Than a Distant Connection?

Christianity has its origins in a Middle Eastern religion, Judaism, so it is little surprise that there are some residual similarities between Christian theological thought and ancient Middle Eastern religions in general. For example, Jesus and the Akkadian god Tammuz were both referred to as shepherds. They were also both associated with dying and rising again. Although there are some superficial commonalities, there are also significant differences between Jesus Christ and the shepherd god Tammuz.

Tammuz the Shepherd

Tammuz is the Hebrew name for the Mesopotamian god Dumuzi. Tammuz was associated with vegetation and fertility. He was also believed to be responsible for making the ground fertile. Additionally, he was a shepherd god who was believed to provide milk to ewes to nourish their lambs. As a result, he was very important to shepherds.

The marriage of Inanna and Dumuzid.

The marriage of Inanna and Dumuzid. ( Public Domain )

Another important part of the myth regarding Tammuz is his death at the hands of his lover, the goddess of love, Inanna. According to the myth, Inanna went down to the underworld. While in the underworld, she was struck dead for sitting on the throne of the queen of the underworld. Because she was the goddess of love and sex, all sexual activity on earth ceased and a way had to be found to revive her. She was able to get out of underworld eventually. When she returned to her home city, however, she found that her lover, Tammuz, had not properly mourned her and was sitting on her throne. In rage, she struck him dead.

Fragment of a stone plaque from the temple of Inanna at Nippur showing a Sumerian goddess, possibly Inanna (c. 2500 BC)

Fragment of a stone plaque from the temple of Inanna at Nippur showing a Sumerian goddess, possibly Inanna (c. 2500 BC) ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Eventually, Inanna brought her husband back from the dead temporarily for part of the year, though he was not able to be completely restored to the realm of the living. In the ancient Near East, this myth was commemorated at the summer solstice when women would weep for several days for the death of Tammuz. This myth may allegorize the seasons.  During the hot, dry seasons with little agricultural productivity of the ground, Tammuz was dead which began at the summer solstice. The rainy season in fall and winter was the time when Tammuz would return from the underworld and life could once again flourish on the earth.

Tammuz vs. Jesus

There are parallels between this myth and the story of the resurrection of Jesus. Like Tammuz, Jesus also died and rose from the dead. Jesus was also divine. Beyond these similarities, however, the story of Tammuz and Jesus are rather different. One main difference is the reason for their deaths. Jesus died for the sins of humanity while Tammuz was killed out of rage by his lover. It is true that Tammuz was killed as part of a sacrifice, but it was not something that he did willingly. Jesus, on the other hand, willingly went to the cross to be crucified if the gospel text is taken at face value. Another difference is that Tammuz appears to only save people from physical starvation and death. He did not save people from sin or judgement for disobedience to God or the Gods.

Crucifixion of Christ. Victor Vasnetsov (1885-1926).

Crucifixion of Christ. Victor Vasnetsov (1885-1926). ( Public Domain )

Another difference is the kind of life that Tammuz offered versus what Jesus offered. Tammuz offered material prosperity in the present life, healthy flocks and plentifully crops. Jesus, however, offered spiritual renewal and eternal life after a final, bodily resurrection. Ancient Christians believed, and modern Christians still believe, that one day the saints will rise from the dead in the same manner that Jesus did. Worshipers of Tammuz believed that they might have a materially abundant life on earth because of their deity, but they would not rise from the dead like Tammuz. They would spend eternity as fluttering ghosts in a shadowy underworld. Tammuz appears to be much more limited in scope than Jesus in terms of what he offered. Tammuz was primarily a nature deity.

Tammuz, alabaster relief from Ashur, c. 1500 bc; in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Germany. (Image: Foto Marburg/Art Resource, New York)

It is true that Tammuz was called a shepherd like Jesus, but this would not be surprising for a pastoralist society to use the term shepherd to refer to a divine ruler and caregiver. Of course, another reason that Tammuz is called a shepherd god is the fact that he was literally a shepherd. Another notable similarity is that Tammuz and Jesus were also healers, but the power to heal is something that is the property of many a deity.

Essentially Different Deities

There are some parallels between Jesus and Tammuz, but there are also significant differences. Jesus came to save humanity from sin and divine judgement. Tammuz was believed to save his worshipers only from starvation and physical death. Tammuz was a shepherd of sheep. Jesus was a shepherd of men. Jesus promised eternal life while Tammuz promised a materially abundant, but still finite, life to those who worshiped him. Jesus and Tammuz represent two very different stages in the history of Middle Eastern religion. An interesting question continuing from this might be what changed in the culture of the Middle East to move them from worshiping a deity like Tammuz to one like the Abrahamic God which was believed in by Moses, the Christian Apostles, and eventually Muhammad.

Top image: A shepherd (Jesus? Tammuz? Other?) with his flock. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

By Caleb Strom

References

Jacobsen, Thorkild.  Toward the image of Tammuz and other essays on Mesopotamian history and culture . Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2008.

“Tammuz vs. Jesus” by James Patrick Holding. Tekton Apologetics Ministries. Available at:   http://www.tektonics.org/copycat/tammuz.php

Yamauchi, Edwin M. "Tammuz and the Bible."  Journal of biblical Literature  84.3 (1965): 283-290.

Powell, Barry B. "Classical Myth Second ed. With new translations of ancient texts by Herbert M. Howe." (1998).

Prince, J. Dyneley. "A Hymn to Tammuz (Cuneiform Texts from the British Museum, Tablet 15821, Plate 18)."  Journal of the American Oriental Society  30.1 (1909): 94-100.

“Inanna” by Joshua J. Mark (2010). Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available at: https://www.ancient.eu/Inanna/

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