Ancient Social Identity: The Case of Jews

How, then, did you know a Jew in antiquity when you saw one? The answer is that you did not.

I started reading two fascinating books. Both are about Judaism. The first one I was looking at is The Beginning of Jewishness by Shaye J. D. Cohen (the source of the quote above, Kindle Location 796). And the other is The Invention of God by Thomas Römer.

Having read a little bit of each, I realized that they offered a useful angle in thinking about claims of ancient proto-racism. In my recent post on the topic, I did briefly use it an example:

“the early Jews probably were darker-skinned before outbreeding with Europeans and Arabs (Palestinians are descendants of the original Jews that never left). Or consider how those early Jews perceived the Samaritans as a separate people, even though they shared the same holy texts.”

That post was more wide-ranging. My thoughts were fairly general, as the point I was making was general. Sometimes, though, such issues become more interesting as you focus in on the details of a specific example.

In perusing the two books mentioned above, I was reminded me once again of how little I know and hence how much there is to learn. Certain books are able to change how you see something. The second book, The Invention of God, is more familiar territory, although still fascinating. Relevant to my thoughts here, I noticed the following (p. 13):

“Its origins do not lie, as the book of Joshua claims, in the military conquest of a territory by a population invading from somewhere else; rather “Israel” resulted from a slow process that took place gradually within the framework of the global upheavals of the Late Bronze Age— that is, it had its origin in indigenous populations. The opposition we find in the Bible between “Israelites” and “Canaanites” was in no way based on an existing ethnic difference, but is a much later theoretical construction in the service of a segregationist ideology.”

We modern people read ancient texts or, more likely, historical interpretations of ancient texts. In doing so, we come across labels like Israelites, Canaanites, etc. Our frame of reference include modern politics and conflicts along with media portrayals in movies and on television.

Also, there is the issue of how words changed over time. Looking at ancient texts, most people read a translation. But even reading the original language requires care, as there is a vast scholarship analyzing the context of texts and how, intentionally or unintentionally, they were altered over time. (See: David M. Goldberg, Reading Rabbinic Literature; and Michael L. Satlow, Jew or Judaean?)

I just found it fascinating. It turns out, like most people, I had no idea how social identities were formed and perceived in the ancient world. Cohen’s book makes this particularly clear.

There was no certain way to know someone was a Jew, as most ancient people living in the same area tended to look, dress, act, and speak more or less alike. Even circumcision in the Eastern Roman Empire was practiced by other groups besides Jews, and besides no one used circumcision to prove their social identity. Besides, many people who might have been perceived as Jewish because of following certain customs didn’t always perceive themselves as Jews and among those who did identify as Jews there was diverse lifestyles. The rants of the priestly class about what defined a real Jew were more prescriptive than descriptive, which is to say driven by ideology and politics rather than how people actually lived their lives.

It’s not as if there was an official record kept of all Jews. It was originally a rather informal social identity, besides a few basic rules that were more or less agreed upon.

Anyone could become a Jew, as conversion was simple. All you needed to do was be circumcised by a Jew and you were a Jew. No rabbi or ritual was necessary. Conversion was quite common at different points, as their were many incentives. Rulers were known to give special privileges to various groups, depending on the needs of rulership, and that sometimes included Jews having dispensation from certain laws and taxes. There was so much conversion going on that even anyone who claimed to be a Jew was treated as such.

Even the simple act of denying idolatry or abstaining from eating pork because of vegetarianism often got ancient people labeled as Jews, no matter what the individual claimed. If someone did anything like a Jew, however vague, for all intents and purposes they might as well have been a Jew.

There was much permeability of social identities, not just in perception but also in practice—as Cohen notes (Kindle Locations 739-740): “There is abundant evidence that in the first centuries of our era some-perhaps many-gentiles, whether polytheist or Christian, attended Jewish synagogues, abstained from work on the Sabbath, and perhaps observed other Jewish rituals as well.” It went the other way around as well. Some—perhaps many—Jews attended gentile religious services (e.g., mystery schools), participated in gentile holy days, and observed other gentile rituals as well.

“In sum: people associating with Jews were not necessarily Jews themselves. selves. Even people assembled in a synagogue or present in a Jewish neighborhood were not necessarily Jews themselves. In the Roman diaspora social mingling between Jews and gentiles was such that, without out inquiring or checking, you could not be sure who was a Jew and who was not” (Kindle Locations 697-699).

What distinguished and identified people wasn’t religion, ethnicity, or race. It was mostly about location and politics. A Judean wasn’t necessarily a Jew. Rather, a Judean was someone who lived in Judah and fell under Judean law and governance. It was a particular population and nothing more. The idea of a religious identity disconnected from all else would take many more centuries to fully form, under the influence of grand totalizing and imperialistic religions like Roman Catholicism. It was upon that basis that later notions of race would develop.

