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.

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Stuff from Way Back #23: Seleucids, Jews and the Birth of Hanukkah

The historian got a bit carried away on this one.)

 

The Jewish festival of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, began on November 27. Until the 19th century Hanukkah was a relatively minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, nowhere near as important as Passover and Purim, but this began to change rapidly with the growing emphasis on Christmas in the same century. The movement began in Germany, where Jews were more assimilated and secure than in Eastern Europe, when Jewish families began displaying Christmas trees, though usually not referring to them as such. The dates of Jewish religious holidays are determined by a lunisolar calendar, which means that Hanukkah, which begins on the 25th of Kislev, may fall anywhere from late November to late December. This dating consequently helped facilitate the association with Christmas.

 

Further connecting the two celebrations is the tradition of gift-giving. In Christianity the practice probably derives from the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, which occurred around the winter solstice (probably why the feast of Christmas was placed at that time) and included a day of gift-giving. The tradition also has Biblical support in the gifts presented to the infant Jesus by the three wise men. In Judaism the custom dates back to 17th century Poland, where children were given small amounts of money (Hanukkah gelt) to present to their yeshiva teachers. Hanukkah could thus serve as a kind of alternate Christmas, when Jewish children could receive gifts like their gentile friends.

 

Because of these factors, as Christmas became an ever more important holiday, supplanting Easter, the importance of Hanukkah also grew. In the 20th century Christmas was rapidly commercialized in the United States, as business realized the profit potential of the holiday, and American marketing ultimately turned it into the major retail occasion of the year, vital to the American economy. So lucrative has it become that countries with only tiny Christian populations are now celebrating it as a major holiday. With its far smaller consumer base Hanukkah has lagged in this development, but by the 21th century it is every bit as commercialized as Christmas.

 

The Hanukkah celebration lasts for eight days and nights, during which period a nine branched candelabrum, the Menorah, is used to mark the passage of the nights. The ninth candle is actually not part of the ritual apparatus but originally served as a simple source of light. The eight candles are at the core of the holiday, since they reflect the miracle that gave rise to the festival. And that miracle is way back.

 

Judea, the southern Jewish state, fell under Greek control with the dismantling of the Persian empire by Alexander, and after his death in 323 BC it ultimately became part of the Ptolemaic empire. It remained under Ptolemaic control until 200 BC, when the weakness of the Ptolemaic state allowed Antiochus III, ruler of the vast Seleucid empire to the north and east, to seize all of Palestine. This exchange of Greek masters probably had little effect on the Jews beyond elevating the pro-Seleucid faction in the aristocracy and priesthood over the pro-Ptolemaic. The tiny Jewish state was, however, of particular concern to its new ruler inasmuch as it was near the frontier between the two kingdoms and covered the main road between Syria and Egypt.

The Seleucid Empire

The Seleucid Empire

The Greek policy towards the Jews was one of tolerance, an important facet of their increasingly cosmopolitan culture. Greek polytheism, like virtually all religions outside the Abrahamic tradition (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), had no impulse to holy war and could easily accept new gods, which were frequently identified with their own. Greek philosophy, which had been steadily moving away from the old Olympic deities towards more abstract conceptions of god, could in fact see something positive in the invisible, non-mythic god of the Jews, though many of the traditional practices of the Temple were considered barbaric superstition. Many polytheists found the aggressive exclusiveness of the monotheists to be offensive, but the Greek rulers, like the Romans later, had no problem so long as order was kept and the taxes were paid.

 

There was, however, a potential problem lurking in the confrontation of Hellenic (Greek) and Hebrew culture. Not only was Hellenization an important tool in the attempt to unify the Greek empires, but many of the economic and political elites in the non-Greek cities were inclined to go Greek, whether to gain advantage or because Greek civilization was simply more sophisticated and attractive. This had an impact even upon the traditionally aloof monotheists, many of whom saw this as a natural development of their religion, that is, maintaining Yahweh but forgoing the ritual and cultic practices. Moreover, since the Greeks accepted the notion of divine inspiration the Torah and the Law would still have a place.

 

The Hellenizing Jews of course stirred a reaction from the traditionalists, who saw their ancestral religion being assaulted and certainly resented such outrages as Greek gymnasia and nude exercise in the holy city of Jerusalem. Further, a candidate for the office of High Priest required the approval of the Seleucid monarch, which inevitably led to political intrigue and corruption. These problems were exacerbated by the existence of the pro-Seleucid and pro-Ptolemaic factions and the constant squabbling of two powerful Jewish families, the Hellenizing Tobiads and conservative Oniads. These conflicts would lead to the emergence of an independent Judea.

