Friday, March 7, 2014

God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism

Book Review: God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism by Jonathan Kirsch  (Viking Compass 2004)

This is a very interesting and informative analysis of the interaction of monotheism and polytheism from 2nd millennium B.C. Egypt to the death of Hypatia in the 400’s C.E. Most of the book is an analysis of the interaction of Judaism with Middle Eastern and Hellenistic paganism from about 1000 B.C. and of Christianity with Hellenistic but mostly Roman paganism. There is some great history here from a perspective that is non-biased or perhaps biased just a bit toward polytheism – which is unusual. The author seems quite knowledgeable. The only complaint I have is the conspicuous absence of Persian/Zoroastrian monotheism. Since the author included the Egyptian monotheistic reformer Ankhenaton he should have also included the Persian monotheistic reformer Zoroaster. The more rigorous monotheists here are characterized as those who fought to establish the One True God and abolish all others as inferior or evil. Such intolerance was often accompanied by the destruction of statues, temples, and texts devoted to other gods. Pagans from Hellenic, Roman, and Near Eastern lands worshipped many gods, some considered higher than others but all were generally accepted. With monotheism and the worship of the Only True God, other gods came to be called False Gods, and worse – Devils. This is not unprecedented as it appears the split of tribes in pre-Vedic times led to the Vedics and Avestans (Persians) calling the gods of the others devils – or demi-gods in the case of the Vedics.  This notion of not honoring and demonizing others’ gods is likely what annoyed the pagans when dealing with monotheistic Jews and Christians. After a while they were persecuted for it.

He gives a quote from Sigmund Freud:

“Religious intolerance was inevitably born with the belief in one God.”

Humans seem to be religious or given to worshipping gods by nature – perhaps as a consequence of the scenario-building that helped us survive and evolve, later applied to the quest to understand the unknown and deal with the anxiety associated with the inevitability of death.

Monotheistic religious intolerance is still problematic today as religious fanatics such as the 911 bombers kill people for strictly dogmatic reasons. Of course, polytheism produced fanatics as well, but the very nature and structure of polytheism is inclusive rather than exclusive and this inclines it more towards tolerance as has been the case throughout history. Roman paganism was quite a mish mash of traditions where one might pick and choose how one worshipped – perhaps not too unlike today. Tolerance was the rule of the day. Some cults were orgiastic and given to excesses, animal sacrifice to the gods was very common, but other cults were more austere and favored a more tempered morality. According to Franz Cumont: “Temperance, courage, chastity, obedience to parents and magistrates, [and] reverence for the oath and the law,” were core Roman pagan values. Kirsch points out that there was no concept of “heresy” in polytheism as basically all was permitted. Heresy was a major concept in Christianity and it is likely that more Christians were persecuted and killed by other Christians who branded their version of Christianity heretical, than were persecuted and killed by pagans. Concerning multiple religions, the pagan prefect Symmachus wrote: “It is not possible that only one road leads to so sublime a mystery.”

The biblical notion of Yahweh as a jealous god is well known – as he proclaims that to have gods other than him is an abomination. The Hellenes and Roman pagans were perfectly willing to bring the Hebrew god – as Iao – into their pantheon – and did. He was also Jove, equated with Jupiter and Zeus as a high god. What the bible calls zeal the historians call rigorism, or extreme strictness – ie. rigid belief. Such rigorism among pagans as well as Jews and Christians inspired some extreme ascetic behaviors as well. Asceticism in these cases, says the author, is rigorism turned inward. Rigorism turned outward may be used to harm and persecute others. Such zeal is the source of terrorism. Although there is a smattering of rigorism in many doctrines it is by and far most common with monotheistic belief. Kirsch also points out that the word “pagan” is a derogatory term created by monotheists – like “infidel,” “heathen,” or “idolator.” Western history (ie. Christian history) is certainly biased against polytheists and non-Christians. Ironically, the word “atheist” was first used by Roman pagans referring to Christians who denied the Roman pantheon.

