Moralizing Gods as Effect, Not Cause

There is a new study on moralizing gods and social complexity, specifically as populations grow large. The authors are critical of the Axial Age theory: “Although our results do not support the view that moralizing gods were necessary for the rise of complex societies, they also do not support a leading alternative hypothesis that moralizing gods only emerged as a byproduct of a sudden increase in affluence during a first millennium ‘Axial Age’. Instead, in three of our regions (Egypt, Mesopotamia and Anatolia), moralizing gods appeared before 1500.”

I don’t take this criticism as too significant, since it is mostly an issue of dating. Objectively, there are no such things as distinct historical periods. Sure, you’ll find precursors of the Axial Age in the late Bronze Age. Then again, you’ll find precursors of the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation in the Axial Age. And you’ll find the precursors of the Enlightenment in the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation. It turns out all of history is continuous. No big shocker there. Changes build up slowly, until they hit a breaking point. It’s that breaking point, often when it becomes widespread, that gets designated as the new historical period. But the dividing line from one era to the next is always somewhat arbitrary.

This is important to keep in mind. And it does have more than slight relevance. This reframing of what has been called the Axial Age accords perfectly with Julian Jaynes’ theories on the ending of the bicameral mind and the rise of egoic consciousness, along with the rise of the egoic gods with their jealousies, vengeance, and so forth. A half century ago, Jaynes was noting that aspects of moralizing social orders were appearing in the late Bronze Age and he speculated that it had to do with increasing complexity that set those societies up for collapse.

Religion itself, as a formal distinct institution with standardized practices, didn’t exist until well into the Axial Age. Before that, rituals and spiritual/supernatural experience were apparently inseparable from everyday life, as the archaic self was inseparable from the communal sense of the world. Religion as we now know it is what replaced that prior way of being in relationship to ‘gods’, but it wasn’t only a different sense of the divine for the texts refer to early people hearing the voices of spirits, godmen, dead kings, and ancestors. Religion was only necessary, according to Jaynes, when the voices went silent (i.e., when they were no longer heard externally because a singular voice had become internalized). The pre-religious mentality is what Jaynes called the bicameral mind and it represents the earliest and largest portion of civilization, maybe lasting for millennia upon millennia going back to the first city-states.

The pressures on the bicameral mind began to stress the social order beyond what could be managed. Those late Bronze Age civilizations had barely begun to adapt to that complexity and weren’t successful. Only Egypt was left standing and, in its sudden isolation amidst a world of wreckage and refugees, it too was transformed. We speak of the Axial Age in the context of a later date because it took many centuries for empires to be rebuilt around moralizing religions (and other totalizing systems and often totalitarian institutions; e.g., large centralized governments with rigid hierarchies). The archaic civilizations had to be mostly razed to the ground before something else could more fully take their place.

There is something else to understand. To have moralizing big gods to maintain social order, what is required is introspectable subjectivity (i.e., an individual to be controlled by morality). That is to say you need a narratizing inner space where a conscience can operate in the voicing of morality tales and the imagining of narratized scenarios such as considering alternate possible future actions, paths, and consequences. This is what Jaynes was arguing and it wasn’t vague speculation, as he was working with the best evidence he could accrue. Building on Jaynes work with language, Brian J. McVeigh has analyzed early texts to determine how often mind-words were found. Going by language use during the late Bronze Age, there was an increased focus on psychological ways of speaking. Prior to that, morality as such wasn’t necessary, no more than were written laws, court systems, police forces, and standing armies — all of which appeared rather late in civilization.

What creates the introspectable subjectivity of the egoic self, i.e., Jaynesian ‘consciousness’? Jaynes suggests that writing was a prerequisite and it needed to be advanced beyond the stage of simple record-keeping. A literary canon likely developed first to prime the mind for a particular form of narratizing. The authors of the paper do note that written language generally came first:

“This megasociety threshold does not seem to correspond to the point at which societies develop writing, which might have suggested that moralizing gods were present earlier but were not preserved archaeologically. Although we cannot rule out this possibility, the fact that written records preceded the development of moralizing gods in 9 out of the 12 regions analysed (by an average period of 400 years; Supplementary Table 2)—combined with the fact that evidence for moralizing gods is lacking in the majority of non-literate societies — suggests that such beliefs were not widespread before the invention of writing. The few small-scale societies that did display precolonial evidence of moralizing gods came from regions that had previously been used to support the claim that moralizing gods contributed to the rise of social complexity (Austronesia and Iceland), which suggests that such regions are the exception rather than the rule.”

As for the exceptions, it’s possible they were influenced by the moralizing religions of societies they came in contact with. Scandinavians, long before they developed complex societies with large concentrated populations, they were traveling and trading all over Eurasia, the Levant, and into North Africa. This was happening in the Bronze Age, during the period of rising big gods and moralizing religion: “The analysis showed that the blue beads buried with the [Nordic] women turned out to have originated from the same glass workshop in Amarna that adorned King Tutankhamun at his funeral in 1323 BCE. King Tut´s golden deathmask contains stripes of blue glass in the headdress, as well as in the inlay of his false beard.” (Philippe Bohstrom, Beads Found in 3,400-year-old Nordic Graves Were Made by King Tut’s Glassmaker). It would be best to not fall prey to notions of untouched primitives.

We can’t assume that these exceptions were actually exceptional, in supposedly being isolated examples contrary to the larger pattern. Even hunter-gatherers have been heavily shaped by the millennia of civilizations that surrounded them. Occasionally finding moralizing religions among simpler and smaller societies is no more remarkable than finding metal axes and t-shirts among tribal people today. All societies respond to changing conditions and adapt as necessary to survive. The appearance of moralizing religions and the empires that went with them transformed the world far beyond the borders of any given society, not that borders were all that defined back then anyway. The large-scale consequences spread across the earth these past three millennia, a tidal wave hitting some places sooner than others but in the end none remain untouched. We are all now under the watchful eye of big gods or else their secularized equivalent, big brother of the surveillance state.

* * *

Moralizing gods appear after, not before, the rise of social complexity, new research suggests
by Redazione Redazione

Professor Whitehouse said: ‘The original function of moralizing gods in world history may have been to hold together large but rather fragile, ethnically diverse societies. It raises the question as to how some of those functions could still be performed in today’s increasingly secular societies – and what the costs might be if they can’t. Even if world history cannot tell us how to live our lives, it could provide a more reliable way of estimating the probabilities of different futures.’

When Ancient Societies Hit a Million People, Vengeful Gods Appeared
by Charles Q. Choi

“For we know Him who said, ‘And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I shall lay my vengeance upon them.'” Ezekiel 25:17.

The God depicted in the Old Testament may sometimes seem wrathful. And in that, he’s not alone; supernatural forces that punish evil play a central role in many modern religions.

But which came first: complex societies or the belief in a punishing god? […]

The researchers found that belief in moralizing gods usually followed increases in social complexity, generally appearing after the emergence of civilizations with populations of more than about 1 million people.

“It was particularly striking how consistent it was [that] this phenomenon emerged at the million-person level,” Savage said. “First, you get big societies, and these beliefs then come.”

All in all, “our research suggests that religion is playing a functional role throughout world history, helping stabilize societies and people cooperate overall,” Savage said. “In really small societies, like very small groups of hunter-gatherers, everyone knows everyone else, and everyone’s keeping an eye on everyone else to make sure they’re behaving well. Bigger societies are more anonymous, so you might not know who to trust.”

At those sizes, you see the rise of beliefs in an all-powerful, supernatural person watching and keeping things under control, Savage added.

Complex societies gave birth to big gods, not the other way around: study
from Complexity Science Hub Vienna

“It has been a debate for centuries why humans, unlike other animals, cooperate in large groups of genetically unrelated individuals,” says Seshat director and co-author Peter Turchin from the University of Connecticut and the Complexity Science Hub Vienna. Factors such as agriculture, warfare, or religion have been proposed as main driving forces.

One prominent theory, the big or moralizing gods hypothesis, assumes that religious beliefs were key. According to this theory, people are more likely to cooperate fairly if they believe in gods who will punish them if they don’t. “To our surprise, our data strongly contradict this hypothesis,” says lead author Harvey Whitehouse. “In almost every world region for which we have data, moralizing gods tended to follow, not precede, increases in social complexity.” Even more so, standardized rituals tended on average to appear hundreds of years before gods who cared about human morality.

Such rituals create a collective identity and feelings of belonging that act as social glue, making people to behave more cooperatively. “Our results suggest that collective identities are more important to facilitate cooperation in societies than religious beliefs,” says Harvey Whitehouse.

Society Creates God, God Does Not Create Society
by  Razib Khan

What’s striking is how soon moralizing gods shows up after the spike in social complexity.

In the ancient world, early Christian writers explicitly asserted that it was not a coincidence that their savior arrived with the rise of the Roman Empire. They contended that a universal religion, Christianity, required a universal empire, Rome. There are two ways you can look at this. First, that the causal arrow is such that social complexity leads to moralizing gods, and that’s that. The former is a necessary condition for the latter. Second, one could suggest that moralizing gods are a cultural adaptation to large complex societies, one of many, that dampen instability and allow for the persistence of those societies. That is, social complexity leads to moralistic gods, who maintain and sustain social complexity. To be frank, I suspect the answer will be closer to the second. But we’ll see.

Another result that was not anticipated I suspect is that ritual religion emerged before moralizing gods. In other words, instead of “Big Gods,” it might be “Big Rules.” With hindsight, I don’t think this is coincidental since cohesive generalizable rules are probably essential for social complexity and winning in inter-group competition. It’s not a surprise that legal codes emerge first in Mesopotamia, where you had the world’s first anonymous urban societies. And rituals lend themselves to mass social movements in public to bind groups. I think it will turn out that moralizing gods were grafted on top of these general rulesets, which allow for coordination, cooperation, and cohesion, so as to increase their import and solidify their necessity due to the connection with supernatural agents, which personalize the sets of rules from on high.

Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history
by Harvey Whitehouse, Pieter François, Patrick E. Savage, Thomas E. Currie, Kevin C. Feeney, Enrico Cioni, Rosalind Purcell, Robert M. Ross, Jennifer Larson, John Baines, Barend ter Haar, Alan Covey, and Peter Turchin

The origins of religion and of complex societies represent evolutionary puzzles1–8. The ‘moralizing gods’ hypothesis offers a solution to both puzzles by proposing that belief in morally concerned supernatural agents culturally evolved to facilitate cooperation among strangers in large-scale societies9–13. Although previous research has suggested an association between the presence of moralizing gods and social complexity3,6,7,9–18, the relationship between the two is disputed9–13,19–24, and attempts to establish causality have been hampered by limitations in the availability of detailed global longitudinal data. To overcome these limitations, here we systematically coded records from 414societies that span the past 10,000years from 30regions around the world, using 51measures of social complexity and 4measures of supernatural enforcement of morality. Our analyses not only confirm the association between moralizing gods and social complexity, but also reveal that moralizing gods follow—rather than precede—large increases in social complexity. Contrary to previous predictions9,12,16,18, powerful moralizing ‘big gods’ and prosocial supernatural punishment tend to appear only after the emergence of ‘megasocieties’ with populations of more than around one million people. Moralizing gods are not a prerequisite for the evolution of social complexity, but they may help to sustain and expand complex multi-ethnic empires after they have become established. By contrast, rituals that facilitate the standardization of religious traditions across large populations25,26 generally precede the appearance of moralizing gods. This suggests that ritual practices were more important than the particular content of religious belief to the initial rise of social complexity.

 

 

Two Views of Present Christianity

First, everyone can be skeptical of science, including of course scientists themselves — after all, scientists are skeptics by profession. But skepticism pushed toward extreme denialism is mostly limited to the political right, some scientific issues standing out (e.g., climate change). And general distrust of science is broadly and consistently found only among religious conservatives.

This is a point that was made by Chris Mooney in his research showing that there is no equivalent on the political left — as far as I know, not even among the religious left. For example, the smart idiot effect is primarily found on the political right, such that knowledge really does matter to those on the political left (research shows that liberals, unlike conservatives, will more likely change their mind when they learn new info).

The role religion plays is in magnifying this difference between ideological tendencies.

Not All Skepticism Is Equal: Exploring the Ideological Antecedents of Science Acceptance and Rejection
by Bastiaan T. Rutjens, Robbie M. Sutton, & Romy van der Lee

To sum up the current findings, in four studies, both political conservatism and religiosity independently predict science skepticism and rejection. Climate skepticism was consistently predicted by political conservatism, vaccine skepticism was consistently predicted by religiosity, and GM food skepticism was consistently predicted by low faith in science and knowledge of science. General low faith in science and unwillingness to support science in turn were primarily associated with religiosity, in particular religious conservatism. Thus, different forms of science acceptance and rejection have different ideological roots, although the case could be made that these are generally grounded in conservatism.

Study: Conservatives’ Trust In Science At Record Low
by Eyder Peralta

While trust in science has remained flat for most Americans, a new study finds that for those who identify as conservatives trust in science has plummeted to its lowest level since 1974.

Gordon Gauchat, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studied data from the General Social Survey and found that changes in confidence in science are not uniform across all groups.

“Moreover, conservatives clearly experienced group-specific declines in trust in science over the period,” Gauchat reports. “These declines appear to be long-term rather than abrupt.”

Just 35 percent of conservatives said they had a “great deal of trust in science” in 2010. That number was 48 percent in 1974. […]

Speaking to Gauchat, he said that what surprised him most about his study is that he ran statistical analysis on a host of different groups of people. He only saw significant change in conservatives and people who frequently attend church.

Gauchat said that even conservatives with bachelor’s degrees expressed distrust in science.

I asked him what could explain this and he offered two theories: First that science is now responsible for providing answers to questions that religion used to answer and secondly that conservatives seem to believe that science is now responsible for policy decisions. […]

Another bit of surprising news from the study, said Gauchat, is that trust in science for moderates has remained the same.

Here is the second point, which is more positive.

Religious conservatives are a shrinking and aging demographic, as liberal and left-wing views and labels continually take hold. So, as their numbers decrease and their influence lessens, we Americans might finally be able to have rational public debate about science that leads to pragmatic implementation of scientific knowledge.

The old guard of reactionaries are losing their grip on power, even within the once strong bastions of right-wing religiosity. But like an injured and dying wild animal, they will make a lot of noise and still can be dangerous. The reactionaries will become more reactionary, as we have recently seen. This moment of conflict shall pass, as it always does. Like it or not, change will happen and indeed it already is happening.

There is one possible explanation for this change. Science denialism is a hard attitude to maintain over time, even with the backfire effect. It turns out that even conservatives do change their opinions based on expert knowledge, even if it takes longer. So, despite the evidence showing no short term change with policies, we should expect that a political shift will continue happen across the generations.

Knowledge does matter. But it requires immense repetition and patience. Also, keep in mind that, as knowledge matters even more for the political left, the power of knowledge will increase as the general population moves further left. This might be related to the fact that the average American is increasingly better educated — admittedly, Americans aren’t all that well educated in comparison to some countries, but in comparison to the state of education in the past there has been a dramatic improvement.

However you wish to explain it, the religious and non-religious alike are becoming more liberal and progressive, even more open to social democracy and democratic socialism. There is no evidence that this shift has stopped or reversed. Conservatism will remain a movement in the future, but it will probably look more like the present Democratic Party than the present Republican Party. As the political parties have gone far right, the American public has moved so far left as to be outside of the mainstream spectrum of partisan politics.

We are beginning to see the results.

Pro-Life, Pro-Left
by Molly Worthen
(see Evangelicals Turn Left)

70 percent of evangelicals now tell pollsters they don’t identify with the religious right, and younger evangelicals often have more enthusiasm for social justice than for the culture wars

Trump Is Bringing Progressive Protestants Back to Church
by Emma Green

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, some conservative Christians have been reckoning with feelings of alienation from their peers, who generally voted for Trump in strong numbers. But at least some progressive Protestant churches are experiencing the opposite effect: People have been returning to the pews.

“The Sunday after the election was the size of an average Palm Sunday,” wrote Eric Folkerth, the senior pastor at Dallas’s Northaven United Methodist Church, in an email. More than 30 first-time visitors signed in that day, “which is more than double the average [across] three weeks of a typical year,” he added. “I sincerely don’t recall another time when it feels like there has been a sustained desire on people’s part to be together with other progressive Christians.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests other liberal churches from a variety of denominations have been experiencing a similar spike over the past month, with their higher-than-usual levels of attendance staying relatively constant for several weeks. It’s not at all clear that the Trump bump, as the writer Diana Butler Bass termed it in a conversation with me, will be sustained beyond the first few months of the new administration. But it suggests that some progressives are searching for a moral vocabulary in grappling with the president-elect—including ways of thinking about community that don’t have to do with electoral politics. […]

Even if Trump doesn’t bring about a membership revolution in the American mainline, which has been steadily shrinking for years, some of the conversations these Protestant pastors reported were fascinating—and suggest that this political environment might be theologically, morally, and intellectually generative for progressive religious traditions.

Southern Baptists Call Off the Culture War
by Jonathan Merritt

Indeed, disentangling the SBC from the GOP is central to the denomination’s makeover. For example, a motion to defund the ERLC in response to the agency’s full-throated opposition to Donald Trump failed miserably.

In years past, Republican politicians have spoken to messengers at the annual meeting. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush addressed the group, Vice President Dan Quayle spoke in 1992, and President George W. Bush did so in 2001 and 2002 (when my father, James Merritt, was SBC president). Neither President Bill Clinton nor President Barack Obama were invited to speak to Southern Baptists during their terms. Though Southern Baptists claim not to be affiliated with either major party, it’s not difficult to discern the pattern at play.

Vice President Mike Pence addressed the convention this year, which may seem like the same old song to outsiders. But there was widespread resistance to Pence’s participation. A motion to disinvite the vice president was proposed and debated, but was ultimately voted down. During his address, which hit some notes more typical of a campaign speech, a few Southern Baptists left the room out of protest. Others criticized the move to reporters or spoke out on Twitter. The newly elected Greear tweeted that the invitation “sent a terribly mixed signal” and reminded his fellow Baptists that “commissioned missionaries, not political platforms, are what we do.”

Though most Southern Baptists remain politically conservative, it seems that some are now less willing to have their denomination serve as a handmaiden to the GOP, especially in the current political moment. They appear to recognize that tethering themselves to Donald Trump—a thrice-married man who has bragged about committing adultery, lies with impunity, allegedly paid hush money to a porn star with whom he had an affair, and says he has never asked God for forgiveness—places the moral credibility of the Southern Baptist Convention at risk.

By elevating women and distancing themselves from partisan engagement, the members of the SBC appear to be signaling their determination to head in a different direction, out of a mix of pragmatism and principle.

For more than a decade, the denomination has been experiencing precipitous decline by almost every metric. Baptisms are at a 70-year low, and Sunday attendance is at a 20-year low. Southern Baptist churches lost almost 80,000 members from 2016 to 2017 and they have hemorrhaged a whopping one million members since 2003. For years, Southern Baptists have criticized more liberal denominations for their declines, but their own trends are now running parallel. The next crop of leaders knows something must be done.

“Southern Baptists thought that if they became more conservative, their growth would continue unabated. But they couldn’t outrun the demographics and hold the decline at bay,” said Leonard. “Classic fundamentalist old-guard churches are either dead or dying, and the younger generation is realizing that the old way of articulating the gospel is turning away more people than it is attracting. “

Regardless of their motivations, this shift away from a more culturally strident and politically partisan stance is significant.

As the late pastor Adrian Rogers said at the 2002 SBC annual meeting in St. Louis, “As the West goes, so goes the world. As America goes, so goes the West. As Christianity goes, so goes America. As evangelicals go, so goes Christianity. As Southern Baptists go, so go evangelicals.”

Rogers may have had an inflated sense of the denomination’s importance, but the fact remains that what happens in the SBC often ripples across culture. In Trump’s America, where the religious right wields outsized influence, the shifts among Southern Baptists could be a harbinger of broader change among evangelicals.

The divide between the religious and the rest of the population is smaller than it seems. That is because media likes to play up conflict. To demonstrate the actual views of the religious in the United States, consider a hot button issue like abortion:

  • “As an example of the complexity, data shows that there isn’t even an anti-abortion consensus among Christians, only one Christian demographic showing a strong majority [White Evangelical Protestants].” (Claims of US Becoming Pro-Life)
  • “[A]long with most doctors, most church-going Catholics support public option and so are in agreement with most Americans in general. Even more interesting is the fact that the church-going Catholics even support a national plan that includes funding for abortion.” (Health Reform & Public Option (polls & other info))
  • “[M]ost Americans identify as Christian and have done so for generations. Yet most Americans are pro-choice, supporting abortion in most or all situations, even as most Americans also support there being strong and clear regulations for where abortions shouldn’t be allowed. It’s complicated, specifically among Christians. The vast majority (70%) seeking abortions considered themselves Christians, including over 50% who attend church regularly having kept their abortions secret from their church community and 40% feeling that churches are not equipped to help them make decisions about unwanted pregnancies.” (American Christianity: History, Politics, & Social Issues)

Whatever ideological and political conflicts we might have in the future, it won’t be a continuation of the culture wars we have known up to this point. Nor will it likely conform to battle of ideologies as seen during the Cold War. The entire frame of debate will be different and, barring unforeseen events, most likely far to the left.

* * *

As an additional point, there is another shift that is happening. There is a reason why there feels to be a growing antagonism, even though it’s not ideological per se.

The fact of the matter is “religious nones” (atheists, agnostics, religiously non-identifying, religiously indifferent, etc) is growing faster than any religious group. Mainline Christians have been losing membership for decades and now so are Evangelicals. This is getting to the point where young Americans are evenly split between the religious and non-religious. That means the religious majority will quickly disappear.