 

The sequence of events that preceded the Maccabean revolt is a hotly debated topic, but the following account, while not absolutely certain, is one that makes excellent sense of the information presented in the ancient sources.

 

The 170s BC saw increasing strife over the position of High Priest, during which conflict the Seleucid government played no real role. Matters came to a head in 169 BC, when Antiochus IV invaded weakling Egypt. On the way back north he visited Jerusalem, and always in need of money, while there he looted some of the gold and silver in the Temple, outraging Jews more by his entry into the Holy of Holies than by the theft. This obviously increased the tensions and aided the anti-Hellenizers, but the affair might have passed were it not for developments in Egypt.

 

The Second Temple?

The Second Temple?

Antiochus IV Epiphanes (and friend)

Antiochus IV Epiphanes (and friend)

In 169 BC Antiochus had left Egypt paralyzed by leaving behind two rival claimants to the Ptolemaic throne, one in Memphis and one in Alexandria. But during the winter the rivals reconciled and agreed to rule jointly, causing Antiochus to return in the spring of 168 BC. While he was there, a rumor of his death led the anti-Hellenizers to see Egypt as their savior, and a group led by the deposed High Priest Jason attempted to seize control of Jerusalem. They failed to take the citadel, where the current High Priest, Menelaus, had taken refuge with the Seleucid garrison, but they controlled the rest of the city, and the affair had ignited a virtual civil war among the Jews.

 

Meanwhile, in Egypt Antiochus had been thwarted from ending the Ptolemaic dynasty and compelled to leave Egypt by the Romans (see Stuff from Way Back #10: A Circle in the Sand), making Jerusalem all that more important to his defenses. With Jerusalem in open revolt Antiochus had little choice but to capture the city, free Menelaus and punish the rebels. When he left, the rebels reappeared and captured the city once again, and the king sent his minister Apollonius to crush the revolt and settle veterans in the city, enhancing its character as a gentile and Greek city. The “Macedonian” veterans were Syrians, who promptly established their own shrines and cultic practices on the Temple hill, and Jews felt that their traditional religion was threatened with extinction. Most fled the city and spread the fire of revolt across Judea. Playing an instrumental role in the rebellion were the Hasidim, the scribes and interpreters of the Law, whose livelihood was threatened along with their religion.

 

The revolt was perceived by Antiochus as essentially a political act, compromising the security of his kingdom, but it certainly had a religious content, especially with the leadership of the Hasidim. Antiochus consequently targeted the religion, not because he objected to the faith per se and wanted a holy war – such was a virtual impossibility for a Greek monarch – but because the religion was an integral part of a movement that threatened the state. The result in late 167 BC was the prohibition of traditional practices, such as circumcision (always despised by the Greeks as an assault on the body) and honoring the stipulations of the Law, and the notorious “abomination of desolation,” the establishment of a cult of Zeus Olympios in the Temple. Destroy the religion, the barbara superstitio, and thus destroy the rebellion.

 

But the religion was not destroyed. Rather, Seleucid rule in Judea was. In 166/5 BC scattered opposition to the decrees coalesced into an organized revolt under the leadership of the five brothers of the Hasmonean house, particularly Judas, called Maccabeus. Fortunately for the rebels, the Seleucid empire was in decline and with troubles elsewhere could not spare adequate forces for Judea, and in 164 BC peace was bought by rescinding the offensive decrees. Judas ordered the cleansing of the Temple, and in the process it was discovered that there was only enough purified oil to burn in the Temple for one night. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight nights, which was long enough for more purified oil to be produced. And thus the festival of Hanukkah was born.

 

Potatohead Maccabeus

Potatohead Maccabeus

Judas Maccabeus

Judas Maccabeus

The truce did not last, and more warfare resulted, ending with the defeat and death of Judas in 160 BC. Seleucid rule in Judea was seemingly restored, but in 150 BC a civil war erupted in the empire, allowing the Hasmoneans to reassert their independence and ultimately extend their power north into the former state of Israel and south to the Egyptian frontier. The Jewish kingdom lasted almost a century. In 64 BC Pompey the Great ended the Seleucid empire, which by then was limited to the city of Antioch, and when in the following year the king of Judea reneged on a deal with Rome, he captured Jerusalem. Judea became a Roman dependency and ultimately a province.

