The Myths of Jesus

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

Two religions, Christianity and Islam, have a particular focus on the life, supposed teachings, and significance of a preacher who (may have) lived in the Roman province of Judea during the early Roman Empire. Because both of those religions are based on myths that take the form of history, and that many of their followers believe to actually be history, the myths of Jesus get bound together with historical questions about his life and its effects, and it becomes difficult to extract the one from the other. For that reason, before plunging into a discussion of the myths of Jesus themselves, I’m going to take a paragraph to say something about the history of Jesus.

We don’t know for certain whether Jesus even existed. We don’t know how much of the Gospel accounts accurately describe his career. We know some things are inherently very unlikely (the miraculous darkness, earthquake, and tearing of the Temple veil when he died, for example) because there should be independent evidence of them if they happened, and there isn’t. Other things seem historically unlikely, such as the use of nails at his crucifixion, because that isn’t how it was usually done. (Crucifixion victims were normally roped to the cross, not nailed, as they lived and suffered longer that way.) Some of the miracles attributed to him seem plausible to me, knowing what I do of magic, while others seem ridiculously over the top (but of course I have no direct evidence against their occurrence, and my knowledge of magic is not absolute and infallible.) The historical Jesus is a big question mark. Most of the questions about him are simply unanswerable, including the question of whether there ever was such a person.

However, none of that matters for purposes of spirituality or religion, or anyway none of it should. Religion isn’t founded on history, but on myth. Jesus is an image of the divine impacting the world through a man. Connected with him are other images speaking of human potential, redemption, the universality of God, and the illusory nature of death. It is these images that matter, not any connection they may or may not have to history.

Having said that, I want now to explore the Christian and Muslim myths of Jesus (these are similar, but not identical) and then some cross-observations from the Gospels and from my own quirky understanding. For the remainder of this article, I’ll be speaking only of the myths of Jesus, and completely ignoring any historical questions for the irrelevance that they are.

The Christian Myths of Jesus

In Christian belief, the ancient Jewish prophecies of the Messiah to come foretold a time when God would be incarnate in human form, and would offer himself in sacrifice to himself to pay for humanity’s burden of sin. Jesus was the fulfillment of that prophecy. He was both God incarnate and the “son of God.” The latter, which seems to contradict the former at first glance, is resolved by a philosophical understanding of “the Son” as an aspect of the one God, as He is manifest in the world (where the Father is God in His transcendent aspect, and the Holy Spirit is God as He is manifest in the human heart). When he was crucified, the demand of the Law for blood sacrifice in atonement for sins was met and fulfilled for all time, rendering that demand null and void; he was both the working-out and the overcoming of the Fall of Man. When he rose from the dead, that was a sign that the power of death to destroy us is broken, and we are heirs to life eternal.

The Muslim Myths of Jesus

In Islam, as in Christianity, the Jewish prophecies of the Messiah foretold the coming of Jesus, but for Muslims the significance is different and a little less cosmic. The prophecies foretold a time when God would expand His covenant with the Children of Israel by entering into a new covenant with all of mankind. Jesus was God’s Messenger who brought the word of that new, expanded covenant. He brought the Word of God initially to the Jews, but the Jewish religious authorities rejected his message, as had been foretold, and by turning against God’s Messenger lost their special status as the chosen people of God. They arrested Jesus and condemned him to death, but God in His compassion and justice took the Prophet into Paradise and the traitor  Apostle, Judas Iscariot, was crucified in his place. Thereafter, Jesus’ disciples spread his message and the truth of the One God throughout all the world, but in time that message became corrupted with false ideas and the influence of power-hungry institutions, requiring that God send the Prophet Muhammad with a correction.

The Gospel Accounts

The three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) present a picture of a very holy and powerful man, but they also present some problems for the standard Christian view of Jesus (although perhaps not insuperable ones). They might also present some difficulties for the Muslim myths of Jesus except that Muslims don’t have the same reverence for the Gospels that Christians do and simply consider the accounts flawed and only partly true.