This isn’t motivated by overt ideology or it doesn’t seem to be, since it is a shift happening in many other countries as well. But it puts pressure on ideology and can get expressed or manipulated through ideological rhetoric. So, we might see increasing conflict between ideologies, maybe in new forms that could create a new left vs right.

Younger people are less religious than older ones in many countries, especially in the U.S. and Europe
by Stephanie Kramer & Dalia Fahmy

In the U.S., the age gap is considerable: 43% of people under age 40 say religion is very important to them, compared with 60% of adults ages 40 and over.

If nothing else, this contributes to a generational conflict. There is a reason much of right-wing media has viewers that are on average older. This is why many older Americans are still fighting the culture wars, if only in their own minds.

But Americans in general, including most young Evangelicals, have lost interest in politicized religion. Christianity simply won’t play the same kind of central role in coming decades. Religion will remain an issue, but even Republicans will have to deal with the fact that even the young on the political right are less religious and less socially conservative.

Unlabeled Metaphors

At the blog Against the Lie, Eric Huebeck had an interesting post, How religious esotericism is really just a form of lying.

I’m not sure what I think about his views on esotericism, as Lynne Kelly argues that mnemonic practices (that could be interpreted as esotericism) were how oral cultures maintained vast stores of complex knowledge across generations, centuries, and sometimes millennia. But ignoring that, here is the passage that was most relevant to my own views on related matters:

“As an additional point, consider the way in which the communication patterns of schizophrenic persons are characterized by Gregory Bateson, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland, in their paper, “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia”: “The peculiarity of the schizophrenic is not that he uses metaphors, but that he uses unlabeled metaphors” […]

“By endorsing the use of such “unlabeled metaphors” in the Old Testament by claiming that God “speaks” through them, Paul is effectively promoting communication that appears to be schizophrenic in nature. And that in turn means that Paul—and, presumably, the other authors of the New Testament as well—would have seen no reason to avoid the use of “unlabeled metaphors” in their own writings—which means that they would have been making no effort to avoid communicating in ways that appear to be schizophrenic in nature.”

I’ve never come across that notion of “unlabeled metaphors”, in reference to schizophrenia or anything else. Yet the general idea is familiar. To a contrary position, some argue that metaphors are built into our neurocognitive structure and inevitably go unlabeled for the most part. Metaphor, after all, frames our entire sense of identity and reality. It’s not limited to religion, propaganda, or whatever. And it is more complicated when considering metonymy, as discussed by Lewis Hyde.

Maybe the issue here is whether or not these unlabeled metaphors are being used intentionally for deceptive purposes. That is an issue I cover in my numerous discussions of my own pet theory about symbolic conflation. The thing with religion that makes it somewhat unique is the degree that people mistake their beliefs for reality, often on the basis of unlabeled and unconscious metaphors. What we are actually conscious of is a complicated issue considering the human capacity for split consciousness and dissociation.

Esotericism doesn’t necessarily mean the superficial meaning is false. Sometimes, the purpose is looking at multiple kinds or levels of truth. Even if one takes this as bullshit, many hold this double vision with utter sincerity. This returns us to the territory of Harry G. Frankfurt, truth vs false as differentiated from sincerity vs bullshit. When this differentiation is confused, much confusion follows. But the confusion itself is central in one thing being taken for another. That is the trouble the schizophrenic runs into, as do we all to varying degrees.

Remembering Resurrection

On occasion, I’m reminded of how conventional corporate media can be. The New York Times is supposedly the liberal stronghold of liberal bias and liberal elitism, whatever that is supposed to mean. But obviously what it doesn’t mean is any deep and probing questions about the ideological foundations of our society.

The article that brought this back to my attention was what amounted to a Christian puff piece by John Meacham, some empty filler for the Easter weekend. He is a respectable author and historian within the mainstream establishment and popular media, but this particular article seems to be a throwaway that he quickly jotted down in between more important activities. Obviously, no serious scholarly research was involved, beyond some passing references.

The article is about resurrection and Meacham should know better. He has often written about religion in terms of history, including one book on the American founders. In my accusation, what exactly is it about which he should know better? In NYT, he writes that, “To Homer, as to the rest of the ancient world, what became the Christian idea of personal resurrection was preposterous.” Well, that part is simply misleading. Homer was writing long before the Roman Empire and all religious thought was far different, as human civilization was just emerging from the collapse of the Bronze Age (what Julian Jaynes refers to as the bicameral societies) and the Axial Age with its radically new religious ideas hadn’t yet taken hold.

So, it depends on which era of the ancient world one is talking about. But even in the pre-Axial period, the notion of resurrection was not an unknown concept, as many gods and godmen were brought back to life. This religious motif goes back to some early civilizations. What changed was how the relation between human and divine was imagined and experienced. Resurrection didn’t appear out of nowhere with the myth of Jesus Christ, although at that point it was being reinterpreted. Obviously, personal salvation (or gnosis, nirvana, enlightenment, transformation, etc) couldn’t be conceived until Axial Age individualism had been formulated and established. But centuries into the Axial Age, it was common for various religions to make claims of personal salvation, such as burial inscriptions declaring that as Osiris died and rose so would the buried worshipper.

Meacham pretends otherwise, though. “So singular was the proposition,” he writes, “that a particular person had been resurrected from the dead and that belief in him would lead to eternal salvation; it would hardly have been the early Christians’ first choice of narratives to share. Why argue something so improbable, and so unexpected, unless they believed it had actually happened the way they told the story?” I have a hard time taking him seriously. None of this was original to Christianity.

Belief in such things became well established over the preceding centuries, that is belief in personal salvation by way of resurrection gods and godmen — as Robert M. Price stated in no uncertain terms, “The ancient Mediterranean world was hip-deep in religions centering on the death and resurrection of a savior god. […] It is very hard not to see extensive and basic similarities between these religions and the Christian religion. But somehow Christian scholars have managed not to see it, and this, one must suspect, for dogmatic reasons” (Deconstructing Jesus, pp. 86 & 88). Sure, gnostic Christians and later heresiologists put their own spin on this mytheme, but it was far from having never been seen before. This type of theology emerged out of the meeting point of Alexandrian Jewish Neoplatonism, Greco-Roman Mystery Schools, Egyptian Hellenism, Virgin Isis-Meri worship, Osiris/Horus rituals, Dionysus tradition, etc. For example, the Catholic Church not only incorporated Mithraic elements for the Vatican was literally built on top of a Mithraic ritual cave.

None of this should be unknown to Meacham. In his book about the American founders, there are numerous references to Thomas Paine who wrote about the mythicist origins of Christianity which was well documented at the time. And Thomas Paine was one among many others during that era. Going back to early Christianity, there was much debate on all of this, even to the point that a major Christian Father defended the faith by admitting that there were pagan precursors to Christianity but that this was because the Devil implanted these ideas in earlier false religions in order to deceive humanity. But at least this apologetic defense is more honest in its admission than those who simply pretend the evidence doesn’t exist.

I don’t personally care about other people’s personal beliefs about Christian theology and traditions, rituals and practices. The heretical Unity Church I was raised in didn’t place any priority on such matters. If as a kid I had argued that Christianity borrowed from other religions, most of the people in my church wouldn’t have cared and some of them likely would already have been familiar with the evidence. There is nothing inherently anti-Christian about having knowledge of Christian origins. Nor is it dismissive of Christianity and disrespectful of Christians to admit basic historical facts and mythological precedents, no matter how challenging to our received dogma. Any worthy faith shouldn’t require a leap of ignorance.

Besides, in acknowledging what Christians inherited, it remains fair to argue that Jesus and his early followers helped form an original belief system, as would be true of any mature religion as it developed its own unique tradition. Christian theology about resurrection should be understood on its own terms, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother understanding it in terms of the ancient world out of which Christianity emerged. This doesn’t lessen the value of Christianity in any way. Rather, this broadens our potential insight about what it means to have a personal relation to the divine and to be personally saved (or, for atheists and agnostics, to offer context and allow for perspective). These are ancient concerns that extend far beyond Christianity proper. We are inheritors not only of Christianity but of the entire ancient world.

For some Christians such as Robert M. Price, learning the truth causes them to lose faith. But for still others like Tom Harpur, the truth strengthened their faith even further. On that note, no matter what you believe or don’t believe about resurrection: Happy Easter! And in remembrance of resurrection’s ancient agricultural inspiration, after this past long lingering Winter, I welcome the  return of Spring. That is a resurrection of the world that includes us all, even the dead in taking on new forms. Life emerging from the empty tomb of the cold soil is no small miracle.

“We forgot.”

When somebody asked Alexander Hamilton why the Framers hadn’t mentioned God in the Constitution, his answer was deadpan hilarious: “We forgot.”
~ Kurt Andersen

The 18th century captures the American imagination, for reasons that are obvious and less so. It was a pivotal point and many were aware of it at the time. Over the preceding centuries, Feudalism slowly declined for numerous reasons. The most obvious force of change was the enclosure movement that evicted peasants from their land, their homes, and their communities.

This created a teeming population of landless peasants who were homeless, unemployed, and often starving. This sent waves of refugees heading for the cities and later the colonies. It was a direct attack on the rights of commoners (what the American colonists referred to as the rights of Englishmen). With the loss of Feudalism, there was the loss the Church’s traditional role and intimate participation in the daily lives of communities (see Dancing in the Streets by Barbara Ehrenreich). There also was the compounding impact of the Renaissance, Peasants’ Revolt, Reformation, English Civil War, Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, and expanding colonial imperialism.

Yet, even as the early revolutionary era came to a close, much of the ancient world or the immediate sense of its loss was still fresh in living memory, at least for the older generations. Post-Reformation religious war went hand in hand with political and economic radicalism with early signs of class war, populism, and communism showing up as Feudalism waned, from the Peasants’ Revolt to the English Civil War. Immediately preceding the American Revolution, there was the First Great Awakening which kept alive the earlier radicalism while pushing it to further extremes, this being the initial motivation for the separation of church and state since the religious dissenters were being excluded and oppressed by Anglican state power.

Yet most Americans at the time weren’t formally religious. There were few ministers in the colonies, especially in rural areas. Americans had low rates of church attendance, with rates not increasing until the 19th century (see The Churching of America by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark). It was precisely this lack of formal religion that fed into a new rabid free-for-all where anyone’s religiosity was as good as another’s, where anyone could become a preacher and start their own sect or turn to whatever ideology they preferred, religious or anti-religious. This is how the influences of Reformation and Enlightenment melded together, creating a force greater than either alone.

Even so, the First Great Awakening didn’t directly impact many Americans. Those who heard the fiery preachers of the time were a small part of the population, although in certain cities it led to great tumult. The effect was uneven, some places unaware a change was happening. It was a slow build up of unrest as the American colonies moved toward revolution. It wasn’t so much religion itself but broader cultural shifts. The radical religious were getting louder but so were the radical irreligious. Both hereticism and secularism became virulent, sometimes flowing together as a single force, but not always.

Also, none of it fit into clear class lines. The upper class were filled with unitarians, universalists, deists, and secularists — this was seen in the founding generation but began to take hold earlier such as with Thomas Morton and Roger Williams. But some of the most heretical anti-Christians emerged from the working class, the most famous being Thomas Paine but included several other influential figures. The growing rift was not even so much between Christianity and atheism, rather more between establishment power and the challenges of dissent. On either side of the divide, many voices found themselves formed into a new alignment, voices that otherwise would have been antagonistic.

As with our present moment, the era preceding revolution was a struggle between the contented and the restless, with the former becoming more authoritarian and the latter more radicalized. That schism is a wound that has never healed. The American soul remains fractured. The caricature of culture war spectacle won’t save us. It’s not about religion. The American Founders didn’t forget about God. It wasn’t the issue that mattered then nor that matters now. Religiosity and heresy, even when they take center stage, are always expressions of or proxies for something else.

* * *

Fantasyland, How America Went Haywire:
A 500-Year History

by Kurt Andersen
pp. 56-59

Chapter 8
Meanwhile, in the Eighteenth-Century Reality-Based Community

THE TWENTY-FOUR-YEAR-OLD PHENOM GEORGE WHITEFIELD arrived in America for the first time just before All Saints’ Day, Halloween 1739. The first major stop on his all-colonies tour was Philadelphia. Crowds equal to half the inhabitants of the city gathered to see each performance. Among them was the not-so-religious young printer and publisher Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin was astonished by how Whitefield could “bring men to tears by pronouncing Mesopotamia, ” and “how much they admired and respected him, notwithstanding his common Abuse of them, by assuring them they were naturally half Beasts and half Devils.” The publisher introduced himself on the spot and signed up to print a four-volume set of Whitefield’s journals and sermons, which became an enormous bestseller. But Franklin’s only awakening during the Great Awakening was to the profits available by pandering to American religionists. Over the next three years, he published an evangelical book almost monthly. With Whitefield himself, Franklin wrote, he formed “no religious Connection.”

Franklin and his fellow Founders’ conceptions of God tended toward the vague and impersonal, a Creator who created and then got out of the way. The “enthusiasts” of the era—channelers of the Holy Spirit, elaborate decoders of the divine plan, proselytizers—were not their people. John Adams fretted in a letter to Jefferson that his son John Quincy might “retire…to study prophecies to the end of his life.” Adams wrote to a Dutch friend that the Bible consists of “millions of fables, tales, legends,” and that Christianity had “prostituted” all the arts “to the sordid and detestable purposes of superstition and fraud.” George Washington “is an unbeliever,” Jefferson once reckoned, and only “has divines constantly about him because he thinks it right to keep up appearances.” Jefferson himself kept up appearances by attending church but instructed his seventeen-year-old nephew to “question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.” He considered religions “all alike, founded upon fables and mythologies,” including “our particular superstition,” Christianity. One winter in the White House, President Jefferson performed an extraordinary act of revisionism: he cut up two copies of the New Testament, removing all references to miracles, including Christ’s resurrection, and called the reassembled result The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth . “As to Jesus of Nazareth,” Franklin wrote just before he died, “I have…some doubts as to his Divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon…and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.”

When somebody asked Alexander Hamilton why the Framers hadn’t mentioned God in the Constitution, his answer was deadpan hilarious: “We forgot.”

Yet ordinary American people were apparently still much more religious than the English. In 1775 Edmund Burke warned his fellow members of Parliament that the X factor driving the incipient colonial rebellion was exactly that, the uppity Americans’ peculiar ultra-Protestant zeal. For them, Burke said, religion “is in no way worn out or impaired.”

Thus none of the Founders called himself an atheist. Yet by the standards of devout American Christians, then and certainly now, most were blasphemers. In other words, they were men of the Enlightenment, good-humored seculars who mainly chose reason and science to try to understand the nature of existence, the purposes of life, the shape of truth. Jefferson said Bacon, Locke, and Newton were “the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception.” Franklin, close friends with the Enlightenment philosophe Voltaire, * was called “the modern Prometheus” by the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, and Adams was friends with the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, whose 1748 essay “Of Miracles” was meant to be “an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion.” America’s political founders had far more in common with their European peers than with the superstar theologians barnstorming America to encourage superstitious delusion. “The motto of enlightenment,” Kant wrote the year after America won its war of independence, “is… Sapere aude! ” or Dare to know. “Have courage to use your own understanding!”

For three centuries, the Protestant Reformation and the emerging Enlightenment were strange bedfellows, symbiotically driving the radical idea of freedom of thought, each paving the way for the success of the other. Protestants decided they could reject the Vatican and start their own religion, and they continued rejecting the authority and doctrines of each new set of Protestant bosses and started their own new religions again and again. Enlightenment thinkers took freedom of thought a step further, deciding that people were also free to put supernatural belief and religious doctrine on the back burner or reject them altogether.

But the Enlightenment part of this shift in thinking was a double-edged sword. The Enlightenment liberated people to believe anything whatsoever about every aspect of existence—true, false, good, bad, sane, insane, plausible, implausible, brilliant, stupid, impossible. Its optimistic creators and enthusiasts ever since have assumed that in the long run, thanks to an efficient marketplace of ideas, reason would win. The Age of Reason had led to the Enlightenment, smart rationalists and empiricists were behind both, so…right?

No. “The familiar and often unquestioned claim that the Enlightenment was a movement concerned exclusively with enthralling reason over the passions and all other forms of human feeling or attachment, is…simply false,” writes the UCLA historian Anthony Pagden in The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters . “The Enlightenment was as much about rejecting the claims of reason and of rational choice as it was about upholding them.” The Enlightenment gave license to the freedom of all thought, in and outside religion, the absurd and untrue as well as the sensible and true. Especially in America. At the end of the 1700s, with the Enlightenment triumphant, science ascendant, and tolerance required, craziness was newly free to show itself. “Alchemy, astrology…occult Freemasonry, magnetic healing, prophetic visions, the conjuring of spirits, usually thought sidelined by natural scientists a hundred years earlier,” all revived, the Oxford historian Keith Thomas explains, their promoters and followers “implicitly following Kant’s injunction to think for themselves. It was only in an atmosphere of enlightened tolerance that such unorthodox cults could have been openly practiced.”

Kant himself saw the conundrum the Enlightenment faced. “Human reason,” he wrote in The Critique of Pure Reason, “has this peculiar fate, that in one species of its knowledge”—the spiritual, the existential, the meaning of life—“it is burdened by questions which…it is not able to ignore, but which…it is also not able to answer.” Americans had the peculiar fate of believing they could and must answer those religious questions the same way mathematicians and historians and natural philosophers answered theirs.

* “As long as there are fools and rascals,” Voltaire wrote in 1767, “there will be religions. [And Christianity] is assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd…religion

Meyerism and Unity Church

One of the shows I’ve been following is The Path, about a growing spiritual movement and community called Meyerism (they don’t refer to themselves as a religion). It’s in the third season. My interest has been sustained, even if not quite as good as the first season.

The melodrama has increased over time, but that is probably to be expected. After all, it is about a close-knit faith group that transitions from a cult-like commune to a respectable large-scale organization. It’s a turbulent process with an existential crisis for the community involving a change of leadership. The portrayal of faith feels honest and fair to human nature, the way people struggle and care for what matters most to them.

One aspect I like about the show is the comparison and contrast with Christianity. As the organization grows, they decide to expand their reach to provide more services. Volunteer work and generosity is central to their spiritual vision. So, they invest in a major center in the nearby city, but it is more space than they immediately need. They share the space with others, including a Christian youth group. As a community, they are confident in their faith and so don’t see other groups, religious or otherwise, as competition.

One of the young Meyerists, Hawk, who grew up in the faith soon falls in love with the also young Caleb who leads the youth group. The conflict is that Caleb’s father is a fire-and-brimstone preacher, not accepting of homosexuality. Hawk has to simultaneously come to terms with his own homosexual feelings and those of others. This causes him to question what is faith, what is religion vs a cult, what does it mean to love someone no matter what. His parents raised him in Meyerism, but after his father became the new leader his mother had her own crisis of faith. She has learned to be more accepting and offers Hawk her perspective.

This conflict for Hawk came up again in the most recent episode (ep. 10, The Strongest Souls). Hawk doesn’t want to lose Caleb, but Caleb is afraid of losing his family. Unlike Meyerism, Caleb’s fundamentalist church is not accepting in the slightest. Caleb is feeling unbearable pressure to enter into a program to have his homosexuality cured or whatever they do. In hope of helping Caleb, Hawk looks for a gay-welcoming Christian church and finds himself sitting in a Unity service. That caught my attention. I grew up in the Unity Church (part of New Thought Christianity) and it is the first time I’ve seen it portrayed in any form within mainstream media.

I can be critical of Unity. It is as idealistic and as liberal of a church as you are likely to find. As someone dealing with depression, the idealism I internalized in my youth has been a struggle for me. It has messed up my mind in many ways, a bright light casting a dark shadow. But at the same time, the Unity Church represents some of my happiest memories. I attended Unity youth camps and the experience blew me away. Unity theology is all about love and light. I was never taught any notion about sin, damnation, and hell. These were foreign concepts to me. It is a beautiful religion and the positive feeling and support I felt growing up was immense. It showed me the world could be a different way. But returning to high school after one of those youth camps, it sent me into a tailspin of despair. The idealism of Unity didn’t match the unrelenting oppressiveness of the world I was forced to live in on a daily basis. Positive affirmations and visualizations were no match for the cynical culture that surrounded me. I felt unprepared to deal with adulthood in an utterly depraved world.

Yet that was long ago. For a moment in watching Hawk in that Unity service, I remembered what was so wonderful about the Unity Church. It’s a place where you will be accepted, even the lowest of the low. It’s a church that actually takes Jesus’ message of love seriously. If you think you hate Christianity for all the ugliness of fundamentalism, then you should visit a Unity Church. It has nothing to do with whether or not you want to believe in God or have a personal relationship with Jesus. I can’t say all Unity Churches are equal, as I’ve been to some that felt less openly welcoming than others. But the best of the Unity Churches can give you an experience like few other places.

Aesop and Jesus

“The Life of Aesop and the Gospels”
by Mario Andreassi
p. 164, Holy Men and Charlatans in the Ancient Novel

While individually heterogeneous, the analogies so far highlighted show the similarities in narrative structures of the biographies of Aesop and Jesus. However, analogy certainly does not mean textual interdependence, but it does led to the thesis that the authors of the Life of Aesop and the Gospels aimed, where possible, to place the life of the protagonist in a literary and narrative context known to the public and variously attested in the lives of the philosophers and in the Christian aretalogies. Apart from its complex editorial genesis and notwithstanding many severe judgments in the last century, the Aesop Romance belongs within a wider and consciously literary production: it is no paradox to maintain that ‘those who wrote the Gospels were likely influenced by the same literary model that gave rise to the Life of Aesop’.

