Stuff from Way Back #30: Hanging Out

In addition to other quaint techniques – stoning, amputating limbs – thought to be essentially gone from the modern state’s arsenal of punishments the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) also employs crucifixion, which is fact sanctioned by the Quran (Sura 5).  They are of course not the only Islamic barbarians who have done this: it has happened in Yemen and the Maghreb.  More surprising, this left-over from antiquity has been carried out in the twenty-first century by actual established governments.  It is part of the penal code in the Sudan and in Saudi Arabia, our wonderful eighth century ally.  It is also on the books in Iran, but has never been implemented, and the Burmese army has been implicated in at least one instance of crucifying villagers.  Sometimes the victim has been executed first and then hung on the cross, a barbaric practice nevertheless.

crucifixion of Jesus

crucifixion of Jesus

The point of crucifixion is twofold: to provide the condemned with a lingering, agonizing and humiliating death and to serve as a ghastly warning to others.  Though one might suspect there is nothing like a rotting body hanging on a cross to get the point across about obeying the law, the deterrent effect of even this gruesome punishment can be questioned.  Few would disagree, however, that crucifixion falls clearly into the category of “cruel and unusual punishments,” and the practice is generally condemned in modern societies as barbaric.  Actually, most modern industrialized democracies also consider capital punishment itself to be relatively barbaric (American exceptionalism again).

crucifixion in Hollywood

crucifixion in Hollywood

Crucifixion, at least in the west, is typically immediately associated with the Romans, in large part because of their role in the execution of Jesus.  True, they became enthusiastic practitioners of the art, mostly for extreme crimes – slave rebellion, piracy, desertion, high treason – and except for special cases like desertion generally applied it only to non-citizens, at least until later imperial times, but the use of the cross was almost certainly borrowed from the Carthaginians in the wake of the Punic Wars of the second century BC.  Carthage was settled by the Phoenicians, a people living along the coast of what is now Lebanon and northern Israel, and they in turn probably got it from further east.

crucifixion of Jehanon in Judaea - actual foot on right

crucifixion of Jehanan in Judaea – actual foot on right

The idea of hanging or nailing a body to a tree is fairly widespread (perhaps reflected now in crucifying an already executed man), and tying a prisoner to a pole for beating or execution is an obvious development.  Impalement may have been the first instance of using a pole for prolonging pain, and crucifixion may have developed from that.  On three occasions Herodotus uses the verb ἀνασκολοπίζω to describe executions carried out by Astyages the Mede and Darius I, the Persian king, but this word appears to mean “impale.”   Likewise, ἀνασταυρόω means “impale” and ἀποτυμπανίζω “beat to death (?),” and they only come to mean “crucify” in Roman era texts.  On the other hand, he notes that in 479 BC that a captured Persian general πρὸς σανίδας προσπασσαλεύσαντες ἀνεκρέμασαν: “nailed to a plank he was hung up.”  This sounds more like crucifixion.

crucifixion in Egypt

crucifixion in Egypt

My guess for the inventors of crucifixion are the Assyrians.  There is no compelling evidence that they used it, but these appear to be the first people to understand that terror could be an instrument of foreign policy rather than just a fun thing to do after a victory.  We know they burned and flayed people alive, hung flayed skins over city gates and decorated trees with severed heads.  Crucifixion would fit right into this box of tricks.  The continual rise and fall of Assyrian power, incidentally, is a vivid demonstration of the inherent instability of political systems based on fear, a lesson for the new caliphate.  The entire Near East rejoiced when the Assyrian capital Nineveh finally fell in 912 BC.

crucifixion in Iraq

crucifixion in Iraq

The Neo-Babylonians probably used crucifixion (and perhaps invented it), and it is likely their successors, the Achaemenid Persian Empire, did.  The Iranian elite were outsiders, Indo-Europeans (cousins to the Greeks and Romans), but were overwhelmed by the millennia-old Semitic Sumero-Babylonian culture of Mesopotamia.  Their subjects expected punishments to be barbaric; Alexander faced the same problem when he conquered the empire.