 

One might wonder what might have developed had there been no troubles with Antiochus and thus no desecration and Jewish revolt. The success of the Hasmoneans marked the resurgence of the traditional form of Judaism, and without it the Hellenization of the Jews might well have ultimately resulted in the disappearance of the old religion. And the world would have been spared Christianity and Islam.

Stuff from Way Back #16: Moses and the Exodus (screenplay by King Josiah)

(The Preface of my novel mentioned that the Exodus is now in serious doubt.  Here is a fuller presentation of the arguments.)

Nothing is known about the historical Moses, and even his existence is now seriously doubted.  The stories about him found in Philo, Jospehus and the Midrash and Talmud have long been recognized as secondary and unhistorical, and our sole “primary” source for the leader of the Exodus is the Old Testament, which is itself derivative.  The first five books of the Bible, called the Pentateuch or Torah, are manifestly not historical documents, but rather the final version of a tradition that constantly revised stories handed down through perhaps thirty generations.  Like Homer’s Iliad, most of the Old Testament is oral history that was subsequently written down, though unlike the Iliad and the Odyssey, whose texts were thus frozen, the books of the Bible continued to be revised and edited.

Biblical scholars have discerned four major “authors” or strands interwoven in the text of the Pentateuch: the Yahwist, the Elohist, the Priestly and the Deuteronomist; and these sources were themselves assembled and edited into the finished product by a group of compilers, collectively known as the Redactor.  The oldest of these sources, the Yahwist, is dated to the tenth century BC, already two to three centuries after the putative date of the Exodus, and the editing of the texts continued into the sixth and fifth centuries BC and later; even as late as the time of Jesus there still existed no accepted canon for the Hebrew texts that made up the Biblical tradition.  And to this day the tiny Jewish community of Samaritans, the survivors of the northern Jewish state of Israel, possesses a Torah different from that of mainstream Judaism, the product of the southern state of Judah.

The books of the Pentateuch, once ascribed to Moses himself, almost certainly contain no real history.  They comprise instead collections of folk tales, wisdom and cultural information gradually assembled over the centuries into the often incoherent and inconsistent narrative that has come to be accepted as the early history of Israel.   Oral tradition is notoriously unreliable as a mechanism for preserving an historical narrative, since whatever the accuracy of the original account that account will inevitably be modified with each subsequent telling, as old material is forgotten or reshaped by the bard’s own environment.  As such, the facts and history were very malleable.  All the major figures of the Patriarchal period, such as Abraham, were most probably local heroes or cult figures, whose stories were modified and woven into the developing tapestry of a Hebrew national history as those localities came under the control of the west Semitic tribes that had accepted Yahweh.  A few, like Joseph, might be vague reflections of actual historical characters, but none of the exploits attributed to these figures can be accepted as historical fact.  Further, these stories were constantly revised by later editors, who reworked them according to the ideas, institutions and events contemporary to their own environments.  The figure of Moses’ brother, Aaron, for example, was added to the Exodus story much later by the Priestly source to emphasize the dignity and importance of the priesthood, which was frequently at odds with the prophets, who traced their line back to Moses.

A prominent problem with oral history is that the fish will always get bigger with each retelling.  Exodus and Numbers, for example, record that there were 600,000 men following Moses; that would make the Hebrew force more than half the estimated population of New Kingdom Egypt.  But the exaggerations and physical impossibilities recorded in the Biblical narrative are, ironically, not that serious a problem.  The supernatural will naturally and obviously permeate an account of an ancient people redefining their relationship with their deity, and the Bible is after all considered by believers to be divinely inspired.  This has led many to examine the miracles, such as the plagues sent by Yahweh, in terms of natural phenomenon that have been exaggerated and distorted by oral transmission.  This approach has worked well in many instances – the Nile did occasionally turn red and did produce plagues of frogs – and not so well in others – the death of the Egyptian first born can hardly be explained in rational terms.  But this can all be discarded by the non-believer, who need not buy into the alleged miracles.

Obvious mythic stories may also be identified without undermining the basic fact of the flight from Egypt.  For example, the tale of the important infant being set adrift in a basket on a river and then rescued to fulfill his destiny was a common one in antiquity: Romulus and Remus were floated on the Tiber and Sargon of Akkad on the Euphrates.  The same may be said of passages that conflict with the nature of Egyptian society.  The Pharaoh, as an example, was a god incarnate, and even the more humanized god king of the New Kingdom was not about to give audiences to the unimportant, especially not despised Bedouins.  The foreigners erecting Pharaoh’s buildings is the Delta were for the most part not chattel slaves but conscript labor, and there is little reason to believe that the Egyptians, who built border forts in the east to keep not just invading armies but also Canaanite migrants out of the Delta, would dispatch an army after a clutch of them leaving Egypt.  And it is even harder to understand – without divine intervention – how they were able to escape Pharaoh’s professional troops.