‘Aesop’, ‘Q’ and ‘Luke’
by Steve Reece

The last chapter of the gospel of Luke includes a story of the risen Christ meeting two of his disciples on their way from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus and chastising them with the poetic expression ὦ ἀνόητοι καὶ βραδεῖς τῇ καρδίᾳ ‘O foolish ones, and slow in heart’ (Luke 24.25). No commentator has ever observed that Jesus’ expression occurs verbatim, in the same iambic trimeter metre, in two poetic versions of animal fables attributed to the famous Greek fabulist Aesop. It is plausible that Luke is here, as at least twice elsewhere in his gospel, tapping into the rich tradition of Aesopic fables and proverbs that were widely known throughout the Mediterranean world in the first century ce.

The Fisherman and his Flute
from Wikipedia

Commentators have seen a likeness to the story, although only in the detail of dancing to the pipe, in Jesus’ parable of the children playing in the market-place who cry to each other, “We piped for you and you would not dance; we wept and wailed and you would not mourn” (Matthew 11.16-17, Luke 7.31-2).[8] There is an echo here too of the criticism of unresponsive behaviour found in Herodotus.

[8] Francisco Rodríguez Adrados, History of the Graeco-latin Fable 3, Brill 2003, p.20 (“The proverb in the Gospels may be compared with the fable in that it uses the same musical metaphor of dancing accompanied by flute-playing.”)

Aesop’s Fables in the Bible
by Kent West

About five-hundred and fifty years before Yeshua was born, Aesop collected and/or created many fables, one of which was “The Fisherman and His Pipe”:

There was once a fisherman who saw some fish in the sea and played on his pipe, expecting them to come out onto the land. When his hopes proved false, he took a net and used it instead, and in this way he was able to haul in a huge catch of fish. As the fish were all leaping about, the fisherman remarked, ‘I say, enough of your dancing, since you refused to dance when I played my pipe for you before!’

[…] Nearly six hundred years later Yeshua makes reference to this same fable, having probably learned it as a child:

To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other:
“We played the flute for you,
and you did not dance….”
Luke 7:31-32

Aesop as Context for Matthew 7:15-23
by Brandy Vencel

The passage begins with “beware of false prophets.” We must consider the entire passage in light of this introductory phrase. We are given a metaphor, in order to better understand false prophet: they are wolves which get in amongst the sheep by dressing up in sheep skin. {This is a direct reference to Aesop’s The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, but we will come back to that.} […]

What makes me so sure that this is an entire passage is its perfect parallelism with Aesop. It is said that Aesop lived around 500 years before Christ. His fables were so powerful, they were the first principle of the progymnasmata writing and rhetoric curriculum, which we know was formalized as early as 100 BC. Because Aesop was utilized not only to instruct in wisdom, but to teach writing and storytelling, and because almost every student would have had to retell Aesop’s fables, we can safely assume that this idea of a wolf in sheep’s clothing had slipped into the culture and provided a frame for discourse for at least 150 years, if not half a millenia, before Christ said these words.

Please realize that He was taking a universally known cultural story, and applying it those who would hurt His sheep.

Aesop’s tale of The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing has two parts. In the first part, the wolf has trouble getting any sheep to eat because the shepherds are so good at protecting them. The wolf’s problems are solved when he discovers a discarded sheepskin and puts it on. Almost immediately, he manages to snag a sheep for lunch. This is the fist half.

The second half takes an interesting turn. In this half, one of the shepherds decides that he’s in the mood for mutton broth for dinner, and heads out to the flock. He grabs the first sheep he finds…which just happens to be the wolf. The wolf becomes soup, not unlike the fool of Proverbs, who falls into his own pit.

Depending on your version of Aesop, you will have different morals attached {the morals were added much later}. One is: Appearances are deceptive. The other is: The evildoer often comes to harm through his own deceit. {There may be others, of which I am unaware.}

Jesus recasts the wolves as false prophets, and instructs His followers in how to pull the sheepskin off {look at the fruit}.

In the first half, Jesus covers deceptive appearances, and in the second half he covers the harm that comes to the evildoer in the end, as a result of his own choices and actions.

Just like Aesop.

Humor in the Gospels
by Terri Bednarz
pp. 208-209

Whitney Shiner (1998) gives interesting insights on humor when he compares The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark. Both of these works, the argues, were built by editing together various independent narrative episodes. These episodic narratives share common features: 1) their writing style lacks sophistication, 2) they were concise and short, and 3) their main characters persistently outwit antagonists. The main characters tended to be populist tricksters who succeed in unmasking the foibles of the elites, thus making them appear ridiculous. The tricksters target their antagonists with satirical barbs.

Shiner writes that The Life of Aesop advances its plot much more simply than the Gospel of Mark. Aesop merely outwits his antagonists in episode after episode. In hearing the stories of Aesop, one would more likely say, “Not again!” The Gospel of Mark has a more complex plot in which Jesus must repeatedly perform miracles, relate wise dicta, and outwit opponents in order to convince the audience of his ability to get the better of his antagonists. With the Markan Jesus, the hearer would more likely say, “Prove it!” Both the Markan Jesus and Aesop succeed in making their antagonists look foolish.

Shiner details other similarities in the Aesopic and Markan plots. Aesop’s rank and success increase in accord with the mounting hubris that leads to his eventual death at Delphi (Herodotus 2.136). The Markan Jesus also increases in stature, entering Jerusalem as a king (Mark 11:19-11), which also comes at great cost. Like Aesop, Jesus will meet a political death. Shiner notes another similarity: the use of divine causation. For Aesop, there is divine intervention in disputes, in posing and solving riddles, and even in his death. For the Markan Jesus, there is a divine plan that keeps unfolding until it culminates with Jesus’ death.

Shiner examines the ancient practice of intercalation, where an episode is woven into the middle of another episode. He argues that intercalation increases tension in the audience. This technique is found in both the Aesopic and Markan narratives. He gives an example from the Gospel of Mark where Peter stands in the shadows as Jesus is led into council. The audience is led to suspect that Peter follows Jesus in order to watch for an opportunity to express his bravery (Mark 14:53-54). Then Mark inserts the intercalation (14:55-65), which recounts Jesus’ courageous testimony, but then Mark jerks back to Peter where the audience hears Peter’s own bravery melt into a dramatic account of cowardliness (Mark 14:66-72). Shiner then presents an example of Aesopic intercalation. As Aesop cooks his lentil, there is an interruption in which Aesop and Xanthus engage each other in agonistic rhetoric, after which the scene of the cooking of the lentil resumes (Aesop 39, 41).

Shiner stresses that the episodic narratives and the intercalations are designed to keep the audience engaged, but not in the modern sense. Modern audiences anticipate that characters will break from their characterizations, and evolve into more complex figures. Shiner argues that this is not the case with ancient audiences, which expect characters to be static and predictable. For example, Xanthus will always be the butt of Aesop’s witty barbs. For ancient audiences, the episodic narratives do not produce tension by introducing the unexpected but by fulfilling what they anticipate will happen. In other words, the tension builds because the moment of comic recognition is delayed. Aesopic and Markan episodes and their intercalations simply postpone what the ancient audience expects will happen. They know that the antagonists will always receive Jesus’ witty or barbed riposte, or that Peter will stumble yet again, or that Aesop will once more outwit Xanthus.

Whitney Shiner, “Creating Plot in Episodic Narratives: The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark”
by Matthew W. Ferguson

Shiner (pg. 155) begins her analysis by noting that there are “two distinct ways” that the Gospels have been read. One approach, following the from critics, is to view the Gospels as a conglomeration of self-contained episodes that have been stitched together from oral tradition. The other approach is to view the Gospels as a continuous narrative. Shiner argues, however, that these approaches can be harmonized through an “extended episodic narrative.” As Shiner (pp. 155-156) explains:

“In reading the Gospels as episodic narrative, one must see the narrative as simultaneously episodes and as extended narrative. The extended narrative is built from more or less self-contained blocks. Continuity in the extended narrative is found not so much in the continuity of detail in action and characterization between episodes as in continuity in the overall impact of the episodes. To take an analogy from art, extended episodic narrative is like a mosaic.”

Shiner goes on to note that the Life of Aesop, much like the Gospels, is built around narrative episodes that are largely independent. These independent episodes, however, are organized to advance the plot of the macronarrative. As Shiner (pg. 156) explains:

“This is especially true of the most extensive section of the Life, in which Aesop repeatedly outwits his master, the philosopher Xanthus. Much of the macronarrative structure of Aesop, such as Aesop’s sale to the philosopher, his manumission, and his entering into service to Lycurgus, serve to move the narrative from one type of episode, appropriate to Aesop’s earlier situation, to a different style of episode, appropriate to the new plot situation.”

Shiner (pp. 169-174) identifies eight different narrative strategies shared between the Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark that are used to weave episodes into a continuous plot:

  1. Similar episodes are repeated to develop a point […]
  2. Within the plot as a whole discrete sections are created that are, in terms of size and content, amenable to episodic development […]
  3. The discrete sections are ordered to suggest a coherent plot development from one to the other […]
  4. Sustained conflicts between the hero and another person or group are established and episodes are used to illustrate conflict […]
  5. Episodes of various lengths are presented to create variety […]
  6. Narrative within episodes is elaborated to enhance the narrative quality of the whole […]
  7. Discrete episodes are interwoven to extend narrative tension or to provide keys for interpretation […]
  8. Similar episode plots are presented at different places in the narrative to recall earlier episodes and to suggest an underlying unity of theme or plot […]

Through these narrative strategies, therefore, Shiner argues that the episodic structure of the Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark does not conflict with a continuous narrative. Instead, these strategies are employed to weave continuity within the narrative and a continuous plot.

Lawrence Wills: “The Life of Aesop and the Hero Cult Paradigm in the Gospel Tradition”
by Matthew W. Ferguson

After identifying novelistic biography as the best analogical model for the Gospels, Wills goes on to argue that the anonymous Life of Aesop makes for the best comparison. Wills (pg. 23) explains:

“The tradition of Aesop as a teller of barbed fables … is found as early as the fifth century B.C.E., and the account of his life, which circulated in multiple versions, may derive from narrative traditions that are as old. The extant versions, however, are dated to about the turn of the era, that is, roughly contemporary with the gospels…”

The process of composition described above is very similar to The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod, where an anonymous editor compiles multiple earlier accounts into a single episodic narrative (which then circulates with multiple textual variations). As I explain in my essay “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels,” the NT Gospels are also better described as edited volumes, rather than the unique work of a single author, based on how they borrow and redact earlier materials (often verbatim), with the editor of the text remaining anonymous.

Beyond these structural observations, however, Wills also notes a number of thematic similarities between the Gospels and the Life of Aesop. As Wills (pg. 23) explains about the subject of the biography:

“Aesop is introduced in the Life as an ugly and misshapen slave who is in the beginning unable to speak. He is devoted to Isis, however, and after he shows kindness to one of the priestesses, falls into a sleep and is granted by the goddess the power of speech. This gift he uses to the utmost–he never stops talking, but with an acid wit skewers the pretensions of his new owner, a philosopher, and also the owner’s wife and fellow philosophers.”

Aesop is prominent for teaching in fables, a form of fiction quite similar to the parables used by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. On this point, it is also worth noting John Dominic Crossan’s recent book on the subject, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus. For his teachings, Aesop, like Jesus, runs into problems with the authorities and is executed. As Wills (pp. 23-24) explains:

“Through his cleverness he manages to help both his master and the citizens of Samos, and ultimately attains his freedom. Once free, however, he soon runs foul of the citizens of Delphi, and rebukes them with his sharp-pointed fables. They condemn him to death on a trumped-up charge, and he is executed. When a plague strikes the city, they consult an oracle of Zeus and learn that they must expiate their sin through sacrifice.”

Here, Wills draws a major parallel with the life of Jesus, namely the wrongful execution of the subject, followed by divine vindication. As Wills (pg. 28) argues:

“The relationship of blame, violent reaction, impurity, expiation, and immortality of the hero are drawn close together. Similarities to the expiatory death of Jesus can be seen here, especially if we begin to consider the latter in terms of ambivalent worship with his people, that is, to Jews, Israel, or Jerusalem.”

Wills (pg. 29) also notes that the length of the Life of Aesop is a bit longer than Mark and John, and and about the same length as Matthew and Luke. Wills points out, however, that in terms of structure the Life is more similar to Mark in John, particularly in how the text does not begin with a narrative of the subject’s birth (though Aesop is briefly said to have been born a slave in Amorium of Phrygia, without discussion of the circumstances), or his early growth and development, but is instead focused on his adult life.

 

“The Aesop Tradition”
by Lawrence M. Wills
pp. 223-224, The Historical Jesus in Context

The Aesop tradition is important for the study of the Gospels for two reasons. First, Aesop’s fables can be formally compared to Jesus’ parables. Readers will recognize in some of the fables below individual motifs that re also found in the Gospel parables, as well as the use of ideal scenes that provoke reflection, even if the point to be taken from them is quite different. Second, the Life of Aesop is roughly contemporary with the Gospels and bears some remarkable similarities. These similarities may derive from the fact that the Life and the Gospels both dramatize the life and death of the ostracized hero, told in an age of prose novels and novelistic histories. (Later Christian tradition [Acts of Peter 24; Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor 3.1] even adds that Jesus was ugly, based on a reading of Isaiah 53:2.) The Life is about the same length as the Gospels, written in a relatively low style. Like the Gospels, it gives the sense of being a longer text composed of many originally independent episodes. If Jesus in the Gospels is more prophet than sage, and Aesop is more sage than prophet, the difference is minor compared with the overall similarity in structure:

  1. The protagonist has lowly beginnings but experiences a deity’s favor.
  2. The protagonist has a period of ministry with a salvific message.
  3. The protagonist is despised as a result of the message.
  4. Trumped-up charges involving blasphemy of the deity are brought forward.
  5. The protagonist is executed as a result.
  6. A cult of the protagonist is instituted.

Within some of the general similarities, we can perceive even closer parallels in the details. The Life of Aesop begins with a visitation by the goddess Isis and the bestowal of powers on Aesop, not unlike the scene of Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of the Gospels with the voice from heaven. At the end of the Life there is a geographic shift from Samos to Delphi, that is, from the periphery to the center of the worship of Apollo, just as there is a shift in the Gospels from the periphery of Galilee to the center at Jerusalem. Finally, at the transition at the end of these texts from ministry to a trial and passion, the process by which this shift occurs is also similar. In both groups of texts, conflicts that are punctuated by the use of a special kind of discourse arise. and this leads directly to the trial and execution of the protagonist […]

In addition, in all three texts the charge of “blasphemy” figures heavily in the conspiracy to execute the protagonist (Life of Aesop 132; Mark 14:64; John 10:33). This is true even though the charges of blasphemy n the three cases are not clearly stated and may be quite different. In Aesop, the protagonist is accused of being a temple robber; in Mark, blasphemy is often discussed by scholars in terms of Jewish law on this subject (Leviticus 24:16), but the charge seems to focus instead on Jesus’ implication that he himself is the coming Son of Man; in John the Jewish authorities tell Jesus that the charge of blasphemy arises because “you are making yourself God.” Blasphemy should thus be seen in its literary context as the “standard” false charge that separates the wise hero from his people. It is also roughly equivalent to the false charge of impiety leveled against Socrates. In Socrates’ case the charges were corrupting the young, neglecting the gods, and introducing new ideas (Plato, Apology).

The difference in tone between the Gospels and the Life of Aesop — urgent and demanding in the case of the Gospels, broadly satirical in the case of the Life of Aesop — can be attributed to the difference in the protagonists’ message. Jesus brings the good news of God’s plan of salvation at the end time, while Aesop the Cynic sage preaches a gospel of liberation from human convention and complacency and an awareness of the true nature of things. (Some scholars would argue that this places the Life of Aesop closer in religious outlook to the sayings source Q or the Gospel of Thomas. If that is the case, then the Life of Aesop is structurally closer to one part of the Gospel tradition, and thematically closer to another.) This overall literary similarity between the Life of Aesop and the Gospels indicates that the genre “gospel’ was not as unique as some have thought, and the particular motifs of the Gospels may owe more to the general background of reverence for philosophers than has been previously acknowledged.

My Flesh Is Meat Indeed
by Meredith J. C. Warren
pp. 54-55

In addition, Berenson Maclean points out the generic compatibility found by other scholars such s Lawrence Wills between the biography of the poet-hero and the Gospel of John in particular. Wills’ study argues that the novelistic pattern of the poet-hero’s life and death, including the poet’s antagonistic relationship with both the city and a deity, makes it appropriate for comparison with John’s structure. Specifically, Wills suggests that The Life of Aesop fits the same pattern as Mark and John; for instance, all three begin at the adulthood of the main character rather than with his birth and all three involve, close to the outset, an experience from heaven. Jesus’ ambivalent relationship with the Temple and oi ioudaioi also make John’s comparison to Life of Aesop appropriate.

Nagy’s work on the hero now becomes very relevant to the discussion: “by losing his identification with a person or group and by identifying himself with a god who takes his life in the process, the hero effects a purification by transferring impurity.” The expiatory understanding of Jesus’ death is apparent in early Christian works such s 1 Corinthians 15:3, Romans 3:25, 1 Corinthians 5:7, and Mark 10:45. For Wills, this further locates the early Christian understanding of Jesus in the context of the Greco-Roman hero, though he cautions that the paradigm of the hero is more variable than a single genre could contain. Gunnel Ekroth concurs with this point, saying, “a characteristic of heroes and hero cults is their heterogeneity.” Rather, for all three of the texts Wills examines, the paradigm of the hero is narrated in a way that establishes the cult even if not all the elements are present in any given text and with the reservation that there is no single paradigm that encompasses all of early Christianity’s understanding of Jesus’ life and death.

pp. 209-212

Nagy’s treatment of the Aesop tradition is significant for this study of John because in it, Nagy is careful to pint out the feedback loop present in the myth and ritual: Aesop’s death is the cause of the ritual institution he critiques while at the same time, his death in the narrative is caused by his critique. That is, everything is occurring at the level of narrative. It is this relationship that establishes the association of Aesop with Apollo. Thus Life of Aesop, too, reflects the understanding of the relationship between chosen human and god that is recorded in literature from the time of the epics to the turn of the millennium and after. In particular, the complicated cause-and-effect relationship between the antagonism, the ritual, and the divine identification found in Aesop as observed by Wills and Nagy is also found in the Greek romances. As I have illustrated above, this feedback loop of antagonism — sacrifice/cannibalism — divinity is a key manifestation of the type of relationship Nagy finds between heroes and gods in Homer’s epics. Likewise, I argue that this “antagonism in myth, symbiosis in cult” is also found in John.

Further, Wills notices similarities with the ways in which Jesus and Aesop die. In Life of Aesop, the Delphians put him to death in a way that makes him a pharmakos, a scapegoat. The act of putting a person to death is polluting, and the only way for this act to be purified is with the establishment of the hero’s cult. Wills’s outline of Jesus’ death shows the parallels between his sacrifice and the trope of heroic death in the Greco-Roman world. He points out that (likely pre-Pauline) formulas speak of Jesus or Christ as one who has died for the sins of others — in other words, as an expiation. In particular, Wills observes that the oracle uttered unwittingly by Caiaphas in John 11:50 makes a significant point of contact with the heroic death narratives, where frequently the “sacrifice of the hero is demanded or predicted by an oracle.” Caiaphas’s words, “It is expedient that one man should die for the people, so that the whole nation not perish,” make it clear to the readers (though ironically not to Caiaphas himself) that Jesus’ death is on behalf of the nation and can therefore be seen as expiatory. Jesus’ death at the request of certain factions of oi ioudaioi results in his worship by certain other factions of that same community.

Wills also observes that Jesus’ death in John occurs at the same time as sacrifice of the Passover lambs in the Jerusalem temple. As I have observed earlier, John’s Gospel avoids discussion of the expected Christian rituals of baptism and Eucharist and yet maintains a concern for the practice of ritual; Nagy, too, notices this feature in the heroic epics that are the focus of his work, the Odyssey and the Iliad. The fact that John shares his concern for right ritual practice with Homer suggests that the leap from literary death to cultic concern is indigenous. Likewise, John’s location of Jesus’ death at the time of that other, ordinary expiatory sacrifice further establishes Jesus’ death in a sacrificial, and therefore heroic, context. In other words, John’s concern with right ritual practice combined with the manner and timing of Jesus’ expiatory death, as prophesied by Caiaphas, creates an image of Jesus that shares significant points with the hero of the epic and with Aesop. Jesus’ and Aesop’s manners of death are therefore comparable; in this way, Jesus can also be viewed as heroic pharmakos.

Wills also points out that there seems to be striking similarities between Aesop’s characterization and Jesus’: the travelling distributor of pithy wisdom is persecuted and eventually executed as a kin of scapegoat/pharmakos. Clearly much of Jesus’ narrative follows a very similar pattern, especially, Wills observes, if we consider Jesus’ relationship to his own community, oi ioudaioi. It is especially appropriate for the current study that Wills there quotes Nagy:

By losing his identification with a person or group and identifying himself with a god who takes his life in the process, the hero effects a purification by transferring impurity. . . . In such a hero cult, god and hero are to be institutionalized as the respectively dominant and recessive members of an internal relationship.

This method of establishing such an eternal relationship can also be observed in the romance novels we have been discussing so far. In each case, the protagonists have experienced alienation from their communities. There are some differences worth articulating: whereas in the novels, the great beauty of the heroines gave them away as divine creatures, Aesop’s disfiguring ugliness is remarkable. John Winkler calls this satirical characterization of the main character the trope of the Grotesque Outsiders, one who is more capable of penetrating humanity’s veneer because of his or her marginal status. As such, this characterization marks the novel as satirical, but this, Wills is quick to point out, in no way effaces its usefulness in examining the finer points of the genre as a whole, especially since Leucippeand Cltophon might well fall into the satirical camp itself. The overarching theme of alienation and execution in both Aesop and John also plays out in the romances; Aesop’s satirical ugliness functions has a reversal of the goddesses’ beauty, but further, the trope of the outsider is clearly visible in all the examples. In short, while Wills compares just Aesop and John for his comparison, for the purposes of this project, where consumption is also a factor, it is significant that the romances also follow this narrative pattern in which the protagonists experience exile.

