Self Help

The Evolution of God - Robert Wright

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Matheus Puppe

· 106 min read



  • The book examines the history of religion from a materialist perspective, seeking to explain the origins and development of religion through observable human, social and technological factors rather than supernatural causes.

  • However, the author argues this materialist account can still be compatible with a meaningful religious worldview, and may even point towards the existence of something that could be called divinity.

  • Two major contemporary issues discussed are the tensions between religious groups (e.g. between Christianity and Islam) and between religion and science. The book aims to show how religion has historically adapted to such challenges in a way that reconciliation is possible.

  • The future of religion may involve addressing modern psychological and social issues, highlighting a “higher purpose” to give meaning and guidance, while reconciling with other faiths and scientific knowledge.

  • The book is divided into sections on the birth and growth of early gods/religions, the emergence of Abrahamic monotheism with Judaism/Christianity/Islam, and how god/religion may develop globally in the modern world.

  • It examines religious ideas and practices among archaic societies, ancient civilizations, and the major world faiths to understand how religion evolves due to human and external factors.

  • In the 19th century, some European visitors observed strange rituals in distant lands inhabited by “savages” or non-literate peoples. One ritual involved a man pulling down his pants and exposing himself to the wind while making incantations.

  • These types of “primitive” religious rituals were seen as crude by some Europeans, who were uncomfortable comparing them to more sophisticated Western forms of worship.

  • Anthropologists like John Lubbock acknowledged studying “primitive” religion involved discussing disturbing topics, but aimed to do so sensitively. He viewed “savage” minds as mentally inferior and incapable of deep thought.

  • Remnants in the Bible show that Abrahamic monotheism developed organically out of more “primitive” beliefs, rather than abruptly replacing them. Forms of animism and polytheism are present.

  • Edward Tylor’s influential theory of animism proposed it was humanity’s original religious philosophy, believing spirits animated all living and non-living things. This explained phenomena like dreams and death.

  • Tylor viewed animism as a natural early product of human curiosity and speculation, not as bizarre. It provided economical explanations for mysteries confronting early people. His approach saw “primitive” minds as fundamentally similar to modern ones.

  • Evolutionary anthropologist EB Tylor proposed that animism, the belief that natural phenomena like trees and rivers have spirits, was the earliest and most primitive form of religion.

  • From animism, beliefs evolved to see spirits not just in individual objects but guardian spirits of larger domains like forests. Then each domain had its own protective deity.

  • Eventually these beliefs consolidated into polytheism with many gods, and finally monotheism with one supreme god overseeing subordinate divine beings.

  • Tylor argued this evolution was driven by humans attempting to understand nature and its laws through gradual growth of scientific understanding, replacing spiritual explanations.

  • While Tylor’s specific narrative is outdated, the core idea that early religion emerged from humans trying to comprehend the natural world without science still seems valid.

  • Studying contemporary hunter-gatherer religions provides the best window into prehistoric spiritual beliefs before the advent of writing and organized religion. Many key features are consistently found across hunter-gatherer societies.

  • These include beliefs in element spirits inhabiting aspects of nature, puppeteer deities controlling natural forces, spirits of living things like coyotes, ancestral spirits, and high gods overseeing lesser gods or spirits.

  • The Klamath Native Americans believed in various supernatural beings like animal and bird spirits that influenced nature like causing snow or fog. There was also a spirit called Yayaya-ash that could take the form of a one-legged man and help medicine men consult other animal spirits to cure diseases.

  • Ancestral spirits were thought to be objects of dread, visible only to shamans. Their presence was associated with misfortune and death.

  • Other supernatural beings included the high god Kmukamtch, who inhabited the sun and created the world. However, gods were not always benevolent - Kmukamtch could inflict harm out of temper.

  • Hunter-gatherer religions wove supernatural explanations tightly into their worldview and daily lives, without a concept of separate “religion.” Deities explained natural phenomena and why bad things like illness or lack of game happened.

  • Unlike monotheistic religions, hunter-gatherer gods were not all-powerful or morally perfect. They behaved more like humans, causing harm when angry or jealous, explaining natural disasters as petty retribution for annoying behaviors.

  • Hunter-gatherers did not “worship” gods in a reverent sense but interacted with them like humans, threatening or scolding gods when they caused problems and did not provide benefits like game or good weather. Rituals aimed more to placate than revere supernaturals.

  • The article discusses hunter-gatherer religions and morality. It notes that in these societies, gods and spirits are not generally concerned with enforcing social morality - things like stealing, adultery, etc.

  • Rather, their rules focus more on ritual behaviors and taboos. Violating these rules is thought to anger spirits and cause supernatural harm, but not actual harm to other people.

  • Early scholars of primitive religions in the 19th century noted this lack of a clear moral dimension in the societies they studied. Gods were not seen as enforcing moral laws between people.

  • However, hunter-gatherer groups did have well-defined moral standards regarding interpersonal behaviors. It’s just that religion and morality were not as intertwined as they are in modern societies.

  • The article argues this makes sense given the small, intimate nature of hunter-gatherer groups. Social pressures and dependencies provided enough incentive for moral behavior without relying on religious sanctions.

  • Overall, while hunter-gatherer religions did try to explain good and bad events, their purpose was not as focused on morality as modern religions tend to be.

  • Religious doctrines need to appeal to people’s psychology and self-interest in order to survive and spread. However, self-interest can take many forms and be aligned with other interests like family, society, morality, etc.

  • Over time, religion has become more aligned with moral/spiritual truth and also more compatible with scientific truth. It has matured rather than just evolved.

  • In early hunter-gatherer societies, there were religious experts known as shamans who claimed to understand and communicate with the supernatural world. This represented an early step towards organized religion.

  • Shamans competed informally to demonstrate their abilities to explain events, predict the future, and intervene through practices like healing. Those who showed success through cures or predictions gained credibility and status as religious leaders in their communities. This helped formalize the role of shamans and the emerging institutions of religion.

  • However, as humans, shamans were also subject to the flaws that have plagued religious figures and institutions over time as religion developed beyond early shamanism.

  • Among some societies, being descended from a famous shaman or having unusual birth circumstances could increase one’s chances of becoming a shaman. Early mystical experiences like dreams or surviving injuries could also mark someone as having shamanic potential.

  • Shamans had to regularly demonstrate supernatural powers to maintain credibility. Their success rates were often high due to factors like most illnesses/problems being temporary in nature already. They also had options to avoid taking on dire cases and could blame failures on other factors like rival shamans.

  • However, even respected shamans’ fortunes could decline, like if their child died. This allowed belief in shamanic powers to continue despite witnessed failures, by attributing it to the shaman losing ability rather than questioning the concept.

  • Shamans often profited materially from their roles, receiving payment for services like treating illnesses. They had various strategies for ensuring adequate compensation like having spirits dictate fees. Some promised refunds if treatments failed.

  • While deception like using sleight of hand tricks was certainly possible, anthropologists often judged shamans leniently, seeing tricks as means to connect to spirits from the shamans’ perspective. Faith in them as a group generally survived exposure of individual fakes.

  • Many shamans experience altered states of consciousness through difficult rituals like fasting, sleep deprivation, self-mutilation, or ingesting hallucinogenic drugs. These initiation rituals were believed to help connect with the supernatural world.

  • Certain personality types, like those prone to mental illness or neuroticism, were also sometimes drawn to shamanism.

  • The shaman’s lifestyle required sacrifices like sexual abstinence and dangerous duties caring for sick patients. This discouraged purely self-interested charlatans.

  • While some shamans may have been frauds, others seemed to genuinely believe in their spiritual experiences and abilities. Modern science suggests alterations consciousness through physiological means does not necessarily make experiences invalid or hallucinatory.

  • Shamanism may have played a role in the origins of formal politics. Some societies saw early political leaders and shamans as the same role. Shamans often advised on important decisions around war and diplomacy.

So in summary, the passage discusses the various methods and personality types associated with entering an altered state of consciousness as a shaman, and posits shamanism may have been influential in the development of early political structures.

  • Indigenous Polynesian societies were chiefdoms - agricultural societies with many villages and thousands of people led by a chief or regional chiefs. Chiefdoms represent an advanced form of social organization between hunter-gatherer bands and early ancient states.

  • Aspects of Polynesian culture both offended Cook (like human sacrifice) and impressed him (strong social cohesion and obedience to chiefs). Religion dominated all aspects of life.

  • The gods inspired both social harmony and brutal rituals like sacrificing corpses and removing eyes as offerings. Religion was central to coordinating and unifying chiefdom societies.

  • Chiefdoms mark an evolution from smaller hunter-gatherer societies to larger agricultural polities. Religion evolved along with changing social structures at this critical stage between hunter-gatherers and early civilizations. Gods and beliefs reflected and reinforced the chiefdom power structure.

So in summary, indigenous Polynesian societies show how religion evolved in coordination with the rise of larger, hierarchical chiefdom social organizations between small bands and ancient states, taking on functions of social control and coordination as well as more brutal sacrificial rituals.

  • The passage discusses the political and religious systems of Polynesian chiefdoms. The systems were deeply intertwined, with rulers having a special connection to the divine and using this status for political purposes. Chiefs were seen as having a god-like status.

  • It traces how as societies moved from hunter-gatherer to agricultural/chiefdoms, political and religious leadership fused together more closely. This helped hold the more complex societies together.

  • It then focuses on the Polynesian islands as a case study, noting they developed in isolation culturally. Early European observers provided information on their religious systems.

  • Polynesian religions involved many “departmental gods” linked to different occupations/activities. Everything was seen as religious activity under divine supervision. Strict rituals governed activities like canoe building and fishing.

  • Two key religious concepts were “tapu,” things forbidden by religious law, and “mana,” a divine power/efficacy possessed most by chiefs and trickling down society. Chiefs derived status and political power from their connection to the gods and possession of mana.

So in summary, it analyzes how politics and religion became intertwined in Polynesian chiefdoms, with rulers drawing power from their god-like status, and discusses features of the Polynesian religions like the proliferation of gods and focus on rituals.

  • In Polynesian chiefdoms, religion was used to elevate the status and authority of chiefs. Chiefs were seen as having special access to supernatural forces like mana and could declare certain things as taboo (tapu).

  • Chiefs were often believed to be descended from gods or able to become gods after death. They held political, economic, and religious power. Commoners had to show great deference and respect to chiefs.

  • Religion helped enforce law and social order in chiefdoms. Since centralized government and policing did not exist yet, religion discouraged anti-social behavior by attaching supernatural punishment to crimes like theft. Acts could be made taboo.

  • Beliefs about the afterlife and the power of ghosts also encouraged moral behavior by creating fear of supernatural consequences for mistreatment of others during life. Gods were seen as enforcing rules and punishing crimes like theft.

  • So in summary, religion in Polynesian chiefdoms served to strengthen the chiefly political system by imbuing chiefs with divine status and authority. It also helped maintain social order by supplementing human law enforcement with supernatural deterrence of criminal and immoral acts.

  • In traditional Polynesian societies, religion played an important role in encouraging moral behavior and social harmony. People who acted with moral goodness like avoiding theft were believed to gain more “mana” or spiritual power, which directly translated to material benefits like more pigs and yams.

  • Breaking social norms like arguing with one’s wife before a fishing trip or a woman being unfaithful while her husband was away could bring divine sanctions like bad luck or illness. Respect for kinship bonds was also enforced through the threat of supernatural punishment.

  • Together, these religious beliefs helped encourage self-restraint and filled the gaps where formal legal systems had not yet developed in the chiefdom societies. Religion was intertwined with concepts of land ownership and property as sacred taboos protected family gardens and groves.

  • However, religion also upheld the power of the ruling elites. Chiefs received privileges like more wives and access to elite foods. Priests profited from duties like divining illnesses and prescribing cures. Elites also received preferential treatment under legal and sacrificial customs. So religion served to both order society and protect ruling class interests.

  • In Polynesian societies, chiefs had power and privileges but also faced some checks and balances on their behavior. While they received perks like extra wives, they also had obligations like sacrificing children or showing generosity.

  • Popular resistance from commoners and competition between chiefdoms served as counterbalances to prevent chiefs from becoming too exploitative or parasitic. Societies where chiefs took too much without giving back risked rebellion or military defeat.

  • Religion played a role in this system by both legitimizing chiefs’ power but also putting limits on it. For example, the concept of mana meant a chief’s power could diminish if they performed badly in war. And religions diversified over time through cultural evolution.

  • No system was perfectly efficient, but competition drove religions to encourage behaviors like work, honesty and harmony that strengthened societies against rivals. Religions also developed explanations and loopholes to account for changes in fortune.

  • In addition to geopolitical forces, individual psychology also shaped religious beliefs as memes aimed to provide comfort and explanations that people found appealing.

  • Gods in early civilizations like Mesopotamia and Egypt retained many human-like qualities seen in earlier gods of hunter-gatherer and chiefdom societies. They engaged in immoral behaviors and were concerned with their own desires as much as serving humans.

  • A key difference was an increase in grandeur and scale of worship. Gods had lavish temples and ornate idols, rather than simple wood/stone shrines.

  • While early civilizations did not have monotheism or an ethical or universal focus like later Abrahamic faiths, elements of each did appear. Monotheism emerged to some degree in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Codes focused on ethics between humans also developed.

  • The combination of an ethical code with a god valuing all people internationally, as seen later, would synergistically justify kind treatment of outsiders. This marked an evolution from religions focused only on local groups.

  • While early civilizations had many troublesome animal and amoral gods, this didn’t represent a total divide from later faiths. Elements of monotheism, ethics and universalism emerged over millennia in the ancient Near East, contributing to later Abrahamic belief systems.

  • Early historical records of religion are fragmented and biased toward official state religions, not everyday religious practices. As writing systems developed in different places at different times, some civilizations like the Maya and Aztecs could be observed more directly by Europeans.

  • Ancient civilizations generally had pantheons of many gods overseeing nature, occupations, body parts, etc. Gods expected offerings and worship from humans in exchange for rewards or avoiding punishment.

  • Political leaders acted as intermediaries between humans and gods, strengthening their own power. Religion reinforced political authority and social order. Failure to properly worship gods could lead to chaos.

  • Church and state were closely intertwined in early civilizations. Leaders coordinated religious rituals like human sacrifice to appease gods and maintain cosmic order. While power struggles sometimes emerged, religion generally supported political hierarchy. Functionalists and Marxists debate how exploitative this relationship was for common people.

So in summary, early written records of religion are biased but reveal gods’ central importance and the close alliance of religion with political authority across many ancient civilizations. Religion helped preserve social order and the power of elites according to prevailing cosmologies.

  • Marxists argue that ancient religion largely served political and economic power, with churches owning large amounts of land and wealth. However, others note religious institutions also provided social services.