To begin, the Gospels have many passages which point to limitations of Jesus’ power and knowledge. He is depicted as neither omniscient nor omnipotent. For example, in Mark Chapter Six, Jesus returns to his hometown, and finds that the people there, who know him, are reluctant to accept him as a prophet. “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.” (6:5) The people’s lack of belief in him limited his power, which was much greater in other contexts. In Mark 8:22-25, Jesus’ first attempt to heal a blind man works imperfectly (“I see people; they look like trees walking around”), and he is required to make a second attempt, which works better. Another passage of this kind is Luke 8:40-48. In this passage, Jesus is walking in a crowd of people and a woman plagued with a vaginal hemorrhage touches him, and his power heals her. Jesus knows that power has gone out of him, but doesn’t know the particulars, and asks, “Who touched me?” His knowledge, like his power, is depicted as having limits.

There are also a number of passages in which Jesus expresses opinions which he then changes as a result of others’ arguments or persuasion. For example, in Mark 7:24-30, a Greek woman asks Jesus to “drive a demon” from her daughter. Jesus’ haughty reply is that he is come to the Children of Israel, and “it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” She replies that “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps,” and Jesus changes his mind and heals her daughter.

There is also at least one passage in which Jesus implicitly denies being God. That is found in Mark 10:18 and Luke 18:19, where someone has referred to him as “good master” or “good teacher,” and Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good? No one is good — except God alone.”

On the surface, these passages might seem to uphold the Muslim myth of Jesus over the Christian one, in that Muslims see Jesus as a great and holy Prophet but not God incarnate. However, there are other passages in which Jesus seems to imply that God dwells within him, and also within others, and that is not in accord with Muslim beliefs.

Again, though, questions of who or what Jesus “really was” are not the point here. We can’t answer such questions. The point, rather, should be about the power of myth to prevail even over contradictions from what is supposedly holy writ. The Gospels (particularly the synoptic Gospels) were composed a long time before the Imperial Church was formed in 325, or the Nicene Creed articulated. The most logical interpretation of these passages is simply that their authors had a different idea of Jesus than the Church later taught. They did not try to depict him as God incarnate because the idea simply hadn’t occurred to them. Yet this idea is central to the practice of Christian religion, which involves the worship of Jesus as an image of God. And so, passages in the Gospels which are troubling for the idea are simply glossed over and ignored.

Jesus as an Image of God

Devotion to Jesus as God incarnate is similar to the Hindu practice of Bakhti Yoga, in which some image of God (perhaps a mythical God such as Vishnu or Shiva, but often an Avatar of Vishnu, which bears even greater resemblance to the Christian practice) is the focus of love and prayer. This brings the devotee closer to the divine. It creates an association, and so a magical link, between the devotee and a large part of the cosmos, ultimately the cosmos as a whole, seen through a mythic lens.

The important thing here is not Jesus’ divinity but that of his worshipers. Through love and devotion to Jesus as an image of God, the Christian worshiper makes a connection with his or her own inner divinity, and allows that divinity to manifest in his or her life and heart.

This is a powerful method of spiritual magic. There is nothing wrong with it as far as it goes. The potential problem arises when the devotion to Jesus as an image of God gives rise to a factual belief that Jesus was God in any historical sense — the usual claims of standard Christian theology. When that belief is self-focused, it acts benignly, opening the worshiper’s heart to the divine and facilitating the raising of consciousness. When it becomes other-focused, however, it turns diabolical, giving rise to claims that non-Christians are worshiping false gods, and, when conjoined with political power, to witch-hunts, inquisitions, and crusades.

Can Christianity in some form survive to form a part of the spirituality of the advanced civilization we are evolving into? If so, it will be through recognizing the value of myth, and the fact that myth is precisely what Jesus is. As myth, he is a part of our spiritual heritage and should be a treasured part. The problems only arise when the myth is falsely — and irrelevantly — asserted to be history.

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17 Comments

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17 responses to “The Myths of Jesus

  1. anon

    “The prophecies foretold a time when God would expand His covenant with the Children of Israel by entering into a new covenant with all of mankind.”
    –where are you getting this from?
    According to the Quran
    Surah 3 verse 50
    1)Jesus Christ (pbuh) came to confirm the Torah and to make lawful to Jews some things which were forbidden (by Halacha/law).
    2)Surah 61 verse 6
    Jesus Christ (pbuh) gives glad tidings of a messenger who will come after him (Prophet Muhammed peace be upon him) (—the Quran is for all humanity)
    3) God had already made a covenant with all of humanity at the time of Prophet Adam (pbuh) (Surah 2)
    4) The word “Masih” =Arabic is understood in the Jewish sense of “One who is anointed with oil” or in other words a “High Priest”/Prophet —Hebrew mosiach (In Judaism, a king can also be anointed with oil and is called Mosiach Nagid and the Persian King Cyrus the Great has such a title)

    • I’ll accept the clarification regarding the Muslim idea of Jesus’ message. It should be obvious that I didn’t write this article from either a Christian or a Muslim perspective, and don’t believe either account as a literal history.