Even with the early disapora, an absolutely distinct ethno-religious identity hadn’t yet formed. “In the Roman diaspora, certainly after 70 C.E.,” as Cohen explains (Kindle Locations 609-610), “there is no evidence for obsession with genealogical purity and hardly any evidence for public archives and archival records.” Our modern obsessions were irrelevant to ancient people. They didn’t so easily and quickly turn to broad abstract categories. And the categories that did exist, context-dependent as they were, had a mercurial quality to them.


Source of Bible Covenant with God discovered?

Source of Bible Covenant with God discovered?
By D.M. Murdock

god calling abraham to his covenant image

Archaeologists working in Turkey have unearthed an Assyrian tablet dating to around 670 BCE that “could have served as a model for the biblical description of God’s covenant with the Israelites.” […] 

Ancient treaty resembles part of the Bible

Canadian archeologists in Turkey have unearthed an ancient treaty that could have served as a model for the biblical description of God’s covenant with the Israelites.

The tablet, dating to about 670 BC, is a treaty between the powerful Assyrian king and his weaker vassal states, written in a highly formulaic language very similar in form and style to the story of Abraham’s covenant with God in the Hebrew Bible, says University of Toronto archeologist Timothy Harrison.

Although biblical scholarship differs, it is widely accepted that the Hebrew Bible was being assembled around the same time as this treaty, the seventh century BC.

“Those documents…seem to reflect very closely the formulaic structure of these treaty documents,” he told about 50 guests at the Ottawa residence of the Turkish ambassador, Rafet Akgunay.

He was not necessarily saying the Hebrews copied the Assyrian text, substituting their own story about how God liberated them from slavery in Egypt on the condition that they worship only Him and follow His commandments.

But it will be interesting for scholars to have this parallel document.

“The language in the [Assyrian] texts is [very similar] and now we have a treaty document just a few miles up the road from Jerusalem.”…

[…] Although the article states that the archaeologist Timothy Harrison “was not necessarily saying the Hebrews copied the Assyrian text, substituting their own story about how God liberated them from slavery in Egypt,” it is nonetheless raising that very issue in a manner which breaks with the centuries-old tradition of bending all finds in the “Holy Land” and other places of biblical interest to fit the Bible, in attempts to prove the “Good Book” as “history.” It is obvious that this sort of bibliolatry appeasement from the more scientific segment of society is losing ground precisely because of such discoveries – and the implication of this one is a doozy.

God on Trial

Here is a concluding speech from the BBC movie “God on Trial” where a Rabbi finally speaks only to explain why God isn’t good.

It appears that the whole movie is available on Youtube and I highly recommend it.  “God on Trial” is probably the best movie I’ve seen about the Nazi concentration camps.  I think the reason is because the subject is suffering and doubt which are universal to all humans.  The script writer, Frank Cottrell Boyce, wrote about this in The Guardian article Losing my Religion.

Although the subject of the guilt of God is universal, when it came to writing I confined myself to imagining this particular trial: the problems of setting up a court in a blockhouse, the kind of arguments that those men might have advanced. I focused on the Covenant, God’s special deal with the Jewish people. I thought I was doing this to keep faith with the story – but maybe I was also doing it to distance it from my own spiritual life. The magic of stories, though, is that the more specific you are, the more universal they seem to get. The Covenant turned out to be a really good way of talking about anyone who expects anything from God.

The script writer is a Christian and if you pay close attention you can notice some subtle apologetics.  This would’ve been a different speech if written by a Jew.  Even so, it’s very powerful and I think it applies to Christianity as much as to Judaism.  The script writer says that the research he did challenged his faith, but it became stronger in the end and he remains a Catholic.  I feel that he didn’t take his own speech seriously enough.  Here is what he wrote:

After they find God guilty, one of the rabbis says: “So what do we do now?” The reply is: “Let us pray.” Is this a wry story about Jewish stoicism? Is it about a failure of moral courage? Or what? For me, it’s about faith. Faith has had a bad press of late. It’s been used by politicians as a rationale for going to war without reason, because it “feels right”. That is not faith – that’s a hunch, plus vanity.

I’d argue that almost all organized religion is “a hunch, plus vanity.”  If faith is genuine, religion is superfluous.  Religion is fine as a social institution for comfort and reassurance, for companionship and sense of belonging, for reinforcement of cultural mores and social order… but those are only at best indirectly related to faith.  What I mean is that faith isn’t dependent on those factors, and organized religion is portentially a danger to faith.

Here is where the apologetics comes in.  The script writer talks about a Monotheistic God as being a good idea that the Jews came up with, but then the Christians came up with an even better idea.  Implicit in this argument is the fact that some group will always come along with another better idea that helps organize people in an even more effective manner.  But the goodness of such ideas doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with moral goodness.

Monotheism is good because it justifies the oppression of a large group of people by a centralized government.  As the Rabbi points out, this leads to atrocious results.  Power isn’t the same thing as goodness.  According to Jewish history, God made a covenant with the Jews and the Jews committed genocide against the people God deemed unworthy.  But if genocide is then being committed against the Jews, what became of the covenant?  By the logic of Jewish scripture, God has broken his covenant with the Jews and decided to side with the Nazis.

