On...did Jesus cry out to the pagan deity known as 'El' on the Cross?
Recently, XXX wrote:
When Christ was on the cross, he blurted out "Eloi,
Eloi, ...". The literal translation is NOT "My God, My God, why has thou
forsaken me?" Rather, it is "My El, My El, why has thou forsaken me?" El
is a pagan god, a *very* specific pagan god. Why would Christ call out
to this pagan god?
Can you help me with this question (even if the help is pointing
to where it is on your pages). It troubles me a little and I do not have
the scholarship to even attempt a response... Thank you.
There are basically two issues we need to sort out for this question:
What we know about "El"
Who or what was "El"?
What is the likelihood that Jesus was praying to this 'El'?
First, let's look at the extra-biblical data...
"The word il, ilu(m), or el is common to all Semitic languages;
in the broadest sense it can have the general appellative meaning of 'god,'
but it can also be the proper name of a specific deity." [MM:138]. This
means that we will need to examine the usage to see WHICH of these two
meanings it would likely have in any given citation.
In the history of the West Semitic pantheon, El is only a 'leading' deity
in Ebla (3rd millennium BC) [EBLA0:179f], and is quickly overshadowed in
Canaanite religion by his 'son' Baal [PCE:93]. El was generally inactive,
especially compared to Baal [PCE:123; POTW:171].
The vast majority of the occurrences of the word 'El' in ANE literature
are in the Canaanite Ugaritic sources [e.g. HI:ANET:129-155, 659]. ANET lists
only ONE occurrence outside Canaanite, and this is in Hittite literature
[HI:ANET:519]. As mentioned above, El was a minor deity in the religious thought
and praxis of Ugarit.
After this 'bit part' in extra-biblical religion, El virtually disappears
from the world. The name occurs in a compound form (elkunirsha)
in a Hittite translation of an earlier West Semitic myth [POTW:150; HI:AIdeVaux:310],
and is preserved in a few Aramean inscriptions of the early 1st millennium
BC. [POTW:225-226; HI:AIdeVaux:310].
The most logical place to expect El to 'live on' would be in the religion
of Phoenicia, the descendants of the Canaanites. But here, as elsewhere,
we see El slipping away:
"The deities honored in Iron Age Phoenicia are a mixture of
gods and goddesses known from earlier Canaanite times and new ones who
are evidenced only from the early first millennium. In some cases, the
relative importance of the older deities has changed. For example, El,
creator and king of the gods at Ugarit, is mentioned only once in texts
from the homeland." [POTW:201]
The Babylonian version (ilu, Akkadian Anu) also shows a decline
over time. It shows up in king-list names during the Late Bronze Age (1500-1200
BC), but drops off in favor of more local deities within a generation or
so [HI:AHAME:74]. Anu was significant early on, but as we saw at Ebla was
'dethroned in focus' by offspring deities. So HI:BABY:171-172:
The basic structure of the [Babylonian] pantheon, at least
as recorded in the earliest preserved literature, goes back to lists of
gods drawn up in the 3rd millennium. Anu, the sky, who appears as a shadowy
figure throughout Mesopotamian history, originally stood at its head. Some
of his attributes were later taken over, first by Enlil, and later by Marduk
and Assur in Babylonia and Assyria respectively...Enlil (Ellil), 'Lord
Wind', tutelary deity of Nippur, was Anu's son. Like his father he came
to be known as 'Father' or 'King' of the gods and was the first to replace
Anu in the mythology.
Next, we need to see what "El" meant in biblical usage...
"El" is used as an alternate term for the strong God--so ZPEB (in. loc):
El--Largely poetic description of the one and only true God
of Israel; often in Heb., used with the definite article, the (true) God,
although no such article is needed to define the true God (Num 12.13).
But the term, basically meaning "strength," can be used as an adjective
and also in reference to men of might and rank (Ezek 31:11), such as Nebuchadnezzar,
or it may refer to the angels (Ps 29.1)
El was sometimes used of the Israelites in opposition to local Canaanite
usage! So, EBC:5.211-212:
El was a common designation for the head of the Canaanite pantheon.
The Israelites generally avoided referring to Yahweh by this designation,
lest there be any confusion that their God was the same as the Canaanite
El...Israel believed that Yahweh was everything the Canaanites claimed
for El and for his son Baal and even more...In the poetical sections of
the OT, the inspired authors freely adapted Canaanite literary expressions
to the service of Yahweh. In their hearts the psalmists were committed
to Yahweh and knew that El was a figment of the imagination. Yet they borrowed
the descriptions, perfections, and acts attributed to El. At times a clear
polemical force shines through, as the psalmists defend their faith that
only Yahweh is El and that there is no other El than Yahweh! Other times
the psalmists creatively employ literary motifs in the service of Yahweh.
The biblical El is "thus a general term and does not refer to the personal
name of the Ugaritic god El", except in clearly polemical contexts. [MM:139]
Israel essentially 'emptied' some of their terms for deity of pagan content,
and infused those terms with content from the revelation of God at Sinai.
So, Livingston [PCE:182]:
These names were rid of their pagan polytheism and naturism
and given a strong personal content while at the same time stressing the
majesty, holiness, oneness, and uniqueness of deity.