  • Rather than refuting Marxism, it’s better to acknowledge religion was tied to power structures but look at how this drove moral and ideological evolution over time, pushing religions toward greater ethics and universalism.

  • Ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Mayan and Aztec religions established moral codes and encouraged treating neighbors well through threats of disease, misfortune or divine punishment for violations. This helped maintain social order in large city populations.

  • As Mesopotamian city-states encountered each other through trade and conflict, their religions adapted by establishing the gods of different cities as related members of a single pantheonclan. This may have been a pragmatic way to facilitate inter-city cooperation and alliances by recognizing each other’s religious beliefs.

  • In general, the article argues ancient religions both served political/economic interests but also independently promoted ethics and social cohesion in a way that helped hold large early civilizations together.

  • In ancient times, religion played a role in fostering relationships between polities and easing tensions. Shared pantheons of gods who divided responsibilities helped strengthen emotional bonds between cities.

  • Early examples of “international law” included peace treaties between Egypt and the Hittites invoking the gods of both lands to sanction the agreements. Clay cylinders from Mesopotamia described gods authorizing boundary markers between city-states.

  • Regional stability in Mesopotamia was maintained through a loose league organized around a dominant city-state that assumed the role of arbitrator and enforcer if needed. Divine sanction was given to this equilibrium, though it rested on the military dominance of some cities over others.

  • Sargon of Akkad expanded the region’s first empire in the late 3rd millennium BCE. He incorporated conquered Sumerian gods into his pantheon through methods like identifying Sumerian gods with Akkadian counterparts. This helped merge the cultures and gain acceptance for his rule.

  • Over time, as political hierarchies developed within cities, divinities also took on hierarchical relationships that reflected royal courts. This gradual shift toward a leading god helped lay the groundwork for future monotheistic beliefs.

  • In ancient Mesopotamia, the gods were organized into a hierarchical structure or “pyramid of powers” dominated by certain gods like Enlil. Enki appointed other gods to roles like “inspector of canals.”

  • This theological trend toward a concentration of power in certain gods brought Mesopotamian thought closer to modern monotheism.

  • Marduk eventually came to dominate the Mesopotamian pantheon, displacing Enlil. Marduk’s champions elevated him and demoted other gods, declaring them merely aspects of Marduk. This concentrated divine power and attributes in Marduk to an unprecedented degree.

  • In Egypt, the god Amun had grown very powerful due to military successes. His priests wielded significant political and economic influence. When Amenhotep IV came to power, he felt threatened by Amun’s dominance and moved to subjugate him, drawing on the cult of the sun disc Aten instead.

  • Amenhotep IV abruptly instituted a more singular worship of Aten, amounting to a “divine coup d’etat” against Amun and the old religious order in Egypt.

  • Akhenaten elevated the sun deity Aten to the sole god of Egypt, promoting him above all other gods like Amun. He erased Amun’s name everywhere and had names containing Amun changed.

  • Akhenaten built a new capital city called Akhetaten (“Horizon of Aten”) to honor Aten. He renamed himself Akhenaten (“Helper of Aten”) and assumed the role of high priest.

  • Unlike previous gods who had absorbed other deities, Aten stood completely alone as the one true god. Other gods were declared to have “ceased.” Their priesthoods were dissolved.

  • Akhenaten emphasized Aten as the creator of all humans and all lands. The Great Hymn to Aten portrays Aten as providing for all people universally, regardless of their differences.

  • However, Aten’s universalism was not wholly new and he does not deserve sole credit. His predecessor Amun had also been portrayed as the creator of all races and concerned for their welfare, exposing Egypt to more cosmopolitan ideals prior to Akhenaten.

  • After Akhenaten’s death, Aten lost his most powerful supporter. Within decades he fell from prominence, showing how dependent he was on human allies like Akhenaten to maintain his new sole status.

So in summary, Akhenaten elevated Aten above all gods and established the first real instance of state-sponsored monotheism, but he built on pre-existing universalizing trends in Egyptian religion rather than introducing a wholly novel concept. And Aten’s monotheism did not endure once Akhenaten was gone.

  • The earliest depictions of God in the Hebrew Bible show him as an active, hands-on deity who walks in the Garden of Eden and interacts directly with humans, rather than a remote or transcendent figure.

  • These early texts portray God more like the pagan gods of the time - powerful but with limitations, not omniscient or all-powerful. God seems to evolve over time into a more removed figure.

  • Initially God was more of a warrior deity concerned with defeating enemies rather than a creator. The creation stories in Genesis were likely added later.

  • Early Israelites believed in multiple gods and Yahweh was seen as their patron deity rather than the only deity. Polytheism was the norm for a long time before monotheism developed.

  • Traces of belief in other gods can still be found even in later biblical passages, showing the gradual emergence of strict monotheism over the course of many centuries as biblical texts developed.

So in summary, the passage argues that the concept of God evolved significantly over time in the Hebrew Bible from a more localized, interactive deity to a remote transcendent creator and from a polytheistic to monotheistic understanding, contrary to some traditional biblical interpretations.

  • The early books of the Bible acknowledge the existence of other gods besides Yahweh and contain hints of Israelite polytheism. This suggests that Israelite religion went through a phase of monolatry (exclusive devotion to one god without denying others) before reaching full-blown monotheism.

  • Archaeology has revealed that the biblical depiction of the Israelites conquering Canaan and displacing the Canaanites is incorrect. There is little evidence of violent conquest. Instead, it appears the early Israelites were originally Canaanites themselves.

  • One theory proposed by archaeologist Israel Finkelstein is that Canaanite nomadic herders settled down in the hill country of Canaan around the 12th century BCE due to disruption in the region. These new settlements without pig bones provide the earliest archaeological evidence of a distinct Israelite people.

  • Finkelstein argues there was no large-scale Exodus from Egypt as described in the Bible. The emergence of the Israelites was driven by local social and economic changes in Canaan, not a migration or conquest from outside the region. While aspects of Finkelstein’s view are debated, it is now clear there was ongoing interaction between Israelite and Canaanite cultures for a long time.

  • Some early Israelite settlements featured Canaanite idols like bronze bulls, suggesting cultural continuity between Canaanites and Israelites and that monotheism did not develop immediately.

  • Scholars now doubt that Moses existed historically or that biblical accounts of him are reliable since they were written centuries later. There is no reason to assume Israelite monotheism originated outside of Canaan rather than developing organically within Canaanite culture.

  • Evidence suggests the Israelite god Yahweh may have originated as the Canaanite high god El. References to a “divine council” in the Bible match descriptions of El’s divine council from Ugarit. Some biblical references to “El” seem to refer specifically to the god El.

  • The name “Israel” may derive from El. Yahweh himself says in Exodus that he appeared to the patriarchs as El Shaddai before being known as Yahweh. This suggests an effort to merge the worship of El and Yahweh.

  • The documentary hypothesis proposes early biblical sources used different names for God (El, Elohim, Yahweh) reflecting separate northern and southern Israelite traditions that later combined, merging the god El and god Yahweh into one deity. This fits with Israel originating as separate tribes that later unified.

  • The early patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) may have originally been founding ancestors of different tribes in ancient Israel. Uniting these tribes politically meant weaving their myths together into a single narrative.

  • Archaeological evidence suggests Yahweh worship originated in the southern region of Edom, while El worship was centered in the northern region. The people of Israel likely emerged from a merging of these two groups.

  • The earliest historical reference to “Israel” comes from an Egyptian stele from 1219 BCE, but it makes no mention of Yahweh or any god. Separate references to a place called “Yhw” predate this, located in Edom.

  • The stele describes defeating a people called the Shasu, who were nomadic groups antagonistic to Egypt. This suggests the early Israelites may have emerged from an alliance between the Shasu and Yahweh worshippers against a common Egyptian enemy.

  • Early evidence indicates Yahweh and El were not seen as identical but rather coexisted in a pantheon, with El as the chief god. Editors of the Bible likely obscured some of this polytheistic context over time.

So in summary, the biblical patriarchs seem to have originally represented different tribes that later unified politically. Archaeological evidence points to Yahweh worship originating separately from El worship, with the people of Israel emerging from an alliance of these groups with nomadic Shasu against Egypt. Early texts sometimes portray Yahweh and El as distinct gods in a pantheon rather than identical beings.

  • There is debate around how mythological the biblical God Yahweh was. Some scholars argue Yahweh was not mythical at all and was different from pagan gods, while others see mythological elements.

  • Yahweh may have fused with the Canaanite god El early on. El had a consort goddess Athirat/Asherah. Some archaeologists found inscriptions from 800 BCE invoking the blessings of “Yahweh and his Asherah,” suggesting Yahweh may have inherited El’s consort. However, the Bible portrays Asherah negatively.

  • Yahweh’s battles described in the Bible, like slaying the multi-headed dragon Lotan/Leviathan, parallel the mythical battles of the Canaanite god Baal. This hints at mythological origins. translation choices obscure such links by using generic terms like “sea” and “death” instead of the gods’ names Yamm and Mot.

  • Scholars argue there were once longer mythical narratives about Yahweh that were later edited out as myth fell out of favor and monotheism developed. But some mythological moments and imagery were still preserved in brief form.

  • The editing likely aimed to fully establish Yahweh as the sole, all-powerful God and remove any implications of weakness or desire from mythology that could suggest polytheism or other formidable gods limiting Yahweh’s power.

  • Originally, polytheism likely existed in ancient Israel/Canaan in the form of the Canaanite pantheon, with El as the head god.

  • Over time, Yahweh took on aspects of both El and Baal through a process of convergence and integration as his worship spread. He incorporated qualities like El’s role as chief god and Baal’s abilities as a storm god.

  • Competition between Yahweh and other gods like Baal could drive their integration, as Yahweh absorbed popular traits from rival gods to gain devotees. His defeat of Baal in 1 Kings showed he could outdo Baal’s powers.

  • After establishing dominance, Yahweh transitioned in 1 Kings to revealing himself more subtly without shows of power, integrating the traditions of El as a more reserved, non-conspicuous transcendent deity. This began Yahweh’s portrayal as a singular, all-powerful god and the decline of the Canaanite pantheon.

  • Through a gradual, messy process of cross-fertilization and convergence rather than sudden change, Yahweh absorbed traits from multiple gods to consolidate monotheism in ancient Israel, continuing earlier polytheistic traditions in a transformed way.

  • The story of Elijah opposing King Ahab and Queen Jezebel’s promotion of the Canaanite god Baal is seen as a milestone in the evolution of Israelite monolatry (exclusive worship of one god) and eventual monotheism.

  • However, the Elijah story may not have been written down until centuries later and was edited by those promoting exclusive devotion to Yahweh. So its accuracy is uncertain.

  • Whether the story is accurate or not, it points to broader forces that pushed Israel toward monolatry. Two possibilities are theological reflection/ideas or material/social factors like politics and economics.

  • Assuming the story is true as a thought experiment, the chapter will examine later biblical narratives to shed light on the emergence of monolatry as official Israelite policy, when worship of other gods was suppressed.

  • Returning to the Elijah story, these later passages will help determine if it accurately reflects early opposition to Jezebel/Baal or was shaped by later theological biases promoting sole worship of Yahweh.

  • The goal is to understand the evolution of Israelite monolatry and identify the key forces - ideological/theological or material/social - that drove this important development toward biblical monotheism.

This passage discusses possible mundane or political motivations behind Elijah’s opposition to King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of Israel, who promoted the worship of the Phoenician god Baal. Some key points:

  • Jezebel was from Phoenicia, and her marriage to Ahab cemented an alliance between Israel and Phoenicia. This alliance had economic and political benefits but also involved tolerating and promoting Baal worship.

  • Some Israelites, like local merchants, may have economically competed with Phoenician traders and felt threatened by their influence. This could explain religious opposition to Baal.

  • There was also a faction that favored alliance with Assyria instead of Phoenicia. Elijah may have drawn support from these pro-Assyrian Israelites, who opposed Ahab and Jezebel’s foreign policy rather than just their theology.

  • In general, people are more tolerant of foreign gods and beliefs when they perceive cooperative economic or political relationships with those foreigners, rather than a zero-sum competition. Opposition to a foreign god can often come down to mundane self-interest and foreign policy disputes rather than purely theological reasons.

So in summary, the passage suggests Elijah may have represented economic or political interests opposed to Ahab and Jezebel’s policies, rather than just theological positions against Baal worship per se.

The passage discusses the potential interpretation of Elijah’s coalition as monolatrous (devoted to the worship of Yahweh alone) versus pro-Assyrian (with affinity for Assyrian gods). It argues that if Elijah’s coalition rejected all foreign gods, then preferring one international ally over another for their god affiliations would not make sense.

It then focuses on the prophet Hosea in the 8th century BCE as exhibiting clear monolatrist views, insisting Israelites worship only Yahweh. Hosea expressed skepticism of alliances between Israel and major powers like Assyria and Egypt, seeing these relationships as inherently demeaning and impoverishing Israel.

The passage acknowledges Hosea’s views likely stemmed from sincere religious conviction. However, it argues his message resonated because Israelites were increasingly concluding their relationship with the world was zero-sum, and international cooperation unlikely to benefit them. Israel’s unstable foreign relations in the decades after the reign of Jeroboam II supported this view, as alliances failed to protect Israel from Assyrian subjugation and deportations.

  • After the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel, Judah was the sole remaining kingdom representing Israelite heritage.

  • However, Judah now faced threats from the Assyrian empire as well. It rebelled unsuccessfully against Assyria and eventually had to accept vassal status, giving up treasures from its temple.

  • Over the next century, Judah remained in the difficult position of being a small state dominated by stronger regional powers like Assyria and later Babylon. This made fruitful foreign relations and alliances difficult.

  • Hosea’s message of devotion only to Yahweh and aversion to foreign gods may have spread to Judah as his followers fled the Assyrian conquest of Israel.

  • Around this time, prophets like Amos and Isaiah criticized the wealthy ruling class for oppressing the poor. This social conflict corresponded with opposition to internationalism and foreign gods, which were associated with wealthy elites.

  • Archaeology shows there was great economic inequality at this time. The wealthy elites were tied to international trade, importing luxury goods that ordinary people resented. This contributed to an anti-foreign sentiment.

  • Later prophets like Zephaniah continued calling for devotion only to Yahweh and foretold punishment of nations like Assyria, Moab, Ammon and their gods, which had foreign associations. Their influence exacerbated resentment of foreign domination.

  • In summary, Judah faced similar foreign threats after the fall of Israel, while social and economic tensions within Israelite society strengthened opposition to internationalism and devotion to foreign gods. This helped the exclusivist worship of Yahweh take hold.

