It all started, like most things, back in the 1800’s when people started digging things up. They found rocks, fossils, and human artifacts. The British went to Egypt and Greece. The French preferred Italy. But the Germans headed for Mesopotamia. While there, they noticed that the Torah was written in two languages and different hands. They found out about Zoroaster. They really weren’t scholars, they shot from the lip, and if it sounded true, it was true. They didn’t ask why these stories had been so important and were still so important. They just bottom lined it:
-Ha, it’s not true.
In the United States that wasn’t particularly interesting. But Germans treated their scholars almost as though they were basketball players. These stories had been used to convince them to quit lighting up wicker cages full of people to celebrate the solstice. You can actually see the void forming in their psyche. Philosophers attempted to address it:
-We’ll tell them they’re special.
A hundred years later the German nationalist political movement was still determined to create a mythology for them. I suppose if you are writing the paper at Haverford you will address the dangers of suppressing native belief, and if you are at Utah State you will speak to the danger of abandoning Christianity.
The point is that this stuff is dangerous.
I have no interest in endangering faith. Years ago, I was working with a Charismatic. She was a good intelligent person. We didn’t get on that well. After a few years, she said:
-You know Christianity is an extension of Judaism.
-By that argument, we should all be Mormons.
-Mormons are just a cult.
-To me they are all cults. Suppose that some day we can explain tongues. I don’t mean to dismiss it, but in the same way, we can explain lightning. Will that shake your faith?
-No, I suppose not.
If your faith depends on literal interpretation of the Bible then read no further. If you are going to respect Scripture, I believe you should read the whole thing and think about the context and how people were living and why it mattered to them. Most of the so-called faith I see consists of people grabbing fragments to beat each other over the head.
They’ll quote Sodom and Gomorrah without recognizing that it is a nomadic story. To nomads the greatest sin is inhospitality, and they don’t think much of cities. To see that story cited as a justification for intolerance is despicable.
Suppose a Martian dropped by and wanted the history of humanity. Planetary conditions are such that he can’t stay long, what would you tell him?
You might give him a history of technology, or a history of religion. One could think of all sorts of possibilities but I think most of us would give a history of empire. To put it briefly:
Given that empire is a perfectly legitimate history, what was the largest empire there ever was? I’ll give a hint; it started the concept of religious freedom.
How about the Mongols?
Which empire lasted the longest?
An argument can be given for the Persians.
Why is it that the largest empire and the longest lasting empire are ignored in our histories? Because they didn’t get to write them.
Let us go back, I guess between three and four thousand years ago. There are these people living in the mountains in northern Canaan. Why would they be living there? It’s kind of out of the way and there isn’t all that much water. Maybe they’re safer there. You shouldn’t stereotype people but I see them as kind of compulsive. If someone doesn’t get out and water the crops in the morning, people starve. It’s very much a small town with everybody in each other’s business.
They have pretty much the same religion as everybody else. The religion stretches from Scandinavia into Africa and through India, across language and culture. There are two gods, a male and female because that’s how you have creation. They have male and female priests to go with the male and female gods. The gods’ children act as the intermediaries. They sacrifice bulls to them if they ever have any. The sacrifice of bulls occasionally ties to the sacrifice of young men. They have the story of the goddess who returns in the spring, she was sometimes known as Ostra (Scandinavian), Eostra (Anglo Saxon), Eastra (German) or Esther. In this respect, they are ordinary. The closest modern version of the ancient religion is Voudun.
They also have their own hero story. Their hero is David. It is really the hero stories that distinguish these little towns. David is a zesty tough little goatherd. David may have come from one of the other goat herding towns, or even been shared, but I’m betting on northern Canaan.
They have many goats. It’s somewhat warm and after awhile they run out of things to do with all the goatskins. Once you get past clothing, awnings, furniture, condoms, wineskin, whatever do you do with goatskin? Somebody starts writing on it. To understand why this is such an awesome breakthrough, head over to your library or bookstore and find a volume of ancient writing, Gilgamesh say or the Tibetan book of the Dead. The first hundred pages or so will be an introduction telling you how important the work is. Then there will be a further chapter about the translation. Eventually you will reach the sacred ancient text. It will be very short.