None of these contradictions and exaggerations, typical of oral tradition, need injure the historicity of some sort of Exodus, any more than the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid negate the fact that Troy actually was sacked by Greeks.  That there is an Exodus story in fact suggests a real event, since such epic tales were rarely, if ever, made from whole cloth, and partly for this reason Biblical scholars who have otherwise dismissed the Torah as ahistorical accept the Exodus, despite a complete lack of non-Biblical evidence.  (There is the victory stele of Merneptah, erected in 1207 BC, which in a list of enemies smashed in Canaan names “Israel,” using glyphs that generally indicate a nomadic people rather than a place.  This is the earliest appearance of the term Israel in an historical context, but exactly who these people are is completely unclear, and in any case nothing is said of their origins.)

The lack of any mention of the Exodus by one of the most serious record-keeping societies in pre-modern history might of course be attributed to the vagaries of time and destruction or to its insignificance in the affairs of Egypt.  But the archaeological record – or the lack of it – is more difficult to explain away, especially when the remains support an alternate history.  For the Exodus itself there are two archaeological difficulties.  First, while there are indeed royal granaries in Tjeku, almost universally accepted as the site of the Biblical Pithom, they date to a period later than the thirteenth century BC.  This problem might be dealt with, though unconvincingly, by pushing the date of the Exodus forward or assuming another location for Pithom, but the second difficulty admits to no apparent solution.  According to the Bible, before moving into Canaan the Hebrews sojourned at Kadesh (or Kadesh-barnea or Enmishpat), which is now identified with Ain el-Qudeirat, a substantial oasis in northern Sinai, on the Egyptian side of the frontier with modern Israel.  There are pottery remains from the Middle Bronze Age, far too early for dating the Exodus, and there are a series of forts, erected by the united Monarchy and Judah and dating from the tenth to the sixth centuries BC.  There are no remains from the centuries in which the Exodus might be dated and no signs of a substantial group of people settling in the oasis.

The real Moses?

The real Moses?

More compelling, however, are the results of four decades of excavation in the West Bank, the heart of ancient Judah and Samaria.  Scholars have long considered the Biblical account of the Conquest inadequate: how could a ragged group of refugees with their families in tow so easily conquer central Palestine and establish a strong and viable state and the dominance of Yahwism in less than a generation?   There were also already suspicions about the towns allegedly conquered by Joshua and company, and it is now accepted that most of them were later insertions in the narrative.  Many, like Jericho, simply did not exist at the time of the Conquest, and many places supposedly destroyed by the newcomers in fact fell during the Catastrophe, which changed the face of the eastern Mediterranean a century later.  More ominous, the towns given to the tribe of Judah by Joshua are identical to the frontier towns of seventh century BC Judah, and indeed, the campaigns of Joshua make more sense in the later environment, specifically the reign of King Josiah (639-609 BC) of Judah, than five hundred years earlier.

What the modern archaeological surveys have revealed is the essential lack of any evidence for the historical narrative presented in Joshua, Judges, Samuel and the earlier parts of Kings.  Instead, the pattern of the settlements in the highlands of Judea and Samaria show three successive waves of settlement from the east: first in the period 3500-2200 BC, then 2000-1550 BC and finally 1150-900 BC.  The intervals between these periods witnessed dramatic collapses of population with most of the settlement sites being deserted.  The material cultures of these settlements are roughly similar and, hardly surprising, on a much smaller and cruder scale than depicted in the Bible or actually found in the Canaanite towns in the western lowlands.  Even the largest villages contained only a few hundred people and had no public buildings of any sort and virtually no luxury items.  Little evidence of serious record keeping and even cult activities has been found and certainly no evidence of Yahwism.

