The following is a good video by Richard Carrier that explains the sociological trends that would have produced Christianity or a religion much like it in a completely naturalistic way. http://www.youtube.com/embed/XORm2QtR-os?rel=0 The part I really liked was at around the 9 minute mark where he points out four big trends in the religious landscape prior to Christianity, and Christianity conforms to all four.
- Syncretism: combining a foreign cult deity with Hellenistic elements
- Monotheism: transforming polytheism into monotheism (via henotheism; Jews called subordinate gods “angels/demons”)
- Individualism: agricultural salvation cults retooled as personal salvation cults
- Cosmopolitanism: all races are equals (all are brothers) where people join religions instead of being born into them
This fits with a recent post over at Epiphenom: When Did Moralizing Gods Emerge?
Looking at societies cross the world, you’re stuck by the enormous variety of mystical beliefs out there – to the point where, infamously, even trying to come up with a definition of religion that everyone agrees on is pretty much impossible.
Yet there are common themes. Many societies do believe in some kind of chief god, and many of those believe that this god is some kind of parent or leader figure – one that takes an interest in his people, and punishes bad behaviour.
So the question is, do societies vary in some systematic way? Is it, as some people have claimed, that complex societies lead to the development of moralising gods?
They categorised each society according to whether they believed in an active High God (a single, all-powerful creator active in human affairs and supportive of human morality), a High God that is inactive or remote, or no belief in any High God.
Belief in an active High God was significantly greater in societies that were larger, more stratified (i.e. less equality) and societies engaged in intensive agriculture. Now, all of these things go together – you need intensive agriculture to support a large society, and large agricultural societies have the surpluses and politics that facilitate stratification.
All of this fits nicely with the hypothesis that moralising gods are an invention of large, structured societies.
At first blush, all of this is in line with other research that links the emergence of complex societies to the invention of moralising gods. However, that’s not quite the case.
The previous research showed that ‘world religions’ are linked to altruism towards anonymous strangers. In practice, that means breaking down inter-group barriers.
This new research seems to show that moralising powerful gods are linked to stronger group cohesion.
Now, those two results are actually in conflict. But they do reinforce the fact that religious beliefs do not act in a straightforward way.
Anyway, the most interesting thing about this to me was just how much more syncretic societies in antiquity were. I mean, I knew that the Romans pretty much syncretized their state gods with the local gods of the societies they conquered, but I didn’t really follow through with that thought to Hellenism and actually creating some sort of hybrid religion(s).
So for example, Mormonism is actually one branch (the lone successful one, IIRC) of modern religion that mixed beliefs about the newly discovered Native Americans with Western religion (Judaism; Christianity). The same sort of deal happened with the Greeks mixing with their conquered peoples to create new religions as well:
- Eleusinian & Dionysian Mysteries: Combined Hellenistic religion/philosophy with Phoenician (west Syrian) religion
- Mysteries of Attis & Cybele: Combined Hellenistic religion with Phrygian (North Turkey) religion
- Mysteries of Jupiter Dolichenus: Combined Hellenistic religion with Anatolian (W Turkey) religion
- Mysteries of Mithras: Combined Hellenistic religion with Persian religion
- Mysteries of Isis & Osiris: Combined Hellenistic religion with Egyptian religion
Of course, Greek influence also spread to Judea. So if you follow this trend to its logical conclusion, we should predict something like:
- Mysteries of [insert Jewish hero]: Combined Hellenistic religion with Jewish religion
Is this a successful prediction?
Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past,
1 Corinthians 2:7
No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.
If you do a search for the Greek word “mystery” (μυστήριον :: mysterion) in the LXX and NT you will only get hits for Daniel, Paul, and the author of Revelation. All works composed after Alexander the Great.
The point with this one is that Jews wouldn’t actually have some sort of subordinate god that gets Hellenized who then offers salvation. Since Jews only had one god (due to henotheism) they renamed what their neighboring pagans called “gods” to being angels, archangels, or demons. There is scant evidence of this, but it seems as though some Jews had a belief in the pre-existence of certain Patriarchs, like Jacob, who would necessarily be an archangel in heaven:
Here is the Prayer of Joseph as found in Origen’s commentary on John 2:31:
Should the piece; entitled “The prayer of Joseph,” one of the apocryphal works current among the Hebrews, be thought worthy of credence, this dogma will be found in it clearly expressed. Those at the beginning, it is represented, having some marked distinction beyond men, and being much greater than other souls, because they were angels, they have come down to human nature.
Thus Jacob says: “I, Jacob, who speak to you, am Israel, I am an angel of God, a ruling spirit, and Abraham and Isaac were created before every work of God; and I am Jacob, called Jacob by men, but my name is Israel, called Israel by God, a man seeing God, because I am the first-born of every creature which God caused to live.”
I am Israel and archangel of the power of the Lord and a chief captain among the sons of God? Am not I Israel, the first minister in the sight of God, and I invoked my God by the inextinguishable name?”
Another archangel who was once an earthly hero is Melchitsedek (depicted as a normal human in Genesis, but as an archangel in the DSS literature. He was even born from a virgin). Then we have the archangel the Logos. Philo’s Logos was called the firstborn of God, his high priest, his agent through which he created the world, and many other ideas that seem to be “Christian” in nature.
So we have a few candidates for a Jewish archangel to get Hellenized and come down from heaven to offer salvation before Christianity came about.
Now not all of these syncretic (Hellenistic+) religions had dying/rising gods; Romulus, Osiris, Zalmoxis (mixing Hellenistic with the Getae) were dying and rising gods. But these gods did all have certain things in common:
- Are savior gods
- Or the “son” of God
- Undergo a passion
- Obtain victory over death, which propegates to their followers
- Euhemerized, but didn’t actually exist
So it looks like that as soon as Alexander the Great conquered Judea, a religion like Chrisitanity would have happened no matter what; regardless of a historical Jesus.