      The literal meaning of “Messiah” or anointed one is as you say, but the term has a specific meaning in Jewish prophecy, and when the Quran refers to Jesus as “Masih” it is in reference to that meaning. That’s also what Christians mean when they refer to him in that way, including as Christ, which is a Greek word with the same meaning. Most certainly Jesus was not a king, nor a high priest in any official sense, nor were prophets generally called by that term in Jewish tradition; this was not said of Moses, Elijah, etc.

  2. anon

    “and don’t believe either account as a literal history.”—I don’t have any problems with that……I prefer your interpretation to that of literal Christians.

    “but the term has a specific meaning in Jewish prophecy, and when the Quran refers to Jesus as “Masih” it is in reference to that meaning.”
    —I have a different opinion. If I understand correctly, Christians say the Messiah is supposed to be the descendant of the House of David? However, according to the Quran (surah 33 verses 4-5) “Adopted” sons cannot take the name/lineage of their non-biological fathers but must retain the name/lineage of their biological parents. Since the Quran says that Jesus Christ(pbuh) was born without a biological father—he cannot claim to be a descendant of the House of David and therefore a (Christian and/or Prophesied) Messiah (His Mother Mary (pbuh) may have been a descendant of Aaron (Luke 1:5–Elizabeth descendant of Aaron) if so, she would have been of the tribe of Levi)

    And……as the Jews explain it, Jesus Christ(pbuh) did not fulfill the Jewish Messiah prophesies ( they also claim the Jewish Messiah is supposed to be a human descendant.)

    Therefore while I agree that in Jewish eschatology, the term “Messiah” might have specific connotations—-perhaps the Quran is more ambiguous and open to a more symbolic interpretation……..(However, outside of the Quran, Muslim ” tradition” is influenced by Christianity—see Islamic eschatology for more)

    • It’s true that Jews disagree with Christians and Muslims regarding Jesus fulfilling the prophecy. If they didn’t, Judaism would be a rather different religion today. But Christians do believe that, and the Quran does call him the Messiah, and anyway there aren’t any Jewish myths of Jesus AFAIK, so . . .

      Yes, the genealogies of Jesus in the Gospels have always struck me with the same observation — why provide all these alleged forefathers of Joseph back to King David if Joseph was not Jesus’ father? It was obviously an attempt to make Jesus fit with the prophecies somehow and a bit clumsy at that. On the other hand, considering the number of generations between David and Jesus, very likely everyone in Judea was descended from David in some way or other.

      And yes, I would agree that Islam in its roots is influenced by both Christianity and Judaism. I would actually say that of the Quran as well, although I imagine you would disagree. There are many such influences in the world that are not “officially” recognized. For example, the monism that one finds in Hinduism today was not part of the Vedic religion that is the root of Hinduism; that was purely polytheistic. I suspect that the monistic idea of Brahman may have been an adaptation from the ideas of Muslim traders and missionaries some time in the 9th or 10th century CE, adapted so that the traditional gods and goddesses could be kept along with the idea of One God. I can’t prove this, but chronologically it makes sense. Christian sects in the West today are influenced by Eastern religions, Neopaganism, and modern scientific advances that have called into question many of the peripherals of Christian belief. It is changing, which is part of why one finds such vehement reaction on the part of evangelical sects, who fear the changes.

      In the past, such cross-currents moved slowly. People were isolated for the most part, and could preserve their religious traditions “pure” more or less. Today, I don’t think that’s possible.