The most likely understanding of this archaeological landscape makes the Hebrews indigenous to the region, a conclusion that dovetails with the absence of any evidence for the Exodus account.  The settlers appear to be primarily pastoralists from the Jordan valley and beyond, and in fact the earliest remains of each incursion are in the eastern fringes of the highlands and reveal dwellings arranged in oval patterns, certainly reflections of the oval arrangement of tents in a Bedouin encampment.  While local climate change during these two and half millennia may have played some small role, the real impetus behind the changes in population was the condition of the cities and villages in the coastal plain.  Pure animal husbandry requires some contact with farming villages in order to acquire certain goods, such as metal tools, and grain to supplement the meat and dairy diet.  If this is not available from traditional farmers, the pastoralists themselves must become more seriously involved in agriculture, which will ultimately lead to more sedentary communities and permanent settlements.  Once the grain surpluses and trading networks revive, old nomadic traditions and the agriculturally unrewarding nature of the highlands drive the populations back to pastoralism, and settlements begin to vanish.  This sort of relationship between farmer and Bedouin has been documented from antiquity to the present.

The settlement and de-settlement patterns in Judea and Samaria do indeed appear to match the history of the higher cultures to the west.  The second interval of settled population collapse (1550-1150 BC) occurred during the period of Egyptian rule, when agriculture flourished and the surpluses allowed highland settlements to be abandoned in favor of pastoralism.  When that stability and security, and consequently the trading network, vanished in the Catastrophe of the twelfth century BC, a final wave of settlement building resulted, producing some 250 sites.  Because the Catastrophe had vaporized the Hittite Empire to the north and turned Egypt into a weakling, until the approach of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the ninth century BC there was no imperial power looming over Palestine, and tiny communities in the central highlands were able to develop and coalesce into an actual state – Israel.  Or perhaps two states – Israel and Judah – since the Biblical account of a single state fracturing into two cannot be trusted.

Thus, the people who became the Hebrews were indigenous to Palestine; they were in fact Canaanites.  So, from where comes the story of the Exodus and the Conquest?  Given the identity between the towns associated with Joshua and those with King Josiah and the recognition that Judges is part of what is called the Deuteronomist History, compiled in the time of Josiah, one can surmise that the epic tales of early Israel were fabricated in the late seventh century BC to support and in a sense sanctify the policies of Josiah, who might be identified as a latter day Joshua.  This was also the time of the Twenty-sixth (Saite) Dynasty, the last gasp of Egyptian power, when for a final time the Pharaohs nosed into Palestine.  This resurgent Egypt, a reminder of the glorious days of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties, put the Two Lands back into the big picture being assembled in Jerusalem, allowing old tales of desert wanderings, forgotten conflicts and migrations in and out of the Delta to be woven into a new narrative of Hebrew origins useful to Josiah and his associates in their plans to “recreate” a unified and purified Israel.

King Josiah gets the first reviews.

King Josiah gets the first reviews.

Details found in the Torah in fact fit the seventh century BC far better than the thirteenth.  The kings of the Saite Dynasty were indeed erecting new buildings in the Delta, including Pithom, the Egyptian names in the Joseph story were more popular at this time and in Exodus the unnamed (!) Pharaoh seems to see Palestine as a threat rather than part of the Egyptian empire.  To the east, Kadesh, so prominent in the Exodus, is now the site of a Judean fort, and Edom, whose king refuses the Hebrews passage, only became a state in the seventh century.  It may be that these late details cover an ancient story of departure from Egypt, but they certainly show that the material was being rewritten and do add to the evidence for a seventh century origin for the Exodus and Conquest.

That the Old Testament is a sacred text for millions of Hebrews, Christians and Muslims ought not to obscure this historical reality of its composition and nature.  The early books of the Bible are clearly not history, and the details in them simply cannot bear the weight of the conclusions that have been laid upon them.  Trying, for example, to locate Mt. Sinai is an utterly futile exercise, since all the textual clues date from a later age that itself had not the vaguest idea where Sinai was, and the very existence of the mountain is now doubted by most scholars.  Most important, the god portrayed in the Pentateuch is a historical mishmash, revealing elements of the primitive henotheistic tribal deity of the age of Moses, the institutionalized national god of the states of Israel and Judah and the more perfectly monotheistic universal lord of the later prophets.  From this hodgepodge of stories and images of god the believers, ancient and modern, (and Hollywood) have taken what they will, inevitably creating a Moses and an Exodus that reflect the society and values of the interpreter, rather than what might conceivably have actually existed some three thousand years ago.  Moses and his god are a work in progress, constantly being reinvented, from the time of King Josiah to that of Cecil B. De Mille.

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.