Here are summaries of 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings:

First and Second Samuel:

  • Focus on the transition from Israelites being ruled by judges to having a monarchical system with kings.
  • Describe the prophet Samuel anointing Saul as the first king of Israel. Saul has some victories but ultimately fails to obey God fully.
  • David is anointed by Samuel to replace Saul. David becomes king and establishes Jerusalem as the capital. He unites most of the tribes. However, he sins by committing adultery and arranging the death of Bathsheba’s husband.
  • Toward the end describes the rebellions against David by his son Absalom and Adonijah. David designates Solomon as his successor before dying.

First and Second Kings:

  • Focus on the divided monarchy after Solomon’s death, with the northern kingdom of Israel and southern kingdom of Judah.

  • Describe the kings who ruled in Israel and Judah and whether they were judged to follow God or not. Most of the northern kings were unfaithful and led Israel into idolatry.

  • The southern kingdom of Judah had some godly kings like Hezekiah but also many unfaithful kings. The prophets like Elijah and Elisha appear threatening judgment for Israel’s sins.

  • Israel is conquered by Assyria and the northern tribes are sent into exile. Judah survives somewhat longer but ultimately falls to the Babylonians and is sent into exile as well.

  • Josiah became king of Judah around 640 BCE, placed on the throne by nationalists opposed to Assyrian dominance.

  • He pursued a militaristic foreign policy and resisted Assyrian rule, helping centralize his power domestically. This is consistent with both the FP (foreign pantheon rejection) and DP (domestic pantheon downsizing for political power) scenarios for the rise of monolatry/monotheism.

  • Josiah oversaw major religious reforms that transferred allegiance from various gods to Yahweh alone. He destroyed shrines of other gods, banned their worship, and centralized worship of Yahweh in Jerusalem alone.

  • This consolidated both divine authority under Yahweh and political power under Josiah by controlling the interpretation of Yahweh’s will from Jerusalem.

  • Josiah was effectively a “godfather” of Israelite monolatry/monotheism by setting the stage for sole worship of Yahweh, though he may have still allowed some closet polytheism.

  • His reforms provided social protections for peasants, supporting the FP scenario’s view that monolatry drew from class resentment. But both FP and DP dynamics could have been at play.

  • Some scholars argue Josiah alienated not just foreign gods but indigenous Israelite gods by labeling them as foreign to more easily remove them from the pantheon, for political gain under the DP scenario.

  • Scholars have debated whether the gods that were banned by King Josiah in Jerusalem were indigenous Canaanite gods or foreign imports. Evidence exists to support both sides.

  • In favor of the indigenous view is that Josiah found these gods being worshipped in Jerusalem’s temple, indicating they were accepted as part of Yahweh’s family. However, they could still have been recent imports from Assyrian culture.

  • The moon god and goddess Astarte/Ishtar/Ashtoreth have ambiguous origins. Stories may indicate ancient Canaanite worship of the moon god, but Assyrian influence also possible. Their ancestral connections to gods like El and Baal complicate defining them as wholly foreign or indigenous.

  • The Elijah story against King Ahab’s Baal worship may be propaganda written later by Josiah’s supporters to associate Baal with foreign Phoenicians. However, the anti-foreign rhetoric likely tapped into real nationalist/xenophobic sentiment in Israel against powerful foreign empires.

  • Regardless of the specific gods’ origins, the drift to monotheism was shaped by Israel’s political psychology of being a small nation surrounded by great powers, fueling hostility to foreign influence and gods. Both the indigenous and foreign perspectives capture parts of this dynamic.

  • King Josiah of Judah wanted to unify Israel and restore the glory of King David’s empire, but doing so in the name of Yahweh alone.

  • However, his reforms backfired. Josiah was killed fighting the Egyptians. This led to two decades of Israelite subjugation first to Egypt then Babylon.

  • When King Zedekiah of Judah rebelled against Babylon, the Babylonians killed Zedekiah’s sons before him, blinded him, and destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple. They exiled the upper classes of Israelites to Babylon.

  • This trauma of exile is considered the most famous event in ancient Israel’s history. It was seen as Yahweh’s humiliation by the victorious Babylonians.

  • Though Josiah failed in his political aims, his theology of worshipping Yahweh alone would not only survive but flourish in an intensified form.

  • Jews, and later Christians and Muslims, came to believe Yahweh/God was not just the only god worth worshipping but the sole existing deity. Monolatry evolved into monotheism through this chain of paradoxical events stemming from Josiah’s reforms.

The passage argues that Israel’s exilic theologians made the most of their disastrous defeat and exile by developing monotheistic theology. They had time in Babylon to ponder and debate why Jerusalem fell. Some key points:

  • Exiles blamed each other for the catastrophe, with different factions having different theological explanations. Jeremiah blamed widespread idolatry, while others blamed the Yahweh-alone movement.

  • Developing monotheism allowed reconciliation of the catastrophe with Yahweh’s greatness by arguing he was the sole, all-powerful God who allowed the disaster as punishment for sin.

  • The scale of the defeat to the mighty Babylonians, and depth of trauma from exile, nudged thinkers toward a single, dominant God who wielded empires. This was a more potent vision than Yahweh simply losing to Babylon’s gods.

  • Monotheism became the theological solution that avoided relegating Yahweh to a weaker status by explaining the defeat as punishment under an omnipotent deity, rather than a loss to foreign gods. The exiles thus made the most of their disaster through this seismic theological development.

  • For exiled Israelites, national, divine, and ethnic identity were inseparable. Seeing their nation destroyed meant their identity was dead.

  • They had two options to reconcile this: 1) Conclude Yahweh was not as powerful as previously thought. 2) Conclude the exile was Yahweh’s will and it showed his power was even greater than before.

  • The book of Habakkuk directed them toward the second conclusion - that Yahweh used the even more powerful Babylonians as his tool to punish the Israelites. This implied Yahweh’s power was greater than any other god like Marduk.

  • This paradoxically led to the emergence of Israelite monotheism. As their political power waned, they exalted Yahweh’s power and rule over the whole universe.

  • Key prophet texts like Second Isaiah expressed this emerging monotheism strongly, declaring Yahweh as the sole creator god and ruler of all.

  • However, the universalism expressed also implied other nations would eventually submit to and acknowledge Yahweh and Israel’s superiority, showing this “universalism” was still tied to ideas of national and theological superiority rather than a true moral universalism. It grew from older traditions of prophesying other nations’ subjugation.

  • The passage describes Yahweh manifesting his holiness in Israel by sending pestilence, bloodshed, and killing people with the sword encircling the land.

  • Rudolf Otto’s concept of the “holy” or “numinous” referred to a powerful, terrifying force rather than modern concepts of moral goodness. Yahweh’s manifestation of holiness here inspires dread.

  • Exilic Jews may have envisioned military conquest allowing Yahweh to display his holiness to other nations. Other empires like Assyria and Babylon displayed gods’ power through military victory.

  • The Babylonians’ destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, seen as Yahweh’s home, was an ultimate transgression calling for ultimate retaliation - eliminating other gods through establishing monotheism.

  • Monotheism arose partially from a desire for retribution against Babylon and other oppressors, though it was not a perfectly logical progression.

  • Exilic theology also focused on salvation and divine justice bringing peace, though Israel remained uniquely favored while other nations awaited judgment. Apocalyptic visions of the future offered hope during difficult times.

  • The exile of Israelites in Babylon led to the development of monotheistic ideas among exiled intellectuals. They reasoned that if Yahweh did not control even the empire that conquered Judah (Babylon), then his power and honor would be in doubt.

  • However, Yahweh appeared to orchestrate the defeat of Babylon by the Persian Empire under Cyrus. The biblical text portrays Yahweh as controlling Cyrus’ victories and calling him specifically. This implied Yahweh controlled not just Babylon but its conqueror as well.

  • This logical extreme of Yahweh controlling all of history left little room for other gods. It also promised future salvation by Yahweh’s complete control of the world. However, complete monotheism did not emerge immediately and other influences likely played a role over centuries.

  • Greek thought encouraging rational theology may have nurtured monotheism in Israel. Meanwhile, Zoroastrian dualism in Persia bore some similarities to emerging Jewish/Christian concepts, and Persia’s political support of Israel allowed intellectual exchange that could have influenced beliefs.

  • Ultimately, monotheism developed organically from pre-exilic Israelite ideas but was likely shaped to some degree by outside influences like Persia over many years as the key belief system of post-exilic Judaism.

  • The chapter discusses Philo of Alexandria’s interpretation of Exodus 22:28, which in the Septuagint said not to revile “gods” rather than just God.

  • Philo, a devout Jew, interpreted this to mean God’s law supported those with different religious opinions and tolerated other people’s gods, seeking well-spoken praise rather than reviling them.

  • Some would argue Philo was just interpreting the Septuagint translation literally. But his circumstances likely influenced his interpretation and openness to tolerance as well.

  • Philo lived in Alexandria, a cosmopolitan city where different cultures and religions existed peacefully. This environment likely shaped his view that tolerance preserves “peace” and “dignity.”

  • Gods are shaped by prevailing interpretations of them. As someone focused on tolerance, Philo helped shape Yahweh as a god of tolerance rather than just retribution. A god’s character changes as the views of its followers change.

  • Philo illustrates how living among religious diversity can lead people to emphasize peaceful coexistence over conflict, forming a “law of religious tolerance.” Understanding individuals like Philo provides insight into religion’s potential for both violence and tolerance.

  • The passage discusses how the view of God has grown over time to become more morally inclusive and spiritually deep. This view is likely to spread due to basic tendencies in human history, so God’s growth could be seen as “natural” and part of the human story, though the progress is not linear and can regress at times.

  • Philo’s story from antiquity shows why forces for moral growth in views of God have often been stronger than forces for stagnation or regression. It suggests a moral direction built into history.

  • This raises questions about whether this shows evidence of a “higher purpose” or divine plan, and if so, whether it could form the basis of a modern theology that allows for scientific laws while conceiving of the divine more abstractly without an anthropomorphic deity.

  • Philo surprisingly provided a rough draft of such a theology nearly two millennia before modern science created a need for it.

  • The passage then discusses how interpretive leeway in scriptures through ambiguity, selective retention, and metaphor/allegory has allowed views of God to grow and change over time in more morally inclusive ways. Philo exemplified this through his own interpretations of biblical texts.

  • Philo, a Jewish philosopher in Alexandria in the 1st century CE, had to reconcile his Jewish faith with living under Roman rule among Greeks and Egyptians. Maintaining good relations with the powerful Romans and upper-class Greeks was important for his security and prosperity.

  • However, his Jewish monotheism sometimes conflicted with Roman demands to worship their divine leaders. This contributed to tensions and anti-Semitism among local polytheists. Renouncing Judaism was an option that his nephew took.

  • Philo had to preserve the viability of Judaism in Alexandria while engaging with the surrounding cultures. This was a delicate task, like explaining to Emperor Caligula why Jews would not allow statues of him in synagogues.

  • Philo led a delegation to plead the Jews’ case with Caligula after riots against Jews in Alexandria. Through rational argument, they successfully lobbied for Jews to maintain their lives and religion.

  • Philo advocated tolerance as a practical solution given the precarious position of Jews, to avoid conflict escalating to a “lose-lose” outcome for both sides. Though tensions existed, mutual tolerance was a form of non-zero-sum relationship that could benefit everyone.

The passage discusses how having pragmatic, self-interested reasons to cooperate or coexist with others can sometimes lead down a path toward more thoughtful, compassionate attitudes. Game theory concepts like non-zero-sum interactions are common in life and seen repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible.

Examples from the Bible include Jephthah appealing to Ammonite king on pragmatic grounds of respecting each other’s gods to promote peace. While addressing Ammonites, this implies respect for their god Chemosh, but when addressing Israelites it implies Yahweh’s compassion extends even to Ammonites. This shows how the same logic can manifest differently depending on context.

The book of Ruth promotes inclusion of foreigners like Ruth the Moabite, signifying God’s love is not bound by ethnicity. This either validated intermarriage after exile or foreign economic interactions earlier. Both represent non-zero-sum situations where inclusion benefits Israelites.

Similarly, Jonah’s reprimand of Nineveh leading to their repentance and God’s forgiveness shows God’s unexpected compassion even for former Assyrian tormentors. This goes against Jonah’s view but demonstrates Yahweh’s potential for moral growth and universal compassion over time.

  • Traditionally in the Hebrew Bible, God’s wrath was stirred by people who did not know good from evil - i.e. were ignorant of moral truths. God punished nations like Israel and its enemies for their “ignorance.”

  • However, in the books of Jonah and Ruth, which were likely written after the exile, God shows more compassion. In Jonah, God spares the Assyrian city of Nineveh despite their wickedness.

  • This reflects a greater capacity for moral growth in God’s character. The world needs an Abrahamic God who can foster tolerance as globalization has made all religions interdependent.

  • Ancient empires like Persia promoted interdependence between diverse peoples, similar to today’s globalization. After the exile, when Israel was part of the Persian Empire, texts like Jonah and Ruth reflect a more inclusive attitude towards other nations and peoples in the empire.

  • The Priestly source, which likely reflected priestly views during or after the exile, also shows God’s promise to Abraham encompassing multiple nations, not just Israel. This exhibits a morally inclusive, pro-empire perspective aligned with Persia’s imperial aims.

  • References to God as “El Shaddai” in inclusive passages may have been a way to equate Israel’s God with that of other neighboring nations in the empire, resolving tensions between Israelite self-esteem and imperial integration.

So in summary, texts from after the exile show the Abrahamic God developing a more tolerant, globally-minded character aligned with the moral realities of imperial rule and globalization.

  • The passage discusses the Priestly (P) source’s concept of an “international family tree” that tried to situate different nations and their gods within a broader monotheistic framework under Yahweh/Elohim.

  • However, simply equating Yahweh with the god of Abraham wasn’t enough, as some national patriarchs like the Assyrians and Arameans were more closely related to Noah than Abraham in the genealogies.

  • The term Elohim, which may have come from Aramaic, allowed P to present a view of God/divinity that was “international and unspecific.” Elohim took on a capital-G connotation of the overarching divine being above national gods.

  • P’s use of Elohim, El Shaddai, and Yahweh corresponded to concentric circles of God’s dominion and relationship with people - as universal Elohim, as Abraham’s El Shaddai, and as the cultic Israelite Yahweh.

  • However, P’s monotheism and inclusion of other gods/nations was limited by the boundaries of the Persian Empire. Egypt remained excluded and demonized due to its rivalry with Persia. So P’s God showed progress but not universal friendship.

  • The passage discusses Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher who lived around 2,000 years ago in Alexandria, located between Athens (center of philosophy) and Jerusalem (center of Judaism).

  • Philo sought to reconcile and synthesize Jewish theology/scripture with Greek philosophy. He believed both contained ultimate truths and wanted to show they were compatible, not opposed.

  • This pursuit of intellectual synthesis reflected the growing interdependence between Jews and Greeks in Alexandria. It also addressed Philo’s own cognitive dissonance from believing both traditions were true but appeared contradictory.