In 1400’s B.C. Egypt came Pharaoh Ankhenaton – who favored the god Aton – represented as a sun disk in midday splendor – over all other gods. He ordered the closing of temples and destruction of statues of other gods. His One True God was not depicted with an idol. He built a new capital as well. This is the first known situation in history of both monotheism and of the systematic rejection of other gods. Ankhenaton’s reign lasted less than twenty years and at his death Egypt promptly returned to its polytheistic past – his name was etched out of the famed lists of kings. One of his sayings: “O Thou only God, there is no other God than Thou,” is suggested as a possible precursor to similar Hebrew statements. Famed Egyptologist Jan Assman notes the similarities of Aton with the Hebrew Adonai. Sigmund Freud went so far as to speculate that Moses was actually an Egyptian priest of Aton who took the monotheistic doctrine of Ankhenaton and brought it to the people of Israel.

The word “Elohim” in Hebrew is a plural that means “gods” rather than “God.” The Jews were once polytheistic, with household idols (teraphim) such as fertility goddesses. Some of these were of Asherah – a Canaanite goddess sometimes called the wife of Yahweh. This suggests that polytheism was practiced among the Hebrew people with the exception of the elite, or priestly class among them, who condemned it. Asherah is condemned as evil in the Bible. The Old Testament is replete with the extremism of Yahweh concerning his threats and demands of strict obeisance.

The core value of monotheism is exclusivity – the complete rejection of all but one god and all but one doctrine. Despite some useful biblical moral teachings here and there, one can surely see the insanity of such a biased view, right? Certainly the kinder and gentler version of God is emphasized by today’s religionists. Says Kirsch, certain biblical prophets have equated the sins of apostasy and idolatry with adultery and harlotry – so that God becomes as a cuckolded husband who is bitter and angry. Thus Yahweh appears as jealous and avenging.

Paganism, as depicted in the Bible is replete with harlotry, idolatry, sorcery, and human sacrifice. The temple harlots of Babylon described by Herodotus were a prime biblical example of the debauchery of paganism. In reality such temple prostitution may not have been as widespread as thought and much of it metaphorical. Fertility was certainly one goal of such practices. Prostitution, some associated with pagan cult activity, was practiced in Roman times but there were varying views of it. Many pagans did not approve of it and the wild drunken orgies devoted to Bacchus were outlawed in the vicinity of Rome in 186 B.C.

Human sacrifice was depicted as appalling by the Jews who pointed to Canaanite practice of it. Eventually though, both monotheists and polytheists gave up the practice in favor of animal sacrifice. After Yahweh spares the child of Abraham in favor of a ram, this common practice of infanticide was given over to animal sacrifice and possibly circumcision as a surrogate form of it. There is a similar story in Greek myth where Agamemnon was about to sacrifice his daughter to Artemis, but she spares the girl and takes a deer instead. The Romans issued edicts against human sacrifice and considered the practice of it by the barbarian Germanic and Celtic tribes to be appalling. However, we all know the cruelty of the Romans with the gladiatorial combats and the torturing of criminals and some war captives. Criminals sentenced to death could be considered to be sacrificial victims as well since they might be offered to a god or goddess.

The Jews and Christians also sermonized against the role of women in divine matters since their One True God was male. Pythonesses, Vestal Virgins, healer women, and their goddesses were denounced. This manifested much later in the Inquisition as condemnation and mass execution of country women and herbalists as witches. Apparently, there were pagan puritans as well – denouncing adultery, prostitution, and homosexuality as criminal. Some priesthoods required celibacy. The open sexual revelries of devotees of Bacchus and Cybele were not always tolerated. Biblical authors considered polytheism as a form of promiscuity. The author notes that Babylon in the Book of Revelations was a code word for Rome – “the mother of harlots and the abominations of the earth.”

