Arguments for easter: In the gap between Passover and Passion

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The Independent Online
Today is holy to both Jews and Christians, but for very different reasons. Yet, argues John Kennedy, both contain echoes of the older Epic of Gilgamesh

ON THIS day two great festivals of Christianity and Judaism coincide. Today is both Holy Saturday and the Feast of the Passover. On this day Jesus, the crucified Jew, lies dead; on this day the Jewish people is born. The two festivals illustrate the powerful contrast between the faiths, and conflict between them.

There is one story from which both seem to draw. It is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates back 5,000 years, to Sumeria, in what is now Southern Iraq. Its hero, Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, is part-divine, part-human, and wholly a tyrannous rogue. He ravishes his female subjects and enslaves the men. The gods decide to provide him with a mate, to keep him in check. So they make Enkidu from clay. He is part man, part animal, and runs wild in the forest as Gilgamesh does in the city. He is tamed by a temple harlot, and makes for the city. Here he joins Gilgamesh in a vastly destructive wrestling bout. They buddy up - Hollywood fashion - and create more havoc among Uruk's enemies. The gods are outraged. The goddess Ishtar, whose advances Gilgamesh has resisted, urges the deities to destroy one of the rampaging pair.

Now the tale becomes sombre. The gods select Enkidu for death. He sickens, and dies after 12 days. Gilgamesh holds his dead companion in his arms till "the worm of death falls from his nose". He refuses to accept his loss, and goes in quest of some antidote to mortality. He meets Eridu the wise tavern keeper. She tells him to "feed your belly, oil your body, embrace your wife, and take your young son by the hand" - to seek consolation now, and in the following generations.

Unconsoled, Gilgamesh crosses the Waters of Death. There he meets Utnapishtim and his wife, the survivors of the Flood. She tells Gilgamesh of the prickly plant of immortality which grows at the bottom of the Waters of Death. The king dives for the plant and brings it to the surface. But, while he bathes, a serpent swallows the plant and glides away. So Gilgamesh's hopes of immortality are thwarted. He returns to the city, "for only the city continues".

The common elements between this and the Bible are fascinating, and so is that fundamental divergence between Christian and Jewish world views. In the face of grief and loss, the tavern keeper offers simply the joy of life, supremely in its continuation down through the generations. The glory of the Passover faith is surely this: central to its imaginative richness, its moral power, lies the conviction of the chosen nature of this people.

The Christian sense of destiny is sharply different. It claims to have fulfil the longings for immortality found in Gilgamesh five millennia ago. The claim is that the way to eternal life is found in Christ's self- giving love; that, by his death, Christians escape death. This truth, so deeply felt, has embarrassing implications for the rest of humanity.

What of those for whom that truth is incomprehensible? The question is more than embarrassing in relation to the Jews. For by their very existence they contradict the Christian claim to possess the truth. The outcome has been horrific, for Christians have learned better to hate Jews than to love humanity.

So what to do? The easy answer is to let the modern secular state arbitrate between religions. Maybe. But the modern state can be a bit careless of religious sensibilities. In its self-sufficient hedonism, is a kind of Gilgamesh. It is also possible to attempt a bogus reconciliation between religions - as is so often found in sloppy use of the idea of the "Judaeo- Christian tradition", whose pretensions need to be mocked on this of all days. These banalities may help you get elected mayor of New York - but, given the historical record, it dishonours Jews and lets Christians off the hook.

This religious problem must be addressed from within faith communities, especially the Christian community, which has so frequently disdained unbelievers, and created the demonic myth of the Christ-killing Jews. Once that evil that has been acknowledged, it is possible to admit that people of faith do have quite incompatible world views, which simply cannot be reconciled. They must admit that their gods are leading them on a hard road of pilgrimage.

This is not a road to fake reconciliation. It is a road where each tradition wrestles with what it means to be divine, human, animal - and leaves to their gods the reconciliation of sharply wildly differing traditions.