The Hebrews, Before Christ
We think of the principal monotheistic religions as being Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They appeared in that order. Islam is quite recent, compared to the others. It was founded in the 6th century A.D. It is often criticized as being merely derivative (and poorly derivative) of Judaism and Christianity. In any event it has been culturally quite distinct from the world’s other monotheisms.
Christianity is of course about 2,000 years old, commencing with the advent of the Christ. As a cursory reading of the Bible reveals, it is quite intentionally derivative of Judaism. In fact, Christians hold that the entire text of the Jews was a slow revealing of the coming Christ, and that Jesus was the culmination of that history. This was so obvious to early Christians (all of whom were Jews) that the early Christians debated whether one must first be a Jew, to be a Christian.
Judaism’s text goes back, famously, to creation. Early on, we read about God’s relationship to man, but one doesn’t find a religion, as such, being established. Thinking of it as its own religion, in competition with others, is a relatively modern concept. But if we are to understand Judaism as a religion which contrasts with surrounding religious belief systems, we could trace that back to God’s covenant with Abraham.
Tribes Other Than Hebrews
What was going on with all those other people in the world, apart from the Jews? Early on, there was ancestor worship. The paterfamilias of the household would also serve as priest, and “keep the home fires burning,” which meant maintaining a constant fire in devotion to the family’s ancestors. Those ancestors were thought in some way to remain with the family, tied to them quite locally, buried on the grounds of the household and in that way continuously tied to the family.
As generations passed, this ancestor worship evolved to worship of family gods, still quite local to a family, which then was not mom, pop, and kids, but rather extended sets of relations: a small tribe. When a wife was taken from a neighboring tribe, she was carried by her new husband over the threshold of his (or his father’s) house. She could not continue to honor her family’s god(s), but must henceforth honor her husband’s. She was carried over the threshold as an act of defiant rejection of the old god, and embrace of the new. The worship of family gods was still quite local, meaning that devotion to the tribal gods was tied to devotion to the place in which the tribe’s ancestors were buried.
Over time, this devotion to the tribal gods evolved further. The venerated locality for the tribe might grow to accommodate more tribes, perhaps progressively less closely related to the original tribe. A multiplicity of family gods gave way to a god or gods of the locality. The polis was taking hold. This was the early city, and devotion to the city and its inhabitants under the city’s gods replaced over time devotion to the tribe’s god and the tribe’s devotion to the locality of its home. At this stage of history we begin to understand the devotion of, for example, the characters in classical writings to the place of their birth, and to the city, and to the city’s gods.
The Pagan Understanding of Reality
To make sense of this in the context of other religious beliefs (like later Christianity) one must pause and consider what the worldview of pagans was. They believed in multiple gods, of course, just as we see with the Greek and then Roman pantheons, and the Norse gods. Those gods were not the one necessary creator-god, but rather what are often referred to as demiurges. These were gods with super-human but limited authority and power. They were thought to have personalities, including human-like traits. They were initially associated with specific places, specific cities, on earth. Histories of god-to-god interaction were imagined for them, and sometimes that interaction was mischievous, cruel, or scheming. A moral sense was not necessary to gods, though good moral traits were attributed to many of them. Importantly, they were not worshipped in the same way that Jews or Christians or Muslims worship God. It would be more accurate to say that they were honored, by the upholding of certain prescribed rites and practices. As long as one “honored the gods” by completing these rites and following these practices, he was at peace with the gods of the city of which he was a part. More importantly, the fabric of society was held together, by common observance of these rites.
By this explanation, we make sense of the story of Socrates’ death in 399 B.C. He was tried and convicted, and put to death, for refusing to honor the city’s gods. The story of Socrates’ trial is the triumph of reason over what is merely customary. Atheists in their over-simplifying way often cite Socrates’ trial to boost their reason vs. religion paradigm, but they’re wrong in doing so. Socrates was not tried because he was an atheist. He was tried because he commended critical reasoning rather than rote acceptance of customary morality. In those days, derogation from the communal polytheistic observances was an affront not merely to religion, but to the integrity of the society as a whole. Socrates said that he honored the gods, and in fact did so more profoundly than those who engaged only in ritualistic observances. He even acknowledged one over-arching god, an entity that was more significant than the chief god of later Greek and Roman pagans, though also apparently not the exclusive and personal God of the Hebrews. He is reported to have said: “Athenians, I honor and love you, but I shall obey the god rather than you.”
In the final centuries before the advent of the Christ, philosophers had closed in on the necessity of a creator agent outside of the creation. It was the point of Plato’s forms, that there be an eternal and ideal form for the things and ideas that we work with in this life. Aristotle discussed reality in his formal and final causes, imputing a telos, or purposeful direction, to matter and time. Thus a god that was more than a mere demiurge was conceived as a philosophical necessity: the uncaused-cause; the agency outside of the material world which creates the world and the physical laws by which it operates; the ultimate reality of which physical things in space and time are mere shadows.
Personal God of the Hebrews
While these developments were occurring in the pagan world, God was speaking in the medium of history, through His prophets, in one tribal people, the Hebrews. King David, a type of the coming Christ, lived in about 1,000 B.C. Moses led the people out of Egypt another 500 years or so before that. Abraham was blessed by God another 500 or so years before that. The God of the Hebrews was the great creator-God, not the demiurges of pagan imagining. But unlike the philosophically necessary God of the Greek philosophers, the God of the Hebrews was a personal God. It was from this chosen people of God that the Messiah came, and He came first to the Jews, and then to the rest of the world. He and then His followers introduced this personal and ultimate God to the pagan world.
The pagan world was one in which it was taken for granted that there was an intelligent agency that existed beyond the here-and-now of physical things and time. It was so much a part of the thinking of people at the time that when Christians began breaking out of the Hebrew enclaves and speaking to the world at large of the one personal God, they were often reviled and rejected and persecuted as “atheists.” They were called atheists because they rejected the gods that were thought to provide order to society, and worshipped only the one creator-God.
In the western and especially English-speaking world today, we certainly understand what Christianity is, even if we reject it. There is a God. He sent a redeemer. There are angels. Miracles. Nature is not all there is.
We should understand that people generally did not believe nature to be all there was in the pagan world, either. When Christ came and his followers took the message to the world, they were taking it to the pagan world, not to materialists. Some accepted the message. Those that rejected it did not do so because they disbelieved supernatural agency. They were pagans. They already assumed supernatural agency. Materialism is not a return to pre-Christian belief. Rather, it is a turn to a new paradigm of reality, which we will discuss in a later post, following treatment of the intervening, Christian epoch.