This is an ancient idea that claims that God sides with the victorious or that the side that won did so because they sided with the correct God (righteous morality and ruthless power being identified with eachother).  As a theological explanation, it’s a blatant form of self-righteous power-mongering.  As a moral justification, it’s just plain sad and pathetic.  It represents a deeply cynical view of life.  It’s basically a religious form of social darwinism.  Even so, it’s the very starting point of the entire Judeo-Christian tradition and represents the Judeo-Christian God’s most primal nature.  Many Jews and Christians today still believe in this tyrranical God.

As such, the supposedly better idea that the Christians had was at best only marginally better.  But, in actuality, it wasn’t all that different.  Anyone who wants to follow the rules, can become either a Jew or a Christian as neither are closed religions.  That is what a covenant means (replace the word covenant with whatever cultural term is appropriate such as “being saved” or whatever).  And God only likes those who follows his rules, but which are his rules?  Does it matter?  Any covenant is as bad as the next.  Covenants aren’t about belonging but about excluding.

It all comes down to my God is bigger than your god.  My God can kick your god’s ass.  Bow down to the meanest, toughest divine tyrant or else!  I’d love to have front row seats to watch these deities fight it out, but it doesn’t matter which one wins.  They’re all bullies who aren’t worthy of worship.  If your God doesn’t threaten you with punishment and torture, there is absolutely no reason to create an organized religion.  Without fear, all of the world would be a church and every church would be a blasphemy.  But if you want to worship a god of fear, then at least be honest about it.

Let me conclude with a response to the screen writers own conclusion of faith, of a faith that transcends reason.  I can accept that, but as I see it anyone who belongs to an organized religion doesn’t fully accept such a faith.  All organized religions are based on the claim that a specific group has God figured out.  They have the answer.  They hold the key to heaven.  I say bullshit.  They can’t have it both ways.  If they have God figured out, then they have to accept that God is a cruel tyrant.  If they wish to have faith in a God who is inscrutible to the human mind, then they can’t claim to have God figured out and they certainly can’t claim to have the market cornered.  Organized religion is a fraud.

So, if you want to follow the example of Jesus Christ, then do so.  But please realize that the main example Jesus set was that he came to challenge organized religion.  Jesus preached outside of all organized religions and he preached about kingdom being in heaven, not on earth.  For this reason, of all organized religions, Christianity is the most fraudulent of them all.

Response to Bedard’s Hellenistic Influence and the Resurrection

 Stephen J. Bedard posted a blog where he linked to an article of his that was published in Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism.



I must say I was very impressed with that article.  It is exactly the kind of scholarship that interests me.  You did a good job of conveying the complexity of the Graeco-Roman world.  You showed the subtle connections that are missed by thinking of religions as being entirley isolated from eachother.

I haven’t read as much about Judaism, and so I was glad to see you go into some detail about the Jewish beliefs about the afterlife.  I knew Judaism had contact with Hellenism, but I’m not very familiar with the specifics beyond having read about Philo.

I noticed you mentioned Set and Osiris.  Murdock writes about some theories of Set.  Based on several quotes from scholars, she proposes that Set was originally the Samaritan god Seth, and that Seth entered Egyptian religion when the Samaritans conquered Egypt.  The scholars she refers to are: James Bonwick, Dr. Samuel Sharpe, Dr. Louis Herbert Gray and Rev. Dr. Sayce

She also points out that Set originally wasn’t considered evil, but only later became the opponent of Osiris by playing a negative role in his death and resurrection story.  Interestingly, Osiris and Set were considered brothers and were even combined as the dual god, Horus-Set.

Murdock doesn’t write about this, but I see a potential connection with the Coptic Gospel of Thomas attributed to Didymos Judas Thomas.  I was reading elsewhere that, in later tradition, Judas “the twin” was considered the twin of Jesus.  This isn’t to say that Set was a direct borrowing superimposed upon Judas.  But, in the way you demonstrate in your article, Set may have been an influence on certain traditions about understanding Judas’ role.

The following quote from your article reminded me of something else that Murdock writes about.

“For a long time, the Egyptian idea of resurrection would have held little attraction for the Hebrews as it originally was a privilege only for the Pharaoh, and later for the very wealthy who could afford the elaborate burial procedures. However, the Middle Kingdom brought great theological advancements…”

Prior to the New Kingdom, love (mri) was bestowed upon a subordinate by a superior which also included by a god bestowing love to a follower, but this was strictly hierarchical except in certain situations such as a leader being beloved by his people.  With the New Kingdom, love became a more common ideal where the follower could offer love to a god.  There was an equality in that the person could, through love, join with their god.  It was at this time that the epithet meri became extremely popular and was applied widely, in particular with Isis. 

This is where Murdock points out that there is good evidence for an etymological connection not only between meri and Christian Mary but also meri and Jewish Miriam.  She references a couple of sources that hypothesize that Miriam may have been an Egyptian name (the Catholic Encyclopedia and an editor’s note in Faiths of Man by Major-General James G.R. Forlong).  She also references Rev. Dr. William Robertson Smith as connecting Miriam with Meri, and references Rev. Henry Tomkins as connecting Mary and Meri.  Furthermore, she references both Dr. James Karl Hoffmeier and Alan H. Gardiner as connecting both Mary and Miriam with Meri.