This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, unto Jacob, and unto Bibi

(Pre-blog note: We celebrate a fantastic achievement for mankind: landing a one-ton nuclear powered science vehicle on Mars, all without human direction.  Unfortunately, most writers for the general media feel compelled, perhaps inevitably, to add that it cost $2.4 billion, implying that this is perhaps too expensive.  Why then do articles about the war in Afghanistan never mention that this war costs $2 billion a week?  The $2.4 billion Curiosity will operate for at least 104 weeks and actually produce something of value to humanity, which seems like a much better deal.  Perhaps if Curiosity carried weapons no one would notice the price tag.  Three cheers for my fellow geeks at NASA and JPL!)

 

The mainstream American media typically reports news involving Israel only when the Israelis do something spectacular, like invading Lebanon, or when American politics are involved, such as Mitt Romney’s brown-nosing comments about Jerusalem and the Palestinians.   Hardly surprising then that most American newspapers and television stations made no mention of the Levy Report, despite its important implications for Palestine and American policy in the area.  To be fair, some major newspapers, such as the NY Times, carried the story, but clearly most Americans, even those who keep abreast of the news, are unaware of the report, being inundated with the apparently more interesting details of the lives of mass murderers.

Regarding their occupation and colonization of the West Bank, Israel has (when it bothered at all) traditionally excused its clear violation of accepted international law by pointing out that inasmuch as there is no Palestinian state the strictures of such international instruments as the Fourth Geneva Convention and the UN Charter do not apply.  This rationale of course places Israel in what should be uncomfortable company: Hitler in part justified his monstrous treatment of the Soviet Union by noting that they had never signed the Geneva Convention.

This has apparently changed.  Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed a three member commission, headed by former High Court justice Edmund Levy, to investigate the legal status of the so-called “illegal” settlements, that is, those not authorized by the government.  The implication of course is that all the other settlements are legal, despite their obvious violation of basic international law.  But what the panel concluded goes way beyond the issue of the handful of “illegal” settlers, and it is breathtaking in its self-serving cynicism and implications.

Basically, they determined that that the “illegal” settlements – and thus all the settlements – are not illegal because they are not in fact in occupied territory.  This conclusion might seem a bit surprising since the Israeli army has been obviously occupying the West Bank for 45 years, and this is territory designated as part of the Palestinian state created by the same UN resolution that created Israel.  The commission, however, concluded that since Israel has been in the West Bank for such a long time that this is unique occurrence and thus not actually an occupation.  Bingo, all the settlements are perfectly legal in the light of international law.  As, I suppose, would be the German colonization of Poland if they had only hung on longer.

Israeli politicians either hailed this as a triumph of jurisprudence or remained silent, and I am unaware of an official response from the US government, which is in the midst of an election, when even the faintest criticism of Israel is viewed as political poison.  As a signatory of all the international conventions Israel is currently violating, it would be awkward for the US to officially accept the colonization of the West Bank, and our official position is that the settlements are unacceptable.  But no American president has dared take any action on the issue, and so far as I know, no administration has even publically referred to them as violations of international law.  Instead they are “obstacles to peace” or some such euphemism, despite the fact that as a High Contracting Party America is legally bound to “ensure respect” for the Fourth Geneva Convention, which the settlements blatantly violate.

The self-serving and perfectly silly arguments of the Levy Report are designed to satisfy the all-important settler block in the present extremist Likud coalition, but what are the wider implications if this position becomes the official policy of the Israeli state?  This would essentially amount to an annexation of the West Bank, and while the US has pretty much turned a blind eye to the annexation of the Golan Heights and east Jerusalem, this would be very different and disastrous for Israel and perhaps the US.

Annexing the West Bank, even if the word “annex” is avoided, would certainly create a crisis for Israel, which would be faced with only two options.  Israel could enfranchise the 2.3 million Palestinians who live there, but that would be the end of Israel as a Jewish state and is inconceivable.  The alternative is to create (or formalize what is already the case) an apartheid system, which would be the end of Israel as a democratic state.  The second solution would appeal to many religious fanatics, but it would mean the end of US support and the complete isolation of Israel unless it chooses to ally with blatantly undemocratic states like Russia and China.

Well, it would probably mean the end of American support.  American politicians of both parties have a very well established tradition of prostrating themselves before Israel for reasons that are actually becoming less compelling as relentlessly liberal American Jews reconsider their unqualified support of an increasingly illiberal and sometimes outright intolerant Israel.  Israel has become so imbedded in our political arena and its excesses so constantly ignored that it is not a certainty that American politicians, especially evangelically inclined conservatives, would actually abandon it.