  • A key part of Philo’s synthesis was moving away from an anthropomorphic and interventionist deity (as depicted in the Bible) towards a more abstract conception of God. He portrayed God as a rational “Logos” or “divine algorithm” that ordered the world through logical laws rather than direct actions.

  • This conception helped reconcile religion and an emerging scientific worldview. It set Philo apart as one of the earliest theologians to address God in a way compatible with modern sensibilities through non-anthropomorphic and non-interventionist language.

So in summary, Philo sought to bridge Jewish theology and Greek philosophy by reconceiving God in a more abstract, rational manner consistent with science and philosophy even in his own time. This synthesis made an enduring contribution to theological thought.

  • Philo of Alexandria lived in the 1st century CE and developed a philosophical system to reconcile a transcendent, ineffable God with God’s active involvement in the world.

  • He called God’s anthropomorphic depiction in the Bible an “allegory” and said God defies human conception. But this posed the problem of how God interacts with the world and provides guidance.

  • Philo answered this through the concept of the Logos - the divine rational principle or ordering force that pervades the universe and animates it according to God’s will and plan.

  • The Logos was God’s instrument in creation and ongoing administration/providence over the world. It contained God’s intention and purpose, reflected in natural law and the Torah/Jewish law given through Moses.

  • Harmonizing oneself with the Logos through understanding and following its principles could bring enlightenment and a kind of union with the divine, moving humanity towards God’s aim of universal harmony, fellowship, etc.

  • While Jews had special revelation in the Torah, Philo believed the Logos could be discerned through reason and philosophy by all people, guiding them to live virtuously according to natural law/God’s will.

So in summary, Philo used the Logos concept to reconcile a transcendent God with divine involvement through a rational ordering principle reflected in nature, history and morality.

  • Philo equates the Logos with wisdom, using the terms interchangeably. This seems like an odd comparison at first but is key to understanding Philo’s concepts.

  • In Jewish scripture like Proverbs, Wisdom is depicted as a divine or semi-divine force that helped create the universe. Equating the Logos to Wisdom connects it to this creative force.

  • The wisdom literature also contained observations about human behavior and its consequences. This reflects an empirical, cause-and-effect view of how the world works according to natural laws.

  • Philo believed God designed the world so that by studying these natural laws and consequences of behavior, one could learn virtue and come to understand the Logos/divine order behind it all. This empirical study was one path to spiritual truth.

  • So equating Logos and Wisdom links the divine creative force to the natural order people can comprehend themselves through reason and experience. It provides a way for humans to rationally understand and participate in the divine through their own faculties.

Here are the two wisdoms summarized:

  1. Everyday garden-variety human wisdom: This refers to the common sense and practical wisdom that humans develop through living life and gaining experience. It’s the wisdom of managing everyday affairs and making practical decisions.

  2. The Wisdom of God: God designed the world in such a wise way that the rational pursuit of self-interest leads humans toward wisdom. When humans navigate social reality wisely by following virtue, they are indirectly following the divine Logos (Word/Reason of God) and connecting with God. Lady Wisdom in Proverbs represents both God’s initial design of the wise world and the giver of wisdom to humans. Pursuing virtue and wisdom allows humans to potentially commune with the divine mind/Will of God in a rational way.

So in summary, one is common human wisdom, while the other refers to the higher Wisdom displayed in God’s design of the world to cultivate human wisdom and a potential connecting with the divine mind through rational and virtuous living.

  • Philo saw the Logos as both the governing cosmic principle guiding history and the moral principle of reason. He believed his own logos (reason) reflected the cosmic Logos when it championed inter-faith tolerance and respected different views.

  • This positioned Philo at the intersection between Wisdom (the divine plan) and wisdom (human reason). By using reason to promote tolerance, Philo was furthering the divine plan unfolding on earth.

  • However, how exactly did the impersonal Logos “prompt” or arrange for Philo to be in a situation where he could act wisely and further the divine plan? The Logos was meant to operate like natural laws, not an interventionist god.

  • One possibility is that the rational, inquisitive part of the human mind, through technological progress, inevitably puts people in more interconnected situations requiring tolerance of others who are different. Philo responded to this wisely through his promotion of respect between faiths.

  • Philo believed the Logos, through figures like himself who promoted peace, would gradually bring all of humanity to a state of “fellowship and concord” by recognizing our interdependence and complementarity, like the notes that form a harmony. Moral progress would be fitful but real.

  • Comparable ideas about universal brotherhood and respect for others were emerging in cultures like China and India during this period, suggesting a global trend driven by growing interconnection between societies.

  • Historians consider biblical claims more likely to be true if they are theologically inconvenient or difficult to reconcile with religious beliefs. This is because fabricated claims would likely fit more easily with theology.

  • The rule of theological inconvenience increases the credibility of accounts like King Josiah’s zealous devotion to Yahweh, which ended badly and made polytheism seem preferable theologically. Its inclusion suggests it’s historically accurate.

  • This criterion also increases the likelihood that Jesus was actually crucified. His crucifixion made little theological sense for early Christians and was not emphasized. It would have been easier to fabricate a story where Jesus died in a more glorious way. The awkwardness of crucifixion increases its historicity.

  • While there is no written reference to Jesus’ crucifixion for two decades, historians believe it probably did happen due to this rule - fabricated stories would have portrayed his death in a more flattering religious light.

In summary, the rule of theological inconvenience posits that biblical claims which are awkward or inconvenient theologically are more likely to be historically accurate, as fabricated stories would align better with religious beliefs. This increases the credibility of Josiah’s devotion to monotheism and Jesus’ crucifixion.

  • While Jesus’s crucifixion seems foundational to Christianity’s theology of redemption, it was originally a problem for his followers given Jewish ideas of the Messiah as a ruling king.

  • Messianic expectations in Jesus’s time involved an earthly leader who would aid God’s victory over evil, not die before that victory. So Jesus’s death should have discredited claims he was the Messiah.

  • The gospels reflect theologies that evolved after Jesus’s death, not just his actual words and deeds. They portray post-crucifixion beliefs as matching pre-crucifixion ones, obscuring doctrinal evolution.

  • The “historical Jesus” likely did not emphasize universal love and salvation as later Christian theology did. The gospels were shaped by later rhetorical/theological needs, not just eyewitness testimony.

  • Mark is generally the most historically reliable gospel but still products of its time, not a “plain unvarnished truth.” Later gospels add more doctrinally/narratively desirable details over time.

So in summary, the passage analyzes how Christian theology arose from an unlikely event - Jesus’s crucifixion - by creatively reinterpreting scripture over time to fit evolving beliefs, not just reporting original facts and teachings.

  • The Gospels of Matthew and Luke contradict each other on some details regarding Jesus’ birth and early life, suggesting the earliest Gospel of Mark may be closer to the truth.

  • Mark portrays Jesus as expressing doubt and surprise on the cross, while later Gospels depict him as more accepting of his death. This suggests the later Gospels smoothed over inconvenient details.

  • Mark and some of the other Gospels acknowledge Jesus failed to convince people or perform miracles at times, which later Gospels try to explain away.

  • When questioned by Pharisees in Mark, Jesus refuses to provide a sign, but later Gospels add context to make Jesus look better in the situation.

  • Mark depicts Jesus being rejected in his hometown of Nazareth and unable to perform miracles there, which the later Gospels also acknowledge but try to provide additional context or explanations for.

  • Overall, the later Gospels like Luke and John seem to include more embellishment and obfuscation compared to the earliest Gospel of Mark, which includes more “awkward truths” and unvarnished details about Jesus that were harder to explain away.

  • Of the Gospels, Mark likely provides the clearest starting point for reconstructing a “historical Jesus” due to retaining more unadorned facts rather than developing theology or legend over time in the later Gospels.

Here is a summary of what real-life shamans are known to employ based on the passage:

  • Real-life shamans have been known to employ healing rituals and techniques to cure hysterically induced illnesses. They developed reputations as “wonder workers” due to success stories from using these practices.

  • Shamans may have used soothing or hypnotic effects to help cure illnesses, along with some embellishment of their abilities in stories told by followers.

  • It’s possible Jesus employed similar shamanic healing techniques and developed success stories that were later exaggerated by followers to promote his message. However, it’s unclear if his reported miracles were actual healings or complete inventions.

  • Beyond any shamanic role, it was Jesus’ message about the coming “Kingdom of God” and bringing justice/God’s will to earth that truly set him apart and made his mission momentous. This apocalyptic message built on prophecies from Second Isaiah.

So in summary, real-life shamans were known to employ healing rituals and techniques that could cure some illnesses, allowing them to develop reputations as wonder workers. The passage discusses whether Jesus may have had a similar shamanic role or gift for healing. But it was ultimately his message about the coming Kingdom of God that set the stage for his lasting significance.

  • The parable of the Good Samaritan is told by Jesus in response to being asked “Who is my neighbor?” It involves a man who is beaten and left by the side of the road. A priest and Levite pass by without helping, but a Samaritan stops to help and care for the man.

  • Samaritans were seen as foreigners by Jews at the time. Jesus tells the listener that the Samaritan was the neighbor to the man in need. He instructs them to “Go and do likewise.”

  • This story promotes loving your neighbor regardless of ethnic boundaries. However, it is not found in the earliest gospels of Mark or Q, so it may not accurately reflect the historical Jesus’ teachings.

  • Other early sources like Matthew depict Jesus instructing his disciples not to preach to Gentiles or Samaritans, but rather to focus on “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This suggests Jesus’ message had a more Israel-centric view.

  • The apostle Paul played a seminal role in making love a major Christian theme. Whereas Jesus barely mentions love, Paul uses the word frequent in his letters, talking about love for God, others, and “brotherly love” across ethnic and social boundaries. Paul was influential in spreading this universal, loving message of Christianity.

  • Paul preached that Jesus was the Messiah who died for humanity’s sins. Those who believed in this could have eternal life if they believed quickly, as Judgment Day was coming. However, his core message said nothing directly about interethnic love or the importance of people loving one another.

  • In the Roman Empire after Jesus, urbanization led to social dislocation as people left kin networks. Voluntary associations provided material and psychological support like fictive families. Early Christian churches served these functions.

  • While other groups also used brotherhood language, Paul took it to an unprecedented degree. However, his extensive preaching on love became necessary due to his ambition to establish churches across the Roman Empire, not just locally.

  • Facing technological limitations, Paul used letters to administer his growing but distant congregations. The love chapter in 1 Corinthians responded to factionalism and enthusiasts who disrupted worship without consideration for others. Paul established guidelines to promote intelligible expression and orderly worship for building others up.

  • By invoking brotherly love, Paul asserted his authority over rivals and established congregations as his “family.” This was important as he had to leave communities and could not rely on personal presence to maintain unity in his growing Christian movement.

The passage discusses how Paul’s message of brotherly love helped early Christian churches attract members and promote cohesion. It provided a sense of community that was appealing. Paul also used the concept of brotherly love to exert remote control over congregations from afar.

While brotherly love emphasized bonding within churches, the congregations were not necessarily ethnically diverse at first. However, Paul’s mission was to take the gospel to Gentiles as the Apostle to the Gentiles. This helped build the idea of transcending ethnicity into his conception of his mission.

Practically, Paul realized that imposing Jewish laws like circumcision and dietary restrictions would hinder converting Gentiles. So he removed these barriers, prioritizing faith over circumcision or observance of the Law. This strategic decision diluted any notion of Jewish superiority and helped Christianity appeal to more people across ethnicities. It also got Paul accused of rejecting the Law by some.

To establish churches, Paul needed important local recruits who could provide meeting spaces, like Lydia the dealer in purple cloth in Philippi. Relying on patronage of elites and wealthier members helped the early churches. This environment and Paul’s need for cooperation across ethnic lines helped embed the idea of interethnic harmony and brotherly love in early Christianity.

  • Lydia’s “household” likely included not just her family but also servants and possibly slaves. After she and her household were baptized, she urged Paul and his companions to stay at her home. Her home then became the meeting place for the local Christian congregation.

  • To find supporters like Lydia, Paul had to interact with wealthier, elite circles. Lydia sold expensive purple cloth and had traveled from her home in Asia Minor to Macedonia, indicating her wealthy status.

  • Many early Christian associates, like Paul, were travelers. Travelers could help establish and sustain congregations by carrying letters between churches and even founding new congregations in distant places.

  • Aquila and Priscilla were an example - they had moved from Rome to Corinth and then to Ephesus, where they founded a church in their home. Paul shared their trade of tentmaking, which allowed him to interact with wealthier travelers who used tents rather than inns.

  • These travelers were cosmopolitan and exposed to different ethnicities through commerce, promoting some tolerance and intercultural relationships. However, Christianity called for deeper interethnic brotherly love.

  • Early Christian congregations provided benefits like lodging and assistance to traveling church leaders and members. This helped the church expand across the Roman Empire by creating a network of support. The language of familial intimacy also helped bond congregations together as part of a larger whole.

  • Paul utilized the existing “information technology of the day” (hand-carried letters) to maintain connections between distant Christian congregations. He emphasized the theme of familial love or “brotherly love.”

  • Paul extended this idea of brotherly love beyond local congregations and ethnic groups. This helped foster hospitality between traveling church leaders and later all Christians. This unity through love helped keep the early church strong over the long term compared to other multi-city religions.

  • In the multi-ethnic Roman Empire, an organization aiming to be vast like the early church should be ethnically inclusive to utilize all potential resources and recruits. The synagogues and church in Rome were valuable resources Paul wanted to use.

  • While there were likely doctrinal differences between Paul and Latin Christians in Rome, Paul emphasized brotherly love in his letter to them to foster unity. He needed their support as he planned missions elsewhere.

  • Paul preached “brotherly love” primarily among Christians, not universally. This solidarity cemented the church’s organic bonds while also allowing generosity to outsiders to impress observers and gain converts. Strict membership policies financed this strategy and provided mobility for members. So “universal love” was conditionally extended, not truly universal, helping the church stay cohesive.

  • Early Christians faced persecution from Roman emperors like Nero for refusing to worship Roman gods and actively challenging other religions. This caused tension between Christians and Roman rulers.

  • Christianity continued growing despite persecution, until Emperor Constantine had a vision and decided to fight a crucial battle under the symbol of the cross in 312 CE. His subsequent victory elevated Jesus in his esteem and helped usher in an era of official tolerance for Christianity.

  • Constantine’s conversion is debated - some see it as pivotal to Christianity displacing paganism, while others say Christianity was already powerful enough to prevail on its own.

  • If Constantine had lost the battle or not fought under the cross symbol, and Christianity had faded away, what would have become of the growing idea of interethnic brotherly love so closely associated with Christianity by then?

