The New Religions
There were clear differences in life before 1,200 BC and life after, and probably the biggest had to do with the religions people looked to.
Religions, of course, address the largest questions: How did the world get here? How did we get here? How should we behave? What happens after we die? and others.
Answers to questions like these affect us deeply, and so religion is a very large influence upon daily life. Larger, very often, than rulership.
The religions of the old world (and even of empires like Rome), were collective religions: The god, if displeased, would take his or her anger out upon the whole town. The new kind of religion was individual: Only the person who behaved badly would suffer for it.
We see this new model of religion very clearly among the Hebrews. You can find a few passages in the records of the Hebrews (the Bible’s Old Testament) that imply a collective model, but they are few, and older rather than newer. The belief that resounds through the Hebrew writings is that we’re each responsible to God for our own actions.
And when looking at the Hebrew religion, this fact is crucial:
The God of the Hebrews spoke to powerless people, not to the mighty.
God speaking to the poor and humble, rather than to or through rulers, was the direct opposite of the old religions.
And personal religion helped people to think as individuals: if your errors wouldn’t hurt anyone else, they were far less risky, and you’d be less afraid to try them. And perhaps more importantly, your family and neighbors would be less afraid for you to try new things.
The Phoenicians probably shared some of this view with the Hebrews, but we have very little of their literature, and so we’d be guessing to say more than this.
The Greeks also adopted a type of individualistic religion. One reason for that was that the Greek islands are so widely scattered. As these people began re-organizing themselves, there was no way to create a unified rulership, and so no one tried for a long time.
The Greek people formed small and independent cities. In fact, they didn’t usually call themselves Greeks: people from Ephesus called themselves Ephesians, those from Corinth called themselves Corinthians, people from Athens called themselves Athenians, and so on. Eventually there were a thousand little city-states.
This map, which shows only the major cities, illustrates why we call this a decentralized or dispersed civilization:
As these “Greeks” began to re-organize themselves, one of the first things they did was to create stories, which would be told at religious festivals.
The Greeks borrowed their stories of the creation of the gods from the Babylonian Enuma Elis. This was an old religious text they obtained through the Babylonians (Babylon was one of the empires that took over from Sumer). But beyond the creation of the gods, the Greeks took little else from the Enuma Elis.
The religious teachings of the ancient empires had addressed men’s actions: If you do X, Y and Z, and the gods will favor your city. The Greeks told stories that addressed men’s souls… their inner lives. Greek myths could help people understand and develop themselves. You can begin to understand this difference by reading this passage from the Enuma Elis. It describes one generation of gods going to war against another:
They conceived evil against the previous gods, who bore them, fiercely plotting, unresting by night and day, lusting for battle, raging, storming, they set up an army to bring about conflict. Mother Hubur supplied irresistible weapons, and gave birth to giant serpents. They had sharp teeth, they were merciless. She filled their bodies with poison rather than blood. She clothed these terrifying monsters with dread, filled them them with an aura and made them godlike. She said, “Let their onlooker feebly perish, may they constantly leap forward and never retire.” She created the Hydra, the Dragon, the Hairy Hero, the Great Demon, the Savage Dog, and the Scorpion-man, fierce demons, the Fish-man, and the Bull-man, carriers of merciless weapons, fearless in the face of battle. Her commands were tremendous, not to be resisted.
That’s a scary passage, not something that makes you a better or happier person.
And there was something of even more importance in the new Greek stories: In them, men were not small, insignificant and powerless before the gods. In the Greek myths, men challenged the gods and sometimes won. And the Greek heroes defeated the gods, not through strength or speed, but by innovative thinking.
It’s also important to remember that these stories were not sponsored by rulers, ruling institutions or even religious institutions; they were the creations of individuals, and endured because individuals valued them.
All of this created a radically new model, within which the Greeks could use their minds with some confidence.
The old model of rulership restarted in Mesopotamia and in lands to the south and east of it. (It was a combination of the Nimrod and Eridu types.) But it did not restart among the people who fled the Near East: they created new ways of living. They held on to farming, music, metalworking and other productive things, but they were careful not to organize themselves according to the old model.
In particular, most of them were uncomfortable with having a king. As a result, the old model was very seldom seen in the West.
Once the Greeks found themselves in cities, and if they felt they needed some type of decision-making system, they adopted a model they had learned from Phoenicians. This model excluded the position of “ruler” and divided power in all sorts of ways. It was called democracy, which meant “the rule of the people.” The Romans would do a very similar thing a few centuries later.
But the old model of democracy was almost nothing like what is called democracy in our time. There were quite a few variations, but Greek democracies had arrangements like these:
- Every citizen would vote on decisions. They’d meet 40 times per year to do so.
- Laws were written on pillars in public places, so everyone knew what they were.
- The group making daily decisions was changed ten times per year.
- The entire populace was divided into ten groups, and not along family or regional lines, to be eliminate abuse. (The Greeks used a ten-month calendar.)
- Once you served on a daily decision group like the above (for one month), you couldn’t again for ten years.
- People who would hold important positions (like a market overseer) were chosen at random… with a type of lottery drawing.
- Troublemakers could be kicked out of the city for ten years, if a majority of the people voted for it. (This was called ostracism.)
The Romans, as they started, were so concerned about kings that they made a rule saying that a Roman citizen could (and perhaps should) kill anyone who said he wanted to be king. Murder was harshly forbidden and subject to a trial in Rome, but not if someone wanted to be king: they were to be killed and there would be no trial for the Roman who did it.
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2 thoughts on “Earned Knowledge, L4, P2”
Please write something more about Hebrews. I always thought that Hebrews’ religion was collective because there are stories like destruction of Sodoma, The Deluge, Bar Kokhba revolt.
Not a lot of time, Peter (sorry), but a few thoughts:
1. God punishing Sodomites features the strange story of Abraham focusing God on the individual model. The deluge was before the Hebrews and restarting the world (kind of different), and Bar Kokhba was past the biblical time, beyond the point where I divide between Hebrews and Judaism, as well as involving only a minority of Jews.
2. There are collective passage in the Old Testament, but they tended to be overridden over time. And even those tended toward the sin of an individual causing the harm, like Exodus 20:5.
3. See Ezekiel 18 for a long discourse against the collective model.
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