The Herodotus episode notwithstanding (the Persian general’s crime struck the Greeks as horrific), the Greeks generally rejected such brutal punishments as unfit for a civilized state, especially since they were practiced by non-Greeks, who were of course barbarians.  As noted, as the new king of the Persian Empire, Alexander was compelled to adopt a number of customs offensive to the Greeks, but the direct evidence that he employed crucifixion all comes from the weaker, more sensationalist sources.  According to Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century AD, in 167 BC Syrian troops of the Seleucid monarch Antiochus IV Epiphanes (see Stuff from Way Back #23: Seleucids, Jews and the Birth of Hanukkah) crucified a number of people in Jerusalem, but this is not mentioned in 1 Maccabees, where one would surely expect it.  Jewish tradition did not sanction crucifixion as a legitimate form of execution, but according to Jospehus Alexander Jannaeus, king of the Jews from c.103 to 76 BC had 800 of his country crucified in the wake of a civil war.  Who knows?  Nasty people frequently have nasty things falsely associated with them.

crucifixion in Syria

crucifixion in Syria

Because of Christianity crucifixion is typically associated with a T-shaped cross, but this was not inevitable, though very likely common.  A simple pole or even a tree could serve, providing the economy crucifixion package, and the “cross” might be in the shape of a Y or an X.  The victim might even be crucified upside down, something Roman soldiers did for amusement when they had a large number of crucifixions to deal with.  It is likely that many or perhaps most crucifixions were at eye-level, since the job would be much easier.  The victim could be tied or nailed to the cross; only one nail has ever been found (near Jerusalem) but this is probably because they were valuable and thus retrieved (the Jerusalem nail is damaged).  Nails would have to be through the wrists or perhaps the carpal tunnel or the weight of the body could rip them out through the fingers.  Midway down the upright there might be a sort of shelf or seat – the sedile – which would allow the victim to take some of the weight off his arms, presumably to prolong the whole process.  The foot rest usually included in depictions of the Crucifixion is unattested in antiquity.

crucifixion in Japan

crucifixion in Japan

In exactly what manner Jesus was crucified is not known with any certainty, since the details come from the Gospels, which come two to three generations after the event and might be considered tendentious.  That he was indeed crucified is generally accepted by scholars for a variety of reasons, though not by Muslims, because it is denied by a passage in the Quran.  Since the cross became such an icon it is likely that there was a cross bar, and this might account for the tradition that he dragged the cross to the execution place.  In actuality he would have carried only the cross piece, and it is likely the pole was a permanent fixture.  He may well have been crucified at eye level; iconographic needs would have subsequently elevated him.

What do you die from when hanging from a cross?  Apparently there are a variety of possibilities: shock, sundry pulmonary problems, sepsis from scourging or nails, dehydration if you last long enough or even feeding animals if you are at eye level and have no one to shoo them away.  Asphyxiation is a traditional explanation: when you can no longer hold yourself up the extension of your arms over your head would lead to fatal breathing problems because of the distension of the lungs and chest muscles.  The provision of the sedile might support this notion, yet frequently the victim had his legs broken, which means he could no longer support himself by pushing against his tied or nailed feet or a foot step.  Further, there are plenty of accounts of people being tortured by being suspended by their arms without asphyxiating, and one scholar actually did this with test subjects (students no doubt!), who had no problem breathing, though pain increased quickly.  The whole point after all is pain and duration.

crucifixion of Brian

crucifixion of Brian

Sometimes the victim was offered a wine mixture that was supposed to alleviate the pain; Jesus supposedly turned it down.  This is hard to understand, inasmuch as suffering was the whole point of crucifixion, and one hesitates attributing outbursts of sympathy from professional executioners or Roman soldiers.  Easier to understand is the fact that soldiers often put a victim out of his misery with a stab from their spear or sword.  Why?  Because if you were stuck with guarding the crucified (crucifees?) in order that they not be rescued, then the sooner they were dead, the sooner you went to the barracks or the tavern.