Paul and the Rise of the Slave
by K. Edwin Bryant
pp. 57-58

I also employ The Life of Aesop as a resource for conceptualizing how Paul’s construction of messianic life reclaimed slaves from the deadening violence imposed on conquered peoples. This investigation makes full use of Aesop as a hero who, in grotesque disguise, utters critical truths and contests the legal and political definitions imposed on slaves. Aesop is a common man’s Socrates who “cloaked his wisdom in foolishness.” We suggest that Rom 6:12-23 demonstrates how slaves of Messiah Jesus re reclaimed from the sinful domination of Empire, and subsequently illustrates how Paul’s polemical construction of messianic life provides eschatological comfort to the “vanquished.” Paul’s language in Rom 6:12-23 has more in common with the theatrical representations of slavery in the mine, than with the elite philosophical discourses of wisdom. Locating Paul’s description of himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus in the language of comedy, jest, and the mime maybe controversial. Nevertheless, it seems clear that Paul’s description of himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus was formulated from a grotesque perspective, in response to violence, and to facilitate an upsurge of the human spirit that challenged slaves to rise above the profane and juridical conditions imposed upon them. […]

The life of Aesop provides suggestive parallels between Aesop’s fables and Paul’s characterization of his calling as that of a slave, particularly in the ways that both resisted and contested power relationships. That Aesop is presented as a hero who is ugly, deformed, and disabled contests the Hellenic picture of wisdom and intellect. The Life of Aesop frequently portrays Aesop’s wisdom as disconcerting elite persons and challenging them as subjects. Yet, at times, Aesop is unable to transcend his grotesque appearance. On other occasions, Aesop consciously employs his wit and ingenuity to create anxiety in members of his master’s social class. The Life of Aesop is polemical in that Aesop ruptures the legal and social definitions of the slave as a subject, and annuls the impact of the power imposed upon him. Xanthus’ students marvel as to how Aesop’s intellect is greater than their professor’s. That Aesop constantly brought about a reversal of expectations indicates that the problems associated with his grotesque appearance were intermittent. Nevertheless, it would have been difficult for most slaves to subvert the continuum of power without the help of a construct like Paul’s ethic of messianic life. […]

pp. 65-66

It may be that the grotesqueness of The Life of Aesop, and the positive valuation of the slave as a subject, will infuriate the “modern bourgeois readers.” Such a reading will undoubtedly elicit scandalous remarks and reactions. In contrast to the bourgeois reactions, the staging of Aesop’s many reversals “provide the only defense, and occasional revenge, for those who routinely suffered maltreatment.” Now let us imagine the implications for slaves in Rome, if they too, had an encounter with the divine and awakened to a new way to conceptualize their existence. This analysis does not suggest that Paul’s readers had access to The Life of Aesop, but does highlight the fact that a contemporary non-Christian source portrayed slaves with the capability to transcend power relationships; one can only imagine how Roman slaves could replicate the same conditions by participating in the death of Messiah Jesus through baptism. The Life of Aesop presents a literary source contemporary with Paul that, in a similar way, challenges slaves to subvert how institutions and power structures imposed identity on slaves as subjects. Paul’s theological concept of identity formation subverts how the Empire imposed identity on subjects. Such a reading also asserts that Paul’s description of himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus resonates with aspects of the slave Aesop’s identity that had been silenced by conquest. The Life of Aesop suggests how Paul’s polemical construction of messianic identity may have facilitated a role reversal that generated the acceptance of one’s new calling as a Slave of Messiah Jesus. On the one hand, this reversal of fortune annuls the negative implications of social cohesion and formation. On the other hand, we suggest that Paul’s polemical construction of messianic life contributed to an upsurge of the human spirit.

Second, the reclamation of identity generated the courage for slaves to resist aspects of the identity that Roman rule imposed on conquered peoples. After receiving his gifts from Isis, Aesop became aware of the maltreatment of slaves and contested how the propertied class exploited the ambiguities of slavery. Aesop was also conscious of how Xanthus attempted to exploit his intellect. In ways similar to the Life of Aesop, Paul’s description of himself as a slave of Messiah Jesus facilitated an awakening of Christian identity. The final episode in The Life of Aesop reveals Aesop’s willingness to be hailed by the deity in order to thwart the attempt of the men of Delphi’s to kill him. Instead, Aesop accomplishes his own fate to prevent dying at the hands of moral slaves. That Paul describes himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus serves as an invitation to auditors who were slaves to realize their calling by participating in the death of Messiah Jesus. We posit that the grotesque perspective generated the grammar required for urban slaves to imagine an existence apart from their legal condition.

p. 76

To contest the ways that dominium ideology facilitated violence required slaves to employ a grammar of resistance that permitted them to subvert the identity that Rome sought to impose on its subjects. Our exploration of The Life of Aesop revealed a representation of a slave who possessed the intellectual prowess to negotiate, and in some ways transcend violence, and subvert how masters understood the legal and political definitions of the slave as subject. Thus, The Life of Aesop provides a helpful resource for appreciating the language of Paul’s letters, at the same time that it illustrates how slaves tried to imagine an existence apart from the identity that Rome imposed upon them. In this context, we may form an impression of how Paul’s description of himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus was understood by members of urban slave congregations. We propose that Paul crafted Rom 6:12-23 to convince Slaves of Messiah Jesus, who were restricted to conditions similar to modern ghettos, that they might awaken to a new messianic life. Thus, Paul’s description of himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus functioned to reclaim slaves from the negative implications of subjectivity and generated a positive valuation of the slave as subject.

p. 200

Turning now to Paul, it is impressive how closely Paul’s requirements for slave participation in messianic identity parallel Aesop’s decision to take his own life rather than allowing the men of Delphi to force a meaningless death upon him. Paul’s exhortation to slaves in the “now” time signals that the only way to “rise” from the profane verdict assigned to slaves involved the willingness to share in the death of Messiah Jesus — only then can one generate a new meaning for life that transcends the imposition of Rome’s demonic rule. Paul’s repeated use of the word vuv (now, present time) in Rom 6:19, 21, and 22 confirms our exegesis of Rom 6:18-20. The process of interpelation awakened slaves to a new messianic consciousness that facilitated an awareness of how humiliation, torture, and violence were employed to reinforce the subjectivity of slaves as subjects. Thus, the positioning of “now” in Rom 6:19-23 announces an end to the domination, humiliation, and torture produced in a context of shame. Paul’s reference to the “now time” of salvation signals that slaves encountered “new ethos that had ethical and theological implications.” Roman Imperial ideology assigned slaves as weapons of wrongdoing: slaves can now participate in community with a “messianic consciousness.” Based on Paul’s use of […], we can say that slaves who participate in messianic community are able to reimagine their existence in positive ways without shame (cf. Rom 1:16).

New Religion of the Late Axial Age

Aphrodite and the Rabbis
by Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky
pp. 226-230

I have suggested here that rabbinic Judaism is a new religion, divorced and separate from the biblical, Israelite religion of the Temple cult that preceded it. Yet my discussion of the late biblical antecedents of Hellenism, added to the evidence I quoted earlier in this book about the possibility of synagogues’ existing before the destruction, should raise a flag of caution. In fact, the rabbinic obsession with Scripture, manifest in the rabbis’ interpretations of every detail of biblical law, including the minute facets of the moribund Temple and its procedures, makes it clear that rabbinic Judaism is not a wholly new religion, created ex nihilo, out of nothingness. This shift was already under way before the time of the rabbis. On one hand, there would be no wholesale assimilation to Hellenism with a loss of Jewish identity. On the other, ancient Jewish rituals were not abandoned. Rather, there would be a measured appropriation and adaptation of Greco – Roman culture that found its expression in post – 70 CE Judaism.

The ways in which I have characterized Judaism, whether as utterly new or as a remix of an old tune, are fraught with ideological significance. What characterizes the new Judaism and separates it from other emerging ideologies? Is rabbinic Judaism just one more new religion, one more flavor of many Judaisms in the Late Antique world, there to take its place alongside Christianity and other Greco – Roman religions? Or is rabbinic Judaism the one and only authentic inheritor of biblical “Judaism,” genetically similar by virtue of both the performed commandments ( mitzvot ) and the constant justyfying of those mitzvot through tying them to their presumed Scriptural origins? Remember that in the period I am considering, rabbinic Judaism was not the major face of Judaism it would become for the millennium of its European ascendance, say from 940 to 1940 CE. It was only in that much later period that rabbis had the actual power to enforce their dicta. The first millennium of rabbinic Judaism resembled the Judaism we have now, in which each individual Jew chooses adherence to the commandments and how that adherence is manifested in daily behavior. To get to now, the rabbis then needed persistence, vision, and Roman Stoic stolidity to survive. The very virtues the rabbis adopted from Roman culture were among the forces that allowed Judaism to survive against oppressive odds. […]

Even as one could distinguish between the rabbis and other Jews within the Jewish world—the rabbis themselves made this distinction—nevertheless they all shared a common Judaism that was heavily inflected by their common Hellenism. The details I have surveyed in this book have made it clear that by and large, the water they swam in was very good. And when they were asked “What the hell is water?” the answer, surely, was that among the many tributaries that made up the empire—from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, from the Euphrates to the Caspian Sea—Judaism took its place within the Roman Empire as a Roman people and religion. Its transformation from the Jerusalem – centered Temple cult to a world religion was a reinvention, a resurrection if you will, accomplished through the vivifying waters of Greco – Roman culture.

The Minds of the Bible
by Rabbi James Cohn
Kindle Locations 1089-1103

It is fascinating to consider that in the same moment that the New Testament is championed in Christianity as the fulfillment (and operatively the replacement) of the Old Testament, the Jewish world creates a new system of Rabbinic Judaism that accomplishes the same thing by a different route. Like the New Testament, the Mishnah cannot afford doctrinally to discard the Old Testament. Both insist that the Old Testament is divinely authored (and authorized), since neither could set aside the idea of a perfect, infallible revelation. But, like the New Testament, the Mishnah insists that it (and only it) is the true interpretation of the “voices” of the Old Testament — and then, like the New Testament, it proceeds to limit those voices for all time.

So I would re-frame this (wrong) question:
“As a religion, why is Christianity so much kinder and more loving that Judaism, which by contrast is sterner and more legalistic?”
The right question is,
“Why is it that, in the space of a scant millennium, religious authorization moves from the auditory reception of articulated voices, to the idea of an indwelling spirit whose essence is revealed in the written word (and, in the process, in the specific de-authorization of all future ‘voices’ as sources of binding religious belief and/ or law)?”

Neither the New Testament nor the Mishnah/ Talmud will admit that it is a new religion: both Christianity and Rabbinic (modern Orthodox) Judaism claim that they are simply fulfillments of the Old Testament. This is philosophically untrue (modern Orthodox Judaism has very little in common with Old Testament Judaism), but strategically effective (and successful, historically, in terms of survival).

Ancient Complexity

The ancient world is always fascinating. It’s very much a foreign world. And so it helps us to challenge simplistic thinking.

Such things as ‘race’ did not exist as we know it. Even within a single group, it was difficult to determine who belonged or not. After asking “How, then, did you know a Jew in antiquity when you saw one?”, Shaye J. D. Cohen stated “The answer is that you did not.”

That is partly because there was so much mixing across populations and so many local variations within populations. Widespread influences and syncretism dominated the ancient world. Ancient people in a particular region had more in common than not, for they were the products of common cultural histories. Large frames of understanding encompassed diverse peoples.

This shared inheritance and mutual bond was acknowledged, sometimes even emphasized, by many going back millennia. It’s only over the distance of time that lines of distinction become hardened within historical texts. The lived reality at the time, however, was messier and more interesting.

That should force us to rethink our modern identities, as so much of who we think we are has been built on who we thought ancient people were. When we speak of ancient Greeks and Jews, the traditions of polytheism and monotheism, do we have any clue of what we are talking about? In our claims of being cultural descendants of earliest Western civilization, what do we think we have inherited?

Maybe we should ask another question as well. What have we lost and forgotten along the way?

* * * *

Of God and Gods
by Jan Assmann
Kindle Locations 730-769

From the viewpoint of monotheism, polytheism seems prehistoric: original, inal, primitive, immature, a mere precursor of monotheism. However, as soon as one changes this perspective and tries to view polytheism from within, say, from the viewpoint of ancient Egypt, polytheism appears as a great cultural achievement. In polytheistic religions the deities are clearly differentiated and personalized by name, shape, and function. The great achievement of polytheism is the articulation of a common semantic universe. It is this semantic dimension that makes the names translatable, that is, makes it possible for gods from different cultures or different regions and traditions within a to be equated with one another. Tribal religions are ethnocentric. The powers and ancestral spirits that are worshiped by one tribe are irreducibly and untranslatably different from those worshiped by another. By contrast, the highly differentiated members of polytheistic pantheons easily lend themselves to cross-cultural translation or “interpretation.” Translation works because the gods have a well-defined function in the maintenance of cosmic, political, and social order. The sun god of one group, culture, or religion is the same as the sun god of another. Most of the deities have a cosmic competence and reference or are related to a well-defined cultural domain, such as writing, craftsmanship, love, war, or magic. This specific responsibility and competence renders a deity comparable to other deities with similar traits and makes their names mutually translatable.

The tradition of translating or interpreting foreign divine names goes back to the innumerable glossaries equating Sumerian and Akkadian words, among which appear lists of divine names in two or even three languages, such as Emesal (women’s language; used as a literary dialect), Sumerian, and Akkadian. The most interesting of these sources is the explanatory list Ann sa ameli, which contains three columns, the first two giving the Sumerian and Akkadian names, respectively, and the third listing the functional definition of each deity.5 This explanatory list gives what may be called the “meaning” of divine names, making explicit the principle that underlies the equation or translation of gods. In the Kassite period of the Late Bronze Age the lists are extended to include such languages as Amorite, Hurritic, Elamite, and Kassite in addition to Sumerian and Akkadian. In these cases the practice of translating divine names was applied to very different cultures and religions.

The origin of this practice may be found in the field of international law. Treaties had to be sealed by solemn oaths, and the gods who were invoked in these oaths had to be recognized by both parties. The list of the gods involved conventionally closed the treaty. They necessarily had to be equivalent in terms of their function and, in particular, their rank. Intercultural theology became a concern of international law.

The growing political and commercial interconnectedness of the ancient world and the practice of cross-cultural translation of everything, including divine names, gradually led to the concept of a common religion. The names, iconographies, and in short, the cultures might differ, but the gods remained the same everywhere. This concept of religion as the common background of cultural diversity and the principle of cultural translatability eventually led to the late Hellenistic outlook, where the names of the gods mattered little in view of the overwhelming whelming natural evidence for their existence and presence in the world.

The idea that the various nations basically worshiped the same deities albeit under different names and in different forms eventually led to the belief in a “Supreme Being” (Gk. Hypsistos, “the Highest One”).6 It essentially comprised not only the myriad known and unknown deities but also those three or four gods who, in the contexts of different religions, play the role of the highest god (usually Zeus, Sarapis, Helios, and Iao = YHWH). This super-deity is addressed by appellations such as Hypsistos (supreme), and by the widespread “One-God” predication Heis Theos. Oracles typically proclaim particular gods to be a unity comprised prised of a number of other gods:

One Zeus, one Hades, one Helios, one Dionysos, One god in all gods.7

In one of these oracles, Iao (YHWH), the God of the Jews, is proclaimed to be the god of time (Olam-Aion), appearing as Hades in winter, Zeus in springtime, Helios in summer, and “Habros Iao” in autumn.8 tumn.8 These oracles and predications manifest a quest for the sole and supreme divine principle behind the innumerable multitude of specific deities. This is typical of the “ecumenical age” (Voegelin) and seems to correspond to efforts toward political unification.9 The belief in the “Supreme Being” (Hypsistos) has a distinctly universalist character.

The sons of Ogyges call me Bacchus,
Egyptians think me Osiris,
Mysians name me Phanaces,
Indians regard me as Dionysus,
Roman rites make me Liber,
The Arab race thinks me Adoneus,
Lucaniacus the Universal God.10

This tradition of invoking the highest god according to the names given him by the various nations expresses a general conviction in Late Antiquity regarding the universality of religious truth, the relativity of religious institutions and denominations, and the conventionality of divine vine names. According to Servius, the Stoics taught that there is only one god with various names that differ according to actions and offices. Varro (116-27 BCE), who knew about the Jews from Poseidonios, was unwilling to differentiate between Jove and Yahweh because he felt that it mattered little by which name the god was called as long as the same thing was meant (nihil interesse censens quo nomine nuncupetur, dum eadem res intelligatuz).11 Porphyry felt that the names of the gods were purely conventional.12 Symmachus, a pagan prefect, wondered what difference it made “by which wisdom each of us arrives at truth? It is not possible that only one road leads to so sublime a mystery.” 13 Celsus argued that “it makes no difference ference whether one calls god `Supreme’ (Hypsistos) or Zeus or Adonai or Sabaoth or Ammon as the Egyptians do, or Papaios as do the Scythians. The name does not matter when it is evident what or who is meant.” 14 In his treatise on Isis and Osiris Plutarch makes this point, stating that no one would “regard the gods as different among different nations nor as Barbarian and Greek and as southern and northern. But just as the sun, moon, heaven, earth and sea are common to all, although they are given different names by the various nations, so it is with the one reason (logos) which orders these things and the one providence which has charge of them.” 15 Seneca stressed that this conviction was based on natural evidence: dence: “This All, which you see, which encompasses divine and human, is One, and we are but members of a great body” 16 According to Mark Smith, “Pliny the Elder (Natural History, bk. 2, V. 15) put the general point in a pithy formulation for deities in the world, that they are a matter of `different names to different peoples’ (nomina alia aliisgentibus).”17

The Mythic Past
by Thomas L. Thompson
pp. 306-308

Such theology in which the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, shared, reflects a world-view whose centre lay in an awareness of human ignorance and of the deceptiveness of sensory perception, associated with a nearly universal recognition of ineffable and transcendent qualities in life, fertility and wisdom.

This theology was an aspect of ancient philosophy and science. It was not so specifically Hellenistic as it was a product of the unified intellectual culture that had been created by the empire as early as the Assyrian period. It is a knowledge that is specifically set in contrast and in opposition to the old story-worlds of gods. From the early historian Hecateus to Plato and the Greek playwrights, and from the Babylonian Nabonidus to Isaiah and the author of Exodus, polytheism and monotheism were hardly ever opposed to each other. They rather reflected different aspects of a common spectrum of intellectual development. There was continuity between polytheism and monotheism as well as a process of changing interpretation. Hardly sudden or revolutionary, the changes of world-view were the result of more than a millennium of cultural integration. Crisis in such change was associated first of all with the understanding of divine transcendence, and with ideas regarding the truth, function and legitimacy of the personal gods of story. The struggle over beliefs about the unity of the divine came late and always had an explicitly political focus.

From at least early in the Assyrian period of the empire, in what are often thought of as the polytheistic worlds of Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia, reflective people had well understood a clear difference between the gods themselves and the statues and images that were used to represent them. They also understood the difference between the forces of nature and the divine powers that had created them. […]

In the simpler West Semitic world these tendencies were much more clearly marked. In the world of trade and shipping, where contact among many cultures and languages was commonplace, Syrian and Phoenician merchants readily identified specific gods of one region with the gods of similar function of another region. In this way, Astarte could be identified with Ishtar in the east and with Venus in the far west. Yam could be identified with Poseidon, and Ba’al with Hadad and Yahweh. Such syncretism was encouraged by the fact that many of the names of West Semitic deities directly reflected a given deity’s function. The name El translates simply as ‘God’ and is easily identified with the Aegean world’s Zeus. Ba’al translates as ‘master’ or ‘husband’, Mot as ‘death’, Yam as ‘sea’, and the like. At times they distributed the functions differently, so that for instance Ba’al could be identified with both Hadad and El, or Yahweh with both Ba’al and Elohim. It is only a very small step to recognize that implicit in such gods were functions of a single divine world. As different peoples gave these functions different names, the recognition came quickly that the gods themselves differed from each other because of distinctions given to them by humans. The specific gods that people knew were the gods they themselves had made to express the divine world.

One of the most frequent ways that West Semitic story, poetry and prayer particularized gods for very specific functions was to take the name of a high god – usually El, but Ba’al, Hadad and Yah web were used as well – and add a descriptive epithet. In this way, El developed many different faces. He was ‘the most high’, ‘the merciful’, ‘the god of the storm’. Also places or names of specific towns or regions made these nearly universal deities more particular. So we fold ‘Yahweh of Samaria’ and ‘Yahweh of Teman’. We have Ba’al and his Asherah, as well as Yahweh and his , without confusion. The divine name came to reflect a very particular local deity. At the same time, a default understanding of universalism is implicit. […]

The development of such an understanding of monotheism was hardly antagonistic to the worship of a variety of gods. Quite the contrary, this variety of gods, of individuals and of gods who changed, was a necessary aspect of human relationships to the transcendent. Both the gods of tradition and the forms of worship became subject to such critical thought, Gods, as human reflections, could be false, just as their worship could be empty and corrupt. By the late fifth century BCE, one or other form of this transcendent monotheism is known in many different regions. In Greece, it can best be seen in the writings of Plato about the One, True, Good and Beautiful. In Babylon the god Sin is spoken of in some texts in the same way as Ba’al Shamem is in Syria. In Persia, Ahura Mazda is frequently so understood. In the Bible itself, many of the references to ‘God’ (Elohim) , the ‘God of heaven’, ‘God the most high’, and ‘God’ in such expressions as ‘God’s Yahweh’ should be understood in this way. […]

One could dismiss the gods of stories and legend. One could also find a way of thinking of them with integrity. It is this kind of task that exercised many ancient writers of the late Persian and early Hellenistic periods. The early writers of the Bible were among them.

