The other day I wrote about a passage from Sanchuniathon, the questionably historical Phoenician author, that discussed the sacrifice of the chief god's "only begotten" son to save the people from ruin. The similarity of this passage to the sacrifice of Jesus, God's only begotten son, led the Bible-oriented mythologist Jacob Bryant to imagine that the passage prefigured Christ by a thousand years, one of those random events of ancient pagan life that was supposed to pave the way for the acceptance of the Christian message. What I didn't do was explain why this was not exactly the case. That story is almost as interesting as Sanchuniathon's material itself.
Here's how Jacob Bryant explained Sanchuniathon's passage in his New System (1774-1776):
Jacob Bryant's entire argument rests on a single Greek word, "monogenes" (parallel to the Phoenician ieoud), which was for many centuries interpreted as meaning "only begotten," from "mono" (only) and "gennao" (begotten). This is how the early Church fathers understood the word, as evidenced by the Nicene Creed, but it is not the original meaning of the word. Later research demonstrated that monogenes derives instead from "mono" (only) and "genos" (kind, class). Thus, the word refers not to "only begotten" but "unique," or "one of a kind." The Phoenician version, ieoud, is cognate with the Hebrew yahid, which means "only son" but in the sense of the mother's only son, not the father's.
This is why in Sanchuniathon Cronus (El) can have many children and still have a "one of a kind" child to sacrifice. Similarly, in Hebrews 11:17 Abraham's son Isaac is called monogenes in Greek and yahid in Hebrew, when Abraham obviously had a second child, Ishmael.
Thus, an ancient confusion about etymology, translation, and the meaning of culturally-specific terms created the impression that Sanchuniathon's passage about child sacrifice (a well-documented Phoenician practice) was parallel to the death of Christ entirely on the strength of a single word.
This does not change the fact, however, that the sacrifice of royal sons was well-established in the ancient Near East. Even the Bible records such events, including the King of Moab in 2 Kings 3:27, who sacrifices his first born son. The remains of children found in the Phoenician colony of Carthage as well as the widespread reports that Phoenician cultures fed live children to the god "Moloch" indicate that child sacrifice was considered an essential, if rare, aspect of the culture.
Such precedents have led scholars to see in these child sacrifices a background for the sacrifice of Christ. For example, in Pagan Christs (1914), John Robertson made the argument that the sacrifice of Ieoud was a precedent for Christ, and Julian Morgenstern saw this as forming the background for the way Christ was discussed in ancient literature in his Some Significant Antecedents of Christianity (1966).
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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