Yahweh was also a war god and as we know he does much “smiting” in the Bible. Total destruction (genocide) of various tribes is not uncommon. King Saul is denounced and de-ranked by Yahweh for sparing the enemy king. The Jews considered themselves the Chosen People – chosen by the One True God. The author gives the story of the Jewish King Josiah (648-609 B.C.) as a key figure in the development of monotheism. It is thought that at that time monotheism was not so strong as there were still Asherah figures and graven images. Josiah waged a holy war, a purge by the sword of execution, of all cults and tribal practices that did not worship Yahweh only. He claimed to have found a lost scroll in the Temple of Solomon – which is thought to be the Book of Deuteronomy (said by one scholar to be a pious fraud concocted by Josiah). The instructions were that true Jews could only make sacrifice at the Temple of Solomon, which was convenient for him since it was his domain. This was the convergence of One God and one king – a key idea that would finally grab the late Roman Christian emperors. About nineteen years after Josiah’s death the Jews were conquered by the Babylonians. The ruling class was enslaved and taken to Babylon. The common people reverted back to their traditional polytheism. Some fifty years later the Persians liberated the Jews from Babylon and they were allowed to return. They separated themselves as “Holy Seed” from the commoners and began to rebuild the Temple of Solomon. Their oppression and persecution may well have strengthened their monotheistic convictions. A few centuries later came Alexander – the great Hellene and avatar of Zeus and Amon. Alexander Hellenized the places he conquered such that the trappings and pastimes of Greek culture became rather pervasive. He conquered the Jewish lands from the Persians. Many of the Jews embraced Hellenism – some even resorting to a sort of plastic surgery to conceal the fact that they were circumcised, but some resisted Hellenization. A king that inherited these lands from Alexander, Antiochus IV was known for his cruelty. He did not like the resistant ways of the Jews and persecuted them. These Jews refused to honor the gods of state. Antiochus banned circumcision, worshipping on the Sabbath, and Jewish dietary laws. He even demanded that a pig be offered on the altar of Yahweh – very offensive in Hebrew belief. He even sent death squads to kill observant Jews, he hated them so much. This created a big backlash. Inspired by stories of zeal in the Torah the Jews rose up against the tyranny of Antiochus. There is a story where a Jew named Mattathias is ordered by a Syrian officer to sacrifice to a pagan idol. He refuses. A more willing Jew steps forward to do it. Mattathias kills both the Syrian and the Jew. His zeal to follow the law inspires others and is the basis of the Book of Maccabees. This resulted in the first in another holy war. The Maccabees fought not only their Syrian overlords but also any Jews that would not join them. The book speaks of convictions – of those who would rather die horrible deaths and encourage others to die horrible deaths rather than comply and break the covenant rules with their God and tradition. Here we have the first “martyrs.” The battle-cry of zeal and conviction led to martyrdom to preserve beliefs and customs. The Maccabees basically invented martyrdom. They defeated the army of Antiochus and became a source of pride for the more rigorous Jews. After the war, the Jews made peace and assimilated more into Hellenic society. But the Jews would martyr themselves again when under Roman rule – but then with King Herod there were accomodationists and rigorists so it was perhaps more like a civil war. The famed mass suicide (mass martyrdom) of the Jews under siege by the Romans at Masada ended that particular uprising of Jewish freedom fighters but there would be others. Over the next few centuries there were uprisings of rigorists and cooperation as well as accomodationists of the Roman empire. The writings of Flavious Josephus, a cooperator with the Romans, but also an admirer of Jewish zeal, would write of the history of Jewish zeal, conceding that such holy warring should come to an end. Sometime after the temple at Jerusalem was lost to the Romans there was a reformation of Jewish emphasis and the Jews basically made peace with the pagans. The new Talmudic Jews de-emphasized zeal and rigorism in favor of loving-kindness, study of the traditions, dietary law, and observance of the Sabbath. After this the Jews and Romans integrated more, some Romans even becoming Jews. Curious pagans were attending synagogues in Rome in the first century C.E.

Hellenic philosophers were both complementary and counter to pagan religious practices. Their chief function was to promote morality. Plato and his successors, among others, could be said to have promoted in their Monism, a kind of ethical monotheism, but it was not based on denigration of other gods. Neoplatonists, like pagans, were syncretists. Many adherents to pagan cults considered the idea of a Supreme Divinity – as Zeus, King Helios, Isis and Serapis, the Great Mother, Mithras, and others.

Paul, Saul of Tarsus, was instrumental in making Christianity available to the masses in the Roman Empire by taking the Judaic requirements out of the sect. He was also instrumental in demonizing the religions of the pagans. Christians were first considered a nuisance in Rome but were tolerated. Then came to be persecuted – first by Nero as blamed them for burning Rome. Christians were despised by their refusal to participate in the ritual worship expected of Roman citizens – as the Pax Romana (Peace of Rome) depended on the Pax Deorum (Peace of the Gods). Thus they were considered unpatriotic. There were even slanders and rumors about these atheists (Christians as non-believers) so that they were demonized – much like they came to demonize others. Regarding the so-called Christian martyrs – those given to the lions and such, there is much disagreement. Some historians say they were tortured by the Romans (as criminals were tortured) and some say much of it was Christian propaganda. When Christianity was criminalized there came to be “confessors,” those who confessed that they practiced it and were punished – and “traditors,” those who handed over texts to the authorities. Traditors came to be despised among rigorous Christians. Roman persecution of Christians may be the main subject of John’s Book of Revelations.