  3. anon

    you open up some interesting discussions…..
    1) Quran/Messiah—Yes the Quran, oddly, does call him that specifically. and taking everything into consideration—I think the usage may have been in the “traditional” sense— that of one annointed in oil—with perhaps some symbolic meaning that Jesus Christ may have been the last of the Jewish Prophets…….
    2) Quran influenced by Judaism and Christianity—You are somewhat correct that I have a slightly different opinion—the Quran claims it is from the same God that sent the Torah and the “Injil” (Gospel) and since it also claims to correct those previous messages—it would be strange not to see “influences” from Judaism and Christianity in the Quran.
    3) “Tawheed”—is the central idea upon which the Quran and Islam are based and according to this concept—there is only one God and all humanity, irrespective of their religious labels or differing concepts of “God”, worship the SAME one God. Also, according to this idea–God sent messengers to all of humanity with this message of Tawheed (Shema in Judiasm) but it got corrupted over time
    4) …which brings me to your point about Vedic religion vs Hinduism. What you say about monism and Islamic influence is possible. Yet……according to my understanding, Hinduism is a vastly diverse religion and difficult to pinpoint. Their direct “sacred” text is the Baghavad Gita (and the Mahabharata?). The Vedas, the older religious texts, are the “root” as you say—but I would posit—its message of “monotheism” got corrupted in time………This would be the opposite of what some western scholars posit—because they say monotheism is a more sophisticated idea than polytheism therefore it has to come later (or evolve). Like you, I don’t have any proof—but I do think that the general western perception that human intelligence must move from “simplistic to complex” is a flawed way of thinking arising from their own cultural/ethnic history.
    5) Fundamentalism—today it is a phenomenon that is infecting all societies and religions like a virus. Globalization and the internet revolution may also contribute to a sense of panic and desperation about rapid changes occurring today as well as a feeling of not knowing who you are or where you belong in these changing times……
    (….and perhaps, the emergence of fundamentalism proves the point that human beings can move from complex intelligence to simplistic intelligence to the detriment of humanity…..)

    • Thanks. Opening up interesting discussions is my goal here. Although I deliberately stay away from politics. That might get a little too interesting, in the wrong ways. Religion is difficult enough by itself.

      It’s a mistake, in my opinion, to go too strictly by sacred writings when considering religions outside the Abrahamic grouping (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith); the idea of scripture found with some variation in those four religions does not exist outside them. Still, if you go back to the original Vedas, which are the oldest writings used in Hinduism, you do not find any reference to monism or monotheism. The Vedic religion practiced in the earliest historical times in India went through a transformation in about the 5th-3rd century BCE. This is called the period of “ascetic reform” because many of the spiritual movements arising then involved purification of the spirit by abstaining from almost everything. The Buddha also emerged at this time, teaching a “middle way” that avoided extremes of mortification. This period is also considered to be the origin of Hinduism properly so called, as opposed to the Vedic religion that preceded it, although there was no consciousness of a change. The monism of today’s Hindus is not monotheism as such. Hindus are still polytheistic, but recognize a deeper unity underlying the diversity not only of the gods but of all reality. I could easily be wrong about it being a borrowing from the earliest contact between Hindus and Muslims. It could be they took it from Christian missionaries earlier than that, or it could be a completely home-grown idea. Interaction between Hindus and Muslims over the centuries has been enormous (and bloody) so the idea of a borrowing from Islam suggested itself.

      Which brings up something you said, about Tawhid. This is of course the first point of the Shahada and the most crucial article of faith in Islam: that there is only one God. But the other thing you said: “all humanity, irrespective of their religious labels or differing concepts of “God”, worship the SAME one God” — I might personally agree, but I don’t think that is “standard” doctrine in Islam. If it was, why did the Prophet and his followers wage their long struggle, ultimately successful, against the polytheists in Arabia? Why the fierce opposition (sometimes violent, sometimes not, but always uncompromising) with polytheism elsewhere since then? (And this is not unique to Islam; the Church waged a similar struggle, ultimately successful, in the Roman Empire against the pagan religions there. And then there is the ferocity shown by Jewish prophets against the Israelite tendency to worship foreign gods. This seems to be a common theme with monotheists, at least in the Abrahamic lineage.) In fact, your expression of the Tawhid seems to me more Baha’i than Muslim, in that it rests upon the idea of unity of religion that is one of the key points of the Baha’i faith.

      “(….and perhaps, the emergence of fundamentalism proves the point that human beings can move from complex intelligence to simplistic intelligence to the detriment of humanity…..)”