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Stuff from Way Back #24: Jesus, Jews and Romans

Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus, falls of course on December 25, but this is simply a tradition, inasmuch as no one has the vaguest idea on what day of the year he actually first saw the light – or in exactly what year for that matter. From the meager evidence in the New Testament the year of his birth most likely fell in the period 6 to 4 BC. Dionysius Exiguus was apparently the first to date from the birth of Christ in 525, though the practice did not become widespread until the eighth century. The Romans traditionally dated from the presumed founding of the city (753 BC in our system), while the Greeks dated in four year Olympiads from the presumed first Olympic games (776 BC), and it may be that confusion with the latter resulted in a four year error. So it is currently between 2017 and 2019.

Sol Invictus on a date

Sol Invictus on a date

The birth date in December might be calculated as nine months from the spring equinox, when Jesus was believed to have been conceived, but there is no way to confirm the date of conception. Astronomy does not help since the star of Bethlehem, like the three kings, was clearly later added, in this case to fulfill a prophecy. More likely the December date was determined by two Roman holidays, the Saturnalia and celebration of Sol Invictus, both of which occurred around the winter solstice. Placing the birth at this time would provide Christians with an alternative to the pagan holidays, especially as a contrast to the celebration of the birth of the “unconquered sun god.” This latter idea dates back to a 12th century bishop but is challenged by many scholars. If he was born in December, it would have been mighty cold in that manger.

 
Despite the fact that all our knowledge of Jesus comes from the New Testament and sources derived from it, there is little question that he actually existed. It is simply impossible to believe that the religion could possibly have the impact and ultimate success it enjoyed were it all based on an elaborate hoax. On the other hand, we can be certain of very little of his life: he was an immensely charismatic and successful preacher, probably in the Galilee, almost certainly challenged the authority of the Temple and priesthood and was executed as a criminal. All other details of his life preserved in the Christian testament are at the very best suspicious and in most cases clearly false, added by his disciples and later writers to enhance the story. Religion works like that.

 

Jesus as Sol Invictus

Jesus as Sol Invictus

the Aryan Jesus

the Aryan Jesus

Regarding Christmas, for example, the Roman census for taxation was based on residence, not place of birth, which would be an incredibly stupid way to do it. Jesus’ birthplace was probably Nazareth in the Galilee, where his ministry was, certainly not in Bethlehem, which as the birthplace of David (whose own existence is now doubted) conveniently fulfills a number of Hebrew prophecies. The value of associating Jesus with predictions in Hebrew sacred writings regarding the coming of the messiah/king is obvious, since such supports his status as the chosen of the one god, the anointed one. In the gospels he enters Jerusalem seated on an ass, exactly as had been prophesied in Zechariah.

 
Jesus follows a pattern typical of the Hebrew prophets. Communing with god, the man realizes the corruption of the ancestral religion by the authority in the state, the king and/or priests (the fusion of secular and religious authority is a commonplace), and challenges it. He usually comes to a sad end but is remembered as a holy man and an agent of god. The difference in the case of Jesus is that this sad end will become part of the core belief of an entirely new religion, one which will bring a new understanding of the one god. That core belief, incidentally, the death and resurrection that serves as a beacon of hope for man, derives to a great degree from the Greek mystery cult. Christianity might in fact be considered something of a product of the encounter of Judaism and Hellenism.
We of course will never know, but it seems highly unlikely that Jesus believed himself to be the son of god. He was after all a Jew, and the rigorous monotheism of his inherited religion would not likely allow him to consider a divisible deity, a Yahweh with offspring, or for that matter the triune god of the religion he gave birth to. He might in his last years, swayed by the adoring crowds, have thought himself the promised messiah, the man sent by god, but it is difficult to believe that even on the cross he thought himself actually divine.

 
Jesus died because he was in the eyes of the priesthood a heretic and thus a threat to the established order and their authority. In the same way more than a millennium later the Church felt compelled to take action to suppress the Albigensian and Waldensian heresies not just because they were an affront to god but also a challenge to the authority of the Church. The story of Jesus scourging the moneychangers in the Temple is a vivid demonstration of his challenge.
In the interest of ecumenical harmony the Catholic Church has in the last century declared that the Romans and not the Jews were responsible for the death of the Christ, there of course being no advocacy group for the Romans. The Roman procurator of Judea did in fact have to sign off on the execution and was thus complicit, but his motivations would have nothing to do with the religious mission of Jesus. While the Romans found the exclusiveness of Hebrew monotheism offensive, imperial provincial policy was generally tolerant of local customs, so long as the taxes were paid and order was maintained; the Druids were a focal point of Gallic nationalism and resistance to Rome and thus had to go.