Much of this book is devoted to the rise of the Roman emperors Constantine, as a supporter of Christianity, and his younger relative Julian the Apostate, a champion of paganism. Neither was especially intolerant of the other religion but they made edicts and reversed previous ones. The emperors after Julian really Christianized the empire and effectively outlawed paganism and crushed it after a century or two. Diocletian was a pro-pagan emperor before Constantine. The empire was split up into eastern and western portions with shared power and leaders often deposing leaders and heirs. As in much of ancient empires – murder was quite common. Constantine was a general who rose through the ranks to become the sole emperor of Rome and ruled from Constantinople – his new city. He kept some pagan state traditions. He was not baptized until on his death bed. He sought reconciliation among Christians. He convened the Council of Nicea. There were many heresies proclaimed and much sectarian bloodshed among Christian sects for several centuries.  One of the biggest was the tiff between Arianism and the orthodox Christianity that proclaimed it a heresy. The Arians put forth the belief that Jesus was the Son of God rather than God and so was similar to God but not the same as God. This very slight definitional doctrinal schism resulted in a massive amount of bloodshed and effectively split the Church. Constantine sought reconciliation and the Peace of the Church. That was the reason for the Council of Nicea where feuding factions were brought together. Of course, extremists continued the feuds afterward. Constantine had preciously issued the Edict of Milan which outlawed persecution of Christians and was basically a document announcing religious tolerance in the tradition of pagan Rome. With Constantine the Christian bishops began a relationship with the state and it was the beginning of a Christianized Roman empire as they were now strong influencers of government. With Constantine as sole ruler and Christianity as the favored but not the only religion – it was said to be the beginning of the first totalitarian state. Constantine was a warrior as well as a shrewd and often cruel leader. Bishop Eusebius forged a will (many historians agree) that was found on Constantine at his death. In the will it was stated that Constantine was a victim of being poisoned by his half-brothers and he should be avenged. The baptized sons of Constantine – Constantine II, Constantius II, and Constans, subsequently carried out a major blood purge. Most members of the family by blood or marriage, males and females – uncles, cousins, etc – were promptly arrested and slain. Only two very young boys were spared – Gallus and Julian. Their older brother was killed. Gallus was eventually lured to Constantinople with a government assignment and slain by Constantius II. They were taken away to be guarded as they grew up. The sons of Constantine would soon enough war among each other until only one remained, Constantius II. He was the first leader to issue edicts outlawing the practices of paganism around 341 C.E. Superstition and sacrifices were to be stamped out, idols and temples destroyed, and texts burned. The tolerance of the Edict of Milan was at an end. The punishment was death – yet in practice this was not commonplace. This first gesture was more symbolic than anything. The bloodshed of Arians and orthodoxy continued and heretics could be tortured. Riots became common in places like Alexandria. Paganism was well-tolerated in some places and less so in others.

Julian was eventually summoned to lead an army for Constantius II who had few loyal family members – since he and his brothers had killed them all. He was to be watched and ill-equipped. Even so, he performed his war duties quite well and his courage and willingness to work with his men was praised. These orphans, Julian and Gallus, were educated according to their high status. Julian studied Homer and philosophy even though Constantius specifically forbade it. A trip to Ephesus brought him to a temple of Apollo. He studied Neoplatonism – the brand of Iamblichus that was infused with theurgy. Constantius’ young second wife Eusebia favored Julian and is thought to have convinced Constantius to spare his life. Julian was sent to Gaul and fought Germanic tribes. He was elevated by the people around Paris and proclaimed Caesar. He would march with an army to confront Constantius II who was off fighting the Persians. Constantius died of a fever in the Persian conflict so the two never fought. Julian was declared emperor. Julian was, of course, bitter about the murder of virtually his whole family. Even though raised Christian and forced to attend Christian services he was secretly a pagan. He began to practice openly – offering blood sacrifices with his own blade. He was officially initiated into several of the mystery religions – of Mithras, and Isis and the Great Mother. When he made it to Constantinople he purged those who plotted against him – executing a few as was expected of him – but he spared many others, giving them mild sentences – fines, house arrest, and banishment. Julian fancied himself a philosopher-king and did not partake of the lavish lifestyle expected of emperors. He issued an edict of toleration in 360 that restored paganism as a legal practice. He did not persecute Christians – his treatment of them was mild even though later Church history would condemn him for it. Said he:

“I declare by the gods that I do not want the [Christians] to be put to death, or unjustly beaten, or to suffer anything else.”

He sought to re-establish the old pagan state traditions and separate Christianity from the state in favor of tolerance of all religions. His trend toward tolerance and reconciliation of exiled heretics and such, inflamed Christians, probably by his design, as toleration was seen as a kind of persecution by the believers in the One True God. It was in later centuries that Julian was charged with evil deeds but most historians, religious and secular, have acquitted him of these charges. He did write quite a bit and his treatise Against the Galilean shows that he was quite critical of Christians – but in a fair and literary sense. He also wrote satires – about Caesars, about himself, and involving barbs at Christians as well. He also composed some tributes to the pagan gods and had a Mithraeum built. He had visions of creating a more universal paganism – of restoring order on it and standardizing some practices. These ideas probably derived from his Christian upbringing and observance of their unity. He sought such for pagans. He intended his pagan counterrevolution to be nonviolent. He was, however, guilty of indifference to riots where Christians were persecuted by newly emboldened pagans. If he did persecute, it was in a veiled way without executions, laws of intolerance, and condemnation beyond simple literary arguments. He was not unkind to the Jews. He sought to restore the Temple at Jerusalem. This may have been another barb at Christians since they considered the Roman destruction of the temple to be an endorsement of the new temple of Jesus as the body. Julian was killed fighting the Persians in 363 deep in enemy territory. Some pagans said he was killed by a zealous Christian. Later Christians attributed him as saying “Thou hast conquered, Galilean,” upon his death, but this seems very unlikely.

Both the dynasty of Constantine and Julian’s pagan restoration died with him. The Roman army elected the officer Jovian to succeed him. A pagan purge did not come under Jovian as he also issued edicts of tolerance but other forces gathered such as Men in Black – ascetic desert monks in Syria and Egypt who imitated the suffering of Christ. They would gladly fight, mob, riot, maim, and kill for their cult. Their original violence only to themselves, was later inflicted gladly on others. They were thugs of Bishop warlords such Theophilus of Alexandria where they destroyed pagan temples and rioted. In 379 Theodosius became emperor of Rome. He was a fanatical Christian and sought destruction of paganism. He was from Spain and some consider him the true first of the Spanish Inquisitors. Not only pagans but heretics were tortured to exact confessions and to death. Bishops became powerful and tolerance slid away. In 390 a Christian mob attacked and burned the famed library at Alexandria where the largest suppository of writings of Pagans, Christians, and Jews had amassed. In 392 Theodosius ordered the destruction of the Serapeum – the great temple of Serapis – in Alexandria. Mobs of Christians fought Jews and Pagans – driving many of both away from Alexandria. In 415 was the brutal mob murder of the distinguished scientist and Neoplatonist philosopher Hypatia. Here it was the Bishop Theophilus’s successor, Bishop Cyril, who inflamed the mobs and Men in Black to do the dirty deed. The next few centuries would find appropriation of pagan traditions into Christianity. A few outliers of Neoplatonism, country paganism, and Christianized paganism would remain for several centuries. Other heresies would appear and be squelched – the Cathars, the Bogomils, the Templars. Islam would come to dominate the Near East and far beyond with a new brand of rigorism and conversion by the sword. Crusades would be launched of holy warriors against holy warriors. Such rigorism and zeal would later find fertile ground in new totalitarianisms – the Nazi fascists and communism. Both favored the - one nation, one leader - rule that monotheists had pioneered as One God-one state. Now we have “martyr operations” of suicide bombers among brainwashed fanatics. Perhaps one day we will get beyond this as humans.

Great history book!


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