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.

Stuff From Way Back # 6: Jesus And the Gods

The Judaic roots
of Christianity are universally recognized: the idea of the one personal
creator god who is the embodiment of the Good.
But there is the other important facet of Christianity, the concept of
the dying and resurrected god, and that ironically comes straight out of Greek

The inherited religion of the Greek
Archaic Age (c.750-479 BC) was that embodied in the works of Homer and Hesiod,
the world of the Olympic gods.  These
deities were perfectly anthropomorphic, differing from their mortal worshippers
in only two respects: they did not die and they wielded immense power.  Otherwise, they were perfectly human,
manifesting all the flaws and foibles of humanity and thus singularly
ill-equipped to serve as ethical role models for Greek society.  As a result, the Greeks possessed a religion
that allowed them the leeway to discover rationalism and humanism and thus
ultimately marginalize their belief system, at least for some.

The seventh and sixth
centuries were tough times for the average Greek, and men who find no justice
on earth inevitably look to heaven. But the inherited Olympic faith, primarily
a communal or civic religion, was devoid of any real inspirational quality, any
serious spiritual element that allowed the troubled suppliant to find emotional
solace. Zeus was essentially not concerned with the equitable dispensation of
justice, and as an evolving society attempted unconsciously to moralize the
Olympians, grim times only produced a grim vision of a supernatural world filled
with threats.  But men require some hope,
and as the years rolled by, these same needs and desires stirred the
development of an alternative religious form, the mystery cult.

Elements of these cults
appear to go back to prehistory, but it was the pressures of the Archaic Age
and the discovery of the individual that fostered their growth.  The cults varied in their content, but they
shared certain characteristics and all of them provided the worshipper an
intense and personal emotional experience generally missing from the civic
religion.  They focused on a single or
small group of gods, offering a more intimate involvement, and the participant
would undergo some sort of initiation (telein or myein, hence
“mystery”), which would ultimately lead him to the central mysteries of the
cult, in theory unknown to outsiders.  As
the continued popularity of fraternal organizations and secret societies
demonstrates, initiation and secrecy, which create special bonds and a sense of
elevated status for the group, are always a good draw.

The cults also revolved
around sex and most importantly the issue of death, the fear of which the cult
hoped to dispel with its rites.  The cult
of Dionysus (or Bacchus) offered temporary release from pain and suffering
through ecstatic possession, but the other important Greek mysteries, the
Eleusinian, Orphic and the later Hellenistic cult of Isis and Serapis,
possessed as central figures gods who died and were resurrected, either
literally or metaphorically, thus confronting the initiate with the terror of
death and the hope of rebirth.  It
appears that at first the cults thought in terms of a rebirth in this world,
that is, entering into a better life, but there is evidence that by the end of
the fifth century reward in the next life was expected.  Some sort of judgment based on the
individual’s behavior was involved, an element generally missing from the
everyone-goes-there underworlds of the Olympic and pre-classical religions.

In the constantly changing
and anxiety-filled world of post-Alexander Greece
the mystery cults grew in popularity, partly because of their salvationist
inclinations and partly because the old civic religion was so closely tied to
the declining polis (“city-state”) society.  In the new Greek-dominated eastern Mediterranean,
the cosmopolis (“world polis”), Hellenic culture, including its
religious forms, rubbed shoulders with non-Greek ideas, including the ancient
religious practices of the Hebrews.  This
sometimes led to friction and violence, such as the Maccabbean revolt, but in
the end produced a sort of hybrid religion, Christianity.  The idea of the dying and resurrected god, so
critical to Christianity, had played no important role in the Near Eastern
religious traditions, and while the new faith may have developed a fresh
understanding of death and rebirth, one linked to the rigorous moral code of
Judaism, the notion of the suffering god appears nevertheless to come straight
out of the Greek experience.