The Non-Unique Messiah: It Doesn’t Matter.

I came across an intelligent blog about the Jewish tablet that describes another supposed messiah prior to Christianity.  What is interesting is that this messiah was resurrected after 3 days.  But this isn’t anything new.  This 3 day motif related to a savior is found withn pre-Christian Paganism.  It’s an astrotheological motif about the solar cycle.  Similar 3 day motifs can be found within Jewish scripture as well, but what is significant is that it is directly related to the messiah in this tablet.  If orthodox Christianity was actually based on the evidence of historical documents, there would be a mass loss of faith at hearing such news.

Below is an excerpt from the blog and below that are some excerpts from the comments.

The Non-Unique Messiah: Does It Matter?

Frankly, if you’ve been paying attention or looked into history at all, this shouldn’t be that surprising.  That a story about rebirth and resurrection should crop up while the Roman Republic was reinventing itself, and while its newly appointed Princeps Augustus was touting his reign as rebirth on a national scale, is no coincidence.  During the first half of what we now call the first century C.E., rebirth was a common religious theme: mystery cults built around rebirth, like the cult of Isis and Osiris, were cropping up everywhere.  New religions always mirror and appropriate temporal events to the divine (look at Mormonism).  Christianity is no different, and it’s not immune from history.  That the non-uniqueness of the Christian story should be so strikingly and starkly presented by this tablet may be shocking, but that human events beget religious beliefs is an anthropological Law.

What I wonder is whether that should be troubling.  No doubt many believing Christians will feel threatened by the discovery that their religion has roots older than the name “Jesus,” and no doubt it proves that religion is always affected (and at least partially inspired) by humans.  It may even suggest that it therefore might be fabricated.  But if you really believe in the truth of the underlying story – i.e., if you’re truly spiritual and not just religious – that shouldn’t matter.

9 Gotchaye // Jul 8, 2008 at 10:03 pm

…it seems to me that a witness who maintains that someone performed a miracle is a whole lot more persuasive by himself than he would be if we’d already heard (and discounted the testimony of) other witnesses making similar claims about other people.

12 Gotchaye // Jul 10, 2008 at 6:08 pm

…as the number or likelihood of possible explanations for something increase, the likelihood of any other explanation being correct decreases. This tablet is at least suggestive of other explanations for our observation that modern Christianity (or something indistinguishable from it beforehand) exists, and so other explanations (including that Jesus actually rose) must be seen as less likely.

Origins of Christian Values

I’ve been writing a fair amount about the mythological parallels between Christianity and previous religions, but I haven’t written much about how this relates to values.  Christians could argue that the mythological similarities are just superficial details.  It is true that details are just details and in some ways Christians did put those details together in a new way.  Then again, so has every other religion.  Despite literalist Christians insistence on worshipping a particular narrative, a story is still just a story.  What actually matters is the values out of which the story formed.

There are several traditions that influenced Christian moral and theological beliefs.  I went into great detail about Augustine who was influenced by Gnosticism, NeoPlatonism, and Stoicism among other traditions. 

Many Gnostics had an ascetic attitude towards the material world and the body.  The Christian mistrust of sexuality is based in this.  Also, this is part of the Hellenistic atmosphere in general.  Egyptian and Greek philosophy had elements of dualism.  NeoPlatonism gave Christianity its love for higher truth and reality where God is absolute, but also NeoPlatonism offered the hope of an intuitive knowing, a faith that God would reveal himself.  Stoicism in particular lent an ascetic bent to Christianity with its ethics of Natural Law (which is particularly important as modern Democracy is built upon it).  Zoroastrianism created the extreme dualism of dark and light, good and evil; and this emphasized God as being in polar opposition to evil.  This was conceived as a battle for souls where God was fated to win. 

This metaphor of light and dark was part of the solar theology that had become popular prior to the common era.  Egypt had a major hand in popularizing solar theology which portrayed God as being omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent.  God according to solar theology was both far away and yet close like the sun and sunlight.  God was present to his believers and responsive to their prayers.  God was in the world as light shines in the dark and yet above the world unsullied by the material realm.  Egyptian religion also made the distinction between God who created the sun and the sun itself as the solar disk.  God was the spiritual light that could be experienced within. 

Along with Judaism, all of these traditions had concepts of monotheism or monism.  Egyptian religion is the earliest known example of monotheism.

Another element is savior theology which was very popular in all cultures at the time.  These saviors were conqurerors of evil.  They were teachers, healers and miracle workers.  They offered themselves as examples to live by and they acted as guides, as mediators, as shephards.  As godmen, they stood between earth and heaven.  They were personally accessible to prayers and they acted as guardians.  Saviors are resurrection deities that provide the pathway of rebirth for their followers.  As tradition says of Jesus, some of these saviors even go down into the underworld before ascending.