      LOL no comment. 🙂

  4. anon

    “sacred writing”—I agree, I prefer calling of of these works “wisdom teachings”
    Vedic Religion—As far as I know—Some of the Vedas are considered “Shruti”=what is heard (?) not sure if I got the word correct—but apparently it has the same meaning/connotation as revealed/revelatory (as in revealed by God/Divine) so the vedic sacred texts could perhaps be compared to those of the “Abrahamic” religions. (and interestingly, Quran means “to recite”) Also, these were oral traditions and there is speculation that the PIE peoples brought it with them (PIE=Proto-Indo-Europeans) These peoples also took them to Persian region and North Europe too If I remember correctly…..
    The language, culture, religion, and history of these people are interesting but mostly speculation (which is probably why it is so interesting as there are so many ideas about them).

    PIE religions and my own speculation—(coming with a muslim perspective)—is that these religions could have started off as some sort of monotheism which became polytheistic and so “Prophets”/Wisdom teachers were sent with “corrections” of sorts—these being the Buddha and Zoroaster….and perhaps others…….

    Monism/Monotheism and Hinduism—I mostly agree with your points—however with regards to monism and the vedas—some Indian scholars have posited that the words that later evolved into gods/.godesses/avatars such as “Ganesha” (sanskrit=community) were meant to be understood in an abstract way but some preists thought this would be too complicated for the uneducated masses and thus the religion evolved into Hinduism and its many dieties…..

    Tawheed, Humanity and God—The idea IS “standard” as it is from the Quran—However, it is more prevalent among us Eastern Muslims because here in the east, among the densely populated countries—you simply cannot help rubbing shoulders with a variety of religions and philosophies. (Quran Surah 40 verse 78, surah 4 verse 165…etc—messengers sent to mankind some mentioned (abrahamic prophets) some not mentioned (non-abrahamic wisdom teachers)—other places in the Quran also speak of a universal message sent to all humanity)

    Eastern Christianity and their missionaries—It is true Eastern Christianity spread into the east very early—Eastern Christianity does not have the bloody history of western Christianity and its interactions with “others”. Eastern Christian missionaries were adept at translating the various wisdom teachings they encountered in the east and greatly facilitated in the intellectual flowering of the Islamic “age”.

    continued………..

  5. anon

    History of Islam—see these 3 sources—their lectures are on Internet videos. 1)Khalid Blankinship (muslim perspective) 2)Richard Bulliet (non-muslim perspective) 3) Fred Donner -revisionist/creative perspective.

    Prophet Muhammed and the Meccan polytheist—the Battle of Badr,(624 CE) Battle of Uhud (625 CE) and the Battle of the trench (627 CE) were battles fought by the community of Yathrib/Medina against attacks by the Meccans. After the “Hijra” 622 CE (The Prophet had escaped an assassination attempt and migrated to Yathrib/Mecca–He had been invited there by the community) He began making peace treaties with the outlying tribes in the region. (Within Medina itself there was a freedom of religion and non-muslims could practice their religion.—(see the Charter of Medina)) This growing influence of the Prophet upset the Meccans and they attacked. However, because the Meccans lost the battles mentioned above—Many tribes made alliances or voluntarily converted to Islam seeing in it a rising power. By approx 630 CE or thereabouts—Much of the Arabian penninsula had converted or allied to Islam.

    The Prophet died in apprx 632 CE and from here to 661 CE is the era of the “rightfully guided Caliphs( —so called because they are elected by the majority) This is a time of rapid expansion of territory—there is speculation as to why—some say that the wars between Byzantium and Persia left a handy power vacuum for the new territorial expansions.—my speculation is that during the conversion process many soldiers or tribes who were keen on territorial expansion —converted to Islam for whatever reason(power,legitimacy, status…etc)—and these factors may also have contributed to the very rapid expansion of territories………….(however expansion of territory did not lead to an equally rapid conversion rate—many of the territories retained their laws, culture,and religions—conversion to Islam by the populace apparently happened over a 300 year period after the expansion)

    I don’t know if this cleared up any misunderstandings—if not ask……..

  6. anon

    History of Islam—see these 3 sources—their lectures are on Internet videos. 1)Khalid Blankinship (muslim perspective) 2)Richard Bulliet (non-muslim perspective) 3) Fred Donner -revisionist/creative perspective.