  • This is an important theological question. If the idea of interethnic tolerance still emerged naturally due to political/social factors even without Christianity’s success, it supports the view that theological doctrines evolves as inevitable outgrowths of history moving toward moral truths and expanded social cooperation.

So in summary, it questions whether interethnic brotherly love was firmly established due to Christianity’s dominance, or if alternative religions may have promoted similar ideas independent of Christianity depending on the sociopolitical context. This relates to debates on the necessary vs contingent aspects of history.

The passage argues that the creation of the Roman Empire made interethnic cooperation and amity more valuable by creating a larger economic sphere. It uses the example of religious cults on the Greek island of Delos in the 2nd century BCE to show how cults that were open to merchants from different cities (Tyre and Beirut in this case) could have benefited more from network externalities compared to cults that were ethnically or nationally exclusive.

As commerce expanded under the Roman Empire, an inclusive religious group like early Christianity had more potential to harness network externalities and grow compared to alternatives like the Ebionites who insisted on adhering strictly to Jewish law, making it difficult for Gentiles to join. Another competitor was Marcionism, which embraced Paul’s doctrine of interethnic brotherhood and grew rapidly but lost out to what became mainstream Christianity in the competition between religious ideas/memes. So factors like network externalities helped determine which versions of Christianity became dominant.

  • Marcion founded an early Christian sect called Marcionism that rejected the Hebrew Bible and emphasized Paul’s letters. It was a prominent rival to what became orthodox Christianity.

  • Both Marcionism and orthodox Christianity promoted brotherly love, creating a competitive environment where dominance meant access to greater resources and followers.

  • By rejecting Judaism completely, Marcion cut off a potential source of support, but by the late 1st century, orthodox Christianity also distinguished itself from Judaism and anti-Semitism emerged.

  • Both Christians and Jews claimed a right to special exemption from Roman religion based on their ancient tradition. But only one could be the true heir, so Christians argued Jews had forfeited this right by killing Jesus.

  • Even without Jesus or Paul, some movement likely would have gained dominance by promoting inter-ethnic amity, which captured network effects within the diversely populated Roman Empire. Figures like Apollonius of Tyana showed similarities to Jesus.

  • An emperor like Constantine may have chosen to support and promote Christianity because its doctrine of brotherly love aided consolidation of his multi-ethnic empire, just as Ashoka supported Buddhism for this reason in India.

  • The points of examining this history were to show how inter-ethnic amity was inevitable given Roman network effects, and how Christianity’s success did not necessarily reflect moral progress over alternatives.

The passage discusses how the concept of God and the role of God have changed and adapted over time in the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

In Judaism, God (Yahweh) started as having an ethnic bias in favor of the Israelites. Even when adopting a more global view, non-Israelites were expected to submit not just to God but to the Israelites as well. However, over time as the Israelites became part of larger empires like Persia, the Priestly source in the Hebrew Bible adopted a more inclusive view of other peoples.

In Christianity, God originally through Jesus was still primarily for the Israelites according to the earliest gospels. But through Paul, the Christian God became explicitly transnational and focused on belief rather than ethnicity. However, it still involved a form of particularism focused on Christians rather than true universality. Later Christianity condemned non-believers to suffering in a way that was arguably not truly loving.

The passage argues that God/the conception of God has proven to be highly adaptable over time, changing to facilitate greater cooperation and pluralism between groups as social organizations expanded in a non-zero-sum manner. The logical progression of this viewpoint sees Jesus as an embodiment of the “Logos” or divine organizing principle of expanding moral concern and altruism between groups.

  • The earliest Christians, including Jesus and Paul, did not believe in the idea of individuals going to heaven upon death. They believed God would establish his kingdom on Earth at the end of times.

  • The idea of souls ascending to heaven after death developed over several decades after Jesus’ death, as Christians grappled with how to understand the fate of believers who died before God’s kingdom was established on Earth.

  • Paul introduced the idea that Christians who died would be resurrected when Jesus returns, not ascend immediately to heaven. They would live eternally on the renewed Earth.

  • The modern Christian notion of souls immediately ascending to heaven upon death, and Jesus judging individuals in heaven, emerged centuries later and is reflected in the Nicene Creed.

  • The idea of the “Rapture” where Christians are taken up alive to heaven comes from a disputed interpretation of Paul and is not clearly supported even in his writings. Paul envisioned Jesus returning to Earth, not Christians ascending permanently to heaven.

So in summary, the concept of individual souls going to heaven upon death developed gradually after Jesus, going against his original message which focused on an earthly kingdom of God.

  • The gospel accounts refer to Jesus referring to himself as the “Son of Man”, which was an apocalyptic figure from Jewish scripture. This was likely adopted by his followers after his death to make sense of his crucifixion.

  • Stories could then be invented or embellished where Jesus predicted his own death and resurrection using this term, since it was a coded way of referring to himself without directly saying “I”.

  • The idea that Jesus was the Son of Man living in heaven empowered Christians after his death and inspired martyrdom by offering hope of being with him after death.

  • Early Christianity did not initially offer the concept of immediate reward in heaven after death. This developed later, around the time of Luke’s gospel, as expectations of a imminent earthly kingdom waned.

  • Luke introduced concepts like the poor man in “paradise” with Jesus to compete with salvation religions from the Roman empire that promised a blissful afterlife, like those involving Osiris and other gods. This helped Christianity appeal to Gentile converts.

So in summary, the “Son of Man” title and predictions of Jesus’ fate evolved after his death to make sense of it, and the concept of heaven developed later in response to foreign religious competition and fading hopes of an earthly kingdom.

  • The story of the rich man and Lazarus in the Bible may have been inspired by an Egyptian story about judgment in the afterlife. Egyptian religion had the concept of being rewarded or punished in the underworld (Amenti) based on one’s moral behavior on earth.

  • Religions that Christianity competed with in the Roman Empire, like cults of Isis and Serapis, offered believers comforting messages about the afterlife and moments of transformative release or being “born again.” Initiates in the Isis cult described feeling reborn through rituals.

  • Early Christianity, especially through Paul, emphasized the concept of sin and the need for salvation or release from sin. Paul described feeling enslaved to sin prior to his conversion.

  • Defining sin in a way that enhanced social cohesion, like prohibiting drunkenness or sexual excess, helped sustain the early Christian community. The belief that avoiding these sins was necessary to “inherit the kingdom of God” created a powerful incentive structure.

  • The concept of a morally contingent afterlife, where one’s actions determine eternal reward or punishment, predated Christianity in Egyptian religion through the code of Osiris in the Book of the Dead, dating back over a millennium before Paul. This helped religions recruit and retain followers.

  • Ancient Egyptian funerary texts from as early as 2000 BCE featured the deceased proclaiming their moral purity and lack of sins like cheating buyers or stealing milk from children. This resembles the concept of Judgment Day in Christianity.

  • The focus on moral purity emerged with the growth of social complexity and civilization. As societies became more complex, religion discouraged anti-social behaviors like theft. Moral rules were meant to uphold social order.

  • Religions also discouraged self-destructive behaviors that became more possible with civilization, like overindulgence in newly available goods like alcohol. Rules against things like anger and overeating aimed to benefit individuals.

  • The more uncertain social interactions of larger civilizations created new insecurities compared to smaller hunter-gatherer communities. People wanted comforting, forgiving gods who provided consolation and social order.

  • By the 2nd millennium BCE in Mesopotamia and Egypt, gods were increasingly depicted as loving, protective father figures who embodied mercy and forgiveness. This preceded Christianity’s conception of a kind, forgiving God.

  • Salvation from sin and moral concerns predated Christianity and were adaptations to the societal changes wrought by civilization and its growing complexity of social relations and opportunities for harmful behavior.

  • The expression “salvus sis” meant “May you be in good health.” Salvus is the word from which “salvation” comes.

  • In ancient Israel, God’s goal was to provide salvation - keep the social system safe from forces of destruction. This involved protecting the church-based state of Israel.

  • With early Christianity, the social system was just the church, not a church-based state like in Israel. But the religion still needed to keep the system intact to remain viable.

  • Paul’s condemnation of divisive behavior can be seen as linking individual salvation to social salvation - preserving the church’s cohesion.

  • Defining individual salvation broadly, as saving one from all afflictions, many religions have linked individual and social salvation. This fueled their success.

  • Religions more tightly linked the two in the past when their scope matched whole civilizations, like Christianity in Rome or Islam during its empire. But today religions inhabit a global system, complicating pursuing individual over social salvation.

So in summary, many religions historically tied individual salvation to upholding social/systemic order for viability. But this linkage is more complex given today’s globalized, interconnected world.

  • The Quran was likely written down during Muhammad’s life, perhaps under his supervision. It was almost certainly being written down shortly after his death as well. Most scholars believe it was essentially complete within 20 years of his death.

  • Recitation of Quranic verses seems to have begun in Muhammad’s day, helping preserve the text. The Quran’s rhythmic style also aids memorization and retention.

  • The Quran’s contents suggest authenticity, reflecting Muhammad’s progression from prophet to leader of an expanding Islamic state, rather than just serving post-Muhammad rulers.

  • However, no scholars believe the Quran is a perfect guide to what Muhammad said. Sources raise questions about its portrayal of Muhammad’s attitude toward Jews late in life.

  • The passage then provides background on Mecca, noting how Muhammad’s personal situation as an orphan fit with the values in the Quran. It also discusses how his monotheism would have disturbed Mecca’s polytheistic status quo.

  • The origins of Muhammad’s monotheism and connection to the Abrahamic God are explored, with possibilities that he was influenced by contact with Christians during trade or from his wife’s Christian cousin.

In summary, the passage discusses the origin and development of the Quran and arguments for its authenticity, while also acknowledging limitations in using it to understand Muhammad’s exact teachings. It provides context on Muhammad’s background and monotheism’s challenge to Mecca.

  • Muhammad took an existing monotheistic god, Allah, that was already known in Arabia through contact with Christians and Jews, and positioned himself as the Arabic spokesman for that god. In a sense, he “translated” the Bible/message of Christianity and Judaism into Arabic.

  • However, Islam sees itself not as descended from Christianity/Judaism but rather as an independent revelation from God. The Koran presents itself as confirming prior scriptures like the Torah but transmitted directly to Muhammad from God, not through other religions.

  • There is debate around whether Allah originated independently in ancient Arabian religion or was simply the same Judeo-Christian God imported earlier. Phonetic similarities between Arabic “Allah” and Syriac/Hebrew words for God suggest the latter.

  • Whatever his early influences, Muhammad did not fully accept Christian theology as understood today. His goal was to convince Arabs that Allah was the one true God, not argue that Allah even existed. This implies Allah was already known and accepted in pre-Islamic Arabia.

  • So in summary, while Muhammad built on existing monotheism, Islam sees its revelations as coming directly from God rather than being descended from other faiths, even as it confirms parts of their scriptures. The origins and earlier role of Allah in Arabia are still debated.

  • The passage discusses the evolution of the word for God from Hebrew (Elohim) to Arabic (Allah). Elohim originally signified the one God of Israel. This God was known as Elaha in Aramaic and Allaha/Allah in Syriac, the language of early Christians in the region.

  • Muhammad preached about the same God, Allah, to the Arabs. But he brought new emphasis on Allah being the sole god to believe in completely, rather than accepting gods casually as part of commercial diplomacy like the Meccans did.

  • Muhammad faced resistance from Meccan elites because monotheism threatened the regional commerce and polytheistic traditions centered around the Kaaba shrine in Mecca.

  • The passage analyzes how the tone of the Quran fluctuates between tolerance and belligerence depending on Muhammad’s changing strategies for dealing with resistance to his message in Mecca over 10 years as a street prophet facing rejection and harassment.

  • It draws parallels between Muhammad’s experience in Mecca and that of Moses and Jesus, who also faced rejection in their home communities before their messages spread more widely.

  • The passage describes the incentives and rewards promised in the afterlife according to early Islamic teachings under Muhammad. There would be bountiful food, drink, luxurious furnishings, and beautiful companions.

  • It contrasts this with the punishments for non-believers/infidels, who would face chains, collars, scalding water, and burning in the Hellfire.

  • This reward/punishment structure was important for motivating Muhammad’s followers in Mecca, who faced oppression and mockery. It assured justice against their tormentors and consolations for their current suffering.

  • The imagery of divine retribution also appealed to the followers’ sense of justice and enabled them to take gratification in the promised future suffering of their enemies.

  • However, during the Meccan period when Muslims were weak, the Koran actually encouraged restraint and avoiding vengeance. It told followers to warn calmly and leave punishment to God. Fighting was not presented as an appealing option at that time.

  • The passage then discusses the potential “Satanic verses” incident, where Muhammad may have conceded the divinity of some pagan goddesses to gain support, before retracting this concession due to negative feedback.

  • The standard account of Muhammad being warmly welcomed in Medina is not considered reliable, as stories about early Islamic figures were often written long after the fact.

  • The Quran suggests Muhammad was still working to gain followers and establish his authority in Medina. Verses refer to people not necessarily obeying Muhammad and him continuing to preach and recruit followers.

  • Muhammad likely had a base of support in Medina already from cultivating followers there while in Mecca. His group provided a new “tribe” identity in Medina beyond traditional kinship ties.

  • Establishing Islam required transcending existing tribal allegiances, similar to how Christianity elevated beliefs over ethnic/national identities. Both religions aimed to restructure societies on new models.

  • The births of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all involved large-scale social engineering - consolidating tribes/ethnicities and expanding identities and governance beyond traditional bounds towards new multinational models. Muhammad began exerting authority over tribes and regions across Arabia after migrating to Medina.

  • Within 25 years of Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina, a small Islamic state had formed and become a multinational empire. Both Byzantine and Persian territories had come under Islamic control.

  • When Muhammad arrived in Medina, the social landscape was unpromising - Arab tribes were heavily polytheistic and in conflict, and there were also large Jewish and Christian populations, making centralized control difficult.

  • Muhammad had trouble politically unifying and gaining acceptance from the religiously diverse populations in Medina, including Jews and Christians. Relations grew hostile and sometimes violent according to Islamic scripture.

  • Theological differences were a source of conflict, as Christians and Jews did not accept Islam’s pure monotheism. But the issues were more complex than just theology - political and social factors were also involved.

  • In Medina, Muhammad took on the role of both prophet and politician, using military success to demonstrate God’s power and gain allegiance. Early raids and battles strengthened his authority.

  • Initially, Muhammad seemed to want to unite rather than merge the Abrahamic religions, acknowledging Jewish practices. But fully integrating Christians and Jews proved difficult due to theological differences over Jesus. Tensions increased over time.

  • Muhammad initially praised Jesus and seemed open to acknowledging his divinity, but eventually backed away from that to avoid undermining monotheism.

  • Early Christianity was more diverse than later orthodox versions, including groups like the Ebionites who saw Jesus as human. Muhammad may have aimed to win over such groups by praising a human Jesus.