Related to saviors, were their virgin mothers.  Godmen tended to have strange conceptions and births.  The concept of their mothers being virgins doesn’t make sense rationally or scientifically, but it symbolizes deep archetypal truths.  These virgin mothers are fertility deities (even when made into historical figures).  As such, they are virgins because their fertility is eternal and infinite, their purity and goodness is inviolable.  They are the source out of which all life emerges.  The birth of the savior is the birth of us all.  The savior is similar to the first man, and this is why Jesus is called the Second Adam.  Death had been brought into the world at an earlier time, and the savior comes to defeat death.  Without the Goddess, the God couldn’t manifest in order to accomplish this.  The Goddess gives form.  The Virgin Mary gave Jesus his body, and when Jesus was placed into the womb of the cave his spiritual body was given form.

The name Mary has its most likely etymological origin in the Egyptian epithet of meri which means ‘beloved’.  This epithet could apply to any god or goddess, but Isis became increasingly popular.  By Roman times, shrines and temples of her were found widely to the very borders of the Empire and beyond.  The image of Isis nursing Horus is also the most likely prototype of the image of Mary nursing Jesus.  To this day, some of the Black Madonnas worshipped in Europe were originally Isis statues.  The importance of this meri epithet is that it represented an ideal of love.  In earlier Egyptian culture, love was something given by a superior to a subordinate.  This was the relationship of the worshipper to an Emperor or to a god.  Sometime around the New Kingdom (16th to 11th century BCE), the understanding of love changed.  Love became an ideal of equality.  A god didn’t just offer love but also received love.  The believer could join their god in a relationship of love.

This seems related to the Axial Age (800 to 200 BCE). Some common traits of the Axial Age religious traditions: a quest for human meaning, reverence for the human worth of individuals, establishment of a compassionate moral code, idealization of an absolute and eternal reality beyond the mind and senses, development of a spiritual elite and travelling scholars, questioning gender roles in particular in terms of Patriarchy, and a challenging of authority.  The latter is interesting because of the ideal within Christianity of martyrdom, but Christianity was a later emergence of Axial Age principles.  Christianity inherited its martyrdom tradition from the Stoics who challenged authority in the hopes of being persecuted.  Also, in challenging authority, Axial Age prophets challenged the rulling religious dogma which included the gods and the conceptions of the gods.  This led to a popularization of monotheism and monism, but it also led to the first signs of atheist philosophy.  Also, allegorical thinking was developed.  Stories and personifications were symbols of a higher truth, but were deceiving and even idolatrous if taken literally.

As you can see, Christian moral ideals and understandings didn’t arise within a vacuum.  Just like every mythological motif, the cherished values of Christianity preceeded Christianity.

Graeco-Roman Tradition

I was writing about Greek thought in my previous post, but in this one I want to delineate some lines of development.

Greek thought had a crises when the Greek city-states lost power.  The Greek philosophers had a strong civic sense.  Debates happened in public and this was the pride of the culture.  A philosopher had great respect and great influence.  Philosophy and politics went hand in hand.  Also, it was a democratic society where everyone participated.  There were no standing armies.  When there was a war, every able-bodied person fought.  The city-state was upheld by philosopher and common person alike.

This all changed during the Alexandrian Age which was a period of empire-building.  The average person wasn’t as connected to the workings of politics and philosophy was something for the elite.   The philosophers practiced now in schools.  Furthermore, Greek thought itself became less directly involved in politics and the sharp focus of the Greek mind became divided by a vast multi-culturalism.  And yet this was a time of immense innovation.  There was less certainty as society had become more complex.  To balance out the probing of the Greek mind was the centralizing power of Egyptian religion.  The Egyptians were great synthesizers and this helped guide Greek thought into the wider world (and some have theorized that this was the main mythology at the heart of the early Gnostic-Christian movement).  Out of this mix (or maybe clash would be more appropriate) came Hellenism. 

I should add that Eastern thought was also an influence during this historical period.  I know that Hindus and Buddhists were known as these religions had travelled widely during those tulultuous times.  Easterners were also great philosophers and synthesizers, but they weren’t the dominant voice of the culture and so their influence has mostly been forgotten (although some, including early Christians, have speculated that the Therapeutae were the earliest Christians and some have further speculated the Therapeutae might’ve been Buddhist or Buddhist-influenced).

A similarity between Egyptian and Eastern mythology was the heavy use of astrology and astro-theology.  Actually, these were heavily used in many of the cultures at that time.  For example, Judaism apparently was largely built upon astrological mythologies.  Astro-theology was one of the biggest forces of synthesis across cultures because it was a common language that transcended regional differences.  The other major synthesizing system was Neo-Platonism which is better remembered today.  Christians were influenced by both astro-theology (Christ was often referred to as Sol) and Neo-Platonism (Christ was also often referred to as Logos), but the former wasn’t spoken about as openly… although a number of early church fathers wrote about Christianity’s similarity to (and in some cases origins in) sun worship, often all the while denouncing it as the product of Satan.

The reason these synthesizing systems were needed is because Greek tradition had splintered.  Intellect had become separated from emotion, science from religion, individuality from imperialism. 