 
The issue in Judea was maintaining order. The priesthood was telling Pilate that with his growing mobs of followers and more important, his threat to the established Jewish authority Jesus was leading the province into disorder. The empire was maintained by alliances with the local elites, who with Roman support actually governed at the grassroots level. Pilate would certainly have been more than willing to sacrifice a seeming rabble-rousing preacher in order to placate the real power in Judea. And if indeed the crowds began calling Jesus “King of the Jews,” the procurator’s attention would certainly be caught, since that sounded like a nationalist movement and a direct threat to Roman rule.

 
So Jesus died, and for two millennia the Jews were blamed, further stoking the flames of anti-Semitism in Europe. What was forgotten was that he had to die. That was the whole point of his stay on earth, to die and be resurrected, to carry away the sins of man and provide hope for rebirth. As Bobby Zimmerman astutely observed: “Even Judas Iscariot had god on his side.”

 
A final element in the story, Paul. Were it not for Saul of Tarsus, the new religion would certainly have died, just another Jewish heresy. Stripping the new beliefs of their encrustation of Jewish ritual practices, he made Christianity palatable for the gentile world, and the easy movement of people and ideas facilitated by the Roman Empire allowed it to spread across the Mediterranean and European world. Paul was, after Jesus himself, far and away the most important figure in the history of Christianity.

photo of the conversion of Saul

photo of the conversion of Saul

Whatever one thinks of the historicity of his life, the message of the Galilean preacher is a good one, urging humans to eschew anger and violence and treat one another with compassion.  Unfortunately, it seems the inevitable fate of a successful ideology is to betray its principles, and Christianity triumphant would become an instrument of intolerance and violence and bring centuries of suffering to the human race.  Nevertheless, Jesus had given the ancient god of the Hebrews now a smiling face.  And Mohammed would wipe off that smile and resurrect the Lord of Hosts.

Stuff from Way Back #14: The New God on the Block

(In keeping with the season I present a brief historical (leaving any deities out of it) understanding of exactly why Christianity was so damn successful.  Next week I will deal with the other question: what exactly was the reaction of the Roman government and why, a topic that has been seriously distorted because, well, the Empire no longer exists and Christianity does.)

Christianity is clearly a fusion of east and west, being a sort of religious hybrid produced by the intersection of Hebrew monotheism and the Greek mystery cult brought on by several hundred years of Greek control of Palestine. To some degree it is also a mix of oriental mysticism and Greek rationalism, inasmuch as the basic beliefs were later influenced by Stoicism and neo-Platonism. In essence, the Jews supplied the idea of the sole, ethical creator god, disconnected from the natural world, while the Greeks, through their mystery religion, contributed the notion of the dying and resurrected god. Paul and his associates made the new religion palatable for the world outside Judaea by stripping it of unappealing Jewish ritual, such as circumcision and dietary laws, and Greek rationalism then proceeded to refine the understanding of the godhead.

First of all, Christianity shared the ideas that had made the mystery cults so popular in Greece and later the Roman Empire. Traditional Greek and Roman religion was essentially civic in nature, primarily serving the community and devoid of any personal or inspirational quality. The mystery religion, which came in a variety of specific cults, did not deny the traditional gods but rather focused in on a single or tiny group of deities, providing the worshipper with a more personal and intimate relationship with divinity. The cults also involved emotional initiations and revealed knowledge, known only to the initiates, who gained in the cult at least a measure of equality with their richer and more powerful brethren. Christianity had no secrets but it rested on revealed knowledge and also offered a sense of special community within its ranks. Most all the mystery cults revolved around the central figure of a god or human who either literally or figuratively dies and is resurrected, thus providing an analogue of hope for the worshipper facing the inevitability of death. Further, the cults promised some reward, initially in this life, but by the end of the fifth century BC evidence appears suggesting the idea of judgment and reward in another life.