The first story in the Bible in which God meets Moses, the story of the burning bush in Exodus 3–6, illustrates well how a revision of a tradition’s stories can revive and modernize old world-views and outmoded traditions by understanding them in new ways. Traditional beliefs in the old gods of Palestine are saved in Exodus by having Yahweh, the long-forgotten god of ancient Israel, understood not as God himself, but as the name, the representative of the true God – the way that ancient Israel knew the divine. Yahweh recurrently plays a role in the Bible’s narratives as mediator between the Most High and Israel, sharing this role with his messiah, with his son, with the king and the prophets. Yahweh is the primary means by as expressed by the Yahweh tradition also plays the role of the philosopher’s stumbling block, as it does so forcefully throughout the Book of Job. On the other hand, Yahweh is equally freely identified with the true God, when addressed directly in prayer and song, and plays that role in some narratives. The story of the theophany in the burning bush in Exodus 3–6 also explains how the divine had been hidden in the worship of the even more ancient gods of Palestine: the lost gods of the patriarchs. These included even an El Shaddai who was no longer either worshipped or remembered. The ‘true meaning’ of the many, now fragmented stories of patriarchs and heroes is gathered together to be remembered and preserved in a way that the past had not grasped or properly understood. More than that, the writers of the Bible were free to create all their great stories about Yahweh, that they might reflect how old Israel had understood – and had misunderstood – the divine.

Stories from Ancient Canaan
edited by Michael David Coogan
pp. 77-78

[T]he language used of Baal as storm god is echoed in the description of Yahweh, the god of Israel, who

makes the clouds his chariot,
walks on the wings of the wind,
makes the winds his messengers,
fire (and) flame his ministers
(Psalm 104:3-4)

As Baal defeated Sea, so also did Yahweh:

With his power he stilled the sea,
with his skill he smote Rahab,
with his wind he bagged Sea,
his hand pierced the fleeing serpent.
(Job 26:12-13)

Similar mythological language occurs in Psalm 89:10 and Isaiah 27:1.

Baal’s adversary has the double title “Prince Sea” and “Judge River”; “sea” and “river” occur frequently in biblical poetry as parallel terms. Most interesting in this context is the application of the pair to the two bodies of water that Yahweh mastered, enabling his people to escape Egypt and enter Canaan:

When Israel came out of Egypt,
the house of Jacob from people of a
different language . . . .
The sea saw and fled,
the Jordan turned back
(Psalm 114:1, 3)

Just as the Reed Sea was split so that the Israelites crossed on dry land, so too the Jordan miraculously stopped and the chosen people entered the promised land with dry feet (Exodus 14:22; Joshua 3:13). The repetition of the event is rooted in the old poetic formula; sea and river are two aspects of the same reality.

pp. 80-81

The Canaanite temples on which the description of Baal’s house is based were the primary analogues for the temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem, planned by David and built by his son Solomon. Solomon’s architects and craftsmen were Phoenicians who used cedar from the Lebanon for both the temple and the adjacent royal residence. The juxtaposition of temple and palace was deliberate: the deity guaranteed the dynasty and was purposely identified with t. This adoption of Canaanite theory and practice in the house of the god of Israel was responsible for prophetic opposition to the temple from before its construction until the last days of its existence:

“Thus says Yahweh: Would you build me a house to lie in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought the Israelites up from Egypt until today, but I walked among them with a tent as my divine home. In all the places I walked with the Israelites, did I ever say to one of the Israel’s judges, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, ‘Why haven’t you built me a house of cedar?’ ” (II Samuels 7:5-7)

Despite this conservative resistance the temple was built, and at its dedication Solomon prayed to Yahweh using words that could have been addressed to Baal:

“Give rain to your land, which you gave to your people as their inheritance.” (I Kings 8:36)

The acquisition of a house marks the climax of Baal’s ascent to the kingship, a climax marked by his theophany in the storm and his assertion,

“No other king or non-king
shall set his power over the earth.”

Baal’s centrality in Ugaritic religion is demonstrable. For instance, a significant index of popular beliefs is the use of divine elements in personal names; at Ugarit the most frequently occurring deity in names is Baal, including is other names and titles, such as Hadad.

The transfer of power from an older sky god to a younger storm god is attested in many contemporary eastern Mediterranean cultures. Kronos was imprisoned and succeeded by his son Zeus, Yahweh succeeded El as the god of Israel, the Hittite god Teshub assumed kingship in heaven after having defeated his father Kumarbi, and Baal replaced El as the effective head of the Ugaritic pantheon. A more remote and hence less exact parallel is the replacement of Dyaus by Indra in early Hinduism. These similar developments can be accurately dated to the second half of the second millennium B.C., a time of prosperity and extraordinary artistic development, but also of political upheaval and natural disasters that ended in the collapse or destruction of many civilizations, including the Mycenaean, Minoan, Hittite, and Ugaritic. This was the period of the Trojan War, of the invasion of Egypt and the Palestinian coast by the Sea Peoples, of the international unrest related in the Amarna letters. In such a context a society might suppose that its traditional objects of worship had proved ineffective, that the pantheon in its established form had, like an entrenched royalty, become incapable of dealing with new challenges. At this point it might choose an extradynastic god, as Ugarit chose Baal, son of Dagon and not of El; and, beset by invasions from the sea and tidal waves arising from earthquakes, it might construct a mythology in which the new god demonstrated his mastery over the sea.

Studies in the Cult of Yahweh
by Morton Smith
pp. 53-54

It is to this new Renaissance world of the Assyrians and the Phoenicians, the Lydians and the Greeks, that the Israelites, a new people of recent invaders, belong. They belong to the beginning of the iron age culture, not to the end of the bronze. Their cultural history is paralleled most closely by that of the iron age Greeks: savage invaders of the thirteenth and twelfth centuries, they soon assimilated some elements of the culture they had overrun, but reshaped these by their own standards and interests and combined them with new elements from the new [35] world around. Learning the alphabet from the Phoenicians, they began to write down their heroic legends and those of old holy places in their land (J and E, the Homeric epics and hymns); in these we can sometimes see the dim outlines of bronze age legends, but the heroes have become nomads and chieftans of the invasion period, and the mentality and language is that of early monarchies. As civilization developed, wealth and trade and social injustice increased, and the prophets emerged to denounce the wickedness of the rulers, defend the poor, and foretell the coming of the judgment of Yahweh or Zeus—Amos and Hesiod are conspicuously close in date, message, and prophetic vocation. But prophetic preaching was not directly effective. What the people needed for their protection was the publication of their laws, hitherto a matter of tradition in the heads of the rich—the city elders and the priests. Consequently, Deuteronomy and Draco are almost exact contemporaries, and both the social concerns and the proposed remedies of the deuteronomist are in many points parallel to those of Solon, who lived only a generation later. At the same time intellectual development is going on. Soon the gnomic “wisdom” poetry, traditional all over the near east, will be developed by gifted individuals like Theognis and the author of the first section of Proverbs to serve their own didactic purposes. From such beginnings will come, a century later, such great theologico-philosophical and dramatic dialogues on the problem of evil as Job and Prometheus Bound. And after these great peaks of poetry the writers of both peoples will turn to topics of more “human interest.” Speculative thought will concern itself with the good life (so Epicurus and Ecclesiastes), narration will turn to hellenistic romances like Judith and Tobit. This is the outline of Israelite literature, and it belongs part and parcel, soul as well as body, to the iron age and to the Mediterranean, not to the Mesopotamian world.

pp, 99-101

All in all the evidence seems to indicate that while the Hebrew and Aramaic elements were more frequent in Palestine, and especially in Judea, and while Greek elements were more frequent elsewhere in Roman territory, nevertheless, the range of possible variations was roughly the same. Even rather extreme variants turn where we should least expect them, e.g. substantial evidence for the Essene influence has been found in the Epistle to the Ephesians (Kuhn, NTS 7.334ff.). It would not be implausible to suppose that a few aristocrats in Jerusalem had the sort of Greek education and philosophical attitude that we find in Philo. Although Josephus’ Greek was none too good, his rival, Justus of Tiberias, was much better at home in the language (Josephus, Vita 40 and 340) and was remembered in philosophical literature for one of his anecdotes about Plato (Diogenes Laertius 2.41).

Consequently the common in toto distinction of “Palestinian” from “diasporic” (not to mention “hellenistic”) Judaism is simply unjustified. […]

And what were the Samaritans? The destruction of the Gerizim temple in Hyrcanus’ time is most plausibly understood as an attempt at religious Anschluss: Thereby the Samaritans would be forced to bring their sacrifices to Jerusalem and subject themselves to the Hasmonean High-Priesthood, which evidently considered them as potential Ioudaioi—adherents [302] of the Judean cult. How many of them consented to enter the fold? How many refused and resorted to surreptitious sacrifices without a temple, or contented themselves with synagogue worship? We have no way of telling. Josephus distinguished “Samaritans” as an ethnic group, and was contemptuous of them as he was of Idumeans and Galileans, who by this time were undoubtedly “Jews”—i.e., adherents of the Jerusalem cult—but whom Josephus often distinguished from Ioudaioi when he used the latter term to mean (territorial) “Judeans.”

It is time to tear away this cobweb of nomenclature and try to see the facts it conceals. We have to do with the gradual extension through the Greco-Roman world (and through Arabia, Mesopotamia, Armena, and Iran, which are usually ignored) of a peculiar cult and its associated literary, legal, and social traditions.

Part of the literary tradition was the legend that the cult had once been peculiar to a single family—allied tribes are often linked by such familial legends. This legend has persisted to the present: Christians, like Jews, are still theoretically one family, the “Israel of God.” However, already in antiquity the members of this theoretical family seem to have showed no significant physical uniformity. I do not recall any ancient reference to a man’s being recognized, from his physical appearance, as a Jew, except when the recognition was an inference from circumcision. (And even circumcision was not specific; it occurred among Arabs and Egyptians.) We can be reasonably sure that in the Greco-Roman period the followers of this cult had been so diversified by intermarriage, adoption, conversion, and adherence, that its spread cannot be considered as that of a single genetic stock.

The one thing common to all forms of the cult was the god called Yahweh, Yah, Iao, etc., who was often associated with various titles and epithets—Elohim, Adonai, Sabaoth, He who hears prayer, He whose name is blessed, etc. Most of these epithets, in one place or another, seem to have hypostatized as independent but associated deities. [303] Yahweh might also be associated with other gods, of whom a long list could be compiled from the Old Testament times on. His most famous associate, of course, was to be Jesus. In a few systems of the sort usually called “gnostic” Yahweh appears as an inferior god, and he so appears, too, in a good many unsystematic magical texts. He was also included in various syncretistic expressions of late Roman paganism, for instance the famous Clarian oracle: “I declare Iao to be the highest god of all, the Hades for winter, Zeus of beginning spring, Helios for summer, and splendid Iao of autumn.” (Macrobius, Sat. 1.18).

To what extent such theological effusions implied worship is uncertain, but there is no question that the worship of Yahweh by pagans was ancient and extensive. Ezra proudly records the offerings made to Yahweh by the Persian emperors; the refusal of the Jerusalem temple staff to accept sacrifices offered by the Romans was the official beginning of the revolt A.D. (Josephus, War 2.409). Therefore to discuss the spread of this cult in terms of “the extension of Judaism”—whatever one means by “Judaism”—is to discuss only one part of a complex process. The neglected part of this process, which badly needs study, was an important factor in the extension of declared “Judaism,” since Dio Cassius reports that the name Ioudaioi was commonly applied to whatever men followed Jewish customs (37.17.1).

This report illustrates our need for another study—that of the ancient definitions of “Jew” and “Judaism,” with careful attention to the different users of the terms and the circumstances of the usage. We have already seen some of the ambiguities of the terms in antiquity—the fluctuation between religious and territorial usage (the Idumeans were Ioudaioi because adherents of the Jerusalem temple, but not Ioudaioi because not natives of Judea), the fluctuation between references to temple adherence and reference to general religious pattern (the adherents of the Onias temple were Ioudaioi by general pattern, in spite of their rejection of Jerusalem), the uncertainty as to which variations of the pattern, and how man of its [304] elements, are referred to. (Were the Samaritans Ioudaioi, or the Christians, or the sebomenoi? And so on.) An even more serious difficult results from the modern specialization of “Jew” to refer to the adherents of rabbinic Judaism and their descendants, plus a few minor groups—the Karaites, the Falashas, and the like. Because of this modern usage, students of first century “Judaism” commonly take for granted that, even though rabbinic Judaism had not yet developed, something very like it was the common form of the religion, at least in Palestine, and all other groups are to be seen as divergent from this primitive stock. An extreme absurdity is reached from this notion when the Judaism of the high-priestly families of the Jerusalem temple itself, who are supposed to have been mostly Sadducean, is represented as a divergence from pretendently “normative” Pharisaic Judaism.

pp. 130-131

The first of these facts—which we should never have expected even from the Greco-Roman literary remains—is the wide extent of iconic decoration from the second century on. Of course, there were some references to iconic decoration in the literature: even Herod Agrippa I, the friend of the Pharisees, had in his palace at Caesarea statues of his daughters. But hitherto such details could be treated as exceptional. Now that the materials has been collected it appears that decoration with human figures was customary even in Jewish religious buildings. The second and third century catacombs of Rome show Victory crowning a youth, Fortuna pouring a libation, cupids, adolescent erotes, and so on. A similar catacomb is reported near Carthage. The second or third century synagogue of Capernaum had over its main door an eagle, carved in high relief. Over the eagle was a frieze of six naked eotes, carrying garlands. Inside was not only a frieze containing human, animal and mythological figures, but also a pair of free-standing statues of lions, probably in front of the Torah shrine. The synagogue of Chorazin, of about the same date, had similar statues and a frieze showing vintage scenes of the sort traditionally associated with the cult of Dionysus. Remains of some dozen other synagogues scattered about Palestine show traces of similar carved decoration. There are human figures in high relief in the second-to-fourth century catacombs of Beth Shearim. From the same period the synagogue of Dura shows a full interior decoration of the frescoes representing Biblical scenes. From the fourth and fifth century synagogues of Palestine we have a half dozen mosaic floors, and there is reason to believe that in about half of them the central panel was occupied by a picture which, if not found in a synagogue, would be recognized as a representation of the sun god driving his chariot.

So long as these remains were studied one group at a time, they might be explained as heretical. This is now impossible. On the other hand, it is dangerous to explain them as orthodox first, because the meaning of orthodoxy is uncertain for this [491] period, second, because the carved decoration of the Galialean synagogues shows deliberate mutilation: human and animal figures have been chipped away carefully, so as to leave the rest of the carving undamaged. Similarly, the eyes of some figures in the Dura synagogue have been gouged out, but the rest of the faces left unmarked. Again, a sarcophagus in Beth Shearim was broken up in ancient times, probably because it showed Leda and the swan and other carved figures. Unfortunately, the date of the mutilations in the carved synagogues is a matter of dispute. Those who maintain that carved decoration was always permitted by orthodox Judaism can blame the destruction on the Moslems. But if these synagogues housed orthodox Judaism, then it must have been somewhat different than it is pictured by the rabbinic literature.

pp. 184-186

Religious symbols are among the objects that produce emotional reactions in their observers (make them feel secure, hopeful, etc). The [54] emotional reaction produced by a symbol is its “value,” as distinct from its “interpretation,” which is what the people who use it say it means. The value of a symbol is always essentially the same, the interpretations often change. (Thus the picture of a wine-cup produced from time immemorial its “value,” a feeling of euphoria, although its “interpretation” as a reference to Christ’s salvific blood began only with Christianity.) So long as an object commonly produces its “value” in the observers, it is a “live” symbol. Once the “value is no longer commonly produced, the object is a “dead” symbol. One social group may take over symbols from another. When “live symbols are taken over, they retain their former values, but are commonly given new interpretations. In the Greco-Roman world there was a “lingua franca” of “live” symbols, drawn mostly from the cult of Dionysus, which both expressed and gratified the worshipers’ hope for salvation by participation in the life of a deity which gave itself to sacrificial death in order to be eaten by its followers and to live in them. The Jews took over certain of these “live” symbols. (In Palestine, before 70, because of the anti-iconic influence of the Pharisees, they took only geometric objects, fines, grapes, and the like; elsewhere—and, in Palestine, after 70, when Pharisaic influence declined—they took also figures of animals and human beings.) Since these symbols were “live” in Greco-Roman society, the Jews must have known their “values” and adopted the symbols for the sake of those “values.” Therefore the Jews must have hoped for mystical salvation by participation in the life of a self-giving deity, probably through a communal meal. However, since they worshipped only Yahweh, they must have imposed, on these pagan symbols, Jewish interpretations. These interpretations, as well as the symbols unchanged “values, ” may be discovered in the works of Philo (the chief remains of this mystic Judaism) and also occasionally n the other Jewish literature of the time, and in early Christian works. (The rapid development of Christian theology and art suggests they arose from similar prior developments in Judaism.) The same sources indicate the “values” and interpretations which the Jews found in and imposed on those objects of Jewish cult which they now began to use as symbols: the menorah, the Torah shrine, and so on. For “values,” however, all literary sources are secondary; the symbols must first be allowed to speak for themselves. Rabbinic literature is particularly unreliable as to both the “values” and the interpretations of the symbols, since “the rabbis” were both anti-iconic and opposed to mysticism. Their religion was a search for security by obedience to a law laid down by a god essentially different from man; with this god no union was possible, and his law forbade making images. The widespread use of mystical symbols testifies, therefore, to a widespread mystical Judaism indifferent, at best, to the authorities cited in rabbinic literature. To judge from the archaeological evidence, rabbinic Judaism must have been, by comparison with the mystical type, a minor sect. [55]

pp. 228-229

It is immediately obvious that we have a striking parallel to the Johannine story of Jesus’ miracle at Cana in Galilee, John 2:1-11, when Jesus comes to a marriage feast where the wine has run out and changes water into wine.

Scholars had long maintained that the Cana story had a Dionysiac background. It has no Synoptic parallel; the miracle it reports is not even of the same type as any of the miracles reported in the Synoptics; in this respect it is unique among the Johannine stories of Jesus’ “signs”; therefore the supposition that it came from some alien tradition was plausible. Moreover, its introduction could be [818] explained by a polemic motive found elsewhere in John—the desire to contrast Jesus as the true, spiritual vine, with Dionysus, the false, earthlyone. However, the Dionysiac myths cited as parallels were somewhat remote in time, geography, and content. Consequently a plausible case could be made out by those who wanted to deny the Dionysiac reference and to explain the story wholly from Jewish analogies and concerns—the multiplication of food and “healings” of springs in the Old Testament, the contrast, in the Johannine story, between the Jewish water of purification, which is transformed, and the wine of Christian baptism with the spirit, which Jesus gives to men. Now, however, the main reasons for denying a Dionysiac reference are refuted. It appears that when the Gospel according to John was being written there was next door to Galilee, at Sidon (a city whose territory Jesus is said to have visited, Mark 7:31, and from which men came to Galilee to hear him, Mark 3:8) an established public festival of which a myth obviously similar to the Cana story was the central theme. [819]

pp. 233-235

Its presumably Jewish source therefore serves to strengthen Bickerman’s theory that it was the Jews of Italy who represented Yahweh as Sabazius in 139 B.C. A century later we find the ivy wreath and grapes on the coins of Antigonus Mattathias (40-37); then, over the entrance of Herod’s temple, the great golden vine which seemed to some a proof that the resident deity was Dionysus. After this comes the coinage of the Jewish revolts in 66-73 and 132-35, with its chalices and amphorae, wine leaves and grape clusters. (The lyre on the coins of the second revolt recalls the one in the hands of the satyr in the Beit Lei burial cave.) [Pausanias had heard of some shrine in Palestine which was said to be the tomb of a Silenus (.24.8).] The [824] evidence of the coins is continued by the decoration of Palestinian tombs and synagogues, much of it using familiar Dionysiac vocabulary.

The popularity of the cult of Dionysus in Palestine, the sense which pagans found in these symbols (as shown by the interpretations already cited) and the frequency with which these symbols were used on religious buildings and funerary objects (where ancient decoration was commonly significant)—these factors taken together make it incredible that these symbols were meaningless to Jews who used them. The history of their use shows a persistent association with Yahweh of attributes of the wine god. This association explains why some Jews identified the two deities, others at least chose Dionysus as the interpretatio greaeca of Yahweh, and yet others contrasted Yahweh—or his logos—as the true vine, with Dionysus the false one.

If we now look for the source of this association we are led back to very early Biblical material. For it cannot be supposed that the wine god came to Palestine only with the Greeks—not even though the Greeks came there in the second millennium B.C., as their pottery indicates. Palestine was presumably a grape growing country from time immemorial, and the god was doubtless as old as the use of his gifts. If the Biblical story (Exod 6:3) is to believed Yahweh was a new-comer in the country. His association with the wine god—and with other deities—will have begun with the conquest or shortly after. By the time of our earliest Biblical texts he had become a rather complex concept: he had been completely syncretized with El, Elyon, and Shaddai; with other dieties, like Tsur, Gad, and Am, his relations were certainly close. As for the wine god(s)—such phenomena as the Rekhabite reaction and, even more, the survival of the nazirate as the status perfectionis of a man devoted to Yahweh, indicate that Yahweh’s original [825] attitude to wine was not a friendly one. Down to the time of Hosea, most Israelites believed that wine was given by Baal, not Yahweh. On the other hand, the author of Judges 21:12ff. thought that in the time of the Judges the girls of Shiloh already went out to dance in the vineyards on the feast of Yahweh—as they still did in the time of the Mishna (Ta’ anit 4:8); the legend of Jepthah’s daughter looks like a nationalistic explanation of a maenadic custom; wine, though secondary in sacrifices to Yahweh, became an accepted element in them after the tribes settled down; and there is no doubt that one of the original elements of Sukkoth was a vintage festival. Plutarch’s source and his own judgment were right about this—the feast was certainly sacred to a wine god. But who was this wine god, and where did he first become associated with Yahweh?