  • Arabia at the time had contact with diverse Christian groups like Nestorians and Manicheans, as well as Jews of varying beliefs, so painting them all with one brush is an oversimplification.

  • Muhammad continued seeking Christian allegiance in Medina while more explicitly rejecting the Trinity, calling Jesus a prophet but not divine. He aimed to build a common religion for Jews, Christians and others by positioning Islam as the fulfillment of their traditions.

  • The story of Abraham and Ishmael subtly positioned Arabs as central rather than secondary, with Ishmael’s blessings emphasized and Abraham linked to building the Kaaba shrine in Mecca. This gave Muhammad’s religion ties to all local traditions while asserting Islam’s supremacy.

  • All groups were asked to give up aspects of their heritage to accept Islam as the singular “pure faith” of Abraham transcending prior revelations, with Muhammad as the seal of the prophets.

  • The passage discusses the relationship between religious beliefs and political/social realities in early Islam. It questions the common view that theological differences alone caused conflict between Muslims, Jews and Christians.

  • It suggests political factors may have played a bigger role. For example, Jewish tribes in Medina may have resisted Muhammad’s leadership for political rather than theological reasons. Their expulsion may have been due more to tensions on the ground than religious disagreements.

  • The theological incompatibility of Islam with Judaism/Christianity is not necessarily an “intellectual inevitability”. Muhammad’s ecumenical project to unify the Abrahamic faiths may have succeeded if his political goals, like gaining leadership acceptance, were more agreeable.

  • Key events like the “break with the Jews” are based on later Islamic oral traditions, not clear evidence. The precise order and details of Muhammad’s messages are unclear. Alternative interpretations question the standard Muslim narrative of these events.

  • Overall it argues religious belief may not be the sole or primary driver of conflicts, and political and social realities on the ground also played an important role in the relationship between early Muslims, Jews and Christians. The causal direction may go both ways.

Here are the key points this passage makes about taking the scenario of an early alliance between Muslims and Jews seriously:

  1. It would help explain a puzzling reference in an early Greek document from the 630s that refers to a “prophet” among the Saracens (Arabs/Muslims) who claims to have the keys to paradise (like Muhammad) but also proclaims “the advent of the anointed one who is to come” (like a Messiah figure expected in Judaism). This indicates the prophet and his followers had connections to Jewish beliefs and ideas.

  2. The discrepancies between the standard Islamic account of Muhammad splitting from Jews and earliest non-Islamic sources were the focus of the controversial 1977 book “Hagarism” which argued Islam began as a movement that included apocalyptic Jews and the split only came later after conquering Jerusalem.

  3. If there was really an early alliance, it could explain why the earliest source depicting Muhammad shows his people allied with Jews seeking to retake Jerusalem, rather than violently opposing them as Islamic tradition claims.

  4. Distortions of early Islamic history by later successors like Umar are plausible given religious traditions tend to retroactively claim distinctive origins rather than organic development from surrounding influences.

  5. The scenario deserves serious consideration because it could resolve puzzling inconsistencies between early sources and established Islamic narratives about the origins and early relationship with Judaism. While not proven, it warrants an explanation.

In summary, the key reason given is it offers a potential resolution to otherwise puzzling historical evidence and helps make sense of inconsistencies in the established Islamic narrative according to the earliest outside sources.

  • The word “jihad” literally means striving or struggle, but it is debated whether it refers to an internal spiritual struggle or violent struggle against non-believers. The Quran itself does not clearly establish a doctrine of jihad.

  • While the Quran contains some violent verses from Muhammad’s time at war, the context suggests they were meant for specific military campaigns, not a general license to kill all non-Muslims universally. Examples are provided of verses that immediately qualify or limit the violence called for.

  • A closer reading indicates the most infamous “Sword verse” was actually referring to polytheists engaged in war with Muslims at the time, not Christians, Jews or all non-believers. Other verses exempt non-combatant polytheists or those with treaties.

  • As a political/military leader, Muhammad needed alliances and diplomacy, so a policy of fighting all non-Muslims without limit would not have made strategic sense. A doctrine of unrestricted jihad developed after his death when Islam was more powerful.

So in summary, the Quran itself does not clearly establish a doctrine of unrestricted or perpetual jihad against all non-believers, and the violent passages must be understood in their specific historical contexts rather than as universal commands. A nuanced, realpolitik approach was more consistent with Muhammad’s situation and accomplishments.

  • The Koran itself does not clearly articulate a doctrine of offensive jihad or fighting to expand the Islamic empire. Some verses promote tolerance of other religions.

  • Islamic jurists and thinkers developed the doctrine of jihad partly by privileging later, more belligerent verses revealed in Medina over earlier tolerant verses from Mecca.

  • They also drew heavily on the hadith, oral traditions of what Muhammad said. These were not written down for over a century and were more open to manipulation to support certain causes.

  • Some hadith promoted jihad and fighting as superior acts, while others like feeding the poor were ranked lower. This supported the jihadi position.

  • As the Islamic empire expanded rapidly, concepts like fighting all people until they accept Islam emerged in hadith, though not found in the Koran.

  • Once borders stabilized, jurists recognized a “House of Truce” and deemed greater jihad to be inner struggle, not war. Jihad became a communal, not individual duty.

  • Empires demand tribute, not uniform religion. Koran’s call to fight non-believers until they pay tribute supported this. Tolerance emerged to maintain peace and revenue from conquered peoples.

  • Jurists cited ambiguity in Koran and hadith to justify tolerance of Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians as “People of the Book” under Islamic rule. This flexibility allowed expansion of the empire.

  • Muslim rulers were initially tolerant of other religions like Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus in their conquered lands in exchange for tax payments, following the model of ancient empires which conquered and then taxed territories.

  • Over time, as more people voluntarily converted to Islam for various reasons like escaping taxes or career advancement, the Christian population dwindled and Muslims became less tolerant of them. Jews maintained their faith more and faced some persecution but generally saw more tolerance in Muslim lands than Christian Europe.

  • Interpretations of jihad fluctuated over the centuries between more offensive and defensive stances depending on circumstances. By the early 20th century many Muslims viewed jihad as only justified in self-defense.

  • Sayyid Qutb criticized the state of Muslims in the mid-20th century, foreshadowing a resurgence of more militant interpretations. Bin Laden and other jihadists cite verses like the “Sword verse” but still frame their campaigns as defensive responses to America’s crimes against Muslims.

  • The core doctrine of jihad is not firmly grounded in the Quran alone and likely developed after Muhammad’s time based partly on questionable hadith attributions. However, scripture still influences views and behaviors to some extent, especially passages about divine reward or torment of enemies.

  • The Bible passage about loving your neighbor was meant to extend beyond ancient Israel, while some passages in the Quran about brotherly love only refer to fellow believers.

  • Jesus likely did not say to “love your enemies” - that idea was probably added by Paul, who as a proselytizer couldn’t antagonize Roman authorities. His message was similar to the early Meccan Muhammad who preached turning away evil with good.

  • Philo of Alexandria also found messages of tolerance in Jewish scripture to avoid conflict with Rome. Like him, figures like King Josiah and the early Medinan Muhammad produced more belligerent messages when trying to expand their power.

  • The Bible and Quran both contain passages encouraging violence as well as salvation of others. Post-conquest doctrines tended to become more inclusive and tolerant of former enemies within their empires. Rising empires generally brought previously antagonistic groups into peaceful coexistence and religious texts reflected this by expanding notions of salvation.

  • The passage discusses the inclusive and tolerant nature of religious empires and how they conduce to religious harmony. However, the expansion of empires tends to heighten intolerance towards other nearby faiths.

  • This explains why Islamic doctrine took a more intolerant stance during periods of empire expansion but became more inclusive when consolidating rule over conquered lands.

  • It notes that the New Testament had less belligerent verses because early Christianity wasn’t an expanding empire like Islam or Judaism during the composition of their core texts.

  • It argues that the Abrahamic faiths fluctuate between tolerance and intolerance depending on geopolitical contexts and perceived relationships between human groups.

  • The passage claims Muhammad embodied this dynamic across different periods and contexts in his teachings and actions, illustrating how human morality responds to “facts on the ground.”

  • It notes some ways the Quran was a surprisingly modern work, like Muhammad not relying on miracles, and its emphasis on rational exploration of nature as evidence of God’s grandeur rather than supernatural wonders.

  • In summary, it analyzes how religious doctrines interact with political and social contexts, using Islam as a case study to argue religions adapt according to circumstances and human relationships.

  • The passage discusses an argumentative strategy used by Muhammad to promote monotheism by leveraging what Meccans already agreed on - that Allah is the creator god. However, this argument doesn’t work as easily today when the debate is over whether any god exists at all.

  • Empirically arguing that signs of divine purpose are embedded in the natural world, as Muhammad did, is still a valid type of argument according to the passage. It cites William Paley’s watchmaker analogy arguing complexity implies design, which Darwin disproved by introducing natural selection.

  • However, Paley was still partly right that complexity demands explanation. Natural selection fulfills this role for organisms by “designing” them with goals and purposes like survival and reproduction.

  • This suggests it is valid to inspect physical systems for evidence of higher purpose imparted by some creative process, even if not a conscious designer.

  • The passage argues the whole evolving ecosystem on Earth, from first life to humans and culture, could similarly show evidence of directionality and functional integration implying higher purpose or “design.” However, fully making this case would require more extensive argument.

  • Even then, questions around consciousness of the designer and inherent morality of the purpose would remain open for debate. The next chapter will discuss whether human history inherently moves toward moral good.

The passage discusses the concept of “salvation” as presented in Abrahamic religions like Islam, Christianity and Judaism. While they may define salvation differently (personal salvation vs social salvation), they are ultimately concerned with both individual and societal well-being.

It argues that tensions among some followers of these three religions endanger global social order today, in contrast to how the religions were originally meant to provide solutions. However, clues to salvation can still be found by heeding lessons of religious tolerance embedded in their scriptures.

Arranging societies in “non-zero-sum” relationships, where groups see their fortunes as positively correlated rather than competitive, can help promote tolerance as seen in examples like improved US-Japan relations over time. Globalization has increased such interdependence worldwide.

However, fully realizing the potential of non-zero-sum dynamics relies on correctly recognizing them, building trust between groups, and developing a “moral imagination” - a deeper understanding of ethical truths. Prejudices, distrust and narrow self-interest can still prevail over pragmatic cooperation or empathetic worldviews.

  • Relationships between groups like Muslims and Westerners are often seen as zero-sum, where one side’s gains mean the other’s losses. However, in many cases the fortunes of the groups are actually positively correlated, making it a non-zero-sum relationship. Peace and cooperation would benefit both, while conflict harms both.

  • While many recognize the logic of non-zero-sum situations abstractly, distrust prevents deals from being reached. Each side suspects the other may violate any agreements.

  • The major barrier to overcoming recognition and trust issues is human nature itself, as shaped by natural selection. Our minds evolved for small tribal groups, not globalized societies.

  • Western attitudes toward Muslims illustrate the challenges. While many Westerners recognize terrorists’ goals conflict with their own, leading to a zero-sum dynamic, not all Muslims fit this. Broadly condemning Islam can alienate moderate Muslims and push them toward radicalism.

  • Antipathy toward visible radical groups like protesters limits our “moral imagination” and ability to understand their perspectives and circumstances. This hinders efforts to prevent the radicalization of other Muslims. Overcoming natural antipathy requires conscious effort to see other viewpoints.

  • It is difficult to relate to or understand the perspectives of those we consider rivals or enemies. Our natural tendency is to characterize them in unflattering terms, like attributing their behaviors to resentment or envy.

  • This impediment to understanding others stems from evolutionary adaptations. In our ancestral environment, being able to persuasively argue against a rival’s grievances could help one’s social status and access to resources, promoting reproductive success. Sympathy for a rival could undermine that ability.

  • However, with allies it makes sense to understand their perspective, since helping their interests also helps our own. Our moral imagination extends more easily to friends.

  • Today, the West and Muslims are in a deeply non-zero-sum relationship, but lack moral imagination toward each other. Technology also warps our perception, focusing on extremists rather than moderate Muslims.

  • The modern geopolitical environment differs from ancestral times, as enemies cannot simply be driven off. Complete victory is impossible, and counterattacks create more adversaries. This complicates strategy compared to fighting nation-states in the past.

  • The passage discusses how new technologies have made it easier for dispersed hatred and dissent to coalesce into organized violence. The internet allows like-minded groups to connect more easily, including hate groups and terrorist organizations.

  • Reducing widespread Muslim discontent with the modern world and West is key to combating terrorism, as terrorism feeds off of this discontent. However, addressing grievances and reducing discontent across such a large, diverse group is extremely challenging.

  • The passage argues that Westerners developing a deeper understanding of the Muslim perspective through “moral imagination” - putting themselves in Muslims’ shoes - could help address this challenge. It may help Westerners understand what specifically antagonizes Muslims and how to address real grievances, thereby reducing discontent.

  • Addressing grievances, even of one’s enemies, following the wisdom of turning the other cheek, can undermine those enemies by making the relationship appear more cooperative than adversarial to others. Reducing discontent in this way could undermine terrorist recruitment efforts.

  • However, using moral imagination in this way may provoke backlash from those who see it as blaming victims or excusing terrorists. The passage argues the best response is to recognize it ultimately undermines terrorists’ goals of promoting hatred.

So in summary, the passage discusses how new technologies have amplified hatred but developing understanding of others’ perspectives through moral imagination may help address widespread discontent and grievances that fuel terrorism.

  • The author argues that the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) have tended to exaggerate their own past specialness and uniqueness. For example, Israelite religion emerged from Canaanite polytheism, and monotheism didn’t take hold until after the Babylonian exile.

  • Jesus was himself a Jew preaching to other Jews, and his message was probably about national salvation for Israel rather than universal salvation. The doctrine of brotherly love extending to all people entered Christianity after his death.

  • When Muhammad arrived, Allah was already known to be the God of Christians and Jews. Early Islam showed influences from Judaism, Christianity, and Arab paganism and was a cultural synthesis, not a totally new revelation.

  • However, the author argues the scriptures can still be seen as a revelation in a less dramatic sense. They reveal the “arrow of moral development” built into human history toward greater non-violence, tolerance, and recognizing humanity in wider circles of people as technological progress expands cooperation.

  • This kind of cryptic revelation of a historical pattern doesn’t satisfy traditional notions of divine revelation, but it could provide ammunition for Abrahamic faiths in debates with secular perspectives that see no transcendent moral order or meaning in the universe. The scriptures illustrate there is a moral order imposed on us by history and the logic of human social cooperation.

  • Cultural evolution has pushed humankind to expand their circle of moral consideration to include larger groups of people over millennia. Failing to do so has resulted in suffering.