Christianity offered all these things but was something more than just another mystery religion. The Christian god was not just some Olympic retread, but the god of love, completely absorbed in those he had created. His death and resurrection was not simply some mythic event that had nothing to do with humanity beyond providing a message of hope. Rather, he became human and died specifically for humanity, a divine sacrifice that reveals an entirely novel concept of god. He was the god of all – rich, poor, slaves, free, men, women – something that was not always true of polytheist deities; for example, Mithraism, far and away the most popular cult in the Empire, was open only to men. And Christianity (at least until a powerful church emerged) cost nothing but commitment, while the polytheist religions required sometimes costly sacrifices, such as the bathing in bull’s blood incumbent on Mithraists.

Above all, this new god may have been open to everyone, but he definitely had a bias towards the poor and downtrodden. The rich and powerful had always had the edge in spiritual affairs, whether in the quality of their gifts or in outright control of the mechanisms of the religion. For the first time in history there was a god who favored the meek and chided the wealthy, and of course the vast majority of the in habitants of the Empire fit into the former category. This must have made for immense drawing power.

The religion also quickly developed the primitive ideas of judgment in the mystery cults into a full-blown system of reward and punishment in the next life and firmly rooted the judgment in the moral code inherited from Judaism. Obviously, promise of a better life in the next world is going to turn the heads of those whose life in this one is not that great, and while Christianity is born into an imperial society that constituted one of the more comfortable periods in history, in a few centuries life in the Roman Empire was going to become very unpleasant for most of its subjects. Now, the reward and punishment was based on the observance of a fairly strict ethical code, which might be expected to turn away potential converts. Most of us can get through life without committing homicide or adultery, but the thought crimes are very tough; “Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s wife” is after all a rule even Jimmy Carter violated. But most people want a moral structure provided for them, and the basic rules provided by Christianity struck a favorable chord precisely because they were good rules. The Ten Commandments are the Ten Commandments because they proclaim the basic laws absolutely necessary for a stable society.

So the demanding moral code was likely also an attraction of the new religion, which was offering reward in the afterlife for behavior that virtually all normal humans consider good and proper. On the other hand, not even a Mother Teresa could keep all these rules all the time, and what made the whole system feasible for the average Joe was the loophole: forgiveness. Were it not for the mechanism of contrition and forgiveness, the new religion would be making impossible demands and simply not work.

Extremely important in the triumph of Christianity is the simple fact that it happened in history. The core event of the religion, the death and resurrection of the god, did not take place in some distant mythic past, as in the mystery cults, but right there in the Roman province of Judaea during the reign of Tiberius (14-37). The first apostles of the new god had actually been there, first hand witnesses of the essential events of the religion. They heard the sermons and saw the miracles and the crucifiction, and some claimed experience of the resurrection itself. This gave the religion an impetus unmatched by the old belief systems.

Additionally, though it may have played something of a negative role in the spread, the exclusiveness of the monotheistic religion certainly helped preserve it intact. Syncretism, the identifying and combining of gods across cultural lines, was an inevitable component of polytheism and produced religious hybrids, such as the cult of Isis and Serapis. This simply could not happen to Christianity – at least in any serious way – because there were no other gods. This would produce a religious fanaticism unknown in antiquity outside the Hebrews, and that fanaticism presumably helped a bit. These were people who were willing to die for their god, and that kind of commitment surely had to impress potential adherents.

Finally, there is the element of coincidence: the charismatic preacher was born at the height of the Roman Empire.  Without this huge area of political stability and easy communications the new religion would very likely not have been anything more than another eastern cult.  Two centruies earlier Rome was only beginning to nose into the eastern Mediterranean, and it is not all clear that the new religion, which would be perceived as a heresy by the Jews, would have survived the religiously reactionary Hasmonean kingdom.  Two centuries later and the religion would almost certainly not have the time to spread and develop its infrastructure before the western Empire collapsed.  It might survive in the east, but the conversion of the barbarian tribes becomes more problematic, and what would the history of the west be like without the Church to carry civilization through the Dark Ages?

"In hoc signo, Baby!"

“In hoc signo, Baby!”