It is possible that a partial answer to these questions may be found in Genesis 18:1-15, the myth of Abraham’s entertaining Yahweh and two angels and receiving as a reward the promise of a son from Sarah. Ever since the time of Delitzsch this myth has been recognized as an example of a common type, known from many Greek and Roman parallels. Numerous scholars have [826] remarked that the myth presumably was that of the sanctuary of Hebron—the center of a grape growing district, as Skinner observes—and many have thought it pre-Yahwist, since it tells of the appearance of three deities, not one. The Yahwist retelling, with its change from the plural to the singular, has created difficulties in the text. It is not improbably that the three deities and their host, the original hero of the shrine (who may or may not have been named Abraham) made up the “four” referred to in the ancient name—or nickname—of Hebron, Kiryat ha ‘arba’, “the city of the four,” commonly syncopated to Kiryat ‘arba’. And it is not unlikely that the three deities may be the three giants whom the Yahwist hero Caleb drove out of Hebron when he took it (Josh 15:14; Judges 1:20; cp. Josh 11:21f.; 14:15).

The names of the three figures at Hebron differ from one Biblical source to another, for reasons we cannot now discern. In one set of stories they are Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai, Aramaic names which, as Moore remarked, tell us nothing. In Gen 14:13, however, they are Mamre, Ehskol, and Aner, all of whom made a covenant with Abraham (As did the deity who appeared to him in Hebron, if Gen 15:18 or 17:1-27 is to be associated with that shrine). Of these, Mamre and Eshkol had their individual holy places, Mamre at his oak grove and sacred well, modern Ramet el Halil, just outside Hebron, Eshkol in his valley famous for its grape vines—his name means “grape cluster.”

p. 237

Sozomen then goes on to tell how St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, got wind of these goings on and persuaded Constantine to build a church on the site and prohibit all non-Christian worship. In this report his narrative is based on Eusebius’ Life of Constatine. From Constantine’s letter, as quoted by Eusebius (3.51f.) it appears that there were pagan idols and a pagan altar on the site. These the emperor ordered destroyed. From their destruction—presumably—came the fragments discovered by Mader in his excavation of the site. Of these fragments the one certainly recognizable was a head of Dionysus. Or should we say, Dionysus-Yahweh-Eshkol?

Orphism and Christianity in Late Antiquity
by Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui
pp. 113-116

Groups of pagans with religious inclinations close to Judaism sometimes associated themselves with local Jewish communities, and this kind of Jewish acolyte — from the ranks of which came many of the earliest converts to Christianity — is likely to have acted as a connection to other Greek cults. A recent study by Stephen Mitchell, for instance, clearly establishes that the pagan cult of Theos Hypsistos — a single and transcendent deity, whose name could not be spoken — was the result of strong Jewish influence on pagan culture in Asian Minor. This is the most spectacular example of Hellenic adoption and appropriation of Jewish beliefs. However, the presence of Biblical ritual and theologcla elements, particularly the use of the name “Iao” — evidently connected with “Yahweh” — in religious and magical papyri of Imperial Egypt, makes clear that this Judaizing influence spread through many other religious and literary circles in which Orphic elements also appear. The existence of Jewish elements is furthermore well established in Hermetic and Gnostic literature, where the influence of Orphism has already been noted. The existence of an Orphic-Jewish or Jewish-Orphic syncretism is a practically inevitable conclusion given such trends.

Ideological assimilation is of course a bilateral process, though ancient apologetic writings tend to transmit only cases of Jewish influence spreading outward to affect the Hellenic culture around it. This bias creates the impression of a Judaism kept free of syncretistic contamination and exerting its energies in a purely unidirectional fashion. It is true that Jewish orthodoxy grows more and more passionate over time in its exclusion of Greek influences: for example, the translation into Greek of the Bible becomes more literal from the Septuagint until the absolutely literal translation of Aquila. However, the strict boundaries set by orthodoxy and apologetics are artificial, and it is not unlikely that users of many of the Orphic-Jewish syncretistic texts were in fact Jewish themselves, or very close to Jewish communities. The motivation behind the reaction of those Jewish purists who resist Hellenic thought and culture, and the work of those internal apologists who seek to reaffirm the strength of orthodox doctrine to the faithful, appears to lie precisely in fear of Jewish religious identity being lost against this syncretistic background. The entirely reactive character of the movement, however, attests to the great fluidity of actual religious practice. It is the same situation the Christian apologists will later confront when they come to polemical attack against a nascent pagan-Christian syncretism — whose strength is revealed not only in the direct references made by the apologists themselves, but also in the vitriol with which they decry it.

It is in Palestine that the dramatic ambiguities in religious cult and belief of the time are revealed in greatest detail and in particular in the cult of Dionysus. The cult in question is connected specifically with Baccus’ role as god of wine, and while we do not have sufficient evidence to link the cult — universal throughout the Mediterranean — with the mysteries or with the Orphic tradtion, the Jewish attitude toward it is precisely the same as is found in relation to cults of a more explicitly Orphic flavour. the presence of the Bacchic cult in Palestine and the assimilation of Baccuus to Yahweh are very well attested, and it is presumably because of the pervasiveness of such syncretism that contemporary denunciations of Bacchic rituals are so harsh. When Antiochus Epiphanesestablished the worship of Dionysus in his attempts to Hellenize Judea in 16 B.C. (2 Mac 5-6), he was doubtless trying to institutionalize an already-existing syncretism for political self-interest. His attempt was nevertheless condemned by the ultimately prevailing orthodoxy of the time as ” the abomination of desolation” (Dn. 12:11). The Wisdom of Solomon, the last canonical book of the Old Testament, was written in Alexandria in the first century BC and harshly criticizes the Bacchic teletai (Wis 12.3-7). Dionysus becomes in this account the heir to the Baal of the Canaantes, an object of worship whose relationship to Yahweh was marked, on the evidence of the Old Testament synthesized in the classic work of Ranier Albertz (1994), by a similarly widespread syncretism existing in the face of constant official condemnation. Pagan authors such as Plutarch, Valcrius Maximus, and Tacticus differ on whether the Jewish Yahweh should be identified with the Greek Dionysus. The Orphic tradition does not appear to play any direct role in this process of assimilation and separation, but the tendency to Bacchic assimilations should be borne in mind when attempting to explain the absence of Dionysiac elements from those aspects of Hellenic culture ultimately accepted into Jewish orthodoxy. From its perspective, the most similar is the most dangerous, for it tends most powerfully towards uncontrolled assimilation.

One may attempt to differentiate from this kind of clear-cut syncretism some instances of cultural assimilation which attest a much more managed process, guided by an orthodoxy that sought to hellenize Judaism while preserving its inner core. External accomodation to the Hellenistic cultural milieu may be in principle distinguished from actual cultic syncretism. For example, when Philo depicts the community of Jewish therapeutai as if they were initiates in the Bacchic mysteries, such assimilation is purely an external metaphor does not mean that these therapeutai adored Bacchus in any way. However, such clear distinction is not always conceptually fixed. The figure of Orpheus, precisely, offers and excellent example. There is one possible textual instance of an external assimilation between David and Orpheus. Psalm 151 in the Septuagint version talks about David — the putative author of the Psalm — praising God with his lyre. The Psalm was only known in its Greek translation until 195, when the Hebrew version discovered in the manuscripts of Qumram was published. This purported original version has two lines (2b-3) which are absent from the Greek version: “And [so] have I rendered glory to the Lord, thought I, within my soul/The mountains do not witness to him, nor do the hills proclaim; the trees have cherished my words and flock my deeds.” These lines that state the power of the singer over nature suggested from the beginning that there was a conscious appropriation of the myth of Orpheus, the singer who enchants nature, to depict David’s song. The reading and translation of these lines is, however, very controversial, and this interpretation has been hotly debated. However, the fact that the Greek version of the Psalm lacked precisely those two verses may be a sign of some censorship of unclear lines whose assimilation of a Greek myth may have been excessive for the orthodox Jewish translators.

Whatever the facts of the case of Psalm 151, this presentation of David as Orpheus is clearly found in several images found in synagogues of the eastern Empire — the most famous being the frescoes of Dura-Europas in the third century AD and a mosaic in Gaza of the sixth century AD. King David is depicted as Orpheus, surrounded by the animals he has attracted to him with is voice. It is clear that the iconography of the singer whose music pacifies those who hear him is perfectly adapted to the representation of David, whose music cured the mad soul of King Saul (I Sm. 16:23). The Orpheus myth furthermore occasions the depiction together of various animals who, in listening to the musician’s song, forget their natural enemity and live together in harmony — an image characteristic of the Golden Age that the prophets announced would witness to the restoration of David’s kingdom (Is. 9:1-11). This kind of appropriation of Greek myths to Jewish contexts can be hard to distinguish from flee-flowing mutual syncretistic exchange. In fact, the following discussion of Christian encounters with Orphic tradition expands the problems raised by the Jewish evidence.

Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan
by John Day
pp. 66-67

So far as the above biblical names are concerned, we cannot be certain whether they simply allude to the Canaanite god Baal, or refer to Yahweh as being equated with Baal, or are simply an epithet “Lord’ for Yahweh without actual identification with the god Baal. Whatever the case with the above names (and the same explanation need not apply to Jerubbaal and the others), we have definite evidence that Yahweh could be referred to as Baal from the personal names Bealiah (2 Chron. 12.6 [ET 5]), one of David’s warriors, and Yehobaal, a name found on a seal,” which seem to mean respectively “Baal is Yahweh and “Yahweh is Baal’. That Yahweh could actually be equated with Baal is clearly indicated by Hosea 2.

In v. 18 (ET 16) Hosea declares, “And in that day, says the Lord, you will call me “My husband”, and no longer will you call me “My Baal”. The following verse goes on to say, ‘For I will remove the names of the Baals from your mouth, and they shall be mentioned by name no more’. Now the Baals were mentioned earlier in this chapter in v. 15 (ET 13), and these clearly refer to the fertility deity, Baal, whom the people regarded as being responsible for the grain, wine, oil and so on in v. 10 (ET 8), and also the ‘lovers of v. 7 (ET 5). From all this it can hardly be doubted that Hosea was not simply objecting to the epithet “Lord’ (ba’al) being applied to Yahweh, but was countering a tendency of the people to conflate Yahweh and Baal to such an extent that the essential identity and uniqueness of the former was compromised.

Further evidence in support of the view there were some who equated Yahweh with Baal derives from the fact that such a hypothesis has explanatory power in accounting for the rise of the Son of Man imagery in Daniel 7.”

p. 70

Since the Baal promoted by Jezebel was the same Baal who had been worshipped by the Canaanite population of Israel and syncretistic Israelites, it can readily be understood how he gained such a large following. This would not be the case with Melqart, the city god of Tyre, and, as M.J. Mulder has emphasized, Ahab would have commit ted political suicide had he attempted to promote such a foreign god.

p. 74

That the name Baal-Zebul was known to the Jews is attested in the New Testament, where Beelzebul has become the name of the Prince of the Demons, Satan (Mt. 10.25, 12.24, 27; Mk 3.22; Lk, 11.15, 18–19). The reading Beelzebul in the New Testament is certainly original: almost all the Greek manuscripts read Beek e3ot). Only Vaticanus (B) and, in every case except one, Sinaiticus (8) read Beef effou%. The reading Beelzebub is found later in the Vulgate and Peshitta, and is clearly inferior, making the New Testament demonic name agree with the god of Ekron in 2 Kings 1. It is all the more remarkable that the form Beelzebul is attested in the New Testament when we reflect that it is not found in the Old Testament, and it testifies to the continuation of a Canaanite numen in transformed demonized form in popular Jewish religion at a late date.

It is not surprising that the name became a term for the ‘Prince of the Demons’ (cf. zbl, prince’): the name of the leading god, when abomi nated, naturally became transformed into that of the leading demon. The idea that pagan gods are demons is found in Deut. 32.17; Ps. 105.37; Bar. 4.7 and Ps. 95.5 (LXX); also in 1 Cor. 10.20 and Rev. 9.20.

The Early History of God
by Mark S. Smith
Kindle Locations 1553-1682

According to Philo of Byblos (PE 1.10.7), beelsamen was a storm-god, associated with the sun in the heavens and equated with Zeus,305 although Baal Shamem’s solar characteristic apparently was a later product.306 That Baal Shamem and not Melqart was the patron god of Ahab and Jezebel may be inferred from the proper names attested for the Tyrian royal family. The onomasticon of the Tyrian royal house bears no names with Melqart. There is only one exception to *b‘l as the theophoric element in royal proper names from Tyre.307

That Baal Shamem and not Melqart was a threat in Israel in the pre-exilic period might be inferred from the fact that the god in question is called “the baal” (1 Kings 18:19, 22, 25, 26, 40). The invocation of Baal Shamem in the Aramaic version of Psalm 20 written in Demotic may also provide evidence of this god in Israelite religion.308 This version of Psalm 20 belongs to a papyrus dating to the second century known as Papyrus Amherst Egyptian no. 63 (column XI, lines 11-19). The text, which may have come from Edfu, shows some Egyptian influence, specifically the mention of the god Horus. The text may secondarily reflect genuine Israelite features. M. Weinfeld argues that the psalm was originally Canaanite or northern Israelite.309 For Weinfeld, the references to Baal Shamem, El-Bethel, and Mount Saphon reflect an original Canaanite or northern Israelite setting, perhaps Bethel. The biblical version of Psalm 20 would reflect a southern version, which secondarily imported the psalm into the cult of Yahweh. In this case, the Aramaic version may have derived from a northern Israelite predecessor. If so, the reference to Baal Shamem might reflect the impact of this god in Israelite religion.

Some scholars identify the baal of Jezebel with the baal of Carmel, perhaps as his local manifestation at Carmel.310 Like Baal Shamem, the baal of Carmel appears to be a storm-god. A second-century inscription from Carmel on a statue identifies the god of Carmel as Zeus Heliopolis.311 At Baalbek, Zeus Heliopolis had both solar and storm characteristics. According to Macrobius (Saturnalia 1.23.19), this Zeus Heliopolis was a solarized form of the Assyrian storm-god, Adad.312 As with Baal Shamem, the solar characteristic of Adad is a secondary development. Macrobius (Saturnalia 1.23.10) identifies the cult of Zeus Heliopolis with a solarized worship of Jupiter. […]

In sum, the biblical evidence suggests that the Phoenician baal of Ahab and Jezebel was a storm-god. The extrabiblical evidence indicates that the baal of Carmel and Baal Shamem were also storm-gods, whereas Melqart does not appear to have been a storm-god. From the available data, following O. Eissfeldt, Baal Shamem was the baal of Jezebel.

Some reason for the adoption of the Phoenician baal by the northern monarchy may be tentatively suggested. The coexistence of cult to Yahweh and Baal prior to and up to the ninth century may have suggested to Ahab and his successors that elevating Baal in Israel would not represent a radical innovation. Ahab’s religious policies presumably would have appealed to those “Canaanites” living in Israelite cities during the monarchy, if these “Canaanites” represent a historical witness to those descendents of the old Canaanite cities that the Israelites are said not to have held originally (Josh. 16:10; 17:12-13; Judg. 1:27-35);314 however, this witness is difficult to assess for historical value. The religious program of Ahab and Jezebel represented a theopolitical vision in continuity with the traditional compatibility of Yahweh and Baal. Up to this time both Yahweh and Baal had cults in the northern kingdom. Whereas Yahweh was the main god of the northern kingdom and divine patron of the royal dynasty in the north, Baal also enjoyed cultic devotion. Ahab and Jezebel perhaps created a different theopolitical vision. While the cult of Yahweh continued in the northern kingdom, Baal perhaps was elevated as the patron god of the northern monarchy, thus creating some sort of theopolitical unity between the kingdom of the north and the city of Tyre. […]

According to historical sources, support for Baal was severely ruptured at this juncture in Israelite history. Jehu managed the slaughter of Baal’s royal and prophetic supporters and the destruction of the Baal temple in Samaria (2 Kings 10), and Jehoiada the priest oversaw the death of Athaliah and the destruction of another temple of Baal (2 Kings 11). Jehu’s reform was not as systematic as the texts might suggest, however. Jehu did not fully eradicate Baal worship.316 Confirmation for this viewpoint comes from inscriptional and biblical sources. The Kuntillet ‘Ajrûd inscriptions contain the names of Baal and Yahweh in the same group of texts. Dismissing such attestations to the god Baal because the script may be “Phoenician” appears injudicious.317 Indeed, the texts bear “vowel letters” (or matres lectionis),318 which constitute a writing convention found in Hebrew, but not in Phoenician. Unlike Hebrew, Phoenician does not use letters to mark vowels.319

References in Hosea to “the baal” (2:10 [E 8]; 2:18 [E 16]; 13:1; cf. 7:16) and “the baals” (2:15 [E 13]; 2:19 [E 17]; 11:2) add further evidence of Baal worship in the northern kingdom. Hosea 2:16 (E 18) begins a section that recalls imagery especially reminiscent of Baal. According to some scholars,320 Hosea 2:18 (E 16) plays on ba‘al as a title of Yahweh and indicates that some northern Israelites did not distinguish between Yahweh and Baal. The verse declares, “And in that day, says Yahweh, you will call me, ‘My husband,’ and no longer will you call me, ‘My ba‘al.’”321 The substitution of Yahweh for Baal continues dramatically in Hosea 2:23-24 (E 21-23). These verses echo Baal’s message to Anat in KTU 1.3 III 13-31 (cf. 1.3 IV 7-20). In this speech, Baal announces to Anat that the word that he understands will be revealed to humanity who does not yet know it. In the context of the narrative, this word is the message of the cosmic fertility that will occur when Baal’s palace is built on his home on Mount Sapan. Upon the completion of his palace, Baal creates his meteorological manifestation of the storm from the palace, which issues in cosmic blessing (KTU 1.4 V-VII). Part of the message to Anat describes the cosmic communication between the Heavens and the Deeps, an image for cosmic fertility […]

Despite royal attempts at reform, Baal worship continued. Although Jehoram, the son of Ahab, undertook a program of reform (2 Kings 3:2) and Athaliah and Mattan, the priest of Baal, were murdered (2 Kings 11:18), royal devotion to Baal persisted. Ahaz fostered Baal worship (2 Chron. 28:2). According to Jeremiah 23:13, Baal worship led to the fall of Samaria and the northern kingdom. The verse declares, “And among the prophets of Samaria I saw an unsavory thing; they prophesied by Baal and led astray my people, Israel.” Jeremiah 23:27 further condemns Israelite prophecy by Baal. Hezekiah sought to eliminate worship of Baal, but his son, Manasseh, rendered royal support to his cult (2 Kings 21:3; 2 Chron. 33:3). Finally, Josiah purged the Jerusalem temple of cultic paraphernalia designed for Baal (2 Kings 23:4; cf. Zeph. 1:4). Prophetic polemic from the end of the southern kingdom also claims that the monarchy permitted religious devotion to Baal down to its final days (Jer. 2:8; 7:9; 9:13; 12:16). From the cumulative evidence it appears that on the whole Baal was an accepted Israelite god, that criticism of his cult began in the ninth or eighth century, and that despite prophetic and Deuteronomistic criticism, this god remained popular through the end of the southern kingdom. There is no evidence that prior to the ninth century Baal was considered a major threat to the cult of Yahweh. […]

The descriptions of Baal and baals in 1 Kings 17-19, Hosea 2, and other biblical texts raise a final issue concerning Baal’s character in ancient Israel. In the Ugaritic sources Baal’s meteorological manifestations are expressions of his martial power. In contrast, 1 Kings 17-19 and Hosea 2 deplore belief in Baal’s ability to produce rains, but these and other biblical passages are silent on the martial import of his manifestation. Indeed, no biblical text expresses ideas about Baal’s status as a warrior. Yahweh had perhaps exhibited and possibly usurped this role at such an early point for the tradents of Israel’s religious literature. This conclusion might be inferred from the numerous similarities between Baal and Yahweh that many scholars have long observed.

The Chosen People
by John Allegro
pp. 19-20

In fact, the names of the patriarchal heroes, as that of the god himself, are non-Semitic, as our recent researches have shown, and go back to the earliest known civilization of the Near East, indeed of the world The language to which we can now trace these names is called Sumerian, and seems to have been the fount of both Semitic and Indo-European and was in use long before these two linguistic families went their separate ways The divine name Yahweh (its purposeful mispronunciation as “Jehovah” was intended to preserve its secrecy from the uninitiated) turns out to have been merely a dialectal form of the Greek god-name Zeus, and both meant “spermatozoa,” the source of all life The very common Semitic word for “god,” El, in its various forms, has a similar connotation, and cognate names such as Ba’al and Hadad, Seba’oth (the Hindu Siva), and the like, refer to the male organ of generation with which the god was mythologically identified He was envisaged as a mighty penis in the heavens which, in the thunderous climax of the storm, ejaculated semen upon the furrows of mother Earth, the womb of creation.