    Prophet Muhammed and the Meccan polytheist—the Battle of Badr,(624 CE) Battle of Uhud (625 CE) and the Battle of the trench (627 CE) were battles fought by the community of Yathrib/Medina against attacks by the Meccans. After the “Hijra” 622 CE (The Prophet had escaped an assassination attempt and migrated to Yathrib/Mecca–He had been invited there by the community) He began making peace treaties with the outlying tribes in the region. (Within Medina itself there was a freedom of religion and non-muslims could practice their religion.—(see the Charter of Medina)) This growing influence of the Prophet upset the Meccans and they attacked. However, because the Meccans lost the battles mentioned above—Many tribes made alliances or voluntarily converted to Islam seeing in it a rising power. By approx 630 CE or thereabouts—Much of the Arabian penninsula had converted or allied to Islam.

    The Prophet died in apprx 632 CE and from here to 661 CE is the era of the “rightfully guided Caliphs( —so called because they are elected by the majority) This is a time of rapid expansion of territory—there is speculation as to why—some say that the wars between Byzantium and Persia left a handy power vacuum for the new territorial expansions.—my speculation is that during the conversion process many soldiers or tribes who were keen on territorial expansion —converted to Islam for whatever reason(power,legitimacy, status…etc)—and these factors may also have contributed to the very rapid expansion of territories………….(however expansion of territory did not lead to an equally rapid conversion rate—many of the territories retained their laws, culture,and religions—conversion to Islam by the populace apparently happened over a 300 year period after the expansion)

    • This is fascinating. I think that the next time some jackass talks to me about Islam being inherently violent or anti-modern or some such drivel I’m going to point him or her to your comments.

      Regarding the history of Islam, I knew most of that already. The conflict I was referring to wasn’t just the physical fighting. Muhammad started out trying to convert the pagans of Mecca to monotheism and having limited success at it, to the point that he ultimately had to flee to Medina for his life. The military struggle was secondary to the religious conflict and was mostly forced on the Muslims by enemy attacks. (In fact, I seem to recall that the Quran enjoins Muslims to make peace if the enemy will do so, and to fight only if they must.) But most Arabs were converted to Islam in the end, which as you note wasn’t true of later expansion or at least not for many years, generations even. When the Caliphs took over much of the remaining Roman Empire (or Byzantine Empire) the people living there were predominantly Christian, and the Quran has a more ambivalent stance on Christianity, which is monotheistic and follows the teachings of a true Prophet as best Christians know them. Same with Judaism of course. As to why the expansion happened, the Arabs found themselves unified for probably the first time in their history, and as you note the Byzantines and Persians had weakened one another with conflict. It’s easily explained in political/economic rather than religious terms as is usual for wars, even if the opportunity to expand Islam gave it a religious tint.

      I am curious as to what you mean by “eastern Christianity.” Are you referring to the Orthodox Church (which prevailed in the Byzantine Empire or Eastern Roman Empire) as opposed to the Roman Catholic Church which formed in what was once the Western Empire? Or to something further east? If you mean the Orthodox Church, that was the original Imperial Church formed when Constantine sought a new religion to bolster the imperial government; the Catholic Church separated from it in a schism some time after the fall of the Western Empire. (With no central political power, the Bishop of Rome took on much of the Emperor’s role, becoming the Pope. In the East, they still had an Emperor and refused to recognize the Pope’s authority. There were a few other issues but that was the main one.) Anyway, my speculation involved Orthodox Christians, as I know there was trade between the Roman Empire and India. But I also have a vague awareness that some Christian sects further to the east may have escaped the power of the Imperial Church and practiced and believed in a somewhat different form. Christianity was a hugely diverse religion in the Roman Empire when it was illegal, but the Imperial Church stamped out all “heresies” over time. A lot more Christians were killed in persecutions by the Church than were killed by those of the pagan Emperors.

      Regarding religious evolution, there is some evidence of an awareness of cosmic unitary consciousness among the proto-civilized and pre-civilized. Most of the Native American tribes followed ideas something like that. The exceptions were the fully civilized peoples such as the Mayas, Aztec, and Incas, who were polytheistic. Polytheism seems to be a phase that civilization tended to go through in its earlier versions. It may be that monotheism and monism alike are attempts to return to that original awareness of unity. However, the early Indians were in precisely that early civilized status when the Vedas were written down. There is no evidence in them of anything that might be called monotheism, but definitely there is evidence of worship of gods, not unlike the pantheons of the ancient Greeks, Celts, or Norse (all of whom are also Indo-European peoples as you note). (But the Aztec certainly aren’t, and neither are the Arabs, or the Phoenicians, or the Chinese. So polytheism isn’t confined to the Indo-Europeans.)