Such are the reasons for the initial survival and spread of Christianity, but the final triumph and emergence of the new creed as the exclusive religion of the western world owed less to its nature than to political developments. Because of popular hostility and ultimately government obstruction (tune in next week), by the beginning of the fourth century Christians constituted perhaps only ten percent of the population, but for seemingly cynical political reasons Constantine the Great (sole emperor 324-337) embraced the religion. One might question the conviction of Constantine, who converted only on his deathbed, but the imperial family became Christian, and after Constantine every emperor but one (Julian the Apostate) was a member of the faith, thus making Christianity a powerful force in the government of the Empire. With the power of the sate behind it Christianity began a rapid expansion, as polytheists were subject to greater and greater persecution.

The collapse of the western Empire in the fifth century guaranteed the complete supremacy of Christianity, as the Church, now the only surviving governing structure in the west, emerged as a kind of international corporation manipulating the emerging barbarian kingdoms. The conversion of the Germanic tribes, especially the
Franks, resulted in a new warrior Christianity, which spelled doom for the surviving polytheists of Europe. The Prince of Peace had finally triumphed, albeit with a sword in his hand.

Our Desert Shepherd God

One constantly hears of the importance of the “Judeo-Christian tradition” to Western society and values.  Apparently Islam, which is clearly also part of the Abrahamic family, does not count, perhaps because it is so obviously at odds with the values touted in the West.  Yet apart from the fact that the West has been essentially Christian, with a smattering of Jews, it is not exactly clear how Judeo-Christian ideas are so important to modern society.

The two religions certainly espouse basic social values common to virtually all of humanity – homicide, theft, adultery, etc. are bad and family, compassion, charity, etc. are good – and they at least suggest that law and justice are vital to a well-organized society.  But does not the classical tradition also support all these values and do so within a context of rationalism, eliminating the need for any god?  Further, the Greco-Roman legacy lays the foundation for scientific enquiry and the democratic state, emphasizing a rule of law disconnected from any sort of faith.  The mainstream versions of the three Abrahamic religions ultimately accommodated, at least to some degree, rationalism and constitutional government, but this evolution took a very long time and segments of these faiths are still hostile to such Western notions.  Yahweh/God/Allah is manifestly not a democratic figure and has required unthinking acceptance of his words.

Inasmuch as they are rooted in faith rather than reason all religions are inherently silly to one degree or another, but the believer will of course only see the silliness in the other guy’s religion, especially if it is not Abrahamic.  There are, to be sure, differences in what might be called sophistication: god as a first principle behind the universe is more sophisticated than god as a personal savior requiring certain ethical behavior, which is in turn more sophisticated than god as nature spirit requiring offerings and ritual behavior.  But no matter how primitive or sophisticated all religions require a suspension of reason, and consequently Athena springing full grown from the brow of Zeus is inherently no more unreasonable than Jesus being born of a virgin mother or a Buddhist being reborn as a bug.  In fact, it is easier to make sense of the utterly anthropomorphic Olympic gods, who act just as humans do, than of the Abrahamic deity, who demands often strange behavior and proclaims his love of humanity while loosing all manner of evils upon us.

The many flocks of Abraham are of course generally oblivious to such considerations and display an arrogance possible only for a monotheist, dismissing poor benighted polytheists (the term “pagan” – “those of the countryside” – carries the contempt) as ignorant fools who cannot see how obviously false and man-made their gods are.  Ironically, the historical and cultural roots of the Abrahamic god, particularly in his Christian and Muslim incarnations, are quite evident, as obvious as the environmental origins of any weather god or fertility goddess.

The invisible tribal god of the people who would become the Hebrews readily betrays his local and west-Semitic character, particularly in his often bizarre prohibitions and punishments, many of which are common to other deities in
Syria-Palestine at the time.  Despite centuries of redactions the early books of the Old Testament still reveal signs of the polytheist and mythic past of the Judge of Nations, the creation of one time semi-nomadic stock herders.  This nameless desert shepherd god shares the original henotheistic nature possessed by many of his Canaanite colleagues, and only because of the understandable historical circumstances that detached him from nature and made him the sole god in the universe does he escape the scrap heap of religion to which they were ultimately consigned.  He becomes the ethical deity, but remains encrusted with the ritual and animal sacrifice of his early days.