  • We are now at a culminating moment where the moral circle needs to expand across the entire planet to avoid great harm. History challenges us to increase our empathy, understanding and moral perspective to see all people as equal.

  • This signifies a moral order in history where social order depends on alignment with moral truth. However, embracing moral truth does not guarantee order or tranquility - resistance may still cause chaos.

  • The existence of this moral order is evidence in favor of the existence of God and purpose, as opposed to views like Weinberg’s that see no higher meaning.

  • Even without believing in God, recognizing this moral order means recognizing an unseen order governing our supreme good, which aligns with some definitions of religious belief.

  • The Abrahamic faiths were correct that salvation requires alignment with the “moral axis of the universe,” even if their conception of God was incorrect. They recognized the essence of things better than Weinberg.

  • For the moral order to continue advancing peacefully, the conception of God in the Abrahamic faiths needs to become more inclusive and see each other as part of the same effort to understand ultimate moral truth and purpose. This will facilitate greater harmony in the increasingly globalized world.

  • Historically in parts of America, marriages between Catholics and Protestants (“inter-marriage”) were not widely accepted. There was a sense of them as “other”.

  • Nowadays such marriages would be better described as “intramarriages” as economic and social forces have brought Catholics and Protestants into closer everyday interactions and cooperation. They also face common threats from secularism.

  • Similar forces could potentially help bring the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam into closer cooperation and reduce perceptions of “otherness”. They have common interests in responding to challenges from secularism.

  • Non-Abrahamic religions like ancient Egyptian religion also emphasized linking individual salvation/afterlife with social/moral order. In some ways their symbolic representations of this, like the weighing of the heart ritual, have never been surpassed.

  • If religious/spiritual outlook is declining for some, the basic challenge remains of linking individual well-being/integrity with social well-being/integrity, however that is framed in secular versus religious language.

  • Examples like Emperor Ashoka spreading Buddhism suggest non-Abrahamic faiths have sometimes done a better job of expanding moral consideration of others and avoiding claims of specialness/superiority over other faiths.

  • Radical changes in perceptions of religious uniqueness and specialness have happened throughout history. Further changes could help bring the Abrahamic faiths into even closer philosophical alignment and cooperation.

  • The word Elohim in Hebrew, which is often used to refer to God, is grammatically plural but behaves singularly when applied to the God of Israel. This could suggest the idea of one Godhead comprised of different “faces” or aspects.

  • The names for God in other Abrahamic faiths, like Allah and Elaha, share linguistic roots with Elohim, hinting at common conceptions of divinity across these religions.

  • Finding common ground on the notion of a divine source or “Godhead” could help Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic faiths build more harmony, though religious harmony itself remains a challenge.

  • When discussing God, the author distinguishes between specific gods worshipped by religions and the possibility of a real divine entity or “ultimate reality.”

  • Even scientists have difficulty clearly conceiving fundamental aspects of reality like electrons, yet still consider them real. Analogously, an imperfect conception of God does not preclude God’s possible existence as the source of morality.

  • Belief in God’s existence as the ground of morality parallels physicists’ belief in unseen concepts like electrons that account for observed patterns, despite lack of clear definition.

  • A believer could argue that the existence of complex phenomena like biological life and the moral order require some kind of creative force or explanation, even if that explanation is materialistic (e.g. natural selection).

  • While Darwin showed natural selection explained biological complexity, a believer may still ask what the source of natural selection itself is. They could argue natural selection exhibits extraordinary properties that demand a special creative explanation, which they call God.

  • An atheist could counter that our concepts of phenomena like electrons have worked pragmatically to enable technological progress, while concepts of God have not clearly led to similar progress.

  • A believer could respond that thinking about the source of moral order as God has on balance led to moral progress as societies have developed. Concepts of God have “grown” along with moral imagination and the scope of moral communities.

  • For some people, conceiving of moral truth as embodied in a divine entity helps them lead virtuous lives and stay aligned with moral demands, in a way that taps into human nature oriented around other beings.

So in summary, the believer argues their conception of God plays a similarly productive role in interacting with and advancing moral order as physicists’ concepts interact with and advance scientific understanding.

  • The evolution of humans and their moral development over history can be seen as a long dialogue with nature, where feedback from the environment steered humanity toward greater moral truth.

  • This directional progression has led some theists to believe there is a deeper force beyond just nature at work guiding this evolution.

  • Some atheist scientists would resist equating the conceptions of God and electrons, saying electrons exist but God does not.

  • However, some physicists argue electrons may not literally exist either, and are just useful approximations. Similarly, God concepts could be approximations of some deeper source of moral order.

  • The core disagreement is whether an independent moral order exists “out there” or not. If it does, then conceiving of its source is a legitimate exercise.

  • Feelings of contacting a personal God may be drawing on instincts developed through evolution to cooperate and form moral communities. So a sense of God could have “ironic validity” as an expression of deeper evolutionary forces.

  • God could be abstractly conceived as the source of moral order and non-zero-sum logic behind life and evolution. An abstraction like “God is love” also connects to this conception by linking love to the growth of moral imagination and truth.

  • While some believe religion evolved through natural selection like genes, most evolutionary psychologists do not think religion is directly the product of natural selection.

  • Religion draws on parts of human nature that did evolve through natural selection, like love, awe, joy and fear. But those elements evolved for reasons other than religion.

  • William James said religious emotions are just ordinary human emotions directed at religious concepts. Genes underlying emotions like love and fear spread because they helped survival, not because they led to religion.

  • Religion is likely a “spandrel” - an unintended consequence of traits that evolved for other reasons, not a direct adaptation. However, religion has complexity and social functions that seem designed.

  • Cultural evolution, not just biological evolution, is important. Cultural evolution shapes the transmission of memes from person to person. Religions evolve over generations through cultural evolution to take on socially useful structures and rituals. So religion appears designed even if not the direct product of biological evolution.

  • Human minds are evolved to accept certain kinds of beliefs based on what helped our ancestors survive and reproduce. We are naturally inclined to conform to the beliefs of our social group.

  • Early religions developed and spread through “memes” - individual units of cultural information that transmit from mind to mind. Certain types of memes had an advantage in spreading.

  • Religions focused on explaining good and bad events like health, weather, etc. Beliefs that promised more control over the environment were attractive. Strange, novel beliefs also spread more than ordinary ones.

  • While truth prevails in the long run, false or untestable beliefs can spread initially since they grab attention. Hard-to-test religious beliefs were thus able to take hold through cultural evolution processes that shaped early religions. Overall, human evolution made people receptive to adopting and spreading beliefs in their social groups, paving the way for religions to develop and change over time.

  • Many religious beliefs are difficult to falsify because they can explain away exceptions and failures. For example, Haida people who poured water or offered items to sea deities were thought saved from drowning, and failures could be blamed on not being reverent enough.

  • Some claims like thunderstorms being caused by melting beeswax could theoretically be tested, but it’s hard to rule out all alternative possibilities. Religions also have ways to explain failures of prayers or predictions.

  • Therefore, memes that tend to survive cultural evolution are those that are unusual, explain fortune and misfortune, allow people to feel influential, and are hard to decisively disprove. This helps explain the emergence of religion.

  • However, belief in very strange claims like deities specifically withholding food is pushing plausibility. The human brain evolved to intuitively attribute causes to human-like agents, based on how early humans explained each other’s behavior socially.

  • Studies of chimpanzee politics provide clues, as they form alliances and anticipate others’ actions. Early human ancestors likely evolved capacities for explicit causal reasoning focused on social contexts.

  • Therefore, when expanding explanations for natural events, invoking supernatural human-like beings felt intuitive, rather than abstract causes. Spirits and gods came to be personified causes based in human cognitive templates.

  • Religious ideas that seem counterintuitive like omniscience and omnipotence would have had an advantage in early religion as they make gods more memorable. However, too many unusual traits would make the god difficult to think about.

  • Features of human social dynamics and reciprocal altruism can help explain ideas found in religion. People evolved mechanisms for reciprocal relationships and punishment of untrustworthy individuals.

  • This framework can provide context for religious concepts like giving offerings to appease angry gods. Gods are attributed human emotions around exchange and reciprocity.

  • Early religious beliefs may have originated from individuals placing themselves at the center of memorable events and gradually acquiring status in the community through telling dramatic stories about visions or experiences with supernatural beings. Over time, these stories could develop into established religious traditions.

The passage discusses how among hunter-gatherer societies, there would have been an incentive for individuals to claim special witnessing of significant events like deaths, as this would give them attention and status within the group.

It suggests various psychological tendencies that could have contributed to the spread of supernatural beliefs in prehistoric times. People may have been encouraged to falsely report sightings due to an innate “agent detection device” that favors false positives when detecting threats. Memory is also fallible and can be influenced by one’s own retellings. Publicly espousing a belief can shape one’s own perceptions to find supporting evidence.

High-status individuals would have been especially able to influence others’ beliefs. With these psychological factors at play, supernatural explanations for unusual events could spread quickly within small hunter-gatherer bands through word of mouth.

The origin of religious beliefs is thus viewed through the lens of modern psychology, focusing on unconscious cognitive and social factors rather than conscious “rational” reflection. Features like disgust and associative learning may unconsciously promote notions of pollution and scared spaces that figure in some religions.

  • The passage discusses how feelings of awe and submission may have evolved from natural selection for pragmatic purposes, like appeasing a formidable foe. It suggests religion arose from genetically-based mental mechanisms rather than mystical experiences.

  • When confronted by overwhelming power, humans and chimpanzees display submission behaviors like crouching or kneeling. This seems instinctively driven rather than logical. Chimps also react submissively or with threat displays to storms.

  • Humans reportedly feel something like awe in these situations. If early humans felt awe toward storms like chimps do, it’s not a stretch to imagine they attributed storms to ill-tempered forces, lubricating religious interpretations of nature.

  • However, the passage notes this does not deny the possibility of valid religious experience. It argues against staking religion’s validity on the idea that early religious history involved experiences defying naturalistic explanation, as Otto suggested.

  • Religion likely arose from a “hodgepodge of genetically based mental mechanisms designed by natural selection for thoroughly mundane purposes.” Otto himself seemed to doubt religious experience could fully defy scientific explanation.

Here are brief summaries of the scholars mentioned:

  • elfarb, Ralph W. Klein, Elaine Pagels, Iain Provan, William Schniedewind, Jeffrey Tigay, Norman Yoffee - Biblical scholars who studied ancient Israel and early Judaism.

  • Gager, Cook, Smith, Miller - Scholars of early Christianity and the New Testament.

  • Carl Andrew Seaquist - The author’s teaching assistant who helped orient them in religious studies.

  • Rafe Sagalyn - The author’s literary agent who helped guide them through the publishing process.

  • Geoff Shandler - The author’s editor at Little, Brown who provided support.

  • Chris Jerome - The copyeditor for the book.

  • Peggy Freudenthal - The shepherd who helped guide the book through production.

  • Colleagues at the New America Foundation and the Center for Human Values who provided feedback and support during the writing process, including Justin D’Arms, Stephen Gardiner, Daniel Jacobson, Rachana Kamtekar, Susan Lape, and Rob Reich.

  • Friends and family who tolerated the author’s frustrations and provided conversation and support, including Lisa, Eleanor, Margaret, Steve Kruse, John McPhee, Merrell Noden, Jim Sturm, Matt Feuer, Michael Lapp, Gideon Rosen, and Mickey Kaus.

The passage discusses religious beliefs in ancient chiefdoms and states. In Polynesian chiefdoms, religious beliefs centered around gods that were associated with different domains, like the sea or sky. Religious rituals were often led by priests and included prayer, sacrifice, and other ceremonies. While morality was not a central focus, some gods were believed to punish certain sins or crimes. Religion played a role in codifying social rules and norms. In more complex ancient states like Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Mesoamerica, religious beliefs became more hierarchical and bureaucratic. Pantheons of anthropomorphic gods developed, which ruled over different aspects of nature and society. Priests had significant power and wealth as they controlled communication with the gods through elaborate ceremonies and rituals. Overall, religion in these early civilizations took on greater social and political functions as societies became more stratified and organized.

  • Some scholars in the past argued for an abrupt emergence of monotheism in ancient Israel, as championed by Kaufmann. However, most scholars now see monotheism as evolving more gradually from polytheistic roots.

  • Ancient Israelite religion showed influences from neighboring Canaanite religion, as evidenced in texts found at Ugarit. Gods like Baal and El were part of the early Israelite pantheon.

  • Yahweh started as a regional deity but came to be seen as the sole god of Israel. However, traces of other gods can still be found in the biblical text.

  • Akhenaten initiated a period of strict sun-worship monotheism in ancient Egypt but it did not last past his reign. Other Egyptian gods gradually reemerged.

  • Amun became the preeminent god in Egypt during its imperial period, associated with all other gods. He took on characteristics of national protector and father of the pharaoh.

  • Scholars still debate how abruptly or gradually monotheism emerged in ancient Israel compared to a more syncretistic period influenced by Canaanite polytheism. Most agree it was a long evolutionary process rather than a single breakthrough.

The literature of the Canaanites described in the Bible is not precisely representative of their culture, but it is broadly reflective of their milieu. The text references several biblical passages that describe locations associated with Canaanites like Eden and biblical figures like Yahweh that were originally associated with Canaanite mythology. Scholars assert that early portrayals of Yahweh presented him as a weather god like the Canaanite god Baal. Other passages emphasize Yahweh’s power over storms and as a divine warrior, consistent with Canaanite tradition. While monolatry, or worship of one god while not denying the existence of others, is evident early on, full monotheism did not emerge until later. Overall, the passage argues that early Israelites were indigenous to Canaan and strongly influenced by Canaanite culture, though their understanding of God evolved over time from a fusion of Canaanite traditions to eventual monotheism.

  • Originally, it was thought that the term “Apiru” had evolved into the word “Hebrew”. However, this view has been cast into doubt.

  • The idea now is that “Apiru” was a socioeconomic designation, perhaps referring to transient, socially marginal peoples sometimes involved in crime.

  • There is debate over whether archaeological references to “Yahweh and his Asherah” refer to a goddess or just a cultic object representing the goddess Asherah. But either way, it suggests the worship of Asherah alongside Yahweh in early Israelite religion.

  • Traces of Canaanite mythology and themes, like Yahweh’s battles with the sea or the divine council of gods, can be seen in some biblical texts. However, the Bible sought to demythologize these influences and present Yahweh as the sole deity. The relationship between Yahweh and other Canaanite gods like El was complex and interpretations differ.

  • Overall, there are signs the early Israelites engaged in a syncretism of worshipping both Yahweh and other Canaanite deities, with the biblical texts later trying to assert the sole supremacy of Yahweh in a polemic against paganism. But the influences of neighboring mythologies are still apparent in some places.