We have been quite willing to call Israel a model democracy in the Middle East despite the clear evidence that Palestinian citizens are not just treated as second class but are actually legally disabled.  And in the eyes of many Americans every Arab is suspicious anyway, and the Palestinians have always been terrorists, right?  That Palestinians would be treated as American Blacks were before the civil rights legislation or as South African Blacks were under the apartheid government would clearly be no problem for many conservative Americans.  Yes, we finally severed relations with South Africa, but this is different.  Israel is vital to American security (at least that is what we have been told for a half century) and in any case this is the land the Bible says is special, the land where Jesus walked and where the end of days will take place.  Would Rick Santorum or Michele Bachmann be bothered by any of this?

Many conservatives in Israel are not bothered.  Dani Dayan, head of the Yesha party, has just argued in the NY Times that because Arabs have called for the destruction of Israel and because the West Bank was the heart of ancient Israel, it is not just reasonable but actually moral for Israel to acquire this territory.  Think of it as Judea and Samaria rather than Palestine and you will see the moral imperative to annex.  American evangelicals, who seem to have an incredible capacity for ignoring the truth, especially when religion is involved, would surely endorse this idea, particularly since it involves not just their religion but also national security, which for some has become a quasi-religious concept.

To be sure, because of its unqualified support for Israel and Arab dictators and monarchs, its massive military presence in the Middle East and its expanding program of assassination by drone, America already has little credibility in the Arab world.  But accepting an apartheid Israel would surely end our credibility as leader of the democratic world and spoil our relationship with Europe, whose politicians (even in Germany) are not pathetically subservient to the interests of Israel.

For an historian this is of course all fascinating stuff, but for an American, especially one already concerned about the road we are taking, this is scarey stuff.

Excerpts from the Book of Yitzhak

(Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin, the two one-time terrorists become Prime Ministers of Israel, were inclined to speak in Old Testiment terms, inevitably referring to the West Bank as Judea and Samaria and reminding the world that these areas once belonged to Israel and should again.  It is thus appropriate to provide an account of the Shamir administration in such terms.  Just to remind you: Shamir was PM from 1983 to 1984 and again from 1986 to 1992; from 1984 to 1986 his ally Shimon Peres was PM.  In 1986 Israel withdrew from most of Lebanon, Ariel Sharon having presided over the Phalange massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.  The first Intifada erupted in the West Bank in 1987 and over a thousand Palestinians were killed.  The First Gulf War erupted in 1991.)                        

And it came to pass in the thirty-fifth year of the kingdom of Israel that the Lord said unto Yitzhak, This day will I begin to magnify thee in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses and Menachem, so will I be with thee.  And I will give unto thee, and to thy brother Shimon, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, and Judea and Samaria, and Sinai and Golan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God, and thou my prophet.

And so Yitzhak went forth among the children of Israel and said unto them, Come hither, and hear the words of the Lord thy God.  And Yitzhak said, Hereby ye shall know that the living God is among you, and that He will without fail drive out from before you the Jordanites, and the Iraqites, and the Syrians, and the Palestites, who art an abomination in the sight of the Lord.  Ever with us is He, Who in the ancient days of Baal Four set up an ensign for the nations, and assembled the outcasts of Israel, and gathered together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.

And heavy was the burden set upon the children of Israel by the Lord of Hosts, for many were the enemies of Zion and great the company of unbelievers and idolaters.  And the kings of the earth rose up, and the rulers took counsel together against the Lord and against His annointed, and said unto the seed of Abraham, Go forth from the Lebanon, O Israel, for this land is not given thee, and in Sabra and in Shatila the Palestites have suffered a great wickedness and pain, as of a woman in travail.

And the children of Israel gathered themselves together, as the sand which is on the seashore in multitude, and they cried unto Yitzhak, saying, We have sinned, and have done perversely, we have committed wickedness.  And Yitzhak said unto the people, You come to me with lamentation, but I come to ye in the name of the Lord, the God of the armies of Israel.  What is my sin before ye, that I have gone the way of Menachem and his captain Ariel?  But the hearts of the children of Israel were hardened.

And so it came to pass that the hosts of Israel came forth out of the Lebanon, and the valley of Bekaa, unto the waters of Litani.  And Yitzhak said unto the nations, Comfort ye, Speak ye comfortably toJerusalem, for she cries unto ye, that her warfare is accomplished.  But the cry of the Shiites is great, and their sin is very grievous, and ever will the Lord rain upon them brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven, that He may overthrow their wickedness.

