Pagan Christs (PART IA)

…you take the blue pill–the story ends…you take the red pill…and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. –

Morpheus in The Matrix


§ 5. Forces of Religious Evolution.

The true judgment on the comparative merits of religions is to be reached by noting the manner of their evolution; and when this is impartially done the student is led, not to any racial palm-giving on the score of “religious genius,” but to a new sense of the significance of social and political factors, and a compassionate realisation of the ill-fortune of all high aspirations among men. Genius for moral and philosophical thought as distinguished from literary expression is to be recognised here and there in all the old religious literatures; and even as regards literary genius there is little weight in estimates which appreciate the Hebrew books on the one hand in an enthusiastically eloquent rendering and on the other dimly divine the Gentile literatures through the cerecloths of dead scripts, whereof the scrupulous interpreters convey the very deadness as assiduously as the Elizabethans sought for transfigurement in translation. What is common to all the ancient literatures is the fatality by which the “general deed of man” determines the general thought.

In ancient Babylonia, the scholars are now agreed, there was a highly evolved yet not highly imperialised State, ruled by an enlightened Akkado-Babylonian king named Hammurabi, 5 two

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thousand three hundred years before our era, and long ages before historic Hellas was so named. This polity failed and fell, and on its ruins there rose successively the terrible and tyrannous empires of Assyria and later Babylon, wherein no doctrine of civil freedom could survive, though the code of Hammurabi remained the code of his people. Under such rule, whatever flower of moral genius might bloom in high or cloistered places, men in the mass could not be aught but fixedly superstitious, morally shortsighted, good only in virtue of their temperaments and the varying pressure of crude law and cruder custom. Whether they worshipped one God or many, a Most High or a Mediator, a Mother Goddess or a Trinity, their ethic was unalterably narrow and their usage stamped with primeval grossness; for wherever the life of fortuitous peace bred a gentler humanity and a higher civilisation, the Nemesis of empire and conquest hurled a new barbarism on its prey, only to adopt anew the old cults, the old lore, the old delusions. So, on the bases of civilisation laid by the old Sumer-Akkadians, the Babylonian and the Assyrian wrestled and overthrew each other time and again till the Persian overthrew the Babylonian; and all the while the nameless mass from generation to generation dreamed the old dreams, with some changes of God-names and usages, but no transformation of life, and no transfiguration of its sinister battlefield.

In no ancient State, certainly not in pre-exilic Jewry, did men think and brood more over religion, in theory and practice, than they did in Babylon; 1 and in such a hotbed “religious genius” must be presumed to have arisen. But while it could leave its traces in higher doctrine, and join hands fruitfully with nascent science, it could never restore the freer polity of Sumer-Akkadia, though it could humbly cherish the Akkadian dream that Hammurabi would come again, 2 as Messiah, to begin a new age. On the broad fields of sword-ruled ignorance there could thrive only such vain hopes and the rank growths of superstition. Better Gods were not to be set up, save in unseen shrines, on a worsening earth. As in Egypt and in Hindostan, religion was of necessity determined in the main by the life-conditions of the mass; and to the mass, or to powerful classes, priesthoods must always minister.

What Mesopotamian civilisation finally yielded to the common stream of human betterment was the impulse of its cosmogony and its esoteric pantheism to science and philosophy in the new life of unlit perialised Greece, and the concrete store of its astronomical

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knowledge, alloyed with its astrology. Its current ethic was doubtless abreast of the Ten Commandments and the Egyptian ritual of the judgment day; and its commerce seems to have evolved an adequate working system of law, besides a notable system of banking; but a civilisation which itself failed to reach popular well-being and international equity could pass on no important moral ideal to posterity. On the contrary, it bequeathed the fatal lust of empire, so that on the new imperial growth of Persia there followed, by way of emulation, that of Macedonia, to be followed by that of Rome, which ended in the paralysis and prostration of the whole civilisation of the Mediterranean world. And in the last stages of that decadence we find arising a nominally new religion which is but a fresh adaptation of practices and principles as old as Akkadia, and which is beset by heresies of the same derivation.

§ 6. The Hebrew Evolution.

At this point the Mesopotamian succession is seen to mingle with that of Judæa, which in turn falls to be conceived and appraised, as a total evolution, in terms of the conditions. As has been briefly noted above, Judaic monotheism was equally with Mesopotamian polytheism a result of political circumstances. The Jewish national history as contained in the sacred books is demonstrably a vast fiction to one half of its extent, as tested by the admissions of the other; and the fiction was a gradual construction of its priests and prophets in the interest of the cult which finally triumphed.