  • Scholars debate whether Baal had unseated El as the top Canaanite deity by the early 1st millennium BCE or if El retained prominence.

  • Psalms 48 may equate Yahweh’s home of Mount Zion with Mount Zaphon, a Canaanite holy mountain associated with Baal.

  • Baal’s power over rain and storms made him appealing to many Israelites, as some Israelite names referenced Baal.

  • Prophets like Hosea in the 8th century BCE promoted Yahweh alone and condemned idolatry and foreign entanglements that encouraged other gods. This helped drive Israel from polytheism to monolatry, or worship of one god without denying other gods.

  • Ahab was tolerant of both Baal and Yahweh worship due to political considerations in consolidating his kingdom. Later biblical texts criticize him for promoting Baal against Yahweh.

  • The fall of Israel to Assyria in 722 BCE strengthened Judean identity and religious reform promoting sole devotion to Yahweh.

Here is a summary of the key points from paragraphs 34-65:

  • Some scholars think parts of Isaiah were added after Isaiah’s time, including chapter 10.

  • Urbanization and social stratification created resentment of cosmopolitan elites in both northern Israel and southern Judah.

  • Prophets like Amos criticized luxury and oppression of the poor. Archaeological evidence shows wealth disparities increased in 8th century BCE.

  • Zephaniah condemned worship of Baal, astral deities like sun/moon/stars which had Assyrian influence, and the Ammonite god Milcom.

  • Passages criticizing Moab, Ammon, Edom may be exilic additions but still refer to 7th century invasions during Assyrian rule.

  • Expressions like “host of heavens” referred to Assyrian-style astral deities like stars and moon. Assyrian administrators promoted such worship.

  • Kings had more influence over Yahweh prophets than prophets of other gods like Baal or Asherah. But prophets sometimes criticized kings.

  • Divination through non-Yahweh methods was denounced. Religion became more centralized under kings to bolster political power.

  • Temporary monolatry, focusing devotion on the most militarily useful god, was practiced. Theology varied - more monolatric or polytheistic kings alternated with monolatrous ones like Hezekiah.

This summarizes a section discussing the religious reforms in ancient Israel during the reigns of kings Hezekiah, Manasseh, and Josiah. Some key points:

  • Manasseh’s tolerance of Assyrian gods was likely motivated more by a desire for good relations with Assyria than Assyrian demands, since Assyria didn’t typically impose religious policies on vassals. Allowing Assyrian worship may have boosted trade.

  • Josiah’s banning of foreign gods went further than needed to please Assyria and likely ruffled relations as Assyrian power waned. Many banned practices like astral worship had longstanding indigenous roots.

  • Archaeological evidence suggests Manasseh’s more internationalist approach brought economic recovery compared to Hezekiah’s isolationism.

  • Josiah’s reforms centralized worship around one God, YHWH, and banned local manifestations of YHWH and gods like Baal, Astarte that had been tolerated for centuries. This helped consolidate royal power.

So in summary, it discusses the political and economic motivations and impacts of religious reforms in ancient Israel during changing periods of Assyrian dominance.

Based on the summaries provided:

  • The Canaanite population of Israel and syncretistic Israelites worshipped Baal as a prominent god. Baal was seen as the storm god who provided rain and fertility for crops.

  • Day argues that Baal-Shamem, meaning “Baal of the heavens”, was the most important god worshipped in Tyre at this period. However, it does not seem Melqart (the main god of Tyre) or “Baal of Tyre” was being referred to here.

  • Schniedewind (1993) discusses whether the books of Amos, Hosea and First Isaiah were substantially edited from a Josianic standpoint around a century later, to support the monolatric reforms. There is an ongoing debate about how much Assyrian imperial dominance influenced Israelite religion.

  • 1 Kings 18:19 refers to Elijah confronting the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. So Baal was one of the main gods worshipped in Israel that the monolatric reforms opposed.

Here are the summaries:

  1. Jeremiah 10:2 - No summary provided for this verse.

  2. Isaiah 40:26 - No summary provided for this verse.

  3. There is some uncertainty about whether Zoroastrian dualism had fully emerged in Persian religion by the time the Israelites fell under Persian rule.

  4. Isaiah 45:1 - Cyrus is called the Hebrew word for “anointed” or messiah.

  5. Most proposed parallels between Isaiah and Persian religion are found in Isaiah 44:24-45:15.

  6. As noted by Smith (1963), Isaiah’s account of God appointing Cyrus parallels a Persian clay cylinder account of the god Marduk appointing Cyrus. Smith speculated both were propaganda - one for Babylonians, one for Israelites - spread by Persian agents to gain support for Cyrus’ invasion.

  7. Smith allowed for the possibility that Isaiah willingly propagated the pro-Cyrus message due to the needs of exiled Israelites in Babylon.

  8. No summary provided for this verse.

  9. No summary provided for this verse.

  10. Revelation 17:5; 19:1-2; 11-15 - No summary provided for these verses.

  • The passage discusses the origins and depictions of God/gods in early Canaanite religion and the Bible. It suggests “El Shaddai” may have originally referred to the Canaanite god El.

  • In early Biblical accounts like Deuteronomy 32, Yahweh is depicted as subordinate to the chief god El or Elyon. The passage proposes this reflects the patriarchal lineage of Abraham worshipping El, then Jacob worshipping Yahweh as a descendant of El within the pantheon.

  • Later editors like P and the editor of Deuteronomy 32 removed this subordination to assert the equivalence of Yahweh and El/Elyon. They did this to end Yahweh’s subordination to another god and assert his singular prominence over Israel.

  • So the undoctored version of Deuteronomy 32 depicted the typical patriarchal theological rendering of the time, while the editing asserted Yahweh’s full equivalence with and independence from other gods like El for theological and political reasons.

  • This reflects the evolving nature of early Biblical monotheism from an initial henotheism that still acknowledged other gods to a strict monotheism centered solely on Yahweh.

The passage references several ancient sources to discuss concepts related to morality, virtue, and social order in early Chinese philosophy. It notes that Confucius emphasized benevolence and maintaining social order. Mencius implicitly noted the benefits of peace over war. The Analects discuss displaying benevolence for reputation rather than sincerely. Armstrong argues that social changes like urbanization helped develop more progressive moral thought. Various ancient sources, like Amenemope and Proverbs, advised trust and distrust. The Gospel of John drew similarities to Jewish wisdom literature in describing Jesus as the Logos or Word. Overall, the passage analyzes ideas around virtue, moral progress, and social order in early Chinese and Judeo-Christian philosophy through citations from several classical texts.

  • The passage cites several scholars (Gager, Stendahl, Krister) who argue that Paul should be viewed as fundamentally Jewish rather than separate from Judaism. This view has gained acceptance.

  • It discusses Paul’s context and activities, mentioning that he worked as a tentmaker, preached in synagogues, and associated with both Jews and God-fearers.

  • Early Christianity incorporated elements of both Jewish tradition and Greco-Roman culture and religion. It spread first among Hellenistic Jews and then more widely in Greco-Roman cities.

  • References are made to several biblical passages and historical texts that provide context on early Christianity, Paul’s mission, and the society and communities he preached to.

  • In summary, the passage examines scholarly views on understanding Paul within his Jewish context rather than as separate, and looks at aspects of early Christian communities in the Greco-Roman world that Paul participated in and preached to. It discusses the mixed religious environment that shaped early Christianity.

The title of Chapter 125 refers to the concept of a genuine cleansing or purification from past sins through rituals. Some scholars compare this concept to the role of baptism in Christianity and Osirian rituals in ancient Egyptian religion. In Egyptian religion, Osirian rituals were initially more “magical” but later emphasized moral behavior more. Chapter 125 reflects how this religion focused on moral behavior, not just rituals, for salvation. Overall, the chapter discusses how ancient rituals aimed to purify and cleanse individuals from sin as part of the religious quest for eternal life. It compares this idea cross-culturally and notes the increasing emphasis on morality over just rituals alone.

  • Jihad originally meant internal spiritual struggle, but came to also refer to war in defense of Islam. The Koran contains around 10 references to jihad that clearly refer to military contexts, out of about 40 total references.

  • The Koran encourages Muslims to “strive hard” or “struggle” against unbelievers, but does not always make clear if this means spiritual/non-violent struggle or military struggle. Key verses used to justify military jihad were revealed later in Medina after conflicts arose.

  • The Koran permits fighting polytheists but also exempts polytheists who do not fight Muslims or who enter into treaties. It allows for cessation of hostilities if enemies seek peace or asylum. So military jihad against all non-believers is not clearly mandated.

  • Interpretations of jihad evolved over time, with later Islamic jurists and scholars playing a role in developing the doctrine of justified warfare against non-Muslim lands and peoples in certain contexts. But the Koran itself does not unambiguously establish offensive military jihad as a fundamental religious doctrine.

  • The passage discusses whether the doctrine of jihad found in the Quran can be interpreted as advocating universal warfare against all non-Muslims.

  • It notes that some often-cited verses like 9:123 and 9:29 seem to limit fighting to those “nearby” or approaching the Holy Mosque, suggesting circumscribed rather than universal warfare.

  • Other verses like 8:39 and 48:16 are ambiguous and open to different interpretations regarding universality.

  • The passage argues the Quran doesn’t make war against infidels an explicitly universal principle. Many verses provide contextual reasons to doubt a universal meaning was intended.

  • It discusses how early Islamic scholars like Watt interpreted jihad as primarily defensive, not an unlimited offensive concept. However, interpretations allowing resistance to colonialism also left room for fighting non-Muslim rulers.

  • In summary, the passage asserts the Quranic doctrine of jihad is ambiguous and unclear on advocating universal warfare against all non-Muslims as proclaimed by some modern jihadist movements. Context and interpretation are important factors.

  • The Koran never unambiguously attributes miracles to Muhammad like the gospels do to Jesus. While it mentions Muhammad performing “signs” and having “divine inspiration,” it does not describe specific miracles in the way the Bible describes Jesus’ miracles.

  • Some Muslims believe Muhammad ascended to heaven on a winged horse during the Night Journey, but the Koran does not provide a clear narrative of this event. It only briefly references Muhammad’s “night journey” in verses 53-54 of Surah 17 and 67 of Surah 16.

  • Verses 96-97 of Surah 6 and other passages assert that Muhammad is only a messenger delivering a divine revelation, not performing miracles himself.

  • Overall, the Koran positions Muhammad more as a prophet who received revelation from God, rather than someone who directly performed miracles. This contrasts with the gospels’ portrayal of Jesus performing unambiguous miracles that attested to his divine status.

  • But some modern Muslim scholars have tried to attribute certain “miracles” to Muhammad, even though the Koran itself does not unambiguously do so in the way the Bible describes Jesus’ miracles.

Here is a summary of the key sources on thought and science listed:

  • Barrett, J., and F. Keil. 1996. Looks at how people conceptualize non-natural entities like God and examines anthropomorphism in god concepts.

  • Barrett, Justin L. 2000. Explores the natural foundations of religion and how cognitive tendencies may have influenced religious belief.

  • Basham, A. L. 1989. Discusses the origins and development of classical Hinduism.

  • Bell, H. Idris. 1953. Examines cults and creeds in Greco-Roman Egypt.

  • Bellah, Robert. 1969. Touches on religious evolution.

  • Benedict, Ruth. 1959. Looks at patterns of culture across different societies.

  • Berkey, Jonathan P. 2003. Covers the formation of Islam.

  • Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Provides an explanation of religion from an evolutionary cognitive science perspective.

  • Brown, Peter. 1993. Discusses the making of late antiquity.

  • Claessen, Henri J.M. 1991. Examines state and economy in Polynesia.

  • Collins, John J. 2004. Offers an introduction to the Hebrew Bible.

  • Confucius. 1979. Contains translations of the Analects.

  • Cook, Michael. 1983, 2000. Provides overviews of Muhammad and the Quran.

  • Creel, Herrlee G. 1970. Looks at the origins of statecraft in China.

  • Durkheim, Emile. 1965. Analyzes religion from a sociological perspective in his classic work.

So in summary, these sources cover topics like the cognitive science of religion, various world religions and their origins/development, religious practices in ancient cultures, and sociological and anthropological analyses of religion.

Here are brief summaries of y, divinity, and monotheism:

  • Y - In theology, y refers to God, divinity or a divine principle. It is sometimes used to distinguish the Abrahamic God from other deities or concepts of divinity.

  • Divinity - The state of being a deity or divine. Related to concepts of God(s), sacredness, deityhood, and divineness. Most religions have some notion of divinity or the divine.

  • Monotheism - The belief in the existence of one god or a singular divine principle that created and controls the universe. Religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are considered monotheistic as they worship only one god (Yahweh, God the Father, Allah respectively). Contrasted with polytheism, pantheism, etc. Monotheism asserts there is unity and singular transcendence to the divine.

Here are summaries of several entries:

  • Malherbe, Abraham J. 1983. Social Aspects of Early Christianity. Fortress Press. This text examines the social aspects and context of early Christianity.

  • Mann, Michael. 1986. The Sources of Social Power. Cambridge University Press. This work analyzes the different sources of social power and their development over time.

  • Marett, R. R. 1909. The Threshold of Religion. Methuen (from facsimile edition published 1997 by Routledge/Thoemmes Press). This book explores the concept of a “threshold” or starting point of religious beliefs and practices.

  • McNeill, William. 1980. The Human Condition. Princeton University Press. This work studies the human condition and how it has changed over time, particularly with the rise of the West.

  • Meeks, Wayne A. 2003. The First Urban Christians. Yale University Press. This text analyzes the earliest Christians in urban settings and the urbanization of Christianity.

  • Miles, Jack. 1995. God: A Biography. Knopf. This book provides a biography of the concept of God across different religions and time periods.

  • Miller, Patrick D. 2000. The Religion of Ancient Israel. Westminster/John Knox Press. This text examines the religions beliefs and practices of ancient Israel.

Here is a summary of key details from the document:

  • The document outlines the history and evolution of religions and gods across human history in five parts.

  • Part I discusses the origins of religious beliefs in early human societies like hunter-gatherers and the emergence of organized religions in chiefdoms and ancient states with pantheons of gods.

  • Part II focuses on the rise of Abrahamic monotheism in ancient Israel and the development of concepts like monolatry and monotheism. It also examines the ideas of Philo of Alexandria and the early concept of the Logos.

  • Part III looks at the invention and spread of Christianity, including the life and teachings of Jesus, the mission of Paul, and how Christianity became the dominant religion.

  • Part IV traces the origins and triumph of Islam through the revelations received by Muhammad and the spread of Islamic rule.

  • Part V discusses whether religious beliefs can or will become global and challenges to widespread acceptance of particular faiths.

  • It draws from sources like the Bible, ancient texts, and scholarly works on various religions and their histories. The author aims to outline a comprehensive evolutionary account of religions.

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