-Well, I guess they were kind of busy back then.
They commonly told stories that lasted for weeks. They loved long stories. However, when it was time to press that sucker into clay, beat papyrus together, paint it on a wall or pound it into stone they did substantial editing. The cool thing about vellum was that they could expound. They could include description or even verse. What distinguished this town was that their hero story, the story of David, was a verbose written document.
The cities, civilizations if you will, were all on deltas. That’s because no matter what kind of dumb farming you did, every year a new load of fresh dirt would come down and you could start over. Most deltas are on plains. You could see off into the distance and have a fair idea of who was around. The Tigris Euphrates is different in that it is surrounded by mountains. The people who lived on the delta had it good. The people who lived in the mountains were not as fortunate. The major ambition of the people on the mountains was to become the people of the delta. The major goal of the people on the delta was to stay the people on the delta. Babylon was the big town on the delta, and there was a collection of suburbs around it.
Their hero story was Gilgamesh. They had gotten it from the town of Uruk, who had probably gotten it from those before them and so on. It’s a lovely picturesque civilization story. There’s a person in the middle of a plain building a boat. It’s such a ridiculous image. Then a flood comes and he is proven right. The point of the story is that things change and you had better be ready. This is a valuable lesson to pass on to the children when you are living in the Tigris Euphrates, or anywhere else for that matter, so if they ever do find the ark on Mt. Ararat it will have a big Aramaic “G” on it for Gilgamesh or a Sumerian “U” for Ur.
Babylon, due to its situation had a lot of clay. They had enormous brickyards. Making large volumes of bricks gets tedious, so they conducted slaving expeditions to staff their brickyards. One of the groups they scooped up was the small town in northern Canaan.
Suddenly this small town crowd found itself in the big city. There were other kinds of people with them, Canaanites, Amorites, etc. There were many stories. They collected the stories and wrote them down. The story of David seems a little piecemeal, perhaps the Amorites contributed. Then they created new stories. The principal new one was the story of Esther, the sly transformation of the story of the goddess who returned in the spring into the story of the concubine who saved her people. In the celebration of Purim, you can see the small town hicks discovering the big city. There are games of chance and you drink to excess.
Velum explains how they were able to record their stories but it doesn’t really explain the stories they chose to record. The Greek myths are somewhat rough but nothing on the Old Testament, or even the New Testament. Obviously, these people weren’t as prudish as most. Perhaps they were required to accept these stories as they were; starting with David might have opened things up.
Somewhere in all the ferment, they discovered monotheism. Maybe it’s because a powerful male king ran Babylon. The priest class, the Magi, may have realized that factionalism put them at a disadvantage. Zoroaster, from another town, Balkh in what is now northern Afghanistan, said it came from being sickened by excessive animal sacrifice. Perhaps it came from the story of a Phoenician who decided to become a Canaanite and not sacrifice his first-born son. It was very positive because it established personal responsibility. You could no longer claim that Hera had blinded you and therefore you had slain your children.
The next big story is the story of Joseph. It’s a reworking of Esther. There’s still a distant powerful king. Now the principal protagonist is male, which probably mattered in Babylon. They had a difficult issue to address. The Babylonians had noticed that they read and wrote. People being what they are it was decided that this must be a genetic quality and occasionally boys were taken off to be scribes in the court. The story of Joseph is an attempt to address this issue on an emotional basis. You can’t tell children that their parents are powerless, that has no meaning to them. Therefore, they told them that their brothers did it. They also tried to impress on them that they should remember who they are and where they came from.
They didn’t have a very positive view of the Babylonian court. Part of the story of Joseph is that he is thrown in jail for refusing the advances of his employer’s wife. However, Joseph is wise and he can tell the future so eventually he wins his freedom. Are you very wise? Can you tell the future? All right then.
After Joseph, the big story is Moses. By now this slave people had identified themselves as Jews. It’s a reworking of Joseph. They cut up on the Babylonians. Whenever someone tells you they came from somewhere, just remember if they’d been tough, they wouldn’t have had to leave.