In the psalms, the term "my God (El)" was generally equivalent to
"my Father" [EBC:5.200]
El (and its linguistic variants) as a name for a significant pagan deity
was in mainstream usage in the early cultures of Ebla and Sumer, but dropped
out of the mainstream by 1200 BC. The specific name El disappears from
the records altogether by the close of the OT (circa 500-400BC). In the
biblical data, the Israelite God Yahweh can usurp the name 'El' since He
is the true and only God--in opposition to the passive Canaanite El and
His active son Baal. The biblical 'El' is thus NOT the pagan deity (except
in contexts in which polemic is obviously at work), but is rather Yahweh--the
God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Given this, what is the likelihood that Jesus was praying to this
'El'--a pagan deity that dropped off the face of the earth for 4-5 centuries?
There are a number of approaches and issues we need to keep in mind
as we ponder this:
When a Satanist today says "Lord" in the cult, is he or she addressing
the same person I am when I say "Lord"? Definitely not! The word 'lord'
itself is a title, just as "god" can be so used. So, even if "El" meant
"El" by Jesus, it certainly does not require the 'addressee' to be the
same as that intended by a Canaanite worshipper!
Almost all scholars accept that Jesus is quoting from Psalm 22 here. [EBC:
Mt 27.46]. This would make the referent of Psalm 22.1 (2 in the MT) the
most likely candidate for Jesus' address. In Psalm 22, 'my God' (as noted
above) refers to Yahweh, in a form approximating "my Father" (EBC: in loc).
The LXX translates the passage using 'God' (theos) instead of 'El'
The gospel writers translate the term for us!--look at the passage in Matthew
About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi,
Eloi, lama sabachthani?" -- which means, "My God, my God, why have
you forsaken me?"
Both Matthew and Mark (Mark 15.34) understand Jesus to be saying "God"
(theos) instead of "El".
The fact that "El" had not been a pagan deity 'in circulation' for 4-5
centuries (at least) argues VERY strongly that Jesus was not somehow calling
out to this El-thing.
There is not the slightest evidence to support the view that Jesus had
all of a sudden changed allegiance from Yahweh to some Canaanite deity,
after a lifetime of trying to honor Yahweh!
Strictly speaking, the 'eloi' and 'eli' forms in Mark and Matthew respectively,
are generally considered Aramaic. [The Hebrew form that Matthew uses--"eli"--still
supports an Aramaic quote, since the Targum on the psalm preserves the
Hebrew form of the name of God, even in the middle of an Aramaic sentence...like
we sometimes use the Jewish term Yahweh in sentences of English. Cf. EBC:
in Matt. Loc.] The chances of combining the possessive pronoun "my" with
a proper name "El" is significantly less than that of combining "my" with
a noun form such as "god" or "father". The form my+name (as a vocative,
or term of address) is very, very rarely attested in religious literature,
so the probabilities are decidedly against it.
Jesus had maintained earlier that Jews had the only true knowledge of God,
in the conversation with the Samaritan woman. (John 4.22: You Samaritans
worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation
is from the Jews. ). Why would he at the last minute cry out to a non-Jewish
Finally, the passion narratives are teeming with allusions to the Righteous
Sufferer Psalms--at various levels of certainty and obviousness. These
different Sufferer Psalms address God with His more traditional names (e.g.
Yahweh, Elohim), helping to identify the referent of Psalm 22 as the same.
To see how woven into the passion narrative these psalms are, I have listed
below some of the suggested parallels from DJEC:207ff. (See also the extensive
discussion of the role of the Psalms in the Passion in DM:1452-1465.) The
format below is [gospel passage, item, psalm parallel (with "?" for possible,
but questionable, allusions)]:
[One sees now why the Risen Christ singled out the book of Psalms as the
backdrop for his exposition on the Road to Emmaus--He said to them,
"This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be
fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and
the Psalms." ]
gathered together and took counsel to kill
Mark 14.1 (Mt 26.4)
to kill by cunning
Mark 14.18 (Jn 13.18)
the one eating with me
41.9 LXX (Mrk)
hated me without a cause
Mark 14.34 (mt 26.38)
42.5, 11; 43.5 LXX
Mark 14.41 (Mt 26.45)
delivered to the hands of sinners
Mark 14.45 (Mt 26.49; Lk 22.47-48)
Mark 14.54 (Matt 26.58; Lk 22.54)
following at a distance
false witnesses rising up
27.12 LXX; 35.11 LXX
Mark 14.61 (par. Mt 26.63; Mark 15.5 par. Mt 27.14; Lk 23.9)
silence before accusers
we have heard it ourselves
Mark 15.3 (Lk 23.10)
vehement verbal attack
Mark 15.24 (Mt 27.35; Lk 23.34; John 19.24)
division of garments
Mark 15.29 (Matt 27.39)
mockery, head wagging
Mark 15.30-31 (Mt 27.40,42)
"He trusts in God; let God deliver him"
22.8 LXX? (pepoithen, elpisen)
Mark 15.32 (Matt 27.44)
Mark 15.34 (Matt 27.46)
cry of dereliction
"Into your hands I commit my spirit!"
"I am thirsty"
Mark 15.36 (Mt 27.48)
offered vinegar to drink
Mark 15.39 (Matt 27.54)
worshipped by Gentiles
just, innocent (dikaios)
34.15, 17, 19, 21; 37.12; etc. LXX
Mark 15.40 (Matt 27.55; Lk 23.49)
looking on from a distance
no bone broken
Mark 15.43 (Lk 23.51)
kingdom of God
The net is simply this:
The linguistic, historical, and religious background information
is overwhelmingly AGAINST the position that Christ was calling upon the
pagan god 'El' during His suffering of the Cross.