From the more ancient memories or documents which are preserved among the priestly fictions—records such as are included in the closing chapters of the book of Judges—we realise that after the alleged deliverance from Egypt and the fabulous Mosaic legislation in the wilderness the religion of Israel in Canaan was one of local cults, with no priesthood apart from the local functioning of single “Levites,” presumably members of a previous race of inhabitants who knew “the manner of the God of the land.” 1 These functionaries can best be realised as belonging to the lower types of Indian fakirs and Moslem dervishes. 2 And even in this primitive stage, when the only general political organisation was an occasional confederation of tribes for a given purpose, 3 some had already developed the abnormal vices associated with corrupt civilisations. 4 It is not unlikely that the beginnings of a centralised system occurred at a shrine answering to the description of that of Shiloh in the book of

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[paragraph continues]Samuel; but the legend of that “prophet” is more likely to be an Evemerised version of the fact that the God of the shrine was Samu-El, a form of the Sem or Samos of the Samaritans and other Semites, who is further Evemerised as Samson in the book of Judges. 1 At this stage we find the priests of the shrine notoriously licentious, and their methods primitively barbaric; 2 and the only semblance of a national or even tribal religion is the institution of the movable ark, a kind of palladium, containing amulets or a sacred stone, which might be kept by any chief or group strong enough to retain it 3 and able to keep a Levite for its service.

Even on the face of the official and myth-loaded history, it was by a band of ferocious filibusters at this level of religion that an Israelite kingdom or principality was first set up, and a shrine of Yah or Yahweh instituted in the captured Jebusite stronghold of Zion, where a going worship must already have existed. From such a point forward the kingdom, waxing and shrinking by fortune of war, would tend to develop commercially and otherwise on the general lines of Semitic culture, assimilating the higher Syrian civilisation wherever it met with it. The art of writing by means of the alphabet, received either from the kindred Phœnicians or direct from Babylon, 4 would be early acquired in the course of the traffic between the coast cities and the inland States; and with such culture would come the religious ideas of the neighbouring peoples.

It is impossible to construct any save a speculative narrative of the religious evolution out of the mass of late pseudo-history, in which names known to have been those of Gods are assigned to patriarchs, 5 heroes, kings, and miracle-working prophets, all in turn made subservient to Yahweh of Israel. But from the long series of invectives against other cults in the pseudo-historical and prophetic books, the contradictory fiats as to local worships in the Pentateuch, 6 and the bare fact of the existence of Yahweh’s temple at Jerusalem, we can gather clearly enough that that particular worship at that place was aggrandised by a few kings of Israel or of Judah, and relatively slighted by many others; that its priests did their utmost,

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but in vain, by vaticination, literary fraud, and malediction, to terrorise kings and people into suppressing the rival shrines and cults; that all the while their own had the degraded features of the rest; 1 and that their “monotheism” was merely of the kind ascribed by Flaubert to the sun-priests at Carthage, who derided their own brethren of the cult of the moon—though rage rather than derision is the normal note of the priests of Yahweh. The main motives of their separatism are visibly their perquisites and their monopoly.

There is a certain presumption that the story of the reforms of King Josiah—a movement which compares with that of Akhunaton in Egypt—is founded on fact, seeing that the record confesses Josiah to have died miserably, where the general burden of the history required him to prosper signally, as a reward for his Yahwism. It may well have been that the hostility he evoked among his subjects wrought his ruin. In any case it may be taken as certain that even had ho prospered, his effort to abolish the multitude of cults would have failed as Akhunaton’s did; and there is finally no disguise of the fact of its failure. Neither in Israel nor in Judah had even the merely monopolist monotheism of the Yahwist priests made popular headway; and if at this stage there did exist monotheists of a higher type, prophets whose aim was just government, wise policy, and decent living, they stood not a better but a worse chance of converting kings or commoners, rich or poor. The popular religion was determined by the popular culture-stage and life-conditions.

In Babylon, however, while many doubtless went over bodily to the native cults, the stauncher Yahwists would tend to be made more zealous by their very contact with the image-using systems; and the state of critical consciousness thus set up 2would tend to give a certain new definiteness to the former less-reasoned hostility to the rival worships. The conception of Yahweh as incapable of being imaged would promote a kind of speculation such as had already occurred among the “idolatrous” priesthoods themselves; and that intercourse took place between the Yahwists and some Babylonian teachers is proved by their now giving a new significance to the Assyro-Babylonian institution of the Sabbath, 3 and developing their whole ceremonial and temple law on Mesopotamian lines. 4 Indeed, the simple fact that from this time forward the spoken language of Judæa became Aramaic or “Chaldee” is evidence that their Babylonian sojourn affected their whole culture.