-You think this is tough? This is nothing. You should have been with us when we were slaves in Egypt. We were slaves lot worse places than this. This is cool. In Egypt, they made us make bricks without straw. Believe that? Without straw. Good thing nothing like that happens around here boy, telling you. They were bad in Egypt. Didn’t treat us right at all. Shame what happened to them.
Egypt is a place way far away, you’ll never get there and forty is a number bigger than you can count. The sea of reeds is north of Babylon, priests doing tricks with snakes sounds like Magi, and bricks weren’t that big a deal in Egypt.
The miracle was that the stories worked. When the people of the mountains, in this case Cyrus, came in, he decided that this people, known as Jews, was an issue. He resolved it just as America tried to do with Liberia. The Jewish people, a slave people, became a self-governing outpost of Persia in Jerusalem. Never underestimate the power of public relations. They actually managed to talk their way out of Babylon.
The first thing they did, of course, was make lots of rules. Part of it was a system of bringing different groups to the temple so the earth would lie fallow. I think they liked rules. Surprisingly, whenever, wherever and however they got them, a lot of these rules, not all, at least not yet, make sense today. It’s really not a good idea to have a lot of rules because eventually someone tests them and when nothing happens, it kind of rocks the boat. Therefore, it is a little puzzling that so many of these rules turned out to be good hygienic practice.
They also reworked their stories to suit their various situations. Adding and dropping as they would.
They had a theocracy that delegated authority to a city manager, kind of like Iran, Utah or China.
The essential problem with monotheism is good and evil. The Persians eventually came around to the idea that good and evil are really two sides of the same thing. This is intellectually honest but emotionally worthless, particularly if you are the one catching it.
The Jews kind of ignored the issue, or treated it as insoluble. There was a sense of the greater good of the culture, or people.
Then the Greeks showed up and the Jews had to confront evil, not only in the individual sense, but also in the sense that their whole culture was under attack. Persia fell to the Greeks. The Syrians were in charge of the Jews. By some miracle, the Jews conducted a successful campaign of attrition and drove the Syrians out. Apparently the Greeks didn’t have quite the same stomach for extermination, at least in this instance that the Romans had.
The Jews reaction to their victory was a disastrous retreat into Maccabee chauvinist fundamentalism. Where the Persians learned from their conquerors and adapted, the Jews experienced a convulsive denial in the face of evil. This made them easy prey for the Romans.
The Romans were truly evil. They had lifetime slavery rather than the customary seven years. To the Romans, the Jews were an outpost of an empire, Persia, which opposed them. As well as being monotheist heretics. The Syrians were back in charge, this time with Roman legions backing them up. They destroyed the Jewish culture from the top down: heavy taxation, slavery, and messing with the calendar leading to destruction of the land.
The story of Jesus is a shriek of heresy dripping in irony. Every commandment is broken. Every holiday but Chanukah, the celebration of resistance, is trashed. The story of Isaac is turned on its head as god makes the sacrifice of his son. The miracle of forgiveness is offered as an answer to the problem of good and evil. Jesus performs water miracles for the Persians, does Hercules for the Greeks. When the Marys’ are emphasized the commandment to honor your parents is broken explicitly rather than by omission. Being a carpenter may have been a nod to the Maccabee hammer and their analogy of chopping down the Roman phalanx as a forest. To its credit: with four versions, the New Testament is clearly in the oral tradition rather than literal truth.
Shortly after this, the Jews have enough. Led by an idiot rabbi, they engage in a fierce bitter campaign of armed conflict against the Roman Empire, supposedly with failed assistance from the Persians, and are crushed. The Romans paid off the hill people to delay the Persian army. I wonder if the Christian heresy was part of the provocation for rebellion.
I am probably mistaken on some fact or interpretation. But while reading James Bond a modern day hero story, for instance, will give you an understanding of our mores, customs, beliefs and geography you would not use it as a basis for history. Having a glimmer of how ghastly things were, how angry people were, their despair and their humor gives me a greater sense of reverence and awe.