Israel on the steppes of north Arabia before she became tainted with the gross perversions of agricultural fertility cults The whole concept of the desert god owed more to the efforts of later theologians to historicize their mythology than to any authentic tribal memories of Israel’s early experiences We are now able to pinpoint the source of the patriarchal myths in a particular form of the fertility religion, centered on the cult of the sacred mushroom Its devotees conceived the fungus as a manifestation of the phallic god, and believed that eating it brought them into a direct relationship with the deity and enabled them to share in the heavenly secrets The cap of the mushroom, the Amanita muscaria (see below, Chapter 16), contains a hallucinatory drug which imparts a sense of euphoria, coupled with violent physical energy, followed by periods of acute depression This cult was as old as the name Yahweh, and similarly derived from the Sumerians

p. 51

However, much more than fiscal measures was required to weld this heterogeneous collection of peoples together into an organic whole There had to be an emotional rallying point, overriding all other allegiances, ethnic, even familial It could only be religiously inspired, and at its center must be a supranational god, a single deity to whose creative acts was owing all life, on earth or in the heavens, and to whom was thus due the homage of all men The traumatic effects of the Exile upon the minds of the intellectual elite of Judah had already produced the monotheistic ideal of Second Isaiah (Ch 40-55), who uncompromisingly identified the tribal god Yahweh with the sovereign Lord of all history In fact, as we may now appreciate, he was doing no more than perceive in the deity the fertility concept that had been implicit in his name, “Sperm of life,” from the beginning Yahweh, like his exact philological counterpart, the Greek Zeus, and his semantic equivalent, El, chief god of the Semites, was always the one Creator God, the source of all life, and only secondarily appropriated as a tribal deity The Jewish philosopher, wrenched from his homeland by a foreign conqueror, was forced to project his understanding of Yahweh’s dealings with his people against a back cloth of world politics If Israel’s god had any reality at all, he must be able to act over a far wider area than Palestine, and to be able to demand the allegiance of many more peoples than the Jews and the Canaanites The prophet saw Yahweh as a cosmic deity, lord of the heavenly hosts and forces of nature, but at the same time still the special god of Israel, a tribal deity whose main interest was the welfare of his Chosen People Thus it followed that whatever the grand strategy in the Creator’s mind, it involved the destiny of the Jews, and all history was directed to their glorification.

p. 75

For twenty-five years this “Acra,” as it was called, peopled not only by Seleucid troops but other pagans and Hellenized Jews, became virtually the new Greek Jerusalem, a polis, with the Temple serving as the city shrine like that of any other Greek center The “godless” people who inhabited the Acra, led apparently by Menelaus and his friends, were clearly intent on a complete integration with their Greek neighbors The exclusive nature of the Yahwistic cult was to be broken and the tribal god identified with the Greek Zeus.

As we saw, this association between the gods was, in fact, perfectly historical and legitimate Zeus was, indeed, Yahweh in origin; both names meant the same, “seed of life,” or spermatozoa, and both had their common origin in the underlying fertility religion of the ancient Near East Just how far this fact may still have been recognized in popular tradition, even as late as the second century BC, we cannot know Our records were composed by writers utterly hostile to this synthesis.

pp. 78-79

The climax in the Greek campaign to amalgamate the Jewish and pagan gods came, according to our sources, with the introduction of the so-called “Abomination of Desolation” into the Temple, in December 167 BC (Dan 9:27; 11:31; 12:11; I Macc 1:54) The strange Semitic phrase is customarily explained as a pun on the cultic title “Ba’al of Heaven,” designating the ancient Semitic storm god Hadad, with whom Zeus (Jupiter) Olympius had been already identified (cp II Macc 6:2) Much the same syncretism had already been carried out with local approval in the Samaritan Yahwistic Temple on Mount Gerizim, where the god was identified with Zeus Xenius, “Defender of Strangers” (II Macc 6:2) Again, historically, this identification of the storm deity with Yahweh and Zeus was perfectly correct The Jewish god’s accompanying title, Sebaoth, we may now recognize as having originally meant “Penis of the Storm,” reflecting the ancient conception of the phallic deity as a mighty organ in the heavens ejaculating the precious Yahweh/Zeus spermatozoa in his tempestuous orgasm The idea is accurately conveyed in the Semitic divine name Hadad, derived from a Sumerian term for “Mighty Father.”

Whatever the form (probably phallic) in which Zeus Olympius was represented “upon the altar” (I Macc 1:54), it was certainly placed there with the active support of Menelaus and the priestly hierarchy of the Temple, and was doubtless as popular among the laity as were the incense altars “at the doors of their houses, and in the streets” (I Macc 1:55) Furthermore, it is difficult to believe that these cultic “abominations” were instituted overnight; Hellenism had long before made deep inroads into Jewish ideas and practices, and, in any case, many aspects of Greek religion would have found their echoes in the old Israelite fertility worship, which never lay far beneath the surface of the Jewish consciousness. Thus, the worship of Bacchus, in which the Jews joined, carrying the ivy covered thyrsus (II Macc 6:7), was again only another aspect of the ancient fertility cult, on which our recent studies of the religion of the Sacred Mushroom have cast much new light.

Suns of God
by Acharya S (D. M. Murdock)
pp. 109-110

The Hercules myth also makes it into the Old Testament, in the tale of Samson, whose name means “sun” and is the same as Shams-on, Shamash, Shamas, Samas and Saman. Both solar heroes are depicted with their gates or pillars, those of Hercules at Gadiz, while Samson’s were at Gaza. Each is associated with lion killing, and each was taken prisoner but breaks free as he is about to be sacrificed, killing his enslavers in the process. In the end, the Hercules/Samson myths are astrotheological, with the pillars representing solar symbols: “The two pillars…are simply ancient symbol-limits of the course f the sun in the heavens…” “Now just as Samson in one story carries the pillars, so did Herakles…. And in ancient art he was actually represented carrying the two pillars in such a way under his arms that they formed exactly a cross…” Like many others, “St. Augustine believed that Samson and the sun god Herakles were one.”

In addition, the Palestinian term “Simon,” “Semo” or “Sem” is likewise a name for the sun god Shamash/Shemesh, who, like Hercules, has been equated with the Canaanite/Phoenician god Baal. This god “Semo or Semon was especially worshipped in Samaria,” also known as the “Cyrenian Saman,” who is evidently the character traditionally represented among early Christians and Gnostics as “Simon of Cyrene” who legendarily bore Christ’s cross. Interestingly, the Cyrenians were some of the earliest proselytizers of Christianity (Acts 11:20). In Hebrew “Sem” or “Shem” means “name,” which is the term pious Jews use to address Yahweh, the latter being one of the ineffable, unspoken names of God. As “Sem” or “Shem” is a name for the God Sun, so is Yahweh; it is apparent that “Sem” is the northern kingdom version of Yahweh, whence come “Semites” and “Samaritans.” Indeed, the “early Israelites were mostly sun worshippers,” as the fables concerning “Moses, Joshua, Jonah, and other biblical characters are solar myths.”

pp. 116-117

When comparative mythology is studied, the precedent for Christianity becomes evident in numerous “Pagan” cultures. So to is the astrotheological religion present in Judaism, the other predecessor of Christianity. Although Judaism is today primarily a lunar creed, based on a lunar calendar, as a result of the nomadic nature of its early tribal proponents, the religion of the ancient Hebrews and Israelites was polytheistic, incorporating the solar mythos as well. The desert-nomad tribes that Judaism came to comprise were essentially moon worshipping or nigh-sky people, but they eventually took on the solar religion as they came to be more settled. This astrotheological development is reflected in the use of different calendars: For example, the Dead Sea scrolls contained a solar calendar, as opposed to the luni-solar calendar used by the rabbis. The Dead Sea collection also contained treatises on the relation of the moon to the signs of the zodiac, such as the “Brontologion” (4Q318).

The polytheism of the Israelites is reflected in a number of scriptures, including Jeremiah 11:13-14, wherein the writer laments:

For your gods have become as many as your cities, O Judah; and as many as the streets of Jerusalem are the altars you have set up to shame, altars to burn incense to Baal.

The word for “gods” in this passage is Elohim, which is regularly translated as “God” when referring to the Jewish “Lord.” The singular form of “Elohim” is “Eloah” or “Eloh,” used 57 times in the Bible, to indicate both “God” and “false god.” “Baal,” used over 80 times in the Old Testament, means “lord” and represents the sun god worshipped by the Isreaelites, Canaanites, Phoenicians and throughout the Levant. It is noteworthy that at this late date when “Jeremiah” was written (c. 625-565 BCE), the Jews were still polytheistic, as they had been for centuries prior.

This polytheism is further demonstrated in a confused passage at Psalms 94:7, which states: “…and they say, ‘The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.'” (RSV) The word translated as “The Lord” is actually “Jah,” whle the “God” of Jacob is “Elohim” or gods. A better translation would be “…Jah does not see; Jacob’s Elohim do not perceive.” This Jah is the IAO of the Egyptians, while the Elohim are the multiple Canaanite deities. According to Dr. Parkhurst and others, the Elohim of the Israelites referred to the seven planetary bodies known and revered by the ancients. These seven Elohim are also the seven powerful Cabiri of the Phoenicians and Egyptians, one of who was “Axieros,” whom Fourmont identified as the biblical Isaac. The Elohim and polytheism of the Hebrews are dealt with extensively in The Christ Conspiracy and elsewhere. In any event, the worship of the Hebrew, Israelites, and Jews long ago before the Christian era was both polytheistic and astrotheological, the same as that of their so-called Pagan neighbors.

Did Moses Exist?
by D. M. Murdock (Acharya S.)
Kindle Locations 791-798

In our quest, we must keep in mind the syncretism or merging together of divine figures, such as these various lawgivers, practiced not only by pagans with their numerous gods and goddesses but also by Jews. Regarding the Greco-Roman period (332 BCE– 284 AD/ CE), for example, British New Testament scholar Dr. Ralph P. Martin (1925– 2013) and American theologian Rev. Dr. Peter H. Davids state:

Nowhere is syncretism illustrated more clearly than in the magical and astrological beliefs of the era. In this realm, power takes precedence over personality. Commitment to one deity or fidelity to one cult gives way to rituals of power that work. Thus many gods and goddesses could be invoked at the same time by one person. Yahweh (or Iao) could be invoked in the same breath as Artemis and Hekate. Palestinian and diaspora Jews participated in this form of syncretism. Numerous Jewish magical amulets, spells and astrological documents attest to the prevalence of syncretistic Jewish magic.

Kindle Locations 6114-6165

Summarizing the works by some of these ancient writers, Israeli scholar Dr. Abraham Schalit (1898– 1979) remarks:

The non-Jews of Alexandria and Rome alleged that the cult of Dionysus was widespread among Jews. Plutarch gives a Bacchanalian interpretation to the Feast of Tabernacles… According to Plutarch the subject of the connection between the Dionysian and Jewish cults was raised during a symposium held at Aidepsos in Euboea, with a certain Moiragenes linking the Jewish Sabbath with the cult of Bacchus, because “even now many people call the Bacchi ‘Sabboi’ and call out that word when they perform the orgies of Bacchus.” Tacitus too thought that Jews served the god Liber, i.e., Bacchus-Dionysus, but “whereas the festival of Liber is joyful, the Jewish festival of Liber is sordid and absurd.” According to Pliny, Beth-Shean was founded by Dionysus after he had buried his wet nurse Nysa in its soil. His intention was to enlarge the area of the grave, which he surrounded with a city wall, although there were as yet no inhabitants. Then the god chose the Scythians from among his companions, and in order to encourage them, honored them by calling the new city Scythopolis after them (Pliny, Natural History 5: 18, 74).

An inscription found at Beth-Shean dating from the time of Marcus Aurelius [121– 180 AD/ CE] mentions that Dionysus was honored there as ktistes [founder]. Stephen of Byzantium reports a legend that connects the founding of the city of Rafa also with Dionysus (for the Dionysian foundation legends of cities in the region, see Lichtenberger’s study). It is wrong to assume as some do that Plutarch took his account of the festival of Tabernacles from an antisemitic source, for despite all the woeful ignorance in his account it contains no accusation against, or abuse of, the Jews.

It is more likely that Plutarch described the festival of Tabernacles from observation, interpreting it in accordance with his own philosophical outlook, which does not prevent him, however, from introducing into it features of the cult of the famous Temple of Jerusalem gleaned by him in his wide reading. The description as a whole, however, is of Tabernacles as it was celebrated in the Greek diaspora at the end of the first and the beginning of the second century C.E., and not as it was celebrated in the Temple, which had already been destroyed for more than a generation. The festival undoubtedly absorbed influences from the environment, so that Plutarch could indeed have witnessed what he recognized as customs of the Dionysian feast. 870

In view of what we have seen and will continue to see here, we submit that Plutarch’s account is not “woefully ignorant” and that the influence of Dionysianism on Jewish religion began before the First Temple period, including among the Amoritish proto-Israelites who eventually settled the hill country.

Beth Shean

The important ancient town of Beth Shean or Beit She’an (Bethshan, Βαιθσάν, Βεθσάνη)— meaning “house of tranquility”— was called “Scythopolis” in Greek and supposedly was founded by Dionysus. Beth Shean is referred to several times in the biblical books of 1 and 2 Samuel, as well as in Judges and others, and is located strategically in the fertile Jordan Valley, south of the Sea of Galilee and east of the Samarian hill country. Situated at the juncture between the Jordan and Jezreel Valleys, this region is also deemed the “West Bank” of the Jordan River. It is noteworthy that one of the area’s largest winepresses was found at Jezreel, one of many such devices in ancient Israel. 871

The Scythopolis/ Beth Shean region began to be occupied from at least the fourth millennium BCE, with settlements in the third millennium onward, until an earthquake destroyed it in the Early Arab period (749 AD/ CE).

In the Late Bronze Age (15th– 12th cents. BCE), Beth Shean was an Egyptian administrative center, followed by a Canaanite city (12th– 11th cents. BCE) and then an Israelite settlement (10th cent.– 732 BCE). During this time, the people worshipped many different gods, including those of the Canaanites, Egyptians, Greeks and Philistines. A stele from the era of pharaoh Seti I mentions Egypt’s victory over the neighboring hill tribes, among whom were the Hapiru. 872

Grapevine cultivation in the Beth Shean area apparently began during the fourth millennium BCE, 873 and it may be suggested that the vine and wine cult existed in the region long before the Israelites arrived or emerged. As noted, Greek occupation of Asia Minor to the northwest began by 1200 BCE, leaving several centuries between that time and when the Pentateuch emerges clearly in the historical record.

Therefore, it is probable that the rituals of the Jews during the time of Diodorus and Plutarch derived from many centuries before, with influence from other cultures over the centuries that the area was occupied. This influence, of course, would extend to peculiarities of the Dionysian cultus as developed hellenically. So entrenched was the city’s association with Bacchus, in fact, that Pliny the Elder (23– 79 AD/ CE) equated Beth Shean/ Scythopolis with Nysa, “so named of Father Liber, because his nurse was buried there.” 874

Thus, it should not surprise us if the town was “founded” by the archaic wine god and if the Jewish fertility and harvest festival comprised many elements of Bacchic religion, possibly absorbed during the occupation of Beth Shean by Israelites. Other cities, such as Rafa, Rafah or Raphia (Egyptian Rph) in southern Israel/ Palestine on the border of Egypt, were claimed also, as by Stephanus of Byzantium (fl. 6th cent. AD/ CE), to have been founded by the wine god.

Kindle Locations 6536-6542

Regarding 2 Maccabees and the ancient association of Yahweh with the gods of other cultures such as Zeus or Jupiter, American New Testament professor Dr. Sean M. McDonough remarks:

An even more common identification, however, was Dionysus. Tacitus (Hist. 5.5: 5), Lydus (De Mensibus 4: 53), and Cornelius Labeo (ap. Macrobius, Saturnalia 1: 18: 18– 21) all make this association, and a coin from 55 BCE of the curule aedile A. Plautius shows a kneeling king who is labeled BACCHIVS IVDAEVS. E. Babelon argues that this must be the high priest, “the priest of the Jewish Bacchus.” This identification may have been based on more than mere speculation. According to 2 Macc. 6: 7, the Jews “were compelled to walk in the procession in honor of Dionysus, wearing wreaths of ivy”…

Kindle Locations 6841-6856

It is obvious not only that Jews were well aware of Bacchus but also that they revered his cult enough to feature him prominently, according to Maccabees, as well as Plutarch’s statements and the depiction of Dionysus’s life-cycle in ancient mosaics in Israel.

Indeed, the presence of Dionysus on mosaics from the third to fourth centuries AD/ CE in the finely appointed home of the apparent Jewish patriarch at Sepphoris or Tzippori, a village in Galilee, lends weight to Plutarch’s commentary. 1022 Significantly, this imagery depicts Bacchus and Herakles in a wine-drinking contest, which Dionysus wins, a theme flagrantly featured in the prominent Jewish citizen’s home. Since Herakles was a favorite of the Phoenicians, this symbolism could reflect the defeat of that faction commercially, in the wine trade. This central place for Bacchus indicates the wealth of the community depended significantly on the blessings of the grape.

If these later Jews were aware of Dionysus and unflinchingly revered him, it is reasonable to suggest that Israelites knew about his worship and myth in more remote antiquity, particularly as they became wine connoisseurs, a trade that dates back 3,000 years in the hill country where they emerged.

It is very significant that this site of Bacchus worship, Sepphoris, was deemed the Cana of the New Testament, where Jesus was said to have produced his water-to-wine miracle. 1023 It is clear that the gospel writers were imitating the popular Dionysus worship with the newly created Christ character.

Kindle Locations 7215-7228

The Greek god Dionysus’s worship extends back at least 3,200 years, but the reverence for a wine deity in general is much older. Extant ancient texts describing Bacchus’s myth date from the 10th century BCE to the fifth century AD/ CE. For many centuries since antiquity, scholars, theologians and others have noted numerous parallels between Dionysus and Moses, most attempting to establish biblical priority but some declaring that the former post-dated and was derived from the latter.

We have seen that important aspects of Bacchus’s life, described consistently for centuries dating back to the 10th century BCE at the latest, correspond to that of the Israelite lawgiver. Also discussed is the contention by Plutarch that the Jews practiced Bacchic rituals and that Diodorus equated the Jewish god with Dionysus, a reverence evident from Dionysian artifacts such as mosaics in at least one house of a wealthy and powerful Jew.

Since it appears that the Moses character was not created until sometime during or after the Babylonian exile, possibly with his myth in the Pentateuch not taking its final biblical form until the third century BCE, it is conceivable that Bacchic ideas from the Greek historians and poets prior to that time, such as Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus, Euripides and many others, were incorporated directly in the biblical myth. It is also possible that the framers of the Moses myth were aware of the Dionysian myths because they had been written into plays performed around the Mediterranean for centuries. The story of Bacchus in particular would have been well known enough not to need to rely on the texts directly; hence, the Dionysus-Moses connection could have been made early.

Kindle Locations 9403-9429

Sabaoth

The theonym Iao was used popularly in the magical papyri and other artifacts of the first centuries surrounding the common era: “The name Iao also appears on a number of magical texts, inscriptions and amulets from the ancient world.” 1545 These artifacts include an amulet from the first century BCE that reads: “IAO IAO SABAOTH ADONAI.” 1546 This sort of invocation indicates a Semitic origin but passes seamlessly into the formalized Gnosticism of the second century AD/ CE onwards.

In the New Testament, the word Σαβαώθ Sabaoth is used twice, at Romans 9: 29 and James 5: 4. Strong’s defines the term as: “Lord of the armies of Israel, as those who are under the leadership and protection of Jehovah maintain his cause in war.” 1547 The title “Sabaoth” derives from the Hebrew root צבא tsaba’, which is defined as “hosts,” as in both warfare and heaven. In its astral connotation, צבא tsaba’ means “host (of angels)… of sun, moon, and stars… of whole creation.” 1548 Hence, we see an astrotheological theme in the “host of heavens.”

Concerning the amulets and the YHWH-Iao connection, Classics professor Dr. Campbell Bonner relates:

As to the meaning of Iao, there can be no doubt, especially since the subject was thoroughly investigated by Graf von Baudissin; and, in fact, the combination of Ιαω Σαβαωθ Αδωναι [Iao Sabaoth Adonai] “JHVH of hosts, Lord,” which is common on both amulets and papyri, is convincing in itself. 1549

As noted, “Sabaoth” may be related to “Sabeus,” which in turn is an epithet of Dionysus, who is also equated with Iao by Macrobius. Thus, Yahweh is Iao is Bacchus, and all are the sun.

The Sun

To reiterate, Iao was identified with the sun, as in the mysteries and the oracle of Apollo at Claros. Macrobius (1.18.20) relates that Iao was “supreme god among all,” represented by the wintry Hades, the vernal Zeus, the summery Helios and the autumnal Iao, 1550 also noted as Iacchus or Dionysus, the latter’s role as the sun in the fall appropriate for a wine god.

As can be seen from ancient testimony, and as related by Dr. Roelof van den Broek, a professor of Christian History at the University of Utrecht: “Iao stood for the Sun.” 1551

Adon-Adonai-Adonis

Once again, both Plutarch (Quaest. Conv.) and Macrobius (4th cent. AD/ CE) identified the solar Iao with Bacchus, who in turn was equated by Diodorus with Yahweh. Plutarch (Symp. 5.3) also associates Bacchus with Adonis.

Did God Have a Wife?
by William G. Dever
Kindle Locations 2668-2800

Thus in the biblical writers’ view, from Moses to Ezekiel – 60o years, Israel’s entire history in Canaan – folk religion is bound up with rites having to do with “green trees;’ rites prohibited, yet practiced nonetheless. Why the biblical writers’ obsession with trees? It seems pretty obvious: a luxuriant green tree represents the goddess Asherah, who gives life in a barren land. (Those of us who have lived in the Arizona desert appreciate why trees seem miraculous.) And on the ridges and hilltops, where one seems closer to the gods and can lift up one’s eyes to the heavens, the trees and groups of wooden poles erected to her added to the verdant setting and the ambiance of luxuriousness, of plenty.

Such “hilltop shrines” with groves of trees are well known throughout out the Mediterranean world in the Bronze and Iron Ages, and they continued to flourish clear into the Classical era. Why should ancient Israel not have participated in this universal oriental culture of “fertility religions,” which celebrated the rejuvenation and sustaining powers of Nature? Perhaps Israel’s only unique contribution was to see over time that Nature is subsumed under Yahweh, “Lord of the Universe,” whose power ultimately gives life to humans and beast and field. But that insight was a long time coming, and it was fully realized only in the wisdom gained from the tragedy of the Babylonian captivity (Chapter VIII).