And it came to pass in Gaza, and in Samaria, and in Judea, even unto the waters of Jordan, that the Palestites corrupted themselves, and they worked a great evil upon the children of Israel.  And the wrath of Yitzhak waxed hot, and he cast the tablets of David out of his hands and brake them beneath his feet.

And Yitzhak went unto his captain Ariel, wherein his strength lay, and he laid his hands upon him, saying, Like unto Joshua art thou to me, and like Moses I give thee a charge.  Do thou cross over into Samaria, and Judea, that thou mayest smite the Palestites with the edge of the sword, for they conspire to do a great evil against the children of Zion.  And Yitzhak said unto Ariel, And thou shalt do to Hebron, and to Shechem, and to Ramallah as thou didst unto Tyre, and Sidon, and mighty Beirut; only the spoil thereof, and the water thereof, shall ye take for a prey unto yourselves.

And so it came to pass that Ariel went forth into Samaria, and Judea, and even unto the Golan, and many were the tents and camps of the children of Israel.  And great was the anger of the Lord of Hosts, and His wrath blew hot upon the Palestites, and the cries of the rulers of the west were as chaff upon the wind.  And Ariel sent to Yitzhak, saying, Now the Lord my God has given me rest on every side, and, behold, I propose to build a house in Jerusalem, unto the name of the Lord my God.

But the hearts of the Palestites were hardened in their wickedness, and no more would Yitzhak forebear, because their sin was very grievous.  And Yitzhak said unto the people, If a Palestite smite a man of Israel with throwing a stone, wherewith he may die, and though he not die, he is a murderer, and the murderer shall surely be put to death.  And Yitzhak sent to his captain Shinbet, saying, Send thou men, that they may search the land of Canaan, which the Lord gave unto the children of Israel.  And the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon the people, and they slew the Palestites, who had transgressed.

And it came to pass in the east, by the waters of Babylon, that the Iraqites builded themselves a great army, with chariots of iron, and they conspired all of them together to come and fight against Jerusalem.  And Yitzhak said unto the children of Israel, A great evil and abomination unto the Lord is spawned in the east.  And it is an accursed thing, and ye, in any wise keep yourselves from the accursed thing, lest ye make yourselves accursed and make the camp of Israel a curse.  And the rulers of the west heard Yitzhak, and they gathered a great host, and the Lord rained upon Baghdad brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven, and great was the rejoicing of Zion.

But great was the number of the enemies of the Lord, and the princes of the west cried unto the seed of Abraham, saying, Go forth from Jerusalem, O Israel, for this land is not given thee, and the Palestites suffer a great wickedness and pain.  And Yitzhak was called forth, out of the land of Canaan, by the kings of the west, and he went unto the Amerikites.  And Bey Ker the Amerikite spake unto Yitzhak, saying, Bring forth the children of Israel out of Judea, and Samaria, and proclaim liberty throughout the land.  Go forth from Golan, and from Gaza, O Israel, for thine enemy is fallen, and by the waters of Jordan shall the Palestites raise a nation.  And even in the house of Israel, Shimon, and his brother Yitzhak, turned not from iniquity, but led their tribe in rebellion against the Lord of Hosts.

And great was the power of the Amerikites, but like unto a lion out of the desert was Yitzhak, and his servant Benjamin, and they were filled full with the strength of the living God.  And Yitzhak said unto his people, The kings of the earth seduce ye, saying, Peace, when there is no peace, and terrors by reason of the sword shall be upon the children of Israel.  But he that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn, the Lord shall have them in derision.

Pitch thy tents in Judea, and in Samaria, O Israel, for out of Zion shall go forth our law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.  And we shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people; and we shall beat our plowshares into swords, and our pruning hooks into spears.  For we are the annointed of the Lord, who art charged to carry out His holy work, and I will make of thee a great nation.

And the Lord gave unto Israel all the land which he sware to give unto their fathers, and they possessed it, and dwelt therein.  And Yitzhak went into Samaria, and looked over Jordan.  And the Lord said unto him, Behind thee is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, unto Jacob, and unto Menachem, saying, I will give it unto thy seed.  And I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither.  Behold, thou shalt sleep with thy fathers.

And it came to pass in the forty-fourth year of the kingdom of Israel that Yitzhak the servant of the Lord died, according to the word of the children of Israel.  And he was buried in the land of Moab, in the tomb of Likud, wherein lay his father Menachem.

 

 

 

 

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.