      I really appreciate this discussion. Thanks very much for your comments.

  7. anon

    Eastern Christianity—No, Not Byzantium in particular—but rather as a group of various types of “Christianities”. When the heresy wars/persecution happened many of these Christian groups escaped to areas of the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. Some scholars say these “Christians” who apparently called themselves the Nasarani (Arabic word used in the Quran to refer to Christians)or Nazarenes—- from “Nazereth” (As in–followers of Jesus of Nazareth), reached all the way to China and India.
    During the time the Muslims were being persecuted in Mecca, some escaped to Abysinnia (present day Ethiopia) where the Christian King gave them asylum. The Coptic Church also extended its hand in friendship to the Prophet Muhammed. There were other Christian groups around Medina as well as around what is present day Yemen……(as you say, Christianity was very diverse)

    Phases of civilization—I agree that civilizations go through phases but rather than a linear line from simple to complex—I think the phases can be more like a circle—where civilizations (and humanity in general) go through simple to complex to simple and back to complex…etc….a similar idea is in the Quran where a verse explains that one civilization is replaced by another to correct and keep things in balance. And in another, the Quran says that diversity is purposeful—so that we may learn to respect and tolerate each other…..

    Conversion of Meccans—According to Muslim History, the Kaaba, (the “Shrine” used by the Polytheistic Meccans) was built by Prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael so in a way, one could posit that an “original” monotheism had become corrupted into polythiesm and the Prophet came to bring back the peoples to Tawheed. Which could be why the Quran uses the same word for God (Allah) as the Polytheistic Meccans used . (Ofcourse Christians also used it and still do). Therefore, one might say, the Meccans and Muslims were worshiping the same God, only, some concepts of God/Divine had fallen into error……..(Tawheed=Unity—and you can see how this concept was actually implemented so that the peoples of the region became united instead of divided—-Fred Donner posits that Islam actually began as a “Believers movement”—its an interesting perspective, though I am not into revisionistic history myself)

    I have also enjoyed the conversation and the ideas you have brought up.

    • Well, your comment led me to do a little research into Oriental Orthodox Christianity, which is the major division that includes the Coptic Church (also the Ethiopian, Eritrean, Syriac, Malankara or Indian Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic churches). Unfortunately, I find that they were indeed part of the Imperial Church originally, and split from it after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 over a doctrinal dispute regarding the relationship between Jesus’ human and divine natures. To my way of thinking, Christianity went seriously wrong in 325 when it was coopted into being an arm of the Roman state. It would be great to find a surviving/evolved example of the religion as it was practiced before that turn of events, but I’m afraid the Church did its work too well. Even the Protestant churches are lineal descendants by way of rebellion from the Roman Catholic Church, which was itself part of the Imperial Church initially.

      Perhaps it’s because I’m American, but I have a very dim view of religion wielding political power. It corrupts the religion that holds the power and suppresses all others. Very ugly. It’s the main reason why I am so distrustful of the Christian right as a force in our politics, although I also disagree with them on many political issues.

      There is a kind of cycle or perhaps a rhythm to things. Women enjoyed higher status relative to men in pre-civilized times, became reduced mostly to brood-mare status during agrarian civilization, and have been largely emancipated from that status and achieved equality with industrial civilization. Slavery was rare in pre-civilized times, became widespread and the basis for whole cultures in agrarian civilized times, and was abolished in industrial times. In pre-civilized cultures, the conception of the divine seems to have been less concrete, more a spiritual awareness of a mystery animating nature. Pre-civilized and proto-civilized peoples had a concept of spirits, and in some cases of a single Great Spirit, but not of “gods” as such. The imagining of superhuman beings as embodiments of discrete forces of nature emerged with early civilization. It was a sort of fracturing of the cosmos into parts, although many philosophers from many cultures thought in terms of a unity behind them. One form of monotheism that sometimes emerged was when one of the gods was elevated to status as sole God. This occurred in Egypt under Pharaoh Akhenaten, and the Jews seem to have promoted their tribal god to that status about the time of the Babylonian captivity. It takes a further leap of understanding to recognize that the name and image and so forth of this god-promoted-to-God is a metaphor, and that other metaphors used by other people may be equally valid.