Despite what seems to me the transparency of the “tree” motif in connection with Asherah, ancient commentators seem to have been confused, fused, and so were modern scholars until recently. As I have noted above (Chapter IV), the Greek translators of the Hebrew Bible in the 3rd-2nd century B.C. were already sufficiently removed from the Iron Age reality that they did not understand the real meaning of Hebrew ‘aherah. Thus they rendered the term by the Greek word ‘alsos, “grove,” or dendron, “tree.” […]

There is, however, evidence of still another goddess who was venerated by the ancient Judeans. The prophet Ezekiel reports that at the gate of the Temple in Jerusalem there sat “women weeping for Tammuz” (Ezekiel 8:14). “Tammuz” was the later name of the 3rd millennium nium Sumerian god Dumuzi. He was a seasonal “dying and rising” god whose consort was Ishtar (Sumerian Inanna). Like Canaanite Baal in the western Semitic world, Dumuzi died annually in the early summer when the rains ceased, and then he descended into the underworld as though dead. Ishtar mourned his passing, but in the fall she helped to bring him back to life, and they re-consummated their sexual union. Thus Nature was fructified in an unending cycle of love, death, and reunion. The Mesopotamian cult of Tammuz was largely the province of women, who naturally empathize with his “widow” Ishtar, and ritually mourn his passing. ing. There seems little doubt that this pan-Mediterranean seasonal myth of Baal and `Anat, Tammuz and Ishtar, was popular in some circles in Judah, especially after the Assyrian impact in the late 8th century B.C. (Ackerman 1992:79-80).

There is also evidence of other mourning rituals in the Hebrew Bible, for other male deities. In Elijah’s famous contest on Mt. Carmel, the prophets of Baal attempt to call up the dead vegetation deity Baal by ritually ally gashing their flesh (I Kings 18:28), a typical funerary rite. Baal is also known by his other name Hadad, and in Zechariah 12:10, 11 there is a description of “mourning for Hadad-Rimmon in the Valley of Megiddo.” Hosea 7:14 may also refer to the same rites, condemning those who “turn to Baal” (Hebrew uncertain), who “wail upon their beds” and “gash themselves.” selves.”

Before leaving what may seem to be a confusing multiplicity of female male (and male) deities, and the question of which cultic artifacts may relate late to which, let me note one fact that may help. In the eastern Mediterranean world generally, there appear many local deities, both male and female, who were probably conceived of as particular manifestations of the more cosmic high gods. Thus in Canaan, we have texts naming Ba`alat (the feminine counterpart of Baal) “of Byblos.” The male deity Baal appears in Canaanite texts as Baal Zephon, “Ba’al of the North.” Baal appears in the Hebrew Bible as “Ba’al (of) Hazor”; “Ba’al (of) Hermon”; “Ba’al (of) Meon”; “Ba’al (of) Peor”; and “Ba’al (of) Tamar.” In the Kuntillet `Ajrud texts discussed above, we find mention of “Yahweh of Samaria,” and “Yahweh of Teman (Yemen).” Thus a number of scholars have called attention tion to the tendency of the High God or Goddess to appear in the form of the deity of a particular local cult, often with a hyphenated name. This would be a sort of “diffusion” of the deity; but on the other hand, these deities ities could coalesce again under different conditions into a sort of “conflate” flate” deity. The result is often great confusion of names and identities. For instance, a long chain of textual witnesses over time result in the following equation: Baal-Hadad = Baal-Shamen (“of the heavens”) = Zeus Helio = Heliopolitan Zeus. All these names, however, are reflexes of the great West Semitic high god Baal, “Lord of the Heavens/Sun” (the Greek equivalent of Baal with Zeus and helios, “sun,” is transparent). Likewise Canaanite `Anat became Greek Athena, the warlike patron deity of Athens. And Canaanite-Israelite Asherah appears later as Greek Aphrodite and Roman Venus, the latter also goddesses of beauty, love, and sexual pleasure. The similarities are unequivocal: Asherah and Aphrodite are both connected to the sea, and doves are symbols of both. Aphrodite’s lover Adonis clearly preserves the earlier Phoenician-Hebrew word ‘adon, “Lord.”

Of relevance for the female deities worshipped in ancient Israel, we should note the work of my teacher Frank Cross and several of his students. dents. They have argued that the three great goddesses of Ugarit – Asherah, `Anat, and Astarte – are all in effect “hypostatizations” of the cosmic Great Goddess of Canaan, all playing the same role but each perhaps haps venerated in a particular local manifestation, tradition, and cult. We could insist on choosing one – but should we? In Roman Catholic piety, especially among ordinary, unsophisticated worshippers we encounter many “Marys” – “Our Lady of Guadalupe”; “Our Lady of Lourdes”; etc. Are these different “Marys,” or one in many guises? Often folk religion may be universal and timeless; but it is always the here and now that matters. Thus women in ancient Israel were probably addressing their special concerns to the Great Mother of Canaan who lived on in the Iron Age, whether they knew her as “Asherah,” the “Queen of Heaven,” or “Ishtar,” or “Astarte.” I think that most conceived of her as a consort of the male deity Yahweh, but others may have seen her more as simply a personification of Yahweh’s more “feminine” attributes.

Early Judaism
by John J. Collins & Daniel C. Harlow
pp. 20-24

Throughout the period under consideration in this volume, Jews lived in a world permeated by Hellenistic culture. The pervasiveness of Hellenistic influence can be seen even in the Dead Sea Scrolls (where there is little evidence of conscious interaction with the Greek world), for example, in the analogies between the sectarian communities and voluntary associations.

Modern scholarship has often assumed an antagonistic relationship between Hellenism and Judaism. This is due in large part to the received account of the Maccabean Revolt, especially in 2 Maccabees. The revolt was preceded by an attempt to make Jerusalem into a Hellenistic polis. Elias Bickerman (1937) even argued that the persecution was instigated by the Hellenizing high priest Alcimus, and in this he was followed by Martin Hengel (1974). Yet the revolt did not actually break out until the Syrian king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, had disrupted the Jerusalem cult and given the Temple over to a Syrian garrison. The revolt was not directed against Hellenistic culture but against the policies of the king, especially with regard to the cult. Judas allegedly sent an embassy to Rome and availed himself of the services of one Eupolemus, who was sufficiently proficient in Greek to write an account of Jewish history. The successors of the Maccabees, the Hasmoneans, freely adopted Greek customs and even Greek names. Arnaldo Momigliano wrote that “the penetration of Greek words, customs, and intellectual modes in Judaea during the rule of the Hasmoneans and the following Kingdom of Herod has no limits” (Momigliano 1994: 22; see also Hengel 1989; Levine 1998). Herod established athletic contests in honor of Caesar and built a large amphitheater, and even established Roman-style gladiatorial contests. He also built temples for pagan cults, but not in Jewish territory, and he had to yield to protests by removing trophies, which involved images surrounded by weapons, from the Temple. In all cases where we find resistance to Hellenism in Judea, the issue involves cult or worship (Collins 2005: 21-43). Many aspects of Greek culture, including most obviously the language, were inoffensive. The revolt against Rome was sparked not by cultural conflict but by Roman mismanagement and social tensions.

Because of the extensive Hellenization of Judea, the old distinction between “Palestinian” Judaism and “Hellenistic” (= Diaspora) Judaism has been eroded to a great degree in modern scholarship. Nonetheless, the situation of Jews in the Diaspora was different in degree, as they were a minority in a pagan, Greek-speaking environment, and the Greek language and cultural forms provided their natural means of expression (Gruen 1998, 2002). The Jewish community in Alexandria, the Diaspora community of which we are most fully informed, regarded themselves as akin to the Greeks, in contrast to the Egyptians and other Barbaroi. The Torah was translated into Greek already in the third century B.C.E. Thereafter, Jewish authors experimented with Greek genres — epic, tragedy, Sibylline oracles, philosophical treatises (Goodman in Vermes et al. 1973-1987: 3: 1.470-704; Collins 2000). This considerable literary production reached its apex in the voluminous work of the philosopher Philo in the early first century C.E. This Greco-Jewish literature has often been categorized as apologetic, on the assumption that it was addressed to Gentiles. Since the work of Victor Tcherikover (1956), it is generally recognized that it is rather directed to the Jewish community. Nonetheless, it has a certain apologetic dimension (Collins 2005: 1-20). It is greatly concerned to claim Gentile approval for Judaism. In the Letter of Aristeas, the Ptolemy and his counselors are greatly impressed by the wisdom of the Jewish sages. Aristeas affirms that these people worship the same God that the Greeks know as Zeus, and the roughly contemporary Jewish philosopher Aristobulus affirms that the Greek poets refer to the true God by the same name. The Sibyl praises the Jews alone among the peoples of the earth. Philo, and later Josephus, is at pains to show that Jews exhibit the Greek virtue of philanthrōpia. […]

The story of modern scholarship on early Judaism is largely a story of retrieval. None of the literature of this period was preserved by the rabbis. The Greek literature of the Diaspora may not have been available to them. Much of the apocalyptic literature and of the material in the Dead Sea Scrolls was rejected for ideological reasons. The recovery of this literature in modern times presents us with a very different view of early Judaism than was current in the nineteenth century, and even than more recent accounts that impose a rabbinic paradigm on the period in the interests of normativity.

No doubt, our current picture of early Judaism is also incomplete. Despite the important documentary papyri from the Judean Desert dating to the Bar Kokhba period (Cotton in Oppenheimer, ed. 1999: 221-36), descriptions of the realia of Jewish life still rely heavily on rabbinic sources that are possibly anachronistic. The overdue study of women in this period is a case in point (Ilan 1995). One of the salutary lessons of the Dead Sea Scrolls is that they revealed aspects of Judaism that no one would have predicted before the discovery. And yet this was only the corpus of writings collected by one sect. To do justice to early Judaism we would need similar finds of Pharisaic, Sadducean, and other groups, and further documentary finds similar to those that have shed at least limited light on Egyptian Judaism and on Judah in the Bar Kokhba period.

Aphrodite and the Rabbis
by Burton L. Visotzky
pp. 56-58

There is even a dual – language inscription, first in Hebrew and then in Greek, of the name Rabbi Gamaliel, possibly the same rabbi who was patriarch of the Jewish community. Artistic motifs on the Beth Shearim sarcophagi include the ark or desert tabernacle, palm fronds, and lions (of Judah?)—all commensurate with rabbinic religion. But there are also eagles, bulls, Nike (the goddess of victory), Leda and the swan (aka Zeus), a theater mask, a spear – carrying warrior fragment, and yet other fragments of busts, statues, and bas reliefs of humans, none of which might be considered very “Jewish” by the rabbis of the Talmud. It’s hard to know what to make of this mishmash of pagan and Jewish burial symbols.

Even more confusing, perhaps, is the fact that in a number of synagogues from the Byzantine period that have been unearthed across the Galilee, the mosaics on the floors, most often in the central panels, display a zodiac with the twelve months, depicted in a circle enclosed in a square frame. At each corner of the square is a personification of the season of the year in that quadrant—except for the one mosaic, where the floor guy got the order of the seasons confused and laid them in the wrong corners. I suppose a zodiac is conceivably within the pale, except it has a whiff of paganism about it. But what is truly astonishing about these mosaics is that in the center of the circle in each of these synagogues, there is Zeus – Helios , riding his quadriga (a chariot drawn by four horses) across the floor – bound sky!

To say the least, the god Zeus is unexpected on a synagogue floor, and there is no scholarly consensus whatsoever as to what this possibly can mean about Judaism in Roman Palestine. The quadriga is, however, a fairly popular and perhaps even universal symbol of strength. Above is the famous quadriga atop Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.

But really, Zeus – Helios riding across the floor of Holy Land synagogues? We’ll discuss this more later. But if we add to this artistic record the Samaritan’s Temple on Mt. Gerizim (near modern Nablus), we must conclude that the overwhelming physical evidence of Judaism, even in Roman and Byzantine Palestine, is decidedly not the Judaism of the Talmudic rabbis.

p. 188

The surprise is in the central panel. Here is a zodiac, complete with Greek mythical figures—including an uncircumcised boy representing the month of Tishrei (Libra). Smack in the middle of the zodiac circle is the divine figure of Zeus – Helios , riding his four – horsed quadriga. Depictions of Helios can also be found in synagogue remains at Na’aran (in the South), at Bet Alpha (also in the Galilee), and at Sepphoris.

pp. 198-205

Given the art we have uncovered in the synagogue there, I must conclude that the Jews of Sepphoris also were comfortable living among their pagan neighbors. […]

Of course, Jewish tradition tells of another great musician and harp player, King David. So we shouldn’t be entirely surprised to see him on the mosaic floor of the early sixth – century CE synagogue on the coast at Gaza, looking remarkably like Orpheus. Just in case you might think it actually is Orpheus, the mosaic has a caption to the right of the Jewish king’s head identifying him in Hebrew as “David.” But he is clearly modeled on Orpheus—his harp is charming a snake, a lioness, and even a giraffe (or maybe a long – necked gazelle).

This brief detour to see King David in Gaza has brought us back from pagan gods and heroes once more to Jewish characters in synagogues. Let’s return to Sepphoris now to take a closer look at the art in the synagogue excavated there. The synagogue dates from the fourth century, and its art is typical: menorahs, palm, and citron (the biblically commanded lulav and etrog, used for the holiday of Sukkot), lions, a shofar, and other biblical horns.

As we walk to the front of the main sanctuary, bordered on either side by the Jewish symbols just mentioned, there is a mosaic panel of the Temple—or maybe it’s a Torah ark? In any case, the doors of that building are topped with a shell shape and bracketed by pillars. This ubiquitous depiction of doors is found in many Roman – era synagogues. But it also is found on a sarcophagus in the Naples Museum, there identified as a Christian resting place. And similar sets of doors can be found outside of religious contexts, at least Jewish or Christian ones.

We already have seen “the doorway” in funerary and synagogue contexts, but it is also found on a wall in Herculaneum, the pagan town that was covered along with Pompeii by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE. The doorway is flanked by columns on both sides, with the oft – seen shell above the portal. Within the doorway is neither a Torah nor a Temple priest, but two figures: male and female. Most art historians identify them as Poseidon and his wife, Amphitrite. The shell is appropriate for the King of the Sea.

But what can this tell me about the depiction of the shell and the doorway in synagogue art? That type of doorway may be a Torah ark or shrine, since the one depicted in Rome’s Jewish catacomb at Villa Torlonia shows scrolls inside the open doors. It may symbolize God’s house, as it seems to be a portal for the gods in the picture above. But the doorway also may be symbolic of the monumental gates of the Jerusalem Temple. In Jewish Roman art it may even represent the synagogue itself. There are too many options to decide with any assurance what the door is supposed to represent. I would like to think that the one thing the doorway should not represent in synagogue art, however, is a portal for pagan gods. […]

The quadriga and my mention of the Bible brings me right back to the synagogue at Sepphoris and a confusing, complex image there. The central panel of the synagogue floor’s mosaic “carpet” depicts the zodiac, with Zeus – Helios riding his quadriga across the sky as the central focus. The prevalence of the zodiac in synagogue art may indicate an area of divergence between the rabbis of Talmudic circles and the Jews in the synagogue communities of Roman Palestine. The rabbis expressed their stern disapproval of the image, while the Jews in the synagogue seemed to enjoy the motif.

In fact, the zodiac occupies a significant place in the broader Jewish worldview. Each Jewish month is measured by the phases of the moon, visible over its monthly cycle. Given that this is a phenomenon observable in nature, it is not surprising that the months of the Jewish calendar correspond with other cultures’ lunar calendars. Indeed, the rabbis’ calendar borrows the names of its months from Babylonia; and these months are congruent with the signs of the celestial zodiac. However, the rabbis do not believe that astrology rules Jewish fate—the Talmud explicitly rejects this notion when it more than once pronounces: “The astrological signs [Hebrew: mazal ] are not for the Jews.”

Yet in Palestinian synagogue zodiac mosaics, the months are depicted by astrological signs. The roundel of synagogue zodiac wheels, even when they are captioned in Hebrew, depicts those signs. […]

Throughout the ancient world, the sun was the preeminent symbol of daily constancy. The diurnal round of the sun with its warmth and healing power was seen as a benefaction from the gods or from God. In polytheistic pagan cultures, the sun was often seen as a god, Sol Invictus, the invincible sun, also known as Zeus – Helios . Yet anyone who has read the Ten Commandments knows only too well that this is a disturbing, even forbidden, notion. Exodus 20: 3–5 commands:

You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make any statue nor any depiction of what is in the heaven above, nor on the earth below, nor in the waters below on the earth. You shall not bow down to them nor worship them, for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God . . .

When Rabbi Gamaliel made his comment about Aphrodite in the bathhouse, which I recounted to you earlier, he offered Jewish legal parameters for representation of living forms in subsequent Jewish art. We do not represent gods to be worshipped but can represent figures, even human, for aesthetic reasons. Beauty is not forbidden; it is rather encouraged, especially as an offering to God. This is how Gamaliel was able to bathe before that statue of Aphrodite. Even so, the center of the zodiac at the Sepphoris synagogue remains challenging, as it depicts the sun god Helios, riding his heavenly quadriga across the daytime sky. […]

Clearly, the community of the synagogue in Sepphoris was not too worried about the Second Commandment’s prohibition against heavenly bodies, even if Helios was depicted only symbolically. This representation might reflect a tradition in the Babylonian Talmud, where Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hannaniah likened the difficulty of looking directly at the sun to the difficulty of beholding God. So perhaps the orb of the sun in the Sepphoris synagogue mosaic is meant only to represent, but not to picture, God.

In truth, this mosaic is hardly unique. The synagogues in Huseifa and Hammat Tiberias also have zodiacs on their floors. At Hammat, Helios/Sol is not merely an orb, but incarnate. […]

Hammat Tiberias and even Sepphoris/Diocaesarea were Roman imperial cities. So it is possible that the Jews there were more assimilated and so were more comfortable with these pagan symbols. Perhaps the urban communities were just that much more cosmopolitan and laissez – faire about their Jewish practice. But in fact there are also zodiacs in the small town synagogues of Na’aran, near Jericho, and at Beit Alpha, in the Galilee. These are not big urban centers, and while the primitive art of Beit Alpha shows a lack of sophistication, it enthusiastically embraces the Zeus – Helios image. […]

To further complicate our understanding of the images found on these synagogue floors, Helios is invoked in a Jewish prayer, recovered in a quasi – magical liturgical text from the fourth century CE among the manuscripts of the Cairo Geniza, the ancient used – book depository. The prayer is in a manuscript called Sefer HaRazim, the Book of Mysteries. We quoted this prayer above, while discussing Gamaliel’s bath with Aphrodite. Here is the line of Greek, transliterated into Hebrew, which names Helios:

I revere you HELIOS, who rises in the east, the good sailor who keeps faith, the heavenly leader who turns the great celestial wheel, who orders the holiness (of the planets), who rules over the poles, Lord, radiant ruler, who fixes the stars.

The Helios prayer gives us a peek at Greco – Roman Jewish folk religion in Roman Palestine during this period. Perhaps it also sheds light on the Zeus – Helios images on the synagogue floors. Helios, or Sol Invictus, as he was known in Latin, apparently was a revered god, at least by some. He was a pagan god who might have been identified with the One and Only God in the minds of the Jews who beheld him riding across their community’s synagogue floor.

The Helios phenomenon is even more complicated than the Jewish evidence alone allows. The last pagan emperor, Julian, who reigned from 361 to 363, wrote about Helios,

What I am now about to say I consider to be of the greatest importance for all things “That breathe and move upon the earth” and have a share in existence and a reasoning soul and intelligence, but above all others it is of importance to myself. For I am a follower of King Helios . . . the King of the whole universe, who is the center of all things that exist. He, therefore, whether it is right to call him the Supra – Intelligible , or the Idea of Being, and by Being I mean the whole intelligible region, or the One. . . .

In Julian’s “Hymn to King Helios,” we see a pagan praise his god as the One. Julian defines attributes of Helios not unlike those that the rabbis attribute to their one God. To the extent that the Jews who placed the image of Zeus/Helios on the floors of their synagogues knew or agreed with Julian’s theology, the image may have been a convenient pictorial stand – in for God. Some synagogue mosaics depicting biblical stories also show the hand of God reaching down from Heaven. So Helios simply might represent the Jews’ God in these synagogue mosaics.

An Inconsistency on the Political Left

Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky had some strong disagreements a while back, about religion in its relation to extremism and terrorism. It was a dialogue that didn’t really go anywhere. Their ideological worldviews were too different. But it occurred to me what exactly is odd about the conflict.

Harris believes there is something inherent to certain religions and to the religious mindset in general. Chomsky takes the opposite tack by emphasizing conditions and context. Islamic terrorists are the result of a half century of geopolitical machinations that involved Western governments eliminating secularism and promoting theocracy.

It’s a difference of whether one emphasizes civilizational war or common humanity. The divergence of these worldviews extends back to the Enlightenment and even further back to the Axial Age.

That isn’t exactly what I want to discuss, though. It came to my mind that these two thinkers switch positions when it comes to the human mind. Harris denies that there is an inherent self, whereas Chomsky has long argued that there are inherent modules within the mind.

Both seem inconsistent, but as mirror images of each other. Some have noted that Chomsky’s linguistic theory doesn’t fit his political ideology. There is a drastic mismatch. Chomsky dismisses this as two separate areas, as though the human mind and human society had nothing to do with each other. That is odd. Harris, as far as I know, has never even attempted to explain away his inner conflict.

Most on the political right would argue that nearly everything is inherent: human nature, language, culture, religion, genetics, biology, gender, etc. It is assumed that there is a fundamental, unchanging essence to things that determines their expression. I disagree with this viewpoint, but at least it is consistent. There are other areas of inconsistency on the political right, some real whoppers such as with economics. Yet for this set of issues, the greater inconsistency appears to be on the political left.