The Greek tradition promoted rationality and this became a force unto itself.  There were two main strains of rational philosophy within Hellenism: Epicureanism and Stoicism.  Stoics promoted a strong moral sense rooted in Natural Law and denounced the passions.  In the Roman era, the Stoics would influence Christianity and many Stoics converted to Christianity.  Some of the supposed sayings of Jesus are actually traditional Stoic sayings.  The Stoics and Christians were so similar that the earliest observers couldn’t tell them apart.  Based on this, some have assumed that Christianity was simply a Judaized form of Stoicism.  This is entirely possible as many Jews had Hellenistic educations, Philo being the most famous example and Philo being the one who wrote about the Therapeutae.  By the way, Philo helped to popularize Jewish thought through his fame.  His style was so similar to Plato that there was a saying about whether Philo Platonizes or Plato Philonizes.  Philo’s allegorizing of Jewish scripture set the stage for Christianity.

In contrast to the extreme rationalism of Greek philosophy, most people still had a need for religious experience and social ritual.  The Mystery religions filled this need (including the needs of many dispersed Jews who partook of the Mysteries).  These Mystery religions were a mix of cultures.  They heavily used astrological symbolism, but also Neo-Platonism.  Some of the Mystery religions took on more philosophical forms.  Two of these, Hermeticism and Orphism, were major influences on Gnosticism-Christianity.   Orphism is particularly interesting because, along with Orphic mythology (wine, twice-born, etc.), the images  of Dionysus/Bacchus were borrowed by Christians.   There is even a Roman coin with Dionysus/Bacchus on one side and Yaheweh on the other.  Anyways, the solar mythology of the savior figure comes out of the Mystery religions.  Scholars have written thousands of pages about the similarities between Jesus and the other solar deities (e.g., Buddha, Krishna, Osiris).

The Alexandrian Age was a part of the larger Axial Age.  All of the religions of the ancient world were experience transformations.  This was also the time of the Jewish Reformation which was when they were finalizing their scriptrues and also being influenced by Hellenism.  The great world religions mostly formed during this time.  The religions of the Roman period such as Christianity are considered a later blooming of the Axial Age.  The Axial Age includes the entire thousand year reign of Graeco-Roman culture, after which the early Middle Ages (formerly known as the Dark Ages) began.

The Romans took this whole mess and confusion and brought some formalized order to it.  The profusion of philosophies and religions caused the Greek thought to lose some of its potency.  The Romans weren’t as innovative, but they did continue the tradition of diversity.  The legalistic mind of the Roman Empire brought a slight dogmatic element.  Traditions became formalized and any new tradition would have root itself in an older tradition.  Christians were influenced by many traditions, but they had to choose one that would give them legitimacy.  The Jewish prophecy of Messiah served as a useful foundation, and Judaism was further useful as Philo had made it respectable.  Unfortunately, the Roman tendency to formalize that helped to save Hellenism included a tendency towards dogmatism.  As the Empire declined in later centuries, Catholicism came to fully embody this dogmatism and the Catholics nearly destroyed what the Romans had tried to save.

After this, the Graeco-Roman tradition continued to survive in the East which included Islam.  Enough of this tradition survived in the West that Graeco-Roman writings were welcomed when they were re-introduced almost a thousand years later.  The humanism that came before Christianity was revived and Christians started to remember their own moral origins.

Gnosticism Defined… sort of

I’ve been reading about Gnosticism quite a bit lately, and a major issue is definition.  How you define Gnosticism determines which Gnostic sects you include and which Gnostic sects you include determines how you define Gnosticism.  It can be rather circular.  The confusion is partly because the heresiologists who used the term didn’t seem to really know what they meant by it other than lumping all heretical early Christianities together.  Defined by the heresiologists, Christianity came first and the Gnostics were just minor splinter groups.  However, the evidence doesn’t really support this view.  You can define Gnostics narrowly enough so that the term becomes limited to a set of groups starting in the second century, but that is just a definition of convvenience.

It all starts seeming rather silly.  Gnostics often have been categorized as dualistic with hatred of earthly existence.  But some Gnostics seemed less dualistic than the Catholics and I don’t sense that all Gnostics hated earthly existence, not any more than Christianity in general.  The Gnostics believed there was something wrong with the world, but pretty much every religion believes this in one way or another.

As I see it at the moment, there are two major defining elements and two more minor elements. 

The first major element is that the Gnostics were syncretistic, but this can get over-emphasized.  The second major element is that they didn’t just syncretize anything they came across.  They favored certain thought systems and fit them to the cultural environment they found themselves in.  They favored Greek Thought and Mystery Religions of the more philosophical varieties (Platonism, Orphism, Cynicism).  These in turn were grounded in the Alexandrian mixture of ideas from Egypt. 

When you get down to it, Egyptian mythology is at the core of Gnosticism.  The Egyptian core is more important than the syncretism.  Gnostic syncretism formed around this seed of solar mythology which is a mix of complex relationships of deities held together by the early formlations of monotheism.

