Theories of Religion

25 July 2006 at 3:42 pm Leave a comment

| Richard Langlois |

My previous post was in part a comment on Nicolai’s Bastille Day post. While I’m at it, I thought I might comment on another aspect of that post, namely Armstrong’s theory of religions of the “Axial Age.” I haven’t read the book (of course), but I’m skeptical, since most of human history until recently (and still now in much of the world) was a time of “violence, political disruption and extreme intolerance.” Another theory of religion that readers of this blog might find interesting is that suggested by Burton Mack in “Who Wrote the New Testament?” (which I actually have read). He argues — perhaps reflecting a generally accepted view among secular biblical scholars — that Christianity was the product of ancient “globalization.” Judaism was (or at least grew out of) an ethnic temple-state religion, and its innovation of monotheism was useful in helping to bind together an ethnic community. (We have been chosen by the one true God.) By contrast, as Morris Silver has argued, Greek religion was a congeries of local gods assembled from the various peoples the Greeks and later Romans had conquered — and thus a useful kind of religion for empire-builders, since you could just add the local god to the pantheon to make the locals happy. (The Jews never bought into that, of course, and suffered for it.)

Two thousand years ago, these two models came in contact as Greek commercial society flooded the eastern Mediterranean under the structure of the Roman Empire. In Mack’s view — perhaps a bit communitarian, I grant, but not in this case necessarily wrong — this commercial globalization left a lot of people (mostly gentiles) pining for the sense of community of times past. The innovation of people like Saul of Tarsus (a Hellenized Jew from Asia Minor) was to sell them a version of Judaism lite — without most of the bothersome rules of kashrut let alone conversion. Christianity grew out of one of these strands. It was in effect a Smithian recombination of elements — the comfy monotheism of Judaism with the universalism of Greek religion. Islam came along a few centuries later with a fast-follower strategy.

I should say that the Mack book is really mostly about the textual history of the New Testament, which is fascinating.

Entry filed under: - Langlois -, Former Guest Bloggers, Institutions, Recommended Reading.

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