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With the anti-idolatrous Persian conquerors of Babylon, again, a Jewish sympathy would naturally subsist; and the favourable conditions provided for the captives by Cyrus may explain the apparent feebleness of the first Return movement. However that may be, it is probable that to the intervention of Cyrus is due the very existence of the later historic Judaism, and of the bulk of the Hebrew Bible. Had he not conquered Babylon, Hebrew “monotheism” would in all likelihood have disappeared like the other monotheisms of Palestine, absorbed by the mass of Semitic polytheism in the Semitic empire; for even when the Return began, the monotheistic ideal had no great force. It is true that the commercial success which began to accrue to many of the Jews in Babylon would dispose them afresh to magnify the name of Yahweh as the God of their salvation; 1 but a merely Babylonian Judaism, despite its Talmud, could have had no historic fruit. It is clear that, despite the preliminary refusal to join hands with the Samaritans and other populations around, 2 the immigrants gradually mixed more and more with the surrounding Semitic tribes, whose cults were singly of the same order as the Yahwist; and the old polytheism would thus have re-arisen but for the coming, a century later, of new zealots, whose sense of racial and religious separateness may have been sharpened at Babylon by competition, as well as by concourse, with the Mazdean cult. The alternation of the Persian phrase “God of heaven” with “God of Jerusalem” 3 in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, with the final predominance of the former title in the latter book, suggests a new process of challenge and definition, which, however, would concern the majority of Yahwists much less than it did their theologians. What all could appreciate was the consideration that if the cult were not kept separate it would lose its revenue-drawing power.

When once the laxer elements had been eliminated, or at least sacerdotally discountenanced, the social conditions were vitally different from the pre-exilic. Gathered together on the traditional site for the very purpose of instituting the cult of Yahweh and no other, the recruited and purged remnant gave their priests such an opportunity for building up a hierocracy as had never before been in that region; and the need and the opportunity together wrought the evolution. To speak of the doctrine thus instituted as the product of a unique order of religious consciousness is to substitute occult

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forces for natural laws. Insofar as it had any philosophic content, any breadth of cosmic conception, it borrowed from the inductive monotheism or pantheism (the conceptions constantly and inevitably shade into each other) of the deeper thinkers of Babylon 1 or its Persian conquerors; and such a content was precisely that element in the creed which counted for least in its institution. What drew or held the votaries together was the concept of a God dwelling in the temple of Jerusalem, and there only; and conferring special favours in the matters of rainfall and healing on those who brought gifts to his shrine. The worshippers were no more transcendentalist than their priests. They were but hypnotised by the unexampled series of literary fabrications on which the creed was refounded—a body of written sacrosanct lore such as had never before been brought within the reach of any save priestly students.

We are in danger, perhaps, of unduly stigmatising the Hebrew forgers when we consider their work by itself, keeping in mind the enormous burden of delusion and deceit that it has so long laid upon mankind. In their mode of procedure there was really nothing abnormal; they did but exploit the art of writing—first acquired by the race for commercial purposes—on the lines of immemorial priestly invention; and we must not pass upon them a censure that is not laid on the mythologists and scribes of Egypt or the theologers and poets of India and Greece. Our business is to understand, not to blame, save insofar as a sophistic praise still compels demur. And the historical processus may be sufficiently realised in noting, without binding ourselves to, the conclusions broadly reached by scholars a generation ago, to the effect that the first collected edition of the pretended Mosaic law, comprised in the Pentateuch and the book of Joshua, contained some eighty chapters; and the second, over a century later, a hundred and twenty; ninety more being added afterwards. 2

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Such a literary usage, indeed, gave a unique opportunity to literary and religious genius, and it was variously availed of. Lyrics of religious emotion, commonly ascribed to the semi-mythic David, to whose legend apparently accrued the lyric attributes of the God of that name; 1 sententious and proverbial wisdom, similarly fathered on Solomon; dramatic discussion of the ethical dilemma of all theism, in the singularly isolated and foreign-seeming book of Job; and express argumentation against the fanatical racial separatism of the post-exilic theocracy, in the hardly less isolated romances of Ruth and Jonah—all this goes with the mass of pseudo-history, cosmology, and prophecy, to make up the library which we call the Hebrew Bible. It may be taken as certain that a body of students familiar with the whole range of such a literature had from it an amount of intellectual stimulation not theretofore paralleled in the Semitic world; and from the rabbinical life of centuries we might reasonably expect some fine fruit of ethical and philosophic thought. But again, on close inquiry, we become sadly aware of the fatality of the evolutionary process, in little Jewry as in the great States that decayed around.


by John M. Robertson


78:5 Winckler, Gesch. Babyloniens and Assyriens, 1892, pp. 64-65; Jastrow, Relig. of Bab. and Assyr., pp. 38-39. Cp. Miss Simcox’s Primitive Civilisations, 1894, i, 282-3.