      I have in the past been a Christian (monotheist), a Buddhist (spiritual atheist), and a Neopagan (polytheist). I have come to believe that none of these is any more “true” than the others. The cosmos is both one and many, and also, when one’s consciousness merges with the All, it is experienced as None. If one approaches the All in its unity, one must remember that the divine is also diverse; if one approaches the diversity, one must also remember the unity.

      Which brings me to the name Allah, in a roundabout way. Allah was originally the name of the chief deity of the Meccan pantheon, a moon god. The Prophet Muhammad chose that name (perhaps being inspired to do so by God or by the Angel Gabriel as the story goes) and essentially promoted Allah to be the name of the universal/cosmic deity. Whether the choice was of divine or angelic inspiration or merely the shrewd decision of a man who proved himself to be an astute diplomat during the course of his life, it surely made conversion of the pagans easier. Muhammad was in a position to say, “There is no god except this fellow that you have been worshiping all along as the chief god,” rather than, “There is no god except this new one that you’ve never heard of before.” Today, of course, with the triumph of Islam Allah is simply the Arabic name of God, and has the same meaning as in any other monotheism, which is why Arabic-speaking Christians also refer to God as Allah, just as French-speaking Christians refer to him as Dieu, Spanish-speaking ones as Dios, and so on.

  8. anon

    Thanks for clarifying about Christianity. Its a difficult religion to understand. Sometime in the 6th century, Pope Honorius I tried to reconcile the Western and Eastern Churches—by offering a compromise solution to the divinity/human problem—-but failed and was condemned/excomunicated (?) or some such.

    “God”—the concept of God varies widely within Christianity itself—even today there are many “Christianities”.
    Islam has 99 “names” of God and these are understood as attributes. (Someone—years from now—who does not know Islam could see these “names” and conclude that there are 99 “Gods”!!).
    The Tao te Ching (China) explains the (Islamic) idea of God well when it says —
    “Since before time and space were Tao is
    It is beyond “is” and “is not”
    That is why “literalism” does not work well with religion/spirituality. To define something into an absolute means to negate its deeper, more ambiguous, symbolism.

    “The cosmos is both one and many, and also, when one’s consciousness merges with the All, it is experienced as None. If one approaches the All in its unity, one must remember that the divine is also diverse; if one approaches the diversity, one must also remember the unity.”
    —Thanks for sharing this. It sounds very Eastern….very Tao.
    In the Islamic worldview–Tawheed(Unity) has a purpose—(its opposite is Shirk=Division.) Tawheed= One God, If there is only one God then all humanity is created by this one God and if all humanity is its creation, then God’s compassion and mercy extends to all humanity equally—none is superior/inferior. This understanding promotes Unity/Brotherhood of humanity. (This brotherhood is practically experienced during Hajj). Tawheed underlies all the ethico-moral principles of Islam. For example, when one considers the concept of Liberty(Freedom) —Rights are balanced with responsibilities. Both have to be understood/discussed together with Tawheed (Unity) at its starting point (here Tawheed would mean equality) in order to create a wholistic system.
    If you notice—this creates a “Trinity”—-if one drew a traingle, Tawheed would be at the topmost point with rights and responsibility equally balanced at the two corners. (This is how all other ethico-moral concepts are articulated)

    Spirit—understood as “God’s breath” has equivalent concepts in many spiritualities. In Judasim, Ruach (Spirit/God’s breath) was put into Adam to animate him—this force of animation is called Chi/Ki in some Eastern thought, it is called “Ruh” in the Quran and Prana in the Indian religion.

    Perhaps one of many ways to understand God may be to see it as a vast ocean with creation as porous grains of sand —All of creation contained within this “force” we name “God”……………..

  9. anon

    Allah=moon God—This is a misunderstanding as far as my knowledge of history goes—I also checked with wikipedia—“Allah” was a term used for a Creater Diety by the polytheist Meccans in pre-Islamic times—it was also used by Arab Christians BEFORE Islam and the Aramaic term (Syriac Church) is also similar. (Al-Illah (Arabic) = Hebrew “Elohim” Aramaic=Elaha/Allaha)
    According to Wikepedia—usage of this word was found as far back as 1700 BCE—(I didn’t know that!!!)

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