His next incarnation comes out of the conjunction of a number of religious and historical factors that are found in Judea in the first century AD.  Because of the return of the Babylonian exiles, who had preserved his ancient character, and the successful nationalist revolt of the Maccabees, which helped stem the tide of Hellenism, Yahweh survived intact in a rapidly changing world.  The centuries old tradition of religious activists – the prophets – challenging the authority of a wealthy and corrupt priesthood allied with the state continued with the appearance of a charismatic preacher from Galilee.  As a heretic and potential revolutionary the popular Jesus would have to die, and his execution was approved by a Roman governor interested in maintaining order and keeping the propertied classes happy.

But because of the Greeks the story did not finish there, and Jesus did not simply join the line of martyrs for the Mosaic god.  The Hellenic wave that washed over Judea in the wake of Alexander brought with it a new religious form, the mystery cult, at the heart of which was a new idea of deity, the dying and resurrected god.  Jesus could thus live on, united with his divine father and divine spirit in a new version of the sole god, one more concerned with the downtrodden rather than the powerful, with forgiveness rather than punishment.  This was the Prince of Peace rather than the Lord of Hosts, Yahweh with a smiling face – and in a questionable three pack edition.

And the timing was perfect, which is of course why a new major religion emerged from this amalgam of ideas.  The Roman Empire allowed for the easy and rapid spread of the Christian god into the most distant corners of the Mediterranean and western Europe, and that Empire was packed with people ready to hear about the first truly poor man’s god, who preferred the powerless and offered a reward in the next life.  Facilitating all this was Saul/Paul of Tarsus, who striped the new creed of all the intimidating dietary and ritual practices of traditional Judaism.  The one ethical god was now available to the uncircumcised.

Some six hundred years later the third and seemingly final model of the god of Moses appeared, essentially the work of a single individual.  Growing up in the polytheist and socially retarded society of Red Sea Arabia, Mohammed did not have to create an Arabic supreme being from scratch but could draw upon the ideas of the Jews and Christians found in Medina.  Fully reflecting the primitive and semi-Bedouin environment, the resulting deity was a return to the more west-Semitic Jewish version, a Lord of Battles suitable for the constantly warring tribes.  Even more aniconic than his Hebrew predecessor, Allah was the ultimate desert shepherd god, who would carry his barbarian adherents to world power.

Yahweh/God/Allah is now worshipped by more than half the people on the planet, quite an achievement for a deity who started out as the tribal god of a tiny group of semi-nomadic herders.  And while he has undoubtedly satisfied the spiritual needs of millions upon millions of humans and has certainly inspired incredible art, he has equally clearly brought untold misery into the world.  Polytheists are almost relentlessly religiously tolerant (extremist Hindus only demonstrate what happens when you share a country with Arab Muslims), but monotheism introduced humanity to religious arrogance, holy war and baptism by the sword.  Two millennia after Christ and fifteen hundred years after Mohammed the world is still plagued with religious bigotry and violence and hostility towards rationalism.

Even worse, this is the no-fun god, enshrining the puritanical and narrow-minded attitudes of his herding and Bedouin progenitors and the uneducated and rural masses that underpin his worship.  Human sexuality, an inescapable element of our being, is suppressed and considered virtually an evil necessity, and the human body, celebrated by the high civilizations of Greece and India, has become an object of shame.  Islam carries the travesty even further, prohibiting alcohol, the chosen drug of the human race and the solace of millions, while its more extreme adherents seek to remove all the most colorful elements from the tapestry of life.  How is that sex and drink have fallen into the same category as theft and murder?

Suppose that priestly Judaism had disappeared under the impact of Hellenism or that the Galilean preacher had never appeared.  The educated elites in the classical world were already abandoning polytheism for a more unitary understanding of god, a divine principle rather than a personal savior.  How would that have played out without the intervention of Christianity and Islam?  In the midst of all its polytheist beliefs Hinduism has produced for the educated a more unitary notion of deity.  It is far too much to believe that humanity would have moved away from religion altogether, but the absence of the desert shepherd god would likely have resulted in a more pleasant history for the race.