This is why Gnostics are similar to the Hermeticists in some ways.  Through the Hermeticist similarities, we discover the two minor elements: a layered reality and archons.  Basically, they saw the world as a complex play of realms, powers, and beings… but its unclear to what extent they believed in these literally or as allegories.

So, using this more broad definition, Gnostics preceded Christianity.  The difference is that Gnosticism represents a broad grouping of religious sects and Christianity is a specific religion.  All Christians believe in Jesus Christ, but not all Gnostics do. 

Gnosticism as we normally think of it is nothing other than these earlier strains colliding with Romanized Jewish culture.  On the Graeco-Roman side, solar deities (Mithras, Horus, etc.) became a prototype of savior god-man.  On the Jewish side, the Messiah conformed the solar deity to a specific cultural hope.  On the other side of these influences, Gnosticism came out with the Christ figure… and later in the second century Catholicism formed.  However, Hellenized Jews were only one variety of Gnostics. Gnostics was just a trend and in other cultures it became other things.

Buddhists and Hindus were also around in the Roman Empire.  The Gnostics influenced by these religions became someting else, but we don’t know much about them besides detecting the influence in some Gnostic texts.  Hinduism in particular has a lot of Gnostic-like elements: solar deities, savior god-men, hierarchical universe, secret names (mantras) that help one to pass through the hierarchical realms, etc.

Ultimately, no one is really clear what groups specifically were what.  The Therapeutae may have been early Gnostics or Buddhist or ascetic Jews… or even a mix of all three.  The Gnostics formed distinctive strains, but then also kept mixing with eachother further until it became a big confusing mess.  And then the Catholics gained power thus destroying most of the evidence.

Christianity is normally thought to have arisen out of Judaism.  Jesus and the early Christians are portrayed as Jewish in the surviving texts, but the Christ concept came before Jesus.  Judaism might simply be a later overlay.  There is no clear evidence that the earlier Christ concept was originally connected to the Jewish messianic concept.  There were Jewish Gnostics, but some Gnostics hated Judaism.  Similarly, some Gnostics hated Jesus.  Schisms and conflicting theologies abound.  This is probably because there wasn’t a single original Gnosticism, but separate traditions.

Anyways, despite the diversity, its not hard to define Christianity in a way most people can understand.  By the second century, Catholicism was showing its peculiar traits and was well on its way to being an established institution.  The challenge with Gnosticism is that it gets defined by the ways in which it isn’t like Catholicism. 

I really don’t know whether first century people such as Paul were Christians or Gnostics.  I tend to go with the idea that he was both proto-Christian and proto-Gnostic, but proto-Gnositcism may have earlier roots… depending, of course, how we define these terms. 

Despite Christianity claiming Judaism as its roots, Christianity has very little to do with Judaism other than the midrash attempts to justify a Savior figure that didn’t fit the Jewish definition of Messiah.  Some Christians were born Jewish and had to find some way to rationalize their new faith and give it a sense of being a part of a larger tradition.  Christianity is closer to the solar mythologies than Judaism, but maybe a solar deity just didn’t seem respectable enough to a Jew.  Heck if I know. 

The difference with Gnosticism is that Gnostics seemed to have worn their influences on their sleeves.  Maybe a Christian is simply a Gnostic who doesn’t want to admit their syncretistic influences.  This could make sense.  As a syncretistic religion in the Roman Empire, you’re just one of many.  However, to claim the Jewish Messiah for your religion makes you special and gives you some respectability.   This would support the view that Catholics seemed more exclusionary (i.e., elitist) than many Gnostics.  For example, the greatest Gnostic heretic of them all, Valentinus was the least exclusionary of these early Christian and Gnostic sects.  Valentinus was intentionally trying to include a greater variety of people in the salvific plan.  Syncretism would serve Valentinus’ purposes.  Only later Christians such as Augustine openly admitted to Christianity’s commonality to other religions.

Of all that I said, much of it’s just opinion guided by intuition.  There is a lot of scholarship out there, but it’s often conflicting.  When you get down to it, nobody really knows.  The only thing that is clear is that much of the Catholic’s version of its own history is extremely unreliable.

For me, the issue is that there is evidence that helps us to buid up various possible pictures, but the average person is largely ignorant of it all.  This isn’t the type of info they teach you in Bible study class at your local church and quite possibly the same goes for many seminaries.  You’d think Christians would be more curious about the actual scholarly evidence of what we actually know about the first century, but I suppose for most people it doesn’t seem that important.  It’s ancient history, afterall. 

Most people probably never think to question the story they hear in church.  Gnosticism may be the very origins of Christianity, and yet the vast majority of Christians probably are clueless about even the slightest detail of the subject.

I often wonder why most people lack curiosity in general, but it amazes me even more when it involves something of importance… such as the origins of one’s entire faith.  I noticed something similar when I was having the recent discussion with the Jewish guy.  He got defensive about the discussion because he thought I was only discussing Christianity.  The fact was that I certainly was discussing Judaism as well, but it wasn’t his own understanding of Judaism and so he didn’t recognize it as “Judaism”.  I brought up Philo Judaeus, Jewish mysticism, and Jewish sects from the first century. 