79:1 Jastrow, pp. 245-8; Tiele, Hist. comp., Pp. 243-247.

79:2 Jastrow, pp. 532-3.

80:1 2 Kings xvii, 26.

80:2 Cp. Marti, Gesch. der isr. Relig., § 23, p. 96.

80:3 Jud. xx.

80:4 Jud. xix, 22.

81:1 This circumstance reminds us of the risk of assuming, with some critics, that Herkles had been first deified among the Greeks between the time of the composition of the Iliad and that of the Odyssey, because in the first poem he is a mere human hero, in the second a demigod (H. N. Coleridge, Introd. to the Classic Poets, Pt. I, 2nd ed. 1834, p. 278.) He may have been Evemerised in Ionia at the time of the framing of the Iliad, though previously of divine status; whereas the Odyssey may have been composed in another environment, where his divine status was maintained (cp. Samuel Butler, On the Trapanese Origin of the Odyssey, 1893, and The Authoress of the Odyssey, 1897, chs. vii-x). Neither solution is certain.

81:2 1 Sam. ii, 13-16, 22.

81:3 1 Sam. vii, 1-2.

81:4 L. Geiger, Development of the Human Race, Eng. tr. 1880, p. 67.

81:5 Cp. Winckler, Gesch. Israels, Th. II, 1900; E. Meyer, Gesch. des Alterthums, i, § 309.

81:6 Cp. Deut. xii and xv, 20, with Ex. xx, 24-26.

82:1 2 Kings xxiii, 7.

82:2 Cp. the special denunciations of idols in Ezekiel xx.

82:3 Cp. Sack, Die Altjüdische Religion im Uebergange vom Bibelthume zum Talmudismus, 1889, p. 22; Sayce, Hibbert Lectures, pp. 76-77.

82:4 Jastrow, pp. 610-611, 696-8; Sayce, pp. 77-78.

83:1 Cp. E. Meyer, Gesch. des Alterthums (1901), iii, 216.

83:2 Cp. Robertson Smith, Old Test. in Jewish Church, 2nd ed. p. 278.

83:3 Ezra, i, 2, 3; iii, 1; iv, 1; vii, 6, 12, 15-19, 21.

84:1 As to these cp. Hommel, Semitischen Völker and Sprachen, i, 315-316; Jastrow, Relig. of Bab. and Assyria, pp. 147, 437-442; Sayce, Hib. Lect. pp. 108, 142, 191-2, 215, 305, 346 Baentsch, Altorientalischer and israelitischer Monotheismus, 1906, pp. 5-35, 101-4. Marti (Gesch. der isr. Rel. 1907, pp. 25-26) throws doubt on the reality of the monotheising or pantheising tendency seen by Baentsch in the higher Babylonian lore. Akhunaton, he argues, is the only clear case of the kind in remote antiquity. Akhunaton was really more of a sectarian than of a pantheist. For the monotheism of the later prophets, finally, Prof. Marti falls back devoutly on supernaturalism. Not the reflection of the prophets, not logic, not philosophy, but “Jahwe selber, der sich seinen Propheten kundgab” (§ 34. p. 168). Solvuntur tabulæ.

84:2 Kuenen, Lecture on The Five Books of Moses, Eng. tr. 1870, pp. 13-14. Later criticism tends to date everything later. Cp. Kuenen’s Hexateuch, Eng. tr. pp. 299, 307, 315; Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel, Eng. tr. p. 9. Prof. Marti, a conservative supernaturalist, dates the primary Yahwist scroll before 800 B.C.: that of the Elohist about 750; their combination between 650 and 600; the Kernel of Deuteronomy about 621; the Law of Holiness (Lev. xvii-xxvi) between 540 and 520; the Priestly Codex between 500 and 450; its combination with the Law of Holiness before 450; and the final combinations b5′ Ezra’s successors about 400 (Gesch. der isr. Rel., § 14). We are not here concerned, however, to work out the details of the documentary problem.

85:1 Cp. Winckler, Geschichte Israels, ii, 170, sq.; and refs. in A Short History of Freethought, i 101.

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