What I realized was that his interest in his own religion was as narrow as what I had observed in many Christians.  He said he wasn’t really interested in mysticism and that he found the daily rituals profound enough as is.  Like many people, he simply has limited curiosity.

I actually can pinpoint when he got defensive.  I said that there was no clear evidence that early Christianity had its origins in Judaism.  When I had taken the position that the early Christians were all Jewish, he was happy to consider Christianity as a bastardization of the true faith of Judaism.  However, when I speculated that Christianity (via Gnosticism) may be an independent tradition, then he felt like I had deceived him. 

He just wanted me to support him in bashing Christianity.  I made a joke about Paul and psychedelic mushrooms, and this guy thought I would join him in his righteous bigotry.  The poor silly fool. 

He really must’ve been clueless if he thought I was any less critical of Judaism than I am of Christianity.  I generally don’t like traditional religion in any form, but I’m a curious person.  I only set up the discussion comparing Christian and Jewish messianic traditions in order to learn something new.  But I wasn’t taking any side.  As an agnostic with pessimistic leanings, I’m an equal opportunity critic.

In talking to him, I did get a better sense of Judaism.  One thing became clear to me.  Modern Judaism is as far away from first century Judaism as modern Christianity is from first century Christianity.  It was just a very different world two thousand years ago. 

The weird thing about that time is that there probably were people who would’ve considered themselves simultaneously Jewish, Christian, and Gnostic… and they wouldn’t have seen any conflict in it.  There was a mixing of culture and ideas which was completely normal for the time.  Someone like Philo could allegorically interpret the Torah according to Platonic philosophy.  Many Jews were familiar with Greek thought and many Greeks were familiar with the Torah.

So, that is the short answer to the question of the definition of Gnosticism.  🙂

Mani’s Influence

I was just reading about an intriguing confluence of religions.  There is a continuum of influences from Gnosticism and Manichaeanism to Islam and Sufis and to Bogomils, Paulicians and Albigensians/Cathars… and then to the Reformation.  The confluence of this was in Arab countries that kept alive many Greek and Gnostic strains of belief.  Later on, Southern France became a second Alexandria where a confusion of heresies were spread across Europe.  Italy and Germany were also major centers of heresy.
Okay, let me begin at the beginning.  *deep breath*  🙂  I find all of this fascinating, and I hope I don’t bore anyone.
Mani was born in 216 in Mesopotamia which was a time when many religions were spreading.  This is right after the heresiologists were gaining power of Catholicism and the Gnostics were growing into large religions of their own.  
Mani’s mother was related to the ruling class that I presume was pagan of some sort and his father belonged to a Jewish-Christian baptismal religion.  He was particularly influenced by the tradition of Thomas visiting the East as he also visited the East.  He might’ve also been influenced by the first century Gnostic Mandaeans which were followers of John the Baptist and still exist today.  After various visions and after travelling widely, he formed a religion that combined Judaism, Christianity, Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism.  He believed that all previous religions had pieces of the truth… talk about new age.
In his lifetime, he saw his religion spread across the whole known world and become a state religion after converting a Buddhist king.  Manichaeanism (or Manichaeism) which incorporated Christianity had become a larger religion than Christianity.  The religion split into Eastern and Western traditions.  It flourished between the third and seventh centuries, and survived in China until the fifteenth century.
Manichaeanism had three lines of influence on Christian Europe. 
First, Augustine was originally a Manichaean during a time when it was dangerous to be one.  His later Christian theology may have been influenced by his Manichaean education, and this is quite important considering Augustine is possibly the single most influential theologian within Christianity.
Second, Manichaean beliefs seem to have been incorporated into the Koran.  Also, the Shi’ites had many converts from other religions including Manichaeanism along with Christianity and Gnosticism.  It’s from the Shi’ites that we got both the Assasins and the Sufis.  Islamic scholarship (along with Greek, Gnostic, and Manichaean ideas) was reintroduced into Europe through Spain.
Third, some scholars detect a continuous tradition of Manichaeanism within Southern France.  From here, the rest of Europe was influenced. 
In Europe, the traditions that possibly had roots in Manichaeanism were the Bogomils, Paulicians, and the Cathars.  The Paulicians were the earliest and still survive today.  Paulicianism was synthesiszed (along with the tenth century Bulgarian Slavonic Church reform movement) into the Bogomil religion.  Identified with or closely connected with the Bogomils have been the following groups: the Cathars and Patarenes, the Waldenses, and the Anabaptists.  The Cathars in particular spread widely… often in places where Protestantism would later take hold.  Germany became a center for the Cathars and it’s where they got their name.  Many of these heretical belief systems created the groundwork for some Catholic mystic theology and also some later Reformation groups (e.g., Anabaptists).
Manichaeanism also influenced Christianity in another way.  Even though many of their own texts didn’t survive, they did keep many Christian apocyphal texts that would have othewise been lost.  There are many similarities between Manichaean scripture and that of Gnosticism, Christianity and Judaism.  One parallel that interests me is his division of people into three types along the lines of Valeninus’ theology.